UPDATE: COVID-19

Therapy is best done face to face as we communicate with one another with our bodies, emotions, faces as well our words and our silences. But in these unusual times of pandemic control, I will be adjusting my client contact according to CDC and State Health Department recommendations.

I am now offering telephone OR Telemedicine (HIPPA compliant video conferencing) to all new and current clients. Please call me directly at 612-735-2229 or email me at: lynne (at) inspiringchange (dot) us to get started.

In-office sessions have resumed. I ask that all in-office clients reschedule sessions to telephone or video conferencing if they have any active symptoms.

We continue to learn, experience and suffer together. May this worldwide experience bring hope in the midst of despair, and empathy over suspicion, healing in the face of disease, despair and death.

Why Do I Keep Asking you to Journal?

Daily I am asking my clients to take therapy skills with them into daily life – the foremost being the ability to think about our thinking. It builds the critical self reflection muscle that is a key to overcoming the distorted thinking of chronic anxiety, depression, chronic pain and problems with body, self and relationship image and assessment.

Here’s helpful list of what handwriting can do for you and your brain, focused on students and learning, applicable to what we are working on when we do psychotherapy.

https://ivypanda.com/blog/handwriting-good-for-your-studying/

Does Birth Order Matter?

For generations, family members have noted the differences that naturally arise in children raised in the same family. How is it that John, the first born and only boy, seems to have such different personality characteristics than his younger brother, raised in the same house by the same parents just two years apart? Good question!


Theories of personality abound. You may be familiar with some of the more popular models, often used in work or educational settings. The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI), based on the four major personality styles described by Swiss psychoanalyst Carl Jung, is a favorite. The Enneagram, a model developed in religious communities and often used in spiritual direction, and other forms of personal discovery, is another. These are models that seek to describe common types of personalities. Other models, such as the Big Five theory, attempt to describe personalities using the idea of common traits shared by human beings across the world, such as extraversion or neuroticism.


Whichever way makes more sense to you to describe human beings, by types or common traits, we have a collective curiosity about how people become who they are, and how much we can or should adapt ourselves to others and our environment.


How did I get to be the way I am? When my clients ask me this question, I answer this way: our personality is constituted like a recipe, with three primary ingredients. The first main ingredient is our individual nature. We are born with a particular style of personality, inherited from our parents and our larger family system. It’s part of our genetic code, and forms the basis of who we become. Our general sense of the world, our innate optimism or pessimism, our sense of humor; this basic personality is another thing we have inherited.


The second main ingredient of our personality is formed by the way we are cared for by our parents; it’s the nurture part of the recipe. Was our mother well nourished, healthy, and ready to become pregnant? Were our parents free from addiction, major illness or injury? Was our birth relatively normal? Were we welcomed into the world with joy and cared for with love? The way our parents meet our vulnerability, suffering and growing sense of self makes up the great majority of our personality relationship style.


If our parents or primary caregivers have enough sense of self that they can sacrifice and respond to our needs consistently, we learn to trust that others will meet our needs, and that others are trustworthy. We offer ourselves to them, and get care and love in return. In the research done on this concept of emotional attachment, about half of us get just what we need to feel secure. The rest of us learn some combination of security, anxiety and withdrawal to cope with inconsistent parenting.


The third part of our personality is made up of all the unique, individual experience we have in life and what we do with it. It’s the fall you took in second grade from school jungle gym, the trip to the hospital, and the cast that you had to wear through the summer. How did that fall affect you? How did it shape the way you think, feel and respond to the world? What happens, and how you chose to respond, makes up a large part of your personality.


What about birth order? I think it fits in this third “what happens to us” category of personality development. While research is still battling it out whether first born children actually are more independent than their second born siblings, therapists and other social scientists have found a common pattern in family position that seems to fit many families, at least in Western cultures. In general, first born and only children are commonly more self determined and disciplined, having been born into an adult system and most closely associated to adults, even as infants. The second born child is less connected to the adults in the family, and if followed by a third child, may feel a bit lost in their parents’ strong relationship to the first born and emotional focus on the baby of the family. The farther away from the parent system, the more independent and even rebellious that child may become. (Sulloway, 1997) Additionally, the more older siblings a child has, the more accustomed they often become to letting other people lead, and can more easily go “with the flow” than those born first.


Family therapists differ in the amount of importance they place in this theory of birth order, but most will inquire about how a client’s family is constituted, and where in the family their client “fits.” Why it matters at all is that it may help people better understand some of their unconscious preferences for friendships, marriage partners, relationship styles, and even how they may connect to or discipline their own children. It’s all just part of our individual personality recipes.

