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Let’s face it, I might like one of you more than the other…

Friday, August 1st, 2014

…and other hard truths from the world of therapy.

I’m in the mood to debunk a belief about my field, probably because I encounter this belief a lot, but rarely (if ever) see it borne out in practice. You’re probably familiar with it. (You may believe it yourself.) Typically I hear it in the form of a request someone makes early in our work together: “We’re just looking for someone who can be objective.”

The belief is that therapists are objective. And here’s what I say in response: I’m not objective, but I am aware of my biases, and I use them responsibly in our work together.

Therapists can’t be objective because, well, because we (like you) are subjects. We are creatures bounded by space, time, our own upbringing, culture, language, gender, race, sexual orientation, trauma history (most everyone has been traumatized to some degree), and so on. For example, I was born into a large family and have always known what it’s like to have siblings. I’ve also had only-child clients, and couples with diverse sibling backgrounds. I might resonate with the one who had a bunch of siblings, or I might admire or get along well with the only child (the way you love to learn about someone who’s very different)… And it’s not my job to not feel these things. It’s my job to handle these biases well. They tell me a lot about how this couple works, and probably give me a good idea of how most people experience this couple.

But here’s a harder example: often enough, I will naturally like one person in a couple more than the other. Sometimes this shifts over time: person 1 is more likable at the outset, and person 2 overtakes their partner in likability as therapy moves forward. It happens in the same way people are liked more or liked less by their various friends or family members. (There are times when I suspect my family of origin likes my spouse a bit better than me… but hey, that’s my therapy.)

So … what to do? Here’s what I do, and what any responsible therapist would do:

1) I accept my personal reactions to clients as information, as data, that can inform our work together. If I like your partner better than you at this particular moment, I flag that mentally and wonder to myself what I might be missing about you, or whether I’m just buying into the “public face” of your couple (most couples present a more likable person to the world, if only for the sake of a humorous routine that puts them both at ease). I wonder whether the likability difference “works” somehow for you two, and I actively think behind the scenes to debunk it. I’ll engage both people in different ways, either by connecting more with one of you, or hanging back. I’ll work the data into my theory, and reflect internally about what it might mean for your work and your goals. And 100% of the time, I see it shifting, right before my eyes: soon enough, I click with something the less-likable (in the moment!) person is saying or doing, and the dynamic changes.

2) I accept my personal reactions to clients as information, as data, about me, both as a person and as a therapist. Sometimes I’ll notice a little theme over time: I’ll notice that I’m agitated by several clients who share a certain personality preference, let’s say, and I’ll wonder to myself what that says about my own personal and professional work. “The talkative ones are rubbing me the wrong way this week,” I might notice to myself. “And isn’t that odd! I love to talk and relish verbal back-and-forth in here. What’s up? Am I tired? Are they talking about something that touches a nerve in me?” For me to be a good therapist, I have to be conscious of all this, and on top of it.

So there you have it: therapists are biased. It’s inevitable. In fact, it’s helpful: you’re much more likely to be helped by someone who knows what it’s like to be a subjective, mistake-making, self-aware, and mortal human, rather than an automaton that receives your data like a computer and spits out a standard behavioral prescription. I’m not objective, and that’s a good thing.

Five minutes of grace

Thursday, August 2nd, 2012

Like many other responsible therapists, I regularly seek counseling myself, to work out various issues in my life, and to be sure I’m practicing what I preach. The other day, I was five minutes late due to traffic and construction detours, so I arrived at my therapist’s office in, well, a little bit of a mood.

After I calmed down, my therapist said, “No worries, really. I always offer everyone—including myself—five minutes of grace.” She paused. Then she said, “You know, I really don’t want to live in a world where people don’t get—and give—five minutes of grace.”

Five minutes of grace.

This is one of those simple things that can make a life well worth living. What would it be like if you practiced the “five minutes of grace” rule? Think of how your road rage might go down, and therefore how your heart rate might go down. And think of how you’d feel in general if you practiced this simple, merciful approach in your daily rhythm of appointments and obligations. It’s so easy to be five minutes late, particularly in road-construction season. Fifteen, twenty minutes late? That’s a different story, I suppose, but you could even experiment with cutting others (and yourself) even that much slack.

…Unless the 15-20-minute lateness is a regular pattern, or it somehow interferes with your relationship with that person. It can be a sign of disrespect to be chronically late to appointments. Others have taken time out of their day to be with you, or work with you. If you’re chronically late, you may want to look at that. Do you need to sort out your priorities? Do you need to confront the truth about what you really want to do with your time, and with whom you really want to spend your time?

