Do This in Remembrance — Memory is Odd

I write most things down.

In counselling with couples I draw relational maps so I can remember emotions and how they work back and forth. When I am at home, I make lists of what needs to be done and sometimes I remember to check the list. I am really helped by my iPhone so I can photograph the price of some TV I want to purchase at Costco. Carole and I complete each other’s sentences while we have entirely different memories of the same event. I wish I could remember what I did with the last 10 years and then the 10 years before that. I am glad I write things down.

Memory is odd. We think it is linear like a ribbon, connecting us back to our histories. More likely it is startling and episodic like Instagram photos, highlighting the vivid, often over-coloring the image. You may know the 70s and 80s debate about “recovered memories” vs “false memories.” It turns out that so many of those recovered memories of childhood abuse were false. They never happened. But they were deeply felt to have happened.

Parents, teachers and preachers will tell stories and remember the telling of the story more than the event, and then the hyperbole is believed to be true. It is actually the exaggeration that is remembered. The history is lost.

Families do this a lot. “I remember Candace as being coy even from when she was little.” “Frankie is such a chip of the old block, always in trouble like his dad.” Then it becomes “true” because memory remembers it. History is again reconstructed.

The other day a client-friend asked me, “What do you write down when I am talking?” “Take a look,” I said. He looked at his genogram with all the crisscrossed lines, and my numbered point form of what he said. “Why do you write down exactly what I say?” he asked. “I do this to remember and so that I can understand.” He seemed appreciative: “I don’t think I have ever had anyone listen to me so that they can remember what I said.”

Next post: emotional and social memory. (If I can remember to write it.)

DSM 5 in Distress

The long-awaited DSM 5 has just been approved by the American Psychiatric Association. This has a significant effect on Canadian doctors and health practitioners, including your family physician and psychologist.

A long-time psychiatrist and a member of the DSM 4 task force has some grave concerns as reported in Psychology Today. You might wish to be informed on this and this may be a good place to start. Read DSM 5 in Distress.

Two Boxes

Some of you know that I am a professor at Carey Theological College at UBC and that I have a private practice in psychology in West Vancouver. In both places I am aware that I work with my head and my heart, sometimes more of one than the other. When I meet people for the first time, I often make quick judgments of them as primarily heart-people or head-people. I guess I put them into boxes.

Box 1 is the empathy-compassion box. These are the pastoral, giving folk I meet. They emote integrity and doing right is most important to them. They might give you their last dollar, as did the New York policeman who gave a street person his warm socks and winter boots (this was reported in the news last week). Heart people are friendly, trustworthy, sociable and want to be helpful. These folk are the “heart” of churches, families, community centres and everywhere people are considered more important that programs. They have high social and emotional intelligence. They think with their hearts.

Box 2 is the competency box – this is the head box and it includes thinking intelligence, the ability to solve problems quickly, express creative ideas and fluent thoughts. These people are often motivated by success. They are typically problem solvers and talkers more than listeners, though they often do both. (At this point, some of you are liable to say something like, “This is exactly like my husband!” but in my meeting of people, women are as often to be thinkers-solvers as men.) The competency people are my go-to friends when I have a computer problem or when I need to consult on a difficulty in my life or in my work. They don’t hold my hand and emit sympathy – they get to the problem and figure out how to fix it.

I have found that Box 1 people (the warm-hearted ones) admire Box 2 people (the competency folk) and that Box 2 people wish they were more Box 1-ish, especially with intimates. Someone said that the difference between thinking with your head and thinking with your heart is only about a foot! However, the distance between head and heart is immense when one is stressed or in conflict. Then we tend to polarize around the value of thinking (“What you are saying is illogical. Can’t you hear yourself?”) and feeling (“You don’t understand what I am saying! Just listen to me.”).

When we first meet people most of us have intuition about whether he or she is more of a heart-person or more of a head-person. And we may warm to one over the other depending on the context. Recently I went to a social gathering that I was not interested in attending and I found myself cornered by a hyper-competent, business guy who wanted to tell me the evils of religion. I told him, “I know something about that” and he carried on without pause. I hoped for a little understanding from him, but his speech was well-practiced and thorough. Actually, I quite enjoyed the discussion once I figured out he was a Box 2 guy and that he was exercising his competency muscles. I flexed some of my Box 2 stuff as well.

It seems to me that intellectual competency and heart ability make for a healthy and soulful dyad in relationships and within ourselves. It also seems to me that this is the best competency in teaching and counselling, the best in conciliating and problem solving (though not the best in argument-winning), the best in movie-watching and in Christmas-present buying. And in novel reading, and friendship-making, and…

I Just Want to Be Heard

This is a common complaint in marriage and other partnerships including business and family – “Just listen to me. Don’t try to solve my problems. Just be quiet and listen.”

Seems simple enough until you parse the verb a bit. What does listening mean? Different things to different people so it turns out.

Parents, especially moms, talk about active listening and passive listening with their children. Active listening is when you engage the speaker with your verbal summaries, concluding thoughts, various attempts at empathy, nods and affirmative grunts. Passive listening is when you pay attention but say not much, just vector in, eye-to-eye. I like the latter kind of listening a lot more. But there are other definitions of listening as well.

The other day in my office someone said, “I just want to be heard.” Here is what she seemed to mean:

  1. First, listen deeply and thoroughly to my point of view.
  2. Second, accept my point of view as true or at least more true than yours.
  3. Third, change your thinking and behaviour in accordance with my point of view.
  4. Fourth, advocate for my point of view that you now thoroughly endorse.

Otherwise, I will not feel heard, she seemed to be saying. In fact, she did not feel heard or understood in her family of origin (that is, her growing up family), in her marriage and also felt that her pastor minimized her thoughtfulness. She felt alone, misunderstood and antagonized by various other non-hearers.

Sometimes we can ask to be listened to when what we want is to be agreed with. Different.