Friday, December 27, 2013

Doing Time on Maple Drive

The reason we struggle with insecurity is because we compare our behind-the-scenes with everyone else’s highlight reel.
Steve Furtick

Just returned from two weeks back home for the holidays. Two weeks is a long visit. Longer than a “polite” visit anyway. No, in two weeks you get a little peek behind the curtain. And YOUR warts begin to show as well. Particularly when it comes to families. They’re all a little crazy. Mine included..

While contemplating this idea, I remembered an old movie of the week I saw years ago called, “Doing Time on Maple Drive.” I always loved that title, and think about it often when I work with families. Doing time on Maple Drive. Meaning, life behind the curtain is often messy. Sometimes even really messy. In this particular movie, we see a seemingly idyllic family begin  to crumble. A faithful son struggles with alcohol problems. The family’s golden boy is a closeted gay man, crippled with shame about sharing this with his family. Meanwhile the mother of the family works very hard to maintain the image that they are the perfect family.

But they’re not.

Because it doesn’t exist.

Living in the Facebook age, this is sometimes hard to believe. All we see are nice-looking people on vacation, smiling happily, enjoying beautiful places, having a great time with their families. And we compare ourselves to that. How could we not?

I love the quote by Steve Furtick at the beginning of this essay. We’re insecure because we’re looking at a highlight reel. People’s best moments. We don’t hear about the kids who were caught drinking and brought home by the police, or the cutting or the eating disorders or the constant defiance.

But they happen, I assure you. They happen in almost every family.

Speaking as a therapist, I think it’s an important point for parents to realize. The perfect family doesn’t exist, and yours isn’t somehow broken or flawed or damaged because you’re going through some hard times. Everyone does. Although I’d love to tell you to forget about the social comparisons, you probably can’t. They’re everywhere these days.

Impression management is a concept all of us at times struggle with. Putting our “best” selves out there. Whatever the hell that means. We work hard at telling people about our best accomplishments, showing them our best pictures, and showcasing the best version of our lives for everyone to examine. It reminds me of a famous Chris Rock quote about relationships, how we’re not dating someone during the first six months of a relationship, we’re actually dating their representative.

It’s important food for thought.

So as we start a new year, I offer a little cheers and a word of encouragement to all of the parents out there who think they must be doing something wrong because their kids don’t measure up to the seemingly perfect lives all around them. Don’t buy into the myth. Every mom has heard “You’re ruining my life!!” at some point, and encountered the defiance, and the disrespect, and the thinking that they must have missed something in the parenting manual.

We all have some blemishes. Every family. Every one of us..

If you’re a struggling mom, or a harried dad, hang in there. 
If you need to come to counseling, please know there is no shame in that. It can be a tremendous relief to finally drop the struggle to maintain the image, and find the courage to be imperfect.

We’ve all been there…

No matter what you see on Facebook…

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Our Time/Revisiting the Goonies at Christmas

Don’t you realize, The next time you see sky, it'll be over another town. The next time you take a test, it'll be in some other school. Our parents, they want the bestest stuff for us. But right now they gotta do what's right for them, 'cause it's their time. Their time, up there. Down here it's our time. It's our time down here. That's all over the second we ride up Troy's bucket.
Mikey Walsh- The Goonies

Back home for a couple of weeks for Christmas, and revisiting some of my own old haunts. It always puts me in a nostalgic mood, and I try and remember the good times.

There’s something else though. With each passing year I feel a little less in the Christmas spirit, and I often think about why that is. Has something changed about the holiday, or has something changed about me? Granted, the children in my family are getting older, and Santa Claus and Christmas songs have slowly been replaced by Iphones and Instagram. So it goes.

This all came back into my head as I was driving near Astoria Washington, home of the infamous “Goonies” and close to all of the places they had their adventures. The above speech about that piece of their childhoods being “our time” hit especially close to home. Adults plan, and count, and worry, trying to keep the trains running on time, but that means very little to a kid.

No, to a kid time works a little differently. Putting together a Christmas list may be the most important thing they do that year. For little kids the combined terror and anticipation of seeing Santa Claus can be enough to trigger an anxiety attack, (in both the parents as well as the children). The night before Christmas, time comes to a virtual halt and the anticipation becomes almost too much to bear. I was up at 4 A.M for 20 straight years as a kid. That’s a true story.

As a child psychologist, I get to watch all of this stuff happen every year, and it always makes me smile. It’s their time. Especially at Christmas. But perhaps even beyond that, we as counselors, teachers and parents, need to understand that childhood IS their time. All of this stuff, the first trip to Santa Claus, the first year seeing the shiny new bike in the living room, and all those memories of Christmas, are happening only once for them, even as we as the adults stress, and worry, and count, and budget. If we don’t make childhood special for children, they don’t get more time.

It goes pretty fast..

