Grateful for our Hardships


How to derive strength and positive change from trauma and loss, especially with help.


When something tragic happens to us at first, it’s overwhelming, scary and painful. It takes all we’ve got to get through it, survive it, and heal from it. The thought of recovering from it enough to see the positive aspects of the event is remote and difficult. However, the ability to eventually find gratitude for our hardships helps make us resilient and stronger than before. It is an important aspect of healing, and transcending, trauma and loss. But what would allow you to be grateful for such a tragic event?

Dr. Martin Seligman stated that he and colleagues asked visitors of his website about traumatic events that happened to them, as well as a subjective wellness survey; he found that people who had survived at least one traumatic event in their lives had more strengths than people who had none (Dr. Seligman’s website). What is it about hardship that makes people become stronger? Is it the ability to relate to others? Maybe it’s being tested against extreme stress and surviving, that gives people a boost of confidence they might not otherwise have. Perhaps it makes a person appreciate their loved ones or re-evaluate their priorities in light of what happened to them.

I’d like to tell you about a training program that the US Military uses to foster gratitude after traumatic experiences, as relayed by Dr. Martin Seligman in Flourish. The name of the program is Post Traumatic Growth and is headed by Brigadier General Rhonda Cornum, Dr. Richard Tedeschi and Dr. Richard McNally. It’s based on the idea that “we should make the most of the fact that trauma often sets the stage for growth” and it teaches soldiers how to create ways to grow because of their traumatic experiences. Soldiers are given a psychological test that measures how much benefit they derived from traumatic experiences and are then taught to understand their response to the trauma, reduce their anxiety, tell other people about their experiences in a helpful way, and to create a “trauma narrative” that helps them see that they both lost and benefited from the experience. In addition, the life principles that foster strength in the face of challenge are spoken, and this helps people remember that they can get through other challenges in the future as well. To learn and grow from the traumatic incidences is the ultimate power over the events, and this program helps them do that.

I greatly admire this program and encourage you to think about sad or trying times in your life. Yes, there were pain, fear, sorrow, and anguish. But you’ve survived those times, and you have the opportunity to learn and grow from them.

Created for Connection, Part I


I consider it courageous to show others our vulnerable, less polished and impervious sides, in situations where it is most tempting and easy to be jaded, phony or manipulative. I see this question of whether to connect when interacting with couples, families, friends, politics, and even day-to-day encounters with strangers. While we have exercise caution and care with our hearts and guard against being taken advantage of, we also can act as though we have more to fear than we actually do. How do we decide where there is a real threat of being hurt, physically or emotionally, and where we can let down our guards?

The Disconnected

I have met people who were extremely guarded and afraid of being hurt, although they would never admit to this. They hold up their shield of not-caring, or of cynicism or even aggression to keep themselves from being hurt themselves. The world can indeed be very frightening and dangerous, and we have a duty and responsibility to ourselves to accurately assess when to defend ourselves from others.

But when we can’t shift from that state of protectiveness once the threat is over, or can’t tell a truly dangerous situation from one that merely seems threatening, or one that is neutral but reminds us of past hurts, then we become rigid and incapable of opening up when we want to. And that is a sad and lonely state of existence. Even when such people connect, they often do so from a superficial, win-lose stance. By this I mean that the person feels that they must win and someone else must lose to be safe. Are they concerned for the loser? At this point, it’s every man or woman for themselves, and all such people care about is that they weren’t the loser. Empathy is lost at this point, and when empathy lost any kind of dehumanizing, cruel behavior is possible.

Hearts-Wide-Open

I have also met people who are so open and willing to experience anything and everything that they often get hurt in relationships. They tend to attract people like the ones described above, because they are easy prey for cynical, selfish people. They expose their soft, vulnerable sides in hopes that people will take care of them the way a parent takes care of a child. Unfortunately, the world is not made that way. When we reach 18, our society assumes that we are adults, capable of taking care of our own emotional and physical needs. When we depend on others to look after us and protect us from situations where we should exercise good common sense, we run the risk of being treated pretty savagely. We need to balance of looking after ourselves, but not exclude considering others’ needs and wants.

