Stephanie Sieberhagen

Relationship Specialist

Dr Steph's blog

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The Tao of Pooh

Posted by on April 26, 2020 at 8:00 AM Comments comments (0)

You might be familiar with this wonderful little book which is really some Taoist (pronounced Daoist) wisdom for dummies like me. Tao is complicated, but the author - Benjamin Hoff, makes some of the most prevalent wisdoms of Tao easily available for everyday living. The principle I would like to share with you is that of the Uncarved Block.

The story goes that an acolyte was following his master and the master asked the acolyte to explain what a tree they were standing next to - would be good for. The tree was ancient and gnarled, filled all over with beautiful green leaves. The acolyte answered that the wood from the tree would be of little use for construction as the trunk and branches were all knotted and twisted. He expanded by adding that the wood would not be good for firewood either, as the old wood would be very hard and difficult to cut or chop up.

The master promptly lay down under the tree and closed his eyes. He said to the acolyte, 'But it is good for this.' The acolyte was unimpressed, saying, 'But you are not doing anything.', to which the master replied, 'Exactly.'

The tree is the uncarved block. When we assess other people, we often do so based on their utility. We judge them according to what we might gain from them or what contributions we feel an individual should make. In most instances, those we observe, fall short. 

What Tao teaches here, is that we all have intrinsic value and that seeing and appreciating that value is a matter of perspective. The old tree provided beautiful shade and shelter and seen from that perspective, it was very useful. When seen through the eyes of a carpenter - it was simply a waste of time.

Whenever you find yourself looking at those close to you and finding them dissapointing you, remind yourself of their strenghts and allow yourself to hold those in your mind and celebrate them. The result is a wonderful warm glow that I will cherish more than a scornful brow any day of the week.


Posted by on April 19, 2020 at 8:00 AM Comments comments (0)

As noted in previous blogs, the subtle meaning of words shift all the time. There are words that are in vogue now and by being so, they attract new meaning like a strong magnet. Suddenly there is a cluster of implied meanings that just congregate around an 'old' word, eclipsing the meaning we were comfortable with before, and giving us a new way to use this word.Before you know it, this word falls out of fashion again and becomes very untrendy. Just like it has become important to know about new tech; music or world events, we are also expected to know which words are trending and to use them correctly.

So it occured to me that the word, 'challenging' is such a word. Nowadays this word implies a world of pain. We are not allowed to say that something is difficult or problematic, as both these words suggest a negative mind set. We have to say that we view a situation as offering us a challenge. The inference is that we like challenges and that we are up to facing whatever this new situation might throw at us. But 'challenging' is becoming a bit jaded, and so instead of holding the original meaning of 'something to aspire to', we have, indeed, come to associate this word with only the negative.

The worst thing you can say about a person, is that you find them, 'challenging'. You might as well whip out a red letter and sew it to their clothing. The message is very clear - this person is slightly loopy, definitely not from our Whatsapp group and therefore to be avoided at all costs. Jobs, events or venues that are 'challenging' - face the same banishment from our social consciousness.

I want to re-visist the word 'challenge'. In the 17 and 1800's this word would have implied a duel. Either with words, or the more lethal kind. A mountain was seen as a challenge. So was a trying three month see journey. Struggling with a phone app or a dinky elevator, would certainly not have been framed as much of a challenge.

My invitation to you is to be on the look-out for the word 'challenge' or 'challenging' this week. Try your very best to embue this old construct with the courage and bravery of yesteryear. Keep in mind that embedded in that word is the expectation to be victorious. Not the implication that you will avoid failure altogether by not even giving it a shot.

The new partner check list

Posted by on April 12, 2020 at 8:00 AM Comments comments (0)

A dear friend asked me to compile a new partner checklist for her. After a separation some years ago, she was determined to make some more conscious relationship-choices in the future. We started chatting about this and agreed that the best place to start, was on the first date. Too  much emphasis nowadays is placed on - 'do they like me' instead of, 'do I like them?'. It's flattering when someone shows interest and we can easily fall in the trap of getting quite far into an involvement before we ask any of the important questions. Of course, the same things are not equally important to all of us (which is why I don't provide a list of desired answers), but I think there are some basics, so I compiled this list:

Are they religious?

