Sunday, November 8, 2009

Anxiety

Being human, we naturally all have quite a bit to worry about. For starters, we may be the only species that has to deal with knowing for sure that we are mortal. Back when existential humanism was mainstream, Ernest Becker wrote a book worth reading called “The Denial of Death.” He noted our difficulties with the hard cold fact that we really have zero control over how and when the grim reaper arrives. Becker felt that denial of our impotence, when it comes to mortality, could bring out either the best, or the worst, in us. This impotence in the face of death could lead us to delusions of omnipotence (think dictators, charismatic cult leaders), on the one hand – or to benign uses of power, such as the empowerment of others (think, say, civil rights).


This was what the Buddha, centuries ago, was trying to work out: how do you live if you’re not wearing blinders? if you actually see the suffering all around you, and the impermanence of everything – how do you bear the pain, why do you even bother? The Buddha’s solution was the attainment of equanimity – the opposite of anxiousness - and countless volumes of elaborations on that idea, including countless workshops and seminars, have mushroomed ever since.

Controlling anxiety is not just a matter of philosophy and faith, though; it’s biological and it’s psychological, too. It’s built in to the most ancient part of the human psyche-soma, a survival mechanism meant to alert us and heighten our responsiveness to danger. In other words, it’s in our nature, and it’s not always a bad thing.

For some, anxiety is all over the place, they know it and everyone around them knows it. For others, anxiety is more subtle, and may be disguised as irritability, anger, moodiness. Obsessive anxiety can be persistent and highly resistant to being explained away. Often, there are deeper reasons for obsessive anxiety, rooted in the ways we were brought up, the things we learned about anxiety from our parents. This kind of anxiety is depressive, and can lead to panic; the feeling of never being able to have enough control. If it’s really chronic, and not just about this or that situation, it’s a good idea to talk to a mental health professional to get some help with understanding and managing it better.

One thing that may be good to bear in mind as you try to deal with your anxiety, whether it’s mild and occasional, or persistent and debilitating, is that you are not the only one. It’s something that challenges all of us, and something we can spend a lifetime learning to understand and regulate.

These days, there is climate change and economic downturn, not to mention that old standby, nuclear proliferation; they are just no help at all when it comes to anxiety. It’s probably easier to go ahead and sweat the small stuff, than to fully confront the big stuff that really makes us feel helpless. But even with huge things that are worth worrying about, we somehow have to go on living, as creatively, as lovingly as we can, don’t we? It’s a conundrum – there are some things we should actually be worrying about more, not less. But then what about everyday life, family, friends – shouldn’t we be trying to make the most of what we have? If you have this all figured out, let me know.

The mid-century Protestant theologian, Paul Tillich, wrote a fine book called “The Courage to Be,” in which he referenced a medieval drawing by Albrecht Durer, titled “The Knight, Death and the Devil.” When I read about this drawing, I got a print and hung it in my office. There’s the knight in his armor, on his horse, looking straight ahead, resolute, determined to reach his goal. To his right is Death, an ancient man holding an hour glass, following the Knight, not letting him forget the dark, terrible fears that the future might hold; a constant reminder of the ultimate annihilation. And behind him, a horned beast, the Devil. I think of the Devil as metaphorical for the demons, all the guilt and shame, that so many of us drag around behind us; the feeling of never being good enough, worthy enough . With fear of what’s ahead, guilt about what’s behind, shame about what is - it’s hard to go anywhere.

Death, the Devil, fear, guilt – that’s life. They follow the Knight every step of the way. But he just keeps looking forward, eyes on the goal, unswerving, committed, determined. He’s an ideal, the Knight - quixotic, mythically possible - but maybe not humanly possible. Nevertheless, he certainly can be an inspiration.





Friday, September 18, 2009

Dependency

Many people seek therapy to try to understand why they cannot form healthy, enduring intimate relationships. Often, their conflicts around dependency are undermining their efforts.

The word “dependency” is used, frequently with contempt, to describe infantile neediness. This contempt for neediness makes us ashamed of having needs. So, for fear of being seen as needy, we hide our needs from others, and from ourselves. But then we feel hurt when a significant other doesn’t recognize our needs without our having to tell them what we want. Or we wish someone would need us more - but when they do, we feel turned off. There are a lot of mixed signals about dependency flying around, and most of us are sending and receiving them all the time.

Dependency is not a dirty word. Whether we’re comfortable about it or not, the fact is, we are born dependent. Throughout the most important years of human development, from infancy through adolescence, what children need most for healthy development is to have the secure feeling that the adults in charge are dependably there for them - caring, interested, empathetic, loving.

This kind of caregiver really takes the time to see and hear the child, and this child is then supported to feel that she matters; having needs and desires doesn’t end up making her feel hopeless and powerless. These children develop faith in the possibility of getting their needs met. They also develop concern about the needs of others – not from being shamed into caring, or being told they are selfish, but from the model of care and concern their parents present.

Children do need to learn to become more independent over time. But the development of healthy dependency can be thwarted when impatient, self-absorbed parents resent the child’s dependency. This leaves the child little choice but to become overly dependent; or else to shut down her own sense of need, and pay attention only to the needs of the parents. Neither situation bodes well. For these people, developing healthy interdependence – relationships characterized by mutuality and reciprocity - can become a lifelong challenge. The classic film The Heiress is a great illustration of this unhealthy kind of parent/child situation – and Ingmar Bergman’s last film, Saraband, is an extraordinarily deep and brilliant exploration of this theme as well.

Some parents keep their children dependent, covertly or overtly, with the aim of maintaining control over the child so that the child will stay and take care of the parent, rather than go off to build their own separate life. These parents are dependent on their children for needs they should be looking to other adults to meet. Classic films like The Barretts of Wimpole Street and Now, Voyager dramatized this kind of parent child relationship to great effect (don’t you wish Rick’s Video store was still around?). And Alice Miller’s seminal book, The Drama of the Gifted Child, has been popular for decades for the way it illuminates these kind of relationships.

We depend on the kindness, the care, the recognition and the understanding of others, from the beginning to the end of life. Finding a partner and sustaining a healthy relationship, where each of you are supported to grow and mature over time, works best when both partners are committed to validating and meeting each other’s needs. If you have been discouraged about building and sustaining a healthy, intimate relationship, you may need help to better understand your needs - especially your fears and conflicts about dependency.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Up To Date

To any current and any future readers:

This is the point at which all the old pieces I've already written are now on the blog.  From here on, all the pieces will be up to date.

Thanks for reading -

Best wishes,
Dan Shaw

D-I-V-O-R-C-E

In Tammy Wynette’s country classic, the “D” word gets spelled out, not spoken aloud, to protect the divorcing couple’s young child. Yet the lump in the singer’s throat suggests that it is she who can’t bear to confront the brutal finality of the word.


Many of the couples I see in my psychotherapy practice, and many 0f the married individuals, report that they feel so stuck, discouraged, hurt and enraged about their relationship that they don’t know if they can keep going. Still, many who are hopeless about their marriage can and do find a way back, even from what seems like total ruin.

Typically, each member of the couple will have bitter complaints that go something like this: “I hate when you do such and such to me.” “Well I hate when you do such and such to me.” “ I only do such and such because you do such and such.” “Well I only do such and such because you do such and such.” Etc.

