Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Raising Little Narcissists

Most experts agree that American children are at a major risk today of developing greater and greater senses of their own importance, not their value but their importance.  Narcissism is growing at an incredibly high rate, and a sense of entitlement is seen in kids across the socioeconomic spectrum, and everyone has their opinions as to why.  There are those who immediately blame the parents for sweeping in and rescuing their kids from consequences, puffing their children up with nothing but positive reinforcement.  There are those who say it is because we took pray out of schools and are becoming a godless nation.  There are those who say it is our cultural media through television, the internet, and music that is warping the minds of our children.  I think I could easily argue than none of these three in themselves are powerful enough to ruin a child, but it's possible that the combination of the three is becoming a pretty potent recipe for creating little narcissists.

As far as parenting goes I think most parents struggle with falling into one error or the other - a child-focused house or an adult-focused house, and that they both have consequences.  In an adult-focused home children are to be seen and not heard, and they are to cater and pander to the parents who should be able to dish out orders and commands like a Roman emperor without so much as an eye-roll.  These kids learn well how to avoid upsetting their parents - some decide to do those things as often as possible to stick it to the man, some smile to your face and do whatever they like behind your back, and some make it their life mission to please everyone in their life - a task they never figure out is impossible.  Creating a child-focused house, the side I am more prone to err on, says that adults are flexible and adaptable and should sacrifice for their children and so we should cater to their desires and set things up around them.  This expresses love, but often also convinces children that they are the most important people in the world, with everyone else here to cater to them.  These are the children that yell and berate their parents like insolent employees who just can't seem to follow instructions sufficiently as the parents shuck and jive trying to avoid stirring up negative emotions in their kids.  If the rules of hide-and-seek don't suit their child well, then throw the rules out the window and let them do it however makes them happy.  If their teacher has some misguided notion that they aren't perfect then you need to march down to the school and berate them for harboring a negative thought, much less correcting your child.  The kids end up being treated like little tiki gods, extremely powerful but temperamental - to be catered to for fear of being thrown into a volcano of a temper-tantrum.  You can see how this approach could encourage kids towards a narcissistic mindset, consumed with their own importance.

People who are convinced we once were a godly nation who has slipped into ungodliness are pretty misguided from my viewpoint but everyone is entitled to their opinions.  Somehow Thomas Jefferson coming home after a rough day of writing up the Constitution to rape the woman he purchased as a slave, creating children who were roughly one-half human and one-half property doesn't strike me as terribly Christ-like.  Comparing America to ancient Rome where gory public death was seen as entertainment, any respectable grown man had a young boy to use as a sexual object, and many dining rooms had an adjoining room where you could go vomit up your food so you could go eat more seems like a bit of an overstatement to me.  Those who say prayer has been taken out of public schools ultimately are only correct when it comes to organized public prayers aimed at promoting a particular religious persuasion which for me is a better option than forcing my kids to pray to Allah, Krishna, or even touting a non-essential debatable theological stance.  All of this aside, however, we exist in a secular society that touts the importance of man far more than God - whether it has always been that way, is getting better, or is getting worse isn't the point.  Most kids today are either considered extremely important themselves because of meaningless achievements on tests, in sports, or on stages or are encouraged to consistently compare themselves to celebrities and icons who are at the apex of these achievements.  It is rarely taught that having character, having a heart after God is anywhere close to as valuable as being compared to others and considered important.

Research seems to also show that our media seems to regularly promote narcissism as well, but whether it is media warping young people's minds or simply catering to what they already value is hard to tell.  An interesting article summarizing a longitudinal study across the past decades comparing the most popular television programs for 9-11 year olds and the corresponding values those shows promote recently came out - http://newsroom.ucla.edu/portal/ucla/popular-tv-shows-teach-children-210119.aspx  The chart below summarizes across each decade which of the 16 measured values were most reflected in that decades most popular shows.
The most interesting thing about the study is the sudden shift in the last decade from focus on community feeling or even image and self acceptance to the high priority of fame.  General trend is a movement from societal focus to self focus, and then recently slingshotting past being self focused to needing everyone else to understand just how important we are.  Fame jumped from 13th or 15th place to number one most important and once again this has to have an impact on future levels of Narcissism.  Combine this with Facebook and other social media and we provide not only a drive for fame and the attention of others but an actual platform to act it out.  If a teenager has even as low as just a hundred friends on Facebook, they have a stage where they can feel others are looking at them from afar, acknowledging their attractiveness, laughing at their considerable wit, and praising their every accomplishment from Grandma posting "Congratulations on your graduation" to their friend "like"ing their newest hairstyle.  Nothing wrong with social media or television, but there is a growing trend of inflating young people's views of their own importance.

So if all three are valid problems then I think as parents we have to take all three seriously in raising our children to be confident but humble, have high self-esteem but a compassion for others, and ultimately to see the fame of God as a much greater goal that their own fame.  Maybe we need to start saying "no" to our kids a little more for their own good, not just our selfishness or laziness.  Maybe it's OK to pop our kids bubble and let them know that some things they are great at and some things they really just aren't.  Maybe we need to teach them that kids aren't the most important and adults aren't the most important, but that God is most important and he has tasked us as parents under his authority to help our children understand what it is like to submit to authority.  Probably the number one resistance I get in counseling to seeing people accept Christ is that they have never heard anyone tell them "no" and they are afraid that if they become a Christian then God will say "no" to a lot of things in their life they are unwilling to give up.  Maybe we can use TV or social media to create relevant discussions with our kids about their values and greatest aspirations compared to what they are seeing.  At the core I believe a big part is helping our children to understand their VALUE, far more than their importance.  Your daughter's friend may have 50 more Twitter followers than her, but your daughter is valued and treasured by you for who she is, not how important others see her.  Your son may not have been voted class president, but Jesus Christ came and died for him to show him just how valuable his soul really is.  When our kids see that we take our role as parent's seriously because of how much we value them as a person we can say "no" to them, and stop pandering to them because later on they'll never overhear us comparing them to others, judging their importance academically, socially, or athletically.  A child who grows up feeling important desperately wants to hold on to that importance and narcissism is a convenient lie that helps them feel important even while they doubt their own value.  A child who grows up feeling valued for who they are, not what people say about them or what they are able to do are able to see and appreciate that same value in other people and act in humility and compassion.  See the core problem is the same with fearful people-pleasers as with tactless narcissists - they both are scared to death of having no value and so work hard to promote their own worth in other people's eyes.  Either way what is needed is to see that the creator of the universe loves you so much that he gave that which he most valued, his own son, to reclaim you as infinitely valuable in his eyes.  If this is true then fame doesn't matter, pleasing and narcissism are unnecessary, and we can extend the same value we feel to others around us without a fear that if we increase their value then it threatens our own.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Thorn In Your Flesh

I have found that most people tend to struggle with the same frustrating weaknesses over and over in their lives and no matter how hard they try they can't seem to make them better.  I know this sounds like blasphemy coming from a Christian counselor whose career is based on helping people get out of stuck patterns and getting to a state of increased healthiness, but it is often the case.  There is definitely a sanctification process where we as believers are transformed by God over the course of our lifetimes being shaped more into His image, and there are insights and tools that counseling can provide that facilitate this process, but often there is a point where no matter how hard I work as a counselor or how hard my client works the weakness doesn't seem to go away.  The young man who is afraid he might actually lose his job soon if his business finds out he regularly surfs for porn during work hours, who works extremely hard to institute changes, does everything I tell him to do, and fervently begs God to take the temptation away from him.  The woman who has been in counseling for decades and studies scripture daily looking for God to lift her depression that even medication doesn't seem to touch.  The spouse that tries and works their tail off trying to transform their marriage and years later continue to get nothing in return.  There seems to be cases where people work hard and get better and cases where people work hard and don't get better, but rarely if ever are there times where people are irresponsible and put forth no effort but they are magically transformed by God.  So maybe the two necessary components for significant life change are a determination to put forth effort and take responsibility paired with the transforming power of God, where one without the other is ineffective.  Don't get me wrong, I believe Non-Christians can improve their marriages and become less anxious, they just have to do all the work on their own and have to fight an uphill battle against their own sin nature to which they are a slave.  I also believe that God is sovereign and could choose to transform a person without them doing a thing, I just more often observe in counseling as well as scripture that God seems to like for us to invest in the process rather than sitting back and waiting on the magic.

So this post isn't expressly for those who just don't have a relationship with Christ, or for those who just aren't interested in doing the work of getting better, but rather those who are crying out desperately to God to rescue them from their sinful flesh and are doing everything in their power to take responsibility but consistently see no change.  Paul says this, and we can all relate:

2 Corinthians 12:7b-10

New International Version (NIV)
7 Therefore, in order to keep me from becoming conceited, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me.8 Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. 9 But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. 10 That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.

