I’ve been attempting to write a bit more consistently and it’s been quite a challenge. One thing that has been interesting for me has been the recent increase in working with couples as a therapist. It is such a different vibe than seeing a person by themselves or a family as a whole. A spouse/partner can be your best friend or worst enemy and a lot of things in between. One thing that many of my clients have in common is the fact that they failed to make the small changes that would have helped them to avoid the major issues that came up. They grew apart over the course of months and years and they became so comfortable with avoiding meaningful communication that the other individual has become a stranger. But the truth is that you can’t undo years of damage overnight; there’s too much disconnection and both people have been going in different directions. It’s in those times that a major course correction is necessary. One of the things that I’ve learned is it the importance of making minor course corrections when they are still minor. Checking in, talking about tough stuff, and making time for each other are some of the things that have to be done intentionally because it can be easy to lose sight of the big picture and take your partner for granted. Developing healthy communication patterns and fighting respectfully and effectively while remaining emotionally connected is a narrow tightrope to walk on. However, the things that are worthwhile are worth doing well. Great relationships don’t happen haphazardly. They are maintained through intentional effort, time, and emotional connection.
I can appreciate constructive criticism. It’s one of those things that can be difficult to hear but also very necessary. I don’t always want to be told what I’m doing wrong but I know that I want to improve so sometimes correction has to happen. I recently had a conversation that triggered a paradigm shift for me. It was an extremely rare occurrence but I have continued to feel the ripple effect of what I learned. Life is rarely fair–even though we want it to be. My dating life (or lack thereof) is proof of that fact. It’s interesting how often I’ve been told to keep my standards high and that settling will end in pain and heartbreak. Standards give us a way to quickly eliminate possible options because we think/know that it would never make us happy. However, there are plenty of women holding out for a significant other because they have yet to meet one that meets their standards. They are well rounded, intelligent and have it together. And yet they crawl into bed every night alone with their standards intact. Standards aren’t the best to cuddle with. Let’s be honest. There has to be a way to circumvent this unfortunate circumstance in my life before it continues on for another decade. Enter my recent conversation where I was told point blank that I needed to change. That I had to do something that put me ahead of everyone else because personality wasn’t enough. And the truth is that it’s not really fair, however, it’s reality right now. There’s a proverbial fork in the road. I can (figuratively) die on the hill of my standards or I can make some changes and adjust my mindset. Either way is hard but only one option gives a legitimate possibility of getting what I want. So it’s time to make some changes.
As someone who regularly functions in the role of a therapist and also who believes in getting help, I decided to find a therapist. There wasn’t a huge stressor other than regular life and the typical occurrence of getting ghosted by someone I really liked. Except for the fact that it was someone I really REALLY liked so I was feeling a bit more affected than normal. So I went through all the motions that I tell other people to do. Contact more than one therapist, research their background before calling them, etc. After a barrage of emails and finding someone who offered evening sessions, I finally booked an appointment. But first off, I had to complete a 10 page intake questionnaire on my life and stressors. Tedious but thorough. I decided to use my insurance instead of paying out of pocket and was informed by the administrative assistant that I would have to be diagnosed. Fine with me. So the time finally came around for my appointment and I went to the address listed on the paperwork. There was one minor problem. The office building locked at 5pm so there was no way to get into the building to go into the interior therapy office. So I had to wait around until someone came out and then grab the door to go in. Super inconvenient but hey, security is important. So I waited in the waiting from until I got called into the my new therapist’s office. She seemed nice but a little flat. I could tell that she was tired and that I was her last patient of the day but she made an effort to remain present. I’m not great with opening up to new people especially when prompted so it was challenging. The session ended pretty quickly but I thought that it went ok. We scheduled for the next session in a few weeks. So the next therapy session rolled around and I was actually ready to open up and to share about what had transpired in my life and some new stressors that had emerged. I got to the office, waited for someone to come out and went in to the interior office. I waited, and waited. Finally about 20 minutes past our schedule time with no sign of the therapist I emailed her. She responded to tell me that she was out the office unexpectedly and that I should’ve been notified by the administrative assistant. I had received no such message. Needless to say, I understood but wasn’t necessarily happy about it. A few weeks later (yes, weeks) I received an email from her saying that she was accepting appointments for patient’s to be seen remotely. I replied requesting an in-office appointment when she started back seeing patients in her office. No reply. A few weeks later I got another email from her saying that she was seeing clients in her office again. Only this time she included all the email addresses of her clients in the email. HUGE privacy violation and I really wasn’t pleased. I did however want to give a last ditch effort and I asked her about coming in to the office on a specific date and she never replied. Time for a new therapist? I think so.
