Five Steps to Make the Holidays Better (this time!)

Thursday, December 13th, 2012

So the season of winter holidays is upon us. One can usually tell by the bulk of TV ads showing cars with giant bows on top and men gifting the special woman in their life with impossibly wonderful jewelry.

The net result of this kind of advertising leaves people feeling like an utter failure if they are not giving gifts on this order of magnitude. And this is just one small example of how the commercialization of gift giving can negatively affect the “holiday spirit.”

Imagine—if you will—that you are a creature from another planet. If you were observing Western nations attempting to “do” the winter holidays… what would you see?

I imagine you would see masses of people throwing themselves into a whirl of “time honored” rituals involving food, gift gifting and spending time with family and friends. With all this energy focused on such extravagant gatherings—they are sure to be successful, right?

Instead, I think you would observe huge numbers of people extending themselves past their capacities. And when all is said and done, thankful—not for the opportunity they just had—but rather, that the whole ordeal is over.

When we look at it from this perspective, the holidays appear to be a burden we cannot wait to have lifted from us. More than that, they seem to do damage to the very relationships we claim to cherish. One has to wonder about the number of people who are disinherited, shed tears or even get divorced following the disappointing reality of the holidays, which did not living up to their expectations.

Five Ways to Better the Holidays

Despite the current unrest over the holidays, we believe there are ways to avoid disappointment this December. Thus, Rosenberger’s Five Ways to Better the Holidays. These suggestions may not be a guarantee, but I can promise they will improve your holiday experience from years previous! And if they do not give perfect results, do not call out the lawyers!

1. Adjust Your Expectations. This is perhaps the most important. Most of us will not give (or receive) a car with a bow, a huge diamond, or a proposal of marriage. First, let’s get down to the principles. What are the holidays? They are the commemoration of events past that give essential shape to our religious views of the world. Nothing more, and nothing less. If we focus on the tradition and not on the customs, then perhaps we will have a more realistic view of what to expect from the holidays.

To focus our efforts, it might be a good idea to set aside a slice of time to think about what can we expect from our families? What can we expect in terms of gifts? What can we expect in terms of our own attempts to remake A Christmas Carol? If we go into the holidays knowing, for example, that certain relatives are going to be just as annoying as they always are, then perhaps when he/she is acting predictably, we can find it within ourselves not to get discouraged, and perhaps even find it amusing. They are who they are!

2. Downsize the Demands. There is only so much time. We live busy lives. Sometimes even overwhelmed ones. Then come the holidays with their own set of demands. Perhaps we need to sit ourselves down and ask what we can reasonably expect of ourselves and others in our attempt to clean, cook, buy, wrap, etc., etc., etc.

If we want, we can pile on the requirements of the holidays so that we end up resenting their arrival. Or, if we scale back, perhaps we can actually enjoy what we are reasonably able to do, and find that those efforts are enough.

3. Stick to a Budget. There is only so much money. Some people attempt to make up for what shortcomings exist in relationships or in other areas of their lives by spending excessive amounts of money to make things “extra special.”  What that usually leaves us with is maxed-out credit cards and feelings of frustration that our “above and beyond” efforts did not lead to the results we wanted. In this case, the holidays can be an especially sad time. No amount of money can make up for what we do or do not have. It might actually profit us more to place the holidays on a budget, to own up to what we can and cannot do and to live within those constraints. Not only might it force us to dig into the holidays for what they can actually give us, this path of thinking will minimize any regret we could have in 2013!

4. Know Your Limits. This involves everything. Even people who live greatly disciplined lives, allow that very self-control to disappear during the holidays and then wonder why they feel “off.”  Whatever disciplines you have set up for yourself, be sure to maintain them during the holidays. If you go to the gym, continue going to the gym. If you drink alcohol sparingly, then continue to do so. Also, know your balance between work and trying to please all the people you’re trying to please. If the key to any kind of deep kind of happiness is balance, try to maintain it during December. At the very least, you will serve as an inspiration to others who are looking for an excuse to get off the “let’s make the holidays bigger at any cost” roller coaster.

5. Incorporate the Ideals of the Season into Your Life. Finally—even if you are the most secular of souls—it would not be a bad thing to allow yourself time to reflect on what this season means to you or what you would like it to mean to you and those around you. I am not suggesting you have to suddenly become a practitioner of a faith or religion that does not mean anything to you. This would hardly help anyone.

But, perhaps it would be helpful to spend a bit of time in meditation or contemplation (however rationally based) on what the ideals of this season are, and how we can incorporate those into our lives. Wherever they might have originated might be irrelevant if the ideals are not lived out even by those who claim to believe in the miracle stories literally. What might be most important is taking one ideal of this season and making it somehow more real in your life, just for its own sake and because it will feel good. I will not argue whether this will compete with a car topped with a big red bow. But, it will beat staggering through the holidays, wondering why you’re putting yourself through this.

Hopelessness: What to do about it?