The relationship between man and sin, before and after salvation is a deep and theologically rich topic which can't be fully fleshed out here but the basics I am working from are these: God could have chose to create a world without choice and therefore no sin but it would have also been mindless automatons devoid of the ability to really love.  He also could have set it up to where when we accept Christ we are not only forgiven of our past but allowed to move forward without ever sinning again, but that seems to not be the case.  And while many believers experience the supernatural deliverance from their sin, weakness, or affliction there are many more that, like Paul, never seem to catch a break.

What this indicates to me about the heart and character of God is that he seems to be more interested in us relying on him in humility and dependence, regardless of what kind of benefit we get from it, far more than he is interested in us becoming more and more perfect and sinless according to the law.  It seems that the work of sanctification, where we are rescued from the bondage of sin and able to live more in the image of God, is a work that we are powerless to do in and of ourselves.  But it is also a process in which God likes for us to do our part, to struggle and fight, to make responsible choices, and to step out in audacious faith - kind of like my kids cleaning up the playroom on a much grander scale.  I know I will be doing the vast majority of the picking up of toys and that by the end I am lucky to get a toy or two a piece cleaned up from my boys but I want them to take ownership and engage in the process even though I could lock them in there for days and they could never get it exactly perfect, but would more likely just create a bigger mess.

I think this is important for people to remember for several reasons, one of which is that it reminds us that if we aren't seeing significant reduction in our sinfulness and we can't easily just acknowledge our own lack of responsibility that maybe God teaches us just as much from allowing us to stay in our sinfulness as he does from rescuing us out of it.  It's really just our stubborn humanness that convinces us that the chief goal of life is to stringently stick to a set of laws and work towards becoming more and more perfect.  The Bible, however, is chock full of stories and injunctions that suggest us focusing on being more and more sinless is not the correct focus as it ultimately is on us and our elevation instead of God and his glory.  God flat out tells Abraham to commit the worst kind of sin, killing his own son, just to make the point that we are to be about listening to his voice and obeying rather than blindly following dogma.  In Micah 6:8, God indicates that our acts of sacrifice, trying to become more and more perfect, are worthless compared to a heart of humility and mercy, broken and contrite.  It seems keeping us weak and helpless gives God the richest, fertile ground for these things.  If you can just get it in your mind to kick a sin and you do it then it becomes hard to stay humble.  If you never have to struggle with something far beyond your own power and steely resolve then it is much easier to interact with others based on judgement rather than mercy.  And Paul speaks clearly when he says God's power is made perfect in our weakness.  I believe God prefers a dependent person over a sinless person any day, someone who knows his frailness and desperate ongoing need for not just a far off savior but a daily strength to get through the day.  Someone who knows that they don't have the power to stand toe-to-toe with temptation, that they'd lose 10 times out of 10, and that their only hope is to run full speed away from sin's tempting influence and into the arms of God.

Maybe your weakness is a mouth that can't help but gossip, slander, and judge whenever you are around your friends.  Maybe for you it is a nagging sense of never feeling good enough that keeps you working late and disappointing your wife once again.  Maybe there are weeks on end where it takes the effort of climbing Mt. Everest to get you out of bed in the morning and reading your Bible just feels like ash in your mouth.  Maybe you weep while praying that today when your wife leaves to go to work you won't be haunted by urges to surf for porn or get out your stash of whiskey she doesn't know about.  All I know is that over the years I have met many men and women of every age that deeply love Christ and desperately cry out to him to be delivered from their weaknesses only to hear that God's grace is sufficient.  These are also the humblest, least judgmental, pious, and Christ-like people I've had the pleasure of knowing.  God likes to use weak people, prone to sinfulness, and flawed in every way because when he does great things in and through us the watching world has no other logical recourse than to see the handiwork of an powerful and praiseworthy God.  God chose a murdering adulterer to bear the title of a man after his own heart, used a fanatical murderer of Christians to spread the gospel further than any other man, and he uses weak, recurrently sinful, and hopelessly dependent me to counsel broken people because I am and always will be one too.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Listen Up

Most of our parents did a pretty good job of teaching us how to talk but few did as well at helping us learn how to listen, a skill that most of us struggle with.  Some of this comes from when our parents tell us to listen to them they really mean obey, they aren't just as happy if we were to say, "Father, I know you worked hard to provide the money for my hard working mother to purchase and prepare these brussel sprouts, and that your desire is that I eat them all.  I regret to inform you, however, that I have chosen not to eat them, but to wait for the ice cream later."  We sort of grow up believing that listening automatically implies obedience, and often this is poison in our other relationships, because when people feel they are not being heard they tend to either get louder or repeat themselves - or both.  It happens all the time in marriage counseling that a spouse says to me something like, "My husband just never listens to me.  I've tried talking nicely, yelling, repeating myself, and nothing gets through!"  I then ask the other spouse what it is that their partner is trying to get them to hear and they almost always can parrot back exactly what it is - they have heard what was being said. Then a foreign concept is introduced where you have to help a person understand that just because someone hears what you are saying, it doesn't mean they will agree with it or be willing to submit to your demands.

So then, how do we become better listeners, and help others understand that we are listening without just placating and agreeing to get them off of our back?  It first starts with reminding ourselves that core truth about marriage that 70% of what we are going to argue about over the course of our marriage are perpetual issues that will never be resolved, but still need to be discussed.  He will always be late, she will always have a lower sex drive, they will never be best friends with your dad, and they will never be able to hold onto cash in their pocket for more than a day, and no amount of deeply hearing your brilliant wisdom on life will change these things.  So most of our conversations about frustrations, disappointments, and hurts will best be handled by really hearing the other person's perspective, validating and empathizing with them, and reassuring them of your love and commitment, not fixing them so they never do it again.

The second thing we have to do is learn to temporarily shut off our self-centered brain long enough to truly put ourselves in our partner's world and experience long enough to get where they are coming from.  This requires two difficult tasks, shutting our mouths, and shutting down our internal conversation where we are fact-checking their statements, determining if we agree with them or not, and figuring out how to counter their obviously flawed viewpoint.  This takes metaphorical muscles inside our brains and wills that for most of us are extremely weak and atrophied.  We have to get to a point where we care at least as much about hearing the other person as we are about being heard.

Once we get those two things down it gets a lot easier and you can then just make sure you are internally hearing the content, perspective, and emotions behind what is being shared as well as externally reassuring our partner that we get those three things.  Mirroring or reflecting content is the first of the three and it is crucial to get before you can really do the other two, or else you will each be having two different independent conversations with each other.  Often we assume we know what our partner is saying or what they are REALLY trying to say rather than just working to hear exactly what they are actually saying.  Once you have the actual content you are less likely to remember each other having said different things down the road, "Remember last week when you said X?  No way, I said Y..."  The second part is to make sure you get their perspective by validating them, letting them know that even if you disagree or did not mean for your actions to be interpreted the way they have, that you can see how they view it that way from their point of view.  They aren't crazy or irrational, just rationally convinced of a different perspective.  Then you finally can make sure you reflect their emotions through empathizing with them, picking up on how the situation makes them feel and letting them know you understand.  If you assume it is possible to have a disagreement and don't feel you need to bully the other person into agreeing with your perspective, can shut up and focus wholly on the other person, and let them know you get the content, perspective, and emotion behind what they are saying then you are listening.  They will feel heard, be more likely to be OK with you having a different perspective, and actually curious to hear what it is, rather than just having the usual control battle about who will be heard.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Anxiety and Control

Wow, after a hefty month off from the blog I will finally deliver on the promise from the previous post of a helpful strategy for getting yourself out of an overwhelmed state of worry.  Anxiety is a huge topic which I am sure I will hit on more at some point but for this post I will focus more on worry and some practical steps that can help manage and process worry state.  The first thing to remember about worry and anxiety are that they are not only unavoidable but necessary and even helpful in the right contexts.  When you have a big test next week it is worry that gets you off of the Xbox and your nose in the books.  When your child is walking a little too far ahead of you at the county fair it is anxiety that keeps your vision locked onto them.  When you get your credit card statement and it makes you want to vomit it is worry that makes you tough it out at an unpleasant job rather than telling your boss to shove it.  Worry is helpful when you are faced with a situation where you need to do something that is within your control in order to prepare for or respond to something in the present. Laying in bed late at night worrying about whether the upcoming budget cuts will cost you your job is not useful or beneficial.  Lamenting the poor quality of the local high school that your 3 year old is districted to attend some day isn't helpful.  Assuming that because you are 23 and have not yet received a marriage proposal that you are destined to a sad and decrepit life ending as an isolated elderly shut in who is eaten by her 95 cats and the world doesn't even notice for weeks is perhaps premature.

