Monthly Archives: June 2009

You and Your Therapist: Part IV. How to Tell if Your Therapy’s Working.

You begin to question your psychological assumptions – about yourself, your relationships, your world view.

You are learning something – about yourself and about how others perceive you.

You start to think about things in a different way; it may be more than a bit unnerving.

You feel like, finally, the pieces of the puzzle are fitting together, and what seemed impossible is now clear, simple (even if you couldn’t explain it to anyone else!).

You are uncomfortable enough that you know you’re facing something about yourself, but comfortable enough to trust that you can handle it.

You find yourself trying out what you learned in therapy outside of the therapy session.

You start doing things, try new behaviors, you never did before, and notice what happens.

You stop doing things, resist old behaviors you always did before, and notice what happens.

You go home for a family reunion and the same things that have always driven you crazy – amazingly – don’t!

You hear your therapist’s voice in your head – before you do something the way you used to, the way it didn’t work, and you do something, anything different.

You can see the progress you have made on the problems/issues you came into therapy to address.

Your friends or family tell you you’ve changed. You’re not the pushover you used to be, you don’t get as angry as you used to, you seem more comfortable in your own skin.

You can really ask yourself “why in the world did I do that?” Not berate yourself, but ask yourself. And then listen quietly and gently as you try out some possible answers.

You feel hopeful about the future.

You finally understand why in the world you keep doing the same thing and expecting a new result.

Other thoughts? Please… Write in.

Copyright © 2009 Marlin S. Potash. All rights reserved.

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The Urgency of Now

rainbowHope for the future. Longing for the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. Good thing or bad thing? Depends. When we hope the next thing is the right and good thing, we often experience now as either a conduit or an impediment to that next thing. And in the process, we can miss the very parts of now that are already what we yearn for in the future.

Hoping and dreaming can be a marvelous distraction from the pain of the present. They can unleash a creativity that transforms today’s pain into tomorrow’s anticipated joy. “It will be different, better, I can create and live the reality I so want,” we tell ourselves. We envision living, having, doing what we want, and making up for what we don’t have in the present.

We can face what we need to do to change, and work toward that future. We realize it may manifest itself in somewhat different form in real life, and ready ourselves to take advantage of it when we see it. We can strengthen ourselves for challenges we cannot yet anticipate, but know exist. We can use hoping and dreaming to practice – right now – being the best version of who we want to be in the “what we want to be” to come.

But when we just go through the motions to get to the real event, we can feel angry about the motions we have to go through. Rather than undertaking them willingly because they connect us to something worth working for, we resent them, or wish them away. We are oftentimes impatient. We need the answer right now, the food ready right now, the train to arrive right now. We feel irritated that it’s taking too long; we cannot wait.

Sometimes, when we see another person as an obstacle to completing some task we need done in order to get on with things, we label them in the way, bothersome, or worse. Or we decide they are the cause of our pain. This impatience does not serve us well. Even if we do get that coffee now, we remain irritated long after we’ve finished drinking it. And even if the other person is an impediment, we transfer all our power to the very picture we don’t want, rather than framing the situation so it guides us toward the future we wish for.

Sometimes, we paint the wished-for picture all too vividly. We polish and perfect it, fantasizing too long and too well. Our fantasy life increasingly removes us from the present. Rather than facing our pain, we practice retreating from it by painting an ideal. No real life experience, no real person, could begin to live up to such fantasy.

But what if now can’t be reduced to either the conduit nor the impediment to the future we yearn for? The urgency of now is not to be confused with the present moment. Feeling stuck in now leaves us feeling demoralized, weakened, angry. Avoiding now steeps us in fantasy, taking us away from living fully. Hiding in now allows us to ignore our responsibility in making life the way we want it to be. Fighting now keeps us from seeing how to convert now into the future we long for.

To convert today’s unwanted “now” into a real “now” in the real future, we must accept and live in this very moment. Only by living in the present moment, framed by our dream of a realized better future, can we infuse the present with our dream, and transform our hopes into reality.

“The miracle is not to walk on water. The miracle is to walk on the green earth in the present moment, to appreciate the peace and beauty that are available now.” – Thich Nhat Hanh, TOUCHING PEACE

Copyright © 2009 Marlin S. Potash. All rights reserved.

Fantasy: the Perfect That Makes Reality Seem a Big Disappointment

Notes from a therapy session. Actually, notes from two therapy sessions: his, and hers (although it could just as easily be hers, and his). Two sides of the same story; clearly not the same story at all. But you decide for yourself…

He: “I’ve been dreaming about meeting someone just like you my whole life.”

