The Reptile Within

As a part time resident of beautiful, swampy, low country on an island in South Carolina, I have frequent encounters with alligators.  During my daily dog walk I pass by two ponds inhabited by these creatures, and they are frequently found sunning themselves on the bank of the pond about 20 feet from me and my dog as I pass by on the leisure path.  Some days they are even closer, and for safety, I am forced to trod through the brush in order to maintain a safe distance.  Because of their nearby habitation, I have educated myself in alligator behavior. The most interesting aspect of alligators, however, is how we humans are like them.  Through evolution, the oldest portion of our human brain, the amygdala, has been passed down to us from our reptilian ancestors.  So the bottom line is, what is the effect of the amygdala?  How many people actually understand the influence of our reptilian brain?  I was just wondering………

Alligators enjoy a fairly uncomplicated existence.  They slip into a pond and swim around when they want to cool off, they bask in the sun on a bank when they want to warm up, they breed at a certain time of year, and they eat, with a plentiful food supply.  They do not think because they do not have consciousness.  They react.  They follow ritualistic patterns of behavior.  They are instinctive and they are neurologically wired to fight or to flee.  Because they are territorial, if another alligator comes into their space, they make a signal that shows the intruder that he is noticed.  If this does not effectively remove the intruder, then a hissing sound may emerge or the alligator may plump himself up in a menacing manner.  This is the brain that we have inherited.  And this part of our brain remains very active within us to this day.  The amygdala is the part of our brain that causes us to react without thinking.  It is the part that causes us to fight or to flee.  It is our amygdala that causes us to feel threatened and to feel the need to protect ourselves and what we perceive as our territory.  In short, while the amygdala does still serve a protective fight or flight purpose, it is the ancient part of the human brain that causes most of our problems today.

When we are faced with a true threat, such as a robbery, a fire, a tornado, or physical harm, our reptilian brains remain a useful asset.  But unfortunately, we have learned to become reactive about perceived emotional insults, and this sets in motion the same kind of reptilian responses, such as hissing, puffing up, and other threatening behaviors.  We have also taken the territorial protectiveness aspect to a new level, so that we react with hate crimes based on our differences. We have expanded the concept of threat to include things that are only emotional, not physical threats to our being.  When we react to emotional threats in the same way we would deal with a physical threat to our lives, we actually create problems.  We have learned to perceive a dirty look or a snub or a smart remark as an act of violence.  And then we respond with the same reptilian response as an alligator, with a fight!  Perhaps in a way they are smarter than we are. Their battles are limited to survival, while ours are often over insults!

So, what can we do about our amygdala brain?  How do we stop its control over our behavior?  The good news is, that unlike the alligator, we have consciousness!  Consciousness is the beautiful aspect of humanness that separates us from all other animals.  Consciousness allows us choices.  In fact, we do not have to react as the alligator.  When not under immediate threat, we can learn to pause to better assess our situation.  We can evaluate the various responses that may be available to us before we chose to react. We can actually decide whether or not a nasty remark is really worth doing battle over.  We can choose to ignore a snub.  We can honor and appreciate our cultural differences instead of fearing that someone different from us is encroaching on our territory to cause us harm.  We can rejoice in all of our glorious manifestations of humanity and learn from one another rather than to fear that which is different.

Our reptilian ancestors can teach is a great deal.  The scary alligator is a good lesson on how not to be scary humans.  Our consciousness allows us to appreciate the beauty of our world, while the alligator just goes through the motions, day after day after day.  Is that how you want to spend your life, going through the motions day after day after day, without thinking?  Without choosing how you really want to behave? Do you actually want to be human or are you content to be ruled by your reptilian brain, the amygdala?  I was just wondering………..

 

 

 

Erica Jong, Woody Allen, and the Human Condition

My book club recently read and discussed Erica Jong’s Fear of Dying, which elicited a lively conversation about the human condition. Having read her earlier book, Fear of Flying, as a psychology class assignment in the 70s, I was somewhat prepared for the author’s style, but I wondered if her latest book was going to be about sex in her sixties. It was marginally about sex, but it was more about acting out. While dealing with aging and dying parents and an ailing husband, the author tempers her existential angst by fantasizing about perfect, uncommitted sex and goes about seeking this distraction to her troubles by searching dating web sites. While some of the women in my group were horrified at the stupidity and danger of her attempts at hookups, I was merely amused at her pitiful efforts to immerse herself in something exciting as a replacement to her difficult life challenges. After all, it was just fiction! But this is what Woody Allen has mastered in all of his films, the ability to portray us with mocking absurdity and absolute frailty in our efforts to overcome our angst. To obscure our angst, we often find ourselves acting out, just like Vanessa Wonderman in Fear of Dying or like any of Woody Allen’s protagonists. The question to consider then, is what do you do when faced with an existential dilemma? Do you act out? In what way? Are you aware of it? Are there other options? Do you use other defense mechanisms? How do you escape the human condition?

