Help for Healing

Bitter & Sweet, living daily with grief


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Self-Reflection

Recently, someone told me that I don’t seem to do as much reflecting on myself as I do criticizing others.  For those of you that have known me for several years, I’m guessing you are as surprised to hear that as I am.  I suppose I know a few individuals who interrogate themselves as much as I do, but I honestly don’t think I have ever met anyone who is harder on themselves than I am.

So how would an intelligent person make that observation?

You will find this shocking, but of course this has sent me on a deep dive into the inner recesses of myself in all of its glory and ugliness. It has caused a wide divide in my heart. Part of me wants to lash out angrily and say, “Stop it! You have spent years learning how to be confident in your intuitions. Your therapist (Scott) has literally spent over 16 years getting you to believe your judgements. And he has met many of my peeps personally. Dear Darren has spent the last couple of years convincing you that you are full of love and light, more than you had allowed yourself to believe. You are not perfect, but you do some things extremely well.”

The other side of the divide, is frankly the side that I have spent most of my life on. It’s much more familiar to me, and therefore much more comfortable. It is the part of me that I understand and yet is completely an unknown to me at the same time. It is the part that I mostly loathe. It is the part that makes me second guess every thought that comes into my head. It is a torturous part. And it is fully awakened now.

Even if it is true that I can be accurate often in my assessment of my self and others, what right does that give me to say any of it out loud? Just because I am capable of judging fairly, should I not be trying to curb the human urge to judge at all?

More troubling still, are the times that I find (always in hindsight) that I have overwhelmed someone or scared them with my intensity. I have no idea how I do it, which makes it almost impossible to control. I remember back in graduate school when a classmate sought me out to get me know me better and then I had to listen to her in group therapy talking about how I swallowed her up. All I had done was respond back to her letters she sent me. I don’t really understand it anymore now 20+ years later than I did back then. Seemed unfair to me, but nevertheless, that is how she felt.

There really isn’t any particular point to this blog. Just blabbing about what is going on in my cluttered, troubled head and heart. It’s not so pretty right now. I’m trying to fairly self-reflect without falling down the bitter rabbit hole of depression. It’s good for me to examine myself because I’m far from perfect. But cross your fingers and say some prayers that something positive and productive comes from it, rather than just useless self-loathing.

 


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God’s Plan

I’ve had quite a spiritual journey over the years. My faith, religion and spirituality has been around the globe a few times. Recently, I’ve been doing a bunch of thinking about this again and am reading a book recommended to me called “The Naked Gospel.”

Of course, where I am now is only my opinion, the “truth” as I understand it. And that has changed dramatically over the last 50 years of my life. I had a session with a young adult client that was one of the most moving I’ve had in quite a while.

She came in having to make a decision about her life, and had narrowed it down to three options. She has a very devout, active faith and as she was talking tossed out a phrase that was something like, “So I’m trying to figure out if I just really want this for myself or if it is God’s plan for me.”

It struck a nerve in me and I found myself racing in my head about how to respond next. Therapeutically, I knew she was asking for guidance about how to make tough decisions. There are lots of therapeutic interventions to choose from to help people sort out their various emotions and thoughts. She hadn’t come to me about her faith. I knew I was taking a risk if I went there and I quickly had to make my own decision. My gut told me to go for it.

I first clarified, “If I understand you correctly, you believe that God has a specific plan for your life and it is your job to figure out what that is.” She nodded. Then I asked her why she believed that. I was her when I was 18. I knew she had been taught that and had it reinforced over and over again, but I was challenging her to really ask herself why she had come to believe it.

First, we went the logical/philosophical route. How do you decide which things in life are part of God’s will and which aren’t? Does God decide what the best clothes for you to wear today are? Is there a best pair of socks? How do you determine that isn’t important but who you marry or which school you go to is?

What happens if you get it wrong? Especially at such a young age, what if she makes the wrong choice? Does that mean for the rest of her life her only hope is to achieve a consolation prize or plan B? Life couldn’t get any better than that if she missed the first perfect plan, right?

Then we switched gears again. I asked her something like, “Do you really believe that is how God loves you? Really?” The God who sent Jesus to earth to love and redeem us, is now sitting with specific plans and hoping that we are smart or spiritual enough to figure out with it is so that we can be pleasing to Him? Does that really feel loving?

