Communication, Emotional Intelligence, Relationships, Uncategorized

There’s an old cliché about people being divided into two types of listeners: those who listen for comprehension, and those who are only drawing breath waiting for their turn to talk again. It’s a truism in relational therapy that when we’re activated by stressful situations, a lot of us take a naturally defensive posture, in the sense of leaping to the defence of our position. As counter-intuitive as it sounds, there’s no defence like a good offence, as the saying goes. It’s not uncommon that people who feel trapped or attacked come out of their corners verbally swinging: jumping on the conversation and interrupting or speaking breathlessly into the barest of breaks after someone else is done talking, taking the ball back and making things immediately about themselves and their experiences or opinions.

Watching this dynamic unfold in conflicted relational communications is a significant portion of what relationship therapists do. We’re looking for places where the power struggle between the participants starts to escalate, where the knives come out, where the retreats and feints occur. And we’re listening for the Four Horsemen so we can divert the worst of the attacks into antidotes. There are many different ways we therapists cleverly divert the energy of those attacks into something that starts to de-escalate the tension. Sometimes it starts with simply calling out the incongruity of attacking someone we claim to love and choose with commitment; if the stated desire is to build love, trust, commitment, then why choose actions that hurt, divide, alienate? What happens when the participants make an effort to choose a different way of engaging?

Enter the principles of active listening and non-violent communication (NVC), something that ties in hard with the practice of emotionally-focused therapy (EFT).

NVC’s describes its core practice of listening as “receiving empathically”:

“Instead of offering empathy, we tend instead to give advice or reassurance and to explain our own position and feeling. Empathy, on the other hand, requires us to focus full attention on the other person’s message. We give the others the time and space they need to express themselves fully and to feel understood. There is a Buddhist saying that aptly describes this ability: “Don’t just do something, stand there.” ” – Marshall Rosenberg, “Non-violent Communication: A Language of Life,” PuddleDancer Press, Encinitas CA, 2003

Active listening, using verbal and non-verbal common reflection tactics creates empathic presence between the parties. One of the simpler ways to do this in the therapy room is to re-orient the clients towards each other. The more intense the topic and potential for conflict, the more likely it is that clients will speak to each other through the neutral third party of the therapist: looking at or facing toward the therapist, speaking to the therapist rather than directly to the partner. We are a point of de-escalation because we are assumed to be neutrally receptive, sympathetic. But *WE* want clients to be practicing these tactics directly with each other. Sometimes this means we have to teach clients how to slow down their own reactive escalation and actually read each other WITHOUT INTERPRETING, or at least without jumping to assumptive and unvalidated conclusions based on the interpretations we all generally make anyway. We can use some reflection to start, by asking each client, in turn, to tell me how they see their partner’s physical presence and encouraging each to explicitly validate their external perceptions with the partner.

EFT folds this empathetic reception into a different style of exchange between partners, following these steps:

  1. reflecting back what the speaker has shared, not as a verbatim report but rather more of a “Here’s what I’m hearing”
  2. validation (sometimes clarified by the therapist until the process clarifies for the clients)
  3. exploration of the speaker’s experience in the form of a Q&A (“evocative responding”)
  4. highlighting, or heightening, the interactions that seem more poignant or significant in the partners’ exchange (for example, reflecting through Gottman’s lens the various points of disengagement or repair attempts)
  5. infering the client’s experience, enabling or assisting the speaker to “extend and clarify that experience so that new meaning can naturally emerge” (Sue Johnson, “The Practice of Emotionally Focused Couple Therapy, 2nd ed.” Brunner Routledge, NY 2004)
  6. therapist self-disclose (if relevant/appropriate)
  7. restructuring or reframing the clients’ interactions based on developing understanding and compassion

The hard part for many clients in interactive crisis is that yielding the defensive battlements feels untenable. Yielding often leaves someone in crisis feeling lost, overpowered, undermined, unheard, at risk, unsafe. For many, the lashing out or refusal to hear each other’s pain is the result of an unconscious, “you hurt me so I want you to know how it feels, asshole,” knee-jerk reaction. Or there might be a shame reaction to recognizing (and not wanting to face the responsibility for) hurt we have caused, so we double-down on defensive entrenchment and find ways to avoid taking ownership for actions with painful consequences for others. By the time we get into that kind of dynamic, however, these patterns are often so deeply entrenched that restoring good faith between partners is work that has to happen before we can re-orient clients toward each other. We can deploy some short-term, strengths-based work here to re-establish some fundamentals of goodwill between the partners, getting them back into recognizing their good things between them. We need that platform brought back into focus if we’re going to have something stable on which to build a sustainable change process in the midst of ongoing crisis.

Yielding defensive stances requires rebuilding, and sometimes developing for the first time, trust; it also requires the tools to self-regulate emotional upheaval, to clarify what needs to be said and to accurately receive and respond to that information. We take each portion of this process as a one-step-at-a-time process until everyone gets a little more of a solid footing on the change processes. We acknowledge and build on baby-step successes, and we try to not let setbacks make mountains out of molehills; old habits do die hard, after all, and for many, these are habits and internal processes that can be VERY deeply rooted (like, Family of Origin deep in some cases…)

But if the clients are in the room because they both intrinsically WANT to work things out, then we use their willingness to tolerate the uncertainty as a springboard towards hope, we reconnect them with the strengths inherent in themselves and their relationship, then we begin to rebuild their relationship house with different tools. Slow but rewarding processes based in genuine empathy and compassion for each other get us the best long-term results, which graduate our couples back OUT of therapy!

Emotional Intelligence, Mental Health, Self-care

The problem with not sitting down to write anything since some time in the last half of November is that, of course, I haven’t actually cracked open the tablet I use for such things since some time in the last half of November. Ergo, first thing this morning it was both (a) utterly out of go juice, and (b) way behind in installing operating system updates. Have you ever watched a device simultaneously try to recharge and update itself? Trust me when I say, it’s not pretty. In fact, from an impatient end-user perspective, it’s really fabulously frustrating.

So as I’m sitting in my favourite coffee shop, masticating my toasted bagel and ruminating into whatever coffee Tori poured for me this morning, forcing myself off the precipice of my own impatience, it occurs to me that this simple piece of electronica is reflecting back at me a valuable learning opportunity. Never mind that I hate being schooled by inanimate objects at the best of times, truthfully over the years I’ve learned to be open to “lessons from the universe” whenever, however, and from whomever (or whatever) they originate.

I’ve been sunk in a massive depression for a while, unveiled finally in late November by a series of confluent precipitating events (aka, “a bunch of shit crashed together and crushed me”). Since then, struggling to retain any degree of functionality has meant circling the wagons ’round, pulling in my boundaries, shutting down every gate and ingress to all comers, and just kind of hiding out, entirely to conserve near-depleted energy. In short, my internal batteries are entirely out of go juice.

Since early December, I’ve been trying to update the operating system: getting back to my own therapist at least biweekly, starting the game of Russian Roulette with antidepressants, making sure I spent the entirety of the holiday season sleeping as much as I could (which might even have been within spitting distance of as much sleep as I need), reintroducing massage therapy as a more frequent thing (the convenience of having the massage college with an excellent student clinic close by), and as of last week, getting back to my nightly meditation practice. I have a nebulous idea about attending to what and how I eat as the next step, and then at some point, trying to finagle an increase in movement back into my schedule.

It all sounds good, doesn’t it?

Now, imagine what it’s like trying to think about/plan, to implement, and then to SUSTAIN, all of this when, on top of normal day-to-day functionality, there is ZERO POWER in the batteries.

Like the tablet this morning: start an update, power cycle into a shutdown, leave the user wondering if the OS is going to boot up this time or if it needs a kick. Some days, you need to lean a little on the Power button; some days the power cycle reboots on its own, gets a little further into the next update process… and shuts down again. Lather, rinse, swear a lot, repeat.

This is, unfortunately, a really exquisite description of my life for the last several months, but particularly since the November crash. On the upside, I have been finding that it gives me a whole new metaphor for talking with clients about their own experiences of depression (especially those who have some experience with the cyclical frustrations of Reboot Hell). For some, a depressive cycle starts with a crash; things may have been going wrong in the OS for a whole, but as long as it wasn’t BADLY impacting functionality, we could ignore the slow downgrade until it crashed out completely–I don’t know for sure what the depression equivalent of the feared “Blue Screen of Death” is, but I’m betting there is one. For others, the slow cascade of fail is something they see yet cannot stop, even as they throw mitigating efforts at it along the way. The lucky ones are those who have some way of actually rebooting in mid-decline AND HAVE IT STICK. I aspire to be one of those people, even though I have zero idea what that actually entails.

