Life

Making it to Christmas

The Biblical story of Christmas is on one hand miraculous and holy and on the other very relatable. Yes, it is the story of a virgin birth, a light guiding shepherds, and a visit from an angel. But it is also a story of trying your best to do the right thing and having so many barriers and road blocks come up along the way.

Mary and Joseph were engaged to be married, wonderful! …and then she’s impregnated with a baby that isn’t his. What a wrench to throw into a new relationship. How would you react in that situation? I’m guessing in most situations, the man would leave, end of story. How does a relationship continue in the face of such an experience?

The Roman emperor Augustus ordered a census taken, which involved going back to your home town. Imagine everyone in America having to go back to where they were raised. Now take away cars and planes… good luck. Now imagine that you or your fiancé are super pregnant and about to pop. She would definitely not be allowed on any airplane at that point in her pregnancy exactly because it is so high risk. For a pregnant lady, riding on a donkey for days seems even more treacherous. How many times would you have given up?  

But it’s not over yet. They finally get to an inn, only to not be able to have space inside. As we all know, the best they could do was a spot in the stable. They literally had to sleep with the animals. When was the last time you had a flight cancelled or when you couldn’t get a rental car or a hotel room and were stranded? What if sleeping between piles of animal dung was your best option?

Then there was the whole birthing process, which, as often goes these days, did not follow what would have been their birth plan. Had they been able to stay at home, they would have had experienced midwives. (There aren’t stories of birth in the Bible because men were not generally present at births, and most of the books of the Bible are written by men). So, there they were, in a barn, with inexperienced Joseph being the one to help Mary when it was time.

They could have bowed out at any point and the story would have been very different. 

And yet, they did it. They endured. They persisted. Jesus was born.   

Yes, we are privileged in our culture beyond being able to really understand what it must have been like, but we can definitely relate.

We can relate to relationship upheaval. We can relate to having to jump through ridiculous bureaucratic hoops at great cost. We can relate to not having plans go our way and feeling all out of hope. We can relate to it all happening at once.

How did they get through it all?

They had a perspective that kept their focus on the bigger picture. They were blessed with the presence of angels to let them in on God’s big plan, giving them a specific bigger picture to keep their eyes on.

Many of us are not regularly visited by heavenly angels or hear a clear booming voice of God, and so it becomes difficult to grab a hold of that clarifying perspective that allows us to truly let things slide that do not matter. We struggle with the frustrations and tragedies that happen, and we struggle with wanting to understand how such pain fits into any bigger picture.

They had angels, so that we could have Jesus. Mary and Joseph didn’t have Jesus to model how to stay true to one’s highest values, turn the other cheek, care for people in times of hardship, or find love and holiness in impossible situations. They did not yet have Jesus to model how to hold tightly to faith when everything points in the opposite direction. We may never know the big plan or have answers to our “whys” but we can know the “how” of how to move forward, how to respond, how to continue. 

We have infinite choices about where to fix our eyes and about what to put our faith in these days. An infinite number of roadblocks and challenges will come and throw us off balance. We can let the frustration about the cancelled flight or whatever consume and derail us, or we can be ever turning back to what we value most. 

The Choice to Grow

Oprah has a different voice when she’s talking about growth, trauma, and spiritual things. Have you noticed? She get that wispy, deep tone and the words hang in the air.

It drives me crazy. Nothing against her, but growth is not a wispy, dreamy, philosophical breeze. It is hard and painful and every step of the way it feels like a terrible idea.

Initially when something stressful or traumatic happens there is a messy mix of being shocked, addressing concrete needs, and experiencing acute grief and loss (of a person, a home, a hoped-for life, a career, you name it and if it is meaningful, it can be grieved). After a while of grieving and feeling numb, I often see people get fed up and want something different but not know what or how.  

Then, there are a few different ways people respond in the long-term aftermath of a stressful or traumatic event. We ignore, restore/recover, or grow. It is not a linear or step-wise process, moving from one to the other, though that can happen.

Houstonians, a good metaphor for this is how people respond when they were flooded during Harvey. After the initial rescue, displacement, return, and immediate mucking there is a pause when you decide what to do next. You decide which contractors to call and how things will be put back together again. Ignoring what happened in this metaphor (and real-life situation) involves putting things back together as they were before, ignoring that there is a threat of the same thing happening again. It involves just getting through and trying to think about it as little as possible.