I was just wondering……………

The existentialists such as Sartre, Camus, and Kierkegaard wrote a lot about the human condition and our difficulties in facing it. The Theatre of the Absurd also spawned from this movement and Eugene Lonesco portrayed us as helpless and farcical in our efforts to deal with our existence. Artist Edvard Munch portrayed his concept of this problem in his rendering of his famous painting, “The Scream.” Sigmund Freud added to the concept when he defined angst as inner turmoil often felt as intense apprehension and anxiety. Kierkegaard introduced the concept of anxiety as a feeling of dread, a deep seated condition arising from our freedom of choice. Arising from our decisions comes the concept of guilt, creating further anxiety related to whether or not we have made the correct choices. The human condition includes the concepts of birth, growth, emotions, conflict, death and all the ramifications of these issues. Existential angst haunts us in particular with such unanswerable questions as why are we here, what is death, is there a God, why are relationships exasperating, how do we get along? The human condition is that which occurs as a result of these dilemmas, which like the painting ”The Scream,” leaves us suspended in a frightening void.

As a therapist, I have come to view the human condition much like these existentialists, especially those who see the humor in our efforts to deal with our existential angst and the human condition. While there is always a time for sadness and human connectedness and empathy, I cannot help but feel amusement at times, even with myself at some of my pitiful efforts to deal with life. To me, it is bittersweet to observe the play between the difficulties that arise and our sometimes pathetic attempts to cope. But in a way, bittersweet describes the whole picture. It is not all bad and it is not all good. Some of our best stories about our lives are the ones we tell together with friends and family about when we did something absurd, crazy, but we can now look back and laugh at ourselves. I think this is a healthy way of coping, to forgive ourselves, see the humor, and never take ourselves too seriously. The people who cope the best with this whole angst issue are the ones who can make fun of themselves, understanding that no one is perfect and that after all, we are just human.

There are many other ways to deal with angst that are more functional than acting out. Concentration camp survivors endured by remembering their families, things that were meaningful to them. Others use their religious and/or spiritual beliefs to bolster them during trying times and religions also provide answers to many of our unknowns. Some find meaning in their life work, and that provides peace. While the larger question is how to find a sense of meaning, we still remained plagued by the day to day challenges that beset us like, why the one we love doesn’t love us back, why can’t we get ahead, why can’t we love ourselves, why do we feel so guilty, and so on.

My challenge to you today is to think about how you deal with some of these issues. Become more self-aware. Do you choose functional ways of coping, or do you act out like Vanessa Wonderman? Do you withdraw or rationalize your behaviors? Do you intellectualize? My best advice is to not be so hard on yourself! Do your best and if it’s a bit crazy for a while, that’s okay. We all have this frailty. See the humor in it! After all, we are only human. Can you forgive your errors of judgement ? Can you accept yourself as perfectly imperfect?

I was just wondering—————————.

 

 

A Call for Love

My husband, a friend and I attended a political rally yesterday. We were stoked and it was a beautiful day, if you had to wait outside in a line. As we enjoyed the warm sunlight bathing us gently, there was a beautiful camaraderie amongst us. We shared a common vision and we talked animatedly. We shared our stories and we met new friends as we waited patiently for our speaker. We did notice however, directly behind, a woman who stood alone, talking to no one, with a steely expression on her face. While the rest of us engaged easily with one another, this woman stood alone, talking to no one, clearly not wanting to mix. Just before we entered the auditorium, a young man arrived wearing a very dapper pin stripped suit with a shining sky blue tie. His arrival caused the sullen young woman to change her expression to relief as she exclaimed, “Oh, I thought you weren’t going to make it!” They remained encapsulate in their own little twosome and I suspected they were lovers, lost in their own little world together. They were definitely noticeable, however, and my friend commented about the man’s suit, which stood out in the crowd of very casually dressed people. She wondered out loud if maybe he was an undertaker to be wearing such a polished suit as that. We mused about it momentarily but returned to our own thoughts about our candidate and when the speaker would arrive.

We were so fortunate to get 3rd row seats and my body shivered with excitement and appreciation when the speaker finally emerged. After about a half hour, the man in the shiny suit suddenly emerged from nowhere, but right up front, and began making angry demands and accusations of the speaker. The intensity of hate that spewed from this man brought tears to my eyes as we all watched in disbelief as his rage only increased. We wondered if he might pull out a gun. The speaker remained polite and kept asking the fellow to sit down and he would respond to his questions, but the satiny fellow just ranted on and on. The emotions in the crowd rose to protect our speaker and everyone began to shout for him to leave, as our rally had become totally disrupted by the threat of violence. Undeterred, he just kept screaming and he was finally removed by the authorities. No sooner had we achieved a brief moment of order when the girl who had accompanied him stood up and took up where he left off. She too, had to be removed. As I sat there in sadness, still reacting emotionally to the intensity of the hate, I mused internally about what causes a person to behave so badly, to make such an ugly spectacle of himself. I was just wondering…………………….

