Hoooo-nelly… We’re still here. And we’re going to be here a long while yet (she says, eyeballing the again-rising numbers in Ontario and the ongoing dumpster fire that is COVID responses and shenanigans one month from a presidential election south of the border). And winter is coming — insert ubiquitous Game of Thrones graphic here — and shit’s about to get very, very complicated. (Not that COVID wasn’t already complicating everything, so I’m not really sure how much worse it can get… no. I really shouldn’t invite that kind of chaos. It can ALWAYS get worse.)
The idea that in an ongoing, persistent crisis state, we’re all going to hit a slump in our struggles against that state just makes sense. Some people have been struggling with the fear of infection and illness since COVID first started spreading in North America; some are less worried about the virus itself and more concerned about the short- and long-term impacts of protracted social distancing. Others might be most impacted by grief and grieving those they cannot get to under quarantine restrictions and travel embargoes. Long story short, for one reason or another (or many reasons all at once), a great many of us have hit an exhaustion point. We’ve been struggling to adapt to this new scenario in all its implications since March; it’s been at best a challenge and at worst an utter shitshow. We’re breaking down mentally and emotionally stalling out.
As she points out, most of us have already adapted to some degrees of the “new normal”, but winter is going to require us to adapt again to the new challenges of COVID resurgence WITHOUT the benefit of warming weather and outdoor escape options. That we’re hitting the six month wall now, as those seasonal implications begin to really hit home for many, is doubly harsh. I don’t about other mental health workers, but I don’t even know how to predict what my work is going to look like come the holidays under COVID, and the aftermath heading into deep winter. I can’t imagine it’s going to be pretty. Humans are naturally adaptable on an evolutionary scale of things, but a lot of us don’t actually enjoy change when the necessity of it is thrust upon us by factors beyond our control (personally, I get grumpy about change even when it IS 100% in my control, so… there’s that.)
“[T]he wall is real and normal. And frankly, it’s not productive to try to ram your head through it. It will break naturally in about 4-6 weeks if you ride it out.” – Dr. Aisha Ahmad
Aye, there’s the rub… riding this slump out for another four to six WEEKS.
A later Tweet by Dr. Ahmad explores a little more deeply her concept of mental “shore leave” plan to help make it over the six month wall:
Mental shore leave means a psychic retreat. So my task is to get creative about where I can create respite in my life today, just as it is. It also means looking hard at where I can set boundaries, and cut out negativity & noise. The goal is simple: optimize rest and joy. /4
A key factor will be ensuring that my shore leave plan does not depend on anything staying open. If my strategy is about going to a gym or bookstore, it will be vulnerable to collapse. I need my respite to be absolutely untouchable. /5
On the whole, I am deeply onboard with this idea. The idea that we’re allowed to put down the load of “life in wildly-uncertain times” is seductive, if only because sometimes *I* just want someone to give me permission to stop worrying about things for an hour or two. Even half an hour! My only caveat is that, as presented, there is no allowance for those who have spent the last six months sliding down into depressive cycles that make adding ANY extra efforts to their day a difficult challenge, even respite time. As a therapist, in the past week, I’ve been shaping those conversations with clients in this slump as exploring their definitions of “respite”. For some, it has meant finding ways to increase literal rest or looking for ways to reshare/rebalance some of their workloads to provide relief from at least SOME of their stressors. For others, it has meant the deliberate, temporary delay of dealing with all manner of issues and circumstances that might be a lower priority than basics of safety and survival. For many on the depressive spiral, myself included, it has been a discussion about allowing ourselves a respite from some of the less-important things we believe we SHOULD be doing, and giving ourselves permission to make rest and recovery our highest priority as much as our circumstances permit.
The pandemic may be unrelenting, but how we engage with it need not be. I like Dr. Ahmad’s notion of respite breaks, but I would prefer seeing a more grounded approach in introducing that notion to our struggling clients especially. Most importantly, I really appreciated seeing someone outside of the therapeutic/mental health field validating and echoing what I’ve been noticing lately in discussions with my own clients… and experiencing in my own head. The wall is real, the slump is not exactly short-term but it IS temporary, and we DO have options for disengaging from it for whatever periods of time we can muster for respite.