Lately I’ve started to watch a new show that has both intrigued me while simultaneously horrifying me. Usually I try to watch light hearted tv shows because my empath sense is very strong and I work in a helping field. The show that I’ve been watching is called Handmaids and it’s on Hulu. One thing I will say is that it’s definitely not a comedy but if you want a thought provoking and extreme view of what might be the future then it’s a must see. But that’s not what this post is about. One of the main characters said, “you like because, you love despite.” And honestly that’s the truth. I work with couples who have lost so much of their original passion and excitement for each other because things have become so mundane. They’ve taken each other for granted and it has taken a terrible toll on the relationship. The emotional connection is very strained or sometimes nonexistent. I think many times people think that therapy fixes everything but it doesn’t. The truth is that therapy can give you the tools that you need to be successful in your relationship. It takes a lot of effort and intentionality to change the trajectory of a relationship but it definitely can be done if both people want it and are willing to work on it. One person cannot sustainably carry the whole relationship on their back. It can happen for a while but there are always consequences. One thing I really enjoy doing with the couples I work with is doing exercises that help them remember why they fell in like with each other and what made them love the other person. It’s always eye opening and helps to start the process of reconnecting with each other.
One thing that I often encourage my clients to do is to get outside of their comfort zone once in a while. This often takes the form of encouraging them to travel somewhere. That’s why I really liked this article about traveling that’s written by a therapist. You can read it here. There’s nothing like doing something while going out your comfort zone. There’s the opportunity for learning more about yourself and the world around you when you go somewhere. You have the chance to experience a new culture and navigate in an unfamiliar environment where you don’t necessarily have the backup of friends and family. Solo travel can be daunting but that’s the fun part about working through your reluctance. The more you learn, the more you realize what you don’t know. But it’s all about taking the first step and doing it–because let’s be honest, sometimes you just have to do things while scared because it’s something your future self will thank you for.
One thing about my new role is that I have the opportunity to be present for people while they do through hard times. My dissertation topic focuses on married black women and work life balance. So naturally I’m especially intrigued by clients who match the population that I’m studying in my academic life. Black women have higher rates of depression and anxiety than their White counterparts but are also less likely to seek treatment. Week after week I hear black women tell me that this is their first time in therapy or the first time they’ve opened up to anyone. Many tell stories of being discouraged from going to therapy by their families who say that they just need to have faith or pray more. Others speak of being judged by their faith leaders because they feel like they need to talk to someone and just reading the Bible is not enough. It’s ok to need help and it’s ok to get help. The commonality in many stories is that they are all expected to be strong and hold the family together through anything. They feel guilty crying or expressing emotions because they need to keep a straight face and move on. So many have been just existing in survival mode for so long that they’ve lost sight of their own dreams and aspirations. We have to stop discouraging people from getting help. Stop expecting your friend to be ok because she appears “strong.” There’s usually more going on than meets the eye and we have to stop assuming that things are fine. Because sometimes they aren’t.
Recently I had a very long conversation with a friend of mine regarding a similar experience we were having. Don’t get my wrong, I’m glad that I chose my particular career path. Social work/counseling is a good fit for my personality and I genuinely enjoy helping others. However, one sees things in a totally different light when you’ve studied human interactions and behaviors from an academic point of view. When you’ve met with hundreds and talked at length about their personal challenges and relationship woes. The way you perceive the world around you changes when perfect strangers feel comfortable walking up to you and sharing details about the personal life and current problem because (apparently) you have the “trust me I’m a therapist/safe person” face. One thing my friend and I discussed was how hard (somewhat impossible) it is to separate professional knowledge from actual emotion in personal relationships. As a therapist you question everything. One’s hidden motives, past history, emotions, and body language to come to a conclusion on the best course of action to help them. I think that’s one of the reasons it’s so hard to take anything at face value in personal relationships and the tendency can be to overthink. If overthinking was a professional sport, I would be a pro. I love connecting the dots and making sense of complicated and complex information. It’s a great professional skill to have, but using a professional skill for personal use definitely has a downside. I think it comes down to taking it a day at a time and becoming okay with not knowing all the information up front. Which, by the way, can be very frustrating but also necessary to cultivate a healthy balance.
