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”.
“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.
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.
In the fifties and sixties Dr. Benjamin Spock changed the way parents thought about their kids. He believed that children had rights, were individuals, and as such deserved to be treated with respect. Growing up I heard him described in varying terms, usually something along the vein of “pinko” or “hippy”. He is perhaps best known as the man who changed parenting styles and worked with the liberal-left seeking political and familial reform. He was considered an icon for parenting and permissiveness and he may just have caused the death of tens of thousands of babies.
Spock, with relatively no scientific data to support his seemingly offhanded comments, advised parents to place their babies on their stomachs for sleep. Here’s the Wikipedia:
Spock advocated that infants should not be placed on their back when sleeping, commenting in his 1958 edition that “if [an infant] vomits, he’s more likely to choke on the vomitus.” This advice was extremely influential on health-care providers, with nearly unanimous support through to the 1990s. Later empirical studies, however, found that there is a significantly increased risk of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) associated with infants sleeping on their abdomens. Advocates of evidence-based medicine have used this as an example of the importance of basing health-care recommendations on statistical evidence, with one researcher estimating that as many as 50,000 infant deaths in Europe, Australia, and the US could have been prevented had this advice been altered by 1970, when such evidence became available.
At the time, no one understood what the effects of placing children on their stomachs would be. Spock was not qualified to give this advice and shows us, yet again, the price of ignorance.
You will probably never see a movie about the great scientist, Thomas Midgley, unless he is the bad guy. In the 1920’s Midgley orchestrated the further introduction of chlorofluorocarbons for business application. Midgely’s work would eventually contribute to the destruction of the Ozone Layer. His work to introduce leaded gasoline would poison thousands, and further destroy the environment. It had all seemed like such a good idea at the time. He was, after all, a brilliant and dedicated scientist. He is remembered as a man who “had more impact on the atmosphere than any other single organism in Earth’s history.” And not in a good way.
You may never destroy the North Pole or the Ozone Layer, but chances are that our ignorance plays an significant role in our dysfunction. We employ things called “coping mechanisms” (I know you know this) and cognitive distortions to deal with the stress and trauma that has been meted out in our direction. We have childish and often highly erroneous ways of thinking about ourself and others, which keeps us in emotional bondage. We are convinced that we know how things really are, in spite of sometimes overwhelming evidence. Going to counselling is basically an exercise in addressing and dealing with my screwed up ways of thinking and doing life. Anyone who believes that they know exactly what is wrong with them and how to fix it has probably never been in my office.
There is a price for ignorance. Our inability to “become like water“ and embrace mindfulness and resilience is a major source of our dysfunction. It takes time to, in the words of Immanuel Kant, understand the difference between the phenomenal and the noumenal worlds we all live in. We catastrophize and listen to the screaming noise of our Amygdala. We come from a long line of weirdos (nature) and have learned a very specific and messed-up set of life skills (nurture). People hurt us and break our heart. We are moulded by our experiences and have learned to do life in distorted and misguided ways. Well at least I have.
By now you can probably understand what the article is driving towards. We cannot change our past, and most people are not willing to do the incredible amount of hard work that is required to move forward. Wholeness, whatever that means, requires learning and pain. Self-destruction is free and you can reach your goals from your Xbox.
Learning is not optional. Many of us have heard of the 10,000 Hour Principle. The 10,000 hours idea basically states that it takes approximately this long in order to master anything. Many of the greatest painters, greatest composers, whom we have always believed to be “gifted”; may have been so, but most of their best stuff still took years to produce.
I will never spend 10,000 hours in the gym. You might. I no longer seek physical mastery. I seek spiritual, emotional, psychological wisdom. That is my journey, though I still need to keep training. So, with this in mind, I endeavor to read (mostly listen to, but I get to count that because that’s a rule I made up) at least 1–books a year. You will never see me without ear buds on, outside the gym. Friends often tease me about that very thing. I dare you to test that theory. I am not saying this to brag, I just know the math. This concept is, obviously, not infallible and prone to caricature.
If I want to be a spiritual master, according to this principle I need 10,000 hours of practice. If I want to be a psychological master, same arithmetic. This gives me a goal to strive towards, and I need that. This is why I read, or at least fake read. This is why we study or go back to university in our forties and fifties. This is why people keep going to counselling, long after they are finished with their crisis. This is why people study philosophy, and faith, astronomy and quantum physics. Like you, I seek wisdom.
It isn’t fair and I don’t like that. On some level, most of us have had to face the harsh reality that doesn’t feel fair. But is it?
No. There is no Pixar ending.
Sitting in the old counselling office one rainy day this truth began to open up wider for me. I began to see threads, real or imagined, in many of the stories of pain and trauma that funnelled their way through my door and sometimes my life. It may be that this cognitive distortion, this need for life to “make sense”, has been responsible for a larger slice of misery than at least I ever imagined.
The stories are similar. Depression or anxiety brought on by trauma or heartbreak with a sense of cruel incongruity. We have been wronged and something needs to be put right. We simply cannot accept that there is no payback. It’s so… unfair.
As the good book says, and I proceed to steal and compare myself, albeit tongue-in-cheek, to the great Apostle Paul, “I do not come to you as one who has attained. Nonetheless I press on.” Like you I wonder why good people seem to suffer and total jerks continue to prosper. She left and it hurt and she never came back. I know that feeling. It’s bad. He died without ever getting his “just desserts”. Some of those Nazis escaped to Argentina and lived off the rewards of their raping and pillaging and genocide. As I consumed Martin Davidson’s book, The Perfect Nazi: Uncovering My Grandfather’s Secret Past, it was apparent that the author never was able to see his grandfather pay for his heinous crimes. There is no glass slipper ending. Gru doesn’t really adopt the cute little girls – they get thrown into the social welfare system and spend their childhood in Foster Care. They became sexually active early. Chances are they have issues with addiction and end up marrying poorly. That’s the real world and it is many things, but it is not fair.
