Time to Talk Politics

Angry Pelosi

Nancy Pelosi yelling at Donald Trump

Yup, it’s time to talk politics.  I have studiously avoided political blog posts, because I would like to think that is not the main reason anyone comes in for counseling.  And I have zero interest in changing anyone’s views on the subject.  Yet it has become so overwhelming in the past couple of years, that I feel a need to address it.  Mostly, people come into my office with whatever issues they are dealing with at the time, and those issues tend to mostly not be politically based.  By the time a client has completed whatever therapy they have come in for, I usually have no clue what that client’s political leanings are.  And that is fine.

Unfortunately, though, with the current administration, it is being reported by many therapists that their business has taken a leap due to the problems people are suffering as a result of the political fallout.  People suffering from sexual abuse problems are being triggered by constantly seeing images of a chief executive who has been credibly accused by several women of exactly that.  Those who have concerns about immigration issues are inundated with images and information about families being forcibly separated at the border, then confined in for-profit prisons with a history of abuse.  And the children involved will suffer lifelong trauma.  A number of those children will never be reunited with their parents, since there was initially not even a good system to identify which child belonged with which family.  Rising inequality has reached even greater heights than before.  The LGBTQ rights that were so hard fought for, are now under threat.  That is only a smattering of the issues, and for many these issues make day to day life much more difficult.  In a number of cases, these ongoing issues lead to huge feelings of helplessness.  At best, they are constant background noise for those of us who are outraged.  And yes, I am outraged.

When I was in graduate school, we were encouraged to avoid discussing politics with our clients.  That was post-9/11, barely; I actually started grad school one week before that attack.  So, post-9/11, but before we ever dreamed this country could face the issues we are facing today.  I grew up in somewhat of a golden era, and could not imagine that things would not continue that way indefinitely.  Consequently, I was gobsmacked.

During previous eras that involved conflict, people found ways to go on with life despite the conflicts and/or stresses, and they will do the same today.  There will be those among us who devote every spare minute to activism, others will do their best to bury their heads in the sand, and most of us will fall somewhere in between.  But it adds an extra layer of stress for just about everyone.

In the event it matters to you, you now know where I stand.  If you are asking me to cheerlead for our current administration, you have come to the wrong place.  If you want to process your own personal issues with me, you have come to the right place.  And if you are one who is bothered by today’s political scene—we will not solve that in therapy, but you can at least feel secure I the knowledge that my sympathies are with you.

Respect for Children’s Boundaries

Determination

Don’t mess with me

At a baby shower I attended recently, I made the remark “Kids can have boundaries” and was met with “Well, duh!” No, I did not feel insulted; I felt encouraged. After all, I came of age in an era when children’s boundaries were not given the respect they deserved. Though my own family fortunately did not follow this pattern, it was not at all uncommon to see a young child publicly instructed “Give your grandpa a kiss,” or “Give your Aunt Helen a hug.” There was no thought that the child had any say in the matter.
Yes, I realize children are not entitled to free rein in whatever they do: They are children, after all. But among the zillion things we do expect these same children to accomplish before they come of age, is the concept of saying No to unwanted touching and/or sexual advances. It does make more sense, it seems clear enough to me, to start this training early, to encourage our children to develop an awareness of what these boundaries mean to them. That includes saying Yes or No to the same person at different times, depending on their feelings at the time.
Can you imagine a world where there is never an implication that “This person said Yes to me last week, so of course I just assumed they were okay with having sex the next time I was interested”? Or a world where there was no Incel movement because there was no feeling of entitlement to hear the word Yes just because?
I am so encouraged to see the awareness that has developed in the past couple of decades—not just regarding overtly sexual behavior but also anything that makes a person uncomfortable. One boundary violation that did occasionally occur in my childhood was excessive tickling. “Look, she’s laughing so she must like it” was the general attitude. Laughter in response to ticking is a reflexive response; it does not necessarily indicate pleasure. That helpless feeling when you are being held down and tickled is not something I would ever want to repeat. It bothered me to the point that, once I was raising my own child and he would actually ask me to tickle him, I could not bring myself to do it. Too many memories of how helpless that once made me feel.
What better training can we give our youngest generation, than to simply say “Would you like a hug?” and for that child to know we will accept their answer without complaint. We are no more entitled to hugs from every child we think is cute, than any of us are to sexual favors from other adults we may be attracted to.
Of course there are all manner of non-physical boundaries too, which are a topic for another day. It is one area where I have witnessed a major increase in awareness, along with a need to start teaching that respect for both self and others at an early age. That is some progress I can get behind.

