Building a Support System

best friends

Me with my husband, who is also my best friend

I have found that people with a good support system tend to resolve their problems more quickly. Which of course makes perfect sense, because—well, it is important to be able to “run things up the flagpole” with someone you trust, to be free to spout off a certain amount and to obtain their sage opinions, all with the security of knowing that having a problem will not cost you this person as an ally. But what to do if these wonderful people do not inhabit your world?
A lot of people rely on family and extended family members for support, and this is about as good or bad as your own individual family system. Others create their own family-type systems, their own communities. And it is not some instantaneous process; it requires time and attention.
The word “frenemy” comes to mind. The biggest drawback to a “frenemy,” as I see it, is the lack of dependability. But there are times that these very same people can be an asset: Maybe one of these people is a lot of fun to go hiking with, or you like the same music, or you like doing yoga together. But you have little to nothing in common when it comes time to share your feelings. So long as you are aware of the limitations, these people can fill a role in your life as well as you filling a role in theirs.
Then there are those you would treasure as your closest friends. You don’t know who they are when you first meet them; this builds over time. What you do need to know is, what qualities are you looking for? What would be a deal breaker? As you build trust with this person, gradually at first, are you being respected? Does this person treat you and others with courtesy and kindness? Are they thoughtful? Dependable?
Here’s the rub: If you are feeling alone in the world, you will need to stand on your own for just a little longer, long enough to nourish each friendship. And you will need to do your share too. Is this someone you would want to call on you when they are in the hospital, when they have argued with their siblings, when they are going through a breakup?
Friends are so precious. They have your back, and you have theirs. And it will break your heart when they move away or worse—when they die. If you have both chosen well and been fortunate, you will not regret having let these people into your world. Your world will be a richer place for their having stopped by, and you will feel the better person for having nurtured the treasure of their friendship.

Denial Does Have Its Place

Yes or No

Reality is an interesting thing. Some of it is great, some not so much, and someof it is downright awful. The awful parts are what lead to denial.
It’s true, we need to live in this world the way it is instead of the way we want it to be. And I am a big believer in facing problems head-on. But denial does have its place.
I know, I know, lots of people are constantly saying denial is awful. And sometimes it is. Sometimes people stay in dangerous situations, to the point where their denial of that reality winds up getting them killed. They stay in loveless relationships, whittling away the time they could have spent seeking joy, instead making excuses to avoid facing change or facing reality. They ignore overwhelming debt till they wind up with no resources whatever.
But there are times when denial is not so bad. When you first get a piece of awful news: a close friend has died, you have just been diagnosed with a serious illness, you are being sued…of course you need to deal with those realities. But you are likely to deny them first, and that is your mind’s way of protecting you from the initial horror.
Any major tragic news will have repercussions; there will be numerous aspects to confront. If your friend has died, there is the funeral service to deal with, as well as offering sympathy to others in his or her circle. Should you send flowers or a donation and if so, where? Can you face removing your friend’s phone number from your contacts? (I often take years to do that last bit. It feels so cold to just hit “delete.”) Who will you talk to when it’s your friend you really wanted? How many days will you wake up having to remind yourself that person is no longer a part of this world? How will you find comfort in the midst of the sorrow?
Initial denial, though it may be for as little as a few seconds, can buy you the time to start considering and dealing with the various aspects of your tragedy. Then you can take a deep breath, seek out your best support, and start facing whatever awful blow you have been dealt.

