We Should Be More Critical…

… in our thinking. While loath to say that in the current environment, and think we second-guess ourselves in unhealthy ways, am referring to a different type.

Whatever first brings my employers (clients) to my office- relationship problems, depression, anxiety, addiction, low self esteem, “stress”, anger etc…, I would argue that it’s really four things: they want to be happy, have a sense of self worth, have a relationship with another person, “succeed” in the environment/community around them. For all the Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, attachment theory, Dialectical Behavioral Therapy, Gestalt, existentialism, psychoanalysis, client-centered-solution-oriented-short-term-evidence-based-practices employed by the therapist or improvised efforts on the part of the client, critical thinking can go a long way toward the wants/issues above. Critical thinking is an organized set of principles, and tools, that should be used as ways of knowing and problem-solving things.

When confronted with a problem, we tend to throw “will” (some kind of effort that is nothing more than improvisation) and/or thinking at it. That thinking tends to show up without use of actual critical thinking skills. Worse, these efforts are usually based on a tacit approval of both the cause of, and solution to a problem. There is a term for this in both philosophy and psychology: naive realism. More simply, we tend to identify causes and solve problems based on whatever arrives in our consciousness, without examination. As a default we treat our anger as righteous, our hurts as immediate and “true”, etc., though experience tells us we are usually “wrong” as often as we are “right”. This is a very poor foundation upon which to build problem-solving methods of any kind, let alone imposition of will and intellect. There is a whole discipline of philosophy dedicated to how we actually know things called “epistemology”, to which we arguably owe credit for the tools below.

In addition to will and intellect, there’s clearly other means to solve problems- asking for help, being honest/taking a risk about something, not intervening at all (something that’s really difficult for a lot of us), compassion, waiting/being patient, making amends, setting a boundary, “softening up” (as opposed to resisting, building up defenses, etc), educating ourselves about the problem and more – but these rarely get to see the light of day when it comes to our sorrows because of naive realism. Some problems that arise in therapy stay unresolved too due to critical thinking errors that we call “cognitive distortions”. A different way to begin problem solving is to have the tools of critical thinking at our disposal.

Few of us are taught critical thinking skills “proper”. These are specific skills/principles, and there’s methods for their use. Unfortunately, we’re not really taught what they are – even if we’re encouraged to use them. Our schools, family constellations, churches, therapy offices may suggest them, but there’s little attention on giving them consistent names, defining them, or employing their use. Though addressing how to employ them is beyond one blog, as a start, I’ll offer some important/fundamental ones that are almost universally accepted in science and philosophy:

  1. Review and clarification of goals/”answers”/desired outcomes
  2. Defining relevant terms
  3. Asking “higher quality questions”
  4. Awareness of underlying emotions related to evidence and conclusions, application of the skills above (and more) to those emotions
  5. Skepticism
  6. Avoiding oversimplification or overgeneralization
  7. Identifying and “unpacking” assumptions or premises of assertions
  8. Consideration of types of evidence upon which conclusions are based
  9. Review and critique of conclusions from evidence
  10. Consideration of alternative interpretations of evidence
  11. “Peer review”

There’s more ideas, and more technical means of critical thinking thanks to philosophers, but won’t labor those here.  Here are a few examples of “cognitive distortions”:

1.  Absolutizing (sometimes called “all or nothing thinking”, this creates or perpetuates a lot of relationship conflicts by way of asserting something “never” and/or “always” happens)

2.  “Mind reading” or “fortune telling” (making assumptions about people’s thinking or future behavior)

3.  Emotional reasoning (“I feel __________ so it must be true.”, an example of naive realism – these show up for example as “righteous anger”, low self worth, fears, etc)

4.  Mental filter (“cherry picking” evidence- though 9 things were done correctly, one was done incorrectly, the incorrect item is what’s focused on)

5.  Catastrophizing

6.  Solipsism (seeing things only from one’s own perspective)

7.  Perfectionism (both with self, and others)

8.  Fudging on efforts to change now, in favor of believing plans to “do differently/better later”

9. False equivalence (seeing/arguing that two things are somehow equal, that are not)

10. “Ad hominem” arguments: because __________ (a specific person said it), it is incorrect . . . this works both ways – that because __________ (a specific person said it), it must be correct (often called “appeal or argument from authority“)

11. My favorite of late – mistaking an interpretation or inference for a fact

Again, there’s more of these too. Others might be added, though they’re not always thought of as critical thinking errors or cognitive distortions in therapy circles. Beliefs about the ability to change others (sometimes calling it “influence”), awareness of powerlessness over a situation but endeavoring to manage or control it anyway, doing the same thing more than once and expecting different results… all might be additional examples.

