February 27, 2023

The parent gap

Lately I’ve been talking with several patients about their relationship with parents. Let me say that these are people well into adulthood, some with adult children of their own. They are asking me when, if ever, their parents—who are nearing retirement—will consider them to be grown up. These are professional folks, with good jobs and mortgages and all the trappings, but their parents still do not see them as capable of conducting their own lives.

To give a somewhat generalized example of what I mean: imagine a guy, late forties, divorced and successfully sharing custody of two middle school kids. He is confounded by the extent to which his 75-year-old mother will go to find out whether, when, and whom he is dating. Or think about the individual who finds notes all over her apartment–left while she’s at work by her well-meaning parents–giving instructions for laundering certain items, and for managing the cat’s litter box.

It’s hard to say whether this is something that has always happened between generations, but I don’t think it’s been quite like this. I’m at something of a loss to explain it, but I have my guesses: First, we’re all on sensory overload. There is more to pay attention to, and a whole lot of stimuli coming at us from all directions, all the time. When the human brain has a lot of new information to process, what happens? Anxiety goes up. Stress goes up. And, we know that when stress increases, humans will do what they can to manage that stress. We all seek some control over our environment, and in times of high anxiety, let’s just say we redouble our efforts. And we probably make mistakes.

So, I think stress and sensory overload are playing a part in the difficulties between adult generations, but there’s more to it than that. What does it mean to transition from being in a parent-child relationship, to a point where we are adults together? What would that look like? Hanging out at the local pub for beers together? Does it all come down to gathering for holiday meals without a squabble? Maybe that’s all it ever gets to be, but I’ve seen it blossom into something terrific, too. In those cases, the successful transition from a parent-child relationship to an adult-to-adult affiliation seems to have benefitted from a measure of wisdom on the part of all concerned.

I have to say that, for children, and even teenagers, it is hard to accurately imagine what the reality of being “grown up” will be like. But for parents, it should be somewhat easier because they have already traveled that terrain. The wise parent will recall feeling ready for more independence than the world is ready to grant, and will create opportunities for their children to take safe steps toward future adult choices. Whether that is in helping the 8-year-old establish (and manage) a passbook savings account, or the 12-year-old to plan and prepare meals for the family, offering chances to develop skills in a supportive environment lays groundwork for the eventual transition. Knowing that mistakes will happen the wise parent keeps in mind that, if handled skillfully, those mistakes will determine what is learned from them. In other words, is the child learning not to take on new responsibilities because the punishment for error is too harsh? Maybe mistakes teach the growing child that it’s safe to own up to insecurities, or that there’s no shame in asking for help.  Though it’s almost never spelled out explicitly, in all of our relationships, others are teaching us what is important to them, and we are teaching them how much we are willing to do to meet their needs and expectations.

I’ve described ways that parents can potentially help children build the skills of independence, and suggested that doing so might lead to more congenial adult interaction as time goes by, but what about those patients coming into my office at 40 years of age (or more) whose parent(s) continue to instruct, direct and command every detail of existence? The time for gradual increments of independence has come and gone. The parent who stubbornly remains in an attitude of parenting an adult “child” who has long since left the nest, is missing out on a great opportunity! My patients tell me that the over involved parents’ argument is: “I only bug you because if I don’t you’ll just keep messing up your life like you always have. What do you want me to do, let you ____ (fill in the blank)?

When I hear the hurt and frustration this causes, the best thing I can suggest is this: write a letter. As uncommon as letter-writing is today, it has great advantages over more rapid communications. For one thing, a letter writer has the option of tearing up the first tries at correspondence–you can start it over a dozen times until you get it right. I advise setting it aside to consider further before sending, too. Then, it can help to confer with a trusted friend to be sure every word is exactly what is meant, and then using the very nicest stationery to increase the importance of the message. For sure, the element of surprise is on the side of the letter writer–nobody writes letters any more, so there is an element of curiosity and interest as it comes through the door. On attractive paper, written with care—a mailed letter draws attention and clarity that almost guarantee it will be read more than once, and will be given serious consideration.

The letter I suggest is not to complain about past treatment or to demand something different. Why go to the trouble of re-starting arguments that have been held face-to-face over the years? No, this is a letter of assurance and affection. It is meant to explain what might develop under a different kind of circumstances. Writing something like, “I can imagine us enjoying some of the things I normally do with my friends: exercise class, or seeing a movie.” And it takes some of the responsibility for doing things differently. It conveys understanding about how all of us get into habits and  patterns of behavior that outlive their usefulness. Something like, “Because I have kids of my own, it’s easy to understand how reminding and correcting becomes a habit for parents, and because I want the best for my kids, I can see that’s what you want for me, too.” But, the letter needs to set a boundary as well. The specific topic or behavior the letter writer is hoping to address will need to be spelled out. A scatter-gun approach or laundry list of grievances is counterproductive. Choosing one item (or maybe two related) is most likely to get the point across. It might go something like this: “As much as I love you, the topic of _______ is closed for discussion. I will make many mistakes in life, and hope to learn from them when I do, but I need to figure some things out for myself without your help or intervention. I’m asking you to respect my choices even when you don’t understand or agree with them. When (behavior/topics) comes up, I’m going to remind you that this is an area I’m handling on my own. If that doesn’t end the discussion, I will leave. I don’t want to leave angry, or stay gone forever. I just want things to change for the better between us. If you’re in my home, I’ll remind you that we need to change the subject, or I’ll have to ask you to leave. Over time, I think setting a boundary on this tough topic will create a new habit for both of us, and we will settle into a more comfortable adult relationship.”

This kind of letter needs to emphasize the hope of a relationship that the parent(s) will enjoy more, with less tension or more contact, whatever has been missing from their point of view. 

