Truth or Care.

“I took a test in Existentialism. I left all the answers blank and got 100.”
― Woody Allen
     Nearly every morning when I come to work, Mr. Ben is working diligently to make the office look pristine. As he was cleaning a window he paused, took a step back, inspected his work from several angles, and then touched up a few missed spots. I couldn’t help but be reminded of how therapists need to do this in their work, and also teach this skill to families. How often do we need to step back from the process to gain perspective. To reassess our goals and focus on what is meaningful? If we never step back from the process, we can become hyperfocused on minor smudges and miss large spots all together.
     Often times, the therapeutic process can be distracted by seeking for specific truths. This post will share a few types of “truth seeking” which can derail treatment, how these can be clinically addressed, and an alternative way to provide authentic treatment which is true without being burdened by seeking “truth”.

Validation Seeking

     The first, and most common, form of seeking of truth which can distract from therapy occurs when affirmation of convictions become more important than the truths themselves. Nietzsche is attributed as saying “Convictions are more dangerous foes of truth than lies.” This plays out many times in group and family therapy. People will become hyperfocused on being “right”, or verbally bludgeoning another person into admitting they were wrong, lied, cheated, or failed them in some fashion. This is completely normal. This reaction happens when people assume their perception must be valid in order for their emotions to be valid.
     To an extent, this is not wrong. If we see a car being driven dangerously fast down the highway, it would make sense for us to be startled, afraid, and angry. However, throw a set of spinning lights on top and add a siren, and suddenly, we pull the car over, allow them space, and are relieved to discover we weren’t their target. In this example, the setting is nearly identical (fast car on highway). Technically, we were just as unsafe with the police car speeding as we were with the civilian car. Sure, the police should have more training, but accidents happen! So, why were we less afraid? Because our perception and expectations were different, so our emotions were different.
     We expect our loved ones, friends, and family to be safe. When they drive down our emotional freeway, dangerously fast or out of control, we feel it is important for them to understand they scared, hurt, and frustrated us. The reaction often looks like anger (punishment) and control (prevention). The “truth” we’re seeking is the validation of our own rightness. If it existed, the best word may be “rightittude”. We’re so concerned about being right in regards to being right, we fail to see why we want to be right: Validation.
     Ultimately, in these situations, people want to be validated. Their existence, their perception, and their emotions regarding a situation. If we fall victim to the false belief that our rightness and validation are synonymous, it will no longer matter if we even are right. The victory will feel hollow. A symptom of this is when people consistently bring up previous examples of times they were right, I-told-you-so’s, and other people’s failures. This assuages the internal fear of an existential incorrectness. What we want is to be right and be validated. What we forget is the harmful assumption which accompanies this belief: If I am wrong, I’m no longer worthwhile. This type of belief slowly dissolves confidence and personhood. The irony being that, the very process of seeking external validation fosters deeper fears and anxiety of rejection.

Concrete Seeking

     Therapists often hear families say something along these lines: “If we just knew how this happened, or how we got here…” The ellipses can be filled in with just about anything. If they only knew why, when, where, how, what, or who was the source of their stressor resulting in treatment, they could specifically address that thing and be better! While identifying community supports and/or providing case management services is often a necessary part of therapy, these should be future based supports rather than salves to address past wounds. 
     Concrete truth seeking reminds me of the old southern adage because it’s like nailing jell-o to the wall. It really doesn’t matter how many nails you use or how hard you hammer, it’s just not going to stick. As people seek power and control, they look for facts and concrete evidence that will allow them to argue specific points.
     How often has therapy degenerated into a pale reflection of itself: The argument. It’s exhausting. Trying to figure out who’s right and wrong, who to support and who to refute. It’s easy to get caught up in and certain clients are better at this than others. Clients with Cluster B traits regularly use this line of thinking and rhetoric to avoid talking about themselves, their emotions, or their therapeutic needs. It turns the therapist into a referee and forces them to “pick sides”. Once in this position, it becomes very difficult to be a non-reactive presence and, more often than not, we accidentally feed into the systemic distress rather than address it.

