The Lego model of your brain

This is the entry that I try to finish the week before going on holiday. So to make it somewhat easier I thought I would try to combine psychology and Lego. Here it goes.

In the past few weeks, with various clients, I used an example of the brain built out of Lego. Specifically our brain’s ability to pay attention to stuff, or not, depending on the brain in question and our development of very important concepts like attention, patience, withholding immediate gratification, mindfulness, self acceptance, conflict, and vulnerability. All topics that by themselves are daunting and challenging, and have shown up here or there in past blogs of mine.

So this time we will use Lego or Legos to simplify our experiment.

To start this exercise off I want you to imagine a room built out of Lego. Scale is important, so when I begin to imagine this room, I think of a room built to the scale of the little Lego sized people. The Lego minifigures are two inches tall according to people who know that sort of thing. Your Lego room may not involve the people, but let’s face it: the Lego people are really cool. And then we can all imagine our little Lego homunculus (or homunculi) inside.

We all start with one big room. It is where our attention is focused primarily. Its function is to deal with any present need that we have. It can be big like a Viking long house, with ornate fireplaces at both ends, a wooden (lego) roof, and a long table with benches and filled with Lego cups and plates and other decorations. Maybe your Lego brain room just has a foldable chair and a potted plant. Or it is decorated in nothing but mid century modern Lego style. If that is your thing, all right then. Maybe it goes on and on, endlessly like something out of Doctor Who—but keep in mind this is where your ability to attend to things lives: there has to be a limit somewhere. But it is entirely your room. It can say whatever you want to say about yourself and your preferences. But it should also be true.

Unless you enjoy taking part in mental exercises where you lie to yourself. I don’t recommend that.

For some people their room can fill up rather quickly due to the demands of interacting with their environment. I imagine a lot of Lego minipeople running around my Viking dinning room. Aliens, dogs, snowmen, whatever. It’s my brain and I get to decide what represents what inside of it. The more full our big room gets, the more stress we are apt to feel, the more overloaded or overwhelmed as well.

Some people like a busy room. Some like a quieter room. Some of us are extroverts just as some of us are introverts.

Some of us are going to feel more vulnerable with a certain level of activity in that room than others would. Some people have very, very full rooms before they even begin to get anxious or vulnerable on a scale of 3 or 4.

The great thing about Legos and this model is that you can always build more rooms that are connected to the main room. I called them antechambers (since my Lego brain room wants to be a castle, apparently) but you can call them whatever you want.

As a therapist, when working, I have a number of counseling specific antechambers that open up when I am with a client. One room is full of my own personal reactions and emotions that get stirred up doing emotional work. That would be called the countertransference antechamber. I have a room that is also there just to observe the kinds of things that go into the countertransference antechamber. That would be called the Observing Ego Antechamber. I deal with those two rooms much later, after the session is over and the client is gone.

My need as a therapist is to be emotionally available and present to the needs of my client, therefore, I put my needs (a hundred or just one) into an antechamber so that I can focus on my client’s needs. I make my castle/viking/sometimes a spaceship Lego room available to mirror whatever my client is sharing with me. That would be required (in this example) to create an environment conducive for empathy to exist.

I do that because I have had practice. And because I have some capacity to do it at all.

Not all people are created equally. Not all people are as adept at moving needs and attention from the main room to an antechamber.

Some people may not even know how to use antechambers.

Every thing that happens to them happens in that one big Lego room. And they can have great difficulty putting things off, or prioritizing, or dealing with anxiety (used in the most general sense).

Anxiety, in this example, is the sort of feeling that we can all develop where we lose touch with our ability to focus on what is immediate and what is clear (or what is in the main room) at the moment.

Content from other rooms come flooding into the main room, and it is quite distracting. Obvious examples of this are when the work antechamber or the money antechamber floods our big room. Relationships, family, intimacy and trust also have a way of flooding our main Lego room with needs that never seem to stop, well, needing our attention.

I think building specific antechambers happens whether we mean to or not. I have specific rooms for specific family members. I have rooms built for past romantic partners. Rooms built for past negative experiences or traumas or memory specific rooms. Rooms specific to hobbies, or moods, or appetites. Build enough related antechambers, like family, and you have yourself a wing of antechambers devoted to family. Or a wing consisting of rooms containing intense emotions. A wing for past jobs, etc. We do this to give some clarity to all the many different connections and experiences that exist in our minds.

The things we struggle with, for example, negative self talk, or criticism, is like the contents of that one big (perhaps huge) room spilling out of its specific room and invading our central room and getting in the way of us being happy, or dancing with the Vikings on the tables, or whatever.

PTSD would be an example of where the emotions and the experience of a particular situation not just leaves its assigned room, but takes over the main room causing us to experience symptoms and reactions of the event again as if it were happening in the present moment.

Does that make sense?

