Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Cops and Robinsons

More marriages might survive if the partners realized that sometimes the better comes after the worse.
~Doug Larson

At the height of laughter, the universe is flung into a kaleidoscope of new possibilities.
Jean Houston

I have counseled all kinds of people in my life. From very young children barely able to talk, to 100 year-old people on their deathbeds, I have been in situations where I tried to provide comfort and understanding to people regardless of the circumstances of their lives. Because I have so many weaknesses, it’s hard to single out one, but as far as a counseling specialty, I’ve always found it a little difficult to work with couples. The anger and hostility that seeps into a marriage can be hard to sit with, and resolving intense conflict can at times run contrary to my “lighten up” approach to life. Therefore it came as a particular shock to me when one couple pulled me aside a while back and told me I was a pretty humorless person.

To back up a second, I had been working with this particular couple for a while, and had been trying to summon a character trait called “gravitas” which describes a kind of personal seriousness that I was told in graduate school that I was sorely lacking. The implication was, that although a sense of humor is ostensibly a good quality in a therapist, people need to know that you are taking their problems very seriously.

I’m not convinced this is correct, as I have often found that people are taking their problems entirely too seriously. The challenge as a therapist is knowing when it’s time to simply listen, and when it’s time to challenge people’s views of the world that appear to be contributing to their problems.

In this particular case, I did a lot of listening at first, but over time as I perceived their comments towards each other as more hostile, I would interrupt more and suggest an intervention that I thought would improve their communication patterns. Often times in these situations they would stop and look at each other kind of inquisitively, without offering much feedback as to what they thought of my suggestions. I would often leave the sessions feeling both confused as well as frustrated, and after several weeks of this I decided it was important to ask them what they thought was going on.

I wasn’t ready for what happened next. They came in to the next session, exchanged embarrassed glances at each other, and began with the ominous, “we need to talk,” before I was able to get started. I have heard this expression a number of times in my life, mostly from women in the exact context you would expect. I braced myself for the inevitable bad news, when I was greeted with a rather surprising confession. The husband Daryl began;

“Well Joe, this is awkward, but Denise and I have been talking, and, well, you told us to tell you if you were doing something we don’t like, so here goes. You’re a little too serious for us, and we both are getting a little irritated by how you turn every exchange into some kind of life lesson. Sometimes we like to bicker back and forth in a funny way. That’s what we do. That’s what kind of works about our marriage, and frankly you are getting to be kind of a buzz kill.”

I had been slammed into the dunk tank. ME??? A buzz kill?? I was the guy with the lampshade on his head at every party. I was the lighten up guy. This couldn’t be true!!

“Well guys, I have to tell you this is a first, and I promise you I will think a lot about what you said,” I explained. “Our challenge here is to find what does and doesn’t work about your marriage, and trust me when I say there is no bigger advocate for humor in a marriage than me.”

Even as these words came out of my mouth I felt like a fraud. I thought I was sending that message, but perhaps I wasn’t at all. How many other couples had I seen that I had made the same mistake with? I realized that their bringing it up provided an opportunity though, and I vowed to go home and think of some ways I could help them with their marriage without coming across as a prep school dean.

While thinking about this, I went back to what I considered to be one of the best books ever written on the subject, The Seven Principles of Making Marriage Work, by John Gottman. In particular I focused on a chapter that dared to contradict a longstanding belief in couples counseling that almost every problem could be solved with the proper amount of active listening and communication skills.

But his research showed that this simply wasn’t the case. He instead found that many problems in marriages were not solvable, and that some beliefs, values, and habits were too deeply entrenched to be receptive to change. The key he suggested, was to develop an understanding of which of your problems were solvable and which ones were not.

I have come to believe that what lies in the middle of this valley is how receptive a couple is to using humor. What drives us crazy about other people is often at least a partial reflection of some part of our own psychological baggage, and we begin to develop wisdom when we come to understand and acknowledge there are things about ourselves that also trigger these responses in others. By admitting these things we can take away some of their power, and by laughing at them we can potentially diffuse resentment and defensiveness before they begin to stir.

