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Hope Forward: Surviving and Thriving through Emotional Pain: 2009

Monday, December 21, 2009

Social Networking Sites, Emotional Bombs... (I am a Weary Tech Traveler Indeed)

Sigh. If you sit where I sit, you would hear all about all the problems that social networking sites cause for people. Okay....I know, social networking sites don't cause problems, people cause problems...or something like that. But still.

I am a self proclaimed social network site failure. I cannot seem to get the simple hang of it. I am not entirely un-techy. I don't text, true, but I know my way around the web. But not social networking sites. I can't seem to get my settings right, my connections going, my message out. The more I think about it, the more I think that it is my unconscious mind protesting these sites based on all the pain and problems that I hear about in the office that are site related.

I know its great. I know its great for business, for attracting attention for services, books, products. I know its connective. I know you can reconnect to your friends from grade school, your great aunt Tilly, your sisters old boyfriend who you always liked. I know you can let everyone know how you are and hear about how they are (really?). I know that you can easily feel connected and in touch with hundreds, thousands, really, if you like. Its a whole world. I know you can chat and say hey, give a good word, make a contact, get a feeling, at any time, day or night, all day, all night, with everyone or anyone you like. I know your blackberry can buzz all day with the vital little dittys from folks who are your friends. I know you can guard your privacy, and not let everyone see everything. You can erase things you put up in a fit of rage or glee. (It may be viewed first, but you can undo it). You can enjoy people that you otherwise would not have such access to without having to take up too much time or energy.

I also know that all kinds of feelings get passed around which are not so clear, which are not so simple. I know you can defriend anyone at anytime. I know this sends a message to the defriended. I know you can go see your ex-love's page if you have not been defriended, just to be with him/her, just to feel like you are where they are, when you miss them so much. You can also spy on them. (I know, its not spying if its public info.) I know you can then compare your lousy aching insides to the gorgeous picture of your ex out with friends having the time of his/her life. You can then conclude that they have forgotten all about you and have happily moved on and you are no longer even a fleck of dust on their shoe.

I know that you can pop onto your partner's page just to say hello and see a photo of the office holiday party, where he said he only stayed a minute, that his coworker put on his wall, that has him laughing with a drink in his hand and his arm around his gorgeous office mate. I know that you can tell your boyfriend that you came right home after work and were late because of traffic and that he can log on and see that your best friend left a "thanks for stopping by today" message on your wall and he can wonder whats up with that? I know that your ex girlfriend who you swear you have not spoken to in over a year can write a hey, happy birthday, on your wall and have your new girlfriend wondering what the deal is. I know that high school girls can write some pretty neat hate messages, push a button and have 400 hundred people read all about it in one second flat, on the way to lunch. Cyber bullying is on the rise. Some say too bad and boo hoo, but not if its you. Not if its your kid.

I know that as much as we think we can read emails, text messages, tweets and wall postings objectively, we often read things through our own lenses of fear, suspicion, sensitivity, insecurity, or anxiety. Even our own desire can influence how we read things or see things online. If we want to pick a fight, we can find fuel. If we are used to feeling left out, we can find more proof to keep us in our painful, though maybe familiar place.

Yes, we can find trouble off line too, but more and more its a tech eat tech world. We live an increasing amount of our lives online, on text, on email. And I am a weary tech traveler.

Social networking, while fun and easy, has an underside. It has a dark side even. When we are missing someone we lost or pinning for someone we love but don't have, or are sitting with anger, frustration, jealousy or suspicion, it is almost impossible not to look, not to "spy" or see what someone is up to, or appears to be up to. The urge can be a compulsion, even for the non compulsed among us. We can have whole relationships with someones online persona, and feed self pity, hate, worry, longing, jealousy, anger, just from looking at site pages, walls and photos. We can go looking on purpose, over and over again, or stumble upon something that sets off a series of events that leads to break ups, bad feelings and trouble.

I am not a total skeptic. But I hear more and more about how much social networking sites are part of people's emotional lives. They add a new dimension to relationships, to accidental nicks and unconscious communication. Perhaps we just need to go carefully, that's all, and not ignore the obvious, that there really is no replacement for private direct communication, and that these sites, while fun, are not that.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Is Saying I'm Sorry Enough?

A stiff apology is a second insult.... The injured party does not want to be compensated because he has been wronged; he wants to be healed because he has been hurt. ~G.K. Chesterton

Forgiveness does not change the past, but it does enlarge the future. ~Paul Boese
(I have tacked on a few more quotes for thought at the bottom of this post)

Recently, a friend of mine who went through a bad ordeal a few years back got a surprising phone call from the person who had hurt her. Her old friend called up to ask forgiveness. The friend owned up to the things that she had done that had caused hurt and bad feelings, and said she was sorry.

My friend was moved. She was relieved, and happy. She felt understood and hopeful for the future. She wanted to feel relieved of her anger and resentments, and she wanted to live in forgiveness and friendship. There are enough sorrows in the world. My friend wanted peace and healing. She wanted to let it go.

Somehow, though, even though she told me she was gracious and accepting, in her heart, she was not quite there. Not quite where she wished she could be. Somehow, after the first few glowing hours of hearing her friend's acknowledgments and apology, she began to remember again, the pain her friend had caused, the betrayal she had felt for several years. She began to rethink the apology and shoot holes in it. She wondered if her friend was truly sorry, or just wanted to feel better.

Her friend's behavior had caused a great deal of embarrassment, loss of money and opportunity. Not to mention the loss of the friendship, which was so precious to her. Her friend's apology did not include any plans for reparation, or compensation. Suddenly, it seemed like a ruse.

In my office, when I work with emotional pain and suffering, with couples who have betrayed each other in some way and it comes to apologies, it can often feel like the words are just not enough.

Even after many years, and many I'm Sorrys, old hurts can crop back up and poke holes in the present, and threaten to side track the future. Often, the person who was hurt experiences a retruama on occasion. Or a flash back to all the bad feelings of shame, frustration, pain and anger. The I'm Sorrys seem all at once contrived, self serving or insincere. The temptation to demand more, to drag up the past and rehash it yet again can loom large, but often rehashing can cause problems in the here and now.

Sometimes when the urge to rehash and demand more surges, we have to ask why now? What is going on in the present, what feeling or situation in the moment is causing a repeat of old stuff. Why are things suddenly (or not so suddenly) not enough. Why is the past not left to the past? If the hurt pair want to stay resolved, but one somehow feels like the restitution was not complete, old pain can pop back up and bite at any time. Sometimes, the hurt party feels that money needs to be repaid, or public statements need to be made, or rescinded, or property returned or repaired. And sometimes, there may be not be any amount of restitution that would seem adequate.

Perhaps more admissions of wrong doing and regret are needed, more reassurance. At a certain point, the apologizer does not feel so bad anymore, and is happy to have put things behind him/her. What then? Or what if the recipient filters the apology through his or her own insecurity, doubt or unconscious positioning of victim hood? What if the recipient needs to hold onto the resentment for reasons not readily understood. Sometimes, even, we may wish we could let go, but find ourselves feeling the bad feelings anyway. What then?

How do we decide when to stop punishing those who have hurt us? We do tend to want to punish those who frustrate us. How much suffering is enough? And surely, some of the worst emotional pain is feeling anger or hate, especially toward someone who is loved, or once was. Letting go of anger is no easy task of course. Apologies can go a long way, but sometimes they don't fix the ache quite right. What's there to do, then?

Well, this, I think: At some point we make and remake a decision to either be right or be married. To be angry or be friends. To drag up the past or to stay in the present and keep a future possible. Of course we can have many feelings, but if we live in the bad ones, or insist on them coming up too often, we risk pushing away that which we really do wish to keep close. We don't have to put ourselves or others in vulnerable situations again. Perhaps we will never really trust completely. Or get rid of the nick in our heart. Perhaps what was lost is lost. The friendship will never be exactly the same again. We will not lend ourselves out quite the same way as we once would have, or would like to. The feeling won't be what is was. Sometimes, the damage that was done cannot be wholly repaired. The relationship can be mended. Pleasantries can resume. Social graces, sexual relationships, and good wishes can return. But there may have to be a newness to things, since the old is not the same as it was.

The couples I work with who are inching their way back from infidelity face this issue all the time. Where is the restitution? There is no money value, no property to replace or repair. For some emotional wrongs, when more than an I'm sorry is needed, how can you back an apology with something concrete? What would count as payback?