I hope this playful but completely feasible example of the mind helps the next time you are having some anxiety or an unwanted experience. Imagine taking that content and creating an antechamber for it, and shutting the door. That could allow one to better focus on what you want to focus on in the main room. You can always go back to that antechamber later when the time is right.

Let’s talk more about this Lego model in a few weeks. Until then!

 

 

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The Therapy is Dandy Vulnerability Scale.

Time for something different, and an actual tool to use with all of the latest talk around our own vulnerability. I perused the internet and didn’t find a very exciting scale already out there, so I decided we can make our own damn scale.

The Therapy is Dandy Vulnerability Scale.

It’s easy to use, and this post will tell you all about it.

The first key feature of this scale is there is no such thing as a point on the scale where you feel no sense of vulnerability. Vulnerability is inevitable. Life is a constant state of vulnerability. Most of us may not have to struggle for food, water or shelter on a daily basis, or avoid running into bears of snakes, but we are here to survive. And that survival is not guaranteed. Right?

There are only 5 stages on this scale. The higher the level of vulnerability, the more difficult it will be for us to maintain calm mindfulness and rational problem solving behaviors. Said another way, the higher on the vulnerability scale we go, the more emotionally reactive we can become. Unless we practice our mindfulness, our awareness, and our deep, calm, and soothing breaths. Yet another way of saying it is, the more vulnerable we feel, the more likely our reptilian brain will respond with fight/flight/flee responses UNLESS we develop the expectation of this occurring and then practice our mindfulness skills thanks to our great big prefrontal cortex.

One of the things I find annoying about scales (other than this one) and anything that tries to be helpful by being reductive is that they all tends to generalize too much for the sake of the scale.

People. You. Me. Your mom, are going to experience vulnerability differently. So, my standard level of vulnerability (SLV for short) is going to look very different than yours, or your mothers, or Donald Trumps. That is perhaps why no good scale exists. And it may be why this scale is a bad idea to attempt. But I am going to try it.

To address this issue, I have included some examples. These examples will not be in exactly the same place for everyone. Remember, as a certain Prisoner one declared: you are not a number, you are a person. An individual. If your SLV is triggered by an event your partner would put on level 1 but you react to it as a level 3, then clearly this is really important information for you and your partner to know.

Every example given on the scale is possibly a level 1, 2, 3, and 4 for some of us. I am including them in the order provided to give a sense of the continuum of vulnerability that any of these events may cause someone. For someone with PTSD from past military service for example, fireworks may or may not be a level 2 event. The same adjustment would apply for an experienced ER nurse and her reaction to seeing blood at work, as opposed to a fresh out of graduate school kindergarten teacher seeing blood at work. Your experiences will affect your SLV accordingly. But I have put something down as a starting point for us to consider. Maybe the best thing for you to do after reading this post is come up with your own examples for each level that accurately represent your vulnerability.

If you believe in your own invulnerability, or that such a thing truly exists, I direct you to your local bookstore’s fantasy/sci-fi/comics section(s). And happy reading. I mean it. Read some Neil Gaiman, it might teach you something about the universality of vulnerability.

The Scale:

Level 1 Baseline Vulnerability.

Like how it feels to be reading this blog. Or for me to be writing this blog. Or being on a regular airplane flight with negligible turbulence. No big whoop. Unless it is, if simply reading this blog is elevating your sensitivity to being vulnerable, then try level 2.

Level 2 Mild Vulnerability.

Like a first date, a job interview that you feel prepared and confident about, driving in regular but busy traffic, a single woman walking down a busy urban street with at least one friend. You being a client at your counseling session talking about easy topics. Waiting in line at an airport through regular security. Unless it is not that simply. If not, then you need to look at level 3.

Level 3 Heightened Vulnerability.

Like your wedding day and/or the day you receive divorce papers, a job interview for your dream job when you have a hangover, driving in bumper to bumper traffic without air conditioning, a single woman walking down a busy urban street, alone, while being catcalled by men who should know better. You at your counseling session in the middle of an empty chair exercise. Being asked out of the airport security line into one of those examination rooms. Being on an airplane with a lot of turbulence.

Level 4 Intense Vulnerability.

A car accident or a near miss of a serious car accident. A physical fight. An act of violence. A panic attack. Witnessing any of these things happening in front of you to someone else.

Level 5 Flight/Flight/Flee. It doesn’t get any higher than this.

So now that the basic framework is done for the scale, how about you come up with examples that illustrate each level of appropriate anxiety for yourself? Next time we can work on it a little more, I think. (Sorry Donald T, I don’t really want to talk about you.)

Until next time, friends.

 

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How is this (other) person feeling right now?

That’s the question that starts us off this time.

It is part mindfulness, part emotional intelligence, part je ne sais quoi.

It’s the opposite of emotional reactivity. Indeed, when we are being emotionally reactive, that is exactly what is preventing us from being able to look outside of our own experience and attempt to ask the question: what is this (other) person feeling right now?