Restoring and recovering involves a similar process but also acknowledges the reality of threat. This is rebuilding but then intentionally keeping the drains and gutters clear, installing tile or wood floors instead of re-installing carpet. Sometimes this is all we have the capacity for. Sometimes, this is the most we can handle. That is okay; it is enough.

Growth involves taking it one step further when a person has the capacity, resources, and energy. It is renovating while we’ve got the contractor over and the house torn apart. It is looking at the blue prints and seeing what renovations might be not just be helpful but might also really spruce up the place. It is seeing the challenge of coping with what has happened and digging into how it has affected us and how we want to live in light of this experience. It is an intentional choice that involves turning away from how things have been done and turning toward something with greater complexity. Struggle and growth, when we are so able and willing to allow it to, can increase the depth and breadth of our life experience.

We don’t grow by moving forward right away. We grow by digging. It is painful, dirty and can take time.

Why bother? Weren’t things just fine before? Aren’t I too old for any of this growth business?

Novelty is good for the brain. When we try new foods, go to new places, learn new skills, it allows our brain to create new connections. Like a baby learning to use a new toy, throughout our lifetime, we can enrich and feed our brains with new experiences. This includes looking at yourself, others, and the world in new ways. This includes choosing to try to think about things differently or taking on new challenges. This gives our brain new life.

Growth can take a couple forms: perspective- or action-centered growth. Essentially, we’re growing in “being” or “doing” (or both). Both are positive, and neither one is better than the other. Perspective-centered growth is a positive change in how we mentally engage with ourselves, others, or the world, such as a significant shift in priorities, a significant positive revision in how we see ourselves. It can be existential or spiritual or purely personal. Action-centered growth involves doing things differently, trying new things, experimenting with what you are capable of.

Both, however, involve digging to see what is not working, what you’re not happy with, or what feels stagnant. It can involve acknowledging mistakes, weakness, and vulnerability. And it will certainly involve change in some way. If it makes you want to run away, you’re probably on the right track. There are an infinite number of reasons to let these things stop us from working on growing, to let the nay-saying voice in our heads keep us from trying and trying again. It involves an investment of spending some time and emotional energy (when we have it) looking around in the darkness. It involves believing that our lives are worth the investment.

Find the area of tension, the area of discomfort, the thing your mind runs away from every time it pops up. When you are ready, set up camp there. Dig. Redesign. Rebuild.

This is all still a dramatic over-simplification of the complex experience of growth, but I wanted to dip into the messy, scary reality of it. If we believe it is something hippies do or that it is easy breezy, if we try but into a challenging aspect, we might think we’re doing something wrong or that we should definitely turn back when that is not the case at all.

Allow it to be something that is complex and doesn’t make sense for a while. Allow it to not fit into a neat package or inspiring message. Allow it to not fit any words at all.

This Thanksgiving, do as the Astros do

Holiday stress often comes from rigid expectations and fear of criticism. Rigidly holding traditions, wanting to make a good impression, and getting over-ambitious with what we take on (and then not letting it go when it is very clearly too much…) can become a negative voice in our heads that takes over. It pushes us to be anxious, irritable, passive aggressive, and stressed out.

Even though it is almost the end of November, Houston is still savoring the Astros World Series win, and perhaps their spirit can help us keep our eyes on joy this holiday season.  After the epic Game 5 win, Alex Bregman described perfectly their approach: “Have fun, play loose.” The Astros always did best when they were having fun. You always knew they would win if Altuve was smiling. 

Holidays may come with all the stress and pressure of a World Series, but if the Astros can take on the pressure of big money teams, if they can have fun, play loose, and win like they did, then that gives me hope for the rest of us.

This Thanksgiving, embrace the spirit of traditions rather than the precision of them. Enjoy being with company more than trying to impress or serve them. Let go of the “shoulds” and expectations that come from others and yourself. Don’t let stress get between you and your loved ones.

Allow for imperfections, roll with it. Allow for forgotten sides and burnt pie crusts; there will still be plenty of food. Be curious about new and distant family or friends, and allow them to be imperfect, too.

Have fun, play loose, and enjoy the holidays. Go ‘Stros!

(And if politics comes up, this and this may help.)

Hurricane Harvey: Strong and Suffering

You can be strong and still experience suffering. 

You can be grateful and still experience grief. 

It is normal, and it is okay. Both are sides of the experience are important and necessary. 

