Wednesday, March 2, 2011

A Devil of a Job

"Being a parent is the hardest job in the world."

You've heard this statement before, right?  I've been guilty of using it too, at some point or another.  But, come on.  Is it really the hardest job, or was this statement coined by a  full-time parent feeling guilty over not being able to bring home the bacon?  Trust me, having been home for 6 years, I know that feeling... especially as a male.

If you were to apply for a job as a parent, perhaps this would be the ad:

JOB DESCRIPTION:"Long term commitment needed for challenging, permanent work in an often chaotic environment. Applicant must have excellent communication and organizational skills, and be willing to work around the clock.  Some overnight travel required, including trips to primitive camping sites on rainy weekends and endless sports tournaments in god awful locations. Travel expenses not covered. Sense of humor, a must."

PREVIOUS EXPERIENCE: None, unfortunately. On-the-job training will be provided.

WAGES AND COMPENSATION: You pay your way, offering frequent raises and bonuses to those you supervise. No workers comp provided.

How's that for a scary job description? Yikes!

My problem with the above statement is not that we call it the "hardest" job, but rather that we call it a "job" at all.  Is it really a job? Is your marriage a job?  Is giving advice to your best friend a job?  Last I checked, I wasn't able to buy myself an iPad  with the extra income I earned by reading to my daughter at night. And wiping butts never paid for a weekend getaway in Vegas. 

When I stop and think about hard jobs, my mind conjures up visions of waste disposal employees, ER doctors, Pediatric Oncology nurses.... just to name a few.  By comparison, being a parent seems like a walk in the park, don't you think?

To me, being a parent is simply a relationship.   A relationship between us and our children.  A relationship we chose to be in.  We attend to their needs and keep them safe.   By viewing parenting as a job, I believe it takes away from the importance of what we do. 

We can always quit our job if we're not satisfied, right (perhaps not in this economy)? We can change careers if we're not happy.  And yes, I admit, there are days when I would like to trade my children in for less "hostile" co-workers, but I don't.  Our jobs may be disposable, but not our kids.

So what if we say: "Being a parent is the hardest relationship in the world."  How would that sound to you?  To me, it adds value and meaning.  I'm also reminded of what the focus really is.  To listen. To encourage. To teach. To comfort.  To reassure.  To sit on your hands when your first instinct is to give them a big whop!

I find parents come to me, seeking advice, when their child doesn't fit into a mold or expectation.  When they can't understand why their first child was so "perfect" and their second or third is just a holy terror.  Some children may be happy and ebullient from the time they take their first breath, while others may be sullen and detached.

Regardless of who they are, we adjust how we relate to them according to their personality style.   But if we take parenting on as a job, then we may fall into the trap of developing a workplace mentality.  Mainly, measuring our success by the quality of our product.  If we haven't produced a child who is "good," responsible and high-achieving,  then, alas, we have failed at our job! 


Sunday, January 16, 2011

In The Zone

Happy New Year!

Have you taken a moment yet to ponder your personal successes and shortcomings over this past year?   Have you quietly said to yourself: "This year will be different.  I'm not going to make the same mistakes.  Perhaps it's time to change my bad habits."

Ahhh... that's right, it's New Year's resolution time.  I still can't fit into my old  size-32 jeans, which was one of my resolutions last year.  But I'll be dammed if I don't make the effort again in 2011.  And you know what?  That's okay.  Resolutions are made to be broken.  Now this isn't a "Get Out of Jail Free" card.  But the reason we usually make a resolution is because we want to change some particular behavior.  It's not always gonna happen the first time you try - or the second - or even the third.  

I don't treat extreme mental disorders.  Most of my clients have mild to moderate problems.  And most of them (if not all) come to therapy because they want to break a negative pattern of behavior they keep repeating.  For example, compulsively loving someone that doesn't love them back.  Or staying in careers that make them sad and unfulfilled.  Or wondering why they keep sabotaging their successes when goals are almost attained.

