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Counseling

The Three-Fold Mental Test for Anxious and Depressed Thoughts

Posted on June 5, 2017

If you’ve been in my counseling office for any length of time, you’ve heard me explain the “Three-Fold Test”. For those who haven’t heard it, let me give it to you and then spend the rest of this article explaining its significance.

With any bothersome thought pattern, a three-step test will guide you to determine whether you want to spend any more time considering that thought. This test goes like this. (Note: If the thought pattern fails at any point in the test, you immediately stop and move onto a different focus for your thoughts). These are ranked in order of most common to least common. This means, most people’s bothersome thoughts will fail the first test, the second most will fail the second test, and the third most will fail the third test. Hence, this is the order you consider them.

No more explanation; here is the test.

  1. Do I have any control over this thing I am spending time thinking about? If you don’t have any control over it, change your focus to something else.
  2. If I do have control over this thing I’m thinking about, am I responsible for this thing? If you don’t have any responsibility for it, change your focus to something else.
  3. If I do have control over this, and I am at least partially responsible, do I have time right now to do anything about it? If you don’t, then schedule a time to take care of it, and move on to another focus.

For those who are wondering, I did develop this test about 15 years ago, but the concepts are not original with me. I am sure I borrowed these concepts from many sources, but I can name two very quickly if you want to study more of the background. First, I gleaned the overall concept from Dr. William Glasser, the founder of the Choice Theory/Reality Therapy school. The concept of working this through like a series of filters I got from Dr. Ed Smith, the founder of the Transformation Prayer therapy method. Read any of their books and you’ll see how their models became the basis for this test.

To show the importance of using this test frequently, I must explain some of the underlying presuppositions to strengthen your resolve to use it. There are several of these and I will try to be brief in explaining them.

First, let’s address the overall concept of choice. For roughly 50 years, psychology got mired in the idea that we are simply the product of our biology and that this prevents us from getting rid of anxiety and depression. This Behaviorist model assumed that you were “wired” a particular way and nothing could change that. Even though we describe everything else we do in life as a verb—that is, we learn, we love, we hate, we eat, we watch a movie, we travel, we hit someone, we voice our opinions, etc.—we describe our most troublesome thoughts as a noun. We don’t say “I am depressing myself”, we say “I have depression.” We don’t say “I am anxieting” we say, “I have anxiety”. We find it easier to see our depression and anxiety as things outside of us over which we have little control.

Dr. Glasser proposed in 1968 for the first time that other than a few hormonal situations and traumatic brain injury, most people choose to depress themselves. They do this for the most part to deal with anger. He also noticed people choose to anxiety, for the most part to deal with fear. His assumption was that if we can choose something, we can choose something else.

But he also noted, most of us will not. Depressing and anxieting produce things we want in our lives, even if we don’t want the results that come from depressing and anxieting. We want to worry. Yes we do. We want to anticipate what is coming so we can be ready for it or be prepared in some way. To do this, we anxiety.

Therefore, the focus of anxiety or depression is often on things we cannot control. This comes into play in a moment.

Next, it is important to know what we actually do control in life. Get ready for this list. The only things we control can be boiled down to three things:

  1. We control what we will focus on next.
  2. We control what action we will take next
  3. We control whatever other people allow us to control.

You do not control the past. We cannot change it, so we do not control it. Any time spent looking at the past with a focus on regret, shame, bitterness, revenge, blame, or fear is useless. The only focus on the past which yields results is how it affects the present. If you look back to learn or to process past beliefs, you can find good results.

You do not control the future. That is an illusion. Your planning does not control the future, it simply places you where you think you need to be. But we forget how many thousands of times we planned and we were wrong. Any time spent on worrying or depressing about the future is wasted thought.

You cannot control other people unless they allow you to. And the problem with controlling other people is that you become responsible for them. This is the basis of all co-dependency, but that’s another article.

Most people who depress themselves or anxiety themselves are convinced they cannot really control their own thoughts. But Dr. Glasser and many others in the Brain Plasticity movement (i.e. Daniel Amen, Norman Doidge, etc.) have shown in countless studies this is not true. What is true is we have convinced ourselves we cannot control our thoughts because we don’t really want to. As badly as it feels to depress ourselves, it is our choice and we are doing it for a reason. We think we can control things which we actually can’t control. The same is true with anxiety.

This is where the three-fold test comes in. Here is a short commentary on each step so you can see why they are important questions.

 

  1. “Do I have control over this thing I am spending time thinking about?” If you are thinking about the past or the future, you are putting mental energy into something which you can never change. Even if you believe you can, you cannot. Come to grips with that and leave it behind. Stop telling yourself you have no control over these thoughts. They are actually one of the only things in life you do have control over. For instance, I spent years thinking about how people reacted to some of the things I teach. When I applied this test to that thought pattern I realized I could not control their reactions, nor their attitude toward me, nor their choices for how they would treat me. Therefore, focusing for a second on how they would think about my teaching was useless. What I did control is whether what I taught was accurate and helpful. When I started to focus my thoughts on those things, I started to live more healthy.
  2. “Am I at least partially responsible for what I am spending time thinking about?” In life, there are many actions we can take to work with others. At any given moment, there are millions of things any of us can be doing. But we know deep inside we don’t have the time or energy to do more than a few things each day. Therefore, if we want our lives to matter, then we will do those things which mean the most to us. The healthiest actions we can take are ones which acknowledge and follow commitments we have made. For instance, it is proper for a parent to help a child make their lunch in the morning before school starts. This is especially true if the child doesn’t know how to do it. But as the child gets older, the parent needs to withdraw their help slowly so the child will take responsibility. On the other hand, if you are married to a drug addict, you often feel that need to worry and act in such a way as to prevent them from using. The problem is, their addiction, though it affects you, is their problem not yours. If you spend too much time focused on what you will do for them in it, you are taking responsibility for things both outside of your sphere of responsibility and control.
  3. “Can I take care of this responsibility right now?” Much worrying is done because we want to solve situations which haven’t happened yet. We don’t like to be caught off-guard, so we worry a future situation out until we have solved every possible thing which can go wrong. But we haven’t really solved anything. Think of a basketball team. They can plan how they will play the other team, but all the decisions have to be made at real speed in the game. If you have responsibilities which are coming up but haven’t happened, only focus on the principles, not the actual working out of the responsibility. All other mental effort is wasted.

 

Most people don’t think the test will work because they have chosen anxieting and depressing as solutions to their unsolvable problems. But, as I tell all my clients, if you apply this test each and every time in place of anxieting and depressing, you will take control of your thoughts again, and you will accomplish what you are setting out in life to achieve.

Imposter Syndrome is not Humility

Posted on March 24, 2016

imposterI was listening to a famous American preacher this month telling his audience why he wrote his current book. The title of the book suggests that the author doesn’t feel he has a lot of reason to be in the spotlight. In fact, many people have told him that he isn’t a big deal, and he personally agrees with them.

But then he made this statement:

“If they only knew how I really feel. I sit there some days and tell myself “So many people could do a better job of preaching and teaching. Some of them are in the congregation every Sunday.”

He used that thought to build a case for the power of humility. He waxed eloquent about how God loves to take broken and cracked people and make them into incredible stories to the glory of God. You could hear the congregation getting louder and louder as they affirmed the truth he was throwing at them. They began to believe they could be used by God.

All that is well and good. And I agree completely that humility is a foundation of God’s power in our lives. Without humility, we will never see the Lord’s plan for us. We will never know how his power could change us and others through us.

But what I do take issue with is the entire underpinning of the message. Unfortunately, this famous preacher is wrong about one thing. And that one thing is so crucial, he may be hindering others from finding the same path he did. In essence, he is confused about humility. Or maybe he isn’t…but what he said is confusing and I want to clear it up.

Here is the reality. That guy is a really good preacher. He effectively communicates truth and he keeps people’s interest as he does it. I’m a harsh critic of public speakers and I have to admit that he does a really good job. So, when he gets up and says his inner thought life centers on the idea that he is not a good preacher, that lacks all the qualities of humility.

