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.
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.
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.
“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.
Not 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.
“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.
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.
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.
There 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.
An 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.