It is Where I Belong

Someone asked me the other day why church is important to me. For me, it is sort of like asking why my family is important to me. It is where I belong.

I know lots of people and many I know well. Some of these people I may tell my story to and I listen to their experience too. But in church, like in my family, there is so much I don’t have to say to be known and know that my belonging is not questioned.

This is probably obvious but psychological research finds that a sense of belonging increases meaningfulness of life. We feel our lives are meaningful when we feel we belong. I think that this is one of the reasons why people marry (rather than “live together”) and why they marry when they discover they are pregnant. “I want my child to know she belongs” is what is often said.

Here is an idea: close your eyes for a minute and think of two people or groups to which you really belong. Now consider how much meaning you feel in your life. (I just did this with the thought of my two grandsons – our granddaughter is due any day now – and “out of the blue” I feel my life has meaning.)

Note: this is not about what others give me (recognition say) or provide for me (a place to be known); it is what I am when I am with them. Now I can clearly see this with Jasper and Lucas – I am Poppa. I know who I am, where I belong, and in the mystery of our shared “us,” I have meaning.

Some people don’t know they belong. I had 2 clients yesterday who basically said that to me. One was married (and she with 2 kids) and one was single, 37 years old and into weekend hooking up when what he really wants is to be married with kids and to belong.

I want them to have family, I want them to have church.

“Bid Theory” and the Spirit of Marriage

Of all the people who marry, only 30 per cent grow towards a quality of marriage that they hoped for when they started out. So says Ty Tashiro in his book, “The Science of Happily Ever After.” A lot of us divorce or separate, and many maintain a “just reasonably content” compromise, and a few of us are “happily ever after.”

By the way, this is true if one is a faith-follower or if one is something else from the spiritual-psychological neighbourhood.

Seattle’s John Gottman, the current marital-parenting guru, has studied married couples for four decades and distilled the nature of their success – and it is completely ordinary. “Much of it comes down to the spirit couples bring to the relationship. Do they bring kindness and generosity or contempt, criticism, and hostility?”

According to Gottman, people whose relationships thrived “scanned the social environment for things they can appreciate and say thank you for. They are building this culture of respect and appreciation very purposefully.” Those who gave up on their marriages more than often scanned for their partner’s mistakes.

This part of Gottman’s research is obvious to those who identify gratitude as an evidence of the Holy Spirit (Ephesians 5:18-20).

Gottman found the key to success in the everyday interactions between couples. He calls them “bids.” Say my partner makes a thoughtful and generous dinner for the family and asks for my response with the hope of some appreciation. I thank her blankly, because I’m immersed in my own thing. She has made a “bid,” according to Gottman, for my attention and appreciation and I didn’t deliver. And neither do the kids for that matter.

Did you know that the majority of “bids” between unhappy couples go unanswered or worse, dismissed with contempt?

Here is something interesting: when Gottman examined the decades of marital data, he found divorcing couples responded to bids only infrequently, less than a third of the time. What about couples that thrived? They approached and appreciated the bids nearly 90% of the time. They had “emotional intelligence.”

Seems simple enough but sometimes hard to do.

(Adapted from a July 2014 Vancouver Sun article by Michael Pond.)

My New Anxiety Mantra

Anxiety manifests physically before your brain can figure out what’s going on. You might feel it in your gut or in your breathing. But watch yourself to see what happens with you.

Today I was doing supervision with a fellow psychologist and she asks 3 questions of herself when she is anxious. I think that I will try it with myself and I recommend it to you as well.

First question: “What am I anxious about?” and give yourself some time to figure it out. It might surprise you that it is not what you first think it is. If you think a bit deeper, you might find a thread of anxiety that runs throughout your emotional life. And it might not be the current circumstance or tension you are dealing with.

Second, “Whose problem is it?” Most anxious people take on the upset feelings of others in their emotional world (e.g. mothers, teachers, neighbourhood children…) and think it is theirs to worry about. Again, think it through and get to the truth.

And #3: “Is there anything I can do about it right now?” If not, let it go. At least until you figure you need to pick it up again.

Now I have a weird disclosure to make. I use the “Reminders” app on my MacBook to tell me when I should start to worry about something! When I put a time clock beside the thing I am anxious about, my iPhone gives me a ding to remind me to be anxious. I laugh when I see that I have reminded myself to worry. Weird isn’t it? Reduces my anxiety though.

Empathy — When Something Good Is Done

When I am confused or worried, I want someone to listen without rushing or concluding or pronouncing. It irritates me when someone dismisses me with “look on the bright side,” or for those theologically persuaded, “God is doing something good.” I don’t want to be equally dismissive, so I look for the “giver’s” good intent and try to not take it deeply. What do you do?

Empathy is the ability to know and experience the consolations and desolations of another. It is a spiritual discipline, a social skill and a profound respect; it is a relationship and a friendship that matters deeply.

