Posts By: DrDavid

Change Your Mind…and Your Life Will Follow

Conversations with clients often focus on the mental traps they find themselves in.  We talk a lot about the need to develop mental discipline (see my entry “Think Right” from August 2011).  Many clients struggle with this concept.  They say to me, “Is it really that easy just to ‘change my mind’?”  It can seem rather difficult.  If you weren’t in a mental trap in the first place, well then, it wouldn’t be a mental trap.  You can, however, create a change in how you see the world resulting in freedom from the trap.  I know this to be true because I have done it myself.

 

In my twenties, long before I had any kind of therapeutic training, I would get myself into mental traps all the time.  One of my biggest problems is I would fall hopelessly in love with guys that were unattainable.  I was the king of unrequited love.  Interestingly, I remember being highly critical of other gay guys who said they would only date straight guys, or were only attracted to straight guys, not realizing I had the same problem myself.  It’s amazing how our brains “protect” usfrom our own maladaptive behavior…but that’s another blog.  Anyway, back to me.  Twenty-something and in the Navy, I was in love with my best friend on the ship.  Jeff and I had a great friendship, but it wasn’t enough for me.  I was totally smitten and it took up a lot of my energy.  I would think about him all the time.  I was jealous of his other friends, or if I thought he was spending too much time away from me or with other people.  He was straight, of course,and it all came to a head for me when we returned from the Persian Gulf from Operation Desert Storm/Desert Shield (the first Gulf War).  The energy with the crew was very high and positive, because we were HOME and we were ALIVE!

 

Sidenote: it never felt like we were actually ever in harm’s way. The Navy ships actually had more to fear from the Iranians than from the Iraqis.  The Iraqis were blockaded by the ground troops from getting anywhere near the Persian Gulf, but the Iranians regularly had gun boats patrolling the area.  One time when were at General Quarters, two Iranian fighter pilots buzzed (flew over) our mast.  Apparently, no one in the Combat Information Center saw them coming so there was no hail or warning to them.  I was on the bridge when it happened and the Captain was pissed!  Even more interesting was when I looked my ship up on Wikipedia, that story about the fighter jets is there!

 

Back at home, I was lamenting to another (gay) shipmate about how depressed I was about Jeff and how could I convince him we belonged together, etc., etc…  He looked at me and said, “I’ve listened to you whine about this for more than nine months now.  You either need to straighten up, or you’re gonna F*&k up”.  Somehow, I realized he was right.  I said firmly to myself, “This is not going to happen.  Ever!” I kept repeating it until I could own it.  The next week Jeff and I went out and got an apartment in town.  Shortly after, he met a girl whom he eventually married.  I lived in that apartment the last two years of my being stationed there and I remember it as some of the best times of my Naval service.  Free of all my “stuff” that was getting in the way.  It seemed impossible I could look at it differently but I was wrong.  As you read this blog, it is likely there is something you are holding on to.  You don’t want to let it go, but you know your life would be better if you did.  Do it now. Change your mind.  Change your perspective and change your life.

What Is Love?

Today a client asked me “What is love?”  The unspoken communication contract is when you ask a simple question in earnest, you typically expect, and usually deserve, a simple answer.  I sat there in silence for many moments, because I really wanted to give him a simple answer.  A concise sentence he could take with him and use. When that didn’t work, I fumbled around vocally for a few minutes more, hoping something amazing would well up from my unconscious.

There is no easy answer.  I think if I could come up with a simple answer, I would be very rich.  I also know if a simple answer could be easy to attain, someone way before my time would have thought it up prior to now.

We all can agree love is complex, but we also often confuse things for love that are definitely not love, making things all the more baffling.  Recently, I have been a guest columnist on a website that provides information about dealing with affairs (www.infedelityingo.com).  Readers on the site repeatedly ask questions; “How do I make my partner talk about the affair? How do I make my partner go to counseling How do I make my partner realize how much he/she has hurt me?” When I respond, “You can’t make anyone do anything”, the plea I often get back is “But I love him/her!” Unfortunately that is not love,that is when love becomes control, and control is definitely not love.

