Emotional Intelligence, Self-Development, Uncategorized

No-one who has seen any rendition of “Les Miserables” ever forgets the moment when one of the main characters stands atop the barricades waving the French flag as a symbol of defiant defense against the encroaching regular militia intent to tear the revolutionaries apart. Signalling our entrenched defense of a position is as much an act of rebellion or revolution as it is an act of fear or of outright war. This is as true in emotional conflict as it is in any more overt armed conflict.

People take positions or stances for a variety of reasons. For example, Virginia Satir defines four coping or “survival stances”, methods of establishing some kind of emotional equilibrium based on a set of “rules” that govern the association between (generally low) self-esteem, triggers, emotional reactions, and behavioural responses. Specifically, she writes,

“The four survival states… originate from a state of low self-esteem and imbalance, in which people give their power to someone or something else. People adopt survival stances to protect their self worth against verbal and non-verbal, perceived and presumed threats.” (Satir, The Satir Model, pg 31)

The four stances Satir identifies are the Blaming stance, the Placating stance, the Super-Reasonable stance, and the Irrelevant stance. And because people tend to adopt such stances or positions as survival mechanisms in situations where the attendant behaviours for each stance provide a barricade protecting us from those perceived threats, we can, over time, emotionally invest in our stances very heavily. If we come to believe that maintaining these stances will keep us safe, hen any perceived threat will be defended against, sometimes with subversion and sometimes with tactical precision and military-grade offence. When we’re significantly invested in defending those stances to the point where we have no openness or tolerance for any threat against them, we are considered to be entrenched. We become entrenched in a variety of ways; it generally indicates there is no resiliency for change, no way to integrate or even consider differing or opposing viewpoints. We become heavily invested in our perspectives or views of reality, even if they are (at least to external perspectives) distorted or dysfunctional perspectives. We cannot afford to be wrong, so we will defend the barricades we build around our entrenched positions until we (metaphorically) die through convincing and conversion, or exhausted capitulation.

Last week’s blog post looked at gaslighting as a form of deliberate manipulation in the context of abusive relationships. It’s important to note that gaslighting sometimes also occurs as a consequence of entrenched individuals defending their defensive barricades. Most of us have probably uttered phrases, in jest or in seriousness, along the lines of, “You’re crazy!” or “You’re nuts, that’s not how it happened!”. It doesn’t happen out of manipulative maliciousness in many cases; it can also happen as a result of entrenchment defending its own invested worldview against the perceived threat of a different view. We can become dismissive of other perspectives, or possibly even contemptuous — remember, contempt is one of John Gottman’s Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse — simply because we don’t want to manage the internal upheaval that comes of having our entrenched beliefs, or entrenched narratives around our self-esteem, challenged by external, presumed-hostile forces intent on (presumably) destroying those beliefs. It’s often easier for people to repel the attack on our position than it is to self-regulate our inner turmoil.

And that’s the primary difference between two types of gaslighting: one is an active manipulation with intent to manage or force compliance from Other, the other is a way or repelling perceived threats as a defense of the Self. To the outside perspectives, it’s true that the effect may appear similar and the felt impact will be similarly painful. No-one likes being dismissed or diminutized, especially by someone close to us. But there are advantages in differentiating intent when it comes time to decode and deconstruct the defensive mechanisms when we get to working with this kind of challenge in the counselling room. In order to encourage entrenched perspectives to lower the barricades (or at least lower their defensive intolerance), we have to consider what it is they are protecting behind the barricades; what are they so afraid of? Roger Fisher and William Ury, authors of the classic handbook on negotiation, Getting to Yes, state from the outset in their works that arguing over *positions* is the most ineffective way of achieving a favourable resolution to any kind of negotiating or potentially challenging engagement:

“Whether a negotiation concerns a contract, a family quarrel, or a peace settlement among nations, people routinely engage in positional bargaining. Each side takes a position, argues for it, and makes concessions to reach a compromise. [..] When negotiators bargain over positions, they tend to lock themselves into those positions. The more you clarify your position and defend it against attack, the more committed you become to it. The more you try to convince the other side of the impossibility of changing your opening position, the more difficult it becomes to do so. Your ego becomes identified with your position. You now have a new interest in “saving face” ? in reconciling future action with past positions ? making it less and less likely that any agreement will wisely reconcile the parties’ original interests.” (Fisher & Ury, pgs. 7-8)