The biggest challenge for deploying this kind of metaphor with high-functioners in particular is getting clients to realize that depression recovery isn’t just about the updates and reboot process, it’s about recognizing the dead battery aspect. Even many depressives who otherwise have no trouble recognizing their own lack of energy as a critical feature of depression, will struggle against the imposed limitations. The desire to push to be “happy” means that, like my poor tablet, any process of updating and rebooting is automatically hampered out of the starting gate because there just isn’t enough energy to do both the regular startup AND the additional implementation of updates. The hardline lesson of learning to live with depression, and I see this reiterated all of the place now, is learning to live WITH it like a recurring but perpetual illness. That means learning to accept that it comes with limitations and discomfort, much like anything from recurring cold sores to arthritis flares or MS relapses, will. It will come with the frustrations of watching your core operating system get stuck in a process you can’t clearly see into, and can’t do much about once the process kicks off. You can only sit by in frustration, waiting impatiently for the cycle to finish. Or you can learn to relax into it, do what you can around it, find other ways of doing what little you CAN find energy to manage. (I’ll give you two guesses which category I fall into, and the first guess doesn’t count.)

The stigma around depression prevents many of us from “being okay” with simply being depressed. Most of us work in situations that leave us feeling like we can’t afford to be physically sick, never mind mentally compromised or incapacitated. The pressure to just grit our teeth and get through depression is enormous… and depletive. Culturally we don’t have any good answers for how best to treat depression beyond recognizing it as a legitimate illness encroaching on epidemic proportions, even as mental health professionals grapple with the notions that depression’s causes are almost as numerous and varied as its manifestations and its impacts. (For example, even as we note that depression can run in families, we still have no surefire way of determining whether it’s a nature or nurture effect, genetic predisposition or learned coping strategy; how is it that I remained high-functioning for 18 months and still continued to work through and after a hardline crash, while my mother was rendered bedridden by her depression for long periods of time? Genetics? Situational necessity? Combinations of the two? Who knows?)

My only good answer remains, as frustrating to many as I’m sure it is: slow down. Realize you’re compromised, and will be for a while. If you can’t accept the limitations depression imposes, for whatever reasons, at least be realistic in your workarounds (see previous note, re: compromised functionality). Consider the fact that you may reach the point where you can EITHER recharge your batteries OR upgrade the operating system somewhow, but attempting both simultaneously may make things more complicated and frustrating than you mean them to be.

Sometimes all we can do is wait something out. Eventually one of the interminable reboots will hopefully get us back to the point where we can do something more like what we expect of ourselves. Be patient. It’s been my unfortunate lesson to learn that sometimes there’s nothing else for it but to hang on and ride the ride until it’s over and you can exit the damn thing safely.

Yeehaw… or something.

Emotional Intelligence, Self-care, self-perception, Uncategorized

“It might be hard to know that your therapist is as crazy as you are.” — Mike Fidler, MSW, RSW

It’s a bit of a truism in the therapeutic world that most of our compassion and no small amount of our ability to relate to our clients stems from our own personal experiences. (Not that we need overtly-relatable personal experience to BE a decent therapist, just that… it certainly helps with the perspective, even if it also risks the complication of personal experiential biases kicking in.)

So in the spirit of full disclosure, here’s a little bit of humanizing back story about Yerz Trooly:

While I have long known that I have depression, I had always thought it was mild, cyclical, and eminently manageable without significant therapeutic or pharmaceutical intervention. It wasn’t until VERY recently that I came back to a question my GP asked me over a year ago that I, to my embarrassment, discounted at the time:

“Do you think maybe you fit the label of “high-functioning depression?” she wondered.

“Yeah, maybe. Probably,” I said. “But as long as I’m functional, that’s good, right? It can’t be all that bad.”

Let me now say: It can, dear readers, be utterly, damnably, catastrophic.


“A recent survey by the British Psychological Society found that 46 percent of psychologists and psycho-therapists suffered from depression and 49.5 percent reported felt they were failures. The overall picture is one of burnout, low morale and high levels of stress (70 percent) and depression in a key workforce that is responsible for improving public mental health.

“Since American psychologists are treating the same general public with the same mental issues, it would not be surprising to find similar high rates of depression and feelings of failure. (The most recent major American survey published in 1994, found 61 percent of psychologists clinically depressed and 29 percent with suicidal thoughts.)” — William L. Mace Ph.D., for Psychology Today, Apr 27, 2016


“High-functioning depression isn’t a true medical diagnosis; you won’t find it listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the bible of the mental health profession. But it is popping up on treatment center websites and health blogs as a way to characterize people with low mood, low energy, and anxiety, experts say.

“It’s a useful term, says Johnny Williamson, MD, medical director of the Timberline Knolls Residential Treatment Center in Lemont, Illinois, because it’s “readily understandable” and encompasses people who don’t necessarily fit neatly into traditional diagnostic categories.

“What qualifies as high-functioning depression is somewhat subjective. People often fill three or four main roles in their lives: vocation (meaning work or school); intimate partner or spouse; parent; and friend or community member, explains Michael Thase, MD, professor of psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine and co-author of Beating the Blues: New Approaches to Overcoming Dysthymia and Chronic Mild Depression. Assessing how active you are in your roles can help a mental health professional gauge high-functioning depression, he says. “You may notice that there’s a hole in this person’s extracurricular life.”

“Steven Huprich, PhD, professor of psychology at University of Detroit Mercy, says there may be something in a person’s nature–“a particular type of negative self-image”–fueling his or her chronic unhappiness. “If somebody came to me and said, ‘I think I have high-functioning depression,’ chances are not only would I hear about mood symptoms, but I’d probably hear something about being kind of perfectionistic, feeling guilty a lot, feeling self-critical,” he says.” — Karen Pallarito, for Health, February 07, 2018


“High-functioning depression, or dysthymia, may be harder to detect than major depressive disorder (MDD) because the people living with it are often high achievers who make you think everything is all right all the time.” […]

“For people with high-functioning depression, the “invisible illness” aspect of the mental state can feel particularly searing. A few years ago, after shoulder surgery, my arm was in a sling. People fell over themselves to cluck with sympathy at my pain—socially sanctioned pain. It felt good to be the object of so much caring.

But on the days when listening to the sorrows of others exacerbates my own and I feel spent, I typically stay silent, not wanting to advertise my own vulnerability. Why is it so much easier to let others in on pain when it’s physical?” — Sherry Amatenstein, LCSW, for PSYCOM, Sep 11, 2018


The problem with the high-function aspect of High-functioning Depression is that it doesn’t look like the debilitating kinds of behaviours most people associate with depression. Or in some cases (like mine) there are physical health conditions (like perimenopause) with symptomology that masks the impact of depression, or makes it impossible to tell the difference between PM symptoms and HFD symptoms. When the health issues mask the psychological ones, especially if the health issues are perceived to be transient, the narrative EASILY slides into one of, “Just ride it out, this is just a temporary thing.” The unfortunate result is a misatribution of cause, and therefore a failure to effectively diagnose and treat the more devastating issue. Eventually, the lack of cope that is the key component of the high-functioning script fails utterly, and in ways that are even more difficult to recover from, than if the depressive aspect had been caught and dealt with from the get-go.

Therapists, really anyone working in the mental health field, are hamstrung in very particular ways by this high-functioning aspect. The staggering numbers of therapists in therapy themselves for depression tells a haunting story if we consider those are just the REPORTED cases. I am my own best example of therapists who are late to the party, in terms of recognizing, acknowledging, and bending to the need for treatment, of their own depression. We are often the WORST people for believing we have to buy into the myth of “having our shit together” to be the support our clients need, and to model more effective mental health practices (individually or within our relationships) for friends and family around us. In short, we buy into our own PR, and we suffer for it in significant numbers.

Imposter Syndrome is another factor that I suspect (based on nothing more than purely observational, anecdotal “evidence”) figures strongly into HFD. Imposter Syndrome occurs across all professions and all walks of life, specifically affecting those in positions of increased or increasing responsibility and authority. The greater the sense of responsibility and authority, the more likely it is that the individual in question will feel anxious about being “found out” or discovered to be less able than others believe them to be. This fear of discovery often drives us (yes, I include myself in this august and populous group) to do everything we can to “be worthy”, to meet the standards we feel are expected of us by those who look to us to perform in our roles… even if we don’t know or haven’t validated what those expectations actually entail. But because we strive so hard to meet that worthiness, we tell ourselves that we cannot fail, we are not ALLOWED to fail, that failure will lead to discovery of our own incompetence… and voila, we’re binding ourselves into the script of “must be high-functioning OR ELSE”, often at the cost of our own equilibrium and mental health.