In my own life, the longest relationship I had prior to being with my husband was with a guy that I “loved.”  I felt like I did everything for him.  I tried to be a good partner; I was responsible, loyal, and faithful.  I cooked and I cleaned and in return he never could keep a job, picked fights with me constantly and cheated on me.  That’s how I saw it.  I also never missed an opportunity to remind him how much I loved him and how ungrateful he was.  I now realize I was mistaking control for love.  It’s no wonder he rebelled.  I treated him like a spoiled child. He treated me like an overbearing parent.  It definitely was not love.

So, I’m sitting in my office chair and all of this is running through my mind and I’m pretty sure I know what love is not.  The question still remains; what is love?  I came up with this:  I think love is the willingness to do the hard work necessary every day to affect the best possible outcome, with care and concern, for all present.

Love is about what you are willing to give, not about what you think you should get. To be willing to operate under that principle is indeed hard work.  Moreover, having care and concern for the best possible outcome, doesn’t always mean happiness and roses.  Sometimes doing the best thing is not only difficult, but sometimes hard for your partner to hear.

For instance, I was recently talking to a client who said, “I really like this new guy I’m seeing.  He seems perfect.  He comes to my house and he cleans and cooks when I’m at work.  He does so much for me.  I sometimes feel guilty because he is such a great boyfriend.  I know I shouldn’t feel that way, but I can’t help it.”  I told my client if he wants the relationship to continue to build, he has to tell his boyfriend while his acts of kindness are much appreciated, it can have a backfiring effect.  If my client begins to feel too guilty, he will start to pull away.  He will start to see it as control, rather than love.  I reminded my client saying that might be hard for his boyfriend to hear.  It’s important he remind him that being able to talk about these things is what makes a relationship stronger and it really is worth the effort.

Done in kindness, with care and concern.  That’s what I call love.

Listen To What People Do, Rather Than What They Say

As a client was leaving my office, he looked at me earnestly and said, “Thank you so much.  This therapy is really helping me.”  In his car in the parking lot of my building, he called my assistant to cancel his next appointment, stating he didn’t think we were a good fit.

 

Buddhist philosophy says be clear in all things.  As the still pond reflects the full moon perfectly, let your thoughts reflect your actions and your actions reflect your thoughts.  I know as much as I commit my own behavior to that phrase, I cannot automatically expect it from others.  People frequently say one thing and do another for a multitude of reasons. Typically it is because we are wrestling with fear, shame, and resentments.

 

It’s commendable you want to work on the relationship and go to counseling, but it is not solely your decision.   He says he’ll go, but doesn’t. When fear, shame, and resentments do our decision-making for us, we will say and think all kinds of things to rationalize not doing what we instinctively know we need to do.  You as the other person have to pay attention to what you see, not what you hear, and understand you may have to walk away from what refuses to move or change.

 

The client mentioned above came back about nine months later, admitting he hadn’t been ready for the work therapy demands.  He came to two sessions and then did the same thing again. Some people are just not ready.

Just Breathe…

When I was an intern, I regularly attended case staffing groups.  We interns would get together and talk about our approaches and interventions with various cases so we could learn from each other and grow in the profession.  During one session, I remember one intern saying, “Sometimes I just sit with my clients and we breathe together.”  I also remember thinking to myself, “You went to college for six years and that’s the best you got?”

 

I think I was a little more cynical back then.

 

Later, I took a neuropsychology class during  which we learned about the relationship between breathing and brain function.  I was fascinated to learn breath rate has a large impact on the thought process.

 

During my Naval service onboard ship, when the ship would go to battle stations, or “General Quarters” as we called it, we would secure (shut down and lock) every single door and entryway on the ship thereby sealing the entire ship into small water-tight steel compartments.   At General Quarters, the ship can take one, or possibly a few, missile hits and not sink because cause by fire and/or flooding can be contained and confined.

