Therapist Column: Expectations Management for Leaders

What Can Therapy Do?  


Expectations Management for Leaders, by Douglas Newton, LMFT

Few phenomena can shift emotions quite as powerfully as expectations.  According to Buddhism, suffering comes from expecting what we don’t get or getting what we don’t expect.  Life circumstances have a way of delivering both situations on a daily basis, personally and professionally.  A part you need doesn’t arrive on time due to supply chain issues, holding up production.  A phone call from a close friend delivers the news that a loved one has been diagnosed with a debilitating disease.

Seeing expectations everywhere

Expectations are woven into the way our brain attaches to rewards and avoids potential dangers.  Understanding what we can reasonably expect has a basic survival use that is woven into our experience and reinforced over time through our DNA (genetic heritage).  Expectations layer into almost everything we do.

All our travel plans, for example, rely on functional cars and airplanes, amenable weather, robust infrastructure and people showing up to help us get from place to place.  Life is tricky, as we all know.  One accident on the highway, one flat tire, one atmospheric river or one airline strike can change our plans and trigger various emotions.  Frustration, pain, consternation, angry phone calling, high blood pressure and the stress hormone cortisol flow through us.  Stress can become anxiety and anxiety can lead to panic.  Acute stress is tolerable, but can lead to physical health problems without regular and adequate recovery.

Awareness of expectations in a workplace culture

In the workplace, understanding what we can expect from employees and colleagues influences delivery schedules, product launches, overall reputation and client satisfaction.  Do your reports know when they can and cannot contact you?  Do you have a clear idea of what you can expect from them?  Are those expectations flexible enough to account for unforeseen issues or complex dependencies on partners and processes?

Do what you say and say what you do.

Communicating what you expect and what others expect from you can exert a soothing influence on your relationships.  Clear expectations can increase a feeling of safety that informs a workplace culture.  This in turn can diminish stress, burnout and confusion, improving the internal value proposition for employees and increasing retention.

A focus on expectations can provide useful data, such as subjective and objective measures that define focus, priority, work-flow, and team logic that optimize structure and processes to get things done.  At the same time, anticipating how things may go wrong can provide the elasticity people need to deal with the adventures and lessons along the way.

Pay attention, harvest lessons, and stay flexible

In the publishing world there is an expression, “When you’re 99% done you’re halfway there.”  There’s the bug in the program, the part that didn’t arrive, the colleague out with Covid or the need to seize a new opportunity and shift priorities.  When it comes to expectations, perhaps a leader needs what a body needs, according to Thomas Richardson, “dynamic structural flexibility.”

Learning lessons, and remaining agile requires flexible expectations.  So does your relationship with yourself, others, your business, your job, and society in general.

Your therapist can help you understand the relationship between healthy boundaries and expectations.  Your therapist can help you explore how rigidity in your thinking may be impacting your colleagues and your culture at work.  Your therapist can help you foster psychological safety at work. By reflecting on expectations, and the dynamics that inform them, you can increase your influence as a responsive, respected leader at work.

If you don’t yet have a therapist, consider employing the experts at SF Stress & Anxiety Center.  Clear the fog.  Find and expand your center. Get the help that makes a concrete difference in your life and how you relate to yourself, others and the world.  Click the button below to schedule a time to speak to a Care-Coordinator.


How to Manage Conflict in Your Relationship

Conflict in a relationship is normal and even necessary because it can help us feel more connected and known by our partner if we handle it well. However, unhealthy conflict can lead to distance, disconnect, and unhappiness. If conflict is tearing your relationship apart, it’s time to bring more positivity into your conflict discussions and everyday life by bringing more positivity into your daily interactions.

Common Causes of Relationship Conflict

So why do couples fight? When couples fight, it’s because they are two very different individuals with different perspectives, beliefs, personalities, and values. Those in a healthy relationship embrace and even welcome these differences and learn how to fight fairly. However, in an unhealthy relationship, people try to change one another, and the relationship suffers as a result.

When Conflict Is Healthy in a Relationship

The important thing is how you handle miscommunications and inevitable differences between you when they occur. Conflicts in healthy relationships help the couple feel more connected and understand one another better because they are able to talk about the issue, listen to one another, and repair when necessary. World-renowned marriage psychologist John Gottman explains, “Happy relationships aren’t relationships where there is no fighting. They are relationships where repairs are made after regrettable incidents happen – and where a couple connects daily.”

In healthy conflict, couples are also respectful of one another. They stick to ‘I’ statements instead of ‘you’ statements. They communicate how they feel and what they need without blaming each other. If one partner feels criticized, they can repair the situation in the moment and get back on track. Compromise is possible when they allow their partner’s perspective, feelings, and needs to change their perspective.

