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Fire in the Belly

I’m borrowing today’s title from a book by Sam Keen, a former philosophy professor and contributing editor to Psychology Today. The full title is Fire in the Belly: On Being a Man. I was suggested this book by a co-worker at CU-Boulder (thanks, Matt) about six months ago as we were co-leading a men’s group together. Keen writes on several topics related to masculinity – relationships, spirituality, work, and purpose are just a few. But the ideas that stood out most to me at that time in my life and continue to do so are his words on the necessity of male friendship.

According to Keen, all men need male friendship to function as complete and whole individuals. Keen describes his own experience in a “men’s group” – a leaderless group of 7-8 guys who’ve gotten together once a week for several years to talk about anything and everything. He says that the group has kept several of the men alive over the years as they struggled through various life issues – substance use, divorce, depression, challenges of fatherhood. He speaks of the group in an almost sacred way. And while he writes from a heterosexist perspective, I couldn’t agree more with his message.

I’ve been lucky enough over the past seven or eight years to be part of a group of men much like Keen’s. We don’t meet in person, but we maintain a message board online that’s allowed us to stay close as we’ve drifted to different parts of the country. We post to the board almost daily – joking with one another, sharing music and movie recommendations, talking some often-needed nonsense. Over the years, the posts have taken on more reflective tones as we’ve shared about struggles and triumphs in our relationships and careers. Now we talk often of marriages and the children who are turning us into fathers and uncles. I would do anything for any one of the men in this group. The cameraderie and support is such a valuable piece of my life – it keeps me sane, gives me a place to share the emotional stuff that would otherwise stay inside, and definitely helps keeps my marriage healthy.

When I work with men in therapy, one of the first things I ask about is their support system, particularly their male support system. And if they don’t have a good one, part of our work always includes building that network. A well-known author on masculinity (Michael Kimmel, I believe – don’t quote me though) has said that men in the United States embody the idea of being “heterosexual but homosocial.” Many men are afraid of emotional intimacy with one another yet crave this type of relationship in their lives. In leading a men’s group at the University of Colorado, I found that men just need permission to get together and share deeper stuff. Once they learned that it was okay to be vulnerable, it was unstoppable. This is a big reason why I don’t subscribe to the pop-culture idea that men have less emotional capacity than women or don’t connect “that way.” I think men certainly have the desire and the capacity to connect on an emotional level. It’s a hope of mine to get a men’s group going here in Fort Collins as well, simply because I know how meaningful it can be.

Thoughts or comments are always welcome  🙂


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Got Nonsense?

I’ve been drawing a lot of inspiration from various New York publications lately, and I’ll continue that trend today with another article from the NYT (thanks, Andrew).

Doug Allen made a comment the other day that I think provides a nice intro for talking about this article:

I often wonder if the mind is not stimulated enough like the puppy, it will create problems to solve.

The author of this article, Benedict Carey, talks about the role of “nonsense,” or unorthodox happenings, in stimulating the mind. I’d come up with my own examples, but he lists some great ones (a bearded nun, a pink unicorn, and a three-dollar bill are among those named). He cites research which suggests that the brain, when confronted with out-of-the-ordinary stimuli (or nonsense), will react by intensifying its efforts to find patterns in future stimuli (another example of the brain being smart). The example given in the paper is one of university students who, after reading a bizarre Franz Kafka story, did better at picking out subtle number strings than peers who didn’t read the bizarre story.

This is intriguing in so many ways. The article mentions implications for learning, particularly implicit learning, or “knowledge gained without awareness.” But I’m more interested, of course, in how this may come into play in a psycho-social way.

I can see  the positives here. On the one hand, it seems like having some good old nonsense in your life – say, by watching or reading the occasional piece of absurdity – could possibly make you sharper in your everyday life. Maybe help you deal more creatively with that problem that’s been bugging you at work, or give you a slight edge in responding differently when confronted with a familiar and troublesome relationship issue. I like this idea.

