Archive for connection

What Kind of Tool Are You?

tool picThe doctor said to me one day in therapy that he was angry with himself for being so reticent, so shy at parties.  He watched other single men holding court, while he was relegated to the background, never sharing the spotlight.  He felt like a faded wallflower.  He felt hopeless about ever attracting a woman to love him.

He did concede that people would seek him out for in-depth conversations, and he was never left standing alone at social events, far from it.  Nevertheless, he felt second best for failing to be the raconteur, the teller of wild stories.

I wondered how being the ‘Spotlight King’ would fit with being a General Practitioner.  Have you met the health professional who tells you all about their health problems, their personal life, their latest car?  No matter how entertaining the story, it’s still most times not what the patient needs.

Check the photo at the top of this page and name the best tool.  Which is numero uno?  Obviously the answer will be job-specific.  Hammers are ideal for joining pieces of timber with nails.  So should we then say that an axe is a useless, stupid tool, and fling it with gleeful vigour onto the rubbish heap?

My great-listener GP client came to see that the very characteristics he so despised about himself at parties made him a much sought-after doctor.  They also eventually made him a caring partner as well.  I love Cinderella endings, don’t you?

Comparing our characteristics to those of others is a recipe for misery.  The envy this engenders is completely unnecessary when we consider there are also aspects of ourselves that the other person may lack.  Lots of times which is best is merely a matter of taste, comparable to ice-cream flavours.

How often have your criticised yourself mercilessly?  Felt like throwing yourself out with the bathwater because you failed to live up to some kind of expectation, and then made this the whole basis of your worth as a person?

Abandon what you ‘should’ be like and deal with what is.  Positive self-regard does not involve being good at every single thing, nor being better than everyone else in a certain area.  Rather it involves recognising your strengths, enjoying them, and playing to them.

Professor Martin Seligman has demonstrated this concept quite clearly with great research back-up.  You can read more about this on his Authentic Happiness website or in his book of the same name.  The website even has free questionnaires to help you discover your ‘flow’ areas, if you need a nudge.

I sometimes have nightmares where everyone in the world is an extroverted, loud, party-loving comedian.  It makes me want to run screaming with hands over ears to a deserted beach.

Think about the people in your life and how you value their differences.  I am guessing they don’t all have to be good at every single thing to be valued by you.

What are your signature strengths?  And what are you willing to leave to the experts?  Can you embrace yourself as you are today?

Happy accepting!  Alanda

Tell Someone Who Cares

indirect communication

I heard this statement recently, beautiful in its simplicity:

When healthy people have something to say, they say it to you.  When an unhealthy person has a problem with you, they tell someone else!

Confession time!  Ever been an ‘unhealthy person’?  I never have of course…much!  Just as we are all guilty of the odd junk food fix, most of us have to confess to the occasional interpersonal habits that are rubbish for the soul as well.

We will complain to partners for endless hours about a painful or petty person, all the while denying through gritted teeth that any problem exists when queried by said obnoxious sod.

It’s a very toxic pattern that gets ugly results for all three parties involved:

  1. Self-proclaimed victim: never resolves the problem; stews and dwells for hours on end over someone they don’t even like. Grievances build, until eventually an ugly explosion occurs.  This can be silent or noisy.
  2. Innocent bystander/sounding board: endures the same story (with vaguely different twists) over and over and yes, over again, becoming progressively more drained until starts to lose interest in hanging with ‘the victim’.
  3. Painful person: never has an opportunity to change or correct their misdeeds; gets damaged by passive-aggressive behaviour from the victim; starts to really dislike the victim and either becomes more punishing, avoids them, or explodes.

Nice hey?

So why do we do this?  Simple answer?  Fear, I guess.

Fear of retaliation of the physical, social, economic or occupational kind.  These can be absolutely real concerns.  If dealing with a potentially violent person, a direct approach may be very much contraindicated and I would strongly advise seeking the help of a therapist or organisation experienced in this area before making any changes.

