Parenting is bad for your health and your career, as are so many things worth doing.
“When I was a kid my parents moved a lot, but I always found them. ”
Your therapist will be dysfunctional. Every relationship includes some degree of imperfection. The discerning client must decide what amount of dysfunction is tolerable in their therapist, and is the relationship workable enough to further their own therapeutic goals.
Gender Norm Revival
Women are often working outside of the home and still expected to manage household and kids. Burnout leads to resentment which leads women to insist on increased domestic labor equity, and rightly so. Men are faced with the choice to contribute in new ways, or to check-out and hope their partner’s unhappiness floats away on the breeze.
Common barriers to the change I see in the many of the men I work with (and in myself) are fear of inadequacy, laziness, entitlement, and lack of assertiveness. I see marital unhappiness haunt so many couples as they struggle to adapt to life’s evolving family structures.
Personal or Professional: Boundaries in the age of Covid
The gold standard for ethical therapy practice is to use our personhood only for the benefit of the client. But what happens when a global pandemic crisis pushes more of the therapist’s needs and worldview to the forefront? And when these views are diametrically opposed to the client’s…?
Where is the line between allowing ‘the client’s process’ to unfold, and protecting ourselves and our families? How much political pontification about the evil of the ‘other side’ is clinically helpful for the client to express, if any?
In these emotionally challenging and confusing times I’ve found two approaches to such clinical dilemmas helpful:
Who are you at your worst?
Do you get high and mighty, or do you retreat into your shell? Do you blow things up, or do you melt down? I use this grid in my work with couples to identify varieties of defense patterns we all use when stressed in relationship.
*Adapted from Terry Real/ Pia Mellody’s Relationship Grid
“Nobody escapes being wounded. We are all wounded people, whether physically, emotionally, mentally, or spiritually. The main question is not ‘How can we hide our wounds?’ so we don’t have to be embarrassed, but ‘How can we put our woundedness in the service of others?’ When our wounds cease to be a source of shame, and become a source of healing, we have become wounded healers.”
My favorite memories of training with Stan Tatkin were the hours of videos we’d watch of him in session with couples. Together we’d analyze microexpressions, attachment styles, personality disorders, neuroscience, and marvel at how Stan got away with eating his salads during session. He is always so generous in sharing clinical successes as well as examples of what not to do by showing us his failed therapeutic attempts.
This comic was inspired by one of Stan’s ‘eject button’ interventions with high arousal couples. He melodramatically drops to the floor pleading with the couple to not subject their children to this miserable fighting. The idea is to interrupt the entrenched fight with random surprise and humor long enough to reduce their mutual arousal levels. I haven’t braved this technique yet, but I’m keeping it ready in my back pocket if ever needed. Hmm, I wonder what an equivalent interruption would be in these days of virtual therapy?
Knowing the right time to leave therapy can be challenging, as life continues to throw challenge and opportunity in our direction. By adopting a ‘long-game’ view of emotional development and growth, leaving therapy can feel less pressured. We can trust in our intuition that we’ll know when it’s important to re-engage with a therapy process. There are times to plumb the psychological depths, and there are also times to take a break and simply enjoy floating downstream.
Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket inspired the aesthetic of this comic. This soldier is not in conflict with the therapist, but is struggling in his own psychological drama. What better metaphor for internal helplessness, chaos, and suffering than war? He is faced with a choice between the armoring he’s used to survive a life of struggle, or to let go and open himself up to the possibility of healing and change. An internal dilemma we all face as we move through life’s cycles of injury and recovery.
The armoring of the soldier as lamented by Joker in Full Metal Jacket:
“Graduation is only a few days away, and the recruits of Platoon 3092 are salty. They are ready to eat their own guts and ask for seconds. The drill instructors are proud to see that we are growing beyond their control. The Marine Corps does not want robots. The Marine Corps wants killers. The Marine Corps wants to build indestructible men, men without fear.”
Yes, crisis IS opportunity for change and maturation. But we move through upheaval at our own pace and in our own way. A skilled therapist meets you where you ARE, not where you SHOULD be. And sometimes spiritual tools can be used as attempts to control and avoid painful emotions in ourselves and others.
Spiritual bypass is the use of positive thinking, meditation, prayer, metaphysical theory, etc. to bypass emotional reality.
