Parents’ Screen Time Is Hurting Kids – The Atlantic

When it comes to children’s development, parents should worry less about kids’ screen time—and more about their own.
— Read on www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2018/07/the-dangers-of-distracted-parenting/561752/

Revealing Weaknesses of Mental Health Professionals & Diagnoses

The other morning I was enjoying my morning routine of coffee and news when I came upon Dr. Frances‘ (psychiatrist and former chair of the DSM-IV Task Force) comments on Trump.  If you don’t know, there’s been a ton of debate among psychiatrists, psychologists and other therapists on whether or not we have a duty to comment upon the perceived mental health of public figures who are in positions of power.  Frances’ comments addressed this topic as it relates to Trump and I found two sources.  The first was a short piece he wrote in Psychology Today months ago and the other is from an interview with the Verge, which was what I found on this particular morning.  As a regular person and as a Clinical Psychologist, I was frustrated but more disturbed than anything.  I’ve witnessed many mental health professionals that are in leadership positions get a lot wrong, and in some big ways.  Frances’ comments are concerning to me because he’s been heavily involved in the development of the DSM.  While this article focuses primarily on Frances, I also want to raise issues related to therapists needing to improve their level of psychological insight and health regarding themselves, and also point out that the DSM does not diagnose relationships.  I find both of these extremely problematic and upsetting.

1 |  Rejecting a Diagnosis is to Diagnose Someone

Those who use the DSM are advised to not diagnose at random, not to diagnose people whom they have not met, not to diagnose people who are not their clients, and that a diagnosis should not be publicly made unless it is the client disclosing this information.  When a diagnosis occurs, a process called “Ruling Out” happens at the same time.  “Ruling Out” is when a clinician (e.g., psychologist, psychiatrist) determines that a client does not meet the criteria for a specific diagnosis.  In order to do this the clinician has to know the person well enough or have enough information about them in order to say, for certain, that the diagnostic criteria are definitely not met.  In this way, to say that someone does not have a diagnosis is to diagnose them, which is exactly what Frances did.

Frances said, “The psychiatrists and psychologists who are now publicly diagnosing Trump feel compelled by the higher call of national interest to break any restrictions against diagnosis at a distance.  But the argument fails because their diagnosis is poorly informed and simply wrong.”  Yet, Frances says directly that Trump does not meet the criteria for Narcissistic Personality Disorder.  How can he say that when he’s not supposed to diagnose anyone publicly, from a distance and without adequate information about the person?  He can’t but does so anyway.  As a result, Frances contradicts himself and has grossly misled the public.  But this isn’t the most concerning thing about Frances’ statements.  But before I continue picking apart his comments I think it’s important to note that he has some good points in these two publications.  Given the outrage, they could go unnoticed.

2 |  Not All Bad

First, Frances’ comments seem to be complex and nuanced, which is what I would hope to see from any clinician.  As much as the human brain wants to over-simplify facts or reality, it’s always infinitely nuanced.  Consequently, not all of Frances’ statements are bad or without merit.  From my perspective, about half of what he says is worth considering, is accurate or possibly helpful.

First, diagnosing from afar is dangerous and our egos often have more to do with this than a desire to protect others (though Trump may be a very real exception to this for some clinicians).  The average person generally doesn’t understand the many layers of thought that go into the process for diagnosing.  This isn’t because people are dumb but rather, they just haven’t gone through the extensive education and training that it takes to adequately consider a diagnosis.  No amount of personal reading or Google searches can equal this training.  This is why diagnosing should be left to the professionals.  Everyone should know that such an exercise, though seemingly simple, can be very complex.  Professionals can also have different opinions or diagnoses that are often valid, and this can confuse the average person but for the professional it makes perfect sense.  While Frances is right that clinicians should avoid diagnosing from afar, he violates this himself.  I’m interested to know how he didn’t catch that or if he did, did he think that the rest of us wouldn’t notice it?  Obviously I’m just guessing here in an attempt to understand his large error.  Regardless, I think that there’s also something to be said for professionals to taking action when someone is acting in abusive and manipulative ways.  As I see it, Trump (like many other politicians) is abusing the American people and manipulating them in so many different ways.  If there isn’t something unhealthy or diagnosable about these behaviors then I think that there’s something very wrong with the DSM and those who support it.

