Share your feelings and needs: most children are naturally fluent in the language of sensitivity. In fact, usually, children are more at ease with sharing feelings and needs than adults are, because adults often hold back in conversations with children.
With all that’s going on in our country, our economy, the world, and on social media, it feels like so many of us are under a great deal of stress. Parenting, in particular, can be stress-inducing. We know chronic stress can be as unhealthy as smoking a quarter of a pack a day. It is also challenging to be a present parent when your relationship is under stress. What are stress management strategies that parents use to become “Stress-Proof? What are some great tweaks, hacks, and tips that help reduce or even eliminate stress? In this interview series, we are talking to authors, parenting experts, business and civic leaders, and mental health experts who can share their strategies for reducing or eliminating stress. As a part of this series, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Marshall Zweig.
Marshall is a relationship and intimacy coach who, against psychologists’ warnings, radically transformed two gaslighting relationships in his own life, with his wife and with his mother, armed with nothing more than the truth. His method, “Truth Empowered Relationships,” provides a structure and rules — much like a board game — for creating deep, fulfilling, intimate relationships. Marshall is a graduate of five years of advanced leadership and coaching training with Personal Growth University, holds diplomas in coaching and organizational psychology from Austin Peay State University, and is experienced with NLP, NVC, PQ, and many more of the world’s most transformational personal growth technologies.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to know how you got from “there to here.” Inspire us with your backstory!
Well, it all depends on what you mean by ‘here,’ Savio. I can tell you I’m a survivor of sexual and psychological traumas, with diagnosed PTSD, who walked through life often suicidal but not knowing why. I was convinced I had a good life and a happy family. One day, walking down a staircase at work, a woman I barely knew, Lisa, asked “How are you, Marshall?” And for the first time I ever recall, I said something other than ‘fine.’ I said, “I’m not doing too well today.”
Turns out Lisa was deeply into personal growth. Beginning my exploration of my psyche was what saved me, though there were many pitfalls along the way which I am trying to save people from. But for me, ‘here’ means meeting my wife and twin flame Heather, and creating our truth-empowered relationship.
What lessons would you share with yourself if you had the opportunity to meet your younger self?
That’s an interesting question because whenever I wonder about things like this, my thought always goes to meeting Heather, and I say to myself, “Everything had to work out perfectly for us to be together.” In addition, given the tools I had, I was always, always, doing the very best I could. But here’s what I would say: “Don’t lie to yourself about the way you’re feeling. Not ever. That creates two of you–the one who’s really feeling, and the one who’s pretending.” I would also say, “You were right about love and about happiness,” because I used to tell myself, “Someday you will be happy,” and “You deserve happiness.”
None of us are able to experience success without support along the way. Is there a particular person for whom you are grateful because of the support they gave you to grow you from “there to here?” Can you share that story and why you are grateful for them?
My wife, for trusting me so fully that it motivated me to trust myself. My son, for trusting me so fully that I knew I could trust his open heart. My mother, for trusting me enough to not dispute the words she said to me as a child, and for having conversations with me that most people wouldn’t ever be able to have. My friend Rick, for giving me the experience of being loved kindly and gently — and for knocking on my bedroom window that night and giving me the experience of feeling important enough to be rescued.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think it might help people?
I am almost finished with my book Truth Empowered Relationships. My goal is to give people in love relationships this structure, so they have an invisible referee protecting each of them and protecting the relationship at the same time. So if you have the sense that your partner is attacking you, for example, you know what to do because the structure provides for it. Or if you sense your partner has pulled away, or you’ve built up resentments…whatever the ‘it’ might be for you, Truth Empowered Relationships can help.
Ok, thank you for sharing your inspired life. Let’s now talk about stress. How would you define stress?
I define it as anything that causes the nervous system to contract, to tense up. Simple as that. It’s about how we perceive the world around us–as safe or as threatening. Not all stress can be eliminated. However, the way we perceive the stressors can completely alter the amount of tension we feel as a result. And often, the more we learn to connect with what’s true inside us, and express our “Internal weather report,” as I like to call it, the less threatening the world becomes. Being able to be yourself in a relationship, any relationship — parent-child, boss-employee, intimate partners, friends — is a superpower for sure when it comes to stress.
In the Western world, humans typically have their shelter, food, and survival needs met. So what has led to this chronic stress? Why are so many of us always stressed out?
It’s an interesting question. This is what I believe. I believe most people are avoiding, suppressing, or resisting the pain of life. They are closing to pain when they need to embrace the pain, to let it flow. Much of what I coach comes from Acceptance & Commitment Therapy–ACT–and it’s all about accepting the world as it is, and committing to create your future and your life regardless of whatever you’re experiencing.