Freud would say that perhaps we are recreating the same feelings, conflicts and relationship styles that we experienced in childhood.  Others might think that we're masochists and want to avoid pleasure.  Or is it simply an addiction?  Are we addicted to negative behaviors that we just have to repeat?

If you believe how we were raised as children directly influences how we value ourselves, how we navigate through life and how happy we are as adults, then you agree with the majority of the professional research in this area.

(Note to self: Make sure I tell my kids that they are good, lovable, worthwhile and important.  That, though life is full of challenges, it can still be an exciting and fun place to be in.)

So what do we do, then,  if our parents weren't well-versed in their abilities to shape us into positive, healthy, risk-taking individuals? If we were conditioned to be who we are today, then what's the point?  Do we give up trying to change?  Are we forever a prisoner of our past?

Welcome to our comfort zone.  It's what we call home.  It's why we only brush with Colgate rather than Crest (blegh!).   It's why we vote the way we do.  It's the type of friends we keep, the foods we eat, the spouses we choose, the neighborhoods we pick to live in.  We're simply creatures of habit.  And when we step outside these comfort zones, anxiety comes knocking.  Who wants that kind of stress, right?  I know I don't.

Years ago, I worked with a teenage foster child who was finally succeeding in school, getting good grades and had hopes of going to college.  She had a great support system with her foster family, social workers, therapist, etc.

Her biological family (who were uneducated, had very little means, and were proud of their working class heritage) became rejecting and critical when they saw their daughter breaking the mold.  Her straying from her family's comfort zone was a huge slap in the face.  A "fork in the road" was materializing for this young woman.  She had an important decision to make. 

Sadly, when this child returned home, college no longer entered the picture.  Stepping away from her family's embrace was too much to bear.  The risk of loss was too great.  She went back to being who she was expected to be... so that she could be loved.

When we face change and look to escape our comfort zone, it can be scary.  We need to be prepared and surround ourselves with people who will encourage us to stay on track.   We need to understand what it is that scares us when we step over that line.  Who are we letting down by changing?  Whose  voices are playing in our heads that tell us not to do it?  But, perhaps most importantly, we need to separate ourselves from the influences of those who can't tolerate our growth. 

My resolution this year is to stretch and grow (not in the waist, please, please!).  Take on new challenges and continue to redefine my passions.  What are yours?  How are you going to find the help to step out of your comfort zone? 

If you're not happy with what you are getting from life, then stop doing what you're doing.  Don't wait for the world to give you value.  You need to create your own value first, then send it out to the world for others to enjoy and benefit from.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Food for Thought (Part 2)

OK, change of plans.  Because I do listen to your comments, after much complaining from some readers for having done my last entry in "parts",  I will desist from turning this topic into a 3-parter (as I had originally planned) and wrap it up in today's post.  I guess some of you get very impatient and hungry for insight.  And, rather than pacing yourselves by enjoying a three-course meal, it seems like you'd rather have it all out - buffet style. 

In the last post we covered the need for Certainty and Uncertainty.  So now, we'll dive right into the first of the final four needs: Significance.

We all want to feel like we matter, right?  The need to stand out and be noticed is primal in nature and starts at a very early age.  If you grew up with siblings (as I did), then you know exactly what I mean.  I could write a whole book on sibling rivalry to illustrate how we all need to feel special and unique, in some way.

Striving for significance serves us well because it encourages us to find ways to achieve new things, or stand out, in our quest for appreciation.  So, "what's the catch," you ask?  There can't possibly be a situation where our search for significance can work against us, right?  Unfortunately, there is.

Remember when we were kids?  In almost every family there was a child who was the star.  You know, the one who did well in school, sports, etc.  Was that you?  Or were you the other one?  The one who got into trouble more often, picking fights, struggling in school, or finding ways to knock the "star" off their pedestal.  In either case, both children were striving for significance.