In the case of the Robinsons we reached a whole new cruising altitude when the three of us began to incorporate humor into our sessions, and in doing so we began to identify which of their problems could be solved and which ones couldn’t. We found for instance that no matter how much Daryl wanted her to be interested in his gadgets and hobbies, she simply was not inclined in this direction. We also agreed that in the realm of spirituality, the two of them were on a fundamentally different page, and that no amount of insisting on Denise’s part was going to change Daryl’s mind about going to church on Sundays.

Although these things may seem insignificant to a neutral observer, they often gave rise to very intense arguments that descended into some very hurt feelings. What was at the root of this stuff were feelings that the other person didn’t care about things that were very important to them. As is the case with many arguments, what looked like anger was actually hurt, although this hurt manifested itself in harsh words and personal attacks. Because this couple was already so good at using humor in their interactions, we began to clarify rules of engagement around issues we put in the “unsolvable” problem category. Although this couple already had a solid foundation, coming to understand this idea, and using the appropriate humor to discuss these things really helped them turn a corner.

6 months after they had terminated their therapy, I received a package from them. Fearing the worst, I opened it slowly, and then laughed out loud when I saw it was a Mexican whoopee cushion they had purchased on a trip they had taken for their second honeymoon. The attached card read, “Doc, hope you haven’t forgotten about us and that you are doing well. We saw this and thought of you. Keep your sense of humor. Always keep your sense of humor.”

And that whoopee cushion still sits on my desk today. It serves as a little reminder that when things do get too serious I can slide it under someone’s chair and lighten the mood a little bit. More importantly I made a point to consistently monitor my own temperament. It was a lesson I won’t soon forget.

Unbridled enthusiasm

Why in the world are we here?
Surely not to live in pain and fear
Who in the world do you think you are?
A superstar? Well right your are
Well we all shine on, like the moon and the stars and the sun
John Lennon

If you had one song to let the lord know about how you felt about your time here on earth, what would it be?
Sam Phillips to Johnny Cash

Heading out to New York City this week to see a truly wonderful friend of mine. We’ve got big plans. Going to check out the Dakota hotel and Strawberry fields in central park to pay tribute to my all-time favorite musician, John Lennon. Gonna drink some great beer in Brooklyn and then dine on some old world Italian food. We’ve got plans to do Manhattan, and hit a Yankees game and do al kinds of other fun stuff as well.

Why do I bring this up? Because all week I’ve been so excited about this trip, and it reminded me of something that is beginning to crystallize for me about how I want to spend the rest of my time here. This feeling that I have can best be described as unbridled enthusiasm, and as I get older I’ve become more and more convinced that it is the key to a successful life.

That is a platitude, I understand that, and many wise men will tell you persistence, or hard work, or a million other things are the key to life, and I agree that all of those things are important. Without a sense of enthusiasm and passion for the choices you have made however, all of these other traits are essentially a part of a fool’s errand.

The thing about enthusiasm is it isn’t some mystical quality that we are born with or that we are somehow inherently possessed with. It’s a choice to say yes to things in our lives in every circumstance. Sure it’s easy to say yes to life when we are taking exotic vacations and traveling around the world, but more and more I’ve become convinced that enthusiasm is at least as important in the circumstances in life that are less than ideal.

Which brings us back to the idea of choice. There have been so many times in my life where my happiness has come down to a choice I made about the kind of attitude I brought to the table. I’ve always been a bit of a stranger to hard work, and I have sulked and whined and pouted about all kinds of situations in my life that really weren’t that bad when I looked back on them in retrospect. Having worked and studied in a number of different organizations, I have noticed that it is almost a universal truth that people like to complain about the way things are run. Although this can be a way of bonding with your fellow comrades, it can also become a more permanent part of your attitude that begins to seep into other areas of your life.

Which is what happened to me. As a student I had developed an extra large chip on my shoulder, and became convinced that everyone who was trying to teach me something was being condescending. It was a time in my life where I had a difficult time ceding power to other people, as I had usually been the person in charge as opposed to the one at the bottom of the totem pole. Although it has taken me many years to come to this realization, I finally learned that sometimes it’s a lot less about whose in charge and a lot more about who commands respect by giving respect, and that sometimes the only way to gain power is by ceding it to others first.