It is actually called something else. Psychologists correctly refer to this as “The Imposter Syndrome”. Imposter Syndrome is an internal dialogue where the person believes it’s just a matter of time before you’re found out as a talentless fraud. Strangely, this is a condition that exists more with successful people than unsuccessful ones. It is estimated that 70% of the CEOs have this constantly. Though no surveys have been done of pastors and missionaries, I suspect from experience that most of the pastors of big churches have this thought pattern.

Imposter Syndrome was first identified in the 1970s by  Dr. Pauline R. Clance and Suzanne A. Imes. They noticed that many of the most successful people who came to see them for counseling exhibited many of the following symptoms:

  1. Every time they are praised, they fear they won’t live up to expectations.
  2. Fear that others will discover how little they know.
  3. The feeling they have to work harder than others to accomplish anything.
  4. They seek external validation, but don’t believe it when it is given
  5. They  keep their real life accomplishments secret from your peers.
  6. They attribute their success to luck
  7. They are always afraid others are more intelligent than they.

 

Imposter Syndrome robs people of joy. It takes their legitimate achievements, for which they should have great satisfaction, and vacuums all of the real joy out of it. Imposter Syndrome is one of a handful of successful joy-robbers that cause Christians to live less than a fulfilling life.

So how is this different than humility? Perhaps the confusion always arises because the word humility and humiliation are so close cognates to each other. But from a biblical point of view, these are almost opposite concepts. Humiliation has to do with Shame, and we are told there is “therefore no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” It cannot be possible for humiliation and humility to be connected to each other.

We are told in the Old Testament of the Bible that “Moses was the most humble man who ever lived.” Is this referring to the time at the Burning Bush when he told God he was not a good enough leader to go before the nation of Israel and speak on God’s behalf? No…the Bible tells us that Moses was the most humble man in the world “because he saw, as it were, God face to face.” Humility is about intimacy with God, a complete dependence on God for life, breath, and direction. Moses was humble because he kept returning to God to find out what God wanted him to do next.

In Deuteronomy 8, we are told the nation of Israel was humbled by God when he caused manna to be on the ground every morning. Every Jew had to collect a day’s worth of manna if they wanted to eat. How is that a humbling experience? When you have to depend upon God daily for  your food, you recognize your dependence on God. Humility is solely about dependence. Yes, to be dependent, you must know your own limitations. But that does not imply we must castigate ourselves and believe we’re imposters. That is not humility. It is actually so unhealthy.

Some of you may be thinking of Paul who said he was “less than the least of the apostles” and “The chief of sinners.” If you read too much into those statements you are going to fall into error. Paul wasn’t saying this to put himself down. He was saying it to show that no one can be disqualified to serve God because of their past. The past is buried with Christ in the tomb. We do not have to accept the shaming that goes on with Imposter Syndrome.

If you find that you have this condition, don’t explain it away like the preacher did. Ask God to show you the truth about your abilities. Ask God to speak into the idea that you’re a fake and a phony. You will most likely find God doesn’t agree with your imposter assessment.

Creating Exchanges Between Teens and Parents

AexchangeA mother called me one afternoon all angry and confused. She got my name from her friend, one of my counseling clients. She agreed to meet me so she could discuss how to handle a disagreement between she and her daughter.

“Mike, I went into my daughter’s room and looked through all of her drawers. When she figured out I had done this, she became livid and won’t talk to me. It seems all year we’ve had this deteriorating relationship. I don’t know how to fix it.”

“Maria, can I ask you some questions to help you work this through?”

“Sure”.

“Why were you looking through your daughter’s private dresser?”

“Well, first, I don’t consider her dresser as her private space. I bought it, I brought it home, I own the house, I set the rules.” I let this one slip for the moment. She continued.

“But the real reason I was doing it was because her best friend Nicole’s mom called me concerned the girls were doing Ecstasy at a party last week. I wanted to find out if she was hiding drugs in her room.”

“To your knowledge, has your daughter ever used recreational drugs?”

“I smelled pot on her earlier this year, but she denied it.” I also wanted to bring up the issue of acting upon unwarranted suspicions without having dialogue first, but I left that issue to another time. “I didn’t find any drugs, but there was some stuff that really scared me. I found condoms in the bottom drawer. I found “Fifty Shades of Grey” in there as well. It just makes me sick to think about it.”

“Do you and your husband own your house outright or do you have a mortgage?”

“I don’t know why that’s important, but yes, we have a mortgage.”

“And Maria, if the bank sent over tellers and loan officers and began ransacking your house, looking through your financial statements and searching in all your drawers, how would you react?”

“Listen Mike, I know where you’re going with this. It’s not the same thing. My house is still mine, even if I have a mortgage. I’m protected by basic rights.”

“Of course you are. But don’t you think the attitude should be the same even if the laws governing our teens does not explicitly recognize their rights to the space they call their own? Shouldn’t we afford them certain levels of respect and dignity?” Maria didn’t know what to say to this, so I continued.

“Maria, the basic idea behind Respectful Parenting is that teens must be afforded the same level of respect we give other adults. And it teaches that they must be allowed to make mistakes and be held accountable for those mistakes without parents always jumping in to save them or head off the problems. Most of that overseer attitude is reserved for the time before children become teens. As they reach 13 or so, we must change the rules and recognize their rights as adults.”

This was a lot for Maria to take in. Since she had never really recognized her daughter’s adult status, she was still operating as if she was a taller more mouthy child. The daughter knew this and resented it. And the daughter was correct in resenting it. It is not appropriate.

If you treat a teen as an adult, there is a greater chance they will act like an adult sooner than their peers. And if they don’t, they were never going to act that way in the first place.

“Mike, what should I have done?”

“First, you start with some agreements between you and your daughter. I call these agreements “Exchanges” because they are not really rules. They are negotiated understandings and both sides have input on how they are to be worked out.

In the case of your daughter’s room, an Exchange might look like this: The room is her space even though you own the house The room is locked but parents have permission to enter it if they feel it is warranted. If the teen does not keep the room to a minimum level of tidiness, there would be consequences (these must be negotiated and agreed upon). The only exception to this is if a teen has a weapon in the room or if the parent suspects the teen is in trouble or is hurting themselves. If these exceptions occur then the parent must tell the teen either right before going in or immediately after.

I asked Maria if she could live with this kind of Exchange. She thought about it for awhile and said there were a few modifications she would like, but that it sounded fair. She brought it home to her daughter who made a few more modifications than Maria and I had worked out. By the end, they were both satisfied it was a workable Exchange.

The next time we met, Maria and I went into the deeper issue. I asked her why the condoms and the copy of “Fifty Shades of Grey” upset her so much. “She’s only 17. She shouldn’t be sexually active yet. And I certainly don’t think she should be fooling around with that Bondage crap!” Maria’s complexion was a deeply disturbed umber by this point. “Tell me about your discussions with your daughter about sex.”

Maria shared that they had talked twice about sex and sexuality. The first time she had reviewed the basics of her daughter’s monthly cycle and how to care for that part of her life. The second time, she explained how intercourse worked and how petting almost always led up to it. That conversation took place two years before and they had not talked about sex since.

“Then Maria, I don’t think you should be surprised that your daughter has decided to find out more about sexuality without consulting you. I am not trying to make you feel bad, but the information you gave your daughter, though moderately helpful, is less than minimal. Think about this; you found condoms in her drawer. What does that tell you?”

“That she is sexually active.”

“Not necessarily. She may be, or she may just want to make sure she’s prepared if she does have sex. She owns these condoms herself, which means she is not relying on a boyfriend to have them. She is taking responsibility for her own life. If you had been having these conversations regularly, you would know her motivation for having the condom.”

I wasn’t trying to make Maria feel badly. I wanted her to wake up to the most important aspect of Respectful Parenting: There must be continual dialogue over issues both parties feel strongly about.

In the end, Maria went home and began the first of many discussions about sexuality with her daughter. She and her daughter read through several chapters of Fifty Shades and talked over what it meant. In the end, the daughter concluded on her own that this was not that interesting to her. And mom and daughter talked more about their own ideas of sexuality and what it implied to them.

Lo and behold, they stopped fighting.

It’s not rocket science.

In this article, I am outlining how any parents and teens can get to this place. It is all facilitated by Exchanges. An Exchange is an agreement a parent and teen enter into on a specific subject where certain compromises are made by both sides until everyone is satisfied about the issue.

