This Blog Is About

This blog is about---You! Each and every post is about you. Use it to challenge your usual patterns, as a tool for self-discovery, to stimulate your thinking, to learn about yourself and to answer your questions about others.

Monday, May 31, 2010

Follow the Leader

Two family styles described, including the ideal and distorted version of each with some recommendations.
 The autocratic and the democratic are two distinct family styles.  Therapists think that there should be a hierarchy in a normal family.  In other words, there is the executive sub-system (the parent or parents), a generational boundary, and the below that are the kids or kid.  The parents are in charge.  (There are clear and consistent limits and the consequence to crossing those lines is predictable and unwavering.  So a child knows, 'If I do that, this will happen').  Children have to live within the structure that the parents create.  I like to say that the kids can certainly grumble---they should have that right but, ultimately they benefit from the guidance, the scheduling, and the protection that the adults have to offer.

However there are variations in style to that general recommendation of how to develop a healthy family system.  The autocratic is the family where there is, a thicker line-so to speak- between the adults and the children.  The adults are the rulers and they dictate how things will go.  In some cases, this goes even further and the parents omit the teaching aspect of child-rearing by not explaining why they make a particular decision, not listening to the child's point of view and never apologizing (note:  a mistake recognized with dignity can be effective role-modeling).
Even further down this line are the parents who rule by fear.  They control their children through intimidation.  This last one, by the way, tends to produce sneakiness and lying in kids.  If they are afraid to express themselves directly, they will learn to be manipulative in order to get their way some of the time.

The other common style I will illuminate today is the democratic style family.  In this family, the parents are still in charge; they are reliable  and stable and the children feel safe under their purview.  The difference is in the leadership---there is more fluidity in the taking of the leadership role.  Children are not only listened to, they can express an opinion, an idea, or even a plan for anything that comes up in a family, from where to go for a vacation, to how to organize chores, to even participating in suggestions for consequences for the child when he or she misbehaves.  When this type of family slides too far to the end of the spectrum, the roles permanently reverse and you see what the therapist refers to as "the parentified child".
It's not only okay but, good for children to, occasionally, within appropriate limits, try on the leadership role.  But it must be temporary.  When a child is always needed to care for the parent, and to organize the household life, it leads to problems for that individual as an adult.
Returning to the happier version for now, this is a family in which the kids are given the opportunity to practice--to comfort, to problem solve, to create a new direction.  The parents remain responsible but are able to occasionally enjoy following the childrens' lead.

Most of life doesn't fall so neatly into one category or another.  Often you will see a mix of functioning styles in any one family.  It might be interesting for you to not only take a look at your current nuclear family but also at how your family of origin functioned.  What are the similarities? What has been changed?

Below is a real-life example I asked if I could share on my blog.  I think it speaks to enjoying and savoring the life stage that this family is in at this time:
"...and here's my story......
"Toasting my daughter upon her graduation from college, part 2 after a personal part 1, I alluded to a song by Crosby, Stills and Nash "Teach Your Children Well", and mentioned that the song ends with a twist saying that parents can learn from their children.   I went on to say something that I should learn but have very much admired and admire about my daughter throughout her 22 years is not just pursuing things that she does well (many, if not most things) but her ability to participate in and enjoy things she does not do well. That's a rare quality, and one that makes me so proud, because it's 100% Sara! To Sara!
As an aside I asked my 7 months pregnant niece and her husband to take notice. "
Credit:  Keith Layton

Thursday, May 27, 2010

There's a Limit

"A friend is fun, reliable, and  reciprocal."  One person's definition of what a friend is or, should be. What's yours?
Here's someone else's thought about friendship:  "People throw around the word friendship like it's nothing.  Friend is a big word.  I don't call someone a friend easily.  A true friend is rare and to treasure."  
We sure are reminded, when we lose a friend, how important a role they played in our life. It's exciting to make a new friend.  Long-term friends have, however, a special value---that of being witness to your life---of being there to see you go through various changes and stages in your process.
Friends offer affection, distraction when we are troubled, feedback-suggestions-tips-comfort-and advice.  A few rare friends can provide wise counsel.
But, here is where a little caution is good to remember.  In those times, when your life is in real turmoil, some friends, albeit well-intentioned, can stir the pot even more.

For example, how about a fragile relationship between adult siblings and a friend says to one:  'It's so good to hear you say something nice about your sister.'  Maybe that leads to an internal re-hash of all the reasons there've been to complain.  The friend's well-intentioned remark was aimed at encouraging the relationship but, back-fired.

Another difficulty with expecting counseling from friends or relatives is that they are not objective; they have a personal interest, an 'ax to grind' or as one patient described it, as we discussed this issue, " agenda of their own."

