Adventures in dating: ghosting

MobilePhoneLove

Returning to the dating scene after a ten-year absence has been enlightening. I am not altogether unfamiliar with the struggles of dating because so many of my clients are swimming laps in the dating pool. Just as often as not they are fighting to stay afloat and not drown in the deep end of the pool where the water is dark and chilly. And the lifeguards are too busy checking out the hot-bodied swimmers to notice somebody going under and hoping for compassionate rescue.

BWGhostWhich brings me to my recent adventure in dating: ghosting. For those of you unfamiliar, ghosting is when someone suddenly and inexplicably cuts off all communication. It can happen at any stage of the dating cycle, from the first date to months and months of dating and significant intimacy. This isn’t about sending a message on a dating app and getting no reply. It’s about actually meeting someone in person, usually for several dates or longer, and then they completely disappear. As if by alien abduction. Or being kidnapped by the Sandinistas…minus the ransom note. Or, given my known love of all things Harry Potter, they disapparate and never reappear.

I met a guy recently who seemed to be a good fit. We are both mental health professionals. We work within a few miles of each other. We have several real-life friends in common. We emailed and texted for hours a day, days at a time, until he couldn’t take it anymore and insisted we finally meet in person. It was a great first date with three hours of talking and laughing. There might have been some kissing. I’m too much of a gentleman to share details, but I will say there was no sex. More texting and talking later that night and the next day, and plans for a date the next night. GayCoupleOnCouchWhich he cancelled abruptly a few hours beforehand citing a head cold. In July. In Texas. Me being me, I give the benefit of the doubt based on my own experience with Texas weather and sinuses that view life here as a form of torture reserved for enemy combatants and prisoners of war. More so because he was so apologetic and hopeful for a rain check. A few more days of talking and texting about life and shared interests. And then it happened. He disappeared into the ether of the universe, never to be heard from again. Thinking perhaps he took a turn for the worse and somehow this dubious head cold might have worsened into a near-death experience I did check on him a few more times, even offering soup or a drug store run. No response at all. I think perhaps his disapparation skills are not strong and he vanished into non-being, which is to say everything according to Minerva McGonagall. He’s out there somewhere.

When a friend explained I had been ghosted I was appalled. Not just because this happened to me, a seemingly nice guy who could be considered a “catch” by some standards. No, I was appalled at this practice in general, and even more so that a fellow mental health professional that should know better chose this cowardly approach.

According to a 2014 survey, 26% of women and 33% of men have both ghosted and been ghosted. A 2012 study from the University of Kansas showed that while ghosting has become more common in the past decade, it is ultimately the worst possible way to end a relationship. This is not news. We have studies dating back forty years about avoidance (the psychological classification of ghosting) being a shameful and potentially reckless way of ending things. Most studies frame this in terms of the ghost being tracked down and confronted, creating a far more traumatic and potentially embarrassing interaction than a politely worded and appropriate ending ever would have been.

ManNoFaceI am not going to invest any effort in tracking down this person for a confrontation. What he did was inappropriate and hurtful, but having a drama queen fight in a public space is not going to change anything. And let’s be serious…do I want the last image somebody has of me, and those watching us, to be me as a screaming shrew venting my hurt and anger? I try so hard not to end up on Jerry Springer, and taking that “high road” often encouraged of us requires me to look beyond a moment that will in no way be cathartic and focus my energy on improving me.

Right about now you might wondering if we are going to delve into the psychology of ghosting to try and understand why somebody ghosts a seemingly nice person. Sure, we could talk about ghosting as a way to avoid one’s own emotional discomfort. We might conceptualize ghosting as a preemptive strike against assumed and expected rejection. We could even wax poetic about cycles of perceived and realized rejections fostering a fear of real and genuine connection that makes it impossible to avoid ghosting. But I’m not going there because quite frankly I don’t care why it happens. What I care about is how to move past it.

Banishing the Ghost

This is not about you. Yes, that is hard to accept. Our first inclination is to assume if we were better in some way we would be too irresistible to ghost. The problem with that is it puts all responsibility for a match or a mismatch on us and alleviates the responsibility and accountability of that jerk. If he/she/they does not have the courage to deal with the discomfort of a friendly “no thanks,” they are not capable of a genuine relationship and should not be swimming in our dating pool. That is on them, not you.

OnlineDatingDating is a numbers game. You will not be a good fit for every person you meet where there is unilateral or bilateral interest. Sometimes it takes spending time together to know it’s not a good fit. Otherwise we could simply fall in love with anybody and everybody. You date a lot to find a good match, and hopefully that match leads to love. And hopefully our odds are better than the lottery.

Feedback1Feedback loops are important. Remember the lifeguards too distracted by the hotties in the shallow end of the pool to notice we’re drowning in the deep end? They are not good feedback loops. The guy/gal/enby who just ghosted you is not a good feedback loop. Your friends and family are good feedback loops. They know you. They respect you. They love you. And that’s in spite of everything you see as potential shortcomings for a mate! Trust the people in your life when they tell you it’s not about you. Because they are right. You are wonderful and valid and deserving of love. Allow your friends to serve as a mirror and reflect back all that is wonderful about you. Make sure you allow yourself to see it.

