“Good Grief” [A Guest Blog]

Our guest blog is from a client-friend who has endured intense loss over the last year. This is her testimony as she learns to trust and re-experience faith.

My thesaurus indicates that the word grief can be replaced with sorrow, heartache, and misery, to name an unhappy few. In the last year any one of these words could have been used to describe me. It all started with the death of my loveable but dysfunctional brother. In turn this contributed to the rupture of my marriage. For the first six months I was in a state of shock and disbelief. I cried just driving on to my yard. I couldn’t sleep. Despite having been in Christian ministry for years I started to doubt God’s existence. At the nadir point I found myself sitting on my living room floor sobbing and saying, “God I don’t even know if you are real but you are all I have.”

Foolishly, people sometimes think we need to have faith to have our prayers answered. I am happy to report that even when we are faithless, God is faithful. Slowly, gently, God is restoring my soul. He has used nature, the love of family and friends, His word, and occasionally an overwhelming sense of His presence. At times it has almost felt miraculous.

Despite my renewed hope I still have moments of intense sorrow. Just the other morning I awoke alone at 5:00 a.m. and instantly my body was racked with pain and I felt as though my grief would crush me. My mind was screaming out, “How can this be!”

Thankfully I have learned that the intense emotion does dissipate. Instead of resisting it, I acknowledge the loss and let my body release the suffering through tears. Once the emotion is spent my spirit reminds me, “I am not alone, God is real and He is enough.”

Thinking About Making a Life Change?

The last couple of days I have been working with mature students in graduate education at Carey Theological College on the UBC campus. This is my “day job” where I am the professor of marital and family studies. One of my several tasks at the beginning of an academic year is to interpret the psychosocial assessments of first year divinity students. These tremendously capable people are in the midst of making personal and vocational life changes, many of them in midlife having succeeded at other professions. One is a chaplain with the Canadian forces, one is a building contractor, some are in education and health sciences, one is a police officer, and all these folk are looking for work success in something new.

I gave them three psychosocial assessments. The first is the Strong Inventory for assessing vocational interests. A classic test, this is outstanding for figuring out your personal preferences in the myriad of alluring opportunities. The second is the California Psychological Inventory, a personality assessment that measures the test-taker on more than 25 personality variables. This one can feel a bit intrusive – it may tell you more than you might want to know about yourself. The third assessment is the Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Inventory and this assesses (surprise!) how you handle interpersonal stress and conflict.

And I have a deal for you: since I have done a bunch of these and I have already paid for several more sets, I am willing to reduce my costs so that you, my client friends, can get the benefit. Normally these tests cost out at more than $200 and I will offer them to you for $150. And that’s a deal.

For more information on my work in psychosocial assessment, please see a previous blog entitled “Life/ID: Identifying Your Life.”

Un-Naming [A Guest Blog]

A client friend talked to me about the power of labels, diagnoses and names. I asked her to write a brief blog as I wanted you to hear the thoughtfulness of her words. I think that this follows up well with my last blog on “Someone Else’s Opinion of Me is None of My Business.” The subject is “differentiation.”

“When we give something a name it acquires a weight of importance that may become too heavy. So, if I cannot sleep at 3 AM, I resist the inclination to say, or even think, “I have insomnia” and instead say, “How curious, it is 3 AM and I am wide awake.” Somehow, being “an awake person” is far less worrisome than being an “insomniac.” This inclination to deny some of life’s realities the right to a title can become a little comical. Announcing one is not going to have a “A Mid-Life Crisis” is a good way to get a laugh from your counsellor.

“Un-naming something is not ignoring it, but rather a deliberate effort to retain a personal identity that is larger than any label or diagnosis. One can seek help without saying, “I am depressed” or “I have Post Traumatic Stress Disorder” or whatever. The initiative to seek help can be found in naming the result I hope for as much as it is found in naming what I wish to change. If others want to give names to what they see in me, that’s alright as names can help with understanding. However, I am under no obligation to add this name to myself and carry the weight of it.”

Someone Else’s Opinion of Me is None of My Business

This oft-repeated phrase in AA and Alanon is profound in its simplicity. The capacity to define oneself in spite of the approval or judgment of another is a sign of emotional maturity and a quality that makes life work better. “Someone else’s opinion of me is none of my business.” Say it to yourself.

Differentiation is about knowing who you are, about your purpose. It is about distinguishing between the business that is yours and the business that is others. It is about self-definition and the management of opinions.