I might just get myself and my clients through the next 4-6 weeks, then, given all of that.
I like it when the universe provides me a thematically-associated set of triggers to point me at a blog topic. This time around we’re looking at the concept of the “locus of control”, the aspect of ourselves that enables us to either internalize and trust our personal agency, or leads us to believe we have little to no control over ourselves and we’re simply reactive agents to external forces operating upon us.
This latter issue is one that has been cropping up recently in multiple conversations in and out of the therapy office. My observations of its simplest form look like this:
“I’m waiting for X to decide what to do, and the not-knowing is driving me crazy.”
“I can’t be happy/calm/less anxious until my partner is happy/calm/less anxious, but whenever I try to fix things, it seems to make everything worse.”
“I walk on eggshells whenever I don’t know what’s happening.”
“I don’t know where I end and you begin.”
Assuming we’re not dealing with any known trauma-based reactivity in the situation (hyper-vigilance as a trauma/abuse response, for example, is a whole different kettle of fish), these kinds of statements can indicate the presence of what we consider to be an externalized locus of control.
“Emotional fusion is emotional togetherness without the freedom of individuality. It is an unseen, unhealthy, emotional attachment where people lose their sense of self and […] unique identity […]. Emotionally fused people are needy. They look to others to mirror to them their sense of identity. Because their identity is defined by others, they require constant validation, becoming what they think others want them to be. When that occurs, relationships are not as fulfilling as they could be and there can be a sense of emptiness and feelings of ?I?m not enough,? or ?what?s wrong with me.? Emotional fusion can also lead to feelings of detachment and even rebellion in families as those who are hurting try to gain a sense of self.” — Kathryn Manley, MS, LPC, CST, “Be Yourself: Don?t Become Emotionally Fused,” April 16, 2015 for www.agapechristiancounselingservices.org
When we create healthy bonds in intimate relationships, we achieve in effect a kind of emotional co-regulation that includes all kinds of good things, like validation, secure attachment, supportive and reciprocal emotional labour. When we don’t have a healthy bond, when we have unhealthy or ineffective (or completely absent) boundaries within our intimate relationships, then all kinds of issues arise. We feel we can’t act independently, but must tie our emotional options reactively to other people’s choices–prioritizing their behaviours, choices, needs above our own without balance. We absorb a need to control partners, or at least their emotional states, so that we can mitigate our own, rather than maintaining clearer boundaries around “what’s your reactivity” and “what’s my reactivity” to focus on more effectively regulating our own experiences internally.
There’s a fine line between effective collaboration–choosing or creating plans with a partner that effectively reflect multiple sets of needs, values, and perspectives–and an externally projected or fused locus of control, in which we feel like we CANNOT function except as a reaction to someone else’s behaviours. If a client expresses frustration and helplessness, we almost always come back to explore where the control in the situation seems (to the client’s perspective) to reside.
In my observations, there are some common indicators signalling potential externalized locus issues:
constantly waiting for someone else to say or do something so we know how to react, rather than creating initial responses that address our own needs
waiting or allowing other people to define what is right for us
requiring or responding ONLY to (or even primarily to) external validation, and feeling anxious or out of sorts when that external validation is absent (see also, broken mirrors)
increasing sense of responsibility and self-blame about things that go wrong in other people’s thoughts, feelings, and behaviors (in some cases, internalizing responsibility for other people’s actions is actually more about hanging our sense of self-worth on other people; it’s both a complicated self-esteem issue, AND a case of putting our self-identity in the hands of other people–a definite externalization of our locus of control)
feeling like we have to accept whatever comes our way from our partners, that we have no control and/or no right to ask for anything different
attributing even the good things that happen in our relationships to outside factors, rather than to anything we have done or factors intrinsic to ourselves
“Locus of control is often viewed as an inborn personality component. However, there is also evidence that it is shaped by childhood experiences?including children?s interactions with their parents. Children who were raised by parents who encouraged their independence and helped them to learn the connection between actions and their consequences tended to have a more well developed internal locus of control.” Richard B. Joelson DSW, LCSW, “Locus of Control: How do we determine our successes and failures?” Aug 02, 2017 for www.psychologytoday.com
There isn’t a lot of significant study yet into the family of origin impact on internal versus external locus development, though some research suggests that “Warmth, supportiveness and parental encouragement seem to be essential for development of an internal locus”. How we form and view our connections to the world around us is often informed by family models, however, often in tandem with experiences that reinforce those inherited perspectives. Ergo, it makes a certain amount of sense that we carry into our intimate adult relationships a degree of conditioning about where our personal source of agency lies. We learn through a variety of mechanisms that our success or safety or happiness is intrinsically tied to making other people successful or safe or happy, be it parents, partners, employers, children, or any other external force. This is a common underlying theme for caretakers and self-sacrificing nurturers in particular. Nurturance isn’t in and of itself a negative thing, but when we feel we cannot function unless it be in reaction to Other People’s Needs, to the point of forgetting or denying or downgrading our own repetitively, THEN there’s an externalized locus of control issue.
