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, Mental Health

I’m a big believer in the notion that we all HAVE feelings. I’m even a big believer in the idea that we all FEEL feelings. I also happen to have a front-row seat for the myriad ways human beings try REALLY, REALLY HARD a lot of the time to AVOID feeling their feelings, especially the difficult, rowdy, dark, threatening ones.

A favourite avoidance mechanism for many of us (yes, myself included) is to subvert feelings we don’t want to have into actions that make us feel better, at least in the short term; for example:

Sad => Eat
Sad => Shop
Depressed => Sleep
Anxious => Clean

It’s the short-term, pleasure-seeking action into which we channel our temporarily imbalanced emotional state that might, indeed, work in the short term; it never seems to get at the root of whatever’s prompting those feelings in the first place, though. It turns us into what someone (I can’t now remember who) once termed, “Human Doings, not Human Beings.” How many of us recognize the phrase, “I eat my feelings”? That’s subversion.

Another common reaction to the feelings we don’t wanna feel is scapegoating:

[T]he practice of singling out a person or group for unmerited blame and consequent negative treatment. Scapegoating may be conducted by individuals against individuals (e.g. “he did it, not me!”), individuals against groups (e.g., “I couldn’t see anything because of all the tall people”), groups against individuals (e.g., “He was the reason our team didn’t win”), and groups against groups.

A scapegoat may be an adult, child, sibling, employee, peer, ethnic, political or religious group, or country. A whipping boyidentified patient, or “fall guy” are forms of scapegoat.

Scapegoating has its origins in the scapegoat ritual of atonement described in chapter 16 of the Biblical Book of Leviticus, in which a goat (or ass) is released into the wilderness bearing all the sins of the community, which have been placed on the goat’s head by a priest.

from Wikipedia

René Girard aptly describes how scapegoating becomes an outlet for feelings we can’t or don’t want to examine within ourselves for the ACTUAL source of them:

In a world where violence is no longer subject to ritual and is the object of strict prohibitions, anger and resentment cannot or dare not, as a rule, satisy their appetites of whatever object directly arouses them. The kick the employee doesn’t dare give his boss, he will give to his dog when he returns home in the evening. Or maybe he will mistreat his wife and his children, without fully realizing he is treating them as “scapegoats.” Victims substituted for the real target are the equivalent of sacrificial victims in distant times. […]

The real source of victim substitutions is the appetite for violence that awakens in people when anger seizes them and when the true object of their anger is untouchable. The range of objects capable of satisfying the appetite for violence enlarges proportionally to the intensity of the anger.

Girard, I See Satan Fall Like Lightning; 2001, Orbis Books, NY

Projecting our feelings onto others isn’t new; nothing abhors a vacuum more than the human brain, not even Nature. So when we don’t understand why we feel what we feel–or we don’t want to look at why we might feel as we do–it’s sometimes MUCH easier to scan around for an easier target and make them bear the emotional burden for us. In taking those feelings out on the unsuspecting victim, we complete the ritual of metaphorically driving our burdens out into the desert to perish somewhere far, far away from us and our shame-stirring occupancy of those emotions. It’s devastatingly destructive on relationships, however–trust me on this one, I’ve personally lost entire marriages to not recognizing this pattern in time. (I had an excellent therapist who helped me figure it out afterwards, at least.)

A third way we often create distance from our own feelings is something I recently labelled as “surrogate catharsis.” A client was telling me how they often watched episodes of “Grey’s Anatomy” for the soap-opera-ish melodrama that readily provoked great, heaving snot-filled sobfests the client could not otherwise allow themselves to express. It called to mind a lesson observed a very long time ago in the BDSM community, where I learned that bottoms/submissives/slaves can use the often-ritualistic container of a scene, or playspace, or a Dominant/submissive relationship, to express things we can’t always express in the other contexts of our lives. We can scream out the rage and pain, we can struggle hard against the bonds, we can let go of higher cognitive function and allow ourselves to fall into certain physical sensations, we can cry and sob and beg and plead and just generally let go of the behavioural constraints to which we normally cling.

A surrogate is a person or thing we substitute for another in the same role. Like scapegoating, but so unlike scapegoating, the mechanics of surrogacy are somewhat similar. For a variety of reasons, we cannot or don’t want to access our own feelings directly; this is fairly common with clients who bear the scars of profound trauma (or are still immersed in ongoing trauma scenarios). We are aware of the buildup of pressure alongside these unwelcome feelings, however, and seek to find a way to release the pressure without ever actually accessing the feelings and/or their roots directly. Unlike scapegoating, however, we don’t project those feelings onto another and then follow up with punitive measures. Instead, we actually allow ourselves to experience the feelings but in a different association than their actual origin. We can feel, and we can express, but it’s almost directed harmfully AT another… and it’s almost never connected to directly processing our internal traumas. For some of us, we achieve surrogate catharsis when we read or watch something that gives us permission to cry. Unlike the act of subversion from the top of this page, we choose acts that DO access and express our feelings, we just don’t connect them to their sources.

Some people default to a particular method of rerouting their emotional experiences. Some of us will move between all three as circumstances dictate. In many cases, these are self-defensive mechanisms designed to protect us from what we instinctively believe to be threatening experiences. In a lot of cases, these defences have become maladaptive and problematic for the person or their relationships. We create barriers between our day-to-day cognitive functioning and our emotional experiences for a lot of reasons, but chiefly because we’re taught to be afraid of, or to doubt the veracity of, our feelings. But feelings are most often just our brain’s way of running a flag up the pole to indicate, “Hey, You–something is going on here that needs tending to.” Therapy can often help people learn to connect safely with their own feelings, and find ways of both allowing them to surface without so much overwhelm, and choosing different default actions when they are present.

To borrow from Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy for a moment: Feelings are not Facts. They’re just a transient internal experience of the situation, the context, of this moment. When we deflect away from them, however, whether we subvert, scapegoat, or surrogate them, we can often give them more power and influence over us (or others) than they deserve. As a closing meditation on the transient nature of even the most overwhelming feelings, I offer my favourite poem by the Sufi poet, Rumi (translated by Coleman Barks):

This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.
Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.

Emotional Intelligence, Mental Health

[Before all else, I will add this clarification: This is an opinion, albeit one informed by years of clinical observations of my own clients: those who self-identify as neurodiverse, those who self-identify as neurotypical, those who aren’t entirely certain where they fall, and perhaps mostly those who VIOLENTLY reject the notion they themselves might be on the spectrum somewhere.]

The human brain likes to organize and categorize things. Human culture likes to organize entire groups of people into “Us” and “Them”, then create entire arbitrary systems of values and rules and justifications tied to the perceived differences between those who are Us, and those who are Them. We see exactly the same kind of almost tribalistic distinctions between Those Who Are “Mentally Well” and Those Who Are “Mentally Ill”, and even when science moves to recategorize what used to be seen as mental illness into different forms or levels of executive functionality, humanity still very much adheres to those differentiating Us and Them labels.