Frances made another good point and it had to do with scapegoating.  He said that we need to be cautious about pointing the finger at one person, Trump, who is supposedly the source of all of our problems.  On this point I definitely agree.  Humans prefer simple answers and when things go bad, they (we) want something and someone to blame.  Interestingly enough, this is our own narcissism at play because by dumping the blame onto someone else allows us to walk away from the situation squeaky clean.  So when Frances says that Trump isn’t causing the world’s problems, I believe he’s partially right.  Where he’s wrong is that Trump is causing some major problems and making a variety of social issues much worse.  The fact that there were enough people to put Trump into office shows us that there are much bigger societal issues at play.

These involve the dominant societal definitions and approaches to mental, physical, social and environmental health.  Right now I would say that our definitions and approaches are weak, often misguided and that our country has always struggled with excessive arrogance and narcissism.  Unfortunately, doing what is healthy for us, on an individual and collective level, is generally not very popular (unless it increases our narcissism) and as a result, the rate of improvement in these areas is painfully slow.  Trump seems to be the ultimate expression and symbol of the selfie, our social media tendencies, our greed, our abuse of others, our racism, our ignorance, our misogyny, our admiration of narcissists and abusive people, and the privilege of white men, Christians, the wealthy and conservative people, and so on.  So yes, let’s not scapegoat Trump.  He’s one problem and then we have all of the problems that I just mentioned.  These are the sicknesses that are present in each of us and throughout our society.

3 |  Politics Over Truth, Mental Health & Public Welfare

For me, the most disturbing thing that Frances says to the Verge is, “We [made] the decision to introduce narcissistic personality disorder in DSM-III and I wrote the version that’s still used now.  The decision to include it was purely for clinical purposes and we never dreamed it would result in the diagnosis of NPD being used in political warfare now.  I think that if we’d had that thought along the way, we would have thought twice about including it.”  Wow.  Those who meet the criteria for NPD and hold leadership positions cause so many of the problems in the world, in our communities and in our families.  They can take advantage of others, they belittle them, they disregard anything that others say, they’re greedy, they’re manipulative, they destroy, they’re without regret or remorse, they lack empathy, they distort reality, they destroy the environment and they are deeply, deeply troubled.  Yes, there are problems with the misuse of diagnoses within the general population but this DOES NOT mean that we should prioritize politics over accurate diagnoses.  We shouldn’t hold back from labeling an unhealthy behavior because people in the public eye might be slandered.  We should work to counter slander but we shouldn’t sacrifice truth for it.  Yet, if this is truly what Frances believes then what about all of the other disorders that are tossed around or slapped on so many?  NPD is much more prevalent in men and he didn’t make any comments about those disorders that are overused and misused for women and children.  Does he wish to change all of them to avoid possible slander, public misperception and consequently degrade the validity of a diagnostic label?  Or is his particular focus on NPD revealing his privilege, bias or blindspot?

4 | Privilege Revealed

Another sizeable problem with Frances’ comments is that he seems to approach the subject of mental health as though he has the final word on the subject and its definitions.  His statements are presented in a way that seem to suggest that he has or believes he has the absolute right to define mental health…for all of us.  For me, it comes across as a bit self-aggrandizing and this is quite ironic given the topic of conversation.  To say that someone is not disordered “because these traits don’t cause him distress” is absolutely absurd.  From the looks of it, many serial killers and criminals aren’t distressed by their actions.  Does this mean that they don’t have serious mental health issues?  Of course not.  So how can Frances, someone who’s influenced the DSM significantly, maintain these views and expect us (psychologists and other clinicians) to use his definitions and diagnositic book?  Why wouldn’t we begin to question the whole system to ensure that there aren’t more distorted influences on the core resources that other clinicians use?  Regardless of whether or not Trump’s public personna is real or not, I believe that a person who chooses to conduct themselves as he has should not be considered mentally and emotionally sound.

Though we hold advanced degrees in our fields, Frances and I (or anyone else else for that matter) are not in the position to establish, absolutely for all people and cultures in the world, a definition of mental health and that of mental illness.  We are not the final authorities because we cannot speak for everyone, every culture, every country and every related field.  Yet, some of those is our field believe that they have the right to make such declarations.  Why?  Because of privilege.  Even though I believe that there are many issues of privilege present in Frances comments, I’d like to focus on his declaration.  This is because people could run with this and they have the potential to use his statements to support their own biases and perspectives.