Tuesday, July 26th, 2011

Hopelessness is perhaps one of the most significant but ignored issues that people will present in psychoanalysis.  Sometimes, it is seen as part of depression, and indeed it is.  Sometimes, however, it is seen as a proof as a person’s lack of patience with the analytic process.  And perhaps sometimes it is.  But in my experience as a clinician it appears to signify much more.

First, it IS a sign of depression–perhaps along with finding no pleasure in anything one of the most important symptoms of a depression that can become life threatening.  Secondly, and perhaps as importantly, it is a sign of how an individual feels about his/her life in general, taken as a whole.  All too often in our society we look at the various dimensions of our lives:  professional, financial, family, friends, etc. and assume that if there is no great problem in any of those areas then we must be happy and that any feelings of discontent must be imaginary, like Jacob Marley’s ghost.

But perhaps these feelings of emptiness are trying to tell us something.  Perhaps they are trying to suggest to us that we ARE lacking something in our lives.  Perhaps one of the above mentioned areas of our lives is not going as well as we would want to believe.  Perhaps our work is boring us to tears,  Perhaps our romantic partner no longer seems as invested in the relationship as he/she once was.

But there is a possibility that these feelings of emptiness are trying to get our attention to something deeper, something of what one theologian has called, something of ultimate concern.  In the old song, that most of you would be too young to remember, Peggy Lee asks, “Is that all there is?”  It is possible that even with all of our material and emotional desires more or less met, that we seem to long for something more, something greater than ourselves, something truly transcendent.  Perhaps it is in this quest for the transcendent that we discover our deepest and truest humanity.  It in response to these deeper longings, that we turn our attention to the “great” questions:  questions of the True, the Just, and the Beautiful.  I would suggest that unless we at some point in our lives quest after some “taste” of these transcendent mysteries, we miss the deepest and most important experiences of being human.

If you find yourself wrestling with these questions or being plagued by these doubts, perhaps the solution is not just to “have another drink.”  Perhaps it might be the universe’s way of trying to get your attention.  In ancient texts, when a person was about to be let in on something big, some celestial being would get this person’s attention and say, BEHOLD!  Could it be possible that the universe is trying to get your attention?  If this is true, then perhaps your feelings are not to be ignored.  If anything, it might be time to try to behold what is trying to come to be within your life and maybe even inside yourself.  If this is the case, you have to be careful.  You might get swept off your feet!

What Passover Can Mean

Monday, April 18th, 2011

It is again that time of year when Jews all over the world gather around dinner tables of many sizes to recount the story of the Exodus:  the story of the Israelites’ journey from Egypt into the desert where they wondered for over 40 years to get to the Promised Land.  To many people, especially my teenage patients, this ritual is merely an endurance test.  Can we survive the stories we’ve heard a million times to get to eat…..and we don’t even get bread?  What is it with this matzoh?  For too many young people, the seder can be a grueling test of survival, the meaning of which is:  when do we get to eat?

I would like to offer a differing view point.  I believe that the story of the Israelites can be everyone’s story.

How so, you ask?

In this way: it is the story of the human movement from slavery to freedom. And that is everyone’s story in some way.

“Isn’t this what everyone does?”

The Hebrew word for Egypt means literally “the narrow place.”  Thus, the place of bondage – the place of no freedom to move – is a place of slavery.  I suspect we all have these places in our lives:  whether we are slaves to work, chemicals, harmful relationships or a “cool” dedication to a meaningless life with little-to-no value.

It is my belief that life lived in this way IS slavery.  We might not be forced to make bricks, but we certainly are not our own masters and directors of our fates. But many people are convinced that since the surface looks good, the emptiness they feel just comes along with the territory. So they compromise and put on a happy face; after all, isn’t this what everyone does?

A new kind of freedom

To that question, I would answer, “NO!”  The Exodus story and the mystery of being truly alive calls us to freedom. That freedom is from all the things I have already mentioned or perhaps some other kind of tyranny which we are afraid to admit even to ourselves.  Thus, the call to freedom, as the Deuternomic writer would say, is issued to us TODAY.  Today we are called to a new kind of freedom.

Is freedom free?  Of course not.  Ask any soldier and they will tell you that freedom always has a price.  For us this Passover, perhaps the price of freedom is a new level of honesty–with ourselves or others.  Perhaps it is the courage to confront old habits that do not work and trying new things.  Perhaps it might mean a very real and profound change of lifestyle:  giving up the comforts of a great salary for work that for us has more meaning.

Confront your reality, find your freedom

Whatever the price might be, the Exodus story calls us to confront the reality of our own slavery and ask ourselves, “What am I getting for these chains?”  If we approach Passover with this mindset this year, perhaps we are positioned actually to hear the story.  Perhaps for the first time, this Exodus can be OUR Exodus.  In this way, the movement from slavery to freedom will be brand new for us, and indeed as new as it was for the Israelites of old.

Some cynics might argue that such freedom cannot exist.  But we don’t know till we try.

