The Emotional Tank

Years ago I heard a talk about our four gauges. Let me explain.

The speaker spoke of the various internal gauges that he had noticed in his life. He had a spiritual gauge and as a religious person he felt that this tank was regularly filled. Think of a gas tank. When the gas runs out, the engine stops. He also noticed his mental gauge – as a scholar he kept that tank filled almost all the time. He was also a marathon runner and knew implicitly that his physical gauge was good. So he was in tip-top shape right?

Wrong.

What the speaker did not realize was that there was a fourth tank, an emotional tank. People who are caregivers, or young parents, or counselors, or that ilk are required to empathize with people, to care. You can jog all you want and it won’t fill your emotional gauge. It might be therapeutic but it probably isn’t enough. After a while people who constantly give out begin to “skim” emotionally. They still care in theory but becoming emotionally involved gets to be harder and harder. It is no wonder, then, that many caregivers have secret addictions, or masturbate more than most, or engage in risk-taking or risqué behaviours.

I have arguable the easiest job in the world. I get paid to sit and drink coffee all day and listen to people talk about their issues. When I first starting doing this I heard of counselors going on stress breaks – and laughed. I had just come from owning a restaurant and I knew what stress looked like, or so I thought. Coming to work was a break from my stress, not a contributor to it.

For a while.

After a few years I started to notice I didn’t care as much, didn’t work as hard, didn’t engage emotionally like I once did. I became easily irritated and struggled to emotionally engage with my family. I had no idea what was happening.

Then I remembered the emotional gauge.

Today I listen to audiobooks and do martial arts. I listen to a lot of audiobooks, hundreds and hundreds. On this computer alone I have 63 gigs of audiobooks and that isn’t even my biggest collection, which is on my removable hard drive at home. I listen to philosophy, brain candy, psychology, sci-fi, physics, pop novels, comedies, history etc. Right now I am listening to The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, a massive chronicle that I have now read almost three times. I use the word “read” figuratively. Last week I listened to Dune (it sucked) and before that Physics Of The Impossible (amazing). I cannot get in my car without an ear-bud attached, it is a full-blown addiction – and very therapeutic. Listening to books fills my emotional tank.

We all have an emotional tank, and when we are stressed or anxious or busy it gets depleted. By now most of us know we should practice self-care but most still cannot make it a daily or even weekly priority. Self-care takes time and we are too stressed or anxious or busy to take that time. It is a vicious circle that keeps us mentally and emotionally ill.

Self-care can smell an awful lot like selfishness, especially when you are trying to drink a daiquiri on the back deck when the kids are screaming for your attention. The tyranny of the urgent is forever clamouring for our attention and we have been taught that self-care is optional, or laziness, or self-indulgent.

This weekend when I get in my kayak it will feel selfish for a minute or two, until I put in my ear buds and return to The Battle Of Britain. When I get home I’ll try to convince my wife that I am practicing what I preach… and perhaps she’ll buy it.

Either way I get to go kayaking.

Coping Mechanisms

coping

We all have them.

We have adopted ways to deal with the reality that we are stuck in. Very young we may have realized it was better to keep our emotions to ourself than it was to get hurt by an abusive mother. Some of us had to get angry to get our way. Checking out during sex was a way to endure something we did not enjoy. Maybe you cry and pout until you get your way. Perhaps you believe you should never show weakness. You might use sarcasm and humour to evade being honest or vulnerable. Feeling sorry for yourself has been a way of feeling better about yourself. Passive-aggressive behaviour really does work.

No matter what coping mechanisms you use they have probably worked for you in the past. Checking out during sex or an argument or a compliment really did help keep you from being hurt. Anger really did help you get what you needed, once upon a time.

The problem with coping mechanisms is that they were formed many many years ago, as a response to trauma or terror. You probably developed your fear of confrontation when you were three or four years old. No doubt you formed your skewed version of the opposite sex when you were a child or in puberty. The ways you interact sexually were learned before you really had any idea what sex was all about. Your perception of your father or mother was forming as you were learning to walk. You based your entire belief system, back then, on your immature and basically stupid beliefs about life, love, reality, and the meaning of life that you developed when you were a dumb kid. Twenty years later you can still hear the kids on the school yard calling you fat, or ugly, or stupid, or all of the above. That seven-year old’s hurtful comment about your weight still affects you today. Amazing, isn’t it?

It may be time to look seriously at some of the coping mechanisms you have been using for years. It may be time to come to grips with the fact that you have been feeling bad about yourself for thirty years based on the opinions of a bunch of cruel elementary school brats, or a dad who was an alcoholic and still isn’t a real person. Yelling may have been a necessary skill in your home growing up but it isn’t working for you anymore and it’s time to let it go. Perhaps it’s time to say goodbye to that voice that you know that keeps telling you that you are stupid, or ugly, or worthless. That person’s opinion isn’t worth a damn thing and you know that intellectually. Refusing to let people in has worked in the past but it’s holding you back now. I know you said that you would never trust again but at the time you were very wounded and your emotional tank was tapped.

At the end of the day it often comes down to Einstein and his crazy-haired definition of insanity – doing the same thing and expecting different results. That’s it, isn’t it. Destructive coping mechanisms have long since stopped working but we continue to think that we have to listen to their insipid voices. You can rebuild trust, or confidence, or hope. You can move forward.

It’s just really hard and takes more time than we want. It is, however, incredibly worth it.

The Truth About Suicide

Most of us will probably be touched by a suicide in our lifetime. In a world that fancies itself evolved, suicide remains a leading cause of premature death and is more popular today than ever before. There are groups and chat rooms dedicated to the promotion of suicide and it is not uncommon to hear of suicide pacts and self-inflicted copycat deaths. Some cultures create cultural myths and mores which promote, even glorify, the suicide act. Rock stars do it all the time.

