I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer,
to treat everything as if it were a nail.
Every week I get to hang out with Canada’s Royal Canadian Mounted Police and feel moderately badass by proxy. It is a strange feeling, when I visit a crime scene, as it dawns on me that I am the only person in the group without body armour and a Glock. Police have an arsenal of weapons, not all of which are deadly. My colleague is a female member who has never had to pull her firearm. She may carry a lethal weapon but she is a master at diffusion, distraction, and de-escalation. Not all members are as adroit as my friend, however.
If your only option is a gun, there is a temptation to pull your weapon and wave it around at a group of teenagers at a pool party. You may have all sorts of issues with tasers but I still prefer taking a few volts to a bullet in the center mass, but that’s just me. The fact that the officer has other tools in her arsenal can keep me alive. Give me a baton to the head every time. I do, however, prefer a KitKat.
Though it is usually not referred to in such mechanical terms, counselors quite frequently talk about the hammer. If your ‘go to’ is heroin and your children are destroying your will to live, chances are you will eventually meander your way back to a dealer, in spite of best intentions. If all you have left is anger and yelling, then that’s the hammer you are going to employ when someone pisses you off. I know people who can cry at the drop of a hat, ensuring they never have to honestly address their dysfunction. Those who take offence, persons who run and hide, many who lie or control or freeze. For several reasons too convoluted to discuss here, much of society has a very limited toolbox; and for some of us, there is only a hammer.
I do not want to be your nail.
There are those who struggle with significant anger issues and love to swing their hammer around (I know, it works on two levels but we are pretending to be adults, so get your mind out of the gutter you perv). We all have that one relative who is overly quick to take offence. The chronically bitter, or negative, or just plain bitchy. A few of us find any reason to play the victim. If all you have is a hammer, as Maslow and others have stated, eventually everything begins to look like a nail. People use anger because it works. Whining works. Controlling can also work, if only for a time. It is shocking how often some people complain. Bitterness will paint your entire worldview. So can chronic depression, or trauma, or a boring and meaningless existence. Time for drastic change. It’s all or nothing. Delete your Facebook page, join the gym and take too many classes. Hammer away. Sure it may be the wrong direction but damn it, we’ll just drive faster. Don’t take crap from anyone. Punch that loser out. Go ahead, make my day.
Hammers are rarely subtle. Even the perceived criticism, fault, or indiscretion is an opportunity to swing away. When one has the most limited of resources (tools) than it is almost certain they will default to what they already know.
One has but to interact with a teenager to validate this hypothesis. When I was in my late teens I knew everything; my world was incredibly finite. Ignorance is its own reward; you get a world you understand and can control. Self-awareness invites a universe infested with chaos, impossible to contain. I did not know what I did not know, so I believed I knew. Now I know.
Teenagers tend to believe they can diagnose the world’s woes solely based on their limited and vastly overrated understanding of the meaning of life. This is just one reason why many teenagers are as stupid as lawn darts. Yes I said that, but you have felt the same way and let’s not pretend a fifteen-year-old is just an adult with pants that will not stay up. It is an unfortunate factoid that we tend to abuse our bodies and minds so completely during a time in our life when we have only a partially connected frontal lobe. Teenagers are brain-damaged in the most literal sense of the word.
Adolescence is also a time of increasing independence and self-determination; the same self-determination which led genius over there to drink rubbing alcohol this past weekend because it said the word “alcohol” on the white part of the label (don’t ask), and no one was going to tell him he couldn’t drink something that could kill him.
But I digress.
It is not just your pimply sixteen-year-old who likes to hammer out his problems. Men often do this in relationships as well. My wife wanted to tell me a story about her messed up day. She asked me for input. I made the mistake, yet again, of believing she actually wanted my brilliant solutions to her problem. I do this for a living and I make that rookie mistake day after day. Hammer, meet nail. Problem solved. You’ll be fine, as long as you pay attention and do exactly what I tell you. Women love it when I say that.
There is something deep inside me that enjoys being in control. I am tempted to believe my own narrative, the one where I convince myself about my need to be right.
Moving forward can mean having to learn new tools, new ways of acting and even reacting. Perhaps there is also a piece in there about letting go of a bit of the intensity that I manufacture to keep my world sane. Like many of us I am endeavouring to let go of tools which have been in my box for years; words like insecurity and grief and immaturity and my need to fit in. From here on it is critical that we develop tools which work, not just ‘used to work’. Anger and grief may have defined your existence but they don’t have to become a terminal illness.
One more thing. Hammers usually find a nail to hit. If I think the world is a horrible place I will probably be proven correct. There are no end to the reasons why I should be bitter, or angry, or depressed. Now is the time when I need to adjust my default mechanisms, my biases, in order to move forward. Anger often works but you may need to redefine what you mean by the word “works”. It may help you win that argument even if you have to destroy someone’s character to do so. Changing my automatic thoughts has proven to be an incredibly difficult challenge. Learning to think differently is ultimately the most powerful, albeit difficult, personal achievement on my radar.
I had a wolf. Well, not really; I should back up. There was a huge grey wolf at the end of my drive.
I would see him, I assume it’s a him, every few months. He would suddenly appear in the culvert, at the end of my lane, as I drove by. One day I stopped. One day I got out. The big grey wolf at the end of my lane.
I have never shared this tale before, and I’m not entirely sure why not. Perhaps it is because such a claim is impossible to verify and reeks of hyperbole. It may not have even really been the same wolf. But I know what I remember, and since no money is changing hands and I will never be famous, let me tell you a true story.
Before coming to the Left Coast of Canada I lived in the north, Fort McMurray Alberta, to be precise. It’s a weird place where welders make $150,000 a year and everyone wishes they were somewhere else. I lived on a ranch.
It appears that 25 minutes from the downtown of a northern city is too far for most commuters so we lived on 85 acres, in a beautiful cedar home with 22 feet floor-to-ceiling windows. We paid a little less than the cost of an apartment in town.
People in Fort McMurray buy toys, but I’m not talking about the dirty thought you just had. Snowmobiles and boats for a lake that is only tolerable for six weeks in the summer. Big trucks and expensive trips to the West Edmonton Mall and debt that staggers the imagination. My old town. The thing about toys are, they take up space. I had a ranch and someone needed a place for four horses. I had a barn and a friend wanted a dry place for three snowmobiles, including the keys. Someone else needed a home for a motorcycle, then a minibike, then a tractor, then more and more things with motors. Not bad for the price of a condo.
In the winter I would come home most days and take out one of the snowmobiles for a run, just so it would not rust. I am very considerate that way. I forgot to mention that I lived off a lake, but not near the beach. By January you could drive a Semi on any lake in northern Alberta and have a trucker hoedown with little fear. I loved to surf the powder on the lake at the end of a day listening to people’s problems. I was practicing mindfulness, or at least that’s what I told my wife.
One afternoon after work, as the sun was already beginning to set, I nearly drove into a pack of wolves running across the lake. Though we came from different directions we seemed to be aiming for the same destination. As I neared the pack there was my wolf, staring at me as he ran, not a care in the world. Maybe it was the shock of seeing that very wolf, or maybe it was the meds, but I didn’t drive away that afternoon. Almost naturally I came alongside this group of predators and on that day they let me run with the pack. I slowed, and we ran, and it was… glorious.
Into every life a little karma must fall and on that day someone was looking out for me. I was given a gift and a casual nod and, in spite of the artificial cacophony of the machine, permission to play. I felt something that day – something old. The wolf at the end of the lane knew me. To run with wolves, that is something out of Tolkien or Lloyd Alexander.
I wish I could still run.
It appears my body is breaking down. Years of sports and abuse and frozen pizzas have left their tan lines; and all the colon cleansers in the world can’t stop the march of time. It’s the game everyone gets to lose.
Some of you have been pretty all your life. This was never a cross I was called to bear. People who are good-looking may seem to be getting a better deal on everything because chances are they do. As a general rule pretty people get preferential treatment and tall people make more money; there is science to verify this. Some of you still haven’t yet paid for a drink in a bar but hold on, your time is coming. You are getting uglier. Ya, me too.
As a Canadian I feel compelled to wrap that comment up in a beautiful bow and deliver it to you in a passive-aggressive little pile of bullshit, but I will leave that sentence alone (I deleted the line with “uglier” three times because at heart I really just want you to like me). We are all aging, at varying rates. Television shows seem more and more to feature children who barely shave and yet have somehow had time to learn eight languages, get a black belt in Karate, and a doctorate in neuropsych.
