Apple and the 2016 MacBook Pro are Working to Change Your Brain, and it’s Uncomfortable

What’s Up

As an Apple fan, I appreciate the thoughtfulness that Apple puts into integrating their hardware and software so that it gradually moves users in new directions (whether they like it or not).  Psychologically, this is a good move because there’s only so much change that people are willing to tolerate before they avoid the situation.  Well this year, Apple has pushed the envelope and it’s done it by reducing the ports and really changing up the keyboards.  Now ports have a relatively concrete solution (i.e., adapters), so resolving this issue for people is relatively easy, albeit annoying.  The keyboard, on the otherhand, requires that all Apple users make a significant neurological change if they’re to use the keyboard in the most efficient and quietest way possible.  Now I’m not talking about the Touch Bar, I’m talking about the actual keyboard and the keys.  I have to admit, the new keyboard has been driving me friggin’ crazy (crazy!!) because I’m used to the old 2011 MacBook Pro 15″ keyboard, which I love so much more at the moment.  Now, I believe that Apple is moving its users toward a keyless keyboard…like a touch screen or something close to it.  In the past, Apple has done well to move people down the road toward long-term improvement but they might want to keep in mind that they change needs to be paced out a little bit better.  If they are, in fact, going to the keyless keyboard then I think that people may need some more time…but we’ll see, right?  Regardless, if the new keyboard has been frustrating for you and you’re curious about why and what you can do about it, hang in there.

Keyboard Differences Compared

As many others have described, the old keys were smaller, taller and required more pressure and stability in order for them to be successfully pressed and registered with the computer’s circuitry.  What’s also a massive, though technically small, difference is that the total depth of the keyboard is different.  From the measurements that I’ve taken, the new keyboard is about 1/4″ shorter in depth.  Meaning, we lost about 1/4″ when you measure from the very front of the space bar to the very back of the last row (e.g., any number key).  Here are a couple of photoscomparing the keyboards of the old 2011 MacBook Pro and the new 2016 MacBook Pro w/ Touch Bar, and you can see there’s a small difference.  At first I wasn’t sure if it was my eyes were messing with me but sure enough, they are different…and this explains why I am constantly making a lot of small errors!

As other authors have noted, the new keys have a very small (around 1mm) distance to travel from the start of the finger press to the completion of it so that it registers with the computer’s circuitry.  This is a very huge difference compared the the previous generations keyboards.  Also, the keys are bigger and more stable, which means that your brain doesn’t have to be as focused on hitting the keys just right.  Instead, there’s a little more space in the keys so that everything is a little more forgiving.  A basic comparison of the two keyboards (the 2016 vs. the 2011) gives me the impression that the keys on the 2016 MBP are barely there.  Good for design, reduced weight and use of space, but not so good for your long-standing typing habits that our brain and our bodies are used to.

What’s Involved When You Type

Man, there’s quite a bit!!  I could totally geek out by breaking down all of the structures, but I won’t do that to you.  So let’s keep things relatively basic.  First, there are multiple areas of your brain that are used for typing.  The major areas are those that govern motor or physical movement (Parietal Lobe), memory and habit (Hippocampus, Basil Ganglia, Temporal Lobes, etc.), visual information and feedback (Parietal and Occipital Lobes), and language (the whole friggin left half of your brain).  What’s more is that these structures need to connect to all of the muscles, tendons and nerve endings in your hands, fingers and arms in order to work properly.  These connections are made possible by many crazy long sequences of nerves that go from your brain, into your spine and then they travel throughout your body.  So when you’re forced to change a habit like typing on a new kind of keyboard, you’re changing all of these structures inside of you even though you can’t see it happen.  I have to admit, it’s all so nuts but so cool!  And this is just about typing!

So, when you go to type something right now, all of the nerves in your brain and body fire in a specific sequence and this makes it relatively easy to do.  This is because the nerves and muscles have had a lot of time to adapt to all of the practice that you’ve done.  The way that your typing speed increased was the result of your brain, nerves and body working together to alter all of the small structures underneath your skin…and this is what led to you being able to type faster.  Now we don’t see any of this taking place and we don’t even know that it’s going on, but it’s important that we know it.  When you first learned to type it wasn’t on this new Apple keyboard and the only reason that the keyboard is to blame for how funky this feels is because our biology can’t adapt quick enough.  This means that even the smallest of changes can mess with the complex neurological and muscular system that is called, “your ability to type.”  My body’s reaction to Apple’s change from the 2011 MBP to the 2016 MBP has been strong, and there have been times that I want to destroy my new MBP because I’m so frustrated with my body taking so long to adapt to the new keyboard!

