The Traffic Light

Our anxiety does not come from thinking about the future,

but from wanting to control it

Kahlil Gibran

 

If you live in NJ and commute you know that you will drive in traffic. You will stop and go and stop and go. If you have to do one of those jug handle turns in order to turn left, you typically race to make the light. Did you ever think what would happen if you didn’t make the light? What would you miss? Would you get a better song to listen to, would you make one more phone call?

One day I got stuck at the traffic light. (For the record, I listened to more music) I waited and waited and waited for the light to change to green. As I made the turn on to my next street, I saw a police car, lights flashing, zoom past me. I kept on driving. I saw where the police car ended up. There was a serious car accident right down the street. I thought, “Wow if I had made that light could that have been me in that accident?” The thought shook me and I continued my commute.

After arriving at my destination, I began to think about recent world events. What would have happened if I was on that New York street the day the bombs went off in Chelsea, or I had been on the platform the day the NJ transit train crashed in Hoboken? How do you explain the randomness of these bad things happening? How do we deal with this? If you think too much about these questions, you will never leave your house again. Your motto will be “There’s no place like home, there’s no place like home.”

Staying home however isn’t the answer. I mean bad stuff happens in people’s homes everyday—accidents, falls, fires, robberies. That doesn’t sound any better, in fact it sounds worse.

What is the answer to the craziness of our world, a world where tragedies happen to both good and bad people? I mean we smile and smirk when karma comes back around and the bad people get it, but at the end of the day it’s hardly a victory. When the tragedies happen to good people, we are stuck, we are without words, we are without anything. There is nothing left to say or do.

Our lack of control in our life is frightening. We desperately want control. We want to know when people will die, so we can say our goodbyes at the right time. We want to know when we will be laid off so we can get our resumes out to land that new job. We want to know when our houses will sell so we can find the new house that we want. We never know any of these things in advance. We get upset, we get frustrated, and we get angry when we have no control.

We need to figure out how to handle our lack of control and how we can live our lives in a healthier, less anxious way. Here is a musical example of our fear and anxiety. The band Incubus, released the song “Drive” in 2000. It appears on their third album Make Yourself. Enjoy the song.

“Drive” gives us a clue for handling this fear and anxiety “I should be the one behind the wheel”. We’ll address this topic in greater detail in part 2 of this blog.

Remember change is possible.

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No Detours

Dedicated to LC who didn’t live very long but inspired many

Many years ago Linda was a client that I was working with. She was a very complicated young woman. She had chemical addictions, eating disorders and an assortment of other significant issues. Her chemical addictions were getting out of hand and she needed to go to detox. Linda agreed and assured me that she would go on Monday. On Monday, after she didn’t arrive at the detox, I called her and the conversation went something like this:

Me: What happened?
L :  You know
Me: You took a detour?
L:   Yes
Me: Ok, (pause, pause, pause,)but really you need to go to detox
L:   I know
Me: How about tomorrow
L:   Ok
Me: So you’ll call them now so you can get in tomorrow?
L:   Yes
Me: So you are going tomorrow?
L:   Yes
Me No detours?
L:  No detours

Linda did arrive at detox the next day, she looked like, someone who was on the highway to hell. She completed detox, but soon her multiple issues and continued detours led her to her final highway. She died way too young, unable to deal with many issues that she could not even speak about.

Linda’s detours sadly led to her undoing in a permanent way, but many people that I see don’t listen to their internal gps settings. They appear to be on the verge of getting better only to get off of “Healthy Road” and make several turns on to “Self-Defeating Avenue” or “Self-Destructive Boulevard”. These detours tend to last way longer than necessary and ultimately lead to lots of guilt, shame, remorse, and self-loathing. When people drive back and find “Healthy Road” they generally have to clean up the messes they made from their detour. As people start to clean up those messes they begin to ask themselves the following questions:

• Why did I do that?
• What’s wrong with me?
• Why can’t I succeed?
• Am I doomed to always do this?
• Can I be healthier?

