Psychological Debt, Saturation, and Autonomy

I believe happiness is earned.

In the same way we can accumulate wealth in a financial sense, we can accumulate happiness. In the same way we can go into debt financially, we can go into debt emotionally.  It’s amazing how getting a new gadget/car/boat with debt is identical to using drugs to feel good: it’s a fake sense of having earned something – or a fake sense of owning something.  Then we become a slave to the ‘something’ because there are certain measures we need to do in order to keep making payments.   This is identical to addiction.  Addiction is a loan with a terrible interest rate.   The happiness that comes from getting high will need to be repaid with interest and you’ll have even less than you did before.

It’s really important to understand the debt concept for your sense of wellbeing.  “Yeah, I’d like to feel better right this second, but am I fully accepting how it’s going to make me feel even worse eventually?”   It’s unlikely to have that thought (but it would be nice).  The more likely thought could be planted afterwards.  It’s in the trust of the cleaning-power of time: “yeah, I feel awful right now as I’m repaying my emotional debt, but I know if I keep making payments and I refuse to go even further into debt and take out another loan, I’ll eventually straighten things out and can build some wealth happiness.”

There are also two other concepts worth noting: ‘saturation’ and ‘autonomy’.

Saturation is one of the saddest psychological phenomena I’m aware of.  It basically means “getting used to how you feel.”   The term is used most often when talking about sleep.  After a small dose of sleep deprivation, we can tell we’re not firing on all cylinders.  We feel groggy and we look forward to catching up on rest.  If we let that level persist, we’ll lose the awareness that our cylinders aren’t firing and we’ll get used to it.  It’ll become the new status quo and we’ll forget we don’t feel very good.  It’s the new normal and we lose sight of better.  Saturation is also mentioned a lot when talking about hydration.  It is literally forgetting life can be better. Isn’t that awful?

For myself, considering the type of work I do, I think about it mostly in terms of substance use rather than hydration or sleep (people don’t generally come into my office and tell me how they’re having a difficult time staying hydrated.. lol).  Whenever I have a full dose of depressants in my blood – or when I’ve slowly built up too much of a tolerance to coffee – I’ll start thinking, “ugh.  This is what a huge portion of the population feels like. That is terrible!”  Fortunately, my compulsive side doesn’t settle for less-than-awesome, so I’ll put some work into shifting the status quo back to where I feel amazing.  Saturation doesn’t have a chance to take over.  That’s not the case for everyone.  That’s why, to me, saturation is one of the saddest phenomena out there.  It’s not on people’s radar and it sneaks in.  My intent in these paragraphs is to put it on your radar, stir up the part of you that wants more, and to encourage you to do the hard work of repaying your emotional debts.

Lastly, to return fully to the analogy of psychological wealth building: ‘autonomy’.

Sometimes when a person starts to catch the scent that the idea of psychological growth is a movement towards autonomy (becoming more “needless”), they will attempt to jump prematurely towards autonomy.  This is a near-perfect analogy to financial wealth as well.  It’d be sweet to be “independently wealthy,” right?   That’s a strong financial goal.  But a person can’t simply immediately choose to be independently wealthy.  We have to get out there and make it happen – working hard – making deliberate decisions – making sacrifices.   We have to fulfill the needs in order to reach the destination of being independently wealthy.  The same is true with psychology.  We can’t just decide to be autonomous.  We have to put the work in to get our needs met… then we are closer to autonomy.   It would actually be an obstacle (or it will completely stop you) on the path to autonomy if you prematurely act autonomous and needless.  It’s analogous to calling your job and saying, “you know what? I don’t need my paycheck this week.  Keep it.”  That’s probably not going to help your financial goals, right?  In the same way, acting autonomous doesn’t help your psychological goals.  The needs need met.  Ignoring them makes them last longer.  “What you resist persists.”

Take care of yourselves.  Repay your debts (don’t take out emotion-loans with high interest rates).  And let your needs move you.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Enabling, Enmeshment, and Fear

[Scenario A]

The A’s and the cliff.  Parent-A is terrified of Child-A falling into the abyss.

