Thursday, April 20, 2017

“My roof is leaking. The roofer is estimating the repair may cost $5,000. Not to mention the
money outlay to fix the stained ceiling. Tuition payments begin in a mere four months, and
despite our creative finagling of loans, grants, savings and begging the college for a few extra
dollars, our budget remains short. My arthritis is causing my hands to ache and throb, and on
top of everything, it's raining!” I was depressing myself with my internal rant of complaints as I
drove to the office. Could things possibly get any worse? I was about to spiral into Olympic-level
catastrophizing when I instinctively turned my head at the stop light to scan the greening forest
preserve I pass every day. And there it was, high above the tree line, wedged between thick
graying branches void of the first bud of spring. A hawk’s nest.

From a hundred yards away, I could faintly make out the curves and juts of the twigs, the weight and size of the nest making it look more precariously housed than it probably was. Centered in the nest was a magnificent hawk, itself scanning the preserve, possibly contemplating the best path for hunting breakfast. The bird’s head was a lighter shade of the ashy brown feathers that covered its body. It's eye flicked in its orbit as I watched. The bird looked to be at least three feet tall, though my
perspective could have skewed my vision. Its beak parted and I thought a caught a flash of
silvery tongue. I noticed my own mouth was hanging open, so in awe was I of this rare
communion with a creature I'd seen this close maybe only once or twice in my life. The beep of
a horn behind me brought me back to the present and reminded me to get the car moving. But
my energy was changed from that moment. Worries about money, stress about what ifs,
irritation at having to live with the drywall dust and hammer-pounding that accompanies home
repairs -- it all seemed like nonsense compared to what I'd just seen. The beauty of nature, the
wondrousness of atoms and energy coming together to create a soaring creature that embodies
majesty, the fortuitousness of being able to see the hawk in its home, perhaps just moments
from its next flight shook me with gratitude. How lucky was I? Being a sheltered suburbanite
who rarely veers from the confines of subdivisions, strip malls and paved streets, I knew I might
never experience the kismet of this meeting again. I blessed that powerful creature, the
Universe who gifted me with this sight, and let me heart expand with joy. Yes, indeed -- how
lucky I am.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Boundaries and Bloodlines

Boundaries are necessary, helpful, even reassuring. But they can be challenging to put in place.
Between family members especially, clients may report feeling guilty or selfish when they set
limits to protect themselves or establish healthier dynamics.


While there are innumerable reasons to set boundaries, people may feel that saying “no” to
family members will damage the relationship or indicates a lack of loyalty. As therapists, we
encourage clients to honor the bonds that are important to them, but not to blindly assume that
a genetic link to another requires the client to sacrifice their time, energy, will or happiness for
the sake of someone else. We don't automatically owe family members our allegiance --
certainly, many clients come to therapy with a history of abusive or unhealthy family
relationships. As in relationships with friends, spouses and coworkers, the most fulfilling and
effective family dynamics are laced with respect, communication and mutual investment. Pulling
the “but we’re related! ” card is, at best, a weak argument for why we should agree/do
for/support a family member, and, at worst, a toxic manipulation that uses guilt and obligation to
get the desired reaction. Accepting less-than-respectful treatment from family members just
because they are family doesn't display loyalty or commitment to the family over self, but
minimizes the inherent value of people on both sides. Respecting our needs as equal to others
-- even the “others” within our family tribe -- can enhance the health of relationships, model
self-respect, even provide a safety net to prevent unequal power distribution. Firm, clear, yet
flexible boundaries can actually provide the structure for family members to deepen their
connections and feel safe within relationships that may be the longest lasting in our lives.

Friday, April 7, 2017

As parents, our instinct is to protect our children from harm, to buffer them from life’s challenges
and hurts. Divorce can be a difficult experience that tests our abilities as parents to provide our
kids with a canopy of safety that keeps at bay the struggles inherent in this major life shift.

Learning from Experience

Parents in intact families may unconsciously run “interference” at times between their child and
the other parent. How many kids know which parent will fork over $10 for a movie, or which one
is likely to overlook missed chores? But in divorced families, where the differences in values,
rules and expectations between parents may be more overt, knowing when to step in and when
to keep out of the way of the other parent/child relationship is crucial to our children's healthy
development and maintaining working boundaries between the now “two” family systems.
Especially when one or both parents is carrying anger or hurt from the ended marriage, it can be
easy to step in to “rescue” a child from what we perceive is unhealthy or damaging behavior on
the part of the other parent. But short of our child experiencing physical or severe emotional
harm from the interaction, we serve both systems best by letting the participants work out the
interaction organically. All children, whether young or older, in intact or divorced families, need
to develop individual relationships with each parent devoid of influence from the other parent.
Children need to learn who each of their parents truly are, and this best happens when
dynamics are shaped by only the child and parent actually involved. I regularly remind clients
that, if their ex is truly a selfish or narcissistic or unreasonable personality (or, conversely,
generous, forgiving and flexible) the client needs to have faith in their child's ability to learn who
the parent is through direct experience. We may think we are protecting our kids from our ex’s
bad habits, but those “habits” are part of who the other parent IS, and our kids need to learn that
their parents are real people, with faults and flaws and sometimes poor choices in their
backgrounds. Seeing their parents as “real” allows kids to give themselves grace when they
falter themselves. And the sooner children can know who their parents are authentically, the
sooner a genuine and mutual relationship can develop. Again, if a parent is physically abusive
or verbally attacking or shaming our child, we need to advocate for the child's safety. But in
most cases, parents need to step back and let the child learn how to navigate the relationship
with the parent in this new incarnation. Our kids need our protection, but they also need us to
believe in their ability to discern who others are, their motivations and quirks and characters.
Sometimes we do need to give them shelter, but much more often, our task as parents is to
encourage our children to fly.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Abandon hope. I frowned, flipping back to the front cover of my book. Yep, I was smack dab in
the middle of my daily Buddhist meditation reader. I reread the first line of the entry again.
Abandon hope. What the...WHAT?!?! Could Pema Chodron--admired, wise and renowned
Buddhist nun--possibly be suggesting that I give up hope as a way of achieving peace? As I
read on, the answer was clear. Yes. Yes, she was.

