John's Blog

The Blog of John Gibson, PhD

What is the Purpose of Suffering?

What is the purpose of suffering?

This is not a question psychologists can answer. We can establish that suffering exists, in all its various forms, but no psychological theory can explain why it exists in the universe. This is the bailiwick of theologians and holy persons, I suppose.

And yet.

And yet, in my role as therapist, listening to people in psychological pain, I’ve come to believe that suffering has something to teach us. At least if we let it. Suffering teaches us about compassion. Because if we did not suffer, if we ourselves never knew distress, how would we ever feel compassion for our fellow man? If would be too easy to ignore him, dismiss him, judge him.

There is nothing quite so heart-warming as watching one panic-attack sufferer, or depressed person, helping another.

Come to think of it, therapists are people, too. Which means we’re not exempt from suffering, pain, or loss. Which is why we listen with our hearts, not just our minds.

Symptoms as Clues

Fork in road

Frequently people come to therapy because they feel anxious or depressed and they want those symptoms to stop. Fair enough.

But knowing that you’re depressed or anxious is just the beginning. What we really want to know is why these symptoms are occurring, or rather, what they mean. Although it’s true that some individuals inherit a predisposition towards certain kinds of symptoms, this does not mean there is no psychology involved. Symptoms are not causes. They are expressions of underlying issues. Just as your body gives you pain to signal something is wrong, your psyche gives you anxiety and depression to signal the presence of psychological issues. These issues are complex, and may involve thinking patterns, belief systems, conflicted emotions, relational patterns, responses to stressors, and possibly temperament.

Sure, you can take a pill to feel better. Frankly, drug companies would rather you did. They’d rather you chalk up your symptoms to the so-called “chemical imbalance.” The chemicals they’re talking about are neurotransmitters, chemical messengers in the brain. What drug companies fail to mention, however, is that there is no actual medical test for a chemical imbalance. Moreover, medication isn’t the only thing that alters your neurochemistry. Life changes your brain chemistry. As does therapy.

It’s not that I’m against taking pills for relief of symptoms. I routinely refer people to psychiatrists, especially in cases of severe, unremitting depression. Indeed, some clients need both therapy and medication to combat their symptoms before they can begin to function again. What I am suggesting, however, is that we listen to your symptoms in a deep way. Not just as something to be rid of, but as clues to your psychological system.

Sometimes symptoms are just your psyche’s way of telling you that it’s time to trying walking a different path. But unless you listen for deeper meanings, how will you know which way to go?

(photo credit: simonsterg)

Holiday Blues...or Holiday Stress?

pulling hair out

The holidays are just around the corner, and every year about this time I start seeing tips on how to cope with the “Holiday Blues.” But frankly, I’m not convinced it’s about the blues so much as the stress.

And given that the season comes every year, the stressors are predictable. Usually they fall into one of three categories: getting your shopping done (or paid for), spending time with family, and travel.

We all know what the solutions are to shopping-stress. Don’t procrastinate. Don’t overspend. And pace yourself. The trick isn’t knowing what to do, it’s doing it.

Stress from family contact is a bit more complex and emotionally loaded. Of course, some people love spending time with their family over the holidays. If this you, and your family is not dysfunctional, consider yourself blessed. But for the rest us, the trick, I think, to coping with family events is to bring as much grace and humor to the outing as we can muster. Parents are never perfect and some may be quite flawed; siblings will often compete with each other, even they are supposed to be grownups; and old family patterns will mysteriously come out of hiding and cause us to revert back to some earlier, less mature age. How many movies have been made about this very theme?

Well, here’s my tip for coping with family matters: whatever happens, try not to personalize it.

Maybe the best way to cope with holiday stress is to find new meaning in old traditions. Don’t let all the hype and commercialism win. Of course, if you are a christian, the season will have special meaning to you. But even if you are not, the season offers plenty of (new) opportunities to give, connect, and love. Indeed, I don’t know of a single better way to cope with any kind of stress than by connecting with other people.

Happy holidays.

(Top photo credit: BrittanyBush. Bottom photo credit: samikki)

The Art of Having a Dispute with Your Partner

woman grabbing man by tie

Sooner or later, all couples experience conflict. That you have conflict does not make you exceptional; how you handle it, however, just might. Because there really is an art to it.

If your partner brings you a complaint or an issue, you want to be all ears. You want to hear them out. This does not mean you automatically agree with your partner’s point of view, it simply means that, out of love and respect, if something is not working for him or her, you want to know what it is.

And if you are the person who is voicing the concern or the complaint, your job is to express it in a way that your partner can hear it.

I’m convinced that if couples can master this skill, they are well on their way to having a successful, satisfying relationship. It doesn’t mean that all disputes will be easily solved--of course they won’t--but it does mean that you have a ground rule that says you will take each other seriously and do your utmost not to hurt your partner unnecessarily.

Complaints are not the same as criticisms. According to John Gottman, a complaint addresses the specific action that your spouse or partner failed to take. But a criticism is more global; it’s an attack on your partner’s person or personality. It’s one thing to say, “Honey, it bothers me when you leave your clothes on the floor.” But it’s another thing entirely to say, “Why do you always have to be such a SLOB? Why are you ALWAYS like this?”

When a complaint deteriorates into a criticism, it’s like having somebody throw bricks at you. Either you want to throw bricks right back, duck, or run. These responses are sure to make a dispute go awry. But if your partner takes the time to think through an issue that’s bugging her, and she take pains to describe it to you in a way that you can hear it, and you do your very best to listen with your head and heart even though you may not agree; well, you’ve just given each other the gift of love.

Criticism leads to hurt feelings and aggressive responses. Complaint lead to spirited but loving discussions. Which camp do you want to be in?

P.S. Everything I know about so-called “fair fighting” comes from John Gottman’s longitudinal research on marriage. For information about his one of this, taken from one of his excellent books, click the Resource page.

(above image credit: Ajda)

The Downward Spiral of Depression

Man holding head

Major Depression. Chronic depression. Situational depression. Depressions vary in kind and severity, but what they have in common, at their core, is negativity and despair.

Depressed persons see the glass as half-full. They have a perceptual bias toward extracting negative information from situations while minimizing or ignoring positive information. They have negative views of self, other, world. And they don’t just perceive negativity, they recall it. Their memories are consistent with their moods. It’s not necessarily that they had more negative experiences to begin with, it’s that their minds filter out the positive memories to match their depressed state of mind.

Unfortunately, negative thinking leads to negative actions which turn often result in negative results. In this way, negativity is self-reinforcing. If you act on your negative perceptions, and get back negative results, your views are confirmed. And then despair sets in. Despair is when we believe there is no hope that things will get better. This mood, this pain, this self, this world, this life––there is hope that any of it will ever be different.

This is how the spiral starts.

Depression is exhausting, mind-numbing, painful. The depressed person struggles to function. It’s just too tempting to sit in the chair, lay on the bed, or hide out from the world. Or use some substance to help numb the pain. Unfortunately, our bodies restore energy by expending energy. They are not like batteries. We must move to get energy. But movement and effort are generally the last things the depressed person wants to do.

So down the spiral we go, slipping deeper and deeper into the mood, the negativity, the despair. Is it any wonder that most truly depressed persons start thinking seriously about suicide?

But wait! We can interrupt the spiral.

