Small Town Surprise

grooms cakeLast week I was fortunate enough to serve witness at a wedding. A gay wedding. In Oklahoma. A small town in Oklahoma. Initially I was surprised that the grooms, who live in the Dallas area, chose Oklahoma; however, one of them graduated college there and had an affinity for that area. And given the still-limited number of places where they could get married, I suppose Oklahoma is as good as any.

But I’m going to be honest about this…I was dreading it. Not because it was a gay wedding. I’m not a hypocrite. Rather, I was dreading a gay wedding in small town Durant. Should you ever need to know, it’s pronounced “doo-rant” and not “dur-unt.” I was corrected several times by the locals. The same locals I was sure meant to do us harm.

You see, I grew up in a small town. Well, I grew up outside the capital of Arkansas and then graduated high school in a town of 4,455 with only one flashing red four-way stop at that time. So I have some understanding of the small town mentality. I was quite fearful of what we might find in Durant. As we crossed the state line and entered the sleepy little town, it was very much like my adolescence all over again. Rural area. Lots of wide open spaces. Traffic crawling slowly enough to pass on a bicycle. People congregating to talk about passerby and clearly unknown cars. Felt like home, and not in the best of ways.

When we arrived at the courthouse to retrieve the license, my fears were palpable. We entered through the doorway for marriages, and there was a big, burly backwoods bubba of a guard talking to a woman who looked like a regular customer on “Breaking Bad.” They sized us up, and saw one female in our party of four. The guard asked who was getting married, and the two grooms proudly raised their hands and declared it was their big day. Without missing a beat, the guard asked if they would be using the gazebo outside facing the main street. He explained that jurors from a trial gathered there to smoke and could sometimes get unruly. And then he gave an instruction that caught me entirely off guard. He said that if anybody gave us any problems we were to immediate find him because he was our “problem solver” that day. Then he offered hearty congratulations, which was quickly followed by his conversation companion with a big smile. Needless to say, I was flummoxed.

This only continued when we went to the clerk’s office and watched them all conference in hopes of solving a computer problem and not delay the “handsome” grooms on their special day. And then, again, when I met the man who would serve as the officiant and his lovely wife, both whom I have now connected with via social media. And lastly during the ceremony itself, which was held on a particularly popular and picturesque walking bridge on the college campus. Passersby would smile and wave and apologize for intruding. Very friendly.

This was not at all what I expected. I was ready for a rumble. In my mind, I was there to witness an exchange of vows and declaration of love, but also to be there for my boys in case there was any trouble. I sure did feel foolish. mob

You see, what happened was a common psychological phenomenon known as cognitive thinking errors. We all do them, and quite frequently. It really is part of our everyday experience. Left unchecked, though, they can become quite problematic and lead to all kinds of craziness. I spent the drive home reflecting on my errors. There was mind reading, where I assumed I knew what others were thinking without having any real evidence of their thoughts. I sure was catastrophizing, or having a very firm belief that something bad or even unbearable was sure to happen. And lets not forget one of my favorites, overgeneralization. You know that one…we perceive a global pattern of negatives based on limited events. In my case, I falsely assumed that all the backwoods citizens of Durant (overgeneralization) would absolutely hate us on site (mind reading) and possibly come after us with lynches and torches while wearing white sheets (catastrophizing), or at the very least prevent the wedding through some nonviolent means (catastrophizing) because they firmly disapprove of or outright hate the LBGT population (mind reading).brain gears

I’m not alone here. You do it too. We all do it. And I promise that is not an overgeneralization. It’s back of the human experience and a natural part of our self-preservation instinct. But it sure can get out of hand and make life miserable for you and those around you. Think about someone you know who is depressed and views the entire world through a negative filter. Or the overly anxious person always waiting for doom and gloom. Two examples of what it’s like when it gets out of control.

But what about lesser variants that may be just as toxic? Look at what I did! I’m a therapist and I engaged in distorted thinking to the point I was ready to fight an imaginary angry mob. In fact, there were several times I kept looking around and over my shoulder waiting for something that never happened. To be sure, I did not let it impact my day or cast any negative light on my friends’ big day. Thank goodness for an implacable poker face. But you see my point? Even on a smaller scale thinking errors can have a big impact. It’s good to have checks and balances. That day, my friends were my checks and balances. I shared my thoughts, which were not unlike their own actually, and we were able to laugh about it and enjoy way too much fudge from a local shop on the drive out of town. Checks and balances are important. They keep us on track. They refine our perspective. Therapy is absolutely a great place for this, but never underestimate the power of what I call “social therapy” in sharing with your friends and experiencing their views as well.