Sulloway, F. J. (1997) Born to Rebel: Birth Order, Family Dynamics, and Creative Lives. New York: Vintage.

(Originally written for GoodTherapy.org profile/topic expert page)

Do You Have Enough Friends?

            Do you have all the friends you need? Chances are that you are among the majority of American adults who recognize that they are struggling with fewer close friendships than they want. As emotional beings, all of us are biologically designed to connect to others in and outside our families of origin. While we may be surrounded by others at work, or sporting events, in our neighborhoods or churches, few of us feel that we have a core group of steady, supportive, mutually caring same gender friendships. We are friend hungry. And we don’t know how to fix it.

            This emotional scarcity can come on quite slowly. While we are progressing through school, the constant shifts from playgrounds to classrooms to new schools provide us with an ever-replenishing sea of faces from whom we may find sympathetic chums. But just as quickly as those people move into our lives, they can move out, as new environments and opportunities sweep our time and attention elsewhere. Our friends and we may marry. And right before our eyes, our emotional circle becomes instantly smaller and more fixed.

            It becomes harder and harder to stay in regular, meaningful touch with people. Phone calls help but don’t completely replace in-person conversation. Getting together can take enormous scheduling and financial efforts not everyone is able to sustain. When was the last time you hand-wrote a distant friend a letter? Many of us have tried to find less isolation in the connections we make on social media. They soothe us with easy digital connections to people across the globe. But unless those relationships are mutual and sustained, they won’t fill the emotional gap that face-to-face time with people provides.

            This scarcity of friendships seems to hit American men even harder than it does women. We have a culture that still assumes men need to be independent, stoic and in competition with one another. Generations of this gender ethic have led to families that raise boys to dismiss healthy emotional dependency and under-value one another, even within the same family. This places men in emotionally vulnerable positions, overly dependent upon their romantic partners for support. Women shoulder this by becoming the emotional centers of their families and becoming adept at managing everyone’s interpersonal relationships. It leaves men empty and women exhausted. While many of us reject these old models, they still shape the way we live. What are we to do?

            I don’t think we should give up on being and having good friends. The emotional cost of loneliness is a true mental health crisis for many, and there are no quick and lasting solutions. Over a lifetime, we need many real friends with whom we can share common interests, new experiences, shared struggles and spontaneous laughter.

            One of the most helpful resources I have found that helps to describe how we make good, close friendships is the 2016 book, “Frientimacy” by Shasta Nelson. Nelson has created an online community around friendships, speaks around the country to groups and corporations about her research, and was a featured speaker at TEDx in 2017. What she has to teach us about the qualities of good friendships is inspiring to me as a relationship therapist and someone who wants to be and have close friendships throughout my entire lifespan.

            The core qualities we must cultivate within ourselves and our key intimate relationships are Positivity, Consistency and Vulnerability. In other words, our key friendships should feel good, be mutually maintained, and let us be our real selves. These are high standards, and they take time, good boundaries and mutual intention to develop. Not every friendship can or will experience all three qualities. There are all kinds of people in our lives who may be able to sustain one aspect, like positivity, but can’t meet other aspects like consistency or real-life sharing. Or we may be more interested in someone as a friend than they are in us, and the relationship never grows. I’ll point you to Nelson’s book for more details about these key aspects, but you get the point. Real friendships take work and commitment to one another. When they work, they make us feel fully human.

            No matter who we are, we need good friendships. Perhaps the last good friend you had was someone you knew years ago but with whom you have fallen out of touch. What did that friendship teach you about how to recreate that small, essential, positive human community of two close friends? Perhaps it’s time to discover more about how you can be a friend and welcome new friendship in return.

(Written for/published 5/28/2019 The Savage Pacer)

Changing as We Age

         There is something about life transitions that makes them more difficult the older we become. I have noticed this with my clients as well as myself, and I’m certain that it’s not a simple function of declining vitality or just a well-earned preference for our own habits. What is it about life change in later life that seems to be so challenging?

         Human development is a long process of accumulated experience. It seems to take most of us about two decades to become independent of our caregivers, and during those twenty years we experience innumerable changes in our bodies, our environments, our relationships and our knowledge of the world. New people, new shoes, new ideas. Repeat.  Whether we are moving from one classroom to another, or one neighborhood, state or country to another, our younger selves are constantly integrating change into our understanding of our self and the world.