Self-care is critical. Go for a 10-minute walk around the block. Get a massage. Pamper yourself with a manicure or a facial. Meet friends for happy hour. Meditate. Read a book. Take yourself on a date.

TextBreak the cycle. The point that most struck me in the 2014 study was that so many people had both ghosted and been ghosted. Don’t be a jerk! Be honest. If you think you might not be able to do an in person rejection, it can be as simple as a candid text, email, or a brief phone call. You don’t have to have some boilerplate response, but being honest about a lack of long-term potential is honorable and compassionate. Even when it’s done through text it’s better than just disappearing.

Keep dating. Remember that finding love is a numbers game and you have be willing to put yourself out there. I promise that hiding out at home is not the answer. Nobody is going to randomly show up at your door asking you to fall in love….and if that happens I promise it’s not someone you want in your life! Get out there in the big wide world of possibility and allow yourself to be vulnerable and possibly even find love.

Rinse and repeat.

GayCoupleHoldingHands

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Dear diary…life is hard.

Expressive Therapy

Sbux1Every morning on my way to the office I stop at the same coffee shop. One of the joys of this type of routine is seeing the same people over and over, and developing some form of bond. For sure I have a few favorite baristas, and there is one in particular where we have developed quite a flirtation. She writes love notes on my coffee cup, and sometimes not-so-loving but enticing notes that make Sbux2me smile or even blush. (Yes, I’m still gay…or mostly gay…and that’s another post for another day.) Nice way to start the day. I also see the same customers over and over. The mechanic from down the street. The nurse from the nearby clinic. The retail manager from the mall next door. It’s reassuring to know I’m not the only caffeine junkie trying to get a fix.

Lately I’ve noticed this same guy every morning. I’m intrigued by him. He sits at a table right outside the front door. He has a stack of books that truly is just over a foot tall. Various books with no clear theme. Yes, I glance at the titles each day because I’m just that nosy! He also has a notebook where he is furiously scribbling notes. Some kind of journal. I haven’t been nosy enough to stand over him and read what he’s writing. My curiosity does have appropriate boundaries most of the time. But from the open books in front of him I imagine him to be capturing his thoughts on what he’s reading. Possibly he’s researching his own book. Perhaps he’s reading for deeper meaning and making a life plan. Maybe it’s a form of bibliotherapy, which is a fancy psychobabble term for reading books that encourage us to think and heal.

harry-potter-1640525_1280I love to read. All the time. People who know me well understand I have quite the love affair with the Harry Potter series. First it was from the perspective of an adult who didn’t quite get the hoopla of a children’s book. Then I read them and enjoyed every word. Then I reread a few years later for escapism. Afterwards I started to appreciate the psychology of this magical world. Books are written about it. Classes are taught about it. Entire fandoms have sprung up around it. I revisit the entire series every few years and always find something new to think about. This year it’s quills and parchment.

In the HP canon, Harry attends school at a time when computers are establishing dominance in educational settings and ballpoint pens have been around for a century. And still Hogwarts relies on quills and parchment for schoolwork, and the wizarding world hand writes letters for delivery by owl. Surely email is faster for keeping up with family and other wizards around the globe. Carrying quills and ink every where you go? Geez. Seems like a pen in the pocket or purse would be more practical. But is practicality really the best measure of an experience?

fountain-pens-1828646_1280I don’t use a quill and have never seen actual parchment. I collect fountain pens. Right now I own just under a dozen. I’ve recently started journaling in a lovely Moleskine notebook I carry everywhere. I’ve also started writing letters and cards on a daily basis. In fact, I spend a fair amount of time finding reasons to break out one of my pens and hand write something. Anything at all. Which is really a big deal for me because I have the most atrocious handwriting. I hate it. It’s the reason I’ve avoiding hand writing anything I could for the past twenty years. And now all of the sudden I cannot put down the pen. What happened to me?

notepadI discovered a new connection between my mind and the paper when I use an actual writing implement. For me it is the fountain pen. For Harry it is the quill. Writing something out by hand requires deliberate thought. It is an active process. When I see the stranger at the coffee shop writing in his notebook, he is truly thinking about what he wants to record because there is no backspace. There is a reason so many authors and poets and speechwriters compose in longhand. JK Rowling wrote the first Harry Potter novel in longhand. Quentin Tarantino. Joyce Carol Oats. Neil Gaiman. They all write longhand.

As I said I have taken to journaling. Every day. Sometimes more than once a day. It’s a form of expressive therapy that focuses on my internal experiences, thoughts, and feelings. It’s an attempt to make sense of the past and the present so I can better see the future. Journaling helps me process what is going on in my head so that I’m more active in my own therapy sessions. It has allowed me to uncover themes to the events in my life, and my role in those events. I can revisit something that I know has a meaning even if it hasn’t become clear yet. Sometimes my journal is like Dumbledore’s pensieve…a place to record excess thoughts and examine them later to spot patterns and links.

travelers-notebook-2245970_1280Sure, I could keep a digital diary on my computer or my iPhone or iPad or whatever device non-Apple users prefer. But I’ve found true joy in putting pen to paper and what it means for me to transfer my thoughts through a physical act. Deliberate thoughts where introspection leads to a new insight or just the release of pressure from clearing my mind. Sometimes I write a paragraph, and sometimes I write several double-sided pages. Maybe it’s all one topic, and maybe it’s a bit more jumbled steam of consciousness writing to just “clear the cache.” Certainly a blog like this is a journal, but what I write here for public consumption is not nearly as deep or personal as what’s in my little black book.

