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.

Contentment: A Simmering (Guest Blog)

The following is a blog by a client-friend who is deeply grappling with what it means to be human in relationships and what it means to be faithful to herself. She is easy to admire as she has gone through losses and discovered meaning. I hope you enjoy her thoughts.

Being 27 is something I have always wanted.  It seemed like the perfect age to me because I obviously would be engaged to a very successful man, have a very successful career, and be at the peak of my climb in my own social ladder.  I would attend my 10 year reunion and everyone would be envious of me.  Isn’t it funny how life always seems to stick out its tongue at you and yell, “GOTCHA!”?

Earlier this year I experienced the most intense heart break, and I was not sure I was going to going to get through it, let alone ever recover.  Instead of living one day at a time, I was literally existing one second at a time.  Slowly the seconds turned to minutes, and the minutes to hours, and now I’ve found the hours have definitely turned to days.  But if you told me presently I would still be living one day at a time, relinquishing the last minute I had to keep my eyes open before I could retire to sleep, I would not have believed you.  Not me!  I thought I was far too smart and strong to ever live a 24 hour emotional day.  At times I find myself staring at my ceiling, picturing the heavens, and shouting silently, “When is my big break coming?”  It makes me so angry sometimes to think of how hard I have struggled, to get to this measly place in my life, that I often break down in tears just out of sheer frustration and emotional exhaustion.

In the past couple months, I have experienced a slow realization.  It has not been an epiphany, nor an “AHA!” moment, but a simmering feeling that either my outlook needed to change, or I would constantly be striving for the “something more”.  I currently have a job in finance, at one of the most successful new accessory companies in the world.  My boss is, for the most part, great, and my coworkers could be considered some of my closest friends.  I have a lot of responsibility at work, and although I do not get paid a lot right now, the experience I am gaining will be extremely valuable, should I ever decided to move on.  I have an amazing apartment in the heart of the city, and 2 absolutely lovely roommates who accompany it with me.  I even have a dog, who loves me so much, and gives me a reason to always get out of bed in the morning, even if I am having a dark day.  I have some of the best girlfriends in the city who have been there for me in my toughest times, and would never leave me.  My heart is healing slowly, and I am learning a lot about being datable.  I have enough money to keep me fed and go to the gym, which means I am healthy, and I can even contribute to my retirement savings plan!

While I don’t have the top of the line career, or a big ring on my finger symbolizing the amazing eternal love I’ve found, I do have a lot of things.  Once I started letting go of all the things I want to have, and focusing on what I do have, bits of light started floating into my life again.  I wouldn’t call the light happiness, but I would call it contentment.  I get a smirk on my face and peace sits on my heart when I think of all the things I do have.  This peace has led me to little things I need to work on in my life such as: being a better employee; not being so moody when things don’t go my way; trying to be less flakey and continue to commit to plans when I say I will; stop comparing every nice man in my life to my past relationship.  Contentment has led me to see the things in my life that are definitely attainable, and while a bigger salary will not make me a better person, this contentment will.

The Depression Dog

When others seem to be enjoying life, the black dog stands in the way for a lot of people. If you’re wondering WTF I’m talking about, watch the video. And if you recognize any of this, maybe it’s time to think about taking some steps to look after yourself.

The “Depression Dog” video is from the World Health Organization and well defines the experience of depression.

Apps for Health

I have an apps fetish. I think it is because I love to get things free or at least cheap. And some I continue to use, like “Moves.” It tells me where I have gone in a day (by car, train, walking, biking or whatever else) and how many calories I have burned and steps taken. When I get close to 10,000 steps in a day (takes me 2, 1/2 hour walks) I feel especially virtuous and youngish. I double my virtue by taking our 15 year old cocker spaniel.

So this listing of great apps is for “Counsellor Self-Care,” a title I particularly dislike but the article and apps are worth discovering.

Take a look and let me know if they are interesting to you.


The Slipperiest Emotion

Anxiety is a slippery emotion. It is the WD-40 of experience, making other emotions slither into all aspects of your life. Anger gets bigger and sadness can skid into depression. It also affects your smell — bet you didn’t know that. And it also makes you feel like you might fall over, so balance is affected too.

But that’s not all: anxiety has the effect of making you think others’ are looking at you or at least avoidant of you, and you wonder why you don’t really want to go to that party when you are anxious. And sometimes anxiety results in you feeling like people are violating your space, as in “Give me back the remote!” or “Stop asking me so many questions!” Anxious people seem to expand their need for personal space and they talk about boundaries a lot.

