Stephen Crippen Therapy

A blog about you (and me) by Stephen Crippen.

Archive for the ‘Friendships’ Category

What does your friend need or want?

Thursday, January 19th, 2017

I’m beta-testing a new intervention with couples. I’ve been trying it out with several couples recently, and early results have been positive. As we discuss their problems, and as the typical hard feelings of anger and anxiety and sadness come to the surface, I turn to one member of the couple and then the other, and I ask this question of each of them:

What does your friend need or want?

Couples forget that at one point they were friends. They dated, they fell in love, they had good times, and through all of that they were building a friendship. Sometimes couples state clearly that “I married my best friend,” and it’s even in their wedding vows. But even if their core friendship is less overt or obvious, at one point in their story, it was a powerful bond, and also a kind of ordinary bond… the bond of good friends.

To do this exercise with couples, I have to authentically convince them that I am going to work hard to help them get what they want in the conflict. No one wants to think about what somebody else needs or wants if they don’t have any hope to reach any of their own goals. And they’ve spent a lot of time feeling very unfriendly feelings about the other person, and being on the receiving end of unfriendly feelings. So sometimes I’ll begin by saying, “Let’s imagine just for the next few minutes that the person next to you on this couch is your friend.” Then I ask the question:

What does your friend need or want?

I often have to suggest things. “I wonder,” I’ll say, “if your friend needs someone to truly understand how frustrated she feels, without trying to fix it.” Or, “I wonder if your friend needs someone to show some compassion about his frustration with the kids, because when he’s mad at the kids, he feels like a failure, like a bad father.” Or, “I wonder if your friend is really scared about all the changes that have happened, and she needs someone to talk to her about what hasn’t changed, or what won’t ever change, if you can do anything about it.” Or, “I wonder if your friend is just sad right now, and needs someone to hold their hand.”

Sometimes we have to explore these things for a little while. I’ll check with the person we’re talking about to see if we’re on track, and often enough we are. Because it’s not my relationship, it’s not so hard for me to see what your friend needs or wants, because I’m not in trouble with them, and I don’t have a history with them.

Couples have said that when they talk about their issues in this way, it is inherently relaxing and encouraging. They begin to treat one another as friends again. It can also be a good homework assignment, and they’ve come back to later sessions reporting a more positive dynamic at home.

You can try this at home. If you’re upset with your partner, center yourself, breathe more deeply, and wonder about this question:

What does my friend need or want?

Person of the week

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!

The work of your life

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?

Big Theme: Kinship

Friday, May 4th, 2012

Often enough in counseling, we come across what I sometimes call a Big Theme. Typically people think of money, or sex, when they hear the words “Big Theme.” But I actually think those topics (exciting as they are) are rarely the central issue, even if a couple is arguing vigorously about them.

One of my favorite Big Themes is kinship. It’s an old-fashioned word, I know, and maybe that’s why I like it. It evokes something beyond the everyday. And here are a few ways it can reveal itself in a counseling session. Let’s say we’re talking about your aging mother and the conflict you’re having with your siblings about the question of whether to transfer her to an assisted-living facility. It’s obvious how issues of kinship can come up in that conversation: what is the role of an adult child in your family? How does a family deal with a matriarch who no longer can make decisions for herself? What are the obligations siblings have to each other, and to the rest of their busy lives and relationships? Easy: this is a kinship conversation.

But here’s another, less likely one: marriage equality, or even the basic concept of marriage itself. I often work with couples who have different views on the topic. One wants to get married, and the other finds the concept—but not the partner proposing it—appalling. (But you can imagine having trouble distinguishing his negative attitude about marriage from his attitude about you, right?) Sometimes I’ll take them away from the “M” word and ask them what they think “kinship” is, and how they choose their own “kin.” Who are your people? What is “home”? Who lives in this “home” of yours? Why do they live there? What are the ways you mark major transitions or developments in your life? (Marriage is only one of many possibilities.) It’s a kinship conversation, and the back-and-forth about the politicized and electrically-charged word “marriage” can obscure that, and get the couple lost in a fruitless argument.

