When Life Happens: A + B = C

“Julie” had a lot of anxiety about most things. Relationships seemed to paralyze her. Her husband complained about the embarrassment of leaving parties before everyone else, or having to make excuses for declining business events that he wanted to attend. Sometimes Julie would even avoid contact with her own adult children if it involved meeting in a public place, like a coffee shop. Her behaviours at church were routinized so that incidental contacts were almost eliminated. Coming to church late and leaving a bit early allowed her to cope with her anxieties. She needed to sit on the aisle to lessen personal contact.

As she talked, I listened and doodled a simple psych formula: A + B = C, where A is the activating event (the “trigger”), B is the belief or beliefs (often unconscious) about that trigger, and C is the inevitable consequence or predictable outcome.

I made three columns for Julie on the whiteboard and listed the As (activators), the Bs (beliefs) and the Cs (consequences). The As were obvious: involvement with people where she might feel looked at or measured against others. Her beliefs (Bs) spilled out. “I am never good enough.” “I am too tall and boney looking.” “I am afraid of being seen as foolish when I talk.” The consequence was that she avoided people and shut down most relationships. She felt friendless and lonely, and saw her life getting ever worse.

Initially Julie was reluctant to talk about the Bs (her “beliefs” about life) – she “knew” that the problem was that she was an “introvert” in an extroverted world (see blog: Renewing Our Energies) and she really felt that she could not fit in her husband’s social and business milieu where “everyone is more competent than me.” As Julie examined her unexamined misbeliefs she discovered that “nothing but perfect is ever good enough,” that “failure is never an option,” and that “anything but exceptional is mediocre.” This was the harsh and compulsive environment of her growing-up years.

Examining prayerfully, thoroughly, and in scribbling her thoughts in the 3 columns, she adjusted her Bs – just a bit. Her inner urgencies softened. She became less abusive toward herself. Therapy was now testing her new self-evaluations. She saw how unimaginative and thoughtless she had been in incorporating outdated belief structures into her ever-emerging life. Her re-written beliefs were truer to life and more representative of who she was and who she wanted to become. And just bringing her beliefs into the daylight of conversation reduced their hurt and harm enormously.

Social events are hard for Julie still. She has to do hard thinking in most every encounter – not just run. Our goal was simple: reduce 70% of the curse caused by irrational beliefs and then see what happens. Life happens.

An Anger Parable

There once was a little boy who had a temper. His father gave him a bag of nails and told him that every time he lost his temper, he must hammer a nail into the backyard fence. The first day the boy drove 37 nails into the fence. Over the next few weeks, as he learned to control his anger, the number of nails hammered gradually dwindled down. He discovered it was easier to handle his temper than to drive those nails into the fence.

Finally the day came when the boy didn’t lose his temper at all. He told his father about it. His father suggested that the boy pull out one nail for each day that he was able to handle his temper. The days passed. Eventually the young boy was able to tell his father that all the nails were gone.

The father took his son by the hand. He led him to the fence and said, “You have done very well. Now look at the holes in the fence. The fence will never be the same. When you say things or do things in anger, they leave a scar just like those holes. You can put a knife in a man and draw it out. It won’t matter how many times you say, ‘I’m sorry,’ the wound is still there.”

An interesting parable for me. Anger and wounding is a big part of the therapy world, especially in working with couples and families. The wounds that have been collected fuel future anger. And the anger ventilated becomes a rehearsal for future anger dumping. The question is, “What do you do with the anger and hurt that are inevitable in any intimate relationship?”

Vocation – The Work a Person is Called To

Frederick Buechner writes: “It comes from the Latin vocare, to call, and means the work a person 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 cigarette ads, 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.” (Frederick Buechner, from his book, “Wishful Thinking”)

Counselling with Paddy — a Client Rave

Sometimes I receive raves. Here is one that I received not too long ago. [If passing this on to you seems too self-promoting, see the previous blogs on depression. You will be happy then!]

I walked into my first appointment with Paddy reluctantly to say the least, but I quickly learned that I was there for a purpose. I wanted him to know how “right” I was and how I had been so “wronged.” Paddy called me on it quite quickly.

What I received from him was far greater than I could have asked for. In those sessions where I was at my weakest, it was there that I felt safe to be “known.” Paddy would not judge me. Instead, I felt accepted and valued.

Paddy has an amazing calming ability. His compassion, counselling skills and use of humour were invaluable to me. He has the ability to reframe things causing me to look at life from a different perspective – frequently changing the intensity of my emotions. No two sessions were alike but Paddy remained constant, which was an anchor for me.

Anyone looking for a counsellor would be hard–pressed to find a more compassionate listener. But don’t go see Paddy if you aren’t willing to be challenged. And be sure to bring your sense of humour! Thanks Paddy.

Pain Causes Change

Issac Newton’s first law of motion is that “everything continues in a state of rest unless it is compelled to change by forces impressed upon it.” Psychologists know that pain causes change.

