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The ambulance siren split the early morning air as it sped off toward the nearest hospital. The injured man would need fast and skilled medical attention in order to survive the crash that left his wife dead and many lives abruptly changed forever. Two policemen directed the highway traffic while two other policemen questioned the intoxicated man who had caused the collision. Except for a small cut on his right cheek the man appeared to have no serious injuries. The onsite alcohol screen indicated legal intoxication, and in his drunken state the man appeared confused and uncertain as to where he was and how he got there. He had no recollection of his all-night drinking binge or his weaving all over the road and into the path of the oncoming car in which the married couple traveled on their way to visit their grandchildren. However, in due time he would become aware of the tragedy he had caused and the DUI/murder indictment he would face. His choice to abuse alcohol impaired his ability to control his thoughts—and the behavior that followed. His lack of thought-management transformed his vehicle into a weapon capable of causing collisions and wrecking lives.

Without good mind management a person’s travel along the Highway of Life is uncertain and unpredictable. The man who fails to manage his thoughts effectively is indeed an accident looking for a place to happen. People with unmanaged minds represent threats to their own well-being and to the lives of innocent people around them. Mental impairment through alcohol abuse is only one way through which people choose to give up their self-control. We can also become mentally impaired through negative, unhealthy thinking. While the specific degree of impairment may be debated, the reality is that such thinking poses an ongoing threat to both individual and relationship health and happiness. To prevent impairment we must practice self-control through the effective management of our thoughts. Simply put, we must learn to manage our mind. 
 

 

Thoughts are important because they determine our emotions and our behavior. Negative, unhealthy thoughts generate painful emotions and undesired behavior. In contrast, positive, healthy thoughts create appropriate emotional moods and constructive behavior. Our thinking determines our mental health which in turn affects how we perceive other people and how we interact in our human relationships. Good mental health, so essential to personal health and to relationship well-being, requires that we take charge of our thoughts.
 

However, effective mind management can be a challenge, especially for many people who feel helpless in their ability to manage the mind. They believe that they have no control over the thoughts they have and, as a result, they travel through life experiencing emotional states and repeating hurtful behaviors that continue to be generated by their negative, unhealthy thought patterns. Their sense of helplessness usually leads to hopelessness, depression, and despair. This negative approach to thought management maintains a journey through life along the “3-M Highway” that is filled with Mistakes, Messes, and Misery.
 

Thankfully, other people choose a different approach. They choose to believe that they can learn to manage their thoughts and, in doing so, generate emotions and behavior that will achieve good mental health and a safe, successful journey along the Highway of Life. Hopefully, you’re in this category of people and you are interested in “tools” that will increase your ability to manage your mind effectively.
 

As a human traveler I’ve experienced my own struggles with the ongoing challenge to manage my mind in a healthy manner. I’m very grateful that the usage of good mind-management tools has improved the quality of my personal life. During my tenure as a professional therapist I’ve tried to help many individuals who were struggling with thought-management issues. One of the tools I’ve shared with many of these struggling travelers is an idea I call “The Mental Gatekeeper.” 

  

         “How Do I Exit the Worry Highway?”


Tom’s* frustration became more understandable as he explored with me his personal pattern of worrying. Earlier he had described his mother as a person who worried excessively about almost everything. He recalled that, as a teenager, he had been prone to worry and now, as an adult, he had honed his worry skills into a well-oiled machine. In his words he had become a master at worrying, perhaps even exceeding his mother’s skills! However, as Tom came to understand the high price he had been paying for his worry pattern his deep frustration led him to a personal choice. It was time to stop his unhealthy practice. His question related to the process: “How do I exit the worry highway?”
 
Tom’s question reflects both the misery felt by many people and also their desire to find a better life—a life without worry! Many highways in life are difficult to travel, but few are more miserable than the Worry Highway. The roadway itself is treacherous and threatening. The dark clouds hanging overhead seem ominous and oppressive. Travelers along the Worry Highway experience a variety of painful emotions including, among others, feeling “disoriented,” “bewildered,” “perplexed,” “unclear,” “confused,” “unsure,” and “lost.” The anxiety generated by worry becomes a thief that steals the inner joy and peace from the worrier. Most people have spent some time on the Worry Highway, but for some people the highway is the primary road on which they travel through life. Worried travelers become wearied travelers, and, all too often, they remain stuck on a highway that hinders a safe and successful journey in life.

 

  

         “I don’t want more rules—I want more freedom!”


With those parting words John left his parents in the den and stomped angrily up the stairs to his bedroom. At age fifteen he thinks that he should be old enough to stay out later on Friday nights, but his parents continue to enforce the old timeline. His thoughts were really churning. “Why can’t I decide for myself? Why do they have to run my life for me? Why do I have to have so many rules? I feel suffocated!” Meanwhile, John’s parents remained downstairs in the den where they were carefully considering their son’s parting message. John’s words bordered on a disrespectful tone but they decided not to fight that particular battle tonight. His request was generating some important questions. Were they being too strict about the curfew? Did the current rule need some modification? What timeframe was appropriate for a fifteen-year-old? They struggled with their desire to allow John more freedom because they also felt very responsible for his health and safety. In their struggle both Dad and Mom were really feeling the stress of parenting a teenager. They had hoped for an evening of peace but the current stress felt more like war.
 

What causes most of the tension and turmoil in families today? Clearly, family rules are frequently the arena for open warfare in many households, regardless of whether the child in question is a teenager or a preschooler. Conflict about rules can rob any family of much of its health and happiness. Yet rules cannot be abandoned else the family members would all suffer from the resulting anarchy. So, what’s to be done about family rules? What’s the best approach for parents to take? Should the children be involved in the development of the rules? How should the rules change over time as children grow and mature? These questions are tough ones and they invite a great deal of thoughtful attention. Without a doubt most families would prefer to have a house at peace rather than a house at war. For peace to prevail two actions are essential: first, appropriate rules are established and enforced, and, secondly, all family members respect and follow the family rules. However, those two actions are much easier said than done!

