Sunday, April 21, 2019

Here be dragons (A guide to facing our biggest fears)

“So do we pass the ghosts that haunt us later in our lives; they sit undramatically by the roadside like poor beggars, and we see them only from the corners of our eyes, if we see them at all. The idea that they have been waiting there for us rarely crosses our minds. Yet they do wait, and when we have passed, they gather up their bundles of memory and fall in behind, treading in our footsteps and catching up, little by little.”

Steven King

If you look at a map from early explorers, they often had ways of marking things that seem pretty odd to us now. Unexplored areas would often include pictures of giant Sea Monsters and Dragons and exotic animals.

“Here be Dragons” became the way we described these parts of the maps.

Here be Dragons.

I got to thinking about this phrase as it relates to those things we avoid facing in our lives. I think most of us have some. My personal map has got Sea Monsters EVERYWHERE!

Here be dragons. A more accepted psychological term might relate to “core beliefs.” Those maladaptive narratives buried deep beneath layers of sophistication and impression management and the version of ourselves we chose to show to others. 

Some common core beliefs are “I’ll always be a fat person” or “I don’t deserve to be happy” and even “I’m not worthy of love.”

Image result for painful experiences limiting beliefs

Much like the early explorers avoided areas in the world because they were perceived to be too dangerous, we often avoid facing our own personal demons.

Sometimes we get away with this avoidance. For a while. We rationalize and put things off and tell ourselves we’ll get around to fixing things one day.

The problem is, by avoiding these dragons we don’t live the best lives that we’re capable of. We don’t find the best versions of ourselves.

Over the years I’ve heard a lot of examples of these dragons. One woman who identified as a hypochondriac was always pampered and cared for when she was sick as a child. She began associating being sick with being loved, and kept repeating that pattern over and over again. We finally identified this connection between being sick and being loved after many months of avoidance, canceled appointments, and therapeutic cat and mouse games.

Another example came from someone who couldn’t get their weight under control, despite decades of fad diets, personal trainers, and pills. In exploring her personal dragons, we found that she had turned to food as a source of comfort as a lonely child who moved around a great deal after her parent’s divorce. She had a hard time making friends and turned to food as a kind of companion. Years later, her weight acted as a kind of shield against getting to know people and risk being hurt. Food was the mechanism to keep this whole pattern churning.

Facing this particular dragon was very hard for her, as food was the only coping strategy she really knew. With some patience and hard work, we identified this pattern. That was half the battle. Even KNOWING about the dragon isn’t always enough. We still have to face it and respond to it.

It’s interesting to think about the motif of facing dragons. These stories go back in mythology for thousands of years. Why would that be? Massive fire-breathing creatures have never actually existed or been observed by men.

And yet, we conjure them. Have always conjured them. Perhaps that’s where the symbolism really comes from. These giant monsters have always been a reflection of one’s inner conflict with themselves.

Because that’s always the biggest battle. The largest hurdle. Even Marcus Aurelius, who conquered large swaths of the earth thought so. He often lamented how the biggest battle was harnessing the conflict in his own mind. Most great men and women would say the same I would guess.

So on this Easter Sunday, I vow to face a few of my own dragons. To slow down, examine some of my own patterns, and face things I have been avoiding. For people wishing to do the same, a core belief exercise may be a good start. As always, it’s better to have a little help along the way. See a therapist if you need to. But my wish for anyone reading is to face these dragons and limiting beliefs that have distracted them from living their best lives.

Easter always seemed like a good place to start. It’s all about renewal and starting over. Although I’m no longer religious in any traditional sense, I did always feel a huge sense of relief getting out of my powder blue suit after a two-hour mass.

THAT was a great sense of freedom.

So in the spirit of the holiday, I reflect on the words of F. Scott Fitzgerald in a letter to his young daughter.. “For what it’s worth, it’s never too late to be whoever you want to be. I hope you live a life you’re proud of, and if you find that you’re not, I hope you have the strength to start over."

I wish the same for all of you.

Happy Easter!

Saturday, February 9, 2019

Are you becoming unstuck in time?

Listen: Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time. Billy has gone to sleep a senile widower and awakened on his wedding day.
Kurt Vonnegut- Slaughterhouse Five

Books and music. Music and books.

These things have been my salvation in life.

Here’s a little story about one of each. 

Let’s start with Kurt Vonnegut and in particular Slaughterhouse Five. This book was a life-changing and perhaps even life-saving book for me. Mostly, it’s Kurt Vonnegut discussing his own wartime PTSD symptoms through the character of Billy Pilgrim, a veteran of the Dresden bombing who becomes “unstuck in time” as he leaps to and from different time periods of his life. Vonnegut worked out his own PTSD symptoms in part by writing this book, but was also making a point about the fierce and awesome power of the mind to time travel. Particularly a mind that has been affected by trauma. 

I’ve never been able to shake the phrase “unstuck in time.” It describes things I see as a therapist EVERY single day. Many of my patients just can’t shake loose from traumas or heartbreak from their pasts, and regularly time travel back to those places in their minds, in an endless loop of painful memories.

Others jump in time to the future, where they can’t stop worrying about things that might happen, and all of the bad stuff they’ve conjured up in their minds. 

Depression, Anxiety, and PTSD are all functions of people becoming unstuck in time.

But let’s come back to that. I want to tell you about the music part of the story. 

A short while ago, I was driving back from the beach, and heard the song, “This is the time” by Billy Joel. It was late at night, I was cold, a bit lonely, and it was a strange song to hear on the radio, all things considered. 