A horse who is working and supposed to only focus on what is in front of them to avoid distraction and wandering off is outfitted with blinders, because it really doesn't matter what is to the left or right, only what is straight ahead.  In a similar way I have found a big part of determining whether worry is helpful or destructive is to put on two blinders by asking two questions about the situation.  Blinder #1 - What can I do right now in the present about the situation.  This means if you are focusing on fixing some mistake or beating yourself up for something from the past and you are NOT in possession of a functioning time machine then you need to forcibly focus yourself on the present and what you can do now.  If you are living in the future, mapping out 90 different scenarios of what might possibly happen and preparing contingency plans for each of them, and you are not one of those creepy precogs from the movie, Minority Report, then you are doing what Beth Moore refers to as paying payments on debts that most likely will never come due.  What can you do right here and now about your big job interview in the morning when it is midnight?  Go through your mental Rolodex of every possible question that has ever been asked from one human to another, or just roll over and get some good sleep for the big day.  Rather than once again convincing yourself that you will never dig your way out of the debt you have piled up and that it is just a matter of time before your house is foreclosed on and your kids repossessed, you could step out of the line at Starbucks and decide that starting right here and now I'm going to stop spending money frivolously starting with the couple of bucks you have in your hand.  We like to think that if I can be prepared for something bad to happen then it can hurt us less, which is true if you have set up an emergency savings fund in case your job gets outsourced, but getting shot in the leg pretty much hurts the same whether you anticipated it or not.

The second major blinder to keep secured into place is to ask the question "What do I have control over in this situation?"  If you are honest with yourself then usually the answer is very little as the vast majority of the control we convince ourselves we possess is just an illusion.  We can't really force our kids to make good decisions so worrying that if we were good parents that they would never make mistakes is giving yourself a little too much false control.  Being riddled with anxiety about losing your job is helpful if it pushes you out of your comfort zone to start sending your resumes out to better opportunities or to buckle down and start actually doing the job you've been getting paid to perform for years, but just rehashing over and over that somebody in a boardroom somewhere might make a decision that will cost you your current job doesn't actually lead to preparing yourself or responding to the situation.  What do you have control of?  Your thoughts, feelings, decisions, beliefs, values, and commitments?  What do you not have any control over?  Basically everything outside of that.  I'd say everything outside of your own skin but marathon runners with high cholesterol and health food nuts with cancer would say that's even a myth.  I'd say everything outside of your own mind but those suffering with debilitating depression or in the midst of intense grief would say that you often don't even have control over that.

So you find yourself absolutely crippled with anxiety, worried about the million troubles in your life and how you are going to fix them, what do you do?  You get out a piece of paper and write out each major issue and list them out, which immediately shrinks your list from a million to like 6.  Counting anxieties in your mind is like counting toddlers in a room, you end up getting a much higher number because they keep moving around.  Once you have each of the main categories you hit each one individually with the two big questions of what do I have control of in this and what can I do right now about it and it will look something like this:

It's 10 at night and you are getting ready for bed and just feel overwhelmed:
1. Aunt Suzy is having a hip replacement - I can pray for her and ask God to give her a speedy recovery.  I can write on my task list to pick up a card tomorrow while I am grocery shopping.
2. We are in a bad economy - Pray.
3. I think my daughter is sexually active - Pray.  Stop by her room and just tell her I love her, hope she sleeps well, and that if there is anything at all that she feels like she needs to talk with me about that I am here for her.  Put on my to do list for Wednesday while I am having tea with Mary Beth to get the contact info for that hit-man she hired for her rotten husband to see if he does grungy teen boys as well (Just Kidding).
4. My marriage is falling apart and I'm afraid my husband doesn't love me any more - Pray that God will help you forgive his shortcomings and that he would reveal your own and give you the strength to become better.  Before going to bed tell him I am committed to him, that I love him, and that he is good enough in my eyes.  Write down in task list for Friday night to make him a big steak out of the blue and rub his back before bedtime.  Spend my last few minutes before I fall asleep tonight reading a book on being a better wife rather than using the time to watch CSI: Hoboken reruns.

One last great resource on this topic is a recent sermon at my church called "Work, don't worry.  Because worry don't work." - If you have an ipod/pad/phone just get the elevation church app as it has all the old sermons and find it under the "Treatment" series - or hopefully this link works - http://www.podcast.tv/video-episodes/treatment-anxiety-worry-don-t-work-part-1-15353536.html

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Worry vs Denial

There are plenty of things I may struggle with over the course of my life but due to my personality and natural temperament I am definitely not an anxious person.  I'll struggle with being lazy far before becoming a workaholic, I'm not even sure if wokahol even exists much less where to get a hold of it.  I'm not a worrier so there have probably been times in the past where I may have even judged others for worrying, but that is my right as a Christian in America.  We like to pick something we are never going to struggle with and then choose that to judge the faith of others like homosexuality, gossip, or depression - it's easy for us to avoid temptation so must be for others.  That is why I am thankful to God that he gave me almost a solid year of worrying on a daily basis so that I could never judge again, so I could better empathize with those who do, and so that I could learn the real antidote to worrying - trusting in God's provision.

A little while back I found myself in a position where I was working at a counseling center that just didn't have that many clients, and so my schedule was pretty wide open.  Up until that point in my career I always had plenty without really having to work that hard and if I did do a little networking or advertising myself it resulted in immediate results.  But then I hit a point where even with advertising and practically calling people begging them to let me counsel them I was still unable to see enough clients to even pay my basic bills, month after month after month.  My wife, friends, and family would all reassure me that it had nothing to do with how good of a counselor I was and it was just the bad economy, but I didn't believe it.  I'm pretty thick skinned and don't take much personally, especially counseling and the approval of others, but even if I didn't care whether people liked me I cared whether I could provide for my family.  It was at this point that I learned point number one about worry, as long as you live in denial you never have to worry.  It finally clicked with me that the reason other people worried and I didn't was because I lived life with my eyes closed, fingers in my ears, and humming a tune to myself while they were actually looking at reality.  As month after month stretched by my denial was crushed and I was forced to what I really believed about worry, that maybe I was in this spot because I was irresponsible and reaping what I had sown.  Maybe I had taken the gift God had given me for granted and not applied myself fully to being a success and the result was my son crying for more milk and I didn't get paid for another week so he had to go without.  Like a punch to the stomach I was awakened from my blissful ignorance and forced to stop denying, so naturally I turned to worry as the next valid option.

So I buckled down and did more to drum up new clients, applied for jobs outside of private practice counseling, networked, begged, pleaded, and did everything I could to to become successful.  The whole time I had a running number in my head of how many clients I needed each week to pay my bills and each time a client cancelled my heart sank as I tried to make it up.  Right on the verge of when I was beginning to see the prospect of new clients in terms of dollar signs rather than human beings in need of God's liberating truth in their lives I even began applying for jobs outside of counseling.  That is when I read the book, Sun Stand Still, by Stephen Furtick and I learned the next big lesson about worry that really made a difference, it isn't about me.  I began in a spot where I felt like I was invulnerable and worries were unimportant and small because I chose not to look at them.  I graduated into a spot where I saw the worries and concerns as huge but that maybe I could be big enough to tackle them.  Where God brought me was to a place where I saw how big the worries and concerns were and how small I was to conquer them but how large He is and how capable God is to make the sun to stand still in my life for my provision.

It was at this point that I stopped worrying and began trusting in God for my provision, not in the pseudospiritual way I started out in where I did nothing and expected God to do the work, but in a way where I had active faith.  I began doing what the book refers to as digging ditches, I prepared for where God was taking me rather than worrying about where I was.  I did advanced training, I read more book, I became a better counselor, I took the time to remind myself why God called me to become a counselor in the first place and it wasn't to collect a paycheck.  I nagged, harassed, and begged the partners at my current practice to please feel sorry for me and offer me a storage closet to work out of and when after five years of trying they finally gave me a shot I jumped on it.  My prayer was answered and I was blessed with a position at a practice where I am seeing twice as many clients as i was last year, I am completely booked weeks in advance, and I can focus on what I love doing - counseling not accounting.  I was given this blessing at the exact moment that I was able to see that denial was making the problem worse, and worry was denying God's power and sovereignty, and so I had to be blessed when I was humble and completely dependent on God because doing it myself just was never going to work.And so the key to worry was revealed to me in that moment and it wasn't the trite, "Just trust God and everything will work out fine" nonsense I was spewing out of my ignorance.  It was getting to the point where I realized me trying to take care of my own provision was like the birds worrying about what they would eat and the flowers about what they would wear.  It finally clicked that as hard a bird tries it is too stupid and incapable of planting and growing a tree to live in but I thought that since I was an advanced human I was capable of so much more when the truth is we are just as reliant on God despite our many talents, capabilities, and responsibilities.  The only way to see things clearly is to see our struggles and issues clearly for what they are - not minimizing and denying them and not making them an idol - and then realizing how truly small and ineffective we are for all of our worrying, but seeing God as big and powerful enough to take our little acts of obedience and turning them into a blessing we don't deserve and could never have earned.  Ignoring our responsibilities does not honor God, worrying without taking steps of active faith will always be fruitless, but trusting in God's provision while you do your small part results in miraculous provision of all you could ever need or want.

