The Graduation Speech They Didn’t Let Me Give (again)

Roni Aubrey John Grad 18 Better

This year, like all other years in the history of planet Earth, no one asked me to do a college or university commencement speech. I thought I had a shot at the University of Montana, but they settled on a Nike executive instead.

I puzzled over my lack of commencement speech invites, but only briefly. After all, at my most recent keynote (the Montana School Counseling Association), I spontaneously told my “Just Shut Up” story. It just so happens that my “Just Shut Up” story references a body part that typically isn’t mentioned in keynote speeches.

In my own defense, the “Just Shut Up” story is about adolescent development, and, because the entire experience of adolescent development is inappropriate, it’s impossible to say anything inappropriate when talking about adolescent development. This is so obvious that if you saw a Jeopardy answer saying, “A topic about which it’s impossible to say anything inappropriate” the correct question would, of course, be, “What is adolescent development?” I think I’m on solid ground here.

My point is that I’ve come to accept not getting asked to do commencement speeches. After all, they’re rigorous speaking gigs where you have to be ready to offer sage and complex advice like, “Be yourself” and “Don’t forget to give back.” That sort of sage advice might be somewhat outside my wheelhouse.

But then, the week before last Saturday’s University of Montana commencement, I found out that our graduating M.A. students in Counselor Education had requested a microphone for their post-commencement reception. I didn’t realize it immediately, but upon embarking on my one-mile walk to line up for the commencement ceremony, it hit me. My students were sending me a special indirect message. The microphone was for me. Knowing my penchant for speech-giving, they leaked the microphone intel, so I’d have time to prepare a fancy commencement speech, just for them.

When it comes to graduation speeches, preparation is key, so I spent the 15 minutes of my walk in a state of profound inspiration. I prepared a formal opening and closing, and then wrote two special graduation songs, practicing them along the way. The passerby seemed appreciative, even though they probably couldn’t understand why I was singing “Move your eyes” to the tune of “Shake it Off” or what inspired me to include the main refrain of “A date with Sigmund Freud” instead of “A partridge in a pear tree” when singing “The Twelve Weeks of Theories.”

Being uncertain as to whether I should focus exclusively on songs, I outlined an additional speech. This extra speech was all about the Gestalt of be-here-now and self-awareness, as I integrated the rising (and flooding) spring waters of the Clark Fork River as a metaphor for how over-activity contributes to the opaqueness of the self. To be sure that my commencement message would get through, I also included warnings about Narcissus and his fatal projection of the self. That’s the sort of mythical anecdote that can bring down the house.

Sadly, that afternoon, I discovered that the leaking of the microphone rental was nothing more than the flirtation of a ruse. During the WHOLE Counselor Education reception, the students completely hogged the microphone. All they did was go On and On and On and On (like Jack Johnson) saying nice things about each other and the faculty and the doc students, not leaving me a minute with the mic to get up there with my Poker Face (like Lady Gaga) to perform my freshly written songs.

Grad 18 Awards

In the end, truth be told, the Nike guy was pretty darn good, and likely a better choice than me. But, more importantly, our students were like they usually are . . . AWESOME. These graduates will be heading out to schools, mental health agencies, and intercultural destinations, where they’ll connect with and counsel youth and adults and make the world a healthier place.

Other than my amazing vocal performance, there’s one thing I wish I’d had a chance to say. It might have been something like this:

Take a moment to look around the room. See your classmates, your supportive families, and your faculty. Don’t just see them, SEE them as the multi-layered and profound beings that they are. In this irretrievable sparkling moment of the now, let’s remember a few things together. Remember your decision. You walked in this building to become a counselor. You dedicated yourself to learning how to help others. How cool is that? Feel the power of that memory. Remember our first times together. Remember when your professors kept having you awkwardly introduce yourselves to your new classmates. Feel that awkwardness and anxiety. Let it be with you, remembering that you OWN your future awkwardness and anxiety, because you worked through it, conquering it for now and later. Remember the painful viewing of video recordings of yourself doing counseling. Remember the painful feedback. Remember the tears and joys you experienced together. Remember getting to know the people in this room in ways you never could have imagined, until it happened. Remember growing in respect for yourself, growing your counseling skills, and deepening your respect for your classmates. Remember the late nights, the early mornings, the six straight hours of class, and that assignment (or two) that you pretty much hated. And most of all, remember this moment, right now, surrounded by friends and family. Remember the joy of right now. Remember why you chose this path and why you’re here today. Remember it all, and put it in your heart. Then, in the future, which might be now and might be later, commit yourself to combine your counseling skills, your empathic heart, and your thirst for continued learning. Let the joy of now flow back to the memories of then and the future of what will be. Recognize your new power; it’s like the Force; it’s in your hands, it’s in your heart, it’s in your brain. You take it from here, remembering also, that we are honored to have had time with you and to send you out to shape a healthier and happier society.