I wonder if it was more of a session for me than for her. I am very passionately invested in my clients, but this session I actually began to get more and more passionate in what I was saying, and that passion resulted in tears that began to run gently down my cheeks. They were running down hers as well. I couldn’t stop myself. I didn’t know if I was upsetting her or touching something important.

I reminded her this was all my opinion, but I just think God loves us differently than that. Options and choices are wonderful things. Back in the Garden of Eden, we were given free will. How could God give us free will, then have a target in His head of what He wants us to choose? That goes against the very essence of free well. I told her in my opinion that she could make any choice and that God would love and adore her exactly the same unconditional, immeasurable amount.

When I finally shut up, I asked about her tears. She used her gentle, quiet voice and said she felt in her heart she needed to hear it. In her heart, she struggles so much with believing that she is truly loveable like that. I was stunned. Stunned. I cried a few more tears as I told her that I wished with all my heart that she could just for a moment see herself the way I did. And wow, what if she could see herself the way God did?

She’s such a lovely, lovely young woman. She has the voice of an angel. She has a beautiful spirit. And I remember what life was like at that time in my life, so full of guilt and anxiety, trying to please God at every moment and never knowing if I was. I would do anything to free her of that, to help her understand the depth with which Grace and Love have gifted and touched her and enveloped her.

It was a powerful session. Probably way more for me than for her. I knew I was talking to myself as much as I was talking to her. I have been growing my understanding of Grace and Love for several years now, but I still need to be reminded myself.

Thank you my beautiful friend for giving me permission to blog your journey. You may not end up with any beliefs like mine, but I believe we will both grow because of our bravery to be open with each other on the journey.  You will make the best decision, my dear. I know that because you have a Spirit that lives inside of you that loves you immensely and guides you. Thank you for today’s tender but powerful blessing.


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Soul mates

I recently had two referrals for grief counseling. One was male, one female. Both lost their spouses recently (three months or less). And both told me their spouse was their soul mate.

I think the older I get, the less I know what that means. I used to think it meant that person that could finish your sentences because they think pretty much the same way you do. Sometimes now I wonder if your soul mate is that person that just never goes away. If you know someone’s dark side/sides, all of their imperfections, and you just love the heck out of them anyway, maybe that is your soul mate.

Anyhow, I don’t think I’ve ever met mine. Tim and I loved each other. We worked very hard at becoming excellent partners to each other. I think we definitely achieved that. But I wouldn’t have called us soul mates. I don’t think he would have either, not that I ever remember talking about it.

I digressed. The point is being an observer of grief, I found these two people who approached their losses very differently. I honestly think part of it is due to gender. I’m not sure all of it comes down to that one factor though. The guy came in and expressed his grief verbally, but outwardly seemed incredibly together. He didn’t cry, although he said he did often. He felt he mostly came because his kids and doctor worry about him. He said he understood grief and seemed to be able to articulate his emotions and the whole painful process. After a few days I got a polite text that said he would not be returning to therapy. I found myself torn between knowing that people express grief differently and we yell all the time about how there is no formula to grieve the “right” way. But part of me wondered if he was keeping it all on the head level. You can talk about grief without letting it into your depths. I suspect that is why Dr. Grace referred him, that maybe she was wondering if there was more beneath the surface. But it looks like I won’t find out.

The woman was entirely different. She continues to come in every week and wonders if she has lost herself. She has panic attacks at times, and usually cries through most of session. She thinks she is doing terribly. I keep reassuring her she is just fine. She is simply in great pain. Tremendous, horrific pain. It may never leave her, but it will change. It will lessen, it will morph. She has already seen some shifts in herself and credits that to the new medication Dr. Grace put her on and the sessions she has had with me. In particular, she has found breathing techniques immeasurably helpful. She can’t believe something so simple can be so powerful.

Again, perhaps this is just the difference between male and female grief. Perhaps this is grief embraced and grief denied. But it doesn’t matter. I know it sounds corny, but I truly mean this: I count it an honor and sacred responsibility when anyone walks in my office and allows me to see their grief, in whatever form it is. It heals little pieces of me as well. So thanks to both of you, and all those clients over the last 20 years that have enriched my life!


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Expectations

Continuing with last week’s theme, I think the concept of expectations is another good therapy idea that has gotten overused and taken to a bad extreme. To be human is to have expectations. Period.

