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Hope Forward: Surviving and Thriving through Emotional Pain: October 2008

Thursday, October 30, 2008


Have you ever been yelled at? Okay, probably. Do you yell? Truth is, sometimes I outright recommend it. But only when you are alone, safe (fine in the car, but not while driving, okay?), and won't scare or harm anyone. It's a great emotional release, and can really bring on relief. Just so long as it is not directed at anyone. So I am all for private yelling for medicinal purposes. Let it loose! But....

For those of you have been yelled at as children, or get yelled at as adults, you know all too well the scars that yelling leaves. Even without name calling and threats, being yelled at, or around a lot of yelling, can induce extreme fear, anxiety, hurt, lonliness, and anger, not to mention shame, self pity and deprivation.

I have listened to many stories from my therapist's chair. Histories of emotional abuse. Even from otherwise pretty good parents. Some studies actually conclude that being yelled at, verbal abuse, is actually more damaging than physical abuse. It's no surprise to me that people who come from homes where there is a lot of yelling tend to be much more anxious than those from homes where there was less volatile communication.

So there are many reasons why people yell. Not rocket science. And some of us are drawn to the drama and the rev. Controlling one's rage takes a lot of effort for some people. Yelling at someone is like a big chewy emotional binge. It's like saying I am out of control, I don't care about anything but me and I am going to blow all my stuff right on you. Because you deserve it. And it tastes downright righteous in the moment. Then the backlash of humiliation bloat starts up and it bite back. For some, this leads to more yelling. What a trip.

Honestly, having listened for many years to both yellers and yellees, I can tell you that there is no good end of the stick. The yeller feels lousy usually for losing it, and the yellee is left wtih all of the above and then some. Or is so used to it that their system shuts down in protest and they just sort of turn off. Problem is, that the turn off usually lasts a long time, far longer than the yelling. Pretty damaging and distancing effect on the relationship.

Not to mention a small child.

So here I am again with my plug for talking. Words and more words. But not loud ones. Not cannon balls. If you grew up being yelled at, you might recall the effect it had on you, and most likely still does. And if you are a yeller now, well, I will tell you that I do get the need for relief. But not at the expense of everyone else. Or even the one who pushed the button.

I am not sure what made me think of yelling today. Just perhaps that someone told me recently that whenever she cried as a child, her father would bark at her. At least it sounded like a bark to her. He would, loud and sharp, say, "BAH!" And she would curl up into her self and want to disappear. It has taken her a long time to heal from this. A long time to be able to cry safely.

And perhaps another story. More of an image really. Of a friend of mine who used to sit at the top of the steps and listen to her parents scream at each other at the bottom. She says that she had an old Raggedy Ann doll that she used to bury her face in until they stopped. I asked her why she listened, why not go to her room and shut the door. There was no where not to hear, she said, and at least she knew that as long as the noise was going, there were both still alive. She always thought one of them would kill the other. That's what her child's mind really thought. She thought that if she kept a vigil, no one would die. Lots of terror.

I listen to the yellers as well. I know it's about anger, frustration and fear. But same deal. Gotta talk it out to someone safe. Either which way. Gotta heal it. It can make or break whole worlds.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Eye Candy and Holding in Pleasure

Even in the midst of some really bad pain, we need some good pleasure. I am thinking lately about simple pleasure. Like picking out flowers at the florist, or walking with your face tipped up toward warm sunshine. Or a really warm bath. A good cup of tea, maybe. The comfort of a good blanket. New pajamas. Old boots. A old fashioned written note to an old friend. Good tunes. A long slow walk. Hand cream.

People often tell me that they are hurting so much that they are not able to feel pleasure. They don't even want to feel pleasure. All there is, is the hurt. The emptiness inside them, and the hurt. Or the constant thinking and rethinking about the loss they have suffered, or the person who has hurt them.

Sometimes it's not a person, or a loss even. I often hear about general unhappiness, a discontent with life. With one's self. And confusion about if and how things could ever feel better.

Sometimes it's part of depression, the inability to feel pleasure. Sometimes it's the take over of the eating disorder, the anxiety, the brain on rev. All human parts get so caught up in the pain that the eyes don't see green trees, the ears don't hear music, the lungs don't recognize cool fresh air.

I don't mean to sound sappy. I work with a lot folks in all different stages and experiences of irritability, restlessness, discontent and emotional pain. And I am a big believer in feeling what you need to feel, as uncomfortable as it is. I am a believer in talking and talking and talking out pain. Talking out anger. Talking out fear. I am not one to tell someone to move away from a feeling. Unless it's time. Whenever that may be.

