Thursday, December 17, 2009

You Can Go Home Again



For better or worse, we first learn about making and keeping relationships in our families. During our formative years, our parents establish patterns with us; patterns of connection and separation, of independence and dependence, of give and take, that literally shape our developing brains and how they work for the rest of our lives.

The problem, of course, is that this is a very imperfect process. Our parents have inherited their own patterns from their own parents, families and culture and combined them into their own style. Very few of these emotional patterns are conscious; we rarely notice or examine them.  This automatic process is why family emotional patterns are so often repeated generation to generation. When they work for us, they help us develop into caring, connected, loving human beings. When they don’t work well, we can be shaped by anxiety, demands, rigid roles and expectations, and inflexible rules for behavior. Of course, most of us have a unique, messy combination of both.

One of the most emotionally charged family experiences we share are the subtle and not so subtle family expectations that swirl around “The Holidays.” Whether the holiday is Christmas, Passover or the cultural New Year, many families have traditions that involve returning “home,” visiting parents or relatives, eating, and sharing worship or rituals together year after year. For adults who have left their parental home and established an independent life, these expectations can arouse surprisingly high anxiety and worry. We can be caught off-guard by overwhelming feelings of obligation, excitement, frustration, pleasure, anger or any combination of feelings about the family traditions we know but now have a small measure of distance from. And if we add into the mix the distance and cost of travel, or the demands of college, work or a new spouse or child, it can feel like a chaotic world inside our heads.

Most of us solve this internal family stress in just a few ways.

We may promise to return home, but find a conflict at the last minute. We may go, but
bring along a friend, spouse or child, and use them as an emotional buffer. We may go and find the old emotional patterns so arousing we eat, drink, sleep, or spend too much while there. We retreat to the computer, the new novel we brought, or constantly check our smart phones for communication from the outside world. And still others of us find the whole returning to our family so stressful we end up in huge, raging family fights just when we want to be relaxed and connected.

It is hard to return home to our families. We want to behave well, but find our own reactions surprising and troubling. How can we stay connected in a more healthy way to the people and traditions we had growing up, without completely throwing them out? How can we be calmer under the stress of bad communication, or alcoholism, marital conflict, unspoken rivalries, disappointments or fear?

Family systems theory understands the family as both the source of this emotional stress as well as the soil in which new, more flexible personal patterns of connection need to grow. How can we change our point of view of family and behave in slightly more helpful, relaxed ways?




The answer is two fold.

Firstly, we must recognize that we are part of that same family that makes us so confused. We need to return to our families over time, in small amounts, and become a witness or observer of our family’s emotional process. We can enter into our family process as both participant and student. What do we notice? How do this family work? How do I participate in these patterns? What if I were to do something slightly different than before?

And secondly, we make a steady effort to talk with, deal with, and know each member of our family one to one. When we can have real, face to face relationships with the people in our extended emotional system, we stop behaving with them in old, rigid, familiar ways, and have to deal with them as people in the here and now. And not surprisingly, they have the same experience with us.

These basic emotional changes are the building blocks to creating a more flexible self when dealing with our families from a distance. We don’t have to cut our families out of our lives, and we don’t have to simply accept their unique problems and bear our burdens silently. Observe your family system, and focus on your relationships with people individually. You can go home again, with a shift in purpose and perspective, and find yourself better connected and less anxious.


Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Not So Fast

I'm not sure I have anything useful to add when it comes to discussing the extra-marital affairs of Tiger Woods. The whole wide world has been writing and talking about him, and I will say I am now officially bored. (I'd rather talk about actor Meredith Baxter, Alex Keaton's "Mom" on sit-com Family Ties, who disclosed the same day Tiger came clean, that she is now officially out as a lesbian. She was afraid to talk on national TV, but did it anyway with Matt Lauer on the Today Show. It turns out she got overshadowed in the media by Tiger's failures, and I'll bet she is glad, glad, glad!)

Three observations about affairs, though:

1.  Affairs are not about sex. They're about chronic anxiety, and people taking that anxious energy out of the marriage (triangling), creating a new relationship that they believe can soothe or contain their emotional muddy water. Affairs don't and can't. 

2. It's very difficult to repair a marriage after a partner stomps all over the intimacy. And that is because affairs are secrets. Intimacy is about clarity, vulnerability and emotional trust; it dies with secrets. Getting that trust back is something only about 50% of the couples who seek therapy after affairs achieve.

3. Affairs are a bit like emotional barometers; they often indicate that a couple's emotional system is stressed and broken. Each partner owns a part of that problem. While the "fault" lies with the one who does the cheating, the repair must come from each partner, looking at his/her own emotional life, and working on the parts they can improve.