Are they financially independant?

Do they have a psyhiatric disorder?

Do they have a chronic disease?

What is their relationship with their ex(es)?

Do they have or are they interested in having, children?

If parenting is on the table, what are their beliefs about how to parent and parenting roles?

If applicable, in what way is a child's parent (from a previous relationship) still involved?

Do they have pets or do they want pets/ what is their attitude towards raising pets?

How many friends do they have/ how often do they see them/ what do they do when they get together?

Are they political?

Are they sexist/ racist or homophobic?

Let them explain about their sex drive and particular wants/ needs around sex.

What are their eating habits?

How would they describe their personal hygiene and expectations around this for you?

Are they a smoker?

How much alcohol do they consume?

Have they ever been addicted to a substance?

How do they feel about co-habitation?

Have them describe their home-life to you.

Have them describe the kind of accommodation they live in or would like to live in (realistically).

Are they into sports/ the outdoors?

What does free-time spending look like for them?

What work do they do and what hours does it entail/ how much holiday time do they get/ give themselves?

What are their policies on technology and technology usage (is it ok to use your laptop in bed, for example?)

Where do they stand on social media (will you see pictures of yoruself all over Facebook?)

Where do they stand on the arts (museums/ galleries/ theatre/ music)?

What kind of literature and movies/ series/ music do they enjoy watching/ listenning to?

How aware are they of news - how do they receive their news (TV/online/radio)?

Do they have hobbies/ what do these entail?

Are they willing to go for couple counselling when needed?

How do they handle conflict?

Do they have a criminal record?

What education did they receive/ are they planning any further studies?

Would they ever consider moving elsewhere or emigrating?

How close are they to their families/ parents/ siblings?

How do they deal with cleaning duties and household maintenance?

What is a lie?

What is trust?

How do they define honesty?

Explore gender issues.

How do they celebrate events like birthdays?

Each one of these can be a quick check-in or a lengthy conversation. Keep focussed during those first heady few weeks of a new relationship. Make sure you keep on exploring. Don't make assumptions and re-visit topics to test their robustness.

Time apart - a fine balance

Posted by on April 5, 2020 at 8:00 AM Comments comments (0)

Friends of ours seperated recently. It is always a heart-breaking event filled with much analysis and regret on both sides. If only we had... Maybe if we... If only I...

Not to over-simplify their situation - relationships (especially long standing ones) are complex, but today I would like to focus on one element that caused a crack in their commitment toward each other. Four years ago they had a son. To try and maintain their finances and general well-being, they fell into the habit of splitting responsibilities: one would work/ shop/ sleep while the other looked after their son and then they would swop. After four years of this - they had grown apart.

This scenario always makes me think of a trip to the mall. You and your partner have a list - you have to go to several different shops. Do you tackle it together or split the list to get through the experience as efficiently as possible?

Life is like that, we often share out the tasks to get them done faster or to give someone a rest. This can work really well up to a point, but red flags should be going up if this has become a habit for you and your loved one.I have had some fun times in shopping centres: giggling in the vegetable isle; flirting with an elderly man as he ponders which deodorant to choose or having a fat chat while queueing for the cashiers. Sharing this with your partner can be a bonding experience that lightens your day and gives you something to laugh about later. Or sometimes it can just be boring - that happens too.

Always splitting can lead to splitting - corny but true.

On the flip side of the coin - doing everything together can really cramp your style. You are part of a partnership, but you are also an individual. Every relationship has its compromises and over time we learn to forget the compromises we now make without even thinking about them. But deep down, there are ways of being in the world that you simply cannot access when you are always a two-some and never ever have time to just be by yourself or spend time with your friends without your plus-one. 

When we have breaks from each other, we have time to rediscover ourselves or just to have the luxury of indulging in little habits that are subtly different from when the whole family is home. Maybe it is as simple as the way you like to eat or the shows you like to watch. Maybe you find that when you hang out with your firends, the topics are a bit different from when you see them together.

The big red flag here is when you love your 'own time' so much, that you resent it when the other one joins you again. If that happens, you have to take a serious look at your relationship communication, commitment and trust issues. Look hard, because if you play out the resentment game, it may not end well.