The Other Side of Fear

Chodron writes that hope and fear “is a feeling with two sides.” Regardless of which side we find
ourselves, we are always looking to change what IS. We strive to end pain, or find an answer, to
distract ourselves or improve our circumstances. Whether we choose hope or fear, we are
effectively avoiding the Now, attempting to circumvent our discomfort or transform our
experience into something “better” or “different.” Chodron posits that abandoning hope is “an
affirmation, the beginning of the beginning.” If we can step away from the traditional
Judeo-Christian interpretations of hope that permeate Western living, we can realize that both
hope and fear come from a feeling of lack, that we are missing something, that the Now is not
perfect in itself, even in its uneasiness, its imperfection, its hurt. Only by leaning into our real
experience in the Now can we learn our limitlessness, our tenderness, our ability to embrace
another with true compassion. “Hope robs us of the present moment,” Chodron writes. With
courage and practice, we can learn to let go of hope and fully lean in to what is, and all that this
moment has to teach us.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

The False Gains of Co-dependency

Co-dependency, with all its negative connotations, also brings benefits that make these behaviors difficult to surrender. For the “enabler” (the person who ‘does’ for the other what the other could/should do for themselves), care taking is often appreciated by others, and even society affirms people who sacrifice to meet the needs of others. For the individual who is being enabled, it can feel nurturing to have someone willing to rescue or “fix” things to ensure a desired outcome. These benefits make it challenging for clients to see how leaving behind co-dependent behaviors can improve their well-being and relationships. Educating clients about the role and importance of functioning can be a way to understand why a more egalitarian dynamic is desirable. For the enabler, giving up their over-functioning behaviors can provide the client with energy to devote to more fulfilling endeavors, and can offer a sense of relief from the constant sense of over-responsibility that plagues the enabler’s life. In turn, the person being enabled can discover their own unique competencies when they decide to stop under-functioning and take charge of his own life and the outcomes of his choices. Steering his own course can be an affirming and esteem-building path that results in heightened competency and more positive self-image.

Change is scary, and adopting unfamiliar ways of relating and coping comes with the fear of the unknown. But growth, strength and resilience will replace skewed functioning and unequal power dynamics. Healthy inter-dependency is the truest path to real intimacy, equality and connection.

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

I now know what it feels like to be truly “unplugged.” For the entire week of our Caribbean
cruise, I was unable to access the Internet or send or receive emails or texts. I couldn't scan
Facebook or Pinterest. I couldn't even confirm the balance in my checking account through my
bank’s app. The cruise line did offer a costly Wi-fi package, but we decided to spend our money
on our onshore excursions instead. I let my phone die, shoved it to the bottom of my suitcase,
and proceeded to be fully present to my long-anticipated vacation.

As the days wore on, I noticed a loosening of my shoulder muscles, my jaw relaxing. I spent
time waiting in lines for dinner, a drink or my shore tour to start talking with my fellow
vacationers. Instead of checking my phone, I watched the waves foam against the sand and
tracked the flight of a flock of cormorants that followed us into port. I noticed the subtle
differences of the light playing on the ocean at dusk, beneath cloudy skies, when the moon was
rising. I woke up each morning and ended each night without updating my Facebook status or
keeping current on emails. I'm hardly a slave to technology, but within 24 hours of being
“phone-free”, my mind was quieter, my pace slower, my breathing deeper. No doubt being on
vacation brought me a renewed sense of calm and peace. But being completely inaccessible to
the connectivity that is everpresent in our modern world provided my with a freedom and
lightness I've not experienced in many years. I'm hoping to challenge myself in my daily life to
take “breaks” from my internet connections on a more regular basis. Vacations aren't the only
times I could benefit from being more present. And both my body and my mind benefit when I
allow myself to turn off, step away and disconnect from blinking cursors and pinging texts.
Perhaps I can find inspiration and relaxation not only in a tropical vista, but in my own backyard.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Sober Living

Abstinence is NOT sobriety. Abstaining from drugs, alcohol or an addictive process like
gambling or sex is the beginning stage of recovery, the foundation to living a sober lifestyle.
Sobriety is the long, challenging, but rewarding journey of living a life of integrity, service to
others, spiritual development and accountability. Many addicts can have periods of being
“clean”, and can fall into the trap of false hope that they ca n stay clean by simply resisting the
urge to use. But treatment specialists know that, time and again, addicts will fall back into their
addiction if they are not learning, practicing and living by the tenets of a sober life. Alcoholics
Anonymous (AA) and many other 12-step groups provide a structure, a community, for addicts
to learn the life skills and develop the spiritual foundation to help them sustain their abstinence
and develop a healthy, truly sober way of living. Being sober includes fostering respectful
relationships, being transparent and honest in what we say and do, and shedding the
self-centeredness that marks the addict’s movement through the world. Only through sobriety
can addicts hope to connect with others, with their Higher Power, and find the strength to make
using truly a part of their past, and not a constant threat to their present. Abstinence allows us to
put on the running shoes, but sobriety gives us the strength, faith and hope to finish the race.