Next post I'll give some more practical help on what to do when your mind is assaulted by overwhelming worry and anxiety...

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Passion vs Intimacy

Much to the chagrin of my wife there is a type of television show that I can't watching without becoming more and more agitated and angry.  Shows like The Bachelor or Bachelorette where dozens of men and women get together and see who can produce the most passion in the least amount of time using the most ridiculous budget.  Movies where the heroine finally has the courage to leave her boring old husband and embrace life with a new exciting and romantic man make me want to scream at the TV that relationships that start as a result of an affair have like a 10% chance of success.  Now admittedly, part of my irritation comes from being the least romantic man on the planet, I have had many conversations with my wife that boil down to me asking in exasperation, "OK, well if THAT isn't romantic then what the heck is romance?"  But even further I get sickened by our culture that promotes sex and romance as the most important goals to be sought out and the way to feel good about yourself.  For men it is pornography, and hypersexuality in the culture that says if you as a man can have a very attractive woman, or better many women, who desire you intensely enough to have tons of crazy sex with you then you will be content and life will be perfect.  If your wife isn't having sex with you three times a day and you are unhappy and unfulfilled in life then that isn't a coincidence, it's your wife's fault.  For women it is romance novels, romantic reality shows, and such that says if you can get a man to read your mind and do for you what you aren't even able to vocalize before you even know you want it then you will be in bliss.  The problem is that Hugh Grant and Jenna Jameson both play characters that don't exist in the real world and it is just as dishonoring to compare a husband to outrageously romantic gestures as it is to compare a wife to outrageously misproportioned body parts.  They both take something good that men and women have been blessed by God with and make an idol out of them - attractiveness and pursuing - when research shows that marital satisfaction, much less individual mental and emotional health are not based on sex or romance.

Now that my mini-rant is over I'll tackle my real target, the idolization of romantic love in our culture that results in cashing in real relationships looking for something flashier.  Most people fall in love, then later come to see a host of flaws in their spouse but feel confident they can fix them, before throwing in the towel and filing for divorce.  Others just have an affair because they are either so selfish that they want the stability of home with some passion on the side or are so cowardly they just can't bear to tackle the problems in the marriage so look for something easier on the side.  The reason divorce is seen as easy and affairs can feel like a real relationship when they are usually just fragile fantasies that crumble in the light of reality is because of this obsession with passion.  Passion is exciting, new found romantic love, or limerence as some researchers refer to it can make everything else in life seem pale in comparison to that person who has swept you off your feet.  They are all you can think about, they have nothing but good qualities and not only have they never hurt you but you can't imagine they ever will.  They receive instant grace, they go on and on about your positive attributes, they encourage you, they want to sit for hours and hear about your hopes and dreams.  This is true of two people falling in love and it is equally true of someone who is married and is building an inappropriate relationship with someone who isn't their spouse, except there is even more of a draw.  This relationship has all those warm fuzzy feelings as well as a kick of adrenaline for the wrongness of it, a bond that if things leaked out it would be the two of you against the world, they encourage you to be as selfish and deceptive as they are without a hint of judgement.  You take the fantastic feelings of puppy love or forbidden love and they are going to look better seven days a week compared to the day in, day out routine of marriage complete with years of hurt and resentment after the grace tank ran out, a mortgage to pay and kids to raise together.  There is only one scale where long-term committed marriage has an edge on romantic love and that is durability, because the dirty little secret about romantic love is that it is a neurological state that can only exist in the human brain for a maximum of two to three years.

So get a divorce, have an affair, you're guaranteed that the next person you date will make you feel all warm and fuzzy, for two to three years.  If you are fine jumping from relationship to relationship then you can keep the feeling alive, as long as you are OK with the relational carnage you leave in your wake.  There is one exception to the two to three year rule, and that is unrequited love - you get separated and never get to see things played out you can keep the fantasy alive in your head a hundred years later as long as you never actually meet back up with them.  Maybe there is a high school sweetheart that you still follow on Facebook and you just know in your heart that if you would have married them instead of the toad you live with you would still be madly, passionately in love.  Maybe you had a crush on someone years ago and still compare everyone you date to them unsuccessfully.  Research seems to show that the archenemy of romantic love seems to be reality.  Give it enough time, reality seeps in and you see the person for who and what they really are, a selfish, sinful, flawed human being with personality quirks and character flaws.  I call it the anesthesia of love, and when it wears off it is rarely pleasant.  Now that most of you reading have gone to get your antidepressants refilled I'll reveal the truly beautiful part of all this, there is a third option - Intimacy.

There's romantic love, there is brutal disenchantment, and then there is the rarely seen unicorn known as intimacy which is never attained by the vast majority of the population because they don't have the selflessness and perseverance to ever see it come to fruition.  Intimacy is what happens when you decide to let romantic love die because you know it can't last anyway, and when disenchantment comes you don't give up.  Divorce is the widely publicized route plenty of people take to find a way out, but just as often people settle in to an accompanied solitude, a resignation that marriage will always be there but love died a long time ago.  That's why I don't vilify romantic love anymore, because I now know what it is - it's like a down payment, earnest money, a sneak peek for a couple down the road to what they can have if they really work on it.  Infatuation comes with no work and no investment and if it didn't exist we'd all just meet each other, see reality and want nothing to do with each other - then the human race would die off in a generation.  When we hit the point in marriage where we are tempted to give up we can look back at what was once there and remind ourselves that we can have something that looks a whole lot like it in the future.  Hollywood tells us we can get back romantic love with the person where everything is easy and natural and takes no selflessness or sacrifice but that is crap.  The reality is if we can allow marriage to humble us, to kill off our selfishness, to orient our mindsets around what is best for us as a couple rather than continuing to think as an individual, and if we can use years and years of conflict and stressors both internal and external to mature and grow us we can achieve intimacy.  Strangers in a public bathroom can have passion, any two selfish idiots can remain stuck in stubborn disenchantment, but it takes a selfless, loving, humble man and woman who have been through job losses, the death of family members, late night tearful arguments, or financial devastation to ever achieve true intimacy.  If the two of you haven't been through hell together then you haven't earned intimacy yet.  You see intimacy takes effort, it takes time, and it takes not giving up when it gets hard.  It means you figure out a way to be like Christ and truly love a sinful flawed human being who try as they might will never stop disappointing and hurting you, because you know they are married to you and you aren't much different.  I'm not talking about denying they have problems like romantic love, or being obsessed with getting them to fix their flaws like in disenchantment, but seeing them for who they are and choosing to love them anyway.  You both do that long enough and lo and behold you'll wake up one day and look around to see that you have achieved true intimacy like I have.  And then, like me, you can scoff at hypersexuality and reality shows based on romance because you enjoy something 95% of the population will never achieve and so for them what's on TV is the best they can imagine.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Voice, Relationship, and Power

Last post, I mentioned the need to redefine what sexual abuse is and how we should view it's effects.  Most of my examples focused around childhood sexual abuse and incest, but sexual abuse also covers rape, whether by a stranger, a date, or a husband.  Sexual abuse is very different for everyone and there are many various degrees of hurt that are inflicted upon individuals.  Many factors come into play that make abuse worse - do you know the offender, are they a close friend or family member, are they in a position of power, were they supposed to be caring for you and protecting you instead of abusing, how far physically did the abuse go, how long did it last, how many times, where at, how did other family members or authorities react, what propaganda was given, were you punished for refusing, were you powerless to stop it, were there injuries, was there sexual stimulation or pleasure, all of these questions and more determine severity.

Today what I will focus on is speaking to the predictable ways in which sexual abuse damages people for years and years afterwards, especially if it was childhood incest or molestation.  My goal with my blog is never to give trite truisms, to never replace the value of one on one counseling, and to not lump large groups of people into one category and label them.  That's why I make a much better counselor than a preacher, I prefer speaking to specifics.  But in the same way that all auto accidents are different but have similar injuries, so all sexual abuse is different but has similar injuries.  Whether the abuse stunted growth in these three areas from the point of injury or whether it shattered them inside a person, or stolen from them altogether, most everyone who has experienced sexual abuse deals with three main deficits that need addressed and healed - Their Voice, their Relationships, and their Power.

