For Parents: “No matter what I do for my kid, it’s never good enough”

As a family psychotherapist, I’ve worked with many parents that tell me that no matter what they do or how hard they try, their kids never seem satisfied.  Parents do their best to support their kids, but it’s as though the game is rigged, because they can never win and what they’re doing is never good enough.  These parents are worn out and exhausted.  There’s yelling and screaming in the house, the emotions always seem to be intense, people are walking on egg-shells, and the ups-and-downs never seem to stop.  And over time, parents can start to check out, lose their patience, and they watch the relationships in their family start to sour (including the one with their partner).  They’re often desperate for some sort of relief.  In order to help those of you who are in a similar situation, I’m going to offer some important points to keep in mind and these have the potential to change things for everyone in your family.  I’m also going to give you a simple formula that you can use to help guide you.  Keep in mind that these are generalities and that everyone situation is unique.  Ultimately, the best thing you can do for yourself after reading this is to seek out a family systems psychotherapist to get the customized support you need.

Kids Are Not Like Adults…

“Well of course they’re not,” you might say.  Yet, many of us who interact with kids seem to forget this.  Why do I say this?  Because many of the parents that I work with will always engage their kid in a discussion when their kids complain or oppose something that they don’t like.  When parents do engage their kids in these situations, they often end up worn out, the kids are pissed, and theres a good chance that the parents, you, have been manipulated.  Some conversations are just not helpful to have, but we need to know how to identify helpful and unhelpful conversations and when it’s best to just listen and empathize with out kids.

Neurologically speaking, the adult brain is more developed and refined.  Adults can openly consider more detail in various situations and entertain a variety of perspectives before coming to a conclusion or making a decision.  We tend to approach kids, without sometimes realizing it, with the assumption that they’re interested in approaching each situation and discussion in the same way.  But kids are not like adults!  No, they have very little power and control over their lives, and so their default-position is different than our own.  This means that the majority of discussions that involve rules and limits are rigged, but adults don’t remember this.

And now it’s time to piss off the younger people

…so long as your kids are limited in what they can do (which they should be so long as they live in your home), they’ll greedily fight for everything they want and whine about what they don’t want.  They’re pros at doing this and that’s because they’ve figured you out and they’ve learned to how exploit your weaknesses.

So parents, it’s fair to expect your kids to be greedy and avoidant…but this does not, DOES NOT, mean that they’re bad!  Nor does this give you a pass to be mean, belittle them, or use this to take jabs at their character.  Kids are supposed to be like this and what’s more, WE were like this.  Remember?  It’s okay to acknowledge that your kids will manipulate and lie.  In fact, we can find some humor in their attempts and love them for it.  But it doesn’t mean that they’re bad kids or bad people.

Adults Can Learn A Lot From Younger People

“Ah the cliché,” you say, “we can always learn from everyone…blah blah blah.”  Yes I know, but set this aside for a second and hear me out.  Kids are amazing and the reason I adore working with them because they’re honest and they often don’t give a shit about being politically correct.  Younger people tend to be more honest and authentic and they’ll show they’re junk to the world with less hesitation.  Though, we may want them to restrain this a bit!  

And now it’s time to piss off the adults…

…stop trying to pretend that everything is fine and hiding the fact that you may not know what to do or what you’re doing!  Not knowing is okay and it’s also okay to be honest with yourselves (also your family systems psychotherapist) and to look at your own weaknesses and mistakes.  Your kids can see through your façade and if you work to maintain it, they learn not to be honest…just like you.

“Why drop my guard,” you ask?  Because being honest and more humble about your weaknesses and screw ups will get you to a better place than lying.  It might suck to do in the moment but you’re playing the long-game.  You need to understand your mistakes and weaknesses at a deeper level if you’re going to do anything about them.  Trying to save face ensures that you’re going to screw up again and again because you’re unable to make the changes that you really need to make.  Also, your example teaches your kids to lie and to avoid admitting the truth to themselves.  When everyone is dishonest, conversations turn into debates and these turn into a heated battles.  We get everything we don’t want by avoiding our own reality, even though it seems to make sense in the moment.  It also makes sense why adults tend to emphasize how they look rather than being honest.

As adults, we’re trained by the “adult” world that we need to be political, diplomatic and as a result, liars.  We’ve learned to suppress what we really think and feel and we don’t do what we truly want to do.  This is how we forget what it was like to be a kid, but this is where your kids excel.  In this way, our kids are our role models and guides…but this doesn’t mean that they’re always right or wise.  It just means that they’re honest and more authentic than we tend to be.  Often times we’re so practiced at telling ourselves our defensive and reactive lies that we forget how to be honest like our kids.  They can help us remember the beauty of being more authentic and honest in our expressions.  So what do we do?  No, we don’t regress back to childhood and act like them.  Rather, we need to combine our experience and knowledge with their courage to be honest and authentic.

Putting It Together: Parents Always Win…Unless They Give Their Power Away

Here’s the simple and straight-forward formula for parents: Focus on setting limits and expectations that are fewer in number but are very important.  Be consistent with your kids, your limits, and your expectations at all times.  Be sure to give them as much independence and as many choices as possible.  Genuinely be willing to listen to their complaints or concerns, but remember that you always have the final decision.  You can feel deeply confident about that.  And they need you to be calm, confident and more stable than them.  When you are, they feel safe and you model how a healthy adult handles difficult situations.

Sure, this sounds simple enough.  “But what about all of the debates and all of the nuances in situations that confuse me!?  I want my kids to have what they want and to be happy…but they’re suffering!”  It can be hard to imagine your family dynamic changing to something positive with your kids.  This formula is easier said than done.  It takes time for change to happen and you’ll need the support of a psychotherapist trained to work with families and kids to get there.  But this general formula works if it’s applied consistently.  The following paragraphs will provide you with alternative ways of looking at your situation and some advice on how to change your approach to your kids.  As you read through them, know that the truth of the situation is that you’re not responsible for how your kids feel, they are.  Even when they’re very young.  Your job is to support them, in a healthy way, as they learn how to deal with their own frustrations, difficult situations, and their emotional reactions.  Your job is not to fix their emotions and when you try to do that for them, they learn that others are responsible for how they feel.  This is a dangerous road to go down and I’ve seen the outcomes of this in many families.

Being a Parent and a Kid is Frustrating

Sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but this is the way it’s supposed to be.  Parents need to set limits in order to teach their kids about the world.  We need to help them understand healthy boundaries and to help kids feel safe as they deal with the anxiety and confusion of growing up.  Your kids won’t like you all of the time and they’ll hate the limits, but you need to remember that you’re playing the long-game rather than trying to be their friend or be liked.  If you feel a desperate need to be like by them, then this is a signal that you need to get some support in order to determine why you want them to like you so much.  Ultimately, you’re guiding their development by limiting their freedom and expecting things of them so that they can handle, later on, how the world really works.  If you’re stuck in being liked, you won’t be able to do this for them.  As adults, we know that we have to manage complex situations, deal with red tape, be civil with people we don’t like, and get through frustrating situations without screwing ourselves.  By setting limits and expectations for your kids, you’re helping them navigate these situations and develop these skills early on.  This means that the parent-child dynamic can be quite frustrating for everyone, and that’s the way it’s supposed to be.

Consistency is Queen

By being consistent and communicating limits and expectations to your kids in advance, you’re providing them with a safe psychological container.  Younger people are supposed to be all over the place and when they’re left to their own devices, they typically won’t impose limitations on themselves.  (Heck, adults probably wouldn’t and that’s why shows like The Last Man on Earth is so funny!)  When kids have too much influence and power, they remove their limitations and are in charge of raising themselves.  This is the most terrifying thing for any kid to do because they’re biologically or psychologically equipped to do this.  They’ll hate the limits and fight the expectations, but psychologically, they’ll feel more secure with them.  They’ll never admit to this (though I’ve had some kids admit this), but they want to be contained, protected, and limited because growing up is scary.  And it’s important to inform them of these limits and expectations in advance because it gives them time to prepare.  When these are implemented, they know its coming and want to count on you following through or keeping your word.

As the parents and adults who care for these amazing kids, we need to be very consistent in creating and maintaining the container so they can feel safe.  Our challenge is to also loosen their restrictions and expectations as they get older so they can grow independently.  Sadly, there isn’t a rule book or blueprint for how to do this.  As a result, parents always need to lightly monitor how their kids are growing.  Your consistency provides them with a foundation that they can fall back on when they feel completely lost.  When they know that they have a safety net, they can take risks with more confidence.  Remember when they were little and they wanted to go off on their own?  They’d start to leave you to go be with other kids but at some point, they would turn around to see if you were there.  They wanted to know that you were watching them, that you were making sure they were safe, and they were still connected to you.  As kids get older they still want to know that you’re there and that they can come back when they need to.  Instead of calling you or looking back, your growing kids have internalized the memory of those moments and your stability.  This brings brings them security to venture out into the scary world without looking back.

