To Give and To Get: A Combined Buddhist/Jewish Relationship Formula

To Give and To Get: A Combined Buddhist/Jewish Relationship Formula

By: Josh Hetherington, LMFT.

Mindfulness.

Lately I’ve been reconnecting with some Buddhist writing. It underscores a lot of ideas about mindfulness, which I see as a nearly universally useful concept. Everyone can benefit from a mindfulness practice. I like a simple breathing meditation where you focus on your breathing and then notice when you start thinking about something else and pull your attention back to your breathing. It’s easy. You can’t really do it wrong. Sit down. Close your eyes. Focus your attention on your breathing, the sensation of your breathing, the feeling of your breathing in your body. Then, when you notice your thoughts drifting away, catch your attention and pull it back to the sensation of breathing. It’s not really relaxing, necessarily, but sometimes that’s a side effect. Relaxation is not the goal. The goal is practicing the skill of focusing your attention and feeling that you have some control over your thoughts. This practice is derived from Buddhist meditation. Here’s a decent video to lead you through the exercise.

My appreciation for this practice and its impact on so many issues that we all struggle with has led me to look at Buddhism off and on over the last 15 years.  I’m currently reading the Dalai Lama’s book about Happiness from about 10 years ago. It provides a nice overview of many concepts and highlights the goal of finding happiness in your life.

 

Freedom From Reliance on Attachments.

I struggle with the part of the book that relates to attachment. The Dalai Lama describes how relying on relationships for happiness is a mistake. In fact, he talks about attachment – to things, people, ideas, or memories -  being something one must pull away from in order to be happy. I may have this wrong, but I interpreted this to mean that he believes overreliance on our attachments can make us unhappy.

I’ve been a firm believer in Attachment Theory for many years. Briefly, Attachment Theory posits that when babies are born they develop and expand an innate connection to caregivers that provides the platform for emotional wellbeing. The work of John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth seems ironclad.  But it is a theory. Additionally, it hasn’t moved into adult relationships with as much empirical data supporting it. Of course we all are affected by our experiences in childhood, but while much research has borne out the effects of caregiver attachments on children’s behaviors and relationships, there isn’t as much clear evidence of specifically how those attachments impact us as adults.  Several good therapy models (Sue Johnson’s EFT is probably the most widely used) make sense and have good outcomes, but there are many factors that inform our connections in relationship as adults.

Research also indicates that the happiest people are those who are connected to at least one – if not several -  other people.  The Dalai Lama doesn’t suggest that we should be isolated. His message is clear: be open to all people, and all living, sentient beings.  So being connected to others is important for happiness; he simply warns against relying on our attachments to people as THE SOURCE of our happiness. That expectation is too much pressure on relationships to provide, and ultimately fails.

 

A Focus on Giving.

I talk a lot about needs with clients: “are your needs getting met in your relationship?” A colleague of mine, Shira Galston, suggested recently that it may be just as important to look at your “gives” in a relationship.  She talked about the Hebrew word for love, “ahava,” being rooted in the word for give, “hav,”, and how this etymology mirrors the Jewish conception of love itself being rooted primarily in giving.  This is a tremendous idea for any partner to consider, excluding of course anyone being exploited in an abusive relationship. Of course we have needs. But maybe, sometimes, we focus too much on what we need to receive from our partners rather than on what we can give.

 

Bringing it All Together.

Maybe a formula for happier relationships could combine ideas from both these religious foundations: Don’t expect to have all of your happiness come from your attachment to your partner, and focus more on what you can give rather than lamenting what you don’t get.

 

Shifting beliefs and behaviors is hard. A mindfulness practice will make it easier to challenge your beliefs and try to make adjustments in your perception.  So try to do it 7-20 minutes every day. With practice and intention, you can ultimately move forward into a happier place, and happier relationships as well.

