Category Archives: Personal Reflections

Max

Max in 1945

People who write obituaries use small words to describe big lives. I recently wrote one for my father, but could only capture a shred of the immensely positive, honest, kind, generous, and loving man, husband, and father he was. The words I have to describe him and his life are terribly insufficient. Nevertheless, below is the long form of our family’s obituary for Max Richard Sommers.

Max Richard Sommers, 95, passed away on May 1, 2022. Max was born on August 18, 1926 in Portland, OR, to Fern Langdon and Sam Sommers. If the past can be judged by the future, August 18, 1926 was an amazing day. Max attended school in Portland, graduating from Benson Tech in 1944, and attending one semester at the University of Portland, before joining the army and serving, partly in Korea, from August 1945 to January, 1947.

In 1949, along with his wife Paula, Max started a business called “City Shade Company” in downtown Vancouver, Washington. Max was more dedicated to his customers than he was to making money. He took great pride in and responsibility for the window coverings and awnings he installed. He watched the local weather with such intensity that we all believed he wished he had become a meteorologist. He did love watching the weather, but he was also watching for storms. Although he could have made substantial money on repairs, when strong winds were forecast, Max hopped in his van and drove frantically around Vancouver securing awnings he had installed. Max and Paula owned and operated City Shade for over 44 years.

Max lived life with passion. He loved fastpitch softball, golf, bowling, pinball, gin, cribbage, and poker. He loved nearly all competitive games, and never let his children win. If any of us happened to beat him in cards, we might have to stay up as long as it took for Max to win and regain the family card-playing crown. Max also loved watching sports, especially Oregon State Beaver football and Seattle Mariner baseball. A few days after nearly dying from a heart attack, Max hosted a raucous group of men in his hospital room to watch the Beavers beat the “evil” Ducks in the Civil War.

Max was simple, yet complex and adaptive. Hard work and honesty were his deepest values. He taught his children to “Never lie” and that you should never claim to be “sick” unless you can’t get out of bed. Max lived his values, getting out of bed every day and getting to work. Most mornings, he met some configuration of his best friends, Ed, Milt, Willie, Diz, and Bob for breakfast in downtown Vancouver at Spic n’ Span restaurant. Most weeks, he put in six workdays, but scheduled work around his children’s activities, Thursday afternoon golf at Green Meadows, and Paula. There was only one 3-day family vacation each year, over Labor Day weekend at Long Beach Washington, where Max loved to fish and dig for clams.

Max’s first love—above all else—was Paula. They overcame religious differences (she was Catholic, he was Jewish), forging a stable and loving marriage that lasted 70 years (until Paula died in August, 2020). After 40 years of marriage, Max finally donned a pair of shorts and headed out on his first real vacation, a cruise with Paula. Together, they went on several more cruises, returning with stories of great food and great fun. In addition to the sports page, Max suddenly started reading novels, biographies, and occasional nonfiction. He had many favorite books, including Seabiscuit and The Brothers K. Despite his Jewish roots, Max lived the quotation from Father Theodore Hesburgh, former president of Notre Dame, who said, “The greatest gift a father can give his children is to love their mother.”

Max loved Paula for better and for worse. When Paula began having memory problems, Max quit golfing to stay home. When she began asking him the same question 30 times a day, he repeatedly answered her with great patience, explaining, “She doesn’t mean to forget, so how can I be annoyed with her.” Max’s capacity to adapt to life’s challenges continued . . . after his heart attack, after colon cancer surgery, after a double bypass, after breaking his hip, and after a stroke. When Max—a man who had thrived on physical activity and competition—had been bedridden for over three years he still maintained his cheerful and kind disposition. Even in the end, when asked by his children, “How are you doing dad?” he struggled to awaken and would then say, “Good” and grin. Max was so wonderful that his caregivers quickly came to love him. One caregiver took to calling him “the Brother of Jesus.”

Max is survived by his children, Gayle Klein (Terry), Peggy Lotz (Dan), and John Sommers-Flanagan (Rita); and grandchildren, Chelsea Bodnar, Jason Lotz, Patrick Klein, Aaron Lotz, Rylee Sommers-Flanagan, and Stephen Klein. Max is also survived by nine great-grandchildren along with many nieces and nephews. Max was preceded in death by his parents and sisters, Geraldine Goldberg and Barbara Smith.

Our family would like to thank Noble AFH for providing Max with loving care over the last year. Memorial plans will be announced at a later date. In lieu of donations, Max would like you to get up, work hard, be honest, treat everyone with love and kindness, and enjoy a strawberry shake. If you have memories of Max you would like to share, sprinkle them here or anywhere you like . . . including his old Facebook page:  https://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100007868177628

In case you want to see a video of Max and Paula Sommers – compliments of Blue Shield of Oregon and Gayle Klein: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5yUspNiCBdw&t=2s

Happy Graduation 2022

And then there were more counselors . . .

