Familiar Expectations

Ah! There is nothing and I mean nothing I prefer more than coming home. After a day of work, I love pulling out the key to my apartment door, turning the lock and crossing that threshold of the rest of the world and me.

Well, not just me; us. It’s great to come home because I don’t live alone. I have never lived alone. I grew up with three brothers and so have always wanted company when I return from the things that I do outside of my home. Now, I live with my one true love and life could not be better. Yeah, I am super content exactly where I am. And now that I’ve crossed that threshold, I am ready to make myself something to eat. Maybe a sandwich? No, I didn’t get the bread I told myself I’d get. That’s fine, I have plenty of food, and the food I have plenty of is cereal. Easy, ready in a snap and as long as I’ve got… let me see… yup, milk then I’m good to go. Let me open the cabinet and reach for a…

Oh.

You’re kidding. Continue reading

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Free Flowing

I.

am.

Bummed.

I feel so alone. The last time I kissed anyone was so long ago, I forget what they’re lips felt like… and I’ve forgotten how to kiss. Ok, maybe not forgotten but, wow, I can’t believe how I feel when I’m not holding hands with someone or sharing my day with someone, or making dinner for someone. Yeah, I think it’s safe to say that I really enjoy doing things for my (now non-existent) girlfriend.

I had a girlfriend over 4 years ago. We saw each other almost everyday and I remember at the beginning not wanting to spend too much time on the phone with her because I didn’t like to talk on the phone. But over time, we ended up talking hours over it. I love the way a relationship progresses – how you don’t know a person at the beginning and slowly find out more and more about them. I wanted to accept my girlfriend 100% and never wanted her to feel judged or alone. When I first met her, she seemed rather mean to people, so I started to call her “my mean girl” and, I like to think, by giving her the space to be herself, she began to soften up. It was great, I was such a supportive boyfriend.

And now I’m typing about it… and now I’m getting choked up about it. Continue reading

Fuming Recognition

Half an hour. She said she would be here half an hour ago and she’s not here… I’m going to call her, this is ridiculous… No answer. So she’s on her way? She better be… we’re going to be late as it is. Is my time worthless to her? Do I have nothing better to do than sit around and wait for her? I should have taken the bus; I would have been there by now. How completely obnoxious of someone to keep me waiting and not have the decency to call or, heaven forbid actually be here at the time we both agreed on.

Wow, am I fired up. I am so upset right now. I can feel my face begin to fume. My heartbeat’s increased and I feel like I want to break something. When she gets here, I am so going to let her have it. I’m going to tell her once and for all that this business of keeping me waiting has got to stop or else. In fact, I will never ask her to pick me up again, it’s obvious she doesn’t care anyway. Oh man, I am so pissed! Continue reading

Depression: Inward Anger?

Emotions show

Image via Wikipedia

Emotions are a subject of considerable importance in most therapy settings.  It’s pretty hard to do any kind of useful therapy without bringing emotions into the picture in some way.  Traditionally, this equates to the old standby that therapy is just talking about your feelings.  Although this is partly true, it would be a great falsehood to claim that this is all that therapy is or can be.

Regardless, in my opinion, the core of all dysfunction stems from some kind of emotional ‘disturbance.’  This could take many forms, form as serious as a past traumatic event to the way that emotions were handled in the family you grew up in (arguably the only variable in life over which you truly have no choice).  For example, if you grew up in an environment in which emotions were regularly hidden or suppressed, you might be unlikely to be comfortable expressing outward emotions like anger or frustration most of the time.  Inward emotions, like sadness, might be more comfortable for you because they naturally lead to behaviours such as isolation and withdrawal from situations that may be overly stimulating.

In any emotion-focused therapy, one of the main goals can be to explore how problems manifest emotionally on different levels of awareness.  A lot of people are just not that familiar with their own emotions.  I have some theories on why that might be (like most things related to mental health, we’re not doing a very good job educating our children on emotions – despite the fact that they’ve been proven to be the same all over the world), but I’ll save that for another article.  Often times people will come to therapy with a problem, say depression, that seemingly comes out of nowhere, but often has to do with another emotion they’re uncomfortable with, for example anger.  Sometimes exploring how emotions are processed leads to insight about how the problem developed and how to move towards health.

Let’s consider the example of Rachel, a pretend case loosely based on an amalgamation of former clients.

Rachel grew up with a mother who worked at a demanding job, was often stressed out and irritable around the kids, and frequently had angry outbursts.  Rachel’s dad played the role of the even-keeled peacekeeper whenever a family conflict arose, and was pretty good at this seeing as Rachel can’t remember her dad ever really getting outwardly emotional.  Rachel quickly learned to navigate her interactions with her mom by taking after her dad and keeping as many of her emotions as she could on the inside.  It didn’t take her long to figure out that getting angry with her mom only made things worse for her, as mom would only get more upset in return.  Furthermore, she began to associate outward anger with her mom, and vowed (consciously or not) that she would not end up this way when she grew up.