With the re-examination of what we now term “neurodiversity” in the past decade, trying to better understand executive functionality in its much-broader-than-anyone-ever-realized scope, I often see through conversations with my clients the not-always-subtle pushback in our culture to the idea that a wide-ranging selection of behaviours tied to executive functionality might be way more prevalent than we thought. There has been a strident demarcation between the Us that can function without those disruptive behaviours, and the Them that seem persistently plagued by them; the affected neurodiverse (ND) who struggle to mesh with the world around them, and the “normies” who adhere to the notion of being “neurotypical” (NT). “I’m not like THAT,” “I’m not broken,” I’m not CRAZY”–therapists hear these kinds of statements all the time, just as we hear from the other side, “Am I broken?” “Am I crazy?” Why is this so hard for me and so easy for everyone else?”

Almost a decade since the first ND folks walked into my office, and now five years of working more closely with ND folks of many stripes, through my clinical observations and interactions I have come to a singularly compelling conclusion:

The concept of “neurotypical” is complete and utter bollocks,
a damaging, tribalistic myth of epic proportions.

There. I said it.

I deal with a lot of adults who are officially diagnosed with ADHD or autism.
I deal with a lot of adults who are self-diagnosed with ADHD or autism.
I deal with a lot of adults who regularly present with behaviours consistent with ADHD or autism.
I deal with a lot of adults who periodically or infrequently present with behaviours consistent with ADHD or autism.
I deal with a lot of adults who regularly present with maladaptive behaviours consistent with exposure to/immersion in high ongoing or repetitive stress or overstimulation (including burnout).

Guess what? One group, the first listed here, has an official diagnosis of some form of neurodivergence. The second is willing to see themselves as such. The other four? Statistically most likely to self-identify as neurotypical. You know what they all have in common? They all share the same types of dysregulated emotional reactions and behaviours when pushed past their respective breaking points. The breaking points’ locations differ for each group, but they can be mapped on a very uncomplicated two-axis graph with GROUP on one axis and STRESS on the other.

What this means, then, is that under the right set of circumstances, WE ALL exhibit the same dysregulated responses to stress and/or overstimulation.

TL;DR: pushed past certain points, WE ARE ALL NEURODIVERSE.

Take THAT, stupid tribalism!

So what’s happening for us then that puts us all on the same spectrum of executive function but at vastly different points of regulation? Turns out, the variable factor is the Window of Tolerance, or what I’ve been calling “tolerance capacity”.

The primary difference between the folks who claim to be “neurotypical” and those who don’t is their capacity to process stimulation. Stimulation past a certain point starts to exact heavier and heavier tolls, becoming stress. Stress surpassing tolerance levels starts to wear us down into a variety of hypoarousal and fatigue states (this is often where we see our burnout clients showing up). Stress and overstimulation that continue for many people into breakdown zones will eventually result in dysregulated responses; the tolerance window for NT folks is simply higher or wider, on average, than most ND folks whose overstimulation can start as soon as they wake in the mornings.

The reason why I would most like to strike the myth of “neurotypical” from the records is the damage done by any system that presents a mythical standard of high moral value, then subjugates a vast swath of the population into the OTHER group: “NEUROTYPICAL is GOOD, anything that DIVERGES from GOOD must therefore be BAD; therefore NEURODIVERSE is BAD.” Trust me when I say, it’s been a LONG struggle just to get language shifting from “Neurodivergent” to “Neurodiverse”. “Divergence” still carries the stigma of “diverging from the NORM”, which is hugely problematic when we can increasingly prove that “normal” is a mythological crock of shite. A lot of ND folks have brought in their frustrations and terrors around encountering time after time the messages that they are perceived as somehow less than, broken, crazy. They’ve been gaslit for generations into believing they are mentally ill, or at least deficient somehow; the ongoing stigma attached to neurodivergence is part of why the Tribe of Neurotypicals clings so desperately to the Great Myth of Normalcy.

Most of us have a window of tolerance, even the advanced autistics; it may not be as big as yours or mine and it almost certainly looks very different from anyone else’s window. We generally each have SOME capacity to tolerate stimulation or stress, but our ability to tolerate can shift dramatically, even from one moment to the next; it can shift up or down the Stress axis, it can grow or shrink. It is definitely impacted by the number of stress/stimulation sources in our lives. Some folks thrive in high-stress environments indefinitely because they have high-capacity tolerance windows; others are grumpy as soon as they wake to the weight or feel of their own bedsheets against their skin, and tolerance windows only shrink or move downward from there.

So instead of firmly and proudly declaring yourself in the camp of Neurotypical, I would ask you to remember a time when you maybe lost control emotionally or physically; how did you react? Did you feel overwhelmed, or distraught? Were you thinking clearly, acting your best Executive Self? How many times in your life has that happened? It’s important to reflect on these moments; these are the experiences that put us all on the same spectrum. There are a lot of great resources to help you understand how your own window of tolerance operates, starting from the seminal works of Dr Daniel J Siegal (described in the video link below), and how to be better at regulating yourself in the moments where those neurodiverse behaviours signal moving out of your optimal range. Even if we don’t bring the angle of Neurodiversity into the office, therapists are often well aware of a client’s executive functional state and capacity; we’re constantly working in various ways to help grow a client’s tolerance for a variety of stressors (whether this winds up looking like “tolerating in place” or “tolerating change” around those stressors).

Rethink your understanding of the myth of Us and Them. There are no camps here, just a spectrum of tolerance capacity and some beautiful, mobile windows into each of us on it.

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…)

Uncategorized

This fall I am embarking on two separate professional development (education and training) pursuits, one long planned and the other rather spontaneous. I’ll have more about finally taking the Gottman Institute Levels 1 & 2 training programs later in November, assuming my brain doesn’t explode with drinking from the firehose while on course. Before then, however, I’m unexpectedly but delightedly finding myself down the very deep rabbit hole of Richard Schwartz’s Internal Family Systems (IFS). One of my partners pointed me in this direction as a result of some of their own personal work, but given my background in systems theory, family systems in specific, it’s kind of a wonder I hadn’t crossed paths with IFS long before now.

In essence a “system” is a bunch of interconnected parts that can and do influence other system components both directly and remotely. Sometimes the influence is harmonious and the affected parts resonate in sync; sometimes the influence is discordant and jarring, and the constituent members of the system create friction, tension, or even breakage. In a healthy system, each part maintains its own discrete spatial and behavioural boundaries when interacting with other parts of the system, though as we see in many types of systems, boundary violations can rapidly become a system-wide problem as parts start to behave erratically or destructively.

