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.

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?

About Birthdays

Grandma celebrating

Happy Birthday

Birthdays get a lot of people down. Especially after their 20s. I find that tragic. Mind you, I cried real tears the day I turned 26, because I thought I was getting ancient. In retrospect, I find that incredibly amusing. I was married at that time to a man who didn’t much like cake, so I figured there would be no cake. I wound up with four! Not exactly in keeping with my low expectations. It was one of my best birthdays ever, and I can’t recall getting too upset about the passage of time since then.
Prior to enrolling in graduate school, I spent several years running a singing telegram service, Off-the-Wall. Predictably, the majority of these comedy telegrams were for birthdays, and one of the most popular was a spoof on aging–the Grim Weeper. I would dress in black, with a black veil and an oversized white lacy handkerchief, and boo-hoo about how this person’s life was over. And in no time flat, they would be laughing and saying “What’s the big deal? I’m 40 is all.”
I just had a birthday, one of many. Enjoyed it immensely, thank you very much.
One major take-away from those years of helping others celebrate their birthdays, is the realization that a birthday isn’t really about how old you are. Unless you just turned 18 and get to vote. It is a celebration of You. Your life, your existence, your very presence on this earth.
Whenever your next birthday rolls around, I hope you celebrate with friends, family, loved ones. If you are alone that day, I hope you celebrate anyway. I hope you enjoy cake and ice cream, or whatever it is that you enjoy. And I hope you find the occasion delightful.

The Other (Good) Side of Christmas

Zaria's Christmas morning

This picture of my little friend Zaria captures it all. The joy of seeing and touching the tree on Christmas morning. (Didn’t her dad just capture the greatest shot imaginable?)

Every major religion has some sort of holiday surrounding the Winter Solstice. I am not pushing one brand of religion here, have no reason to. I am very emphatic, however, about the need for people to take some time off, to get centered. The holiday season provides that for a lot of us, even though we do pay in advance with a whirlwind of activity.

For those whose jobs entail working on the holidays–firefighters, emergency medical people, hospital workers, home health workers, newspaper delivery people…I hope you are setting aside your own time to just pause, relax, reflect. We all need the opportunity to be centered, and our rush-rush-rush culture doesn’t exactly encourage that on a daily basis.

Whether you spend this time with family or friends, or if it is your opportunity to spend the day alone, it is vitally important. Even if you are one of the unfortunate people who had a lousy holiday, there is opportunity for reflection there too. Think about what you can change in your life in order to make future years more enjoyable. You deserve that; we all do.

If you are diametrically opposed to religious holidays, make something up, take time off, and enjoy! Call it a Mental Health Day. It will be even better for you than eating your vegetables. And more fun, too.

Accepting Help

My crutches

A couple months ago it was my turn to learn to accept help. I hate it. I want to be totally self-sufficient at all times, or at least to maintain the illusion that I am. I had foot surgery (from which I have recovered).
Darned if my husband wasn’t called away right after the surgery. And darned if he didn’t make sure I had someone in the house to bring me food, etc. You know…to wait on me hand and foot. The agency sent a very kind and capable woman. And I resisted. No, I wasn’t mean to her; I just didn’t utilize anywhere near all the services she was willing to offer.
I have to be macho, after all. Never mind that I was hobbling around on crutches.
Making better use of these services would have been a great opportunity to heal with more ease and comfort.
This is a reminder to me of why people hesitate to reach out for help when they are dealing trauma, grief, or other issues. Many of us revert to our 2-year-old self–you know, the one who grabs the coat out of mom’s or dad’s hand and puts both arms in the same sleeve rather than feel the least bit dependent.
Years ago, I heard the expression “First you adjust, then you re-adjust, and then you maladjust.” I did that with my bunioned feet till it didn’t make sense to maladjust any more. With surgery, there is a short time when the pain is greater than it was before, followed by the joy of healing.
Similarly, a counseling experience will likely help you feel better by degrees, but there is always a risk of emotional pain when dealing with unpleasant issues. Ask anyone who has had successful therapy, however, and they will almost invariably tell you it was well worth it.

Kindness in the Wake of Tragedy

Mr. Rogers’ Wisdom

In the wake of the Boston Marathon tragedy, we witnessed many acts of kindness, both caught on camera and brought to our attention by news media:  People who ran 2 miles past the finish line to give blood at the hospital.  First responders and ordinary citizens who ran toward the scene to offer aid and comfort to victims.  People using their own clothing to provide makeshift bandages for victims.  Flowers and teddy bears piling up in memory, often left by total strangers.  Google providing a service to aid in finding loved ones.   And of course huge candlelight vigils.  Whose heart isn’t wounded at the thought of all those people cheering at the finish line and suddenly dead or maimed?  I’ve probably just made you weep again over this disaster; I know I just did that to myself.

