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.

Community, Life Transitions, Self-Development, Uncategorized

A colleague of mine and I were reflecting recently on our respective middle-aged women clients who are grappling simultaneously with perimenopause, empty-nesting impacts on their intimate partnered relationships, job issues and the looming shadows of the second halves of their lives. Laurie commented that she was noticing women clients using this stage of their lives as a period of discernment. I figured I understood what she meant from the context of the discussion, but at the same time, “discenment” is more than just simple decision-making, so, being the Word Nerd that I am, it behooved me to both look at the word itself, and reconsider what I thought I was understanding about its deployment in the context of the discussion.

Turns out, there’s a lot more nuance to the word than my internal working definition of “a more in-depth analytical process underlying decision making”.

Discern, the verb:
1a: to detect with the eyes
b: to detect with senses other than vision
2: to recognize or identify as separate and distinct
3: to come to know or recognize mentally

Discernment, the noun:
1: the quality of being able to grasp and comprehend what is obscure
2: an act of perceiving or discerning something

Google definition of dis·cern·ment
1. the ability to judge well. “an astonishing lack of discernment”
2. (in Christian contexts) perception in the absence of judgment with a view to obtaining spiritual direction and understanding. “without providing for a time of healing and discernment, there will be no hope of living through this present moment without a shattering of our common life”

There are several aspects of these definitions that fascinate me in the context of applying the word to a midlife assessment process, especially such as I witness in women around me:

  • recognizing or identifying as separate and distinct
  • developing an ability to grasp and comprehend what is obscure
  • developing non-judgmental perspective with a view to obtaining direction and understanding (spiritual or otherwise)

The classic midlife crisis, as previously discussed, is most commonly seen as a catastrophic adjustment in relational and personal understanding. It’s a time when big changes occur, sometimes as knee-jerk reactions, and sometimes as calculated preaption responses. A friend of mine in a local service organization, told me recently that the single largest group of new members most service clubs take in annually are men in their 40s-50s. Service clubs report this being a confluence of factors, many of them tied to traditional masculine definition through actions, things men *DO*:

  • kids are older and more self-sufficient, or leaving/left home
  • more disposable time
  • more expendable income
  • a need to have “extracurricular activities” that look good padding out resumes for “C-Suite”-level executive or Board of Directors positions
  • a need to have something in place that will provide direction in terms of social and activity purposes after retirement (especially for candidates for early retirement)

Women, while they will also seek service club memberships for many of the same reasons at similar life stages, apparently don’t pursue these clubs in anything like the same numbers as men. The women to whom I’m exposed (personally and professionally) seem to see middle age as an opportunity or provocation for increasing self-reflection. It’s like we come of age and use our midlife point as the trigger to redefine what we know about who we are, why we are, what our lives mean to us as our bodies change out from under us in uncomfortable, unpleasant ways. Shifting from our “fertile years” into menopause means confronting a shift in our definition from Mother to… Crone, at a time when many of us still perceive ourselves as far from Old.

There has been a cultural shift as the Baby Boomers have aged into retirement that everything that happens from midlife on isn’t necessarily the death knell it once seemed to be. Retiring even at 65 means a significant stretch of life ahead of us, and 55 even more. Retiring men fret about what to do with their days, and as their boredom begins to blossom, they are frequently underfoot on the home front, or trying to assert some presence/input/control in the home sphere… and the women who have traditionally been the homesphere managers and controllers are increasingly finding they’ve Just Had Enough. These women are more commonly saying, “I just got done taking care of my kids, I’m damned well not going to take care of HIM now, too!”, but the process of watching their partners move from purposeful to less-purposeful lives is raising a lot of questions for themselves, too.

As I cooked dinner the other night, I thought about the women I had been talking to. They’re just entering, slogging through or just leaving their 40s. They belong to Generation X, born roughly during the baby bust, from 1965 to 1984, the Title IX babies who were the first women in their families to go to college. Or go away to college. Or to live on their own, launch a career, marry in their late 20s (or never) or choose to stay home with their children. They’re a Latina executive in California, a white stay-at-home mom in Virginia who grows her own organic vegetables, an African-American writer in Texas, an Indian-American corporate vice president who grew up in the suburbs of New York, and dozens more. They’re smart. They’re grateful for what they have. They’re also exhausted. Some of them are terrified. A few of them are wondering what the point is.

