Sunday, September 4, 2011

Book Recommendation: Attached.

Prior to 1950, parents were told not to coddle their children for fear of making them soft. Sick children stayed in the hospital alone, allowed to see their parents only during visiting hours. The work of John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth, the creators of attachment theory, changed America's approach to child raising. They discovered that children don't just need food, water, and warmth, they also need affection, love, and touch. When children don't get this, they development serious emotional and physical problems.

Bowlby and Ainsworth proposed that humans are endowed with an attachment system which propels them to connect with others, first with parents and later with romantic partners. The attachment system drives us to be close, and it freaks out when an attachment is threatened.

Ever have a partner fail to call you when they were supposed to and you started to get worried and develop theories ("Did they leave me?" "Did they get in an accident?" "Are they cheating?")? That is your attachment system being activated.

Attached. The New Science of Adult Attachment and How it Can Help You Find - and Keep Love is less a book about attachment theory and more a simple to use guide on how use the theory to, well, find and keep love. It is super readable, and I recommend it to pretty much everyone who wants to create a good relationship.

However, maybe you don't want to buy this book, and instead of a few hours, you only want to spend a few minutes learning about how attachment theory can help you. Awesome, because I am going to break it down right here in this blogpost.

Before I get to it, it is important to point out that attachment theory is backed up by reams of empirical research. Therefore, this is not an ordinary self-help relationship book. It is science, baby, and so is my distillation of the book's main points:

1. "Dependency is not a bad word." This was the biggest thing I learned from this book. According to the authors, everyone in a relationship is dependent on their partner. This is not a bad thing. It is the way evolution made us. 

Like toddlers who feel empowered to explore the world around them as long as they know mommy is there, adults who feel secure in their relationship are empowered to develop their individual selves. Hence, the "dependency paradox": people are better able to be an individual in the context of a good relationship.

This flies in the face of the belief in American culture that you should not have to depend on anyone else. As a therapist, I often here from clients that they fear asking for support from their partner because they believe this makes them weak. According to Levine and Heller, the opposite is true. Asking for what you need makes it more likely you will get it or realize that you are unable to get what you need from your current relationship.

2. There are happy relationships out there. You can have one.

3. There are four types of attachment systems: secure, anxious, avoidant, and disorganized (which the authors call anxious/avoidant and only mention briefly because it is rare.) Fifty percent of people are secure, twenty percent are anxious, twenty five percent are avoidant, and five percent are anxious/avoidant. Your type of attachment system is a product of how you were raised, your biology, and your experiences in other relationships.

Attachments are relatively stable but they can change. The authors provide a quiz to find out your own attachment type as well as one for figuring out your partner's type.

4. People with anxious attachment systems are afraid of being left more than others. They often don't speak up for what they need because they are afraid of being seen as clingy. Unfortunately, when they don't speak up for what they need, they don't get what they need, and then they actually do get clingy.

Calling your partner a million times, threatening to break up, trying to make your partner jealous - these are behaviors anxious people engage in when they feel threatened. The good news is when they feel safe, anxious people calm down and make good partners.

There are two big pieces of advice for anxious people: one don't get involved with avoidant people (more on this below) and two, communicate your needs. As an anxious person, who really need someone who is going to show up for you, otherwise your attachment system will go haywire. Therefore, be straight up about what you need to feel secure. Whatever anyone tells you, don't try to downplay your needs to try to win someone over. This strategy will backfire in the end.

If you are in a relationship with an anxious person, it is your job to make them feel secure. When you do, they will calm down. Don't try to wait for them to give you space and then give them the security they need. It works the other way around.

5. People with avoidant attachment systems fear having their independence taken away. When they don't get the space they need, they tend to put their partners down, to put up roadblocks to closeness, and to send mixed signals about what they want. According to Levine and Heller, avoidant folks are the roughest to be in relationship with, but they can learn to be close if they really want to and if they learn to communicate their space needs and these needs are met. 

People with an avoidant attachment system should not date anxious people, as anxious folks will have difficulty giving them the space they need. Avoidant people almost never date each other because, as the authors say, there is not enough glue to hold two avoidant people together.

Interestingly, twenty five percent of people are avoidant, yet they make up a greater portion of the dating pool because they tend to be single more than other types.