The secret lies in getting inside of the negativity. Negative thinking is fraught with distortion. In therapy, we call these negative thoughts out into the open and examine them. Some perceptions may indeed be accurate (losing your job is tough no matter how you cut it), but frequently the depressed person distorts reality without realizing they’re doing it, or without realizing how much they do it. Once we restore balance in thinking patterns, the spiral starts to work in reverse.

Depression can be overcome. Don’t let despair convince you otherwise.

(Photo by Dhammza)

Connection, Social Media, and Solitude

bear on phone

(“Can I call you back? I’m right in the middle of a photo shoot.”)

Not long ago I saw two young women walking down the street, side-by-side, left hands carrying shopping bags, right hands holding cell phones up to their ears. As near as I could tell, they were together but perfectly content to talk with someone else.

Last week I heard an interview by one of the people who helped create the internet. He admitted they had no idea that the internet would become such a powerful tool for social media. He thought it was mostly going to help people get more work done.

On that same afternoon I was driving on the highway, passing a young man who was going about five miles per hour below the speed limit, but drifting in and out of lanes. When I eased by him, his eyes were riveted to something in his hand. When he looked up at me, sheepishly I might add, after almost bumping into the side my car, I saw his cell phone. Texting.

Cell phones, the internet, websites, blogs, Facebook.

Human beings have a powerful need for connection. Apparently we can’t get enough. If someone can invent a technology that provides yet another way for us to stay connected, we’ll jump on it. Tweeter, anyone? Cell phone calls are so yesterday. Texting, baby, that’s where it’s at.

And yet... what about the lost art of solitude? What about learning how to be by one’s self, content with one’s own company?

What would your life be like if, one day a week, you imposed a media blackout? No internet, no cell, no blogs read or written, not even television. What if it was just you and your spouse or partner, or family? What if it was just you?

Related post: What I know for sure

(photo by Ucumari)

What it's like to be in Therapy

A few years back, I taught a graduate class in group therapy. One of the exercises I had the students do was to break into small groups and complete the following exercise: “Each of you will have five minutes to talk about yourself. While one member is talking, the other members must listen intently. What you talk about is entirely up to you, but you must talk for the entire time and the other members of the group must listen with respect and without comment.” After the exercise was completed, we’d come back to the class and talk about what happened.

What most students discovered was that five minutes of talking about yourself is actually harder than it sounds. They’d start out strong, talking the usual biographical identifiers like what program they were in, whether they were married or not, where they were from, what their goals were in pursing a graduate studies, and so forth. But they tended to exhaust this public-self information fairly quickly. Then they had to decide what to reveal about their private-self. Mind you, I put no stipulation on what they talked about. That was entirely their call.

The point of the lesson was to get the student-therapists to reflect on what their future clients might be experiencing when they came to therapy for the first time. The first-time client is faced with trying to figure not just what to say, but how much to say, and how to say it. It’s not unusual for people think about going to therapy for a while before they actually get themselves to that first appointment. After all, maybe the problem will go away, or maybe they’ll be able to resolve it on their own. If they finally decide that therapy is what they need, they’ve generally had some time to rehearse what they’re going to say--at least for those opening few minutes. After that, they’re not sure what to expect.

Here’s the thing: therapy is all about the private self. What you think about and feel; what want and need from others; how your react; and more. If therapy is to be life-changing, we must plunge into the deep waters of your subjective world. This is where real change happens.

Therapy is not about one person giving advice to another. Rather, it’s about one person inviting another person to make contact with their truest, deepest, most private self. When this happens, you forge an inner strength. You become clearer about who you are and about what you need to do make your life better.

Related post: Will Therapy Help?

Personality Redux


Maybe you go to the house of a neighbor, or someone you’ve just met, and you glance around the rooms, wondering what, if anything, the decor says about the person. How do you distinguish the objects that have been put there for show, for the sake of would-be visitors, from those objects that reveal something true and significant about the owner of the home?

This is the subject of Sam Gosling’s book, Snoop. The results of his research may surprise you. Our personalities do indeed appear to be reflected in the stuff we accumulate and display. But maybe not always in the way you’d think.

Gosling writes with a light touch. He tells you just enough about his research to get the nuances without bogging you down with technical details.

If personality fascinates you, this book is well worth your time.

Fall Colors

Fall colors

Even though it's raining, the drive into work today is enjoyable because it's autumn. The leaves are turning. The trees are bursting with color, almost like fireworks. Yellow and reds mostly, a feast for the eyes.

There is a little psychology at work here, I think. Autumn engages our senses. It's not just the colors that get me going, it's the smells (on certain days, the smell of burning leaves wafting through the air...), and the sounds of leaves crunching under foot. I savor the experience.

The season also seems to trigger certain memories, as if the color themselves act as keys to forgotten rooms in my interior world. And then, too, I'm struck by an awareness of change. If only the season would hold still for a little while. But of course it won't. And frankly, this is a good metaphor for life, is it not?

(image by Lida Rose)

The OCEAN of Personality

How would you describe the person you think you know best? What adjectives might you use to describe his or her personality?

It turns out that when descriptors of personality are subjected to rigorous research, with modern measurement techniques, five basic dimensions occur again and again, across personality tests, across cultures, and across researchers. In the world of personality research, this is BIG news. It’s the closest personality psychologists have come to reaching consensus about the basic dimensions of the human personality.

The five dimensions are:

Openness to Experience

(Sometimes dubbed the “ocean” model because of the first letters.)

We all have the same five traits in varying degrees. Each of these traits are on a continuum from very low to very high, though most people fall near the middle on any given dimension (sort of like height).

If you are high in Openness to Experience, you are open to new ideas, feelings, values, actions. You are likely to show divergent thinking and have a keen appreciation for art, literature, and possibly science, as well for fantasy and imagination. If you are low on this dimension, you are more like to be down-to-earth, practical, more a preserver of status quo than and explorer of new experience.

As for Conscientious, think focus. Getting things done. Doing what one is suppose to do as opposed to letting things ride.

Extraversion is about how gregarious you are. How much social stimulation do you need? The classic extravert likes to have lots of people around because they make him feel good. By contrast, the classic introvert (the low end of extraversion--introversion-extraversion are not different types, but one continuous trait), needs only a few good friends, and is easily overwhelmed by too much social stimulation.

People high on the trait of Agreeableness are trusting, friendly, souls. They make great friends. People low in this trait tend to be antagonistic, possibly even aggressive at times. They make good lawyers.

If you are emotional reactive, prone to stress and negative emotions, you are likely high on neuroticism, a NORMAL dimension of personality. But if you are nonreactive, even-keeled, seldom upset, and rebound quickly after stress, you are probably lower in this dimension.

Want to know more? Take a free personality inventory that uses this model. Or, type in FIVE-FACTOR MODEL into your favorite search engine. In my psychology practice, I use an instrument called the NEO-PI, which gives detailed information about the five personality dimensions, as well as their facet scores.

Know Thyself


Why does it pay to have a clear picture of your own PERSONALITY?

1. It helps you be true to yourself.

For instance, if you are an introvert, and you know this about yourself, you will be more able to resist an extravert's attempts to get your to be more like him. (Extraverts seem especially prone to trying to change the introvert’s character.)

2. It helps you know where you fit in the world.

"Birds of a feather flock together" or "opposites attract"? According to research, it's more the former than the latter. So the clearer you are about your own personality, the easier it will be to choose a mate, an occupation, or a group of people to hang out with.

3. It helps you identify potential blind-spots.

No personality trait is all good or all bad; there's always an upside and a downside. But it helps to know what the downside is because sooner or later you’ll have compensate for it.