If both partners can put their own hurts aside long enough to see how they themselves have been hurtful, the marriage has a real chance. But in many cases, one of the partners becomes more and more adamant, insisting that all the couples’ problems stem from the other person. Of course there are cases when one of the individuals is indeed so derailed – for example, from drug addiction, or chronic infidelity – that there can be no progress unless those issues are addressed. More typical, though, is a situation where there is fault on both sides – even when the fault of one is initially more apparent than the fault of the other.

Sometimes, in cases where one partner refuses to accept any responsibility, the other partner will repeatedly back down and take the blame to keep the marriage going. The backing-down partner often develops “mysterious” chronic illnesses, like headaches, gastrointestinal problems, or muscular-skeletal symptoms, and may spend a good deal of time looking to doctors and healers for sympathy. On the other hand, the partner who never accepts any responsibility for the marital problems may also have a host of illnesses, which serve as a further blockade to the kind of searching self-honesty that would allow them to see their own part in the problem.

If one of you does all the accusing and the other has to do all the apologizing, eventually there will be, if not Divorce, then Deadlock. Divorce is one way out of deadlock, and sometimes it’s the right way. Staying in a dead marriage and being depressed, or finding distractions (affairs, for example) are other, less constructive ways of dealing with marital deadlock.

Most marriages arrive at deadlock at some point, and often not just once. And most good marriages that last are ones in which both partners have worked hard, repeatedly, to take responsibility, repair damages, apologize and forgive. We humans will never be perfect, but we can keep on growing as people, right to the end. If you’re not growing as a person – learning to develop more meaningful connection with others, overcoming the shame of acknowledging and addressing the destructive tendencies in yourself that prevent intimacy from deepening - your marriage isn’t growing, either, and it’s probably time to get some help.

Depression


No, not the economic one - the other kind.  Depression, once an illness that dared not speak its name, is now familiar to most Americans.  It effects men and women, young and old, and plenty of us.  Depression can be minor or major – that is, less or more seriously afflicting.  It can come in a single episode, or it can be recurrent or chronic.

Andrew Solomon , the brilliant author of a comprehensive work on depression entitled “The Noonday Demon,” described it as “the aloneness within us made manifest.” “The only feeling left in this loveless state,” Solomon wrote, “is insignificance.”  Another great poet of depression, William Styron, likened it to “darkness visible.”   

To those who have not known clinical depression, the powerful, poisonous grip of it can be hard to understand.  The depressed person, instead of eliciting our compassion, can seem like someone who just wants pity; who isn’t trying; who wants everyone else to be as miserable as he is.  Those who love a depressed person are deserving of compassion themselves: the depressed person is often very hard to live with.  He cannot feel loved, no matter how sincerely and with how much devotion others try to love him.  He clings to his loved ones, even as he pushes them away.  His self-loathing is often turned on those who love him, who then feel the brunt of his profound disappointment in himself, his discouragement and self-contempt.  The more he hurts those who love him, the more he sinks into shame, guilt and despair.

Depressed people need help but often are too afraid, discouraged or ashamed to seek it.  Those who love them need to push, insist, or demand, if need be, that they get help.  Two things help:  medication and psychotherapy.

The SSRI medications (Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitor), such as Prozac and its many successors, have been the most effective medical treatment to date.  With relatively few side effects for most people, they have helped relieve the worst symptoms of most kinds of minor depression, and they are very often successful in controlling recurrent major depression.  However, these medications do not turn sorrow into joy – an SSRI is not a panacea.  Rather, SSRIs help to diminish obsessive rumination.  For the depressed person, this can mean that the compulsion to obsess over an endless litany of cruel judgments against himself can be controlled and eventually even stopped. 

But these habits of self-loathing run deep and have not sprung out of thin air.  The terrible thoughts and feelings of the depressive have meaning – and therapy is the means by which the traumatic origins of depression can become known.  People typically think of “trauma” as a terrible incident of some kind of violent assault.  But trauma can also be developmental.  Developing as a child in a family led by caregivers who are ill – for example, with alcoholism and other addictions; mental illness; personality disorders and mood disorders  - can be a significantly traumatic experience. 
For those who have grown up under these conditions - where trauma is cumulative, and rooted in childhood dependence on unstable caregivers - the sense of utter, desolate aloneness can become a lifelong, haunting presence, like a curse one is helpless to dispel.  Too often, depressives blame only themselves for their difficulties, not realizing that their upbringing all but guaranteed they would eventually fall prey to depression.   Therapy not only illuminates the origins of depression, but helps to create a path toward healing, growth and change.

If you have healed your depression through exercise, through spirituality, through service to others or meaningful, inspiring work, or through a loving relationship – you are among the lucky.  If you’ve tried it all and still suffer, seek the help of a licensed mental health professional.  It is never too late to get help for depression, and to claim the right to a life of meaning and possibility  - a life in which it is possible to love and be loved.       

A New Year

My sister-in-law Juliet told me that one year she decided to only make New Year’s resolutions that she could actually keep. After much deliberation, she resolved to take better care of her shoes. And in fact, she has kept this resolution for many years now (except for the one pair of boots the new puppy got a hold of). It was a matter of being realistic, she told me, and not setting herself up for failure with some unattainable goal.


Which made me think about ambition, aspiration, desire.

George, a young 29 year old man who could still pass for a teenager, was going to be setting up a hedge fund. He had already made a tremendous success as a Wall Street trader, with a system he had worked out that had led to tremendous gains for his company’s clients. Now he wanted to branch out on his own.

George was driven. He didn’t really date; he’d hook up now and then, but most of his companionship came from the guys at the high stakes poker games he frequented. And when he couldn’t wind down, there was one particular pill that would take the edge off for him.

George’s father had divorced his mother when he was about twelve years old, and the father proceeded to do everything he could to ruin his mother. Though very wealthy, the father had schemed so that his wife couldn’t get at his money, and Ralph saw his mother reduced to near poverty. He decided that earning hundreds of millions of dollars would be his guarantee that his mother, his brothers, and he would never lose control of their lives again.

I believe George will succeed, and I’m sure I will both admire and envy his success. But it looks like he will spend his thirties on telephones, in front of computers, living on adrenaline, popping pills, using money as a fortress that could end up locking him up from the inside. George thinks it will all be worth it when he is 40. I hope he’s right.

Is it possible to have grandiose ambitions without being obsessed? The constant stream of celebrity meltdowns the media bombard us with suggests that it isn’t easy. And then there’s that little matter of the collapse of the global economy – oops! Hopefully we all now recognize that the glamour and hype of the celebrity culture and of the financial world is often undergirded by pharmaceuticals, rehabs, prisons and divorce lawyers. And that many seeming successes are actually just bubbles.

George had a moment recently - while high - of perfect peace, looking out at the view from his penthouse windows, feeling really good about what he’s accomplished. George is a great guy; I hope someday he can feel good about himself even when he isn’t high, and that he can open up and share his life, his amazing accomplishments, with someone who loves him.

It’s great to set goals in the New Year. I’m not saying don’t aim high. Go for it! But it’s also important to stop and recognize and appreciate what you’ve achieved, and what you’ve got. We can tend to focus on what isn’t enough, and lose sight of what is, what is good enough. So here’s an idea: resolve to relax more, to connect more with others, and to enjoy living while you can, as much as you can. And maybe take better care of your shoes, while you’re at it. Happy New Year!