6. People with secure attachment systems are comfortable with closeness, communicate directly, and are generally pretty mellow in relationship. They make for the most reliable partners, and if there is a drawback it is that their stability might seem a little boring at first.

Secure people will find it easiest to date other secure people, but they can help anxiously and avoidantly attached people move toward being secure. However, anxious and avoidant folks can push secure people away from security as well, so beware.

7. Ever been in a relationship where one partner is desperately trying to get close and the other is desperately trying to get space and both are miserable? You were likely stuck in what the authors call the anxious-avoidant trap. The best way to avoid this trap is for anxious and avoidant people not to get together. Not so easy because these two types are quite attracted to each other. The authors do give guidelines for dealing with the anxious-avoidant trap if you are caught in one.

8. Everyone should try to communicate directly about their needs. Secure people seem to have a knack for this while anxious and avoidant people have a harder time being straight up about what they want. Anxious people don't want to come across as too needy and often try to play it cool, until such time that they get hurt, and then they act out or get manipulative. Avoidant people often don't recognize their needs for space and instead start to feel less attracted to their partners instead of realizing what is going on inside.

The thing about communicating your needs is that it may not get you the result you want, but it will reveal the truth. Thus, if you want to get serious with someone pretty fast and are up front about this, you may scare away some potential mates, but in so doing you will be screening out folks who would probably make you unhappy.

The strength of this book is its clarity and readability. On the flip side there is some complexity left out. Though the authors note that attachment style is stable but plastic, but don't say much about how one changes type.

I also wonder about how different relationships bring out different tendencies in us even if we do have one basic type. I for one have found myself displaying traits of all three types at different points in the same relationship. Did I change my type several times? More likely, different aspects of myself came out in response to the relationship at different times. My point is that though there are three distinct types, I think that relationship can be more nuanced than the examples provided by the authors.

Sometimes the authors seem to imply that all you need to be happy is to find yourself someone secure. Though the book does not purport to be a complete relationship book, attachment style is only part (though a very important part) of a relationship. There are a host of other factors that go into choosing a partner including mutual interests, sexual compatibility, values, and religion/spirituality, to name just a few.

All in all though, I highly recommend this book. It will help you with romantic relationships, one of the most important parts of life. 

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Peace Pilgrim

A decade ago, I was walking on the Appalachian Trail, and I came across a little book about a woman who called herself Peace Pilgrim. As I learned more about her, she has become one of my heroes. Each of my heroes exemplifies a different quality that I respect, and for me, Peace Pilgrim exemplifies faith.

I know the word "faith" has some religious implications that turn some people off. Let me explain. I don't necessarily mean faith in God, though Peace Pilgrim did believe in God. I mean faith in life, faith in other people, and perhaps most importantly, faith in oneself. 

I could use the words "trust" or "confidence" instead of faith, but I like faith because it packs more punch. To make bold changes to your life requires stepping out into the unknown, and this requires faith.

Peace Pilgrim, born Mildred Norman Ryder made a bolder change than most. At the age of 44, with only the clothes on her body and the possessions in her pocket, she left home on a pilgrimage, vowing to wander until mankind had learned the way of peace. She walked for peace for the next 28 years until her death. 

She walked until she was given shelter and fasted until she was given food. Most of the time, she was given both by people she met. She wore a sign on her shirt that said "Peace Pilgrim" and on the back read "Walking Coast to Coast for Peace". 

She walked 25,000 miles before she stopped counting. All told, she likely walked over 44,000 miles. She crisscrossed the US, east to west, seven times. She was the first woman to walk the entire Appalachian Trail in one season.

She did not approach people, but waited to be approached. She would then talk to people about peace - inner peace, peace between people, and peace between nations. Her message was simple and clear. Its central tenet was to "overcome evil with good, hatred with love and falsehood with truth." 

She was not affiliated with any religious or political organization. She laid out her ideas in a pamphlet she wrote called Steps to Inner Peace. You can read the pamphlet and more about her life here.

I have learned a lot from her ideas about peace, but what inspires me most about Peace Pilgrim is the example she set. You might think that renouncing all your possessions and setting out on a lifetime pilgrimage for peace is crazy or perhaps fruitless. But you cannot argue with the fact that this woman had balls. This woman had conviction. This woman was living her life one hundred percent according to her values.

