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.

Friday, October 29, 2010

I Know You Believe You Understand What You Think I Said, But Did You Really Understand What I Meant?

                                           The Art of Listening

This week I had two experiences of being completely unheard.  These are not pleasant experiences.  In these cases, both instances were not in close, much less, intimate, relationships---they were business dealings, frustrating, disturbing but not painful like this can be in a personal relationship.

In one situation, the misunderstanding took place in what one might expect to be a completely benign, routine setting, the post office.  However, human beings have to interact there and so the possibility of a difficult interpersonal exchange exists.  I wanted to send a letter very quickly and have it delivered to a specific person at a business, so I was sending it by "express mail".  When I got to the counter, the clerk asked what qualities I was looking for in using a special type of mailing.  So I wanted those two things, plus the insurance, tracking and signature that express mail affords.  As I answered him,  he had trouble understanding me.  He began to argue with me and when I tried to clarify, he continued arguing, trying actually to bully me by saying things like, "I know what I am talking about, I've been doing this for 20 years!!"  (Meanwhile the line was building up behind me and so I turned and said, "Sorry" to the people who were  waiting and witnessing this now, heated argument.)  The clerk threw up his hands and said he would call in the supervisor.  So he did. She came; I explained what I understood "express mail" to provide, she (listened) and said, "That's right."  And we were finished in about 30 seconds...!

What happened there is that he did not understand the way I was explaining how I thought express mail worked.  Since he couldn't understand, he became frustrated and tried to overwhelm me.  Meanwhile, I was persistent in repeatedly trying to help him to understand.  He is familiar with me as a customer, calls me by my first name, knows me to be a reasonable person.  So, I think it was confusing to him to be in this kind of encounter with me, thus he resorted to bullying tactics.  This, of course, was ineffective since I had read the instructions and knew that I understood how that type of mailing worked. 

If he had remained calm (he lost his patience), I would have continued trying to explain to him, would have tried different approaches, to explain in a way that he could understand and, perhaps, this upsetting encounter could have been avoided.  He did not want to listen, however, and that is what set this off.

In the 1970's, Carl Rogers became quite well-known in psychology for his identification and description of "active listening".  He, himself, became so adept at this technique that he used it and it alone in therapy treatment of his patients.  I saw him working in a therapy session that was filmed and I witnessed his amazing ability to assist a person to move toward a healthier psychological position simply by listening to that person very, very well. It was remarkable to witness.

Should you ever have an opportunity to view Rogers at work, take it!  It is like watching a miracle to see one person heal themselves due, simply to, the true and benevolent presence of another.
So, here we have the two ends of the spectrum regarding the practice of listening.  My unfortunate event at the post office demonstrates how not listening can lead to an unnecessary fight.  At the other end of the spectrum, we see that active listening can lead to healing and personal evolution.
That's quite a wide spectrum.  There's a lot that can be tried in between those two extremes.
None of us will be perfect.  But we can aspire toward better listening.  It is a gift to offer to the people in your life.  One of the reasons, I think, that it is sometimes difficult to get a client moving to leave the therapy office, at the end of a session, is that it feels so good to be listened to-such a rare experience.  Most people are absolutely hungry to be heard.

The method for active listening is laid out in Roger's writings.  It is a useful technique to learn.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Infidelity Only?

              The essential capacity for trust
 Often when a couple in my office hears me use the word "trust", they assume I am talking about infidelity.  Certainly couples find themselves in a counselor's office over this type of trust betrayal.  But there are many other aspects of trust that can be at issue in a relationship-of many kinds-but, it becomes an underlying part of most dynamics in a primary relationship, such as marriage.

Problems with trust can be about believing that the other person is reliable, about feeling able to depend on the other, about whether he or she means what they say.  There can be suspicion of manipulation, of so-called 'hidden meanings', of the true reason the other is there in the partnership.

There is sometimes the fear that the other will take advantage in some way, be unfair, or dishonest.  There can be the worry that the other will do what they say they will do or that they will consider their partner's well-being in their decision-making.

When there is a history of mistrust between two people, it can undermine the simplest of transactions between them.  Imagine asking your partner to pay the phone bill that you usually pay, if you really don't trust that person to be straightforward about what they agree to.  Try to negotiate an agreement with a partner you mistrust---the defensiveness alone will destroy the process.

The capacity to trust is one of the first developmental milestones according to Erikson's classic work on the stages of development.  As stated in this theory, being able to trust is basic; it is of primary importance and is the first step toward a stable, happy adulthood.  Identity: Youth and Crisis (Austen Riggs Monograph).

If you are part of a couple who struggle with pervasive mistrust, there is hope in a concerted effort to re-build it.  When an agreement is made and both follow through, don't let that event be overshadowed by all of the other bad experiences.  Build on the good one.

