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Equality Can Feel Like Oppression if You’re Accustomed to Privilege

I started writing this blog several weeks before the most recent news of sexually abusive famous men. And as with many of the subjects I feel compelled to write about, as I  contemplated how to approach this one, I felt completely overwhelmed; because there’s no place to stop. So, since this is a blog, not a book, and while I am a STAUNCH proponent of the rights of women (and men) who have been sexually exploited and assaulted, and of other minority groups who have suffered at the hands of the privileged; this blog is about just one aspect of privilege in our society – the pervasive atmosphere of sexism. I want to focus primarily on the mindset that pervades our world, and how it provokes more and more violence.

Sexism, like other forms of prejudice, is a type of bias about a group of people. Sexism is founded in conceptualizations of one gender as being superior or having higher status than another gender and can lead to discrimination.

Because one of the issues I treat is trauma, I have no shortage of experience with women who have been harassed and assaulted in the workplace, socially and in their homes. I also have personal experience. In several positions I held prior to becoming a therapist, I worked in largely male-dominated industries. I’m old enough to have *understood* that if a man spoke to or treated me inappropriately, I was supposed to laugh it off, or joke with him, so as not to be seen as a troublemaker.

This pervasive mindset started with the fact that straight white men have run our country (and  many other parts of the world) for as long as it’s existed. There are also some religious components to the paradigm that men are the head of the household and women are best left to the tasks of caring for the house and children. Bottom line, even though it’s changed some, women are often invisible and unheard. Recently, this pattern has come out of the shadows and is in our face every day and is giving many permission to boldly express things that used to only be known through whispers. This is not *political correctness,* it’s about showing respect and honor to other human beings with equal rights.

We can’t be what we can’t see. Several weeks ago, TIME magazine published an issue about women who were firsts. I saw an interview with their managing editor (also a first female in that position) who said part of the motivation was to show young girls where they can dream to be.  While being obstructed for years by males in many societies, women have historically been our own worst enemies; because we often feel we have to be 10 times better, smarter – more perfect than our male counterparts to do a job.  (That’s not necessarily irrational.  It’s not uncommon for women to have to work much harder than men in the same positions to be recognized, and still to be paid less. And society has long had memes that tell us men are smarter, stronger, etc). But there are times when women (consciously or unconsciously) decide to not even try for a specific job or career simply because they don’t believe they’re good enough.  Men seldom have that block.  They just jump in and give it a shot.

Majority privilege (white/male/religious/financially elite, etc) has been a hot topic on social media for several years, now. We currently have an administration that conducts itself primarily on the belief in the superior power and intellect of the white, heterosexual male. But it doesn’t always present itself in the negative put-downs we see in many cases.  I also take notice when a congressman is being interviewed about some news of other famous men being caught harassing or assaulting women; and their response is something like, “women are to be revered – or worshiped.” I will not speak for other women here, but as far as I’m concerned, while (like anyone else), I enjoy being pampered occasionally, this feels just as demeaning – like I have to be taken care of. The higher my pedestal, the harder can I fall! I just want to be respected and treated with the dignity I deserve – as an equal.

Many in a more dominant population don’t believe privilege even exists.  There’s a reason for that.  It doesn’t affect them in the same way it does the person against whom the bias exists. They have no experience to help them understand at a deep, intrinsic level how it feels to be seen as “less-than” because of their gender, the color of their skin, or some other physical feature they couldn’t change if they wanted. Less powerful groups always understand those in groups with more power; they have to in order to survive. Blacks and other ethnic minorities understand whites better than the opposite. The same applies to our LGBTQ friends, immigrants and handicapped.  And women understand men better than men do women.

Another aspect of this paradigm is that older women are seen as even less capable than younger women.  During the last presidential election, even though one candidate was older than the other; because the other was a woman, she was seen as “an angry, crotchety old hag,” even by many younger women. Women in congress still only hold 19% of the seats, and there’s a lot of talk about the House Minority Leader (a female) being too old to be relevant, but I don’t recall ever hearing the same being said about the Senate Majority Leader, who is just 2 years younger. (I wanted to include some studies that showed statistics on these issues so you wouldn’t think I’m just blowing this out of proportion; but again, because this is a blog, chose to leave that part out.  Just be aware that there is an abundance of such studies).