One possible answer is this: self study. A sincere and honest willingness on the part of the apologizer to learn about why they did what they did. For some hurt spouses, this goes a long way. It seems to scratch the itch for compensation at least a little. It may not be as gratifying as revenge or punishment, but its the higher road for sure. And it can bring a true and lasting relief. It can make an apology really hold.
Of course, in many if not most hurts, the hurtee does have some role in what happened. Taking a look at one's own role and owning up to any contributions, conscious or un, that may have contributed to the problem can pave the way towards hearing and accepting apologies.
Another answer is time. Time and new memories. New experiences that overshadow the old ones. Good feelings that trump the bad ones. Days and weeks and years that go by and smooth over the pointy edges of pain. When the hurt partner can hold his/her demands for more, just a bit, and the apologizer can continue to show up, and show effort, there is hope upon hope.

Some folks are loyal to their pain and suffering, and rightfully protective of getting hurt again or falling into the same old patterns or problems. Character does not change that easily after all, even if behavior can and does.

Sometimes, on this subject I am sad and cautious. Hopeful and forward looking, but honest. We cannot take an eraser to the past. We can only look to draw a new future. Hanging on to resentment does not protect us from getting hurt again. Saying I'm sorry does not wipe out memories, even if it goes a long way toward healing pain and moving forward.

Good discussions to the right ears can go far toward sorting through what we need and why, and toward learning more about our own personal patterns and the fears that may be contributing to the mix. Good discussions can help sort through the waters of feelings new and old, and help with figuring out when to rehash and when to refrain, when to overlook and when to look back, and when to ask for more and when to appreciate and accept what is. We have to bear unbearable feelings sometimes in order to live through them and move forward. Some relationships are worth the struggle, worth accepting a sincere apology and putting the past to rest. It may not be easy, but we can choose, sometimes a thousand times in the same hour, to do it.

Some quotes for thought:

It is easier to forgive an enemy than to forgive a friend. ~William Blake

True friends stab you in the front. ~Oscar Wilde

The most important trip you may take in life is meeting people halfway. ~Henry Boye

You can make up a quarrel, but it will always show where it was patched. ~Edgar Watson Howe, Country Town Sayings, 1911

Forgiveness is the sweetest revenge. ~Isaac Friedmann

I think its about forgiveness. Forgiveness. Even if you don't love me anymore ~ Don Henley

Monday, November 23, 2009

Do Men Know Why They Cheat?

“It takes two to speak truth, one to speak and another to hear.” ~ Henry David Thoreau

Yes, I know...the next post (or at least a future one) will be "Do Women Know Why They Cheat." I am just starting with the men because...well I just am.

On a regular basis I sit with couples who are facing the aftermath of infidelity. I listen to the hurt partner's pain, frustration, confusion, anger and shock. I listen to the acting partner's pain, frustration, confusion, anger and shock. Everyone has their feelings. But more often than not, neither one really knows too much about what happened. Or why.

I hear about all the sleuthing that the hurt partner has done, is doing. I hear all about looking at cell phone bills, text messages, emails, web site histories. I hear about the demand for the whole truth, the lying, the fudging, the "I don't want to her hurt hers." And I hear about the hurt partner's insistence (often, but not always) on wanting to know every down and dirty detail. "How many times?" "What position?" "Did you hold her afterwards?" "Was she better than me?" "Do you love her?" "Was it just sex?" "What was she wearing?" "Who initiated?" "What did you eat?" "Why that bar?" "Was it during work, or only after hours?" On and on.

And the tedium of constant reminders on TV, in casual conversations, on certain days of the week or dates of the month. Reminders everywhere like little knives shooting through the hurt partner's heart. And the answers, all the reminders, are like little jack hammers sending up pieces of concrete into the face of the relationship. And the asking itself, by the hurt spouse, causing the acting partner all kinds of guilt and shame, and sometimes, annoyance and agitation. Further damage, "She is constantly nagging me now. She won't leave me alone." "I know I hurt her, but I can't stand the bombarding."

And then, underneath the pain, the thick layer of real confusion. Why did this happen. Why did I really do this? Who's fault is it? Am I a cheat? A liar? A creep? Do I love her? Am I doing what my father did? Is it her fault? Why can't I stop myself? Am I allowed to be angry with my wife/partner?
Many men do not really know why they go outside their marriage for sex or love. There are the old guesses of course....the looking to feel more potent, connected, desired, tended to. The physical drive for more interesting, better, or more exciting sex. Or perhaps the need to send a message to their wife/partner or even themselves, that they are suffering in some way and have no way to say it. They have no words to use to name the problem. Or feel they have no ears to speak them to. A potent combo of feelings and drives.
I think also, that we humans find ourselves wanting to hurt or punish those who frustrate us or hurt us. We don't want to be told what we can or can't do, and we look for ways to feel powerful, stable and satisfied. When we send messages through actions rather than words, things can get very messy indeed.
Sometimes, its just not easy, or even possible for a man to let his wife know that he is struggling with their sex life. Or their home life. Or the feelings he gets from her. Or his own unidentified but nagging restlessness. Perhaps he really does not want to hurt her. Perhaps on some level, he does. Perhaps he thinks she will get offended, or critical, demeaning or defensive if he tells her his thougths about their relationship, his needs, his fears. Maybe he himself does not really know much, except that he is looking, wanting. Perhaps his male wired drives are fueling his pain and frustration. Perhaps he believes he is out of control with his desires. Or that he has no options. Or that he will not be heard, or helped. He may see on the horizon, only deprivation and ridicule for his thoughts, not understanding, interest and willingness to find new paths. Maybe he feels entitled, but uncertain underneath, about this too.
I often wonder what would happen if couples would talk about wanting to cheat before they actually did. I see in my office that there is abundant hope when this happens. Yes, it can be painful. Yes, it takes time. Yes it means sorting through things a bit. But when there is dialogue there is hope. When there is insight there can be healing. And there can be better sex and more love too, for everyone.
Many couples actually report better sex after an affair. For some women the wake up call rings loud and a woman's instinct to compete and fight for her man kicks in. She is mad, hurt, betrayed, but she is not down and out.
Of course the pain runs deep for many. But I think we have choices, both before and after the act and the hurt. Couples can rebuild and recoup. Sometimes it seems like no amount of understanding or apology will good enough. That past wounds will always keep popping back open and poisoning the present. These moments can be hard to negotiate for everyone. They can bring up more bad feelings of inadequacy, failure, rejection, hate, shame and frustration....the worst of the worst for many folks. Tolerating these feelings and staying the course can sometimes seem impossible. Not repeating past mistakes can seem un-doable. The temptation to withhold current praise, love, appreciation for the good can loom large, and giving good feelings of acceptance, tolerance, love and hope can seem overly generous, risky, and undeserved.
But when men are willing to take a look inside themselves and the relationship, and women are willing to hang in there and let them, help them, (gulp) reward them even...then everyone benefits. On some level, perhaps, it is better to stay married than to stay angry. It is better to live without trust for a while than to live without the person that you love. It depends on the situation, of course, but I am a believer in talking. And I am a believer curiosity, in studying the situation and learning about what happened and why.

There are always choices. The right dialogue can bring relief and grace and new possibilities. I see it all the time.

Monday, November 16, 2009

67 Beliefs about Getting Help (Know Yourself or Not: About Addiction, Affairs and Civil Wars of the Psyche)

"I speak truth, not so much as I would, but as much as I dare; and I dare a little the more, as I grow older." ~Michel de Montaigne, translated

I have long been a student of motivation. I love to study stuckness and ambivalence and sort through, talk through the deep beliefs, reasons, ideas, why we don't or can't move forward. I love to understand deeply what our actions communicate to others, to ourselves. What kind of statements they make. What is obvious, and what is subtle. And what keeps us from really being curious about why we do what we do, or why we don't. What makes us willing to learn more, to get sober, to get help? What keeps us stuck?

I am deeply familiar with civil wars of the psyche. With the debating, ignoring, struggling with what to do, how, why to try to make some movement when you have done something, are doing something that seems to gratify in one way, and kick like hell in another. So below I bring you the following list of beliefs (Excuses, Ideas, Reasons), toward unpacking whats in the way of willingness, and whats in the way of taking steps that may help us to understand ourselves better, and maybe make changes for the good.

