Monthly Archives: September 2017

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.

The Capacity to Receive

“It’s better to give than to receive.”  Most of us grew up with this rule, especially those of us who went to church.  I heard it so much that I beat myself up when I was the one who needed help!

But one of the things I’ve learned to love in my old age is to think outside the box, and I look for ways to encourage clients to do so as well.  When the concepts we grew up with aren’t tested, it leads us to think we know what to expect out of life and that’s comforting.  But I’m going to challenge this belief about giving and receiving.

Author, Rob Schwartz gives several reasons we incarnate on earth.  One of those is to balance karma. (Brief note here:  In this perspective karma is not a punishment, but the simple need to be able to experience both sides of any particular event/condition in life.  In order to understand this view of karma, one has to at least open themselves to the possibility of reincarnation.  Souls incarnate to experience a multitude of situations for the purpose of spiritual growth.  Sometimes two or more souls come together to help each other in this quest.  Balancing karma is one way this happens).  For example, one might be the caretaker for the other in one lifetime, and then they reincarnate together in another to switch roles so they can each experience both sides of giving and receiving.  The ultimate purpose might be to learn compassion for others and/or self love.

Mr. Schwartz says that giving and receiving love is the most fundamental purpose to incarnate. In my opinion, the energy of love is always flowing around us, but it’s up to us to step into that energy and allow it to continue it’s flow – or we can block it.  Either way we effect all other souls to some degree because of the continual flow and ripple effect of energy.  The way Schwartz explains the flow of love is to envision it as a big circle. If you divide it in half, one half is giving love to other people, and the other half is receiving love from others.  So not allowing others to love us (because we don’t want to be hurt again, or for some other reason our ego makes up) blocks the flow of love in the world just as effectively as if we refuse to give love.

There is also the reality that each of us has times in our lives when we can’t do for ourselves.  We lose loved ones and don’t know how to go on with our lives; we lose a job and the sense of identity it gave us; we lose our health and can’t manage our daily tasks by ourselves – the list is endless.  And virtually each of us will find ourselves in this place at some point.

According to Brene Brown (shame and vulnerability researcher), in her book RISING STRONG, most of us believe that helping is courageous and compassionate, and a sign that we’ve got it all together.  If we’re not feeling brave or generous enough, we’re not helping enough.  But we also believe that asking for help is a sign of weakness.  However, when we attach value to giving help, we attach value to needing help.  Brown lists 3 keys to learning about giving and receiving:  (PLEASE read these slowly and consciously).

1) When we judge ourselves for needing help, we judge those we are helping.

2) The idea of tying our self worth to giving, attaches shame to us when we need help.

3) Offering help is courageous and compassionate.  But so is asking for help.  Giving help can occasionally lead to vulnerability. Asking for help ALWAYS includes vulnerability.  (Opening ourselves up to vulnerability requires courage).

Both giving and receiving help are necessary in life.  As adults, we need to model both behaviors for our children.  My granddaughter gets extremely frustrated when a game on my iPad isn’t working the way she thinks it’s supposed to.  My routine, when her frustration starts, is to calmly repeat to her the steps she can take:  1) Make sure you’ve done everything you know to do.  2) When you are sure you’ve done that and it’s still not working, then it’s OK to ask for help. I also try to model that behavior for her. It feels good to accomplish something on our own.  But once we have tried all we know, if we can ask for help without attaching that shame, we’ll incorporate the task more easily because our heads won’t be so full of all that negative self talk.

Another point made by Brown is the reason we hesitate sometimes when someone else needs help.  She gave an example from her own life that hit home with me. My elderly father was needing a little help one day when I was visiting.  My brother (who taught nursing courses) was my parents’ caretaker in their later years.  I had always provided the emotional support. But on this day Dad needed help physically and I was the only one available.  As I hesitated, he was the one who had to say, “It’s OK.  I need this and you can do it.”  I didn’t think I was capable of doing what he needed, so I had backed off.  Looking at it now, it feels ridiculous that my impulse was to not help at all. Even if I wasn’t able to perform the task perfectly, helping him with something he could no longer manage was better than doing nothing!

According to Brown, if we’re not secure in how best to help, we sometimes feel vulnerable also.  Again this is tied to the worth we put on giving/helping.  She says this is because it puts us in touch with our own need, and again that scary word: our own vulnerability.  If we can get past the belief that vulnerability is weakness, and understand it as a huge part of being human, we might come to terms with it easier.

This is why we come to this life in the first place – to allow ourselves to get in touch with our strength and our vulnerabilities, so we can experience love from all sides!  “We don’t have to do all of it alone.  We were never meant to.” (Brene Brown/RISING STRONG).

In any given moment we have 2 options: to step forward into growth

or to step back into safety.

Strength

I have 3 friends who have recently been diagnosed with cancer.  While I had a scare a few years ago, and I still fully remember the panic that took over at times, until we found out it was “just an auto immune disease,” I know that I don’t FULLY grasp what that diagnosis means personally. I also have many clients with life-changing issues that I have never experienced, and can’t fully understand.  And I know that I can’t “make someone feel better,” but I confess that when my schedule gets so full with people who are grappling with so much, and my thoughts go to my friends who are hurting,  I begin to struggle with whether I am capable of saying the right things to help any of them.