What have I learned so far? For a long time I have really hated myself. My thoughts and words and actions have been centered on so much self-loathing and self-sabotage that I marvel at how I’ve gotten out of bed some days. My view of myself has been so harshly negative for so long. Some of it dates back to childhood hurts related to being bullied in school and my family of origin. Trauma has played a role. Some of it is tied to failed relationships and rejection. And most of it is simply tied to daily life events that affect us all, but that my distorted view allowed to spiral out of control in a repeating cycle of self-destruction.

Brain KeyMost of all I learned that I’m far more culpable than I wanted to admit. I am usually the architect of my own unhappiness. I have been one of the worst for taking care of myself despite what I advise clients. I learned that I have a creative side that wants to burst free and see the world. That I love deeply and passionately and have much to give others. That my view of the world, sometimes healthy and sometimes not, is perfectly valid so long as I use it to shape my life into something meaningful. That I am actually a fairly interesting person who deserves happiness and joy. And that I alone am responsible for making that happen.

Some of this was a bit tough to accept. After all, who wants to learn that no matter what happens in life we are ultimately responsible for our happiness or lack thereof? Getting over trauma requires an investment to be healthy again, and fair or not we have to do it. Moving past a failed relationship requires owning my part in the failure. Acknowledging positive qualities and traits is healthy and realistic, and good for me even when I want to discount myself. Seeing all the potential in life helps me set and achieve goals alone and with others. Yes, it’s been quite a journey and there is no end in sight. As long as my hand can hold a pen, I will be journaling to better understand myself.

Journaling just for me requires a level of honesty I was not ready to accept at first. I had to strip away the pretense of what I imagined a journal to be. This is not “Dear Diary, today Johnny called me a fag and everybody laughed at me. Still I think he’s the cutest boy in school.” This is real. It is deep. It is meaningful. It has helped me see the world and my place in it in a far more realistic way. I love that. And now I’m off the journal some more…

books-690219_1280

A Therapist Comes Out

ComingOutNo, I’m not coming out as gay. I already did that some 20 years ago. And yes, I realize Pride was last month. But still I’ve decided to come out of another deeply personal closet. This one might actually be a bit harder than when I thought I was going to shock my parents about sexuality … though they were not the least bit shocked and if anything were a bit underwhelmed by the revelation. I am coming out of the therapy closet. I am a therapist who sees a therapist for my own mental health and well-being.

DepressionIt would seem like a therapist should have no trouble admitting that he sometimes needs help just like anybody else. In my mind, I can easily accept that at some point in their lives nearly two-thirds of American’s will qualify for a mental health diagnosis like anxiety or depression or ADHD. I encourage people to live genuine and open lives where shame and pretense are cast aside. And now it’s time for me to do the same.

Years ago I was diagnosed with a depressive disorder. Like many people, I tried medication with limited success. I wasn’t ready to work on the “real” issues and thought taking a magic pill would solve all my problems. It did help to an extent, but since I avoided dealing with the root causes of my depression it was bound to relapse. And it did. Several times in my adult life. Recently I started a course of psychotherapy to unpack the longstanding issues that fuel my depressive states. I want to better understand myself and the things that have happened in my life so I can make lasting changes. I want to cast off the chains of depression and emotional oppression so I can be the happiest and healthiest version of me. I deserve that.

Depressed WomanMy fear in coming out as a working professional with a depressive condition is that clients would think I was unfit to do my job. After all, who in their right mind would go to a depressed therapist? Well to be clear, I have periods of depression that are cyclical in nature. They are not so debilitating that they prevent me from attending to my daily needs, going to work and doing a good job, socializing with my friends, and enjoying many aspects of my life. Does that sound at all familiar? A “mild” depression where you are living life, just not your best life?

I was fascinated with the notion that mental health professionals are supposed to be these perfect creatures living blessed lives of flawless grandeur. And when my clients ask, sometimes jokingly and sometimes not, how therapists get through their day without having somebody to talk to, I would give a standard answer about “being trained to compartmentalize and maintain boundaries.” That is a true answer. We are well trained to compartmentalize the things we hear and to maintain a professional distance to avoid a vicarious traumatic reaction to the struggles and stresses of our clients’ lives. But come on! We’re still people! We have feelings too!

So here I am, coming out of the therapeutic closet and seeing the world from the eyes of my clients. When I attended my first session with a counselor who specializes in treating mental health professionals, I was quickly assured that I am not alone or some anomaly. In fact, he said something that gave me pause for several minutes: “the best therapists have their own therapists, and it makes them better at their jobs.” I’m pretty sure I’ve said things that caught my clients off guard and helped them see themselves and their struggle in a different light. Or at least I hope so. With that one sentence I knew I was doing the right thing.