Enjoying Our Lucky Friends

I stumbled across an article this week where the author had this crazy notion that the happiest people are around when things are going right for other people instead of for themselves. The underlying assumption is that we too often define friendship based on having people around us when our lives are falling apart, and commiserating with others in their own misfortune. We reach out in times of need, or boredom, or to help others. Yet when things are going great for our friends or loved ones, we are less available. Happy people, so the argument goes, spend more time with their friends celebrating others’ success and triumphs.

Hmmm…there does seem to be a certain logic to this thinking. When I apply it to my own life, I am happier when I’m surrounded by happy people; likewise, I’m far more unhappy when those around me are miserable, or when I’m avoiding people because I think they are too happy for my sanity or for their own good. The more I thought about it, the more I realized why people are who present with things go right for others are happier.

For one thing, there is a certain amount of social learning that happens in our relationships. That’s a psychobabble word that basically means we learn how to behave from watching others. If our friends are happy, and we help them celebrate those joys, we should be seeing how they accomplished this happiness and maybe it will give us guidance. Also, I think there is something to be said for “leading by example,” and if I want my friends to celebrate my success and happy moments, I need to show them how it’s done! I’m going to raise the bar here! Up the ante! No puny celebrations…because when it’s my turn I want a party to rival Times Square on New Year’s Eve.

It’s good for other people too. There is research that shows us that storytelling changes the memory of the event. When your friend tells you about a particularly great date, the memory becomes more meaningful for them. The same is true for you. When you share the details of how you won a tough court case or worked long hours to earn a promotion, or even fought the laundry monster to finally defeat your sweat stain arch nemesis, these events have even more positive meaning for you.

Probably the best reason I can think of take pleasure in the joys of others is because it makes us happier. Sure, there is an altruistic component and it’s great to be there for friends. I bet there’s even a cutesy coffee mug with that sentiment you can give your bestie. But let’s not underestimate to value to ourselves in supporting those around us. Without getting into all the science of dopamine pathways and neurotransmitters, we feel good when we are happy and those good feelings can come in waves of positivity when we share in special moments of those close to us.

Here’s a challenge for you. Take a look at your social media footprint from the past 30 days. How many of your friends’ posts about good things in their lives did you simply “like” versus comment on with words of affirmation? You don’t even have to count for me to say it was too many. I’m guilty of it too. So for the next few weeks, let’s try and make a conscious effort offer some words of affirmation to our friends’ lives to help them celebrate their joys.

Bibliotherapy – Or How I Learned to Write What I Feel

Over the past few weeks, a popular prime time television series has included a plot line about adult siblings meeting for the first time. Part of the story has included their deceased mother’s journals. Box after box of journals. Journals documenting nearly every day of her adult life, from the mundane to the extraordinary. For some reason watching those episodes made me think of the oft-used phrase “Dear Diary.” That, in turn, let me to think about the excitement of adolescent diaries along the lines of “Dear Diary…I met a boy…” And welcome to the windmills of my mind. The life of a therapist always making connections.

Bibliotherapy is a rather unfriendly word for a relatively simple act – the expression of feelings through the written word. We’ve all done it in some form or fashion. Don’t believe me? Ha! I dare you to look at your Facebook posts or Twitter feeds. Complain about a bad day? Participate in the annual fall tradition of 20, 30 or even 40 Days of Thanks? Share really great news that made you happy….including the emoticon? Congratulations! You are well versed in bibliotherapy.

For the sake of simplicity, if for no other reason than I prefer to avoid “psychobabble” when at all possible, let’s talk about journaling instead. This blog is my personal form of journaling, though not my only effort. Journaling is a great way to explore your feelings and experiences over time. Just about every self-help book and pompous daytime talk show circuit “expert” recommends journaling. Research has shown that effective journaling can be a good tool in your toolbox of psychological wellness. And I firmly believe it’s critical for me to “know myself” before I can know anybody else or how to include them in my life.