This Saturday, graduation ceremonies were held in college towns across the United States. Every year, I’m stunned and humbled by the event here at the University of Montana. Even more, I’m struck by the incredible commitment so many students, young and old, have made to learning, growing, and making the world a better place. I know many college campuses have fallen on lean times, but when it comes to learning and fulfilling intellectual and career potentials, there’s really nothing like colleges and universities.  

Our department planned a small informal post-commencement 1pm event with minimal light snacks in an outdoor plaza adjacent to a large auditorium. TBH, after about 1:05pm, I’m not sure what happened. Maybe it was post-shut down enthusiasm, but students, parents, friends, families, supervisors, and adjunct faculty started pouring in at an unexpected rate. Before anyone could take control, the masses had flowed into the large auditorium (that ordinarily has to be specially reserved) and taken seats, as if a formal event was about to begin. Other than having a few positive comments about each graduate, we (the faculty), had no formal event planned. With about 200 people gathered expectantly in an unreserved and likely “off limits” venue, the faculty briefly conferred, and made a simple and short plan for the festivities.

As they have been for the past 2+ years, our counseling graduates were amazing. Along with their guests, they whooped and hollered and clapped for each other throughout. The 50 minute spontaneous event was, IMHO, the most fun, genuine, warm, and fuzzy feeling graduation event ever.

As a first-generation college student who started out as an athlete at a community college and experienced an intellectual and personal transformation, I have an irrationally passionate love for all colleges and universities. Although colleges and universities are always imperfect, the goal and process of intellectual development as a purposeful life activity is phenomenal. I am grateful to play my small role at the of the University of Montana.

Happy graduation day to everyone. If you haven’t experienced an intellectual developmental epiphany yet, I’m hoping there’s one in your future. If you’ve already had one, I wish you many more. Education is the road to our better selves.

Grief 101

Grief is always personal and universal. Nobody understands anyone else’s grief . . . except possibly everyone and anyone capable of empathy. You don’t have to be an empath to resonate with another person’s grief; you just need a heart that lets you feel along with someone who’s suffering pain and loss. At some point or another, we all experience pain and loss. Grief is always a unique and common experience.

I’ve written about and practiced psychotherapy for about 35 years. In my classes I give impassioned lectures about the power and significance of emotion. Nevertheless, I’m still stunned and puzzled and humbled when the waves of emotion roll on in. There’s nothing quite like the rush of powerful sadness.  

Last Thursday I made the mistake of playing a melancholy song of loss at the beginning of my University of Montana Happiness class. Maybe it wasn’t a mistake, because I learned that if you want to cry about the death of a loved one, this particular song—Golden Embers by Mandolin Orange—will help with that. If you want to cry now or later, you can listen here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fEt2lf7L13g.

On the other hand, if you don’t want to begin your online Happiness course by struggling to contain your tears and grief, take my advice, don’t play it right before class starts.

I’m a fan of emotional openness, honesty, and vulnerability. But choking back tears as you welcome everyone to Happiness class isn’t the nuanced and titrated professional vulnerability I prefer. Perhaps no one noticed my misty eyes via Zoom; perhaps they also didn’t notice my brief my slide toward verbal incoherence.

After a long unplanned, and unpleasant dementia experience, my mother gracefully died of COVID last year. We (my sisters, family, and I) were all very sad. My mother was the Queen of Caring. She never let a conversation end without an “I love you” and never let an in-person meet-up end without a hug. For me, the long, drawn-out dementia experience muted my grief. I was glad for her passing. I believe, had my mother had a functional brain, she would have been even gladder. We had lost my mother several years earlier. COVID just made it official.

But that damn Mandolin Orange song punched the mute button off my grief. Had the class not been ready to start, I could have been in heaving sobs. You probably know what I’m saying. Have you ever had the experience of envisioning and knowing how deeply emotional you could be, while barely managing to keep it at a distance? I could see myself sobbing . . . and . . . I stopped myself from sobbing.

Ironically, the first focus of class was a quick recap of James Pennebaker’s 1986 study on the physical toll of emotional inhibition. Seriously. Who writes these scripts? Pennebaker’s hypothesis, later affirmed through many more studies, was that emotional expression plus insight is emotionally and physically healthy. The opposite, the stuffing of significant emotions, along with the deadening or distancing from understanding our emotions, is emotionally and physically unhealthy. The physical unhealthiness seems linked to the physical exertion it takes to engage in chronic restraint of emotional expression.

Emotions are more like a river than not. You can try to dam them up, but they prefer flowing freely.

The next day, my partially unexpressed emotional river of grief over my mother joined up with my relatively unexpressed anticipatory grief for my father. As I write this, I’m in the Seattle airport waiting for a flight to take me to see him and possibly say goodbye. He’s been on this particular deathbed for years (literally), and so this may or may not be the end. Being the cosmic inverse of his wife (my mother), his brain has continued to process information, crunch numbers, and engage in abstract reasoning. Instead of dementia, his body wore down. He’s been bedridden for about three years. . . bouncing back from a broken hip, then a re-broken hip, then a stroke, then two collapsed lungs, and a myriad of other near-death experiences. In his latest medical exam, the verdict was that his skin is wearing out, splitting, coming unhinged, revealing muscle and bone.

