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Hope Forward: Surviving and Thriving through Emotional Pain: 2010

Monday, December 20, 2010

How to Make Your Woman Happy (More Relationship Building Ideas)

So here's part two of my top ten list for making your partner happy...(and having more and better for yourself too...)

And here's my usual disclaimer (same as the one in the previous post...) if you are in serious emotional pain, then the top ten list is not so easily followed. And when your brain is on rev due to anger, frustration, fear or addiction, depression or severe anxiety, extra care is a good idea. And as always, I think its a good idea to talk things out in a neutral place.... okay, so without anymore's my top ten list for making your woman happy...and building better feelings... (in no particular order)

1) Make sure she knows you love her. Accept that this is ongoing, normal and totally a female thing to want. (Yes, men want this too, but don't underestimate the importance of this for women.) You can do this in a variety of ways. Words are usually a good bet. If you are not good at finding the right words, ask her how to best let her know how much you love her. And then practice saying it. Flowers are good, too. I know its stereotypical, but it still works. In fact, most of the top ten list centers around helping your woman feel that you love her. Giving her the right feelings. (you will most likely benefit greatly from this).

2) Call her a lot. Especially if you are going to be late. I know this seems silly to a lot of men, but to women, it matters. And be specific about where you are and what time she can expect you. Most men are not accustomed to doing this, but most women find it very reassuring. Its not a trust thing. Or maybe it is, but it almost doesn't matter. If you do it, it will give her good feelings. Call and say, "I'm on the parkway at exit 136, there's a lot traffic and I'm stuck. And then I am going to stop at Mike's house to pick up his pliers, since I can't find ours, and I need to fix that faucet this weekend." Even if you work a very busy hectic day, or you are trading on the floor, or with potential clients, or your boss is breathing down your neck, calling her for 10 seconds to say, "I am so hectic today, but I miss you, and look forward to seeing you later" goes a long way. If you have time, ask about her day. If she starts to tell you every detail and you can't or don't want to listen, say something like, "I want to hear everything, but I if I stay on with you now, I'm going to miss the staff meeting" or something that says " I want to hear you, but can it wait? I still love you."

3) Ask and Tell. If/when she is seemingly upset with you, and nothing seems to be working, "What would you do if you were me?" Now this may yield you some attack back, but it also may yield you some pause, and some understanding. Be wrong sometimes. Even when you are right. Fess up to your shortcomings. We all have them. And tell her the the effect she has on you. Say, "when you threaten me, it makes me too angry or hurt, it has a dangerous effect or it really pushes me away." Or "I am going to walk out right now because I have to calm down." or "I want to work this out with you, but I way too frustrated right now."

4) Find out how she likes to be approached for sex and stick with that for a bit. You can always talk to her about your own preferences, but check with her. If saying "Hey baby wanna get naked?" turns her on, or is part of the playful part of your sex life, then fine. But if she would like some conversation, a little romance, or more of a warm up, then be open to that. You'll still get what you need, right? And if your sex life is not what you'd like or need, talk with her about how you'd like more intimacy. If its difficult to bring it up or discuss it, get help. Don't figure that you are stuck.

5) Be open and cooperative about money. Money is one of the biggest sore points in many relationships, and far too complicated to talk about in this post. But, know that money has meaning to everyone. It can mean love, security, faith, respect, intention, commitment, and togetherness. Especially, if one or both of you has your own business, money issues can pack a lot of punch. If you've got money issues, and you fight over them, get help.

6) Say thank you and appreciate all the things she does. The small and large. From putting your socks away to making dinner, to being so gracious about "letting" you go out with the guys. It may be a no-brainer to you, but you cannot go wrong by acknowledging her efforts.

7) When you want or need more time alone, or away, tell her where you are going, with whom and reassure her that its a man thing. Most woman understand this on some level, but feel hurt about it anyway. Accept this. It's not a criticism of you. And accept the fact that a relationship does mean that you can't always go and do what you want when you want to. There are trade offs. Stay aware of the benefits, of what you "yes" have.

8) Don't criticize her or compare her to other women. Compliment, compliment, compliment. Okay, I know these are two things, but I am putting them together. If you want her to wear, do, say, things differently, tell her what you like, why you like it and how much you enjoy it when she makes such an effort to make your relationship good. Tell her she is sexy, beautiful, hot, whatever....but tell her often, (not just when you want sex). Compliment her mothering, her housekeeping, her kind heart, sharp mind. The things that attacted you to her in the first place, and the things she is good at.....notice and tell her.

9) Ask things. As often as you can say, "What can I do to help you?" Even if she rejects you, keep asking. Ask for her opinion.

10) Listen. Don't assume that you have to solve things, or that her unhappiness is all because of you. Paying attention and listening goes a long way. Tell her you are on her side. Reassure her. Be comforting. Even if you are unsure about things yourself, you can tell her you're in it together.

Okay, so this does not mean you have to be on all the time. It's just a guide after all. But it does mean that you have a better chance of being understood, less frustrated and having better sex, if you practice the above. You can tell her when things bother you, but prefacing things with love really helps. Most women are after an emotional connect. If you get better at this, things will flow from there.

Of course, again, I know that when you are frustrated or feel criticized or put off by her, if things are strained, you may not feel like doing any of the above. Its hard to give love when you feel this way. Old resentments creep in, things can seem irrational or irrelevant, and the urge is often to punish, or withdrawal and escape, rather than try to sort things through and give more. And sometimes it's hard to push ourselves to act right when we feel so wronged. But we can do this, I believe. We can forge forward. If we are stuck, we can get help. Sometimes, character is character, but the basics, even when they seem hard to do can go a long way toward making things so much better.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Making Your Man Happy (Good Relationship Building Ideas)

Lately I have been working with a lot of couples in crisis, as well as with couples and individuals who are seeking to make their relationships better. And folks have been asking me what it takes to make things work well. So here's my top ten list for women (men soon!) who want to make their relationships better. I know, by the way, that when you are hurt or hurting, especially when you are angry or frustrated or feeling betrayed, that taking the lead in turning things around is not exactly what you are in the mood of doing. And I know that it's not quite as simple as it will seem from my list below. And.... I still believe that the best way to get from bad to better or better to even better is to talk about things. To figure out what's in the way of things getting better. And of course, to go gently. But I do have a short list of ideas to consider if you are trying to make things good.

Okay, one more disclaimer. Emotional pain and/or a brain revved up by anger or fear or frustration make it difficult to take good action, to even want to take good action. Often, when we have been hurt, we want to punish, not preserve. And this feeling is, like all others, worthy of attention. But here's my list anyway.... (in no particular order)

1) Appreciate him. Say thank you. Often, and genuinely. Tell him specifically what he does right, well and good. Even if it seems mundane, ordinary or given. For coming home on time, taking out the garbage, calling to say hi, paying the electric bill. Especially let him know when he does things that make you feel loved, happy and satisfied. Even if you have to pull out "small" things at first.

2) Smile. Seriously. It's so appealing. Be happy to see him.

3) Feel good about yourself and show it. Confidence is appealing to men. If you are depressed or your self esteem is in the gutter, tend to it for real. It's okay to ask for reassurance from your man, but too much asking him if you are fat, or pretty or if he loves you can take a toll. Women can help men to say the right things, and to create good feelings. Women do need words, but it's not realistic to expect them to know exactly what to say, and if they don't say the right thing, to decide that they don't love you or do not want to make you happy.

4) Be realistic. Even though women often wish for their man to be their sounding board, their source of emotional nourishment and love, relationships fair better when women have additional places to talk, to process and to get good care and good feelings. It can't all come from your man.

5) Don't criticize. This is not to say you should not express what you fact doing so, and being thankful goes a long way. But telling your man what's wrong with him usually undermines his confidence, helps him to feel disrespected and unappreciated. It creates bad feelings all around, which then creates a distance, leaving you with even less of what you want. You can help him be a better spouse by building him up, not breaking him down. By the way, "observations" about how he does things wrong are the same as critiscism. If he experiences your words as critcical, then there is something to look at, even if you think he is oversensitive.

