Tag Archives: counseling

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.

Advertisements

In the beginning was the Word…

The last few weeks I have been working with a woman who is struggling with chronic and complex PTSD.

To put that in laymen’s terms, my client experienced a boatload of trauma, starting when she was just a child and ending only recently when she kicked out her latest abusive partner.  The litany of abuse is unbelievably long, including emotional, physical, and sexual abuse when she was a child, abandonment by her parents, and domestic violence with her romantic partners as an adult.

You might imagine that it is difficult listening to someone graphically describe the violence they have lived through, and you would be right. Sometimes I get a little sick to my stomach because the violence is so extreme; it stuns me to realize just how much violence can be done to a human being without killing them.  It’s even worse when the violence happened to my client when they were a child because of how helpless they were to escape their abuser and how reliant they were on their abuser for their daily needs.

And of course, my clients cry when they talk about the abuse. They weep, hug themselves, and rock back and forth, trying to comfort the invisible child within that just cannot stop screaming in anguish.

For all the pain that the violence causes, the violence is far easier to fix than the verbal abuse. Punches, kicks, and belts will never have anything on the spoken word when it comes to inflicting damage.

I know that you’ve heard that stupid childhood meme “Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me!”

What a load of crap!!

As a therapist I have tools to tear away the memories of physical and sexual violence; I have special techniques that help the brain reprocess and ‘de-fang’ disturbing and painful memories of violence and terror.  Don’t get me wrong: it’s not like I have a magic wand that I wave at my client that makes the bad memories fade away.  On the other hand, the methods currently used for treating trauma are effective and there are enough different methods to be able to find at least one that works well for the client’s specific needs.  If we work hard and the client is brave, we can usually eliminate most, if not all, of the symptoms of PTSD and free them the abuse of their past.

What is much harder is freeing them from the voices inside their head that repeat demeaning, hateful words that were spoken by their abuser in anger and disdain.  I cannot silence the demanding father that could never be pleased, no matter how high the grade or how many goals you made once he takes up residence in my client’s mind. I cannot pry off the negative label when my client’s mother labeled her a whore when she finally told her mom about the years of sexual abuse by her stepfather.  I cannot stop the horrifying, negative, self-abusive messages that play in my client’s head as their mind repeats endlessly the abusive words spoken to them every time they made a mistake or angered their parents. I cannot re-establish my client’s confidence after years of being told by their partner that they are the entire reason the marriage is miserable, and that they perceive everything incorrectly and do everything wrong.

Why am I telling you this?

Because we carry deadly weapons in our mouths: weapons that we can quickly deploy that produce deadly results without leaving any bodies behind as evidence.

Words are weapons, and our weapons are far more fatal than we like to realize.

It is so easy to succumb to irritation and strike out at our children or our spouse or our coworkers. It is so easy to blame our constant, low-lying agitation on the demands of our jobs and daily life. And it is so easy to forgive ourselves for the many ‘minor’ moments when we let our tone and our message get sharp and jagged, when we say a host of the wrong words. It is so much easier to ask forgiveness for our ‘momentary’ lapse of kindness than to actually try to control our tongue.

Have you ever tried to control your tongue?

It didn’t work for me either.

It won’t ever work.

It doesn’t work because it isn’t our tongue that we need to control.  It’s our mind. Our tongue has no will of its own. It can only repeat the words that play silently in our minds, waiting for our anger to give them greater purchase so they can be spoken out loud.

And why? Why would we house weapons in our minds, letting them silently fill our heads with words that can only do damage?

It’s because my clients aren’t the only ones who have been tortured with venomous words.

It’s you, too. It’s me.  I’m afraid that no one escapes unscathed.