Trying to live up (or down) to others opinions of you is undifferentiation. Needing others to have your opinion is also undifferentiation. These are patterns of immaturity. Lots of conflict comes from this.

A client friend said to me this week, “I have spent my life working for my father’s approval that I have never received. I am unhappy, overworked, compulsive about everything and I no longer know who I am or what I enjoy.” He is a doctor, newly married, often angry, lost in compulsivity – what used to give him pleasure is now bland. Undifferentiation is a trap that can take years to close.

A few questions for you:

• When do you most feel yourself? When are you most in control of yourself?

• What relationships most allow you to be you? What relationships trap?

• Does your faith mostly freeze you with others, or free you for God?

This Most Terrible Poverty — Loneliness

Most of us feel lonely sometimes and sometimes often.

The other evening I went to see the movie “Eat, Pray, Love” with my son David. He is outside of a relationship at the moment and sometimes feels lonely, though his life is full and vibrant in lots of other ways. Still, to have a “primary other” in his life would be wonderful for him and, I think, spectacular for whoever the “her” is. And if you have seen the movie, it is all about exiting relationships and entering them.

Watching the movie David felt lonely. In response to his experience he sent me this wonderful YouTube video. It is lovely, focused and meaningful to a depth we don’t often plumb. It is called “How to Be Alone”.

Thinking about loneliness, I remembered what Mother Teresa said: “When Christ said: ‘I was hungry and you fed me,’ he didn’t mean only the hunger for bread and for food; he also meant the hunger to be loved. Jesus himself experienced this loneliness. He came amongst his own and his own received him not, and it hurt him then and it has kept on hurting him. The same hunger, the same loneliness, the same having no one to be accepted by and to be loved and wanted by. Every human being in that case resembles Christ in his loneliness; and that is the hardest part, that’s real hunger.

In another writing she said, “The most terrible poverty is loneliness, and the feeling of being unloved.”

“I’m So Glad You’re Not a Nice Person”

To be nice is to avoid risking, to feel more than think, to neglect passions, to act as if “commitment” is endurance rather than delight, to swap unique self-ness for the sort of peace that can’t be kept, to try to believe what others believe when you don’t want to and can’t anyways, to apologize for being whatever (e.g. successful, attractive, capable), to sustain relationships that should be shaken, to listen loudly to hollow fears, to not engage while all the while seeming to, to not see the humour or the art or the childlikeness in lots of everyday things, to make vital what’s redundant, to not know and express personal needs, to not be grateful from the heart, to not recognize when the situation is hopeless but not serious.

I learned this from a client friend today. She received this “not nice”  compliment – it was not mine to give or to receive. I just heard about it.

1950s Marriage Boing

I have been writing a book entitled “Couple’s Journey of a Lifetime: Mentoring for Pre-marriage, Re-marriage and Early Marriage” and I came across this funny YouTube clip on 1950s premarriage counselling. Watch it and you will discover the “Cupid’s Checklist,” a “Marriage Development Board” and advice on how to keep the “boing” in your marriage. (I might get one of those boards.) Enjoy.

Counselling Can Be Expensive (An Update)

Now that is a truism. Sometimes I tell my clients that I can’t even afford me! (I am never sure how they take that.) But how you feel about the expense of counselling depends a lot on what you get out of it.

My fee is $180 per hour (Carole’s fee is $160 per hour). I usually see someone for about 10, 1-hour sessions, so the total is about $1650 over several months. That is a lot of money. And then you take your car in for a tune-up (actually they don’t tune up anymore – they download computer upgrades) or sign up for a course at Capilano U.

Here is what I do about fees:
• I charge $20 per hour less than the going rate for Psychologists ($200 as of January, 2015). I charge less because I want to give back to you.
• Many of you will have your fees covered under an employee assistance plan or an insurance program. Make sure that you check your coverage for “Psychologists” before you visit with me.
• By the way, both you and your spouse may both be covered under your EAP or insurance program. This means that you can have twice the number of appointments for couple counselling. Imagine how many family appointments you can have!
• Keep your receipts for your income tax – some of it may be reimbursable. Ask an accountant.
• I also create my own assistance plan with your church or community group. You pay half the fee and they pay the other half for a maximum of 10 sessions. You would be surprised how many caring people want to provide financial assistance.
• I also reduce my rates for those who demonstrate a pressing need. Please let me know.

I am happy to say that most of my client-friends consider therapy to be good value and many recommend their family, friends and work associates. Counselling can be a valuable investment and worth much more than it costs.

(This blog is an update from one in January entitled “Counselling Can Be Expensive.”)

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?”