Parenting

A friend, and the mother of 2 lovely children, recently told me, her voice crescendoing with frustration, “You should write about what to do when your child is being so impossible that, as much as you love him, YOU ACTUALLY FEEL LIKE YOU COULD BECOME A CHARACTER IN A GREEK TRAGEDY!” Greek tragedies - you know, those ancient dramas where the parents murder their children, or each other, or all of the above?


Full disclosure: I am currently a parent of a 10 year old boy and a 7 year old girl, and all too often I know just how that mom feels. Like you, I struggle with putting good parenting intentions into action. There’s obviously far more to say about parenting than I can do justice to here – and always more to learn - but here are a few suggestions.

• Aim to stay calm as much as you possibly can. Your anxiety, resentment, losing your cool, flying off the handle, shaming and blaming – it just serves as a bad model for your child to mimic, feel hurt and rejected by, and throw back in your face. Being calm when your child is being impossible models to the child that problems, conflicts, and moods are normal human experiences that can be addressed constructively. And it shows that you are dependably in charge – not by force, but with strength.

• Do others tell you your kids are terrific, and you’re wondering why they are often so impossible at home? For kids, growing up, going to school, dealing with the social world and ever-increasing responsibilities is a constantly challenging process. Kids are doing all they can do to hold it together out there. Maybe they need to be able to fall apart a little at home, and maybe we need a little more empathy.

• Kids are super-sensitive, and they easily pick up on your bad moods. Transitions are often tough for them. Does your own moodiness lead you to focus on all their flaws and forget to notice their strengths, their efforts? Try cutting them some slack when they act out – it often helps them calm down and get themselves together more quickly.

• If your partner is a calmer parent than you, stop resenting her (or him), and resenting the kids for favoring him (or her). Instead, ask for her (or his) support to help you become a more relaxed parent.

• Work on your connection to your partner/spouse. Get your power struggles and other disconnection issues cleaned up. Your kids need unified, mutually respectful and loving parents, not embattled and embittered rivals. What kids learn about relational behavior and what they act out is often exactly what you model to them in your own relationship to your partner.



• You are not perfect, you never will be, and no one else will be either. If you can’t admit that, you are officially a control freak, which is to say that you need to get yourself under control. When you dispel all illusions about perfection being a possibility, it will be easier to be accountable for your mistakes and easier not to be expecting perfection from your kid, or from your partner/spouse. When you make a mistake and lose it with your kid, honestly apologizing is a highly effective way of reconnecting and healing. Don’t forget to model forgiveness, too, when the apology is aimed at you.

Finally, find people you can vent to about parenting who aren’t condescending and judgmental. You want to love, care for, support and encourage your kids? Make sure you’re getting all those things, too – from friends and family who appreciate how much you love your kids, how hard you try, and all the good you’re doing.

Gotta Be This or That

Without even realizing it, we are constantly making choices, from one second to the next. Yet for some, choosing is an agonizing process. Unlike the mandate in the title of the 40’s swing tune – gotta be this or that - some people cannot ever decide between this or that, and they and those around them suffer a good deal as a result.


At worst, such indecisiveness may be a sign of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), a mental illness that runs in families. The classic symptoms, such as hoarding, fear of contamination, checking repeatedly, and ordering symmetrically, are considered pathological when the compulsive need to ritualistically perform these actions becomes overwhelming, depressing and disabling.

I’ve seen a number of people for psychotherapy who were never diagnosed with OCD, because their symptoms were not obvious.

For example, there’s the man who repeatedly stays in romantic relationships with women he won’t marry, because he fears he is making a mistake and should be with someone else. He fears the woman he is with will become controlling, demanding, overweight, and that he will lose too much money if she divorces him. He’s also turned down job offers because he felt he didn’t have enough information, only later to realize he had missed tremendous opportunities.

There’s the woman who puts intense pressure on herself to be extremely nice to others, for fear that she will say something cruel and unkind that will hurt them. As a result, she agonizes over any decision involving interpersonal transactions; and obsesses constantly over how she has been offended, or how or if she has offended others.

And there’s the woman who has to exhaustively research any choice about anything – from buying a toaster to moving out of an apartment with an abusive landlord - and as a result, feels unbearably backlogged because of all that she hasn’t been able to get done. When she isn’t utterly exhausted, she’s feverishly busy researching, and obsessing constantly about what and how much she is eating.

The common obsessive-compulsive theme for these people is the fear they have of doing the wrong thing, a fear of making choices which will have both morally and concretely disastrous consequences. They can never fully trust themselves or others, but are nevertheless always unconsciously debating: am I the bad one that cannot be trusted? or are you the bad one that should not be trusted? Is this world safe for me, or am I constantly in danger? No matter how they deliberate, they never get a satisfactory answer.

In therapy, it became clear that each of these people had difficult developmental experiences and certain family problems that seem to have triggered the OCD symptoms. But in each case there was also a history of anxiety disorder in previous family members – a good reason to consider medication.

Today, “SSRI” medications that regulate serotonin levels in the brain are successfully prescribed for OCD, resulting in the relaxing of obsessional rumination. But as with all mental health concerns, talking things out in psychotherapy is also important. For OCD sufferers, medication and psychotherapy can help uncover the underlying psychological structure of the problem, and can aid the development of hope and determination – both of which are needed to gain control of the symptoms.

Choices are often hard to make, but with OCD, choosing becomes a nightmare. If you or someone you know suffers from OCD, the best choice you can make is to consult a licensed mental health practitioner and get you or your loved one some professional help.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Dependency

Many people seek therapy to try to understand why they cannot form healthy, enduring intimate relationships. Often, their conflicts around dependency are undermining their efforts.


The word “dependency” is used, frequently with contempt, to describe infantile neediness. This contempt for neediness makes us ashamed of having needs. So, for fear of being seen as needy, we hide our needs from others, and from ourselves. But then we feel hurt when a significant other doesn’t recognize our needs without our having to tell them what we want. Or we wish someone would need us more - but when they do, we feel turned off. There are a lot of mixed signals about dependency flying around, and most of us are sending and receiving them all the time.

Dependency is not a dirty word. Whether we’re comfortable about it or not, the fact is, we are born dependent. Throughout the most important years of human development, from infancy through adolescence, what children need most for healthy development is to have the secure feeling that the adults in charge are dependably there for them - caring, interested, empathetic, loving.

This kind of caregiver really takes the time to see and hear the child, and this child is then supported to feel that she matters; having needs and desires doesn’t end up making her feel hopeless and powerless. These children develop faith in the possibility of getting their needs met. They also develop concern about the needs of others – not from being shamed into caring, or being told they are selfish, but from the model of care and concern their parents present.

Children do need to learn to become more independent over time. But the development of healthy dependency can be thwarted when impatient, self-absorbed parents resent the child’s dependency. This leaves the child little choice but to become overly dependent; or else to shut down her own sense of need, and pay attention only to the needs of the parents. Neither situation bodes well. For these people, developing healthy interdependence – relationships characterized by mutuality and reciprocity - can become a lifelong challenge. The classic film The Heiress is a great illustration of this unhealthy kind of parent/child situation – and Ingmar Bergman’s last film, Saraband, is an extraordinarily deep and brilliant exploration of this theme as well.

