The Fourth Reason

Make more mistakes

When I ask most people about what gets us into therapy, the usual responses are; stress, depression, anxiety, relationship problems, drugs or alcohol, and a few others. In a more general way, I’d suggest there are three primary “issues” that get people into therapy; grief and loss, abandonment and neglect, and abuse of all kinds. There are certainly more reasons people cite in wanting to see a therapist, but in my experience, there is a fourth thing that prompts people to come in: perfectionism.

For many of us and many cultures, at first there seems to be little downside to perfectionism. In truth, some of the character assets that come with it drive many of the personal and cultural improvements we’ve made in all kinds of areas. Like many things though, it behooves us to look at the fine print. There is definitely a price for this way of behaving. It is sort of a softball to point at the usual and sundry – loss of time at home and in recreation, medical problems like heart attack and stroke, the aforementioned mental health treatment. These things are certainly caused by a constellation of problems, but if looked at a little differently, by looking at the symptoms of perfectionism and their subtlety, it might shed some light on perfectionism and its consequences.

Clients who self-identify perfectionism being a problem for them report a host of symptoms that are pretty easy to see are related to this issue. Here’s a few:

  1. Rumination/obsessive thinking, replaying or imagining how we think some experiences should go
  2. Hypervigilance
  3. Imposition of high expectations on self or others
  4. Sacrificing parts of ourselves/lives that we can’t afford to lose (time, sleep/rest/breaks, exercise, money . . .)
  5. Saying “yes” when “no” might be better for us
  6. Being critical of self or others in ways that have negative consequences
  7. An “incongruent affect” (a clinical term) – the way we “look”, our facial expressions and the like, don’t match how we feel on the inside
  8. “People-pleasing” – similar to #4 above, but subtly different
  9. Lack of compassion/kindness for mistakes/foibles made by self and/or others
  10. “Social engineering” or “the Jedi Mind Trick” – managing other people’s perceptions, thoughts, and feelings about us
  11. Different types of negative “self-talk” – “How could I be so _____ (stupid, fat, ugly etc.)?”, “I should have/could have done more/better…” (there are TONS of examples)
  12. “Punishing” oneself (staying later at work or activity, working more, sacrificing more, putting off things we’ve earned or deserve, sometimes physical or “verbal” self-talk punishment . . . ) for “not doing enough”, “not measuring up” and etc.

There are many more examples of symptoms of perfectionism. There are also more examples of the consequences than the ones listed above. Strange as it may seem, perfectionism can also show up as an unhealthy relationship with food, alcohol, drugs, sex, how we treat our partners and children (having high expectations, for instance), picking or staying with unhealthy friends/partners, depression, low self-worth, anxiety and more.

So, what to do? Many of the typical suggestions from therapists are helpful, but sometimes insufficient. Lots of these are intuitive, and can be done without paying somebody – there are plenty of resources available on the internet. They usually are ideas like:

  1. Trying to remove the word “should” or “could” from discussion (including self-talk) about our abilities/behavior
  2. “Being gentle with ourselves” (a strangely vague direction, I’d argue)
  3. Changing/lowering expectations
  4. “Having healthier boundaries” (often ill-defined)
  5. Using “positive affirmations”

There’s certainly more. What I would offer might be more concrete suggestions. This is an incomplete list due to the medium, and per usual, many of these are better utilized with the direction of a therapist on an ongoing basis. Here are some other ideas:

  1. Learn to have (and survive) a “congruent affect” – how to gracefully and appropriately have your outsides match your insides
  2. Get “peer review” – ask trusted friends to help with an objective sense of whether we are asking too much of ourselves, and the like
  3. Make a list of the perfectionistic behaviors we engage in, and stop engaging in them. If that is difficult, would suggest using some of these ideas to help stop them. This is a great example of the kinds of things that might need more ongoing therapy to come up with specific strategies, as is the next item . . .
  4. List quotes of our negative self-talk. These can be replaced with more “right size” ideas/statements, or counter ideas that both keep us from adding to the pile, but a way of starting to counter this self-criticism and other similar behavior.
  5. Yet another really important method that would be better done with ongoing therapy, identification and processing of the issues/experiences that might have prompted us to suffer with this in the first place.
  6. Learning what healthy boundaries are, and how to employ them
  7. Replacing “punishing” ourselves, being hard on ourselves and the like with more compassionate/loving kinds of ideas. Every therapist on the planet (almost) suggests self-care/self love as a solution, but we are terrible at being specific about it. Will offer a quick “thought experiment”. Think of a person or thing you are pretty sure you are good at being compassionate/loving towards. Think about the principle that is involved in these ideas. Attention? Providing basic needs? Verbal affection/appreciation? Consistency/responsibility? There’s tons of examples, but whatever we come up with, if we add a little critical thinking skills/objectivity/guidance from a therapist, we can readily come up with some great ideas that we do for others, and learn how to apply those ideas to ourselves.
  8. Learning how to handle the consequences of saying “no”, and methods of communicating it clearly/assertively
  9. Learning “thought-stopping” techniques
  10. Consider making __ (insert your age here) year-old mistakes

As I noted, while there are clearly more ideas that might be employed, I think this is a pretty good list. In some cases, this behavior might point to the ill-defined issue of “codependency”, but that is an idea better tackled for a blog (or book) of its own. It is hard for me to write about this and not make at least a mention of the idea of “humility”, another misunderstood and ill-defined term in some ways. However, humility, what I would suggest is a principle that helps us consider our awareness and relationship with our own individual human-ness, the quality of our human-ness, can also really help us have a “right-size” relationship with who/what we are. This seems to be a method too of diminishing perfectionism in a healthy way, but is beyond the scope of this blog as well.

It seems to me that our society, certainly here in the US, is fraught with nudges for us to behave in a perfectionistic way. Though we all agree that our expectations of ourselves tends to be unhealthy, how it shows up in our lives is even more subtle than the messages we get this from in the first place – comparing our insides with the outsides of others, trauma, poverty, advertising blaring one-way communications with us about who we should be/what we need, and the like. The pain, shame, and anxiety this produces is intense, being a therapist in the room with many of my clients (and having struggled with this myself many times in my life).

One of my heroes, Sheldon Kopp has admonished, “Why be perfect, when you can be good enough?” in many of his books. My hope too, is to get us to consider that the only thing wrong with us is that we think there is something wrong with us, and give us more practical methods of changing our relationship with this on a daily basis.

Clumsy Solutions

For many years now, I’ve noticed something that I think is pretty interesting.

We all have similar problems.  Problems of love, death, loss, fears, mistakes, power, our bodies, work, school, relationships, resources, abuse, abandonment, depression, addiction, self worth and the like.  In one way or another, most of these touch all of our lives.  Our responses to them too, seem common between us- we all have “bad” feelings and “good” feelings associated with these experiences.

It appears to me, that we also have solutions in common.  But what’s strange about it, are the solutions themselves.  If we just look at the “problems” (for shorthand purposes) we have in our lives, and our response or “reaction” to them (or as I’m calling them here, “solutions”, though we may not see them as such in the moment), the way we deal with them from this perspective is tragically ineffective.

Here’s what I mean, more specifically.  The way I see us (and of course, have done myself in many cases), is that we respond to perceived problems with (in no particular order):

