Category Archives: Counseling and Psychotherapy Theory and Practice

Post-Partum (now Peripartum) Depression: What you should know . . . and some resources to help you know it

Note: This post is provided for individuals interested in learning more about post-partum or peripartum depression. It’s also a supplement for the recent Practically Perfect Parenting Podcast on “Post-Partum Depression.” You can listen to the podcast on iTunes: https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/practically-perfect-parenting/id1170841304?mt=2

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For the first time ever on planet Earth, the latest version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) includes the diagnosis of Peripartum Depression. Although I’m not usually a fan of labeling or big psychiatry, this is generally good news.

So, why is Peripartum Depression good news?

The truth is that many pregnant women and new moms experience depressive symptoms related to pregnancy and childbirth. These symptoms are beyond the normal and transient “baby blues.” Depressive symptoms can be anywhere from mild to severe and, combined with the rigors of pregnancy, childbirth, and parenting a newborn, these symptoms become very difficult to shake.

But the most important point is that Peripartum Depression is a problem that has been flying under the RADAR for a very long time.

Approximately 20% of pregnant women struggle with depressive symptoms. The official 12-15% estimates of post-partum (after birth) depression in women are thought to be an underestimate. What makes these numbers even worse is the fact that society views childbirth as a dramatically positive life event. This makes it all-the-more difficult for most pregnant women and new moms to speak openly about their emotional pain and misery. And, as you probably know, when people feel they shouldn’t talk about their emotional pain, it makes getting the help they deserve and recovering from depression even more difficult.

Jane Honikman, a post-partum depression survivor and founder of Postpartum Support International has three universal messages for all couples and families. She says:

  • You’re not alone
  • It’s not your fault
  • You will be well

Keep in mind that although peripartum depression is thought to have strong biological roots, the first-line treatment of choice is psychotherapy. This is because many new moms are reluctant to take antidepressant medications, but also because psychotherapy is effective in directly addressing the social and contextual factors, as well as the physiological symptoms. Additionally, as Ms. Honikman emphasizes, support groups for post-partum depression can be transformative.

Below, I’m including links and resources related to peripartum or post-partum depression.

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A very helpful informational post by Dr. Nicola Gray: http://cognitive-psychiatry.com/peripartum-depression/

Books by Jane Honikman can be found at this Amazon link. Her books include: I’m Listening: A Guide to Supporting Postpartum Families.  https://www.amazon.com/s/ref=dp_byline_sr_book_1?ie=UTF8&text=Jane+I.+Honikman&search-alias=books&field-author=Jane+I.+Honikman&sort=relevancerank

Although it’s true that peripartum depression can be debilitating, it’s also true that it can be a source of personal growth. Dr. Walker Karraa shares optimistic stories of post-partum related trauma and growth in her book:

https://www.amazon.com/Walker-Karraa/e/B00QTWH9PW/ref=dp_byline_cont_book_1

 

More Methods for Discussing Suicide with Mental Health Clients

nick-nacksNearly everyone agrees that asking clients directly about suicide is the right thing. However, because every client situation is unique, there are also many different strategies for asking about suicide. In this short excerpt from Clinical Interviewing, we discuss how to bring up suicide using information from outside of the counseling or assessment session.

Using Outside Information to initiate Risk and Protective Factor Assessment

Outside of the formal suicide assessment interview, three main sources of information can be used to initiate a discussion with clients about suicide risk and protective factors:

  1. Client Records
  2. Assessment Instruments
  3. Collateral Informants

Client Records

If available, your client’s previous medical or mental health (med-psych) records are a quick and efficient source for client risk and protective factor information. Many risk factors listed in this chapter won’t be in your client’s records, but you should look closely for factors, such as: (a) previous suicide ideation and attempts; (b) a history of a depression diagnosis; and (c) familial suicide. After your standard intake interviewing opening and rapport building, you can use the records to broach these issues.

I saw in your records that you attempted suicide back in 2012. Could you tell me what was going on in your life back then to trigger that attempt? 

When exploring previous suicide attempts, it’s important to do so in a constructive manner that can contribute to treatment (see Case Example 10.2). Using psychoeducation to explain to clients why you’re asking about the past helps frame and facilitate the process.

The reason I’m asking about your previous suicide attempt is because the latest research indicates that the more we know about the specific stresses that triggered a past attempt, the better we can work together to help you cope with that stress now and in the future. 

Don’t forget to balance your questioning about previous suicide attempts with a focus on the positive.

Often, after a suicide attempt, people say they discovered some new strengths or resources or specific people who were especially helpful. How about for you? Did you have anything positive you discovered in the time after your suicide attempt.