So what leads to the breaking points? How does someone caught up in the whirlwind of staying functional-at-all-costs finally get around that cycle? As with a lot of depression disorders, there are many things that can pull a sufferer out of the darkness, including, simply time. For me, the epiphany came as the result of a LONG period of draining demands that built inexorably over time well beyond the tolerance point, yet still sustained. There was a singular, precipitating incident that triggered a realization that something that SHOULD have been exceptionally terrifying and upsetting wasn’t producing really any kind of emotional response. I had flatlined, emotionally. More importantly, looking backward, I realized I had been flatlining for a while–able to function in caretaking roles in other relationships (personal and professional), but ultimately seeing those as ways of distracting myself from my own eroding state of health–and doubling-down on the “Just Ride It Out” script. I knew there was a problem, but I didn’t do my own homework to separate out the dogpile, so I didn’t have to admit there was something IN the dogpile that needed to be addressed differently.

In short, it took recognizing that I was NOT responding to stimuli at all (let alone “appropriately”) that forced me to realize just how disconnected I had become, and how much was being locked in a box buried deep below the surface, just so I could function from one day to the next. Like the flipping of a switch, I very clearly had one thought that hit me like a sledgehammer: “Holy shit. I am really VERY NOT OKAY.”

And admitting that was the crucial turning point. (Of course, by the time Pandora realizes what’s in the box, it’s too late to close the lid on that shit, and now we have to actually, y’know, DEAL with it.)


“While “high-functioning depression” isn’t an official term for any of them, and has even been debated on social media, it’s what many like Judge use to describe their condition. Part of the reason is that they don’t fit the stereotypical image of a depressed person, the one put forward in antidepressant ads and TV dramas. They may not be skipping work, withdrawing from social activities, feeling hopeless or crying all the time. In fact, they may be honors students in college, business executives, physicians, journalists, startup employees, or any of a variety of seemingly confident, successful individuals. […]

“On the surface, high-functioning depression may seem like it’s easier to deal with, but it can persist for years, leading to more functional impairment over time than acute episodes of major depression, Craske says. Research has shown that the low self-esteem, lack of energy, irritability, and decrease in productivity that accompanies persistent depression is associated with significant long-term social dysfunction, psychiatric hospitalizations, and high rates of suicide attempts. And, ironically, persistent depression also puts people at a higher risk for major depressive episodes with more severe symptoms.” — Knvul Sheikh, for Tonic, Oct 16 2017


“Because high functioning depression so often flies under the radar, many people either don’t seek help until their condition has progressed to a severe state or their clinician doesn’t recognize the severity of their illness, leading to inadequate treatment. If this is your experience, residential treatment can provide the best path toward recovery.” — Elisabet Kvarnstrom, for Bridges to Recovery, June 6, 2017

Because residential programs are a luxury many of us can’t afford–not just in terms of expense, but also many of us can’t afford to be not working for the length of time any kind of residential or in-patient program demands–we have to consider what intensive treatment options ARE affordable. It might involve revisiting discussions about, or changing up existing prescriptions for, anti-depressant medications. It almost certainly involves getting in with a good therapist. Yes, even therapists have therapists of our own (and yes, sometimes even therapists don’t want to call their own therapists to admit there’s maybe a wee problem and could we please come in at their first available opportunity… I’m pretty sure I’m not alone in that regard. *looks around the room shiftily*). It also seems extremely important to consider one of the comments above, about looking for the “hole in this person’s extracurricular life”, to see what’s missing. High-functioning individuals, whether driven by Imposter Syndrome or not, often lack balance across their various roles. The gaps and places where they are ignoring, subsuming, deflecting, or otherwise compartmentalizing their needs then becomes a place to explore, to consider why those absences have been permitted to occur.

Because HFD is not clinically differentiated from any other depressive disorders, the treatment modalities are likely to be the same. Medication as determined in consultation with medical or psychiatric professionals, psychotherapy, lifestyle shifts if necessary. None of which is going to be easy for those of us who have taken so long to get to the point of even admitting there’s a problem in the first place. This comic comes up as hugely relevant, and highly descriptive, a lot for many of us, frankly:

No, we’re fine. Really. Ignore the fact that we’re on fire.

So be gentle with those of us who are hitting this point, or starting our way back from where we’ve wandered into the weeds. It’s hard enough to make the admission that we’re not healthy, let alone reach out to ask for help with what we’re realizing. People struggling with depression are already likely overwhelmed with where they’re at, and sorting out what feelings need what assistance is just “altogether too much”. When the depressed individual is able to articulate what they can, hopefully they will (Note to Self: take my own damned advice), and maybe they will be able to ask for something specific.

And always consider that just because someone is BEHAVING like they have all their shit together, their internal truth may be very, very different.

Emotional Intelligence, Relationships, Uncategorized

“Sometimes our most intimate space is in the distance between us.”

This is a statement that came out of my mouth with clients not too long ago as we were starting to look at some of the inherent complications that arise when couples become too tightly fused to each other in their quest to build security, trust, comfort into their intimate attachment. I still encounter with terrifying frequency–as much inside the counselling office as outside in cultural mores and media messaging–that we require partnerships to somehow “complete” us. That the height of romantic entanglement is a state in which “I don’t know where I end and you begin”.

Personally, I used to love that enmeshment state of New Relationship Energy. If I’m being honest with myself, I still do. However, I now *ALSO* recognize it as the breeding ground for some exceptionally, enormously-unrealistic, and potentially destructive beliefs and entitlements around boundaries… and the inevitable boundary violations that occur when one is unconscious of, or inconsistent in defending, effective boundaries around their emotional and psychological well-being. Coincidentally, this statement came about a scant 24 hours before I started reading Esther Perel’s “Mating in Captivity” for the first time, a book I’ve been intending to read since it came out in 2006 (her second book, “State of Affairs: Rethinking Infidelity” has also been sitting on my To Be Read pile since *IT* debuted a year ago).

When the universe starts handing me these kinds of seemingly-disparate nuggets, it’s because it wants me to connect the dots on something. So as I am getting into the Esther Perel reading, and watching the ever-amazing Jada Pinkett-Smith discuss her marriage to actor Will Smith in a two-part installment of her web series, “Red Table Talks” (part one is here, part two is here), I’m coming to realize we’re on the brink of a potentially large shift about how we view and pursue intimacy.

Murray Bowen, the father of Family Systems Theory, discusses at length the value of healthy differentiation of Self when any individual within a system finds ways to create space and autonomy within the system by changing how they participate around new, more effective boundaries. In discussing his scale for differentiating Self, he writes,

“This scale is an effort to classify all levels of human functioning, from lowest possible levels to the highest potential level, on a single dimension… It has nothing to do with emotional health or illness or pathology. There are people low on the scale who keep their lives in equilibrium without…symptoms, and there are some higher on the scale who develop symptoms under severe stress… The scale has no correlation with intelligence or socioeconomic levels… The greater the degree of undifferentiation (no-self), the greater the emotional fusion into a common self with others (undifferentiated ego mass). Fusion in the context of a personal or shared relationship with others and it reaches its greatest intensity in the emotional interdependency of marriage.” Murray Bowen, “Family Therapy in Clinical Practice,” New Jersey, 1978, p. 472 [emphasis mine]

This fusion within a relational system takes many forms; looking through an attachment lens, one of the most common dynamics of fusion is the distancer-pursuer dynamic of an anxious-secure or anxious-anxious attachment pair. There is a sense of anxiety when an individual transfers from one system (such as a family of origin) to an intimate relational system. Even if the originating system is busted and dysfunctional, there is a familiarity in certain types of connections that provide comfort and security a la “the Devil we know”. Unsurprisingly, we’ll try to recreate the same sense of closeness and familiarity in our intimate relationships, sometimes employing the same kinds of bonding mechanisms learned in the family of origin. If our bonding attempts are uncomfortable to our partner, the partner withdraws or tries to set up new boundaries around engagement… setting the anxious partner into a spiral that can only be resolved by trying to clutch harder to the separating partner.

The upshot of this “dance of connection” (as per Harriet Lerner’s term for this dynamic) is that modern love seeks to equate intimacy with fusion, the inseparable, potentially insufferable closeness that allows for absolutely no distance between us. There is nothing allowed to be unknown, because in the unknown lies uncertainty, and that is intolerable. We substitute comfort and safety for passion and excitement, then wonder why our relationships over the long term start to feel as provocative and sexy as a pair of worn and comfortable socks. Where has the excitement gone? Where has the playful eroticism that made the early era of the relationship so delicious, gone? How do we get that back??

