“Anything will give up its secrets if you love it enough. Not only have I found that when I talk to the little flower or to the little peanut they will give up their secrets, but I have found that when I silently commune with people they give up their secrets also–if you love them enough.” -George Washington Carver
I’ve been a psychotherapist for over thirty years. I have long ago lost count of just how many of my clients have commented–sometimes with appreciation, other times with disbelief–on how they don’t know how I do what I do. How can I possibly listen to so many terrible stories, they wonder. These comments invariably emerge after a patient has shared a deep dark secret.
I reply with my genuine feelings–I am constantly grateful and feel deeply privileged to do what I do. Although I do hear horrible stories at times–those of violence and pain, rife with injustices and betrayals–I also bear witness to the healing that can come when people reveal certain secrets about themselves or their loved ones that they thought they had to carry alone.
People keep secrets for a variety of reasons that are not necessarily good or bad. Each individual, family, and culture has spoken and unspoken rules about privacy vs. transparency. I am not suggesting that it is better to tell everyone everything.
But there are some secrets that become toxic when not revealed to anyone, ever. Underneath toxic secrets there is some fear that keeps that person from opening up. Sometimes the fear is justified but often it is misplaced, magnified or completely false. What are some of the reasons all of us keep information buried inside even when we desperately want to tell someone?
If you were one of the lucky people, raised in a happy loving family, you’ve most likely emerged with many of the skills and strengths necessary to form lasting healthy relationships…and you are probably NOT reading this blog right now.
Unfortunately, far too many people were raised by parents filled with good intentions but plagued by bad, sometimes destructive habits from their own childhood upbringing. These ghosts of the past, if not recognized, can haunt our families.
Our histories pack a powerful punch when we’ve buried (or tried to bury) old feelings as a way of avoiding the pain associated with them. Unfortunately, the unfinished business from our childhood and previous relationships also tends to get projected onto and then played out with our partner and/or our children. It is sad but true that the people we love the most in the world become the unwitting victims of this process.
Our emotional brains allowed us to survive as a species. We had to learn–and then be able to respond very quickly–about what or whom to approach and when to run like hell. Memories, especially ones with strong emotions, get wired into our brains without our awareness. Events that remind us of an emotionally charged experience from the past then trigger the same thoughts, feelings and body memories.
The emotional mind reacts to the present as if the past event were happening again. The combat veteran who leaps into the closet at the sound of a door slamming is instantly back on the streets of Iraq running for cover. Luckily, most people don’t suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, a severe syndrome now widely publicized and better understood. But our brains are wired the same. Every one of us has our “emotional triggers” or “buttons” that move our emotions to the foreground and our clear …
Parenting is one of the hardest jobs around. Especially here, especially now, in our rapidly moving, constantly changing modern world. Most parents seek out this job willingly and joyfully with the best of intentions. Doesn’t everyone want to raise happy healthy children who grow up into competent independent adults? Of course. So what goes wrong?
It is easy to pick out the parents who are not doing their jobs. These are the parents who have too many problems of their own to contend with–like substance abuse, severe untreated mental illness, domestic violence or highly conflictual marriages, inadequate physical and emotional resources–so that they are clearly unable to provide the nurturing and supervision that all children need. Anyone can understand why children raised in unsafe and chaotic environments are at risk for developing emotional or behavioral problems.
But what about the kids who come from loving homes with well-meaning parents who shower their kids with attention, affection, guidance and opportunities of all kinds. Can you ever love a child too much? Probably not. Can you smother a child with too much love and attention? Yes indeed.
Parents today are far better informed about the importance of forming strong secure attachments with their infants. Babies need to know that their caregivers will meet not only their survival needs but their needs for touch, empathy, and connection. But with every passing year, children also need the freedom to explore independently in order to develop a sense of autonomy.
Finding the balance between the two is an exquisite dance of moving apart and then moving together again, like breathing in and breathing out, stepping forward and stepping back, leaning in and letting go. In my experience as a family therapist, I am seeing more and more parents struggling with the desire for too much closeness, and as a result producing kids–particularly teens and young adults–drowning …
“It is not a lack of love, but a lack of friendship that makes unhappy marriages.” -Friedrich Nietzsche
The TV ads would have all of us believe that the best cure for depression is the latest and greatest medication. First it was Prozac and now it’s Pristiq and Abilify. Although medication is a life saver for many, for others the side effects are too debilitating, and the meds don’t seem to help enough anyway.
Study after study has shown that the best treatment for depression includes some form of psychotherapy. Once again, there is always the cure du jour–right now it is cognitive behavioral (CBT or DBT). Nothing wrong with that. It’s just that something is missing from the information.