         I recall being an excited 21-year-old in the late summer of 1979, just weeks past college graduation, packing a dozen cardboard boxes full of records, books, clothes and personal items, weighing them and dropping them off for shipping. And then, accompanied only by my hard-sided sky-blue Samsonite suitcases and my guitar, getting on a series of planes beginning in Burlington, Vermont and landing in St. Paul to begin my new life as a Lutheran seminarian and would-be pastor, never to live in New England again.

         Such full-scale moves are the norm for many young adults; new jobs, new relationships, joining the Peace Corp, moving alone to a new city for graduate school. What makes such dislocation possible is the fewer and transitory ties that young adults have made so far in their lives. Change is the standard young lives have known, and it is only by living into later changes of career, marriage, parenthood, childcare, student loans, chronic health issues, mortgages and aging parents do those transitions grind to a slow march.

         I have watched this middle life deceleration of change out my living room window. Of the 6 middle-class homes surrounding me, 4 of them, including our own, have had the same owners for over 20 years. I used to think that remarkable. Now I understand what creates that stability because I have sought just that stability for myself. Moving is such an enormous disruptor when over the years you have made a house your home, when you value your children’s school district or your church, when you rely on key friends and health care professionals you know, when you live in a region with enough economic diversity you may be able to change careers in place, as I did. If those core resources have been established, one thinks long and hard before taking a geographic leap to begin putting that all in place again.

         But the changes within and around you may catch you off guard. If you are lucky, your children grow and succeed and leave your home for one of their own. The work you sacrificed for changes or you change, or you age out and now it’s done. Your parents, blessed with long lives, die and you are suddenly the oldest generation of your family. Your body, which you’ve trusted to go and grow suddenly stalls and reveals new pain, problems and limitations. How did all this suddenly happen, you wonder, and of course the answer is that it was all happening while you were busy looking down, raising children, earning a living, trying to stay focused enough to create a full-grown life. And before you know it, you’re on the other side of trying. You’ve suddenly arrived, only to have to figure out the next transition into older adulthood.

         No one as of yet has handed me a life map. We each end up sketching out our own with just enough foresight to help us imagine what comes next. And that may be the greatest and necessary emotional skill of later life: imagination. The ability to mentally image our next steps with greater wisdom and hard-earned courage than we could have possibly hoped for at 21 or even 41. Because it takes that kind of skill to discern how to live in an aging body, how to let go of old resentments, what of everything we have accumulated to keep and what to let go. If we’re lucky, there is so much left to learn.

(Originally published in the Savage Pacer Online 4/15/19 and in print 4/20/19)

The Huge Problem of Binary Thinking

There is so much the small child’s brain is figuring out about the world it’s no wonder human memories don’t begin to form until our third or fourth year. And even then, they are impressionistic: a beloved face, the flash of a dog running across a lawn, the yellow wallpaper over a grandparent’s shoulder as he lifted us out of a crib. So much experience and so few ways to describe it to ourselves.  One of the very first ways our brain organizes the world is to divide known things in two: night, day; up, down; yes, no; cold, hot; mother, father. This binary division is one of the first ways we know how the world is.

By the time we are ready for kindergarten, we can expand those mental and linguistic maps. We know there are more than two temperatures of things, the day is divided by clocks into hours, and we have a box of crayons which contains a dozen or more different colors. But this automatic binary thinking seems to really stick when it comes to sorting people. Small children believe the world to be clearly sorted into good and bad people, boys and girls, rich and poor, young and old, black and white. A critical problem in our country at the moment is that many adults refuse to grow beyond these mental labels. And spend enormous energies reinforcing these labels when they are shamelessly simplistic or just plain wrong.

I’ve been lamenting the way we compartmentalize one another this way as we approach the midterm election this November 6th. Nothing is as distorted and illustrative of this binary division than the current crop of negative campaign ads. While officially a multi-party political system, our politics have evolved into a binary choice: the Republican Party or the Democratic Party. Dividing our political visions into two teams has created an Us vs. Them strategy that currently draws no one to middle ground.

Push, pull, left, right. Yes, our politics have been in this tug of war for generations. But the new pervasiveness of personal technology, the internet, and social media have allowed white racial anxiety to reemerge from the far shadows into a frighteningly broad cultural attitude, fanning the anonymous rage of some into flame. Just this week over a dozen mail bombs were sent to Democratic leaders, and neo-Nazi anti-Semitic rhetoric spurred one gunman to slaughter 11 Jewish worshippers at prayer in Pennsylvania.