“In terms of its effects, a system can be more than the sum of its parts if it expresses synergy or emergent behavior. Changing one part of the system usually affects other parts and the whole system, with predictable patterns of behavior. For systems that are self-learning and self-adapting, the positive growth and adaptation depend upon how well the system is adjusted with its environment. Some systems function mainly to support other systems by aiding in the maintenance of the other system to prevent failure. The goal of systems theory is systematically discovering a system’s dynamics, constraints, conditions and elucidating principles (purpose, measure, methods, tools, etc.) that can be discerned and applied to systems at every level of nesting, and in every field for achieving optimized equifinality.[1]” —Wikipedia

A FAMILY system looks specifically at the interconnected constituent members involved with and influencing a specific individual–usually my client(s). Family of Origin is usually the biggest source of our internalized values and beliefs/expectations about how people work, how parents and parenting work, how intimate relationships work. Even if we’re too young to understand much of the dynamics, we observe and create or invest in stories about both what we observe and what we’re taught, even when there are discrepancies in those models. A lot of my therapeutic work uses family system modelling to uncover some of the background to my clients or their current challenges and dilemmas. I use an analogy from my long years in software development to explain the value of looking backward into our origin stories before we look forward to a change process: before we can change existing pieces of code in a software package, we have to understand why that code is there in the first place. What was it meant to do? Are there any dependencies we need to investigate to loop in or remove with impending code updates? Is this a critical function that must be replaced, or is it old, superfluous functionality that we can afford to dump completely? Is the original functionality relevant or is it interfering with desired functionality?

These questions remain important when we look at how an INTERNAL family system works. Richard Schwartz, the progenitor of IFS, apologizes often for the fact that his descriptions of our internalized parts sometimes sound like he’s describing completely individuated personalities. This is not, he assures his audience repeatedly, about having some kind of dissociative identity disorder. It’s simply a way of recognizing that certain internal behavioural patterns serve distinct and unique purposes, just like human individuals in a relational system likewise inhabit distinct roles and places within that system.

There are three types of parts in IFS:

The exiles are the deeply-internalized (often to the point of compartmentalizing right out of the picture) attachment wounds that have never been adequately identified or addressed, and therefore never really given opportunity to heal. These may be early childhood issues and traumas, or emotional or psychological injuries garnered through other critically damaging experiences as adults. These are the pains we work hardest to bury so that we don’t have to deal with either the root pain, or with the fear of what that pain might cause us to do when it surfaces.

The protectors, sometimes called the firefighters, are the behaviours we adopt over time to suppress or distract the exiled pain, to keep us from looking at it or having to be disrupted by it. This is the level on which we develop our reactive coping stances, including the maladaptive ones like addictions or binge/purge behaviours, or losing ourselves in work, sex, relationships, hobbies–anything that distracts us from the pain.

The managers are the behaviours that we develop in our outward interactions with the world around us in ways that are intended to protect us. Their job is to manage the interface to others in ways that don’t trigger the exiled hurts or the protective coping strategies that mitigate those core hurts. Manager behaviours include everything from outward anger and belligerence meant to keep everyone at a Minimum Safe Distance, to compulsive care-takers who assume that “Keep Everyone Else Happy At All Costs” = “keeping myself safe from their displeasure/disappointment.”

Most of the time, the only parts of another person that those on the outside get to interact with are the manager parts, the behaviours specifically tasked with managing external interactions. For example, in individual with an angry or abusive alcoholic partner generally gets faced with the anger and abusive behaviours; they can probably see the drinking but they can’t call that out or challenge or explore it directly. The angry Manager part gets in the way every time, and drives partners back or away. The alcoholism is the Protector part, trying to self-medicate and suppress an Exiled part buried somewhere deeper in the system (fear or shame, typically).

Somewhere at the centre of all of these parts, Schwartz posits, is the core Self. Within the Self are the roots of our sense of being, which Schwartz identifies as calm, connection, compassion, and curiosity. When we can get the Managers and Protectors out of the way more effectively, we have an opportunity to heal the old wounds by bringing them into this space within the Self. IFS provides a framework to become first aware of, then acquainted with, all of the parts in systemic orbit around this core identity, working eventually towards discovering ways of more effectively smoothing out the discordance into a more-balanced, whole self.

–from Don Mangus’ “It Only Hurts When I Smirk” (click image to link)

One of the reasons why IFS resonates with me as strongly as it does is, I suspect, how it echoes many of the precepts set out by Chogyam Trungpa in his work, “Uncovering the Sanity We Are Born With.” The intersection of Eastern Buddhism and Western psychology is largely concerned with uncovering and freeing “the authentic Self” by exploring and gently uprooting the collective neuroses throttling our authentic Self over the course of our lifelong interactions with others’ expectations and projected values. IFS as a framework also provides externalizing language that gives clients some distanced perspectives on their own behaviours. Sometimes this shift is subtle, a nuanced change. Sometimes it’s earth-shattering for the client to move from, “I am an angry person” to “There’s a PART of me that is angry all the time”, a shift that represents meeting a Manager part and recognizing there’s almost certainly more going on there than just the anger. And THAT’s a shift that opens up considerable opportunities for curiosity, and maybe even a little bit of peace: if only PART of me is angry all the time, I wonder what the rest of my parts are doing? Can I connect with any of those other parts and explore them for a while, or invite them to take over for a bit?

Working within the IFS framework therefore involves sitting in a multi-way exploration of these parts; this is where it feels a little more like multiple personalities at the table, as we get curious about the purpose and function of each part in its process. We acknowledge it and ask it to step aside so that we can glimpse or interact with whatever’s buried under under that layer. I liken it to the layers of an onion, something that becomes VERY important when I confront people on their communications challenges: we’re only as good at communicating as we are at knowing WHAT it is we’re trying to communicate. And if we only know ourselves to the level of our outward Manager behaviours, that’s all we know to communicate. That’s the barest tip of a very large and complicated iceberg, and what’s BELOW the waterline is the stuff that’s probably complicating or making us miserable in relationships. But we don’t (yet) know what’s going on down there, behind the Managers and Protectors, so there’s no effective way *TO* communicate all of that.

When we lose our authentic Self like that, it’s very hard to be in healthy relationship. Rediscovering our core, exploring and learning about it, then developing the skills to communicate that understanding to others, is something IFS therapy can certainly help navigate. There is nothing more vulnerable than exploring our authentic Selves, and vulnerability is the heart of intimacy. This is as true for our relationships with ourselves as it is within our relationships with others.

Emotional Intelligence, Relationships, Uncategorized

Humanity is a bunch of curious monkeys. It’s in our nature to question things, to look for explanations to experiences that make sense of those experiences (we’ll leave aside for now the utmost importance of pursuing or ignoring scientifically *accurate and relevant* explanations). It’s totally okay when the first exposure to something results in not understanding it. Coming to understanding is a personal growth opportunity and process that we have to actively choose to undertake–we have to WANT to know why something is or does what it is or does. When faced with questions of Why or How, it’s totally okay to not know the answers even when those questions are about ourselves.

It’s okay to not know the answers… up to a point. After that, however, “I don’t know” starts to become an increasingly problematic response. There’s genuinely not knowing the answer to a question, and then there’s deliberately avoiding learning or sharing the answer for fear it means we’re locked into or committing to that being the ONLY answer, implying a singular, correct response we have to get right.

What happens when one uses “I don’t know” as a way of avoiding committing to specific answers or presumably-limited paths forward?

I can answer this one best from my own personal experience as a recovering committmentphobe:

It goes very, very poorly.

