The Artist is Present / Therapy As Art

   A few days ago, I received an idea for this entry from a dear friend and monthly blog reader.  She shared the below YouTube video link with me about Marina Abramović, a Yugoslav Performance Artist who performed an exhibition entitled The Artist Is Present at the Museum of Modern Art in 2010.   During this exhibition, Abramović sat immobile while visitors were invited to sit individually across from her.  The artist sat silent, immobile and maintained eye contact with each individual who participated.  The exhibition was an amazing 736 hours in length.  Participants were visibly and emotionally moved by their experiences with Abramović; many noted the intensity of the eye contact and simply being in the present moment.  The YouTube link captures the intense connection between Abramović and her former collaborator and lover, Ulay, during this presentation. In a similar way, therapy can also be seen as an art form.  To me, the “art” of therapy is the collaborative work between the therapist and client, resulting in moments of clarity, of healing and even transformation.  It’s interesting that while most of us have any number of friends and family to share our problems with, there is something quite unique about being able to share oneself with a “stranger” who can provide a level of focus and objectivity .  In this age of technology where we heavily rely upon texting and emails to convey what’s happening in our lives, there is still no substitute for humans having face-to-face interactions and present moments with each other.   Enjoy! https://youtu.be/CAID_2iKO5Y 

Your Window on the world

 A tool I often discuss with clients is the Johari Window. The Johari Window was developed in 1955 by two psychologists (Luft & Ingham). The tool itself provides a perspective for helping people see themselves and others.Although the model is over 60 years old now, it has stood the test of time in terms of how applicable and useful it remains. It continues to be used in Corporate America for teamwork exercises. I learned about this window over 30 years ago in a Mass Communications class. It made an impression on me because it helped me acknowledge things about myself I had not considered before. For example, I did have a blind spot about how people were perceiving me. I often thought I was communicating accurately and precisely and found that people frequently misunderstood me. Through the hidden pane, I learned about the private part of myself that was necessary for my mental health and was too often taken for granted. The “unknown” pane is that mysterious, miraculous part of ourselves that we learn about every day. The things that surprise us in terms of our reactions and behaviors – those unexplained aspects of unconsciousness.    

Differences between privacy & secrets

  A question I often ask clients in therapy is if they can tell me the difference between privacy and a secret.  Why do I do this?  Because I've noticed that people are losing the ability to create and maintain healthy boundaries in regards to their personal information, especially as they interact in social media. Unfortunately, we live in an age where anything goes. By this I mean either we reveal things about ourselves to the world without considering the consequences or others reveal information about us with the intent to harm or humiliate. This does not even take into consideration "fake news" or libelous actions. Case in point - remember Tyler Clementi, the 18-year old gay student who killed himself after being publicly outed on the internet by a fellow student? This young man was in his own process of coming out and was not emotionally ready for this news to be broadcasted to the world. I admit, this is an extreme example of the harm that can be done - but many of us really do take for granted how important our privacy is. Simply put, privacy is the "condition of being free of being observed or disturbed by others", whereas secrecy is the "practice of hiding information". Psychologically speaking, I believe everyone needs a sense of privacy in their lives in order to be healthy. People who are able to maintain their privacy tend to have stronger boundaries and understand when and how disclosure is needed.  Secrecy on the other hand is much more complex. People keep secrets for a variety of reasons, both good and bad. Generally speaking, keeping some secrets are counterproductive and destructive in nature especially in therapeutic settings. Secrets that are negative often impact our physical and mental health. There is an old adage in the treatment community that says "you are only as sick as your secrets".  We all need the safe and confidential means to disclose personal information that causes us pain and upset while protecting our rights to privacy. That's what good therapy is all about. Please see the attached link to an article entitled 10 Reasons Why Privacy Matters  