But here’s the problem. I am DNA’d to believe in fairness. I cannot seem to get it through my dense skull that reality cares very little about my sense of injustice. It is up to me alone to move forward, and it’s very, very, hard. Years.
There are three ways, I think. There is the way I want, the way I don’t want… and the way I don’t know yet.
I have a friend, a real friend who I see in the real world, who has been working on her stuff for years. Not too long ago she came to me and uttered, “Five years. It’s been five years and I’m still not fixed.” It was heartbreaking, because she is a rock star.
As I wrote in my last post, some people go through things that are beyond coping. There isn’t a toolbox in the world that prepares you for the loss of a child. As I’ve said even recently, you get a free pass for that. I would go crazy. I cannot imagine a scenario in which I would be ok if I lost one of my kids. It’s simply not reasonable to imagine, yet in ways that are beyond my meagre understanding, some people keep going.
I just finished rereading Gladwell’s David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, And The Art Of Battling Giants. He’s a storyteller. I like stories. In that book he points again and again to average people who, when faced with insurmountable odds, found a third way. He doesn’t call it that, but he seems to understand. Mennonites who have learned that vengeance sometimes creates more pain than it heals, even when your baby is defiled. Huguenots who stood up to the scariest dictatorship we have known and said, “We have Jews, come and get them”. Poor people and zealots and losers who came to understand that they have only one life; and the need for justice was ruining what little they had left.
There is the way I want, the way I don’t want… and the way I don’t know yet.
Five years of reading, learning, letting go, and moving forward against impossible odds. No one comes to a counsellor to sign up for that program. Most of us who are in process would happily abandon it at any time for a magic pill or a glass of good tequila.
Like most of us, it started with a broken toolbox of coping mechanisms. Imprints from childhood and generations of dysfunction, broken promises and unfulfilled expectations. Death had robbed her of a piece of her life. Choices. No role models who were not also broken. That ugliness inside. So much pain and hurt it was overwhelming. Some of you have been there… are there.
It’s hard to believe that you might be a success story. There is no pink cloud, no happy ending, no days of bliss without Xanax. But on some deep levels, people can fundamentally change. She still reads everyday because, if nothing else, she has learned that there are no shortcuts to wisdom. She needed to get started. There were days and months and years when it didn’t seem that there would ever be a good day again, but she was wrong. She knows that now. I don’t talk to her like a counsellor anymore, we just exchange information, sometimes everyday. There has to be a good reason to work this hard or I couldn’t live with myself and do what I do for a living. I’ve seen too many people find a third way to believe that my life is hopeless anymore. There must be a way from where you are to where you need to be or I quit.
Here’s the last thing I’ll say about this here. I didn’t have a clue what the third way was for years. I thought, many times, that I had this covered, but I was very wrong. I knew what I knew and I was willing to die for the cause, but the cause was flawed. No one could tell me that because I was right.
But one day I realized I wasn’t. Letting go of what I knew to be fact was exceedingly difficult.
Realizing that I had to work on this stuff every day for the rest of my life was at first disheartening, then exciting. It sure didn’t start out “exciting”. It was horrible. How do you stop believing what you have known to be true all your life? How do you “fake it until you make it” when you feel like you are lying to yourself? How do you hope again when you have been proven wrong in hundreds of ways?
Those are very good questions and this isn’t Sunday School and we have to figure this out for ourselves (with a little help). I can’t give you a slick closing sentence to make you or I feel any better. As I have often been counselled, I need to be relentless in my desire for change. There is only one game in town.
Great article from Psychology Today on invasive thoughts. Here’s a taste:
- Your job review is scheduled in two days and, in passing, your boss says, “Well, we’ll certainly have a lot to talk about.” You try to put what he said out of your mind—what did he mean by that?—but it keeps coming back, and now you’re a nervous wreck.
- You’re sitting in the airport, ready to board, and thoughts of every plane crash you’ve ever read about keep barging into your head. You try to shake them off, reminding yourself that plane travel is safer than driving a car, but it doesn’t work.
- You’re going to the doctor next week to have that mark on your thigh looked at and you think it’s probably nothing, but worst-case scenarios float into your head 24/7 and distracting yourself doesn’t work. Why is that?
The answer is what Daniel Wegner calls “the ironic monitoring process”—your brain actually searches for whatever thought or emotion the individual is trying to suppress. Yes, your brain is actually nagging you…
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.
A new study reported by the Huffington Post, among others, is reporting that cocaine begins rewiring the brain even after a single usage. This is old news to those of us who deal with addictions or have ever taken a class on neurochemistry. Drug and Alcohol Counselors have known for years that the opiates, though seemingly innocuous when taken at prescription strength (T3’s, Percocets, Emtec, Morphine, Oxys, Heroine, etc) have a profound and physical effect on a neurological level. Unfortunately for many of us, so does porn. Actually on some level any response mechanism, coping techniques, cognitive distortion or belief has not only a physical but also a neurochemical effect on your brain. There are fantastic and crackpot websites a plenty to explain this all over the internet. Some are informative, some are… less informative.