  1. Avoidance, procrastination.
  2. Using our limited human intellect, and our limited human will, coupled together as a salve we cover everything with.
  3. Drugs, alcohol, food, spending, money, property, prestige, gambling, etc. ad nauseum.
  4. “Codependent” behaviors (oversimplifying: doing things for others that they can and should do for themselves, so that we don’t have to feel bad for one reason or another).
  5. Lying (or, in addict nomenclature, “manipulating”… insert tongue-in-cheek emoticon here), often, when telling the truth would be easier.
  6. Perfectionism.
  7. Control.
  8. Enduring untenable circumstances or relationships.
  9. Isolation.
  10. Ruminating.
  11. Reasoning with “unreasonable” people, or in circumstances that may not always be subject to such (there’s a large philosophical question here that can’t be addressed in a blog, hope the spirit of the thing comes through…).
  12. Self obsession.
  13. Being critical.
  14. Thoughts or attempts of suicide or related self harm.
  15. Worrying (the behavior… not to be confused with being afraid- as John Bradshaw once opined, “Worrying is like beating the drums to keep the evil spirits away.”).
  16. Pride or ego.
  17. Lashing out verbally or physically.
  18. Intellectualizing…

Et cetera.  This is clearly a truncated list, but am hoping most of us can see our most frequent responses here.  What I’m hoping to get across (at the risk of reiteration) is that these are our responses to perceived problems, and arguably, when observed, appear to be solutions that we employ to a whole host of life’s difficulties.

More striking to me is what’s absent from the list:

  1. Emotional availability, disclosure, and the like.
  2. Asking for help (having a “responsibility partner”, other similar ideas).
  3. Responsibility.
  4. Having “boundaries”.
  5. Kindness.
  6. Critical thinking skills.
  7. Service focus on others.
  8. Writing (and preferably, sharing that writing with one or more people).
  9. Art (painting, sculpture, music, performances, poetry, etc).
  10. Honesty.
  11. Support groups, 12-step meetings, or other types of community.
  12. Amends.
  13. Mindfulness.
  14. Meditation.
  15. Diet, exercise, natural healthy sleep.
  16. Being self supporting through one’s own contributions mentally, emotionally, physically and “spiritually” (for lack of a better term).
  17. Acceptance.
  18. Therapy, counseling, coaching.
  19. Community, relationships.
  20. Intimacy.
  21. “Non intervention”, being still.
  22. Forgiveness, “letting go”, and other similar solutions.
  23. Gratitude…

Seems I’m laboring the point here (hopefully in a continued effort to be helpful).  Have long looked at my own old behavior (though it still shows up sometimes!), and of course the behavior of others, and as I see “problems” come up, inevitably, I see the first set of responses above.  Often, repeatedly and perpetually for the same problem and/or new ones.  Have also observed that these responses almost inevitably make things worse, or create new problems.

While the second set of ideas don’t always “solve” things (sometimes, when honest, simply in the shadow of our own limited perspective), when practiced, my experience is that we all start to feel better about things, and certainly act better.  Very rarely, do I see the second set of  ideas create or perpetuate more problems.  Making a practice of replacing our first responses in the first section with the ideas in the second section, has been life changing for me, and lots of my clients.  If the theme rings any bells for anyone, would love to hear/see other ideas.

Therapy, Counseling, Mental Health: Some Things that Keep Us in Work

As I’ve said before, I try to work in the spirit that it’s my job to put me out of a job.  There’s some things I see pretty often though, that seem to be both counter intuitive and appear to keep me and my type in work.  My experience with therapists is that we often see these things, but rarely talk about them in a semi-organized way.  As much as loss, abuse, and abandonment cause depression, sadness, shame, low self esteem, anger, pain, addiction and etc, there are things we do that perpetuate our suffering in this way.  Some of these are survival or coping skills and thus necessary, but don’t really go very far to help someone get, and stay out of places like my office.  Here’s a list of some of those things off the top of my head:

  • Absence of critical thinking.
  • Responding to struggles by simply “staying busy” or just “trying harder”.  AKA, operating as a “human doing” instead of a human be-ing.
  • The kind of thinking that “Time heals all wounds…”, “It’s water under the bridge…”, “You’re just giving __________ power over you…”, “The past is in the past…”, “Just stay positive…”…
  • Using ideas and principles that got us suffering in the first place, to resolve that suffering.  Drugs, alcohol, isolation, shopping, food, gambling, etc.
  • Simply not knowing, and/or avoiding feelings.
  • Thinking and/or behaving as if the only answer to our suffering is for someone else to change or stop their behavior- even if their behavior was the cause.
  • Money, property, prestige.
  • Carrying the torch (or stick, if you will) of someone else shaming or diminishing/devaluing us.
  • For those that can and should, not being self supporting through one’s own contributions mentally, emotionally, physically (food, clothing, shelter…), and “spiritually”.
  • Perfectionism- both imposed on others, and ourselves.  Same is true for managing and controlling everything.
  • Going where the love “should be” in our lives, instead of going where the love is.
  • On a related note- staying in abusive or emotionally unavailable relationships.
  • This one is a little backwards from the context in the opening paragraph: took me a while to realize that I don’t have to do everything I think.
  • Blame.
  • Poor boundaries.  More specifically, not knowing where one person “stops” mentally, emotionally, physically, and/or “spiritually”, and another “starts”.
  • Operating as if our feelings are facts.
  • Euphemistic language.
  • Behaving or thinking as if we have to not be, or stop being afraid, before we can accomplish a task.
  • Same as the above, but instead of stop/not be afraid, that we have to be “motivated”.
  • Being an “island”.  Meaning, not having closeness with other folk, using ourselves as a sole resource for support or perspective or interpretation or encouragement, etc.
  • An inability or unwillingness to be “present”.
  • Can’t emphasize this one enough: not knowing who we are, and how we are.

Am guessing I’ll be adding to this list as time goes on.  The ideas above certainly warrant a deeper look/discussion to both understand and make them practical.  It appears to me that there’s a lot of fairly simple myths that might be dispelled that could help us all reduce chaos, and “increase the signal to noise ratio” in terms of our perspective and thinking.   The ideas above, I think, are a pretty great start at doing that.

Depression, Shame, Community, Intimacy

Though depression, shame, fear, anger, pain and the things that cause them (abuse, abandonment, loss) keep me in a job (some of you know I think it my job to put me out of a job), another thing that keeps me in work are ideas and terms that are ill-defined.  One of these terms is “intimacy”.

I was told once of a rumor that someone had asked Confucius what he would suggest doing to help society, and he replied “I would revamp the language.”  A lot of my work is about what we speak about, how, and how we define things between one another.  According to Alexa.com, Facebook is currently the number two most visited site on the internet.  For many years before that, MySpace was most frequently visited website.  It seems to me that these are about two things- being known and knowing/connection others.  Intimacy and community.  I think we all want intimacy and community, and the presence of these sites are great evidence to support this idea.

As I started to mention above though, the terms we use are rarely common between us.  At the suggestion of my partner, the woman I call “The World’s Most Dangerous Librarian”, I use Wordnik (www.wordnik.com) as my internet reference source for words.  “Intimacy” is most frequently/commonly defined as (using Webster’s here):  “n. The state of being intimate; close familiarity or association; nearness in friendship.”

What’s “close” though?  Association?  Friendship?  Am only tackling “close” here though, and think I can offer something that might be a helpful principle.  When describing intimacy to my clients, I suggest that intimacy is “me having feelings about your feelings about your life”.  Frequency, disclosure, and intensity of course mediate the depth of that intimacy, but I think this is a pretty principled way of defining that closeness or “intimacy” we’re most often talking about.

As Tom Waits said though, “The large print giveth, and the small print taketh away.”  This capacity for depth in closeness is largely dependent on both parties being in touch with their own feelings to begin with (see my previous blog “You Can’t Heal What You Can’t Feel“).  How clearly, presently, and transparently we both have our emotional experience affects our ability to be intimate with one another.

These also obviously affect our capacity for community.  Without a sense of my place and my purpose on this planet, a sense of purpose and community, we all suffer.  Absence of this breeds shame (low self worth/low self esteem), loneliness, sadness and depression.  As confusing and difficult and even painful as it might be, us having our own feelings, giving others access to them, a willingness to risk and be intimate with one another, seems to be our best shot at avoiding these things.