Thumos and Parts

Greek philosophy has many interesting ideas that still resonate. For example, Thumos is part of the psyche described in Plato’s Allegory of the Chariot. The chariot driver is “reason”, the white horse that pulls toward heaven is “Thumos”, and the black horse that pulls toward earth is “passion”. Thumos is an active drive for victory. It pushes us to want to win battles that are important to be fought. It pushes us to strive for honor and glory in our pursuits. It needs to be controlled by Reason, just as Desire needs to be controlled by Reason. If properly balanced, the chariot follows a path toward heaven. If there is no balance, the chariot goes out of control, or ends up in hell.

This classical story resonates with many psychological models. I’m drawn to Internal Family Systems (IFS). In IFS the mind is considered to consist of various parts. You can experience this when you think about anything in your life that you have mixed feelings about: a part of me loves barbeque, and another part of me struggles with how bad it can be for me. Still another part of me thinks about the inhumane treatment of farm animals. Another part of me pushes back on this part with a more cold reply about animals being bred for thousands of years for the sole purpose of human consumption. You get the idea. A topic can raise a variety of responses with a variety of possible actions to take.

There are three main types of parts in IFS: Managers, Exiles and Firefighters. Managers generally take care of business. They don’t like messy emotions. Exiles hold a lot of emotional vulnerability- maybe childhood hurts and traumas. Firefighters sweep in and douse emotional flames quickly with some serious and typically short-sighted action. They’re not thinkers, they’re doers.  The Managers and Firefighters make up the “protective system”. They are afraid of the intense emotions held by the Exiles, so they work to protect us from feeling this by keeping the Exiles, well, exiled.

At the center of the mind is the Self. It’s often compared to the soul. It connects us to other people, nature and the universe. It can’t be destroyed. The problem is that most parts don’t know this. Managers fear the Exile’s emotion will lead to permanent disruption. Firefighters back up the managers and shut down emotion when it gets too intense. Exiles typically wait until there is a weak spot in the Manager’s defenses and burst out in a gush of emotion.

The task of IFS is getting to know all the parts and allowing them to have open access to the Self. The Self provides a sense of peace and compassion for all memories, experience, and parts. Once the parts allow the Self to lead, harmony is restored and the parts can contribute to a person’s existence without dominating it. Love your parts.

Somehow Thumos relates, but seems a bit distinct. Is it more of Manager or a Firefighter? It doesn’t seem like an Exile. Being in touch with this energy within us, a drive to win battles that are worth fighting, and to strive for glory, seems like an important pursuit. Too much Thumos killed Achilles. Not enough Thumos keeps you on the sidelines of your life.

Whatever you choose to call it, it is important to own your drives, fears, triggers, strengths, parts, thoughts, feelings and actions. Live a life of choice, not reaction.

Important to note: I picked up the idea of Thumos from a podcast called the Art of Manliness. It doesn't always hit the mark, but there are some interesting and valuable ideas there.

How do I do therapy?

Everyone wants to live a rich, full life. Everyone wants to be happy and fulfilled. Sometimes barriers develop that keep us from being able to solve the problems in our life that could lead to contentment.

As a Marriage and Family Therapist I work with individuals, couples and families to understand the barriers and develop plans for removing them. Once the barriers are out of the way, a person, or a family can use their own skills to solve the problems effectively.

So what are some barriers that I see often and how do I help people lift them?

Here are some common barriers:

Too much rigidity: perfectionism, hyper-rationality, overly relying on logic, obsessing, high level of dominance, withholding, defensiveness, passive/aggression, aggression, an emotional shell or shield, fear of intimacy, controlling behaviors

Too much flexibility: a lack of boundaries, a difficulty in assertion, passivity, hard time saying no, being unwilling to disappoint others

Too much emotionality: hyper-sensitivity, reactivity, aggression, anger issues, being overwhelmed by emotions

Anxiety: worry, obsessing about work, the future, the past, controlling behaviors, forgetfulness, difficulty staying present

Depression: hopelessness, helplessness, low energy, low mood, forgetfulness, difficulty staying present

ADHD: trouble focusing, forgetfulness, problems with organization, difficulty staying present

Drug or alcohol abuse: habits and patterns that develop over time and sometimes include a biological component

Beliefs based on family of origin: my family was like this, so we’re supposed to be like this…, or the shadow of that- we’re not going to be like this because my family was like this and it was awful.

