Thursday, September 24, 2015


I had an interesting conversation with my therapist today.

Yes, I go to therapy regularly.  If your therapist doesn't, or hasn't had extensive experience as a client, get another therapist.  Therapists aren't supposed to give advice - but I'm pretty comfortable with that one.  Your mileage may vary, yadda yadda.

We were talking about some events in my life and I mentioned maybe I should have done something differently.  My therapist said "There is no such thing as 'should'".

To which I said - "yes, of course there is such a thing as 'should'" because I think there is a lot of crap floating about the self-help, self-development, and therapy community about how everything is created by our intentions, or how everything is a cultural construct, etc. etc.  My opinions on these ideas are complex, at least several paragraphs worth, but I think I can very simply state that no, our actions really can hurt others in ways we are responsible for and therefore there are some actions we have a responsibility to avoid.  In other words, "shoulds" are real.

At the same time, I, like many people, have an over developed sense of what I am responsible for.  I take too much personal responsibility for the suffering of others.  I am too ready to pick up the need to apologize or to take on guilt or shame for something that often is not my fault, responsibility, or personal business at all.

So after spending some time picking this idea apart with my therapist it became clear that what they were trying to help me understand is that "should" is an abstraction, divorced from the moral facts of a situation.  "I should do X" doesn't really help us understand exactly what is the moral situation with X.  It is a summary - a conclusion - not a starting point.  So in that sense, yes, there is such thing as "should".  It is an abstract concept that is ungrounded in circumstances.  It is easy enough to say "I shouldn't kill people."  but its also easy to see there are times when yes, actually you should kill people.  So what is this "should" if it has all these exceptions and qualifiers?  Its an idealization - an abstraction - something without a direct correspondence in our lives.  It is a real object - but its a real thought object - a different kind of thing than say "kill" which much more directly represents choices, actions, and consequences.

So instead of saying "should I do XYZ?" , "should I apologize?", "should I intervene?" you get closer to the real quandary if you try to ask what is really going on.  What harm has been done?  What kind of intention was behind the harm?  How are those harmed reacting to it?  Are they suffering?  Are they aware of it? Are they over-reacting?  Are they under-reacting?

All of which is just a really verbose way of saying its a good idea to question ourselves whenever we say "should", about ourselves or others.  Make sure we understand what is really happening.  Don't be satisfied with an abstract intuition of obligation.  That intuition is a guidepost - an invitation to reflect - it isn't the answer or the truth.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

How I work, part III: Development

This is one of the things that brought me to a counseling career, an interest in development. It kind of started with a new age and/or progressive political interest in what it means to be "evolved". You hear people throw this word around a lot. An evolved person. An unevolved person. Often there is an association with some personality feature or other. To some, being evolved means to have outgrown childish things, to buckle down, hold down a job, raise a family, stop partying every night and going to work with a hangover every Monday. To others being evolved means to meditate and do yoga and eat vegan and compost. To even others, it might mean having a very logical and scientific view of the world, that you aren't taken in by all that church and sandals and yoga beads and homeopathy stuff. I'm sure you can come up with your own examples, which often seem mutually exclusive.

People are often quite proud of whether or not they or some person they know or some person they read or listen to is evolved. It seems to be a pretty desirable quality. And people who aren't evolved get some kind of disdain or at best grudging sympathy, bless their hearts. Some people might put it differently. They might use words like aware, mature, grown up, enlightened, realistic, etc.

So I wanted to know what people meant by all this. It seemed like there was something true there, even if some of it was just clearly in-group politics. I mean, people like you and me are obviously the best kind of people, right? And so I came to learn about adult human development.

One way of looking at development is that it is simply learning. We all learn things all the time and that new knowledge, even if it isn't factual knowledge necessarily, changes us, expands our capacities, while constraining others. But it's also a way of describing exactly how that learning changes us, changes our attitudes and beliefs and behavior.

In some ways there are some pretty predictable patterns of development. They were studied by people like Kohlberg, and Gilligan, and Loevinger. In other ways, human development is a crazy fractal pattern with as many variants as there are people who have ever lived. Still, there are some predictable thresholds that we cross in life, and though they have common life events as catalysts or harbingers, they aren't as simple as the signposts of college, marriage, career, parenthood, midlife crisis, mentorhood, retirement, etc.

