Self-improvement

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


Voicelessness in Married Men

Photo by MarinaZg/iStock / Getty Images
Photo by MarinaZg/iStock / Getty Images

According to Harriet Lerner Ph.D. in a recent article, she wrote for Psychology Today entitled

The Invisible Struggle of Married Men.

“Men lose their voice in marriage far more than women do. They may distance or stonewall, telling themselves, ‘It’s not worth the fight.’ They may remove themselves emotionally from the relationship, and then feel devastated when a partner leaves them ‘out of the blue’.”

I didn't lose my voice in my marriage. I lost my voice in childhood. I lost my voice so early I didn't even know it was gone—almost like I never had a voice. Raised by old-school parents who struggled to parent, and who didn't allow a lot of discussion about feelings, my voice never fully developed. Our family was not a democracy. If anything was wrong, you either prayed to Jesus or you stuffed it. I had no sense of any other option when it came to discussing my feelings with my father. My relationship with my parents felt unsafe, and one contributing factor to feeling unsafe was talking too much.

Prior to my own experience with his violence and neglect, I watched my mother for years plead her case to my father only to learn that to talk back to him was not only useless, it was dangerous.

“Mom, please shut up before you get all of our asses whipped.”

“Who broke… Whatever?”

“I don't know.”

Those are good responses for anyone in an abusive relationship. They helped me survive my childhood and have remained difficult to relinquish to this day.

Voicelessness is a symptom of shame. Show me a man who is voiceless and I will show you a man who is ashamed. Shame pressed my mute button years before I got married. In a healthy family, different members are available to talk, provide emotional support, and help mitigate the ill effects of poor relationships with parents. Comfort can be found in them when unavailable from primary sources. I didn't have that luxury. I turned to the streets. I played sports from sunup to sundown to avoid feeling shame about what I was experiencing at home. Avoidance, distancing and stonewalling were my coping strategies that later led to drug use and other addictive behaviors to numb toxic shame. They became a way of being for me. I gave up on trying to discuss my emotional life with my parents or any other adults for that matter. My relationships didn't work that way.

On the playground, my behavior spoke volumes. I could conceal my frustration on the football field, baseball diamond, and basketball court by outperforming my peers thus gaining the acceptance I craved. Later, in the dope house, I expressed myself fluently. “Let me get another one.” My beliefs about both men and women while dormant hindered my ability to connect with intimate relationships I later discovered.

I didn't have much experience with healthy relationships. Superficial friendships built around my secrets made me a great candidate for becoming abusive once I got married. I was afraid of intimacy, of being too close to anyone. Marriage created the perfect conditions that triggered the very same behaviors that I used in my family of origin. I perceived my wife as an authority figure. I was an immature communicator. And, as a result, problems I encountered as a child manifested themselves in the family I created. Intimacy made voicelessness more uncomfortable and difficult to hide. It exposed the flaw in my game. I developed passive-aggressive tendencies from my inability to speak truth to power. I had an aversion to the authority figures in my life and I acted out behind their backs. Marriage forced me to continue what I practiced in all of my previous relationships. There was nothing wrong with marriage.

Alexithymia is the condition of having no words for feelings. Just like my father, I, too, had no words for feelings, except anger and happiness. By the time I arrived at couples therapy, it was rendered ineffective. I would have benefited more from visiting a veterinarian. I cried throughout the entire experience. My software was defective from childhood. It took the destruction of my marriage for me to break free from my previous programming and learn to take responsibility for my voice.

Men can use their voice and still end up voiceless. To compensate for perceiving themselves as powerless victims in relationships with women many men compensate by communicating from an anxious position, yelling and screaming in an effort to dominate or “win" arguments with their partners. That type of communication in relationships often has the net effect of rendering men voiceless in many ways. Yelling and screaming serve to divert the conversation away from the shame the man may feel, and it can emotionally flood and terrorize his partner. The inability to discuss shame and to thwart your partner from expressing his or her needs or concerns renders communication ineffective.

A more insidious problem resulting from voicelessness is how it undermines forgiveness. Without the ability to protest when wronged, any effort to forgive is bogus and rendered ineffective. You have to give yourself the opportunity to voice your outrage and move through that stage before you can let go and try to forgive. Any effort to bypass that stage is like trying to walk before you crawl. To deny your feelings is a denial of your feelings.

Voicelessness cost me much of my childhood and ended my marriage. It has taken individual psychotherapy, domestic violence education, and 12-Step recovery to help me clear my throat.

 

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.

 

Craving: One Day at a Time

Photo by turk_stock_photographer/iStock / Getty Images
Photo by turk_stock_photographer/iStock / Getty Images

I crave therefore I am. My cravings have cravings. I want every goddamned thing. If it's salty, sweet, greasy, and moist, I'm interested. If I imagine that it will make me feel good, give me two of them. If you never gave Pookie twenty dollars to go get you one, while you waited in the rain for him to come back, you may not know what I'm talking about. For the most part, I operate without much self-awareness. I'm too busy trying to execute the algorithm to take a step back and analyze the software. I'm shallow like that.