Why come out of this closet at all? Why take the risk of alienating current or potential clients by admitting that I also seek help? Because mental illness in America has been far too stigmatized for far too long. How can I in good conscience encourage people to accept mental illness as a variation of the human experience and be ashamed of my own struggles? I care not for hypocrisy, so it seems to me that if I want to encourage a shift in how we view those seeking help I need to change the way I view my own need for help.

Therapy 5What have I learned so far? Nothing groundbreaking. Nothing that I didn’t already know from my own professional training. And yet I’m learning more about me than I could imaging because I wasn’t open to the possibility before. I’m solidifying goals for my life. I’m unpacking a lot of hurts that impact my self-esteem. I’m learning to better care for myself and reach out when I need support. I’m discovering just how passionately I care about some issues and how I can help make my world and the world around me a better place. I’m learning to see the best in myself so I can be the best version of myself. All the same things I do with my clients, I’m ENJOYING for myself.

And I feel great! I’m no longer scared to say that I have a therapist. He helps me care for myself and better myself. I am living a healthier and happier life, and working towards being the best me that I can be. And I know that I am a better therapist for it. Not just because I have a better understanding of what it’s like to be “on the couch.” But because I have a better understanding of the change that happens when you take care of you.

LifeIsGood

Surviving Your News Feed

social-mediaIn light of recent geopolitical events, many of us are wondering how to move forward in our daily lives. Sure, some were ecstatic with the outcome. Others were ambivalent. And there is a large percentage of people who are genuinely scared for what happens next in America as a whole, but also to individuals who might be living on the fringe – our marginalized compatriots who are segregated by race, ethnicity, national origin, sexuality, gender, gender identity and expression, and socioeconomic status to name but a few divergences.

If you’re anything like me, you’re checking your social media several times a day. Facebook. Twitter. Instagram. Pinterest. Snapchat. Tumblr. And who knows how many more you might have. Leading up to the election and inauguration, many of us went on a rampage of “if you think ____ then unfriend me now!” and ourselves choosing to unfollow, unfriend, and outright block those who in opposition of what we know in our hearts to be the best for all of America.

But the election is over. The President has been sworn in. Now we have to move forward with our lives and that can be hard to do when we feel beholden to the social media onslaught that can be psychologically damaging. How do you stay connected and sane? Is there a way to use social media without spiraling into a depression with every post on your friends’ walls? Here are a few strategies that make my life easier. Hopefully some of these will work for you too.

Have Good Boundaries

lineinthesand.jpegBoundaries. Not walls. Not fences. Just boundaries. Know where your line is when it comes to devoting time to social media. I remember my dear sweet Aunt Robin always had a retort about answering the phone. “It’s there for my convenience and mine alone.” I think maybe that’s a healthy way to view social media platforms as well. Unless you are a paid blogger or paid activist, this really is hobby work. Limit the amount of time you are willing to spend sitting in front of a computer looking at the world through somebody else’s eyes. Not only is this about the grand total of time, but the number of times a day you check your feeds.

Stephen Covey, famous for the Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, divided tasks into quadrants. I cannot share the rubric here for copyright issues, but you can easily Google this. Covey believed that we should devote most of our time to Quadrant II. Without a doubt social media for most of us falls into Quadrant IV, which is the no man’s land of wasted time and wasted life. He never advocated getting rid of these activities completely, but rather taught that we prioritize our time so we don’t get trapped in the abyss of hours gone by. Surely we can all agree that much of our social media time would qualify.

Digital Disconnect

With my clients, we talk frequently about a “digital disconnect.” This is another form of good boundaries but with some escalation. Take fixed periods of time where you “log off” of your social media presence. A good starting point is a two-day weekend. Maybe from there build up to a seven day “cleanse.” If that suits you well, consider a full thirty-day abstinence. I have no doubt that when you log back on, you will see things through a different lens.

Consider the Source

I admit that I have been one of those people who share snopes.com and other fact checking sites to refute various posts and memes. I don’t know at what point we decided as a society to blindly trust so-called facts on the Internet and give up our willingness to critically analyze a situation. I fear some of us never learned that skill, or maybe we have become complacent because if our friends post it then it must be true right? In research terms this is known as confirmation bias. We select data sources that confirm what we want to be true and discard other sources of information that might prove us wrong. This is very easy to do in social medial because we surround ourselves with likeminded “friends.” What would happen if liberals also watched Fox News or conservatives logged onto Politico.com every day? At the very least our preconceived notions might be challenged enough for us to consider where we get our information.

truthometerAs a cautionary tale of what happens when we remained ill-informed, we need only look at the recent lambasting of Sean Spicer and Kellyanne Conway when they tried unsuccessfully to pass of misinformation as “alternative facts.” Or the frequent reactions by liberal and conservative news outlets to the tweets of the now President when his facts are not quite accurate (attack at the Louvre, NY Times falling readership and apology for coverage, threats of cancelling federal funds to universities based on their selected speakers, etc.). Just because somebody said it, tweeted it, memed it, or shared it does not make it true. Fight to keep untruths and partial truths out of your psychology.