We live in a culture that so distorts sexuality it is used to sell everything from cars to bath soap, phones to teen music videos. Why are we so surprised when someone who makes his living by that media culture acts out sexually? We have a part in Tiger's mess. And it's not just that we have put him on a pedestal and are dying to watch him fall.  We have made this sexualized culture, and this is how many people in it dysfunction.



 

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Instincts and Drives: Powerful Stuff

Human beings regularly ignore the fact that we are mammals: warm-blooded, live-birthing animals who share a lot of DNA with beings as diverse as chimpanzees and elephants.

When it comes to thinking, we win, hands down. At least, most of the time. But we often forget how deeply we are designed to do certain things, like eat, sleep, defend, or mate.

The deer in this photo is dead. It killed itself by head-butting a 640 lb. bronze elk statue in a Wisconsin backyard. In the rutting season, deer will defend territory, attempting to secure mating rights and sending the less powerful males on to other acreage.

I post it because I found it an astonishing image. Mammals, driven by the powerful brain chemicals of hormones, will do a lot of strange things. Like head-butting a statue to death.

Research proves again and again that human beings underestimate the power of instinct and arousal on their own behavior. This one fact of mammalian biology may help us understand why we keep doing what we do, despite our own good intentions: eat more than we should; pressure another into sexual activity despite our more clear-headed promises; start fights when cooler heads should prevail; rest or play when we should work.

It's not quite the Animal Kingdom in our heads, but at times, it can come close. How does remembering that you have powerful animal instincts change, concern or alert you to your own humanity? It's worth pondering. (I've been wondering about people with brain or thought disorders, and whether they can truly be held accountable for some of their most anti-social behaviors...)

Wherever your conclusions about instincts and arousal patterns, thinking is the one thing you have going for you that this unfortunate, driven deer did not.


Photo Credit: Mark Brye, via La Crosse (WI) Tribune

Thursday, November 12, 2009

What Exactly is Closure?

Convicted mass murderer John Muhammad was executed this week in Virginia. He and a teenage accomplice went on a three week killing spree in October, 2002, that left 10 people dead and a whole region of the country afraid.

Reports of the execution included select comments from some of the victims' survivors. Many spoke about getting or not getting, a sense of "closure" with his death. I have been wondering, as I often do when people use this popular emotional term, just what they mean.

I think that closure, in this context, has come to mean this: I can't forgive, and I can't forget. But at least I have some sense of justice done, and that closes the book on that nightmare. I can sleep at night without endlessly spinning on the fact that the one I love is dead, and the one who killed her is alive. I think that closure in the case of state execution may be a soft, acceptable term for vengeance.

But people say they find "closure" when some hidden secret is revealed, or when they find the answer to some perplexing mystery, like the disappearance of a loved one. People don't say "I have closure" when they forgive someone, or when they have attended a funeral for one lost to cancer or accident.


"Closure" is a contemporary image which means, I think, I can put this part of my life to rest. I can close the door on this room and finally walk away. I can shut this window, this file, this book, all the images we conjure of things that are open and unfinished that once closed, we can put down or away or forget. 

But in the end, it's a mirage. Because we will always have our whole life within us, and the whole of us to contend with from day to day. Nothing is ever really completely finished, is it? until the day we die. And even then, even then, God is not finished.

So, is closure just a wish for an end? That is my best guess on how we use it. Yes, we wish for our nightmare to end. And we call down closure upon it. Knowing, perhaps, it's just a dream. But we call for it, nonetheless.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Secondary Trauma

Lord, have mercy.

We have endured another mass shooting in our nation, this time on a military base. It will take time to sort out the details of this horrible crime, but we are impatient to know: was this an act of terrorism? The shooter is a Muslim, and some have reported that he shouted to Allah as he fired his weapons. There will be a good deal to learn of this man in the weeks ahead.

Of great interest to me: he is a psychiatrist who worked with soldiers suffering with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Mental health professionals of all kinds who regularly work with trauma survivors often find that hour after hour of listening to people recount horror is traumatizing. Without regular and systematic debriefing of their own work, therapists lose their own resilience and begin to suffer a secondary PTSD. They begin to show symptoms of chronic anxiety, restlessness, easy startle reflex, difficulty sleeping, intrusive images of trauma, and hypervigilance in the same way soldiers returning from battle can.


I wonder if this doctor, whose healing work helped soldiers return to their lives after battle, was waging a private battle of his own with nightmares, fears and overwhelming anxiety. Would he have been able or willing to share that suffering with others in the military? How are these fears linked to his natural anxieties about being deployed to the battle zone? Are there systems in place to have therapists working in PTSD debrief and consult with others about their cases and experiences?

Helping others recover mental health is not work for the faint of heart and mind. The very best healers understand that they are naturally effected by what they hear, and need help for their own pain. Perhaps this tragedy will highlight the continuing true costs of war: that the horrors of destroying others in battle don't stop at a nation's border. War is hell, and it exacts a toll far wider than we can imagine.

Oh God: hear our prayer.