Oh. Yeah. I almost forgot. Remember this too, and be grateful: Never again will you have to date Sigmund Freud.

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An Early Peek at the Suicide Assessment and Intervention Video Project

Helicopter CroppedBack in March, 2012, I settled into a Starbucks in Vancouver, Washington to reflect on my experiences at the annual American Counseling Association conference in San Francisco. Memories of Dr. Irvin Yalom’s keynote bubbled up in my mind, so that’s what ended up in my fingers, on my screen, and in my blog.

Several days later, I got an email from a “Dr. Yalom.” Seeing the name, I immediately felt anxiety and anticipation. First thoughts, “I meant to be positive. I hope I didn’t write anything offensive?”

The email was from Dr. Victor Yalom. It was nice . . . and supportive . . . and positive . . . and a big relief.

Victor is the owner/publisher/president or grand sultan of psychotherapy.net. Psychotherapy.net is a publisher of psychotherapy training and continuing education materials, mostly videos. Over the past 6 years Victor and I have struck up a collegial friendship. He is the biggest fan and proponent of our Clinical Interviewing video series (which he sells through psychotherapy.net). After viewing the Clinical Interviewing video, he has repeatedly asked Rita and I about doing a video for psychotherapy.net. Unfortunately, the timing never worked out, until this past fall, when we agreed to collaborate on a six-hour suicide assessment and intervention training video.

As they say in the film industry, everything is in the can. We’re down to final editing and other details. We filmed in Missoula and Mill Valley. Rather than working directly with imminently suicidal clients, we got volunteers to channel previous or potential suicide-related experiences. All this is just my way of introducing this sneak peek into this upcoming video.

Of course, reading isn’t the same as watching, but the next 2,000 words can give you a glimpse of one of the cases featured on the video. The client is a young Native American man and veteran. Many cultural issues emerge during the session, along with suicide ideation. Here’s the clip, along with my side “commentary” in bold:

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John:            Cory, I know a little bit about you, but not very much. And so maybe the best place to start is for you to tell me some things about yourself, some things about how you’ve been feeling in your life, some things about the situations that you’ve been in, and maybe help me get a sense of how I might be of help.

Cory:            Yeah, I come from a small reservation in Eastern Montana, and I was kind of – it was a comfortable life growing up. I didn’t know anything different. And I remember sitting there with my family watching the war and kind of spurred us to want to help bring honor to our tribe. So, I signed up at 17.

John:            Yeah, what tribe?

Cory:            I’m from the Lakota Sioux tribe from the Fort Peck Indian Reservation.

John:            Okay. Great, thank you. Sorry.

Cory:            So, I left at 17, and it was kind of a big deal. We had a big honor, big gathering for me, big sendoff, and it was pretty great and feeling pretty good. Deployed when I was 18 years old over to Iraq. It was going great. I felt like I was doing something. I didn’t get to talk to my family much, maybe every three months. And I didn’t know what was going on at home. Had a fiancée when I left. Life was great. Eventually time to come home and came home. And my family’s kind of in disarray. My grandma died. I didn’t get to go to her funeral. They didn’t tell me.

John:            Yeah.

Cory:            So, kind of tore me up. My fiancée left me for one of my best friends, so that was the shock of my life.

John:            Yeah. So, at least at this point I’m hearing that you were on kind of a high and feeling good at 17, get a big sendoff from your tribe, from your family, and you go, and you go to Iraq. And you get back, and things are a mess.

Cory:            Yeah. Meth kind of hit our reservation pretty hard. And family members on meth and prison and kind of whole world changed, I guess. Eventually, I didn’t – just came back and started drinking. Not sure who I was anymore. So, that was difficult, didn’t have very many people to turn to anymore. Never had a father growing up. My mom was always raising us with a couple jobs. And eventually her and her boyfriend got into drugs, so that’s kind of pretty difficult. And I didn’t know what to do anymore. And I was kind of feeling down and just kept drinking, and I kind of don’t know what to do anymore. For us it’s a honor to serve and kind of makes us who we are.

