Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Trust - Control - Anxiety - Fear

I just finished speaking to a young woman (between 17 – 23), she made a comment that was the essence of a comment I’ve probably heard every day during the course of my professional practice.

Basically, she told be that since a certain event, (Not an uncommon one – but one that is hurtful and involves loss as well as a sense of betrayal by one who she’d considered trustworthy.) … she “can’t trust anyone.” As I said, I hear this or close variants almost every day as I sit in my chair. (Maybe, instead of sitting during appointments, I should be on an elliptical machine during appointments?)

What does the statement suggest? Probably there are some different meanings but there are also shared implications.

Throughout my blog columns, probably the most common and central themes are the concepts of power – control – trust – anxiety and fear. These are all points of a loop of experiences. All are natural but when there is a distortion of one or more, it becomes the likely (not always) source of problems. 

For those with an unusual desire to read more of my comments on the matter, refer to the links below:

How things get off-track
Anger Management
Fair Fighting
Your Anchor
Who are you

In these columns, I discuss various ways these issues become problematic.

When people tell me about their difficulties in trusting, I am inclined to ask the following:

Regarding trust, what are your expectations?

Let’s assume a relationship (any manner of relationship: mother/daughter, employer/employee, marital, close friends or casual friends). What are the trust expectations? Let’s look at some different scenarios.

  • My colleague and I want to get coffee and catch-up. Personally, I am an early-riser; he is not. I suggest 7AM, he offers 9AM. We agree on 8AM. I arrive at the shop at 7:45AM and wait… he arrives at 8:10. Is this a breach of trust? Perhaps his watch is set differently than mine. Perhaps my watch is set early. Perhaps there were exigent circumstances with his family which delayed him. Perhaps the traffic was unusually bad. Perhaps our coffee-date temporarily slipped his mind. Perhaps he got lost. Perhaps he couldn’t find a parking space. What are my expectations and what do I infer from the fact that he arrived later than I? Do I assume he doesn’t consider my time important? Do I believe he’s just being “passive aggressive”? Do I become agitated? Has he violated some rule that I think EVERYONE must know – ALWAYS be on time. Are my expectations reasonable?
  • A married couple has a heated argument which is not resolved. During the emotionally-loaded argument, both say things that the other experiences as hurtful. While in the moment of the argument, both felt upset but nevertheless believe their own comments were warranted. Now, hours (or sometimes days or even years) later, one or both think, “I cant believe (s)he said that – or did that.” When I discuss it with the couple, they each have their own differing perspectives of what transpired. One or both suggest, “Until you can ADMIT to what you said/did, I can NEVER trust you again – and without COMPLETE TRUST, there is no foundation for a relationship”. REALLY?                                                                             Considering that many of us believe we are mature and reasonable, do we still expect that someone MUST agree with us? If they have a different perspective are they necessarily lying? If they see events differently does is necessarily mean the other is in DENIAL? If the other sees events differently, can we accept that people can see things differently without being WRONG? If the other says they have been hurt by our words or actions, can we sincerely and contritely apologize? I have talked with so many who insist they were NOT WRONG and therefore no apology is warranted. REALLY? Is your sense of being right (i.e., self-righteousness) so important and certain, that you prefer to let the harm stand instead of doing what you can to repair the damage? PLEASE, don’t say “Well what about what they said…” (It sounds a bit childish, doesn't it?) I agree; they assuredly share responsibility for the damaged relationship – but waiting for the other to be contrite will forever create a stalemate (pun intended). Some will go on to use these hurts as an ever-ready moral caudul, bringing it up at every opportune moment, like a trump card, to WIN a disagreement.
  • Assume a relationship between a father and son. The father has reared his son to be a responsible citizen. As the son assumes his role as an adult, can the father accept that the son may have very different values without resorting to suggesting that “something has gone wrong”? My own son decided to be tattooed. Had he asked my advice, I would have suggested that he not get a tattoo – but he didn’t ask (Indeed, it was appropriate for him to not ask – he is an adult, not living under my roof.) Can I accept that his wishes and decisions are his – that he needn’t seek my permission or approval? Can I tolerate the anxiety that we have different values? Must I insist that MY VALUES are RIGHT and that he must conform to MY standards? By living his own life, expressing his individuality and values, does he violate my trust? Do I suggest that because he has chosen a certain behavior that my trust is forever broken? Do I live the life of a victim (a very powerful role) telling any who will listen (or reciting it to myself like an emotional prayer) of my victimhood which I insist was first perpetrated by him – but which I now daily resuscitate? Will I forgive? Will I accept that he has become what I prayed for – an individual – not a carbon copy of myself? (A close expression of narcissism.)
  • Last for consideration, a 50ish mother with an adult daughter. Mom is a devoted evangelical Christian. The daughter is lesbian. I think most understand that the mother would have a difficult time accepting that her daughter is lesbian. Probably, this is not what she had in mind when the daughter was a five year old. The daughter states that she too is a Christian. The mother INSISTS that the daughter is WRONG and sinful. During a conversation with me, it seems what the daughter does in bed and with whom precludes any other conversation the two might have. It seems there is no room for, “How was your day? What are your hopes and dreams for the future? What kinds of projects are you pursuing? How do you feel?REALLY? Is the daughter’s sex-life the most important thing to discuss? I wouldn’t dream of asking my son about his sex-life – it would be a gross boundary violation. If he ever asked me about my sex-life, I’d tell him it’s not his concern. PERIOD.