But five minutes, here and there…why not let that be fine? Consider practicing “five minutes of grace.” Your heart and your nerves will thank you. And so will those who love to meet with you but are also vulnerable to ordinary lateness.

Down with initiatives! Who’s with me?

Wednesday, February 15th, 2012

I’m departing from my usual topics (therapy, relationships) to talk about an issue that really fires me up. Not sure if that’s okay in the world of therapy blogs (that’s probably a pretty tiny world), but hey, it’s another example of how I think, and what I care about, so maybe it still has value for clients. And as the song goes, it’s my blog, so I’ll rant if I want to… Regardless, I want to get this off my chest.

Whatever your position on equal marriage rights for all citizens, surely you’ll agree that Monday was an historic day in the state of Washington. Marriage rights are the law of the land now. Well, that’s not exactly true. They’ll be the law of the land if and when the inevitable ballot initiative is defeated in November. (Actually, there may be two initiatives. Blurg.)

I loathe ballot initiatives. Not “dislike.” Not “disapprove.” I see them as a pernicious threat to everything we hold dear about our political life in this democratic republic. And their wickedness is two-fold: not only do they undermine the power of the electorate, but they are a wolf in sheep’s clothing, appearing on the surface to be the opposite of what they truly are.

Here’s how I see things as a voting citizen of this state and nation: I always vote. I vote in elections big, small, and tiny, and I vote for president, Congress, the legislature, judges, Port Authority officials, mayor, school-board directors, everything. You want me to vote for dog catcher? Great, happy to do it. And as a voter, I have the right to write my representatives, campaign for them, campaign against them, hey, I could even run against them myself. And between elections I have the right to read free media that covers what they’re doing.

And here’s what I see: they present legislation, debate legislation, block legislation, amend legislation, form coalitions to overturn or pass legislation, implement legislation, and on and on. There are tons of problems with the process–campaign finance and what Mitt Romney likes to call “closed-room” decision-making, to name two. I don’t pretend the system is running in a clean and spiffy way. But it’s a system, a democratic republic. I like it.

I watched that system work here in Washington as our duly-elected governor and representatives signed equal marriage rights into law. It was a triumph, but more importantly it was a triumph of discernment, debate, and legislation. The governor herself chose to go through a process in which she moved from opposing the idea to being ambivalent about it to embracing it. And now, after the people have (through their elected representatives) spoken, sore losers are working to put initiatives on the ballot to overturn the law.

I can say honestly that if the law had not been enacted—if it had failed in this legislative session—I would not have supported a ballot initiative to remedy the problem. I would have felt disappointed, but that’s how things go in a democratic republic. We would have lost this one. There’s always next session, next year.

But that’s not good enough for the sore losers. They want to win, regardless of the process. So here’s what they do: they collect 120,577 signatures, get ballot language approved, and put the issue directly before the people for a simple show of hands, preceded by nine months of aggressive advertising by both sides, paid for in large part by out-of-state special-interest groups. The issue this time is gay marriage, but typically it has to do with taxes. So all the voters trudge to the polls (or the mailbox, I should say) and revisit the issues they elected their representatives to address. Here are some of the many problems with this:

Most voters (including me) are not trained experts on the issues in question. That’s why a democratic republic works: I don’t have to understand tax law to be an informed voter, I just need to pay attention to the candidates, be generally informed on the issues, and cast my vote. If I think car-tab fees are too high, for example, I can vote for someone who promises to reduce them. I can then watch her as she works with her colleagues to do that in a responsible, deliberative way (or not), and I can stay in touch with her if I don’t like what I see. But I can leave it to her to iron out all the details. But in a ballot initiative, all of that nuance is gone. How will we pay for this tax cut? How will we maintain our roads without the revenue? What social programs will suffer? What will be the social impact of the cuts? Regarding gay marriage, if I personally like or dislike the idea, that’s interesting I guess, but in a ballot-initiative process, I have no motive to listen to the other side, wrestle with a nuanced position, work through ambivalence, or gain understanding. They just want me to say yay or nay. And you have no guarantee that I even know what I’m talking about.

Meanwhile, the representatives I voted for have lost power. On the same ballot on which I check their name, I diminish their influence by taking my own position on a legally-binding initiative addressing an issue before them. This looks like voter empowerment, but can you see how it’s the reverse of that? My left hand votes for you to be my state senator, and my right hand passes judgment on an issue because I just can’t trust you as a public official to address that issue on my behalf. Or is it that I can’t trust myself to hold you accountable? Either way, I’m not a happy voter.