So this year I’m going to remember that, although I’m no longer a child experiencing all of these memories for the first time, perhaps I can learn to live on the good ones I have of Christmases’ past. I was fortunate enough to have some wonderful Christmases, and people took the time to make it nice for me. Me being cynical and grumpy as an adult doesn’t add one ounce of cheer to the season, and I have a lot to be grateful for. And perhaps it’s not over for us adults either. Personally I packed a number of Christmas outfits to wear just in case. So I’ll be the jackass dressed as Cousin Eddy wearing deer antlers at the Christmas party.

I was kind of a jackass anyway..

Merry Christmas..

Ya filthy animals…

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

In search of the Heart of Gold-(A Thanksgiving Essay)

I want to live,
I want to give
I've been a miner
for a heart of gold.
It's these expressions
I never give
That keep me searching
for a heart of gold
And I'm getting old.
Neil Young- Heart of Gold

For the last several years, I’ve made a point of writing one of these essays on Thanksgiving. It’s one of those holidays that inspires a little deeper thinking. At least for me. It makes you take stock of where you are, who you’re spending time with, and the things you are grateful for. This year is no different.

But let me back up a little…

My whole life I’ve been haunted by a song.

The song is ‘Heart of Gold’ by Neil Young. It’s followed me around. I remember hearing it on a long and lonely road trip across the country when I was 21. I heard it again on a bus on the way to my father’s funeral. It’s popped up again and again in my life at strange times, and it’s always made me stop and think about my life and where it was I was going.

There must be a reason.

Cut to a decade ago. I was in a major transitionary period in my life and feeling a little lost. Although I had just finished a Master’s degree, I had no real career plans, and decided to spend the summer up on Mackinac Island to try and figure it all out. I was sitting in a bar having a beer too many, and trying hard not to think about my life and my progressive sense of self-pity. I looked up and saw a singer on a stage, he looked like a pleasant enough fellow and I stopped to give him my attention. His first song?

Heart of Gold by Neil Young.

I thought about the song in detail in that moment. It’s about a man getting older who is searching for some kind of goodness in life. A heart of gold.

I finally got it. That’s what I wanted too. It’s why I decided to study psychology and be a counselor in the first place. I wanted something real. Something good. It seemed like I was meeting too many mean people. Seeing too much indifference. Encountering too much selfishness.

It occurred to me as I was sitting there having those beers, that I was guilty of all of those things myself. That perhaps the way I saw other people was simply a reflection of something going on inside myself. We view the world through our own distorted lens, and often we find what we expect to find. At that moment, it occurred to me that I needed to change. Not the world. Not the people I was meeting. Myself. My way of looking at the world..

At the end of that summer I began volunteering in nursing homes. I was poor, I drove a shitty car, and I lived in a little apartment facing a brick wall.

It was the happiest year of my life

I still hear the song Heart of Gold from time to time, and when I do I’m reminded of this. It’s so easy to drift towards complacency, to apathy, to stagnation. I’ve done it over and over and over in my life. I have an epiphany, start paying more attention for a while, and then drift back into inaction.

When I do, the universe sends me a song.

So this Thanksgiving, after the Turkey and the stuffing and the bourbon, I’m going to sit quietly and listen again to this song. I’m going to remember that the way I see other people is simply a reflection of the way I’m choosing to live my life. I am going to remind myself that historically periods of sadness, depression, and complacency in my life have been a result of forgetting this lesson. I’m going to celebrate all the people in my life, and make a point of seeing the good things. Even in the people that drive me crazy from time to time. I’m going to remember that as a therapist, it is also my job to explain this to others. That pessimism is a choice. That cynicism is a choice. That If you want something to change. Change something. Complaining never helped someone realize a dream or get the girl or change the world. Action does. OUR action.

Don’t expect the world to come to you. It won’t…

In the meantime, I’ll continue to humbly try and be a better person and remember on this Thanksgiving to count my blessings and be grateful.

I’ll keep on searching for the heart of gold.

And I’m getting’ old… 

Monday, September 30, 2013

Musings on The Grand Canyon

 You ever been to the Grand Canyon? Its pretty, but that’s not the thing of it. You can sit on the edge of that big ol' thing and those rocks... the cliffs and rocks are so old... it took so long for that thing to get like that... and it ain't done either! It happens right there while your watching it. Its happening right now as we are sitting here in this ugly town. When you sit on the edge of that thing, you realize what a joke we people really are... what big heads we have thinking that what we do is gonna matter all that much... thinking that our time here means didly to those rocks. Just a split second we have been here, the whole lot of us. That's a piece of time so small to even get a name. Those rocks are laughing at me right now, me and my worries...

Simon- So What do you think?

Mack (Takes in the Grand Canyon) I think… It’s not all bad…

From The Movie “Grand Canyon

I have a long history with The Grand Canyon.

I remember the letter I got telling me I officially had a job waiting for me there. I was barely 21 years-old, and at the time it seemed like the adventure of a lifetime was waiting for me. So I packed my beaten down little car up and hit the road. I saw Crater Lake, San Francisco, and all stops in between. I felt like a young Jack Kerouac. I was young, free, and I was on the road.

Crossing into Arizona for the first time from California, I took a look around. There were mountains on all sides, and I could see there was nothing but open road in front of me.  

I felt like my life was about to begin.