Some parents keep their children dependent, covertly or overtly, with the aim of maintaining control over the child so that the child will stay and take care of the parent, rather than go off to build their own separate life. These parents are dependent on their children for needs they should be looking to other adults to meet. Classic films like The Barretts of Wimpole Street and Now, Voyager dramatized this kind of parent child relationship to great effect (don’t you wish Rick’s Video store was still around?). And Alice Miller’s seminal book, The Drama of the Gifted Child, has been popular for decades for the way it illuminates these kind of relationships.

We depend on the kindness, the care, the recognition and the understanding of others, from the beginning to the end of life. Finding a partner and sustaining a healthy relationship, where each of you are supported to grow and mature over time, works best when both partners are committed to validating and meeting each other’s needs. If you have been discouraged about building and sustaining a healthy, intimate relationship, you may need help to better understand your needs - especially your fears and conflicts about dependency.

© Daniel Shaw 2009

Sunday, August 30, 2009

When The Boss is A Bully

I was once seeing two young women for therapy during roughly the same time period, and the differences in how they each handled very difficult bosses were instructive.


Carla could tell a good, amusing, entertaining story about the boss she assisted and how insane he was. Eventually, Carla stopped entertaining me and exposed how deeply resentful she really felt. But Carla was so good at being perfectly accommodating that her boss considered her indispensable, and came to depend on her more and more. While Carla was complaining bitterly to me in therapy, at her office she was smiling and entertaining and placating her boss without any setting of limits.

Carla also had a boyfriend whom she complained about, yet she couldn’t stand up to him, even though we agreed he seemed to endlessly avoid real commitment. As we explored further, the pattern and its history became more visible. Carla had been daddy’s girl until Carla was a young teen, at which point her father stopped being interested in his family and found a young girlfriend, bought a motorcycle, copped out of paying for Carla’s college expenses, and so on. It seemed that Carla was used to being in relationships where she gave her all, but ended up not getting much in return, especially if she tried to get her needs recognized. She kept working harder at being the perfect daughter, the perfect girlfriend, the perfect assistant. She had become used to being the one who did all the giving, and couldn’t see that she repeatedly got stuck in involvements with people who responded to her ambivalently, as her father had, and balked if she asked anything of them. Luckily for Carla, a friend gave her name to another company, and she left her underpaying job for a much better situation. But Carla still needed to learn to believe in herself enough to form healthier, more mutual relationships. As confident as she was in her talents, she lacked confidence in her sense of authority and entitlement in relationships.

Another patient I’ll call Andrea had grown up feeling that her parents had her back at all times; and that they trusted and admired her. Andrea was working on important issues in therapy, but confidence in what she deserved in her relationships wasn’t one of them. After an initial good year at her job, Andrea’s boss began playing her off against a co-worker. The boss was always demanding more of her, but would make himself unavailable to Andrea when he knew she wanted anything from him, and wouldn’t go to bat for her with the higher ups when it would have been appropriate to do so. In her second year, after a holiday bonus that fell short of what Andrea knew she deserved, she started looking for work and quickly found a far better paying job. She was careful to communicate with her new potential employers what her salary requirements and expectations would be, and what her hopes were in terms of office environment. Andrea and the company heads who interviewed her hit it off beautifully. She started her new job full of excitement and hope.

Angry, selfish, demanding, sadistic – whatever flavor of craziness a boss might come in, it’s likely that anyone who works will encounter a bad boss sooner or later. If you are constantly frustrated about your boss, and you’re not finding ways to make your situation better, you may be part of the problem, and professional help may be advisable. When so much of life is our work life, doing whatever it takes to make work better should be a no-brainer.

Bipolar

I met Lauren, an attractive middle-aged woman with warm, deep blue eyes, for a perfect cappuccino at Didier Dumas’ in Nyack the other day. She had called to tell me about the support groups at the Mental Health Association in Valley Cottage, for people with bipolar disorder and for their friends and family. I asked her to tell me how she got involved, and here is what she said:


She met Josh, her second husband, after being introduced through a dating service. They talked on the phone and he seemed very interesting, very well-mannered. She had divorced at a fairly young age, and raised her now-grown children as a single mom. Josh had raised four children, all Ivy League grads, now with families of their own. He was divorced after a 27 year marriage, and he continued to work in the highly specialized medical field in which he had been quite successful. Lauren and Josh began dating, and soon Lauren learned that Josh’s career had been marked by a series of repetitive conflicts with colleagues; that he needed a lot of attention; that he could at times be inappropriate and demonstrate poor judgment. Lauren continued to date him because in spite of the “issues,” he was also sincere, kind, loving, generous, adventurous, and fun.

Lauren and Josh were married for about a year, when Josh’s strange behaviors escalated. Lauren needed to tend to her ailing elderly father, and as she became less available, Josh became increasingly resentful. He made big messes in the house and didn’t clean up; he’d be banging around working on projects in the middle of the night; he’d easily get angry to the point of screaming. It escalated to the point where Josh seemed completely out of control. Lauren laid down the law and got him to see a psychiatrist; the psychiatrist arranged for an inpatient hospital stay. Bipolar disorder, which should have been diagnosed when Josh was in his 20’s, was at long last identified, and medications were prescribed. Josh started acting like himself again.

Getting the medications right took about six months. Lauren stood by Josh even though she was wounded, feeling self-protective as Josh recovered. At the same time, she learned everything she could about bipolar disorders, she became a walking encyclopedia on the subject. She learned about the mood swings, from manic highs to dark, depressive lows. The highs involve distorted and dangerous thinking, and self-destructive behavior – extreme irritability and anxiety are common; as are grandiose, euphoric states. The depressions are dark, deep, agonizing. These moods can be mixed, they can alternate, they can be separated by relatively normal periods. Lauren had seen it all with Josh.

Lauren made it clear she wouldn’t be Josh’s nurse or his mother – he would have to be responsible for his medications, for monitoring his behavior, for staying in therapy. And he would need to take responsibility for his impact on her and on the others around them.

Josh and Lauren (not their real names) attend both the Bipolar Group and the group for Friends and Family of people with Bipolar disorder, at the Mental Health Association of Rockland in Valley Cottage. For information on the Bipolar group that meets on Tuesday nights please call Leslie Davis at (845) 638-2576; for the Friends and Family group please call Donna Davidson at (845) 613-7086.

As I left Lauren and told her I would tell her story in this column, she couldn’t help becoming tearful. “I’m so grateful,” she told me. “People need to know about this illness, how to treat it, how to get support.” Lauren, thank you for having the generosity and the courage to share your story; I know it will be greatly appreciated.

© Daniel Shaw 2008

Singles

If you were the one without a partner at your family gatherings this season and you weren’t happy about that, you are not alone. A lot of people I talk to are despairing because they have tried and tried, and they still haven’t found a partner. They wonder what they are doing wrong; they wonder if all men/women are just like the last disappointing, unreliable person they dated.

Of course there are many factors that might cause someone difficulty in finding a partner. One problem I encounter quite frequently is unconscious ambivalence – deeply conflicted feelings that are not fully recognized.

