Emotional Intelligence, Mental Health, Self-Development, self-perception

[I wasn’t going to write a post today because I’ve been sick for a week, but the kernel of this one appeared in my head at 2am two nights ago as the Ick was finally starting to loosen; as every writer knows, when the Muse shows up, you shut up and write what she tells you to write.]

The scene: a comfortably furnished counselling office on a weekday evening; seated as far as they can possibly get from each other on the tufted velveteen sofa, a man and a woman. Across from them, quietly observant, their therapist.

Woman, angrily: How can you not see what’s happening right in front of you? I am SO FUCKING TIRED of feeling like all of the relationship shit falls on MY shoulders to manage for us both! I feel like you don’t even know what it takes to be in a partnership with someone, and I’m so resentful now that I’m the only one trying to make anything better!

Man, pleading: I know you’re unhappy! I don’t know what to do! Can’t you just tell me what you need me to do??

Woman: I need you to step the hell up. Do the fucking WORK.

Man, turning to the therapist, hands dangling limply between his knees, defeated: I don’t even know what that means.

Woman: [throws up her hands, exasperated]

Most of us who have done couples work will have seen variations of this scene play out time and time again. Even if we’re working with individuals, we’ll often hear variations on statements like, “I need (or need someone else) to DO THE WORK”, or “I don’t know what DO THE WORK actually means.”

So… How is it that some of us know what this phrase, “Do the Work,” means, and some of us don’t?

Usually, it boils down to something simple: it’s a commonly used (some might suggest “overused”) phrase that has come to mean a lot of different things to different people, and while you may have an idea of what it means to YOU (whether you have even a vague clue of HOW to do the Work or not), you may have no idea what someone ELSE means when they’re shouting it at you in anger or frustration or disappointment. All you’ll know in that particular moment is that whatever you have been doing, clearly hasn’t been working.

You need something TO work. You might even need to DO work to change things, hopefully for the better. But you have no idea what that actually entails. If you’re on the receiving end of someone’s demands to “do the Work,” the message you’re probably hearing is, “Everything you do sucks and why can’t you just magically and instantaneously be a better lover/partner/spouse/friend/parent/sibling/whatever??” I can guarantee that’s not ACTUALLY what your partner is trying to communicate to you, but by the time you end up in my office (or one like mine), you’ve probably heard frustrated iterations of this messaging so often that you can’t hear them as anything else. And if you’re on the delivering end of this message, it probably means something to the effect of, “You need to change so I feel better, and you should just magically intuit what I need that to look like from you.” And I can also guarantee this kind of approach is setting up everyone in the relationship for mountains of frustration at best, and catastrophic sabotage at worst.

So… what is “the Work”?

In an introductory note to her book, How to Do the Work, Dr Nicole LePera describes, “A long, rich tradition of the work of transcending our human experience […]” involving “the pursuit of insight into the Self” and the development of “tools to understand and harness the complex interconnectedness of your mind, body, and soul.”

Or, as we like to say in The Biz, “Figuring your shit out.”

By the time someone(s) gets into a therapist’s office, especially from the perspective of relational conflict, “the Work” means “learning how to see and understand how your own patterns of thinking and acting are (negatively) impacting your life and/or the lives of those around you and changing those thoughts and behaviours in positive ways.” While it’s not entirely true that knowing is half the battle, admitting there’s a problem in what you’re bringing to the table is kind of a crucial starting point. “You can’t fix what you can’t see” is only nominally less true than the idea that you can’t fix what you WON’T see. At its core, “doing the Work” means first learning to see and accept that there IS a problem in how we engage in the world, then figuring out how to improve the ways we engage.

I often break the Work down into the following stages of personal development, each with its own subset of tools and tactics and potential revelations:

  • Self-observation (looking inward at our own internal workings with genuine, nonjudgemental curiosity)
  • Self-reflection (thinking critically – as opposed to simply being self-critical – about what we perceive when we look inward, exploring where those thoughts, feelings, behaviours come from)
  • Self-connectedness (this is a new piece of the process in my approach, because I realized the skillset for seeing and understanding how our individual existence impacts others in systems around each of us is its own piece of Work)
  • Articulation (the ability to communicate what we’re observing and learning to the Important People in our lives is a skill unto itself)
  • Implementation (navigating the actual iterative change processes within ourselves and our relational systems)

The Caveats of “The Work”

Jessica Grose, Opinion writer for the New York Times, encapsulates a lot of the current backlash against the phrase itself and what it has come to mean in pop culture, in her article, ‘Doing the Work’ and the Obsession With Superficial Self-Improvement (New York Times online, June 3, 2023; free account subscription required):

I confess a visceral aversion to “doing the work” used in this particular way. My gut reaction is: I simply decline to do more work. My life is already filled with many kinds of labor. I work full time; I cook dinner every night; I shuttle my children to and fro. I’m not asking for a medal here. This is just what’s in many people’s inboxes. But does tending to my mind and soul have to be framed as yet another job, another box to check, another task to optimize and conquer?

I asked [The New Yorker journalist Katy] Waldman over email what she made of my aversion. She also finds “doing the work” a “uniquely annoying phrase” and explained that it “can come off as patronizing.” It implies that our big issues in life “are simple and clear-cut, that everyone agrees on what they are and that the only reason a problem hasn’t been solved is because somebody isn’t working hard enough.”

Jessica Calarco, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, had a similar take. “This idea of ‘doing the work,’ is just the latest manifestation of the kind of self-improvement culture that has long permeated American society and that is closely linked to America’s obsessively individualistic bent,” she told me via email. Self-improvement culture can deny the larger societal issues that often cause people strain, and it “can lead us to punish people who are struggling or deny them the support they need,” Calarco wrote. Therapy is expensive, and having time in your day to reflect can be a luxury, something that’s rarely mentioned when “doing the work” is used.

These are all good and valid concerns around the way the terminology has evolved culturally over time, especially both the connotations of Yet More Emotional Labour, and the chilling divisiveness when the term is used to dismiss those who haven’t done some unclear amount of said emotional labour towards self-betterment. I remember reading a science fiction novel decades ago—I don’t remember anything else from the book except this particular plot point—that made a sharp class distinction not between the rich and the poor, but between the Therapied and the Untherapied, and all the snobbish, snubbing judgement you’re probably already reading into “Untherapied”.

The opponents to the terminological hijacking are dead right; therapy IS expensive, and for a lot of people, time to reflect IS a luxury. Being asked to take on more emotional labour IS going to be a big NOPE for a lot of people. As I have written often throughout the years in the blog, change IS hard, and some will work their asses off for literal YEARS in or out of therapy for the smallest of incremental changes. Other people can read one self-help book and suddenly seem like they’ve seen into all the deepest secrets of the universe**.

I am always honest with my clients when I’m explaining what this loaded term means in MY office, and how I approach being a guide/coach/teacher/companion/witness/emotional sherpa for my clients doing their individual versions of the Work: I have NO idea what the Work will look like for each of you. I have NO idea how long it will take you. Until we do the Gap Analysis to understand what resources are already available and which might be lacking or needed to reach the goals you set for yourself, we really have no framework in which to understand what Work is necessary. And even once we do start to fill in those gaps, a lot of the Work isn’t going to be silver bullet-level magic fixes; it will be trial and error, assessment and adjustments based on what you learn along the way and over time.

And that can be disheartening to hear for people who come to therapy believing that just walking through the door is enough to check a box labelled “Did the Work”. Therapists have a name for the broad category of potential clients who come in once or twice to try on the idea of changing things in themselves or their relationships but decline to take on the process, or maybe aren’t even ready to admit yet there IS a problem, let alone they might be the source of it; we refer to these kinds of potential clients as “precontemplative”, taken from the Transtheoretical Model of Change. Not everyone who comes into therapy is ready to change, and we must respect that. Not everyone who is ready to change comes equipped with the tools for change, and we must respect that, too. Sometimes before we can build a house, we must make the tools with which to build the house.

The onus is on us as therapists to be honest about these realities, and to be clear about both how we define the Work, and what we bring to the table to help our clients in that Work. But once we’ve gotten that straight and mostly clear… the responsibility then shifts entirely onto the client to (you guessed it) Do the Work.

(**—someday I will tell the story of how Gloria of Sainted Memory unleashed the self-developmental equivalent of The Big Bang the day she put into my hands my first copy of Bennet Wong & Jock McKeen’s The Relationship Garden. That story is not for today, but it is an excellent example of how “doing the Work” can literally become a lifelong endeavour.)

