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/

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.

 

Psychotherapy 101: Does Therapy Work?

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

Therapy isn’t a “Thing”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some Positive Accounts from My Therapy Clients

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Being Yourself When Others Don’t Want You To Be

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

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

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

How You’re Not You

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

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

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

Our Fundamental Conflict: Individuality vs. Togetherness

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

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

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

Reactivity: Fueling the Conflict

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

The Solution: Individuality AND Togetherness

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

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

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

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

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

Step Two: Embrace Free Will…and Your Anxiety

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

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

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

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

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

Step Four: Working with Others Who Perpetuate the Negative Cycle

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

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

Final Note

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

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

Psychotherapy 101: Starting for the First Time

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

Prepare…Just a Little

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

Waiting for the First Session

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

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

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

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

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

The First Session Begins

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

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

Talking With Your Therapist

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

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

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

 

Being Open to Your New Experience

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

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

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

Putting It All Together

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

 

When Hope Feels Like Bullshit

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What Does It Mean To Get To Know Yourself?

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

Getting to Know Myself & The Basics

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

Where to Start

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

What to Journal About

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

Important Intentions to Have

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

Curiosity

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

A Desire to Understand & Consider Alternative Perspectives

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

Emphasizing Truth and Being Humble

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

There’s More But…

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