This is an excellent summary of entrenchment, and why it is so difficult to “win” confrontations or conflict with entrenched parties. We see this in the counselling room all the time. When the arguments become less about achieving a collaborative solution or even compromise than they are about “being right” or “saving face”, then we’re facing an entrenched adversary who will likely do everything they can to save their position. Learning what lies at the emotional centre of the defended position is a key part of a resolution process, because it’s sometimes not going to be obvious from the defensive strategies lobbed out by those behind the barricade. As we often say in relational therapy, “The thing that we’re fighting about may not actually be the thing that we’re fighting about” — the WORDS of the argument may be about leaving socks on the bedroom floor for the eighth time this week, but the FORCE of the argument is ACTUALLY about not feeling heard and respected; the entrenchment, the emotional investment in one’s stance in the argument, results from feeling hurt, or needing to be right.

These kinds of emotional entrenchment conflicts are an excellent place for emotionally-focused therapy to introduce way of opening up defensive stances between couples especially, of exploring the underlying narratives tied to esteem-based interpretations that keep getting in the way of partners hearing each other. When these kinds of issues come into the office with individual clients, sometimes we can apply a more narrative exploration to clarify why a person continues to emotionally invest in a particular survival stance, even to the potential or ongoing detriment of their current relationships. We’re constantly looking for ways to increase the native sense of emotional safety and bolstered self-esteem, as a way of introducing more resiliency to how we face challenges to our worldviews and our sense of Self. There are ways to increase one’s flexibility and adaptability in the face of differing perspectives that does not mean “we were wrong” or that we somehow cease to exist if we drop an invested stance.

Sometimes it takes time and work to build security that makes that kind of resiliency possible, though; it’s more than simply “wearing each other down” in the way the French militia and the Revolutionaries in “Les Mis” wore each other down through frequent battles. It’s about learning about the underpinnings of each other’s stances, understanding why they are important to us, and working that into collaborative discussion strategies that build tolerance. We can’t stand on the barricades and wave the revolutionary flag forever; sometimes we just need help to dig ourselves out of our own entrenchments.

Self-Development, self-perception

Personal disclosure time: I’ll be 50 on my next birthday in a few weeks. Given the massive upheavals in my own personal and professional lives as I crossed that invisible threshold into “middle age”, I’ve felt fairly attuned to the cultural narratives we have around the “mid-life crisis” and the weighty expectations for “achieving dreams”, for better and for worse. I may not have acquired the jaunty red sports car as part of my transition, but when I replaced my beloved but aging Elantra last fall, I admit I *did* go out of my way to ensure my next vehicle was red. I’m still waiting for the equally-sporty blonde to show up in my life, though.

I had a realization this past week, along the lines of achieving dreams, that I have finally achieved the dream I set for myself ten years ago when I set out on the path to become a full-time, self-supporting therapist “eventually”. In doing so, I also confronted the fact that, having now achieved my dreams (dreams I didn’t even know I really had a decade ago), I was suddenly facing a gap where the driving ambition of my life has firmly resided for the last decade. It was like popping the hood on my shiny new(ish) car and finding the entire engine block had disappeared overnight. Lemme tell you, when one is talking about the subject of “the dreams that drive us”, it’s actually a terrifying thing to recognize you’ve hit the achievement milestone and the rest of your future ahead lies under a thick and obscure fog that spells out, “So now what??”

Something I was reading recently really drove home the power these Dreams can have on us. David Wexler (2004), quoting earlier research from Levinson (1978), writes,

Levinson’s research (1978) identifies a crucial aspect of […] adult development called the Dream. If you […] have lived through young adulthood with a vision of how your life should be, then you have been guided by the Dream. This stage of adult life is dominated by a push toward productivity.

This sense of purpose, while very challenging and often difficult to fulfill, is very organizing. You are guided by clear goals and themes. The obstacles are tangible, the achievements (for the most part) measurable.

The increasing awareness of your ticking clock at midlife, however, often causes the values that governed this Dream stage to lose their hold over the order of things. Two types of disorientation and disillusionment can occur.

[…] The first type of crisis strikes when you wake up one day and realize that the Dream is not going to happen. You face the often sobering realization that what you see is what you get. […] You may fear that there is nothing to look forward to except for a slow deterioration and narrowed possibilities.

