Nov 09

The Problem with Positive Psychology

Positive psychology has come to the fore in our culture, giving rise to certain positivity performance anxiety. We are under pressure from television, radio and particularly social media to maintain an optimistic outlook, no matter what; believe that we can accomplish anything we set our minds to; learn to let things go; claim that everything happens for a good reason; and turn the proverbial “sows’ ears” of negative experiences into “silk purses.” We are told to follow our passion, to set lofty goals and rush headlong—and ecstatically—toward them.

The Oprahs of the world—influential ministers, TED talkers, motivational speakers, life coaches and celebrities—preach a hyped-up, viral message that has come to be known as the prosperity gospel: Become an unerringly positive, assertive and empathetic person, and the world will reward you with love, connection and success.

The logic is both troubling in a moral sense and likely to set us up for disappointment. First of all, aren’t we just talking about the Golden Rule? Shouldn’t being a good person be its own reward? Furthermore, human beings are not meant to be blissfully happy all the time, and negative experiences contain valuable lessons. We get depressed, anxious and fearful—generally for tangible reasons. These so-called negative emotions can function as wake-up calls, motivators to change our behaviors or to transform our circumstances for the better. They help us become and remain what the late psychologist Carl Rogers called congruent—a state of personality integration in which an individual’s real self, perceived self and ideal self match.

Recent research has challenged this naive positivity, suggesting that individuals who engage in “mental contrasting,” that is, those who set a realistic goal and then explore its obstacles are much more successful than people who engage in “magical thinking,” or those who sabotage themselves by dwelling on the hurdles. “Magical thinkers” set lofty goals that may be beyond their abilities or circumstances and visualize great success without seeing the challenges contained therein. “Eyeores” dwell on the reasons that they cannot accomplish given goals, disabling themselves before they even try.

Mental contrasting is a hybrid approach that combines positive psychology with realism. An individual first visualizes an attainable goal, allowing their imaginations full rein. They then switch into a more logical gear and begin outlining and analyzing the challenges that lie in the pursuit of that goal. Next, they work out pragmatic approaches to addressing those challenges. Such an exercise greatly increases an individual’s likelihood of success.

Psychologist Gabriele Oettingen, a professor at New York University and the University of Hamburg, has produced powerful results in this research.

“Positive thinking is pleasurable, but that doesn’t mean it’s good for us,” says Oettingen. “Like so much in life, attaining goals requires a balanced and moderate approach, neither dwelling on the downsides nor a forced jumping for joy.”

Indeed, mental contrasting is yet another critical tool for building congruence and working toward integration of self.


Apr 09

Tap-Dancing to Work

By Elizabeth O’Brien, LPC

A career should be a source of joy and empowerment. But too often, Sunday evening is cloaked in dread. Monday morning’s alarm hangs heavy.

While the national unemployment picture has improved, many people who have jobs are not satisfied. They work for “The Man,” sitting in a sterile cubicle, performing rote tasks, or perhaps standing on their feet all day, working in a segment of the service industry. And I know from the 20- and 30-somethings I see in my practice—those with non-tech, undergraduate college degrees, at least—that sales jobs seem to offer the most prevalent prospects. Some people may be well-suited to sales or administrative work, but for too many, those jobs are not a good fit, or worse, they are empty, mind-numbing rat-races to nowhere. To be in sales requires a certain kind of charismatic, energetic personality and a thick skin that can stand up to frequent rejection. Administrative work calls for an attention to detail and organization that is most suitable for analytical, left-brained individuals.

I tell clients to first think about who they are, what they love to do and where their skills and natural inclinations lie. Then, they must do their research. It’s true that it’s not always possible to find one’s dream job. But it is possible to search and prepare in such a way that the individual improves his or her chances of getting close.  

I am not a career counselor. I am a Licensed Professional Counselor, or psychotherapist, who specializes in supporting clients in exploring a more meaningful path. Generally, this means looking inside, reading a lot and networking like crazy, finding people you admire who are making a decent living doing something they love, and picking their brains. Often, getting to where one wants to be requires some kind of certification, further training or education. It may involve an unpaid internship, apprenticeship, resonant volunteer work, or even a foray into the world of entrepreneurship.