A common question after catastrophes like Hurricane Harvey is about trauma and PTSD. The first thing I talk about is how normal it is to have emotional responses to reminders within the first few weeks following a traumatic event. People often would prefer to avoid certain places or have a heightened emotional response to an everyday experience, like going to sleep, checking your phone, watching the news, or listening to the rain. Within the first few weeks after an event, it is normal and natural to have these reactions. As you proceed through your life, they typically fade away within a month or so. If you continue to engage in the avoided or emotional activities it is more likely to fade, and fade faster the more you do those things. 

If they do not fade within a month, then it may be helpful to talk to a professional about it. Traumatic stress symptoms are very treatable, and the sooner you can treat them, the better. 

More common than traumatic stress reactions in some cases though is depression. Depression caused by chronic stress or by pain and sadness that got stuck.  

Some people have difficulty tolerating emotions such as suffering and grief, with some turning to substances or problematic behaviors (such as over-working, addictive or compulsive behaviors) to not have to feel the feelings. This digs the hole even deeper. Putting the pain off does not make it go away. Giving yourself permission to be sad and grieve helps. Talking to a professional about these issues is a good idea so that you can feel the pain and let it wash away rather exhausting yourself trying to push them away.

In a different way, some people keep busy cleaning and moving and saying how grateful they are to be safe, so that they don't have to feel the loss, the sadness, the grief. The loss is enormous and deserves to be acknowledged, just as much as the things you are grateful for. You cannot simply paint over grief with gratitude in the same way you can't just paint over sopping wet drywall. You have to clear out the room, pull up the floors, look at how much needs to be cut, and piece by piece, take down the drywall and insulation behind before putting up new drywall and moving on. So too there is emotional work. Grieving fully all that is lost, materially and immaterially. Each memento lost and each object that provided comfort or security matters and will have a felt impact. Loss of comfort, security, and routine matter. Chances are, within the first week you cried for your city, for your friends and family, for yourself. Know that it is okay. Know that it is necessary. 

Like the financial toll, it is too soon to say what the real psychological toll of Hurricane Harvey will be on Houston, but there is and will continue to be overwhelming suffering and sadness.  Allow it to be felt until it no longer needs to be felt. That requires the strength of being truly Texas and Houston Strong. 

Psychology and Religion

It never ceases to surprise me how there are so often unspoken boundaries between psychology and religion. Understandably, mental health is a messy business, and church staff are rarely trained to deal well with mental health issues. At the same time, may psychologists shy away from in-depth discussion of religion because it is also not something we're particularly trained in. We are instead trained to know our fastball and stick to it. 

Except that our fastball really is the same. We both work tirelessly to help people to love, to love themselves well, and to love others well. Therefore, I ask for you to take a second to be open to considering the richness that might lie in the space where the two overlap, the space where we can help heal, challenge, and grow people into the best of what they can become, one step at a time. 

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The church and the therapy room are places for reaching people in their suffering, and it takes acknowledging that suffering in order for that connection and healing to take place.

If the pain goes unacknowledged then they may persist with self-blame and frustration or go away from the therapy session or the church feeling unseen, often not to return.

They can come away thinking that they don't belong, aren't worthy of love, or are too broken to be helped. Obviously the opposite is true. 

These processes are the same. 

I read an article recently where someone wrote that millennials don't go to church, they go to therapy. As a therapist, I'm not okay with that. Nor is the opposite side of the continuum helpful, where people of faith do not understand or appreciate the value of professional psychological services. It can be both, and too often individuals don't have the experience of how the church and mental health professionals interact, of how they are complimentary. Similarly when people go to therapy seeking to fill that sense of what is greater, they too often fill it with themselves or remain empty. Connection between the two spheres is a rich space for people to heal and grow, fully connecting with who they are meant to be.

Psychology is unique in that it is a science. It emphasizes use of the scientific method to address questions related to mood, behavior, thoughts, and interactions. We use these tools to help people in the most effective way possible, weaving techniques and approaches supported by research with our understanding of the core conditions that help a person feel loved and accepted. As clinical scientists and scientist practitioners do what we can with what we have here on earth. But Dr. Ken Pargament says it best in his excellent books on psychology and religion, that those who fear science debunking spirituality are vastly underestimating God and vastly overestimating science. Religion has nothing to fear from psychology and vice versa.