Part of the struggle to correct externalized loci once we’ve identified them, however, is that there is often a comorbid self-esteem issue. After a lifetime of externalizing one’s sense of validation and self-worth, it becomes difficult to trust that we even have our own needs, or have the right to ask them be met in relationships defined up to this point by our caretaking others. We have to confront anxiety issues around separating our choices from other people’s reactions; emotional initiative seems risky, if not selfish, and hard to find a balance between “you do you and I’ll do me” and feeling like we’re somehow abandoning our emotionally enmeshed posts.
What Harriet Lerner calls the “distancer-pursuer” dynamic becomes another key indicator of externalized loci in intimate relationships:
“A partner with pursuing behavior tends to respond to relationship stress by moving toward the other. They seek communication, discussion, togetherness, and expression. They are urgent in their efforts to fix what they think is wrong. They are anxious about the distance their partner has created and take it personally.
They criticize their partner for being emotionally unavailable. They believe they have superior values. If they fail to connect, they will collapse into a cold, detached state. They are labeled needy, demanding, and nagging.
A partner with distancing behavior tends to respond to relationship stress by moving away from the other. They want physical and emotional distance. They have difficulty with vulnerability.
They respond to their anxiety by retreating into other activities to distract themselves. They see themselves as private and self-reliant. They are most approachable when they don?t feel pressured, pushed, or pursued. They are labeled unavailable, withholding, and shut down.” — Steve Horsmon, “How to Avoid the Pursuer-Distancer Pattern in Your Relationship”, March 6, 2017 for www.gottman.com
When we project our locus of control onto another, and that other person moves emotionally away from us somehow, OF COURSE we’re going to feel destabilized: anxious, upset, fearful, even threatened. It’s like an important part of us is being taken away, though in truth it’s more like we’re giving it away. The lack of autonomy that we feel binds or traps us, the zero tolerance for a partner’s differing perspective or opinion that threatens us–these are indicators that we have tied ourselves to someone else, that we have given our agency and control of our own emotional selves over to them… whether they have asked for and consented to that control or not. Re-developing in INTERNAL locus of control, therefore, involves a multipronged approach:
developing self-trust in our choices and actions
internally validating our own thoughts and feelings
creating boundaries around our emotional experiences and those of others
Seems like a lot of work when we break it down like that, right? None of these steps, in and of itself, will be a small piece of work. We know that. Bringing home an individual’s locus of control is pretty much “core definition” work, for people who have never had, or never been allowed to have, a strong sense of differentiated self in their lives. As a therapist, I can’t sugar-coat what kind of challenge this sort of work will be for many. But consider the alternative…
Two weeks ago, in response to my post about differentiating between “selfish” and “self-centric”, a friend commented about “the aspect of trusting our feelings in determining our own needs and wants […] in a world that constantly tells [us] we’re “over-reacting” or “imagining it,” etc.”. Internalizing our individual locus of control is ALL about differentiating the “I” from the “we” or the “you”, in a world that tries to teach us that “There is no ‘I’ in ‘team’.” Yes, it’s potentially some significant amounts of personal development to establish healthy differentiation in a relational system, especially for those raised in cultures, communities, families, or relationships where good boundaries are a foreign concept, or systemically destroyed from the outset. At the end of the day, however, the more we know and strengthen in ourselves, the more we have to build on when we get into relationships with others.
