Saturday, March 26, 2011

Life Gives Us Pause

In a peer level support group called Rising Tide. where we learned and practiced a positive approach to solving life's problems, a new man joined us and announced dejectedly that he was considering suicide. Why? Because he had just learned he was HIV positive. The words "be positive" were, to him, a death sentence. The rest of us in the group modified our speech pattern to say instead, "Be optimistic," but apart from that the good news is he turned his attitude around and ended up moving to Arizona with his devoted partner, to live on a ranch where he looked forward to planting a vegetable garden.

Scientific evidence has recently indicated that our outlook on life is half hereditary and half learned. If we are born with a tendency to be unhappy and are raised by adults who are basically pessimistic, we have a strong tendency to view life's glass as half empty. If we are born with a propensity for happiness and raised by adults who are basically optimistic, that same glass seems to us half full. In either case, our parents are to blame. Pretty cool, yeah? Only as a humorous aside. The fact is, we need to accept personal responsibility and use our past as a stepping stone, not as a place to squat for the rest of our lives.

The reason I say "blame" even in the second scenario, is because being too much of an optimist is just as much a problem as being too pessimistic. Anything carried to an extreme is nature out of balance, and when our nature is out of balance, we are out of sync with the world around us. Life (with a capital el) has a life (small el) of its own, and if Life is zigging when we are zagging, we and Life step on each others' toes. Not a graceful move on any dance floor.

I often teach my clients to use the auxiliary word just to minimize a problem they have blown out of proper proportion. A person with a phobia, arachnophobia, for example (an unrealistic fear of even harmless spiders) can learn to say when encountering a Daddy Long Legs, "Oh, it's just a spider," and remain calm as opposed to shrieking OH MY GOD IT'S A SPIDER and running from the room in a fit of terror. This technique allows them to function more realistically in normal society.

Imagine, however, a person who lives in the mountains saying, "Oh, it's just a bear trap." This nonchalance might increase their odds of stepping in it (both literally and metaphorically speaking).

There is a choice that rests somewhere between optimism and pessimism, and that is called realism. We have the potential to view stimuli without attaching an evaluation skewed by either heredity or conditioning. It isn't good, it isn't bad, it just is. The solution rests in the pause between whatever "it" is, and our reaction. An automatic reaction overpowers the pause by happening instantaneously, without consideration. We revert to our default mode and, by doing so repeatedly, we reinforce that tendency. We become more positive, or more negative.

I treated a client recently who was very right brain predominant... extremely "dreamy" with no grounding in intellectual processing. She asked me how she could correct the imbalance and I told her some ways by which she could develop her intellect. "That sounds AWFUL" was her reply. "I don't want to DO that." Of course not. It would have meant leaving her comfort zone to explore unknown territory. The other option, I explained, would be to accept her nature, and nurture her gift of imagination. This might doom one to the category of eccentric but, in my book, there are worse labels.

Years ago I treated an engineer who presented with Globus Hystericus -- an imaginary lump in his throat. He met with success but later reverted, so I offered to record a hypnosis session that he could play repeatedly to reinforce the solution to his problem. "Great idea," he said," but don't use any of that drifty, dreamy stuff. I prefer pragmatism." Of course he did, I explained, adding, "If this issue could be resolved with logic, you would have done it yourself. To fix it, you're going to have to step out of left brain now and then."

Left brain, right brain, optimism, pessimism -- it's all good. What's bad is getting stuck in one or the other. We need to be able to travel through our mind, explore, and adapt to new terrain when we come across it. An honest assessment of an undesirable event (such as the recent tsunami in Japan) is more appropriate than thinking or saying something seemingly positive. "Think of all those who survived," for example. Not an appropriate comment if talking with those who lost loved ones. One of the worst things to say to a person with clinical depression is, "Snap out of it! Be positive!" It's the equivalent of asking a man without legs, to walk. So in social interaction we must take the circumstances and needs of others into account, and perhaps override our default mode to temporarily adopt a more helpful stance. Don't offer a potato chip (because you happen to have one handy) to someone dying of thirst.

The tsunami and clinical depression are extremes that I use to make a point, which is that we are social beings and when we interact, it isn't just about us. It's about others as well. It's true that others who are negative can drag us down. It's also true that others who are positive can lift us up; and sometimes either of those is precisely what we need in order to bring balance into our own lives. We can lead others by example, but we can't drag them from their internal storm into our sunny meadow filled with wildflowers. Sometimes we have to step out of our comfort zone to meet them in theirs, then guide them if they are willing to follow, understanding they may only move partway.

