The Naked Truth about High School

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I am honored to present today’s guest blogger, Ed Boland, whose recently released memoir, The Battle for Room 314: My Year of Hope and Despair in a New York City High School, has already attracted rave reviews from Andrew Solomon–author of Not Far From the Tree and The Noonday DemonPublisher’s Weekly, Kirkus and others.

Before training to become a therapist, I worked as a reading specialist and educationevaluator for the New York City Department of Education. I walked some of the same hallways depicted by the author. I can vouch for the authenticity of his vision. Ed’s voice, from the front line of the teaching profession, both gritty and elegant, points us towards needed improvements in our education system with humor, love and compassion.

aleg baranau/Shutterstock.com
Source: aleg baranau/Shutterstock.com

Ed writes:  I knew being a rookie New York City public high school teacher was going to be tough, but tough didn’t begin to describe it.  In my first month alone, one of my ninth grade students hurled a   .    .    .   continue

5 Ways To Use The Power Of Mindfulness and Compassion

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Todays guest blogger, Adrienne Glasser, LCSW, teaches mindfulness and an Introduction to Internal Family Systems theory and practice In the FACTS program, a division of ICP (Institute for Contemporary Psychotherapy). Her last guest article was chosen as an Essential Read by the editors of the Psychology Today website.

Mindfulness is everywhere these days, but how can we use it when helping families? In it’s most simple form, mindfulness is remembering to come back to the present moment.  A simple but fair question is: “What else would one be doing?”  A busy mind races to the past and future.  Resentments and to-do lists and everywhere.  We bring these too-busy brains to all of our relationships, to our partners, our family and our children. Many times, this can make the love and positive regard we have for others feel less accessible to them. It can cause us to momentarily forget how much we care for them.

Sharon Salzberg shares a fable on Happify in which an elder protagonist states, “I have two wolves fighting in my heart. One wolf is fearful, vengeful, envious, resentful and deceitful. The other wolf is compassionate loving, generous, truthful, and peaceful.” A child asks, “Which one will win the fight?” The elder responds, “The one I feed.” How we work with, acknowledge and energize our feelings determines the direction of our growth. We change ourselves through our own intentionality as we seek to become the persons we want to become.

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The Problem With Making Anger the Problem: Four Tips to Help you Deal with it Better

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Many couples feel that what is wrong with their communication process is that it fails to prevent conflict and anger. But conflict and anger are inevitable; viewing your relationship as defective because you argue, even if you argue a lot misses the point. How couples resolve their disagreements, not whether they have them, is what counts. Research indicates that fewer arguments do NOT indicate greater relational health or longevity. The resolution is what counts.

Tip #1: Argue within bounds.

Before losing your temper check your understanding of what your partner is trying to get across. Speakers can and do misspeak. Especially when they are angered. Many times a partner will say something in anger that they know full well is not true; and many times it doesn’t represent how they feel.

 Before etching what they’ve said into stone and making it the centerpiece of your side of the conversation, explore whether it represents how they really feel.  Will they stand by it?

Consider this situation: Leslie says to Jason, “You think of yourself and nobody else. I bend over backwards to accommodate your schedule but when it comes to inconveniencing yourself for me I can always count on you to disappoint me.”

Jason might have counter-attacked.  At the beginning of our work together this is what he typically would have done. But he has worked on his temper.  His goal is to control what was a chronic, automatic anger response.

In a split second, afforded by his commitment to handling his anger mindfully, he reads Leslie’s mood. He reminds himself that good communication requires paying attention to words that are spoken; but, even more importantly, to the emotion beneath the words.  The words combined with the emotional subtext render a message’s fuller meaning. Anger can be intoxicating when it takes over a person’s way of seeing things. He takes Leslie seriously and recognizes she is expressing something real but that her annoyance and frustration are coloring the words and the literal meaning of what she is saying may not represent what she truly feels. Therefore, he does not “go after” her words, which were hurtful to him, but he wants to address her mood. What he wants to do in this situation is help her to calm down so he can get down to what is really wrong. Rather than counterattacking, he responds in a non-defensive manner.

He and I have practiced developing a vocabulary of non-defensive responses in role-play exercises because, in the conversational moment with Leslie, unless he’s prepared and thought about what he wants to accomplish with his response, he will tend to get triggered and, chances are, react with knee-jerk anger. Instead, he says, “You know, you’re right, I can be self-centered sometimes. And you do bend over backwards to accommodate me a lot of the time. But do you really think that I am self-centered all the time?”

