Monday, June 23, 2014

Self-Compassion: The New Most Important Theme In Therapy

 I've been involved with contemplative and devotional practices for most of my life. Various kinds of prayer and meditation are central to how I live, so it's no surprise that I'd be drawn to any psycho-therapeutic modality that is rooted in these kinds of activities. Combining this with my17 years of professional experience, and my personal journey of healing over the last few decades, brings  me to the most exciting confirmation of my inclinations and efforts.

Dr. Kristin Neff, PhD, is a research psychologist and Assistant Professor at the University of Texas in Austin.
She has been actively spearheading the field of self-compassion research since around the turn of the century, and has written or co-written many articles, chapters and books on the subject, including the one that I'm most familiar with and excited about. It's an audio course (or alternately, a hard copy book) called Self Compassion Step By Step: The Proven Power Of Being Kind To Yourself.

She covers a lot of ground in this 6.5 hour audio course, including many guided meditations, along with her speaking about the various elements and attributes of self compassion, myth correcting, research proven beneficial effects, and overall desirability of this generally radical kind of relating with oneself. One of the most important points to be made, and one of the perhaps newest old ways of thinking about healing, is that there is far more benefit to be gained by changing the WAY we relate with ourselves, rather than becoming fixated on trying to change the WHAT of our experience. And the way that is clearly proving itself to be the most beneficial all around is the way of self compassion.

I'm strongly recommending that you buy the audio course - I favor this over the book because of the guided experiential exercises it contains - and spend the time listening to it and working it. It has been available from
Amazon for $11.49 as a digital download in their MP3 music section. I feel safe in saying categorically that this may be the best eleven dollars you will ever spend.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Shadow Work: Oh Boy!

Here's a nutshell in which to understand a lot about the psychological shadow, its effects, it's needs, and some of it's dangers:

The shadow is whatever is present and active in the psyche, but out of consciousness. Out of consciousness may mean I've never been aware of it, or I'm in denial of it, or I've somehow managed to push it aside for reasons usually having something to do with fear/terror, an inability to acknowledge that which is repugnant (or even "too good") about oneself, survival, self image, or the like. We go onto automatic pilot.

The way it usually works is that, that which we do not have available in the light of consciousness will make itself known in indirect, destructive, judgmental, accusing, blaming, hurtful ways in our relationships. We will "project" onto others as qualities they have that which we cannot/will not see or acknowledge in ourselves, or we will react to what we see in others but will not see in ourselves. When this happens, all kinds of undesirable effects follow, from hurtful remarks in intimate relationships to worlds at war. Awareness and personal responsibility are what is required to shift these destructive  behaviors and effects.

This is, of course, deep work. We will and must, inevitably, confront truths about ourselves that we are loathe to confront. We will undoubtedly discover qualities of ourselves, thoughts and feelings, that we have not wanted to admit. That we have, perhaps, spent enormous amounts of psychic energy holding far out of our view.  This does not mean that we are or will be defined by these discoveries, but that we will need to allow for them, embrace them, understand ourselves in  new ways based on this new information, and also then be freer to make choices about how we conduct ourselves in the world.

Matthew's website

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Client Age And Decision Making Skills

As in the rest of life, it's not too difficult for us "more mature" therapists to look at all those much younger folks and be able to notice instances of what we might more critically call foolishness, and more generously call, perhaps, inexperience. An example:  a young adult client came to therapy routinely, ie., about half the time, late. Our sessions took place in the morning - the only time our respective schedules matched up - and this person is not a morning person, so getting up and out for morning activities is challenging under the best of circumstances. In any case, I found it therapeutically necessary to broach the subject of late arrival on two occasions, separated by a few weeks. Clearly the first discussion had little impact on the client's behavior, or on the client's awareness of why this behavior might be problematic, or on what the behavior might be communicating both to me and to the client. The second discussion, which occupied an entire - shortened - session, ended with the client's comment that it still wasn't at all clear that this behavior was a problem, or that the client wasn't yet convinced of the importance of the subject at all.

Hmm. Now, we talked about things like personal responsibility to one's obligations - as in a client's obligations in a therapeutic alliance; about what demonstrating either a respect for or a lack of respect for one's own and for a therapist's time and commitment might look like; about what might be getting communicated non-verbally by the behavior; about possible feelings and attitudes the client might have had regarding authority, in particular male authority. This client wasn't especially self aware, and much of our work together was focused on developing various aspects of self awareness, which the client acknowledged was helpful and useful.