Does all of this mean that we should continually tolerate UNREASONABLE violations of our relationships? Absolutely not. 

What are unreasonable violations? That can be difficult to answer. Some more obvious violations are blatant. When a person REPEATEDLY violates our relational boundaries resulting in EGREGIOUS DAMAGE and demonstrates no willingness to change behavior... self preservation prevails - but if there is a willingness to change, we must carefully examine our motives to leave.

(excuse my religious-sounding spin: REPENT, GR: metanoia suggests that one changes their direction/behavior. If one was traveling North, they turn around and travel South.) 

What if the violations are minor injuries, unintentional insults and differences in opinion? What if a couple has agreed to an austere budget and one party spends money beyond what is agreed. Is that a reason to cast the entire relationship in jeopardy? What about if one party in a relationship has an affair – the unfaithful partner apologizes, insists it was a horrible human failing and promises to change. Should the injured party accept the apology and continue in the relationship or is this violation too much? 

It is possible to forgive but also decide the relationship cannot continue. 

I have worked with many couples who decide to maintain the relationship. They decide that there is much in the relationship that they want to save. Rebuilding the trust takes time – perhaps a year or more. Forgiving does not mean forgetting. We do not forget terrible injuries. But if we forgive, we agree to not repeatedly bring up the issue.

(Here is an excellent article - thank you BN Forgiving.)

Going back to the beginning of my rant: Continually portraying ourselves as a victim can only result in the suspension of our emotional and spiritual growth. If we are victims, we are not taking responsibility for our life. We suggest that someone else has dictated our fate. 

Who is in the driver’s seat of your life – someone else, your ego – your parent’s expectations. Blame is a game that keeps us in everlasting ignorance.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Is it Love... or is it Wimpy Parenting?

It's easy for me to ask the question and it's even easier for me to pontificate about it as I sit in the ostensibly all-knowing-and-wise Wizard of Oz chair 50 hours each week.  The debate has strong adherents on both sides. 

Many parents explain to me that the realities today are significantly different than when I was leaving the nest of my parents’ home. Quite true.

Of course, we live in a very difficult financial environment. I'm told it is very difficult if not impossible for a young person to find employment that will cover their housing, food and other bare essentials. Also, there have been articles written suggesting that another "developmental phase" is evolving; a  "20-something phase" which follows adolescence but precedes adulthood. This argument supports the idea that it is healthy for pre-adults to stay under a protective parental wing.

I'm in agreement with the first argument; we are certainly living in difficult times - I am not so sure about the notion that another developmental phase is evolving that warrants a protracted adolescence. 

I am continually flummoxed when it's suggested life should be "easy" or "easier". I wonder, when has life EVER been easy - except for during my childhood when my mother did my laundry, prepared my meals, cleaned my bedroom, virtually did my homework and fought my battles with my father. 

Since I matured (in the last few years), I've come to "accept" that Life is difficult. As I survey the situation of others, I think others have a more difficult situation than do I. As I consider those in other countries, it is doubtless that their life is even more of a struggle.

Where did we ever get the impression that life "should" be easy?  

[Disclaimer: I have often said and it applies here also that this is my OPINION - not facts or the conclusion of research - so feel free to dissent.] 

In my professional experience, I generally find it unhelpful to allow young adults to stay in their parents’ home. Young adults are in a developmental period in which it is appropriate to make their own rules - often these rules are at odds with the parent's values and norms. If a young adult is living with parents, one party will have to adjust and often - it's the parents that capitulate. Instead of maintaining clear boundaries about their expectations and allowing the natural consequences to occur, they violate their own integrity (becoming increasingly angry and increasing helpless in the process) and unintentionally retard their child's emotional/psychological maturity. 

Why do parents, again and again postpone imposing significant consequences (i.e., booting the older-adolescent out)? Parents, frequently, will offer a litany of rationalizations - but more often, the real answer is that the parents can't tolerate their own anxiety that would escalate if they "induced labor" to get their child to leave the nest. They feel plagued by all of the "what if" questions. "What if the young adult becomes homeless? What if they turn to crime? What if they go hungry?"  These are real possibilities - but they are possibilities that the parent(s), ultimately, cannot control. The lack of control is what provokes the anxiety. The parents are exchanging a feared future “what if” for the alternative – a surly, entitled and resentful offspring who never develops a sense of competence and responsibility.

