John's Blog

The Blog of John Gibson, PhD


The Happiness Project

If you haven’t already seen it, you might check out Gretchen Rubin’s Happiness Project.
She is the author of the book by the same name. Hers is one of my favorite blogs.

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)

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?

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.

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?

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.