Ethereal Seeking

     As an existential therapist, I enjoy philosophical discussions about the afterlife, personal meaning, and the validity of social norms; to mention a few. There are times when clients will state their primary concerns are broad existential concerns just like these. When it happens to me, I never fail to get excited. This is my milieu, my passion, and someone is going to pay me to have a conversation with them about the very thing I love! However, I have to be cautious about secondary gains.
     The questions may be exceedingly important. What we must never fail to address is why these questions are important to the person. If they only want to discuss these issues to discuss these issues, we are doing them a disservice. It’s like teaching someone to drive in a golf cart and then expecting them to perform at the Grand Prix. Without real world application, these questions can be little more than a diversion! Failure to address this results in decreasing relational knowledge which relegates any answers divined by processing these questions to nothing more than esoteric knowledge.
     Initially, it may be refreshing to work with these clients. They seem motivated, intelligent, and capable. Some short-term treatment, identification of coping skills, and they’ll be on their way. Yet, the short-term goal comes, goes, and we find ourselves sitting in our chair after the 20th session unsure what just happened. If this is the case, a therapist may have made the assumption they know why the client is seeking treatment. If it’s solely for conversation or self expression, that may be just fine; as long as this is overtly stated and understood. Otherwise, the secondary gains of philosophizing may actually encourage problem behavior and reduce therapeutic efficacy.

What To Do Theoretically

     All of these truth seeking actions share one commonality: the truth being sought is external to self. There is a lure to this behavior. The safety and assurance of an external truth. However, the safety an external truth provides is inherently unstable due to its locus. It necessarily deprives people of will, freedom, or power. It prevents people from being confident because their truth is really faith in other people’s beliefs. For these people, there is no confidence or experiential knowledge to which they can refer. Rather, their truth, peace, and safety reside in the hands of others. That is a scary world.
    Internalized truths based on perceptions and healthy experiences foster opportunities to accept responsibility, establish intentional boundaries, and maintain healthy relationships. Many religious people raise objections about existentialism and relativity stating these ideals deny the existence of God. Yet, the Christian Bible clearly states that external laws and truths are meaningless if they are not internalized (Proverbs 3:3, 6:21, 7:3, Deuteronomy 11:18, Jeremiah 31:33, John 1:17). If we fail to look at the intent of the laws and truths, we will quickly bend them to our own will and make them expressions of self rather than expressions of healthy relationships and love (Matthew 23:3, 7:12, 2 Timothy 4:3).
     Instead of spending our valuable therapeutic time on trying to discover “truth”, it can often be more productive to seek “reason”. Why is it so important for the client, for the therapist, to discover truth? Do we think it will make life, therapy, or relationships easier? Are we seeking reconciliation and healing? Authenticity and genuineness? In that case, let’s not spend so much time trying to figure out who’s right and focus more on how to reconnect. Finding ways to acknowledge our relationship is more important than our knowledge. Failure to do this will encourage division rather than unity.

What To Do Practically

     In each of these cases, it is prudent to acknowledge the desire to know, then move directly to the expected outcome. If we had validation, concrete, or ethereal knowledge, what would that do for us or how would that make us feel? Asking these two questions (an oversimplification of Socratic Dialogue) can help clients and therapists establish robust treatment goals. These are crucial if therapy is to weather uncertainty and avoidance.
     Family Sculpting, an intervention created by Satir, is a dynamic way to allow every family member the opportunity to communicate their desires in a non-concrete way. It removes many of the barriers to verbal communication between family members. It leaves room for experiential interpretation rather than static answers.
    Identifying the very need to be “right” or find “truth” should overtly be addressed by the therapist if the client or family is resistant to change. Finding out if this behavior is a primary contributor to the reason they are in treatment can be very valuable. If this is the case, we can simply practice being wrong through gradual exposure. Once clients can control their anxiety enough to process being wrong, address 1, 2, or all 3 reasons a client may be seeking truth.
     Lastly, normalizing a clients inability to have or control truth, along with their desire to do so, may allow the client to feel at peace about struggling. This can help the client be less anxious about their process and, paradoxically, become more calm about being able to acknowledge their compulsive need to identify truth. In this case, treating the desire using OCD interventions (like the 4R’s).
     If you have experiences with “truth seeking”, please share them in the comments! Remember to maintain confidentiality!