There is so much misinformation and misunderstanding around suicide that it is difficult to know where to begin. I regularly meet clients and patients who have been devastated by the suicide of a loved one and subject themselves to self blame, recrimination, and second-guessing on a pathological scale. Sons are still mad at fathers who killed themselves twenty or even forty years ago.

How could someone do that to themselves? How could someone do that to their family? How could a sane person have ever convinced themselves that their children and family would be better off without them? Isn’t that insane?

You know it.

I thought of taking my life once, or rather, constantly for a single period of time.

I can look back at that Scott and see that he was an incredibly sick little boy. He was completely and totally off his nut (sorry for the clinical terminology). I look back at that Scott and I can see clearly how he could believe that he should take his own life. I can re-enter his mind and see what he sees, taste what he tastes. I’m back there right now as I write. He’s crushed, broken, deeply wounded and unable, even unwilling, to lift himself up. He’s insane with grief. Is he capable of believing that he should end it all?

Why not.

I did a lot of things I regret, once a long time ago. It’s easy to wallow in the guilt and the muck and actually believe that this insane, crushed, broken man was fully responsible and incapable of being forgiven. If health has taught me anything it’s that I need to be more gracious to myself when I was sick.

Back to our topic.

I have no idea how you are reading this article but it was intended to bring healing to someone out there who still cannot let go of the anger and the pain. Maybe it will help someone else become more empathetic, more understanding of those who are battling mental health issues. They were insane, and insane people do insane things. It was never your fault. It wasn’t even really their fault. People in their right mind do not take their own life. I know.

You’re Yelling Again

Yell

 

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.

 

Spitting At My Wife

English: A sign forbidding spitting in Shijiaz...A couple is in the shower and he is brushing his teeth. Lately showering together has become routine and he is feeling playful. On a whim he spits his toothpaste onto his wife’s back. Playful. Fun. Spontaneous. Funny though admittedly gross.

Not so much.

Most guys would find that hilarious. We have a deep and intrinsic understanding of gross stuff you can do to your friends without needing bail money. Farting is hilarious. So are wedgies. Flinging poo – no I haven’t done that but it’s not funny! Seriously.

Ha ha… poo.

What could be more funny than getting your best girl with fresh tooth spit? Hilarious. So why isn’t she laughing? Granted, at the right time and place I know lots of women who can be much grosser than this. Hilarious. In this particular case, however, she was looking for a little intimacy, a little steamy assistance. Shocking as it may seem, some women don’t get off on being spit at. I know, I’m only talking hypothetically, but apparently it’s true. Even your innocent peeing down the drain doesn’t seem to amuse her.  Go figure. Girls are weird.

No one told me that I would have to spend the rest of my life trying to understand my partner. I earnestly had no idea that I would be donating so much of my time learning to interpret someone else’s words, emotions, body language, and intentions. I do this for a living and I am only now beginning to understand even the most obvious aspects of a female’s psyche. Relationships are ridiculously tough and anyone who is not growing in their understanding of their partner is doomed, in my estimation.

Negotiating a good relationship is damn near impossible some days. Moving forward when you are angry or feel misunderstood, and live with someone who is not willing to be humble enough to learn, well that’s another thing altogether. Throw in passive-aggressive personalities, emotional immaturity, money problems, neediness, addictions, chronic pain, mental health issues, family problems, entitlement, insecurity, past trauma or sexual abuse, unresolved conflict, lack of sleep, misunderstanding, or someone who is angry or emotionally unavailable, and you have a recipe for conflict, confusion, and potential misunderstanding. Compound this over several years and it is no wonder, then, that couples grow bitter, interpret every issue as confrontation, or build their own little damaged worlds.

Relationships are hard. Many are worth it. Do the work. Reap the rewards.

Reflections From The Road (Part 2)

Winfrey on the first national broadcast of The...Turn on the TV anytime and you can find amateurs and professionals with varying degrees of emotional snake oil sales gimmicks for helping you deal with the pressures in your life. Oprah has made billions pretending to be a psychologist and has launched the careers of myriads of self-help gurus. Arguably she has been an excellent proponent of self-care and has called attention to the plight of those struggling with mental health issues. I owe her a debt, I suppose. She and her bald friend, among others, have made going to a counselor fashionable. It is no longer taboo to see someone about your failing marriage or your personal problems. I fear, however, that the pendulum may swing too far now that obesity and anxiety, as well as depression and addictions, are now reasons to go on disability. While this may help some, many others will undoubtedly line up to exploit the opportunity to get ‘something for nothing’. Even more problematic is the reality that going on disability is often the worst thing some of these people can do. Every day at the addictions center where I work part-time I have to bite my tongue when another addict goes on disability in spite of the fact that their ailment is self-induced and some are looking, yet again, for a feel good solution to a difficult problem. Not working can be the absolute worst thing you can do in addiction recovery. We have known for generations that “idle hands are the devil’s workshop”.

Recently I read a great article  on Cracked.com  called, “You hate yourself because you don’t do anything”. It’s one thing to take time to address your problems. It’s another thing altogether when a recovering addict hasn’t worked in years and blanches when I suggest one of their problems may, just maybe, be that they have way too much time on their hands.

In counseling I often come across unemployed people who tell me they are too busy to do what I am suggesting they need to do to get better. I know this is politically incorrect but I often look them straight in the eye, screw up my most professional looking expression, and ask, “Are you unemployed busy or really busy?” Granted some people are doing many good things, but often those I run across will admit that they had to come to see me at ten and have to go to the Walk-In Clinic at three – they’re swamped. They have succumbed to a lifestyle that lacks productive routine and are not working towards re-engaging in society. We only have one life, one precious and finite life, to experience and contribute. Spending that life in poverty and boredom, when we had other options, is a tragedy that affects the generations to come. Don’t misunderstand me, I am a huge proponent for the plight of the poor and hurting. That is why I am so passionate when such a lifestyle is avoidable. Some people need to get off their ass and help themselves. No one cares about your problems as much as you do and this isn’t television – there is no knight in shining armor, no billionaire talk show host that is going to swoop down to rescue any of us.