It may be difficult to identify protective factors in your client’s med-psych records. However, if you find evidence of protective factors or personal strengths, you should bring them up in the appropriate context during a suicide assessment interview. For example, when interviewing a client who’s talking about despair associated with a current depressive episode, you might say something like:

I noticed in your records that you had a similar time a couple years ago when you were feeling very down and discouraged. And, according to your therapist back then, you worked very hard and managed to climb back up out of that depressing place. What worked for you back then?

Strive to use information from your clients’ records collaboratively. As illustrated, you can use the information to broach delicate issues (both positive and negative).

Traditionally, previous suicide attempts are considered one of the strongest predictors of future suicidal behaviors. However, as with all risk factors, previous attempts should be considered within the idiosyncratic context of each individual client. Case example 10.2 provides a glimpse of a case where a previous attempt ends up serving as a protective factor, rather than a risk factor.

Case Example 10.2

Exploring Previous Attempts as a Method for Understanding Client Stressors and Coping Strategies

Exploring previous suicide attempts is an assessment process. It can illuminate past stressors, but it’s equally useful for helping clients articulate past, present, and future coping responses.

Therapist: You wrote on your intake form that you attempted suicide about a year and a half ago. Can you tell me a bit about that?

Client: Right. I shot myself in the head. It’s obvious. You can see the scar right here.

Therapist: What was happening in your life that brought you to that point?

Client: I was getting bullied in school. I hated my step-father. Life was shit, so one day after school I took the pistol out of my mom’s room, aimed at my head and shot.

Therapist: What happened then?

Client: I woke up in the hospital with a bad fucking headache. And then there was rehab. It was a long road, but here I am.

Therapist: Right. Here you are. What do you make of that?

Client: I’m lucky. I’m bad at suicide. I don’t know. I suppose I took it to mean that I’m supposed to be alive.

Therapist: Have you had any thoughts about suicide recently?

Client: Nope. Nada. Not one.

Therapist: I guess from what you said that getting bullied or having family issues could still be hard for you. How do you cope with that now?

Client: I’ve got some friends. I’ve got my sister. I talk to them. You know, after you do what I did, you find out who really cares about you. Now I know.

 

Talking with Clients about Suicidal Thoughts and Feelings

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Spring is coming to the Northern Hemisphere. Along with spring, there will also be a bump in death by suicide. To help prepare counselors and clinicians to talk directly with clients about suicide, I’m posting an excerpt from the Clinical Interviewing text. The purpose is to help everyone be more comfortable talking about suicidal thoughts and feelings because the more comfortable we are, the more likely clients are to openly share their suicidal thoughts and feelings and that gives us a chance to engage them as a collaborative helper.

Here’s a link to the text https://www.amazon.com/Clinical-Interviewing-Video-Resource-Center/dp/1119084237/ref=asap_bc?ie=UTF8

And here’s the excerpt:

Exploring Suicide Ideation

Unlike many other risk factors (e.g., demographic factors), suicide ideation is directly linked to potential suicide behavior. It’s difficult to imagine anyone ever dying by suicide without having first experienced suicide ideation.

Because of this, you may decide to systematically ask every client about suicide ideation during initial clinical interviews. This is a conservative approach and guarantees you won’t face a situation where you should have asked about suicide, but didn’t. Alternatively, you may decide to weave questions about suicide ideation into clinical interviews as appropriate. At least initially, for developing professionals, we recommend using the systematic approach. However, we recognize that this can se0em rote. From our perspective, it is better to learn to ask artfully by doing it over and over than to fail to ask and regret it.

The nonverbal nature of communication has direct implications for how and when you ask about suicide ideation, depressive symptoms, previous attempts, and other emotionally laden issues. For example, it’s possible to ask: “Have you ever thought about suicide?” while nonverbally communicating to the client: “Please, please say no!” Therefore, before you decide how you’ll ask about suicide ideation, you need the right attitude about asking the question.

Individuals who have suicidal thoughts can be extremely sensitive to social judgment. They may have avoided sharing suicidal thoughts out of fear of being judged as “insane” or some other stigma. They’re likely monitoring you closely and gauging whether you’re someone to trust with this deeply intimate information. To pass this unspoken test of trust, it’s important to endorse, and directly or indirectly communicate the following beliefs:

  • Suicide ideation is normal and natural and counseling is a good place for clients to share those thoughts.
  • I can be of better help to clients if they tell me their emotional pain, distress, and suicidal thoughts.
  • I want my clients to share their suicidal thoughts.
  • If my clients share their suicidal thoughts and plans, I can handle it!

If you don’t embrace these beliefs, clients experiencing suicide ideation may choose to be less open.

