Yesterday, Rita posted a free rooster to give away on a local Facebook page. She was surprised that no one claimed him. I waxed empathic, “I don’t understand,” I said, “people always want free things. Getting a free rooster would make the right person very happy.”
We’ve been studying happiness, but not the smiley sort of happiness. We’re into Aristotelian eudaimonic happiness (of course we are). You know, the sort of happiness you experience from living your life in ways that honor others and consistent with your deep values. That just might involve high-quality daily interactions with a free rooster. Think about it.
I was so puzzled by not having our rooster snapped up for immediate adoption that I took to the streets. Really, it was just one street. We’re living in Absarokee for the summer; there are streets, but not very many, and I only spent time on one street.
I cleverly wove the rooster opportunity into my banking business. With only two employees left in the bank on a late Friday afternoon, I asked with great cheer, “Would either of you like a free rooster?” They both quickly said “No thanks,” but I got my transaction processed in record time.
Rita was still in the grocery store (we were dividing and conquering our errands). I marched in, offered to carry her beer, and announced, “Hey. Anybody want a free rooster?” The cashiers avoided eye contact. The bagger started talking about his pigs; they made him happy. He didn’t need a rooster. I guess that proves it’s possible to have too much happiness.
Despite repeated rejections, I’m still convinced that our rooster could bring free happiness to someone. In fact, I think our failed transactions are evidence that happiness is in the eye of the beholder. When I was a teenager, our neighbors got a rooster. We woke up every morning to fantasies of murdering the neighbor’s rooster. I started plotting a late-night abduction. After all, roosters are the mother of opportunity. [I know that’s a wrong and terrible butchering of the saying “necessity is the mother of invention,” and I know that butchering must be the wrong word here, but I’m typing fast and consequently it’s impossible for me to suppress or repress my aggression and mother issues when free associating at this pace. Freud would be happy. But then Freud had his own peculiar tastes regarding what made him happy, which is, of course my point.
The famous Peanuts cartoonist, Charles Shulz, wrote a book titled, “Happiness is a warm puppy.” Although warm puppies likely bring happiness for many people, they’re certainly not the recipe for happiness for everyone. If I recall correctly, for Linus, happiness was a warm blanket.
And I can’t stop myself from thinking that, perhaps, for some lucky person out there . . .
. . . happiness is a warm, free, pet rooster.
If you’re that person, contact me, because right now, for me, happiness is giving away a free pet rooster.
In this post I’m sharing a link to an article I just had published in Psychotherapy Networker. Although I had hoped it would be the Networker’s “lead article,” instead, they put Shankar Vedantam first? And then a bunch of other people, like David Burns and Martha Manning? Seriously? All jokes aside, the truth is, I’m humbled to be included.
The article—titled “The Myth of Infallibility”—is about my immediate and ongoing emotional reactions to the loss of a client to suicide. I hope the article provides useful information and emotional support for counselors and psychotherapists who have experienced—or will experience—a similar loss.
You can use the following link to bypass the paywall and read the article for free.
Thanks for reading this. Please share the link if you feel so moved. One of my counseling colleagues shared it with all her students, which seemed great to me, mostly because IMHO, we don’t talk much or get formal training on how to cope when or if we have a client who dies by suicide.
Today, I’m especially grateful for all the people in my life who have supported me in one way or another, over so many years.
This Friday, July 16, Rita and I are doing a professional video shoot in Billings, MT. Due to some minor scheduling changes, we suddenly have openings for two last minute volunteers, who are willing to talk about personal issues in the role of clients. Below, I’ve written a short description of what we need. If you happen to be an open-minded person interested in a little psychological discovery, read on . . . .
John and Rita Sommers-Flanagan, authors of Clinical Interviewing, Tough Kids, Cool Counseling, and other professional books, are doing a video shoot on Friday, July 16. The video content will be used for educational purposes, primarily to accompany textbooks and for training mental health professionals. John and Rita have openings for volunteers to participate in two demonstrations in the afternoon of July 16. Each demonstration will involve about 30 min of on-camera time, with additional time for prepping and debriefing. Volunteers will be paid a one-time stipend of $100. A description of the two demonstrations follow:
John will engage a volunteer in a brief (single-session) nightmare treatment. The volunteer should have a real problem with nightmares. The therapeutic demonstration will focus on coping with nightmares and changing or reducing their frequency and intensity.