Developmental stages are often enough a part of the reason clients come to me. Maybe it's something relatively common - adjusting to a new job or a new marriage. Sometimes it a massive shift that completely reorganizes how you see the world. The kind of shift that has a wealthy investor giving most of his money to charity and taking up work with the poor and hungry, or a shift that changes a drug dealer into a minister, or a nun into a professor.

As a counsellor it is a privilege to be involved in these shifts. Sometimes they are small harbingers, early scent on the wind of a gradual process. Sometimes they are something of a crisis, a massive upheaval in a client's life. But which ever it is, these encounters are different from the medical/clinical model. There is no diagnosis, or at best we might call it a phase of life adjustment difficulty or something like that. There is nothing to "fix", no symptom to help a client cope with or lessen. Instead we get the privilege of standing next to someone who is transforming. Like whispering words of encouragement to a butterfly while they're crawling out of the cocoon. Some would say this is true of almost all counseling, but I think it's true of adult development in a special way.

So, I stay on the lookout for developmental processes. They can easily be confused with disorders or life problems, and they certainly can cause problems - can you imagine the difficulty of your entire worldview shifting? The meaning and importance of things can change radically. Your family and your peer group will likely think something is very wrong. You quit a church, a job, a career, a marriage. Or you suddenly start a very new and different one.

Right now I can see developmental processes pretty obviously at play in some of my clients. I'm excited to work with them. It's the difference between foundation repair and doing a major renovation or expansion on a house. Or helping an athlete heal an injury vs helping them break through to a new level of performance.

And sometimes, we start building on to the house, only to discover we need that foundation repair before we can proceed - which is part of why my job is endlessly interesting.

Monday, September 7, 2015

How do I work? Part II: trauma

If you have anything to do with the psychotherapy world, then you know that trauma is the watchword - its on everyone's lips.  Its the in thing right now.  I think there's very good reason for this.  We're getting some good results with some innovative therapies - developed over the last several years (and longer) - that focus on trauma and our theoretical understanding of what trauma does to our nervous system.

To put it really briefly, we've all got trauma of some form or another.  Maybe its trauma, or maybe its Trauma. For example - I still have unreasonable emotional reactions to things that remind me of certain childhood situations, long past adverse experiences, and difficult relationships.  That's trauma - it left scars, and the scars influence how I feel, think, and behave even today.

Now - when someone is in a horrible accident, or survives a war, or a horrific near experience with violence, or are chronically abused or neglected as children - that is Trauma with a capital "T" and people sometimes develop PTSD as a result.  Not always, interestingly. Not even most of the time.  But too often. The lesser traumas our lives present us with can cause us to develop responses that seem related to PTSD even if it isn't the full horror that some of us suffer.

On the one hand, as adults we often feel as if we should put on our big people pants and get over it. But the truth is that there are some things we just can't seem to get over easily and even if they seem trivial and childish, they still have a lot to do with some of our most painful emotions.

Now I know what you're thinking.  You're thinking about Freud and the couch and "tell me about your mother." And about some poor soul discovering that their fear of asparagus comes from the awful accident they had in the garden when they were three - and poof, they're cured.  Funny enough, even though that kind of scene is still a staple of film and TV - Freud abandoned that theory in about the second year of his practice.  He was certain he had found the scarring event in a patient's past, and the insight could produce a kind of relief-through-understanding in his patients - but it didn't cure them.  Their problems persisted in spite of knowing the apparent cause.

And yet - the trauma therapies that counselors are using now are remarkably similar to that fictional "eureka" scene.  I won't really try to explain what the different therapies are or what they do here - I'm getting long winded enough.  But the key is that there are certain kinds of emotional reactions we all have, that bother us deeply, often to the point of a diagnosable disorder, that seem to derive from trauma and the reactions our brain and nervous system have to the flight-or-flight response.  The new trauma based therapies work with inspirations from neurological theory to help us unlearn those responses, often quickly, and often without the long verbal psychodynamic inquiry into our past that we all associate with therapy.

So - when people start talking their emotions feeling out of control, and stress, and anger issues, and even anxiety and depression - I start looking for trauma.  It isn't always trauma - but often it is and it helps to treat it that way.  I've benefited a great deal from trauma based therapy and it is clearly an area I need more training in - because many, many people who walk through my door need it.  They need it yesterday.