Criticism’s Damage

I had a personal experience recently which helped me gain a deeper understanding of criticism and its impact on an intimate relationship.  My wife and I were driving somewhere we had never been.  I had a map and when we stopped for gas, she suggested I ask for directions.  I felt comfortable and confident in my understanding of twindshield.1he map and told her it wasn’t necessary.  Of course, we got lost!  The combination of having no idea where we were and low blood sugar caused her to snipe at me, “You are so arrogant!  You won’t even ask for directions.”  Now understand, my wife is the kindest person I know (and the person who comes in second is way back there in the distance).  I’m a very lucky person to have her in my life.  These kinds of barbs are almost unheard of in our relationship, going in either direction.  Indeed, she apologized for it shortly afterward and her remorse for the intemperance was legitimate.

Still, I could not let it go.  I experienced myself folding back into myself and I really didn’t want to be around her or have anything to do with her for a couple of hours.  She’d ask if I was still mad and I’d say that I didn’t want to talk about it…because I didn’t want to talk about it.  I was emotionally shaken.  I had a dark cloud hanging over me and not only couldn’t shake it, I had not desire to shake it.  This state lasted until that night and, still, it hung on in lighter form until I awoke the next day and felt fine and reconnected.  I’m glad I was allowed to go into my shell and not have that become an issue, only to escalate our emotions and time was permitted to salve my wound.

But what was that wound?  I certainly understood that the next day, looking back at my strong reaction.  During many years of my childhood, I was the target of pretty consistent criticism.  We all have our own themes and I recall mine as having the flavor of, “You have so much potential, but you ___________ .  That blank would be filled in with a criticism of my character in some way.  Over the years, I was able to put the lie to those internalized barbs that would, for so many years, deflate my sense of confidence and well-being.  Yet, that one critical barb from the person closest in the world to me (and that’s an important part of this) felt like a scab being violently ripped off, exposing my raw, pulsing vulnerability to the open air (and wind and dirt and rubbing and….anything that was further damage).  So I had to fold up into myself and let the wound heal.  For those hours, the world was suddenly transformed into a profoundly unsafe place and retreat was the only remedy.

I can say with great confidence that my experience of early, chronic, and painful criticism has been shared by many (perhaps most) of us.  John Gottman has identified criticism as one of his Four Horsemen of marriage apocalypse.  I understood from my recent experience why that may be so.  Also, and most importantly for my work, couples in distress often enter my office with one partner, not knowing how to make connection with a disconnected spouse, criticize incessantly.  It is a reflection not of meanness or ill will.  Rather this reflects an almost desperate effort to make connection and overcome a feeling of utter isolation and abandonment.   The critical partner is not the “bad guy.”  However in their pain of abandonment, it is hard for the criticized partner to find the words to help them understand the ancient and existential pain that can be experienced from being on the receiving end.  I hope that my own experience recently will help me find better ways to assist the criticized partner describe their wound in ways that the other can understand without feeling blamed or judged.  That, after all, is one of the primary goals of couples therapy.

Peace on Earth, Goodwill to All

When I was a kid (back in the 50’s and 60’s) the United States was a more unabashedly Christian country.  Christmas was universally celebrated and “Merry Christmas” was on almost everybody’s lips.  Nobody was saying “Happy Holidays” in an effort to be all inclusive.  As a Jewish kid,xmastree2 I’ve got to say, I wasn’t particularly offended or confused by the emphasis.  I was in a kids’ choir and loved singing those gorgeous carols.  The lights were magical!

I particularly loved the general good feeling that shone through the holiday – probably best reflected in the conversion of Ebenezer Scrooge in Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.  The magic of that time was all about open-heartedness,  kindness and gratitude.  Santa was most definitely a bonus and I was, indeed, one of those acculturated Jewish kids who believed in the jolly old man whose elves made toys for kids somewhere in the North Pole.  I recently reviewed the many Jewish holidays to see if any one of them so explicitly trumpets goodwill to all men in quite the same way and was unable to find one.  The many holidays honor parts of our history, the seasons, the beginning of the annual cycle of reading the Torah and, of course the High Holy Days in which we are urged to look deep inside and cleanse our souls, seek forgiveness and turn the page for a coming year.  One theme for almost all Jewish holidays I heard from a friend a few years ago, which is perfect, goes, “They tried to kill us, we survived, let’s eat!”  Hanukkah is a very minor Jewish holiday and commemorates a time, more than 2,000 years ago in which the Jewish people were at risk of being absorbed into a hostile dominant culture.  A band of rebels were able to wrest away their people’s freedom.  It’s pretty much the same theme as the more major celebrations of Purim and Passover.  Somehow, American Jews long ago converted this into a more significant celebration so their kids didn’t have to feel left out in all the Christmas gift-giving…but Hanukkah is not Christmas.