Despite all this, the next day (after my Seattle airport writing and late arrival into Portland), when I walk into his room, he briefly awakens, offers a grin, and exclaims, “Hi John.” He says nothing more, and quickly drops back to sleep, because talking has become immensely difficult; it takes all he’s got to get out two words.

On this visit, I’ve been on the emotional edge, remembering vividly his reliable presence for me and for others. Being self-employed, he worked long hours, including many evenings and weekends. Being self-employed also gave him flexibility. He might go back to his shop to bend steel pipe in the evening, but he managed his work schedule so as to never miss one of my baseball, football, and basketball games. When I got in my first (and only) fight in 8th grade, he found me walking home alone, ashamed, embarrassed, and with a swollen eye. When my sister and I were in a car wreck, he got there nearly as quickly as the ambulance. When the Black kids or the Gay kids down the street wanted to come over to shoot baskets, swim in the pool, or eat food, he’d open the gate or the door and his heart, and let them all in . . . never scolding, never yelling, never criticizing. He even welcomed the White Christian kids.

For this visit, I brought old photos, scrapbooks, my old baseball glove, and game balls from the two no-hitters I pitched my senior year of high school. I had hoped for some mutual reminiscence. Instead, he slept, awakening occasionally with looks of confusion, while I murmured on about our trips to Boston and New York, his favorite dog, being dumped into the Belize River, the first time he let me work with him, and random memories that only we share.

Today, that’s the hardest pieces of my particular grief. We have shared memories. No one else has them. As soon as he passes, I will be the sole keeper of our mutual memories. The loneliness of that thought crushes my heart.

In the world of grief, there’s a thing called complicated grief. Grief becomes increasingly complicated when the person grieving has mixed feelings and bad memories of the person dying. My grief is simple. I loved my father. He was as near to perfect as I can imagine. I am grateful to have no bad memories to complexify my grief. In my simple grief, I only have the stunning and painful emptiness of a world without him.  

Before I leave for the day, I wake him up. His eyes struggle open. I say, “Dad, I’m going now. I love you. You know I love you.” I watch his massive effort to respond, “I love. . .” He tries for the third word, but comes up empty. I say, “I know. You love me.” He relaxes, and immediately loses his grip on the slippery slice of consciousness he has remaining, and drops back to sleep.

Random Thoughts on the Existential Death of Expectations and Multitasking on My Way to ACA

Yesterday I submitted a manuscript for publication in a professional journal. The journal portal insisted that the telephone number linked to the University of Montana began with a 770 prefix. For us Montanans, that’s blasphemy. We are 406.

The automated message from the journal portal arrived instantaneously. That was amazing. The fact that the automated message was also copied to a former doc student from Pakistan who wasn’t listed as an author was less amazing. That’s the point now, I suppose. We live in a world where we’re pummeled by glitches and errors into desensitized or over-sensitized submission. Every time I start up my Outlook program it drones on about “Profile error. Something went wrong.” At this point, even Microsoft has given up on figuring out what went wrong with its own programming.

My high school friend who has an answer to everything tells me this is a universal experience wherein our expectations that things will work are repeatedly and systematically crushed. That could be a Buddhist outcome, because we’re forced to let go of our expectations. Unless, of course, we have the anti-Buddhist experience of outrage over our overattachment to things working.

This morning I’m checking in for my flight to Atlanta for the American Counseling Association conference. I’m worried by a message in the fine print from ACA implying that I may need a special adaptor to connect my computer to the conference center sound system. I’m also worried about why Delta has decided to charge me to check a bag, even though I have their coveted American Express Skymiles card.

Good news. My worries are mostly small. If there’s no sound system at the conference center, I can yell and mime the video clips I’m planning to show. I can easily (albeit resentfully) pay to check a bag, or I can reduce my packing into a carry-on. If my doc student from 10-years past gets the email, she’ll be glad to hear from me.

Delta is now telling me that the card I downgraded to a couple years ago—because of minimal travel during pandemic lockdowns—doesn’t include a free checked bag. In response, I have to check my emotional response to my overattachment to not paying a baggage fee. Easy-peasy (maybe).

On a brighter note, if you’re planning to be at ACA, I hope to see you from behind our masks. I’m presenting three times. Here they are:

Friday, April 8 at 11am to noon: The Way of the Humanist: Illuminating the Path from Suicide to Wellness in the Georgia World Congress Center, Room B302-B303.

Friday, April 8 at 3:30pm to 4:30pm: Using a Strengths-Based Approach to Suicide Assessment and Treatment in Your Counseling Practice in the Georgia World Congress Center, Room B207-B208

Saturday, April 9 at 10am to 11:30am: Being Seen, Being Heard: Strategies for Working with Adolescents in the Age of TikTok (with Chinwe Uwah Williams) in the Georgia World Congress Center, Room B406.