When we resensitize to our pain when we start expressing that pain in relationships, our intimate connections change. They say misery loves company. But no one wants to be around a miserable person. I say a responsible expression of misery–the idea that you’re not going to let this thing stop you, but you’re also not going to lie about how much more difficult it makes life–that honesty gives other people permission to admit their misery responsibly. So in essence, it’s like saying, “You can tell me the truth. You can show me who you really are.” The truth really does set people free. They just have to be brave enough to be it in life, not just sometimes but all the time.
What are some of the physical manifestations of being under a lot of stress? How does the human body react to stress?
Perhaps the most interesting manifestation comes from the increased tension in the nervous system. Just like changing the channel on a TV changes the programming, increasing the tension in the nervous system–which is what happens under stress–causes us to perceive the world differently. Things that usually we can handle suddenly set us off. Things that would ordinarily make us laugh, instead make us angry, so it’s kind of like stress begets stress. The human body reacts by simply, slowly, contracting — unless we be or do something to interrupt the process.
Is stress necessarily a bad thing? Can stress ever be good for us?
Anytime there’s stress, there’s an opportunity: an opportunity to exercise our response-ability, for example, or our resilience. The stressor itself is not a bad thing. The way we participate with the stress and regarding the stress can make all the difference.
Is there a difference between being in a short-term stressful situation versus an ongoing stress? Are there long-term ramifications to living in a constant state of stress?
There is a massive difference. Let me give you an example: I coach content moderators–the people who pull criminal material off the internet. When most people see an image or a video of an illegal act, of one person harming another, our autonomic nervous system gives off our fight or flight response, and we react: maybe we move away, or shut down the computer–that’s flight. Maybe we report the incident, or walk away angry that people can treat each other in such disturbing ways–that’s fight. Well, in the case of a content moderator, they have to override their fight-or-flight response–which is precisely what we do in times of traumatic experiences. Their autonomic nervous system is compromised by their choice to stay and finish their day’s work. So a large percentage of content moderators develop PTSD-like symptoms.
Bruce Springsteen said in his song Born In The U.S.A., “You end up like a dog that’s been beat too much / till you spend half your life just covering up.” That’s the long-term ramification of living in a constant state of stress: you spend your life covering up, going off on people, desperately trying to please, or giving your will over to someone else who’s hurting you.
This is why I believe having a structure for interpersonal communication–which is the foundation of Truth-Empowered Relationships–is so essential. We are often scared of each other, protecting ourselves. With a structure, everyone can feel safe to open up, instead of cover up. And when we’re open, we are most capable of realizing our full potential as human beings.
Let’s now focus more on the stress of parenting. This feels intuitive, but it is helpful to spell it out in order to address it. Can you help articulate why being a parent can be so stressful?
Yes, and first thing: I’m the parent of a ten-year-old, and I would not call being his parent stressful. I would call it an opportunity, multiple opportunities really. An opportunity to break generational patterns of mistreatment. An opportunity to heal old wounds. An opportunity to positively affect the timeline of humanity. And an opportunity to make a new authentic friend, someone you can learn from perhaps much more than they ever need to learn from you. I believe what makes parenting so stressful is that many people approach it like they would approach molding clay. Children in my reality don’t need molding. They need, as all humans need to thrive, a safe space to realize and express who they are.
Can you help spell out some of the problems that come with being a stressed parent?
Parents who are stressed out probably aren’t comfortable with things like saying no when they want to say no, saying yes when they want to say yes, and expressing their feelings and needs with sensitivity, respect, and responsibility. They probably aren’t comfortable being honest with their child in an age-appropriate way. They probably aren’t comfortable with the idea of being shepherds and not sculptors when it comes to parenting. The antidote is age-appropriate mutual honesty, openness, sensitivity, clarity, and respect.
Here is the main question of our interview: Can you share with our readers your “5 stress management strategies that parents can use to remove some of the stress of parenting?”
- Share your feelings and needs: most children are naturally fluent in the language of sensitivity. In fact, usually, children are more at ease with sharing feelings and needs than adults are, because adults often hold back in conversations with children. Here’s an example: if your child won’t go to sleep and it’s cutting into your intimate time together, tell your child what you’re going through, what you need, and why you need it, in an age-appropriate way: “We’re frustrated because we need to spend time with just the two of us, talking and hugging and kissing, so we can keep getting along well.” Every child wants their parents to get along. And children inherently understand that adult relationships are thriving when they’re romantic — even if they roll their eyes. So everyone’s needs get met — and that kind of household carries much lower stress levels.
