Forgiving vs. Forgetting

“The things two people do to each other they remember. If they stay together, it’s not because they forget; it’s because they forgive.” –Demi Moore in Indecent Proposal

Forgiveness is often mistaken as something you do for other people; in truth, it’s much less altruistic than that. Imagine carrying around a backpack full of all the times someone in your life had done something that required your forgiveness. Imagine that instead of forgiving them, you had held on to all of those things. The weight of all of those unforgiven actions would be unbearable, and you would crumble under that weight. When we forgive someone, we not only accept their apology and make them feel better, we unburden ourselves of the weight of the negative feelings and thoughts that came with the action.

There is a major difference between forgiving someone for something they’ve done wrong, and forgetting it ever happened. That difference lies not in the way you treat the person who wronged you, but in how you carry what is left over from what happened. Forgiveness means acknowledging that people are fallible; that they make mistakes and are not perfect, but choosing to love them regardless. It does not mean setting aside everything they’ve done wrong and ignoring it; it means choosing not to use their past mistakes against them, but remembering things that have happened as a lesson. This may seem difficult, because often people are eager to engage in an all-or-nothing thinking, they either forgive and forget, or don’t do either.

The ability to forgive and move on is a learned skill, and not something you can automatically be great at. If you’re prone to holding on to things, learning to let go of them may feel like you are betraying yourself or your feelings. I often tell my clients that if you can change your perspective on something, you can change pretty much anything else as well- the way you feel about the situation, the way the situation effects you, and your relationships. Once you’ve done it enough times, the struggle ceases.

I’m definitely not saying that everything deserves forgiveness, or even that forgiveness should be your automatic response to every wrong that is done to you. I firmly believe that ninety percent of a problem is how you react to it- forgiveness is a reaction, and while we may not always feel like it is true, we are fully capable of choosing our reaction to things that happen to us. There will always be things that we feel are unforgivable, and sometimes choosing not to forgive is about self-preservation and is necessary. Ultimately, it boils down to picking your battles. You get to choose the things that go inside that imaginary backpack that you carry around. Choose things that help you, not hinder you. If all else fails, give yourself time to decide how you want to react, and if forgiveness is a possibility.

Self Medicating

It seems to me that different people have different versions of what it means to self-medicate and when it becomes a problem. When I was younger, my dad used to come home and drink 2 straight vodkas in a highball glass, eat dinner, then watch tv, and go to bed. Every day. I never saw him as an “alcoholic.” He never beat us or slurred his words or fought with my mom or anything like the stories I’ve heard people tell about growing up with alcoholics. I think that having a glass or two of alcohol at the end of the day is not a big deal.

How can you tell if there’s a problem? I have two questions that I ask to determine the answer:

1) Does it affect your day-to-day life?
2) Is it affecting your health?

If the answer is yes, you might want to start thinking about what’s going on (or what’s gone on) in your life that’s causing you to self-medicate. I look at substance misuse as a tip-of-the-iceberg situation in that there’s usually something much bigger under the surface. It might be untreated depression or being bullied as a child or anger over a past relationship.

What do you do about it? I like to assign brainstorming activities. This involves sitting down in a calm space alone and handwriting whatever comes to mind for 30 minutes non-stop. This exercise typically reaches the sub-concious and you can learn better what it is you’re dealing with. Another technique is to make a list of the people who have hurt you most or with whom you’re the angriest. One by one, address those people and situations by either writing about them until you feel somewhat resolved or writing them a letter saying everything you want to. At the end, burn the letter or rip it to pieces. This can be a very cathartic exercise but it can also bring up a lot, so make sure to have something fun planned afterwards.

If these exercises don’t help, you might consider psychotherapy. If you do, remember us. We have 4 therapists here at BHC.

Hope this helps!

Disease or Dis-ease? Rethinking the philosophy of Addiction

The nature of addiction is not well understood in our society.  From the right, addiction is seen as largely a character defect; a level of laziness wherein the addict will not get her act together and pull herself up by the boots straps to take responsibility for life.  From the left, addiction is a disease rooted in genetics that leaves the addict largely helpless to his cravings.  He needs intense behavioral programming to help him stay in recovery and he must be ever vigilant, because his biology places him at life-long risk.

