Archive for the 'Relationships' 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.

From Cyberspying to Defriending: How Facebook Wreaks Relationship Mischief

Read my new blog post on Psychology Today by clicking the link below!

http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-novel-perspective/201110/cyberspying-and-defriending-how-facebook-is-finding-its-way-the-th

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.

Character Development: The Heart of Any Story Worth Living

A friend of mine who’s had a disproportionate number of struggles in her 45 years on earth, bristles whenever I try to comfort her by espousing the virtues of character development. “Great, another f-ing personal growth experience,” she says.

While I completely empathize, I sometimes wonder whether we can ever really know how much character-building is too much. From Friedrich Nietzsche to Carl Jung, to the Vilna Goan, many philosophical and spiritual luminaries have subscribed to the belief that adversity cultivates character, challenging the forces of  inertia so that we may face a fear, strengthen emotional muscle, eradicate self-defeating thoughts, or break an unhealthy relationship pattern.

Personally speaking, character development is why I became a psychotherapist. It is also one of the reasons I go to the movies or pick up a book – I want to witness personal transformation, and be transformed in the process. I want to help the chronically timid woman discover previously untapped reserves of strength and courage. I want to read about the political refugee who finds salvation in friendship and small, meaningful acts of humanity.

Unfortunately, character development doesn’t occur in a vacuum. Life typically presents us with circumstances that bump up against our rougher edges. These circumstances, which we might call conflicts, present us with opportunities to refine these growth edges or run the risk of becoming, well…even edgier.

Of course, no one ever consciously desires conflicts. Most of us will go out of our way to avoid them, the fight-or-flight response being hard-wired into our DNA. However, in the world of novels and film, not ony do we expect conflicts, but also we recognize, consciously or not, that they are an important part of any story worth telling.

As many of us recall from high school English class, conflict is a basic element of a story that results from the interaction between the protagonist (the main character) and the antagonist, typically a person (boss), group of people (government), situation (hurricane) or personal shortcoming (addiction).

Conflicts in novels and films shape the plot and move the story forward, presenting the main character with opportunities to overcome inner obstacles, potentially leading to epiphanies, life lessons, and psychological rebirth.

Just like in novels, the chapters of our lives often present us with opportunities to strengthen areas within ourselves that haven’t been fully developed. In my Writing from a Novel Perspective workshops, I ask participants to explore through writing character traits that might be cultivated through a conflictual encounter with an antagonist in a recent episode of their personal narrative.

I tell participants that “conflict” can be interpreted literally as a person who is giving them grief, or as loosely as ambivalence about making an important decision. Once they have identified their antagonist, I encourage them to imagine how the conflict with their antagonist might help them develop personal strengths in areas where they haven’t historically felt so strong.

For example, a successful executive with a history of being judgemental about the less fortunate may, upon losing his job, find himself developing a greater degree of compassion for himself and for others. Similarly, a newly divorced woman who took a passive role in her relationship with an alcoholic spouse may need to become assertive to move forward in life and secure the welfare of her children.

And here is the beauty of this process:  once we accept that our antagonist has something valuable to teach us, we can begin to mine the gems of of the situation whether or not our story unfolds to our liking. Suddenly responding to conflict with anger and resentment or, alternatively, with  introspection and empowerment, becomes a conscious choice. This new awareness can transform our personal narratives into paeans to the triumph of the human spirit over adversity, reminding us that character development is not only the heart of any story worth reading, but also worth living.


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