Recovery

Three Ways to Let Go of Your Need to Control Situations

Our evolutionary history suggests that human beings never evolved to be happy. We lived in small groups. Our encounters with others were often dangerous. We faced numerous threats—starvation, parasites, illness, injury, and childbirth—we possessed no painkillers and there was no police force. We spend the majority of our time in anxious goal-seeking activity, spacing out, avoiding perceived threats, and sleeping. We experience numerous unwanted feelings and physical discomforts. Our brains evolved to analyze past pleasure and pain and to maximize future pleasure and minimize future pain. Bottom line: we fret a lot.

One of our biggest worries is trying to control situations that we believe might make us unhappy or otherwise harm us in some way. Here are three suggestions from Dr. Ronald Siegel, Harvard University for letting go:

Gain insight into the habits of your mind that create suffering.

There are patterns of mind that create suffering, i.e. self referential thinking, worrying about the past, fantasizing about the future, zoning out, catastrophizing. By learning to understand these patterns of mind you can change how you view yourself, how you view others, and how you respond to not only the situation, but your thoughts about the situation.

Retrain your brain to not automatically react in its instinctual manner.

Five minutes of daily mindfulness practice can work wonders. It can interrupt thinking habits and behavior patterns that you may feel lie beyond your control. Mindfulness can be the difference between reacting and responding. When we react we instantly initiate some conditioned response that may or may not prove beneficial in the current situation. With mindfulness we can take the time to respond in a manner that integrates present moment awareness with current skills.

Learn to spend more time in the present moment.

Thoughts of the past eventually evoke regrets and sadness. Fantasizing about the future triggers worry about situations that we anticipate happening. Over eighty percent of the things we worry about never happen. Situating ourselves in the present provides us with the greatest opportunity to remain calm and feel safe. The decisions we make in this moment have the greatest bearing on the future. It’s imperative that we don’t waste the only time we have worrying about the past or worrying about the future. Mindfulness grounds you in the here and now.

Unfortunately if you were looking for a quick fix for easing the suffering discussed here, you may come away disappointed. These are lifestyle changes, that take time to cultivate. Your attempts to control situations, didn’t start overnight. So don’t expect to resolve them overnight. Behavioral change does not work work instantly so start practicing mindfulness today.

“Learn how to relinquish control intentionally, as a means of personal growth and self-discovery.

—Esther Perel


Something for Junot Díaz

Photo by 3D_generator/iStock / Getty Images
Photo by 3D_generator/iStock / Getty Images

Junot Díaz, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author, recently wrote an article for The New Yorker magazine entitled The Silence: The Legacy of Childhood Trauma where he recounted being raped as a child and the toll it has taken on his life. Here’s an excerpt:

Yes, it happened to me.

I was raped when I was eight years old. By a grownup that I truly trusted.

After he raped me, he told me I had to return the next day or I would be “in trouble.”

And because I was terrified, and confused, I went back the next day and was raped again.

I never told anyone what happened, but today I’m telling you.

And anyone else who cares to listen.

What makes an experience traumatic? When it overwhelms your ability to cope. When it strikes where you are most vulnerable, when you least expect it, and when you are unprepared for it. When the experience changes the way you interact with the world. When it upends your sense of self and identity. Trauma is devastating because its magnitude exceeds your imagination, making it hard to believe.

Depending on a person’s age and stage of development, trauma can be even more debilitating because it can strike before a young person has acquired the coping skills and social support necessary to handle its effects.

We need to better understand trauma for ourselves and for others. Many people limp through life from wounds sustained from unresolved traumatic events. Hurt people hurt people. Unhappy wounded people often use cruelty toward others to compensate and feel better. We need to reduce suffering. As Díaz stated, it wasn’t just the rapes but “the agony, the bitterness, the self-recrimination, the asco, the desperate need to keep it hidden and silent. It fucked up my childhood. It fucked up my adolescence. It fucked up my whole life.” It also fucked up the lives of others and, while I am by now means apologizing for his behavior, I am using his admission to illustrate how trauma affects people.

At eight years old or eighty years old trauma makes you feel like an outsider. Alienation from yourself and alienation from others compounds its misery. We are social animals, hardwired to connect. When we are traumatized by someone we trust it decreases our ability to reach out and trust others. Often we may even find it difficult to trust ourselves and our core beliefs about the world we inhabit thus making it difficult, if not impossible, to form healthy relationships. For some people it can make them withdraw from others, and for others it can compel them to engage in high risk behaviors of various sorts. Trauma interferes with our ability to connect with others when it damages our ability to trust.