But I do think that we can have both feelings. Pain and pleasure. Some folks have become so good at feeling pain, that they have no idea how to feel pleasure. Sometimes the resistance to feeling pleasure is deeply rooted, not conscious even. Or Especially.

A friend of mine recently told me that she cannot eat candy without sneaking it and feeling horribly guilty. She has no food, eating or weight issues, other than this. When she was a little girl, she tells me, she recalls being out at the mall with her mother. They walked by a candy store and her mother pointed to the elaborate display, made a horrible face, and said, "Yuckkkkkkk!!!! I hate this stuff."

From then on, my friend says, she is not able to enjoy candy. She cannot hold in the good feeling she gets from eating it. Loyalty to her mother? A wish to please her by being like her? A fear of being different from her? Well, many guesses. But my friend cannot entirely shake her association of candy to yuk. To the idea that she should not get this kind of pleasure.

I think we can start small. And simple. We can know that we don't have to go for fancy ideas of rapture. We don't have to heal deep wounds. I think that pain will always out shout pleasure if we don't make a deliberate choice to allow ourselves to have both. No dishonor meant to the pain, but we can punctuate it with moments of relief. We can practice holding in pleasure the way we hold our breath. We can train ourselves to feel it. Moment by moment. Inch by inch.

I really think so.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

The Great Scale god (Or Instrument of Self Destruction)

Ruler of internal universes across lands far and wide. Focal point of countless obsessions. And final judge and jury on self worth, progress, beauty, success and value. Not to mention dictator of permission to eat, commander of starvation and excessive exercise. And last but not least: sedative and relief injection, or more likely, instrument of extreme mental (and sometimes leading to physical) torture.

In all my years of working with eating disorders, from anorexia to food addiction, and all shades of grey in between, there is one very common denominator and that is the scale. I am shamelessly un-techie, so I only recently learned that there are actually digital scales that will calculate your body weight to the tenth of pounds. I am, alas, so dismayed. I get it though. I am no stranger to the mighty scale g-d. Few women are. Nor do I take lightly the enormity of the compulsion to weight one's self. And of course I am well aware of the complexities of eating disorders and the cultural and personal demands that influence body weight, body image and our relationship with food.

If you are suffering from any version of scale worship then you know exactly what I mean. If you get on stark naked, (and some women remove their earrings as well) and the scale is up, the number is higher, even by, now days, a 1/4 pound, then the voice in your head takes off. "You are a pig. You are a cow. "(name calling fest) "No food for you today. You must run six miles after class." (Dictation fest). "You are a horrible rotten piece of nothing and cannot accomplish a thing in life. You can't even lose a stupid pound. (Attack fest of worthlessness).

So there it is. Your value, your self esteem, your entire ability to feel good is wrapped up in a machine. It calls the shots of your mood, your value, your faith in the universe.

Of course if the number is lower then calm can set in. For the moment. "Good. Okay. Now you can keep going. Now you can breath. For now. Don't think you are off the hook."

For some, there is no number low enough.

I know that the scale is a distraction from life. For some it's better to focus on the numbers than on whatever else is going in life. What ever other pain and problems may be beyond the bathroom door. And I know that it is real, the addiction to the scale. And that to kick it takes a whole lot of effort, on top of some recognition that the value of life and self are not dependent on what the number under your feet is.

I have known women who get on the scale 60 to 100 times a day. A day. The feelings of dread, panic, loss of control just gurgle and froth and threaten to take over. And I know that to be caught in scale rip tide is as frightening as it is painful.

So here's what I think. It starts with being willing to think about what is really valuable in life. And continues on to being willing to digest the idea that your worth is not connected to that number. And that you do not have to hurt yourself with the scale anymore. Not even under the guise of helping yourself. I am not saying that you should not care about your weight, or that if you are stuck in this swamp that it's an easy climb out, I am saying that it's worth some pause.

It's worth a bit of distance maybe. And some grace. Always some grace. Perhaps someday you can study what this is all about for you. Most folks don't register at Macy's for self destructive scale obsession. But in the meantime, I do think it's possible to be comfortable in your own skin without a verdict from the metal box each morning, noon and night. If you take the scale out of the equation of your life, then what? That's the question. Then what?

