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5 October 2017
Meeting Your Basic Needs - “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough”
What are the ingredients for wellness? If you knew, you wouldn’t be here, and I wouldn’t have a job. Bummer for both of us. For nutrition and physical wellness you have the food pyramid, for mental wellness there’s Maslow’s hierarchy..
A first step is to acknowledge wherever you are on the hierarchy with gratitude, as you are able. This is your origin. It may not seem like much, it may be quite far from where you want to be, yet it is a starting point, your starting point. In large part you determine how high you climb! Ready?
Once you have secured the first two tiers (physiological and safety needs), you arrive at social needs. There’s a layered relationship between social needs (third tier) and esteem needs (fourth tier). There isn’t one correct approach, and it’s hard to meet the needs of one tier without addressing the needs of the other. To mix things up, I might actually start at esteem needs and step down a little later.
While self-esteem is most sustainable when it comes from within, it doesn’t exist in a vacuum. The values that shape our behaviors, and how we feel about ourselves, are internalized via family, religion, educational and professional organizations, media, and almost any other cultural institution in existence. We filter in the values that are of importance to us (power, intelligence, patience, empathy, creativity, introspection, etc.) and use them to guide our self-regard, or self-esteem. Knowing the personal importance of various values is a good first step; calibrating them between challenge and competency can be a lifelong process. In other words, self-esteem often flourishes at the intersection of “I am comfortable with and gentle with myself” and “I rise to the challenge of further development of this value and myself.”
I chose to address the fourth tier before the third because a strong sense of self is the foundation to fulfilling relationships. Once values have been established, we can both seek out people who share these values for a sense of belonging and mutuality and seek out those with differing values to challenge and enrich the ways we find meaning in the world. This balance between flexibility and affinity negotiates the closeness we feel with each other, a secure base from which we can explore new relationships, new value sets. This flows naturally into the fifth and final tier, mastery, in which we share what we’ve learned and been challenged by with our communities as mentors.
^I encourage you to check out the full article by Dr. Neel Burton for Psychology Today, and check out my web pages while you’re at it!
Motown legends: Michael Jackson [CD]. (1993). Motown Record Co.
6 October 2017
A common clinical phenomenon has dawned on me just in advance of October 11, National Coming Out Day. I’ve encountered a number of gay men that are newly out in a bustling yet overlapping/six degrees of separation/”everyone knows your business” LGBTQ community. They pose some configuration of the basic question “well now what?”.
Even as a gay practitioner this can be a daunting social identity subject to address. I often refer clients - or we review it ourselves - to the Cass Model of Identity.
So where do we go? Two directions at least: on the one hand utter cynicism and on the other hand utter lovestruck lunacy. To be sure each has merits and drawbacks. Insecure attachment, which most of us display to some extent, keeps us on guard. The debilitating possibility of rejection is too great a blow to weather. If we avoid it altogether, we keep our egos intact. This of course comes at the significant expense of missing deep emotional intimacy with a romantic and/or sexual partner. The hopeless romantic experiences the inverse. A certain imperviousness to rejection hurls one through rejection to the moving target of “true love,” whatever the hell that is. Most of us lack this extreme band of imperviousness and when we face inevitable rejection need time to nurse our wounds and guard against further affront. These exist in a dichotomy, a wide-range spectrum of attachment styles and trajectories toward intimacy, or isolation. Likely you will find yourself vacillating on the spectrum, making adjustments in an attempt to best meet your needs with your ego intact. For more on gay courtship and intimacy in particular, check out http://www.alandowns.com/ and http://www.robertweissmsw.com/.
So all of this is somewhat heartening on the dating realm, whenever that seems feasible. What about sex?
Sex is anything but one size fits all. To my knowledge there isn’t a continuum that can contain it, even if you’re conceptualizing some kind of vanilla-kink continuum. So while there’s little in the way of direction, which can be frustrating and overwhelming, the silver lining is that you’re at the helm. You set the course.
A good place to get off - jump off - is masturbation. Nobody knows you better than you, and it follows that a good comfort level with your own body and sexual imaginings will translate to an at least passable comfort with someone else’s body - or bodies - and sexual imaginings. Therapy, and sex therapy in particular, is a critical tool in challenging guilt and shame around sex - including but not limited to masturbation - and enriching your sex life and relationships.There are about as many ways to masturbate as there are masturbators. So, it’s unlikely that you’re doing it wrong, and it’s likely a good idea to mix it up. Humans crave novelty and nowhere is this more apparent than in sex.
14 October 2017
Where does addiction go?