When Child-A was little and learning to walk, he was completely focused on simply putting one foot in front of the other.  He was fascinated and absorbed by this new and challenging task. Parent-A could effortlessly spin Child-A around by always holding both hands and redirecting him away from the direction of the cliff.  Child-A wouldn’t even notice the guidance because of his absorption.  If Child-A would misstep and begin to fall, Parent-A would already have both hands in hers and could hold him up to keep his knees from scraping the ground.  “Wew! That was a close one,” she lovingly laughed, helped him rebalance, and they both enjoyed the excitement of the moment.  There was true and beautiful bonding occurring.  Truly beautiful moments.

Once Child-A didn’t have to try so hard to simply put one foot in front of the other, he began to explore more.

He noticed when he walked in a certain direction, Parent-A would stop him.  At first, this was just slightly disturbing… but he grew more and more frustrated.

He got older. He got stronger. He got more frustrated.  Eventually, he engaged her fully.

Parent-A is positioned between Child-A and the cliff.   She began screaming, “stop trying to walk this way!!  There’s a cliff behind me!!”  She has her hands on Child-A’s upper chest and is now pushing him as hard as she can, digging her feet into the earth and passionately trying to keep him from getting closer to the cliff.  When Child-A was younger, she could stop him without using all of her might.   It’s harder now.  Child-A is equally passionate.  Child-A, with all of his might, pushes back at Parent-A, “get out of my way!! Let me be myself!!! There’s no cliff!!!  You’re just trying to run my life!!!”   Child-A digs his toes in and is pushing as hard as he can.  Child-A is able to gain ground, inch by inch, towards the edge of the cliff.  He’s able to push Parent-A backwards.  “Can’t you see the cliff behind me!?!  I care for you and I don’t want you to get hurt!!  You need to stop going in this direction!!” Parent-A pleads with all the love in the world.  Child-A continues to push towards the cliff.  “I am so sick you of you trying to control me!!!  I will get past you!!!”    He can’t see the cliff.  All he sees is Parent-A and her attempts at obstructing his path.   All he feels is her efforts to take away his options.  “Get off of me!!!  Leave me alone!!!”  He grows and grows, becoming stronger and stronger.  He wants to be free.  He wants to have his own life.  He continues pushing, trying harder and harder.  They get to the edge.  Parent-A stops pushing and frantically clings to the shirt of Child-A because her heels are now on the edge of the cliff and she’s leaning backwards, about to fall off.

Her grip on Child-A is the only thing keeping her from falling backwards.

“You…. will… not…. control… my….. life!!!!! I am my own person!!!!  I will do what I want!!!!” Child-A screams and, with one last shove, takes them both over the edge.

 

[Scenario B]

The B’s and the cliff.  Parent-B is terrified of Child-B falling into the abyss.

When Child-B was first learning how to walk and couldn’t coordinate his vision and his steps, Parent-B would hold his hand and guide him and steer him in different directions from the cliff.  Child-B wouldn’t even notice the guidance.  As Child-B grew, Parent-B would gradually let go of his hand and give him opportunities to balance himself.  Occasionally, Child-B would trip over a rough patch of dirt and he would fall, sometimes hurting his hands and knees very badly.  Hurt, he would look to Parent-B.  Hurting deeply with Child-B, she says, “I’m so sorry that happened.  Please try and watch carefully where you’re stepping.  Sometimes there are rough patches in the dirt.  I care for you and I don’t want you to get hurt.”  Child-B begins focusing on the dirt and eventually masters walking over the rough patches.  When he doesn’t need to focus on his steps so much, he looks outward and begins to explore.  He sees the cliff.  “What is that!?” he asks, in awe of its vastness.  “That’s the cliff,” Parent-B answered.  “People who go over the edge never come back,” she said.  Child-B gazed at it for a moment, took a deep breath, and fully felt its vastness.  Child-B never ventured too close to the eternal danger.

 

[Scenario C]

The C’s and the cliff.  Parent-C is terrified of Child-C falling into the abyss.