One thing I notice in relationships is the influence of power and control. The misuse of power and control in relationships is what makes them abusive in nature. Someone attempting and even succeeding at violating thee boundaries of their significant other through force or manipulation is an example of an extremely dysfunctional and unhealthy relationship. Power and control can also show up in other ways. I’ve also encountered it in the therapy room when I’ve worked with clients who are resistant. The whole thought behind power and control in this context is that people want to be in control of something. When their values or beliefs are challenged they immediately put up their guard and even subconsciously seek to manipulate the situation so that they remain in control at all times and they never have to change their faulty belief patterns. It’s the avoidance being honest with oneself and being in a vulnerable place. It’s almost like playing a game because as a therapist I’m trying to challenge them in a way that won’t make them defensive but will also be effective in helping them make necessary changes. Recently, I found myself in an unfamiliar environment where power and control dynamics came into play. I’m the type of person who likes to be in control at all times. Not necessarily in charge of what happens to me because I know that’s impossible, but I like being in my right mind (to a reasonable degree) without being impaired by various substances. I want the ability to exercise self control so that I don’t have to face the unpleasant consequences of a stupid and impulsive decision later on. That being said, this environment was very unfamiliar and out of my comfort zone. On paper it was a great opportunity to experience something new. However, it required a level of trust that I did not feel was warranted. So I did what any human who feels threatened in some way would do or would at least attempt–took power and control of the situation. While it was definitely an overreaction, I preferred it (at the time) to giving up power and control. It was a learning experience to be on the other side of a power and control dynamic where I was in a similar position to that of some of my clients and had to take action to remain in control. Interesting.
First off, I want to say that while the title of this blog may bring back memories of the picture of Jay-Z wearing a shirt with these words emblazoned on his chest. This actually something of a sequel to one of my previous posts, Stepping Away. Well, maybe. When I’m wearing my therapist hat I’m always working for the benefit of my client. I am incredibly conscious of my own ideas and biases and i have to mentally put them to the side so that I can be in the moment. There have been hundreds of times where I did not agree with my client’s actions. He or she may have done something that I would have never even dreamed about doing, but it happened. Many times my clients have negative consequences as a result of their actions and they must then pick up the pieces and live with the decision that they made. One thing I said a few posts ago is that sometimes you can only know that you’ve done good work by walking away from it and discovering if it will stand on its own. Recently I had the chance to witness the results of my work and it was a good feeling to see years of work finally coming together after a long period of doubting if the results would ever be what I wanted. While I can say that the results were not everything that I was hoping and dreaming for, they were perfect in their own context. There’s a certain freedom that comes from letting people make their own choices and empower themselves. While you may offer suggestions as to how do to it, the final decision is theirs. You don’t take responsibility for their actions and you don’t judge or criticize their choices. One thing that I’ve learned as a therapist is that you have to respect the choices of others. While one can manipulate and strategize all day, there is nothing like a definite decision your client makes that you know will help them to have a better quality of life. The flip side is that you have to also allow them to make those stupid decisions without chiming in and telling them what you would do if you were in their shoes. You respect their right to self-determination and are supportive instead of just telling them what they need to do. And that’s a good thing.
Listening seems to be a skill that has lost value over the past few years. While people hear, they very rarely take the time to listen. I remember experiencing this as a younger child of three. My grandparents were in town and I was riding with them. Consequently, they got turned around and I as the non-directionally challenged three year old proceeded to tell them how to get to our destination. For some odd reason, my grandparents decided that the word of a three year old wasn’t valid so they proceeded to ignore my directions and ask people around them. Finally after about an hour of driving they decided to give my directions a try and they ended up right where we needed to be. I say all this to say that listening is a lot harder than merely hearing. Listening involves putting your own agenda to the side and devoting your attention and focus to the words of the other individual. It means that you aren’t day dreaming about vacation or your grocery shopping list while they are talking. Listening gives you insights you wouldn’t have gotten otherwise. It challenges you to think differently and to develop empathy and understanding of the other person’s viewpoint or perspective. I’ve listening to many a person and heard what they were trying to say but weren’t really saying. Complaining about a spouse’s job or time spent with their friends sometimes meant, “I’m feeling neglected and want you to invest some of your time and energy in me.” Yet, their message wasn’t getting through because their spouse wasn’t really listening to what they were trying to say. Being deliberate in taking the time to really listen will make a difference. Guaranteed.