Every single one of us, in some way, have been stabbed and beaten and shot with words that tore us apart.  Maybe our parents spoke them, or maybe it was a schoolyard bully. For some of us it was our partner that spoke the words that ripped us apart. The problem is that the damage never stops with us. As long as we let these wounds remain unhealed, they bleed sick, self-punishing thoughts that wound us even more until finally the words demand release and they turn their venom outward, begging to pour out of our mouth so they can go on damaging other people.

So now what? What do we do?

First, if you find your mind full of self-critical thoughts that tear up your self-esteem, it is important that you seek counseling. I know it sounds like your own voice in your own head saying those things, but those words didn’t come from you, and they don’t belong in your head. More importantly, if words are weapons, essentially you are beating and abusing and terrorizing yourself…and if you did that to anyone else you’d be arrested!  Believe it or not, you can spit those words out of your mind and never have to hear them again. If the counselor you find doesn’t help you, get a hold of me and I’ll share a few techniques that will help you evict the cruel inner critic in your mind.  Remember, those hateful words in your head have a habit of leaking out of your mouth and attacking others. If you want to tame your tongue, tame your inner critic.  Trust me, it works much better than you think. Also, it’s much nicer living inside your head when there isn’t any voice in there destroying your self-esteem and your confidence. Az-plc.com

Second, remember that your words have great power: power to wound, power to bind, power to heal, and power to set free. Lest you think this is a bunch of new age hokum, let me remind you that John 1 begins with the sentence In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  If everything that exists began with the Word and if the Word is God, then our words, spoken by someone who is made in the image of God, are no small thing!  God spoke the entire universe into existence; likewise when we speak we create. Do our words create love? Do they create wounds? Do they seek to carry God’s grace, or do they convey judgement and condemnation?

What you live inside your head becomes the reality you create around you. Please…let your life (and that of those you love) become a garden of life and love, not a pit of despair.

Have a blessed week! I’m on hiatus for the next week, and when I come back I hope to have all sorts of tales of new adventures.

Blessings!

 

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!

Here Comes The Truth

Honesty.

I always tell my clients that honesty is at such a premium in this world that being a truth teller is a skill worth developing. People thirst and hunger for truth, for words that are plain and simple, without sugar coating or gentle couching or even padding. Basically, there is so little honesty in this world that we are starving for it.

Don’t believe me?  Just think for a moment about how many times you have talked to one of your friends and had them read you a text or email to see what you think it means.  We have been become experts at analyzing words and phrasing in texts and emails, hoping to decipher what the person really means, what they are actually saying…which makes it painfully obvious that we don’t trust people to speak the unadulterated truth.

I mean it when I say that truth is so rare that we are starving for it.

However…I have to distinguish being truth-telling, and beating someone with the truth.

Sadly, I have heard plenty of people speak sentences full of barbed words, swinging sentences like a bat aimed at the other person’s head. After they finish speaking, these people all say the same thing: I’m just telling the truth, that’s all.  And they are, kind of, but not really.

You see, the truth—if you want it to be heard and accepted—needs to be spoken in love.  The kind of truth that sets you free is truth that is given as a gift, delivered directly and bluntly without sugar-coating…and without any barbs or knives.

I call it the open-handed truth.

Basically, I tell my clients to hold out their hand, palm up, whenever they speak the truth. This is to signify to them and their listener that the truth they are telling is offered as a gift. The listener is free to take that gift or leave it, but there it is: honesty and truth, offered to them as a gift.

I ask them to do that because any move away from giving a gift to delivering a barbed truth will cause their hand to suddenly shift from an open palm to a pointed finger. You know what I’m talking about: that finger-shaking, “I’m going to give you a piece of my mind” gesture that we use when we are slapping someone across the face with our words.  I tell my clients that the difference between an open-handed truth and a finger-shaking truth is the difference between honesty as a gift and honesty as a 2×4 upside the head!  It’s an effective metaphor, because who the hell wants to speak the truth as a 2×4 to someone’s head?

The answer to that question is: any member of the media when speaking to Donald Trump, but that’s another blog post entirely.

