Archives for January, 2012
I participated in a writer's group meeting this past weekend, and was very taken by the earnestness and depth of the idea that writing can provide a true benefit for our emotional well being. Everyone has a story to tell. Everyone can enhance another person's experience by telling their story. We find comfort in being able to relate to each other, and we find meaning in being heard and listened to. The concept of the "Story Catcher" was created by Christina Baldwin, who believes that we can create community by telling our stories. It can happen in written form or in oral form. It can be as simple as standing at a supermarket checkout and listening to the cashier telling a story about her son's graduation. She will feel validated that someone saw her and paid attention, and you might be uplifted by the achievement of a fellow citizen.
Being in your 40's or 50's isn't usually associated with a lot of positive vibes in our culture. It's the age where mental and physical powers are palpably declining, when lofty goals have long given way to harsh realities. It's the time when men are supposedly falling into a midlife crisis and women mourn the end of their ability to have kids. But middle age is more than the end of youth. An increasing number of researchers stress how, due to our increased longevity, middle age is turning more and more into the phase of life where hard work comes to fruition and the angst and insecurities of earlier stages fall away. This perspective is aptly summed up in the new book "In Our Prime" by New York Times journalist Patricia Cohen, where she chronicles her own experiences with facing her 40ies, and how different they feel compared to those of her parents and grandparents. She quotes the American psychologist Stanley Hall who commented back in the 1920ies: "Modern man was not meant to do his best work before 40."
I recently entered a new Zen center to deepen my Buddhist studies. One of the reasons why I prefer to do it this way is because I enjoy making new friends in a setting like this: You meet the same people at a regular time and place and, over time, get to know one another on an intimate level. But it's not always easy to join an established group of people who have known each other for a long time, and have forged their own alliances within the circle. Sometimes we don't quite know what to look for when entering a new group. Some focus solely on the skill they signed up to learn. They might think: if I make headway with my guitar, why bother worrying about whether I like the teacher or not? If I really, really want to learn how to dance the Tango, I won't have to pay attention to who I am teamed up with as a dance partner. But most of the time, it is absolutely crucial who the people we are trying to work with are. If we are unable to form a connection to any of the group members, it's usually pointless whether the class is scheduled at an ideal time or a convenient location.
I have had a number of sessions and talked to other therapists about "feeding our demons," a technique I described in my first post "How To Nurture Yourself." The exercise wants us to get in touch with our innermost demons, describe exactly what they look and feel like, and find out what it is they need from us. As soon as we attend to the needs of these disavowed parts of the self, the ghosts tend to loose their grip, and with some effort, even turn into an ally. Very often, there is the need to be seen and heard. The demons are hopping mad about being overlooked, having to give up on desire, and feeling utterly overwhelmed. They show up in the form of mad dragons, crazy aliens and disheveled little dolls. One category is what Tsultrim Allione describes as God-demons: fantasies of being rescued, of being loved and desired, of being freed from all difficulties if only we could have this job, that partner, or more money. Many people are feeling that there is a deficit in their life. That they are being governed by a type of "hungry ghost" who is insatiable, greedy, never satisfied. Like the character Smeagol from "Lord of The Rings," we keep desiring our "precious" that is to fill our void and give us love and power.
I have many people coming into my practice who aren't happy with their decision making skills. "I am way to easily influenced" they will say. "Whatever my wife/father/boss/girlfriend says, I will take it to heart." They want to be more autonomous, more determined and less swayed by others in the way they think about the world and themselves. While it certainly is problematic if your whole personality is taken over by other people's will, it is a fact of life that we tend to adjust to what our environment is communicating to us. In his book "Situations Matter - How Context Transforms Your World," Sam Sommers, professor of psychology at Tufts University, explains how much the people around us matter - whether it's the family, our colleagues, our culture or even the geographical surroundings we live in. It's particularly hard for Americans to accept that we are social animals like that, because our culture stresses values like independence and individualism so much. We expect to be able to have it our way at all times, because group thinking is not what we grow up with.
Addictions are very common among vulnerable and fragile personalities, and a certain dependency on substances goes hand in hand with this tendency. Psychotropic medications are no exception. As a psychologist in private practice who accepts medical insurance reimbursement, I feel privileged because my practice includes a wide variety of adults and families from all over the world with truly diverse histories as well as truly diverse Mental Health needs. That said, most clients who come to me carry a belief that psychiatric medications are the first line of defense against mental conflicts, and they are often willing to try medication in order to overcome whatever mental conflict they are feeling. However, I am always shocked to discover that the prescribing general practitioner or psychiatrist whom my clients encounter never (and I mean not once) seek to understand the causes of their negative feelings. Nor do these psychiatrists offer the suggestion that these negative feelings carry a message that needs to be understood.
We all go through times when we feel low and depleted and there's nobody there to comfort us. Or maybe there is somebody who is usually available, but is exhausted and stressed out herself. Sometimes the depletion is chronic and our psychological makeup resembles a bottomless pit of needs and wants, and no person, no situation is ever going to make up for the deep emptiness we feel. Some people can get very clingy. They feel that their partner should make up for what might be rooted in a long history of deprivation and instability. Because it's hard to trust, one or two people become the support system for an overwhelmed mind, and at the end of the day, there is not enough to give and never enough to be had. Very often, symptoms like depression or anger are simply an expression of an underlying need that was never sufficiently attended to. The basic human desire to be loved and cared for is being buried under a layer of defensiveness and withdrawal.
We all have 'em. "Should I go to the gym or lounge on the couch tonight?" "Does it makes sense to tell my mother to give me some space or will she totally freak out when I do?" "Is it better to invest in a class or save my money?" Very often, we have way too many options. That makes the confusion even thicker. How are we to decide what's right and what's wrong for us? The Gentle Self is frequently plagued by doubts. Always having the needs of other people on their minds, it's difficult to know one's own desires. "Sure, my mother would like me to call her every day, but it gets to be too draining for me. Do I have to courage to face her, or is it going to be even harder for me to deal with the consequences of telling her off?" When in the grip of indecision, we have to make room for ourselves. There are many ways to look inside and ponder what you need. It's often enough to just sit down for a couple of minutes, close your eyes and shut out the wolrd. What is your mind obsessing about? Give each option some mental space and observe what feelings come up.
The half life of an average new year's resolutions is about a day or so. Just my guess, since that's what this type of resolution usually looks like in my mind. "Tomorrow I'll start to diet." "Come Monday I'll plan to go to the gym three times a week." "I'll meditate every morning." "I'll call one of my old high school friends once a week." Blahblahblah. It's not about planning to get started. It's about doing it. Right now. There is no time like the present time. Our self improvement culture is relentless. We all get caught up in those muddled thought loops about what we should do and how to be a better person. It takes up an enormous amount of time and space - energy that could be spent to get up and just engage in whatever you think is good for yourself. Engaging is not always easy for the Gentle Self. We get self conscious and are plagued by self doubts. It's very tempting to just withdraw and avoid what makes us uncomfortable. We come up with all kinds of deals that we try to make with ourselves. Ok, I hid away all day behind my desk at work, but tomorrow at the family party, I'll finally talk to uncle John. I'll think of something to say, other than the weather... Never mind that these plans mostly go unrealized, so we feel bad about it, and we come up with a plan how to make up for our failures. And fail again.