What would planet Earth be like without craving? Much of the activity that takes place here is motivated primarily by people working to satisfy cravings. Without craving as a motivator, how would we get anything done? What if the first and only one of anything we tried satisfied us for life?

“Care for a piece of chocolate cake?”

“Naw, I had one twenty years ago and I'm still good.”

What if we had sex one time and never wanted it again?

You’re going to have to accept the fact that not only do you crave but also that you grow accustomed to people and things. You get used to new situations and once the shine wears off, it's over; you crave something new. You step onto that hedonic treadmill, rev that baby up to ten, and the hunt continues for the next salty, sweet, greasy, moist experience.

But what is a craving? Is it a thought that generates a feeling, or is it a feeling that generates a thought? Is it both? Does it matter?

Dr. Katrin Schubert, author of "Reduce Cravings: 20 quick techniques" writes: “Most of us experience cravings for pleasurable things such as food, a drink, shopping, or sex. That doesn't mean we are addicted to those substances or behaviors. Cravings are natural and only become a problem when we’re unable to control them and they negatively affect our well-being and quality of life.                           

We take in the world through our senses, any one of which can evoke thoughts and memories, that trip craving. But cravings are more than that. They serve as a way for one to avoid unpleasant thoughts and feelings. At least in the short term. One of the best ways to avoid an uncomfortable thought or a feeling is to replace it with a more pleasant, less challenging thought or feeling, something that you can do without realizing it, something you can do repeatedly in a vain attempt to prevent yourself from facing challenging emotions. You can abdicate your responsibility to your cravings.

A different approach is to accept the fact that uncomfortable feelings are inevitable. It's the essence of being human, a natural part of life. Although your feelings may trigger cravings, you do not have to act on them. You can practice meditation and breathe so you can breathe again, and let the craving pass. You can turn to another person, a trusted friend, and talk to them about your urges and, in so doing, take the power out of them by coming to recognize that everyone craves. You can surrender. Cravings, distorted thoughts, and unpleasant feelings do not have the power to stop you. You are free to choose. Like storms, urges can pass.


 

Three Hacks for Dealing with Racism

Photo by soulrebel83/iStock / Getty Images
Photo by soulrebel83/iStock / Getty Images
“Racism is pervasive but not persuasively  effective.”
                                                    —Thomas Sowell

Slavery and discrimination have existed for as long as humans have inhabited planet Earth. Since the beginning of time people the world over have treated others from tribes they didn't know differently. There were forms of slavery in which a slave could earn his freedom, marry into, and become part of the family.

Two things made American slavery stand out. One, the intercontinental movement of slaves, and two, the sheer brutality of US chattel slavery. Although slavery existed in various forms around the world, no form of slavery came close to that which existed in the New World.

While different groups worldwide discriminate against other groups it is debatable how effective those discrimination efforts have been. Jews have been discriminated against throughout the world, yet they have managed to gain skills and dominate in key professions such as law and entertainment. In the US black people have been discriminated against since setting foot in the new world, yet we dominate in sports and hip-hop. White people did not want us in basketball. But when we wre admitted, we took over. Whites did not want us in tennis. But eventually we took over. Whites did not want us in golf. We took over. White people understand better than black people that we take over.

Black people in the US have been actively resisting racism and discrimination throughout our history here. The whole world is influenced by our culture and struggle. We have turned resistance into an art form. Our resistance will continue.

Racism and discrimination have changed in some ways and remained the same in others. Black people no longer get lynched publicly. We get shot by the police, and videos of the shootings flood social media. Discriminatory government housing laws have been abolished. However, the income gap between blacks and whites resulting from those discriminatory laws has never been addressed even though black people are legally allowed to live anywhere. The Ku Klux Klan used to hide their faces behind white sheets. Today they find cloaking themselves and their racism unnecessary. So while things have changed, in some ways they have remained the same.  

What should a people of color do?

Even though racism and discrimination continue to exist I do not mean to imply that people of color are not making progress. We are. Many laws have changed due to our protests and resistance. Even though our pressure on the system has borne fruit, our work is far from over. We must continue to resist.

Resistance is personal. Each one of us has to decide how to make a difference. No one can measure another person's willingness to protest and bring about change. Diversity is our strength. We need to resist in different ways and in every way. Here are three suggestions.

1. Marketable Skills

People around the world who have effectively dealt with discrimination and racism have acquired marketable skills. They have been able to gain the skills necessary to support themselves and their families while resisting. After acquiring marketable skills if we are shunned by white people we can offer those skills to other black people to generate income and opportunity for ourselves.