Asking Directly about Suicide Ideation

Asking about suicide ideation may feel awkward. Learning to ask difficult questions in a deliberate, compassionate, professional, and calm manner requires practice. It also may help to know that, in a study by Hahn and Marks (1996), 97% of previously suicidal clients were either receptive or neutral about discussing suicide with their therapists during intake sessions. It also may help to know that you’re about to learn the three most effective approaches to asking about suicide that exist on this planet.

Use a normalizing frame. Most modern prevention and intervention programs recommend directly asking clients something like, “Have you been thinking about suicide recently?” This is an adequate approach if you’re in a situation with someone you know well and from whom you can expect an honest response.

A more nuanced approach is to ask about suicide along with a normalizing or universalizing statement about suicide ideation. Here’s the classic example:

Well, I asked this question since almost all people at one time or another during their lives have thought about suicide. There is nothing abnormal about the thought. In fact it is very normal when one feels so down in the dumps. The thought itself is not harmful. (Wollersheim, 1974, p. 223)

Three more examples of using a normalizing frame follow:

  • I’ve read that up to 50% of teenagers have thought about suicide. Is that true for you?
  • Sometimes when people are down or feeling miserable, they think about suicide and reject the idea or they think about suicide as a solution. Have you had either of these thoughts about suicide?
  • I have a practice of asking everyone I meet with about suicide and so I’m going to ask you: Have you had thoughts about death or suicide?

A common fear is that asking about suicide will put suicidal ideas in clients’ heads. There’s no evidence to support this  (Jobes, 2006). More likely, your invitation to share suicidal thoughts will reassure clients that you’re comfortable with the subject, in control of the situation, and capable of dealing with the problem.

Use gentle assumption. Based on over two decades of clinical experience with suicide assessment Shawn Shea (2002/ 2004/2015) recommends using a framing strategy referred to as gentle assumption. To use gentle assumption, the interviewer presumes that certain illegal or embarrassing behaviors are already occurring in the client’s life, and gently structures questions accordingly. For example, instead of asking “Have you been thinking about suicide?” you would ask:

When was the last time when you had thoughts about suicide?

Gentle assumption can make it easier for clients to disclose suicide ideation.

Use mood ratings with a suicidal floor. It can be helpful to ask about suicide in the context of a mood assessment (as in a mental status examination). Scaling questions such as those that follow can be used to empathically assess mood levels.

  1. Is it okay if I ask some questions about your mood? (This is an invitation for collaboration; clients can say “no,” but rarely do.)
  2. Please rate your mood right now, using a zero to 10 scale. Zero is the worst mood possible. In fact, zero would mean you’re totally depressed and so you’re just going to kill yourself. At the top, 10 is your best possible mood. A 10 would mean you’re as happy as you could possibly be. Maybe you would be dancing or singing or doing whatever you do when you’re extremely happy. Using that zero to 10 scale, what rating would you give your mood right now? (Each end of the scale must be anchored for mutual understanding.)
  3. What’s happening now that makes you give your mood that rating? (This links the mood rating to the external situation.)
  4. What’s the worst or lowest mood rating you’ve ever had? (This informs the interviewer about the lowest lows.)
  5. What was happening back then to make you feel so down? (This links the lowest rating to the external situation and may lead to discussing previous attempts.)
  6. For you, what would be a normal mood rating on a normal day? (Clients define their normal.)
  7. Now tell me, what’s the best mood rating you think you’ve ever had? (The process ends with a positive mood rating.)
  8. What was happening that helped you have such a high mood rating? (The positive rating is linked to an external situation.)

The preceding protocol assumes clients are minimally cooperative. More advanced interviewing procedures can be added when clients are resistant (see Chapter 12). The process facilitates a deeper understanding of life events linked to negative moods and suicide ideation. This can lead to formal counseling or psychotherapy, as well as safety planning.

Responding to Suicide Ideation

Let’s say you broach the question and your client openly discloses the presence of suicide ideation. What next?

First, remember that hearing about your client’s suicide ideation is good news. It reflects trust. Also remember that depressive and suicidal symptoms are part of a normal response to distress. Validate and normalize:

Given the stress you’re experiencing, it’s not unusual for you to sometimes think about suicide. It sounds like things have been really hard lately.

This validation is important because many suicidal individuals feel socially disconnected, emotionally invalidated, and as if they’re a social burden (Joiner, 2005). Your empathic reflection may be more or less specific, depending on how much detailed information your client has given you.

As you continue the assessment, collaboratively explore the frequency, triggers, duration, and intensity of your client’s suicidal thoughts.