We all know that anxiety is an important emotion – it makes us aware of danger and so our biology has adjusted to winter weather (“get on those snow tires”), increasing density of housing or school size, the intrusion of not-so-smart phones. Many anxiety triggers can be crippling to normal social interaction and simple peace. A friend of mine says, “Don’t forget to breathe.” I always forget that

Here are some ideas about anxiety and how to handle the skiddy thing.

Exercise reduces anxiety. You probably know this if you see me for counselling. Most people who get a little exercise feel less anxiety and less depression too. As little as 20 minutes can make you feel calmer right now. I ask my clients to walk “in a straight line” (helps in the anxiety of circular thinking) for about an hour and not in a sweaty, comparative and competitive gym. 30 minutes in the morning and 30 minutes in the evening and, if you can do it, with meditative music (not Eric Clapton) works wonders.

Parents make us worry. Now before you think I am blaming your parents, like many things, high anxiety is partly in the genes, but part of the reason anxious people are anxious is because of their parents’ criticism, coldness and worried doubt.

Injunctions (these are anxious projections from parents or parent-like systems, to children) like “He’s not very bright, is he?” or “He can’t do it” becomes to the child, “I’m stupid” and “I’m a failure.” This tells us something about how we should parent our kids; that is, bring them up with affirmations like, “I love watching you enjoy basketball,” or “You got exactly the mark on that test you thought you would get” as opposed to “How many Cs was that?” or “How are you going to get into UBC with those grades?”

Think some new thoughts. It is probably pretty obvious that our thinking inculcates anxiety into our emotional system. Anxiety ideas are tremendously predictable, in fact, they are even boring they are so predictable.

One of the best ways of reducing anxiety is to think about situations differently than what causes you to be anxious. For example, before an exam, one could say, “I am a very successful person however I do on this paper.” Perhaps when we do our first oral presentation at Toastmasters, one might repeat a few times, “I am going to speak to these people as if they were my best friends on  my birthday.” In fact, that is great advice to preachers and teachers who are worn out after a talk or a sermon or who wear out their hearers. Suppressing anxiety is a bit like squeezing water. It’s much better to reframe the emotion with greater truth than, “If I don’t do perfectly, I am a royal screw-up.” Make sense?

Anxious people mind-read and jump to conclusions. Watching facial expressions causes lots of problems when you are anxious. Assuming the worst, you might well see the worst – this is called “perceptual sensitivity” and mostly it means mind-reading what others are thinking. “I know you think my dress is ugly,” might be an example. How to handle that? Appreciative Inquiry works well here. Ask an affirming question.

Meditation, reflection and prayer reduces anxiety. When I say this I hope that you don’t start ruminating. Rumination is circular obsession and this reduces thinking and calmness while increasing anxiety and worry. Worriers often say that they can’t mediate so they don’t try much, or they think they are meditating and decides that it causes them more anxiety. This is obsessive rumination not meditation.

One study found that four 20-minute meditation classes were enough to reduce anxiety for most people by up to 39%. Not bad.

Anxiety expands personal space. I think we all have an invisible field around us that we dislike other people invading. In front of the face it’s generally about 20-40cm; if others get closer without our permission, it feels interruptive. But some researchers have found that anxious people assume a larger personal and expect people to keep up to double that space away, perhaps about 3 feet.

So now what? You already knew you had anxiety and maybe now you might obsess on these things. I have a brief  manual on my web site called “MAD” and it is mostly about depression but it has a lot to say about anxiety too. Take a look if you like.

Vocation is Listening to a Voice

I am preparing for a seminar this week on “Mixed Emotions” focusing on the emotions of leadership, especially in the church. While preparing I remembered this quote from Frederick Buechner that I often read in one of my “Character and Call” classes. It moves me every time I read it.

Vocation comes from the Latin vocare, to call, and means the work a man is called to by God. There are all different kinds of voices calling you to all different kinds of work, and the problem is to find out which is the voice of God rather than of Society, say, or the Superego, or Self-Interest. By and large a good rule for finding out is this. The kind of work God usually calls you to is the kind of work (a) that you need most to do and (b) that the world most needs to have done. If you really get a kick out of your work, you’ve presumably met requirement (a), but if your work is writing TV deodorant commercials, the chances are you’ve missed requirement (b). On the other hand, if your work is being a doctor in a leper colony, you have probably met requirement (b), but if most of the time you’re bored and depressed by it, the chances are you have not only bypassed (a), but probably aren’t helping your patients much either. Neither the hair shirt nor the soft berth will do. The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.

Source: Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC by Frederick Buechner

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