Therapy Thoughts – The Importance and Elusiveness of Self-Compassion

You may have heard.  The Seahawks lost.  They didn’t just lose – they tore out the heart of a region with a poorly called or poorly executed or poorly blessed play at the end of the Seahawk.cryingSuper Bowl.  If you haven’t heard, then you’re not reading this and are probably foraging for breakfast on your deserted island.  As for the rest of us….wow!  Wow wow wow wow.  On Monday after the game, I processed this hardly imaginable disaster with a few friends and none of them had slept on Sunday night.  My wife, who doesn’t give a hoot for sports, recovered about five seconds after Butler’s interception.  I usually pity her for not being able to get excited about the drama of good sports contests, but this week I envied her.  Seriously, this was a visceral blow to those of us who were all engaged with this scintillating drama.

Then again, it wasn’t Ebola.  It wasn’t a suicide bomb detonating at our place of worship.  Tanks aren’t rolling down our street to crush dissent.  My family is healthy and secure.  Really, in the big picture, it IS a game and three days later, I’m just glad I’m not one of the team members.  Now, they must be having a real hard time right now.  Still, their families are safe and they  will be able to cash their checks.  This all got me to thinking about people in therapy who have suffered emotionally in their lives and who dismiss their pain by saying, often glibly, “What right have I to complain?  I’m not bind.  I’m not a starving child in Africa.”  Well, that’s true.  Our distress can often be easily dismissed as “First World Problems,” but to do this matter-of-factly really misses what I think is a very important point.

People who struggle emotionally have a really heartbreaking paucity of self-compassion.  There seems to be this either/or duality in our thinking, so that we think that the choice is (a) wring our hands and cry “woe is me,” collapsing into a mound of self-pitying protoplasm, or (b) dismiss our pain because we have two functioning legs (and others don’t) or two functioning eyes (and others don’t), etc.  However, I do believe that many of us hold fear, shame, grief and other honest and very real feelings inside (and usually have for a long, long time).  When we first experienced the violations or wounds that caused us to experience these, we also reasoned with our youthful brains that we could never show the world, or ourselves, the horrible pain or the belief that a powerful force outside ourselves (adult parental figures) were wrong or uncontrollable.  That would be intolerably confusing and frightening.  So we hold it inside and when we get older dismiss our deepest wounds with off-hand comments like, “What do I have to complain about…”   In dealing with most of the world, that’s a smart decision.  But in our closest relationships, or in therapy, by thinking these thoughts, we deny ourselves the care we have longed for and, at the same time, found so risky.  I have sat in amazement and great sadness watching the determined energy with which  people bat away truly caring statements from their partners in couples therapy – or me in individual work.  We are so many things in our lives – filled with such an array of feelings.  Many such feelings are safe to show to the world.  Others, comprising an essential and intense core, are very risky.  Chief among them is the grief we harbor for the love we needed and the anger, neglect and judgment we received in its stead.  For many of us, it’s part of our personality and isn’t going to simply evaporate over time.  We need to embrace it – embrace ourselves – and allow others to embrace us as well – to embrace our hearts while we are experiencing this grief.  Yes, we have both eyes or both legs – and we also have weeping hearts that we shield from ourselves and others.  If we can be able to say to ourselves, “It’s okay.  That part of myself is there along with all the other parts. I can grieve for the embracing love I needed and didn’t receive” I think we can experience our world more fully and freely – more joyously.    No one is a “victim” unless they choose to be – and that won’t ever get you anywhere.  There’s a difference, though, between embracing our own hearts and letting ourselves be cared for, now, and being a victim.  Self-compassion is one of the great gifts of personal therapy, actually.  Even New England Patriot fans deserve that  in their lives.