4. It helps identify your strengths.

Although it seems paradoxical at first glance, sometimes real growth comes, not from working on your weaknesses, but on developing your strengths. Unlike popular wisdom, which suggests people can “re-invent” themselves, it’s much more valuable to become MORE yourself. That is, as time goes on, as you mature and gain self-understanding and self-complexity, you expand those aspects of yourself that are uniquely you. The goal is not to become like your spouse, your neighbor, or even the person you most admire. The goal is to become who you really are, who you were mean to.

Know yourself truly and deeply, and you will find yourself place in the world.

(image by Leonard John Matthews)

Core Belief: Inadequacy

After hundreds of hours of doing therapy with people who struggle with depression and anxiety, one of the core pains I hear again and again is the bone-deep notion that one is inadequate. This is when you have the sense you simply aren’t good enough, or that you’re deficient or defective in some way.

This type of belief has at least three powerful consequences.

First, you’re more likely to find evidence to support your notion of not being good enough when you size up situations, and you’re more apt to reject evidence that contradicts it. Beliefs bias our perceptions.

Second, if you belief, deep down, that you are truly inadequate, you’re much more likely to experience strong, crippling emotions such as despair, sadness, hopeless, and shame. Beliefs influence our emotions.

Third, you’re more likely to develop compensatory strategies for the belief, even if you are not aware of the particular psychological functions that these behaviors serve. For example, you work extra hard in virtually at all endeavors, accepting nothing less than perfection. It’s as if you’re engaged in a constant series of personal tests of self, always trying to prove that the belief is not really true. Unfortunately, perfection is difficult to achieve, especially if you strive for perfection in all things. Conversely, someone else with this belief may take the opposite strategy: he or she may try to avoid endeavors where there is a risk of failure. This strategy helps you avoid being reminded of the belief. In other words, it helps you avoid painful emotion that accompanies the belief.

Once the inadequacy belief is installed into the psyche, it’s resistant to change. Our psyches are built in such a way that we seek consistency in our views of ourselves, even if those views are erroneous, painful, or maladaptive. The notions that we hold about ourselves go stronger as time goes on, no doubt from sheer repetition of concluding and re-concluding that, once again, we come of short.

So what can we do about it? One of the things I ask my therapy patients to do is to explore the validity of the conclusion. Beliefs about self often start when we are young. Unfortunately, we may draw conclusions about ourselves using child or adolescent logic; we do not have the wisdom and experience that we will acquire in adulthood. Yet, even after we acquire such wisdom, we seldom go back and edit the self. Rather, we take our earliest conclusions for granted. They must be true because they feel true, and because we’ve always thought that way. I ask my clients to give themselves permission to examine these bone-deep beliefs through the eyes of their adult selves. Maybe you really are inadequate, but then again, maybe not. Maybe things aren’t quite as simply as they appeared to you as a child. Maybe you have learned some things about yourself as adult (or your situation growing up) that were not factored into the early--dare we say, premature--conclusions that you reached about yourself.

This is how we start.

Psychologist takes own advice

Frequently when people are feeling stressed-out, tense, irritable, or burned-out, I’ll suggest they take a vacation, or at the very least time off from work. The kicker is, I’ll suggest they take TWO consecutive weeks off.

“Two weeks! Do you know how difficult it is for me to get two weeks off--in a row?”

Actually, I do. I am guilty of not taking my own medicine. I haven’t taken two consecutive weeks off since my daughter born (she’s almost thirteen now).

Until now.

This year, I took the last two week of August off. Completely. Stayed away from the office, the voicemail, and especially the e-mail. Didn’t read work-related books or fiddle with my website. Yes, this took a fair amount of planning, and yes, for a guy who’s self-employed, it’s tricky to pull off. But was it worth it? You betcha.

What did I gain? Well, I lost track of time, sort of. (Therapists live and die by their schedules. How pleasant it was not to be constantly thinking about measured time). I thought about stuff I haven’t thought about it in a while. Hopes, dreams, new challenges. I got outside more. I read the new Richard Russo novel (and loved it). I spent extra time with the people I love the most. I traveled a bit. And yes, by golly, I came back refreshed, eager to jump back into work with a rejuvenated mind.

Hey, why didn’t I think of this before? Oh, right--I did. I just didn’t listen to myself. And why was that? Well, that’s a whole different kettle of fish now, isn’t it?

The Power of Belief

Do you believe your abilities can be cultivated over the course of your life, or do you believe everyone gets a fixed endowment of abilities that are essentially carved in stone?

What you believe about yourself with respect to your abilities may have profound implications for your life. According to Carol Dweck, psychologist and researcher, some individuals have a ‘growth’ mindset whereas others have ‘fixed’ mindset. According to her findings, a growth-mindset is more likely to lead to success. A fixed mindset limits achievement.

It works like this. Individuals with a fixed mindsets fall into a trap of needing to prove themselves again and again. After all, if you only get so much ability, who wants to believe they were given a modest amount of it to start with? Better to establish that you’ve got plenty of ability––and then seek situations that support or prove that view, and avoid those that don’t.

This means, however, that you’ll be more likely to avoid situations where you might fail because failure would constitute evidence that maybe you’re abilities were quite as ample as you’d previously believed. It also means that if you did fail at something, you’re less likely to return to it with full effort because, hey, if your abilities are fixed in the first place, why try?

But for persons with growth mindsets, who believe abilities can be cultivated over time, failure is not something to fear. Failure is often how we learn. In other words, if you believe your abilities are elastic, why not stretch yourself? Not surprisingly, people with this mindset place a premium on effort.

Dweck points out in her book, MINDSET, that history is replete with famous persons who were originally thought to have a modest endowment of ability but then went on to become successful in some endeavor. Leo Tolstoy, Charles Darwin, and Ben Hogan are examples from literature, science, and sports of individuals who were, in their youth, viewed as nothing special. And yet each went on extraordinary accomplishments later in life.

The good news is that you can change your mindset. If a fixed mindset is holding you back--and her research suggests that it probably is--you can choose to adopt a growth mindset. Beliefs are not permanent. Beliefs can be changed. The truth about abilities is that they are, indeed, malleable.

Dweck’s research points to the remarkable power of belief, but it also makes a good case for the power of effort. The novelist John Irving has pointed out that his talents for his two passions, creative writing and wrestling, were considered, early in his life, modest at best. But a wrestling coach persuaded him not to give up, but to work hard. As it turns out, he’s written a number of highly successful and entertaining novels, in addition to being inducted into the wrestling hall-of-fame.

Our beliefs about ourselves and others have great power. But some beliefs do not serve us. Some beliefs need to be re-examined and, when possible, tested for validity. If we have restricted notions of who we can become, we will naturally limit our efforts and our persistence. But if we believe we can grow our abilities and talents, we will not be afraid to toil, even when the task is hard.

Your potential is unknown. But don’t let that stop you from reaching for it.

Travel Envy

Say what you will about Michigan weather, but when it’s right, it’s right. This recent streak of sunny days, moderate temperatures, and clear blue skies has lured me away from my usual duties, including writing this blog. Which got me to think about vacation time.

