Saturday, November 24, 2012

Listening to the drums

“Parents rarely let go of their children, so children let go of them. They move on. They move away. The moments that used to define them - a mother's approval, a father's nod - are covered by moments of their own accomplishments. It is not until much later, as the skin sags and the heart weakens, that children understand; their stories, and all their accomplishments, sit atop the stories of their mothers and fathers, stones upon stones, beneath the waters of their lives.”

Mitch Albom

I had always heard your entire life flashes in front of your eyes the second before you die. First of all, that one second isn't a second at all, it stretches on forever, like an ocean of time... For me, it was lying on my back at Boy Scout camp, watching falling stars... And yellow leaves, from the maple trees, that lined our street... Or my grandmother's hands, and the way her skin seemed like paper... And the first time I saw my cousin Tony's brand new Firebird... And Janie... And Janie... And... Carolyn. I guess I could be pretty pissed off about what happened to me... but it's hard to stay mad, when there's so much beauty in the world. Sometimes I feel like I'm seeing it all at once, and it's too much, my heart fills up like a balloon that's about to burst... And then I remember to relax, and stop trying to hold on to it, and then it flows through me like rain and I can't feel anything but gratitude for every single moment of my stupid little life... You have no idea what I'm talking about, I'm sure. But don't worry... you will someday. 
Lester Burnham- American Beauty

     November is a big month for gratitude, especially in the Facebook era. There seems to be a lot of it going around, and frankly, when it’s sincere, I personally believe gratitude is one of the most proactive tools we have. Maybe life can be best understood as one large continuum, with appreciation for all of the little moments and people in our lives on one end of the spectrum, and resentment and cynicism on the other. We can always find things that don’t seem quite fair in our lives, and when we focus our attention there, that’s resentment. On the other hand there are plenty of things in our lives that, if we look closely at, make us incredibly lucky. When we focus our attention there, that’s gratitude.

     As a counselor, I temper my own understanding of gratitude with the issue of loss. I’ve sat with people who would do anything for one more day with the people they’ve lost, and yet their time has passed. And when we are confronted with these moments, and rest assured we all will be one day, we start to ask some nagging questions. Why did we waste so much time? Why didn’t we say all of the things we had to say when these people were still living?

One day these questions may keep you up at night..Trust me on this.

What I have learned from this, is that real gratitude is not simply writing things down that we are thankful for, although that’s fine as far as it goes. Take a long look around at the holiday table this year. One of those people may be gone next year. I know it seems morbid to think about, but I think it can also lead to a greater sense of urgency about what it is we are doing here.

I had a chance to practice what I preach a little this Thanksgiving, when my own mother came out to stay in Chicago for the week. As I was preparing for her visit, I got a text from a close friend who had lost her own mother over the previous year. She wrote, “Enjoy every minute with your mom, I'd do anything for another moment with mine.”

Although I am certainly happy to see her, I have a tendency to get a little impatient, and reading my friend’s text slowed me down a little. So this week I took some time to appreciate the little moments. Although I’m not exactly sure how it happens, most years my holiday persona more closely resembles the Grinch than it does Jimmy Stewart, and this year I decided to change that up a little. So we played games, and drank (lots of) wine, and bought gifts, and made 2012 one of the best Thanksgivings I can remember. This shouldn’t be a chore, but I’d gotten a little complacent over the years, and I needed a little reminder that all of this time with my mother is coming to an end. It helped me understand the seriousness of fleeting time, which ended up making this time a lot more fun.

And perhaps most importantly, I remembered to have some respect for the fleeting nature of my own time. Maybe I will be the one who won’t be sitting at the holiday table next year. It’s something I’m going to think about. The Buddhists talk about how we should meditate on the reality of our own deaths each and every day. Again, sounds morbid on the surface, but I think hold a great deal of wisdom regarding taking the time we have remaining a little more seriously. That doesn’t mean LIVING seriously, and in fact to me, it means the exact opposite. For you it may mean something else, but I do think there is value in contemplating the question.

I was reminded of all of this recently while watching the Blue Man Group, whose entire show seems to be about the concept of living your life with a greater sense of urgency. In one particular sequence the Blue men started pounding the drums as they were holding up various signs. The drums got louder and louder until they finally reached a kind of fever pitch that ended with the signs , YOUR LIFE, (loud drums), IS PASSING (even LOUDER drums) YOU BY!!!