She: “Well, what about me? Here I am!”

He: “Well, actually, I was imagining someone just like you, maybe just a little bit more independent (or less). Just a little bit more down-to-earth (or adventurous). Just a little bit slimmer (or taller). Just a little bit more adoring (or less demanding). Just a little bit more exotic (or who lives closer to me). Someone just like you, but just a little bit _______.”

She: “Yeah. I know. You’d be perfect, too, if only you __________.”

Who IS this fantasy person anyway? Well, hon, there ain’t no one just like her – or him – “except”…her – or him!

Fantasize long enough and well enough, and you’ve got a perfected image that no one real’s gonna come anywhere close to satisfying. Even the models and the “high end” hookers (and over the years I’ve treated more than a few of each) – even they don’t look like their pictures, not in real life. And certainly not the picture you’ve been perfecting in your mind. The dream guy, the dream girl, the one who’s got all the top ten items on your must-have list doesn’t exist. Or if they do, they’ve unfortunately got items 11-13. The ones that aren’t looking so good after the first blush.

Fantasy can be dangerous. Reality can be, too, but at least it’s real. And if you’re going to have a relationship with another person, a real one’s apt to be just a bit more satisfying, even if it is also a bit more disappointing…

Copyright © 2009 Marlin S. Potash. All rights reserved.

Stop!

stopIs it just me, or does it seem that everything is revving faster and faster by the day? I know that as we age, even baby boomers don’t move or think as fast as we once did. But I am starting to think it’s more than my just getting older and slower and crankier. It seems to me that the number of emails and texts and twitter alerts keep increasing exponentially. That the computer or handheld or cellphone – or all of them – seem to be on all the time, in every room, no matter what other activity’s the main event.

Witness: Despite a sign in my waiting room, and the expensive and rare luxury of an hour devoted exclusively to them, more and more patients “have to” leave their phones on during session: the kid might call, the market might fall, can’t miss anything at all.

Witness: Even people who a year ago vowed never to be “one of them” now text (they’ve been talking on the cell phones they vowed never to get for some time now) while crossing 96th and Madison. Or Times Square. Like your Aunt Harriet, model of decorum and good sense. Or your chill yoga instructor.

Witness: Despite tragic reports of car and subway and train crashes, drivers still convince themselves that, as long as they’re talking hands-free, they can pay sufficient attention to three things at once: the road, their phone conversation, and whatever else is going on in the car.

Witness: Despite numerous research studies that show multitasking is in fact less efficient than focusing on one thing at a time, we cling to the fantasy that we can somehow squeeze more into our day if we do two, three, even four things at once. That continually shifting gears, or paying attention to multiple things at once, helps us learn, when it fact it hinders learning. (How much do you miss about your dinner companion when your eyes are scanning every cute girl walking by?).

And it’s not just about the limit to what we can assimilate, or the eye strain from staring at the screens, or missing the eye contact you only get when you are only talking with the person with whom you are talking. No, what’s also bothering me is the sinking feeling that we’re all working for our technology, rather than the other way around. Everyone else does it, so we have to, too, to keep up. But there’s just too much to absorb before we’re saturated. And unfortunately, there’s still more and more to absorb.

I don’t know about you, but I need a rest. I want a rest. It’s summer, and I want time to just do nothing and stare at some clouds, wonder if they look like trees or if they’re cumulous or not…I want to enter into a conversation with no goal or agenda in mind, and no “excuse me’s” for the Blackberry calling, or a bevy of Iphones to the right of the soup spoons…

I want unplanned and unpaced time. I’m even starting to get nostalgic for the old days around the family dinner table before answering machines and cell phones and computers and more (well, not the quarreling part, or the “eat your dinner because of the starving children in ___ part). When the phone rang, there were glances around the table to see that everyone was accounted for, and some adult said something like, “Let it ring. We’re all here, having dinner. Whoever it is, if it’s important, they’ll call back.”

To do what you are doing when you are doing it… to only do what you are doing, fully and completely, trusting that, if important, they’ll call back again. That’s the break that refreshes, when the noise and the busyness stop…Now that’s today’s ultimate luxury: being in the moment, with no beeps or ringtones to interrupt quiet time, a quiet mind.

Copyright © 2009 Marlin S. Potash. All rights reserved.

You and Your Therapist: Part III. On Hating and Loving Your Therapist

This week’s therapy challenge, thanks to all you questioning patients* and potential patients out there: What happens when you not only love your therapist, but you hate her, too? Or when you not only can’t stand her, but you unfortunately find yourself actually listening to her, hearing her voice in your head when you’re not in the therapy session?

