getting old is getting old-unhooking from a national pastime

It started in our 20s. I’m serious. I found a single gray hair at 25 and my 28 year old friend clucked, “you’re getting old!” like a spiteful aunt.

It gathered steam in our 30s, when everyone was surprised that binge drinking late into the night and fried foods caught up to you if you did for a decade and stopped playing ultimate frisbee. Backs were clutched, unwanted pounds were gained and complained about and dieted away and cheated back on and all the while the wine was delicious.

What’s in store for the 40s? Beyond? Must we bitch and moan ourselves into an early grave? Because I have to tell you, I get just as annoyed listening to people in their 50s, 60s, and 70s talk this way! Like, it’s soooo inevitable that you step off the cliff of 35 and you become ugly, stupid, and irrelevant and you should stop telling your story and stop learning.

Please know I am not talking about coping with real illness and challenging diagnoses whose frequency increase with age. I have thyroid disease. It gives me fatigue. I can’t stay up late the way I used to. This is also a natural effect of aging and changing my priorities. We all gain injuries of body and mind that create limitations. These challenges can accumulate with age.

I’m talking about just bitching about getting old as a knee-jerk, defensive reaction to being confronted with a learning curve of a new technology. Or not getting a current cultural reference. Or a gray hair on your damn friend.

We all age, but the current narrative around aging is boring me…to death! Why are there so few voices in the chorus sharing pride in their wisdom and experience? When did a youthful body start to mean more than the depth of character? How about we turn that around?

It’s easy to feel discouraged and old in a youth-worshipping culture. Everywhere you look you see youth and beauty revered while wisdom and experience take a backseat. Silicon Valley would often rather hire a young freshling out of school with no family than take a gamble on someone with a higher starting salary. Staying relevant can be a very real fight.

Here’s my dream: create a parallel universe, a counterculture, where we mourn our youth appropriately and realize the youth we still have left. Where we support each other and create new opportunities for our selves and our friends. If my friends in their 50s and beyond tell me they wish they were as young as me, I’m going to enjoy feeling that young now instead of waiting to be 50 and realizing that my 40s were pretty awesome after all.

In a world where we are born, we live, and we die, it seems disrespectful to death to live like it’s already here.

So not so fast. Notice the jokes you tell about yourself and others, even in jest. Don’t fail to see the gifts of the place where you are. Embrace the developmental changes, but don’t let anyone EVER define your relevance for you.

making the holidays feel less commercial

As the sky darkens this Black Friday afternoon, I’m pausing with my afternoon cup of bone broth and realizing just how easy it was not to spend money today.

There are a lot of debates about Black Friday shopping, and where I fall on the spectrum is that if you want to do it, do it, but if you don’t, that’s cool too. I am a person who hates shopping, crowds, stores, and fluorescent lights, so Black Friday is not for me.

I know there are others like me. People who, like me, just get really overwhelmed and tired and brain-foggy at all the money and the nonstop go! go! go! that the holidays seem to be about and want different choices. People who might still want to celebrate or give gifts but want to shift the focus away from spending and shopping and wrapping and running around and more on connecting, sharing, and enjoying.

I used to get antsy about the whole Christmas thing; it makes me uncomfortable. The pressure to buy things I can’t really afford for people who can afford to buy those same things for themselves, the pressure to include just one more person on the list and thereby driving the cost and quality of all your gifts down, the abundance of plastic, and the general forgettable-ness of the gifts. Or the pressure to find something for someone who has everything and doesn’t give hints. The way it puts me in debt.

When I became a stepmom and then a mom, I discovered the joy of making the holidays about traditions, lights, and the excitement of kids opening presents. I’m not huge on Santa personally. I’m not opposed to him, either. In my house, the good stuff is always from Mommy and Daddy and Santa has the half-assed/stocking stuffer gig. I like to get them cool stuff but not go overboard. That saying, “something they want, something they need, something to wear, something to read” applies here.

I’m at the point where I’d rather spend time than money on people during the winter season. What does that look like? It’s Choosing the gatherings I’ve been invited to carefully with a realistic assessment of my energy level and limitations. Attending these events with presence and awareness and not arriving frazzled because I’ve been running around looking for the perfect hostess gift or squeezing in some last-minute shopping. I want to arrive prepared to listen and share, to take the time to find out what is going on with people and to share my own triumphs and hardships with those who care. And if that isn’t likely to happen? Probably it’s something I can safely skip, along with the things I might want to do but just can’t pull off without being overbooked.

I tend to spend money on good food to cook for family and friends, because I love cooking and it makes me feel connected to them when I feed them and share their food. Other than that, I keep it simple. I’ve trained most of the people in my life outside my “nuclear” family not to buy me presents and not to expect them from me. When my nieces and nephews were younger, I tended to focus my gift-giving on them. Some of my siblings and I exchange bottles of wine; we make it easy. This year, I’ll get some gift card’s for the kids teachers because they work really hard and I want them to know I appreciate them. All of the people whom I consider really good friends right now would be really touched and satisfied if I gave them a nice handwritten card (although none of them would be upset at not receiving one) and that so far is my plan.

Some other things I’m challenging myself to do this year, and I hope you’ll join me, is to make the holiday season about a different kind of giving. I was reading a Facebook discussion on a public page about Christmas gift giving and how to talk to your parents about buying less stuff for your young children (and instead buying more experiences, memberships, classes, or donations to a college fund). One of the commenters said something that still sticks in my mind weeks later. She said she was always struck how Christmas is supposed to be all about giving, but we spend our time and money giving things to friends and family, things which these folks can well afford to buy for themselves. And we ignore the people who truly need things, like the poor.

That stuck with me not because I don’t think our loved ones deserve to be given special things, but because there’s a lot more we could be doing to give to those who need the giving, whether that is food, money, clothing, or christmas presents. Maybe there’s essential people I decide I want to buy for on my list (if I choose to celebrate the holidays!), but the “second tier” friends and family and I can collectively agree to give to charity instead of buying each other little $10 trinkets.

So my ideas so far are to engage with my local food bank and put together food bags from lists like this one and this one.

I’m participating in the Family Giving Tree through my husband’s work, and Toys for Tots, which is everywhere. I could try to impress you and say I was going to volunteer my time too, but I think that is overambitious this year. I have an autoimmune disorder which gives me fatigue, so one of the gifts I try to give myself year-round is not to be over-scheduled and to allow plenty of time for rest. But you never know. I won’t rule it out.

I’d like to give our 9-year-old an allotted sum of money that he can give to the charity or cause of his choice. The three-year-old is probably a bit young for that yet.

What are your ideas? How do you fit the holidays to who you are and what you believe?

vulnerability in relationships

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The more couples therapy I do (and the longer I’m married!) the more I believe that the key to healthy relationships is the willingness to be vulnerable. When you’re willing to be vulnerable with a partner, that’s when the clear and honest communication of needs and boundaries comes out. When you know your partner’s needs and boundaries, that’s when you can engage in nurturing behaviors. Being vulnerable enough to ask for what you want from someone is opening an opportunity of your needs being met.

You must be vulnerable to have empathy. It is an emotionally disorienting risk to put yourself in the other person’s shoes, and see how the situation feels for them. You may discover, through empathy, that you were wrong. If you have had negative role models that didn’t allow for being wrong and saying sorry in relationships, it takes courage to try something different, and say, “I was wrong. I’m sorry.” It gets easier, especially after the first time. (On the other side of the equation, receiving sincere apologies graciously and not continuing to go off on a person is always nice.)

Expressing anger in a relationship takes a lot of vulnerability. In a functional relationship, there is room to express anger, and within that room, anger is expressed in the most charitable and least vicious way that can be managed at the current moment, given the anger.

To grow in a relationship, vulnerability is mandatory. We have to communicate changes to partners so that we can embrace it together. Paradoxically, we sustain the most emotional hurt from being rejected, abused or manipulated during those moments when we are expressing and experiencing our own emotional vulnerability. There are people who hone in on it and exploit it, twist it around, use it against those they supposedly love.

And the scary thing about this carnival ride is that early on in relationships sometimes you don’t always know which thing you’re going to get: rewarded for being vulnerable, or rejected for it. If you’re in a long-standing relationship and you start to increase the level of vulnerability and truth-telling and you are met by shaming, blaming, deflection, and contempt, well, you and I both know that’s a bad sign. A little defensiveness is normal, but eventually that wears down and the partner steps forward with an action demonstrating a commitment to hear you out and understand you. If you are just starting out in a new relationship and vulnerability is met with shaming, blaming, deflection, and contempt; well, thats easy. Walk away, and let the person fix and heal themselves instead of you thinking your relationship is going to do it. But if you’re already deeply in it, and the person is displaying highly toxic behavior at your most charitable attempts at truth telling (when you air your grievances in an adult manner that are not bitchy digs disguised as honesty) then this heralds some work to come. The relationship will need an overhaul in the form of therapy or some other radical way of restructuring communication, boundaries, expectations and behavior.

Assuming your partner is open to you being more vulnerable and is just displaying the regular garden variety defensiveness and grumbly resistance, try to be respectful in your communications. Remember that it might be hard for them to know what you want because you don’t know yourself. You might be reading this thinking of yourself as the open and vulnerable partner in the relationship while your partner is the one who gets defensive, but if you got a little more vulnerable with yourself you’d see that you can be pretty defensive yourself.

It’s funny that vulnerability is associated with weakness, because owning it and sitting with it–both your own and that of others– takes such strength.

the impostor complex

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So many smart people have impostor complex! OMG.
(I just worried about whether you’d think I was professional if I used OMG. Then I thought, that’s what I wanted to write, so that’s authentic. Then I thought, maybe you’d think I was being authentic by using OMG. Then I worried if you would think my authentic self used slightly dated text language and was awfully uncool.)

OMG!

If I had a dollar for every talented engineer, tech writer, programmer, artist, writer, parent, YOU NAME IT, who has sat in my office and felt like a fraud, I’d be taking a dollar-bath.

If you’re reading this and on some logical level know that you’re smart, but emotionally somehow always talk yourself into believing that deep down you are a stupid stupid head full of stupid stupidness and that you are just a big kid playing at whatever it is some temporarily duped individual hired you to do, and that any moment some smarter and superior person will find out the deep dark secret of your terrible stupid headed stupid ness and incompetence and mediocrity, listen up.

Yes you, who likes to call your successes “flukes.”

Who thinks people compliment your work because they feel bad for you and have to.

Who knows it’s ok to ask for help intellectually but feels like your question is something you should know and that everyone else knows too.

I just want you to know that there are so many people who feel this way. People with good jobs with lots of responsibility. People who speak eloquently. People who perform and get raises.

You’re not a fraud. You’ve got the right. And you can do this.

You might not believe it now, but eventually the two worlds of your negative self-concept and the expectations of those who believe in you and find you competent will collide. With what attitude will you face this collision?

If we are all just playing at being grown-ups, then let’s play! Bring the sense of “play acting” into your work and use it to create a sense of wonder and levity. Faking isn’t all that different from showing up and doing your best given the information you have and doing your best to keep learning the new things you need to learn in order to become more competent. It’s ok to feel like a child at dress-up when you’re doing your job sometimes. It keeps us humble to not know everything. But like a child immersed in make-believe, you can forget yourself and your insecurities in the play, and rise to the occasion and become that which you feel you’ve just been pretending to be.

My original point though is simple. I see a lot of very bright and capable people who are suffering from various degrees of impostor complex. My experience has led me to realize that impostor complex is a lot more common than I had thought before. It has helped me relax my judgments about myself, and I wanted to communicate on a larger level that if you feel this way, you’re really not alone. Awesome people get their moments of feeling this way and still achieve amazing things. Feel the fraud and do it anyway.

Impose yourself.

breathing

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I recently read in one of my online Continuing Ed courses that breathing exercises really do work to manage anxiety, but that people aren’t usually consistent enough in practicing their breathing exercises daily or doing them long enough during the anxiety episode to effectively calm themselves down.

So, from the “things you already know are good for you but don’t do department,” consider these tips.

Set a timer and practice a breathing exercise for three minutes.

Try simple breathing exercises, the ones you’re most likely to do.

How about these?

1. Take a normal inhale. Draw out the exhale as long as you can. Focus on the long exhale, slow and smooth. It can help slow you down if you make an ssssss sound. Put your hand on your belly and feel your belly slowly hollowing as you exhale all of the air. The deeper you exhale, the more naturally your lungs will fill on the inhale.

2. Breathe in for four counts. Hold for four counts. Exhale for four (or six) counts.

3. Breathe from a place of mindfulness. Just become aware of what your breathing is, right now, and how this translates to your mood or what else is going on in your body/mind. Breathe into the tight places, breathe into the emotions. Allow the breathe to loosen up tight places and shift your emotions. Attend the breathe and allow it to inform you what to do next.

In my CEU course I read the suggestion that you do some breathing whenever you are waiting for something-water to boil, toast to toast, to get to the front of the line at the post office, being on hold with the bank, etc. I love this, because some of these times, like the last two examples, can be aggravating and deep breathing is useful just in dealing with being in the situation.

That’s enough from me. You can google fancier breathing techniques with all the philosophies and methodologies attached till the sacred cows come home. (And please do! It’s a fabulous way to spend undirected time on the internet.) But my intent is more simple: just to remind you and get you started, by suggesting something small.

new certification

therapist-badge-without date

I’m proud to announce a new area of focus and certification in my private practice. Dr. Karyl McBride, creator of the training I took, specializes in daughters of narcissistic mothers and is the author of Will I Ever Be Good Enough?, a self-help classic I recommend often.

Narcissism, narcissistic abuse, and issues unique to adult children of narcissistic parents are a growing area of clinical interest for many of us. Women and men who were raised by narcissistic parents are often high achievers or have lots of potential, but are plagued with issues of feeling not good enough, second-guessing themselves, feeling fearful to put themselves out there, fearing rejection, having difficulty navigating friendships and romantic relationships, anxiety, and depression. A lot of times the patient comes in for these issues and the therapy process uncovers that there was a parent, often a charming, larger-than-life person who may not appear particularly abusive to the outside world, whose behaviors resulted in a shaky sense of self in their adult children. Children of narcissist parents are expected to take care of their parents’ needs, not the other way around.

One of the scariest things adults do in therapy is critically examine their childhoods for fear of disrupting current bonds with their parents (even in memory) even if those bonds are, in reality, quite shaky and disappointing.

As a therapist I set my intention to create a safe space for the adult children of narcissists to take all of the time they need to examine this issue and how to move forward and live a fuller and more confident life.

For more information and online support for adult survivors, here are some good resources to start.

http://outofthefog.net

http://www.lightshouse.org/acon-page.html#axzz3HZZCeiFl

how the patient sees the therapist

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It serves me as a therapist to find out what beliefs about therapy and therapists new patients bring when they first visit my office.

Is the fact that this person is in therapy proof, within their worldview, that “things must be really bad”?

Do they inflate the power of a therapist beyond what is truly helpful in their own lives? Did they have a past experience with a therapist that might be hard to match? Is the client quite accustomed to stay in the type of dependency that is positive in some phases of therapy but not a good place to stay overall? Are they so used to the constancy and everyday-ness of therapy that they don’t expect to have any breakthroughs or to do any work that would truly challenge the status quo?

Is therapy a valuable and useful tool, but for other people? Is their participation in the process not only proof that “things are really bad” but also that they “shouldn’t need all of this extra help” because they’re “perfectly capable of working through” their own problems? By the way, I think that therapists are prone to falling into this trap. Helpers make some of the worst helpees.

Did the patient have a bad experience with a previous therapist? How did that affect trust? Were there any serious ethical violations? Did a previous therapist work within a certain modality, and what about that way of working was helpful and what was not?

Are they there because a partner wanted them to? Were they given a ultimatum? Are they there but not there? Do they want to know about my credentials and level of education? Do they mistake my credentials and level of education and call me Doctor? (How quickly do I correct them?)

None of these things “means” something definite, but within the context of the patient’s history, affect, and story, they provide powerful clues of how to establish the therapeutic relationship. If my ego requires they be in a specific place in terms of how they view me, then the therapy usually runs into trouble. If I remain curious to their perceptions and open to them changing, and finding ways to get to the common ground of two humans in the room, it is usually a good start.

the things I can’t control

I was going to post earlier. In fact I’d just polished up what I thought was a nice piece on impostor complex when I did something wonky on my computer and deleted the post instead of publishing.

That sucked. I liked it. I didn’t want to let it go. But it was gone and all the computer tricks I knew didn’t get it back.

Allowing this relatable experience to guide me, I thought it would be fun to write about all of the things I can’t control. Some of them I wouldn’t want to, but some? I totally would if I could.

I can’t control traffic.

I can’t control what people think of me.

I can’t control mistakes I’ve already made, I can only try to correct them.

I can’t control the fact that I’m aging.

I can’t control my friends.

I can’t control my family.

I can’t control mortality.

I can’t control loss.

I can’t control fear. I can only listen and respond to it.

I can’t control the fact that my husband just interrupted me and that it resulted in me spacing on what should have been the rest of this sentence.

I can’t control all of the bad things I’ve done to my health, I can only move forward.

I can’t control the stupid things I did when I was younger, I can only be grateful it was before YouTube.

I can’t control whom or what I love and who does and does not love me.

I can’t control the seeming phenomenon that people tend to schedule less psychotherapy during the summer.

I can’t control politics. I can only vote and raise my voice and take action.

I can’t control other people’s feelings.

Indidividually each of these items can drive me crazy, but writing them out as a list is liberating.

With all of the things I cannot control out of the way, I can dig deeper into focus on my own thoughts, beliefs, feelings, and actions, and the empowering-yet-intimidating agency that gives me.

I can control the way I respond to my thoughts and emotions. I can control how I say things. I can control how I spend my time. I can control my attitude.

I can’t control the loss of that blog entry.

But I can write another one.

story and voice

I had a talk with an old friend this weekend about storytelling and voice. I was having some writer’s block, just not sure what to say, and she reminded me of all of the ways that we humans tell stories, big and small. She reminded me that we tell stories via Facebook posts and Tweets, through making videos.

It got me thinking about therapy, and how what I do is collect and sift through people’s stories with them, and together we collaborate to create meaning. Meaning-making heals. Meaning allows suffering to not be in vain. We get the moral of the story and can move on.

I have a client who is a singer. I believe they are a good one: context cues point that way. But this person is struggling with what to do next creatively, and things didn’t work out with the latest band. The client’s voice teacher told them: if you don’t believe in what you’re singing, you won’t care about what you are doing and you won’t sound very good.

Brenè Brown introduces her book on shame I Thought it was Just Me (But it Isn’t), with the idea that shame is what holds us back from telling our stories. It’s not hard to see why: we live in a culture of victim-blaming, and the truth-tellers often become the scapegoats. We are also a distracted culture, and a lot of times we listen to the wrong stories, the ones that have been told too much and keep us feeling bad, or the ones we tell ourselves that start with “I’m not good enough.” This lessens our ability not only to share who we are but to listen to others.

Therapy is such a powerful medium for me because I create a safe container in which someone can work through shame, tell their story, make meaning, and find truth. In the sealed container of the therapy room the client gains the safety to find their voice. The storytelling heals the soul. An observation I’ve made from the beginning of my therapy career is that as a client starts to heal, they have a greater capacity to hear the stories of others. This kind of empathy and compassion can affect the culture and even heal the world.

Therapy is a safe space to tell your story, where it will be listened to and protected. This builds strength to later tell your story when you are unsure of its’ reception.

Next time you’re invited to hear someone’s story: listen! Next time you’re invited to share: share!

It’s like free therapy.

vacation

As I end my first week back to work after a two-week, vacation, I’m struck by how difficult it is for Americans to feel entitled to a real vacation.

As we landed in paradise, my engineer husband’s phone (a device he programs software for) died a spectacular death, complete with the screen looking like an etch-a-sketch. When he returned to the office, a few people worried he might have been fired because he was away for so long and he wasn’t responsive to emails. Just today I had a conversation with someone who lamented a coworker’s coming in during his paid time off. It seems as though it’s impossible to really get away unless you can set all sorts of boundaries. I was in contact with patients as well, but they knew I was out of town and the communication was minimal and centered around scheduling.

One of the little vacation goals I had set for myself was to “take a vacation from mirrors and scales.” What that really meant was I just did not want to go through the emotional spiral of caring what I looked like on the beach or in a swimsuit and spending a lot of time stressing about it. I did a pretty good job. Something that definitely correlated with that attitude if it was not directly caused by it was that I didn’t go crazy on junky food or alcohol.

I had some family portraits done on the beach. And I felt good in my skin for them, probably much due to me relaxing about my body. It sounds ridiculous as I type this out to myself, but somehow I got it into my head that if you go on a vacation to a tropical location where you will want to wear as little clothing as possible due to heat and humidity, you need to lose a bunch of weight, and in absence of that you need to cover yourself up and feel lots of shame.

Instead, I had fun on the beach, and if anyone thought I didn’t have permission to be in a suit, I was having too much fun to notice.

In closing, everyone reading this should take as much vacation as they can afford, and truly set aside your worries. Be active, have fun with those you love, tune out from your work responsibilities or put it on autopilot, and just chill. This is what you are going to remember.