It’s not about jettisoning the “we”, but it IS about establishing boundaries that break the fusion, that provide us with tools to self-regulate when we don’t actually know what’s going on with or inside our partners, to break off the clinging pursuit, to work on settling our selves BEFORE we wade in to do something to or for someone else. There is a huge difference between “I want to be happy with you and be happy with myself”, and “I can’t be happy UNLESS you’re happy” (or “I need to fix your unhappiness before I can be happy myself”). The problems lie when we make our own state conditional upon, and therefore subordinate to, the state of another.
We have to do this work in a way that doesn’t keep reinforcing the enmeshment ideal of, “I contribute or affect to the success of this relationship by FIXING THE OTHER PERSON”, a tangent that comes up periodically in relational work; that still supports an externalized locus of control by hanging the idea of success on said Other Person accepting our efforts to fix them/us/the relationship. That’s not how this process is meant to be interpreted. It’s more along the lines of, “How do I become the best Me that I can? What do I bring to benefit the relationship by being confident and secure in myself?”
Breaking enmeshment or fusion and (re-)establishing an internal locus of control puts us back in control of our own lives, in charge of our own emotional well-being. It decreases our dependency on someone else’s emotional condition, and decreases the amount of emotional labour we need to do just to maintain status quo, because we’re primarily addressing our own needs and state and building faith in *that*, which can overall decrease our reactive tension in relationship and also leave us open for healthier ways of approaching intimacy.
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.”
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.
“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.” “
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.
I wasn’t always a therapist. It’s been ten years since I started grad school to begin this path, six years since I opened my private practice as a part-time operation, and T-minus one week until I begin working as a full-time ?therapist for Bliss Counselling… in addition to maintaining my current roster in my own practice.?Up until November, I was still working by day as a technical writer for Waterloo Region’s single biggest industry: the high-tech world of IT and software development.
The Regions is known as “Silicon Valley North” for good reason. Global businesses open development offices here because the University of Waterloo’s programming creates some of the best-of-the-best engineers and developers. Incubators and startups have been a part of the landscape since well before I moved here to go to UW as a bright-eyed undergrad in 1986. (For the record, I sent my first email in 1985; in 1986 when I became a UW student, I was given my own student email/internet account, and I have been online ever since.) I have been working in the local field as a writer since before I left my undergrad to become a tech writer full time, circa 1992. I survived the dot com boom and bust cycle, watching more startups come out of the woodwork in a five year window than I can count, and most of them fail within that same window.
I have worked for a LOT of companies in the intervening years before hitting a burnout in 2007 that wasn’t going to be fixed by simply jumping ship to a new company. At that point I came to realize something that has since influenced my therapeutic work with clients coming out of IT companies in?the area: things rarely get better, because the mindset underlying many employers’ expectations is one deeply rooted in a deadly combination of aggressive, do-anything, self-sacrificing startup culture mentality, and the pervasive ?requirements driven by shareholders and investors to maximize profits while minimizing cost margins. “We need you to do more with less, and for less” is a bottom-line narrative that benefits a corporate quarterly report, but often at the cost of those very-human resources expected to deliver products and services under often unrealistic deadlines.
Sometimes companies recognize the outrageous demands placed on employees, and try to help by offering incentives like cash bonuses, time in lieu, or benefits that include EAP access or incentives to join specific “wellness programs”.?These often look good on paper, and at least in the short term can, in fact, bring some ease to the beleaguered workforce. But the bigger problem remains the internal culture of excessive expectation. The last job I held as a tech writer, I failed out of spectacularly in part because I couldn’t buy into the degree of self-sacrifice that had other team-mates working 80 hour weeks, driving from homes in other cities on weekends or logging in for hours from home at night to finish projects that were desperately understaffed *by design*.
