Your Tool Box

For years I ran Intensive Outpatient Treatment Programs for substance abuse. I used to hold an Orientation Group for those just coming into the program. During this group, I set the boundaries:  I explained what would be expected of the clients and what they could expect of me and of the program.

One of the images I used to help them understand my hope for them was to ask each of them to imagine a tool box sitting beside their chair. That tool box may already have a few tools in it; some might continue to be useful, but some were probably old & worn out, or just no longer appropriate for a lifestyle of recovery. But by the time they finished the program, I hoped that toolbox would be so heavy and full of the new tools they would begin to use, that they would have to drag it out the door.

This same concept works for those in any therapy – or anyone who just wants to make positive changes in their lives. Yet, many of us have trouble accepting that we need tools to repair the  damages we’ve allowed to happen to ourselves. Who would try to nail boards together without a hammer or change a flat tire without a jack?  To reject our need for tools to perform these tasks would be ridiculous.

One tool that is available for a lifestyle change is therapy, itself.  I know people who think going to therapy is, in itself, a sign of weakness and only for those who can’t “figure things out” for themselves. To me, that sounds like the person who always needs to feel in control. I can relate to that. I’m a huge control freak. But over the years, I have learned that I’m often better-served by letting things go and allowing them to work themselves out. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve tried to maneuver things so they’d turn out the way I thought they should. And you know what? Almost every time I was successful at changing things to “my way,” they ended up being more screwed up than they would have if I’d left them alone and just let them fall into place. One of the places I learned the tool of *letting go* was in therapy.

I know others who believe people who go to therapy depend on advice from their therapist. That’s not the point of therapy. It’s self-education. As a therapist, my goal is to work myself out of a job. I do that by making observations and suggestions – and by throwing in an occasional concept that a client may not have considered, to encourage him/her to think outside the box.  Then I allow them to decide for themselves what (if) they want to change. I stress self-responsibility, and my hope is that clients will become more self-reliant so they don’t feel like they need my help. My job is not to give advice. I couldn’t force anyone to make changes if I tried. I tell my clients it’s not my life and I don’t have to live with the consequences of their decisions. They are the experts on their lives – I’m just another resource (tool).

So just as sheer force won’t lift a car so we can replace that tire, it won’t lift a heavy heart. Reading a book, and understanding how to nail those boards together won’t guarantee that they’ll look like a table the first time we try. Insight and knowledge can possibly help us see why we behave the way we do, or how we’d like to change.  But it takes consistent use of new tools: support groups or learning appropriate ways to open up to (or set boundaries with) family and friends, gratitude lists, stress management or communication techniques, restructuring our thoughts – or in some cases, even medication  – to actually repair that battered ego. Usually just one tool won’t do the trick, but each of us has to find the combination that works for us.

If we can’t acknowledge the problem exists and then be willing to let it go or change it, we won’t make much progress.  It isn’t weak or shameful to admit that we may not be able to accomplish something alone – without the help of others or of tools. If we need to lay a new foundation, we need to dig a big hole. And if we need to dig a hole, we’d better be willing to use a shovel (and maybe ask a couple of friends to bring theirs, too). That foundation is our willingness to do whatever it takes.

Vulnerability and Strength

It’s not uncommon for people to sit in my office, feeling very down emotionally, and tell me they believe they are weak. I don’t believe our problems make us weak. We are often vulnerable, however. One of the benefits of therapy is to acknowledge our vulnerabilities. We can only become stronger when we can identify those areas – then decide if/how we can change them.

When we say the things that others want to hear, regardless of our own truth, or allow others or our environment to dictate how we behave, we might see ourselves as weak. As I’ve studied human life and explored my own sense of spirituality, I’ve come to understand that most of us have to go through these periods in order to experience how that feels. Our world is one where we often learn from opposites, so when we’re finally tired of feeling the way we feel when we aren’t living in our own truth, we’ll be motivated to change. That’s a process – and often a very slow one. But when we recognize that it’s OK to be who we really are, we’ll naturally be drawn to making the choices we need to make.