I also don’t want this to sound like I hate all men. Quite the opposite; I love men. And the men in my life are very caring, respectful, open and aware of these issues, although even they fall into the traps our societal norms have set up, as do most females occasionally.

Equality can feel like oppression if you’re accustomed to privilege.  It’s not. That feeling is discomfort because we sense a loss of power.  It’s the same discomfort an only child might feel when he first goes to preschool and discovers that there are other kids who want to play with the same toys he does. When kids throw a fit in preschool, we teach them to share, and they eventually see that it’s more fun than playing alone.

As adults, we need to work on developing an appreciation of personal power and self worth, rather than power over others. Women might approach a business, government . . . life in a different way  – not a better way, just different. When men can embrace that, rather than being so threatened that they will have to give something up; then we’ll begin to be like that preschooler who realizes it feels better to share this world equally. No one of us is better than any other.  We are each unique, and because of that, none of us are special – and each of us is special.

As we’ve seen with some of the sexual assault cases, we women have to find the courage to stand up for ourselves. But it’s extremely important that men understand that this change NEEDS to happen. Men, allow yourselves to be more conscious of how the world looks and feels to women. Educate yourselves, question those old social norms, and don’t be silent when you see something happen that you know in your heart is not honoring the dignity of women.

All of us need to educate our children – girls AND boys – about giving consent and hearing “no” when it’s said. I bought a book (GOODNIGHT STORIES FOR REBEL GIRLS:100 Stories of Extraordinary Women) that my husband and I both read with our granddaughter.  She loves it, and we’ve all learned a lot about amazing women from as far back as the 1800’s up to 2016). I also hope to share it with our grandson when he’s old enough.

Since my granddaughter has been old enough to understand, we’ve used the phrase “my body, my choice” and “your body, your choice.” I ask her permission to hold her hand, or if she wants to sit beside me, rather than just grabbing her, because I want emphasize that it’s ALWAYS her choice.

And please, when this most recent news dies down about sexual assaults, payoffs and power differentials; don’t let this issue die.  Shame is like mold, it grows in the dark; but it loses it’s power when we expose it to sunlight. Keep the conversation going!

 

Mindfulness in a Scary World

Are you as overwhelmed as I am with the fact that every time we turn on the TV or look at our phones or computers, there is ANOTHER major issue of catastrophic proportion?  We can’t seem to escape the bombardment of news any more.  Those of us who want to help in some way feel overwhelmed often. It used to feel like after a major catastrophe, the first responders would show up, the rest of us would come together and do what we could, and things would eventually get worked out – not completely “fixed”, but on the path to recovery.

Now, it feels like so many huge things arise every day that there’s not time for things that happened a week ago to even begin to regain balance (or for us to begin to process them), so there’s more and more crap (that’s a clinical term) piled on top. And each situation is enough to bury us on it’s own – colossal hurricanes, one after another, forest fires devastating hundreds of homes, the biggest mass shootings in our history, changes in our government – even the real possibility of nuclear war.

And on top of all that, we each have the daily stress we’ve always had – just making ends meet and managing our own responsibilities. It’s just too much at times.  The reality is that our world has always been a little chaotic.  It just feels like it’s coming faster and harder now. We’re on overload.

The  general purpose of my weekly blog is to help people manage their mental/emotional/physical health.  So why do I focus on social issues more these days? Because my clients keep bringing them into our sessions! And because of my holistic view, it’s clear to me that it’s ALL interconnected.  We are spiritual beings having human experiences, and some days it’s really hard to keep that balance!

Whatever your stance is on what is going on within national and international news is up to you.  But we do have to recognize that what is going on right now IS affecting each of us, whether we are actively responding to it or trying to pass it off as just more fake news. I’ve never believed that sticking our heads in the sand and avoiding something that feels bad is a good idea.  I have lived by the rule that WHAT WE RESIST, PERSISTS. So I do believe in meeting things head-on, facing them, acknowledging they exist, and then determining how to address them.  Anything we ignore, just gains more and more power over us.