While I don’t believe that any of us can claim something absolutely, I do believe that we should voice our views on a given subject matter, especially when its within our profession.  I think if we’ve studied and worked within a field for a long time that it’s important for us to throw our views out there for people to consider.  This is one of the primary ways in which we advance and mature as a species.  But we have to be careful when we toss things into the ring and this is where Frances went wrong; he didn’t “IMO” enough.  Though this phrase seems so overused, I believe it’s a good trend because it emphasizes that no one is the ultimate authority over a thing.  It recognizes that a person’s view is one of many.  If it is sincerely meant, then it is a humble acknowledgment of our collective or socially constructed reality.  Frances would have faired much better had his contributions embodied this philosophical and social position.  From my perspective (aka, IMO) and as a person who’s studied psychology for over 30 years, our individual level of mental health is largely determined by our ability to adapt, handle stress and how we conduct ourselves in relationship to the world (i.e., people, animals, environment).  And yet, this is where the weaknesses of the DSM are revealed because it has no diagnosis for relationship patterns.

5 | The DSM Lacks Relationship Diagnoses

This is probably where eyes will start to glaze over, if they haven’t already, but I’m going to make this short so hang in there with me.

The DSM is a narrow in its focus and extremely biased in its approach to diagnosing.  It’s based upon the conditions of an individual and a diagnosis is determined by observed behaviors or traits and statements the individual reports about how they feel about themselves, others, etc.  Simply put, a diagnosis from the DSM is viewed as medical diagnosis (though that’s in theory…but I won’t get into that).  One of its huge weaknesses is that it has failed to derive relationship-based diagnoses.  If an individual physically, sexually or psychologically abuses other people, there’s no diagnosis for this.  What a clinician will try to do is to give them an individual diagnosis such as Antia-Social Personality Disorder or something to that effect.  So if a person is an abusive predator of others but it never bothers them, disrupts their life or if it fails to meet existing criteria in the DSM, then they won’t have a diagnosis.  Of course, this is if we follow Frances’ example and his reasoning.  This would be like us saying that Jeffrey Dahmer wouldn’t have received a diagnosis until he went to prison because his behaviors finally disrupted his work-life balance.

We still have a lot of work to do in this field and despite issues such as these, I’m glad to be a part of it.  All of us, and I mean all of us, just need to work hard at being better for ourselves and others.  The culture in the U.S. rewards some of the most troubled people and even puts them on a pedastal.  I can only hope that Trump’s example will show all of us just how destructive, mean and hurtful such traits are and then we can alter this trend.  Who knows, being humble and psychologically healthy might actually become popular one day!  Well, I can always hope.

Psychotherapy 101: Therapy for Your Kid

There may come a point and time when you feel the need to take your child to a psychotherapist.  If you’re in this situation and you’re considering making this move, you, as a parent, need to consider some important things before you start this process.  The first part of what every parent needs to understand is that their limited in their ability to control and change their kid.  What I’m going to share may sound like bad news, but it’s not.  Instead, it’s the reality of our situation.  And when we better understand the reality of any situation, we can always find a workable solution and path to improvement.  So let’s get started.

Nobody Can Control or Fix Another Human

This is the first point that you will need to drill into your memory so that it permeates everything that you say and do.  We cannot control another person, we can only influence them or manipulate the circumstances around them through our own efforts.  Why?  Because each of us has a will of our own that nobody else can touch.  Our choices are our choices and they cannot be anyone else’s.  This means that change is up to them just like it’s up to you and me.  This is true for a 5-year-old and a 75-year-old person.  If you doubt this, just look into your own life.  Haven’t there been times when you’ve known that it was best to choose one course of action but you went a different route anyway?  No matter how small the situation or decision, we’ve all done this and it’s no different with our kids.  If they want to stubbornly hang onto a choice, they might go to the ends of the earth to stick to it, regardless of what everyone has told them.  If they change their mind, well…they changed their mind in response to something (e.g., a thought, undesired outcome, etc.).  And it’s precisely when they change their minds that parents and adults make the mistake of believing that they can control their kid or the other other person.  So we mustn’t think, ever, that our actions have the potential to change another person.  Sure, you might be able to overpower your child physically because you’re much bigger than them, but you can’t control their mind or what they choose in the end.  If you could control other people’s choices then they would be nothing more than programmable robots.

“If my kid could only….things would be fine!”

Whether it’s in the context of the family, work or a group of friends, we often tend to think that a single person is the source of our problems.  If they could only change or somehow be different then everything would be okay.  While there are cases when a single person is the source of a problem in a group, it’s more common that the individual is expressing a problem in the group or family.  When it comes to kids, it’s almost always the case that something is off balance within the family and that their behaviors are symbolic of the problems in the family.  Sure, the child might be having a hard time with a specific issue, but their ability to cope with the situation links back to the family.