People respect strength, but they identify with vulnerability. Vulnerability is not weakness. It’s getting in touch with our humanity. Just stop to think. In your experience, who have you felt more comfortable with? Someone who always portrays themselves as strong and never admits to or allows anyone to see that they’ve made mistakes? Or someone who occasionally says, “Hey, I really screwed this one up!”  I know in my life I’m drawn to those who are human – just like me.

Strength is operating from effectiveness – with integrity and truth. The ability and willingness to acknowledge our vulnerabilities is a sign of strength.

The following comes from one of my favorite authors, Melody Beattie. She writes like I think, so almost everything she writes resonates with me:

Many of us feel that we can only show our strong, confident side. We believe the face we have to show to the world should ALWAYS be one of politeness, perfection, calm, strength, and control.

While it is certainly good and often appropriate to be in control, calm, and strong, there is another side to all of us — that part of us that feels needy, becomes frightened, has doubts, and gets angry. That part of us that needs care, love, and reassurance that things will be okay. Expressing these needs makes us vulnerable and less than perfect, but this side needs our acceptance too.

Allowing ourselves to be vulnerable will help us build lasting relationships. Sharing our vulnerabilities helps us feel close to people and helps others feel close to us. It helps us grow in self-love and self-acceptance. It helps us become healing agents. It allows us to become whole and accessible to others.

Today, I will allow myself to be vulnerable with others when it’s safe and appropriate to do so.

 I’ve learned that the more vulnerable I allow myself to be, the more in control of myself I really am.         -Anonymous

We Can’t be the Light and Hold Someone Else in Darkness

I wrote this blog a few years ago while many of us were focusing on the legalization of gay marriage. Unfortunately, the blog is still applicable today –  even more so, given the energy currently forced on us by many who are misusing the power entrusted to them. Regardless of which group is being targeted, the issue is the same, so I’ve updated it to fit us today:

Last week I woke up to this headline on a friend’s Facebook page: Kansas Restaurant Kicks Gay Man Out, Tells Him “No Gay Eating Here”

I immediately got sick to my stomach. This was from a news company in Topeka, KS. The capitol of my home state.

I am an LGBTQ-affirmative therapist, a straight ally – an advocate of equality for everyone in every aspect of our lives. I’ve been following the news on this issue, so I’m very aware of  legislation being presented in the state where I grew up, the one I where I currently reside and across our nation.

I typically do not even respond to stories like this. I try to focus on those that are shining the light on humanity and showing the positive strides we’re making. But I couldn’t believe what I read – and I reacted immediately from the gut, apologizing to my friend for the ignorance of the bill (as if I carried some responsibility for it simply because I’m from Kansas).

Then as I began my morning ritual in the kitchen it hit me that I’d never heard of the news organization or the town they talked about in this post – and believe me, there are very few small towns in Kansas that I haven’t been to, heard of, or even lived in! So I realized it was probably a hoax.

Why would someone would go to the energy to write something like this? Part of me thought it was cruel and insane. It smacked of the same angry, fearful hatred that came out of the Jim Crow days. That’s why it hit me in the gut. Haven’t we moved past this mindset in our society?
But what I wanted to believe was that it was a cautionary tale. Someone was trying to get the rest of us to see the insanity of this bill as it might play out in reality. (It turned out to be just that).

Action that stems from fear only creates more fear. When we act out of fear, we aren’t living consciously. We are reacting to what things appear to be, without delving deeper to try to understand where others are coming from. Much of our news these days comes in short sound-bites. Many don’t take the time to dig deeper to find and understand the full story

People who do things to separate themselves from others, who at first glance appear different, feel threatened by something they don’t understand and they don’t (won’t ?) take the time to learn about it. I think it’s because there has been so much more progress in LGBTQ rights, women’s rights and those of immigrants, all people of color or any marginalized group we can name. Those people who are fighting this progress are running scared. The world is changing and that means they are going to have to deal with it. It’s a last ditch effort to stay in their comfort zone. Yes there are some religious teachings and beliefs that drive some of it, and I respect everyone’s right to believe as they desire. But beliefs are built on what we are told, what we experience, and the thoughts we feed. Beliefs are not necessarily truths.