Don’t Get Lost in the Weeds

By all means, listen to the frustrations, concerns, and gripes of young people with sincerity and an open heart and mind.  Give them the space to really be upset (this does not include flipping out and throwing things, including you!) and dislike something that you do.  They want to be heard, understood, and to have their feelings validated.  However, we need to remain calm, gentle, firm, and consistent with our limits and expectations of them.  When we can maintain this disposition, we can serve as an emotional dampener for our kids.  However, if you’re just as freaked out as them, then nobody will calm down for a long time.  Now let’s say that your kid raises some legitimate points amidst their freak out or upset.  You should feel free to consider their point of view, but I would suggest that you take some time on your own before responding or making a decision.  Definitely discuss the points and your doubts with your partner because you need to be on the same team and on the same page.

In the end, we need to assume and use the power of our role as authority figures without abusing it.  When your kid begins to oppose your decision, you can feel deeply confident that you have the power to make the final decision, though you may need some time to make it.  In this way, you don’t need to get lost in the details or become overwhelmed by your own insecurities (easier said than done, of course).  Listen to them, consider the situation, and communicate your decision when YOU are ready.  If your decision is final, and they need to be, you can lovingly say to your kid, “I know this sucks and that I’m a pain in your ass right now, but this is what I/we have decided is best.”  If you do this enough and remain gently firm, they’ll stop nagging you.  Since your dynamic has not been like this, they’ll push you even harder in the beginning.  This is because they’re used to how things have been, but stick with it.  Again, work with a family systems psychotherapist to help this process along and get the support that you need.

Final Words

Of course, there’s so much more that we could discuss, but this introduction is a good start.  I can’t say it enough, get the support of a family systems psychotherapist because the road probably won’t be very easy.  And I use the term, “family systems psychotherapist,” because not all therapists are trained in family therapy and the complexity of working with families and kids.  Keep this in mind when you meet with a psychotherapist and there’s no harm in using one therapist for the family, and other therapists for individuals in the family.  Though, start slow and consult your family psychotherapist on different ways to provide support for the family and each of its members.  Also, remember that change takes time so don’t rush it, and make solid changes that you’re really committed to because these are the ones that will last.  Quick and unplanned changes tend to create more problems, so be a little selfish and don’t create more work for yourself.  If you’re in the habit of making quick, reactive, and impulsive changes, that’s when you’ll probably end up saying, “Nothing ever seems to work.”

Being Yourself When Others Don’t Want You To Be

“I’m already myself,” you say…but I’m not so sure. You might be and that’s great, but there’s a really good chance that you’re tricking yourself into believing this when it’s not true.  Of course, I can’t sit here (nor will I) and tell you whether you doing this or not because I don’t know you.  However, having studied the human condition for 25+ years, I know that there is a great deal that happens in each of us that remains outside of our awareness. So, I ask that you take a moment to sincerely, honestly, and openly question this for yourself.

Having ventured into and explored the notion of “being ourselves” (philosophically, psychologically, and personally), I’ve found that most of us are not ourselves most of the time.  We make compromises constantly, hold back what we’re really thinking and feeling, and we refrain from doing things that feel natural.  We’re all trained to do this because every culture teaches its people that certain ways of being and behaving are not acceptable.  Therefore, we learn to repress and suppress what happens inside of us and to stifle our natural, authentic, and genuine impulses.  As we get older and more mature, we become more aware of how and when we restrict ourselves, but again, there’s a great deal that we miss.

One of the most amazing things about psychotherapy is that it gives us the space to be ourselves and to dump our stuff out onto the floor so that you can step back and see it. This process of becoming more comfortable with letting it all hang out can be challenging at the start, but in the end, it’s extremely freeing. Not only do you learn how to see yourself and be with yourself, but you learn how to do this in front of someone…which is often the scariest and most powerful part. So if you’re one of the few people that really, really want to venture inside yourself to figure out whether you know and embody yourself authentically, this blog post and podcast may prove to be helpful.

How You’re Not You

“Good morning, how are you?” A question that we often hear and it comes from family, partners, kids, coworkers and strangers. But how often do we pause to answer this question honestly and openly? If you’re having a really shitty day, do you tell them, “Well, things are pretty hard right now. I’m feeling a bit depressed today because I’m really unhappy with my financial situation and I don’t know how to change it.” You probably avoid this, like we all do, and respond with the same bullshit and obligatory phrase, “good, how are you?” They respond with the same and you move on, right? “Well I wouldn’t tell just anyone my personal stuff,” you say. Of course not, but it IS a moment when you’re not authentic, when you’re not your genuine “self.”

What’s unfortunate is that the dominant culture in the U.S. encourages us to be fake and it punishes those, socially, who answer honestly. People who are honest are blamed for making the situation awkward or told that they have poor boundaries. Such statements communicate, “We’re uncomfortable with genuine interactions so keep everything on the surface so the rest of us don’t feel uncomfortable.” What this means is that we’re taught to sacrifice our genuine sense of self so that other people don’t have to deal with their own discomfort. Well, I think this is sad, unfortunate, and a crappy situation. This is why therapy and coaching can be so amazing because it offers a reprieve from this and for us to tap into who we truly are, deep down.

Now let’s say that we give ourselves a pass on the, “how are you,” situation and dumb it down to us using more words to convey the simple, “hello.” Well, we still have a problem because we’re so used to hiding ourselves in small ways that we’re not aware of how we do it in big ways. Our brain works with such speed, efficiency, and automation that a great deal of what we do (and why we do it) is out of our awareness (a.k.a., unconscious). In order to determine whether or not we’re being genuine, we have to amp up our self-awareness and dig around for repressive tendencies. If we’ve never done this, then we can safely assume that we have not been our genuine selves. Why? Because all societies impose a degree of conformity onto all of its members. Humans are just like this in groups.

Our Fundamental Conflict: Individuality vs. Togetherness

As social animals, we all value (though in different ways and to different degrees) our group identity and its members (a.k.a, togetherness). At the same time, we also value our individuality and separateness. When we’re in a group of people who are very similar to us, our comfort level often increases and we tend to experience more relaxed ways of interacting because we like the same things, appreciate the same social dynamics, and so on. Fundamentally, there’s less of a chance for friction, conflict, and the anxiety that can come with being with those who are different from us. By the same token, many of us have a desire to be uniquely appreciated and valued by others. We want to feel special and have something wonderful to offer the world that only we can provide. The bottom line is that we want to know that we’re loved, admired and seen as good people, worthy of good things. There’s value in both of these views but as you can see, the concepts and their natures are in total opposition to one another. So how do we deal with this? Well, most of us don’t handle this conflict very well or even consciously know that it’s going on. The natural result is that we’re not as genuine as we could be.

What most of us do to resolve this problem is to repress and suppress a degree of our individuality for the sake of whatever group. As a result, we become less and less genuine over time. Why less? Because we all start off, as infants and children, by being extremely genuine. It’s only through our developmental years and the process of socialization in our families and communities that we start to repress or suppress how we truly are. A child is, by default, more genuine than most any adult and this is why we love them so much! They also remind us (which may terrify us to the point of saying that we don’t like children) that our fundamental dispositions are that of needing love and acceptance.

Infants can be fussy, sure, and that’s because they’re attempting to get their needs met. But if we focus only on their most basic needs, we see that their focus is on obtaining physical safety, love and connection. They are genuine, simple, and they desire love and softness. But as they (and we) get older, they desire more independence, individuality, and see their natural separation from the world. And when we experience this conflict we tend to suppress or repress our individuality for the sake of continuing to meet our most basic needs. But this creates a great deal of tension within each of us because we desire, more than anything, to be genuine in who we are and to still be just as loved, accepted, and cared about as before. Fundamentally, it is this conflict that many cultures, in my opinion, don’t resolve very well. What I’m suggesting is that we strive for a new alternative by embracing both sides rather than trying to be loyal to one. But before we discuss the solution, we need to understand how our emotional reactivity fuels the conflict.

Reactivity: Fueling the Conflict

What is emotional reactivity or “reactivity?” Reactivity is our emotional response to any situation and it’s typically visible through body language and behaviors. Reactivity can been seen in very small ways, such as a look of disgust, that is barely noticeable, when we’re annoyed with someone. Other times it’s very noticeable. A good example of this is when when people riot in the streets in response to an unjust court ruling or storm out of the room during an argument. The way it plays out in this fundamental conflict occurs in two ways. The first way is seen when an individual represses or suppresses their individuality in response to group pressures. The second is when we push someone to suppress their individuality and adopt the group mentality. I encourage you to sit for a day with this fundamental conflict and to watch for how this process of reactivity and repression occurs in your day. Try to notice it happening to you and when you see it happen for others. I think you’ll be surprised by the number of times it it shows up.

The Solution: Individuality AND Togetherness

The solution of “Individuality AND Togetherness” seems simple enough, right? All we have to do is let go of our reactive responses and allow both to happen. Well, it’s not so easy. We need to shift our way of looking at the world in a deeper way. While the solution is simple, in its intellectual construction, it’s the practice that’s very, very difficult. In fact, it may be so uncomfortable for a lot of you (which means your reactivity is very high and sensitive) that you can’t even entertain the idea of trying for this new balance. However, if you’re up for the challenge and believe that the fight to be genuine is virtuous enough to commit to, then you can achieve a lot more contentment and join with others to enjoy more freedom, less reactivity, less fighting, and thrive on diversity in all areas. So let’s lay out a plan to help you shift your way of viewing your relationships and the world.