Trauma: emotional/relational traumas from earlier in the relationship, cheating, handling a transition or loss poorly, financial trauma, trauma from childhood abuse or neglect.

These are a few common barriers that I see in couples, families and individuals that come in for therapy. They are complex problems. It’s always an act of courage to come in for therapy. It takes bravery to look at yourself and your family and say you’re stuck, I’m stuck. I’m always humbled by my client’s courage.

So how do I work with people to lift these barriers?

I collaborate with them. It is very important for me to work closely with everyone to understand the specific barriers in their life. Depression in one person often doesn’t look anything like depression in another person. Forgetfulness or having a hard time being present might be anxiety, depression, ADHD, rigidity, or too much flexibility. It’s important to understand the full dimensions of the constraint so that all useful ideas can be tried. I try to help clients shine a light on their roadblocks. We do this together. I have some ideas that I bring to the process, but I never know more about a person then they do themselves. I do believe that people are more than the sum of their thoughts, feelings and behaviors. These are temporary expressions of a greater whole.

I use curiosity and compassion a lot. I want to know how people are affected by their barriers. I want to really understand their perspective of their struggle so that I can offer something that will hopefully help. This process of curiosity, compassion and probing without judgment can lead clients to a place of understanding something new about what’s constraining them. It can give them some hope about a different angle to approach the barrier.

Often times, I see clients gaining understanding of their constraints by taking some of my plans home and having them not work. I offer up experiments, rather than homework. Experiments give us data no matter what the outcome. You can fail homework, you can’t fail an experiment. If you don’t do an experiment we can look at what kept an attempt from happening. There is likely going to be some connection to the overall barrier. There is no shame in trying an experiment and finding out that you’re too overwhelmed to actually pull it off. There is a barrier keeping you from being able to make the change happen. What is overwhelming you? Thoughts? Feelings? Other behaviors? The experiment that doesn’t get attempted might tell us a lot about the constraint.

I’ll also offer up my hypotheses, from my training and experience. These ideas are not served up as the “truth”, rather I think of them as a view I have that could be useful or could be off the mark. Trying to understand human nature is complex and requires bravery, self-compassion and flexibility. I try to help my clients feel this flexibility in how I offer up my views. They may be on the mark. They may be off the mark. Clients may not be ready to hear what I’m offering up. Maybe something I offer up will plant a seed that pops up later.

I also use Feedback Informed Therapy. It’s 4 questions at the beginning of each session and 4 questions at the end of each session. This works kind of like a stethoscope works for a doctor. It gives me a view of something that I can’t see directly. It lets me understand what I’m doing that’s hitting the mark and what I’m doing that’s off track by asking directly.

Once clients have a sense of the barriers that are keeping them from being able to access their own powers to change, we can start coming up with plans for lifting the barriers. There is almost always some new behavior that has to happen. There is often a change in emotions that has to occur. There is often a change in thought that has to happen as well. Thoughts, feelings and behaviors are the tools we all have at our disposal for moving through reality.

Thoughts can be challenged with other thoughts. Meanings can change when more narrative context is understood.

Feelings can be changed with other feelings. It takes an emotion to change an emotion. Feelings can be soothed with skills. Relationship patterns can change or modify feelings. Relational interactions change neural pathways.

Behaviors can be modified using organizational skills and willpower. New actions can be taken knowing that feelings and thoughts will follow.

So we look at the barriers. We work hard to understand them and agree on what they are in detail. Then we develop a specific plan for removing the barrier. We implement the plan. Hopefully, the plans work. If they don’t work, we look at what kept them from working and we use this new information to look at the barriers again. Then we come up with a modified plan and implement it. Hopefully this plan works. If not, we get more information and modify again. This compassionate and curious, back-to-the-drawing board approach lets clients consider all the options available to them and cultivate a sense or flexibility and hope in the search for a better life.