This is where the Esther Perel reading comes into play. Her contention through “Mating in Captivity” is that in generating these states of fusion, exchanging uncertainty and insecurity for a state of entitlement and absolute entanglement on every level, we destroy the very environment that passion and eroticism require in which to live and flourish:

“The mandate of intimacy, when taken too far, can resemble coercion. In my own work, I see couples who no longer wait for an invitation into their partner’s interiority, but instead demand admittance, as if they are entitled to unrestricted access into the private thoughts of their loved ones. Intimacy becomes intrusion rather than closeness–intimacy with an injunction. […]

“Some couples take this one step further, confusing intimacy with control. What passes for care is actually covert surveillance… This kind of interrogation feigns closeness and confuses insignificant details with a deeper sense of knowledge. I am often amazed at how couples can be up on the minute details of each other’s lives, but haven’t had a meaningful conversation in years. In fact, such transparency can often spell the end of curiosity. It’s as if this stream of questions replaces more thoughtful ans authentically interesting inquiry.
“When the impulse to share become obligatory, when personal boundaries are no longer respected, when only the shared space of togetherness is acknowledged and the private space is denied, fusion replaces intimacy and possession co-opts love. Deprived of enigma, intimacy becomes cruel when it excludes any possibility of discovery. Where there is nothing left to hide, there is nothing left to seek.” (Esther Perel, “Mating in Captivity”, New York 2006, p. 43-4)

“Yet in our efforts to establish intimacy we often seek to eliminate otherness, thereby precluding the space necessary for desire to flourish. We seek intimacy to protect ourselves from feeling alone; and yet, creating the distance essential to eroticism means stepping back from the comfort of our partner and feeling more alone.
“I suggest that our inability to tolerate our separateness–and the fundamental insecurity it engenders–is a precondition for maintaining interest and desire in a relationship. Instead of always striving for closeness, I argue that couples may be better off cultivating their separate selves…There is beauty in an image that highlights a connection to oneself , rather than a distance from one’s partner. In our mutual intimacy we make love, we have children, and we share physical space and interests. Indeed, we blend the essential parts of our lives. But “essential” does not mean “all.” Personal intimacy demarcates a private zone, one that requires tolerance and respect. It is a space–physical, emotional, intellectual–that belongs only to me. […]
“Love enjoys knowing everything about you; desire needs mystery. Love likes to shrink the distance that exists between me and you, while desire is energized by it. If intimacy grows through repetition and familiarity, eroticism is numbed by repetition. It thrives on the mysterious, the novel, and the unexpected. Love is about having; desire is about wanting… But too often, as couples settle into the comforts of love, they cease to fan the flame of desire. They forget that fire needs air.” (p. 36-7)

It’s interesting to watch couples react to the concept of INCREASING the distance between them at a time when their instincts (for at least ONE of them) are screaming, “NOOOOOOOOOOO, WE MUST BE EVEN CLOSER THEN EVER BEFORE TO FIX ALL OUR INTIMACY PROBLEMS! I MUST BE ALL UP IN YOUR BUSINESS AND HAVE YOU SHOW ME YOU WANT TO BE ALL UP IN MINE!!!”

And, of course, this never works.

Whether it’s the unrealistic expectation of a reciprocal desire to live inside each other’s heads 24/7, or the unrealistic expectation of a reciprocal definition of privacy boundaries (which, BTW, are PERFECTLY NORMAL and HEALTHY things to have in *healthy* relationships), or whether we have different expectations for how this eternal fusion actually looks on a day-to-day basis, or one partner breaks down and flees in the night with a desperate cry of, “JUST GIVE ME SOME FUCKING SPACE, WILL YOU??!?”— I really cannot begin to count all the ways in which the insatiable need for fusion as a substitute for legitimate intimacy fails us at each and every turn.

When we smother ourselves, our relationships, our partners out of a fear of the distance, we lose the distinct entities we were when we ignited the energy initially bringing us together. Perel’s stance is that in pursuing security and comfort, we sacrifice passion and eroticism by deny the space required to maintain a degree of mystery and uncertainty. Anxious attachments cannot settle and become secure without eradicating all uncertainties, without seizing the seams and trying to seal all perceived rifts by force of will… until “secure and comfortable” becomes “stabilized… and boring”.

(And before anyone asks, yes, this happens in poly relationships, too; it’s not a question of how MANY partners you have, but what your own attachment style in any of those relationships typically looks like, or how security/anxiety responses get activated.)

So, consider this: smothering a fire with a blanket puts the flames out. On the one hand, that keeps you safe, but on the other hand, you’ve lost a source of heat and light that might have been serving a valuable purpose to those enjoying it. The question is, did you put out the fire because you were afraid it would consume you and everything you love if you didn’t? Could you learn to tolerate the fear if it meant being able to sustainably (non-destructively) enjoy the heat and light that the fire brings? We can have distance, and space, and air, and fire, and heat, and passion… without burning the house down.

But it takes rethinking how we define and pursue intimacy to do it.

Emotional Intelligence, Relationships, Uncategorized

Humanity is a bunch of curious monkeys. It’s in our nature to question things, to look for explanations to experiences that make sense of those experiences (we’ll leave aside for now the utmost importance of pursuing or ignoring scientifically *accurate and relevant* explanations). It’s totally okay when the first exposure to something results in not understanding it. Coming to understanding is a personal growth opportunity and process that we have to actively choose to undertake–we have to WANT to know why something is or does what it is or does. When faced with questions of Why or How, it’s totally okay to not know the answers even when those questions are about ourselves.

It’s okay to not know the answers… up to a point. After that, however, “I don’t know” starts to become an increasingly problematic response. There’s genuinely not knowing the answer to a question, and then there’s deliberately avoiding learning or sharing the answer for fear it means we’re locked into or committing to that being the ONLY answer, implying a singular, correct response we have to get right.

What happens when one uses “I don’t know” as a way of avoiding committing to specific answers or presumably-limited paths forward?

I can answer this one best from my own personal experience as a recovering committmentphobe:

It goes very, very poorly.

It’s a lot easier for me to spot the pattern of fearful, stubborn entrenchment now than it ever was when I was the one clinging to “I don’t know”, but I imagine it’s every bit as harsh and terrifying when I call my own clients out as it was when I got called out for it. The problem with “I don’t know” as a long-term answer is the implication that we’re not doing the work of developing self-understanding. We’re not trying, or we’re actively avoiding, to discern and share information that is immediately relevant to our partners and the functioning of our relationships. “I don’t know” for many becomes coded language for, “I don’t want to commit to an answer on this topic”. In my case, it became a way of avoiding ownership and responsibility for my own actions when questions about my motivations or behaviours arose; but it also avoided my taking ownership or responsibility for committing to a change, ANY change. “I don’t know” leaves open all the doors of possibility, because until we have an answer then (on some quantum level) ALL options remain possible. “I don’t know” was a favourite tune for my own internal brain weasels to dance to. And it frustrated the everlovin’ hell out more than one of my partners over the years… just as I watch it frustrate, upset, or disrupt partnerships coming into my office now as clients.

In and of itself it’s not a bad answer. When it remains the long-term answer to questions like, “What do you WANT this relationship to look like?” or “What are you willing to do differently going forward from here?”, however, it’s anathema (if not outright death) to connection and intimacy. “I don’t know” becomes a way of holding the relationship hostage at a distance: “we can go no further and get no closer, because I cannot/will not do the work to answer these questions.” The partner who is unable or unwilling to face the answers becomes a gatekeeper for the entire relationship, because–and I observe this to be the truth most of the time–they are afraid. WHAT they (we, I) are afraid of, is highly contextual, and variable. Sometimes it’s an unwillingness to be held to one option. Sometimes its a fear of committing to trying something and getting it wrong, if the perception of trial and failure is equated with things only ever getting worse for the failure. If the fears are strong enough, the gatekeeping and distancing can seem insurmountable obstacles to progressing towards intimacy. Overcoming those fears seems an unobtainable goal to the fearful. Ultimately, the partners end up in a stalemate.

That distancing fear serves a purpose:

“If there is one over riding reason why our world and relationships are in such a mess, is that we try to get rid of our anxiety, fear and shame as fast as possible, regardless of the long term consequences. In doing so, we blame and shame others and in countless ways, we unwittingly act against ourselves. We confuse our fear driven thoughts with what is right, best, necessary or true.”
― Harriet Lerner, The Dance of Fear

In the moment, it will often seem like there is no better antidote for fear than to simply not engage it: hold it away from us where we don’t have to look at it, or do anything about it. “I don’t know” means not having done the homework, and potentially not doing the homework going forward, either. As long as the gatekeeper holds themselves in limbo, they can hold off confronting their fear. Unfortunately, it comes at the cost of the health of the relationship over the long term, often in the short term as well.