Anyone who reads this drivel knows that I frequently write about philosophy, along with the regular psychology menu. I am currently on the slowtrack to a doctorate in my own particular weird blend of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and Existentialism. I was fortunate that in my undergraduate degree I met people like Dave and Dan who delighted in daily jettisoning my preconceptions about virtually everything. They were my educational mentors and I am in their debt. I was given permission to think, and this has had a profound and ofttimes negative impact on my life to this day.
Few of us get healthy by accident. There is simply too much going on in the Twenty-first Century for most of us to stay emotionally well and positive in outlook. The promised future, replete with free-time and pastel jumpsuits, never materialized and most of my friends are stressed out of their minds and one Koolaid spill from taking out the village. Everyone has mental health issues and if you don’t just wait a week.
I have mentioned this before but I find it hard to even listen to a client who isn’t learning. I’ll put that more gently. I cannot think of one client who is really rocking this mental health thing who is not either a student or a reader or a serious life-learner. Last week I spoke at a martial art and ranted, “if you don’t read, you don’t lead”. That may sound narrow-minded or condescending but consider for a moment the world we find ourselves in. We no longer have the luxury of being ignorant about a host of things we never gave a crap about before the internet and media age. For thousands of years people had no idea what was happening and seemed to survive quite swimmingly. Our lives are a bombardment of manic media sources, Facebook and texting and Google and Xbox and our friends informing us that they arrived safely at the Red Lobster on 38th Street like I should give a damn. Our world is complex and dysfunctional and we were not given the tools to understand the how, let alone the why. I honestly have no idea why people who are not learning don’t lose their mind. Some days I wonder if I am too stupid and I do this for a living.
I could be wrong but I know what works for me. I have convinced myself that I want to be smart and I fell back in love with learning, and so have my Jedi friends who put me to shame. My life was once filled with music and noise and traffic. Today I was listening to “Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood & the Prison of Belief” on the drive to work. I drove slower than usual because I was on the part where they talk about the Sea Org and I have a sick fascination with cults. I had coffee with a friend this week and as she left she put on her earbuds. She was listening to “The Wisdom of Psychopaths“. I can virtually guarantee you that she is growing and moving forward.
Those who embrace the experience, rock the experience.
Few of us realize, that first month of counseling, that becoming a wise person requires tens of years of work, not weeks. In time the discipline no longer feels like drudgery and you begin to surf a little more consistently. In time this stuff changes your entire world and everyone around you if you let it.
“The most beautiful people we have known are those who have known defeat, known suffering, known struggle, known loss, and have found their way out of the depths. These persons have an appreciation, a sensitivity and an understanding of life that fills them with compassions, gentleness, and a deep loving concern. Beautiful people do not just happen.”
– Elizabeth Kubler-Ross
So I was sitting in the tub this past week (cue disturbing visual image) and reading an article about “fun with semi-colons”. I’m not really a tub guy but I had a busted wing and it was either that or stink. If I had a dime for every time I’ve started an article with the line, “so I was sitting in the tub”. I have become a nerd who reads psychology and philosophy and Mental Floss. I can live with that.
My wife walked in the bathroom and upon hearing what I was reading, sardonically announced, “I have never been less attracted to you.” If I had a dime for every time…
Making fun of myself is easy. I have plenty of ammunition. I’m an expert at self-abasing, most of us are. I was birthed in Canada, where false humility is a national preoccupation. Growing up we all believed that self-promotion was sin, and bragging was something you only did if you were an American (it’s not you, it’s us) or hung out with people who had really good hair. In grade ten I had an afro so had little reason to brag. Ok, I was prone to self-promotion and I secretly miss the Fro.
It is common, although often incorrect, to assume that people are arrogant when they brag about themselves. This seems to have little foundation in any real psychology once you exclude the narcissists and the psycho/sociopaths and your Uncle Bert. For the rest of us, isn’t it true that (I got that line from a lawyer who kept putting words in my mouth during a trial I was called to testify as a counsellor at)… Isn’t it true that for most of us we tend to brag because we are actually insecure and generally feel bad about ourselves? I can sense, somewhere deep inside me, that when I lean towards self-promotion I am usually trying to convince myself and others that I am not the secondhand turd that some people believe me to be. I’m just saying, for me.
Insecure people brag. Secure people rarely feel the need. To be candid, the more I learn to accept myself the less my detractors matter. It is a testimony to this problem that at this point in the article I feel obligated to include the detraction, “I don’t mean that in an arrogant way”.
There is a measure of psychological sense to the religious confessional. When clients are trapped in the cycle of emotional self-abuse I often ask them, “Do you feel you have done enough penance yet?” There is something in most of us that is prone to continue the self-blame cycle forever. When will the day come when I have punished myself enough? Shame is a powerful and pervasive sickness that can trap a person and convince them that they do not deserve a rich life. At some point in the journey it is time to say enough is enough, forgive ourselves one day at a time, and scratch a little happiness out of life.
“Your problem is you’re… too busy holding onto your unworthiness.” Ram Dass
This is not a self-help piece that ends with a parade and hot chocolate, although I highly recommend both with a splash of irish cream. In the real world, it is up to me alone to learn how to move beyond my own insecurities and learn to become comfortable with who I am right at this particular time. I will never be “good enough” until I learn to settle for good enough. Many of us can agree that we are sick and tired of feeling bad about ourselves.
Bragging can be a very healing and affirming thing, when done with someone who is safe and gets it. I have a few friends who really encourage me to feel good about myself. You know who you are and thank you. There is a time and a place for everything, apparently, and when was the last time you really bragged about something that matters to you? We need to be cheerleaders for our friends. In a world that constantly reminds us how we do not measure up we all need someone who is wise enough to give us a chance to crow. Everyday and in every way we are given the message that we do not measure up, we’re too ugly, too fat, or too old, or too whatever. And always not enough – not enough education or maturity, not enough love or health or understanding from a world that appears to take delight when you wipe out and they can get it on tape.
So go ahead, brag a little. You’re pretty awesome.
I like to tell people who I come from a family of hillbillies. It’s not true but I to never let the truth get in the way of a good story. What is true is that I come from generations of humble peasants, usually of the military persuasion. We didn’t lead in war, we probably dug latrines. There was no family money to inherit. My kin were never afraid to pick a fight or yell at their spouses.
I was raised that you won’t just die for your family, you would kill for your family (and I’m a pacifist). I remember hearing a preacher tell that story about the bus driver whose breaks were out, and there were only two options. One road would drive over your son, the other a group of strangers. Apparently ditching it was not an option, which makes me wonder as to the veracity of the tale but what can you do. He sacrificed his son and that was what God was supposed to be like if he was in the transportation industry.
This is undoubtedly an urban legend if for no other reason than that most parents would kill the strangers.
I would mow down a city before I would sacrifice my child. I’m not admitting I’m a psychopath, I’m just saying your chances, in a strictly mathematical sense, are not good. There are three toddlers in my family that I would storm the gates of hell to protect. I have a few close friends who are my family by choice. Friends will help you move, good friends will help you move a body, or so the joke goes. Chances are a few of you know how I feel. Loyalty and familial love are not character traits for which one must ordinarily apologize.
We all have a mental list of the people for whom we would storm the castle. My friends, and by friends I do not mean the mass of acquaintances with whom I have a peripheral relationship, are those who have been tried by fire but refuse to walk away. Friends are those few I love and will protect, if I am able. Friends and family give my life meaning, even if more than a few of them are absolutely bat-crap crazy.
My tribe, because I live in what I like to call the real world, come in three categories: those who enrich my life, those who are neutral, and those lovelies who are emotional succubus, the vampires who take away my will to live. I love them, but a few of them could use Cipralex with a tequila chaser. Three kinds of friends; three types of people when you pause to think about it.
I am endeavouring to become keenly aware when I begin to weigh down the hearts of those I care about the most. It is much easier to live a life of self-absorbed pedantry so I may continue to take selflies and be easily offended. No one really gives a damn about my medical problems, if I have to bring it up. If you talk for twenty minutes and do not say one thing that makes someone smile, unless you are in crisis you may just be a negative person. There is no right way to tell someone they are a negative person so few people recognize this particular character trait. Other people know but usually no one is talking. I am becoming aware of my own propensity to complain and it is something I may have to address in myself.
We all have times in our lives when we desperately need to get help carrying that burden. I am here for you and you have been there for me. There was a time in my life when if it wasn’t for a few people like Susan and Steve and a handful of others, I might have taken my own life (I cannot put any more names for fear of missing someone). Persons slept on my couch for a couple of weeks at a time. People fed me and looked out for me. When everyone else walked out a few of you walked in. You know who you are, really. I would never disparage reaching out. That is literally my day job. This article is not about that.
I have spent several months conducting an informal survey of people in my life that are finished products. without their knowledge questions have been asked and unknown interviews given. I have little fear of offending them here because they would have no impetus to read my blog about psychological and emotional health. They don’t talk about philosophy, they argue about it. They don’t grow.