2. Establish Your Primary Purpose

So many individuals and businesses derail from either never establishing a primary purpose or forgetting what it is. Do what you do to the best of your ability an do not get distracted by the noise. Changing your Facebook status does not a protest make. As stated above, focus on improving your skill set and your skills can be marketed to anyone.

As a psychotherapist, I am trained to work with people who can afford my services. My training and practice also involves the development and delivery of treatment that serves as a means of resisting racism. Historically, in all areas of both medical and psychological treatment development, people of color were excluded from anything other than the experimentation process. Treatment advances were not made for us. By gaining access to the treatment development process I make sure that people of color are included.

What's good for black people is good for everyone. While people of color predominantly make up my practice, if a white person finds their ass on fire, they don't usually care when they discover me holding the fire hose.

3. Don't Forget Hack #1

Skills matter. If you can increase your income you can use the money to protest. With money, one can buy legal and political support to push the resistance further. Poverty plays a significant role in undermining our resistance efforts. Protesting with picket signs in the street has its place in any resistance movement, but financial support cannot be overlooked. Money makes a difference.

Don't be so “Down for the Cause” that you get left out. If you can't secure your own food and shelter needs you will not be able to sustain the resistance. We have a long way to go. Resist by any means but do not forget to acquire and sharpen marketable skills so you can live to resist another day.

Racism is challenging to deal with. If you have specific ways that you successfully cope with it please include them in the comment section so that we can help each other. Remember to share this post. 

 

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.

 

Is Your Personality Killing Your Relationship?

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“Hello, Mr. Chambers. Can you talk?”

“Sure, what’s going on?”

“I talked to you recently about my boyfriend and I starting therapy with you. He said he was exhausted from my personality, needs time, and wasn't sure if he wanted to attend therapy with me. Do you think it’s even worth it for me to try to get him to come to therapy?”

“I'm sorry to hear that. It sounds like you might also be tired of your personality. That’s not unusual. We get tired and concerned about our behavior when we behave in ways that are not effective or that do not make us or those around us happy.”

“What do you mean? I’m tired of my own behavior?”

“That’s one way we get tired, by behaving in ways that do not achieve our goals.”

“So you think my behavior is a problem?”

“We have talked on the phone twice about concerns you have about your relationship and your behavior. Nothing that happens in your relationship is entirely all your fault, and I’m not judging you. But, I sense what you have been describing is a problem for you. Anyone is capable of behaving in ways that make other people want to avoid them or end their relationship with them.”

“That hurt my feelings when you said that.”

“When I said what?”

“That I was tired of my own behavior.”

“That’s not unusual. That’s when people call me, when something in their life is not going well and they are unhappy.”

“Yeah, I just don’t know what to do about this relationship. He told me he had one foot out the door, but that he cares about me. He just doesn’t know what to do.”

“It sounds like no matter what he does you would like to stop behaving in ways that make you and him unhappy. You could always enter into therapy for yourself, without him, and see if we might be able to figure out how to help you make changes. Relationships are about attraction and not promotion. It sounds like you are unhappy and you may be pressuring him to commit when he feels unsure about it. A better approach might be to enter therapy yourself, identify your problems, make some changes, and see if he recognizes it. Even if he doesn't, you will still feel better about yourself. You really don't have to pan-handle anyone to be in a relationship with you.”

This inquiry illustrates a common problem. Your personality can kill your relationship. When considering what it takes to succeed in relationships, we often only consider our positive personality traits. However, even positive traits can become problematic when they become extreme.  For example, according to Rob Kaiser, author of “Dealing with the Dark Side,” being excitable can make you appear passionate and enthusiastic on the one hand, and reactive and volatile on the other. Or being skeptical can make you appear politically astute and hard to fool in one instant yet mistrustful and quarrelsome in another instant. The trick is to improve self-awareness by studying your own behavior patterns, listening carefully to intimate partners and friends who provide you with critical feedback, and using that information to minimize or prevent your negative personality traits from spiraling out of control. By learning to do that you can prevent these patterns from poisoning your relationship.   

 

Effective Skills for Communicating Anger

"Effective emotion regulation is key to satisfying relationships and long-term health and well-being, and the more we learn about emotions, the more constructive and adaptive our regulation can become."

                                                                                      —T. Wranik and K.R. Scherer


What we don't understand about anger can hurt us, and the people around us. Every day the media bombards us with story after story about violent crimes from around the world. One thing most accounts have in common is anger. Someone flew into a rage.

