Thursday, February 26, 2009

Respect by bullying?

An odd thought, right? Maybe even repulsive?

Christopher Nolan, a renowned Irish author, died last week. Christopher wasn't just any author...he had to write because, he said, "my mind is like a spin-dryer at full speed; my thoughts fly around my skull while millions of beautiful words cascade down into my lap."

Christopher wrote his books with his head...literally. He had a band around his head that had a pointer coming out of it, like a mosquito's stinger, and his mother held his chin while he would enter letters on a typewriter. Painstaking work. He had severe cerebral palsy from oxygen deprivation at birth...unable to move or speak, except for some limited neck movement. Oh...and apparently, incredibly expressive eyes.

He was brilliant, and won major awards for authors.

What engaged me about Christopher was the attitude he and his family had about his disability..."My folk are grand, when it comes to helping a fellow in a fix. They stood by me, never pushed me, never asked anything of me, never became too protective of me and, most of all, they accepted me just as though I was able-bodied."

And then the line I loved the best, "I was wanted dearly, loved dearly, bullied fairly, and treated normally". His sister can recount amusing childhood squabbles that details the normal sibling rivalry, which apparently, his mother dealt with as any mother does. Christy, as his family called him, loved being treated as a normal kid.

While his parents accomodated his disability--his parents read to him of the great writers for hours on end as a child, they didn't pity him.

It reminds me of times when I have heard clients express relief that their boss yelled at them again after a death in the family, rather than tip toeing around mediocre work--life was back to normal. Or a husband snaps at his wife when she is late, after months of over accomodating her because of guilt for her finding pornographic pictures in his computer--and they both smile with relief...that their relationship has reached a level of healing that can support honest reactions.

Usually, getting bullied, hit, or criticized hurts. Once in a while, it is celebrated because it means you are one of the gang, accepted, normal, and respected as being able to hack it.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

An End Run on Anxiety

It seems like man's best friend is also a kid-who-is-struggling-to-read's best friend, too.

I heard an interview today with someone from the Humane Society describing a program where dogs help kids learn to read.

I perked my ears up when I heard this...cuz dogs can't read!

The guy says, "It's hard for some kids to read to grown ups or even to other kids. But it's not threatening to read to dogs".

Apparently, they give a dozen kids at a time a chance to come to the Humane Society a coupla times a week for 8 weeks to read to volunteer dogs who come by to be read to.

Sounds hokey right? Not so much, actually.

The results are amazing...some kids increase a grade level in reading.

The more he spoke about it, the more I could imagine how a dog, who will wag his tail with all efforts, and will provide the unconditional positive regard to the child no matter what lowers the risk and increases the safety for the child. When the child is less nervous, performance improves as all the energy can be directed productively towards the reading, without all the static that anxiety creates inside a person.

I love the creativity of this strategy to learning to read...finding novel (pun intended!) ways to help a student focus on the learning task, and not be distracted by the pressure of performance anxiety. Who woulda thunk that dogs could help kids read?

Might be a lesson there somewhere for all the grownups who are feeling the pressure...recession is raising our blood pressure.

Sunday, February 22, 2009


The issue of forgiveness is big in the counselling business.

To say that some of our clients have been a little hurt is like saying the pope is a little Catholic. There are times when an important part of what I do is bear witness as a human being to the horrors of allow a person to speak out loud the terror, agony, and excruciating pain rendered at the hands, voice, or actions of another.

When I talk about it with people, the topic of forgiveness is not a hypothetical one that is up for debate in some ethical or theological discussion. It is a rubber-hits-the-road issue that has to be dealt with.

Some thoughts about forgiveness, from The Shack (this is the last time I write about the book--promise). It was a fresh experiential take on the topic that gave some helpful insights.

"Forgiveness is not about forgetting...It is about letting go of another person's throat"

"Forgiveness is first for you, the forgiver, to release you from something that will eat you alive; that will destroy your joy and your ability to love fully and openly."

"...forgiveness does not create a relationship. Unless people speak the truth about what they have done and change their mind and behavior, a relationship of trust is not possible. When you forgive someone you certainly release them from judgment, but without true change, no real relationship can be established"

"....but should they confess and repent, you will discover a miracle in your own heart that allows you to reach out and begin to build between you a bridge of reconciliation"

"...forgiveness does not excuse anything. Believe me, the last thing this man is, is free"

"It was wrong and anger is right response to something that is so wrong. But don't let the anger and pain and loss you feel prevent you from forgiving him and removing your hands from around his neck"

Important distinction:
Forgiveness is free and freeing.
Trust is earned.

A slow fade

I was recently at a water of those fun ones with water spurting out of all sorts of places, hoses to spray, slides to slurp down on, and a lazy river to float on. There was a large bucket at the top of one of the roofs of the play structure and I would look on it for several minutes at time. At first nothing happened as it would fill with water--it was a laaaaarge bucket, and so nothing happened for what seemed like a long time.

And then, almost imperceptibly, it would start to tile
just barely
to the side.

and if one watched very carefully, one could see
a very gradual
increase to the tilt.

and if one continued to watch,
for longer
the tile would increase
and the rate would get faster

and, all of a sudden,
the bucket would rapidly tilt,
and the large bucket would dump
A LOT of water
on whomever was below.

Quite a lot of fun to watch new unsuspecting water park patrons get doused.

The slow filling, slow tilting and sudden dumping of this bucket was rather mesmerizing for some people (including me).

As a therapist, I am plagued with seeing metaphors in life...and this was a powerful one. I work with clients who
are horrified to find themselves "suddenly" in a very difficult place in a marriage,
are reeling from being caught in a longstanding behavior that they've always struggled and been ashamed of themselves
are kicking themselves for neglecting a relationship with a child because of all the many times when "just this once" they needed to attend to something else that felt like it needed to take priority

It reminded me of a song I've heard by Casting Crowns, "It's a Slow Fade", some of which goes like this:
It's a slow fade when black and white have turned to gray
Thoughts invade, choices are made, a price will be paid
When you give yourself away
People never crumble in a day
It's a slow fade

Reminds me of the principle of "presence"...being aware in the moment of what is happening at all levels inside of you and in your environment. It's so easy to "give in" to something when it is dissonant with our values and with what we want, as we mindlessly do what is easy instead of what is valued. And the song is right...a price is paid.

The bucket dumps all at once...but it fills slowly. Are you aware of, and do you approve of what is going in the bucket of you?

Wednesday, February 18, 2009


Aretha Franklin spelled these letters in a song that most of us can hear in our heads just as we spell the letters ourselves. While these words are often associated with deference given to authority, or something you have to provide to those who are older, wiser, stronger, or more intimidating, I think of respect differently.

"Respect is love in plain clothes." Frankie Byrne

I love that quote. Respect as a way of relating to people around you all the time in a non-flashy, understated but important way. Respect as a way to love. That a way of loving is respect. That occurs to me sometimes when a sarcastic comment is on the tip of my tongue as one of my kids didn't do something as requested.

One of the ways to love is to resist that subtle (or not so sublte!) disrespect that can come so easily when you're irritated with a loved one.

May your love disguised in the plain clothes of respect today.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Brokenness, not Selfishness

This post might not make sense unless you read yesterday's post. In it, I talked about how a person can see that they are "giving" to people in a self destructive way and don't understand it. I suggested that underneath that there is another level in which the giving behavior really serves a purpose to the self. That in some way, it is an adaptive strategy to protect, preserve or build up him/herself.

Please don't jump to the conclusion that I believe that selfless acts are really closeted selfish acts.

A while ago, I had water in my basement. A friend came over and spent about 90 minutes trying this and that, looking in the ceiling about which pipes came from where, had me turn on and off various taps at various times. Then he spent about 15 minutes replacing a short piece of pipe and after the mopping up, the problem was resolved and the water was gone.

Understanding the source of the leak led to the ability to develop the right strategy to fix the pipe. He had to find the place where it was broken to most effectively fix it.

The strategies a person develops to get through life feeling OK about oneself, like altruism-to-the-point-of-damage, are designed to help a person cope with another part of themselves that needs that support...what counselling does is help a person get to know the part that needs support and understand what is going on.

It is then that adaptive strategies can be found to meet the needs of the brokenness of that part in such a way that it feels good to the person--and that usually helps the people around the person as well.

It's not about blaming or finding fault, it's about understanding the inner dynamics of a person and using that information to grow in life-giving ways.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Look Deeper for Understanding

I work with a lot of wonderful people--people I admire and learn from. People who teach me about themselves and about life, and as I tell them about what they have taught me, they also learn.

Often people come to me asking with curiosity--actually, by the time they are talking to me about it, is isn't curiosity, but frustration at a level that is about to blow up big time--but they talk to me about their pattern of taking care of others. They find themselves doing almost anything not to hurt anyone--which may include of hiding a mountain of their own feelings, or going to a lot of extra work to pretend to enjoy something which they don't want to do, or any number of other difficult things. Or they help others--being "helicopter parents"--hovering over their children in exhausting ways (and then bitter when the children aren't as appreciative as desired). Or they bake a cake for everyone's birthday at the office, or bring casseroles to anybody who's lost a family member, or ____(maybe you can fill in the blank).

Now, I'm all about making a positive difference in the world, but this kind of taking care of others is a sort of compulsion, an exhausting routine that feels rather like a hamster on a wheel that can't stop. This isn't sustainable--except somehow it has been.

Almost invariably, behavior that is very "other focused" in an exhausting, life-sucking way, is done to protect and preserve looks like it is for others, but it works to help a part of you that needs something from helping others.

-Like making sure that nobody is ever angry with you, because you can't stand disapproval from others in a way that makes you go to enormous lengths to ensure you never hurt anybody's feelings. (Imagine how tricky that is when you have people who can misinterpret and be hurt despite your best intentions!)

-Like helping others lots and lots, so that they will give you lots of messages that you are special and loved--because you need a regular current infusion of them to assure the ugly parts that feel unlovable inside of you that they can make it another day without being crushed.

-Like letting others take advantage of you and "walk all over" you, because to stand up for yourself means that you might lose the people in your life who are there because of all the benefits of taking advantage of you...and the rejected and lost and ugly parts inside of you would have all the reinforcement that you are an unlovable person.

Hit a little close to home? I think there is some of the above in all of us. Brings up the question of, "If a good thing is done for an unhealthy reason, then is it a really good thing?"

But that question is for another day.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Another Shack nugget

One more quote from The Shack, about a man and his wife:

"He says she saved his life and paid a high price to do it. For some reason, beyond understanding, she seems to love him now more than ever, even though I get the sense that he hurt her something fierce in the early years. I suppose that since most of our hurts come through relationships so will our healing, and I know that grace rarely makes sense for those looking in from the outside." (italics mine)

Love that line. Grace is such a mystery, such a gift. The extending of it, by definition, undeserved. I have seen grace extended in sessions from one family to another...and it is indeed holy. Doesn't always make sense from the outside, but it pulls my heart powerfully to gaze at the unusual beauty of it.

Monday, February 9, 2009

His face loses emotion like a tide going out...

A number of clients have referred to the book The Shack, by Wm. Paul Young over the last several months as they seek to uncover how to understand relating to God in a world where so much pain hurts so many in such deep ways. Often people have a chance to connect with ideas that seem elusive or parts of themselves they can't quite reach with the help of a book or movie, and so I like to know what is "scratching where people itch".

It seemed like a good idea to read it, and after a friend finished reading the copy she borrowed, she then passed it on to me.

While I haven't gotten very far into the book, there are a couple of passages that speak the heart of things that should be understood. Like this one, describing the protagonist's father:

"Although externally religious, his overly strict church-elder father wa a closet drinker, especially when the rain didn't come, or came too early, and most of the times in between. Mack never talks much about him, but when he does his face loses emotion like a tide going out, leaving dark and lifeless eyes." (italics added)

I've seen those eyes in some of the people who choose reach out for help with us and say, "No more". As they decide that living the way they are is intolerable and they will risk exploring alternatives, and ask someone to come alongside to find ways to stop the dark and lifeless feeling from hijacking their lives.

Saturday, February 7, 2009


I watched a video this morning during a workshop I was attending that was about leadership and group/team development...the video followed a pair of runners during the race. One of the fellows was clearly blind. The other was sighted. Both were clearly trained and seasoned runners.

They ran a race...not a road race, but a trail one...hills, trees, narrow paths, tree roots, steep hills to slide down--a long rugged trail. It was amazing.

On smoother, wider paths, the blind guy would hold onto the elbow of the sighted one, half a step back. On steep "ups" the blind guy would go ahead, and the sighted one would call out constant instructions. On narrow downward slopes the sighted guy would go ahead, and the blind fellow would hold onto both elbows directly behind.

All the while, the sighted one is calling out instructions to passersby as all share the trail..."Pass on the left" etc. There are various times when each are egging each other on--in shorthand (they are, after all, pushing themselves hard physically)--"GO, GO, GO, GO"

One time, the blind guy (he must have a name, but we never find that out), says in the middle of this beautiful nature trail, "What's it look like". The guy who can see, says: "It's beautiful. You should see it."

The video is matter-of-fact, no explanations, no music--only two guys running among many other people. It brought tears to my eyes though--the commitment they had to each other. The blind runner had on knee pads and work gloves--recognition of the injuries he risks as he goes, and goes hard. Put a blind fold on me, and I'm not running hard on a narrow trail in the middle of a forest--NO WAY. The trust he placed in his partner was beautiful.

The actions of the sighted runner were also profound. He never stopped calling out what the next 5 feet held in the journey...he was running hard and kept up constant chatter. He looked out for his partner and helped other runners learn how to pass effectively and safely. He accomodated for his sightless partner's lack of vision completely, but respected him too much to cut him an ounce of slack...he pushed him hard the whole way to keep up the pace.

What made the movie beautiful was the partnership these two had, to allow one to accomplish what would be otherwise impossible. They had different roles, and completed their roles well in tandem with the other person. They accomodated for the disability of one, without pity, condescension or compromise. The focus wasn't on the problem, it was on the race.

And it was accomplished.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Grace is Hard Work

"We are told that people stay in love because of chemistry, or because they remain intrigued with each other, because of many kindnesses, because of luck. But part of it has got to be forgiveness and gratefulness." Ellen Goodman

I saw a couple lately, deeply in love, new again in love, after decades of marriage. It's a perk of my job as a therapist that I get "the inside track" on really cool people with wonderful stories that inspire me personally.

Love that has lasted decades doesn't happen by magic. It is a product of years of hard work, times of "hangin' in there" even when it would be easier in the short term to bail. It happens because each of the couple is secure enough in who they are, and able to have inner resources to extend grace and understanding without being reactionary or inflammatory...or asking for forgiveness when this (inevitably, at times) occurs.

I often ask young couples, when they come in for help, "How do you know what you want? Who has what you are looking for? Who have you watched and learned from, so that you know how you want to be as a couple?"
The answer is important...some couples have trouble coming up with a time or a couple where they have seen it. Others have numerous models of what a loving longstanding relationship looks like.

It takes strength and courage to be grateful and forgiving. But man, to watch it and see it in living color--it's worth it!

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Easy Does It

During the recent cold snap, my garage door started acting up. It responded with even less consistency than usual. To get in, we punch in a 4 digit code to get the door to automatically open. When it is cold, it often takes two or three tries. When it is really really cold (as it has been recently), one wonders if it is going to work at all!

It was during one of these moments, where I thought it had stopped working completely, I found myself punching in the numbers very clearly and firmly. In fact, the more it "ignored" me, the firmer I punched these numbers. (Remember, it is fritzen cold outside and I want the door open NOW as the timer on the windchill factor countdown moves towards certain frostbite) One could say I was jamming the numbers.

Along comes the little guy who says, "I think it might work if you just do lightly". Cynically, but desperate by this point, I slowly and gently tapped each of the four numbers in the exact center of the


A real lesson there, which I'm reminded of each time I go to the garage to get in my car. How easy is it, when we feel like someone isn't getting the message, to say it louder and firmer, thinking that volume and impatience will work.

Yeah, right. Yelling really helps people understand better.

Of course it is obvious as you read this...probably not quite so obvious during the last argument you had, huh?

Gently now...go into your difficult relationships with tenderness and the care to state things accurately and effectively.