People and organizations change painfully. Recently, two organizations have contacted me to work with them as a change agent in their stuck organizational system. It is clear that shifting priorities, revamping goals and objectives, clarifying values, transitioning staff, getting leaders to listen to more than their own convictions, building a productive relationship ethos – all of this and more – is painful.

Sometimes in therapy it is important to provoke the pain of change rather than placate or remove immediate discomfort. In working with church-place and workplace organizations, I propose 7 steps of systems change.

Step 1: Valuing the experience of pain and the gains that dissatisfaction can produce. This is human reality.

Step 2: The discovery of attainable goals that are honestly believed, often articulated and creatively lived. This is the mission.

Step 3: The presence of a change agent (this is the leader) who can shift the organization from homeostasis (no change) to morphogenesis (more change). This is the leadership factor.

Step 4: A logical, planned and scaled process that is responsive to adjustment as needed. This is the change contract.

Step 5: The informed participation of the respected community as an active partner in the desired goal. This is the empowered followership.

Step 6: The active presence of a courageous and challenging leadership team (alone, a leader is helpless) with vision of the mission, balanced with a sense of humour, and a focus on the everydayness of ordinary life. This is the missional team.

Step 7: A commitment to celebration and continual renewal while appreciating that our attainments are always partial.

[Someone shout “Amen!”]

What Not to Say to Your Depressed Friend

Job had his counsellors and they were pretty good until they started to talk. At that point, they spiraled down — and quickly. Here are the kind of things people say to depressed people when they should probably just go home.

• Just think of those people who are worse off than you are.
• Life’s not fair.
• Feeling sorry for yourself doesn’t help.
• Make a decision not to be so depressed.
• Snap out of it!
• Just get active and you will be fine tomorrow.
• It’s probably grief, or anger, or loss, or poor self-esteem, or something like that.
• Have you tried chamomile tea (or whatever)?
• I know how you feel. I was depressed for several days a couple of months ago.
• Haven’t you grown tired of all this “me, me, me” stuff?

It doesn’t take a professional counsellor to listen deeply and respond slowly. You can do it.

What Do You Say to Your Depressed Friend?

Mostly we say stuff that doesn’t help our depressed friend but relieves our urgency to impact helpfully and avoids our anxiety in sitting numbly. Then who are we helping? Probably ourselves.

Sitting patiently, looking caringly, wondering quietly — this helps, but eventually it is probably necessary to say something. So here are a few statements that, if said truthfully, have a better chance of helping than harming. Notice that the statements are non persuasive or argumentative, that they are not trying to be artificially “up,” and that they do not pose to identify (“I felt sad for a couple of days last week.”).

• You’re not alone in this.
• You are important to me.
• You are not going crazy.
• When all of this is over, I’ll still be here and so will you.
• I can’t really understand what you are feeling, but I can listen.
• I’m with you. I’m not going to give up on you.

Today a friend came into my office and asked in the most friendly way, “How are you doing?” And I told him of my dysphoric mood and he listened. And when I thought I was finished telling and talking, he still listened, looking affectionately, so I said some more. I found some good stuff to tell him that was hiding in my subconscious just below the melancholia. And then he asked to pray for me, offered me his hand to stand up and held me quietly for 15 seconds or so and then simply announced “Amen.”

[Next blog on “What Not to Say to Your Depressed Friend.”]

This blog is adapted from an article on Depression Alliance.

Take 2 Aspirin and Keep Away from Children

After creating heaven and earth, God created Adam and Eve. The first thing He said was, “Don’t.” “Don’t what?” Adam replied. “Don’t eat the forbidden fruit” God said.”Forbidden fruit? We have forbidden fruit? Hey, Eve. . . we have forbidden fruit!” “No way!” “Yes, way!” “Do NOT eat the fruit!” said God. “Why?” “Because I am your Father and I said so!” God replied.

A few minutes later, God saw His children having an apple break and was He ticked! “Didn’t I tell you not to eat the fruit?” “Uh, huh,” Adam replied. “Then why did you?” said the Father. “I don’t know,” said Eve. “She started it!” Adam said. “Did not!” “Did too!” “DID NOT!”

Having had it with the two of them, God’s punishment was that Adam and Eve should have children of their own. Thus, the pattern was set and it has never changed. But there is reassurance in this story. If you have persistently and lovingly tried to give children wisdom and they haven’t taken it, don’t be hard on yourself. If God had trouble raising children, what makes you think it would be a piece of cake for you?

Advice for the day: If you have a lot of tension and you get a headache, do what it says on the aspirin bottle: “Take two aspirin” and “Keep away from children.”

[Found this years ago — don’t remember where.]

Never-Ending Problems: Like Dandelions in the Grass

I like solving problems – always have. I like to think triangularly, question appreciatively, figure out what has not worked before and suggest something that I think is brilliant, create a plan for real change, and measure the anticipated success. I was taught all this in grad school, some of my female friends tell me that this is such a “man thing,” but I have lived this as far back as I can remember – when I was 8 years old I tried marriage counselling with my folks! I think I did pretty good.

