Thursday, July 26, 2018

Heart Poops.

“Loving just one is too little; loving all is being superficial; knowing yourself and loving as many as possible, letting your soul hide all the powers of love in itself, so that each gets its particular nourishment while consciousness nevertheless embraces it all – that is enjoyment, that is living.”
― Søren Kierkegaard, Either/Or: A Fragment of Life

     An interesting trend has begun to appear in several of my conversations with other people: What to do with emotions. One idea is that emotions are supposed to be destroyed, rather than experienced, in some form of stoicism. Another is that emotions should be expressed whenever and however someone would like. There is some truth in these concepts, but they miss the mark. 

     I'm unsure where this line of thinking came from, but it's disturbing. Emotions are a natural part of the experience of life. They aren't good or bad, they aren't wrong or right, they just...are. I can't stress this enough: EMOTIONS ARE NOT GOOD OR BAD! They are morally and ethically neutral. You are entitled to your emotions and should never be ashamed of them. 

     There is an analogy that may help. You remember those analogies on the SAT? Like, "Pockets are to pants, as pouches are to marsupials". I love those things. I have a new one for you:
"Emotions are to the heart, as poop is to the digestive tract"
Sounds ridiculous, doesn't it? But it's true! In the same way feces are an important product of our body, emotions are a crucial product of our heart. If you eat, you poo. At least you should. If you're alive, you feel. Again, at least you should.

     There are people that struggle with constipation and they just can't get anything out. Chronic constipation can lead to impacted bowels. This is a block in the intestines which becomes so hard only liquid can go around it. Ironically, one of the symptoms of constipation can be diarrhea. This is because the liquids ingested can make their way around the impacted bowel. Left untreated, it will become more impacted until surgery is necessary. Without surgery or early interventions, it can even lead to death. DEATH! Your own feces can kill you if you hold on to it for too long.

     On the opposite end of the spectrum are people that struggle with chronic diarrhea. This can be a symptom of Crohn's disease, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), parasites, or a dozen other things. Diarrhea is problematic because food doesn't sit in the digestive system long enough to absorb nutrients. Plus, it gets pretty messy. Ironically, diarrhea can be a symptom of both constipation and diarrhea. Another potential complication from diarrhea is also death from dehydration.

So what?


     How, in the world, is talking about feces supposed to help us understand appropriate expression of emotions? Many years ago a psychoanalyst, Freud, talked about people being anal retentive or anal expulsive.  He believed:
"The Anal retentive personality is stingy, with a compulsive seeking of order and tidiness. The person is generally stubborn and perfectionist. The Anal expulsive personality is an opposite of the Anal retentive personality, and has a lack of self control, being generally messy and careless." (Source)
 There's a lot more to this concept, but this should be enough to help understand the analogy. Some people make the mistake of holding their emotions in (anal retentive) while others make the mistake of overly expressing their emotions (anal expulsive).

     Neither of these options are healthy. Expression of our emotions, as much as possible, should be on our own terms and with intent. Without this level of self-control it's easy for our emotions to begin controlling us. In the same way that people shouldn't feel ashamed for going to the bathroom, they shouldn't feel ashamed for having emotions. Where we are held accountable is what we do with our emotions; how we express them.

     Don't hold it in forever because that may kill you! It will certainly poison whatever relationship you're in that's eliciting these emotions. But don't fling your emotions all over the place either! You won't even have time to process an experience and absorb the existential nutrients. Besides, who would want to be around that smell? It's gross, unsanitary, and will probably leave a stain.

     The best alternative is to acknowledge the feelings with enough time to make a choice about how they're going to be expressed. This early identification is key! Holding emotions in too long may push us to the point where we don't have an opportunity to choose when, where, or how we're going to express them.

     Happy Heart Poops, everyone!