A couple of weeks ago, I was in a session with a client. She was talking about something and then used the word “expected” in a sentence. She stopped her flow of thought and looked at me with an apology and said, “I know I’m not supposed to have expectations,” as if her disappointment with her situation was ultimately her fault because she dared to expect something.

I told her that I wasn’t “that kind” of therapist, and many therapists are not either. She will never hear me tell her not to expect anything. It would be easier to tell her to stop breathing. However, having REASONABLE expectations is a very, very worthy goal. I asked her if when she makes an appointment with me, if she expects me to be here when she arrives. Of course she does. And that is a reasonable expectation for her to have.

Expectations for me personally, are yet another example of the interesting way people perceive me. Most of the time, people fall in two camps. Either I am told I have too high of expectations of others, or I am told my expectations are way too low. Usually, the people who think I expect too much are people who have disappointed me, not kept their word, or something else. So it’s similar to last week’s blog. Encouraging others to lower their expectations was not intended psychologically to be used as an excuse for poor behavior.

The second camp of people usually come after a discussion of my dating life. Sometimes people who haven’t been out there in the dating world assume that an almost fifty-year-old is probably single because she expects too much from a partner. People who are close to me? Well, they usually say I don’t expect enough. I tend to be much more tolerant and patient for my own good. Kind of interesting.

If you are a human being, you will expect things. The goal of a healthy individual is not to eradicate having expectations, it is to keep them in check. It is to make sure you are expecting things that are fair, reasonable, things others are capable of.

Oh yeah- if I tend to be unreasonable with my expectations, it is usually focused on one person- myself. I tend to be stupidly hard on myself, expecting that I am beyond human. I’ve been working on that one for a few decades. I’ve made some progress, but I will always err on the side of beating myself up. That’s why I work so hard to eliminate outside forces that seem to enjoy beating me up as well.

I mean that in an emotional/verbal sense of course. But it should be said that one expectation I have, especially as a woman, is that I not by physically touched in a way that I am not comfortable with. There is an entire spectrum of things that can go on that- from extremes like rape, to jokes that are demeaning or uncomfortable. Whatever on that continuum, I expect to be respected physically and it is my job to make sure that it happens.

Of course, the lower the expectations are, the less disappointed you are. There is truth to that. Maybe the rule of thumb should be when it comes to others, expect as little as possible and be pleasantly surprised. But then again, it you expect nothing, then sometimes you get exactly that. Nothing.

Telling someone else they should lower their expectations? I suppose there is a place for that also, but I would be very, very careful with that. Most times, tossing that out there is a way to deflect away from your own behavior that you would be better off taking responsibility for. That requires some maturity, but it is often times the much healthier route.

All things in moderation… I say that a lot I suppose. But to be human is to have expectations. People who truly seem to have none, are the scary people I wrote about last week. You don’t want to lose your humanity, your heart, your capacity to truly love another. Just keep your expectations reasonable, and don’t be afraid to meet other people’s expectations if they are reasonable. A little compassion is a GOOD trait. That other extreme stuff is not what the intended message was. Seek to be healthy!


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Abuse of Therapy

Therapy has come a long way over the last few decades. It used to be that only truly mentally ill people went to the insane asylum, and it was a big, dirty secret. Nowadays, it’s really easy to find a friend or family member who goes to therapy. It’s even easier to find people who are on some kind of mood medication. The stigma is much better than it used to be.

However, there is still a long way to go. I still hear comments about how a divorced woman could possibly be a marriage counselor. They are rare, but they happen. My dad still doesn’t think I have a “real” job and that will probably never change. And now, the therapy world has been around long enough that there have been changes in the verbiage or reversal of ideas. Freud was a genius back in the day, now some of his ideas are discounted. Church/spirituality used to be seen as a psychological crutch for people who needed one. Now there are classes in master’s programs on spirituality and how to use it appropriately in therapy.

I am not sure who thought of this idea, and quite frankly I’m too lazy to look it up. But the idea that “no one can MAKE you feel anything” became a big buzz phrase years ago. Now? I think that it is mostly just psycho-babble.

Of course there is some truth to it. When I discuss this concept with clients who are being asked to travel down a very painful road, I tell them about Viktor Frankl. He wrote a book called “The Meaning of Life.” My understanding is that he was a Holocaust survivor. He lost everything. I mean everything, like Job of the Old Testament. Most of his family were killed. All of his possessions were taken. He lived in a concentration camp and slept in his own urine and feces. It was in those conditions that he arrived at the bulk of his psychology and philosophy. He determined that the one thing that another person can never take away from you, is your freedom to react. He chose to be positive and helped others around him. I’m quite sure he survived long enough to be released because of his disposition. I have the utmost admiration for him.