So there is your challenge - talk to your partner about doing things together and doing things on your own. I bet you will find they have been thinking about it too.

The unsaid

Posted by on March 29, 2020 at 8:00 AM Comments comments (0)

It is said that the most important part of communication is hearing what is  not said. I think there are very many different important aspects to communication including the courage to speak up and the perseverance to stick with the subject even when red herrings are thrown your way. Hearing what is not said, however is definitely also key and here is a bit more about that:

But what does hearing the unsaid mean? I will give you a clue: They say men lie through exaggeration and women lie through omission. By and large this is fairly true. In both kinds of lying or misinformation, there are elements of what isn't being said.In an exaggeration the key unsaid thing is, 'I don't feel what I have to say is enough'. You can explore this. Why is it not enough? Is the man saying that what he did wasn't enough, or is he trying to divert attention to the thing he actually did do, and away from the things he didn't do, by exaggerating what was done? In either instance the axaggeration needs to be explored. The truth of his feelings are underneath his motivation. Why does he think that what he did was not good enough? Does he fear judgment or reprisal? Why would he fear that? Is it something that usually happens? What role do you play in that? 

And why does the woman omit? Is she not stating her truth because she fears to give offence or cause conflict? Is she worried that the actions she took and that are now being ommitted would cause an argument? Again, is a reprisal a normal result of her reporting on certain behaviours? Why?

So as you can see, there are many possibilities, but what is always true, is that there is more behind communication than just what is being said and what is exaggerated or omitted and most often we use these strategies to avoid the full truth because we fear conflict.

Setting rules of engagement early on in relationships is absolutely vital. Watch the way your partner engages in conflictual dialogue. Do they shy away from or try to avoid conflcit? When they engage in conflict, do they stay focussed on the matter at hand or do they very quickly expand the argument to wider matters, thereby muddying the water so the issue becomes unclear or side-lined? 

Does your partner become sarcastic or make snide comments? This is a huge communication no-no. During those very first days and weeks, when you are still blinded by lust and desire, it is vital to clear your mind enough to figure out these patterns and establish whether your new partner can fight a clean fight. When we first get together, we can easily agree on most topics, but later on conflict will arise and we need to know that this chosen person will be able to navigate the waters calmly with us.

If you are in an established relationship, it becomes harder to create new communication patterns, especially around disagreements. This is so because we have created habits and habits are hard wired into our cgnitive (or brain) patterns. Change, however is possible en definitely desirable if your current way of interacting has become negligent, unproductive or even abusive.

So start by listenning to the unsaid and get productive around addressing these with your partner.

How big is your world

Posted by on March 22, 2020 at 8:00 AM Comments comments (0)

We all live on the same planet, yet our experiences of our living spaces are so vastly different. I am not referring here to the financial restraints of abject poverty versus incredible wealth. What I am referring to is someone of middle income and how much they spread their wings in their world. I know a wide range of people - from those who border on agoraphobia (so they stay mostly within the confines of their homes) to those who can't sit still and are always off on a drive or a trip.

How much do you get out? There are many psychological factors that drive how freely we move about. You might have decided that going out is no longer safe (crime/ accidents) or very inconvenient (traffic). Maybe your reasons for not going out are more deeply entrenched - a fear of the unknown, even if that unknown is simply not being sure exactly where you are going; what it will be like or how long it is going to take.

Someone once said, we hardly ever regret the things we have done, it is the things we haven't done, that haunts us. So this blog is about encouraging you to take stock of how often you move out of your comfort zone and to encourage you to do so, more often. Other than for work, how often do you get out of your suburb? How often do you get out of the city altogether? When was the last time you were out of your province? And not just to Knysna or PE, but even as far as KZN or Limpopo.

Plan an outing today - and then follow through. Even if it is just to go and do your grocery shopping in the Waterfront instead of your local mall, or to go to Paternoster for a Saturday lunch. Take your time. Stop at the farmstalls. Enjoy the drive.

When you first got your driver's licence, you felt free and grown up. You probably delighted in just going to the shop for your mom to buy bread. Oh those heady drives when you could tune the radio to any station you wanted and turn the volume up as loudly as you could!