In addition to the advantages for the letter-writer, the recipient also benefits: there is opportunity to read and re-read a letter, take time to really digest the meaning, to recognize the loving phrases of the letter, and to think about how to respond without the pressure of a face-to-face conversation. A snail mail letter means there’s no instant “hit reply” option as exists with text or email. Mistakes are less likely, any hurt or annoyance can dissipate before the next interaction. Often, though the recipient may experience some rejection, or feel scolded by receiving this kind of letter, it leaves time for reflection, and for adult wisdom to surface. Everyone benefits from having the space to reduce the immediacy of emotions, and decide what kind of future they want with people who are important to them.

We have to remember that times catches up to all of us eventually, and there may come a day when aging parents begin to feel that the shoe is on the other foot, so to speak. They might begin to feel hemmed in by those same adult children who think it’s time to take away the car keys, or that Mom shouldn’t be living alone anymore. I’ll have to ponder that… Stay tuned.

Posted in: General @ 2:16 pm

November 16, 2020

Can You Adapt?

One of the hallmarks of mental health and emotional well-being is to be able to recognize the need to change one’s mind, or do something differently than before. It’s not always easy or quick, especially when emergent circumstances dramatically change what’s required. But the ability to be flexible and to see change as necessary—or possible—is a skill that can be developed.

Homo Sapiens have lasted as long as we have on planet Earth, by paying attention to signals of danger in our surroundings. Early humans who were casual about saber-toothed tigers aren’t with us anymore. They didn’t survive long enough to become our ancestors. As modern humans, we’re cued to notice differences in our environments, because in our predecessors’ times, those were harbingers of danger. These days we don’t necessarily perceive everything that’s new as a hazard. For example, a new car is seen as exciting. A new romantic relationship is perceived for its tantalizing possibilities. With that said, your brain’s ability to notice what is different goes back to a time when a new experience meant potential danger. You may have noticed that it doesn’t take long before a new car looks dangerous only to your bank balance—then, poof! The car itself no longer registers as new. In other words, the sooner we move from seeing a change as a threat—to autonomy, safety, freedom or ego—the sooner we can begin to make sense of the changed circumstance.

The trouble comes, of course, when a situation arises that we don’t like, and worse yet, if it’s a situation we cannot control. We resist! We push back out of fear, or inconvenience, and we get angry. Sometimes a circumstance requires so much new thinking, and is so overwhelming, it seems that adapting to it means to “give in or give up”. I’ve seen that reaction when one member of a household declares they’ve become vegetarian. I have observed it when a spouse admits an affair. The newness of the situation need not be drastic or unusual: I’ve seen strong reactions when the youngest child started kindergarten. Whenever a situation seems impossible, outrageous, or just plain painful, we are likely to resist understanding it—for a while. Sometimes, for a very long while. The situation feels so wrong that it’s difficult for a new reality to penetrate that resistance. New information seems to do no good; seeing others accept the new circumstance doesn’t help; and, resistance may drive the belief that it’s possible to “turn things around”—just go back to the way things were before. I’ve seen that response to requests that we wear face coverings during the pandemic. In the extreme, this kind of resistance takes one outside the realm of reality. When change is inevitable, it is usually best to get on with it: let go of the battle, drop the struggle, find a point of calm in the storm and move along.

However, just for a moment, please consider things that we must never accommodate: Domestic violence, child abuse, racial injustice, workplace harassment, sexual exploitation—these should never be tolerated. We should never get comfortable with conditions that are inexcusable. But the mind has an uncanny irrational way of framing up personal bias, preference or an inconvenience as something that must be opposed!

For myself, it feels reasonable to cultivate as much calm as possible, so that changing times don’t toss me around too much emotionally. Calling the right mental images to mind is helpful in that regard: I occasionally picture a gymnast, or maybe an Olympic diver. I think of the agility and discipline of their craft. I imagine how each muscle has been toned and strengthened so that it responds perfectly to command. These athletes appear poised, graceful, ready. They have trained themselves to remain very still, or to make fluid movements toward a purposeful goal. They are in control of the space inside their heads. Their narrow focus is not on the outer world, but rather on the specific and precise movements—or stillness—required in the moment. When I picture myself to be similarly poised—mentally and emotionally at least—I feel able to capably move in the directions required by a new situation.

Whether the pandemic is an unbelievable hoax, or an existential threat, thinking about it definitely stimulates emotion. Anger for some, anxiety for others. Simply recognizing thoughts and emotions that come and go as we encounter the inconveniences and perturbations of this time can be a reminder of the need to become like trained athletes, mentally if not physically. Slowing down, taking a measured approach to information, recognizing the implications of any action—all can be useful. When I vigorously challenge my own gut reactions, I’m able to look beyond unfounded opinions and sound bites. I’m more likely to be mentally and emotionally agile, ready to assume a new role, take a new stance, to move quickly when necessary or to stand very still, depending on what the particular situation requires. A gymnast poised on the balance beam, a ballet dancer en pointe, a diver on the high board—every image conveys discipline and mental readiness.

Calling on images of gymnasts and divers, tightrope walkers and even yoga masters, I’m able to think more clearly about two seemingly opposite mental states—the narrow focus and the big picture. I’m able to see how important it is to maintain a wide perspective on the circumstance, while being specific and precise in what I do. Most important, it allows me to adjust to what is happening without causing greater distress or harm—to myself or to others.

Posted in: General @ 1:21 pm

We Need to Find The Positive

An acquaintance of mine called recently. We talked awhile as usual about various things related to her work and mine, and then she laughingly blurted out her concern that she might be “going bonkers” due to the isolation of her working-from-home status. She realized that, within the past couple of months, she had begun talking through her work related issues—alone and aloud. She was quick to point out that she “always made sure the cat was in the room” so that she wasn’t really talking to herself!

