A blog about you (and me) by Stephen Crippen.
Archive for the ‘Being Your Best Self’ Category
Wednesday, October 14th, 2015
I know when: a little over a year ago.
I confess, I’m firmly identified now on social media as one of those people who checks in at the gym. And I’m a pretty serious repeat offender: I go on average about four times a week, and I check in every. time. And I have a running app too, and it’s linked up to let the whole world know I just ran a few miles. I am one of those people.
I could just write myself off (and sometimes do) as a garden variety, tedious narcissist. But there’s more to this practice than vanity. There’s something therapeutic about it, something related to life goals and identity, something connected to my work as a therapist, something worth exploring.
In the summer of 2014, I bought a few personal training sessions at my gym. For the first month or so, I met with the trainer but didn’t do much else, coming in only once or twice to half-heartedly do a portion of his suggested workout. Finally I said this to him: “This isn’t working. I’m not getting anywhere, but now I have a professional on board, so it’s actually more depressing than before I hired you.” “What do you want to do about it?” he asked, and I admired his skillful yet friendly return of the ball to where it belongs—in my hands. And I knew, instantly, what I needed: “I want to email you every time I come to the gym, and (I might have blushed a little here) have you respond back with encouragement. Pat me on the head. Tell me I’m awesome.” He said, “Sure, be happy to!”
So I started doing that, knowing that if I didn’t work out, I couldn’t email him, and if I didn’t email him (I reasoned to myself) he would be disappointed in me. (Therapist alert! Isn’t this unhealthy??) Yes and no: I learn socially, and I motivate socially. I’m an extravert. I’m also not above giving others a little power to validate me. Some of the self-help books would scold me for having a “reflected sense of self,” for allowing my neighbor to determine how I feel about myself. And yes, I can see the danger there. But I also think that life should include some of this: we should build each other up. Encouragement from others is okay. It can’t replace a solid sense of self, but it can be a healthy motivator. Bottom line, I knew that my trainer’s opinion of me really didn’t matter, not even to me, because in the end my fitness work is mine alone, and only I will know truly whether I have accomplished something real, something valuable. And yet … yeah, he’s a professional, he’s helping me out, sure, I care what he thinks.
But the trainer emails, as useful as they were, turned out not to be the whole solution. I simultaneously started checking in on Facebook whenever I went to the gym. I’d try to keep it funny, to make it less irritating, less of an unattractive brag, by posting photos like this in the check-in, of another therapist who was famous for her workout routines (and her love of chocolate sundaes):
And I then chose a close friend to consult every once in a while to get feedback about my social-media presence. “Are the gym check-ins annoying?” I’d ask her (once again seeking validation from another person—yes, I know). “Um, well yeah,” she’d say, “but remember that that’s information about me, not you.” She knows that anyone’s emotional response to another person’s behavior is really just information about themselves. And sure enough, for every person who rolled his eyes at my gym check-ins, another person would message me saying that my fitness work motivated them, encouraged them to go to the gym more often, or walk more, or work on their knee pain so they could be more flexible and active.
And that, naturally, was all I needed to hear. I love to motivate others with my own achievements—yep, I’m a Three on the Enneagram—and the reverse is true too: your achievements motivate me. Sometimes I get small and anxiously competitive, but at my best I engage friendships as a way to motivate both of us to make the changes we want in our lives. I like it when we build each other up.
Don’t even get me started on the joys of Fitbit.
Now that I’m more than a year into my new life of fitness, having finished a half marathon and nearly finished a couple of 12-week courses of weight training, I feel like I’m ready to settle into a new—now not so new—lifestyle of general fitness and strength, an integrated rhythm that comes naturally, a habit that becomes an integral part of a new way or Rule of life. Injuries or illness may throw me off course, but that’s already happened a couple of times, and I feel fairly prepared to handle that, with the help and encouragement of others.
I keep trying to notice the shadow, the dark side, of all this, which is just base vanity and self-centeredness. I won’t pretend I don’t indulge in that. And I may at some point let go of the check-in routine, but not the gym routine. But I’ll probably do so only when I’ve found a better way to share motivation with my neighbor to work for the health and strength of our best selves.