Why am I busy talking about the truth?  Well, when I started as a counselor, I found it very hard to speak certain truths to my clients, especially if the truth was particularly ugly. I also shied away from telling my clients when they were engaging in unhealthy behaviors, even when they were engaging in unhealthy and unwise behaviors right in front of me.

In short, I have been an incredible wuss for years.

And then recently I decided to try something for my stress. Being a counselor is very stressful. Clients can be very demanding, and the need to help them can leave you feeling like the weight of the world is resting on your shoulders. It can be overwhelming, and it does overwhelm me occasionally. It really wouldn’t matter that much, but I have chronic health issues, and stress makes them worse. I am at a point where something has to change or I am not going to be able to keep up with my practice. I am not willing to let stress derail my health…and I’m not willing to let my health end my ministry.

The thing was that no matter what I was doing, nothing was reducing my stress level.  Exercise was helpful, but not enough. Diet changes were helpful, but not enough. Hobbies, vacations, meditation…all of it was helpful, but not enough.

Then I remembered something I learned from watching my daughter get sober. The 12 Steps are powerful and deeply spiritual, and without them people often fail to overcome their addictions because the biggest problem in addiction is that we keep trying so hard…instead of relying on a God who is so much more powerful than we are.

And that was my epiphany.

I began reciting the first three steps (as best as I could remember them) in relation to my clients.

I admitted that I am powerless over my clients—powerless over mental illness and trauma—powerless over my client’s lives—and that trying to be a healer is becoming unmanageable.

I remembered that there is a Power greater than myself who can restore both me and my clients to sanity.

And then I made a decision to turn myself…and my clients…and their problems…and their healing…over to God’s care.

I cannot tell you how liberating that felt. Every time I’d start to get stressed about my clients or my practice, I’d remember that I am powerless over mental illness and trauma, and utterly incapable of healing anyone. Then I’d remind myself that God is more than capable of handling all that and is willing to use me along the way to bring that about…and I’d calm back down and my stress level would drop and I’d start to feel less overwhelmed and exhausted.

But there was this funny side effect of all this: I’m not a wuss anymore!

All of a sudden, I find myself saying things in session that are blunt, open-faced truths that I was unable to say before.

Dare I say…I have become strangely bold?  And I’m not talking 2×4 bold, either. This is calm, open-handed truth that is popping out of my mouth without hesitation or even the slightest twinge of guilt.

Jesus said that the truth would set us free, and the truth I discovered is that I am powerless, and when I accept that powerlessness…suddenly I am far more free to share the truth with others.

The truth about me became the truth recognized by me and spoken to others becomes the truth that sets them free.

If this is powerlessness, sign me up. And we will all be free together.

Amen.

God in the Grocery Aisle

I spend a lot of time with anxious people.

Some of them are anxious because they have anxiety disorders. Some are anxious because they are dealing with PTSD and trauma. Some are anxious because they have an addict in their household and they are exhausted from trying to save that person (and their entire family) from the consequences of addiction.  These folks have really good reasons for their anxiety, and learning to deal with the anxiety is about learning to accept what can’t be changed and address what can be changed (usually the answers to those two questions are ‘other people’ and ‘your own behaviors and attitudes’…but that’s another blog post entirely.)

Lately though, I have been seeing a woman who is anxious because…well, because…

Of life. She is anxious because…career, boss, bad friends, what now?  She is anxious because of life.

She’s a great lady and I love working with her. She’s really serious about the change she’s trying to achieve and actually remembers what we talk about and tries to work on it between sessions. She is what we counselors call a YAVIS client: young, attractive, verbal, intelligent, and social. Personally, I’m guessing she’d be really thrilled to know that I label her as a YAVIS client, first because she’s a little older than I am, and second, because YAVIS clients are usually there to see a counselor because they are having an existential crisis instead of serious mental health issues.

existential crisis:  a moment at which an individual questions the very foundations of their life: whether this life has any meaning, purpose, or value.