Once Child-C has mastered his steps and has developed a good vision, he asks, “what’s that out there?” Parent-C says, “that’s the cliff.  People who go over the edge never come back.”  Walking freely and masterfully, Child-C strolls to the edge.  He looks over.  He’s intrigued.  It is vast and amazing.  Matter of factly, he says, “I bet there’s something good down there.”  He jumps off.

 

 

Taking a Systemic Approach (to yourself)

There’s a phrase that gets used a lot in physical therapy:

“the symptom is the victim, not the criminal.”

This has incredible implications (truth) in our psychological functioning as well.  This post emphasizes and encourages a certain attitude you can take in order to boost your growth and create widespread change.  At the end of this post, I’m going to contrast a “systemic approach to yourself” versus “systemic therapy,” even though they’re definitely made of the same stuff.

So let’s examine “taking a systemic approach to yourself.”

It’s the idea there isn’t a singular thing going wrong.  The more you hunt for a singular thing –  the one root cause to your unhappiness – the one thing that needs to be found and fixed – the more time you’ll spend spinning your wheels and the less time you’ll spend enjoying living and reaping the benefits of your efforts. If you want to create change, the best approach is to try to turn over every rock. It will be rare to find a golden ticket under one of the rocks, but the landscape will look entirely different once you turn over enough of them.

This post is the encouragement to examine more aspects of your life… to get wider in your efforts.

How many minutes of your day are spent going through the motions? How much doesn’t get a second glance?  How many of your settings are set to default?

Here’s a range of examples:

How many steps a day do you take without feeling your feet on the ground? How many interpersonal interactions are completely routine (and lacking in satisfaction)? How many shallow breaths do you take a day?* More importantly, how many huge ones do you take on purpose? How much of your diet is habitual and hasn’t been adjusted in a while?  How many calories are in liquid form? When was the last time you changed your exercise routine? How long have you used the same mouthwash?   If you wear heels, do different pairs have different lengths?  When was the last time you made a really weird face? How do you normally sit? Which leg is the crossed-over one? When was the last time you crossed over your other leg? How much hazelnut creamer do you put in your coffee? How long have you done that? When was the last time you tried out some different pillows?  When was the last time you imitated your mom?  How different is your Monday morning from your Friday night?  Are you getting something auto-debited that you really don’t need / use?  Do you really like the tv shows you watch? What do you do during commercials?

Sure, your mouthwash isn’t causing your knee pain and your heels aren’t causing your depression, but how fast do you want change to happen?

Sometimes things stick around in our lives for far too long. The only thing that keeps them there is we’re not consciously choosing them anymore. They’ve become default. “Taking a systemic approach” to your self-improvement is taking the extra time to see what default motions could be adjusted. I deliberately put really big things and really small things on that list of questions. Your pillows probably aren’t killing you. But if you want to make some really significant change, the idea is to shake things up and get wider as opposed to having a magnifying glass on a ‘symptom’ and hoping a singular root cause will present itself. There are infinite causes. Things have been in motion for a very long time.  But we can only fully do one thing at a time. Taking a systemic approach to yourself takes thing-by-thing and examines it. It stops looking for the magical thing. It starts looking at moment-by-moment movements to see what can be examined – conscious choice by conscious choice.   This is hard.  It’s easier to wish for a magical thing.

The up-side:  this hard work is a safeguard against helplessness.  When we go directly at a symptom, we are agreeing to a losing battle. Everything else in the overall configuration supports that symptom and there’s truly no way to move it without reconfiguring the connections. We are webs. We are a “system of contacts” (PHG). If we go at a symptom and try to simply remove it from the field, we will eventually feel helpless – because we will lose.

In sum, taking a systemic approach to your development is the effort to get wider. It’s the understanding that everything is interconnected. It’s a commitment to the details, to the smaller things, to the whole of your growth.  We really can’t make this wide commitment to rethink our defaults unless we have the belief (hope) that it will pay off – that it will only be short term suffering and hard work – that we will yield fruit after the labor. That’s the purpose of this post: the encouragement towards that belief – the hope – that hard work pays off.  We pay for it now or we pay for it later.

* There’s a pointed phrase in yoga: “most people breathe just enough to stay alive.”