Maybe better days. Maybe more grace. Maybe new ideas. Maybe a lighter life, even.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Chocolate Covered Jalapeno Peppers

My 12 Step pals like to say that insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. I think that we can apply that to people. Going to back to the same relationship or person over and over again thinking that this time it will be different, or that this time you won't (or s/he won't) make those same mistakes again is pretty much like going back down into a dry well for water. You know there was not any there the last time, but maybe, just maybe, since it rained, there is some hope for a cool drink. And you seem to remember how good it tasted when you got that sip once upon a time. And how pretty the well looks from the top.

I think that sometimes we try so very hard to get our needs met by someone who just can't meet them. Either they don't want to, don't know how to, or are not the right choice for a variety of reasons.

Or our needs are not meet-able. Not by that person alone. And not by the process of wishful thinking, cajoling, various types of manipulation, tears, threats or gifts. And we have to do the difficult task of taking a look at our side of the street and seeing what it is we need to do differently.

And sometimes the well is just dry because the well is dry. Not because we are undeserving, or unlikeable, or undesirable. Just because. But that means that we have to protect ourselves by not going back into situations that we sort of know really don't yield good emotional health and wellness for us.

A friend of mine continues, for the last twenty years, to pursue some serious TLC from her mother. Whenever she is upset about anything, she calls up her mom and tells her tale of woe. Only to be told what she has done wrong and how she never knows how to handle herself. This leaves my friend in a bit of a state each and every time she does this. Somehow, somewhere in my friend's mind is the image of a soft loving woman with wide arms who smells like honey and cinnamon, and who will hold her and tell her how wonderful and smart she is, and how she can overcome any adversity. And who then dispenses sage advice that saves the day. Where this wonder-mama came from she does not know. It is not the women on the other end of the phone. But time and time again she dials with hope and hangs up with despair.

I once asked her why she does this. She says because sometimes her mom says really nice things to her. And sends her sappy birthday cards. So she keeps thinking that there is some cool water in that well.

Really its just chocolate covered jalapeno peppers. Underneath the goo is the gook. Why she does this? Maybe it's familiar. Maybe somehow she gets something from getting hurt or disappointed. I know that sounds quaky, but think about it. We sometimes need the feeling, or it's a familiar role we play. Or makes us feel a certain way that we think we need to feel. We don't sign up for this. It's part of our unconscious function, I think. But still and all we do sometimes subject ourselves to disappointment and pain.

Sometimes, we just have to walk away from certain people and certain relationships. After a fair amount of trying, or enough insanity, we have to just call it a day. But, okay, my friend is not going to get rid of her mother. (Though some people do have to minimize contact). But she can stop going back for more of the same. How? Well, I think it comes down to acceptance. And to not taking things too personally sometimes. And to trying to figure out the difference between fantasy and reality. And between wishes and possibilities.
It is our job to stop behaviors and relationships that end up hurting us. Stop walking into dangerous neighborhoods if you know you might get mugged. I am an eternal optimist. I think that most relationships can be worked out if we are willing to accept what we can't have and focus on what we do have. And take care of our needs in safe places where we are likely to get more of what we need. And to know that there is nothing wrong with needing what we need, but we may have to tolerate a little living without getting sometimes. Going over and over again to the same source for something we never get, is our problem, not theirs. And we can do better for ourselves when we realize it.

And then we can open new doors and find new wells

Tuesday, October 7, 2008


I used to wonder if you could actually die from this: lack of touch. I have worked with people who live alone, or who have been hurt and are frightened by touch, and keep others at a safe distance, or who have no one in their life who can give them a good hug, and gentle hand squeeze, an arm around the shoulder. The effects of this body isolation are unknown, but my hunch is that it creates a deeper level of loneliness and a disconnect with the world in some way.
One woman I know who lives alone is older and does not have a lot of contact with peers or family. But she has a cat. She told me once that every morning the cat licks her until she wakes up. She thinks that this is keeping her alive in some way. Her physical self being gently tended to is spiritual. She says it's the closest thing she has to human touch, besides her weekly manicure. And she says that it helps in other ways. It gives her the feeling of being connected, belonging, and appealing. She likes being lick-able.

What's your TQ? Touch Quota. How much touch do you need? What kind of touch? When, why and where? I recently came across some new research from a Utah study that supports the idea the right kind of touch produces chemical changes that benefit our bodies as well as our minds and spirit. Massage, cuddling a baby, even a good handshake can give us a good vibe, and a kind of contact that reminds us that the body can be a conduit of easy simple pleasure and good feelings.