We chatted about some of our observations during these months of altered social experience, and ended up laughing at similarities in our personal concessions to isolation. Admitting that I’ve overheard my wife chatting with herself—allowed my friend to realize it’s not so unusual. We are social beings. We rely on one another for feedback and a better understanding of the world. In a time when a lot of people are working from home, we aren’t getting that—at least we aren’t getting that in ways we’re accustomed to—and it gives us more than a little sense that we’re “going bonkers”. My wife tells me some of her best ideas come from listening as she talks to herself. I know she seems to do it a lot, if that tells anything!

Those of us working from home have made some adjustments to accomplish that challenge. But not everyone is fortunate enough to be working from home. Our health care workers, sanitation and city utility workers, the people keeping our grocery stores and take-out restaurants running—they are all out there on the front lines. These workers, too, have made adjustments (some enormously difficult) related to the Covid-19 pandemic. The mask, whether you love them or hate them, has become part of almost every interpersonal interaction. Social distance—again, whether you practice distancing or not—has changed life for us in the United States. In jobs performed outdoors, with few colleagues or public contact, maybe there is some question about whether any Covid precautions are necessary at all. But with all types of situations, there are considerations related to the spread of this virus. Even for people who say they are completely unconcerned, there are others who love them and are worried for their safety.

These are just facts. Some of us are not worried, others are. The relative degree of concern varies widely, too. Some of us are out in the public with serious risks of exposure and others have been ordered, or given the option, to work from home. With each circumstance and level of caution, individuals undergo the very normal discomforts of adjusting to something new.

Humans are incredibly adaptable. We live in temperature conditions that range from below zero to over 120 degrees. We adapt and thrive in situations as different as the density of Mumbai, India and the sparseness of the Australian Outback. However, these adaptations did not occur suddenly, without warning. Humans can adapt to just about any circumstance, but many adjustments take time.

I’m advising my patients who feel a little bonkers right now to consider the times they made changes to accommodate some kind of new circumstance. This means calling to mind our “skills of resilience” and examining the entire range of emotions and behaviors available. I remember when I moved away to attend college, and the first months of married life. These were fun and exciting times of adaptation, but they required deliberate effort nonetheless. Something that sounds as simple as a change in commuting time can necessitate enormous changes in the life of a family. The birth of a child occasions a lot of adjustment for new parents. A serious medical condition, changes due to aging—these are situations that we face, and require us to shift or adapt in some way. But we do it. We accept the reality, we adjust, we adapt, and we change.

Many individuals I’ve talked to over the past months have been able to find a benefit to their altered situation during the pandemic. Let me go back to that sentence to emphasize the key words—find a benefit. Before I stress that point further, let me say that these people aren’t in particularly advantageous positions. But unlike some of us, they have deliberately looked for ways to view the constraints of the pandemic in semi-temporary terms, or in terms of what they can look forward to when it ends. Others have viewed the pandemic as an opportunity to learn something, or to have more intimate time with members of their household. They have searched for the good in a tough situation. They reinforce my contention (and that of scientific researchers) that whatever circumstance comes along, our best chance of adjusting and becoming more comfortable, will be gained by finding a benefit, and reminding ourselves of that benefit. If I note only the challenges and negatives, the adjustment will ultimately feel much more uncomfortable. If I search for the potential benefits and positives of a new situation, and remind myself of them on a repeated basis, I experience a greater sense of control over my altered reality.

As much as I would like to host large gatherings in my home, or attend important public or private ceremonies with extended family and friends, I am reminding myself that even in this time of isolation from loved ones, I am able to connect and share significant moments with them in other ways. I’m grateful for the technology that allows face-to-face conversations over great distances, and the speed of written communication by text and email.

As a quick aside, I was reminded recently about one of my great grandfathers, and the courage of his decision to leave Norway on the perilous journey to North America. In the late 1870s, when he embarked from his home country, it was an almost undeniable certainty that he would never again see parents, siblings or familiar surroundings. The letters sent back and forth across the Atlantic took weeks to arrive, photographs were a rarity meant only for formal occasions, and the miracle of home telephones were many decades away. I have thought of his parents, and what must have been their experience, saying goodbye to their son, not quite out of his teens, as he boarded a ship for an unknowable future.

We are not facing adjustments of that kind today. We are not asked to never see family members again, or to ponder their fates for weeks or months between letters. Our inconveniences and challenges are different. They are surmountable if we use the skills we’ve developed so far, and remind ourselves of any benefits or nuances that can be deemed positives in this new circumstance. Benefit finding, and reminding, result in gratitude, and everything goes better with that.

Posted in: General @ 1:18 pm

April 2, 2020

Getting–and holding onto a new perspective

Not long ago, I was invited to the home of a couple I’d only recently met. I received somewhat complicated directions that required me to travel to an area not more than a few miles from my home, but completely unfamiliar to me. A series of turns quickly took me from city streets to a county road, and from there, onto a rural lane that steeply angled up a verdant hill. In a matter of ten minutes I went from a flat and tree-lined suburban neighborhood, to pine-dotted rolling hills with houses spaced a mile or more apart. Abruptly, the gently sloping roadway became a sharp climb for more than half a mile leading to the completely level driveway outside the home of this new acquaintance.