I often get astonished stares from people when, after lots of listening and exploring about what is going on with their unsuccessful dating, I question if perhaps they might be more ambivalent about wanting intimacy than they realize. I’ll point out that they have a history of choosing ambivalent, passive, commitment-phobic partners; they have a history of staying with someone too long, even when it didn’t seem right from the get-go; and that they display many other behaviors that suggest that without realizing it, they are making the same bad choices again and again. Then there are the relationships in which both people continually feel like the victim of the other – I’ll save that one for another column.

Working through ambivalence, I will typically explore three areas:

1. Desire. Do you really want intimacy? What were your parents like with each other? What were you like with each of them? Based on your parental models, does intimate relating evoke fears of being smothered? being dominated? being neglected? being expected to be perfect? being constantly on the defensive? Even though you truly want a committed, intimate relationship, there can be another more hidden part of you that fearfully anticipates repeated hurts and disappointment. When these kinds of fears are not conscious, they have an undermining effect on the fulfillment of our desires.

2. Entitlement. If you believe we are all born deserving love as our natural birthright, are you sure you still believe you have that right? If not, what changed? Was your love and affection for your parents welcomed with tenderness, or was it ignored, even rejected? Was love given to you conditionally, begrudgingly, stingily? Were you led to believe that you were never good enough, and therefore didn’t deserve love? Were you expected to meet all your parent’s needs for love, but made to feel guilty about wanting anything for yourself? Now as an adult, when dating, do you make yourself like a commodity, an object to be chosen or rejected? Why aren’t you entitled to choose?

In order to exercise your right to choose, and not remain stuck in the helpless, passive position of waiting to be chosen, you need to flush out the old negative messages and work on internalizing new ones - mesages that support you to believe deeply that you are good enough to have the right to love and be loved. If that reminds you of Al Franken’s Stuart Smalley character, so be it: Stuart Smalley had the right idea (“I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and doggone it, people like me!”).

3. Hope. Do you feel hopeful, confident and optimistic that you will find love? Can you find a way out of discouragement and disappointment, out of fear and anxiety? I recommend you stop thinking that you are being singled out by unseen powers for endless punishment – you’ll never prove it. You are better off working toward developing patience, and the hopeful, optimistic conviction that you have as much right as anyone else to find happiness.

If you are stuck in repetitive, discouraging relationship patterns, don’t give up. I’ve seen again and again that people who are willing to work hard at clarifying their desires, overcoming fears, and building a healthy sense of entitlement and hope, can succeed in finding and sustaining love that lasts.

Rx for Parents With Children

If you are married or partnered with children, answer this: when was the last time you went out on a date with your partner, without your kids? If you have to think about it for more than fifteen seconds, you may just have identified one of your biggest problems as a couple.


When two people make a life together and include having children, they take on innumerable responsibilities. In our commendable efforts to be good, loving, responsible parents, we often forget to plan ahead – to the time when those kids will grow up, start their own lives, and fly the coop. I’ve noticed that many people whose partnerships are hitting the rocks are just at the point of approaching or having to adjust to an empty nest. Again and again, I hear that their life was all about the kids. With the kids gone, they don’t know who they are as people, or as a couple.

The big joke you always hear about married couples and life partners is that their wedding rings have cut off all sensation to their genitals (rim shot sound effect, please). But let’s be honest: happy unions aren’t just about having more sex. You can’t rely on sex alone to create the sense of being recognized, seen, heard, acknowledged and appreciated. Those are the things aside from sex that most partners crave, whether they admit to it or not. What does create the sense of being deeply known and appreciated is the time that a couple puts aside for each other, through the years, to be alone together, to open up to each other, to depend on each other and trust each other.

That is why it is so important to stop making excuses for not hiring a sitter, or having appropriate friends or relatives take the kids for a night or two on a regular basis. Using children as an excuse to avoid deeper connection with a partner is an easy trap to fall into, and a hard one to get out of. If you haven’t been dating your partner; if dating your partner feels like cheating on your kids; if you’re avoiding acknowledging pent-up frustrations or resentments; if you’re having arguments or important discussions on the fly, by e-mail, or when you’re half asleep; if you’re not finding the time to speak and show your love and appreciation because you’re assuming that it’s understood – don’t be surprised that you feel disconnected.

The best way to draw closer and stay closer to your partner is to regularly take time for just the two of you, out of the house, without the kids – at least once a month, but preferably more. You don’t have to dress up, you don’t have to put any pressure on yourselves. Yes, now and then, plan something wildly romantic and special. But for your regular, recurring dates, keep it simple. Don’t always make it a movie or a show, where you barely get to talk. Just go someplace casual where you can hear each other. Maybe you’ll have an argument that you needed to have to clear the air; maybe you’ll be quiet because you’re just calming down and relaxing; maybe you’ll stop worrying about the kids for a minute and take care of each other a little. In whatever way it happens, you can tell each other all about yourselves, and just be the two of you again -- the same two people, more tired, older but still recognizable, who were once so wildly, crazily in love with each other.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

It Ain't Over 'til It's Over

In my experience, people these days are in too much of a hurry to "move on" and "let go." It seems that most of us have a natural tendency to minimize the importance of experiences that have been emotionally difficult. We want to stop hurting quickly, and we don't want to feel embarrassed or stigmatized by difficult aspects of our past or present. What happens when we think we've reached closure, and we really haven't?


Not too long ago, I asked a woman who was having some marital problems about the most significant events she could tell me from her life story. She mentioned several things, including a teenage car accident; but for the most part, she was at a loss. Everything had been quite normal, she told me; her family was intact and there was nothing unusual to report.
When we spoke the next week, she told me with considerable surprise that when she told her husband about the session, he asked her if she had remembered to discuss the sudden, premature death of her younger brother when she was in her teens. How, she wondered, could she have left something so significant completely out of the story?


She and I have come to understand that her parents' mute, unbearable grief was so intense that after her brother's funeral, no one in the family tended to say much about it – almost as though they were ashamed. Everyone tried to go on about their business, and dropped the subject. Did her subsequent heavy drinking in high school, and the car accident that followed, perhaps have something to do with how quickly everyone in her family had tried to "move on" and "let go?" And her marital problems now, the distance she feels from her husband - could it have anything to do with her old habit of pushing feelings down, avoiding thinking or talking about what's painful?


"What's the use of getting into all that now?," I'm often asked. "That was 30 years ago. What good will it do to bring up all those feelings?" For the people who ask these kind of questions, "those feelings" too often never had a chance to be known, articulated, expressed – and thereby processed, digested, made bearable. Buried feelings about painful experiences reverberate in people's lives, and when unprocessed, come back to haunt in ways that are not always obvious. Rushing by the painful times, pushing the painful feelings away, doesn't really work out in the long run. As one of my favorite sages – Yogi Berra - once said, "it ain't over 'til it's over."


Wise advice can also be found in the words of Ecclesiastes: "There is a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance; a time to rend, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak." These different times that the Prophet speaks of are the times of our lives. Moving on and letting go doesn't have to mean pushing feelings away, keeping things on the surface. Moving on happens when we are living fully, awake and filled with feeling, through all the different times, up or down, that the unfolding of our lives will bring.