Friends and co-workers who have felt let down by the other can sometimes talk it out.  Apologies help and an effort to make up for the misdeed feels to the one who was hurt, like sincerity.

If you have trust issues of your own, as an individual, a solid, long-term relationship with a reliable therapist can make a big difference.

Questions, comments, feedback?

Your Question of The Day

"If you could wake up tomorrow having gained one ability or quality, what would it be?"

The Book of Questions by Gregory Stock, Ph.D.

Friday, October 22, 2010

They Lived To Tell About It

                                                 Near-death experiences.
 Nearly none of us can escape the worry about the end of our own life.  Some feelings are universally, or nearly so,---shared:  We fear death, we dread it, we hope, when it happens that it is quick, we wish for a pain-free death, and sometimes we try to deny our mortality.  These and other feelings of apprehension emerge for most of us in unguarded moments.

Last week I attended a lecture given by David E. Presti of the Department of Molecular and Cell Biology at the University of California, Berkeley a man who has been awarded two PhDs.  I think we can safely say that this is a serious person, a scientist, a person who conducts clinical research, a studious individual.  So, what he had to offer us in his presentation titled, "Anomalous Psychological Phenomena:  Clinical Utility and Relevance to Neuroscience of Mind" can be viewed, not as wishful thinking, but as serious and sensible information.

It turns out that well-credentialed, educated scholars have been researching near-death-experiences for the last 25 years.  In part, this consists of reports by people who either nearly died from a physiological problem (such as a heart attack) or,  people who were in dire accidents.  Interestingly, these individuals, independent of one another report all the same things.  How reassuring it is to find that their mental state at the moment of death contained the following experiences:
~Elimination of pain and fear
~A sense of peace and well-being
~The complete life review
~An encounter with the divine
~Enhanced mental function
Is this not a mental state within which one might realize resolution?

In addition, these interviewees reported the sense of leaving the body, visions of deceased loved ones, a feeling that they were approaching a border but were then pulled back, and other phenomena.  If you demonstrate an interest in the topic, I will write again and include the remaining details.
A book on this topic that was recommended by Dr. Presti, Remarks on Fatal Falls is written by a man, Albert von st. Gallen Heim, who studied people who fell off of mountains.  They knew they were in a fatal fall, that they would die.  They were falling at high speed, in an uncontrolled manner, hitting boulders on the way down and yet, they felt no pain.  They felt:
This state, this matchless experience is, of course, not something that can be self-created.  It is, apparently what will happen, to each of us, but we cannot pick the how nor the when.

The gift to you is to know that the last few seconds of life are not terrifying.  This information may be relieving not only for our own fears for yourself but, also, helpful when thinking about loved ones we have lost.  So, stay in the present, be you, live out your potential and, be not afraid!

Wednesday, October 20, 2010


                                    Reader run-down
 Hello Japan!  I had wondered if I would ever see you here.  Welcome on board!
After the U.S. and Canada, Venezuela still contributes our largest number of readers (Veneuela, did you notice that I have a slide show at the top of the page in honor of your readership?  Does anyone recognize the location of the photos?)  Australia has caught up with China now for fourth place.  Brazil and Germany have exactly the same number of visits to the site at this time.  Japan is tied with the U. K.  And, finally we have our lovely readers from the Netherlands.  So, that's the run-down.  Isn't it interesting?   We have a view of who in the world is interested in current psychology and in personal adult development.
We do have visitors from quite a few other countries but the numbers are small and the visits infrequent so I didn't list them.  But, I am so happy to have each of you here.  This was my original vision---to expand what I do in my office to be available, to a degree, to anyone in the world who would wish to take advantage of that opportunity.
It is what I have learned and am learning, in my work and in my own growth process, but, also the lessons and wise words of my patients, that I wished to share.

Monday, October 18, 2010

What Can Be Good About Depression

"How you regard depression depends on how you experience it.  Because, by its very nature, it is associated with endings, and because each ending involves starting over, depression is itself a new beginning."

  Frederic Flach,M.D. The Secret Strength of Depression

Friday, October 15, 2010

Unfinished Business

                                                         'I just moved on...'
 Interpersonal or intrapsychic unfinished business can be a terrible impediment to your full functioning.  Some part of you, even the smallest, most unconscious part, is always occupied, managing that bothersome business.  It deprives you of some of your energy.  The more clear you are as you enter each day, each moment even, the more positive energy you will have from which to draw.
"Perhaps the major consequence of blocked awareness is the phenomenon of unfinished business.  Need cycles cannot become completed, tension is aroused but not reduced, and affect mounts but is unexpressed.  Little new can happen when a person is experiencing an overwhelming amount of unfinished business.