Emotional reactivity isn’t the only explanation for why some of us are not that great at asking the question, “How is this person feeling right now?”but it is definitely something we all can learn to do better. Those of us who are introverts or have some form of social anxiety could do well to remember this kind of question. Because it gets us out of our own heads. It forces us to interact with our environment and slowly, hopefully, to the realization that not everything is as terrible as what we think (in our own heads).

It is a very excellent question to begin asking yourself whenever a conversation between you and friend, or partner or family member begins to get heated. And rather than step on the gas and keep to your talking points (your content), slow down and pay attention to your process. What are you feeling right now, and why is everything getting so heated all of a sudden? It’s a skill, more than anything. So that means you are going to need to practice it.

Even during a conversation like the one above and maybe it’s the other person who seems to be getting emotionally worked up. You, the listening person, can ask them directly—hey, what are you feeling right now? This is a great approach. You are slowing down the conversation, you are bringing both sides of the conversation into greater awareness of what feelings are erupting. You are also showing the other person that you see them reacting—this is very important, even if the person is angry as heck at you, you are in a sense validating that they have strong feelings at that moment!

A former client shared the following with me. It was during our last session and they wanted to share with me something about what they had learned during their time in therapy. “We stay with feelings and explore our feelings (even when they suck) to better experience those emotions without judgment. We do all of this in order to be okay with ourselves and (accept) our feelings. To get back to feeling okay, with ourselves, our environment, the entire universe.”

Very well said. The idea of experiencing emotions without judgment is good not just for us, but for when we interact with others too

So what can be said when someone is not very good at asking: what is this person feeling right now? I think I have an example.

I may have told this story before, but it is worth repeating in this context. During my practicum in graduate school I was assigned a client who was housebound due to her diagnosis of agoraphobia.

Weekly therapy consisted of home visits. One piece of advice the former and more experienced counselor of this client gave to me was to encourage a kind of reframing of the client’s perspective. In other words, to challenge what can be an extremely limiting and debilitating disorder. A person with agoraphobia—to greatly simplify matters—doesn’t feel safe except at their own home, or sometimes even their own bedroom. Part of the persistent negative self talk (funny isn’t it how that shows up everywhere?) can be worries and fears that when outside of the house, other people are judging them, critiquing them, or otherwise intrusively watching them.

So, the piece of advice I was given was to try to be irreverent with my client’s debilitating condition. Doesn’t sound easy does it? It isn’t but that didn’t stop me. Part of therapy is to challenge our own erroneous or false beliefs and expectations. The client in question didn’t just have agoraphobia, but she was also diagnosed with PTSD. She had experienced many traumas in her life. The idea that she had to be on guard at all times, vigilant, is a common reaction to a person who has been assaulted. That kind of mindset can lead a person to answering the very real question: am I safe here? With a definitive NO, I AM NOT SAFE. And so being home is the only place where that fear is lessened.

This client eventually did improve. And we progressed to the point where I would go to the grocery store with her and was present to help her process her internal negative self talk. The client’s concern about being safe and people watching her every move at the grocery store came up almost immediately. The irreverent question that I began asking her ended up being something along the lines of: What makes you so special? Do you really think all these people at the store are really staring at you? Are you so special that strangers are going out of their way to watch you?

In a way the irreverent questions were a kind of back door approach for the client to evaluate the question for herself: What am I feeling right now? And what she was feeling was fear, and fright and all kinds of things. But she could stop herself from erroneously thinking that the other grocery shoppers were out to get her, or were serious threats to her. The fear remained for her, but it was something she learned to better manage. And that is something we all need to learn how to do well.

Getting back to the question then: What is this (other) person feeling right now?

The question can also show up in couples therapy often. Despite one’s best intentions, a partner may lose sight of what their partner is indeed feeling (right now). Some partners may be unfortunately poorly equipped to ask this question or even guess at the answer.

Asking yourself the question from time to time is good practice. Taking note of whatever seems interesting or important to you. I am feeling happy and excited at the moment. And why is that? I might ask myself. Because my caseload is expanding again, I am on three different insurance panels now, and I am hours away from a mini vacation. Or I just got off the phone with my father and am feeling both sad and angry about a situation I seem to not be able to change. Fair enough. I just did a self-assessment.

Now you try it.

And keep at it.

Next time! More Trump? Maybe?

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Donald Trump

The Therapy is Dandy’s Guidebook to having a Narcissist for a Parent (and Potential President). Chapter 26.

If my calendar is right, it has been since November of 2014 since I have added a new “chapter” to the guidebook. Happy to be back in it. Sit down and buckle up. We will make up for lost time.

Honestly I did not think this update needed to be written back in 2015 when Trump announced his intention to run for president. There would be so many articles critiquing him, attacking him, just dismissing him as (just) another entitled white male with incredibly thin skin. And there have been hundreds of articles about just all that. Thousands even? But he is still winning despite everything. So here I am, back in the guidebook business.