It may be worth reviewing the blog entry about the “drama triangle”. The rescuers believe they are motivated by compassion, but more often, the root motivation is their own anxiety. They engage in recuing behavior to contain their own anxiety which would escalate if they were to allow their young adult to face the harsh realities of life. As they continue to rescue, the “victim” suddenly becomes the rescuers’ persecutor who now feels like they are the victim. The familiar refrain from parents and other rescuers is, “After all we’ve done for you, this is how you repay us”?

Commonly, the young adult (or other victim) will charge the rescuers with being too controlling or unfair.

How, you may ask, does one extricate oneself from this kind of trap? The answer, I'm afraid, is not easy. And, isn’t it interesting that the initial desire to provide an easy way became the fertile feild for this very hard dilemma? 

The answer is that there is no escape from the fact that this life is hard and that we do a grave disservice to our children when we try to shield them from this fact. The way out of this dilemma is hard and heart-breaking. The way is filled with anxiety as we wonder if our children will “make it”.

There is a well-known saying – which while sounding hard-hearted is true: Life is hard, so get a helmet.

Two neighbors have a fence between their backyards.
The first man notices the neighbor got a new dog.
Over a period of weeks, as the man observes his neighbor's dog, it seem his tail is getting shorter.
One day, as the neighbors meet at the mailbox, the first man comments that he has seen the new dog.
His neighbor gushes about how cute and sweet the dog is.
The first man mentions that it seems the dog's tail is getting shorter and shorter.
Yes, says the neighbor, "The Vet said I should get his tail docked, but I love that dog so much...I didn't have the heart to do it all at once."

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Living Vicariously

Recently, I was asked if I’d written about “living vicariously”. The question has prompted me to write about it. (Most of what I write is directly or indirectly in response to questions my patients/teachers present to me.)

Let’s begin with a definition of "vicarious" that I’ve appropriated from

  • performed, exercised, received, or suffered in place of another: vicarious punishment.
  • taking the place of another person or thing; acting or serving as a substitute.
  • felt or enjoyed through imagined participation in the experience of others: a vicarious thrill.
  • Physiology . noting or pertaining to a situation in which one organ performs part of the functions normally performed by another.

Often the way we use it in the vernacular is when we suggest that one person has consciously or unconsciously avoided the challenges of Life and hope to experience the good parts (Who would want to experience the painful parts?) through someone else. Perhaps some of the better known examples of vicarious living are (please forgive my sexism) the “stage mother” who always wanted to be a performer but for various reasons turned away from their dreams – now, they push their child with a peculiar relentlessness. Another familiar expression is the “sports dad”; when their son or daughter is still a toddler, they begin shaping them into an image that the father wants. More subtle expressions are found in the inverse. Parents who have lived an indentured life of their parents morality – and then they are shocked when their own children express the “hell-raiser” that the parent was afraid to express. Had the parent expressed it (not necessarily in outlandish fashion) the child wouldn’t need to so vehemently express the parent’s unlived life.

There’s something quite narcissistic about this dynamic. Instead of trying to be aware of what talents emerge organically, the parent imposes an image which is not natural for the child. Often as the child matures, the child sometimes doesn't express their own native identity but accepts the image the parent imposes. 

I’m reminded of chánzú – foot-binding of very young girls practiced in China for almost a thousand years. – because small feet were considered more desirable. It was a form of mutilation. Consider the word, “mutilation”. To me, it suggests the act of muting another’s expression. When we force our children into an environment that extrudes some reflection that we wanted to see when we looked into a mirror. When we indulge in this kind emotional mutilation we are violating the unique character of the child.

I am not suggesting that children should not be socialized to be responsible citizens; that is our responsibility as parents – but it is also our responsibility to nurture their unique character.

Most children (I’m thinking about my own son.) despite our best efforts, become their own persons.

I’m concerned for those young people who have demurred individuating because they fear disappointing their parents.

I’ve often said I used to be threatened by a person’s threat of physical suicide… today; I am more horrified by one who commits psychological suicide or psychological homicide. Abandoning your self is gruesome beyond words.

I believe that it is each person’s SACRED OBLIGATION to live their own life with all the integrity they can.

Again, from


  • reverently dedicated to some person, purpose, or object:
  • regarded with reverence: the sacred memory of a dead hero.
  • secured against violation, infringement, etc., as by reverence or sense of right: sacred oaths; sacred rights

If we abdicate this central task, it becomes the seeds of all manner of problems. If we are parents, I believe we are obligated to create the environment wherein our children can express their unique character and gifts. That means we are not to enable them to remain perpetual adolescents. It means we prepare them for the realities of living in a difficult world. We do what we can to prepare them for the disappointments that are inevitable. We communicate (more so in our behavior but also with our words) that their supreme task is to express their Spirit (not yours), as fully as possible. We communicate that we (their parents) are not the most important ones to please – they must live, as much as possible, a life of integrity.