Step One: Why is difference so threatening? And is it really a threat?

Think about this. Is the fact that others are different from you threatening to our lives? To our safety? To our well-being?  We all know the answer is “no,” but why do we react as though they are? What could possibly go wrong if we embraced, supported and even encouraged other to be true to themselves? What are we really afraid of?

It’s vital for us to reflect on these questions. The ultimate reality of the situation is that there isn’t anything that’s truly threatening. However, we’ve made meaning of things, such as traditions, code of conduct, and so on, that when others differ, our anxiety and anger come up.  And when our anxiety and anger come up, we’re acting as though we’re having to fight for survival.  What are we trying to survive?

Another question to ask yourself is, “Am I threatened by or afraid of my own individuality?” You might very well be because you’re afraid of how others might react to you, and there’s the reactivity again. Now, you might be afraid of individual choices for religious reasons, but what’s behind this push for everyone to belief the same thing? What would be so terribly wrong if others believed differently? If you’re concerned about their afterlife or immortal soul, I’d encourage you to see if you can let that go. Granted, you’re probably thinking, “absolutely not!”  But let’s consider the fact that each religion acknowledges the truth that none of us can control another person’s will. So ask yourself, is it better to practice being at peace with others in the world or is it more helpful to fight them, suppress their individuality, and to fight a battle you can never win?  The answer is pretty obvious and if you’re still stuck on this I suggest you pause here.  It’s vital to figure out how you resolve this dilemma.

Step Two: Embrace Free Will…and Your Anxiety

As I Just mentioned, we can’t control another person’s will, ever. And this means that the world is not as predictable as our fear would like it to be. When we live under the unconscious assumption that we can control another person’s will and cater to our anxieties, we’re committing ourselves to a very difficult life and a fight we can never win. What’s really going on here is that you’re uncomfortable with difference and diversity. So your challenge is to gain some insight into how this came to be for you. You need this insight in order to let it go and to alter how you are in your relationships to others.

Now let’s say you’ve committed yourself to embracing your free will and that of others. Does that mean that chaos will happen? No. All humans want safety and security. We want good lives and to have our basic needs (the ones I’ve mentioned) met. This is our common bond, and something that we can count on. If we focus more on providing others with acceptance of their individuality and appreciation for their abilities, they’ll want to respond in kind (as they get used to this). This creates a positive cycle, rather than a negative one born out of anxiety and aggression.  To do this, however, we have to be willing to face our anxiety.

Step Three: The Courage to Perpetuate the Positive Cycle of Giving

As I’ve mentioned, our social dynamics strongly influence what we do and how we live. If we don’t believe that our basic needs are getting met, we strive to get them met in a variety of ways. Most times, the way that we try to get them met is by taking and demanding from others. The problem with this is that it inspires others to take and demand from us. I’ve worked with many clients where they and their family members are deeply unhappy because they’re stuck in this cycle. The paradox is that if we give, then others are more and more likely to give to us. The result, a deeply enjoyable dynamic where we love giving to them and they love giving to us. Over time, we form a very accepting relationship that allows us to be who we are and to live an authentic life, without sacrificing the acceptance and acknowledgements that we all want and need.

Sure, it’s cliché to say, “celebrate our differences.” However, the cliché is true. By appreciating differences and accepting others, as they are, they’ll be more likely to want to do right by us. The more that all of us can do this, our lives will become easier, safer, and more fulfilling. Though, you might wonder about how to do this in the face of others who are aggressive, anxious, and demand that you fall in line. So let’s end by addressing this last issue, which is a significant obstacle.

Step Four: Working with Others Who Perpetuate the Negative Cycle

The hardest part of adopting this new way of living and viewing the world is figuring out what to do when you’re faced with situations when people are, knowingly or unknowingly, perpetuating the negative cycle. In these circumstances, your reactivity will come right back and you’ll move to suppress the other person’s will and individuality. And even though you’re working to perpetuate the positive cycle, your impulse is to get them to fall in line too. So what do you do? Do you just let them do whatever they want? Do you let them turn things to crap? No. What you do is crank up your focus on your own choices and actions.

You have your own limits, your own choices, and your areas of control. This is where all of us need to focus when we bump up against an unhealthy dynamic. If you’re someone’s manager at work or a parent, think about what you’re willing to accept, what is not acceptable, and how you’re going to respond to the other person when they act. For example, if an employee is making constant excuses for why they’re late but they aren’t changing their behavior, use your power to determine what you’re willing to accept. If they continue to be late and this is an issue, you can (and should) write them up or fire them. Let them know your limits and then follow through, but you can do this with compassion and acceptance. What they do is their choice and it’s their life. The best thing you can do is provide them with an opportunity to deal with how the world is rather than enable the negative cycle of behavior. It’s up to them whether they choose to improve themselves or to remain stuck in the negative cycle. I encourage the parents that I work with to use this approach with their kids. Set limits and expectations, communicate them, enforce them consistently, and allow kids to make their own choices. Life is all about learning, so be sure not to withdraw your caring or adoration from them. If you’ve adequately planned ahead for them to make an unhealthy choice, your response should be simple in practice and less emotionally charged. If it is, you’ll need to continue to rework your belief about these types of situations.

Final Note

Making this shift takes time and it can be quite frustrating. Be sure to allow yourself space to grow and to express your frustrations with people who can be supportive. This might be a friend, partner, family member and/or your therapist. I’m not advocating, nor would I ever, for you to suppress or repress your emotions. So be sure to have some outlets where you can express yourself freely without hurting your relationships. A therapist or coach might be the best choice for this because they don’t have a role in your daily life. This relationship allows you total freedom to say whatever you want and to express all of your anxiety and anger without any social consequences. This can be helpful as you continue to change. Over time, your way of being will change and your emotional reactivity will also change. Just know that your reactivity and emotions change second. I once had a therapist say to me, “when we change our behaviors, our emotions take a while to catch up.” He was exactly right, and so I pass this wisdom on to you.

If you take up this worthwhile challenge, be sure to keep in touch and post your progress and your questions. I’ll respond to as many of your questions as I can and I wish you all the best.

Psychotherapy 101: Starting for the First Time

Starting individual therapy (or any therapeutic treatment) can be an odd thing for some people, and it can result in us feeling anxious and uncomfortable going into the first session.  People often wonder what you’re supposed to say during the first session and whether or not you should completely open up.  Some people worry that they may not like or trust the therapist, and so the first meeting can be quite difficult and awkward.  If you’re new to therapy or treatment, these concerns are natural, along with anything else that’s come up for you.  Having been in the client’s chair and now sitting in the psychotherapist’s chair, I’d like to offer you some basic things to consider as you go into your first session.  This way, you can relax into the experience and allow it to happen naturally.  As always, these are just my suggestions and ultimately, you need to do what you feel is in your best interest.  And keep in mind that these suggestions are general and meant for those entering into individual sessions.  While but I will touch upon some suggestions that are specific to other types of treatment (such as family therapy, couples therapy, and more intense treatment programs), your situation and difficulties may involve others issues that I haven’t addressed (e.g., psychosis, delusions, hallucinations, etc.).

Prepare…Just a Little

I never did this but if you’re concerned about the first session and not sure you want to divulge everything, sit down and do a little journaling.  And if you haven’t journaled before, this is the perfect time to start the practice.  Journaling can serve as a wonderful supplement to your therapy sessions and it’s great for maintaining any improvements you’ve made.  It’s also helpful in gaining additional insight into your difficulties and learning how to be your own therapist.  It might surprise you but becoming your own therapist is an indirect goal of therapy and this happens naturally as you enhance your self-awareness, objectivity, and increase your mental and emotional flexibility.  As you sit down with your journal to consider your first session, freely write about what is really bothering you at the moment.  Ask yourself, what is the biggest problem that you have that you feel comfortable talking about.  Whatever the answer is, is okay.  If there are things that you don’t want to share, make a note of those.  Now, you might end up talking about them if you feel a strong connection with your new therapist but it can be good to know what you feel safe sharing.  Ultimately, there’s no right or wrong answer here, especially when you’re getting used to someone new.  And lastly, write down any questions you want to ask.  This is your therapy and if you want to know certain things, then bring those to the session.  By asking any questions, whether it’s about the therapist or the process of therapy, YOU can bring about a higher level of comfort for yourself.  And keep in mind that therapists know that the first few sessions are all about forming what us therapists call, “the therapeutic relationship.”  This is just a fancy way of saying, “we need to get to know one another and develop some trust.”

