A blog about you (and me) by Stephen Crippen.
October 23rd, 2014
So, let’s talk about the Myers-Briggs. You’ve heard of it, even if you don’t think you have. The terms “introvert” and “extravert” come from the MBTI. It was developed a few decades ago by Katharine Briggs and her daughter, Isabel Briggs Myers. It’s grounded in Jungian thought, that is, the work of Carl Jung. I’m a certified practitioner of the instrument, and if you ask me, it’s pretty great. It helps people gain understanding about their personality preferences, and the differences they experience in others. It helps people communicate better, handle conflict better, and even plan their careers.
But it has come under a lot of fire recently, and it has been the subject of a lot of harmless (?) fun on Buzzfeed and Facebook.
For some background on the MBTI and the MBTI services I offer, go here. I wanted to add a few thoughts in the wake of the Vox article, and all the fun we’re having trying to figure out if we have the same personality type as Frodo Baggins. 🙂
It is not a test. The MBTI is not a test that measures your worth, intelligence, mental health, or accomplishments. When you take the instrument, the results that it gives you are only a report on how you answered the questions. The results are not a final judgment of your actual personality type. Only you get to decide what your personality preferences are. You are free to reject the results. So when you hear people say, “I took the test and it assigned me N, but it used to say I was S,” please know that this is misusing the instrument. It does not tell you who you are. Only you can do that.
You have inborn preferences. Many people take the instrument at different points in their lives, and in different situations, so they may get slightly different results and conclude that they have changed or switched their preferences. Actually, how one takes the instrument can shift the results one way or the other: your workplace or school might not have prepared you correctly; or you might have felt internal or social pressure to answer the questions in ways that don’t reflect your true preferences. Consider also that at certain points in our lives, we experiment with out-of-preference behaviors while retaining our inborn preferences. For example, I prefer Extraversion. This is inborn: I will always be an extravert. But there are times in my life when I balance my inborn preference with quiet time, even seclusion. But that doesn’t make me an introvert. In addition, I was rewarded in my family of origin when I stayed calm and quiet (we were a big, busy family), and that early experience clouded my natural Extraversion preference.
It is well researched and internally validated. The Vox article seems hell-bent on rejecting the MBTI as an absurd hoax, but the reality is that for decades, MBTI researchers have followed many research populations in a variety of contexts to validate the instrument’s accuracy. In my own work with individuals, couples, and work teams, we typically see this too: people learn the theory, form a first hypothesis about their preferences, and then receive their instrument results, and by a vast majority, at least three of the four preferences in their instrument results agree with their first hypothesis, and the fourth is quite close. The Vox article criticizes MBTI because it hasn’t been subjected to a lot of external research in the psychology field. This is technically true, but it’s not because CPP (the company that administers and owns the MBTI) hasn’t tried to subject the instrument to external research. It’s because the origins of MBTI are qualitative, not quantitative: it is the brain-child of two brilliant women steeped in Jungian theory, so it did not originate in a widely-recognized university research facility, and it suffers more than a bit of derision as a result. I believe this negative attitude (exemplified in the Vox article) adds nothing to our understanding of the true value of this instrument (or anything else, really).
Have fun, but don’t mistake the online quizzes for the real thing. Most Buzzfeed quizzes offer just a few questions that haven’t been validated, much less interpreted, and while this may be obvious to you, it’s unwise to put much stock in quizzes designed to market products to you while helping you enjoy social media. Don’t get me wrong: I love to be told that I share a personality type with Gandalf the White. But for me, that’s just a laugh. It’s not the MBTI, and I can’t do anything with it.
Be sure to have someone interpret your results with you. This is a commercial for my services, I know, but it’s good advice: don’t do the MBTI by yourself. In fact, you can’t do the actual instrument without some interpretive help. When you take the MBTI seriously and work with an interpreter, you can gain powerful insights about yourself, your career, and your relationships.
October 21st, 2014
I’ve written before about the difficulty of obtaining insurance coverage for couples therapy, but want to walk through my take on this again, to give couples a clear understanding of why I don’t accept it, and what I can do if they believe they have this coverage. This is a bit lengthy, but it’s an important issue, so if it impacts you, please read it through to the end.