I heard the lyrics, 

‘This is the time to remember
Cause it will not last forever.’

And I’ll be damned if I didn’t become unstuck in time.

In that moment, I was 21 again, exploring the world, in love, and driving down the open road.

I drove for miles like that before I realized what happened (P.S. it’s a little scary we do that while we’re driving). That was a good memory, but on the other hand, kind of sad. Although I was young and hopeful at the time of that memory, I was also pretty anxious about my future and very unclear about how things were going to work out for me.

The French have a word called √Čnouement, which means, “The bittersweet feeling of having arrived in the future, seeing how things turn out, but not being able to tell your past self.”

That’s sort of how I felt.

Now then, back to the mental health side of this. 

ALL of us time travel sometimes. Every single one of us. Some of us look back at the past and ONLY remember the good parts. We fondly recall a lost love, but forget all of the reasons that person is out of our lives to begin with. We think our youth was the most fabulous time of our lives, but forget how hard it was being broke and often not really knowing who we were back then.

Others are inconsolable about things that have happened, and simply can’t move on. They become unstuck in time, and replay painful stories and memories in their heads that render them unable to experience joy in the present moment.

Anxious people prefer to visit the future. They’ve already made up their minds about how things won’t work out, and all the things that are going to go wrong. The psychological term for this is “catastrophizing” and it is a hallmark of most anxiety disorders.

In thinking about time traveling and how it affects our functioning, I’m certainly not suggesting we shouldn’t cherish and remember fond memories from our past. And sometimes we DO have to anticipate the things that are coming in the future and plan a little for a rainy day.

But becoming “unstuck” in time is a different matter. This is when our minds take us out of the present moment to visit another time and place to avoid something in our current lives. Perhaps we decline a social invitation because we feel like it couldn’t possibly measure up to an epic time from our past. Maybe we blow off a job interview or turn down a promotion because we’ve already decided to imagine the problematic future consequences we’re sure they might come with. 

As John Milton said hundreds of years ago, “The mind is its own place and in itself, can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven.” That’s the power of the mind to time travel. A great memory can totally make our day, but the SAME memory can lead to intense feelings of sadness. 

This is the fork in the road. Once upon a time, a VERY long book was written about depression and anxiety called, “I never knew I had a choice.” I slugged through it. It took me weeks. 

But 90% of what I got from the book was right there in the title. 

I never knew I had a choice. 

Perhaps the goal is to learn from the past, behave kindly with regard to our future selves, but understand that the person operating NOW is the only one that can do anything about things.

So yes, I’m going to continue to listen to Billy Joel and look back fondly.

But I sure don’t want to miss anyone great in my current existence that could make tomorrow’s memories a whole lot better. I even put it on my refrigerator. 

Be here now.

Be here now.

Be here now…

I don't wanna forget, but I'm sure I will.

Then remember.

Then forget.

So it goes...

Monday, January 21, 2019

Every Silver Lining's Got a Touch of Grey (Explaining the U-Shaped Life Satisfaction Curve)

Oh yeah, life goes on
Long after the thrill
Of living is gone
Jack and Diane- John Mellencamp

As much as I loathe this aging thing, I'm beginning to recognize that I am now a healthier person in terms of self-worth and knowing who I am and where I fit in the world. That’s been a good trade-off for the wrinkles.
Patty Duke

Many of the people I see in therapy are in their 40’s.

And man, they can’t get no satisfaction. 

And I can relate! What is it about middle-age that causes this? There are some obvious candidates. A lot of people are taking care of older parents as well as younger children. Health and energy are often declining, but conversely, it’s a little early to think about retirement. 

Psychologists and doctors and men with red sports cars have long debated the existence of the mid-life crisis, and, really, the jury is still out on this one. But there DOES appear to be some evidence for something called the U-Shaped Life Satisfaction Curve.- Observe

In investigating this idea, I didn’t simply cherry-pick a single graph. Jonathon Rauch wrote an entire book on the subject called, “The Happiness Curve: Why Life Gets Better After Midlife.”

In this book, he does a thorough examination of the U-Shaped Life Satisfaction Curve, and digs into the research that seems to suggest a dip in happiness into the 40’s and then a significant upswing.

Why would this be??

In the interest of full disclosure, this isn’t merely a research question for me. I know the malaise, the boredom, and the disconnection that comes with this time of life, and I want to figure this shit out as well. 

Many people Rauch interviewed for his book talked about how they “SHOULD” be happy. They’ve got more money now, they’ve advanced in their careers, and have put a lot of those manic sorts of stressors from early adulthood behind them. They SHOULD be happy.

So why aren’t they?

Rauch examines a happiness equation described as H=S + C +V +T

“H” is happiness. “S” is your emotional set point, which describes where your sort of default happiness setting lies. “V” described factors under your control, and “T” is time’s influence on life satisfaction.

And therein lies the rub. The way we look at time. People in their 40’s tend to look back at their past and think of all the good things that DIDN’T happen for them, and look into the future and see all the bad things that MIGHT happen to them.

It doesn’t seem entirely fair. 

And before you think it is only humans that tie themselves into these middle-aged knots, consider the following fact. Even CHIMPANZEES seem to go through this same sort of funk in the middle of their lives. 

At this point, the four of you that are still reading may be saying, “Are you really saying that Chimpanzees and Apes have mid-life crises’? 