Depending on where we fall on the ideological scale, we largely accept these beliefs as fact. Even public funding supports these beliefs as most substance abuse programs are founded on behavioral principles and the philosophy that addiction is genetic and has no relationship to mental health.

I take issue with this.  From my own experience, I classify myself as an addict.  I’ve been addicted to many things in my life:  cocaine, anger, sex, cigarettes and diet coke, to name a few.  I don’t really struggle with addictive impulses now, nor have I for years.  Although I can never really compare my inner struggle to anyone else’s, my compulsions to indulge were very real and felt impossible at points to overcome.

I’ve never been to rehab.  I’ve never attended a 12-step meeting.  I don’t have any particular problem with any of those tools, but what I did do was dedicate my focus to establishing an improved relationship with myself.  I recently came across the book, Chasing the Scream by Johann Hari, a well-researched account of how our addictive impulses are more about our lack of connection, our lack of bonding, much more than any genetic problem were are just condemned to live with.

This new discussion on the subject challenges both the left and right standards of thinking and suggests we can overcome addiction altogether by focusing on the key relationships in our lives and doing whatever we can to feel bonded and connected.  Personally, I take the theory one step further and suggest the most important relationship in our lives is our relationship with ourselves.  I know for me, the more I committed to a loving, respectful, bonded and connected relationship to myself, the less need I had for my addictions.   The struggle simply no longer existed.

Additionally, when I look back on times in my life I became more susceptible to my cravings, I can see how I had become disconnected from myself and it was through reconnection I emerged craving-free once more.

There are a lot of things you can be addicted to aside from drugs or alcohol.  Fact is, we are all either in active addiction or active recovery.  The only difference lies in the quality of the relationship you have with yourself.

Say it, Mean it, Do it

One of the things I often discuss in couples counseling is love languages, which comes from Dr. Gary Chapman’s book The 5 Love Languages. The main concept behind love languages is that everyone has a primary love language that they speak (there are five all together- Words of Affirmation, Quality Time, Physical Touch, Acts of Service and Receiving Gifts), meaning that they tend to give and receive love in that language. Imagine you’re in a relationship with someone who speaks Words of Affirmation, but your language is Acts of Service. This is like being in a relationship with someone who speaks Portuguese when you speak English- if you receive love only in the language that you give it, you may not appreciate love when it is given to you.

Words of Affirmation and Acts of Service are the two love languages that I see at odds most frequently, which is why I am introducing the idea of “say it, mean it, do it.” Words of Affirmation (“saying it”) places value on compliments, verbal acknowledgement, etc. Acts of Service (“doing it”) places value on actions, specifically things that are done for them that make their lives easier or without having to remind their partner to do them. Someone who speaks Acts of Services is less likely to put worth on promises and verbal commitments unless they are followed through on. Someone who speaks Words of Affirmation is less likely to notice and put worth on the things their partner does for them without them having to ask. Both people are showing love to the other person, but in the language that they themselves want to receive love in, not necessarily in the language their partner wants receive love in.

If you have two people who speak such different love languages, how do you get them to recognize and appreciate the love that is being given to them? For someone who speaks Acts of Service, the words (“saying it”) are fine as long as they are followed by corresponding actions (“doing it.”) That’s where intention (“meaning it”) comes in. If your words and intentions are good, that’s awesome- but unless you follow through, they mean very little to someone who speaks Acts of Service. In a relationship, if a Words of Affirmation person says the words and has the intentions, but does not follow through consistently and reliably, the Acts of Service person will likely feel wronged and disappointed. If an Acts of Service person does nice things for their partner that they would appreciate themselves, their actions and intentions are fine, but the words aren’t there, which for a Words of Affirmation person is often the more important part.

The solution to this is simple- follow the pattern of “say it, mean it, do it,” regardless of your personal love language. Make your words match your intentions and follow through with actions. If you’re able to commit to all three parts, it is very likely that both you and your partner will be pleased with the outcome.

Positive Trends in the Trans Community

It’s easy to look at the state of our world/country/state/city and find what’s wrong with it. I quit watching the (bad) news because it often made me feel sad or angry. Especially in the LGBT community, it’s simple to point out the flaws in our system and see how it hurts or discriminates. While that is frustrating, for those of you who know me, know I like to keep it on the optimistic side – especially when it comes, more specifically, to the transgender community.