This was not the first such company *I* had worked for with that kind of environment, not even close. It’s not unusual that when profits start to fall (note: when the profit margin merely decreases, NOT “when we actively start to lose money”), corporate management will cut the workforce by significant numbers YET STILL REQUIRE the same delivery of product and service without adjusting downward the volume of work to be executed by remaining team members. ?But pushing back on those unrealistic delivery requirements? Is generally not only not encouraged, but sometimes actively punished:
“Nothing can alleviate the stress of overwork except working less. Like the road signs say, only sleep cures fatigue. We need to be reminded of this because tired long-haul drivers can be deluded into thinking that coffee, a can of Mother or an upbeat bit of music might help them stay awake. For the madly overworked, we need reminding that the only cure for working too much is to stop. It?s as simple as that.
In the last month or so I?ve had several clients raise the issue of overwork with their managers, with the following results. One had a consultant brought in to assess her team?s workloads against their position descriptions. Each member was found to be working at between 130 and 160% of their load. So the load was reset and anyone working at below 150% was told they weren?t pulling their weight.
Another workplace appointed an organisational psychologist to assess the team?s interpersonal relationships as a way of responding to a workload complaint. As a result, my client was told his personal commitment to reasonable working hours was putting his team at risk and he was put on a program of performance management. Another was simply told not to come in again.”
I hear the same stories over and over again from IT clients: often they want to seek therapists who are NOT with their EAP because they have come to mistrust the EAP motives and methodologies. EAPs are selected by the corporation, and are tied to benefits provisions, themselves provided by other corporations with a goal of paying out as little money as possible for a process aimed solely at returning the worker to functional/employable status as fast as possible. Therapists working for EAPs are often hamstrung in that regard, as we are required to employ short-term, solution-focused approaches as bandaids to symptomologies that may or may not themselves be rooted in different or deeper locations than we are allowed to explore in 6-8 sessions. That’s not to say there’s something wrong with short-term, solution-focused approaches. On the contrary, they’re very effective ways of developing tools and strengths with struggling clients. But when it’s the ONLY tool allowed on the board, there’s a limit to what we or our clients can achieve. And therefore, many EAP clients in high-stress fields often come in and out of therapy as the same problems continue to crop up again and again.
The problem isn’t the client. The problem isn’t the therapy. The problem is the workplace culture that often deliberately cripples its people by normalizing outrageous demands and rewarding the willingness to sacrifice everything outside of the workplace in the name of the corporation’s reputation or bottom line. And in Waterloo Region, that is an ENORMOUS problem. It’s not just one company who works that way, it’s the endemic mindset across a great many of them.
So it behooves us as therapists working in the Region, and working with clients who work in the high-tech industry, to be VERY aware of two particular issues:
stress and anxiety related to job performance are HUGE factors for a very great many of our client base
there is currently no effective way to push back against unrealistic corporate demands, nor is coaching a client to consider employment elsewhere likely to be a guaranteed change so long as the potential job field remains limited to IT
What’s left, then?
Normalizing the idea that this is what the industry itself has normalized. It’s been my experience over almost thirty years in IT that it’s rare to find companies who *genuinely* allow and encourage a balanced quality of life without at least hedging bets (“Well, it’s only like to get REALLY bad around project release time, ad that only happens a few times a year”). ?We can encourage clients to have conversations with their bosses about setting reasonable expectations?and to me, being EXPECTED to persistently work 150% OVER one’s job description is not reasonable?but be aware the likelihood of effecting sustainable change without threatening employment status is realistically slim. Work with clients to change how they relate to the inherent stresses of their chosen profession. ?American feminist and author bell hooks, in her book All About Love: New Visions, wrote:
“Work occupies much of our time. Doing work we hate assaults our self-esteem and self-confidence. Yet most workers cannot do the work they love. But we can all enhance our capacity to live purposefully by learning how to experience satisfaction in whatever work we do. We find that satisfaction by giving any job total commitment. […] Doing a job well, even if we do not enjoy what we are doing, means that we leave it with a feeling of well-being, our self-esteem intact. That self-esteem aids us when we go in search of a job that can be more fulfilling.”
Help clients learn to be realistic about what’s demanded of them, and work on finding some kind of balance with the rest of their lives. Help teach them how to create and sustain relationship intimacy in the face of their worklife demands, and work with them to develop effective emotional language to communicate with intimate partners authentically and realistically about the impact of their work on their availability to non-worklife demands.