Now in her twenties, Rachel (who no longer lives with her parents) starts to feel depressed.  This starts to affect her grades at school and her relationships with friends and roommates.  It’s not long before she’s dropped her classes, and as her depression gets steadily worse, she’s soon spending most days unable to even get out of bed.

This is the point that Rachel seeks therapy, something she has never done before.  Her therapist soon notices that although Rachel describes terrible symptoms of depression, hopelessness, and despair, she often smiles and speaks with a bubbly voice.  The only evidence of her ordeal is an occasional bout of stifled tears.  Through talking with her therapist, she begins to explore how she experiences emotions, and states that she is often “the conflict mediator” or peacekeeper in her relations with others.  Even in her darkest hour, she nobly (or perhaps stubbornly) attempts to downplay the magnitude of her depression.  She’s so used to being “the helper,” that being in a position of needing help is completely foreign to her.

Eventually, her therapist makes the comment that given some of what Rachel has experienced, it would make good sense for her to feel angry.  This comes as somewhat of an epiphany to Rachel, who had never thought of it that way.  With the help of therapy she was able to see how she actually was really angry.  The rub is that she didn’t have any way to express that anger healthily, and so it festered and grew inside until it became unable to be ignored.  But still, Rachel’s discomfort with the emotion of anger was too deep-rooted for her to notice what was going on.  Something had to give, though.  If Rachel wasn’t going to let herself experience anger, that anger was going to get out in a different way.  So, instead of going outward, it was turned inward, which appeared outwardly as sadness, an emotion that Rachel was much more comfortable with because she could hide it.

After realizing this, Rachel began to work on better differentiating her emotional states and working on ways to healthily express her anger.  It wasn’t long before the worst of her depression lifted.

This is just one example of how emotions can get in our way when we don’t know our way around them well enough.  Doesn’t have to be sadness and anger, although some have theorized that depression can be thought of as a kind of inward anger, as described above.  We all have emotions we’re more comfortable with than others, and we’re the only ones that experience our own emotions, so it can be hard to know when they’re getting us into trouble.

In general, emotions do us a lot more good than harm.  I guess the bottom line in this article is that knowing our emotional selves better can be a great way to capitalize on the good and minimize the harm.

I’ll see you around

this sad goodbye bear is going goodbye

“You must have the worst job in the world,” a client once told my supervisor.

I would be quite inclined to disagree, obviously.  However, the context in which these words were spoken lend them a strong element of truth.

There are probably lots, but I’m hard pressed at the moment to think of many jobs outside of the helping professions where you habitually build significant relationships with people, who are more often than not in a state of distress, see them change, grow, improve (or worsen),  hear some of their closest secrets, their worst fears, and at the end of the day, without fail, have to say goodbye.

And I’m quickly discovering that this is one element of being a helper that, for lack of a more descriptive word, sucks.  It’s balls.

It’s one of those things that you read in the intro to counselling textbooks and think that you’ve got a handle on, that you’ll know all the right things to say, that you’ll know how to take care of yourself when a client walks out of your office for the last time visibly trying to hold back tears after you’ve stumbled through saying goodbye.

I feel like there have been a lot of those lessons, the ones where all of a sudden what you read or learned about makes sense in a totally different way once you live it.  And you’re left thinking “ahhhhh… that’s what they were talking about!”  Except it’s just not possible to really know what they were talking about before you experience it.  You think you do.  But you don’t.  I’ll have a post of some of these lessons sometime in the future.

But one has to ask: why do we put ourselves through this painful process of saying goodbye, when it goes against every human impulse to remain connected, to just say, “I’m sure I’ll see you again, somewhere, sometime”?

Because there really is every impulse to say something to that effect.  Something about saying “goodbye” is so final, so definitive, such a reminder of our mortality, that to face it head on can be incredibly anxiety provoking.  Endings are uncomfortable, and experiencing one often brings up memories of endings from our past.

One of the most salient such memories for myself is having to say goodbye to my grandfather on his deathbed.  What could I possibly say that would communicate what I feel?  And how?  I’ll always remember how awkward that moment was, and how really, I couldn’t think of the ‘right’ thing to say.  How, more than anything, I felt embarrassed, and then guilty that this was the strongest thing that I felt.

In the situation I’m in now, at the end of an 8 month practicum, saying goodbye after goodbye after goodbye to the very people I had previously been trying to get to know better, to build a strong therapeutic relationship with, it’s hard not to be reminded of all the times I wish I had done a better job saying goodbye to other people in my life.

But I guess that’s just human nature.  It’s easier to avoid the hard feelings.  To ignore the discomfort.  To say, “I’ll see you around sometime” when we know that we damn sure won’t.

It’s time to reclaim goodbye.