Maintain a Schedule

We are creatures of habits, some good and some not so good. We take comfort in the safety and familiarity of routines. I get up at the same time very day of the week. I have the same coffee beverage every morning while reading the news. We enjoy the same Friday night pizza date every week. Routines are good. Routines give us a sense of stability. Keep going to gym. Keep meeting your friends for happy hour. Get those regular massages. Exercise every day. Make sure you get plenty of sleep. Take your vitamins. Allow your routines to shield you and to make you feel more confident in your daily living.

This might be a good time for a reminder about healthy sleep hygiene. My clients always chuckle at this because of my vision of beds. Our beds have two purposes: sleepin’ and sexin’. When you climb into bed your brain needs to know you’re either about to sleep or about to sex. If it’s clearly not a romantic or sexual interlude, you will be training your brain to “shut down” so you actually fall asleep. And if there is some fun about to happen….well enjoy! Our beds are the not the place to watch TV or binge watch Netflix, read, eat, study, text, chat, etc. As comfortable as it might be to do things on a pillow top mattress under our favorite blankie, it sends the wrong message to our brain and disrupts the routine we need for good rest and rehabilitation. Sleepin’ and sexin’. And if neither happens in the first fifteen minutes, leave the bed and come back later so we don’t train our brain to the routine of staring at the ceiling.

Get Involved

getinvolvedMy clients have been asking for weeks how to feel better about the future in these seemingly uncertain times. One of the best things you can do is get involved! Political activism can actually be good for your psychology. It is future oriented and action oriented. It involves you as an active participant rather than a political victim. Join your local political party. Join a national organization. Attended rallies and marches. Call your representatives. Host fundraisers in your home (it’s never too early to start raising campaign funds). Write letters to the editor.

A secret to involvement to feel better is scaling it for your life. If all you can do is write a check, it’s enough. If you can only find time to write a letter to the editor or make one call to Congress, it’s enough. There is no minimum standard here, and in fact starting small might make it easier for this to become habitual. The point is to do it because it engages the logical part of your brain (frontal lobes) just as much as the emotional side (limbic system). None of us really wants to be slaves our amygdala! Emotional overload leads to anxiety and depression. Getting involved can ward that off.

Be Emotional

But, we are emotional creatures and our limbic system sometimes does get the better of us. It is important to allow yourself to feel your feelings. Let it happen. Be open to emotional expression. Vent to a friend. Go for a run. Schedule a massage. Call your therapist. Just be. You cannot completely suppress the feelings or they will build up and overtake you at some point. We’ve all seen friends who kept choking it down until there was an explosion of anger or frustration. Hell, we’ve been that friend! Accept that you are going to have feelings about all the things happening in your life. All of your feelings are valid. Yes, they are ALL valid. Feelings are not what define you as a person. How you respond to those feelings is where irrational behaviors might come in to play and that’s when you should reach out for some help. But short of that, feelings come and go. It’s part of the human experience. Let it happen. It’s good for you!

Positivity and Future Orientation

positivityOnce you’ve had those emotional “breakdowns” or accepted those negative feelings, it’s time to move forward. This is a great time to remind yourself of all the good things in your life. Yes, even when it feels like the world is going to hell in a handbasket you still have good things in your life. We need to maintain our sense of gratefulness. I find it helpful to make lists of things I am grateful for and to thank people for their contribution. Who wouldn’t love to open the mailbox and receive a handwritten thank you note for being a meaningful contributor to someone’s life? Writing that note encourages positive emotional expression. Since it uses emotion, memories, and rational thought, we are engaging multiple parts of our brain in a positive exercise. A little boost of serotonin and dopamine to improve our mood and outlook.

Being grateful for what you have is an easy way to help you decide what you want to have in the future. If you love meeting a friend for coffee, do that more often. If family reunions fill you with love and hope, make plans more frequently with relatives you might not see so often, even if you’re limited to phone calls for those far away. Spend time with those people you love – your family of origin and your chosen family. Focus on activities that bring you joy and happiness, and do as many of them each week as your schedule allows.

Find Your People

It really does take a village these days to be healthy in a pluralistic society and make meaningful civic contributions. Find your people. Find your tribe. This is especially important if you are part of a marginalized group. Reach out and be supportive. Reach out and ask for support. Build alliances because change takes time and continual forward momentum. It is exhausting. You cannot do it alone. There has never been a more important time in our living history to connect with those who support us, and hopefully even build bridges to bring new people into our tribes to grow our spheres of influence and emotional support networks.

Take care of you. Take care of one another. Love freely and openly. Just be.

Be at peace. -wp

 

Owning Ourselves

As we progress through life, we meet people and sometimes have no idea what role they will play in our story. Nearly two decades ago I met  a teenage girl in Starkville, Mississippi. Her family is very near and dear to my ex, and once I spent some time in their home I understood why. They are a crazy mess of love and laughter, support and affirmations, success and struggle, hope and faith. Angie struck me as an awkward teenager. Pretty. Amazing vocalist. Witty (which I value more than funny). Smart. But there was a lot of teen angst when I met her. She was struggling to define who she was and what she wanted for her life.