Yes. I’m really saying that. Read here if you'd like to look at the evidence.

Another contributing factor is something called “affective forecasting.” It's this thing we do where we look into the future and predict how we’re going to feel about things. It turns out we kind of suck at it. Although we THINK it’s going to be awful getting older and dealing with sickness and so forth, the truth is, humans mostly just adjust to things and return to their baseline functioning. Remember our happiness set points? That’s what this is all about.

But in examining the U-Shaped Curve, the news is not all bad. That curve takes a sharp left turn at some point, and happiness really seems to rise from there. 


For one thing, our emotional regulation begins to improve. As my grandfather used to say, "Don’t sweat the petty things, and don’t pet the sweaty things.” We seem to “get” this a lot more as we get older. 

We also seem to seek opportunities to take some of the things we have learned and pay it forward. Erik Erikson called the conflict in midlife age “generativity versus stagnation.” 

In other words, we either get stuck and unsure about what to do next, or put the wisdom we’ve accumulated towards the service of others. Psychologist Dan McAdams called this the “redemptive sequence.” Sure we’ve made mistakes, but there’s still some time to do some good. Much of the upswing of the curve is about this giving, connection, and redemption.

Rauch also closes the book expelling that one of the reasons for the upswing in the curve can be summed up in three simple words. Gratitude comes easier. Sure everything didn’t work out exactly as we planned, but we begin to be more thankful for the things that we do have. Therein lies another large piece of the puzzle. 

As for me? One of my favorite songs growing up was “Touch of Grey” by the Grateful Dead, a band I embraced in my own (decades long) wayward youth. It celebrates the wisdom and resilience of aging, and the lines “I will get by," and “I will survive” became a mantra for Deadheads young and old. 

When I was 16, I knew every word to the song, and would belt out the lyrics,

“Oh well a touch of Grey
Kind of suits you anyway’

It had little relevance to my life at the time. It was still fun though.

But now? Sometimes I look at the sink, and wonder if that stray hair is actually brown or grey. But really it doesn’t matter.

Cause maybe, just maybe.

A touch of Grey,

Kind of suits me anyway...

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

The End of History Illusion (You're not done cooking yet!)

“Living with integrity means: Not settling for less than what you know you deserve in your relationships. Asking for what you want and need from others. Speaking your truth, even though it might create conflict or tension. Behaving in ways that are in harmony with your personal values. Making choices based on what you believe, and not what others believe.”
Barbara De Angelis

“Above all, don't lie to yourself. The man who lies to himself and listens to his own lie comes to a point that he cannot distinguish the truth within him, or around him, and so loses all respect for himself and for others. And having no respect he ceases to love.”
Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov

When I was a young man, I was at a party for a relative who had saved a special piece of cake for some occasion or another. It was amazing cake, and the more I thought about it sitting there, the more I desired it.

Finally, I went in, devouring that cake in a matter of seconds as I ate fast and furiously to avoid detection..

Later the grownups got wind of this and rounded up all of the usual suspects. As I wiped the chocolate off of my face, my turn in the interrogation line arrived. With bits of cake still all over my cheeks, it was gut check time.

"So Joe, it’s a simple question. Did you take the cake?”

I thought long and hard before answering.

“The truth is, I can’t lie about it anymore. I saw my little brother Jim snooping around the fridge a few minutes ago.”


We have a pretty good idea about why kids lie. To avoid consequences. To avoid disapproval from adults. For kids, this is somewhat understandable, as they haven’t yet learned to stop digging when they find themselves at the bottom of a well. More lies lead to more trouble and even worse consequences. Most kids eventually figure this out. Most kids.

But another kind of lie develops as we get older, as we stop lying as much to others, and start lying a lot more to ourselves. Here are some common ones.

“It’s too late for me. You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.”

“I’ll never meet anyone else. I’m too old. Why even try?”

“Why bother getting in shape? I’ve done too much damage to my health already.”

Perhaps you’re reading this and thinking, wow, do people really say those kinds of things to themselves? It’s so defeatist.

Lots of people tell themselves these kinds of stories.

Even doctors, lawyers, and psychologists.

And me. Yes, I’ve told myself every one of those things at one time or another.

The psychologist Alfred Adler called these stories, "life lies.” Stories of self-deception we engage in to justify our bad choices and avoid responsibility.

Paulo Cohello said it like this, “What's the world's greatest lie? It's this: that at a certain point in our lives, we lose control of what's happening to us, and our lives become controlled by fate.”

Some of this is summed up by something called the “end of history illusion." For reference sake, here is a short video explaining what that is. Essentially it refers to the idea that wherever we are now is the “finished” part of our personal history.

And man is that wrong. So very, very wrong. The truth is, we change so much in a decade we can sometimes hardly understand what we were thinking ten years earlier. We change in dramatic ways, even in a year.

So knowing our personal history is a work in flux, it’s also good to think about our future selves, and how they’re going to enjoy living with the consequences of our current choices. When I order pizza, skip the gym, and spend money buying things online when I get home, my “present” guy is pretty content.

But somewhere out there is a future version of me that I think is gonna be a little pissed off he didn’t pay a little more attention to his health and save a few more bucks when he was younger.

The end of history illusion is an important thing to think about every day. With this in mind, I decided to engage in a Self-authoring suite created by Jordan Peterson, that asks the following kinds of questions,

Imagine your ideal future:

Who do you want to be?

What do you want to do?

Where do you want to end up?

Why do you want these things?

