Sunday, January 29, 2012

Sharp Turns

For one sweet summer, David and Brian had an intense love affair. David was crazy about Brian; spent all his spare time with him, gave him gifts, was interested in all aspects of his life. And then, one day, he wasn't. The best summer of Brian's life turned into the worst autumn of his life, and then the worst winter and spring. Nothing Brian did brought David back and he tried everything. David's single explanation for the break-up was, "You're just not worth it to me." Brian heard, "You're worthless."

After several sad years, Brian allowed himself to hear the very important, "to me" part of David's sentence and realized that what David said was true, and that David had a right to speak what was true for him. David had no desire to invest in any relationship beyond a first stage of romantic titillation. The words he spoke said everything about David, but because Brian had a fairly low opinion of himself, he readily misinterpreted David's statement. Funny thing about people, they like to be right, no matter the cost.

The sad part of this story for me is that it took so long for Brian to let himself know what had really happened. He hoped for a dream life with David but life went in a different direction. Instead of navigating the sharp turn, Brian took a long detour.

Sharp turns are part of life. Sometimes they are wonderful, sometimes awful. After one or two such turns, you learn to value the wonderful and, as much as possible, diminish the awful by not prolonging it. That is, you go through pain, not around it. You deal with the reality of what has happened and do the best you can to cope, to stay on the road. There are people who can help you do that. Pain confronted can be very intense but it can also lead to healing. Prolonged detours in the way of drugs, self-victimization and blaming, increase and prolong pain. Jung made the distinction between "healthy" and "neurotic" pain. Nobody wants either... but that's life.

Thursday, January 19, 2012


I was with a group of friends and acquaintances recently and I have to say it was a pretty chic crowd. That is, they looked good: styled hair, expensive suits, trendy shoes. Listening to them? I could have been at home watching reruns. There was the story-telling couple; how they met, their favorite vacation, the barbeque gone wrong. Stories so often repeated they seemed scripted. There was the divorced woman damning her dreadful husband ten years after their split. There was the bickering couple. Also, there was some interesting conversation, some funny quips and the food was wondrous. Still, what I took away from that evening was the thought that ever so often one needs to do some emotional updating. Here are three that come to mind.

Break a mind set. You know you have a mind set when you hear yourself saying the same thing over and over again. When you frequently say, "I would never do that" or, "I can't stand ___." Or, as a couple, you have the same agreements you had years ago but now they've turned into rules that bind. What terrible thing would happen if you didn't go to bed at the same time, even though one of you wants to read and the other is nodding off?

Choose a fight not to repeat. I know a couple who fought over toast crumbs on the counter for years. I know a man who never had a boss with whom he didn't fight.

Practice liking people. Give people a chance even if they are difference from you ... especially if they are different from you and especially if you perceive them as better than you in some way.

These examples may not fit you at all. But even the most evolved, steady, and brilliant person can benefit from an emotional review. And even a five percent change in behavior or thinking will pack a punch. Desire and specificity are required. Yeah, yeah, change is difficult but that mantra doesn't have to stop you. Think of updating a wardrobe. You hold up a sweater. "Oh, that old thing," you say and toss it.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Point Blank

At my bank, I've tried not to go to teller number four. It hasn't been a totally conscious choice, just a small avoidance. One tends to avoid dour, unfriendly service people when possible and teller number four had a fixed expression that said, "Stay away." Then, one day, about a year ago, it was my turn in line and teller number four's window was open. I stepped up and said good morning with no expectation of a return greeting as she never spoke to me outside a business exchange. But today, while counting out my money, her hand paused and, with her head lowered, her eyes looked up into mine. "My cat died," she said. I said, "I'm sorry. I know how painful that is as I have cats myself." She lowered her eyes and pushed the money through the window. For the first time, I noticed her name tag. "See you, Judy. It's really sad abut your cat."

That moment has stayed with me for a couple of reasons. In those three words, "My cat died," and in the pain Judy's eyes expressed, was a life story. I don't know the details but I recognized isolation and loneliness, loss and meagerness. And I was reminded in a new way that deep, raw emotions, when fully expressed, come out in few words.

When trying to express how you feel (to yourself or to another) it's not good to move too quickly away from the core, simplest expression of a feeling and into the reason or source of the feeling. Words pile up quickly and, before you know it, you and the listener are in a word-tangle. Communication feels unsatisfactory when we don't hear or state a feeling in a simple (exposed) way and give it room to exist before looking to explain or defend it.