Trauma is a fall from grace. Prior to a traumatic experience we reside in a privileged place, an innocent place, and, as a result, we feel special. Trauma happens to other people, not to us. Trauma forces us to face numerous realities. We are not special. We can be hurt. And we can be hurt by people we trust. In Díaz’s case trauma ended his childhood and rendered him unable to fully utilize relationships by forcing him to satisfy a “desperate need to keep it hidden and silent.”

We all have various strategies for managing intimacy—the distance between you and another person. Intimate relationships require vulnerability. Problems will arise in any relationship if you are trying to simultaneously make a connection and avoid being seen. In fact, some people do not derive satisfaction from intimate relationships because the closer they get to another person the more uncomfortable they become. For some they destroy relationships before giving them a chance because of the fear and pain of revealing their secrets and the risk of rejection. Many trauma survivors unable to use relationships with people turn to drugs. Drugs serve as a substitute for relationships and also as a means of numbing the painful effects of trauma.

Anyone can benefit from a more thorough understanding of trauma—both victims and perpetrators. While a victim may not be interested in the psychological motivation of the perpetrator, what should be of interest is how victims can develop into perpetrators themselves. In Díaz’s case, he went on to abuse women. Perpetrators need to be held accountable and offered trauma-informed treatment options to help them change their behavior. Those who are best able to heal from trauma, both victims and perpetrators, are those who are best able to re-enter relationships with others with the awareness that they can both be hurt and hurt others by virtue of those relationships. Those who can face the world with that awareness do better.

 

 

He Hasn't Changed

Photo by Mathisa_s/iStock / Getty Images
Photo by Mathisa_s/iStock / Getty Images

That was a YouTube comment posted under the video of Megyn Kelly interviewing me on the Today Show.

When you go on nationwide television and admit being abusive to women in the past you have to have thick skin to face the opinions of those who view it.

A four-minute video doesn’t tell my whole story. It's hard to tell from the video that my abusive behavior occurred over twenty-three years ago. Nor can you tell that I have been clean from drugs, including alcohol, for that same period of time. Not that drug use led me to be abusive, but it did contribute to unmanageability which often triggered my abusiveness. From the video, you can’t tell that I have dedicated my life to ending domestic violence by stopping myself and turning to help other men and women who find themselves caught in the cycle.

No one can see in that four minutes how I came to the attention of producers at NBC. I was referred to them by my friend Nancy Lemon, a law professor at the UC Berkeley School of Law. She has written much of the domestic violence law on the books in the state of California. She teaches a Domestic Violence Law class and, for over ten years, has invited me to speak to her class about domestic violence, my personal story, and perpetrators of violence against women. Many of her students go on to work on family violence issues throughout the Bay Area and the state, designing and implementing more effective domestic violence laws, policies, and programs.

You might think with so much of my story left out, why would I agree to be on the show. There is a difference between being sorry for my past behavior and making amends for it. I speak up and talk about my past to help others reduce suffering and create understanding about the dynamics of domestic violence. When you experience something traumatic, even if you created the trauma yourself, sometimes the only way you can make sense of the experience is when you help someone else understand your experience.

I'm still trying to figure out why I behaved the way that I did when I was abusive. Many children went through far worse than I did and didn't go on to become abusive. Drug use didn’t make me do it. Drug use served as a repair attempt that failed, leaving me with more unmanageable problems than when I started. I used anger and violence to cope with my feelings of vulnerability and powerlessness, my responsibilities, and my fears. No, there's something about me that made me act the way I did. That same something enabled me to respond to individual psychotherapy, domestic violence psychoeducation, and 12-Step  recovery, stop using drugs, return to school at night while working, publish The Pocket Anger Manager, and became a licensed psychotherapist in California. That same something allowed me to walk into NBC studios alone and share a part of my story on a program about victims. A program with no other men and no other black people.

You can't see from the video the healing that has occurred for both me and my survivor. A producer on the Megyn Kelly show asked to speak to her, prior to my appearance, as a means of substantiating my story. I sat in on a three-way call with her and the producer while he asked if I had changed. “Yes, he’s has changed,” she said.

Recovery is available to us all. To say men who have been abusive cannot recover implies that women who have been abused cannot recover. That lie is dead. We do recover.

My recovery springs from acknowledging that I hurt someone that I loved. You can't tell from the video that not one day passes in which I don't think about my past behavior. Recovery doesn't clear your conscious; it allows you to live with what's on your conscious. That’s impossible to see in a four-minute video.