A Story for Everyone

“Recall how often in human history the saint and the rebel have been the same person.”
                                                      ~ Rollo May, 1975, The Courage to Create, p. 35

     Sitting in the circle, each of us took turns looking at the other wondering who would begin. The six of us knew each other, some more deeply than others, but there was still an unease. The prompt for the group was this: Tell your story. No one knew where to start. There were several revelations as we began talking about how we should talk about our stories.
     We realized that crises are relative. That just because the trauma doesn’t bother you now doesn’t mean it isn’t still important. There had always been people along the way, but we often failed to see them in the moment. And suddenly, I was thinking of Woody Allen.
      Allen brought a “quirky” and “neurotic” perspective to his films which people had not seen before. He told uncomfortable stories in a way that was just fantastic enough to allow people a safe mental distance. As I sat, thinking about how I would tell my own story, a seemingly insurmountable problem occurred: A story requires a beginning, a middle, and an end. Identifying those aspects required an outside perspective. The characters in the story never know how close they are to their own end. The cessation of one struggle could merely be the prelude to the next act. I do not know if I can ever tell “My Story” until it is over. And by then, I would not be able to speak.
     The distance Allen brought to his movies, the perspective, does not exist for us amidst our own existence as it occurs in the here-and-now. While others, through reflection and feedback, can offer glimpses into these perspectives, they are never complete. Which means the designation of “saint” or “rebel” must be put off until our story is over. In the meantime, we can reflect on our past, the history of others, the stories already told, and the parts of our story we have already seen unfold. But let us not be so bold as to imagine we can tell our complete story. Let us also not be so timid as to believe we cannot tell the parts of our story as they happen.
     I would leave you with this thought: Perspective is a requirement for wisdom and time is a requirement for perspective. As we allow our story to fulfill itself, do not miss the foreshadowing, the past struggles, and the joys which have already occurred. We do not know how close we are to the end of our own story, let us make haste in writing and sharing what we can.

Allen
(C) Nathan D. Croy, 2014

Traps and Trauma

     The difference between children who have experienced trauma vs children who have not is the difference between a well-fed dog and a dog caught in a trap. Being bitten by a dog stuck in a trap will be interpreted differently than the same action by the well-fed dog. The pain and fear of the person bit may remain the same in each case, but the reason behind the bite is very different. The knowledge of this difference could lead us to quickly forgive the trapped animal while punishing the well-fed animal. Same behavior, same outcomes, different levels of acceptance.

     The reason it is more acceptable for the trapped dog to bite is because we expect it. We know they are acting out of fear and self-preservation. The rescuer may even fault themselves for not taking extra precautions when approaching a wounded animal. We do not fault the animal because we see the trauma. Some animals may need extra care and services before they are rehabilitated enough to join a family and be adopted. Some dogs that have been trapped are euthanized and deemed impossible to rehabilitate. Most often it could be possible, but the expense, time, and resources estimated to bring that change about are seen as too great in a cost-benefit analysis.

     Unfortunately, even dogs that are well-fed and well cared for can still bite and are often “put down” for reasons citing temperament. As if “temperament” were an unchangeable aspect of the animal existing in isolation from the environment. This is not including elderly dogs who may be suffering from dementia. While there may be some truth to this, most healthy dogs can relearn how to behave appropriately in a family/pack unit.

     So it is with children who have experienced trauma. The scars are not always as visible as they are with dogs. Children can arrive at school or daycare, interact with children every day, and be caught in an invisible trap they have brought with them from their home. It is not clear we should approach them with caution or additional supports. Good intentions are greeted with snarls and threats. Well-meaning people are driven away, confident their loving actions will not be “wasted” on an ungrateful child.