It’s important to understand that the brain is not a static device, set in stone as they say. It is actually possible to change the way the brain spits out those little chemicals and where those little dudes land. If you don’t believe me just start or stop a habit. Creating a habit is nothing more, on a chemical level, than rewiring where your dudes land. You can change the way you act, the way you think, what you believe, who you are. This is powerful information if you know how to manipulate it. You are not a victim of your circumstances, at least on a neurological level. You can convince yourself of virtually anything, given enough time and effort. It’s a fascinating study that has pragmatic consequences. If you don’t believe me google neuroplasticity, or synapses, or dendrites, axons or neurons and you’ll soon have a ton of new material to throw around at parties to impress your friends.
Psychology has come a long way since we liked to drill people’s heads, and information is power. Once you realize that quitting smoking, or stopping catastophizing, dealing with your poor self-esteem, or stopping using cocaine is a matter of rewiring your brain it is possible to hope that change can come.
You can do it. It’s a scientific fact.
No you don’t. No one “deserves” a new car, or a new house, or much of anything for that matter. If you can afford it, than maybe you have earned a new car. But deserving?
Justin Bieber is in the news again. Lately his attention-seeking, narcissistic behaviour has crossed into the profane, even illegal. I could write books on his mental health issues and I’m sure someone will. This week it was reported that he was videotaped urinating into a mop bucket at a restaurant (indecent exposure?). Once upon a time, not so long ago, I owned a restaurant and know a little about customers who are ignorant, entitled, and unappreciative. Bieber is a train-wreck who, unless he grows into a real boy sometime soon, is surely going to end up like so many who have been given more than they deserve. Singing is not an important skill set. The waiters and chefs at the restaurant he defiled are more talented and harder working. I know people locally who can sing better than he can. Society has deemed that any idiot who can throw a football or is pretty and can yodel in tune deserves millions and millions of unearned dollars. The ‘Bieb’ is just another in a long line of people who have been given the keys to the kingdom without earning it – and therefore does not understand how to live. He is surrounded by fools who pander to his every whim and affirm his ridiculous and pathetic lifestyle. He has no idea that the world is laughing at him and wouldn’t understand if he was told. Wisdom is earned, and he hasn’t paid the price.
I have a relative who once tried to convince me that, at the age of twenty-one, she “needed” to spent $45,000 on a new SUV. For obvious reasons I chose to disengage from the conversation because you just can’t win an argument with stupid. She had all her excuses nicely rationalized in order to convince herself – it was a safety issue, after all. I feel the same way about parents who are firmly convinced that their nine-year old must have a cell phone; and not only that but a smart phone with a data plan. I try to act all mature, screw on my best psychologist face and ask, “Why do you feel that way?” Slapping clients is strictly frowned upon.
Someone needs to slap Justin Bieber. Entitlement is an insipid evil that crushes potential and leaves people bitter and disillusioned. Often too late in life they discover that they are not, in fact, the center of the universe and no one really gives a damn about them. Usually by this time they have alienated anyone who has truly cared for them and wonder why they cannot find meaning from life. If you don’t believe me just google bad plastic surgeries and you will be met with a morbid, albeit disturbing array of celebrities and wannabes who cannot deal with the fact that they are no longer the center of attention. Joan Rivers is looking scary, Klingon-ish. John Travolta looks like he is wearing a mask. The list goes on and on. Beauty is fleeting, they say, and basing your self-esteem on your outside is a surefire road to unhappiness. I know this because I have looked in the mirror. Chances are you know what I am talking about.
My son bought me a poster of Winston Churchill for my office. He is arguably one of the greatest men in history… and wow he’s ugly. He really does look like an English Bulldog. When I look at Winnie I am reminded that beauty is only skin deep but stupid goes right to the bone. Maybe you should take that money you were going to spend on French nails and purchase an audiobook on psychology, or Nietzsche, or Theology. I know Justin Bieber, with all his money, probably won’t.
I bet he doesn’t even know how to spell filosophy.
- Justin Bieber Urinates in Restaurant Kitchen, Curses Out Bill Clinton (gawker.com)
- Anthony Bourdain Slaps Down Justin Bieber: What a Punk! (thehollywoodgossip.com)
- An Open Letter To The Men Who Date My Clients (scott-williams.ca)
People often come to counseling hoping that the professional will basically condone what they have already been doing to deal with their problems. Eventually that counselor, if they don’t suck, will gently point out that perhaps, just maybe, the problem isn’t everyone in their screwed up family – the problem is how they are handling their thinking, coping, and life. This is usually a difficult thing to hear and process. Such a revelation may necessitate change in areas the client is not happy to address. They want to be different but they “cannot” change what they need to change. At some point they will turn to their counselor and actually ask for help doing “something they don’t want to do”.
I won’t teach you how to quit doing something you don’t want to stop doing. I have a hard enough time convincing patients to spoil themselves. Besides, people usually do what they want to do. So the question is, what do you want to do?
Here’s the secret – don’t change what you do, change what you want. How easy would it be to quit drinking if you earnestly believed that you hated alcohol and didn’t want it in your life anymore? The key isn’t to convince you to stop snorting cocaine. The key is to help you learn a different way to think about cocaine. A different perspective will change everything.
I have a client who wanted to stop using cocaine so one day he lined up a line of cocaine and then made a second line out of Drano, a horrible cleaner that was under the sink. The two lines looked almost identical and he asked himself, “Which line is worse for me to snort?”
