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

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.

Therapy is Not the Answer

This is sort of a PSA for clients and therapists alike.  Therapy is not the answer to our problems of relationships, depression, grief/loss, addiction, taking food from others, communication, our sense of broken-ness/low self worth/shame, loneliness, etc.  Therapy isn’t just a way of being either.  It’s probably a way of being that solves these problems, and can prevent many in the future as a result.  The only exception, if seen in a particular light, might be around issues of safety that require immediate intervention.

Therapy should be a space where we work through the feelings we’re carrying with us that prevent us from coming to these answers on our own.  It’s an activity that should prompt us to be without our defenses and distractions as much as is possible, with a guide that has done enough of their own work that we can be taught how to live gracefully with these feelings, let go of them/transform them, and provide us principles and ideas that will help us not make some of these mistakes in the future.

We certainly should be giving direction about how to handle some circumstances, communicate more effectively, learning parenting and relationship skills, symptom management, relapse prevention and etc.  There should be an organized body of material to assist with these things.  They will all be rendered useless though, in absence of a principled way of operating, and or in the presence of enough emotional intensity that the tools cannot be used or we cannot see “answers” clearly or the simple consequences of not having these feelings gracefully end up exacerbating problems.

So, a suggestion.  Learn some survival skills that lend themselves to our ability to get some new ways of operating.  Have enough support from family, friends, and professionals that will enable surviving the process.  Deal with the feelings that come up, then set about “solving” things.

Connected.

This will relate to you and psychology/therapy/counseling, I promise… just hang in there with me…

Some friends of mine have been really struggling with the BP oil… spill? (Wiki here)… it’s so big, I scarcely know what to call it.  Have seen and heard some things I’ll not reiterate- not because it wouldn’t serve, but simply because we’ve been so inundated with the details of most of this news I’d be afraid that anything I’d have to say to describe such would be heartbreakingly insufficient.  The effects of this are catastrophic, to say the least.

Earlier too today, I was talking with a client about consciousness.  What is “I”, how we know such things and etc, a lot of things rooted in Eastern thought, the ideas of Daniel Dennett (Dennett’s Wiki), Stephen Pinker (Pinker’s Wiki), and the like.  My client began to talk about having the awareness that we’re all “one” (maybe that should be capitalized), and what that means in terms of how we experience our world.

This made me bring up another great thinker, a gentleman named Chuck Chamberlain who wrote a book called “A New Pair of Glasses“.  In it, he asserted what I think is a fundamental truth (paraphrasing), that our real problem as humans is seeing ourselves as separate from “God” (the “universe”, physics, whatever one prefers).  Ignoring this is far from inconsequential.  Our view, true or not, that we are somehow separate from others is part of what enables us to lie, cheat, steal, things much worse.  Even make oil spills.

As I’m alluding to above, whether we are all “one” or not, it’s arguably true that we indeed operate (behave) this way.  We certainly see the consequences, but as with many things, we don’t really see the etiology of them.  The Horizon spill is only the most immediate example.

Had we been behaving since the industrial age as if we are all connected, including the flora and fauna we are surrounded by (or more tragically accurate, that we are surrounding…), our world would look much different.  As promised, bringing this full-circle to the soul of this little corner of the web, the application of the idea that we are all connected has deep-reaching utility in psychology/therapy/counseling.  My world, and I hope the world of my clients have likely been improved greatly by finding ways to operate on this premise.

As noted earlier, it’s pretty easy to see the negative consequences of operating as if all humans, animals, plants, etc are different, whether this is true or not.  There’s pretty amazing benefits to operating as if we are indeed one in the same.  Behaving this way allows me to be as gentle a person as I intend.  It’s a great method for being more considerate/thoughtful.  This may be true, because it’s an idea that lends itself to increasing empathy.  It’s a great way to diminish selfishness/self-ful-ness.  So many people are speaking in the “human potential movement” (*ahem* I struggle with these kinds of euphemisms and etc, but for the sake of simplicity…), behaving as if we are all one is fantastic mindfulness training.  We could certainly use a softer, warmer world (among some of the other ideas above), and this is a great way to help turn some of those problems around.