He pauses to let her take this in. Then he continues, “When you had your presentation at work last week, I helped you get your material organized. I asked if you needed me to do anything else. I said that I’d be glad if you asked me for help because I knew the presentation was important to you. I wanted to be there for you. Do you remember what I’m talking about?” It is important to note that his tone of voice, in saying this, was not argumentative or disparaging. He was explaining an idea that he wanted her to take in an consider; his tone was gentle. He invited her to consider his idea, he did not try to force her to surrender to it. He was consciously aware of not wanting to shame her.

Leslie calmed down. She acknowledged that she disagreed with much of what she herself had said.

Jason’s non-defensive response helped Leslie to be able to make herself vulnerable and acknowledge a change in perspective. Key point: Jason’s non-retaliatory stance indicated he was not interested in judging or competing with Leslie, but in connecting with her. He helped shift the focus towards whether the moment was contributing to the creation of emotional safety—what I call the third dimension of communication—or not. And Leslie responded creatively. She went from a blaming to a non-blaming conversational position—not an easy thing to do. As a couple, they are learning a lot about how they can handle difficult conversations in a non-adversarial way.

Tip #2: Some partners can’t seem to speak when they have something angry to say. They can’t find their voice under such circumstances. Others can’t keep their mouth closed when the first inkling of anger occurs to them. Managing anger, for both these kind of partners, is often not so much a question of expressing or not expressing the anger. It is often a matter of being able to identify the other feelings that are embedded within the anger. Anger can camouflage other emotions. Feelings such as sadness, grief, vulnerability, fear can be covered over by expressions or obsessions with anger. Sometimes, when a person has difficulty acknowledging or accepting a particular feeling—sadness for example—they can become enraged rather than experience awareness of that hidden feeling. Another couple I worked with Bruce and Larry often reported feeling angry at one another; and each used angry feelings to avoid acknowledging other (hidden) feelings that were under the surface. Bruce was angry that Larry flirted with others at parties. Rather than talking about feeling that his need for a more secure attachment was not being met, he berated Larry. He accused him of being selfish and cruel. Larry did flirt at parties but, to a significant degree, it had to do with feelings of fear at the intimacy that had developed between himself and Bruce. He was more connected and felt he needed Bruce more than he had allowed himself to feel connected to any one else in his adult life. The closeness scared him even though he craved it. Conversation about these feelings was camouflaged by the angry back and forth that usually focused on accusing Bruce of being controlling and unable to trust.

Once the couple became aware of some of the feelings that the anger was masking they were able to talk through some of those previously unvoiced emotions. What came across and got validated at that point was not that anger was dominating their relationship but that intimacy was challenging for both of them and that it existed between them. They were able to validate their importance to one another, something that the misplaced emphasis on their anger had prevented. Making anger the problem, in their situation, masked their true communication problem.

 

Read more about all four tips on www.psychologytoday.com.

As always your comments, questions, suggestions are welcome!

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There are two sides (at least) to everything. Find out about the other side of Xmas.

There’s No Reason to Celebrate Trauma, but There Have Been Advances in Treatment

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Note: This article is dedicated to the victims and survivors of the city of Paris, 11/13/15.

New paradigms, not only for the way we think about trauma, but in how we think about emotion itself, social engagement, empathy and memory, have swept the psychotherapy field. And innovations based on these new understandings have first become assimilated into the trauma field and then influence virtually all other treatment modalities—from ‘standard’ (unspecialized) psychotherapy practices to couples and family work and more.

Is traumatic memory different from normal memory? How and why are traumatic memories relived—re-experienced as flashback, as if the trauma were re-occuring in the present? Why are they not simply recalled, remembered, as events understood to have happened in the past? Can traumatic memory be reprocessed so that it can be recalled as memory without being re-experienced? Or is a trauma survivor destined to always relive their horror as if it were occurring again and again in the present?  How does the brain accommodate destructive experience and, to the extent possible, preserve personality structure? Only within the past thirty years have answers to such questions emerged on the basis of scientific data rather than theoretical hypothesizing. These cutting edge perspectives first become assimilated into trauma treatment and then reach the rest of the psychotherapy field.

Pioneering writings—of Philip Bromberg, Steven Mitchell, Thomas Ogden, Christopher Bollas and others—bring a reconceptualization of Self to the forefront. A revolution in theory of mind conceives of the Self as a constellation of inner self-states. Each self-state, or sub-identity, carries its own individuality, character and purpose. The therapist’s goal is not to unify the parts but to help the client harmonize them. Note: this view involving a multiplicity of selves describes normal development and should not be conflated with Multiple Personality Disorder, a pathological condition.