I think of the “Holidays” as bounded by Thanksgiving and Christmas – both times when we gather with those we love (and who love us) and breathe in the warmth of care and community.  For those of us who feel isolated and adrift during this time, my hope and prayer for you is that you can, step-by-step, heal, renew or create the bonds that may allow you to experience that care in the years ahead.  My hope is also that you find some way to give to others during this time.  You will enter the tide of humanity whose spirits join in loving-kindness and there is no better gift you can be given.  There are volunteer opportunities here.

My wish for anyone reading this is that your world is blessed with the comfort of another’s  loving heart, that you treat yourself and those around you with the gentleness reserved for a baby (which this holiday is about) and hatred, fear and violence be banished from our lives.

It’s Not Complicated – Acknowledgment Rules!

I often hear clients in couples therapy ask for “tools.”  I’m usually a bit wary of these requests, because exercises and tools tend to get shed and forgotten when jagged conflict blasts through the windows and doors.  “I” statements that sound so sensible and helpful in a therapist’s office morph, with high stress and conflict into, “I think you’re a thoughtequationless piece of crap,” or worse.  However, there is one set of rules that are so reliable they could be reduced to a mathematical formulas.

Partners in chronic conflict are beset with a firm fixation on their hurts, disappointments and violations, experienced at the hands of the other.  We try so desperately hard to get the other to understand how their behavior hurts us.  Yet, with dogged consistency, the other will either argue back, shut down or (maybe this is the worst) agree that they should do better and then continue the same dispiriting behavior.  Any of these responses are guaranteed to stimulate within us a need to repeat the message with greater volume and intensity.   So here are some basic rules that will help extricate struggling intimates from this maddening cycle.  Rule 1: Acknowledging what your partner is doing right =:Lowering of the stress between you. Rule 2: Lowering the stress between you + acknowledgment = Increase in the behavior you are seeking.  Rule 3: Continuing to mostly point out your partner’s shortcomings will lead to continued troubling behavior from them as they give up on trying to satisfy and please you.

While this rule also applies if you are dealing with a recalcitrant kid or a frustratingly under-performing employee, we see it almost all the time with couples in distress.  Think back of the last time you wanted to give to someone you cared about.  How did it feel when their face beamed and you knew you had satisfied them?  Now think of the last time you made the same attempt to please them and they not only failed to acknowledge your effort in their direction, but criticized you?  Just like an unwavering mathematical formula – just as surely as E=mc² – you will discourage further efforts with criticism and encourage further efforts with acknowledgment.  Of course, the highly distressed and frustrated individual might respond, “That’s all well and good, but why should I have to bow down and kiss his/her feet if they do only what I’ve been asking for over and over and over again?”  The answer is…the formula.  If you want positive behavior, acknowledge it.  U.W.’s John Gottman says that a solid relationship has a ratio of 5 positive interactions for every 1 negative interaction.  That’s close to the relationship of positives to negatives you’re looking for.

It is also important to know that the loneliness, hurt or distance you have been experiencing – and trying to get your partner to understand – will be much more easily transmitted and taken in if  the level of anger, dissatisfaction and despair are lowered and your intimate environment becomes safer.  Acknowledgment doesn’t have to include brass bands and hosannas. Usually that’s not really called for anyway.  Yet, a nod and a statement of acknowledgment and appreciation will be infinitely more effective in getting the behavior and care one craves than a reminder of how hurtful or disappointment that person is.  I’d suggest, as a tool, you try it for a week or two and see if it doesn’t start shifting your partner’s behavior.  It might be incremental at first, but remember that almost no significant change is dramatic.  Our lives are organic.  Every change is incremental – but one block adds to another and over time a strong structure is in place – built day-after-day with those incremental positive changes.