Unfinished business can go a long way back into my past, such as matters pertaining to my relationship with  authority figures due to unresolved conflicts with my father---or it can be a very recent piece of unfinished business left unresolved..."just moments ago.  (excerpted from Becoming Naturally Therapeutic by Jacquelyn Small)

 There were two examples of unfinished business, interfering in two marital relationships, that I saw this week.  In one, the wife could not understand how her husband had blown up over one little thing-a death in the family would necessitate them making a sudden, unplanned trip of about 3000 miles-disrupting the plans they already had.  His blow-up was over the change in plans.  When this came up in the office, we were able to uncover a 'laundry list' of frustrations on his part that had been happening not for days, not months, but literally for years.  The majority would rule in the family and things would not go his way and he would not do anything to address his disappointment.  He would 'stuff it' until it finally burst its bounds, unintentionally.
A similar situation happened with a younger couple who had been having financial distress for a couple of weeks.  When he asked her if she had paid a particular bill-just checking-she barked at him:  "Do I have to do everything!!"

Here are two destructive examples of communication which, by themselves, can be fairly readily untangled with the assistance of a good therapist.  That they sometimes persist or repeat, despite the best efforts at a remedy, leads to the question of long past problems mentioned in the quote.  Even more serious is when unfinished business contributes to PTSD, formerly called Shell Shock.  (note:  Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is a topic unto itself; let me know if you want a post on that.  It refers to the diagnosis given when an individual has experienced something profoundly upsetting).

What to do about it:  If a friend steps on your toes, you can say something to that person, not necessarily expecting to get the result you want.  But, at least, that sting won't be left to fester inside of you.  If the issues are of a more complicated nature and stem from your past, some intensive journal work, might help a lot.  Or see a therapist about it; get some help sorting it out.  If the unfinished business is a part of a trauma, professional help would be the best thing you could offer yourself.  Sometimes group therapy work with others who have suffered a similar experience, is very relieving.  A good one on one relationship with a therapist, where you can share your innermost feelings can be curative.  And, sometimes, during treatment, psychotropic medication prescribed by a psychiatrist (these docs specialize in that class of drugs) can be a helpful adjunct.

But, above all, don't 'stuff it'.  This does not mean you should give yourself license to blow up over every little thing.  Presumably we leave the temper tantrums behind at the 3rd birthday.  But, at the very least, do yourself the favor of allowing awareness, within yourself, of your feelings.  Consider some choices for addressing them; maybe you can talk it out with a friend; maybe a few long, slow deep breaths will do the trick, maybe you need to buy yourself a little present to make up for a disappointment; maybe a hard run will use up your adrenaline and help you to relax.  There are many ways to take care of your own emotional reaction to the difficulties life presents.
The main thing is, do something! 
 Stoic doesn't work in the long run.

Monday, October 11, 2010


         Use your imagination to further your growth

 In the classic 1950 film, Harvey, James Stewart-the star of the movie-has an imaginary friend, a six foot tall rabbit named Harvey.  While it seems unusual and amusing to see an adult character with such a vivid imagination, it is, actually our imagination that leads to the invention of most of the ordinary devices and objects that we use on a daily basis.

Today I attended a presentation at the Herrick Hospital, Berkeley, Ca. Grand Rounds by Alison Gopnik, professor of psychology, UC Berkeley.  One of the results of her ground-breaking research into infant and early childhood development is that imaginary companions, the fictional beings that children create, have a purpose.  She states that 70% of young children have them, worldwide.  In other words, while some cultures discourage this activity, some tolerate it and some have a benevolent attitude toward it, most children do it, regardless.  So, she concludes that it must emerge naturally from the young developing human.

It seems that the more pretend play a child does, the more able they are to understand others.  So, by either imagining a character or acting out a character, the child is learning about how a different personality might experience things.  Therefore, a topic I have explored several times in posts to this blog, compassion and empathy, have their roots in imaginary childhood play.
By the way, even a three year old knows the difference between imaginary and real and, if pressed, will say so.  Still, there seems to be an innate value on exploring and making use of the imaginary world in early life.

As an adult individual, interested in your own internal workings and personal growth, there are ways that your imagination can help you:  You can always ask yourself, "What if... "
Also, if you pay attention and remember your dreams you can work with them using your imagination.  For example, you can ask yourself what any object, place, or person in the dream would say, given the chance.  Or you can imagine what would have happened next in the dream had it continued from where it left off.  All of these answers will be created in your own mind, thus, they are emanating from your own psyche.
You may learn something about yourself that you were not conscious of before, by using these techniques!  (Oh, and have some fun.)

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Transforming Encounters

                        "Our opinion of people depends less
                               upon what we see in them
than upon what they make us see in ourselves."
                                                                      Sara Grand

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Design By Default

     A habit, becomes a pattern, becomes your life design

 When two or three events, in one day, seem to say the same thing, it is almost as if there is a message in your day.
Yesterday I saw a couple who had been together for 25 years, never married but, living as a married couple and as a family.  They had originally come together in their twenties as girlfriend and boyfriend and accidentally made a pregnancy.  So, they each suddenly found themselves in a family without really knowing each other, much less being in any way prepared for the responsibilities of marriage, home, and family.  They, like many people, found themselves in a situation,- an intimate, demanding, consequential situation- without ever having made a decision to be in it.  They had no courtship to speak of, no ritual to mark the beginning of their life together, and no time to work out the kinks in their couples union before suddenly having to deal with parenthood.