I work in a Fibromyalgia/Pain Clinic and see hundreds of people every year who have been dealt the worst hands imaginable. I have patients who can barely move, let alone work. Every week I speak with the most amazing people who feel they have “lost their life” to terrible illnesses. Their courage to move forward, in spite of chronic pain, fatigue, and illness, is inspiring. Many have been abused by the medical system and offered horrible medical and psychological care. They would love to work again, run again, contribute again, but cannot. It is maddening how few of them are accepted for disability, and they are often subjected to the cruelest interrogation by insurance companies who belittle them and subject them to emotional and financial hardship. There is something wrong with a system that gives money to able-bodied twenty year-olds who are too lazy to work yet rejects someone who has legitimate and life-altering illness.

Personal growth is about movement. I am writing a book right now called, “How to Improve Your Life 52%”. Real change is about doing the little things. As I have said on many occasions, drastic change is rarely lasting. It is all about momentum, moving forward inch by inch, a little bit day-to-day. Maybe that means getting up at the same time every day. Perhaps that means listening to an audiobook on psychology or self-help. Some of us need to start down the road to reconciliation by making a phone call. You might need to put down that doughnut or only smoke ten cigarettes a day. The key is to get started – do something. Doing something little is always better than planning to do something big. Sometimes change starts by getting off the couch. You may not be able to do a hundred pushups but you can do one. Baby steps.

I think I will take my own advice and get up and stop writing…

Self-Medicating

Chocolates

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.

 

Somehow I Expected More

Boat of Boredom

Most of us live in a word of stress and bills and commitments and bad sleep. I’m not sure about you but I never imagined as a teen that my life would become so predictable, so normal. I was raised in front of the television and if I learned anything it was that life is a series of coca-cola commercials and adrenaline sports. No one on the eighties sitcoms talked about bills and routine and year after year of working with three weeks of holidays.

I don’t have stats to back this up but I have a suspicion that one of the biggest reasons people who are recovering from addictions go “back out” is boredom. The normie world is a dopamine wasteland. Many of those in recovery are also unemployed or often on disability and so they also combat poverty, boredom, and lack of purpose and often hope. Finding fulfillment and contentment is hard to find in any world these days. It’s not just the recovery community that is having a hard time adjusting to the grind and stress of life. More and more of us are asking the big questions – What is the meaning of life? What do I want to spend my life doing? When will I learn to really like myself? Am I grown up yet? How can I find happiness?

Learning to find contentment in life is just that, something you need to learn. The primal brain is hard-wired to remember negative experiences, memories, and patterns. Once in our history is was important to be able to recognize danger before it ate you. The brain learned to survive by remembering the lessons that negative experiences brought. Happy thoughts didn’t keep you from being lunch.

Experts tell us that negative experiences are velcroed to the brain while positive experiences stick like Teflon. It is no wonder, then, that we tend to become negative when we spend too much time thinking about negative things. By way of example ask yourself this question – Have you ever argued yourself into feeling way better about a negative thing? It isn’t natural. Spend any time thinking about the big stressors in your life and eventually you will end up at the worst-case scenario. Finding contentment is, therefore, something that has to be worked for. Without spending time on a regular basis re-evaluating my life and dreams it will be my natural bias to end up a negative old man. As Valdy sang, “Old and tired and bent and bust, grey and wrinkled and you can’t be trusted just a dirty old man.”

I will tell you it is one of my firmest goals that I will not end up a negative old bastard. If I get that way please just float me out on the ice flow. We are only given one short life and I do not want to end up bitter and mean; I want to end up crazy, flirting with younger women.

I tell patients every day that the only way they will be any good for anyone else is if they spend time working on themselves. Self care cannot be optional. How much time do you spend thinking about psychology and art and music. About God and immortality and your need to stop yelling? About dreams and plans and delicious hopes? How much time do you spend reading and writing?

You are definitely worth it.

I’m Going To Explode!

Stress

Panic attacks. Many of us have had one, or several. Somehow things stress us out so much that at some point we start to melt down. Little things become big things. Problems become impossibilities. Everything starts to overwhelm us. Some of you know what I am talking about.

Stress is like that too. The relentless and unbending pace, day after day after day. The problems with my parents, or my kids. The never-ending need to be doing something. The never-ending list of things to be done. The meaninglessness of it all.

It is truly shocking how many of us live our lives in a constant state of anxiety, pressure, and stress. Day after relentless day of problems and issues and things that absolutely must get done before I can fall into fretful sleep. It is no wonder, than, that so many of us live on the edge of constantly boiling over, constantly in danger of being overwhelmed. Constant anxiety can do that. So can ongoing anger, or depression, or grief.  Even ordinary “never going to change” stress and problems can potentially take you to the edge.

Remind you of anything? Ask anyone who’s had an orgasm (and I hope you are one of them) and they’ll tell you that at some point in the whole process you reach what I will call, for lack of a pretty term, the “point of no return”. After this point the house could burn down around you and you’ll still need “just a minute”. There is a vast store of energy just begging to be released. Momentum is building alongside a weakening will to resist and your capacity to hold off a crisis is sorely tested. The train is coming and there is nothing you can do about it.

Anger is also like that. It builds; becoming more intense and more animated, until things just start spilling over. Have you ever wondered why people often seem to make little sense when they are exploding? Maybe that’s because this release of emotion is closer to an orgasm than we care to admit. The build up, the release, the relief. You feel better in spite of the fact that everyone around you feels worse. Time for a cigarette.

You Don’t Know How Intimidating You Are

Anger Management

The first time someone told me I didn’t believe them. It was not possible, I wasn’t even angry.  I have heard it since a few times, less the older I grow. Apparently I can be fairly intense and even intimidating when I am fully engaged in an argument or discussion. I throw out a great deal of energy. Someone who once was in a creativity brainstorming session with me described me as a “fire hydrant”. I have had to spend time working on myself.