Waiting for the First Session

Therapist’s offices and their entrances and lobbies are all different.  Your therapist may be a part of a group or they might have their own private practice.  Regardless, you might see another client while you’re waiting and this is pretty common.  In the old days, therapists used to always have two doors in their offices.  One where clients entered and another where they exited the session.  However, this has changed over the years and there’s often just a single waiting area where people come and go.  This means that even if you’re alone while you’re waiting, you might see another person on their way out.  If you do see them exit, this can be a challenging moment because our social conventions say that we should put on a smile and say hello.  We might even want to offer the automatic phrase, “hi, how are you?”  Well, this common social nicety isn’t all that helpful in a therapist’s office because people are often having a hard time.  Some people might come out of the session crying and tearful, while others might have just had a session where they were fighting with their partner.  You just don’t know how they will come out.  But also, how are you doing?  If you’re starting therapy for the first time, you have your own stuff going on as you’re sitting there…waiting.  In this way, social conventions are pretty much useless and tossed out the window because they don’t fit with the situation.  It’s about as fitting to go up to someone who’s at a funeral where they lost someone and say, “hey, how’s it going?”  Obviously, we’ll want to change it up but how do we know what’s acceptable?

You can start by think about what you would want if you came out of the office upset (if your answer is to be comforted by a stranger…well, I don’t suggest that!).  As you think about this, you may want to consider a couple of basic responses, but keep in mind that not everyone will agree with what I have to say.  As always, be sure to decide for yourself.

Option 1 – Brief eye contact and a light smile, if you’re up for it.  If find this to be workable if I’m pulled to acknowledge someone in a way that’s similar to how we regularly do so.  I suggest not saying anything because you have no idea what is going on for them and by leaving it open, you give them the space to experience whatever it is that’s going on for them.  Greeting someone is typically a demonstration of kindness and safety and if this is what you want to communicate to them, a smile with brief eye contact, if they even make it, is a workable middle ground.

Option 2 – Do your own thing.  Sometimes WE are not in the space to interact with others and this is okay.  You’re just about to start a session and there’s no problem or shame in staying in your own space.  Keeping busy with a magazine, journaling or glued to your phone communicates that you’re in your own space and makes their exit and your entrance easy.

Regardless of the option you choose, you can feel confident that’s it’s okay to be authentic and in your own space.  I’m assuming that you know that I would not suggest going off on them for some reason…so I’ll leave it at that.

The First Session Begins

Ah, the anxiety of this new and odd thing called therapy is starting.  The therapist has come out, you might feel completely awkward and weird, and you both enter the office together for the first time.  My hope is that your therapist provides you with a brief introduction to therapy so that you have some idea of what to expect from your sessions.  Every therapist has a different approach and hopefully they’ll inform you a little about this…but sometimes they don’t and you’ll have to face the discomfort of figuring it out. Just know that there is a huge variety of how therapists interact with clients.

For example, therapists may be: talkative, quiet, interpret what you’re communicating, only reflect what you’re communicating, give you weekly homework, never give you homework, will tell you what you need to do, will collaborate with you in order to identify what to do, will never offer suggestions or their thoughts, will meditate with you, will answer your questions, will answer only some your questions, will turn your questions back onto you, and so on.  These differences should, ideally, be informed by their theory of therapy and this means that there are reasons for how they are.  However, their approach may or may not fit for you, but try to work with it for a few sessions.  You know, the good old college try…whatever that means.

Talking With Your Therapist

The more willing you are to talk, the better.  Why?  Talking makes it possible for your therapist to understand your thoughts, feelings, beliefs, views, history, experiences, etc..  All of this allows your therapist to understand your inner workings and the more you share, the more they can figure out how to best support you.  In the beginning, it can take time to share things because you may not trust them (or the notion of therapy).  If talking is something that you don’t do a lot of, especially when it’s about what’s going on within you, it may be difficult to find the words.  You don’t have to be perfect at describing what therapists call your “internal experience,” but do your best.  If it comes out wrong, say it again.  You may even want to share with your therapist that you’re not used to talking in this way.  Sometimes putting stuff out in the open can help you move forward and when your therapist knows that you’re feeling stuck, they might be able to help you out.

The First Few Sessions – It’s All About the Relationship

Therapists are trained to focus on building a good relationship at the beginning of therapy.  They do this in order to build trust and safety.  This way you can relax, be yourself, and feel understood.  This is often done by asking about your background and discussing what brought you into therapy.  Feel free to disclose whatever you’re comfortable with and in the level of detail that is comfortable.  Hopefully your goal is to share everything with your new therapist, but it’s okay if this takes time.  The reason that it’s perfectly fine to limit what you talk about (if you feel the need to) is because experienced therapists understand that secrets, insecurities, and painful thoughts and memories are hard to admit to ourselves, let alone other people.  If you know that there are things that you want to and need to share with your new therapist but aren’t ready, feel free to let them know about this.  This can help them understand where you’re at.

 

Being Open to Your New Experience

Sometimes we enter into therapy and have an idea of how we want the person to be.  We may even have a very specific and strict idea of how they should be.  While it’s good to know what works for you, it’s also good to be open to an experience that may not line up with this.  Meaning, if your therapist’s style strikes you in a funky way that leaves you thinking, “oh, I don’t know about this,” try to examine what’s going on for you and see how the next session goes.  This may sound counter-intuitive but sometimes when a therapist’s style bugs us, it can actually be the kind that we need.  Of course, you need to ultimately decide this for yourself.

For example, if a therapist practices strictly from a Psychoanalytic approach and I were to go see them, I can’t say that would be comfortable working with them in the beginning.  This kind of therapist does not answer questions about themselves and turns any personal questions back onto me.  Not knowing the person across from me, beyond that of simple observations, is anxiety provoking and feels unnatural.  However, their reason for working this way is to keep the focus on me and whatever my mind projects out into the world.  Despite the discomfort of this kind of interaction, it would be great for me because it can promote an increased awareness of how my mind attempts to make meaning of the people and situations around me.  Also, it forces me to reflect more upon how I am, which is a very important trait to develop.

Again, be open to your experience and attempt, if you can, to see how the interaction could benefit you even though it might not feel the greatest at the start.  If we cater to our emotional reactions only and demand to feel great and amazing in therapy all of the time, we probably won’t make much progress.

Putting It All Together

As you embark on your first therapeutic journey and prepare for your first session, take some time on your own to think about what you want to talk about, what you’re willing to share, and how you might briefly interact with other clients that you see.  As best as you can, remain open to experiencing your therapist’s style and don’t hesitate to ask any questions at any time.  Sure, they hold a degree and are trained at understanding your inner-workings, but they’re just as human as you.  You always have power in the relationships and the ability to choose what you believe is ultimately best for you.  And remember, the start of therapy is about forming a good relationship because it’s the foundation for all of your future sessions.  Lastly, good luck!  Therapy can be an amazing resource if you have a sincere desire to learn how to use it and are willing to change for the sake of your life and future.

 

The Auto-Follow Etiquette

A while back I read that it’s a thing to automatically follow someone who follows you, but the practicality of this seems…well…absent.  How could we possibly follow, in any sort of meaningful way, hundreds and thousands of people?  But I guess that’s the point, social media isn’t all that meaningful…yet it is…and it isn’t.  So why have an etiquette for something that’s not all that meaningful?  I have no idea…

And for the record, I encourage meaningful interactions so, don’t follow me on anything if you aren’t all that interested.  No offense is taken and please, enjoy what you enjoy.  Similarly, if I don’t follow you it’s not because I dislike you…it’s because I might not be able to in a meaningful way.

When Hope Feels Like Bullshit

When we’re down, especially when we’re really down, we have a hard time feeling hopeful, being optimistic, or seeing that things will get better.  It can be particularly frustrating, even infuriating, for someone who is very depressed to hear, “oh, it’ll get better,” “it’ll be okay,” or, “it’s not that bad.”  The person saying this probably means well, but to the person being told this may experience it as ridiculous, invalidating, ignorant, or belittling.   And no matter how true the statement might be, these reactions tend to occur.  But why?  How we communicate to someone who is really suffering can be tricky and expressing such things can be extremely unhelpful.  So let’s dig into this to figure out what’s going on.

Hope, The Unhelpful Kind – Blind hope or blind faith is not very helpful because it, generally, does not have a substantial foundation.  What I mean by this is that there’s no proof in the pudding and for the person who’s suffering, the proof that they’re seeing is all negative.  To emphasize blind faith or hope completely invalidates the person’s experience.  Furthermore, blind faith or hope can be based more in fantasy than reality and be symbolic of our own discomfort with the situation.  “It’ll get better,” the person says but, what happens when it doesn’t?

I’ve worked with many kids and adults who’ve experience various traumas and if I were to say this to them after they talked about being physically or sexually abused, they’d probably give me the finger and go elsewhere.  When a person is suffering and has suffered greatly, their challenge lies in both accepting (but not liking) the situation and learning how to work and improve their situation.  But right now, however, they have no hope and so they need some experiences where hope is valid and real.  From their perspective, life has shown them that everything sucks, that they’ll fail, that they’re not good enough, and being loved and accepted is not a possibility for them.  Lastly, we need to watch our own discomfort when we’re with a person who is suffering.  Are we saying, “just look on the bright-side” because we honestly don’t know what to say or do?  We might be, and it’s a very natural, albeit unhelpful, thing to say and do.  If this is the case, the best thing you could do is say something such as, “I really want to help but I just don’t know what I could do or say that would help you.  How can I help?”  Not knowing but staying with them, caring for them, but not trying to fix it for them, is the best possible thing you could do.