There’s a button on the Delta page saying “Talk with us?” I click on it and am directed to pre-prepared answers to common questions. Sadly, none of the common questions are my uncommon question. Like Moodle and Quicken and Microsoft and Qualtrics and Apple and Verizon and Grubhub and Tevera and Garmin and Xfinity and Chase and the many other corporate entities in my life, Delta doesn’t really want to talk with me. I suppose I could get into the weeds here and complain that pre-prepped answers aren’t exactly the same as talking, but we all know how this ends. My high school friend’s hypothesis would be affirmed. My expectations would be crushed, only to rise again, in the form of a rising blood pressure event not worthy of my time.

Speaking of time, as I get older, the decisions over how to spend time get pluckier. Do I write something silly like this, or do I go out to the garden, or do I set up another speaking event, or do I work on our Montana Happiness Project website, or do I volunteer somewhere, or do I wash it all away with family time?

This afternoon, I’ll fly to Georgia, where, on Thursday, I’ll teach my happiness class and engage in various consultations from a hotel, before giving three presentations at the American Counseling Association World Conference on Friday and Saturday, before I fly to Portland to see my ailing father in Vancouver, WA, before I fly back to Billings to get back to gardening. I’ll miss my 8-year-old granddaughter’s play in Missoula . . . and many (I was tempted to say “countless” but as a scientist, I’m philosophically opposed to the words countless and tireless) other possible events.

Irvin Yalom likes to point out that one choice represents the death of all others. Truth. There is no multitasking, there’s only the rush to sequentially tasking as much or as many life permutations as possible to fight Yalom’s existential dilemma of choosing and freedom and the angst and weight of our decisions.

My internal editor is complaining about how many “ands” I’ve used in this speedy essay. Even more sadly, the last editor-friend who told me about my penchant for too many “ands” and too many “quotes” has passed away. I miss him.

As a consistent voice and source of support, Rita is recommending I let go of my rigid hopes and expectations and pay the extra $120 to check my bag. At the same time, I’m resisting the death of multitasking, which is why I’m downsizing my packing for seven days into a carry-on bag.

I suppose that’s what the 1970’s band Kansas might say.

Carry on my wayward son

There’ll be peace when you are done

Lay your weary head to rest

Don’t you cry no more

At the risk of worrying you all more than I’m worrying myself (I’m doing fine; this is just creative expression or long form slam poetry), I’m in disagreement with that last line from the Kansas band. Don’t you cry no more is terrible advice.

Maybe the lyrics from that old Leslie Gore song fit better.

It’s my party, and I’ll cry if I want to . . .

That’s not quite right either. It’s more like,

I’ll cry when I’m moved to . . . for Ukraine, for the forgotten children, for the marginalized and oppressed, for my father, for the hungry.

We all have many good reasons we to cry. Grief, whether from the death of friends or ideas or choices, is a process; it comes and goes and comes and goes.

It’s easy to forget that grief is what’s happening in between our times of being happy. Happiness begets grief. And . . . that sounds like something my friend who has an answer for everything might just agree with.

See you in Atlanta.

Savoring and Gratitude in Billings with Montana School Counselors

Several months ago, Renee’ Parker Schoening, executive director of the Montana School Counselor Association, all-around master-organizer, and unstoppable inspirational force, asked me if I could provide a closing keynote speech for the MSCA spring conference that was evidence-based, uplifting, and funny. Channeling my internal family systems (IFS) inner scientist and entertainer selves (while ignoring my own good judgment), I quickly said, “Yes. Sure. Of course, I can do that.”

This exchange is an example of saying yes to ambitiously unattainable ideas, and then needing to find people to help me accomplish whatever it is I’ve agreed to do. In honor of my disdain for pithy, rhyming, oversimplification (think of trite things like, ugh, “fight or flight”), I’ve decided to enhance my influencer legacy by delivering profound wisdom using pithy, rhyming, oversimplifications.  In the case of today’s description of last week’s questionably unattainable commitment to providing an evidence-based, uplifting, and funny closing keynote speech, I’m saying (and you may want to write this down), “If you’re running out of steam, it helps to have a good team.”  

For the potential MSCA debacle, I asked two talented graduate students in Counseling at the University of Montana to help me create closing keynote magic. I suspect, because I’m a faculty member and technically one of their supervisors, the grad students may have experienced my “ask” as an offer they couldn’t refuse. Regardless of (or despite) their internal lamentations, they accepted the offer they couldn’t refuse . . . and planning started happening.

Turns out that Lillian Martz, one of the grad students, has a history of competitive Karaoke. She’s a current doc student, former M.A. student, and former school counselor. In honor of her expertise, I may or may not have suggested we infuse Karaoke into our keynote. You know how it is. With three people together generating bad ideas, it’s hard to discern where the blame belongs. Anyhow, Lillian agreed, later noting in an email that she felt “regret” for having made said agreement. But it was too late to back out; she selected a song, transforming it into a school counseling narrative (apparently that’s what competitive Karaoke people do), and suggested that the other grad student and I provide choreography.