     All the while, the traumatized child and the trapped dog know two things: 1) Someone more powerful than myself has done this to me, and 2) only someone more powerful than myself can help save me. Therein lies the fear that drives the bite. These victims have learned they cannot trust those who are more powerful than they are, yet they know they are dependent on them for safety. It is a dichotomy of terror with no hope. Realizing this, the dog chews off his paw and risks bleeding to death. Coming to a similar realization, the child cuts off their emotions (reactive attachment disorder, oppositional defiant disorder, conduct disorder, antisocial personality disorder, etc), their connection with reality (schizotypal personality disorder, schizophrenia, etc), both their emotions and reality (Bipolar disorder, schizoaffective disorder, PTSD, etc), or their own self (borderline personality disorder, dissociative identity disorder, etc). Ultimately, they may even choose to end their own life as a means of escaping what they perceive to be a world full of traps and void of help.

     There have been instances where people like this have been “put down”. It happens under the guise of justice and death penalties. It happens through social isolation and institutionalization. It happens socially and economically and religiously. Through these processes, humanity is enacting the age-old rite of self-preservation on a social level. “We” are protecting “Us” from “Them” because “They” are threatening. It makes complete sense and, evolutionarily, protects us from threats. However, too often we are in a rush to protect, to diagnose, to define, and to dispense. The onslaught of managed care has taught us to ignore the traumatic traps and treat the paw, the specific injury, and discharge the patient in under seven sessions.

     In the process of being so quick to protect ourselves from the threat, we have become the very thing we thought we were protecting ourselves from: Isolated. Isolation is a social tool of punishment designed to either alter behavior so “they” becomes more like “us” (a part of our pack), or else relegate “they” to alienation and almost certain death. This ensures homogeneity and easy identification of who “we” are. The United States claim not to be savage, to be moral, to be respectable. Yet, if we are judged by how we treat our sick, our young, and our old, we are incredibly cruel, immoral, and lack any modicum of respect. If the sick could heal themselves, we would not need doctors. If the traumatized could free themselves, we would not need therapists. If the elderly were cared for by family, they would not need retirement homes.

     This is not strictly about government policies, universal healthcare, or insurance companies. This is about a society becoming so consumed with living a safe life they have failed to live a life. Convenience, ease of use, and customer satisfaction has replaced effort, attentiveness, and prudence. Somewhere along the line, acquisition of material goods and resources became synonymous with safety and wellness.

     So we abandon the dog that threatens us. We forget the child that scares us. We ignore the parent that cannot remember us. We waste our lives on things, and are surprised when things dominate our lives. To quote Kierkegaard in The Sickness Unto Death:

     “What we call worldliness simply consists of such people who, if one may so express it, pawn themselves to the world… The greatest hazard of all, losing one’s self, can occur very quietly in the world, as if it were nothing at all. No other loss can occur so quietly; any other loss – an arm, a leg, five dollars, a wife, etc. – is sure to be noticed.”

     And this is just what has happened. We have become worldly at the expense of our own selves, at the expense of those smaller, weaker, poorer, or sicker than ourselves. This has happened without a sound, with no notice, and it silently continues on, perpetuated by greed, fear, and the unending pursuit of safety. Let me assure you of one thing: a safe life is no life at all. There will be traps and traumas for all of us. Each of us will require the aid of another who is greater than ourselves to free us from these traps through relationship with patience founded on deep love. Just as each of us will encounter a trap, each of us will encounter another in their own trap. Will we risk being bitten?

