Archive for the 'Personal Development' Category

The Moment of Truth: Do I Practice What I Preach?

Five years ago, I created a series of writing exercises to help people reimagine themselves as the heroes of their own life stories.  My inspiration was a series of observations made during my years as an English major and a student of biblical texts. Not only did I notice that people inevitably project their own life experiences on to what they read, but also that they seemingly had an easier time empathizing with characters’ struggles than their own. I was simply giving them permission and tools to step out of their own stories and check out the landscape.

My premise could be summarized as follows:
1) Our lives are unfolding stories;
2) We are potentially our own best and worst interpreters of what happens to us;
3) How we tell our story matters because it influences how we feel;
4) How we feel about our stories influences how they unfold;
5) As in stories, tension between the protagonist (us) and the antagonists (our obstacles) is fertile ground for character development; and
6) Writing in the third person voice can help us be more objective about our lives.

While it sounds simple enough, it wasn’t until my vibrant 72-year-old father developed aggressive cancer and died this past February, that I actually had to consider whether I walked my own talk.

My father’s unexpected death was the third cancer fatality in my small, immediate family in seven years.  My beloved 61-year-old mother died of ovarian cancer in 2005 after an 11-year battle. My father was her primary caregiver. Several months after my mother’s death, my father met Vicki, a 50-something physical trainer my father, brother and I grew to love. In the summer of 2009, she was diagnosed with lung cancer and died a year later, also at 61.

Neither of my parents got a chance to see their two children married or dote on grandchildren. Only my father was able to witness the promise of his children’s budding careers after years of struggles. And when Vicki died, Marissa, her 21-year-old daughter and only child, was suddenly orphaned.

For many, the story of my family reads like a tragedy, and that’s without even mentioning my father’s amputated leg in 1986, or my mother’s loss of her right eye in a freak art school accident before I was born. “That’s tzurus (Yiddish for trouble) you don’t need,” my uncle remarked when he learned of my father’s second cancer diagnosis, the first of which cost him the leg.

Which is why my somewhat Polyannish-premise was tested when I found myself facing the death of the man I always dreamed would walk me down the isle or attend one of my book readings. Did I truly believe that I had the power to transform my tragedies into triumphs simply by choosing to put a positive spin on my own story?

My answer surprised me: “yes,” though it requires some reading between the lines. My relationship with my father was never an easy one. When we were younger, we butted heads. He could be bossy, judgmental, and self-righteous. “Benevolent despot,” was how one friend described him. Nothing I ever did was good enough, or so I thought. He was more interested in sharing his opinions than soliciting mine.  I challenged him, and made my mother my confidante. When I graduated college, I moved to San Francisco, putting several cities and mountain ranges between us.

My father and I grew closer after my mother passed. I had already moved back to New York, and we found ourselves spending more time together. We had dinner, went biking, saw shows…and talked. He had found love again and seemed genuinely happy with Vicki. I was older, had done my own personal growth work and had come to appreciate my father’s positive attributes while accepting his rougher edges without taking them personally.

But it wasn’t until my father suddenly became ill, that I would be forced to put my love to the test.  Seven years ago, I had spent three heart-wrenching months at my mother’s bedside in hospice care. http://www.aish.com/sp/so/48923857.html Vicki’s death had come quicker, though her cancer had been no less merciless.

When I fast forward and step outside my story, I see myself curled up on the couch in my father’s hospital room while the hospice admitting nurse explains that he will need 24-hour supervision to receive services at home. My brother is immersed in a rigorous Master’s program at Cornell University. I have been my father’s primary health advocate for the past three months, flying back and forth between my life in New York and Florida, where he relocated just a few months prior to his diagnosis. Hiring a full-time aide is unthinkable, even if it were affordable.

So I decide to take a leave of absence – from my private practice, my friends, my community, and my frenetic but full life in Manhattan – to care for my father. It’s been 18 years since we lived under the same roof as my provider, only now I am providing care to him.

It’s hard to describe the two months that follow. They are not easy. My father is no less demanding in pain and than he is in health. I have been thrust into the role of administering his meds, fixing his meals, cleaning his house, learning to manage his finances, and holding his hand, both figuratively and literally, through waves of fear and pain. I have never been a parent, but the irony of the turned tables is not lost on me.