Remember your parents? Remember how you thought they were stupid, told them they were stupid, rolled your eyes and didn’t listen to the stupid things they said? And then you found yourself telling your friend, “My father says…” or asking yourself what your mother would think before you made a big decision, or – the worst – acting just like them?

It’s tempting to either love someone or hate them. If you’ve got kids, you know that’s what they do: don’t do or give something they want, and its “I hate you!” Bring home a toy and you get, “Daddy! I love you!” But the truth is that mature relationships are always more complex and contradictory than simply good or bad.

It can hurt, and we really hate, hearing the very things we most need to hear for our own good. And it can be particularly tough hearing it from an authority, or someone whose opinion of you matters to you (even if you wish it didn’t). Kind of like hearing you ought to stop eating junk food or have that colonoscopy or something. But worse. The good, healthy, in our best interest stuff is sometimes the most difficult to face. Because its often about confronting a part of ourselves we don’t much care for, or wish weren’t there at all. Because we don’t want someone whose opinion we care about to see our “bad stuff”. It’s embarassing, shameful maybe. It hurts. And since no one wants to hurt, we tend to protect ourselves automatically: we disagree, we back away, we accuse the other person of not getting us or of ill intent, we get angry.

And so we feel hateful, sometimes even act hateful. We want to “kill the messenger,” lash back, leave treatment. But then we feel guilty: because we really do know – and feel – our therapist’s concern (if you’ve made a connection, she’s trying hard, and she’s any good at all at listening to and understanding you. If you don’t feel that, for the most part, she really is on your side, you ought to seek treatment elsewhere). And sometimes facing the guilt we feel about our own hateful feelings seems too much to bear. So we don’t; we convince ourselves it’s her fault. Or we bolt.

Tempting. Don’t want to hate yourself. Don’t want to face your resentment or anger toward her. Don’t want to accept that love comes packaged with bits of loathing, if you’re honest about it. Tempting, but a huge mistake. This is not the time to put up a wall, retreat, or leave! This is the time when the real work starts: when you tiptoe out onto that trust you’re building together, take a risk, and say what you’re feeling and thinking as if she were really listening and trying to “get it.” This is the time you remember she’s working for you, caring about you, trying to help you. You try to listen as if she were giving you a gift: understanding and accepting the “not so good” parts, a chance to go through the scary stuff with someone else, learn about and accept yourself, come out alive and still be in it together.

She can take it. And she’s not going to punish you for it. The therapist in her will appreciate your courage and honesty and the gift of your trust. Oh, truth be told she’ll hate it a little, too (the human being part of her, that is. No one likes to feel on the wrong side of someone else’s fury). But she’ll get over it. So will you. If you’ve chosen a therapist you feel comfortable enough to be honest with, and uncomfortable enough you know you’re getting to the real issues. If you stick it out together and remember you’re in it for a shared purpose: to help you learn about yourself and become the best version of you possible, out loud and with someone else hanging in, even when they’ve seen the worst (and the best) of you.

Love and hate. Hate and love. What a combo!

* All of whom gave me permission to use their anecdotes – slightly disguised.

Copyright © 2009 Marlin S. Potash. All rights reserved.

The New Normal

My dear friend, the late Honorable Sheila E. McGovern, Chief Justice, Middlesex Family and Probate Court, who in 30 plus years on the bench saw just about everything, used to say it takes 3 years to adjust. To a divorce. To a chronic illness. To a death. To an adoption. To almost anything. 3 years until life feels completely normal again. A new kind of normal, but completely normal.

A long time. Too long, when you’re going through the adjusting. But the amazing thing, really, if you think about it, is that we do adjust. To just about anything and everything. To the bad things, the unimaginable things, the unbearable things. And to the good things, the wishes come true, the better than we ever imagined things. They become normal, too. The baseline shifts, imperceptibly, and what was once not even on our radar screen is one day simply a fact of life.

Consider: You couldn’t imagine how you could ever do without…vacations and taxis, your memory, the ability to eat anything and not gain weight, time to linger over the paper with a cup of coffee in the morning. You really couldn’t imagine it; you never actually even tried to imagine it. You just thought those were normal parts of your everyday life, and you didn’t really think about them at all. Except, maybe, to bemoan losing out on a beach vacation because your boss said you had to work on that deal. Or to wonder where you’d go on vacation next year, or what you’d cook for that special celebratory dinner tonight.