The answer seemed obvious, the cocaine was obviously safer to snort than the toxic drain cleaner. This is the obvious answer and the obvious answer is completely wrong. Snorting the Drano will cause him to become sick and throw up. The experience will teach him never to have that experience ever again. Problem solved. Snorting the cocaine will lead to something that feels good but will take your house and your marriage. It is much much safer to snort the Drano.
You don’t need to do something that you do not want to do. You simply change the way you feel about the cocaine. You consider soberly how prone you are to remember only the good parts of a bad addiction. You allow yourself to believe that you could be happy without artificial stimulants. You begin to dream about life in Normieland. You start getting up in the morning. You get a job. You go to church, or yoga, or NA. You choose to stop entertaining your negative thoughts and force yourself to be positive until you believe it. You come back to life.
The principle applies for almost everything we are dealing with. Radically changing the way we think about life is the ONLY way to find wholeness as we learn to address our inaccurate thinking patterns, our dysfunctional coping skills, and our skewed outlook on life.
As we say around here all the time, “Change your mind and your butt will follow”.
I have radically changed the way I think about addictions.
I work part-time in addictions and see it’s effects literally dozens of times each week. It’s easy to believe that the problem is the addiction – if we can just help people stop drinking than their life will work itself out. Unfortunately this is not even remotely true and people who understand people are realizing that the addiction is simply another symptom of something much deeper.
When I was young and drugs came calling they were just another solution to the problem called “My Life”. Chocolate made me happy right now. So did cocaine and boobies and volleyball. Basketball sorted me out, so did pot. My only crime was that I grabbed too hard at one of my solutions to stress. Why couldn’t I have developed an addiction to body-building instead? Chocolate is nice, why couldn’t it have been to chocolate?
Dealing with your maladjusted life by stopping only one of the symptoms does not make sense. Somewhere along the line in many lives drugs became medication, not recreation. Cocaine helped you not have to think about your crumbling life. Drinking and sex helped you believe you were important. Being high kept you from thinking about your struggle to hope that things could change.
In counseling I encourage clients to look beyond their need for medication and address the actual disease they have been medicating. We need to learn to put our lives in perspective and change dysfunctional thinking patterns. Taking responsibility for your own heart and happiness truly is the best thing you can do to improve your life.
- Does It Really Matter What You’re Addicted To? (scott-williams.ca)
- Catastophizing (scott-williams.ca)
- An Open Letter To The Men Who Date My Clients (scott-williams.ca)
My name is Scott and I’m a clinical therapist. I, or someone like me, has probably counseled a handful of women you may have thought about dating. For various reasons most of my clients are heterosexual females, often in their late thirties and forties, in the midst of trying to figure out a relationship which has turned into a convoluted mess and broken their heart. Many of these women eventually decide that it is not worth spending the rest of their lives with an emotionally stunted and rapidly aging guy who does not seem prepared to do what it takes to win them back. They complain that their partner is emotionally lazy, only makes small and temporary changes, and does not understand them nor seem to want to. They have been deeply hurt, and often. Some of these women will eventually show up at an office like mine. They have been scarred by a bad history and a bad relationship and carry emotional and psychological baggage. By the time they get to my door they, for a myriad of emotional reasons, struggle to make healthy decisions when it comes to the people they date. They are the newly single, or the suffering spouse, the newly hurt.
Many of these women do not last long in the dating market before they are snatched up again. Many fall prey to the first or second guy who listens to them and seems to understand their pain. We are smarter than you think and many men have learned to be the man you are looking for, at least while you are still newly infatuated. Many women, at least in my experience, do not see the warning signs and fall for someone who is either much like the past losers who have let them down or has manipulated. When you are hurting, lonely, and emotional it is tempting to go too far too fast and before you know it you are physically and emotionally too invested to simply walk away.
Counselors are tempted to spend their time pleading with clients not to jump into another relationship while they are still unhealthy. We warn vulnerable clients how crucial it is that they not date just because they need someone else to complete them or fill that hole in their heart.
So before you decide to approach my client at the bar, the grocery aisle, or in the church foyer, there are some things you need to know:
1. She is more vulnerable than you know. As you are no doubt aware the single life is hard to adjust to when you have been with one person for years, and most of us are desperately lonely at first. This is, however, only part of the problem. She has been with someone who has not met her emotional needs for years and is prone to misinterpret your affections. She also has a heart brimming with disappointment and self-recrimination and THIS IS NOT A GOOD THING. You may not know it right now but you deserve an emotionally healthy girlfriend who will not use you to mend that hole in her heart. If you really want to impress this girl don’t be afraid to take it slow and platonic, Give her time to heal, you’ll be glad you did.
2. Most of my clients are not ready to date. People who engage and pay for therapy are usually dealing with crippling issues and are in no way whole or objective. That is the reason they are seeing me in the first place. People dealing with crushing fear, anxiety, depression, loss, loneliness, self-esteem issues, etc. are not ready to be in a healthy relationship and are too vulnerable (see #1) to make long-term or binding decisions. Their heart is often broken and I am telling them, “Don’t date until you don’t need to”. Respect that and if necessary protect her from herself – keep things “hands off” until she is emotionally healthy.
3. This person is not who you are going to end up with. The very idea of therapy is to change the way we cope with life and define ourselves and our world. She is telling you that she is seeing a counselor for a reason, even if she doesn’t fully comprehend why. We are working together to create a very different life and the woman you see before you right now is only a transitional entity that is endeavoring to look at life differently. Don’t be surprised if the girl you are interested in changes and becomes healthy enough not to need you to define her. THAT IS A GOOD THING. In spite of what you may think you do not want to be with a broken and needy person. We are working to create a strong and independent person who does not need you, though she may wish to date you. This person is in a state of becoming and if you fall for her because of how she is now you are likely to be disappointed later on. If you are attracted to her neediness, for example, how will you feel if she gets better and doesn’t want you as much? Wanting you is one thing, needing you is another. Chances are the woman you see before you is very little like the one you are going to end up with.