Fast forward to adulthood, and those negative ways of getting attention, which were learned at an early age, are still alive and kicking.  A typical example could be a co-worker, or a fellow parent on the PTA, who continually complain about their job, or the school, and never have much to say other than how "crappy" everything is.  Yet they stay in the same  job or keep their kids in the same school, finding significance by "sacrificing" themselves and doing everyone else a "favor" by pointing out all the flaws.  The world would come to an end if they weren't there to "inform" - and that is pretty significant, don't you think?

The fourth need is Love/Connection.  This one, I think, is the most obvious.  In my opinion, it's one of the most important ingredients to a happy life.  It is so basic that an infant can actually die if they aren't touched and held - normally referred to as "forming healthy attachments."  It's pretty serious stuff. 

So what happens when we don't form healthy attachments early on in life?  You got it.  We find it very hard to make meaningful connections in our adult lives.  Remember when I talked about manipulation in one of my previous posts?  Well, a manipulator is an example of someone who probably has attachment problems.  Because they don't see themselves as worthy of love (lovable), they fulfill their need for love and connection by dominating others who, in turn, are forced to show appreciation. 

OK, so let's stop and digest for a minute.  The first four needs - Certainty, Uncertainty, Significance and Love - are essential needs for human survival.  They're the needs which feed directly into who we are as people - our personality.

The final two needs, which I'll talk about next, feed our soul (a tad corny, I know, but you'll see what I mean).

The fifth need is Growth.  By the mere fact that we are living creatures, we have no other option but to grow.  In order to keep all the "positive" things in our lives alive (health, relationships, money, happiness),  we must grow.  We grow by educating ourselves, by learning new ways to be better at what we do, by improving our understanding of who we are (like reading this blog - wink, wink), by staying healthy, by traveling, etc.  The list is endless.  And you can breathe easy, there really is no wrong way to grow.  As long as you keep growing.

And finally (still with me?), the sixth ingredient in this pot-luck I call life is : Contribution.  You were probably hoping for something earth-shattering, I know.  But like I said, I try to keep things simple. 

It's important that we all see beyond ourselves and give to others.  We all pick a cause to be a part of, right?  It's our nature to want to give back.  To ensure that when we are gone, we leave a legacy we can feel proud of.  It could be as simple as being the best possible parent so your children remember you as a hero.  Or, perhaps leaving your life savings to a spiritual healer in some back alley in Dubai (though I think your children might be a bit disturbed and eternally pissed off at you for that - but hey, it's your contribution, and they can go find their proof for significance elsewhere, right?).

The key is that no matter what your situation in life, we can all find ways to give back.  Fulfillment being the ultimate goal.  So I ask you: "How do you feel fulfilled"?  If you can't think of one example really quickly, then perhaps it's time to find one.  It's never too late.

It's important to remember that, as with everything in life, we often encounter conflict when meeting these basic needs.  For example, the need for significance is often contradictory to the need for love.  When someone has the need to feel significantly important, it is difficult to love them.  That's why in some cases, people who are highly successful and that have a constant need for significance, have trouble with close relationships and often feel they're not truly loved (the key to your typical Hollywood break-up?).

OK, let's recap.  We all experience these 6 needs in some form or another at any given time.  Though how we meet the needs, both positively or negatively, is different for every person, depending on our life experiences.

So, if you are feeling stuck in your life, or if you are having problems in your relationship, or you are flooded with thoughts that continue to get in the way of your success, perhaps a good place to start is by pinpointing which of these needs may be at the root of your problem. And, of course, by maybe seeking out someone who can help you resolve the conflict.

With that in mind, I bid farewell to 2010.  It's been a great year, filled with changes and surprises.  And I give thanks for having been able to feel:

Certain - that what I am doing in life right now is exactly what I should be doing
Uncertain - knowing that in time, what I "should be doing" will change again
Significant - through your simple words of encouragement
Loved - by my family, who tells me and reminds me each and every day
Growth - by taking on this new challenge of blog writing (which still scares me a bit)
and know that I've
Contributed - by continuing to find foster care children amazing forever homes

Happy Holidays and may 2011 be very generous with all your needs.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Food for Thought - (Part 1)

I'm the kind of person that likes to break things down into smaller, more manageable pieces, in order to make sense of them. Which is probably why I enjoy cooking so much.  I get to combine simple, basic, raw ingredients into one cohesive, complex, yet perfectly balanced finger-licking dish (in theory, at least).  Yet, for some, cooking can be overwhelming.  They take one look at the list of ingredients and immediately give up, thinking: too many steps, too many ingredients, too much work.   I get excited by the challenge.