When you find yourself with a major conflict, a prolonged presence of a problem in your life, or any experience that seems too much for you to contain and master yourself, consider consulting a therapist.   A therapist usually begins with a new patient with a neutral or sympathetique attitude, often develops genuine concern and caring over time but, always tries to maintain some objectivity and a view of the whole picture.  At the least, you can count on a therapist to listen a lot and to think carefully before speaking to you about yourself or your issues.  Therapists are fallible humans and can make mistakes-no doubt about it, but, by and large, this is how it should go.  Remember, even from a selfish point of view, the best outcome for you is in the therapist's best interests.  This is especially true of those in private practice as their livelihood depends on their reputation.  Consistently doing good work is the best advertisement.

Credit:  Second quote:  Larry Gray

Monday, May 24, 2010

Welcome to my Blog Site

Thanks for visiting my blog!  You are welcome to offer your comments, suggestions, and requests.  Questions?  I am offering what I have learned, my own on-going process of personal and professional growth, a view into the profound sharing that some psychotherapy patients bring to my office, and references to books, articles, websites and events that are good things going on in psychology with a sprinkling of info about art events.  I hope you enjoy my photographs.
By the way, this one is of a garden in  Berkeley California (unknown home gardener).

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Change is Possible

 A few days ago, there was a positive news story:  Hazel Soares, at the age of 94 fulfilled a life-long dream she had.  Ms Soares graduated from high school in the midst of the Great Depression---she dearly wanted to go to college---but, at that time, it was an impossibility for her.  But!  She never abandoned her dream.  At the age of 85, she earned her AA degree.  And on May 5 of this year, she threw her cap in the air as she became the oldest person to ever graduate from Mills College.
"With her diploma in hand, Soares said she plans to volunteer at a museum...I wouldn't want to sit home and do nothing, she said."

It isn't easy, as an adult, to strike out and do something different.  But it is, in my view, worse to deprive yourself of the experiences you long for in life just because it's uncomfortable to do something new.  As adults, we become accustomed to feeling in control, to having a sense of mastery over the activities we engage in.  But there is another kind of personal power in having the courage to be awkward, to do something new where you are in the role of learner.
You might ask yourself:  Is it worth staying with the comfortable and familiar to forgo my own vision for myself?

There could be, of course, many versions of the dream a particular individual might have for themselves but earning of a college degree struck me as such a good example as I have seen many people in my practice who didn't finish their degree or who never made the attempt at all---their feeling was all the same---one of missing something.

In addition, education is therapeutic.  There are so many things learned in the experience of going to college that are beyond just the academic subject matter.  Students learn about deferred goal gratification, self-discipline, how to research an idea,
how to express themselves in writing and I'm sure you can think of many more.  It is a personal growth experience.
So, award yourself the fulfillment of your dream and if college is it, more power to you!

Back to the easy-in-the-short-run route:  We all know that many people get 'stuck in their ways' as they get older.  Doesn't it stand to reason that this may happen in part by the repeated limiting of oneself to only engaging with the parts of life that were learned early on?  Isn't this the end-result of self-limiting behavior?

Whether it's in the therapy office, in school, or some other endeavor---
Make the choice to continue to learn.

Friday, May 14, 2010

See Me, Hear Me, Feel Me, Touch Me

At Herrick Hospital Grand Rounds this week, we heard a presentation by Robert Levenson. PhD about his on-going research on empathy-a subject that has received some attention on this blog.
Using the line from a well-known song as a way to organize his findings so far, he divides empathy into four types:

1. See Me
refers to the ability to interpret ques, such as body language, tone of voice, actions or even, non-action.  You are able to see a person sitting across from you-perhaps a stranger-waiting at the social security office, the pharmacy, the bank, etc.  You notice him fidgeting, then see his eyes darting about, maybe he's sweating some; you can deduce that he is nervous or apprehensive about something.  You don't necessarily care, but you can notice and interpret the signals.
2. Feel Me
happens when the other's state is picked up by you.  You empathize emotionally.  You actually feel, at least a degree of, what the other is feeling.  It may be that their, let's say loss, triggered memories of a loss in your own life.  Or possibly you just experience the contagiousness of emotional states (I first noticed this myself, years ago, in a waiting room for an internship interview with other candidates).
3.Touch Me/Heal Me
This is when one or both of the above have taken place and you feel sympathy.  "Pro-social behavior" occurs.  Your concern for another stirs you to do something to reduce their distress.
One note:  Helpful behavior can also occur without feeling sympathetic.
Also, one research result is that the older people get, the less apt people are to accurately discern as in #1.  And yet, at the same time, as they age, they become more likely to help once they become aware of someone suffering.
On the other hand, as people mature ( and gain experience), while the gradual cognitive decline may lead them to miss some cues, they are better able to pick up nuances and subtleties (maybe #2).
Of course, Dr Levenson couldn't explain all these sub-types of behavior, but, that's what research does, gets the facts.
Second note:  Some individuals are gifted with being especially perceptive.  Maybe you know someone like this.  Some may become helping or health care professionals or teachers.  Therapists have all three systems firing, but, they have to discipline themselves in the treatment room.  It sometimes happens that a therapist has to say to a patient who is suffering, 'you brought this on yourself' because it nudges them forward in their growth.  The therapist may be sitting on their own tears of sympathy.  We have to go against our own instincts to be helpful to the patient.  It can be, at times, a "heroically selfless act" to work as a psychotherapist.
Dr Levenson also pointed out that there are some individuals, particularly adept at assessing the interior state of another, who may use this information for manipulative purposes.
Note three:  a person can, for various reasons (brain injury, character disorder, etc.) have problems in any one of the systems listed above.  It is possible to have a problem in one and have the others functioning fine.  If you notice that in yourself, it would be a useful issue to present to your therapist.