In Malcolm Gladwell’s book, Outliers: The Story of Success, he posits that people should look for three things when searching for a satisfying career. He states: “Those three things—autonomy, complexity, and a connection between effort and reward—are, most people will agree, the three qualities that work has to have if it is to be satisfying.”

This struck home. Let’s start with autonomy: Generally, working for a big corporation or bureaucracy does not offer a lot of autonomy, unless you’re in upper management. However, even on the lower rungs, it may be possible to find a job where the individual can exert some control over how he does it. But in creative fields, smaller companies or start-ups, there is a much higher likelihood. Regarding complexity, Gladwell is saying that the work must be challenging and interesting enough to keep the employee stimulated, and invested in the work. There must be opportunities for continual learning, growth and promotion. Finally, the connection between effort and reward may prove more elusive. Ideally, it is built into certain professions, such as nursing, social work, teaching, firefighting and nonprofit work. But it can exist in other fields, even sales and service work, particularly if the individual seeks it, and orients himself in that way. Basically, Gladwell means that the effort one expends in his job results in a tangible payoff—and not just the financial kind. To paraphrase Viktor Frankl, author of Man’s Search for Meaning, one of the main ways to find true meaning in life is by transcending ourselves to help others.

The great investor Warren Buffett, CEO of Berkshire Hathaway, is famous for saying that he “tap dances to work.” The brilliant investor, now 83, is so happy in his career that he cannot wait to get there. Why? Surely part of the reason is that what he does contains these three key ingredients: autonomy, complexity, and connection between effort and reward. He says he felt equally passionate even when he was young and struggling, trying to convince family and friends to allow him to invest their money. 

“Find your passion,” says Buffett in Carol Loomis’ book, Tap Dancing to Work: Warren Buffett on Practically Everything, “I was very, very lucky to find it when I was seven or eight years old…You’re lucky in life when you find it. And you can’t guarantee you’ll find it in your first job out. But I always tell students…’Take the job you would take if you were independently wealthy. You’re going to do well at it.’”

Bottom line: Buffett created his own happy destiny. And if you know anything about him, he is the opposite of a money-grubbing materialist. Compared to other CEOs and billionaires, he lives the simplest of lives, paying himself a modest salary, eschewing bonuses and driving himself to work. And all that money? He’s giving it back to society.

What we do on this Earth—and how we approach it—comes down, largely,  to choice. Why not choose to tap-dance to work?


Mar 31

The Pets We Love—and Mourn

By Elizabeth O’Brien, LPC

 

Among the clients I see are those grieving the loss of a pet. In fact, the other day, I received a call from my veterinarian asking that I drop off more of my business cards. Ours is a particularly dog-friendly neighborhood, featuring dozens of wild Greenbelt trails.

It might sound silly to some that certain individuals would actually visit a therapist to help them process the loss of an animal. Animals are not humans, after all. We get them for companionship, for protection, for our children. We get them because they amuse us, because they are beautiful, because they can confer status. Sometimes, we get them on sheer impulse. They are of a “lower order,” and hence subject to our whims. Most live only a few years, and then they die, or, if they’re suffering, we put them to sleep. Perhaps after some time has passed, we get another. Many people don’t believe that animals have consciousness, or souls, and that they can easily be replaced.

But for those who have a deep affinity for animals, or who have always incorporated pets into their lives—and families—the death of a pet is heartbreaking and even tragic. They feel the loss viscerally, and it diminishes their lives. A family or pack member is gone, leaving a gaping, ragged hole. A unique personality is extinguished, and the equilibrium of life is shattered. The owner’s very identity can be shaken.

So how can therapy help?

Beyond the obvious catharsis of talking through one’s grief, regular therapy for even a short while can be beneficial. It can serve as a designated time set aside for the critical work of grieving—something humans avoid at their peril. Denying grief, or distracting oneself with work or unhealthy preoccupations, can backfire. It can stop one up, block the flow of healthy emotions, result in painful incongruence of self. A death, whether human or animal, must be acknowledged and honored. As an integral part of life, death must be reckoned with. And a good therapist can help the client create a coherent narrative that makes emotional sense.