And…ballot initiatives are anti-progressive. I’m not going to say they’re “conservative,” because I think that term—like “liberal”—has been badly abused lately. All kinds of movements for government overreach have been labeled conservative, and the marriage-rights issue is a perfect example. True conservatives understand that it isn’t their business to forbid two consenting adults from joining together in a marital bond. True conservatives would see overwhelming data proving that same-sex couples raise healthy kids. True conservatives would know in their bones that if the government outlaws marriage between two women or two men because of a cultural belief about the “sanctity” of male-female marriage, the state is treading into dangerous constitutional waters. So that’s why I don’t call ballot initiatives “conservative.” They don’t “conserve” anything, least of all the political system created by our forebears. But they do stop progressive legislation from being enacted. Marriage rights for all: it’s an idea whose time clearly has come, given that seven states (one of them the huge state of New York) have affirmed these rights, and others are planning to follow. But so far every ballot initiative to deny these rights has succeeded. Polls show that a broadening majority of people affirm the right of any two adults to marry, and yet these so-called “democratic” initiatives—because of their polarized language, their lack of debate, and their appeal to demagogues looking for a fight—are inhibiting the people from making their voice heard.

The main problem, though, is that wolf-in-sheep’s-clothing bit. You have more things to vote for on the ballot: surely that means you’re a more-empowered voter! Nope. But it sure feels like you are. Don’t buy it. Ballot initiatives seek to replace our (admittedly broken) political system with a mob-rule design that makes it harder (or even impossible) for anyone to air their differences, listen to dissent, develop their position, learn, and work together toward a solution that makes this state and nation a better place.

…And one last thing, for the two or three of you still reading this. Remember what I linked to above, that there might be two initiatives about marriage on Washington’s ballot this fall? Because of the way they’re going to be written, anyone who wants to vote their beliefs needs to vote “yes” on one and “no” on the other. That’s yet another problem with these dreadful initiatives. Voter error can skyrocket with a ballot like that, and maybe your side will get lucky and you’ll capitalize on the confusion. But really, is that what you want to pop open a bottle of champagne to celebrate? “Hooray! We confused enough people to get that undemocratic initiative defeated!” Meh. If Washington still has equal marriage rights this New Year’s Eve, I’ll toast our governor and legislature for a job well done.

What’s your code?

Thursday, March 3rd, 2011

I’ve posted before on my love for mommybloggers. (Note: not all of them refer to themselves that way. It’s a favorite term of mine, but please don’t assume that they love it too.) And one of my favorites, Heather Armstrong, had a great post today. She was reflecting on the decision of Brigham Young University to kick a player off their basketball team for violating the behavioral code of the (private) school. The code is, as you can probably guess, very, very strict. Getting one’s girlfriend pregnant is most decidedly not okay with them.

I liked Armstrong’s balanced take on the issue—both her acknowledgement that as a private school, BYU can set up any code it wants to, and students shouldn’t be surprised if they are punished for violating a code they agreed to follow; and it’s a really tough consequence for this poor kid, who has plenty of crisis and chaos in his life without being humiliated by his alma mater. And all of this got me thinking again about the concept of code, as in, code of behavior.

What’s your code?

Lots of clients ask me if certain behaviors are okay. “Is it okay if I ask her to just deal with the fact that I like to drink?” “Is it okay if I don’t tell him I had an affair, as long as I put a stop to it?” “Is it okay to check his email without him knowing it?” “Is it okay to…” well, you get the idea.

And here’s something I often say in response: “what does your own code of behavior say about your question?” Or, “I don’t know. Is doing that consistent with your own honor code?” We all have codes of behavior, whether we’re conscious of them or not. My parents taught me tons of things—and most of the time, they didn’t know they were doing it—about how to behave, how to handle emotions, how much it’s right for me to demand from others, and so on. I also learned codes from peers, teachers, religious mentors, and many others. Sometimes I learn them positively: I observe (or benefit from) another person’s honorable behavior; other times I learn from somebody else’s mistakes. But I—and you, and everyone—we all have behavior codes that we follow…and don’t follow.

So if you’re wondering if something you want to do is “okay,” ask yourself, how does this line up with my code? What do I really think about my code? Does it need to change, or do I need to comply with it in this case? (Sometimes it’s the code—not the behavior you’re contemplating—that’s the problem. To take a couple of obvious examples, imagine a woman who learns the code that women should not complain when they’re being exploited or abused; or imagine a man who learns the code that men don’t have legitimate feelings and should just “suck it up.”)

What’s the right answer? I don’t know. But we can learn a lot by taking a good hard look at your code(s).

Happy New Year!