My teacher, Carl, used to refer to the “disease of abnormal integrity” a mode of functioning wherein one acts without regard to societal expectations, violating any or all cultural norms, having no apparent respect for the feelings of others. A more modern description might be "sociopathy". The opposite is someone who has no integrity; they are people-pleasers in extremis. Neither is the desired state. Finding a balance between them is the trick… and it is quite a trick. 

There is an inherent tension between the two impulses. Knowing (through trial and error), how to navigate between the dangers of these two positions largely is the functional definition of emotional/psychological maturity.

Let me return to “vicarious living”. Vicarious living is dishonest living. Whether we are trying to coercively scapegoat our children into living the life we didn’t have the guts to live ourselves – or whether we are psychological/emotional parasites, getting our thrills voyeristically from another’s life, it’s dishonest and reflects our own failure to mature while simultaneously planting seeds of problems in our children.

I am reminded of a fragment of a letter that Paul wrote to the Philippians, he says, “…work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.” The Greek word for “salvation” is soterios – it means WHOLENESS, COMPLETENESS or HEALING. Note that Paul tells them to work out their own wholeness (not someone else’s) and that it’s a scary process – not for the faint-of heart.

Living a life of integrity – honesty – not shirking our obligations – not drafting our children into living a life from which we turned away, is our endeavor.

Is it easy? No, it’s the hardest thing I can imagine – something I strive to do – something I fail to do – but I keep trying. I hope you keep trying too.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Where is Chistmas? (Hint - look in a mirror.)

Most cultures celebrate the advent of “God” being manifest in the world. In the Western culture, it is virtually impossible to escape the commercialized expression of Christmas. Probably, the number of people who celebrate a secularized Christmas out-number those who celebrate Christmas as a sacrament. Paul Tillich believed a sacrament was an outer expression of an inward Grace.

During a recent conversation with a theologian, he commented on the dynamic tension between psychology and Faith. Probably, I would think they share more in common than he would but for the purposes of this brief comment, the differences are not so important.

Many who know me, already know that I have some formal training in the Christian tradition, so please forgive me if it seems the Christian tradition is more prevalent in my comments. I don’t mean to “dis” other faith traditions – it’s just easier and more familiar for  me to speak in my “first language”, the Christian idiom. Other traditions, whether they be tied to a faith-tradition or other-cultural tradition also have expressions of the Divine being expressed in the material world.

For those readers with an antipathy towards Christianity, try to imagine my references as an allegory like an impressionist painting.

Consider the medieval arcane practice of Alchemy; the over-arching idea was to transform a “lower” substance to a “higher” substance – the “philosopher’s stone” of Harry Potter fame. The transformation was thought to be brought about by strange, often tortuous procedures of heating, cooling, pulverizing or combining with other substances. We find a similar motif in Shakespeare’s “The Tempest”; Ariel is the spirit (a higher substance) liberated from the tree (lower substance) in which he’d been imprisoned. In Alchemy, the lower, base substance is often called Prima Materia. In the practice of psychotherapy, the patient comes with a “presenting problem” which is the Prima Materia – it is the beginning base element which we hope to transform to something better and higher.

In the Christian narrative, God is expressed in human form. (Remember… ALLEGORY) The angel Gabriel tells Mary, a virgin, 

“Do not be afraid, Mary; you have found favor with God. You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High."

Here, we find another example of the Divine (higher substance) being expressed in a human womb (lower substance). I don’t think it is just an interesting coincidence that “mother” and “matter” come from the same root, in Latin, Mater and Sanskrit, Mata.

Later, as Mary is ready to deliver the child, we read:

"While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them. And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”

Do you see the leitmotif? The Sublime presented in very crude surroundings.

Many times through Christian writings we find God’s will expressed through less than revered forms; from the mouth of an ass, from a bush and others. We are told that God uses the foolish to confound the wise. We are told of a "building block that was rejected" and how it becomes the cornerstone of a new epoch.

I point to these to set the stage for my “Christmas” message – that it is within YOU that the Divine is expressed, not in those who outwardly appear spiritual. Eckhart tells us that God is found in our weakness. It is when we are most broken that we find the Divine is with us and around us, in fact, IN US.

Are you feeling rejected or demoralized? We all, I am sure, have our psychological low place, our emotional manger; that is the more likely place we will find the cornerstone of our Spiritual emergence.

Forget material riches – forget what you think you know. Be honest about where you are the most broken… and then, get ready for Christmas!