Heart Poops (C) 2018 Nathan D. Croy

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

The Buddy Bench

"Play makes us nimble -- neurobiologically, mentally, behaviorally -- capable of adapting to a rapidly evolving world."
~Hara Estroff Marano: A Nation of Wimps

     I've heard discussions about something called the Buddy Bench. These are benches for children to sit on when they don't have any friends to play with. Sitting on this bench is a cue for other children to invite this child to play. There are probably some nuances to the Buddy Bench I'm missing, but this is the basic principle. For more information, please check out the Buddy Bench website. The vision around the Buddy Bench is fantastic. Growing up, I experienced severe bullying and exclusion. Inclusion and friendship are great goals and we should be intentionally providing ways to encourage these behaviors in children. We should also be teaching them to adults! However, I believe the Buddy Bench potentially does more harm than good. Existentially, there are a few reasons this is a bad idea, and I'd like to recommend some alternatives.
     In A Nation of Wimps, Marano claims that parental over-involvement serves to undermine children's confidence by weakening their psychological resiliency. Maranos' research based book illustrates the risk of removing reciprocity from relationship (Buber). I will suggest why the Buddy Bench may inadvertently subvert the very ideals it seeks to encourage. Then, I will suggest a more difficult and authentic response to encourage children, and adults, to engage in healthy social relationship.

The Problem

    The primary issue I have with this idea is that it puts the onus of relationship almost entirely on the "other". It does so through passive, rather than active/assertive communication. Sitting on the bench is making a statement without making a request. This is passive-aggressive communication 101. For example: if someone comes to your house, is sitting down to dinner with everyone, and made the statement, "It sure is hot in here...", it may be a natural response to turn on a fan, open a window, turn down the AC, apologize for the unseasonably warm weather, or simply agree with them! However, the person making that statement has avoided vulnerability by making a request. Instead of asking if they could turn the AC cooler and risk being told, "No" (a rejection), they can use manipulative statements in an attempt to elicit a behavioral response from someone else.
     The more adept someone is at reading body language, subtle context clues, and implications, the better they will be at accidentally enabling others to continue using passive-aggressive speech. This prevents people from creating actual trust in others, because there's no vulnerability. Without risking rejection, there can be no trust because no one has had the opportunity to let you down or hurt you!
     You may be saying, "Hey, Nathan! You don't think sitting on a Buddy Bench is an act of vulnerability? You're crazy!" Well, you may not be wrong about that last part, but here's the issue: Sitting on a Buddy Bench automatically shifts the responsibility of connection from self, to others. It is a clear signal of needing support or relationship, but it is a request without risk. Even when the bench works, it doesn't work, because the child will not know if they have a relationship with another child out of social obligation or due to their own personality, choices, and skills.

The Alternative

     Bullying is not acceptable. Bullying is meaningless, destructive, hurtful, and unhelpful. Anything I suggest from here on out should, in no way, be construed to imply that bullying is useful or healthy. And, just because a child is struggling with friendships/relationship, does not necessarily mean they are being bullied. It's important to look at the context within which the isolation is occurring. If it's primarily one or two children, then it's likely bullying. If the child has almost no friends and is conflict with most other children, then it's likely the child themselves is the issue.
     The response should not be to request the rest of the world to change to accommodate a lack of social skills/social understanding in one child. If this was the expectation, then it would stand to reason that we should all change in order to acquiesce to the requests of bullies! There are societal expectations and norms. They are not always fair, but they exist. Children are particularly skilled at punishing undesirable social behaviors. There are healthy ways for children (and adults) to learn to adjust their behavior to be more acceptable.
     I am not suggesting we should "go with the crowd". There should be a sense of self that modulates all interpersonal and intrapersonal behavioral choices. But it is difficult to establish a sense of self by externalizing the locus of control in relationship creation. The better alternative would be to teach social skills in schools. Provide training to educators and administrators about how they can foster resilience in children. Resilience does not come without a certain amount of stress and discomfort. Having faith that our children are capable of learning new and better ways to interact and express themselves is a more difficult and time consuming route, but it is far healthier than a buddy bench.