 

Interestingly, something similar happens in our brain when there is a problem.  When we get tense, anxious, fearful, angry, sad or any other strong emotion, our brain goes into “General Quarters”.  The mid-brain is the seat of all emotions and the cerebral cortex, which sits on top of the mid brain, is the center of logical thought and problem solving.  To avoid a very complex explanation of the biology and inner workings of the brain, let me suffice to say there are a lot of neural pathways leading from the mid-brain to the cerebral cortex.  When we go into an emotional “alert mode” or “General Quarters”, those neural pathways actually shut down, essentially preventing the cerebral cortex from doing its primary job, problem solving.  While we believe we may be acting and thinking rationally in those moments, we are in fact thinking only emotionally and therefore disadvantaged.

 

We are at our best when we can balance both our emotions and our intellect. So if the logical thought process has been cut off, how do we get it back?  Breathing.  It actually only takes a few seconds for the brain to re-set itself and allow those vital neural pathways to start working again, but that can only happen by taking a slow deep breath in, and a slow deep breath out.

 

Additionally, I read a medical article some time ago about breathing, which stated people are so unaware of their breathing it is not uncommon to stop breathing for several seconds at a time many times an hour throughout the day.  Doing so not only put us continually at a disadvantage, but prompts and trains us to easily go and stay at “General Quarters”.

 

Like anything we do in life, breathing well is a skill that has to be developed.  You have to practice several times throughout the day by checking in with your breathing and taking a slow 3-count breath in through the nose, and then a slow 3-count exhale through the mouth.  You are now training your body to breathe correctly without conscious intervention and that will help you during times of stress, tension, fear, anxiety, anger, etc.

 

Don’t believe me?  Just breathe…

Be the Partner You Want To Be With

A major mistake we make in our attempt to build meaningful lasting relationships is operating from the guiding principle “The success of this relationship depends on how well you meet all my expectations of you.”  It invariably leads to difficulty and resentment at some point, because other people are not us, and they never will be.  We can’t even live up to our own expectations of ourselves, so how can we expect more from others?  It’s a waste of time. Focus your energy instead on this simple question: “Am I being the person today I would want to be in a relationship with?”  Ask it often and see what happens.

What To Do When the Marriage Is Straight, but the Affair Is Gay

Several years ago, a client began her appointment with, “I just found out my husband cheated on me.  All the worse because it was with a man, so I’ve been struggling all day about how to come in here to talk to my gay therapist about it.”

 

We can get easily confused by the labels we place on things.  The brain, by its very nature craves to label and codify experiences and perspectives and put them into nice neat little boxes of understanding. Not everything can be put into a neat, easy-to-understand compartment, especially when contemplating why people do the things they do in relationships.  Relationships are complex. Confounding the issue is often we, our partner, or both, don’t completely know ourselves well enough to communicate who we are and what we need to someone else on an intimate level.  What results is we behave in ways sometimes not even we ourselves understand.

 

Whether the affair is same-sex or not is less important than other elements that surround the problem.

 

Here are six things to consider when faced with a spouse who has had a same-sex affair:

 

  1. Look at the problem, rather than the symptom

It’s easy and tempting to focus on the sex.  Even in relationships where infidelity does not exist, the amount of sex a couple has can still be problematic for one, or both, and it draws focus and attention.  Sex both inside and outside the relationship is a symptom of a problem, not the problem itself. Sexual health or sexual problems can be a barometer for what is happening outside the bedroom.  In the case of a spouse having a same-sex affair, the problem is not the sex.  The sex occurred because something was not being addressed elsewhere.  If a man is heterosexually-married and realizes he is gay, he tends to act on the sexual urges prior to getting up the courage to make any coming out admissions. I would never endorse those behaviors with a client.  You have an obligation to your spouse to speak your truth, no matter how hard it is to do.  Believe me, maintaining a life of secrets and lies only makes things worse.  It may seem the easier way to go, but it seldom is.

 

  1. Look beyond gender

A spouse may more readily expect to move beyond an affair if it involved a heterosexual partner, as compared to a same-sex affair.  As a gay psychotherapist, I find this very odd and figure it must be the result of cultural conditioning.  Somehow, a same-sex affair seems a greater betrayal, perhaps suggesting the entire marriage was a sham.  In 15 years of clinical work and meeting dozens of adult married men who come out of the closet, almost to every man in my memory I can say those guys loved the women they married, cherish the children they bore together, and did what they felt was their very best to create a loving family environment.  Probably more so than their heterosexual counterparts who have cheated with other women.  I think it is because they wanted so desperately, whether they consciously knew it or not, for it to be real and sustaining for the rest of their lives.  Unfortunately, sometimes the draw of nature is too difficult to deny.