In early stages of treatment it’s likely that you’ll hear and/or be warned of cross-addiction, maybe even getting the seasoned “Whack-A-Mole” allegory. Is this an inevitability? Can you/we escape the cross-addiction quagmire? What do/should you watch for, and what support can you reach for if you fall into cross-addiction?
To dismantle these questions, it is necessary to assess need and motivation. Dopamine is a primary suspect to be sure. Dopamine, the pleasure neurotransmitter, is a key player in addiction. It feels good, really good, and we all want to feel good regardless of addiction proclivity. What about oxytocin, the “cuddle neurotransmitter?” To be sure, it shows up in sexual activity alongside dopamine and others. Maybe we can look at it as a gateway to connection and intimacy. And few conditions are more isolating than active addiction.
Whether you’re in active addiction or crawling your way out of the morass (or trucking along in your recovery and mental health), your neurochemistry is a shit show in all probability. To be fair, everyone’s is, at least at some point. But if you want to regain a center of balance, it’s vital to know what to expect - and what you can do. That relentless drive for pleasure is not likely to dissipate. It will do whatever necessary to find alternate trajectories. Anticipate this and evaluate trajectories that work for you and against you. Work your support. Embrace mistakes and slips. Does addiction ever fully disappear? That’s hard to quantify and operationalize. Yet, as we’ve seen time and again and continue to see all the time, the human capacity for resilience and growth is nothing short of incredible. So much of recovery is guided by cognition - as much as we can’t stand platitudes: conceiving is believing.
For more information on addiction and recovery, check out:
Drugs, Society, and Human Behavior by Carl Hart and Charles Ksir,
Drugs, Behavior, and Modern Society, by Charles F. Levinthal,
Mindfulness and the 12 Steps by Therese Jacobs-Stewart, MA,
Erotic Intelligence by Alexandra Katehakis, MFT,
The Porn Trap by Wendy Maltz, LCSW, DST and Larry Maltz, LCSW,
Cruise Control by Robert Weiss, LCSW, CSAT-S,
Griffin Recovery Enterprises: www.dangriffin.com
This hopefully will be one in a series of discussions on mindfulness philosophies because guess what? Suffering never goes away. Most people, myself included, have buried their heads in the sand or tried to actively fight and control this inevitability. If you’re enlightened enough to arrive at acceptance...then you probably have no use for this stream of consciousness. Let’s assume you haven’t. I haven’t, and I’m ready to dive in. I hope you join me!
Let’s start with The Guest House, one of my favorite poems by Rumi, an exceptional and prolific 13th century poet:
This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they are a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice.
meet them at the door laughing and invite them in.
Be grateful for whatever comes.
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.
Great - for Rumi. Where does that leave us - in a world of hurt? The platitudes never end - it’s darkest before dawn, no mud, no lotus ad hominem. I wonder if the truth is that life is a lifelong unraveling of our relationships with suffering. It’s a slow, painfully slow process, one that invites our resistance. What happens when we give in, when we let suffering run its course, unopposed and in full acceptance? It doesn’t happen overnight and we certainly don’t have to know now. For now, picture what acceptance might look like. Break it down into realistic steps, and try embracing the guest house’s squatters.
Where there is desire, there is jealousy, potentially. Is it inevitable? As with most things it depends on who you ask? For the sake of argument and analysis let’s assume that it does. When is it most likely to occur, and because it is generally unpleasant, how do we avoid it?
A definition is in order, and it is also important to distinguish jealousy from envy. Jealousy is:
jealous resentment against a rival, a person enjoying success or advantage, etc., or against another's success or advantage itself.
mental uneasiness from suspicion or fear of rivalry, unfaithfulness, etc., as in love or aims.
Jealousy refers more to the fear of losing a person’s love, or less commonly losing an object, whereas envy has more to do with coveting something, or more often someone, that belongs to someone else.
Often, it starts in the family. Freud contended that it begins in early childhood or even infancy, when parental caregiving relationships are threatened by the pre-existing hierarchical parental dyad, or relational bond of the couple. Whether or not sexual and/or romantic aspirations with parental figures color the young child’s existence, it does appear that children resent attention and emotion that is expended on anyone other than themselves.
Enter sibling rivalry. Parents devote attention, and even affection, differentially. Though most claim to love their children equally, it’s quite likely that they love each child “differently.” Those differences will often contribute to perceptions, or reality, of parents valuing their children differently. So, children more likely than not enter adulthood, and courtship, with an inferiority complex or a highly fragile and unstable superiority complex. For a more detailed explanation of inferiority and superiority complexes check out the third hyperlink below.
