Sunday, November 28, 2010

Never Waste the Opportunity of a Crisis

Resistance to change is an instinctual and purposeful aspect of the human psyche.  Our personal identities are defined and our intellectual and emotional energies are conserved by a psychic barrier that surrounds habitual thoughts, attitudes and behaviors.  It protects our relationships and values – and is the bedrock of cultural identification.  Most of the time resistance to change serves us well because it provides the settled and predictable environment needed for life.  However, normal human growth and development demands that we also have the ability to step outside of ourselves and view the world from completely new perspectives.  We must balance the conservative instinct with occasional departures from our treasured convictions.

The first step in personal growth and development occurs when we recognize feelings of frustration that are consistently engendered by a particular situation.  Something is just not working for us.  This frustration may revolve around relationships, activities, or goals.  We are stymied and can’t get what we want.  Our first instinct in situations like this is to try and change them.  For example, if I think my boss is a jerk and I hate my job my first thought may be, “I need a new job.”  If my girlfriend leaves me feeling empty it may be time to start looking around.  If I just can’t seem to lose those 15 pounds then, “I’m just going to go buy bigger pants.”

But what happens if my next boss is also a jerk, or the next girlfriend also leaves me wanting, or if those new pants start to feel tight after just a few months?  The painful truth is that, sooner or later, we all must be able to recognize and admit our own roles in intractable problems.  This is not easy because, as mentioned above, we all have an instinctual aversion to change.  Admitting that we are part of the problem implies that we going to have to change something about ourselves if we want to be part of the solution. 

Change makes us vulnerable.  It’s awkward and sometimes embarrassing because we’re trying to do something we have not yet mastered.  It draws energy away from other parts of our lives and can leave us tired and unsure of ourselves.  Therefore, fundamental change in personality is generally a last resort that often requires the particular situation getting so bad that it turns into a crisis.  Our hand is now forced and we have nothing left to do except examine ourselves to see if, and how, we can adapt.  Like a snake shedding its skin in order to grow we must shed our usual thoughts, attitudes, and behaviors.  And like the snake that hides while its new skin is hardening we must find refuge in an environment that makes us feel safe and supported while going through the travails of trial and error.

That safety is found in deep and enduring relationships with people who have our best interests at heart and are able to talk us through hurt, disappointment, and self-doubts.  But we might not have a person like this in our lives, or if we do, we do not take advantage of the connection.  Attaching to someone during the process of change and adaptation is absolutely essential if we are going to be able to access our essential natures and change something deep.  It provides the emotional and psychic space to address the frustration over what’s not working for us.  It allows us to see a crisis as an opportunity for change rather than one more example of how things just don’t work for us.

The opportunity of a crisis is usually brief and can easily be missed if we allow ourselves to fall back into old habits.  Challenge yourself to find somebody to connect with the next time things start to fall apart for you.  Look deeply into yourself, talk things over with your confidant, and tap into the courage needed to do things differently.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Strive for Greatness

“Be not afraid of greatness; some are born great, some achieve greatness, and others have greatness thrust upon them.”  - William Shakespeare

Chassidic philosophy teaches that all of us are destined for greatness.  We all have genius in some aspect of our lives and it is our obligation to discover and use that genius.  Neglecting this obligation can lead to fundamental and persistent psychological problems.  A healthy psyche does not result from a life free from strife, but rather, it is the natural consequence of a life in pursuit of greatness. 

The pursuit of greatness starts with an exploration of our personal and innate talents, traits, and preferences – basically “who are we?”  This is not as hard as it sounds.  It can be as simple as remembering back to childhood and asking, “What did I love back then?  What was I good at?  What could I do in my sleep?”  I have asked these questions to literally hundreds of my clients in therapy and have never had someone stumped.  It may take a little prodding and encouragement, but everyone can find something they have always loved and been good at.  This little exercise begins the process of discovering the essential self.

Next, we have to scan our world to determine what needs to be accomplished.  The world we live in is, to say the least, imperfect – it needs to be fixed.  According to Chassidic Philosophy everyone has the obligation (and ability) to make the world just a little bit better.  We are hard-wired for this job and feel unsettled when we are unable to do it.  Unfortunately, we are often distracted away from this core function.  The main reason we don’t always follow this path, I believe, is because we are too busy warding off perceived threats.  We can’t accomplish anything great when we are in “fight or flight” mode – all we can do is survive.

