The tragedy in Isla Vista has left my precious Santa Barbara community—and the nation—reeling. The senseless violence, claiming the lives of innocent young people, has stimulated many different conversations…Conversations about mental illness, about more stringent gun control laws, about violence against women, about inappropriate parenting and the rise of narcissism.
No one, myself included, wants to accept that we are utterly powerless, and that the rising tide of mass murders cannot be stopped. We should all be asking ourselves, our loved ones, our colleagues, our communities and our government officials—what can we learn from Isla Vista, from Newtown, from Aurora, from Columbine?
Is there anything we can do to prevent this kind of violence in the future? Even if we only make a dent in the numbers, we will have made a difference. There will not be one answer or a quick fix. Hopefully, we will respond on many levels.
The Mental Illness Issue
When stories about mass murder break, spotlights are often focused on mental illness. Experts and armchair therapists alike weigh in on possible diagnoses, lack of adequate or appropriate treatment, and decry the culpability of parents, psychiatrists, and an underfunded mental health system. Although an important part of the story, it is only one piece of the larger puzzle.
What are the dangers of limiting ourselves to the conclusion that these crimes are the result of improperly treated mental illness? One negative outcome is that we further stigmatize all forms of mental illness—including the many diagnoses that have no significant correlation with violence at all.
For example, in the case of the I.V. massacre, the perpetrator was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome. What most of the reporters failed to mention was that people with Asperger’s or other autism spectrum disorders are not typically violent. In fact, people suffering from these and other mental illnesses are far more likely to be victims of violence than perpetrators.
In the absence of more complete and accurate information about mental disorders–putting horrific crimes like this into a broader context–we increase levels of fear in our culture …
Ashley burst into tears within a few moments of sitting down in my office. “I don’t know why I’m crying. I have a loving husband and two precious children. I work out a lot and I eat well–at least most of the time. I have really great girlfriends although I never get enough time with them. I just don’t know who I am any more…and I don’t know where I lost myself.”
It didn’t take long for Ashley and I to uncover the source of her despair. Like so many of us, the noisiness of all the external demands of life had drowned out the needs of Ashley’s inner voice. She was taking quite good care of herself on the outside but simultaneously ignoring her emotional vulnerability, her desire for quiet alone time, and her connection to her soul.
Are You Tending Your Own Garden?
One of the most important lessons I have had to learn (often the hard way)–and continue to teach the many parents who come for counseling–is how important it is to take care of yourself in order to be able to take care of others. I often use the metaphor of a garden because even the most beautiful garden, if left unattended, will eventually wither and die.
Just as plants need water, healthy soil and regular weeding, so do budding humans need care and attention in order to thrive. Perhaps this seems obvious (as truth often does), but most of us get so caught up in taking care of the kids, the house, the job and all the other responsibilities of daily life that we simply forget ourselves or run out of time to listen to the crying of our soul’s deep inner longings.
What About Your Inner World?
“Scarcity of self value cannot be remedied by money, recognition, affection, attention or influence.” ~Gary Zukav
Most of us know by now–and are constantly reminded by self-help literature and blogs–that we need to tend to our physical bodies in order …
“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?
“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’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 …
1. Do you spend time alone on a regular basis? When you are alone, are you comfortable or do you get anxious?
2. When your partner wants to spend time alone, do you feel rejected, scared or unloved?
3. Do you get jealous or upset when your partner spends time with other friends or family members?
4. Are you afraid that when your partner is out of sight, you are no longer in his or her thoughts?
If you are puzzled about what autonomy has to do with the capacity to be alone then keep reading. Autonomy gives us the ability to make choices according to our own free will. Without it, we feel like victims. If you cannot tolerate being alone, then you will choose to spend time with anyone but yourself. You will sacrifice your autonomy, your very sense of personal freedom, in order to feel connected.
If you feel that you cannot survive being alone, then fear will be in the driver’s seat. When run by fear, people choose partners who aren’t good for them (or are even dangerous) just to avoid being alone or rejected. On the other hand, if you know that you can be alone—and take care of your own needs—then you can risk being the unique individual that you are. You are able to let your partner come and go, both physically and emotionally instead of desperately clinging on for dear life.
Most people value their relationships above everything else. Half of my clients come to therapy longing to find a healthy relationship, and the other half seeking to improve an already existing one. We are, by nature, social animals. But living in close quarters with family members is anything but easy. Part of what makes the dance of relationship so difficult is the ongoing tension between closeness and distance, connection and autonomy.
Unfortunately, too many people fall prey to the myth that intimacy is only about connection. Authentic connection is a big part of it, of course, since …
“All the lonely people, where do they all come from?
All the lonely people, where do they all belong?”
-from the song, Eleanor Rigby, written by Paul McCartney and John Lennon, released in 1966.
Being lonely is not just painful, it is a major contributor to a host of health problems including depression, sleep problems, obesity, and dementia. The importance of social networks–increasing our time spent with family and friends rather than being alone–is so well documented that both the medical and psychological communities are realizing it has the same relevance to health and longevity as things like not smoking or getting regular exercise.
In another well-known Beatles song, we seem to get by so much better “with a little help from our friends.”
Although there have always been lonely people in the world, their numbers are growing. In 2010, the American Association of Retired Persons conducted a survey of 3000 adults over 45 years old. A little over one-third admitted to being lonely compared to twenty percent only a decade earlier.
Some groups were shockingly hard hit. Half of those never married were lonely. Forty-three percent of adults aged 43-49 were lonely. Other prominent researchers estimate roughly 20 percent of Americans are unhappy due to loneliness. That’s 60 million people in America alone.