I don’t know if that is where the idea that no one can MAKE us feel anything comes from or not, but he is the example that comes to mind when I think of the truth of that concept. But like anything else, there is another side.

Where is our common sense? Being human is about having emotions and responses. If other people did not affect us, we would have to be rocks. Brainless. Heartless. I know people like that and I’m sure you do too. And I am convinced without a doubt, that those kinds of people are NOT the epitome of mental health.

There is one time that saying, “I am not responsible for your feelings” may be appropriate. That is when other people try to manipulate us with guilt that is not legitimate. Or when standing up to an abuser causes them to have painful consequences, something like that. But 90% of the time I have heard people say, “I am not responsible for your feelings” or something similar, it is nothing more than an excuse for really bad behavior.

You can be insensitive to others, say hurtful and/or mean things. You can be an asshole and blurt out whatever you feel and then let yourself off the hook by saying how others respond to you isn’t your problem.

And I say that is utterly ridiculous. Of course we are responsible for how we effect other people. We have no right to walk on others or their feelings. No right whatsoever. You don’t get a pass for being a jerk but trying to make it sound like the other person has issues or is overly sensitive. I call bullshit. And it’s a total abuse of what therapy is all about. Therapy (and it’s philosophies) are meant to help people heal. They are meant to help relationships heal, not drive wedges between them. It’s a therapist’s job to help communicate that message clearly to their clients.

I remember once years ago when I had a client come in who couldn’t wait to proudly tell me how she had told her mother off. She thought she was taking my advice and practicing self-care and assertiveness. I had to completely back pedal with her and clarify what I meant. I was horrified that she thought I would have approved of the way she had run another human being over with her words.

So as a therapist, let me be clear. Of course people are responsible for their own reactions. But if you even slightly give a damn about others, you are also responsible to try NOT to hurt other people. There is no legitimate therapy in the world that would support someone being harsh and attacking to others. None. Hope I’ve been clear about that.


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Simplicity

I’ve been labeled (or accused) of being a drama queen several times throughout my lifetime. Then I met with a spiritual director over a decade ago who helped me understand my personality type. I was able to be less offended by it when I realized that I didn’t LIKE drama. I knew I never liked it, but when you think of a drama queen, you think of someone who craves attention and stirs up shit to get it. When I worked with the director, I came to a very sad and painful realization that I required drama in my life because I felt dead otherwise. Empty. Void of life. It’s like an uber version of no self-worth. So I would/could be attracted to people who were problem-ridden because if I could be Super Woman, then maybe I would have the worth of just an average person. I don’t know if that makes any sense to you, but it is really quite startling. I had to be Hercules, dealing with the toughest of things ever that most people can’t handle, in order to justify taking up human skin. Yikes.

Then another shift happened after my mother died. I really started investing more in my sisters and girlfriends. I have awesome ones, more than most people do. None of the relationships are perfect of course, but overall I am pretty damn fortunate. They get me in ways that are very deep, and it is quite healing to have that in your life. Recently, Summer (who I’ve written about several times) and I were having a conversation about life in general. I’m sure I won’t paraphrase her entirely correctly, but she said some people have messy lives because they make bad choices and then have to live with their chaos. Some people have messy lives because they are dealt a hand that is unavoidable- i.e. born with a disability or disorder of sorts, born in a war-ridden country, etc.. And some people have messy lives because the people around them do crummy things to them and hurt them. She thinks I mostly fall in that last category.

With the therapy and spiritual direction I’ve had, I’ve worked hard on minimizing the drama in my life. I’ve learned that I don’t have to save the world. My friend Mike has been pounding that in my head for the last two years. But I try to balance this without losing my generous and loving heart. I still do things (like educate about death and dying) that many people can’t do. I still do things that are too hard for some people. I am actually proud of that. But I try to keep it more manageable.

I’m trying to keep things simple, that can be kept simple. Because loving people, being present with them, being connected is not always simple or convenient, but it’s what you do when you have compassion. I realize some of the growth that I have made when I’m sometimes around people who don’t often keep things simple. In fact, some folks can take the most simplest of things and make them into complicated conflicts. I have less and less patience for it the older I get because my heart and time are busy dealing with things that really do require my attention. It makes no sense to me, but then when I try to see it from a different perspective, I soften a little. Sometimes, people use all that defensiveness and complicating of things to keep themselves from getting close to others. If true love and intimacy frightens you, you will take even the most smallest of things and create a barrier out of them so you can protect yourself. It’s kind of tragic really, if you push people away that are actually safe for you.