Leaving our comfort zone and stretching our wings don't need to stop when we turn 25 or 30. 

Get out there. And if you can - put some gravel in your travel.

The Ides of March

Posted by on March 15, 2020 at 1:15 AM Comments comments (0)

Julius Casear was fore-warned of his own death by a soothsayer who told him to '...beware the Ides of March' - which falls on the 15th of March every year. I have often pondered on predictions and what it would be like if we had a glimpse of the future. Of course, one would have to be sure it is a 100% accurate. Sadly, Robin Williams committed suicide when his specialist told him he had an incurable disease. It was only after his death that they discovered the specialist had made a mistake.

But what if we could see into the future? Would that help us? Let's assume in this scenario, that you could see the furture, but that it was unchangeable. What if you saw great unhappiness in a few years' time? How would that cloud the way you lived now? If you saw the death of a loved one - would you act differently towards them? Would you tell them?

So much of what drives us on a daily basis - is hope. We hope that we will do better, that our kids will achieve more, that we will get well or be fit again one day. Hope gives us light and energises us, but hope rests on the uncertainty principle. If we had sure knowledge, we would have certainty and we couldn't have hope - because we would already know the outcome.

It makes me think of a Midsummer Night's dream by William Shakepseare which introduced the idea of a love potion. I had a lively discussion with my English class at Wynberg Girls' High years ago - about using love potions. At the beginning of the lesson, most of them were dead keen on using love potions, but by the end of it - they had realised that being liked by someone is only a thrill because it delights us so to find that someone has seen us and likes us.

Slipping them a potion will make them like you. There will be no real desire on their side - you will have determined the outcome. So as with above - the uncertainty is removed.

We all love watching programmes or real life events where people vote - whether it is for a performer or a politician (often the same thing). Many of us will stay up late or even through the night - to watch the outcome of some poll or vote. This would be no fun if we already knew the outcome.

So as much as we claim that we don't like change and that we want to be certain about things, it appears as though it is the surprise elements in life that provides the spice. 

Relationship diaries

Posted by on March 8, 2020 at 9:00 AM Comments comments (0)

How many times have we had sex in the last year? How many arguments have we had? What decisions did we make about how to handle specific situations? How does our division of chores work? How do we plan holidays and how much are we saving?

In the bad old days when men were men and women were...well, barefoot, pregnant and in the kitchen, our relationship roles were defined for us by society. We were very clear on who washed the dishes, who brought home the bacon and who cleared out the bedpan every morning. Luckily times have changed and relationships are a lot less gender defined and much more fluid.

As with any other development, however, we need to keep our eyes firmly on the ball. Just because society defines us differently now, doesn't mean we don't need definitions. And again, luckily for us, those no longer need to be dictated by outside forces. But they do need to be created.

So in our relationships, we need to create a particular vision, mission and culture. Whether it is just the two of you, or whether your family includes children, pets or other family and friends, you need some rules and boundaries. 

Keeping track of these can become a challenge and that is why I suggest you keep a relationship diary. This is an open book which anyone in the family can contribute to and which is always available to look things up or add some more. Keep track of important decisions and make short notes about wonderful days and arguments. Make a short summary of what sparked a conflict, how it was resolved and what the outcome was.

The relationship diary should never be a tool to be used against each other. It is a gentle guide to show you your progress and your commitment to each other. 

If your family includes children, jot down their achievements as well as decisions about how much technology time they get and what their chores are. Use your diary as a reference when you get together and set goals or plan a holiday. Remember that life is dynamic and that changes are made as we progress.

Lastly, keep it close at hand - I recommend the recipe book shelf.

Taking time off

Posted by on March 1, 2020 at 7:00 AM Comments comments (0)

Taking time off can be as simple as sitting down to a cup of coffee or a glass of wine or going on a three year sabbatical. We often let life decide just how much time we can afford to be away from work. But how much time off do we actually need? Is it important to take time off at all and what do we do with our time off?

Often time off is spent at home and it easily becomes a couch fest with series binge watching, or on the other side of the scale, a busy time when you get to do all those niggling diy jobs that your home desperately needs. Both of these will feed some need that you have, but ultimately this is not what I mean when I speak about 'time off'. 