It is one thing to say, "the universe will provide". It is quite another to put this belief to the test and set out penniless with only your clothes and a "Peace Pilgrim" sign and just start walking. She braved weather, thirst and hunger, loneliness, dangerous people, and the possibility that maybe it wouldn't work out. This was a woman who had tremendous faith in God, in the goodness of others, and in her own abilities.

I can safely say that I will never undertake something so outlandish as Peace Pilgrim's pilgrimage. But in my own life, I have walked into the unknown in smaller ways. Sometimes at my own choosing - quitting my job and going into private practice. Sometimes not at my own choosing - the end of a relationship

Either way, I look to Peace Pilgrim to remind me to have faith. Faith that things will be ok, faith that my friends and family will be there to support me, faith in my own resilience, energy, strength, and abilities. 

Who are your heroes, and why are they your heroes? How do you keep the faith, especially when you are starting something new or life throws you a curveball?

Friday, July 22, 2011

All the fixin's

photo: by comedy_nose

I have been hesitant to write this post because it seems like trite advice you can find in any relationship self-help book, but I'm going ahead because it keeps coming up in my office. 

A woman has just told me about something difficult in her life.

Me: "Have you told your boyfriend/husband/partner about this?"
Woman: "I tried, but he doesn't get it. He tries to tell me how to fix the situation, but it only makes me feel worse."

(Note: To keep the language simple, and because guys are more often fixers that girls, I am making the guy the fixer in this post. Please note that any gender can try to fix, and any gender can just want to be heard.)

Guys, when your woman is upset, your go-to move should be to listen. Not fix. Get her. Understand. Convey that you understand. If you don't understand ask questions until you do. Don't fix. At least not until she feels understood.

Here is how you do this:

1. Get out of your head. Your head will try to find a problem and offer a solution. Do this by concentrating on your breathing and by putting as much of your attention on her - her words and her body language - as possible. 

2. Listen closely to what she says and what her body language is telling you. Get the feeling behind it. Is she sad, angry, overwhelmed? 

3. Let her know you get what she is saying and more importantly how she is feeling. Do this with words, (ie, "That sounds like your co-worker was really mean to you. No wonder you feel so hurt.")

4. If you don't get it, either the content of the story or the feeling, ask. Just say, "wait, there is a part I don't understand..." Or, "how did you feel when that happened?"). It is also good to ask, "Is there more?" to offer her a chance to get it all out. Make sure your questions are without an agenda beyond understanding.

5. If it is not obvious she feels understood, ask if she feels like you are getting it. Be patient. People don't always communicate clearly when they are upset. Also remember it's most important that you get how she feels.

6. If you really can't understand where she is coming from - and this is most likely to happen if she is upset with you - then do your best to let her have her experience. Just accept that she is feeling something you don't get right now, and give her space to have her feelings. Let her know that you are ok with how she feels.

Note: It is much harder to do this when she is upset at you for something, but that is when this skill is most important.

Women, if your man is not good at listening and getting you and instead he tries to fix the problem (and you are not looking for fixing), you can coach your man. Tell him you don't want him to fix the problem. Tell him just to listen and to try to understand you and your feelings. 

Be patient. Most guys are fixers by nature, especially guys who are problem solvers in their professional life, and they haven't had any training in just listening. Cut them some slack if they relapse and try to fix. Reiterate as kindly as you can that you just want him to listen.

Sunday, July 10, 2011


I want to point you to the Advanced Riskology blog which helped influenced me to quit my job at a big hospital and strike out on my own. I've been thinking about this blog recently, specifically the 1% list on the blog. The 1% list is a list of goals that the blog's author, Tyler, wants to complete.

He calls it a 1% list because he says less than 1% of the world's population will complete the goals. On it are things like mountain climbing, running a marathon on every continent, and selling a business for $1,000,000. These are big, lofty, exciting goals.

My goals are more humble, but perhaps not easier to accomplish. They have to do with creating a life that feels sane, meaningful, and fun. I am more concerned with the day-to-day fabric of my life than with accomplishing something big.

Why goals? I have traditionally had a little resistance to goals. As a Myers Briggs (free test!) perceiving type, I have a disinclination to having regular, scheduled time commitments necessary to accomplishing goals.