Despite the stress, I feel my heart softening and expanding. My father and I share many moments of tears and laughter. We come to know and appreciate each other’s minds, emotions, and strengths more deeply.  Old friends and family show up to share good memories and lend support. I find myself reconnecting with long-lost relatives, and see how lucky I am to have such supportive friends and community. When my brother comes down to help, our icy relationship begins to thaw as we come to know each other as adults.  Marissa visits too, and I find myself inspired by her resilience and generosity.

As the rabbi who would later perform my father’s memorial service stated, “Bernie was like an onion. The more you boil it, the sweeter it gets.” And life boiled all of us quite a bit. One evening, my father shares that he can’t believe that even in his misery, he is learning and growing. “What are you learning?” I inquire. “That people have found a way to love me and that I have found a way to love them.” That’s all he ever wanted…that’s all anyone ever wants, isn’t it?

I realize there are many ways to spin my story. Mine is but one version. But as the narrator, the protagonist, and interpreter, I exercise my right to read it as a story of love and redemption…the prodigal daughter perhaps.

While I claim the authorships rights of my story, I recognize that some stories are more susceptible to a positive spin than others. I think of Madonna Badger, the Connecticut woman who lost her parents and three children in a fire this past Christmas, and doubt I could find the silver lining in her position, though it may be possible. I see senseless tragedies in the news, and have similar questions.

I further recognize that the story of my father’s death is not over. I am only three months into grief, and I am familiar enough with its territory to know that it will take vigilance and unconditional self love, which I am still fertilizing, to steer clear of the pits of darkness and self-pity that beckon in moments of heartbreak. I am not immune to bouts of fear and skepticism. Had I been given a choice, I would have perhaps chosen another storyline for my life’s lessons. But for now, I embrace the gifts of my bittersweet fortune.

That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.

Harry Potter and the Power of Positive Thinking

As a psychotherapist who works with young adults, I often allude to pop culture in my private practice. So when my 20-something client and professed Harry Potter devotee grew anxious about a dreaded trans-coastal visit to her Dementor of a mother-in law in Los Angeles, I naturally inquired, “What Harry Potter would do?”

“Well, of course, he would conjure his Patronus,” she replied.

A Patronus is a charm that wards off Dementors, “the foulest creatures that walk this earth” who “infest the darkest, filthiest places” and “drain peace, hope, and happiness out of the air around them.” Remis Lupin, a benevolent werewolf, explained to his young protégée, “Get too near a Dementor and every good feeling, every happy memory will be sucked out of you. If it can, the Dementor will feed on you long enough to reduce you to something like itself…soulless and evil. You will be left with nothing but the worst experiences of your life.”

The charm’s magical elixir is “the concentration on a powerfully happy memory” – in other words, the power of positive thinking.  Apparently, Potter creator J.K. Rowling was not only a genius of fantasy fiction, but also a sorceress of pop psychology.

Rowling’s sorcery also reveals itself in the spell to dispel Boggarts. A lesser menace in the wizard world, these shape-shifting creatures assume the form of the worst fears of any unfortunate sole who crosses their path, and evaporate at the correct recitation of “Riddikulus!”

According to the Harry Potter wiki http://harrypotter.wikia.com/wiki/Main_Page, “The (Riddikulus) charm requires a strong mind and good concentration….The correct way to perform the charm is to push past the fear, and concentrate on something that will make the Boggart look amusing. The charm does not, in fact, repel a Boggart; it just forces it to assume a shape that the caster will find comical, inspiring laughter.”

Fortunately, Rowling’s charms are not purely fantasy; they also work their magic in the therapy room.

The Patronus in Practice
Sarah, my aforementioned client, was a self-effacing writer whose self-revelatory blogs addressed racism and religious hypocrisy. On a weekly basis, she received an esteem-boosting slew of emails from her growing fan base.

Her confidence eroded, however, in the presence of her wealthy mother-in-law, who didn’t share the same appreciation for Sarah’s talents, nor her son’s choice in wives.

As her visit with the in-laws approached, we began to brainstorm how she might summon her own version of a Patronus when her so-called “Dementor” of a mother-in-law began to drain her vitality.

