Sunday, 29 March 2015

Have you become a human doing?

I had a client once who when asked what had prompted her to call me said: "I am here because I recently realized that I have become a human doing and I want to be a human being."  As her story unfolded, she talked about how she had become sick with a chronic pain condition which gradually took over her body and her life. She described how as she increasingly lost function, the warrior in her had presented itself each and every step of the way.  She had begun as a successful singer. When she could no longer sing, she played music; when she could no longer play music, she taught; and when she could no longer teach, she began to help those less fortunate than her.  While listening, I was awed by her courage and resilience but, then her story took quite a turn.  She said that she only began to see the flaw in the tapestry of her life when her capacity to function became so compromised that there were few options for achievement left.  She related it was at this point that she finally had an earth shattering realization: she had lived her life functioning more like a machine than a human believing that without the ability to do and achieve, she was of little worth.  

While most people do not reach this point of crisis, many of us are on the treadmill of life, thinking that we have to be productive, otherwise, we are of little value.  Busyness and performance have become a way of life.  As one client who works as a civil engineer put it:  "I live my life at such speed that there is no margin for error.  I have no room for a flat tire in my day."  We are living life as fast as we can and in the process missing out on huge chunks of it!  Without any time to sit still, think and reflect, we have effectively eradicated any feelings of discomfort.  However, in the process, we have also blocked out any sense of joy.  Being productive and achieving can bring great joy and self-esteem.  If it defines you, however, it can be deadly.  Make sure you have time to just be.

Sunday, 15 March 2015

What is willful blindness?

I remember when I first moved to Winnipeg, Manitoba, standing in minus 43 degree weather at the bus stop with tears streaming down my face wondering how it was that I could have moved to this god forsaken city!  Every year it was the same old story. Winter would come...I would get furious and yet I would still put on my flimsy Toronto parka, boots with no lining and a tattered, cotton crocheted scarf.  For years, I lived in the fantasy that Winnipeg was merely a short stop on my way to some other destination and that it was just a matter of time before I would find work in another city. It took 6 to 7 years of living here before I finally went out and bought myself a top of the line North Face parka and Sorel boots.  Boy was I shocked to discover that in fact with such clothing, Manitoba winters were more than tolerable!  As I worked as a therapist with people over the years, I learned that I was not alone in my masterful ability to go blind to what I did not want to see.  Unlike denial which sneaks up on you out of your unconscious, willful blindness is a very deliberate knowing and then choosing not to know.  As one of my clients so beautifully put it: " I looked out the window, saw something I did not want to see and then closed the curtains."

Cynthia put on nearly 60 pounds in about a 14 month period.  Though most of her wardrobe no longer fit, she wore the few items that she could, refused to buy any new clothing and was so divorced from her body that she hardly was aware of the extra weight that she carried.  Every now and again, she would catch a glimpse of herself in a mirror and she would be shocked at her own reflection but it was not long before she simply blocked the image from her mind and proceeded to pretend that everything was just the way it had always been.

Norman knew that his wife was likely having an affair.  She would call to say that she had to stay late at the office once again.  He would look after giving the kids dinner and putting them to bed and would talk with friends about how committed his wife was to her career.  It was just too painful for him to face the fact that his marriage had ended years ago.  He simply could not let go of the dream of the intact family that he had always wanted.  His own upbringing had been riddled with domestic violence and substance abuse and all he ever wanted was to have a real family of his own where life was safe and normal.   

Sam had applied for dentistry four times already.  He was preparing to do so for a fifth time when he came to see me.  This was the case, even though he knew that he did not have a high enough GPA to be accepted into the program.  He simply could not imagine what it would mean if he did not become a dentist.  His father and his father's father had been successful dentists. Everybody in the family expected the same of him and without that as a possibility, the future was a blank slate, impossible to face.  

Wouldn't it be wonderful if choosing not to see meant that our problems would disappear. Unfortunately, this is rarely if ever the case and this is why any good psychologist will try to help you face reality before the sky falls on your head.  One woman I worked with told me at the end of our work together that there was a German expression for what she had experienced in therapy which probably could best be translated into English as the following:  "The skin has been peeled from my eyes." This expression remained so vivid for me that I never forgot it!

Sunday, 1 March 2015

How do I explain to family and friends why I am seeing a psychologist?

There is no one right thing to say to family and friends about why you are going to see a psychologist.  The best advice I can give is this: make it simple and be honest.  As I tell many of my clients, there is no form of therapy that I do with others (individual, couple or family) that I have not experienced as a client myself.  When I think about what led me to pick up the phone and finally make that call, it was first, being in a great deal of pain and second, being willing to admit that I needed help, usually after much distress!  We do not hesitate to call upon a specialist when there is a physical problem. Why should it be any different when the problems are mental and emotional?

Unfortunately, we live in a society that still stigmatizes people for seeking help to deal with psychological problems.  This is so despite the increasing numbers of people from all walks of life who have sought out therapists.  It is as if the reality of what's happening out there remains a secret until somebody has the guts to talk about it.  Then, once out in the open, it is rare to find somebody who has remained unaffected by mental health issues either in themselves or some close friend or family member. Social attitudes and messages relayed early in life, however, die hard.  What are some of these covert messages?  "Don't air your dirty laundry in public", "You made your bed, lie in it",   "Strong people solve their own problems", and "Only people who are weak-willed go for counselling".  None of us totally escape this conditioning which is why there is usually some ambivalence at the start for everybody who walks into a therapist's office.

What many do not realize is that people's judgments about therapy say much more about them (their values and outlook) than they do about you and what's right for you.  So it is very risky to take too much to heart another's point of view whether it be positive or harshly judgmental.  If you find yourself being significantly affected by someone's critical comments, it would be wise to look inside at what is likely your own mixed feelings about seeking help.  After all, isn't it far more important what you think than what others think? When a client says to me: "My husband thinks it is a waste of time and money", my response typically is to ask: "And what do you think"?  Granted, it is difficult when the people close to you, family or close friends, are unable to provide emotional support for your decision.  If someone close to you cannot support it, though, don't make the mistake of getting hooked on trying to change his or her mind.  Seek support from those who can give it.  They are out there!