Last week, I was reminded of Judy when I stopped at a pet store to get a new Da Bird for Stokes and Toony. While poking around, I notice an older woman, dressed in a long skirt, a rough looking jacket and a fuzzy winter hat. I had seen her in two other aisles and now had a sense that she was hovering. Sure enough, she approached me as I was leaving the store and with a shy smile handed me a pamphlet, saying, "May I give you this?" I accepted and thanked her. Relief and mission-accomplished were written on her face.

In my car, I glanced at the pamphlet. "Tired of being depressed?" I read, along with advice about a particular selection in the bible to read. I thought it likely that this was her way of telling her story and, like Judy, how important it is to tell one's story, no matter how briefly, no matter that the listener is a stranger. I also thought that she was courageous in dealing with her depression by trying to help someone else. I admire courage.Wish I had asked for her name


Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Ch-Ch-Ch Changes

I had an end-of-year dinner party last week and as we sat down to eat I realized that every one of my guests had had a monumental change over the previous year. There was a divorce in a decades long marriage, a move across country, a new job, and a new relationship among other big things.  I was the only one there who could not point to anything as dramatic and that got me thinking about the notion of change. As a psychologist, this is my business of facilitate change. Change comes to us in many ways. Sometimes it's nothing we want or expect. Other times we pursue change. Sometimes change is dramatic, like the events in the lives of my dinner guests. It can come in a smack-on-the forehead moment; a sudden blast of insight that leads to substantive shifts. Sometimes it's like that, but rarely...extremely rarely (is it okay to use two adverbs like that?). Instead of these eureka moments, the change I see is more often is of the chipping rock variety. This kind of change happens deeply and slowly over time so that from one week to the next it might be extremely hard to notice. It's as though the molecules of your make-up are shifting in this quiet, organic way so that you might only notice by looking back to compare. 

Back to my dinner party: first I felt kind of cheated out of some huge change and then I turned my attention to the ways in which I have wanted to grow and made an assessment of my progress. Slowly, slowly in that chipping rock kind of way, I can see that I am different today than I was last year at this time. Little by little I have been working away at that granite mountain that is my belief that I must fix everything. If I had not taken the time to really ponder this I might not have noticed the changes I have made.

It's probably a mistake to put a value judgment on which kind of change is better. The lightening bolt ones are sexy and compelling for sure.  And the quiet ones feel satisfying in a deep way. How you get there probably matters little. And I actually think the eureka moments can only come after a quiet, sometimes unseen accretion the way that last drop spills water over the edge of a glass. 

I wonder what next year's end-of-year dinner party will bring.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Happy New Word

I often imagine how people wake up, or rather, to what they wake up. Some are exhilarated, maybe newly engaged or married, some exhausted with a new baby, some broken hearted with loss, some dulled with boredom and some feeling like a horse's ass. How did your new year begin?

Not a big fan of New Year's Eve but I do like New Year's Day. It has the same shiny feeling as buying a new notebook and sharpening pencils for the first day of school. I also like making resolutions, just one or two, thereby cutting down on disappointments. I begin by thinking about how I want my life to be different a year from now and base my resolutions on that. Next year, I want to be healthier. Not an exciting resolution; not like saying I want to get my pilot's license or finally play Hedda Gabler, but it's a good, solid resolution.

My second resolution is to change the world. Not all the world, of course, just a sliver, but millions will benefit. Here's my plan: get rid of the word, "amazing." The word is a prolific weed invading every field of life. I find it most annoying when someone being interviewed is asked how they feel about an important event: How was that trip to the moon? How did you feel when you won the Academy Award? What did you think when your neighbors built you a new house? Eyes widen then freeze as the interviewee searches for the exact word to convey the feeling. A big pause, a little intake of air, a slight head swing left to right and then out comes, "AMAZING."

Enough. It's had a good run but it's time to find a replacement. And, no going back to "awesome" or "surreal" or the less tiresome "brilliant" or "excellent" for which Canadians have an affinity.

Here is my choice for 2012 ... "wondrous." The first syllable can be drawn out to emphasis just how amazing (oops) something is or the second syllable can be hammered for a kind of gangsta cool or cynical disdain. So, I'm putting "wondrous" out there and hoping to see it spread around the world. To get it started, I'm wishing you a wondrous year with many happy morning wakenings.