Best Money I Ever Spent

I’m writing a book.

Actually, I’m well into the process and expect for it to be available in August.  I have titled it Divorce (or Not): A Guide, and its 300+ pages will cover much of what I have pondered, and learned, professionally over the past 40 years.  Each step in the process of conceiving, creating and honing this book has been rich with the gems I have Cover.1uncovered about both how to approach such a project and, well,  my own darned self.  For anyone who has felt they wanted to write a book, but has not put fingertip to keyboard, here is a brief description of my experience.

1.  Conception:  Many of us have at least one book marinating inside our heads.  If you have ever said, “I’d like to write a book,” then you’ve got one resting comfortably inside your cranium.  That is step one.

2.  Blurting: I finally goosed myself into writing when I sat down in April, 2014 and prepared a Table of Contents, which was a good outline for what I wanted to say.  Then, I just blurted.  I spent about five months simply getting it out of my head and into my computer.  I knew it did not matter how it sounded because nobody was going to see it but me.

3.  First Refinement Phase(s):  Once out there, I started to laboriously review, reorganize and clean up what I had written.  Again, this was for my eyes only.

4.  First Feedback Phase:  Once I felt okay with it, I sent my work product out to a handful of dear, and smart, friends for feedback.  I was initially nervous about this step, but had recently bought a great book Thanks for the Feedback – The Science and Art of Receiving Feedback Well and it helped gird my loins for external comment on my baby.  People were generous and spot-on with a number of their comments.  In response, I put the book through a massive re-organization and re-write.  I shared the new approach with a smaller group of people because, to be honest, I was afraid of burning people out.  After all, it is quite the gift of time and energy to read someone else’s work and give thoughtful, cogent feedback.  After positive comment, I was ready to find an editor.

5.  Working With an Editor:  Thus, the title of this blog post.  A web search brought me to the site of the Northwest Independent Editors Guild, and after a fairly thorough vetting process I chose my current favorite person in the entire world (FPITEW) other than my wife and daughter (FPITEWOTMWAD), Jennifer D. Munro.  Last week, I finished  reviewing her comments and I don’t think a day went by that I failed to send her an ardent appreciative email.  A good editor projects such care onto your creation.  The process of improving the work product while maintaining the writer’s voice is challenging and if you are lucky, you will find that combination of skill and kindness.  (It didn’t hurt that Jennifer liked my sense of humor.)  I believe I am an excellent writer.  I enjoy the process and for years have received uniformly positive feedback.  I believe this affirmation gave me the confidence to embark on the project in the first place.  Yet, I have learned a great deal about writing and the places I can improve, markedly,  through Jennifer’s kind and rapier-sharp feedback.  There were many places throughout my review of her “track changes” comments that I thought, “This comment is appropriate and helpful.  I can imagine it having been made by someone with a harsher hand and instead of learning an important lesson I can use in the future, I would have been chagrined, embarrassed, defensive and dispirited.  I’d had enough of that kind of treatment in my first year in law school many years ago.”

So here’s to you Jennifer Munro.  Every cent I pay you for your service is the best money I ever spent.

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!

The Little Things

I went out to my car last week and found the rear window smashed and two things taken from my back seat – an empty briefcase and aLock.3 ratty old Jansport backpack with my gym stuff in it.  “They” did it in the middle of the night. (Don’t you want to find out who “they” are?…your own personal “they’s”)  Anyway, while the briefcase was well worn and nice, my biggest sense of loss came from the theft of my combination lock.  I remember years ago when I opened the packaging and read that the combination was 28 -2-8.  C’mon!  It just can’t get any easier than that….and I loved my combination lock.  I felt so lucky to have picked it out.

Martin Seligman, one of our greatest psychologists, has long studied happiness.  He has been striving for years to develop an approach to mental health treatment which transcends the age-old medical model of diagnosis of a “disorder” and then working to eliminate the “disorder.”  Seligman wondered why we can’t move above the baseline of functionality, into the realm of happiness and well-being.  This notion has captured the enthusiasm of a large segment of the mental health community.  Just note the surge of people incorporating “mindfulness” into their practices.  Mindfulness is both a way to ease stress and internal pain and a path to affirmative well-being.