As promised, some contrast.  More often than not in this blog, I’ll be referencing a “systemic approach to therapy” rather than a “systemic approach to yourself.”  They’re made of the same stuff but there is a contrast that’s warranted.  This post emphasizes an attitude you can take on a moment by moment basis in order to boost your own growth.  I am encouraging you to shake up and second-guess as much as you can handle, even if it doesn’t seem immediately connected to a symptom or a goal.  If a therapist took this hyper-diligent approach with clients, it would be exhausting for everyone.  I literally just laughed out loud.  “Hey, did you notice how we just shook hands?  Maybe we could do that better.  How did I just shut that door?  Was that the best way? How did you engage your hamstrings when you sat down on the couch?  Want to try that again?  How’s your water?  Do you think we should try turning the fridge temperature up or down a few degrees?” Lol.  So when I speak of ‘systemic therapy,’ I’m really talking about the beliefs about symptoms.  It’s the interconnectedness and the embedded-ness of supports/symptoms.  It’s the understanding that a direct attempt at removing a symptom is playing whack-a-mole.  Another mole pops up.

Despite the contrast, the common ground is this:  it’s best when clients take a systemic approach to their own self-improvement (with this wide hyper-diligence) in between meetings and then use their therapists to co-create some different frequencies and find where even newer rocks can be turned over, rocks that wouldn’t have shown up on the radar if someone else didn’t call attention to them.

 

LPC Supervision

As a part of a standard audit by the licensing board, I had to provide a synopsis of the style of supervision I provide to clinicians who are seeking their license. I might as well post it here as well:

My primary identification regarding a treatment modality is gestalt. Gestalt can be viewed as a synergistic interplay between existential phenomenology, systemic, cognitive behavioral, and humanistic modes of psychotherapy.

Respectively, I help the supervisee gain greater sensitivity to the clients’ response to the human condition and fears of death and loss, patterns and forces inherent in context and family of origin, the way thoughts/beliefs affect mood/behavior, and the natural aspirations towards an actualized self and self-preservation.

There is a strong emphasis on *self-of-therapist*. This is due to the belief that the self is the most effective instrument of therapy. I value authenticity and transparency and, even if the supervisee does not wish to prioritize these aspects in their work, I help them see how their “self” will come out in their “work” whether they’d like it to or not. Therefore I discourage compartmentalization of self-as-therapist against the rest of one’s life. I encourage an integration *self* and *therapist* so their work is a graceful extension of a clear world-view and a true desire to be of service (as opposed to a harmful counter-transference and/or a stagnating hypocrisy).

I do not encourage supervisees to identify with gestalt. Rather, I encourage supervisees to identify with (and intensely study) the theories that make the most sense to them and what will bring out the gifts, talents, and strengths of their personality. I do not discuss techniques. I encourage the deeper striving towards mastery of theory. Throughout the course of supervision, I employ the concepts (per Carl Whitaker) of the Battle for Structure and the Battle for Initiative. These concepts are applicable to any school of thought – any style of therapy – any interpersonal relation.

Battle for Structure: we look at how every behavior of the therapist is a creative act that builds the structure of the therapy relationship. I want therapists to build the structure deliberately. This, again, is universal across the different styles of therapy. Therapists choose the structure they’d like to create based on the theory from which they’re operating.

Battle for Initiative: we look at how the goal of the therapy is for the client to be successfully discharged and have no further need for the therapist. I want therapists to be deliberate about how they help the client tap into their own creativity. We want to leave clients excited about and invested in the creation of the remainder of their lives. We are careful not to create a dependence on the therapist. This, again, is universal across the different styles of therapy. Therapists will choose how they go about this depending on their school of thought.

 

In sum, I help therapists develop their ability to:

(1) Theory: Understand why things are happening the way they are.

(2) Battle For Structure: Be aware of and deliberate about the structure of the relationship they’re creating.

(3) Battle For Initiative: Be aware of and deliberate about bringing forth the client’s creativity.

The Other Side of Power – The Larger System at Play

My last post emphasized “the existential responsibility” side of the coin. I’d like to spend a little time on the other side of the coin in the service of the whole.