Emotional Intelligence, Self-Development

(The problem with not blogging regularly anymore is that I will get several ideas for topics a month and forget to write them down; when I finally DO sit down at the keyboard to write, can I remember any of them?? Nary a one. But the Universe sent me a sign last week in the form of some delightful, unexpected fan mail for the blog [waves to Leo!] so I am going to see how I feel about getting back into Tuesday writings. From home for now, given that I haven’t haunted coffee shops since The Before Times and I’m not entirely sure where my regular go-to even IS these days. Also, at home I can write with no pants on. Try THAT at your local coffee shop and see how that goes, I dare you.)

Longtime followers of this blog, and certainly a large number of my client base, will be familiar with my entrenched belief that psychotherapy and software development (specifically, Agile methodologies) have an awful lot in common. A big part of any change process, be it a functional change to a piece of software, or some aspect of individual or relational human behaviour involves looking at two distinct vantage points of the project: where are we starting from, and where are we trying to get to? The way I frame these to my clients: what are the challenges that are bringing you into therapy, and What Does “Better” Look Like. Once the client articulates the gist of the struggles they’re facing and gives some idea of what they want their life to look like under better or ideal outcomes, we look at the part in between those two vantage points, the gap between Here and There.

This is the Gap Analysis.

The Gap Analysis is primarily a way of assessing the resources one has available, and the resources one likely needs to achieve the desired outcome. As part of the analysis, the stakeholders in the process (in this case, the client[s] and their therapist):

  • look at the factors contributing to the gap and any implications or dependencies we might see around changing them
  • assess the effort and risk of making changes to shrink or close the gap
  • identify both the strengths and resources currently available to the client, and where possible, those resources the client will need to acquire or develop along the change path
  • create a roadmap for the changes, applying SMART factors to both the larger and interim goals in progress
  • start making the changes, with a lot of self-monitoring and tweaking the process as necessary; in Agile methodologies, this is a “constant iteration” process that promotes a LOT of flexibility in the implementation phase, because we all know Shit (just) Happens and sometimes we have to adjust expectations and plans on the fly.

I like to use this terminology because it starts with an examination of the client’s available strengths and resources, something they may have forgotten or come adrift from in the process of moving into their current stress or chaos. I don’t practice a lot of pure Solution-Focused Brief Therapy (for reasons I’ve probably documented elsewhere in my disorganized archives), but there are some good tools buried in the approach, including the strengths review. This gets the client started from a hopeful base, rooted in reminders of their empowerment.

From there we analyze what’s in the gap. From the client’s perspective, this is usually an assessment of obstacles: resources that are lacking or outright missing, fears or anxieties that obscure the goals, internal or external narratives that undermine them. Like good Project Managers we list out all the perceived obstacles; this may be a part of the process that overwhelms the client, so as a collaborative support, the therapist’s job is to steer the work towards identifying what needs to happen to manage or remove as many of those obstacles as possible, as part of the roadmap. We are the persistent reminders of the client’s strengths and resources through this part of the change process.

Encountering and dealing with those obstacles is the change process. The end result, according to the client’s original goal definition, is intended to be an improvement in some aspect of their life. Often along the roadmap, what clients learn about themselves and their skillsets enables them to deliberately push out the goalposts, and keep redefining “Better” as a constant improvement process over a lifespan. Sometimes, they reach the previously-defined goals but DON’T feel better; many a Project Manager knows the feeling of presenting a finished piece of software, only to have the client or some other stakeholder say, “We’ve changed our mind, that’s not what we wanted after all,” or, “That doesn’t look/work at all like we thought it would.” And then everyone has to go back to the drawing board, frustrated and disheartened, sometimes hurt and angry. This, too, is part of the iterative change process; just like evolution itself sometimes has to take a side-step or sometimes hits dead ends, so does a behavioural change process.

Doing a Gap Analysis and planning for the risks and pitfalls (including deliberately asking the question up front, “What happens if we get to the end of this particular process and it doesn’t do what I thought it would?”) helps ease those risks by planning for them, but as noted above, sometimes Shit (still) Happens. Gap Analysis puts as much information up front in the decision processes as we can muster, and actually allows for more fluid pivoting on those decisions when things don’t go as planned, or when new, maybe even better options present themselves.

Change is hard, but we can make it a little easier on ourselves if we take a hint from Londoners:

(I swear, I did NOT write this entire post just to be a setup for that pun. Honest! Mostly…)

Emotional Intelligence, Life Transitions, Relationships, Self-Development

“I Ate’nt Dead” – Granny Weatherwax (Terry Pratchett)

Hello! Not dead, not retired, and still generally not finding enough time in the week to write blog posts, though it’s not for lack of ideas and themes crossing my plate and prodding thoughts of, “Oooo, I should write up something about that!” (I should write about the rising tide of transphobia, homophobia, and hate in general but that’s too vast and raw a topic to corral into 1500 words or less while also not working myself into a fit of rage at the state of the world these days, so…)

It’s a typical part of my process that blog motivation arises from seeing a particular theme appearing repeatedly in a relatively short period of time in conversations with clients and others. Unsurprisingly, people are constantly changing, and people who engage in change as active, conscious, deliberate choice often follow similar processes–and make similar mistakes. Some conversations therefore come up time and time again, and it’s not that blogging will make them come up any less often, but maybe the ideas and discussions can reach a few extra people before they need a therapist, or at least give them some plausibly-useful structure to apply TO their therapy.

One of the many valuable tools I brought out of years of working in corporate IT that has a crucial place in my therapeutic Change Management Toolbox is the concept of SMART Goals. A very long time ago, I wrote about creating roadmaps to move towards getting your needs met, and I have written about identifying when a plan is or is not a Plan; the missing piece of the puzzle when putting roadmaps into Plans for Change, however, is identifying the success criteria or metrics that define the actual goals for change.

This is a variation on a recurring conversation I have with a lot of clients:

Client: “I want to make this change!”
Therapist: “Wonderful! What is the goal you’re trying to reach?”
Client: “Making this change!”
Therapist: “OK, great! How will you know when you succeed?”
Client: “I… uh, will have made this change!”
(see also: Client: “I’ll know it when I feel better!”
Therapist: But won’t you also feel better if this storm just passes you by like it always does, and things go back to normal like they always do?”
Client: “I… guess?”
Therapist: “Even though nothing will have actually changed…?”
Client: “…”
Therapist: “So ‘feeling better’ is, at least by itself, maybe not a solid metric for success?”
Client: “Damn.”)

Change happens in a lot of different ways and for a lot of different reasons. Most of the time it happens because something isn’t working, and the resulting situation is anywhere from frustrating to painful to dangerous. All organic lifeforms constantly move towards getting their needs met, be it light, air, water, food, or comfort; we just don’t always know when things are changing until we’ve gotten far enough along to notice things are different. At that point we might find ourselves suddenly in a better place–and just as suddenly, we might find ourselves in a worse place.

Managing change effectively, from a project management perspective, requires knowing several things in advance:
A. What do we have to work with (resourcing)?
B. What are we trying to get to (outcomes)?
C. What do we lack/need to move us from A to B (gap analysis)?
(Some Project Managers will add a separate D here: What’s it going to cost? I generally factor cost into the resourcing details as part of establishing a baseline process.)

Once we have answers to these questions, we can generally start assembling the roadmap, and along the way, we want to look at both major goals (endpoints) and minor goals (milestones) that we set for ourselves to help see where we’re making progress and where we’re struggling or need some extra help. Both major and minor goals need to be clearly defined, however, and this is where Change Management as a personal or relational development process often falls apart for people because this kind of goal setting outside a corporate structure seems pretty alien in the hand-wavy, airy-flairy feelies of our relationships. But if we don’t have clearly defined goals and explicit metrics for success, how will we know when we’ve achieved them? How will we even measure progress towards them? How will we communicate them to others around us we may need to be involved in the change process? How will we hold ourselves (or those others who consent to participate) accountable?

We set SMART Goals.