On this note, a fellow student and supervisor of mine gave me this advice from Charles Swindoll about the importance of attitude. This also sits on my wall as a constant reminder that I always have a choice in the matter,

by: Charles Swindoll

The longer I live, the more I realize the impact of attitude on life.

Attitude, to me, is more important than facts. It is more important than the past, than education, than money, than circumstances, than failures, than successes, than what other people think or say or do. It is more important than appearance, giftedness or skill. It will make or break a company... a church... a home.

The remarkable thing is we have a choice every day regarding the attitude we will embrace for that day. We cannot change our past... we cannot change the fact that people will act in a certain way. We cannot change the inevitable. The only thing we can do is play on the one string we have, and that is our attitude... I am convinced that life is 10% what happens to me and 90% how I react to it.

And so it is with you... we are in charge of our attitudes.

Even as I read this today I have to remind myself to think about the application of what he advises. I still find little ways to complain in my life all the time, and staying vigilant about my attitude is a daily exercise in mindfully paying attention to the ways I let my mine wander into more pessimistic places. As always humor is an amazing asset in this regard, and when I forget this I take a look on my wall and heed the words of mister Swindoll. It reminds me to stay enthusiastic about even the most mundane of tasks, as today’s toil slowly adds up to something much more rewarding.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Anger Management

“It is impossible for you to be angry and laugh at the same time. Anger and laughter are mutually exclusive and you have the power to choose either.”
Wayne Dyer

“Humor was another of the soul's weapons in the fight for self-preservation. It is well known that humor, more than anything else in the human makeup, can afford an aloofness and an ability to rise above any situation, even if only for a few seconds.”
Victor Frankl- Man’s Search for Meaning

One of my first assignments as a new therapist was to go out “into the community” to work, which I quickly found out was code for working with people who were a different color than me. Arriving at work my first day, I found that my task was to conduct an anger management seminar with recently released convicts who were living in a halfway house. My training lasted exactly one hour, and then it was my turn to talk to these guys about how to nurture their inner children. It was a terrifying ordeal.

I started out with the manual, which came complete with faces that identified different emotions. There was a smiley face for happy, a face with a single tear for sad, and so on. Looking around the room and seeing the stone cold faces, which included murderers, look at this handout in stunned silence was a troubling reality, and quickly I understood that this gig was going to require me to think much more quickly on my feet.

So I started with a story about me on a bike. In this story I was riding full speed on the sidewalk on the north side of Chicago, when, seemingly out of nowhere, a block of cement about 2 feet tall rose out of the sidewalk. It was too late for me to slow down, and as I careened into the cement, I saw my whole life flash before my eyes as I flipped over my handlebars. While I was in midair I spotted a little girl holding an ice cream cone standing with her mother. Quickly calculating the physics of the situation while I was in flight, I realized it was inevitable that I would in fact fly directly into them.

What happened next was where the line between comedy and tragedy got blurred. I crashed into the little girl and the ice cream cone went flying right out of her hand. As I lay there bleeding I spotted her out of the corner of my eye. Saw the single tear fall down her face and the sadness give way to anger as she sized up the situation.

What I didn’t see coming was what happened next. The little girl turned her angry eyes on me, and, like an angry bull, began her charge. She ran over to me and kicked me in the shin with all of the power her little legs could muster. It was so painful yet so comical I had to laugh at the sheer absurdity of it.

So that was my story. I sat that for a moment in silence as they digested it, and then I saw a smile, followed by a chuckle, and soon everyone in the room was laughing heartily. It was a formula that had never failed me. Share my personal misfortune with others and watch the room go wild. In this case I wanted to make a point however, and thought about how I could use this moment of levity to at least begin a discussion about managing anger.

And it worked! By showing them I was also prone to losing my temper, stupidity, road rage, and all of the other pitfalls of modern living that they were, I had diffused the power dynamic in the room and we were able to start a real conversation about anger.