During our evolution our ancestors’ ability to anger quickly, to deter and defend against threats, helped them survive in a predacious environment. However, as we continued to evolve, live closer together, and more effectively manage predators, our need for rage decreased. But our propensity for it remained. Today, to avoid killing each other over slight provocations we need to both learn and unlearn important things about anger. Our happiness and survival depend on it. We need to accept our anger and learn how to manage it. It’s difficult to create a fire drill if you don't believe you will ever face a fire. Accepting anger enables us to be proactive rather than reactive. Prediction is the basis of control. If you can predict an event you can better prepare for it even if you totally can't stop it.

We need to unlearn that anger must be expressed, at least in the way most people think of expressing anger. It's a myth that we fill with anger and need to blow it off like steam from a kettle. Years ago, the Primal Scream movement encouraged participants to release pent up anger and aggression by screaming at the top of their lungs. That misguided practice continues to compel some people to vent their frustration by beating a pillow, hitting a heavy bag, or “keeping it real” by expressing exactly how they feel without considering the effect such behaviors may have on the people they are mad at or on bystanders. Rehearsing expressing anger tends to prime one for their next angry episode. Also, expressing anger, even when not directed at someone, can have unpredictable social consequences—friends and peers may avoid you.

Another erroneous belief is that people or situations make you angry. That belief also needs to be unlearned. When situations occur that provoke anger the way you appraise the situation, and the meaning you assign to that appraisal, can turn a pilot light into a raging fire. The way you see it and what you tell yourself about what you see determines how well you manage your impulse to rage. This is paradoxical because people and situations do actually trigger our anger, however, the way you appraise the situation determines whether you express anger constructively or destructively. Shakespeare was correct, “thinking makes it so.”

Most people agree: anger can be destructive. But what about anger’s positive qualities? Anger surfaces when our needs go unmet. When we witness injustice in the world, anger compels us to act on our own behalf or on the behalf of others. Civil rights icon Rosa Parks wanted a seat on the bus, and she got angry when ordered to get up and move to the rear of the bus. Her anger at the injustice of racial segregation in the Jim Crow South changed the course of history.

In intimate relationships, anger often indicates that we care about some issue. Used appropriately, anger can have a positive effect. Since anger is inevitable, it is also predictable.  Prediction is the basis of control. We might as well recognize our mistaken beliefs and learn how to constructively use anger to improve our relationships. We can stop feigning surprise next time our blood boils, and take this opportunity to be proactive rather than reactive and learn how to effectively express anger.

According to C. Nathan DeWall Ph.D., it is theorized that self-control is comprised of three distinct systems: learning, skill, and a limited energy resource. We need to learn about our emotions to manage them more effectively. It takes skill to know not only what to do intellectually when we get angry, but also how to manage our behavior to meet the challenges posed by difficult emotions. All of us have only so much energy per day. Once we deplete our daily energy allotment, we don’t have it available to help us control our impulses or to manage other difficult tasks. A useful way to monitor our limited energy resources is to use the acronym HALT reminds us to avoid becoming too Hungry, Angry, Lonely, or Tired.

We need to learn about our own emotions and the emotional lives of others if we plan to improve how we deal with anger. An interesting characteristic of anger is that it is described as a "secondary emotion." Usually, when we feel anger some primary feeling such as guilt, shame, or vulnerability has been tripped, and anger signals to us and to those around us that a threat is present. Anger swells quickly not only to help us mobilize against the threat but to also help us save face among our social group. In this way, according to Raymond Novaco, anger serves as a form of image control. Anger communicates to others that “I am angry, leave me alone or I am willing to defend myself now.” That's a great feature for guys running around on the savannah hunting for protein, but not so valuable for your intimate relationships.

A better alternative today is to recognize threats, appraise situations accurately, and use words to express how you feel—provided you don't have to run. Running is still a great survival skill. Cultivating emotional intelligence provides the best opportunity for us to keep our inner caveman in check, avoid jail, and maintain both our employment and our relationships.

We all get angry. The point I’m making is not how to avoid anger but rather to express anger effectively and constructively. To that end, one of the best skills one can learn is how to calm down. We get angry for various reasons. One of the biggest reasons is that we sense danger. Before you attempt to calm down you must feel safe. Move to a safe place and make the effort to calm down. When we feel angry or anxious our breathing becomes fast, loud, shallow, and irregular. To calm down, bring your attention to your breathing and do the opposite: breathe slowly, quietly, deeply, and regularly. Thich Nhat Hanh says he can control his anger in three breaths. He’s a Buddhist monk. Don't expect to corral yours that efficiently; he's practiced meditating for years. The point is your breathing controls your nervous system. When correctly used it is very effective in regulating your emotional states.

Other than getting to safety, take care of your anger before you attempt anything else. When it comes to stress we all think we're better at managing it than we really are. We often make situations worse when we attempt to solve problems under duress with adrenaline coursing through our veins. This idea goes back to the myth that we have to get the anger out. Don't fall for it. Take the time to calm down. If you attempt to resolve a problem between you and another person while agitated, mirror neurons in your brain activate mirror neurons in the other person's brain and both of you will most likely get upset. Calm down first.