Although Patronuses typically appear as shimmering animal silhouettes, Sarah took certain liberties with her talisman. Having survived an abusive childhood, Sarah periodically suffered from depression, insomnia, and physical ailments. Calling to mind her fan mail and emotionally supportive marriage, which felt strained during these visits, wasn’t enough. She needed to anchor herself in something physically tangible. And the animal imagery wasn’t speaking to her – she was highly allergic to dander.

After tossing around a few ideas, Sarah returned home and assembled a collage of photographs of loved ones, including her and her husband in their happiest hours. Next, she cut out the grateful emails and wove them around the photographs, interlaced with powerful images and affirmations that she cut out from magazines.

Sarah was encouraged to meditate on her makeshift Patronus so that she could conjure it in her mind at will. Additionally, she brought her collage to Los Angeles and prominently displayed it in a separate apartment where she and her husband stayed during their visit with his parents.

Ultimately, the experiment was a success. Granted, it didn’t work miracles in every encounter with her nemesis. But when dark thoughts began to creep into her consciousness after spending the day with her husband’s family, Sarah studied her Patronus propped up on the dresser, and felt better.

The Boggart in Practice
By assuming the shape of our worst fears, Boggarts mirror our insecurities and unhealed emotional wounds.

For Sarah, a Boggart might have assumed the shape of a giant mother-in-law wagging an accusatory finger, or stomping on her laptop with an enormous pair of Manolos.

Harry Potter references work particularly well with adolescent clients who seem receptive to such interventions, which normalize the experience of being afraid yet offer playful responses. A teenage client  imagined a high school bully as a Boggart, much in the spirit of the Brady Bunch episode where Marcia imagines her driving instructor in his underwear.

Although therapists are often expected to be wizards of sorts – to read minds, wave our wands and invoke incantations that banish our clients’ demons – Rowling reminds us that true magic lies within each of us when we focus on the positive and see the absurdity in our irrational fears.

Navigating Transitions: What We Never Learned in School

Change is the one constant in life. And yet, we are often surprised when it comes. Parents reward us for mastering routines of hygiene and self-discipline. Our educational system grooms us for progressive levels of security, reinforcing the belief that skill mastery yields the predictable comforts of a settled life. As we age, we are measured by our gains, not our losses, our stability, not our vulnerability.

That’s why so many people are devastated when the temple of their familiar world is shaken through unemployment, divorce, disease, death, and similar forces of upheaval.  We believe in change as long as the wheel of fortune spins in our favor. When change defies our expectations with unpleasant results, a lifetime of conditioning can become suspect, unleashing the dark designs of our imaginations.

Throughout the centuries, philosophers, theologians, and psychologists have attempted to illuminate the nature of change, from the ancient hexagrams of the I Ching ( the Chinese Book of Change) to the stages of loss identified in the last century by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, M.D., who describes a non-linear progression through denial, sadness, anger, bargaining, and acceptance. One of my favorite frameworks, however, was written by a little-known English professor whose last name is practically synonymous with change – William Bridges.

In his 1980s groundbreaking book “Transitions,” Bridges maps out the cycle of change into three discrete stages that is at once counter-intuitive and overly simplistic. According to Bridges, every transition begins with an ending and ends with a beginning. In between endings and beginning is a discomfiting neutral zone that most people would rather avoid but is essential for personal growth.

Why begin with the end? Writes Bridges: “Divorces, deaths, job changes, moves, illnesses, and many lesser events disengage us from the contexts in which we have known ourselves. They break up the old cue system that served to reinforce our roles and pattern our behavior.”

Within the rubric of “endings,” he identifies five fundamental tasks one must master in order to successfully move to the next chapter. They are disengagement (separation from the familiar), dismantling (letting of what is no longer needed), disenchantment (discovering that certain things no longer make sense), disidentification (reevaluating one’s identity) and disorientation (a vague sense of losing touch with one’s reality).

Once endings are complete, people progress to an uncomfortable but growth-filled neutral zone which Bridges describes as “an empty in-between time when…everything feels as though it’s up for grabs and you don’t quite know who you are or how you’re supposed to behave.”

Most people would prefer to skip this stage. However, by attempting to leapfrog past the neutral zone, they may miss important insights and gifts, putting them at risk of poor decision-making in the future. Bridges explains that, not unlike the concept of meditation or the Sabbath, “only by returning to the formlessness of primal energy that renewal can take place. We need it just the way an apple tree needs the cold of winter.”