Another person who likes to motivate others by sharing her own story. 😉
Wednesday, March 25th, 2015
So—I did it. I ran 13.1 miles in the 2015 Mercer Island Half Marathon, a race that raises funds to fight colon cancer. I personally also raised funds to support two other causes. In the course of all this, I learned a lot about myself, my body, and what I want to do—how I want to live—in the here-and-now of my forty-something life.
I’ve said to clients that I fly a chair every day in my work, so I need to play in a way that takes my body to the limit. Back in September 2014, I started working out in earnest, and by December I had a wild idea: what if I signed up for a race? I had been using the row machine at the gym, and it felt unsatisfying expending all that energy going nowhere. I started running on the treadmill, and soon recalled the thrill of running—really, it’s just the thrill of high-impact cardio work—when I was 17 years old, back in the 20th century. My 17-year-old self got in shape much faster (and could eat all the cookies he wanted), but even now I can readily see and feel the results of hard exercise. I’m hooked.
Then, in late January, I injured myself. I got ‘Pes Anserine Bursitis’ in my right knee, the result of poor running form in which I radiated my right foot (and knee) outward each time I took a step. It was painful, but the worst part was its persistence: I didn’t start to feel even a little better until mid-February, after a scary three weeks of physical therapy, acupuncture, and a sinking feeling that I wouldn’t be able to finish the race, or even compete: at its worst, I couldn’t run an eighth of a mile without severe pain.
But then that lifted, and I was back on my training schedule. I ran seven miles, then ten, then twelve, with alternating short runs in between. I learned that long runs (for me) are little spiritual exercises in persistence and patience. I learned to find the balance between taking care of myself and pushing harder. I’d be in the middle of mile eight, say, and feel utterly fatigued … and I’d keep going.
I started doing simple math on runs, which became a form of meditation. Every five minutes, the runkeeper app on my phone would tell me how I was doing, and I’d crunch the numbers while I ran: “I’m 6/16ths done now … so that’s 3/8ths … almost half …” Then, one fine day, the app malfunctioned and I didn’t get the updates. I ran in silence. I noticed that without the jabbering of the 5-minute updates, I could focus better, notice what was going on with more intention, and run more efficiently. In running, as in so many things, less is more.
On race day, last Sunday, March 22, I felt excited but not particularly nervous. I knew by then that I’d make it, and it was just a matter of doing it. I was more nervous about all the other runners and the unfamiliarity of the event: this was my first race, except for a little run I halfheartedly did about a dozen years ago, which was so halfhearted I don’t think it counts. My goals were to finish, and to not walk at any point on the course. Done, and done. The eighth mile was once again one of the biggest challenges: my right foot started to hurt, and it was hard to shake the thought that I had several miles to go. I said a little prayer to my higher power and punched through it.
Then there was the twelfth mile: brutal, because on this course most of the twelfth mile is a long, steeper-than-it-looks incline. I refused to walk it. I was slow, just chugging along, but I made it. A nice guy ran alongside me and encouraged me. Runners are kind to each other in these races, I learned.
It felt so good to finish. I felt alive, awake, alert. And of course, I thought, “Yeah, I want to do this again.” I don’t know if I’m up for a full marathon, which is a different race entirely, requiring more than twice as much training as the Half. The Half is challenging enough, I think. But my next goal is going to be about strength: I’ll keep running, but focus more on muscle development and physical strength.
I love to encourage clients to live life fully, so in a real sense this whole project has been a part of my job, even a part of my business plan. It’s important that I live what I suggest, to put my running shoes where my mouth is. And it’s a gift not only to myself, but to my family and friends too: when I’m in good physical shape, I’m in great emotional and mental shape. I’m a better friend, a better husband, a better neighbor.
I didn’t do it all perfectly. The injury taught me that. But I did it thoroughly, I scared myself with a daunting challenge, and I enjoyed my life while I did it … and that’s all I wanted.
Is it time for you to scare yourself?
Thursday, February 20th, 2014
This is a story that I hope will accomplish a couple of things for my readers. First, it will attempt to show how one person applied self-soothing skills (or not) in a challenging situation. Second, it will demonstrate that this therapist is an ordinary human being, which I believe is valuable information for many of my clients.