When Conflict Is Not Healthy

Conflict becomes unhealthy when the negativity in the discussion outweighs the positivity. In healthy conflict, more positive emotions occur due to repairs being made, partners feeling heard, and emotions and feelings being accepted. Additionally, there are types of negativity that can occur in conflict that are more damaging than others.

Gottman has found four behaviors that he says can seriously damage the relationship and lead to its demise if not addressed. He calls them the four horsemen:

  • Criticism- When we criticize the person and don’t deal with our complaint, we take the focus off the issue. Personal attacks can be hurtful and prevent meaningful communication.
  • Defensiveness- It can be directly linked to criticism but also happens at other times. Partners can become very defensive, which can escalate the conflict even further. Defending can be a way of avoiding taking responsibility for your own actions.
  • Contempt- Mocking or making fun of a partner at any time is not a great idea and can leave a partner feeling belittled. This can be extremely damaging to relationships.
  • Stonewalling- The final horseman is stonewalling. When a partner withdraws from the discussion, it can literally mean they walk away, but it can also mean they emotionally distance themselves from their partner.

How Relationship Conflict Can Bring You Closer Together

Often, conflict in a relationship is seen as a sign of trouble. It is something to be avoided. However, this is not so. Conflict is a normal part of a relationship and can help us understand one another better and make us feel safe and important. Disagreements are opportunities to learn from one another. By listening to our partner and sharing our side, we can learn something new about one another that we may not have known had the conflict not occurred.

Conflict also brings us closer by providing a sense of safety and importance when we are able to repair. We feel safe when we know that, despite challenges, our partner will be there for us, and we will be able to repair the relationship. You don’t have to get it right all the time. You can both feel safe if you can resolve the conflict and repair the damage with your partner, you can both feel safe. Having the assurance that our partner will always be there for us, even when things get tough, helps us feel close, connected, and secure in our relationship.

Tips for Dealing with Relationship Conflicts

Couples Therapy

For many people, the concept of positivity in conflict is foreign. Many of us lacked role models for how to have a healthy, successful conflict discussion. As a result, most of us have no idea how to do it or even where to start. Getting help from a qualified professional is the best way to ensure that you are successful.

Individual Therapy

Many times, one partner wants to seek counseling, but the other is not yet ready to do so. If this is your situation, don’t give up entirely on the idea of therapy. Individual therapy can be a powerful tool in improving a relationship. A therapist can help you understand your role in the relationship dynamic and provide tools and insights to help you shift your relationship in a positive direction.


You must be able to stay calm and engaged in order to be able to hear your partner’s emotions and respond to them. Pay attention to your body during conflict discussions. Do you feel relaxed and at ease or tense and stressed? If you notice tension in your body, take a few deep breaths and try to calm your body and mind so that you can tune back into your partner.

Repair During Conflict Discussions

Nobody is perfect, which is why having the ability to repair during a conflict discussion is so important. Even happy, stable couples get off track at times during conflict discussions. The most important distinction between happy and unhappy couples is their ability to get back on track or not.

So what does a repair during conflict look like? A repair is anything you say to de-escalate tension in a discussion. Here are a few examples:

  • Tune your partner into their feelings: Perhaps your partner says something that makes you feel criticized. Instead of responding defensively (which will escalate the situation), you can share that you feel criticized. You may say, ‘I feel criticized.’ ‘Would you mind rephrasing that?’
  • Take responsibility when you mess up: We are all human, and sometimes we say things we regret or that we know were harsh. Many of us, however, do not acknowledge that in the moment. However, taking responsibility in the moment can be a powerful way to de-escalate the situation. You can apologize for your actions by simply saying, ‘My reaction was too extreme.’ Sorry. Let me try again.’
  • Humor: Many people find it difficult to access humor during conflict discussions, but if you can use it, it can be the most effective form of repair. You can express humor in a playful manner by sticking out your tongue, making a joke, or giving a goofy smile to encourage laughter and lighten the mood.

Take Breaks as Needed

If you are unable to calm your body and remain engaged in the conversation, it may be time to take a break. Once we become flooded and our physiology changes, we cannot hear our partner, solve problems or have empathy for them until we can calm down, which requires a break. Tell your partner that you are feeling overwhelmed and need a little time.

You may want to go into another room and engage in a relaxing activity for a while. Try deep breathing or progressive muscle relaxation. Other activities, such as listening to music, taking a bath, or going for a walk, maybe more relaxing to some people. Calm down at least 20 minutes before resuming the conversation with your partner.