4. Please do not exploit her sexually. Many people in transition are willing to do things that they would otherwise not even consider. Be a real man and protect her, even from herself. Many of my clients have come from conservative backgrounds and are not sexual athletes, in spite of what they are trying to project. Most of the women have not been nurtured or honored sexually in a very long time, if ever. Be gentle with her heart. Many of us give a piece of our heart away when we give our body to someone else. It’s very easy to misinterpret our need for love and touch. Many people in therapy need a hand to hold much more than a body to fondle. Please try to remember that.
5. They are not choosing you because you are the best candidate. We all know that people who are newly single are on the rebound. This is not just and old wives tale and some of those old wives were pretty spot on. Needy people pick others to love based on a set of criteria which is not healthy and may not lead to a healthy and lasting relationship. The best relationships start out as friends first so get to know this amazing woman first before you decide to buy her flowers and try to touch her candies. The more you realize that she is making choices that are not necessarily objective, the more you will come to understand that she may be choosing you for the wrong reasons. This is information you need.
6. They might fall for you too soon (and too hard). This is based on a sound psychological principle that when we are in a vulnerable or transitional state we are prone to exercise something called “cognitive distortions”. People dealing with major issues employ all or nothing thinking, emotional reasoning, and other cognitive distortions that are coping mechanisms we employ when we are stressed, anxious, uncertain, biased, and hurting. Think of it this way, would you let someone who is suicidal take care of your children? Why not?
The logical answer is no, you would not do that because that person is not thinking or acting rationally. They are, in point of fact, mentally unstable and before we all became politically correct we would have labelled such thinking and behaviour “insane”. That beautiful woman who is sending you all the right signals off-handedly mentioned earlier that she is going through a messy divorce and is struggling emotionally. This is a red flag. Emotionally damaged and hurting people rarely have healthy boundaries and tend to jump too far, too fast. If you really are interested in my client then back off and respect her boundaries that she has worked so hard putting in place.
7. You deserve someone who is not a massive “work in process”. The whole point of this article has been to help us understand that hurting and vulnerable people need therapy, not a date. If you have been dating for any time you already know that the scene is full of needy and broken people looking to find someone to fix them or love them enough to fill their emotional craters. Unless you are simply looking for a good time you owe it to yourself to be discerning when it comes to whom you will date. Good looks fade but a big dose of crazy can last a lifetime. It is far better to be alone, in spite of how it feels right now, than to be with someone who hurts you, drives you over the bend, or simply does not get you. You owe it to yourself to date someone whom you believe has it more together than you do, not less.
Day after day vulnerable, wonderful women sit in counseling offices all over the world and ask if there really is a guy out there who will meet their needs. There isn’t and you aren’t him. Healthy relationships start with healthy people making healthy decisions. Life is hard enough with the right person and I need the best odds I can get. Knowing my wife is here everyday because she is healthy enough to choose to love me, in spite of who I am, is the best esteem booster I have ever known.
- Tips for Talking To Men And Attracting Them Like Crazy (scott-williams.ca)
- Catastophizing (scott-williams.ca)
- Living with An Emotionally Closed-off Spouse (scott-williams.ca)
- Do I Like It Sick? (scott-williams.ca)
verb – to view or talk about (an event or situation) as worse than it actually is, or as if it were a catastrophe: Stop catastrophizing and get on with your life! She tends to catastrophize her symptoms.
It’s something many of us do every day.
Some months ago I got a call from the unemployment office. Years ago I had been unemployed, had collected EI, had started a restaurant, and there was some negotiation over when my EI claim should end. Now years later a supervisor was calling for what felt like an urgent meeting.
I freaked out. I didn’t sleep well for the days leading up to the meeting. I had all my paperwork in order, I was confident I had done nothing wrong. I knew intellectually that it should be no big deal.
Catastrophizing. Making a mountain out of a molehill. Jumping to the wrong conclusions. Expecting the worse. Ever happened to you?
Catastrophizing is one of the classical cognitive distortions. Cognitive distortions are those emotional coping mechanisms we employ in order to cope with stress and issues in our life. They are things like emotional reasoning – letting our heart make decisions that should be made with our head; or “should” statements – I should be a better person, I should be over anxiety by now, I should not eat that bagel (ok that one may be the right thing to think…). Cognitive distortions keep us sick. We develop these ways of thinking because they work, or at least they used to. It’s tempting to “filter” out positives and believe the worst. Anyone over thirty knows that life will hand you enough manure to convince you that the worst-case scenario is often the right one to believe. Thinking all men are pigs can keep you from ending up in pig crap. Catastrophizing prepares you for the worst, and the worst sometimes happens.
Letting go of our own distorted ways of thinking takes a bucket of work. Being willing to set aside feelings and beliefs that have served us, sometimes for generations, is no simple task. Letting yourself forgive, or trust again, let someone love you, or work through your abuse can be the most daunting thing you ever do. Most of us are tempted to change our actions and hope we will eventually fake our mind into someday playing along. While this can bring limited success, growth happens when we change the way we think, not just the way we act.
Religious people may recall the Bible verse which says that “as a person thinks, so are they”. In therapy we say it this way, “Change your mind and your butt will follow”.