Critical thinking though, can often be an antidote for cognitive distortions and a method for solving problems. Without principles or tools for doing so, we’re just burning calories (and few, at that). Or, as I often refer to clients “wasting cycles” (like a computer chip). A couple more examples: when feeling “low self esteem” (or as I prefer, “shame”) or anger, it might be helpful to “examine the evidence”. Are there current facts in hand, that are evidence I should feel “less than”? When ashamed or angry, many of us assume or treat their feelings in and of themselves as truth (like the “naive realism” mentioned above) … often finding out later there was little or no reason to do so. Many conflicts arise because a speaker or receiver make little (or no) effort to define or examine what they (or someone else) is trying to say, or because we have very different ways we’re defining a word or situation.

Regardless of what kinds of problems we’re assailed with, these critical thinking tools (and others) are very useful. It doesn’t seem to matter if these are problems of relationships with ourselves, relationships with others, or “Earthbound” problems (cars, money, weather, gadgets breaking…)- critical thinking tools are always necessary to employ, and are often quicker/more effective than our usual styles of solving problems.

There are quite a few fantastic resources for critical thinking, great people in our time that are doing important work in this way. Some of these people books are linked below.

The “industry standard” ideas and examples for philosophers is the “Delphi Report on Critical Thinking”

Daniel Dennett (Professor of Philosophy at the Center for Cognitive Studies at Tufts): a recent work, “Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Critical Thinking”

Morgan D. Jones (former CIA analyst): “The Thinker’s Toolkit”

Christopher W. DiCarlo (Philosopher of Science and Ethics, Harvard and elsewhere): “How To Become A Really Good Pain in the Ass: A Critical Thinker’s Guide to Asking the Right Questions”

Peter Boghossian (Professor of Philosophy at Portland State University): part of the “Skepticism 101” resources at the Skeptics Society, Peter’s “Knowledge, Value, and Rationality” syllabus.

Winnie think

Attitude of Platitude

Talking with a client the other day, the subject of platitudes came up.  Many of us use them routinely.  Whether opining about inferences made, used polemically, or giving feedback to a friend or loved one, they’re used fairly often in all different kinds of discourse.  These certainly occur in therapy, twelve step programs (Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, Al-Anon, Co-Da, ACA, Overeaters Anonymous, etc).  We hear them at church/synagogue.  They’re used copiously in political speeches and discussions.

Many years ago, a friend began saying to me when discussing platitudes, “Cliche alert!  Cliche alert!” ala the robot from “Lost in Space”.  It was his way of indicating that the user was often either not really saying anything, and/or wasn’t really aware of the content or context of the cliche being used.

One of my favorite quotes is from Gandhi: “It is because we have at this present moment everybody claiming the right of conscience without going through any discipline whatsoever that there is so much untruth being delivered to a bewildered world.”  What I think he was getting at was pretty fundamental, and horror-producing… we all claim a right to truths and perceptions without really going through any real self or “concept” examination, and impose a subsequent template on the world in its wake.

That’s a fantastic way to create and/or perpetuate problems.  Am bringing it up because it seems that platitudes are a common ways this occurs.  Not that many platitudes or cliches aren’t true, just that we often don’t seem to examine if we’re using them, truly understand them, use them in context and the like.  I often see therapists, psychiatrists and other mental health professionals use cliches and platitudes simply because they don’t know what else to say.

Going back to twelve step programs, one cliche that is often used is “attitude of gratitude”.  With equal measure, it seems that an “attitude of platitude” is what is often in use.  Ideas like “just do what you’re doing”, “keep it simple”, “I decide for me, you decide for you, we decide for us”, and more are arguably great ideas.  These ideas even have utility for depression, relationships, self esteem, addiction, grief, loss and more.  However, our command of the language doesn’t necessarily indicate a real handle on what they mean or how/when/what context to use them and make them practical.

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

Preaching Prudence but Practicing Evasion

Just by virtue of having eyes and ears, we have emotional responses to everything. When we have experiences that create loss, damage, violate our sense of self or ethics (prompt an experience of feeling “less than” or being broken, also known as “shame”), frighten us or etc, we have to do something with how that feels. Just like falling off a bike and skinning our knee, we hurt in part because that’s the healing process in action. Many therapists and others refer to these unresolved hurts as “issues”.