One of my beliefs is that we all came from – and will return to the same place – the place of ultimate Truth and Light. If we could look into each other’s eyes and really see the soul there, we wouldn’t have any of these issues, because we would realize we are all one. What I do to you, I do to myself.

The following comes from The Book of Love and Creation, as dictated through Paul Selig:

“. . . You have made love small. You have made love an ideal that is stuck with candy and rests in a box. You have made love a discerning issue. “I will give my love to this guy because he’s got what I want” or . . . “I will love my job because if I don’t someone will take it from me”. . . None of that in truth is love. They are all aspects of ego seeking to control . . .You can no longer create love from a cookie cutter that excludes the fabric around it. You can no longer love John and not love Fred. . . You can no longer hold your culture in love, claiming that another culture cannot be love because you disapprove of their actions.”

This means ALL of us – those who espouse hatred of the gay community or some other group because their experience with a few have tainted their view, or because they are told they are not “normal” or are not sanctioned by a specific religious belief – but it also speaks to those of us who believe in and actively work for a more inclusive society. We tend to judge THEM because THEY don’t understand love as WE do. (There is no US or THEM).

We can’t deny women, African Americans, Muslims or LGBTQ citizens their basic rights and pretend it’s about our “religious freedom.”

If you don’t believe in birth control, don’t use it.  If you don’t agree with the way they practice their faith, then worship your own God in your own way. If you don’t believe in gay marriage, don’t marry a gay person.

Religious freedom doesn’t mean we can force others to live by our beliefs. It means we can all live together and honor each other’s beliefs and lifestyles; and their right to a safe, equal education, job market and pay.

We can’t be the Light that we are meant to be if we hold even one other person in contempt and darkness. We all have the responsibility to find ways to make this life on earth work – through kindness, education and love. Let’s commit to being more creative as we look for ways to do so in peace.

Loss of Love

I have a lot of thoughts and feelings swirling around right now, as I’m writing this a day after the shooting in a Florida high school. If you’ve followed my blog for any length of time, you know I usually have a lot to say about such things. Right now, I don’t want to get into the political issues. All I can say is that I believe we are all part of the problem, but I also know we can each be a part of the solution. One way is to recognize that we are each a part of the human family. Those kids and adults who were killed, and the others who were injured and traumatized, and their families and surrounding community all need the rest of us to step up.  (I don’t mean send “thoughts and prayers” with no follow-up, but really sending loving thoughts is absolutely OK).  It’s just not enough.

Choosing sides and continuing the argument about what to do or whether we can do anything is going to happen as it always does. Whether or not anything comes from it this time remains to be seen. As I write this, we have very little information about the shooter, other than he has lost both parents, has had a love for guns and has talked about being “a professional school shooter.” Because of what I do every day, I know there is much more to it.

Events like this are so overwhelming we can feel helpless and hopeless. But, while I allow myself to feel the pain, I also take the opportunity to look for the helpers. Paralyzing events like this always bring out the helpers. BE a helper. Look for ways you can make a difference, no matter how small.  That might mean sending a donation of a few dollars to an organization that is providing services of some kind for the victims or maybe there is an account set up for donations for  survivors (I haven’t seen this yet); perhaps just send a card to the school to express your love and support. Hug your own kids and talk to them about this tragedy. Answer their questions to the best of your ability and what is appropriate for their age.  This is a thin line. We obviously don’t want to scare them too much, but they need to know these things happen and that there are things that can be done to protect themselves. If you’re not aware of what your own local schools and first responders are doing to prepare in case of the worst case scenario, find out;, then set up a plan with your family on how to connect in case of an emergency. As difficult as this is to consider, when/if it happens, it can provide a lot of relief.

Maybe all you can do is to just be a little kinder to the person next to you on the bus, or at work.  We never know if that person could be the one who feels so alone that they are considering going out and shooting a bunch of people because, in some warped way, they think that might help them feel better or get back at someone who harmed them. In a lot of ways, we’ve become a society of isolated individuals.  That’s not who we are at the core. We are connected to each other in a very deep way, even though we look, act and think differently.