- The Real World (scott-williams.ca)
- 7 Psychology Experts Reveal Their Own Cognitive Distortions (psychologytoday.com)
- Tips for Talking To Men And Attracting Them Like Crazy (scott-williams.ca)
- You Have Herpes (scott-williams.ca)
- Living with An Emotionally Closed-off Spouse (scott-williams.ca)
I’ve been reading an awesome book lately by Rick Hanson called Buddha’s Brain – The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness. Hanson is neuropsychologist, author, speaker and meditation teacher. His book isn’t about Buddhism as much as the intersection of psychology, brain science and contemplative practices. I discovered him on my friend Scott’s blog in the article I referred to above.
I’m massively interested in brain science, because it gives concrete evidence and thus strategies for dealing with the nebulous emotional things of life. This has added to the foundation of CBT techniques I’ve been learning and practicing. Coming to understand the science of the brain and the inner universe has had as large an impact on my thinking as coming to understand the science of the physical world and the larger universe. Bill Bryson has a great book called, ‘A Short History of Nearly Everything’, if that’s something you’re interested in exploring.
I’ve spent over half of my life exploring christianity. I ’found god’ at 24, married in to it, and it continues to impact me, though not always in positive ways. Although there are parts of it I love, there are also other parts that have stripped me of my ability to appreciate it overall.
These past years, I’ve deconstructed my belief system and in doing so, have become a dissenter within the circle I once belonged. Sadly, in such circles, alternate views have little place. If you’ve ever stepped outside or challenged the belief system or code of conduct of a religious community, you’ll know what I mean. It usually involves at least a questioning of your character and faith, and often far more.
As I’ve dissembled the thinking I once accepted, some big issues have come up. This is my philosophical shortlist, ignoring the other practical and relational impacts.
– If there’s a benevolent god, interested and acting on my behalf in the minutiae of my daily life – why then is that god seemingly absent in the daily lives of people in far more extreme circumstance?
– Would an all-knowing benevolent god insist we belong to an exclusive ’club’ of understanding or would that god take in consideration our differing cultural and religious upbringings and sexual preferences?
– Is truth really a narrow path or is it an encompassing one with room for the many positive contributions from other avenues of thought?
– How, given the vast scientific evidence for the evolution of the world and it’s species, can religion blind itself to such findings?
But perhaps most notably for me, is the question of how religion can claim to understand the complexities and mysteries of eternal life, when we can’t even comprehend the complexities and mysteries of this physical life. At least not yet.
A few years ago, I was taken with the book, ‘Eat, Pray, Love’ which was later made into a movie. The movie was dismissed as a chick flick, a romantic comedy. At the best of times, I can barely endure chick flicks, but Elizabeth Gilbert’s story is more than that. It’s a memoir, a personal recount of her journey in, an awakening of sorts.
Gilbert traveled a path of personal healing. faith and self discovery that began in Italy, progressed to India and concluded in Bali. Each of those parts of her life contributed to her evolving, broadening spiritual mosaic. I imagine her journey in continues still.
The idea of a spiritual mosaic is new to me and in some ways makes me a little uneasy. It’s not the well-traveled road I’m familiar with, but I’m liking what I’m learning. I’m incorporating into my daily routine meditation, mindfulness and visualization – because they literally change the physiology and landscape of the brain toward peace, love and self-mastery. Whether they answer the existential question of what lies beyond, is still, well, a question.
I have no idea what lies beyond this life. Is it jeweled streets? Is it the music of string theory? Is it one-ness with the universe? Is it nothing ? I don’t know. And neither does anyone else, no matter what authority they claim it upon. But I do know it’s within my power to live and love well.
My youngest son asked me anxiously the other day, ‘Mom are you still a Christian?’ And honestly, I’m not sure I am, except by my own definition. Just as I’m an art student, a student of philosophy, religious studies, psychology, literature and science – by my own definition.
Is that enough? Is a rose by any other name still as sweet?
I’m beginning to think so.
- The Real World (scott-williams.ca)
- Tips for Talking To Men And Attracting Them Like Crazy (scott-williams.ca)
- You Have Herpes (scott-williams.ca)
- Living Honourably (scott-williams.ca)
- So You’ve Been Depressed For 20 Years, Are You Done Yet? (scott-williams.ca)
Sitting on the beach at Puerto Vallarta with my dad, watching the waves come in and out, fighting off local vendors and splashing in the waves, it’s easy to imagine life could always be like this. Those days in the sun are easy to embrace. Why can’t they last forever?
The real world is far less memorable. I don’t take two hundred pictures of my normal Monday to Friday. Weeks, even months, can come and pass without nothing of great significance happening. Get up, get dressed, go to work, come home, cook and clean, talk and watch tv, chores, hygiene, bed. Over and over and over again.
The real world is boring. I have mentioned before that one of the hidden issues with addiction recovery is that the real world is mundane. Addicts are used to spending most of their waking hours fantasizing about highs, planning and financing their addictions, getting and imbibing, coming down, burning out; not a boring day. Stopping drinking or drugs or whatever is only a small part of your battle. Dealing with a life-view and lifestyle is far more complicated and difficult. Learning to settle with what you have, where you are, and what you are doing is not natural. Television and movies tell us all the time that life should be a series of orgasms and car chases.
People who have little experience with drugs or addiction often ask me why people get high. The reason is, drugs are awesome. At first. People get high and drunk because it’s really fun. For a while. If there were no negative ramifications to chemicals many people would get high all the time. The temptations to escape from a boring reality is extremely tempting. When you are inebriated you don’t have to worry about the day-to-day hassles and problems that never seem to go away. And therein, lies the rub.