Buddy Bench
Buddy Bench
(C) Nathan D. Croy, 2016

Wednesday, May 2, 2018

Five Forgiveness Myths

"To forgive is to set a prisoner free and to discover that the prisoner was you."
~Lewis B. Smedes

     Everyone has experienced hurt at some point in their life. These hurts can range from deeply traumatic to minimal, but everyone has experienced being hurt. While not all hurt is harmful (think: the pain after working out), and not all harmful experiences hurt right away (think: unhealthy diets), the awareness of feeling hurt has the same curative factor: Forgiveness. In this post, I'd like to address the top 5 myths that prevent people from being able to forgive.     

Myth 5: I have to tell people when I forgive them.

One of the most common myths I see is the belief we must tell the person we're forgiving that they're forgiven. It may be a good idea, when possible, to have a conversation with someone after you forgive them. This is not to shame them or make sure they know they've done something wrong. It can be healing for them! At the very least it could be corrective. There have been times when I hurt someone and had no idea; I was glad they told me so I could make it right. However, telling someone you forgive them is not necessary.
     I have worked with individuals who wanted to forgive a parent who had been abusive while they were growing up. Major problem? Their parent was deceased. Having a conversation with someone after they've passed away is, at best, difficult. In these instances, we have used empty chair techniques, letter writing, role-playing, or other techniques to facilitate their process of forgiving those who we can't speak with directly.
     Even if someone is still alive, it may not be beneficial to talk to them directly. If they're abusive, dangerous, or just not open to talking to us, we can still work on forgiving them without having to tell them. This leads me to the next myth.

Myth 4: I have to be in relationship with someone after I forgive them.

     Let me make one thing very clear before I say anything else: Abuse is not ok. Period. Nothing excuses abuse and abuse should always be addressed in the safest way possible. Kierkegaard wrote about abuse in Works of Love. He suggests the most loving thing we can do for an abuser is to leave them. This was contrary to the religious expectations of the day when the sanctity of marriage took precedence over the sanctity of personal safety and bodily autonomy. Kierkegaard argues that, to stay in an abusive relationship when leaving is possible, actually harms the abuser because it continues to give them access to the object of their abuse. It would be akin to providing an endless supply of alcohol to someone who struggles with addiction. Ultimately, the person with the addiction is responsible for their behavior, but what does it say about the person that encouraged easy access to alcohol?
     All that to say this: Forgiveness does NOT mean you have to be in a relationship with someone who has hurt you. They don't need to know you forgave them (Myth 1) and to continue to give them access to you may actually harm the abuser! Which leads to Myth 3.

Myth 3: They need to ask for forgiveness.

     There have been times where I have hurt people completely unintentionally. In fact, I didn't even know what I had said or done hurt anyone! Yet they stewed for days, weeks, and even years on something I had no awareness even existed. I didn't know I did anything hurtful, so how could I know I should ask forgiveness?
     Other times, and I hope I don't fit into this category, someone may be fully aware they did something hurtful and they just don't care. I often see this in people who abuse others: They blame the abused person for the actions of the abuser.
     Both of these circumstances, as different as they are, have the same ultimate result because neither person is going to ask for forgiveness. This means the burden of forgiveness is on the one who has been hurt. The good news? That doesn't change a thing. Even if I was aware I had hurt someone, intentionally or not, and I asked for forgiveness, the burden would still be on the person who experienced the hurt to forgive! No matter what, those who are hurt have a burden to decide if they want to forgive, hold a grudge (not forgive), or deny anything ever happened! Which is what Myth 2 is all about.

Myth 2: I should forgive and forget.

