Category Archives: counseling

And She Kept Dancing

Several years ago I worked with a client who was dying of stage 4 colon cancer. Cynthia** came to me because she was afraid of dying, and as a Christian, she felt that she shouldn’t have to be afraid of death. I promised to help her the best that I could and agreed to meet with her weekly.

To begin our work, we examined our inner images of death, because the mental images we have for death provide a vivid picture of how we conceptualize death and how we feel about death. Images of skulls and coffins came to mind for Cynthia, which both of us thought was kind of hackneyed and meaningless—and therefore not very helpful. I on the other hand, found myself immediately flooded with images of skeletons holding guitars, dressed in mariachi clothing.  I get it: I live in the Phoenix area, and Halloween is closely followed by Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) celebrations; there are sugar skulls everywhere. Still…when did Death go all Mexican on me? When I told Cynthia how I couldn’t shake the image of a guitar-playing skeleton in mariachi clothing, she and I laughed for a good five minutes.

Counseling is much like a winding road, and Cynthia and I ended up spending a lot of sessions talking about the clinical trials she had joined in hopes of extending her life. We talked about her family’s fear that she would die before she got a chance to live a full life, as Cynthia had never married or had children. At this point, Cynthia had given up on those dreams and was just trying to live long enough to help her family accept her impending death.

One of the tricky things about counseling is that the longer you work together, the closer the friendship becomes. A client once described me as “a paid friend who helps me cut through my own BS and get real” and this is actually a very good description of the counseling relationship. But sometimes there is no BS to cut through, and then your counselor is the paid friend who encourages you to say out loud all the stuff the rest of your friends are afraid to hear. I did my best to be that kind of friend for Cynthia, and we spent many of our sessions saying a lot of very scary things about life and death and terminal illness.  We did a lot of good work in the first few months that we met, but we struggled to achieve the goal she set when she came to counseling: to stop fearing death.

Cynthia and I had been working together almost six months when the inspiration of the Holy Spirit spoke. An image came to me of two women in the late 1940s, close friends, dressed to the nines,*** and heading to a dance, both hoping to meet the man of their dreams. When I say they are dressed to the nines, I mean the whole enchilada: hats, gloves, dress coats, elegant beaded purses, high heels, stockings, fancy dresses, pearls and jewels. I pictured two absolutely stunning women who were ready to dance the night away. I imagined them arriving at the party; very quickly one of the women meets an incredibly handsome man and begins dancing. Seeing her friend dancing so happily, the other woman quickly realizes that her friend needs help; she approaches her and says “Hey! Give me that purse! You can’t keep dancing holding on to that purse. I’ll hold it for you.” The dancing woman hands over her purse gladly so that she can keep dancing the night away. A few songs later, her friend approaches again. “Hey! You’re going to melt if you don’t take that coat off.  You can’t keep dancing in that coat!”  And so the dancing woman hands over her coat, and then later her hat, and then her gloves, and then her high heels, each time relinquishing them so that she can keep dancing, so that she can keep savoring every moment of this spectacular experience.

Keep that image in mind, because I want to remind you that in life, there are many moments—we usually call them milestones, or rites of passage—that are one-way doors. Once you pass through them, you can never go back. For instance, graduating high school is a one-way door. Graduating high school is the official entry to adulthood; never again will the entire community you live in collude to help you succeed. Once you graduate, the community considers you are an adult and in many ways, you are on your own; your success or failure is up to you. Likewise, getting married is a one-way door. Once you are married, you will never be single again. You might be divorced or widowed, but you will never be single ever again. The same is true of parenthood: once the baby is born, no matter what happens to your child, you will always be a parent.  Though we mostly fail to recognize the gravity and irreversibility of these moments, one-way doors represent the death of our old self—a self that is lost to us forever, a self that can never be regained.  In this way, death has been with us from the very beginning of our life.  We experience hundreds of little deaths as we pass through the various phases of life; as we age, we lose parts of ourselves that can never be regained or retrieved, except in memory. Strangely, it was graduation from college that revealed this truth to me, as I realized that I would probably never again have the luxury of being so self-focused.  The previous four years of my life had been focused on gaining knowledge and skills, preparing for my career, and developing close friendships that would sustain me as I moved on to the next phase of my life. I felt that I would never have another period in my life that would be this self-focused and uncomplicated, and as excited as I was to graduate, the moment was soaked with bittersweet sadness because graduation marked the end of this part of my life forever.