They don’t go away. Ask anyone who has come back to work after vacation. Nothing has resolved itself, there is usually no break. Often, after a day or two back in the real world it is almost hard to imagine you were ever on that beach in Cabo. Problems and pressures are a part of life and trying to escape from your persistent reality only prolongs the issues. Procrastination has no healthy payoff.
We love to pretend. Pretend we are not getting older, pretend that our relationship will magically fix itself, pretend that we will reach our goals in spite of doing nothing. We pretend that our addictions are not hurting us, our anger issues are no so bad, the way we treat our partner is not abusive. We pretend that we don’t need counseling or that our childhood trauma, if we ignore it long enough, will stop affecting our lives. We pretend that we are happy. We pretend that we are not afraid of death. We pretend that we can continue to ignore our problems, skim through life without passion, buy useless crap and consume, consume, consume and this will bring us lasting contentment and joy.
I don’t believe in magic. I don’t believe you can wave your magic wand and everything will be fine. I no longer believe that all you need is faith and your problems will cease to be your problems. The real world is messy. It will ask of us more than we want to give and take from us more than we want to let go. In counseling we often talk about cognitive distortions, those distorted ways of thinking that help us cope with a dysfunctional world. Unfortunately those same coping mechanisms keep us from moving forward. It is only when we embrace the chaos, wade through the quagmire, and refuse to become numb that we find wholeness. Getting healthy takes guts, and bandaids.
Welcome back to the real world.
- Obsession (scott-williams.ca)
- Distorted thinking: one of the main causes of unhappiness (bryang1blog.wordpress.com)
We are a people who struggle with self-worth. I meet few people who are happy with who they are. We are the chronically under-valued and the terminally insecure. We have a tendency to look to other people for approval and live our lives in order to be loved. We tell our children to love themselves, but battle with self-loathing.
For years I considered myself a rebel, a person who lived outside the box, who didn’t give a damn about what others thought of him. Looking back it is easy to see how this was a coping mechanism, a way of finding acceptance, if only with myself, as a marginal personality who did not easily “play well with others”. If I couldn’t win at fitting in I would give the finger to the establishment and act as if their opinions did not matter. I gave the impression that I was vain, when in fact I was insecure.
I can see, now that I am getting older, the temptation within myself to act like a performance monkey. Seeking to fit in does not end after high school. We have been programmed since birth to base our feelings of self-worth on what others think of us and what we do. For some reason we are extremely conscious of the opinions of those around us. Those people who choose to criticize us may, in point of fact, be idiots and subjective to the highest degree but this seems to matter very little. Jumping through the hoops of people who don’t even respect is what we do.
There was a time in my life when it seemed important that people liked me. I was running a non-profit and had shareholders who were strongly opinionated and often very negative. I was always available to help salve their broken lives and marriages, and they were always available to critique my performance. I remember vividly one meeting with a couple at a local coffee shop wherein they decided that I needed to be “fixed”. It was to be the last of several meetings, all designed to help me come to grips with my glowering flaws (in their opinion). Late in the conversation it finally dawned on me, I didn’t even really like or respect this couple. I knew their dirty little secrets, their insecurities, their propensity to be condescending and arrogant. I realized that if we did not have a shared vested interest I would never want to be their friend or hang out with them… ever. I had been emotionally prostituting myself in order to appease them – something that now seemed impossible to do. My fear of their disapproval and perhaps disengagement from the non-profit had created a sick codependence.
It is one thing to seek to be kind and a person of integrity. It is another thing altogether to base your self-worth on the opinions of fallible and fickle people whose opinions should not matter. Wholeness is found in the realization that I cannot jump through enough hoops, suck up to enough people, to fill that hole in my heart that wants to be loved. Chasing that dragon is like chasing any other addiction, it just leaves us broken.
Accepting who and what I am, right now, is a daunting and difficult task. Letting go of our need to make everyone happy feels completely wrong. If people had to accept us for who we are would anyone still like us?
In counseling I admonish single clients, often fresh out of dysfunctional relationships, not to date until they don’t need to. They usually look at me funny and I find it necessary to explain – don’t bring your garbage to your next relationship. Don’t use that next person to fill that hole in your heart. Don’t depend on someone else to make you whole or happy. Don’t date… until you don’t need that person to fix anything. Become emotionally self-contained. Work on becoming whole.
Sounds easy, doesn’t it?
Like most counsellors I have tried many ‘techniques’ in my years to order to help individuals deal with a panacea of mental health issues. I remember studying psychology in university and learning about the importance of clinical integrity, the need for evidence-based best practices, the importance of double-blind studies. I love to learn and enjoyed/enjoy learning about neuropsychology, serotonin, beta waves, the amygdala, freudian theories, behaviorism, etc. etc. etc. I still endeavour to learn something every day, if I can, and realize that my understanding and incorporation of therapeutic principles continues to grow (and hopefully mature). As I have said to my children, “I used to know everything, when I was your age.” The older I get and the more I study the less I seem to know. The world of knowledge continues to expand, and I realize now how little I understand.
Many years ago I would pride myself on my education and knowledge. Like all younger people I believed sincerely that though we are all equals, some of us were a little more equal. Helping people learn concepts, and apply them to life with success, can produce a heady sense of “humble” arrogance. It becomes easy to believe Nietzsche that people are the ‘herd’ or sheep, and you are a shepherd. I no longer believe that. I once would pride myself on my ability to impress people with knowledge and insight, now I am just humbled that people would come to see me.