(Sidebar: debates about marriage equality go better if they’re understood as kinship conversations. Does the government get to tell me who I can and cannot choose to be my kin? If so, why?)

One more example: arguments about money. I’ve had one or two myself, with my spouse, and making it a kinship conversation (instead of “you do [insert annoying behavior] about money and I’m sick of it!”) helps us get to the real thing we’re discussing. What do we believe our kin—our clan, if you will—should do with our money? How much should our clan have? How do we share it, save it, spend it, invest it? Why? It’s “our” money, but it’s also mine, and yours. How does that work? Is it really “our” money? Why? What beliefs and assumptions do we bring from our families of origin (more kin!) about money, and how are we living out those beliefs and assumptions (or not)?

Bottom line: if you’re kin, you can go deeper with your kinfolk on these issues. That’s what you do for your people. And it usually leads to a richer and more productive conversation.

Friendships 101

Wednesday, September 22nd, 2010

Okay. Let’s talk about friendships.

Sometimes I think friendships are the Little Relationships That Could. They’re the relationships in your life that—if you’re like a lot of people—are the easiest to take for granted. It’s like they don’t get no respect. If you’re in any of the stages of a romantic/partnered relationship, whether you’re just getting started, enjoying the early bonding stages, adjusting to changes, managing crises, or breaking up, everyone assumes that you need lots of space and time to work on this most important relationship in your life. If you’re a parent, an adult child of an aging parent, a co-worker, or a sibling, you can count on most people giving you plenty of room to tend to those relationships. But try getting bereavement leave to attend a friend’s funeral, or family medical leave to help care for a friend who’s ill—ain’t gonna happen. And it’s all too common to move through your life and find out too late that a friendship that was important to you has fallen by the wayside.

Right now, in my own life, I’ve been focusing on my friendships quite a bit. I think one big reason for this is that I don’t have co-workers, at least in my job as a business owner and therapist. (I do consulting and training work, and in that arena I have both a BFF-colleague and a mentor-colleague, and I have a great time!) But most days, it’s just me and my clients. I love working with my clients! But between sessions, I can’t roam the office and shoot the breeze with the receptionist—something I loved to do at Group Health—because, well, I don’t have a receptionist. So I’ve noticed that my friendships have become much more important.

But I wish it didn’t take special circumstances like this for me to focus more closely on my friendships. I’d like to cultivate a lifestyle in which friendships are always a major dimension of my personal life. I have cultivated this lifestyle, to some extent. But I could do it with more intention and consistency.

If you’d like to do this, it might help to stop and think about your vision for friendship. What kind of friend do you want to be? What kind of friends do you want to have? I did this a few weeks ago, and here’s what I came up with:

1. If you’re a close friend of mine, I want us to make our friendship a high priority on a somewhat regular basis. I want a healthy number of phone calls, texts, lunches, and other connections. If it’s not every day, that’s fine, but it should be frequent enough that we feel pretty close to each other, and know that we’re both important to each other.

2. If we have conflict, I want us to take it seriously and work the problem. It might be overkill for us to see a therapist, but hey, why not? At the very least, we will be sure we get together to work through our problems.

3. If we drift apart, I want both of us to notice this and talk about it. Maybe you just had a baby, or maybe I’m in crisis with my family of origin, or maybe the everyday circumstances of life have eclipsed our relationship. Whatever it might be, I want us to wrestle with it, to place our relationship on the short list of high priorities in our lives. There are times when our friendship needs to take a back seat, and that’s okay. But at some point I want us to notice this, connect, and discuss what comes next for us.

4. I want us to have a lot of fun together! I want our friendship to be a wonderful gift in our lives, a reason for being alive.

That’s pretty much it! Some of my friends—many of my friends—don’t meet me on my terms as stated above. And that’s okay. But it’s important for me to have a few people in my life who share this vision. Friends matter to me.

If you’re thinking about counseling, chances are it’s because you’re struggling in a partnered relationship, or a family relationship. But don’t forget your friends: your relationships with them—for good and ill—are probably making a bigger impact on your life than you might think.

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Stephen Crippen
Seattle, WA
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