As a psychologist who practices psychotherapy, I spend a great deal of time in a room listening respectfully to people who are struggling with emotional pain and suffering. Now this job isn’t for everybody, but it is for me, and I’m not complaining--I like my work. But I always know when it’s time for me to log a little extra time off the clock when I’m seized with what I might call “travel envy.” That is, one of my clients tells me, usually on the way out the door, about an exotic travel plan, and suddenly my ears perk up. Travel lust wells up inside me like a tidal wave and it all but knocks me over. That’s how I know I need to spend more time outside of the office.

The other day I walked the beach. I found this deeply satisfying. Perhaps even soothing. Large bodies of water have always factored into my life, and frankly, whenever I envision living in another state, I tend to resist the idea unless I know I’ll have access to something as special and scared as the Great Lakes.

I pad across the warm sand, wade into the chilly water, and let the warm rays of sunshine caress my skin...

Time to get out of the office for a while.

You in?

In Treatment (the HBO show)

Now that the HBO program “In Treatment” is out on DVD, I’ve been catching up. I’ve been watching the first season. So far, I like it. But how true is it to real therapy?

The tube and the big screen have not been especially kind to therapists. It’s easy to make us the butt of jokes or play us for comic relief. And in some cases, we’re actually portrayed as the bad guy. So at least “In Treatment” is a big improvement over how therapists are usually played. The program does a good job showing just how complex human problems really are, and how they can be linked to factors outside of everyday awareness.

Problem is, as good as “In Treatment” is, it’s still not realistic. Remember, television programs need to entertain us. If they don’t, we don’t watch. What this means is that, even though the program focuses strictly on the therapy process itself, it’s still portrayed in the most dramatic light possible. Something needs to happen every hour, otherwise we’d lose interest.

In real therapy, we’re not trying to entertain anybody--we’re trying to help you. There is no dramatic climax that happens each session, like clock-work. Real treatment takes time. Progress is rarely even. Insights happen, but probably not the way they do on television.

And yet... For once it’s nice to see a television program that takes my profession seriously. Hey, I’ll watch.

The Way I Work

When I originally set up my practice several years ago, one of the promises I made to myself was that I would create an environment that would allow me to do my very best work. I could have joined a group practice, but the idea of working solo appealed to my introverted nature. Likewise, I could have hired a support staff (associates, receptionist, billing specialist) to make a my practice bigger, but I what I really wanted to do was to make something that was simple by design.

If you rummage through my blog, you'll find a post in which I suggest that happiness may be a by-product of playing to one's strengths. Frankly, this is why I set up my practice the way I did. I sought to leverage my strengths as a practitioner. Rather than try to be all things to all people, I narrowed my focus. For instance, I don’t provide psychological testing, therapy for children, group therapy, or evaluation for the courts. These are valuable services but they not my areas of strength. What I do best, I believe, is provide individual and couple therapy for adults.

And I have strong feelings about the way I believe a therapy practice should be run. For instance, I do not believe in providing therapy as if you were running an assembly line––that is, seeing as many patients as possible in any given workday to maximize your income. When practitioners take this approach, it's easy to fall into the trap of treating every client the same, regardless of his or her situation, problem, or personality. I don't think this is the way good therapy is done. Rather, every therapy must be tailored to meet the needs of any given individual or client.

Of course, doing therapy this way means that I have to place thoughtful limits on how much I do and the way I do it. It also means that I have opted not to take on managed care contracts, which offer practitioners a higher volume of referrals in exchange for discounted fees. I prefer quality of service over quantity. If I have an advantage over big practices that do work with managed care companies, it’s that in my practice nobody slips between the cracks. Every client I work gets my complete and undivided attention.

I suppose you could my life has a quest: I have devoted my adult life to understanding the human psyche. Even though my graduate school days are long gone, I still study. I seek out the best information I can find, from the best minds and the most talented researchers. I reflect on my life and the lives of others, and I seek wisdom wherever I can find it. My job is to help people alleviate distress and create more meaningful lives. This is what I do. This is who I am.

A natural cure for anxiety and stress: belly breathing

In 1982, during my first stint in graduate school, I learned a simple but powerful breathing technique as a form of meditation. Abdominal breathing, or “belly breathing” if you prefer, is an excellent way to calm your body when you feel stressed or anxious. In my own life, I’ve returned to the practice again and again over the years, during times of distress or challenge. But I also teach it in my psychotherapy practice. It’s especially helpful for people who struggle with panic attacks and anxiety. I’d like to teach it to you now.

Make sure you’re sitting comfortably in your chair...close your eyes....for the first few moments, begin to pay attention to your breathing...don’t try to do anything, just notice the air coming in, and going out...

...after a few moments, begin breathing in through you nose, and out through your mouth...breath in, breath out...don’t move forward until you get the hang of this...let the air come all the way into your lungs, almost as if each breath filled you up all the way to the bottom of your toes, and then let the air out, slowly, gently...

(If your breathing is full, your belly should move up and down. You can test this by placing your hand on your abdomen as your breath). may notice that your thoughts wander while you breath...that’s okay, that’s normal... but now, with each breath, each time you exhale, I want you to silently say the word “one” to yourself...

...breath in, breath out, and silently say the word “one” each time you let the breath come out through your mouth...

...there one more thing to do while you’re exhaling...each time you breath out, let your body go slack...just let the tension in your body fall away...

...breath in through you nose, and breath out through you mouth, silently saying the word “one” to yourself, and letting the tension in your body fall away...

...continue breathing like this for time, eyes closed...remember, when you thoughts wander--and they will--gently go back to “one”...

..after a time, open your eyes and slowly look should feel refreshed...

It’s no accident that most of the world’s great religious traditions have incorporated some form of meditation into their spiritual practices. Meditation, of which this breathing technique is a form, provides the practitioner with a deep sense of calm. This has been known for hundreds of years; it’s only recently that scientists have taken an interest in studying the practice empirically. As it turns out, science has discovered what spiritual practitioners have known all along: meditation works.

The effects are both immediate and long-term. Once you manage a certain level of proficiency with belly breathing, it will make you feel deeply calm inside, at peace. But if you practice it regularly, there is good evidence to suggest that you’ll also experience health benefits as well.

Belly breathing is a simple skill to learn, but it does require a bit of practice to become proficient at it. When we are not engaged in productive, purposeful thought, our minds naturally wander. This seems to be the normal state of affairs. Unfortunately, during times of stress or anxiety, our thoughts drift to worries, concerns, or items on our to-do lists. This effect of this sort of thinking is increased physiological arousal. We all need a way to quiet ourselves. Deep, replenishing breaths bring arousal down.

By focusing on a neutral word, like “one,” we sidestep the mind’s tendency to get lost in emotionally-loaded thoughts. A variation on this tactic is to count with each exhale: breath in, breath out (1), breath in, breath out (2), breath in, breath out (3)...and so on. When your thoughts wander off, start counting over again. Most people can’t get to 5 without their thoughts wandering away. In my case, it took me almost a year of practice before I could consistently reach 5 without having to re-start. This is normal. It takes time to train your mind to be still. Of course, breathing also can also teach you something about patience, but that’s another post...

Will Therapy Help?

If this were an infomercial, I’d promise that therapy can help anyone, anytime, anywhere, and I’d guarantee results in thirty days or your money back. But this isn’t a commercial and I’m not trying to sell you anything.

Frankly, therapy is work. When it comes to alleviating distress or creating personal growth, effortless change is a myth. If you want the pain to stop, regardless of the form it takes, you’ll have to direct your attention to your inner life, your relationships, and your actions. You’ll have to seek new insights into who you really are, and you’ll have to tolerate the anxiety that invariably comes from giving old patterns and trying new ones.