Here’s the primary issue: the medical insurance model is based on individuals and the diagnosis of individuals with mental disorders, but my couples practice treats the whole couple as a single client. This means that even though couples therapy might help you when you are depressed, chemically dependent, anxious, or suffering from another mental or emotional problem, and even if your insurance company tells you that they cover couples therapy, I can’t ethically bill insurance companies for couples therapy, because they will require me to diagnose and treat one of you for an “Axis I mental disorder,” with the other listed as a spouse or family member of the person being treated. The two of you would meet with me for several sessions as a couple, and I’d be treating you as a single client, but the paperwork would tell a different story.
Here’s the story the paperwork would tell: our therapy is about a sick person, just one sick person, and when that sick person feels better, therapy will end. This is just not what I do with couples. Both of you are “sick,” in the sense that your relationship is in distress, and both of you are doing or not doing something that is keeping you stuck. And—both of you are not sick! Both of you have skills and tools and gifts that will help you improve your relationship, and both of you are coping with the “sickness” of the other.
You might ask, “Who cares what the paperwork says? We know what’s really going on.” My answer: I do. I do not want an official record that describes my work with you in an inaccurate way, particularly when it pathologizes one of you. I just can’t be okay with that. And I know this: if I don’t take my own ethical concerns seriously, I can’t be a good therapist to you.
You might then say, “But my insurance says they cover couples therapy!” My answer: I hope so, and if they do, I’m willing to help you enjoy your benefit. Here’s how we will do it. You pay up front for our work, and I issue you an itemized receipt that includes the diagnostic code for a partner relational problem (V61.10). You can submit a claim for that, and hopefully receive reimbursement. I’ve not seen a lot of people actually receive this reimbursement, even though their insurance company told them that they cover couples counseling, but we can give it a try. Sometimes your insurance company’s customer service rep will tell you they cover something even though they don’t; or they cover it only in certain circumstances, such as your therapist giving you a diagnosis (major depression, for instance) that’s on the insurance company’s allowed list. But we can give it a try.
If you’re noticing some attitude on my part about insurance companies, you’re right. I have grown highly wary of them, and am fatigued by the many ways they avoid reimbursement over tiny technicalities. My biggest concern is their demand that I assign one of you a mental disorder, and not the other. Even the V code above is (in my view) inaccurate: sure, you have a partner relationship problem, but so does your partner! And s/he will not be seen as my client as far as the insurance paperwork is concerned.
You might then say again, “Who cares? We have this coverage.” My answer: Well, I will always care how my clients are labeled on official documents related to my work with them. And I’d love to talk to you about my deeper concern about insurance coverage, which is that third-party payment can make therapy less powerful for clients because it reduces the positive effect of an out-of-pocket investment in your own happiness. I’ve paid out of pocket for therapy for many years, and I realized last year that since 2006, I’ve paid my therapist the equivalent of what she paid for her (fairly inexpensive) car. “I bought you a car!” I exclaimed to her, with a smile. And as odd as this sounds, I felt good about that. I felt like I had given her something valuable in exchange for a life-changing therapeutic experience. I had invested in myself in a powerful way.
(By the way, I already have a good car, and my individual therapy relationship is far lengthier than a typical course of couples therapy.) 🙂
A final note about money, and lack thereof: If you’re concerned that when I hold the line on ethical insurance practices while encouraging clients to pay out of pocket, I’m running a business that only works for wealthy people, I want to reassure you that I routinely see a percentage of my clients at a reduced rate to accommodate their financial need, and honor my own ethic to give some of my work back to the community at a reduced rate (sometimes significantly reduced). I have to earn a living too, but this rate scale is also a part of my ethical approach to my business plan.
I hope this clarifies how I see things on this complicated issue, and that if not, you and I can discuss it more in person.
October 14th, 2014
Therapists typically have lots of advice for struggling and unhappy couples, and often enough couples enjoy specific, 1-2-3 suggestions, like these. But just when you think you’ve advised a couple well, they’ll come back and tell you that yeah, they thought it was a good idea, but they just didn’t have time, or they forgot about it, or … and here words may fail them. They look at you with a serious expression, fully conscious of their dilemma, and their unspoken question is, “Just how do we make our relationship better and happier? How is it even possible?”
A friend of mine also pointed out to me recently that couples with young children, and especially couples with modest incomes and young children, can’t afford “date night.” They just can’t cobble together five “magic” hours for a successful marriage.
But before we give up and accept the unacceptable idea that couples under serious time and financial pressure can’t be happy, I want to invite you to go micro.
I’ll use my relationship as an example.