Turns out the other grad student, Dylan Wright, has a strong theatre background, having worked a couple decades for Missoula Children’s Theatre, which is my way of saying Dylan thought him and me teaming to supply choreography for Lillian’s crooning was a fabulous idea, which is my way of admitting to, once again, saying yes to something that I might have had the good judgment to decline. All I remember is hearing Rita’s voice in the back of my brain saying, “Don’t hurt yourself.”

Dylan’s presence on our “closing keynote” team is why, somehow, we decided to weave in a brief improv experience. As many of you already know, I co-invented Karaoke, along with Mike Bevill, Neil Balholm, and Greg Hopkins, back in Mike’s basement back in 1974, and so saying yes to a Karaoke performance felt right. But, I’ve never done improv. Dylan was all-in on the improv, down with the Karaoke, and loved my terrible idea that we should open the keynote by spontaneously breaking into inappropriate songs.

Lest you worry, we did have content. Our main themes were savoring and gratitude, both being evidence-based practices popular in the positive psychology movement.

One of the lessons I’ve learned over the years is that it’s not unusual to end up receiving the gift you’re trying to give others. What I mean is that, at the conclusion of our phrenetic, non-traditional keynote speech, I experienced big doses of savoring and gratitude. Lillian and Dylan were marvelous planners and co-presenters and Renee’ was moved to tears by the video Dylan and Lillian created for the ending. Thanks to being on a great team and thanks to presenting to a generous and amazing audience of nothing-less-than-fantastic Montana school counselors, my savoring and gratitude cup were full all weekend.

Although there may be concrete evidence of the magnificence of this event in the form of video clips and photos, I’ll leave you with two short testimonials.

So much FOMO. I can’t make out any of the audio, but the visuals are very impressive. At one point it seems as though they become Zumba instructors. – UM faculty member, watching via social media video clips

I feel like I’m in a fever dream! – UM M.A. student

Beginner’s Mind (Shoshin) and the End of Spring Break

One of my biggest delights this semester has been reading my happiness students’ homework assignments. They’ve embraced each assignment with what Zen masters might call “Shoshin.”

Shoshin is a Japanese word referring to beginner’s mind. Beginner’s mind involves approaching experiences with an attitude of “not knowing” and maximum openness to learning. If you already know about something (say meditation), your natural inclination will be to close your mind, because you already have knowledge and lived experience about meditation and so there’s less openness to learning. Shifting from an expert (closed) mind to a beginner’s (open) mind requires intent and effort.

For many of my happiness students, some of the assignments have been old hat. Like when I ask someone with a degree in divinity and an active meditation practice to meditate for six minutes a day . . . or when I ask someone who is a faculty in counseling or a psychiatrist to try a little cognitive therapy on themselves . . . or when I ask university athletes to exercise, breathe, and consider the concept of flow . . . or when I ask a bartender to focus in on listening to others.

Despite me offering up some “old hat” assignments, my students have responded as if they were encountering everything for the first time. So. Very. Cool.

Those of you who aren’t enrolled at the University of Montana may not realize that today is the very end of spring break. Although spring is often about new beginnings, the end of a university semester is often about time management and emotional survival. Tomorrow, after a week or so of a “break” my students and I return to our studies to finish the semester. My hope is that we all return refreshed and with a renewed passion for learning, so we can Shoshin through our next six weeks.

This hope isn’t just for my happiness class students. Far too many painful events and situations are out there happening in the world. On top of that, everyone on the planet is facing unique and personal challenges that I don’t and probably can’t fully comprehend. We have these global and personal challenges AND in the Northern hemisphere, we’re experiencing spring. Even though there will be distractions and we will be imperfect, let’s do our best Shoshin and approach all of spring like a sponge, soaking up all the learning we can.

In 1970, Shunryu Suzuki wrote: “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s, there are few” (from, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind).

Let’s stay watchful and open with a beginner’s mind. This is a new spring, a never before spring, with new opportunities. As James Garbarino once wrote: “Stress accumulates; opportunity ameliorates.” Amelioration. What a great word for today . . . and tomorrow.

Love, Sex, Racism, Suicide, Goal-Setting, Awards, Stories, Burnout, Flexibility, and the Whole Genome at the Psychotherapy Networker Symposium Conference

The View from the Corner

As I type, Steven Hayes, the creator of acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT), is talking in a variety of voices about mindful acceptance. Earlier, he mentioned something about the whole human genome. In case you don’t already know, Steve is an older white guy. His writing about psychotherapy is fantastic. I really like his Ted talk. I’ve found his question, “What shall we do with our difficult thoughts?” an excellent prompt to reflect on.

Steve and I have a history. I’m glad to say that I’ve mindfully accepted that he missed his supervision appointment with me at AABT (now ABCT) back in 1987 in Los Angeles. Really. I’ve let go Steve standing me up, not because I’m all that good at forgiveness, but because him skipping out on our chance to meet makes for a better story. In fact, in this mindful moment, I’ve accepted him missing our meeting so completely that I have no urge to try to meet him today.