Empathy is not sympathy where the “giver” feels good about the giving. It is not solution focused, or panacea finding, or conversation concluding. Sympathy is a reactive protection from getting involved. It is limbic un-thoughtfulness.

I want you to watch a lovely 3 minute cartoon on what empathy is, what caring is. Brene Brown is the speaker with the words behind the drawings. To hear more of what she has to say, look at “The Power of Vulnerability.” Want to see even more? Check out her genius TED talk.

Appreciative Inquiry for Couples

“Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.” (Philippians 4:8)

Appreciative Inquiry is a theory of change that is used in parenting, marriage as well as lots of businesses and organizations. Unlike theories of strategic planning that focus on correcting faults, Appreciative Inquiry looks towards what is best about what already exists.

It is important in marriage counselling where couples have forgotten how to give attention, affection and approval. And it is important in simple neighbourliness and parenting as well as in teaching.

Couples have found that they grow in their relationships more truthfully in a way that problem-correcting counselling does not permit. Venting hurts is most often a rehearsal for the next conflict or problem. Appreciative Inquiry is a positive rehearsal for positive change.

Here are some questions I typically ask my couple clients to help them focus on what is true, noble and right in their partnership.

1. How are you contributing to ingenious solutions in your marriage by being yourself? And what about your spouse?
2. How are you excellent for your spouse? (How is your spouse “good value” for you?)
3. What one valuable thing are you doing to protect and care for your family while still doing your life and work?
4. Can you describe together a positive practice that you consider important to add excellence in your marriage? (Note, you might not be doing this right now though you could in the future.)
5. What do you currently regard to be the most enduring and secure thing about your marriage?
6. Describe the skills you use to solve problems and resolve conflict within your partnership?
7. How is being “carnal” or “in flesh” important to you and your partner?
8. What are some key factors that keep you in sexually and emotionally faithful?
9. How is conflict essential to making a good marriage for you and your partner?
10. What do you imagine that you will say has been the best of your marriage 5 years from this month?
11. How does your spouse most love to be loved? How do you most love to be loved?
12. Assuming time and money are not current obstacles, what one great thing would you love to do again with your partner?

Note: this is not positive thinking as in ignoring life’s problems; it is upward focusing about the problems. It is solution focused rather than blame / responsibility focused.

A Stranger Interview (or “Free Coffee for Free Thinking”)

Most of us keep to ourselves and the one’s that don’t are often referred to as “extroverts.” Introverts, those that gain energy in smaller groupings, however, are often the best at intimacy and are usually great in 1-on-1 conversations.

In some of my teaching, I ask my students to do “stranger interviews” with people outside their social / religious / age / race / gender constituency. 10 interviews with 10 strangers about the most important things in life.

My favourite series of interviews was by a student who interviewed 10 beggars on the Granville Mall. His criteria? They had to be beggars and they were willing to give him 10 minutes of their time to talk about intrusive matters for $10. That’s right, he paid them 10 bucks. (Other students have put up signs in coffee shops that say something like “free coffee for free thinking.”)

And I ask people in my counselling practice to do the same. “Talk to 10 people this week who are outside of your particular world and ask them 5 or 10 things.” Here are some example questions (any question can be asked but these are illustrative):

  1. Do you believe that you have a “call” for your life and if so, do you think you are living it?
  2. What is the essence of your “you”; that is, how are you unique, gifted, valuable to your personal world?
  3. What will “they” write on your tombstone (assuming you will have one)?
  4. If you were to design a T-shirt, what would it say / show on the front and back?
  5. Do you have a code of ethics – either formal or informal – that provides a structure for your life?

There are three parts to an interview. The first is “the ask” where you simply ask, “May I talk to you for a few minutes about things that are important to me?” This is pretty anxious for both parties but it is hard to turn down. The second stage is “the Q+R” as in question and response. Not so much answers to fill-in-the-blank, census-type questions, as responses to thoughtful considerations. And the last stage is “the wrap” where thank yous are offered and spontaneous emotions are experienced. Some people say things like, “this is the best interruption I have had all month.”

So here is “the ask” – “Will you take an hour out of your email-checking life to engage a stranger with some of the most important things of your life?”

Planful and Mediated Separation

First off, I know that “planful” is not a word, but it should be, so I have invented it.

This blog is about mediated separation when one’s partnership goes all wrong, when person one is a distancer (emotional cutoff) and person two is a pursuer (“do this, do this”) or when nothing changes and nothing gets done.

It is about how to separate the relationship in a way that allows the couple to talk some sense rather than rant, and to make some changes rather than just quit.

Some couples get back together through this process and some don’t — but it has to do with a person’s choice, rather than just guilt and coercion or storing up and blowing up.

You can read about it on my web site under “Tools — Planful and Mediated Separation.”