I don’t want us to block these events out and become callous to them. We need to feel the pain and horror of them or nothing will change.  But because we are so aware of so many such events, we can become traumatized by them just by watching on social media or the nightly news. We’re all grieving at some level. We may not personally know any of the victims, but most of us have lost loved ones and understand the depth at which our grief can go. Just as we keep the memories of our own loved ones alive because they were a part of our lives; so can we remain connected to the victims of this most recent shooting, and make their lives mean something – because they were a part of the fabric of our society.

Attacks such as this bring trauma, which complicates the grief, and takes longer to address in our minds because they literally change the wiring in our brain. The best thing we can do is to talk openly about it as much as possible and seek help when we recognize it’s affecting our ability to carry on with life as we’ve known it. Because each time these shootings happen, those of us who witness from afar can be re-traumatized in our own grief, I’m re-posting this updated version of a blog I’ve shared before:

The loss of a loved one is possibly the most painful experience any of us will ever have. Recuperating from such a loss is a long, difficult journey. In fact, we’re never the same. We’re not supposed to be. One of the purposes of grief is for those of us remaining to re-examine who we are and where we are in life’s journey.

We develop an identity around a relationship that is separate from our own personal identity. We become comfortable with how we see ourselves within that context and it gives us a sense of “being” that wouldn’t be there without the other(s). (This is different from feeling l like we “need” another person in our lives to feel whole. That’s a blog for another time). I’m talking about the connection between two or more people that bonds us – as a couple, a family, a group of friends/co-workers/Americans or human beings. That bond becomes an entity separate from the individuals involved.

This identity gives us a kind of strength – a frame of reference for how our life is going to play out. When a part of that entity is taken away, it literally rocks our world, and initially, we don’t know how to proceed.

Many people (not all) find that, as they go through the bereavement process, it can be helpful, to maintain that connection with the deceased. In grief literature (yes, there is such a thing), this is called Continuing Bonds (CB). In fact, studies have found that continuing a connection to the deceased provides comfort and support in coping with the loss and adjustment, and it’s even seen as a “normal” part of the process.

As I said earlier, grief never ends. It’s not something we “go through;” it’s something that becomes a part of us. It’s forever. However, we often find that as we work through our grief and make room for it in our lives, it becomes a more peaceful and positive presence. Warm memories and a connection with our loved ones eventually replace the painful, panicky feelings that once represented the loss.

We don’t detach from our loved ones, or leave them behind in some way; we carry their energy with us throughout our lives. Our relationship didn’t die when they left their physical body, but it grows and matures; and we relate to them through an ever-changing lens as we evolve and mature.

When the bereaved can embrace this concept, it can help us feel a little less misunderstood and a little less crazy. So holding on to items that belonged to them, doing things we used to do together, or visiting places where we feel close to them can all enhance the continuing bonds, and can actually help us cope with our grief.

When I think of this process of coming into a new sense of identity within a loving relationship, I remember watching one of my granddaughter’s favorite movies with her – The Velveteen Rabbit. Shortly after we watched the movie, I came across this passage in the book DARING GREATLY by Brene Brown. She quotes the toys in the original book – it’s a beautiful reminder of how good it feels when we know we’re loved:

“Real isn’t how you are made,” said the Skin Horse. “It’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but really loves you, then you become Real.”
“Does it hurt?” asked the Rabbit.
“Sometimes,” said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. “When you are Real, you don’t mind being hurt.”
“Does it happen all at once, like being wound up,” he asked, “or bit by bit?”
“It doesn’t happen all at once,” said the Skin Horse. “You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t often happen to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out, and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real, you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.”

Those of us who have experienced grief know all too well the pain that comes along with losing someone we care for deeply. The temptation is often to close off our hearts so we don’t have to experience this pain again. But that’s where the growth is – in the love, in the pain and in the continuing bond.

If we don’t allow ourselves to completely experience each relationship, we are not fully alive. As difficult as it is when the loss comes, it eventually makes the love that much more precious.

If we extend this out to a broader perspective, it’s time for our citizens to experience a deeper relationship with each other, and for our country to grow through this pain and form a continuing bond that can carry us on to a safer and more emotionally stable existence.