Some of us were once naïve enough to believe that the election of Barack Obama marked permanent social change in America. The 2016 campaigns demonstrate that racial fear is still at the heart of majority America. With no political experience and a self-professed history of exploiting women, with a campaign promise to build a giant wall on our southern border and reverse trade agreements with China, Trump won his party’s nomination and then the national election. His current policies attempt to upend sexual minority rights, stall climate change efforts and reverse laws that protect women’s reproductive decisions. Every one of these choices repeatedly divides us, each speech he gives shamelessly promotes himself, all the while Russian efforts to sow political unease in America by planting false political stories in social media, shared instantly by millions across Facebook, succeed. Putin must be thrilled.

Us/them, either/or binary thinking never could sustain a complex democracy. The answers to our personal and social challenges are too complex. I urge you to become part of the solution, and vigorously resist the racial bias we have all grown up with; to question political rhetoric, even from your own party of choice; and to recognize that the words we use to think, describe and talk with one another can have life and death consequences in the real world. Leadership at every level of government matters. Vote.

 

(First published 10/31/18 in Savage Pacer “Spiritual Reflections” column)

https://tinyurl.com/yam6flnq

 

Gender Control & Body Shame: The Purity Movement

Nothing makes me sadder than the way a part of the Christian family, the conservative evangelical community, has shamed women for their gender, leadership and sexuality. In the 1990’s, a bizarre, controlling movement spread in churches to have young women be told that sexual purity was their responsibility alone;  that young men were so weak that they couldn’t control their sex drive. Girls were trained to pledge their “purity” until marriage at the cost of their integrity and sense of self. Girls were indoctrinated to such a degree that their sexual expression was wrapped in shame, guilt and fear to traumatic degree.

I hope that any woman for whom this story is a personal one will seek care with a good, skilled mental health therapist who has religious training and deep background. I work with such women.

Want to learn more about the way women have been shamed and controlled by this movement? Listen to this recent Fresh Air broadcast in which Teri Gross interviews the author of the new book, “Pure.” https://www.npr.org/programs/fresh-air/2018/09/18/649070416?showDate=2018-09-18

 

Why You Should Learn to Cook

A recent survey conducted by a food industry consultant Eddie Yoon (printed here and reported on elsewhere) finds that 90% of American adults hate to cook. This 90% is comprised of folks who don’t know how to cook, don’t like to cook, or do it reluctantly some of the time. They are purchasing pre-packaged food (fresh, frozen and dried) in grocery store isles as well as in take-and-go options such as Dunkin’ Donuts, Starbucks, as well as the familiar fast food restaurants like McDonald’s and Subway.

That leaves just 10% of Americans who continue to prepare food from fresh ingredients and who have mastered at least the basic skills once taught to most middle schoolers in Home Economics.  In his article, Yoon advises the major suppliers of groceries to get with the trend and embrace more technology in food preparation as well as diversifying their ownership in alternative on-the-go food restaurants or brands that show an upward trend. The writing is on the wall on this, he advises. There seems to be no turning back.

If this is the case, and most of the industry is turning to preparing food for us and seeing the kitchen as a place to store food and eat it, but not prepare it, why should you buck the trend and get firmly in the minority food lane and learn to cook? I can think of several reasons, all of which are quite important to me. Maybe one or more might be important to you, too.

  1. Your long-term health and the health of your children. Why are we an obese nation and just keep getting fatter no matter how hard we try to slim down? Because we let other people prepare our food for us, filling us with unseen but powerful fats, salt, artificial fillers and preservatives and chemical flavors. Even with the recent trend to label the calorie content of your Big Mac or Chipotle burrito bowl, most of us will eat more than our bodies need if a meal is presented to us on our plate and we are in a social (loud, busy and people-centered) environment.
  2. Cooking is a human art, and it’s crazy to lose what we have spend tens of thousands of years figuring out as a species. I am particularly thinking about the women who have throughout the generations toiled in field, barnyard and kitchen to feed their families. Using tools and ingredients common to their culture, it has been the traditional work of women to manage the preparation of food for families in their homes. I’m not willing to give this part of my gender identity over to some multinational corporation. I want to know something of what my grandmothers and earlier generations passed down to one another, in prosperous times and in depressed.
  3. Food is a gift of God to and in creation, and when I am gardening, or shopping, or cooking at home, I am participating in the work and renewal of creation. Am I thinking such high theological thoughts when I am boiling my brown rice and marinading my chicken breasts? Uh, no. But give me a minute and I will tell you that I pray with my family over our dinners and I pause to think about the gift that good food is in a world in which so many are starving. I marvel at how many wonderful foods are available to me in America. And how many will keep me healthy.
  4. Real food is more than fuel. Real food is medicine and learning about and committing to preparing it creatively is community building. It is a creative necessity, and a way for families to take time out daily to look at one another and talk face to face in their home. Children who eat dinner with their families grow to have a sense of belonging in their families, know their parents better, learn to talk with adults, and have so many less food addiction and eating disorder issues than their peers who don’t have families who eat together. And in these families, children can slowly and with confidence learn to cook so they can eventually cook for themselves as adults.