On one hand, the last thing I think the world needs is another article about him. It doesn’t stop the rollercoaster he and the United States seem to be on. If anything the attention—negative, condescending or shaming—just seems to keep him going.

So let’s refresh ourselves with some narcissistic traits:

INFLATED SENSE OF SELF

According to this research, narcissists are not necessarily unaware of their grandiose behavior—they may actually revel in it. With that acceptance of their grandiosity is also their belief that other people are less important than they are. So not only would Trump be flattered that there is yet another article being written about him, he would also assume those of you reading such an article are less intelligent, less successful—just less than he believes himself to be.

And this is perhaps why he seems so unflappable to criticism up to this point. His point of view could very well be: oh, these peasants, they just don’t understand. How simple they are. I can’t make myself understood by them. That’s why I surround myself with only the best people.

This speaks to the experience we all may have in trying to address our grievances to a narcissist. They just don’t see other people as on the same page as themselves.

INORDINATELY HIGH SELF ESTEEM:

I don’t need to give an example of this for him, do I? I mean this characteristic probably deserves its own new Oxford dictionary endorsed adjective: trump-like. The guy is only ever talking about how amazing, incredible, how beautiful everything about his life is.

Earlier in the year, I had an exchange online and the issue that came up for me was that Trump is more like a caricature of a narcissist. An uber narcissist. A narcissist in an anime film about real estate developers—he is just so over the top in his character, that unfortunately the perception of the public may turn to assuming that all narcissists have to act and look like a Donald Trump.

You know that is not true. It isn’t even close. But the word narcissism is being linked to Trump the way the New York Times links hipsters and Portland, Oregon

The danger here is having him represent the entire spectrum of Narcissistic Personality Disorder, or even the gray area of narcissistic enough.

Trump can’t be the poster boy for narcissism for the very reason it would give almost every other narcissist alive a way to duck the accusation: What, I am not a narcissist—I am nothing like Donald Trump, you know that!

ENTERTAINS UNREALISTIC FANTASIES ABOUT SUCCESS AND POWER

He likes to tell us he is great at winning. He is also making ridiculous promises. Promises he just keeps repeating with no realistic attempt at explaining. And when that wall (or whatever) doesn’t get built, he will surely have a scapegoat to blame rather than his own unrealistic expectations. All that anger he is going to redirect to whatever he wants to point it at—the muslims, politicians, liberals, the media, Congress, single mothers, whoever.

So why is he winning? Great question. Why am I even trying to answer that question? With apologies to Game of Thrones, I drink and I know things about narcissism.

He is promising an unattainable reality, and speaking in simple, basic repetitive mantras that only a frightened child could believe to be true. He is himself a fiction selling a fiction to a population that is overly frightened and ripe to be manipulated. We live in a frightening, violent, unkind world whatever your race, gender, or affiliation is. And we seem to have hit a wall where it comes to believing that the powers that be can fix things for us. Life is complicated and the answers to those complicated problems involve complicated solutions. But the people on main street don’t feel like they can wait for that. They are hungry, they are poor, and they are tired. So here comes a confident, successful man selling a fiction to a scared, tired, overworked population looking for salvation and peace. And like a child who knows no better, the downtrodden people believe what the narcissist promises. Because the child also believes that they themselves have no power to affect real change.

But you know that’s not true.

All right. It might be a good place to stop for now. More in the next installment. I seem to be back up to posting twice a month.

Thank you for being here.

 

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Mindfulness and Awareness. The Driving the Car analogy

In the past I have admitted I make many warfare analogies in sessions with clients. If you are a client, you know this to be true. I am a product of my environment, what can I say.

As we all are.

I have lately been coming up with sports analogies for some reason. I am not a big sports guy at all (sorry Portland Timbers), and so I then apologize for using sports analogies. I probably don’t need to apologize for that in session, but I do.

Recently though, something else happened. I made a driving analogy, completely spontaneously, and I think it is probably one of the best I have come up with.

Analogy or maybe allegory. I can’t believe I can’t make up my mind which it is. The internet is not helping this former English Major with what literary device I am using. If you care at all, you tell me.

So let’s get down to it.

I am very aware that in therapy a precipice can emerge when a client gets to a place where they want to know what to do next. It may be a very specific kind of question or a very existential kind of question.

 And the response from the counselor can be anything but specific. What do you think you should do next, is a gem many of you might have heard. I agree with you, that one leaves a lot to be desired.

This, I think, is the intersection between the two perspectives of therapeutic work: content and process. The question—what should I do next—is very much content. What is the next step up this difficult mountain of self-actualization? When a question like that gets asked in therapy, I would bet money most of us professionals would respond with something about process.