6) Don't threaten. Most men do not respond well to threats. Women threaten when they feel too hurt, frightened or deprived of love, but threatening to leave or throw him out, or find another man will usually yield you more distance, or a threat back, or in some cases, he will leave. If you are hurt, talk it out with a trusted, neutral third party, slow your revved up brain down and then go back and say how you feel, not to a list of all the things he does wrong. Helping him to feel like a failure will not yield you a good result.
7) Initiate sex. And don't withhold sex. Don't' underestimate the importance of sex in most relationships. Sex does not always have to be "great" or even result in orgasm. And couples often have different sex drives, but sex usually helps couples feel closer. While words and talking are foreplay for women, sometimes it's okay to have sex without a good conversation first. While couples often have different sexual needs, it usually helps build a relationship when women show interest in sex.

8) Feed him. Yes. food. If you can't cook, then try to learn, or come up with ways to show him that you are trying to provide food he likes. I am not saying that you have to do this all the time. Even once in a while, with good sincere effort can go a long way.
9) Show respect. Let him lead the way. You can go ahead and prove you are right, but it will cost you good feelings and closeness. I am not suggesting you let him drive into the Hudson if he wants to ignore the GPS, but sometimes it's worth keeping quiet for a bit, and talking about it later. You can also genuinely ask for his opinion, refrain from accusing him of being selfish when he is late, demanding to know where he is, and saying a simple, "Okay, I respect your decisions." Apologize when you are wrong and fess up to your own mistakes. And, hold back from name calling.

10) Give him space and trust him. Most every man I know needs space. This does not mean he does not love you, that you are unlovable, that he is cheating, does not want to be with you, or that you have a bad relationship. It just means he is a man. Many women tell me that their husband will "run to help everyone else, but not me." Letting him know that you know how helpful he is can be a great way to build him up. And then let him know how much you appreciate it when he also takes care of your "honey-do" list as well.
Of course, you may have to repeat and repeat and repeat some more, but persistance can pay off.
And if you are in a verbally or physically abusive situation, or your sex life has been seriously halted, one of you has an addiction, or serious depression, or the difficult feelings seem really big and long lasting, or, as often is the case, you find yourself saying, "yes, but...." to the above list, its a good idea (surprise) to get outside help. Talk, talk and talk some more, in a place that is conducive to understanding what's going on and how to make progress.

Many women fear that they will only end up giving, and not getting anything back, or that they will not get the love and emotional connect they need, but I have found that more often than not, when women initiate, good things come around.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Gratitude and Emotional Pain

I know, I am going with the theme of the week again. But I do think that gratitude is a good tool for coping when you are struggling. And it is Thanksgiving, so it seems timely. I know that finding and focusing on gratitude can seem counter-intuitive sometimes, especially when you are hurting, but when you are looking for relief, gratitude can work wonders.

Studies have shown that being willing and able to identify and name things that you are grateful for builds resiliency. Being grateful does not mean dismissing bad feelings, neglecting them or avoiding them. In fact the opposite. In telling our stories of trauma, betrayal, anger, frustration, and in seeking to understand what has shaped us and how, when we include points for what we "yes" have, we can reinforce the idea that there is hope, there is meaning and there can be healing. We can move out of helplessness and into progress.
Gratitude also plays a major part in finding relief and healing hurt relationships.
Consider this: Someone you love hurts you. They seem neglectful or disrespectful, or distant. Or maybe they have betrayed you in some way. You are angry and hurt, fearful, maybe, and confused. The bad feelings are painful. Being angry with someone we love or who has helped us is especially painful. We are often tempted to retaliate, or threaten or withdraw. Anger and fear can propel us to act in all kinds of destructive ways.

But when we can mix in some honest recollection of the ways we have been helped by the person we are angry with, the things they have done that we have appreciated or needed or benefited from, we can soften the bad feelings just enough to get some relief and deal with things in a more productive way.

Spouses who frustrate us may also have helped us co-parent well, or encouraged us in our career. Parents who behave irrationally may have helped support us in some way. Bosses who are difficult may have gone to bat for our raise. Friends who have been neglectful may have once listened well to us when we were a mess. And we ourselves, when we make mistakes, also have our good points. We are well served to remember them and appreciate them while we are taking a look at the things that we do that no longer serve us well.

Of course, I am not excusing bad behavior, but I think everyone fares better when we seek to understand it, and when we can support our efforts by telling the whole story, not just the painful parts. And of course, I know its not so easy to call up things to be grateful for when you are on brain rev from anger or fear or frustration or self attack. But still....

I maintain my great respect for anger and frustration, for talking and talking and talking some more. About what shapes us, what we believe, what we would like and what might be in the way of getting it. And I think that as we tell our stories, we are missing out if we don't also include the things that we have and are and do that work well.

Gratitude is the antidote to self pity. And since self pity (which you can certainly indulge in if you like) usually runs us in circles inside, a bit of gratitude can pull us out. I know I might be stretching it, but if your legs work, or your eyes, or you have a bed to sleep in, you have something to go on.

Yes, sometimes it is about perspective. But I think its also about allowing ourselves to have all our feelings, the good and bad ones, and fostering the hope that we can have them and get relief from them. And create resilient selves and resilient relationships.

I do also want to add a personal note of thanks to my readers. To those of you who stop by, or comment, or email me, or who have recognized Hope Forward on your own sites, to my followers, and to everyone who has encouraged me to keep writing. Thank you!

Monday, November 8, 2010

Kindness and Healing Emotional Pain

Lately, I've been thinking a lot about kindness. And about how it heals.

And how it should be on the list of ways to survive and thrive when life is frustrating.

Sometimes, when we are hurting, we end up giving away to others what we ourselves need. Like patient listening, reassurance, acknowledgement, praise, gentle suggestion, hope, love, kindness, in the hope of then getting back what we ourselves need.

Or we do the opposite. We ball up and don't give anything to anybody. Either way, we may be left feeling alone, frustrated or depleted. And dipping our toe in the quick sand of self pity.

Kindness can be tricky.

Giving in order to get within the parameters of our healthy relationships is fine. Most good relationships are reciprocal. Taking care of one another, giving and getting at different times, in different ways.

And closing up can be a way protecting ourselves against rejection or further hurt. Sometimes that's a kindness to ourselves. Practicing kindness when we feel like closing down can seem impossible, or irritating, even.

But I think that kindness, small or large - for the sake of kindness itself, (not necessarily to the person who is part of our frustration - though some say that helps too) has so many benefits.

And there are so many easy ways to be kind. Inevitably, we end up getting back. Maybe not from the recipient of our kindness, but still.

Kindness shapes us. And reshapes us. It can help when we are angry, or lonely, or frustrated, or too wrapped up in our point and our pain. It helps us step out of ourselves just enough to do other things that will help us feel, be and live better.

Practicing kindness brings relief. It can bring feelings of accomplishment, of productiveness, of worthiness, value and competency. When we are feeling low, we can use all the good feelings we can get. To help carry us along. To get us out, even momentarily, from our own world of pain or angst.

I have great respect for anger, and anxiety and frustration, for fear, doubt and insecurity. I know there are many ways to get relief. And I am thinking that doing a kindness should be on the list.

Kindness to ourselves, yes. But I am talking about kindness in general. Even if it only offers a brief reprieve from OCD or panic, or addiction or rage. I think its worth it.

So here are some ideas, mostly on the small and reasonable list, but that count:

Say thank you to someone....for even the small things like taking out the garbage or holding open a door, or giving you your change at the store.

Notice and Express appreciation for something specific, or ordinary, for example, someone's kind words to you, or their delivering the mail, or for being on time or being honest or being friendly or working hard.

Notice and Give a compliment: on someone's outfit, or attitude or work or style. No need to be flowery or expansive, just genuine. Sometimes brief is best.

Give Charity. Give a dollar. Give a quarter. Give what you can. Drop something in the bucket of the folks outside the grocery store. Buy special stamps like the Breast Cancer Awareness ones that cost a drop more, but are an easy way to support the cause. Or donate online, or pick your favorite charity and send something their way.