Hope, The Helpful Kind – Hope that’s based in reality is the most helpful.  We need to acknowledge the evidence or the proof that supports it.  For some of us, we’ve come to the realization that unwanted situations always change for the better, but we don’t know when or how this will happen.  In our lives, we’ve witnessed this truth.  Yet for the person who hasn’t witnessed this, they have to experience it for themselves before they know it.  In order for this to happen, they need to learn how to accept the situation (but they don’t have to like it) and develop the ability to figure out how to improve things.  In short, they need to develop strong problem-solving skills, while managing their emotional reactions.  They then have the opportunity to realize the type of hope that is substantial and real, given their situation.

But for the person who is completely overcome by emotion, reason may not be their strong suit, even when they’re in a calmer state.  Consequently, it can take time for the person to become more reasonable and rational.  We can help them along by listening to them, empathizing (not sympathizing), accepting their views (though not agreeing with), and even asking question about alternatives.  In essence, we’re giving them hope by offering our own rational thinking and by embodying the hope that they don’t presently have.  Of course, they may reject your perspective and this is where the line is drawn.  You’ve offered the possibility of real hope and now it’s up to them to use your support.  Yet, you can’t force them and it’s not helpful to push it on them.  This will only sour the relationship.

Communicating Hope and Possibility – There are times when we’re just not the right person to help and the other person may flat out reject your attempts to care and support them.  While this may sadden us a great deal, we can take our desire to help in order to find them someone who can, in a healthy way, help them.  Many parents are in this spot.  Their relationship with their child might be stressful and have a history of problems that get in the way of forming a supporting and collaborative relationship.  In order to help your child, they’ll need someone else like a therapist.  Then, one of the things that you can do is work to repair the relationship by working with a family systems therapist and/or to find your own therapist.  Over time you can repair the relationship where your child may start to accept your support.  Furthermore, by having your own therapist you can explore how your helping may not be so helpful.

Many of us have such good intentions but often aren’t taught how to work with very difficult, anxiety-provoking, and emotional situations.  We may have a very hard time relating to the other person for whom we care, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t get there.  In order to share and communicate real hope, we have to become real hope.  Meaning, we have to exude it and do so authentically with little to no reactivity (aka, enabling, minimizing, soothing, fixing, getting upset) in response to the person who’s suffering.  This way we are able to understand them (empathy), demonstrate that we accept where they’re at (validating), and support them as they, yes they, learn how to make their own changes.  If we try to take on their problems, we end up handicapping their ability to become master problem-solvers.  They need practice and we can’t practice for them.

Recommendations – If you can relate to what’s been described here and wish to move forward in a positive direction, a therapist will be invaluable for you and the other person.  Again, we’re generally not taught how to be psychologically-minded in our schools or in life.  To think that we should be highly self-aware from birth is similar to us thinking that we should all be amazing athletes without having ever trained.  We just doesn’t work like that.  A therapist is going to be able to help you reflect on the situation, yourself, and to help you make solid changes that are truly helpful over time.  So, the next step just might be working with a therapist to undergo training.

What Does It Mean To Get To Know Yourself?

As someone who was in therapy for 10 years during my youth and is now a psychotherapist, the notion of “getting to know ourselves” has always been vital.  But recently, as I’ve been speaking with some of my clients, it’s occurred to me that many of us don’t know what this statement means, exactly.  Some of us might think, “I already know myself, what more is there to do?”  Others might be completely mystified by such a statement or even scared about the endeavor to know oneself.  Having such a long history with psychology, personally and professionally, this task of knowing myself is automatic and intuitive for me…but it’s important to lay it out for those of us who are new to emotional and psychological explorations.  Consequently, this is the goal of this post.

Getting to Know Myself & The Basics

Humans, like all other animals, are all about patterns and this is the most important concept to keep in mind, regardless of how you’re working to know yourself.  However, because humans are so complex the task of seeing the patterns can be quite difficult and it can be rather overwhelming to find a starting point.  To make this task more manageable, we need to identify some major areas in our lives that we can turn our focus and attention to in order to learn about how we are.  These major areas consist of emotional responses, thoughts and beliefs, behaviors, preferences, interpersonal dynamics, and communication styles.  The tricky part is that each of these overlap and influence each other.  For those who are knew to what therapists call “psychological mindedness,” it’s best to take these one at a time.  As we learn to master our ability to observe our mind and body, we can start to look at how the patterns intertwine.  But again, this task will likely be too complicated for the beginner.

Where to Start

Get a journal.  Yes, many people wince at the idea of journaling, but it is vital to in making headway. If you’re working with a therapist, journaling will deepen your sessions because you will have reflected upon yourself and your life in a concentrated outside of sessions.  If you’re not working with a therapist, it will enable you to do the work that’s needed to learn about yourself.  What is it about journaling that’s so beneficial?  It’s an activity that supports a mental shift that doesn’t occur throughout our typical day.  All of us are active through the day and inevitably doing something.  Working, interacting, commuting, checking our phones, watching tv, etc.  Most of us don’t set aside time to reflect upon ourselves and our life.  Sure, we have passing thoughts but they are, passing thoughts.  Journaling is psychological and emotional exercise.  We walk throughout your day but to keep up your health, we often designate time to exercise at the gym or in some other way (or we at least know that doing so is good for us).  Journaling and therapy is our psychological and emotional exercise.  We won’t make gains without them.  Even meditation has it’s limitations and often isn’t very appealing to many of us.

What to Journal About

This is a tricky question because each of us approaches situations differently.  However, in an attempt to account for as many people as possible, I’m going to divide this into two ways.  On the one hand, you can journal about Anything and this is probably best for those who have a very negative reaction to too much structure and prefer to approach things openly in order to learn and explore.  Some people work better with structure because it helps them focus and have a plan.  If this is the case, choose one or two areas, mentioned above, and stay within those to start.  Another approach for structure is to write or talk about situations.  This way we can address all of the areas but the situation keeps us focus and grounded.  These are some good starting points but be open to how your journaling and therapeutic conversations develop and are most helpful.

Important Intentions to Have

Whether you’re journaling or in a therapy session, your motivation and intentions about the activity are very important.  Why?  Because they determine whether the activities are of benefit to you, both in the short-term and long-term.

Curiosity

Maintaining or developing a deep curiosity about any and all aspects of ourselves and of life is vital if we’re going to get to know ourselves.  If we find ourselves saying, “I know,” a lot, then chances are you’re not that open to possibilities and learning.  “I don’t know” is a really wonderful view to maintain because it means that you’re open to knowing and learning.  When journaling or in therapy, Curiosity shows up when we pause and wonder about something.  It shows up when we ask a question of ourselves or to our therapist and genuinely wish to understand.  If we have the habit of putting the period on everything, we won’t learn that much.

A Desire to Understand & Consider Alternative Perspectives

We are always getting feedback from he world, directly or indirectly.  We may ask others for their perspective or simply observe how they react to us.  To understand someone else’s perspective is good because we learn of different options, views, or ways of relating to things.  If we are focused on interpersonal dynamics, observing patterns in many people in response to us is very helpful.  Each person relates to and sees things differently and to learn of their perspectives is to identify possible options for ourselves.

Emphasizing Truth and Being Humble

Learning what’s true and real requires that we accept the fact that we might be wrong about many things that we think.  All of us do our best to make sense of ourselves and the world, but if we’re not open to realizing the truth then we run the risk of believing in a fiction rather than truly knowing ourselves and the world.  To arrive at the truth, we need to reflect, think, consider and even analyze what we know while becoming aware of what we don’t know.  Being wrong is actually a very good thing because it provides us with the opportunity to grow, learn, and adapt.

There’s More But…

I could inundate you with a great deal more because there are so many subtle things that happen for each of us during a journaling or meditation session, and when in therapy, I don’t believe more would be helpful.  For those who are beginners, this is enough and if you want and need more, this is where a good therapist that you connect well with is invaluable.  Just remember that as you begin this adventure and exploration, there’s nothing that needs to be rigid about the process.  In fact, being playful with your experience and to experiment are both helpful and support an open mind.  If you tend toward perfectionism or  the obsessive-compulsive approach, these tendencies will serve as your initial topics to explore.

When Therapy Clients say: "It Doesn’t Work" "I’ve Tried Everything"

As we know, people come for therapy because they’re struggling with some or many aspects of their life.  Sometimes, the level of their suffering exceeds their ability to cope and a sense of desperation comes about.  I’ve seen this mostly in people who have been suffering for longer periods of time and continue to experience their problems.  As I begin working with a new client, I like to understand what they’ve done and what they’re currently doing to help themselves.  It’s at this point that they sometimes say, like I heard this week, “I’ve tried everything,” or, “it doesn’t work.”  These phrases are a flag that tell me that I need to look into.  Generally speaking, I’ve found that what these phrases are pointing to is a combination of things going on in the person.  So let’s go ahead and cover them.