All of this culminates in the formation and maintenance of fraternal and sometimes even more problematic romantic bonds. Whatever insecurity exists in friend groups vying for each other’s attention, or fear of losing friends, is typically magnified in monogamous, and often polyamorous, couplings. Relationships can seem under siege by a never ending stream of sexier, funnier, smarter, kinder mates. Invariably, sexual and emotional bonds in a relationship ebb, flow, and flag. On some level, we know that jealousy is an ineffective pursuit, ultimately unable to tame free will. Still, many of us cling to it with flimsy hopes that we can retain the ones we love via this consuming emotional alone. Paradoxically, jealousy, that secondary fear-based emotion, can be the nail in the coffin of an otherwise healthy and mutually satisfying relationship.
Simultaneously an achievement-based jealousy schema develops, often in education and often solidified in the workplace. The classroom, intentionally or not, often pits students against each other on a large scale, vying for a teacher’s limited validation. When financial livelihood and vocational fulfillment enter the picture, jealousy can really escalate. You’re overlooked, your apparently mediocre colleague gets a promotion and accolades. And you think, I could do better than that! And that’s the rut you’re stuck in, until you start pulling yourself out.
So is that it? No, argue Janet Hardy and Dossie Easton, authors of the groundbreaking “Ethical Slut.” What then does “unlearning jealousy” entail? A lot of deliberate thought, effort, gentleness, and self care. Rethinking love as an infinite abundance rather than a scarcity to be allotted to one person alone. And just as importantly, maintaining relational parameters that reflect your values, boundaries and needs on a continuum between asexuality, monogamy, and nonmonogamy.
This is by no means the last word on jealousy! My hope is that I’ve shed a little light on the emotion and that it’s triggered some meaningful thoughts and actions.
“When we tell our partners that we feel jealous, we are making ourselves vulnerable in a very profound way. When our partners respond with respect, listen to us, validate our feelings, support and reassure us, we feel better taken care of that we would have no difficulty had arisen in the first place. So we strongly recommend that you and your partners give each other the profoundly bonding experience of sharing your vulnerabilities. We are all human, we are all vulnerable, and we all need validation.” - Dossie Easton and Janet W. Hardy, “The Ethical Slut”
For more on jealousy check out:
The Ethical Slut by Dossie Easton and Janet W. Hardy
Mindset by Carol Dweck
Easton, D., & Hardy, J. W. (2017). The ethical slut: a practical guide to polyamory, open relationships and other adventures. California: Ten Speed Press.
Outside looking in: the best of the Gin Blossoms [CD]. (n.d.).
22 November 2017
Neurochemistry of Gratitude
What makes up gratitude?
Gratitude, like happiness or even love, is something that for many of us “just happens,” with or without much intent. If this is the case, why “ruin it” by examining its constituent parts or trying to predict what effect it will have on us or those around us?
Gratitude has been defined as a “felt sense of wonder, thankfulness, and appreciation for life. Gratitude can be linked to oxytocin, “the cuddle chemical,” that through regular reinforcement binds us together in emotional intimacy. Sonya Lyubomirsky outlines seven factors linking gratitude to happiness:
improved mindfulness, heightened self-esteem, greater efficacy in managing stressors and trauma responses, closer behavioral alignment with personal values, more satisfying relationships, fewer social comparisons, lessening “negative emotions” like jealousy, anger, fear, sadness, and guilt.
What are you grateful for?
For further reading check out:
The How of Happiness by Sonya Lyubomirsky
Principia Amoris by John Mordechai Gottman, PhD
20 December 2017
“Deck the Halls” and Check Yourself
I was first introduced to the idea of “Christmas as a bad thing” by the somber female protagonist in the movie Gremlins. Since then, I’ve noticed a general holiday dread ranging from frantic shopping and family gathering montages in films like The Family Stone to significant psychological decline.
Perhaps overdue, the medical community has recognized Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) as a legitimate contributor to some of this season-specific malaise. Many of the symptoms mirror depressive symptoms - fatigue, hopelessness, helplessness, low mood, changes in sleep and appetite, etc. - as do consequent disruptions in work/academic performance and relationships.
The holidays can pose anxiety and depressive symptoms even absent a SAD diagnosis. Sometimes it’s enough to slow down, practice mindfulness, and reflect on the specific factors that comprise your family, dynamics within it, and where you (realistically) fit in.
For more on SAD check out https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/seasonal-affective-disorder/symptoms-causes/syc-20364651
For more on critical family theory check out Family Therapy by Goldenberg and Goldenberg.
For comic relief, check out Holidays on Ice by David Sedaris, You Better Not Cry by Augusten Burroughs, or any of a number of holiday film favorites (e.g. Elf, A Christmas Story, National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, How the Grinch Stole Christmas, A Charlie Brown Christmas, etc.)