Paying It Forward Matters

supportive

Hand in Hand

I once bought my father a plaque that said “Those who bring sunshine into the lives of others cannot keep it from themselves.” Bringing sunshine into the lives of others, paying it forward…however you word it, it refers to passing along the good we receive in this world. I have always been a fan of the concept, since long before we used that phrase.
In my years as a younger single mom, my parents helped out in so many ways, and I felt so bad that there was no way I could ever repay them. I was told “Just pass it along” and I took that suggestion very seriously. That likely has a lot to do with my choosing to work in the counseling profession once I had the opportunity. Years earlier, a good friend of mine who was a career social worker told me “You are already doing this for free; you might as well get the education so you can get paid for it.”
One of my own personal ways to pay it forward, was to provide a listening ear whenever people came to me with their problems. And I tried to always have a kind word, to offer some encouragement. I didn’t always follow up with these people—who can, really?—but I felt it was safe to assume they would pass on kindness to others in whatever ways they saw fit.
So imagine my horror when I saw the results of a couple of my “projects” and the people “paid forward” more bad than good. It felt like my best efforts had just gotten sucked into a black hole! I am not sure I realized prior to that, how very important this concept is.
Not to worry. In the scheme of things I would consider it a mere annoyance. And I would likely go to similar efforts even if I could foresee that negative end result. It was a good lesson in doing what feels honorable and then letting the chips fall where they may.
After all, there are way too many extreme examples of people doing the right thing and never seeing it paid forward in their lifetimes, sometimes for nefarious reasons. One prime example is Raoul Wallenberg, who saved the lives of tens of thousands during the later stages of World War II, and later died in a concentration camp. He of course saw that he was saving lives at an unprecedented rate, but in the chaos of the war he probably was seldom able to learn the final outcomes of his heroism. Yet the results of that heroism will benefit many in generations to come, and I am trusting that many others will feel the need to live a good life as a testament to his moral courage.
I do like to believe that the goodness we all spread in this world will be multiplied, that there won’t be someone—or at least there won’t be too many people—putting a stopper in it and deciding the giving ends with them. Maybe I will do well to hold onto that belief. Because being kind to others feels so good, and being unkind feels so awful—that I am way too selfish to change my ways.
That’s right. I do these things because I am selfish. Let that sink in for a minute. It’s a good kind of selfish, in my humble opinion.
And you know what? Someone who behaved badly in the past could accidentally turn their life around. There is always that hope.

Arguing in Public

Arguing couple

Couple arguing

Have you ever been in a public place, having a pretty good time while minding your own business, and the peace was shattered by a couple people, or maybe an entire group, breaking into a boisterous argument?  Did you ever wonder why they didn’t keep it private?

I have come to the conclusion that there are actually times when keeping arguments in the public eye serves a purpose—sometimes a protective one. 

There is at least one valid reason for being very public with arguments, and I was recently exposed to that scenario.  I was walking out of a steakhouse in the middle of the afternoon and a woman zipped past me.  A couple minutes later I realized she was being followed by the man she had apparently gone in with.  Let’s call them Hannah and Fred.

Hannah kept Fred in her sights at all times, would not turn her back on him, and—notably—she would not go indoors with him.  (It was maybe 80 degrees outside and sunny, so no danger from the weather.)  As I walked into a store, they were facing each other down, probably eight feet apart.  I overheard Hannah’s “No way am I going to get in that truck with you.  You’re crazy!”

When I came out a few minutes later, they were still arguing.  Their expressions showed that not much had changed, though Fred was apparently beginning to realize that something had to shift or Hannah was going nowhere with him.  By the time I started to drive away, they were actually walking side by side.  They looked none too happy but at least he appeared to have calmed down enough that she probably felt safe to get into his truck.