This also provides a nice segue to talk about psychological health in general. As I’ve said prior, the goal is response-ability. The growth of a human depends on its ability to respond effectively in its environment.  Abilities can fit nicely into sets of polarities or opposites, with a continuum running between.  Seeing abilities in sets of opposites is very useful in order to ascertain where one is stuck, off-balance, or has an INability.

Health (or even happiness?) can be summed up succinctly as the ability to perform both extremes of an ability-continuum coupled with the ability to recognize the situation and what it calls for.

1) Ability to reach the extreme ends of an ability-continuum
2) Ability to recognize what the situation calls for

Response-ability.

We become the most unhappy when we’re in situations where one of those two things is off.  We either (1) lack an ability that’s being called for or (2) we misinterpret the situation and respond “out of touch.”

At root, this is psychological digestion at the boundary of organism and environment.  Food and senses touch (see the mold, smell the milk gone bad, taste a chemical out-of-place taste).  Senses help to determine whether it’s worth putting it inside us. Teeth do the work at the entry.  In the end, it boils down (ha) to whether we have the full ability to take in and whether we have the full ability to keep outspit out.

If we’re not fully able in those polar skills, we’re in danger of swallowing something bad for us or rejecting something good for us.  Even if we have full abilities but then we misinterpret the situation, it’s the exact same danger.

I hope that makes sense.  It can be hard to see abilities as sets of opposites until you get used to it.

So back to the coin.

Existential responsibility:  “Yes, this is my situation.  Yes, I have created it.  Yes, I am responsible for what happens next.” Basically a God-like attitude, yes?  Is this good?

It’s an ability.

Polarity? Continuum?

“I am powerless against the forces much, much bigger than myself.  Forces other than myself will determine how things unfold from here on out.”

Is that good?

It’s an ability.

Rather than look at this particular polarity as beliefs (nouns), please try to look at them as verbs or abilities (in the sense of taking the stance or, more abstractly, being with the belief).  One could move to the far side of the continuum to touch the extreme pole and then one could move all the way to the other side to touch the opposite pole.  They’re polar abilities and they both have a perfect function…  depending on what the situation calls for.

I will often say to parents, “we want to teach your kids there are powers much bigger than themselves.”  I usually feel the need to clarify with, “I’m not talking about God or the police.”  This isn’t about following societal laws or being religious.  It’s about the realization there are powerful laws (natural laws) and how, if we don’t follow them, things don’t go well.

This belief (or the lack thereof) seems to be buried so deep down there sometimes.

It has a couple of fuzzy twins like “being an exception” or “I shouldn’t have to.” Those are very, very close to what I’m talking about in this post but they’re not exactly what I’m talking about.

I’m talking very simply about the realization that we’re not God.  We didn’t create these rules.  And when we don’t play by the rules, things don’t go well.  We can’t deprive ourselves of sleep for a period of time and then expect things to go well.  We can’t put junk in our bodies and then expect to feel good.  We can’t sit in a chair 99% of the time and then expect not to get a nasty case of Chair Pain Syndrome.  We can’t be selfish in our relationships and then expect to have warm, deeply satisfying relationships.

I’m talking about the genuine surprise within a person after they go on a 30 year drug binge and then can’t understand why their system is misfiring.  I’m using an extreme example (albeit a true one I’ve seen time and time again) to illustrate a concept that can be very subtle and buried but can still be very destructive.  My hope in writing this piece is it emphasizes this belief (the “I am not God and I didn’t create these rules so I really can’t bend them” belief) and it supports people to refrain from doing destructive things.

I love the word-play with being “care-full” – not “careful” in the sense of hyper-cautious, scared, mistrusting, but care-full in the sense of trying to be fully in touch with these powers that are much greater than ourselves and then taking-full-care to move with them, not against them, because we will lose every time.

So back to the coin.

The polar abilities.  The whole coin.

The ability to be open to the possibility I have created my situations and I am fully responsible for what happens next and the ability to acknowledge, respect, and move in harmony with powers much, much greater than myself…  followed by the ability to recognize what the situation calls for.

We’re back to the serenity prayer.  The courage to change the things you can.  The serenity to accept the things you can’t change.  And the wisdom to know the difference.

Please be care-full and play by the rules.