Still with me? I hope so. Because therapy works for most people, most of the time. Research consistently shows that people who undergo therapy are better off than approximately 75-80 % of the people who don’t (but have comparable problems or concerns). Frankly, therapy results may not be be guaranteed, but these are pretty good odds, if you ask me.

Psychotherapy asks you to reflect deeply on your life: who you are, what you think, what you feel, and what you do. Believe it or not, this is not as easy as it sounds. All of us, it seems, are prone to a bit of self-deception. One of the benefits of working with a therapist is that he or she can help by virtue of having a measure of objectivity about you that you might not have. Of course, only you know what it’s like to be to you and to have had your life experiences. But if you’re like most of us, you will not always see yourself clearly. This is where a therapist can help you. A therapist will listen carefully to you and work very hard to understand you and your situation from your point-of-view. But after getting to know you, he or she will have insights about you that you may not have had. These insights, by the way, are informed by psychological knowledge and clinical experience. Your therapist tries to give you input that is unique to your particular psychology. This is the beginning to change.

Sometimes I get e-mails from people who are surfing the web, looking for answers. Maybe they want therapy, or maybe they’re just sending out missives to let somebody in the world know that they’re hurting. I always write them back and I invite them to call my office if they are serious about therapy. Usually, I don’t hear back. (The person who is serious about starting therapy is more apt to pick up the phone in the first place and make an appointment.) But I always wonder about the e-mailer I never hear back from. Did they find another therapist? Did they find a solution? Did they decided to bear the status quo for a little longer? Or were they doubtful about whether therapy--the so-called “talking cure”--could actually help them?

Again, if this were an infomercial, I’d say yes, absolutely, results guaranteed. But I tend to believe people are smarter than that. They know infomercials prey on their frustrations and secret wishes for easy, fast results (we all have them). Better, I say, to tell the truth. Therapy can help, but only if you’re willing to throw yourself into the project of finding out who you really are.


“Life would be infinitely happier if we could only be born at the age of eighty and gradually approach eighteen.”

--Mark Twain

I’m not sure if Benjamin Button, from the movie of the same name, would agree.

Stress (part II)

There is no single strategy for coping with stress that will fit all situations, but maybe one of the following items will give you some ideas of things to try:

1. Learn to say “no.”
2. Learn to quiet your body and mind--breathing, meditation, yoga, whatever.
3. Open up--talk to a friend, family, clergy member, or therapist.
4. Go on an information diet. Unplug from the internet, turn off the TV.
5. Refine your time management system. GTD anyone? Covey?
6. Face what you’re trying to avoid.
7. Walk, ride, lift, or swim. (Exercise helps your mind, not just your body)
8. Find your spiritual center. Church? Nature? Vocational calling?
9. Let a few things slide.
10. Get a massage.
11. Eat something crunchy.
12. Take a frequent breaks.
13. Instead of working more, try working less.
14. Dare to sleep in.
15. Lose yourself in music.
16. Take a day trip. (A fresh venue)
17. Stressful situation: Is it a threat? Or challenge? (Perception is everything)
18. Examine your assumptions. (Hint: see absolutist thinking)
19. Pet a dog or a cat.
20. Find something that makes you laugh (or at least smile)

In part I, I said that a simple definition of stress is when demands exceed resources.

Coping with stress will almost always involve variations on the following three strategies: (1) Change the demands (e.g, problem solve); (2) Improve or manage your resources (e.g., time management methods); (3) mitigate the effects of the stress response (e.g., learn a formal method of relaxation). The strategies you deploy will depend heavily on the situation, but problem solving is almost always our first line of defense for coping. In others words, we try to do something about the situation: fix it, resolve it, eliminate it, work around it, whatever.

The rub, however, is that eventually we’ll encounter stressful situations that we can’t do anything about. When that happens, we have to shift strategic gears and begin to do something to lessen the effects of stress. There are countless ways of doing this, but they’re all designed to do the same basic thing: quiet the stress response. (For instance, there are reasons why alcohol and dogs never seem to go out of style. For better or worse, people use both to help them cope.)

Of course, if we can’t change demands, sometimes we can boost our resources to meet those demands. Maybe we go to a seminar on GTD (Getting Things Done, by David Allen), or maybe we try get more sleep or eat better. Or maybe we decide to unplug from the constant flow of information that is clamoring for our precious attention. Interestingly enough, our ability to cope with stress fluctuates over time. If we’re short on sleep, heatlh, or energy, for instance, our coping ability drops off significantly. Some resources are more harder to improve than others.

Are there people who cope better than others? Yes. What do they know that the rest of us don’t? I’ll take a shot at answering that in part III.

Stress (part I)

Here’s a simple definition of stress: When environmental demands exceed our psychological, social, and material resources, we experience stress. Or rather, a stress response.

Unfortunately the word “stress” has become an elastic, all-purpose term. It gets stretched in different directions to cover words like stressor, stress response, anxiety, and indeed the entire stressful person-environment transaction.

For the record, a stressor is typically external to us. A long commute, a whopping bill, a critical boss. We can point to stressors. A stress response, in contrast, is what your body goes through when you experience stress (for instance, stress hormones pouring into the blood stream). Anxiety, which may occur when we are experiencing stress, is more akin to apprehension—but it can occur in the absence of an identifiable stressor.

Back to the definition of stress: ‘’…When demands exceed resources…”

Sometimes when I ask people about stress, it’s easier to ask them about the “demands” that are being placed on them. Who or what in the environment is asking something of you? If your boss wants a project done by tomorrow, that’s a demand. If the road is congested with traffic, that’s a demand. And if a hungry lion shows up in your front yard, that’s a demand, too. The demand side of the stress equation basically means that some person, thing, or situation requires that you respond.

The other side of the stress equation is the resources we need to respond to the demands. The most obvious resource that everybody thinks about is time. But we forget that attention is just as precious as time, as is physical energy. Moreover, competence or skill is a resource (try changing a tire when you don’t know how), as is money, and the emotional support of family and friends. Resources can be psychological, social, physical, or material.

If, when the demands come, we have plenty of resources, we’re in good shape. If you’ve got plenty of money (resource) in the bank when that credit card bill shows up (demand), no problem. If you’re boss wants you to complete a certain project (demand) by a certain deadline, using a certain computer program, and you’ve got plenty of time (resource) and skill with computers (resource), again, no worries. But if you’re aging parent is sick (demand), and you don’t have sufficient time (resource) to attend to them, or enough money (resource) to buy services for them, you’ll experience a stress response.

There are a couple of things to remember about stress. One is that stressors don’t have to be big to count. There are some life events that everybody finds stressful: divorce, death of a loved one, house fire, and so on. But many of the demands that are being placed on you are in fact daily, small events. There is a body of research evidence that indicates that these “daily life hassles” are just as important as large scale stressful life events, if not more-so. Any single hassle may not be all that difficult to cope with, but when you experience several of them over the course of any one day, your store of resources, especially time, attention, and energy, gets depleted.

The second thing to remember is that stress in the short-run isn’t necessarily a bad thing. If that lion really does show up in your front yard, your body’s stress response will be your friend—it’ll help you run faster than you could otherwise. But it’s not short-run stress that hurts us; it’s prolonged stress. When we experience stress for long periods of time, with few opportunities for relief, our minds and bodies suffer. We become preoccupied with the demands, our attentional processes narrow, and we experience fatigue, tension, and finally exhaustion.