I ended up working there for about 6 months. I met all kinds of people and had all kinds of experiences. I was in awe the first time I saw the canyon. It was surreal and even a little shocking. I remember thinking, was I really here, or was this just a dream?

Invariably however, I got used to it, and sometimes on my morning walk to work, I would barely glance over at the canyon. I got desensitized to the miracle that was right in front of my eyes. Eventually I terminated my employment there, and just figured I would be back to visit someday.

Time passed, responsibilities came, and I moved all over the place trying to find my way. Eventually I started to get this nagging feeling though. Would I ever make it back to The Grand Canyon? I promised myself I would. I regretted not appreciating it more while I was there, and the pull got stronger and stronger to return. I had left something there. My idealism, some of my youth, and also my sense of appreciation for the awesome power of nature.

I wanted it back. All of it.

So today, finally, I made my return.

I thought about a lot of things in the hours I spent sitting on the rim today. It had been a lifetime since I’d been here. Literally, a lifetime. What happened? How did I get old and how did I lose so much time? Eventually though, all these regrets faded into the back of my mind, and I just started to appreciate what I was seeing again. Everything seemed small. My life, my problems, my worries. Anything seemed possible. But it was my choice. When I’m worried, or sweating the small stuff, or stressing myself about unfinished business, I’m choosing these things.

But I could also choose to remember today. A beautiful fall day in an amazing place where all of my worries seemed to wash away. I could go back here in my mind and remember, and when I did, I could leave all of my little worries and problems behind for a while.

That was my choice too…

An interesting footnote to the story was, at one time I was mildly obsessed with the movie “Grand Canyon.” The movie juxtaposed the stress and crime and fear that existed in Los Angeles with the peace and serenity of the Grand Canyon. One of the characters, Danny Glover becomes fixated on showing his friend Kevin Kline that life was not as bad as he may think, and that there were places on the earth where the world didn’t look so bad. Kline is skeptical.

They finally make it to the Canyon, and Kline has a bit of an epiphany. “It’s not all bad” he says as the movie fades to a panorama of the canyon, and we see that he has absorbed the lesson. That’s how it goes. We learn something, and then we forget it. We appreciate something for a while and then we take it for granted. We love the people in our lives,  but we forget to tell them.

Fortunately there are places on earth that can help us remember. I know I did. At least for today. I sat there for hours until the lesson sank in. Driving back across the Arizona desert, much like I did when I was a 21-year old kid so many years ago, I had one thought run through my mind, It gave me a wonderful sense of peace and contentment.

It’s not all bad.

It’s not all bad..

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Charlie Brown and the grownups

The greatest gift you can give another is the purity of your attention
Richard Moss

 “Too often we underestimate the power of a touch, a smile, a kind word, a listening ear, an honest compliment, or the smallest act of caring, all of which have the potential to turn a life around.” 
Leo Buscaglia

Was flipping through the channels recently and came across an old “Peanuts” episode. I decided to stop for a while and take a trip down memory lane. I have great childhood memories of the great pumpkin, the Charlie Brown Christmas, and even Lucy pulling the football away from poor Charlie Brown.

I could kind of relate to that.

As I was watching, something occurred to me that I never really stopped and thought about before.

The kids can’t hear a word the adults are saying.

Go back and rewatch and it will all come back to you. Any time an adult speaks it just comes out as white noise. Waaah, waaah, waaah, waaah, waaah.


In thinking about this, I came to the realization that it’s not far from how a lot of kids hear the adults in their lives. Too often we talk at them instead of to them, and when we do so, the earflaps go up. Most adults I know have less than perfect listening skills, so it’s no wonder most kids haven’t fully developed theirs yet either. Kids want to talk about THEIR worlds, and simply expecting them to stop and pay attention when we want them to listen, is often an exercise in futility. Sure in a perfect world kids would respect their elders, listen when spoken to, and come the first time they are called. The only time I’ve ever really seen it work like that was in The Sound of Music.

And that guy had a whistle.

I think one of the secrets to getting kids to really hear us is to first model a sense of empathy by becoming interested in their lives, and really listening (not waiting to talk) about what they are trying to tell us. When we give children the purity of our attention, we demonstrate to them that they deserve respect and consideration, while also providing a model as to how they should treat others. When we raise our voices, lose our tempers, and physically punish, we are providing another kind of lesson about how to cope with conflict. I’ve sat with far too many adults who wake up one day and realize they have incorporated traits of their parents they swore they never would. The young mind is like a mirror, and it absorbs the prints of its handlers.

Many parents may read something like this and disagree. They were raised to think children should obey, be seen and not heard, and be disciplined in the same ways they were as a child. And truthfully, I do believe most parents are doing the best they can with the information that is available to them. As a counselor I have sat with dozens of children who don’t listen to me, and I know it can be incredibly frustrating to feel you are simply spinning your wheels. Still, we must consider that children are a work in progress, and often haven’t fully grasped the concepts of listening, sharing, and empathy for another person’s time.

We teach these things by living these things. That’s the way kids learn. By watching us.