SMART stands for:
Specific: has a clear target in a precise area for improvement (also sometimes Sustainable: a pervasive improvement)
Measurable: has clear indicators (metrics) for improvement
Assignable: has a clear owner consenting to take responsibility for the goal (also sometimes Achievable, but I find that gets covered by the next letter)
Realistic: improvement target that can be reached with the current resources or with resources discovered via the gap analysis
Time-boxed: has a specific timeframe for achieving the milestone or end goal

Admittedly, none of this is likely to spark the sense of feel-good flexibility of some primo handwavy, airy promises for change that lack concrete details. We all love the romanticism of open-ended promises that will magically be fulfilled exactly to our unspoken expectations, don’t we? Isn’t that the entire myth of how “Love Conquers All” in a nutshell??

It aten’t romantic, but I can guarantee it IS effective. The term was apparently first published in 1981, meaning it was in use in some circles well before being codified for public consumption, and it has been a standard approach of project management for more than four decades for many reasons:

  • It’s much easier to communicate expectations
  • Everyone tends to feel much more comfortable when they know not just WHAT to expect, but WHEN
  • It’s much easier to invite participation where we need it (and to communicate expectations explicitly for other participants to provide informed buy-in or consent)
  • It’s much easier to hold ourselves and other consenting participants accountable
  • It’s much easier to measure progress toward SMART goals and milestones, which also means…
  • It’s much easier to adjust course* when we stray from the roadmap and stop meeting milestones and end goals

Change isn’t always easy, but we also don’t need to make it any harder than it has to be. How we set specific goals that are SMART takes some clear idea of what we’re trying to change or move towards and why, as well as some understanding of what we already have as resources and support for those changes, and what we’re going to need to get there from here. That’s the part where some external perspective and wisdom–an experienced friend or family member, a mentor, a therapist–comes in handy, especially when it comes to keeping goals and milestones realistic, and helping with navigating the expectation-setting communications around them.


(*–Someday I swear I need to write something about adapting Agile methodologies to psychotherapy, but that day is definitely NOT TODAY SATAN.)

Relationships, Self-Development, Uncategorized

There are some good and bad aspects to considering the difference between “I” and “we” in relationship. On the one hand, there is a general undercurrent of connectedness in “we” language that can feel intimate and close. On the other hand, however, a tendency to ONLY assume a “we” perspective means we sometimes miss something important happening with the “I”… until the “I” explodes in some fashion that probably surprises everyone involved, even the “I” in question.

We know I’m a writer, and that I believe in my mitochondria that words are incalculably important. So I listen as much for HOW people say things to me as I listen for the message threaded through/behind/underneath their language choices. It becomes REALLY apparent when I ask someone to tell me about their individual experience or feeling, thoughts, or opinions… and all of their responses are couched in “we” language. Even when I gently call attention to that language and get curious about it, if we’re not diligent in calling it out, it slides back in within a few minutes.

The discomfort of having to even THINK in terms of “I” often winds up being a struggle for women in particular, and I suspect there are myriad reasons for this:

1. Inclusive/collective pronouns speak to the idealism of the intimate unity–whether that intimacy is present in reality or not.
2. It softens the woman’s presence by obscuring or sublimating the individual; this fits with what I have observed over the years regarding women feeling selfish for even having needs, let alone articulating them, or (heavens forbid!) expecting their needs to be effectively met in relationship. We’re not yet clear of the culture that instills in women the belief that our core purpose is to sublimate our needs and care-take everyone around us.
3. It speaks to an assumption of shared values and desires that may have been verified at one point (but often not), and rarely updated or challenged over the lifetime of the relationship.
4. The speaker may struggle with the concept of “I” because of family of origin issues or programming or personal trauma, and retreat to obscuring collective pronouns as a kind of camouflage. To have individuals with differing or conflicting stances may introduce an untenable degree of tension for anxious partners especially, so “absolute we-ness” becomes a requirement for emotional safety. (From a family systems perspective, this is one of many ways in which fusion can become A Thing in relationships.)

Mr. Spock, in his tragic death scene at the end of “Star Trek: Wrath of Khan”, articulates something that has been bred into the marrow of womenkind of millennia as a silent, unquestioned expectation, yet for men (at least in this case) is the embodiment of Noble Sacrifice:

So, lemme say this again for those in the back: in men, the individual Self is All, and to sacrifice the individual Self for the Many is Noble. For women, however, to sacrifice the Self is so commonplace an expectation as to merit no wonderment at all, except to wonder that we have any sense of Self at all by now. Our sacrifice isn’t Noble; it’s Just How It Is.

With that kind of thinking at the root of our cultural values, is it any wonder that we have a hard time justifying and exonerating the “I”? I’ve already explored some rudimentary thoughts on the difference between being selfish versus self-centred, which go some way towards explaining why we come to believe the needs of the one have no place in relationship, at least until we’re so unhappy about not getting our individual needs met that we erupt from slow simmers to pyroclastic boil-overs.

Women in particular have been battling uphill against the “selfish” label for a very long time. When I’m calling attention to the undifferentiated “we” language in client sessions, upwards of 80% of the time, it’s with women. The vast majority of the time when I do, the subtext proves to be some variant of, “I must assume the needs of my partner/children/family have higher priority over my own needs, therefore I must couch my needs in safe, soft, collective language for any traction for them at all.” And more often than not, part of the communications issues driving one or more of members of the relationship into therapy stem from an increqasingly problematic assumption tied to “we-ness”: if the other half of “we” does not buy into the assumptions presented as collective thing, then what happens?? (Spoiler alert: generally the result is along the lines of, “WE” don’t do the thing “I” am trying to achieve, because “YOU” don’t want to.”) The assumption of collective consent to, or shared investment in, an idea or opinion is a common place for relationships to run aground, yet the ability to separate out the “I” from the “we” remains elusive in relationship dynamics.

When we couch our individual wants in the language of “we”, to some extent we’re giving away a degree of autonomy to someone else’s desires. If the partner resists or refuses the overture on the basis of their own individual desires, we can’t help but allow that reluctance to be the definitive answer, because we’re not good (again, I’m painting the situation with a VERY broad brush of generality here) at defending our autonomous selves. Having tied ourselves into the “we” for safety, when the other half of “we” shoots down a proposal, the proposal dies; it’s another way in which we externalize our personal locus of control. We can’t extricate ourselves far enough from the collective camouflage to assert what the originating “I” wants or intends. (My next Language Lesson post should maybe be about tackling a personal bane of relational communication, the “soft ask”, but that’s another post for another day.)

When I work with people stuck in the assumptive unity of “we-ness,” step one is often the process of reintroducing the “I” to the conversation. We sit with the feelings that come of voicing things in terms of the individual motivation, and perhaps more importantly, we explore what it feels like to make room for not one collective set of unified ideas, but two individual, hopefully complementary sets of ideas. A corollary benefit we sometimes observe is the partner’s sense of relief in being released from the claustrophobic fusion of that “we”. We work on the more insecure aspects of their individual attachments to shore up security and unity within the relationship without sacrificing the one OR the many. It’s a tricksy balancing act to develop from scratch, but not impossible, and usually each person HAS a raft of individual strengths we can leverage to accomplish this.

“But intimacy need not undermine autonomy, and vice versa; in fact, they support each other. Intimacy fosters autonomy since repeated experiences of caring connection, particularly in childhood, are critical for the development of normal ego functions, personal worth, and confidence; healthy relationships provide the ?secure base? from which we engage the world as an individual. Autonomy ? both yours and the other person?s ? nurtures intimacy in many ways, including its reassurance that you can still protect yourself when you?re wide open to another person, and by giving an extra oomph to relatedness: it makes such a difference when you know that the other person really wants to be with you.”Rick Hanson, Ph.D.

Emotional Intelligence, Relationships, Self-Development

Lately I’ve been noting another repeating conversation with several clients who are struggling to make changes in their relationships. Whether I cover this topic with individuals or with couples, it often starts with a similar refrain:

“I’m doing all this work and making all this effort, and my partner’s making no effort at all!”

While no therapist in the world will dispute that sometimes partners DON’T engage in a change process for a variety of reasons, there are innumerable ways in which a partner might be engaging in an *incredible* amount of effort… just not where it’s visible.

One of the ways I’ve been noticing lately in which this perspective becomes hugely important in relational work, is in considering the notion that in partnerships, we have a tendency to ASSUME that our partners are enough like us that their baselines for many things are comparable (equal) to our own. Emotional baselines is a concept I’m extrapolating from Martin Seligman’s work on happiness, in which he notes that everyone has a different baseline for happiness, and while they may be able to move above or below their respective baselines as provoked by circumstances, the individual baselines to which they return are not guaranteed to be equal to anyone else’s: not a partner’s, not their family’s, not their colleagues, not their therapist’s… sometimes, not even the individual’s own expectation for where they think their baseline SHOULD be.