By labelling someone a finished product (I can freely admit I could be wrong) I mean that, for whatever reason, there are those individuals in my world who have decided that they are not going to change anymore. They believe the exact same things they have seemingly always believed and they are done. Some immerse themselves in popular culture and drop-kick their brains out the window. Others become consumed by their children or fashion or menial politics or sports and stay dumb. I can’t help you with dumb, it’s often terminal.
I can’t help you with dumb, it’s often terminal
Finished products are difficult to live with. Many wives or husbands sit in my office and admit that even if we come up with a jim-dandy plan of attack for their marriage their spouse will never seriously engage in the process. This is the session in counselling when I begin to subliminally prepare you for the eventual death of your relationship, even if you do stay together. Few relationships can survive when one partner is trying to become wise while the other is in love with their boat or shoes or hobby or daytime television. I do not need my spouse to be my intellectual equal but I do need that person to still try at life. Nothing is harder to watch than a partner who has given up or thinks learning is dumb. I can put up with almost anything if I know you’re trying.
One further thing. I don’t want to be sick forever. My mental illnesses should probably not be an inheritance to my children. I’m not trying to make anyone feel bad, quite the opposite. The good news is that if nothing else, the more we know the faster we grow. I just said something cheesy. I’m deadly serious about this topic because people who are reading, unceasingly engaging in meaningful activities, diligent about moving forward, these individuals always get better faster and move into wisdom. That has to be worth it. I still want to be a Jedi.
Happy birthday Albert Einstein, may we never give up the quest for a grand and unified theory.
My friend Lori the art nerd, that’s her legal name, has to critique another student’s play. I would stink at that. As a psychology geek I would be all like, “but there’s too much criticism in the world already and I have no idea what kind of hell this person has gone through. How old is she, 30? That means she’s a senior student. Good for her! But wait a minute. A senior student, what went wrong? Why is she back at school now. Some bastard broke her heart! Good for her! How can I criticize Cheryl, she’s a hero!”
You probably don’t really need someone like me to remind you of your problems. You know your problems. You didn’t just pay me to tell you what is obvious to you, did you? You have a bead on your problems, what is missing are solutions.
Or am I wrong?
Granted, someone like me gets paid to help you look through another lens. Trust me on this one, you want that. I tell people who are going through something like grief or depression, addiction or anxiety, that they should think of themselves as insane. You heard me. We simply need to put some heavy limits on our application of the word. When you are depressed you cannot think rationally because your frontal cortex is getting slammed by three greasy hippies on cocaine driving a Vega (I especially like the mini wagon with fake wood) spraying warm tapioca from your primal and basically cray cray brain. I like to impress readers with my technical know-how.
When things were bad in my hemisphere I am completely certain that I was absolutely and coldly nuts, much of the time. I was so entirely broken that it framed every decision in my life. Some of you know of what I speak. So yes, I was a little insane, thank you very much. Probably a great deal more than a little. You would never want someone in that mindset to walk your pet, let alone make decisions of any import. In retrospect I probably shouldn’t have remortgaged the house twice because I “didn’t give a damn”. You feel me?
(What does that mean, anyway, “you feel me?”. I would, frankly, prefer that very few people actually “feel me” so I guess I should say, “please stay appropriately behind the yellow line and I’ll greet you with a firm hand shake”)
It’s easy to wear our failures like a hairshirt. If you want a list of my shortcomings just ask me. Either I figured it out or it was driven into me a few hundred thousand times. Pointing out your obvious flaw may make you think I’m Kreskin, but chances are it will simply reinforce how useless you already feel. Thanks for that, best friend! I know I have problems, I made them.
Hey listen. You’re coping the best you know how, right now. Most of us live our whole lives never living up to our own expectations, much less everybody else’s. Sometimes you need to be a little easier on yourself. You are on a journey and you are making this up as you go along. Few of us figure this out at the same rate. Life is profoundly more complex than the poster promised. I am virtually a full-time student and I am keenly aware how stupid I was only a few years ago. Will I say that again in five years?
Wisdom takes time, unfortunately. No one gets a free pass and that means no one. My goal is to figure this out in my current decade and it is taking far longer than any of us imagined. We can only do the best we can with the light we have right now. That’s as good as it can get, short of a scholarship to Cambridge. What is important is to play the hand given me well and eat as much candy as I can. If you need a kick in the butt feel free with my compliments, but don’t forget to eat some KitKat ice cream and listen to a comedy. I just watched Trevor Noah: African-American on Netflix and finally learned how to correctly pronounce Zebra (it sounds like Debra).
I can be hard on myself tomorrow.
I was given a small piece of a backbone recently by a new friend. The backbone of a Triceratops. Wicked. You can see the marrow, or so I choose to think. It looks like a bone, a 68 million-year-old bone. For an amateur history enthusiast, this is very cool. I am becoming more of a geek all the time.
History is something I care very much about. It has been, along with a few other diversions, one of the passions of my adult life. I endeavour to read history almost every day. One of the reasons I love this so much is because it teaches me lessons that others have had to learn the hard way. The other reason is because I fancy myself a bit of a storyteller and I can mine history forever. There are literally millions of great stories I have not heard yet. Billions. Many are lost to antiquity and most, the vast majority, were never remembered in the first place. Life is story.
When Brian Williams got incinerated by the media recently for embellishing on his war correspondence I understood what he was doing. I try to never let the absolute truth ruin a great story. I still tell a few stories I know are not true, simply because they are amazing. I will often even start with, “This story is not true.” I don’t care, I’m interested in hearing a story, this isn’t church. Williams is guilty of losing himself in his own story. He forgot that he was supposed to report on the action, not be the action. He has told that story so many times he probably could convince himself that it’s probably half-true. I’ve done that. Once, while on a whitewater canoe trip with The No Tan-line Annual (NTLA) crew, my canoeing partner Don Hand caught a huge lake trout on a lake called Trout Lake. I told that story so many times I started to believe I was the one who caught the fish. I still prefer to tell it my way.
Stories have enriched my life in ways I cannot begin to fathom. By now anyone who reads this rag knows that I am a strong proponent of audiobooks. I have gone on record, many times, alleging that audiobooks may have saved my life. Every day, many times a day, I lose myself in a story. I have a tiny hint of ADHD in my psyche and audiobooks keep me placid and awake. They keep my mind from going places that it should never go. When I used to cry every day audiobooks gave me a break from the grief. See, I can’t stop preaching about audiobooks.
Where were we? Oh right, the Triceratops. Looking at that horn connects me with something far bigger than myself. That’s why I collect old books and newspapers and coins. Touching those French Francs from the 18th Century gives me a deep sense of connectedness with the bigger story. Yesterday, while on Lori’s blog, I looked at a picture of Napoleon’s gloves. That makes him alive to me, somehow.
I have a deep connection with my own story as well. Even with my memory I can feel a connection with my past. I can enter again into 15-year-old Scott. I can remember how it felt to paddle into that secret bird sanctuary on the Clearwater River. If I think hard enough I can develop a sense of mindfulness with my younger me and see how he felt and what he believed. Sitting here, I can connect with Scott on stage at the Clarke Theatre in 1999. He was ridiculously naive and immature but I can also see his heart and I know the truth. Try that on yourself, sometime soon. Get in that chair or that bed and spend 15 minutes intentionally going back. Remember how she felt that day, you know the one. I did this mindfulness exercise just before I started this article and it is powerful once you figure it out. Try it six times before you give it up. I learn new things about myself every time I wander.
There is a profound wisdom to be found in your own story if you allow yourself to look at it in a more objective fashion. The more you can develop a third-person relationship with your past, the more you can learn. As I recently wrote about, it’s again about radical acceptance. Radical acceptance of the truth about my personal journey. I desperately want to whitewash my own immaturity but that takes away, profoundly, from the story. As Kant said, you have two worlds. There is the world as you wish it to be and the world as it really is. It’s like a bad remake of The Matrix and it’s true. My failure to cope often defines the story. My ability to accept my own part in the dysfunction is crucial if you want to learn the truth. You were there too. Don’t worry, I’m not blame-shifting. It really may not have been your fault but we aren’t talking about blame. I have learned to deal with life in certain ways and some of these are dysfunctional. It may have been as a result of abuse or just because that’s the way things turned out with your particular strange porridge of DNA and family weirdos. The story is, after all, about me.
As Santayana said, “Those who cannot remember (learn from) the past are condemned to repeat it”.
I am asked this question all the time. How do I leave? How do I stand up for myself? How do I lower my expectations of this person? How do learn to be happy in the mess that is my life right now? How do I let go of the grief or the expectations or the unrealistic dreams? How do I forgive? How do I move on?