So what does a combination lock have to do with Seligman and positive psychology?  Well, one of the most important tools for achieving well-being is appreciation.  Cultivating a sense of appreciation for the good in our lives cushions us against the deeper dismay which will always accompany loss.  Also, appreciation buoys our spirits in the day to day.  One of Seligman’s best exercises is the “Three Blessings.”  Each night before you lay down to sleep, take a notebook or piece of paper and write down three blessings of the day just ending.  This will train your mind to be alert to both the big and the little things which we can appreciate in life.  These little things can be a pleasant exchange with our partner or a friend; the burst of life in the leaves that are unfolding as Spring arrives; the wag of our dog’s tail because we are really, really loved; the good feeling from not eating something we know isn’t good for us; a great movie we just watched or the bike ride we completed.  Nothing should be taken for granted.  We live in a world which may often seem bent on eroding any sense of well-being.  We can keep that force at bay when we embrace the little treasures.

I’m going to store today and will myself to pick a lock with my birthday as a combination.  I’ll tell you how it goes.

Beautiful Ireland

We just returned from a 10-day stay in beautiful Ireland.Ireland   I had been there years ago during the waning days of a failing marriage and didn’t like the place at all.  Just goes to show how important state of mind is!  This time, my wife and I joined our 21 year old daughter and traipsed around Dublin and the Southwest and I fell in love with the land and its people.  Being away to another culture allows a wonderful insight into our own and America shines brightly through the Irish lens.  So many came from the island to the U.S. – particularly during the catastrophic potato famine of the late 1840’s (which wiped out about 1/3 of the 8 million population through starvation or emigration.  In fact, Ireland has never reached its pre-famine population!).  Hardly a person we spoke to failed to have relatives in this country.  Gracious, full of humor, delightful poetry in their expression and extremely friendly – a visit is like immersion into a warm human bath.  Yet, there is a vein of pain which runs through the Irish heart and history.  The oppression of the huge power (England) just to the east, that imposed laws which prohibited, upon pain of death, the open worship of their faith and allowed Protestants to move to the island and confiscate the land and property of the rural farmers under the policy of “plantation” – the depredations of Oliver Cromwell hundreds of years ago – the multiple uprisings seeking freedom and autonomy which were brutally put down – this was the same oppressive power that the American colonists rebelled against successfully.  Looking at the U.S. from Ireland, you see an extremely optimistic peopleireland.6 and a wealthy, wealthy land.  You can make it in Ireland, but if you make it in the U.S., well, you have made it!  I have spoken with immigrants from places like Russia and they repeat the vision of this country as having a basically optimistic spirit.  Visions which will remain include the Irish field, with plots defined by chest-high rock walls; the greenest of green grass grazed over by large flocks of sheep; occasional ruins of 400 year old (or older) castles or monasteries as you  drive from one rural town to the next; pubs, like Dick Macks in Dingle, where I walked in on a bachelor party of about 30 guys crammed into this tiny space raising their Guinness’, standing on tables and benches and singing at the top of their lungs or the traditional music jam in a Doolin pub with a fiddle, guitar, two flutes and a guy who played accordion like a god and was better as the night wore on and he got increasingly smashed; the Book of Kells which is adorned with the most beautiful inscriptions and monastic art (with scores of ways to depict in art different letters – like the letter “d” for example).  We are so young – they are so old.  Perhaps most importantly, it was revitalizing to go away for just a couple of weeks and return refocused and refreshed.  It’s good to be back with our memories and the fun and interesting work ahead.

Merry Christmas

Fox News is again awash with outrage over the “War on Christmas.”  The latest installment has Megyn Kelly proclaiming that Santa Claus and Jesus are indisputably white.  While I am hard pressed to have sympathy for anything broadcast on Fox, I must admit to a sadness that “Merry Christmas” has morphed into “Happy Holidays.”