Tuesday, March 1st, 2011

Ahh, it’s March 1st. Such a lovely day. Every year I feel as if the month of February is the longest month of the year. Winter is still going in full force, it seems, and it’s been months now since we’ve really enjoyed nice weather. The light is returning, but it’s still dark during dinner, and not too light in the early mornings. And this year, there was a long cold spell at the end of February, delaying my spouse’s rose-pruning and keeping the garden dormant. Blurg.

But now it’s March 1st! In ancient Rome, so unloved were the first two months of the year that they didn’t really have names. March was thought to be the first month. Hence, “September” means “seventh month,” even though it’s the ninth on our calendar. “October” means “eighth month,” even though for us it is the tenth. Fifteen years ago, when I lived in Minneapolis (where February can be particularly cruel), a friend of mine with a doctorate in history told me this trivia about ancient Rome, and in a moment of idle speculation and late-winter whining, we thought up names for January and February. (Well, he did.) They are the months of “Malum” and “Odium,” in keeping with their awful natures.

(Maybe I shouldn’t tell the world about these somewhat dorky pastimes in my history as a nerd/geek. Ah well. I could do worse.)

So, for me, March 1st is a lot like September 1st—it’s a “little” New Year’s Day, a time in the calendar when, for the hundredth time, I can start fresh, and look forward to at least six months of mostly decent weather, lengthening days, and sweet warmth. It’s a “today is the first day of the rest of your life” kind of day. What will you do today, this New Year’s day, to live life more fully, more joyfully?

Bonkers, wacko, batsh*t crazy…

Sunday, September 12th, 2010

I was working with a couple a few weeks ago, and we were discussing how some of their fights get out of hand. In the course of our discussion, I said something like, “So, when you can tell that the other person is about to bring the crazy, you should…” And one of them interrupted me. Laughing, she said, “Oh, I’m so glad you use the ‘crazy’ word! We had a therapist who never used words like that and thought it was offensive when we did.”

I was glad to make this personal connection with my clients, but I then reflected on why I use the word ‘crazy,’ and other slang words from our long history of marginalizing people with mental illness. Is it really okay for me to use these words? People refer to psychiatric hospitals as “funny farms,” and their words for the patients are worse. Shouldn’t I affirm the dignity of people with mental illness by not using these offensive terms?

I do want to affirm the dignity of all people, especially those who suffer serious mental and emotional problems. But I think the best way to do that is to reclaim these words and use them to describe ordinary, everyday, batsh*t-crazy behaviors that we all do…that I do. There are times (rare, I think, but you’d have to ask him) when I am acting crazy with my partner. I’m sucking my thumb (no, not literally) in a sulk about something I think he did, or I’m bringing my bad mood home, or I’m just generally being unconscious or irrational. I can go bonkers. And so can he. And so can you!

My client is right: it’s okay to use these terms, particularly if we’re trying to work on our crazy behaviors. If everyone is crazy some of the time, then no one need feel ashamed of it. We can get it out in the open and go to work on it. So here’s my question for you: are you staging a Nutty with your partner? If so, come sit by me. I’ve got some ideas about how we can shrink your head!

Critical feedback: this therapist wants it!

Friday, June 4th, 2010

If you’ve ever had counseling, you most likely experienced negative or critical thoughts and feelings about your therapist. I’ve worked with fantastic therapists myself, and even they will strike a wrong note, or just say the wrong thing, in our work together. What to do?

Simple: tell the therapist. If you think I’m taking us into a topic or issue that’s not interesting, not helpful, or just plain irritating, let me know. Hard as I try, I’m not perfect and might take us down a path that just isn’t right. Not only is it okay for you to let me know, it’s actually a fundamental dimension of good therapy. It could even be a breakthrough moment for you: by confronting me with your concern about our work together, you gain experience connecting with another person on a difficult and painful topic. It’s a chance to practice courageous and healthy honesty. It’s good for both of us!

Often enough I can sense that we’re off track, and I’ll beat you to the punch. “Are you mad?” I asked a client a few weeks ago. “Yeah,” she said. “Are you mad at me?” “Yes,” she replied. And the conversation that followed was probably one of the most helpful experiences she had in our work together.

So…let me have it!

I’m the worst kind of football fan

Sunday, February 7th, 2010

I admit it: I make fair-weather fans look like die-hards. I just don’t get excited about football. To be brutally honest, I don’t really know how to play it. (What’s a down? What’s a turnover? Sorry, but I am a football nonentity.) But for ten minutes every other year or so, I get excited. And I just had a fun ten minutes. Who dat?!

I think I am glad the Saints won mostly because I went to New Orleans last year and hold the city in a special place in my heart. And of course I love it whenever underdogs win. I’m not completely okay with this, though, since I’m from Minnesota and the Saints beat the Vikes the other week. But…this is good. Congratulations, New Orleans! You aren’t the Ain’ts anymore.

