Sunday, November 20, 2016

The Two Levels of Human Life

I am always amazed when I witness a couple arguing the same issue they have been for all their married life.  How can this be, that two adults who raised kids together, ran households and businesses, etc. can’t come to a resolution about something as simple as “What’s for dinner?”   How can that get so gnarly so fast?

There are lots of reasons for that state of affairs, mostly it’s old stuff, but for this post I want to focus on one aspect.  It is usually the case that one partner is “rational” and measured “while the other is “emotional” and erratic.  We tend to chalk it up to the difference between the sexes.  It often looks that way.  I have come to believe that it is more about the differences in the levels of human interactions.

There are two levels in each of us; there is the thinking/doing side and the feeling/being side.  Each aspect plays an important role in the trinity of success, which is; a feeling processed through the intellect and then translated into behavior.   Unfortunately we have so emphasized the thinking/doing side that the feeling/being side has basically been consigned to the dustbin in most of our lives.

The thinking/doing side is about all the things we accomplish and get done.  The feeling/being side is about our hopes and dreams, our values, our feelings, our self-esteem, namely all those invisible, intangible, immeasurable parts that, in fact do measure our happiness and well-being. 

As we grow up, most of us got all our accolades and kudos from what we do, like grades, sports, and music or just for being “good”, while our internal lives are ignored or disregarded as a nuisance.  So by the time we are teenagers we have become human doings, as opposed to human beings. 

In the example above, the couple keeps trying to solve their feeling issues by thinking it through.  That often works for a little while, but soon enough, they will be right back to the ten-year-old arguments.  So it would be a good thing for them to begin “thinking” about their “being” parts.  Perhaps drag them out of the dustbin and feel what this is really about. 

This internal divide is a result of all the decisions we made growing up, to be safe from scolding and shame and discomfort.   It is a matter of discovering what those decisions were and making new ones from the adult that eases those old patterns. 

Thursday, November 3, 2016


From birth to death any human is inundated with information, input, stimuli, internal goings on and all sorts of chaos.  For the infant and growing up child it is their job to sort all that out and make sense of the world.  As they grow things happen around them that force a conclusion about their world and a subsequent decision on how to handle that conclusion. 

Unfortunately all the decisions we made at three and seven and twelve and all the years in between are as operational today as they were the day they made them.  So we end up in the absurd position of having a three year old in charge of our lives, because we haven’t made any new or different decision, these decisions are very difficult to access for two reasons. 

First they were often made before we had much language or the ability to conceptualize, second they were survival tactics and strategies for us as children.  Literally our survival was at stake. The strategies and tactics defended a child so the overwhelming pain of their emotions wouldn’t kill them.  These decisions are actually implemented over time, through trial and error -what is less painful then that action-and what fits a particular child’s way of being in this world.

Let me give an example;  Let's say a three year old witnesses a parent hurting a sibling and in the indignation only a three year only can muster, intervenes in the abuse.  Assuming, that, of course, the parent will do what is right.  Instead the abuse gets turned on this child.  So what happens internally to this child the next day, and the next and the next?  And for years, watching the abuse go on.  If she intervenes she gets hurt, and if she doesn’t she has to endure a sibling getting hurt.  So how does the child learn to handle that impossible ethical dilemma?

This small example sets the stage for how to unravel our inexplicable responses/behaviors to certain events that puzzle us and we haven’t a clue how to undo.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

The Change Process

What is this mysterious change process I talk so much about?

As I work with people and they start making connections many clients say, “This is great, now what do I do to change it?”  The answer is always the same; small risks in the present.   We can’t change our pasts, but we can heal from them “ Like what?” they ask.  Anything that is big enough to make you nervous, but not so big as to be catastrophic if you fail. 
For EXAMPLE, Sometimes it is as simple as saying “No” to a request.  The key is how it feels.

The first feeling is some kind of implosion (hurt), which is the opposite of explosion. That means you come down very hard on yourself, beating yourself up for being stupid or something.  Many of my clients are very good at that.  I bet you are too.  I have been.

The second is a very strong sense that something is wrong, or that you have done something wrong (guilt).  When I’m in this stage I keep looking at my appointment book because the sense is so strong, like I’ve missed an important appointment.  Just, something is wrong.

The third feeling is a very strong sense of impending doom;(fear) you just know something awful is about to happen.  This is the hardest one to manage because it is full of fear.  I remember being relieved when something went wrong, just to feel relief from that terror.

