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.

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.

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.

No You Are Not Crazy

Happy does not equal crazy

I’m not crazy; I am joyous, and different

Since I don’t know you, or at least I don’t know everyone reading this page, maybe I should qualify that. Because yes, some people are truly crazy. But not most. And my office sees absolutely its fair share of patently not-crazy people, who just need a chance to spout off. It is not unusual for me to hear “If my favorite uncle was still alive…” or a cousin, or a grandparent, or a best friend. Often, people come into my office just wanting that chance to spout off. Or to tell their story. Frequently they are in no need whatever of advice. And they are definitely not crazy, by any definition.
This really needs emphasized from time to time, because there is still sometimes a stigma attached to seeing a counselor.
Some people use the barstool method of telling their story, which is not totally awful, so long as they don’t have so many drinks on that barstool that they forget everything that transpired. Bartenders do tend to be good listeners, though they are not necessarily trained to recognize when problems might require actual intervention. If their therapy does not involve some drinks, those bartenders may have difficulty meeting their monthly rent. And if it involves too many drinks, they need to cut someone off and hire a cab to get them home safely.
My own counseling, obviously, does not involve any drinks, and you pay a set fee. Which helps take care of ambiguity.
There is also the friend method of storytelling. Good friends listen, and they don’t judge you. For a huge number of issues, that is all you will ever need. Here’s the catch, though: Sometimes a problem is so huge, or there are so many of them, that you need to talk more than a good friend is interested in listening. It can damage a friendship when the demands get too extensive.
Counselors? They are your professional friends in the office, and they will ignore you outside the office (though if you speak to them first, they will be glad to respond.)

Most diagnoses in this field are a reflection of a normal response to an abnormal situation: Your best friend has been spreading rumors about you and/or a neighbor has threatened your family? Anxiety sounds like a pretty normal response to that. Your dearest friend was killed recently in an accident? Bereavement. You were setting out on what was supposed to be a nice vacation and wound up witnessing a murder? Posttraumatic Stress Disorder.
Do you see a pattern here? Diagnoses make the insurance companies happy. And they do create categories that help make it easier to formulate a plan. But none of these situations in any way implies a client is crazy. And neither are you. At least I highly doubt it.

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.

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.

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.

Community

community of kids

community of kids

A sense of community can protect us, buffer us against hardships. This is not just geographical community; it can be family, friends—anyone you value. Sometimes it is a group we belong to, via accident or choice.
During World War II, the strong sense of community in Denmark saved most Jewish people from being deported to concentration camps. Why? Because their neighbors felt these people were Danish first, and they spread the word as quickly as possible when they heard the Nazis were preparing to do a roundup.
Today in Denmark, a sense of community is being utilized to prevent bullying in schools. I wish I could recall the article I read and give credit, but here is what I do recall: Every Friday, the children in each classroom gather with their teacher and pick a topic that concerns one or more of them. They then discuss ways to deal with this issue. And students are assigned to take their turn providing a pastry (home cooked or purchased) that the entire classroom can munch on while they chat. This strikes me as absolute genius. The students all feel a stake in resolving the problem. No one is excluded, and every person’s opinion matters.
I cannot recall if this involves children of all ages or only certain grades, but I was so impressed. Maybe we in this country would do well to devote less class time to standardized testing and more time to community building activities such as this. It not only builds community; it also helps these students develop problem-solving skills that will help them later in life.
One frequent target of bullying attacks, in-person or online, is often the “new kid.” It is entirely too easy to isolate this person as “not one of us” and avoid feeling compunction for our actions. Yet many people do the opposite, going out of their way to meet and get to know that new person, to help them integrate into the already-existing community. Maybe that would be a good example for more of us to follow.
Maybe we should start by getting to know our neighbors. Some of us may do better starting with online communities. Or simply being responsive to others who reach out to us.
That connection is essential, and how each person goes about it isn’t the most important thing. Going about it is.