Cutting Yourself Off from a Toxic Family Member

Many of us are forced to navigate the very turbulent waters of a relationship with a toxic family member.  It can be a parent, a sibling or, even more heartbreaking, a child.  I have noticed over the years that therapists are far more encouraging of such a cutoff than is society, as a whole.  As a therapist, I must say I, also, fall squarely on the side of those who support cutoff, when necessary.

The work of Murray Bowen was central to my education and early training in the field.  Bowen was a brilliant and very original thinker and spent a goodly amount of energy exploring the magnetic psychological relationships within one’s family of origin.  There are 8 essential precepts of Bowenian thought and one of them involves the discouragement of emotional cutoff.  In Bowen’s world, cutoff prevents us from working through and resolving the earliest of our emotional relationships, leaving us vulnerable to being upended when these relationships – or their echo in our current lives – assert themselves. I have come to believe that this position is not tenable.  Just as the orthodox Freudian can wrongly attribute deep distress only to childhood fantasies, Bowen, I believe, under-appreciates the freedom and relief that can be experienced by stopping a relationship with a toxic family member.  While “society” may bombard us with its incessant “shoulds,” as in, “How can you abandon your parent? sibling? child?” – the answer is quite simply, “I must do it so that I can flourish in my own life and not be derailed by the consistent drama and pain associated with a relationship which, after all, is not voluntary.

This insight was clearly and eloquently stated in a recent Washington Post opinion piece by Harriet Brown, a Syracuse University journalism professor.  I encourage you to hear what she has to say.  There is enormous freedom in the voluntary estrangement from the toxic family member who brings you grief.  This will almost always be difficult, as the exceedingly strong force of guilt pushes you back into a destructive and distracting relationship.  This is where a counselor who can support you in your quest for freedom and self-actualization may be the most important person for you during this journey.

Living the Good Life ?

A New York Times article appeared on April 27th featuring the struggles faced by recent law school graduates, 20% of whom, according to one survey, are not working at a job weatlh.1that requires a license to practice law.  This rather desperate state of affairs was introduced by the story of 29 year old Jonathan Wang, a Columbia Law School graduate who is quoted as saying, “I would spend three years at school in New York, then work for a big law firm and make $160,000 a year, and someday, I would become a partner and live the good life.”


So what is the “good life” that Jonathan and his cohorts strive to achieve?   It sounds an awful lot like making a lot of money and then enjoying all the money he made.  I don’t hear him talking about a deeply satisfying work life which responds to whatever inner calling he brings with him – be it service to a population he is attracted to, intellectual curiosity, deep engagement in the machinery that makes this society just and workable.  Does the “good life” include time with his family – the chance to spend leisurely weekend mornings lazing in bed with his kid(s) crawling all over him or the loving rituals he will share with his partner that will keep them secure and bonded?  Does “the good life” include a spiritual calling – be it a membership in an embracing congregation, or the awe he might experience in moments of private reflection?  Does it include doing good works for no compensation other than the knowledge that you have contributed to the well-being of others?

This mwealth.2ay be very generational, but I really don’t understand it when young people say they want to retire when they are 50, or even 40.  I never hear (it may be said, but I’m not hearing it) that these people, who wish to sacrifice their early adult years for a “good life” later, speak of what they want to do with this good life other than spend the money they have sacrificed to amass.  Meanwhile, they will likely find they must spend a lot of time, emotional energy  (and money) attempting to reweave the bonds with their loved ones which have frayed and stretched as they have become embedded in a culture of striving for great financial reward.  We should not forget that lawyers have a unique and valuable role in our society.  No other profession studies the way a society works – how common disputes can be resolved in a productive way.  It has been said that doctors are healers of the body; ministers are healers of the soul and lawyers are the healers of the society.  It is a bit of a perversion to see the practice of law as an avenue to riches.  It has become sadly common to think of it that way.  Yet, we can’t escape the fact that lawyers have a frighteningly high proportion of their population suffering from depression.  Google “lawyers” and “depression” and you’ll see what I’m talking about.  It’s good, actually, that the practice of law may no longer be a gilded path to wealth.  Hopefully, this will result in a greater number of young people not succumbing to the siren call of some “good life” and who may choose, instead, to contribute their skill, knowledge and earned wisdom so we can all live a good life.