When people bring these questions to my office, we need to do some probing for the answers. We need to look at how their detouring behavior is “wired”— that is what causes this behavior? Is it something from their past? Is it a long standing issue with their self –esteem? Is it from some traumatic event that has occurred? There may be hundreds of hypotheses about the reasons this behavior exists and the mechanisms that keep this behavior going. Once we have an idea about why a person may detour, then we need to identify how to change this. This can be a very painful process because some the issues have never been addressed. It takes great courage, patience, and trust to work through the pain.

Linda never got the opportunity to do this. Her detours to hell, ultimately led to her demise. Her fear and shame led her to take her secrets with her to her death.

As we head for the New Year, we can work to stay on “Healthy Road” with frequent turns towards “Self-Improvement Street” and “Feeling Better About Myself Avenue”. Whatever the issues are, they can be identified, and healed. No one needs to keep detouring from the right path.

Change is possible

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Ends of Songs

t’s a random day of commuting. Sirius XM is playing on my radio. Like most other people I have to find the best song to listen to. I switch from one channel to the other—I think “hey that’s a great song, oh it’s over”. I get to another channel I think “wow I haven’t heard that song in a long while, oh it’s over”. I change stations again and again (good thing I have over 200 to choose from!!) and I keep hearing the ends of the songs I start thinking about what a weird commute this is—I’ve heard only the ends of many songs. I have heard no beginnings, no entire songs, only the ends. I start thinking about the significance of this—in our lives we want to hear whole songs– we want the entire relationship, we want the whole job story, we want to experience all lifecycle events. We don’t want the beginnings, and we certainly don’t want the ends.

Our storytelling metaphors are “once upon a time” followed by some middle event, followed by some struggle, followed by “and they lived happily ever after”. We close our books, we walk out of our movie theaters and have the “feel good” moments that we are supposed to have. When someone asks about the book, or the movie, we smile and say it was good. However, great filmmakers knew how to disrupt that pattern. When Psycho arrived in movie theaters, Alfred Hitchcock told viewers “no one will be admitted to the film after it starts”. This message told the audience you must pay attention to the beginning, the middle, and the end. The end of Psycho doesn’t leave us feeling good. It makes us feel disturbed. It makes us feel anxious. We may feel robbed of our traditional happy ending.

The end of life for most people is not a happy ending either. We know this movie–it is the most predictable story. If we ignore, deny, and don’t deal with our loved ones endings, we have all the confusion, anxiety, guilt and regret. We are the ones who are unsatisfied, we are the ones who feel bad. Like all other painful situations, we can go through the feelings or we can go around the feelings. I have worked with many people who mastered the art of going around the feelings. Through addictive behaviors or other non-helpful strategies, they didn’t deal with the pain. They numbed the pain. When the pain came back, they numbed it again and again and again. Their pain was gone, as long as they numbed it. When the time came to deal with the past pain, they had not only had the original pain but had the additional pain from their avoidance. Joe Louis, the famous heavyweight boxing champion of the 1930’s and 1940’s said “You can run but you can’t hide”. This is very true of pain, but it is more true of loss.

Endings provide us with many opportunities for change and growth. They teach us to overcome. They test our inner strength. They force us to look not only at the end, but the beginnings and the middles. If we only look at the end, we have pain, and loss, and sadness. We need to examine the entire relationship, the good the bad and the ugly. When we are able to do this examination, we get acceptance and we get closure. In the song by The Doors “When the Music’s Over” Jim Morrison writes “when the music’s over, turn out the light”. We may turn out the light, but we also get the whole song to sing again and again.

Change is possible.

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Strength Benchmarking

We may get knocked down on the outside, but the key to living in victory is to learn how to get up on the inside.”
― Joel Osteen

I had a trainer who periodically decided that the best external indicator of the improvement in my strength was the one rep bench press. This measures the maximum amount of weight that I could lift at one time. For example, if in October I could lift 100 pounds, and in April I could lift 125 pounds, it was clear to him that I was getting stronger. He could take out his excel spreadsheet, look at these two measurements, do some statistical analysis and draw the conclusion that I was indeed stronger.