In an attempt to cope with challenging emotions, spiritual bypass can be used to push away the bad and cling to the good. The ‘good’ emotions (e.g. joy, love, hope, positivity, gratitude, etc.) are labelled as spiritual. And the ‘bad’ (e.g. fear, grief, rage, judgement, pain, chaos, despair) are dismissed as failure, illusion, distraction, or hazards to avoid. This leads to meditation, prayer, and contemplation practices which banish painful emotions into the shadow. These unprocessed energies are then acted out unconsciously and cause further suffering.
The antidote to spiritual bypass is emotional mindfulness, non-dual perspective taking, and self-love.
An emotionally/spiritually balanced practice involves touching into each experience as it arises. Emotion, even painful emotion, is met with a loving embrace that dissolves the need for dualistic labelling of good and bad. It releases us from the neurotic need to judge and control our experience. Pain, fear, and grief can then come to the surface to be made contact with, cared for, and ultimately released.
The integrated practitioner bridges the emotional with the spiritual.
Transformational psychospiritual practice invites us to bring our uncomfortable, inconvenient, and painful emotions into contact with our spiritual world. In this bridging we hope to receive assistance, understanding, and relief. Can we really do this hard work alone? And regardless of our spiritual path, do we know how to bring the hard stuff to it?
“You have very little morally persuasive power with people who can feel your underlying contempt” Martin Luther King Jr.
Contempt is a painful cocktail of anger, disgust, and grandiosity. Within the seed of contempt lies the healthy desire to be seen, accepted, and valued. It’s strategy for self-validation, however ineffective. Contempt reacts to the expression of diverging voices with attempts to dismiss, invalidate, and even destroy. It says “I want to be validated so badly that I’m willing to put a sour expression on my face, roll my eyes, attack and dismiss your ideas, and even challenge your worth as a human.”
Dismissive contempt is the most serious red flag a couple can wave. It signals death unless heartfelt efforts are made to re-establish cohesion and care for the system. As a couples therapist I aim to move each member beyond an endless cycle of attack, withdrawal, and retaliation.
Healing contempt in couples involves helping each partner manage emotional arousal, learn restraint to minimize further attack, solidify behavioral agreements, clarify purpose of the relationship, repair old wounds, build healthy esteem, check grandiosity, let go of need to be right and control the narrative, and regain a culture of mutual respect, cherishing, and generosity.
Larger systems such as families, cultures, and nations also suffer from chronic patterns of contempt. What if the most transformative action we can take as citizens is to stay engaged and express our truth without dumping more attack into the system? Comparing the functioning of a couple to the functioning of our nation makes me wonder, what is the collective purpose of our nation? Do we want to care for each other, even our chosen adversary? Are we willing to transform this culture of contempt?
The men in my office who say ‘everything is just fine’ are the ones with the worst relationships, the highest symptoms of anxiety, depression, and addictions, and have the least self-awareness of their path in life. Our society tells men to be strong, and emotional strength is equated with being emotionally impervious…. So what is there for men to talk about in therapy if acknowledging emotional struggle is akin to admitting weakness and failure?
As adult men we need to reclaim the definition of emotional strength as the willingness to be impacted by life and to express our emotional reality. This is how we unburden ourselves from emotional pain so we can actually be strong for our families and friends.
“Strength is not the absence of vulnerability. Strength is knowing what your weaknesses are and working with them.” -Terry Real
The path to inner peace is not comfortable. It requires us to traverse through our psychological defenses, our emotional world, and our relationships. These layers often hold pain and fear so we avoid facing them. Willingness and support make it possible to negotiate each layer and connect with our spiritual core of inner peace. The path through these layers follows as such:
Layer 1: Defense– Anxiety and fear pump the brakes on our internal journey to inner peace. We develop a range of defenses to the anticipation of pain lurking under the surface and the anticipation of loss and change. The way through the layer of defense: Say ‘yes’ to traveling inward, facing life’s pain, and taking the quantum leap from the known to the unknown.
Layer 2: Emotion– The pain and pleasure of life flows through the sensations and feelings of the body. Befriending our neurobiological makeup, digesting the impact of life on the psyche, and growing out of emotional phobias allow vitality and humanity to flourish. The way through the layer of emotion: Practice emotional mindfulness, cultivate self-love, and surf the waves of experience.
Layer 3: Connection– Being witnessed by others on our messy and humbling path to inner peace can feel terrifying and bound with shame. As we become more comfortable with our inner emotional life, confidence and mastery emerge. We start to join forces with others on the path, compare notes, and offer up our talents to be of service. The way through the layer of connection: Generously and courageously share your journey with others.