Rita will demonstrate how current emotions are linked or related to past emotions. The volunteer should have experience with some problematic emotions in their present-life and be willing to explore past connections to current distressing emotions. Anger, sadness, and anxiety are three emotions that work well for this demonstration.
Volunteers should be open and interested in exploring psychological issues. Potential volunteers (we only need two!) should contact John Sommers-Flanagan ASAP at firstname.lastname@example.org
Critical Race Theory (CRT) has been in the news lately, especially in Montana. As it turns out, several Montana public officials (you know who you are) appear frightened by CRT. Their response to the idea (not the reality) of CRT being taught anywhere or anytime is to try to ban it, as in make it illegal. It’s like a modern Montana-style prohibition (“Don’t you go out and get caught with a bottle of CRT or we’ll be taking you on down to see the sheriff!”).
All jokes aside (well, not all), I have a couple brief comments and a question.
I’m struck that, in the 21st century, anyone is using the old tried and failed strategies of banning ideas and burning books. Alcohol prohibition seemed rather unsuccessful. . . and we don’t need to know what happened with Romeo and Juliet to understand that, that which is forbidden, takes on a certain sex appeal.
My other main thought is that, just in case anyone was sleeping through science class, Critical Race Theory is a . . . (wait for it) . . . a theory! As with all theories, it’s not a perfect explanation of anything. It’s a working model, a set of ideas, with maybe a few scientific hypotheses. The right response to CRT isn’t to outlaw it—because if CRT is outlawed, then only outlaws will understand CRT. Instead, CRT is great food for thought, discussion, and public and private discourse. Rather than make it illegal, we should be discussing, evaluating, and critiquing its usefulness and validity, rather than acting like studying the presence of systemic racism in American history is blasphemy. If you contemplate the issue, the answer is “Yes, of course” there has been, from the beginning, systemic racism in the U.S. (think Columbus, slavery, Indian Boarding Schools, etc.). However, the fact that systemic racism is an historic and contemporary reality doesn’t make every jot and tittle of CRT true; but certainly it suggests we take it seriously. If not, we risk tempting our children with forbidden fruit or teaching them to be afraid of new ways of thinking. Either way, banning or illegalizing or running like scared rabbits away from CRT does a disservice to our state, our country, and our children.
My question is whether I should write an Op-Ed piece on this topic. If you think so, let me know. If you think not, tell me I should let it go.
Most of the time I take irrational pride in my emails. I work very hard to eliminate typos and grammatical problems. I also work very hard to give my emails just the right touch of snark and hilarity.
My goal is to send literary emails. I keep waiting for someone to publish them. Something like the Freud-Jung letters. But alas, no one has offered, and so, once again, I have to be the responsible party and do the right thing and publish them here.
My emails are in italics; the introduction to each email is not in italics.
To an academic friend from Xavier University who wrote to me to share one of his student’s complaints about the fact that we said something positive about Paul-Michel Foucault in our Counseling and Psychotherapy Theories textbook:
Anyhow, I guess I’ll be cancelling Foucault in the future. I checked online, and the dude was a bad sexual predator creep. If it seems appropriate, offer my apologies to your student. It’s tough to stay up on all the idiotic creeps out there. When I read about them, I can’t figure out where they found the time to act out on all their stupid sexual perversions. Well, obviously, that’s not the only question I have . . .
2. To a former student who had the audacity to suggest she could beat me at games like Charades/Pictionary/Balderdash/Cards Against Humanity:
As someone who is a trained observer of human insecurities, I think you should know that when someone (like, let’s say, you) writes something like “You telling me you’ve never lost those games means nothing. . .” it’s a clear indication that whatever that person (like, let’s say, you) is writing about “means something.” You may be familiar with the protesting too much line from William S. . . . and he may have, indeed, been speaking of thou-est defense mechanisms.
