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Archive for the ‘Nothin’ but a Family Thing’ Category

Does your childhood matter?

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.

The author, long long ago.

Big Theme II: Values

Friday, May 4th, 2012

Here’s another Big Theme that often comes up in counseling: values. (I might start a series! First installment here.)

Let’s start with the same example I used last time: the couple is fighting about money. Let’s say the fight looks basically like this: “You spend money like an irresponsible fool!” “No, you never spend money because you’re selfish and cheap!” A couple could have that fight for hours. But if we look at it through the Big Theme of values, it looks like this: one of them is generous, the other thrifty.

Generosity is more than a temperament: it can be a value. You want to give nice gifts to your friends because they are supremely important in your life and you want the meaningful experience of giving them thoughtful and generous gifts. You don’t want to nickel-and-dime your way through life. You believe money is a way to express kindness, or freedom. Or you have a value that your life (and that of your friends and family) should include beautiful things, or delightful experiences. This is a central part of your value system.

But wait! What about the value of thrift? Your partner grew up in modest circumstances (or let’s face it, he grew up poor) and he never, ever wants to be poor again. Or he wasn’t able to provide a necessity for someone he loved because he couldn’t afford it, and he never wants that to happen again. He was taught never to use a credit card, and the teacher was someone he deeply respected. He was taught to live within his means. He was taught that being careful with money is the mark of maturity. This is a central part of his value system.

Can you see how, when we talk about money on the level of values, it stops being a fruitless argument full of accusations and insults? Both people are acting out of their value system, but because they don’t share the same value system, they have trouble seeing that in the other.

Another quick example: how do you two deal with your families of origin? I come from a big family that traditionally has valued lots of social contact, but perhaps not a high level of emotional or physical connection. (I said perhaps! If you’re in my family and reading this, don’t freak out.) My spouse comes from a family with different values, different assumptions and patterns and beliefs. It’s tempting to encounter your partner’s differences and judge them as faulty, but they’re just different. Maybe your partner’s family values privacy more than yours, and yours values openness. Privacy and openness: those are two good things. But they don’t mix well together. So a discussion about them as values helps you understand the other person much better, and see each other in a constructive, positive light.

“Yeah, but my partner is still crappy with money,” you might say. Sigh. Okay, yeah, maybe your partner could stand to tighten things up a bit. But how receptive would you be if someone criticized you and failed to recognize that—for all your faults—you are acting out of your own value system?

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.

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).

Working with teenagers

Monday, June 7th, 2010

This week I’m working as one of the trainers in an organizational-development training program for leaders of not-for-profit organizations. When the trainers got together last weekend, we went around the room and said what we do in our “day jobs.” I said that I’m a therapist who works with couples and individuals, and mentioned that I also work with teenagers and their parents on various problems, most notably substance abuse. I added that I found this work highly enjoyable.

Today one of the trainers asked me, “Why is it fun for you to work with teenagers, particularly teenagers who are smoking pot or abusing other drugs?” Aside from the possibility that I’m just weird that way, here’s my answer:

Teens and their parents are a great example of culture clash and its impact on relationships. If the parents (or sole parent) finds herself in a power struggle with her pot-smoking teenage son, I help them work on their relationship first, whether or not the teenager ends up giving up marijuana. If you’re a parent of a young adult, you know full well that there is precious little control you have over many decisions and choices your son or daughter makes. This is particularly true when we’re talking about marijuana, alcohol, and other drugs.

But you do have control (some control, that is) over your relationship with your children. If your teenager is smoking pot, failing classes, breaking curfew (what curfew?!), and generally driving you crazy, you can experiment with the following changes to your approach:

1. Take care of yourself, move at a walking pace, and try not to overreact to your child’s behavior.
2. Notice the behaviors and comments your child is offering–behaviors and comments you like–and respond to them gracefully. Don’t overdo it: teenagers tend to distrust and dislike compliments, even though they need plenty of validation from others; you’ll have to figure out how to support them “under the radar” so that they receive the praise without necessarily knowing they received it.
3. Be a visible part of the good experiences your child is having. Tie all rewards (allowance, privileges, etc.) to specific behaviors your son or daughter has done, and tell them about it. For example, you could say, “I’m giving you this part of your allowance because you came home by 11:00 last night,” or “I’m letting you go camping with your friends because you asked me so respectfully.” Make ordinary, ho-hum statements like this (avoid excessive enthusiasm!) and be consistent. Soon your child will understand that it pays to do what you want!
4. Get in touch with your “philosophy of parenting,” that is, your whole reason for being a parent in the first place. Take time to reflect on your motivations for playing this role, and how you can live out your motivations in your relationship with your child.

This isn’t an exhaustive list, but it’s a good sample of the things I work on when parents and teenage men and women come in for counseling. We don’t always solve every problem, but improved relationships are incredibly powerful.

Happy Mother’s Day…??

Friday, May 7th, 2010

Ever since my mother died in June 1996, I haven’t been a fan of Mother’s Day. I expect you understand. Even before her death, it wasn’t a major day because my mother never expressed very much enthusiasm about it. But I do keep the day, in various ways. I know other mothers in my life, and sometimes I honor them (SC and SL, it’s your turn this year!). And I think about mothering itself—about generativity, creativity, giving birth to things. And I think about my own mother.

I read two essays on Mother’s Day this morning in slate.com, and they’re both great. The first is closer to my experience: a person in early-middle life who misses her mother and muses on Mother’s Day. (The “Deathbed Menu” line is terrific!) And the second article is even more fun: a lesbian mom who wants the day all to herself and has to tussle with her partner for the honors of motherhood in the life of their young daughter.