You can find out more about Petar at: April30th.org

Transformation.

So, we can’t heal what we can’t feel.  If we’re really trying to transform “depression” (not a feeling, but a diagnosis), “anxiety” (another non-feeling), grief and loss, abuse, abandonment and neglect etc- we have to “let go of some old ideas” about how we perceive and experience these circumstances, and the attendant e-motions (emotions, energy in motion).

Some of these ideas we have to let go of are:

1.  That we can turn our feelings on/off.
Stimulus/response (to steal loosely from Gary Larsen and others).  All we perceive has a stimulus and response attached to it.  It both amazes and saddens me that despite such a fundamental law of physics we behave as if we can somehow do something (or not) that will allow us to not have a response to a stimulus about what someone says or does.  Some basic “untruths”: “I need to not take _____ personally, give _____ power over me/allow them to ‘get to me’, it’s water under the bridge, it’s all in the past…” etc ad nauseum.

2.  That we can decide how intense a feeling we are having/going to have.
Back to physics- we can’t decide or influence how much of a stimulus we take in.  Save with the use of drugs or alcohol, even despite attention- we experience what we experience.

3.  That we can decide what type of feelings we’re going to have in response to some experience.
Sometimes we feel sad about something, only to have a similar experience later and feel hurt instead.  If this were true- why couldn’t we simply “decide” to feel joyful, grateful, happy, etc about a thing?

There’s more, but these are a fairly good starting list.  If we’re going to transform our feelings (or help others to do so), we have to change our philosophy, our relationship to our emotional condition.  Some of the most frequent problems I run into both personally and professionally around this are around the kinds of beliefs above.

Beyond this, we do things that prevent us from being fully in touch with our emotions.  As Sheldon Kopp has famously (or not so famously) said, paraphrasing: “When we stop trying to overcome anxiety, avoid depression etc, we can experience how sad and scared and hurt we sometimes truly feel.”  I would argue that one of our most basic problems as humans is that we do things that put distance between us and us, us and others, us and the “universe” or “God” as we MISunderstand he/she/them and/or it.  The list of the things that we do that result in these effects, is the list of things we have to stop doing to have access to how we feel, and transform it.

On a professional level, I have been struggling deeply with how far away we’ve gotten from doing “depth work”, processing, “uncovering, discovering, discarding”, “naming it, claiming it, and dumping it” (or whatever euphemism one prefers) for dealing with the likes of grief, loss, addiction, depression, anxiety, relationship problems and etc.  “Outcome measures”, insurance companies etc do not support this process.  There are sociopolitical (or as I prefer, “sociopolytrickal” as in “many tricks”) forces that diminish both focus and support on these types of services.  The hows and whys of this are beyond the scope of what I’m getting at here.

My tactic for dealing with issues are (hopefully) pretty simple and direct.

1.  Take the list of things we do that put distance between us and us/others/the “universe” and/or “God” if one prefers, and stop doing those things.  If it’s hard to stop doing them, try doing these things.

2.  Take steps to survive not doing those things.  This may take therapy, a support group, a church, support group, or whatever.

3.  What will most definitely take therapy: process what comes up.

Even if one does need medical intervention with psychopharmaceuticals, has a medical condition that might prompt difficult feelings/behaviors etc, getting therapy can only support this process, and arguably in some cases, is insufficient without it.  These three simple ideas above support all the ideas about “processing” (like the “uncover, discover, discard” etc above).  Hopefully we will get past the era of simply thinking that we all only need to act better, or otherwise “get over it”.

Lastly, need to make mention that this is of course not this simple, and would encourage more work around these things to be “happy”, free of depression, anxiety, addiction, etc.  A “resource group” of supportive people is necessary.  An organized set of principles to deal with new issues is significant.  Would also say that it’s important to have principles that allow us to grow as people- doing the work to transform and/or let go of these issues are the bare essentials for us to get to these things… and are totally possible.

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