But there is a positive side.  Really.  In the the aftermath of both this tragedy and the recent tragedy at Newtown, I was presented with images of Fred Rogers from Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, with his quote “Look for the helpers.”  I would like to carry it a step further.  When there is a tragedy of this scope, everyone is watching, and many of us become aware of actions of people in the vicinity–most of them positive.  There is also far more that we are unaware of.  People hugging bedraggled-looking strangers, offering kind words of support, looking at others instead of through them as a reminder that they truly matter, that we are together in this…

It’s your turn, and mine, to be a Helper.  Many of those around you are feeling a little extra vulnerable in the wake of this horror.  Give them a smile.  A sincere compliment.  Signal them that it’s okay to cut in front of you in traffic.  You won’t end up on the news for it.  But you will feel better for it.  And so will they.

Honoring Your Stories

Gossip and stories

Sharing stories

My wise friend, the late Musetta Giles, had a business card saying “If we can’t hear each other’s stories, nothing can save us.” Someone I barely knew once asked me “What is your story?” then went on to say “Everyone has a story, and that is what makes them who they are. That’s why I like hearing people’s stories.”
Today I hear these stories as part of my job. Hopefully my clients benefit as much from the telling as I do from the hearing.
Though the counseling profession involves a certain amount of diagnostic work, it is critical to see each client as an individual, not a diagnosis. Hence, the stories.
What have I learned from this so far?
The further back the story, the deeper the pain. Research has shown that the most severe trauma reactions are the result of abuse, neglect or other trauma before the age of 2 or 3. That is when a child is deciding whether the world is a safe place. My internship involved working with adopted children who had attachment issues. This is when it became clear to me that it is actually more important at what age a person experienced trauma, than the extent or seriousness of the trauma.
Though stories may follow patterns, all are different, unique. People don’t fit well in pre-ordained categories. Thank goodness. The variety and richness of these stories is also the beauty.
Telling your story (or hearing someone else’s) can help make sense of a chaotic past. Memories may take on a totally different meaning based on their context, i.e. the story. Listeners learn not only about the person, but their family, friends, and larger culture. For both teller and listener, it’s a history lesson in miniature.

Givers and Takers

elderly man helping woman on walker

Givers and Takers

There are givers in the world and there are takers. People who give freely without expectations, and people whose first question is always “What’s in it for me?” Most of us aren’t totally at either end of the spectrum, but the analogy can simplify one’s word view. After a few too many personal experiences with takers, I came up with my own little fantasy: If only (how many sentences start with “if only?”)–if only the givers would hold out for other givers in their relationships, the takers would have no one left. They would have to put up with other takers, or change their ways a bit.

If you are a taker, cut that out.

If you are a giver, please pay attention: Do you ever find yourself totally exhausted by the demands of some perfectly capable adult who demands more of you than any child ever did? Do you feel powerless to do anything about it because–well, if you don’t take care of the _______ (fill in the blank) it won’t get done? You do have choices; they just aren’t always the most pleasant ones. You can sit back and let less get accomplished. Okay, you won’t leave a baby screaming in hunger. But those dishes can sit for another half hour without anyone calling the health department.

This can feel impossible, but it is a choice. I dealt with a person who wouldn’t take care of some child-related issues I felt were important. These were not things that would get him charged with neglect, but they did contribute to the children’s feeling of well-being. I angrily and resentfully stepped up to the plate. And I complained to a mental health counselor who said “You are choosing to not let those children suffer.” I do feel it was the right choice. And regarding it as a choice distinctly improved my disposition.

I am still a giver. Because I choose to be. But I now have a better recognition of my limits. My life is primarily filled with other givers these days. I don’t have the time or the inclination to pander to people who don’t contribute their fair share–whether it be effort, time, or resources. And if every giver followed the same path, those pathological takers among us would have such a shortage of victims. At least that’s my theory.

Ways to Say I Love You

Ways to Say “I love you”

Ways to Say I Love You-Susan H. RobinsonThese will backfire if 1) you love someone whose goal is to take advantage of you, or 2) You utilize, even inadvertently, the tiniest hint of sarcasm:

  • You look really nice.
  • Iʼve got your back.
  • Could you use some help with that?
  • Can I get that for you?
  • Your opinion means a lot to me.
  • You know; youʼre really good at that.
  • Iʼll listen for as long as it takes.
  • Youʼve worked really hard today, thank you.
  • You did a great job on the…..
  • Thatʼs a really good idea.
  • Take your time.
  • Of course I would do that for you.
  • Which movie (TV show, etc.) would you like to see?
  • No, youʼre not crazy.
  • Iʼm sorry youʼre having a bad day.
  • That must have felt awful.
  • What do you think would be the fairest way to handle this?
  • Please.
  • Thank you.

Susan H. (Sue) Robinson, LPC, NCC, L.L.C.