Whoever you are, and whoever (or wherever in the universe) your mother is, I hope you can enjoy these spring days of birth, nurturing, and new life. Happy Mother’s Day.

Stephen Crippen v. The Brady Bunch: Throwdown!

Saturday, May 1st, 2010

I’ve worked with lots of clients who belong to blended families—both parents and kids. These days, it seems blended families are the new normal. If “The Brady Bunch” were televised today, it would hardly be a surprising premise. Two people, both of whom have kids from previous marriages, hook up. *Yawn* But in its day, I suppose, “The Brady Bunch” was radical.

Too bad it was a simplistic fantasy of a blended family, nothing like the real thing.

When blended families form, often enough the people involved don’t know how complicated the relationships can be. If you and I get married, and we both already have kids, you are not automatically going to be recognized as a parent by my kids. (And vice versa.) And in many ways, you shouldn’t. They already know who their parents are, or were. To the best of my recollection, “The Brady Bunch” never let its viewers know what happened to the girls’ dad or the boys’ mom. They just hooked up as an intact family and never looked back. But we all know it can’t be this simple. “You’re not my real dad!” you can imagine Jan saying to the befuddled Mike Brady. And she’s right: he’s not. Let’s have some respect for the perspectives of kids in blended families who know in their bones that parenting relationships in these situations need to be negotiated.

So if you’re a member of a blended family, and feel frustrated that your spouse—or your child, or your spouse’s child—is behaving badly, take a step back and give everyone (including yourself) a break. Blended families need time to negotiate the new relationships and make sense of a very unfamiliar new family structure.

(Having said all that, I confess I enjoyed “The Brady Bunch” when I saw it in reruns in the seventies. If only because they made a trip to Hawaii look awesome!)

New life

Friday, November 13th, 2009

For a long time I worked primarily as a child-and-family therapist, mostly in South King County, but also in Puyallup and Tacoma. These days I’m primarily a couples therapist, though I also work with individuals (and love to do so!). I made the switch for a few reasons, and one of them was that I am not a parent. This hasn’t been a game-changing problem for me, because I know a lot of children (I have, let’s see, twenty-one nieces and nephews!), I have been a child myself, and I certainly have a lot of personal grounding as a member of a family. (Two families!) But I felt some genuine tension about being a child/family therapist and not being a parent. I felt that there were times when my resonance with parents wasn’t all it could be. Since I’m a member of a couple (ten years and counting), my resonance with couples is deep and broad.

Having said all that, I’ve experienced “resonance” (I’m using air quotes because I don’t know exactly what I mean when I use that word) in a deep, broad way recently with a couple of new parents, friends of mine who adopted a baby last week. Here’s their website.

Basically, I’m just thrilled. This is the first time I’ve had such an up-close view of an adopted-baby experience, and I’m surprised at my strong feelings about it. My friends have had a long journey in their quest to become parents, and just recently suffered a significant setback (the baby they thought was theirs turned out not to be), and now I receive photos of the new baby and just stare at them, taking in every detail.

I love my nieces and nephews, and since, oh, 1989, I’ve held them, received pictures of them, hung out with them, and (even though I live across the country) tried to savor their delightful lives as much as I can. And yet, this time, there’s an added whattayacallit, a mysterious something that’s going in inside me. Maybe it’s that the process was so different–and challenging in such different ways–that captures my imagination. Maybe it’s my unique friendship with these people (especially mom). Whatever it is, this is a fun ride.

I invite you to take a moment to reflect on new life in your life. Sometimes it’s surprising–it catches you off guard with a wave of delight you never expected. Other times it’s just sweet, or deeply satisfying, or quietly pleasant. But how is new life emerging for you? Especially this time of year, when our natural surroundings are darkening and dying?

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!)

You’re raising adults

Friday, July 10th, 2009

These days, I mostly work with adult individuals and couples. But I occasionally work with adolescents, and often I work with parents who are grappling with the adventures (and misadventures) of their children. And one bumper-sticker phrase I like to use in my work with them is, “You’re not raising kids. You’re raising adults.”

What I mean is, you’re raising your son or daughter to be an adult, not a child. So limit-setting, boundaries, the occasional “no” answer, and (maybe most painfully) exposure to the difficult, dangerous world is all part of normal human growth and development. It’s natural to want to protect your child from the world–to create an ideal environment, a lock-and-key universe that prevents all bad things from happening to your child, everything from inappropriate TV shows to unkind neighbors to summer camp. And it’s also natural to fear that when something bad does happen to your child, your child is permanently damaged by the trauma. Sometimes the damage can be severe, but most of the time the bumps and bruises of life are essential for the developing human in your care to become a functional adult.

So if you as a parent are afflicted by this kind of anxiety, take a deep breath. Remember that you’re raising a child to become an adult, and therefore the young person in your care is an adult-in-progress, an adult-under-construction. Do all you can to provide safety, security, and a generally right-side-up world. But don’t sweat it. When things go haywire, that’s often enough a key dimension of your child’s developing story as a resilient, competent adult.

And because it’s Friday, sunny, and summertime, I’ll close in a silly way. Right now I’m not raising a human child, but rather a dog who currently happens to be a 12-week-old puppy. And today I thought to myself, “I’m raising a dog, not a puppy,” because today Hoku’s ears started sticking up permanently (or semi-permanently… they still flop down now and again). It’s one of those tiny little losses you suffer. No more floppy ears! But it feels right all the same. We’re raising an adult dog, and he’ll need strong, alert ears! Click on the photo for a closer look, and happy Friday.

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Stephen Crippen
Seattle, WA
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Email: stephen@stephencrippen.com
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