The same can be said of the work I do with my clients (minus the dirty dishes).  For the most part, we all have complex histories, which, like a recipe, can seem overwhelming and leave us feeling disorganized.   Therefore, finding ways to get to the root of a problem and effecting change can turn out to be a difficult task.  Almost as hard as making mayonnaise from scratch. 

So, how do I put my cooking skills to work in my therapy office?  I work with six basic ingredients, or rather, six basic needs (based on the work of CloĆ© Madanes).  A recipe even the most inexperienced cooks can master.

The first basic need is Certainty.  We all want to be certain that we're safe, healthy, comfortable in our relationship, etc.  Certainty addresses our basic human need to feel secure - having a roof over our heads or knowing we have food on our table.  

It's important to point out, though, that someone who's on unemployment and lives in a one bedroom apartment can feel just as satisfied as someone who needs to make a million dollars a year to feel secure.  So, before you start judging "crazy" uncle George for living in a mountain cabin, with his three goats and existing on cheese alone, first ask yourself..."Is he happy?"   We all need some level of certainty in our lives, but what constitutes certainty for one person may be very different for another.

So, how does our need for certainty become a problem?  When it negatively affects other parts of our life.  For example, a workaholic who is never home, is always tired and finds no time for his or her family,  perhaps has gone too far in the quest for security.  As a result, the excessive need  for certainty has now reaped more severe consequences.  In this case it might be marital problems or the use of drugs to keep up with the demands.  Remember, you can only whip cream so long before it turns into butter. 

The second need is Uncertainty.  I know, it's confusing.  How can we throw Certainty and Uncertainty into the same pot?  It's like  oil and water; they don't mix.  Well, in this case, they do.  Though rather than mix, they complement each other.  

Uncertainty refers to the need we have for variety and challenges in our life.  We all need some level of suspense and surprise to feel invigorated, right?   Life would be very boring if not.  Like wondering if my souffle will cave in when I take it out of the oven...the tension is unbearable...yet thrilling.

For the most part, we choose healthy ways to meet the need for uncertainty.   Engaging in sports or investing in stocks, for example.  Here in Los Angeles, it's often performing and the excitement of  being on a stage that fulfills that need.

As with Certainty,  we encounter problems when the thrill-seeking affects us negatively.  We may find ourselves engaging in compulsive sexual behavior, gambling, stealing, speeding, etc.  You get the picture, right? 

In a nutshell (almond, pecan, macadamia, whichever), by identifying which of these six basic needs a problem is rooted in, you're one step closer to finding a solution. 

"But wait!" you say.  "Those were only two needs and you said there were six!"  You're right.  But you'll have to wait until my next post.  Who knew that reading my blog on a weekly basis would fulfill your need for "certainty"?  You see, now you have one less thing to worry about.

Friday, November 12, 2010

No Strings Attached

Are you a people pleaser?  To a certain extent, there's nothing wrong with that.  We've all done things for others we didn't really feel like doing, right?   For example, taken on extra work to help out a co-worker,  canceled a night out with friends because our spouse didn't feel like going, or succumbed to another Sunday dinner at our parents' house, even though we swore last weekend would be our last overcooked brisket for a while.

It's natural to want to please.  It makes us feel good when we give without expecting anything in return; the quintessential "pat on the back."

But what happens when we have a moment of clarity and realize that we've crossed that thin line?  That we find ourselves becoming involved, or perhaps knee deep already, in a relationship that does nothing but suck the life out of us while giving nothing in return?   Well, you're either involved with a vampire (which seems to be in vogue these days) or  you're tangled in the web of a manipulator.  Either way, you might be in trouble.