It’s a question as old as time. Letting go is something that I only learned through pain, and it wasn’t worth it. How do you let go of hopes and loves and connection? How do you let go of a dream?
“and to keep me humble there was given to me a thorn in the flesh” The Bible
I’m no prophet, I think we can all agree on that. I’m not even convinced that I was “given” anything, it’s just that the verse works well with where we are headed. That’s all. No one is claiming to be Tom Cruise here.
For many of us, myself included, there are one or two things that have a tendency to hold us back from having a full life. I have a buggered knee that constantly reminds me that I am not allowed to run anymore. Or do martial arts anymore. I do it anyway and I pay. Frustrating, but really only a nuisance if I keep my head around it. Many, many people have it worse, we tell ourselves.
That particular coping mechanism, “many have it worse”, is a two-edged sword, actually. It is certainly accurate, in the logistical sense of the verbiage, many indeed have it worse. Stop complaining about little things. Appreciate what you have. Do it anyways. All those cheesy statements that we all use to get things done and keep moving forward. There is value in remembering the blessings, as they are dubbed. This is a very important psychological tool.
Occasionally, those coping mechanisms which have worked for so long have, in truth, exacted their own little emotional revenge. This is one of those statements. Humility and appreciation are foundational to good mental health. The problem is, and you probably know where I am headed, this statement can also be a reminder of how pathetic I have become. Quit feeling sorry for yourself. What I tell myself is that my particular problem is petty. It is not important, really, and I need to ignore it because I am being selfish. That’s a hard pill to swallow.
It is easy to diminish our own issues. We convince ourselves that to take time away from the many people who count on us, in order to work on our own issues or grieve or pray or cry or sleep, is selfish. Self care is selfish, although we don’t say it like that. We are too busy, too stressed, too involved and around too many whiny problems to really have time or emotional energy to go for a walk in the woods. Who has energy to walk?
In psychology we call this a cognitive distortion. Many who read this blog have come across this phrase before. Learning about cognitive distortions is probably one of the most important things you can do when seeking to become a real person. We are surrounded and obsessed with our distorted ways of thinking about life. This is not an occasional detour, every one of us uses cognitive distortions literally every day. Catastrophizing, All or Nothing Thinking, Emotional Reasoning, Should Statements, Over Generalizing, Filtering, Fairness, Blaming, the list goes on. I do this stuff all the time.
Here’s another one, a more personalized one: Other people have it worse. This may, in point of fact, be technically true, but it only tells part of the story. Contemporary journalism often does this, pulling out the letter of the law but completely missing the spirit, the story, the truth. Knowing other people have worse problems doesn’t always help me emotionally manage my grief and pain. I need to come to grips with the enormity of the issue, not diminish my own mental health issues.
This stuff is important – for me – and that is not selfishness, quite the contrary. No one knows what I am going through but me. No one understands my part of the picture. No one knows how I am really handling this life, no one but me. I must realize that there is no merit in blaming my relatives, that eventually becomes a cognitive distortion and keeps me from being honest with myself. There is no value in bitterness; I am the one eventually consumed. Damning my ex to hell may feel good for a moment, but it can affect my emotional wellbeing for a lifetime. That kind of stuff affects my grandchildren, it becomes generational. While we may be obviously linked genetically to those who came before us, their attitudes and cornucopia of craziness can be passed down as well. I simply cannot allow that to happen, if I am able.
So I have learned from people smarter than me that “other people have it worse” doesn’t always help because I am not other people. I am condemned or blessed with this one life and at the end of the day I’m not really responsible for your stuff. I need to figure out how to heal my stuff and hopefully some of that will bubble over into your life, and yours to mine. The dog didn’t eat my paper and I wasn’t holding it for a friend – this is my life and it doesn’t matter if other people have it worse.
Weird, it still feels arrogant writing that. They have programmed us very deep.
I see several people who suffer with Fibromyalgia. I used to work, for some time, at the Fibromyalgia Clinic. I have done intake for hundreds of persons with chronic pain, MS, FM, CFS, OA, TMJ, IBS and a bunch of other initials that only mean something if you happen to have that issue. I am not saying this to brag, it’s simply a matter of exposure. Chronic health problems suck. I have learned words like myofascial pain, and trigger points, and pacing. Ah, pacing.
People with Fibromyalgia are usually fairly lousy at pacing themselves. I say this with the greatest respect and am only parroting what virtually all of my FM patients are saying. The scenario goes something like this.
You had a good day. That has become a problem. Many people who find life difficult are occasionally surprised when the sun shines, figuratively speaking. People who suffer from depression, or heartache or chronic pain only get a glimmer of sunshine once in a while and it’s tempting to want to crow. I get that. It was sunny and warm in January these past few days and it’s shocking how much it affects my attitude, and I’m not really that sick. When you get a break in the clouds you probably want to gobble up that “to do” list and go for a jog and a massage. Don’t do it.
You want to do everything. Remember fun?
There is a possibility that we may be wired up for excess. A vast majority of the population would admit to struggling with impulse control issues, among other signs of ‘right here right now’. Don’t you just love the way you can tap your credit card now and the transaction is even shorter? So what if it’s less secure, the tapping feeds my ADHD. I love it.
I find it hard not to want to do everything and experience everything life has to offer. I absolutely adore short cuts and something for nothing. Most of us do, if we’re honest. Pacing is more than regulating my schedule, it has something to do with learning to self-regulate. That skill is one which does not come naturally to most of us. I have known people who seem to have that piece together but I still want a Dairy Queen Kit Kat Blizzard.
Learning to say no to that need to satiate every appetite is not something that is always satisfying to practice. Who ever wanted their goal in life to be devoid of fun? There are, however, increasing benefits to pursuing self-mastery. While you will probably never master your disaster, I have talked to many who light up as they describe how they have changed, and in very amazing ways. Learning to control this mess that is called Scott may have benefits beyond the lessening of the voices in my head.
I want to be a Jedi.
Psychological resilience is defined as an individual’s ability to properly adapt to stress and adversity. Stress and adversity can come in the shape of family or relationship problems, health problems, or workplace and financial stressors, among others.
“Little by little one travels far” (Spanish saying stolen by Tolkien)
A little at a time.
Almost every day someone, somewhere, asks me the same question. When? When is this going to change? When am I going to find relief? When am I going to win at something?
Lately I have been fond of dispelling misconceptions about psychology and counselling. I have written about the desire we all have to get the “magic pill”. We are saturated by the many distortions and cheap sales jobs by internet gurus and self-help magicians promising quick fixes and miracle drugs. So many placebo remedies and sugar pills, unrealistic claims and bad science. Such bad advise, often from some really lousy professionals, highly paid but misinformed.
One of the topics that gets a great deal of airplay around here is the idea of time. Few of us begin to take a serious look at our lives thinking that this will take years or decades. There is within all of us, I’m convinced, that desire to seek out the simple and quick, even at the expense of the good and the right. I love shortcuts. I absolutely adore reaping a reward with little or no effort. It’s one of my favourite things, to be honest. Easy solutions that are fun are also greatly appreciated.
Most non-profit counselling services offer what is deemed in the industry as a “brief intervention”, usually maxing out at around 12 sessions. It is believed that cognitive-behavioural therapies will produce results in around 12 sessions or 3 months. I have seen evidence of this change literally hundreds of times and the experts are absolutely right – many of us begin to see change in about 3 months, give or take a year…
At issue is what we define as change. I have witnessed many clients and friends change in 3 months, though I would be hard-pressed to identify quantitative evidence of permanent and definitive difference. Many of us have spent years and decades getting this screwed up and we are professionals, I’ve seen our work. If you have been struggling with anxiety for forty years and some idiot with a badge tells you that he/she can fix you in 6 sessions, chances are they have a carnival ride for you to try. You have not put in the requisite time to neurologically/emotionally/psychologically and spiritually change on a fundamental level. Brief interventions only work if your issue is timely, or leads to something not so brief after all.
You don’t need to see a professional, necessarily, but I do recommend that you spend a significant portion of your future learning. Read or listen to audiobooks. Turn your Facebook news feed into a glorious reader – I get feeds from Ancient Origins and Brain Pickings and BBC History and Psychology Today and a dozen more, some of which are in keeping with what I do professionally, others because I want to develop my curiosity. I have unsubscribed most of the people who bore me and now it has become a treasure trove of wonder. Einstein is right, as usual.
