Saturday, December 24, 2016

How to Ease the Holiday Blues

“I think there must be something wrong with me, Linus. Christmas is coming but I’m not happy. I don’t feel the way I’m supposed to feel.” – Charlie Brown in A Charlie Brown Christmas

Charlie Brown immortalized the uncanny dissonance of the holiday blues in this classic Christmas tale. I first heard about the holiday blues when I was working at a psychiatric hospital in Cambridge and my colleague said to me in September: “These beds will all be full by the beginning of December”. I thought it was strange that at a time centered around happiness, fellowship, harmony and family, people find themselves lonely, sad, depressed — even suicidal. Clearly, the holidays are laden with expectations – expectations that have been built upon a foundation of years of nostalgia or, alternately, disappointment.

While some of us look forward to the holidays, others dread the impending stress that comes from overdrinking, overeating and over consuming. Many of us remember those who are no longer with us — family members who have passed, marriages that ended, and relationships that have been severed. Holidays propel us back into old family conflicts which faithfully resurface each year, which can deepen our sadness and unease.
Here are some ways you can lighten your expectations and ease the holiday blues. They are a holiday offering for you. Pick and choose as you like, rather than another dreaded list of to-do’s that you must get done by the year’s end.

Reassess your priorities
As the year closes, we feel pulled by an array of demands: attending office parties, cooking elaborate meals, traveling and spending beyond our means. What would actually bring you the most pleasure this holiday? Make a list of your holiday “shoulds”. Get inspired by Ellen Burstyn’s “should-less” days. See if you can cross off at least two or three items from your list.
Then, make a new list – of things that will bring you meaning and pleasure. How can these two lists be combined? For instance, if you want to reconnect with old friends but you are planning to cook a complicated meal to impress them, what if everyone brought a dish, instead? Collaborate with family and friends by letting them know how you feel about the holidays – you may be surprised to find they feel the same way – and together, find creative ways to ease holiday anxiety.

Give to those who need it most
The old adage is true: there is nothing that makes you feel less alone and less unworthy than to help others. For years, when my children were young, we would volunteer in a soup kitchen on Christmas day. The holidays offer so many opportunities to give to the community. And you will find that your act of altruism has the benefit of making you feel better, while also creating a sense of meaning that cuts through the superficialities of the holiday season. Here’s a list of possibilities for helping others in Toronto, or to find opportunities in your area, a quick internet search should lead you in the right direction.

Surround yourself with your family of choice
Many of us do not spend the holidays with those that we love the most. What I seek in the holidays is gathering, conviviality and warmth – a beating back against the cold through the fellowship of others. Create a place where you can be with those who accept you, free from judgment and awkward political conversations. If you feel isolated, far from your family, have a gathering of “the exiled and orphans.” This kind of fellowship brings great solace during the holidays.

Find some time for spiritual introspection
When I lived in Jerusalem, despite being Jewish, every year I would pick a different church to attend midnight mass. Regardless of your religion, being in a room where songs are sung, candles are lit and humans gather together can be uplifting, helping you to shift your focus from doing to simply being.

How are you handling the holidays this season? I’d love to hear from you

Friday, October 21, 2016

Where does Love Go Wrong?

The Demon Dialogues That Can Wreck Your Relationship
By Dr. Sue Johnson,
Author of Hold Me Tight

Unhappy couples always tell me that they fight over money, the kids, or sex. They tell me that they cannot communicate and the solution is that their partner has to change.  “If Mary would just not get so emotional and listen to my arguments about our fianc├ęs and the kids, we would get somewhere,” Brian tells me. “Well, if Brian would talk more and not just walk away, we wouldn’t fight. I think we are just growing apart here,” says Mary.

After 25 years of doing couple therapy and couple research studies, I know that both Mary and Tim are just seeing the tip of the iceberg. Submerged below is the massive real issue: both partners feel emotionally disconnected.

They are watching their backs, feeling criticized, shut-out and alone. Underneath all the loud arguments and long silences, partners are asking each other the key questions in the drama of love: “Are you there for me? Do I and my feelings matter to you? Will you respond to me when I need you?”  The answers to these questions, questions that are so hard to ask and so hard to hear in the heat of a fight, make the difference between emotional safety and emotional peril and starvation.

We know from all the hundreds of studies on love that have emerged during the past decade that emotional responsiveness is what makes or breaks love relationships. Happy stable couples can quarrel and fight, but they also know how to tune into each other and restore emotional connection after a clash. In our studies we find that seven out of ten couples who receive Emotionally Focused Therapy or EFT can repair their relationship. They do this by finding a way out of emotional disconnection and back into the safe loving contact that builds trust. But why can’t we all do this, even without a therapist? What gets in our way?  The new science of love tells us.