When I talked with a friend about this episode, she offered that she believed we live in a society where everyone wants his own way. There is no more compromise or civility, only an aggressive drive to get what one wants. She noted that previously we had discussions and we used problem solving, but the new desire to please oneself shows up in every aspect of our lives, and especially in politics. I agreed with her to a certain degree.

However, as a psychologist who has written a book about anger, I am convinced that the root of the problem begins with how we deal with anger, which can easily expand to hate. We have become a drug addicted society, addicted with anger. All addicts only think of themselves and all addicts want their own way. When we attempt to solve problems by bullying, by screaming, by threatening, we have lost our problem solving skills and only win our way through threat and intimidation.

But what lies beneath this rage that has taken over our way of operating? As I advocate in my book, ANGER THE TOXIC TEMPTRESS; UNDERSTAND IT TO OVERCOME IT, anger is a handy defense mechanism that keeps us from being in touch with our vulnerable feelings. So what does this mean when we witness all the anger being espoused around us? It means that many people are feeling hurt and vulnerable and that they have lost their ability to deal with their true feelings. By covering painful feelings over with anger, it makes them feel empowered, though only temporarily and at the risk of causing even greater harm. What makes this especially threatening is that as a society we have succumbed to this addiction without knowing that we are anger addicts. So whether it is a heckler at a political rally, your co-worker or boss who is in a bad mood, your spouse who snaps at you angrily for no apparent reason, or the countries who are war torn, filled with anger and hate toward their rivals, it all emerges as a result of our desire to numb ourselves with anger from any feeling of pain. If we actually sat down with one another and shared our vulnerabilities, then perhaps we could begin to learn to compromise again. The great psychologist Carl Rogers said, “What is most personal is most general.” When it comes down to the basics, we all want the same things.

So how do we start to change the dynamics of our addiction? We begin to see the call for love in every individual who is brimming with hate and anger. We understand that they are hurting deeply for them to behave in such a way. And by doing this, we ensure that we will not react in kind by battling with them, by entering the fray, by resenting and hating back.

The next time you experience this type of rage by someone, it is better to respond as I did at the rally, with great sadness, recognizing that that individual is in great pain. It is only then that we can begin a conversation of respect and mutual nurturance. Also, the next time you find yourself becoming angry, can you recognize internally your need for understanding and acceptance? As you practice learning not to react, can you begin to recognize the call for love in both yourself and others? Are you courageous enough to open the underlying wound, and with love and nurturance begin to cleanse the painful feelings that created it? I was just wondering………………………..

Painting Your Life

One of my very favorite activities is my weekly acrylic painting class. Besides the fact that it is a perfect zone-out event that keeps me totally focused in the now, it is populated with other lovely like-minded artists. And because it is a class, it is also educational. We learn techniques to better express ourselves through our paint. The most fascinating aspect, however, is the tremendous differences in the way each painting turns out. Despite the fact the we each paint the very same picture, our finished products are remarkably different. Each unique painting is the product of the painter’s view of the world, and in particular, that one little snippet of it within the assigned picture. No one sets out to create a different painting, but our creations are influenced by our own unique visions of what we each perceive. These very differences are most fascinating to me and are clearly an expression of our individuality and how we interpret what we see. I realized that this exercise in painting is a metaphor of how we paint our lives. I began to think about how we color our lives, how we see and interpret what is around us, how we judge it to create an idea or belief and so on. So I began to ponder, how do we paint our lives?   I was just wondering…………..

Acrylic is very forgiving, which is probably why I like it so much. If you make a mistake, you can just paint over it. We can paint with the same acrylic in our lives, I mused. We can learn forgiveness, we can learn to move on, we can learn new techniques from our errors and use them the next time. We don’t have to stay stuck in a bad picture. We can just paint over it!

As I mentioned, painting is the best thing I know to keep me in the now. There are many other things in life to keep us focused on the now, so that we can enjoy each moment as it occurs, rather than missing things because our focus is elsewhere.   Do you paint your life with focus, or is your life filled with distraction, chaos, hurriedness? There are paintings that depict these unpleasant experiences as well. Which kind of painting do you create for yourself?

What is the mood of your life painting? Is it filled with color, beauty, pleasantry, serenity?   Or does your life depict a painting filled with angst, despair, resentment, full of darkness, with cold murky corners, secrets, hidden meanings? Is your life painting orderly or is it filled with confusion, untidiness, chaos? Do you enjoy viewing your painting of your life, or do you shudder at the sight of it?