But we do have to slow down occasionally – shut off the TV, put down the phone, work out to shake it off, take a breath, walk in nature, and/or pray or meditate for a while to get ourselves back to some semblance of balance.

There are several ways to manage the stress (some of which I just mentioned), but I believe the first step is to change our relationship to the stress itself.  I’m a long-time meditator, and I’ve learned that what we focus on dictates how we feel, and often what we do about it.

What that means is if we only focus on what upsets us, or what we don’t have, we’ll become more anxious and fearful, our bodies will tense, our minds will fog over, and the stress will be exacerbated because we’ll be more reactive. In other words, we probably won’t consciously choose our response, we’ll just act impulsively, often making things worse.

Another option is to stay in the moment with it; acknowledging the stress, but not owning it.  For instance, when I see it as “my stress,” it becomes part of “my story.”  Instead, if I gently put my awareness where I feel it (as if I’m holding something very fragile), I can witness it as just a sensation without trying to make anything happen.  This detaches me from the stress and it’s easier not to identify with it; hence easier to let it go.

So coming back to this moment and putting our awareness on something more tangible (our bodies/ the texture of the couch we’re sitting on/noticing how our legs feel as we walk up a flight of stairs), instead of letting our thoughts run away with us, is called mindfulness. If meditation sounds like something you just couldn’t manage (although I believe that’s probably because you have some misconceptions about what meditation is); at least give some thought to being more mindful.

Mindfulness activates our minds and sharpens our focus.   We are more able to observe with non-attachment (as Buddhists would say). This gives us more conscious control over our feelings and choices.

Robert Wright, author and professor of science and religion suggests that mindfulness is not just helpful for us as a coping mechanism.  He also believes that mindfulness can be used as a way to process those incidents that seemingly cause the stress and even as a way to respond.  (The reality is that an event/person does not CAUSE stress, but as I talked about in last week’s blog, how we look at the event/person triggers how we feel about it).

He speaks of responding mindfully to things we see or hear on the news or on our social media feeds that might otherwise fuel anger. For example, there’s a certain person who’s on the news a lot that is a natural at pushing people’s emotional buttons. He’s able to instantly generate outrage, contempt, disgust . . .  you get the picture. When we cooperate by expressing that outrage, we are just playing into his hands.  And more importantly, it distracts us from being able to assess some of the issues being brought up; and makes it more unlikely that we can focus enough to help make the changes needed.

Wright points out that outrage gets in the way of empathy for his supporters.  We’re not talking about the emotional empathy most of us are able to express.  Here we’re talking about cognitive empathy – or the ability to understand how the world looks to other people.  We need some cognitive distance in order to do that.  Otherwise, we’re just going to lump them all together, and assume the worst. I’ve talked about this skill before when I’ve shared how I try to view the world through my clients’ eyes in order to understand what they are feeling; yet maintain enough objectivity to back up and be able to help them look for alternative ways to look at things.

The above-mentioned person is advocating for populism. Populism can only survive when there is polarization. Just like all religions, it needs a demon. Therefore, if we react from rage, we’re more likely to say or do something that immediately sparks flames in others – placing us in that demonic role. Consequently, they see us as the enemy and we see them as the enemy – polarization.  Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing wrong with feeling anger about what is going on.  In fact, it’s probably healthy to acknowledge that anger exists. But as Martin Luther King, Jr said,  Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that. Fighting hate with hate is never productive.

So if we can respond mindfully, it gives us that space to consciously think about the issue being discussed (or the natural disaster of the day) and choose how we want to respond to it, rather than focus on the negative aspects of the situation.

Wright also makes it clear that “responding mindfully” doesn’t mean just passively accepting things. We can’t normalize a corrosive violation of norms, extreme weather events or terrorism. So he suggests we reserve our outrage or our righteousness for the issues we find most important.

For instance, rather than spending our energy making fun of someone who wears 5″ heels to a hurricane, focus on calling or writing your representatives to ask them to appropriate more resources to the effected area, or donate time or money to that cause.