If I cry during our upcoming competition, it will be from glee and not mushrooms or your game-playing domination fantasies.
Is the idea of using your corpse as a scarecrow an unusual idea? I’ve been away from human contact for so long that I’m not sure of what’s normal and what’s not and therefore take no personal responsibility for the normality of whatever I’m writing.
3. To the same former student (see above) who for some reason wrote to me about being open to being taxidermied after death and placed as a “greeter” on our porch:
You’re always so full of good ideas that I’m not sure what I can add. Back in the 20th century, we had a life-sized Jean Luc Picard cardboard cut-out that we kept on our porch to greet visitors. Should I outlive you, I’d be honored to keep your taxidermy self in our garden. Right now, Rita is writing about mushroom-based caskets as an alternative that results in quick biodegradation. We could put your likeness in a mushroom patch and then you might melt into the ground.
I probably should stop with all my good ideas now.
4. To an attorney who’s helping me with the details of a legal contract:
I’m glad to hear we’re outside the boundaries of HIPAA. One of my life goals is to pretty much always stay outside the boundaries of HIPAA. That’s why, when I ask people for their vaccination status, I also tell them I won’t be billing their insurance😊.
5. To a former student and professional counselor:
No one other than you would ever think to begin an email message with a statement about unmanned robot lawnmowers. I’d ask you about what you’re reading in your spare time, but I’m worried for what I might hear.
6. To my fellow faculty, when I forward them information I received from our national accrediting body:
I haven’t looked at this myself, but it seemed like I should pass it on.
7. To my Fall, 2021 Research class:
Hello Prospective Researchers,
It’s June, and anyone with any sense is thinking about the COUN 545 Research class right about now. Haha. Not really. I’m just procrastinating on other things.
I’m writing because I had emailed a few of you before saying that I would likely NOT be teaching the Research class . . . however . . . the excellent, very good news is that I WILL BE teaching the Research class. The plan is for us to be live, in-person, and following whatever health guidelines the University has in place for fall semester. I know, the good news just won’t stop.
I just wanted to clarify what’s happening and dispel any rumors and let you know in advance that we’ll be having the best research class experience ever.
More stuff will come your way (like a syllabus) in late July or early August. Until then, you should start systematically collecting data wherever you go and whatever you’re doing (sorry, more research jokes there, no need to do that).
Seriously, until then, you should have a fantastic summertime.
That’s all for now. And you all should have a fantastic June weekend!
I just realized that mindfulness meditation is all about nonjudgmental acceptance of the experience of failing at mindfulness meditation. Mindfulness meditation always involves failure, therefore it requires nonjudgmental acceptance.
We fail at mindfulness because we are always more or less distracted; we cannot achieve perfect mindfulness.
Practice does not make perfect; practice makes practice.
If the goal of mindfulness is to practice, then we cannot fail, unless we fail to practice.
But if we practice nonjudgmental acceptance, failing to practice is neither failure nor victory.
All this brings us back around the circle to never failing, but just being.
You may have a form to screen clients for a trauma history. However, more often than not, you’ll need to ask directly about trauma, just like you need to ask directly about suicidality. In many cases, as discussed in Chapter 3, it may be beneficial to wait and ask about trauma until the second or third session, or until there’s a logical opportunity. Although insomnia and nightmares don’t always signal trauma, when they co-exist, they provide an avenue to ask about trauma.
Counselor: Miguel, I’d like to ask a personal question. Would that be okay?
Counselor: Almost always, when people have nightmares about guns and death, it means they’ve been through some bad, traumatic experiences. When you’ve been through something bad or terrible, nightmares get stuck in your head and get on a sort of repeating cycle. Is that true for you?
Miguel: Yeah. I went through some bad shit back in Denver.
Counselor: I’m guessing that bad shit is stuck in your brain and one ways it comes out is through nightmares.
Miguel: Yeah. Probably.
Even when clients know their trauma experiences are causing their nightmares, they can still be reluctant to talk about the details. Physical and emotional discomfort associated with trauma is something clients often want to avoid. To reassure clients, you can tell them about specific evidence-based approaches—approaches that don’t require detailed recounting of trauma or nightmare experiences. Two examples include eye movement desensitization reprocessing (EMDR; Shapiro, 2001) and imagery rehearsal therapy (Krakow & Zadra, 2010).