Recently I watched a couple argue in my office. It was fascinating to watch. One of the characters was incredibly intense – wagging his finger, raising his voice, swearing. His entire posture was set to attack. Now zoom across to the other person in the room.

She is not set to attack. You can watch her slowly close her posture. Her feet come up to her chest, she wraps her arms around herself. Her chin lowers and within a few minutes you can see clearly how she is rolling into the fetal position. The situation screams out for attention but neither of them can see what is happening in the room.

They have been told, more than once, that they have communication problems.

Anger is a very powerful emotion, perhaps the most powerful. It transforms a conversation into a fight. It gives birth to abuse and slander and arrogance and belittling. There are courses in every city on Anger Management. While these courses adequately address the symptom of anger few get to the “why” questions. Why can’t I control my emotions? What is going on in my life that has formed this angry person? Dealing with anger can appear so daunting that many people believe they cannot control their anger and have basically given up trying.

Anger person, you are scary. You come across as very authoritative and very very intense about things others apparently don’t care as much about. You are talking much louder than you think but God help us if we mention this. Your eyes tell me that you are enraged. It is very difficult to match your energy so most people opt to shut down. This generally makes the angry person even more frustrated, but what can the other person do? You sound prepared to do anything, wreck anything, hurt anyone to win this argument. It’s just not worth the fight and the pain.

This does not need to be a terminal illness. Once I began to understand how other people perceived me I was eventually able to recognize this in myself and control it. I shot video of myself and analyzed my posture. I learned STOPP Therapy to control my need to fight back as well as learned to put things in perspective so as not to become wounded. I haven’t arrived by any standard but I am able to exercise WAY more control over my emotions and responses than I used to.

Anger is powerful.

An Open Letter To The Men Who Date My Clients

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.

Catastophizing

Man thinking on a train journey.

from dictionary.reference.com:
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”.

Willing To Settle?

Netflix

One of the constants from this website is my preoccupation with dating emotionally unavailable persons. I have already written several times on the subject and there is not a day goes by that I do not talk to a client who is dealing with this issue. Whether it’s the bad boy, the “strong/silent type” or in my own case the ultra-mature and conservative person whom you find you are drawn to.

It is not a universal maxim that opposites attract, but it does seem to be a generalization that often proves correct. Let me paint the scenario for you: an outgoing and even aggressive girl finds she is inexplicable drawn to a certain guy/girl. This person is a great listener, passive, and the perfect yin to your yang. There are often warning flags, but you cannot see them initially. He/She has a hard time planning dates and usually leave the details to you. Their idea of a romantic evening is a night watching Netflix, in spite of your many hints that you would like to go into the city for a concert or an event. They don’t get excited when you are alone but come alive when you are with other people. They like to listen when you talk but as the months go by they are less and less interactive. They are more sedentary than you first thought. They don’t seem to tell you what they are thinking anymore. They are nice but if you really admit it to yourself they are, well, boring.

Run.

I’m not being dramatic, this is a far more dangerous scenario than most people realize. This relationship is not likely to make it. Seriously. Often this person is not only strong, not only silent, but also passive-aggressive, manipulative, and emotionally childish or unaware. They are almost certainly emotionally lazy and will become more so the longer you are together.

The key thing I will tell you, when you eventually come to see me, is that you need to settle or bolt. If you want to make this relationship work (and by this time you are probably invested heavily and maybe even have children) you need to accept that they will not be the person you can become emotionally intimate with. They will not share your soul, they will not even remotely meet your emotional needs.

Is that enough for you?

Don’t get me wrong, it is entirely possible to live a rich and rewarding life with an emotionally distant person. You can become very very bitter, you can have an illicit affair or series of affairs, you can settle and make the best of your situation and appreciate the person you have for what they bring to the table. No relationship is perfect and there are far worse ones out there. The truth is, however, is that you will not live the life you once dreamed of. There will be no fairy tales, no knights in shining armour, no “sipping Pina Coladas, getting caught in the rain”.

I have been asked why I am so passionate about this topic. Once, a generation or two ago, most of us got married for life and this issue was mute – you did the best with what you got. Today, however, most of us will date much more than our grandparents did, and many of us will pick the same ill-suited temperament time after time.

Guest Blogger – Your Gift To The World

fixmeforyouDavid Flowers is a counselor and doesn’t suck. He sent me a head shot to include in his bio but I never post a picture of someone better looking than I am so you’ll have to go to his blog to check him out at davidkflowers.com.

This is from David:

I came across a meme on Facebook this week that blew me away. Perhaps you’ve already seen it.

A great deal of my work is in premarital counseling, mostly with people who have never been married before. The main work I do in premarital counseling is help couples understand the usually unreasonable expectations they have of each other, and of what marriage will be. They naively think the most important thing they’ll do in marriage is take care of each other. My work is to get each partner to understand that a healthy relationship, by definition, consists of two healthy individuals. This means the single most important gift spouses can give each other is for each of them to get their own act together, to deal honestly with their own issues.

Five Reasons Why Getting Your Act Together Is An Awesome Gift To Give Someone Else:

1. The more deeply and honestly you deal with your own issues, the less inclined your spouse will be to bring them up.
Let’s face it, most arguments between couples consist of each of them telling the other what is wrong with them. The faults of others are easy to see. “You’re so stubborn.” “Yeah, well you’re so critical.” If stubborn lady works on her stubbornness, and critical guy works on being less critical, and they are open with one another about it, they will each be less likely to use those things as ammo in an argument. The best thing you can do is admit them and work on them.

2. The more you get your act together, the easier it will be for others (not just your spouse) to love you.
Conversely, the more broken you are, the harder it will be to love you. If you are needy and insecure, you will suffocate your partner. If you are demanding, you will exhaust them. If you hate yourself, you will always be miserable. If you take everything personally, almost everything your spouse says, no matter how well-intended, will hurt your feelings. People who love themselves have faced their issues squarely, and people who have faced their issues are easier to love because they are not constantly spewing their unresolved goo all over others.