What I actually said to my client at an intersection like this was something along the lines of: If you didn’t have this point of view that you needed to know what to do next, what would you be doing or feeling instead?

What do you think? Do you see what I am trying to do there?

At the end of the session I came back to this statement, and I said: look, I can understand that a lot of what I have said to you today may sound like I am asking you to take your hands off the steering wheel. I am not asking that. I am suggesting you let up on the gas—just a little bit.

Better? Better than sports analogies any way.

If the steering wheel is our intellect, our thoughts, beliefs, behaviors and cognitions, then the gas pedal is representative of our emotions, our drives, our impulses—of which many of these are to avoid pain or to avoid experiencing fear.

We want to let up on the gas so that you can see the scenery—your environment—more clearly. That’s the awareness part. Things are a blur when you are driving past them at 90 miles an hour. Things and people in our life are a blur when we are full of intense emotions. Anger, fear, rage, sadness, they all distort what we see in our environment.

Everyone shows up to therapy with a tendency to either focus entirely on the steering wheel or on the gas pedal. We may be this way because it is what we have learned in life we are good at. It may often times be the easiest of the two aspects of therapy for us. Men who are glued to that fucking steering wheel don’t want to let go, believe me. But they are amazed when you remind them they have the gas pedal too. And on the other side of the spectrum, you have people potentially terrified of putting their hands on the steering wheel at all because their life has taught them that the safest thing to do is to slam on the brakes and just not move anywhere.

Steering wheel and gas pedal. Thoughts and feelings. We as humans have control, use, and difficulties with both. They are totally different but very connected to each other things. And we have to learn to appreciate how they do different things for us. That’s it.

So, back to the original idea of a client who gets to a place where they want to know what to do next.

What do they do next? The question is a steering wheel kind of question, isn’t it? The answer is a gas pedal kind of answer. If you want to know what to do next, maybe its because you need to slow the hell down. And appreciate the view—and then maybe what you need to do next will be clear to you. Or speed up perhaps. Where the hell do you think you are going anyway? It’s your mind. It’s your trip. The point is to enjoy both. You can’t do that if you don’t know how to slow down, or you never even try to get the car out of the driveway…

Lastly, the question: What do I do next? Is in its own way a question about, How do I change? Change is multidimensional. There is what you do and how you do it. The steering wheel and the gas pedal. Also, change is the interaction of how you do it effecting what you do. How fast or how slow you drive effects the kinds of steering decisions you are going to be faced with.

I hope this is helpful. I just hope it is better than my lame sports analogy (can’t bring myself to share those).

For next time: I think it is high time for The Therapy is Dandy Guidebook to having a Narcissist for a Parent to return for a special update. That’s right, the Donald Trump edition is way past due. I have been sitting on this one for about 9 months now, and I better share it soon and maybe do a few of them. There is just too much not to talk about. It’s going to be very painful…

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Identify your vulnerability and put it on a t-shirt.

That’s basically today’s suggestion. I mean it. Maybe not literally, but at least for you and those you trust to know what is on your hypothetical-if-not-real-therapy t-shirt. I have had bad ideas when it comes to t-shirts in the past, but I don’t think this one is so bad.

Last time there was a lot of talk about negative self talk and the vulnerability we try to hide from. So putting our biggest vulnerability on a t-shirt is a sign that you are no longer willing to accept your own mind’s perceived status quo. It’s strange, I admit, but also totally fearless. Bruce Lee would be, I imagine, proud of us.

I can’t take credit for the origin of this idea. A fellow counselor in Portland shared the idea in what seemed to be a rather spontaneous suggestion. So, thank you for that.

The message on our t-shirt—metaphorical, literal, or otherwise, is the vulnerable belief, fear, worry that when triggered, we feel our most vulnerable. And then from that vulnerability we react defensively, emotionally, critically, angrily, to whoever it was that triggered our vulnerability.

In past blogs, and in Gestalt therapy, I have used the term introject. An introject is a belief, idea, or process that we have about ourselves that can have a negative affect on our behavior. Introjects come from our environment, from what people may have said about us, maybe by how we were punished, or praised, or just observed. We can pick up introjects from anywhere really. But influential people and close relationships are the usual suspects involved. We can have many, many introjects, just like vulnerabilities. The introject is what goes on the t-shirt. The word vulnerability is just clearer and more of an obvious concept. I can’t imagine an honest person admitting to having no vulnerabilities whatsoever. Unless I was talking to Superman. But most people would just shake their head at you if you asked them what their introjects were.

Because we may have many if not dozens of vulnerabilities, try to distill yours down to a central theme. There could be a lot of similar sounding branches of the same vulnerability tree.

Examples of what your t-shirt might have on it. Feel free to email me with what you come up with, and I will add it to this list.

 

Am I important?

Am I good enough?

Does anyone love me?

Am I loveable?

Everything is my fault.

I am broken/lazy/bad/etc.

I have a secret.