With the fantastic television shows about cooking that are on right now, you’d think we would all be inspired. Apparently not. Even the Great British Bake Off can make food preparation look like the work only of experts. We all have to eat. I just want to eat well, eat to care for my family, eat to keep this amazing human art form alive. It’s not impossible. If you can reluctantly learn a thing or two about sifting flour in 7th grade, I know that you can learn as an adult by reading a good simple recipe, getting the right ingredients, getting a few essential tools, and having patience as you become better skilled. Your body will be healthier, your mind clearer, your budget better balanced, and your family life calmer. It’s worth your time.

My Christian Faith IS Political

How does human culture change? If we tell the simple story, the kind that gets written for elementary school textbooks, change looks explosive, like it was shot out of a cannon. Continents are discovered by a single explorer, wars end with the stroke of a pen, inventions burst onto the market. But that simple moment is far from the entire story. What lies behind human change are innumerable people, their imaginations, choices and behavior, and the repeated sharing of new information which shifts many toward a converging point of difference. Something new has begun.

Yet while human creativity moves us toward discovery and difference, there is an equally powerful force in human life to prefer the known, the familiar, the past. We are fiercely loyal to what we have been; it has formed our identity. The current presidential administration, with its failure to denounce white supremacist groups, ignoring the danger of climate change, dismissing professional journalism’s historical integrity, isolating our country from our international allies, starting a massive trade war, soft pedaling the rising numbers of school shootings, separating children from parents seeking asylum at our southern border, and attempts to restore glory to the old technology of coal mining, is all about amassing power, promising renewed security and courting those who feel they are losing their assumed, rightful place in America. It is government for those who are fundamentally afraid and believe that security can only be found by returning to an imagined, familiar past.

Unfortunately, nowhere is this drive to preserve the known and idealized American past is more visible than in the life of many Christian church leaders and members. For generations, local congregations have reflected the majority culture and resisted any real move to change the status quo. At every crisis point of growth, a majority of leaders and members hold on to the past. Slavery? Post-civil war racial segregation? Women’s suffrage? Civil rights? Vietnam? Birth control? Treaty rights with native tribes? LGBTQ rights? At every turn, among the loudest and most vociferous supporters of maintaining status quo have been church-going, educated, Bible-quoting, privileged middle-class adults .

Nearly every mainline church in Europe is empty on Sundays. Why? They have failed to respond to the world around them. The generations of children born following the horror of World War II found the focus of church life to be rigidly focused on reestablishing the past, a past that was not important to them as Europe recovered and turned outward. This same loss of importance and impact is happening in our country, too. The old systems are losing ground, and every day churches are closing.

I believe we are in the midst of major culture change, much like that which occurred following the Kennedy assassination, Vietnam protests and Watergate. There is a split in the culture between those who do not fear the present — new technologies driving an ever increasing economic globalism, a lessening of white majority population, smaller and more flexible institutions, an economy based on renewable energy, invention and service, and increased urban populations – and those who want life to return to the last century’s industrial economy fed by mining and burning coal, a massive military, a stable white majority population, clear racial and gender roles, a conservative judiciary, and rigid institutionalism. These tensions led to Donald Trump’s election and now play out dramatically in the news every single day.

I believe that the good news that Jesus preached is a message for all time, to every culture. It is news that God, who is the divine energy of all life and creation, is a God of love, welcome, healing and renewal. And that those who feel that power are called to live into those values in every time and place. The church began as a response to the resurrection appearances of Jesus and to the way his gospel life reshaped his disciples into people of peace, community, healing and hope. If our churches are not about proclaiming and living out this gospel, if all they do is maintain the status quo, it’s time to leave them empty. What many courageous people of faith are doing in this culture now to respond to this cultural change is messy and inspired. I am eager to see what the American church will become. It may need to die in many ways in order to reborn to its original purposes. God give us courage to speak when so many demand the church stay “out of politics,” as if politics, the way we use power to order our common life, was of no concern to Jesus.

(my Spiritual Reflections column, originally published in the Savage Pacer, 6/30/18)