How do you plan to achieve your goals?

When will you put your plans into action?

Write about the ideal future that you have just imagined for 15 minutes. Write continuously and try not to stop while you are writing. Don't worry about spelling or grammar. You will have an opportunity to fix your mistakes later.

Dream while you write, and don't stop. Write at least until the 15 minutes have passed. Be ambitious. Imagine a life that you would regard as honourable, exciting, productive, creative and decent.

Remember, you are writing only for yourself. Choose goals that you want to pursue for your own private reasons, not because someone else thinks that those goals are important. You don't want to live someone else's life. Include your deepest thoughts and feelings about all your personal goals.

And honestly, there is nothing earth-shattering about this approach. Lots of people have created similar programs, so pick the one you like. The key is, YOU are authoring this story, not fate, not your past, not your parents. YOU.

But I can say that for me, writing it down was important. It became clear to me that a lot of what I do to get through the day (i.e. order pizza, turn on Netflix) is not in the service of my future goals.

But I’m learning that there’s always time to change the story.

Now go forth and prosper!

Friday, November 2, 2018

What’s on your mental health playlist?

“I’m out of ideas Doc.”

Words you never wanna hear as a psychologist.

But the truth was, I was sort of out of ideas myself. I’d been traveling the world for a month, and suffering from a combination of postpartum travel blues, jet lag, weird sleep, and general malaise.

Think, man, think! This guy is here humbly asking for your help. You’ve gotta give him something.

I remembered he liked music, and so we started talking about that. I asked him what songs he played in his life that had meaning for him.

We made a list of all of his songs, and put them together into a playlist he could listen to when he was feeling down. And there it was, the mental health playlist was born.

I don’t flatter myself that I was the first one to think about this. I’m not the millionth person to think of this. And yet, it was a great reminder to me about the healing power of music.

In putting together my own mental health playlist, I did some somber reflection. These songs aren’t just happy songs. Sometimes you want something that mirrors the sadness you are experiencing to feel that sense of empathy and connection. Some songs are silly reminders of stupid things you’ve done with friends. Others are about new love and some are about broken hearts.

But we’ve all got some.

Here are some of mine.

1. Dancing in the dark- Bruce Springsteen  
There are a few lines in this song that reflect what loneliness, isolation and depression feel like.

I ain't nothing but tired
Man I'm just tired and bored with myself


I check my look in the mirror
I want to change my clothes, my hair, my face

But in spite of this, the narrator feels some hope and the song ends strong.

There's something happening somewhere
Baby I just know that there is
You can't start a fire
You can't start a fire without a spark
This gun's for hire
Even if we're just dancing in the dark

So sometimes when I’m feeling down, I listen to this song and try and find that spark.

There’s something happenin’ somewhere!!

I repeat that line often. Sometimes I just hop in the car until I find it.

2. Garth Brooks- The Dance-

Alright, this one might seem a little surprising, as I’m not a country
guy per se. But this song is beautifully written by Tony Arata.

'I could have missed the pain
But I'd have to miss the dance

I’ve always took it as a song about taking chances and being willing to suffer the pain of trying and failing versus never trying at all. When I am feeling sorry for myself or not happy where I am in my life, I go back to this song and remember. You’ve done a lot of cool stuff in your life. You’ve had the courage to have the dance. 
There’s more music left to play. Don’t get soft now. Get out there
and try again. 

3. Here comes the Sun- The Beatles

This song is so important to me, I wrote a whole other essay about 

it. It’s the perfect reminder for me that life has seasons, and in these seasons contain some long, cold, lonely, winters. 

And I’m not just talking about the weather.

And yet, the darkness doesn’t last forever. If you’ve ever seen what

the outdoor patios look like in Chicago on the first nice day after
a long winter, you’d know what I mean. People are laughing,
happy, lustful, wild, and generous! You can literally see it. 

4. Falling Slowly- (From the movie “Once’)

Not everyone will know this one, but if you haven’t seen the movie,
check it out. It’s about two damaged people finding love, purpose,
and meaning in creating music together. It’s even better that it’s
based on their actual story of meeting each other and starting a
band. In particular, this lyric is the one I’m drawn to.

“Take this sinking boat and point it home
We've still got time
Raise your hopeful voice you have a choice
You'll make it now”

I love that! I’ve felt like that sinking boat so many times in my life,

but it reminds me that I have the ability to choose something
different. It’s a beautiful song and a beautiful movie.
I have a lot more. Sometimes I just listen to “Walking on Sunshine”
to give my life a little kick-start. But you get the idea. Your life has
a soundtrack. Crank that shit up!

Sometimes these playlists are the only thing getting us through the day.

But in the meantime, I’ve got my ideas back. Music has a way of doing that.

ietzsche once said, “Without music, life would be a mistake.”

Nietzsche was right!

Saturday, October 6, 2018

Matters of great concern should be treated lightly, matters of small concern should be treated seriously

Embrace uncertainty. Some of the most beautiful chapters in our lives won’t have a title until much later.
~Bob Goff

Among the maxims on Lord Naoshige's wall, there was this one: "Matters of great concern should be treated lightly." Master Ittei commented, "Matters of small concern should be treated seriously."
~Yamamoto Tsunetomo

Okay, if you have ever read a thing I’ve written, you probably get it by now. I love quotes. I’ve been collecting them since I was about 12, but these two are relatively new to my collection.