It’s a lot easier for me to spot the pattern of fearful, stubborn entrenchment now than it ever was when I was the one clinging to “I don’t know”, but I imagine it’s every bit as harsh and terrifying when I call my own clients out as it was when I got called out for it. The problem with “I don’t know” as a long-term answer is the implication that we’re not doing the work of developing self-understanding. We’re not trying, or we’re actively avoiding, to discern and share information that is immediately relevant to our partners and the functioning of our relationships. “I don’t know” for many becomes coded language for, “I don’t want to commit to an answer on this topic”. In my case, it became a way of avoiding ownership and responsibility for my own actions when questions about my motivations or behaviours arose; but it also avoided my taking ownership or responsibility for committing to a change, ANY change. “I don’t know” leaves open all the doors of possibility, because until we have an answer then (on some quantum level) ALL options remain possible. “I don’t know” was a favourite tune for my own internal brain weasels to dance to. And it frustrated the everlovin’ hell out more than one of my partners over the years… just as I watch it frustrate, upset, or disrupt partnerships coming into my office now as clients.

In and of itself it’s not a bad answer. When it remains the long-term answer to questions like, “What do you WANT this relationship to look like?” or “What are you willing to do differently going forward from here?”, however, it’s anathema (if not outright death) to connection and intimacy. “I don’t know” becomes a way of holding the relationship hostage at a distance: “we can go no further and get no closer, because I cannot/will not do the work to answer these questions.” The partner who is unable or unwilling to face the answers becomes a gatekeeper for the entire relationship, because–and I observe this to be the truth most of the time–they are afraid. WHAT they (we, I) are afraid of, is highly contextual, and variable. Sometimes it’s an unwillingness to be held to one option. Sometimes its a fear of committing to trying something and getting it wrong, if the perception of trial and failure is equated with things only ever getting worse for the failure. If the fears are strong enough, the gatekeeping and distancing can seem insurmountable obstacles to progressing towards intimacy. Overcoming those fears seems an unobtainable goal to the fearful. Ultimately, the partners end up in a stalemate.

That distancing fear serves a purpose:

?If there is one over riding reason why our world and relationships are in such a mess, is that we try to get rid of our anxiety, fear and shame as fast as possible, regardless of the long term consequences. In doing so, we blame and shame others and in countless ways, we unwittingly act against ourselves. We confuse our fear driven thoughts with what is right, best, necessary or true.?
? Harriet Lerner, The Dance of Fear

In the moment, it will often seem like there is no better antidote for fear than to simply not engage it: hold it away from us where we don’t have to look at it, or do anything about it. “I don’t know” means not having done the homework, and potentially not doing the homework going forward, either. As long as the gatekeeper holds themselves in limbo, they can hold off confronting their fear. Unfortunately, it comes at the cost of the health of the relationship over the long term, often in the short term as well.

?If you pay attention, you may find that it is not fear that stops you from doing the brave and true thing in your daily life. Rather, the problem is avoidance. You want to feel comfortable, so you avoid doing the thing that will evoke fear and other disquieting emotions. Avoidance will make you feel less vulnerable in the short run, but it will never make you less afraid.?
? Harriet Lerner, The Dance of Fear

Sometimes, doing our own homework is the bravest thing we can do.

Book Recommendations, Community, Current Events, Emotional Intelligence

November 2015, Bataclan Theatre, Paris: a terrorist attack kills 89, including the wife of Antoine Leiris. Leiris later wrote something in a Facebook post that has become a manifesto to many who struggle with responding to this kind of attack on our basic humanity:

“So, no, I will not give you the satisfaction of hating you. That is what you want, but to respond to your hate with anger would be to yield to the same ignorance that made you what you are. You want me to be scared, to see my fellow citizens through suspicious eyes, to sacrifice my freedom for security. You have failed. I will not change.”

July 2016, Nice, France: “a 19 tonne cargo truck was deliberately driven into crowds of people celebrating Bastille Day on the Promenade des Anglais in Nice, France, resulting in the deaths of 86 people[2] and the injury of 458 others.”

April 2018, Toronto Ontario: a man drove a van into pedestrians along a busy city street, killing ten and wounding 15 more. When police apprehended him shortly thereafter, he purportedly approached them, saying “Kill me.” Police refused to shoot, subduing and arresting him without further harm.

We think, “This is Canada; this isn’t supposed to happen here.”


I’ve recently been reading Bren? Brown’s latest book, “Braving the Wilderness”; it was there I first hear about Leiris and his anti-hate manifesto. She explores the experience of connection and disconnection in human relations, including the ways in which we find it easier to hate amorphous groups far more easily than we can hate individuals; how the quest for true inclusion leaves us grappling with profound fears of being or feeling excluded, and how those fears can be manipulated into creating the false dichotomy of “us versus them”, or moral exclusion.

Moral exclusion as a broad-scale social phenomenon is the basis for a variety of dehumanizing practices, in which dehumanization is “the psychological process of demonizing the enemy, making them seem less than human and hence not worthy of human treatment.” (Brown 2017, pg 72)

“Groups targeted based on their identity–gender [or orientation–KG], ideology, skin colour, ethnicity, religion, age–are depicted as “less than” or criminal or even evil. The targeted group eventually falls out of the scope of who is naturally protected by our moral code. This is moral exclusion, and dehumanization is at its core.” (Brown 2017, pg. 73)

The rhetoric that has been building south of the border since well before the last presidential election has opened the door to see this “us versus them” in harsh detail. Arguably it truly launched after 9/11 provided the US with a solid platform to vilify “Muslim terrorists”, conflating an entire culture with its most ardent and evangelical outliers and dehumanizing them all. More crucially, we’ve seen how infectious that kind of thinking is as we’ve watched it creep north of the border; we’re watching it reignite as we move into another election year of our own.

There’s always an “Us” ready to hate “Them”.

As soon as news of the van attack hit the feeds yesterday, those sides polarized, even here among the “polite Canadians”. The association of the driver (male, light-skinned) with a movement that has become tied to angry entitlement and the alt-right men’s movement has been constant fodder as people try to make sense of the senseless, try to manage their fears with information that (in theory) will explain everything. As nature abhors a vacuum, so too does the human mind abhor not having answers to, or neatly-contextualizing information explaining, major emotional experiences. We process our shock, and fear–and yes, anger–together, but in that togetherness, the polarization seems to occur seamlessly. And we want nothing more than to be on “the right side” in choosing our responses to such an event.


“Common enemy intimacy is counterfeit connection and the opposite of true belonging. If the bond we share with others is simply that we hate the same people, the intimacy we experience is often intense, immediately gratifying, and an easy way to discharge outrage and pain. It is not, however, fuel for real connection. It’s fuel that runs hot, burns fast, and leaves a trail of polluted emotion. And if we live with any level of self-awareness, it’s also the kind of intimacy that leaves us with the intense regrets of an integrity hangover. […] I get that these are uncertain and threatening times. I often feel the pull of hiding out and finding safety with a crew. But it’s not working.” (Brown 2017, pg. 136)

I made the #1 Internet Citizen mistake yesterday as the news was breaking: I read the comments. Even on reputable news sources, the rampant hatred of some respondents was an unavoidable thread among the otherwise-fulsome outpouring of love, shock, support, condolences, sadness. The ideological camps were staking out their territories in UsandThemism language of anger and hatred.