If we don’t have a means of healing/dealing with these, there are lots of unintended consequences. Not healing “hurts” (shame, fear, sadness, etc) causes “neurotic” behavior. “Acting out”, drug use, manipulation, self-ful-ness, isolation, “codependent” behavior, “anxiety”, avoidant behaviors, etc. Long term and in the wake of continued losses/traumas, these can turn into more serious problems- depression, relationship issues, “mental illnesses”, addictions and etc.

Sometimes these other problems and behaviors are simply ways of surviving or “coping” with our feelings about things, sometimes they become problems in and of themselves. Exercise, church (etc), self-help books, “will”, diet and nutrition, hobbies etc are all efforts that can be helpful in varying degrees, but for reasons too long for a blog post, they’re insufficient and/or incomplete for this task. Some of these things sometimes turn into means of avoiding our feelings as well.

If we don’t have a fairly organized (and effective) means of transforming or eradicating our experience in this way, as above, we create or perpetuate problems in our lives. Different therapists have different “tools” suggested to help resolve or diminish the intensity of these issues. My sense of this process though, goes something like this:

List the behaviors we use that put distance between us and how we feel. Some of these are external- but some are internal. Some examples are food, alcohol, work, spending, sex, focus on others, perfectionism (whether imposed on ourselves or others), TV, turning our feelings into anger, etc.

Diminish (or preferably, maybe necessarily) or stop those behaviors. There’s many, many ways of making this happen- see my blog “Wanting to Stop” for some suggestions. As has been said in other blogs, “letting go” means little for something we are not fully letting ourselves “have” in the first place.

Give the feelings we’re experiencing/left with as simple, and common a name as possible. I encourage mad, sad, glad (happy), afraid, ashamed, and/or hurt. And/or because we can certainly feel more than one at a time. Simple, because we often use euphemistic or complicated language as just another means to dissociate (separate) us from our feelings.

Share those feelings, as much as possible with the person we’re having the feelings about, as close to the time we experience them. It’s also really important that we’re actually allowing ourselves to have the feelings as we’re expressing them. Of course this isn’t always appropriate because of time or circumstance. Sometimes, it’s not appropriate because of the person we’re with. Be careful though not to “preach prudence when practicing evasion”.

As has been said by many, “you can’t heal what you can’t feel”. This process is assisted by doing it with a professional who has has both education and experience in doing so not just as a therapist, but hopefully as a person as well. We are trained in various means that facilitate some really important parts of this process that are sometimes not intuitive to our friends, families, loved ones. Am getting at a fairly simple list of ideas here- stop doing what we do to not feel, have an organized way of naming and letting go of or diminishing their intensity.

Sheldon Kopp

You may remember being a kid, and having someone suggest you write an essay about the person who influenced you most.  With the exception of a musician or two, the person that is likely that for me is Sheldon Kopp.  I was given his most famous book “If You Meet the Buddha on the Road, Kill Him! The Pilgrimage of Psychotherapy Patients” by my then “mentor”, when I was 17.  It’s really a book about principles, an organized way to live our lives and deal with Things As They Are.

He’s written something in the way of 18 books, died a while ago not of the brain tumor he had (that required removal 3 times), but of heart failure and pneumonia.  Having heard a rumor about his death, I looked him up on the internet once, and sent an email to a similarly named person, hoping I might find him or learn of his passing.  Essentially my note stated that this was a person who had been extremely influential and helpful in my life, and I wanted to know if it might be him.  I was lucky enough to get a response, that made it clear it was actually him: “Yes Petar, I too have heard rumors of my untimely demise, but I find them unconvincing.”