I know that the reality is that WHAT we say seldom helps.  What helps most is that we sit with the person in pain and allow them to feel what they need to feel. It’s important to not let our own insecurities about not saying or doing the “right thing” get in the way. This requires being in touch with our own vulnerabilities enough to identify with their emotion without letting it consume us. (I’ve always said that’s the “art” to being a therapist – to allow myself to be compassionate; at the same time maintaining a level of objectivity so that I can be of some help).

Sometimes it helps to share a little about similar feelings we’ve had so they understand that we get it.  But, because everyone experiences obstacles differently and every situation is different, we can’t really completely get it. And most importantly, we shouldn’t expect that (just because we may have gone through something similar), the other person is going through it or feeling exactly the way we did.

A major diagnosis or life transition is a loss. In order to move past the loss, it’s necessary that we grieve whatever it is we are losing – even if that’s just the concept we had of ourselves as a healthy person. When you’re fighting for your life, you don’t have the time or energy to consciously process that. It’s a process – sometimes a very long one; and grief has a way of breaking us open and leaving us feeling more vulnerable than ever before.  This is most difficult for those of us who tend to be the givers of the world.

I’ve posted this reading in the past.  It’s probably my favorite of anything I’ve ever read about strength. It points out the misconception most of us hold that we should always be strong. When we’re in the midst of a loss, or when we become overwhelmed with life for any reason, we tend to berate ourselves for being “weak”. As the reading says, we aren’t weak, and all we can do is enough.  In fact, I found myself quoting part of this reading to a friend just this morning.  I needed to read it again, and I hope it helps you as well.

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We don’t always have to be strong to be strong.  Sometimes our strength is expressed in being vulnerable.  Sometimes we need to fall apart to regroup and stay on track.

We all have days when we cannot push any harder, cannot hold back self-doubt, cannot  stop focusing on fear, cannot be strong.

There are days when we cannot focus on being responsible.  Occasionally, we don’t want to get out of our pajamas.  Sometimes, we cry in front of people.  We expose our tiredness, irritability or anger.

Those days are okay.  They are just okay.

Part of taking care of ourselves means we give ourselves permission to “fall apart” when we need to.  We do not have to be perpetual towers of strength.  We are strong.  We have proven that.  Our strength will continue if we allow ourselves the courage to feel scared, weak, and vulnerable when we need to experience those feelings.

THE LANGUAGE OF LETTING GO/Melody Beattie

Shitty First Drafts and Self Succeding Beliefs

I’ve heard that each human has 60,000 to 80,000 thoughts a day.  I haven’t been able to confirm the number, but I know I have LOTS of thoughts running through my head.  Regardless of the accuracy of the number of thoughts, the point I want to make here is that most of the thoughts we each have are the same thoughts we had yesterday – and probably very similar to the ones we’ll have again tomorrow.  And a large percentage of those are negative.

We tend to be storytellers.  Brene Brown says we’re hard-wired to tell ourselves stories.  When something happens, or someone says or does something, we immediately make up a story about what it meant, and often that story in our head leads us to believe it was not good.  Brown steals a phrase from Ann Lamott to describe these thoughts: Shitty First Drafts (SFD’s).

If we listen to that SFD without questioning or editing it, we are likely to react impulsively, and the war is on.  Many of those 60,000 or so thoughts running around in our heads are self-defeating beliefs.  I call that intellectual violence.  Some examples are: I’m not good enough; I never do anything right; That person is out to get me, etc. Whatever the self-defeating thoughts are, they cause us a lot of pain.

The only way to move on from the SFD is to confront it and question it.  Then, if we look for alternative ways to look at the situation before we react, we can usually prevent the chaos from ensuing.  Once we catch ourselves, then we can insert some more positive possibilities, such as:  Maybe I misunderstood what she meant to say, so I should check it out.  Or: That person’s opinion of me is not my reality.  My own opinion is more important than someone who doesn’t even really know me.

Then we can choose how to respond (do I need to stand up for myself and my actions, apologize, or assertively express how I feel about the situation?), or I can choose to not respond yet – or at all.  Whatever we decide, if we  can insert a more positive possibility of the truth, we’re less likely to let the SFD take over.

I have several positive drafts that I run through my head on a consistent basis as a kind of insurance against that Shitty First Draft.  If I practice telling myself these, I’m more likely to jump from the SFD more quickly.  Here are a few examples:

-I accept that it is my responsibility to resolve my own problems or to seek the appropriate help.

-I choose to understand and accept my limitations, and I realize that only I can manage my actions.

-I am open to anything, but not attached to any specific outcome.

-I choose to develop the courage to be imperfect instead of going through life hiding my mistakes and weaknesses.  I am a human in the process of growth.

-I choose to find humor in life.

-I accept that I am responsible for choosing more positive thoughts that lead to peace of mind.

-I choose to express my thoughts and feelings honestly and assertively when others violate my rights, instead of holding the hurt and anger inside.

-I will calmly accept honest feedback from others, consider their opinions, and determine if I need to make a change.

-I will live according to my own value system, not to please others.

These are just examples.  If something else rings more true for you, go for it!  With so many thoughts racing through our minds every day, it’s important to recognize that we have choices.  We don’t have to stay stuck in those shitty first drafts!

Remember the thoughts we feed are the ones that gain weight, and ultimately the ones that become the basis for our belief about ourselves.