What these feelings are related to is the expectation of consequences.  If you could put a child’s words to a narrative it would be along the lines of, “Oops. Uhoh, and now I’m really gonna get it.” As an adult the expected consequences don’t happen anymore, then the feelings will gradually dissipate, but not before those three feelings of hurt, guilt and fear are felt through.

It really was that serious for you as a youngster, which brings me to why that is true.  Why do some things we try to change come with ease and others are so difficult.  Like the same battles we have had for ten years with our spouse, or how difficult it is to kick any addiction.  The sticking points are about decisions we made as young children to survive in the family we were born into.

Stay tuned for the next post about how those old decisions continue to rule our lives

Friday, October 7, 2016

A Safe Place To Grieve

Why has a safe place to grieve has become my mission over time?  In retrospect, looking back over the last 35+ years since my daughter’s death, I have been asked and wondered myself, what made healing possible?  How have I been able to live a rich, satisfying life in the face of such wrenching pain and loss?   In the late ‘70s and forward, there wasn’t much available for any kind of grief, especially in small towns.  

The messages and pressure to “get over it”, “time to move on”, “you’re a downer to be around”, was intense and pervasive.  All the messages about, “she’s in a better place, or your lucky to have other children, while well intended were most unhelpful.  The truth is that for the first year at least, nothing helped.  The pain was so intense, all consuming and inescapable that there simply was little relief.  Except the grieving, if I were able to ride the waves of grief, there was temporary relief until the next wave. 

Every bereaved person has to find their own path and does that in their own way and their own time.  There have been many people, books, music and support that made life possible for me but as a bereaved parent and therapist what has been consistent over time as a client and practitioner is the ability and availability of a place to keen and wail.  Most of us have to do that in the night or when no one else is around.  This leaves out the factor of comfort.

Grief is brutal and life changing.  The chasm between the safe place and grief seems to be unbreachable.  I think that that gulf is because of the secrecy surrounding grief, all the injunctions to Man-up, suck it up or a thousand other dismissals and discounts of the seriousness of catastrophic loss.  But the real reason is that if we allow people to have their grief it forces us to change with them, or lose the relationship.  This is a painful choice that is hard to understand.  I heard many remarks along the way that I was not the same as I used to be, or I’m not as nice.  I think that is true because I no longer have any patience for all the PC attitudes and certainly not for BS.

What do I mean by a safe place to grieve?   Basically a room or space that is set aside for the specific purpose of allowing people to do the keening and wailing that is ultimately so healing.  If ou know of such a place, please share so we can all benefit.


Tuesday, September 27, 2016

On The Other Side Of Grief (Stage 6)

Stage 6

            The final stage is called "In Memoriam."  This stage is not mentioned much in the literature but seems to belong because so much has been created out of significant losses. It is the need to do something creative, useful, and meaningful - to create some personal meaning out of an event that seems meaningless and often absurd.  There are many examples of this, such things as foundations, support groups, books, etc.  This kind of writing is mine.

Some final notes:  Grief cannot be denied; only delayed.  When people try to deny and suppress it grief shows up in physical symptoms, due to the stress of so much control.  The physical symptoms most closely related to grief are any number of chronic upper respiratory illnesses.  The hard part is that these are also very real diseases.  It is more an association then a one to one cause/effect.  But over the years I have noticed that people who have experienced loss, and not grieved, tend to catch cold more often and their colds last longer.    

Grief comes in waves that are relatively short in duration, and very intense.  This intense expression of deep feelings leaves one feeling dazed and stunned - briefly - then there is some relief, until the next wave.  Between the waves, life goes on as usual.  Eventually the waves of grief get further apart, less intense and less devastating - like a receding tide.  Grief and guilt go hand-in-hand. Guilt is woven throughout the process.  It is so profoundly a part of our humanness and is the result of being imperfect and often impotent.  As we face our limitations, the guilt gradually disappears.  There is so much in life that we have no control over and no say about.  We are stuck with what life deals us.  Our freedom is in how we choose to deal with that hand.

            Given all the possibilities of how the process can go awry, most people somehow manage to get through and recover.  Usually with grace and dignity.  It is a continual tribute to the human spirit, and I am always impressed.