The truth is that we can’t avoid these losses. I mean, really, who wants to be a high school student for the rest of their life?  Many of the one-way doors we pass through in our lives are based on our deep desire to move into another phase of our life; most of the time we choose to step through that doorway on purpose. In order to embrace the parts of life that are coming towards us, we have to let go of what needs to pass. We cannot be young forever. We cannot be a carefree child and still have the rights and privileges of an adult. Basically, if you want the good stuff of life, you have to let go of the old and move forward into the new. Our lives are one long list of little deaths, one after another, mostly gladly accepted so that our lives can continue to grow and change and evolve.  Without these little deaths, abundant life isn’t actually possible.

And now we are back to the two women at the dance. The dancing woman is YOU, loving every minute, cherishing the dance of life.  And Death is your close friend, coming to you again and again, prompting you to let go of what you no longer need, to let go of what must pass from your hands. And once you hand something to Death, you can’t have it back. Let go of that coat, and you will never have it again; Death will hold it for you so that you have it as a memory, but you will never have that coat again.  Death comes to take these things from you, not because she is a cold, heartless, witch (you understand me) but because Death knows that this is the only way that you will be able to keep dancing. Don’t you understand? Death votes for life, every single time!  One thing after another, Death comes to take things from you so that you will go on in the dance, continuing to enjoy all that life offers as you pass through milestones and birthdays, marriages and children, careers and retirement, aging and disability.  Death stands there, waiting for the next moment when you need to let go, to let something pass from your life. She comes to you gently, encouraging you to let go and keep dancing.  Death waits on you and never leaves you, just so that you can go on dancing. Death is not the enemy! Death votes for life every time.

At the very end, Death comes to take her friend to the dressing room. After all that dancing, Death knows that her friend is sweaty and exhausted; it’s time to get out of those clothes and shed that stupid girdle that has been made her flesh ache more and more as the dance went on. That ache was almost unbearable by the time they left the dance, and Death is eager to free her friend from her pain. And there they are, Death and her girlfriend, in the dressing room pulling off the sweaty clothes and that damn girdle. Any woman who has ever had to take off her tight foundation garments knows what this is like: you pull, and you tug, and you huff and puff and it seems hopeless and yet you and your friend are laughing so hard you can hardly breathe. And outside the door of the dressing room is the woman’s dance partner and all of her friends from the dance.  And they knock on the door and they call to her: “What are you doing in there? Are you okay?  Are you sure that you’re okay?!”  But the woman can hardly answer anymore, or maybe she does but not in words that her family and friends can hear with human ears. Death finally helps her friend shed all those clothes and her earthly flesh that was becoming so uncomfortable…and that beautiful woman opens the dressing room door, and all her friends are gone.  She finds an entirely different group of people waiting for her; it’s everyone who left the dance before she did. And Death…Death doesn’t follow where she is going, because she is going on to an entirely new life; she is joining the dance that never ends. Death doesn’t get to follow…she hangs behind, holding on to everything her friend used to be. Death says to her friend, “Don’t worry about me. Go on! There’s so much more where you’re going.  I’ll be fine.”

Death votes for life every time, here on Earth and again in the next life.

Death votes for life every single time.

Death is not the enemy. Cancer is an enemy. Heart disease in an enemy. Addiction is an enemy. There are plenty of enemies that must be fought, but Death is not one of them. God sends Death with us to be our lifelong friend when we are born, because Death votes for life every time, and only Death can usher us back into His arms in the end.

I write this for my friend who is ready to begin this final journey. Cancer is her enemy and I hate cancer more than I can tell you. I am doing my best to make my peace with Death because Death is doing the best she can to help my friend to her eternal home. I pray that Death takes her time with my friend because so many of us are not ready to let her go.  I pray that God grants her a little more time in this dance, because while it is nothing compared to what is coming, this dance is sweet beyond words.

 

**Cynthia is her real name. She died in 2010, and tell this story to honor her life, our friendship, and the work we did together.

***For you youngsters, ‘dressed to the nines’ means dressed in your very fanciest clothes.

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The Sharpest Sword and the Uncontrollable Arm

This week I met with a female client whose husband is incredibly self-focused and verbally abusive to her and their two sons.