So next time you are having problems communicating with a child, consider taking some time to simply sit and listen. Not with advice, not with a life lesson, but instead with both compassion as well as patience. The WAY you listen to them is often just as powerful of a lesson as any kind of advice you have to dispense.

I know I always consider it a victory when a child begins hearing what I say.

Too often I’ve been like the adults in Charlie Brown’s world.

Waaah, waah, waaah, waah, waaah…..

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Memento Mori

For a long time it had seemed to me that life was about to begin – real life. But there was always some obstacle in the way, something to be gotten through first, some unfinished business, time still to be served, a debt to be paid. Then life would begin. At last it dawned on me that these obstacles were my life.
~Alfred D. Souza

Never forget that you must die; that death will come sooner than you expect... God has written the letters of death upon your hands. In the inside of your hands you will see the letters M.M. It means "Memento Mori" - remember you must die.
~J. Furniss, Tracts for Spiritual Reading

Every August, usually right in the middle of the month I get a feeling. It’s a strange combination of melancholy, longing, and remembrance of things past. Maybe it’s because my birthday is at the end of the month. Or maybe it’s the memories of summer dwindling away and that pang of youthful remorse that you didn’t quite accomplish everything you set out to over the summer. That time was slipping away and life was about to speed up again.

It’s not my favorite feeling.

In thinking about why this was, I thought about a memory I had years ago when I happened upon a church when I was traveling through the European countryside. The church had bones, real human bones, all over the walls. There were three male corpses outside the church, and over their heads was an inscription, it read,

“What you are now, we once were; what we are now, you shall be.”

It was one of the most powerful things I’d ever seen.

After asking around a little, I discovered this was a common theme a few hundred years ago. Memento Mori. Remember you must die. It was a reminder to people that in the face of disease, sickness, war, etc. that they were going to die. It was more than that though.

It was also a reminder to live.

In thinking about this idea, I also came to a better understanding of what my mid-August melancholy was all about. It wasn’t so much a desire to recreate the past, but instead a reminder to live. We only get so many summers and we need to make them count. Personally I used to measure a great summer by the places I’d traveled and the things that I had seen. That will always be important to me, but lately I’ve come to a deeper understanding. It’s not about the places, although that’s wonderful as far as it goes. It’s about the people. Our relationships and the connections we make along the way that create the hooks we hang our memories on.

We need to learn to appreciate the good times while they’re actually happening.

So I thought about my afternoon at the church all those years ago, and started to remember. In actuality I was traveling alone, a little worried, and a lot lonely. I spent the day in a little bar in the country and I talked to people. A Scottish man on a eurorail pass who made me laugh all day telling me stories about how they drink in Scotland. A Spanish girl who had been traveling alone after a breakup who eventually joined us in our conversation. The owners of the hotel I was staying at, who cooked us a little lunch when they saw we were quickly progressing to being overserved.

People. People just like me who for an afternoon found themselves needing someone to talk to.

So in thinking about the concept of Memento Mori, I think it’s not just about remembering that you must die, but also to remember that you must live. And the best way to do this is to continue to cultivate relationships and appreciate our fellow travelers here. Especially those closest to us. In the end, know one cares about how much money you made, or how many women you were with, or how many cars you owned. All those things are fleeting.

Much like those corpses in front of the church who were once young and healthy and hopeful, we too will get sick and get old and start to decay. This will probably happen sooner than we think, and before we are ready.

In the meantime we have a choice, every day and every moment to live a little more authentically.

There are 20 more days in August.

Maybe there’s still a little summer left..

Monday, July 22, 2013


The strongest people are not those who show strength in front of us, but those who win battles we know nothing about

Be kinder than necessary to everyone you meet. Everyone is fighting some kind of battle.

One of the most dangerous things we can do is make assumptions about people. We see a man in a nice suit, or a perfectly manicured attractive woman, and think they must have it pretty good. And maybe  they do, but we never really know. Maybe they don’t have a care in the world, or maybe they are having the worst day of their lives.

Why do we do this?

It’s a quirk of our human nature to complete things. We see half an image or hear a small part of a story, and we fill in the blanks. We do this with people as well. We look at their clothes, or their job, or their appearance, and we begin to fill in the blanks about them. It happens in an instant.

But sometimes we’re wrong. Very wrong actually. I know this from my time working as a counselor and seeing some of these people.

That cheerleader? The one who thinks she’s so good looking and never talks to anyone? She’s painfully shy and also struggles with an eating disorder.

I’ve seen her.

That guy in the $3000 dollar suit with the beautiful wife? He must really have it made, ha? The guy seems like a real snob. That guy hasn’t slept in days. He has a severe anxiety disorder and suffers from depression. He’s attempted suicide and been to rehab. More than once.

I’ve seen him too.

 That kid who gets all A’s? Who seems to succeed at everything without cracking a book? He’s so lonely he’s in tears most of the time when he’s not at school. He spent so much time on his schoolwork that he never learned how to play, or laugh, or be a kid.

He’s been in my office.