When someone comes to see me for the first time, often I’m the first person they’re coming out to. Even if that’s not the case, when someone’s seeking an HRT (Hormone Replacement Therapy) referral, they’re often very nervous. One of my favorite things about my job is delivering the good news to them: It’s going to be a lot easier than you think.

We have a Readiness to Transition Survey in which I read out statements and the client rates them on how much they agree or disagree. I still get goose bumps when 2 of these in particular are answered with “non-applicable”. One of these is: “I don’t get frustrated with others’ negative reactions, nor am I disturbed by their intrusive questions”. The other is: “I have made peace with those who have decided not to accept me”. More and more, people are finding they don’t have such issues during transition.

I often look at what’s on TV to measure how common or mainstream something has become. In comparing the trans thing to the gay thing, 3 years ago when I started here, I would have said we’re in the “Three’s Company” stage. For those of you too young to remember, this was a show in which one of the characters had to pretend he was gay when the landlord came around. Then the AIDS epidemic happened and everyone on the forefront of that movement went WAY back into the closet. That was in the mid 80’s. I don’t remember any other TV shows dealing with gay issues until Ellen came out with her sitcom when I was in college, then “Will and Grace” in the late 90’s or so. Now it’s everywhere.

Today, however, I would say the transgender community is in the “Will and Grace” stage where it’s about to take off. There are so many shows with positive transgender characters such as “Orange is the New Black”, “Transparent”, “Glee”, and “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia”, just to name a few. This is a very good indication that people are being more open and visible in dealing with trans issues – which is a good thing!

Hope this helps!

90-Day Self Love Challenge Part 2 of 4– Developing Acceptance

I’m a regular guest on The Lillian McDermott Radio Show which airs every 2nd and 4th Tuesday, 9am EDT at www.whenyouneedafriend.com.  During last September’s show, we were discussing depression and anxiety and I mentioned quite often, the root cause of depression and anxiety is a lack of selflove.  Lillian was very interested in how we can work to love ourselves more fully. Together we embarked on developing the 90-Day Self Love Challenge.  This blog covers the second 30 days of that challenge.

Aside from love, acceptance is probably what we want most in life.  Like love, we tend to look for it and crave it from others.  Also like love, I’ve found the most rewarding way to gain acceptance in this life is to accept yourself and not base your level of acceptance on what other people think about you.  This topic has been covered many times in books such as “What You Think about Me Is None of My Business”, but what has really helped me on this journey is Don Miguel Ruiz’s The Four Agreements.

 In this book, the second agreement states verbatim, “Take nothing personally.  What other people do or say is a reflection of their own consciousness and has nothing to do with you, even if it is directed at you.”  I can repeat it easily enough, because I have said it to myself a billion times.

To say the 70’s and 80’s were a hostile environment for a young gay boy would be vastly understated.  I knew I was different before I had words to describe why.  So did the other kids.  I was even bullied and mistreated by teachers, while others just looked the other way while verbal and physical harassment occurred right in front of them.  Those experiences left me without a good sense of self.  When you hear something over and over again, you easily believe it.  It becomes your truth.  Since I didn’t have the skills to accept myself I became addicted to acceptance from others.

That’s where the Don Miguel Ruiz’s 2nd Agreement comes in – after much meditating on it, I was able to rewire my brain in a positive way and develop a more useful truth:  Other people’s opinions are just opinion, and not necessarily qualified ones.  Opinions are not facts.

We did a lot of work in this area on the radio show with 30 days of exercises to help you become more accepting of not only yourself, but also of others around you. I will address days 61-90 in upcoming posts.  In the meantime, I invite you to work on this 90-Day selflove challenge.  Go to http://whenyouneedafriend.com/category/90-day-challenge-to-self-love/ to learn more.

Talking About Your HIV Status with Loved Ones

When discussing your HIV or AIDS diagnosis with your loved ones, it is important to remember that their knowledge of HIV/AIDS is probably limited. In many cases, their knowledge base may be incorrect due to the ongoing stigmatization and fear about what it is and what it means. Since its official discovery in the early 1980s, our knowledge of what HIV and AIDS are and how they’ve evolved has changed dramatically. Unfortunately, people have clung to outdated information. A lack of widespread education and awareness is largely to blame for this, so when a loved one finds out you have HIV or AIDS, they may react out of fear: fear for you and what it means for your life, fear for them and whether or not they’ve been “exposed,” and fear of the unknown- what happens next?