They can be applied to understanding what we may think/feel/believe regarding the wide range of human vices and needs, and controversial behavior, or situations with side effects (addictions, affairs, habits, obsessions, compulsions...) and why taking action toward change is often so very difficult. They are often the answer to the questions: Why don't you go to therapy, or a 12 step meeting or get help? In some instances they are the top layer of the onion, and in others, the very core. Please feel free to add any that I have missed:

I don't believe it will help

I should not have to do this

Its not that bad

I am entitled to have my ... food, wine, fun, secret sex life, spending spree...etc.

I earned it

I work hard

I am a professional

My life is great

I look fine

I don't mind dying young

I did not cause this

Everyone should accept and love me the way I am

S/he is not perfect either

I don't need a good sex life

I am too old to change

I am too young to change

I already know what "they" will say

I don't want to be judged

Its too expensive

I don't have time

Its too far away

It won't help

S/he, they, will judge me

S/he, they won't understand

I will have to change

You can't teach an old dog new tricks

I already know what to do

I already know why I do this

Its not my mother's fault

It is my mother's fault but so what

I don't want to talk about my past

It has nothing to do with being angry at my spouse/mother/father/partner/children/boss...

I am not that unhappy

I am not that uncomfortable

What s/he, they don't know won't hurt them

I am only hurting myself so who cares

I am not worth the trouble

S/he, they won't change or work on themselves, so why should I?

I will do it soon

I am good at everything else

This is only a small part of me

My job is not affected

My spouse/parents/kids/boss/partner doesn't care

I should know how to do this on my own

I feel like an idiot

I have no idea where to begin

I hate being new

I hate not knowing what to do

I am used to being the expert

I should know better

I like my, drug, drink, fun,....

I can't live without it

Its my only pleasure

I am not capable of stopping

Its chemical anyway

I can stop anytime I want

I need this

Its better than telling him/her the truth or expressing my feelings directly

Its my only vice

S/he they did it (or do it)

Everyone does it

I will only do it until I find something better

I am functioning just fine

Its the only way to get my message across

I forgot. Its that simple

I don't know what got into me, came over me

I am a complete screw up

I am a loser

My life is stupid

They will only ask more of me if I take care of this

I don't care about the risks

I don't mind if I am all alone with my food, drink, cards, drug......

I can't stand the loneliness

I'd rather be alone

I hate feeling dependant

I didn't mean to hurt him/her

It just happened

There is nothing more to it

Its so much bigger than me

It works for others, but they are not me

I know a lot of people it does not work for

Anger has nothing to do with this

It has nothing to do with my past

I hate public meetings

I am afraid

I don't want to give my spouse, parent....the satisfaction

They won't care

I won't be able to keep up

I like myself this way

I don't know why, I just don't want to

Its not up to me

What about what I need?

He/she they need more help than I do

Don't tell me what to do

I wouldn't know what to do with myself

Those places are for losers

My spouse hardly ever has sex with me anyway

If s/he paid more attention to me, I would not have to do this

Knowing/saying how I really feel is worse than what I am doing

Its my body

This is just the way I am

I don't want to hear other people's stories

I want this more than I want that

Its as bad as it seems, but so what

Its not as bad as it seems

I don't really mind it

My insanity is still acceptable to me

Others should learn to live it

S/he, they should not pay so much attention to me

It does not effect them that much

I put up with their stuff

They deserve it

Its better than hurting them directly

I can't face the truth about myself

I can't not do it

If I don't do this..or use this...or have this...I will be nothing...

The void will be too big

I will fail at this too

I am already a failure, so who cares

Its too deep to fix

Talking about it won't help

Talking about it will be too painful

It won't be fast enough

It will be too fast

It will be too slow

Its still the only way I can get through

I don't want to grow up

I don't want to be the parent, spouse, adult, sane one

I don't want to know

I don't want to, that's why

I am ashamed

If I start to know myself, I will have to change things

There might be too much pain

I couldn't face it

I am scared

Okay, so there may not be exactly 67, and there may be some repeats, but I could go on and on...Here's how I see it: It does sometimes hurt to start....but I know, I believe, I really really do...that its worth it. Small steps. Easy does it. Next right thing.

Thursday, November 12, 2009


"Hope begins in the dark, the stubborn hope that if you just show up and try to do the right thing, the dawn will come. You wait and watch and work: You don't give up. ~ Anne Lamott

A friend of mine recently told me that she was sick of reading peppy quotes and hearing from happy chipper people who were feeling better inside. Whose dark holes were filling up with Gd, and joy and the color of relief. She did not want to read inspirational or self help books; She did not want to sit her sad frustrated self down in a 12 step meeting, a therapist's office or yoga class.

She was tired of being told that she has to tend to her crazy brain, learn about her moods, her fears, her resentments and treat her tired mind. Phewy on all of it. And to me, she said, she did not want to see my serious, empathic, understanding face. She is tired of hearing that adversity can be overcome, hurts can be healed, and that even the worst of depressive disorders, anxiety, addiction and emotional pain can be treated if the sufferer is willing to move a bit in the right direction. She is tired of being down, and everyone else being up. Life is a see-saw and she is on the bottom.

In my office I hear this kind of hopelessness frequently. I come face to face with the angry, clueless, frustrated part of people that is seeking a different feeling, a different marriage, a different job, life, body. The same part just does not believe better is possible. I talk all the time, and I listen all the time, to the objections to pushing past the prison of addiction or pain, of steadfast beliefs. I am engaged on a regular basis with the hesitations of plunging into something new. Something that may lead to better.

What is the difference between wanting and willing? Really. How badly do we have to want something to be willing to go to any lengths to get it? And what happens when we want two things that are direct opposites? Like endless food and thin body. Or wine and sobriety. A buzz and the ability to make good decisions. Or drive a car. Sexual contact with someone other than a spouse and a monogamous marriage.

How and when do we say no to ourselves when the craving is overwhelming? When it is physical? When we are absolutely pulled to keep going after what we want, when we know that somehow, somewhere, there is an undesirable side effect?

My friend does not believe that the work it takes to feel better is worth it. That there is a higher order of wants and satisfactions. She does not know that she can be successful without someone else getting hurt or lost or deprived. She does not know this because she has been in competition with her older brother for most of her life, and he is a shining star. He has achieved more than she thinks she ever could. He is rich, famous and enormously popular. But most especially with her parents. No success she has had can seem to match his. She sits at the bottom of the see saw and looks up at him. Jealous, frustrated and stuck.

When it come time to consider choosing to give up some of the vices that soothe her when she thinks about her brother, she gets quiet. She knows deep down, as we all do, that life is really not a see-saw, that she can have her own successes, without bringing down her brother. Her accomplishments can count on their own merit. Jealousy, painful as it can be, is just another distraction from doing her part. A lot of the things she wants, like a successful career in photography or freedom from her obsessive shopping, she can actually have, if she is willing to take on the job of getting it. And get off the see saw and walk into the places where many folks are finding hope and making progress.

Monday, October 26, 2009

If He Loved Me, He Would Move His Shoes (What in the world is Resistance and Why am I Suffering from It?)

"I have no special talents. I am only passionately curious." ~Albert Einstein

"Curiosity will conquer fear even more than bravery will." ~James Stephens, The Crock of Gold

Sometimes I just can't decide. I admit to often being well caught in my own ambivalence at times. So I've brought you both quotes. And as often happens with me, more than one title. Sometimes more is more. Especially during this stunning season here in the north east where everything is colored so brightly and there is no need to choose between enjoying a drive around to see the foliage or taking a long walk through the woods, you can do both. A good resolution to indecision. Do both.

And now for how this applies to relationships. Because lately I have been hearing a lot from folks about how to manage so many difficult feelings in one relationship. Is it possible to hold both love and frustration, anger and desire, fear and hope all in the same space? And along these lines, comes the discussion about how to decide when to overcome the urge to fly off the handle emotionally and when to stay calm. When to push ahead to work with your partner, and when to just give in and melt down. How hard are we suppose to work to make relationships flow and soar? Even when we know how, what if we just don't want to? What if we would just rather let things unravel. What if we have some idea of what would help, but we just won't or don't do it? And what if we are stuck in the same old patterns in some small way because we want to be?