And it is! These drums have been pounding in my head ever since I saw the show, and I hope they will continue to play. They remind me to live a little more mindfully, and to spend less time on cynicism and more on gratitude. They remind to not be lazy with my time, cheap with my affection, and complacent with the people in my life.

The drums have been a welcome addition to the soundtrack.. 

Thursday, November 8, 2012


“Bullying is killing our kids. Being different is killing our kids and the kids who are bullying are dying inside. We have to save our kids whether they are bullied or they are bullying. They are all in pain.”
Cat Cora

“Out of suffering have emerged the strongest souls; the most massive characters are seared with scars.”
Kahlil Gibran

I must admit, I usually enjoy writing these little essays. I find myself jotting down little notes from time to time, and, over the course of a couple of weeks, they just kind of come together into a collection of (mostly) integrated ideas. It’s a fun process and something I usually look forward to.

Not this time though. No this time I felt compelled to talk about something that has in many ways been a huge issue in my life as a kid, then a teenager, and now as a child psychologist. This issue is bullying.

I've been on all sides of the bullying continuum. As a kid I was teased for my appearance, mocked relentlessly and humiliated. Later, as a teenager, I dished out plenty of the same. I teased just about anyone in my path, and this went on for a while. Maybe this was a way of dealing with my own experiences. One thing I know to be unequivocally true, is that this kind of stuff leaves scars. I've got plenty of my own, and am sure I've created a few myself. As much as I enjoy working with kids, I've often thought that it was my penance in this life to try and guide kids through their own troubled times as a way of making peace with my own past.

An image that will always haunt me came from one of my first experiences as a counselor in my early days as a psychology student. I had an assignment at a school at the end of the summer and it was hot. Not just warm, but summer in Chicago hot. A skinny kid came in wearing a baggy sweatshirt, and I made a sarcastic remark about him being overdressed. He managed a little smile, sat down, and we talked for a while. He talked to me about his parents, his neighborhood, and then finally what it was like to be gay in an Irish-Catholic neighborhood. I was very touched by his story, and told him to please come back again.

As he got up to leave, he took a long look at me, and then slowly rolled up his sleeves. There were knife marks across and all up and down his arms. Not little ones either, but long and ugly scars from years of cutting himself.

“This is why I wear long sleeve shirts in the summer” he said quietly.

It was a statement that I've never forgotten.

I never saw this particular kid again, as my assignment ended shortly afterwards, and he never showed up for his next appointment. I've always wondered what happened to him, and I find myself hoping that he somehow hung on. Still, his scars ran deep, and there were a lot of them.

Unfortunately those weren't the last scars that I've seen, but it was the last time I ever made a sarcastic comment about a kid wearing long sleeves. It reminded me of a lesson that I often forget. Words matter. Sometimes they matter so much that they make vulnerable and scared children run knives across their arms, sometimes fatally. It’s all a little terrifying actually. You want to tell these kids that this stuff is not going to last forever. That one day they will be out of High School and free from small minds and mean people.

But you really can’t promise that.

What you can do is listen and try and understand. You can give them a place where they can talk about the isolation and the confusion and the humiliation. And some of them will survive and become the “massive characters” that Kahlil Gibran discusses in the above quotation. Many of the world’s great success stories start in this very manner. But some of them wont. Some of them will spend the rest of their lives thinking that they aren't welcome in a world that has been so hard on them.

What we can also do is advocate for those who have yet to realize the power of their own voices. Personally I've come to see this as my duty and responsibility. Bullying has become one of the most serious epidemics of our generation, and it’s killing our kids, both literally and figuratively. If you are in a position to influence a child in your life, please take the time to talk to them about this.

A life may depend on it.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Navigating your emotions

“If someone comes along and shoots an arrow into your heart, it’s fruitless to stand there and yell at the person. It would be much better to turn your attention to the fact that there’s an arrow in your heart.”

Pema Chödrön

Ever have one of those moments when your emotions get away from you? If you’re like me it probably happens at least once a day. I’m a psychologist. I should know better, but I promise you it happens to the best of us. I've nearly lost my mind in Chicago traffic when I’m running a little late for work. Sometimes even on the way to teach an anger management class. Ahh the hypocrisy.