Layer 4: Inner Peace– Here we reconnect with basic goodness, our core state. This is the non-dual space where self becomes a Self without boundaries. A sense of cosmic oneness, wisdom, and compassion emerge. The way to stay tethered to inner peace: Breathe through defenses. Breathe into emotions. Breathe towards connection with others, and breathe beyond who you think you are.
This map to inner peace is a simplified version of the AEDP (Accelerated Experiential Dynamic Psychotherapy) model created by Diana Fosha. AEDP eloquently teaches about these layers or ‘states’ referred to as the “Phenomenology of the Transformational Process,” which inspired this comic.
As therapists we are paid to put our needs on hold. We all have the same longings for affection, to feel seen, and to receive recognition and appreciation for our efforts. We agree to delay our longings that arise in session and instead satisfy them in our personal relationships and in our own depth practices. But the emotionally famished therapist enters the therapy room hungry for airtime, the spotlight, or for applause, thereby competing with resources needed to deepen the client’s process. Therapy is challenging enough for clients to have to deal with the added stress of a needy therapist, especially one with claws.
Woven into many of my comics are references to some of my favorite movies, TV shows, video games, and pop-culture icons. Elements in the comics such as the picture frame, miniatures on the shelves, and other clues work together to form a puzzle. For example, in a previous strip “Say Anything,” there is a boombox, a cake with candles, and two dollar bills sitting on the shelves. Each object references a movie starring which iconic 80s actor? And what are the titles of each movie? (Answer below).
This month’s comic references an 80s movie as well. Can you guess which one based on the client’s identity and the picture frame?
(Answer to “Say Anything”: John Cusack in Say Anything, 16 Candles, Better Off Dead)
Keep an eye out for future easter eggs or float back to previous comics for more puzzle action.
“Why am I always so alone in my struggle to have my own way?” Ashleigh Brilliant
What makes successful relationships so challenging is that they require us to evolve beyond excessive selfishness. Our relationships transition us from a 1-person psychological system to a more complex 2-person psychological system. A 2-person psychological system involves two sets of emotions being expressed, considers how two sets of needs be met, and tasks two sets of minds to collaborate and work together gracefully. When successful, this results in win/win outcomes and creates relationships that are secure functioning. Secure functioning relationships possess qualities of attunement, mutuality, kindness, and sustainability.
ACTION STEPS TO FOSTER WIN/WIN OUTCOMES WHEN CONFLICT ARISES:
-Ask yourself the following questions: “What am I feeling and needing right now?” “What is my partner likely feeling and needing right now?”
-Ask yourself: “Can I engage right now, or am I too stressed and need to take a break first?” If you need time, and your partner wants to engage, explicitly ask for time and tell them about how long you need.
-Remind yourself that only one partner can get their needs met at a time.
-Ask yourself: “Who seems more stressed and needs to go first?” Usually the one who ‘calls foul’ gets to go first.
-Empathy is how we relieve our partner. This means active listening, eye contact, moving towards, and minimizing dismissive words, sounds, and facial expressions. Helpful self-talk to minimize judgement and defensiveness includes: “They are doing it just right.” “I don’t need to fully understand their position. I just need to show I care about them and am trying to fix it.”
-The faster and more effectively one parter is relieved, the quicker they then move to relieve the other. Win/win.
HOW CREATING SECURE FUNCTIONING RELATIONSHIPS WILL SAVE THE WORLD:
Learning to get along and love our fellow humans (and all sentient beings) is perhaps the most challenging task on the planet. Some would say this is the perennial task.
Our romantic relationship is the template, the prototype, the nesting egg for all other systems of the world. Partners create families, create communities, create cities, create countries, create global communities. When secure functioning is created in our personal world, it seeds elements of peace, collaboration, generosity, and care which extend out to the global community.
And now we can see how humanity’s developmental task is to create a win/win relationship with the planet itself. We are a lonely species who forgot how to collaborate with our environment. We are seeing the effects of a win/lose stance with nature. The same action steps laid out above apply to resolving conflict with the planet. Can we listen to what She is feeling and needing? Can we respond with care and lack of dismissiveness? Can we learn to temper excess selfishness and defensiveness? Can we create systems that are mutually supportive?
I’m a new Dad! And I’ve been fortunate enough to have two months of paternity leave to get 24/7 bonding time with our little bundle. And depending on who is recalling their experience of raising a newborn, it’s either described as a deeply magical time every moment of which needs to be cherished, or as profoundly stressful. Of course it’s both, and in my experiences of the stress I’m noticing a particular emotional defense creep in. It’s a sentiment I’ve also heard muttered by so many clients doing in the midst of emotional edge work. It’s an inner voice which says, “This should not be happening.”