You can’t predict how your loved ones will react, but you can prepare by arming yourself with as much information as possible. It is important to educate yourself as thoroughly and accurately as possible. There is a lot of information on the internet, but it is best to stick to sources that are medically based, like www.aids.gov or www.thebody.com, both of which serve to educate people, not scare them. You also don’t want to overwhelm your loved ones with too much information at once, so sticking to the basics is often best.

What do the basics include? First and foremost, a positive diagnosis is not a death sentence. HIV and AIDS are not considered terminal illnesses. HIV is the virus that causes AIDS, and it is possible to live the rest of your life being HIV positive, but never progressing to AIDS. The difference is your t-cells, or white blood cell count. Because HIV compromises your immune system, it lowers the number of white blood cells in your body that fight off infections. With treatment, living a healthy lifestyle, and medical monitoring, your t-cell count can stay above 200; if it falls below 200 at any point, that is when a person is considered to have AIDS. While this irrevocably damages the immune system, it still doesn’t mean you can’t live a happy, healthy, long life. Doing that includes taking your medications consistently, eating healthy, exercising- all things you should be doing regardless. Another important basic fact is that HIV is not transmitted by things like sharing utensils, kissing, holding hands, hugging, sneezing on someone, toilet seats, handrails, or any of the ways a person may catch things like the common cold. HIV can only be transmitted through blood, semen, vaginal fluid and breast milk.

Your loved ones may be overwhelmed at first, but as they become more educated and see you are taking care of yourself, it will become easier to process. Often, counseling can help with this, especially if the counselor has experience working with HIV/AIDS. An accurate understanding of what is happening to your body is important for you and those you love, but your mental health as you navigate your diagnosis is critical to how you handle it and should be a priority just as your physical health is.

Sociopaths Among Us

They’re everywhere. You’ve worked with them, talked to them on the plane ride home, and perhaps even dated them. That’s right. I dated one for 3 years before I realized it.

A sociopath is someone who has no conscious. Much like babies and kids grow up learning the language being spoken around them, sociopaths grow up learning how to react to situations to “fit in.” For example, when a co-worker comes into the office and is crying about her 16 year old dog she just had to put down, the sociopath feels nothing. He knows, however, that he’s supposed to care so he reacts with feigned empathy.

When I say the word sociopath, it might conjure up images of Charles Manson, Ted Bundy, and Dr. Hannibal Lecter from Silence of the Lambs, and you would be accurate. Those folks are all indeed sociopaths. But you might be surprised to learn that CEO’s typically have the same psychological make-up as those infamous serial killers. (Well, Charles Manson not so much, but you know what I mean.)

How can you tell if someone’s a sociopath?

1) Sociopaths are very charming. You might find yourself waiting in anticipation to see what the person is going to do next. They are able to act as though they’re very interested in you but are usually assessing the person and situation to see what they can get out of it.

2) Grandiose stories are another tell-tale sign. Charles Manson would invent wild stories about being the modern day Jesus and leading his “family” into an underground cave where they would hide until it was time to rise up and take over the world. Sound crazy? He had a group of about 20 sane, otherwise average, people believing it for a long period of time.

3) Sociopaths are always going to want to have the last word. They’ll always win. And they’ll be unapologetic about their actions and what it took to get there. They figure that everyone’s the same as them and, therefore, it’s a fair game. They’re great at justifying bad behaviors. They typically like to “one-up” others and get agitated or angry if someone tries to prove them wrong. This makes me think of the business card scene in American Psycho. If you’ve never seen it, you can check it out on YouTube.

There are no known effective treatment methods for a sociopath. If you realize that you’re dealing with one, you have to assess the situation to adjust how to deal with it. As I mentioned earlier, being one doesn’t mean the person is violent or evil. Just be weary and move forward with caution.

Hope that helps!

TMI – Learning How to Filter

Attentional problems, ADHD or ADD is not a brain disease or medical condition as much as it is a life-skill deficiency concerning the ability to focus.  While it is true some people are able to achieve a higher level of focus through pharmaceuticals, you can develop the skill to focus for yourself thus, creating a stronger sense of mastery over your life.