If we run with the assumption that happiness as an emotional experience can have wildly different individual baseline settings, then it seems to follow that ALL emotional experiences have different individual baselines. From there, recognizing we all have different baseline skillsets for self-reflection, or different baseline aptitudes for change feels like a natural corollary.

In relationships, especially those trying to change out of crisis into stability, we have to take into consideration the idea that all parties are NOT starting the process from the same place. They may be on the same page about agreeing change is necessary, and even agreeing what change is necessary, but where the wheels come off the wagon in therapy is discovering the hard way that this in no way guarantees starting from the same place to effect those changes. Ergo, the partner who can more readily engage changes in personal or interpersonal behaviours is always going to seem and feel like they are making all the effort while the other partner makes no visible effort at all.

This is where we go looking at what’s happening below each partner’s individual waterline. Anxious or avoidant partners will always struggle longer and harder to overcome their fears than a securely-attached partner, or even one who may be anxious but more motivated by fear of losing the relationship to try pretty much ANYTHING to head catastrophe off at the pass. So there may be HUGE efforts on the part of one partner, but because they involve trying to surmount the internal fear-drenched scripts and anxious narratives or negative self-talk, all of that work remains invisible to the external perspectives. It takes enormous effort for the lower baseline partner to even get up to where the higher-baseline partner is starting from… and all this time, the higher-baseline partner is moving ahead, moving away, assuming their partner is in lockstep with them, disappointed when they discover this isn’t the case. Advancements are happening, more often than not, or at least effort is occurring, but imagine starting a straight-course race in which the two runners start out with one already 50m in the lead; obviously, they’re going to move ahead at their own pace which the other runner is going to take some time to even reach the former’s starting block, never mind catch up.

We also have to consider the potential disparity in *ability* to change, and the capacity to tolerate the impact of change (uncertainty, instability, discomfort, mistrust of Self/Other/process in general, fear of failure… this is a sampling from a long list of potential effects). We already recognize that not everyone shares a common baseline for self-observation and non-judgmental self-analysis. These are key components in engaging any kind of developmental change process for the self or within relationship. Avoidance of looking into the fire of our own discomfort is going to make it considerably more of a challenge to look at what CAN change, let alone face the risk of what is intrinsically a risky, trial-and-error process with what feel like astronomically high emotional stakes.

Yeah, confronting those kinds of emotional terrors, I know *I* have historically failed to joyously embrace change processes, even ones I cognitively understood to be vast improvements on current situations.

So when we find these kinds of statements cropping up in the counselling room, we detour off the process track a little ways, and sit with the partner “in the lead” of the change process, and consider what they know or understand about their partner. There’s usually (not always, but more often than not) something we can discern about the “lagging” partner that lets us glimpse a little below the waterline to reframe what may be happening as a difference in starting points. We can then introduce a number of options to help mitigate the frustration of that perceived disparity of effort: we illustrate the potential efforts being waged internally by the partner to just get up to the other’s starting point. We introduce compassion for that catch-up effort, and consider whether there is value in slowing down the leading partner’s efforts to include more coaxing/coaching/collaborative support rather than frustration and berating, or if there are ways to stay engaged while still moving ahead at separate paces. We can introduce a variety of new communicative check-in options that encourage partners to share more transparently the experiences and challenges of their own change process and attendant emotional experiences. We build understanding (and hopefully respect) for those differential baselines, and how understanding where those baselines rest impacts almost everything about relational dynamics. We discuss whether or not baselines can be adjusted as individual work or part of the relational development work.

But at all times, we maintain a check on the assumption that all things are equal, especially in change processes. We want to believe our partners are “just like us”, but it’s the places where they are different that make relationships both some of our greatest excitement, and some of our greatest strain, but always our greatest adventures.

Community, Life Transitions, Self-Development, Uncategorized

A colleague of mine and I were reflecting recently on our respective middle-aged women clients who are grappling simultaneously with perimenopause, empty-nesting impacts on their intimate partnered relationships, job issues and the looming shadows of the second halves of their lives. Laurie commented that she was noticing women clients using this stage of their lives as a period of discernment. I figured I understood what she meant from the context of the discussion, but at the same time, “discenment” is more than just simple decision-making, so, being the Word Nerd that I am, it behooved me to both look at the word itself, and reconsider what I thought I was understanding about its deployment in the context of the discussion.

Turns out, there’s a lot more nuance to the word than my internal working definition of “a more in-depth analytical process underlying decision making”.

Discern, the verb:
1a: to detect with the eyes
b: to detect with senses other than vision
2: to recognize or identify as separate and distinct
3: to come to know or recognize mentally

Discernment, the noun:
1: the quality of being able to grasp and comprehend what is obscure
2: an act of perceiving or discerning something

Google definition of dis?cern?ment
1. the ability to judge well. “an astonishing lack of discernment”
2. (in Christian contexts) perception in the absence of judgment with a view to obtaining spiritual direction and understanding. “without providing for a time of healing and discernment, there will be no hope of living through this present moment without a shattering of our common life”

There are several aspects of these definitions that fascinate me in the context of applying the word to a midlife assessment process, especially such as I witness in women around me:

  • recognizing or identifying as separate and distinct
  • developing an ability to grasp and comprehend what is obscure
  • developing non-judgmental perspective with a view to obtaining direction and understanding (spiritual or otherwise)

The classic midlife crisis, as previously discussed, is most commonly seen as a catastrophic adjustment in relational and personal understanding. It’s a time when big changes occur, sometimes as knee-jerk reactions, and sometimes as calculated preaption responses. A friend of mine in a local service organization, told me recently that the single largest group of new members most service clubs take in annually are men in their 40s-50s. Service clubs report this being a confluence of factors, many of them tied to traditional masculine definition through actions, things men *DO*:

  • kids are older and more self-sufficient, or leaving/left home
  • more disposable time
  • more expendable income
  • a need to have “extracurricular activities” that look good padding out resumes for “C-Suite”-level executive or Board of Directors positions
  • a need to have something in place that will provide direction in terms of social and activity purposes after retirement (especially for candidates for early retirement)

Women, while they will also seek service club memberships for many of the same reasons at similar life stages, apparently don’t pursue these clubs in anything like the same numbers as men. The women to whom I’m exposed (personally and professionally) seem to see middle age as an opportunity or provocation for increasing self-reflection. It’s like we come of age and use our midlife point as the trigger to redefine what we know about who we are, why we are, what our lives mean to us as our bodies change out from under us in uncomfortable, unpleasant ways. Shifting from our “fertile years” into menopause means confronting a shift in our definition from Mother to… Crone, at a time when many of us still perceive ourselves as far from Old.

There has been a cultural shift as the Baby Boomers have aged into retirement that everything that happens from midlife on isn’t necessarily the death knell it once seemed to be. Retiring even at 65 means a significant stretch of life ahead of us, and 55 even more. Retiring men fret about what to do with their days, and as their boredom begins to blossom, they are frequently underfoot on the home front, or trying to assert some presence/input/control in the home sphere… and the women who have traditionally been the homesphere managers and controllers are increasingly finding they’ve Just Had Enough. These women are more commonly saying, “I just got done taking care of my kids, I’m damned well not going to take care of HIM now, too!”, but the process of watching their partners move from purposeful to less-purposeful lives is raising a lot of questions for themselves, too.

As I cooked dinner the other night, I thought about the women I had been talking to. They’re just entering, slogging through or just leaving their 40s. They belong to Generation X, born roughly during the baby bust, from 1965 to 1984, the Title IX babies who were the first women in their families to go to college. Or go away to college. Or to live on their own, launch a career, marry in their late 20s (or never) or choose to stay home with their children. They’re a Latina executive in California, a white stay-at-home mom in Virginia who grows her own organic vegetables, an African-American writer in Texas, an Indian-American corporate vice president who grew up in the suburbs of New York, and dozens more. They’re smart. They’re grateful for what they have. They’re also exhausted. Some of them are terrified. A few of them are wondering what the point is.

I called my best friend, a reporter a few years older than me who grew up in the Midwest. She has three children and lives on a quiet, leafy street in Washington, D.C., with her boyfriend. They recently adopted a dog.
“Hey,” I said, happy to have caught her on a break from her job, “do you know anyone having a midlife crisis I could talk to?”

The phone was silent for a second.