3. Getting your act together is a way to keep investing in the relationship.
In too many relationships couples think (or worse yet, say!) “We’re married now. You have to love me, warts and all.” This is when she starts greeting him after work in an old bathrobe and a mud mask. He returns the favor by farting under the covers. They eventually end up in my office for counseling and can’t figure out how the magic leaked out of the relationship. Answer: The magic leaks out when you stop trying. Since no one ever fully gets their act together, working on yourself is a way to keep trying, all through your life.

4. You’re the only person you can change
Too many couples want each other to change, and to be completely accepted by the other. When you commit to a life of getting your act together, you turn it around. You determine to accept your partner completely and change yourself — the only one of the two of you that you can change.

5. It gives your spouse what they want
Your spouse married you because they love you. Assuming your spouse is a basically good person, they want you to be happy, healthy, and whole. The more you improve yourself, the happier you become and the happier you are, the happier your spouse will be with you.

I have directed this post toward married couples but unmarried couples can apply it, and parents can apply it to relationships with their children. Parents are always asking me, “What is the best method of discipline” or “How long should I keep my child in time-out.” I always say, “Parents — get your act together personally. When you are secure, when you feel good about yourself, when you know you are loved and valuable, you will naturally raise your child with this same assurance.”

Getting your act together, then, is a gift to the world!

Question: How have you seen important relationships improve as you have continued to get your act together? What relationships do you now realize suffered because of your unresolved issues?

Living with An Emotionally Closed-off Spouse

The Unloved

I’m not just the counselor, I’m also a client.

I have been told that I have come a long way in the past years. I have difficulty writing that, it feels arrogant to a good Canadian. The truth is, I had a long way to come. There was a time in my life when I was a mess, even though I was still pretending to be an authority on life. I have been needy. Very, very needy. There was one point in my life when I had such an enormous hole in my heart I was quite sick emotionally. I made decisions and did things that were based on poor reasoning and a brokenness that shocks me when I look back.

There are many reasons why we develop dysfunctional coping mechanisms. Some of us are in abusive relationships and have a sick sense of guilt that has been beaten into us emotionally and perhaps physically. We know we should leave, people tell us all the time, but we just cannot seem to pull the trigger. After all, he has many good qualities we remind ourselves. You have a profound and deeply entrenched belief that you are not worthy of a healthy relationship. He or she has told you a hundred times that you are unlovable  unworthy, and you believe them, at least on an emotional level. It taints everything about you.

Perhaps you were physically or sexually or emotionally abused as a child. You find that you have a hard time enjoying normal sexual contact or perhaps you tend to be drawn to poor choices when dating or committing. Maybe you have a hard time with impulsivity or finishing projects. Many who were abused as children are control freaks, have an aggressive startle instinct, or consider themselves more discerning or intuitive than others around them. No one has ever told you that everything I have just listed, and many more weird quirks besides, are often associated with trauma. It can affect your entire life.

Back to my neediness. I fell in love with an emotionally unavailable person who was everything I was not – chill, mature, mysterious, a good listener. I had no idea how that decision would profoundly affect my life. Living with someone who never told me she loved me, ever, who did not need me (I am a caretaker by nature), who was not interested in sexually intimacy or emotional connection, fundamentally changed who I was as a person. I became needy. I found myself experiencing emotional starvation and as a result would act out or say or do things to attract attention. I became sarcastic, judgmental, provocative. I can look back and psychoanalyze myself, see where I went wrong, and learn. I could not do that when I was young, madly in love, and emotionally less self-aware.

Many of you know what I am talking about. Women who are attracted to the bad boy or the strong and silent type, who love men who are quiet or passive-aggressive really know what I mean. Looking to someone else to complete us, even at the best of times, is a dead-end street with  guaranteed disappointment at the best of times. Living with or loving someone who is emotionally unavailable can destroy your self-esteem, your dignity, and your sense of worth if you let it. There is a constant feeling that you can never measure up, that your lover is disappointed in you no matter what you do. You try harder and harder and harder until one day you are disturbed and frustrated beyond your capacity to cope.

We cannot change the past, we can only learn from it. I have learned that we cannot always trust ourselves when it comes to romance. We tend to be attracted to people who we believe complete us. Apparently opposites attract. This can be a very flawed arrangement if we tend to fall for someone who does not share their emotions or is unable or unwilling to emotionally invest in a relationship.

It is never to late to become self-aware.

Why Do I Care What You Think?

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?

The Cost Of Criticism

tumblr_mei9y4IsYJ1r90iovMost of us are acutely aware of the effect of criticism. I ask people all the time, “If ten people tell you that you are beautiful and one person tells you that you are ugly, which do you remember?” We all know the answer.

Why is that? Is it because, on some level, we are more apt to believe a criticism than we are a compliment? Does that criticism subconsciously confirm something about ourselves that we already know? Does it simply reinforce our negative self-image?

There is also another side to that coin. I don’t know about you but I was raised by a culture that strongly asserted that self-promotion was vanity. Being ‘humble’ meant never complimenting ourselves. People who bragged were assumed to be arrogant. Then one day I stepped into a Christian church and heard the saying, “God gets all the glory”. I learned that anything good about myself was God, anything bad is me. Once again I learned that I suck, that in and of myself I had little to brag about… not that I was allowed to anyway.

I have written before about the legacy my grandmother gave me. She was a firm believer in the axiom, “children should be seen and not heard”. I cannot remember one compliment from her mouth given to anyone, especially me. Then I grew up and had a relationship with someone who used contempt and disappointment as a means of control and discipline. You probably know people like this.

It is no real surprise when people come to counseling and admit to me that they struggle with self-esteem issues. Poor self-image is such a common mental health issue that I don’t know if I know anyone who doesn’t struggle with it. We are a culture plagued by emotional pain, largely as a result of criticism, contempt, and condemnation.