In “Buddha”, as became customary in many of his books, at the end was included ideas that he considered truths, or principles.  This was the most famous of them, called, “An Eschatological Laundry List: a Partial List of 927 (or was it 928?) Eternal Truths.”  Many of the ideas here have guided me in everything from my own emotional and “spiritual” work, work with my clients.  People that have suffered all of the things here that I’m trying to diminish for as many people as possible- depression, stress, relationship issues, abuse, loss and grief, addiction, self esteem issues and the like.  Hopefully, they will give you as much as they’ve given me, inspire you to read his books, and of the greatest importance: give you a ways and means of passing the ideas on to others.  Would love to hear what you think of them.  And to the “Truths”…

1. This is it!
2. There are no hidden meanings.
3. You can’t get there from here, and besides there’s no place else to go.
4. We are all already dying, and we will be dead for a long time.
5. Nothing lasts.
6. There is no way of getting all you want.
7. You can’t have anything unless you let go of it.
8. You only get to keep what you give away.
9. There is no particular reason why you lost out on some things.
10. The world is not necessarily just. Being good often does not pay off and there is no compensation for misfortune.
11. You have a responsibility to do your best nonetheless.
12. It is a random universe to which we bring meaning.
13. You don’t really control anything.
14. You can’t make anyone love you.
15. No one is any stronger or any weaker than anyone else.
16. Everyone is, in his own way, vulnerable.
17. There are no great men.
18. If you have a hero, look again: you have diminished yourself in some way.
19. Everyone lies, cheats, pretends (yes, you too, and most certainly I myself).
20. All evil is potential vitality in need of transformation.
21. All of you is worth something, if you will only own it.
22. Progress is an illusion.
23. Evil can be displaced but never eradicated, as all solutions breed new problems.
24. Yet it is necessary to keep on struggling toward solution.
25. Childhood is a nightmare.
26. But it is so very hard to be an on-your-own, take-care-of -yourself -cause-there-is-no-one-else-to-do-it-for-you grown-up.
27. Each of us is ultimately alone.
28. The most important things, each man must do for himself.
29. Love is not enough, but it sure helps.
30. We have only ourselves, and one another. That may not be much, but that’s all there is.
31. How strange, that so often, it all seems worth it.
32. We must live within the ambiguity of partial freedom, partial power, and partial knowledge.
33. All important decisions must be made on the basis of insufficient data.
34. Yet we are responsible for everything we do.
35. No excuses will be accepted.
36. You can run, but you can’t hide.
37. It is most important to run out of scapegoats.
38. We must learn the power of living with our helplessness.
39. The only victory lies in surrender to oneself.
40. All of the significant battles are waged within the self.
41. You are free to do whatever you like. You need only to face the consequences.
42. What do you know . . . for sure . . . anyway?
43. Learn to forgive yourself, again and again and again and again. . . .

Who’s To Blame?

Much of my time is spent here, and in my therapy/counseling practice, attempting to get folk to honor how they feel.  That’s an oversimplification, but will leave it for brevity’s sake.  This is a daunting task because of the intensity and availability of our distractions, but I keep trying anyway.

One of the things that oft keeps this from happening is that when someone “hurts” us (shames, takes something away, etc), we find ourselves (understandably) making sense out of why they’d do such a thing.  We think more about the person in question “doing their best”, “having had a hard time” etc than we ever do simply saying “Ouch, that hurt…”, or some variation on that theme.  It’s safe to say that many of us, often don’t honor how it affected us at all.  Working on problems of low self esteem, depression, addiction, abuse and more we don’t want to “blame” anyone (nor should we), and oft go so far as to think our therapists are prompting us to “blame” that person, our parents, etc.

As for my sense of this, I think we could safely remove the word from our vocabulary entirely.  Maybe even replace it with considerations of “responsibility”.  In terms of a solution, will offer something I hope is very simple: we’re only blaming someone else for our feelings or problems, if we do nothingwith our feelings about it.

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.

Wanting to Stop

Have had several people in the last week ask me specific questions about wanting to stop (sometimes called “abstaining” or “cessation”) doing some “behavior”. Drinking, smoking, gambling, over/undereating (or not at all), self-harm behaviors (cutting, burning oneself etc), “codependent” behaviors, controlling behaviors, manipulating, gaming/attention to “devices”, even saying or thinking certain things and more. While some of these require more intense interventions (stopping alcohol or drug use for instance would require medical intervention), some other behaviors can be stopped or minimized by other means.

Though we (therapists) are oft charged with the responsibility of helping clients stop these behaviors, we’re not always direct about how to help someone do so. There are real-world, practical means of helping us stop these kinds of behaviors. It should be noted though: in many cases, these are caused by unresolved emotions. It’s really important to note this, because no intervention we might suggest will work if there is a sufficient mental/emotional/”spiritual” and/or physical prompt to do so.  Or more simply and by way of example, if someone is suffering enough emotionally (or otherwise), no intervention will stop the behavior.  The feelings (even if physical) have to be transformed/diminished enough for the intervention to work.