So here’s the rub – little by little. I’m often wrong, but it seems to me that most change comes in a dream. I tend to become without fanfare or even notice. One day I realize that something has changed, inside of me. That’s it, that’s the epiphany. I was hoping for bright lights and a cheesecake but it seems that little by little, we move forward if we want to. It is the accumulation that counts, not the parade. Momentum seems to be important and momentum takes… well… momentum. I’m a poet.
So I read and I write and I learn and try to become a Jedi – science and philosophy and psychology and faith and history and any cool story on my feeder. Little by little, counsellors tell us, we begin to build something called resilience as we learn how to put our lives together and turn down the emotional volume that keeps screaming into my ears. We learn to lower our expectations, again. We learn to call bullshit on our personal cognitive distortions and the lies to which we are so passionately invested. (Yes that is a link to an article about herpes). We learn new skills, new perspectives, and new coping mechanisms. We unlearn the sick ways we have long trusted to keep us alive but unhealthy. This is not a short process and I am not there yet, though some of you may be. I am constantly resurprised by my own stupidity and immaturity. It’s embarrassing how childish I can become, if pushed.
So we press on. As we often say, unless I start getting high again I really cannot imagine a Plan B.
Joseph Stalin had only one real job before going into revolution as an occupation. He was a weatherman. He also had smallpox. And a webbed foot. And one arm shorter than the other because of an accident with a horse. His dad was an alcoholic, a peasant. As a psychology guy I find these seemingly random facts incredibly interesting.
Nature and nurture.
There is no way to be certain but it may have made a difference that the defender of the largest geographic region in the world during the nazi attack called Barbarossa was intimately familiar with geography and weather. The nazis were ultimately stymied by the cossack winter. Was that a coincidence? What impact did his pockmarked face have on his bad attitude? What was it like growing up as a Georgian peasant at the end of the 19th Century Russia? Did growing up in poverty influence his decisions? How was he moulded?
Chances are, you can’t really escape your past. I look like my father, I have his hands. My kids are just better looking versions of me, poor slobs. There are scars, outside and some deep down. You have been imprinted by your past, by your culture, biology, and family systems.
Hitler attacked late. In the famous account we now know that at the last moment he decided to detour over to Hungary and flex his muscles a little. As a Canadian I can appreciate how short summer can be. The timelines were incredibly tight. Hitler had to have Moscow by winter. He was a few weeks late. The German soldiers had not come prepared for the Russian winter. Timing is everything when it comes to the weather. A weatherman would know that.
We may never fully understand the influence of seemingly insignificant detours in our lives. You chose one school or another and it changed everything. You met one person who transformed your future. You were born to particular people with specific dysfunction. You learned certain coping mechanisms in certain ways from certain people. The person I have become has been no accident, in spite of it happening by accident. We all carry the impressions from our little piece of crazy.
One of the reasons that this stuff takes so long to master must be because we have spent a lifetime being imprinted by our surroundings. The jury may occasionally be out, with regard to the biological impact that your forebearers have had on you, but one thing is certain – nurture may have more to do with your life than nature. There are specific and significant mechanisms that interact when you live in an environment such as yours. There are entire branches of psychology dedicated solely to this, family and cultural systems theory and therapy. It is impossible to understate the impact living in such dysfunction could have upon a vulnerable and developing psyche. You are what you eat. And who you love. And where you live. And how you are hurt. Chances are there are also a bunch of other influences, whether apparent or not.
I am a Williams. That probably means nothing to you, but my family has created a mythos around our heritage that is taught to subsequent generations. This Christmas my parents bought everyone around me a T-shirt with “Be calm and let Williams handle it”, even the still-to-be-born Williams affectionately referred to as “Jellybean” (he/she received a onesie). If you are a little child in my world whose name ends with Williams you have undoubtedly been reminded how awesome and lucky you are; just because you are a member of this elite and ofttimes condescending tribe. My kids think that to be a Williams is a big deal. Generations of winners. It’s all a lie.
I mentioned recently that my family were/are peasants. Our history floats on a river of alcohol and impulse-control problems. My dad is an orphan. My mom, as a child, probably never met a teetotaller. I come from hard stock, unforgiving and obstinate… and talkative. Many had very large noses. Serfs.
This history touches my life every day. I have acquaintances who are one or two generations further removed from their peasant ancestors. That fact alone has a massive impact on every aspect of my life. There is not, and never were, the merchant assets to pass down to the next generation. This led, inevitably, to fewer options and a far greater likelihood of generational poverty. Williams’s don’t go to college, or at least they didn’t. There was no tradition nor cultural expectation with regard to education. My family simply did not go to college, we went to war. I am honoured to report that my father, at 76, is in university… again. I received my high school diploma before he did.
These are not insignificant cultural markers. How you grew up, and who you grew up with, affects everything from finances to self-esteem, where and how you live, who you date, how you raise your kids, how you self-medicate, how often you travel, your values and spirituality and intelligence and ability to cope. Further exposure to experience or abuse melds the psyche in early childhood, and sometimes much later. If your parents broke up, this will impact your everything. If you were/are abused, if you make poor relational choices (for the aforementioned reasons), if you grew up around violence or addiction or a passive-aggressive parent or three-ply toilet paper, everything factors in.
A man who earned his living by predicting tomorrow’s weather probably did not get confused when the snow started to fly in early October. His troops were cold weather fighters who used the land and the cold (and the biggest secret peasant army hidden east of the Urals that the world has ever known) to defeat the undefatigable Third Reich. Stalin knew hardship. The Nazis were almost in Moscow and all seemed lost, but Stalin did not leave – why? He was depressed but he was a Georgian peasant who had risen to the top by killing every single person (and their family) who stood in his way. The boy who had been teased for his scars and his bum arm wasn’t laying down for anyone. Some people have wounds that have defined them, shaped them.
Who I am, and where I come from, is so fundamentally important that it’s almost embarrassing to discuss. Yet time and again we are resurprised by our foibles and cannot understand why we act the way we do. We date the same kind of person over and over. We continue to experience the same difficulty with relationships, or finishing projects, or hoarding, or painting the kitchen every other month. For some, anger has become our constant companion. Others have identified themselves as broken for so long it is impossible to imagine a world wherein wholeness is even an option. Understanding the role our history has played in our dysfunction is crucial to healing. As the man said, those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. This oft-quoted line has been liberally applied, but I believe it can apply here.
There is a possibility that you may not be as nuts as you think you are. Perhaps it really is your parents fault! Whatever the truth, it’s important to find out. Learning is how we wrestle this pig to the ground. Again.
One last story.
When I was 29, I woke up one morning and realized that I had been having a repeating nightmare. I could remember it being a little different, years ago, but wasn’t sure how. In the dream I was always chased by two guys who grabbed me and threw me into a white van. I believe the van was once brown but it changed colour, I have no idea why.
That day it dawned on me that I had been having a version of this dream since childhood. I decided to look a little deeper. Over a period of time I was able to trace the dream back to when I was 9 or 10 years old. So the question was, why?
I am old enough that I believe that I saw Pinocchio, probably on a Sunday night, and probably while watching The Wonderful World Of Disney. I remembered how frightened I had been when the slimy Fox and the Cat (or whatever they were I’m too lazy to Wikipedia it) grabbed Pinocchio and threw him into the cart with the donkey boys. Could it be?
I never had the dream again. It could be that, once I realized why I was having this nightmare my subconscious was able to move on. It might be that I’m more brain damaged than I think. Either way, I’m all good.
I know it sounds like I am suggesting that if you can trace back your abuse to a specific time then you would miraculously “get over it”. If you’ve been here before you know that’s not my thing. This story is an anomaly. I find it interesting, however, because of the power of such narratives. There is a connection between our thoughts, motives, history, and mental health. Quitting cocaine is a great step but chances are that isn’t your complete problem. Your life is your problem.
There seems to be a real correlation between how much I know about this stuff and how fast I move forward. The more I learn, the faster I run.
Last night my wife and I surfed Netflix enough until, like most of us, we gave up and watched the documentary on Lance Armstrong – something far outside my comfort zone. I am not ordinarily a fan of movie stars and supermodels, and to be honest probably wouldn’t get out of my chair if one came to the house. The documentary was, however, interesting to watch unfold. I could tell, relatively early, that he was lying his ass off. I do this for a living and my counseling hat was pinging like mad. He wasn’t even very good at it, and it suddenly struck me why so many people were so unsurprised when the poop finally hit the fan. I turned to my wife to pontificate about micro-expressions but it became abundantly clear that she was way ahead of me. She was pinging too, albeit perhaps on a somewhat more subconscious level. She described him as a creep.
That word comes up often in my line of work.