When I think about signing up for guitar lessons, for example, I think, "yeah but what if there is something I would rather do on Thursday at 3 pm?"

Having a free schedule feels relaxing to me, but I have learned over time, doesn't make me happy. I end up with too much time on my hands, and tend not to enjoy the unstructured time as much as I thought I would.

In his book Happier, Harvard professor Tal Ben-Shahar writes that having a goal allows us to relax. It is, he writes, like having a destination on a journey. If you know where you are going, it is easier to enjoy the sights along the way. Without a destination, humans tend to worry about where they are going.

So, I am embracing goals. Writing down goals, whatever their size, makes it more likely you will accomplish them. So does sharing them with others. With that in mind, I would like to take stock of goals I have accomplished and those I have not in the six months since I quit my hospital job.

Goals I have accomplished:
  • started this blog
  • began work at Affiliated Psychologists, a group practice of therapists in Cupertino, CA
  • started a private practice in Oakland, CA
  • got hired to teach two classes to psych students at Argosy University in the fall
  • exercised regularly 3x per week at least - gym, yoga, running, boxing 
Goals I have yet to accomplish (with deadlines which increase likelihood of completion:
  • start guitar lessons (August 1, 2011)
  • Visit local meditation groups and choose one to go to 1x/week. (September 1, 2011)
  • create a website for my private practice (August 1, 2011)
Goal I want to add:
  • Go on ten new hikes in the Bay Area (October 1, 2011)
So, it looks like I have been on track professionally, but I could boost my hobby/personal development activity.

What goals, humble or grand, do you have? Remember, sharing makes it more likely you will accomplish them, so by all means, share.

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Talkin' bout suicide

I used to work at a hospital program for people at risk of psychiatric hospitalization. I worked with a lot of people who were at risk of suicide or who had made an actual attempt. Part of this work involved talking with clients' family members and educating them about talking about suicide with the client.

Hopefully you never have to have this kind of conversation with someone you love, but with an estimated 750,000 suicide attempts in the US each year, this kind of talk is more common than you might think. Because it is a taboo subject, people often struggle talking about suicide. I pass on what I know here in the attempt to help with these conversations.

If you take one thing away from this post it is this: if you are concerned that someone you care about may be suicidal, urge them to seek care from a therapist or psychiatrist. It is beyond your role to be assessing someone's suicidality.

I am offering these guidelines because I know that in reality people who are thinking about suicide do talk to family members and friends. But as a friend or family member, your goal should be to urge the person you are worried about to get professional help.  

  1. The best way to know if someone is suicidal is to ask. You can say something like, "I know you have been depressed for a while, and this may be a weird question, but have you been thinking of hurting yourself?" 
  2. Sometimes friends or family are afraid to bring up the subject because they don't want to give someone an idea they have not already had. Don't worry about this; if someone is not thinking about suicide, your asking them will not make them suddenly think that killing themselves is a good idea. Bottom line: you do not increase someone's chance of suicide by asking them if they are thinking about suicide. 
  3. Plans, means, and intent help determine risk. 
    1. Plan: Has the person thought about how they would kill himself? A person with a plan is likely at greater risk than someone with no plan.
    2. Means: Does the person have the means to carry out their plan? Someone who has the means to do so (i.e., "I would hang myself, and yes there is a rope in the garage") is likely at greater risk than someone who does not have the means, or has no plan to get the means. Note: If someone who is thinking about suicide has access to a gun, this greatly increases the chances that they will kill themselves.
    3. Intent: Is the person actually planning on going through with it? When? Someone may have a plan and means but no intent: "If I killed myself, I would jump off the Golden Gate Bridge, but really I would never do this." Or they may be planning suicide but only if something they fear comes to pass "I will not kill myself unless my husband leaves." Obviously, someone who says they plan to kill himself in the near future is at extreme risk.
  4. Certain risk factors can increase the chance someone will attempt suicide. Consider:
    1. past attempt at suicide
    2. people close to this person killed themselves or attempted suicide
    3. drinking or drug problem
    4. history of impulsive acts
    5. hopelessness
    6. history of abuse or trauma
    7. isolation
  5. Certain protective factors can decrease the chance someone will attempt suicide. Consider:
    1. stated desire not to hurt friends and family by killing oneself
    2. stated obligation to care for others (i.e., "I would like to kill myself, but I need to care for my children.") 
    3. Religious beliefs against suicide
    4. Person talks about future events they are looking forward to
    5. Presence of family, friends, or mental health professionals who the person feels they can talk to and lean on
  6. The phone number for the National Suicide Prevention Hotline is 800-273-8255. The hotline is open 24/7 Give this number to the person thinking about suicide. Call it yourself for support or advice if need be.
  7. The emergency room or 911 is the right choice if someone is in immediate danger. If you are worried that someone is going to commit suicide in the near future take this person to the emergency room, or if they won't go, call 911. Having the police show up or going to the ER is a lot of drama, but far less than if someone kills herself. Err on the side of caution here. 
  8. People who are suicidal are sometimes ambivalent about killing themselves. This can result in a person jumping from saying they are going to kill themselves to saying the reverse. The rule here is if the person you are talking to cannot convince you that they will be safe in the near future at least, take them to the ER or call 911.
  9. People at risk of suicide need professional help. I am repeating myself here, but if someone is in a bad enough place to be thinking about suicide, they need to talk to a therapist or psychiatrist. Unless you are a mental health professional, you lack the training to be keeping this person safe. Urge them to get help. 