I’m Jewish and as a kid I loved Christmas.  I believed in Santa with all my might and when told he was fictional, my little heart broke.   I was in a choir and year after year I experienced great joy in singing those lovely carols about the silent night and three kings of orient.  Christmas was a time of joy all around me.  There was honest good will and magic was in the air.  It wasn’t a solstice celebration or the big holiday at the end of the year (that coincided with Hannukah).  It was Christmas.   Christmas is  the holiday of Ebeneezer Scrooge’s  character transformation and the vindication of the goodness of James Stewart’s George Bailey.  Of all the holidays in the calendar, Christmas  is the only one that celebrates man’s essential kindness, charity and warmth.  It is the holiday which honors the birth of the Prince of Peace, and, indeed,  peace permeates our homes and spirits.  So I am inclined to say “Merry Christmas” rather than “Happy Holidays.”  ( And while we are at it, how about Bill O’Reilly and his comrades shower those of us who secularize the holiday with a little “peace and good will toward men.”)

All Things Shall Pass

It has been quite a time since the last post. Spring and Summer have been a rich and transitional time. Today I read with sadness the word of Steve Jobs’ resignation as Apple’s CEO. I’m not a techie by any stretch. But I’ve admired this man’s innovation and impact on our culture. I love my iPhone.  I have joked for the last couple of years that if I had to give up my family or my iPhone……well, I’d be weighing the options.   Such cleverness.  Such usefullness.  The drive behind that creativity is falling to his physical limitations.  We are all dust, after all.  I, as we all, embrace the fiction that we…. WE…. are special in some way.   We will live long and healthy.  If we have not achieved our dream, we have time yet for that.  If we have achieved our desires at the various stages of our lives, we feel blessed.  Somehow God touches us.  We don’t know why or how but it is our abiding knowledge.  

Who among us would be more blessed than Steve Jobs?  But today, he succumbs to illness of the body.  Steve Jobs, whose mind is so beautiful as a creative engine, which touches us all – whose body is so mortal.

When I was a kid, I loved the giants of Folk Music.  I’m going to date myself here, but I loved The Kingston Trio and Peter, Paul and Mary.  The power and DRIVE of their music inspired and empowered me.  In the last few years, Nick Reynolds of TKT and Mary Travers of PP&M died.  Here are pictures of each at the height of their power and in age and infermity.

Mary:   Here’s Nick: r’

The people whose passion and life force energy can inspire and touch us are gifts.  Be they Steve , or Mary or Nick (as they do me) or Barack Obama,  Rick Perry, Bruce Springsteen,  Lady Gaga, or any writer, singer, innovator, crier, screamer, tickler, we all pass through these stages.  Our task is to love ourselves and one another as we pass through this universal course.  None of us gets out of this alive, but we can strive, always, to find the love and passion that makes us alive.

Buddy

We said good-bye to our sweet golden retriever, Buddy, three nights ago. He was 10 1/2 years old. He had cancer all throughout his body. As he lay on the floor, with the three of us sitting around him, stroking him and holding him, the drug was administered and he quietly left us. From the time our, then,  7-year old daughter picked him out from an array of  six-week old puppies sleeping in our backyard (a young 4-H fellow was breeding retrievers and brought a dozen little fellows to frolic in our back before, one-by-one, they plopped off to sleep) to this week, our Buddy had been the sweetest, most loving of companions. Happy (happy?…..In heaven) to have his ears massaged – never more content than to be under our dinner table while we ate, my daughter’s toes tucked under his belly or resting on top of his body – loving to shimmy on his back on top of a new scent in the grass.  Oh lord, the open, complete love that he gave.  He’d stay with a good friend when we’d be away and she told us she loved his company, he was so mellow.  She joked that he just needed an easy chair and a smoking jacket to fill out the image.  I loved taking him for walks off leash – he never, but for a couple of times in all those years, roamed and always stayed near as we approached an intersection in our neighborhood, would sit until it was time to be released to run across the street.  He was our happy, loving boy and the warmth he brought to our home will be sorely, sadly missed.    I wish I’d walked him more, given him a few extra goodies, somehow prolonged his time on this plane – but that’s over.  We lit a memorial candle inside his collar placed beside his picture and we’ll keep that for another few days.  So here’s to the love in our lives, wherever its source.  We often don’t know how it fills our hearts until it’s gone.