“If you pay attention, you may find that it is not fear that stops you from doing the brave and true thing in your daily life. Rather, the problem is avoidance. You want to feel comfortable, so you avoid doing the thing that will evoke fear and other disquieting emotions. Avoidance will make you feel less vulnerable in the short run, but it will never make you less afraid.”
― Harriet Lerner, The Dance of Fear

Sometimes, doing our own homework is the bravest thing we can do.

Emotional Intelligence, Relationships

Let me say this one more time, loudly for those in the back:

THE ABSENCE OF A CLEAR “NO” DOES **NOT** EQUAL A CLEAR YES AND THE PRESENCE OF CONSENT.

I get it, I really do. Someone described for me recently the scenario in which someone overcompensating for deep social anxiety adopted the tactic of plunking themselves down in, or attaching themselves to, social groups or individuals with the attitude of, “Well, I find you interesting, so here I am; if you don’t want me here YOU be the one(s) to leave.” When it takes so much energy/anxiety capital to get into encounter space in the first place, sure, you want to maximize the odds of a meaningful encounter. But that’s only the beginning of the problem for some of the people involved in that scenario, especially women.

It’s a terrible assumption of privilege to assume welcome in any group; just because no-one is saying, “Hey man, thanks but this is a closed group/private discussion”, does not mean there is an actuall invitation or acceptance. It’s also a terrible assumption of privilege that other people will be as willing or able as you are to take a stance, and a dangerous blindspot to not understand how hard it will be for some to take a stance AGAINST intrusion.

A recent client discussion put the struggle into sharp relief: the individual need to connect with people runs up against another individual needs for distance or disconnect. There’s no good way to balance those needs when they come into conflict. The “No” in that equation, the piece that defines the definitive edge of the consent boundary, MUST have precedence. The fear of losing out on connection does NOT trump the fear of being invaded or intruded upon.

I get how bitter a pill to swallow that is, especially for the shy and anxious who are struggling to just get into position to meet people. Yes, it’s going to feel profoundly unfair that someone else’s needs are allowed by default to take precedence over yours… but when you force an attachment or inclusion into a situation without explicit consent, that’s exactly what YOU do to others. You force your needs to override theirs, without clear and explicit consent.

This has been the indomitable gender-biased power dynamic in our culture for generations. Patriarchal desires have ordered and policed the boundaries in their own self-serving fashion for so long that I am still struggling with women of all ages to introduce the idea of “No” to them, to the idea that they have the right to define their boundaries for themselves, to offer or withdraw consent as they themselves choose. It’s an uphill battle, however, against male anger at being thwarted. Women’s fear of that anger is justified, time and time again, from overt and murderous attacks to the dozens of subtle, unconscious microaggressions that permeate our daily lives.

And it’s a sucky thing as a therapist to have to balance compassion–because we’re all human, we all have needs we want to have met, and we all know to varying degrees the feeling of being thwarted in their pursuit–with being a staunch feminist and educator to both the men trying to understand and navigate the sudden shift in whose needs take what precedence now, and the women still battling the terror of saying no and being made to pay for their audacity.

We cannot drive home this point often or deeply enough.

ABSENT NO DOES NOT MEAN YES.

Not getting our needs met is a painful experience. But inherent in the drive for connection HAS TO BE an understanding that not only does everyone NOT welcome connection, but NOT everyone knows how or is willing to risk saying NO directly. Pushing into a situation in which there is a lack of specific welcome is a dominance move, something that can carry (for those on the inside of the situation into which someone is presenting) overtones of aggressiveness: “I’m not going to move, YOU move.”

And that cannot continue be the default pattern. Yes, the expressions of explicit consent may still be fewer and further between than the introverts and anxious people want to suffer through, especially when the cravings for connection are running high and hot. But those are no longer accepted as the dominant paradigm; they can’t be. Too much damage results from that traditional dynamic. It favours a patriarchal power structure far too much, far too often.

So yes, if it seems awkwardly, uncomfortably, like the pendulum has swung all the way over into the other extreme, in which all ambiguity should be treated as an absolute consent barrier (if it’s not an explicit yes, treat it as a no and respect it), that’s because it has. We haven’t yet earned the kind of broad-spectrum trust that allows social and intimate transactions to settle to a stable median set of understandings and expectations. It was unfair in one direction for a disastrously long time; now it’s unfair in the other direction for a while.

THE ABSENCE OF A CLEAR “NO” DOES **NOT** EQUAL A CLEAR YES AND THE PRESENCE OF CONSENT.

This is the way it needs to be for a while. You don’t have to like it, but a failure to respect it just means it’s going to take longer to settle into that workable median than it maybe needs to.

Book Recommendations, Community, Current Events, Emotional Intelligence

November 2015, Bataclan Theatre, Paris: a terrorist attack kills 89, including the wife of Antoine Leiris. Leiris later wrote something in a Facebook post that has become a manifesto to many who struggle with responding to this kind of attack on our basic humanity:

“So, no, I will not give you the satisfaction of hating you. That is what you want, but to respond to your hate with anger would be to yield to the same ignorance that made you what you are. You want me to be scared, to see my fellow citizens through suspicious eyes, to sacrifice my freedom for security. You have failed. I will not change.”

July 2016, Nice, France: “a 19 tonne cargo truck was deliberately driven into crowds of people celebrating Bastille Day on the Promenade des Anglais in Nice, France, resulting in the deaths of 86 people[2] and the injury of 458 others.”

April 2018, Toronto Ontario: a man drove a van into pedestrians along a busy city street, killing ten and wounding 15 more. When police apprehended him shortly thereafter, he purportedly approached them, saying “Kill me.” Police refused to shoot, subduing and arresting him without further harm.

We think, “This is Canada; this isn’t supposed to happen here.”


I’ve recently been reading Brené Brown’s latest book, “Braving the Wilderness”; it was there I first hear about Leiris and his anti-hate manifesto. She explores the experience of connection and disconnection in human relations, including the ways in which we find it easier to hate amorphous groups far more easily than we can hate individuals; how the quest for true inclusion leaves us grappling with profound fears of being or feeling excluded, and how those fears can be manipulated into creating the false dichotomy of “us versus them”, or moral exclusion.

Moral exclusion as a broad-scale social phenomenon is the basis for a variety of dehumanizing practices, in which dehumanization is “the psychological process of demonizing the enemy, making them seem less than human and hence not worthy of human treatment.” (Brown 2017, pg 72)

“Groups targeted based on their identity–gender [or orientation–KG], ideology, skin colour, ethnicity, religion, age–are depicted as “less than” or criminal or even evil. The targeted group eventually falls out of the scope of who is naturally protected by our moral code. This is moral exclusion, and dehumanization is at its core.” (Brown 2017, pg. 73)

The rhetoric that has been building south of the border since well before the last presidential election has opened the door to see this “us versus them” in harsh detail. Arguably it truly launched after 9/11 provided the US with a solid platform to vilify “Muslim terrorists”, conflating an entire culture with its most ardent and evangelical outliers and dehumanizing them all. More crucially, we’ve seen how infectious that kind of thinking is as we’ve watched it creep north of the border; we’re watching it reignite as we move into another election year of our own.

There’s always an “Us” ready to hate “Them”.

As soon as news of the van attack hit the feeds yesterday, those sides polarized, even here among the “polite Canadians”. The association of the driver (male, light-skinned) with a movement that has become tied to angry entitlement and the alt-right men’s movement has been constant fodder as people try to make sense of the senseless, try to manage their fears with information that (in theory) will explain everything. As nature abhors a vacuum, so too does the human mind abhor not having answers to, or neatly-contextualizing information explaining, major emotional experiences. We process our shock, and fear–and yes, anger–together, but in that togetherness, the polarization seems to occur seamlessly. And we want nothing more than to be on “the right side” in choosing our responses to such an event.


“Common enemy intimacy is counterfeit connection and the opposite of true belonging. If the bond we share with others is simply that we hate the same people, the intimacy we experience is often intense, immediately gratifying, and an easy way to discharge outrage and pain. It is not, however, fuel for real connection. It’s fuel that runs hot, burns fast, and leaves a trail of polluted emotion. And if we live with any level of self-awareness, it’s also the kind of intimacy that leaves us with the intense regrets of an integrity hangover. […] I get that these are uncertain and threatening times. I often feel the pull of hiding out and finding safety with a crew. But it’s not working.” (Brown 2017, pg. 136)

I made the #1 Internet Citizen mistake yesterday as the news was breaking: I read the comments. Even on reputable news sources, the rampant hatred of some respondents was an unavoidable thread among the otherwise-fulsome outpouring of love, shock, support, condolences, sadness. The ideological camps were staking out their territories in UsandThemism language of anger and hatred.