This is my first Networker “Symposium.” I hadn’t realized it was quite the distinctive thing. They’ve got numbers you can put on your badges to represent how many times you’ve attended the Symposium. Although it’s just a conference, it does have a particular flair and feel. From the beginning, there was movement, talk about love and sex-tech, dancing, singing, and learning. The breadth of content and diversity of attendees has been marvelous.

I started the first day with a workshop on Love and the Therapeutic relationship with Sabrina N’Diaye. Later, I took in a workshop on Tech-Sex with Tammy Nelson, author of Getting the Sex you Want. Nelson basically blew my mind. Did you know there are “devices” you can use to remotely vibrate your romantic partner’s genitalia? I didn’t . . . and maybe I didn’t want to. Did you know someone commented in the session that “Dominants” use that vibrating device to issue “commands?” I was sitting next to a professional cuddler and sexual surrogate. She was delightful. Steve Hayes (and Ram Dass) would be proud of the fact that I managed my difficult thoughts by staying in the here and now instead of trying to imagine her work or think about what the dominatrix had shared. Just saying. My mind remained as pure as the water of the Stillwater River.

There’s been lots of talk about racism at the Symposium. That’s a good thing. I’m better for it. The more we can all be less racist or anti-racist and aware of our biases, the better. Of course, while I’m typing this, my almost erstwhile buddy Steve continues to talk (and sometimes mumble). I’m aware (somewhat painfully) that I’m more “like” him in age and gender and ethnicity and can’t help but lament that (sorry Steve). Being an old white guy brings privilege (or advantage, as our first keynote speaker preferred). At the same time, looking in the mirror and seeing myself as just another old white guy also brings along gut-level unpleasantness.

Yesterday’s highlights were listening to Ester Perel (very smart, very articulate, very impressive) and learning more about Susan Johnson and her personal history of growing up in a Pub. We also listened to three young women talk about the couple therapy experiences that changed them. Fabulous.

One of my (many) take-aways from the past two days is for me to NOT be THAT old WHITE guy. I want to be a different white guy. How does that work? Among other things, I will try not to think too much of myself . . . or mumble.

Steve is now trying to get us all to love ourselves. That’s a nice idea. Someday, Steve, I hope to get there. But, to channel our Saturday morning Symposium keynote speaker, Emily Nagoski, most of the time, things just don’t fucking work.

Wait. I know that sounds negative. Among many of her excellent points about coping with burnout, Emily played a cool song (of her twin sister’s), a song liberally infused with the F-word. If you’ve ever experienced technology frustration (which I suppose even happens with sex-tech), you should listen. Here’s the link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eottd9Lw8l4 If you listen, don’t think about sex-tech at the same time. There’s no need to thank me for this great advice.

I’ve now abandoned Steve, in favor of one of the darling presenters of the Symposium and PESI. Sorry Steve . . . but I know you’ll mindfully accept your experience of me abandoning you. . . partly because you’ve never acknowledged my existence anyway (see, I’m totally over that 1987 incident).

There’s a woman talking . . . softly . . . without the changing voice routines of Steve Hayes. As she drones on, she mentions that therapy and therapists can be triggering. . . which is interesting given that I can’t find any affect in her voice. I’ve taken a seat on the floor in the back corner of the room and quickly recognized she’s right. She’s right because she instantly triggered me as I walked in the door with her monotone statement that talk therapy doesn’t work for trauma (what about CPT . . . or?). She continued to trigger me with her statement that PTSD was only identified in the 1970s (what about the diagnosis of war neurosis or battle fatigue or the many other earlier versions of PTSD?). And she finished triggering me with her laudatory comments on narrative therapy (does she NOT think of narrative therapy as “talk therapy?”).

I know my job here. Mindful acceptance. Learn what I can. Maybe the learning is about my own triggers or my own internal lament over being an increasingly irrelevant old white guy. Maybe the learning is about how to stay calm and embrace both ends of the constant dialectics and polarities of life.

On the whole, I’m so glad to be here at the Symposium, with Rita, and so grateful to continue learning. The fact that the conference has stimulated some of what Steve would call “difficult thoughts” is a blessing to be mindfully accepted. How else do we learn? How else do we grow? Should we expect to be constantly confronted with easy, comfortable, and affirming thoughts?

I think not. And I accept that . . . in my whole human genome.

The Foreword to The 15-Minute Case Conceptualization

Jon Sperry asked if I could write the foreword for a book he and his dad wrote with Oxford University Press.

Because the truth will set me free, I should admit, I’d never written a foreword before. More truth . . . I went ahead and said “Yes” to Jon because (a) I was honored and didn’t want the opportunity to write my first foreword slip away, (b) the book was (is) cool (it’s “The 15-Minute Case Conceptualization”), and (c) Jon Sperry is one of the nicest guys on the planet.