Therapists can also suggest specific actions that could help soften the blow, or at least offer an arena for tangible processing. Creating a ritual around the animal’s death, for example, is a good way to begin. If the pet is dying, but hasn’t yet passed, the client could consider asking the vet to make a house call to euthanize the animal, with the family gathered around and touching or holding the pet. When the pet has died, owners can choose to allow the vet to dispose of the body, bury the pet themselves, or have the pet cremated. Vets act as middlemen with pet crematoriums, and the pet’s ashes are generally returned in an attractive urn, along with the pet’s ceramic paw print. These keepsakes can be meaningful, and owners can choose to keep the ashes or scatter them outdoors, at the animal’s favorite place. For those who bury their own pets, a simple family “service,” including spoken remembrances, is comforting. A homemade grave marker or even a custom-made headstone can memorialize the pet.

When our beautiful parakeet Tango died unexpectedly, we buried him in the woods behind our house. Each family member offered an anecdote, or comforting words, and we marked his grave with a tall, sturdy stick, to which we attached his favorite toy. When Jordan, our Labrador Retriever, was suffering from cancer, our vet came to our house and put her to sleep as my daughter cradled her, and our family, including our young Bichon, stood by. Afterwards, I allowed the Bichon, Buffett, to sniff her body, in hopes that he would understand.

Journaling about the pet is another effective strategy. Writing marries the rational left brain with the emotional/creative right brain, delving deeply into the unconscious mind. Painful material can then be “excavated” and brought up into the conscious mind, where it can be more readily expunged. Creating a photo album, scrapbook, or even a colorful timeline of the pet’s life is another positive initiative.

There are also countless online resources addressing pet loss, featuring blogs, support groups, reading suggestions, etc. One especially comprehensive site is pet-loss.net.

In closing, I’ll share a quote from the inimitable Texas firebrand Kinky Friedman, who established an animal rescue ranch in the Texas Hill Country many years ago. He said: “They say when you die and go to heaven, all the dogs and cats you’ve ever had in your life come running to meet you.”

A consoling thought, indeed.

 

 

 


Dec 09

What’s Your Story?

St. Edward’s University Graduation Speech

2013 Counseling Graduates

 

What’s Your Story?

Elizabeth O’Brien, LPC

 

Ch. 1: Honoring Your Roots

Everyone Has a Story

Each of YOU has a story about how you found your way from your previous life to the St. Ed’s counseling program. Whether you enrolled right after college or later on, you came to the MAC program with dreams of forging a new, perhaps more congruent path.

I was no different. All my life, I have been interested in people and their stories. Even when I was young, my friends came to me with their problems and I was always a willing ear. I grew up in Memphis, in the heart of the Mississippi Delta, where storytelling is an art form. An English major at the University of Tennessee (the REAL UT!), I began my career as a journalist, hiring on as a copy girl with the Miami Herald. Since I was good at talking to people, and I liked to write, the choice seemed appropriate. For the next 16 years, I worked as a newspaper and magazine reporter in South Florida and New York City, where I finally got my dream job at Life Magazine. At the time, it was a perfect fit: I captured people’s stories for a living.

Then I got pregnant. When I had my first child, a son, I quit my job and freelanced, but my heart wasn’t in it. I loved being a mother and this eclipsed everything else. My story was evolving. Two more children– a daughter and another son–followed. By this time, we had moved from Manhattan to Brooklyn, and my photographer husband was traveling much of the time. I held down the fort. With a baby in a backpack, a toddler in a stroller and a 5-year-old on foot, we braved the streets and subways of the city, trudging to the park, shopping for groceries, visiting the pediatrician, meeting friends for play dates. But eventually, the expense and logistics of New York became overwhelming. Kindergarten tuition was on par with college.

We moved to Austin in 1993. Immediately, life was easy. The privacy and tranquility of driving my own car, instead of being sardine-ed on a subway with 3 kids and all the requisite equipment, was balm for my soul. The panoramic sky– something I hadn’t seen properly in years–nearly brought me to tears.

