Sunday, August 8, 2021

I was getting to where I could see the truth. Someday I'll be brave enough to speak it.

When you are about 12 or so, it’s inevitable that you’re going to have to do your first book report. In my day, you sometimes just read the back cover and tried to bullshit from there. Now kids have Wikipedia, cliff notes, and all kinds of other ways to circumvent this process. But invariably, the time comes where you just have to read the damn book.


Why am I telling you this?

I was getting to that! The reason is, the quote above comes from the first real book I ever read, The Outsiders by S.E Hinton.


Lots of you have probably seen the movie (best cast ever!) I would guess lots of kids from my generation actually did read the book. The quote above speaks to the protagonist of the story finally realizing the folly of the toxic masculinity he has been raised with. He’s sick of being a tough guy. Sick of burying feelings Sick of being unable to talk about things that men typically avoid for fear of being branded weak.

But there’s also a lot in the second part of the quote. He’s still gotta live in this world, and just because he’s found this enlightenment doesn’t mean everyone else is on the same page.  

As someone who has worked with a lot of younger males, I can tell you that they will often do almost anything to avoid a discussion about feelings. If you want to talk about YouTube or Fortnite, you can’t shut these guys up. You try to sneak one question in about emotions?

Suddenly everyone has got to go to the bathroom,

My point is, the avoidance of these discussions is wired into us at an early age. Sure there has been some great work done recently trying to reverse this process. Here is a wonderful talk about how teaching mindfulness can reduce stress and violence in schools.

And yet, toxic masculinity persists. As much as we talk about mindfulness, mental health, and self-care, many school corridors are still closer to Lord of the Flies than "I’m Ok you’re Ok." Much of what we see as therapists from our adult clients started somewhere in these years. Bullying. A parent with impossible expectations. Somewhere along the way we lose our confidence. Lose our shine. How do I know? I’ve BEEN in classrooms where I’ve asked kids what they want to be when they grow up. And they always have a BIG answer. An astronaut. A professional athlete. A doctor!!

No one ever says they want to be a burned-out middle manager with crippling social anxiety.

Parents have a lot of “greatest hits” when it comes to encouraging children to express their emotions. The ever popular “use your words” has been around for decades.

But the truth be told, we are BORN with a built-in GPS for expressing what we need. When a baby cries, they are not doing that just to keep you awake. They are telling you that they need something. When we tell kids to “use their words” we are trying to continue to give them language to tell us what they need.

But as we know, childhoods don’t always go so smoothly. Some children (particularly boys) learn to internalize emotions rather than verbalizing what they need. This could look like bedwetting, or bullying, or temper tantrums. Hell, some of the adults I know still do those things (alcohol is usually involved). But the point is, these are “protest” behaviours, or said another way, “I want you to read my mind” behaviours. We expect that people should just KNOW what we are feeling or what we need, but of course it doesn’t work that way.

Freud said, “Unexpressed emotions will never die. They are buried alive and will come forth later in an uglier ways.”

And boy do they! Silent treatments. Binging on food or alcohol. In some cases, even violence or self-harm.

Turns out that “use your words” thing is pretty important.

I once heard it said that courage is the value that almost all other values spring from. We have to get past our fear. Fear of being different. Fear of being “too sensitive.” Fear of being made fun of by others or disrupting the status quo. Sometimes the easy thing to do is just avoid speaking up. We avoid the temporary consequences without realizing how dire the long-term effects of this approach can be.


But as for me? I went back and read The Outsiders again and thought about what it was like to read it  is as a 12-year old. Am I really so different now? DO I have the courage to speak the truth? Not necessarily. Not all the time. I still stuff plenty of emotions away (along with the corresponding Pepperoni Pizzas) rather than have a difficult conversation.

But I’m beginning to find my courage again.

Instead of a book report, I’ve committed to reading 50 books a year. Kind of a weekly book report if you will. I’m going back and reading all of the books that shaped me in some special way growing up. The next stop was The Catcher in the Rye, another book that made a significant impact in my younger years. I came across the following passage,

“Among other things, you'll find that you're not the first person who was ever confused and frightened and even sickened by human behavior. You're by no means alone on that score, you'll be excited and stimulated to know. Many, many men have been just as troubled morally and spiritually as you are right now. Happily, some of them kept records of their troubles. You'll learn from them - if you want to. Just as someday, if you have something to offer, someone will learn something from you. It's a beautiful reciprocal arrangement. And it isn't education. It's history. It's poetry.”

Amen to all of that. In sharing our words, we deepen our understanding of just what it is we’re doing here spinning around on this little blue ball in the middle of space. All of us have something to share. All of us contain a piece of the puzzle that might lighten the load or increase someone’s understanding of this shared experience.

Don’t let those words go unspoken.

Be brave enough to speak them.

Monday, January 4, 2021

After a rough 2020, have you lost sight of the horizon?


Let’s face it. That was a very long year.