The serenity prayer and family therapy

Monday, April 4th, 2011

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.

This is known as the Serenity Prayer, but this could very well be called the family prayer.  Most people live to change the people they love.  It is only when that desired change is met with resistance will that person realize that the change process is really about them and not the other person.  Most times it takes a while before we realize that we cannot change our family members, but we can change how we relate to them.  This epiphany is a way of accepting things we cannot change.

Acceptance is tricky in a family where there is maladaptive behavior.  However, acceptance is the best treatment plan for boundaries.  It is almost paradoxical.  For instance, one can’t change the behavior of another, but they can remove themselves from the pattern in which the behavior is carried out.  Hence, the struggle of trying to get a person to stop or change the behavior ceases and the acceptance of creating healthy boundaries for oneself so that they will no longer be a part of the maladaptive behavior begins and wisdom is birthed.

In family therapy, the problem is approached with the intent of creating desirable change in the maladaptive patterns of behavior that a family has established.  When equating this concept to a family, it helps us to understand the pattern of behavior that is behind how a family relates and communicates.

When a family comes for help, one of the first things that a clinician is told is the presenting symptoms, i.e., a family member gets drunk every weekend, my spouse is having an affair, our daughter is disrespectful, our son is failing school, my spouse is never at home, etc.  These can all be viewed as symptoms, but they are also the way a family relates, which can be signs that something is wrong.  For the clinician, the pattern of relating is used to analysis the movement of the family.  To unpack this concept further, within families there are roles, rules and then what I like to call the “state” of the family or homeostasis.  In other words, how the family usually relates to each other.  The family can experience this state as being pleasant, dramatic, troubling, hurtful or even unbearable.  What is certain is that no matter what event happens in the family, the family manages to get back to their “state” or way of relating to each other after the event has ended.  It is this redundant pattern of behavior in families that resist change.  Within these patterns is what family therapists call circular causality.  The behavior of one person causes the behavior of another; however, this is not to suggest that the behavior of one party is to blame.  The behaviors of both parties have to be present to create the pattern or circular causality.

Often these patterns are carried out between two people in the family (a dyad), and at times there can also be a triangular relationship to help maintain the “state” of the family.  Within this dyad and/or triangular relationship, there is a circular and causality pattern that has developed.  For instance, one person becomes distant and the other person becomes the pursuer.  This can take shape in one person nagging and the other person not coming home.  Another example is favoritism is shown to the older brother and then the younger sister becomes disrespectful to the parents.  Some families recognize the pattern, but others are deeply entrenched in the patterns of behavior, and they only know that the family is suffering from the maladaptive behavioral pattern.  Sometimes this is all that is needed to get a family on the right path – the wisdom to know the difference between maladaptive and adaptive behavior, and the courage to bring that behavior to the light.  What maladaptive behavioral patterns have been established in your family?  Are you ready to set healthy boundaries?

Looking for Dialogue Partners!

Sunday, March 6th, 2011

We at SPARK, especially myself, are always looking for other individuals who are engaged deeply in the work of promoting and advocating for human growth.  What is fascinating is how many people are engaged in this work (either for themselves or others–or both!)  and do not know the great number of people who are also trying to achieve the same goals.

In this way, clergy, social workers, psychologists, and care givers under hundreds of other names are often laboring alone. They feel alone and are often sitting on a mountain of wisdom about the journey of growth as a human being.  That’s why at SPARK, we want the entire world to know that we wish to band together with all of you! It doesn’t matter what psychological or religious background you might be from in order to share our collected wisdom. Or whatever pain you’re feeling; all too often our greatest wisdom comes from the experiences of pain we have suffered.

A GREAT example of this is the blog of Facebook entitled Care of Christchurch.  This young individual is using his own personal experience as a way of connecting with the larger world to promote care and connection with the people who have lived through this horrible disaster.  So do take a look at this blog; it will be worth your time.  Also, anyone so motivated is welcome to email or call any of us at SPARK to start any dialogue that will bring us all closer to where we most deeply wish to be.

Spirituality and Psychoanalysis

Saturday, March 5th, 2011

Many people make the mistake of equating spirituality and religion.  Although they certainly can be related, they are not necessarily to be reduced to each other.  Much will be made of this distinction later.

Suffice it to say that at least on one level, spirituality is a way of knowing the  self.  It is a way trying to know the self completely, in all its light and darkness.  Spirituality is the attempt to know what kind of person one is and of what one is capable – both good and bad, transcendent and despicable.

In the same way, analysis attempts to assist a person in the process of getting to know oneself.  It has been found by many that in order to know the living self in the present, it is necessary to know intimately one’s roots and origins.

The past is often very much not in some metaphysical past that we make up, but living in the present. And it  determines our choices without our even knowing how little true freedom we enjoy.  In this way analysis, like spirituality, is the journey from pre-determination to genuine liberty.  Thus, the path of psychoanalysis, seen from this angle, must be an inherently spiritual one.