As the neutral zone is discomfiting, beginnings can be anti-climatic. Usually, there are no bells, whistles, or red carpets, just a “faint intimation of something different, a new theme in the music, and a strange fragrance on the breeze.” Although some individuals may feel invigorated by beginnings, often it takes time to become adjusted to a new identity or situation. Even a beginning considered positive by societal standards – like getting married, having a child, or getting promoted – can be extremely stressful as those affected become attuned to an unfamiliar landscape.

Although no one can escape life’s inevitable transitions, people’s coping styles vary depending on a variety of factors from biology to their family of origin. Talking to a trusted friend or mental health professional can be helpful if you or someone you know shows signs of depression and anxiety. Reflecting on Bridges’ framework, however, may help demystify transitions so they don’t seem quite so scary or overwhelming. Liberated from our fears, we can dance courageously with the unknown, mining important life lessons from every little step.

Stay tuned for information on my “Coping with Transitions” workshop at the JCC in Manhattan this winter.

Reclaiming the Authorship Rights of Our Career Narratives

When I first moved to San Francisco in the early 90s, I was frequently pegged for being a New Yorker, and it wasn’t because of my barely detectable accent. Within seconds of meeting a new acquaintance, I would inevitably ask “What do you do?”

More often than not, I received responses I didn’t expect: “I paint,” “I windsurf,” “I’m training for a biathlon,” or “I help at-risk kids.”

I wanted to know what they did for a living – they told me how they lived.

Granted I was young and most of the people I met were 20-somethings who didn’t have mortgages to pay or families to support. But this broader paradigm has given me the flexibility to navigate career transitions that would have been difficult had I remained too firmly attached to the letters after my name (MSW, LCSW) or the size of my writing portfolio.

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with taking pride in one’s hard-earned status and credentials. But glomming on to titles that complete sentences like “I am a ________________” (stockbroker, lawyer, etc.) can trigger an identity crisis when confronted with precarious life circumstances like, say, a recession.

One of the key factors in determining emotional resiliency is what social psychologists call an “internal locus of control.” A locus of control, which can be either external or internal, is a belief about our power to effect change in our lives. Those with a dominant external locus of control believe their destiny lies beyond their sphere of influence. Consequently, they often feel victimized. People with a strong internal locus of control, on the other hand, believe their decisions hold sway over their future. While they may be unable to avoid natural disasters, the death of loves ones, economic downturns, and similar such crises, they feel empowered because they can choose their response.

Personally speaking, an internal locus of control has helped me remain true to my calling during periods of professional upheaval. Several years ago, I took a detour from my social work career, accepting a position as a development writer at a large philanthropy because I needed a job that paid decently and gave me flexibility to care and eventually grieve for a terminally ill loved one. I had been an unfulfilled journalist before obtaining my MSW and earning my clinical license at an outpatient addiction and mental health counseling center in Maryland. But as a newcomer to New York City, I was in no position to start a private practice and all the social work jobs either paid a pittance or had client quotas that would have impeded my care-giving responsibilities.

Some wise person once said “if you don’t love what you do, love why you’re doing it.” The job worked for me because I was able to support myself and care for my family member. Yet, whenever I gave out my business card with my job title “Senior Development Writer,” I felt a sense of betrayal. I had to constantly remind myself of who I was, why I was there, and where I wanted to go.

Because I remained true to my inner compass, I gradually found my way back. When the cues presented themselves, I spoke with colleagues about my professional background and interests. Eventually, I was invited to serve on committees where my experience as a clinical social worker was recognized by peers and experienced clinicians, leading to connections and opportunities that helped me complete the transition. Today, not only do I have a growing private practice, but I have also taught therapeutic writing workshops (combining my love of writing and psychology) at such high-profile venues as the 92nd Street Y and the JCC in Manhattan. This September, I will try my hand at academia, teaching master’s level Psychopathology at Long Island University’s School of Social Work.

I offer this neither as an invitation for praise nor as encouragement for taking the road less traveled, but rather as an alternative paradigm for job-seekers who may need to temporarily suspend their attachment to their professional credentials so they can reinvent themselves in an “any job is better than no job” economy.