Since the above sections of Bren? Brown’s book were still fresh in my mind, I kept coming back to Leiris’ letter to the Bataclan attackers:

“Of course I am devastated by grief, I grant you this little victory, but it will be short-term. I know she will accompany us every day and we will find ourselves in this paradise of free souls to which you will never have access. […] [W]e are stronger than all the armies in the world.”

As a woman, as a feminist, as someone who has experienced rampant misogyny on personal and professional levels nearly all my life, it would be so terribly, terribly simple to buy into that hate, to dehumanize Yet One More Violent Man as part of that more anonymous collective. There’s a seductive truth underlying most of our UsAndThemism: there are more than enough individual examples of anything we collectively hate to justify assuming there’s a systemic problem encompassing a LOT of individuals into some kind of cohesive larger unit. So we come to hate what we assume to be a cohesive collective, and forget (or choose not) to see the individuals within that presumed collective. We have effectively dehumanized them.

Brown talks about how, during the research process for “Braving the Wilderness”, she often felt like screaming, “Screw you and screw the pain of people who are causing pain. I will hold on to my sweet, self-righteous rage.” (pg 66)

“But to what end? [Clinging to rage and] Not caring about our own pain and the pain of others is not working? […] One response to this is “Get angry and stay angry!” I haven’t seen this advice borne out in the research What I have found is that yes, we all have the right and need to feel and own our anger. It’s an important human experience. And it’s critical to recognize that maintaining any level of rage, anger, or contempt (that favourite concoction of a little anger and a little disgust) over a long period of time is not sustainable.
“Anger is a catalyst. Holding onto it will make us exhausted and sick. Internalizing anger will take away our joy and spirit; externalizing anger will make us less effective in our attempts to create change and forge connection. It’s an emotion that we need to transform into something life-giving: courage, love, change, compassion, justice. […] [A]nger is a powerful catalyst, but a life-sucking companion.” (pg. 67-8)

Not responding in anger and hatred is hard; harder still when attacks hit close to home, metaphorically or geographically. Terrorism is meant to provoke fear; it’s meant to send a message of power and control, introducing a non-consensual power dynamic across a broad ideological system. Fighting back is as instinctive for some as accepting subjugation is for others, so where is the presumedly RIGHT “Us” in this mix, the one we join to stay safe?

The whole premise of Brown’s book is that in stepping outside these ideological camps to choose love over hate, and to transform anger into one of those life-sustaining alternates, we are braving our own individual, ideological wilderness. Embracing something other than UsAndThemis encampments is hard; it often feels like eschewing the safety of numbers for a unique position of disengagement from that anger and hatred. But as Leiris’ post and Brown’s research conclude, there’s a massive difference between disengagement on a systemic level, and choosing to lean in close and find the aspects of us as individuals that illustrate we’re more alike than we’re maybe comfortable admitting out loud. That illustrate that even amidst vast ideological differences, there ARE similarities of human experience in each of us to which we can relate. We may not WANT to; we may not CHOOSE to.

Brown herself admits there’s a safe harbour in staying angry and holding ourselves ideologically separate from those who hurt or anger us, who provoke us to fear and hatred. We join with others in our respective camps, believing in those superficial bonds of unified hate (in which one can argue the “Us” suddenly looks an awful lot like the “Them” we claim to despise for doing exactly the same thing). we buy into the entrenchment because, hey, safety in numbers, and we want to be in the Right Camp at the end of the day, yes?

Letting go of anger, stepping away from the entrenched encampments: this is the wilderness Brown explores. She quotes Dr. Maya Angelou:

“You are only free when you realize you belong no place–you belong every place–no place at all. The price is high. The reward is great.” (pg. 5)

And so… you will not have my hate.

I may be afraid. I may be angry, but I will not hate. I may not have explanations that make any sense at all, but I will not hate. I will practice leaning in close, leaning into the sharp things, and I will not hate.

You will NOT have my hate.

Emotional Intelligence, Family Issues, Language, self-perception, Uncategorized

One nebulous advantage of being a Marriage & Family Therapist, trained in family systems theory, is that we have ample opportunity to explore our own origin stories, as well as those of our clients. We gain new perspectives or information that reframes our understanding about where we come from, and how that changes our perception of who and how we are in the world.

In psychotherapy, there are generally some firm boundaries around “safe and effective use of Self” for therapists that are all about understanding and/or mitigating how WHO we are impacts HOW we are in our work with our clients. Understanding the formative and often invisible impacts of our families of origin can be a part of that work, as our early models often influence our values and inter-relational patterns in all kinds of relationships. We don’t use it necessarily as an excuse to talk about ourselves in client sessions, though careful and limited use of personally-relatable anecdotes can be a useful tool for illustrating to clients just how much we do (or don’t) *get them*.

Then again, I’m also a writer by trade long before I was a therapist, and a principle tenet of writing is to “write what you know”. Since people are often curious about how therapists wind up becoming therapists, I thought I’d for once break the silence around personal stories, and share my own origin story. In doing so, it also helps me recognize that a lot of this has the ring of well-honed narrative, meaning that every time I tell some of these stories, I’m (subtly, perhaps) reinforcing those storylines and their underlying values in my head. I’m also giving myself an opportunity, however, to reflect on those storylines a little more and see whether there’s anything to be altered in the current moment, applying years’ worth of reflection to temper something I’ve been telling myself, in many cases, literally all my adult life. As an exercise, I’m going to bold the parts of it that are the internalized scripts, the narrative lines that I’ve carried and polished the longest.

WHO AM I, a story by Karen, age 50 and 3/4

To start with, my family structure itself was odd. My parents met in Toronto in 1965 when my recently-divorced mother and her four-year-old daughter were trying to make a new life for themselves. The mid-60s weren’t exactly hospitable years for divorcees and single mothers, and my mom has admitted that what she was looking for was financial support more than romance. My mother’s first daughter was a handful, however, and sometime just before my parents met, my mom made her daughter a ward of the Crown; in short, voluntarily relinquished her into the fostercare system. Mom had also had a second child out of wedlock after the marriage ended; he was given up for adoption at birth.

My father was working as an industrial architect with a side passion for big-band jazz. I’ve got ancient newsclippings of my dad on an upright base playing with a then-unknown black kid by the name of Oscar Peterson on the piano. My dad was 17 years older than my mom. They connected through unknown-to-me circumstance. Two years later, they had me; I was planned. I grew up knowing about my half-sister, as she came and went from my life on whirlwind visits. I don’t remember how old I was when I discovered the birth documents for my half-brother, probably around 8 or so, but thereafter I know I internalized the idea that “I was the one she/they kept”. I also internalized the idea that if they gave away two other babies, obviously they could give ME away any time they wanted, too.