Safety:  That is a reason some fights are kept public instead of private.  It would likely not be recommended by Miss Manners, but it does take priority over courtesy.  There can be a benefit to staying highly visible.

When I was a child, one of the first safety rules I learned was “Do not get into a car with a stranger.”  I recall once walking to school in the rain, and a sweet-looking elderly couple offered me a ride, to which I of course said “No, thank you.”  These people were probably exactly the dear hearts they appeared to be, but it had been ingrained in me to not put myself into such a vulnerable position.

Once we grow up and start developing relationships with other adults, we sometimes forget to protect ourselves in that same way.  They are not strangers, we think, and we then hop into the car with someone who is familiar but may not be trustworthy.  And of course sometimes the greatest danger comes from the very person we have come to love, who has become our most intimate partner before we see the dangerous side of him or her.

Safety planning can be very involved.  Part of it comes from observing and knowing what to expect of that person we have come to fear.  Hannah knew, do not get into a vehicle with Fred while he is still hot under the collar.  Once he has calmed down, it may be okay.

Hannah has also realized, it is far better to be publicly embarrassed than it is to risk being in a moving vehicle with Angry Fred, and to be out of public view and therefore have no chance that anyone can intervene in her behalf.

At least that is my best guess; I haven’t confirmed this with Hannah.

Witnesses can be a very good thing.

Cognitive Dissonance in Everyday Life

photo credit Marcea Lancu

Credit: Marcea Lancu

Cognitive dissonance is often used to call attention to something we would really prefer to ignore.  Have you ever listened to someone prattle on about the partner who is “ever so loving” except when they are threatening your friend’s safety or emptying their bank account?  Or when they are belittling a friend?  To the point where you are ready to say “Well, you say this person loves you.  Is that behavior loving?”  And you of course hope this cognitive dissonance will get your friend thinking about whether this is truly a beneficial relationship.  It is definitely useful, and we need to pay close attention to it.

But there is another type of cognitive dissonance that we also find difficult to process, and that is when someone who may not be so close to you has such diametrically opposed qualities that you are unsure what to think.  I once had a young neighbor who was in trouble at school pretty much all the time.  His mother’s excuse-making didn’t make it likely that these problems would end any time soon.  And yet—one day this same young neighbor noticed fire coming from the exhaust of a school bus, and he was the one who raced to the front and banged on the door, hard, to get those kids out safely.  Not the kind of heroism we would expect from “Mr. I’m Always in Trouble at School,” right?  But the reality is, both can be true.

Famously, Oskar Schindler (of Schindler’s List fame) was a walking contradiction.  He initially brought Jewish people into his factory during World War II for the free labor, then wound up protecting those same people from being deported to extermination camps.  During this entire time, he was a member of the Nazi party.  His life after World War II was reportedly a mess.  All of these things are true, and for approximately 1,000 Jewish people and their descendants—these people would likely not even exist had it not been for Oskar Schindler’s virtues.

Realistically, none of us is as consistent as we would like to believe.  If we feel our past is shameful, we can decide on a better future as opposed to labeling ourselves and giving up.  The good we do need not be negated by whatever preceded it.  We might even devote significant time to making amends.

Most of us tend to seek a certain degree of consistency in our lives.  And part of that consistency can involve putting people in categories with the hope of knowing what to expect from them.  My own experience leads to me believe that few of us are that totally predictable.  There are some things we can count on:  People who go out of their way to be kind will continue to do so, chronic liars and thieves are unlikely to suddenly grow a conscience about their behavior.  And people and life will continue to surprise us.

Parenting – It’s Not a Competition

Kelsey 2019 w dog

Photo Credit:  Anna Dobbs Applebaum

Parenting – It’s not a competition.  What a concept, I know.  Yes, it is a huge undertaking, and yes it is critical to how your children turn out, how they feel secure and loved (or not), whether they grow up with good physical and mental health.  Of course it matters.  Every bit of it matters.  But so many parents see only their mistakes, and spend far too much time beating themselves up over every single one.