We are exposed to lots of information daily.  Electronics, people, responsibilities and our own internal dialogue are constantly vying for our attention.  It happens so much so it is often difficult to turn it all off at night.

Most of what is assaulting us and demanding our attention is TMI (too much information).  Every notification, person asking for our time, the thing we have to do next and random thought will always assume to be the most important thing and the most deserving of our immediate attention.

We cannot rely on our environment or even our inner dialogue to dictate importance or priority.  We have to accept responsibility and learn to filter. Filtering is not an innate talent some people just “have;” anyone can learn to filter with practice and patience.  Ways to improve your ability to filter include:

  • Making a conscious choice to spend time on information you need to know right now, rather than information that is nice to know. Learning how to not distract yourself on “nice to know” information or “click-bait” is really half the battle of learning to filter.
  • Don’t fool yourself into thinking you can accurately pay attention to several pieces of information coming at you at the same time. Decide what is the most important for the given situation and focus on it.
  • Dedicate at least 15 minutes to a half hour every day “unplugged.” Give your mind, eyes and ears a chance to rest and regroup.

Some additional meditative practices I’ve used include:

  • Pretend you are sitting comfortably on the side of a busy highway intersection. There are no traffic signals or signs, leaving the busy traffic to fend for itself through the intersection.  You could go out into the intersection and start to direct traffic, but you do not.  Rather you focus on just sitting and watching the traffic, doing nothing to interfere.
  • Pretend you are in a very crowded room, such as at a party. You are having an intent conversation with someone whom you are very interested.  During this conversation, you are able to recognize people coming in and out of the room, people moving around and making noise, sometimes being disruptive or causing a commotion, but there is no need to give this activity more than a passing notice.  You can be aware of your surroundings and be free to return to your focus on this conversation.

Through daily practice, you fill find your ability to filter gets increasingly easy.  It really does improve your relationship with time and helps you feel more organized and in control.

The Reality of Bisexuality

Gay rights, marriage equality, the US military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy, or foreign countries’ extreme positions on homosexuality: a lot has been happening to draw attention to the topic of homosexuality. At the same time, heterosexuality is considered “the norm” for many people; some even believe it is the only “acceptable” sexual preference. But what about the people who fall somewhere in between?

Bisexuality is a taboo topic, in both the gay and straight worlds. Often, people who identify as bisexual are not accepted in either community and experience discrimination from both. Many people don’t believe it even exists; that bisexuality is just a phase, or a stop on the way to determining whether someone is actually gay or straight, because you have to be one or the other. Or do you?

Bisexual as a label is confusing- how could one person be attracted to both sexes? The differences between male and female are obvious in many cases, but just like any one person can be attracted to two people of the same sex who are vastly different, the same is true for two people of opposite sexes. The attraction has little to do with body parts, and more to do with connection and chemistry.

Alfred Kinsey, a biologist and sexologist who studied human behavior and sexuality back in the 1940s and 50s, determined that a larger percentage of people fall somewhere between exclusively heterosexual and exclusively homosexual. He developed the Kinsey Scale, which is a way of representing where someone falls on a scale of 0 (exclusively heterosexual) to 6 (exclusively homosexual) and said, “The world is not to be divided into sheep and goats. It is a fundamental of taxonomy that nature rarely deals with discrete categories. The living world is a continuum in each and every one of its aspects.”

Scientifically, it makes perfect sense however, the social aspect seems to be what is confusing for people. There are many myths about bisexuality- bisexuals are promiscuous, they can’t be in monogamous relationships, they can’t make up their minds and want the best of both worlds, etc. None of that is true. As bisexual activist Robyn Ochs said, bisexuality is “the potential to be attracted- romantically and/or sexually- to people of more than one sex and/or gender, not necessarily at the same time, not necessarily in the same way, and not necessarily to the same degree.” If someone who is bisexual is married or in a relationship, that does not mean their needs are not being met or that they have “chosen” to be straight or gay. Bisexuality doesn’t disappear in a monogamous relationship, but it doesn’t force someone to look outside either.

The ability to find love and connection with another human being is something to be treasured, regardless of the label it comes with. The reality of bisexuality is this- no one likes being put into a box. Having someone else define you is something to be avoided, not sought after. The focus should be on love, not labels.