Manipulation according to the dictionary is: exerting shrewd or devious influence, especially for one's own advantage.   Manipulators can only survive by constantly inflating their own ego.  And to do so, they must fill themselves up with a sense of dominance by exerting power over someone who can be easily influenced.

What's interesting about manipulation is that we see it happening from early childhood all the way through adulthood.  It's common on school playgrounds, though at this stage we call it peer pressure.  In college settings, we see it in some fraternities, when young people are manipulated into engaging in degrading or demeaning acts just for the sake of belonging.  And by the time we are adults, we can find it in any number of work relationships - or even in our own families. 

So what qualities in personality make you an easy target?  There are quite a few, but the one I encounter the most in my practice is the need for approval.  At the core of this need is a disproportionate fear of rejection, abandonment or criticism.  The manipulator feeds on this need, creating a dependence.  By giving  the victim what they crave and then threatening to take it away, they create a similar dynamic to that of a junkie and a dealer.

Now maybe that's a dark analogy to use, but the truth is, this habit can be just as hard to break as a drug addiction.  I'm sure that if you think hard enough, you've witnessed these types of dynamics, leaving you perplexed as to why a person remains in such a relationship.  It's actually much more prevalent than you might think.

Depression or anxiety are common byproducts of manipulation, eventually taking a toll on a person's emotions and well-being.  But it's these symptoms that will hopefully motivate a person to seek help.

You might not be surprised to hear that in all the years I've been practicing, I've never had a manipulator come in asking for help on how to stop this controlling habit.  It's always the receiver, or victim, that musters up the courage to ask for help.  And more often than not, they are unaware of the effect the manipulator is having on them.

One tell-tale sign is when a client tells me they're keeping the therapy a secret.  That they are looking for ways to become a better partner, or a more caring daughter or a more efficient employee, to name a few.   With couples, another sign is when a partner goes out of their way to say things like, " I'm here for you - I want to help you get better," taking no ownership or responsibility for their contribution to the crisis at hand.

I wish there was a quick fix to this type of relationship.   Breaking the cycle of manipulation is extremely hard.  It involves changing personality traits which are deeply entrenched and often too scary to confront.  But above all, what we need when we find ourselves in this position, is courage.  The courage to confront our fears.   The courage to cut the strings and find our freedom.   And if things don't get better, the courage to walk away.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

On The Road Again

A common predictor of a successful relationship is the ability to be open to the other person's influences.    By this I don't mean being weak, easily swayed or  allowing yourself to be controlled.  But rather, the ability to remain open to new input, expanding your view of the world  and not being threatened by new information that may alter the familiar road map you use to get through life.

This applies to any setting, such as work, extended family and friends, and, of course, your love interest.  Though I'll focus on love, as that's what most of you read the blog for, right?

In the early stages of a relationship, we deal with uncharted territory.  It can be very scary, especially if we've been down this road before, unsuccessfully.   Yet, once again, we climb aboard, check our rear-view mirror, fasten our seat belt and gingerly step on the gas, hoping for a smooth ride. 

Aretha Franklin said it best: :

We got some places to see
I brought all the maps with me
So jump right in...Ain't no sin
Take a ride in my machine

As we merge together into this "Freeway of Love," we are forced to blend two different world visions into one coherent, integrated road map.  In a perfect world, we're able to find common ground and, over time, develop a new map that represents the world we want to build together, as a new couple.

Unfortunately, that's not always the case.  Some people are unable, or unwilling, to let go of their road maps out of fear of losing control.  Perhaps it's their first time driving.  Perhaps they've had one too many crashes on that dangerous "freeway" and this time, they will do all the driving, damn it!

Regardless of the reason, this lack of openness automatically eliminates any chance of creating the shared values that are going to increase the chances of having a successful relationship.  And that unwillingness, more often than not, gets couples into trouble and into my office. 

The underlying message is usually, "It's my way or the highway."  That, above all else, being "right" is most important.   Time spent in therapy often involves finding different ways to justify our position,  new ways of proving we're right and trying different tactics to make the other person give in.

