I’m Not Your Mother and I’m Not Your Father: How We Speak to Adults

“…all spoke the same language. That was the time when words were like magic…” Inuit

If you are not my parent, why do I feel like a child?

Growing up in Alabama, or at least trying to, my mother almost always talked to my dad as if he were her son or her father. Dad most often interacted with my mother like she was his daughter or his mother.

The language, tone, and style never (or almost never) were adult to adult. Now, I’m not the only Alabama man who had this unequal, paternal and maternal mode set in stone by the time I came out of the womb but mastered it shortly thereafter.

“Why did you leave your clothes on the floor?”

“When are you going into therapy?”

“No matter how many times I tell you…”

“You should call your parents.”

“Why do you let the garbage or the bills pile up before attending to them?”

Folks these are statements and others like them suggest they are being spoken to a child or an unruly adolescent, but men and women – intelligent, well-educated adults – speak to each other this way on a daily basis.

“You’re not going to work dressed like that are you?”

“Honey, you need to change your dress because it’s too revealing.”

I think you get my drift. Well some couples are drowning in this sea of unsolicited criticism and all the while not exactly knowing a better way because we’ve been talking like this and hearing others talk down to or up to but never unilaterally, respectfully, and balanced.

I’ve been studying, reading, learning, and practicing a better way of communicating for over 35 years and I still slip as I’m sure most of you do.

In my next blog post, I’m going to introduce a communication concept I call “compassionate assertiveness” and how to say “No” to unsolicited criticism.

I hope you’ll join me and until then we all must remember as often as we can to try and speak this almost foreign language called “adult-to-adult.”

Moment by moment, things are losing their hardness; now even my body lets the light through.” Virginia Woolf

Are You Empathetic or Sympathetic? There’s a Big Difference

“…Tell me about your despair,

And I’ll tell you about mine…” Mary Oliver

While nothing much is as black and white as things sound, for the purposes of discussion, here are the definitions.

Empathy: I understand some of what you are feeling and going through because I’ve been through similar experiences myself.

Sympathy: I feel what you feel. If you’re sad, I’m sad. If you’re angry, I’m angry. If you’re happy so am I.

As a trainer of therapists and the general public for over 30 years I’ve been teaching the differences. You see with all due respect I don’t want or need to feel what you feel. You don’t need my sympathy unless a loved one has died.  But I damn sure want to do my best to empathize with your pain or problems and what you are going through.

In my very early years as a counselor I thought I was supposed to feel your pain in my own body. That is what I’d been doing since early childhood – feeling my mother’s pain. Therapists who don’t know the difference will experience burn out pretty quickly. You see we all have enough pain or problems and thus we don’t want yours to seep into our bodies and souls.

Now if you have young children or aging or infirmed loved ones who cannot articulate their needs, then sympathy is absolutely necessary. However, if your kids are 12 or over, ideally you will switch to empathy with them because if you are still “feeling” their pain and hurts and disappointments they will struggle to separate themselves from you in healthy or less than healthy ways.

You see if we tend to feel what other adults feel that can tend to regress them, shrink them and make them feel small, and perhaps unable to feel their own feelings for fear they are causing us to feel uncomfortable.

Bottom line – Empathy elevates, lifts others up, and sometimes temporarily or permanently lifts them out of their feelings and confirms that they can deal with whatever is going on inside them or outside of them.

So, sympathy tends to shrink, and empathy tends to elevate. Many men and women identify and think of themselves as “empaths,” but based on the above when you or I feel what another adult feels, we are “sympaths.”

Many highly intellectually intelligent people confuse the two terms and some even use them interchangeably as if they mean the same thing, but they don’t. Emotionally intelligent people empathize.

Oh, the comfort—
The inexpressible comfort of feeling
safe with a person,
Having neither to weigh thoughts,
Nor measure words—but pouring them
All right out—just as they are—
Chaff and grain together—
Certain that a faithful hand will
Take and sift them—
Keep what is worth keeping—
and with the breath of kindness
Blow the rest away.

George Eliot

Letting Your Feelings Out of the Cage

“If you want to go fast, go alone.

