A blog about you (and me) by Stephen Crippen.
Archive for the ‘Being Your Best Self’ Category
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.
Tuesday, September 4th, 2012
This seems like a grim assignment, but every once in a while I encourage clients to write their epitaph. It’s not because I have a strange fascination with death, honest. It’s just this: if you were forced to write down—in fewer than ten words—what your life is all about, what would you write?
If you walk through a graveyard, you’ll likely see lots of one- or two-word epitaphs: “Mother.” “Devoted husband.” “Beloved daughter.” I like these. I like their focus on what above all is most important: our closest relationships. (After all, I’m a relationship therapist!) But after I’ve seen a few dozen of them, I hunger for a little bit more.
Writing your own epitaph decades before your actual death (let’s hope) is not a practical exercise, though I suppose it could be. (If you come up with something really good, why not use it?) But the main idea is to get you thinking about what’s most important to you, what it is—above all else—that gets you up in the morning.
Here’s mine (at least at this particular point in my life): “He Proclaimed Good News.” I like to instill hope in my clients, and by hope I mean authentic hope. I’m not a Polyanna. I take seriously my job to communicate to clients the genuine truth that they can make significant progress, that they can take control of their lives, that they can mend their relationships even when they seem torn beyond repair. Or…if they can’t mend a particular relationship, they can find another way to cultivate life and health in their present dilemma, and be at peace.
(I’m also involved in a spiritual community that reads another meaning into the phrase “Good News,” but I digress.)
Writing your epitaph is a fun (?) way to return your attention to the essence of your life, the Who and What and Why of your own best self. If you died tomorrow, how would you want to be remembered? What, more than anything else, is the most important thing you can say about your lovely, complicated life?
Friday, July 6th, 2012
Well, I can tell you this: my REM sleep has given me a lot of interesting dream entertainment these days. My brain seems to be aware that I’ve taken on a number of challenges for the next four months, and my dreams have gotten a little, well, intense. Since at least two of the things I’m doing are going to be visible on the internet, it’s time to tell my clients what I’m doing, and offer two reassurances.
Let’s begin with the two things that are going to help my clients, or at the very least not affect them at all: I will continue over the next four months to work as a psychotherapist treating individuals and couples in regular weekly appointments. Most of these appointments will be on Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays. I love this work and rely on it not only for my livelihood, but for my creative and intellectual pursuits. I love my clients! Second, my spouse and I are undertaking a major project on the home front, and though I’m not at liberty to describe it, I’m both daunted and excited by the prospect. More news about that soon.
Now, for the other two things. Many of my clients already know that I have a visible leadership presence in my spiritual community: I’m an ordained deacon in the Episcopal Church, currently assigned to St. Mark’s Cathedral, Seattle. For atheist or agnostic clients—and for any client from any tradition who feels uneasy about a therapist who is Christian—let me say again that 1) my particular take on Christianity is highly progressive, liberal, and affirming, and my tradition in particular (the Episcopal/Anglican tradition) is known for its emphasis on intellectual openness, a desire to embrace people with widely different points of view. And 2) though I am a therapist who is Christian, I am not a “Christian therapist,” and am not trained in pastoral counseling or spiritual direction. Bottom line: it’s quite easy for an Episcopalian to run a non-sectarian psychotherapy practice where everyone of all faiths (and no faith at all) is welcome. My work as a deacon will continue for the next four months, though it may be reduced somewhat by the fourth thing:
I’ve accepted a part-time position working on a campaign for the freedom to marry for all couples in Washington state. I’ll be working with a team to communicate with faith communities across the state about marriage and diversity. It’s exciting, but…remember those dreams I mentioned? I dreamt I was caught in an episode of “The West Wing” and couldn’t get out. But don’t worry, I’ve been coaching people on self-soothing skills for fourteen years…I’ll be okay! I look forward to the stability and strength I receive from my psychotherapy practice, and I’m excited to learn and grow a lot over these next four months.
Friday, April 27th, 2012
If you’ve followed my blog for a long time, you know I love our dogs. Typically I refer to them just because they’re a fun diversion. But yesterday I learned once again an important lesson from one of our dogs.