(C) Nathan D. Croy
Trap

Infinite Love: Part C

     Infinite math makes nearly no sense to me. Someone explained it to me like this: if a hotel had an infinite amount of rooms, all of which were booked, and a new person came in, they would still be able to find that person a room. That’s pretty much where my brain breaks. Unfortunately, I don’t know if I have a full grasp of what it means to be infinitely in debt. In spite of this, there are still some lessons I have learned that are applicable. I’ll address this a bit more in the next post, but for now, I want to focus on the infinite debt aspect of Love.
     The debt of Love to another, willingly taken on, is infinite. Luckily, Kierkegaard illustrates infinity by what it is not. There is a lot of confusing language leading up to it, but here’s what I’ve gleaned from it: It’s either Love or envy.
     Envy is the selfish focus on what others have in relation to what “I” lack. It deals with “right now” and instant gratification. It is never truly satisfied or satiated. We can have enough, but someone else will always have more. Envy is a selfishness expressed through comparison to another. Envy requires us to keep score.
     Love requires us not to keep score. The infinity of debt means that we can never do “enough”. Yet, whatever we do in Love, is more than enough. Once again, we have quickly come to the point of brain-breakage.
     Here is the hopeful takeaway: If I become resentful in my relationship, I must discover the origin of the resentment within myself. For instance, I hate washing bottles. I do it anyway. I do not resent my wife for it, and I’m pretty sure I can say I have washed more bottles than her because I stayed home with both the children for the first six months of their lives. There were a LOT of bottles. There was a time when, as I stood, hunched over out kitchen counter, I found myself mentally cursing the existence of bottles. And then, it was if a flip was switched, I realized that as much as I hated washing these bottles (which was a lot), I Loved my wife more. Love allowed me to not keep score, and washing bottles became an act of Love she was unaware of. And that was fine. Eventually, I enjoyed washing the bottles because I hated them. There will never be a time when I look at my wife and say, “I have washed enough bottles. Today is the day that I am done. The rest are yours”. There have certainly been times I have asked her to help with the bottles, or where she has done them without asking me. Even in those moments I asked her not to do the bottles because I wanted to, because I knew how much she hates washing them!
     Does that make sense at all? That our debt must be infinite because it cannot be repaid, it is not a bill to be balanced or a score to be evened. Love requires that, out of Love, we can smile and joyfully shoulder a burden without resent or bitterness. And in those acts of Love, we are reminded of who we Love, and how deeply we Love them.

(C) Nathan D. Croy
Infinite Love

Dynamically Static.

     A book was just recently published about tough questions kids ask about Christianity. During an interview about the book, the author spoke on how he wanted to help parents not have a “deer in the headlights” look when their kids asked something and they didn’t know the answer. He rushed to say that no one has all the answers, but we should be willing to find the answers with our children.
     I think the entire premise of this book is what is wrong with Christianity today. The book, due to its format, is a static description of what we think the answers are at this moment in our history and culture. While there may be some absolutes (see: “Just Love”) that we should all agree on, there was a time when some of the principles we see as bedrock now, were absolute rubbish; and vice versa. Christ illustrated this throughout scripture when he condemned the pompous and proud Pharisees. They were so sure they had all the answers, they were no longer willing to be wrong. Their answers had become their god, so God could no longer be their answer.
     An alternative to static, rigid, unchanging answers is that, instead, we teach process. However, this manner of education is a double edged sword and we must be aware of this as we wield it. What I suggest is that we discover what the core process(es) of Scripture are. According to Scripture, loving the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength is the greatest commandment, and the second is like it; love your neighbor as yourself. For all the laws and prophets hinge upon those two commands. Both of those commands hinge on our ability to love. That seems to assume that we should be figuring out what it means to love and how we know when we are being loving. In other words: What do we do and how do we know we’re doing it?
     The laws of Scripture have never been, nor will they ever be, the path to salvation. Scripture says this, not me (Rom. 8:3-6). The process that is at the core of Scripture is to love. If this is the case, then when our children ask about the Trinity, the covenant, politics, abortion, gay marriage, or anything else, why not join them in discovering what the most loving thing is? In order to do this, however, we must be honest with ourselves and brace for the day when we follow this process and it leads us to doubt what we believe to be right or wrong.
     My parents generation fought against racism. Their parents fought against sexism. Their grandparents fought to against slavery. Our generation is fighting for equality. But here’s the thing, and it’s something we must not forget as we age: Each generation thought the previous was backward and needed to change. Each generation thought they were right. And each generation, for the most part, thought the one that came after them was forgetting their values. When we begin to walk this path with ourselves, our children, our parents, we may not always like where it takes us. But if we spend the time to discover what it really means to be loving (something I’ll talk about in my next post), and judge our actions by that standard, we will begin to live out the lives and actions to which Christ called us.  
     What do you think? Is it better to have “the answer” and tell our children what is right, or should we take the chance of them coming to the “wrong” conclusions and being mislead? There are risks to either choice, so which risk is the most severe?