On the other hand, there is also fear of being wrong, of speaking up for ourselves, fear of consequences that may not be anywhere near likely.  Fear of…hey?  What am I afraid of?  What actual power does this person have over me?  It is worth giving this question some heavy thought.  Otherwise we are trading pity for self-respect.

To jump out of the victim role, tell the person who cares!  Tell them assertively, in a non-blaming way.

The good old ‘I feel (insert feeling here) because (insert your grievance here) and ideally I would like you to (insert longed for action here)’ is a great start to a solution-focused, non-blaming conversation.

Which of course will get you waaahay more results that a name-calling, shouting match or a silent stomp around the room sporting a fake smile.

For example:

P: Why the long face?

V: I am upset that you stole my song.  Now I feel that my trust in you is shaken.  Please do not do it again.

P: I didn’t realise you cared about your stupid songs.  Stop making it such a big deal.

V: For me it is a big deal.  I’m asking you not to do it again.

P: (eyerolling) Ok. Fine!

V: Great.  I’m glad that we are both on the same page now.  See ya.

Of course, we are not expecting miracles, but by being indirect we can be pretty much assured of misery in the long run.

Whether someone joins with you with interest and kindness to solve the difficulty you raise or alternatively presents an angry, denying or rejecting front may tell you a lot about how much time you want to spend with them in future.  Give them time to cool off of course.  Also check that you remain open and non-blaming.

And then leave it.  Do not prolong the conversation into a hand-wringing saga.

Right!  Should have all of that done by lunchtime tomorrow!

Kidding!  Communication skills sound so simple and yet can be surprisingly difficult to implement.  We hold them as ideals and so don’t beat ourselves up too much when we don’t quite measure up to the bar.  Nevertheless, striving for this level of integrity tends to bring one a happy life.

Cheers!  Alanda

Grieving Bali style: Beat the drum and beat it loud!

NL3I went back to Nusa Lembongan, a very small and desirable Indonesian island, where we run our retreats. I expected coconut trees, fighting cocks, turquoise waters, the odd cocktail, and yes, a bit of local culture. I did not expect to be attending a funeral.

And yet, there was my man, looking uncomfortable in the required traditional sarong outifit, attempting to stride (with skirt restrictions!) down into the fray of the most festive funeral I have ever attended. Street sellers had their rickety trolleys loaded with food. Every single person from Lembongan attended. The entire village shut down for a week. We could not even rent a motorbike (gasp!).

I did not know the decreased guy and he was not famous, but evidently death is viewed as a normal, although significant, phase of life in this culture, one that should be kindly attended to. All hands on deck please! Boatloads of mourners arrived from the mainland as the big day of the ceremony drew closer, and as many as 10 people were to be cremated that week, along with the most recently deceased man.

The ceremonial drums were beaten loudly throughout the tropical nights of the celebrations. As I paddled out across the ocean in the beautiful breaking dawn light, I could hear the drums and smell the cremation smoke, both wafting across the ocean from the shore. The smoke lasted for days after the event. When I commented on this, local people would cheerfully agree that the smoke tended to linger for quite awhile. The smell of death…and no-one wanted to sanitise it?

I contrasted this to our often compartmentalized experience of death at home, where people take an hour off work to check in at a funeral; widows are given one day of ‘compassionate leave’ by the government. It seems to indicate that death should all be neatly done and dusted and our normal lives seamlessly resumed as quickly as possible. Patients of mine often comment about how quickly the flood of flowers and home cooked meals drop away.

It makes me feel angry because it seems to imply that grief that lasts for more than a few days is somehow abnormal: and it’s not! If we lose someone we love, we will naturally feel a painful gaping hole. As a clinical psychologist, I know that grieving people do not routinely need therapy: because grief is not a pathological condition! It is not something that needs ‘fixing’, getting rid of, controlling and least of all suppressing. What grieving people need is permission to feel how they feel without ‘faking good’.