To arrive at a successful Exchange, these are the basic understandings:

  1. This is not a contest. It is not a win-lose zero sum game. Either both parties get enough of what they want or you keep working at it.
  2. This is a compromise. Everyone needs to give up something. That is why it is called an Exchange
  3. This is negotiated. Parents can’t unilaterally determine all the parameters of the exchange. Neither can the teen.
  4. An Exchange is always open to change if it is not working for everyone concerned.

 

With these guidelines up front as the basis, let’s look at 7 common Exchanges and how a parent and teen can arrive at them.

Schoolwork Exchange

This is very complex concept. How well someone does in high school often determines what they will do with the rest of their lives. Parents often understand this better than teens. So parents come at the issue more intensely than their teens. Unfortunately, for teens, high school is a complex tangle of relationships, changing goals, victories and defeats, pressures, and competing allegiances. It is not as simple as just getting good grades.

A parent wants a teen to work hard. That is reasonable to expect. In a schoolwork exchange, the parent and the teen must decide what is expected by both parties. Most teens want their parents to give advice about school, provide resources, guidance and help. But they really resent being harped upon, criticized for doing poorly, checked up on, punished for bad grades.

I have told parents that good grades should be praised but not rewarded. Bad grades should be discussed but not punished. It is a very difficult thing to negotiate. But in this exchange, clearly spell out what a teen is responsible for and what the discussions will look like if the teen does not live up to their agreements.

The teen may want the parent to do certain things to help them. Teens with learning disabilities may want parents to attend 504 hearings or IEP meetings. Or the teen may want the parent to withdraw from scoping their grades for a quarter, just to see if the teen can manage it themselves.

In the end, the agreement must be revisited regularly to see if it is working. I warn parents that the teen ultimately has to care about achieving some success in schoolwork without being pushed. No one is going to push them when they’re at college or in the workforce, so teen years are a good place to start with self-motivation.

Future Predictions Exchange

The second most common complaint I hear from teens in counseling is their parents make continual dire predictions about their future.

If they experiment with marijuana, parents assume the teens are on the road to addiction. If the teen is sexually active they are going to get STD’s, AIDS, pregnant or will be living on the streets soon. If they get bad grades, they will have to work at Walmart.

The teen already fears an unknown future. They don’t need a parent to add gloom and doom to the picture. In this Exchange, the parent and the teen must negotiate how a parent can express concern about current actions. How much is the parent allowed to express their fears and how deeply can they analyze the current trends. Teens need to specify what issues can be discussed and which ones are off-limits. In the end, all parties need to be satisfied they have not given up more than they are comfortable with.

Solutions Exchange

Teens have problems. By definition, teens are beginning to face issues that never came up when they were children. And, they lack enough experience as adults to know how to act in every situation.

For example, teens don’t know how to manage money very well. There are exceptions to this rule, but generally they don’t spend money wisely. This often means they don’t have the money they need when they need it. At one point should a parent jump in with a solution? It is not as easy as it sounds. You are trying to balance respect with caring.

In this exchange, the parents and teens decide when and how a parent will enter into a problem the teen is having. This exchange must cover when parents must stay out and when they can enter in.

I have friends whose son had extremely bad body odor. They asked me if they should say something. I told them only one of them should approach this issue and should give solutions like showers, deodorant and laundry hampers. Unfortunately, dad went beyond these and constantly lectured his son every time the smell was slightly off. Dad and son reached a point of yelling because of this.

I helped them draw up an exchange about how often parents could suggest solutions to their son. On his side, the son agreed to ask more often (at least once a week) if his body odor was offensive. All sides agreed that parents would help by buying whatever the son needed to smell better. After agreeing upon this, there was no more yelling. And even though the smells did not get hugely better, they were tolerable.

Communication Exchange

We had a rule in our house “Nothing is not an answer”. We made that rule because two of our teens loved to give that as an answer to most questions. “What happened in your life today?” “Nothing”. “What’s bothering you?” “Nothing”. Is there anything you want to talk about?” “Nothing”.

Because we are seeking to parent with respect, we must respect the teen’s right to their own information. But the teen must also stretch and realize that a certain level of communication with others in the household is also respectful. In this exchange, parents and teens decide on some simple guidelines.

A teen is allowed to say “I don’t want to talk about it right now.” But if they say that, the parent has a right to ask “Why” and “Can you give me a time we can talk about it?” In this exchange, parents and teens spell out exactly how to handle situations where teens want to keep some information to themselves. But in the Exchange it should be spelled out the teen should come back to some of these issues when they’re ready.

Personal Space Exchange

This is the one we mentioned above. Every teen needs to have a space they can call their own. This is not just to protect the emotional center of their lives. They also need a break from younger siblings and nosy parents. We all need that. They need a place they can crash and contemplate where their life is going. If they choose to use that place as a storage unit and the mess offends others, they must be responsible for that.

Just as the owner of a house is allowed, with notice, to inspect their house when renters are present, so too a parent needs to specify in the contract how often inspections will be done. Consequences for messy bedrooms and toxic waste should be spelled out.

For the most part, parents are often concerned about drugs and alcohol in the room. This must be written into the exchange as well. Leave nothing out of the agreement.

At the very least, the teen’s room should have a lock on the door. They must have a key and so should the parent. But the parent must agree only to use it in the most dire situations.

Trust Exchanges

Few things hurt as badly as being accused of lying. We want our loved ones to trust us and when they do not, it causes us to doubt their love. At the same time, we all fail. And when we fail, it is harder for others to trust us.

This conundrum is experienced often between parents and teens. Teens often complain their parents do not believe them. Teens hate being told “you’re lying to me”.

Frequently, I have proposed an Exchange to solve this. In this agreement, the parent says they will not use the phrase “you’re lying”. Rather, they must tell the teen, “I have trouble believing that, and here is why.” The parent needs to take ownership of their skepticism without immediately jumping to a conclusion.

At the same time, the teen should not demand a parent believe everything they say. There must be a certain level of skepticism by all parties. At the heart of this Exchange is the agreement that no one will call anyone else a liar. It is no coincidence that in the British Parliamentary system, you can call other members of Parliament just about any name you want as long as it isn’t “Liar”.

Interrogation Exchange

Teens also want parents to leave an issue alone when all has been said. Most often, this doesn’t need to have a full Exchange. Parents and teens should just allow each other to say “we’ve talked about this enough. Let’s leave it alone”.

Russ and his girlfriend had unprotected sex and she thought she might be pregnant. At 7 weeks gestation, she miscarried. But they had already both told their parents about the pregnancy. During those early weeks, Russ’s parents had mercilessly lectured Russ on his irresponsible actions. A week before his girlfriend lost the baby, Russ ran away from home. They didn’t seem him for five years.

I know the parents very well and we have dissected all that happened. I have talked to Russ about it and asked him what would have helped in the situation. All of them agreed the best solution would have been to set a limit on how much discussion they could have on the issue. Russ needed a time-out from being interrogated. From the first discussion, he knew how foolish he had been to have unprotected sex. But mom and dad would not drop the issue. They saw it as a microcosm of all his other failures.

Soon, they were no longer talking about sex, but about grades, smoking, laziness and siblings. This one issue became the lightning rod for all their frustration.

In this Exchange, all parties have the right to say “You have ten more minutes to make your point and then we’re done for at least a _______ (a specified period of time). It is always appropriate to negotiate how long a time has to pass before discussing the issue again. At one point, all parties have to have the right to say “enough is enough” on certain issues.

 

One more thing about Exchanges. Write them down and have all parties agree to them and sign their names. My kids didn’t think this was funny…when they signed their names to our Exchanges, they also looked dead serious. i believe they knew I was both treating them like adults but also expecting they would now act like adults.

Parenting Teens in their Crises

Posted on January 4, 2016

teens in crisis2I earned an undergraduate degree in Theology from a small Christian college in Canada. During my freshman year there, I and three other men went into the main women’s dorm in the middle of the night and played a very messy practical joke on them. Everyone on campus noticed this bit of tomfoolery –which, of course, was our goal–and the Dean of Women wanted to take severe action against us perps.