If you want to go far, go together.” African Proverb

A few months or a lifetime ago (virus deaths are like dog years), I wrote a blog on the loneliness epidemic.

Americans, in spite of technology, are some of the loneliest people in the world due to too many factors to go into (besides you know most of them). However, this damn demonic disease called “Coronavirus” has increased the loneliness factor to the tenth power. The isolation for many who are in their homes almost full time has become unbearable.

At first blush with boredom in February and then March, I thought, as an introvert, it didn’t seem like my life was much different than pre-virus times. However, March turned to April, “the cruelest month of all,” and April turned into May, then June, and then July, and it became even deadlier. I realized that even though my body likes to stay at home, the forced loneliness and the all but choice-lessness loneliness was getting to me.

It has been too long since I shared caffeine or touched someone or been touched. All my friends, and most of my clients, get and give an unmasked hello and goodbye hug. Most of you reading this (if you’ve gotten this far with my blog-rant) can see the irony given the power of human touch to heal and release endorphins has been researched, recorded, and now removed from everyday life.

Now we all know we can be lonely in a crowd or even in a family. Some people are getting a little testy from sheltering in place and are going crazy for some solitude. The apartments, condos, and even mansions are getting a little too small for some.

Whatever kind of loneliness you might be experiencing, please remember impatience, boredom, nausea, and anger, are all under the umbrella of the virus, and though our fearful leader says it will “one day magically disappear,” it’s not, at least for some time to come. So, try not to make any big decisions, moves, or messes.

This is the time for extreme radical tenderness and compassion with yourself or with those you are staying at home with for the near future. And keep reaching out any way you can – through emails, texts, video chats, remember letters and cards, and for God’s sake, share your feelings of fear and exhaustion with your cabin fever. As James Taylor said, “tell somebody the way that you feel;” and just maybe you’ll feel it beginning to ease.

Eros and Thanatos: Passion and Death

“Friend, hope for the Guest while you are alive.

Jump into experience while you are alive!

Think… and think… while you are alive.”

Kabir translated by Robert Bly

Most of my adult life, both professionally and personally, has been devoted to a pursuit of Eros, which means “life instinct,” passion, purpose, and positivity. Eros is the drive to live fully.

My bouts with alcoholism over the decades were a movement towards death and away from Eros. Addiction is an unconscious relationship with Thanatos – the drive toward death and destruction. When I was younger, I used to drive my cars like death did not matter, but in reality, it was Thanatos behind the wheel.

Why am I writing about these two concepts – Eros and Thanatos? Because our country is drowning in the river Styx for many reasons, including a sore lack of life preserving and life-affirming leadership.

Many men and women are not wearing masks or social distancing and think they are acting out of the life instinct and a desire for freedom. “Freedom is just another word for nothing left to lose,” according to Janis Joplin who courted Thanatos at a very young age. Freedom to die and kill others is not true freedom because it is in bondage to Thanatos.

The people who refuse to do what they can to stop the spread of Virus/Thanatos to others (especially the older generation which includes me and many of you reading this right now) don’t even know ,or perhaps do not care, they are participating in the drive towards death – not life.

How many more people, young and old, have to die before we as a society and individuals agree to worship the drive to Life and stop our reckless disregard for the lives of others? When will we become adults who feel passionate again and in love with Eros, in love with life?

Perhaps we should all agree to take the physician’s vow – “First do no harm” – while Thanatos is taking 150,000 lives.

I celebrate myself, and sing myself,

And what I assume you shall assume,

For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you…

I, now thirty-seven years old in perfect health begin,

Hoping to cease not till death…”

Walt Whitman

Are You Feeling Melancholy?

Besides my numerous circle of acquaintances, I have one more intimate confidant – my melancholy… My melancholy is the most faithful mistress I have known…” Soren Kierkegaard

The word “melancholy” is no longer used much these days, sad to say. So exactly what does the word mean? There is no exact answer but here are my ruminations and reflections on this under-used, misunderstood word.

Melancholy is a particular species of sadness. It isn’t an illness or a mental problem – it’s just part of the human condition. Melancholy tends to involve the pleasure of reflection and contemplation of the things we love, lost or long for. The author, Susan Sontag, says: “Depression is melancholy minus its charms.”