The other day I flew back to Seattle from a week in Arizona visiting in-laws. The flight was around three hours long. And for nearly three of those hours—really, there were only two or three breaks lasting about a couple of minutes each—a two-year-old in my row was crying and whining and complaining. Crying whining complaining.
I am not a parent. At the time, I kept reminding myself of that. You are not a parent. Calm down. Your friends who are parents would be fine right now. Settle down.
For the first half of the flight, maybe because I didn’t yet conceive of the possibility that the child would carry on for the whole flight, I was relatively calm. I played audio books into my (not noise-cancelling) headphones and made the best of it.
But as the flight wore on, I started to succumb to the pressure. I glanced over, hoping the single dad caring for his screaming daughter wouldn’t notice my glances. I saw that he had brought no toys along, no iPad, no snacks beyond a handful of M&M’s, which his child promptly barfed back into his hand after he fed them to her. This parent was in trouble.
I knew instinctively that there was nothing I could do, or should do. I wasn’t seated next to the little family—I was on their left, across the aisle—and I try to keep a low profile on planes, mostly because the quarters are cramped and I like to stay inward and introverted despite my typically outgoing personality. And I honestly didn’t want this guy to feel additional pressure to smile at me, or thank me, or politely decline a useless offer of help. In addition, my spouse was seated next to the parent (I tried to imagine how he must have felt), and if I had been in his seat, maybe I would have offered to do something, or at least struck up a conversation. But I was at enough of a remove that I judged my best plan would be to stay out of everyone’s way.
My distress began to grow. She just wouldn’t stop crying. Bereft of distractions, nutrition, or toys, the child listlessly played with the tray table in front of her and pushed and prodded anything within reach (I tried to imagine how the person in that seat must have felt). Her dad made valiant attempts to soothe her, which would buy us a minute or two, but then she’d be back to crying.
I thought, okay, maybe she has ear pressure and pain from the flight. She must be hungry. Her poor dad. (I really thought that!) I was a little bit surprised by my lack of rage for the family itself. This guy blew it: I found out later that this was their second flight of the day, and he was just devastatingly unprepared for the task of accompanying a two-year-old on a day of flying.
I finally took a break, heading for the restroom and spending as much time in there as I felt I could without drawing attention or preventing someone else from using it. “Stop stop stop stop stop!!” I chanted in my restroom sanctuary. “Just stop please please please!!”
After washing my hands for a long time in both hot and cold soapy water, and wiping down the surface of the sink as the little sign suggested I do, I reluctantly went back to my seat. All was quiet.
Thirty seconds later, it started up again. It’s me! I moaned inwardly. She hates me. This kid hates me. I shook my head at my own absurd self-centeredness. I do not exist in the world of this child. Her suffering was consuming her.
As the plane began its descent, a flight attendant came by and told the family (in a brief moment of calm) that the tray table—their one available toy—needed to be in the upright position.
Somewhere during this time I caught the eyes of the dad. We lingered for a moment or two, looking into each other’s eyes. I feel regret about this. I’m sure I telegraphed frustration to him, and I honestly wasn’t mad at him, to my own surprise. I was just … desperate. I’m not sure what he told me with his eyes. There’s something about his message that almost seems private to me. I don’t know his name and don’t expect ever to see him again, but I sensed that his eyes were saying something almost intimate to me. Not just “I’m sorry,” and definitely not “Screw your judgmental attitude, stranger who doesn’t know what this is like!” Nothing like that at all. His eyes said something more like … “I know that death awaits us all. And that is a great mercy, don’t you agree?”
As we lurched downward into a windy and rainy Seattle, I found myself wishing for oblivion, almost praying for the plane to shatter into pieces and fall to earth in blissful silence. I put my head down and tried to hide how stupid I must have looked, my hands tightly gripping my temples with index fingers slammed into my ears. I tried to breathe deeply, and failed. I then tried to accept that I was not going to be any more calm than I was in that moment. This is all I have to offer, I told myself. This will have to be enough. I attempted “radical acceptance,” a technique I sometimes teach to my clients.
