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.

A Nation in Need of Comfort

1028641_rainbow_in_the_backyardThere have been so many tragedies this past month or so, that it feels we are a nation in mourning. And in shock. Police officers being murdered on two different occasions, the tragic attack in Nice, France that left so many dead… When I drive down the street and see American flags, some are at half-staff and some at full height. It has occurred to me that with so many tragedies, it is difficult to keep up with knowing at what height the flag should be displayed. It is up to the President of the United States to determine when and for how long flags are lowered, and keeping abreast of those proclamations—well, it requires a lot of attention.
If you are a law enforcement officer anywhere in this country, or if you know or love an officer, I am very sorry for your loss. Though law enforcement is not my specialty, it is clear that the loss of any officer in such a brutal way, is a loss to the entire law enforcement community. No one should have to fear being ambushed on or off the job.
We are a nation in shock. In mourning. In anger. In confusion. In trauma. A lot of us may not know what to think. But none of it is good.
And a lot of us feel powerless. What is one person to do against the possibility of a next assailant? I am sure a lot of people are puzzling over this. And I do have an answer. No, it does not involve prevention, though I would love to have an answer for that. And anything that could prevent a disaster would be publicized far more widely than this blog ever will.
We are in serious need of comfort. Let us, please, go out of our way to be kind to one another. It won’t fix things, but it can make them more bearable. And you never know, maybe the person on the receiving end of your smile or kind words is in more dire need of your kindness than you will ever know. Maybe they will feel inclined to follow your example, to be a little kinder themselves. Maybe we can start with a smile, a comforting word, a sincere compliment, holding a door open, letting someone ahead of us in traffic…
This just feels to me like something that can’t hurt, and just may help some people find some joy in the midst of all this sorrow. So let’s get started.

Being Believed

emotions-Tino SmithAn acquaintance of mine (No, mot a client) sought counseling after suffering abuse that would rival stories more likely to be heard from oppressed women in third-world countries. The counselor’s response? “You read too much; those things don’t happen.” I’m amazed this person kept trying till they found someone to take them seriously.
In contrast, when I survived an abusive situation several years ago and attended a support group, I was immediately believed. That was incredibly therapeutic.
To be fair, there is the occasional person who lies about being abused, usually with some ulterior motive in mind such as gaining a legal advantage. These people make it more difficult for true victims, and should be ashamed of themselves. The overwhelming majority, however, are far more likely to understate the extent of their suffering, and are not at all prone to exaggeration.
This need to be heard, and believed, applies to a plethora of situations and/or experiences. For those who have never heard of Re-evaluation Co-counseling—yes, I am aware that that is the overwhelming majority of the population—it is a movement instituted by Harvey Jackins and is geared toward non-professionals. In a nutshell, 2 or more people share their stories with one another, process the attendant emotions, and ultimately reach resolution. The theory is that processing of the emotions, what Freud referred to as catharsis, is necessary and sufficient for coming to terms with an individual’s angst.
The part I find interesting is, a group member may not wish to share their actual story. They are sometimes told “Then make a story up; it will have the same emotional content.” (Sometimes I wonder if histrionics who invent lies for attention have this end in mind.)
Memory can be a funny thing. Often people will recall the gist of an event but details will get confused. Memories are frequently “chunked” with other memories. Essentially, when the details of a story turn out to be inaccurate, this does not mean a person is lying; they are giving you their own best and most honest recollection.
As a counselor, it is not my job to grill a client regarding the accuracy of their recollection. My job is to help them process the event and help them develop the best possible coping skills and help to make peace with their own unique traumatic history. This starts with listening to, and believing, their story.

Valentine’s Day

romantic couple drawing red:whiteRemember exchanging Valentines in elementary school? Decorating boxes? Buying the Valentines in bulk, to ensure there was one for each of your classmates?
That’s how I would like Valentine’s Day to be, if I were suddenly put in charge of the whole thing.
Not that I don’t enjoy the whole idea of celebrating romance; I do. But it can be a time when anyone not currently in the most perfect love feels left out. And/or pressured to produce the “right” gift.
It’s too bad, really. Businesses want to make a profit, and that is certainly not an evil thing. Some people love to give and receive gifts. Fine by me. But others aren’t so keen on the idea, and feel their most important expressions of love involve having the other person’s back–showing them kindness in their everyday behaviors: complimenting them, preparing their favorite foods, noticing the endearing things they do.
In my own life, I have known people who treat those closest to them pretty shabbily on daily basis but never forget to buy flowers for birthdays, Valentine’s Day, etc. It’s almost as if they are buying their way out of good daily treatment. Some of these people don’t even stop to think what the recipient might enjoy but look instead to a high enough price tag to be impressive. Gifts don’t mean a lot under those circumstances.
Valentine’s Day was meant to be enjoyable, a way to say “I love you” one more time in at least one more way. And not just a romantic “I love you.” My vote would go to using the day as one of many opportunities to express appreciation to our friends, family members, anyone in our circle. And a reminder of our good fortune in having these same people in our lives.
Happy Valentine’s Day, everyone!

Family, Community, and the Holidays

With the holiday season upon us, we are encouraged to spend more time with family and friends; many people are traveling across the country in order to do just that. For some, families are an unmixed blessing; for others, not so much.

Some form of family is essential to our well-being, whether it is the family we were raised with or a community of friends cobbled together to fill the role. A desire to relate to one’s own parents is so elemental that no one knows how to define it. In some cases, this also results in major pain from constantly being rebuffed. Plenty of people exist whose lives have been enriched by their decision to terminate all contact with family members, yet I doubt any of them would tell you they enjoy having to make such a decision.