1) A Lack of Patience “I just want…” – This part of the combination is probably the most straight-forward.  We all know what being patient or impatient looks like.  In this context, impatience rears its head when the individual is so focused upon getting to the end point or grasping after the result that they hurry through the process.  They aren’t very willing to tolerate discomfort and so they hurry to the end, toward what they think will bring them relief.  In this way, we’re sprinting toward the positive feeling or what is really, the absence of our pain.  We’re not so concerned about the process that gets us there and in fact, it’s often view as an annoying distraction.  Our vision is narrowed and all we can see is the small point in front of us that we’re completely fixated on.  The process of getting there is generally viewed as annoying and this is when the person may say, “I just want…”
2) Belief That I Should Feel Good – Some people have a very low tolerance for experiencing thoughts and feelings that they don’t like and don’t want.  This is often accompanied by a belief that most people do feel good and that they, as an individual, should experience “good” feelings most of the time too.  Many clients will say, “I want to be normal like everyone else.”  This is often code for, “Everyone else is happy, why am I so miserable?  What’s wrong with me?”  Well, everyone else APPEARS to be happy but deep down, they have many doubts, fears, anxieties, regrets, resentments, doubts, etc. about themselves, their future, and their world.  This is typical for all of us and only vary by degrees.  But, because the dominant U.S. culture is addicted to “good,” we don’t talk about these things as regularly as we should.  If we did, they would become accepted  as a part of life and would see them as healthy and normal.  Things like Facebook trick us into thinking that people are representing themselves accurately but the reality is that most people don’t.  The reality is that we all feel ALL emotions many times each day.
3) External Locus of Control “You made me feel…” – This is a technical term used by therapists.  Simply put, this means that a person’s internal experiences (thoughts and emotions) and behaviors are determined by everything outside of them.  But what’s important about this is that the person not only functions in this way, but they believe that this is how life works.  When a person functions in this way, they’re actually GIVING their own control over to the rest of the world and now the world, unknowingly, is supposed to be responsible for them.  Unfortunately, this way of relating to ourselves and the world is so common that phrases such as, “you made me feel,” go unnoticed.  But this statement is a lie.  The truth of the matter is represented by the statements, “I felt ___ when you,” or, “When you did ____ I take it to mean ___.”  It takes more words and a little more thought to say these things but it’s vital to make a distinction in our language as to who owns our emotions.  Do they or do we?  That answer: We always own our emotions.
After deepening our understanding of these points, the client needs to observe these thoughts, beliefs, and subsequent actions as they go about their day.  This is what I mean when I say to clients, “get to know yourself.”  As they start to see how these things come up in the moment, they can begin to reflect on the reality of things.  Changing what we believe about the world and ourselves takes time and effort.  The client might have tried something but if their motivations have focused on controlling the world and hurrying to the end point (aka, feeling good), it won’t ever work.  Change, especially change that lasts, takes time because it’s all about forming new habits.  At the core, the new habit is embracing our own control and owning what we feel, think, and do.  As we do this, we then have to develop the habit of solving our own problems, creatively, as they arise.  Otherwise if we stay with the original combination, we ensure that we’ll always be victims of the world.  It’s advised that such changes be done with a therapist because they can help you see different aspects of yourself that you might have missed, and we all miss things.

Christmas Needs a Reboot

First off, no, this post is not Christmas bashing or a part of Fox News’ “War on Christmas.”  Simply put, I think Christmas needs a massive overhaul in light of the dominant U.S. culture, the many different religions in the U.S., and the Christian emphasis on this holiday.  My thoughts are an attempt for a real improvement, for all of us, on how we relate to this holiday.  What’s the bottom-line here?  Christmas needs to become a religious holiday, ONLY, and for the secular nature of it to be moved to Thanksgiving. Before you venture off somewhere in internet-land, hear me out.

As we all know, Christ-mas is a Christ-based religious holiday.  If we’re honest with ourselves, this holiday is not around the time of Jesus’ actual birthday and it was chosen to overshadow pagan celebrations of the winter solstice.  Even though the accuracy is off the mark, I don’t think that it’s realistic that the date will move, so I’m going to assume it will stay (which is probably the preference of most).  Nonetheless, this holiday is a religious holiday at its core, but it has also served as a secular holiday…which confuses things like crazy.  So, my vote is that the Christ-based religions need to reclaim it!  Yes!  Take it back and make it about Jesus and not about secular-consumerism!  Well, wait a minute.  Doesn’t this pose a huge problem to those people who celebrate Christmas for secular reasons?  Yes, but there’s another option that’s so much better!

The secular aspect of Christmas generally involves family gatherings, food traditions, and giving gifts to one another.  Now, there is Santa Claus too, but he might have to be a necessary sacrifice in all of this.  Plus, he’s been at it for way too long, the guy needs to retire!  Either that or he needs to move to another day, we can make the call on this one.  So, what do we do with all of these traditions?  We move it to Thanksgiving, which makes a bit more sense.  Thanksgiving is a secular holiday and we can consumerize the hell out of it even more.  Wouldn’t it make more sense to give gifts of thanks and appreciation on Thanks-Giving than to take a huge consumerist crap on a religions central holiday?  I think so.

Christmas and Christ-based believers need their day respected and I support it.  As someone who does not and will not ever celebrate Christmas (I’m a Buddhist and my fiancee is Jewish), I would really appreciate people keeping their religious holiday to themselves.  Imagine someone from another religion sending you a card hoping that you have a wonderful ramadan even though you’re Christian.  Would it make any sense?  No.  That’s how much sense a Christmas card or saying “Merry Christmas” to those who don’t celebrate it, makes to us.  I don’t have anything against people who want to celebrate it, but I ask that you don’t put it on me because it’s not my religion.  When people do these things or say these things, it’s just awkward.  And I can’t help but to think, “they know I’m not Christian and don’t celebrate it, why are they doing this?”

So not only does Thanks-Giving make more sense for the secular customs and consumerism, but it also benefits Christ-based believers and non-Christ-based believers.  I’m not so sure that people will make this change, habit is too addictive and we’re often blind to it (not to mention emotionally charged when it comes to change), but I think this is a better option for this country.  It allows all of us to be true to our individual lives.  So I’m rooting for Christ-based believers, take your holiday back!

Rethinking the Legality of Recreational Drugs

About 20 years ago while living in Arizona, I fell in love with the philosophy.  The intro college course I that I was taking opened my mind to so many amazing things and my personal habit of journaling was forever changed.  So much so that one night at my usual cafe, Coffee Plantation in Tempe, I decided to write a 20 page paper on why all drugs should be legalized.  20 years later and with a doctorate, I still hold the same view.  I believe that it’s time to outline why I think this should happen, even though I’m doubtful that my words will be heard.

All Drugs Legalized?  Yes, I am of the view that all drugs should be made legal.  As horrible as they can be, and this includes alcohol, they should be made legal.  For some, legalizing marijuana is not a concern, but everything else should remain illegal.  Yet, this means that we are picking and choosing which drugs should be legal.  But on what basis?  As far as I can tell, the criteria is not consistent and at the mercy of the opinions, not facts, that those in power retain.  However, if we were to make those drugs that were most harmful illegal, in an unbiased process, then this would result in making alcohol illegal.  This is because it is deadly and can often result in people becoming violent and aggressive.  What we need is a level playing field for such decisions, where the propaganda and cultural tendencies of the past are no longer driving the evaluation.  We need a fresh look at this subject and to really step back to assess the current situation and likely outcomes.  As I have reflected upon this subject through the years, my position has remained the same conclusion has remained the same.

No, I’m Not a Libertarian. I’m an Independent Thinker  I identify, politically, as an independent.  I believe that there are many accurate views from a variety of groups and individuals.  Sometimes they get things right and sometimes they bomb it.  Simply know that I am not one thing or another, my independence is chosen deliberately and my views are not a random collection of things that sound good.  Instead, I have a consistent set of values, that I continue to refine and challenge, and their natural result is that they cross arbitrary lines of distinction (e.g., republican, democrats, etc.).  I say this in order to caution you against putting my words into a mold and making assumptions or other cognitive short-cuts.

Alcohol, Marijuana, Cocaine, and Peyote  Alcohol has been around for a very long time and it’s embedded in our cultures.  It goes with our meals, it’s enjoyed when we celebrate, and it’s held on to like a childhood blanket when we’re down.  Regardless of how horrible it is for you, it’s a part of so many cultures and it’s not going to go anywhere.  The monks made it, big companies make it, and we make beer in our house or backyard.  Marijuana, as most know, was popular along with valium and even cocaine, but then people started to push against them and the propaganda arose, especially for marijuana.  Lies were told about how people acted when they were high and people believed the lies, not knowing the entire truth.  And even though we know that marijuana is less dangerous and harmful than alcohol, it’s status as a controlled substance, equal to that of heroin, persists.
Now, cocaine is a funny one.  It had been in the U.S. for a while and was even an additive in Coca-Cola.  However, it didn’t become a designer drug until the 80’s.  The timing for this surge in cocaine was interesting and years later, it was found that the U.S. government permitted it to be imported for selling.  Why was it permitted?  Because a rebel group in South America, that the U.S. supported, needed the funds to build up their military arsenal.  Consequently, our own government declared that something was illegal, would punish it’s citizens for possession and the sale of it, but they were the ones who permitted and encouraged it.  Talk about throwing your own people under the bus and encouraging drug use!