 

Alternately, not all men who have same-sex affairs are gay. From both the heterosexual and homosexual camps there is an intense denial bisexuality exists.  In research of human behavior and experience, research shows people tend to group around the average with extremes being on each end of the continuum.  For example, in scores of intelligence, most parents think their child is gifted, but in actuality, only 2% of children are gifted.  Most, about 64% actually, are of average intelligence.  Albert Kinsey, a sex researcher in the 1940’s proved human sexuality falls on the same continuum, and in actuality, most of us have some degree of bisexuality, rather than being strictly gay or straight.  Again, I think our sexual behavior is more culturally determined rather than biologically, meaning if we were completely free to be ourselves without shame or fear of reprisal from our environment, the vast majority of us would be bisexual.

 

  1. Communicate more, not less

Communication is an interesting thing.  When issues arise and the energy between people becomes tense people communicate less and less effectively, than when things are going well.  It is no different than not going to the doctor when sick, ignoring work as it piles up, or not changing our eating habits when we’ve gained weight.  We do all of those things too, of course.  We are great at ignoring the problem and actually believing it will go away, or work itself out without any intervention from us.  We have to take charge of our problems by dealing with them, not ignoring them.  In today’s society, most of our problems are created and solved through communication.  Once an affair happens, there are a lot of messy uncomfortable feelings on both sides that need to be acknowledged and worked through.  That happens through communicating about it.  It is important to talk about what happened, how it feels to be in the current situation, and what you want for your future either together or apart.  Both spouses have to have the opportunity to speak about these things without fear of punishment or being shamed.

 

 

  1. Self-examination first, incrimination second

As it is easy and tempting to focus on sex, it is equally easy to focus on the feeling of betrayal.  I don’t know of any psychological treatment where punishing someone for what they did to you is hailed as an effective intervention.  We are hurting, yes. It makes sense to want the person who hurt us to hurt like we do, then, right?  Wrong.  Actually, what we really want is for the person who hurt us to understand how the behavior makes us feel.  We want him/her to know actions have consequences and right now those consequences are destroying us inside.  It is better to tap into and examine what fears, shame, and resentments we are experiencing and learn how to effectively communicate those to our partner.  Fears can include:

“I worry you will leave me”.

“I worry I’m not enough for you.”

“I worry I won’t find someone else”.

 

Shame can include:

“I should have known better (seen this coming)”

“I don’t want to be this person with these problems”

“Did I push you away?”

“How will I explain this to my family, our children, etc?”

 

 

Resentments can include and feeling of betrayal, anger, and outrage at the behavior itself and can also include:

“You’ve screwed up our lives”

“How could you be so thoughtless/insensitive/selfish?”

 

It is nearly impossible in tense situations to encourage someone to hear us when we are parental, judgmental, accusatory, or outraged.  People shut down against that communication.  It is better to examine exactly what we are feeling and look for ways to communicate so we can be heard.  That is what creates true understanding.

 

 

  1. Know stereotypes may be based on fact, but each circumstance is individual

Given our society’s views on bisexuality, there follows the presumption a same-sex affair indicates a realization one is gay and is “making the switch”.  Even though it be true in a lot of instances, it is important to remember every situation between couples is individual.  As I’ve said before, I’ve met many men, who wanted nothing more than to be happy in the marriage they were in and wanted it to continue, but found they just couldn’t.  In other instances the person may simply be bisexual and the gender of the other person is not as important as the affair itself, which indicates there is a problem in the relationship that needed to be addressed and still needs to be addressed if the relationship has any chance at survival.

 

  1. Don’t think you have to have all the answers

Relationships are complex on even their best days.  My husband and I have been together for over 18 years and I truly believe the reason why our relationship still works so well is we make a point to stay interested in each other. We stay courteous and respectful to each other, and articulate our feelings and opinions in ways the other can hear.  It doesn’t come easily.  We have to work at.  I think he was always better at it than I, but luckily I coach relationships for a living, so I was able to get better and better through the years.  My grandmother used to say, “Advice is cheap.”  Anyone can tell you what you should or should not do when you are hurting, confused, and feeling angry.  Education about how to negotiate through complex problems is a teachable skill. You can learn those skills.  You don’t have to have all the answers, you only have to know where to look.