Sometimes the best we can do is help teach swimmers how to stay afloat. Teach them to recognize the signs of exhaustion, but also be compassionate and educated in your own understanding about the realities of the industry they work in. IT is a wide ocean, and it takes a special swimmer to make it effectively from one side to the other. Being an effective swimming coach also means being aware of the conditions of the ocean we’re swimming in.
It’s not always a pretty reality, but it’s the reality of living and working in Silicon Valley North.
Most Marriage & Family Therapists (MFTs) and psychotherapists who deal with couples’ counselling often come aboard once there’s a problem within the relationship that requires addressing. Couples heading into commitments and marriages will more often seek premarital counselling from their chosen officiants or more familiar spiritual caregivers, but MFTS are increasingly privileged to have the chance to work with clients embarking on these kinds of commitment processes. It’s a great deal of fun, most of the time, to sit with clients who are puzzling through interesting questions that explore themselves or their partners, topics or areas of interest on which they may never have had the inspiration to reflect before. Sometimes these discussions lead to increased understanding and closeness; sometimes they lead to uncovering differences of opinion or values that generate discomfort, and it’s our job to help our clients navigate both types of experience.
The types of questions that form the core of premarital counselling vary; there are some good resources in general you can Google if you’re looking to start some of these conversations yourself. A very recent article from the New York Times provides a really nice set of topics to explore that’s worth sharing. It covers uncomfortable topics around the values for sharing debt, the impact of experiences with exes, autonomy and shared interests, parental relationship models, sex and pornography, and more. Relationships in the 21st century are a little different than they were in out parents’ and grandparents’ generations, when gender models and relationship values were often VERY different, and “obedience” was still an expected part of marriage vows. The value for communication through the process of shared discovery is vastly more important now, recognized as a critical factor in the success or failure of relationships more and more every day. “Improving communications” is probably one of the most common issues couples in crisis report as a goal for relationship counselling.
If more couples would seek premarital counselling ? individually or with their partners, in private sessions or group workshops ? perhaps we might arm them with better tools for navigating the evolutionary landscape of their partnership over time. Advanced preparation might decrease the number of couples arriving at therapists’ office already in the fire of conflict, and that would be A-OK by most therapists.
As one might guess from the lapse in blogging, it’s been a busy summer of the “it all just got away from me” variety, complicated in July by the unexpected need to buy a new business computer, and the hairy adventures of getting everything (almost everything) migrated over. Client work has been slowly and steadily increasing, and there is a massive stack of professional reading and development that is just waiting for me to have time to dig into it.
Time. “Ay,” as Hamlet says, “there’s the rub.”
We all have such excellent struggles against Father Time, especially over the summer when there may be vacatin plans to pep for and make up for afterwards, or more travel on the local front, more get-togethers, more gardening or cleaning the pool. Those with kids have the complexities of everyone else’s schedules to work around on top of all of that, and suddenly, it’s September all over again. Not a bit of wonder that for any of us (even those of us without kids), September is the month that feels like things calm down just a little bit, settle back into normal routines, steady schedules.
A friend pointed me recently to an excellent blog by Geneen Roth (of “Women, Food, and God” fame) that provided a nice little reality check on the efforts we put ourselves through chasing the kinds of success we think will make us happy, that we believe will buy us the time and freedom to do whatever we want… only when we get there, to that pinnacle of whateverness we’ve been chasing, we find that *staying* there comes with its own rigorous demands, and that the freedom we thought we’d earned i as far off in the distance as ever it was… just like any other horizon.
It’s not hat I’m not a fan of “chasing your happy”, but I’m a bigger fan of what happiness expert Martin Seligman came to see as “flourishing”, which allows for more tolerance of the not-happy, more development of tools for coping and self-soothing in adversity, than a fixated pursuit of happiness tends to allow. reaching the pinnacle of success won’t buy you happiness if you’re a burned-out husk of your former self when you get there.