A Balance of Connection

Somewhere in the middle of these two extremes, we can meet each other and have a reasonable expectation of civility. Some of what we expect of each other depends on our cultural backgrounds. In some cultures, to leave oneself open for possible exploitation is a foolish act that leads to automatic exploitation. For other cultures, there is a level of trust that favors the tender-hearted and assumes the best in people. I think the United States is somewhere in the middle of the spectrum, but is edging towards the cynical end increasingly as time goes on.

We have to make choices about how to use our sensitive, tender parts of ourselves with others, and how much to give of our vulnerabilities to others. Unfortunately, the world is becoming increasingly inhospitable to this practice, as violence escalates and we become increasingly jaded and greedy. How do we carve out a space to meet soul-to-soul with others’ vulnerabilities and hold each other, and ourselves, in a tender, careful way? How can we show love, appreciation and kindness to each other even when we’ve been hurt in the past and have doubts about humanity’s worth? These are some of the issues that are especially salient to people who have been in traumatic situations, and can be explored in psychotherapy.

My Part, Your Part


Fights don’t usually start with only one person. This will help you recognize your part and drop the defensiveness that erodes and stagnates relationships.


Lately I’ve been noticing that many people notice what other people do wrong and get quite upset about it, without taking time to consider their participation in the perceived problem. This often takes place in arguments with loved ones, whether the loved ones are friends, family members or lovers. I’d like to take the time to help you rectify this problem if you notice it in yourself.

We love to be right. We don’t like having people point out our flaws, because we fear their rejection and negative opinion. This is perfectly human and understandable. But it we persist in seeing only what other people are doing wrong and ignore our contribution to the interaction, we miss the opportunity to take responsibility for our actions and improve the situation by acting differently. So we keep feeling like victims, put upon by the whim of other people who are totally unpredictable and unfair.

Do you want to stay in a victim role? Or would you rather feel like you can behave differently in an argument? Hopefully you want the latter, because that is the only way I see out of this mess.

Next time someone gets angry at you or has a problem with what you’re doing, try these four steps:

  1. Notice the feeling that arises in you and accept that feeling. That doesn’t mean you indulge it by acting on it. But it also means that you acknowledge, “I feel angry and like defending myself” without judging yourself for feeling that.
  2. Reflect on what happened before this person got upset with you. As if you were observing the interaction on TV or in a movie, look at the actions that preceded and came after the anger. What were you doing, what were they doing, how did you react to their actions, how did they react to yours…. you get the picture.
  3. If you can see something that you might have done to contribute to it, accept responsibility for that. Don’t conveniently block it out of your mind. Don’t pretend that you had nothing to do with it. If you’re not clear on why they’re angry, ASK, don’t assume.
  4. If they’re not ready to take responsibility for their negative behavior, give them time to cool off before writing them off. If this is new for you, asking for responsibility from yourself and others in such interactions, then try to have patience for the other person and for yourself. It’s a new skill. You’ll get better the more you do it. So will they, hopefully.

Sometimes people don’t take responsibility because to admit fault is to sink into a quicksand pit of shame. If admitting wrongdoing does that to you, it’s probably indicative of low self-esteem and probably a good idea to get professional help. If you feel really angry every time someone points out something you did wrong, it may be an indication that you are covering up your shame or over-compensating for low self-esteem.

Hopefully you can take responsibility for your part in an argument, and the other person can too. It’s really a pain when only one person routinely takes responsibility, and that can lead to resentment, which makes your relationships suffer as a result.

 

 

Inclusion


What a beautiful account of raising a child with neurological differences that allow the individual to see world in a fantastic new way!

Squeeze the Space Man's Taco

INCLUSION

What’s the world like through the eyes of innocence? Somewhere over the spectrum I see the wonder. I see the wonder of a world not tainted by ignorance and hatred; where superheroes exist and fairy tales really can come true. Children give us a unique opportunity to regain this magic.

“Daddy,” queried my nineteen year old son. “What’s Santa Claus going to bring you for Christmas?”