Again, I find that there’s too many positive things to gain from such an idea to write here.  What prompts this though, is my own deep sense of sadness for the creatures upon whose lives we’ve so encroached because of not just our desire for a certain way of life, but because we avoid the emotional consequences of such a life in part, maybe because of the misperception that we are separate from these creatures, making it much easier for us to operate the same way every day, regardless of the consequences theyhave to endure.  Much as it’s important for us to clean up the spill, have clean means of energy and etc- all of these things are rooted in a philosophy of separateness, that if we sit with a minute, we might realize how much less of our own hurts, sadness, fears, shame and etc might have been avoided had we or the person who stepped on our toes behaved as if this encroachment was really upon themselves.

Shame, "Self-Esteem", and Buddhism

Been thinking a lot about how most of us, when we were kids, didn’t have a lot of compunction about playing with other kids, meeting new people we liked and such. Maybe when we were very little we might have been “shy”, but in this case I think we’re talking about caution, fearfulness, as opposed to lack of a sense of self esteem.

When I was a kid, it was easy for me to go down the street and ask about a kid there I thought was my age that I could play with, to try new things… I think because we’re actually born with a sense of self esteem or self worth, and that sense of worth gets taken away. That sense of our value, how we are connected to others, self esteem or self worth, gets replaced by shame- feeling “less than”, insufficient, unlovable, broken and defective as human beings.

This sense of self esteem is diminished or removed a lot of ways. Verbal abuse- actually being shamed by others, made fun of, called names, diminished for mistakes or lack of knowledge of a thing, literally being told one is somehow bad, not going to amount to anything, being compared against others, being yelled at or threatened.

Physical abuse. The predominant message a person gets when struck by another person out of anger, an effort to discipline, etc. is that they are somehow flawed. Being treated gently shows someone their worth. It takes effort… attention, patience, softness- the opposite of which takes little effort. Of course, this is often coupled with verbal abuse, sometimes sexual abuse.

Sexual abuse. When this happens to someone, they often get the message that this is their only value, their only utility as a person. It’s also extremely common, in order for the abuser to be able to continue the act, that they diminish the victim as a person. Taking away their power, their human-ness, their self worth, makes it easier to continue violating them. The act itself literally causes shame- it instills something in the person that they have to hide, something that makes them feel less human, separates them from others.

The media. There’s a lot of images in our society, a lot of messages that we get about our worth. Television, magazines, movies, other people, all bombard us with a message about what we “need” to do, have, look like. We are given the sense that unless we’re attached to some product, some lifestyle, some particular achievement, we are somehow not successful. This is not simply a message about how far we’ve gone in life, it’s a message about our being-ness, our human-ness.

We do a lot of work to “get” self esteem- take care of ourselves physically, our appearance, do esteemable acts, visualization, affirmations and etc. Those of us that have done these things often haven’t been able to maintain our self worth despite such efforts. These ideas help us feel better in the moment, but long term, we often still experience a deep sense of shame.

Some have said that a central idea in Buddhism is that at the center of each human being is the fear we don’t exist. This lends itself to the idea that we are constantly reaching outside of ourselves for things, naming and labeling them, attaching ourselves to them, trying to obtain them. In doing so, being attached to a thing (person, etc), we can fear less that we don’t exist. So we go about our lives in a way that diminishes our personhood, our being-ness, our selves being “enough” simply as we are.

The answer to this is not simply adding things to our lives, behaviors, personhood. Shame, low self worth and etc is something we have to give away. We have had experiences that diminished our self esteem- abuse, abandonment, exposure or humiliation, being diminished or demeaned verbally- those are the things that make us feel less of ourselves. Until we find a way to “let go” of those feelings, to give them away, to make space for our self esteem, we will be unable to experience it no matter how many “creative visualizations”, affirmations and etc. that we do.

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