Archive for July, 2007

Sometimes There is No Silver Lining

Saturday, July 28th, 2007

Clouds With a Silver LiningI once asked a pessimist friend of mine why he persisted in expecting the worst of every situation. He responded with a variation of an old proverb: “They told me to cheer up; things could get worse! So I cheered up. And they were right, things got worse!”

I have to admit he touched upon the roots of despair: the repetition of disaster. Oh sure, we can all deal with the occasional crisis, the one-time emergency. Even an out and out disaster can bring out the hero or heroine in us, the chance to show we have the right stuff. But give any of us a series of even minor failures, and the staunchest optimist begins to have trouble finding the silver lining.

People cope with these times in various ways. Some talk about “a run of bad luck.” Others blame it on “bad karma” and try to figure out what they did to deserve such trials. But eventually, faced with a long enough series of unexpected blows, most of us end up like Job wailing out a despairing “Why Me?”

There isn’t any good answer, of course. Well-meaning friends who spout off lines like “Into every life a little rain must fall,” are asking for a black eye! Let’s face it: everybody has times of despair when nothing will cheer them up. Climbing out of this kind of hopelessness doesn’t happen overnight. But there are steps you can take to nurture the seeds of hope, and to slow down the sense of impending doom.

The best kind of hope is based on reality. Trying to cheer up by pretending that a miracle will occur will only make things worse in the long run. Building your hopes on illusion will only set you up for a bigger fall. If you’re $20,000 in debt and your spouse has filed for divorce, don’t count on winning the Lottery this week, or on your spouse’s having a change of heart.

Above all, don’t fall prey to the Scarlett O’Hara Syndrome of “I won’t think about it now. I’ll think about it tomorrow.” If you’re sliding downhill into despair, complete denial of your problems will only rob you of a chance to minimize their destructive effects. Imagine what a different ending “Gone With The Wind” would have had if Scarlett had only thought about the effects of her actions!

Start by getting your problems into some manageable framework. Write down a list of the crises facing you. Such a list has limits: you’ll find it is not endless, and that itself can bring a sense of relief. Now list the worst possible effects or outcome of each problem. Find out exactly what it is you are dreading. Vague fears are often more unsettling than knowing exactly what it is you fear.

Now go over your list to see what you might do to deal with each situation, or at least to avoid its worst consequences Write down each idea that occurs to you. Remember that chances are that you could handle each situation on its own. It’s only their combined effect that has you feeling overwhelmed. Break them into small manageable pieces, and promise yourself to do at least one thing daily to improve the situation.

You don’t have to believe that things will get better overnight to build hope. Be realistic about accepting how bad they are, and start improving the situation one step at a time. You don’t have to pretend a cheeriness you don’t feel. Cry if you need to. Then start taking steps to make sure you have a little less to cry about tomorrow.

Who knows? One day soon, you may wake up and find that things are no longer getting worse. You may even realize that they seem to be getting better. And that day is worth working for!

Every Action Produces a Reaction

Tuesday, July 24th, 2007

Newton's CradleMost people accept that there is room for improvement in their lives and their behavior. Nobody’s life is perfect, and every unpleasant feeling or uncomfortable situation is a motivation for change. Why then do we often find it difficult to change?

Everybody who has tried to break a habit like smoking or chewing their fingernails knows this paradox. Every therapist who has watched clients resisting the very changes they said they wanted can attest to the strength of this dilemma.

We can often see clearly what we want to change, and yet have a devil of a time actually making those changes. Why?

There is an explanation. The process only seems mysterious because most people fail to realize how interconnected the parts of their life are. We tend to see things in separate pieces, as if they were in categories that existed in a vacuum. We don’t always make allowances for the way we have fitted all those pieces together. Changing one piece can disturb a subtle balance we have achieved. And that disturbance can be enough to derail our attempts to change.

Many people who complain of man unhappy marriage, for example, fail to realize how many adaptations they have made in order to keep that marriage going. People who have developed apparently self-destructive behaviors in order to cope with an abusive or severely disturbed spouse may find their marriage deteriorating as their personal health improves.

People with severe work or stress problems may find that the situation in their workplace is working against their attempts to build a satisfying life. People in families with unhealthy behavior patterns may find the rest of their family complaining as the so-called patient gets better.

We all live in a complex set of relationships. Trying to improve the parts of our lives that cause us pain requires that we also make adjustments in the parts of our lives that give us satisfaction. This doesn’t mean that we can’t change. And it doesn’t mean that we have to choose between old relationships and new ones.

Many people panic and stop making changes because they are afraid of suddenly having to choose between their old life and a new one.

Any program for change, whether done by yourself or with the aid of therapy, requires a careful evaluation of both the good and the bad parts of your life. Don’t expect the people around you to wholeheartedly accept your ‘improvements.’ They may see these changes as threatening to the status quo that they have come to depend on. You yourself may sometimes feel threatened by the changes you thought you wanted.

One reason that long-lasting change occurs slowly is that going slowly gives you time to make adjustments everywhere in your life. You can bring the best of the past with you, even as you build new ways of behaving. Let the other people in your life share in the process. Find out what adjustments they need to feel safer with your changes.