Finally, she said, “I’m trying to think of any woman I know who’s not.”
Ada Calhoun, “The New Midlife Crisis: Why (and How) It’s Hitting Gen X Women”

Somewhere between the perimenopausal PHYSICAL transition and the retirement SOCIAL transitions, women are increasingly grappling with the destabilization, undermining, chaotic shifts in their identities. Middle-aged women suddenly find themselves social “invisible” in an extremely ageist culture. Menopause robs us of our identity as fertile creatures, menstruation being the one thing that sets us so far apart from men as to create unsurpassable gulfs in cross-gender comprehension; even those of us who never had or wanted children feels the shift as a curse we’ve been contending with since we were 12 or 13 first becomes wildly unpredictable, then disappears altogether. Most of us rejoice that absence, but the meaning, the impact of a self-descriptive, narrative level, is a different issue entirely. But it’s happening to women at a time when, on some societal levels, we’re just “coming into our own power” in our careers, at least in industries that allow equal advancement for all genders. Many of my friends experiencing perimenopause as they move up corporate ladders or across fields into other companies (or, in my case, across to another complete field) spin terrible, or terribly funny, tales of hot flashes and sweats or bouts of incontinence in meetings and interviews, or the disruptions of their personal AND professional relationships from hormonally-driven mood swings. We may be delighted to get past the symptomology, but things can often be as complicated afterwards when we’re left alone with the questions, “Well then… who *AM* I now?”

The discernment phase, then, is sparked by a multitude of shifts in a woman’s life. Men ask, “What do I *DO*?”; women ask, “What do I *MEAN*?” (…which is not to say they won’t also get to a point of also asking, “What do I do?”, but it’s not the typical starting point in a discernment process, rather more the outcome state as a result of the reflection).

Coming back to the three points that interested me, midlife individuation and differentiation mean a new opportunity for women to reconsider who they are inside or outside the family or group structures of their lives. They may find themselves examining their roles or functions within the relational partnership now that childcare is not the relationship’s primary focus. They may discover a lack of direction in their professional lives once their internal sense of meaning and purpose, especially if they are encountering any kind of glass ceiling effect in their chosen industry. What does it mean to be a “good employee” if any advancement path is limited by the very fact of their gender? What does it mean to be a woman in a world where these invisible boundaries and implicit expectations (from employers, colleagues, clients, families, and intimate partners alike) dictate what we’re PERMITTED to be? And what does it mean to be a woman “of a certain age” trying to function in a professional context when society in general is trying to render us invisible?

The discernment phase is one in which we as therapists see a lot of women “waking up” to a predicament of emptiness. The need to fill that emptiness is often what drives us into relationship in the first place, but over time, the relationship itself can become dissatisfying, disillusioned, disconnected. One of the questions either partner will often pose at this stage is, “Is it worth the work to effect repair and reconnection?” Men in therapy will often lament not understanding what it is their disconnected partner wants them to do; if they only know what to *DO*, they could do it, and everything will be all right. Women, however… it’s not about the doing, it’s about the hearing. Being effectively validated by a partner *MEANS* something significant to them; it tells them something about both their own value to the partner, and about the partner’s willingness to show that value, in ways that are substantially different than “If you tell me to just help out around the house more, that will make everything better, right?”

Wrong.

Ask a person in this stage of life, what is meaningful to them, and it might be an interesting experience to observe their reactions as they try to figure out what YOU mean, then try to figure out their answer. Ask a woman in the discernment phase, what is meaningful to her, and odds are good you may be the first person to have ever invited her to consider such esotericism. “My marriage, my kids.” Maybe, “My work.” Okay, so if we take away the ROLES of “Mom, Wife, Employee”, what’s left? Who is the person at the core of those roles, and what is meaningful to her? Marriages change into parallel lives rather than twined intimacy, kids grow up and (hopefully) move out, jobs may be less than satisfying. What, then, is left as our meaning in all of the space leftover?

Michael White‘s narrative therapy includes a process called a “definitional ceremony” that becomes useful, if not downright significant, to the community of women waking themselves up into this lengthy space and time of their lives, wondering what it’s all supposed to mean:

“These ceremonies are rituals that acknowledge and ‘regrade’ people’s lives in contrast to many rituals in contemporary culture that judge and degrade people’s lives. In many of these degrading rituals, people’s lives are measured against socially constructed norms, and they are judged to be inadequate, incompetent, disordered, and often a failure in terms of their identities. Definitional ceremonies provide people with the option of telling or performing the stories of their lives before an audience of carefully chosen outsider witnesses. […] It is not the place of outsider witnesses to form opinions, give advice, make declarations, or introduce moral stories or homilies. Rather, outsider witnesses engage one another in conversations about the expressions of the telling they were drawn to, about the images these expressions evoked, about the personal experiences that resonated with these expressions, and about their sense of how their lives have been touched by the expressions.
In these outsider witness retellings, what people give value to in their acts of living is re-presented in ways that are powerfully resonant and highly acknowledging. Additionally, it is through these retellings that people experience their lives as joined around shared and precious themes in ways that significantly thicken the counterplots of their existence.” — Michael White, Maps of Narrative Practice

White is addressing a particular psychotherapeutic practice, but this use of the outsider witnesses also speaks very strongly to the phenomenon many women in this discernment phase pursue in the course of developing their own “tribe” or social connections. Midlife transitions provide their own definitional rituals, even if most of them seem, from a broader cultural perspective, informal, unconscious, or covert. Often starting from looking for socio-emotional connection and forms of support not accessible through family or employment connections, this deliberate tribal development is a part of how women moving through conscious discernment begin to reshape their environment. These outsider witnesses become sounding boards, reflective surfaces and sanity checks. These tribes speak to helping develop that third point, the non-judgmental perspective; women moving into discernment don’t always have answers for self-defining questions, so their tribes become the safe spaces in which they work out their clarified values and direction. Sometimes the outsider witnesses include professional therapeutic support as well, and those in the discernment stage look to uncover what has possibly been obscured in their lives by “putting pieces together” from such diverse resources in new ways. In the office I visualize this as spilling a bag of children’s letter blocks onto a table, and moving the pieces around until we spell something that resonates with the client. Women in discernment stages are likewise seeking something, some kind of meaning or purpose that that resonates.

Martin Seligman, one of the founding fathers of the Applied Positive Psychology movement, suggests that meaning is a fundamental element of well-being, and that it is not strictly subjective in its value (Seligman, 2011). Likewise, he also suggests that “positive relationships” are also a critical component of well-being, so it becomes very unsurprising that when women — anyone, really — feel they are in an unsatisfying or unsupportive relationship, they seek to establish both positive relationships and meaning (subjective or objective) as a way of resetting themselves for the next stages of their lives. It’s no coincidence that the highest-growing age group experiencing divorce, then, is the 50+ age group.

Women in this discernment process are uncovering themselves: values and needs and dreams that have quite possibly been buried by relational expectations for their entire lives (family of origin, their own family units, social/cultural expectations and messaging, etc.). Chogyam Trungpa writes often about “awakening the sanity we are born with“, describing how we strip away these layers of messages and imposed values to uncover our authentic selves. Women have, in many ways, been doing this work in a less-well-documented way for generations; sometimes we’re privileged enough to be able to break free entirely from the obscuring structures imposed on us; sometimes we find effective ways of achieving discernment, redefinition, and renewed headings in personal development, within the context of our existing valued relationships. Sometimes we’re not free to make that scope of change, but we can think about who and how we are within those relationships in new ways, and perhaps shift how we chose to relate and operate inside those potentially-inescapable contexts. In doing so, potentially for the first times in conscious memory they are invited to see themselves as distinct entities from the systems in which they are members (implicitly or explicitly). And in seeing themselves as something both part-of-yet-distinct-from, there is also an invitation to consider HOW we operate within those systems: what is meaningful to each of US?

With women living longer, there is a lot more to life from “middle age” onward than historically women have been granted. It would be nice if we had better tools to prepare ourselves to enjoy that “second half” in spite of the physical and relational changes that normal life process force on us, but historically, we’re not well-armed. Discernment therefore remains a largely individualized, somewhat-haphazard phase without clear processes and direction. But more and more women in middle age, both peri- and post-menopause, are beginning conversations that render us less invisible to *each other*, at least. And in doing so, in finding more of these communities and relationships with other women in the same boat, we find meaning in the shared experiences, those aspects of our stories that resonate.