[…]The second type of crisis affects you if you have achieved your dream–but suddenly find it meaningless. It does not fulfill you: “So what? Now I am successful. I don’t feel any happier.” (pgs. 76-77)

My own recent epiphany was closer to the second option than the first, not so much because the achievement had lost meaning (don’t get me wrong, I love the work that I do, and expect to keep finding the meaning in it until I’m too old to keep doing the work) as because I am definitely at that “So what now?” stage. I also came face to face with recognizing that achieving Dreams of this magnitude are also a profound privilege; not everyone gets to reach these kinds of pinnacle in spite of all their efforts, and there are a lot of bitter and disappointed people in the world who judge themselves harshly for that perception of failure. Admittedly, I often look at my choice to toss my IT career out the window in favour of grad school and a slow career change path as the start of my actual mid-life crisis. I had hit the wall in a hard way in my job of the time, and realized it was never going to go anywhere, and that even changing jobs and companies was simply going to be a case of “same shit, different basket”… and I was done with that basket (or so I thought, but that’s another story entirely). So I *get* both sides of the “ticking clock” that Wexler describes above.

These kinds of discussions are starting to come up in my client work more directly now, or maybe this is just the attunement I spoke of earlier. Sometimes it’s a client (or a client’s spouse) talking about a midlife affair; often it’s a midlife recognition of dissatisfaction and a sense of stagnation. Often it’s a question that preoccupies people to the point of distress: “I did everything my family/culture/society at large expected of me as an adult, what am I not happy? Why do I feel so restless??” The restlessness becomes a kind of emotional agitation much of the time, manifesting as depression as the disillusionment takes hold, or sometimes coming out as a kind of generalized anger at the world (or partners/families) as a sense of failure or profound disappointment turns outward rather than reflectively inward.

Sometimes we can achieve a Dream as a plateau and find there are a whole raft of new Dreams that we can now set from there; and sometimes we hit the plateau and it’s all we can do to lie there gasping for breath before we can even roll over and notice there’s more to see from here. Sometimes we hit a plateau and see nothing but fog. And sometimes those plateaus never happen. The paths forward all seem to involve the same piece of work: reorientation, and (if necessary) redefinition. Wexler refers to the need to “regain vitality” (pg. 77) as a critical response to this state of Dream recognition (fulfilled or unfulfilled), and the need most people will have to both look inward at the initial signs of distress, and making smart choices about what we do in response to identifying a state of even mild distress. Midlife affairs are a common response to seeking revitalization, for example, but often involve a lack of awareness about the internal distress, and certainly point to making choices that might be incongruent with previously-stated personal values. This is a great example of learning to differentiate between the feelings we have, and the actions we CHOOSE to engage in reaction or response to them.

I don’t yet know what the path off my own current plateau looks like, so I empathize completely with my fellow human beings stuck in the same place. Right now I’m still lying on the rocks trying to catch my breath. I’m aware there’s a vista to appreciate now that I’m here, but I’m also aware I can’t stay here forever; I’ve never been much of one for choosing stagnation. I just need some time to figure out next steps so that I can make smart choices, and as I figure that process, I’m trusting that it will help clarify how to have similar conversations with people around me on their own plateaus.

Emotional Intelligence, self-perception

With any new job comes new learning curves, new responsibilities, new personalities, new deadlines. Many people, when taking on new roles that push the boundaries of what they think they know about their own abilities, often have an anxious time settling in and while some people can face the challenges with a fearless, Can-Do attitude, many more of us get wrapped up in varying degrees of performance anxiety, and fear that those who hired us are going to discover we’re not as good as our resumes make us look, that we’re clearly imposters who don’t know what we’re doing, and that we’ll prove ourselves to be flawed and incompetent.

If you think therapists never fall prey to this kind of anxiety, let me tell you:

Hahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahaha… no.

We all have good days and bad days, but the early days of anything involving a learning curve are tough. Trying to prepare and manage our integration into new environments, new teams, new expectations can lead us into doubting the speed with which we learn (speed that is compromised by stress and fatigue, two factors that also tend to tag along on new job situations), and our ability to translate that learning into demonstrable performance. I faced this same fear many times during hiring/onboarding cycles in high-tech, both as a permanent hire and for years as a contractor; now as a therapist I sometimes face this several times a day whenever I sit down with new clients on intake.