The word that best describes melancholy is the word “missingness,” if that indeed is a word. Missingness is a longing for an absent something. It is a momentary emptiness and a combination of sadness and perhaps even some happiness. Missingness or melancholy is a wistful longing and yearning for the return of something gone.

On the day I wrote this blog, I was listening to the Righteous Brothers,’ “Unchained Melody.” I longed to be in my old friend’s living room when we were thirteen. Bob would sing along with these “Blue-Eyed Soul” brothers and I swear he could switch from tenor to low base with elegant ease just like the duo could. It was a sight and sound to be held close to my heart but without depression, just melancholy missingness. Bob has been gone now for a long time.

While melancholy is no substitute for feelings of sorrow, sadness, grief, or loss, it does carry some amount of energy and creativity for me whereas depression is exhausting. It has always been the midnight oil I burn so I can write. Melancholy is a kind of white magic that allows artists to paint, sculpt, play music – listen sometimes to Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings and let the melancholy wash over you.

Lastly, too much solitude can cause melancholy (“Saturday night and I ain’t got nobody…” Sam Cooke) and sometimes my melancholy aches for solitude and if I don’t find it, it can turn into loneliness.

Melancholy is my speed-of-light time machine into the past and my path into my more creative self where I can yearn, become wistful and comforted.

I can barely conceive of a type of beauty in which there is no melancholy.” Charles Baudelaire

Lack of Grief: A Thorn in the Flesh

It’s Good Friday here in Coronavirus Land. We might say on this “Holy Week” that the virus itself is our thorns, or the fear being distributed by the media is pricking and piercing us, for some it is the Federal Government that is sticking it to us.

For me, it is all of the above, but the thorn that is so troublesome and painful is the sore lack of going down into adult grief over the millions of different losses, difficulties endured, and the damage done to families and friends.

There is no demonstration of adult grief in the morning or nightly news about the crisis pandemic. The newscasters are telling us how many people now have the virus and how many have died or will die. They keep a straight face at best during their report on it, at worst, they smile a little and end with a “feel good” or “America Strong” piece that lasts less than 20 seconds.

From the very “Top Down” no models for mature grief, no dissent into the soul, and certainly no weeping. No Kaddish for the dying will ever be spoken on commercial TV, radio, or Internet.

If, as I believe, grieving is the doorway through which we step into our maturity and our humanity, this weekend, or hopefully, for the coming sad weeks ahead, let’s add some gravity to the Nation, not just short-sighted checks on toilet paper, but engage in the alchemical process of turning our heavy lead hearts towards all of those golden people who are suffering from all the losses, changes, short-changing, and fearful transitions.

“…Max grieves alive in an office on Lower Broadway, lone large mustache over midnight accountings, not sure. His life passes – as he sees – and what does he doubt now? Still dream of making money, hired nurse had children, found even your immortality…” Allen Ginsberg’s poem, Kaddish

Feeling Guilty: Maybe Not

Guilt is a teacher, love is the lesson.”

Joan Borysenko, Ph.D.

Guilt is not a feeling. Guilt is a judgement and a social/religious construct that has been drilled into our heads for so long that we actually think we “feel guilty” a good deal of the time.

I ask my clients and workshop participants to tell me where they feel their guilt in their bodies. Their faces turn into question marks; but when I ask where they hold anger, sadness, fear, joy, and love, they point to their stomachs, shoulders, backs, jaws or hearts.

Guilt then is a way to shut down or numb our feelings.

Cindy says, “I don’t want to invite my alcoholic sister to have Christmas with us this year. But I’ll ‘feel guilty’ if I don’t. She’ll be all alone and will probably just stay drunk.”

“But what do you really feel about her drinking and coming to your home that way? Are you angry, sad, or scared for your sister?” I asked her in a session.

“Yes, all of the above,” she said.

When I was growing up if my parents heard something like Cindy didn’t ask her sister to Christmas they would have thought/said she was being selfish and should feel guilty. Which looking back was code that if I didn’t come home from Christmas someday I “should feel guilty” and years ago I would have. Self-Care were not words used in our family back then in the dark ages.

