Monday, December 17, 2012


There are times when people tease me about what I'm choosing to do for a living.  I even tease myself!  The more I study and dedicate myself to my craft, the more I realize there is no such thing as sanity, that many issues seen as black and white are hardly so, and that listening is a lost art.  That's right, simply hearing what someone has to say is somewhat gone with the times!

Have you looked at how we communicate with each other?  A large chunk of it is cyber communication in the form of emails, messages, texting, Facebook, and I'm sure there are plenty of others that I'm leaving out.  These forms of communication all leave out a critical detail: subtext.  We as humans communicate the majority of what we have to say through HOW we say something, not what we have to say.

So as we read an email, or a text message, we're missing a huge chunk of what is actually being said.  A simple one-word phrase like, "Right," could be interpreted many different ways!  If you're like me, it sounds like, "riiiiiight," but it could also be affirming, positive, negative, neutral, sarcastic, or a multitude of other things!

And if you're also like me, sometimes it's easier to communicate via cyber communication.  There are times when I've crossed my fingers that someone would not answer their phone so that I could just leave a message.  Or times when I would rather carry out a conversation over text than in person.  How sad for myself to choose to miss out on the beautiful intricacies of verbal communication for something trite.

Glancing over Internet message boards, Facebook posts, and listening to what people come into therapy for, there is a general theme amongst them.  All they want is to be heard.  At least that's what I'm getting from everything.  Sure there are those "trolls" who just go around trying to stir up trouble, and there are individuals who will stop at nothing but try and convince others of their stupid way of dealing with issues.  But for the most part, all I see is a genuine desire to be heard.

In the voice of Scrooge, "Well poppycock, surely people can still hear.  Their ears are still attached, words are still inscribed, other men are still responding!"

Yes this is all very true.  But when was the last time you really heard someone.  This isn't something passive like listening to music (although when I listen to music it's anything but passive).  Listening is so much more active!  Why do you think there's a business surrounding active listening.  It's called therapy :)

Would you like to know what one of the biggest secrets of therapy is?  I think one of the biggest secrets is that all therapeutic approaches (humanistic, cognitive behavioral, psychodynamic, rogerian, feminist multicultural, adlerian, existential, gestalt) are all the same!  Well, let me rephrase that a little...  When studies are done comparing the effectiveness of one therapy against another, little difference is found.  All therapeutic approaches have the same effectiveness.

Right now I have a mental image of a lightbulb over your head exploding into a million pieces.

Studies have shown that all of these different kind of therapies have a lot in common.  While they approach what treatment looks like, how change occurs, how one becomes ill and what specific techniques to use as treatment differently, there are many similarities.  I think one of the biggest amongst them is empathic listening.

Something that we frequently bring up in class is the phrase, "When all else fails, just listen."  Like I mentioned previously, this is active listening.  This is paying close attention to body language, vocal inflections, connotation, themes, emotions, and many other things.  From all of that information, our job as therapists is just to pick out what's relevant.  While this may be challenging at first given the torrent of information we are presented with at times, soon it becomes easier.

As I really engage with my clients, and begin pulling out what they're really trying to communicate, something magical happens!  The whole mood in the room changes.  Even with someone who is feeling very depressed (I know from my own experience being a client in therapy), the energy in the room picks up, even if it's just slightly.  The emphatic nodding of a client who feels understood, the huge flood of tears that opens up when you pick out what they're really saying, or the way their body just looks lighter when they leave your office.  It's all just beautiful.

Now I'm not saying that I am always an active listener.  That is definitely NOT the case.  Being an active listener is a skill that must be put to use and trained before it becomes habit.  I think our natural state is to multitask and to pay as little attention as is required, but still get enough to get the job done.

It's no wonder people get frustrated with other people.  When communicating, there isn't enough time taken to really process the information.  Only key phrases or words are picked out.  And especially with cyber communication, our hunches as to what those key words or phrases are can be way off.

Want to show people how good of a listener you are?  Seriously, you should try this!  You'll notice a huge difference.  Just summarize!  Sounds easy right?  Probably not as easy as you might first believe.