Sexual abuse damages a persons view of their own voice, their right to speak up for themselves in the face of mistreatment, the ability to call attention to wrong and for it to be dealt with.  As a child you were given the clear indication either by your abuser, enabling family members, or just your own deduction that speaking up and saying the truth is a really bad idea.  This carries over into adult life by allowing people to hurt you, take advantage of you, and abuse you without feeling like you have a right to speak up.  Maybe if you told on your uncle for abusing you it would destroy the family, maybe if anyone knew what your dad did you would be sent to one of those homes you saw on the news.  Maybe if you told your boyfriend to stop pressuring you for sex he would leave and no one would ever find you good enough to be with.  So now you feel like your voice is unimportant, to be ignored, and that your protests as well as you are really unimportant.  Maybe your abuser even used shame to convince you this was something you were a part of, that you were enjoying it, and that it was "our little secret" that couldn't get out or you would be in trouble too.  So then you get treated poorly as an adult and come to believe you must somehow be at fault because when bad stuff happens to you then you are partially responsible at least.  Whatever it looks like it is a loss of belief in your own ability to stand up and proclaim truth, to call evil out for what it is, and let the world see it for what it is so that it can be made better.

The second wound comes in how you view relationships - who and what are you, what do others exist for, and what is your role supposed to be in relationships.  You are given tons of data to suggest that you are beneath other people, an object to be used and discarded when the other person in the relationship is through with you.  You are an obstinate little girl who deserves what is coming your way because you have been bad, or if you don't do this then your abuser will be cranky and hurt someone else, or you are just a walking vagina with no other worth, value, or purpose.  The basic message sent over and over is that you exist solely for the pleasure of those around you, you are responsible for their happiness and if you fail in that purpose you aren't good for much else and so lose what little value you had.  Relationships become seen as transactional, and you never want to have to owe somebody or feel behind in the transactions.  If you only exist to pleasure someone else then it is important for them to convince you not to look for anything in return.  This creates this weird paradigm where you are supposed to make everyone else happy, even at your own expense, because everyone in the world deserves to be taken care of and treated well, everyone except you, you're different.  Realizing you are a real person with the same rights as everyone else who deserves equality in relationships and can even have people take care of you is part of the healing process.

The third major injury most people who have been sexually abused suffer is a damaging blow to their sense of their own power.  You were put in a position either once or repetitively where bad stuff was happening that your mind may not have even been able to adequately process but you were powerless to do anything to stop it.  You couldn't prevent it no matter how diligent you may be, you couldn't stop it because of the size or power differential, and no matter how much you wished or prayed for it to stop it never did and so you were powerless and God probably was too.  Either he was powerless or just deemed you as deserving it, but either way it skews how you view God - especially when it is your earthly father doing the abusing.  So most people who were abused go one of two routes in response to this powerlessness, you either become a helpless victim or a merciless control freak.  Maybe you accept your powerlessness and decide you are just weak and ineffective, so even if you wanted to go back to school you can't, even if you wanted to lose weight you can't, even if you wanted to get out of that bad relationship you can't, you don't have any power.  Maybe you go the other route and decide no one will ever take advantage of you again, because you will be hyper-vigilant and totally in control of everything, because being out of control was just too painful for you.  You'll mockingly talk of your abuse as if it were petty and if anyone else shows weakness or powerlessness around you it will provoke an irrational anger at them for for not rising above it the way you have.  Problem is that either way the abuse has come to define you and when you don't allow anyone close to you because you can't trust them you can pat yourself on the back for being strong and in control or just see that your abuser has once again robbed you of something life-giving and you let them.  Either way you go power becomes something different than it is to others, either an elusive thing you wish you were worthy of having or the most valuable commodity on the planet that must be acquired and maintained at all costs.

So whether you want to think of yourself as the survivor of sexual abuse or not, if your injuries look like the above three it doesn't really matter, just get the help you need to become all of who God created you to be initially before the sins of others changed the arc of your life.  I've walked with men and women through the process of redefining themselves through God's eyes, healing from past injuries, and counseling has helped them bloom into far more than they ever thought possible, and it can be the same for you.  The common excuses of it is too expensive, or I don't have the time for it, or shouldn't I just suck it up and get over it don't apply here.  You wouldn't give those excuses if you had a physical injury, no one has time to get their broken leg reset but you make time for it.  I see it like a total knee replacement, you could go the rest of your life limping and unable to do all that is within your potential or you can take the time and money required to have the surgery, with all the pain and all the months of rehab, but in the end you can run and jump and get up and down stairs like you've never remembered.

My Amazon widget appears to be malfunctioning but here is my book suggestion on this topic - http://www.amazon.com/Counseling-Survivors-Sexual-Abuse-Library/dp/1591605199/ref=sr_1_1?s=hpc&ie=UTF8&qid=1316457871&sr=1-1

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

A Shot In The Chest

When I first started counseling everyone suggests you pick a couple of key areas to focus in on and make them your specialties, and so I immediately picked Marriage and Parenting as my top favorites I wanted to get good at doing.  The problem was I seemed to have more and more people coming to me dealing with having been sexually abused, and we immediately loved each other.  My counseling style has always been very "tell it like it is" with far more truth spoken than tact, so while I am compassionate and encouraging I'll also kick you in the butt when needed.  My picture of the perfect counselor for someone healing from sexual abuse was a kindly older woman who would hold their hand and cry with them while sharing encouraging Bible verses, and that wasn't exactly me.  So it kind of shocked me that all these women felt so comfortable talking to me about something that for many of them I was the very first person to ever know about their abuse other than them and their abuser.  I mean women who have teenagers and husbands of 20 years who have never ever shared that when they were younger someone hurt them in one of the worst ways a human being can be hurt.

Given, to date, I have never had a single client come in who said they were there because they were abused as a kid.  They come in for depression, anxiety, trust issues, marital problems, being either obsessed with or repulsed by sex, boundaries problems, same sex attraction, addictions, etc but these were just symptoms of the core injury that needed to be addressed and healed.  Their stories broke my heart and made me angry and I found that without exception that anger was exactly what the women needed.  Not more sadness, not more shame, and certainly not pity, but something came alive in them when I said I wish I could have ten minutes alone in a room with their worthless piece of crap father.  So having a brash counselor tell them it was not only OK but necessary to get good and mad at their abuser turned out to make me a good fit.  You can't forgive someone if you haven't gotten angry, otherwise you are just sweeping it under the rug with denial.  The many men I have talked to that were sexually abused NEVER would have talked about that with a female counselor and usually expected me to respond like any other neanderthal in the locker room by high-fiving them for getting sex so early.  The women that shared it with me not only felt validated and understood, but in a wonderful way I could never had predicted but God ordained I was able to be a healing, healthy, safe relationship with a man.  A man that knew all of their secrets and didn't shame them, a man who wanted only health and healing for them rather than their preconceived notion of what all men want from them.  For some I was the first man in their lives that gave to them rather than taking, that loved them for who they were rather than what they could do for me, and who saw them how God views them so they could do the same.  I'm pretty good with marriages and parenting, but looking back I really believe my greatest impact has been on the men and women I have walked alongside as they heal from sexual abuse.

Still, years later I couldn't figure out why I had such a heart for sexual abuse survivors, why I was so beneficial for them, and why God kept bringing them to me until just within the last two years.  I was reading a book on sexual abuse and it was pretty good, but back in the appendix there was a frequently asked questions section that had a little note on men who were sexually abused.  It basically says when asking a man if he has sexually abused don't ask "Were you sexually abused," because they'll usually say no.  Ask "What were your first experiences with sex" and you'll get a totally different answer.  So it pops in my head in that moment that I had access to media with full nudity and sex scenes as a kid, and by adolescence there were a couple of incidents where guys my same age messed around with me and I assumed because I considered most of those things enjoyable at the time that it couldn't be "abuse."  That was when I was forced to reconsider what sexual abuse was, as I knew from my many clients that God designed sex to be pleasurable and so therefore just because something feels physically good doesn't make it any less abusive.  I also knew that just because you weren't held at gunpoint doesn't mean there aren't power differentials and consent is impossible for a child that doesn't know what sex is anyway.  Any time emotional pain is difficult for people to grasp I just transfer it into what it would look like as a physical wound and it seems to make more sense.  If a man kicks your front door in and points a gun at your child's chest and pulls the trigger while smiling it is clearly damaging and evil and wrong.  If the neighbor kid who is the same age as your kid brings over his dad's handgun and the two kids are playing around with it and it goes off shooting your child in the chest it is still damaging and evil and wrong.  The scars are actually the same.  Anytime someone is introduced to sex in an inappropriate way, earlier than they are ready and able to process, it damages a person's soul and it will show effects across their lifetime.