By the time the older two had left for college and my youngest was a high school sophomore, I could see the empty nest approaching. I was getting itchy to reclaim my own life. Three of of my volunteer jobs were critical in my ultimate decision to apply to the MAC program: writing the newsletter for the local non-profit, Mobile Loaves and Fishes; doing pet therapy with my Labrador Retriever; and serving an 8-year stint in the Stephen Ministry at my church. A Stephen minister is a lay person trained over the course of several months to function as a spiritual support to a congregant in crisis, meeting weekly with the individual, much as a counselor would. Those experiences fit; in the words of my old Southern English professor, they “spoke to my condition.”

Ch. 2: Choosing St. Edward’s

I researched counseling programs in the area, and zeroed in on St. Ed’s. The clincher, I admit, was the school’s willingness to waive the dreaded GRE–saving me from the further delay of taking an intensive course in remedial math. But when I was admitted, I froze. I had not been a student in decades…could I handle it? So I visited my advisor and tried to beg off, telling her I thought I’d defer admission and mull it over. But she held firm: don’t delay, she said. Put your toe in the water with just one course and see what happens. I did just that and was hooked, ultimately plunging into the program full-time. But there was another obstacle early on: I was older, intimidated in a sea of young people. Again, I was lucky: during orientation, I met a handful of women exactly my age. We ended up sticking together for the next three years and, if I do say so myself, we RULED! We all did our Practicums at Capital Area Counseling; and we comforted ourselves with the thought that we had picked a profession in which age (at last!) counted in our favor.

For me, St. Ed’s was one of the great experiences of my life–an incubator for a new beginning. Small and nurturing, the MAC program became a family. All my professors had something unique to offer, and they practiced what they preached by working as therapists in the real world. They woke us up. They made us laugh. And many of the friends and colleagues I made in the program–both professors and fellow students–will be life-long. They have changed me for the better.

Ch. 3: Finding a Mentor

Grad school, it turned out, was the easy part. Then the real adventure began. The licensing exam, 3000-hour internship and crafting of a new career required an entirely different mindset and a more sophisticated bandwidth. I was fortunate to secure Sunny Landsdale as my supervisor. Another intern and I talked her into taking us under her wing in private practice. She cleaned out a storage room in her offices and allowed us to furnish it as our counseling space. We were in business, with no clients. Then a friend referred a colleague to me, and I had my first client. That client referred someone else. As time went on, I realized that what I was doing felt oddly familiar. And then I made the connection: both journalism and therapy have to do with a fascination with the human condition, and in both cases, with getting someone’s story–albeit with different agendas. I could do this!

Building a caseload, though, took time. Serendipitously, another veteran therapist, Mark White,  asked me to co-facilitate an ongoing psycho-educational parent group. I had met him during my volunteer days, when I wrote a profile of him as one of the founders of Mobile Loaves and Fishes. He, too, mentored me. Some of those group members became my individual clients.

Ch. 4: Building a Foundation

During this period, I spent my free time doing everything I could to establish myself: creating a website, and writing regular blogs; networking with established therapists by taking them to coffee; attending professional meetings; giving free presentations on relevant topics at the community library; becoming certified in EMDR and Trauma First Aid; and reading what I hadn’t had time to read in grad school.

Ch. 5: Being Creative: Carving Out Your Niche

But the real turning point came one day when I was swimming laps at the Town Lake YMCA. It occurred to me that a pro bono counseling program would be ideal for the Y’s healthy mind-body-spirit mission. I proposed the idea and the Y management jumped on it. Within weeks, the program took off and I had to recruit another intern, MAC colleague Marvi Haynes, to help me. The Y cleaned out its Pilates storage room upstairs. We scrounged up some furniture from home and WalMart and hung up our shingle. Within months, between Sunny’s umbrella practice and the Y, I had logged my 3,000 hours.

Ch. 6: Joining a Tribe

Once fully licensed, I left Sunny to office with a group of like-minded colleagues from St. Ed’s and Capital Area Counseling. Known as the Austin Counseling Center, we share space and camaraderie on Westbank Drive. I am five minutes from home. Occasionally, with dog-friendly clients, I take my dogs to work as canine assistants. And the Town Lake YMCA counseling program—strategically located downtown, overlooking the hike ‘n bike trail– is still flourishing. We now offer Y members two pro bono sessions and then a sliding scale. Many become long-term clients. Unwittingly, the Y counseling program–serving members who range from homeless individuals to CEOs– has become a powerful marketing vehicle.