Resistance is alive and well. It is, in part, the refusal, conscious or un, (usually un, by the way) to doing something, or saying something that might result in a change or new direction. Or might bring up feelings that seem too uncomfortable or difficult to bear, but that may lead to progress. In many instances, resistances keeps us safe, or at least it appear to.

So when we are struggling in our relationships, well, that's a time to be curious. If the same old same old is still happening, or we are not making choices that may lead to progress, we can stop to study the situation, and see what may be going on.
A simple example, the entirely fictional, but very common tale of Jon and Jane:

Jon and Jane love each other. They recognize each other's strengths and weakness and they feel familiar with each other. They have been married for six years and have one child. They each work full time and though they are far from rich, they are not struggling. Not with money anyway. They have not had good sex in over a year. Nor have they spent much time together. Weekends are taken up doing household chores and taking care of their daughter. And they are fighting about lots of little things. Like who should take the initiative in making plans for the weekend, and who should do the shopping. And whether or not to buy a new front door.

And two bigger little ones: cleaning up after each other and cooking dinner. Jon leaves his work boots in the middle of the floor. And Jane trips over them every single night. And Jane does not ever cook. She will sometimes pick up take out, but even though she gets home an hour earlier than Jon, she is not interested in cooking dinner.
When they come in to talk to me, Jon is thinking about leaving. He does not know if I should help him stay in the relationship or help him to leave. Jane is clear. She wants me to help Jon stay. And move his boots.

Jane thinks: If he loved me he would move his shoes. He would know what I need. He would know what to say. I should not have to tell him. And when I do have to tell him he should only have to hear it once, and then he should know, if he loved me. And he would make dinner without a grudge because he knows how hard I work, and he would plan a great evening out for us once and while.

Jon thinks: I can't seem to please her. I must be missing something. I am tired of her being on my case all the time. I think it may be time to get out. I can't figure out why she wants to make this work if she is so unhappy. And why can't she make dinner? Wives should make dinner. I don't mind pitching in once and a while, but she gets home first, she should cook.

Time to be curious. Why so much resistance? Why doesn't Jon move his boots if it means so much to Jane. And why doesn't' Jane cook dinner at least a few times a week if means so much to Jon. And if Jane really wants Jon to stay, why doesn't' she just ignore the boots and produce a meal or two? And if Jon wants Jane to give him positive vibes, why doesn't he surprise her with a night out?
And why are both Jon and Jane not sure what to do? And why are they hesitant to find out? It took a year of no sex to get them to come to therapy, and they come at least ten minutes late for each session. More resistance.

And why isn't Jane willing to reward Jon with lots of good words, some attention and appreciation for all the things he does right. And Jon too. There are many good things that each could acknowledge about the other and highlight.

We are willing to teach and reinforce children, and reward them with prizes and assurances. Good parenting these days surely tips toward reward and reinforcement more than punishment and blame. Why not good partnership?

Sometimes partners need to hear things a few times before they get the hang of it. And some reward is needed to remind us to keep up a new behavior or positive change. There will be slippage when agree to do things differently. We need a lot of practice and reinforcement. That's human after all. And we all need to hear things in a way that does not sound like an attack or an accusation.
We are all Jon and Jane, I think, in small ways, in bigger ways, in our own relationships. We cannot catch each and every moment of uncertainty and indecision and understand at the ready what our hesitations are, or why we do or don't take the right course.

But we can find out. (yes, here it comes: talk, talk talk). But okay, not just talk. We can see to understand more about ourselves as we are trying to figure out our ambivalence and help ourselves and our partners toward better feelings.
Some questions for the stuck and curious:

-Is there fear here, somewhere? (not being loved, being good enough, important enough)

-Where do I get my ideas about communication from?

-What is stopping me from doing the things that will please him/her?
-What if I thanked him/her more often for the things s/he does that I like?

-What are my worst case scenarios if I give in and please him?

-What if I don't get back what I want? Why would that be so terrible?

-Where can I vent my anger and frustration safely and get new ideas?

-If I want to hurt this person, why?

-What beliefs do I have about what I am entitled too?

-What is my worst fear?

-How important is being right to me?

-How afraid am I of being too close?

-What do I need to get in order to do what is needed here?

-What is my objection to giving without getting for a while?

-What are my ideas about compromise?

-What are my ideas about love?

-Is there any benefit to how things are now? (do I like the fighting on some level, is familiar or interesting, or the only time I get attention or feel passionate?)

-What effect do we want to have? And Why? How will that help?

-What effect do we actually have? Why?

-Can I fess up to things that I am embarrassed or afraid of? At least to a good ear? So there can be some movement, insight and relief?

-How interested am I in getting to the deeper truth? What is keeping me from being interested and knowing more?
-If I don't want to know, why not? Could I guess?

Of course the answers may be buried deep in our unconscious, and in our history and patterns and past, but we can access them. Sometimes quickly, sometimes slowly, if we are brave.
We can have more than one feeling at once. We can be frustrated and still say thank you. We can be afraid and still back off. We can feel justified and still give in. We can agree to talk in a safe place and sort things out. We can be curious about ourselves and our partners. Even when we are hurt or angry or frustrated or frightened. We can study the problem and learn.

Sometimes we can't have both the wondrous drive to look at the foliage and the walk in the woods. There are times where we do have to choose one direction or the other. It helps when we know a lot about ourselves. When we are willing to get past the fear of knowing and being known, we can make progress. I have abundant hope for Jon and Jane.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Trauma Tool Kit

How in the world do you define emotional trauma. It can be different for everyone. Unfortunately we have no shortage of examples of trauma today, emotional and other wise. Sometimes when people come in to talk to me, they come in because they have the (correct) idea that they can talk about anything and everything. That in my office their trauma is valid, even if somewhere in their mind they think that maybe its not, or that there are worse traumas in the world than theirs. Compare and despair. If you are suffering, than its valid. In my office I work with folks who have have survived various kinds of emotional wounding, physical attack, natural disaster and powerful events that have effected their functioning, outlook on life and emotional well being. The truth is that because everyone's make up and life circumstances are different, reaction to trauma varies greatly. In fact, what one considers traumatic can vary greatly.

A good friend of mine lost his wife more than a few years ago in a homicide bombing in Israel. After spending a few joyous weeks together in Israel, where she was finishing her teaching credentials, my friend returned to the states, where he was to await his wife's return in a few weeks. The day after he left she went for pizza and was standing directly behind the bomber in a crowded Jerusalem pizza restaurant when he detonated himself.

Tragedy, yes. Trauma? Certainly.

This past summer we joined friends on a rafting excursion down the Delaware River. As far as rivers go, the Delaware River is about as gentle as a grandma's arms holding a new babe. Really. Except that it is still a river. About halfway into our slow and drifty float, our dreamy reverie was interrupted by shrieks from behind us, about a quarter mile. The tube of our friend, which was carrying the father and a small boy of about four, snagged on some rocks and flipped over, sending the boy floating off. For about 5 seconds. Five very long, very frightening seconds. The father lost his grip and his glasses, but was, thank Gd, able to grab the boy's life vest before he was carried off down river. Gentle rivers still flow.

No tragedy. Trauma? Certainly. Especially for the mother who was watching from downstream.

Another angle. A couple, married 14 years, two kids. Contented days. Okay sex life, some money worries, but mostly life is good. She loves him. He loves her. They have the usual list of complaints and tolerances. But still they come together each night. Comfortable, familiar. Safe. (I know you see this coming). She one day finds, accidentally at first, (the real snooping will come later), a text from someone named Bunny.

At first, the wife is curious. Bunny? She actually forgets about it for a month (part of her just does not want to know, and part of her knows that in a million years he would never...). And besides, all the text said was "got your message." Probably a client.

Fast forward a few months to her walking in the door early from work one Saturday, through the back door, to overhear him on the phone saying, "I love you too, just give me some time. You are in my heart. "

Betrayal. Yup. Trauma. Yes. So what to do? Well, in each instance, and again, there are too many more, but I wanted to bring you the idea that symptoms of trauma, while they vary from person to person, can and do include: persistent intrusive thoughts, excessive thinking and ruminating, nightmares, recurrent dreams, loss of appetite, or excessive, difficulty concentrating, speaking, panic, confusion, excessive irritability, mood swings, fatigue, aches, pains, loneliness, feeling separate, frightened or guilty. And more. Of course, more.