In my workshop, The You Behind Your Resume:  Writing from a Novel Perspective When You’re in Career Transition, my primary goal is to help recently unemployed individuals tap into their internal locus of control and remember that they are much more than their last salaried position.

Most participants are Baby-Boomers. The very same generations that challenged the Vietnam War, broke with social convention and achieved unprecedented levels of affluence now find themselves depicted as hapless victims of an economy that favors youth over experience. These world-weary job seekers tell me they are tired of having their stories told to them – “I’m sorry but you’re over-qualified” – or about them – “Longer Unemployment for Those 45 and Older”  http://www.nytimes.com/2009/04/13/us/13age.htm.

The first question I pose to the group is “Who would you be if you weren’t________________?”  I instruct them to fill in the blank and answer the question, writing continuously for four minutes. By inviting participants to see themselves as multi-dimensional characters whose sum total of life experiences – as mothers, husbands, sons, rebels, artists, epicureans, caregivers, environmentalists, athletes, survivors, lovers, etc. – subsumes their resumes, participants can reclaim the authorship rights of their lives as they become reacquainted with their larger storylines.

In another exercise, I ask participants to imagine their lives as novels. I instruct them to assign a title to the current chapter of their life story and write a brief summary in the third person narrative.

A 60-something woman from Park Slope shared the following:

Sprung Like Athena
After 35 years with the same company, the only transition she had to make was from one side of the door to the      other. Without ever acknowledging the albatross that was around her neck, suddenly, with two steps, it wasn’t.

Empowering participants to tell their stories from a perspective that is personally meaningful instills them with a sense of well-being that may not only impress a prospective interviewer, but remain with them regardless of whether they are offered a job.

The Difference Between a Monologue and a Dialogue

Once in a while, when a conversation with someone I care about takes an unexpected turn that is not to my liking, I am tempted to stand up and yell “C-U-U-U-U-T!”

“Excuse me,” I imagine myself saying, leaning over the person’s shoulder, megaphone dangling at my hip. “But you are not following the script. Your lines are, ‘Yes, of course, you are right. I agree wholeheartedly. I will do (such and such). Anything to make you happy.’”

“Oh,” they respond, slowly emerging from a daze. And they repeat the lines I have fed them. “Great, that’s more like it,” I reply. “Now say it with feeling.”

Of course, my fantasy conversations are usually just that – fantasies. And they’re not dialogues either; they are monologues…between me and my ego.

Although a monologue is technically defined as a “prolonged talk or discourse by a single speaker,” conversations between two parties who are not really listening to each other are essentially monologues masquerading as dialogues.

Most people spend their time vacillating between monologues and dialogues – the latter being far less frequent. At least, this was the theory postulated by early 20th century existentialist philosopher Martin Buber in his signature work “I – Thou.”  http://buber.de/en/

Buber described the difference between monologues and dialogues as an “I – It” vs. “I – Thou” dynamic. In each case, the “I” represents the self – essentially, the totality of our feelings, values, and perceptions that comprise our personal daily universe.

According to Buber, the essence of existence lies in how we interact with others. The “I – It” relationship is about objectification. We relate to people as “its” every time fear and self-interest interfere with our being able to fully experience the exquisite reality of another human being. At its worst and most obvious, “I-itting” is responsible for all genres of human atrocities – genocide, homicide, domestic violence, racism, and sexism. In modern terms, “I – it” would perhaps best describe the paralysis between Republicans and Democrats, Israelis and Palestinians, gays and fundamentalists.

In our intimate or collegial relationships, however, “I-itting” can be much more insidious. Monologues can easily creep into and potentially corrupt the most innocent of conversations, often unintentionally. This usually occurs when we ignore other people’s boundaries, focus too much on making a good impression, or engage with someone based on our perceptions of how well they can serve our personal needs.

Over time, “itting” can lead to feelings of alienation. Most people turn to psychotherapy either because they feel someone else is “itting” them or because they are “itting” others. Perhaps they’re feeling tuned out by a spouse, engaging in empty sexual relationships, neglecting their children, or living as strangers (“its”) to their authentic selves. Even as a therapist, I must monitor my own tendencies to “it” my clients by imposing my values, judgments, expectations, or need to feel competent.