Of course, no one escapes stress. The environment is filled with challenges, threats, and demands. But how do we cope? Stayed tuned for part II.

Bike Lust

Ducking into the bike store on a rainy day with a need to exchange some gloves... Bikes everywhere––hanging from the ceiling, crowded into racks... Skinny tires, fat tires, super thin tires. Bikes for all riders, young and old.

A good bike is a marvel of technology, but it’s also a symbol of possibility. A good bike is a work art and a feat of design.

Why is that some objects call out to us in such a way as to make us weak in the knees? What emotions do we infuse into them?

For me, a bike is many things. A link to childhood memories. A hint of who I could be with the promise of the right ride. A feast for the senses.

The objects that mean the most to us are symbols of the self. They are extensions of who we are, were, or would like to be.

My father died recently. I’ve spent the last several weeks sifting through his stuff. Some of the objects that he’d collected over the years have little value or meaning to me, but of course they did to him. When I sort through his belongings, I see not the just the man I knew--his public self--but the remnants of a man I knew less about--his private self. I’ll end of keeping a few of his possessions, not for the sake of monetary value, but because they’re symbols of our shared history. Little pieces of his life will be incorporated into my life.

Isn’t it interesting how our sense of self extends beyond our physical bodies? The self includes culture, place, people, and yes, objects. Objects we had, have, and want, and objects we share.

But I digress...

Back to the bike store. Turns out I’m smitten with one bike in particular. It’s love at first sight, though I’m not about to road test it because it’s raining. Maybe it’s better this way. Maybe I should show fidelity to the bike have? How many bikes does an average rider need?

Once I’m back in the car, my bike lust subsides. Reason resumes control of my brain. Surely one bike is enough. Surely I have way too many possessions in my life as it is.

How possessions does it take to define a self?

Food for thought...

LIfe is not a spectacle or a feast; it is a predicament.



If I had to pick out just one self-help book, I’d go with Flow: the Psychology of Optimal Experience, by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.

What is flow? It’s that moment when you are so absorbed by some activity that you lose complete track of time. Nothing else seems to matter. This experience is so enjoyable that people will go to great lengths to do it, even if it means risking life and limb (rock climbing is an example).

Flow is that state in which you feel completely focused on the activity itself. During flow, the self is not found so much as lost. When we are completely absorbed by an activity, we are not worrying about the future, ruminating about the past, or bored with the present. We are deeply engaged, deeply focused.

Flow is what it means to be happy.

In theory, flow can be found anywhere there are challenges to be had. Rock climbers will report flow, but so will surgeons. Reading a good book will absorb some people so deeply that they will forget about the time. If the challenges exceed our skills, we feel anxious. If the challenges are below our skills, we feel bored. Flow is the perfect match between challenge and skill. Just ask the chess master what it means to face the right opponent.

What activity do you do for its own sake? Read, write, water ski, dance, bird-watch...

Mike C’s book (apparently people find it easier to refer to him as Mike C) isn’t a self-help book in the traditional sense. It does not dispense much advice. What it does do is try to lay out the general principles of flow so that people can think more deliberately about finding activities that produce it. Once you starting looking at your world in terms of flow-producing activities, you will not be the same.

We are not, Mike C shows up, particularly happy when are idle. True happiness seems to be a consequence of deep engagement with life. Indeed, some of the activities that people report as making them most happy actually require a fair amount of effort.

Every notice how some people love their work and others hate it? Do you think this is only about the pay or the working conditions? In fact, some people are able to create lives in which they get paid for being in a flow much of the time. [I can attest to this. When I do therapy, I am deeply focused in the moment. Listening well requires deep concentration.]

Flow: the Psychological of Optimal Experience. Read this book; it just might change your life. It did mine.

Experiments in Gratitude

Lately I’ve been thinking about gratitude.

On any given day, there are moments when I feel grateful for someone or something. Lately I’ve been making it a point to pay closer attention to these moments. For instance, after spending hours at the hospital, waiting, a staff member offer to get me a cup of ice water. Or I’m buying lunch and the clerk offers to pitch in a nickel and two pennies to help cover the loose change in my bill. Or I’m miles from a sick family member, and another family member offers to be my eyes and ears to help me keep track of what’s happening. I’ve made it a point to appreciate these small acts of kindness, and, if possible, express my gratitude.

Recent research by Robert Emmons and Michael McCullough suggests that the positive emotional state of gratitude is linked to happiness and well being. Gratitude turns out to be linked to life satisfaction, optimistic expectations about the future, and even physical well-being (less physical complaints). Apparently the old adage of “Count your Blessings” may have had more benefits associated with it than we realized.

In the past, I suppose I thought of gratitude more in terms of the receiver. Saying “thank you” is a form of common courtesy, of being civil. But I’d not given as much thought to giver. We when say thank you, we feel good. Apparently, the act of expressing our gratitude amplifies positive experience.

In my case, once I let myself notice those times when I felt grateful, I was initially surprised by the frequency with which they occurred. Every day I found something I was grateful for, and at first I was struck by how often I took this emotional state for granted. Usually it was connected to an act of kindness displayed by another person, and usually these were acts that I could acknowledge in the moment. Afterwards, by attending to the experience, I realized these experiences really did make me feel good.

If gratitude is one of the consistent ways we have of feeling happier (and healthier), it may very well be worth our time to learn how to cultivate it. I found it helpful just to pay attention to the small acts of kindness that came my way. But Martin Seligman has developed a technique he calls the “gratitude letter.” This involves identifying someone you truly feel grateful towards, writing them a letter (a thoughtful letter, which often takes weeks to craft), laminating the letter, and then presenting the letter as a gift, in person, where it can be read aloud. Seligman claims that this has turned out to be one of the more popular exercises he’s created for his positive psychology class. The really interesting part is, the gratitude letter boosts the giver’s mood, but unlike some many other things we do to make ourselves feel better, this one tends to last.

Psychological Distress and Divorce

This is a quick followup to my last post. I thought maybe I should list the more common stressors that most people face when they go through a divorce process.

1. Intense negative emotions -- anger, hurt, sadness, guilt, shame, fear
2. Legal issues -- sorting out custody arrangements; hashing out settlement details
3. Co-parenting issues (if children)
4. New worries -- financial, juggling tasks, shift in roles, new tasks
5. Reworking identity -- married to divorced; making new dreams
6. Loneliness -- loss of partner, loss of some friends
7. Stigma -- coping with judgments, disapproval of others

As I said in my prior post, every week of my career I help people cope with the stress of divorce. This has become a routine part of my work. What I can tell you is that not everybody experiences these stressors in the same way, of course, or with the same intensity. This means that the strategies people use to cope will vary, depending on the person and the situation.

The divorce process may be painful, but people can and do get through it. And although it may be hard to believe -- especially when your swimming in a sea of negative emotions -- some people do more than just cope with the experience, they also grow. Yes, they sort out what happened and why, and hopefully develop a deeper understanding of who they are and what they need. But if emotional pain has any value it’s that it teaches us about compassion. By facing fallibility in ourselves, we are more able to accept it in others.

Compassion -- for ourselves, our former partners, our neighbors -- is perhaps the one true antidote to bitterness.

On not making your kids your confidant during a divorce

Divorce is stressful. No one doubts this. For many people it’s one of the more stressful events they’ll face in their adults lives. And naturally, people need to talk about it--or rather, process it. But who do they talk to?