Our loved one is our shelter in life. When this person is unavailable and unresponsive we are assailed by a tsunami of emotions — sadness, anger, hurt and above all, fear. This fear is wired in. Being able to rely on a loved one, to know that he or she will answer our call is our innate survival code. Research is clear, when we sense that a primary love relationship is threatened, we go into a primal panic.

There are only three ways to deal with our sense of impending loss and isolation. If we are in a happy basically secure union, we accept the need for emotional connection and speak those needs directly in a way that helps their partner respond lovingly. If however we are in a wobbly relationship and are not sure how to voice our need, we either angrily demand or try to push our partner into responding, or we shut down and move away to protect ourselves. No matter the exact words we use, what we are really saying is, “Notice me. Be with me. I need you.” Or, “I won’t let you hurt me. I will chill out, try to stay in control.”

If these strategies become front and center in a relationship, then we are liable to get stuck in what I call the Demon Dialogues. These dialogues can take over your relationship. They create more and more resentment, caution and distance until we reach a point where we feel the only solution is to give up and bail out. 

When folks caught in Demon Dialogues come in and ask, “Is there any hope for us?”  I tell them, “Sure there is. When we understand what the drama of love is all about, what our needs and fears are, we can help each other step out of these negative dialogues into positive loving conversations that bring us in to each other’s arms and safely home.


Monday, September 12, 2016

What Every Couple Should Know about Emotions

by Les Greenberg

Emotions are what relationships are really about.

Emotions are the glue that make people stick together and that bring us all the positive feelings that make us want to spend time together. They give us the spark of passion, the comfort of belonging, the pride of feeling special, and the enjoyment of feeling known and understood.

Unfortunately, emotions are also what make relationships difficult. They can overwhelm us, they can shut us down, and they can make us say and do things that give us a sense of being out of control.
A relationship can bring out the best and can bring out the worst in our human nature. They can lead a president to risk his reputation for a night of passion, and a football player to murder his wife out of jealousy and anger.
No wonder then that many people have an ambivalent relationship with their emotions: They both fear them and like them.
But no matter what your opinion is, it is clear that you need to learn how to understand your emotions and know what to do with them in order to be successful in your relationships with others.
The Fundamental Thing You Need to Know about Emotions:
One thing that was really helpful to me when I first started to study how emotions really work was the distinction made between primary emotions and secondary emotions. This distinction helped me understand my own emotional reactions much better and it has become one of the key principles of the many forms of emotion focused therapies that are currently being used to help individuals and couples.
Once you understand this distinction, you will have one of the most important tools at your disposal to turn negative interactions in your relationship around.
Primary Emotions and Secondary Emotions:
primary emotion is the first emotion we feel in response to a particular event in our environment. If we wanted to state it simply they refer to how we really feel.
In many situations, however, our primary emotions get covered over by secondary reactions to our primary emotions.
If I feel hurt or sad about my partner saying that he prefers to spend a night on the town with his guy friends, rather than a relaxing night at home with me, I might have an emotional reaction to feeling sad or hurt.
I might for example feel guilty because I don’t think I should need anyone and have learned that I should never prioritize my own needs over those of others.  However, I could also feel embarrassed or ashamed because I believe it is pathetic and weak for me let someone else have this kind of sway over me.

Another possibility would be that I feel angry that my partner does not want to hang out with me and get resentful because I do not want to feel pushed aside and demand to be a higher priority than his friends. All of these secondary reactions to my primary emotions transform this emotion into something else than what it initially was.

Secondary Emotions Distort How We Really Feel:
If I feel guilty about wanting more of my partner’s time and attention, I can then no longer express my sadness at not having my need met. The guilt blocks me from expressing my sadness. It may also block me from even admitting to myself that I feel sad, and so I may not even have the ability to comfort myself and deal with my sense of loss or disappointment on my own. Because the primary feeling gets blocked by the secondary feeling, I end up distorting my own original experience. This means that the original emotion cannot be resolved and can no longer be used to guide my actions. 

My primary emotion goes underground, and instead gets replaced by my secondary emotion, which may now lead to a quite different reaction. Instead of saying “it kind of hurt my feelings when I think you would rather spend time with others than with me”, I now instead end up withdrawing emotionally (guilt: I should not express my needs, I don’t deserve to have my needs met), or reacting with anger (I don’t deserve to be treated this way)

Les Greenberg, is a professor emeritus of psychology at York University in Toronto, Canada and also director of the Emotion-Focused Therapy Clinic in Toronto

Monday, August 29, 2016

Why You Will Marry the Wrong Person

I found this interesting article by Alain de Botton in the New York Times and though it might be of interest to you.