Of course, young adulthood is loaded with all kinds of challenges and growth opportunities, and the reality that developmental progress requires time cannot be forgotten. At one point in our second discussion the client said that they were starting to feel "attacked, and punished". You'll have to take my word for it that there was neither any attacking nor any punishing going on from my end, which makes this comment especially informative. And we did talk about it. Part of what became clearer to the client, I think, was that it was the client's responsibility to make decisions about their behaviors, not mine, and that it was a part of my responsibility to point out possibly self defeating behaviors. I believe that this realization was somewhat startling to the client.

Here I was, a male authority "father" figure, being uninterested in either criticizing or "punishing", and in fact articulating and supporting the young adult client's right to make and responsibility for making their own decisions. This is true for any client, of course. My musing in this post is about a way this particular theme might present itself in therapy with a younger client in therapy with a much older adult, and about how clearly it might appear that the kinds of awareness and skills required to be able to make such responsible decisions
isn't in any way a given, and about how clearly it might appear that the maturity necessary to be able to make such decisions does, indeed, often, come only with age and with experience.

Like the young substance abuser or addict whose behaviors can be clearly seen by others to be self destructive, but who is "sill having fun", the time simply has not arrived, and the awareness and skills have simply not yet developed to be able to make responsible decisions regarding their actions. Ah, perhaps it is after all oh so very true that that most precious of conditions, youth, is indeed wasted on the young.

Monday, August 12, 2013

"Part Time" Therapy: Yes Or No?

By which I mean, as a client, coming to therapy on alternate weeks, for example. People ask me about this not infrequently, and over the years I've experimented with seeing people less than weekly, almost always because of the client's stated concern about cost. You might already guess just from the title of this post that my opinion of such an arrangement is less than a enthusiastic one.

Really, I think this "part time" approach to therapy  is based in an essential misunderstanding of the nature of therapy, and of what one might hope to gain from undertaking a "course of treatment". I suppose there might be exceptional circumstances under which, for example, it might be appropriate to take only a partial course of say, antibiotics, rather than the usually prescribed full course. Three days rather than seven or ten, say.
Similarly, I suppose there might be what I'd consider exceptional circumstances under which a partial experience of psychotherapy could be acceptable. But let's put these exceptions aside, for the sake of this discussion. Under ordinary circumstances, why would a diminished approach to therapy be problematic?

Let me list some possible, or even likely, reasons:
avoidance; inefficiency; power/control issues; loss of focus;  self sabotage.

It seems to me to be a no brainer to understand how coming to therapy less than weekly could be easily used by a client to simply avoid the real reasons for coming to therapy at all. More time between sessions, more time to become distracted, more time to "forget" to do assignments, more time to lose focus, more time to avoid. Which includes all the other reasons listed as well. Such an approach is simply an  inefficient use of therapeutic time and resources; not that I think efficiency is a value unto itself. It so happens that I do not. However, a failure to consider efficiency at all, is also a mistake.

And then there are the over arching themes of momentum and consistency in therapy. These qualities of a therapeutic experience seem to me to be important and desirable; perhaps necessary for effective therapy to take place.

My conclusion:  nah. Not worth the time or effort, as a rule. Save your money and go have a lovely night out or a weekend away instead. It would probably do you about as much good.

My Website:

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Either/Or, All/Nothing, Black/White - Simple Mindedness

Are we, by nature, simple minded? Are we "educated" into simple mindedness? I'm using the term here in a way that links it to/is perhaps identical with, the well known characteristic of all addiction oriented personality structures. Extremes. No, or very little awareness of or orientation to the immense gray zone between the extremes. In other words, blindness to most of reality.

Do we simply operate this way because we have little choice, that is, because we are made this way? This seems to be an important question, since the experience is so wide spread, almost universal, and it may therefore be concluded, apparently logically, that we can't help ourselves. I suggest that the logic is indeed only apparent, based on "appearances", and not on substance. I suggest that the experience becomes almost a universal human one because it is cultivated almost universally. That it, the preference for simple mindedness is at least a somewhat deliberate choice, attached to at least a somewhat deliberate strategy of "selective reality propagation" by the ignorant who routinely govern, rule, control, propagandize, and otherwise determine (or at the very least, strongly influence) the material and psychological reality of virtually everyone else. Since these people are routinely the same - with regard to the limitations of their grasp of reality - where ever and when ever they occur, the blindness and ignorance they both live and propagate is routinely the same. Hence the appearance of a universal human experience, supposed to be based on "human nature".

One obvious problem with this logic is that there just as routinely appear exemplars of a much more deeply and broadly reality based, healthier, more creative, more collaborative, more peaceful, more humane, more compassionate and ultimately more sane way of seeing and living, who show up to put the lie to the propaganda. We of course routinely ignore them, for the most part. The propaganda has been, and remains, extremely effective, to the point where its message has been internalized as "the truth" for all time and in all places. It's just human nature. What can one do?