Remember, every time you retweet or post something on Facebook, you’re casting a vote. Be sure you’re doing so consciously and with intention. So allow yourself to feel the anger and recognize the stress for what it is. But don’t let it immobilize you.  Acknowledge it and let it empower you. Channel it into energy that is spent for the improvement of a situation. (But do so with balance, Limit your activism to only the issues most important to you.Take a break occasionally, and distract yourself with fun or otherwise interesting activities, rest, or some of the other coping skills I mentioned earlier).

It’s not always fun, but we are all on this earth together, so we each have the responsibility to find ways to make this life work.  Many of us believe the best way to do that is through kindness, education and love. When we are challenged by those who don’t believe the same way, we may have to do some fighting.  But please don’t fight against them, fight FOR that healthcare, to save the earth, or the unity, democracy and peace we all dream of.

It’s All About Perspective

While I was on my morning walk a few weeks ago, I noticed that the way the sun was shining on the weeds beside the sidewalk cast a beautiful shadow.  Each one was a little different, but they looked like beautiful  tropical plants.  For some reason, my mind immediately went to a conversation I had with a client just the day before, where I was encouraging him to back up and look at life a little less personally. My hope was that he would see that all the stuff that we go through that feels so overwhelming and like it’s too much to handle, is just the weeds we have to uproot in order to see the beauty of the garden. But, like the shadows I was looking at, even the weeds can be beautiful, depending on our perspective.

Some time ago, I wrote a blog about things only being difficult if we believe they are. Here’s the gist of it:

I can’t count the number of times clients have said  – “but it’s so hard. . .”  I don’t usually confront them at that moment, because it’s taken a lot for them to get to the place where they finally at least recognize what they might need to do to make a change. That process might take some time (most things that are really worthwhile do). But what I’ve learned is that it’s only hard if I allow it to be.

For example, I’m one of those crazy people who loves to work out.  When I can, I walk around the neighborhood lake.  It’s a slightly hilly terrain, but I walk on a sidewalk, so it’s a pretty smooth path.

One day, several years ago, I met another woman walking in the opposite direction. As we smiled and exchanged “good mornings” she said, “I hate having to climb uphill here when I’m going your direction.”

I just smiled and went on. But I was surprised, because I had never even noticed that I was walking uphill. Suddenly, I noticed that indeed, I was climbing up an incline, and yes, it seemed difficult to navigate at that moment!

I have walked that path many times in the years since that encounter, and every time I remember that it’s uphill.  It’s amazing how just having your attention brought to something in a different way can make a difference in how you view it.

But, I didn’t let the new-found realization that I’m walking uphill bother me. I have always enjoyed the challenge of walking up an incline and gratefully focus on how good the muscles in my legs feel as they work to move my body.  I love the feeling I get after working my body in an intensive workout – it’s a feeling of accomplishment. Besides, once you get to the top of a hill, you’re either walking on a flat surface for a while, or you’re going downhill, which is so much easier – it’s almost exhilarating . . . like that garden you’ve reached after tearing out all those weeds.

So when my clients struggle because things are difficult, I don’t tell them they are being ridiculous. I sit with them in that realization. While we can consciously choose how to look at something, most behavior changes do feel difficult when they’re new – until we’ve practiced for a while.  When we put the effort into a practice of some kind, whether it’s learning to feel through something instead of avoiding it, meditation, exercise, prayer or just challenging ourselves to look at a situation from an alternate perspective; that thing we thought was so hard at first becomes less of a pain and more of a joy. Because we’ve accomplished something for which we can take responsibility. It may never become perfect, or completely easy – that’s why we call it a “practice.” But it can be a thing of beauty that we created, and take pride in.

It’s all about perspective – like those weeds. They represent the beautiful process of growth we each experience when we’re ready to move out of our comfort zone.

If you believe it will work out, you’ll see opportunities.

If you believe it won’t, you will see obstacles.

– Wayne Dyer

It’s Not Either/Or

Even though I typically deal with individuals in my office, I’m acutely aware that I’m not just having a conversation with the person sitting in front of me.  That person brings with her all of her experiences to date.  Experiences with family, friends and others with whom he’s connected, as well as experiences from institutions such as churches, schools, businesses  where she’s worked or those that serve him in some way. She also brings in her experience with our larger culture – the institutional biases that permeate our environment.