  • Frequency: How often do you find yourself thinking about suicide?
  • Triggers: What seems to trigger your suicidal thoughts? What gets them started?
  • Duration: How long do these thoughts stay with you once they start?
  • Intensity: How intense are your thoughts about suicide? Do they gently pop into your head or do they have lots of power and sort of smack you down?

As you explore the suicide ideation, strive to emanate calmness, and curiosity, rather than judgment. Instead of thinking, “We need to get rid of these thoughts,” engage in collaborative and empathic exploration.

Some clients will deny suicidal thoughts. If this happens, and it feels genuine, acknowledge and accept the denial, while noting that you were just using your standard practice.

Okay. Thanks. Asking about suicidal thoughts is just something I think is important to do with everyone.

On the other hand, if the denial seems forced, or is combined with depressive symptoms or other risk factors, you’ll still want to use acknowledgement and acceptance, but then find a way to return to the topic later in the session.

 

On Becoming a Counselor: What’s a Rogerian, Anyway? by Lauren Leslie

carl-rogers

IMHO, more people should read Carl Rogers. But I understand, sometimes there just isn’t enough time in the day to fit in your Yoga class, mindfulness meditation practice, cardio workout, meal prep, work and family-life, and other responsibilities. So here’s an option: Below you’ll find a review of a classic Carl Rogers work: On Becoming a Person. It was written by Lauren Leslie to fulfill an assignment I give in our Counseling Theories class. It’s a fun read and gives you an abbreviated glimpse of the amazing Carl Rogers from the perspective of a first-year graduate student in clinical mental health counseling.

On Becoming a Counselor: What’s a Rogerian, Anyway?

Lauren Leslie
University of Montana

            Carl Rogers’ On Becoming a Person is a collection of essays and edited speeches written between 1951 and 1961, while client-centered humanistic therapy was being simultaneously embraced and challenged by the establishment. Rogers states he intends to write to professional psychologists, members of the counseling profession, and informed laymen, different populations who nonetheless have at least one thing in common:

. . .while the group to which this book speaks meaningfully will…have many wide-ranging interests, a common thread may well be their concern about the person and his  becoming, in a modern world which appears intent upon ignoring or diminishing him. (Rogers, 2012, “To the Reader” para. 8)

Throughout the text, Rogers offers a picture of himself as a person and a therapist. He provides insights into the growth of his theoretical framework as well as therapy transcripts to flesh out central elements of client-centered practice. Ultimately, the text crystallizes the effectiveness of empathy, congruence, and unconditional positive regard within a therapeutic relationship, and it is difficult to argue against Rogers’ persuasive and clear writing. Critics insist Rogers’ model is incomplete or insufficient, but the core tenets remain central to the practice of contemporary psychotherapy.

On Becoming a Person collects texts of varying genres into a sort of holistic catalog of Rogerian thought. Due to this variety of genre, Rogers’ tone and subject matter shifts; he addresses his own personality and life, includes transcripts of counseling sessions, and tries to systematize examples of his practice into stages of client development to analyze effectiveness of treatment. Rogers philosophizes on the human condition and therapeutic practice, Kierkegaard and Buber, and scientific research and personal change. It is a sweeping book which attempts meaningful understanding and data-driven conclusions. At one point, Rogers claims “There is no general agreement as to what constitutes ‘success’ [in psychotherapy]…. The concept of ‘cure’ is entirely inappropriate, since … we are dealing with learned behavior, not with a disease” (Rogers, 2012, p. 227). He consistently moves in opposition to the kind of concrete, experimental thinking favored in certain parts of the psychological community and comes off far more as a philosopher studying existential questions than as a data-driven scientist.

In considering himself, Rogers (2012) states, a client “discovers how much of his life is guided by what he thinks he should be, not by what he is. Often he discovers that he exists only in response to the demands of others…” (p. 109). In the same passage, he muses on the insight of Kierkegaard on this point: “He points out that…the deepest form of despair is to choose ‘to be another than himself.’ On the other hand, ‘…to be that self which one truly is, is indeed the opposite of despair,’” (p. 109). If this isn’t existential philosophy, the reader must ask, what is? In his own practice, Rogers (2012) characterizes a fundamental shift from “How can I treat, or cure, or change this person?” (p. 32) to his later, fuller question “How can I provide a relationship which this person may use for his own personal growth?” (p. 32). From his training in psychology, Rogers claims to have followed his own instincts into client-centered therapy. His writing overtly embraces that exploration.