The Therapeutic Value of Pets

Gerardie with dog

For the love of a dog

Even in my early years, I used to love reading the newspaper’s advice columns, not so much for the answers as for the questions. Every time a teenager was featured complaining about life, my mother would say “That child needs a pet.” She was a big proponent of the idea that if children could get outside of themselves by caring for an animal (or a number of them), they would be more compassionate people, that pet ownership was therapeutic. I of course tended to not listen to my mother, but I did take advantage of her tendency to allow various animals to reside in and around our home. I am told a cat even crawled into my bed one night to deliver kittens—though I have no memory of the event.
One of my very favorite stories involves a family friend who did research at The Ohio State University, involving dogs who he insisted be treated well. His boss wanted him to have the dogs de-barked and our friend adamantly refused. The office was located directly above a residential unit for disturbed children. One day, while the dog was barking above the unit, a child who had not spoken for six months said “Can I play with the doggie?” I love that story— this child hadn’t even seen the dog!
Animal lovers are getting more of these critters placed than ever before, despite the facts that living space is becoming more limited for many. And professionals are realizing their therapeutic value. Therapy dogs are not just German Shepherds for blind people any more; many are used to help with panic attacks, or to alert owners to impending seizures, to let diabetics know when their blood sugar has taken a dangerous dive…the benefits are extensive, as are the types of dogs utilized.
Then there is just plain ordinary pet ownership. You love your pet; your pet “gets” you. We can all benefit from that comfort.
(About the picture I selected: That is my young friend Gerard, who has recently started training dogs and appears to have quite a gift for it. Don’t you just love the look in that dog’s eyes? I know I do.)

Sexual Assault and Title IX

Fear and shame

Feeling cornered

“If you think education is expensive, try ignorance.” Having taken what might be referred to as “the scenic route” to finish college, I kept a sign with this motto in my hallway. Fortunately, I had the advantage of a supportive environment. And I was never subjected to events that can ruin the educational experience and make it nearly impossible to graduate, in the way that sexual assault frequently does. I was always cognizant that good luck had followed me.
When I first started college in the late 1960s, I was aware that some of my classmates had been sexually assaulted. I don’t know how I knew; it was just a sense I had. I also had a strong sense that there was no point in reporting this to school authorities because the female would be blamed, for things like being out past the authorized hours.
Yes, we actually had curfews back then, when we were expected to be back in our dorms. And no, the males did not have those same restrictions. Mercifully, this practice died out shortly afterward. Apparently the theory was that if the women were dorm-bound by a certain time, no one could get hurt. In the realm of rape prevention, that is what took the place of Title IX, which was enacted later, in 1972.
Thanks to people speaking out in numerous ways, attention has been drawn to the high number of campus rapes that, once reported, have gone un-investigated, as well as high-profile cases like that of Brock Turner receiving a minuscule sentence despite DNA evidence because the judge didn’t want to interfere with Turner’s precious career plans. Never mind the extreme damage done to the victim.
This is one thing Title IX enforcement is supposed to prevent: A culture in which convicted rapists are treated like “good old boys” with their rights being protected more than those of their victims. So I am really curious, or more like furious, that Betsey DeVos has taken it upon herself to discount the long-ignored victims in favor of those who have been accused. While a proper investigation is always in order, we need to remember that for pretty much as long as our history goes back, the rights of sexual assault victims have been so thoroughly trampled on, that the majority never report the crime. (As I sit here trying to recall the people in my personal life—not clients—who have told me they have been raped, I cannot think of a single one who pressed charges.)
I would love to embrace an era in which everyone understands and honors the concept of consent. Since that is unlikely to actually occur, can we at least have a culture where this crime is investigated and prosecuted like any other?

Trust

hands touching“You need to learn to trust.” “I have difficulty trusting.” “Why should I trust you?” You have likely heard, or said, every one of these things at some time or another.
Trust is an important element in all types of relationships, business as well as personal, and to some extent it does need to be earned. It is seldom so simple as trusting or not trusting.
Suppose I have a plumbing problem in my house, and I am new in town. I’ll look for a licensed plumber, and I may even check a few references to ensure they don’t have a string of horrid reviews. But to a certain extent I am basing the professional relationship on trust. These people do have a license they can produce, though likely few of us actually ask to see it. We assume they know what they are doing, we pay their fee, and we work on the assumption that if any problems arise, they can be called back to remedy them.
It gets more complicated in interpersonal relationships. Many people justifiably feel burned when they have trusted someone with their darkest secrets and then been betrayed. Often these same people are afraid to trust anyone for a while. Over time, they may learn to open up a bit at a time, learning through early disclosures who they will feel comfortable with if they decide to take that trusting relationship to another level.
There are several types and levels of trust: some people may be trusted with money but not secrets; others may be trusted to always tell you the truth but not to have your best interests at heart. It is not a simple matter of trusting or not, but more a matter of deciding when and whether to take it to a higher level.
As a therapist, it is important for me to be aware that clients may not always feel comfortable opening up at first; some trust right away while others take longer. Even in a position where we are required to maintain professional ethics including confidentiality, we still need to be mindful of the client’s need for comfort, and to respect their own timetable regarding trust.