     "I'm supposed to forgive and forget, right?". NO! Not sure I can be any more clear on this. Why would it be healthy to forget something hurtful has happened to us? If someone is frequently hurtful to us, and there's really no valid reason, and we just forgot what they did, we would be subject to repeated pains and hurts!
     Some people are going to hurt us for our own good. Doctors, chiropractors, personal trainers, every dentist I've ever met...but it's for our own good! It's designed to help us be more healthy in the long-run and the discomfort is worth the overall gain. Therapists certainly fit in this group. A therapist, if they're doing their job, is going to make you uncomfortable and challenge you on behaviors/beliefs that have kept you company throughout most of your life. If they don't, they're enabling the unhealthy decisions that lead you to seek therapy in the first place.
     Remembering these experiences can help us make better choices about who to spend time with, who we can trust, and who is willing to work to help us be better people. Why would you want to forget this? Even more so, how is anyone supposed to forget painful things which have happened to them?
     When this does happen, it's usually symptomatic of a greater issue. When this type of forgetting occurs, we refer to it as dissociation. Dissociation can be a symptom of post-traumatic stress disorder, dissociative identity disorder, and several other serious diagnoses. Forgetting is not a part of "moving on". Forgetting what, or who, has hurt us, means we can easily be exposed to being hurt again! But unnecessarily putting ourselves at risk is not wise or healthy. Which leads to Myth number 1.

Myth 1: They're free to do it again.

     One of the most difficult steps in forgiving others is the first one: Empathy. Opening ourselves to the experience of someone who has hurt us is counterintuitive. However, we must begin to see the person who hurt us as just that: a person. They're not a demon, the personification of evil, or any other terror. They are simply people.
     There must be a distinct and clear differentiation between empathy and excuse. To say that what someone else has done to us is excused is to say we agree with it and no accountability or punishment is needed. I never want to suggest that any hurtful act, intentional or otherwise, shouldn't be punished in some way. It's actually a learning opportunity for those who have hurt us. Empathy does not excuse hurtful behaviors. The truth of the matter is that no one can undo the hurtful thing they've done. Short of a time machine, the best we could possibly hope for is a change in behavior.
     The biggest reason this myth should be eliminated has nothing to do with time machines or future harm. Ultimately, a belief in this myth keeps us in bondage to our past hurt. If we believe that forgiving someone is tantamount to allowing them to harm us again, how could we ever be free? Even more concerning, how could we ever accept forgiveness for the hurts we have inflicted on others? How could we forgive ourselves?
     Buechner makes an excellent point about the relational aspect of forgiveness:
"To forgive somebody is to say one way or another, "You have done something unspeakable and by all rights I should call it quits between us. Both my pride and my principles demand no less..."
To accept forgiveness means to admit that you've done something unspeakable that needs to be forgiven, and thus both parties must swallow the same thing: their pride...
When somebody you've wronged forgives you, you're spared the dull and self-diminishing throb of a guilty conscience.
When you forgive somebody who has wronged you, you're spared the dismal corrosion of bitterness and wounded pride.
For both parties, forgiveness means the freedom again to be at peace inside their own skins... "
     Forgiveness means we are no longer going to wait for someone else to change before we get to experience happiness. To forgive means we have reconciled our "account" and another person doesn't owe us anything. It means we no longer expect another person to make us well. It means we are free. So what is stopping you from forgiving?
(c) 2018, Nathan D. Croy

Sunday, April 1, 2018

When Therapy Begins

"I remember driving to therapy and thinking, 'Well, this is it. I'm all out of stories'. I didn't know what I was going to say. And that was when therapy really began."
-Dr. Ron Wright

     Dr. Wright was one of my undergraduate psychology professors. Through various books, assignments, and tests he introduced me to existentialism. Many of the readings he assigned I still use, but it was the experiences he shared with us that stuck with me more than anything. The paraphrase at the top of this post was one of those experiences I knew was important. I also knew I didn't fully understand. It wasn't until after grad school, when I began to deeply focus on existential therapy, the idea of "being out of stories" started to make sense.

    In existential therapy, the past is important, but only insofar as it facilitates the understanding of who we are now and what is preventing our growth? Kierkegaard wrote that life is understood in reverse, but we often forget that it must be lived forwards. The artistry of therapy is not in the archeological excavation of our history. There may be clues there, but they pale in comparison to what happens within the therapy room. The relationship that develops between client and therapist, in the microcosm of the here-and-now, is an incredibly rich source of up-to-date information about life as it occurs!