Despite his philosophical bent, in large sections of his writing, Rogers draws on established scientific structures or language. He writes a whole chapter which tries to formulate a “general law of interpersonal relationships,” then launches into a lengthy and example-laden consideration of the firmness of knowledge and conclusions within the behavioral sciences at the time. His cognitive resting place seems to be that the behavioral sciences are in their infancy, and while practitioners may rely on a lot of interesting information now being discovered, exploration, philosophy, and instinct still hold places of honor within the field. More than fifty years after the book’s first publication, the situation seems to have changed very little, though there is more data in certain areas. Though Rogers seems to have viewed psychotherapy as a scientific practice, his person-centered view showed him countless variables with which to contend. Perhaps in an environment without controls, philosophy and instinct present better-formed or more immediate solutions than experimentation can.

Rogers seems to boil complex situations down to essentials wherever he can: relationship is his central theme, and empathy, congruence, and unconditional positive regard are the three relationship components. This pursuit of simplicity may be attentiveness to the broad audience of On Becoming a Person or may be indicative of Rogers’ own worldview. Whatever its source, it leaves Rogers open to criticism from those who see things as unsimplifiable. In a similar way, the individual variation and client focus implicit in Rogers’ therapy leave him open to criticism from those who see him acting only as a clarifying mirror for clients, not as a truly congruent party to change-spurring relationships. In one example of a common critique, Ralph H. Quinn (1993) contends that “[a] fully person-centered therapist…would feel compelled to stay with the client’s lead…[and] trust that the client knows best” (p. 20) rather than confronting the client in a moment of genuine human response.

Genuineness in psychotherapy…does not mean simply the willingness to confront a client…. More than anything it means that the therapist must strive to be fully present with the client, to bring all of himself or herself to the therapeutic relationship. As therapists, we must be willing to risk as much as we ask our clients to risk, to be as transparent and courageous as they must be, if the therapy is to produce real life change. (Quinn, 1993, p. 20-21)

This section includes the assertion that bold congruence and full presence are not already parts of person-centered therapy, and Rogers was remiss in not addressing them. Quinn (1993) later implies a fully person-centered approach can easily be seen as practicing “Pollyannish optimism and therapeutic passivity” (p. 21). Such criticism is valid enough, and points out elements of Rogers’ work that may be over-simplified. However, the complexity with which Rogers addresses each essay, idea, and client interaction suggests he did not see humanity or psychotherapy as simple, and did not approach them passively. Rogers may not have dwelled enough in his writing on the practice of congruence; perhaps it was an element that seemed also to contain infinite variables and defy simple definition. I tend to think this criticism stems from a misinterpretation of Rogers’ intentions and practices. In the final analysis, even critic Quinn (1993) only suggests practicing more (riskier?) congruence on the part of the therapist, not abandoning Rogers’ principles.

In terms of my own use of this book, its variety in tone and subject matter makes it a uniquely useful text. Each section and each essay can be read independently, and dipping into Rogers’ world is a clarifying and centering experience that could bring me back to the core of therapeutic practice in times of questioning and uncertainty. Reading this book now gave me a window into the complexities inherent in a model that can be seen as very simple (by Rogers’ design, admittedly). Considering this approach in my own attempts to define or grasp client “distress” has been helpful in placing myself in the wide world of this human-helping profession, and has helped me frame my own conception of what I am doing here and what a client might want or need from me in this role. This reading has been one new way of incorporating personal change into myself: deliberately approaching the self I am discovering myself to be.

 

References

Quinn, R.H. (1993). Confronting Carl Rogers: A developmental-interactional approach to

person-centered therapy. Journal of Humanistic Psychology, 33(1), 6-23. doi:

10.1177/0022167893331002

Rogers, C. (2012). On Becoming a Person. [Kindle Voyage version]. Retrieved from

Amazon.com

Happy New Year (or Not) from Me and my Buddy Sigmund

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On November 10, 2016, I decided to read Sigmund Freud’s Civilization and Its Discontents. I was suddenly interested in how and why individuals and society develop an urge toward the death instinct. It’s light reading. I mean, the book is light, and it’s short. So there’s that.

Some people are unhappy that I’ve chosen to read something by Freud. He wasn’t known for his progressive feminist views. He didn’t even make it into the first wave. Maybe I should have read Adler or Dietrich Bonhoeffer. But Freud was on my bookshelf. Besides, the person who doesn’t think I should be reading Freud is the very same person who gave me this particular copy of Civilization and Its Discontents.

Having an impulse to read about the death instinct is ironic. Or maybe it’s funny. But if there’s one thing that’s not especially funny, it’s Freud. I know he has a book on Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious, but I’m betting right now—without even looking at it—that it doesn’t make people laugh.  If Civilization and Its Discontents is any indication, Freud may have written about jokes, but he was no joker.