The Uncomplicated, Beautiful “Go Hawks”

When I was a kid in L.A., I loved the Dodgers.  It was the era of Sandy Koufax, Don Drysdale, Maury Wills (Perranoski, Fairly, Tommy and Willie Davis – if you were there, you know what I’m talkin’ about) – World Series appearances in ’59, ’63, ’65 and ’66 and a heartbreaking near miss in ’62.  Players didn’t make astronomical salaries and stayed with the same team (and city) throughout their careers.  Ernie  Banks died this week and he was a wonderful man who played with grace and joy for an atrocious Chicago Cubs team for his entire professional life.  It was a nice fantasy – that these guys were playing for us and our neighbors.  Of coSeahawksurse, there was its own brand of injustice to this sweet ideal that a 12 year old boy clutched to his heart.  Professional athletes were forced to stay with the same team by a “reserve clause” in every contract and got paid pretty much what the owners wanted to pay them.

Well, the pendulum has swung to the other pole now with whiplash-inducing velocity.  When Alex Rodriguez signed a 2001 contract paying him $25 million dollars per year, he banked more in 2 days than most fans made in an entire year (over $130,000).  The minimum salary for the major league baseball player who may spend most of the year riding the bench is now $500,000. (Who do you know that makes anywhere near that kind of money?  Few, I would guess.) When a contract is completed, they go to the highest bidder – with an annual salary of $8 million dollars not being good enough if they can make $10 million per year somewhere else.  The days when a pro athlete could remotely be considered “one of us” are long dead and buried.  So has my love for following sport waned – only to pick up if the current team, composed of some familiar and some new, big contract guys start winning.  Owners, like Howard Schultz, unload a “civic institution” like the Seattle Sonics on a group that immediately moves them to Oklahoma City because the place they play can’t accommodate wealthy business people and their hunger for luxury suites.  Professional football players are forced to play a game on Thursday night, given just three days rest after taking a beating equivalent to a mugging with a steel pipe.  Why?  More wealth for the already wealthy.  Boy, talk about the corruption of money in American life – look no further than the world of sports.

And then the Seahawks stage a miraculous comeback and land in their second straight Super Bowl, to be played in three days.  I just received an e-mail from a therapist I don’t know commenting on a piece I just wrote for a local therapists’ newsletter and she ended her message with “Go Hawks!”  I had a couple I work with in therapy end their session two nights ago with the same exhortation.  Drive through Seattle or Bellevue and you can’t go more than two blocks without seeing a “12” banner, signifying the Twelfth Man – the team’s fans.  It doesn’t matter if you are black or white, rich or poor or even freakin’ red blooded or blue blooded.  Everyone around here is pumped and an entire civic culture is joined around two words “Go Hawks.”  If Russell, Marshawn, Richard, Doug, Bobby and the rest of the Legion of Boom win on Sunday, strangers will beam with unalloyed joy at one another for weeks afterward.  If Brady and his crew of talented cheaters prevail, the disappointment well be joined, a great ride having been shared.  So for all the corruption of values inherent in modern sports, the gift to a community – of unity around a goal is refreshing, lifting spirits around this region – regardless of politics, station in life or present circumstances.  When it’s all over, weeks or months from now, we can all go back to our old divisions and gripes. For now, though….Go Hawks!

Therapy Thoughts – Ending Sessions

door.closeCouples therapy sessions last anywhere from one hour to 90 minutes.  Any less than an hour isn’t enough time for themes to develop in the room and people given enough space to explore them together to a satisfying resolution.   Plenty of times, an important subject isn’t raised, or sensitive button pushed, until midway through a meeting and ending on the 50 minute or hour mark feels like an abrupt and unsettling “hard stop.”  More frequently than I, or other couples therapists, would like to admit or experience, even the 90 minute duration won’t end in a nice feeling of something valuable having been tied up, with the clients released back into their world carrying a helpful insight into each other or with a meaningful connection made.  I think one difference between an experienced couples therapist and a newer professional is the ability to manage our own anxiety when a session ends with that unsettling static still in the air.  One person may be holding back (more) tears.  The other may be get up from their seat and hand you their payment in stony silence.  A worry passes through the therapist’s mind, “Will they come back?  Did I blow it somehow?”  Well, welcome to the world of the therapist as a living, breathing person.  We want to help – that’s why we’re in this business.  So, you can imagine the uneasiness when a couples session ends with simmering anger and complicated feelings still spinning within and between the partners.  It’s important for everyone to take a deep breath and realize that these harsh-feeling endings are not a disaster for clients or the work you are doing.  Almost never will a couple feel so distressed after a session that they will decide to abandon the couples therapy altogether.  In fact, oftentimes, couples return the next week and report that they found a way to work through that difficult patch and, while the therapist is all ready to continue with the theme that ended the last session, the people have come in with something entirely different to talk about.  While it is important for therapists not to become anxious about unfinished endings, it is equally important for couples who emerge from such sessions to understand that it’s okay and normal in the world of couples work to periodically end on an off-note.  It happens.  It will be okay.