As a side note, I’d like to acknowledge that Apple has been probably tried to be smart about deciding when it was going to force certain changes on us.  This is a tough balancing act and I don’t envy them in trying to determine how much to push the consumer while trying to balance strong stock prices and investor confidence.  That just seems like an impossible formula.  So how do you pump out quality products that push the boundaries of tech while also working with humanities biggest weakness: adapting to change.  It’s a tough call but let’s stay focused on the topic at hand and save that for another blog post.

Why Learning Something New Can Be Biologically Uncomfortable

Basic Brain Stuff:  When we’re under 25 years old, it’s easier for us to change because our metabolism is higher (which promotes quicker growth and protein synthesis which is needed for neurological changes) and our brain has a greater influx of newly created brain cells or neurons.  Beyond 25, we continue to get some new neurons but it’s like a trickle-charge because it’s happening at a really slow rate.  This means that older adults depend more upon existing neurons to rewire themselves (aka, neuroplasticity) than on new cells jumping in to create new pathways and connections.  Generally speaking, rewiring takes more time, practice and energy…and this can be uncomfortable and frustrating.  At 40 years old, I’m pretty frustrated by this new keyboard because all of the changes have slowed me down, increased the number of typing errors and now I have to be stupid deliberate about typing…and I feel like I’m having to learn this all over again.  However, I know that I need to force myself to practice because my neurons need some time to rewire themselves.  The worst thing that I could do is throw my arms up in the air and return my new MBP and buy some old machine.  But we all know this is the coward’s way out…and what way to better solidify my old-man stature by refusing to adapt to change, right!?  Anyway, I know I have to be patient and to rethink how I press each key with each finger.  This is just how it’s going to be for a bit.  If I do this, I’ll be able to be more precise when I type and not be so damn loud on this new keyboard.  So far (it’s been a touch over a week since I’ve had the new machine), my brain and muscles have adjusted a little bit but the old habit is pretty strong because I can feel that my fingers want to pound on the keyboard with more force.  The fact that I’m having to hold back and to change this brings about a weird feeling in my hands…which I find massively annoying…and fascinating at the same time.

Proximity of Change:  Another reason that this is so annoying is that the difference between how I used to type on the old keyboard and what I need to do now is close I can easily imagine the new way of doing it.  Even though I can imagine typing in this new, quiet and softer way, my biology hasn’t caught up.  Emotionally, though I’m not thinking about it in this way, this is the most frustrating part of the entire thing.  So even though I can imagine the change and am aware of how it feels so close to what I normally do, I have to slow down and be patient with the number of errors that I make.  Also, that 1/4″ of inch difference in the keys is really messing with my precision.  Now I have to track my fingers whereas before, I just typed as I always had.  Such a simple thing is bringing up such strong reactions.  It makes me think of people who have suffered a stroke or nerve damage that has limited their mobility.  If I’m so frustrated about this, I can’t imagine the difficulty that these individuals experience as they try to recover their mobility.  I have a new found empathy for them, though it’s based on something that’s ultimately pretty ridiculous by comparison, and my heart goes out to these people.  The one thing that’s helped me progress through this frustating time is maintaining an awareness of what comes up emotionally.  As I’ve observed myself, it’s important to keep things in perspective so we don’t get too pissed off and start blaming the keyboard for our failures (though I’ve wanted to break my new laptop during some moments of frustration).

Why You Should Strategically and Purposefully Change Your Habits

While it’s uncomfortable to deal with this change that’s been forced upon us, it’s good that we have to focus on how we can deliberately create a new habit or skill in the most effective way.  Ultimately, I’m driven by laziness and so I put a lot of effort into creating habits that are as efficient as possible.  This way, the efficient habit will lessen the potential problems and work that I have to deal with later on.  In order to reduce this work down the road, I need to really think about what I’m going to do.  In this way, I’m putting more effort upfront so that I can consider the impact that my actions and inactions may have on others, my environment and my future goals.  I know that this is just about typing but I’d encourage you to adopt a similar approach in your own life so that you can reep the benefits of doing things really well (for the short-term and long-term) and with the least amount of energy.