The home was modest, the other invited guests were interesting and congenial, but the real draw of the evening was the view. Floor to ceiling windows offered a panoramic look at green fields and a small orchard near the base of this peak, a wandering highway and country houses in the middle distance. A sweep of forest interrupted narrow swaths of hay ground, and acres of pasture. Rectangular golden patches, set at intervals across it all were fields of wheat awaiting harvest. It reminded me of the way Google Earth provides a look at places I will never visit in person—and yet, I had traveled through that same area only minutes before—without seeing it at all. I was getting a new perspective.

I offer this lengthy explanation of traveling fewer than ten miles in order to illustrate how utterly different things can look from a new vantage point. Taking in the sights from that wall of tall windows, I realized that my perspective had been small while down on the highway, but had been suddenly expanded and lengthened in ways that caused me to wonder what else I might be missing from the closed in view “below”. While on the hilltop, I could recognize a few individual locations—a singular barn close to the road, for example—but in one glance I was aware of hundreds of points that I had completely failed to see before. From the high ground, I became aware of the way the terrain changed from one section to another, and how they connected at fence rows or diverged along small streams—I had missed all that in passing. Up close, I saw individual scenes, but from the high ground, it was a singular, consecutive and understandable landscape.

Being at this elevated location brought with it an insight that should have been obvious from any location, but the physical experience was an illustration that could not be missed. I recognized that life can be looked at as individual situations, problems, relationships in the same way that I passed through neighborhoods, country roads and lanes. With the help of a more philosophical view, life can be seen more as an understandable landscape that has discrete but interconnected parts, in much the same way the unobstructed vista became understandable from the hilltop. Of course, in this time of pandemic crisis, I am focused like everyone else on issues of safety and health. I tune in to be more proactive in my response to the outbreak. Those are the lowland, individual views of life right now. But I also have the option of looking at it all through the perspective of higher ground—a philosophical view that is not quite so constricted, specific or scary. 

Like that wall of windows offering a view that stretched for miles—if I slow my thoughts and fears long enough to allow it—I can see how staying at home, social distancing, and giving greater attention to cleaning, is but one portion of the landscape of my life. The high ground perspective lets me see more. I might even perceive little perks available right now: an extra hour of sleep maybe, or the joy in video chatting with a friend. I can take the perspective that this is like camping (without, I’m glad to say, insects, sleeping on hard ground or cooking over a fire). I am doing many ordinary activities but doing them in an alternative place, and doing them in an unfamiliar way. When I think of it like this, I feel more in control and sense the flexibility I have to manage the situation. It leaves me free to recall other times when I’ve faced challenges, or dealt with the emotions that go with being in unfamiliar circumstances. 

I can’t control the virus, or the news reports about it. I can’t control how stores will address the need for various products, or keep my neighbor from buying ten times what he needs. But I can create reminders for myself that life is bigger than this moment, bigger than this month or even this one year. I have begun silently repeating to myself the phrase, “Look out a bigger window,” as a way to focus my thoughts on something outside myself, bigger than my own concerns, longer lasting and maybe more philosophical than what is right in front of us. From that perspective, I can relax a bit. I’m not in denial of the danger or devastation, but I am seeing more of the expansive landscape of living.  

Posted in: General @ 12:01 am

April 1, 2020

Looking at a new normal – #2

In my office, I frequently have a patient relate to me that their spouse or partner has recently retired, and without meaning to be sexist in this matter, let me say that it’s usually women who tell me about this. With more time in the home, this newly retired partner becomes interested in the operation of the household, maybe for the first time in their many years together. While a routine has been established, or a series of routines, to accomplish things around the home, all of a sudden, the recent retiree is on hand to make suggestions for how things might be done differently. He (and it is often “he”) steers the planning of menus, commandeers the kitchen, or submits ideas for activities that disrupt the “normal flow” for the partner who has spent more time organizing the household. These are done with the most generous of intentions, but I’m told this is, well—it’s disorienting, and sometimes frustrating, for most of them.

Enough people have mentioned it that I know it is a common experience, and I was thinking about this phenomenon as so many people are working from home—or out of work due to company closures—during the pandemic. If you live with another adult it is likely that new frustrations and conflicts will arise, and all I can say is, “It’s great preparation for retirement!”

As early requests for social distancing gave way to more restrictive mandates to “stay home, remain inside, discontinue gathering in groups,” we are interacting more closely with the members of our immediate household. Anxiety about potential avenues of contamination increase the tensions we experience. Adjusting to actual retirement will not have the added challenge of dealing with a dangerous virus, but it’s certain there will be issues and obstacles to face then, too. With hopes that our days and weeks of self-quarantine will offer opportunities for closeness with our loved ones, I began to think of ways to smooth out the inevitable bumps in the road that households will encounter.

For suggestions, I find myself turning to psychologists John and Julie Gottman of Seattle. Over the past four decades, skill-based books and workshops by the Gottmans have gained international praise. There’s no exploration of childhood, or years of psychoanalysis, with the Gottmans. Anyone can make productive use of their commonsense suggestions. They have researched and written about ideas and behaviors that we can all use, especially during the close confinement we’re experiencing now.

In general, it comes down to taking personal responsibility, whether we are living with a spouse, a roommate, or with children. In any new and disconcerting situation, there will be times of conflict or irritation. Recognizing that these times are only natural, it’s possible to learn simple skills for getting back on track more quickly when they do happen. And, please note that when I say, “simple” that does not always mean “easy.”

1. I have to be responsible for myself. I can change only my own behavior. I can communicate only for myself and commit to my own changes in attitude. 

2. I can view the other persons in my household for the wonderful human beings that they are. Of course they make mistakes, of course they screw up from time to time. But if I remind myself often of their very best attributes, and the qualities of character that I love about them, it will be easier to deal fairly and reasonably with them in times of stress.