For example, I worked with one adolescent who had the hardest time dealing with any disturbing or unwanted thoughts, feelings or situations.  When these would occur, the kid frequently went into a behavioral tail-spin…also known as a severe tantrum.  As I got to know this kid and his family, it became clear that one of her parents had an extremely difficult time withstanding any emotional upheaval, especially from the son.  As a result, this parent quickly took action to change their son’s circumstances so that he would feel better.  What this taught the son was that when he didn’t want something, the world would change for him.  In this context, the boy’s emotional instability and behavioral outbursts made complete sense.  His inability to manage difficult situations had been retarded because one of his parents did the work that he needed to learn how to do.  He also learned that when he increased the intensity of his emotions and behaviors, the one parent would freak out and do whatever he wanted to calm the situation.  This went on for years and when this boy and his parents came to me, it was very clear that the boy’s actions reinforced the parent’s actions, and vice versa.  If change was going to happen for the boy, the parents also needed to change their ways.

So even though it might make sense to us, in the moment, that another is solely responsible for our problems, relationships are a two way street.  This is why we need to focus on our responses to them and our role in the situation, no matter how big or small.  When a parent decides to enlist the help of a psychotherapist and believes that the therapist can fix the problem (aka, the kid), this is the first issue to discuss.  The truth is, we can’t force anyone to “get fixed” or to “stop being the problem.”  Why?  You guessed it again, their will is outside of our control.  So what do we do then?  That’s a great question, and the answer is that we focus on how we can change, regardless of whether or not the other person decides to change.  And this means that the problem is in the “we,” not the “them” or “you.”

Control, Cause and Effect, and Influence

It’s often the case that parents come into my office and want me to give them a secret way to deal with their kid in order to “make them” do something.  Parents often come to believe that they have control over their kid’s actions because they’ve witnessed a change in the kid’s behaviors when they change their tactic with them.  Therefore, they come to believe that their actions have controlled the kid, but this is only an illusion that our mind is giving us.  As a result of this false and incorrect belief, the parent implements the tactic again with the hope of achieving the same level of cooperation or to get the same response.  It might work a few times but at some point it’ll start to fail.  What’s not uncommon is that the kid will adapt to the new tactic, learn its nuances, and start to exploit it as time goes on.  For example, I’ve worked with numerous parents who have provided rewards to their kids for doing very basic things like taking out the trash.  What ends up happening?  The kid learns that they should get something from the parents any time the parent asks them to do something.  It’s at this point that the kid will turn to the parent and say, “What are you going to give me if I do this?”  Or the kid might say, “I’ll only do ____ if I get ___!”  Originally the parent thought that they found a new technique to get their kid to comply but the kid turned the situation around and now has control over the parent!

Our kids are bright, they’re quick-minded, and they quickly figure out how adults work.  All of this is because their ability to change and learn is faster than adults.  It’s also because the kids have less power and authority.  When any of us have less power and authority compared to another, we often master loop holes and rules in order to manipulate them into getting what we want.  Adults do this at work, with taxes, and when they try to get deals on things that they buy.  Kids do this with, well, everything!  When you put parents and kids together, the result is a battle of wits and ultimately, a battle for control.  Yet, nobody will ever win because nobody can control anybody else.  But what about those big consequences, like taking away their beloved cell phone or car, that you threaten them with?  You seem to have control them right?  Absolutely not.

All of us, adults and kids alike, face possible consequences in response to our actions all of the time.  For example, my boss can give me deadlines, but whether or not I meet them is up to me.  If I know that they’ll definitely fire me if I miss a deadline and my job is really important to me, I’ll most likely meet that deadline.  You might think that they’re controlling me in this situation but they aren’t.  Why?  Because I don’t want to lose my job and experience problems in my life.  Consequently, I choose to meet the deadlines and a result, I get to keep my job.  I could have just as easily decided to miss the deadline if I didn’t care about losing my job.  Therefore, it’s always that nobody can control my choices no matter the situation, just like nobody can control you.

“So what can I expect to see happen when my kid goes to therapy?”

Nothing.  You can’t expect anything because change is up to the kid, and by now you understand why this is absolutely true.  If they decide to use therapy, then they will use therapy and they will change because they’ve decided to change.  If they choose to reject therapy, they will reject therapy.  Yet, change is inevitable so you can just give them time and space to figure things out on their own.  However, if you want to increase the chances that they will use therapy for themselves and in a helpful way, then you need to focus on how you offer it to them.  Everything that I suggest comes down to you, the parents, giving them the space to have their own experience and to keep your nose out of their therapy sessions.  If they want to let you in, it needs to be on their terms and not yours.