Time and again, perhaps because of my dual worlds of addiction and counselling, women describe men as “creepy”. We have all known a few females, as well, who kind of “freak me out”. We are prone to believe that this is something that has no foundation in evidence-based realities; but we may be wrong. Upon further probing, people who have been creeped out inevitably describe surprisingly similar feelings. There are facial ticks that are registering. Certain intonations strike them as “off”. There are fewer contractions and often more confrontation. People who have “their radar on” may not know why, but they definitely know who. I have invested some time endeavouring to calm any personal boundary issues, and I heavily monitor my space and posture for this exact reason. I rarely hug, and never very close. If you visit me in my micro-office we will take opposite corners. I have spent too much time learning from women to not find myself hyper-vigilant in this regard.
I believe creeps are real. Many are described using terms like “narcissist” and “psychopath”, though usually by wives who are not qualified to diagnose and are deemed too emotionally involved. They are, therefore, often misregarded (I made that up). In my experience, more women than men have this sensitivity to the creep factor, perhaps many more.
I continue to be resurprised when I am in the presence of a “creep”. They seem to lack basic self-awareness. They often describe themselves as “smooth” and popular with the ladies. Often they actually are, and sometimes for very nefarious reasons. By way of example, there are those who are strongly attracted to narcissists. Something in the seeker’s psyche is broken and seeks fulfillment in controlling, and often very physical, relationships. Part of counselling often includes addressing a client’s choosing mechanism, and many people have had to address their attraction to dysfunction in an office very much like mine. Many of us, myself included, are prone to make the same relational mistakes over and over, for very psychological reasons.
Many clients and friends have included a crap detector in their emotional toolbox. There are people out there, for reasons that escape most of us, who glean satisfaction through manipulating and controlling the people closest to them. Such individuals are often highly charming, though indubitably self-serving and emotionally unhealthy. To use the internet word of the month, people like this always obfuscate our lives (I know you’ll Google that) and inevitably leave a wake of hurt and unresolved trauma.
I advise clients that if someone is too charming, too slick, or too nice, it’s probably too good to be true. Dating is an exercise in lying to each other and we all know that on one level. Your charmer’s ex probably wasn’t as bat-shit crazy as you have been told. We have a tendency to want to believe in the fairy tale ending, often at the expense of real world objectivity. I don’t care who he/she is, they have significant issues. You can disagree with me all you wish, but chances are I’ll be proven right. I do not enjoy winning that argument, perhaps I’m just a bit tainted from sitting in an office talking about pain everyday. That is highly possible.
This is for you. You know who you are.
I talk a great deal in counseling about “the toolbox”. It is a psychological construct that many of us are familiar with. Talking about a toolbox is trendy now, and for good reason. Knowing what it is and how to effectively use the toolbox can be a powerful metaphor. One woman I work with told me that the toolbox doesn’t work for her. She has a sewing kit. The actual metaphor isn’t important, working it very much is.
And so, in deference to the few who have asked, I’ll tell you about my personal toolbox. Sharing this, for some reason, feels like a very intimate confession. This is not your toolbox, but it is mine. Welcome to my particular version of psychological weirdness.
My toolbox is, in point of fact, an actual toolbox. Years ago, I once owned a rusty, red toolbox, with a single removable tray. I could never pull the thing apart without one corner getting stuck, and in my mind’s eye it is still that same old cranky, rusty, piece of crap. I use a version of the Loci System to stock this thing, this imaginary tool chest in my head. I complement this technique with various memory systems because I have a brain injury. There, I said it.
There are only four tools in the tray, a wrench, a yellow screwdriver, my wisdom rock, and a respirator. The second layer, the bottom of the toolbox, holds a toy black chair and a clown mask. Eventually I will replace the wrench and the screwdriver with more literal interpretations, but this works for now.
On that day when we met, I wasn’t thinking about toolboxes or wrenches. We were just having coffee when she casually hurt me with her words. They were spoken innocently enough, but they were anything but innocuous. She meant to hurt me, to teach me. Condescension is one of my buttons, stemming from my childhood. “Tuning me in” strikes me somewhere deep and dark. I am working on it.
I often forget to employ the toolbox. In the wave of emotions (anger or pain or embarrassment or a little of each) I can be caught up in the surge and forget that I am “Counselor Scott”. I forget to ask myself WWSD. I am overcome… sometimes.
I have been using the toolbox for a while now and it still only works when I remember. The methodology is still inherently flawed, and I am also researching and endeavouring to shore up that whole “forgetting” thing when I’m upset and the emotion rolls in like rain. I’ll let you know when I figure that piece out.
Back to the toolbox. I have worked very hard to recognize the rush of ugly, and approximately 50% of the time I now remember to reach for the box. I open the toolbox in my mind. I can see the clasp, one of those silver ones with a metal loop on the top; and I open it.
There is the wrench. The wrench reminds me to recognize the cognitive distortions that are raping and pillaging my brain right that moment. I don’t know why it’s a wrench – this is probably because when I started doing this thing I was much too literal about a ‘toolbox’. I am thinking of changing it to a bunny, but that’s another article. As I reach out in my mind’s eye to grab the wrench I am reminded that I am probably not completely objective right now. Maybe I am catastrophizing or taking this conversation far too personally. Perhaps I am employing “all or nothing” thinking or emotional reasoning. I often use emotional reasoning because I am hurt. Holding the wrench forces me to think rationally. If that doesn’t work I can always hit you with the wrench, so it’s all good.
There is a yellow screwdriver, don’t ask me why. The screwdriver reminds me to employ STOPP Therapy. I should probably just substitute a STOPP Therapy cue card that I give to clients… duh. STOPP therapy has saved my life. I am proficient at STOPP therapy and if I can remember, this is usually as far as I need to go in the box. If I am still not able to deescalate myself , the respirator reminds me to breathe. Two weeks ago at the movie theatre I had to breathe 7 times before I could calm myself down. Apparently I still have some growing up to do. I carry the wisdom rock as a grounding tool. Sometimes it helps.
If I have to pull out the tray I know I’m in trouble.
The bottom layer of the toolbox contains a toy black chair and a clown mask. We are getting serious now. The toy chair is an exact replica of the chair I am sitting in as I write this – my counseling chair, rips and all. It is a not-so-subtle reminder that I need to put on my “Counselor Scott” hat. Yes I built in the redundancy because I am not that smart and need more than one cue. The clown mask… well the clown mask is more controversial and I hesitate to put it in writing. Let’s just say this memory cue reminds me that people have issues and I need to remember that ofttimes the anger or resentment I am getting from someone may not be a reflection of me. We all have mental health issues. Let’s leave that at that.
I am profoundly aware of how cheesy such tools can appear to the uninitiated or critical. But here’s the rub – when I am in crisis I usually do not have time to be profound. I need something quick and simple. Just like me.
My father was an orphan. He grew up with a brother, little supervision, and almost no “life lessons” from a parental figure. His relatives were racist, religious bigots.
My mother is one of three girls. She came from a long line of alcohol and cigarettes, empties and ignorance.
Neither one of my parents really inherited much of worth from their forebearers . My grandmother, by her own admission, hated me. Eventually, as the years progressed, she learned to hate others as well. By most accounts she was a nasty piece of work. My grandfather drank beer for breakfast and filled his work thermos with scotch, in order to cope. He was, according to legend, a very bright man. Very sad. He taught me how many cases of Canadian beer fit in the back of a Buick. Marketable skills…
Parenting is a ridiculous proposition, when it comes down to it. Take a person or two, give them limited skills, make them young and inexperienced. Toss in a boot-full of low-income and sleepless nights and worry. As the kids grow older offer them few real tools and then take their kids and throw them into the meat grinder called “school”. Enter drugs. Enter peer pressure and poor self-esteem and pimples and loss. Welcome to the real world.
Recently, a good friend from a difficult background told me that he felt it was his job to “pass on what he wasn’t given”. He was attempting to raise children with values and ethics to which he had never been exposed. Like my own parents, he was trying to pass on lessons he had never learned. It was time to break the cycle of abuse and dysfunction.
Many of us can relate to the story of my parents. We were also not given the right tools and mentors. We watched while parents punched and swore, or had relatives who were abusive or neglectful, ignorant or narrow-minded. No one taught us how to grow up, much less help a child do the same. We never learned how to think in high school. School also never prepared us for real world finances, or communicating with our partner, or how to deal with stress, depression, or the grinding monotony of life. There was nothing on addiction, or the meaning of life, or how to develop impulse control. But hey, thanks for the calculus skills that I use practically every day in the real world…
Most of the stuff we talk about in counselling I never learned in a school setting. There have not been many lights for parents whose children are defiant, or mixed up, or broken. Sure there have been many books written, but somehow reading yet another book by a successful author doesn’t help as much as the book jacket promised. No one else is there when your child tells you to “go to hell” or comes home with a broken heart. If we are honest, most of us will admit that we don’t even have it yet worked out. How can we teach what we never learned?