Recently, the bandaid has been ripped off a gaping wound in our country. This is such a delicate and hurtful issue for all of us. I’m talking about the “taking a knee” issue.

We all have biases.  As we mature emotionally and socially, it becomes a tendency for us to begin to put things, experiences and people into categories to make sense of them. As babies & young children, we don’t see differences, but as we are socialized, they become a part of how we experience life. My point is that it can be helpful to put things in categories because it really can aid us in understanding and approaching issues better. It gives us a sense of security and life feels so much better organized when we can put things, thoughts and people into categories – like right or wrong/good or bad.

But many of our behaviors are often driven by fear-oriented patterns of thought.  In my business, the purpose of diagnosing is to give us a structure from which to work.  But I personally don’t like to label a client unless I have to, because it also can blind us to other aspects of the person. (I have worked in agencies where therapists and docs talked about “that borderline”  or “that addict” as if that’s the whole of who that person is).

So the problem comes when we become too rigid with our categories.

I’m not going to ask you to agree with me on this issue.  I respect your right to believe however you believe. I stand with my hand over my heart when the National Anthem is played. In fact, I did it just last night prior to a performance we attended. However, I fully understand and respect those who have chosen to take a knee and will fight for them to continue to do so. I will talk about why a little later.

First, I want to say I strongly believe in the need to openly discuss such things, or we’ll never move forward on them. To make that happen, we have to know what our intention for the conversation is.  If it’s to prove who’s right and who’s wrong, I’m out.  But if we really want to come to an answer that might make it better, or at least get us started in that direction, then we have to focus, not on what was done to who in the past, but on where we are now; and to LISTEN with the aim of understanding more about the other person, rather than coming up with our defense in our heads while the other person is talking. Most of us know this process as conflict resolution. In Brene Brown’s book BRAVING THE WILDERNESS, she borrows a term from a colleague, Michelle Buck –  “Conflict Transformation.”

When we are talking about a difference of opinion, it’s sometimes contentious and uncomfortable, especially these days.  But the real issue behind the original protest of Colin Kaepernick and others who followed him is more than a difference of opinion, and I think that’s what has been overlooked, especially since it was brought back up last weekend. At that point, it became about something else and the original protest has gotten muddied. It’s about who we are as a country – as humans who have many more similarities than we have differences.  But we are choosing to focus on those differences, without the will to do anything but bitch at, or about “the other side.” Under the surface, this comes from our need to belong – to have a tribe we can identify with.

To have a real conversation about it is difficult, messy and scary. (I have to admit, just posting this blog makes my heart race a little, because I know there will be opposition. But because I believe nothing will change until we can talk about it, I’m plowing ahead).

After getting embroiled in a couple of Facebook conversations last weekend, here’s a post I put on my personal page:

Symbols are important. The flag is a symbol of our American values. It represents our union as “a people.” But our union is made up of people from many different cultures. It’s part of what makes our country great. But it’s an imperfect Union because not all those people are treated equally.

When you go to the grocery store don’t you enjoy having choices of brands, sizes & prices? It’s part of the fun of shopping. We all come from the same factory – we just have different packaging. It’s part of what makes our culture interesting and more perfect. But a symbol, regardless of what it represents to you, should not take precedence over the treatment and respect shown to the actual people it represents.

The original protest was (and still is) about people of color being inordinately endangered by police and others JUST because of the color of their skin. That is unfair and Kaepernick wanted to bring attention to it. He also put his money where his mouth was and gave most of his salary away – and he ran a program for young kids to teach them about rights and personal empowerment. I understand you may not agree that people of color are being treated unfairly, but unless you are black (or a member of some other marginalized group who has lived in this country), it may just not be your experience That doesn’t mean it’s not happening. And just because I don’t like how many of my black friends have been consistently treated by the police, that doesn’t translate to “I hate all police officers.” I have had experiences with police officers personally and as clients, and find the majority of them to be extremely dedicated and devoted to protecting all of us.

If we think the real issue is just about patriotism, we need to think again. My belief is that protestors actually honor the flag and what it stands for BECAUSE they are taking advantage of the rights it represents – and that the military have fought for since our country’s inception.