This list could go on and on. Everyone is fighting SOME kind of battle, and some of them are much more serious than we will ever know. For one person, speaking in front of a group of people comes very naturally. For another, simply getting out of bed in the morning, driving a car, and filling out a job application is a monumental act of courage.

Which is where I think the “be kinder than necessary” part comes in. People are out there struggling with fear and worry and depression, but this may not be the part of themselves they are willing to show us. We work so hard at creating impressions for people, but sometimes this gets exhausting as well. As Nathaniel Hawthorne said hundreds of years ago, “No man, for any considerable period, can wear one face to himself and another to the multitude, without finally getting bewildered as to which may be the true.”

True. Very true.

I think we can start to get past this by occasionally revealing our own vulnerability. By asking for help when we are struggling, patience when we are having a day when we are not quite ourselves, and understanding when we need a little compassion. Relationships of any kind are a two-way street, and the judgments we make about others are not much different than those people have made about us.

Which leads us back to the idea of fighting battles. Who among us hasn’t wished that someone would cut us a little slack, or give us a break when we haven’t given our best, or just been a little nicer than usual on a day we could have used it? I bet every one of us. Maybe the answer isn’t to wait around for these things, but to instead extend them to others when we are feeling okay.  

Be kind.

Everyone is fighting some kind of battle. 

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

The Power of One

“The problem, often not discovered until late in life, is that when you look for things in life like love, meaning, motivation, it implies they are sitting behind a tree or under a rock. The most successful people in life recognize, that in life they create their own love, they manufacture their own meaning, they generate their own motivation. For me, I am driven by two main philosophies, know more today about the world than I knew yesterday. And lessen the suffering of others. You'd be surprised how far that gets you. 
Neil DeGrasse Tyson

 That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.
Walt Whitman- Leaves of Grass

One of the joys of living in the time of youtube, is that you can find things from your youth that you thought you would never see again. For me it was finding old “Schoolhouse Rock” videos, or commercials from my childhood that really took me back. Maybe I’m just a sucker for nostalgia.

There was one video I saw as a child that completely changed my life. It was called “Powers of Ten” and it started with a couple having a picnic in Chicago. Then it magnified out by ten, over and over again, until, finally, it was in the deepest reaches of space. It made me realize how vast the universe we inhabited really was, and how small my little life was in comparison. At the time just going to Chicago seemed like going to outer space to me. The vastness of the universe was too large to comprehend.

And yet, cut to years later and I was living in Chicago myself, right by where the couple in the video was having their picnic. I even went and found the spot they were sitting and laid down and looked at the night sky, remembering as I did how powerfully the video had affected me. At least I’d made it to Chicago! Who was to say I wouldn’t make it even further someday. I was young and in a new city and the world was full of possibilities. It was very exciting.

I recently drove by the same park again, and I remembered what it was like to feel so young and full of promise. I don’t live right in the city anymore, and sometimes forget to look up and admire the tall buildings and architecture and wonder of the place, and that makes me kind of sad. Did I lose my enthusiasm somewhere along the way, or did I just kind of get acclimated to extraordinary things over time?

How could I become that star-gazer again?

I went back and found that old video, and thought about the title. “Powers of ten”, a reference to magnification, but maybe also something else. What about the power of one? What could ONE person do in the time they have been give here? How many lives could one committed, active, passionate person really touch if they devoted their life to such a cause? How many chance meetings and happy accidents and casual conversations changed a day, diverted a path, even altered a life?

I’m certainly not the first person to contemplate these questions. The great 20th century architect Buckminister Fuller once also walked along the shores of Lake Michigan, bankrupt, drinking too much, and contemplating suicide. He asked himself these very same questions, (not far from the very picnic in the video). He decided that his life would be an experiment in the power of one.

He went on to be one of the great inventors and thinkers of the 20th century.

The lesson here is that we all have this light, this power, this ability to alter a number of other lives. The possibilities are endless really if we stop and actually think about the implications. To do this we first have to release ourselves from the tyranny of our own regrets. Maybe you don’t like your job, or your friend didn’t text you back or you didn’t get a break that you thought you deserved. All little things on the surface, but they make up the soundtracks of our thoughts, and, over time, our thoughts define our reality.

We can get trapped there.  

Personally I’m challenging myself to think about this a little more. The next time I begin complaining about my life in my own head, I’m going to reframe the question. Forget about the things I don’t feel are “fair” about my life, how can I use the time and opportunity I have been given to help someone else?

So today, starting now, I decided to make a change. In honor of the fourth of July, and the sacrifices our soldiers have made for me to eat hot dogs and drink beer and watch baseball games, I’m going to offer to counsel our nation’s veterans. For no charge. If you know of someone who is on foreign soil, or is back from oversees, or needs a letter, a kind word, or more extensive counseling. I am available. I have two offices in the Chicago area. I am available via skype @joeyguse. My gmail address is I have contacted my local VA and given them my information to pass on to whoever may need assistance.  I pass this on not to brag, but to hopefully inspire someone else to explore what their power of one might be.

For me it was time to start practicing what I preach.

It’s a start, and I hope people will contact me. 