We landed and the child whined and cried for the entirety of our remaining time together, until I could get out of earshot by walking quickly off the plane.
So … what have I learned? A couple of things. First, like many of my clients, I need to work harder on self-soothing skills. They helped me to some extent, but I was far from the Dalai Lama in that situation. I was definitely not detaching from the drama around me. I didn’t fail at my self-soothing attempt. But I can be better at this.
Second, to my surprise I learned that I’m not as much of a jerk in these situations as I used to be. I’m not patting myself on the back here, really! But it did comfort me to realize that I genuinely wasn’t directing my hard feelings at the child or her dad. I actually understood that they were as much victims of this unfortunate situation as I was. I really believed that in the moment! So: I’m not as much of a jerk than I used to be. Hooray!
Finally, I was reminded that this is precisely where the things I teach clients—and learn from clients—can be applied. Ordinary, everyday dramas and traumas like these. We become better people—and healthier, happier people—in these small ways.
Final note: If you’re that dad and you’re reading this, please accept my good wishes for you and your daughter. And next time, dude you gotta bring more M&M’s and movies and toys and stuff!!
Friday, January 3rd, 2014
There’s one more thing I want to say about laziness.
I was too lazy to post it before. (joke)
Sometimes people confuse ordinary, healthy resistance with “laziness.”
You might be resisting something not because you’re lazy, but because the thing you’ve been told you’re “supposed” to do is just not what you want to do, or just not what you want, period. Or it’s something you don’t need, or shouldn’t do. We all get “should” statements like “I should weigh ___ pounds” or “I should expand my job search in this field” or “I should break up with that person already!” … and sometimes your resistance is a sign that you really shouldn’t do that thing right now. Or at least you don’t need to. You may need to do something else first, or spend some more time in reflection and discernment.
Resistance is nothing more than information about yourself or your situation—information that you can receive and use. “I’m too lazy to get up off my butt and join a gym,” you tell yourself. What if it’s not that at all? What if your body is telling you it needs you to sit in silence and stillness at least once a day, and only then will you feel motivated to exercise? What if your body is telling you you’re sick and need to see the doctor? What if your doctor advised you to exercise more but didn’t listen to what you were saying about your anxiety? Resistance always makes sense.
So don’t confuse resistance with (fictional) “laziness.” Listen to your resistance: it’s a cluster of feelings and behaviors that are trying to tell you something. Only then can you understand the resistance and move through it, into action.
Friday, January 3rd, 2014
“Maybe I’m just lazy.” “He’s just lazy.” “They’re just too lazy to do anything about their problem.” “I’m lazy today.”
I’d like to take issue with comments like that. You’d be better off if you let go of the whole concept of “laziness.” It’s a fiction. At best, it’s a fairly accurate but self-defeating way to describe yourself, or another person.
First, calling yourself “lazy” creates a practical dead-end: if you’re lazy, that’s a character flaw that you can’t really change, or at least not right away. It can be exhausting even to imagine motivating yourself when you’re laboring under the belief that you’re lazy. And your belief that your neighbor is lazy only piles your contemptuous judgment onto the problems she already has that are keeping her stuck, unproductive, or depressed.
Just let it go. Nobody’s lazy. We’re just tired mammals.
I live with two non-human mammals. When they’ve satisfied their hunger drive, emptied their bladders and bowels, and confirmed that they are relatively sheltered and safe, they just … lie around.
Humans are the only mammals (I believe) who make a connection between their daily work output and their estimation of their own value. The other mammals (in my unscientific observation) see work for what it is: the stuff they need to do to fill their belly, reproduce, and live to see another day. Humans make ultimate meaning of work and rest, labor and recreation. We (to our own displeasure) see work as valuable for its own sake.
I once knew a therapist who designed an online scheduling program (something I’m planning for 2014) so that he had one fewer administrative task to do in his private practice. “I let the internet schedule my appointments so I can play tennis, or go for a run, or hang out with my kids,” he said. Is he lazy? I think he’s just a smart mammal who doesn’t want to work when he doesn’t have to.