I can’t imagine there is a single human being on the earth that didn’t have to alter their plans in at least SOME way last year.

And here we are in 2021. As John Lennon said, “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.”

It’s been a humbling year realizing time cares little about our plans.

The other day I watched this show “A Million Little Things” and heard this quote about depression that I haven’t been able to get out of mind. The speaker in this instance was commenting on how John F. Kennedy Jr. lost sight of the horizon when he crashed his plane, and explained how this might also be seen as a metaphor for depression. 

Maybe he just lost sight of the horizon. I was watching this documentary on JFK Jr. You remember when his plane went down? … Anyway, Kennedy was a novice pilot. He was flying at night, and the clouds came in, and his instruments were telling him which way was up, but he didn’t trust them. The truth was right in front of him, and he couldn’t see it. He lost sight of the horizon and nosedived, and by the time he realized what was happening, it was too late, and he couldn’t pull up. That's depression.

 Depression is losing site of the horizon.

Another way of saying this, is that depression and suicide are highly correlated with feelings of hope, and to feel hope we need to have some belief that better things are ahead.


And with seemingly never-ending negative news stories, 2020 certainly put this idea to the test.

Many people I have seen have lost site of the horizon last year, as their ability to plan for the future was severely compromised. Small business owners not sure if they can hang on for much longer. People with immigration issues, praying for Visas that will allow them to stay in their new countries. People with relatives overseas they desperately wanted to reconnect with. These aren’t little worries, but real life and death uncertainties about what was going to happen next for them.

And they’ve lost sight of the horizon. Lost their sense of hope. Been swallowed up by constant worry about the future.

In considering this idea, I’ve delved deeply into the concept of burnout as it relates to this. Although most of us are familiar with the “traditional" definition of burnout, I recently discovered there were at least eight kinds of burnout that might affect effect someone. They are-

1.        1. Mental burnout: My mind cannot process any more; it’s fried.

  1. Emotional burnout: These heavy or anxious emotions are exhausting me.
  2. Compassion burnout: I cannot hold any more loving space for anyone else; I’m tapped.
  3. Relational burnout: I’ve been overgiving to others, my organization or my community/family, and I am over it.
  4. Survival burnout: I’m exhausted from trying to make ends meet and stay afloat.
  5. Superperson burnout: The weight of taking on so much is too much; I can’t hold it all anymore.
  6. Passion burnout: I love what I do, but I’ve given too much and pushed too hard.
  7. Physical burnout: My body is revolting; I have depleted my life force.


As I read through this list, I note that many of the people that I see fit with these less traditional definitions of burnout. For instance, people in the helping professions have certainly suffered from passion burnout this year, as a job and career they love has become overwhelming.

For many people who have spent a lot more time with people indoors this year, they have suffered some relational burnout. They love the people in their lives, but perhaps are feeling the burdens of overexposure and overdependence.


And for others, they might be completely drained physically. When we deal with relentless stress, cortisol floods our nervous system and we begin running on this reserve, stress-induced fuel source. It was never meant to be a permanent source of energy, and when we lean on this source too much we can become dependent on it. Consider this quote from physician Gabor Maté-


“For those habituated to high levels of internal stress since early childhood, it is the absence of stress that creates unease, evoking boredom and a sense of meaninglessness. People may become addicted to their own stress hormones, adrenaline and cortisol, Hans Selye observed.

To such persons stress feels desirable, while the absence of it feels like something to be avoided.”

In other words, we start depending on feeling stressed out to get us through the day!

I often tell people that tears release cortisol, so when they find themselves crying more than usual, it’s often the body purging itself of stress.

So if you have been feeling these symptoms of burnout, please listen to your body and recognize you need to slow down. It’s kind of like driving a car when the check engine light comes on. If you’re like me, you probably just ignore it for a while. But that light is a warning sign, and might prevent a little problem from becoming a much larger one. What are your “check engine” warning signs? Increased irritability? Impatience? Insomnia? We all have a few.


Returning to the opening quote in this vignette about losing sight of the horizon, we can revisit the tragic story of John F. Kennedy Jr. and his airplane. As it turns out, he might never have crashed that fateful evening if he had just trusted his instrument panels. And that’s how our internal intuition system works as well. Like a highly sophisticated instrument panel.

When your body sends you an external pain signal, it’s alerting you to the fact that something is in need of repair. Our emotional guidance systems work in a similar way. Increased crying, poor sleep, and irritability with our loved ones are all signs from our instrumental panels that we need to change course and find another way of doing something.

So if your system is telling you to slow down, please listen to it. It's there for your protection. Take some extra time for yourself. Get out in nature. Say "no" this week at least once no matter how hard that might be for you.

Get that check engine light turned off.

Because soon enough, we find our cruising altitudes again. All of the seasons of our lives come to an end and eventually give way to something else. New beginnings. New narratives. Changes.


And hope. That comes back as well.

God speed in 2021.