World Vegetarian Day

Thursday, October 1st, 2009

Sometimes I blog about issues related to general health and well-being. In that vein, today is World Vegetarian Day (and the first day of Vegetarian Awareness Month). I’ll let the organizers speak for themselves, but for me this is a day to do two things. First, yes, I will refrain from eating meat today. But more importantly, I will renew my commitment to being an informed consumer.

True confessions, I am not a vegetarian. But at the same time, I try to find a balance in my eating, which means that there are days and seasons when I refrain from certain foods, and abstain from alcohol. Most spiritual practices and religious traditions encourage some form of what I call “rhythmic eating,” which is a pattern of eating simply (or even fasting), and feast days when you absolutely say yes to French fries (my poison) and dessert. I trust this ancient wisdom.

And I am getting better and better at reading labels. For example, I thought for a long time that “cage-free” was better than “free-range” because it meant that the hens truly did have room to walk, flutter their wings, and do all the other things animals like to do. It turns out that “cage-free” is a more accurate term than “free-range,” but it doesn’t mean the animals were raised or treated more humanely. Now I know to look for the term “free-farmed.” (And I also know that eating animals and animal products is a lot more complicated–and problematic–than I thought.)

So take some time today to pay attention to your diet, and your relationship with all living things. Happy World Vegetarian Day.

Please vote “yes”

Wednesday, September 9th, 2009

I think I’m on a roll. This is my second political post in a row. I made it through all of 2008–a huge political year!–without talking politics on this blog, but this summer there are too many crucial issues being debated for me to stay silent. The first was the White House being inconsistent and unhelpful regarding DOMA and DADT. And the second is Referendum 71.

I’ve found out that it’s hard to get information about Referendum 71 and how it came into being. This webpage gives you a lot of different takes on the complicated story. But the basics are these:

1) the Washington State Legislature passed–and Governor Chris Gregoire signed–a measure expanding the rights of registered domestic partners in the state of Washington;

2) registered domestic partners are not only same-sex couples, but also heterosexual persons who live as domestic partners, are not romantically involved, and do not want to marry because they would lose government-funded health benefits if their marital status changed;

3) a group of citizens tried to collect enough signatures to put this law–written and signed, as noted above, by the people’s duly-elected representatives–up to a public vote; and finally,

4) a yes vote will preserve the original law, and by extension the rights of domestic partners across the state. (And by “rights” I mean decidedly non-radical things like the right to visit your partner in the hospital, or the right to decide who gets your stuff when you die.)

Oh, and I should mention that there are legal actions being taken that call into question the validity of many of the signatures that got Ref-71 onto the ballot in the first place.

I have at least two problems with Ref-71, and I suppose at this point in the post you know what they are! The first is the basic question of justice and fairness. My partner and I are registered as domestic partners, and while certain people might like you to think that this means we’re dangerous radicals, all it really means is that we enjoy all of the rights of married heterosexual couples, with the exception of saying that we are “married.” As citizens of this state, and of this nation, we simply enjoy the right to choose our kin, the right to manage any health crisis we might suffer, the right to decide what happens after one of us dies.

And now, because of fear, misunderstanding and ignorance, those rights are in jeopardy.

But that’s not all. My second concern has to do with the fact that a certain number of citizens are trying to second-guess a law written, passed, and signed by the elected representatives who were sent to Olympia by all of us. It’s not the second-guessing itself that I object to: please understand, I think that dissent is a crucial part of a healthy democracy. It’s that they’re trying to do an end run around the system. They know they don’t have the votes in the Legislature, and they know Gov. Gregoire doesn’t share their views. Unseating all the public servants who oppose them would take a long time, and be very hard to do. So they’re trying to bring down this law using the undemocratic method of a referendum.

It’s clever, really. A referendum seems to be democratic. What could be more democratic than having every citizen participate in a state-wide show of hands? But it’s not. For more on why it’s undemocratic, go here. But I’ll say briefly (because this post is pretty long already, and maybe starting to sound like a rant!) that we don’t live in a pure democracy. We live in a democratic republic. And only in a democratic republic do all the voices have a forum in which to be heard. Minority rights aren’t protected in a pure democracy. In a pure democracy, whoever motivates 51% of the crowd wins. That’s why our forbears took such trouble to construct a form of government that functions more fairly, and with more stability.

So I encourage you to vote “yes” on Referendum 71. The next rights to be questioned and denied could be your own.

(And thanks for listening to my rant!)

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Stephen Crippen
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