Does your painting have integrity, honesty, virtue? Or is it blackened by shame, disgrace, disrespect? Can you look at it with pride and feel satisfaction about how you behave and handle problems as they arise? If you don’t like it, how can you correct it? Perhaps you could add more color, remove the darkness, make it more honest, truer to the real picture.

What is the texture of your life painting? Is it bumpy, full of ups and downs? Or is it flat, too flat and boring, needing some added points of interest? Are there too many snags? Is it smooth sailing or is it a rocky sea for your “life” boat? Does it have too many rough edges?

What depth does your painting have? Is it demonstrated through your relationships? Are they loving, kind, supportive, nurturing? Or are they disengaged, unavailable, unloving? Sometimes if you look again they may seem different. Is there enough intimacy and fulfillment? Many paintings need to be studied, viewed with a keen eye. Sometimes we misinterpret and then have to paint over, or in the case of life, look again. Sometimes we miss love and support because we are not in a good place as we view it. If the fault is not in our vision, then it is time to connect to a better painting, drawing nurturing people into our lives.

What is the meaning of your life painting? Is this something you have thought about? If you have considered the meaning, then is it going in the direction you had intended? How can you change it so that the meaning becomes clearer and is experienced in your life as you would desire? What needs to be corrected and repainted?When I circle the room of my painting class, I get ideas from the other paintings I see. Sometimes these ideas help me to add or subtract something that makes my painting more interesting, more expressive, more unique. We are all stuck in our own vision of the world. It is very powerful to try to look again, see what you are viewing in another way. For your life painting, use some ideas from your admired friends to alter the parts of your life painting that you don’t like. Changing the picture is always possible. There are endless ways to depict the same thing, because it is different for every eye that views it. Readjust your sight! Paint over what you don’t like and try again. And don’t give up! You can achieve the same feeling of homeostasis that I have in my painting class when you make positive adjustments to your life painting!

After evaluating your life painting, are you happy with it? Are there changes that need to be made? Are you willing to start over and paint again in the areas that need touching up?

I was just wondering…………

A Holiday Invitation

With the Holidays right around the bend, I thought it might be a useful time to think about our behavior rather than our usual preoccupation with gifts, holiday parties, decorations, and such. The next month is known to be one of the most stressful times for the whole year! In fact, my husband quoted to me yesterday from a magazine that Christmas day, noted for all things religious and cheerful, is also the day of the year when most heart attacks occur! So as I pondered the blizzard of events into which I head for this next month, I thought about a pledge I would make to myself to get through it. I know that if I follow this Holiday prescription, I will sail through with less stress and greater satisfaction and contentment. I thought this holiday challenge would create a great blog idea for this time of year. So here goes my invitation and holiday gift to all my readers. Will you join me? I was just wondering…….

H               Is for Happiness for this sparkling time of year. Even when stressed to the max, I pledge to stay             positive and try to find the joy around me.

O               Is for Optimism, the ability to see the glass as half full rather than half empty. When things appear bleak as the gray winter sky, I promise to watch for a ray of light.

L                Is for Loving, which I will try to demonstrate through my personal interactions. I will also try to love each moment as I experience it.

I                 Is for Introspection, a necessary practice in order to encourage personal growth.

D               Is for Dependability, a trait to be demonstrated through responsible action for myself and others.

A               Is for Accessibility, the ability to be emotionally present. While it is easy to do for my work, it is more challenging to demonstrate consistently with one’s family and friends.

Y                Is for remaining Young at Heart, to continue to see the world filled with awe through the eyes of a child.

G               Is for generosity, the ability to be kind and giving to others and also to oneself. This is a perfect season to practice this attribute.

R               Is for Responsibility, the ability to be reliable to others, but most importantly, to be able to trust myself to make the right judgments and decisions, those which will enhance my growth, not hinder it.

E                Is for Empathy, the practice of being able to relate in a sincere manner to another’s feelings. This makes us more able to see all sides of a situation.

E                Is to practice being Easy Going, a difficult challenge for an intense perfectionist like me. I promise to try not to worry about unfinished business.

T                Is for Togetherness, which I vow to promote within my family. There are always many opportunities within families to derail this, but I promise it won’t be from me.

I                 Is for Inspiration, which I will try to provide to those in need.

N               Is for the practice of being Non-judgmental. I have learned through my years as a therapist that everyone’s story explains why they are the way they are, and if you walked in their shoes, you most likely would see things in a similar way.

G               Is for Gratefulness, during this season and every day. Practiced gratitude enhances happiness.

S                Is for the pledge to Silence negativity. I pledge to enjoy this season as a beautiful gift to myself!