Positive Energy Accepted 

The other day a client shared a funny story with me.  He said that   one night there were two guys and a girl hanging out in Central Park.   A group of tourists walked by the trio smiling and happily greeted them.                     One of the guys lifted his hand up in the air making a grabbing gesture.  As he did this, he announced in a                   loud voice, "POSITIVE ENERGY ACCEPTED!"  Everyone including the tourists started laughing.  My client and I also laughed about this comical exchange. My first thought was, "where else but in New York  would this happen."   We continued to discuss the meaning behind this story.  My client remarked he ought to do this with his relatives, especially when they are having a good day for a change and not complaining.  We then started talking about how this could be used as a silent, meditative practice.  If I started looking for positive energy - a smile, a greeting, a kind gesture - and I took the time to acknowledge it to myself on a regular basis, would that in turn generate more of the same?  Would it cause me to not only be a receiver of positive energy, but to perhaps generate some of my own?There are definitely times I have anticipated the absolute worst from people and situations only to find it happening right before my eyes. While I do not believe I can magically make people already treat me well, I do know that my mental frame going into those situations undoubtedly sets me on the path to conflict.  Interestingly enough, I have also experienced the opposite - being pleasantly surprised by a positive reaction despite my negative anticipation.   As my client wisely pointed out, the practice of "positive energy accepted" is not to create or attempt to set up positive situations.  It's also not about changing anyone's behavior.  It's simply a practice to ground oneself while going about your day. In this present moment, I am accepting positive energy.   

happy interdependence day!

Yes, you read that right - interdependence.When I was a kid growing up in Wyoming, we were taught to be as self-sufficient and independent as possible.  It was such a rural area of the country and there were not a lot of people, resources or services available.  People were self-taught as a means to survive.  Learning how to be self-sufficient helped me build confidence in my early years.As I got older, I started to realize it was not practical or possible for me to do everything and that I needed assistance.  My pride often came into play and sometimes it took me twice as long to accomplish something than if I had simply asked for help.  Learning how to "work smarter, not harder" teaches us not only to be more efficient as individuals, but also demonstrates how the insights and expertise of others is necessary.Often times we do not learn how to ask for help or depend on each other until there is a full blown crisis in our lives.  This is a shame because being truly interdependent in the healthiest of ways means that together we build a caring, thoughtful community.  Friends and neighbors who pay attention to each other in anticipation of need.  Interdependency in the community allows us to be part of each other's lives in both good times and bad. Moreover, the community we become part of is the community we help build.As we observe our nation's independence - let's also celebrate our ability to be interdependent.   

Hard to Say Goodbye

Whether you are the client or the therapist, saying goodbye can be really difficult.I have been in both roles and can honestly say that when there is a therapeutic bond between two people, ending treatment is often painful. Therapy can end for many reasons.  We end treatment because we have resolved the issues we came in with.  Sometimes endings happen when there is an impasse in therapy or the client cannot reach a difficult decision point. It can also end because of a change in status, a geographic move or perhaps you've outgrown your therapist.  I have had clients leave who tell me later they could not say goodbye to me face-to-face. Whatever the reason, I always attempt to bring people to a place where it is ok to say goodbye because if needed, you can always return. Therapists also have a hard time letting go of people.  Over the years I have met and worked with so many engaging, intellectually curious and gifted people - people that are a joy and pleasure to see every week.  However, I am faced with the constant recognition that I am the therapist and play a different role in the lives of my clients than a friend would. Nevertheless, I do let go of people. I work hard not to keep someone longer in therapy than they need to be kept.  Holding onto clients for too long benefits no one.  It can also be rewarding to successfully transition someone to a new and better place, whether that be new life circumstances, a community resource or even another therapist.   I see it this way - I only have the pleasure of our association for only so long.  Our ending though becomes a beginning for both of us.  Hopefully you get to move on to a better place in your life and I get the satisfaction that I got to assist you on your path.         