Do you know how tired you are? Even if you feel tired at this time of year, you may not be in touch with how exhausted you really are. Do you feel too lazy to take down the tree this weekend, or whatever it is you’re “supposed” to do? It’s not that you’re lazy. You’re just a tired mammal.
You should take a nap.
Thursday, November 21st, 2013
One time, long ago, I found a certain person in my personal life difficult. I found it hard to like this person. I found him/her to be provocative, and I noticed that I felt irritable whenever this person was around. (Don’t worry, it wasn’t you!)
So here’s what I did. I held this person in my mind and on my heart for about 30 seconds each day. I thought about their name, and sometimes said it aloud. I allowed this person to occupy my consciousness in an intentional way. After a while (longer than I want to admit), I began to understand this person a little better, react with less irritation, and even like this person.
And so I present this technique to help you appreciate bothersome people in your life, so that you can let go of the negative effect they have on you, and even grow a little bit yourself: Person of the Week.
Each week, select someone in your life who “brings stuff up” for you, riles you, bothers you, angers you. Or maybe they make you sad, or anxious, or worried. Maybe it’s a co-worker and you can’t do anything to change your working relationship with them, so you just want to make your day-to-day contact more tolerable. Maybe it’s a family member, or a friend of a friend. Maybe it’s your beloved spouse, or your child. Anyone!
For the week, adopt a practice in which you keep this person on your mind or heart for some short amount of time each day. If you’re a creative-arts type, you could doodle their name and sketch something from the letters of their name (it can be something upsetting or unkind: be yourself!). But your goal is to move from lacking kindness for the person to tolerating them, and then to acceptance of their presence in your life.
Use humor, and apply it to yourself in liberal amounts. Remind yourself that you can sometimes find practically anybody irritating if you’re in the wrong mood. Be gentle but also goad yourself a bit: okay okay! you might tell yourself. Time to hold this person for 30 seconds! Take a deep breath, center yourself, and breathe your way through the 30 seconds of mental time you’re sharing with them.
There’s a saying that crazy thoughts (or ‘crazy’ people) sometimes occupy our mental real estate “rent-free,” and our job is (I suppose) to evict them. In this exercise, you’re inviting them into your mind as a guest. An irritating, bothersome, challenging guest—but a guest.
It’s okay if it takes longer than a week. You could adopt a “Person of the Month” practice. Take all the time you need.
But above all, remember this: the person you hold in your mind or on your heart is not you yourself. This practice takes you out of yourself. And if you’re anything like me, you will feel relief when you do so!
Tuesday, July 2nd, 2013
When I meet a client for the first time, one of the first questions I ask is, “Have you been to therapy before?” I get lots of different answers, from “No, never!” to “Yeah, tons of times, I’m totally couch-trained.” But the most common response is something like, “Well, I think two or three sessions, maybe? It was a couple years ago I think.”
In other words, “Yeah, but … meh.”
Lots of people go to counseling only to find that it’s not what they expected, not what they had hoped for. And my basic assumption about that problem is this: their counselor—and perhaps the clients themselves, though I’m always harder on the counselors!—did not treat this work as the work of their life.
What could be more important than your relationships? Single or partnered, dating or married, all of us share the basic human need to be in powerful, lasting relationships with others. For some, their deepest relationships are the ones they enjoy with their friends. Others have never been closer to anyone more than their aging parent. Still others look to their marriage as the most important relationship in their life. But we all depend on relationships for our survival.
Donald Winnicott was a psychoanalyst who lived in 20th Century England and specialized in child development. He was famous for the saying, “There is no such thing as a baby.” He meant that whenever you see a baby, you also see a nurturing parent, and the two of them are so psychologically fused that they are—psychologically speaking—one person. The dyad is one; the one is a dyad. In our own time we have Sue Johnson, a therapist and researcher (and like Winnicott, a Brit!) who developed Emotionally Focused Therapy. (I apply her concepts regularly.) For Johnson, couples’ problems are all about attachment, the basic human need to enjoy emotional attachment with another human being.
We spend our lives working out how to trust the people we love, and be trustworthy for them.