These things in mind, here’s some ideas. Some of them are direct, some of them will take hold over time:

1.  Pay attention to how we feel.


2.  Ask ourselves, “Am I mad, sad, glad, afraid, ashamed, and/or hurt right now?  What ‘possible reality’ does this indicate?”

3.  Putting off the behavior.  For example, “I’ll _________ (smoke, drink, gamble, eat, etc…) an hour/day/week/month from now.” 
 
4.  Context.  This isn’t just a principle.  It can be practical.  Asking, “What am I supposed to be, or supposed to be intending to do right here, right now?”

5.  Service.  Finding a way to be of help to another person.

6.  12 step program attendance/participation.

7.  Saying the “Serenity Prayer“.  Even if not “prayerful” people, this can be a form of self-talk (the word “God” can also be removed).  For things we’re “powerless” over, “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things, I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” makes us mindful of principles and behaviors that can also help with abstinence.

8.  Speaking of praying (or doing self-talk)- praying for the obsession to have __________ (smoking, drinking, gambling, eating etc) be removed, helps.  “Please remove from me the obsession to stop _________.”

9.  If that is hard, praying/self-talking for the willingness to stop __________.

10.  Calling someone.  This, to me, is one of the most powerful tools.  Having someone who knows what we are working on that we can call when considering the behavior to: pull our covers (so to speak), have them talk us out of it, and/or “be” with us as we struggle with the feelings of letting go of the behavior can be pretty powerful.

11.  A different item from the above- calling that someone as a pre-emptive strike.  Meaning, calling them when we might be in a situation this will come up, before we go do the thing we have to do.

12.  Make a list of the times these things (smoking, drinking, gambling, etc) occur most frequently.  Take that list, and either apply the things above (and below) to those circumstances if you HAVE to be there for these instances, and or use the list to avoid those times entirely.

13.  Write a list of the negative consequences of the acting out behavior.  
14.  Maybe most important, is simply identifying the issues (even by making a list, which we will also do in a formalized way) that have prompted us to operate this way, and have an organized means of getting through these (which therapists are charged with the responsibility of).

15.  Based on that list of things/people/circumstances that get us in trouble, have a list of replacement behaviors.  For example, I know I shouldn’t be __________ (smoking, drinking, gambling, eating etc), so, I’m going to go to church/support group/call my friend/read this book/exercise/take a walk/write about it and more etc.

16.  Speaking of writing: when “tempted” to do the behavior, write about it.  That’s pretty common information from most therapists.  However, I think it doesn’t go far enough, unless you read this to your therapist and/or a loving friend and/or a sponsor (if one attends a 12-step program), priest, pastor, and etc.  Maybe more than one of these people.
17.  Putting a rubber band around our wrist, and giving it a gentle snap when considering doing the behavior.
18.  Making a “fund” for the behavior- putting a pre-determined amount of money in a jar when we do the behavior (or consider it maybe), and donating it to a charity or some related idea.
19. “Play the record through.” All the way through. Consider every step of what will happen, what it leads to, and its consequences.

Again, I want to reiterate that no amount of ideas to “stop” a behavior (that we do in our heads or outside of them, so to speak) will be sufficient without working through the attendant (and/or consequential) emotions that come with them.  Those are really strong reasons pointing to the idea of having a therapist that can help use these kinds of tools (and more), and walk through the related issues.  It’s important too that many types of concerns will require medical attention by a physician with experience with the specific problem.  Good luck with any of these efforts…

Post Script: It should be noted that the soul of such things is what Carl Jung would have called “illegitimate suffering”- meaning, we do these things as an alternative to simply feeling whatever we feel when we don’t do the behavior.  One of the things we do these over is feeling “bad” (about ourselves), broken, less than, “not enough” and the other variations on that theme.  Often, if we do the behavior we’re trying to stop, we feel those very things (“bad”, broken, etc).  As we often do the behavior to diminish or eradicate feeling those things, then we feel those very things for doing the behavior.  Simplifying: I feel “broken”, less-than, etc, I do a behavior to not feel that way, then feel “broken” (less-than, etc) for doing the behavior.  It sets up a vicious cycle, a repetitive cycle.  

Where I’m going with this is, if you happen to do the thing you’ve been trying to stop, “beating yourself up” for doing the behavior may be the very thing that prompts you to do it again.