Divorce and the Holidays

What a rough time for so many of us!  This particularly true if we are newly separated.  A wonderful colleague, Karen Bonnell, was recently on a local television show discussing the challenges parents face during this time.  It is well worth watching, as Karen gives us, in five minutes, a set of very helpful suggestions.  I’d like to highlight a couple of them and add a few thoughts of my own.  HOlidays.2

Probably the most important bit of advice is take care of yourself.  The holidays are such a sad and challenging time for the newly separated.  Even if this is the 2nd, 3rd or even 5th holiday after your transition out of the family you once had, you may find yourself dipping into (in Karen’s words) a “River of Grief.”  Of course, this is especially true if you are not spending time with your little ones.  It is a particularly important time not to be alone.  Let your friends take care of you.  Find your family in those who love you – even if you aren’t feeling so lovable right about now.   Even if you aren’t going to be with your children on Christmas, know that they are going to beHolidays.1 excited to have their own Christmas with you, some time after December 25th and the best thing for a kid other than having Christmas, is having two  Christmases.  Hannukah, of course, gives you the chance to spend a few of the 8 nights with them.  While it is often too easy during this time to ruminate on the losses and sadness, it will serve you and your kids to be able to find the warmth,  friendship and loving-kindness around you.  If your children know that you are okay, it will free them to enjoy their holiday  season.  Your kids will worry  about you if you aren’t happy.  For sure, they’ll know it.  Children have incredibly acute antennae  trained on  their parents’ sense of their own well-being.  If mom or dad aren’t happy, children will invest plenty of energy trying to  take care of  you.  Another interesting suggestion Karen made was that, if you are newly separated, it would be good for children if  you planned  to take a brief, clearly defined, period to celebrate the holiday together with your separated partner and them.  While,  over time, this  will not be something they will need (and you most likely will not want to subject yourself to the intensely mixed  feelings this will  engender), for the first time after separation, it may provide them with a sense of stability that will calm them.

 

The Talking Stick

During the weekend of October 24-26, I attended the annual conference of the International Academy of Collaborative Professstick.talkingionals (IACP) in Vancouver.  I was fortunate to be accepted as a speaker and received a gift which upon returning home, I opened to find a talking stick.  It is a beautiful piece of art with feathers tied to an end with a leather thong.  For those unfamiliar with the talking stick, many indigenous American cultures use this tool when a group of people are meeting to discuss…..well, just about anything.  The stick is passed around and when it is in a person’s grasp, only he or she may speak.  There can be no interruptions, side-talk or other distractions.  There is one person who speaks and the role of all others is to listen.   This process – of providing space for people to express themselves without interruption – is essential to any dispute resolution process – be it couples therapy, divorce mediation or a larger group process.   I always tell people who sit in my office – so full of anxiety about the specter of conflict that hovers in the room – that I will keep the other from interrupting so that each has a space to speak.  I have not hesitated to get up in between people if the sparks start to fly.  “You can do this – you have done this – quite well on your own.  You don’t need to pay me to do this in my office.  My role here is to keep this place safe, so if you are listening to what the other is saying and you believe it is not accurate or you need to defend yourself, please hold it and you will have your opportunity.”  This rule, together with a chiding reminder that conflict is made safer and resolvable when each person talks about their own experience, helps move a process which initially may seem frightening or overwhelming to a platform of acceptance.