But now, just 3 years later, life’s different. You can’t eat half the stuff you used to because you’ve got reflux; you have, much to your amazement, come to understand the appeal of the early bird special. You walk instead of spending money on taxis – and because you’ve gained five pounds without really noticing how. You don’t have 5 minutes to make the coffee in the morning, let alone sip it along with the sports section. And your memory? You can’t seem to remember when you last had enough time, money, energy, or anything else you used to take for granted. The ground’s shifted, imperceptibly and in fits and starts. You’re in the new normal.

Consider: You can’t believe your good fortune. You got that promotion you’d been dreaming about, and the raise that went along with it. Who’d have thought you’d be making that kind of money? Certainly not you. Multiples of what your father made over the course of his lifetime, and you’re only in your thirties.

But that was 2 years ago, and a funny thing has happened since then. You got used to something you’d once only imagined, and it didn’t seem so amazing anymore. Terrific, maybe, for a while. Then pretty comfortable. And then, well, maybe you just started to take it for granted, assume this is how your life’s going to be, maybe even how it was always meant to be. You know you’re supposed to be feeling pretty good, grateful even, to have any kind of secure work right about now, let alone a job with the hours and income you’ve got. But when your colleague gets promoted over you, your blood starts to boil, and you find yourself feeling unjustly marginalized. Why? You’ve adjusted to what was once a dream job, and it no longer feels like such a dream come true. Your fantasy job has become your new normal, and it’s just not so exciting or satisfying or fantastic as the one you didn’t get. The one your colleague got.

Funny, isn’t it, how we adjust? To the bad, to the good, the feared and the wished for? And then, well, we are human. So we somehow just keep moving the normal marker. Again. And again. And finding peace, satisfaction, gratitude, delight, appreciation…it’s all too easy to move the markers for those, too.

Copyright © 2009 Marlin S. Potash. All rights reserved.

On Blowing Bubbles in the Real World

bubble_colorful_colors_221291_l1You can’t walk into a job interview in your suit while blowing those drippy summertime bubbles that come in a hot green plastic container. You can’t give your elevator speech to the new networking contact with a qualified, live lead while sitting on a bench in Central Park blowing bubbles.

Or can you? Should you? (You can see where this is going…)

You need breaks from real life: to play, to float above the problems, to not deal. And you need breaks from taking breaks: to get up off the sofa and write that document, make that tough phone call, run the numbers. Most of the time, you oscillate between the two. It’s easier that way. Work while you’re working, play while you’re playing. No distractions, in control, not too sloppy.

But what would happen, how would life feel, if you infused the two? If you didn’t wait for Saturday night to have “time off” or wait until Sunday night to “plan the week?”

What would happen if – just for a moment, here and there – you dealt with the hard realities with a smile on your face and a bubble wand in your hand? Well, for one thing, you’d notice who thought you were nuts and avoided you (though arguably in New York that takes an awful lot), and who smiled along with you, maybe even wanted a go at the wand.

To make the largest bubble you can before the thin film breaks, you have to breathe easy, deliberately and deeply. You slow down, you focus, you let go (For a moment. You can easily get it back, all that tension, if you need it). With conscious awareness, you take a breath and focus gently on the ephemeral here and now. You know all too well the bubble’s going to burst. They always do. That’s part of the challenge, the pull, maybe even the fun. You try yet again: for a bigger bubble, a bunch of tiny bubbles, two intersecting bubbles. Or a laugh, a smile, even. Just to yourself. Or, maybe even better, a shared glance with a kindred spirit.

It only takes a conscious moment. Just a few moments can make a big difference helping you get through these tough recession days, shifting perspective, giving you a much needed and appreciated breather. So that when you return to the challenges of your daily life, you do so refreshed, energized, feeling less frantic and more positive. By creating a sort of resiliency reservoir, the same daunting challenges don’t feel the same.

It’s easy to lose the smile when the demands of daily life crank up. And they seem to more and more these days. Financial woes, 24/7 email and cell phone and internet, the markets open somewhere pretty much all the time – all of them demanding your attention. And someone else nipping at your heels – evaluating you at your job, dumping their job on you, lying in wait for your job. Seems as if there’s never enough time or bandwith. No wonder you get edgy, short-tempered, exhausted.

Who’s got the time or energy for anything besides accomplishing something or vegging out in front of the tv? Who’s got time to be conscious and focused on the little joys? Maybe you do, just for a moment. In fact, just imagining it might almost do the trick.

Copyright © 2009 Marlin S. Potash. All rights reserved.