I'm especially interested in the confluence of psychology and spirituality/mysticism. Those points of intersection between the findings of psychological investigations into what constitutes mental health and basic sanity, and the perennial teachings of the world's spiritual/mystical/contemplative traditions. Happily, in my opinion, these points of intersection continue to appear and to expand, until the two realms become, virtually, identical. The Emperor - the controllers, the power intoxicated, the "reality" determiners - has always been naked, despite his insistence on the glory of his new suits of clothes. Fortunately, we have the ability to listen to the folks who point out this discrepancy. That we do not do so more routinely is perhaps our ultimate, and fatal flaw.

Matthew's website

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Why Do We Change?

Is it because someone asks us to? Is it because we are ordered to? Is it because we recognize good reasons to? I suppose that all of these are reasons that people change, and no doubt there are other reasons as well.

My experience is that people change because they are afraid of something (or someone), because they are tired of the effects of current behaviors and want something better, because love dictates it, because they are in some way unhappy with themselves and what they are doing, or not  doing. Fundamentally however, it seems to me that we change because we finally truly want to, at least partially. That is, there may be a part of ourselves that really does not want to, but a larger part of us does. Without this internal desire, nothing really changes significantly.

In therapy, change can take place like this: at first there is simply unhappiness, ineffectualness, discord, trouble, or pain, and one seeks out therapy as a way of getting help. It isn't always understood, strangely enough, that if things are going to be different, going to change for the better, it means that you, the client, will be making changes in yourself. This realization may dawn only gradually, and then the pace and the means and the manner of making changes comes into play more explicitly.

The experimental phase of therapy may begin here, in which you now understand the benefit of doing things differently, and you have some commitment to doing things differently because of these benefits, primarily to yourself - there is this level of healthy selfishness, of course - but also to the others around you, and to your relationships and living generally. Trying new approaches to behaviors, perhaps struggling with strong feelings that would lead you back into the old ways of doing things, challenging yourself, building new strengths, all enter the experimental stream. And slowly, real change takes place, not only in what you do and how you do it, but in how you think about yourself and others, how you speak, and also how you now feel differently, and feel better.

Matthew's website

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Personal Health And Social Health: One And The Same?

Gandhi:    BE the change you want to see in the world. What does this mean? And what are some implications in terms of mental, moral, spiritual health?

I take it to mean that each person, individually, is required to act in ways that embody the principles of health and welfare, not merely for themselves alone, but for the larger good of the "community" as well. Jesus:   love they neighbor AS THYSELF. This isn't an either/or proposition, but a joint venture. Loving myself - truly, not the version we commonly see that is founded on self indulgence and greed - is a foundation upon which I can hope to built and enact love of other. We're all included.

These principles are consistent with the principles of mental health that I routinely see in my practice, in my clients, in recovery from addictions and from trauma, for example (which includes basically all of us). The importance of community in the healing process is well known and well established in recovery treatment.  Health is not an isolated experience. It occurs in community, in relationship. Social health, the health of society, is inextricably linked to individual health, family health, business health, political health, and cultural health. And vice versa. The notion that I can be healthy and whole, morally, spiritually, mentally, emotionally or even physically, without a direct connection to and with a  larger society is a delusion. In Systems Theory, the health of the individual and the health of the larger "system" within which she functions are recognized to be linked. We see this in stark and often difficult terms in therapy when an individual, for example, attempts to become sober from alcohol or drugs within the context of an actively addicted or drug abusing family structure. It doesn't happen. Imagine a young man of, say 20 years, addicted to heroin, sent to "counseling" by the court, let's say. This young man's family has made their living from the sale of drugs for at least a couple of generations, and still does. His father, let's say, died from a heroin over dose. He remains very closely connected with his family. He will not be able to become healthy within this context. Is this a surprise? It shouldn't be.

Moral health, spiritual health, and mental health, all require consideration of the dynamics of relationship. And not merely the relationships closest to me: my spouse, my children, my extended family. These of course are of great importance, and at the same time they are not sufficient to circumscribe the measure of health. When people come to therapy (voluntarily), it is always because they are in some distress, and they want relief from the symptoms of this distress. Naturally. They often do not make the connection between what they are seeking, and the nature of their relationships. But of course everything we do is within the context of relationships (this includes one's relationship with oneself), and so trying to understand one's own health/welfare/well being without understanding its connection to ones relationships is absurd.

It is not a big leap, in my view, to begin to understand that ones relationships are limitless. I am related to and with everyone else, ultimately, and so in some genuine way these relationships have to be taken into account. This understanding and this consideration is the intersection of social and personal heath.