Approaching a Kid About Therapy – The Easy Scenario

If you can avoid it, don’t force your kid to start therapy.  Ideally, you want to offer it to them as a helpful resource, and then they can decide how they want to use it.  When I was 10 years old, my father asked me to give therapy a try.  He told me that he wouldn’t force me to go if I didn’t like it after the first session but that a lot of people found it helpful.  He said that he would let me choose from a couple of therapists and that I didn’t have to go again if I hated it.  Whether he was aware of it or not, he approached the situation skillfully.  I don’t know if he was advised to do it this way, if it was blind luck, or if my father just had a great intuition about the situation, but he handled it impressively.  By giving me choices he gave me the space to feel that the decision was truly mine.  This helped me be completely open to the experience.  If he had forced it upon me in an attempt to change me, I would have related to therapy as an extension of him trying to control me.  If a kid feels this way, they’ll frequently resist whatever they’re being confronted with just because they’re reacting to you and their loss of control…and this will almost always result in therapy being corrupted before it even starts.

What’s also important is the relationship between the kid and the parent who is approaching them about therapy.  If my father and I had a very negative relationship where we fought for control all of the time, his approach wouldn’t have mattered because my defenses would have been up before he started.  I would have fought his suggestion stubbornly and without any rational reason.  So know that who approaches the kid about therapy is just as important as how it’s presented.  Also, make sure you give your kid as many choices about therapy as possible.  If you have a good relationship with them and you need to force therapy on them, it’s very helpful to apologize for having to do this.  By apologizing, you’re empathizing with them and how the situation sucks.  This can go a long way to repair the relationship.  Then, be sure to find as many ways that they can choose things throughout the process leading up to the first session.  And let them know that you’re not going to be nosey about their experience in therapy or ask them what they talked about.  If they want to, let them do the research when finding a therapist or ask them how they’d like to choose one.  Do they want your help?  A little?  A lot?  If they refuse to be involved, you can let them know that you’ll pick someone, but that you’d much rather them do the choosing.  Give them a little time to process your comments and they might come around after a few days.  In the end you can identify a few therapists and see if they want to pick one.  But what about the situations where a kid won’t go?  What do you do when they fight the situation every step of the way no matter how you approach them?

Approaching a Kid About Therapy – The Difficult Scenario

If you don’t have a good relationship with your kid or if the majority of your interactions become intense quite quickly, the final result of this situation might be that your kid doesn’t enter into therapy…but that’s okay.  Despite this, there are several things that you can do to help the situation, but this MUST occur before you approach your kid.  Your first task is to make sure that you’ve read the previous section, “The Easy Scenario,” and have spent some time reflecting on how you can approach them, wholeheartedly, in that way.  Next, we need to take a look at how you and your kid battle for control.

Sometimes relationships patterns are so engrained, repetitive, and highly reactive that they kick into gear regardless of the topic or issue.  Both of you might react with such intensity to the simplest situation that it makes any positive interaction nearly impossible.  I could lie to you and say that there’s a simple fix…but the reality is that you’ve spent a long time getting to this painful place, and it will take consistent effort and a bit of time to change things.  However, the one who will need to change the most is not the kid but you,the parents.  Therefore, it doesn’t matter all that much if your kid sees a therapist, but we should still offer therapy to them as a choice.  And when you offer it to them, let them make as many decisions about the situation as possible (as I’ve noted in the previous section).  Also, give them several days to think it over and be sure that they know you’re not going to spy on their sessions or drill them or their therapist after the session.  It’s for them to use or not use, and how they use the sessions are completely up to them.  If you want them to attend, you’ll need to stay out of their business…and you have to follow through on this.  Plain and simple.  Many, many parents struggle with this part and even when they try to give space, they aren’t able to.  This is because the habit of being in their business or trying to control them is so habitual that the parents aren’t even aware of it and the damage it’s caused.  I see this all the time in my work with the parents.  These parents don’t have bad intentions and they have a hard time seeing how knowing every detail about their kid is a bad thing.  If you’re identifying with what I’m saying, it might be best for you to start with a family therapist first, for you, and then move on to your kid.  And if your kid continues to reject any offer of therapy, then you absolutely need to go to a family therapist because change can and will happen with you.