So as not to cause more trouble on campus, we turned ourselves in. The Dean of Women wanted the four of us expelled. But the Discipline Committee of the school opted for another approach. We would clean up our mess and keep cleaning other parts of the campus to a total of 40 hours work each. And we were to receive a “stern lecture from a chosen staff of professors and college leaders“.

The panel designated to deliver the “stern lecture” was made up of the Academic Dean, the Dean of Students, a church history teacher, and a wizened theology prof who had two doctorates. They were an ominous and scary tribunal. The four of us had trouble making eye-contact with this panel. After entering the room, the Dean of Students looked at us, shaking his head. Then he addressed us:

Boys, you made a huge mistake this week.”  We all dutifully agreed by nodding our heads.

You should never have turned yourselves in!”

What?!

Then, the four of them proceeded to tell us about practical jokes they had played during their college years. For an hour, we were entertained by the exploits of these respected gentlemen as they told us about their own memorable pranks. They spoke of dismantling cars and reassembling them in libraries. They described using winches, ropes, gears, pullies, chicken feathers, tar, car engines, duct tape and firecrackers to pull their pranks.

At the end, they made their main point.  The four of us had had our fun; now it was time to consider putting that phase behind us and grow up. It was a good point. I think all four of us could look at the results of our freshman year and come to the same conclusion. We had not put a lot of academic effort into our time there thus far.

One of the men on the panel came to me after and asked if he could help in any way. My father had died when I was 16 and I really did miss having an older man to mentor me. I asked if he could help in that way. He agreed. Over the next two years, we met weekly in his office in the basement of the library. He  helped me in academic ways–writing papers, understanding grammar, time management–but also in life skills. I remember the day he bought me a stick of deodorant and highly encouraged me to use it daily.

I may never have married if it wasn’t for him.

My brother, sister and I made our way through life without a father during the last half of our teen years. By age 18, I was living on my own. I am proud of how I was able to find a path for life when many obstacles stood in my way. Yes, I made a lot of mistakes that could have been avoided with some good paternal advice. But, I did have God helping me as well, so I can’t claim all the credit.

But it could have been easier with a father there during the crises. I feel this way about many of the teens I see for counseling. If their parents walked with them through life’s dangerous turns, without over-reacting to crises, then teens are often more successful.

Almost anyone can parent a teen when there is no crisis. It’s the same as saying that marriage is easy if you have no conflict. But every teen has crises, either real or contrived. And they all feel real to teens.

There are those days when a teen admits they are suicidal.

Or when a daughter comes home and tells mom she has missed her period for two straight months.

Or when the smell of marijuana, whiskey, or cigarettes is too strong to ignore (and for some reason, teens don’t think that parents can smell).

Or when the phone call from school comes saying your teen has not attended a single class in a week, is missing all the assignments in English, punched out a fellow student in Phys-Ed, bragged about having sex with a classmate, and didn’t pay for class pictures (even though you gave them the money).

Or, when your teen tells you that you are the worst parent in the world and doesn’t come home from school that day.

You want to be their mentor, friend and guide–not their warden and executioner. But when the crisis starts, it seems you have become enemy #1. If you are following what I am writing so far about Respectful Parenting, you probably realize that this approach is easy when there are no crises. But I have had several people predict the technique fails when a teen blows everything up.

How do you do Respectful Parenting during a crisis?

Before I had kids, I was privileged to be in a friendship with Dr. John White, author of over 30 books on psychology, counseling and Christianity. Dr. White was the department chair at the University of Manitoba School of Medicine responsible for training psychiatrists. He also was a pastor of a church a block away from the church I pastored.

Inexplicably, this famous older man befriended me during our first year in Winnipeg, Manitoba. I learned so much from John. It was during those years there that Dr. White came out with his book, “Parents in Pain.” This was an autobiographical book, telling the story of how both his boys became drug addicts during their teen years. Here he was, a well-loved pastor, college professor, psychiatrist and author, and both his teens went off the rails into drugs. In the first chapter of this book, he makes this observation:

“God had two children–Adam and Eve–and both of them rebelled and made a mess of life. How can we as human parents expect to do much better than God? God is not responsible for the sins of Adam and Eve, and neither are we parents responsible for the mistakes of our children.”

This statement emphasizes the first critical need when helping teens through their crisis. Learn this truth: parents, it is not your fault. The crisis was created by the teen and their cohort. You did not cause the crisis and you, ultimately, cannot solve it. The teen must put the effort in, or your efforts are useless.

What this means is not jumping in too early to rescue them. Let them sort the options through for awhile. At the very least, let them know you’re there to help them process the problem. But don’t immediately offer solutions. It is in the process of panic, retrenching, seeking resources and answers, and final execution that we all learned to grow through life’s difficulties.

Also parents, resist the temptation to read too much meaning into a child’s failure. Unfortunately, parents like to extrapolate one event into an entire predictive future. One drunken experience suggests to a parent the teen will grow up to be an alcoholic. Or if a teen shoplifts, parents fear they will adopt a life of crime and delinquency. But resist that fear and remember that you had many preteen years to teach them right and wrong. Those teachings will not be forgotten overnight, no matter how many experiments the teen tries.

And even if the teen does grow up to become a failure at life, that still is not the parent’s fault. David Sheff, in his autobiographical book on his son’s Meth addiction “Beautiful Boy”, tells how he and his ex-wife worked through the process of watching their son’s life fall apart. At one point, Sheff blames himself and the divorce for causing the addiction. But when his son went to his third treatment center for meth addiction, part of the healing process was having the parents meet with a counselor. The counselor asked each of them who they thought was to blame for the problems Nic was having with meth. They both blamed themselves. Then they blamed their marriage. Each of them blamed their new spouses as well.

The counselor let them go through this blaming process for a long while. Then, he looked at them and said “No. You have just told me all the people who are not to blame. Only one person is responsible for Nic’s addiction and his descent into hell. That person is Nic.”

It is fascinating to read the other side of this story. Nic Sheff himself also wrote a book about his addiction called “Tweak”. Nic observes many times how he would blame his family and friends for his drug use. But he finally realizes that he himself is responsible for all the garbage in his life. He also realized at one point how badly his family suffered because of him. These are his words from an article in “Fix” Magazine:

“Because, something that does truly make my situation unique, is that, unlike with most addicts, my dad actually wrote a whole book (that is, a New York Times #1 bestselling book) about his experience with his drug addict son. So, uh, I got to read in detail about how my addiction had nearly destroyed his life and his marriage and the lives of my little brother and sister. I got to read, along with a lot of other people, just how much my actions really did affect the people that loved me.

It was super f****** intense. I remember when I got my first copy of the book, I could only read like three pages at a time ‘cause it was so painful and embarrassing.”

Then later in that same article, this is what he says he would do if one of his children was an addict:

“And, if I were to have a child of my own one day who was struggling with addiction, I’d like to think I’d do the same thing for him that my dad did for me—not necessarily write a book about him or anything like that but just telling him the truth about how he was affecting me and my family. Because really, trying to “protect” an addict from the truth is like nailing up their coffin. I’ve seen it before, with the parents of addicts who refuse to ever acknowledge the problem. And I’ve seen those addicts die the way I’m a hundred percent sure I would have, too, if the people in my life who love me hadn’t been willing to tell me the truth about what an asshole I’d become.”

What rescued David Sheff from being defeated in working with his son in crisis was the idea that none of this was his fault: none of it. By recording his thoughts in the book, he was able to externalize the pain he was feeling. I am describing this to you so you can see that even if things turn out the worst they can possibly be, there is still hope and it is still NOT  YOUR FAULT.

My wife, a school nurse, works with pregnant teens much more than she would like. It’s not that she dislikes them–she is able to bond with most of them on a deep level–it is that she knows they will face challenges their classmates know nothing about. When I asked her what the biggest fear pregnant teens have, she didn’t hesitate to answer: “They are afraid of how their parents will react.”

Of course, in today’s culture, a pregnant teen can get an abortion without informing a parent. My wife has observed there are many teens that end up getting abortions because they would rather face the pain of that procedure than the pain of their parents knowing they had become pregnant.