Emotional trauma does not have to be the result of physical harm. Difficult break ups, loss, betrayal, can all cause emotional trauma. We don't choose to be traumatized, but we can choose to treat our trauma. We can use the trauma tool kit. We can aim to be Trauma Free. Its not so much about letting go, I think, as it is about moving forward.

Talk. To an understanding supportive ear. Talk. Talk. Talk.

Rest. Give your body and mind a break from the thinking. Tell yourself, its time for my rest.

Assure. Assure yourself that time and good care can and will bring healing and relief.

Understand. Grace yourself your reactions and learn about your own needs and processes.

Meaning. Keep an active list of the people and things, accomplishments that have meaning.

Accept. What happened happened. Trying to rearrange it in your mind will not undo it.

Forgive. This can be a long road. But forgive and live. Look for ways to let go of anger and resentment. Forgiveness brings a lot of relief with it. Keep yourself on the list of people to forgive.

Rely. On a power greater than yourself. Pray. You do not have to be religious to be spiritual.

Easy. Easy does it. Go gently with yourself and others.

Excel. Create. Do something new. Let yourself move forward. You may need to grieve for a while, but you can still create.

And please note: There is no hammer in the tool kit. Taking a look at your fears, your history, your place in events in your life is often very healing. But not with a hammer.

The guy who's wife was murdered created an organization dedicated to spreading kindness. The friend who's son almost went down river said a prayer for the victims of 9/11 whenever she started to think about the moment she saw her son almost lost. The wife who's husband was leaving created a website devoted to helping women repair their marriages or survive divorce.

You don't have to get big about it though. A neighbor of mine lost a business and a friendship a few years back. To her, it was a trauma. She suffered a long time from many of the above symptoms. But she is free now, she tells me. She says that she forgives herself for being so hurt, and so hurtable. She forgives her friend, for hurting her, and she has started therapy to learn more about how she can succeed and grow in new and creative ways.

Sometimes, trauma brings with it loss and grief. There are theories that say that the brain itself is deeply involved in how we absorb emotional blows and recover from grief. Check out my good friend Fran Schumer's article for the NY Times on the topic. On unending suffering and the brain.

Somewhere in our hurt psyches, we can tend to our brains, to our broken hearts, to our shocked minds. We can get help. We can. We can take a look at what our life has become if trauma and grief are ruling it. We can dive under the resistance to get help and take good care of ourselves.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Some Thoughts on Comfort, Self Knowledge and Change (and Therapy too)

Difficult to follow a post on sex. But I am thinking about comfort. Which often times does follow sex, because good sex can be, among other things, very comforting. So maybe I am on the right track.

Lots of times we therapists and psychoanalysts spend a lot of time listening, as well we should, for patterns in peoples lives. For things that people do that repeat, unconscousiosly, situations, feelings, circumstances. When someone is stuck or suffering, we listen for things that usually don't serve them well, or well anymore. And we listen for the resistances, for those things both concrete (like a traffic jam) and emotional (like fear or love, or assumptions or ideas), and we look for actions (like coming late or talking about the weather too much) that are both communications about what someone needs and a clue to what is in the way of getting it. We study what is in the way of us learning more about who we are, and what we need and want. We stay curious about how to get it. We listen for obstacles to progress, obstacles to being able to talk more, listen more and know more. We ask, sometimes directly and sometimes indirectly to ourselves, so that we may study it, "what is in the way of you getting or having or keeping what you need/want?"

And we sometimes wonder "What would happen if you knew more about yourself? And what is blocking you from finding out? Or wanting to find out?"

The answer, in its simplest form, I think, may be fear. Fear of having to change, if we are not really ready. Fear of not being, or feeling safe. Fear of being judged, criticized, put down or minimized. Fear of being too uncomfortable. Fear that the process won't be worth it. Fear that what we might gain won't really be better than what we already have. Sometimes, underneath resistance is fear. Underneath unwillingness or hesitation is fear.

But the idea is that if we can figure out whats going on, and why, we can help folks create new paths. If they want to. If the want is just slightly bigger than the fear. We do accept the fact that we are shaped by our experiences in life, as well as our biology. And that lots of times, the road to better is not only bumpy, but its not all that compelling. Sometimes we are comfortable in our same ole same old. Its what we know. And that's fine.

The important thing, I think, in therapy and in life, when seeking to comfort, is to go gently. Sometimes it is beneficial to tell someone what we see, or what we think we see, in their communications. But while we are doing this, we also just need to listen simply. To just offer and provide comfort. And to know that providing comfort is a tricky thing as well. Especially when someone is in real emotional pain, or has suffered a trauma. (next post on trauma).

Sometimes its hard to know what exactly will be comforting to someone and how best to go about it. What is comforting to one, may not be comforting to another. But universally, I think, being understood is very comforting to most of us. That and having a very human connection. Sometimes comfort can create an intimate feeling, too intimate on occasion, so we therapists tread carefully here. But we tread.
It is comforting for some folks to learn more about their patterns and fears, how they protect themselves and from what. Sometimes, self knowledge is very comforting. And when someone has hurt us deeply, it can be comforting to understand what fears and motivations that person operates under. We may not be able to know exactly, but we might guess, if that helps us along.

A few years ago a good friend of mine suffered an emotional trauma at the hands of a business partner. David, we can call him, had come up with an idea that he thought would make a good business. He did not want to go it alone, and so took the idea to his friend Sam (not his name, of course). The two of them set off together on a path of mutual benefit. They worked side by side for many months to create and build the enterprise, investing heart, soul and money.

One day, Sam decided he wanted to go it alone, and told David that the partnership was off. David was devastated. David could not believe that Sam would do such a thing, they were close friends, partners,. But Sam was certain, and David was gone. When someone is clear, they are clear.

For many months after the split, David could not sleep. He could not eat. He was invaded by thoughts of his failed partnership, his lost friendship. He went over and over again his own mistakes, or possible contributions to the breakup. He went over the flaws in Sam's personality that made it so difficult to get along at times. And he went over the flaws in his own. But still he could find no comfort. He suffered financial loss, sure, but that was the least of it. He felt betrayed in the deepest sense of the word.

David called me one day, a few months after the split to tell me his tale. He was sullen and tearful, self depreciating and angry all at the same time. He told me his wife, my good friend, had had enough, she wanted his mood restored. She wanted him to get on with his life and create something new and good, she knew he could. And she wanted him to get my help.

We were too close for to me to work with him professionally, but comfort I could provide. That's always available. It wasn't complicated. I listened. I listened attentively and soothingly. I asked good questions about his pain, and his choices. I wondered with him how he has survived hurt and heartbreak in the past. And which feelings were the most painful (the anger and betrayal, he said. And his own possible mistakes and oversights). I asked him what he wanted to do with his pain, to hold on to it for a bit, or to let it go someday. He was not sure. We acknowledged that sometimes pain needs to linger until its done. He did not feel quite willing just yet, to let it go. Even if he could. And then I wondered with him whether he may like to talk to someone who was less close to him and to his family. Someone who might offer him comfort and analysis. Someone who might listen to the pain behind the pain.
David told me that he thought a duck was a duck. That what happened to him happened because of Sam, and his oddities and unreasonable personality. I asked if he was sure that was all there was to the story (after all, he did tell me he had made some mistakes along the way too. Could they have contributed to the problem?). I asked if it were possible that getting relief, comfort, whenever he should want it, might necessitate a look inside as well, a little deeper. Maybe a look at how he got into such a bad deal, or how he put so much faith in someone who turned on him. Or what fears of his own may have been gurgling beneath the surface, and added to the turmoil, to his reactions, and even to those of his partner.

He was open to this. To studying the situation. Even this amount of talking seemed to bring hope and the prospect of relief. And we both agreed that any efforts to unpack the problems, or look deeper had to be padded with comfort. We do have endure painful thoughts and feelings sometimes, in order to let them pass, in order to get to know deeply, our own resiliency and passions, and our own resistances and character. But we don't have to go at it hard or head on all the time. In fact, David's tendency toward urgency and intensity may have contributed to his problems with Sam.

So David got me thinking about comfort and balance, about obstacles and accomplishments. And about the idea that taking a look at yourself can bring comfort, but it needs to be done gently. And about how very deeply we connect first to knowing we are human and that we make mistakes, and that we can tackle trauma even, when we know we not alone.