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

It's a process

I have this poster by the artist Nikki McClure in my office:

Despite its small size, clients comment on it more than any other piece of art in my office. To me, the word "process" has a dual meaning in the context of my office. One, people process or work through stuff in therapy. Two, therapy itself is a process.

The picture shows a process not unlike therapy. Pitting cherries, one cherry at a time. I imagine the hands belong to an old person who is patient and methodical.

It is a reminder to me that the work I do with clients and my own work in therapy is often this way. Big insights and dramatic breakthroughs do sometimes happen, but I find it is the change that comes bit by bit that often sticks.

For a long time, I looked for a cure for a part of my gut that gets tight. When I feel this way, it feels like the world is a scary place, and I would rather crawl back into bed. I have tried yoga, meditation, exercise, therapy, massage, and chiropractic to cure this problem. I imagined that I when I got rid of it, there would be no stopping me. I would be glowing with energy. I would be magnetic. I would accomplish twice what I normally do. 

What I realized was that hoping so hard this feeling would go away often makes it worse. It creates a split in me where one part of me hates another part.

I am learning to be more patient with my body. Now when I feel tight in my gut, I try to breathe with the sensation. I've found it important to breathe with the sensation - letting both my breath and the tightness be present - instead of breathing in an attempt to make it go away. I have also learned to expect ebbs and flows in my energy level. I would like to be high energy all the time, but that isn't how my life actually feels.

It has taken a number of years to learn to be more patient and gentle with myself. I have found that attitudes, especially attitudes about ourselves, change slowly. But it is this kind of change that actually makes a big difference in my life, actually makes me a happier person.

Do you agree? Have you found that change happens slowly or have you had more dramatic shifts that have stuck for you?

Friday, June 3, 2011

Breaking up is hard to do

I haven't written a post in a little while. I've tried, but I've either written diatribes against society or trite Buddhist wisdom.

It feels like I can only write with authenticity about one thing: the breakup of my long-term relationship. I haven't wanted to write about it because a. it is personal and b. I have qualms about talking about certain areas of my life given that clients may read this blog, but perhaps writing about it will help others who are going through something similar.

First, let me say that it sucks. It's just really painful and there does not seem to be any way around it.

And now for a closer analysis of this pain and how I am dealing with it:

Feeling: Self-blame
Every time I feel sad, there is a feeling that if I had done things differently then I would not be feeling sad right now. My general theory is that loss is inevitable, but we humans have an immensely hard time accepting this as part of life so we try to assign blame, hoping to feel more sense of control. 

Some people like to blame others. In keeping with my humble nature, I prefer to blame myself. I think about various points in the relationship where, if I had acted differently, we would still be together. I imagine going back in time and tapping myself on the shoulder and telling this version of me what I know now.  

Action: Stop it!
As much as I can, I try to short circuit this thinking. It is just not helpful and leaves me feeling worse. Also it is unrealistic: a. I can't go back in time. b. Even if I could, would this have saved things? I don't really know. It was a complicated situation and my fantasy of going back in time makes it much simpler than it actually was.