So that’s why the work we do in my office is the work of your life. It’s not an exaggeration to say that your life depends on it! Infants in neonatal ICU will die if they don’t receive human touch. If you were stranded alone on an island, you would not die of hunger and thirst. You would die of loneliness. We need each other. So it’s essential that we learn how to care for one another, be courageous with one another, and trust one another.
My hope is that after our work together, years later, when you’re deciding to work with another therapist, you’ll tell them, “Oh yes, I saw a counselor in Seattle. We worked hard and I learned a lot about myself. I’m so glad I decided to do that.”
Shall we get started on the work of your life?
Sunday, March 3rd, 2013
One of the things I say to all of my MBTI consulting clients is this: if you’ve heard of the words “introvert” and “extravert,” then you know about MBTI. “Introvert” and “extravert” have gone mainstream.
Unlike a lot of therapists (or so I think), I am an extravert. I am energized by the outer world of people and things and activities. I can be alone and quiet, but it often leaves me feeling…drained. I have an inner life! But it’s not my top priority. As a therapist, this means I am a bit more talkative and active in sessions, which for most of my clients is a good thing. (A common complaint I hear from new clients is that their former therapist “just sat there and didn’t say anything.” I always tell them, “That’s not going to be a problem for you and me.”)
As an extravert, it’s my responsibility to understand introverts, and approach them with respect and grace. They are not shy. (Some of them might be, but did you know that there is also such a thing as a shy extravert? It’s true!) Introversion is not about shyness or meekness. It’s not about being socially awkward. (Again, there are socially awkward extraverts.) It’s about where a person gets her energy. It’s about what re-charges her batteries. I know brave, courageous introverts. They’re out there, they have hundreds of friends, they are saving the world. But to relax and re-charge, they go into a walled garden.
That’s my image for introverts: they enjoy a walled garden. Imagine a quiet, verdant garden with walls going up all four sides. Little birds flutter in, chirp (not too loudly), and move on. The space is filled with silence and oxygen and life…and peace. Being an introvert is being energized by this solemn and serene environment. Extraverts have broad interests; introverts go deep. When I want to relax, I talk and text and update my Facebook page and talk some more. When introverts want to relax, they stroll into the walled garden.
And it’s important to understand this: the walled garden is a sacred space. You can go in by invitation only. If you’re married to an introvert (which I am), it’s essential that you accept this. You need to build trust, practice empathy, and recognize that your beloved introvert is different from you in this way, and that difference is a good thing. Sometimes you will be invited to come in. Other times, not. Don’t take it personally. I’ve found that when I respect the walled garden—when I recognize its value and meaning to my spouse—I am more likely to be invited in.
I have my own walled garden, my own inner life. I spend more time with myself than anyone else on the planet. I get in touch with my own walled garden when I walk our puppy dogs, or work out, or take a hot bath. But I’m married to someone who goes to his walled garden a lot more often, and with more intention, and reverence. I can respect that. It’s not my preference, but it really is a lovely way to live on this earth.
Wednesday, February 20th, 2013
“I deserve to be happy.”
“I deserve to be treated with respect.”
“I deserve an honest answer.”
These all sound like terrific, therapist-approved statements. Too bad they make me squirm. I’ve been mulling over my discomfort with “I deserve _____” and finally have a few thoughts that might shed some light on it.
Before I say anything, I want to say that I believe in fundamental human rights, and I believe that all human beings should be treated with respect, should be free to pursue happiness, should be in honest relationships with people of high integrity.
But I don’t like the way we sometimes demand this as our due. “I deserve to be treated with respect.” Well, okay, sure. But wait: why? Think about that for a second. If you deserve it, the way a laborer deserves her wages, then you can go ahead and assert for it. You behave respectfully; go ahead and demand that you be treated as such. But I worry that this makes the transaction conflictual, and over time can make anxiety build up inside you. You’re going around asserting what you deserve…at some point I’m guessing you’ll feel exhausted and drained. And more prone to doing things that aren’t respectable, honest, or gratifying.
“I deserve _____” is a good way to start a sentence when you and your co-workers aren’t getting health insurance or a living wage. (Though even in a situation like that, what I’m about to propose might be more powerful.) But “I deserve _____” can quickly become a barrier to getting what you truly want. I’m much more likely to respect you and be honest with you if you’re clearly stating what you want, rather than what you deserve. Go back and look at the statements at the top of the post, and then consider the ones below. Which ones might be more powerful?