So now I write a blog. I’m just starting this new project, but I’m excited and hopeful others will at least get a chuckle every now and then, if not find something useful. I also keep a private journal on my MacBook (Day One app, available for iOS devices). Just the other day I wrote an email to an ex who was my first love. Classic unsent letter exercise. It still sits in my draft folder for me to tweak until I’m satisfied. I doubt I’ll ever hit the SEND button, but that’s not the point. The point is for me to explore my feelings. Often times it’s easier if I write them down rather than having them swirl around in my head in what I imagine looks like a satellite view of a hurricane approach the shore. Yes, there is a metaphor buried in there what would amuse Freud. Journaling, in whatever form, is for me. And it can be for you, too.

Why do it?

  • Gives you a chance to sort through all the clutter in your head by getting down on paper. Then you’re better able to concentrate on your wants and needs.
  • Allows you to step back and evaluate your thoughts, emotions, feelings, actions, and reaction.
  • Express thoughts that sometimes you are too scared to say out loud.
  • Explore your core values, and learn to bring your emotions and desires in line with those values to live your best life.
  • Step back and see things from other perspectives.
  • Explore a creative side of yourself and turn negative energy into positive energy.
  • Look for recurrent themes in your life that are holding you back, and recognize the things you do well that propel you forward.

How do you do it? Where do you start? How do you know you’re doing it right? Will it help? Those are great questions I often hear from clients when I assign journaling as homework. That’s right…I give therapy homework. Sometimes clients resist and roll their eyes. Eventually they give in. And in many cases, they have continued their journaling well after we have finished using it in therapy. I bet most of them even continued after their therapy was over.

There are lots of books and guides you can buy, borrow, rent, or download. And they are totally unnecessary. If you completed junior high, you already have the skills you need to journal. It’s writing. That’s it. Pretty simple, huh?

I’m serious. There is no right or wrong way to begin this. Some people begin in a very structured way using a diary app or similar format. Others carry a notebook with them and jot down thoughts as they occur. Some people write long and winding narratives for hours on end. I’ve seen great work come from what we call “stream of consciousness” writing where you start with whatever words land on the page and continue without thought until you run out of words, with no regard to punctuation or structure or style. To my mind, and based on my experiences with clients and my own life, the way you do it is far less important than the fact you are doing it.

I like to occasionally review what I’ve written to start looking for common themes. Do I feel depressed the same time each year? Am I writing a lot about hurt feelings with my friends and family? Do my thoughts about my work sound like maybe I want to make a change? Are there lots of mentions about something that excites me that maybe should be a new hobby? What’s working and not working in my life? What do I want to be different?

As with most things in life, practice does not necessarily make it “perfect” but does make it a lasting habit. Try and develop a regular writing habit and see what you learn about yourself.

A New Adventure

Following the lead of so many others before me, I have decided to start a blog. Now before you get to excited, this is not going to be one of those tell-all blogs where I recount the darkest secrets of my clients or share titillating tales spun in session. Like you, I of course would enjoy reading such things. After all, it’s human nature to want to know more about other people….and especially the fascinating inner workings of a troubled mind. But this is not about sharing interesting stories while changing the names to protect the innocent, the stupid, or the otherwise unfortunate souls who landed on my couch. This is about my own exploration of life based on what I learn through the therapy process and through my own living.

Why am I starting this project. Well, there are several reasons:

  • Given I strongly promote journaling with my clients as a means of reflecting on life events to uncover themes for deeper meaning, I will just this blog as my own journaling. I suppose you could say that I’m going to heed my own advice.
  • Everybody needs a creative outlet. I love anything artistic and expressive, from photography to dance to writing to sculpture to craft beers.
  • I simply love to write. I’m an avid reader of all genres, and lately I’ve been focused on writing book chapters for edited series of professional manuals. It’s not the most interesting writing, and I’d like to explore a style more along the lines of what I enjoy reading.
  • I have long been encouraged by friends and colleagues to write something. Anything. Just to write because they’re relatively sure my writing “voice” would reflect my seemingly interesting story telling.
  • Lastly, writing is a form of self-care. I’m a strong proponent of self-care activities that we do just because we enjoy them and they enrich our lives. Writing is one of those activities for me.

I hope that you will enjoy my musings as much as I enjoy sharing my thoughts. Of course, I would love to hear from you so please chime in.