We are not alone. And that’s the biggest joy in this entire transitional phase. We are NOT alone.

Emotional Intelligence, Self-Development, self-perception

I’m going to step outside the usual heavy-thinking kinds of posts I normally write to offer a brief glimpse into the entirely-human world of Therapists As Human Beings. (I know most of you cognitively understand that we’re humans, but it’s surprising, in a no-not-really-kinda-way, how often clients in particular expect us to have our shit together in particular ways. Since it’s not often that folks who deal with us professionally get the chance to peek behind the curtain and recognize the foibles that make us just like everyone else, if you’re someone who doesn’t WANT to know that your therapist is human, might I recommend you click THIS LINK instead.)

So, disclosure: I turned 50 in May. I am part of the generation that didn’t grow up with a lot of childhood conveniences we take for granted in this day and age. Sometimes when in our middle aged wisdom and experience we encounter something that a schoolkid takes for granted, we can feel somewhat crushed that we’re not managing the experience as well as someone a tiny fraction of our age.

In preparation for a camping event over the Labour Day weekend, I bought a case of juice boxes at Costco. I have almost never used juice boxes, but a case of small square servings of fruit-sugared liquids is an excellent thing to take camping when you normally run into liquids/convenience issues on primitive sites. In the course of loading out, the case never made it into the vehicle and was, perforce, awaiting my return. Ergo, I’ve been drinking my way through the case of juice boxes for the last week.

And lemme tell you, nothing levels an adult ego like realizing that your “brain the size of a planet” and five decades of developing hand-eye coordination and grad-school-honed intellect and three decades worth of professional problem solving… it’s all for naught when for a week straight your Facebook posts read, “Days Since Last Juice Box Incident: 0”. Even after being scolded and schooled by a seven year old this past weekend on “Juice Box Best Practices”, I have still managed at least once a day to forget how these lethal little liquid grenades work, somehow. Much of this week’s laundry is comprised of Fruit Punch Fatalities.

So what’s going on here?

It’s both everything and nothing, really. From a mindfulness perspective, it’s the observation that I am apparently not in my best moment when it comes to maybe 60% of my juice box encounters; when you don’t pay attention to corporeal, mechanical details, it’s easy to grasp a thing that doesn’t do well when grasped. It’s a humbling reminder of vulnerability and openness to our own internal narratives around who we are and what we believe we *SHOULD* be capable of. It’s easy to feel humiliation when admitting we can’t do something a child can do in their sleep (those of you trying to teach senior parents to program a PVR, use a computer, or manage a smartphone, have almost certainly seen that humiliation in action in your parents, for example). We don’t as a species generally like admitting our failures and weaknesses, and for certain professions, those human weaknesses when exposed feel like nails in the coffins of our professional presentations to our clientele.

I’m of the (potentially contentious) opinion that embracing humility, on the other hand, is a way of maintaining balance within our sense of authentic presence. Most of us understand there is a difference between humilation and humility, but don’t always have a clear understanding of the difference:

Definition of humiliate:
humiliated; humiliating
transitive verb
:to reduce (someone) to a lower position in one’s own eyes or others’ eyes :to make (someone) ashamed or embarrassed :mortify

Humiliation is a terribly painful and destructive emotional state. It ranks very high among the things that people are afraid of. It is an overwhelming experience of shame and being degraded, usually in the eyes of others. Sometimes a person can be intentionally humiliated by another, in a sadistic attack that is intended to strip away all dignity and self-esteem. —
Michael Jolkovski

Definition of humility:
noun
:freedom from pride or arrogance :the quality or state of being humble

Humility, on the other hand, is a relief. When individuals are able to gracefully accept that there are limits to their power and importance, and to not collapse into despair, shame, or impotent rage, this is a developmental accomplishment. It marks the move from fantasy to reality, from omnipotence to competence. It is a gift at every stage of life ? when a 2-year-old can accept that they are not actually in charge of everything, or when an aged person accepts that they need to a depend on others in a way they haven?t before. There?s a key element of being at peace. Contrary to humiliation, humility gives a person their dignity and equilibrium back. —
Michael Jolkovski

There is a great deal of ego wrapped up in our adult concepts of who we should be, how we should function, what we should be able to do. To have our ego confronted with persistent failures on simple challenges — if a seven year old can wield the juice box so effortlessly, why am *I* awash in apple juice accidents?? — is almost guaranteed to feel like we are lesser, touching on that degradation mentioned under “humiliation”; our incompetence is being judged by others, we feel, and judged harshly. It feels like hot burning shame; “I’m 50 friggin’ years old, I drive a car and work and pay taxes, WHY CAN I NOT OPEN A DAMNED JUICE BOX WITHOUT CATASTROPHIC FAILURE???”

(That may or may not be an actual quote.)

There is a choice we can make when we are awash in the struggle around what we feel we SHOULD be able to manage, and what we actually experience. We’re going to feel what we feel, and if it’s the hot wash of shame and humiliation that hits us first, then so be it. But when that tide recedes, we can choose how to respond to the experience: we can judge ourselves as we imagine others are judging us, and stay bogged down in the peach punch-stained hell of our own humiliation and misery, or… we can sit with a seven year old Subject Matter Expert who probably handles more juice boxes in a month than I will handle in the course of my lifetime, and be open to what this child can teach us. In my case, I was amazed that this child had significantly more patience with me than I had been having for myself. He showed me how to carefully lift the top corners of the juice box and how to hold it so that I had some firmity of grip without grasping the weaker sides and inadvertently squeezing. He showed me twice, once on my juice box, and again on one of his own.

For myself, I could choose to be embarrassed by the necessity of this educational curve ball, or I could hold myself open to the teachings in spite of feeling more than a little ashamed at its necessity. As the definitions above suggest, one of the chiefest tenets of humility is the relief in accepting that one HAS limitations, of letting go of the ego-wrapped expectations and SHOULDS bolstering my flawed self-definition. It’s okay to be embarrassed. But we can choose, to some extent, whether that embarrassment parlays into shame and humiliation, or into humility and vulnerable authenticity.

Being able to own and embrace my own failings is, for many therapists, the largest resource pool from which our working compassion for others comes from. Sometimes we forget that we’re also flawed, and I can guarantee every one of us has flaws we actively WORK TO FORGET, because hey, no-one ever ENJOYS confronting or exposing our secret shames. But sometimes sharing them allows for a bonding experience, an opportunity to let in others who have similar flaws and weaknesses. Sometimes we can exploit our own vulnerabilities for comedic value (this is my own usual modus operandi; Virginia Satir would likely say this is my irreverent/irrelevant stance coming into play, and she’s probably not wrong; I’m okay with allowing many of my flaws to be seen, but I will spin-doctor the hell out of the presentation to increase the chances of my audience joining me in that witnessing in gentler, more tolerable ways.) Being able to separate out humiliation from humility allows us more of an opportunity for reflection; humiliation and shame are reactive default stances that close us down without much recourse for active decision-making. Humility leaves us open and relaxed in our understanding of limitations, and hopefully open to opportunities to learn from those with something to teach us, regardless of our expectations. “See the world through a child’s eyes” is a cliche because it’s true; they see and experience things so much more differently than we do that it’s good to be reminded sometimes they can teach or re-teach us so much.

So I’m going home to do more laundry, and contemplate the remaining juice boxes as a lesson in humility. They are a good reminder, in their own inauspicious, ticking-time-bomb kind of way, that what we expect of ourselves can sometimes be subverted by the simplest of things, and we can either flagellate ourselves mercilessly with shame and humiliation for failing those expectations, or we can be open to the lessons they can teach us with embarrassment rather than shame, and humility rather than humiliation.

(BTW, the Peach Punch is my favourite. Because you needed to know that.)

Emotional Intelligence, Life Transitions, Self-Development

This morning I’m thinking about the term “midlife crisis”, both in terms of the ambiguity of the term “midlife”, and, well, I guess, the nature of “crisis”. Since Tuesday mornings often roll around before I’ve actually figured out what the weekly blog topic is going to be, my “creative process”, such as it is, involves sitting down in my independent downtown favourite coffee shop and staring out the big front windows while I reflect on any developing themes from the past or previous weeks while pretending I can absorb scandalous amounts of coffee through osmosis. On a whim, I googled the term “midlife crisis”, in part because of a couple of lingering experiences this past week, in part because, hey, *I’m* fifty and my own life has been something of a challenge for the past five years, many of my friends are sliding slowly into (or through, or just edging out of) this age range, and because it’s Tuesday and I need to write about SOMETHING.