Others benefit from reaching out, from taking the initiative to strengthen or heal family bonds. For those who would choose this season for conciliation, for making amends, there are so many ways to begin the process. We have far more options than just deciding whether to physically visit: It can begin with a Facebook posting, an e-mail or phone call, or a letter delivered via the U.S. Postal Service. This can be a good way to “test the waters,” to ascertain whether it seems wise to continue or increase contact.

Family with joy

If your family is too far away, too hostile, estranged, or simply nonexistent, you have even more need than the average person to develop a strong community. For many, this circle of friends becomes their family.

The holiday season is a particularly good time to focus on your family and your community of friends, to choose when and to whom to reach out. Hopefully it will set the stage for a new year that rewards you constantly with the love of your family and friends.

Parental Alienation Is Real: (or, Co-Parenting With a Toxic Ex)

angry-b&wYes, parental alienation is real. The DSM-V (the most recent Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, that thick book your therapist pulls out in order to define the answer to What’s your problem?)–that tome that is utilized by everyone in the mental health professions–specifies that certain behaviors are considered psychological abuse of a child. (Previous editions only acknowledged physical abuse, sexual abuse, or neglect of a child.) These behaviors include berating the “alleged offender” (usually the other parent) in the child’s presence, and telling the child that person will harm or abandon them. This is done skillfully and often at the hands of alienators (targeting parents).
Fortunately, most parents do not alienate their children from the other parent, at least not intentionally. It does occur sometimes by accident, as parents may be careless about the words they utter when the children are within earshot. And there are many instances of low-level alienation that tend to work themselves out with time.
Some children are amenable to becoming alienated; others are not. Thank goodness for the invulnerability of those others.
If you have a friend whose children inexplicably reject him or her, please do not reassure your friend that children always come around. Some do; some don’t.
If you or a friend sees the beginnings of inexplicable rejection, I highly recommend reading “Co-Parenting With a Toxic Ex” by Amy J. L. Baker and Paul R. Fine. It is basically a workbook, an excellent step-by-step guide for parents who need to both recognize and counteract whatever is going on. Some suggestions sound counterintuitive; don’t give up before you read the explanations.
Some children are alienated by the same person who abused their mother (or father). There is a major element of control and sometimes revenge. The children are frequently so hateful to the targeted parent that it is tempting to just give up. Please don’t; your children need both parents (absent one or both parents being an actual physical danger to them).
Some of the signs of potential parental alienation that have resonated with me are:
When they complain about how awful the targeted parent is, the complaints are often over miniscule issues, such as “She/he wouldn’t buy me the $250 shirt I wanted.” Sometimes the children will blatantly lie about the targeted parent. They feel no compunction to treat this parent with even basic courtesy, such as thanking them for huge gifts. (And don’t think this won’t carry over to how they behave in the larger world.) The words they use in their tirades are often the exact phrases that have been previously used by the targeting parent.
A favorite scheme of targeting parents is “erase and replace,” meaning that children are often taught that Dad (or Mom) no longer deserves that title. Children are made to call the new stepparent Dad or Mom, and to call the actual parent by their first name whenever the targeting parent is around. Vacations are often planned by the targeting parent in direct conflict with the target’s court ordered parenting time. Or the less-favored parent is invited to come to school events and then made to sit far away from the child and to not be acknowledged in any way. Sometimes the targeting parent manages to “one-up” every gift from the targeted parent: Dad saved his money to take the child to the play she always wanted to see, so Mom then takes her to New York to see the Broadway version.
As you can see, this teaches children to be manipulative. It is clearly not good parenting. But there is hope.
Amy J. L. Baker and Paul R. Fine have done excellent research. I highly recommend “Co-Parenting With a Toxic Ex” as a guidebook to minimize and counteract the negative messages your child may receive.

To Trust or Not To Trust

999355_10151474743961750_39057317_nWhile Jamahl was working overseas, he sent money to his wife to pay the rent, only to return to an eviction notice. Francine gave money to a charity purporting to help families of children with cancer, only to later learn that this group was under investigation. Tristan confided in a friend, then learned his story had been shared indiscriminately. Should these people totally stop trusting? I’m thinking No. But I’m guessing their futures will include more self-protective behavior. Jamahl may pay bills directly in the future, Francine may check charity watch websites before she donates, and Tristan is likely to share innocuous information before he reveals anything with the potential for embarrassment.
With regard to obtaining counseling, people frequently say “I’m not going to tell my deepest secrets to a total stranger.” Believe it or not, that makes sense to me. Even though I am the stranger asking you to share your secrets. Trust is a complicated issue, and is different for each of us. It’s okay to not trust a new person all at once if it makes you uncomfortable. Even if that person is bound by rules involving confidentiality. You can start with minor disclosures, then take your time and work your way up to the riskier ones as you feel emotionally ready.
For those of you who have been betrayed (and isn’t that just about everyone?), it is tempting to insist you will never trust anyone again. This will spare you vulnerability; it will also leave you detached from potential friends and allies. Holding our secrets too closely can drag us down, keep us from emotional healing when we have been wounded. So how to start?
It may help to remember that trust is not one discrete decision, it is a series of smaller ones. You have a choice in each of them. Maybe it’s good to ask yourself, Would I rather hold on to my secrets, or would I rather risk vulnerability in order to experience greater connection and healing?