As a young adult, I took to describing my homelife as a “Cold War zone”. My relationship with each of my parents was okay and as “normal” as one might expect for the 70s and 80s–their relationship with each other was a different story. Of note: my parents were never married; they both commented over the years that having each been burned by previous marital heartaches, there seemed no good reason to go through the motions a second time. The scripted line was, “They lived together for 19 years, and hated each other for 17 of them,” which, while lacking in the accuracy of the minutiae, certainly encompasses the overarching tension of my homelife. My parents never slept in the same bed, and round about the time we moved into a small town when I was 7.5, they didn’t even sleep in the same room on the same floor of the house. Mom always maintained it was because of Dad’s snoring (which was prodigious), but I never believed that was all, or even the bulk of her reasoning.

It’s worth noting: I never knew my dad’s family. His parents were long dead before I was born, as was one of his sisters (Scarlet Fever in her case); what family he had through his remaining sister was scattered on the East Coast. I have a vague memory of meeting a couple of his cousins or nephew/niece when I was very young, but I remember their dog better than I remember them. I also met the daughter of his first wife once in my early teens when she came west to visit, but that once was all the exposure I had until I tracked her down through FB last year to inform her of Dad’s passing. My mother’s family is its own tale of dire dysfunction, including her alcoholic mother with undiagnosed suicidal depression (though some of my mother’s tales ring the bells of Borderline Personality Disorder); my mother tells of the day my grandmother tried to kill herself by driving the family car off the road… with my mother and her younger brother loose in the back seat. My grandfather was unwilling to confront or deal with his wife’s obvious mental health issues, so he didn’t intervene even when she beat her daughter or emotionally terrorized either child. MY mother finally fled as a teenager, as soon as she was old enough to work to support herself. She married young; her first husband was an abusive alcoholic. She was 20 when her first daughter was born.

Both of my parents were high-functioning alcoholics. My mother also suffered from undiagnosed depression. Neither of my parents finished high school. Dad enlisted in the army at 18, which got him to Europe for the last rounds of WWII. His work ethic meant both a workaholic, emotionally-unavailable father-figure, and that my university education was paid for long before I graduated high school, about which I was constantly reminded, and an investment I promptly lost by failing out of my first year of university. I was the first generation of the family to attend university; between my mother’s and her brother’s kids (her 2 daughters, his 2 sons), only two of us completed undergrad. I’m the only one with a post-grad degree. None of us has had a stable, successful marriage (including our parents). Only one of the four of us ever had kids. The eldest in both sets of siblings has significant mental health issues including drug or alcohol issues and numerous run-ins during “troubled youth” with law enforcement. That left myself and my younger cousin to be the “good kids” in a widespread system of familial dysfunction. My running joke for a long time was that David (said cousin) and I were the white sheep of the family, notable for our rarity.

So… that’s the bare-bone systemic model in which I grew up. Even glossing over so many details about the intergenerational and inherited trauma normal to family systems, that’s a lot of self-defining scripting I’m carrying forward into my adult life, the echos of which still occasionally rattle the windows and shake the walls of my current life.

When we dig into the narratives I’ve bolded, there’s an incredible amount of tension touching on several aspects of my core family dynamics:

  • The incredible pressure of growing up as “the one they kept”, believing that if they could give the other children away, I had to be EXTRA GOOD to make sure that didn’t happen to me.
  • The weight of expectation tied to my going to university, even if I proved terribly unready for the responsibility of “being launched”.
  • Being the Adult Child of Alcoholics (OMG, I don’t even know where to start with what I’ve learned about this one, but here’s a good suggestion).
  • The dynamic of seemingly overbonded mother and underbonded father (and let me tell you, THAT dynamic has been a major undermining factor of EVERY heterosexual relationship I have ever had, including both my marriages).
  • Undiagnosed mental health issues galore, up to and including my own until-recently-admitted depression and anxiety.
  • The “Cold War” aspect of my parents’ relationship as the foundational model I took away for “how intimate partnerships should look” (and my own deeply-disconnecting behaviours when stressed in relationship).

It’s not uncommon that “relationship issues” such as faltering intimacy or communications challenges in relationship are what drive an individual or partners into a therapist’s office. One of the reasons the family of origin snapshot is such an integral part of my own intake process is that it shapes for me a picture of the significant early and formative influences on the participants in the current conversation.

Having spent so much time navel-gazing my own origin story, and listening over the years to how I tell my origin story, I’ve learned something about how to listen for those polished-sounding phrases, lines and phrases that crop up time and time again in conversation. I can’t always put my finger on what it is about a particular choice of wording in a client’s story that sets my Spidey-senses tingling, but my accuracy is (in my not-so-humble opinion) better than just average in catching the tones. There’s just something about a precise choice of words; or something about how they all run together like a phrase we haven’t actually had to think about constructing for a long time, dropped in the midst of an otherwise thoughtful conversation.

(I’m not ruling out the idea that I’m just projecting onto my own clients, at least some of the time; on a good day, I’m self-aware enough to be aware that’s a potential inadvertent-thing-wot-therapists do, yo.)

We all have these stories, these pieces of personal narrative we just carry with us as shorthand descriptions of things that actually carry an incredible significance to those willing to get past the polish and gleam of scripting. I joke sometimes that my job as a therapist is to be a “professional disruptive influence”, and more often than not, what I’m looking to disrupt is the attachments we invest in those safe scripts. Scripts around our origin stories, like any other experience, in many ways function as cages that contain complex emotional experiences. Language is a tool we use to define and shape experience into something we can wrap our heads around. Dispassionate versus passionate language and delivery, for example, is discernible through listening to word choice as well as tone. Applying language to an experience is, in and of itself, a very cognitive process, and in pushing emotional experience through cognitive filters, we already begin to separate ourselves from the immediacy of the lived and felt experience. Our word choice actually informs our brain how we want to qualify and quantify that experience; we can use language to embrace or distance our selves from the feelings. Our origin stories are the stories we have been practicing and polishing the longest of all our scripts. Sometimes we need to just scrape off the years of accumulated polish to see the actual grain and bones of the experience underneath, to understand what happened in different lights and perspectives, and maybe learn something new about ourselves in the process.

Self-care, Uncategorized

Ah, Christmas.

Ah, family.

Ah, chaos.

Nothing brings out the best and worst of us like this time of year. I don’t know a lot of people who get through the six weeks from December 1 to mid-January without a great deal of stress and anxiety, whether it’s about money, work, family, the increased workloads involved in balancing work + social event schedules + family, weather (especially for those of us in northern climes)… The amount of work most people I know put into trying to get to a point where they CAN relax over the holidays is phenomenal. When I still worked in IT, nothing crushed the heart and soul out of many employees like the workload of trying to clear a project schedule just to afford a couple of days off between Christmas and New Years, and that’s assuming that you have vacation time available, or work some place flexible enough to allow banking lieu time at this time of year. Not everyone has those luxuries.