Ch. 7: Staying True to Your Story

So I ask you: what experiences in your life can inform your new profession? What are your roots? What connections do you have that might prove useful? What are you good at, and what do you love to do? What sets you apart?

Perhaps you have a business background, or a facility with languages. You might have experience in healthcare, teaching or pertinent volunteer work. Maybe you’re a parent, or part of a couple. You might have navigated a serious illness, or a trauma. Even if you’ve gone straight from undergrad to grad school, there is something in your background that can contribute to who you become in your career. Use your story–all of it.

The world-renowned writer and psychotherapist Thomas Moore, author of the powerful book  Care of the Soul, believes that it is the storytelling itself that is important–not only for us, as counselors, but also for our clients. He says:

“Storytelling is an excellent way of caring for the soul. It helps us see the themes that circle in our lives, the deep themes that tell the myths we live. It would take only a slight shift in emphasis in therapy to focus on the storytelling itself rather than on its interpretation.”

What this means to me is that the stories people tell about themselves, how they tell them and what they choose to emphasize, is where the substance lies–the key to the psyche, as it were. Storytelling, in this way, becomes a metaphor for the true self. It is our job as therapists to guide our clients in shaping their life narratives into empowering, integrated and genuine stories.

Ch. 8 Good Luck!

Needless to say, I am still on my journey. But today, I am privileged to watch YOU begin.

So whether you’re working at an agency or going into private practice, use your precious time to build a career around who you are. And be grateful…Remember: you are entering a profession in which meaning, and transcendence, are built into your work.

Above all, keep listening. There’s a story there.


Apr 19

Readiness for Change

Readiness for Change

By Elizabeth O’Brien, LPC

Many clients come in for therapy expecting the counselor to “fix them.” Yet when the counselor explores the problem(s)—asking critical questions, gently challenging negative or irrational thoughts and beliefs, reframing the meaning of the presenting issue, and then suggesting specific initiatives—clients often resist. They say they have either tried everything the therapist suggests, or that whatever the therapist is encouraging them to do “wouldn’t work” for them. They are not, needless to say, in a state of readiness.

Therapy is a collaboration, a relationship. By definition, it involves mirroring and reciprocity. And the client must take personal responsibility. No matter what the situation, playing the victim does not lead to healing. It keeps the client facing backward, into the past. It keeps the client in an incongruent state, in which he is denying his true, best self. The fact is, life is not fair. So what else is new?

Ideally, the counselor “joins with” the client on the client’s journey, supporting and encouraging him or her as he navigates life’s difficulties and disappointments. Most importantly, the counselor guides the client toward accessing his innate resilience. I believe that there is a part within every human being that is whole, healthy and strong. That part may be deeply buried and obfuscated by ambivalence, but the spark is there. The therapist’s job, in my mind, is to help the client find it, excavate it and allow it to breathe and flourish.

The “fixing” is a joint effort, with far more “credit” going to the client.

When a client is unhappy, but has definitively made the commitment to change, the therapist is empowered to do her job.

 


Feb 13

Congruence of Self

Congruence

By Elizabeth O’Brien

One of our main objectives as human beings is to reach a state of well-being—a state in which we are deeply comfortable in our own skin. To do this, we must become more fully congruent. What does this mean?

Being congruent means embracing our true self and projecting it into the world. When what we are feeling on the inside—emotionally, psychologically, spiritually—does not match what we are projecting on the outside, we are in an incongruent state. When we are incongruent, there is a “disconnect” in our sense of self. We are operating from a false self, a persona that does not truly represent who we are.

This is not a natural, healthy way of being. When we adapt too much to those around us, taking on their belief systems and behaviors—trying to be the person others expect us to be—we betray ourselves. Inevitably, we become conflicted and confused, and this ultimately leads to depression and anxiety. Depression and anxiety, in turn, can lead to a dysfunctional cycle of anger, frustration, procrastination, addiction, toxic relationships, unhappy careers, and disappointing, unfulfilled lives.