Since the above sections of Brené Brown’s book were still fresh in my mind, I kept coming back to Leiris’ letter to the Bataclan attackers:

“Of course I am devastated by grief, I grant you this little victory, but it will be short-term. I know she will accompany us every day and we will find ourselves in this paradise of free souls to which you will never have access. […] [W]e are stronger than all the armies in the world.”

As a woman, as a feminist, as someone who has experienced rampant misogyny on personal and professional levels nearly all my life, it would be so terribly, terribly simple to buy into that hate, to dehumanize Yet One More Violent Man as part of that more anonymous collective. There’s a seductive truth underlying most of our UsAndThemism: there are more than enough individual examples of anything we collectively hate to justify assuming there’s a systemic problem encompassing a LOT of individuals into some kind of cohesive larger unit. So we come to hate what we assume to be a cohesive collective, and forget (or choose not) to see the individuals within that presumed collective. We have effectively dehumanized them.

Brown talks about how, during the research process for “Braving the Wilderness”, she often felt like screaming, “Screw you and screw the pain of people who are causing pain. I will hold on to my sweet, self-righteous rage.” (pg 66)

“But to what end? [Clinging to rage and] Not caring about our own pain and the pain of others is not working? […] One response to this is “Get angry and stay angry!” I haven’t seen this advice borne out in the research What I have found is that yes, we all have the right and need to feel and own our anger. It’s an important human experience. And it’s critical to recognize that maintaining any level of rage, anger, or contempt (that favourite concoction of a little anger and a little disgust) over a long period of time is not sustainable.
“Anger is a catalyst. Holding onto it will make us exhausted and sick. Internalizing anger will take away our joy and spirit; externalizing anger will make us less effective in our attempts to create change and forge connection. It’s an emotion that we need to transform into something life-giving: courage, love, change, compassion, justice. […] [A]nger is a powerful catalyst, but a life-sucking companion.” (pg. 67-8)

Not responding in anger and hatred is hard; harder still when attacks hit close to home, metaphorically or geographically. Terrorism is meant to provoke fear; it’s meant to send a message of power and control, introducing a non-consensual power dynamic across a broad ideological system. Fighting back is as instinctive for some as accepting subjugation is for others, so where is the presumedly RIGHT “Us” in this mix, the one we join to stay safe?

The whole premise of Brown’s book is that in stepping outside these ideological camps to choose love over hate, and to transform anger into one of those life-sustaining alternates, we are braving our own individual, ideological wilderness. Embracing something other than UsAndThemis encampments is hard; it often feels like eschewing the safety of numbers for a unique position of disengagement from that anger and hatred. But as Leiris’ post and Brown’s research conclude, there’s a massive difference between disengagement on a systemic level, and choosing to lean in close and find the aspects of us as individuals that illustrate we’re more alike than we’re maybe comfortable admitting out loud. That illustrate that even amidst vast ideological differences, there ARE similarities of human experience in each of us to which we can relate. We may not WANT to; we may not CHOOSE to.

Brown herself admits there’s a safe harbour in staying angry and holding ourselves ideologically separate from those who hurt or anger us, who provoke us to fear and hatred. We join with others in our respective camps, believing in those superficial bonds of unified hate (in which one can argue the “Us” suddenly looks an awful lot like the “Them” we claim to despise for doing exactly the same thing). we buy into the entrenchment because, hey, safety in numbers, and we want to be in the Right Camp at the end of the day, yes?

Letting go of anger, stepping away from the entrenched encampments: this is the wilderness Brown explores. She quotes Dr. Maya Angelou:

“You are only free when you realize you belong no place–you belong every place–no place at all. The price is high. The reward is great.” (pg. 5)

And so… you will not have my hate.

I may be afraid. I may be angry, but I will not hate. I may not have explanations that make any sense at all, but I will not hate. I will practice leaning in close, leaning into the sharp things, and I will not hate.

You will NOT have my hate.

Emotional Intelligence, Family Issues, Language, self-perception, Uncategorized

One nebulous advantage of being a Marriage & Family Therapist, trained in family systems theory, is that we have ample opportunity to explore our own origin stories, as well as those of our clients. We gain new perspectives or information that reframes our understanding about where we come from, and how that changes our perception of who and how we are in the world.

In psychotherapy, there are generally some firm boundaries around “safe and effective use of Self” for therapists that are all about understanding and/or mitigating how WHO we are impacts HOW we are in our work with our clients. Understanding the formative and often invisible impacts of our families of origin can be a part of that work, as our early models often influence our values and inter-relational patterns in all kinds of relationships. We don’t use it necessarily as an excuse to talk about ourselves in client sessions, though careful and limited use of personally-relatable anecdotes can be a useful tool for illustrating to clients just how much we do (or don’t) *get them*.

Then again, I’m also a writer by trade long before I was a therapist, and a principle tenet of writing is to “write what you know”. Since people are often curious about how therapists wind up becoming therapists, I thought I’d for once break the silence around personal stories, and share my own origin story. In doing so, it also helps me recognize that a lot of this has the ring of well-honed narrative, meaning that every time I tell some of these stories, I’m (subtly, perhaps) reinforcing those storylines and their underlying values in my head. I’m also giving myself an opportunity, however, to reflect on those storylines a little more and see whether there’s anything to be altered in the current moment, applying years’ worth of reflection to temper something I’ve been telling myself, in many cases, literally all my adult life. As an exercise, I’m going to bold the parts of it that are the internalized scripts, the narrative lines that I’ve carried and polished the longest.

WHO AM I, a story by Karen, age 50 and 3/4

To start with, my family structure itself was odd. My parents met in Toronto in 1965 when my recently-divorced mother and her four-year-old daughter were trying to make a new life for themselves. The mid-60s weren’t exactly hospitable years for divorcees and single mothers, and my mom has admitted that what she was looking for was financial support more than romance. My mother’s first daughter was a handful, however, and sometime just before my parents met, my mom made her daughter a ward of the Crown; in short, voluntarily relinquished her into the fostercare system. Mom had also had a second child out of wedlock after the marriage ended; he was given up for adoption at birth.

My father was working as an industrial architect with a side passion for big-band jazz. I’ve got ancient newsclippings of my dad on an upright base playing with a then-unknown black kid by the name of Oscar Peterson on the piano. My dad was 17 years older than my mom. They connected through unknown-to-me circumstance. Two years later, they had me; I was planned. I grew up knowing about my half-sister, as she came and went from my life on whirlwind visits. I don’t remember how old I was when I discovered the birth documents for my half-brother, probably around 8 or so, but thereafter I know I internalized the idea that “I was the one she/they kept”. I also internalized the idea that if they gave away two other babies, obviously they could give ME away any time they wanted, too.

As a young adult, I took to describing my homelife as a “Cold War zone”. My relationship with each of my parents was okay and as “normal” as one might expect for the 70s and 80s–their relationship with each other was a different story. Of note: my parents were never married; they both commented over the years that having each been burned by previous marital heartaches, there seemed no good reason to go through the motions a second time. The scripted line was, “They lived together for 19 years, and hated each other for 17 of them,” which, while lacking in the accuracy of the minutiae, certainly encompasses the overarching tension of my homelife. My parents never slept in the same bed, and round about the time we moved into a small town when I was 7.5, they didn’t even sleep in the same room on the same floor of the house. Mom always maintained it was because of Dad’s snoring (which was prodigious), but I never believed that was all, or even the bulk of her reasoning.

It’s worth noting: I never knew my dad’s family. His parents were long dead before I was born, as was one of his sisters (Scarlet Fever in her case); what family he had through his remaining sister was scattered on the East Coast. I have a vague memory of meeting a couple of his cousins or nephew/niece when I was very young, but I remember their dog better than I remember them. I also met the daughter of his first wife once in my early teens when she came west to visit, but that once was all the exposure I had until I tracked her down through FB last year to inform her of Dad’s passing. My mother’s family is its own tale of dire dysfunction, including her alcoholic mother with undiagnosed suicidal depression (though some of my mother’s tales ring the bells of Borderline Personality Disorder); my mother tells of the day my grandmother tried to kill herself by driving the family car off the road… with my mother and her younger brother loose in the back seat. My grandfather was unwilling to confront or deal with his wife’s obvious mental health issues, so he didn’t intervene even when she beat her daughter or emotionally terrorized either child. MY mother finally fled as a teenager, as soon as she was old enough to work to support herself. She married young; her first husband was an abusive alcoholic. She was 20 when her first daughter was born.