© Daniel Shaw 2007

dan@danielshawlcsw.com
http://www.danielshawlcsw.com

The Joy of Imperfection

It's summertime – is the living easy yet? Stress all gone? Not yet? Not surprising. As the Buddhists say (pardon my paraphrase): if you're born a human, then you've got stress – no exceptions. Luckily, many folks manage life's normal level of stressful ups and downs with some measure of acceptance.

There is a particular kind of stress, though, which many people experience, that can be subtle and which often goes unidentified: the stress of having to be Perfect. That's Perfect with a capital P.We can all be a bit perfectionistic at times, but "capital P" Perfectionists are more extreme. It's not just that they are unduly frustrated by flaws, weaknesses, vulnerabilities, and - heaven forbid - mistakes. It's that good isn't good enough, great isn't good enough, and even excellent isn't good enough. Nothing is good enough, and someone always has to be blamed for that.


Perfectionists have a rigid expectation of their own Perfection, and a tendency to devalue their own achievements, no matter how considerable. They alternate between being judgmental of others, and of themselves. For the Perfectionist, being "good enough" is a cop-out, a lazy person's excuse for not trying hard enough. The result of this attitude is not greater productivity: it's exhaustion. Like Sisyphus, they feel like they're always pushing a boulder up a hill – or they make the people around them feel that way.


Perfectionists can't stop judging, and it is always the same verdict: "Guilty of not being good enough." In my view, unless you're being paid to be a judge, or unless you're a criminal, then you should not be living in a courtroom, where someone is always being accused, put on trial, condemned, sentenced and punished. Contrary to the Perfectionist's beliefs, conscious or unconscious, imperfection is not a crime, and neither is it a sin.


For some who drink or drug too much, their substance abuse can be a way of shutting up the accusatory voice of their inner slave driver - the inner task master that never stops judging. Their drug of choice provides some relief, but only temporarily, of course, and at much too great a cost.


I once worked with a gifted and intelligent man, whose life seemed charmed to those who knew him socially, but who was grinding himself down with his relentless self-criticism. I asked him, even though I knew what his answer would be, "What if you won the Nobel Prize? Then would you be good enough?" We both agreed that, Nobel in hand, he'd still find a way to trash himself. I am pretty convinced that, in spite of our imperfections, we all have the right to feel that we are basically good enough – to live, to love and be loved. I hope he came to feel that way, too.


So it's summer. Time to bask in the joy of imperfection. If you're having a summer vacation this year, see if you can make it a break from the constant stress of Perfectionism. Appreciating and enjoying what is good enough, in one's self and in others, while knowing that nothing is ever Perfect, is actually a vacation from stress that you can take any time, any place.


© Daniel Shaw 2007

dan@danielshawlcsw.comhttp://www.danielshawlcsw.com

April Showers Bring May Flowers

“Though April showers may come your way, they bring the flowers that bloom in May…”

So goes the ‘20s Al Jolson tune that became a theme song of the Depression era. My mother, who grew up during the Depression, would sing it to herself in our Bronx apartment kitchen at times when she was down. Mom sounded a lot like her favorite singer, Mildred Bailey. In our house, singing tended to lift the spirits.


April showers bring May flowers: so corny, and so true. We don’t know joy in life without also knowing sorrow. Joy and sorrow go hand in hand, like night and day, shadow and sun, showers and flowers. Yet I’ve noticed that some people persist in thinking that there is something wrong with them because they aren’t constantly happy. The truth is that no one’s life - rich, poor or in between - is without some measure of painful disappointment.


I’ve had a beef for a long time with all those different large group seminars that promise so much success and fulfillment as long as you keep coming back and paying for more and more seminars. Yes, we can all use more support, more motivation, more encouragement. But we can’t live in a state of hyper positivity all the time. At least I can’t – can you? Post-Jolson, the Rolling Stones put it well: you can’t always get what you want – no matter how positive your thinking.


It seems to me that part of leading a healthy life is developing the capacity to bear disappointment – in life, in ourselves and in others. To bear – it’s the opposite of collapsing under the weight of something. To bear disappointment, sorrow, guilt, means to be able to go on living productively and creatively – to affirm life, even while bearing the knowledge that life is hard, nothing is perfect, and our time is short.


If we accept that life will always bring disappointments, sorrows and regrets, then it really makes sense to invest in developing the habits of appreciation and perseverance. As the pre-Jolson poet so wisely put it, “gather ye rose buds while ye may.”


It was uplifting to read recently of the 96 year old writer, Harry Bernstein, whose first novel was recently published to tremendous critical acclain. The book was rejected dozens of times, and then lay on a publisher’s desk for a year before someone picked it up and decided to give it a shot. Talk about never giving up!


We probably all know how hard it is to experience a crushing disappointment, at a personal level, or even at the global level – the world can sometimes seem, especially these days, awfully rotten. It’s not always easy to resist the temptation to crawl into bed and pull up the covers. Maybe sometimes, at our darkest times, crawling into bed is the best we can do.
But then come those spring flowers – first there’s crocus and daffodil, then forsythia , then the lilacs, magnolia, apple, cherry - the annual succession more and more fragrant as the summer draws closer. It’s worth getting out of bed for, every time. Winter will always come back - but faithfully, undeniably, thankfully - so will spring.

Spring Cleaning

Well, we made it through January and February, and for many of us, the hope of spring does at last begin to stir the heart. For others, though, hope barely flutters, because the winter months have been painfully SAD - which stands for Seasonal Affective Disorder. For some, this time of year is excruciating. Rather than bringing hope, the end of winter is marked by shutdown, numbness, irritability, a sense of disconnection, apathy, and worst, despair.

Depression, seasonal, situational, or chronic, is a grim illness, because it convinces you that you are not ill, but rather that you are simply weak, lazy, and unworthy. If that's the cruel way that you've been thinking of yourself, then that is the depressed part of you talking. Depression is not a moral failure - though it does lead one to feel self-loathing. Most of us can get somewhat depressed from time to time, but chrnic depression is a powerful disease that eats at the soul and sucks the joy out of life.

The late writer William Styron used the phrase "darkness visible" to refer to his lifelong episodes of depression (it was also the title of his extraordinary memoir on the subject of depression). Styron, and many other highly accomplished, productive people who have spoken publicly of their struggles with depression, have shown exceptional courage to do so. Even in this confessional age of Oprah, many people consider their depression, or the depression of a loved one, as something to be hidden, a secret shame they hope will go away if it is ignored.

More recently, people go to their family doctor and ask for Prozac, or the latest anti-depressant they've heard of. Sometimes with medication, they experience enough relief from the worst of their depressive symptoms so that they carry on. But to attempt to get rid of depression solely in this way is an error, in my view. Yes, depression can be biological, but rarely is it purely a matter of genes. In all my years of practicing psychotherapy, I have never met a depressed person who didn't have significant cause for depression - usually, unrecognized, untreated trauma of one kind or another. Trauma can ensue from a discrete episode, such as an assault, a rape, the witnessing of a horror. But trauma can also be cumulative - examples might be growing up feeling unseen and unloved; or feeling that one never lives up to others' expectations, no matter how unreasonable those expectations may be; or being systematically dominated, controlled or belittled in a relationship. Untreated trauma, discrete or cumulative, is at the heart of depressive illness, and there is still no better way of treating it than through talk therapy, or therapy combined with medication prescribed by a qualified mental health professional.