Surrounding ourselves with people we like and admire, who are reciprocal in relationships and who are striving to “self-actualize,” is key. Choosing work and play that suit our talents, strengths and natural inclinations is another way to become more congruent. Finally, working to transcend our demons—our self-defeating thoughts and behaviors—is another.

Admittedly, all of us must at times conform to certain norms and rules of professional and social etiquette, depending upon the situation. We have a professional persona and a social persona. We also have a more intimate persona. And then we have our deepest, vulnerable self, whom no one, except perhaps our families or closest loved ones, sees. The goal should be working toward an integration of self that incorporates our true self into those other required “adaptations” of self—adaptations that are genuine but scaled-back, less exposed versions of ourselves.


Dec 10

‘Tis the Season

‘Tis the Season
By Elizabeth O’Brien, LPC

The holidays are fraught with angst. Since late October, clients have been coming in with anxiety over upcoming family visits, tales of previous drama or longtime estrangements, and sadness over those who are no longer here. Many are financially strapped and feel pressure about spending money they don’t have. In addition, Halloween, Thanksgiving and Christmas tend to remind us of our childhoods, when life was either simpler and happier, or filled with pain.
One thing therapists try to help clients remember during the season is gratitude. Helping them shift their focus from dread in the face of impossible holiday expectations to joy in the little things, or at least appreciation of what they have, is critical. Family conflicts come into sharp relief at this time of year, when arguments over whose turn it is to visit whom, or whose turn it is to host, are rampant. Young adults who have started their own families may want to stay home with their little ones, the family dog and their own Christmas tree. Grandparents and other relatives can take offense, becoming demanding and petulant.
I try to encourage clients who are brooding over some slight or disagreement to recalibrate and, counter-intuitively, approach their loved ones from a place of empathy. Instead of the knee-jerk reaction of becoming defensive, I counsel them to “catch themselves” and put themselves in the others’ shoes, imagining what they must be feeling. A grown daughter who has made the difficult and guilt-ridden decision to stay home with her own young family, instead of spending too much money to travel to her parents and other relatives, is certain to soften when she pretends, for a moment, that she is the grandmother. How would she feel if her grown children chose to stay home? Likewise, Grandma could do the same: when her daughter calls to explain that she and her family are not coming, after all, she can put herself in her daughter’s place and respond with understanding. Regarding financial pressure, helping clients find ways to simplify and edit down their lists and responsibilities is key.
Regardless of whether it’s holiday time or not, learning to first consider the feelings of others when we become “triggered” makes for a more successful life script. And keeping things simple—with the focus on being together, instead of on material things—is the healthiest prescription.


Sep 12

Separation of Self

Separation of Self

By Elizabeth O’Brien, M.A., LPC

Disconnected

When human beings suffer trauma, large or small, they generally experience “separation” from themselves, from others, and from the meaning of life. But even when individuals haven’t had a distinct trauma but are simply depressed, anxious or otherwise off-track, the same kind of separation, or alienation, can occur. They feel scattered, their thinking becomes clouded, they are unable to access their true feelings, and they are simply not conscious of, or engaged in, the life around them. They may function, but they are living in a kind of fog. Often, they become more vulnerable to bad habits—substance abuse, gambling, pornography, compulsive shopping come immediately to mind—that promise quick relief. Dissociation becomes a way of life. Two of the best antidotes to such psychic disintegration are therapy and exercise. Talking with an empathetic therapist and telling their stories, creating narratives of their lives and losses that make emotional sense, is extremely helpful for many people. Just the act of taking that initiative, not to mention the processing itself, can jump-start healing. Connecting with another human being, particularly one who is trained to “mirror,” listen and eventually, to offer insights and make helpful suggestions, is palliative. Exercise is another highly effective form of therapy. For people who are depressed, the roadblock is generally finding the motivation to begin. Choosing a fitness regime that involves fellowship with a group is one approach—having to be accountable to others in a regular class. Joining the YMCA is an excellent idea for its communal atmosphere, and particularly since membership entitles you to work out at branches across the city and the country. CrossFit, in which camaraderie is particularly strong, is another good example. Biking or running with a partner or friend who will keep you on track is another. But simply walking every day with a dog or even alone is an excellent treatment approach, and one that almost demands being present enough to “smell the flowers.” Exercise generally grounds people in the moment, brings them back from the abyss to the here and now. Fortunately, most human beings have an innate capacity for resilience; sometimes, they just need others to support them in accessing it.