Your doctor or family may have told you (if you are the depressed one) to get help. What you haven’t been told is to make sure you do some counseling with your spouse, your children, and/or your family as well. Here’s why this missing information is so important…
Psychotherapists have long known that social support is crucial–not only when the patient suffers from depression but with any physical or emotional illness or disability. When you visit your doctor for your annual check-up, how often are you asked about the quality of your relationships? We now know that this is even more important than we thought.
A new study by Alan Teo and his team in the Psychiatry Department of the University of Michigan conducted a ten-year follow-up of almost 5000 adults aged 25-75 to determine just how big a part relationship factors played in the risk of developing depression years later. Their conclusion: the magnitude of the impact of social relationship quality on risk for depression is as strong as the effect of biological risk factors (like obesity, smoking, high blood pressure) for cardiovascular disease.
I will never forget a lecture that I heard in 1973 (which says a lot since there is so much that I don’t remember). The speaker was the late David Rosenhan, Professor Emeritus, in his popular undergraduate class in Abnormal Psychology at Stanford. Each year, at the end of the term, he gave a lecture about choosing the right therapist. His advice was wise and as relevant today as it was forty years ago.
“Choosing the right therapist,” Rosenhan insisted (and I quote loosely), “should be like buying a pair of shoes. You would never buy shoes without trying them on, seeing how they fit, picking the brand that meets your current needs, fits your lifestyle, and is affordable. Even then, if you make your purchase, take them home and find they pinch you in the wrong places, you would not say to yourself, ‘I need a new foot, something must be wrong with me!’ now would you? No, you would take back the shoes and seek out a new pair.” So it should go, he sagely advised, with choosing the right therapist.
Myths and Misunderstandings About Psychotherapy
As I mentioned in my last blog, far too many people fail to seek help or wait much too long before seeking professional guidance. There are numerous explanations for this reluctance, and unfortunately, many negative myths also surround the therapeutic process. In the forty years since the Rosenhan lecture, I’ve heard them all many times.
Myth #1: If you need therapy, you must really be sick or messed up. Myth #2: If you need therapy, it means the problems are your fault.Myth #3: All therapy does is blame your current problems on the past. Myth #4: All therapists are the same and most therapy goes on for years.
Why Your Doctor May Not Suggest Counseling (even when it could help)
Myth #5: It won’t do any good, and my doctor didn’t suggest it either. Here’s why:A …
I’ve been counseling couples and families for over three decades and one thing stands out. Most people wait too long before they reach out for help…years too long. Problems that might have been solved in five to ten sessions become crises that break up perfectly good relationships.
Since only a precious few learned the necessary skills to weather the ups and downs of a long-term relationship, it is easy to slip into negative patterns of relating–either to oneself or to loved ones–or both.
What are the warning signs of problems that need to be addressed?
Sometimes the signs are glaring and obvious–domestic violence, high levels of conflict on a daily basis, serious addictions, repetitive infidelity–but far more often, problems seem to creep up on people a little bit at a time.
In a famous 19th Century science experiment, researchers described how if they put a frog in a pot of boiling water, it would quickly jump out, recognizing the danger instinctively. But if the frog was put in cold water that was heated to boiling very slowly, the frog had no idea of the trouble brewing. By the time the water was boiling, the frog was dead meat.
So it can be with dysfunctional families, marriages, or even organizations. It seems OK until suddenly it doesn’t.
Happy loving couples look up from what they are doing and smile when their partner comes home from work. They touch one another with some frequency–a hug hello or goodbye, a hand on the shoulder or leg, a kiss goodnight, holding hands watching a movie, rubbing the back of the neck after a long day.
Some people try to defend their lack of physical warmth by saying it’s not how they are built but when you see them with their children, they touch and tussle, smile and cuddle. Often when affection begins to wane in a marriage, it is a symptom of unexpressed resentment that needs to …
What if you turned on the news to the following headline…FREE new technique–with no known side effects–is found to improve the mood of 88.8% of users!!! Would you be curious or do you already know what it is?
Touted throughout history, described by Aristotle, Freud, and modern day psychotherapists of many theoretical backgrounds–the answer is allowing yourself a good cry. Weeping helps almost everyone, young and old, male and female.
Not All Tears Are the Same
Our eyes produce three kinds of tears–each of which serves a different function. Every time we blink, our eyelids produce continuous or basal tears to keep the surface of our eyes protected and moist and also necessary to help protect us from getting infections of the eyes.
Reflex tears, like basal tears, are 98% water. Their production is triggered when a foreign object or something irritating gets into the eye by accident, acting like a natural eye shower to keep our eyes clean.
Emotional tears are composed differently and include an endorphin and natural painkiller called enkephalin. “Emotional tears contain higher concentrations of proteins, manganese, and the hormone prolactin which is produced during stress-induced danger or arousal,” says Dr Carrie Lane of the University of Texas. This difference explains why “crocodile tears” (the type used for manipulation and trickery) are not the same as real ones.