John:            Yeah.

Cory:            We view it as becoming a warrior man.

John:            Yeah.

Cory:            And I felt like I did that, and I’d bring honor back to my culture, my tribe. Yeah, just I came home. Everything’s in disarray, and I thought I was pretty stable. Eventually – and one thing, on the reservation we don’t – or culturally we don’t talk about our feelings or emotions. So, every time we do, feel pretty shame. A lot of shame comes from it. So, it’s kind of you just deal with it.

John:            Yeah, yeah. Yeah, so a couple of cultural pieces. One is that sense of honor of serving, and you hooked onto that and were living that. And then another cultural thing is, it’s a little shameful to express emotions, sadness, that kind of emotion or others.

Cory:            Yeah, I mean, I guess I could just describe it as shame. Like I feel guilty talking about it because we’re supposed to be men.

John:            You’re warriors. You’re strong.

Cory:            Yeah.

John:            And so you keep it all –

Cory:            Yeah, it’s part of who we are, death, fighting, honor, celebrating together, just part of who we are.

John:            Yeah, yeah. And then as you get back, and you’re in this disarray, and the meth on your reservation is prevalent, and you start drinking, and it sounds like that could be connected with the emotional warrior. Is that one of the ways that you might cope?

Cory:            I guess I just – kind of just helped me feel nothing.

COMMENTARY: Cory has covered lots of ground quickly. He has articulated his collectivist identity. Knowing about his collectivist identity early in the session is a very good thing. He has also mentioned multiple stressors and losses; these stressors and losses are traditional risk factors and load onto the various risk dimensions. These include: coming back from war, being a veteran, loss and betrayal by his girlfriend, his grandmother’s death, the disarray of his tribal community from meth, and other issues. In addition, one immediate challenge that’s coming into my mind is how to address alcohol, because it’s a suicide desensitizer, but it’s also helping him “feel nothing” which is consistent with his cultural value of not expressing his feelings. At this point I’m choosing to build a relationship with Cory before jumping in and discussing alcohol directly.

John:            Okay.

Cory:            Just kind of, I guess, how I dealt with it because I couldn’t talk about stuff that happened over there, and I didn’t have no male role models in my life to kind of talk about culturally with or anything.

John:            Yeah. So, I’m aware of the fact that you’ve told me, and I really appreciate it, some cultural things about you, about being a Lakota Sioux, about the reservation that you grew up on and some of the things you experienced, about the honor, about the shame, about the warrior mentality. And I’m going to do my best to track all those things. Occasionally if you think I’m just not getting it from your cultural perspective, I would love it if you would tell me, but I don’t want to put all that responsibility on you. So, I will probably every once in a while just check in to see, am I getting this right? Is that okay with you if we –

Cory:            Yeah, that’s fine.

John:            Yeah, because I just don’t want to misunderstand things because of my lack of the same cultural experience as yours. And so as I’m imagining it, you’re back. You’re drinking. It’s part of being numb.

Cory:            Uh-huh.

John:            And getting rid of those emotions. And as you talk, one question that comes to mind to me, and my guess is that this would be a dishonorable thought to have, although not an abnormal thought because it’s not unusual when people come back and life is disappointing and hard, and you’re drinking, and you’re managing those emotions, it’s just not unusual to have a thought about suicide or about killing yourself. And my guess is that would be in opposition to your culture, too, but I don’t know.

Cory:            Yes and no. One way we look at is from we’ve had everything taken from us. That’s one thing you can’t take from us. Our life is ours to give to the Creator, to Wakan Tanka which is our God. So, when it’s our time, it’s kind of our choice.

John:            Okay.

Cory:            The sad thing about it is, I’m feeling down, and a lot of times like as I grew up I had – I was probably nine years old. My first friend committed suicide. And it brings the community together. We have big honoring, big feast for his family, for him, and just days of celebrating. It’s kind of like bring the family back together. I had another friend do it after that because he was – couldn’t graduate high school and didn’t have nobody there, and he wanted his family to come back together, so he committed suicide, just felt like it’s going to bring his family back together. And it did for a bit, but meth came in again, so it kind of tore it apart.