Monday, June 17, 2013

Hurt People, Hurt People

“Hurt people hurt people. We are not being judgmental by separating ourselves from such people. But we should do so with compassion. Compassion is defined as a "keen awareness of the suffering of another coupled with a desire to see it relieved." People hurt others as a result of their own inner strife and pain. Avoid the reactive response of believing they are bad; they already think so and are acting that way. They aren't bad; they are damaged and they deserve compassion. Note that compassion is an internal process, an understanding of the painful and troubled road trod by another. It is not trying to change or fix that person.”
Will Bowen

“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 a whole suit of armor, so that 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 didn't ask for it. They did 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 simple a phrase like 'maybe we should be just friends' 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 real gets-inside-you-and-rips-you-apart pain. I hate love.”
Neil Gaiman

As a “one-stop shopping” kind of counselor, my day can take all kinds of turns. I might start with an elderly person struggling with grief issues, then deal with a couple of AD/HD kids who try and tackle me, and then, somewhere by late afternoon, sneak across the street for a big gulp and a hot dog, (I’ve never outgrown the 7-11 lunch). My last patients are usually couples, and I usually find this to be the most challenging part of the day.

Why is that?

It has been my experience that usually by the time a couple makes it to marriage counseling, there has been a lot of polluted water under the bridge. You can bet that the couple has said some very hurtful things to each other, and that there is probably going to be a lot of anger on both sides of the couch, (they rarely sit together).

There are differing opinions as to how to proceed as a couple’s counselor. The original thinking was that if you could improve the couple’s communication skills, you could then improve their relationship. Others such as John Gottman had a different view, and instead focused on the importance of understanding differences, emphasizing what was positive between couples, and developing a healthy understanding of what it means to “agree to disagree” on some subjects.  

In the end however, I personally have found that most of the time it is often about people who are feeling hurt, and, as the author states so eloquently above, hurt people, hurt people. This is especially true in a marriage, where people have taken vows signifying someone is going to be their partner for the rest of their lives. It’s a massive commitment, and one that requires an amazing amount of trust and vulnerability. I include the Neil Gaiman quote above because I think it explains that sense of vulnerability almost perfectly. When you love someone you give them the power to hurt you, sometimes very badly, and when this does happen (and it always does) we are left with a kind of hurt that gives quickly to rage. WHY did I let myself do that? HOW could I fall into that trap again?

Some people at this juncture choose to never love again, or at least love very cautiously. This is certainly one solution. But in the end there is no real love without this vulnerability, and one could argue, no real life without love. We either take this leap of faith, or stay out of the pool completely. Each road has its peril.

But what are our choices when we have been hurt, and how do we then understand our own emotional reactions well enough to stop hurting others? It’s a difficult question. I’ve seen some of the most intelligent people I know turned to angry children when they have experienced the pain of hurt and rejection. In these cases we lose the ability to take perspective and lash out as a result of our own painful experiences.

This idea does not simply apply to marriages either. The world is full of hurt people who go on to hurt others. Look hard enough at criminals, addicts, and abusers, and you will usually find a history of someone who has been badly damaged in some way. This is not to excuse behavior, but to instead try and understand. Often those who have been hurt in their relationships go on to poison their children with this same anger, and this can then continue the cycle for another generation. As Mitch Albom says so eloquently, “All parents damage their children. It cannot be helped. Youth, like pristine glass, absorbs the prints of its handlers. Some parents smudge, others crack, a few shatter childhoods completely into jagged little pieces, beyond repair.”

So what is the answer to dealing with hurt? This is a question that becomes very difficult to answer. The solution lies in our ability to access our own emotional intelligence, and maintain a sense of perspective and awareness, even as our anger begins to rise. It’s a predictable pattern, this relationship between hurt and anger, and we must come to realize that even the brightest of us are not immune to it. In thinking about dealing with our own reactions, here is some advice from Daniel Goleman, the author of Emotional Intelligence about how we have a choice to respond in these situations.

1   1.  Self-Awareness- The next time you’re feeling a really strong emotion, try stepping back and just observing that emotion as it is. Ask yourself, “What am I feeling? What am I thinking? What physical sensations am I experiencing with this emotion?”

2.  Self-Regulation- Channeling an emotion in a new and constructive way, such as through exercising, writing, or painting.

-Avoiding triggers – such as certain people, situations, or environments – that are more likely to bring out a negative emotion.

-Seeking positive experiences to reverse negative ruts (such as watching a comedy movie when we are feeling down, or listening to motivating music when we are lazy).

3. Empathy- Empathy is our ability to see things from another person’s perspective – and to take into account their individual thoughts and feelings about an experience. Another powerful tool for improving empathy is perspective taking. This is a mental exercise where you literally imagine yourself experiencing a situation from another person’s perspective to better understand them.

I know I personally have had to fall back often on these techniques, as I have hurt plenty of people myself. The goal is to get better as we go on, while also understanding that as humans and thus fallible creatures, we are going to make the same kinds of mistakes again and again and again. The next time you are about to jump off the cliff in an argument with your significant other, try and think about these ideas. Am I acting out of hurt? If so can I recognize this emotion and try and deal with it rather than saying something I can’t take back? All of this is easy to grasp when we are calm, but so much more difficult to implement when we are truly angry. Managing, naming, and harnessing these emotions is however a wonderful tool for creating relationships that can endure through the inevitable moments of hurt and anger. 