I was at a training recently that discussed attachment, among other things.  It has long been known that infants and young children decide whether the world is a safe place, based largely on how their caregivers respond to their needs.  Luckily, most of them decide it is a safe place and go on to live fulfilling lives.

But here is the part that was new and intriguing to me:  Those slight breaches, the times when a parent or other caregiver is distracted or sad or angry—when the parent reaches out again, comforts the child, heals the breach—some breaches are actually beneficial to the parent-child relationship, because the healing is part of the connection.  And without those breaches, what would there be to heal from?  (Okay, I am talking minor breaches, not outright abuse or neglect; that is critical here.)

When my son was tiny, I had a wonderful friend Beth who had a Masters degree and a Phi Beta Kappa key—all the trappings of extreme intelligence and accomplishment.  Beth told me something I will never forget:  The most important thing you can give your children is You.  Yes, You.  Another parent might make more homemade goodies, keep a cleaner house, give the best birthday parties…and that is great.  But that is them, and that is how they bond with their own children.

You have no need to compete.  Hug your children.  Listen to them.  Help them process their emotions, I’m really big on that one.  Compliment them.  Protect them.  Help them feel loved.  If your children feel loved, they are likely to see you as the best parent in the world.  (At least when they are little; teen years may be a bit more challenging.)  Those are the things that will bond you to them.  Doing your best is important; trying to measure up to the standards you think others set is not.

My wonderful friend Becca MacDowell told me a great story about comparing yourself to others.  Becca was a single mom raising two young children, working full time, and had pretty much given up on her attempts to attend college classes in the midst of all that.  She turned on the TV and watched an episode about a single mother of four who had decided to become a doctor.  Of course Becca felt totally inferior, having given up on college courses with “only” two children to raise.  She watched the entire episode, feeling worse at every turn while this woman was regaled for her tenacity.

Then at the end of the show, guess what?  It was casually mentioned that during this entire period of Mom’s medical schooling, she had turned over total custody and care of her children to her mother/their grandmother.  Kind of obliterates the whole story line of raising four children while you pursue a dream, doesn’t it?

The point being, we don’t know anyone’s whole story but our own.  Comparisons can be very destructive.  Are you supportive?  Do you do your best?  Are you there for your children?  

Give yourself a little credit, okay?

Talk It Over, Already

Talking statues

Statues in conversation

Some of my worst mistakes can be traced to my unwillingness to discuss a potential decision with someone else, to seek feedback, or at least to hear my own words reflected back to me. What stopped me? Embarrassment? I like to think I won’t again pass up the opportunity to reflect and share with others what I am considering—especially when it comes to dealing with any enigma. So if you want to do better than I did? Talk it over, already.
See? It doesn’t always require a professional. In many cases, a nonjudgmental friend can be helpful.
About that word nonjudgmental? That doesn’t mean your friend (or counselor) won’t call you out if they think you are wrong. Disagreeing should not mean the end of a relationship. If it did well, what would we do for friends? Because we are all wrong sometimes. Or at least need to consider a different viewpoint.
Let’s say you are trying to decide whether to pursue some higher education. You want to know if it’s a good idea as well as how to pay for it. One example from my own life involves when I first started wanting to pursue a graduate degree, but I had no clue how to pay for it. Did I go to the financial aid office? Um, no. I just stewed over it. (No, this oversight did not ruin my life.)
Let’s say your friend knows little or nothing about the benefits or costs of higher education. They can still reflect back, ask logical questions…they can lead you to deeper thinking, propose the questions you could be asking in pursuit of your decision.
It does often help to know someone with a specific expertise. Are you looking for financial advice? If you don’t want to reveal your finances, you could still get some general advice from a person whose expertise you respect.
I remember the time when someone told me the secret to their small business success was that they never borrowed money, that they had no debts. At the time time I was hearing this, several other voices were telling me to take a risk and go deep into debt: a thought that made me very uncomfortable. I picked the no-debt route for the small business I was running at the time, and have never regretted that decision.
You are not the only one who will benefit from your friend’s acting as a sounding board. Has anyone ever come to you for advice or counsel? Even if you weren’t interested in that role, I am guessing you were flattered. We all need to feel we matter, and providing moral support and a listening ear is one of the best ways I know to get that reinforcement.