John:            Uh-huh.

John:            So, I’m hearing two suicides of people that you knew well around the time that you graduated high school?

Cory:            Oh, one was when I was 9, and a good friend was 16. And by the time I was 18, I probably lost maybe 7 friends from drinking and driving, drugs, stabbings. So, I guess to us, I mean, death is death, so it wasn’t really a big deal, kind of a celebration and we’ll see them again.

John:            Yeah. So, for each one the family celebrates, the community celebrates –

Cory:            Uh-huh.

John:            – the life. And sometimes it almost sounds like somebody might choose suicide as an effort, it sounds like, to pull the family together to get everybody closer.

Cory:            Yeah, I guess, too, they know people will care. Pretty big sense of hopelessness there. Not many people know where to turn.

John:            Yeah. Yeah, so that’s a lot of death that you saw even by the time you graduated high school. Have you had some thoughts of suicide yourself?

Cory:            Originally when I first came back, I did. I just didn’t know what to do anymore. Then I came to college, thought I was going to – wanted to do something honorable again. Again, big celebration and sent us off to college. And I get here, and things are going well at first. Then just the culture differences, like nobody understood me, didn’t know what to do. I was doing all right in classes, but I just kind of couldn’t fit in, didn’t feel like anybody understood me. I mean, they’re all pretty nice guys and gals. I could tell they were trying to, but just something I knew they didn’t.

And then now things are getting bad again. I’m trying to sleep at night. Yeah, just every time I go to sleep, I remember one time in Iraq we were sitting there, and they decided – well, I guess Al-Qaeda, they blew a whole street, whole city block, and it just – I mean, every building came down. And we were there trying to help, and you had kids with missing arms and missing eyes and moms with no legs and crying, screaming. We were trying help as best we can, and same time people shooting at us and just didn’t know what to do.

My friend’s crying. Like why the fuck are we here? Like what are we doing here? Like this isn’t what we – not what we’re here for. Yeah, I just remember a mom with no leg carrying her helpless child just in her arms, and the child was dead. I mean, just every time I go to sleep, I just remember that kid helpless laying there. And so I’m not sleeping much, a lot of drinking still. I guess I don’t know what to do anymore.

COMMENTARY: It’s not unusual for suicidal clients to present with a vast array of psychological pain. That can be overwhelming to the client and to the therapist. Cory has shared several layers of unresolved grief, traumatic war memories. The number of people whom he has known who have died by suicide is immense. Additionally, because of his cultural norms of stoicism, I’m wanting to address these parts of his experience, while not activating intense emotions. my strategy has been and will be to use reflection of content, to avoid reflecting back strong emotions like sadness or anger, to keep his collectivist perspective in mind, and to take notes in a way so that he and I can take a more intellectual and problem-solving approach to working with him on his experiences.

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If you made it this far, a big congratulations. Acquiring skills to work effectively with clients who are suicidal is challenging, but dealing with the emotions that come up is probably even more difficult. The purpose of this training video (when it becomes available) is to help practitioners obtain knowledge, learn skills, and refine their awareness of the inner and interpersonal dynamics associated with suicide assessment and intervention. When I have more information on the video’s availability, I’ll let you know.

Working with Parents Across Cultures

This morning I have the honor and privilege to present an ACA Education session on working with culturally diverse parents. Part of the presentation is business as usual. Sara Polanchek and I will take turns talking about some of the ways in which we work with parents. This content is mostly linked to the “How to Listen so Parents will Talk and Talk so Parents will Listen” book.

But what’s exciting this morning is that two of our U of Montana doc students will intermittently offer cultural commentary on how to work with parents who are culturally diverse. Maegan Rides At The Door and Salena Beaumont Hill are the doc student co-presenters. I have already learned much from them . . . and will be learning more this morning. To share the learning, the powerpoints are here: ACA Parenting 2018 REV #274

Building Therapeutic Relationships: The Essence of Evidence-Based Counseling

Hey. I’m sitting in an ACA session right now and inappropriately typing on my computer. There’s so much I could type right now . . . but self-censoring is nearly always a good thing.

Attached you’ll find the ppts for my presentation today. I hope you’re all well, and self-censoring in ways that are adaptive and prosocial. I’d write more, but self-control is advisable.