Selecting a Therapist

This can be a very tricky task, especially since therapists aren’t generally good at marketing themselves.  What I mean by “marketing themselves” is that many therapists don’t often develop enough online information that can help you get a feel for what they’re like.  As a result, you end up with a list of names from your insurance company and the therapist’s basic information.  Do as much research online as you can, but sometimes it’s better to go with a referral from someone that you know and trust.  As you begin this digging, keep the following checklist in mind:

  1. Does the therapist have experience or training in working with kids?
  2. Do they have experience and/or training in family therapy? (e.g., LMFT)
  3. Do you want a therapist with a Masters or Doctorate degree?
    • A Ph.D. is primarily trained in research; a Psy.D. is primarily trained as a therapist who uses research; Masters level therapists can vary, check out WebMD’s page to get a better understanding of these.
  4. Do you know if your kid wants to work with a male or a female?
    • You may want to have one or two of each and provide your kid with options.
  5. Ask your kid if there’s a characteristic of the therapist that’s important to them (e.g., race, culture, religion, sexual orientation, etc.).
    • Go with what they prefer and without your suggestions or influence. If they have more influence on the choice, they’ll be more open to therapy.
  6. Age might matter to you or your kid, but try to be flexible and open-minded.
    • Don’t let the age hold you back, but if your kid has a strong preference you may want to go with it. 
  7. Is insurance and cost a limitation for you?
    • Many therapists work on a sliding scale, so don’t count a therapist out if you’re financials are limited.

Do a bit of work to figure out what might be best for your kid, and follow their lead as much as possible.  It can be a tough decision to make so be sure to ask around for suggestions from friends, family members, school administrators, and possibly colleagues (if appropriate).  The worst thing that can happen is that the therapist isn’t all that good, your kid doesn’t like them, and you try another one.  Be sure that they give the person a couple of sessions to see if it’s a good fit.  If they’re never satisfied with a therapist, they’re probably not ready to start therapy, but ask them what they’d like to do.  Again, if they don’t go then you should still go see someone.

Parents MUST Attend Family Therapy

As I’ve mentioned, many times people think that just one person is experiencing problems, but the truth of the matter is that the entire family is struggling.  Humans are deeply interconnected and nearly all that we do involves other people, directly or indirectly.  The most involved relationships that we have are within the family, and since our kids have less authority and responsibility than adults, it’s necessary for parents to be involved in family therapy to support a struggling kid.  I’ve found that it’s particularly helpful to meet with parents without the kid.  In fact, I let the kid know that if they ever want to join a family session then they will lead the topic of conversation.  If they don’t want to join, then they don’t need to.  As we know, a family is a unit of deeply intertwined people and if only one person is changing, it will be harder for everything to get better.  It can still happen but the process is more difficult.  When multiple family members learn how to work better together and to address their own hangups (which we all have), then everything tends to improve at a quicker rate.  Yes, there are growing pains and anxieties that come with change, but after a while everyone adjusts.  So start therapy with whoever is willing to participate and allow others to join if and when they’re ready.  If you’re adamant that your kid is the problem and that they need to be involved in therapy, you’ll need to first address this with a family therapist because your fixation is a symptom of other problems.  I know that me saying this might upset you, but it’s important that you know the truth of the matter.

Now, I’d like to add that there are times when a kid has a biological issue that results in specific problems that did not originate from family dynamics.  The situations are very rare and occur when a kid has a severe biological, neurological or genetic abnormality.  The bast majority of issues are the results of a combination of biological and environmental influences.  So while we might not think that family therapy is necessary in the rare case that our kid has a biological problem only, I still strongly advise it.  This is because parents need, at least temporarily, the support of a professional as they learn how to better manage the stress of the situation.  Many parents have a hard time dealing with the demands of a child who is suffering and their marriage, or other family relationships, can degrade as a result.  Seeing a family therapist can help keep the health of the family as high as possible when facing difficulties.  It can even help save a marriage.

Parents are Not Trained to Be Parents

Unfortunately, most of us go our entire lives without receiving extensive training and education on human psychology, parenting, and relationship dynamics.  As a result, it makes sense that many people struggle when they become parents.  What makes the situation even more challenging is that you didn’t get a rule book or manual for how to raise your kid when they were born!  Yes, there are often guidelines, but these change depending upon who you talk to and which research study you’re looking at.   Not only that, every family has a different mixture of culture, unique stressors and personalities.  What a mess!  It’s for all of these reasons and more that parents need to be involved in family therapy to support their struggling kids.  In these sessions, you’ll learn about your family patterns, reflect upon how your individual backgrounds have influenced these, and learn how to work together to make positive changes.  You’ll also figure out your individual obstacles that are getting in the way of you changing.  The more willing parents are to make their own changes, the better off the kids will be and the happier the family can become.  What’s more is that parenting can put a HUGE strain on your intimate relationship.  A good family therapist is going to keep all of these things in mind and support the entire family so that everyone is better.  Sounds like a good thing doesn’t it?!