Date Nights

It may seem strange to include friendship skills in an article about conflict, but the strength of your friendship determines your ability to manage conflict well. Date nights are encouraged by marriage therapists for a reason. It’s because they work! Date nights give you and your partner time to connect, have fun, and talk about things other than everyday tasks, responsibilities, and schedules. Date night is often associated with an evening out at a restaurant, which can be expensive and the last thing you want to do after a long day.

However, date night can be anything you want it to be. It’s a set time for couples to spend together and focus on their relationship. There are countless ways to accomplish this (and it doesn’t have to be at night or cost you anything!). For example, you could have a picnic on the living room floor, sit outside after the kids are asleep and just talk, take a walk around the neighborhood, or take a cooking class together. The ideas are endless. The key is to get creative and make it a priority to ensure it happens.


Therapist Column: Three Ways to Move From Isolation to Connection

As Nina Simone first sang it, “I’m just a soul whose intentions are good.  Oh Lord, please don’t let me be misunderstood.”  Why can it feel so difficult to convey who we authentically are to others?

Whether you are an introvert or an extrovert, more social or more solitary, you have a deep need to feel seen, heard and understood by others.  It is as fundamental a need as the thirst for water. So if this need is so central, it can be frustrating not to feel seen, heard and understood by those around you.  And when this need isn’t met, there are costs. Loneliness, isolation and sadness can get woven into your days.  Your identity can feel walled off from others, leading to depression, anxiety and feelings of failure.

Fortunately for all of us, there is a way to move beyond our isolation and get into a state of mind where we feel recognized for who we are.  Acceptance, belonging and intimacy are possible, and help to push past this loneliness and the other feelings that surround feeling misunderstood.

What can you do to bridge the gap?  

1. Clarify your thoughts and feelings through writing

If you have never kept a journal, consider allowing yourself this space and place to go.  When we write we clarify our thoughts and feelings.  Putting words down truly can help us come to terms with how we feel or what we want and need.

Writing connects the unconscious to the conscious mind and, through that connection, can integrate and articulate thoughts and feelings that may be otherwise hidden from view.  The power to reveal yourself in writing can feel somewhat magical and centering.  Once you write something down, reading what you have written can feel like receiving a letter from a long, lost friend.  You may come to recognize aspects of yourself that you value or needs that haven’t been adequately met.

Writing privately creates a safe space for you to express yourself without concern for others’ thoughts and opinions.  You can always choose to disclose what you write to someone, but not having to do so can give you permission to open up to yourself and “come to terms,” literally and figuratively, with what is on your mind.

2. Give your time and talent away to others who need you

Covid has been profoundly isolating.  So many people have unfulfilled needs, and there are plenty of problems, large and small, to which you may connect your talents meaningfully.  Do you code and care about social justice?  Volunteer your talents to a nonprofit doing important work.  Are you a writer and frustrated about climate change?  Explore ways to help locally, according to your time and inclination.  There is a problem out there for every talent.  You may find it meaningful to connect your passions and talents to the problems that need you.   Helping others according to your specific talents and interests will connect you to a community of like-minded people.  Those relationships can flow out of the center of your interest.

3. Use Assertive Communication to Convey Your Needs

Assertive Communication comes from a therapeutic approach called DBT (Dialectical Behavioral Therapy).  When in conflict with someone, you can use Assertive Communication to express your needs and report from your emotions after you have taken the time to process them.  Here’s the framework:  “I felt _________ (identified emotion) when you _________ (said or did something).  It is a way to own your emotions and express them to someone else, in a respectful tone and manner.  This contrasts with aggressive or passive aggressive communication.  Either of these forms can escalate a conflict rather than presenting a safe way to explore emotions and relationship dynamics.  Assertive communication allows you and a friend to explore a conflict and learn from the pattern, ideally free from the shame, blame and judgment that fuels conflict.

Your therapist can help you clarify and deepen the insights you get from writing.  Your therapist can help you explore your talents and service ethic, including directions you might take.  Your therapist can help you understand the grounded nature of Assertive Communication and how it can help you feel heard, seen and understood in ways that matter.

If you don’t yet have a therapist, consider employing the experts at SF Stress & Anxiety Center.  Clear the fog.  Find and expand your center. Get the help that makes a concrete difference in your life and how you relate to yourself, others and the world.  Click here to schedule a time to speak to a Care-Coordinator.


10 Strategies To Help Manage a Panic Attack

Many individuals experience anxiety-induced panic attacks. Panic attacks are sudden, unexpected episodes of intense fear or terror. Individuals who experience reoccurring panic attacks may have Panic Disorder, a DSM anxiety disorder that affects around 6 million adults in the United States. Panic attacks are often sudden and reach their peak within minutes. They can occur spontaneously or be triggered by a situation or feared object. An individual experiencing a panic attack may develop a fear of future attacks, increasing their anxiety and causing them to avoid situations or locations where they experienced the attack. Some symptoms that occur during a panic attack include:

  • Chest pain, heart palpitations, and shortness of breath
  • Sweating, trembling, and dizziness or light-headed
  • Numbness or tingling
  • Chills or hot flashes
  • Nausea or abdominal pain
  • Feelings of impending doom, detachment, losing control or dying

What causes panic attacks?