When actively listening, you gotta turn off that little voice inside your head that's thinking of what to say next, or pointing out flaws in their argument.  You have to LISTEN.  It seems like you have to think of what to say next in order to keep the conversation flowing, but that's really not the case.  After you hear what they have to say, summarize what they said.  Or maybe even not what they said, but what they were trying to communicate.  Once after listening to a client speak of her frustrations with friends of hers, all I said was, "It sounds like people just aren't getting it," to which she instantly began to cry.  So I didn't even summarize exactly what she said, I pulled out what she was actually trying to communicate.

Wow, a whole blog post about communication.  Now that's an interesting concept!

So the next time you read something, or hear something, and your brain starts going a mile a minute ready to take on their challenge, just stop for a moment.  Before you blast them, or tell them that you completely understand, make sure you actually know what they're trying to talk about.  I think you'll be surprised by how your conversations will change for the better.

And for those of you who like to pretend that everyone can read your mind, they can't!  In order for communication to be effective, you actually have to TELL people what's going on inside that delightful brain of yours!  I know I can be especially guilty of this.  People have enough going on inside their own heads to really concern themselves about what's going on in yours, unless you tell them what's going on.

Open up.  Listen.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Be Still

This morning I made an interesting discovery while I was in the shower.  No, it wasn't about that.....or that!  Are you gonna let me finish?  All right then. 

Sometimes I assume that since I am in the mental health profession, I know all there is to know about the process of recovery, and what works and what doesn't.  In all honesty, I do know a lot!  But at the same time, this can sometimes hinder my own progress when confronted with challenges.  Especially those of a more personal nature.

A few days ago, I was talking with a teacher of mine.  She had asked me how I was doing.  I know, and I know you do too, that there are times when people actually want to hear how you are, and when it's just said out of politeness.  I knew she was genuinely concerned.  Thank you for coming across my path that day.

I began to cry when she asked me that.  While I do feel that I am a fairly open, and honest person, there are certain things that are easier for me to open about.  For example, I can talk to you about depression until Titanic looks like the happy fairytale of the year.  But ask me to talk about grief, or anger?  Oh man, those are emotions that are locked up pretty tight in my dungeon.  I don't like it when those come out.

But grief is what surfaced when my professor asked me what was going on.  And the floodgates opened!  What was I grieving about?  Well, that's a bit of a longer story, but at that time, it was about Michael.

Many of you know that I was previously engaged.  Many of you may have also read that letter I wrote to myself.  That letter was incredibly therapeutic for me.  But I've now come to realize that wasn't the extent of my grieving.  Well, obviously not, but lemme finish.

Talking with my professor, we discovered two things that I hadn't ever really thought about before.  I told her how I longed for that intimate connection that I no longer have.  That connection with someone who knows you inside and out, with all of your flaws and loves you anyway.  But not only is there an intense emotional connection, there's the beautiful physical intimacy which just seems to grow as time, and emotions, run deeper.

She said, "Well Steven, for better or for worse, you now know what that feels like.  And now you crave it!  It's easy to understand why you would feel the way you do, now that you've tasted something so sweet and desirable.  Most people don't get a taste of that until they're older than you are.  So now I think the hardest part for you will be to wait.  On the other hand, the beautiful thing about it is now that you've tasted it, you'll know when you've found it again."!  Can I just say how wonderfully insightful my teachers are?  Thank goodness for some outside opinion and perspective.

As we continued talking, I realized something else.  This goes back to what I mentioned before, about knowing how to help myself, because I know how to help others.  I know what things to say to myself.  I know the mental processes.  I know the questions.  I know the introspection and the processing.  But what I hadn't connected before was how I was feeling.

I can, and have been processing day after day.  But my body doesn't want to process.  I feel stuck and immovable.  On a daily basis, it feels like I'm walking through thick mud.  Not only is it frustrating, but it's absolutely soul-suckingly exhausting!