There was a time in my life when I thought counselling was stupid. Weak people went to see a shrink, people who couldn’t handle the real world. I was an idiot. Parenting… living… in the 21st Century is insanely complex and confusing. The world is going through a historical “swerve” and even in our lifetimes things have changed so much some of us still think a moustache is cool. Methodologies that have worked for centuries are no longer relevant. Many of our hand-holds are being stripped away.
Take, by way of example, the challenges that the modern man goes through. Even while writing that sentence my hands started to automatically backpaddle and include the ladies. I have been conditioned by society to demean the average male for a myriad of reasons. When I was young we were supposed to be The Terminator. We would have kicked the crap out of Legolas, or those vampires that sparkle. Real men didn’t eat quiche. Manicures… well don’t even get me started. Men who were not “macho” enough were ridiculed. My friends who are gay report that they never even considered “coming out” for fear of actual physical violence. Verbal and emotional abuse was assumed. Just when we figured out the strong, silent type we were told we had to be sensitive. Sensitive? Some people do not understand what a profound mental shift that was for many men. Now give that guy a boy of his own to raise and sit back and watch the fun.
I no longer think counselling is stupid. Few of us are adequately prepared to face the complex situational and emotional dynamics of our present realities. And sometimes… it’s just helpful to have someone look at you across the room and confirm that you aren’t crazy. Every day I try to help patients look at life a little more realistically. They, in turn, teach me profound lessons about myself. Life is hard enough with help. Going it alone cannot be good. I am simply too ignorant of too much to assume I can adequately cope with this complicated thing called “reality”.
Keep going. Keep learning. Someone once said that change comes when we “hurt enough we have to, or learn enough we want to”. Personally, I prefer the second option. I’ve learned enough in pain. I’m tired of figuring everything out the hard way. The next lessons can come from wise sages and wounded prophets, life champions and scarred doyens. It is for this reason, as well as the sheer pleasure of it, that I strap on the headphones and listen to audiobooks day after day after day. Some of my friends actually read real books. Ten of my clients and friends have decided to go back to college, some in their forties and fifties. As I write these words I am laying in bed with my Macbook, one foot on my Nook and several good books in the night table. I am building my new library across the hall. I am not saying this to brag. As I have often pointed out in this website, there is just so much I have yet to learn.
I have to be honest with you, it’s much easier to grow if you read. Or fake read, like I often do. The more I learn the faster I grow. Some of us need to be creative because reading does not come naturally to us. You can start by changing the kinds of television programs you watch. Google your own mental health issues and include phrases like “cbt for anxiety” or depression, or a passive-aggressive spouse, or impulse control, or whatever. It’s like the old Canadian Participaction commercial, “Don’t just think about it, do it, do it, do it”. “Like” Psychology Today’s Facebook page and get their daily article feed. Go to other feeds as well. I personally use Facebook more as of a daily reader than a tool to find out whether or not my fake friends are at Walmart. Learners get better faster – that’s just the way it works. I am coming to believe that there are few shortcuts, only lessons I can choose to learn.
Pass on what you weren’t taught… because you taught yourself. No one is going to do this for me.
Yes it is. It always is. You can play around with the semantics and argue about splitting hairs but this fact will still shake itself out – we fail. Call it what you want but it will still feel the same. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a huge fan of self-talk. It’s just that I’m a bigger fan of emotional honesty.
At the risk of sounding religious I would have to admit that my failures have been “legion”. Many. I have not succeeded multiple times in my life. I had an amazing organic restaurant for some time, The Bad Dog Grill. I have started several businesses and have always believed in seizing opportunities, even a few long-shots. Not all worked and some have come and gone. Even starting a blog most of us secretly hoped we will be discovered, or at least quoted in one of those cheesy quotation pages. I average just over 80 69 visitors a day. Millions are not hanging on my every word, regardless of what my mom might think. Been discovered yet?
Like many of us, when I started a WordPress blog, I wondered how long it would be before I would be featured on “Freshly Pressed”. The answer is forever. Most of us will never be discovered, in spite of our childhood dreams and aspirations. This doesn’t fly well with contemporary positive-thinking gurus, who are adamant that our ‘attitude determines our altitude’. I have had a love-hate relationship with possibility-thinking and can appreciate it’s finer points. Changing your attitude, changing how you think, is probably the single most important thing you can do to transform your life. I have spent my entire adulthood seeking to understand the power of such transformations and wholly endorse any efforts to help us move forward. There is, however, a darker side to the positive-thinking gospel. Gurus like tall, tanned, rich and gregarious Tony Robbins make us believe that anything is possible if we only want it bad enough. Tony is wrong, though well-intended. Some things you will never be able to achieve, no matter how much you want it. You may never reach your childhood dream of becoming a dump truck or an astronaut. You probably won’t ever get that audition to be in Michael Jackson’s entourage. Wait a few years, though, and you might get to hang out with Justin Bieber if you commit a felony or are desperate for friends. Believing that you will succeed if you just want it bad enough is an important, though limited, commodity. People in my field endeavour to deal with reality, even when that reality is uncomfortable.
Sadly, everything is not possible. Someone struggling to survive in Sudan or Mogadishu will never be accepted to Harvard, no matter how many times they wish upon a star. We are limited by our intelligence, our looks, our income, but most importantly by our contacts. You may be only seven steps removed from Kevin Bacon but that is far enough away that you will have difficulty getting him to read your resume. Malcolm Gladwell has made buckets of cash helping us understand that even the month you were born in may affect your chances to play in the NHL. He reminds us brilliantly in several of his very readable books that the myth of the “self-made man” (sorry ladies but according to the misogynistic cliché you don’t qualify) is just that, a myth. Very few famous people got that way without an amazing endorsement. Every single one of them got breaks that you probably won’t get, even if you hold your breath and stomp your feet. It is no coincidence that Drew Barrymore or Nicolas Cage just happened to be spawned by famous parents. Millions of us silently chuckled when Bush told the media that being from that famous family didn’t help him in his rise to power. Seriously? The fact that he was from a multi-millionaire family that ruled the strongest country on the planet in no way gave him an advantage… Say what you want but it really is who you know, not just what you know. It has only been with the onset of the internet, where the playing field has been altered somewhat, that a few of the masses have gotten their message out.
In my files I have, from an earlier time, exercises for clients called “Affirmation Sheets”. Every counsellor that has been around for a few years has brushed up against them from time to time. Apparently there must have been a time in my life when I handed these out, though I cannot recall exactly when. They say things like “you are awesome!”, “you can do it”, and “anything is possible if you want it bad enough!”. I’m truly sorry if I ever made you read one of these. The problem is that they are simplistic in their understanding of life. People who believe such things are either pre-trauma or a product of bad teaching. We are all led to believe in such fairy-tales, we desperately want to. We are bombarded daily by messages convincing us that we are only one sudden discovery away from being adored. Sell this, buy a lottery ticket, grab this latest scheme, reach for the stars.
I do a lot of work as a motivational speaker and you can just imagine how weird that is. It is difficult for me to write this article because everything inside of me wants to scream “yes you can!” I completely believe that.
I love what Augustine said, “Love God and do whatever you want” (he was a bishop). The question he followed with was, “so what do you want?” His assertion was that if one truly loved god his wants would align with god’s (sorry, another old boys club) and therefore “doing whatever you want” would fundamentally change. That’s good psychology. Change your mind and your butt will follow…
The same philosophy can apply to what we are discussing here. I don’t need to believe in the actually impossible in order to believe in the seemingly impossible. These days my “Affirmation Sheets” say things like, “you’re doing the best you can in a difficult circumstance” and “hang in there, you can do this” more than “you’re going to be a rock star!”. I have had to lower my expectations of life again, just a bit. This is, of course, the secret to a reasonably happy life – lowering my expectations. Many would disagree with this sentiment but I have found that the fewer unrealistic expectations I carry into any relationship or situation, the more content I find myself. For example – in my marriage. The fewer expectations I have of Annette the less she will fail me. It’s simple arithmetic. My goal is to not need her at all, just want. I figure the more whole I become, and subsequently the less emotionally needy, the better husband, better friend, better person I will become.
Put that in your pipe…
Listen to people talk about their problems long enough and you begin to realize that there isn’t very much we can do about some situations. Take for example the person who comes to talk to me, complaining that their spouse drinks too much, is too insensitive, is unappreciative, too angry, (insert complaint here). Most are hoping that somehow, things will change. I tend to disappoint people…
Live long enough and you begin to realize that it’s very difficult to change anyone else. Sure if you whine enough, or threaten enough some things can change, though usually temporarily. If you are talking about a major character flaw or mental health issue, however, the likelihood that you can remonstrate enough to create real change is slim to none. Very few of us are willing to make and maintain major life change because someone bitches continually.