During our last session, my client brought me a list of what she thinks she needs to be working on in counseling.  One of her goals was to work on finding a purpose for her life, a larger reason for being. She felt like her current career, while it earned her a good living, was not very meaningful and did not provide her with sufficient purpose.  She wanted to find her purpose in life so that she could get busy living out her purpose.

That was when I put on the brakes.

You see, what I heard my client saying was that God’s purpose for her life was something other than what she was doing right now and that she wouldn’t really be living out her God-given purpose until she found that purpose and then began to fulfill it, daily.  In other words, “I’m not doing what I need to be doing and my life has no meaning or purpose until I do the thing I need to be doing.”

Wow…that’s a troublesome idea.  And I’m betting that my client is not the only person who has this idea.

The problem with this idea is the way we tend to define purpose.  Purpose is a big, weighty word that implies something deeply meaningful, something incredibly impactful…our purpose is supposed to be the thing we do that makes a difference in the world.

Sounds good, doesn’t it? And for most of us, our purpose is tied in pretty heavily with our careers or our daily jobs.  I’m guessing that any job that helps us fulfill our God-given purpose is going to be something impressive, like a teacher, a civil rights lawyer, or a doctor; a trauma counselor, or a pastor or maybe a person who works with the disabled.  There are plenty of careers that will fill our lives with purpose and give us a chance to make a difference in the world.

Actually, it doesn’t matter what you are doing as your career or as your current job…if you are out there, living your life, doing your best to be good human being then you are fulfilling your purpose right there, where you are, and that’s all there is to it.

Personally, my favorite job that makes a difference in the world is…

The cashier at the grocery store.

Yep…you read that right. The cashier at the grocery store.

A couple of years ago, I went grocery shopping and was just overwhelmed with the sheer amount of stuff I needed to get done that day. I was harried and in a bad mood, wishing that I could clone myself so that the work would get done quicker.  When I got to the front of the checkout line I immediately started writing out my check (okay…it was probably closer to 20 years ago) and didn’t even look at the cashier. He greeted me with a casual “How are you today?” and I answered truthfully “Harried.”   He immediately replied “I know! Doesn’t it make you feel really alive when you’re busy like that?”

That was when I looked up at him, thinking I was going to find myself face to face with Happy Elf, or The Grocery Unicorn, or some other mythical creature of that sort.  Instead I was greeted by a man obviously going through chemo. He didn’t have a strand of hair anywhere on his head and he was bone thin and pale.  He was grinning at me, genuinely happy to be ringing up my groceries and talking with me. He radiated joy.

It was an instant attitude adjuster.

I didn’t feel guilty or shamed. I didn’t feel like a bad human being. I just suddenly recognized how profoundly lucky and blessed I was to be standing there, totally healthy, buying groceries for my growing family. I was blessed with sufficient funds to feed my children without worries. I had a list of tasks as long as my arm because my children were healthy and active, and because both my husband and I had full-time jobs which meant that I had to do all my errands and shopping on the weekends.  I was very busy…and it did make me feel alive. Burdened, but gloriously alive.

Talk about making a difference in the world!  This guy had his purpose nailed and he was living out that purpose, right there, ringing up the groceries at the Albertsons.

The key to fulfilling your purpose to know, first and foremost, that you are able to fulfill your purpose in life exactly where you are, doing what you are doing…right now.  You don’t have to wait until you finish your degree or until you change careers or until you get married or get divorced or…anything.  You are valuable where you are right now, doing whatever you are doing.

If you want to fulfill your purpose in life, start by being yourself…be who God created you to be, all the time, and give your gifts to the world whenever you can. Be the best version of you that you can, and do your best to draw out the best in others.

And if God calls you to a bigger purpose, or to express your purpose in a different way, know that you have been living a meaningful, purpose-filled life every minute until now and are about to go on an adventure to see what other great things God can do through you.