Crying Helps Us Heal
Dr. William Frey from the University of Minnesota is a biochemist who has been studying crying for over thirty years. He found that emotional catharsis helps shed both stress hormones and toxins. Simultaneously, crying stimulates the body to produce endorphins which not only help reduce our experience of pain but also help turn up the volume of our immune system.
Tears can make us feel better and physically stimulate healing at the same time, which is a pretty powerful combination. If you find this subject fascinating, check out Frey’s book, Crying: The Mystery of Tears. Frey is a believer in what is dubbed “the recovery theory” which hypothesizes that we literally cry things out as a way …
Each January, as the kids go back to school after winter break, after we have watched the ball drop in Times Square and rung in the new year, most of us can’t help but think about the ways we want the next year to be different–and better–than the last. What about you? Are there any bad habits you want to break or new goals that you have set for yourself?
If you are inspired to make some changes in yourself, your family or in other relationships, remember that even change for the better is stressful and discombobulating. As creatures of habit, we get used to the way things are–even when the status quo is no longer very appealing or sometimes downright awful.
Unfortunately, many people make New Year’s resolutions, fail to keep them, and then beat themselves up for failing. Sound familiar? Here’s some hints that may make you more successful in accomplishing your goals…
It All Starts with Attitude
Do you remember the children’s story, The Little Engine That Could? When a red train full of cargo breaks down on the track, a little blue train takes it upon herself to attempt the difficult feat of pulling a load of toys over the mountain. She succeeds only when she tells herself, “I think I can, I think I can, and then delights in her success by saying to herself, “I thought I could, I thought I could!” The little engine models an empowering self-concept, fostering perseverance in the face of hardship.
When you are taught to believe in yourself, confronting an obstacle pushes you to try harder rather than giving up. If you think less of yourself, you will have trouble even getting started let alone persevering when the going gets tough. If you anticipate failure, why bother?
One way to change your attitude is to think about problems, setbacks, or obstacles as situations demanding attention and new strategies. When you hear yourself using the word “problem,” try …
“Let us make one point, that we meet each other with a smile, when it is difficult to smile. Smile at each other, make time for each other in your family.” ― Mother Teresa
This is the time, beginning with Thanksgiving and lasting through the arrival of the new year, that most people think not only about themselves but also about how to help others less fortunate. It is impossible to turn on the news without seeing the needs of others in your community or elsewhere in the world.
Given the difficult parts of the holiday season–extra things to do, children out of school wanting to be entertained, increased financial burdens, bigger crowds, more traffic, and what often feels like exponentially increased pressure from all directions–the attention turned to serving others can be one of the best parts of the season. It can also help you to pause and reflect on what you can be grateful for.
Everyone has something to give. A smile or kind words to a stranger, shoveling snow for your neighbor, soup for a shut-in. No money is required–only willingness to think of someone else. The most precious things we can give are our time, our attention, our touch, or simply our presence.
Even if you are depressed or lonely–or perhaps especially when life is difficult–doing something kind for someone else can take your attention away from yourself and your pain, if only for a moment. Seeing the suffering of others can also make you realize that you are not alone. Every family faces losses–the death of loved ones, the dissolving of relationships, the trials of aging.
From the time our children were toddlers, we went together as a family to sing at convalescent hospitals for the elderly. We always went on Christmas day because the people left were …
The wish to seek and have a deep sense of family connection and commitment is universal. Ask people what is most important to them and their first answer is always the same–their family. In healthy families, there is a sense of cohesion or family togetherness. Without it, we feel more like strangers than kin.
The answer is very simple although often a challenge. We must spend quality time together, just hanging out, or if separated by geography, spend time talking and listening to one another. We need to know that we can count on each other for the relationship to be close. In research on happy loving families, sharing time together is made a priority to build trust and intimacy.
One of my favorite times to talk to my mother is when I am chopping vegetables for dinner with my headset on. We take those minutes to share details of our day, and my mom always asks me what’s for dinner. My husband has long weekly talks with his mom who lives out of town when he goes on hikes to get his exercise.It often helps to schedule talking and listening time in whatever schedule “book” you use, committing yourself to family time instead of slipping into the habit of watching TV, computer surfing, video gaming or answering one more email.
Only by making the time to share the details of our daily lives as well as our successes, hardships, dreams and disappointments can we reap the rewards of our intimate bonds. Researchers at Brigham Young University analyzed results from 148 studies from the last century and found that social support not only makes us happier to be alive but also literally adds to our longevity, increasing our survival by 50 percent.
Another important ritual for spending regular time together is …