My body is telling me that it's not ready to process, because I haven't given myself time to grieve.  There's a general heavy feeling in my chest, a tightness in my shoulders, and the pressure behind your eyes like you feel when you're going to cry.  Then there's that mental fatigue and having no drive or willpower to do anything beyond the bare minimum.  Thank goodness the semester is now over, because it was hard to push through!

This morning, before I hopped in the shower, I was feeling depressed.  At the time, I wasn't quite sure the reasoning behind it.  There are some days when I feel chemically depressed (I don't have anything going on to make me feel down, I just feel down), and then there are days when something has happened, or I am thinking over something that keeps dragging me down.  Today I thought I was chemically depressed.

And of course, my wonderfully insightful roommate had to ask, "Are you sure you don't know what's going on for you?"  Blast...foiled again!  I was thinking about my lost engagement.  I was thinking of how lonely I felt.  I was also thinking about turning into my psycho passive aggressive self to poke and prod for attention!  But I wasn't going to let that one happen.

So I created a space for myself.  I said, "Okay body, we need to have a little talk, because apparently you and my brain aren't getting along.  So can you wait until I finish my errands before duking it out?  Thank you."

And after finishing up everything, I hopped in the shower.  

I started things off by just allowing my body to do some talking.  Oh I know, I'm turning all "hippie" on you.  Mindfulness of my body has been something I've discovered lately to be very helpful.  So anyway, I asked it what it was feeling.  That pressure behind the eyes, and the fatigue began to emerge.  The more I allowed my brain to just be still, the more I found how much my body was hurting.  I was in pain!  There was so much going on that I hadn't even stopped to look at before!  Or maybe, more accurately, that I hadn't given myself permission to look at.

Then the therapy session started.  If my roommates are reading this, I apologize for any talking and/or yelling that you may have heard coming from my room.  It was all for the greater good of myself!

I let myself cry.  I did not try and hold it in, or distract myself.  I just let it come out.  Yes, it did definitely make a difference looking back, but holy hannah it hurt while I was doing it!  I started openly saying what was bothering me and why I was hurting.  I talked about that longing for true intimacy, the pressure I feel to just get over it, and the general feeling of being alone.

Then a really important question popped into my head.  I started, "There are two sorts of extremes going on inside myself.  When something good happens, I attribute it to luck, or circumstance, even if I was somehow involved.  When something bad happens, it's because I lack a certain attribute, or skill, or simply because I'm not good enough..."

"I also have this strange behavior of being kind, forgiving, loving, and respectful to others while at the same time I am rather critical of myself."

"No Steven, you are mean."

"Oh I'm not mean, I'm just trying to improve myself."

"No Steven, you are beyond trying to motivate yourself.  You have been cruel, mean, and hurtful to yourself, and I don't like this anymore."

"Others are feeling that deep love that you have.  You have the capacity for an incredible amount of empathy and understanding.  You aren't giving it to yourself."

"Steven, I deserve to feel love.  I deserve to have what other people around you are having.  I NEED to feel that you care for and appreciate me!  Please, just let me have this.  PLEASE!  Please...please..."

And this is where I just couldn't take it anymore.  The heartache I was feeling was tearing me apart.  I can imagine that from an outside perspective, this may have looked and sounded just a tad weird.

But I needed to hear that.  I needed to hear myself say that I deserve to feel that kind of love, kindness, understanding, and compassion that I so freely give to others.  I am tired of telling myself that the reason I lost Michael is because of some character flaw--that I wasn't enough in one way or another.  I had done absolutely nothing wrong and had given my whole heart!  There is nothing to be ashamed of or embarrassed about.  Everything I am was put on the line and I had the most wonderful relationship I've ever had.  Just think about what else I can do if I throw myself into something.

I am not flawed.  Sure, I have my faults, and my strengths and weaknesses, but that does not mean that I am inherently broken.  One of the worst thoughts that creep into my mind is, "It's because you're broken..."  

Man that thought is so powerful and damaging!  And when I think about it, it's totally unrealistic too!  But when I'm already feeling down, it's hard to fight something with that much strength.

I want to give myself a break.  It's time to put away the process comments, and the other actions that take away from what I'm feeling.  

I don't need to do anything, except take care of myself.

I am worth it.