I married someone who’s nearly as busy as I am, but loves to sing. As we move through our separate morning routines, I’ll catch bits of his singing from the other room, and I’ll think about him. If I’m in at least a halfway decent mood, I’ll smile. That’s not even a direct interaction, but I definitely count it as one data point in a happy marriage.
Other times we will have a short text exchange, maybe in the mid-afternoon when everyone wants a nap, and our tiny emoticon exchange brightens me up.
One time I needed him to bring me something from the house, and it was one of those “mission-critical” things. I needed it, and soon. He came by and dropped it off in a #10 envelope, and on the envelope he had drawn a tiny little heart. My introverted husband had taken a moment to draw that heart. I then took a moment to notice it, and not only appreciate it, but keep the envelope in my drawer of important things. I have it to this day, four years later.
The point here is not that these little encounters (and near-encounters) are going to make a marriage. We still need to have much more powerful interactions, and there’s no couple I know who will be happy without some quality one-on-one time together on a somewhat regular basis. If you can put together five hours a week, that’s great! But even if you can’t, don’t miss the little things. They not only add up in surprising ways, each little thing has the potential to be like that little heart was for me: a sign of true love that took him about five seconds to draw, but made my whole day.
August 13th, 2014
I don’t have much to add to the stream of grief many people are expressing about the death of this great comic artist. I loved him too, and have been preoccupied by the fact that he was defeated by his diseases. I wish his family comfort and rest during this time, and am thankful that he is at rest from his suffering.
But I want to underscore two things.
First, as many have noted, this is a powerful example of the danger of depression. Blogger Dave Weigel captures it well here. I’ve worked for years with clients battling depression, and I know what kind of dragon it is, and how hard it is to slay. Sometimes the more successful survivors of depression simply learn how to ride the dragon, or talk to it, or appease it. Often enough the dragon becomes their muse. But this is a reminder that the dragon of depression breathes fire, and must be respected.
But there’s a second lesson in the sad death of Robin Williams. And that is this: he was also killed by the disease of addiction. I don’t know his personal story, and it’s not my business, but I know what we all know: he had a history of rehab and relapse. He fought this dragon too. As a clinician, I know the term for his problems is “co-occurring disorders,” that is, he had a mood disorder (depression) and a substance-abuse disorder. Whatever. The clinical terminology doesn’t capture the depth of his darkness. It doesn’t satisfy my desire to understand or explain what he was up against.
Two dragons, not one. Two monsters.
Addiction offers you a solution, but the solution betrays you and only deepens your crisis. You drink from the chalice of addiction and only become more thirsty. Like depression, there are real solutions to addiction: we live in an era when addicts and alcoholics can go to rehab, attend daily meetings, and build a sober community that helps us stay in healthy recovery. But we also live in an era when addicts and alcoholics don’t get the help they need, often enough because it’s hard to read the signs, or hard to follow through, or just hard. It can be so hard. It makes sense to me that he didn’t make it. Many don’t.
I want to remember the life and achievements of Robin Williams. And when I remember his death, I will keep in mind that he was fighting two dangerous dragons simultaneously. Remembering him this way can save a life: if you are concerned about depression, in yourself or in a friend, take heed that it is a potentially fatal illness. But remember that’s also true for addiction. And both illnesses are treatable today. And—it’s hard.
Much love and peace to you on your journey, Robin.
August 8th, 2014
Please note that I suffered a technical failure this week that kept all of my voicemails in the ether until this morning. The oldest voicemail was dated last Sunday, six days ago. I’m working on this problem to ensure it doesn’t happen again, but in the meantime if you left me a voicemail and haven’t heard back from me, email me or contact me here to be sure I hear from you and respond in a timely way. Thanks very much, and I apologize for this inconvenience.
August 7th, 2014
That’s the subject of a message I got from a friend, who was a little thrown by my previous post in which I confessed that I (like all human therapists) will have shifting thoughts and feelings about the people in my room. My friend understood what I was saying—that it’s simply inevitable that a therapist will think and feel like a human—but she was still not happy with what I said. “You’re supposed to be there for people when nobody else is!!” she wrote. “I am!” I answered back. “I always figure it out!” But she remained concerned.