Here’s a little glimpse of his optimistic discourse.

Thus our possibilities of happiness are already restricted by our constitution. Unhappiness is much less difficult to experience. We are threatened with suffering from three directions: from our own body, which is doomed to decay and dissolution and which cannot even do without pain and anxiety as warning signals; from the external world, which may rage against us with overwhelming and merciless forces of destruction; and finally from our relations to [others]. The suffering which comes from this last source is perhaps more painful to us than any other. (1930/1961, pp. 23-24)

Okay. So maybe when Freud wrote this he was a little short on serotonin at his pre-synaptic cleft [as if I believe that neurochemical imbalance nonsense]. Seriously, what Freud needed was some regular aerobic exercise . . . and maybe yoga combined with mindfulness-based cognitive therapy so he could embrace nonjudgmental acceptance. I think Freud would have gotten into mindfulness because it would have allowed him to bask in nonjudgmental acceptance of all things except for people who didn’t practice mindfulness. Or maybe he would have been better served using individual emotion focused therapy with Leslie Greenberg; that way he could talk to a chair and emote. And if you read Freud, it’s easy to conclude he needed to do some emoting because his self-analysis was sort of like late 19th century self-injurious behavior. . . VERY PAINFUL.

In Civilization and Its Discontents, Freud starts by confessing that he feels troubled over his apparent inability to have religious experiences. He seems to long for an “oceanic” experience of being one with the universe that might be attributable to God or religion. Although he seems rather reluctant to openly admit that. Later, he trudges through an analysis of “Love thy neighbor.” Unfortunately (at least for his neighbor), Freud ends up making more of a case for hating the neighbor. His logic is flawless, at least from his perspective. In the end, Freud embraces the likelihood of a death instinct which, in his time, was probably related to Hitler’s rise to power.

But what was Freud’s solution to the death instinct and Hitler’s ascension?

He had no solution. Or at least he had no solution in which he had much confidence. His last two sentences mark the battle lines. He admits to an incontrovertible aggressive and destructive impulse in individuals and in society. That’s much less fun than riding in a convertible. But more to the point, will hate, aggression, and destruction dominate? Freud seems to say—paraphrasing here, “Maybe so, maybe not.” The future, according to Freud, is in the hands of Eros.

With regard to the final outcome, Freud implies, “We shall see.”

This is like when your television show ends with the phrase, “To be continued.” Only now with internet streaming, rarely do we have to wait a whole week for the stunning conclusion. Sadly, Freud died before he reached the stunning conclusion.

But here’s where things get interesting.

Freud died on 23 September 1939 and John Lennon was born on 9 October 1940.

According to Buddhist philosophy, the soul can be reincarnated somewhere between 49 days to 2 years following death.

This leaves open the possibility—or even likelihood—that Freud was reincarnated as John Lennon and eventually, in 1967, wrote and sang, along with his Beatle friends, “All You Need is Love.” The point that Freud, reincarnated as John Lennon, was trying to make is that we all need to be liberally spreading Eros around as a Death Instinct antagonist.

There’s much more to say about this, but for now, I think the obvious take-home message is for us to all practice loving our neighbors even though we might be able to make a better intellectual case for hating them. We should probably love our enemies too. And I’m adding a twist to this for 2017: sometimes this isn’t going to be fluffy gooey love. It’s going to be some bad-ass, in-your-face tough love.

This is my New Year’s resolution—to be a practitioner of good-old Freudian in-your-face tough Eros.

Although I’m ending this with a wish for you all to have a Happy New Year, I’m also recognizing that the pursuit of happiness is aptly phrased because just when you think you’ve got it, it goes and flits off to somewhere else and you have to keep chasing it.

Good luck with the chase and good luck with that Eros thing.

The Sweet Spot of Self-Control

The Sweet Spot of Self Control (and Anger Management)

The speedometer reads 82 miles per hour. The numbers 8 and 2, represent, to me, a reasonable speed on I-90 in the middle of Montana. Our new (and unnecessary) speed limit signs read eight-zero. So technically, I’m breaking the law by two miles per hour. But the nearest car is a quarter mile away. The road is straight. Having ingested an optimal dose of caffeine, my attention is focused.

Slowly, a car creeps up from behind. He has his cruise control set at 83 mph. He lingers beside me and edges ahead. Then, with only three car lengths between us, he puts on his blinker and pulls in front of me. Now, with no other cars in sight, there’s just me and Mr. 83 mph on I-90, three car lengths apart.