The book arrived in my mailbox yesterday. You too, can get a copy through your favorite bookseller. For more information, here’s the link to the book on the publisher’s website: https://global.oup.com/academic/product/the-15-minute-case-conceptualization-9780197517987?cc=us&lang=en&#

And for even more information about this excellent book, my first-ever foreword is below.

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I’ve needed this book for 30 years.

Just last month (before reading this book), I was standing in front of a Zoom camera, trying to teach the basics of case conceptualization to a group of 23 master’s and doctoral students. All of my fine-grained case conceptualization wisdom was being channeled into a single visual and verbal performance.

“My left hand,” I said, “is the client’s problem.” Pausing briefly for dramatic effect, I then continued, “and my right hand is the client’s goal.”

My new-found nonverbal gestures are mostly a function of seeing myself onscreen, and therefore wanting to avoid seeing myself (and being seen by the class) as boring. To add spice to my case conceptualization gesturing. “Case conceptualization is simple,” I said. “All it is, is the path we take to help clients move from their problem state . . . toward their goal state (I finished with a flourish, by wiggling the fingers on my raised right hand).”

But boiled down truths are always partly lies. Despite my fabulous mix of the verbal and nonverbal, I was lying to my students. At the time, I had thought of it as a little white lie, all for the higher purpose of simplification. And although I still like what I said and still believe in the rough truth of my visual case conceptualization description, after reading Len and Jon Sperry’s illuminating work on case conceptualization, I better understand what I should have said.

Case conceptualization is not simple. As the Sperry’s describe in this book, case conceptualization—even when summarized well—includes multiple dimensions of human behavior along with clinician perception, judgment, and decision-making. I needed much more than a few wiggly fingers to communicate the detailed nuances of case conceptualization.

What these authors have done in this book is the gracious service that great writers do so well: They have done our homework for us. They’ve read extensively, taken notes, and gifted us with elegant summaries of dense and complex concepts. They’ve made it easy for us to understand and apply the principles and practices of case conceptualization.

What I might like best is how they transformed a bulky and inconsistent literature into simple, therapist-friendly principles. They emphasize the explanatory, tailoring, and predictive powers of case conceptualization. I’ve never organized case conceptualizations using those “powers” but doing so was like switching on a light-bulb. Of course, case conceptualizations should explain the relationships between client problems and client goals and shine a bright light along the path, but rarely do theorists or writers make this linkage so efficiently. Their second principle, “tailoring” case conceptualizations to individual and diverse clients, is an essential, idiographic, Adlerian idea. The whole idea of tailoring counters the all-too-frequent cook-book approach to case conceptualization. Tailoring breathes life into creating client-specific case conceptualizations. And of course, case conceptualizations need predictive power; Len and Jon equip us with enough foundational predictive language to improve how we evaluate our own work.

Many other examples of how elegantly the authors have done our homework are sprinkled throughout this book. Here’s another of my favorite examples.

In chapter 2, they take us (in a few succinct paragraphs) from what Theodore Millon described as eight evolutionarily-driven personality disorders to eight crisply described behavioral patterns. What I love about this is that Len and Jon’s wisdom transforms what might otherwise be viewed as a pathologizing personality disorder system into language that can be used collaboratively with clients to identify contextually maladaptive interpersonal patterns. This is a beautiful transformation because it spins psychopathology into something clients not only understand but will feel compelled to embrace. The process goes something like this:

  1. Therapist and client engage in an assessment process that touches on the client’s repeating maladaptive behavior patterns. These behavior patterns are palpably troubling and far less than optimal for the client.
  2. As all clinicians inherently know, touching upon clients’ repetitive maladaptive behavior patterns can activate client vulnerability. This is a primary challenge of all counseling and psychotherapy: How can we nudge clients toward awareness without simultaneously activating resistance? For decades, psychoanalysts managed this through cautious trial interpretations. Solution-focused therapists dealt with this by never speaking of problems. Gently coaxing ambivalent clients toward awareness and change is the whole point of motivational interviewing.
  3. When addressed in a sensitive and non-pathologizing way, deep maladaptive behavior patterns can be discussed without activating resistance or excessive emotionality. This is a critical and not often discussed part of case conceptualization. Len and Jon illuminate a path for gentle, sensitive, and collaborative case conceptualization.
  4. When clients can feel, recognize, and embrace their maladaptive behavioral patterns in the context of an accepting therapeutic relationship, insight is possible. In the tradition of Adlerian therapy, when insight happens, client interest is piqued and motivation to change spikes. Good case conceptualizations articulate problem patterns in ways that compel clients to invest in change.

I’m not surprised that Len and Jon Sperry have produced such a magnificently helpful book. If you dig into their backgrounds and conduct a case conceptualization of their personality patterns, you’ll discover they wholeheartedly embrace Alfred Adler’s work and consequently, much of what they do is all about social interest or Gemeinschaftsgefühl. Len and Jon Sperry are in the business of helping others. Reading their book has already helped me become better at teaching case conceptualization. I appreciate their work, and, no doubt, the next time I begin waving my hands in front of my Zoom camera, my students will appreciate their work too.