This underscores for me the second principle in helping teens work through a crisis: Don’t over-react when you first hear. Take a time-out. Catch your emotional breath. Let a good portion of the emotion out before talking with them. Above all, don’t say anything that will make a division in your relationship with them.

This is important because one of the first goals of helping a teen through a crisis is determining the absolute nature of the crime. There are three possibilities of the source of the problem:

  1. Ignorance: The teen did not see the consequences of their action before it was too late.
  2. Experimentation: They knew there would be consequences, but their curiosity tied to an inborn sinful nature got the better of them.
  3. Willful Rebellion: They knew what would happen and didn’t care.

 

I hope the reader can see that these sources differ greatly from each other. My experience tells me that most teen crises fall into one of the first two categories. As I said earlier, teens are inexperienced adults. They don’t know what they don’t know. But because they are abstract thinkers with strong wills, they like to pretend they know everything. I can tell you as a counselor to teens that they are actually insecure about what they don’t know. They are a basket full of insecurity. But they don’t want anyone else to know it.

In the previous article, I mentioned a young girl who had her first sexual experience and was shamed by her parents when she told them. In my interview with her, I realized it was a date rape. But she didn’t know that because not only had she never had sex before, she had never been told what she should expect in a sexual encounter. She thought her experience was normal.

When I told her why this experience is considered date rape, she had an amazing transformation. She went from being a shamed, confused teen to an angry, offended adult. It didn’t take very long either. Just having enough information to judge her own situation changed her outlook completely. I don’t think it is any coincidence that during the past decade she has worked in women’s shelters in her city. Her teen experience opened her eyes to the way that women are often hurt and exploited.

Her parents reacted quickly and wrongly. Those two results often go together. What should a parent do when they discover a child acted out of ignorance to the consequences? My experience is that the parent should either inform the child about the truth in life or get someone else to do it. And then let the teen learn their own lesson. If the mistake was one borne of ignorance, offer to help with the consequences.

How does a parent react when the child was experimenting? I believe the key here is to dialogue with them, asking if they knew what would happen. Most teens will admit they knew there might be some harsh consequences, but almost all of them will say they didn’t know it would be this bad. One of my kids experimented one night with drinking half a bottle of brandy. I happened to be awake when they got home–I couldn’t sleep because of a leg cramp–and they came in while I was massaging my calf. I could smell the brandy from about 20 feet away.

Brandy burns the gut. It is why most people sip it. This child denied completely that they had been drinking. Then, in the middle of our conversation, they threw up all over the floor. It was all i could do not to laugh. (By the way, I never claimed to be a compassionate parent. Nor have my children ever claimed this either). What bothered me the most is this child drove home with my car. I couldn’t care less that they had experimented with alcohol. But then they drove home in my car.

I did nothing that night. I sent this stomach-heaving teen to their room to sleep it off. The next afternoon, we had a long talk about what they had expected to happen. I realized quickly this was a venial sin–they had some idea of the consequences, but never knew it would be that bad.

But they also were guilty of drinking and driving. I spent 20 minutes telling them all about what might have happened with my car. I told them what would have happened to my insurance rates, to their own driver’s license. Then, my wife regaled this teen with stories of the victims of drunk drivers she had seen in the hospital over the years. By the end of her description, our teen was in tears.

I have never observed that teen drunk again. If they have, I can’t imagine they have ever got drunk and drove a car.

Oh, and that teen never drove that car again. There have to be some obvious consequences with certain misdemeanors. With ignorance, we can help them with consequences. But with experimentation, we must help them to learn the full benefit of trial-by-error. Science teachers us that experimentation is worthless if you don’t learn anything.

But willful disobedience, especially if it involves hurting others, is a different matter altogether. It must be treated with much more stringent reaction.

For several years while living in Canada, I worked for a Sexual Abuse awareness group. We educated the public on the realities of familial child abuse. One of my co-workers contacted me one evening. He was devastated. His son had been babysitting for some neighbors. The neighbor’s youngest daughter revealed to her mom that my friend’s son had sexually assaulted her while babysitting. The neighbor was horrified–as you can imagine–but they also didn’t want to go to the police.

My friend had called me because this didn’t sit right with him. He felt something more needed to be done. His son was 16 and knew the realities and wrongness of sexual abuse. His actions were evil, illegal and immoral. They could not and should not be swept under the rug. And, even though his neighbor did not want to press charges, dad decided to go to the police himself. I accompanied him and I was there when the police arrested the teen. He was put into jail, then mandatory treatment and the sex offender label. Even though he shed that label when he was 18, he had to move from our small town because everyone knew what he had done.

Even though only a small portion of teen delinquency rises to this level of wrongness, when it does, it must be treated very seriously. It is not wrong to contact police when a teen commits a crime against other people or their property. In fact, it would be wrong not to. I would love to tell you that dad’s actions solved his son’s sexual abuse problem, but I have no way of knowing that. A person has to cross so many boundaries emotionally to get to the place where they will be willing to assault another person. If there is an antidote to this, it often resides in the police or a treatment program.

Chronically suicidal teens can only be helped by having them committed under a 5150 (i.e. mandatory 72-hour hold in a treatment facility). Drug addicted teens (not experimenters) should get professional help if they will receive it. If a teen deliberately keeps hurting others through their actions, and shows no remorse, it is time for them to leave home.

But I challenge parents of teens to consider this: If you have maintained a good level of communication with your teen over the years, rarely will you see this kind of behavior. Most mistakes will be borne of ignorance and experimentation. You do not need to add extra punishment for these. Simply make them accountable for cleaning up their own mess. And like the professors who gave us the “stern rebuke”, perhaps telling them occasionally about some of your mistakes might help them see you as an ally, not an adversary.

Other Articles in this Series:

White Paper on Punishing Teens

The Basic Offenses of Teens

Teens and High School Successes (and Failures)

 

 

 

Counseling Over Skype and Facetime

skype-therapy-with-a-skype-therapistOne of the most radical changes I have seen in my 36 years of doing counseling is the emergence of Skype and Facetime as viable communication vehicles. I did my first Skype counseling session about 10 years ago (with a soldier serving in the Middle East) and until two years ago I had a few clients every year. Beginning in 2013, I started to counsel monthly over Skype and Facetime with a wide variety of clients.

Now I counsel at least two people a week over these media–many times I counsel more than that.

You may not have considered this a viable alternative to the traditional office visit counseling session. So, if you are not familiar with Online Media Counseling (OMC), let me introduce you to the many benefits (and a few of the potential drawbacks).

Benefits of OMC with Skype and Facetime

  • OMC removes some of the obstacles of counseling involving travel and location. For instance, because counselors are highly specialized in the type of therapy they offer, you may not be able to find a counselor who offers the approach to counseling that is most beneficial to your particular life challenges. With OMC, you don’t have to live anywhere near the counselor. It is possible to do counseling with a therapist on a totally different continent. I have counseled many people in Europe, Asia and the Middle East.
  • Health issues are no longer a hindrance to going for counseling. Some people are non-ambulatory and cannot leave their homes. This makes seeing a counselor very difficult. But with Facetime or Skype, you can see your counselor even if the flu makes it impossible for you to dress in anything other than pyjamas.
  • Clients with phobias related to the gender of the counselor (especially for initial appointments) can relieve some of that stress by counseling with someone via OMC.
  • People in rural areas are often at a disadvantage when it comes to psychotherapy because they do not live close enough to any counselors. With OMC, the client is always as close as an Internet connection to the therapist.
  • Most therapists can offer counseling for cheaper when done over OMC. The therapist does not have to have a dedicated office when doing online therapy. This means they can offer their services for less since they don’t have as many overhead costs.
  • OMC is superior to counseling over the phone, since the therapist can see the body language and facial expressions of the client. This is critical with many counseling sessions.
  • When you have received therapy from a counselor that you respect, you often want to recommend that therapist to your friends. The problem is, your friends may live a 1000 miles away from the therapist. With OMC, that is no longer a hindrance.
  • OMC does not imply an impersonal connection. Many of my online clients report they feel an appropriate amount of closeness and empathy even over the Internet.