I have been listening to her struggle with her anger and frustration with her husband for months now. At first, she wanted to know what she was doing wrong, thinking that she was the problem. Then she began to wonder if she was perceiving him and his behavior incorrectly, or if she was judging him too harshly. She repeatedly blamed herself for her inability to stop her husband’s behavior from impacting her sons, swearing that if she didn’t become upset when her husband was being verbally abusive she would somehow be able to stop him from verbally abusing their boys.  Then she started asking if there were techniques to help her ‘deal’ with his constant anger and demeaning words.

Lately, though, she has been asking me if he is doing this on purpose or if this is simply how God made him.  She calls her husband a narcissist (and I agree with her) and she wants to know if his narcissism is a choice that he is making or if he can’t live any other way—in other words, was he born like this and if so, does this mean that it’s not his fault that he behaves poorly?

That is a difficult question to answer.

You might wonder how we even know for sure that he is a narcissist. Well, his behavior speaks volumes, but it always helps to rely on greater knowledge.  The Diagnostics and Statistics Manual (version 5) helps me in my practice quite a bit, and it provides a list of diagnostic criteria.  Mayo Clinic provides a simplified version for the public here.

While all that is very useful knowledge, diagnosing my client’s husband won’t change anything for my client.  Also, because he’s not the one seeking counseling, any conjecturing we might do about what causes his behavior is only that: conjecture. It neither gives us a path to helping the situation nor does it give my client any real tactics for dealing with her abusive, self-focused husband.

So back to the question at hand:  what if he can’t help it? What if this is just how God made him? Isn’t it wrong to be angry at him for things he has no control over?

I have a couple of thoughts on that.

First, I don’t know that I believe that God created a narcissist. I can, however, accept that the perfect spirit that God created happens to exist inside a fleshy body that developed incorrectly, growing a brain that lacks empathy and expects total obedience to every demand and whim. Lots of us live with bodies that don’t quite function correctly.  Lots of us suffer with brain injuries after strokes or with dementia or with mental illness…and I don’t believe that God enjoys watching us struggle with our broken flesh.  I also don’t believe that God creates broken flesh.  I do, however, believe that God created a perfect spirit to reside in that flesh, and that God forgives us for the failings that our broken flesh causes.  And yes…that means that God forgives this man for being abusive, even though God didn’t create him to an abusive husband and father.

Having said all that, I offered my client an allegory:

What if her husband was born with a right arm that suddenly would strike out and punch? What if her husband had no control over the violence that his right arm would suddenly commit?  Imagine him, sitting there in a movie theater, enjoying the show when he suddenly his right arm threw a punch, striking the man next to him in the face.  “Oh, I’m so sorry sir! I didn’t mean to punch you like that. It’s just that my arm…I can’t control it. It just does that. I’ve been like that since birth. I’m so sorry.”  A few moments later, his right arm strikes out again, punching the gentleman next to him a second time.  And then a third punch. And a fourth.

How long do you think this could go on before my client’s husband would be forced to leave the movie theater? How long before someone said “If you can’t control your arm, then at least be responsible enough to sit where you can’t punch anyone!”

In other words, if you are an adult** you are responsible for the impact of your behaviors on others even when you “can’t control yourself.” Just because you “can’t control yourself” doesn’t mean that you are unaware of the impact of your behavior on others. You do not have the right to expect others to ignore the impact of your behavior on them simply because you can’t help yourself. You do not have the right to expect accommodation at the expense of the well-being of others.  You do not have the right to expect a consequence free life because of your twisted flesh.

Not sure about that?  Ask yourself…do you think that God leaned in to his sons when they were born and said “I made your Daddy in such a way that he’ll always be abusive and hateful. Too bad for you! He can’t help it so you just have to deal with it! It’s not his fault, so it’s your burden FOREVER!”

I don’t believe God is like that. I believe that God forgives us for the failures of our flesh, but I also believe that God desires for us to realize our responsibility to protect and respect others.

The saddest part?

My client looked at me and said “I know this is sick and wrong, but I wish that he’d hit me. Then I’d have no excuse to stay. I could leave him.”

My heart breaks.

All I can do is pray that she hears God whispering “Leave him. Don’t worry…I’ll take care of him. Please…for your sake, for the sake of your boys…leave him before he destroys you.”

Pray with me, please. There are way too many women and men staying in abusive relationships, worried that God will somehow judge them for leaving a relationship where the bruises aren’t physical and obvious.