Now, if we don’t take care to analyze the situation and just haphazardly adjust to the new keyboard, then we’re likely to develop a new habit that’s not optimal.  Once we establish this new habit we’ll be less likely to enhance it later on because we’ll be able to get by even though it’s sloppy.  Unfortunately, I think many people are probably going to type very loudly on this new keyboard, which will annoy the shit out of a lot of people, and this is because they didn’t know how to approach the development of a new habit.  The problem with habits is that we humans are pretty resistant to change and we tend not to make an effort to improve something when it’s small and when we don’t believe that it really matters.  While this is true for the majority of us, there are many people who are exceptions.  In this current keyboard situation, this is likely to occur because I doubt many people are going to think to themselves, “Hmm, I need to type differently.  How can I do this so that I only have to relearn this once?  Also, I can tell this is going to annoy the hell out of a lot of people so how do I go about typing quietly?”  Yeah, most of us are probably not going to be this deliberate about the whole thing.  So, this means that we’re going to have a lot of people who are going to type very loudly with the new Apple keyboard because they didn’t go through the painful week or two that it takes to deliberately adjust in an ideal way.  So I’m alreay thankful for my noise cancelling headphones!

Ways to Help the Change Happen Quicker and With Less Discomfort

  1. Slow Down.  Remind yourself throughout the day, everyday, that you’re going to type a lot slower than you used to because your mind and body has to make a lot of small adjustments in order to regain the typing precision that you once had.  The keys have all moved and it’s going to take a little bit before you instinctually feel just the right level of softness and pressure that you need to use on the keys.
  2.  Relax. As you remind yourself of the above, let yourself relax and give yourself more time to complete any emails, papers, etc..  Your enemy in this situation in impatience.  And it’s good to practice becoming more patient with yourself, even though it’s really friggin’ hard to do.
  3. Practice.  Try to type as much as possible so that you get in a ton of practice.  This will help things move along and your neurons and muscles will change at a quicker rate.
  4. Eat Protein.  When your brain is changing and adapting, it needs a bit more protein than normal because it’s literally creating and moving neurons in your body.  These neurons need protein in order to alter their structures so be sure your diet is well balanced.
  5. Be Deliberate About This New Habit.  Don’t just adapt without thinking about why and how you’re adapting.  Work to type in a way that really fits with this new keyboard and in a style that you want for yourself and the people around you.  Ultimately, how do you want to feel when you’re typing?  The new keyboard wants you to type with more precision, with a smoother flow and with a gentle touch.  Also, people don’t want to listen to or watch you hammer away at the thing like you’re super pissed.  It’s really annoying to be on the observing end of this so consider putting some serious effort into customizing your new habit for you while also considering everyone else.  We’ll thank you for it!

Wrapping It Up and Predictions for Apple’s Future Changes

The new Apple keyboard is ultimately really good and pretty cool.  I’m liking it more and more as I get used to it, but it’s going to take just that.  Do I wish that Apple had made in quieter?  Absolutely, the amount of change is challenging and I want to be lazy like everyone else.  This change is pretty significant and honestly, I’m really not enjoying it so far but I’m hopeful that this will change as my brain, nerves and muscles adjust with practice.  It’s hard to not be overcome by my frustration and not to blame it all on Apple…but the reality is that our bodies can’t adapt as quickly as we would like, especially when we’re a bit older and our neurons want to be lazy.  Now, if I set this change component aside what is my evaluation of the keyboard?  I don’t think it’s the greatest thing but I can see where they’re going.  Ultimately, I think they want us to get used to using a totally different kind of keyboard…one that’s only a touch screen and has no moving parts at all.  This new keyboard design is a great way to move us in this direction, though I really don’t want to go in that direction at all.  My brain and my body really like how things have been…but I know it’s good for me to adapt and change my habits, so I’ll suck it up and move forward with the changes…

Psychotherapy 101: Does Therapy Work?

One common thing that I hear from some clients or potential clients is that they’re unsure whether therapy actually “works.”  Sometimes the person wondering this is just skeptical.  Other times, they’ve already decided that therapy won’t do anything to help them, their relationships, or their family situation.  Other times, they’re skeptical but they remain open to the possibility that therapy could turn out to be useful.  The most challenging situation is when the person believes that, “nothing works.”  Though you might think that these three scenarios are basically the same thing, but they’re actually quite different.  So today I’m going to explain why therapy does work and how certain conditions in a person’s life greatly influences the usefulness and success of therapy.  But first, let’s identify and define what we mean when we use the word “therapy.”

Therapy isn’t a “Thing”

If you relate to the word therapy as though it’s a single thing, idea, or concept, this is mistaken.  It makes sense that you would relate to the idea of therapy in this way, but therapy is a very complex and organic process that evolves differently for each client.  Its foundation is based on two primary factors.  The first is based on the therapist and the other is based on you, the client.  The quality of the therapist, their training, their individual efforts to maintain a high level of proficiency (personally and professionally), and the therapy and theory that they utilize are huge factor in whether therapy is helpful or not.  However, therapy can’t do anything for a client unless they’re willing to talk about anything and everything.  Also, the client needs to be able to eventually identify which situations or aspects of their life that they would like to improve.  Next, they need to be willing to make changes in how they’re approaching their life on a daily basis.