Eventually, when an impasse has been reached, I ask the question: "Is it more important to be right or to keep the relationship?"  It forces one to project beyond the present, beyond the conflict at hand and evaluate the overall impact the other person can have in our life.  Positive or negative.

Regardless of what the argument is and whether everyone we've asked agrees with our point of view, we still have to face the reality that we've reached a fork in the road.

If we conclude that the relationship is unhealthy or toxic, then by all means we should choose to be right.  Forget the fork, make a U-turn, take out our GPS and find the quickest route home. 

But if we decide that the relationship is worth fighting for, that the good outweighs the difficult, then we need to take a step back and accept that being right is ultimately not the most important goal.   It's not about being right, but rather about being heard, validated and aknowledged.  When we only leave room for being right, we close ourselves off from growing and improving who we are.  And who knows, maybe we'll even discover new and exciting pit-stops along the way that we hadn't considered stopping at before.  It's OK to take the scenic route.

The trip we choose to take won't be any fun if the copilot we've chosen for our life trip is not able to partake in the choosing of the destination.  If we're not willing to share the driving, then we'll eventually fall asleep at the wheel.  And when we wake up, we may find ourselves in the middle of nowhere, trying to retrace our steps, wondering how the hell we got there.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

A Penny For Your Thoughts

A few years back, when I put my private practice on hold to stay home as a full time parent, I occasionally found myself engaging in a conversation like this:

Me: It's a boy!
Them: Congratulations!
Me: Thanks, we're so happy.
Them: So, what are you going to do now?
Me: Well, I've decided to stay home full time.  Take 3 years off, or so.
(Pregnant pause - slight tilt of the head - confusion)
Them: OK, yes, but what are you going to do?
Me: You know, um...stay home, change diapers, go to the park, nap when he naps, whatever.
(Cricket sounds)
Them: (somewhat frustrated) No, but really, what are you going to do for work?

You see where this is going, right?

For some people, it just doesn't compute that someone (especially a male) would abdicate their position of perceived "power" in the relationship by not contributing to the household income.  Yet, others were very supportive and didn't skip a beat when they learned of my plans.  Ultimately, it all came down to each person's individual attitude about money.

Fact - Money is the number one trigger for relationship problems in the US.  Yes, it is.  Even more than sex.  How can it be more than sex, you say?  Well, there are probably different reasons, but I think one major factor is that most people learn about their partner's sexual prowess (or lack thereof) early on.  Allowing them to make an informed decision before they tie the knot.  Just like test driving a car, more or less.

On the other hand, money and finances (total buzz kill) get swept under the rug.  Resulting in one of the biggest lies we tell ourselves - money isn't going to be a problem.  Unless you're Suze Ormon (you really should look her up if you don't know who she is), a spread sheet can become the biggest turn-off in any courtship.  If you bring up money perhaps you'll be labeled a  "gold digger" or a "blood sucker" or my personal favorite, a "forty-niner."  And, because nobody likes to be called names, we just avoid the topic all together.  Bad idea. 

Research shows that for the most part, we develop values and behaviors about finances from a very young age.  For example, if someone grew up during the great depression vs. a time of economic growth, understandably, the attitudes around money will be very different.  Attitudes that tend to be deeply imprinted.

So, before you ask your blind date for a copy of their tax return and their 401k, perhaps you should ask yourself some of the following questions so you can be clear on what your own beliefs in the matter are:

What did money mean to my family growing up?
Did my family always have enough? Did we struggle?
Were there ever lies about money?
Was there shame or envy about money?
Was money used as a way to control or manipulate?
Who took care of finances in the family and what role did others family members play when it came time to making decisions?

Liza was right: Money makes the world go around. And because it does, when two people who have different beliefs and expectations around money come together, it is of most importance that these differences get ironed out early on. 

Every relationship is an investment.  We invest emotions.  We invest time.  We invest energy.  Yet, we don't invest in figuring out how we're going to deal with money - and that may ultimately be the most  important investment of all. And doing it, wont cost you a penny.