Imaginary conversations 

You are upset with a friend who has done something to you that feels so wrong.  You haven't talked with him yet about the situation and are unsure of what you're going to tell him.  What do you do?  You rehearse the conversation in your mind.The rehearsal gets played out in a variety of ways.  In one scenario, you demonstrate how angry you are by coming up with the perfect zinger, telling yourself "that will show him".  Or you apply a guilt-provoking statement so that he can feel really bad about what he did.  Or you attempt to play diplomat and appear reasonable.  These rehearsals can get quite elaborate, depending on the situation and how many scenarios you play out in your mind.  You may even do the dialogue for your friend, after all, he's not around physically to play the part - so you start imagining what he's going to tell you in response.Sounds silly doesn't it?  However everyone I've ever known including myself has done this behavior.  What's the problem?  The problem is that the real conversation has not even taken place yet and depending on how long you've sat in this emotional stew, your anxiety and emotional states are likely heightened.  The brain and body do not distinguish the difference between a real or imagined conversation - the same emotional triggers can and do occur either way.Did you ever do this and then discover the real interaction was nothing like the imagined one?  I have found myself really furious with someone in my mind and then when I have the actual conversation, I find out details I was not aware of, which then alters my thinking and my understanding of the situation.  As much as we might believe a rehearsal will be helpful, it's even more helpful to free our minds.  Just imagine what you could do with the free time. "To rehearse imaginary conversations on page is called literature.  To do so out loud is called madness."  - Philip Sington

Welcome to the Club

Recently, in my travels, I made a new acquaintance; a young woman with a 1-year old son.  As our conversation progressed, I noted to her that my husband and I were going to have our own baby. Within minutes the two of us had bonded and she started to share all the things she had learned in the last year about how to take care of her little boy.  I gained so much wisdom and practical information from that brief encounter.  She was happy to welcome me to the club called "Parenthood". A few years ago, I attended the fiftieth birthday party of a dear friend.  During the party, the guests were separated into two groups, those who were under 50 and those 50 and older.  Then the guests who were fifty and older publicly welcomed the birthday boy into their fold.  As they did this, several of the guests talked about what had happened to them personally when they had reached this landmark year. These are two examples of a rite of passage, but there are many more we experience throughout our lifetimes.  Some examples are: puberty and adolescence, the first kiss, entering adulthood, our first job out of school, marriage, even death.  These life transitions often note our current status in life and to whom we associate. They are primal in nature and connect us to our "tribe" in a fundamental way. Where are you at in your life?  Are you marking a new transition?  Does this passage cause you pain and loss or is it a cause for celebration?  Staying connected to others who have lived through these situations is a healthy way to retain perspective and to ground oneself.  We need to listen and apply the wisdom of those who have been on this part of the path before us - in both happy and sad times. ​

When We Compare

You are at the grocery store and you are buying dishwashing liquid. Brand A is more expensive but you like the way it works as opposed to Brand B which is cheaper. You like the packaging of Brand A, but prefer the fragrance of Brand B. That shopping trip you decide you are willing to spend the extra money because you have a history with Brand A. We make these kinds of comparisons all the time, in fact, we're trained from Day 1 to compare and contrast.   We apply comparison to other areas of life - from grades we receive in school to how we are ranked in athletic competitions. Comparison also plays a role in our legal systems; we use judges and juries to determine punishments and awards based on previous legal precedents. Judges use sentencing guidelines to attempt to apply the rule of law as fairly as possible. Comparison plays a big part in the way individuals, groups and societies form standards. As a therapist, I am more concerned with what I call "garden variety" comparisons. These are the comparisons that individuals make in their minds about their place in the world as compared with others. "My sister has a bigger house and is more financially successful than I am."  "My co-worker gets all the breaks."  "The neighbor is my age and looks much better than I do."  "That woman is better dressed than I am." These types of thoughts tend to be distorted in nature and create much internal conflict. They are often the reason why people begin therapy. We do ourselves an enormous disservice by making these types of comparisons because it reinforces the belief, "this is what's wrong with me".  While we share a common humanity here on Planet Earth, it's so important to remember that there is literally no one else like us. Our lives, our personal struggles, our growth and evolution are all as personal and as individual as we are.   "Comparison is the thief of joy." - Theodore Roosevelt​