Now John Gottman comes along as a marital researcher and says that about two-thirds of relational problems are perpetual, like dandelions in the grass. Some troubles are unsolvable he says, and lots of arguments never accomplish a thing other than rehearsing for the next squabble. Never-ending — sounds discouraging.

Carole and I have a bunch of unsolvable problems, mostly the same ones we had when we were first married. No matter what I do to “persuade” (coerce) her to do what I want (or she me), the problems keep flowering. The solvable ones delude us into thinking that we are pretty good at conflict solving, and it’s true that we’ve had some dramatic successes. It is the unsolvable ones that really bug me.

Here are some perpetual problems that you are probably familiar with:

Personality or “your way in the world”: Who is the most introverted in the dyad and who is the most extroverted? (See previous blog.) This probably doesn’t change much. Neither does the tension between the one that is most emotionally intuitive with the one that is perseveringly logical. And some people are emotional stuffers (always have been) while their devoted other is pretty much a feeling gusher (always has been).

History: You can’t change a person’s history. The times in which you were born, and the ways in which you were raised, or dynamics in your family of origin – this is set in history. The goodness of your connection has a lot to do with how winsomely you accept each other’s life before you met.

Sensitivities: How do you react to failure, or criticism, or loneliness, or unpredictability, or being excluded from a group? This is well-wired by the time a child becomes an early teen.

Some things change really slowly. Things like your view of what success or failure means in life, or what a worldview might be. Our relationship to money, emotions, work, conflict are hard to change, but change they do.

Habits change slowly as well. If you are an early-to-bed kind of person and you are married to a late night email addict, this too can change. Savers always seem to marry spenders – at least in my practice. Maybe that is why they come to therapy. Habits change – slowly.

I have discovered that unsolvable problems require different strategies than solvable ones. First off, you need to be willing to distinguish solvable from unsolvable problems. Make two lists of your problems. What can be negotiated (solvable) and what cannot (unsolvable)? What is most important to you (grade this 1-3)? What can you let go?

Secondly, focus 80% of your resources towards the good things that you already do well. Show a little “benevolent disinterest” (differentiation) towards the problem areas. It is not a moral failure to take a break from working on faults while you celebrate the good stuff you do now. Over-focusing on problems (many of which you can’t solve anyway) is a serious waste of good humour and friendly faith.

Renewing Our Energies: Introversion — Extroversion Continuum

Some of us are natural introverts in an extroverted world. Pastors are often like this. Sometimes extroverts find themselves trapped in an introverted family. The tensions they both experience are palpable.

Introverts get energy from spending time alone, especially if tired, stressed or upset. Socializing is not for renewing their emotional selves. In fact, being with people, especially having to be “social,” tends to drain their energy. “People = pain” for many introverts, especially if they cannot control the social world. They look forward to the enjoyment of the company of a few people, usually not more than 6 or 12, or a newcomer who is intriguing, or people of a like mind. Introverts are people who need to know the rules of engagement in social settings and are anxious without visible structure. Large gatherings, like weddings or receptions, feel awkward and anxious, especially with lots of strangers. In these events, introverts find a company of a few who are like them, where they can connect and coalesce. They are often anxious when they are made the focus of attention. They tend to have depth in their relationships rather than breadth. They usually prefer to work by themselves. Extroverts may see them as antisocial, withdrawn, inhibited, elitist and uninterested.

Extroverts are vibrant people who enjoy the company of lots of others, so they generally shine at parties and rediscover themselves in crowds where there is a bit of chaos. They may be afraid of aloneness and silence – at least that is what their more introverted spouse or friend might say. A silent spiritual retreat can be torture for an extrovert. They thrive on meeting new people and they tend to develop their ideas mainly by talking it out with others. Some extroverts require an audience to have their thoughts make sense. They are inclusive and welcoming and are great at eliminating barriers and boundaries. They tend to have lots of connections (not so many “relationships”) – more breadth than depth. They can feel anxious when they are not with other people and they often find it draining when having to be on their own. While enthusiastic and winsome, to an introvert they can seem overwhelming, intrusive or “a bit much.” Extroverts can become self-pitying, agitated and withdrawn when not engaged in activities and action. Extroverts are stimulus hungry, needing activity and change as well as interaction. They look for events to be experienced and can become stimulus junkies, unsettling their family and friends.

No one is a “pure” introvert or extrovert; think of it as a continuum. Jack, as an example, is a sales associate with a VW dealership where he consistently wins the plaudits and awards of management. He knows how to make friends with shoppers who intuitively trust that he is not trying to sell them a vehicle that they don’t want. As a sales leader, he is less technique-focused than he is people-responsive. In fact, he resists sales courses with lots of hoopla, where he has to be “bigger than he really is.” His boss thinks he must be an extrovert but he is most energized at home playing board games with his teenaged kids and walking with his wife on the seawall, coffee in hand. He has learned to apply his natural introversion in an extroversion market.

John Gottman, the marital researcher, argues that 69% of relational / marriage difficulties are essentially unsolvable, conflicts that we learn to live with and, perhaps, prosper because of. The tension around introversion-extroversion is one of these unsolvables, binaries that are not readily reconciled but can be appreciatively accepted.