What you say to yourself when angry is important. Pay attention to negative self-talk. This may be challenging because you’re upset and you may have never considered your internal dialogue or tried to change it. Saying soothing words to yourself will help you avoid boiling over.

Optimally, in an intimate relationship, approach your partner with a soft heart, soft eyes, soft voice, and soft hands. It helps to build trust. Remember human beings, when frightened or overwhelmed, turn to each other. It's only if we have experienced some previous traumatic event that we turn on each other.

Use your words. If you are unable to express your complaint succinctly, you are either not calm enough or you have not thought about the issue well enough to discuss it effectively. Words formed into “I statements” can be very effective because the structure of the “I statement” helps you articulate the problem without blaming your partner. The object is to state the problem, how the problem makes you feel, and what you need from your partner to correct it. Here’s an example. “When you’re late coming home, I feel worried. I need you to call when you are going to be late.”  Another useful approach is the “XYZ Statement.” Here’s an example. When X happens in situation Y, I felt Z. Both “I Statements” and “XYZ Statements” are non-blaming. Remember, conflicts are expressed through language. How you say things, the words you choose, can be the difference between a successful outcome or a broken relationship.

Relational statements make clear what the relationship means to you. Relational statements also help you remain calm by reminding you to remember that you are having a conflict or disagreement with an intimate partner—someone you care about. Here are some examples of relational statements. “This issue is important to me.” “You are important to me,” and “Our relationship is important to me.” Relational statements, when properly used, express the positive value you place on the relationship between you and your partner and increase intimacy while reducing anger and frustration.

Listening to understand can help keep you and your partner calm. Listening is the first step toward validating feelings. Invalidation can ignite anger and escalate a conflict faster than gasoline and matches. Listen so that you can respond to what you hear rather than the voice in your head that is often emanating from the most primitive regions of your brain—the part that only understands fight or flight. Remember, you're angry at an intimate partner, someone you care about. Listening helps you suppress impulses which is the key to expressing them constructively rather than destructively.  

Anger management takes practice, honesty, open-mindedness, a willingness to stay calm, positive self-talk, compassion, the expression of your feelings using “I Statements, XYZ Statements, and Relational Statements, and active listening to validate and understand the feelings behind your partner’s words. Controlling your emotions is worth it. Practice for yourself, your partner, and for the world.

 

Self-Acceptance

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A lack of self-acceptance can sabotage you in a variety of ways. It can increase anxiety the closer you get to someone or something desirable. It can compel you to act in ways that are antithetical to your goals. It can make you withdraw during the goal acquisition stage without giving you a chance to succeed. When you feel ashamed of who you are or some aspect of yourself a satisfying relationship is hard to develop. Until you acknowledge those parts of yourself and learn to manage them, your life may remain unsatisfying. Learning to accept yourself places you in a better position to be accepted by others. It’s a hollow victory when friends and family accept you and you have trouble accepting yourself. Everyone may not like you, that’s not the point. The point is for you to like yourself and for you to have the courage to give others the opportunity to like the real you. By being more aware an authentic, you offer others the chance to choose to like the real you, not some fake invention.

Let’s distinguish between self-esteem and self-acceptance to clear up any confusion about the two before we proceed. According to Leon F. Seltzer Ph.D.: “Self-esteem refers specifically to how valuable, or worthwhile, we see ourselves, self-acceptance alludes to a far more global affirmation of self. When we're self-accepting, we're able to embrace all facets of ourselves—not just the positive, more "esteem-able" parts.”

Everyone is both a saint and a monster. We also may have physical features that make us feel bad about ourselves. While we may have an overall view of ourselves as worthwhile a lack of self-acceptance may interfere with our ability to accept those unfavorable characteristics. When we don’t like features we possess we may try to hide them or compensate for them in ways that allow us to cope. Our efforts to suppress, numb, or avoid the parts of who we are that we don’t like often invite other problems and make the situation worse. Someone who can’t stand being short may overcompensate by acting more macho. Someone overweight may begin smoking in a misguided effort to prevent weight gain. Someone who suffered growing up poor may vow to never want for anything in life and overspend or steal. Those coping strategies often fail and increase our problems. The macho person may find himself trying to prove how big he is in progressively dangerous ways. The smoker who fails to control her weight without smoking may ultimately find herself needing an oxygen tank. And the person who breaks the law to compensate for an impoverished childhood may wind up in jail. In short, our fixes often make accepting ourselves more difficult.

To further illustrate how our attempts to compensate for low self-acceptance can create problems, here’s an example from the Disney movie “Aladdin.” Aladdin presented himself as a prince to the princess when he was actually a beggar. As they grew closer, he became uncomfortable. Feeling increasingly anxious about who he really was and his dishonest attempt to conceal his true identity threatened to destroy their relationship. Feeling like an imposter Aladdin, ultimately, revealed his true identity and, like all things Disney, the fairy tale ended happily. In real life betraying yourself and others in that way can be disastrous.