Buy a flower for someone.

Cook a small meal for a stressed out friend. Or take some fruit to someone who looks sad.

Tell someone their kid is cute.

Tell a teacher you appreciate their efforts with your kid.

Call to wish someone a speedy recovery if you've heard they are sick.

Check out kindness websites, like Do One Nice Thing or Partners in Kindness or Help

Have your anger. Have your point. Have your pain. Talk, rage, cry, write, walk. Talk more. And while you are waiting for insights, relief, progress, change, consider the benefits of small acts of kindness. You'll see. Doing a kindness will be like a small crack of sunshine on a grey day while you are walking on the road to better.

A Quick Thanks...

To the folks at OnlineSchools.Org for including Hope Forward in its promotion of healing blogs and online social work learning opportunities!

Monday, October 25, 2010

Trick or Treat: Curiosity And Compassion and How We Treat Ourselves

"I've seen the worst of myself and I've survived." ~ Anonymous

"I've seen the best of myself, and I've survived that, too." ~ Just as Anonymous

And just in time for Halloween, though I am not usually so themed...but I just can't help it this week. With all the haystacks and pumpkins and scarecrows around. Not to mention the barrage of eye candy on all the trees.

If you are hurt or hurting, or depression and its BFF anxiety are following you around, then taking a look up at the leaves and inhaling the fresh fall air (at least here in New Jersey - and yes, there is fresh fall air here), may seem pointless at best, and painful at worst. Even if you are walking around in mild, but annoying despair or disappointment, it is possible to breath in a bit of hope and consider how you are treating yourself these days.

If you are grappling with grief, or frustration or anger, are you talking about it? Writing about it? Taking the time to honor it, feel it and tend to it? Are you able to take in good feelings as well, or do the bad feelings steal everything?

Recently, I was discussing with a group of healers whether its better to think yourself into acting or act yourself into thinking. Which is the quickest route to relief when you are hurting or trying to change something that is no longer serving you well? It was a lively debate, and the bottom line was: both. Depends on the situation, on your unconscious mind, on the severity of the pain. But either way, it was agreed that being curious about your feelings and feeling them, and studying them with compassion, is the bottom line below the bottom line. It's the treat behind the trick.

Whatever path you take toward working on your stuff, on your relationship with yourself and others, on feeling better, or having more, its best done with curiosity and compassion. Many folks, when in emotional pain are so prone to self attack, to giving themselves a hard time for feeling what they feel, that they stay stuck in the feeling just by trying not to feel it. And they beat themselves up for that too. And sometimes, underneath all the struggling is the quiet whisper of "It must be me." Meaning that even when things are going haywire, and people around us are acting like goons and goblins, somewhere, many of us think its really our fault somehow.

And there is some truth in this, we usually do have a role in our circumstance somehow. That's not to say that we registered at Macy's for it, lots of times it's unconscious of course. And it's not to say that we are responsible for the behavior of others, but we may play a part, and we do have the ability to take a look at ourselves. Another can-be trick, toward making life better. As long as it comes with the treat of compassion.

It's not aways easy to walk in the door here. My office is nice. The couch is comfy. Its quiet here, and conducive to talking. But still and all, many folks are nervous about it. Even those who've been to therapy before.

Perhaps it's fear of the unknown, or of having to start anew, or start at all. Sometimes it's both the anticipation and anxiety of getting to tell your story. In here, there is nothing that can't be talked about. That does not mean everything has to be talked about. But there are no off limits feelings or thoughts or subjects.

I don't think that has to only apply to the therapy room, though. I think we can practice letting ourselves breath in the fresh air, -even when we are huring - maybe especially when we are hurting - enjoy the leaves and get to know our own stories. And taking the tact of curiosity and compassion can go along way toward paving the way for progress no matter what the path or setting.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

When Doing Your 1% Seems Like Pushing a Truck Uphill in the Mud

"I finally figured out that I had a choice: I could suffer a great deal, or not, for a long time, or I could have the combo platter: suffer, breathe, play, pray, cry and try to help people. There was meaning in the pain. It taught you how to survive with a modicum of grace when you did not get what you wanted." ~ Anne Lamott, Grace (Eventually)

The road from suffering to freedom is just so full of potholes. Lately, I've been hearing a lot about the connection between fear and anger, and between forgiveness and freedom.

I hear from wives who are angry when their husbands want to play more golf (or be out more, doing whatever). They feel unloved, and fear they are not important enough, or won't get the love and attention they need. (and, btw, its often not the going out more that bothers wives, its their husbands wanting to).

I hear from husbands who are angry that their wives don't respect them enough. They fear that they are not doing a good enough job, that they are not effective as partners and providers. They are angry that their wives need so much emotional connection. They fear they will not be able to provide it, and then will not get the things they need, like sex, and space, and trust and appreciation.

I hear from singles who are angry they cannot find a life partner. They fear they will always be alone, and missing out on what couplehood has to offer. Or fear they are unloveable or unable to love.

I hear from professionals who are angry they are not making enough money, have to work crazy hours, or may get laid off. They fear for their livelihood, effectiveness and value.
The fears often run far deeper, even, which we discover when we unpack them. And tackling them can feel like pushing a truck uphill in the mud.

The folks in 12 step like to say that if you do your 1%, G-d will do the rest. But sometimes, emotional pain, (and anger is, I think, pretty close to the top of the list as far as emotional pain goes), and fear and frustration often make doing your 1% seem like walking upstream in the deep end of the Amazon River.
Besides, half the time, we don't even know what our 1% is.
But we can find out. And maybe that's enough. Its a good start anyway. It means a lot of talking, or writing or praying. It often involves muddling through a lot of self attack and feelings of self pity, but if we are brave, we can do it. We don't always have to assume the worst about ourselves, or others. We can give good consideration to the best in ourselves, and others, and take it from there.
That, and allowing ourselves to have all our feelings, makes truck pushing and river walking much easier, I think. And it leads the way to forgiveness of ourselves and others, and freedom from the fear and frustration.
The suffering does not have to eclipse the rest of life, and knowing that can help a lot.

Monday, September 27, 2010

We Won! - How We Think About our Relationships

Last night, late, my husband came back from watching the Jets game.

"How was it?" I asked.

"Good," he said. "We won."

And so I am thinking about this now. What does that mean? "We" won? He did not win, really. I mean, okay, so he's a fan. But, he does not own the Jets (too bad); he does not coach the Jets, or play for the Jets, or even actually go to games in person. So how exactly did "we" win? "We" did not do anything but watch. Did we?

So of course, I understand the longstanding, loyal attachments that "we" have to sports and to teams, and to team spirit, and to rooting and cheering and praying and even to sending spiritual or psychic waves of inspiration and support to our teams. I understand how much being a part of something bigger than ourselves and throwing our attention and team spirit and support that way can mean to us.

I am not at the moment offering an analysis of what sports mean to men, or to any of us. I am just thinking about whether or not we think the same way when it comes to our relationships.

There is a famous story of spiritual leader who's wife broke her ankle. He accompanied her to the doctor and when the doctor asked what the problem was, the Rabbi said, "Doctor, our foot hurts us."

In my work with couples in emotional pain, feelings can seem so factual, so hurtful, so overwhelming and big, that it gets harder and harder to think of the "we." Sometimes we stop thinking about whats good for the relationship and we dig deep into thinking about what's good for ourselves. Which is, of course, always an important part of the equation, but not at the expense of the "us."

Not if we want to save or nurture the relationship. I see couples get into "me vs. him" or "me vs. her," especially when there is choppy communication, or little, no or not enjoyable sex, or some kind of betrayal. When we are hurt we don't want to think of individual sacrifice for the good of the team. We often feel we have sacrificed enough already. Sometimes we have. Its hard to know for sure until we unpack all the ideas behind our attitudes and our feelings.

Its not hopeless. Even when it hurts a lot. And sometimes, you can save a relationship and have more for yourself too. This is often the case. Couples don't always come in together for help. Sometimes coming in alone can help the "team" just as much as coming in together.