I called my best friend, a reporter a few years older than me who grew up in the Midwest. She has three children and lives on a quiet, leafy street in Washington, D.C., with her boyfriend. They recently adopted a dog.
“Hey,” I said, happy to have caught her on a break from her job, “do you know anyone having a midlife crisis I could talk to?”

The phone was silent for a second.

Finally, she said, “I’m trying to think of any woman I know who’s not.”
Ada Calhoun, “The New Midlife Crisis: Why (and How) It’s Hitting Gen X Women”

Somewhere between the perimenopausal PHYSICAL transition and the retirement SOCIAL transitions, women are increasingly grappling with the destabilization, undermining, chaotic shifts in their identities. Middle-aged women suddenly find themselves social “invisible” in an extremely ageist culture. Menopause robs us of our identity as fertile creatures, menstruation being the one thing that sets us so far apart from men as to create unsurpassable gulfs in cross-gender comprehension; even those of us who never had or wanted children feels the shift as a curse we’ve been contending with since we were 12 or 13 first becomes wildly unpredictable, then disappears altogether. Most of us rejoice that absence, but the meaning, the impact of a self-descriptive, narrative level, is a different issue entirely. But it’s happening to women at a time when, on some societal levels, we’re just “coming into our own power” in our careers, at least in industries that allow equal advancement for all genders. Many of my friends experiencing perimenopause as they move up corporate ladders or across fields into other companies (or, in my case, across to another complete field) spin terrible, or terribly funny, tales of hot flashes and sweats or bouts of incontinence in meetings and interviews, or the disruptions of their personal AND professional relationships from hormonally-driven mood swings. We may be delighted to get past the symptomology, but things can often be as complicated afterwards when we’re left alone with the questions, “Well then… who *AM* I now?”

The discernment phase, then, is sparked by a multitude of shifts in a woman’s life. Men ask, “What do I *DO*?”; women ask, “What do I *MEAN*?” (…which is not to say they won’t also get to a point of also asking, “What do I do?”, but it’s not the typical starting point in a discernment process, rather more the outcome state as a result of the reflection).

Coming back to the three points that interested me, midlife individuation and differentiation mean a new opportunity for women to reconsider who they are inside or outside the family or group structures of their lives. They may find themselves examining their roles or functions within the relational partnership now that childcare is not the relationship’s primary focus. They may discover a lack of direction in their professional lives once their internal sense of meaning and purpose, especially if they are encountering any kind of glass ceiling effect in their chosen industry. What does it mean to be a “good employee” if any advancement path is limited by the very fact of their gender? What does it mean to be a woman in a world where these invisible boundaries and implicit expectations (from employers, colleagues, clients, families, and intimate partners alike) dictate what we’re PERMITTED to be? And what does it mean to be a woman “of a certain age” trying to function in a professional context when society in general is trying to render us invisible?

The discernment phase is one in which we as therapists see a lot of women “waking up” to a predicament of emptiness. The need to fill that emptiness is often what drives us into relationship in the first place, but over time, the relationship itself can become dissatisfying, disillusioned, disconnected. One of the questions either partner will often pose at this stage is, “Is it worth the work to effect repair and reconnection?” Men in therapy will often lament not understanding what it is their disconnected partner wants them to do; if they only know what to *DO*, they could do it, and everything will be all right. Women, however… it’s not about the doing, it’s about the hearing. Being effectively validated by a partner *MEANS* something significant to them; it tells them something about both their own value to the partner, and about the partner’s willingness to show that value, in ways that are substantially different than “If you tell me to just help out around the house more, that will make everything better, right?”

Wrong.

Ask a person in this stage of life, what is meaningful to them, and it might be an interesting experience to observe their reactions as they try to figure out what YOU mean, then try to figure out their answer. Ask a woman in the discernment phase, what is meaningful to her, and odds are good you may be the first person to have ever invited her to consider such esotericism. “My marriage, my kids.” Maybe, “My work.” Okay, so if we take away the ROLES of “Mom, Wife, Employee”, what’s left? Who is the person at the core of those roles, and what is meaningful to her? Marriages change into parallel lives rather than twined intimacy, kids grow up and (hopefully) move out, jobs may be less than satisfying. What, then, is left as our meaning in all of the space leftover?