This means --for the eternal optimist as well as the proverbial pessimist -- abandoning the fear of viewing Life realistically. Life gives us Pause (with a capital P) precisely so that we can choose an action or reaction appropriate to time and circumstance rather than simply using the one we like best and practice most.

The same way we can remember that our opinion is just our opinion, not fact; which is why differing opinions can both be right -- or wrong. But that's a blog for another day.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

When Is "Me First" a Good Thing?

I admire Freud for his enormous contribution to the science of human behavior; however, in studying the man himself, there's no denying the dude was pretty messed up! For one thing, he couldn't see past his own fixation on sex. For another, his views were far from objective. Every woman suffers from penis envy? Only a man, and particularly one fixated on sex, could come up with such a ludicrous theory. I mean if I saw a group of horse owners being led around by their horses instead of vice versa, I wouldn't envy them, or want to own one of those horses myself.

Now Carl Jung -- there was a guy who got it together when he learned all he could from Freud, then outgrew the teacher. They became close friends, close enough that Jung was not blinded by the halo effect (a tendency to idealize an individual, exaggerating their good qualities and denying their flaws). He once asked Freud why, with his enormous body of knowledge and undeniable analytical prowess, didn't the man mend his own mental/emotional fences. This would have, of course, called for a second party trained in objective analysis, and Freud's reply was that he could not put at risk his stature in the psychiatric community by admitting to psychological imperfections. Jung split -- not schizophrenically speaking, but hitting the road -- leaving Freud feeling betrayed by his favorite student, who then went on to develop his own school of thought.

In terms of raising children, for example, Jung writes that if there is something we wish to change in a child, we should begin by examining it to see if it may be something we need to first change in ourselves. (Integration of the Personality, 1939) This is an interesting concept that preceded the contemporary self-help movement. Additionally, whereas Freud maintained that humans consist primarily of ugly and evil complexities that must be sorted through with professional help and put in order before one can function effectively in life, Jung believed in our basic goodness as a starting point for psychological tweaking.

The truth is, it's much easier to look at/listen to/help with someone else's problems, than to examine our own. "Physician, heal thyself" is easy enough in terms of pills, potions and patches; but matters of the psyche are different. They come with their own societal stigma and can be more easily overlooked (repressed/suppressed). I happen to believe that every good therapist has a good therapist -- holding up a mirror, encouraging self-examination and offering objective evaluation that leads to putting one's own ducks in a row. I am willing to wager, however, that few therapists share my philosophy. I know some who really need professional help -- but can't see that forest for the trees. Sorry for the mixed metaphors. It's just what I do. Causes no harm, unless a reader is anal retentive -- in which case I've already apologized.

The trend today is "coaching," which allows people to make a living helping others become successful in one context or another. So much easier to hand a soldier a gun and order him into battle, than to get one's own hands dirty and risk one's own life. Yes, there are coaches who have been there, done that; however, there are many who have not. They've read about war, heard about war, and can talk about war, but where are their medals? Far too many, when the going got rough, turned tail (between legs) and ran -- right to the sidelines where it's safer, easier (and more lucrative) to spur others on than to fight the good fight oneself in a business environment that has turned ugly. At the other end of the spectrum, of course, is the person so self-involved that no one else matters. But wait, can't these two be one and the same? The person who "helps others" only as a means to an end (helping oneself)?

A helper's high can be as blinding to the helper as the halo effect is to the helped -- when others adore someone for their attention without looking for authenticity and without realizing it's easier for helpers to bask in the light than to turn an honest eye toward themselves. I personally know coaches who have earned their scars, having actually seen success from the inside out. I also know some who have not even come close enough to success to see it with binoculars. They purport to lead others to a place they've never, themselves, been.

I came across this Confucius quote years back while studying all the major religions of the world: "When you have faults, do not fear to abandon them." This may mean a willingness to work through your own pain, not simply talking someone else through theirs. Confucius was a wise guy, and I don't mean that colloquially. Nowhere in any of the religions or cultures that I've studied has it been said, "If you have faults, ignore them and make a living fixing others."