Energies of Introverts & Extroverts

Would you consider yourself an Introvert or an Extrovert?  Depending on how you answer, this ultimately influences how you retain and expend emotional energy.  When someone comes to my office complaining of being burned out emotionally, one of the first things I try to determine is "How does this person get their energy to start with?" Depending on personality traits and how the person best likes to solve problems, this gives me valuable insight about how people use their energy. For instance, introverts tend to process information and problem solve internally.  They draw their energy through privacy and personal space.  In stark contrast, extroverts process information externally and often solve problems best by vocalizing to others all of the possible solutions.  Having frequent connections with others emotionally lifts extroverts and energizes them.   When we ignore these basic personality traits we create imbalance.  Moreover, when we ignore the differences in the personality traits of others we create misunderstanding and intolerance. For example, introverts who are not given the time and space they need have a difficult time processing information.  They are often accused of "shutting down" and "not expressing themselves" when in reality, they are not comfortable sharing information they haven't first thought through by themselves.  Extroverts are often misunderstood as well in their communications and their need to surround themselves with others for emotional support and well-being. Corporate America has long used the Myers-Briggs Inventory to help employees determine their levels of Extroversion and Introversion, among other personality characteristics.  Individuals can access the inventory online as well - one source is www.psychcentral.com.​

Differences Between Shame and Guilt

Many years ago, the late John Bradshaw wrote a wonderful book called "Healing The Shame That Binds You".  This book explored the complicated dynamics of shame and guilt as it pertained to addiction.  Many of Bradshaw's writings on substance abuse were considered groundbreaking and have had a tremendous impact in the treatment community.  Interestingly enough, shame and guilt are universal themes in therapy whether or not substance abuse is present in the client's life. The main thing I have always remembered from this book were his descriptions of shame and guilt.  Guilt occurs when you do something wrong; shame is when there is something wrong with you.  Shame is far more toxic and damaging than guilt because it hits you at your core.  Unfortunately, guilt often digresses into shame.   There are mental health professionals I have heard say that guilt is a useful emotion because it can trigger a person's conscience to do the right thing.  In other words, if I feel guilty for doing something or not doing something, then there is a purpose to guilt. I've never been a fan of this logic.  My questions are: Does one need guilt in order to make the right decisions?  Is a feeling of guilt the best indicator of finding direction? I've met people whose lives have been directed by their feelings of guilt.  Just because you feel guilty about something doesn't mean that you've found the answer to a problem.  The guilt is not the answer but only an indicator of how you feel at the time.  If one lives a life based on guilt, at what point can shame take over? At what point does one go from feeling they do things wrong to there's something wrong with them?​

I'll be happy when...

A couple of days ago, I was listening to an NPR radio interview with Sheryl Sandberg the COO of Facebook who co-wrote a book called Option B with psychologist Adam Grant.  The book focuses on how to support people in states of grief.  This book was written after Ms. Sandberg tragically and unexpectedly lost her husband. In the interview, Ms. Sandberg discussed a widely-held belief about happiness.  "I'll be happy when I . . ."  The "when" typically is something big - getting married, having a baby, getting a new job, leaving a bad job, etc.  We set ourselves up to believe that we can only be happy when something momentous happens to us that we want. As she pointed out in the interview, "our happiness can happen in small ways."  This is really valuable advice especially when we are deep in grief and loss.  Happiness can be as simple as noticing your favorite flowers in bloom or the love your pet provides you or even the way your favorite beverage tastes that day. Sometimes we do get exactly what we want in life and that does bring us happiness.  However, how long does this feeling tend to last?  Even with the larger, life changing events, eventually we do go back to our normal outlook in life soon enough.  Therefore, this is a good practice - looking for the small moments in life (of which there are many) to maintain and sustain our long term happiness quotient.​

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Richard

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