An emotion rises into awareness. It’s almost anger. But nope, it not anger, it’s anger’s close cousin, annoyance. I feel it in my psyche and immediately know it can go in one of three directions: It could sit there and remain itself, until I tire of it; if I feed it, it could rise up and blossom into full-blown anger; or, I can send it away, leaving room for other thoughts and actions.

This is fabulous. This is the Sweet Spot of Self-Control.

Anger is lurking there, I know. I see it peeking over the shoulder of its cousin. “Hello anger,” I say.

In this sweet spot, I experience expanding awareness, a pinch of energy, along with an unfolding of possibilities. I love this place. I love the feelings of strength and power. I also recognize anger’s best buddy, the behavioral impulse. This particular impulse (they vary of course), is itching for me to reset my cruise control to 84 mph.  It’s coming to me in the shape of a desire—a desire to send the driver in front of me a clear message.

“You should cut him off,” the impulse says, “and let him know he should get a clue and give you some space.”

The sweet spot is sweet because it includes the empowered choice to say “No thanks” to the impulse and “See you later” to anger.

Now I’m listening to a different voice in my head. It’s smaller, softer, steadier. “It doesn’t matter” the voice whispers. “Let him creep ahead. Revenge only satisfies briefly.”

I feel a smile on my face as I remember an anger management workshop. With confidence, I had said to the young men in attendance, “No other emotion shifts as quickly as anger. You can go from feeling completely justified and vindicated, but as soon as you act, you can feel overwhelmed with shame and regret.”

A man raised his hand, “Lust” he said. “Lust is just like anger. One second you want it more than anything, but the next second you wish you hadn’t.”

“Maybe so,” I said. “Maybe so.”

There are many rational reasons why acting on aggressive behavioral impulses is ill-advised. Maybe the biggest is that the man in the car wouldn’t understand my effort to communicate with him. This gap of understanding is common across many efforts to communicate. But it’s especially linked to retaliatory or revenge-filled impulses. When angry, I can’t provide nuance in my communication and make it constructive.

The quiet voice in my brain murmurs: “You’re no victim to your impulses. You drive the car; the car doesn’t drive you.” That doesn’t make much sense. Sometimes the voice in my head speaks in analogy and metaphor. It’s a common problem. I want straight talk, but instead I get some silly metaphor from my elitist and intellectual conscience.

But I do get it and here’s what I get. I get that my conscience is telling me that this sweet spot is sweet because I get to see and feel my self-control. Not only do I get to see my behavioral options, I get to see into the future and evaluate their likely outcomes. I get to reject poor choices and avoid negative outcomes linked to aggressive actions. I’m not a victim of annoyance, anger, or aggressive impulses. I get to make the plan. I get to drive the car.

Now that other driver is far ahead.

Being on a Montana freeway, it’s hard to not think of deer. It’s clear now, but at dusk, deer will be everywhere. They have an odd instinct. Freud and my elitist conscience are inclined to call it a death instinct. Here’s how it works:

When I drive up alongside a deer on the side of the road, it dashes ahead, running alongside me; then it tries to cut across in front of me. This is the coup de gras of bad judgment. I’m in a big metal machine. The deer isn’t. So the deer dies. Not a good choice for the deer.

Yesterday, my phone alerted me to a Youtube speech by an unnamed alt right big-man. I watched and listened. So much smugness I was sick. In the end he shouted out “Hail Trump” and a few others jumped up and gave the “Heil Hitler!” salute.

Like a crazed deer, I felt an instinct. I wanted to drive to D.C. or Whitefish, Montana and find unnamed alt-right man and cut him off with some uncivil discourse. Instead, because I have a frontal lobe, I walked to the gym. Upon arriving, I discovered I’d stepped in dog poop. I’m sure this was an annoying but meaningful metaphor for something. At least that’s what my metaphor-loving conscience suggested. I didn’t buy it. Instead, I muttered “WTF” to myself. Okay, so maybe I muttered “WTF” several times. Then I walked outside in my socks and started cleaning the poop off my shoe. Not an easy task, especially if you’re wearing brand new trail-runners. I had to find a restroom near my office, an old toothbrush, lots of foamy soap, and mindfully scrub away the poop.

I was reminded of something my daughter Rylee once said at age three. She was being carried down a hill and there were many small piles of deer scat. She noticed, commenting: “I didn’t know the poop was so deep.”

Neither did I.

But the good news is that I (like you) own a functional frontal lobe that gifts me with the Sweet Spot of Self-Control. Many of us will be mindfully removing the metaphorical shit from our shoes for some time into the future. So let’s make some plans. Not revenge-laced plans; they don’t last. Yes. Let’s pause in the special sweet spot, evaluate our alternatives, and make some excellent plans.