So do I practice what I preach? You bet. I am a good therapist who has a good therapist. When I treat clients I come from a history that includes keen awareness of my personal problems and personal solutions -- and professional help. When my husband and I teach success, we teach what has actually worked for us and what has not. We've earned our scars and a few medals too. Oh, one more thing: You won't find us neat and clean and calling out from the sidelines. We're still in the trenches -- not because we need to be, but because that's where the action is. We're a part of it, not apart from it.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

No Kidding Around About Parenting

Why do moms get such a bum rap, as the lingo used to go in old time gangster movies. I mean, you've seen it dozens of times. Think TV comedy series. Phone rings. Handsome actor frowns and says, "It's my mom. Don't answer it." Laughter. The audience relates. Think dramatic movie. Aging actress in a moment of angst frantically removes all pictures of her daughter from the wall. Nervous laughter. Audience relates. Think Shakespeare. Okay, I was never really into Shakespeare so I can't pull up a specific example, but even sweet William had a mother so I'm sure she shows up somewhere in his works.

And when was the last time a husband said to his wife, "You're just like your mother," to have her smile and said "Oh, thank you, Honey!" Hug, hug.

Try these on for size:

Do we HAVE to invite your mother?
Why can't YOU just call my mother?
Can you BELIEVE what your mother has done now?
Oh, no, not my mother AGAIN?
Sorry, you KNOW how mothers are, right?

I think I have it figured out. In the wild, generally speaking, the father, well, he fathers... and heads out to... father with another female, never to be seen again. The mother sticks around to raise the young and take the flak when the young become old enough to bite back and say, "Hey, I'm outta here!" So maybe moms are more in the picture when it comes to creative portrayal because... they're more in the picture in real life. Generally speaking.

Sticking with the metaphor of animals in nature, consider the young. They wriggle their way out of the womb into the big wide world, nurse when mom allows it and romp about looking adorable, nap in the sun with mom looking out for predators, and then let's say she teaches them to become predators, and off they go to, uhhh, find their own meals, until they are big enough and strong enough and cocky enough to flash mom their backsides as they kick dust in her face and leap and dart off to live their own lives. There, I've said it.

But wait, there's more. Time passes and if hungry mom and her hungry offspring happen upon the same available carcass in the brush, do they hug warmly and settle down to share? Oh hell no. It's tooth and nail, and maybe to the death. With the younger of the two most likely emerging as the victor.

Well, I don't know about you but I'm a mom and I'm sure feeling like crap right about now.

Oh. Wait. We're not animals in the wild! That's right! We're civilized! And THAT'S why our lives are not as simple or as predictable as theirs. When it comes to one generation finding a way to coexist with another generation, we are called upon to overcome our animal instincts, have our dust ups now and then but get over them, put up with each others' shortcomings, and do the best we can to play nice even when we're tempted to either head for the hills or go in for the kill. We're not animals. We stick around. We may bitch about it, but isn't this precisely why we have the vocabulary that animals don't?

I'm not saying it's easy. In fact I'm saying it's not. Why? Because at some evolutionary level of our being we are still in tune with... the call of the wild. It's the muted voice that reminds us when the going gets tough we always have the option of turning tail and running. I've done it myself, so I know of which I speak. For most of us, somewhere tucked away in our subconscious is the memory of those early days when life was good. And simple. And easy. And we want that back! THAT'S what we think we're running to (illusion) when we run away from reality.

However. Most of us procreate and the saga repeats itself with us in the opposite role. We shake our heads like a bear coming out of the water with trout 'tween teeth wondering how the heck it got all wet. We wonder, How the heck did I get here, I was there last time I looked! We experience the same confusion, the same frustration, the same disappointments and feeling of betrayal that we left behind us in our youth for others to gnaw on while we ate high on life's hog. "This wasn't supposed to happen to me," we whine, reliving our sacrifices and struggles in attempting to do our very best at parenting. Yet happen it did and does, unless you're the exception that proves the rule.

Well, as a mother I submit that if you're a father, just be glad you're not a mother. You're not the brunt of jokes, which leaves you free to laugh louder at them than the females (who may find them humorous until they reach that stage of life known as labor and delivery). As a father you can see cleverness in a movie title such as "Throw Mama From the Train," and if you're married you can be grateful to your wife for remembering your mother's birthday for you every year.

Even my own family makes fun of me, a little like Nora's kids do to her on Brothers and Sisters. Their kids are still little. Their day will come. When it does, Nora will sympathize, empathize, offer uninvited advice to be met by rolling eyes, and the audience will have a good laugh. I laugh too, because sometimes that's what you gotta do to keep from crying.