In getting to know the guys, I was continually amazed at how thoughtful and intelligent they were about talking about their own lives, and all of my preconceived notions about what a “convict” was supposed to act like soon went out the window. In learning about their lives, I found out that most of them had terrible family experiences as young kids, and how they often had to affiliate with gangs to find a sense of belonging. I heard stories about abuse, rape, violence, and even torture that sometimes made me sick to my stomach. It was difficult enough to get them to talk about these things, let alone incorporating a lesson about the healing power of laughter. A few weeks in, I had gotten them talking, but was far from converting any of these things into any meaningful life lessons.

So I decided to improvise. I brought in a copy of Man’s search for meaning, and we took turns reading passages from it. For those not familiar with the book, it’s about a doctor who loses absolutely everything while imprisoned in a concentration camp, including his business, his home, and his family, including his wife. The book is his account of how he was able to maintain hope and create meaning in the most horrific place imaginable. It had been a valuable part of my own development, and my wish was that some of these same lessons would resonate with the guys.

I was especially interested in Frankl’s descriptions of how laughter somehow persisted in the camps, which seemed almost unbelievable to comprehend. He described the desire to laugh as something that lies deep inside the human heart that nothing can touch or take way.

So as we read I asked the guys to tell me about how they were able to maintain their senses of humor while they were imprisoned. What followed were some of the funniest things I’ve ever heard, and I learned that necessity was truly the mother of invention. While they were relating these stories I couldn’t help but think about the quote from Wayne Dyer at the beginning of this story about how laughter and anger are incompatible emotional states. The fact was that many of these men did have a great deal of anger, and in many cases the only way they had ever expressed this anger was through violence. Continuing to explore how to respond to emotional arousal with laughter instead of anger was a difficult lesson, and one I had certainly not mastered in my own life.

One of the tasks of my job was to help guide the guys through their transition back to work, back with their families, and in general back into society. Every week we would take a scenario and see if we could identify both an angry as well as a humorous response to the situation. Every week I would also bring my own scenarios in as well, most of which occurred while I navigated Chicago’s public transportation system, which was an area of my life where my own anger management skills were woefully lacking. As always, I continued to hold my own life up to public ridicule, which never failed to delight.

What I learned, and what I hoped the guys learned, was that one of the key lessons about managing anger could be realized by learning how to not take things personally, and understand, in real time, how to really process the idea of another person’s context. The fact is our emotions get aroused when others challenge us, threaten us, or even slightly disrespect us, but really it says much more about them than it does about us when they make this choice. This is a difficult concept to comprehend, particularly when your very life depends on your survival skills, and one of the key ideas we discussed was adapting from one context to another while continually working on not taking things personally.

This came up in their lives in a number of ways. Many of them worked in retail jobs, where impatient customers would disrespect them or otherwise address them without even basic courtesy. One question we tried to integrate into our class was asking, “what problem is the person trying to solve?” and then again trying to come up with answers that may provide alternate explanations for difficult behavior.

By the end of my year there, I realized I had not only been though a significant teaching experience, but also a wonderful learning experience. I saw men who had previously drawn guns at the slightest hint of agitation use humor to diffuse difficult situations. Saw quiet guys blossom into class clowns as they learned to write down and consider alternate choices in different scenarios in their lives. It was an incredibly gratifying experience, and one I will truly never forget, as it taught me that anyone could potentially learn to use laughter to cope with the difficult situations in their lives.

The impact of my time there didn’t really hit home with me till a couple of weeks ago when I was riding a bus downtown in a very agitated mood. A couple of people bumped into me, and I let out an audible sigh as each person encroached a little further into my space. A minute later I heard someone yell,

“Hey doc!” I heard as I looked around and saw Brian, one of my prize pupils from my time as the anger management instructor.

“Yea?” I responded.

“What problem are you trying to solve,” he said as a huge smile broke across his face. And I had to laugh as well. The student had become the teacher, and it was exactly what I needed to hear at that moment in time. I laughed about it the rest of the day, and now when I am experiencing transportation rage, I try and picture that smile and his words continue to ring in my ears, and I invariably begin to laugh. Physician heal thyself I think is the appropriate expression.