Yesterday morning we were on the usual morning walk. I felt a little cranky, I confess, because it was drizzling and the dogs were doing their usual thing: stopping every fifth step to sniff something. Then I turned and realized that Hoku ala, our younger dog, had his mouth full (and bursting) with the half-decayed remains of a dead bird.
At that moment the other two characters in the drama—Stella, our eight-year-old sovereign dog, and me—reacted in quite different ways. Stella’s reaction was, well, highly adaptive and functional: she glanced over, saw what was going on, and went back to her business. (She’s old enough now, and mellow enough, that she feels no strong need to possess what the younger dog has in his mouth.) My reaction: apoplexy, of course. OMG you’re going to die!!! I went crazy. I know better than to shake him—I have never physically harmed our dogs—but I wanted to shake that bird out of his mouth. I wanted to pry his jaws open (I wisely avoided this as well). Faced with no practical way to stop the behavior, I basically just yelled and carried on. I’m sure it was an entertaining scene.
There’s not a huge moral to this story…it’s mostly just an absurd little scene from my everyday life. But it did remind me of the all-too-human habit of over-reacting to the misguided behaviors of others. Hoku is a dog, so the chances were better than even that he’d be fine, that his stomach would process the bird carcass without fuss. But there was also a chance that he wouldn’t be fine. God knows what kind of poison or contaminant might be lurking in the dead bird. (What killed it, anyway??) Dogs can injure themselves by ingesting things that they shouldn’t. I wasn’t completely irrational in my reaction.
But I did no one (least of all myself) any favors by flipping out. And there are times when I am tempted to do this with humans. Sometimes clients will make decisions I think are going to get them into trouble, or lead to something they’ll sorely regret. But sometimes it’s not my job to say so. It’s not my job to take away their agency, their own control over their lives, even if that control gets them into jams. I’ve made enough major mistakes in my life to know that mistakes are supposed to be a part of my life story. They teach me lessons, and they give me vital information about myself.
So I keep practicing the art of under-reacting to the alarming behaviors of others. I tell myself, slow down, take it easy. You think they’ll live to regret this, and maybe you’re right. But maybe that’s just an interesting chapter in their life story.
And how’s Hoku? Oh, he’s fine. Crazy little monster.
Prince Hoku ala Papageno, approximately 14 hours into the process of digesting a dead bird.
Thursday, April 19th, 2012
I’ve hesitated to write this post for some years now. I hesitate because I don’t want to sound…cranky, I guess, and for several reasons. One obvious reason is that I want clients to come to me for counseling, and they’ll be less inclined to do that if they think I’m a snot. Another reason is that I’m a friendly, conscientious guy who wants to help you. (Truly.) But I need to post this. It’s time.
Every once in a while a client will seem to be working less hard than me on his/her (or their) problems. Most often this reveals itself when we’re scheduling appointments: everyone has busy schedules, and I don’t think I have one client who’s not very busy with something, but sometimes I’ll sense that they’re cancelling sessions or scheduling appointments sporadically not because of busy-ness, but because they’re not putting counseling (or their relationship, or their health) very high on their priority list. I once had a personal trainer at a gym who said to me, “The people who succeed at this are the ones who put exercise right up there in the top two or three priorities of their life.” You don’t have to set counseling itself as a top priority—that wasn’t what my trainer meant: he really didn’t care how often I saw him, just how often I exercised—but if you’re not setting whatever we’re working on in our sessions as a top priority, you won’t see a lot of improvement.
Another way to say it: whatever we water will grow.
That’s why I’m reaching a point where I recommend to new clients that they schedule three sessions, not one. They can cancel the second and third one if they feel it’s not a good fit, but it’s smart to initially plan on three sessions to get into some serious work. And we should plan them to be at a regular day and time: therapy goes best if it’s regularly scheduled. It builds momentum and rhythm.