We use the same statistical measurement in many other areas of life. We can look at the performance of a stock or at the speed of a computer. We can make a determination that the gold standard or benchmark should be this rate of return (stock) or speed (computer). We can then measure other stocks or computers against this benchmark.

Emotions can also have their own benchmarks if we measure them correctly. Our lives are full of tough events that push us into making hard decisions. Our automatic thought is “I can’t handle this, there’s no way I’m going to be able to do this” Some people unfortunately stay in that place and avoid issues–relationship conflicts, financial issues, their own poor self-care etc. The avoidance of the issues only makes them worse and reinforces the “I can’t handle it” approach. This pattern can go on and on and on and on until some crisis occurs. This crisis may mobilize the person’s internal resources in order to deal with the issue. If the crisis is resolved, the person realizes that they can handle stress and crisis and pain. They have just created a benchmark that they can measure other painful events against.

Strength benchmarking can also be used as a challenge to those automatic thoughts. We can ask ourselves “What is the toughest thing that I’ve ever had to deal with?” We can then recollect that situation and the skills and tools that were used to tackle that situation. We then can measure the current situation against the strength benchmark and see how it measures up. Most times, the benchmark will be much greater, giving us confidence that we can handle the new situation. “If I handled losing my job, then paying this bill is much easier”.

Life, however doesn’t always work in positive statistical measures. We may get hit with harder things —a major illness, a significant loss, or infidelity. These issues can be monumental and overwhelming. Strength benchmarking can be helpful in giving us the confidence and tools to handle these difficult issues. “I handled my job loss through exercise, prayer, meditation, and good eating. If I approach this other loss the same way, I know I’ll be working in the right direction”. Positive self-talk, through examination of our past struggles, can give us the confidence that we need to overcome the tough things that life can throw at us.

I no longer have my one rep trainer. His training methods, although statistically significant, produced many trips to physical therapy. I learned in physical therapy about the need to have a balanced core in order to prevent injuries. A balanced core makes you stronger in physical and emotional ways. When you are stronger physically and emotionally, you can handle whatever issues life throws at you. When we are aware our own benchmarks for inner strength, we can handle the weightiest of issues.

Change is possible.

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The Question

What questions do you get asked over and over again about your practice?

My model of therapy involves having two way conversations.  Like most conversations, there are discussions and questions.  Some of the questions are logistical—payment, appointments etc, others are more therapeutic. The question that comes up more often is actually not directed towards me.  It is a question asked rhetorically by my clients about their right to have their feelings.  These are a few samples:

“Why should I be depressed?  I have everything that anyone would want.”

“Why should I be upset about my bonus?  There are so many people who don’t have jobs? “

“I really shouldn’t be upset about my husband talking to that woman at the party, should I?”

This sample of questions shows that people doubt their self perceptions and right to feel.  Self doubts then lead to self loathing about not only feeling these feelings, but having them in the first place.  Their self perception is that they are weak, shallow, and ungrateful people.  This process of invalidation followed by self loathing becomes a downward spiral of lower self esteem.  What a crappy process!!!

How do we change this process?  Give myself permission. What does that mean? According to thefreedictionary.com, permission means – approval to do something.  When I give myself permission, I am granting myself the approval to have feelings, and feel my feelings.  That is powerful permission!!  Permission also comes with its own self-talk channel.  This “channel” can run in my head at any time and tell me “it’s ok to have these feelings”; “it’s ok to feel these feelings”.  This ongoing permissive self-talk gives me the power to own my feelings.  They are mine after all!!!  Once I start the process of permission, I can then challenge my self doubts and self perceptions and can empower myself to be a more feeling person.  If I can own my feelings without the self doubt, I can then work on changing other bad patterns and cycles.

Remember, change is possible!

 

 

 

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