That in itself can be hopeful and comforting. And for those of you want a treat, on the subject of comfort, check out this interview with the wonderful and very human Anne Lamott, author and fellow traveler, about life, her many books, and on humanness, honestly and survival.

There is comfort in knowing that all humans make mistakes, act impulisivelyat times, have fear. That we can bear some discomfort in order to have more comfort, more grace, and better feelings. We can hurt. We can learn. We can heal. We can stay safe. Even when the trouble seems to linger or come from our own mind, there is comfort in telling our story and growing gently toward a better understanding of ourselves and our world.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Honey, I'm in the Mood

What in the world is the connection between sex initiation rituals with your partner and emotional pain? Well, this: giving and receiving pleasure nourishes both body and soul, and can glue relationships together in the most precious ways. And this: when it comes to sex, women want to be approached in a way that makes them feel loved, cherished, valued, appreciated, understood, sexy and uniquely important. Uniquely, uniquely, important. Men just want to be approached.

Okay. I know, it's a generalization. And may seem like a tall order. But bear with me on this one. Because I hear about this all the time. And we know how important good communication is, both for good sex and in general. And I know that the wrong approach can cause pain. And trouble can spiral from there.

Often just the act of initiation is enough to reassure a man, to turn him on, open him up and give him the good feeling or feelings he needs. But for women, the verbal warm up, or the emotional connect that leads up to sex is often vital to creating the right feeling, mood, interest or arousal.

Kissing is a great lead in for many women. But not just any kissing. Tender, passionate, well appointed, "I love you and want you" kind of kissing. Men are more willing to have sex without kissing, but most women say they wouldn't have sex without kissing. (from Psychology Today, August Issue, p.45). I think that women prefer kissing as a warm up to good sex because its attentive and women interpret kissing as a way to connect emotionally before sex. Emotional connection is a strong stimulant for women.

Most women in committed relationships accept the idea that they will not always be in the mood. They are fine, even glad sometimes to have sex when their partner needs or wants it, knowing that the right mood will come along again at some point. That there are many different kinds of sex, and it does not always have to be love making. And that for men, often times, sex is what stirs emotional closeness. But for some women, well, more than some, the desire to be made love to usually trumps the desire for sex. So when a man initiates sex more often than love making, the emotional message or communication can get scrambled and feelings may get hurt. If it seems like the message is, "I want sex," or "I'm horny," rather than "I want sex with you," or "I want you," then a woman may experience a feeling of sadness or loneliness, instead of desire or arousal.

While women cannot always expect their man to hit the right note, there are a few basics. And while women, especially in a new, or new-ish relationship will often accept approaches that they may otherwise not like long term, it does help the relationship reach new levels when partners are on the same page about how to start.
And sometimes, the approach can indicate a lurking, but undiscussed feeling or issue in the relationship, or and again, can create one. So what's the key? Well, you know me. Talk. Talk. Talk. Listen. Listen. Listen. To each other. Doesn't have to be in the moment, but at some point.

Consider this. Both partners are at work all day. Its late at night, both are tired. Man looks at woman and gives "the look." You know the look. Its his unique look, but its still "the look." And she, having had a long day, really does want to connect, but is in the mood for some love, not just some sex. Maybe she wants to talk first. Maybe she wants to be held, kissed, told she is beautiful. Nothing insincere, just some "we time" first. Then some passion. Emotional connection first, physical second. Yes, I know we've said this, but it bears repeating, that men feel the connection more often through being physical first, and women through the emotional, the verbal. We need lots of gentle reminders so that we can take good care of each other and minimize the risk of rejection and miscommunication.
In my office, it's not even so much the romance that women talk about with me, its the feeling. The feeling of "us-ness," and of being valued and connected and desired that is often experienced as missing and emotionally painful.
When it comes to initiating sex, some one liners can be emotional bombs. Like "Want to get naked?" Or "Look what I have for you." And while sexual joking, teasing and even raunchy rousing can have a solid place in a relationship, most women prefer this to be the exception, not the rule, and find it more okay once sex is happening, but not necessarily as a lead in or turn on.

What happens when an initiation attempt bombs is usually that the man feels rejected, dejected and sometimes even stupid. And sometimes angry, frustrated and confused. This can lead to more emotional distance. And if things really spiral, sex can become less frequent, awkward and less intimate. In committed relationships, sexual problems cause emotional pain.

Men can rarely go wrong initiating love; sex most likely will follow. But initiating sex may not lead to sex, or at least not the kind she wants. And when she gets the kind she wants, you both get the good feelings. And the relationship grows and grows.

Many couples find it tricky to talk about sex, and about how they would like to be approached. The objections to discussing things are many. We humans don't want to spoil the spontaneity, or have to teach or train a spouse, we would rather hold out for bad or awkward feelings to pass, tuck them away somewhere, pretend it's not such a big deal, or hold out for some miraculous understanding to wash over our partner. But closeness, emotional and physical, often requires words, and words that convey love, attention, attachment, interest and connection. Words that turn on, arouse and invite. Words that help lead to more appealing action. There are many good ways to ask for and explain what we would like without ruining a mood, or hurting a feeling. There are many good ways to bring a partner closer. (More on that someday soon.) We have to be willing to go there. Because where there are good kind words, there is always hope. And there is almost always better sex.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

The Dangerous "Yes But You..." Disease

Consider this: Jane and Jon have been married for three years. They generally enjoy each other's company and companionship and get along well. They are hard working, saving for a house, and maybe kids one day. She likes to take day trips to see interesting things on the weekends. He prefers to chill around the house. Maybe mow the lawn and play some ball with the guys. They work it out. Overall, things are fine. But its just that something subtle is brewing. Its sort of like a small hum. Their sex life is pretty good still. It has slowed down a little bit over the last year or so, but no worries, really.

Jon is a mellow guy. He doesn't talk too much, a sharp contrast to Jane's pretty constant chatter. In fact, sometimes, its not chatter, its more of a running commentary on her work, her family, her friends, her die hard belief in protecting animals. Jon actually likes Jane's banter most of the time. He found her interesting at first, and since he does not have a lot to say, he does not mind it that she fills the silence. And Jane does not seem to mind that Jon is a guy of few words, and fewer still, analyses of life and relationships.

Fast forward six years, one kid and one on the way. A slower than slow sex life now and that small hum has turned into an annoying buzz. Neither can put their finger on what it is, but they both hear it. Jane wonders what it is that wrong. She wants Jon to say more, talk more, emote more. She wants an emotional connection. Jon still listens to Jane's banter, but more and more he feels like he cannot say anything real to her because 1) her first response is usually negative and 2) she will argue him under the table if she does not like what he says.

Jon, who never really was big on conversation, feels both defeated and frightened. He loves Jane, and he enjoys her. And he would actually talk more to her about his own feelings and ideas if he felt safer, if he did not think she would immediately disagree, or present the opposite side of the issue. Or worse, yet, leave him. He somehow knows he fears this, deep down. And he is afraid to hurt her. He loves her. And he is grateful to her for being such a good mother and bearing his children.

So one day, when Jane tells Jon that she is not happy in the marriage and wishes Jon would open up more (a phrase that ranks high on a man's most annoying statements list), Jon, with great struggle, decides that he is going to brave it and tell Jane a truth about herself.

"Jane," he begins, "I find it hard to open up to you because you always seem to argue with what I say, or your first response is negative...." (Jon is looking at her tentatively and with hope and fear, and, surprisingly to him, eyes full of tears and an ache in his throat)...and here is what comes next:
Scenario 1: Jane (feeling resentful and angry, hurt and defensive, automatically sprays like a skunk, "Yes, but you never really listen to me, you have no idea what I need or want and you don't understand or have anything real to say. You would rather watch TV than listen to me, you never initiate anything except sex, and I hate how you do that. " you can imagine where this is going. And just to let the therapist in me mention that yes, and okay, we could, unpack here, all the reasons why Jane is Jane and Jon is Jon, and all their ideas about marriage, character and communication, but that's a therapy session or book, not a blog post, so I will leave it for now....

Scenario 2: Jon says the same thing...and Jane says: nothing. for a whole minute. She still feels hurt and angry and defensive, but she stays quiet. And then she says: Thank you for telling me. That couldn't have been easy. I did not know I come across this way to you.

And then Jon says. "I don't want us to grow apart. I like us. I love you."

Its not always so simple...but you get the drift. The Yes But You disease can be a relationship killer. It kills friendships, marriages, business partnerships. The good news is, its highly curable. With a bit of work and an open mind.