Anyhow, I’m being long-winded again. Point is, I will take my punches when I deserve them. When I get too complicated or too drama-ish, I will look inside and adjust myself as necessary. But when I am absolutely not being any of those things, and it is probably being projected on me, I know the difference now. I don’t take those punches or accusations when I don’t deserve them. And I will pull away from interactions that are toxic. Even if they fall in that category of wanting to protect themselves, it is not my place to take punches that aren’t warranted.

One of Freud’s most famous sayings is, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. Simplicity. It’s a good thing. And I will seek it out when the important things in life really are complicated and tearing at your heart. I may be slow to learn, but I think I’m heading in the right direction!


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More Purpose

Last week I wrote about purpose. This week on Facebook I posted a quote from my psychology magazine. Today I noticed that the headline of the article reads “Fulfillment of Purpose.” Hmmm…

I am going to repost that quote and add another from the same article by Mark Hubble, Francoise Mathieu, and Scott Miller. The article is talking about the purpose of therapists. “In the end, we don’t fulfill our purpose by providing caring, empathy, and compassion, no matter how lovingly extended. We do fulfill our purpose, however, when we consistently engage in the kinds of therapeutic practices that objectively promote the client’s improvement. Further, genuinely and demonstrably helping people improve is the entire point of therapy and, in the end, the best of all ways to show that we really, deeply care.”

I had mixed feelings when I read this. Often times I am amazed by the way my personal life dovetails with what is going on in my professional life. This is one of those times that as I read those words, I can’t separate how I feel as a therapist, with how I feel as a client myself, or how I feel as a human being in general.

The ultimate goal is progress, change, growth. When I run groups, I stress that. We are here to support each other, but if we aren’t working toward change, then you are paying for a bitch session. Come and spill your guts, get validated, but then let’s talk about how to move forward.

When that happens (i.e. we have an “aha” moment and actually move forward) in therapy or in life, it is very gratifying and satisfying. Knowing that things actually “work” is a great experience. But what about when we are stuck? And what if that statement is even wrong? Being “stuck” implies that you should be moving forward. What if we are just meant to be where we are? What if right now is as good as it gets? There also seems to be wisdom in that Eastern thought of contentment exactly where you are.

I recently had a talk with one of my clients about this before I read the article. I’ve been seeing her over ten years. I’ve been seeing her husband less than that, but still for several years. They were having one of those repetitive arguments where they both had good points. He said, “We’ve been talking about this for years.” She looked at me, shrugged her shoulders, and said, “I got nothing.”

I was listening to them, thinking the exact same thoughts. They both have good points. I don’t know that they can/will change. I have no idea how to help them past this one. (Wasn’t a life-changing argument, just one of those annoying living with each other things.) I looked at them, shrugged my shoulders, and said, “I got nothing either.”

And they pay me!

Later, she and I were talking in her individual session. It was one of those conversations about angst and the circular problems of life. You do everything you can, but fundamentally things don’t change. I could totally identify with her. I said that sometimes I feel like I would do her a better service if I referred her to someone new who had more wise things to say other than validate her frustrations. She emphatically told me that she would end up walking away from a therapist like that. One of the reasons she has continued all these years, is because I am genuine and real, and she feels like I really get it.

I’ve been seeing my therapist for 15 years. People ask me sometimes if I should change it up. I guess what I’ve concluded is that even if my life doesn’t radically change, I feel good for that 50 minutes I am there. He knows me inside and out. He challenges me and tells me things that are hard to hear sometimes. But overall, it just feels better to have a compassionate ear.

All that flies in the face of what that article says. I guess I don’t fully agree or disagree. I think ONE of the purposes of therapy IS to deliver compassionate care. But another very important purpose is to help people change and grow. I guess that is the bigger purpose. Perhaps the steps to get there require the caring.

In my own life, and my professional life, my purpose is to grow and change, by providing compassion and love. And when the change is slow or non-existent, and I am left with people who care, I prefer not to think of that is failure. Sometimes that is as good as it gets. And if you truly have that love and understanding, that is pretty damn good.