The result?  Twenty-five years later:  Two very unhappy people, with one grown son whom they both loved, and who were quite stressed in each other's presence.  The woman had un-fulfilled dreams of higher education which somehow had never happened.  The man had a vague sense of missing out on himself, on the fun of life and harbored a  resentment for what seemed an undue life of burden.
So, they had their challenges but the real cause of their unhappiness was destructive patterns.  Granted life and their unconscious choices propelled them forward at a fast pace in their youth.  However, they never, in all those 25 years stopped the action long enough to think:   Is there a way we can do this differently?  Can I shift my attitude in some way that might contribute to more positive problem-solving for us?  Why are we arguing over the same issues again and again and, how can we change that?
Now, with their youth behind them and their relationship in tatters, they are in my office seeing the destructive patterns they have developed over the years.  One of their habits is to argue to win.  This, of course, is about as far from listening to your partner as you can get.  A communication mode that I observed in both of them was waiting for the other to finish, or even take a breath, only so that person could jump in to make their own point.  There is certainly no "I" and "thou" in this type of exchange; there's no regard, and there is no experience of feeling understood.  This has led to  a pattern of mistrust, a pattern of blame, and a belief in being victimized.
After work, while attending my Feldenkrais class, the teacher made a statement about how if you move in a particular way, a way that may be unhealthy for your body, it becomes a pattern. I understood her to mean that until you have reason to question it (pain maybe?), it will be customary for you.  I thought of my couple and how much disappointment and emotional pain they have suffered because of practicing something not healthy until it became the pattern.

Lest I leave you feeling discouraged by this story, I should add that, while, yes, I do have my work cut out for me (!) with this couple, there is hope:
+  They have enough commitment to come to counseling. 
+  They are intelligent and willing to learn.
+  I have some things to teach them.

 Patterns can be good.  But your usual practice, although familiar, may not be your best choice.  Patterns are worth questioning.

Have you ever reflected on what patterns you might have?  Good or bad ones?

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Jack Goes Boating

     Movies can make you think
 Sometimes a film can offer a little challenge.  Much of the underlying theme of this blog is the quest for personal growth.  In this film there are two men, in nearly equal circumstances-in fact, they are friends because they have the same job and know each other from the workplace.  Both men, during the course of the film, are seen to be trying to improve themselves.  One does and one doesn't.  If you have the opportunity to see this film, it might be an interesting question to ponder, why:  What is the difference between the two?  Why does one actually embark on a path of self-development and make some head-way and the other, who also tries, seems stuck?    The film title is Jack Goes Boating and it is directed by, and stars, Philip Seymour Hoffman.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Pulling Weeds

           The refuge and safe shelter of a good friendship.

Sometimes you find yourself with people in your life whom you think of as friends but who are upsetting you.  This is disconcerting; you may feel confused about it and, even disoriented.  After all, friends are people who are in our lives by choice.  They are there because we want them to be.  We expect them to be a positive force in our experience.  But, that is not how it always goes.  So, when it becomes troublesome, what then?

Sometimes the problem is just a little snafu and can be dealt with easily or just absorbed by all the other goodness of the relationship.  If you have something more serious, such as someone who has a temper and starts suddenly blowing up at you and others, or perhaps you have a person who is very critical and begins to judge you---your choices, your behaviors.  Here are but two of many examples that could be possible problems.  Even these can maybe can be tolerated but if it becomes a pattern, then 
it is a problem that can't be ignored.
Let's take just a little look at the short-fuse guy.  If you are badly affected by temper outbursts and this individual likes to do that (yes, some people enjoy the burst of energy they feel when they get in a confrontation), then here is an example of someone from whom you may need to distance yourself.
"A friendship should be an oasis."  A friend is fun, a friend is reliable, a friend cares about and likes you and there is mutuality.  A friend is someone you can go to for respite when life is difficult, for sharing when life is good and for companionship whenever.  (What are the characteristics that are important to you in a friendship?)   A friendship should be an oasis from the vicissitudes of life.  (And, incidentally, are you an oasis for your friends?)
An earlier post, The Geography of Friendships mapped out a method for analyzing your relationships and what priority you want each to have in your life. 
This week Dr Laura (a call-in radio talk show host) advised one of her callers to pull some weeds.  She said:  We all learn, as life goes on, that sometimes there are toxic people present in our lives and it's then time to pull some weeds.
Just be sure that the weed that you pull out   isn't really a wildflower...!