I had to think about the quote from Tsunetomo (a samurai from hundreds of years ago) for quite a while. What exactly is he saying here? Forget about the big stuff and focus on the small things instead? I thought we weren’t supposed to sweat the small stuff? 


But I kept coming back to the quote, and now I think I get it. We all worry about the “big” stuff sometimes. Am I going to die someday? Am I always going to worry about money? Is my health going to decline? Are people I love going to die?

Yes, yes, yes, and yes…

All that stuff is inevitable. I accept it. I get it. I’m not even that upset about it anymore.

Because matters of great concern should be treated lightly. All that is going to happen. Maybe tomorrow. Maybe in 50 years. 

But they most assuredly are going to happen.

Some might think this is a little morbid, but I think it’s the second part of the quote that gives us the solution.

“Matters of small concern should be treated seriously.”

I think I get it now. It’s the little moments. The little bit of laughter with friends. That moment while you’re traveling between periods of boredom where you see something that blows your mind. A baby’s first smile. A moment at work where you feel like you made a difference for someone. 

The small moments. Those things we take for granted. Those tiny little pieces of our days where we experience something that makes us feel a bit more alive. 

And if we're honest, we also blow right through a lot of little moments. We forget to give people our undivided attention. Turn on the TV instead of talking to our families. Stare at our phones while we’re out to dinner with our partners.

And if you miss enough of these little moments, you really can lose it all. One quote about parenting I really like goes, “Listen earnestly to anything your children want to tell you, no matter what. If you don't listen eagerly to the little stuff when they are little, they won't tell you the big stuff when they are big, because to them all of it has always been big stuff.”

That’s pretty powerful when you reflect on it. Kids get the importance of the little stuff right from the beginning. 

I also love the quote about embracing uncertainty, and how some of the most beautiful chapters of our lives won’t have a title until much later. Good lord is this true. Looking back on our lives, those periods of fear, change, and adjustment, all eventually become the notes and music of a much larger song.  

All the same, it’s hard to remember these lessons while things are happening, Life comes at us pretty fast, and sometimes we forget that our experiences won’t have full clarity until much later. A broken heart feels like we’ll never find love again, but we need to go through a few of these to appreciate the depth of what love really is. We lose a job or change a major or leave our homes, and feel that maybe things aren’t going to work out, but later see these events were all just little pieces of a much larger jigsaw puzzle. 

You get the idea.

A while back I had a chance to pass this idea on. Some of the great summers of my own life were spent working in the National Parks in the US. I worked at Yellowstone, the Grand Canyon, and a few others in between. I returned to Yellowstone and saw all those fresh-faced kids running around, flirting, teasing, and (hardly) working and told a kid to squeeze every moment out of this experience, as it may end up being one of the greatest summers of his life.

And the funny thing is, I remember someone saying the same thing to ME when I worked there all those years ago. I nodded, smiled, and thought, “sure thing old man, the decaf coffee is over by the Prime Rib.” 

I got the distinct feeling that this kid was thinking something similar.

And I get it. I really do. Sometimes we just don’t appreciate the most significant moments of our lives while they’re happening. 

But as someone in the “middle-age” chapter of my life, I realize it’s more important than ever to reflect on the little moments. Great memories have often been the fuel that has kept me going through the hard times, and I know they are a kind of currency my future self will most certainly be able to spend. 

I want to generate a whole lot more of them.

And right now I’m not really sure what this chapter will be called one day. I’m sure the answer will come to me at some point, but right now I’m going to try and be bold and accept there are things I just don’t know yet.

But I do want to be a better “noticer.” A braver stranger. More present. More aware. 

Because matters of small concern should be treated seriously.

Tuesday, August 7, 2018

The Love Boat. Soon will be making another run.

“I was always hungry for love. Just once, I wanted to know what it was like to get my fill of it -- to be fed so much love I couldn't take any more. Just once. ”
Haruki Murakami, Norwegian Wood

The one thing we can never get enough of is love. And the one thing we never give enough is love.
Henry Miller

I’ve always struggled with love. In retrospect I think it started while watching The Love Boat as a kid.

My mother always told us that couples could not share a bed together unless they were married, and I had no reason to doubt this. And yet, on the show, couples would often arrive at the boat an unmarried couple and wind up in bed together. During these moments, my mom would jump in front of the screen, block the scene, and tell us that the couple got married during the commercial.

That seemed. Weird to me. Is that how it all worked? A cruise and then marriage and then whatever happens in bed? All in quick succession like that? It all seemed a little too easy to me. Later, an older cousin set me straight on the whole thing.

But the damage was done.

But now then, what IS love?

I was recently challenged to answer this question. Sometimes I get these requests from a website or a magazine. Once in a great while, even a TV show. But in this instance?

It was a kid writing for his High School paper.

And somehow, that made me actually put some serious thought into it. He seemed very sincere.

The Ancient Greeks posited there were seven states of love-

Storge- Love we have for our family and children.
Philia- The love between good friends.
Eros- Sexual Love. Desire. Can be all consuming.
Ludus- Playful love. Flirting, teasing, fun, lighthearted love.
Agape- Love for everyone. Selfless love. Self-sacrificing love.
Pragma- Mature love.  A deep understanding that develops between long-married couples. Pragma is about making compromises to help the relationship work over time, and showing patience and tolerance.

So let’s start there. Love is family, friends, lust, play, and mature commitment.

That’s a pretty good list. Seems like whenever I watch a show about ancient times, everyone is either naked or killing each other. Not too much different than TV about modern times come to think about it. But their list provides a good starting point. 