What's interesting about the Aladdin example is how it illustrates the difference between self-esteem and self-acceptance. Aladdin’s self-esteem motivated him to strive to be with the princess. He aspired to be with someone beautiful who also had status, and he accomplished that goal. That indicated healthy self-esteem. On the other hand, dishonesty about his true identity indicated low self-acceptance. The internal conflict between his self-esteem and his self-acceptance resulted in feelings of guilt and shame about being dishonest. Those feelings triggered anxiety and self-doubt which threatened his relationship with himself and the princess.

Working to accept yourself is for heroes. It takes courage to proceed down a hero's path. Courage is not the absence of fear, but the willingness to accept your fears, discomfort, and efforts in order to embrace yourself fully-- and not just the positive “more esteem-able” parts. By feeling more comfortable with yourself, you encourage people to like the authentic you. Presenting a false front or withdrawing from relationships before you give them a chance to succeed leads to unhappiness.

The inability to accept yourself is a type of suffering. To free yourself from this attitude requires that you learn to sit with yourself and look deeply into who you are. That seems simple enough, but we all spend an extraordinary amount of time avoiding, camouflaging, and disavowing the parts of ourselves that we find unattractive. When we do this, simple things become difficult. The last thing we want to do is sit, breathe, and embrace every part of ourselves and our suffering. That’s emotional labor. To be human is to suffer. Fear prevents the type of emotional exploration I'm describing.

Exposure therapy is the number one treatment for specific phobias and other fears. If you went to see a therapist about a fear of snakes. The therapist would talk to you about snakes. He might even show you a picture of a snake. As you become more desensitized, he might even bring in a rubber snake. Eventually, as your fear of snakes decreases, he might even have you hold the rubber snake until your fear of snakes is extinguished. By sitting with and exposing yourself to your own thoughts and feelings and the anxiety they invoke, you can reduce your anxiety. To avoid feeling like an imposter, increase happiness, and improve your relationship satisfaction, practice self-acceptance.

 

Insecurity

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“My girl so insecure. She always looking for shit.”

“Yea. I tell mine, if you look through my phone it's a wrap. You got ta go. Why they always looking fa stuff?”

“What do you mean, looking for stuff? What kind of stuff?

“Man, they be lookin’ for other women numbers and shit.”

“So, what you got a phone or a grenade? You leave your cell phone down and she see a message from baby, and it will blow your whole shit up. You'll be starting the New Year  in a shelter or in jail.”

“That's only if she lookin’ for something. Why they so insecure?”

“I hate to tell y’all this, but you will not date secure women,” I said.

Every man in the room paused, cocked their heads to the side, and looked at me like the RCA dog.

A voice shot out of nowhere.

“Why?”

“You will not date an secure woman because you are insecure.”

The looks on their faces indicated in no uncertain terms that I needed to resolve the tension.

“I'm not insecure. She’s look’n fa shit.”

“Remember the meditation we just did? Remember how noisy it was all the shuffling, fidgeting, and stuff that was going on. That's insecurity. The inability to just sit still and breathe. What about all the girlfriends? You're supposed to be in a committed relationship and you're cheating. Cheating is a form of insecurity. Violence is the biggest form of insecurity there is. There can be no attack without fear. We all date and get involved with people who are equal to or less than we are. I suggest that we account for and learn to manage our own insecurity, and stop believing that it is a force outside of us, moving toward us, rather than a feeling inside of us, moving out.

The room got quiet.

 

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

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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.    

What is a Healthy Relationship?

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A healthy relationship doesn't kill you. We're all going to leave here at some point, hopefully not by the hand of a boyfriend, girlfriend, lover, or spouse. People kill each other in relationships. You survive a healthy relationship.

Short of death, relationships can make you miserable. Feeling unable to communicate, treat each other with respect, and speak openly about thoughts and feelings can suck the life out of you. I talk to people all the time who willingly poke themselves in the eye in relationships and wonder why their eye hurts. In essence, here's the conversation.

How may I help you?

“Every time I... This happens and I can't take it anymore.”

Have you considered not doing...?

Silence.

The butt-tensing silence you experience watching a horror movie when the person on screen separates from others and wanders down a dark, spooky hallway. Relationships can make us all feel lost. A healthy relationship is one in which you notice when you are drifting into unfamiliar territory, and self-correct before finding yourself on the wrong end of a chainsaw.

A healthy relationship encourages you to grow up and step into your responsibility. You can bitch, gripe, moan, and complain all you want. But if anything is wrong with your relationship or life, it is your responsibility to fix it—even if that means accepting the situation as it is, admitting defeat and seeking outside help, or exiting without leaving behind a wake of destruction.