Evaluate your own priorities, and don’t be upset when you can’t change unwanted habits overnight. Working slowly to adapt your whole emotional and social environment can make changing easier and smoother. You don’t have to be a different person to improve your life. Subtle changes can be more rewarding than overnight makeovers!

Humor Is a Funny Thing

Saturday, July 14th, 2007

Picture of a Stilted ClownWriting regularly gives me a chance to explore many different thoughts and feelings. Sometimes I’m very serious, but other times I can’t help laughing as I write. Erma Bombeck I’m not, but I enjoy sharing my light-hearted moods with you, the reader.

Without humor, life would be unbearably flat, and our conversations exceedingly dull. Our lack or perspective and balance would make our world seem too grim to bear.

I’m always amazed when people complain about my humor. I accept that my jokes aren’t always terrific. But I’m really shocked when the reason turns out to be because some people don’t feel it’s ever appropriate for a professional to ever be funny. Some people think that adults, especially doctors, should take life seriously. No laughter, no frivolity, just the facts, ma’am. (By the way, if you’re too young to recognize the reference, check out any version of Dragnet. Those detectives are so serious they’re funny.)

While there are some topics I never make light of, I have to admit that generally I find life pretty funny. Laughter is one way of admitting we don’t know all the answers, and that we often get our priorities mixed up. The ability to laugh at ourselves is very special. Without it, we take ourselves much too seriously.

If you can laugh at yourself, you can admit there’s room for improvement. When you laugh at life’s ups and downs, you are acknowledging that it isn’t perfect. I like the older satirists like Tom Lehrer and Mark Russell who made us realize how funny politics can be. Or Erma Bombeck and Peg Bracken who made us smile at home life. (I found them especially useful in those years when I was raising three sons!) While world politics and family life are serious areas, laughing at them can keep us from despair.

Despair makes us apathetic, but laughter doesn’t. Hopefulness keeps us moving towards change. Laughter is hope. It makes us realize that we are smart enough to see through the problem, and strong enough to do something about it. Even in situations that seem overwhelming, laughing at something silly can do more to create energy for a change than crying over the inevitable. And nothing defuses a fight faster than when both parties suddenly start laughing over the silliness of it all. Laughter can help reduce pain, improve your immune system, and increase your overall health.

People who are anxious and depressed have often lost the ability to laugh, especially at themselves. Everything seems serious and dreary. You don’t have to be a Pollyanna, always looking for the good side of bad things. Nor should you plaster on a fake smile and pretend things aren’t as bad as they seem. We’re not talking about that old advice to count your blessings, although that can certainly be helpful. No, we’re talking about the fact that we can all look pretty funny when we’re climbing out of the pits.

The best kind of humor can help us feel closer to other people, not farther away. It can give us hope by refreshing our perspective. It can keep us from being pompous or self-righteous. Laughter makes us part of the human race, and that’s a pretty funny race to be running!

Need Help?

Monday, July 2nd, 2007

A photo of someone reaching for helpOne of the ironies of life is that when we most need help, it’s often hard to know where to go to get it! As a psychologist, I am often faced with clients who are afraid to tell anyone that they are getting professional help. It’s a variation of the belief that ‘anyone who goes to a shrink is nuts.’

I personally feel that the opposite is usually the case. Someone who enters therapy is often healthier than average because they recognize their problems and are trying to work on them. Furthermore, they are smart enough to seek the help of an objective and experienced professional. But the old stigma attached to ‘emotional problems’ continues to haunt all of us.

Many people feel that they ought to be able to solve their problems all by themselves. They bottle up their anxieties until they are like a pressure cooker without a safety valve. They develop signs of stress, such as irritability, depression, or even physical complaints like headaches or ulcers. They may turn to alcohol or drug abuse to further mask the pain of their unshared problems. No one is an island, and none of us is so perfect that we can solve all out problems alone. It just doesn’t work!

Other people believe that it is a sign of weakness to consult an ‘outsider’ about their problems. They unburden themselves to family or friends. Unfortunately, those close to us are usually too close to be of much help. Our friends may not have the objectivity to help us choose between alternatives. They may not have the knowledge to know how to help us, even when their intentions are good.

No one can ‘tell’ you the answer to your problem. A good therapist will help you explore and understand your difficulties. He or she may even suggest things to try, and help you experiment with new behaviors and evaluate the results. But competent professionals know that you cannot wave a magic wand and solve problems instantly.

All too often our friends, precisely because they don’t like to see us in pain, offer advice or suggest simple solutions without really encouraging us to figure out exactly what is happening. This can be very dangerous. We may become more frustrated trying out ‘answers’ that don’t fit our specific situations. We may begin to resent friends who try to simplify problems we have been suffering with for weeks or months.

The next time you find yourself struggling with pent-up feelings and continuing unhappiness, ask yourself the following questions:

If your car had engine trouble, would you take it to an experienced mechanic or ask all your friends to offer their opinions on what is wrong?

If you broke your leg, would you insist on handling it by yourself?

The way to save time, money, and hassles is to invest in the services of a professional who has worked with these kinds of problems before. Are your health and happiness worth less than your body or your car? Think about it!