I’d like to say that two decades later I know why Angie came into my life. I don’t. We aren’t at all close. She lives in New York and I am in Texas. I have not actually been in a room with her in more than ten years. We reconnected via Facebook, as is becoming a ubiquitous story. We’ve chatted a bit online. Exchanged messages and emails. And yet I feel I understand her much more now. Certainly distance lends perspective, but so does the maturation process. Hers and mine.

In fact, I will freely admit that Angie has become a source of inspiration for me. Perhaps that’s why she came into my life. I’m not going to tell her story. It’s an interesting one, but it’s not mine to tell. Much of it comes through in her music (Check her out here ). What I will say is that she is living the artist’s dream in NYC. We all know that dream. We’ve seen it in countless movies. Starving artist perfecting her craft on the gritty city streets, singing in clubs and doing odd jobs to make the ends meet. Waiting for that big break that might never happen. And if there is no break that’s okay because at least she’s being true to her craft and her dream. It’s a great plot line for a Lifetime or Oprah movie of the week. And, like most works in progress, her last chapters have not yet been written. We get to all hold out hope she does get her big break, whatever that turns out to be.

In the meantime, Angie posted on her Facebook this statement that stopped me midway to raising a much needed cup of coffee to an eager mouth craving a caffeine infusion:

I could be wrong, but I feel like folks’d be a lot happier if we approached adulthood less about owning property and more about owning ourselves.

Could be wrong? I doubt it. I think she couldn’t be more right. This is a woman who gave up so much to follow her dreams. She really puts herself out there with her music and her live performances. Following the progression of her songs, you can see moments in her life where she is gaining true insight. I’m not sure that’s really her goal, but it comes across regardless.

“Living within your means, but knowing that, no matter what your means, you always have YOU. Prince or pauper, unless you know and love yourself, the rest is all bullpoop.”

 I think of the growing Tiny House Movement (http://thetinylife.com and http://tinyhouseblog.com , I think about simplification and focusing on what matters in life. Believe me when I say I’ve spent just as much time as anybody trying to amass the perfectly curated collection of possessions. The right car, designer labels, house full of enviable decor (which is easier when your partner is a designer…double-edged sword), photos of great travel, and on and on and on. It’s pretty easy to do with enough money and time. To the point I’ve actually lived in a home and had TWO large storage units full of “stuff.” I don’t even remember what all the stuff is anymore. So clearly it was important! 🙂

What Angie’s describing is the quintessential existential crisis. Who are we? What is our place in the world? What do we want? What will fulfill us? Self-actualization. It’s the end-game of the human experience. And she’s sharing that insight most of us get at some point: it’s about the living and not the things.

Consider Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. We start with the most basic of survival need and build upward. Once we have food, clothing, and shelter and a physically safe space to live, we can focus on love and connecting with others. Self-esteem and self-respect develops when we are accepting and valued by others. Self-actaulization is the top of Maslow’s pyramid and represents a state of realizing our full potential and reaching it. If we miss a step, we never get to the top and slide back down. Each level is built on the one before it. Later in life, Maslow actually argued for a stage beyond self-actualization that he called self-transendence. He came to realize that self-actualization is only possible in conjunction with self-transendence based on having a higher goal beyond ourselves that we can reach through altruism and spiritualism.

Do we need the trappings of life to reach the top of the pyramid? Can we be happy living in a tiny home? A cramped fifth-floor walk-up? Is that five-star restaurant so much better than a candlelight dinner at home? Are designer labels necessary for self-esteem? Angie’s right. We spend way to much time focused on finding stuff and not near enough time finding ourselves. We lead over scheduled lives trying to acquire all the things we think we’re supposed to have to be happy, and we don’t take enough time to enjoy what we do have. We work too many hours to make more money for the next purchase or experience. We spend too much time trying to impress each other with status symbols or social media-worthy happenings. And then crash into bed, exhausted and unsatisfied, wishing there were another way.

There is another way. A simpler way. A more emotionally and spiritually satisfying way. Stop chasing things and start chasing life. Stop living through cars and houses and wardrobes and exotic destinations. Start living in this moment. Start by accepting yourself just as you are, regardless of what you may or may not have, and believe that it is enough. Because it is enough if you let it be enough. YOU get to choose what is right for YOUR life. YOU get to set YOUR priorities. Not me. Not the neighbors. Not the snarky church lady two pews in front of you. No the other soccer moms. Not the guy in the next cubicle. You. It’s all on you to decide just how happy you will be with what you have.

Now…it’s time for me to start clearing out some storage space with a donation to the thrift store. I’m letting go of things, and in doing so I’m letting go of the mindset that led me to the things. Ready to join me? Ready to walk another path? One less travelled and far less littered? Hand in hand we go.

The First Session.

How to begin.