Unfortunately we know that the only person we can really change is… me.
I am not very good at marriage counseling. I tend to want to focus on personal change when many couples are there because they want to air their dirty laundry. How can they move on, they allege, until these issues are dealt with?
Ever try to “deal with” twenty years of broken trust or hurt? The word ‘impossible’ comes to mind. Couples who want to get over all that historic hurt usually end up in divorce court. Sorry but it’s true. Some of that stuff simply does not get fixed by talking and pleading and begging for forgiveness. How long does it take, you might ask, to restore trust when the other person is barely capable of understanding how you really feel (especially if that other person is from the other sex)? Brokenness breeds mistrust faster than most people can get over their problems.
Hoping my spouse will decide to make radical change is also a trap. To be honest, most people don’t change. I often point out here that counseling rarely works because often the cost of changing is too high. The time it takes to work through decades of abuse and pain is extremely difficult and it is probably unreasonable to expect someone else to go through years (ya that’s not a typo) of counseling, introspection, prayer, accountability and humility that is necessary for fundamental psychological and emotional change (wow, now that’s a run-on sentence…).
Knowing now what I didn’t know then I have come to realize that the only person I can count on to do all that work is me. I can dedicate myself to working on myself, whatever the cost. I can invest hours and dollars and effort to become something I never realized I could be – whole.
I am finding, to whatever degree I am growing, that the more I am ok with me and the more I am complete in myself the less I need someone else to fill those holes in my heart. As I mature I am able to better maintain my center, even if the world around is crazy. Working on me may, in point of fact, be even more important than working on “us”.
I am trying to get to the place, as I often tell people, where I no longer need my wife. No longer need her to feel good about myself. No longer need her to complete me, or fix me, or even approve of me. I am endeavouring, with varied success, to come to the place where I no longer need my wife, though I really want her. I can’t help but think that if I can be that guy then maybe, just maybe, I will be a better husband and a better man.
I don’t yell. I’m not saying this to brag, I’m fairly certain it was a dysfunctional coping mechanism.
Maybe it was because I had relatives that yelled and I repress such expressions as a response to that situation.
Maybe I’m just too shallow.
Maybe I just like it rough.
As a mental health professional I am, of course, horrible at analyzing my own stuff. I self-diagnose all the time. I’m just not that good at it.
I am one of those lucky people who gets to hear people yell on a regular basis. Some professions have it much worse, but I do get my share.
Yelling is an interesting psychological and sociological issue. I have watched spouses curl into the fetal position as a madman controls the situation and hurls verbal abuse. Notice the almost orgasmic effect that “letting off steam” has on the angry screamer. I have seen that horrible energy transferred to the victims as they get emotionally gut-punched. Long after the yell-er is satisfied the object of their derision still suffers. Yelling is a very selfish act.
There was a time when clinicians would tell the angry young man to go home and punch his heavy bag for an hour till he “worked it out of his system”. Today we realize that constantly giving in to that urge to ‘boil over’ only builds a dependence on purging yourself of emotion – a very poor model for impulse control. Such need has little to do with control and more to do with complete surrender. It is no wonder, than, that people have been known to even stop making sense when they are in the throes of an angry outburst. Anger can literally make you stupid. The effect is almost sexual.
Have you ever considered stopping?
Many people do not even realize that it is possible to go for years without yelling. Screaming is just “how our family is”. It is such a normal part of life that no one realizes how abusive it is. There are so many dysfunctional aspects to yelling that I literally do not have enough energy to fully define its ill effects right now. The act is so intrusive, so esteem crushing, so negative, so unloving, so socially acceptable. I am suggesting that we strip away the veneer and identify it for what it really issue – a lack of self-control.
If you are struggling with yelling, this is not intended to make you feel like garbage. Many, many, many of us struggle with this as well. Yelling is so ingrained in our culture that it is rarely even addressed anymore. We blandly accept that angry person without offering any accountability. Our children grow up believing this is an acceptable form of communication and… the circle of life.
If you struggle with this difficult problem talk to someone who can help. Read about it on the web, look up phrases like “cbt (cognitive behavioural therapy) and anger, or yelling, or impulse control. Find out what is behind that anger – after all, that is really the issue now, isn’t it?
Don’t give up. You can do this.
You have told him fifty times that your relationship is in trouble and you need to connect better emotionally. So why isn’t he trying? He doesn’t want you to nag or belittle him, you’ve tried and tried and he can’t get it. How much more obvious can you be? Why should you be the one trying again?
Counsel any woman in a heterosexual relationship long enough and these kinds of complaints will emerge. What is it about some spouses that they seem to care so little for emotional and relational intimacy? How did this relationship get so stale so fast?
Unfortunately the problem cannot not be entirely laid at his door step. What seems ridiculously obvious to you may not register the same way on his radar. He isn’t a woman and therefore cannot think like a woman. Only someone who has been living alone under a rock still believes that male and female brains are exactly alike. We understand on a cognitive level that we must speak in such a way as to be heard but this does not mean we know how to do this. He does not know what you mean by relational intimacy, for example. He has tried to “connect” a million times but you don’t seem to notice.
You aren’t talking Man-glish.
You want to connect more on an emotional level. You want to “talk”. I thought we have been talking. You haven’t shut up in twenty minutes. What the hell were you even talking about? I took you to dinner and a movie. How come you are still mad?
What many women fail to understand is that, for many men who have not grown up in a metrosexual environment, that ‘dinner and a movie’ thing was a sincere, even stretching expression of his emotionally availability, whatever that means. Many men have difficulty connecting on anything beyond the most shallow pool unless beer is involved. Dinner was his attempt to connect. Sad huh?
Sometimes that lousy attempt to connect was in fact the top of his game. He was playing his best card but you are still upset. What can he possibly say at this point to appease you/impress you? He’s already shot his best load and now he has to come up with a response that will diffuse your anger and convince you he knows what you are trying to yell at him. But he doesn’t.
Learning to think like someone else is an extremely important, albeit difficult skill to learn. Chances are your perfect plan to gradually win him over to your side hasn’t worked by now and you realize that relationships that aren’t working just get worse and worse. It is almost impossible, once a couple has grown apart and there is misunderstanding involved, for reconciliation to happen. We simply lose our will to keep fighting and it’s extremely difficult to get back.
Take a relationship course. Send for my free session on “Speaking Chick and Talking Dude. Read a book or listen to an mp3. Learning to understand your partner is like taking any foreign language, there are few shortcuts to literacy.
This morning I was watching TV when a commercial for the new Proactive Dark Spot Remover showed up. Apparently if you pay the money and use this product it will remove the “appearance” of blemishes and restore your complexion to “perfect skin”. Quite a promise… or is it.
Notice what they are not saying. They are not saying that they will improve your complexion or skin at all, only give the appearance of change. The cosmetics industry, a word that means “to make order out of chaos”, has made millions, even billions, hiding the world from the truth. No wonder many women talk of “putting their face on” in the morning or before a date.
This past week The Chive and various other online rags ran a pictorial called “The Face Of Porn: Porn Stars Before And After Makeup.” To say the pictures were revealing is an understatement. Most of the most famous goddesses are less than perfect without artificial enhancement, to say the least. Some were downright homely, not even attractive. It is a reminder of the power of fantasy, of Photoshop, and of an extreme makeover. Cosmetics sell an illusion, an illusion of beauty, of perfection. Makeup is made to cover, it’s a band-aid that does nothing for us except hide our blemishes and present a false face… literally.
Many of us treat our problems the same way. We have spent years trying to cover up our faults and our past. I often tell people when they come for counseling that they may not really want to dig that deeply into their issues. I have an irritating habit of making people very uncomfortable, of asking them to think about things they have spent years trying to bury. Counseling, when it works, is a very painful and humiliating experience. It is much easier to just throw some Proactive on the problem, apply some makeup to our ugliness and give the impression, even to ourselves, that we have taken care of the problem. This is one of the reasons I rarely do groups on Anger Management. I have this annoying habit of treating anger as a symptom, not a base problem. I keep asking clients and patients ‘why’ they are angry and tend to gloss over anger management techniques.
There is an old maxim in psychology that change usually happens much slower than we imagine and the results are less pronounced than we would like to believe. Transforming oneself from a broken, hurting, violated victim of abuse and trauma into a whole person takes years, not months. The twelve sessions that your counselor signs you up for may be an excellent start but will probably not even begin to address a complex life full of dysfunctional coping mechanisms.
Band-aids are far easier and if you play your cards right, you can even find them with pictures of Spiderman on them.