Imagine my surprise when a hefty percentage of the search results come back with variations on the theme of the myth of midlife crisis”. “Myth??” I thought to myself. “I don’t freaking think so.” [Character point: Our Humble Narrator may be a little tightly-wound and emotionally reactive before she’s had coffee.]

Less surprisingly, it starts to make a kind of sense when I come back to consider the readings from the perspective of last week’s post: it’s all in the definitions of the words we use. For one thing, “midlife” is a VERY broadly-defined age range; while it has settled through common social usage to be “in one’s 40s”, different studies of social mental health and happiness have encompassed participants from their late 20s to their mid-70s:

“More than a quarter said they had experienced a midlife crisis, a term they were free to define for themselves. The average age of crisis was 46. Some said their crisis was because they realized time was slipping away from them. Others blamed it on a divorce. Others said it was prompted by losing a job.

?Most boiled down to ?something happened that made me re-evalute my life,? ? Wethington says. ?That?s a pretty minimal definition.? She considers herself in the camp of sociologists who believe the midlife crisis is a myth.”

— as reported here.

Sooooo… okay. I’m definitely in the camp that believes, as much from a professional perspective as a personal one, that something(s) happens one day that makes us re-evaluate our lives. For me it was a separation/divorce coupled with struggling through a protracted career transition; for many, it’s the onset of “empty nest syndrome”, or the challenge of confronting own mortality through dealing with aging or dying parents. The definition of “crisis” itself is open to some debate; sometimes it’s the difference between a swift, singular stroke (death, sudden relationship endings, job loss) versus the “death by a thousand cuts” of slow, progressive unhappiness and dissatisfaction that one day simply hits a breaking point. This past week I had two new clients in this latter category that underlined the idea that a singular crisis event and a crisis point are not exactly the same things, but can provoke the same kind of provocative, potentially catastrophic, drive to change SOMETHING.

Why change?

Erik Erikson was a developmental psychologist and psychoanalyst who among other things coined the phrases ?identity crisis? and ?generativity.? Erikson described generativity as, “a concern for establishing and guiding the next generation.” Between the ages of 40 to 65, Erikson theorized that we all face the existential question, ?Can I make my life count?? and the psychosocial crisis of ?generativity vs. stagnation.” “

as reported here.

The kinds of change that we have culturally connected to this notion of the “midlife crisis” encompass a number of different plausible needs: the knee-jerk reaction to getting old, or to not being where our cultural narratives told us we SHOULD be by our mid-40s; the knee-jerk reactions to discovering we did everything we were told we SHOULD do, so why don’t we feel happy? The reaction to having invested 18-22 years in raising children to be independent people, without having invested the same work into our partnered relationships and, in the echoing stillness of that now-empty nest, wondering “Why don’t we ever talk to each other? What do we still have in common? WHO IS THIS STRANGER IN MY BED??” The reaction to struggling to find personal fulfillment through the external validation of work or volunteer or extended family involvements, and confronting dissatisfaction with one or more of those facets suddenly failing us, or the slow recognition that they have NEVER fulfilled us…

The list of agents provocateurs goes on, but the gist is, essentially something points out to us that we’re not where we thought we coulda/shoulda/woulda been by now when we followed the script like we were expected to. The two clients I saw last week who started this train of thought for me were both women in a slightly-later-than-midlife state who were finally dealing with similar issues as they and their partners cruised roughly into retirement–another life state-change that often provokes major adjustments and realizations for many. So we recognize, possibly for the first time, that we’re not happy with where we’re at, and for many who make it into therapy at this stage, it’s the first time they may have given themselves permission to ADMIT aloud that they are not happy. But because our culture is still very much geared toward a capitalist-heavy “pursuit of happiness” mindset in which individual happiness is, paradoxically, both the be all and end all of our existence and yet the thing we are most expected to sacrifice in pursuit of being a Good Partner, Good Family, Good Employee, yadda yadda yadda… we thrash around trying to find a reasonable path out of the conundrum of trying to recognize our own happiness and contentment and peace of mind as distinct from the weight of internalized cultural baggage. This moment of awakening, especially when it provokes a path of awakening change, is what Chogyam Trungpa refers to as “recovering the sanity we are born with”.

Many things happen with clients who are coming to a therapist at this point in their lives. Often, we have to start in the short term with shoring them up in the face of a precipitating crisis event–death, divorce, departures, dissastisfaction. Then we begin the deeper work of making some kind of meaning of the events and their responses, perhaps deconstructing some of their internalized, potentially-inherited narratives and values that have been shaken by these events. This part is like doing a structural assessment on a building after an earthquake: we need to figure out what part of the foundation is still solid, and what parts of the remaining structure need to be replaced with something better-designed to handle what’s happening, or what’s to come. This work is often a split between narrative therapy, and reconstructuring self-identity through deliberate work around identifying and articulating individual needs and wants. We’ll often do some ongoing work around rebuilding self-esteem, especially in situations where the crisis (as a singular event or ongoing progression) has eroded the client’s confidence in Self or personal agency. And above all, we normalize that many of these crises, regardless of when in the life cycle they happen, are GOING TO BE traumatic for many people. Catastrophic adjustments are the ones we never see coming and generally don’t prepare for, assuming we knew HOW to prepare effectively in the first place.

There definitely is a sense of life transitions for many of us, right around now; regardless of how or why we awaken to this sense, and how well we process the sense of urgency that drives that from “awareness” to “crisis” on a seeming-moment’s notice, most of us will face some kind of critical thrashing experience that brings an opportunity to assess and evaluate ourselves. We’re not always going to be receptive to the goad, nor graceful in how we weather the adjustments to come. But there are resources to get us through these changes that can be more helpful than the cliched responses popularized in mass media. Not all of us can afford red sports cars or traipsing off to Thailand to discover ourselves, but there are always ways to connect with support and resources to help steer us through the worst of the thrashing. Self-peace is a worthy goal when we find effective ways of weathering the storms, even if we need a helping hand to get through them.

Self-care, Self-Development

Having been on the run for the better part of a month I can firmly state both that there’s no place like home, and that the concept of respite as self-care is a crucial-if-vastly-under-advertised aspect of our culture. Like many people, I read the articles that suggest a bubble bath and a glass of wine, or a mani/pedi, or a massage, as self-care, and while I don’t dismiss how wonderful these experiences might be, I think they may obscure the fact that what they all point to as the underlying value, is *respite*.

At its simplest, respite means an opportunity to step outside the normal pacing our of lives, to stop and rest for a while. For many people, allowing themselves time to themselves is the LAST thing that fits onto a schedule most likely formed around work obligations, family demands, health issues… responsibilities that always seem to demand putting others ahead of ourselves, sometimes to the detriment of our own peace and well-being. When I work with clients who seem to be running themselves ragged, my first question is always, “Where do you value respite for yourself in your self-care?” (and we often have to talk about what respite looks like for each of them), followed by, “Why is everyone else’s care so much more important to you than your own?”

Culturally, many of us are conditioned to put others ahead of ourselves, and it costs us dearly when that becomes a default stance. I see this in myself more often than I like, because I insisted on doing a two-career dance for so long that I left almost no time for myself, or my self-care. Even now that my own life is calming down considerably, I find giving myself explicit permission to step outside the pace of my obligations is HARD, so I understand it on a personal level when my clients tell me how much of a struggle it is to take time out. Or what a struggle it is to do nothing with that time once they do take it.

Respite is an opportunity to stop, or at least slow down, and listen to ourselves. It’s a chance to listen to what our bodies are telling us they need, or an opportunity to listen through the usual daily cacophony in our minds to hear what’s going on a few layers down that demands attention and care. (This is the emotional signal people often try to avoid looking at until some nasty therapist makes them actually LOOK under the hood at this stuff. Damned therapists.) Sometimes we don’t WANT to take the time to slow down precisely BECAUSE we’re worried about what might happen if we do: what things will fall apart in the obligations/responsibilities spheres when we’re not there to attend everyone else, or what we’re going to hear or discover in ourselves when we allow things to be silent long enough to listen to ourselves.