People offer suffer an enormous amount of emotional pain when trying to be understood by someone who has hurt them. Or trying to work out a difficult relationship. Its hard to own up to your own stuff, or to learn about how your partner experiences you, especially when you are pretty clear about what they do wrong. And especially when you are hurting, or have a tendency to be very hard on yourself, and not allow for human mistakes without going into self pity and despair (next post on this).

But when someone is brave enough to tell you what is in the way of the relationship being successful, you have to be brave enough to listen. You may not agree, but its always a good idea to try to hear what they are telling you before you spray. It may redirect you future, and leave you so much better off than you could ever imagine.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Surviving Break Ups or What Happened to Me?

"I don't know why they call it heartbreak. It feels like every other part of my body is broken too." ~Missy Altijd

It seems to me that when folks come through my door looking for help healing a broken heart, the whole of their face is a question mark. "What happened? What happened to me? How will I survive this? How will I function like this?" "Will I ever feel okay again?" One my readers recently emailed me and asked for some ideas, nothing heavy, just some thoughts on functioning while in pain. While in the aftermath of losing something - a relationship, and someone, who you love.

More questions too. "How do I grieve someone who is not dead. Who is walking around somewhere on this green earth, looking up at the same sky, getting caught in the same rain?" Maybe even living in the same house that was once "ours," taking care of the same kids, pets or projects. How do you also grieve all the little, and not so little, satellite losses. Places you used to go, jokes you used to share. Even, in our age of tech, designated ring tones. All the reminders, all the loss, and all the longing. It can all seem like too much.

"Forget about moving on. How do I even move?" writes one visitor to my blog. And "Forget about letting go, how do I even let up on myself?" I keep thinking about all the mistakes, the would haves, the could haves, and the if onlys."

There are many different kinds of grief. But broken heart grief, especially when you are not the one who wanted out, ranks way up there on the pain register. So first things first, I think. And easy does it. When you are in the first stages of grief, its hard to believe, or even fathom, that time itself will most likely help shape your pain into something livable, bearable, breathable. And that while you may never really forget, you will actually feel well one day, and interested in life again. Joy will return and you will get better.

There are some folks who do stay stuck in grief for a long time. Longer than long. And for this kind of grief, extra help is needed. Not to let go, or to forget, but to get interested in life again, to not sacrifice a good future because of a painful past. Those who also struggle with addiction, depression, or anxiety sometimes react to grief in more severe ways.

Perhaps one the biggest pieces of losing a love is losing part or parts of yourself. And knowing, only a little, about what really happened and why. Coming up for air amidst extreme sadness can seem impossible sometimes, but taking good care of yourself is always the way to go.

And underneath all the usual survival advice is this: Talk. Talk to someone who can listen gently. Talk to someone who can help you unpack what happened, at a pace that feels safe and sweet. Talk to someone who's voice feels like gauze around your insides. Talk to someone who can help you find yourself again. Talk to someone who can help you see your side of the street and learn a bit about yourself, both your needs and your character, so that you can grow forward and not repeat things that don't serve you well.

And if anger is a piece a of the pain, then talk about that too. Unexpressed anger can be toxic to the body and soul. Get to the bottom of the anger, which is often about fear, and sometimes about betrayal, no matter how long it takes. Give yourself permission to live in the meantime. Focus some time each day on someone else, your kids, your friends, a stranger. Giving can be healing.
Some good attention to the subtle but powerful thoughts playing in your head can help things along. If, in addition to sadness, there is a quiet but repetitive and convincing tape in your brain telling you that you are worthless, hopeless, stupid, pathetic or awful, or that you will never love again, all is lost, you can't survive this, that you must or will hide, shrink or worse, then you know that you've got to listen, to answer back. If that voice is attacking all that you are, and all that you have and do, then you have work to do. Acknowledging and answering that voice is crucial to surviving breakup pain and finding yourself and your life again.
Emotional pain can rival and trump physical pain at times. So we have to access all our possible resources. And employ the usual roll of "do's and don'ts" for healing. That is when you are ready to heal. Sometimes we need to hang to the pain for a while. But we also need to let some light back in.

It is hard to accept things as they are when pain is coloring everything. But I think a gentle note to yourself: "okay, so this is what it is right now," can help you turn the corner and walk in a good direction towards better feelings and better days.

There is more, of course, to healing a broken heart, but you can agree somewhere in your psyche to join the ranks of the walking wounded and take care of your responsibilities, and not slip away into the dark.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Alive and Messy

A friend of mine knocked on my door last Saturday, hoping to have my ear for a few minutes. She was struggling with a decision about what kind of help to seek for herself. She was in the middle of a self described "mid-life career crisis." She was in pain over it.

Her husband is not a very motivated guy, and while he brings home a decent paycheck, he is not interested in advancing their financial situation. If they are going to be able to help send their two kids to college, or stay in their house long term, it would, seemingly, be up to her to pull in some extra bucks.

This part she did not have a problem with. She has long since accepted that her husband is not a ladder climber. A self described plodder, he is not enough in touch with his own aggression, or blocks to it. He is not going to lead the way financially. He is (often irritatingly so) content with his desk job. My friend, however is a bit more driven. She has a host of anxieties, and more than a few hungers. While this has sometimes gotten her into trouble in the past, by way of untamed addiction and restless indecision, she is successful at her day job. Though she herself feels like she a bit of an under earner, and now has a real wish and drive to overcome it.

She is altogether too sleepy at her current job, she tells me. And she is now ready to deal with herself and her own quest for something more. The director of student programming at a prestigious private high school, she wears many hats. But she has been doing it for a long while, and she wants a change. She wants to be a writer. Her dream, she tells me, is to quit her job, and immerse herself in the world of the written word. She wants to hammer away at the keyboard and put all the things she has been doing and teaching and experiencing with her students these last 15 years into articles and essays, reports, reviews, stories and poems. She wants to see her name under titles, on glossy pages. No Internet publishing, she wants to feel the page with her name on it between her fingers. She wants to be read. But she has no idea how to do this without tossing her current income out the window.

Yes, she knows she could start slow, but she does not want to. She wants to quit and run. She wants a total, abrupt and jarring statement about who she is and what she is going to do. She wants her desire to lead the way. And it she does not mind if it will be messy.

What does she want from me? She just wants someone to know that she is thinking about this. That she may actually do it. She may leave her kids to find scholarships. Maybe the house will have to be sold and replaced by a nice little apartment. She wants to know that she could do this. She does not yet know if she should, but she could.

And she wants to live her life fully aware that she has choices. That she knows what the choices are. She thinks there is freedom in this. That there will be relief of some kind for her emotional pain. The pain of feeling trapped, stifled and not creative. Of not accomplishing something that she really wants to accomplish. And the pain of not feeling like she has possibilities. Somehow, again, knowing she could seems to lift the heaviness, open up the ceiling and see the sky.

And she wants to know that I don't think this is crazy. And that I will help her to tolerate all the feelings that may come along with tossing her stability in the air and changing up her life. Of course she knows that her actions will effect others, that she may not exactly really want to act recklessly in regard to her marriage, or her children's future. We are not talking about the mid life proverbial race car purchase, after all.

No matter what she chooses, there will be feelings to tolerate. Big ones, at times. Down any road, there will urgencies and disappointments, loss and fear. She knows that some of these feelings are familiar themes in her life. That somehow, even in their difficulty, the bad feelings have kept her feeling some kind of safe. But now she wants to talk about a new script. Perhaps to learn to tolerate new feelings, some glorious, some not. She is not sure. And that too will have to be tolerated...the ambiguity of it all.

There is much hope, I tell her. Its good to be with her in her confusion. Its okay with me.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Toward the Pain or Living the Life I Have Always Wanted to Live

The most exhausting thing in life is being insincere
~Anne Morrow Lindbergh

I recently had the (good?) fortune to run into an old friend. We got to chatting, caught up on where life has taken us these last few years, and where we would like to be. She told me that finally she feels happy, joyous and free. That she is living the life she has always wanted to live. Her kids are growing up, requiring less of her than they used to. No diapers to change or baths to give. Meals run themselves pretty much and the sports schedule is at a minimum.

She is working for herself now, consulting and freelancing, with plenty of time to write, her passion, as it turns out, and take long walks with her husband. For about 39 seconds (okay, 2 minutes and 23 seconds) I was rip roaringly, unabashedly, wholly and completely jealous.