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Return to Pooh Corner

But I've wandered much further today than I should
And I can't seem to find my way back to the Wood
Kenny Loggins- Return to Pooh Corner

But time makes you bolder
Children get older
I'm getting older too 
Stevie Nicks- Landslide

Every May I get this sad kind of feeling that something is about to change. As a psychologist who works with children, this is when school is over the year, and often times I lose a number of kids to the summer breeze. The crises that have arisen during the school year have passed, and now it’s their time to have a little fun. I can hardly blame them actually. I used to look forward to summer all year long. Almost from the opening bell.

Still, I always feel a little like Christopher Robin when I say goodbye to the kids. Some of the kids have outgrown me, and won’t return again. Maybe this makes me more like Winnie the Pooh. I am certainly built a little more like him. Some kids do come back however, and it’s always interesting to see how their perspectives have changed as they continue to grow older and (hopefully) wiser.

The romantic poets thought childhood was the most magical time of life. Discovering the world for the first time with a sense of innocence and wonder was an irreplaceable event in their eyes, and many of their works reflect on the inevitable loss of excitement as children begin to lose their sense of discovery. It’s a sad outlook, but not altogether untrue.

When I’m saying my goodbyes, I always ask kids what they’ve learned during our time together, (and yes, I have received ‘nothin’ as an answer.) Sometimes however I get a truly enlightening answer. And it’s rarely one I was expecting. In the second part of this exercise I try and tell kids the things I have learned from them. They are always surprised to hear this, but never once have I failed to learn something from a child in therapy. They are all in their own ways little scientists, figuring out the world for the first time, testing hypotheses, and drawing conclusions. Sometimes these choices lead to disaster, other times they work out, but in every case there is some kind of lesson to be gleaned from the experience. That’s my job really. To listen, treat them with respect and talk about the results of their discoveries. Sometimes I may interject something they may not have thought of, but in every case I learn something about the way children operate in the world.

In the end, it really is a great privilege, and working with kids does wonders for my own perspective. Much like the narrator in “Return to Pooh Corner” I sometimes wander too far from my own sense of play. I get cynical and grumpy, and forget to maintain a sense of gratitude for all of the good things in my life. That’s when the kids often bring me back.

Which also speaks to the fact that being a parent is such a tremendous opportunity. It offers a second chance to regain perspective and truly see the world through new eyes again. What was old becomes new again. It’s supposed to be one of the great joys of being a parent, but sometimes parents get lost in the woods as well. Their kids seem ungrateful, they feel unappreciated, and tempers begin to flare. Families lose their way. Although counseling is certainly no cure-all for everything, it is one of the ways families can begin to find their sense of gratitude and appreciation again. It’s a wonderful thing when it works.

So here I sit, contemplating the approach of June and summer and my own sense of perspective. I’m retracing some of my own steps this summer. Going back to the great American west where I had so many wonderful memories as a young kid in my early twenties just starting out. Maybe I’ll find a little stardust. Who knows? 

What I do know is another school year has passed, and I have to get ready to say my goodbyes.

It’s never easy..

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Keep on dreaming even if it breaks your heart

“We plan our lives according to a dream that came to us in our childhood, and we find that life alters our plans. And yet, at the end, from a rare height, we also see that our dream was our fate. It's just that providence had other ideas as to how we would get there. Destiny plans a different route, or turns the dream around, as if it were a riddle, and fulfills the dream in ways we couldn't have expected.”

Ben Okri

Heard a great story the other day. A young guy shot 16 under par on the golf course. Some were even calling it “the greatest round ever played”

Although I was certainly impressed with this guy’s score, that wasn’t the part of the story that captivated me. When asked about his round, Rhein Gibson, the golfer in question, described how he had a song stuck in his head all day by the Eli Young Band called “Keep on dreaming if it breaks your heart.”

Great title.

Side note. I’ve always been fascinated by how songs get stuck in our heads. I vividly remember my mother playing the song “Caribbean Blue” by Enya after a friend of hers passed away. She said the song gave her a sense of peace and helped her make sense of her friend’s passing. That memory will always stick with me. I’ve had many such songs in my hit parade that have effectively made up the soundtrack of my own life. Music is wonderful that way. It gives us an anchor to remember things. To reconstruct time and place and memories in a way nothing else really does. Although he was mad as a hatter, I’ve always agreed with Nietzsche’s comment that, “without music life would be a mistake.”

I was however, particularly struck by this golfer’s story, because his dream was so close to my own. In my life I’ve dreamed of travel, and to be a comedian, and to write books, and to be a psychologist. I’ve accomplished all those things. But there was one dream that eluded me. I always wanted to be a professional golfer. I spent hundreds of hours as kid practicing and reading and playing and dreaming. But it never happened for me. Yet somewhere in the back of my mind, the dream is still alive. I’m old and I’m paunchy and I’m busy. But I haven’t given up. Not completely.