 

  

As a fifteen-year-old teenager John knows that he needs permission from his parents to go out with his friends. On this Friday night he delays until it’s almost time for his friends to pick him up for the outing. At the last possible minute he goes into the living room where his Dad and Mom are engrossed in their favorite television sitcom. As he has done many times before he interrupts their activity and mumbles his request: “I want to go out tonight. Okay?” They do not understand his mumbling so they don’t respond. John speaks louder and repeats his request but with an added tone of frustration. Finally, they look up and answer the same way they have done many times before:  “No. We cannot say yes. We have to have more information.” Upon hearing their response John gets angry and complains that they are being unfair. With that interchange another quarrel is begun and a peaceful evening is replaced with turmoil and tension.  Unfortunately, the scenario is nothing new to either John or his parents.

John is a teenager who is very frustrated with his parents. At age fifteen he is still very dependent upon his parents but he wants the independence of full adulthood. He wants to make his own decisions and to live life by his own standards, but his parents are not cooperating with his style. At the same time his Dad and Mom are typical parents of teenagers who love their son and are trying both to protect him and to prepare him for adulthood. However, their travels along the Parenting Highway are often complicated by their son’s inadequate approach to getting permission or to request changes in basic family rules.
 

John feels the stress. His complaint makes sense to him.  “My parents are so unfair! Every time I ask them for permission to do something special, they automatically say ‘No’ to me. Why do they always have to say ‘no’ to stuff I want to do? My life stinks!”
 
John’s parents feel the stress and their complaint makes good sense to them.  “Why is John so unfair? We get so tired of having to say ‘no’ to him. Why can’t he give us the information we have to have so we can say ‘yes’ more often? Why does parenting have to be so hard?”
 

Sound familiar? If you’re a teenager or the parent of a teen, you can probably connect with the frustration expressed by John and his parents. Indeed, the issue of permission is usually an ongoing struggle between most teenagers and their parents. Admittedly, the teen years are tough times for most adolescents and their parents. This seven-year period between childhood and adulthood is often filled with struggles about rules, roles, and responsibilities. Teenagers make mistakes in their efforts to gain too much independence much too soon through too many inappropriate behaviors. Parents make mistakes in their responses to their teenagers, perhaps by being too rigid in one direction or else too flexible in the opposite direction.  The resulting stress is hard on the entire family.

                                  

                    “Why Can’t We Live in Peace?”
                                       

People in relationships often raise this question when they prefer more peace but they predict more pain. Their preference emerges from years of turmoil and they want something better. Their prediction is based upon years of frequent failures to achieve and maintain any type of genuine and permanent peace. Is there hope for peace within a relationship characterized by conflict and troubled by tension? Can our preference for peace lead us to a prediction for peace?
 

A healthy relationship is a relationship at peace. The importance of peace usually correlates with the value placed upon the relationship itself. Most men and women who choose marriage expect to live together in some degree of mutual peace. The phrase “at peace” does not mean the total absence of conflict. Understandably, disagreements arise and problems occur but the two people know how to resolve their issues efficiently and effectively. They are committed to a lifestyle of peace and therefore work very hard to relate to each other in ways that promote and protect the mutual peace. Conversely, the prolonged absence of peace leads to unhealthiness and an unsafe, unsuccessful journey along the Relationship Highway.
 

Peace is not a consequence that automatically occurs because two people choose to enter into a human relationship like marriage or friendship. Without consistent effort any preference for peace will probably be overcome by the prevalence of problems. Genuine peace must be pursued with diligence and devotion. 

                                  

                    “How can we move forward if he won’t forgive me?”
                                       

The distressed woman was worried about the bleak future for her relationship. She knew that she had made a huge mistake and had hurt her husband deeply. Understandably, she was very ashamed—and really scared!  Her words echoed her fear. “I apologized to him but he said he could not forgive me right now, maybe later. What if he never forgives me? I don’t want to lose our marriage. How can I make this work?”
 

Can you identify with this woman? Have you made mistakes through misbehavior and wrongdoing? Have your actions brought pain and injury to your spouse or perhaps a friend? Experience and wisdom teach us that hurtful behavior poses an ongoing threat to any human relationship. When such hurts occur it is hoped that healing will allow the relationship to move forward. A key element in this healing process is forgiveness. With forgiveness the relationship has potential for survival and growth; without forgiveness the relationship is probably heading down the Lost Relationship Highway.
 

Relationship forgiveness is a vital component for the health of friendships and marriages. Every human being will make mistakes that unfortunately will cause varying degrees of hurt and harm. Some mistakes are made by clear choice; they are willfully and knowingly made. Other mistakes are made unintentionally out of ignorance or carelessness. The offender has the primary responsibility to stop the wrongdoing, apologize clearly, and show evidence that improvement takes place. The offended partner faces the challenge of coping with the misbehavior itself and forgiving the offender for the physical and/or emotional injury. Forgiveness involves a “pardon,” a releasing the offender of the “debt” incurred through the transgression. Because the “slate is wiped clean” the offender is therefore free of the guilt related to the misbehavior.
 

However, the willingness to forgive can be a struggle for many people. So-called “minor infractions” can pose difficulty, but the ability to forgive a significant betrayal is a major challenge for almost everyone. Because of the importance of forgiveness and the corresponding difficulty to extend forgiveness, we would be wise to explore our beliefs and practices related to the issue. But first let’s consider the implications of a failure to forgive.

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