Enjoy your adventure!

I’m sure enjoying mine.

I’m Gonna Build Me A Wall

I am one of those people who loves metaphors.

God knows, I am plenty verbal.  (Ask anyone who knows me: I will talk your ear off!) Nonetheless, when I need to learn something or teach something to someone else, I look for images or metaphors that will help explain the concept.  Visual images that represent a concept are great because they can gather meaning as time goes along, representing multiple things as you learn more about the concept/subject.  Images that can do this are “multivalient.”   It’s a bizarre made-up word that I learned in seminary that means “more than one meaning” and it only reinforced my desire to use images to represent concepts.

On to our subject for today: WALLS.

I’m a counselor, and when counselors talk about walls, we are usually talking about emotional blockades that people use to keep others at a distance emotionally.  We talk about refusal to be vulnerable and to “let people in” so that they can know the “real you”.

That’s not what I’m talking about today.

There’s been a lot of talk in the media about walls, mostly with the focus of keeping undesirable people OUT; walls as a means of keeping the ‘good people’ safe from the ‘bad people’ who want into our country and our economic system.

That’s not what I’m talking about either.

I like to talk about walls when I talk about relationships, especially romantic relationships, and most specifically marital relationships.  The reason that I do that is that so many people have misconceptions about what it takes to make a marriage last, to truly succeed as a couple.  I tell the couples that I am working with that a good love connection is going to be a lot like a really good brick wall.

Here in Arizona, most of our fences are concrete block walls or brick walls, so you see freestanding brick walls in almost every neighborhood.  Every now and then you find a block wall that has collapsed, scattering bricks or concrete blocks as well as chunks of mortar all over the sidewalk and the yard.  On a rare occasion you will find bent rebar (the metal bars used to reinforce block walls) still sticking up out of the ground with a few blocks still intact at the bottom, held in place only because of the rebar.  That’s a rare occurrence, mostly because walls reinforced with rebar don’t ‘collapse’ per-se…usually something happens to bring them down, like an uprooted tree falling on the wall.

What does that have to do with relationships?

Well…block walls are usually built of bricks and mortar, and occasionally rebar. Each of those things represents something crucial to a successful marriage. Let’s start with the bricks.

When it comes to relationships, the bricks represent the common morals, values, and priorities of the couple.

It is very important to have shared morals because it means that behavior that is forbidden for one of you is forbidden for the other, and behavior that is considered laudable for one of you is considered laudable by and for the other.  For instance, the animal rights activist is never going to want a fur coat as a gift from their spouse, no matter how cold the climate they live in, or how much of an expression of love their partner might think that would be.  You might think that shared morals is a given, especially when your partner seems like such a good person, but it takes exploration to suss out the finer points of morals.  Do you cheat on your taxes? Do you take office supplies from work?  Do you lie…to anyone? When is that acceptable and why? Do you support abortion rights? Would you ever opt for an abortion in your own life? What do you do if your child is profoundly intellectually disabled? Would you ever put a child in an institution?  What if you become really rich?  Do you give a bunch of money to charitable organizations? Do you ever give money to family members?  What do you think about helping out adult children with financial issues?

See what I mean? Morals aren’t as easily determined by daily behaviors as we think they are.  Of course, your partner’s daily behaviors say an awful lot about who they are and what their morals are, but you have to ask the hard questions…and answer them yourself as well.  I am consistently shocked by the things my clients reveal that they didn’t discuss before they married…and that topic always comes up because of the problems they are having in their marriage now.