Enough with the criticism already. Most of us struggle everyday with feeling like we are losers, that we don’t measure up and we never will. I really don’t need you to point out my faults, I am intimately familiar with them. We know we have failed. We are cognizant of our glaring ugliness.

Many people feel that they are trying to help when they are critical. After all, how will you ever learn if I don’t help you? Granted, there are times when I have appreciated the cutting honesty of a friend, but this is only effective when I trust that person and believe they have my best interests at heart. Tearing people a new one simply because you are righteously indignant usually only scars and forces that person into a defensive posture. Real friends love you in spite of how you are, not because of who you are. Real friends love you enough to shut up.

They say you can get more flies with honey than with vinegar. You can also get more flies with shit than with honey. It’s a great deal more helpful to love someone back to health than it is to shoot the wounded.

It’s time for a love revolution.

The Five Worst Things People Do When Trying To Help

from cracked.com, the source of most of my wisdom…

In general, humans kind of suck at helping each other. Most of the people reading this would find it about a hundred times easier to diagnose and fix a computer problem than to help a friend in crisis (if only you could just wipe people and reinstall their OS without the cops freaking out about it). I know, because every time I write an article like this, I’m buried in messages that begin with “I’m really worried about a friend …”

Well, here’s something I’m an expert in: screwing up in the face of difficult problems. So while I can’t give you expert advice on how to help your friend/sibling/boyfriend through the disaster that is their personal life, I can give you some great tips on what not to do, because I’ve been on the other end of this shit a lot. In fact, you can help me with my “I don’t have a gold-plated house” problem right now by buying my new book for a dollar. I think you’ll be better at this than 90 percent of the people on Earth if you can just avoid …

#5. Making It All About You (Instead of Just Listening)

The single worst response to a cry for help that I’ve ever seen (and I see it constantly) is the “one-up.” Everybody knows this jackoff. It’s the person who listens to your story before blowing it off because he’s been through worse, in many cases interrupting to do so. “You think that’s bad? Wait until you hear what happened to me today!” Fuck you with a thousand dicks. There is nothing more infuriating to a person who’s ass deep in a personal crisis than someone who just erases the whole thing with a single sentence. Doing that is the same as telling their friend, “Your problems don’t mean jack shit. I couldn’t care less about how you feel. You are only here as my personal dumping ground for my own problems. Here I go.”

That person has fallen into an extremely common trap: forgetting that everyone handles stress and problems differently. “Your dog has a broken leg, and you feel bad? My dog died four weeks ago. You don’t see me crying about it.” “Awww, you only got a B on your test, and it ruined your 4.0 GPA? Poor baby — I’ve been fighting for a high D all year. But do you hear me complaining?”

It’s for that exact reason that it is physically impossible for me to feel sympathy for the rich. It’s how we treat strangers. They aren’t people; they’re chunks of meat floating around, far outside the boundaries of our MonkeysphereWe cannot let ourselves do this with friends. Knowing how you react to your own problems does not have any bearing whatsoever on the way your friends feel about their own, and it is so goddamn vital that we keep that in mind when speaking to them about things that they consider important. Even if it seems as insignificant as a popcorn fart to you.

In these situations, listening is the most basic thing you can do to show your support. It’s perfectly fine to have exchanges — you don’t have to sit there in total silence while they spill their guts about how sad Justin Bieber’s new pants made them. That would be, quite frankly, unsettling. But for many of us, it’s just a natural reflex to jump in with our own related stories when a friend is telling theirs.

We think what we’re saying is “See, we’re all in the same boat!” but all they’re hearing is “Sorry, I can’t hear you over the sound of my own, much more enthralling life.”

#4. Giving Meaningless Advice Just to Be Saying Something

Most people who give it really are just trying to help (although some get off on the sense of power and moral superiority that comes with hearing themselves say something wise). Unfortunately, it’s extremely easy to interject some flowery piece of philosophy into a situation that in no way benefits from it, just because it seems like the sort of thing you should say. “I know you miss your boyfriend, but just remember, if you really love someone, let him go. If you were truly meant to be tog-” Oh, go fuck yourself.

So try this: Stop and ask yourself, “Do I actually have any idea what I’m fucking talking about? Or am I just quoting something I heard a wise character say in a movie?” That doesn’t mean that (for instance) someone who’s never drank can’t be an immense help to a struggling alcoholic, but there has to be some sort of connection or experience behind the advice for it to have any weight. Maybe your dad drank. Maybe you’ve had friends in the exact same position, showing the same patterns of behavior. Maybe you’ve been doing a blind research project on them for 10 years, attempting to turn them into alcoholics for science purposes.

Yes, I know my car has an engine problem, because it won’t start. But since I know exactly nothing about fixing a car, I can’t walk up to a stumped mechanic and say, “I saw this show once where a guy’s car wouldn’t start, and when they opened the hood, they found a severed head in there. Did you find a severed head in there?” I’ll sound like I’m talking out of my ass, because I am. Not only will you not be taken seriously at that point, but there’s a good chance that the person you’re trying to help will take offense at the fact that you just pretended to understand a problem that is obviously beyond you.

That’s the precise moment where you go from “concerned friend trying to help out” to “annoying douchebag who’s just getting in the way.” You become a hurdle. Now, don’t let that idea prevent you from stepping in if you have some honest words of wisdom to pass along. Even if you’re saying something they already know, sometimes we need reminders. For instance, it’s hard to remember in the throes of depression that your actions are affecting more people than just you. That the longer you go without treatment, the more your friends, family, and kids suffer right along with you. That reminder could be the simple nudge that triggers a recovery. You’ll know you’ve made the right choice of words by the rainbow that instantly shoots out of their asshole.

But when you really examine the advice that you’re about to whip out like a homeless guy’s dick, you’re going to find occasional times where you’re just talking for the sake of talking. Because repeating those old sayings feels like help, doesn’t it? But that’s the problem — you’re not worried about your friend; you’re worried about patting yourself on the back for being awesome.