Masks of Melancholy

“Masks of Melancholy” is the name of a book on depression written by a friend, Dr. John White, who was a psychiatrist and a church leader (he died several years ago). This phrase has always struck me as a great description of depression. John was bipolar and he knew a lot about “The Masks People Wear” (see an article on my web site about such masks).

Depression puts on a mask. The mask can look needy or agitated or “pissed off” or apathetic and all kinds of other miserable things. The mask depends pretty much on our genetic wiring and what was emotionally practiced in our family of origin.

I have been depressed lately. I visit this state periodically like I am checking in with how bad life can really be. My mask is “agitated anger.” People I love bug me. I long to be left alone but I am lonely when no one is around. I ask for help in a way that keeps anyone from really caring. I isolate when I want to connect. Even coffee and chocolate (both vital food groups) fail to inspire me. “Pissed off” pretty much summarizes how I feel it. “Stay away” is what my mask reads to others.

So now that I have told you more than you want to hear, let me refer you to some resources that might be helpful to you.

Visit Wing of Madness to learn what depression and anxiety are all about — it is a great resource. As well, take a look at the Mayo Clinic screening test for depression. This assessment will give you a pretty accurate reading of where your emotions are right now. Print off the results and take it to your doctor or counsellor if you wish. (If you are visiting with Carole or me, do bring the results with you.)

As for me and my treatment, I think I am going to take off my mask (it doesn’t fit very well, anyway), visit Crema Café a few blocks from my office in West Vancouver, eat a piece of their wheat-free chocolate cake, and drink a grande latte. It won’t cure my depression but it does put a smile on my face.

Waking Up Tired

John Blase, poet of “The Beautiful Due,” calls this poem “True Autumn” and it seems to my mind to be well understood as “generativity,” that stage in life beyond just being old (see Erik Erikson’s seventh stage of psychosocial development: generativity or stagnation). I have borrowed Blase’s first line, “Waking Up Tired” as the title, perhaps because I understand that so.

John, By the way, is becoming a best friend of mine, not that he knows me at all, but that I am knowing him. You will see his writing posted on my office door at Carey and I often read his poetry in lectures. His rich words resonate with my life and the work that I do, and I often find myself grateful to his sensitivity to all things human and spiritual. I was grateful that he happily allowed me to repost his words. Here they are:

He woke up tired of life. Not life in general but life specific, as in the way he was living it. Yes, that’s much closer to the truth: He woke up tired of his life. He’d reinvented himself about fifteen years ago, surprised everyone including God. It was a bloom for the better, he called it his late spring liberation.

But now he was in his Indian summer, true autumn would set in soon. He sensed this next season would not be one of putting on but falling away, like the leaves. Not a manufactured stripping a la flagellation, but natural, prompted only by the wind’s ways. The feeling was impossible to shake, that his absolute survival depended on this change. He simply could not continue on with the way things were. If he did he might uncle to despair, and that would be more than he could bear. That would be to admit a great defeat. That would be to give up on life, to trample underfoot the gift.

How to Find a Counsellor

Carole and I often have people asking about who to see for counselling or where to find a psychiatrist or psychologist, sometimes in towns I have never heard of. I (Paddy) have put together a few thoughts that might move you along to your destination. Here you are:

1.         What kind of counsellor do you want? You may not know that a marriage counsellor might not be as helpful as you hope in working with your anxiety or assessing autism in your child. Make sure you ask for what you really want. It is okay to ask a prospective therapist what they love doing.

2.         Think about coverage or third party payment. In our part of the world (BC), medical doctors or psychiatrists are paid for your visits, so you don’t pay, your insurance does. Registered psychologists (Paddy is a psychologist) are covered by most insurance programs but you must make sure how much coverage you have – each insurance program is different. Carole is Registered Clinical Counsellor and it is increasingly common to have these folk covered as well. By the way, it is okay to ask for a reduction in fee if you are financially stretched. The counsellor can always say “No.”

3.         Consider the “match.” Do you want someone who understands and identifies with your faith commitment or family status? If you are LGBT, do you hope for someone who shares your hopes and experiences? Match is one of the most important criteria in choosing. If you have a poor match, you can waste time and money. The therapist’s web site should give you most of the information you need.

4.         It is okay to interview a prospective counsellor or therapist. Figure out what questions you have and if you can’t reach the person on the phone, send your email questions.

5.         You can look for referral lists. The BC Psychological Association has a list as does the Registered Clinical Counsellor Association. I recommend that those who want a church-referenced counsellor contact the Pentecostal Assemblies of Canada — they have a listing across the country.

I hope that this helps you a bit. I have a longer article on my web site that you can visit, as well as some recommended counsellors that Carole and I work with personally. This latter group is mostly in the Vancouver area.

My best to you on your search and contact us if you want to talk this through a bit.