Commonly held values and priorities are also important and act as the bricks in your marital wall.  Let’s use work as an example. Work should hold the same value and your careers the same level of priority for both members of the couple.  This doesn’t mean that one of you can’t stay home to take care of the children, because that is another thing entirely and has to do with your beliefs and values (and priorities) around raising children.  However, a lack of common values and priorities around work can lead to one partner frustrating the other by working long hours for an extended period of time, or by repeatedly changing jobs or careers.  The first illustrates a difference in the how work is valued as a priority, and the second a difference in the value of stability and commitment to career.  Money is another area where common values and priorities are really important, because money is frequently a subject of conflict for couples. One partner usually wants to save and invest and the other partner is more prone to spend and the truth is that there needs to be a balance of both saving and spending as well as financial responsibility focused on a saving for retirement and aged years. This kind of stuff can create major rifts for couples and long term resentment, and these are two things you never want developing in your marriage. In the end, having similar values and priorities allows you to act in concert and support each other as decisions are made and changes occur.   Both of you will feel equally respected and equally committed to each others goals, since after all, those goals will be driven by common values and priorities.

So…you’ve got the bricks to build your wall because you share morals, values, and priorities.  Now you need mortar, and sex and intimacy are the mortar in a relationship.  What separates a partnership/ marriage from a regular friendship is the level of intimacy.  Friendships might have a great deal of emotional, intellectual, and spiritual intimacy and the more there is of those three things, the closer and longer lasting the friendship will be.  I frequently tell couples that the best thing they can do is become really good friends as well as lovers, because their friendship will get the relationship through difficult times when they don’t feel as ‘in love’ as they used to be.  The ‘in love’ thing is what brings the flush of sexual intimacy to the fore.  Sexual intimacy takes the other three levels of intimacy and deepens them significantly, and then it ices the cake, so to speak.  Sexual intimacy creates an incredibly strong bond because it’s hard to hide from your partner when you are naked and being sexually expressive. It is the deepest and most private form of intimacy, and I truly believe that it is sacred. Maybe I’ll blog more about that another day, but for now I just want to say that sexual intimacy becomes the mortar that holds all the bricks in place, that brings the wall to a level of cohesion and stability that other relationships cannot reach.

We’ve all had friends who were really good at the sex thing but who lacked commitment to the other person in the relationship. You can call this commitment issues; you can call it “friends with benefits.”  I call this an example of someone trying to build a wall out of mortar alone.  You can do it…you can mound up your mortar and try to build a wall, but it won’t last through any serious storm.  The difficulties that life brings will inevitably cause the wall to slowly disintegrate and crumble.  This is why marriages based in chemistry alone don’t work for very long.  The sex is great and for a while the couple can use the sex to cover up the growing divide between them, but eventually no amount of sex is enough to cover for what isn’t there: real friendship, along with common morals, values, and priorities.

So what’s the rebar for? Well…rebar is there so that the wall can’t be toppled easily.  Like I said, my neighborhood is full of block wall fences, and occasionally they collapse…usually due to harsh weather.  Walls with rebar in them, however, tend to remain standing until something specific happens—something like a car crashing through the wall, or a tree falling in a monsoon, or someone purposely trying to tear the wall down. This is because the rebar is driven into the ground below the wall to anchor the wall and the rebar acts as an internal support for the bricks and mortar.  In a relationship, rebar is made from a common spirituality that often establishes many of the common morals and values.  In my marriage, the rebar is our Christian faith.  When life gets rough, my husband and I turn to God for support and we openly discuss the evidence we see of God’s action in our lives.  We encourage each other in our faith, and when we are struggling, we pray together.  I’m not saying that a couple without a common faith will fail; that simply isn’t true, since those couples have shared values, morals, and priorities and hopefully deep levels of emotional and intellectual intimacy, as well as a robust sex life that builds their wall tall and strong.  However, having gone through quite a few “storms” that tried to tear down the wall of my marriage (a child addicted to cocaine and opiates, the death of both of my husband’s parents, a severely ill child, etc.) I can tell you that a common faith will strengthen the union in ways the common morals, values, and priorities as well as sexual intimacy simply cannot achieve.