#3. Forcing Your Help on Them (or Giving the Wrong Kind of Help)

Are you sure your friend even wants help? That seems like a weird question — someone is struggling, so obviously they want help, right? Unlike what most movies present, if someone doesn’t want your help, it’s not because they’re just too darned feisty and full of pride to accept it. I remember plenty of times growing up where the only things left in the fridge were half a pitcher of Kool-Aid, a jar of mustard, and stink. But I promise you that in those situations, asking for help wasn’t so much about pride as it was about depression and feeling like a total failure.

No, it doesn’t mean that pride is completely removed as a factor. We’re human, and humans are prideful animals. I’ve been meaning to get a penis reduction for years now, but my pride won’t allow me to accept the countless invitations from limping, bow-legged women to pay for the procedure. And yes, for my mother, there was a certain level of pride at work when she refused to ask for help with groceries. But lording over all of that was a black hole, sucking up every last ounce of hope and motivation to get up and get that shit fixed.

means to fix it with money) is to fill their fridge. Their problem was that they had no food. Now they have food. Problem solved. But as someone who’s been there can tell you, that can actually make the situation worse.

The depression worsens because they had to take “charity” from you in order to feed their kids or themselves. In turn, their stress levels shoot through the roof while they lie in bed under two tons of embarrassment and guilt. Instead of using that time to improve their financial situation by getting a better job (or in my family’s case, any job at all), they’re walking through life, turning down even the idea of prostitution because life has already dicked them into exhaustion.

But change the phrasing and the terms of the offer, and you’ll be shocked at how much difference it makes in their lives. “Hey, I’ve got some stuff I could really use some help with. Mostly lawn work and painting flames down the side of my private jet. Why don’t you let me hire you? I get the help I desperately need, and you get some extra cash — everybody wins.” Now they’re not taking charity, they’re helping you out in an employment sense. Even more importantly, they’re not taking a solution from someone else — they’re actively solving their own problems while helping you with your rich asshole problems in return.

I understand that the scenario I laid out was a specific circumstance, but the point is that if you walk into their lives like you’re a prince on a white stallion, throwing out magical cures for the helpless, you’re going to make them feel like they are helpless, and the ensuing emotional shitstorm is going to adversely affect the way they handle the actual core of their problem.

#2. Declaring Their Problem Solved, Then Walking Away

It’s in our nature to want quick fixes. The best charities are the ones where you can just easily hand over a few dollars and then go about the rest of your day, knowing it’s going to be used by honest, upstanding people. Don’t ever think that’s a bad thing. The fact that you’re helping out a good cause at all is super fucking admirable, and I respect the hell out of people who do it.

But it’s also easy to get tricked into that frame of mind when helping out a friend because we want their problems to be like a movie: Here’s the part where they’re struggling, then here’s the part where they get rescued and everything is fine again. Roll credits! But in virtually every case where a person needs help, the problem cannot be boiled down to a simple one-shot cause like “addiction” or “a bad relationship.” Most of those problems are caused by a deeper, darker undercurrent, something that bubbles up from time to time, manifesting itself in different ways. It’s frustrating to see the same mistakes and bad habits bite them in the ass again and again. You start to feel like they’re your patient instead of your friend.

But that’s how real life is different. In a movie, once a person goes through rehab, her drug problem is over. When a person starts laughing and joking, his depression is cured. In reality, people can and do suffer from this shit their entire lives. Even if we’re not talking about actual illnesses (in which case, your first advice should always be “see a fucking professional instead of my dumb ass”), the destructive habits all of us have are the result of decades of repetition and reinforcement. That shit doesn’t change overnight, no matter what background music you play over your homemade montage.

If you want to continue being their friend, then that means you still have to be there for them. That means checking in even when they’re in one of those stretches where they’re not fun to be around. It doesn’t even have to be a big deal — a call, an email, stopping by on your way home from work. Just knowing that someone out there gives a shit is more help than you’ll ever realize (if you’re lucky). I’ve lost count of how many messages I’ve gotten from readers saying that nobody cares about them or their problems. As a friend, 10 minutes of your time could easily change all of that. If you don’t believe me, try it.

#1. Not Knowing When to Back Off

This is the single hardest part of being a friend, and by far the hardest to know when to implement. Let me give you an example:

One of my family members was, like me, an addict. But also a career criminal to boot. He spent a massive amount of his life in prison for … um … “borrowing” other people’s things to support his … um … “huge drug problem.” Our family reached out to him many times, offering places to stay, jobs, money, food, and anything we could reasonably sacrifice on our end. But his cycle of uncountable crises continued for most of his life. He’d clean up and do great for a year or two, then fall back into a self-destructive pattern that would land him in prison once again. Here’s the crazy part: At no point (when he was clean) did he ever consciously look around at us and say to himself, “I think I’ll fuck over this person for personal gain.”

But each time that cycle started back up, all of our help was flushed down the shitter. His problems were out of his control … but more importantly for us, they were out of our control. There came a point where we had to finally grit our teeth and say, “We’ve helped as much as we can, and his disasters are now affecting our own families. Helping him at this point is just perpetuating a cycle that we cannot end.” Then we all stripped naked and ran through a field, screaming, “FREEDOM!”

Did it make us bad people? To some, it would seem that way. Our kids certainly didn’t think so when the danger of break-ins and the volatile atmosphere disappeared.

Regardless, I cannot stress enough how dangerous this point can be — because if you decide to pull out at the wrong time, you could be fucking your friend out of what could potentially be life-changing input. That … didn’t sound clean, did it? If you wait too long, you’re letting their problems spread to you and your family like a case of emotional crabs. I understand that the Internet seems to universally hate Dr. Phil, but one of the wisest pieces of relationship advice I’ve ever heard came from him:

“Ask yourself, ‘What is it costing me to be in this relationship?’ If the answer is your dreams, identity, or dignity, the cost is too high.”