Recently I came across a study in the psychological literature that examined the effects of parental disclosure on children when the parents are either in process of divorcing, or have divorced. In other words, mom or dad venting to a child about their frustrations, financials worries, distress, or complaints about their separated or former partner. Parents are most apt to do this when their children are teenagers and seemingly more able to engage in adult discussions. What the study found, however, was that this practice was potentially damaging to children. Turning children into confidants increased the chances that the children would develop adjustments problems later in life.

Why? Because when children are given this type of negative information there is nothing they can do with it. Typically they have little or no control over the situation. Parental disclosures become a form of stress.

So this is where I throw in a plug for therapy. If you happen to find yourself going through a divorce, and, like most everybody who experiences this process, you find yourself flooded with anger, hurt, sadness, or guilt, try not to pour your negative emotions into your kids. They are not the right containers. Talk to a therapist instead.

Behavior Change (part II)

This is part II of my post on behavior change. In part I said that I'm often asked how people change. Although there is no one-size-fits-all answer to this question, I did suggest a first step, which was useful for building motivation: make a list of all the ways your problem is costing you.

Now, for part II, I'm going to suggest you turn my first suggestion on its head: make a list of the payoffs the problem is giving you.

At first it may seems counter-intuitive to think this way. After all, a payoff implies something positive. If a problem is a problem how can it have a positive aspect to it? Let me illustrate what I mean with a common example: problem drinking.

Payoffs for problem drinking might be:

1. Generates positive affect (good feeling)
2. Reduces bodily tension from stress (calms the self)
3. Makes social interactions easier (decrease social anxiety)
4. Turns off the anxiety switch
5. Blots out memories
(And so on..)

In this example, the payoffs are fairly easy to spot. In the short run, alcohol can be quite effective in helping you cope. Unfortunately it's the long run that kills you.

Making a list of the potential payoffs is helpful because it helps you realize you may have to address more than just the defined problem. A problem drinker may be thrilled to finally get the monkey of alcohol off of his back--until he realizes he also has to deal with the underlying anxiety issue (or negative moods) masked by the alcohol. Making a list of payoffs helps you anticipate what you might miss if you decide to let the problem go.

The key point is this: sometimes our problems serve us in some hidden way. They may allow us to reduce anxiety, generate good feeling, or give us a reason to avoid something we’d rather not face. This may not be true with all emotional problems, but if you’re thinking about making a change you give it some thought.

Gray Skies, Blue Mood?

People tend to believe that weather effects their mood, but does it?

Maybe not.

David Watson, a mood researcher at the University of Iowa, challenges this widely held belief. In fact, in a series of studies, he and his colleagues found very low to nonexistent correlations between negative moods and dark days or days with precipitation. Likewise, the relationship between sunny skies and positive mood was also found to be questionable. Moods vary in many ways, and apparently have various sources, but weather consistently turned out to be a poor predictor of either positive of negative affect.

How can this be so?

In his book, Mood and Temperament, he offers one explanation: illusory correlation. Let's say, for instance, that we're in a negative mood. If we look out the window and it's dark or rainy outside, we may attribute our mood to the weather because it's a handy explanation. But if we look outside and it's sunny, we overlook weather and begin searching for an alternative explanations.

Watson admitted he was surprised by his own findings. He expected fairly significant correlations between weather and mood. They conducted multiple studies, by the way, in the USA and in Japan.

And yet...

I not entirely convinced the matter is settled. For instance, were I live (Michigan) we often have days and days of gray in the month of February. This is especially prominent along the lakeshore. When the sun doesn't shine for days, everyone complains about feeling gloomy. And then one day the sun pops out and the sky is clear and cloudless, and suddenly everybody's smiling again and expressing relief.

I can't help but wonder whether a stronger relationship between weather and mood would have been found if Watson and company had tracked people's moods for a longer period of time. Say, a month.

What do you think?

Behavior change (part I)

Often, when people want to resolve a personal problem, they ask me how to go about making a change. Unfortunately, the answer to the question may vary with the problem, the person, and the circumstances.

And yet, here’s one tactic you might try: as your first step, make a list of all the ways the problem is costing you. This doesn’t mean you’ve committed to change yet, it may only mean you’re getting ready.

Example: Let’s say you want to lose weight. (And who, in our culture, doesn’t?)

What’s the “price-tag” of this problem?

1. You find yourself squeezing into your jeans. Uncomfortable.
2. You find yourself worrying about your health. (Blood pressure, anyone?)
3. You find yourself spending too much money on food.
4. You worry about whether your partner or spouse finds you attractive.
5. You’re more easily winded going up stairs.
6. You don’t sleep as well.
7. ( get the picture. )

Why do this? Simple. Making a list of what the problem costs builds motivation.

Even if you’re not ready to make that change, this is a great way to start. In fact, while you’re working up your courage, review your list every day for a while.


So the other day my daughter and I were sitting at a coffee shop in the middle of the afternoon, her eating a muffin and me drinking a cup hot chocolate. As it happens, we were sitting very close to a young man who was grinding coffee beans. Although I’m not a coffee drinker, I commented to my daughter that I liked the smell, and she agreed. But then she said, “If you really want a good smell trip, you should walk by Kilwin’s in the summer.”

(My daughter is in middle school. She says things like smell trip.)

I knew exactly what she walking about, of course. She and I have a shared fondness for chocolate.

Which is what got to me thinking about savoring.

We all know what the word means. But years ago, when I was at Loyola, I learned that Fred Bryant, a psychology professor there, had been studying the concept of savoring. So, being the good graduate student that I was, I hunted down a couple of his papers and read them. Mind you, these were research papers. Not exactly what you think of when you think of savoring. Now, however, years later, the savoring concept has found new life in the field of positive psychology.

Savoring is defined as “attending to, appreciating, and enhancing positive experience.”

Reading about it, and practicing about it, changed my life. Even though I read about years ago, it is one of the few things that I continue to do to this day.

I’m almost embarrassed to tell you some of things I savor. But I will. I savor the smell of a good used bookstore. I know several around the Chicago area, and whenever I walk into one, especially after not having been there for months, I inhale the smell of books.

I also have a special stone that sits on office desk. Picture an arrowhead only bigger–– more like a spearhead. Although it was given to me by my grandfather, its value to me is not sentimental. I like because of it’s shape and texture. Especially its texture. I savor the way the stone feels in my hand. Its rough edges and heft satisfy my sense of touch.

When you think of savoring, do you think only of food and taste? What Fred Bryant showed through his studies was that any virtually any positive experience could be savored. Even the memory of a positive event can be savored. Savoring is close to the experience of pleasure, but it’s not identical to it. Savoring is about drawing pleasure out, almost as if your suspending it your mind. If I eat ice cream, I experience pleasure. But if I eat it slowly, and let the sweetness of it linger in my mouth and mind, I’m savoring it.

And why, you ask, does savoring matter? Why make a big deal of it?

Well, for one thing, by enhancing positive experience, we buffer ourselves again stress. Maybe not hugely so, but just enough.

But there’s more to it than that, I think. We have a bias in our culture about looking towards the big events in our lives as the main sources of our happiness. Who among us, for instance, does not wish he or she could win the lottery? Of course this would make us feel good.

But what the savoring research has to tell us is that, when it comes to well-being, small experiences also matter. Indeed, I would argue that small experiences, because they are so common and so frequent, may even matter more than some than some big events. In my case, I remember certain key events in my life that made me feel good. The birth of my daughter is a prime example. But how often do things like that happen? In contrast, I savor something about the particulars of life almost every day.