So here’s some more from me on the topic, which I also told my friend:
The truth is, I love my clients, especially (and often particularly) those who from time to time might rub me the wrong way. And I’ve known since grad school that clients are supposed to rub therapists the wrong way: they’re supposed to bring to the room all the “stuff” they do and experience in their lives, good and bad, beautiful and ugly. I even know that I’ve driven my own therapist a little crazy from time to time.* Often enough, it’s that tension, that hard-to-pin-down energy, that helps therapist and client form a strong, positive therapeutic bond.
A couple of years ago, my therapist said something that upset me a lot. I left the session feeling pretty mad at her, and hurt. I came back the next time and told her that, and we had one of our best sessions in the course of our work together. So there are times when the back-and-forth of feelings between therapist and client can come out in the open and lead to a healthy breakthrough. Other times, it’s under the surface and operates the way I described in the last post: it’s just more data for the therapist to notice and use, for the sake of the client.
But most importantly, know this: I wouldn’t be in this business if I didn’t have powerful, positive, human affection for the lovely (and troubled) people who honor me with their stories, their issues, and their work. I wouldn’t still be at this 15 years after grad school if I didn’t find all clients delightful in some way. I enjoy the company of other people—I am an extravert, after all—and I love my work. So when I find myself in a challenging emotional place with a particular client, I often just say to myself, “Okay, get to work now!” And soon enough, my eyes open to a hard-to-define dimension of their life that makes them easy to understand, easy to like, and a pleasure to know.
My friend is cautiously okay with all this. And she raises a good point: the therapist’s office needs to be as safe as possible, a place free of judgment for people who too often are judged unfairly for being the ordinary persons they are. And I strive to offer that, and typically succeed. When it’s hard to do that, I simply notice that and work on it. And that’s just part of the joy of my profession.
* I believe therapists should have their own therapists, for a number of reasons. For me, it’s helpful to be challenged and supported by someone who knows my work from the inside, and knows how to help me sort out my own personal issues so that I can be a better clinician for others.
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.
May 21st, 2014
It’s useful to look at your relationship the way you’d look at a rose or an orchid: a living thing that requires daily, weekly, monthly, and annual maintenance. (Let me disclaim right here that I’m not a gardener, I just married one, so forgive me if my metaphor is slightly inaccurate.)
I picked rose and orchid because in my amateur observation, these are not the easiest plants to cultivate and keep happy. Without over-focusing on the plants themselves, keep them in mind as you build a rhythm of healthy interaction as a couple. You can break it down into the following pieces, like this:
Every day, as a couple…
–Practice the habit of happy reunions, with a kiss (research shows kisses longer than 6 seconds are best) and a genuine (if brief) connection when you see each other at the end of the day.
–Offer each other “stress-relieving conversations” (a John Gottman concept) in which you listen empathetically and positively to the other person’s report on their day. No criticism, no problem-solving: you’re each other’s biggest fan, here to listen to how the day went and give each other the comfort of simple companionship.
–Plan and enjoy a date night. It’s ideal if date night is the same night each week, and that you make it a passion of yours to honor this ritual. You don’t have to go out, you don’t have to spend money: date night could be a quiet evening together watching geek TV (my favorite), or something more active and exciting. But it’s just you two. Got kids? Interview and hire sitters, and pay them well: you’ll want reliable help to make this a regular ritual.
–Hold a business meeting. That’s right—a business meeting. Call it that. I’m thinking later in the afternoon on Sunday, at the dining-room table. You review the upcoming week, talk about finances, glance at longer-term plans, and accomplish any other “staff” items you have together as a couple. It can be fun to frame it this way, and it gets tedious stuff out of the way on a regular basis.
–Plan and enjoy a date day. This time it’s not just two or three hours in the evening, it’s a whole day when you’re together and having fun. Again, no pressure to do anything elaborate or expensive (though that can occasionally add a lot of spice to this activity). Take a ferry to Bainbridge for the day. Watch five movies in a row. Run a 5K together. It’s your day to plan and enjoy just the way you like.
–Have a “relationshippy” conversation. Set some time aside once a month to make your therapist happy and do some communication exercises, dream conversations, conflict resolution, or whatever else is important for the health of your relationship right now. That’s right: you don’t have to do this every day or even every week (provided you’re doing all the other stuff). It can be tiring work, or it can make you anxious. But if you build a monthly habit, you get used to it, and you get better at it.