Its the right kind of talking that counts. You'd be surprised at how much of a difference it can make. I think we are afraid, much of the time. Afraid that we will not get what we need, or that we will be hurt again, or taken advantage of, or will have to suffer more than we can bear. Or that we will be left alone. Its not often the case, though, when we are able to study things a bit. Team spirit can return, and then everyone wins.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

You Might Be Angry If You are Telling Someone What to Do....

Sometimes its so hard to be in the moment. Especially if the moment brings up anger. For many people, anger is just so painful and so frightening. For the person feeling it, mostly, not just the object of the anger. Whether we feel entitled, right, justified or wounded, anger hurts.

We associate anger with feeling out of control, afraid, disprespected, devalued, threatened.

Usually, we think anger is obvious, but sometimes, its very quiet, very subtle, and that's when it may be the most dangerous. That's when we are likely to be acting on it, without even knowing it.

Most of us do not get good anger training. We yell or hit or stuff anger, or run from it.

Sometimes, if we find ourselves giving advice, instructions, suggestions, its a signal from our psyche that we are angry. Especially for those of us who are very frightened of confrontation or intense feelings, or who don't want to be angry, or angry with the person with whom we are talking.

The urge to give is also sometimes a cover up for how we really feel.

In a group I run, one member presented a certain problem, and almost immediately, another member began to make suggestions. She offered some good books to be read, places to go, and things to do. Very generous, on the one hand, but there was something nagging me about it.

We unpacked it a bit in the group and we came up with this: while all the ideas were good ones, useful ones, really, and the group appreciated hearing them, the offering of them took us out of the moment, away from the feeling. It wasn't conscious, but it was true, we thought.

Maybe the feeling was too intense, or scary, or big. The unconscious mind protects us by distracting us. But these distractions, if we study them, can give us great information about ourselves, and we can use that to heal, to grow and to be more present.

It seems crazy sometimes, when you are in the thick of it, but it's good practice, I think, to be open to what goes on behind the scenes within ourselves. We can make good use of the information, take better care of ourselves and our relationships, and feel better. That's the best part.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Bad Moods Welcome Here

It's human. We complain about complaining.

We feel guilty about feeling guilty, resentful about feeling resentful, and hurt about being hurt.

We have reactions to our reactions. In my office, when people talk about how hurt they are, how much emotional pain they are in, or how much they are struggling, they sometimes express frustration over feeling how they feel. I often hear

"I shouldn't complain, look at what happened to the people in Haiti."
"I wish I weren't this angry! I should just get past it."
"I feel so stupid not being able to just get past this, or get myself out of this. I should know better."
"I'm too old to feel this way."
"I'm too young to feel this way."
"I'm too smart to feel this way."
"I hate feeling this way. It's taking over my life. I just don't know to shake it."

It is what it is, though. With a vigorous nod to how painful anger is, or betrayal or frustration or self doubt....Why is it that we think that telling ourselves we should not feel what we feel will help? We can have respect and empathy for the pain and circumstances of others, and still feel our own pain. It does not have to be a choice.

And we can count our blessings and keep a firm grasp on our gratitudes, and still feel our feelings. We can let them live and breath and flow and they will pass. Faster, I think, than when we fight them.

Yes, perspective helps with emotional pain
Yes, gratitude for what we "yes" have helps with emotional pain.
Yes, talking to good ears helps with emotional pain.
Even complaining helps. To the right ears. Our expressions don't have to always represent the whole picture. In my office, bad moods are welcome. Complaints are welcome. All words are welcome. I think that relief truly starts when we just let ourselves be where we are first.

And then we can go forward.

(and stay tuned for some thoughts on feeling entitled to feel how we feel...)

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Top Fifty Social Work Blogs

Just a quick thanks to the folks at MSW for selecting HopeForward as one of the top fifty social work blogs. The list includes some great resources.

To see the blog list and read up on more things social work, personal growth, recovery and life, click the link above. And not just for social work types only!

Monday, August 9, 2010

Is Fat a Feeling?

There's a big debate over this one in my office. And in recovery rooms. And in the all the good books on eating disorders, food, weight, body and self.

Sometimes, fat is fat.

You just feel it. Bloated. Big. Uncomfortable in your own skin. Sometimes, the numbers on the scale can be the exactly the same, and one hour you feel fat, and the next, not.

Sometimes it's hormones, sometimes it's heat, humidity, too much salt. In the eyes of others, you look the same way you looked yesterday.

And sometimes feeling fat, awful as it feels, is better than feeling how you are really feeling.
Fat is often a code word for all other feelings. Especially anger, regret, frustration, fear, hurt, sadness.

If we are brave, we can unpack the fat. We can ask ourselves:
"What else is going on with me today? Besides that I feel fat."

"If I am angry, with whom?"

"If I am afraid, of what?"

"If I feel regret, for what?"

You get the idea. Of course, that's the easy part. And that's not easy. From there its about taking good care of yourself through all that hurt.
Sometimes, feeling fat is code for feeling too big in other areas. Too noticeable, too important to people who you may love, who may love you, but who might demand or expect a lot.
And sometimes, feeling fat seems better than feeling stupid. Or less than. Or wrong. Or flawed.

Maybe, unconsciously, we think that whatever character traits, defects, mistakes we've made are so bad, so unacceptable, unbearable, unforgivable, that feeling fat, as bad as it feels, is better than taking a look at ourselves, as gently as possible, making amends, and moving on.
Whatever it means, in any given moment, it does help to tend to the feeling. I think we fare so much better when we do.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Summer Reading (on Love, Sex and Intimacy)

This month I've got my head in a few good books on love, marriage, relationships and sex.
Hold me Tight by Sue Johnson and Mating in Captivity by Esther Perel, for starters. Both good reads if you are looking for ways to deepen intimacy and have better sex.

In my office, folks talk a lot about intimacy issues, both in the bedroom and out. There are so many different ways to understand each other and learn how to have good companionship, good sex and good times. And to sustain each other through bad ones.

Depending on who you ask or who you read, some say emotional closeness creates good sex, and some say good sex creates emotional closeness. Some say that its the words we use that really count. Others say its action, or body talk.

Some suggest that relationships get better when men learn how to use the right words with their woman. Others say relationships get better when women know how to (are willing to) use their bodies. Some say that even if orgasm is not the goal, sex is still crucial and life giving to the relationship. And that even if women are "not in the mood," the mood can and often does come around once physical intimacy starts.

There is great debate in current thinking about what causes the extremely high infidelity rate in America. Does little or bad sex lead to a cheating spouse? What about anger or frustration? Are people who go outside the marriage to be understood and forgiven? Or punished and put out?
Some marriages fall apart after infidelity. Others come back better than ever.
These days, some couples are choosing consensual sexual activity outside the marriage. This enrages some and enlightens others.

The debate goes on and on.

And then there are the if onlys.
If only....women understood how much most men need sex.
If understood how much women need emotionally connected conversation.
If only.... men could read women's minds just a bit, and anticipate what women need.
If only ... women could understand that men don't like to be questioned about where they are, what time they will be home, or what took them so long to get milk.

I'm sure there are plenty more, but these are some of the ones that come up in my office a lot.
As therapists, we are trained to help people to talk freely. This goes for couples as well. The debate is still on about what makes a good long term relationship, how to sustain or reawaken desire. And how to stay faithful in a tempting world.

The discussion, in my opinion has to be about wishes too. And fantasies and longings, of course. Most of us have them all our lives. Its good to talk about them, I think. Lest emotional pain take over and color too much of how we feel or what choices we make.

It sometimes takes some sorting through the muck of difficult feelings, but when the debate is in a good place you'd be surprised how much better life can get.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Jake and Vienna

Okay, I can't help it. I watched the breakup interview (yes, I confess, I watched the show as well), and I really wish they'd have come to see me.

It can't always be reduced to this of course: he is a man. she is a woman.

But it sure is a piece of it.

How is it that she does not know that he needs respect? To feel like the man. I can't chalk it up to her age, because I work with women twice her age who never had the chance to talk it out, to learn about how to help their man feel respected. Or to learn about what their objections to doing so are.