 One of the better books I’ve ever read on the subject of managing emotions is called ‘Emotional Intelligence” by Daniel Goleman, who calls it “emotional highjacking” when feelings such as anger take over the brain of an otherwise (reasonably) rationale person. The emotion in this case overrides the thinking, reasoning part of the brain, and, for a short while, the emotion takes over instead. Ever wonder how a normally calm person can sometimes turn in to a completely different person when they are triggered in a certain way? Or wondered why people just seem to “snap” in certain stressful situations? Emotional highjacking explains a lot of this.

All of this has to do with the way our brains respond to fear. When we experience fear, our fight or flight response summons us to the present moment and makes sure we are paying attention. It’s the brain’s way of saying, “This is real, this is actually happening, and you have to address this NOW.” All of this happens in a matter of seconds. The problem is that our brains can play tricks on us sometimes. Often times we go on high alert when a thoughtful moment of reflection would have sufficed instead. I see this all the time while doing marriage counseling. A comment is made that sets off a person’s alarm system, a threat is perceived, and a person goes on the attack. Their partner attacks back, and within seconds everyone is at defcon five.

All of this can start with a comment as seemingly innocent as “does this dress make me look fat?”

One explanation for this is that these kinds of threats can be a blow to our entire sense of self. If a marriage is a huge part of someone’s identity, and a comment is perceived in a way that is threatening to the marriage, it also can pull the rug out on a person’s entire sense of self, which can lead to confusion, fear, and often even rage.

All of this is interesting to consider in relation to the “iceberg” theory of personality. What we see above the surface of the water may be substantial, but still, 75% of the iceberg is beneath the water. An example used in Goleman’s book was two kids in the backseat of a car driving along with their parents in the front. The Beatles song “Help” is playing on the radio. All of a sudden there is a fight in the front seat, and dad reaches over and smacks mom. The kids are terrified in the back seat, and duck their heads and hope that the fight stops as soon as possible.

Bur that’s not the end of the story.

These kids grow up, get older, but still, every time they hear the song “Help” they are overwhelmed by a scared and uneasy feeling. All of this happens just out of their immediate awareness, but the feeling comes over them and their well-being is at least temporarily disrupted. This is how emotional triggers can work, and by the time we reach adulthood, we may have accumulated thousands of them.

This is an important concept to understand, because it also provides an explanation as to why we often tend to make the same mistakes over and over again. Freud called this the “repetition compulsion” after observing people doing something a second time, even after it caused them pain the first time. His best guess was that we continue to put ourselves in situations like this again because we want a different outcome this time around.

It rarely ever happens that way.

Ever wonder why a person who just got out of an abusive relationship tends to pick a guy just like that again and again? Why a man with a nagging and impossible to please mother would marry a woman with almost exactly the same personality? Or perhaps a woman with a cold and distant father keeps choosing men that can’t meet her emotional needs?

The repetition compulsion explains a lot of this, as our emotional wiring keeps steering us in a direction that leads to more pain. It’s somewhat like a pilot with a bad navigational system, who is trying desperately to get to Florida, but keeps winding up in New York instead. Until we can better understand our emotional tendencies and reactions, we repeat mistakes over and over, without always understanding why. And truthfully this can go on for a lifetime.

So how DO we break this cycle and begin to better understand our own navigational system? The answer I believe lies in training ourselves to focus our attention specifically to the present moment. To understand when we are susceptible to these emotional “hijacks” and to bring ourselves back to the present moment, which is the only thing we have any real control over. As Victor Frankl puts it in his wonderful book Man’s Search for Meaning, “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”

In pursuit of helping others find more of these moments in their lives, I would like to recommend a couple of things. First, acquaint yourself with the idea of mindfulness meditation, and perhaps start with the book Full Catastrophe Living by John Kabat-Zinn which may be the best book written on the subject. Goleman’s Emotional Intelligence is also a fantastic read, and one that personally helped me a great deal. Sometimes now, (not all the time) when someone cuts me off in traffic, I remember what is happening, take a deep breath, and laugh at my own reaction. I’m still a work in progress. All of us are. But as long as we are drawing breath, we can get better at making choices that empower us to be personally responsible for our lives.

That’s the best we can do..