“Let’s see,” speaking of himself in the third person, Cade answered his question. “Santa will bring you Batman, Superman and Justice League toys.”

“Wow Cade!” I exclaimed. “You must have been a good boy this year.”

“Yeah,” he so proudly agreed. “Daddy, what does Santa bring you if you’re nice?”

“What Cade?”

“A bag of toys.” Joy beamed from his eyes as he replied. “Daddy, what does Santa bring you if you’re naughty?”

“What Cade?”

“A bag of poo.”

Although physically an adult, Cade remains a child. Autism may have…

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You’re Not to Blame!


Children often blame themselves for the bad things that happen to them. As adults, we don’t have to keep blaming yourselves.


In working with trauma survivors for over 12 years, a common theme I have encountered has been that people who are abused as children often take responsibility for what happened to them. They think that if they were lovable, stronger, or better able to figure out what their adult caretakers wanted, the abuse would never have happened. The sad thing is that many perpetrators of abuse say things to encourage their victims to feel responsible for the abuse. Very often these are people whose personal developments are immature and do not allow them to take appropriate responsibility for their actions. Therefore, they project responsibility onto the people they harm. This is true for physical as well as sexual abuse.

Of course, we humans are very good at justifying what we do, and our memory is self-serving in most cases. We’ll remember many events in a way that favors us and makes us look good. However, a healthy, normal adult can also take a step back and look at their behavior, realizing that there are more than one versions of any story. Thus, we can see ourselves as culpable and capable of mistakes in most situations, and hopefully take corrective action accordingly. People who hurt others often find it too uncomfortable and painful to take responsibility, so they have a binary system of responsibility. What this means is that they generally see everyone else as wrong and at fault, and themselves as perfect and poor victims who are acted upon by all those wrong-doers. Other adults can swat away people like this like so many flies, realizing that this way of thinking is unhealthy and dangerous to be around. But children are often stuck in a one-down position in relation to people like this. Imagine being the child of someone who can never admit fault, can never say “I’m sorry” after inflicting physical or emotional pain on you. Or worse yet, who can make you feel as though you deserved to get mistreated. This is one of the horrible side effects of abuse that takes a long time to heal.

If you have come to see your own childhood abuse as your fault, I hope that you can reach a point where you realize that you did not deserve it. It may take a while to realize this, but it is a very important part of healing from trauma. If you feel stuck and believes that don’t work for you, professional help may be essential to your healing. Please consider calling me if you are in the Antelope Valley area; my phone number is 661-233-6771.

When Your Partner Can’t Cope


Considerations when one member of a couple fairs better psychologically than the other does.


When I work with couples, there is sometimes a difference in the level of functioning between the partners. Sometimes, people who like to take care of other people wind up with partners who are very damaged psychologically. This can be challenging, because the partner who isn’t as damaged expects more out of their partners them what they can deliver. It is a fine line between accepting abusive behavior and understanding that the person has had a difficult childhood or difficult past experiences in general. I do think that compassion is always a good idea, but sometimes compassion can turn into enabling behavior. We can be supportive and understanding of each other’s painful past, and accommodate it to a degree, but when it starts becoming a one-way relationship wherein one party is always favored or given his or her way, it stops being healthy for both partners.

This difference in functioning is not necessarily restricted to heterosexual couples. It can also happen in gay, lesbian, or polyamorous couples as well. I use a heterosexual couple as an example here but it could be any two people whose psychological function differs significantly, enough to cause relationship problems.

Meet Mary and Mac

Let me give you an example. Mary and Mac have been together for six years. Mary has been through a lot of trauma and often has angry outbursts where she cannot be talk to in a reasonable way and she cannot control her anger enough to have a productive conversation. Mac, wanting to be understanding, allows himself to be talk to in a demeaning, hurtful way that makes him feel insecure and depressed. This is been going on for at least two years, and Mary expects back to tolerate this without question or objection. Mac has asked Mary on repeated occasions to get help, but Mary says that she’s not ready yet. The truth is that Mary is frightened of the idea of facing all the horrible things that happened to her, and would rather skip processing that and just go on with life as if nothing happened. I can understand why this would be more tempting, but when she drinks or is just stressed, the anger and frustration that she was never able to express to her perpetrators come out. What should Mary do, and what should Mac do?