So as we all roll over from the summer’s chaos into whatever September brings for you, now is as good a time as any to take a page out of Geneen’s book (or blog, in this case) and reflect a while on this:
“It turns out that the true extraordinary isn?t reserved for special people or big achievements or red-carpet-moments. It?s extraordinary to write a book, and it?s extraordinary to eat a grilled cheese sandwich with tomatoes and mustard. It?s extraordinary to meet a famous person, and it?s extraordinary to meet the eyes of a grocery store cashier. When I pay attention to what is in front of me, the seemingly ordinary things are backlit with the extraordinary: the hum of the refrigerator, the yellow sponge, the trill of a finch.
“Now, instead of lurching forward, I step back. Instead of looking for the extraordinary, I look at it. If I get breathless or anxious that I am falling behind and that everyone else will get there before me, I remind myself that the top is just a square of earth you pass on your way down. And that no moment, no place, is better than this breath, this foot touching the cool floor in the middle of the night.”
Do you use your smartphone or other devices in front of your children? This may be having a very different impact on those relationships than you think… or want.
“?What stood out was that in a subset of caregivers using the device almost through the entire meal, how negative their interactions could become with the kids,? she says. While the study did not code or quantify the reactions, Radesky says that there were ?a lot of instances where there was very little interaction, harsh interaction or negative interaction? between the adults and the children. ?That?s simply unfair to the children,? says Dr. Wendy Sue Swanson of Seattle Children?s Hospital and author of the Seattle Mama Doc blog.”
With the rise of conflicts in geek/con/gamer culture coming to mainstream attention in the past year or so, and the rising persistence of the feminist movement to counter male privilege best exemplified by what started as an internet backlash to “nice guys being friendzoned” and spun into a larger (still ongoing) discussion about male emotional self-management, entitlement and privilege, and the pervasiveness of “rape culture”. This has, one can imagine, made it a very interesting time for men seeking therapy on their own or being brought into counselling by their partners. In North America we’re mostly at least generally aware of the vastly-different cultural values placed on men’s emotional experiences and expressions, versus those assigned to women. It’s not even that “men are from Mars, women are from Venus”, we’re simply not given the same tools or lexicon for those experiences from the ground up. And it’s not simply what men are being taught as boys directly; as long as girls are still being raised with the cultural narrative that Prince Charming will come along to rescue/validate them, there will always be an implicit expectation that boys have to be stronger and smarter than girls are in order to be able to do for girls what they for some reason are *still* being taught to believe they cannot do for themselves (can we *please* have more Self-Rescuing Princesses, and more Emotionally-Developed Princes??)
Because we have this cultural myth of male strength and control, there is precious little room for exploring the fact that men have all the same emotional experiences, to the same range and depth, that women do. They are taught almost from birth, however, that men’s emotions have to be suppressed and compressed into fewer “acceptable” channels than women, which is why men in therapy have such a difficult time putting identifying labels on any emotional experience beyond happy or angry; they don’t have the language to say what they’re feeling, assuming they can distill the experience clearly in the first place.
Still tackling the backlog clearance; there may be a long slog of what we used to call “link sausage” posts that are less about original content on my part and more about sharing interesting or thought-provoking (or maybe even useful) resources for people interested in noodling about on their own psychological or emotional development.
Things I often tackle with clients trying to observe and manage or change their own behavioural patterns, include looking at how we resort to short-term hits of happiness (“hedonic pleasures”, but I’ll get more into hedonia in a later post) in lieu of ? sometimes to the complete disadvantage of ? longer term, bigger-picture desires or goals. When this becomes a self-destructive pattern, as with addictions and pursuit of addictive highs in any form, narcotic, alcoholic, process-oriented, then we have to dig deeper into figuring out the underlying triggers to those cycles. People are so adept at masking their own unhappinesses, however, that this becomes a significant body of the work that some people are facing when trying to make improvements in themselves and their lives.
Two links that help shed a little light on these patterns, the first from AMerican Scholar:
The second article, from Forbes, looks at how people become detached in their own lives, in ways that leave long- and short-term emotional voids that we all move instinctively to fill… but when moving unconsciously, we get trapped in short-term fills rather than long-term solutions (the other articles linked by the author at the top of this one are also definitely worth the read):