 

I invite you to join me in my pledge for this often difficult season. Nurture yourself by following the prescription in my Holiday Greeting to you. Don’t make yourself one of those Holiday heart attack statistics! Join with me in gifting yourself with happiness, optimism, love, introspection, dependability, accessibility, youngness of heart, generosity, responsibility, easy-goingness, empathy, togetherness, inspiration, non-judgmentalness, and gratefulness. As you enjoy these gifts to yourself, you are also gifting those around you as they enjoy the results of your efforts. Toss your negativity to the Grinch so that you can greet this season with a Grin. Can you, can you, can you do it? Will you join me? I was just wondering……….

 

The Cost of Freedom

            I will be the first to tell you that freedom means everything to me. I do not appreciate anyone telling me what to do, and I admit that I sometimes have trouble with rules, especially the ones that make no sense. I celebrate the concept of free will and I dance to the tune of my ideas as a way of life. Think what I want, live how I love, engage with what I enjoy is my motto! And I have spent much of my life assisting those who have trouble with self-expression to overcome it. Free yourself up, express your feelings, learn to enjoy and live life to the fullest I encourage! So the prospect that someone else should have the power to make a decision for me is utterly revolting. But what if you are not of sound mind? I am a psychologist and the question requires an answer. Should another individual or a state have the power to make a decision about how an individual leads his/her life? Should an individual’s free will be confiscated? I was just wondering……………

            I recently left my Cape Cod home where a major controversy is brewing over the homeless population. The homeless, it seems, have become a blight to the community, a community that relies on tourism to thrive. Main Street in Hyannis, Massachusetts has become the living room to the homeless.  They walk the streets, they populate the park areas, lying on the greens and benches. One evening after dinner at a downtown cafe, I noticed a homeless man sitting on the bench in front of the restaurant. An unwelcome advertisement for the restaurant, I thought, yet the poor man most likely had never actually eaten there.

            Because of the growing homeless population, the local authorities have been identifying their camps, creating a great deal of controversy. Some were located next to schools and the town spent many hours razing these camps where they found used hypodermic needles and other drug paraphernalia, and a great deal of waste product. The camp conditions were deplorable and found to be extremely unsanitary, a definite health risk. While the materials in the camps were removed, the officials were acutely aware that they would most likely be reconstructed again elsewhere.

            The problem is that probably 100% of these individuals are alcoholics/addicts, mentally ill, or both. They are simply trying to survive in the best way they can given their impaired judgement. That is, they are trying to survive while also supporting their addictions, being unwilling, of course, to give them up. Some agencies in town have even assisted them to continue to live this way. One agency gave out free needles, so this homeless and sick population could prevent infection from HIV, hepatitis C and other diseases. Seeing this as a do-gooder service, this agency overlooked the fact that this was enabling them to continue their dangerous and demoralizing lifestyle and habits. This agency looked the other way when it came to clearly seeing the conditions in which the homeless lived with their “clean” needle supply. Apparently it is okay to live in squalor as long as your drug needle is clean. It doesn’t matter that your camp is surrounded by your human waste, filth that causes as great a risk as the infections the clean needles were to prevent. Even slums have some kind of shelters. Even slums, at least in this country, have toilet facilities. Even slums have a place to keep and prepare food.

            We have no excuse for the existence of these homeless camps, except that this is what we call free will. They are choosing their own fate, we say. They don’t want any help, we think. We have no right to interfere in another’s chosen direction in life. This is a free country, but just don’t rain on our parade. Don’t use Hyannis as your living room. Hide your squalor better so that we don’t see it and the tourists don’t see it and then everybody will be happy. Make a camp deeper into the woods. Enjoy your drugs all you want but out of our sight.

            From my perspective, the de-institutionalization of mental patients that occurred about 25 years ago is not working. Most of the homeless today would have been institutionalized 25 years ago. They would have had a shelter, warmth in winter, clean clothing, and a balanced diet. Those with addictions would be removed from their supply. Those with mental illness would be receiving the treatment they need.

            But the question still lingers. This seems to be the cost of freedom, and for the majority of these homeless individuals, and it is a very high cost. The chance of them ever finding a better way of life is virtually nil. But I pose the question to you, my readers of sound mind, what would you choose now when your brain is neither addled with drugs nor with hallucinations? I know that if I were to ever be so lacking in judgment I would hope that someone would rescue me. Most likely in such a sick state of mind it would be against my will. But I do not ever want to live in the conditions of the homeless I have recently seen. But you readers of sound mind, what would you chose? Would you choose freedom or protection? I was just wondering…

What Is A Mother?