A healthy relationship is not to be used to escape your circumstances. You can't avoid life and reality, both become crystal clear when you enter an intimate relationship with another human being. Once the honeymoon ends and you're both standing face to face with your respective mothers and fathers, the shit gets real. What started out feeling like the Tour de France can quickly morph into the Tour de Hell—in the best relationships. You will need to double down on every relationship skill you know to manage conflicts, remain respectful, and maintain your sanity.

A healthy relationship requires both partners to rise to the occasion and support each other through the letdown of “the real”, for real. You are not perfect. That's real. You're in a relationship with another person who is not perfect, for real. A healthy relationship is one in which you can laugh at the absurdity of your predicament and your life. A healthy relationship enables you to recognize and accept the difficulty involved in loving another person. You silly fool. Did you really believe you could? That's not your fault. We all believe we can love another, and many believe they can love another without loving themselves.

Healthy relationships are best when a little unhealthy—”unhealthy” as in not perfect. Sometimes we promote an outside appearance of health and inside the relationship is toxic. A healthy relationship is one in which appearances do not deceive.  

Healthy relationships result from both partners willingness to do the work—their work.

 

Why Does Someone Stay in an Abusive Relationship?-Domestic Violence Education Series

Confronting Faulty Thinking

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Many men fail to identify and correct errors in their thinking. Because they don't allow others to examine their thinking or comment on their behavior, they often make the same mistakes over and over again. Isolation gives wings to insanity. Without new information and the ability to test reality, problems abound.

Men often find it difficult to describe with words their emotional reactions when their partners disappoint them or when they experience unfairness. The slightest hint of shame triggers some men to become abusive to hide their inadequacies and vulnerability. Some men are abusive to present themselves as strong and threatening rather than inadequate and weak. Strong and threatening are characteristics associated with manhood in our culture.

That's the problem. Often, in a vain effort to manage their image, men make things up, not only to avoid reality, but to carry on while remaining socially isolated. Here's an example: Recently, I talked to a young man about his inability to find and maintain employment.

“I’m a gangster,” he offered.

While he did have a criminal background, my intuition told me this man’s unemployment stemmed primarily from a learning disorder and a marijuana habit. His “gangster” label provided him with a socially acceptable way to mitigate a harsh reality. I also suspected the title unconsciously gratified him. He could avoid his unemployment problem without a severe threat to his identity. If he didn't look for work, or marginally performed and lost his job, he could blame it on being a gangster.

It’s important to see your complicity in the problems you experience. You can't change anything you cant see. Denial serves as a shock absorber, an important buffer between you and reality. Reality’s full force can flummox your ability to cope and leave you feeling overwhelmed and anxious.

A gangster with no gun. A dope dealer with no dope. A pimp with no hoes. We all delude ourselves, perhaps not to this degree, but to varying degrees. It's important to understand how we do it in order to give ourselves the best possible chance to change. “I'll do it later,” “They don't like me,” and “I'm better under pressure,” are a few of the ways in which our thinking traps us in behavior patterns that block our objectives and diminish our self-esteem.

To avoid adding insight to injury, one has to take responsibility by also changing their behavior. It takes effort to lean into uncomfortable, unknown places and try something new. There's no secret to it. There's nothing deep about it. You are totally free to change both thinking and behavior. It has to be different before it can be better.

 

How to Fix Communication in a Relationship

How to Fix Communication in a Relationship

Even when we're not speaking we are communicating through facial expressions, body language, action, or inaction. Communication is not a choice. The only option is communication—constructive or destructive.

 

Toxic Masculinity

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In a statement on Tuesday, Harvey Weinstein’s spokeswoman Sallie Hofmeister said: “Any allegations of nonconsensual sex are unequivocally denied by Mr. Weinstein. Mr. Weinstein has further confirmed that there were never any acts of retaliation against any women for refusing his advances. He will not be available for further comments, as he is taking the time to focus on his family, on getting counseling and rebuilding his life.”

What? “Never any acts of retaliation against any women for refusing his advances. Taking the time to focus on his family, on getting counseling and rebuilding his life?” Something smells foul.

Bill Cosby, Donald Trump, R. Kelly, Tiger Woods, Ray Rice, Kevin Hart, Bill Clinton, Anthony Weiner, Bill O'Reilly, Joe Mixon, Roger Ailes, and now Harvey Weinstein. The latest episode of Toxic Masculinity begins with sexual misconduct allegations against Harvey Weinstein which include harassing a woman employee, cornering her in a restaurant, and jerking off in front of her. When the story broke, I felt embarrassed and shied away from thinking about another man doing something cringe-worthy. It’s challenging enough being a man. I feared being judged for another man’s dumb, abusive, criminal behavior.