3. A nugget of pure Gottman gold can be found in the skill of “repair attempts” after you’ve gotten off track with someone else. Sometimes it takes a few minutes, maybe even an hour, to slow your thinking and your heart rate, after an unpleasant interaction with a family member, but then what? Do you sulk, give the silent treatment, or mentally develop ways to continue the argument? The Gottmans offer numerous ways to repair relationships that have been interrupted by conflict, the simplest is with a gentle statement, “I’d like to get back on track with you”.

This kind of opening statement is often enough to have family members turning toward one another in renewed affection. To offer apology, or admit that you haven’t listened, or maybe didn’t communicate well, can be a big help, too. 

It’s important that I offer this reminder however: recognize that the valuable, kind human you have approached for relationship repair has been dealing with her/his own anxieties and burdens of care during this unusual period of isolation. It’s possible that more than one repair attempt will be needed. Giving the benefit of the doubt is more warranted than ever right now. If, later in the day, you find a quiet moment to ask, “Will you tell me about what this has been like for you? Are there concerns you haven’t been able to talk about with me?” Sharing your hopes and dreams with your partner is a relationship builder under any circumstance, but it may also be worthwhile to speak about what you most fear or have doubts about. And these suggestions are not limited to conversations between spouses—not at all. While parents won’t want to discuss concerns that might alarm children, it’s certainly helpful to talk about how unusual the situation is, and model appropriate ways to express feelings. 

With the continuing message to “stay home, stay healthy,” we face—as in all new and demanding circumstances—the possibility of finding a silver lining. By deliberately slowing down to look for the ways this situation brings out strengths of character or new avenues for communication, we will do better now, and emerge in better shape as this crisis resolves.

A note on resources: John and Julie Gottman’s work is available online through booksellers and libraries, as well as in articles and a few television segments. I recommend their work, particularly for couples, but the suggestions are widely appropriate, and are easily understood by everyone. You can learn more on their website at https://www.gottman.com 

Posted in: General @ 2:15 pm

March 31, 2020

Looking at a new normal – #1

Whether it’s the unsettling experience of divorce, job loss, or even the joy of welcoming a new baby to the family, when circumstances change, we all go through moments of frustration and a sense of “hey! Wait a minute—this isn’t how it’s supposed to be!”

And so it is with the novel Corona virus known as CoVid-19. As I write this, we are mere weeks into the news reports of serious illness close to home, so the situation has not yet settled into something we might call a new normal. It is still very much—pun intended—up in the air. We are asked, urged, mandated even, to remain at home, to keep distance from others, to wash our hands. Let’s face it, this feels awful.

While I consider myself to be a bit of a news junkie most of the time, I’m finding it useful to step away from that these days. Reports of illness, deaths, the many and varied reports of testing stations, mask and ventilator shortages, become repetitive and frustrating. For me, it’s been better to use my time to focus on what I CAN do right now.

As a college instructor, of course, there are online classes to prepare for and evaluations for students who are just completing the last quarter’s classes. It’s tax season, too, and there are things to be done with that in mind, even considering the delayed filing date. And when my tax paperwork is in order, my home office is sure to have fallen into some disarray. I can organize. It would be an unusual household that didn’t have at least one small project waiting for the time to attend to it. 

However, it’s not the lack of little projects, or for want of a challenging task to complete, that has us feeling out of sync. We all have plenty of things awaiting our hands and the time necessary for completion, but right now, most of us aren’t feeling the motivation to move forward. In many homes, it is difficult to gather the energy to do even enjoyable activities. It’s as if we are in a state of suspended animation.

Roy Baumeister—one of my research heroes—wrote very powerfully about self-regulation in his book Willpower, published with science writer John Tierney. Generally, we think of willpower and self-regulation as the ability to limit what we do. We regulate calorie intake, or alcohol consumption, we use willpower to limit the amount of time we spend sitting in front of the TV—so naturally we think of self-regulation as restrictive. But Baumeister would remind us that self-regulation is useful in motivating positive behaviors as well. There is no more important time to recognize the need for specific action than when circumstances change in ways that bring confusion, frustration and anxiety. I’m curbing my impulse to run to the store for this or that right now—I’m restricting myself to home. But I’m also using Baumeister’s thoughts on willpower to motivate healthy new behaviors that might prove to be habits I’ll keep even after the virus has resolved.

For the most part, the willpower required these days is what I’d call attitudinal. In other words, motivating myself to maintain a positive outlook, to refuse to be drawn into catastrophic thinking or being discouraged that it is “taking so long” to resolve. There are plenty of resources and strategies available to distract me or boost my mood, including funny movies, good books, and online interactions with companionable others. In fact, keeping in touch with friends and family via FaceTime and Skype might be among the best ways to maintain a positive perspective these days. With so many working from home, we may feel too busy to keep outside family connections alive, but this is where willpower comes in. It is important to actively use the available technology to reach out to those who are alone, or who may be in need of encouragement. The great bonus is that this kind of outreach benefits the ones who make the calls as well.  

Too often, people focus on how long this isolation will be required, or on the events and associations that are being missed. Creating motivation to look at what can be comforting, enjoyable, or what might be accomplished now, is essential to getting through this experience. It may be necessary to consider building a routine of connections with people that you’d normally see, as well as with those you haven’t heard from in a while. Recalling good memories of times shared in the past will go a long way to fill your need for connections. Knowing that it takes specific intention to make this happen, you might have to create a list and set aside time to call others. If this period of isolation continues months rather than weeks, it will require new attitudes and actions from all of us, and that might take a bit of willpower.