- When you find a way to be honest with your child, and also sensitive to their young and still-developing psyches, remember to ask them, “What was that like to listen to?” You can prompt them by offering them these four categories: “thoughts, feelings, questions, comments.” And no matter what they say, listen to them: try to understand life from their perspective. That’s the secret of being a successful parent: be a cherished friend. You’ll often be surprised, too: children have fascinating and often wise perspectives on the life that’s going on around them. As an example: a father once shared with his six-year-old son the pain he felt from having to relocate because it forced the son to move away from his best friend. At the end, the father said, “What was that like to listen to? Thoughts, feelings, questions, comments.” The six-year-old looked at his father for a long time, ten seconds maybe. Then he said, “I love you.” And they hugged. It was an honor to be part of that moment. I witnessed the father’s long-held tension leave his nervous system. I witnessed the child give his parent reassurance and understanding, with three simple and carefully considered words. Stress gave way to intimacy and a real bond between two humans.
- Debrief arguments: parents’ arguments are stressful for children — and yet the child’s reality about their parents arguing is often not considered. When you and your partner argue, a child’s entire world can feel out of balance. Resolve every argument — then explain to the child what you were arguing about, what each of your realities were, what resolved the argument, and what you learned. Finally, ask your child what the argument was like for them to experience. Be prepared to feel moved by their response — moved enough to keep your future disagreements from becoming arguments. I’ve heard children say they wanted to disappear, make themselves small, and hide in their rooms. Some are angry. Some are hurt. Almost all of them are confused. I say you’ll be mindful of these answers the next time a discussion gets elevated. Discussions that never elevate into arguments make for a much lower-stress environment.
- Explain and request: When parents give orders, children feel hurt and angry and often want to rebel, withdraw, or sulk. Instead, start a conversation where you explain and request. First, if you can, take the time to lower your body to their level, perhaps by kneeling on the floor. The change in your height can make a huge difference to a child psychologically because you’re reducing your giant-to-them status, and also because you’re putting yourself on an equal level to them metaphorically. Explain what’s going on: “If we don’t get on the plane, we will lose our trip to the beach. I have been excited about this for weeks, and it’s really important to me. I understand that you’re scared to get on the plane.” Then make your request: “I’m asking you to bring your fear on the plane with you. We can talk about it all flight if you want. And I’ll tell you what I’m afraid of too.” It may take some time for your child to adapt to your new way of communicating, but the shift from a parent who orders to a parent who requests will result in a child who’s more understanding of your needs as well as their own. Knowing your needs matter to your child will lower your stress level.
- Internal weather report: it’s tempting, both as parents and as children, to desensitize: joke our way through life, or zone out into our phones, that kind of thing. I suggest that you share, at least once a day, what I call an ‘internal weather report.’ Announce what you’re doing, then take 30 seconds or a minute to share what it’s like to be you right now: what you’re feeling in this moment, what you’re focused on in this moment, what thoughts you’re noticing. Here’s an example: “I’d like to share my internal weather report: I didn’t enough sleep so I’m mad at myself for not getting to bed earlier, I’m thinking about all the things I have to get done at work together, I’m feeling tense and tight, and I’m worried that I’m going to be less kind with my words or my tone than I usually am.” If the child wants to give theirs, they follow the same format. No one fixes, corrects, or even comments about the internal weather report without permission from the other person. After all, you can’t fix the weather! Children can share internal weather reports as early as four years old. Each of you knowing what’s going on inside the other can provide a window of safety, literally, for both people. Because that’s what children are — people. They are people learning to be alive in human form on this earth. It’s always reassuring for a child to know that you’re still learning to be alive in your body just like they are. A reassured child is usually a person who’s more open to you as a parent — and that’s always a stress reducer.
Do you have any favorite books, podcasts, or resources that have inspired you to live with more joy in life?
Well, to be honest, my own podcast has done that for me. It’s called SHIT2GRIT℠. My friend David Hughes and I decided to turn our misery of being longtime Detroit Lions football fans into a podcast. The show quickly became what we call a conversation about conversations, and I’ve never been more proud creatively of anything I’ve ever done. Because of the podcast, I’ve walked almost 100 days in a row after two years with long covid, I’m constantly inspired by the way David sees life, and I get to be completely open and honest — often with my wife Heather too — in a public recorded forum. I always tell people to choose carefully whom they’re going to let into their relationship, and I love that people get to hear me living exactly what I coach. Living life on record has been an empowering and freeing experience.
Because we’re talking about parenting, I recommend a book called “Zimmy’s Guide to All Kids Need.” I believe that will allow your readers to live with more joy in life because they’ll have happy children.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
I have started a movement. Truth-Empowered Relationships gives people the structure and tools they need to have more authentic love in their lives. If we have more love on the planet, we as humans make choices from love instead of fear. The choices we make from a loving place are radically different than the ones we make from fearful places. That’s why I want my method to be a movement: so the world can be a more loving place.
What is the best way for our readers to continue to follow your work online?
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent on this. We wish you only continued success.
Thank you, Savio. I appreciate the opportunity to potentially make a difference in the lives of your readers.