But I could see it being a slippery slope as well. While the article doesn’t say this, I could see any number of traumatic events (sexual assault, car crash, death of a close family member) qualifying as “absurd” in the brain’s eye. In other words, something totally unexpected that is difficult or impossible to make sense of. Following this event, the brain’s search for patterns or meaning actually finds patterns where none exist. The article mentions this possibility as well – individuals becoming susceptible to conspiracy theories and the like. But I’m thinking more of my clients who experience unexpected life events and then find “meaning” in others’ behavior or in the world around them, often in a detrimental way. I’m thinking of those who say things like “no one knows what to say to me,” “everyone’s judging me,” etc. These individuals can end up isolated, alone, and/or just plain anxious.

This is where therapy can be helpful – a place to process these reactions and do some reality testing of the “patterns” that are being seen. A good therapist can help you identify when you’re sharper than usual or when you may be searching for meaning in all the wrong places.

Thanks for reading 🙂 Comments or thoughts are always welcome.


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Michael Vick’s Fifteen Months of Fame

I posted a couple of weeks ago on issues of masculinity in college football. Today’s post offers a follow-up to the previous one, this time looking at pro football and issues of masculinity. Malcolm Gladwell, author of Blink, Tipping Point, andOutliers, has a great article in the New Yorker this month (thanks, Lane). I won’t do an extensive commentary since there are numerous others on the web, but he explores the parallels between football and dogfighting (with Michael Vick being the convenient bridge between the two). Thankfully his article isn’t dealing with Vick’s adventures over the last couple of years. But he does bring up an interesting comparison between two sports that at first glance have little to do with one another. As far as I can tell, he makes a couple of points. The first is that debilitating injuries (specifically head injuries) may be as inherent in football as they are dogfighting – a sport that many abhor for its violence. But it’s the second that I’m more interested in – the idea that football players, like potential fighting dogs, are selected for their “gameness,” or willingness to persevere in the face of serious threat to self or body.

This idea of “gameness” is illustrated in the football players who sustain injuries of all sorts but won’t be kept out of the game. Here’s a quote from Kyle Turley, a former linebacker in the National Football League, describing a post-concussion experience:

“They cleared me for practice that Thursday. I probably shouldn’t have. I don’t know what damage I did from that, because my head was really hurting. But when you’re coming off an injury you’re frustrated. I wanted to play the next game. I was just so mad that this happened to me that I’m overdoing it. I was just going after guys in practice. I was really trying to use my head more, because I was so frustrated, and the coaches on the sidelines are, like, ‘Yeah. We’re going to win this game. He’s going to lead the team.’ That’s football. You’re told either that you’re hurt or that you’re injured. There is no middle ground. If you are hurt, you can play. If you are injured, you can’t, and the line is whether you can walk and if you can put on a helmet and pads.”

Scary. Even scarier when you read the rest of Gladwell’s article and see his calculation that pro football players may suffer up to 18,000 significant hits to the head over their career. Now – I’ll leave the exploration of these implications to Gladwell. But what really stand out to me (again) are the masculine norms at work here. Not only the playing through pain, but the idea of doing it alone, of being betrayed by coaches assumed to look out for these men’s best interest. Another quote from Turley describing his return after surgery for a herniated disc:

“They put me in full-contact practice from day one,” he said. “After the first day, I knew I wasn’t right. They told me, ‘You’ve had the surgery. You’re fine. You should just fight through it.’ It’s like you’re programmed. You’ve got to go without question—I’m a warrior. I can block that out of my mind. I go out, two days later. Full contact. Two-a-days. My back locks up again. I had re-herniated the same disk that got operated on four months ago, and bulged the disk above it.”

Gladwell talks about how former prize-fighting dogs must be rehabilitated socially rather than euthanized, so that they have a chance to repair the betrayal that occurred with originally owners who sent them into fights and expected them to fight to the death.  I wish that he would have elaborated on how this applies to football players as well. My experience as a clinicianleads me to believe that the same may be true for most men asked to “play through pain.” I think of all the men I’ve had in my office who unknowingly describe betrayals from parents and others who didn’t listen when they were in physical or emotional pain as children. Often it’s the relationship in therapy that provides a reparative experience – a chance for men to re-learn that it’s okay to be in pain and that someone will respect and honor these feelings, rather than “put them back in the game.”

If you have time, I do hope that you’ll take 20 minutes or so to read Gladwell’s article. Comments on it or anything else are welcome as always. Have a great weekend,


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Carl Rogers vs. Supernanny

Another interesting piece from the New York Times. This article speaks to something very core for myself and other therapists that I know; it has also been hotly debated in the literature on effectiveness of therapy. This issue is the role of the parent-child relationship, and therapist-client relationship by extension, in therapy.

The article mainly discusses some recent research detailing the effects of conditional positive regard on children. Conditional positive regard is the idea that parents dole out love or praise conditionally, or only when the child does something deemed to be worthy of it. The article also talks about the related idea of withdrawing love or punishing when the child does something “wrong,” and states that both of these forms of conditional parenting can be harmful. I recognize that this is a hot issue and can be taken all sorts of ways for discussion, but I’m going to limit the scope of the article to the impact on the therapeutic relationship.

Enter Carl Rogers. Any clinician in the counseling field has heard of Carl Rogers. He’s famous for promotion of unconditional positive regard – accepting and supporting individuals regardless of what they do. The therapeutic techniques that reflect this approach often make up the bulk of Introduction to Counseling classes in peer education, undergraduate, and graduate programs across the country. This unconditional positive regard, at least in the beginning of the therapeutic relationship, helps form the solid connection that many therapists (myself included) feel is integral to doing the harder work later on.

As I mentioned at the beginning, I feel that this article highlights a few things relevant to my practice. The first is that the parent-child relationship is certainly an important component of many clients’ presenting problems. And that conditional love is particularly troublesome, because it often sets the stage for how individuals relate to others later on in life. The first example that comes to mind is the client who learns that they are only lovable when they accomplish things. Personally and professionally, I’ve seen this situation lead to an inability to share failure, feelings of shame, and/or a constant need to “do” (at work, in relationships, etc.). Which ultimately makes it difficult to be fully in relationship with others, and by nature reinforces the idea that the individual can only be loved conditionally.

The second part that is relevant is the implication that the therapeutic relationship can be healing in and of itself. That clients can experience this unconditional positive regard from a therapist and “unlearn” their assumptions about their self-worth and ways of relating to others. This idea is not revolutionary by any means, but it is certainly nice to have some research to potentially support it.

There’s a lot more to say on this topic. I make this post now to open the door for many others on related topics – evidence-based practice, managed care, and long-term vs. short-term therapy are a few that pop up immediately.

Comments, as always, are welcome – thanks for reading.


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When Your Brain Is Too Smart for Its Own Good

These brains of ours. They do so much – think, feel, perform day-to-day operations, keep us alive, etc. But it turns out that sometimes they’re a little too good at streamlining performance. A while back, the New York Times published an article detailing our brain’s response to stressful situations. There were two main points of the article, and I’ll tackle them separately.

The first point is that our brains, when faced with ongoing stress, default to “familiar routines and rote responses.” The experiments mentioned in the article were conducted with rats. These rats were basically put through the rat-equivalent of several 40+ hour work weeks, a bad economy, a couple of kids’ twice-weekly soccer and gymnastics practices, and extended visits from less-than-desirable relatives. Researchers found a couple of things…one, that the region of the rats’ brains responsible for seeking new solutions and making novel decisions actually shrank; and two, that the area responsible for habit-formation grew. Perhaps more importantly, they found that rats under stress developed habitual behaviors faster than non-stressed rats. Their theory is that the brain knows when we’re stressed and then goes on a sort of “autopilot” to save energy wherever possible.

Whoa, Brain. Thanks for the help, but how about checking in with us first? Way back when we were sharing the planet with huge tigers and the like, it was very helpful for our brain to put some tasks on autopilot while it devoted more energy to activating the sympathetic nervous system so that we could run or fight. The trouble is that there are no tigers anymore, and our brains often can’t tell the difference between “stress from tigers” and “stress from a full inbox.”

I’ve been talking with a good friend of mine over the last couple of months who’s been under similar stress to these rats in the study. The main stressor was starting a new job and all of a sudden working 10 hour days. His complaint is that his evenings now consist of coming home, drinking a beer, and collapsing in a chair – he has no energy or motivation for doing anything different.

Sounds like his brain is too smart for its own good. How many of us have experienced something similar? You get stressed and find yourself repeating patterns of behavior that aren’t necessarily helpful and aren’t exactly what you want to be doing. I know that I’ve fallen into these periods at different times in my life. The most recent was when I was commuting an hour each way to work, running several hours a week, and planning a wedding. Whew! Talk about a hard time to find motivation and experiment with new ways of handling my stress. All I wanted to do was watch American Idol and go to sleep.

I see many clients who deal with these issues in various ways. The fancy, diagnostic term is “Adjustment Disorder” – a time when a temporary stressor spurs someone into feeling more depressed or anxious than usual. Whether it’s moving to a new place, getting out of a long-term relationship, or starting a new job, there are always going to be times when we get stressed and default to habitual behaviors. Thankfully, it’s almost always temporary.

And that brings me to the second point of the article: that this habitual behavior can be reversed – yes, the brain can actually change its structure – with some vacation time. Areas dedicated to executive function blossom again, and areas dedicated to habit-formation shrink back. Just knowing that our brains are so flexible gives me, and many of my clients, something very important – hope. Many clients come to therapy feeling quite hopeless about their given situation, which is why it is so important to have research like this that says that our brains can change for the better. All we have to do is allow ourselves to take breaks from stress whenever possible rather than get stuck in the rut of day-to-day stuff.

For my clients (and myself), this means working on self-care strategies and perhaps cultivating a little more mindfulness, or moment-to-moment awareness of thoughts, feelings, and physical sensations. This mindfulness can help us recognize when we’re on “autopilot” and restore the power of choice in our actions.

To echo the article’s ending (only for a different season): it’s only October. Still time to take a small fall trip or a walk outside before getting wrapped up in holiday craziness. Take care.


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The Existential Dilemma of Running

Running is one of my passions in life. I caught the running bug about five years ago when a friend challenged me to run a local 5k. I “trained” for about two weeks by running as far and fast as I could each time out, often running through pain from the previous day’s run. As an aside, do not train for your first race this way. Check out the internet (especially the Runner’s World website) for any number of better plans. But I digress. After the race was over, I overheard a couple of people talking about a  “half marathon” a few months away. Now, I’d heard of marathons – those endeavors undertaken by the fanatical and sometimes insane. No way would I ever do that (I’m currently training for my third marathon – shows what I knew). But a half marathon sounded like a nice compromise…challenging but not torture. So I decided to run the first one I could find (with appropriate training this time!). And this was my discovery of running, something that I can’t imagine not doing now.

Which brings me to today’s post. I went back to South Carolina for my brother’s wedding at the end of June and naturally packed my running shoes. As I prepped for my first run in the very hot, very humid climate (which reminded me why I like running in Colorado so much) I made sure to put on plenty of sunscreen. But there came a point during the run where I found myself feeling REALLY hot and started wondering if the sunscreen was actually protecting me at all. Which got me thinking about how often I just assume that things will “work.” In this case, it was the sunscreen. I followed that thought train for a while (it was a long run) and arrived at the frighteningly naïve assumption that my body would always just “work” when I wanted it to, namely when I wanted it to run. Then I thought of the time that I was injured and couldn’t run for a couple of months, and THEN I thought of the possibility of never running again due to some other injury.

Talk about existential dilemmas. In just a few short years, running had become many things to me: certainly a stress relief and a way to stay healthy, but it had also become part of my identity. I am a runner. People who know me know that it’s just what I do.

At this point I was thinking hard about sports psychologists/therapists and the crucial role that they play for athletes, particularly college athletes, as they work through the emotional pain of injuries. It breaks my heart to think about these young adults who become injured, sometimes permanently, and lose their primary identity in the process.

While I don’t advertise myself as a sports psychologist per se, I frequently work with clients on existential dilemmas and loss of purpose. And this is what we’re really talking about, right? It may be losing your identity as an athlete, or an engineer, or seeing your kids grow up and feeling lost now that you’re not a full-time parent. Whatever form it takes, loss of identity can send any of us into a state of depression over what we’ve lost or anxiety about a future without this identity. It can be easy to pull away from other activities or disengage from relationships that were previously meaningful. The challenge is to stay present to your experience and recognize that meaning and identity can be found in any number of places. Athletes may take up a different sport while rehabilitating the injury, newly unemployed individuals may volunteer or rediscover old passions, and older parents may find time to reconnect with their partners or themselves after dedicating so much time and energy to children.

Above all, I remind my clients (and myself, during times when I feel “lost”) that value as a person and self-worth don’t disappear with a loss of purpose or identity. You keep these things no matter what, through the searches for meaning that all of us go through.


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