Suffice it to say, 'fight or flight' (anger or fear) are not all there is.  We are complicated creatures.

Credit:  Robert Levenson , PhD, Director, Institute of Personality and Social Research, Professor, Department of Psychology, UC Berkeley, May 10, 2010

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Children Full of Life

A beautiful (short) film clip of compassion and how the therapeutic process can take place in many settings.  We can experience transformation in parts of our lives other than the therapy office.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Close Encounter of The Wild Kind

When you have encountered a wild animal, how did it affect you?  I would be interested in hearing your experiences.
I was outside, standing alone, it was quiet.  Suddenly, a big bird jettisoned out of the sky, felt too close to me and veered back up making a v shape.  In that instant I felt that animal's essence.  I had a moment of knowing it's way of being.
The words that come to mind to describe it are:
Right now, in the Springtime, animals are at their most robust.  There's water available but it isn't raining, there's plenty to eat, they are mating and getting ready to reproduce, the air is clean, and the weather is kind.  They are in their element and full of strength and vigor.
This bird was doing what it does, and doing it neutrally---in that  there was no right or wrong, no moral imperatives, no questioning.  It was just living in the doing of what a bird does.
It occurred to me, in reflecting upon this intense albeit brief, encounter, that we humans have the capacity of wild animals at our core.  The overlays (remember the onion skin metaphor in an earlier post) tend to muffle this basic, primitive, simple and straightforward part of ourselves.
A bird, or a fox, or a bear do not second guess themselves.
I shared this story with my colleague, Tom Clark.  When I finished, he said two things:
"Free as a bird!"
and, "You should write about this on your blog."  And so I did.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010


Nature offers us a demonstration of rebirth, renewal, and new life during Spring.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Men Feeling Controlled

"Sexy women seem powerful to men."
"Being a man is like being a diabetic in a candy shop."
"She's very attractive.  Maybe she's just using me."
"I am controlled at work.  I'm controlled  by my family.  Now you want to control me.  To control what I wear!  To MY  bowling league!"
"Stop telling me what to do."

All real quotes from real people.
Each is from a different man---one an electrician, one a medical intern, one a CEO, a chef, and one, a therapist himself.

Sometimes women puzzle over this, not universal, but-at the same time-not uncommon, reaction by men to them.  A female boss is very difficult for some men.  An attractive female teacher can be experienced by a male student as almost overwhelmingly powerful.  A female physician is sometimes, confusing.

A wife or a girlfriend, though, asking her man to do something or making a suggestion---a person who, theoretically, should be in an egalitarian position to him---may get an angry reaction like one of the last two quoted above.  Why is a request or a suggestion by one's partner so often heard as a command?
When  I asked the CEO these questions, he said:  "Most men yearn for control because they don't have it.  But they don't really realize what they are yearning for."
Males are socialized to never feel helpless:  They are the ones who are expected to have the answers, to manage the problems, to be strong in the face of all challenges, to always be on top of things.  So, possibly when someone else is seen as trying to direct their behavior, it feels like a threat to their identity.
Hers may be a simple request in the hopes of supporting their sex life together-such as, "...please shave off that beard."-the sex life presumably being something he would also be interested in preserving.  And yet he hears it as another instance of someone limiting his choices.
Perhaps he is feeling not so powerful in the world.  His circumstances may cause him to have to compromise his identity most of the time.  The one place where he can speak up about it is with his closest person, his intimate partner.  So her requests may be met with resistance, defensiveness, or even some of the pent up resentment accumulated from other areas of his life.
(Thus, a misunderstanding and an inappropriate expression of power, undermines a marriage.)

``A less usual, but no less real, pattern in men is the one who wants to completely give over all responsibility to his wife and let her run the show.  He gets to primarily focus on his own interests and lets her make most of the decisions and take care of business.  I mention this opposite rendition-the 180* other side of the coin- of the control issue, for the sake of completeness, but, we'll discuss these guys another time.``

So, here's the practical question that comes out of the conundrum for women, of being in a relationship with a man who is sensitive/reactive to what seem to him like hierarchical moves:  Men---how can women say what they think or ask for what they want in a way that won't trigger this negative sensation?

Looking for some ideas from men...

Please join the conversation by commenting below-