Now, don’t get me wrong. If I steal from you or slander your good name or abuse you in some way and the poisonous snake in our heads we’ll call the Guilt Snakes hiss at us and bite into our brains then we must chop their heads off by admitting we were wrong, make apologies and amends, and make restitution out of our regret and remorse. This removes the snakes by putting them back in the garden where they belong. Remember, speaking of the Garden, Adam and Eve (Adam in Greek means “man” and Eve means “woman”) – neither of them felt guilty about their nakedness, but rather felt joyful at the freedom and ecstasy until someone told them they should feel guilty and grab some fig leaves. That’s a lot of guilt leaves in almost every household.

So, guilt, while not a feeling, says we’ve done something wrong and we need to put on clothes of compassion to make things right, we must not let it override our true feelings and learn how to express them appropriately.  Now shame says we are “wrong, broken, damaged, beyond repair,” but that’s a whole other blog.

You do not have to be good.

You do not have to walk on your knees

for a hundred miles through

the desert repenting…”

Mary Oliver

 

INSANE FOR THE LIGHT

“We can make our minds so like

still water that beings gather about us

that they may see, it may be, their own

images, and so live for a moment with

a clearer, perhaps even with a fiercer

life because of our quiet.” 

Robert Bly

 I’ve always wanted more quiet in my house as a child. By the time I was nine, I was seeking silence in the woods that backed up to the dirt-poor farm my dad bought. I’d sit on the million’s old rocks on Sand Mountain in Alabama and let the wind and noiselessness wash over me and baptize me with serenity.

For 30 years I had a quiet cabin in the foothills of the southern Appalachians. I tell you all this because my home here in Austin, Texas, thanks to this virus being passed around like an inhuman hot potato, is more quiet than it has been in a hundred years or more.

What do we do with the potentially deadly lull in assaults to our overstimulated ears? Maybe, just maybe, we let more light into our daily lives – perhaps some almost heavenly light. We’ve been looking at modernism’s electric lights, neon signs, cell phones and computer lights for so long that we have, to quote an old song, been “blinded by the light.”

We have been Plato’s cave dwellers for so long seeing dollar signs, credit cards, GNP flashing upon a movie-like screen in our collective caves. Chained to the dark floor thinking that what we are seeing projected on the screen is reality.

We may be the generations who break free of our chains, crawl out of the caverns, see the sun, and finally see that what we have been looking at is not real but illusions and brain-washed fantasies. Perhaps due to the Coronavirus (not “Chinese Virus”) even in the quiet nights we can feel human again and

“We know the road; as the moonlight

Lights everything, so on a night like this,

The road goes on ahead, it is all clear.”

Robert Bly

And the road ahead, while cluttered a bit with hoarders and dishonest politicians, is also filled by those who are helping others, shopping for others, praying for others, loving strangers, and maybe, just maybe, we will start crawling out of the darkness of greediness and entitlement and live more gently on the earth and with each other so that when the Spanish poet, Antonio Machado asks us the question: “What have you done With the Garden that was entrusted to you?” We will say we tended it with lots more love and very timely tenderness.

“I am not a mechanism, an assembly of various sections.

and it is not because the mechanism is working wrongly, that I am ill.

I am ill because of wounds to the soul, take a long, long time, only time can help

and patience, and a certain difficult repentance

long, difficult repentance, realization of life’s mistake, and the freeing oneself

from the endless repetition of the mistake

which mankind at large has chosen to sanctify.”  

D.H. Lawrence

 

The Missing Peace: Solving the Anger Problem for Alcoholics, Addicts and Those Who Love Them

Anger ventilated often hurries toward forgiveness; and concealed often hardens into revenge.” Edward Bulwer-Lytton

Have you ever loved an alcoholic or addict? Probably most reading this would answer, “Yes!”

Alcoholics and addicts (love, sex, porn, gambling, shopping, eating, etc.) are angry about a lot of different things:

Growing up in an alcoholic’s or addict’s home
Being poor
Being rich
Wrong shape, size, color
Terrible education
Bad, dysfunctional relationships
Hating their jobs

The list could go on and on.