That’s why authentic dialogue, not dueling monologues, is the healing aspect of the therapeutic relationship – or any relationship for that matter. To experience the full-bodied richness of an encounter with another person without motive or guile is what Buber describes as the “I-Thou” relationship.

The “I-Thou” relationship is about letting go of agendas. It’s about authenticity, mutuality, witnessing, and truth-telling. It respects differences and embraces separate but equally valid realities, which requires the courage to take risks and trust the process.

Of course, letting go of appearances and attachments to outcomes is often easier said than done. “I – Thou” thus requires a fully present “I.” What does that mean? A wise friend of mine has the same birthday wish every year – to have greater intimacy with himself. Without that, he explains, he cannot be intimate with anyone else. Such is the “I – Thou” ideal.

One of the hardest things we can ever do, and the greatest act of love, is to put aside our own agendas and really listen to another person.  That’s why my fantasy monologues are never quite as satisfying as real-life dialogues, when the mutual exchange of feelings and perspectives can deepen, heal, and cement the bonds of friendship, partnerships, and familial relationships.

So while I may be tempted to redirect conversations that make me nervous, I know what I must ultimately do – put down my megaphone, toss out the script, take a deep breath, and say, “yes, I am listening.” And mean it.

Step Back from the Same Old Story….and Check Out the Landscape

Part Two of a Two-Part Series

Imagine walking into a neighborhood bookstore and discovering a novel with a familiar picture on the cover. Flipping through the pages, you are struck by the eerie sense that you’ve read this before. As you begin to recognize characters and scenes, wincing at some and smiling at others, you realize this is the story of your life.

Would you feel love and compassion for the main character, or would you think “what a schmuck?’ According to the latest psychological research, you are likely to view your life more favorably at a distance than up close.

A 2005 study reported in the Journal of Psychological Science illustrated that people who described previous scenes in their lives in the third person narrative (“he” did this and “she” did that) spoke about their past with more confidence and optimism than those who recalled similar scenes in the first person (“I” did such and such).

The study was described in a May 2007 New York Times article entitled “This is Your Life (and How You Tell It).” http://www.nytimes.com/2007/05/22/health/psychology/22narr.html
An excerpt from this article illustrates that, not only are human beings natural storytellers, but also that how we tell a story influences how it unfolds:

“Psychologists have shown just how interpretations of memories can alter future behavior. In an experiment published in 2005, researchers had college students who described themselves as socially awkward in high school recall one of their most embarrassing moments. Half of the students re-imagined the humiliation in the first person, and the other half pictured it in the third person.’

‘Two clear differences emerged. Those who replayed the scene in the third person rated themselves as having changed significantly since high school — much more so than the first-person group did. The third-person perspective allowed people to reflect on the meaning of their social miscues, the authors suggest, and thus to perceive more psychological growth. And their behavior changed, too.”

In my Writing from a Novel Perspective workshops, I ask participants to write about the current chapter in their lives in the third person voice the way an author would sketch a main character, freeing them to see beyond their usual point of view. The third-person gives them an elevated perspective on their personal narrative, as if the were watching their lives on a movie screen, reading their story in a book, or having an out-of-body experience.

While some participants give me strange looks when I ask them to describe a chapter of their life in the third person, the results are always affirming. Everyone is always surprised at how much easier it is to express themselves.

Why is this technique so effective? Our challenge often lies in getting past our ego – the big “I.”  While a good, healthy “I” gives us a sense of our place in the world, which is necessary to successfully navigate changes, the very letter itself oozes subjectivity and creates the illusion of permanence.

When we begin a sentence in the first person with “I am this” or “I think that,” we become automatically attached to the descriptors that follow. This can be potentially problematic. Statements like “I am a rich, successful stockbroker” or “I am a professional athlete” may evoke powerful emotional attachments that, if challenged by external circumstances like the market crashing or getting permanently injured, can trigger an identity crisis.

In psychological terms, writing in the third person essentially sneaks past our defenses by tricking the censoring ego into thinking that we are describing someone else’s life, even though we’re describing our own.

Being able to see our stories from an unfamiliar perspective can open our eyes to new insights that can transform ingrained behaviors. From the perch of the third-person narrative, we can step out of our stories, check out the landscape, and determine whether the roads we’re taking are navigable or need to be rerouted. And from there, who knows what we’ll discover?


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