Often by the time they reach couples therapy, a lot of damage has been done because they say things to each other during fights that cannot be undone. Max starts to shut down more and more, or stonewall his partner. As Mary senses Mac pulling away, she becomes more desperate and her emotions more out of control. Usually these situations don’t work until individual therapy for the person who is in the most distress, has taken place. This is especially true if there is domestic violence going on. Couples therapy can bring up a lot of painful issues, and it’s important that both partners have a safe, responsible way to cope with their feelings. Sometimes therapists mistakenly think that they can see a couple where battery is going on, but it is best to refer them to anger management and other resources before attempting couples therapy.

 

Recommendations

It’s also important for the person who is coping better to get some help. Work on boundaries and self esteem is crucial when you have a partner who is emotionally needy or abusive. If you feel as though you’re always giving in the relationship and never getting very much back, it’s important to look at that and ask yourself why. A few books that can be helpful are Stop Walking on Eggshells, by Paul Mason and Randy Kreger, and¶ Coming Home to Passion, by Ruth Cohn. I also find a lot of couples like Seven Principles of Making Marriage Work by John Gottman and Nan Silver, although that book is more general in its audience.

The hope is that both of you can cope with stress and an effective, healthy way and thus truly enjoy your relationship. A relationship should be mutually beneficial, warm, and loving. If yours is not, consider getting some help.

Terror on Our Soil


It seems like just a few weeks ago I was happily celebrating LGBTQQIA pride and waving my ally flag high, when the terrible shooting in Pulse night club in Orlando, Florida occurred. I have seen how it has affected my clients who identify with that community. It brings up all their trauma and grief of being rejected, bullied, and targeted for violence for years. It’s hard to conceive that someone could be so hateful and unstable to kill so many people, but even one fatality or injury due to hate is one too many. How do we make sense of this, and how do we recover from this tragedy?

I won’t pretend to have the answers, but I can tell you how I cope with tragedies like this. Maybe that can help guide you, in healing from terror on our soil. Interestingly, our culture seems more supportive of attacks from people outside our country, like 9/11, than gun violence within our country. Both are vicious attacks and deserve to be taken seriously, but the way some religious leaders are blaming the victim in the Orlando shooting would never have happened post-9/11. Who would have the gall to blame the people in the Twin Towers for what happened to them? And who has the audacity and lack of compassion to say that the people in the night club that night are to blame? Unfortunately, some do.

First, I think we heal collectively when we offer each other support and kindness after any tragedy. The receivers of the support benefit, obviously, but givers of support also do better. I believe that is because it gives us a sense of purpose and meaning; it’s an opportunity to unite and comfort each other. That comfort is crucial, especially for a group of people who has been historically ostracized and treated appallingly by mainstream society. We now have a chance to show that we’re better than our history, that we can be redeemed through kindness and acceptance now.
Second, I think that we need to find a way to make our culture much less violent in general. Wherever you stand on the issues of the LGBTQQIA community or gun control, it’s hard to argue that we’re a peace-loving culture. Our culture is steeped in violence, from our entertainment to the way we treat each other, our families, our children, and sometimes even ourselves. I think we need to take a collective step back and ask, “Why do we have so much violence? What purpose does it serve? How do we benefit from it and how do we pay for it? How can I reduce the violence in my life?” This may take the form of activism, writing your congress people and senators and asking for different approaches to domestic and foreign policy, or it may take a more personal approach of reflection and spiritual seeking. Whatever form it takes, I think it’s worth the effort. And there is nothing wrong with taking both an activist and personal approach. As Gandhi said, “Be the change you want to see in the world.”

To the families of those who passed in the shooting, and all shootings, I offer my sincere sympathy and I hope that you get the support and kindness you need. This should never ever have happened, just as any shooting should never have occurred. I hope that we can all prevent something like this from happening again.

I would love to know how you are coping with this tragedy. Please share your comments with me below.