Cognitive and behavioral techniques have earned their place in the pantheon of effective psychotherapeutic theory and practice. A preponderance of neural pathways—neural pathways being unidirectional—originate in the limbic system, the emotional center of the brain, and deliver messages to the cortex, often associated with cognition. Clearly the emotional center has enormous influence on the ‘upper’ region, the cortex. Given that the limbic system is thought to have evolved approximately 500 million years ago and the cortex only 5 million years ago, this makes sense. Research findings indicate that decision-making, planning, as well as meta-cognition—thinking about thinking, thinking about feeling—are not only under pervasive influence of emotion; but that emotion effectively trumps cognition as the pathway to psychological healing. The felt-sense, the incipient wisdom of the body, outweighs the cognitive realm as a portal to restoring health. And this sea change in perspective, once again, is spearheaded through clinical applications innovated from within the trauma field.

Click here to read more about this approach and other approaches to trauma treatment on www.psychologytoday.com.

The Sun Also Rises: Paris, Je T’aime

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When I was in high school, we read “The Sun Also Rises.” I loved the book, which is interesting since I understood very little of what was going on, given my lack of maturity at age sixteen. Maybe I found it intriguing that every character ordered a drink before and after swallowing a morsel of food. Perhaps I thought I was getting a glimpse into the real life of adventurous adults. Everyone was so world-weary and took their ennui for granted in a way that was hard for me to imagine ever attaining. I dreamed of far away places and, most of all, of Paris, the true protagonist of the novel. On every other page, there were comments on what it was like to be there and the slant of the commentary changed as quickly as ice cubes melt in a whiskey tumbler. Earlier this week I began re-reading this legendary tale and rather than feeling awe-struck by the grown-upness of it all, I marveled at how adolescent the characters seemed. How dreamily vague and confused they were about everything to do with each other.  Except for their heightened awareness of place. They may not have known who they were or what they meant to each other but they knew where they were, in Paris. They were trying on life for size. They were striving to create something of meaning for themselves.  The smoky surroundings were less a mark of sophistication than a screen for a deeper haze of grief and suffering in the aftermath of bodily dismemberment and pervasive grief; the Great War, the one to end all wars, had just ended. I was midway through the narrative on Friday, immersed in the Paris environment.  I read on feeling like one of the very few who had that Grand Ville on my mind. Until I tuned into the media, and the news of what was unfolding  on Friday, November 13th, 2015 blared. The entire world had turned eyes and heart to the suffering that had engulfed the City of Light. Once again, as I had felt on September 11, 2001, the world had changed and would never be the same. I had plans to visit a local car dealership on Saturday, but surprised myself by wondering whether it would be open for business on what was usually its busiest day.  A strange thought to match a surreal moment. Even a pacifist would, at this time, consider the wisdom of venturing into public space unarmed.  Identifying with being normal but not terrified had become extraordinarily difficult.  The need to be trusting was more pressing than ever, but its potentially deadly ramifications stunningly clear. The outer limits of paranoia seemed to expand. Realism seemed, in this sliver of time, to be a Stephen King depiction, Pema Chodron’s outlook was elusive. I turned to my partner for reassurance that the world is still a place in which love, romance, adventure and attachment could thrive. Because I want to believe that the sun also rises. But tonight, there is a harsh glare on what was just a short while ago, a more innocent backdrop. The sun does rise, but it also sets heavily. And we are poised to do what we can to bring back a fragile beauty to life that we knew before this horrid and jarring episode. Vive la France!

This article was originally published on www.psychologytoday.com.

How You Open Is How You Close: Three Questions and Three Tips to Jumpstart Your Talks

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Start right and you have got a fighting chance to achieve what you are hoping to do—whether that means being clearly understood, creating a mood conducive to closeness or healing a misunderstanding.  How your conversation begins is likely how it ends. Research indicates that the initial interchange between partners largely determines the course and outcome of the entire conversation. Start on the wrong foot and you’ll likely end up stumbling, tripping, tripping up your partner or escalating anger. So your mindset at the beginning of conversation with your partner, or anyone else with whom your connection is important, bears scrutiny.

Ever wonder what a mindful conversation is? The three following questions will move you into mindful conversation territory. They exemplify the kind of anticipatory strategizing that opens dialogue and builds emotional safety.  They also slow down reactivity. Your awareness of the answers, even approximate answers, to these questions maximize your chances for being heard and feeling good about your communication process. Skip them at your peril:

Question #1: How are you feeling? Awareness of how you feel is primary.  To speak or act without awareness of how you are feeling is dangerous. In order to create emotionally safe messages, you’ve got to start out with an awareness of where you yourself are coming from.

Question #2: How is your partner feeling? Think about who your partner is at the moment. Are they at their best? Their worst? Are they likely to have a problem with what you have in mind to discuss? None of these questions necessarily prohibit you from trying to have a dialogue in the moment. The point of mentioning these things is that they are the kind of considerations that can help you decide when the optimal time to get your message across may be.  Many issues require ongoing conversation, so the idea is often not to target a time to resolve a particular issue but to find a time to open it for discussion and then work to continue resolving it.