I continue working to help people—men, in particular—reflect on their behavior and take responsibility for it—as I do the same.

 

Take Charge of Your Life

Photo by damedeeso/iStock / Getty Images
Photo by damedeeso/iStock / Getty Images

boss (bôs)
noun
1. a person in charge of a worker or organization.

It’s alright to lay back and take life as it comes. There is something to be said about living life on life's terms. It's OK to relax and chill. But if that's your default mode or a socially acceptable way for you to avoid making hard decisions, I invite you to explore what it might be like for you to set goals, create a plan, and press for the mark. If your life feels stalled, you may have to put yourself on the line and step into the responsibility of whatever it is you want. All the cliches, jargon, and psychobabble in the world will not do it for you. If you haven't reached that point yet, then this post is not for you. But if your life is feeling like “Groundhog Day,” keep reading.

It’s so easy to slip into complacency. You wouldn't tolerate anyone stealing from your bank account. You would act a fool if you discovered anything like that, but when it comes to your attention like money it can be stolen. By keeping your attention on your intention and resisting this society’s tendency to steal your most valuable asset--your time-- you can take a proactive rather than reactive stance in your life.

Tim Campbell wrote in New Philosopher (Spring 2018), “We have a great deal to lose if the external world so captivates us that we never turn inward.

So contemplation supports identity, creativity, and morality—no small matters, to be sure.”

According to Tim Ferriss, author of Tools of the Titans, 80 percent of the Titans he’s interviewed have some morning routine which includes exercise, meditation, and journaling. Do you? I don't mean to be critical, but I do mean to throw a bucket of cold water on you in an effort to get you to wake up and realize you are, as the existentialist say, “condemned to freedom.” You can choose to do something different. In fact, your life has to be different before it can be better. It's up to you to make the decision to change.

Cultivate a mindset that promotes pushing your growth edges. It's that mindset that will help you identify opportunities and to work through anxiety and fear to create meaning and value for yourself. Everyone is anxious and everyone's afraid, the people who get things done, the ones who ship, know how to compartmentalize fear. With practice, you can learn to be more courageous.

If you're in a rut, according to Erika Andersen in her article “Learning to Learn” (Harvard Business Review, Spring 2018), “I'm talking about resisting the bias against doing new things, scanning the horizon for growth opportunities, and pushing yourself to acquire radically different capabilities—while still performing your job. That requires a willingness to experiment and become a novice again and again: an extremely disconcerting notion for most of us.” Good bosses have time to breathe and reflect. They manage themselves and their time in ways that enable them to see both the snapshot and the big picture. That facilitates managing projects and their anxiety in ways that produce results.

Get started. Don't get hung up getting ready to get ready. You will never have all the information if by information you really mean a guarantee that what you want to accomplish will work. If you're waiting to feel motivated, don't. Motivation usually arrives after you begin the work. So again, it comes back to your willingness to experiment and feel like a novice.

A boss sets goals, establishes timetables, and allocates resources toward the objectives. But the main thing good bosses do is learn how to learn.

“Managers and employees must practice looking inward, reflecting critically on their own behavior, identifying how they may have contributed to a problem, and then changing the way they act.” —Chris Argyris

Try doing the same thing and take charge of your life, like a boss.

 

The Impact of Witnessing and Experiencing Violence and Victimization as a Child

Scared_child.jpg

Neither the mother’s personality, nor the infant’s neurological anomalies at birth, nor its IQ, nor its temperament—including its activity level and reactivity to stress—predicted whether a child would develop serious behavioral problems in adolescence. The key issue, rather, was the nature of the parent-child relationship: how parents felt about and interacted with their kids.

                                                      —The Body Keeps the Score, Bessel Van Der Kolk, M.D.

In my practice, working with both victims and perpetrators of intimate partner violence, one observation stands out. People who have been hit in relationships have different attitudes about hitting than people who have not been hit. Those who have been hit often believe violence is useful, necessary, and expected. When initially asked, men in my domestic violence groups do not attribute their current behavior to the harsh treatment they received as children. In fact, most offenders share one thing in common—early childhood trauma.

When we discuss corporal punishment the men in my groups often argue that the treatment they received during childhood helped them become better people. They also believe they deserved the overly punitive treatment they received from their caregivers.They often don't see how their subsequent substance abuse, criminal behavior, and domestic violence relate to the harsh treatment they received growing up. Part of my job requires drawing lines and connecting dots to help them understand the problem before they become motivated to change. Precontemplation, not necessarily denial, prevents many of them from understanding the link well enough to consciously engage the change process.