Jumping forward into the 20th century, a psychologist named Robert Sternberg focused more on romantic love. He found that there were three triangles to love consisting of intimacy, passion, and commitment. He discovered that few couples truly reach and maintain all three of these states, and the diagram below shows some of his descriptions of love when a piece of the triangle is lacking.

And importantly, he introduces the concept of intimacy, which Sternberg describes as “feelings of closeness, connectedness, and bonding in loving relationships.  It thus includes within its purview those feelings that give rise, essentially, to the experience of warmth in a loving relationship. “

So good. We’ve got a new player in the game. Eliminating the Greek’s family and friend’s love, and combining it with our 20th-century additions, we now have passion, play, intimacy, and mature commitment.

One important component not yet mentioned is the concept of vulnerability. But this can also be confusing to people. If we take the word vulnerability at its standard definition, we read, “The quality or state of being exposed to the possibility of being attacked or harmed, either physically or emotionally. 

That doesn’t sound so good, does it? Love can go wrong. Make us hurt. Leave us feeling too exposed and helpless. Perhaps the best description of this helpless feeling comes from Neil Gaiman, who writes,

“Have you ever been in love? Horrible, isn't it? It makes you so vulnerable. It opens your chest, and it opens up your heart, and it means that someone can get inside you and mess you up. You build up all these defenses. You build up this whole armor, for years, so nothing can hurt you, then one stupid person, no different from any other stupid person, wanders into your stupid life… You give them a piece of you. They don't ask for it. They do something dumb one day like kiss you, or smile at you, and then your life isn't your own anymore. Love takes hostages. It gets inside you. It eats you out and leaves you crying in the darkness, so a simple phrase like "maybe we should just be friends" or "how very perceptive" turns into a glass splinter working its way into your heart. It hurts. Not just in the imagination. Not just in the mind. It's a soul-hurt, a body-hurt, a real gets-inside-you-and-rips-you-apart pain. Nothing should be able to do that. Especially not love. I hate love.”

Woah! Do I really want to feel something that “turns into a glass splinter working its way into your heart?” That sounds painful!

But perhaps there is another side to vulnerability. The wonderful teacher and writer Brene Brown describes vulnerability as, “uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure.”

But also that “Vulnerability is the birthplace of love, belonging, joy, courage, empathy, and creativity. It is the source of hope, empathy, accountability, and authenticity. If we want greater clarity in our purpose or deeper and more meaningful spiritual lives, vulnerability is the path.”

So that sounds pretty amazing, I would strongly encourage anyone to watch the following video if they would like to learn more about this beautiful woman and fantastic concept. It could be 20 minutes that changes your life.

But back to our list. Now we have passion, play, intimacy, mature commitment, and vulnerability. It’s a fine list, and one that I think most people would do very well to embrace.

But just one more thing.

One of the best things I ever read about love wasn’t from a psychologist or romantic poet, but from a Hasidic Jewish man who didn’t know his wife very well when they got married. He had all the requisite butterflies during their brief courtship and thought he had found the Ben Affleck, romantic comedy, happy ever after he was looking for.

But he was wrong. That wore off pretty quick. It often does.

What he discovered was that love wasn’t a feeling or an emotion so much as it was an action that we need to revise and update continually. Very much a verb and not a noun. Here is his article for your further consideration.

So in our final tally of what love is, we have passion, play, intimacy, mature commitment, and vulnerability that we need to manifest through action and demonstrate to the person that we love.

That’s as good as I can do today kid. I’m not even sure you’re asking the right person. I’ve been messing this up since the other guys nominated me for “best kisser” on Valentine’s Day when I was six.

But Godspeed on the battlefield.  

Saturday, June 30, 2018

Don't get stuck between nostalgia and destination addiction

“Nostalgia is denial. Denial of the painful present. The name for this denial is Golden Age thinking - the erroneous notion that a different time period is better than the one ones living in - its a flaw in the romantic imagination of those people who find it difficult to cope with the present.”
Midnight in Paris

“Beware of Destination Addiction - a preoccupation with the idea that happiness is in the next place, the next job and with the next partner. Until you give up the idea that happiness is somewhere else, it will never be where you are.”
- Robert Holden, Ph.D.

I've always had a thing about nostalgia.

So much so, that I continuously revisit places from my past. My grandparent's old family farm, my family's first home, old playgrounds, drugstores, diners, and shops.

Others rarely understand this habit, and raise an eyebrow when I make these requests. For many people, the past is gone, and they have no great need to revisit it.

The above quote from the movie "Midnight in Paris" is uttered by a rather unpleasant character, who is trying to explain the dangers of nostalgic thinking. He does have a point though. Was the past REALLY that much better, or have we buffered out the problematic parts and just remembered the good? He's right that humans tend to do that.

And yet, nostalgic people can't always help themselves. The Germans have a word called Sehnsucht, defined as, "longing and yearning for pieces of life that are unfinished or imperfect. It's also referred to as "life longing" or an individual's search for happiness while coping with the reality of unattainable wishes."

Life longing. I like that. Have felt it many times. That feeling that there is just some piece of life that you haven't quite discovered that might unlock the secret for you.

On the opposite side of nostalgia is something called "destination addiction." We all know this one. It's that thinking that life will be better when you just reach some finish line in your head. When I just graduate from school. When I just get married. When I just buy a house. The problem is, we get to that finish line, enjoy it for a moment, and then realize we still have the same old thoughts in our heads. Soon enough we are angling for the next destination.