With Mother’s Day fast approaching I began considering what it really means to be a mother. For some, it evokes a warm loving feeling, but for others, the concept of mother makes one cringe. But these reactions we have to the word mother do not really describe what a mother is. Because of adoption, we know that you do not have to bear a child to be a mother. So what does being a mother really mean and how do we measure up? I was just wondering……

So when we think of mother, what is it we expect from her? First, a mother is our caregiver. She provides for us, prepares our meals, buys our clothes, and provides a home. A mother is a mentor, she provides us with guidance throughout life, not just in childhood. She gives us advise when we are confused or when we face new challenges. She is someone we look up to. A mother is a good listener. If she is really good at this, then she will always be there when you need her. A mother is a nurse; she tends to us when we are sick. She is nurturing and reassuring. A mother is also our first teacher. She teaches us to talk and many, many more things as we grow. A mother is a friend. We do fun things with her. She plays with us. We learn to laugh with her and she keeps us company. But most of all, a mother is a bundle of love. She is the one we know we can turn to no matter what, that she will be there, accepting us unconditionally. She is our greatest champion!

But real mothers are not usually so perfect! Mothers are human like us all. They make mistakes. They get angry. They lose their tempers. They get impatient. They say the wrong thing. They get distracted and ignore you. They have their own needs, which sometimes interfere with their ability to fulfill ours. I know all of this because I am a mother and I have a mother! I sometimes catch myself shuddering when I find myself repeating things my mother did that I despised. Despite our mother’s errors, we can learn from their mistakes. We can grab for the good that they offer to us and we can choose to correct their errors when we see them in ourselves. But I also swell with pride when I realize that I am behaving just like my mother when I am forgiving of others, seeing the good in people, being emotionally available to those I love.

While we think of a mother as someone who raises you, who guides you throughout life, it is not always that individual who provides the acts of mothering. This is why some people have trouble labeling their biological mothers as mother. While they may be physically present, the one who is in the house with you, they do not contribute to your emotional needs and sometimes not to your physical needs as well. They are mothers by biology but not by definition of a nurturing presence. That is why the concept of mother is actually much larger than the person who contributed to your genes or even the person who raised you. So even if you had a really bad mother, I would challenge you to think of someone who took an interest in you, who provided guidance, kindness, and support. Many teachers have provided this to children from emotionally and physically abused families. Sometimes it is a neighbor or sometimes a relative who fills this role. The role of mother can be assumed by someone who is a mentor, someone you look up to, who is available, who listens, and who provides some of the traits that we think of in an ideal mother.

As Mother’s Day approaches, we need to think about who provides this love and support for us? Is it our biological mother? Is it an aunt? Is it a teacher? Is it a combination of people? Who has been there for you? Who do you need to thank? But more importantly, are you providing the qualities of motherhood to someone? Are you proud of how you are performing your job? And who may need you that you may have overlooked? I was just wondering……….

A Helping Hand To Those In Need

At my island winter retreat, the headlines of the newspaper for the last several days have been focused on the story of an abandoned car and a missing person. The car, sadly, was found abandoned at the top of the Cross Island Bridge, unlocked, with the keys on the seat. You can probably guess at the outcome. The missing person’s body was found by a fisherman below a dock after several days of searching. It is being treated as an apparent suicide. While it has not been made public, I have been told there was a note. It seems as though the body was that of a beloved individual involved in the early development of this island, who more recently, had developed a first class jazz club. While I did not know him myself, he was apparently well known and respected in this community long before I became a winter resident. The story is not so rare today as we hear of suicide more and more frequently.   Recently it was listed as the 10th leading cause of death for all ages. While I have worked directly and intimately with suicidal clients, this story made me consider what we all might do to help prevent this growing problem. What can you, the reader do to help eliminate suicide?   I was just wondering……

While I have never personally experienced the suicide of a client, I certainly have had clients affected by the aftermath of suicide. One woman I saw years ago found her husband hanging in their garage and of course was devastated by it. Another lost a son to suicide when he was run over by a train. The families and other survivors of these tragedies are left with thoughts haunted by questions of why and what could they have done to prevent it? Unless it is a love gone wrong situation, the cause of one’s decision for suicide is usually not related to one individual. It is connected to how they see themselves in relation to life in general, their lack of opportunities, how people view them, shame and or humiliation, a feeling of general hopelessness. So the point is, it is not usually one person’s fault nor is it one person’s responsibility. So how do we collectively address this growing concern?

The first problem is to learn to identify where there may be a problem. Many people who are suicidal actually hide it quite well. Often however, the signs are there. Sadly, we often identify them incorrectly. The first red flag is drug use. People just don’t overuse drugs unless they are too uncomfortable without them. Social drinking is just that. Anything beyond it is really a cry for help. Another red flag is isolative behavior. We’ve often seen this connected to school shootings and other similar rampages where the shooter ends up shooting himself. Another danger sign is anger, which is a defensive mask for vulnerable feelings. Someone who is angry a lot is a very unhappy person who is in a lot of emotional pain. Erratic extremes in behavior are signals as well as loss of interest. Persons who feel they are a burden and who feel trapped in some way with no way out are also at risk. These are the early signs and this is when we should begin to intervene. As a suicide plan begins to take form there are other more apparent signs, such as preoccupation with death, sleep deprivation, reckless behavior, and settling of one’s affairs.