In the new group practice at Bliss Counselling, I’m bring some particular niche-lifestyle savviness to the fold, which on one hand is great for both the community I represent and for the increased resources we’ll develop within the clinical team. On the other hand, however, I’m being tagged internally as a “specialist” or “expert”, and nothing will send Imposter Syndrome singing top-volume arias in one’s head like being tagged an “expert” in something and being asked to speak somewhat knowledgeably about that topic. Another colleague of mine and I are preparing to do a talk to the soon-to-be graduates of the therapy program from whence we ourselves came; a nice little bit of “giving back to the community” that spawned us, to provide some street-level business perspective that the program itself does not. And I’m finding that, too, is sending my internal Chorus Of Demons into overdrive, questioning what I think I know and challenging my belief that I have any right at all to claim to speak knowledgeably on these topics.

I’m sure many of you know EXACTLY how this feels. We know what we know… right up to the point where we have been asked to share what we know with others. At that point, blending quietly into a small, innocuous clump of dust bunnies seems HIGHLY preferable to sharing information like an informed and knowledgeable resource. We get flushed out by our own insecurities, and while I sometimes amuse myself by debating openly with my internal hecklers, for some this becomes an outright debilitating problem.

When I recently commented to friends that I had been tagged to provide some “expert” information on my community support and was unquietly losing my sh*t over the request, one friend offered the sagest suggestion I have ever heard, after also pointing out to me that I was losing my sh*t over nothing more than talking about something I’ve been part of for thirty years. She said to me, “If you’re not the expert in the room, imagine someone who is; doesn’t have to be a real person you know, but imagine you’re sitting next to a Real Live Expert on this subject. Watch the Expert. What do you imagine The Expert might say, or what they might do. Then *you* do that thing.”

It’s kind of a “fake it till you make it approach”, but when I thought about that idea, I felt myself calm down. There’s still a little bit of Imposter Syndrome lurking around the edges of “pretending to be something I don’t comfortably believe myself to be”, and “what if they find out I’m only *pretending* to be The Expert?”, but at the end of the day, I remind myself (sometimes more persistently than I should admit professionally) that this is all *STILL ME*. *I* did this thing, and The Expert in the room, both the externalized imaginings and the internalized delivery system, are all me. It seems like a lot of cognitive work to go through, but it’s the same work I do with clients to offer externalized perspectives on skills as well as fears. Sometimes we can’t see what’s inside ourselves, but if we can imagine setting it next to ourselves, outside ourselves where we CAN see it, sometimes we gain a better grasp of how it works, how it influences and moves us, and how we can interact with it differently.

These “externalizing conversations” and projections often allow us to move beyond thought distortions tied to a belief in some kind of innate flaw?”I’m a failure”, “I don’t know anything”, “I’m an impostor”?and into a different way of interacting with the anxieties: “I don’t know how much I know about this topic, but here’s what I can tell you about what I do know, and I know how to connect with resources that know what I don’t”… which is exactly what An Expert would do, too!

Emotional Intelligence, Uncategorized

Once in a while I notice there seem to be trends in conversations I have with friends and clients, or unintentional themes in the articles that cross my desktop in a flood most weeks. Recently, I’ve encountered a number of people who self-identify as empaths who seem to be struggling with feeling awash or drowning in the emotional tides of others in their lives.

This sent me scrambling after a while for a review of definitions. I was surprised to discover that, while the vaunted Merriam-Webster Dictionary (whose Twitter feed is delightful, by the way, both entertaining and informative in surprisingly equal measure) has definitions for empathy, empathic, and empathetic, it most decidedly does NOT have a definition for empath. This presents a bit of a conundrum, if so many people are self-identifying as something a dictionary doesn’t recognize, what does that mean?

Google defines the word as, “(chiefly in science fiction) a person with the paranormal ability to apprehend the mental or emotional state of another individual.” Urban Dictionary suggests, “A person who is capable of feeling the emotions of others despite the fact that they themselves are not going through the same situation.” Many other web sources of varying repute associate empaths with Highly-Sensitive Persons (HSPs), with significant confusion around differentiating between apprehending (perceiving) the emotional state of others, *feeling* the emotional state of others, or simply being highly-sensitive to the intensity of people in highly-charged emotional states (which has little to do with effectively perceiving others’ states and everything to having little to no tolerance for the emotional intensity of others’ distress).