The people who love us have to put up with abuse, bad moods, depression, frustration, lies, manipulation, and lots and lots of broken promises and relapses.

Our loved ones pray for us, berate us, leave us, pay for interventions, give up on us, and come back to us or find another alcoholic or addict and experience the Bill Murray “Groundhog” movie mania that can drive anyone insane.

Now one of the misleading missing pieces of recovery is the rule that you’re not supposed to be angry. The Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous says we don’t have the luxury of our basic human emotion – anger.

Years ago, I attended an AA speaker’s meeting in Georgia. The guest speaker had 36 years of so-called sobriety. She was one of the angriest “old-timers” I’d ever listened to.

After the meeting, about eight of us went to lunch. I was hesitant to say anything at first. Most of my lunch companions knew I worked in the field of recovery, and I have done so for 35 years.

Finally, Stan, who doesn’t talk at the meetings said, “Did anybody think she was very angry?”

Well, the gossip flew around the table like buzzards pecking over a dead possum carcass. By the way, gossiping in my book, The Missing Peace, is a form of anger and rage. I slipped. But everyone at the table agreed she was pretty much full of venom that spewed out on all who heard her – so it wasn’t just me. Never mind the alcoholic cliché, “If you spot it, you got it.” Anger and rage are like a virus that spreads contagion (sorry about the timing of these words).

So, here’s what I did after that meeting. I went directly home, sat down, and wrote this book, The Missing Peace.

It is not anger that drives us to drink, drives away the people who love us, but RAGE!? Rage is what us alcoholics and addicts must avoid for the fear of relapse and self-destruction. Rage is what covers our emotions. Rage covers sadness, loneliness, and sometimes, even love. Anger is a feeling while rage is an action or behavior that numbs our feelings.

Anger is an emotion that is God-given for us to feel, to stop injustice, abuse, and get us out of stuck places. Rage is a stuck place that alcoholics, addicts, and those who love us know too well.

I want to thank Teitelbaum Publishing for publishing The Missing Peace and I hope it will help you or someone you care about or love deal with their anger/rage.

Missing Peace Book Cover 2

Courting a Woman’s Soul – Part 2: In Search of the Feminine

It still hasn’t occurred to Western man to stop looking on woman as a symbol of something and to begin seeing her simply as woman – as a human being.” Robert Johnson

Still here in 2020, most men are still unconsciously searching for their own feminine part of their being in the faces, eyes, and bodies of women.

Ironically the patriarchal mentality which still rules is what drove the Feminine almost completely out of culture and a man’s individual life.

When men finally start removing our projections of the Feminine from women, we can develop the strengths of our own Feminine or what C.G. Jung called our “anima.” When this is in process, it completes and compliments our own masculinity in a healthy positive way.

This connection not only makes a man more human, it allows him to see women – from mother, to lover, to sister, and female friend – as human beings and not as a repository for his own Feminine part of his soul and psyche.

If this is not accomplished, or I should say in the on-going process of being accomplished, by mid-life or older, the man who hasn’t accessed his interior Feminine may become ill, seized by a depression, lose interest in life, or find himself angry and abusive towards women in general.

If a woman should feel and/or say to her women friends, “I wish my husband would court my soul,” she may mean a number of things, but some of the things she actually means is that she wants her husband, lover, or partner to be more attentive, thoughtful, and show her more feeling.

A man who is stunted in his ability to feel and express emotions will not see, cherish, and hold dear a woman’s soul.

Without a man’s ability to reclaim his own Feminine he will believe unconsciously what way too many men believe that it is a woman’s responsibility to make his life whole, keep him happy, give his life meaning, and intensity and ecstasy. This is not a woman’s job.

If a man finds his Feminine, he finds his soul, and he will see a woman’s soul instead of only her physical appearance and court that woman’s soul now and possibly forever.

The minute I heard my first love story

I went looking for you, not knowing

How blind that was. Lovers don’t

Finally meet somewhere, they’ve been

in other all along.

Rumi

Picture1