Evidence Based #174 ACA 18

 

What’s Happening at the 2018 American Counseling Association Conference in Atlanta?

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The American Counseling Association annual world conference is coming to Atlanta next week (4/25-29) . . . and so am I.

This year, the ACA conference includes inspiring keynotes, 500+ unique sessions and up to 33.5 hours of CEs. I’m honored to be a part of this exciting learning and networking event. Here’s a link to general conference information: https://www.counseling.org/conference/atlanta-2018

As a part of the 500+ sessions, I’m involved in several events and would love to see you there. Here’s where you can catch me.

On Wednesday, April 25, I’m doing a full-day (6 hour) workshop titled, Tough Teens, Cool Counseling. There are plenty of seats left and you can get registration and other information at the ACA conference website: https://www.counseling.org/conference/atlanta-2018/sessions-events/pre-conference-learning-institutes

On Friday, April 27, from 2 to 3:30pm in Room A313, Kindle Lewis, Kim Parrow, and I will present: Building Therapeutic Relationships: The Heart of Evidence-Based Counseling

On Saturday, April 28, from 10:30 to Noon in Room A410, Sara Polanchek, Maegan Rides At The Door, Salena Beaumont Hill, and I will present: Using (Magic) Words to Influence Challenging Parents . . . With Cultural Commentary

Also on Saturday, April 28, from 1pm to 2pm, John Wiley and Sons is having an event in the Exhibit Hall to launch the publication of 3rd edition of Counseling and Psychotherapy Theories in Context and Practice. There will be coffee and cookies. Although I was tempted to select excerpts of this exciting new textbook and offer dramatic readings, instead, Rita and I will just be low key at the Wiley booth, meeting and greeting people, and answering any questions that might come up about the book or about life. Please come have a cookie with us so that we’re not standing there awkward and alone.

Last, but far more than least, on Saturday night I have the honor of receiving the Don Dinkmeyer Social Interest Award. The ACA National Awards event is from 6-7pm at the Omni Hotel at CNN Center, in the International Ballroom E & F.

Whether you attend ACA or not, I hope you’ll join the 55,000 members (and me) in working to facilitate greater mental and emotional health around the world.

Can Male Therapists Do Feminist Therapy with Male Clients? You Decide — A Feminist Case Example

Fishing Big Davis

The 3rd edition of Counseling and Psychotherapy Theories in Context and Practice will be available very soon. Just in case you’re longing to see the cover as much as I am, there’s a link to the new edition on Amazon. Although I’m betting your longing is much smaller than my longing, here’s the link anyway: https://www.amazon.com/Counseling-Psychotherapy-Theories-Context-Practice/dp/1119279127/ref=dp_ob_title_bk

To celebrate this forthcoming epic publication (it’s not really epic, but some days it felt like a long poem), I’m posting a case presentation from the feminist chapter. Honestly, I don’t know who gets to decide what’s epic or what’s feminist therapy. That being the case, you can decide on both points. Or you can decide you’ve had enough of JSF for today.

Here we go.

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In an interesting twist, we’re featuring a case with a male therapist and male client in the feminist chapter to illustrate how working within a feminist model can work for boys and men. This case focuses on a 16-year-old male’s struggle with emotional expression. John SF is the therapist.

Josh was a White, 16-year-old heterosexual sophomore in high school. He had never met his biological father and lived in a middle-class neighborhood with his mother and three younger sisters. His mother was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Josh’s main loves were consistent with his gender identity. They included basketball, cars, girls, and sarcasm. He very much disliked school.

Josh and I met for therapy for several years. At the beginning of one of our sessions Josh handed me a packet of photos.

“Hey, what’s this about?” I asked.

He responded with a half-mumble about a recent awards ceremony. I thought I discerned pride in that mumble. I looked through the pictures while he told me about each one. There was one in particular that he gently lifted from my hands. It was a picture of him in a line-up with five other people. He carefully pointed out that he was standing next to the Lieutenant Governor of Oregon. I teased him because there were no pictures of him and the actual governor.

“What’s the deal?” I asked. “Wouldn’t the Guv pose with you?” Josh rolled his eyes and signaled for me to move on to the next photo.

The Problem List and Problem Formulation

Unlike CBT, feminist therapy doesn’t involve collaboratively generating a concrete problem list and formulating problems as if the problems resided in the client. Instead, because problems and problem-formulation are inseparable, we can’t talk about the problems without also talking about cultural factors creating and contributing to the problems.