Potential Drawbacks to OMC

  • It requires that the connection be high-speed and reliable. A dial-up connection and a modem probably won’t get this done. However, I have had several clients who have lost their connection to me via the Internet. When we restored it, we were able to continue on fairly naturally without a problem.
  • Other people can interrupt the session, thinking you are “only online with someone”. Sometimes, clients forget to keep their space free of “visitors” and this can be a bit embarrassing. I often warn new clients of this, but it doesn’t always ensure privacy.
  • Some clients feel the need to be in the same room as the counselor. Obviously this is not possible to do with Skype or Facetime.

If you or someone you know could benefit from OMC, email me at mikeinsac@sbcglobal.net and we can set up a time to talk.

A Perfect Example of Memory Processing

Posted on March 5, 2015

There are at least five different therapy models that fall under the category of Memory Processing. The three most prominent are TPM, EMDR and Cognitive Processing Therapy. In each of these methods, the person undergoing therapy goes into certain memories to dissect them and discern the true meanings rather than the beliefs and pain that are “stuck” there.

But many people ask me “what does this really look like?” Many assume it is like hypnosis or self-talk, neither of which is true.

In researching an article I am writing for a magazine, I reviewed the Disney movie “The Kid”.  I have seen it several times and I count it as one movie I would show children if I wanted to both instruct and entertain. In order to use it to explain memory processing, let me summarize the main plot (Warning: lots of spoilers coming).

We are introduced to Russ (played wonderfully by Bruce Willis) who is a dynamic, successful and unhappy media consultant. Russ struggles to connect to anyone or anything except his job. During the course of the movie’s beginning, we see Russ painfully try to connect to people. His girlfriend is a martyr trying to win him over. At one point, she will temporarily give up on the process.

Coming up to a landmark birthday, Russ meets a young boy. We find out that the Boy is actually Russ from a younger time. He has crossed the time-space continuum, but neither of them can figure out why. The Boy is disgusted by the man he becomes…he is not a pilot and doesn’t even have a dog. They spend half the movie trying to convince each other their version of Russ is the best.

At one point, they travel back to the Boy’s timeline. They show up on a painful day: Some of the schoolyard boys are picking on a three-legged dog and the boy Russ will get into a fight defending him. The adult Russ thinks this is the pain the memory contains. He believes the pain comes from being beat up, from losing the fight and from leaving the dog defenseless. So he teaches the Boy Russ how to fight and stand up to the bullies. 

The Boy wins the fight and defends the dog. But that’s when Adult Russ realizes this  is not where the pain is really coming from.

Here is the picture of memory processing I want you to see. This is what often happens as we go back into childhood memories, especially those we have not properly processed. With most memories that do not contain a lot of pain, we think through them over time and come to reasonable and accurate viewpoints on what the memory means. But this is not what happens with painful or traumatic memories. We don’t want to think very much about them, so we put labels on them. The labels are often inaccurate. The label may say “this is where I failed” or “this is what causes me pain” or “this will always keep happening to me.” There are a thousand other labels we could put on these memories. The stumbling blocks are found both in the details of the memory and the emotions. 

The difficulty lies in the details. Years later, as we are experiencing daily life, details very similar to an unprocessed memory can occur. When they do, all of a sudden we have a shot of pain, fear, guilt, shame or any number of negative feelings. We don’t know why we react so strongly, because the presenting problem or situation doesn’t seem to warrant it.  For example, adult Russ doesn’t know why he didn’t get a dog. He just didn’t do it and the thought of buying a dog seems to be a ridiculous and even painful thought. He never properly processed the memory, so the dog represents his pain. He is about to find out this memory has nothing to do with this dog.

Another example: Any time adult Russ runs into a problem, instead of trying to negotiate and help others, he bulldozes them and defeats them. Therefore he has no friends. One takeaway from the schoolyard fight is the idea that he cannot allow others to beat him in a battle again. He becomes a warrior in every conflict and develops no other approach.

Back to the movie memory. The Boy Russ’s father is called to pick him up at the school for fighting. Russ had forgotten this part. Adult Russ follows the boy and his dad as they drive home. Before going into the house, the boy and his dad talk on the front lawn. Their conversation is a difficult one. All of a sudden, the adult Russ, seeing this scene, realizes this is the most painful part. Not the dog. Not the fight. Dad has just found out his wife is dying of of cancer. And as he began to grieve, he gets a call from the school about his son being in a fight. 

Standing on the front lawn before going into the house, dad bursts out with these words “Don’t you know that you’re killing your mother?” The kid is devastated. The adult Russ realizes he has never dealt with the pain of this accusation. He has never processed whether this statement by his father is even true or not.

The boy comes back to the adult Russ and they talk. The adult Russ tells the boy that his mother is about to get very sick and that it is not his fault. In a deep and liberating conversation–one that you almost never see in a movie, let alone a children’s film–the adult Russ is set free from a false belief: That he was responsible for his mother’s suffering and death. He realizes that through the years, instead of putting the correct meaning to this event, he assumed the pain was about the fight. 

Once adult Russ is released from this false belief, he begins to change. He changes how he sees people. He changes how he sees himself. He changes his profession to better match his new reality. Everything changes.

This is what happens with all memory processing therapies. When the therapist and client process the true meaning of the events that shaped the client’s beliefs, a newer and more accurate understanding emerges. What used to take years to accomplish, I can now do in a few sessions with memory processing. In two of the processing therapies, the counselor and the client decide on the truth. In the case of TPM, God actually helps a person to walk through those memories. Ultimately the client must decide if they want to hold onto the childish version of the events or the more accurate version that reflection and God has revealed.

As the Bible says, “you shall know the Truth and the Truth shall set you free.

And that’s not kid stuff.

Five Ideas Which Can Poison you in 2015..and their Antidotes

Posted on January 1, 2015

poison_antidoteLeading up to Christmas, I noticed a seasonal increase in warnings about potential dangers around the house as the kids are now home all day from school. These are issued because the dangers are real: Children do not have the cautionary experience that most adults possess.

But we adults don’t often spot the most deadly poisons in our lives because they reside in our thought processes and not in a box under the sink. There’s an old adage that says “We overestimate what can change in a week and underestimate what can change in a year.” That Truth definitely applies to positive change. But poisonous thoughts can destroy us almost instantly.  Literature explains this ability we have to scuttle our lives through examples like Jean Valjean, who gave up 18 years of freedom because he thought it was his role to steal bread for his family, and Smeagol/Gollum who decided that killing his cousin to get a ring would be a good life decision.

So for all of our “precious” poisonous thoughts, let’s heed these warning signs.

1. Poisonous Thought #1:  “I am responsible for how my friends and relatives act.”

A few weeks ago, a counseling client called me in a panic because their life partner came home depressed. In the midst of this conversation, I heard these words, “I know if I just try to be more helpful, they won’t go back to drinking so much.”

Immediately I threw the brakes on that idea. This person is connecting their partner’s drinking with their own personal effort to be more helpful. This is a lost cause. Any time–I repeat, ANY TIME–you attribute someone else’s behavior to something you did, you have swallowed the Poison Pill. This is disrespect of the highest order, because it takes away another person’s right to make bad decisions for their own life.

The reality is much more healthy. No one does anything without choosing to do that. If your friends are unhealthy that has nothing to do with you. They are unhealthy because they make unhealthy choices. Your children are not messed up because you failed them, they are messed up because their thinking and behavior is childish and needs to grow up.

If one person could truly cause another person to make bad decisions, then every child in every abusive household would grow up the same. And, conversely, every child in every healthy household would grow up healthy. Neither of these scenarios is true. I know very healthy people who survived horrible upbringings. I also know of screwed-up individuals who had every advantage in life and all the love you could ever want. It’s all about the choices each of us make.

Antidote: If this is your particular “poison”, do a cleanse of the mind each night. Examine yourself and ask this question: “Am I taking responsibility for anything other people are doing?” The next question to ask is this one: “Have I loved the people in my life the way I ought to?”  This is the question that will keep you firmly focused on what you need to do and not what others are doing.