I remember one day when my oldest son was just a toddler he ran up to me with pure joy and jumped into my arms.  I expected him to look lovingly into my eyes, but instead he turned his face away from me and happily gazed out at the world around him.  I realized at that moment what my job as a father is – to make sure my mere presence allows my children to feel safe looking out into their worlds.

Unfortunately, many people have never experienced this feeling of comfort, so instead of exploring their worlds, making mistakes, dusting themselves off and trying again, they do whatever they can to keep dangerous situations and people at bay. 

In order to move out of this survival mode we need to find someone – a teacher, mentor, or guide – who can be a stabilizing and reassuring presence in our lives.  We need someone to connect with.  In the Chassidic world this person is called a mashpia.  A therapist can be this person – so can a parent.  It is any person who makes us feel comfortable enough to look out into the world in pursuit of opportunities rather than in avoidance of threats.

When we feel comfortable in our own skins and can walk with our heads up and our eyes forward we are ready for the last step in the pursuit of greatness – namely, plugging ourselves into that particular part of the world that needs our natural traits and talents.  Truly, we are the answer to what’s ailing our planet.  You’ve always had a way with kids?  Great, be a parent, a teacher, or a coach.  You’ve always been good with plants?  Fabulous, start an urban garden, grow organic vegetables, or give a class at a retirement center.  You’ve always had a knack for business?  Stupendous, mentor a non-profit on how to manage their finances or teach single moms how to manage their budgets.

Whoever you are – you are needed.  Find out what you’re good at, discover what needs to be accomplished in this world, and plug yourself in so that you can be of use to those around you.  This will automatically lead to greatness and is the recipe for a happy and well-adjusted life.

Awakening from Depression

For Your Well-being – Psychology and Jewish Wisdom

Clinical depression is a debilitating condition that impacts all aspects of a person’s life – relationships, school or career, and even physical health.   A study at Duke University has found that 17.1% of Americans suffer from depression sometime during their lives.  That’s over 5 million people.  Many suffer in silence not realizing that they are in the grip of a major psychiatric disorder – and that there is a way out of their despair.  Modern Psychiatry and Psychology have developed many effective drug and therapy-based answers to clinical depression.  The type of anti-depressant usually prescribed is called a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI).  Prozac is the most famous example from this family.  Research has found that combining an anti-depressant with therapeutic interventions such as individual psychotherapy, cognitive behavioral therapy, or family-based therapy has the greatest immediate and long-term impact on depression. 

In my own clinical practice I have seen how effective this combined approach can be, especially when it is supplemented by one more element – namely, traditional Jewish wisdom.  Over three thousand years of primary texts (such as the Torah, Talmud, and Zohar) and their commentaries has provided a deep reservoir of ideas and approaches that any practicing psychotherapist would be wise to explore and tap into.  For example, Jewish wisdom makes a sharp distinction between atzvut (dejection and depression) and merirut (bitterness and sorrow).  I explain to my clients suffering from depression that we need to differentiate between sadness, which is an authentic and appropriate reaction to something like a death or some other loss, and depression, which is basically a numbing out of feeling that leads to nihilistic thinking.  This is a vital point to understand because it has been my experience that we tend to move into depression when we are unable to experience sadness to an appropriate degree.  We get stuck in our grief and we shut down.

Jewish tradition teaches that there are appropriate times and places for all our emotions – including sadness and grief.  For example, there is a practice called tikkun chatzot where pious individuals wake up in the middle of the night to mourn the loss of the Temple in Jerusalem.  The Jewish mourning periods of shiva, the year of saying kaddish, and yartzeit anniversaries set aside times when it is safe to step out of our normal routines and truly feel and express our sadness.  Memorial days like Tisha b’Av and the 17th of Tammuz evoke sorrow over the losses that the Jewish nation has suffered.

In general Jewish tradition values simcha (joy) over all other emotions because a joyful person is able to accomplish more goodness in this world than someone who is dejected and depressed.  However, the reality is that we cannot be truly joyful unless we have passed through our particular sadness authentically and thoroughly.  Therefore, my goal for therapy is to create a place and time where clients feel safe to let down their defenses and find their tears over painful memories or events.  This cathartic process allows them to get unstuck from their grief and move back into the active pursuit of life.