Miguel: If I talk about the nightmares, they get more real. I have enough trouble keeping them out of my head now.
Counselor: That’s a good point. But right now your dreams are so bad that you’re barely sleeping. It’s worth trying to work through them. How about this? I’ve got a simple protocol for working with nightmares. You don’t even have to talk about the details of your nightmares. I think we should try it and watch to see if your dreams get better, worse, or stay the same? What do you think?
Miguel: I guess maybe my nightmares can’t get much worse.
Evidence-Based Trauma Treatments
In Miguel’s case, the first step was to get him to talk about his insomnia, nightmares, and trauma. Without details about his experiences, there was no chance to dig in and start treatment. The scenario with Miguel illustrates one method for getting clients to open up about trauma. Other clinical situations may be different. We’ve had Native American clients who were having dreams (or not having dreams, but wishing for them), and we needed to begin counseling by seeking better understanding of the role and meaning of dreams in their particular tribal culture.
Counselors who work with clients who are suicidal should obtain training for treating insomnia, nightmares, and trauma. Depending on your clients’ age, symptoms, culture, the treatment setting, and your preference, several different evidence-based treatments may be effective for treating trauma. The following bulleted list includes treatments recommended by the American Psychological Association (2017) or the VA/DoD Clinical Practice Guideline Working Group (2017), or both (Watkins et al., 2018).
Cognitive Processing Therapy (Resick et al., 2017).
Trauma-Focused Cognitive Behavioral Treatment (Cohen et al., 2012).
Although the preceding list includes the scientifically supported approaches to treating trauma, you may prefer other approaches, many of which are suitable for treating trauma (e.g., body-centered therapies, narrative exposure therapy for children [KID-NET], etc.).
Specific treatments for insomnia and nightmares are also essential for reducing arousal/agitation. Evidence-based treatments for insomnia and nightmares include:
Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy for Insomnia (CBT-I; Cunningham & Shapiro, 2018).
Targeting trauma symptoms in general, and physical symptoms in particular (e.g., arousal, insomnia, nightmares) can be crucial to your treatment plan. Addressing physical symptoms in your treatment instills hope and provides near-term symptom relief.
What follows is an excerpt from, Suicide Assessment and Treatment Planning: A Strengths-Based Approach (American Counseling Association, 2021). We address insomnia and nightmares in Chapter 7 (the Physical Dimension). This is just a glimpse into the cool content of this book.
Insomnia and nightmares directly contribute to client distress in general and suicidal distress in particular. In this section, we use a case example to illustrate how counselors can begin with a less personal issue (insomnia), use empathy, psychoeducation, and curiosity to track insomnia symptoms, eventually arrive at nightmares, and then inquire about trauma. Focusing first on insomnia, then on nightmares, and later on trauma can help counselors form an alliance with clients who are initially reluctant to talk about death images and trauma experiences.
Focusing on Insomnia
Miguel was a 19-year-old cisgender heterosexual Latino male working on vocational skills at a Job Corps program. He arrived for his first session in dusty work clothes, staring at the counselor through squinted eyes; it was difficult to tell if Miguel was squinting to protect his eyes from masonry dust or to communicate distrust. However, because the client was referred by a physician for insomnia, he also might have just been sleepy.
Counselor: Hey Miguel. Thanks for coming in. The doctor sent me a note. She said you’re having trouble sleeping.
Miguel: Yeah. I don’t sleep.
Counselor: That sucks. Working all day when you’re not sleeping well must be rough.
Miguel: Yeah. But I’m fine. That’s how it is.
To start, Miguel minimizes distress. Whether you’re working with Alzheimer’s patients covering their memory deficits or five-year-olds who get caught lying, minimizing is a common strategy. When clients say, “I’m fine” or “It is what it is” they may be minimizing.