We can savor any number of experiences. It’s not act of experiencing pleasure per se, but the act of attending closely to that pleasure, appreciating it, and dare I say elongating it.

Which is pretty much what I was doing that day I was sitting with my daughter in the coffee shop. The taste of the hot chocolate. The smell of the coffee beans being ground. The sound of daughter’s voice.


What I know for sure

Oprah has this column in the back of her magazine called, “What I know for sure.” (The magazine mysteriously shows up in my waiting room...) Well, here’s one thing I know for sure:

Just as relationships have the power to hurt us, they also have the power to heal us.

We never outgrow our need for love, empathy, validation, and being prized by others.
Without these psychological nutrients, we do not thrive. With them, we not only thrive, but we can also heal wounds.

I have an unusual job, it seems to me. As a psychologist who practices psychotherapy, I’m in the business of forming relationships with people. I try to make my clients feel understood. I try to take a true interest in who they are as people. (We are always more than our problems.) I try to provide them with compassion when they are not able to provide it for themselves.

If I know anything for sure, it’s that psychological techiniques don’t heal people, relationships do. That’s what therapy is really about. Indeed, that’s what life is really about.

I’d like to think Oprah would agree with me.

Strengths redux

In my original post on identifying strengths, I realized there something else I wanted to say:

Ignore your weaknesses.

This flies in the face of conventional wisdom. Most of us have been coached or counseled to fix our weaknesses. If you doubt this, think back to feedback you were given in school or on a job. How much time did your evaluator spend talking about strategies for correcting weaknesses as compared to ways to bettter use your strengths?

And of course it sounds good. Who wants to be hampered by things they don’t do well?

But here’s the thing: when successful people are studied, it turns out that they don’t actually spend that much time trying to fix their weakness. It’s not that they don’t have them; they do. Rather, they figure out a way to work around them.

Sometimes that means ignoring them altogether.

Other times it means working on a weakness just enough to meet minimum requirements for a particular skill.

And still others times it means enlisting the help of other people to compensate for your weaknesses.

Whichever strategy you use, the lesson is clear: limit the amount to time you spend trying to develop your weaknesses. Throw the bulk of your energy in the direction of your strengths. You’ll go farther, you’ll go faster.

And you’ll also increase the odds of success and happiness.

How I became a better patient

Recently I had surgery. It wasn’t major surgery, but the recovery was just enough to put me in pain for a week or so and make it difficult to function. During that time, I discovered that I am not a very good patient. Which, curiously, got me remembering Albert Ellis, an eminent psychologist who died in 2007 at the age of 93.

Albert Ellis is familiar figure to mental health professionals around the world. He’s considered one of the founders of the cognitive therapy movement. Today, virtually all therapists-in-training are taught the basics of his Rational-Emotive model. As for Ellis himself, he was known for his salty humor and tireless devotion to helping people overcome their problems. But all accounts he was quite a character. He didn’t just help you identify your irrational beliefs, he disputed them.

And what sort of irrational beliefs did he help you dispute? Consider this one:

“The world must always be comfortable and provide me with exactly what I want.”

Now, I’d like to think I’m a rational guy. I am, after all, a therapist. I try to practice what I preach. Normally, I don’t think the world owes me anything.

But when I was laid up after surgery, my rationality went right out the window. Oh, for the few days I was just fine. But after about a week I’d spent what little patience I had saved up and now I felt emotional overdrawn.

In my world––let’s call this John’s irrational world––I would not need surgery. Hey, I wouldn’t even get sick, because, after all, I don’t have time for something as inconvenient as illness. In my world, my body would do exactly what I demand it must, which is to work perfectly at all times, under all conditions, now and forever more, thank you very much.

You see, Ellis believed that we have a tendency to fall into the habit of thinking in absolutes. Words like must, should, ought-to lead to a cognitive system that’s too rigid. And when these absolutes are applied to the world (we also have a tendency to apply them to ourselves), we are prone to poor stress tolerance, frustration, and anger.

Stress is a fact of life. We all know this. Yet how often don’t we operate as if we must never be stressed? As if somehow there was a rule in the universe that said we should never be made uncomfortable.

When you’re stressed, inconvenienced, or challenged by some unexpected circumstance, have you ever had one of these thoughts?

“This shouldn’t be happening

“I shouldn’t have to put up with this.”

“This just isn’t fair.”

Once we hold the universe to the standard of providing us with comfort, it’s easy to get frustrated or angry when the world fails to comply.

So let’s return to John’s crazy world for a moment. If he were to break the habit of thinking in terms of musts or shoulds, what would the alternative be?

The more rational view might go like this:

It would nice if John’s body stayed free of trouble and he didn’t have to undergo surgery, and certainly preferable. And it would be pleasant if, when the surgery was completed, he bounced back in a few days, pain-free. But these are preferences, not demands.

You might think you’re above absolutist thinking. And maybe you are. Maybe you’re one of those well-balanced individuals who stays rational all the time, not matter how much stress, inconvenience, or hardship you face. Still, think back to the last time you felt angry because life felt unfair. Then ask yourself this: what was your underlying assumption? Did you place an implicit demand on the universe? Was there a should somewhere in your thinking?

I’m still recovering from the surgery. I still have some pain and discomfort and I still can’t do everything I want to do. But if I let the ghost of Albert Ellis be my guide, who, in his salty humor kind of way, would be pointing out that I’ve been must-erbating my way through recovery, I might just become a better patient.

Do you want to be happier? First, identify your strengths

In 2001, when I set up my practice, one of the promises I made to myself was that I would create an environment that would allow me to do my very best work. I could have joined a group practice, but the idea of working solo appealed to my introverted nature. Likewise, I could have hired a support staff (associates, receptionist, billing specialist) to make a my practice bigger, but I what I really wanted to do was to make something that was
simple by design. If you rummage through my blog, you'll find a post there in which I suggest that happiness is may be a by-product of playing to one's strengths. Frankly, this is why I set up my practice the way I did. I sought to leverage my strengths as a practitioner. Rather than try to be all things to all people, I narrowed my focus. For instance, I don’t provide psychological testing, therapy for children, group therapy, or evaluation for the courts. These are valuable services but they not my areas of strength. What I do best, I believe, is provide individual and couple therapy for adults.

I have strong convictions about the way I believe therapy should be conducted. For instance, I do not believe in providing therapy as if you were running an assembly line. That is, seeing as many patients as possible in any given workday to maximize your income. When practitioners take this approach, it's easy to fall into the trap of treating every client the same, regardless of his or her situation, problem, or personality. I don't think this is the way good therapy is done. Rather, every therapy must be tailored to meet the needs of any given individual or client. Doing therapy this way means that I have to place thoughtful limits on how much I do and the way I do it. It also means that I have opted not to take on managed care contracts, which offer practitioners a higher volume of referrals in exchange for discounted fees. I prefer quality of service over quantity. If I have an advantage over big practices that do work with managed care companies, it’s that in my practice nobody slips between the cracks. Every client I work gets my complete and undivided attention.

I suppose you could my life has a quest: I have devoted my adult life to understanding the human psyche. Even though my graduate school days are long gone, I still study. I seek out the best information I can find, from the best minds and the most talented researchers. I reflect on my life and the lives of others, and I seek wisdom wherever I can find it. My job is to help people alleviate distress and create more meaningful lives. This is what I do. This is who I am.