I don't intend to compare my extremely minor abuse to anyone else because I know better than any of you reading the depths of depravity human being are capable of and the damage potential therein.  What I do want to say is that maybe we have the wrong view of sexual abuse and that it is a huge disservice to victims everywhere.  I say sexual abuse and the average person thinks of a disgusting pedophile that drives up in a black van and offers a kid candy to get in the back so he can viciously rape them, which I am sure happens but it is definitely the exception to the rule.  Most people in my generation got that stupid idea from the stranger danger campaign that taught us to watch out for creepy guys on the playground looking for a lost puppy.  The truth is it is fathers whose number one job is to love, nurture, and care for a beautiful defenseless child but instead use their position of power and authority to terrorize their little girl every time mom goes to the store.  It's the cousin, the family friend, the uncle, the grandfather who tries a little more and a little more usually because they were abused and think it is normal.  It's the who slaps his 12 year old son on the back with a smile and hands him a stack of Playboys, or the parents who watch graphic nudity and sex scenes or even porn with their kids in the room assuming they are too young to know what is really going on or that it will be over in just a minute.  It's the boyfriend in the back seat of the car that pushes past the "no" because she's had a few beers and doesn't really know what she wants.  It's the little boy who goes off to Christian summer camp and has another camper or even a counselor do things to him that feel good in the moment but feel dirty and disgusting and confused afterwards.

This post was basically to expand what sexual abuse is so that people can begin to see wounds that may need healing, as well as maybe to better protect your kids from the real dangers out there.  Stats are fuzzy as it is something no one talks about and few people admit to, but most estimates say one in four women will be sexually abused at some point in their life and one in five men will be, so next time you are in the mall or at church and you realize there are easily a hundred people you'll pass that have been sexually abused you won't feel so alone.  Next post I'll lay out how sexual abuse affects people on into adulthood so that you can know what needs to be done to heal and reclaim what was stolen and damaged.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Rules For Conflict Part III

Third and final post to wrap up rules for effective conflict resolution:

Everyone Takes Personal Responsibility - easily my single greatest pet peeve in counseling, when people refuse to look at their own responsibility but rather blame their spouse, and justify themselves.  God gives us our job descriptions as husbands and wives not our spouses, so when we fail to be what God has called us to be we have no one to blame but ourselves.  Too often couples want to go back and forth justifying their poor choices by comparing the other's transgressions, or excusing their own refusal to meet their spouses needs by listing what needs they haven't received.  That's like saying, "Yeah I failed Math but another kid in my class didn't do his homework so I decided not to.  And you think my grade is bad, my 60 is way better than their 45" - you both failed.  Everyone is responsible for their own decisions, good or bad, and justification and blame just assure that one will ever become who they are called to be.  We often compare our own excellent job of biting our tongue fifty times to our spouse's five mean statements and don't realize they bit their tongue eighty times.  When we compare our internal achievements to our spouse's external failures we always win and we feel justified in treating them like crap, when we compare our hearts to the hearts God has designed us for we allow ourselves to be molded into His image.  With this perspective there is no room for defensiveness, as anything our spouse brings to us can be seen as an opportunity to grow rather than an attack that needs to be countered with something they do even worse.

Become aware of the core wounds and accompanying fears of your spouse and avoid them.  If they came from a family that always made them feel they were wrong then they may fight a little harder than necessary to make sure they don't always lose in the marriage.  If they had an overprotective mother that smothered them they might fight a little harder to have their autonomy and not feel controlled by you.  If they had a critical father that always compared them to someone else who they could never live up to you may want to avoid telling them they aren't as good of a wife as friend's wife.  If your spouse has an ex-husband who verbally and emotionally abused her it may be that you can never raise your voice at all without signaling to her that you are attacking her.  Whatever the wound and wherever it came from you have the opportunity to help heal it or to keep ripping it open and pouring salt in it, and that is a tremendous power.  Usually during conflict there is the topic that the fight is about and then there are the real underlying issues that aren't being spoken.  You can grumble about how you have to clean up someone else's mess or you can recognize you have your own core fears that get triggered as well and need extra grace in certain areas.

Create a culture of appreciation and acceptance rather than contempt - One of the keys inside and outside of conflict to make sure you are able to resolve conflict well is create a culture of acceptance, appreciation, and love rather than judgement, criticism, and blame.  Research shows you need at least five times as many positive interactions for every negative one just to balance things out.  Deep at the base of your brain is a part called the amygdala that is the emotional center that basically sees people in black and white, good and bad ways, people are either your allies, on your team and there to make your life better or people are enemies, attacking you and need to be protected from.  Its like a giant scale that tips one way or the other and it takes five experiences of acceptance, respect, and positivity to balance out each one incident of anger, frustration, judgement, or negativity.  Whichever side the scale is on, that is how everything will be interpreted, neutral comments like "Oh those look like new jeans", get automatically interpreted either as a compliment - "Oh thanks, I'm excited about them" - or a criticism - "They aren't new, I've had them for two weeks, and before you complain about money they were on sale and I had nothing else that fits."  If you want your spouse to hear what you say as you intend it rather than with automatic defensiveness you can help by working hard to show tons more appreciation, respect, acknowledgement, and praise, rather than always being critical.

Stay Engaged - the last rule for effective conflict is no matter what, try your best to always stay engaged, or to reconnect as quick as possible afterwards.  Often in the middle of conflict one partner will go into an icy cool stance where they respond like a robot without emotions.  It's called stonewalling and it is usually a defense mechanism to keep themselves from becoming overwhelmed and flooded with emotions, and often as a way of protecting the relationship.  The idea is that if I were to open up and express how I feel I will say something I regret and then lose this important relationship, but what the other person sees is somebody who doesn't care about the relationship or them.  Both partners have racing heart rates and blood pressures, but only one looks like they give a crap.  This is where it becomes important to learn how to reschedule or just sooth the other person or yourself in the moment, to talk yourself back into being present and engaged.  Sometimes this carries over into an overall approach to the relationship where the partner is no longer angry, just numb.  The way our emotions work is that we either feel them all or none of them and if someone feels to painful for too long they often have a firewall that comes crashing down that cuts off all emotions.  To feel love means to also feel all the pain so they both get thrown out.  This is where you need to stop playing around and get in to see a counselor, because your marriage is flat lining.  Most couples wait 6-7 years after they notice major problems before they go for help which is like waiting a few weeks to see if you are having a heart attack - tons of damage has already been done.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Rules For Conflict Part II

Here is part two continued of rules for a fair and productive fight:

Perception is reality - this means that it is possible to validate your spouse's subjective experience and perspective without agreeing with them or saying they are objectively right. Wherever they are coming from is their true view of things and arguing with them will not change this. We have this mistaken notion that if we just tell someone our subjective reality it will trump theirs and they will adopt our way of viewing things, which really doesn't happen. "You know I was really upset about feeling fat because I couldn't fit in my jeans but then when you informed me I was beautiful and didn't need to worry about it, it just all clicked and now I feel totally secure!" "I was really hurt and upset with you but then you told me that was immature so I just decided to get over it and not hurt anymore, you are SO right!" "When your mom said I was a selfish incompetent excuse for a wife I was really upset but then you said that was just how she was and to not take it personal so now I'm fine and considering having lunch with her tomorrow." It really never quite works out that way but we argue as if they are just deluded in seeing things from their obviously wrong perspective. The key is learning to accept influence and being able to put yourself in their shoes so you can see and express the validity of their perspective while still seeing things differently.

Emotional Repair - the key to great conflict resolution is realizing you are both imperfect and need to be forgiven often, and therefore extending grace to the other as well. This means after conflict and eventually even during conflict you can practice emotional repair where you take responsibility for your actions rather than blaming or justifying.  Emotional repair is basically restating that we are both on the same team, I did these specific hurtful things, and I really want to be able to have a dialogue without more injury.  This should be done as quick as possible and as thorough as possible.  It is like moving into a beautiful new house when you get married and each fight you break something or put a hole in the wall, emotional repair patches and fixes rather than just continuing to trash the house until there is nothing to look forward to coming home to.

Stay on Topic - this means to dialogue through one issue until everyone feels heard, validated, and empathized with rather than jumping from gripe to gripe, adding more and more without resolving any.  This means no bringing up crap from the past as a way of discrediting the defense's whole case and painting the picture of them as whatever poor character trait - most common complaint is selfishness.  No going on and on with endless stories from the past where you are convinced you are Aesop and by the end of your fable your spouse will feel convicted and the reality is you just end up bickering about story details and missing the main point completely.  No interrupting the other person, it's a sign you aren't listening and don't care, but on the flip side keep tirades to a minimum so interruption is not necessary.  Some people try to filibuster in marriage figuring if they can hold the floor long enough they somehow win, and reality is you end up getting interrupted or at least tuned out.

Avoid Negative Generalities - Never say never or always in the middle of conflict unless your goal is to get your spouse defensive and looking for exceptions, "You claim I NEVER help clean up yet 15 years ago I picked up my socks, therefore you are dead wrong."  It is fine to share a complaint, it isn't OK to criticize.  We often broadly and generally paint the picture of our spouse as unfeeling, frigid, selfish, lazy, or whatever by lumping together all of their mistakes and making a generalization, yet we don't do that for positive things about them.  We make it sound like we view them as a giant horrible loser that every once in a blue moon screws up and gets things right, when we usually really see them as a great loving person who from time to time makes mistakes or drops the ball.  Therefor name calling, character assassination, and generic criticism are off limits as completely ineffective.