Many of us (myself included) have been guilty of not exercising our rights. We are blind to what happens daily to others who don’t have the privilege of being a caucasian (or male/straight/able-bodied/Muslim, etc). If the concept that there even is such a thing as white privilege is offensive to us, we are either 1) a member of an extremely small group who has never experienced the pain of prejudice, or 2) we are complicit in perpetuating the problem.  (Please see another post on my Professional Facebook Page I’ve taken the liberty of entitling DO YOU CARE? It was written by Susan, a friend of mine, and says what I’m trying to say here in a much more concise and straight-forward way).

In summary, my purpose for writing this blog is two-fold.  First, I believe in our flag and what it stands for – for ALL citizens of the US.  And as a therapist, I have had the privilege of vicariously seeing the world through the eyes of many people who don’t look like, believe like, act like or love like I do.  THEY have taught me that we all have the same needs and rights.  Second, I know the only way we will ever change any of this is if we begin to communicate, holding each of us at the same level of respect.

So when clients come into my office, I pledge to continue to HEAR what they are experiencing, whether I agree with them or not; because their experience is their reality, and if they can experience someone who will honor that, maybe their reality will change a little.

 

 

The Gospel According to Patti on Emotions

I enjoy sharing my opinion on things like this with my clients. I call them the “Gospel According to Patti”. It’s a tongue-in-cheek way of stating my opinion – based primarily on my experience personally and with many clients over the years. It sometimes (but not necessarily always) is also based on some research or common knowledge among the behavioral health field or on something I’ve read that resonated with me. I don’t take credit for being original with any of these concepts. I do own them as beliefs and as something I’ve managed to or at least attempted to implement into my own life.

One of those GAP’s (Gospel According to Patti) has to do with how many of us tend to deal with our emotions.

Most of us are grateful for our 5 senses – sight, hearing, taste, touch and smell. They help us navigate the external world – to appreciate the beauty in front of us – and sometimes warn us of possible danger.

But when it comes to our emotions, especially the “negative ones”, we tend to avoid them. I  actually don’t believe there is such a thing as a “negative emotion”. They are all just a part of being a human – a very essential part of us. As such, they are all functional in the same way. Not good or bad, they just are).

But the purpose of emotions is the same as our 5 senses. They help us navigate our internal world. Sometimes they emphasize the beauty of being alive, and sometimes they warn us that there’s something going on that we need to put our energy and attention towards.

As humans, we pride ourselves on being superior to other animals – because we have the capacity to rationalize and reason through things. But sometimes that ability can be a hindrance. Animals in the wild deal with traumas all the time. They come into contact with their predators, go into the appropriate state for their situation (flight, fright, freeze), and if they survive, they shake it off and move on. In other words, they faced it, dealt with it, and let it go.

But as humans, we attempt to protect ourselves and our loved ones from experiencing negative events and heavy emotions. In this process of avoidance, we can actually make it worse and the emotions begin to control us, rather than the other way around.

There are no detours. The only way to the other side of fear, sadness, shame, embarrassment, etc – is right through it. Face it, deal with it, and let it go.

Debbie Ford said that hiding a part of yourself is like trying to hold a volley ball under water. It’s impossible to do forever and it eventually comes to the surface.

I’ve seen big strong men turn into mush when they had to deal with emotions they had been trying to “hold under.” I’ve also seen many people become extremely depressed, angry, physically ill, addicted, overweight, dysfunctional and even suicidal because they were holding a part of themselves at bay.

I believe we are supposed to feel all emotions.  Joy, hope and peace are some of our most vulnerable emotions – because we know they’re not going to last. They carry a much lighter energy and seem to just fly away quickly. Because we are so often in the future in our minds, and recognize that they won’t stick around, we sometimes fear these emotions as much as those that are heavy and sticky, like sadness, grief or shame. But they’re ALL our energy (E-motion = Energy in motion) and as such, are interconnected with each other, so when we shut down one emotion, we can’t help but shut down all of them.

When we can freely allow ourselves to feel the “sucky” ones as they arise, the lighter ones are so much better when they come around!  And there’s a lesson in all of them. They are our best teachers!

We can’t heal what we can’t feel.