And so it is that a great many people prefer to maintain breakneck momentum rather than explicitly allow themselves time to rest. “Burning the candle at both ends” becomes a seemingly-valid lifestyle choice when we’re afraid of the consequences, including the cost of lost momentum and having to grind gears to get back up to speed. This is my first blog post in three weeks; I know how hard it is to get back into the stream after you’ve been outside of the pacing for a while. We normalize the pacing we believe we’re supposed to keep, and changing pace is perceived as making things MORE difficult rather than less so. It’s a near-universal level of complaint that the first several days back to work after a holiday or vacation are the worst. We lose momentum and fear the increased efforts involved in returning to our usual pace. But the return can be managed as well as the respite itself; while it’s true that not everyone has the luxury of padding out time away from their obligations with an extra day to get themselves turned back around, sometimes we can find tools and techniques to prepare for the return and integration a little more effectively. (Some of us are just NEVER going to be okay with Monday mornings and the first day[s] after vacations, but that doesn’t mean we can’t find a little room for improvement in our approaches, right…???)

Maintaining momentum is a “path of least resistance” kind of approach to busy lives, but it’s also the most costly in the long run when we consider the amount of energy we burn on physical, mental, emotional levels to sustain that pacing. One of the largest fields of rocket science involves the study fuel economics: how much fuel does a rocket have to carry to power liftoff, sustained navigational ability over unthinkably vast distances, with enough left over for docking and/or re-entry attempts? The more fuel we have to carry, the more energy we have to burn in moving that fuel, so at some point it becomes a critical kind of catch-22. We have to carry a lot of fuel just to move a lot of fuel… never mind the mass of the rest of the rocket or its cargo or crew. So the trick is, thrusters are often simply turned off and the rocket allowed to coast at speed with minimal thrust applied to keep course and speed. This is a good analogy for how we manage respite and momentum in our own lives as well. Sometimes we HAVE to turn the thrusters off and allow the engines a respite, a chance to cool, and give ourselves an opportunity to stop consuming the finite reserves of energy we carry. Which is not to say that respite is rocket science, just to be clear…

Sometimes the break in pacing is the best tool we have for getting a better handle on all the things we feel we need to do on a day-to-day basis. Sometimes the break is a thing we fear or resist out of obligation or anxiety regarding implications of future workloads. But when we don’t make time to stop and listen to ourselves now and then, we eventually atrophy the skill and the muscles will burn out from under us. Gabor Mate’s book, When the Body Says No is a great read about how physical and mental systems break down when we don’t provide respite care to ourselves.

So having said that, I hereby give everyone who needs it permission to find themselves a respite plan that fits what they need, challenges what they fear about self-care, and lets them put themselves outside the madcap pacing of their own lives somehow, now and then. Not all of us can afford luxury vacations, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t ways and places to solve that need within the resources we can access. On that note, I’m giving myself permission to go have a nap; a month running at full throttle is exhausting, and my body says I’m still catching up on *sleep*!

Self-Development, self-perception

One of the factors that often seems to come with anxiety and depression for many is the experience of poor self-esteem, a distorted vision of ourselves or a devalued sense of worth reflecting what we believe other people think of us. For those individuals dealing with cognitive depression especially, the kind that comes with burdensome negative self-talk narratives, the self-esteem challenges are pretty much a given. Part of the work in therapy with these kinds of clients involves constructing (or reconstructing, if the absence of self-esteem is something that can be traced to a clear source of systemic erosion) a sense of intrinsic value, or unconditional human worth:

Howard?s Laws of Human Worth
Unconditional worth means that you are valuable as a person, important, because your essential core self is unique, eternal, precious, of infinite unchanging value and inherently good. You are as precious as any other person.

  1. All beings have internal, infinite, eternal and unconditional worth as persons.
  2. All have equal worth as people. Worth is not comparative or competitive. Although you might be better at sports, academics, or business, and I might be better in social skills, we both have equal worth as human beings.
  3. Externals neither add to nor diminish worth. Externals include things like money, looks, performance, and achievements. These only increase one?s market or social worth. Worth as a person, however, is infinite and unchanging.
  4. Worth is stable and never in jeopardy (even if someone rejects you). Worth doesn?t have to be earned or proved. It already exists. Just recognize, accept, and appreciate.
  5. Worth doesn?t have to earned or proved. It already exists. Just recognize , accept and appreciate it.

Claudia A. Howard (1992) [as read here]

Low self-esteem generally manifests as narratives along the line of, “I’m not worth anyone’s time [attention/effort/love/desire/respect/etc.]”, and “It’s not worth taking an effort or risk because I won’t get it right, or the results won’t be worth it”, for example. We fear the repercussions of failed efforts because we tie our value, our self-worth, to external events like job or relationship success.

“When worth equals externals, self-esteem rises and falls along with events. […] for adults, the highs may come with promotions, awards […]. The lows may come with criticism, poor performance or when [you or] your team loses. If your worth equals your job or your marriage, how will you feel if you realize you have already gotten your last promotion or if you divorce? Your feelings would probably go beyond the normal and appropriate sadness and disappointment. When worth is in doubt, depression usually follows. If human worth equals market worth, then only the rich and powerful have worth. By this line of thinking, a Donald Trump or a Hitler would have more human worth than a Mother Theresa.”
Glenn Schiraldi, The Self-Esteem Workbook, p. 33

Working through self-esteem narratives with a cognitive-behavioural approach tends to help many, by allowing them space to introduce counterscripting that often starts with awareness and acceptance (we don’t leap immediately to attempting outright self-love, because that’s a difficult pinnacle to reach for people with self-esteem issues, and we try to avoid setting our clients up for failure right off the starting block). We begin with introducing a better understanding of intrinsic human worth, as with Howard’s Laws, above. These tenets become a working mantra to underpin the work that follows; everything points back to this developing understanding of intrinsic value.

We then begin to develop self-observation and reflection: what are the thoughts we’re aware of, and what feelings come along for the ride when we catch ourselves in those thoughts? We separate the thoughts from the feelings and challenge the thoughts: Is this true? What evidence do I have to support it? What evidence might I have to counter it? We introduce the counterscripts, like “I accept myself as being MORE than my weaknesses or mistakes”, and “Criticism is an external force; I can examine it for ways to improve WITHOUT concluding that being criticized makes me less of a human being.”

We also explore the feelings that are tied to these narratives. Sometimes we can get a sense of where they started and what they root in, but most commonly we work simply in the present experience: we feel bad now when we buy into the poor self-esteem narratives, but we assume we will feel worse when we receive other people’s evaluations of our low worth. Poor self-esteem, regardless of where it originates, tells us we are unworthy of love, especially unconditional love; our worth is tied ENTIRELY to our ability to adequately meet or exceed other people’s expectations. We often have a damaged sense of self-love, so we rely on input from others to validate us, and when those reflections are broken or distorted, we believe the worst about ourselves as undeserving beings.

Opening up to a belief that we are intrinsically valuable and worthy of love requires a heady degree of vulnerability. Often self-esteem work will sail or flounder on the individual’s willingness to wade into the weeds of that kind of experience. Trauma survivors, for example, will often find vulnerability exceptionally threatening. Pema Chodron, Buddhist nun, refers to sitting with the discomfort of our own emotional experiences as “leaning into the sharp things”, and this is a metaphor I use a great deal in this kind of work. We walk with the client into those internal places where the early emotional hurts are still festering underneath those “I’m not worthy” narratives. We strap on the armour of, “All humans are intrinsically worthy, therefore I am worthy”, and we face down the demons with a variety of weapons, the biggest of which is a cudgel labelled, “I am worthy of my own love”. And we bear witness while the clients learn how to hold that in themselves, awkwardly at first, and sometimes losing their hold on it completely. We all slip at times; it’s human. We sit with the failure and celebrate the attempt as a counterscript to the client’s default narrative, “I am a failure and therefore not worthy.” We can break down the experience into, “What did I attempt? What did I learn? What do I want to do differently?”, and consider the emotional ties to the answers of each question along the way. Unravelling fear of failure and its ties to external validation is a slow process; we take our time working on stages of self acceptance. We look at the notion of self-love, but in truth, some people will get there while others won’t get much further than an uneasy truce with self-acceptance. We work to the reasonable abilities of our clients, and while we try and expand the comfort zones (by pushing into discomforts as best we can), everyone’s limitations will fall in different places.

Ideally we get to a place where clients can at least make, and connect emotionally (with belief) to positive self-statements. How many statements, and how strong the belief that supports their growing self-esteem, is a very individual outcome. But it’s work that we *can* do to help clients grow out of a sense of being stuck in their own perception of non-value.