Empathy is an active ability: “the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner” (M-WD). The message I keep encountering from those who self-identify as empaths is the aspect of “vicariously experiencing the feelings” of someone else, to the point of their own emotional distress or physical fatigue. HSPs are hard to tell apart from various types of hypervigilant people; they pick up super-quickly, more so than most people, on nonverbal cues or tones and cadences of speech, and they interpret and react to those interpretations faster than many of us as well. It’s much harder to quantify accuracy in those interpretations, especially if the interpretation then results in not just one but two parties being subsumed by the emotional experience of the moment. What this looks like from a therapy perspective is a permeable-boundary issue, when a sensitive person does not possess effective means of differentiating others’ emotional turmoil from their own once proximity to intolerable intensity has triggered their own “stuff” into overdrive. They get swamped when someone else’s state over-runs their own boundaries, and suddenly, “your pain is my pain”… which is a rather *ineffective* way of simply being present with someone in their own moment of distress.

I sometimes come back to an analogy from my younger days when I was training as a teen to be a lifeguard. One of the Big Lessons the instructors always drive home to students is that when you try to save a drowning victim, you can swim out to them but if you get close enough for them to grab on to you, they will overwhelm you and the odds of you BOTH drowning go up astronomically. That’s why lifeguards train with rescue aids and flotation devices they can push to a drowning swimmer; it lets them remain present and calm and AT A SAFE DISTANCE while the swimmer gets a handle on the situation and can (hopefully) calm down. What these recent discussions around empathy are telling me, however, is that we’re raising generations of rescuers who think “empathy” means letting themselves be overwhelmed and drowning in another person’s emotions, and who believe this practice makes them better people for doing so.

Part of the issue of managing empathy effectively seems to be that somewhere along the way the western world’s interpretation has come adrift from a classical Buddhist interpretation. In the west, we have seemingly adopted the idea that “empathy” is the process of feeling what other people feel, literally absorbing those feelings as if they are our own. I’m not sure how we got there, given that in the Buddhist view of compassion and empathy, the empathy is all about “being able to relate to your emotional experience [generally because I have had similar kinds of experiences in my own past]”, NOT about “I must be awash in your feelings myself in order to relate to your feelings”. I think there may be (should be?) another name for the permeability issue when other people’s feelings trigger our own flooding that *isn’t* about empathy, but I’ll be darned if I can think of one. Discussing this with another therapist colleague, she looked at the description of empaths and empathy as sensitive clients have been using these words, and suggested, “Empathy has a boundary. I know I’m me and I know your feelings but they are not actually mine. The flooding you are describing is enmeshment. It’s not empathy.

Enmeshment, helpfully defined by Wikipedia as “personal boundaries are diffused, sub-systems undifferentiated, and over-concern for others leads to a loss of autonomous development“,seems to mirror the described experiences of empaths when they become overloaded by others. They can’t function autonomously when it comes to separating out “what’s mine from what’s yours”, without breaking off from the contact completely and taking sometimes considerable time and distance to de-escalate their own reactiveness. This is not the same thing at all as being able to sit with a person in distress and recognize similarities in experiences in feelings, but holding one’s own emotional experiences (past AND current) gently to the side in order to remain present with the distressed party. When we are subsumed by our own reactivity, suddenly the encounter MUST become about managing that, rather than presence with the Other, and we miss the point of that compassionate, effectively-empathic ability to witness and relate. We have swum too close to the drowning swimmer, and now we are drowning, ourselves.

Working with HSPs and self-identified empaths is challenging from a therapeutic perspective, because we have to first create an awareness of boundaries and teach how to recognize their purpose (and instill a value for that purpose in people who may come from situations in which differentiation was dismissed or actively punished, and who therefore believe they still have a need to remain hypervigilant or susceptible to the silent barrage of non-verbal cues). We work to create an understanding of differentiation, usually through a variety of self-scanning and mindfulness mechanisms, and we introduce de-escalation tools as a final step in the process.

It’s a difficult thing to teach people how to “turn down the volume” on their own sensitivity without deadening them to the stream of input, so it’s very much a trial-and-error process that sometimes has to focus on subtly changing how people relate to that sensitivity, rather than trying to alter the sensitivity itself. But looking for signs of enmeshment, and starting with teaching people how to separate the “my stuff” from the “your stuff”, are critical components of helping sensitive or empathic people find more peace between themselves and the overwhelming emotional noise of the world around them.