    Sometimes we tell stories to avoid being present. It's often easier to talk about the concrete past; even if it was traumatic. At least there's some distance from what happened "back then". But it prevents us from being here, now. This keeps us trapped and can perpetuate the idea of being a victim.

    Sometimes we tell stories because we believe our past defines us. If the only way I can know you is by knowing your past, then I'll never know you. Your past is ever accumulating, tainted by perceptions and unknown biases, and our ability to remember things correctly is notoriously atrocious. This prevents us from planning ahead. It keeps us shackled to what happened "back then".

    Sometimes we tell stories because we don't know what to say right now. Sometimes we tell stories because we're afraid of the future; the unknown. Sometimes we tell stories because we want to be right; and we want someone else to agree with us.

    You want the truth? Your therapy, your growth, your ability to change and be an active participant will forever be restricted until you're finally out of stories. If you want your therapist, your partner, your family, or your friends to get to know you, be present! Put your phone away, the book down, stop telling stories, and start making new ones. Our history matters. But ultimately, those have meaning in the lessons we learn. When our stories begin to define us, they cease to be our past and begin to limit our future.

    When you're ready, stop telling stories and start sharing experiences. That is when therapy will begin.

(C) 2018 Nathan D. Croy

Thursday, March 1, 2018

Social Loafing

"Our life always expresses the result of our dominant thoughts."
~ Soren Kierkegaard

     We have a special "Pizza Timer" in our house. If we're cooking a frozen pizza, the easiest way to know when it's done is to listen for the ear-piercing sound of the smoke detector. Then we figured out how to set a timer on the oven and the smoke detector/timer became superfluous. So we simply take the smoke detector off the wall and set it under the TV until the pizza is done cooking. 
    But sometimes, every once in awhile, we forget to to put the smoke detector back up. It eventually goes back up, but it may take a few days. My wife and I will walk by the smoke detector, clearly visible under the TV, and just...not put it back where it goes. For those few days, our early warning systems to help protect us from dying in a fire are greatly hampered. Before you go writing angry letters, you should know each room has its own smoke detector, we have a fire extinguisher in the kitchen, and we have a combination smoke/CO2 detector in the same area as the smoke detector we take down. Still....why don't we put it back up? 

    Psychologists have a term for this; it's called social loafing. Social loafing occurs when a group of people believe someone else will do the work/right thing/call the police/whatever, so we assume we don't have to do it. If you have never experienced this, then you've never had to do a group project!

   There have been several experiments done to explain social loafing. My favorite is the pencil test: Get on an elevator with one other person and drop a pencil. There's a pretty good chance they'll try to pick it up. Drop a pencil in a crowded elevator and the chances of someone picking up that pencil drops drastically. For more information on the experiment, check out THIS LINK

    The idea of social loafing can have drastic real world implications. The story of Kitty Genovese is a tragic example of what can happen when a group of people believe someone else will take care of the problem, do the right thing, or call the police, or stop someone from doing the wrong thing. This is why, when someone needs to receive CPR, you should point to a particular individual and request they call 911. If you shout out, to a room full of people, "Someone call 911!", there's a significant chance no one will be called.

    Existential therapy offers a solution for social loafing: personal accountability. It's very common for people to demand others be more accountable. But if we're honest with ourselves, many times we're actually saying, "Take responsibility for this so I don't have to." The personal accountability of one person neither decreases nor increases our personal accountability. Louis Hoffman wrote “Self-acceptance too often is intertwined with attempts to rationalize ourselves as being right or justified in our mistakes instead of embracing our humanity as imperfect creatures. Authentic self-acceptance requires that we are honest with ourselves about responsibility. Instead of seeking to justify our mistakes, we embrace them” (A Cultural Crisis of Responsibility: Responding to a Denial of Our Humanity).

    Waiting for someone else to take responsibility for a situation is a way to ensure we have no responsibility. In order to become more empowered we are forced to accept responsibility for the things we have done, and the things we have left undone. By no means should this imply that everything is our fault; far from it. But it does mean that if we want the world we live in to be better, we can no longer wait for others to make changes.