But Miguel was not fine. For many reasons (e.g., pride, shame, or age and ethnicity differences), he was reluctant to open up. However, given Miguel’s history of being in a gang and his estranged relationship with his parents, the expectation that he should quickly trust and confide in a white male adult stranger is not appropriate.
Rather than pursuing anything personal, the counselor communicated empathy and interest in Miguel’s insomnia experiences.
Counselor: Not being able to sleep can make for very long nights. What do you think makes it so hard for you sleep?
Miguel: I don’t know. I just don’t sleep.
When asked directly, Miguel declines to describe his sleep problems. Rather than continue with questioning, the counselor fills the room with words (i.e., psychoeducation). Psychoeducation is a good option because sitting in silence is socially painful and because multicultural experts recommend that counselors speak openly when working with clients from historically oppressed cultural groups (Sue & Sue, 2016). The reasoning goes: If counselors are open and transparent, culturally diverse clients can evaluate their counselor before sharing more about themselves. As Miguel’s counselor talks, Miguel can decide, based on what he hears, whether his counselor is safe, trustworthy, and credible.
Counselor: Miguel, there are three main types of insomnia. There’s initial insomnia—that’s when it takes a long time, maybe an hour or more, to get to sleep. They call that difficulty falling asleep. There’s terminal insomnia—that’s when you fall asleep pretty well and sleep until maybe 3am and then wake up and can’t get back to sleep. They call that early morning awakening. Then there’s intermittent insomnia—that’s like being a light sleeper who wakes up over and over all night. They call that choppy sleep. Which of those fits for you?”
Miguel: I got all three. I can’t get to sleep. I can’t stay asleep. I can’t get back to sleep.
Counselor: That’s sounds terrible. It’s like a triple dose of bad sleep.
As Miguel begins opening up, he says “I haven’t slept in a week.” Although it’s obvious that zero minutes of sleep over a week isn’t accurate, for Miguel, it feels like he hasn’t slept in a week, and that’s what’s important.
After Miguel yawns, the counselor asks permission to share his thoughts.
Counselor: Miguel, if you don’t mind, I’d like to tell you what I’m thinking. Is that okay?
Miguel: Sure. Fine.
Counselor: When someone says they’re having as much trouble sleeping as you’re having, there are usually two main reasons. The first is nightmares. Have you been having nightmares?
Miguel: Shit yeah. Like every night. When I fall asleep, nightmares start.
Counselor: Okay. Thanks. I’m pretty sure I can help you with nightmares. We can probably make them happen less often and be less bad in just a few meetings.
The counselor’s confidence is based on previous successful experiences, including using a nightmare treatment protocol that has empirical support (Imagery Rehearsal Therapy; Krakow & Zadra, 2010). Although evidence-based treatments aren’t effective for all clients, they can establish credibility and instill hope. Nevertheless, Miguel doesn’t immediately experience hope.
Miguel: Yeah. But these aren’t normal nightmares.
Counselor: What’s been happening?
Miguel: I keep having this dream where I’m sticking a gun in my mouth. People are all around me with their voices and shit telling me, “pull the trigger.” Then I wake up, but I can’t get it out of my head all day? What the hell is that all about?”
Counselor: That’s a great question.
When the counselor says, “That’s a great question,” his goal is to start a discussion about all the reasons why someone (Miguel in this case), might have a “gun in the mouth” dream. If Miguel and his counselor can brainstorm different explanations and possible meanings for the dream images, it’s less likely for Miguel to interpret his dream as a sign that he should die by suicide. What’s important, we tell our clients, is to look at many different possible meanings the unconscious or God or the Great Spirit or the universe or indigestion might be sending to the dreamer. To help clients expand their thinking and loosen up on their conclusions about their dream’s meaning, we’ve used statements like the following:
You may be right. Your dream might be about you dying or killing yourself. But our goal is to listen to the message your brain sent you and be open to what it might mean. It’s perfectly normal to think your dream was about you dying by suicide—but that’s not necessarily true. That’s not the way the brain and dreams usually work. Some counselors use self-disclosure about dreams or nightmares they’ve had themselves. Others offer hypothetical or historical dream examples. Either way, normalizing nightmares helps clients become more comfortable talking about their bad dreams and nightmares.