You Can’t Heal What You Can’t Feel

We constantly “do” things- behaviors and thinking, that put distance between us and us, us and “others”, us and ‘god’ or the ‘universe’ as we MISunderstand s/he/them and/or it.  Food, sex, TV, gambling, relationships, rationalizing, avoiding, intellectualizing, alcohol, money, property, prestige, drugs, toys/devices (cell phones, computers, etc), fixing other people, “acting out” etc.  Overstating, when it comes to distance between us and us, we’re talking about putting distance between us and our emotional condition.  Simply using a lot of words (Lao Tzu has famously said, paraphrasing, that “many words lead one nowhere”) and even certain types of words can put distance between us and our feelings.

To simplify getting in touch with and processing our feelings about things, I encourage using what are sometimes referred to as the “Six Basic Feelings”.  These are mad, sad, glad, afraid, ashamed, and/or hurt.  Certainly, we can have one or more of them at any given time, even about the same issue.  I really resist other words if at all possible, for reasons too long to go into here.

If we’re engaged in the aforementioned behaviors, we are often mood-altering, and/or simply less or unable to be in touch with our emotional condition (and as a result, others and the rest of the “universe”).  If our feelings are indicators of possible realities, if these are altered or stunted, we may not have all the information about a given circumstance.  The idea we’re going for is to talk about them in a way that transforms them, and or helps us clarify different circumstances.

So, my suggestion to get in touch with and begin transforming these is this: know the things we do that are mood-altering, let go of those behaviors (a whole other note all together), and as our feelings come up, say the facts of the circumstance, and one or more of the six basic feelings.  For instance, “When my mom (or whoever) said/did/didn’t say/didn’t do __________, I felt __________.”  That’s all.  Trying to avoid inferences, interpretations, assessments, judgments, manipulation, controlling, etc., certainly avoiding behaviors we do that ignore or diminish our ability to be in touch with how we feel.

It’s been said too that we can’t heal what we can’t feel.  So the process I’m encouraging is identifying what we do to not feel, letting go of those so that we can feel all of our feelings (“all” meaning each one, in all circumstances, and with 100% of the intensity we’re experiencing them…), naming them simply, communicating them in a way that helps us stay in touch with/get help/transform them, then finding ways to live our lives gracefully through what comes up as we process them.  This is a process I encourage with therapists, relationships, as many places as is possible.

It’s really important to point out that I’m not advocating for this process to change anyone else’s behavior or perspective.  This is not an idea about right and wrong, certainly not about comparing the relevance of our feelings to others.  It’s simply a way of getting in touch with what we feel, so that we can change it.  We often say to one another that we should “let go” of things- but you can’t let go of feelings you don’t totally have.

Honoring What Is.

Laughing to myself a little now because, though I intended to write about honoring our feelings and “sense” (perception?) of things, was quickly reminded of how hard it is to know how we feel in the first place.

That aside, the idea of “honoring” our feelings has come up a lot lately.  Am assuming we’re in a place to know how we feel to begin with.  Don’t run with this idea and think honoring our feelings is in conflict with my earlier suggestions that our feelings aren’t necessarily facts.  Paraphrasing one of my “heroes” (though he’d certainly admonish me for having any heroes in the first place, particularly him…), Sheldon Kopp has noted along with so many others (Tolstoy, Jung…) how curious it is that we spend so much time and energy actively not honoring our experience of things.  In favor of doing so we dismiss our feelings, compare our insides to others’ outsides, diminish the importance of our feelings (sometimes by comparing ours to what others have been through), distract ourselves (food, buying, drugs, sex, alcohol, TV…) and etc.

The consequences of not honoring our feelings are huge.  It can cause depression, acting angry (as opposed to being angry), addictions, irritability, not acting as the person we’d like to be, allowing people to violate our boundaries, is a huge factor in a lack of self esteem and more.  It can cause us to not trust our own eyes and ears when we maybe ought to.  It can keep us in relationships that are not healthy for us.

Honoring them is arguably as difficult as not honoring them.  It’s likely one of the primary reasons we don’t honor them.  For many of us, it’s not even an idea we’ve really considered.  Much could (and will, eventually) be written just about how to have our feelings in the first place.  Once we do have them though- honoring them and doing so gracefully is a very difficult challenge.