I was thinking about all of this following the recent suicide of Anthony Bourdain, a man I greatly admired and always felt a certain kinship with. When he died, everyone had an opinion. It was about a recent breakup. He may have had Parkinson's. He had issues with addictions he was never able to shake.

But I think what he really may have suffered from was an addiction to novelty. It's a feeling I know all too well. The desire for new places, new food, and new experiences. He was on the road 250 days a year, and had more novelty in his life than almost anyone. And yet sometimes in his more pensive moments, you could see a kind of sadness on his face. Loneliness. A longing that never really got satisfied.

A quote from him I've reflected on since his death was this, "Travel isn’t always pretty. It isn’t always comfortable. Sometimes it hurts, it even breaks your heart. But that’s okay. The journey changes you; it should change you. It leaves marks on your memory, on your consciousness, on your heart, and on your body. You take something with you. Hopefully, you leave something good behind.”

And in the end, who really knows what broke his heart. But he most certainly left a lot of memories behind. But I also think there is perhaps a lesson in his life we also might apply.

We have to dance as happily as we can to the music that is playing now.

I recently got a chance to apply this lesson in the most unlikely of places. Midnight in Paris wasn't an option at the moment, so I had to settle for a returned services club in New Zealand. Every Friday they feature bands playing music from the 50's and 60's, and the crowd is usually also much older than your average music venue.

On my first visit, I merely observed. I was fascinated watching the old dance moves and listening to the old songs. Music and dancing have the power to wake up the soul like no other. If you don't believe this, I refer you to Billy Jordan, who turned a group of seniors trapped in a nursing home into a fierce hip-hop dance group called The Hip-Operation Crew.

But as for me? Sitting out wasn't an option on my 2nd visit to the club, as a spirited older lady in blue suede shoes took me by the arm out onto the dance floor to dance to "Runaround Sue." When I tried to politely decline, she asked, "did you come here to watch or did you come here to dance? Because if you just came to watch, you're clogging up the dance floor."

And dammit, no one accuses me of clogging up the dance floor.

And now I drop by every Friday to dance along with these folks. I think they may have helped me resolve my problem feeling stuck between nostalgia and destination addiction. It's okay to celebrate the past. It made you who you are after all. But we also can choose to dance to the music that is playing now. These people have certainly proven this to me. No one is too old or too fat or too tired.

They all just get out there and dance.

And this is what I vow to do as well.

Dance to the music that's playing now.

Monday, May 28, 2018

Project Semicolon, Sydney, and my 1st Tattoo

This weekend, for the 4th year in a row, I traveled to Sydney to attend Vivid Fest, a wild, crazy, colorful party in my favorite city in the world.

But that’s not all I came to do.

I also wanted to visit a place called Watson’s Bay, just a short ferry ride from the city.

I recently came across a story about a man named Don Ritchie, also known as “The Angel of the Gap.” He was a former military man who went on to sell life insurance after his career in the army.

 Nothing too out of the ordinary.

What IS out of the ordinary, is that he lived at the base of one of the most beautiful spots in Australia called "The Gap" in Watson's Bay just outside of Sydney. It's an incredible place full of fantastic views, crashing surf, and lots of privacy.

It's also one of the most famous suicide spots in the world.

During his years living there, Don observed a lot of sad, lonely, and even desperate people outside of his oceanfront home. When he saw these people, he often went down to talk to them. Sometimes he invited them in for some tea. Other times he physically restrained them from jumping over the cliffs to meet their demise.

All told, he saved over 160 lives during his 45 years living in Watson’s Bay.

How in the world did he do this?

His daughter discussed how he would simply walk out of his home with his palms up in the air and ask, “Is there something I could do to help you?"

And often that was enough to start the conversation. A smile. A small gesture of compassion.

So I came to Sydney in part to sit, think, and meditate at Watson’s Bay about this story, and think about the power of a simple act of kindness.

But that STILL wasn’t all I came to do.

I've never gotten a tattoo before, which is actually a little strange. I've been a wild, irresponsible, impulsive, reckless, traveler in my life, and have rarely turned down a dare. If ever there was someone you would think would have gotten an irresponsible tattoo, it would be me.

But nope. No tattoo.

Until now that is. During my trip to Sydney, I decided it was time.

Over the past few months, I’ve become involved with Project Semicolon.

Project Semicolon defines itself as "dedicated to presenting hope and love for those who are struggling with mental illness, suicide, addiction and self-injury," and "exists to encourage, love and inspire."

Why the semicolon you might ask?

Project Semicolon explains that "a semicolon is used when an author could've chosen to end their sentence, but chose not to. The author is you and the sentence is your life".

And I thought about that as it relates to my own life.  At many forks in the road, I've felt like maybe that was all there is. Maybe I'd had my fun. Maybe my best days were behind me.

So yes, I know what hopelessness feels like. Know what if feels like to feel too tired to go on. Too discouraged to get up and fight another round.

But I’ve always found that semicolon. A reason to keep going. A sparkle of hope that lets me believe that something could change and better times that I couldn’t see right now might exist.

And in becoming a psychologist, I’ve done my best, with all my flaws and vulnerabilities, to help install some of this hope in others. Like many people who become helpers, I chose a helping profession in part to try and make sense of some of my own personal, painful experiences and memories. Along the way, I learned to put some of these things to good use.