And how is it that he does not know that she needs love. To feel like a woman. I can't chalk it up to his lack of intelligence because he does seem to be a fairly bright guy and I work with a lot of really smart men who never learned about how to make a woman feel loved. Or to tolerate femaleness and love them anyway.

With all the fancy resources at the hands of the big networks, and all the emotional investment, physical chemistry and opportunity for a good life at their feet, I've got to ask: Why didn't these two people get help?

Did they want to be destructive? Is there a part of each of their histories that unconsciously gravitates to blowing up good things? Maybe. But it's so very obvious in that video that he was behaving like a man and she was behaving like a woman and neither of them seemed to have the slightest clue about this. And they both looked hurt and frustrated.

She feels wounded, misunderstood, unloved, undesired. He feels emasculated, distrusted, disrespected, frustrated.

Everyone is using the wrong words. She cries. He waves his hands in the air.

There is name calling and threats and accusations.

People do have good reasons for clinging to the passion of arguing, fighting, going at each other. Not the least of which is that it sometimes makes for great sex. Sometimes folks are hesitant to want to get out of the ring for fear of letting go of the prize of great sex.

But sometimes, the sex just vanishes. Like with Jake and Vienna. She accuses him of not being intimate and he says rather aptly, that he cannot be intimate with someone who is constantly cutting him down. It turns him off.

To which, of course, she claims she is not doing. So here we go. Men do feel criticized and disrespected when women want to plug in the GPS or know exactly where they are, or question their motives. It goes to trust. And trust goes to respect.

And women think: "If you loved me, you would want me no matter what I say. If you really loved me the way I deserve to be loved, then I can threaten or point out your shortcomings, or vent and you will listen and let me say anything and understand and soothe me and still desire me. And then: "Its hopeless." Which to a man seems infuriating, castrating. And to woman it means "I'm really serious. I want you to take care of me."

Sigh. Everyone has a history, a character, a story. And of course its good to know where you come from and what you bring to your relationships. But its a fantasy for Jake and Vienna to think that this stuff won't repeat in their next relationship.

Nobody really wants to do this work. To plod through the muck and hurt and history. To study the male and female- ness of us. To learn the right words, tolerate the frustration and initiate the giving. Its not a walk in the park to look at your character and what's shaped it. But its not as bad as you might think. Sometimes, many times, actually, its even satisfying.

I have seen people with far more to lose than the bachelor and Vienna not even try. And I just have to wonder again....why not get help?

Monday, June 28, 2010

Blowing Up the Gulf, Infidelity, Addiction and Empathy

What do our opinion about the President, blowing up the Gulf and emotional pain have in common? Besides Bill Clinton (check this out)!

In this clip, in case you don't want to watch it, Mr. Clinton says that we (for those of us who are) are unhappy with the President (Obama, he is referring to), is that we are unhappy with ourselves. He goes on to say that people are too critical of President Obama for not having enough empathy and that first we should concentrate on fixing the problem (stopping up the oil leak), then we can clean up the mess, then we can hold people accountable. And then empathy.

I was wondering as I was listening to this, whether this is a model for us all to consider when we are hurting, frustrated or otherwise in emotional pain. Or dealing with problems that cause pain and spillage in our lives.

First, (as Bill Clinton says), should we consider the idea that when we are harsh or critical of others, or unhappy with them, that perhaps we are seeing things through our own lens, our own pain or unhappiness? Are we more gracious toward others when we feel better about ourselves? Do we blame other people for our unhappiness? How much responsibility do we assign to others? How much to ourselves.

For those of us who tend toward self attack, this is a very loaded question.

So what is Mr. Clinton's suggestion? Fix. Fix the problem. Study why it happened later. Fix it first. Does this translate into addiction work? Or infidelity? Stop. Stop drinking, gambling, using, bingeing, cheating, first. Then clean up the mess. Make amends, tend to the hurt. Then figure out who is to be held accountable for this (why it happens), then garner up some empathy for all involved. Who is allowed to make mistakes, of what proportions? What is forgivable and what is not? But fix it first.

But what if it does not always work this way? What if you have to live with the leak, the oil gushing out all over the place while you study the problem? So that you don't end up with a bad solution? What if, like the gulf, stopping addiction, ending extra-marital relationships, getting out of bad situations, are not so quick and simple? Even if they are causing lots of pain, spilling unbelievable amounts of oil, with unknown affects for years to come? What if our own emotional stuff, our behaviors even, sometimes, are like that oil leak? What if there is no simple solution? The fix is not exactly clear? What if its not clear that blowing up the gulf is better than letting that oil flow? What if stopping whatever vice is keeping you somewhat functioning is worse than letting things go as they are?

We just don't know. We might think we do, but we don't. We tend to take drastic action, I think, when we are either at a real breaking point with consequences: loss of job, threatening spouse, heart attack, (oil all over the world?), or when we feel very very good about our lives, very safe, and can feel very very generous toward others. We don't tend to be motivated to solve problems either globally or personally from our normal stance of either not too much pain or not too much happiness.

And what about causing problems? Before we cheat on our spouse because we are unhappy in our marriage or our sex life is stagnant, before we pick up a drug, quit a job, hurt ourselves or someone else, before we blow up our own gulf to try to stop our own emotional pain, should we stop to study the options first. To talk them out a bit?

Do you think empathy always has a place? We can only be so hard on ourselves and others before everyone gets blown up.

Monday, June 14, 2010

It Was A Mistake. Please Disregard

Yesterday I got a letter from someone that completely did not make sense to me. I puzzled over it for a while, thinking that it must be a mistake, sent to me in error. It bothered me though, and I was conjuring up all sorts of scenarios in my head to explain it. Today I got another letter from the same sender saying, "The letter dated June 3, 2010 was a mistake. Please disregard."

Okay. Please disregard? That's it?

Could it really be that simple? No apology even. Just acknowledging the mistake and moving on.
If only it were always that simple.

Seems to me that sometimes maybe it can be. Certainly if we are hurt, or have hurt someone, the aftershocks can last a while. Sometimes we do have to talk it through, to study what happened, to make amends.

Some of us are prone to ruminating over mistakes to a point of despair. We are conditioned to rake over and over in our mind what we did, why we did it. And usually that's followed by a lot of self condemnation. Sometimes to the point of hurting ourselves. If we are frustrated with ourselves, we may think we are worthy of punishment, not grace.

Some of us are prone to wanting to punish others to the point of despair. To the point of permanently damaging the relationship. Of course we may choose not to stay in situations that continue to put us in harms way. And of course its a natural feeling to want to punish people that frustrate or hurt us, but perhaps there is a stopping point.

I am, of course, the biggest fan of talking things through. Of being understood, understanding one's self and others. I like to analyze things. I am in the right profession. I also think that sometimes we have the idea that prolonged agony will protect us from future harm, at our own, or others hands. And I think we might be well served to rethink this.

I know its often easier said than done, and that there are good reasons for this within each of our psyches, but I also think that there are times when keeping things simple has its merits.

Monday, May 31, 2010

Head Hits the Ground...Finally! (Yoga, 12 Step and Little by Little)

A friend of mine told me recently that finally, thankfully, amazingly, her head has hit the ground. She has been practicing Yoga for years now, and while she knows that she is supposed to keep her eyes focused on her own mat, or closed even, for that matter, she can't help but notice that she is the only one in the class who cannot get her head down to the ground when the position calls for it. It just won't go. She has been inching closer, bit by bit, for years, but to no avail. Until this week.

Week after week she would keep on keeping on. She would show up for class. She would follow the instructor's lead. My friend lives at the intersection of Yoga and 12-step. In fact, all of her 12-step mantras would slip through her head like the ticker tape in time Time Square while she was on the mat.

Do the next right thing...

Don't compare your insides to everyone else's outsides

Fear is false evidence appearing real

Little efforts add up to big results

Let go and let G-d

Pay attention to your weight, you will lose your recovery, Pay attention to your recovery, you will lose your weight

Keep coming back

One day at a time (one class at a time, one stretch at a time, one second at a time)

It works if you work it

Easy does it....