Client schedules at this time of year become extremely unpredictable. Clients with benefits that renew at the beginning of the calendar year may be gleefully maxxing them out while they can, or they may find themselves eaten by other schedule requirements requiring them to rebook or miss appointments. A lot of seasonal sickness makes the rounds at this time of year, too. For psychotherapists like myself who may not be covered by most benefits, we find (unsurprisingly) that as much as our clients appreciate their work with us, they will often (understandably) choose to pay for Christmas rather than therapy, even when they (ruefully) admit they probably need the therapeutic support more now than other times through the year. We’re pretty understanding of that, though obviously it impacts OUR seasonal income as well. And honestly, there’s generally no good way for us to predict from one year to the next what any given holiday season is going to look like.

We CAN largely expect that many of our conversations with clients will revolve around how holiday stress impacts their relationships at home, or with larger family groups. Nothing seems to spark relational conflict or communications issues like a bucketload of conflicting priorities and obligations packed into the short window of Christmas.

Most therapists will tell you flat out, there’s no magic wand we can wave to take all of that strain away. The holidays really do bring out the best and worst in us. Google will helpfully provide pages and pages of links in response to typing “surviving the holidays” into the Search bar, but at the end of the day, I think the basics of Seasonal Survival Strategies look the same:

1. There should be some place that becomes your “safe space”, a respite from the Holiday Craziness that will, in fact, infect just about every aspect of your world for six weeks. (Even if you’re from a culture that doesn’t celebrate a major holiday at this time of year, if you’re reading this you’re probably living somewhere where most people around you seem to have almost literally Lost Their Minds). Whether this is a place in your home, your workplace, your car if you have one, or some place like a public library, make sure it’s a place you can get to on a regular basis. It should be some place you can keep mostly clear of the trappings and noise of the holidays, or at least have a higher degree of control over said trappings and noise.

2. Spend time in that safe space whenever you can. Make it a deliberate and mindful choice to “leave Christmas at the door” when you enter the space. The lists, the schedules, the noise, the chores, the negotiations, the frustrations… leave them outside. They’ll still be there when you come out (trust me) but for a few minutes or even an hour, give yourself the gift of Not-That-Chaos. It may seem like a luxury, an outrageous demand, to walk away from it all for a while, but honestly, this is nothing more than developing good boundaries, and valuing your own mental health in the mix of temporarily-extraordinary life. Everyone else will tell you that it’s important to be empathetic and compassionate to everyone else, because everyone else is stressed, too… but I can guarantee it will be damned hard to find energy to BE empathetic and hold compassion for others if you DON’T create some protected time and space to recharge yourself along the way.

3. Relax rigid expectations. This is a hard one for many of us, myself included, but absolutely powerful when we manage it. We all love the illusion of having control of situations and people; it brings us a sense of calm, or something. But honestly, this time of year is all about requiring some flexible adaptability. Herding cats never goes like we expect, and trying to muscle everyone’s obligations onto a singular rigid schedule that can then be skewed by weather, who-forgot-to-pack-that-Very-Important-Thing, sudden illness, unexpected upheavals in family politics, and any number of other factors over which we have ZERO control… this is the recipe for disaster we hand down between generations almost as faithfully as we’ve passed on great-grandmother Janette’s fruitcake recipe. If there is one gift I could give all my readers this holiday season, it’s this reminder: SHIT HAPPENS. You can wallow in your outcome attachment and get angry/disappointed/hurt/frustrated/upset, or you can roll with it and just “be there when you get there”. (I write that with a certain amount of personal irony as I am also trying to shore up scheduling with my mother that has my travel time contingent upon how long we need to roast a ham for Christmas Dinner, especially as I’m the one bringing said ham from KW to a city two hours away in GOOD driving conditions…)

4. Remember that “This too shall pass”. The work seems overloading and perpetual when you’re in it, and it never seems like family helps or supports you as much as you might want or hope it will; doubly so if your family life/relationship(s) is in any way already unsettled or contentious. But the holidays are a time-boxed event. January brings its own strains, but worry about those in January. Your job is to just survive December, and know that the holiday efforts will end, as they do every year, eventually.

Honestly, I look at a list like that and think to myself, “How hard can this be?”, and then I find myself, or at least a little part of the back of my brain, making high-pitched, hysterical giggling noises. And this is a GOOD year: other than Christmas Day at my mum’s since we’re the last of my family, I’m working through the bulk of the holidays. Excepting a small tea date this coming weekend and going out for NYE, I’m not hosting anything, I’m not doing any other travelling, I’m just looking after myself and my geriatric cat. And yet even then I can’t escape a degree of the holiday craziness. I still scrambled a weekend earlier this month to put up my tree and decorations at home; I still have to contend with cranky seasonal crowds almost everywhere I go. I’m definitely at the simple end of the seasonal spectrum, but I still vividly remember the days of travelling to my ex-husband’s family in Ottawa for multiple days, then having to squeeze my late dad in Orillia and my mum in Owen Sound somewhere else around the schedule, plus respective office Christmas events, our hosting massive NYE events, and probably one or the other of us working in between, trying to fit in the gift shopping and groceries and… and… and…

I know what it’s like to lose one’s Self amid the requirements of the Family Obligation World Tours. We lose the quiet moments in our own spaces, we lose the opportunity to just roll the schedule as we see fit, when everyone else’s timetables suddenly seem (or have) to take precedence. We lose sleep. We lose patience. We lose tempers. We lose perspective and equilibrium. I get it, I do. I don’t miss it, but I’m in a weirdly luxurious position of having as much time and space as I want for *my singular self*, and I recognize that. So much empathy for those who don’t have that same luxury. Time and time again, year after year, I find these are the four points that resonate most when talking with people trying to find a sane path through the messier parts of the season. We feel so much pressure to “be of good cheer” and wish “joy to the world” and all of that romantic holiday fiddle-faddle, but we can’t always get there from here when we’re viewing the season through the filters of our own personal stress and anxiety. We can’t even get to the relationship-management skills necessary to get through the season effectively when we’ve lost our personal footings, so I’m not even talking about those today.

Make some space, take some time, practice flexibility, and believe this will all be over in time.

However you celebrate the holidays, I hope you find a degree of peace in the process, moments where you remind yourself WHY you do what you do for these celebrations. Find love and joy where you can, rest when you need to, and please accept warm seasons greetings from my house to yours.

[Please note: the blog is on hiatus next week, as we prove that therapists can, and sometimes do, follow our own suggestions.]

Emotional Intelligence, Self-care, self-perception, Uncategorized

It’s Tuesday morning and I’m sitting in the coffee shop with my colleague, and largely induced by last night’s dose of Nyquil, I’m in a mental fugue state that just Does Not Want To Write. It’s not quite “stomping my little feetsies and howling” levels of resistance, but it’s a big chunk of mental Don’Wannas that just won’t respond to coffee or placatory scones. I’m trying to force myself to go through archived posts to see if there’s anything I can repost for more meaningful content, trying to force myself to write on a difficult topic currently whirling around my hindbrain, I’m trying to force the groove that just resists me at every turn…

Then I go get another coffee from my favourite barrista, Ben, and realize I’m missing a beautiful opportunity right here and now to observe myself in the moment. The heart of mindfulness is the ability to witness ourselves in the moment of whatever experience we’re having, without judgment. We approach our own experiences with a curious mind; it’s an exploratory mindset rather than a harshly manipulative one. In the moment it becomes less about enforcing my own will over my own obvious reluctance, but it’s a chance to observe that reluctance and give space and voice to whatever’s going on right here, right now.