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.)

Your Signature Strengths

A few years ago Martin Seligman (former President of the American Psychological Association and developer of positive psychology, a significant force in the current mental health environment) and Christopher Peterson came up with this notion of Signature Strengths – those qualities we are nstrengthsaturally drawn to and which are considered to be positive (and have for millennia).  There are 24 of these and it is possible to visit a web site and go through a 30 minute test that will give you a sense of your top signature strengths.  You can access this test here (scroll down to the VIA Survey of Character Strengths).    Seligman describes these different strengths so well in his book Authentic Happiness.  In a more detailed discussion, Seligman and Peterson in their book Character Strengths and Virtues (a book I purchased out of an excess of enthusiasm only to decide that the tome was helpful, but did not merit it’s size or price) break the 24 strengths into Six Categories: Wisdom and Knowledge; Courage; Humanity; Justice; Temperance and Transcendence.  What I particularly appreciated about this material is similar to the value I find in Myers-Briggs psychological type.  Many of us struggle with the belief that there is something about our basic nature that is inadequate.  We aren’t smart enough, or clever enough, or spiritual, empathic, mentally tough, athletic or social enough.  These products of “programing” we received from parental figures who, themselves, struggled with their own sense of defect and want,  leave us with an inflated sense of what is missing in our character and an altogether limited idea of our own personal assets.   The most successful, content people in the world have holes in their character and the most confused have great, though unmined, character strengths.  Recognizing, and playing to, those strengths is a key to life satisfaction, as Seligman teaches.  He suggests that we seek out work that allows us to exercise these strengths and indulge in recreation that lets us express them.  Great advice in my book.  I invite you to take the test linked above and explore it’s benefits.

Law as a Healing Profession

I was fortunate recently to be asked to write an article for the Washington State Bar monthly magazine about the new trends in law and how they contribute to civility in the profession. I thought I’d reproduce it here because the theme of law as a healing profession is so important today.

Starting in around 1960 and continuing through the ‘80’s, the practice of law was marked by the ascendancy of litigation as both the engine of economic growth in the profession and the prevailing ethic. Competent, smart, hard-working and, above all, tough – these were the values which permeated our professional world. Aggressive was good, results (measured in monetary terms) were paramount. Adversarial litigation exploded as a practice form, and with it came the concomitant rise in interpersonally destructive behavior. The oft-referenced rise in incivility among lawyers was both striking in its metastatic growth and often shocking in its brazenness. Isolated voices would express concern about the law’s shift from a “profession” to a “business” and its effect on the well-being of both the lawyers and the clients they served, but during this time they remained just that – isolated. But in the late ‘80’s and early ‘90’s, these voices coalesced into what law professor Susan Daicoff has called the “Comprehensive Law Movement.”

If there is one driving force behind this, now formidable, movement within our midst, it is the recognition that law should not be an instrument for inflicting avoidable personal (and interpersonal) damage in the service of reaching a specific “legal” objective. Indeed, if there is one theme which is shared by these approaches to practice, it is that when we can manage to turn down the heat generated by adversarial conflict, we are actually able to arrive at solutions which are far more satisfying to our clients. It is about the ascendancy of civility in how we conduct our affairs – not just to be “nice” but to achieve effective results. The various “vectors” of this Comprehensive Law Movement include:

• Collaborative Law: Arising 20 years ago from the creative mind of Stu Webb, a Minnesota family lawyer, Collaborative Law is predicated on the notion that the last place to resolve disputes between wounded, divorcing individuals is an adversarial litigation process. In Collaborative Law, all professionals and the clients sign a contract explicitly abandoning litigated adjudication as the means for resolving disputes. There is a generous use of neutral professionals to support the individuals in managing their emotional challenges, making parenting decisions and untangling their financial community.
• Therapeutic Jurisprudence: In 1990, law professors David Wexler and Bruce Winnick began to write about the various psychologically destructive consequences of legal action. They explicitly joined the social sciences of law and psychology in an effort to enhance the therapeutic possibilities inherent in both legal process and result. Starting in the mental health courts, TJ (the subject of more than 600 articles and 18 books) has had a significant impact in such diverse practice areas as workers compensation, sexual orientation law and business negotiation.
• Transformative Mediation: First discussed in a 1994 book by law professor R. Baruch Bush and communications professor, Joseph Folger (The Promise of Mediation) this form of dispute resolution seeks to fashion a resolution that reaches beyond a settlement of the legal issues between parties. Baruch and Folger emphasized the promotion of each party’s empowerment and voice and the recognition of each party and their concerns by the other. TM, at its highest expression, explores the power of empathy and forgiveness, making mediation a vehicle for growth and reconciliation.
• Restorative Justice: More than 25 years old, RJ is founded in the criminal justice system. It is an avenue for healing between the criminal offender, the victim, and their community. It is founded not on adjudication of guilt and sentencing, but rather upon dialogue, future problem solving and, critically, the offender’s acceptance of accountability for his/her conduct and the damage which has resulted. RJ seeks to heal the deep rift which arises from the commission of criminal acts.
• Holistic Justice: Again, from the single seed from the brain of attorney Bill van Zyverden, Holistic Law seeks to “promote peaceful advocacy…encourage compassion, reconciliation, forgiveness and healing.” HJ emphasizes the spiritual elements of dispute resolution. The International Alliance of Holistic Lawyers is a vibrant, 20 year old organization.
• Humanizing Legal Education: Florida State law professor, Lawrence Krieger, authored an influential research report on the destructive impact of the law school environment on the well-being of law students in the early ‘00’s. His observations found a very enthusiastic audience in the legal academy and today there is a section on Balance in Legal Education which seeks to encourage and support avenues for law students to strengthen their resources for dealing with stress and deepen their interpersonal skills.

Back in 1974 we used to talk about law school as training to become “high speed legal tools.” This led to troubling blindness to a fundamental truth – we, lawyers, are people. Our clients are people… with dreams and troubles and a fundamental need for connection. During the last 20 years, our colleagues, by the thousands, have striven to sculpt a new and different profession which is wiser and more civil – not because it is nicer, but because it is a return to our roots as lawyers as counselors and supporters of our clients’ lives and endeavors.

The Happy Lawyer

Law professors Nancy Levit and Douglas Linder have just published a valuable guide for lawyers of any age.  Before you read on, I invite you to take a most interesting little quiz (derived from the findings in this book) which appeared in the ABA Journal.  How important is money to lawyers’ happiness?    Do the most satisfied lawyers come from the “top tier” law school?  (Speaking of which, check out the recent New York Times story about the competition among law schools to get those coveted -and misleading-U.S News ratings.)  Lawyers’ ability to be happy is challenged on many fronts.  The assaults on well-being by the competitive law school environment;  lawyers’ natural penchant for pessimistic thinking as described by Martin Seliman, Ph.D, the “Father of Positive Psychology”; the demands on a person’s time that are driven by the need to earn the funds to cover a six-figure student loan and the general lack of civility in legal culture and some of the most notable examples.  Keeping a handle on personal relationships is so critical for personal well-being – as is the commitment not to lose connection with one’s own particular life passions.  Achieving balance between professional and personal needs is ranked by lawyers of the millennial generation as their highest value. Levit and Linder provide a wonderful array of tips and wisdom for high achieving lawyers who feel their lives slipping through their fingers.