Therapy 1The questions I am most often asked by friends, family, potential clients, and even strangers at parties are “What is therapy like? What happens?” Some people who have never sat on the couch genuinely wonder what goes on behind that closed door. Others use this is as a way to tease out my particular therapeutic style. Most often, though, it is a question about what happens in the first session with any therapist. I certainly understand the question.

Picture it. Jonesboro, Arkansas. 1998. A young man goes to a therapist’s office for the first time. There was nothing that drove me to therapy. I was not depressed. I was not anxious. There had been no breakup. Work was good. School was good. I went to the therapist because it seemed like I should. Most of my friends were in therapy. Everyone had an “analyst” even if they had nothing to analyze. And then we analyzed that! Seemed very Woody Allen-esque to me.

I showed up for my first session and the therapist matter-of-factly asked what was wrong. When I explained that there was nothing wrong and I was perfectly happy, he had the unmitigated gall to accuse me of masking symptoms and living in a state of denial. Well now we had something to discuss! And we did. For three weeks. And I got bored. And then he got bored. We ran out of things to talk about. And I found other ways to spend money and be entertained.

I’m not sure if that was how my introduction to therapy was supposed to unfold. From what I hear from friends and colleagues, there is no one single way for a therapist and client to first connect. That’s certainly been my experience. In the last decade of working in mental health in various office, jail, and correctional facility settings, I have never found one sure-fire way to begin a therapeutic journey.

It’s perfectly normal and natural to feel nervous about your first counseling session, or your first session with a new therapist. I understand it takes a lot of courage to share your feelings and experiences with someone you just met. Our first interaction is really about establishing an initial connection. You deciding if I’m a good fit for you, and me deciding if I can help you. We work together to identify and understand your concerns and develop a plan to make changes in your life. This process usually takes several sessions. I think of it as the “getting to know each other” stage of our new relationship. This is a collaborative process, but ultimately you are in the driver’s seat.

Switchback at the base of Cape Smokey, Cabot Trail, Cape Breton, Nova Scotia.See, that doesn’t sound at all scary, does it? In my mind, therapy is a purposeful conversation between two people where one of those people happens to be in need of some assistance and guidance and the other one has some training to be helpful. We talk. A lot. We both talk. And I listen. A lot. We discuss. We explore. We. Both of us talking together. It’s a collaboration. And from my experience, if you’re able to talk to a friend then you’re pretty well able to talk to a therapist.

I know what you’re thinking….”does that mean you’re a paid friend?” Absolutely not! I am a paid professional who is good at relating to people and getting them to open up about what’s working and not working, and then helping them find better ways to problem solve and be happy. It sometimes seems like a friendship because there is genuine caring and a certain amount of back-and-forth in my conversational approach. But I am not a paid friend. I am a therapist and my job is to help you live your healthiest and happiest life.

But stop and consider this. If it often seems so friendly, doesn’t that mean it’s not really that scary? I sure hope so. I like to think I’m the least scary person on the planet. I take great pride in making people comfortable so we can effectively problem solve. I try really hard to lessen any anxious discomfort and allow you to focus on what’s happening. Does that mean it’s all laughter and giggles? No chance! There are tears sometimes. Every now and then you might even make realizations you didn’t want and consider throwing a brick through my window in the wee hours of the morning. I just ask you show up at the next appointment so we can talk about it and keep moving forward. And maybe that you wrap that brick in a reminder slip so I know who to bill. Just kidding. Sort of.

If you really want to get a feel for what that first session will be like, ask to talk to therapist for a few minutes over the phone. Most therapists are frequently quite busy and booked much of the day, but there are opportunities to return a five-minute phone call. Given that therapy is not inexpensive and requires some commitment, it only makes sense to me that you might want to chat me up for a few minutes before making an appointment. It’s similar to the “free consultations” offered by a lot of professionals, just briefer. Though it would be unreasonable to expect more than five or ten minutes, it’s a sensible request and one that I always honor.

From there the journey is something we navigate together. There is no one right way or one right path for all clients. See what happens. Take the chance. I don’t know the statistics on people dying from anxiety or fright in a therapist’s office but I’m pretty sure those are some low odds.

Happy SandSo back to the original question. When I went to therapy “for real,” the first session was nerve wracking. For all of about ten minutes. I didn’t know what to expect. It was a woman. And a very young one. Fresh out of school, in fact. But I went because someone I trusted recommended her. The interaction was professional, but friendly. She asked me so many questions I thought she was ghost writing my autobiography. We talked. We laughed. I cried. She comforted. I felt like she understood me. It still wasn’t that easy for me to open up, but once I did my life got a lot better. I returned. There was a lot of back-and-forth as I thought through issues and she made poignant observations and helpful suggestions. And from time to time I still check in as needed. Yes, therapists sometimes sit on the couch as well, but that’s a whole other blog entry. If you’re in pain or confused about life or want things to be different, go that first session. Walk through the door. Take that first step on a journey of enlightenment and improvement. It can be so worthwhile.