I will never forget an elderly man who came to me as a patient. When I asked him why he had presented for therapy, he said that his kids had sent him because he was ‘still’ sad about the death of his wife. He had been married for 56 years. She had died three months previously. Just how emotion-phobic is our society getting? Discovering that he was indeed quite normal was all the treatment he required, and he got on with embracing his healthy bundle of mixed feelings about the loss of his wife.

I saw a lot of laughing and crying and solemnness and yes, even hilarity at the Lembongan funeral. All of these emotions tend to be real and present when someone dies. In my experience, Australian funerals are often above all awkward affairs where people showing high levels of emotion of any kind are uneasily ignored or even borne off somewhere out of sight to ‘settle down’. People who can act falsely or coldly are rewarded as ‘strong’.

I absolutely loved the Lembongan approach of permitting the authentic. I shed tears at that funeral. Not from the loss of the unknown man, but for all of the many hours of suffering that I had witnessed in my Western clients. Suffering that was caused by having to repress their grief and become terribly lonely in this harshest of times. I cried too because I felt so moved at the sight of a society being kind enough to support their people; a group of people making time for important priorities like death and healing and spirituality.

In our country we say we don’t have ‘time’ to do things like this. And yet what could be more important? I hope to live a little more this way from now on. As for helping yourself or someone else who is grieving, what can you do? Here’s a couple of things that I believe help:

• Allow people to experience the emotions that come as a natural consequence of losing someone they love. Don’t try to ‘cheer them up’ every minute of the day.

• Accept that grief will take some time to resolve. There are reasons that many cultures use ‘widows weeds’ or black armbands for 12 months to indicate mourning. How considerate! It’s like wearing a sign that says to others ‘handle with care’ or ‘please don’t expect me to act normally or be gratuitously happy right now!’

• Become tough enough to acknowledge and befriend the darker emotions inside of you. This requires much more grit than faking good, I reckon, and it’s rewards are commensurately better too.

How do you do grief? What helps you…or not? I would love to hear! Perhaps your comments will help someone else too.

All the best! Alanda

Lem blog 1



Creatures of Connection

immer zum mittag .... hells gateA new injury kept me put of the ocean and away from my private practice clients not to mention causing a cessation of yoga, walks in the national park, and the occasional dance.  My mood was unaccountably flat.  I put it down to lack of endorphins and worry about what might happen.

Finally sick of myself, I hauled myself down for a wallow in the waves, nice and alone apart from the handful of other crazy souls braving the bracing conditions.  There were no amazing aquatic acts, but something fantastic happened in my brain.  Suddenly, I felt the heaviness shift and I felt, well, expansive, somehow alive again.  As though someone had kicked over my internal starter motor.

Being literally immersed in nature, with a view that involved mountains and waves.  Being circled by a fin certainly lets you know that you are alive, and the rush of relief that comes when that fin turns out to be attached to a baby dolphin, watchful mother close by.  That helps.  The da-da, da-da, da-da music courtesy of jaws fading into a joyous tune from long ago.

We can put some of this shift down to biology I am sure, getting moving, triggering endorphins and so on.  But my strongest feeling was that I had plugged back in, to the world, to myself.  Many people view connection as something that happens when you have 256 Facebook friends and your mobile phone constantly chimes.

I believe that connection starts, and to some degree ends, with getting back into your own body, being with your own present experience, connecting with oneself.  And without that, connections with others have the potential to be draining encounters fraught with frission rather than sustenance for the soul.

I have heard many therapists discuss depression as ‘a disorder of disconnection’, and have noted in my practice that people who are depressed often are disconnected: from loved ones, valued activities, and other things that give life meaning.  However, my recent experience of being ‘unplugged’ has reinforced for me that all the electronic friends in the world are no substitute for connecting to the beauty around us, as well as our own internal experiences.

For me it seems to be nature that does the trick.  What jolts you back into your body, into a sense of vitality?