IT’S one of the things we are most afraid might happen to us. We go to great lengths to avoid it. And yet we do it all the same: We marry the wrong person.
Partly, it’s because we have a bewildering array of problems that emerge when we try to get close to others. We seem normal only to those who don’t know us very well. In a wiser, more self-aware society than our own, a standard question on any early dinner date would be: “And how are you crazy?”
Perhaps we have a latent tendency to get furious when someone disagrees with us or can relax only when we are working; perhaps we’re tricky about intimacy after sex or clam up in response to humiliation. Nobody’s perfect. The problem is that before marriage, we rarely delve into our complexities. Whenever casual relationships threaten to reveal our flaws, we blame our partners and call it a day. As for our friends, they don’t care enough to do the hard work of enlightening us. One of the privileges of being on our own is therefore the sincere impression that we are really quite easy to live with.
Our partners are no more self-aware. Naturally, we make a stab at trying to understand them. We visit their families. We look at their photos, we meet their college friends. All this contributes to a sense that we’ve done our homework. We haven’t. Marriage ends up as a hopeful, generous, infinitely kind gamble taken by two people who don’t know yet who they are or who the other might be, binding themselves to a future they cannot conceive of and have carefully avoided investigating.
For most of recorded history, people married for logical sorts of reasons: because her parcel of land adjoined yours, his family had a flourishing business, her father was the magistrate in town, there was a castle to keep up, or both sets of parents subscribed to the same interpretation of a holy text. And from such reasonable marriages, there flowed loneliness, infidelity, abuse, hardness of heart and screams heard through the nursery doors. The marriage of reason was not, in hindsight, reasonable at all; it was often expedient, narrow-minded, snobbish and exploitative. That is why what has replaced it — the marriage of feeling — has largely been spared the need to account for itself.
What matters in the marriage of feeling is that two people are drawn to each other by an overwhelming instinct and know in their hearts that it is right. Indeed, the more imprudent a marriage appears (perhaps it’s been only six months since they met; one of them has no job or both are barely out of their teens), the safer it can feel. Recklessness is taken as a counterweight to all the errors of reason, that catalyst of misery, that accountant’s demand. The prestige of instinct is the traumatized reaction against too many centuries of unreasonable reason.
But though we believe ourselves to be seeking happiness in marriage, it isn’t that simple. What we really seek is familiarity — which may well complicate any plans we might have had for happiness. We are looking to recreate, within our adult relationships, the feelings we knew so well in childhood. The love most of us will have tasted early on was often confused with other, more destructive dynamics: feelings of wanting to help an adult who was out of control, of being deprived of a parent’s warmth or scared of his anger, of not feeling secure enough to communicate our wishes. How logical, then, that we should as grown-ups find ourselves rejecting certain candidates for marriage not because they are wrong but because they are too right — too balanced, mature, understanding and reliable — given that in our hearts, such rightness feels foreign. We marry the wrong people because we don’t associate being loved with feeling happy.
We make mistakes, too, because we are so lonely. No one can be in an optimal frame of mind to choose a partner when remaining single feels unbearable. We have to be wholly at peace with the prospect of many years of solitude in order to be appropriately picky; otherwise, we risk loving no longer being single rather more than we love the partner who spared us that fate.
Finally, we marry to make a nice feeling permanent. We imagine that marriage will help us to bottle the joy we felt when the thought of proposing first came to us: Perhaps we were in Venice, on the lagoon, in a motorboat, with the evening sun throwing glitter across the sea, chatting about aspects of our souls no one ever seemed to have grasped before, with the prospect of dinner in a risotto place a little later. We married to make such sensations permanent but failed to see that there was no solid connection between these feelings and the institution of marriage.
Indeed, marriage tends decisively to move us onto another, very different and more administrative plane, which perhaps unfolds in a suburban house, with a long commute and maddening children who kill the passion from which they emerged. The only ingredient in common is the partner. And that might have been the wrong ingredient to bottle.
The good news is that it doesn’t matter if we find we have married the wrong person.
We mustn’t abandon him or her, only the founding Romantic idea upon which the Western understanding of marriage has been based the last 250 years: that a perfect being exists who can meet all our needs and satisfy our every yearning.

We need to swap the Romantic view for a tragic (and at points comedic) awareness that every human will frustrate, anger, annoy, madden and disappoint us — and we will (without any malice) do the same to them. There can be no end to our sense of emptiness and incompleteness. But none of this is unusual or grounds for divorce. Choosing whom to commit ourselves to is merely a case of identifying which particular variety of suffering we would most like to sacrifice ourselves for.
This philosophy of pessimism offers a solution to a lot of distress and agitation around marriage. It might sound odd, but pessimism relieves the excessive imaginative pressure that our romantic culture places upon marriage. The failure of one particular partner to save us from our grief and melancholy is not an argument against that person and no sign that a union deserves to fail or be upgraded.
The person who is best suited to us is not the person who shares our every taste (he or she doesn’t exist), but the person who can negotiate differences in taste intelligently — the person who is good at disagreement. Rather than some notional idea of perfect complementarity, it is the capacity to tolerate differences with generosity that is the true marker of the “not overly wrong” person. Compatibility is an achievement of love; it must not be its precondition.
Romanticism has been unhelpful to us; it is a harsh philosophy. It has made a lot of what we go through in marriage seem exceptional and appalling. We end up lonely and convinced that our union, with its imperfections, is not “normal.” We should learn to accommodate ourselves to “wrongness,” striving always to adopt a more forgiving, humorous and kindly perspective on its multiple examples in ourselves and in our partners.