Having said all that, my mind wanders to a certain politician that thinks that building a wall will solve some of our problems with Mexico and its citizens. Perhaps he’s right, but only in the sense that focusing on our commonly held values, morals, and priorities might bring us to a much closer relationship that could change everything.  It would be a wall built of bricks alone, as many friendships are…and honestly, it could change everything.   Maybe he’s right. Maybe we should build a wall, one that no one would have to ‘pay for’…but wouldn’t it be worth everything?

Oh my aching heart…

I mentioned in my last two posts that being tenderhearted can cause problems, that it can make it hard not to interfere where you shouldn’t.

The thing is that I should have said that it just doesn’t work to have strong feelings about things that you just cannot change: other people’s choices, other people’s lives, other people’s consequences, etc.  It doesn’t matter if the other person is your coworker, your neighbor, your sibling, or your adult child…if it is happening to another adult and you can’t do anything to change it, you probably shouldn’t be getting all worked up about it.

But what if you are worked up about it? What are you supposed to do now?

Let me start with an example out of my own life.

My youngest daughter K. had just turned 17 when she graduated from High School…a full year early.  She had worked hard to get through school and we were very proud of her.  She had a full ride scholarship to a local college and was certain to move on to great things in the coming years.

Or so we thought, her father and I.

And then K. met L.  He had long hair, no ambition, and fewer brains.  He was a nice enough boy, but dang that child was brainless and it made us crazy to see our daughter so smitten by him.  We figured she would quickly move beyond him…but instead K. became more and more involved with him, taking on some of his habits and beliefs, hanging out with his family, and taking up his habits…including the one where he smoked marijuana.  We were horrified!

Long story short, her grades weren’t terrible but they also weren’t high enough to maintain her scholarship, which meant that suddenly she had to find a way to pay for school.  Her father and I told her that her failure to maintain her scholarship was not going to become the occasion for us to be punished by having to pay for her tuition.  She had earned a scholarship that covered two full years of community college and she lost it because she wouldn’t focus on her schooling instead of her boyfriend… so we told K. that she would need to pay for her schooling herself. Let’s stop right here for a moment and take notice of a non-codependent behavior: my daughter’s consequences are not mine to absorb.  K. isn’t 12 years old anymore, and if she lost the scholarship, then she’s the one who has to find money for tuition now.  And isn’t it great that I didn’t behave codependently?  Uh, yeah, sure…but I still was all codependent emotionally.  Behaviorally I had gotten better.  Emotionally…not so much, and so the saga continues.

The problem was that K. had no job and wasn’t really interested in getting a job.  We told her to get a job as soon as possible, and she pretended to apply to places and assured us that she was working really hard to get a job.  We weren’t fooled at all and expressed increasing amounts of frustration with her bad attitude and failure to get a job, and K. became more and more belligerent.  As soon as the spring semester was over, we told her that she had until August 1 to get a job or she would have to move out.  K. called our bluff and moved out before July 1st, choosing to move with L. and his brother N. to their grandfather’s abandoned home in a remote city we’ll call Crapville.  Gee…do you think I have negative feelings about Crapville?  Yes…yes I do.

Literally, my daughter was living rent-free in an unused home that had electricity but no hot water because they couldn’t afford to pay the gas bill.  Neither my daughter, her boyfriend L., or his brother N. had jobs, so they did their grocery shopping at the local food bank.  Essentially, K. was living by choice in relative poverty, in a home that lacked some of what I considered to be basic necessities.

My husband and I were horrified.  What could we do? They didn’t have jobs, they didn’t have hot water, they didn’t have enough food.  You cannot imagine how badly it messes with your head when you know that your daughter doesn’t have enough food!!  The more I thought about it, the more upset I became.

But I had to admit: K. had chosen this life.  She didn’t have to move out.  All K. had to do was get a part time job, which she steadfastly refused to do.  She could have gotten a part-time job and lived at home with free room and board while going to school. Apparently K. had decided that she’d rather live in poverty and skip the job.  Any time I thought about what she was doing, I became so upset that I got sick to my stomach.