As you can see, the foundations of therapy are not just based a single thing.  In fact, it’s dependent upon both people, not just the therapist.  Furthermore, the therapeutic process is typically very different for each person and it can be experienced differently depending on a number of other factors.  First, we all have different problems and personalities, so what’s done in a session with one person will be different compared to another.  What’s more is that if the sessions consist of multiple people or is in different kinds of settings (such as inpatient therapy or group therapy, etc.), the approach what happens in therapy will take on a different form.  And finally, therapy is often continued outside of sessions and this occurs when the client reflects upon what’s happened in therapy as they go about their daily lives.  If the client is not willing to continue the work and reflect upon things outside of their sessions, then there they probably won’t see much change.  However, when people make changes outside of therapy sessions, it’s not uncommon for the therapist to come up in their mind or even in conversations.  Many clients have told me how I’ve come up at home or that they think of me at certain moments in their life.  This happens for all clients and it means that therapy has become helpful and that the person is working.  The fact that they’re actually thinking about things as they’re doing them is a great sign.  Now, having considered all of these factors, we can now see just how silly it is to think of therapy as a simple thing.  To make this mental shortcut is about as helpful as saying that having kids is just the process of giving birth and feeding them until they move out.  All parents know that it’s so much more complicated!

“Just talking about stuff isn’t going to help anything.”

If you’ve thought this or said it, you’re right.  That’s why therapy is about talking AND taking action.  The therapist is there to support you as you decide what you’re going to change.  These changes involve behaviors, how you make meaning of events or experiences, how you experience and communicate your emotions, how you relate to your thoughts and emotions, how you problem-solve, etc.  The way that I work as a psychotherapist is that I support you as you determine how to move forward…or if you’ll move forward at all.  I might have a suggestion or an idea, but I’m never going to tell you that you have to do something.  It’s your call because it’s your life.  If you decide to keep doing the same thing and experiencing the same outcomes, that’s up to you.  And you won’t get any judgment from me.  Why?  Because your life is your life, and our therapeutic relationship consists of one or two hours of contact a week.  We’re not in each other’s lives and after all, these sessions are only about you.  They really have nothing to do with me or any other therapist.  However, talking, openly and honestly is necessary.

Talking is needed because this is how we uncover the things that have been influencing you for years and it helps us determine how things have come to be this way in your life.  We’re not raised or taught, for the most part, to be psychologically minded.  Meaning, the dominant culture in the U.S. doesn’t emphasize enhancing our self-awareness in order to identify our patterns of thinking, feeling, and behaving, especially at very deep levels.  Consequently, if you haven’t been in therapy or trained as a psychotherapist, there’s a 99.9% chance you’re not aware of everything.  Even psychotherapists have to develop and maintain this higher level of self-awareness in order to be of any use to their clients.  And higher degrees of self-awareness needs to be maintained, which means we have to do things to keep it higher.  It’s not enough to do a few things to enhance it, it takes some level of effort to maintain it.  Self-awareness, at a the deeper levels, requires consistent practice.  So, if you’ve concluded that you know everything about yourself and how you are, then this is your first obstacle.  If you continue to think this and enter therapy, then you’re not likely to benefit from therapy or change for the better until this defensive wall is weakened.  And yes, it is a defensive wall.  It’s okay that you have a wall up, you’re not a bad person for doing this, but it’s important to understand the purpose the wall serves.  When you’re willing to explore it and willing to consider taking it down, then therapy has the potential to be of use to you.

“Therapy doesn’t (or won’t) work for me.”

It might not seem like therapy can help, but this is probably because you’re not truly willing to do anything different in yourself or in your life.  And sometimes people will try something different, but if it doesn’t “fix” the problem right away, they give up immediately.  Change takes time, so we have to stick with it for a while to really test out our solutions.  Also, anyone can attend therapy sessions, for many weeks, and not see improvements in their life.  In fact, I can go to the gym and sit my butt on the stationary bike, but if I sit there and read without moving my body, should I expect to get healthier, skinnier or more muscular?  Of course not.  Therapy works in the same way.  If you’re a passive participant in therapy, not much will change.  Sure, there are times when you just need to vent and complain about something, but if that’s all you’re doing then not much is going to happen.  Also, if you’re not interested in gaining insight or identifying how you could change to make things better, things will continue as they have.  However, if you’ve never been in therapy and you’re saying that it doesn’t work, well that’s a different situation altogether.