Body Image

Your body is fine

Loving your body

Way back when my sister was about 7 years old, our older brother was taking a very pretty classmate to a graduation dance. My sister was so impressed by this girl, especially since she was wearing a satiny dress that my young sister brushed her fingers against and said “Ooh, you feel just like my Dacron pillow.” This beautiful teenagers immediate response was to miss the compliment and apologize for being too fat. (Which she was not. At all.). This happened decades ago, and even then, we (females especially) had conditioned ourselves to constantly apologize for our size, regardless of whether it was an actual issue to anyone else on the planet. I suspect this has changed, but only for the worse.  Body image is a problem for too many of us.
When we are little we just use our bodies for things like running, stretching and playing and don’t think a lot about it. We give them food and exercise on a regular basis, just because that feels right. Assuming we are not raised in a highly oppressive environment, we don’t spend those early years sitting around worrying that we are too fat or too thin. We think often about our next opportunities to exercise, but we aren’t thinking in those terms: It is about climbing trees, swimming, running, bicycling, sledding, skating, building a snowman…So it is fun instead of a duty.
Then teen years and adulthood have a way of taking hold. Not that those are bad years; I certainly enjoyed my teens and the adult years that have led to where I am now. And there didn’t stop being some things I did for pleasure that also happened to provide good exercise: dancing and walking in the woods come to mind. But I also attended classes designed to encourage me to keep moving. Again, that is not a bad thing. Plenty of friendships are made and good conversations started while people roll up their yoga mats. And the ones who stick it out tend to be either very disciplined or in love with that particular way to keep your body moving. I vote for doing it for enjoyment, rather than taking it on as a chore.
Likewise, a great deal of nutritious food is truly enjoyable, yet a lot of the enjoyment is lost if you choose that diet simply for the physical health benefits. I know, we want to enjoy our food and we want to choose foods that will enhance our health, and we commonly can do both. So let’s, let’s enjoy movement that feels good and food that tastes good. And let’s try to not constantly measure and critique our own bodies in the meantime.
One of the joys of getting older is, competing for the best body becomes pretty pointless. We can enjoy our bodies for what they do, for how they serve us, rather than constantly comparing and focusing on where these bodies fall short.
Let’s think like children again. Let’s think like my sister did at age 7. Let’s enjoy the great feeling that comes from throwing our self-consciousness aside. In her book “Some Body to Love”, Leslea Newman suggests writing a love letter to yourself as a step toward becoming more comfortable in your own skin. Let’s start now, can we?

The Last Straw in Relationships

breakup at park bench

the last straw

(Note: Before reading the following—this is important, critical even—if you are in a relationship involving abuse, DO NOT leave without proper safety planning. The most dangerous time is in the act of leaving.)