In addition to those heading towards suicide, there are thousands of other people who exhibit these symptoms who are suffering from depression. While they may have no plan for suicide, they suffer intolerably. So when you see these signs, what should you do? You do not need to be a psychologist to lend a helping hand. You do not need to be professionally trained to show a kindness, to listen to someone who needs a listener, to provide a shoulder to lean on. Anyone can offer friendship. There are also things you can stop doing. You can stop gossiping about people. You can stop bullying. You can stop judging. You can stop being petty. You can learn to be forgiving. Life doesn’t have to be organized around exclusive cliques. You can learn to be inclusive and invite everyone to participate. You’ve heard the term, “The more the merrier!” There is always something to learn and everyone has something to offer. Open your heart and see what it can behold.

The best way I know to help prevent suicide and reduce depression happens long before an individual feels the need to see a therapist. Watch for the signs, be aware. Offer a helping hand, send an invitation, smile. Sometimes the feeling of acceptance is all that is needed. Just think of the personal power you have to positively affect someone’s life! Are you willing to extend yourself to save or change a life? In fact, you may be saving or changing more lives than you even realize!

Can you give it a try?

I was just wondering………

 

Violence and the Meaning of Being Human

A few months ago when the autumn began to envelop the earth with its chilled night air, I noticed some mouse droppings in my kitchen. An unwanted visitor, I mused, as I bristled against the idea of mouse excretion and bacteria in my kitchen. My husband and I discussed our options to rid us of this nuisance and we agreed on the one which seemed to keep us most removed from removing the pest from our abode, the dreaded DCon! Neither of us wanted to remove a dead, mutilated mouse from a trap. So my husband set about carefully placing the DCon in the attic, away from our dear dogs. Several days later, while I was savoring my hot morning tea in the company of the Today show staff I suddenly saw something fly from the ceiling beam to the love seat perpendicular to me. I thought at first it was a bat and I shuddered in horror as I screamed for my husband to save me! I know, I know, I’m a wuss, but I know some of you can relate. But I digress. The thing that landed on my love seat, however, was in fact what appeared to be a dead mouse. I quickly realized it was not dead, however, as it began to slowly move, so I screamed louder for my husband to come and save me! Well, my dogs were in the room with me and they had not yet seen the creature, and I feared that if it was half dead from DCon, then my dogs were at risk if they grabbed the poor thing. Besides which, DCon or not, a bloody tangle between mouse and dogs I definitely did not want to see. My husband finally arrived, scooped the wretched thing into a dust pan and threw it outside. Later, as I was about to let the dogs out into the fenced back yard, I remembered the mouse, and I went out alone first to see that it was gone. But no, there it was, alive but not dead, and surely suffering. Even as I relate this story I am still overcome with a sick feeling for the plight of that innocent mouse. Again, I called for my husband who had to put the poor creature out of its misery, an act that brought us both up close and personal to the actual killing of the mouse. It was not a happy day as we mourned our involvement in the loss of a living creature’s life.

I make it a habit to carefully remove uninvited Daddy Long Legs spiders when they invade my bathroom, and I set them gently free back outside where they belong. On the rare occasion when we accidently hit a creature on the road, we suffer a moment of anguish at the loss of that life, especially because we were involved in its demise. So, you are wondering, what is the point of this story so far? As I recoil in the horror of the daily news, replete with violence engendered by hate I am perplexed beyond any of my training or my life experience about what causes a human life to relish the destruction of another when I can’t even kill a mouse or a spider without feeling badly? Where does the enjoyment of seeing another suffer come from? I was just wondering……..

Besides the headlines on the evening news, I have seen several films recently which vividly depict the satisfaction enjoyed by the perpetrators of these kinds of violent crimes. In Selma, the story demonstrates not only that there was a desire to stop Blacks from voting, but also the relishing by the perpetrators of the beatings that they inflicted. In the film Unbroken, the Japanese officer inflicting pain on the story’s hero seemed chronically unhappy unless he was inflicting pain on him. We, the moviegoers, cringed in horror.

But these films are not unlike the horrors of real life, as we witness every day; reporters decapitated, innocent families slaughtered in the Middle East, promising, intelligent girls kidnapped from school in Africa, never to be seen again, leaving us only to wonder what horrendous fate they have endured.

These acts of cruelty are so far removed from my realm of understanding, yet I am supposed to be an expert on human behavior. I cannot explain these atrocities nor can I even remotely relate to them. I guess it shifts back to that age old argument, is it nature or nurture or a combination of both? What exactly causes a person or a group of people to desire to harm, inflict pain or fear onto another living creature? How can someone actually inflict violence without feeling repulsed by it? How can another human being be so different from me NOT to be repulsed by it?