Article links, Communication

There is a kind of truism that floats around periodically:

?Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.?
? Stephen R. Covey, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change

Often when couples come to counselling with “lack of intimacy” issues, or “improving communications” goals, one of the places we might look first is at how relationship partners fight. Frequently we discover that the process by which they argue is one in which they (consciously or unconsciously) shut each other down, attack and retreat, defend entrenched positions for the purpose of being “right” or “victorious” rather than closely bonded, vulnerable, or intimate. Unfortunately, these arguments styles are only reinforcing patterns of disengagement and emotional pain, making it increasingly difficult to “come back from the brink” the longer these fighting styles continue.

There are a lot of reasons why people get stuck in these entrenchments, and often figuring out why is a big part of couples counselling; therapists will often do the background digging while also introducing new tactics and changed processes into how a couple might deal with conflicts. Changing behaviours without necessarily understanding how they twisted or broke in the first place can sometimes result in at best a bandaid solution: we can address what’s bleeding today, but the wounds festering under the surface will continue to eat away at the sense of connection if we’re not careful.

The fear of being wrong, the fear of not being heard, the perceived risks inherent in being vulnerable enough to even be open to an opponent’s perspective, let alone admitting they might be valid?these are all feelings that get in the way of changing how we engage during relational arguments. It takes a tremendous amount of courage to sit on top of one’s own emotional rollercoaster and explore understanding someone else’s perceptions and perspectives, especially in a heated moment. To figure out how to best approach being open and vulnerable when we’re feeling attacked is a core principle in Emotionally-focused Therapy (EFT), but its roots lie in the kinds of intentional interviewing approaches developed first as ancient requirements of philosophical debate and ideological critiquing.

Daniel Dennett provides an excellent summary of the four principles of engaging well in moments of debate and criticism, engagement rules that also apply very well to changing relationship argument styles:

  1. You should attempt to re-express your target?s position so clearly, vividly, and fairly that your target says, ?Thanks, I wish I?d thought of putting it that way.
  2. You should list any points of agreement (especially if they are not matters of general or widespread agreement).
  3. You should mention anything you have learned from your target.
  4. Only then are you permitted to say so much as a word of rebuttal or criticism.

When we spend our time “listening to reply” rather than “listening to understand”, we close ourselves off to the other person in the exchange. We’re too busy formulating our response, marshalling our own defenses, readying our own attacks. We’re probably operating from a place of emotional reactivity rather than the FAR more difficult place of receptivity. After all, who *LIKES* to be criticised, especialled in intimate relationships? So when we feel like we’re being attacked (critiqued), it’s natural for many of us to go on the defensive while preparing to return fire… and at that point, most of us aren’t in a place where we feel like being open and vulnerable is really a Good Idea.

But learning to reframe and return the things we listen for, while difficult, yes, is hugely worthwhile in terms of allowing each participant in the argument to feel heard and understood, even validated. We don’t have to agree, necessarily, with the perspective being offered, but in order to change how we fight (and improve communications overall) we do have to allow that ours is not the only perspective on the board, nor is it going to signal the end of the world if the other perspective is valid, or even (dare we say it?) right. Changing how we listen to allow for inclusion of other people and perspectives is a big part of making improvements that move us back towards healthy intimacy.

Article links, Emotional Intelligence

Hola! How did it get to be September already!??

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.”

Have a great September!

Self-Development, self-perception, Uncategorized

A client last week reminded me of an incredibly important tool that I was first introduced to during my internship and have since internalized but not in this kind of codified reference package.

Unhelpful thinking styles, or inferential distortions as they are also called, are thought patterns that have the potential to cause negative emotions and behaviors. People who suffer with social anxiety disorder (SAD) often exhibit these negative thought patterns.

One of the goals of cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is to identify unhelpful thinking styles and modify the thinking process. As part of CBT, the feelings that result from these thinking styles are examined.

There’s also a very handy reference worksheet for these ten concepts you can download and post in your office, home, classroom, or anywhere you want to be aware of your own or others’ ways of interacting with you and their own world.