Trauma victims often blame themselves. It may be easier for them to ascribe blame to themselves than to cope with the random, unpredictable, predacious nature of trauma. Blaming themselves may serve to decrease anxiety.

Often, our suffering begins when we are quite young and continues to fester as we grow. There is a five-year-old still inside us. This child may have suffered a lot. A five-year-old is fragile and easily wounded. Without mindfulness, parents may transmit all their pain, anger, and suffering to their children.

                                                                         —How to Fight, by Thich Nhat Hanh

Participants in my groups have significant difficulty regulating themselves. I observed this recently when I invited them to join me in a ten-minute meditation at the beginning of a group session. They were all new to meditation and mindfulness. During the meditation, I noticed they made lots of noise and were quite restless. Their inability to sit quietly I found very annoying. I could feel myself becoming angry, as I imagined them making noise on purpose to get me to discontinue the exercise. One man even began drumming his fingers on the table next to him and talking to what sounded like himself as no one else answered. As I continued to breathe, frustrated with the noise they made and my powerlessness over their behavior. I felt the impulse to yell at them to shut up, but I held my composure. I herded my attention back to my breathing, and my anger began to cool. As it decreased, I realized they were not making noise and fidgeting on purpose. Each man, in his own way, was challenged by the silence. As I relaxed more deeply, I noticed the men making the most noise also had the most severe trauma histories. What I was actually witnessing was each man's dis-ease. Meditating with them opened a window which allowed me to observe their suffering. But more importantly, meditation allowed them to observe their own suffering. Rather than personalizing their behavior and feeling angry at them, I was able to feel compassion for them. I began to think more deeply about what each man had experienced in relationships prior to the incident that resulted in his arrest and sentencing. The gift I received from them was an opportunity to see first-hand, at least, some of the impact of witnessing and experiencing violence and victimization as children.

Whether you witnessed or experienced violence as a child or your caretakers emotionally or physically neglected you, when you grow up in a traumatizing environment you are likely to still show signs of that trauma as an adult.

                                                                                  —Andrea Brandt, Ph.D. MFT                   

Once the meditation ended, we engaged in a discussion about their experience, emotional lives, and coping skills. Informed by my observations, during the exercise, I posed questions to help them see their need to avoid the discomfort of thinking about past treatment, emotional burdens, and silence. I encouraged each man to account for his own dis-ease while meditating and to consider no wives, women, or girlfriends were present. Their experience was solely their suffering—suffering they have been blaming and punishing their partners for.

When we feel unhappy, we often use cruelty toward others to make ourselves feel better.    

On Domestic Violence

          Domestic Violence

         Domestic Violence

When it comes to talking to men about violence in general and violence against women, I prefer an unconventional approach. I encourage men to discuss how good violence feels. Before you start balking, gasping, and sputtering allow me to explain. Some people reading this have never been slapped, punched, kicked, whipped or choked. Good for you. However, there are many men who experienced violence as children, when they were least able to overcome its devastating consequences. Men who have been hit feel differently about hitting than men who have not been hit. Many psychologically wounded men walk around oblivious to how their previous violent experiences have changed their attitudes and behavior. They are often more likely to use violence against women when frustrated or angry.

Violence is pervasive. Our society is violent. The world is violent. Violence is in our DNA. While there have always been women warriors—and women do get arrested for domestic violence—primarily men send women to the hospital or the graveyard. When it comes to violence, we like watching it. We like performing it. Violence is orgasmic. If men didn't find it enjoyable on some level, we wouldn't constantly commit acts of violence all over the world.

Violence is deeply gratifying. We don't like the consequences, but we relish the act. It changes things both externally and internally. Externally violence alters the victim’s behavior. Internally violence relieves internal stress. It works quickly and effectively. It’s difficult for a man to unlearn the powerful tension release, the instant satisfaction, and the strong reinforcement that comes with violent acts.

Men don't really know how to talk about our love affair with violence. It's not socially acceptable. We don't have any problem talking about the latest example of violence we see in the news, social media or our neighborhoods. But our own propensity for violence mutes us. We pretend that it's someone else. We dawn the good guy mask and disavow our culpability in the violence epidemic engulfing the planet. Because we fail to allow ourselves to discuss it, we also fail to control it. Social acceptance is not recovery. We must begin with the obvious fact that we enjoy violence and give ourselves the freedom to explore what it does for us if we ever intend to meet those needs without resorting to violence.