I can’t fail.

What if I fail?

What if I am wrong?

I feel empty.

I am empty.

I gave up.

No one cares.

Do I matter?

No one listens to me.

I have to make others happy.

I am afraid.

I don’t know what I am doing.

I am trapped.

I destroy things/people/happiness.

Obviously there is potential for a lot of our messages to be very close to others, just derivations of the primary message. That’s okay. It is your message, remember. No one can tell you that you are wrong.

What we secretly believe and experience as our vulnerability may in fact surprise the heck out of those we share it with. That speaks volumes to how well or effective we might be at hiding that particular vulnerability. It also speaks to the nature of vulnerability. What we are secretly afraid of being vulnerable about, no one else thinks we are that thing. So, that kind of unexpected reveal is really a very important thing to find out!

Go forth and be brave. Just admitting our vulnerabilities to ourselves is all we need to do first.

Next time, we are going driving. Honest.

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Interrupt and Intercept the Critical Thoughts and the Emotions will follow.

I haven’t had an opportunity to talk about Bruce Lee for a while and it occurred to me last time that all this talk about interrupting negative self talk also had me thinking about intercepting them, as in The Way of the Intercepting Fist, aka Jeet Kune Do.

So, let’s interrupt and intercept together! It will be like church, but without all the boring parts. And Bruce Lee is way more charismatic than, well, most people.

Today’s question is: if we get to the place where we interrupt and intercept all those critical, negative self talk messages in the interiority of our minds, what would happen next?

Let me try to ask that question in another way.

What if the negative self talk and critical bs that we throw at ourselves is really only the distracting ruse from the real villain in the movie that is your life?

Let me clarify one more time.

What if the negative self talk is the maladaptive way in which we avoid the real (if only perceived as) danger to ourselves?

Sound promising? I agree.

The real danger, well what is it?

Consider the many things we have been talking about. And I mean since I began this blog. Our fight/flight/freeze response to stress. How shame manifests regarding our failures and perceived weaknesses. Our need for attachment and validation from family and friends and loved ones. Our anger and our frustration when we are denied the latter and held hostage by the former.

What if on some wacky illogical emotional fulcrum, our negative self talk is less damaging to us than the real villain in this story?

What if we do all these terrible things to ourselves to avoid feeling vulnerable?

For a four syllable word vulnerable does have a lot of oomph. But for my money it doesn’t have nearly enough.

I want to suggest that vulnerable is one of the most important words for all of us to consider. Our relationship to it, our experience(s) of it, our beliefs and actions about ours but also others, has a tremendous impact on our mental health, our lives, and our pursuit of happiness.

We as a people have built actual walls in the past to keep out the undesirables, to stave off our (again, perceived) vulnerability to those undesirables. And that idea of building walls to keep undesirables out hasn’t really lost its appeal, unfortunately for voters in the 2016 presidential election. Our negative self talk are the walls we erect within our own interiority to avoid feeling that most terrible of terrible things: our own sense of vulnerability.

In this way of thinking about vulnerability, it is crucial to understand that what we are intercepting, what we are interrupting, is our own personal history regarding the unbearable experience of feeling vulnerable.

That’s something worth fighting, isn’t it?

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Professional Interruptions Part 2. The Car Accident.

Or how to interrupt your internal negative critic.

As much I said this post is a continuation on the professional interrupting idea from last time, I have to acknowledge that this is also about the nature of emotion and how it can interact with stress and trauma and every day decision making. So, that’s a huge undertaking, and we all might fall down the rabbit hole together if I can’t keep it all on topic…

Alright, caveat aside, let’s jump into it.

A word that I think helps explain the following conflict is borrowed from literature. And not surprising at all I guess is that in my own fiction I was somewhat good at writing about this. The word is interiority. It is everything that goes on in the character’s mind/head that only you the reader get to experience. It’s a great word. One of the best maybe. It’s a word Donald Trump wishes he could use.

Within the interiority of our own mind there is not just one voice that talks to us. There are a multitude. Walt Whitman was right. When we are hungry, our hunger gets our attention. When we are excited, we hear from the enthusiastic voice. When we are angry, we think angrily. When we are in the mood for love, our inner playboy/femme fatale is the one talking to us. No better recent example of this exists than the recent animated movie Inside Out.

Some of us, depending on our early childhood environments, attachment styles, and many other factors, can have a different kind of interiority. That’s okay and normal. People who are on the Autism Spectrum for example would have an interiority different than someone who was diagnosed with Borderline or Histrionic Personality Disorder. I know it can be rather intimidating when psychology is always talking about what is normal. Think spectrum of a rainbow, my friends. Please don’t feel shame for who you are. Fuck shame, right?