As for peyote, this has been used by Native Americans for centuries.  In fact, I would say that Native American traditions exemplify how substances can be used responsibly to promote a persons psychological and spiritual health.  The ceremony around peyote usage and the ultimate purpose of consuming it involves spiritual experiences.  Even today, peyote can be legally used and grown by those who are Native American and religious.  I was able to participate in such a ceremony, several years ago, and I would say that it was one of the most responsible and controlled uses of a substance that I had ever seen.  While many of you know this information already, I wanted to highlight just how illogical the laws have been developed, chosen and enforced.  And this goes to the importance and need for us to engage in an unbiased re-evaluation of the entire situation.  We need a fresh perspective, but we have to be open to the idea that the truth uncovered from a fresh and honest perspective might be quite radical to us.

Legalize All Drugs But With Limitations  Several years ago, I discussed my views with someone almost double my age and they were immediately opposed to the idea of legalizing all drugs.  “I fly all of the time and I don’t want my pilot high on cocaine,” they said.  I was surprised that they assumed that 100% legalization equated “free for all” usage.  Do you think this?  If so, this is NOT at all what I am proposing.  Instead, the same limitations around alcohol use would be applied for all other drugs.  In fact, I would recommend limits on how much can be purchased and possessed each time and in a period of a week, month, etc.  When I first wrote about this in 1995, I envisioned a way to track what people purchased through computer networks and now that pharmacies have such a capability, it is quite possible.  ID’s should be scanned and people should be prosecuted who sell to those who are under age.  Our increased scientific knowledge would allow us to determine how much one person needs in a given period of time.  Legalization does not mean anarchy, it simply means that all of the drugs are legal and can be consumed by people of a specific age and in certain circumstances.  If you’re working, drug use is not permitted and this is common sense unless a doctor has prescribed a drug.  Even then, your work performance expectations need to stay the same.  The issue that could cause quite a bit of controversy involves using drugs and caring for your children.  Some will be up in arms about this and can spin the oppositional statements quite well.  The easy counter is this: Are there not alcoholics and addicts who have and raise children?  Yes.  Illegal or legal, people can and do abuse drugs despite the negative impact it has on parenting and childrearing.  Legalization doesn’t permit this because the same laws against the neglect and abuse of children would apply.  Yes, legalize everything but this doesn’t give everyone a pass to be irresponsible and destructive.  In fact, it’s ultimately encouraging the opposite.

Prohibition Has Never Worked  When alcohol became illegal in this country, people didn’t stop consuming alcohol.  They did it regardless of whether it was legal or not.  In fact, making something illegal means that crime will go up and that any wish to regulate the substance is gone because it naturally creates the black market.  Illegal drugs are not processed consistently, are completely out of the hands of knowledgeable and responsible people, and those who consume these illegal drugs have no idea what they are consuming.  As a result, the dangers related to drugs (e.g., dealing, consuming, gangs, etc.) are extremely high and they are this high because there is no regulation.  Therefore, individuals regulate it in whatever way they wish, no matter how ignorant they are, and their greed and aggression go unchecked as they market and sell their products.  Let’s take a look at legal alcohol…are there alcohol gangs?  Has Buffalo Trace had a violent feud with the Left Hand Brewing Company that’s resulted in hundreds of deaths?  No, they produce their drugs responsibly and they compete peacefully.  As you will see, working and moving with the reality of this situation has a greater potential to get us more of what we want and allow us to better address the harmful effects of the drugs.

The Paradox and Why We All Benefit More With Legalization 
Violence – As soon as substances become legalized, we all benefit because their trade, production, and distribution are no longer violent.  People don’t want the fight because what they really want is money.  And people will go the route that has the least amount of resistance, so they’ll turn their operation into a legal entity so that they can make a lot of money, just like brewing, distilling and pharmaceutical companies do.  Consequently, the violence involving substances will take a nose dive because there is no need for guns because people can produce the substances and make a business out of it.  Do we see the beer delivery truck drivers with armed guards?  No.  Does the pharmacist at your local drug store have a 9mm in their waistband and brass knuckles ready at all times?  No.  However, should this change occur security will want to be tight when shipping the substances, especially in the beginning.  The transition from illegal to legal will take some time for the population to adjust to.  Once everyone takes it for granted and the legality of drugs is assumed, security can start to be decreased as needed.

Better Taxes, State Budgets, and Health Programs – Recreational drugs can and should be taxed like crazy.  Not to the point where people can’t afford them but the taxes should be heavy.  All of us want to see well funded schools, health clinics, mental health services and universities.  What better way to decrease college tuition and even pay for room and board by taxing a substance that is not needed for survival?  When I first envisioned this change in policy, I pictured myself walking down the street as a college student, having all or nearly all of my expenses paid for by drug sales, and a person who was strung out on heroin asked me for money?  In this scenario, even today, I would have been happy to give them $20 because I know that it’s allowing me and others to have a home, an education, and a future.  And everyone will know, including those who are strung out, that everyone can have this healthy and positive future.  Since all of us, deep down, want such a future, then becoming sober becomes the way out of a painful existence and that the support will be there.  People who want to get clean can easily do so because they’ve been paying for clinics and mental health programs with their drug purchases.  Then they can go to school with much of the costs off-set by those consuming substances.  Also, the budget of states and of the federal government will improve because the amount of money that they spend on housing criminals in jails and prisons will go down.  Court costs will also go down.  Not only will the taxation money become plentiful for the states, but they will have more money from reduced prisoners and can lower other taxes and interest rates.

Jobs Galore and National Security – Creating a new industry is good for the economy and manufacturing and commerce is built right into recreational drug use.  One wouldn’t need to spend money to market these because recreational drugs are generally social.  Word of mouth is your natural marketing tool.  By legalizing all substances, we create an increased demand for jobs in the pharmaceutical industry, in security services, in border control, port authority, medical devices, mental health, education, and so on.  Taxes also go to various organizations within the government to keep our country safe, for the drugs to be monitored and tracked, for their production and sale, and for everyone to be thoroughly educated upon the effects of drugs on their body and neurology.  Research and Development will increase in order to create additional therapies to those who want to recover and as such, biochemists will be needed in greater numbers.  And finally, we’ll advance our medical cures for addiction and related research much quicker with the sales of these drugs as opposed to them remaining illegal.  However, there will be a redistribution of jobs.  There may be a decreased need for DEA agents and police officers but these individuals will be supported in transitioning to new jobs that meet the new demands.  Such individuals could easily transition to the Port Authority, Border Control, Customs, and Security services.  But the government should help them transition so that they are not victims of the change.  Such good will can go a long way.

Drug Safety is Enhanced – Generally speaking, when people accidentally overdose on a drug it’s because they are not aware of how the product has been made, what it contains, how much to use, and how it affects one’s body and interacts with other substances.  When we educate people, we given them the power to make more informed choices.  And people will make choices that they regret, we’ve all made choices that we regret.  But in this new system, the deadly risk is decreased because education and regulation are central.  People will become aware of the side-effects, dangers, and they’ll know what they’re consuming and how to do it.  Sure, we don’t want them to use hard drugs like heroin, but we also don’t want them to die.  In the current situation, the populations that are the major clients for drug dealers are kids and the poor.  They’re the most vulnerable but by making substances legal and controlled, we can ensure that their production processes are known and that the final product is as safe as possible.  This means that the risk of overdose is lower and with the black market uprooted through legalization, the primary populations (which are the most vulnerable people) are no longer focused upon because money can be made elsewhere.

Social Trends Will Improve
What makes substances so attractive?  They’re novel, exciting and forbidden.  They’re also an escape for those who view their lives as hopelessly lost.  For adolescents, they’re fighting for their independence and illegal substances are easy for them to obtain.  What better way to rebel against authority than to try some drugs!?  What better way to be “grown up” than to do drugs that aren’t legal?  I know, this doesn’t make any sense and the kids generally don’t think of their actions in this conscious way, but it is, often times, what drives them.  And just like it is with alcohol, some kids will get their hands on similar or more severe dangerous substances.  But with better education and improved regulation, the dangerous outcomes of their irresponsible and illegal behavior will be less volatile.  Furthermore, because the drugs are legal they may be a bit less appealing, though I’m uncertain of this because kids do enjoy to do things that are illegal for their age group.  Regardless, the accessibility will be lower and the punishments for purchasing substances for kids should be more severe.  As for those who wish to escape hopelessly, tax money gained from drug purchases will go toward mental health services and helping people gain housing while obtaining an education.  For those who feel hopeless, hope is created through the drugs themselves!  This way we turn the harm of drugs on their head to produce more good than harm.  