If client issues are discussed as problems, they’re likely discussed as situational challenges. In Josh’s case, his mother initially had brought him to therapy for anger management. Anger was consistently a regular focus in Josh’s therapy. Like many 16-year-old boys immersed in the dominant U.S. culture, Josh’s emotional life was highly constricted. He was living by Pollack’s boy code (2000) and unable or unwilling to risk feeling anything other than anger and irritation. From the feminist worldview, this wasn’t Josh’s problem; his issues around anger stemmed from him living in a culture that kept him in an emotional straitjacket.

Josh’s issues (and case formulation from a feminist perspective) looked like this:

  1. Learning to deal more effectively with sadness, grief, and anger within the context of a repressive emotional environment.
  2. Coming to an understanding that his beliefs and views of emotional expression were not in his best interest, but instead, foisted upon him by toxic cultural attitudes about how boys and men should experience and express emotion.
  3. Developing trust and confidence in himself—despite not having a father figure or a mother who could provide him and his sisters with a consistently safe and stable home environment.
  4. Learning to talk about what he really feels inside and pursue his life passions whatever they might be instead of reflexively pursuing culturally “manly” activities.
  5. Expanding Josh’s limited emotional vocabulary through consciousness-raising.

Interventions

Feminist therapists are technically eclectic; they use a wide range of interventions imbedded in an egalitarian and mutually empathic relationship:

  1. Encouraging Josh to speak freely and openly about his life experiences.
  2. Empathic listening with intermittent focusing on more tender emotions, depending on how much of this Josh was willing or able to tolerate.
  3. Therapist self-disclosure and modeling.

As Josh and I looked at photos together, I responded with interest and enthusiasm. Because interpersonal connection is a core part of therapy, I didn’t rush him to move on to our therapy agenda. Instead, I shifted back and forth between saying, “Cool” or “What’s going on there?” to making sarcastic wisecracks like “Why exactly did the government let you into the capital building?” Sarcasm was used to express interest and affection indirectly, mirroring Josh’s humor and style. After seeing most of the photos I asked, “Who’s the person standing next to you?” I could tell from his response that I had asked a good question.

“Oh, yeah, her. Her name is Sharice; her mentor was getting the same award as my mentor. I danced with her. She’s a good dancer.”

We talked about dancing and what it was like for him to feel attracted to her. We were ten minutes into therapy and both of us had completely ignored the fact that we hadn’t been able to see each other for five weeks. Finally, I decided to break the avoidance pattern. I asked “So…how are you doing with all that’s been going on?”

He looked toward me, glancing downward.

“I’m doing okay, I guess.”

Because this was a young man who had been socialized to keep his emotions tightly wrapped, I probed, but gently.

“I understand it’s been pretty wild times?”

He looked up, eyes fixed on some invisible spot on the ceiling. I recognized this strategy—a surefire way avoid crying in public. An upward gaze constricts the tear ducts; tears cannot flow.

He looked back down and said, “I’ve been busy. My mom’s been in the hospital for about a month.”

“I heard she had a pretty hard time.”

He grunted and then, in a quiet growly voice, the words, “Let-me-tell-you-about-it” seeped out from behind his teeth. Silence followed. I cautiously probed a bit more by sharing more of what I knew.

“I talked with your mom yesterday. She told me that she got pretty caught up in some housing project.” This statement lit a fire in Josh and he plunged into the story.

“You won’t believe what she did. It was so f*ing stupid. Some punk developer is gonna build three houses. Three houses at the end of our street. This is no big deal. She just f*ing freaked out. She chained herself up to a tractor to stop them from building a house. Then she called the f*ing senator and road department and I don’t know who in hell else she called. She was totally nuts. So I told her she had a choice. I told her that she could go back home or I’d call the police and have her committed. She wasn’t taking care of my sisters. She was being a shit for a mom. So I just gave her a choice.”

I nodded and said, “You must be practicing to be a parent. That’s the kind of choice parents give their kids.”

His voice grew louder: “I gave her the choice five times. Five f*ing times! She tried to buy a Mercedes and a Volvo over the phone. So I called the cops. And the woman asked ME what to do. I’m f***ing 16 years old and they f *ing ask me what to do. I didn’t know what to say. I told ‘em to come get her. They finally sent some really big cops over to take her away.”