Parenting is emotional edge work, and each phase of child development presents unique emotional challenges to the parent. Our little one has had acid-reflux painful enough to block her attempts to feed and sleep. This results in an experience of desperation in both father and daughter, especially during the delirious 3-5am feeding hours. I watch my mind produce sentiments such as, “This shouldn’t be happening, why can’t she just drink this bottle?,” or “She should be able to sleep right now,” and “There shouldn’t be a baby shrieking in my ear this loudly.”
“This shouldn’t be happening” is a well worn strategy used throughout human history as a response to overwhelm and feeling out of control. It is a voice of protest that says, “If only I could control this, I would feel better.” It’s a normal and understandable response, but it keeps us stuck in denial, despair, and victimhood. The fact is we can’t control much of life, so we are left to contend with how to feel better when life happens without our consent.
Steps I’ve found helpful in the desperate hour of emotional edge work include:
By choosing to say, “I choose to be here and embrace myself in this moment,” we let go of the need for external control. We find love and care for ourselves and others regardless of circumstance. And isn’t this the task of parenthood, to care for and regulate ourselves through difficult experiences, so that we are available to care for and regulate our children? Especially when life is desperately screaming in our ear!
When do you hear yourself saying “This shouldn’t be happening” and what do you do from that place?
What differentiates a good therapist from a great one? A good therapist can hold space for how you show up with calm neutrality. A great therapist goes beyond neutrality into active prizing. She celebrates, collaborates, and creates mutual play with all parts of you, even the defended, childish, anti-social parts. A great therapist is anchored and regulated in herself so that she can delight in her client’s world, unattached to form or outcome. She understands that we are not always nice to be around, not because of our failing, but because we are working through the pain of the past. She understands these parts are holding pain and need to surface and receive nurturing contact in order to be healed. Our anxiety, our narcissism, our grief, our outright meanness are all invited to arise so that they may receive what we are all seeking; loving human touch. And doesn’t this therapist-at-best expression speak to the perennial human undertaking, how to make contact with life and the people in it with loving kindness, free from judgement and the need for control?
This comic is dedicated to a mentor, Joseph Acosta. The comic’s line of dialogue about ‘turning in my degree and getting my money back’ is borrowed almost verbatim from an interaction I witnessed between he and another group member. Joseph’s been a great model for me in demonstrating clinical playfulness in service of honoring and working through client defenses. He welcomes us to ‘say anything’ and provides the missing experience of meeting pained defenses with nurturance rather than judgement or control. He understands how playfulness with the least accepted parts of ourselves offers opportunity for relational healing, which is so rarely found outside of the therapy room.
About a quarter of the population can be identified as gravitating towards an avoidant relational style. It’s an adaptation to experiences of overwhelm and intrusion as a child, often by an overbearing or needy caregiver, as well as other experiences of insecurity with caregivers. Dissociation (numbing and ‘spacing out’) is used to cope with and avoid relational distress. All of us have used this form of protection at various times and in varying degrees. It’s adaptive in that we can ‘cut-off’ from pain as a way to ‘deal’ with life. Dissociation is a primitive form of coping with a high cost; restricted feeling and vitality, loss of connection to self, and chronic distancing from others. If overly relied upon, it becomes wired into our interpersonal attachment system as adults. Relationships are experienced as too stressful to manage, and deeper interpersonal intimacy is avoided.
When relating with someone avoidantly attached, pulling for contact typically entrenches defenses. Alternative strategies focus on softening defenses. These include cultivating compassion and patience towards these compulsive tendencies to distance, not taking the dismissal personally, taking care not to trigger high levels of internal shame, and by not pushing to access feeling too quickly. What’s the latest thing you’ve done that’s scared away someone with an avoidant attachment?
Vizzini: “You’ve beaten my giant, which means you’re exceptionally strong. So, you could have put the poison in your own goblet, trusting in your strength to save you. So I can clearly not choose the wine in front of you. But, you’ve also bested my Spaniard which means you must have studied. And in studying, you must have learned that man is mortal so you would have put the poison as far from yourself as possible, so I can clearly not choose the wine in front of me…”
Man in Black: “You’re trying to trick me into giving away something. It won’t work.”
Vizzini: “It has worked, you’ve given everything away. I know where the poison is!”
Man in Black: “Then make your choice.”
Vizzini: “I will. And I choose… What in the world can that be…. ?”
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