Having said that, I also know that some clients will come to sessions regularly, but won’t do much within or between them. This is natural, and understandable: when we’re resisting something, there’s usually a good reason for it. Relationship improvement can be hard, and painful. Working on lifelong issues around mood, behavior patterns, and attitudes can be hard, and painful. It’s easy to feel discouraged and even hopeless.
When I sense this is happening, I try to name it in some way. On a few occasions I’ve had to say it bluntly: “I don’t want to work harder than you, and it kind of feels like that’s happening right now.” What we need to do at that point is this: I need to show you that I understand your resistance and discouragement; I then need to back off a bit and give you time to sort through your feelings; and then you need to decide if you want to take this (whatever it is) on right now. You might not. On some level you may never truly want to change. But you may decide, okay, I’m serious now. I need to change now. I’m ready to do one of the hardest things in my life.
When you do, I’ll be working just as hard as you, and we will make progress.
Friday, March 23rd, 2012
Yesterday I started a little series on conflict, and how you can look at conflict through the lens of personality preferences. Let’s take a look at the other two MBTI conflict pairs, and then some final thoughts.
We talked yesterday about the two ways people prefer to make decisions—beginning with logic and analysis (T) or beginning with values and the impact on people (F). And we paired these preferences up with the Judging (J) preference of organizing the world around you and moving toward closure. Now let’s look at T and F when they’re paired up with the Perceiving preference (P), which is a preference to be adaptable with the world around you and keep options open (rather than seeking closure). When T and F are paired with P, here’s what we see in a conflictual situation:*
People with a preference for TP:
Likely cause of conflict: challenges to/of trust
Desired outcome: defined process or progression
Deal with emotions by: excluding them
Others’ impression: catalyst or contributor to conflict
Satisfied when: they can subsequently analyze the outcome
People with a preference for FP:
Likely cause of conflict: challenges to/of values
Desired outcome: respectful listening
Deal with emotions by: accepting them
Others’ impression: someone who includes others’ values and concerns
Satisfied when: there is open exploration
TP’s are…feisty! Trust and personal credibility are important to them, and they’ll address all kinds of issues when they’re in conflict with others. They’ll play devil’s advocate, question assumptions, poke at accepted truths. They may acknowledge their feelings along the way, but in the end they take the conflict into the neocortex for extended analysis and debate, sometimes just with themselves. FP’s can be feisty too, but they’re a differently-colored unicorn: they move into action when their values are threatened, and they accept that emotions belong in the room when the conflict is being resolved. Instead of analysis, they want conflict to lead to open exploration of ideas and possibilities, with everyone being respectfully heard.
Both TP and FP can learn from TJ and FJ that closure is important, and TJ and FJ can learn from TP and FP to create enough openness, enough space, for complicated issues to be thoroughly considered. TJ and TP can learn from FJ and FP the importance of feelings and relationships when resolving a conflict, and FJ and FP can learn from TJ and TP the importance of sound analysis and frank appraisal of data.
In the many relationships of your life, no doubt you get into conflict with people who share some of your preferences, but not all. Sometimes you’re battling with your direct opposite. Having a perfect match doesn’t guarantee that the conflict will go well, because that means you share certain blind spots, so neither of you has easy access to something (a preference to seek closure, for example) that might help you resolve the conflict. But fighting with someone with opposite preferences is tricky too: you might fail to understand each other, or respect each other.
Having said all this, it’s essential to keep in mind that we all do everything described in the MBTI. Yeah, I prefer ENFJ. But I can introvert my feelings, I can take a clear-eyed look at the facts, I can make hard decisions based on impersonal data, and I can remain open-minded and not jump to a resolution before the group is ready. So as you look through these different preferences for handling conflict, you’ll likely recognize yourself. That’s good! Use self-understanding to improve your skillfulness and self-awareness in conflictual situations. But look at the other preferences too. They have much to teach you.
*The differing lists of conflict behaviors for TP and FP preferences are quoted (with light edits for clarity) from Introduction to Type and Conflict, by Damian Killen and Danica Murphy. All other commentary in this post is written by Stephen Crippen. Here’s Killen and Murphy’s booklet: