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Calm in the Storm

I had a nasty run yesterday morning. And not in the “nasty as an ironic way to say pleasant” sense. In breaking down the run, it wasn’t my energy level or the distance (often the culprits of a bad run) that made it so unbearable – it was the wind. For those readers in Colorado, you’ve likely experienced this type of wind before. A wind so intense that it was difficult to enjoy even when it was pushing me from behind, and enough to make me curse everything in existence while I was running straight into it. A nightmare to say the least.

If there’s any silver lining in this experience, it’s that I came out of it with the idea for this post. See, about halfway through the run, I suddenly noticed that my eyes weren’t stinging from twigs and dirt blowing into them. I was running very close to full speed, in a posture that didn’t have me bent double and twisted to protect myself from everything whirling through the air. I had no reason to be swearing (and immediately felt silly for doing so).

In that moment, one of my favorite concepts from mindfulness hit me in a rare moment of clarity – the idea that nothing is permanent. There are ebbs and flows to everything…nothing stays the same, all the time. I touched on this idea in the Comments section of an earlier post, placing it in the context of neurobiology and hope for change in our brains. But this experience was a little more direct for me; in that moment, the run shifted from a tedious chore to something a little more lively and dynamic. I recognized that the wind, contrary to my belief until that point, wasn’t constantly blowing hard and fast directly into my face. There were brief stretches where it let up, times when I could feel the sun more strongly or enjoy a little burst in speed. I started to shift my outlook on the run from one of frustration to one of recognizing and appreciating these small moments of relief.

This idea is so important in my personal and professional lives as well. Many times, I’ve talked with depressed clients who say they’re “always” depressed about how “always” is never true. There are inevitably going to be fluctuations in mood, however small they may be. Maybe it’s first thing in the morning, before things have a chance to go wrong. It might be a seemingly random compliment, or a good grade, or a better-than-average sandwich that gives a brief lift in mood. Whatever does it for you, it’s the ability to recognize these moments for what they are rather than let them pass by that’s important. It’s so easy to ignore or miss these times, letting them get swallowed by the dominant mood. But my experience has shown that there’s a lot of hope to be gained from being aware of these small fluctuations. Once you start tuning in to the possibility that depression (or anxiety, or relationship difficulties) isn’t permanent, things start opening up. The belief that there’s a chance to feel better can be incredibly powerful. In therapy I try to help my clients gain more moment-to-moment awareness so that they can recognize the small shifts rather than miss them. It’s not easy, but with a little practice it is certainly possible.

In this moment, I recognize that I want to write much more than I have time for, particularly around mindfulness. I’ve mentioned mindfulness several times in the blog and would like to do a more detailed post one day. Until then, here are a few topical resources:

Jeremy

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The Legality of Love

Short post today – just a brief comment and a link to an article on the U.S. constitution and same-sex marriage (thanks, Tyler). This article was great for me to read. While I know a bit about each of the topics separately,  their intersection is more of a mystery. Check it out if you have a few minutes – it’s well-written and gives some good information.

This article is quite clinically relevant. The topic of marriage or commitment has come up for almost every same-sex couple that I’ve seen for therapy – naturally, as it’s so emotionally loaded. Being married is an identity along with a legal issue. And while many states have supported same-sex marriage recently, the events around Proposition 8 in California seem to cast a long shadow of uncertainty as well.

As a therapist and an individual living in a state that has not supported same-sex marriage thus far, it makes me angry to see couples who are unable to marry. Many (not all) of these couples are contending with an added layer of anxiety and anger as well, which certainly impacts their relationships with one another and with others.

I’d be interested to hear thoughts or reactions to the article or the topic. I’m admittedly struggling with keeping this post to more of a clinical focus…and then struggling with whether the blog necessarily needs to always be so clinically focused. So bear with me as I attempt to mix a little politics in as well.

Jeremy

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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  🙂

Jeremy

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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.

Jeremy

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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,

Jeremy

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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.

Jeremy

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