2. Poisonous Thought #2:  “There Is Something Wrong With Me.”

Let’s start with the reality. Of course, there’s something wrong with you. No matter what talents, skills, abilities, accomplishments you can claim, there will be glaring weaknesses in that resume. Howard Hughes was the world’s wealthiest man, an inventor, a daredevil, a mover and a shaker. And he struggled with Agoraphobia and OCD so badly it ruined the last years of his life. Tiger Woods was able to hit the golf ball better than most people, but we all know his raging libido buried him–perhaps permanently.

So why is this thought so toxic to people? It amounts to this: Even though all of us have things wrong with us, this is not a way to measure who we really are. The idea that there is something wrong with you is called Shame. Shame is debilitating because it makes several assumptions. First, it tells us we cannot or will not really change. Second, it attributes our failures to some undefinable thing we lack. Because of this, we conclude there are limitations we can never overcome. Third, because we live in shame, we feel that any time others hurt us, perhaps we deserved it.

Antidote:  Accept that you have weaknesses, and work on the ones causing you the most problems. If you believe in God, acknowledge that you need God’s help to work on those areas you fail at the most (this is step one in any 12-step program). Focus on your strengths. Finally, talk to God about the shame you have carried and see what God wants to say about it.

If you do not believe in God, find groups that will help you focus on those elements in your life you want to improve. Additionally, join groups that celebrate the areas in your life you are strongest. If you are a painter, a poet, a woodworker, a golfer etc., then spend time with those people who can appreciate these abilities.

3. Poisonous Thought #3:  “I Can Control the Future By Working it All Out in Advance.”

There is another word for this thought: Fear!

We often define fear by its effects on the surface. For instance, if we fear spiders, we assume that the problem is we just don’t like spiders. But that’s not Arachnophobia at all. I don’t like spiders and I’ve been bitten by Black Widows twice (I’m not that bright). But I don’t fear them. I know that spiders happen and that I probably will run across many of them in my travels. You can dislike spiders and not fear them. You can actively seek to avoid a spider and not fear it.

No, fear is a completely different thing when you dig below the surface. Brain analysis has shown a three-part process when fears begin to build:

  • Fear forms first in the Amygdala, which is the Emotional Memory center of the brain. When you have a threatening situation as a child, you release a chemical which stores that emotion and connects it to the details of that memory. For instance, if the threatening situation happens when it is dark, you may associate fear with darkness.
  • Fear “elongates” in the Hippocampus, an area of the brain where our autonomic nervous system and automatic responses are stored. When I say “elongates” I mean, this is where fear finds a permanent fixture. The Hippocampus may begin to tell the glands to produce sweat, the heart to beat faster so we can run, the throat to constrict, the blood pressure to build. All these symptoms can intensify and even bring on a panic attack. These phsiological responses then send the fear to…
  • The Frontal Cortex. It is here we make decisions. It is in this part of the brain we can actually decide not to act upon our fears. Or we can choose to protect ourselves. Choices are made with this part of the brain.

But here is the real source of the problem. Though this is the process we go through when we meet something we consider a threatening situation, this is the reverse of how we ever developed the process. At some point in our lives, we spotted a pattern with the Frontal Cortex. This pattern suggested to us that at the end of the process there will be pain, danger or an unwanted event. So we stored those feelings and memories together (in the Hippocampus) and in that storage process we decided that if we don’t want this to happen in the future, we will do whatever we can to avoid it (emotional reactions in the Amygdala).

This is what fear is. It’s a conscious decision at one point in our life to try and spot dangerous patterns and prevent them in advance. Well, when you put it that way, is fear so bad?

Let’s come back to our spider example. Let’s say you were bit by a spider in the backyard shed. From that point on, you associated spiders with: a) pain; b) a sense of being out of control; c) sheds; d) Any small rooms. There could be literally a hundred other possibilities. Now, as an adult, you have to clean up the yard. For some reason, you start to feel panicky every time you come near the shed. It seems irrational, but it is actually quite rational. You are reacting to a belief that you had where you felt unsafe and insecure as a small child about a particular building.

This is toxic because it gives us a false idea that we can ever control the future. The spider might be in your pantry; but it can also be on your pillow. (Mike, please, you’re not helping).  You cannot control the future. You never could, and this idea will poison your mind. Realize that these childish memories are not happening today, and do not need to be perpetuated.

Antidote:  If it is a simple fear, when you experience it, release the idea that you can control what is about to happen to you. Then make decisions based on what you feel you need to do for right now. If it is a much deeper-seated fear (like is often experienced with Post-Traumatic Stress) get some good memory-processing counseling with EMDR or TPM.

4. Poisonous Thought #4:  “I Will Not Be Loved.”

Dr. Robert McGee calls this thought “The Universal Destroyer”. It is the thought that can cut you off from the potential for love. It can destroy legitimate relationships over doubt and sadness.

Bill had been married in his early 20s. Even though he described his wife as “loyal, kind and funny”, he began to withdraw from her. In his heart, he firmly believed at some point she would come to realize how unlovable he really was. He pushed her away passively. He told her that she probably couldn’t love someone like him. Though she spent hours and hours reassuring him, he was never convinced. Finally, after enduring this for just so long, she left Bill and never came back. His personal belief that he was unlovable was now a fulfilled prophecy.

There are variations of this thought:

“I won’t be loved.”

“I can’t be loved.”

“I must earn love”.

Each of these variations has different origins, but they all poison our relationships. The reality is much healthier: Some people will love you, some will not. Some will appreciate you. Some will not. You however, can love whomever you want as much as you want. If someone will not love you in return, you are not required to be in a romantic relationship with them. But you can still love them.

The Bible tells us “For God so loved the world that he gave his only son that whoever believes in him will not perish but have everlasting life.” The Bible talks about how love is a unilateral act by God, irrespective of how any of us feel about God.

In the book, “The Alchemist” there is a revealing statement about love:

“One is loved because one is loved. No reason is needed for loving.”

This is simply saying that we do not need to be constantly questioning why people love us. If we feel love from them, then it is enough that we have that. We accept it from our dogs, why not from people?

Antidote:  There is a simple antidote to this. Accept that God created you and loved you and therefore, you are worthy of love. Or, if by choice you do not believe in God, accept that you are no less lovable than anyone else by virtue of being like all other beings. If you can give love you are capable of receiving love.

5. Poisonous Thought #5: “I Don’t Need Anyone.”

This is the unofficial motto of the old west cowboy. This independent mindset is drilled into us very young, hoping that we will gather from it that codependency is dangerous. But just as dangerous is the idea that you can do everything yourself.

I once had a person who worked with me whose favorite saying was “I just need to pull myself up by my bootstraps.” James Joyce is supposed to have coined this phrase in “Ulysses”. He meant it as a perverse joke (along with most of that book). He was implying that it is impossible for a man to pull up his own bootstraps, since his own weight weighs down upon him as he tries. He wrote this to describe how Leopold Bloom had wasted so many relationships not relying on the strengths of others.

When I was 8 years old, I had a horrible moment with this idea. My dad was an alcoholic. He was hung over every weekend. All of my soccer games were Saturday and Sunday mornings. He promised every weekend he would come and see me play. But he never did. Walking home after one discouraging game, I lamented that he had broken yet another promise to me. I was devastated. Then a thought occurred to me: “I don’t need him.” At the time, it felt liberating and life-giving.

Little did I know that it would suck life out of so many of my friendships. By the age of 36, I was depressed and failing. In a therapy session, we processed this memory. The counselor asked if this felt true (i.e. that I didn’t need anyone). It did feel true to me as an adult. As we processed the memory, I realized that most of my life I had cut off other people from me just as they got close. That day, I decided to let go of this poisonous belief and begin to include people into my life in a more intimate way.

Immediately it affected my marriage and the way I related to my children. My friendships began to soften and deepen. I have never been the same since.

The idea that we don’t need anyone is another self-fulfilling prophecy. We end up isolating and then wondering why no one ever gets close to us.

Antidote:  Take time to appreciate the people in your life right now. Tell them what they mean to you. Process older memories and look at how much people have done for you in the past. Perhaps write them notes and let them know how they have helped you. Develop gratitude for the people in your life. When you have to say goodbye to someone–whether it is your choice or not–decide that they still had an impact on you, even if they were not healthy for you. Never say goodbye completely without some sense of appreciation.