In pursuit of this improbable dream. I practice. A lot. I even moved out to the country so I could practice and play a little more. One particular little spot is my sanctuary. It’s a little practice green next to a cornfield off of a quiet country road. I spend hours out there chipping and putting. It gives me a sense of peace. Will I ever really be a pro? Probably not. But something struck me the other day that helped me make a little more sense of all of this.

Second side note. I’ve had a recurring dream for as long as I can remember. It’s of my grandparents old farm in Washington state. In the dream I am young and happy and contented. It’s a nice feeling but I always wake up a little saddened. To me the dream conveys a sense of longing to return to a simpler time in my life without all the worries and responsibilities. I’ve tried to make sense of it many times, but never quite get there. C.S. Lewis called these kind of things “tantalizing glimpses.” I think he was right on the money.

I bring this up because the other day I was in a bad mood. I was feeling sorry for myself, and decided to go out to my little spot and work it out. I spent an hour or two practicing as the sun began to set, and then I turned around and made a stunning realization.

I had walked into my own dream.

Seriously. There it was. A farm and a red barn and a cornfield and a place to quietly do something I’d always dreamed about.

It was kind of amazing really. I sat down and just kind of took it all in. How had I missed it for so long? Was I living my life completely on auto-pilot?

It was all right there…

I sat there for a while longer, and was eventually filled with a sense of gratitude for the moment of recognition. For a while at least, I understood something. Maybe dreams don’t come true exactly as we conjure them up, but they still can come true. Sometimes we may have to tilt the lens a little, shift our perspective a little, but they still might be there..

I hope I can remember this. Even more so, I hope I can help others see how their own dreams may have materialized in ways they may not have completely foreseen. Much like Dorothy in “The Wizard of Oz”, sometimes we have to go out into the world and stumble a little before we realize we have all of the things we need right in our own backyards.

I’m gonna try and remember this..

Friday, March 22, 2013

In a New York Minute

Don't worry about the future. Or worry, but know that worrying is as effective as trying to solve an algebra equation by chewing bubble gum. The real troubles in your life are apt to be things that never crossed your worried mind, the kind that blindside you at 4 p.m. on some idle Tuesday.
Mary Scmich

"Regrets are illuminations come too late."
Joseph Campbell

One day you will get a phone call that will completely change your life.

And you won’t be ready for it.

Maybe this call will be about your own health, or that someone close to you has a fatal illness or been in an accident. In the worst cases that someone has died. I don’t point this out to be morbid, but instead as a reminder that life can truly change at any minute. In these moments we ask ourselves, why did we take everything for granted? Why didn’t we make peace with people we had wronged? Why didn’t we appreciate our youth, our health, our family, until they were gone?

Why am I bringing this up??

It’s silly really. In anticipation of the coming golf season, I was changing my spikes with a large hunting knife, (I’ve never been hunting). A moment later this same large knife was stuck directly in my hand, an inch from a major artery. I stood there for a moment and just pondered the absurdity of the situation. Is this the way it all ends? The Psychologist, in the kitchen, with the hunting knife? It seemed like such a crazy way to go..

Ultimately I was okay, but it really got me thinking. How many times in our daily lives do we flirt with disaster like this? That car that swerves out of the way when we are inches from an accident. The strange dream that leaves us gasping for breath in the middle of the night. It’s a fragile world we live in, and some people don’t in fact get lucky in these situations. As we get older we seem to know more and more people who die in accidents, or far too young from a medical condition. Life as we know it can change at any time really.

In a New York minute…

I’ve sat with far too many people who have been on the wrong end of these phone calls, and in some cases, the news they receive casts a shadow over their lives that they never recover from. In the end, it’s not ghosts or spirits that we are haunted by, but regrets, and as Mr. Campbell says in the opening quote, “regrets are illuminations that come too late.” Death and illness and tragedy teach us that there is no room for pettiness, spite, apathy, and laziness, and, although we all may agree in spirit with this idea, we always seem to forget. Then the inevitable questions begin to repeat in our heads. Why didn’t I tell my brother how much I appreciated him? Why didn’t I tell my mother I loved her? Why didn’t I call and say I’m sorry before it was too late?

If you have a chance to do these things, do them now. From my experience working with people who live with regret, it is clear to me that it is not the dead that haunt the living, but instead the living that haunt the dead.

 But their illuminations have come too late..

It took a bumbling and idiotic episode with a hunting knife to remind me of these things, as I too tend to forget. Life can change at any minute. It has inspired me to create an “in-basket” for my life of things I kind of know I “should” do, but never really get around to. This week I’ve reconnected with two old friends. Today I’m going to reach out to someone I’m in a stupid argument with and try to mend that fence. That will be a good start. It’s amazing how much of this unfinished business we accumulate over the course of a lifetime. Still, I want to have my illuminations now rather than later, and if that means working through a little discomfort, then so be it. This whole little life that we’ve built for ourselves is inherently breakable. This I know to be true. Everything can change in an instant.

In a New York minute..