To be continued . . . NEXT TIME . . . we ask about trauma.
For years I’ve been teaching counseling students that the cause of most emotional and psychological misery can be boiled down to one word. To inflame their competitive spirits, I tell them this powerful word starts with the letter E, and offer prizes to students if they can guess the correct word.
Sadly, no one ever guesses that I’m talking about “Expectation.”
Expectation is, IMHO, the biggest source of bad, sad, and maladaptive emotions. I suffer from my own expectations all the time. Just this morning, while trying to listen to a podcast on a walk, I became irrationally enraged with all things Apple. Why? Because my iPhone podcasting app didn’t work in an elegant, user-friendly manner. Even worse is that I’m fully aware of how silly it is for me to justify holding such high—or even modest—expectations when it comes to technology. I have repeated lived experiences that should have led me to know how often I (and others) are thwarted by technology. I also happily rely on and use technology for many hours every day, and although it feels otherwise, most of the time technology provides . . . my computer powers up, my emails get sent, my phone dials the right number, and magical things like Zoom conferences happen without adverse incident.
Here’s the irony: My expectations thwart my happiness far more often than technology thwarts my personal plans and goals. Nevertheless, I’m eager to throw a childish fit when an app malfunctions, but I continue to barely question my unrealistic expectations despite their predictable adverse emotional outcomes. Funny that (as the Brits might say). I resist blaming and changing that which I have some control over (my expectations), while I let loose with relentless complaints about that which I have little control over (technology).
The fortune in my fortune cookie from dinner with my father gave me a nudge toward recognizing and managing my expectations. Panda Express—not usually where I look for guidance—provided me with the wisdom I seek.
If I were inclined to use the word “wiring” when referring to neural networks (I’m not), I might question whether there’s a glitch in my wiring. However, because I’m pretty certain I’ve got no wires in my brain, I’m going after the glitch in my attitude. Sure, as I pursue my attitudinal glitch, my brain may undergo physical, chemical, and electrical changes, but I suspect the fix will be ever so much more complicated than clipping a wire here, and reconnecting another one there.
These days mostly we tend to orient toward the culturally specific, and that’s a good thing. Much of intersectionality, cultural competency, and cultural humility is all about drilling down into unique and valuable cultural and individual perspectives.
But these are also the days of Both-And.
In contrast to cultural specificity, some theorists—I’m thinking of William Glasser right now—were more known for their emphasis on cultural universality. Glasser contended that his five basic human needs were culturally universal; those needs included: Survival, belonging, power (recognition), freedom, and fun.
Although Glasser’s ideas may (or may not) have universal punch, he’s a white guy, and pushing universality from positions of white privilege are, at this particular point in history, worth questioning. That’s why I was happy to find an indigenous voice emphasizing universal ideas.
I came across a quotation from a Lakota elder, James Clairmont; he was discussing the concept of resilience, from his particular linguistic perspective:
The closest translation of “resilience” is a sacred word that means “resistance” . . . resisting bad thoughts, bad behaviors. We accept what life gives us, good and bad, as gifts from the Creator. We try to get through hard times, stressful times, with a good heart. The gift [of adversity] is the lesson we learn from overcoming it.
Clairmont’s description of “the sacred word that means resilience” are strikingly similar to several contemporary ideas in counseling and psychotherapy practice.
“Resisting bad thoughts, bad behaviors” is closely linked to CBT
“We accept what life gives us, good and bad, as gifts from the Creator” fits well with mindfulness
“We try to get through hard times, stressful times, with a good heart” is consistent with optimism concepts in positive psychology
“The gift [of adversity] is the lesson we learn from overcoming it” and this is a great paraphrase of Bandura’s feedback and feed-forward ideas
In these days of cultural specificity, it makes sense to work from both perspectives. We need to recognize and value our unique differences, while simultaneously noticing our similarities and areas of convergence. Clairmont’s perspectives on resilience make me want to learn more about Lakota ideas, both how they’re similar and different from my own cultural and educational experiences.
The place to click if you want to learn about psychotherapy, counseling, or whatever John SF is thinking about.