My serenity is directly proportional to my surrender....

In G-d's time....

We are marveling together at how such a small victory is actually such a big one. How her head hitting the ground means to her that she has endured many months of difficult feelings. Many months of her old mantras. The "you can'ts" The "Just forget its." The "who do you think you are kiddings." And of course, the "It must be you, because everyone else seems okay, able to do it, not really having these feelings."

They are painful, our old mantras. Some folks call it The Voice. Or My Disease. Or My Eating Disorder. Whatever it is, sometimes, its like lightening during the day. It talks these messages across our minds, bringing us down without us even knowing what's hitting us. Until we feel the thunder of our bad feelings, lousy mood or dark cloud of depression or despair.

There are new words, new mantras to be learned. To be repeated over and over and over again until we can take on and take in the good. Until we learn to appreciate and credit ourselves for the victories and the achievements and the staying power it takes just to get through a day sometimes, when we are in emotional bad shape.

Keep stretching, I think. Your head will eventually hit the ground.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

The Dangerous "Yes But I..." Disease (focusing on the feeling at hand)

Not to be confused with the dangerous "Yes But You disease..." (see earlier post)'s how it often goes:

Woman: "I am feeling really lost. My mood is just so low."
Man: "Well, I'm really stressed lately. I feel awful too."
Woman: "This is not about you, I am talking about how I feel."
Man: " What about how I feel?"

Okay, so you can change woman to man, or child, or BBF. Doesn't matter really. And chances are we find ourselves on one side or the other anyway at different times. Its just painful, that's all, to tell someone how you are feeling and have them come back with how they are feeling. It creates distance at a time when closeness is what's wanted.
It makes sense, though. Often when someone tells us how they are feeling, we may think there is a subtle, or obvious, accusation that we are the cause of it. So we get defensive. Or we want to let them know we understand, so we put in our own feelings, or we want to make a connection, make a point or get some soothing for ourselves.

Perhaps we are afraid that we won't be able to help, or that we will say the wrong thing, or create a separation rather than a closeness. Then we will have to endure bad feelings, like helplessness, hopelessness, failure or annoyance. Its not easy to wade through these to the other side where connection and hope waits. Sometimes we may be afraid of the closeness that comes from walking through, so we turn things back to us in order to create a distance.

Our motives are not always conscious, of course, nor are they singular. And we do usually want to protect ourselves from hurt. It may be harder to respond with a "tell me more." Or an "of course I care, I did not know how distressed you were." Or even "Tell me what I can do. I'd like to make things right. Lets talk it out."

It can be our turn later, to get what we need, but sometimes sticking with the listening and the giving, staying with the feeling, however uncomfortable, and letting the conversation happen can pay dividends many times over.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Permission to Let Go of Bad Feelings

More often than not when people walk into my office, they are in some amount of emotional pain. There is perhaps, confusion, frustration, anger, grief, all simmering around inside them, with no good place to go.

There is no shortage of solutions for coping with bad feelings, of course. The spectrum runs from most destructive (addictions, self harm, violence) to constructive (though I don't really like this word...perhaps productive or progressive would be better?).
Constructive being things like prayer, writing, exercise, talk, talk, talk to an understanding ear. Give service, do a kindness, read a comforting book, meditate, make love. And more....

"Practicing the ability to bear discomfort" is often prescribed in 12 step rooms. Learning to tolerate feelings without acting on them. Learning to wait until they pass, while taking good care of ourselves. Getting relief without causing harm.

So of course in the therapy rooms dealing with bad feelings comes up all the time. Why do we deal the way we do? We look to our family history for clues. We look toward biology, early life experiences, character and belief systems. There are clues everywhere. We study; We talk; We take a look at what keeps us stuck, if we are stuck. So that we can get unstuck and have more serenity, happiness and love.

One of my walking buddies told me recently that she thinks that when she gets to Heaven, G-d will not ask her,

"Connie, Why didn't you worry more?"

or say "You did a lot things right, except you were not angry more often, or long enough. You did not hold enough grudges."

But, Connie tells me, she thinks some part of her likes her bad feelings. She has long since stopped drinking. She does not rage anymore at her husband and kids. She has done lots of soul searching and knows a lot about herself. She has done the work of therapy. But she still feels crappy a lot.

As we were talking, we were marveling at how one can give up all (or most) of one's vices, learn how to tolerate difficult feelings, know a lot about one's mother and father and life history and still feel so awful sometimes. We chalked some of it up to mood, hormones and life being life.

We chalked some more of it up to the possibility that perhaps she still gets something out of feeling awful, strange as that sounds. Maybe some feeling of familiarity, of closeness or likeness to her mother (who felt awful most of her life), maybe feeling awful seemed to add some spice to the day. We aren't sure exactly. It certainly does not seem like we would want to feel awful. But its possible.

So I asked Connie if it would help if I gave her permission to not feel awful. Of course, no matter how good we get at feeling our feelings, we can't always hurry them along so we can feel better. But sometimes we can.

It hit the right note when I asked this. A light quite note, but a good one, Connie told me. Yes, somehow she has always thought there was some nobility in holding on to bad feelings. As if she had to be loyal to them somehow. Maybe the idea that feeling them would protect her from things getting worse. Maybe that serenity was not something she was allowed to have, espeically if others in her life were angry, suffering or upset.

We walked on for a bit in silence. It was nice.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Rejection Confusion Part 1: Threats and What Women Really Want and the Wrong Way to Get It

Why do we humans threaten separation when what we really want is closeness?

I don't like to generalize, but I do get to observe a lot of patterns from where I sit, working with couples in pain. And I can tell you this: When feeling frustrated, angry and misunderstood, frightened or lonely, women can tend to threaten and complain rather than ask (for help) and explain (what they need). Its not that men don't threaten, but its the women who seem to somehow collectively, naturally, use threats and complaints to try to get what they need.

And it usually fails miserably. With devastating effects.

Example: Woman is at home all day with the baby. She is tired and worn out, and needs a break. Man comes home from work, also stressed out, long day too. He walks in and she is waiting for him. In her mind, she needs some love, some TLC, some appreciation for how demanding child care is, and household tasks. She wants him to mind read. She understandably needs what she needs.

He too needs some down time, he is thinking. He wants to check out that motorcycle ad on Craigslist again. He needs to stop thinking about his pissy boss. He wants to kiss the baby, grab a bite and go online. Later he wants sex. He feels kind of warm to his wife, but really wants his man cave time. He does not know she needs this love now. He would give it to her, actually, if he knew. Everyone knows they have to bend and give somewhat, but somehow that gets lost in the wrong words:

She says: "You're late."

He says: "My boss is at it again."

She says: "You could've called. You don't seem to think about us at all."

He says: "I am out making money to support us. What do you think I do all day, play cards?"

She says: "Do you think I'm eating bon bons here with my feet up?"

(okay, there are lots of versions of this, you know how it goes...and...on to threats....)

He says: "What do you want from me?"

She says: "Just forget it. I think we should separate."

There are a million reasons why women do this. Hormones, history, personality, biology. Too many bad feelings all at once. Abandonment, frustration, fear, self pity, disappointment, protest. Exhaustion. A stew of possible answers. Thinking that where there is love, there should be no need to ask for what you need and reward the giver. Thinking that we should not have to work so hard to choose the right words. Thinking that somehow a fight feels like some connection, some attention, some energy, even if its negative or hostile. Thinking that the thought of losing her will shake him into giving love. Or that the threat of seperation will inspire fear or establish power, or protect from hurt.
Sometimes, in these bad moments, we do think we should seperate if we hopeless that we cannot or will not be able to get what we need.

Often people think that they reach threats as a last resort. But I think its not always so. Threats seem to pop up impulsively, out of pain or frustration, but often times not nearly as a last resort. And not as a carefully thought out, well discussed (with a trusted, objective third party), and after having given the arch of pain some time to ebb just enough for some rational thought to be present. Threats are often the Id at work. We want relief. We want it now.