Yes, we do need some time just to be lazy and also to do some home maintenance, but there is something else that we really need - time away from it all. Time when there are no pressures and preferably no technology. The world hums with wifi, electricity and radio signals. We can't move without all of these vibrating through our bodies 24/7. Traffic noise is another one.

Our bodies and minds simply were not designed to get bombarded like this. Within each of us, there is the animal that still needs the quiet of nature to fully restore and recover from life's busy-ness. A few days are great, but ideally you need a few weeks of just getting away from it all. And you need this regularly - not just once a year!

Time in nature brings a quiet that cannot be achieved anywhere else or in any other way. I recommend meditation and quiet times during every day and every weekly cycle too, but we need these longer breaks to truly have a rest.

What does this time do for you? Well, it re-sets your metabolism and re-wires your brain - think of it in the same way as having your car go for its annual tune-up. It is only when we get to have this break from our daily routines that we finally get to catch up on sleep and slowly start moving out of the brain patterns which are frenetic towards the brain patterns where our stress levels drop and we can really think. In our moments of deepest relaxation - we finally get to have insight and understand our place in the world.

Brilliant ideas about science, technology and development as well as for great novels and pieces of art - hardly ever occur to us in the middle of a busy day. They come to us in the shower, or on a long country drive or while dozing lightly under a tree.

To re-boot your life, to make sure you are on the right course (or to change course), you need some peace and quiet.

Creative thinking spaces will enable you to gain perspective and discover new avenues in your life.

And if you think you can't afford them - read on th internet about the Japanese man who put away his pennies until he had enough put by to cycle around the world. It's not that we can't afford to take a break - it's that we can't afford not to.

Delayed gratification

Posted by on February 22, 2020 at 8:00 AM Comments comments (0)

Another volitional process is that of delayed gratification. By now most people are aware of the Stanford Marshmellow Test, conductued by Walter Michel in the 1960's and 70's. This test has since been disputed and although delayed gratification is no longer the gold standard as a measure of future sucess, it is certainly a principal volitional process which comes into play on a daily basis and can determine how healthy we are and how hard we are willing to work. 

Witnessing the slow development of delayed gratification in children can be like watching paint dry, just with a bucketload more anxiety and concern for their futures. Children go from baby-steps to being expected to run a 3km course at school in hardly any time at all. The one moment we are protecting them and keeping them out of the sun and the next moment they need to be tough little warriors with a will to endure discomfort, physical challenges and being bested by everyone in their class while having a smile on their dial and showing good sportsmanship. It boggles the mind.

How do you get your child to do a hike or go for a run, when the only reward they can see, is the fact that the activity will come to an end eventually? They don't feel the physical benefits of fitness as acutely as we do, because their metabolisims are still fast and so they feel quite fit anyway. The delay is long and the gratification will probably only be felt in their late thirties and onwards when their peers start feeling the aches and pains while they feel strong. There's no way you can hold that carrot up for two decades!

The same goes for school work. The discipline to say no to games (in whatever form or format) and say yes to homework, revision and study, when the reward is so far off (marks only really hit home at the end of every term), can seem an impossible task. To try and explain that those termly marks end up to a net result that will determine a further few years of study and then, after much hard work, will eventually realise into the possibility of a good job where you might be able to afford a one bedroom flat... well, you see what I mean.

So what is the golden bullet? How did we learn delayed gratification as youngsters? I guess the answer is mostly through failure. It is only through having failed to make the cross-country team because you didn't train in the holidays or failing to achieve entrance into your favoured course because you didn't make the grade - that finally focusses one's mind.

Waiting until your kids are old enough to 'handle' failure, however, won't cut the mustard. I think the key is to let them experience failure from their toddler years. The magic ratio is probably about 6 to 1. Six successes for every failure. And the failures have to count. If they can get a reward for running around the house in under a minute, and they fail, you can't just say, 'well, have another go'. 'Having another go' does not equal failure - it encourages them to be slack - trusting they will always have another opportunity - which is not a reflection of real life.

Letting your child fail is harder on you right now than on them, but if the long term reward is that they cultivate a work ethic which encompasses an internal motivation - then it will be worth it - and that is where you have to practice your own delayed gratification.

Good luck.