I know I have not suffered much in my life as compared to many humans around the world. I have not personally witnessed the violence of a war. I have been sheltered, fed, and clothed throughout my life, so that my sufferings have only been the kind of mental anguish that most of us have experienced at one time or another when things didn’t go our way, when we didn’t get what we wanted, when the right person didn’t love us, and so on. But I have suffered and overcome what was declared a chronic illness. I know that many others with that illness succumb to it, that is, they allow it to control and incapacitate them. What is the difference between us? So, I have had my challenges, but we all do. Maybe I don’t understand because I have not suffered enough. But what about those who maintain their humanity and love for one another in countries where the aforementioned atrocities are occurring? What is the difference between them and those who desire to hurt them, yet they have no desire to hurt and hate back? Is it nature, is it nurture, or is it something else?

We are taught that our superior brain is what makes us human. But then what makes someone turn against oneself? In turning against another we do just that, turn away from our own humanity. Where is our thinking brain then? Not thinking, I would speculate! When we turn against another we are operating from our reptilian brain, the amygdala. When we allow ourselves to be ruled by our reptilian brains we have given up, lost ourselves. When we become violent and are not repulsed by it, we are no longer human. When we have lost our consciousness to feel compassion and the ability to emote have we not lost ourselves? Have we not just become another lower animal, an animal that lacks our superior brain, an animal that lacks the understanding that we are all one? Isn’t that what sets us apart?

I was just wondering………………..

Who Is Your Best Teacher?

customer-experience-theme (1)When you ask yourself the question, who is your best teacher, most of you will most likely recall someone from your school days, someone you liked who imparted knowledge to you in the form of facts or information. For me it brings to mind an English teacher I had in my senior year in high school who was very stern and strict but sure knew her stuff. Then there may be the teacher who you just liked so much because of their pleasing personality and helpful attitude. As you get older you may begin to think of a parent or role model or mentor who has influenced you and is your best teacher in life. These are the people who show you about life, who teach you how to basically deal with life, how to succeed, how to cope, etc. Perhaps religion is your guiding force or just simply your value system or philosophy. Maybe you learn best from reading books or attending classes. So think about it. Who is your best teacher? I was just wondering…..

More recently I have become aware of an incredibly powerful source of learning, one sometimes difficult to use, but one that will speed your growth dramatically if you are brave enough to learn from it. I call it bad behavior. How can you learn from bad behavior, you may be asking. Well, by not engaging in it yourself. The first time I became aware of this lesson was from a behavior of my mother’s. Now don’t get me wrong, I love my mother and I have learned lots and lots of good stuff from her, but her gift receiving behavior left a lot to be desired. As a child I would get very excited about getting her Christmas, birthday, or Mother’s Day present, but she, invariably would open it, look at it strangely, and then make some kind of comment about how it wouldn’t fit, or she didn’t use those, or she didn’t wear that color, or some such thing. Year after year we had to return those gifts and it soon became a family joke. We just accepted that she wouldn’t be satisfied with the gift. Eventually we got wise enough so that we all started to take her shopping before these celebrations so that she could pick out her own gifts, try them on, and then on the holiday she would exclaim with great pleasure and feigned surprise how pleased she was with her gift while the rest of us would roll our eyes and chuckle inwardly. It worked!

A few years ago I unwrapped a gift from my son and daughter-in-law, looked at it with puzzlement and asked, “Why did you get me this?” I immediately felt my mother’s words being channeled through my voice and I was horrified, stricken with feelings of shame and embarrassment. I quickly apologized, noted my bad behavior, and believe me I have NEVER done THAT again. I have also learned from a friend who beats a dead horse not to beat my dead horse so much, from students who talk too much in class not to raise my hand so often, and from chronic complainers to try to keep my woes to myself (still working on this!). I am also learning to become less reactive as I have had many teachers who have made me crazy while demonstrating their reactiveness to me. I have learned to be less judgmental from those who annoy me pouring out judgments of others. So for me at this stage of my life, my best teacher is my unpleasant response to someone’s bad behavior followed by an internal check for signs of it in myself. If I’m honest and I can find it within myself, then it goes on my to-do list for self-improvement.

So, who do you think is your best teacher? Is it someone who teaches you what to do or do you learn more or equally well from someone’s bad behavior, someone who teaches you what NOT to do? We are used to learning from those who teach us good things, but it takes a courageous person to learn from someone’s bad behavior. Maybe you don’t have to keep avoiding those people who make your skin crawl. Perhaps the next time you cringe because you can’t stand someone’s behavior it’s time to take a quick inventory to see if it echoes internally. Do you ever do this? Perhaps that is the real reason for the skin crawling cringe. Is personal growth important to you? Do you have the metal to face yourself? I was just wondering…….