What does this mean, I am wondering. "Living the life I have always wanted to live." I wanted to know. Does this mean she is happy, like, all the time? I, who, am in the business of understanding people, helping them understand themselves, their desires and wishes, hurts and fears, and unpack what it is they want in life, from life, was baffled. (As well as momentarily green.) Does this mean that she has very few obligations, or financial worries? Or that she does not mind the ones she does have? Does it mean that she does not struggle with any bad feelings, have any difficult relationships, or questions yet unanswered about herself that keep her up at night?

Does she get along well with everyone in her life? Is she no longer burdened by other people's pain or the troubles of the country or the world. Is she not worried about the two journalists who are trapped in North Korea or Gilad Shalit? Is she free from addiction? Has she accepted her vices and made peace with her limitations? Does she no longer look at herself in the mirror with a critical eye, or lament that she may soon be going grey? Are her current accomplishments satisfying enough, and future ones only icing on an already rich cake? Did she have a gratifying and satisfying sex life? And a spiritual fitness that meets her own ideas of connectedness with the Gd of her understanding?

Or is it all false evidence appearing real? Am I comparing my insides (and almost everyone else's I know) to her outsides? After all, its not often someone tells you that they are feeling so well, overall, and specifically. Its not often I meet up with someone who seems so, well, determinedly content.

I did not get the idea she was being casual or conversational. Or boastful. I really thought she meant it, deeply. So I asked, and she explained.

She said that she has always had a difficult default setting in her brain. Her thoughts, feelings, ideas, always seem to go toward the pain, toward the fear, toward the not. It was wasn't so much a glass half empty problem, or an issue of not enough gratitude. Nor did she feel she had a block against focusing on the solution rather than the problem. It was, she explained, an historic comfort, a familialiarity with sitting psychically in some sort of deprivation, loneliness and sense of being misunderstood and unsupported. Perhaps because of biology, even. If not also family history.

She said that she has become aware of this, and of her own resistance to letting go of what does not work in her life, and going toward what does. She said that she became willing to take a good look at what her motivations in life were, and what she was really aiming for, and in small ways, she said that she has become a lot easier on herself and those around her. And that she gave herself permission to figure out what she wanted to be doing with her time, and makes sure that she does at least some of those things each week.

I know, it sounds a bit self-helpy. But I felt better after hearing it. I had started to think she found the golden ticket, and that it was the only one.

I think that when you are hurting it can look like the whole world is living the life they want to live, and you are stuck in the dense fog of pain and hopelessness. But I think we can spin our stories to end better. We parted in good spirits, my old friend and I, after a somewhat heavy street corner conversation. But I was glad she was feeling good about her life. I know she did not always have it so easy. And that there is something to be said for finding yourself and gracing yourself and saying so.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Don't Ask, Don't Tell (yourself): On Honesty

"If a thousand old beliefs were ruined in our march to truth we must still march on." ~Stopford Brooke

"I tore myself away from the safe comfort of certainties through my love for truth - and truth rewarded me." ~Simone de Beauvoir

I couldn't decide. So I've brought you both quotes. Here is what I have been thinking about lately: Being honest in therapy. Being honest with one's self. Being honest with G-d. And of course, for all the couples I work with, the pros and cons of being honest with each other. Sometimes honesty hurts, or we think it will. And since, I think, honesty does not always come easy or fast, we need to be honest about that too. About the fact that we don't always know what the truth is.

That there are different kinds of honesty. There are the facts, reality, as it is. And then of course, reality as it seems. There is emotional honesty, which sometimes, often times, actually, takes a bit of psychic exploratory surgery to discover what feeling(s) is really present. And there is very real and understandable problem of just not knowing what the truth really is.

So I am thinking about all the layers of the onion. That here, in the therapy room, is the place to say everything. To get curious, to be willing and brave and interested in the truth. Even if the truth is subjective. I suppose we could debate (and many have and do) the use of knowledge of the truth...does it really set you free? Does it really cure your addiction, relieve your rage, send the right message to your spouse? Release you from the trappings of your past? Does knowing how you were shaped and influenced, what effected you, how and why, really lead to progress and better things for your present and future?

Does unpacking your memories, facing your fears, fessing up to angers, resentments and desires really have a benefit? What if you could really get good glimpse of your unconscious? Would it matter? What if you could give yourself permission to really get to know yourself, flaws and assets, bumps and bruises, urges, wishes and secret longings?

The truth? I don't really know? How can we know this? But I think, honestly, from the therapist's chair, that honesty, at least in here, in my office, pays life quality dividends big time.

I am not talking about confession. I welcome it if it helps, but its okay with me if you are drinking a pint on Friday night after your spouse has gone to sleep, and you just can't seem to tell your sponsor. Or you really are spending a lot of time with the guy in the office two doors down, and you promised your partner you don't talk to him anymore. Or that you really watch Oprah when you work from home.

You can confess all you want in my office, I am listening. It helps to unload it, and this is a good place to do it. But. And. What next. Therapists don't have collars. We have mirrors. If you' d like. And hopefully a sense of when and how to use them.

Most people come in to get relief, to understand some things about themselves, about life, about their past, how it affects their present and future. How to have better. Better love, sex, money, serenity, sense of self, direction, self value, connections. Better.

Honesty, honestly, (makes me want to sing that old Billy Joel song), is sometimes a slow riser, like the sun, but I do think it brings light, to dark days, dark moods, dark lives. Even if the ideas are just guesses sometimes, even if we have to live with, or settle for, workable true enough ideas or insights. Even if, and since, in therapy-speak, not knowing the truth, or wanting to know the truth is a defense, and we respect and even protect defenses, unless and until they are no longer needed.

Its just some food for thought, that being open to learning about your own truths can go a long way, in here, out there. Its not always easy, so I tend to go lightly sometimes, but I believe its worth the go. That there is a benefit, and that honesty's close friends forgiveness, engagement, and relief and acceptance are always close by.

Monday, June 1, 2009


"Don't ask yourself what the world needs; ask yourself what makes you come alive. And then go and do that. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive." ~Harold Whitman
Okay, I am not advocating selfishness by bringing you the above quote. I am advocating interest. In what makes you tick. And you can always use that to give back to the world.
We all want to have passion at least somewhere in our lives. Some are afraid of it, and go to great lengths to avoid it. Some are afraid to live without it, and go to great lengths to create it. And, not to be confused with hunger, desire or drama, passion or lack of it really is what brings many people through the therapy door.

Some of us want it in our friendships, some want it in our careers, and most of us want it in the bedroom. We are frustrated, despondent, depressed even, when we feel that we have gone too long without it. But we don't often know how to create it. And we don't know how to make it jive with serenity and contentment, with order and routine and acceptance of the normal ebb and flow of relationships and jobs.

I see lots of attempts to ignore passion, and lots of attempts to find it. In the eating disorder community, we don't talk about passion nearly enough. And I see many folks confusing passion with compulsion and competition. Or letting passion turn into compulsion or competition.

And its often about squelching hungers. Sometimes there is a deep seated fear that knowing what you truly hunger for will shake up your world. Or someone else's. Or that you will not be able to have what it is you really want, or what really lights you up. Or that you will in fact be consumed by. The refusal to know your passions, the fear, is a common experience of many who suffer from eating disorders, as well anxiety and depression.

In the therapy room, passions of all kinds are welcome as a topic of discussion. They can be ushered out into the light and studied. There is no need, often times, no mandate, to act on them, but just to know them, to talk about them, to not squelch them back down inside - out of fear. Good decisions can be made when one is passionate. Passion does not have to be impulsive or clumsy, or hurtful or forceful. It can be life giving and useful. Quiet and steady.

The point is this: lots of energy often goes into to avoiding knowing ourselves. We may even fear we are dangerous in some way. But I think the danger is in not talking about passion. I think that depression and anxiety and eating disorders are all well treated when we put passion into the picture and get to know where it lives in us and for what or whom. Our relationships usually benefit as well. For all the attention we give to unpacking panic and depression, communication difficulties and addiction, we should not forget to weave passion into discussion and learn what it means to us, what ideas, fears, images, memories or feelings the word itself brings up. And then we can use it to move forward toward whatever it is we are seeking. We can use it to have more what we want and be more content with what we have.