As a woman who believes in a Christ who suffered a great deal before he died, trust me…words bruise and inflict wounds far greater than you can imagine. That’s why the Romans, who had already beaten Jesus bloody and were about to execute him, hung the words “King of the Jews” above his cross. They knew that whips and torture weren’t enough…they needed words to finish the destruction.

Through God’s grace alone, those who sought to kill Jesus won the battle but lost the war. Let us pray that all those who seek to destroy with words lose in the long run…and please God, sooner rather than later.

From my words to God’s ears!

** Adult in terms of mental development as well as chronological age. One of my colleagues has a son who is in his 30s and has the mental development of a 4 year-old child. In my opinion, his disability makes it so that he should never have to be fully responsible for the impact of his behaviors on others.

Vive La Différence!

Once again I have fallen into the extrovert/introvert chasm, which inevitably leads to injuries based in assumptions that are usually incorrect and self-damaging.

Let’s start with some simple information:

Introverts are people who are fascinated by the interior world of thought.  Introverts love to interact with people, but on a limited basis because interacting with others drains their energy. In other words, being social drains an introvert of energy, requiring them to spend time alone to recharge and recoup.  Introverts in conversation tend to listen, think, synthesize and then respond. They are great folks to have in any group because they are incredibly capable of identifying emerging trends in group thought, pointing out inconsistencies in the group’s thinking and problem solving, and they are apt at summarizing and creating solid, useful conclusions.  Introverts are a quiet, thoughtful bunch of folks and that is their greatest strength.

The problem with introverts is that they are a quiet, thoughtful bunch of folks. This can be problematic when they are meeting new people who are extroverts. Introverted behavior is often perceived negatively by extroverts, who often experience introverts as standoffish, judgmental, and rejecting.  In all actuality, introverts are usually uncomfortable and anxious around new folks so they are especially quiet and thoughtful…and of course those thoughts play across the introvert’s face. Extroverts read those expressions and discern that the introvert is thinking quite a bit but they don’t know what the introvert is thinking…and human nature is to assume negative intent.  Consequently extroverts often find themselves perceiving introverts as rejecting and judgmental when the introvert is simply listening and trying to be cordial in a difficult situation because social interaction is draining and sometimes even anxious for them.

Extroverts are people who are fascinated with the exterior world of people and interaction. Extroverts love to interact with people because social interaction is energizing. Extroverts are gregarious and energetic, assertive and talkative. Extroverts can enjoy being alone and doing solitary things like reading and meditation, but in order to recharge, an extrovert will usually spend time with friends and family. Extroverts are great folks to have in a group because they help generate energy and bonding within the group; extroverts tend to be the ones that prevent group activities or group work from stalling and becoming boring or non-productive. Extroverts are quite talkative and they usually prefer to think out loud; this proves to be useful when groups are attempting to brainstorm or generate new ideas.  Extroverts are an outgoing, talkative, energetic bunch of folks and that is their greatest strength.

The problem with extroverts is that they are an outgoing, talkative, energetic bunch of folks. This can be problematic for the introverts in their circle. Extroverts are assertive and outgoing in their interactions with others, which can be overwhelming to the introverts around them. Moreover, introverts are a quiet bunch, which can make it difficult for them to get a word in edgewise when they are with an extrovert. What’s harder for introverts is that introverts tend to speak after they have thought things through; they evaluate their thoughts for validity so that they don’t spout any BS when they speak, therefore a lot goes into each sentence spoken before it comes out of an introvert’s mouth. Extroverts, on the other hand, speak in order to think. It’s not that extroverts are incapable of thought unless they are speaking. It’s that an introvert’s ‘BS indicator’ is located inside their brain and an extrovert’s ‘BS indicators’ are in their ears.  Thoughts in an extrovert’s head can seem perfectly valid and sensible until the extrovert speaks them out loud and then suddenly the extrovert realizes their error…or the BS!  Basically, extroverts speak to think so that they can practice evaluative thought, something that introverts do silently. The problem with this is that introverts—a group of people who only speak after they have practiced evaluative thought—often experience talkative extroverts as feeling like ‘bossy know-it-alls’ who think every one of their opinions are absolutely correct and that everyone should agree with them. This is a false assumption on the part of the introvert, but it can leave introverts feeling as if extroverts are judgmental and unwilling to listen to the opinions of others…which can feel quite rejecting.