John Sommers-Flanagan – Missoula, MT

Banned Books, Critical Race Theory, and My Cold, Dead Hands

Book banning and book burning is an old strategy designed to control information. Stephen King—the famous author and Twitter presence (https://twitter.com/StephenKing)—recommends (I’m paraphrasing here) that everyone rush out and buy and read banned books, because they contain important knowledge.

I’ve been disappointed at efforts by state legislatures, governors, school superintendents, parents, and others who have been involved in book banning, as well as any or all of the above who have suggested that critical race theory (CRT) shouldn’t be taught in colleges and universities (it’s not really taught in any formal or in-depth way in K-12 schools, but even if it were, why not?).

CRT, books, and other sources of knowledge offer perspectives. A couple days ago, I received an email from a professor and student offering me feedback on a paragraph in our counseling theories text. From the student’s perspective, the paragraph felt anti-Semitic. I pulled up the paragraph on my computer, read it, and although I didn’t see it exactly the same way as the student, she had an important point—the passage could be taken in a negative way. I emailed the student and her professor and thanked them for the feedback, noting we’ll change that paragraph in the next edition.

One goal that Rita and I have in writing textbooks is to be inclusive, accessible, and non-racist/non-sexist. Although I’m sure we always fall short of our ultimate goal, in isolation and without feedback from others, we could never even come close to or make progress in accomplishing our inclusiveness goal. We were grateful to receive the feedback. Another goal we have is to keep learning. This experience, and many others, leads me to think that there may be no better way to learn, than to listen to the perspectives of others. Why not? Where’s the benefit in closing our ears and being defensive.

Just to be clear, I’m opposed to banning books; I’m opposed to limiting the teaching of CRT; and I’m opposed to other people trying to control information available to me and others. My best guess is that when other people try to control information, they probably fear the information. Why? I don’t know, but IMHO, putting our collective heads in the sand (this brings to mind the movie, “Don’t Look Up”) is NOT a particularly useful strategy for dealing with fears. 

I teach theories all the time. At the University of Montana, I’ve taught Theories of Counseling and Psychotherapy nearly every fall semester for many years. Rita and I have a textbook on theories of counseling and psychotherapy published by John Wiley & Sons. All the hubbub over CRT has convinced me that I need to commit myself to teaching more CRT concepts in my theories course. Like all theories, I’ll treat it like a theory we can learn from.

Last week we had a visit from a university faculty person from a state where professors are being coerced into not teaching CRT. Hearing him talk about this experience made me wonder how I’d handle it if I was told I shouldn’t teach CRT at UM. Obviously, I don’t know my exact response to that scenario, and I hope it never develops, but my best hypothesis, based on a little personal theorizing, is that I’d get fired or go to jail before I agreed to NOT teach CRT, because it’s a theory, a perspective (and not the only one), from which we should all strive to learn.

I know I’m being overly dramatic, but I strongly believe that learning from the perspectives of others is a good thing. I don’t plan on stopping. To steal (and modify) an old line from the NRA: I’ll give you my banned books and theories when you pry them from my cold, dead hands.

Just saying.

How on Earth Could Suicide Rates Go Down Along with the Onset of the Pandemic in 2020?

Last week I got to be part of an amazing conversation with Paula Fontenelle and Stacey Freedenthal. Paula and Stacey are experts in suicide prevention, postvention, and treatment. You can easily find them and some of their great work online using your favorite search engine. They both have books out. Paula’s is: Understanding Suicide and Stacey’s is: Helping the Suicidal Person.

Paula invited Stacey and I onto her podcast (which is also a video production). We all sat in separate rooms in three different states (Oregon, Colorado, and Montana) and talked about, “How on earth” it could be that pandemic-related mental health stress and distress is up (the research says so), and yet suicide rates in 2020 dipped, for the first time in two decades? What a great question!

Between the three of us, we had many answers. That’s good, because death by suicide is always influenced by many factors (in the scientific world, we like to say that suicide is multi-determined). Our answers are speculative, but I think it’s good to be speculative, as long as you admit to the fact that you’re being speculative.

The most fascinating of many fascinating explanations for the recent reduction in suicide rates was our “in real time” discovery that the pandemic relief checks went out in April of 2020. That was important because, year-after-year, the CDC reports that April is nearly ALWAYS the month with the highest suicide rates and in 2020, it was the LOWEST. Why is April always linked to high suicide rates? No one knows for sure, but Paula, Stacey, and I talk about potential explanations for that too. As T. S. Eliot wrote:

“April is the cruelest month, breeding lilacs out of the dead land, mixing memory and desire, stirring dull roots with spring rain.”

If you’re interested in suicide-related phenomena—not everyone is—you should listen or watch Paula’s “Understand Suicide” podcast. You can watch any of the episodes for great info, but for our episode, here are the links.

To watch: https://youtu.be/fPrDdQg7G_E

To listen: https://bit.ly/3KrJILO

Have a great weekend.