A key contributor to a lot of mental health issues can be laid at the feet of one pernicious aspect of our interiority. Negative self talk. Negative self talk doesn’t care if you can run a seven minute mile in the rain. Negative self talk doesn’t care if you sold more cars this month than your closest competitor—Fritz—at the Subaru Dealership. Negative self talk doesn’t care what your spouse or partner said about how you are the best in bed.

Negative self talk cannot be reasoned with because it is not a “reasonable with” part of you.

Negative self talk is your very own emotional cocktail of fear and anger within the interiority of your own mind.

So what does any of this have to do with interrupting, Henry? And where is the car accident you promised us?

Step one is to acknowledge negative self talk exists. If you don’t agree then I have some unfortunate news to share.

If you don’t think you have negative self talk, it is probably because the negative self talk is transmitted so fast and you react to it so quickly, you don’t even hear what is being said to you. Consider road rage. Consider anytime that your own reaction surprised even you. That is negative self talk at the speed of thought. Which is quite, quite fast.

Step two is to pay more attention to your own interiority in order to notice the amount of negative self talk that can be happening all the time.

Step three is to interrupt the negative self talk. An easy suggestion is within your interiority you talk back to the negative self talk. You tell it to calm down. You label it is as negative self talk and imagine putting it all in a small box and closing that box. You respond with validating self compassion. You try to balance the amount of positive and negative self talk going on. Because only you can do this. No one can deal with your negative self talk better than you can. It’s why those of us who meditate and have meditation practices are so much better at dealing with negative self talk than those of us who do not. Yes, I am giving you my endorsement. Go, meditate. Please. Just finishing reading this before you go.

But enough abstraction. How about a real world example? How about a car accident for example?

Unlike what can often be shown in films and television, the moment that my car was hit by another car (several weeks ago, nobody was hurt, I am fine, etc.) was not a silent, frozen in the moment snapshot of white noise and stunned silence.

I didn’t even see the other car until after it hit me. As soon as I did see it though, I began a tirade of intense swearing that my Croatian mother would be so proud of. I am pretty sure I almost broke my steering wheel with the amount of beat down I gave it in those first few moments after the accident.

I was mad. I was pissed. I was however directing my anger and frustration at the accident itself. Not at myself—not yet anyway.

The point I want to make is that despite the accident happening, I immediately expressed my emotional reaction to it happening. I didn’t hold any of it in. And as a result, something interesting happened.

For about 24 hours I felt oddly fine about the accident. I was safe, the other person didn’t have a scratch on the car or themselves, and my car insurance would take care of the repairs to my car. I didn’t really want to talk details about the accident, but that may have been a little bit of shock. I didn’t want to relive the accident so soon after it had happened.

And there is a good reason for that. That’s where we have to jump back into our interiority.

After about a day, my reaction to the car accident started to change. What happened? My negative self talk kicked in.

As much as my immediate emotional reaction to the accident was, for lack of better wording, immediate and genuine and honest, it was also appropriate for the moment. I was practicing a kind of here and now focus. I let myself be mad and that helped me process the immediate experience. It stinks to get into a stupid car accident. I would say I felt equal parts anger and, unfortunately, shame and embarrassment.

A day later though, instead of being mindful and keeping my self and my interiority in the here and now, it started to drift towards future paced complications.

Me (pervasive negative self talk): Shit. How am I going to get to the gym now? How am I going to get to the grocery store? This messes up my self care plans. I don’t need this. And screw taking the bus. This is a total nightmare. I have no freedom. Life is hard. I better get on the phone and order some Fire on the Mountain. I should also Netflix all of Daredevil season 2. And play lots of video games.

Me (responding to negative self talk): Uh, crap. This is exhausting. And hard. I don’t want to do anything actually. I’m a terrible person for not keeping all of this together.

And then what happened?

Long, long story short is: I lost pretty much all the mindfulness to the emotion of the accident and let my negative self talk that was obsessed with details and problem solving overwhelm me until I had a fight/flight/freeze up kind of response. And I froze.

Me (avoiding my feelings): If I just sit here and not do anything, then I will be okay.

Me (starting to see through my own bullshit): I don’t know if this is working the way you want it to work. In fact, your solution seems to be making you miserable. You can still go jogging. That will make you feel better.

Me: Oh, I guess. I’ll give that a try. But I won’t like it!

And I slowly got out of my fight/flight/freeze version of emotional avoidance.

The good news is I was able to watch my own anxiety/fear reaction after the car accident. And that experience illuminated how I can experience strong emotion and the anxiety it can cause. If this son of an immigrant can do it, I believe that you can too.

Well, I think more interruptions are planned for next time. I have a lot more to talk about, I think, and I ran out of space for all of it here. See you soon. Hope you have a happy April.

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Be a Professional Interrupter

Hello everyone. It’s been a little while, but lets jump right into a topic.

I know I have heard the statement many times before—and have used it myself from time to time—that a counselor is a professional listener. Also there is the argument that we as people so rarely listen to what is being said to us by others because we are just waiting for our turn to talk in the conversation. I don’t disagree, at times. But I want to say something new about this professional listener/waiting to talk argument.