So, I just try to pull my mind out of this loop. Not always successfully. Sometimes I end up wallowing, but I try.

Feeling: Sadness
As I said, the self-blame tends to set in over a feeling of sadness. Sad because I miss her. I just do.

I think about times we had fun together or I think how it would be if she were with me in the moment. It's like I am reaching out with my mind and heart, but she is not there. Even though it hurts, there is something soft about this feeling, something tender.

Action: Feel it! 
When I actually let myself feel sad, and maybe cry it out a little, I usually feel better. This is often easier with another person - my therapist, my friend, my mom - than alone. I don't know why but it feels harder for me to get to a sad place when I am alone. 

For people who tend to spend a ton of time crying and feeling sad, I don't recommend staying in that place indefinitely. If this is you, you might need distraction. But if you are like me and getting to a sad spot can be hard, then I think it is good medicine to stay there for a little and let your heart be sad.

Feeling: Emptiness (depression)
This one sucks. It feels like there was a tube that supplied color to my life and now there is nothing on the end of that tube. My life feels like it is in black and white. 

I don't feel excited about anything, and there is the impulse to zone out, watch tv without really watching, even stare at the wall. My body feels heavy, and without energy.

For me, sadness has a feeling of movement to it, but this emptiness, this lack of feeling, feels heavy and stuck, like a stagnant pool of water.

Action: Keep doing my life!
I assume that time will heal things, and the color will return in time. I also find that when I actually do the things I am not excited about - exercise, hang out with friends, work - that I feel better at least during the activity. So, I continue to exercise, take walks, work, write (a little), meditate and see friends.

Action: Rest!
More than normal, I am allowing myself to spend time in bed, nap, and watch movies on my computer. I think you have to be careful with this one because too much bed time can exacerbate depression, but shit, I am going through something hard, and now and again, I let myself take it easy.

Feeling: Fear of suffocation
Ok, I know this may sound strange, but there have been several times when I have realized that a part of me is afraid I won't be able to breathe. It has happened during meditation and also when I wake up from a dream. It is like there is this fear that I will be stuck somewhere, somewhere I can't get out of, somewhere where I can't breathe but I don't die.

I have noticed that several times when I have woken up from a dream, I am a little afraid to go back to sleep for fear that I will get stuck in the dream world. I don't really know what this has to do with my break-up, but I think somewhere in me is the fear of dying and the sense that my relationship was a buffer against this fear. Like, ok here I am alone in the world and destined to one day die, but at least I have this loving person to hold onto, and now I am all alone.

Action: Be curious!
Even though this fear is terrifying, I am actually really curious about it because I sense there is something big here. So whenever it pops up, usually only briefly and on the edge of awareness, I actually try to feel into it more, so I can better understand what it is.

Action: Take a deep breath

Feeling: Jealousy
"What is she doing right now? Is she with someone else? What is she doing with them?"

This one comes on fast and hard, the images of her with someone else flying through my mind and my stomach tightening into a knot. It's a burning feeling, like I have swallowed a red hot lead ball, and I don't know how to throw it up.

Then my thinking mind kicks in - in a bad way. "What day is it? Tuesday. Shit, she doesn't have her daughter on Tuesday. She could be on a date. With who? There is that guy she mentioned being friends with a few weeks ago..." And so on.

Action: Get to the bottom of it!
Some deep breaths help me calm the crazy-making thoughts and feelings. From this place I ask myself what is beneath this and I find fear first and then loss. 

The fear is like an alarm bell signaling grave danger: "Woman about to go with other man! Woman about to go with other man! Act now to prevent loss of woman!" 

But the truth is we've already broken up. I've already lost her. I do my best to tell the alarm bell to calm down, the thing I am afraid of happening has, in a way, already happened.

I am also afraid that her being with someone else means she doesn't love me anymore. I remind myself that just as I will always have a place in my heart for her, I believe she will always have a place in her heart for me. I find this comforting.

That's when I get to the loss that has already happened. She is gone. 
If, or should I say when she goes with someone else, it will mark another stage in this loss, making it more final. This is inevitable. When I can calm down about it, I realize I am more sad than anything else.(see sadness above).
So what feelings have you dealt with when you broke up with someone, and how did you get through it?