The Utility of Depression

When I’m trying to understand human problems, I like to look at evolution. Homo Sapiens started showing up between 200,000 and 300,000 years ago. Our earliest ancestors may have started showing up 7 million years ago. Our survival as a species has depended on developing traits that help us solve problems so we can procreate and send along another generation.  Like many interesting models, it sometimes makes more sense when we look at it broadly. When we get close up, and look at the day-to-day impact, it can be more confusing.

Depression is on the rise in America.  It is a complicated and confusing condition.  Jonathan Rottenberg , a psychologist and mood researcher, has made an eloquent case for the evolutionary use of depression.  It is a natural recovery process after a setback, or loss. It’s defined by low energy, low mood state, and a desire to isolate. It also clears the mind and integrates lessons learned from mistakes so that new plans and goals can be developed fully.

A mood is a collection of feelings, thoughts and behaviors. We usually think of moods being good or bad. In America we strive for an up mood. In fact, we strive for happiness. Happiness is an elevated mood state. It’s a peak experience. We don’t tolerate low mood states well in America.

Rottenberg believes depression is a time to recover after a setback, or failure to achieve a goal. It’s a low energy time to recover emotional and cognitive resources. It takes away your ambition and lets you reset so that you can learn from your mistakes, or reflect on the impact of a loss. It’s needed. If we accepted it as a state that leads to new wisdom, we wouldn’t fear it. We’d see it as important. People could let each other know when they were feeling a lower mood state and there would be an agreement that the person was going to emerge from it with some new wisdom. People could be down and it would be ok.

One of the problems that occurs with depression is that a part of us, a self-critical, well-intentioned, goal-oriented part (let’s call him Larry), starts asking questions like, “why am I depressed? What’s wrong with me?”  Larry might make statements too, like: “I have no reason to be depressed. I am a citizen of one of the wealthiest countries in the world. It’s not like I live in a mud hut, or work in a diamond mine in Sierra Leone or something. I’m weak.”

 Larry probably holds a lot of beliefs about the best ways to get ahead like: “hard work, planning, sacrifice, these things are all you need in America and you can achieve your dreams!” None of this is bad. However, if Larry is keeping you from experiencing the important process of depression after a setback, failed goal, or loss, then he may be denying you a chance to come up with the energy needed to truly develop the next big plan. Larry is afraid of depression.  You can let him know that depression is valuable. You can sooth Larry.

If Larry knows that the emotional rest that comes with depression will allow for integration and synthesis of the lessons learned from failure, then he will probably get on board.

Our early ancestors used the time after mistakes to regroup. They viewed mourning as an important time. Can you think of any ancient culture that didn’t have ornate rituals for death? These rituals allowed for time to recover. Loss hurts, failure hurts, learning hurts. We need time to acknowledge that hurt before we can learn from it. We need to accept lower mood states and depression as a valuable process in our psychic lives.

Our bones want to hold up our bodies

Our bones want to hold up our bodies. Our lungs want to draw oxygen out of the air and connect it to our blood. Our hearts want to pump non-stop and push the oxygen through our circulatory system. We don’t have to think about any of this, but our bodies want to do this. 

Last week we had the pleasure of having Tovah Means come and do a clinical consultation with us. Tovah is a trauma specialist and she’s been influenced by some of the greats, like Judith Herman, and Bessel Van der Kolk. She presented her ideas about how trauma works in the mind and body and she laid out some of these exciting foundational ideas. 

There is a lot happening in us that doesn’t require our “thinking” brain.  But, our body, and all its functions that are not connected to thought, does have memory.  It’s called implicit memory.  Our muscles remember. Our guts remember. Our heart remembers. This is where things get interesting.

Our “thinking” brain also remembers. This is called explicit memory. These memories have images and narratives. They’re filled with emotion, good and bad.

What happens when we experience something powerful and unusual, something traumatic? How do we take in the experience and store it in our “mind”?