Spiritual Depression

Posted on August 21, 2014

At the end of the last article, I wrote that I had coined a phrase “spiritual depression”. That is not entirely accurate. I borrowed that phrase from an old book by D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones whose title is “Spiritual Depression”. However, what he meant by the term is different than what I mean by it.

To me, Spiritual Depression is the result of guilt and shame.

Brent was packing up his things into the trunk he had brought to college. It wasn’t the end of his degree or the end of the semester. Nonetheless, he was leaving and had resolved never to return. He haphazardly threw clothes and books into the trunk without any sense of whether the load would all fit. He wanted out of that place.

His roommate was worried for him and desperately wanted him to stay. As fast as Brent could throw stuff into his trunk, the roommate took it out. It was a zero-sum game that neither was winning. At one point, another friend came into the room and helped withdraw things out of the trunk. Brent knew it was a futile effort to try and pack, so he just sat down on the bed defeated. After a long sigh, he lay down and began to stare at the ceiling. Silent tears dribbled down his cheeks.

He was depressed. But the reason for his depression didn’t fit any of the descriptions I gave in the last article. He was carrying an emotional load because of something happening deep inside of his spirit. To understand this, let’s study an incident from close to the end of Jesus’ life

When Judas Iscariot betrayed Jesus and identified him to the Sanhedrin’s soldiers, he marked himself out as the scapegoat, the most heinous villain in the Gospel account. We are unclear to all of his reasons for selling Jesus out, but money seemed to be the most important one. He was offered 30 pieces of silver to betray his master and he took it.

Afterward, when Jesus began his Passion suffering, Judas was filled with remorse and fervently wished he could take back his bad decision. And, like most bad decisions, there was no going back from this one. He told the Sanhedrin leaders he had “betrayed innocent blood”. They didn’t care and asked him what he was going to do about it. In a fit of despair, he threw down the 30 pieces of silver at their feet and walked out of their presence. Wandering around in depression, he finally went out and hung himself.

I think it would be wrong to diagnose him with bipolar disorder, hormonal or neurotransmitter imbalances or other physical problems. His problem was spiritual and quite common.

He was feeling guilty about what he had done. Who wouldn’t?

In addition, he likely felt shame and remorse, emotions that often cut people off from the rest of society. We don’t want others to see our shame, so we hide away. Often people who are loaded down with guilt and shame do harm to themselves or others before they ever resolve it.

Brent had received mid-term grades. All of them were fine except one. He received a D on one exam which he had decided he didn’t need to study for. He had heard from upper-classmen who had taken the course that the midterm only covered certain topics. Since he knew the information well on those topics, he decided he didn’t need to waste energy looking over the content for that course.

When he faced the results of this decision, it triggered a latent sense that no matter what he did in life, he would always fail. Belief in one’s inevitable failure is usually based on very little actual evidence, but it feels real all the same. Brent had believed since he was a child that he was doomed to mess things up for himself. Because he held onto this belief into adulthood, it became part of his persona. It rarely took much to trigger him.

Fortunately, Spiritual Depression is one of the easier types to deal with. At least, it can be if it is treated correctly. It requires that one follow these five steps to overcome its effects.

1. Acknowledge legitimate sin. God’s forgiveness only is given to those who will acknowledge what they’ve done wrong and who don’t want to do it again.

2. Make amends for how sinful actions have hurt others.

3. Ask God to speak to you about your failure. This is similar to what God did for Simon Peter. He too failed Jesus. He too betrayed his friend. But he didn’t give in to the shame. He spent time trying to piece together what had happened. During this season, Jesus met Peter while he was out fishing (John 21). During that conversation, Jesus spoke to Peter and allowed him to renew his love for Jesus. That renewal was enough to rid the guilt out of Peter’s life.

4. Ask God to show you lies you have believed about yourself. Brent was able to do this over the next year. God showed him that he didn’t fail all the time. He didn’t even fail most of the time. He heard God’s voice and allowed God to help him let go of his false belief.

5. Ask God to fill you again with the Holy Spirit. We cannot overcome Spiritual Depression simply by trying harder. We need to partner with God and allow Him to shake loose the spiritual scar tissue.

All the Different Things Called “Depression”

Posted on August 19, 2014

depressionIn the last few years, many different conditions have been lumped under the same moniker: Depression.

A man kills his family and himself and he is called “depressed”.

A person loses their spouse to cancer, and people say they are “depressed”.

A woman goes to the doctor because she can’t get rid of a feeling of morbidity every time she thinks about being abused as a child. The doctor labels her as “depressed.”

Would you be surprised to find out that Depression is a symptom like a headache? It is not a full diagnosis in and of itself. What makes it even more confusing, there are many different conditions that are called “depression” that really have little correlation to each other. Let me give a half dozen examples.

Sadness. Sadness is often called depression because we naturally assume that this is what depressed people are feeling. This is one of the most misleading mixups. Sadness is the necessary journey to say goodbye to someone or something that has been meaningful and is now gone. One may be sad over a lost opportunity, a passed loved one or a broken relationship. This does not necessarily mean that the person is depressed just because they feel sad.

Anger and Hopelessness:  Dr. William Glasser, the founder of Reality Therapy, estimates that half of what we call “depression” is a choice. (Note that I did not say most or all depression is a choice. I think Dr. Glasser is accurate in this assessment. About half my counseling clients have choice-based depression). In fact, Dr. Glasser refuses to use a noun for depression. He uses the verb “to depress” to describe the person who chooses this. Why would someone choose to depress themselves? When we have been hurt, betrayed, cheated, lied to etc. we get angry. An injustice has been done. But many times it is hard to act out that anger in a healthy expression. Often we have to subvert our anger and sit on it for a long time. After awhile, it seems we will never be able to resolve the issue we are angry over. This causes anger to be joined to a sense of hopelessness. This combination of anger/hopelessness is what many people call “depression”. It is the decision which says “I will not feel better about what happened and I will not let go of its pain.”  This type of depression many times leads to suicide, drug abuse and physical problems.

Hormonal Changes:  The body likes to remain in homeostasis. Our bodies don’t like to change and therefore produce chemicals to keep the body in a regulated state. That is how our temperature, blood pressure, and heart rate can remain relatively constant. We have many glands in our bodies which produce chemicals to promote homeostasis. But stress, disease and environmental factors can all cause our glands to produce more or less of certain hormones than our body needs. Medicine used to believe that much post-partum depression and PMS was caused by too little estrogen. But now we know that it is actually a flush of estrogen that causes these symptoms. Other hormones like LH, progesterone, testosterone and others can cause our homeostasis to be out of whack.

Poor Sleep Habits:  We know that a person cannot survive longer than 72 hours without sleep. Why? There are transformative changes the brain processes while we sleep. If it stays awake, plaque builds up and blocks the regular functions of the brain. This leads to a sense of dis-ease and morbidity. Often this lack of good sleep is called “depression”.

Stress Itself:  Stress simply means that too much is being asked of a body. When we overwork, over-think, over-emote, certain chemicals have to be produced in order to cause our brain and body to rest. Adrenaline, Serotonin, nor-Adrenaline, Dopamine, GABA, peptides, Phenethylamine and others keep our brain from deteriorating when we are stressed. If you are too stressed by life, you will find these chemicals become depleted and you cannot feel better. Often this is called “depression.” Today’s “anti-depressants” are often just chemicals that prevent these natural chemicals from becoming depleted. The most common of these–Selective Serotonin Reuptake inhibitors–prevent your body from breaking down the Serotonin when you are under stress. Zoloft, Prozac and Welbutrin are examples of SSRIs

Brain Damage:  There are many disorders that cause depression which are the result of brain damage from birth or from drugs. Two of them are much more common than the rest. Bipolar Disorder is a condition where a person feels periodic stints of euphoria and drive followed by lengthy periods of depression. Schizophrenia is a condition where a person loses touch with what is real and experiences the sense that they do not have a grip on their lives. Both of these conditions at various times are called depression.

As you can see, there is much that is called Depression that is totally different than other things called Depression. That is why I advise people not to make judgments about another person’s condition simply based on the word “depression.” That one word can describe situations vastly different than one another.

There is also a condition I call “spiritual depression” and I want to address that in the next article.

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