Both of my parents were high-functioning alcoholics. My mother also suffered from undiagnosed depression. Neither of my parents finished high school. Dad enlisted in the army at 18, which got him to Europe for the last rounds of WWII. His work ethic meant both a workaholic, emotionally-unavailable father-figure, and that my university education was paid for long before I graduated high school, about which I was constantly reminded, and an investment I promptly lost by failing out of my first year of university. I was the first generation of the family to attend university; between my mother’s and her brother’s kids (her 2 daughters, his 2 sons), only two of us completed undergrad. I’m the only one with a post-grad degree. None of us has had a stable, successful marriage (including our parents). Only one of the four of us ever had kids. The eldest in both sets of siblings has significant mental health issues including drug or alcohol issues and numerous run-ins during “troubled youth” with law enforcement. That left myself and my younger cousin to be the “good kids” in a widespread system of familial dysfunction. My running joke for a long time was that David (said cousin) and I were the white sheep of the family, notable for our rarity.

So… that’s the bare-bone systemic model in which I grew up. Even glossing over so many details about the intergenerational and inherited trauma normal to family systems, that’s a lot of self-defining scripting I’m carrying forward into my adult life, the echos of which still occasionally rattle the windows and shake the walls of my current life.

When we dig into the narratives I’ve bolded, there’s an incredible amount of tension touching on several aspects of my core family dynamics:

  • The incredible pressure of growing up as “the one they kept”, believing that if they could give the other children away, I had to be EXTRA GOOD to make sure that didn’t happen to me.
  • The weight of expectation tied to my going to university, even if I proved terribly unready for the responsibility of “being launched”.
  • Being the Adult Child of Alcoholics (OMG, I don’t even know where to start with what I’ve learned about this one, but here’s a good suggestion).
  • The dynamic of seemingly overbonded mother and underbonded father (and let me tell you, THAT dynamic has been a major undermining factor of EVERY heterosexual relationship I have ever had, including both my marriages).
  • Undiagnosed mental health issues galore, up to and including my own until-recently-admitted depression and anxiety.
  • The “Cold War” aspect of my parents’ relationship as the foundational model I took away for “how intimate partnerships should look” (and my own deeply-disconnecting behaviours when stressed in relationship).

It’s not uncommon that “relationship issues” such as faltering intimacy or communications challenges in relationship are what drive an individual or partners into a therapist’s office. One of the reasons the family of origin snapshot is such an integral part of my own intake process is that it shapes for me a picture of the significant early and formative influences on the participants in the current conversation.

Having spent so much time navel-gazing my own origin story, and listening over the years to how I tell my origin story, I’ve learned something about how to listen for those polished-sounding phrases, lines and phrases that crop up time and time again in conversation. I can’t always put my finger on what it is about a particular choice of wording in a client’s story that sets my Spidey-senses tingling, but my accuracy is (in my not-so-humble opinion) better than just average in catching the tones. There’s just something about a precise choice of words; or something about how they all run together like a phrase we haven’t actually had to think about constructing for a long time, dropped in the midst of an otherwise thoughtful conversation.

(I’m not ruling out the idea that I’m just projecting onto my own clients, at least some of the time; on a good day, I’m self-aware enough to be aware that’s a potential inadvertent-thing-wot-therapists do, yo.)

We all have these stories, these pieces of personal narrative we just carry with us as shorthand descriptions of things that actually carry an incredible significance to those willing to get past the polish and gleam of scripting. I joke sometimes that my job as a therapist is to be a “professional disruptive influence”, and more often than not, what I’m looking to disrupt is the attachments we invest in those safe scripts. Scripts around our origin stories, like any other experience, in many ways function as cages that contain complex emotional experiences. Language is a tool we use to define and shape experience into something we can wrap our heads around. Dispassionate versus passionate language and delivery, for example, is discernible through listening to word choice as well as tone. Applying language to an experience is, in and of itself, a very cognitive process, and in pushing emotional experience through cognitive filters, we already begin to separate ourselves from the immediacy of the lived and felt experience. Our word choice actually informs our brain how we want to qualify and quantify that experience; we can use language to embrace or distance our selves from the feelings. Our origin stories are the stories we have been practicing and polishing the longest of all our scripts. Sometimes we need to just scrape off the years of accumulated polish to see the actual grain and bones of the experience underneath, to understand what happened in different lights and perspectives, and maybe learn something new about ourselves in the process.

Emotional Intelligence, Relationships, Self-care

“You are the Hero of your own Story.”
― Joseph Campbell

Catching up with a colleague over coffee this morning, we were commiserating over a shared experience that seems to hit those of us who are somewhere post-divorce. We’ve moved on, or we’re moving on, and in encounters with The Ex, we suddenly experience an unpleasant sensation of realizing they’re HAPPY, or at least content, or having their own adventures, or… or…

It’s the sharp adjustment of recognizing that, as the heroes in our own stories, we expect that our ex-partners should be miserable, or missing us, or somehow struggling in our absence. And in finding that they’re not at all unhappy with their new status quo, WE are somehow thrust into unexpected or unwelcome re-evaluations–often unfavourable– about where we ourselves are landing. It’s at least a *common* part of a grief-and-recovery process to rewrite our stories around ourselves. Without the presence of the Other, women in particular are often discovering a centred-in-selfness that is new to them: we become Victim, Hero, Adventurer, Martyr, Rescuer–sometimes all of these roles simultaneously, sometimes sequentially, sometimes adopting one and getting mired in it.

Creating a story around our circumstances that offers a “probable hypothesis” for why things happen is what humanity does. We are a race of story tellers who don’t like gaps in our knowledge, so we fill in the blanks with plausible-sounding stories explaining why things happen. It started with the first caveman who had enough language to explain to his clan that lightning striking a nearby tree and setting it afire was the act of angry sky-beings, and continues millennia later in coffee shops all over the world as we tell ourselves stories about who and why we are the people we have become.

In part, the restructured narrative helps us move from one day to the next in the early stages of post-upheaval recovery. Part of grief processing involves the need to understand “Why?”, but lacking direct input from an uncooperative partner in the process of a relationship breakup, we will fill the void in our factual knowledge with semi-informed interpretation and assumption. When those created narratives get invested with emotional weight, they become “like facts”, and the storylines become entrenched. Being shaken out of those entrenchments when later re-encountering our exes (or any Other who played a part in significant life-altering events) generally involves having those internalized “facts” challenged by the living presence of someone behaving nothing like we expect.

If we’re the heroes of our own stories, however, that generally tends to imply that the Other must be the “villain” or antagonist of the piece, right? Our internal heroes implicitly expect that something bad happens to the Other, even if it’s just a desire to know they hurt and pine and regret and lament the pain of our absence from their lives, as we have hurt (or been angered by, or regretted) for their absence from ours. That would just be *fair*, right?

Except… it rarely seems to work that way. Unsurprisingly, people who live outside of our heads, and therefore outside the confines of our carefully-constructed narratives, never conform neatly to the confines of those tight stories. And once they, or we, have exited the relationship, they are even LESS bound by expectations to confirm, so they go off and have happy lives of their own. And when we encounter them in their happiness, it just doesn’t fit for us. (Yes, I’ve been through this process myself; I know exactly how it feels to confront this perception. I am extremely sympathetic and empathetic to friends and clients alike when they run into the same uncomfortable emotional adjustments.)

The awkward truth of this process is that we ARE filling in blanks with presumptive narratives. We do this to make ourselves feel better. How many of us can remember being children, telling ourselves stories to make the world around us seem less scary? Personally, I attribute my becoming a writer to exactly this process; I entrenched my narrative processes so deeply, I made a career out of them! Yay me, right? Up until those processes get in the way of having healthy relationships, sure.

Often times, we find these story-telling activities already exist inside relationships; we don’t have to wait until things fall apart to see them in action, that’s just when we see them take on new lives of their own. We catch the story loops in anxiety and self-esteem crises; we see them in how partners in relationship react to each other, especially when reactions seem disproportionate to the triggering events. We see them when we see reversions in behaviour to traditional patterns when we host or go home to visit our families. We adopt or revert to roles we have played, well-developed personas who fit certain requirements of the systemic storyline, or that feed into our own personal narratives about who we are, what we value (or what we’re supposed to value).