When I set the noise of my own performative expectations aside (Must! Write! Blogpost! Must! Continue! Generating! Original! Value-add! Content! Musn’t! Disappoint! Readership! Must! Drive! Traffic! To! Website! Create! Revenue! PanicpanicpanicEGO!), there’s a whole lot of silence in the ensuing space. It’s silent, because today I am exhausted. Some of that is grogginess from the cough syrup taken before bed last night, but most of it is the drained aftermath of an emotionally tumultuous week on social and inter-relational fronts. It’s a resistance based in wanting to bask in the flexibility of my schedule by NOT doing work today, and resenting the fact that the only reason I got out of bed this morning was a barely-disciplined drive to keep up a habit. (Don’t get me wrong, this weekly workdate is a godsend as far as habits go, for someone like me with a very wibbly-wobbly-timey-wimey relationship to “work ethic”, but it really does happen largely by dint of willpower, rather than an actual love of getting out of bed early on my plausible day off to go write.)

The trick with mindfulness and self-observation at that point, is what happens next. Having observed these feelings running rampant through the room, now what? More importantly, if I’m actually under pressure or deadline to get things done, what can I do with these feelings to accomplish something?

This is a decision point, if we’re aware in the moment to recognize such. Today, I have the luxury of being under no deadline but my own, so I can afford to slack the performance-writing pressure off, and come home to finish the post in my own time. We don’t always have the luxury of time, however, or at least we perceive that we don’t (which is, in part, how the “cult of busyness” has become the implacable force it has for many of us), so we can’t cut much slack into the timetable to sit with our own discomforts. Then what?

I liken this part of the process to the film technique of split-screening, with two or more windows on screen showing different people in different places, talking to each other or others. In a mindfulness exercise of self-observation, we make a space to hold that self-observation in real-time while ALSO doing whatever needs doing outside the realm of our internal experience. I refer to my “observing self” as having a little Zen Master who sits a little above and behind my shoulder, observing the Self in action while the rest of my brain goes about the external business (or busyness) of the moment. We hold space for the in situ observations with a non-judgmental curiosity, and worry about assessing later. This doesn’t always negate the stress or performance pressure in the moment, but it makes space to allow it to happen and flow through us without necessarily being blocked or bottlenecked as we fight it or try to compartmentalize it into some other corner of our mind.

For the record, I’m not always great at this practice myself, even after almost fifteen years of practicing (with wildly-variable degrees of success) self-observation in my daily life. My biggest pitfall is common: I get trapped in judgmental assessments and harsh critiques of my own internal experiences, rather than simply being curious about what’s happening. Instead of simply observing my resistance this morning, I became frustrated by what I was noting. In being curious about what I was feeling, I critiqued the choices and actions that presumably led to my current state and then passed judgement on myself for being an idiot last night and taking Nyquil later than I should have, knowing I had an early alarm set, blah blah yadda yadda blah.

By learning how to let go of that critical analysis that for many of us leads to inevitable internal name-calling and denigration, we cut ourselves some slack. We let the pressure off. We allow ourselves to recognize that we are thinking, rather than simply feeling, to tell ourselves, “stop”. In most meditation practices, the sitter will invariably get distracted and pulled into thought processes. We can either get wrapped up in those thoughts, or we can recognize “thinking” and permit the process to just drift away. Normally we call attention back to the breath, or something specifically centred in the moment, to help turn mental power away from distracting or disruptive thoughts, and we can do the same thing when trying to simply observe what’s happening in the moment. It’s a simple refocusing choice: “What’s happening right now?” We discipline ourselves to observe only the observable, and to let go of anything that feels like a thought.

When we don’t have the luxury of taking all day to do what we meant to do in a two hour window in the morning, the split-screen approach enables the observations to happen in one window while the forward momentum happens in the other. “What is the next step in what I am doing?” becomes a way of restructuring the need to push forward when half our conscious cognitive power is suddenly rerouted to self-observation. We shift focus to the smallest progressive component in our current task: do the next small thing; when that’s finished, do the next small thing after that. When that’s complete, do the next small thing after *that*, and so on until the self-observation of whatever is happening on the other side of the screen has run its course as best it can.

When we are mindful and self-observant about our own internal experiences, we stand a better chance of making more effective decisions about ourselves and our needs in the moment. It requires being fully present, in the sense of being open to, the feelings themselves; as soon as we start to layer rationalizations, justifications, judgments, or narratives over top of those feelings — in other words, as soon as we start to tell ourselves stories about why we feel what we feel, or where those feelings must/probably come from — then we are trapped in a cognitive process that is more about manipulating our own feelings than it is about simply allowing them to be. That in turn often introduces a great deal of tension or anxiety into the mind, and can in turn create significant dissonance and distress between what we feel and what we do in REACTION to those feelings (or rather, what we’re telling ourselves about those feelings). For example, I spent a relatively lengthy part of this morning beating myself up for failing to function this morning, and for failing to adhere to my own best-practices around managing drowsy-making medications int he evenings. Letting go of my own expectations, all rooted in my ego, around my vaunted prowess for pulling lengthy blog posts outta my arse in two hours or less, meant letting go of that harshly-critical voice in my head and just allowing myself to observe what lay beneath. And when I was able (and willing) to recognize the exhaustion that is more pervasive than a simple late-night dose of cough syrup could explain, it was much easier to release the expectations of ego and say, “Well, okay then… what’s the next small step that I *can* do?”

And so, it’s mid-afternoon on Tuesday and my small steps have included things like, “letting the pressure off myself,” “shut up and enjoy my coffee,” “chat with cafe friends,” “enjoy the mild sunshine on the drive home,” “write some more,” “snuggle my aging cat,” “write some more,” “do some small tidying efforts,” “finish the post,” “publish the post,” then whatever else comes next in line. If I had pushed to write something as I had initially felt compelled to do, I would have been unhappy with the end product and disconnected from myself for the rest of the day because of how I would have failed to just listen to myself. (I also would have cheated myself out of both a great experiential learning opportunity* AND blog content, but that’s neither here nor there 🙂

So, when you’re feeling stressed, anxious, resistant, anything really — cut yourself some slack. Even if it’s only just enough to take a moment and turn the observant eye inward, get curious about your own internal state. Dismiss the negative narratives that may come along for the ride, and just give some space to what you note in your own experience of that moment. If you need to continue being productive because you don’t feel you have the luxury of time, then leave part of the mind on observation mode and let another part of the mind break down the required forward momentum into next-small-step-sized parcels. Let the feelings be just feelings; they may not require action, so just let them run their course. They’ll subside in scope and intensity much fast than if you engage and fight or throttle them. And you’ll hopefully feel considerably more grounded once they do.


(* — Or, as we like to call them in some circles, “Another F***ing Personal Growth Opportunity”.)