The Boundary Between Therapy with a Kid and with Parents

A good family therapist will be able to maintain a good working relationship with each member of the family.  Individual sessions will not be discussed, by the therapist, with other members without express permission and purpose.  Even then, this “triangulation” should be extremely limited.  This is because it’s important for each person to share what they’re thinking and feeling with other family members directly.  It’s not the therapist’s role to be the conduit between family members between sessions, and it’s extremely unhealthy if the therapist functions this way.  So, how do we balance all of this?  First, let’s identify the different types of sessions and how their used.

  • Individual Sessions
    • Support the individual, explore deeper issues/experiences within the person, sessions are guided by the client’s agenda, therapist doesn’t speak for people not in session.
  • Parenting/Couple Sessions
    • Support the parenting and/or marital relationship, sessions are guided by ongoing and recent problems, communication and mutual understanding are enhanced, both are encouraged to change, and blame is not tolerated but responsibility is emphasized.
  • Family Sessions
    • One or more individuals want to address an issue and the session is guided by this, communication and mutual understanding are enhanced, blame is not tolerated, individual responsibility is emphasized, all are encouraged to change.

Individual sessions, be it with an adult or kid, are “owned” by the individual.  These sessions need to be “owned” by the individual and private so that they can voice anything and everything.  This freedom is only made possible if the individual knows that what is said in the room stays confidential.  When the person knows this, deep down, they will feel safe enough to share honestly and openly.  And they’re more likely to take the risk to address what’s really going on inside of them.  If parents or anyone else tries to invade this privacy, defenses will go up.  If privacy is invaded, then therapy sessions will no longer be helpful.

Sessions with multiple members are meant to address the relationships between the individuals.  It’s not helpful to get people on “your side” during the session or after it.  This only results in people ganging up on one another and therapy will degrade.  Everyone will start to feel unsafe and if this continues, sessions won’t be productive.

Final Thoughts

As parents, take care when approaching your child about therapy and keep in mind that your relationship dynamics will influence their response.  Also, you should meet with a family therapist regularly (weekly, biweekly) regardless of whether your kid is in thereapy.  I once had a parent say to me, quite eloquently, “so you’re saying that if we succeed, our daughter can succeed.”  This is exactly right.  In therapy, parents can learn how to best support your kid and the entire family.  Parents can also learn how to take better care of themselves.  Lastly, know that your kid needs space if they end up working with a therapist.  Feel free to ask them if the session went okay, but make sure that they know they don’t have to share anything with you unless they want to.  A big part of them growing up is learning how to experience situations for themselves and to figure out what they want to do with their problems.  If you’re always getting in the way, then they learn that you won’t let them learn to be independent…and this creates a very negative cycle where little or no change occurs.

As always, drop a comment or send me a note through my website contact form if you want to ask any questions.

 

Stay With Me | Why Being Present Makes or Breaks Relationships

The other night I was streaming an episode of the show American Odyssey when an intimate scene between two characters struck me in such a lovely way.  For those of you who don’t know the show, it has a “network television series” feel to it and the main plot centers around a female soldier in the middle east who’s presumed dead but continues to survive.  She discovered some secrets about the U.S. government over in the middle east and various U.S. officials want her dead.  There are a lot of different characters in the movie who are directly involved with her and indirectly related to her situation back in the States.  Several journalists in the U.S. are working to investigate her situation and story.  One of the journalists becomes friendly with a woman and this leads to a romantic moment between the two of them.  When they become intimate for the first time, she starts to move very fast and peel off her clothes.  He stops her for a second and says, “Stay with me.”  It was this moment that really spoke to me, but not because it was something new.