“Then what happened?”

“My mom was still acting nuts and my sisters were crying. So I just picked them up and held them and they took her away. We sat and they cried and we snuggled a while. And then I drove us home. I don’t have my license, but I can drive. My mom is still pissed at me about that, but I don’t give a shit!”

While listening to Josh, I formed an image of him in my mind. I saw an awkward 16-year-old boy “snuggling” his sobbing sisters, as the cops take their mother away. The girls were 9 and 6 and 4 years old—the same sisters he had complained about in previous therapy sessions.

Talking with teenage boys about emotional issues is tricky. Too much empathy and they retreat. No empathy and you’re teaching the wrong lesson. Throughout Josh’s storytelling, I used sarcasm, empathy, and emotional exploration, like, “What was that like for you to gather up your sisters and take care of them?” I suspected that if I asked too much about feelings or forced him to go too deep too fast, I would lose my “coolness rating” and there would be a relationship rupture.

Much of the session focused on empathy for Josh’s anger. Josh ranted and I listened. He was immensely angry and disappointed and hurt about his mother’s behavior. But I wanted to find a way to let Josh know that it’s okay, even a positive thing, for boys and men to feel and express more tender feelings.

About halfway through our session, I asked:

“So Josh,” I said, “When was the last time you cried?”

After a short pause he spoke with extreme deliberation, “I… don’t… cry… I… just… get… pissed.”

Josh expressed this masculine emotional principle very efficiently and then offered more about his socially coerced, but internalized emotional philosophy.

“Crying doesn’t do any good. It doesn’t change anything. It’s just stupid.”

“I know, I know” I said. “The whole idea of crying sounds pretty stupid to you. It’s not like crying will change your mom and make her better.”

“Nothing will ever change her.”

I renewed my pursuit of when he last cried. He insisted that was so long ago that he couldn’t recall, but we both knew that several years ago, after an especially hard week with his mother, he had sat on my couch and sobbed himself to sleep. Instead of bringing that up, I asked him what might make him cry now. Would he cry if his girlfriend broke up with him… if he lost his cell phone… if one of his sisters got cancer… if he didn’t graduate high school? Josh fended off my questions about tears by repeating his resolve to get “pissed” about everything that might make him feel sad. But the question about one of his sister’s getting cancer stumped him. He admitted, “Yeah, I might cry about that…” while quickly adding, “…but I’d do it alone!”

I responded, “Right. Absolutely. Some things might be worth crying about… even though it wouldn’t change things… but you’d want to do the crying alone.”

We talked indirectly and intellectually about sadness and tears, trying to model that we can talk about it—once removed—and if he cried someday, it would be perfectly okay, there would be no need to feel ashamed.

Toward the end of the session, I decided to lighten things up by teasing Josh about his social insensitivity. I said, “I can’t believe that we’ve talked this whole hour and you never asked a single thing about me.”

Josh grinned. He knew therapy was all about him and not about me. He probably thought I was playing some sort of therapy game with him. He was a good sport and played along.

“Okay. So what am I supposed to ask?”

I acted offended, saying, “After all those questions I asked you, at least you should ask me when I last cried.”

“God you don’t know when to drop things. Okay. So when did you cry?”

I said, “I think it was yesterday.”

Our eyes met. He looked surprised. I continued, “Yeah. I feel sad sometimes. It can be about really hard stories I hear in here or it can be about my own life. Even though it doesn’t change anything, it can feel better to let my sadness out.”

It was time for the session to end. We both stood and I said, “We have to stop for today, but we can talk more about this or whatever you want to talk about next time.”

 

MSCA 2018 — Keynote Powerpoints

Hey all.

I’m in Helena in anticipation of a great morning tomorrow with the Montana School Counseling Association. Thanks Renee’ Schoening for the invite. The bad news is that my talk is on stress management and because everyone at the conference has probably already heard my “30 minutes of profanity” story, I’m feeling stressed. Funny how that works.

The good news is that the amazing Salena Beaumont Hill will be my co-presenter. I’m hoping she’ll have a story with the F-word to replace mine. Haha. Kidding Salena.

Here are the ppts. Let’s have some fun tomorrow! MSCA Keynote 2018

Author, Speaker, University of Montana Professor