The “Whuppin’ Stick”

I attended a Washington continuing legal education workshop recently to make sure I was keeping up in the newest developments in our family law.  One of the most interesting sections involved a panel of very seasoned practitioners who also perform “mediation” servicstick.whuppines, discussing the implications of a recent appellate court decision called Marriage of Rockwell.   The Appeals Court said, in passing, that in a marriage lasting 25 years or longer the court should seek to provide the two parties a roughly equal standard of living for the remainder of their lives.  Let’s just say that lawyers aren’t real pleased with this broad rule because it both turns long running standards on their head and imposes a blanket rule that doesn’t take into consideration important nuance.  (What if Husband and Wife get married when they are 20 and divorce at 45?  Does the higher earner owe maintenance to the other for the next 20 years?  Does this mean that the Wife’s inheritance from her parents (which is considered to be her separate property and usually awarded to her, alone, in almost any state) is now up for grabs, with her husband of 25 years getting half?  What if they are married 24 years?  22?)  Anyway, while the questions about the decision will continue, it is now on the books in Washington and the “mediator” panelists talked about how they would employ this new legal authority.  (Note that I place the term “mediator” in quotes because the process employed by lawyers is more of a “settlement conference” which is a one shot, usually all-day, ordeal in which the two people are separated and the “mediator” goes between conference rooms and tries to move the recalcitrant parties closer – and then to binding agreement by the end of the day.)  One panelists felt he was being clever when he referred to the “Rockwell whuppin’ stick” and another experienced “mediator” chimed in with reference to the use of this opinion as a “whuppin’ stick.”  (As in, “If the husband is being stubborn about spousal maintenance, I can use Rockwell as a whuppin’ stick and tell him that a court could order a much greater, outrageous, term of alimony under that case.”)

What really ate at me the next day was how each of these people saw their role of getting wounded, frightened, angry, defensive and all-around emotionally challenged people to come to agreements that will impact the rest of their lives by hitting them with a “whuppin’ stick.”  The absolute essential key to a solid, durable and effective agreement is that each person enter the agreement without undue resistance.  Each must understand and accept what he or she relinquishes in the agreement. Equally important, each must acknowledge (to themselves at least) what he or she gained from the agreement.  My strongest criticism of the conventional legal “mediation” is that at the end of the day, each person will generally feel emotionally and mentally drained with a very high degree of resentment and “woulda, shoulda coulda’s” the next morning.  This risk is certainly accentuated when the settlement conference official finds a new rule of law, however flawed and criticized, to use as a “whuppin’ stick” to bring people into line and move toward settlement.

Autumn’s Renewal

Spring is the time we talk of renewal, with buds just bursting to open to the warming weather.  The denuded trees coming alive again with autumn.rainiercolor and life excite the senses.  The population circling Green Lake multiplies from the few stalwarts who walk the three-mile circumference rain or shine…or rain…to crowds celebrating the turn of the season.  Yet, while I have come to love the renewal of Spring (having experienced little by way of seasonal shift during years in Southern California), it is Autumn that truly sets my heart alight.  Professionally, the summer is a slack time.  We had a chance to travel a bit – mostly locally, with one September trip to Lisbon with old friends. And now the leaves have turned and many are strewn in growing piles in our backyard.  I recall when our lovely 21 year old daughter would explode with excitement as a kid at the prospect of jumping on big piles of leaves.  The air smells so fresh.  We are moving to a cozier time of year and as I write this the rain is falling outside, a candle is on the table and Tellemann is on Pandora.  Perhaps it is because of our rhythm being dictated by school schedules, but things do seem to start up again in September after dozing during the summer.  Thus, clients begin returning to the office and this work which is so fascinating and gratifying is renewed.  New ideas for blog-posts start to percolate to the top of my consciousness and Autumn Resolutions get set.  My book project will finally move to the place I can send the draft out to friends and colleagues for feedback.  New marketing ideas come to the fore.  New books to read are going to start piling up by the bed, or on my IPhone, as I am a big lover of Audible. Currently, I’m listening to and loving Flight Behavior written and read by Barbara Kingsolver and looking forward to the next one up – The Boys in the Boat, which my wife tells me is fantastic.  I love reading history, and Rick Pearlstein’s book about the 60’s and 70’s, Nixonland, is a voyage back to a time I lived and have forgotten.  Being in Berkeley during those years, I really wasn’t aware of how freaked out middle American was by the often violent changes occurring then.  I turn 65 in a week and am finally starting to belatedly figure out what I have to do about Medicare.  I am feeling quite blessed to be at this stage of life, healthy, loving my work, adoring my family and they tolerating my frequent ridiculousness.  So, on to Fall, engagement and life.  May you be blessed with love and the flow of your life in the coming months.