I knew that I had to let it go.  Getting upset wasn’t solving anything.  Getting upset wasn’t changing K’s choices and it wasn’t helping me any.  Even worse, my attitude about K’s choices had the potential to do damage to our relationship.  I didn’t want to become one of those mothers who complained and criticized every time I had any interaction with my daughter.  I was upset enough that I knew my attitude would bleed into my voice whenever we spoke and I didn’t want to risk my relationship with K. for any reason.

In an attempt to get control of my feelings about K’s choices, I started forcing myself to admit that I had no idea what path God might have for her, and admitted to myself that perhaps my daughter’s time in Crapville was a major part of God’s plan. Parents often think that we know what is best for our children, and while they are under the age of 18 we are usually right (usually…not always).  However, my lovely daughter was over 18 and her life and future were in God’s hands, not mine.  After a bit of prayer, God assured me that He was more than capable of handling my daughter…and suggested that I might want to handle myself.  After that point, whenever I found myself thinking of her or complaining about K’s choices to another person, I would force myself to say out loud “I don’t know God’s path for her.”  It was a true statement: I truly didn’t know what plans God might have for my daughter, or what paths those holy plans would cause her to take, but I needed to trust that God could get her to where she needed to be. I found myself saying “I don’t know God’s path for her” over and over, sometimes multiple times a day, and to be honest it was soothing.  I actually felt a little better every time I said it.

Here’s the deal: lots of us start feeling all sorts of strong emotions when we start thinking about what is going on with our kids, or with our parents or our siblings, and sometimes even when we think of what’s happening to our friends or to our neighbors.  It’s easy to let those emotions run away with us and get us all worked up…but it’s incredibly UNWISE.  Remember, I’m not talking about a situation that actually impacts you, like when your best friend is diagnosed with cancer, or your spouse up and quits their job, or your children move across country.  Those things impact you quite a bit…and it’s still wise to be careful not to let the emotions you feel about those situations get so big that you forget that a) you don’t control the other person’s life, and b) they have decisions to make and your opinions and feelings don’t figure in those decisions.

What self-soothing phrase do you need to help yourself let go of your emotions? What do you need to remind yourself of so that you can stop being anxious/controlling and just let things happen naturally?

Here’s some ideas to get you started:

Ask yourself where God is in all this.  Ask yourself what responsibility you have regarding the issue.  Ask yourself if the issue is still unfolding (not yet finished.)  Questions like these may illuminate what you need to self-soothe and stop freaking out.

Here are a few suggestions to help you start calming yourself down.  It won’t stop you from being upset immediately, and you may need more than one phrase, but if you keep reminding yourself of the truth and of God’s presence, you may find yourself less upset about things than you think you are right now.

Try these:

God is still in control, no matter how bad it looks.

I don’t know what God’s plan is for them.

I am trusting God to somehow bring blessings out of this crazy situation.

Not my circus, not my monkeys.

This is not my problem to solve.

It ain’t over until the fat lady sings, and I don’t hear anyone singing.

If it’s not over, God hasn’t had His say yet.

And finally:  I didn’t cause this and I can’t fix it either.

 

And if you are wondering: K. lived in Crapville for two years. She ended up getting a job and actually doing quite well at her job…then lost that job and really hustled to get another job so that she could pay her bills.  After two years, she broke it off with the guy she started dating after she kicked L. to the curb and moved home.  K was so much more mature I couldn’t believe it!  She was so helpful around the house and so incredibly calm and wise that I loved having K. live with us.  She learned a lot from those two years in Crapville…and I never could have seen that coming when she first moved out.  Truly, God did use that time to grow and mold K. into a wonderful woman!  She moved in with her sister almost a year ago now and is engaged to be married to a sweet young man.  I did not know God’s path for her and God knew far better than I did what K. needed.