Don't get me wrong. I wouldn't trade motherhood for anything in the world, and I say that with all sincerity. I'm not complaining. I'm just saying... parenting is the toughest job in the world and you never, ever, ever get it right. It's a good idea to remember that whether you're a mom, a dad, a daughter, or a son. If your moment of truth hasn't smacked you in the kisser yet, don't go peeking around any corners.

I'm just sayin'...

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Odd Advice About Relationships

I admit it. I have a crush on the Dalai Lama. I like his smile, the twinkle in his eye, his humility, and his honesty. If you've ever lost an investment, your purse or wallet, something or someone you love, imagine losing your country! Yet the man maintains the spiritual glow that emanates from his love compassion for all of mankind. I once asked my husband, "If you had your choice between sitting down and having a conversation with Jesus or with an alien from another planet, which would you choose?" He's a sci fi afficianado, so his answer was different from mine. My answer today would be in the form of a question: How 'bout the Dalai Lama?

Not that the Dalai Lama is superior in any way to Jesus or Buddha or Muhammad or any other religious icon. I simply find him more intriguing. His wisdom is often cloaked in humor, accompanied by his laugh that, even in its extreme, has a tone of gentleness about it. I've read many of his books, and often quote or paraphrase him because his philosophy resonates with me. He has proclaimed, for example, that we don't have to like everyone! Oh, thank you, Dalai Lama! My guilt was immediately assuaged.

I tend to dislike people who like themselves too much, who are so full of themselves that there's no room to let others in. This in spite of the fact that I understand intellectually how, often, people who seem to like themselves too much are merely overcompensating superficially for, beneath the surface, not liking themselves enough. Unlike the Dalai Lama I'm afraid I fall short in the compassion department because in an overcrowded world familiarity is frowned upon. We want our relationships fast and easy, and place emphasis more on quantity than quality. Sadly, it's not how well do you know other people, it's how many people do you know? Worse yet, while the knowing of another should be a reward in itself, the bottom line seems to be What's in it for me? How can this person be of use to me? In most cases there is neither time nor incentive to navigate the complexities of human behavior for an accurate analysis of a particular individual. First impression equals lasting impression. Move on. Relationships require energy. Invest wisely.

I also dislike people who habitually lie. It's impossible to have a meaningful relationship with someone who is not being honest with you, because one blatant, obvious lie pushes a button inside us that flashes like a lighthouse warning ships they are nearing land. If we pay heed, we keep our distance. If we ignore the warning, we risk a wreck. Without constant vigilance, a lie can draw us into dangerous waters. Why? Because in many cases we want to believe! This burdens us with what is called an inner conflict. To be...lieve, or not to be...lieve? Accepting is easier than rejecting, the way swallowing food is easier than throwing it up. Are social lies okay? Uhhh, judgment call. I suppose "I like your hat" does no damage if said in passing, the way flailing about in a wading pool poses less threat than flailing about in shark infested waters. Circumstances must be considered, and a tiny untruth might be the sugar coating on a pill that makes it easier to swallow in order to feel better somehow. Milton Erickson, a psychiatrist who specialized in clinical hypnosis with phenomenal success for nearly 50 years, told "therapeutic lies." I can imagine the Dalai Lama himself availing himself of... shall we say diplomacy... from time to time.

The fact is, we're all flawed. If known well enough even the Dalai Lama might, I imagine, disappoint from time to time. This is why heroes are best worshipped from afar. Up too close and the chinks in their armor are distracting. In too tight and we might find that armor hard and cold. My advice is to choose your heroes carefully, then keep them at arm's length. Allow them to bask in the illusion of perfection. As for closer relationships, here's a bit of odd advice: If flaws are simply annoying, move on. Why bother? If flaws are hurtful (to the psyche), our instinct is to run, but I recommend sticking around long enough to identify the lesson there for the learning. You won't find the answers in the back of the book, or even studying that other person. You'll find them within yourself. And when you do, you'll be a wiser and a better person.

Years ago a ten-year-old boy made the news because he donated a kidney to his father. A TV reporter asked, "Wasn't that painful?" and he replied, "Why are people so afraid of a little pain?" When it comes to close relationships, if you aren't brave enough to take the bad with the good, that's on you not on the other person. Love isn't for sissies. If it seems to you that it's more trouble than it's worth, think about the Dalai Lama. He may not like everyone, but he understands and exudes love, which happens at a soul level, beneath the layers of superficiality. Peel away enough layers and theoretically there's something about everyone to love. The question is, do you choose to take the time and make the effort to find it, connect with it, and accept that even love can never be perfect?