Posted in: General @ 2:11 pm

March 5, 2019

Being Less Wrong

Lately I’ve been thinking about how wrong people are. I’m only partly joking about that because what I really mean is that I have been thinking about how wrong I can be at times. Last year I recall my wife was listening to an audiobook in the car and I happened to spend five or ten minutes riding with her—just long enough to hear the narrator read a paragraph that included the phrase, “I don’t know.” What blew me away was the author’s assertion that it has become almost a crime in our society to say, “I don’t know” when asked a question. We demean or dismiss the individual who cannot definitively answer a question, but expresses doubt or uncertainty. Hearing just that snippet from this audiobook has given rise to hours of thought and self-examination.

The fact is, I don’t know much about a lot of things. And, as I’ve mentioned, my latest goal of “being less wrong” makes me aware of not wanting to guess at, or (as my wife would say) “bloviate about” various topics. This leaves me saying, “I don’t know” more often than before, and, I’ll admit, it can feel awkward. But uncertainty is something appreciated by those of us who work in evolving fields of scientific knowledge. As I’ve often tried to explain to students, my own field of psychology sits on shifting sands—as do so many other areas of study—because there is much to be known, but we do not know it all just now. The facts we have today may, if study continues, be overturned by new information gained in the future. The ancients believed that the Earth was flat, I suppose some still do, but today, most of us are quite sure that it is round. It was thought that the Sun revolved around the Earth, but that idea sank into obscurity when a more accurate theory of the solar system was developed, and now this new view can be directly observed through satellite images and telescopes. In view of this evolution of information, it is difficult to claim absolute certainty about the concepts and processes I teach or write about because new discoveries can and will come along to replace what I teach today, and that is what’s awkward about it.

Our culture loves absolute certainty. That firm-jawed decisiveness of the old-time Western movie hero comes to mind, and we tend to like that, especially in our leaders and authority figures. We decry and dismiss the “flip-flopper” politician who votes one way on an issue and then votes in the opposing way later. We don’t consider that she learned new information, was persuaded by facts not previously in evidence—no. We expect consistency and confidence, and (need I mention?) we expect it to conform to our own personally held beliefs, too! I have been thinking about this as I watch political opinion programs and am concerned with the willingness of our leaders to “defend to the death” one policy or party, rather than say, “I don’t know.” Or better yet, to say, “tell me what you are thinking…” or even more astoundingly, to say, “I could be wrong about this.”

Saying, “I don’t know” is not the same as saying, “Who knows?” in a cavalier dismissive way that suggests NOBODY knows. Admitting one’s ignorance is the beginning of considering, examining or researching, of listening more intently to a view or idea that is entirely outside one’s own perspective, and maybe finding out new information. Our culture has made us feel awkward about not knowing, or not having a firm opinion. But it is possible, with effort, to take that position.

I’m trying to be less wrong these days, and that means I say, “I don’t know” more often. It gives me an opportunity to follow up with interest: in the question, and the questioner. Maybe there is another level of inquiry to be explored or known, and maybe my aim should be a greater understanding of the question rather than a quick assertion of my own potential answer.

Thinking about that old-time Western movie hero, I am fully (and laughingly) aware his persona is nothing like mine. But if I’m remembering correctly, a character from films like “High Noon” —that man who appeared so self-directed and decisive—was said to be the “strong, silent type” too. In other words, those iconic characters said little compared to others, but when they did speak, it was because they had something of value to say. By recognizing that I don’t always know, and admitting it, I hope to be more persuasive and influential when I speak from authority on those things about which I am relatively sure, and by inference, have something of value to say.

Posted in: General @ 10:20 am

January 29, 2019

Seasonal Affective Disorder

Psychologists and other professionals have come to know quite a lot about the kind of depression that grips a significant number of Americans. It is estimated that nearly 7% of U.S. adults—that’s over 16 million of us—have experienced a major depressive episode in the last year. People with major depression suffer depressed mood of course, but also experience loss of interest in normal activities and big changes in their sleep patterns, their ordinary energy and concentration, and they experience a drop in self-image that may reduce the ability to meet daily responsibilities.

Quite a few of us recognize some or most of these symptoms recurring, but only during the winter months.  The phenomenon has come to known popularly as Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), identified in the Diagnostic & Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5) published by the American Psychiatric Association as Major Depressive Disorder with Seasonal Pattern.  Studies show that most sufferers are able to recognize this cyclic pattern in themselves even without the help of a professional, and that it’s certainly not uncommon, since between 1% and 10% of the population experience some or all of the symptoms associated with this disorder. But the prevalence of SAD is clearly related to latitude.

What to do about the disappearance of energy, the loss of interest and tendency to prefer carbohydrates and avoid social activities? The treatments under consideration by researchers focus on three separate mechanisms for addressing the symptoms of SAD. 

1. Let there be light! Because the shorter days of winter offer less light, and this disorder is more prevalent in northern latitudes where the dark, gray days are commonplace, light therapy is being studied as a treatment. This involves the use of special (often expensive) lamps or fixtures to alter rhythms driven by the biological clock. There is research showing this can be useful for those whose symptoms are serious enough to consider the consistent regimen of wakefulness and light exposure needed to make a measurable difference. Most of the research being done has focused on delivering the specific light at “retina level” but other investigators believe that light can be transported to the brain by way of red blood cells, and are experimenting with shining light at the back of the knees where large blood vessels run near the surface. 