Arleah K. Shechtman

Monday, September 26, 2016

On The Other Side Of Grief (Stage 5)

            The next stage is acceptance.  This is like a sunrise.  The grieving person begins to get on with life.  Energy and interests, pleasure and joy gradually return.  If the grief work has been done for the bereaved person and the helper, there is a new sense of strength and purpose, and the relationship is deeper and wider than before.   Both feel OK about the relationship and so are able to connect in new, nourishing, and more productive ways.  Both the bereaved person and the friend have to make a myriad of choices to achieve a stage of acceptance.  One of the hard lessons learned throughout the healing is that adults often have to learn how to pick the choice that sucks the least.

Saturday, September 24, 2016

On The Other Side Of Grief (Stage 4)

     The next stage is depression.  This is usually the longest, lasting up to a year or longer in duration.  This is often a very private time - the mourner is deeply internalized.  It looks like withdrawal- and it is.  This is where the major work is done.  Sadness, remorse, guilt, weeping, sighing and a lower level of activity characterize this time.  Life feels bleak, futile and sometimes meaningless.  Most people continue to work and do things as usual, but it is like going through the motions.  That is because most of the energy is being used to recover, much like recovering from major surgery.  There is not much lightness or joy during this time.  Depending on the nature and degree of the loss, this is an existential crisis, an identity crisis; one’s entire life view is being redone.  For example, in dealing with my own bereavement - the death of my 15-year-old daughter - the belief that I could protect my children was shattered.  I realized about eight months after her death that this loss was no guarantee or insurance that I would not lose again.  I realized that I had no exemptions from life, no special privileges.  And perhaps the hardest:  No restitution.  No one would or could make up or replace what I had lost.  I was faced with terrible fear and the choice of whether I wanted to risk loving again.  All those thoughts, feelings and decisions occurred during my very long depression.

            This is an equally difficult time for those around the grieving person.  Grief goes on longer than anyone wants it to, or thinks it should.  Everyone gets sick of it, including the bereft person - and still it goes on.  Hang in, is the message here.  It will end, time does heal.  As helpers, once again we feel our own helplessness and impotence and we want to withdraw.  That is a normal and natural response and to be trusted.  Some distance is necessary at this point because so much of the work is private and internal.  Just sitting together, walking, or a brief handclasp is the most required and the most effective way through this time.
            This is the rebuilding time after a shattering experience and all the little bits and pieces that take so long to accept need to be put back together, often in a different configuration.  Once again this is the continued evolution of a new history together.

     The last phase a person can be stuck in (chronic grief)  is depression.  This is really hard to call because depression is also the longest part of recovery.  We often get weary of the length of depression.  So much happens during this time; the most significant choice being made is whether or not to pick up and go on with life.  A person stuck in depression uses the loss as the reason to stay in place.  The loss is used as a sort of brake and break from moving too fast.  Sometimes the person just stops and never seems to get moving again.

            I will never forget how a friend of mine helped me move on.  About two years after my daughter's death, he commented that I used her death like a black ace, to hide behind.  I, of course, was very hurt and indignant at first, but as time passed I realized he was right.  Again, it was thre the kindest.  I am glad he and others cared enough for me to want me back.

            This is also another example of the new person and new relationship emerging from the old.  Because people pursued me, and because I chose to live, I have been able to recover.  My goal has become to turn around and give back to others who have just begun their journey.

            Being stuck in depression is probably related to an early loss of self.  More than any other stage, this may require some additional professional help.  It is broader and more pervasive than most other feelings and harder to define and get to the root.  It is amazing to me how many people sense that they are stuck and simply need support to follow through.  Perhaps some reassurance that they are not bad or crazy - just stuck for the moment.

            In many instances, professional counseling is the only help available.  This is due to not having families and communities easily available anymore.  It is also due to the strange lack of permission in our culture to grieve.  The further away from the event, the less it is OK to still feel sad or be mourning.  After 3-6 months the person is expected to be back to normal, and after the first year fewer and fewer people even remember the loss.  It takes a good three years to feel good after moving geographically from one home to another, let alone a death, divorce or a major illness.  The less tangible and concrete the issue, the more pressure to forget it, or the implication that it is only in our head, but not real pain

Counseling offers an understanding ear, supportive assurance, cognitive understanding, and simply a safe place to continue the process.  For a person to admit they need help, and then to actually go for help, takes enormous courage and strength - because the message is that we should be tough, handle our own problems, and after all, this is "only feelings.”