If we're not talking about how we really feel about violence, what are we talking about? Before you say, “Not me. I don’t like violence.” I ask: What about the porn? What about the video games? What about the horror movies? What about the NFL? The President recently stated professional football was too soft. While on the campaign trail, prior to becoming president, he bragged about grabbing women by the crotch. The man’s statements and behavior, as he sits in the highest office in the land, has normalized violence. His admission makes violence against women as American as lynchings and police shootings.

Freedom comes from not driving problems underground.  Our ambivalence about violence needs to be explored. There is a tendency to avoid the shadows, fearing that if we address it, it will lead to more violence. We pretend that the shadows have no value. Shadows provide protection. Shadows serve as resting places. Predators ambush from shadows. Without exploring the shadows, we can’t hope to overcome our destructiveness. By fearlessly examining our ambivalence about violence, we can identify opportunities to take personal responsibility and reduce violence. Can we acknowledge our propensity for violence and stop running around like wolves in sheep's clothing? If we can't accept it, we can't change it. The time has come for us to change it.

 

Sponsorship

                The 12-Steps

               The 12-Steps

When I first began attending 12-Step meetings, I heard, “Get a sponsor and work the steps.” I didn’t know what they were talking about. One evening, while standing around after a meeting a man walked up to me and asked, “Do you have a sponsor?” I said no and he offered his services. I had no idea what sponsorship entailed or what his role would be in my life. Like most social situations I found myself in at that time, I wanted to fit in, so I agreed.

Because I didn't understand what sponsorship meant, he remained my ornamental sponsor for quite some time. It took dating a woman in the fellowship before I got a clue. When I found myself in an embarrassing, painful, public break-up with a popular woman who processed her feelings about me and our breakup by putting me “on blast” in meetings, I began to call my sponsor more frequently. Hurt, angry, and resentful I started reading the literature and going to additional meetings. Having committed to 12-Step recovery, I refused to leave the program. Together, my sponsor and I worked up to the fifth step. At that point, he rekindled a relationship, got married, and moved away.

Enter my second and current sponsor. By that time, I realized the importance of step work and I wanted to complete the process I started. Spiritual smugness felt too good to stop working the steps. My new high became walking into meetings and comparing myself to others who were not working the steps. That downward comparison became my new fix. I chose my next sponsor after observing him in meetings. He possessed numerous qualities that made him ideal for me, even if I didn’t know it at the time. He seemed to lack anger, hostility, and authoritarianism.  He appeared calm and relaxed which attracted me because I never felt safe around angry, hostile authority figures.

Like any addict, I am recovering from turning to drugs rather than people when I feel anxious or overwhelmed. I'm recovering from immense shame which makes me fear intimacy. I often projected my problems onto women, blaming them for my internal discord.  As my recovery progressed awareness shed light on my problems with male role models. I began to recognize misinformation I received from men and society about masculinity and manhood. Through my relationship with my sponsor, I have been able to not only explore my emotional life, but take responsibility for it, remain drug-free, and cultivate happiness.

Somehow recovering addicts before me discovered an effective way to recover from trauma. I always found myself hurt by the people I was in relationships with. Addicts understood recovering people would need to turn to the very thing that may have harmed them—relationships—in order to heal. From trial, error, and ingenuity they created sponsorship.

As I progress through recovery and the 12-Steps, my relationship with my sponsor deepens. Working with him, exploring my emotional life, improves all my relationships. As we learn from our literature “we don’t heal in isolation.” Through sponsorship, I practice honesty, open-mindedness, courage, willingness, and vulnerability. Sponsorship taught me how to trust myself and others.

When men stop fronting on each other, drop their masks, and share their emotional lives with each other they develop intimacy. Many men never get that opportunity and later end up placing too much weight on women to care for them emotionally. With no men to bond with and placing too much emotional weight on women, they lose.

Last week, while sitting on a bench talking to my sponsee, I saw my sponsor in the distance, walking to his car. I felt emotional as I thought about how long he and I have worked together, how much I have learned about myself, and how much my heart has expanded due to our relationship. When anyone complains about their relationships, I remain silent. When others lament about unhappiness, I yield the floor. When someone gripes about being lonely, I stand down. Today, those are not my issues. Through sponsorship, I have been able to improve mutual satisfaction in all my relationships. Considering my sponsor’s role in my recovery, I felt myself getting emotional. My eyes began to well up and my heart felt full as I watched him walk away. I believe in the therapeutic value of one addict helping another.