What ends relationships? Why do we call it the last straw? Often, the final insult, the breaking point, is something relatively minor in comparison to everything that has preceded it. For many, it is the point at which we realize nothing is ever going to change, nothing is going to get better. We can remain stuck in this situation or we can leave, but there is no option that will make it better for us if we stay. We see that can only stand by while it deteriorates further. Staying, we realize, means giving up any hope of improvement.
We often think primarily in terms of intimate or romantic relationships, but this also applies to platonic ones, to professional and business ones—even to family members reaching a point where they become estranged. Think of the employer who has promised you a raise every six months for the past there years, and this time when the raise doesn’t come through you start looking for other work in earnest. You have reached the point where you know this employer’s word is meaningless. It may not even really be about the money, just that you see the lies for what they are. Or it may be your mother who has picked fights with you at every opportunity since you were eight years old (or younger), and this time it is an even smaller than usual argument, but you are now 56 years old and have sudden clarity about how you will spend your remaining years—in relationships that bring you joy instead of chronic conflict. You hang up the phone and decide not to call your mother again, and to keep conversation to a minimum if she calls you—if you decide to respond to her at all.
Partnerships frequently end over long-standing issues, and something has reached a point where you realize you are not partners any more, that you have been carrying way too much of the load for way too long. Or it is something that indicates a shift in your own dynamic.
One story comes to mind for me, which I read in a magazine decades ago; I do not remember the source. A woman reports having been physically abused for years by her spouse; he even broke her jaw. When she was in the hospital, a representative from a domestic violence shelter sought her out and gave her a card, yet the article’s writer returned to living with this man. Until she came home one day to find her son and daughter watching TV, and her daughter had a welt on one cheek. The son said “Mom, she wouldn’t watch what I wanted, so I had to hit her.” This woman packed up and left that day. She was willing to tolerate all manner of abuse, but would not stand for seeing that pattern continue with her children.
Sometimes it is an escalation in an ongoing dynamic. It can be the boyfriend who was verbally abusive, but suddenly it becomes physical. Or it can be the wife who cursed you routinely but always in private, and suddenly she does it in front of friends.
Often, though, it is actually something much lower key than what you have been tolerating on a daily basis, only this time something shifts in you and you realize that there is nothing you can do that will improve this person’s behavior. It may be fifth time this week that your significant other came home with alcohol on their breath; the other four times, they started yelling at you and throwing things, then vomited in the corner and stormed out. This time they just passed out and you had no mess to clean up. But it was one too many, and you spend the remainder of that night making your exit plans.
When is the best time to leave? Someone told me once that it is the time when you no longer want to be with that person, and the message I heard at the time was that it is not wise to decide based on a specific incident. I disagree with that last part, because those specific incidents are so telling. After all, how do we know who and what a person’s true character is if not by how they behave?

Intelligence Comes in Many Forms

A young man and a dog

Intelligence comes in many forms. The young man in the photo was diagnosed with autism and learning delays at an early age, and was blessed with parents who saw and loved him for his kind and beautiful self. They never failed to nurture his spirit, and his talents. When he was a toddler, his father would lie down and allow the boy to crawl all over him—a delightful way to help encourage his sensory awareness, to help him feel comfortable with touch.
Harvard psychologist Howard Gardner is known for his theory of multiple intelligences, including interpersonal, visual-spatial, naturalistic, and about five others. Yet we are still too often hung up on that one number in an IQ test—with 100 being the norm and everything else being somehow superior or inferior in comparison. Never mind that just about everyone is a bit uneven in their performance across different areas.
Then there is Emotional Intelligence, written about by Daniel Goleman, who built on the research of Peter Salavoy and John Mayer. It involves the ability to assess and act upon a given situation, to manage one’s own emotions as well as impacting others. For example, when you read of a person who can intuit the point when a total stranger can use a kind word versus when that stranger would rather be left alone. This is especially useful in situations in which we have to react too quickly to systematically reason it through.
We all know or know of at least one person who is tops in a demanding field, something we mere mortals would not attempt, such as astrophysics or molecular biology, yet this same person is totally clueless about interpersonal relations. An IQ test measures that person as a genius, while witnessing that same person in a social situation might lead us to think they are not so smart after all.
But back to the young man pictured: His parents took him through the usual activities—soccer, Olympics, family vacations including Disney World…and like any typical child, he showed an affinity for some things and not others. Through it all, he loved his dog dearly and their cuddle time brought lots of happiness to both boy and dog.
Recently he tried training dogs, and no surprise here, he turned out to be a bit of a dog whisperer, taking first place in a recent competition. Why? As a person with autism, he loves repetition and precision—exactly the traits needed in a good animal trainer. And he has a good sense of how to best relate to each individual dog, such that the dogs he works with are eager to please him.
Temple Grandin, possibly the world’s most famous person with autism, has stated repeatedly that she does so well with animals because she thinks like one. She has been consulted in many instances in which some seemingly insignificant issue has spooked the animals: a two-inch chain above them, people tossing their yellow raincoats over a fence, too rapid a change in light levels for the animals to proceed without fear…She could focus on things the average person ignores, thereby helping the animals to remain calm.
Move over, Temple. We have a new dog whisperer, and he is going to do you proud.