With good psychotherapy, the root causes of depression can be unearthed. A therapist can be a compassionate witness to your personal history, a history that you may have tried to forget, or get rid of, or render meaningless. Therapy can help you put your history in perspective; learn to live with and bear the losses you need to mourn; and find the courage to make new choices, seek new opportunities. Many people know this, and yet refuse to seek help, believing they can change themselves. Certainly some can, but on the other hand, I've known people who bounced in and out of depression for 50 years before they really got serious and sought help.

Victor Frankl survived the Nazi concentration camps, and went on to become a renowned psychoanalyst. He wrote: "When we are no longer able to change a situation - we are challenged to change ourselves." For those who make good use of it, psychotherapy is still one of the most effective ways of changing oneself. If this has been one more depressed winter for you, begin your spring cleaning by getting help from a licensed mental health professional. If someone you know is depressed, tell them to get help. Getting help is a sign of strength, not of weakness; the decision to get help for depression is a sign that you can find the strength to overcome it.Daniel Shaw, LCSW, practices psychotherapy in Nyack, New York, and in New York City. He can be reached at in Nyack at (845) 548-256; and in New York City at (212) 581-6658.www.danielshawlcsw.com shawdan@aol.com© Daniel Shaw, LCSW, 2007

You Say You Want a Resolution

Another New Year is here, and it’s time to make those resolutions. Lose weight, exercise more, eat healthier, be less irritable, spend more time with the kids, get out of debt, have more fun, more sex, more vacation… Self-disclosure: If I actually remember half my resolutions the day after I make them - let alone eventually achieve them - I’m lucky.

It’s been my experience, both personally and with the people I work with in my psychotherapy practice, that making a resolution to achieve something, to change something in yourself, can be quite challenging for many of us. Rather than being resolute, many people disappoint themselves and others because they are chronically irresolute - the condition famously, tragically suffered by Shakespeare’s Hamlet.

How can we understand ambivalence, the tendency to obsess, to ruminate endlessly about a decision only to find ourselves repeatedly stuck in the same place? I’ll present two very brief examples:

Ted is 33, smart, handsome, and on the partner track in a good law firm. He dates, meets someone he likes, and gets involved in an exlusive relationship. After two years, the girl makes it clear that if he doesn’t want to marry her, she will break up with him. This is the third relationship he’s had like this - in a row. He thinks he can’t move forward because he can’t decide if he’s settling rather than finding someone he is absolutely sure about. When we get down deeper, he realizes that he fears that in any intimate relationship that he commits to, he will be forced into a submissive role, as he was all through childhood by his intimidating, highly controlling father.

Sally is a successful photographer for a magazine. The young intern assigned to help her is driving her crazy - he does sloppy work, he is defensive, feels inappropriately entitled, and acts like he is doing her a big favor. Sally values being respectful and helpful to subordinates, and can’t bring herself to handle the intern. Instead she agonizes in therapy sessions about what the right thing to do would be, all the while continuing to put up with the Intern from Hell. I eventually hear about Sally’s mom, a child-like woman that Sally was always more like a parent to than a daughter. If Sally ever had a protest or a complaint about her mother, and she had good reason to have many, her mom would burst into tears, feeling so hurt and victimized by Sally. For Sally to assert herself always meant that she would end up feeling profoundly guilty, as though it were selfish of her to consider her own needs rather than everyone else’s.

What’s next for Ted and Sally? They have to use the insights they’ve gained in therapy to act, to force themselves past their fear and their guilt, to stop repeating the same patterns they got stuck with and are stuck in. They need to resolve to be resolute. Encouragement and support in therapy and from others will only go as far as their own openness to growth and change, to making an internal shift, a resolution.

And perhaps what needs to be recognized is that whenever we make any choice, we gain the thing we choose, but we also lose what we did not choose. There is no way around that one - it’s a fact of life. If you’re waiting to know what the perfect choice is, you’ll be waiting indefinitely. We can make good choices, but not perfect ones.

So another New Year is here. There are only so many new years any of us will live to see. My New Year’s resolution is to answer Hamlet’s question. To be or not to be? To Be! Yes! To Be.

Happy New Year!

Daniel Shaw, LCSW practices psychotherapy and psychoanalysis in Nyack, New York and in New York City.
Nyack: (845) 548-2561; New York: (212) 581-6658

Shawdan@aol.com
www.danielshawlcsw.com

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Family Functions and Dysfunctions

‘Tis the season for families to gather together, and for some, these will be warm, happy times, filled with glowing Norman Rockwell tableaux and plenty of lovin’ from the oven. If that unambiguously describes your holiday season, count your blessings, and read no further.

For the many people still reading: don’t be embarrassed, you’re not alone. The holiday season is stressful, and not just because of the ever-looming threat of weight gain. Many families, even the most together ones, get increasingly anxious as the time for holiday gatherings draws near. Perhaps you worry about some of the following questions:

- who will drink too much and get mean or inappropriate this year?;
- which sibling will be scapegoated?; which siblings will fight and will it come to blows?; who will mom and dad defend and who will they blame?;
- how much criticism will you have to take? how much being ignored can you stand?;
- are mom and dad going to snap and bite at each other the whole time? will they finally get divorced this year?;
- is this the year you’ll finally come out of the closet? Or is it better just to go on deflecting the questions?
- which of your divorced parents gets what time from you?; which of your kids will be with you? which ones, if any, will be speaking to you?

I could go on. If I left you out in the above, I’m sure you can fill in the blanks.

I suggest that instead of greeting the holidays by going unconscious and numb - and then coming back to your regular life and getting depressed and having fights with your friends and loved ones and wondering why - that you instead take some time to consider what you need to do for yourself to stay sane and healthy over the holidays.

It might seem wrong and not nice, when you’re supposed to be spontaneously creating all those Hallmark/Kodak moments, to be using prescription anti-anxiety medication; or sneaking calls to your therapist or 12-step sponsor; or looking over the plane and train schedules you brought with you in case of the need for an emergency premature departure. You’re right. Reality is not always pretty.

So if you know that Day 5 is always when it hits the fan, then plan in advance to leave on Day 4. If drink 4 is when you start losing control, stop at drink 3. If you need to stay home this year, then by all means take a year off, and give yourself some time to sort things out. Any of the options above make more sense than allowing yourself to be pulled, yet again, into a destructive group regression, turned into a child again, assigned a role to play that you long ago outgrew. As the poet wrote, “good fences make good neighbors,” and similarly, good boundaries, not too loose, not too rigid, but just right, are at least one element of what makes good families.

Remember, nobody’s perfect, including you, and no one’s family is perfect. How do you balance your love and your anger, your need to connect and your need to be your own person? No easy answers. Use the support you have from those you trust, and make the best of your particular imperfect situation. Find warmth and make warmth wherever you can this season. Happy Holidays, and see you in the New Year!
© Daniel Shaw, 2009

Daniel Shaw, LCSW, practices psychotherapy in Nyack and in NY City.
Reach him at (845) 548-2561 in Nyack,
at (212) 581-6658 NewYork City
by e-mail: shawdan@aol.com
website: www.danielshawlcsw.com
and now blogging at: http://danshawmentalhealthnotes.blogspot.com/

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Making Up Is Hard To Do

Most of us have had - and some of us still have - the fantasy that if someone really knocks your socks off, and if they are a scintillating, fantastic person with no problems, then they will make a constantly delightful, always exciting mate, and life will be one big high, all free and easy, for evermore.