But we have so much to gain from each other. There can be shared information and learning; there can be greater appreciation and knowledge about mental health issues, resources, and providers within the church, and within psychology there is so much we can learn about the depth of the existential human experience from the people who have been the original counselors for thousands of years. 

This will the the first of many posts addressing the intersection of psychology and religion. There is so much healing possible at that intersection, and I am hopeful. 

The VA: The happiest place in America

On the walk into the VA and up to my office I've gotten in the habit of smiling and greeting the vets I pass. I've also started regularly taking walks around inside the main hallways when I have some free time or (more likely) when I need to get the hell away from my desk and reconnect with humanity. On those walks I greet people and offer a big, genuine smile. Most of the time I also encounter someone who is lost, and I get to walk them to where ever it is they're trying to go (I found two today!). The VA I work at is currently the second largest federal building, behind the Pentagon, so there's a lot of walking and a lot of people getting lost. All the time. 

When I think about the job I get to do within mental health, it really is an honor and privilege. Yes, I feel more like a square peg in a round hole there for many reasons, but in large part I also feel a great deal of gratitude just being able to work with the patients I do. I tell my them that often, but I don't think they really believe me. 

In part it is because of their service and sacrifice, that they answered a call to be a part of something bigger than themselves. Obviously there is much to be said about the gratitude for that. Another part of it though is that something about their service tells me that they care about others or at least wanted a better life for themselves. Despite whatever tough or grizzled exterior, lack of emotion, or explicit anger toward the world they may present with, they're still people with heart wandering around a place looking for care and healing. 

But of course then I guess we all are. 

As a psychology resident, I've learned a lot about the goodness in people, and I've learned just as much about it through my faith and my own therapy (which has been lots, believe me). It's easy to go with the trends of trying to impress people or tune people out and instead get buried in our phones. But the thing I have seen and the thing that I will continue to believe all the days of my life is that we need to see goodness in other people. We need to see the goodness in ourselves. Often we don't realize how many chances we have every day to do this. Many days there will be crap piled on top, but you would be surprised how quickly the crap melts away when someone genuinely smiles and asks how you're doing. 

Yes, bad, unimaginable things have happened and will happen again, I will fail, I will be disappointed and hurt, and there is evil in the world, but I have the choice to contribute positive or negative energy to the world. Some days my tank is empty, and I can't, so I appreciate all the more the days when I can forget whatever else is going on for a bit and be in the moment with the people I pass in the hall. I put aside what happened that morning or what might be waiting for me in my office, and I'm just there in those hallways, trying to do my part to make someone else smile and feel seen. 

I recommend you give it a shot, in your work or school, or neighborhood, and see what happens and how you feel after. I dare you to make some positive moments in your day and maybe in the day of someone else. 

Being, doing, loving

I returned yesterday from a mission trip to Haiti with my church (Psychologists also have lives and go on adventures), and while I'm still processing much of it, a few things have become more clear to me.

Focus matters. For the week I was there I didn't have my phone, didn't have to-do lists, and generally only had two things to do at any given time: whatever task we were working on (painting a house, delivering goats, etc) and just loving on people. That's it. I was free to just be in and enjoy the present moment. The idea of being mindful isn't earth shattering but it was an earth-shatteringly distraction-free environment.  No sounds off in the distance other than chickens or the generator, no stress of having to be somewhere at a certain time or accomplishing a pressured task, no perception of great responsibility or burden, no trying to manage what people thought of me. I hadn't really been able to see just how much I had been overwhelmed and distracted until it was all a continent away. Just being, doing, and loving. 

Coincidentally (or not) I had picked up Hardwiring Happiness by Rick Hanson at the airport on the way to Haiti, and in it Hanson emphasizes how our American consumer culture more persistently presents stressful or pressured situations than in third world or earlier cultures. We're always striving, always trying, always trying to make things just a little better for our families and selves by accomplishing or gaining things. Hanson talks about how this puts our body in a reactive state rather than a state where we can enjoy our experiences and cultivate gratitude. I'm oversimplifying here; he expands on how really experiencing and appreciating more positive moments changes brain connectivity, but I'll just say I recommend the book highly. 

I used to think about how people would just sit out on their porches in the evenings, drinking tea and chatting with friends and think of it as a kind of therapy. But part of the therapy is in the actual porch sitting itself - sitting back and reclining, taking in the moments, not worrying about last week or next year, but just allowing yourself to take in the experience.