Jul 25

Social Reciprocity

Social Reciprocity
By Elizabeth O’Brien, LPC

Do you ever go to a party or dinner and spend the entire evening putting out a lot of friendly energy and receiving very little back?
I always know when I’ve had a good social experience at a party or gathering when I don’t come home exhausted. I feel energized, and gratified. I have a warm feeling of connection inside. But other times, I come home spent and disappointed. I feel lonely and sad, in spite of having been around dozens of people.
In analyzing this phenomenon, I began noticing what makes the difference in these social arenas. The answer is simple: social reciprocity.
The “good” experiences are happy ones in which there is a true social exchange, i.e., mutual validation. I will meet someone for the first time, or see an acquaintance or friend, and there is an easy and satisfying give-and-take in conversation. The other person not only talks in response to something I have asked, or said, but also tunes into me as well, asking me questions about myself in kind. The person listens intently, instead of looking over or around my head for someone more exciting. By the end of the conversation, we have gotten to know one another a little bit. And generally, we have found some common ground.
The unhappy experiences are what you might imagine: I end up asking question after question of the other, and he or she just drones on and on, narcissistically. I’ll realize, at the end, that the person never asked me one single question, or expressed any interest whatsoever in me as a human being. Unfortunately, this latter experience is only too common. And I admit, especially when I was younger, that I, too, have been guilty of such social gaffes.
I’m not sure if it’s because our culture has become more disconnected and self-involved, or if some people are loathe to “intrude” by asking personal questions. But having been raised in the deep South, such one-sided social behavior is considered just plain rude (ask my mother!), and smacks of selfishness, not to mention a conspicuous lack of empathy. In my opinion, such “conversations” are a waste of precious time.
When I reached a certain age, my tolerance for such empty social experiences evaporated. Now, if I sense I am speaking to a “me-me-me” person, I politely but definitively move on. And I try my best to suspend judgment in the process.

“You can make more friends in two months by becoming interested in other people than you can in two years by trying to get other people interested in you.” -Dale Carnegie


Jul 25

The Dissociative Culture

The Dissociative Culture
By Elizabeth O’Brien, M.A., LPC

Our culture has become a population of “dissociators.” For much, if not all of our day,
we are checking out on smart phones and computers or getting lost in mental to-do lists and daydreams.  Facebook, Twitter, Linked In, video games, shopping, television, movies, books, articles, meetings and projects at work become our “reality.”  For some people, alcohol, drugs, gambling and sex become additional arenas for dissociation. We are intolerant of discomfort and delay and are addicted to instant gratification.

When we are occupied in these ways, we are not present. We are elsewhere—reacting,
responding, avoiding, resisting, procrastinating, planning, projecting, escaping and
otherwise catapulting ourselves away from the moment. So many of our “relationships”
have become manifestations of such dissociation: virtual and superficial, they take place on another plane of reality. The days when a neighbor or friend drops by for a cup of coffee and a real conversation are quickly vanishing.

The dictionary defines dissociation as an “altered state of consciousness characterized
by partial or complete disruption of the normal integration of a person’s normal
conscious or psychological functioning.” In its extreme form, and generally due to trauma, dissociation can become the DSM IV condition, Dissociative Disorder, known in colloquial terms as multiple personality disorder. But for “neuro-typical” individuals, such an “altered state of consciousness” doesn’t severely disrupt functioning so much as it becomes an obstacle to self-awareness and living in the moment. Therapeutically, the degree to which a client dissociates can be one gauge of mental health.

While we all occasionally feel the need to chill out, or escape, we should consider
becoming aware of the extent to which we dissociate and limit our “escapes” to brief, restorative interludes in the service of holistic health. A compelling movie or novel?
Great! Meditation or yoga? Even better. Just sitting with our thoughts and emotions and really feeling life? Best of all.

“The great art of life is sensation, to feel that we exist, even in pain.”
Lord Byron