Benign Narcissism

Narcissism has received a lot of attention lately, and for good reason. Many narcissists with horrid intentions are gaining power in ways. This should not be ignored; we would do well to know how to steer clear of these toxic people, or at least to minimize the damage.
There are, however, many narcissistic people who are rather benign, so I feel it is important to make some distinctions. To begin with, we were all narcissists as young children; until about the age of seven, children have difficulty seeing things from the viewpoint of another. That is healthy narcissism and certainly nothing to be concerned about.
Like any other diagnosis, narcissism does not have an on-off switch; there is a continuum of narcissistic behaviors ranging from the benign to the extremely toxic. Say, for example, your family member or significant other makes plans for both of you to go to the Grand Canyon without first asking your opinion. You may be afraid of heights, though nothing has previously led you to share that information, and this person thinks they are rewarding you with a trip that you in actuality dread even thinking about. They come to you, excited with the plan they have made, and you break the news about your acrophobia. The reaction could be very telling about what degree and type of narcissism you are dealing with.
Do you hear “Omigosh, I had to idea. How about I make a plan to go to the Grand Canyon with someone else, and you and I take a different vacation, maybe a cruise”? Or “But the Grand Canyon is such a natural wonder. Do you think it might be worth doing some work on that phobia of yours so we could go together and both enjoy it”? Conversely you might hear “You never want to have any fun. The Grand Canyon is beautiful! I worked my tail off planning this, and you are out to ruin it.”
This is very telling. The first two responses could come from a benign narcissist, someone who is merely a bit absent-minded about checking to see things from others’ viewpoints. That third one? This is someone who is out to punish you any time you don’t see things they way they do. And willing, even eager to be verbally abusive in the process. This person wants his or her own way about things, with little to no consideration about the wants and needs of others—even of those in his or her closest circle.
This is toxic. And this is the type of narcissism you are being warned about in countless articles on the internet and in the popular press.
But let us please be careful that we do not put the more benign narcissists in the same category as the toxic ones.

reflection in water

girl admiring own reflection

Taking a Break

Emmet 2017 02 in treeNot too long ago, I became very ill, for a very short time. My fever lingered, though, and I took the opportunity to stay at home, away from anyone I could expose to whatever had hit me. I was lucky; I didn’t have an employer threatening loss of my job and I was not heavily committed to activities in the outside world. But it also felt to me like I should not be out among people while it was likely I was still contagious.
Prior to the advent of antibiotics, it was not at all unusual to see Quarantine signs on homes where one or more family members had a serious illness, and that sign would remain till the danger of contagion had passed. Quarantine in homes is clearly no longer the norm; we have depended on antibiotics to stop diseases in their tracks.
Illness is definitely not the preferred method for getting people to take a break. However, in a country with such a strong work ethic, we do need to fit breaks into our schedules. Maybe we can recall things we did as children: climb that tree, go see the neighbor’s new kitten, chat with the people closest to us about nothing in particular, enjoy a cup of hot chocolate, go sit in a quiet corner with that book we have been wanting to read…
We are actually more efficient, more productive, more creative when we allow ourselves enough breaks. So let’s indulge ourselves, without apology. Let’s not wait for an illness or injury to be the reason we are sidelined.
Maybe, just maybe taking a break will make us kinder. Maybe we will even smile a bit more. Maybe we can even laugh like that adorable little boy in the tree.
Maybe enough people taking a break will even make the world a happier place.