Thinking About Pompeii

I’ve got to admit, I think about Pompeii from time to time.  When Vesuvius buried that Roman city nearly 2000 years ago in ash, the inhabitants were frozen in time.  They exist today as human forms only – their personal histories, their essence, erased.  Forms only.  Who were these individuals?  None were “famous.”  Their names do not pass down the generations.   But in their time, as they breathed and gazed on sunlight, they touched others with simple acts of kindness by the boatload.  There must have been the teacher who encouraged a child and transformed his view of himself…and the wife who cared for an ill husband whose life faded -before a mountain erupted to bury her as well.  No doubt those of light spirit brought smiles and laughter to others who were otherwise burdened by their own cares – daily worry must have been as much a part of First Century Roman life as it is in ours.  Those of gentle heart or fierce passion touched their fellows and raised their spirits.   Gifts were given out of the blue; visits were made to the grieving to lighten the weight of their loss; countless acts of simple kindness were made without any thought of compensation or return.  And in a literal flash, they were all gone.  Does that render the love and life-force-energy they shared pointless?  We read history to hear stories of the storied.  Yet the fabric of life is made up of the millions and millions of normal, loving, caring, giving, simply kind people who came before us and who live among us today.  Every day I experience acts of kindness in my own home – simple gestures that no-one but me will ever know about.  I do believe that these loving gifts have a power – a grace – that is transcendent.  So when my mind wanders to these forms in ash, I invariably think about the blessings of simplicity and kindness all around me every day – and do everything I can to let them fill my heart.  May 2011 be a year of kindness we provide, and receive….and recognize.

Putt Like the Pros – Don’t Get Fat

I just got interested in golf…at 59. My lovely 17 year old daughter has, for years, gauged an activity by whether it was “fun.” That’s a big word for her, and judging by the kind of person she has turned out to be, I’d say “fun” is good.
Golf is fun. Funfunfunfun. Of course, when the day comes that I care how many strokes it takes me to get from the tee to sinking the ball into the cup, I’ll maybe change my tune. Yet, for now, just getting the ball up the hole, to the green and into the cup is an accomplishment. My wife and I just saw the most recent Harry Potter movie. Our family has read and listened to these wonderful books since the first. On the way out of the most recent movie I leaned into my wife’s ear and said, “This installment…Just moving the ball down the course.” Yes, golf imagery is seeping into my discourse.
So I just went on line to see what websites had to say about putting, which remains for me a dark art. The site I hit had a side-bar ad showing a very unattractive, exposed belly (actually grabbed to accentuate the fat) and beside it the flat result of…something. Obey the rule is all I could garner. For not the first time I thought, “What a shame.” Our culture pushes, presses, shoves us into desire for no fat, six pack abs, tight buns – while seducing us with fat laden meals that taste great and convert themselves into the handfuls that web ads use as a cudgel to sell something that will give us a fabulous body. There is cruelty in our society that masquerades as advertising or culture.
I have yet to see an ad for integrity, courage in day-to-day living or just plain satisfaction with our lives.

Pleasure in the Little Things

Tonight I got to hang with my 16 year old daughter. We had leftovers, hung out for about a half hour and then went our separate ways. She’s doing her homework and I’m here typing this. Her mom’s with a good friend who fell a month ago and broke her arm so bad that a piece of the bone was found a couple weeks later in the flower bed. I’m serious. I’ve heard of bone meal fertilizer, but I think that’s taking gardening too far. Anyway, she is in recovery, but still needs a good friend’s help and TLC and that’s where my love is tonight. My girl is a teenager so “Mum” is definitely the word. She knows this drives me nuts – I took her to the bookstore yesterday and I asked, “What are you getting?” and she replied devilishly, “A book.” Well thanks a lot for the deep info. I log onto the online news and I see that the AIG execs are trying to use our dollars for multimillion dollar bonuses. Our country’s drive for more, bigger, richer is what drove us to the current brink and I think it arises in part from our collective failure to embrace the pleasure in the little things. They’re really not so little. To hang out with my beautiful child tonight and engage in a 20 minute “nothing much” conversation over leftovers was very sweet. Asking a question and getting a real answer feels like hitting a vein of gold.