I know some couples who make it a point to hold hands each night as they fall asleep, or cuddle up closely together. I know parents who make it a point to give their kids a hug each day, or a gentle shoulder squeeze, or back rub at night before bedtime. Safe touch rituals can go a long way in communicating trust, love and acceptance.

Of course I know that for some of you touch has been abused, or misused, and does not convey the good feelings. And it is not invited even or especially when you need soothing. Some people prefer to be left alone when they are upset, or sad, while others want to be held, embraced and warmed. Of course it's so personal.

In the world of psychotherapy, it's pretty much the standard rule that clients and therapists don't touch each other. The idea is to use words in the therapy room, and touch is an action. For some it is intimate and not to be mixed into the work of therapy. The way should always be clear for the client to say anything and everything they might need or want to. Touching can get in the way of this.

Sometimes we have to create appropriate touch opportunities. Getting a massage or a manicure. One widow I know took up square dancing once a week so that she can get some fun and light touch, without too much contact. Just enough for her TQ to be satisfied.

I think just knowing what you need and finding safe "touchees" can help. A parent, a friend, a partner who is open to giving a hug when you need one. And to be willing to ask for what you need. It's not a cure-all or even a band-aid, but it helps.

Thursday, October 2, 2008


I have to admit from the get go that I have been more of a "keep talking" therapist than a "what's your goal" therapist. I always believed deeply in the value of telling your story, your pain, your fears, hopes, worries, doubts, burdens, angers, whatevers! to an understanding ear. I believe so much in the importance of putting things into words, not actions. At least not until the action has been discussed, understood, thought out.

And I have always trusted that unquantifiable feeling of relief at being heard, understood, not corrected, criticized, blamed, denied, argued with or cheered up. Not that I mind being cheered up, but only after I've been listened to well enough.

It's not that I don't work with goals. Or think we should have them. In fact, I do. It's just that I think they have to be well thought out, and that they can evolve. And we can't set ourselves up for failure. I like to talk about and study goals as a way of understanding what we want. For example, I have a friend who is always criticizing her husband. What he wears, how he eats, how he talks. She corrects him frequently. He of course is not happy about this, and their marriage is on the rocks. I hear her doing it a lot. And I see him looking a bit helpless and a lot annoyed. She told me that she knows she is on his case, but she thinks it will make him a better husband. That's her goal. I asked her if it was working, and she said no, not really. It was actually making him worse. Time to rethink the method. Or the goal. Maybe on some level she wants to make him miserable, to let him know how miserable she feels, or maybe she wants to annoy him because she is angry with him. I think some talking will help figure it out.

Lately, I have been thinking a lot about goals when it comes to eating disorders. I know that for those of you who are struggling to put food in your mouth, your goals are a bit cloudy. Some of you have the goal of getting the scale down as low as possible. Some of you have the goal of staying alive. Some of you have the goal of being able to eat as much as you want and not gain weight, or of getting out of the binge-purge tornado. Sometimes, the goals are in conflict with each other. That's when the talking comes in handy. Some really good discussions about what you are doing and why. And what's in the way of moving forward.

A lot of people think of goals in terms of money, or degrees, or achievements. Which is valid of course. I am thinking of goals in terms of life, and relationships. Is your goal to hurt yourself? If so why? Is your goal to hurt someone else? Get revenge, get your point across? If so why? What do your actions mean?

Is your goal to nourish your body and soul? Or to attack? To grow or to wither? To learn more about yourself? Can your goal be to learn to agree to being worth nourishing? Can your goal be to learn about how to be angry without hurting yourself, or how to get relief without punishment?

I think sometimes we are afraid to fess up to our real goals for fear that they are sinister, or misguided, or impossible. Or that they mean we are bad in some way. I think that's stopping short. If we can let ourselves think about our goals, and why we have them, we might get some good insight into what's working in our favor and what's not. And how to have more of what we really want.

Sometimes when someone has hurt us, our goal is to hurt them back. We might not want to admit this. Even if we do, we may also not really want to hurt them, but want to reach them in some way, and make things better.

Back to needing to talk to someone who gets it. Goals are not so simple, but when well thought out, they can shed light on our actions, help us learn about ourselves, our feelings and our needs. They can be guiding lights to our psyche and a chance to unpack our ideas and help us to move forward in our relationships with others, as well make great progress in our relationship with our self.