As I had mentioned, the taxes from drug manufacturing and sales will be higher and as a result, these taxes will pay for a lot.  The government needs to ensure that the money from these sales and services are returned to all of us through education, supporting cultural programs, funding non-profits, creating jobs in the aforementioned industries, job training, and border and trade security.  These moneys are NOT be used for the military or for any international benefit.  Such a provision can be revisited after the experiment continues but initially, the focus needs to be on changing the social norms and improving the values.  I do not believe that paying for everything for everyone is helpful, but I do believe that our most basic needs and those things that enable us to become intelligent, successful, and content adults need to be paid for.  While I won’t get into a lot of detail here, I do think that there should be limitations on how long a person can take to complete a college degree.  They can take longer but they will have to pay for it.  Regardless, when we know that drug sales go toward our education, our health, our safety, and our basic livelihood, then our view of drugs will change.  So many of us will benefit from this change and we’ll begin to appreciate how our government allows us freedom and rewards us with the basic needs to live a good life.  Many of us don’t want or need to be rich but we want the security of the basic things.  Once these basic things are present, we can turn toward advancing ourselves individually and collectively.  To raise our collective maturity and intelligence.  But this act of legalization and the implementation of what I’ve suggested is, in fact, an act of maturity.  Why?  Because the act conveys the message, “we cannot control you and rather than punish you, we’re going to account for mistakes and support you when you decide to turn things around.”

People will always buy substances, we always have.  Many people buy and consume substances and are extremely successful.  These people will consistently fund all of things mentioned and this will enhance our society.  To be realistic, this will take time.  The level of control that the U.S. government has upon its citizens is high and it’s often like an overbearing parent.  Children of overbearing parents don’t learn how to think for themselves and as a result, they’re less prepared to deal with the difficulties of life and the challenges that will present themselves.  The kids who are rebellious also don’t know how to think for themselves because they are living a purely reactive life.  Whatever will oppose the overbearing authority, they will do it.  And then there are those who wish to be overbearing and over-controlling.  They will continue the reactive pattern and plant the seeds of violence and unrest.  The world will be what the world will be, but if we move with our collective maturation process rather than fighting it, we will learn and grow as a species.  Providing one another freedom, opportunities for learning through mistakes, and caring for one another when forgiveness is asked for are all paramount to our maturity.

Transitioning Social Trends
I want to end this with a final note on transitions.  Should full legalization occur, there will be a swing of the pendulum in the opposite direction to the overbearing laws of present.  It’s like the teenager who leaves the home for college and no longer has the overbearing parents around to nag them about everything that they’re doing.  These kids go out and party, get out of control, and make some stupid decisions.  Not everyone will do this but I believe that many have the potential do this.  They’ll get fired from jobs and really screw up.  So the services need to be in place before legalization occurs.  The best way for this transition to happen is to allow marijuana to be legal first and to use these funds to build up a supportive infrastructure.  This way, if many people go off the deep end, we can help catch them and give them the support in order to recover.  Next, we should legalize hallucinogenic mushrooms and peyote.  Again, funding increases and supportive services build.  When everything is finally legalized, society should have adjusted quite a bit and the shock, upheaval or reactivity will have been lessened.  We can mitigate many of the negative effects and gradually educate and expose our society to a new way of living maturely through freedom, trust, and choice.  Those who purposefully break the laws will be punished severely but more will be cared for in the end, rather than tossed into the prison system where they learn how to be better criminals.

Making Waves and Being Yourself after a Painful Childhood

For a lot of us, including myself, conflict and making waves are things we wish to avoid.  Early in life, I learned that throwing even the smallest of pebbles out into the water meant that a vicious tsunami would come my way.  As the waves hit my shoreline, they violently tore apart anything in their path.  I never understood why the sea reacted this way but this didn’t matter, the sea was always this way.  At a young age, I learned how to flow with the sea and anticipate its every move.  The smallest of changes in the temperature and the currents could be felt in my bones, and so a vigilance was born.  Every moment of the day, the possibility of a tsunami hitting was possible.  A cause was not needed and no earthquake was required for it rise and slam against the shore.  So with constant threats possible, my sensitivity was developed.

Living, for many years, with constant threats looming over head is a painful way to experience people, relationships, and the world.  These threats don’t have to come in the form of physical or mental abuse.  Eruptions of anxiety, anger, or sadness are intense and when we’re around a person or people where these occur frequently, they make their imprint on us.  They teach us to sacrifice our individuality and natural expression for the sake of avoiding the storm.  This is how we learned to survive…back then.  Yet, as we get older, survival is no longer needed because we’ve moved more inland where the tsunami is unable to reach.  Yet, our vigilance remains heightened when we leave the home, drive to work, and glance out our windows at work.  The terror that a storm might happen at any time reverberates through us constantly and the terror that was felt for so long has stained our heart.  And so we remain in this prison of playing it safe, muting our voice, and holding ourselves back from living an authentic life.  And even though we don’t like this prison, we’ve been trained for so long that we choose to return to our cell…every day.

I haven’t lived on the shore for roughly 25 years but I can see how these early experiences play out today.  Every day I remain strategic, acutely mindful of what occurs in the moment, and am sensitive to the slightest shifts in others.  But for many of us who have experienced the terror of the storms, they have inadvertently become the storm.  When we’re growing up, we know that we have less power, less choice, and less influence on the direction of our life.  Consequently, we live as a victim lives…experiencing the world coming at us.  Most cannot choose to leave the shore because we’re told that the growing up on the shoreline is the healthiest thing for us…even though, objectively, it probably isn’t.  But when we’re finally free to leave and actually do, our resentment and our pain rises up and becomes the storm.  We continue the legacy of the terrifying coast even though our deepest desire is to avoid it.  Yet, some of us remain as we were when we lived on the shoreline.  Everyday we’re vigilant, terrified, we play it safe, and any sense of an authentic way of being is muffled or stamped out.  We all go one of these two ways.  And so the question arises, might we be able to live without the memory of the storm driving each moment?

It is possible but this depends upon our willingness to return to our experiences of the storm and to feel the intense fear that we experienced for so long.  If we aren’t willing to relive and reflect upon our life, then we cannot develop a deep understanding of how the memories of the storm influence how we react to the world today.  In psychology, the term Repetition Compulsion is used to describe how the storm continues to play out even today.  Personally, I love this term and it’s one of the few that directly and simply describes what happens in us.  The storm imprinted upon us and each and every day, we have a compulsion to repeat it, over and over again.  It takes a great deal of time to learn about how the storm occurs in us each and everyday but the work is worth it…in the end.
As we deepen our understanding of ourselves, we naturally find gaps where we can live and react differently.  If we’re willing to take risks and to express ourselves naturally, little by little, we can learn to be free from the compulsion.  There will always be echoes in our heart and in our mind but the work that we do to develop our awareness gives us the power to separate the past from the reality before us.  When we’re ready to take risks, we also start to toss our pebbles out into the water again but this time, we decide to toss it into the creek because it’s not as threatening.  It’s at this point that we are starting to rewrite our mind and acknowledge the full reality; not all bodies of water will erupt as the sea.

Over time, we begin to trust the creek and we visit a variety of creeks to increase our experiences.  We move to rivers, choose bigger rocks to toss into the water.  Some bodies of water don’t respond to us tossing the rocks.  Some become mildly irritated with our presence but still, they do not erupt.  But then…one does and the memories of the sea rush back in flash…and our compulsion returns…we are a child once more.  Despite our terror and compulsion rushing back, we’ve developed and enhanced ourselves.  It’s not like the past because our awareness has changed us.  We’re starting to see that we’re freer than we thought, and we don’t have to remain trapped in the compulsion any more.  Yet, we need to experiment and observe with the situation so that the boundaries are pushed.  Instead of retracting ourselves or becoming just like the storm, we need to find ways to be the person that we want to be…whether or not the storm and waves come.

In my own life, it’s taken a great deal of work to learn how to be free from the compulsion.  Even though I would have liked to have experienced a different upbringing, the storm did bestow gifts upon me and so I choose to use the survival skills of old as tools for today.  Having the ability to be strategic is invaluable, when it’s truly needed.  But I’ve also learned to allow a nice interplay between strategy, spontaneity, and flexibility.  Rigidly adhering to a strategy or a plan is unhelpful.  Being aware, from moment to moment, of what occurs in others and in the environment is also extremely helpful because this allows me to recognize patterns in myself, in the world, and in others.  As a result, hope is easily found because options are endless.  When our attention is placed upon a moment, we come to realize that we have many more choices than previously thought.  And finally, the sensitivity that I had to develop allows me to empathize and see others for who they are instead of what I think about them.

Yet, with all of these improvements, the compulsion remains and it always will.  This is simply a product of our memories being brought up in various situations.  But it’s important that I continue to choose, more and more, to toss my pebbles into the water, to express myself authentically and without muting my voice or action, and all the while, avoiding the trappings of becoming the very storm that stained my heart.  The one thing that I’ve found though, that might be useful to those with similar sensitivities, is that solitude is needed.  When we have such an acute awareness of what occurs around us, within us, and within others, we can become drained.  We can feel the pain of others, the anger in them, their fear, and so on.  And because our neurology is such that we literally connect brain to brain, we have to be careful about what we allow to be imprinted on our own.  Now, this doesn’t mean shutting out the world, but we do need to take time to recharge, to shake off the experiences, and to remain connected with who we truly are and want to be.  So if you aren’t used to taking time to be alone so you can write, reflect, contemplate, and connect with your authentic heart that’s free from compulsion, I strong suggest you do so.  Oh, and spend some time with a therapist…there’s a lot to work through.  But if you’re willing do venture into yourself and take some risks, you’ll see some amazing gains within the next year.