From my sense of things, “feelings” are called that for a reason.  It’s so tragic that we behave in a way that indicates we often think we ought to do everything possible with them besides simply having them.  They’re called feelings because we’re supposed to feel them.  They give us messages about our environment and allow us to heal.  Feeling them and not “folding, spindling, or mutilating” them is the first step.  Once we have them, giving them a name is useful- I always begin with encouraging mad, sad, glad, afraid, ashamed, and/or hurt.

Am also a huge fan of treating them gently once we have them and have named them, whether they “make sense” or not.  Not being gentle with them exacerbates them, or simply prompts us to change or otherwise avoid/ignore them.

Once having them, naming, and being gentle with them, we’ve begun to honor them.  If we know we have them, know what they are, and are experiencing them without trying to do something unkind with them (make other people see/think differently, harming ourselves, avoiding them with some of the behaviors above and more), we can process them based on what they are.  Crying when we’re sad or hurt, are pretty clear ways to honor our feelings.  Telling other people what is happening for us when we feel ashamed (some say “guilty”, or less than, broken, etc…) honors our experience.  Telling other people how we feel honors them.  Asking people to be with us when we’re scared or feel broken is a great way to honor our experience of things.  Being mad instead of acting mad (a subject for a whole other missive) is a way to honor it.

We don’t honor our feelings in relationships either.  We’re loyal to people that are disloyal to us.  We treat ourselves more poorly than other people often do, but when we do get treated poorly by others, we oft treat them more gently than we do ourselves, or ignore it wholesale.  Though we may get our feelings hurt about something, we keep it secret.  Sometimes we are sad or hurt or ashamed or angered by something, but keep it from the other person as not to hurt their feelings, but are often taking from them the chance to do or see something different.

Sort of wishing I hadn’t begun writing about this particular thing.  Honoring our feelings is dependent on so many things- not doing things to get in the way of feeling them, having simple names for them, having them gracefully, treating them gently, not thinking or communicating about them as facts, processing them.  So much might be written about any of those ideas.  It’s come up so often recently, and is such an important idea though, am compelled to put at least something out there about it.

Utility of Sadness

We do some *ahem* interesting things with sadness.

Often, people ask us how we are.  I think the real question is about how we feel, but we will oft answer “good” or “bad” or “not so good”.  All judgments about how we feel.  Most of us would argue that “sad” is a “bad” feeling.  If we can get past that, we may use another euphemism: “depressed”.  Our relationship to this thing is often not great.

When I left my office this morning (my second office at the Life Fitness Center, a group that provides a more holistic set of services), I was sad myself.  I’d spent several hours with people who were in horrible circumstances, and had already been suffering.  Mightily, and understandably, I might add.  When I got to the light, I noticed a gentleman, probably 7ish, walking through the crosswalk with his mom.  One of my licensures is in developmental disabilities and other related problems, and I noted his cerebral palsy right away.  They were holding hands, and though his body was having a hard time- his soul certainly wasn’t.  He appeared really happy.

Behind my wheel though, I was pretty sad.  For my clients this AM, and for him (though he was probably fine).  Most of the time when we get sad, we find some way to resist it.  We push it away with our minds, set our attention elsewhere, numb it with all kinds of different behaviors, even shame ourselves for having such feelings in the first place.

Would argue though, that my sadness, has great utility.  Not only is it the most effective way to heal my losses, it certainly makes me useful to other people.  Exactly how it heals grief and loss is not quite the gist of this missive, and takes time with a therapist/counselor/life coach to know how to do effectively and gracefully.  Am certain that my sadness today assisted me in being kind and present for my clients, and likely would keep me “softer” when dealing with folk like the gentleman in the crosswalk.

My hope is that I never lose this.  As long as I am sad about the suffering of humans, I have business doing the work that I do.  The point of this though is that this is true not just in terms of my relationship to my clients or other folk in the world, but all of us in relationship to ourselves and one another in general.  Honoring our sadness does more to “cure” “anxiety” (sorry for the consecutive quotes), relieve “depression”, and make us available for intimacy than most any other thing I can think of.

Reconciling ourselves with sadness, and finding some “grace” in how we live with it, if the above is true, surely presents some great reasons we should stop treating our sadness as something repugnant.

On a different note: as a reminder, Judy McGehee and I will be on the radio/live stream/podcasting at the link below tomorrow from 1130AM until noon on the “Project Get Well America” show with Dr. Mark.  The link for the show is here.

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