Michael White‘s narrative therapy includes a process called a “definitional ceremony” that becomes useful, if not downright significant, to the community of women waking themselves up into this lengthy space and time of their lives, wondering what it’s all supposed to mean:

“These ceremonies are rituals that acknowledge and ‘regrade’ people’s lives in contrast to many rituals in contemporary culture that judge and degrade people’s lives. In many of these degrading rituals, people’s lives are measured against socially constructed norms, and they are judged to be inadequate, incompetent, disordered, and often a failure in terms of their identities. Definitional ceremonies provide people with the option of telling or performing the stories of their lives before an audience of carefully chosen outsider witnesses. […] It is not the place of outsider witnesses to form opinions, give advice, make declarations, or introduce moral stories or homilies. Rather, outsider witnesses engage one another in conversations about the expressions of the telling they were drawn to, about the images these expressions evoked, about the personal experiences that resonated with these expressions, and about their sense of how their lives have been touched by the expressions.
In these outsider witness retellings, what people give value to in their acts of living is re-presented in ways that are powerfully resonant and highly acknowledging. Additionally, it is through these retellings that people experience their lives as joined around shared and precious themes in ways that significantly thicken the counterplots of their existence.” — Michael White, Maps of Narrative Practice

White is addressing a particular psychotherapeutic practice, but this use of the outsider witnesses also speaks very strongly to the phenomenon many women in this discernment phase pursue in the course of developing their own “tribe” or social connections. Midlife transitions provide their own definitional rituals, even if most of them seem, from a broader cultural perspective, informal, unconscious, or covert. Often starting from looking for socio-emotional connection and forms of support not accessible through family or employment connections, this deliberate tribal development is a part of how women moving through conscious discernment begin to reshape their environment. These outsider witnesses become sounding boards, reflective surfaces and sanity checks. These tribes speak to helping develop that third point, the non-judgmental perspective; women moving into discernment don’t always have answers for self-defining questions, so their tribes become the safe spaces in which they work out their clarified values and direction. Sometimes the outsider witnesses include professional therapeutic support as well, and those in the discernment stage look to uncover what has possibly been obscured in their lives by “putting pieces together” from such diverse resources in new ways. In the office I visualize this as spilling a bag of children’s letter blocks onto a table, and moving the pieces around until we spell something that resonates with the client. Women in discernment stages are likewise seeking something, some kind of meaning or purpose that that resonates.

Martin Seligman, one of the founding fathers of the Applied Positive Psychology movement, suggests that meaning is a fundamental element of well-being, and that it is not strictly subjective in its value (Seligman, 2011). Likewise, he also suggests that “positive relationships” are also a critical component of well-being, so it becomes very unsurprising that when women — anyone, really — feel they are in an unsatisfying or unsupportive relationship, they seek to establish both positive relationships and meaning (subjective or objective) as a way of resetting themselves for the next stages of their lives. It’s no coincidence that the highest-growing age group experiencing divorce, then, is the 50+ age group.

Women in this discernment process are uncovering themselves: values and needs and dreams that have quite possibly been buried by relational expectations for their entire lives (family of origin, their own family units, social/cultural expectations and messaging, etc.). Chogyam Trungpa writes often about “awakening the sanity we are born with“, describing how we strip away these layers of messages and imposed values to uncover our authentic selves. Women have, in many ways, been doing this work in a less-well-documented way for generations; sometimes we’re privileged enough to be able to break free entirely from the obscuring structures imposed on us; sometimes we find effective ways of achieving discernment, redefinition, and renewed headings in personal development, within the context of our existing valued relationships. Sometimes we’re not free to make that scope of change, but we can think about who and how we are within those relationships in new ways, and perhaps shift how we chose to relate and operate inside those potentially-inescapable contexts. In doing so, potentially for the first times in conscious memory they are invited to see themselves as distinct entities from the systems in which they are members (implicitly or explicitly). And in seeing themselves as something both part-of-yet-distinct-from, there is also an invitation to consider HOW we operate within those systems: what is meaningful to each of US?

With women living longer, there is a lot more to life from “middle age” onward than historically women have been granted. It would be nice if we had better tools to prepare ourselves to enjoy that “second half” in spite of the physical and relational changes that normal life process force on us, but historically, we’re not well-armed. Discernment therefore remains a largely individualized, somewhat-haphazard phase without clear processes and direction. But more and more women in middle age, both peri- and post-menopause, are beginning conversations that render us less invisible to *each other*, at least. And in doing so, in finding more of these communities and relationships with other women in the same boat, we find meaning in the shared experiences, those aspects of our stories that resonate.

We are not alone. And that’s the biggest joy in this entire transitional phase. We are NOT alone.