In that quote, his ridiculous child-molester mustache was talking about bad romantic relationships, but it applies just as easily to friendships. You can only sacrifice so much of yourself on their behalf before you finally have to step back and say, “Enough. I’ve done all I can. It’s time for them to deal with this on their own, regardless of the consequences.” Good-hearted people will have such a hard time coming to that decision. They’ll feel guilt, shame, anger — basically all the stages of grief. But in extreme cases, you have to eventually put your own sanity and health at the top of the Good Deeds queue. Otherwise, your friend could be in a dramatically worse situation in which they never change their behavior for the better, and instead grow a dependency on you to dig them out of the quickshit pit. There is no help in that. It only sustains their problems, perpetually, until one of you gives up.

Or, worse, ends up on a massive ratings factory of a reality show. People seem to be making a pretty good living out of being a fuckup these days. Whatever, you see what I’m getting at: There’s a point where you’re not helping, but you still want to be the hero, and in the process of trying to be the hero, you’re hurting everyone else. So print this out and hang it on your wall somewhere: Sometimes being a nice person is all about knowing when to be an asshole.

I Work Out, I Eat Right, I Do Yoga… So Why Am I Still Depressed?

Have you ever had an emotional or mental breakdown? I have. At the time I was doing martial arts several times a week, was involved in a spiritual community, was learning and growing, but none of that seemed to matter.

So what happened?

Clinicians often refer to a nervous breakdown as technically an “adjustment disorder“. Your external work gets kicked in the spleen so hard that no amount of yoga or protein shakes or Mona Vie bars can hope to compete. Your inside world is depressed, or anxious, or panicked, or all of the above. Often psychosis shows up with tequila shots for the party. Your world crumbles and you simply can no longer cope. Sound like anyone you know?

People who have never been in a severe depression or have had a breakdown cannot hope to understand why people often consider suicide. To the outsider, suicide is a coward’s way out, or a selfish act, or just plain crazy. True enough on one level – crazy does certainly show up. It is hard to understand from a distance, but when things get that bad one is not thinking in their rational mind. Obsession has become a way of life. They call it a “breakdown” for a reason.

imagesMost of us do not realize that we have several gauges of health. Until someone told me I believed that if I was working out, eating right, and learning and growing, I would be fine when things went sideways. I did not realize, and did not pay attention to, my emotional gauge.

Working out, eating broccoli, and going to a church does not necessarily mean that you are not emotionally bankrupt. Those things may help to keep you healthy, but put a group of emotional succubus’ in your life and things start to go wrong.

When you pause to think about it, there is usually three kinds of people in your life. There are those who, after you have spent time with, you feel better for having been together. Then there are those who do not affect you one way or the other.

Did I mention there were three groups? You know the last group. When they call a piece of you dies inside. Being with them sucks the life out of you. They are never happy, or always complaining, or your mother. People like this drain your emotional gauge. Add a relational breakdown, or a child who is unruly, a job that is stressful, and someone who is disappointed in you and you can begin to lose hope. Add to this the crazy schedule we all try to maintain with little or no time for reflection or self-care and you have a recipe for a meltdown.

Don’t even get me started on those of you who also have small children.

Taking care of your emotional stuff is the best thing you can do for yourself besides taking a week on a beach somewhere without a cell phone or your children. Paying attention to your emotional gauge will help you in ways you could never imagine. A healthy person with a healthy heart is the best defence against hurt, stress, and pain.

Pay attention to yourself. You’re worth it.

I’m Disappointed In You

Have you ever had someone in your life who seemed constantly disappointed in you? It didn’t seem to matter how hard you tried, it was never enough. Sometimes they didn’t have to even say much, you just knew – you are a loser, you will never be worthy.

I know what it is like to live with disappointment. It was a glib smile and a few words, a gentle sigh. I failed again. In my particular case it made me needy, so very needy. Dedicating every waking minute to impress, to please, to do, didn’t seem to matter. Disappointed again.

Maybe it was your dad, or your mom, a relative or a friend. For many of us it was our spouse – a wife or a boyfriend whose expectations and selfishness bruised and ultimately scarred your heart.

Poor self-esteem. Bad self-image. Feelings of inadequacy. Second-guessing yourself. Minimizing your accomplishments. Squinting in the mirror. Fear. Doubt. Self-loathing. Pain. Never good enough. Loser. Pathetic. Bitch.

On some level we all know that it is our own responsibility to feel good about ourselves. In theory. In practice, when someone whose opinion is supposed to matter denigrates and often subtly destroys our wholeness, it is very difficult to feel worthwhile. We know we are not supposed to base our self-esteem on others but how do you do that?

Quick quiz – If ten people tell you that you are beautiful and one person tells you that you are ugly, which one will you remember?

I wonder if the reason we believe the insult is because somewhere, down deep perhaps, we believe them. Many of us have been told we are ugly or fat or stupid or bald or pathetic or worthless all our lives. How can we possibly have good self-esteem now?

The truth: The opposite of bad self-esteem is not good self-esteem. The opposite of bad self-esteem is self-acceptance.

The truth is, you may always be fat. You may always be bald. Joan Rivers is scary proof that plastic surgery can only take you so far. You may be considered ugly by the beautiful. You may never go to college. You probably will never be famous. Or rich. Or even successful. And you get cry all you want and rail against the system, get angry and frustrated and die in a flaming manure-ball of bitterness. I see people every day who absolutely refuse to accept their illness, or their spouse, or their saggy boobs. I know how they feel. There are seemingly countless things I don’t like about myself. Nobody needs to point our my flaws, I see them in glaring technicolor. You don’t need to be disappointed in me, I can do quite fine on my own, thanks.

One day I woke up and realized in retrospect that I was living my life to impress someone who was incapable of accepting me or loving me for who I really was. I understood that I had been running myself sick trying to earn her love, only to hear her sigh with disapproval. I still care about this person, actually very much, but no longer feel compelled to sacrifice my soul for a smile and a nod.

Emotional wholeness rarely comes by accident.