When faced with danger, real or imagined, your brain kicks into gear with a fight-or-flight response. Chemicals like adrenaline flood your body and cause hormonal reactions, such as increased heart rate and heavy breathing. Panic attacks happen when you have the hormonal response of fight or flight, but there’s no immediate danger.

There are different factors thought to play a role in causing panic attacks:

  • chronic and ongoing stress
  • experiencing a sudden traumatic event
  • a change in environment (like walking into a crowded store)
  • too much caffeine
  • being a person who’s sensitive to stress or negative emotions
  • illness (like inner-ear problems or diabetes)
  • genetics i.e., if a close family member has suffered from panic attacks in the past

Panic attacks are jarring and terrifying, so here are some tips on how to cope with them:

  1. Educate yourself about panic and anxiety.Knowing the causes of panic and the fight-or-flight response can help you understand that unexplained panic is generally a false alarm. It is a trigger that lets you know you are uncomfortable, either because of the physical sensations you are experiencing or your situation; there is nothing worse than that.
  2. Notice the sensations.Identify what is happening in your body by nonjudgmentally labeling your physical experiences. Observing calmly, “I am experiencing a faster heartbeat and feeling warm in my face and neck,” can be helpful for slowing down what is happening without jumping to conclusions like, “I must be having a heart attack.”
  3. Recognize panic for what it is.When you recognize that you are having a panic attack, you can remind yourself that it is temporary and will pass. Take away the fear that something worse is happening.
  4. Take deep breaths.Breathing in deeply through your nose for a count of 4, holding for 1-2 seconds, and breathing out for a count of 5 not only can start to slow your breathing but also gives you something else to focus on that you have some control over. Diaphragmatic breathing stimulates the relaxation response and turns off the fight-or-flight response.
  5. Relax your muscles.A muscle relaxing technique called Progressive Muscle Relaxation involves squeezing or tensing a specific muscle group and then releasing that area. One option is to start at your toes and, after tensing and relaxing there, gradually move up your body until you reach your neck and head.
  6. Ground yourself in the present moment.Using a strategy called mindfulness can help focus your mind on something specific other than your panic. One exercise involves noticing and experiencing 5 things around you that you can see, 4 things you can touch, 3 things you can hear, 2 things you can smell, and 1 thing you can taste. Don’t just name the things; immerse yourself in the experience using each of your senses.
  7. Close your eyes.Sometimes we are overwhelmed by the multitude of things happening around us. Closing your eyes can reduce much of the input, making it easier to think clearly or work on relaxation strategies.
  8. Repeat a calming phrase.By focusing on something like a mantra or statement, you can help focus your mind, but also remind yourself that you are thinking clearly and that everything will be okay. It could be something like, “this will be over soon” or whatever phrase speaks to you. Pick your phrase before you are panicking, however, as it will be much harder to choose when stressed.
  9. Go to your happy place in your mind.Visualize a safe, comfortable, or calm place (real or imaginary). Maybe you start with what you see but be sure to explore and experience the place using all five of your senses. If you are imagining swinging in a hammock between trees, also take note of sounds (e.g., birds chirping, water running nearby), smells (e.g., sap from pine trees), feelings (e.g., the breeze as you rock back and forth), and tastes (e.g., a lemonade with ice and a sprig of mint).
  10. Drink cold water.Take a drink of water and feel the coolness radiate down your throat, through your chest, and throughout your body. When you feel anxious, you may feel warm, so drinking cold water, running your hands under cold water, or putting a cool washcloth on your neck can help.

Talk Therapy Can Help

Talk therapy (CBT) can help you understand and manage panic episodes. In therapy, you will learn how to:

  • Understand and manage skewed perceptions of life stresses, including other people’s conduct or life circumstances.
  • Recognize and replace panic-inducing ideas to reduce feelings of powerlessness.
  • When symptoms appear, manage tension and relax.
  • Consider the sources of your anxiety, beginning with the least concerning to the most anxiety-provoking.
  • Conquer your anxiety by practicing gradual exposure to real-life scenarios that typically trigger your anxiety.

You don’t have to live with constant fear of panic or avoid situations where you feel anxious. Therapy can help you overcome panic and anxiety and escape its constricting grasp. Anxiety treatment works. You can feel better.