Sorry to break the news, but it just doesn’t happen like that, at least not to members of the human race. The fact is, we're all - emphasis on the all, including men, women, straights, gays, and others - fallible, sensitive, vulnerable people, with blind spots and weaknesses. It's exciting to meet someone and feel that old sexual chemistry; but when you get really close, sooner or later the other chemistry inevitably kicks in - the chemistry of buttons getting pushed.

Nobody pushes buttons like those we come closest to. It's a fact of life. When we're born, we start pushing our parents' buttons, and they push ours, and from there on, you can be assured that later in life, anyone you become intimate with will eventually push your buttons, and vice versa. And that especially includes the one person you were most sure was in no way like either of your parents.

That's because, in any couple, both parties bring their relationship history with them - meaning that how we saw our own parents relate to each other, and how we related to our parents, is deeply rooted in our psyches. Once the initial potency of the chemistry between new lovers begins to cool down, our buried relationship history will usually turn up like a bad penny and get acted out, in one way or another.

That is the point where the real work of intimacy begins. Intimacy is not about never having fights and always having good times. Intimacy is about recognizing that we are always vulnerable to each other, always needing one another, and always capable of hurting one another. It's about learning to respect that vulnerability while being more and more honest with each other. It's about making it through hard times, each other's hard times. And it's about learning how to have fights that end - not somewhere in the middle with nothing resolved, but all the way to a point of better understanding and deeper connection, with real apologies and forgiveness.


That's how intimate trust and mutual appreciation deepen and grow. When human beings get close, we inevitably come into conflict. Personal growth for couples comes through struggling, over time, to learn how to negotiate conflicts. Repetitive arguments are signals that each member of the couple - not just one, but both - needs to grow, change, bend. Couples who get really good at repairing the disruptions that inevitably arise between them become able to breathe clearer emotional air. When a couple has learned well how to make up, how to apologize and to forgive, they have more than just fun - they have love.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

You're A Narcissist - In A Good Way

by Daniel Shaw, LCSW

These days I hear the term “narcissist” thrown around quite casually, and what I think people usually mean by it is “it’s always all about him,” or “she’s so vain,” or “he’s selfish.” Psychoanalysts since Freud have been referring, for the last 100 years or so, to the Greek myth about the beautiful boy named Narcissus, to try to describe certain traits of human nature. The story goes like this. Narcissus was cruel and cold to Echo, a nymph who loved him. He hurt her so much, she withered away until only her voice remained. You can still hear her ghostly “echo” when you call out while hiking in the hills. One day, Narcissus saw his face in a pool of water and got stuck gazing at his own awesome beauty. He got so enchanted with his exquisite reflection that he stared at himself until he wasted away and died. The pretty, fragrant spring flower we call Narcissus grew up from where he decomposed.

Readers of “He’s Just Not That Into You” would no doubt have been delighted by the bad news about Narcissus. “Serves him right, that bastard!” Which, undoubtedly, is a healthier reaction than the nymph’s, a woman who loved too much, evaporated, and became nothing more than a mournful echo.

The truth is, while we’re usually not as bad as Narcissus, we all have some of the narcissist in us. Sure, we do our best not to obsess too much about our hair, our waistline, our wrinkles, and so on - but we end up spending a lot of money anyway, on products that promise to confer youth, vigor and beauty on our too, too solid flesh. And beyond the usual vanity most of us would confess to, we all enjoy, or perhaps only long for, admiration of one kind or another. We all spend at least some time, energy and money on self-promotion, on our “narcissism.” How could anyone ever get anything done if they didn’t have some kind of belief in themselves?

The Narcissus myth, though, points to something darker and more cruel than just the foibles of everyday human vanity, or the very human needs we all have for the maintenance of healthy self-esteem. In some cases, narcissism can be pathological. Such people are abusers, people who need to prove and assert their sense of superiority and entitlement again and again, by persuading others that they are inferior. These abusive narcissists love themselves unconditionally, but others are always unworthy in their eyes, always falling short, always not good enough. Maybe it was a boss, or a teacher; it might even have been a religious leader, or a therapist. It might have been one or both of your parents, or a sibling. If you’ve been around at all, you’ve probably known an abusive narcissist. They are the people who proclaim their own perfection, and according to them, they are never, ever wrong. So if there has been any problem, or disagreement, or mistake, or failure - according to the abusive narcissist, it’s all YOUR fault. With this kind of person, you can never win. And because so often they are charming, seductive, persuasive and charismatic, we want their approval, and we keep trying, over and over, to win it. But according to them, we never seem to be good enough.

Abusive narcissists inflate themselves by sucking the self-esteem out of others - and the most powerful ones can make us feel so intimidated and dependent, we might even find ourselves persuaded that their abuse is for our own good. Abuse from a narcissist family member can be the most difficult abuse from which to recover. When the abuser is a parent or sibling, a spouse or partner – someone whom we depend on and have deep bonds to – their repeated attacks on our self-esteem get under our skin more readily and deeply. All the Greek tragedies are stories of the terrible destructiveness and cruelty family members can inflict on one another. This pain is especially acute, because it is caused by someone one has loved and trusted deeply.

But not all cruelty is the same as abuse. If you’ve ever loved anyone, you know that, at times, it’s possible to be terribly cruel to those you love; in fact, it’s almost impossible not to be cruel, sometimes, to those you love the most. If you’re healthy, you can apologize, atone, forgive. Both of you in the relationship can learn to become increasingly less destructive, more and more loving. But an abusive narcissist will never offer a truly heartfelt apology. The real distinguishing sign of an abusive narcissist is that they cannot and will not admit they ever do anything wrong.

If you are trapped in a relationship with an abuser, and you want to get out, you’ll have to learn to stop believing the abuser’s accusations - that you and only you are the wrong one and the bad one. For some people long used to taking it from an abuser -- even, and often especially, if that abuse happened in childhood long ago – shame, fear, guilt and poor self-esteem can be tenacious. It can take a lot of hard work and support to gain enough faith and confidence in yourself to successfully navigate the rough shoals of life, love and work. Healthy narcissism, enough self-love, can help us learn some of life’s hardest lessons about relationships: with some people, we can experience mutual growth, and constructive, creative collaborations; and with others, no matter how hard we try, we’re always left at the bottom of the win-lose seesaw. A healthy narcissism can keep our self-esteem balanced, and give us enough confidence to pursue our dreams and ambitions, to feel worthy of love and to be loving. And it can help us learn to break free from and steer clear of abusive relationships.

Daniel Shaw, L.C.S.W. Upper Nyack, NY shawdan@aol.com http://www.danielshawlcsw.com/

Introduction

The following posts are short pieces I have written over the last several years for publication in The Nyack Villager, a little monthly magazine that everyone here in Nyack, where I live, gets in the mail. I cover a range of topics, mostly regarding things that are relevant to the people with whom I work. I hope you will find these pieces relevant too.