2. Medication: There is widespread use of medication in the treatment of major depressive symptoms, and many physicians turn to the same drugs for their patients complaining of seasonal patterns of depression, and signs of “winter blahs”. While I’m not a prescriber myself, I sometimes refer patients to a psychiatrist or primary care doctor for evaluation of symptoms that might be improved by a medication. When it comes to a seasonal pattern of symptoms though, I would be very slow to suggest that medications are an answer. In general, the medications for depression take a fairly long time to become effective—often a month or so before substantial improvement is noted. If a patient seeks medication after spending a month gathering symptoms and getting an appointment, and a particular medication takes about a month to become noticeably effective, and a seasonal low is expected to last only two or three months, I wonder whether the risks and side effects will be worth the marginal improvement experienced in that final month of SAD. And the side effects can be substantial: Drowsiness, nausea, dry mouth, insomnia, diarrhea, agitation, dizziness, and sexual problems. 

A further concern about medications—though absolutely useful in particular cases—it may be difficult to discontinue them when spring returns. Because of that, some physicians may recommend remaining on the medication in order to prevent future depressive episodes, and that could be warranted for some, but when I look over the list of side effects, I have trouble balancing the negatives with any absolute gains to be had.

3. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT): Because CBT is what I do, it may sound self-serving to note that it has been shown as effective as either of the other options. While either light therapy or medication might be the treatment of choice for a particular patient, it has always been my preference to use “skills rather than pills”. By changing our cognitions (thinking patterns) and our behaviors, each of us can more easily manage all kinds of negative circumstances, including the symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder. Moreover, in my experience, we can take CBT many steps further by employing strategies from the emerging science of Positive Psychology. As those who have been reading my blogs all along will surely recognize, this has nothing to do with becoming a “Pollyanna” and everything to do with changing one’s approach to the challenges we face. Future blogs will offer connections to resources related to CBT and Positive Psychology. Stay tuned!

Posted in: General @ 3:41 pm

March 13, 2014

A Different Kind of “Spending Habit”

Every now and then I think about how my spending habits have changed over the years. When I was a teenager I earned cash one way or another, to buy record albums, to attend games or dances, and after much saving, to buy a car. During my college years, money was tighter than ever but the restricted budget didn’t bother me much because I was studying nearly all of my non-class hours. Academics had top priority for me. Most of my friends were involved in school too, so we were pretty much in the same boat. Entertainment was “on the cheap” in those days, maybe getting together with friends to cook a meal, shoot hoops, or go for a hike. Certainly the next phase of life created a change in financial outlook; both my wife and I were working at jobs that paid more than we’d made before college, and a mortgage became an inevitable part of our world. With that mortgage, a couple of car payments, and a few pieces of furniture, our spending habits changed.

I’ve come to see that my finances are actually a way of thinking about what I value. Thinking about how I spend money gives me a pretty clear idea of who I am; what’s important to me; what I want to experience, to give to others, and the kinds of community organizations I choose to support.  My identity is reflected also in other spending habits, and that’s why I’m suggesting that you think about how you spend this “other personal capital”.

TIME: I’ve written before about how you might want to spend it. When I think of the allocation of time, it reminds me of the household budget. We put our money into the things we value most highly–we spend the greatest share on the mortgage, or rent, if we’re typical–and the things that get cut out when money is tight generally comes down to things that mean less. If we are fortunate, it comes down to things we can live just fine without.

Now, if we use that same “budget principle” to think about how we spend time, we might be surprised. Don’t consider just what is important to you, or what you love spending time on, but be honest about where your time goes. If you’re like most of us, work takes up a whole lot of your waking hours. This is like the mortgage in a way. It lays a foundation for the other things that are important to you. In the same way the mortgage eats up a considerable chunk of the money, work probably takes a prominent and essential place in your allocation of hours. To be fair, a lot of us love what we do, and that is terrific! We gain a lot of satisfaction and inspiration or creative enjoyment from the work that pays the bills. Not everyone feels that way, of course, but when work hours are gratifying, we are fortunate indeed.

So, if work is a foundation for your time, what’s next in your “budget” of hours? Do you hold relationships in high value? Is your romantic partner a priority? What about children, other family members, friends? Are you at all passionate about learning or creating something? And importantly, if these people and activities are priorities to you, is this where you are putting your TIME?

It is sometimes tough to look at this “chronological ledger” because, too often, our most essential relationships slip to the bottom of the list of time priorities, as if they were luxury items or inconsequential extras dropping off our wish lists when cash was tight.

Here’s the bottom line on this, in my view: work is vital, it’s important, and it pays the bills so other good things can happen for me and for my family. I love my work, and I think I’m even pretty good at what I do. But the day will come when I retire from this work: who, and what, will be left then? I want to spend my time so that my retirement will be rich, full and satisfying, too. And believe it or not, I want that well-rounded life, even while I continue working.

Drs. John and Julie Gottman have studied marriage for the past several decades, and they’ve published widely on the skills necessary to make lasting, satisfying family relationships. I’ve written a lot about the Gottman approach to marriage, and their metaphor of the “sound marital house”. Inherent in all that the Gottmans have to say is the idea of spending your time on the relationships that matter. Not a two-week vacation together every year (though that sounds wonderful, too) but rather a consistent, moment-to-moment, day-in-and-day-out engagement through time. The Gottmans urge us to think in terms of the moments when all else is tuned out, shut down, set aside–when the focus can be on what is important with your spouse, your child, a friend.

We spend time at work. We spend time “at home,” but is it time spent intentionally? Does it increase the closeness or the intimacy of the relationship that is your priority? Budget time for these relationships. Spend your time in them as intentionally as you spend money. This seems most critical in cultures (like our own) where work, career, and individual personal development have all superseded “other people” in our expenditure of time. The facts contrast with what we know to be true: other people are the most important source of well being. This historical shift away from the emphasis on family and social time priorities led to Artie Hochshield’s assessment of our culture in the aptly titled book, The Time Bind: When work becomes home, and home becomes work.