A Closet For the 21st Century

There is a famous Haitian expression that goes, “behind every mountain, is another mountain”.  I’ve realized the same can be true for closets.  I’ve dedicated my career to helping people come out of the closet successfully, whether they are gay, transsexual, or both.  Those are the most well-known, but I’ve realized there are plenty of other closets in which to be trapped, and often you come out of one closet, only to find that you are still in another closet.

 

I’ve decided to come out of such a closet, the most widespread and destructive closet of the 21st Century; I’m coming out as a human being that has emotions, and I’m proud of that.  I am surprised at the number of people who report to me that “emotions are bad” and we should work to suppress them at all costs.  Isn’t happiness an emotion?  Isn’t feeling good an emotion?  Oh, but we want those emotions, we just never want to feel the uncomfortable ones.

 

You know it just doesn’t work like that.  It is not possible to become a master of anything spending all your energy avoiding it.  That’s the same as thinking I can become a professional football champion without ever playing the game, without ever studying the rules, without ever researching how other people have played well, or conversely played erroneously, without ever reviewing my own behavior to see where I have opportunities for growth, without ever stepping onto the field.  It will just never happen.  Emotions are like that.  I am a human being who has been granted a gift to experience a wide range of complex emotions that are both the source of incredible joy, and great sadness, occasionally even at the same time.  I have a right to experience these emotions in their entirety and know that only by experiencing them can I ever have any hope to truly understand and control them.  Avoiding and/or ignoring them will make my body and mind sick (much like gay and transsexual closets), and anti-depressants, rather than relieving my depression, will only restrict my ability to feel, stunting my capacity to really know myself.

 

It is time we realized that our collective need to suppress uncomfortable emotions at all costs is not working.  Emotional suppression does not make you a more successful and effective person.  In fact, people in the emotional closet tend to communicate less effectively, have less depth to their relationships, experience more chaos, tension and conflict in their relationships, and feel less in control of their lives. Emotions do not make you weak.  On the contrary, no one is stronger or more self-assured than the person who faces his/her shame, fear, and resentments.  Closets are not for gays, not for transgender folks, and certainly not for emotions.

 

Closets are for clothes.

There Outta Be A Law

One of the questions I’m most often asked is, “Aren’t you just really busy during the holidays?” Typically, people ask me this question during the holiday season of Thanksgiving/Christmas/New Year’s.  The truth is, like most other businesses, things tend to slow down for therapy during the holidays.  Even people who are in the most critical need seem to get better for a few weeks until January comes.

 

So, as I’m writing this, it is July 3rd on one of those weird years that the July 4th Holiday falls on a Wednesday.  My favorite saying this week is, “There oughtta be a law against having a major holiday fall in the middle of the week.”  Accordingly, my schedule for just about everything went slack.  This morning, I was talking about it to the other psychotherapist who is in my suite and I asked him how his schedule was doing.  Not surprisingly, he said things were very slow.  People aren’t making appointments and some people who have appointments are cancelling for one reason or another.

 

What does that tell us about ourselves? Around major holidays we are psychologically programmed to “Keep it together” or “Make it work”.  As I’ve said many times in this blog we severely underestimate our ability to control what we think, what we feel and what we do.  Even those of us that feel the least able-bodied/minded can respond favorably to the “Keep it together” programming of the major legal holiday.

 

If we can create a mindset that works for major holidays, isitthen possible to change our mindset and create a better one that works for all the other days throughout the year?  It is possible.  It may not necessarily be easy, but it is possible.  Although it does make things easier when to have a legal holiday where everyone has a similar mindset and collectively, we all want things to be “ok”.

 

Hmmm…perhaps there oughtta be a law.