If counselors are professional listeners, then we are also professional interrupters.

The art of this skill is finding an incongruous way to interrupt a person that not only doesn’t derail the narrative, but actually adds to it, and perhaps even deepens the experience of the person talking (and being interrupted).

It takes a lot of practice. And this kind of interruption is not about what I want or am thinking about, it is more like I am trying to fill in some of the gaps or color whatever it is the client is sharing. It certainly requires active empathy and staying with a client’s shared experience.

I would say that a good half of my interruptions of a client are done so to confirm or reaffirm emotional components of what is being shared. Sometimes I just want to validate what is obvious or I want to bring awareness of an emotion into whatever is being shared. It may sound complicated, but I don’t know if it really is.

Example:

Client: And there I was on the train having this conversation with a stranger about the death of my sibling.

Me (interrupting): That sounds like it was intense.

Client: (thoughtful pause.) Yes, yes it was.

Me (now validating): Can you say more about how it was intense for you?

See how that works? It’s great. And it is very much an extension of being a good listener. Imagining myself on that train talking to a stranger about a death would be intense. How could it not be? I picked the word intense because I didn’t want to assume a particular emotional state, like scary or sad. That part can get further defined later. The word intense opens the door for either of those later. Either by me or by the client.

Now, the same example with a bit of a twist.

Client: So there I was on the train having this conversation with a stranger about the death of my sibling. Then we talked about chess. And manchego cheese.

Me (interrupting): Wait a second. On one hand you are talking with a stranger about your sibling dying and then you also talked about chess and cheese. Those are very different topics. Can you remember what you were feeling when you were talking about those topics?

Client (somewhat suspicious): What do you mean?

Me: You mention death, cheese, and chess all in the same conversation. I wonder if talking about cheese or chess AND death had a way of making it easier for you to open up. Maybe even a way of trivializing or distancing yourself from the painful topic of your sibling dying.

Client: Oh. That. It just felt like another whatever topic. Something that people do.

Me (interrupting again): If I am hearing you correctly, it sounds like talking about death is not bringing up a lot of feelings for you. Not a lot of emotions. It’s like talking about cheese or checkers for example.

Client: yeah.

Me: It sounds kind of like maybe it makes you feel nothing, or perhaps numb is an accurate feeling?

That’s how you can interrupt and bring emotion back into a conversation that doesn’t seem to have the emotion one would expect.

So, that’s a little bit of professional interrupting.

For next time, and the post is already half written, I will focus on interrupting our own negative and/or critical self talk. Which I think honestly is the more important tool to sharpen for our lives. I think you will like it. It involves a car crash and the helpful and the not so helpful ways to talk yourself through it.

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Trauma can be a pretty intimidating word

So why don’t we try to cut it down to size for easier consideration?

As stated elsewhere in the blog once upon a time one of the best parts of my profession is that I get to read a lot of books. And then I sift through those books and recommend to you all: clients, readers, the curious, the best of the best. To make the pursuit of positive mental health a little less daunting. And a little bit more effective. More bang for your buck. That is a dandy endeavor indeed.

This post is inspired by a book that I am still reading, but I have known about the book for a while. For any of you who experience symptoms related to trauma, or for those of you who know someone who experienced trauma, this is a must read.

The book is called The Body Keeps Score and it is written by Bessel Van Der Kolk, MD.

This is the best book about trauma that I have ever come across. He and it are sort of a big deal right now. And he deserves the reputation and accolades.

If you have PTSD, if you ever wonder if you have PTSD, if you know someone with PTSD, or just want to know how the brain responds to trauma (as of all our scientific inquiry up to the year 2015) then you should read this book.

As concise, as brilliant, and as illuminating as this book is, the issue for many is just what we bring to the word trauma.

For some, it may be too easy to disengage and distance ourselves from the word. Trauma, thanks to films media and the internet, means soldiers and warzones, refugees and the homeless, rape victims, children of drug addicts or maniacs, but not normal people. Not anyone you might know. Or be.

So, I encourage you to consider the less severe experiences that can fall under the umbrella of trauma, and traumatic symptoms and experiences.

Intense emotional and physical pain

Heartbreak

Betrayal

Isolation or estrangement

Death and loss

That list is a little more accessible, isn’t it? All of you reading have experienced one or more of those experiences, right? That’s right.

And just as happiness or sadness can be considered on a spectrum ranging from full on Walt Whitman style positivity to melancholy to abject depression, what if we consider trauma, and the brain’s evolutionary function to trauma and pain, on such a continuum?

I think understanding trauma better will help us understand our own experience to emotional pain, and, just as importantly, emotional pain management.

Because if you don’t what your mind is doing, then how can you change what your experience is?

Sound good? Enjoy. It has been fantastic so far.

 

 

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