When someone claims that therapy won’t be able to do anything for them, it’s usually a sign of fear or past resentments.  Somehow the person feels threatened by the fantasy of therapy.  And I use the word fantasy because any time we’re speculating about an experience that we’ve never had, it’s a fantasy or a fiction.  In fact, that’s all it can be.  Regardless, this negative view might be the result of the person’s sensitivities.  They may have been harshly criticized throughout their life and imagine that a therapy hour consists of them being told that they aren’t doing things right.  This can be an uncomfortable or downright upsetting thought for some of us.  It might reminds us, whether we’re aware of it or not, of some pretty intense memories.  Or maybe the person has felt constantly criticized by their partner or spouse and don’t feel like being ganged up on in a session.  These fears stop a lot of people from participating in therapy.  My suggestion is to give it a try, to give change a serious try, and then you can see for yourself.

Some Positive Accounts from My Therapy Clients

So far, we’ve talked about the negative views that we might have about therapy and how various factors figure into its success or failure for clients.  While these are important to remember, I’d like to end here by sharing a few stories about people who have really benefited from therapy.  The first one is my story.

When I was young, life was pretty difficult, family life was intense and tumultuous, and I was experiencing a great deal of anxiety and depression.  I entered therapy around the age of 10 and I continued for nearly 10 years.  Honestly, therapy helped me stay afloat and the older I got, the more I got out of therapy.  In the beginning, it was a safe place where I could talk about anything, say anything, and allow myself to feel what was really going on within me.  This, by itself, helped me so much because I didn’t really have a relationship where I could express freely and feel deeply understood.  As I got older and matured, I loved using therapy to gain more insight into myself, my life, and to figure out how the world worked.  The fact that I was using therapy was huge and I came into each session wanting to work on things.  As I gained more insight, I used therapy to help me figure out how I could change, and then I made those changes.  I never thought that therapy would make it so that my life wouldn’t ever have any problems, but what I learned was how to deal with problems, obstacles, relationships, and emotions in a much healthier way.  Today, I can honestly say that my life is much better off and contentment is something that I feel regularly.

A previous client that I worked with was middle-aged and had never been in therapy.  She was going through some pretty intense changes in life and her world was upside down.  She struggled over the course of a year with how to cope with all of the changes and she had to make some pretty big decisions.  Yet, therapy was a place for her to speak freely, be challenged to make changes when she felt stuck, and to decide what she wanted for her future.  Her other choice was to simply allow life happen to her, but she went another way. I learned several months after we stopped our sessions that she said that our time together was exactly what she needed, and that her life was so much better.

Another person that I worked with was having a lot of trouble in relationships, in herself, and with a career path that was rather stuck.  What’s more is that she was very afraid of being vulnerable.  Therefore, she had a very difficult time admitting to herself and others how she really felt, what she really thought, and how she lived.  There was a lot of shame going on and she was of the belief that she didn’t deserve much of anything good in this life.  Over the course of a year and a half, she pushed herself to disclose everything in our sessions.  This enabled us to work with what was really going on for her.  We would practice meditation together, and then we would come up with things that she could do to move herself in the right direction.  Most importantly, we worked to change her relationship to her thoughts and her emotions.  Instead of buying into them as though they were absolutely true, she came to learn where they had come from.  We gently challenged them and she came to realize that these thoughts were no longer helpful to her.  In fact, they held her back.  In the end, she grew to know herself inside and out, how her past had influenced her most basic assumptions about the world, and she knew how to challenge them so that she could ultimately do what was best for her.  The icing on the cake was that she found an amazing partner, and acquired a great new job.

What’s common in all of these stories is that the person made an effort to change and they were willing to explore what was really going on inside of them.  They were willing to figure out what they wanted, identify what they needed to do, and then they went outside of their comfort zone to do those things.  Sometimes it took them a bit to get there, but they eventually made changes.  And these changes were in how they thought about themselves, how they related to their thoughts and emotions, and how they took action in their life to get things moving in a different direction.  In my professional opinion, this is what’s needed for therapy to be effective.  Ultimately, therapy is a massive resource that can propel you forward…but you have to be willing to do the moving, regardless of the pace.  If you are willing, then change can happen quite quickly for you.

As always, drop me a note through my contact form if you’d like me to address a specific topic for you, and I wish all of you the best.

 

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.