Room for All of Us


Since this is LGBTQQIA Awareness Month, I thought I might share some thoughts about diversity and how we as a country have yet to fully embrace it. Diversity benefits us as a community, a nation, and a planet. Sameness may make us feel safer psychologically, but ultimately leads to creative stagnation if we allow fear to keep us from experiencing and exposing ourselves to the differences that make up the human race.

I see many people who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgendered, and I love it. I strive to make my practice open and inviting to everyone, regardless of gender identification or sexual preference. I learn so much from everyone I see who is different from me. I try to make myself as educated as I can, but there are times that I am not fully aware of my bias, and I strive to correct that. My graduate school, John F. Kennedy University, emphasized multicultural awareness and for that I am extremely grateful. This has been an interesting experience for me because I grew up in a very liberal area (the SF Bay Area) and went to school in equally liberal Santa Cruz (go Banana Slugs!). In that bubble of acceptance and outright pride in diversity, it was less common to see people disenfranchised for being queer-gendered or gay, lesbian or bisexual. However, when I moved to the Antelope Valley, I started seeing people having to hide their sexuality or gender differences from their families, as well as hearing strikingly sad tales of adolescents being kicked out of their family homes for being LBGT.

I see homophobia and transphobia hurt people, not only those who identify as LGBTQQIA but also cis-gendered and heterosexual people. I sometimes see self-mutilation, low self-esteem, substance abuse, depression, anxiety, and a sense of hopelessness in the people who have been ostracized. And in heterosexual people who are involved with gay, lesbian, bi and trans people, I also encounter hatred and disgust, rigidity, fear, anger, and unnecessary restriction of association. Relationships are ruptured and strained because of fear and bigotry. One family prevented their child from being best friends with a girl who identified as bisexual. Another person rejected her son because he was gay. These stories are all too common and horrible to hear. When we shun people who are different from us, we miss out on a different perspective, and our intolerance and ignorance makes us enemies where we could be allies. If you think about it, we all do best when we feel loved, accepted and respected by one another; why should that be different for someone who is different from you?

Where did we go wrong, I wonder. How did we become so intolerant of what we don’t know, or understand? How can we repair the ruptured bonds that hold us together as humans? And what can we do to educate people, including ourselves, about what it means to be LGBTQQIA? When can we let go of viewing diversity as a threatening force, and instead see it as stimulating, refreshing, exciting, interesting, an opportunity to hone our own self-understanding as well as grasping what it means to be one little person in a big wide world?

I think education is part of what we can do; but there are frankly those who choose not to educate themselves or embrace acceptance of difference. Can we effectively stand up for diversity, by not allowing bigoted comments like “that’s so gay” to go without confronting it? Can we intercede when we see bullying against an LGBTQQIA child or adult? Sometimes change has to happen at a political level, with policies that end bigotry. Such these battles are not easily won, for any group deemed non-dominant. Maybe we need to address bigotry against anyone on many different levels, both within ourselves, between people, and at the national and international level. I encourage you to be aware not only this month but all year round, of the lack of acceptance of people who are different from you. Hopefully it will be something you want to change, enough to change it. It’s a small planet in some ways, but I still maintain that there’s room for all of us.

Is my grief normal?


People often wonder if the way they respond to grief is “normal” and expected in relation to what other people do and say when they lose someone to death. Unfortunately, the answer is not always so simple. Some factors include the culture of the person, how they were doing psychologically before the loss, what they expect of themselves post-loss, and how they view the loss. For some folks, if their deceased love one was suffering greatly before they died so death may provide some relief, whereas someone who lost their loved one suddenly and unexpectedly may feel a sense of anxiety and bewilderment.