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Emotional Dysregulation: Finding the Way Out

Sometimes we call it affect dysregulation. It creeps around like a metaphorical tarantula, sometimes popping up—big and frightening—and always best viewed from a distance. Just like shit, emotional dysregulation happens.

In counseling and psychotherapy, we throw around jargon. It can be more or less helpful. When it’s helpful, it facilitates important communication; when it’s not, it distances us from the experiences of our clients, students, and other mental health consumers.

So what is emotional dysregulation? Here’s what Wikipedia says:

Emotional dysregulation (ED) is a term used in the mental health community to refer to an emotional response that is poorly modulated, and does not fall within the conventionally accepted range of emotive response. ED may be referred to as labile mood (marked fluctuation of mood) or mood swings.

I hereby declare that definition not very helpful.

I have a better definition. Emotional dysregulation (ED) is the term of the month. Why? Because I’ve been intermittently emotionally dysregulated since November 9 and I see emotional dysregulation nearly everywhere I look.

I’ve seen many clients for whom the term emotionally dysregulated is an apt description. These clients report being frequently triggered or activated (more jargon) by specific incidents or experiences. Many of these incidents are interpersonal, but as many of us know from the recent election, they can also be political and, for many, reading about or directly experiencing social injustice is a big trigger. After being emotionally triggered, the person (you, me, or a client) is left feeling emotionally uneasy, uncomfortable, and it can be hard to regain emotional equilibrium, calm, or inner peacefulness.

What are common emotional dysregulators? These include, but are certainly not limited to: Being misunderstood, experiencing social rejection or social injustice, harassment, or bullying, or being emotionally invalidated. Consider these (sometimes well-meaning) comments: “Smile.” “What’s wrong with you?” “You’re overreacting.” “Chill.” “Cheer up.”). One time I overheard a father tell his son, “Do you think I give a shit about what you’re feeling?” Yep. If someone says that to you or you overhear someone saying it to a 10-year-old, that might trigger emotional dysregulation.

Emotional dysregulation passes. That’s the good news. But sometimes it doesn’t pass soon enough. And other times, like when I see he-who-will-not-be-named on the television screen or hear his voice on the radio, repeated re-activation or re-triggering can occur. It becomes the Ground Hog’s Day version of emotional dysregulation.

In the clinical world, emotional dysregulation is linked to post-traumatic stress disorder, borderline personality disorder, clinical depression, and a range of other anxiety disorders. Suicidal crises often have emotional triggers. The point: emotional dysregulation is a human universal; it occurs along a continuum.

The Fantastic Four

Emotional dysregulation usually involves one of the fantastic four “negative” emotions. These include:

  • Anger
  • Sadness
  • Fear
  • Guilt

To be fair, these emotions aren’t really negative. They have both negative and positive characteristics. In every case, they can be useful, sooner or later, to the person experiencing them. For example, anger is both light and energy. It can clarify values and provide motivation or inspiration. Unfortunately, the light and energy of anger is also confusing and destabilizing. It’s easy for anger to cloud cognition; it’s easy for anger to send people out on misguided behavioral missions. Funny thing, these misguided, anger-fueled missions often feel extremely self-righteous, right up until the point they don’t. Less funny thing, immediately after the punch, the flip-off, the profanity, the broken window or door or relationship or whatever—regret often follows. Ironically then, the emotional dysregulation (anger) leads to behavioral dysregulation (aggression), which leads right back to emotional dysregulation (guilt and remorse).

Dysregulation can be experienced via any of a number of dimensions. You can experience behavioral, mental, social, and spiritual dysregulation. What fun! Who designed this system where we can get so dysregulated in so many different ways? Never mind. It was probably he-who-will-not-be-named.

One of the most perplexing things about emotional dysregulation is that so very often, we do it to ourselves. We do it repeatedly. And more or less, we usually know we’re doing it. We seem to want to embrace our anger, sadness, fear, and guilt. What’s wrong with that? Nothing, that is, until we want out.

For most people, the fantastic four feel bad. They stay too long. They adversely affect relationships. They’re bad company.

There’s one best way out of emotional dysregulation. I’ll say it in a word that I’m borrowing from Alfred Adler. Gemeinschaftsgefühl. I’ll say it in another word: Empathy. Empathy for yourself and others. The kind of empathy that moves you to being interested in other people and motivated to help make our communities and the world better, safer, and more filled with justice.

Okay then. Let’s get out there and start Gemeinschaftsgefühling around. We’ve got at least four years of work ahead.

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For another, less profound way out of the Fantastic Four negative emotions, check out the Three-Step Emotional Change Trick: https://johnsommersflanagan.com/2012/09/23/the-three-step-emotional-change-trick/

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