Gifts to myself…perfect “fits.”

giftsAs another holiday season winds down, an inevitable truth remains – nobody got everything they wanted. You need only look at the crowds in the stores to see the high rate of exchanges of those gifts that didn’t fit right, didn’t look right, or were simply so off-the-mark that even using them for next year’s White Elephant parties seems questionable. And I, like everyone I know, was left a little underwhelmed by my holiday haul. Year in and year out. What am I to do? Gifts to myself…that’s the answer!

Years ago I started a tradition of giving myself one Christmas gift: a nice Swiss watch. I did this because it’s not an item I cannot reasonably expect others to buy for me, and I’m assured to get exactly what I want. I love watches. The mechanics. The design. The style. The symbolism. The race against time. And Swiss watches are the best, at least in my not-so-humble opinion as someone who used to sell timepieces. This is the first year I did not reward myself with a new bauble. Try as I might, every time I tried a watch on I kept thinking something was wrong or that I was missing out on something better. After reflection, I decided to give myself several gifts. There was no need to wrap them. None of them were found in a store. Instead, these gifts are ideals and goals. Somewhat lofty perhaps, but they fit me perfectly and there is no need for exchanges. And already I’m more excited than I ever was with a watch. Perhaps something on this list would be a good gift for you, too?

perfect

  • Forgiveness. We all do wrong. We all are wronged. There is no perfect person among us, and there is no way we can ever be perfect in all that we do. And focusing on forgiveness helps me remember that. Not just forgiving others who offend me or slight me. This is about forgiving myself for all of my shortcomings. Not being nice enough. Not being charitable enough. Not making enough money. Not spending enough time caring for myself. Not learning a foreign language. Not learning to play the piano. Not keeping the “ideal” weight. With so many opportunities to be hard on myself, it would be all too easy to be my own worst enemy and hold myself back. Instead, I’m giving myself the gift of forgiveness. As long as I’m living my best life and trying to leave the world better than I found it, it’s more than enough.
  • Patience. I want it all. Right now. Actually two minutes ago. Or an hour before that. I am so impatient with life goals and ambitions. I used to think there was a timeline for everything. Graduating school. Internship. Private practice. Children. Cabin in the woods. Million-dollar retirement account. Boy have I made myself crazy trying to live my life on an arbitrary patiencetimeline versus letting life unfold. My practice will grow just as it should so long as I continue to do my best work. I’ll retire when I’m no longer capable for working, not when my IRA’s and 401k’s have the “right” balance. Family will happen when it happens. In fact, it’s all going to happen when it happens and I’m going to be okay with that. I do not have to micromanage every detail of my life. Sure, I will work towards the things I want but I refuse to see my efforts as any semblance of failing just because the timing might not be what I’m told it should be.
  • Charity. That watch I wanted all year and got so excited about buying? I gave that money away to charity. I can’t wear it on my wrist. I can’t show it off at parties. Nobody will be impressed or envious. Many will not understand. That’s okay. Others got hot meals, gifts for their children, places to sleep, and affordable or free therapy. I have no idea where it all went or how it was dispersed, much less the ultimate trickle down effects as one person helps another help another, but I know it was a far better use of my resources than another possession I did not need. This year I will focus more on what I call the “give back.” I maintain a certain amount of slots for free or low-cost therapy for those who cannot afford quality care. And yes, despite the growing push for national health care there are still too many people who are uninsured or even with insurance cannot afford to get help. I can afford to do more. We all can.
  • Boundaries. I discuss this with all of my clients. Boundaries are very good things. In addition to avoiding offense and maintaining prosocial ties of equitable benefit, boundaries allow us to be “us” in the face of all those day in and day out boundariesrequests for our time and support. How many times has a friend called in “crisis” and you leapt to their side to be supportive, only to kick yourself later because it’s just another in a series of “drama queen” moments that you find humorously pointless? Or all those invitations for dinner or drinks or parties or celebrations that create more stress than joy for you? If you’re that stressed out around the people who are supposed to be your circle of support, where is the benefit? This year I’m giving myself the gift of “no.” I will remain social and engaged. I will strengthen ties with those  important to me. But I will also have no problem saying “no” and investing time taking care of myself. I deserve that. My clients deserve that. My family deserves that. My friends deserve that. And did I mention that I deserve that?
  • Goals. There are so many things I want to do with myself, and if I can do all of the things above than I will have opportunities to set goals and achieve them. I won’t share all that I want to do, but I will say one of my big goals is to write a book and this year I will start that process. Will it ever be published? Probably not, but that’s not what matters. The point is that it’s something I want to do for me, and I’m giving myself the gift of this goal and I am going to enjoy my efforts. It’s a big goal to be sure, but it’s hits all the hallmarks therapists encourage for their clients for “SMART” goals. Specific. Measurable. Attainable. Relevant. Time-bound.

zenIf you could give yourself any non-material gifts to improve your life, what would they be? What is missing that would make you happier and allow you to better love yourself and those around you? What would you add to your life to accomplish your goals? Make a list. Be detailed in why you want it and how you will use it. Then share it with those closest to you. In fact, maybe turn it into a group activity and hold each other accountable to make sure you truly cherish the gifts you’re giving yourself. I suspect if we spent a little less time focusing on material giving to others and more time focusing what matters in life, we would be happier and healthier.