Question #3: What do you want to accomplish in your conversation? Having awareness of what you would like to accomplish with your partner is critical to establishing a sense of connection. If you are able to move in the direction you would like, that’s great. If the conversation leaves you feeling that your approach was unproductive, you are then in a position to adjust accordingly.  This posture—a flexible one—is useful and necessary. It is a sign that the way you approach your partner is nuanced and mindful of opportunities for learning from experience, rather than blindly plunging into conversation without regard to the consequences.

Knowing how you are positioning yourself and how your partner is experiencing the moment maximizes possibilities for a good start to the conversation. These questions may sound elemental but how you prepare for conversation will have a significant impact on how much you are able to accomplish in terms of improving the depth of connection you experience in important dialogues you have. Key point: Good conversation consists of the ability to make clear points and to be in good listening mode so that the dialogue can move towards a meeting of minds. If you begin a conversation with the sole intention of speaking your mind,  that may be valuable—as a preliminary to dialogue; but it also can be a dialogue-stopper. Having the intention to speak your mind and encourage a flow of dialogue is what we are after.

Click here to read more and get three helpful tips to help any couple move towards creating or strengthening a secure attachment on www.psychologytoday.com.

Empathy and the Mind-Body Connection

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Therapists have idiosyncratic methods in preparing themselves for connection with clients. Today’s guest blogger, Rebecca Sokoll, LMSW, an insightful family and couples therapist brings her training as an actor to bear on her role as a therapeutic listener. She describes how a specific kind of mind-body awareness informs her work and underlies the communication process between herself and her clients. She underscores the need for internal flexibility: the ability to balance perspectives of the one who is being empathized with and the empathizer. An unbalanced empathic stance can de-stabilize boundaries between individuals and cause confusion. Fear that this may occur is echoed in the often-heard complaint that partners feel “they can get lost in the inner world of the other if they get too close.” Fear of intimacy can be traced to a misunderstanding or mistaken expectation of the nature of compassionate and empathic connection; in order to effectively place yourself within the experience of another you must be securely and flexibly connected with your own. Empathy that furthers mutual understanding is grounded in a two-sided perspective. Ms. Sokoll describes well the back-and-forth aspect of empathic connection in her piece:

When I worked in experimental theatre during my twenties and thirties, my ensemble and I practiced an effort that we called “work in the moment”.  It’s an exercise meant to increase awareness of how our inner lives effect our behaviors.  The work, focused and concentrated, was done with the group seated. We took turns describing physical sensations as experienced in the here and now.  Someone might say, “I feel tension in my forehead at a point between my eyebrows,” or a clenching in the jaw, or the sensation of their skull balancing over the top of the spine. Another might speak of experiencing shallowness of breath, pressure in the chest, skin tingling against the temperature of the air.  Another might talk about feeling their feet grip the floor, or warmth and expansiveness in their hips.

People would sometimes talk about “feelings”—frustration, annoyance, happiness, sadness, etc.— rather than these somatic counterparts. When this happened, they would be directed to go back to the language of the exercise, they were asked, “Where is it in your body, that happiness?  How does it feel there?” I learned that I register my somatic sensations and their corresponding emotions and associations in a way that is less fettered by self-judgment and self-consciousness than I do when experiencing what most of us call ‘emotion.’ I am more accepting of myself, less anxious when grounded in my body awareness. This practice of somatic self-attunement is the first part of a tool I use as a therapist that I think of as my double-ended arrow of attention. This comprises a major component of what I experience as a clinician in psychotherapy sessions—either as therapist or client. The first end of the arrow, the one facing me, connects me to the body awareness described above. The second part of the tool, the end of the two-headed arrow points outward towards my client or clients.  The first end of the arrow creates a connection to my physical self in the moments immediately preceding the session. It helps me to allow my attention to roam through my body, getting pulled by certain sensations and intentionally directing attention to other areas which I know will help me feel grounded and centered.  Then I welcome my partner to the room.  By the way, my partner could be an individual, couple, or group of family members.  The outwardly directed arrow of my attention shifts instantly from passive to active, making eye contact, seeing the physical presentation of my clients, the objects they carry, their sitting posture, facial expressions, etc.   I continue to make an effort to monitor my inner state, but it’s not so easy! Now the first arrow is pulled by the second and for a moment I may lose contact with my body completely as I am drawn to so much coming in from outside myself.  I try to maintain a dance with attention that travels back and forth between myself and the other in the room.

Working face to face with others, incorporating the input from their presence in the session, provokes physical tensions, emotions, and drives within me. When studied in the moment, this inner awareness is like a terrain that I navigate within myself. This can be terrifying, energizing and engaging.  Click here to learn more about this process on www.psychologytoday.com.

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