Next Post - part three and the conclusion to rules for a fair fight!

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Rules for Conflict Part I

War has rules. You can't torture people, you can't execute prisoners of war, you can only play a maximum of three Justin Bieber songs or it is considered cruel and unusual. There seems to be rules everywhere except for within marriage conflict, where it's every man and woman for themselves. We often see conflict as a battlefield and anything is fair in love and war, right? Depends on if abuse is happening or if you want your conflict to be beneficial versus destructive. Three posts will be my complete set of rules for a fair fight - effective conflict resolution skills.

No Abuse - this means physical, emotional, mental, spiritual, financial, sexual, or any other type of abuse where the other person is dehumanized, degraded, and destroyed. I'm not talking about a give and take heated exchange where everyone is on the same level, but an intimidating bullying approach which attempts to cause the other person to cower in fear and shut up and do what you say. If you wouldn't want your son doing it to their wife or your daughter being treated that way some day then stop it now.

Don't ever try to win an argument - nobody wins an argument, either you both feel closer, more heard, and connected because of conflict or you have both lost. Arguing for an invisible jury, dropping emotional artillery, or just trying hard to be heard by using to two common tactics of repeating yourself or getting louder just don't work (Unless they just happen to have hearing loss). The vast majority of what couples argue about is subjective, like whether something should have hurt the others' feelings, rather than objective like the capital of South Dakota. There is no right and wrong, just whether we feel heard and validated and empathized with. 70% of what all couples argue about are considered perpetual issues which will never be resolved. You will have the same 5-10 issues at day one and in fifty years, and no she will never be more adventurous and no he will never be more cleanly. This means only 30% results in some sort of resolution so you do best to focus on hearing and understanding each other rather than fixing each other.

Know your thermostats and reschedule when you are flooded - we are all wired to handle a certain amount of conflict before physiologically we begin shutting down. Like a thermostat that determines when we have sustained too much conflict we get adrenaline dumped in our system and we have the fight or flight response, actually there are two more - freeze and nurture as well. We are all wired to respond in a predictable way and they all can be very hurtful when you are on the receiving end. If your spouse hears the signal that it is time for conflict and immediately go for the jugular they are a fighter, if you instinctively look for the nearest exit and say or do whatever it takes to get out if there you are a flighter. If your spouse goes into screensaver, deer in the headlights mode during conflict he is a freezer, and if you nervously scurry around cleaning, mending, and attending then you are a nurturer. While I have trouble seeing how getting your house cleaned every time conflict happens is a bad thing I hear that all four are devastating to someone trying to be heard and understood. The solution? Know where your cut-off is and before it gets there offer to reschedule for a specific time. Half hour, hour, next morning? Whenever it is, just make sure it is clear we both want to discuss this but right now we are in diffuse physiological arousal and so we will be ineffective at hearing, processing, and storing data. Until we are calmed and soothed we are no good in conflict. This doesn't mean running away when things get tough, or saying what they want to hear, but rather optimizing your conflict by only having it with a brain and body that is able to stay engaged.

No triangulation - keep the conflict between you and your spouse - no bringing anyone else into it. Don't argue in Walmart like rednecks, don't argue in front if your kids, and don't vent to others. I'll likely do a whole post on just this as it is one if my major pet peeves but venting is very unhealthy and produces nothing good. If you have a problem with your spouse talk to them about it not your mom, your sister, your best friend, the guys on the golf course or anyone else who can't actually fix the problem.

Two more posts and you'll have an idea how to make conflict beneficial rather than destructive!

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

You Tell Me!

I hate public speaking and would never enjoy giving lectures or sermons, partly because I'm a raging introvert but mostly because I never want to answer questions people aren't asking.  That's why I prefer counseling - I have the opportunity to sit with an individual, couple, or family and speak to their real issues and make sure by the end that they have what they need.  So I want this blog to be the same, an opportunity for people to get answers to questions relevant to them.  My approach up until now has been just to comb through old files and approach common issues and concerns that come up often and I'll continue to do this, but also wanted to add this option.  You can leave a comment below, publicly or anonymously, or you can email me at mikeprasse@gmail.com and give your request for a blog topic.  Obviously this isn't meant as free or even an effective replacement for counseling but rather an opportunity for topics to be brought up that I may not have thought to address.

So what are your ideas for me to address?  One client said she would bring in all of her negative self-views relating to her ADHD for me to give the positive flip side of for a blog entry.  I want to do more marriage stuff regarding communication and conflict resolution stuff, more parenting tips, dealing with specific conditions like ADHD or Depression or Anxiety, and more Christian theology and living.  It always shocks me which blog posts get the biggest hits, this of course was right after I got over the shock that tons of people are actually regularly reading the blog at all.  Biggest topics - Christian theology and living - so maybe more of that?  How can an all powerful and all loving God allow for pain and suffering in the world?  Is the goal of the Christian life eliminating sin?  How does God's sovereignty work?  What the heck is supralapserianism?  Maybe I'm not the best to answer all of that but I am interested to hear what your questions, concerns, and ideas are for future blog entries!

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Just Another Kid To Take Care Of

Often in marriages where one person has ADHD and the other has a "normal" brain a dynamic gets created that looks a whole lot like a critical parent with a rebellious teenager.  The husband or wife with ADHD gets lumped in with any other kids as a liability, a nuisance, or at the very least incapable of responsibility which might be fine but the expectation is usually that they grow up and start thinking differently at some point when they really never will - http://pilferedwisdom.blogspot.com/2011/08/being-married-to-rainman.html.  The other problem I will discuss today is when we, with ADHD, demand to be respected and assert we are normal and really just aren't. I believe the key to success with ADHD is to really look hard and honest at ourselves and see what really is there, rather than what we wish was there, or what we have been lectured by parents, teachers, and spouses to believe should be there.  When we realize we are great at some things and inept at others we spend less time making grandiose promises to ourselves and our spouses about how we will never make that mistake again and just learn to compensate so we don't have to.

Two things people with ADHD have in common; we are all convinced we are awesome at multitasking, and we really suck at multitasking.  We confuse constantly being distracted and flitting from one task to another out of boredom as effective multitasking when our brains are wired to obsessively focus in on one thing of passion at a time with a hyperfocus.  Being fully present wherever we are is very difficult for us, even if we aren't the hyperactive kind that is physically on the move our brain always is.  So can we really watch TV while chatting with our wife - nope we will do one or the other effectively but not both so choose one.  Can we really check out Facebook real quick while we play with the kids, nope we can do one or the other with no concept of time elapsed either way.  This helps if we can accept it because we can stop getting defensive when our spouse asks us to put away the smartphone at the dinner table because we will become engrossed with it and ignore everyone else not because we are crappy parents, but that is just how our brains work.  We can stop getting defensive when our spouse reminds us to take the next exit; even if we remembered it this time our spouse remembers the forty times we drove right past it because we were caught up in a conversation.  You have to drop your shame and stop interpreting your spouse's suggestions as critical attacks reminiscent of a bad third grade teacher - but rather reminders that your brain don't work like that.  Just shut up and do it and you'll be glad later that you were actually able to connect with your spouse, be there for your child, or not have to figure out how to make a U-turn on 485, all for the cost of a little bit of defensive pride.

The second way we can improve ourselves to better accommodate marriage is to be a little less non-compliant and non-conformist.  Part of it is just part and parcel with the deficit as we have higher impulsivity which results in creativity, so we dress like Lady Gaga and expect everyone else to think outside of the box like us.  Creative is fine, but sometimes our impulsivity can make us embarrassing to our spouses by saying or doing inappropriate things at inappropriate times as we kind of ignore social graces.  The part we can work on is the "I'm not going to be told what to do" rugged independence that usually comes from insecurity for having never lived up to your potential as a kid.  Whether authority figures busted on you for being spacey, forgetful, or inattentive, other kids picked on you for being different, or you were just always haunted by a feeling that hard as you try you just can't quite accomplish what you feel you are capable of, we don't like being told we are wrong.  So accepting that our brains are wired to help us do amazing, wonderful things, but are also pretty inept at other things means we can just be unique individuals getting help with our weak spots rather than the stupid kid who will never do right or the sour grapes kid that says, "That's fine, I'm better than them anyways..."  Get an organized secretary, hire someone to do your taxes or housekeeping, and let your "normal" brained spouse help you in your other weak areas - like being fully present, eliminating distractions, establishing work boundaries to get a certain amount done and come home, remembering events and tasks, and following through on promises.  Once again, just shut up and do it - you'll find when you comply without resentment you end up accomplishing more, enjoying more, and disappointing yourself and others less.  I'd say the same for teens or kids with ADHD but they probably aren't reading my blog.