As a psychotherapist, a Buddhist and just another human being, I pay attention to my experiences throughout the day and naturally look for reminders of what’s truly important.  One of the most important things, so I’ve found, is that staying with each other, when we’re with each other, truly adds a great deal of meaning to our lives.  So often we’re caught in the trap of our own mind and by the habitual storylines that it gives us.  We learn and are told how to “act” in certain situations and when a similar moment arises, the script in our mind starts to run.  What’s sad about us becoming the script is that we are, indeed, faking our presence in the moment and totally out of touch with how we can connect with the other person.  We’re not really connected with what’s going on in the moment because our mind is making so many assumptions about what’s happening, what things mean, who the person is in front of us, and all of this ruins the rawness and freshness of the moment.  This happens in any and all of our interactions throughout the day, not just in intimate situations.  The meat of life, the juicy parts that are so meaningful to us, can only be savored when we truly stay with each other.  To do this, we need to have the courage to be vulnerable, open, raw, and true in how we are as things happen.  Of course, this is easier said than done for a lot of people.

So many of us don’t know what these words truly mean and how it feels to embody them.  I’m not here to tell you the “5 Steps to Perfect Vulnerability” because part of life is to figure this out as we venture into the world.  Yet, I would like to say that in my near 30 years of studying our human psychology and relationships, staying with each other and truly being with each other is vital to our individual and collective contentment, health and happiness.  Sure, people come and go so they may not stay, but we should try to stay with each other when we’re with each other.  Nearly all of us fantasize about this and deeply desire this type of connection.  However, many of us often get in the way of making it happen.  So many of our relationships and friendships start with this desire for deeper connection, but then they fade away as the scripts, insecurities and habits kick in.  I hope, for all of you, that you can come to understand and experience what it’s like to stay with you, to stay with me, and to stay with all of us whenever we’re together.  If you already know, very intimately, what I’m talking about then please continue to inspire others through genuine connections.  As always and with an honest and open heart, I wish each of you well.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Are We On the Same Team?

This is a very important question to consider at every moment of the day, regardless of the person or group for whom you’re in relationship.  But you may be thinking, “but we’re not on the same team!”  Ah, yes, this is the problem…we think we’re not on the same team.  But this is just a product of mind or how our brains dupe us into believing such a silliness.
So what does it mean to be on the opposite team?  What does this look and feel like?  The simplest way to explain this is to not…it’s to experience it and sadly, it shouldn’t take too long before you encounter this with someone in your day and this is because most of us are fooled by our mind.  We can experience it in traffic when people speed ahead to get in front of you, when you’re working with someone and trying to make a decision as a team, with your partner when discussing something heartfelt or personal…opportunities to witness are all over the place.

When I feel this during an interaction or witness it, I feel walls go up, people harden (even if it’s a subtle hardening), they take political positions and so on.  It’s hard to put into words but I can very much feel the intention or attitude of, “I’m against you” or “I’m going to take a position in my corner because I don’t feel that you’re in mine.”  When we do this positioning, we are now in a stance of aggression and rejection.  Which means that we’re not listening to, we’re not trying to understand the other person, we’re not seeing our commonalities and common desires and we’re not working together to improve the situation for everyone.  Instead, we’re working for ME.
Even if we need to work on our own behalf in order to care for ourselves, we can still be on the same team.  So what does it take to be on the same team?  What does it feel like?  Well, we need to muster the courage to practice vulnerability, caring, honesty and patience.  We also need to arrive at the belief that the relationship is the priority and not our ego.  Here, ego manifests itself as the need to be right, to be affirmed, to be told that we’re good or our belief that people must be okay with with we think, feel and do in order to feel good about who we are.

If we’re able to let go of ego needs and stay with the intention and practices mentioned, we can actually feel quite a beautiful thing happen.  It doesn’t mean that everything goes smoothly and we don’t argue but there’s a heartfelt sense that the relationship is okay, that we’re okay.  If we have an addiction to goodness, pleasantness, being happy all of the time then this means we’re not willing to be vulnerable and experience, within the presence of other people, the entire realm of emotions.

Being on the same team means that we’re honest, open and driven by a fundamental caring for the other person and ourselves.  We’re striving to determine what we can do together, in the short-term and long-term, where there will be a nice balance of people being free to be deeply authentic (which does not mean automatic) but that we have identified common things that we value and work to promote or uphold.

So do a little check in your life…when do you take your corner?  When do you defend?  When are you ready to pounce, belittle, discredit, speak down to and what’s going on for you?  If you can recognize your own patterns you can then find freedom from these automatic responses, which I refer to as reactivity.  If we don’t work to know ourselves and figure out how to be on the same team, regardless of what the other person does, we’ll continue to experience the same difficulties and will probably feel pretty lonely along the way.

So what do you say, shall we give it a try?