Article links, Family Issues, Relationships

I’ve found myself saying this a lot recently, and I’ll keep saying it if it makes a difference for someone who needs to hear it:

Biology and genetics are no longer sufficient excuse for feeling compelled to remain part of a sick system.

Sometimes a “family” (biological *OR* chosen) is the single most toxic and dangerous environment there can be. As a human being, you’re entitled to safety and respect for your personhood. If that’s threatened by your own family ? GET OUT, get safe, and heal.

In this case, a “sick system” is one that manipulates one or more participants into remaining fused in the relationship, constrained to support the manipulative relationship partner even to the other participant’s own detriment (unhappiness, ill health, depression, risk of violence, etc.), but all in the guise of love and care. It’s a form of gaslighting, or rather, gaslighting is a common tactic in creating and sustaining sick systems: make someone doubt themselves so much that it only seems safe if they rely on you for perspective. Abusive or emotionally-manipulative parents and care-givers will do this to children, other family members, and to their partners; romantic partners can do this to each other.

One of the best descriptions of sick systems I’ve ever encountered is found on LiveJournal:

A sick system has four basic rules […] All of [which] work together to make a bad workplace or a bad relationship addictive. You’re run off your feet putting out fires and keeping things going, your own world will collapse if you stop, and every so often you succeed for a moment and create something bigger than yourself. Things will get better soon. You can’t stop believing that. If you stop believing, you won’t be able to go on, and you can’t not go on because everything you have and everything you are is tied into making this thing work. You can’t see any way out because there are always all these things stopping you, and you could try this thing but that would take time and money, and you don’t have either, and you’ve been told that you’ll get both eventually when that other thing happens, and pushing won’t make that thing happen so it’s better to keep your head down and wait. After a while the stress and panic feel normal, so when you’re not riding the edge, you feel twitchy because you know that the lull doesn’t mean things are better, it means you’re not aware yet of what’s going wrong. And the system or the partner always, always obliges with a new crisis.

The same author later wrote a companion piece to examine the qualities of the people most likely to become trapped in such a relational sick system, available here. These qualities do not guarantee you *will* become trapped in these kinds of dangerously-destructive relationships, but they seem to be the common characteristics of those who find themselves stuck.

One of the biggest stumbling blocks when its a *family* system is the pervasive cultural belief that because it’s *FAMILY*, we *HAVE* to remain loyal. This is absolutely not true. In truth, it never has been, but it’s one of the great cultural myths we propagate from one generation to the next: from one level of sick system to another. “Family above all others”. So how does a person finally waking up to the reality of the system’s destructive nature get free of it? Escaping the gravitic pull and emotional enmeshment of a sick system is hard, but necessary. Gaining perspective from friends outside the system is often how change starts, followed by seeking professional help if you can. Sometimes a complete cut-off is the only way to enforce new self-protective and self-respecting boundaries from toxicity and violence, and that’s a hard thing to hold up in the face of pressure to remain loyal, to remain compliant to the herd, to avoid ostracization from other members of the system with whom you have healthier relationships (but who conform to the systemic expectations).

One has to begin a process that Murray Bowen (father of modern family systems theory) termed, “differentiation”, the gaining of self within the system or, if not possible to achieve selfhood within the family system, then outside of it. It starts with creating new boundaries and defending them, of valuing yourself as a whole person inside those boundaries who is individually deserving of love, compassion, and respect. If those things are not to be found within the system through the larger change process of differentiation, they can only be found outside. A sick system almost never changes for the sake of the differentiating individual; a sick system exists solely to sustain its own sickness. That’s the trap, ultimately: you can almost never change the perpetrator, no matter how much love and care you bring to them.

In addition to Issendai’s articles above and the wikipedia definition of “gaslighting”, I also highly recommend the following readings:

Emotional manipulation: how to recognize and free ourselves from it

When parents are too toxic to tolerate (NYTimes article)

The Guide to Strong Boundaries

Love is NOT Enough

Article links, Book Recommendations, Emotional Intelligence

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.

My first resource and insight into this topic was David Wexler’s book, Men in Therapy (written more for professionals), and When Good Men Behave Badly (general audiences).

Some more recent links that have crossed my inbox on the subject:

Big Boys Don’t Cry

Cracking the Code of Men’s Feelings

Why Does He Do That?: Inside the Minds of Angry and Controlling Men