Law – The “Betrayed Profession”

lawyer.4I recently came across a lengthy article I wrote about 20 years ago dealing with the stresses of law practice at the end of the 20th Century.  It was packed with quotes from both lawyers and law professors describing how legal education, and later the practice itself, have been leeched of their humanity.  I had recalled that lawyer and diplomat Sol Linowitz had made some powerful statements in his book The Betrayed Profession and sure enough I found them in my paper. While written more than 20 years ago, he and former Yale Law School Dean Anthony Kronman identified a pervasive and enduring problem with the practice of law in the late 20th and early 21st Centuries.

In describing law as it was practiced in the middle of the last century, Linowitz comments,

“The satisfaction of practicing law were in the knowledge that others depended upon your judgment and loyalty and your abilities and that at the end of the day you knew that you had, in fact helped your client.  In my generation, we thought of the law as a helping profession, not a continuation of war by other means.”

Kronman chimed in with these comments in his book The Lost Lawyer – Failing Ideals of the Legal Profession:

“This crisis (of morale among lawyers) has been brought about by the demise of an older set of values that until quite recently played a vital role in defining aspirations of American lawyers.  At the very center of these values was the belief that the outstanding lawyer – the one who serves as a model for the rest – is not simply an accomplished technician but a person of prudence or practical wisdom as well.  It is, of course, rewarding to become technically proficient in the law.  But earlier generations of American lawyers conceived their highest goal to be the attainment of a wisdom that lies beyond technique – a wisdom about human beings and their tangled affairs that anyone who wishes to provide real deliberative counsel must possess.”

Much of this has been reconfirmed in an exhaustive study of lawyers and well-being recently concluded by Florida State Law Professor Lawrence Krieger and Kenneth Sheldon.  They found that there is very little correlation between happiness and salary, prestige of law firm or law school or the other achievements which law students and attorneys strive so vigilantly toward.  Rather, it is the degree of personal autonomy and the congruence of one’s professional life and personal values that show the highest correlation to well-being.

When In Doubt….Do Something

A good friend of mine who is a great fellow and an excellent therapist has this websiteadage  he likes to share: “When in doubt, do something” – meaning that if you are stuck, doubtful about yourself and feeling blue or down, take some action.  Move.  Do something.  It doesn’t have to be a “big” something.  It shouldn’t be a “big” something.  Any move is a gift.  So I had an interesting experience recently that put the proof to that statement and some may find this a helpful story.

I had been feeling down for a while and was having a hard time kicking it.  My website came to the rescue….well it helped me come to my own rescue.

I really like my website.  I worked hard on it and get nice complements.  A great designer named Stephan Laenan who lives near Portland put it together for me.  I gave him content, he designed it…but once in a while there were tweaks I wanted to make and I didn’t know the first thing about how websites are put together.  It was aggravating, since I was totally dependent on someone else who rightfully charged me for his time.  Last year I bought an Idiot’s book on HTML and CSS (how you create the code to make a website) and after reading it for a few weeks, I was so cross-eyed that I had to put it down – defeated.  Then a month ago,  a lawyer friend of mine was telling  me how he created his own site and I thought, “Well, if he can do it……..” so I checked a bunch of books out of the library and suddenly had this “Ah-ha” moment and figured out how to make all the changes I wanted.  I dove in and over the next week updated everything I wanted updated.

I absolutely felt a spring in my step.  A big weight was lifted from my shoulders and I found that things that had been aggravating me only the week before weren’t so important.  My mood absolutely shifted because….well, I did something.  (And really, it’s not a big deal to learn about website coding, even for a tech dweeb like me.)