“I want us to find the happiness we had a few years ago. I loved being with you. You made me so happy. I can see us feeling that way again.”
“I appreciate your honesty. I’ve felt betrayed by you, and have hurt you as well. I want to rebuild a strong relationship with you.”
These statements have these as starting points:
“I want _____.”
“I desire _____.”
“My hopes and dreams are _____.”
Do I deserve what I want? Do I deserve to have my dreams come true? Maybe. But starting from that stance can lead me to an anxious place where I have to fight to get what I want, rather than building it with someone (or within myself). Instead of cultivating a garden, I’m pointing at the soil and saying, “I deserve a beautiful garden!”
Try a new starting point. Begin with your hopes and dreams, and let go of the feeling that you “deserve” anything. Now… what do you really want?
Wednesday, January 9th, 2013
Therapy and therapists are often lampooned in pop culture. Typically, I laugh right along with you. We’re easy targets, after all. We ask you how you’re feeling, we help you feel better, we affirm you… the skit practically writes itself. And I can’t be a good therapist (or a good human being, really) if I can’t laugh at myself.
One popular line of satire talks about therapy as an absurd exploration of one’s childhood, typically along Freudian lines. You explore your long-repressed, unconscious mix of rage and desire for your parent. All that. Of course, psychodynamic psychotherapy—the contemporary body of work and thought that traces its ancestry most directly back to Freud—is much more nuanced and insightful than that. But I wasn’t trained in that tradition. I studied couple and family systems therapy, a radically different way of looking at a problem, a client, and really everything I do for a living.
And yet… sometimes I ask you about your childhood.
Let me assure you: we don’t go off the deep end. We don’t dwell on every psychological bump and bruise you suffered as a child. Even if you were seriously traumatized in childhood—something that’s much more common than most people think—we don’t necessarily treat that trauma as a life-damaging, permanent psychological disability. Many people who were traumatized as children grow up to be highly functional, healthy, happy adults. (And others do not. It’s case-by-case.)
My exploration of childhood is not typically so problem-focused, or trauma-focused. And I don’t dwell for hours on the topic. But I might ask you questions like this: “What kind of kid do you think your family of origin wanted you to be? What did they value, and how did they reward you for doing what they value?” For example, I’ve come to discover in my own life that I have a preference for extraversion: I am an extravert. (I have friends who would say, “No shit.”) But I didn’t appreciate this right away, maybe because in my childhood years, I don’t think I was rewarded for being outgoing and extraverted. I wasn’t punished for it either, but I remember learning early on that my family of origin included lots of introverts, and rewarded kids for doing introverted things. I was encouraged to read, to study. I was affirmed for being…quiet? That’s not exactly right. Maybe I was affirmed for being easy, or easy-going, or self-effacing. That doesn’t mean I actually was easy-going! (Cough.) I just knew, or thought I knew, that that was valued in my family.
As a result—and this is why I ask you about it—I might unconsciously assume that my spouse or friends or employer value the same things. I might be quieter than I “should” be… I might hold back when it would be better to behave differently. Or I might not bring up a troubling issue with someone because I learned long ago that it’s best not to do that.
This works in lots of other ways. Natural introverts might have been rewarded by their extraverted family for being outgoing, and not understand why they come home from work these days feeling so exhausted. They might not realize that they’ve been acting out of preference all day because they (unconsciously) thought that’s what everyone wanted from them, when in reality they would have been fine behaving as their natural, introverted selves… or their workplace actually values a more introverted style.
We grow up assuming that what we’re experiencing is what is, or what is appropriate, correct, or valuable. And in its own context (with the exception of cruelty and abuse), it is all of those things. But there are other ways of living, relating, and working. Your friends, spouse, or colleagues may be operating from radically different assumptions. That’s why it’s helpful to explore your childhood a little bit. What have you been assuming all along, going back to your earliest days? Are those assumptions worth questioning? What might be a different way of relating to others, and might it actually be a better fit for you?
The author, long long ago.