Healing Childhood Trauma

angry child-b&w“The further back the story, the deeper the pain.” That was a principle behind narrative therapy, the retelling of your own story in the process of healing; I heard this in a speech several years ago by John Savage, author of “Listening and Caring Skills in Ministry”. It is not often that someone’s exact words will continue to stand out so many years later. Whatever the therapy: narrative, cognitive behavioral, reality therapy, EMDR…that principle applies. “The further back the story, the deeper the pain.”
If an early childhood experience continues to bother you, do not discount it. Your body, and your psyche, are giving you a message. There are ways to make your peace with traumatic experiences, to go on with your life, to integrate the past in a way that benefits your future self.
There are a number of factors at work in the processing of trauma, one of which is the ability to make sense out of what happened. In children so young that they do not yet have good language skills, this becomes far more difficult. They have memories in pictures sometimes, and there are body memories. The lack of a narrative makes it more difficult to process what has occurred. Some people are helped by listening closely to the stories those around them; for others that is not a feasible option.
Fortunately, far more attention is being paid to healing childhood trauma than in times past, thanks in part to research showing that these traumas can even affect epigenetics, the process that determines which of your genes will be expressed and which ones will be turned off. It can impact others in your circle who sense your pain, and it can impact future generations.
It is never too late to start down your path of healing. Suppose you are 95 years old and have only a few months to live, wouldn’t it be great to spend those few months enduring less emotional pain?
When people decide to move forward I often hear “This stops now” or “It ends with me.” And it can. With the right help and direction, lives can be reclaimed and thoroughly enjoyed. It happens every day.

“I Wish That Was My Biggest Problem”/Perspective

Carefree and Worry Free

Carefree and Worry Free

Here is how my mother used to annoy me to no end: I would start to complain about something and she would say “I wish that was my biggest problem.” Of course at the time I hated it. But now I see she was trying to help me put things in perspective.
A few years ago, when a friend of mine was seriously ill, we started making lists of what we wished was our biggest problem. And we had some fun with it. Here are a few of my personal favorites, in no particular order.
– If I stand under that tree, will a coconut fall on my head?
– Would I rather buy the Lexus or the BMW?
– Chocolate ice cream or vanilla?
– Would I rather go to the opera, or the ballet? Or maybe a comedy club.
– The speed limit is too low.
– Which book to read first.
– Should I go hiking in the woods on the weekend, or during the week?
– Which outfit should I wear to yoga class?
– My spouse/significant other is so supportive, I need to be careful not to gloat.
– How best to spend a month’s vacation.
– I have such wonderful friends, how do I make time for all of them?
– What to request for my birthday, since I already have what I want.
– Researching the best gifted classes for my child.
– Finding the best restaurant for a night of fine dining with friends.
– That candy is too pretty to eat.
Okay, you get the idea. We all need a bit of levity in our lives. And some perspective. Not that there aren’t problems that are overwhelming; there are plenty. But it’s nice to put the smaller ones in perspective. And as for the bigger problems—that is for a different blog.

Religion or Its Lack

question mark  Religion is at the center of many people’s lives. So is its lack. It is my job to respect either one.
A potential client once quizzed me about my religious beliefs, and I responded simply that my beliefs are irrelevant here. If you choose to share yours with me, I will respect them. But I have no interest in converting you or aligning my professional guidance with whatever religious views I might entertain.
This includes atheism. If you walk in my office an atheist, you will certainly walk out the same way. Again, my interest in changing your views, even the tiniest whit, is nonexistent.
Though there are a number of Christian counselors who are sought out by those who prefer a Biblical approach, and though I respect that, I do not feel it is my role to influence a client’s faith.
That said, I have some basic views on religion. Mostly on its purpose(s). I see those purposes as twofold:
1) Comfort: Does your belief system bring you comfort? It should, or it is not doing its job. Different people find comfort in different beliefs. Which is fine.
2) Moral compass: Does your belief system give you a sense of right versus wrong, especially in complicated situations? Can you turn to that system for guidance? No, this does not mean the answers are simple; they are often complex and messy. But is this belief system helpful in sorting things out?
3) Community: If you are facing a difficult situation—serious illness or death of a loved one, financial reversal, betrayal… Do you have a good support system among those who worship (or refuse to worship, this is equally valid) with you? Recently a friend of mine was in the late stages of a terminal illness and needed to have his sleeping quarters moved downstairs. Six angels from their religious community took care of that the next day. That is evidence of an excellent support system, a great community to be a part of.
Notice that I do not mention what faith this group espouses: You will find similar experiences among Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Protestants, Catholics, Humanists…the list is endless; the spirit of helpfulness and community is what matters.
My hope is that you will (or already do) choose your beliefs wisely. We all have a tough road to travel at times, and our belief system will inform how we deal with that. There are so many honorable ways to go about life, and each of us has the right to feel comfortable choosing our own.