Once I heard the sexual harassment allegations, I concluded he was a sex offender. Suffice it to say, he’s no beginner. His behavior would be funny if it wasn't so serious. I can hear a stand-up comedian, “I didn't say ‘bonus,’ I said ‘boner’.”

Mr. Weinstein found himself consumed by behavior he could not control like a passenger on a train which had blown past the pleasure station long ago. Obsession and compulsion are destructive forces in his life, racing down the rails, destroying everything in its path. He now finds himself hanging on for dear life to his career, his wife, and, ultimately, his freedom.    

Toxic masculinity is a problem derived from unhappiness and manifested by sexual conquests, narcissism, grandiosity, aggression, and power which are poisonous to the host and others they come into contact with. We have a tendency to live what we believe. Harvey Weinstein behaved in ways that showed disrespect for women, his wedding vows, and his job. As indicated by his using women to gratify himself, reduce shame and guilt, and to relieve unhappiness. He lived behind a carefully constructed mask that allowed him to behave monstrously.

Bad things happen when men cultivate toxic masculinity. On one end of the spectrum, they believe women are an extension of themselves, feeling the same way they do, particularly about sex. On the other end of the spectrum, they don’t think about women at all. Why should they? They see themselves as all-powerful and if they possess money and status, so do others around them, including their victims. Toxic masculinity forces men to behave as stereotypes, motivating many to break the law.

It can also create an opportunity for men to talk to other men about our miseducation and its disastrous consequences on our lives and the lives of those around us. As I explain to the men in my domestic violence group, there is no such thing as a first offender. You are in this group for what you got caught for. What about the numerous things you did that you didn't get caught for? Harvey Weinstein’s now facing three additional rape allegations. Toxic masculinity will catch up with you.

Misguided men, who have fallen victim to our culture’s more pernicious version of manhood, have lowered the bar so much, have behaved so poorly, some women are trying to be men. With the absence of suitable men, women pleasure themselves, each other, raise children willingly alone—and have been doing it on their own terms for years. These characters have also provided the well-meaning man with great opportunities to be a “good man.” While toxic masculinity narrowly defines men, stripping them of the qualities that make men great—confidence, kindness, honesty, integrity, and courage—the responsible, mature man makes an effort to rise above it by cultivating empathy for others. Don't cheat on your partner. Avoid promiscuity. Accept no for an answer. Don't act like a sex offender. Don’t drop anything in anyone’s drink. Don't break the law. Use anger constructively. Have some integrity. Get in touch with your misogyny. Work hard. Cultivate gratitude. How could one possibly fail at being a good man? Even if you have transgressed, who among us will cast the first stone?  

This is a great time to be a man. The world needs good men. Real men are around, rarely grabbing headlines, but they do exist.

 

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.

The Problem with the Self-help Industry

                       Self-help books sometimes don't help. 

                      Self-help books sometimes don't help. 

“If you want the habit of gratitude to grace your life, it is essential that you, like Tom Chappell, develop the belief that you are here on earth to fulfill some purpose that only you can offer to the world. You are amazingly rare, totally nonreplicable individual with talents and gifts that the world anxiously needs. The more that you experience the truth of your uniqueness and beauty, the more you will feel gratitude for your particular gifts and the more you will be able to deliver those gifts.”
                             

                                Attitudes of Gratitude: How to Give and Receive Joy Every Day of Your Life

                                                                                                                  --M.J. Ryan p. 81-82

When I read this I had to pause and think about what it meant and if it was actually true for me.

There is a basic problem with the advice doled out by most authors of self-help books. It's the notion that in order to be happy or to help yourself you have to believe that you are special. Do I really need to be “amazingly rare, totally nonreplicable with talents and gifts the world anxiously needs?” Am I unique? Am I beautiful?

I would like to believe that, but is that really true? Isn't the belief that I'm special or that I need to be special the problem? No one else on the entire planet could possibly do whatever it is I'm supposed to be doing if I weren't so busy reading self-help books? I would feel better if I just cleaned up behind myself rather than nurturing the narcissistic fantasy that I'm special and, as such, someone else will clean up after me.

Will reading a self-help book miraculously transform me into the Golden Child? What happens when one discovers they are not unique? Life has a way of pulling your “Special Card.”

Humpty Dumpty was special. Where did he sit? On a wall above others. What kind of fall did he have? A great fall. He didn't roll off a curb. Who tried to put him back together again? All the of  King's horses and all of the King's men. He had status. What happened? They could not put him together again. What's the moral of this story? Special people can't be put back together.

Improving yourself does not require you to be special. Self-improvement rarely comes down to talent. Many people have talent and never accomplish much. What's most important is that we get started, that we practice, and work hard at the changes we seek. The keys are to remain calmly persistent and actively engaged in the execution of your plan. There are no special skills or unique talents required. Just real commitment.