It need not be the case for you, however. As your (time) spending habits change, other changes will follow. If your time with family members is sedentary and passive–like watching TV together–try something more engaging like playing a game. if your time together is always at home, try getting out for a walk, a picnic or a drive in the country. The main idea is to give your time over to engagement in the relationship. Shared activities that are new to you are another terrific way to give fresh emphasis to your priority relationships. If nobody in the family has ever gone bowling, spending an afternoon at the lanes will open up all kinds of conversation and fun, despite the gutterballs and potential stares from others at your unorthodox form.

Here’s another suggestion for an expenditure of time that can pay long-term dividends: allow your partner, child or a friend to teach you something. That’s right. You have a son who plays guitar–let him teach you to play a G chord. Your daughter sews clothes for herself or her doll collection. She may offer you lessons in sewing on a button, in trade for half an hour of your time. I know you don’t want to become a guitarist, or a professional tailor, but you DO want those relationships to flourish. Take a few lessons in the kitchen, or the laundry room, from the family member who has expertise in these areas and you’ll build your relationship. Even better, use the skills they teach you on a regular basis. This is time well spent on relationships you listed as a priority.

As seasons of life change, we experience having more or less money to spend on things, and time, too, has a budgetary cycle of its own. Think about the people and activities you consider a “top priority”. Aligning your time expenditures with the priority level of the people in your life will offer more satisfaction than owning more stuff, or watching more sitcoms or reality TV.

Posted in: General, Social Life @ 2:50 pm

Planning for Retirement

I can hear you now–you’re probably saying, “Plan for it? With the economy the way it is, I’ll NEVER be able to retire!” But read on: there may be something here for you in any case. And, no, this is not a blog about financial preparations for leaving the workplace. You’ll need to find another kind of expert for that.

For men especially, work is what life is about. We learn from an early age that we are meant to be the breadwinner, the provider, the go-to-guy on matters of “get ‘er done”. I often talk to men about the way, when we were boys, were socialized to “shake it off” and to “take one for the team” even though we were hurting, or disappointed. Those are lessons we are taught, in both subtle and overt ways to boys from the day they are born. We are good at fulfilling the demands of roles that involve physical strength, emotional restriction, mental toughness, even indifference to pain and damage to health. We can take it! But it seems that sometimes, often in our middle years–somewhere between 40 and 60– we begin to wonder whether all of that was worth it. Often our work is not as satisfying as in earlier years, and we’ve devoted so much energy to the workplace, it’s hard to see anywhere else that satisfaction might come from. Even family life may have become less interesting, as children become surly teenagers or leave the nest altogether. Maybe we neglected partner relationships because the role of provider was such a prominent one for us. In any case, we come to a place in life where–with actual retirement still perhaps a number of years away–we recognize that work is about all we have.

Just while I’m thinking about it, let me put a word in for the women reading this: everything I’m saying here may well be true for you as well. Women have worked hard to obtain places in the world of cultural rewards (money, status, diplomas, etc.) beyond the home, and society has now changed expectations for you, too. Not only are you expected to be the heart of the home, and the source of gentle comfort for your family, you’re also expected to be the hard-bodied lover, to create the social fabric of our communities, and the clear-minded career woman as well. Is it any wonder, considering all the real-life demands, not to mention the internal pressures, that most of us feel stressed out? Who imagines that retirement will be anything more than a long weekend, with permission to sleep late, after all!

But, back to that topic for a moment–retirement is where we’re headed, right? In important and very functional ways, men and women today have been very good at performing the tasks set before them. They have carved out careers, taken on matrimony, built family units, and taken out mortgages of astounding size. Society needs all that. But they have often NOT invested nearly enough in the one thing necessary to be successful: PEOPLE.

They have not budgeted time to slow down and develop an identity that will exist away from the important roles they are fulfilling. Some will say, ” A parent. I will always be a parent, so I’m not neglecting that as I fulfill my role of associate vice president in charge of marketing” And that’s technically true. A parent is a parent is a parent, after all. But children leave home and create families and careers of their own, needing less and less parenting over the years, and what then?

The retirement planning I would like to suggest is this:

Find a variety of meaningful activities (hobbies, travel, volunteering, teaching, physical fitness, classes for personal enrichment, etc.) that you’d like to engage in, and make it part of your identity. We are all involved in the development of a personal identity but generally it is restricted to a) the work I do for a paycheck, and b) the family members I relate to. Infrequently do I hear someone begin his or her self-description (or end it for that matter) with the hobby, or the non-work organization, or the circle of friendships they created. There are millions of sources of meaningful activity, and you must find the ones that provide pleasure, gratification, and meaning for you. The importance of having numerous activities is that when one isn’t available, there are others to fall back on. I often give my patients a list of 250 things they might do for personal pleasure and renewal; community activity; hobbies and creative outlets; sports or leisure; learning or reading’ socializing, family activities, and helping others; health and fitness; spiritual, inspirational, or religious activities; satisfying or enjoyable chores; and couples activities. It’s a place for them to start, but anyone can begin to compile such a list on their own, or with the help of people they know.

Retirement from the workplace is a moment of reckoning; either you’ve done the work of developing a life, or you haven’t. There isn’t much in between. Successful retirement planning will include purposeful activity that brings you satisfaction, puts you in a state of “flow” (other blogs will guide you) and challenges you to set goals for the future. Beyond these activities, successful retirement planning will require that you build enough relationships outside your current workplace so that you have a wide network of engagements to keep you active and learning something new.

Think about the people you know over the age of 60. Which ones are the most interesting? Which ones seem the happiest? Which of them are the healthiest or most enthusiastic? Finding meaning in life requires that we look beyond our work roles–while we are still actively employed–so that there will be meaning in life beyond that time, too.

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