So it happens. The wrong words. Complaints and threats. Lots of times, out of pain or desperation, but still, they have a devastating, snowball and sometimes irrepreprable effect.

A male colleague of mine once told me that when his wife got really angry with him she would tell him that she wanted a divorce. He would always feel totally crushed and misunderstood by this, as well as attacked. He said it made him feel manipulated and abandoned and far too criticized and demeaned. He had some idea what she really wanted, but her complaints always gave him the idea that he could never quite satisfy or please her. He was frustrated and furious that she could not just tell him what would give her relief and pleasure. The threats squashed any positive feeling he had about his wife. He knew somehow, that she did not really want to divorce him, she just wanted to be understood, to work something out, to get him to give her something. He wished he could read her mind. In fact, sometimes he thought he could, but the effect of those threats, along with the criticism, seemed to chop off any positive feelings he could have, any logic even. And eventually any willingness to keep trying.

So after the last time she threatened divorce, he said fine. Lets divorce if that's what you want. And they did. He packed his bags that night and never came back. Not however, because either of them really wanted this, or because it was what was best for the kids, or for themselves even. There were, actually, plenty of good feelings between them too. They had helped each grow and make progress in life. She even begged him to change his mind after he left, and come back. But because he was so tired of being threatened, he attached himself to calling her out on her bluff. He stood his ground.

To this day, she blames him for it. She says she cannot believe that he actually left. She tells everyone that he left her. He shakes his head at this when he tells me about it. He tells me that she threatened divorce so often, that he could not go back. She did, he tells me, sound clear headed about it sometimes even. But when she tells her story, she says now, that she never really meant it. She really meant that she was hurting. That she wanted him to come closer. To understand her pain. To love her. To see how he hurt her sometimes. She was trying to get through to him, she says.

Crazy. It sounds crazy. And yet, I hear it all the time in my office. Why doesn't it go like this:

She says, "I am happy to see you! I know you've had a long day. I missed you. When can we spend some time together?"

He says, "Its nice to be home. My boss is a pain. You are sight for sore eyes. I need 10 minutes to cool off and then we can talk."

She says, "Great, thank you sweetheart."

And if she needs to say more:

"I am feeling so lonely. Can we hang out together more tonight? I always feel better when we do."

He says, "I did want to check out that motorcycle ad."

She says, "Can I check it out with you? Sounds fun."

This does not mean she has to agree to him getting a motorcycle, it means she can share his wish and dream with him! It means they can have time together. This does not mean she won't get to say how angry she is that he does not call during the day more. And this does not mean that all is peachy between them, but it means there is room to work. Room to really get what might be needed. To learn what might be needed. To have more instead of less. It means we do have to have other ways of saying how bad we feel without threatening, because after the divorce, its a lot harder to get anything, including peace of mind.

After the divorce, the blaming only gets worse. So does the anger for a while. Its a psychosis even, this rejection confusion. Who left? Who deprived who? And who's fault is it anyway? Everyone feels rejected, hurt and confused. And clear about one thing at least, that there is pain.
Of course, sometimes parting is necessary, pain and all. But I think there is much hope, as always, Tending to our words and sorting out what we really want and how to get it can bring us relief and good results, if we can hold on through the hurt and hold off on the threats.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Different Directions

A friend of mine called me from a road trip yesterday to tell me the following story:

She was visiting a friend in San Francisco, a long awaited for, saved up for and precisely planned vacation. She is single, on a tight budget and not used to traveling, but after dreaming about such a vaca for so long, and listening to her friend's nagging about coming west, she decided to challenge herself by just doing it. My friend declared victory over her fears of traveling alone and hopped on a plane and flew toward the Pacific.
She based herself at her old college roommate's sunny apartment near the bay, where she could smell the sea air and watch the fog lift around mid morning. She let herself ramble around, jump on cable cars, buy Ghiradelli chocolate and walk across the Golden Gate Bridge.
On the day she called me, she was driving up highway 1 along the coast feeling like she had just discovered a new moon. She was elated. Not, however, just because she was flying up the coast line like the road runner watching miles and miles of ocean and then stopping every now and then to just sit on an occasional rock and stare out at the sea til her eyes hurt, but because of this:

She had intended to head south first thing that morning from San Francisco, out of the city toward 101 South, to meet up with a scheduled tour at the Hearst Castle. She had always wanted to check this place out, and the tour was to be the grand finale to her week of fun. She got up early, situated herself in her red Ford Taurus rental car and headed out.

She drove out of the neighborhood, through the city streets just as the city was waking up and stretching out after a long night's sleep. Unlike New York, San Francisco sleeps. She headed through Golden Gate Park, amazed at the foggy mist all over the trees, distracted by all the white washed buildings, low lying and calm. A mindful city, she was thinking. She drove happily over the Golden Gate Bridge, through the tunnel into the jagged hills of Sausilto, looking back at the thick fog over the city behind her in her rear view mirror. Gorgeous. So different, so far away from her rushed life, her boyfriend troubles. The constant chattering of her own mind, the reviewing her failures. Her frustrations and shortcomings had conceded to the vastness of the San Francisco bay and its loveliness. Even her loneliness had lifted out here. Her extra 20 pounds didn't seem so awful, just something to deal with maybe, some day. By some miracle, the food was not calling her the way it usually did. Even if there is no such thing as a geographic cure for her eating disorder, she told me, she did feel like she was on some kind of temporary leave of agony from all her struggles.

As she was driving, she was watching the signs for Tiburon, San Rafael, Novoto. The scraggly cliffs gave way to rolling hills, she noted the occasional cow and a fogless blue sky bright with early morning California sunshine. Petaluma, Sonoma, Santa Rosa. Hmm. She kept driving. Its the age of GPS, but she did not have one. She had her map, her guide book and her printed google directions. She was almost sorry she had her cell phone. An electronics protest rumbled somewhere inside her and it felt good.

About an hour and a half into the drive, like the sun coming up, she tells me, a slow and growing smile started across her face. The signs that said 101, telling her she was on the right highway, were also trying to tell her something else. She was going north. Very north. Delightfully, steadily and definitely 70 miles in the wrong direction.

With a head scratch, she pulled off at the next exit to grab a coke and a muffin at a pretty little gas station somewhere off the highway. The kid behind the counter said "How you doing today?" To which she replied, "Well, I just drove 70 miles in the wrong direction" To which he smiled lightly, shrugged and said, "Well, guess you can just turn around now and go the other way then." To which she said, feeling just as light, "Yep."

So this was the victory she was calling to tell me about, some 12 hours later. That she missed the tour at the Hearst Castle, that she had driven 70 miles out of her way, that the one thing she had really wanted to do, she did not get to do. But she felt better than she could ever remember. That those 70 miles up through Marin County would stay with her forever, so would that boy behind the counter with his smile and his shrug. It did not get filtered through her usual screen of self attack, sarcasm or despair. Although she had long been working on allowing herself all of her feelings, even, especially, the negative ones, the uncomfortable ones, the outright painful ones, knowing they pass, knowing they too are allowed to live and she can survive them....she did not experience them that morning. No pangs of regret, or anger. No frustration, stupidity, or self name calling. None of the old sneering at the idiot behind the counter or the one in the mirror.

Just immediate, radical acceptance, and then the idea that yes, really, she could just turn around and go the other way.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Dancing in the Kitchen ~ Gardening in the Living Room

"Happiness is a form of courage" ~ Holbrooke Jackson

Somehow with the approach of spring, I feel hope coming on. For those who suffer from seasonal affective disorder, or who walk under the cloak of depression, frustration, or the simmering of anxiety and unrest, spring usually ushers in some relief. Of course its not here just yet, but almost. Sometimes just knowing that something good, something new, something different is on the way, can bring a lift.

So with the most serious respect to the emotional pain I often write about, I think that its well worth it to write also about joy, because even in the midst of deep pain, spontaneous, light hearted, easy going freedom, even if its fleeting, even if its only in a moment, can have great power and meaning. Even if you are wrapped up in a difficult relationship, confusing situation or heart bending problem. Even if you need the pain, or can't imagine it letting up. Because moments add up. Because we can have more than one feeling at once. Because anxiety does not protect us from harm. Keeping joy at a distance doesn't either. Sometimes, in the midst of emotional pain, we can find pockets of freedom.