Previous post on ADHD here - http://pilferedwisdom.blogspot.com/2011/08/driving-ferrari-with-bicycle-brakes.html

Monday, August 29, 2011

Being Married to Rainman

Well, since I managed to lose my compiled master list of over fifty blog post ideas I will write today once again about living with ADHD, but as requested from a marriage perspective.  I will probably have to break this up into two posts and even then won't be able to fully address the impact the deficit has on marriage.  I believe it has the ability to greatly enhance or destroy marriages depending on whether both partners can fully embrace the enhancements ADHD provides while understanding and compensating for the deficits.  First post will mainly focus on the "normal" spouse as it can be very irritating living with someone like Rainman who is phenomenal at counting cards but doesn't seem able to dress themselves in the morning.

First off we are absolute slaves to the present, who rarely focus on anything from the past or anything in the future.  We have low frustration tolerances so it is easy to get defensive really quick in the moment but the good part is it is really hard for us to hold grudges.  Living in the present means we are likely to frustrate our spouses with our lack of preparation for the future, but also make it easier for them when we are able to drop offenses from the past.  As with most things within marriage we can focus on the negative or positive, and here is the first opportunity.  The ADHD wife could be berated by her husband for not thinking through the steps required to plan a birthday party or for not having sent the invitations out in time, or she could be celebrated for spending an entire afternoon completely absorbed with her children without a care in the world for how they kept her up too late the night before or all the things still to be done on the to do list.  The ability to be completely absorbed in the present means the ADHD husband can be absorbed in getting three stars on every level of Angry Birds while the kids he is supposed to be watching light themselves on fire, or he can stare into his wife's eyes on a date night completely in the moment when a normal husband would be worrying about his performance review the next day at work.  Living in the present can be great or frustrating, depending on what the hyperfocus is narrowed in on.

Hyperfocus is the blessing/curse where we are able to narrow in on one thing like a laser, completely oblivious to the rest of the world.  This can make us have an encyclopedic knowledge of every sports stat ever created, be uncanny at recalling crucial information regarding our jobs, hobbies, or passions, and allow us to work 12 hours straight on a creative project without eating or hardly blinking.  But it can also mean we can step right over a mound of laundry on the way out the door, wait until the last possible second to get the kids ready for school, or get caught up at work and not realize it until we are already two hours late.  Brain scans show a little dead spot in our brain that in a normal person would stay awake and regulate attention and impulsivity, but is gray and dead in us until something that ignites our passion lights it up from time to time.  It would be nice if we could quickly and easily program our brains or our spouse's brain to hyperfocus just on things of great worth and value but that isn't the case - it is determined by things mostly unknown to us currently but involving the release of pleasurable and painful chemicals within the brain.  Shaming your spouse about failures, criticizing them for forgetting things, and showing them contempt for not following through like a normal person would are unlikely to produce pleasurable chemicals and train their brain to see you as a worthy target of their hyperfocus.  It's about their focus, not your value.

If you look at your spouse with ADHD as in control of their brain and just lazy, selfish, or uncaring then you see them as a horrible person, if you see them as in control of their brains and not horrible then you have to see yourself as just not that important to them, but if you see them as not really in control of their brains you can feel empathy.  Most common complaint I hear about ADHD spouses is their lack of follow through and how that breaks their spouse's trust and I often wonder why this really has never been a huge complaint of my wife about me.  Is it because I remember important things and follow through, heavens no!  I believe my wife realized early on into marriage the key to putting up with someone like me - realistic expectations and tons of grace.  Two recent examples show off the awesomeness of my wife:  First is the other day she had a list of four items that needed to be done around the house while she was at work and as she began spouting them off I cut her off mid-sentence and said "Do you mind writing those things down and leaving them on the counter for me somewhere I will be forced to see them?"  She could have responded with one of many replies I have heard in counseling ranging from "I want a man who is grown up and responsible enough to know these things need to be done, I don't need lists to get things done around here" to "My dad never needed lists and he went to work every day at the 8 am on the dot at the salt mines, because he actually cared about his family" to "You know what?  Forget it, I'll just do it myself since you can't be bothered with adult responsibilities, I have three children including you!"  Instead she said, "Sure, here it is," because she recognizes that I truly love her and want to get it all done but for either of us to trust my verbal memory would be silly.  The second was the other week when she was getting ready to head to work and handed me my new iPhone that came in the mail, still in it's box and said, "I know you are very excited about this and you could easily spend all day hyperfocused on it, but this is your day with the kids so I don't want you missing out on time with them.  Do you mind just focusing on them and leaving this til tonight when you can play with it after they are in bed?"  That is a woman who knows me, knows ADHD, doesn't vilify either one, and has the ability to tell me what I need to hear when I need to hear it.

So if this is the first half of how to put up with us then tomorrow will be how to succeed in marriage when you have ADHD.  The key to both - recognize that this isn't laziness, selfishness, or a lack of value given to the "normal" spouse, but rather a hyperfocus and impulsivity that will never ever change.  Each partner must use their strengths most effectively while compensating for weaknesses rather than making grand promises and getting upset when they are not followed through on.  Tomorrow's key for people with ADHD?  Learning to be humble and accept influence rather than getting defensive, allow the person with the fully functional brain to use it by helping us.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Last Man Standing!

Parenting is not easy, regardless of who you are.  Marriage is tough, but parenting is like trying to hit a moving target - the goals keep shifting, what worked before just makes things worse now, and when we start to feel comfortable we realize we have entered a whole new game.  This is especially true of the shift from raising a child to raising a teenager, a shift that happens at different ages for different kids and rarely are they kind enough to send you a memo giving you a heads up.  "Dear Mom and Dad, thanks for the great job so far raising me, you have kept me alive in spite of regular decisions on my part that have been working against that.  Just thought I would let you know that all those tools and techniques you have developed so far are now worthless, you'll have to develop a brand new approach and you may or may not be good at it."

What is the shift that needs to happen in order to effectively parent a teen - move from overpowering to empowering.  What starts off as a reasonable enough way of establishing authority becomes less and less practical - whoever is the biggest, loudest, smartest, strongest person in the house gets to make the rules and tell everyone else what to do.  Often we don't even think through the situation we are creating, we just follow suit from our parents who just told us what to do - or else!  It would take a whole other blog just to cover why parents no longer have inherent authority like they used to but the who system of our society is different than it once was.  So when we have a two year old who is running into traffic we just yank them up by the collar and tell them to do what we say because we are bigger, stronger, and smarter.  When they are 16 and they won't do their homework we try the same approach and we find a new challenger in the ring wanting to see if maybe THEY can now be the biggest, strongest, and smartest.  We can escalate and try to assert our dominance silverback style, and for the first couple of years of adolescence this just might work, but inevitably it results in one of two responses based on their available assets.  If you have a big dumb oaf then their best bet is to bully and intimidate you with their burgeoning size to get their way, if you have more of the bookworm type they will probably just smile to your face and then passive aggressively do whatever they feel like. Either way it really won't work unless you were blessed with one of those people-pleaser teens who will be great now but struggle their whole adult lives because of the pressure to keep making everyone happy.

The solution - recognize the real power you DO have, and then solve your own problems while letting them have theirs, so you end up giving them all the power in the world.  You provide them a place to live, nice clothes, food, spending money, rides around town, etc. and those are all privileges not rights.  You can't make them talk or not talk, obey, make good decisions, or really much of anything so if your approach is MAKING them do something they'll quickly pull back the curtain on your wizard of oz.  What you CAN do is set them up in a world where when they do good they are rewarded and when they do poorly they see the consequences of their actions.  This is where it is good to inventory their problems and your problems - hygiene, social preferences, homework completion, and what they spend their own money on are THEIR problems - whether chores are completed, whether you are addressed respectfully, and how your money is spent are all YOUR problems.  Let them see the natural consequences of their own problems and then set up effective rewards and punishments to make sure your problems are taken care of.  They don't want to mow the yard, that is fine, they are completely in control - it just means the gas and spending money you would have used to take them out that Friday to hang with their friends is now going to hiring the neighbor kid to mow - either way YOUR problem gets solved, their problem gets worse but that is their decision.

Ultimately if you want to go head to head with a teen in a control battle they have a distinct advantage - youth, energy, and far fewer responsibilities - winning can be their full time job.  So drop the control battles and give them all the control, you just make sure they see the consequences of their decisions.  Often we fight hard to get teens to do what we want, never offering them alternatives other than do what I say, then when they fail to do it we rescue them from the natural consequences like arguing with their teacher for them to get an extension on their project deadline, but then set up an artificial consequence like grounding them.  What do they learn, two things - they can do their project whenever they feel like it and their parents are buttholes for grounding them.  If in some rare instance you have to fight a control battle - then win it no matter what - step away from 99% of the control battles and if one must be fought, do not lose.  Great resource on creative ways to make this happen?  Parenting Teens with Love and Logic by Cline and Fay.