Process Improvement

When I was in high school, I work as a made-from-scratch roll maker in a chicken restaurant.  I think it was a really difficult and laborious job for a high school boy, or maybe I’m just a princess, who knows.  Either way, I had to make batches of dough from scratch, knead them and let them rise twice and thenput them through a cutting machine and separate them out on big trays ready for baking.  It was also a dirty job.  It reminds me of a popular movie from the 80’s “Maid To Order” starring Ally Sheedy.  In the beginning, when she is trying to learn how to be a maid, she creates more chaos than order and takes twice the time that it probably should to complete tasks.  Then, during the musical transition sequence, she gets better and better until she becomes a pro at the job.

 

Roll making was kind of like that.  At first, I would have flour all over the baking room andall over me. Dough would get into the most unbelievable nooks and crannies and have to be scraped out.  The room would have to be completely hosed down at the end and of course all the equipment would have to be dried off and I would look like a complete mess when I finished. When I started to get the hang of it, I saw I could find ways to get the job done by making less mess.  Increasingly, I was able to keep the flour and dough confined to my immediate work space and the room would stay cleaner.  Then I wouldn’t have to hose down the room, as much as wipe down and clean the equipment.

 

My problem became that the better I got at this, the more my manager found for me to do.  The room always had to pass cleaning inspection at the end of my shift.  It seemed to me that the better I got at doing my job, the pickier she got at finding things to clean.  When I got to the point that I could get a “3-batch” done and have that room military clean even with time to spare, guess what happened?  You got it. My production requirement went from 3 to 4.

 

I remember all I could often think about was “nothing I ever do is good enough for you.”   When you read that quote you have to hear the words in your head with all the contempt and derision you can muster.  I would get so angry.  I hated that job.  Of course then I knew nothing about the concept of process improvement.

 

Older and wiser now, I realize that process improvement is the mechanism by which the universe is transformed.  When we embark on a new diet, a new exercise plan, or any new life changing project, we too often think big and act big. He have all the best intentions making huge sweeping changes that will put our lives on a completely new trajectory and finally give us the happiness we so desperately crave…only to go back to our old ways in a few days because the changes were just too big.  It was too much, too soon.  The expectations were too great.  Most people cannot live up to those expectations.  That’s why most dieters and new exercise enthusiasts fail.  You have to start small and incrementally work your way into change.

 

Perhaps a better plan is to ask yourself daily, or even several times per day, “What can I do right now to make a positive difference in my life?”  It could be to a quick decision to not say something unkind, not buy that bag of chips, or come up with a new idea at work.

 

In time you will see those small decisions become new behavioral habits that you don’t have to concentrate or focus on.  They just happen.  That is the kind of lasting change that is made to order!

 

Use It or Lose It

I was recently at my dental cleaning appointment and the hygienist and I were talking about flossing and gum health.  “The gums are like a muscle,” she said.  “You have to exercise them every day to keep them healthy.  The only way you can really ‘exercise’ them is by regular flossing.  Just like a muscle, if you don’t use it, you lose it.”  It really made me think for a minute, “Isn’t everything like a muscle really?”

 

Whether we do it or not, we all understand and accept that if we want our physical body from the neck down to be healthy, we have to move our muscles every day.  We have to push our muscles just a little past their normal use to help them become stronger, more flexible, and better able to serve us well.  We don’t get to go to the gym a certain amount of times and then say, “I’m done! I’ve met the lifetime requirement for exercise and now I never have to do it again!” (although, that would be nice, wouldn’t it?)

 

We have to practice exercise every day or at least several times per week, to get results; however, that logic seems to get completely lost for your mental health.  Most of us feel that good mental health, emotional strength, and psychological resiliency should just happen without any effort from us.  I don’t know of anything good that just seems to happen magically without effort, determination, and practice.  Everything that you currently do well, every skill you have mastered, has only been achieved through practice, repetition, and determination.  Your mental health is no different.  You have to work for it every day. Practice activities and behaviors that promote good mental health, emotional strength, and psychological resiliency.  If you feel stressed or anxious, practice calmness; if you feel depressed, engage yourself in activities that give you a sense of control, meaningful connections to others, and opportunities to be creative.

 

Dedicate your life to exercising your brain just as you would your body.  If nothing else, make a commitment to learn something new and interesting every day, no matter how small that something is.  You never know where that may take you.