I once asked a friend why he became a teacher. He could tell I was serious and gave me a real answer. He talked about how he read a passage in the book The Catcher in The Rye, when he was young, about how all the protagonist Holden wanted to do in life was be "the catcher in the rye" who waited by a cliff and prevented kids from going over.

That's a lot of what a great teacher does I think. I've certainly had a few in my own life. They are the people who see us going over the cliff, and try and save us in every way they know how.

And I think, in saving others, that perhaps we also save ourselves.

So today I got my first tattoo so, in those moments where my own life gets a little dark, I can remember that life continues. There's gonna be a lot more good, bad, sadness, heartbreak and laughter.

I accept that. For we the living, life continues. As long as we are drawing breath, there’s a chance to change our circumstances, even if it's only in some small way. Maybe it's by helping someone else. That's the best way I think.

But today, as I sit at the edge of this magnificent cliff, I sit in awe of the wonder of nature. I sit in honor of a man who saved 160 lives with his kindness. I sit in somber reflection of the people who didn't make it and went over this cliff. It was an incredibly powerful moment in a number of ways.

But mostly I'll walk away from here, knowing life continues.

Life continues.

Life continues.

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Things fall apart

Last week was quite a week. One minute I was way up in the Hollywood Hills shooting a TV show. Then I flew all the way back to New Zealand to attend a conference with some world famous psychologists. It should have been a vibrant, exciting week. 

Except it wasn’t.

Have you ever become so engrossed in a book that everything else around you seemed secondary in comparison? I certainly have. Many times in fact. During this particular week, my mind got locked into “12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos” by Jordan Peterson. I read it after seeing his name so many times in psych circles that I got curious. It’s mostly a thought-provoking book. Sometimes a little wandering, and others downright brilliant.

One thing stood out that I couldn’t get out of my mind.

Things fall apart.

Peterson wrote about how everything in our life is subject to decay. We buy a car and think it’s going to be beautiful forever. Ten years later it’s a money pit. A new iPhone has a shelf life of about two years. Whatever it is, from a home to a road to a building, it’s going to fall apart. 

And it’s not just material things that fall apart either. Who among us hasn’t been in a relationship that started with passion and incredible sexual chemistry that slowly faded into something a lot more tame? Or perhaps we’ve looked someone in the eye so sure we were going to be together forever that there wasn’t a shred of doubts in our minds.  And yet years later we can’t even find something to talk about with them. Families that spend so much time together sharing rooms, eating meals and taking vacations, may only see each other a few times a year as adults. A job that we were totally excited about in the beginning becomes stale and boring three years later. Friends we were inseparable with become people we exchange the occasional Christmas card with. 

You get the idea.

Things fall apart.

If you’re still reading, you are perhaps thinking, “Why are you pointing out this depressing shit man?

I think it’s important to remember that things fall apart because it reminds us that we can also extend the life of things by doing some maintenance along the way. Here are a couple examples. 

This is Irvin Gordon, a teacher sitting inside his little Volvo he bought for $4,000 dollars a long time ago. He’s not rich and never won the lottery. And yet Irvin and his little Volvo have driven over 3 million miles together. 

Over this time, Gordon has gotten 857 oil changes, swapped out 30 drive belts and used 120 bottles of transmission fluid. Because of all of his tender loving care and diligent attention, his Volvo has never broken down. 


Here is John and Evie Kaspar, who have been married for 70 years. They made a touching video talking about how they accomplished this amazing feat. It’s full of warmth, love, romance, as well as gentle nagging and teasing. Here is it if you want to watch a nice story. How to be married for 70 years.

But the video I’m more interested in is the two of them singing, “Baby Got Back” together in their 90’s. I think this video has the REAL secret. 

Never stop laughing together.

And when in doubt, cue up a little Sir-Mix-A-Lot when you want to get busy.

No matter how old you are.

I love both these stories because they show that, although things most certainly fall apart, we also have incredible power to delay this process. 

It clearly has a lot to do with how much maintenance we want to put in. 

The problem with things falling apart, is we often don’t realize this decay until it’s already happened. We miss someone terribly after they leave, but took them for granted for years before we finally realize this. We think our health is going to hold up forever, and then are shocked when the doctor delivers the bad news, despite the fact we neglected our health for years. 

Although it might seem depressing to contemplate how things fall apart, I actually think it’s something we should think about every day.  It reminds us to be more present, more attentive, and more aware of the little bits of maintenance we can do to prevent the rapid and inevitable decay.

The examples above are genius level maintenance people, but for those of us that are not so gifted, perhaps we can still think of a few things. Maybe we can take the stairs occasionally instead of the elevator to make a little improvement in our health. Perhaps we can write a letter to our partner telling them all the things we appreciate completely out of the blue. Maybe we can make a point of getting together with family and old friends once a year “just because” instead of waiting around for Christmas and the holidays.

Because things fall apart.

In one of the last pieces of this chapter, Peterson talks about how he saw his 80-year old parents a couple of times a year, as they lived a fair distance away. He thought about this for a moment, and a startling realization came to him. 

He may only see his parents 20 more times in his entire life.

And if you knew that, really knew it, what would you do with that time? Would you sit around watching TV? Argue over silly things? What if it was the very last time? What would you say? What would you do to ensure the snapshot of that memory was one that you would remember?

It’s a powerful thought, and one I think we SHOULD be talking about. Use your time. Love your time. Fix your time if you have to. 

Let’s all strive to be a little better maintenance men and women.

Because things fall apart.