    The reason the smoke detector doesn't go back up where it belongs is, ultimately, because I don't put it back. As tumultuous as our country is currently, there are many situations and people who deserve to have fingers pointed at them. If I am not willing to point that finger at myself and begin asking what I can do, I only serve to give away my power.

Smoke Detector
(C) 2018 Nathan D. Croy

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Running on Empty

"Without the ability to assert ourselves, we will have difficulty living with integrity and self-respect. Sacrificing our rights usually trains others to mistreat us. By standing up for our rights, we should we respect ourselves and thus win the respect of others."
~Rollo May, Power and Innocence

     Has this ever happened to you? Trying to squeeze one more trip out of those last few drops of fuel is, for some people, a wonderful hobby! They know EXACTLY how far that gauge can move before the car is actually out of gas.

     In a former life, I worked in an autoshop, and saw cars come in with complaints of decreased performance, chugging, or not even starting. Turns out, many cars have their fuel pump located inside the gas tank. This does several things: the gas keeps the pump from overheating, there's less contamination, and there's less chance of exposure to air rusting out the fuel pump. This also means that, if you constantly run your tank low, you risk overheating your pump, clogging the filter with sediment from the tank (usually that stuff just sinks to the bottom and doesn't bother the pump), and shortening the overall lifespan with added stress.

     We're much more complex than cars, but there are certainly some similarities! Do you have warning lights that let you know when you're running low? Do you find that trying to squeeze out "one more trip" when physical, emotional, or psychological resources are drained is shortening your lifespan? Does it inhibit your performance?

     Then find ways to refill! Make sure you are taking care of you! Sometimes it only takes a few minutes of rest, relaxation, meditation, or conversation. Whatever it is, don't put it off until after you do one more thing!

     If you're struggling to find a way to fill-up, give us a call! One of our therapists can work with you and your family to ensure you see finding ways to fully engage in life!

888.631.EXFT (3938)

Running on E
(c) 2018, Nathan D. Croy

Friday, January 26, 2018

Embrace The Trauma

"Anxiety is freedom's possibility..."
~The Concept of Anxiety by Soren Kierkegaard

     I'm horrible at golf. I am my own hazard. It's bad. However, I really enjoy it! Playing reminds me of spending time with my dad and I've found it to be relaxing. When I was beginning, my father would stand behind me and offer helpful critiques on my swing. 

    During a particularly horrendous game, the first four hits had immediately veered right as soon as my club made contact. I was frustrated. It made no sense to me why the ball wasn't going where I was aiming! So, on the fifth hole, I lined my shot up to go far left of the green. It made sense that, if my shots went to the right, then I'd aim left and they'd go where I wanted!

     Standing behind me, my father piped up and pointed out that I was putting a foursome in some real jeopardy based on how I was lined up. I explained my reasoning of "ball goes right; aim left". He chuckled and offered some advice, "We don't change our game to match our mistakes; we fix our mistakes."

     Many people who have experienced trauma tend to change their life to avoid future trauma. If they have been in an abusive relationship, they may decide all intimacy is potentially hurtful and not worth the risk. If they have been in a car accident, then they may decide leaving home is no longer worth the risk. They begin to change their life to match their trauma, instead of addressing the trauma. 

     This empowers the trauma and minimizes the power in the person. Changing our lives to match the trauma only serves to keep us stuck in the trauma. There is an increase in anxiety when we begin to think of confronting the trauma. This can be uncomfortable, scary, and is absolutely necessary. There are various therapeutic and psychiatric means of addressing trauma to facilitate freeing ourselves from past experiences and to begin embracing the possibilities life has to offer. If you discover you aren't free to engage in healthy interactions with people because of your past, consider contacting a professional to help you confront those fears and get your life back!

    Don't change your game to match a bad experience, change the experience!

(c) Nathan D. Croy, 2018