In other words, introverts and extroverts encounter each other and both can go away feeling rejected and judged.

And both of them are usually WRONG.

Extroverts need to be mindful that introverts are naturally quiet and thoughtful. That behavior (which extroverts interpret as rejection and judgment) has nothing to do with the extrovert and everything to do with the introvert behaving like themselves.  This is how introverts are created by God…they are wonderful people and you want them among your friends and on your work/ministry team.  Always remember that introverts are busy thinking (and they are not usually thinking about you, Mr/Ms Extrovert.)   If you are an extrovert, remember that you won’t feel rejected or judged by an introvert if you choose to interpret their behaviors as evidence of their quiet, thoughtful nature.  And if you want to hear what an introvert is thinking, stop speaking. Every now and then, spend 30-60 full seconds in silence; many introverts need a break in conversation in order to feel comfortable speaking.  If you (Mr/Ms Extrovert) start feeling rejected and judged, remember that your thinking drives your feelings, and you always have the right to remind yourself that introverts are a quiet, thoughtful bunch who are no more rejecting and judgmental than you are.  Moreover, their BS indicators are in their mind, which means they need to run all their thoughts through the BS indicator before they speak and that causes introverts to be silent for longer than extroverts may be comfortable with. Please, extroverts, give the introverts around you space to be who they are and who they were created to be, and give yourself space to appreciate all the good stuff that introverts bring to the table.

Introverts need to be mindful that extroverts are super-comfortable when they are with others, and that causes them to think out loud even more than they do when they are alone. (Yes…extroverts often talk to themselves when they are alone so they can practice evaluative thinking.) That behavior has nothing to do with the introvert and everything to do with the extroverts behaving like themselves.  This is how extroverts are created by God…they are wonderful people and you want them among your friends and on your work/ministry team.  Always remember that extroverts think out loud so those sentences they are speaking are NOT usually conclusions and are probably just thoughts that will hopefully lead to a wise and thoughtful conclusion.  Extroverts are as open to changing their opinions as any introvert might be, and if you share your opinion with them, you might discover just how much extroverts love spirited conversations. Their energy may make them appear argumentative…and some extroverts are argumentative, just like some introverts are argumentative.  Don’t mistake energy for argument, and never mistake statements for conclusions. Also, remember that extroverts do not expect you to agree with them no matter how energetically they share their opinion.  Again, don’t mistake energy for argument. If you (Mr/Ms Introvert) start feeling rejected and judged, remember that your thinking drives your feelings, and you always have the right to remind yourself that extroverts are an outgoing, energetic, talkative bunch who are no more rejecting and judgmental than you are.  Moreover, their BS indicators are in their ears, so extroverts need to talk so that they can evaluate their own thoughts for fallacy or error and that can cause extroverts to talk more than introverts may be comfortable with.  Please, introverts, give the extroverts around you space to be who they are and who they were created to be, and give yourself space to appreciate all the good stuff that extroverts bring to the table.

Most important in all this is to remember that God created as we are, and while we can learn from each other and grow as people, we cannot change our basic personality. Introversion/Extroversion is a component of basic personality that God determines (or you could say ‘installs’) when He creates us.  While I thoroughly encourage each of us to grow and become more and more of what God created us to be, I want to remind you that first you must embrace that creation fully.  Extroverts don’t often become introverts; not without the kind of injury or trauma that changes us by force.  Introverts are not supposed to become extroverts either, and any injury or trauma they sustain often only serves to increase the level of their introversion. In the end, we need to embrace our creation and then seek to use it to the best advantage of the Kingdom.

And when it comes to understanding and accepting each other, we need to remember that our perceptions of each other drive our feelings about one another.  As individuals, we are always free to challenge our perceptions in order to grant the other person some grace…like maybe trying not to automatically ascribe negative intent to their behaviors…like maybe perceiving differences as helpful and accepting others for their particular weirdness without deciding that their particular weirdness renders them less acceptable or ‘good’ than we are.  Finally, I encourage you to consider that the person who is closest to your polar opposite will likely be the most irritating person you meet…and also the person who has the biggest gift to offer you.  After all, their perspective might not even be visible to you because of how different you are from each other…and do you really want to be blind to the experience of another person? Probably not.

The hardest path is often the best, and the most unfamiliar thing, the most valuable.

Vive la différence!