Here's what I am talking about: A friend of mine who is going through a particularly difficult divorce told me that she was sitting in the kitchen of her neighbor's house recently when the neighbor's child and a friend came skipping in. "Mommy! the little girl says, "you have to hear this song! It rocks!" And with that, the kid puts on the radio, and she and the friend start swinging and dancing and gyrating all around the kitchen. My friend, who was in no mood to move, much less dance, sighs deeply to herself against a wave of self pity and annoyance. And then, to make matters worse, all the sudden the neighbor mom is up dancing too. And the final blow, they grab my friend and before she could get herself out of it, the four of them are holding hands and twirling and bopping around on the ivory ceramic tiles. My friend told me that there were dishes in the sink, papers on the counters and a pot of macaroni on the stove. And here they were, swirling around and bumping into each other, laughing and giggling and woo-hoo-ing in the kitchen.

For a whole and glorious five minutes, my friend forgot she was miserable. She forgot she was terrified. She forgot that she hated herself, that she hated her soon to be ex and she forgot that she had trouble getting up that morning. And she danced around the kitchen. And she told me that she knows that this neighbor mom dances around the kitchen a lot. That her kids expect it. That the dishes can wait and dinner can get interrupted and everyone can join in. That more often than not, there is joy in that kitchen. And for a moment, there was joy in her body. She was free. And it carried her the rest of the day and spilled over into the next.

It did not change her situation, but somehow, it was okay just for what it was, a little lift, a moment of hope and a taste of freedom. It gave her a new idea, one that had not quite taken hold yet, or clarified itself, but like Spring, it was coming. She could feel it.

People who are in pain tell me often that they need something to look forward to. That having pleasure, anticipating pleasure, and then remember pleasure all add up to less suffering. Like air in dry lungs. It helps. And it can be simple. Off the wall even.

One of my friends loves to garden. We start seeds indoors together every year. This year her basement flooded so she moved up the garden table and grow lights to the living room, dirt and all. All those little tomato and pepper seedlings sprouting spring green all over the table mean hope and joy and more to come.

I'm not talking about making lemonade out of lemons. I am talking about being open to letting some fresh air into heavy hearts, letting go just a little of old ideas that don't work and finding things to look forward to. I think we can do this. We can sort through the painful stuff, the puzzling stuff, in the recent and distant past, if we need to. We can be angry and frustrated and hurt and we can still dance in the kitchen and garden in the living room. These too have a place.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Employing Love: for Better or for Worse

"At the top of the bridge, with the stars shining above the harbor, I look to the north and wish again that there were two lives apportioned to every man and woman. Behind me the city of Charleston simmers in the cold elixirs of its own incalculable beauty and before me my wife and children are waiting for me to arrive home. " ~ Pat Conroy, The Prince of Tides

My friend Fran likes to tell me that there are only three stories in the world, but that they can be told over and over and over again, a million different ways. Her words ring true in my ears every day when I unlock my office door and sit down in my therapist's chair to hear the stories of the people who come to sit on the couch and talk. I hear the pain, the hope, the conflict, the frustration. I hear about excitement and desire and so much more. A million stories.

Over the years, I have heard many love stories. I have heard stories of loving more then one person, of loyalty, fear, infidelity. Of longing, of having to choose between two loves, or two lovers. I hear about extra marital sex, with all kinds of motives, as a message to one's spouse, an act of desperation, frustration, impulse. I hear about broken love, broken trust, marriages that somehow break down, or break apart.

I hear about the good stuff too. Raising children, building lives together, companionship, good sex, company, back rubs at dawn.
These days when we turn on the news someone, somewhere is cheating on their spouse, has fallen in love, then out again, or cannot say no their own natural desires, lusts or hungers. How it all plays out is what we study here in the therapy rooms. That, and why one's own unique version of the story unfolds as it does. How this effects selves, spouses, and children, integrity, mood and fulfillment.

There are as many answers as there are stories sometimes, I think. Though I know that damage that gets done when someone goes outside of a relationship often seems irreparable. I have seen healing. I have seen lots of interesting and creative solutions. The stats on infidelity are high and fascinating almost, if it were not so painful. We watch public figures over and over again get caught, repent, explain, or sometimes, stand up to their decisions. Often the commentary centers around the morality, religiosity, the measuring stick of black or white, right or wrong, or sometimes, now, the addictive nature of desire.

In here though, in my office, we take the deeper path. We look at emotional communication, currency and callings, not just behavior. We look at motivations, conscious and unconscious. We give a nod to normal physiology. There really isn't any other way. We study what the story is, and how it developed, what the end could be, might be, is desired to be. We tend to all the anger and hurt, of course, and all the fall out, but we study with grace rather than with punishment, even though frustration can run high. Nobody seems to want excuses, I hear that a lot too. Or shirking responsibility for actions taken or feelings felt. But we seem to expect love to be both a reason and ruler. I wonder if we are expecting too much from one feeling. Love seems to get employed for many uses, as does desire and frustration. All powerful emotions, and difficult to reign in at their most potent.

I have yet to hear a story that did not make sense. Not when I've heard it from beginning to end. I have yet to see punishment win out in the end, over rebuilding. It does take time, though. There is no way to put a rush order on emotional healing. But there are ways to live more peacefully with what is possible and what is not.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Toxic Levels of Self Hate ... especially for my eating disorder readers

Once upon a time (okay, I cannot think of a better opener), a person was walking down a street in the rain. The world was sweet and wet and dripping with possibilities. Minding her own business, gazing around at big trees, lush and hovering, barely aware of the sharp chill in the air, she walked without much thought. Her breath could be seen at each exhale.

Walking with intention, but not necessarily with direction on the smooth sidewalk, the person happened to look across the street and notice, there in the gutter, almost parallel to the curb, a rush of rainwater pouring and pooling around her, a child, small and shivering, curled up, fetal, breathing heavily in the damp air, wide eyes, focusing on nothing.

Our person looks, startled for a moment, and then, decidedly, walks over to the small child and stares down and without much thought swings a heavy, boot laden foot back and then forth, kicking the child hard in the stomach. And then turns and walks on.

This is how we treat ourselves sometimes. We do not walk over to the child, crouch down, offer a hand up, offer help, or shelter or sit down even, next to this child and keep her company in her pain. We kick. And we kick hard.

In my office I hear a lot about toxic levels of self hate. I hear it more from my eating disorder clients than most, though. I hear all about how perfectionism is the key to order, to stress relief, to feeling well, potent, effective and in control. I hear about how mistakes are not allowed, how angry people must be right, how what others say, think and feel about us must be what is true. I hear about how yelling around us results in yelling inside us and how instead of screaming we cut and starve, stuff and vomit. We kick ourselves hard, and without much thought.

There are, I think, a thousand possible causes of eating disorders. And there are a thousand cures. There is no one explanation, and no one path to recovery. We can rage at culture, analyze family dynamics, hang our hopes on genetic markers. Each story is uniquely crafted by biology, experience, environment and development. But this much I know to be true, each person that I have ever worked with who has an eating disorder suffers from toxic levels of self hate. Sometimes its obvious, and sometimes its swimming around like a shark just below the surface.

Somehow we think that if we just kick hard enough, we will not have to feel or face the pain. We will not have to sit down in the rain and listen to the small child inside us. We will not have to help her focus, help her up, help her cross the street.

It works two ways, this kicking. I will kick that child because it is better to kick her than to kick who I am really angry with. Or I will kick that child because she must be the cause of all this pain. If I kick her, she will get up and get moving. Or she will forget that she is lying there wet and stuck. Either way, she gets kicked. Over and over and over again.

What does it take to stop kicking the child? To put down the scissors, the food? To feed that child instead of starve her? To soothe her instead of slice at her? We must, at the very least, be willing to learn what that hate is all about. And we must try to imagine what life would be like without it.

That's a start, I think, for anyone who is still kicking.