–Go on an annual honeymoon. Honeymoons are wasted on newlyweds! They become more enjoyable by the year if you keep doing them. Mine back in 2003 was … okay. But now I’m a much better traveler, and I know my husband much better, so we’ll likely have a better time when we fly back east this fall. If not, there’s always next year! The annual honeymoon is a great example of something you no longer do that worked in your early days as a couple … so it’s simple: just start doing that stuff again!
This is not an exhaustive list. Feel free to change it and add your own ideas. The key point is this: healthy, happy couples cultivate their relationship over time, in lots of different ways. Use this guideline to give your rhythm shape and new energy. Enjoy!
April 9th, 2014
Several years ago we had a few people over for dinner, and one of our guests said something I’ll probably never entirely forget. Typically, guests in our home sing the praises of my spouse, who is a great cook. For the most part, I enjoy this dynamic: I love my spouse, I love his cooking, and I love how, as an introvert, he shines in a way that is subtle and generous and delicious. And when he cooks dinner, I do what I do best—iron the napkins, set a nice table, talk to our guests, and brew some decaf.
But at this particular dinner, one of the guests praised my spouse and the fruits of his hard work, then turned to me, and in a tone that seemed at least a little unkind, gave me this wisecrack: “So what if anything do you do around here??”
“Uh…” I stammered, momentarily flummoxed by her forwardness. “I guess I fold t-shirts.” And then everyone laughed, including me.
Most of my friends could snark with me in this way and I’d think nothing of it. After all, I dish it out myself. But this guest was not as well known to us, and had a personality that could be a little nasty when she wanted to be. I’m pretty sure I’m not thin-skinned, but for these reasons—and maybe also because I was having a tiring day—the comment stung a bit.
(Can you hear that tiny violin playing?)
I bring this up because it’s a good example of the Zeigarnik effect. (Go here if you want more on the psychologist who lent her name to the concept.) The Zeigarnik effect works like this: at a restaurant, if a server takes your order without writing it down, he won’t forget it until he enters it into the system and it goes to the chef. But once the order is placed, he’ll forget almost perfectly what you ordered. It’s just gone. Our brains work this way: if we have information that’s connected to something undone or unresolved, we will retain that information. Once we fix the issue, the information is forgotten.
This is why, when couples make genuine repairs after an argument, they’ll hardly remember what they were arguing about. Or they’ll have a general idea—we were fighting about sex, or money—but they won’t retain the specifics. With the issue fully repaired and both partners nurtured and respected, the details fade.
Back to my example of the dinner guest: if I had repaired the issue, I wouldn’t remember what she said. I could have easily done this. I could have playfully (with a dash of seriousness) said, “Ouch…?!” and smiled, at which point she would have said something diffusing like “Oh I was just teasing, silly!” And then I would have said something lightly self-deprecating like, “Oh I know, and you have a point, next to him I’m just a busboy, haha…” and we would have gone on with our evening. And now, years later, I wouldn’t even recall the exchange, or if I did, I would remember it fondly.
But I didn’t do that quick fix. So the information is still lurking around in the back of my mind. It has maybe 0.0000000001% of an impact on my emotional state today—I mean come on, this is nothing!–but it’s in there, rattling around like a little pebble. If I’m having a bad day, or having a fight with my spouse, I might flash back to this memory and sulk for an extra ten seconds, huffing that “I don’t get no respect.” (Sigh, so human.)
So the simple moral of the story is this: fix it, and you can forget it. Good repairs are followed by your brain putting the event into its RAM, and letting it pass from your consciousness.
February 20th, 2014
This is a story that I hope will accomplish a couple of things for my readers. First, it will attempt to show how one person applied self-soothing skills (or not) in a challenging situation. Second, it will demonstrate that this therapist is an ordinary human being, which I believe is valuable information for many of my clients.
The other day I flew back to Seattle from a week in Arizona visiting in-laws. The flight was around three hours long. And for nearly three of those hours—really, there were only two or three breaks lasting about a couple of minutes each—a two-year-old in my row was crying and whining and complaining. Crying whining complaining.
I am not a parent. At the time, I kept reminding myself of that. You are not a parent. Calm down. Your friends who are parents would be fine right now. Settle down.
For the first half of the flight, maybe because I didn’t yet conceive of the possibility that the child would carry on for the whole flight, I was relatively calm. I played audio books into my (not noise-cancelling) headphones and made the best of it.
But as the flight wore on, I started to succumb to the pressure. I glanced over, hoping the single dad caring for his screaming daughter wouldn’t notice my glances. I saw that he had brought no toys along, no iPad, no snacks beyond a handful of M&M’s, which his child promptly barfed back into his hand after he fed them to her. This parent was in trouble.