As mentioned in previous posts, there is a difference between what is psychiatrically considered normal, uncomplicated mourning and complex grief. A sense of bewilderment, some brain fog, sad feelings interspersed with other transient emotions, loss of appetite, and temporary anhedonia (not feeling pleasure in activities and things that used to bring enjoyment) are all symptoms of normal grief. Interestingly, other cultures seem to give people longer to grief before they consider a person’s grief pathological or problematic (e.g., Egypt). Our culture seems to think that most of the symptoms of grief should be over after about a year, which depending on the nature of the bond between the survivor and the deceased, could be an awfully short amount of time to sort out one’s feelings about the loss. To give you a sense of what is considered “complicated”, I refer to Pomeroy and Garcia’s book The Grief Assessment and Intervention Workbook for ease:

  1. Are you especially sensitive to other loss and separation experiences?
  2. Do you try especially hard to suppress anxiety with relation to loss and separation?
  3. Are you anxious about death and loss of other loved ones, or yourself?
  4. Do you have an especially strong, unrealistic idealization about the lost loved one or your relationship with them?
  5. Do you have rigid obsessions and compulsions about the dead person and the loss thereof?
  6. Do you avoid socializing with others because you’re afraid of losing new people too?
  7. Do you have a hard time expressing emotions about the loss, and does that difficulty last a long time?
  8. Do you self-sabotage other relationships after the loss?
  9. Do you abuse substances (drugs and alcohol) after the loss?
  10. Do you have PTSD-like symptoms like numbness, alienation, depersonalization, and emotional overwhelm?
  11. Do you have depressive symptoms like anger, irritability and hopelessness that last a while?

If these symptoms are present, you might want to get some help to cope with the loss with professional support. I would be happy to help you, can be reached at 661-233-6771. You can also look for a bereavement support group in your community. Many hospices have them and they are low or no-cost. Whatever you do, try not to judge yourself for what you’re experiencing. You are doing your best in a very hard situation.

 

Dealing with Rejection


There are few situations that are harder to accept than being rejected by another person, or even organization. Even if we are mentally healthy, we are social animals and want to be liked and loved by others, or to have their approval. After all, when we were more primitive beings long ago, our very survival depended on being accepted by the people in our clan. Perhaps that need to survive is what lingers with us now, in spite of our vastly more complicated social systems and circumstances.

There is also the missed opportunity of being part of a desired activity, whether it is getting a job, hanging out with cool people, having fun, being invited to parties we’d enjoy, etc. That, combined with the sting of not being part of the “in” group, can bring us back to being kids on the school yard when the cool kids didn’t want to play with us. It can hurt even more when the rejection is at the hands of our family members. Nonetheless, rejection is still the same: someone else has determined that there just isn’t a fit between you and them.

Don’t take it personally — “duh!”

The first thing to remember is not to take this personally. Yeah right, you might say. How do I not take this personally? Good question. There are a number of ways to not take it personally. First, remember that you are the same person whether accepted or rejected by others, and that your inherent worth is unchanged. Yes, you might feel cruddy right now in the heat of the moment, but that doesn’t have anything to do with how good or bad you are. Only you can determine your worth in absolute terms.

Just as Good as Anyone Else!

Knowing, liking and accepting yourself is a subject for another post, but basically it boils down to this: you have talents, gifts and limitations like anyone else on the planet. You might shine in one area where I am really not as talented, and vice versa. The more you know and accept these areas within yourself, the easier it is to gauge that against what others are saying (or not saying) about you. Other people might have a different idea of what they want in a friend, lover, employee, etc. that doesn’t make what you have to offer subpar; it’s just not a match.

The Myth of Universal Appeal

Second on your agenda is remembering that not everyone has to like you, just as you don’t like everyone you come across. The idea that you can please everyone uniformly is not only unrealistic, it can make you subservient or angry, neither of which is socially attractive or effective. There are people you will mesh well with, and people who make your tummy turn when you get in their presence. That’s OK! It’s liberating when you think of it. You don’t have to be perfect for them and vice versa.

Who do you Love?

Finally, focus your attention on the people who you do enjoy. You might not have a large circle of close friends yet, but that can change over time. It is vital to remember that relationship-building takes time and effort. You can’t just walk into a room and have an instant friend. I don’t care what Hollywood movies try to portray at times – not very many people have that instant charisma, and if they do, I’m often a little wary of them. There’s nothing wrong with pursuing friendship with people, but don’t let your ego get mangled in the process.