Alain de Botton, FRSL is a Swiss-born, British-based author and television presenter. His books and television programmes discuss various contemporary subjects and themes, emphasizing philosophy's relevance to everyday life

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Why Men Stay Away from Therapy — and Why It’s Actually a Perfect Match

A man went to see psychologist Ryan Howes solely because his wife wanted him to. She wanted him to work on his communication and become more comfortable with intimacy. He wanted to be anywhere but there.
Many men feel this way about therapy.* And many men avoid it — even when they’re struggling and need it most. They often see attending therapy as a “sign of weakness or inadequacy,” said Jean Fitzpatrick, LP, a psychotherapist who has extensive experience working with both men and women and whose practice focuses on relationship and career issues. In particular, men over 50 tend to have a harder time being vulnerable and putting their feelings into words, she said.
Our society largely promotes a very rigid and narrow view of masculinity — real men are supposed to be tough, dominant, independent and strong. They shouldn’t need anyone. Ever.
Men still hear the echo of other old messages, such as: Suck it up, big boys don’t cry, fix it yourself and don’t think about it, said Howes, Ph.D, who’s spent 20 years helping men with their work, relationship and emotional problems, along with researching and writing on men’s issues. So it’s not surprising that many men hold negative views about therapy and start to develop negative views about themselves if they need help.
“There’s a fear they’ll be ridiculed or lose face if they admit they have a problem they can’t fix on their own,” Howes said. Many also find feeling emotions, such as anger or sadness, to be uncomfortable or even unbearable, he said. Going to therapy to connect to these emotions seems like a punishment or simply ridiculous.
(Howes has seen many men end up enjoying the process like “it’s an internal treasure hunt.” After they feel an emotion, they get curious and wonder what the feeling is, what they should call it and where it came from, he said.)
Therapy also may be downright foreign to many men because they don’t really have deep conversations with their friends. Many haven’t even had one. “They may be surrounded by buddies who can talk all day about a number of topics. But they’ve never told another guy about painful memories, deep fears or hidden dreams.”
When men do come to therapy, they prefer to tackle tangible, specific goals, Fitzpatrick said. For instance, they might want to figure out how to navigate a toxic work situation or fix their marriage after an infidelity, she said.
Howes and his client (from above) ended up working on something he actually wanted to work on. “After some poking around, we settled on helping him find a new direction for his career and he started to come alive. By becoming unstuck in therapy and his career, he also loosened up in his marriage and felt more comfortable really connecting with [his wife].”
Howes’s male clients tend to focus more on issues pertaining to work and seeking purpose in their lives. (Women, he said, “tend to focus more on the issues that impact relationships.”) For instance, a client might say, “I want to make VP at my job this year, but I think I’m depressed. Help me fix the depression, so I can get the promotion.”
As Fitzpatrick also noted, “Work isn’t something ‘off to the side’ for men, any more than it is for women. It is an essential part of their sense of self…”
She encouraged readers to be clear with therapists about the help you seek. If you don’t understand or agree with something the therapist says, let them know, she said. It’s important for your therapist to meet you where you are and not to insist that a feeling be expressed in a certain way, Fitzpatrick said. For instance, a therapist asks a man how he’s feeling and he responds that he wants to save his marriage. The therapist shouldn’t decide he’s too goal-oriented or “needs to learn to express feelings more openly.”
Men and therapy are actually a perfect match, Howes said. Many men love to solve problems and fix things —everything from broken dresser drawers to fantasy football teams to computer glitches, he said. “[T]herapy is a laboratory, sort of a garage workshop where we tinker and problem solve every week.” Therapy is a place to collaborate and work with intangible puzzles, he said.
Therapy gives you the opportunity to better understand yourself, Fitzpatrick said. It’s an opportunity to “feel stronger, more authentic and more comfortable with [yourself].” All positive, powerful things that men — and everyone — can benefit from.
* It’s important to note that men are diverse. As Howes said, there are many men who do love therapy, feel no shame about coming and can’t wait to get in and talk about feelings.” In this piece we’re focusing on a segment of men who have a harder time with therapy.