I like the idea of our “mind” being different from our “brain”. Our “brain” houses a lot of our “mind”, but not all of it. Our “brain” is also responsible for a lot of stuff that doesn’t come directly into our “mind” unless we make a conscious effort to let it in. For example, in some mindfulness practices you focus all of your “mind’s” attention on your breathing. You just notice your diaphragm drawing air into your lungs. You don’t make it happen, you just sit and notice it. This isn’t something that your “mind” does easily without practice. Mindfulness allows you to strengthen the connections between your mind and your body; your brain, your diaphragm, your lungs, your heart.

Back to the question of how we deal with the powerful and unusual experience. Our  bodies store the information in implicit memory, and our mind stores it in explicit memory.  Some of the memory has language and images and emotions connected to it, and some of it has physical feelings attached to it.

This makes me think of parts, again. Some of the parts that I’ve worked with in myself and others over the years don’t have too much in the way of language. They are more implicit. Other parts have long, vivid stories to tell. They are explicit.

The goal in working with trauma then, is to help the implicit memories that are stuck gain some kind of voice in our mind. We try to help people understand their implicit experiences with acceptance, curiosity, caring and courage. This draws them more into the explicit realm. It lets us put a story to the pain, anxiety, terror, loneliness, and shame. Helping to create a space for all these parts, all these experiences within ourselves is the goal.

 

 

How to Repair After a Fight in 6 Steps

These guidelines are based on the assumption that you and your partner are both interested in staying together.

1)      Let yourself cool down. Don’t try to do the repair before you’re ready or able, or you might make the argument happen again. You’ll have to stay calm and recalcitrant when you approach for the repair. This takes a lot of emotional energy, so make sure you’re as calm as you can be.

2)      Pick something that you did which you feel badly about that happened during the fight. Play it over in your head and make sure you have a clear picture of this shameful behavior. This is probably the only useful expression of shame in our lives- showing it and feeling it during repairs.

3)      Ask your partner if they’re ready to talk about the argument and let him/her know that you feel badly about it and that you’ve been thinking a lot about it, and have a lot of feelings about it.  If your partner indicates a readiness for discussion then move on to step 4. If not, pause and ask for a future discussion at a time that works for him/her.

4)      Apologize. Tell your partner about the part of the argument that you feel badly about and make it clear that you were wrong  when you did or said whatever it is you feel ashamed of.  Taking responsibility for your poor behavior and admitting wrong-doing is the best possible apology you can give. Research indicates that it is the best way to create space for forgiveness.

5)      Don’t expect anything in return. Your job in the repair is to share your frustration and shame about what you did, not to coerce your partner into an apology.

6)      Search for forgiveness in yourself for your partner. Try to understand what was happening on his/her end.  Listen deeply.

If these steps are followed by each of you, there might be a chance for new understanding. There may be parts of each of you that are feeling like they’re not being heard or that they have new things to say. The repair may make it possible to revisit the original argument and pull out the useful learning.

Coming up… how to not get pulled into the negative pattern at all!

Parts

We all have different parts. Part of me loves when it gets colder outside and a part of me really wants it to stay warm. Part of me likes to stay busy and a part of me likes to sit on the couch and do nothing.

These parts relate to each other internally. Sometimes one part really hates another part. My exercise part doesn't like my cookie eating part.

The parts also relate to our friend's, partner's, and children's. My extreme organized part doesn't like my wife's messy, chaotic part.

Besides parts, we also have a core, a self. This is the place inside us that carries compassion, curiosity, caring- a lot of "c" words. It can be thought of as our soul, or our spirit. It connects us to all other living things and people.

So what does this have to do with therapy or understanding how to live a better life?

Knowing these parts and helping them know the self leads to more internal harmony. Finding the self's compassion for our vulnerable parts, our extreme parts, our obsessive parts and our judgmental parts helps them shift and grow.

Take a look at the Center for Self Leadership for more info on the idea of parts and self.

Stay tuned for more ideas on how to get to know your parts and your self more clearly.