I knew instinctively that there was nothing I could do, or should do. I wasn’t seated next to the little family—I was on their left, across the aisle—and I try to keep a low profile on planes, mostly because the quarters are cramped and I like to stay inward and introverted despite my typically outgoing personality. And I honestly didn’t want this guy to feel additional pressure to smile at me, or thank me, or politely decline a useless offer of help. In addition, my spouse was seated next to the parent (I tried to imagine how he must have felt), and if I had been in his seat, maybe I would have offered to do something, or at least struck up a conversation. But I was at enough of a remove that I judged my best plan would be to stay out of everyone’s way.
My distress began to grow. She just wouldn’t stop crying. Bereft of distractions, nutrition, or toys, the child listlessly played with the tray table in front of her and pushed and prodded anything within reach (I tried to imagine how the person in that seat must have felt). Her dad made valiant attempts to soothe her, which would buy us a minute or two, but then she’d be back to crying.
I thought, okay, maybe she has ear pressure and pain from the flight. She must be hungry. Her poor dad. (I really thought that!) I was a little bit surprised by my lack of rage for the family itself. This guy blew it: I found out later that this was their second flight of the day, and he was just devastatingly unprepared for the task of accompanying a two-year-old on a day of flying.
I finally took a break, heading for the restroom and spending as much time in there as I felt I could without drawing attention or preventing someone else from using it. “Stop stop stop stop stop!!” I chanted in my restroom sanctuary. “Just stop please please please!!”
After washing my hands for a long time in both hot and cold soapy water, and wiping down the surface of the sink as the little sign suggested I do, I reluctantly went back to my seat. All was quiet.
Thirty seconds later, it started up again. It’s me! I moaned inwardly. She hates me. This kid hates me. I shook my head at my own absurd self-centeredness. I do not exist in the world of this child. Her suffering was consuming her.
As the plane began its descent, a flight attendant came by and told the family (in a brief moment of calm) that the tray table—their one available toy—needed to be in the upright position.
Somewhere during this time I caught the eyes of the dad. We lingered for a moment or two, looking into each other’s eyes. I feel regret about this. I’m sure I telegraphed frustration to him, and I honestly wasn’t mad at him, to my own surprise. I was just … desperate. I’m not sure what he told me with his eyes. There’s something about his message that almost seems private to me. I don’t know his name and don’t expect ever to see him again, but I sensed that his eyes were saying something almost intimate to me. Not just “I’m sorry,” and definitely not “Screw your judgmental attitude, stranger who doesn’t know what this is like!” Nothing like that at all. His eyes said something more like … “I know that death awaits us all. And that is a great mercy, don’t you agree?”
As we lurched downward into a windy and rainy Seattle, I found myself wishing for oblivion, almost praying for the plane to shatter into pieces and fall to earth in blissful silence. I put my head down and tried to hide how stupid I must have looked, my hands tightly gripping my temples with index fingers slammed into my ears. I tried to breathe deeply, and failed. I then tried to accept that I was not going to be any more calm than I was in that moment. This is all I have to offer, I told myself. This will have to be enough. I attempted “radical acceptance,” a technique I sometimes teach to my clients.
We landed and the child whined and cried for the entirety of our remaining time together, until I could get out of earshot by walking quickly off the plane.
So … what have I learned? A couple of things. First, like many of my clients, I need to work harder on self-soothing skills. They helped me to some extent, but I was far from the Dalai Lama in that situation. I was definitely not detaching from the drama around me. I didn’t fail at my self-soothing attempt. But I can be better at this.
Second, to my surprise I learned that I’m not as much of a jerk in these situations as I used to be. I’m not patting myself on the back here, really! But it did comfort me to realize that I genuinely wasn’t directing my hard feelings at the child or her dad. I actually understood that they were as much victims of this unfortunate situation as I was. I really believed that in the moment! So: I’m not as much of a jerk than I used to be. Hooray!
Finally, I was reminded that this is precisely where the things I teach clients—and learn from clients—can be applied. Ordinary, everyday dramas and traumas like these. We become better people—and healthier, happier people—in these small ways.
Final note: If you’re that dad and you’re reading this, please accept my good wishes for you and your daughter. And next time, dude you gotta bring more M&M’s and movies and toys and stuff!!