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.