There has also been a gradual, yet profound, change in what I teach people. For some reason very few of my clients care about my profound psychological storehouse of information (if I had one). They are less interested in my dazzling intellect than they are in what works. Many of them have been in therapy before, with varied results. They are tired of sitting across the desk from a psychiatrist who does not offer any insights but merely reflects their thoughts back to them. They are tired of hearing, “so what do you think?”
I have become a pragmatist. There I said it. I no longer laugh at neuropathy, or acupuncture, or breathing exercises. For some reason I had this ridiculous notion that people only needed to get smarter to get better. I was an idiot. I have come to realize that methodology is not as important, as Scott Miller suggests, as the relationship I have with my clients. Helping people find change and relief has become a great deal more important than my personal need to look good and sound smart.
These days I realize the power of things like STOPP Therapy, dealing with cognitive distortions, self talk exercises, realistic affirmations, and breathing techniques. I am reading a book on meridian tapping (EFT) and, in spite of the part of my brain that wants to yell “bullshit” I know that things like EMDR and acupressure really seem to help people. I’ve even known people who use primal screaming or laughing therapy and swear by it. I may be a little too Canadian for that, but if it works, mazel tov. I am in this world to help people and am now convinced I would stand on my head and spit nickels if I was convinced it worked.
When I introduce such concepts, however, I almost always begin by backpedaling. I know I am doing it, I know I should not do it, but on some level I’m embarrassed. Embarrassed that you have come to a counselor who you expect to give you brilliance and instead I’m about to teach you something a grade five could. I’m about to teach you something that you could google – in fact the information I am going to give you I just stole from a website that I used ‘White Out’ to hide the address so you won’t know I get much of my stuff off the internet.
I went to school for years, learned philosophies in their original language, studied with brilliant professors, and have thousands of hours of counseling experience; now here is something I read in Reader’s Digest, please pay the MOA on your way out.
- Living My Life To Impress A Five Year Old (scott-williams.ca)
- New Treatments Improve PTSD Prognosis (everydayhealth.com)
- Depression: How To Feel Like A Loser (scott-williams.ca)
- Lies We Tell Ourselves #3 – He Is Perfect For Me. It Was Meant To Be! (scott-williams.ca)
Have you ever promised yourself that you would get in shape? Ever made a new Year’s Resolution that you couldn’t keep? Have you ever tried to make a radical change in your life? Ever been on a crash diet?
Don’t even bother. The likelihood that radical change will last is so low that if I showed you the statistics on dieting you would order a pizza. Real change rarely happens all at once, and when it does it is almost always because you have been trying and fretting and hoping and failing at it for so long that you are ready. You hurt so much and for so long that you have to change.
With few exceptions the majority of us wildly overestimate our ability to make significant change over a short period of time. Real change is incredibly hard and ordinarily demands months and years of work. Most of us do not get healed over night. I am not denigrating those of you who may claim supernatural relief but for most of us God does not choose to deliver us from our ADHD, or our abuse, or our mental issues. The vast majority of us can not claim fire from heaven, or legs regrown, or our malignant tumor disappearing. For some reason we must do it for ourselves or it isn’t going to get done.
We all want monumental change and we want it yesterday. Unfortunately, however, change that dramatic is often artificial and impossible to maintain. Ask any spouse who has decided to call it quits only to be bombarded by promises from their estranged spouse that, in spite of nothing happening for decades, they have totally changed overnight.
I also believe in the tooth fairy.
As a counselor I regularly meet clients who brag that they are radically redefining themselves virtually overnight. In just a few days they have stopped smoking, started working out, become a vegetarian, stopped self-medicating, got religion, and are going to become a counselor. In my business we call this a “red flag”. Such change rarely lasts. These people have the best of intentions and are incredibly dedicated, almost too dedicated. They have not considered the cost, or the fact that real change must be long-lasting. Authentic growth requires an alteration in lifestyle and the development of new coping mechanisms. In order for growth to become permanent you need to fundamentally change the way you think.
Most of us have tried for years to ‘fix’ our lives. We have tried everything and usually failed. That’s perfectly fine. Most of us, myself included, have tried to do the best we could with the wisdom and coping skills we had. We were told by people who should know that this quick fix, that power diet, that ridiculous philosophy or flavor of the week guru would magically give us what we have so desired and sought in vain for so long. We have been so desperate that we were willing to try anything, no matter how preposterous.
Unfortunately your good intentions are meaningless. Don’t tell me what you can do, show me what you will do. If you are willing to spend significantly more time and effort than you first imagined, if you are willing to be humbled, challenged, and question your childhood beliefs, your coping skills, your thinking, and the bullshit you so firmly believe to be true – than authentic and lasting change is not only possible, it’s probable.
In the coming year I hope to share with my subscribers my course entitled, “Change your life 52% in one year”. It is about 1% solutions, small but lasting change – one step at a time. That is how change happens, little by little, day by day, month by month. Anything else is probably not real.
Don’t give up. Make small changes and stick with them. Talk to a counselor that doesn’t suck. Challenge your cognitive distortions and when you hear about the newest fad that is guaranteed to work – set your crap detector on stun. You’ve had enough disappointment.
You’re worth it.
- 6 Things You Need To Know About Changing Your Life (scott-williams.ca)
- Living My Life To Impress A Five Year Old (scott-williams.ca)
- Depression: How To Feel Like A Loser (scott-williams.ca)
- Beating Anxiety And Depression Is Possible, But It May Be More Work Than You Are Prepared To Do (scott-williams.ca)