When working with narrative challenges, one of the very first tools we develop is self-observation. It’s a way of both “differentiating from the system” in Bowen Systems language, and also “externalizing the problem” in narrative therapy terms. We learn to look at what’s happening in the system, to recognize the stories spinning around us, as well as our part within them. What am I telling myself? What am I experiencing as I observe what others are doing, and what am I telling myself about those experiences? Turning off the urge to interpret, to filter our experiences into our personal narratives, is a challenge at the best of times. But in doing so, we can also unhook ourselves from a certain amount of default reactive, patterned reactions, including the unconscious urge to want other people to hurt like we have hurt in the wake of relationship breaks, for example. “If I’m unhappy, you certainly don’t deserve to be happy,” is a depressingly common refrain I hear in a lot of post-break conversations, before we get to looking at the narratives entrenching the speaker inside that unhappiness. I get it; I’ve been there, too.

So we work on making the storylines more consciously observable. Then we look at how we are hooked into them by expectations, or by our attachment to different outcomes than we’ve experienced. Breaking those down takes time, and often a lot of “reframing the narratives”; the external perspective of a therapist can be a useful tool for this process. It’s less about playing Devil’s advocate and more about offering insight into our own experiences, helping someone to “consider an idea from a different point of view, taking the evidence as it is but coming to a different conclusion.” We can use perspective-shifting questions that move from (for example) Victim/Marty roles to Hero perspectives by posing the simple question, “If you were the Hero of this story, what would you do next?” (which comes close to one of my fundamentally-important questions, “What kind of person do you CHOOSE to be in this situation?”).

Being the Hero of our own story is something we all desire, but into which we sometimes need a little help casting ourselves. Encountering others’ happiness feels like a check, or even an outright stop, as we adjust to adjacent or outright conflicting storylines that don’t fit neatly with our own. But discomfort doesn’t make it a bad thing, and if it results in us being more mindfully observing of ourselves and our narratives in the world, then we ultimately have a better sense of our Selves as we interact with those other storylines.

Yes, we can ALL be Heroes. (Even if just for one day…)

Emotional Intelligence, Life Transitions, Self-care

“I know nothing stays the same, but if you’re willing to play the game, it will be coming around again.”

So, January… I see you have come around again.

New year, new month, resolute new beginnings for many. And resolute restarts for many more. But this post isn’t about resolutions, New Year’s or otherwise; the internet is full of advisory posts about resolutions at this time of year, and frankly I’m already exhausted by the idea. Instead, today’s post is about the mentality of “starting over”, specifically from the perspective of a post-relationship breakup.

The holidays can be brutal on the recently-single, but perhaps more so is the aftermath of the holidays, when it seems like *everyone* is staring down the long, dark, cold and dreary months of Winter Proper. Remove the artificial and inflated moods of the holidays, and what’s left? (Those of you who are winter enthusiasts, shush 🙂 )

Depression in the winter months is a well-documented phenomenon, at least in North America, in part because of the darkness and cold. Add in elements of 21st century social insularity, and then consider how that withdrawing almost becomes a norm when someone is grieving a breakup, or grieving the loneliness of ongoing singleness. Grief and pain are a drain on energy and motivation, and the cold snowy outdoors is, for many, already a more than sufficient reason to avoid leaving the house. This is a damnably difficult time of year to face the refrain of “new resolutions!”, or “starting over”; it all just sounds like too much effort and what’s the point?

Starting over at any age is a tough challenge, but I think the older we get, the more we believe we stand to lose when a job or a relationship goes away, for whatever reasons. The more we stand to lose, the more we fear the loss and attach to the idea of hanging onto what we can, and the more strength it seems to take every time one has to pick themselves back up again. There’s very little to say to someone in the depths of that experience that will help them visualize what “starting over” even looks like, or when they will be ready to take a step… in ANY direction other than pain-paralyzed stasis. During rough times in the past ten years, I’ve leaned hard on a mantra that taught me a wisdom in keeping efforts small and simple until I’ve been ready to do more: “One day at a time, one breath at a time; one foot in front of the other.”

I keep this article bookmarked now, because it offers some very practical perspectives on how to start over in general after losses:

  1. learn from failures
  2. leave the old attitudes behind (sometimes this is where a good therapist can be a useful ally)
  3. don’t make grandiose announcements, just do it
  4. leverage what you know DID work previously
  5. take baby steps, and celebrate the small victories as well as the big ones
  6. do things differently
  7. keep moving
  8. spin criticisms, however harsh, into constructive perspective

“I have lived in the shadow of loss—the kind of loss that can paralyze you forever. I have grieved like a professional mourner—in every waking moment, draining every ounce of my life force. I died—without leaving my body. But I came back, and now it’s your turn. I have learned to remember my past—without living in it. I am strong, electric, and alive, because I chose to dance, to laugh, to love, and to live again. I have learned that you can’t re-create the life you once had—you have to reinvent a life for yourself. And that reinvention is a gift, not a curse.” — Christina Rasmussen, Second Firsts: Live Laugh and Love Again

Learning how to remember the past without becoming persistently stuck in it is difficult work, especially when one is still mired in pain. Avoiding entrenching ourselves in our victimhood is also a challenge; it’s more comforting to believe we are the wronged parties, especially when the loss comes about unexpectedly. Too many questions (mostly in the “Why/how did this happen to me?” category) overwhelm us without answers; without answers, we believe we cannot understand, and without understanding of what went wrong, we’re afraid to move forward in case we make the same missteps and mistakes in future… and risk feeling the same pain again. Best to stay put until we KNOW things, right?

Except… some things can’t be known. And even when presented with answers, if we don’t like or don’t believe the information as presented, we engage it in a struggle to prove, disprove, pick apart, analyse, investigate. We stay stuck with the need to COMPREHEND. And if we can’t, there is no way to resolve the struggle, to free ourselves, to choose to act differently.

Starting over after romantic breakups adds some things to the list above, like choosing whether to maintain a hard or soft heart — does grief make us cynical, gun-shy, pragmatic, open-hearted, willing, eager? Starting over involves challenge and opportunity, but especially in romantic contexts also involves emotional risk; like the cliché says, “Love like you’ll never be hurt”, but how hard is that to hear when you’re still in recovery, post-breakup, even months or years later?

Recovery often becomes about the stories we tell ourselves in the aftermath, whether we stay stuck in the stories of grief and pain and loss and allow that stuckness to creep in and also infect our “forward vision”. Do we shape those narratives in negative language, or positive language? For example, consider the difference between, “I don’t ever want to feel (that kind of) pain and grief again,” and “I want to love and be loved again,” in the sense of reinforcing a negative versus positive space. “I don’t want X” only defines a specific or narrow set of experiences, even when the scope of that experience seems (however temporarily) all-encompassing. It works less effectively for crafting a useful, self-directing course TOWARD something. Saying, “I want [Y]”, on the other hand, opens a conversation about what [Y] can look like, what paths might move one from current state towards receptivity and onward toward open reception and acceptance.

Relationship therapists generally hold that intimacy is rooted in vulnerability, and vulnerability is, itself, rooted in risk-taking. Starting over after breakup involves some soul-searching questions about willingness, or potential readiness, to engage in what undoubtedly feel like emotionally-risky behaviours. The last thing most of us want to do when we’ve burned our fingers is too stick them back someplace we’re afraid will result in further burns. This is where my two core tenets, mindfulness and choice, become critical components of any “starting over” mentality. What have I learned, and what do I need to carry forward? What changes to my metrics for satisfaction and happiness do I want to make, and to my communications when things aren’t measuring up to those metrics? How do I want to ask for what I want, even if the entity I’m asking is “the universe at large”?

But the process of “starting over” must also, by necessity, make space for processing grief and the pain of whatever’s been lost. Starting over, like “moving on”, doesn’t necessarily mean forgetting about what has happened or magically stopping the feelings. Nor does it function on any kind of a set schedule. More accurately, it needs to be a process of learning how to redistribute the weight of those experiences, so that we can move without tripping over the unresolved baggage. Resolution, to me, means a maybe-sometimes-never process by which we gradually shift or improve our relationship to those prior experiences, so some lingering effects may be with us for a long time. But we can either be pinned in place under the weight of those effects, or we find a way to move in spite of them. Grief processing is its own thing, and again, this might be a place in which good therapy is useful. Working through our fears and anxieties around future “what ifs”… well, that’s the work of starting over, right there, in a nutshell.

If it were all as easy as a song lyric, life would be so much simpler, wouldn’t it? We can’t always force a tidy resolution, but we can change our relationship to the weight we carry forward. We pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and start… not *quite* all over… again. And again. And again. As often as our hearts can stand it.