Just for fun, here’s a photo of a page from our Suicide Assessment and Treatment Planning book. This page is the lead in to a section that focuses in on how to work with clients who are suicidal, but whom also may be naturally also experiencing irritability, hostility, and hopelessness. For info, go to the publisher, ACA: https://imis.counseling.org/store/detail.aspx?id=78174
Just a heads up. I’ll be writing several posts about our new book this week. Be forewarned, these posts may be annoying. Annoying can happen when people feel enthusiastic. My apologies in advance.
In response to these upcoming posts from me (or annoying posts from others), you can apply one of three strategies.
- You can respond with positive affirmation, sharing, and by empathically matching my enthusiasm. Keep in mind that positive affirmation may make me happy. The downside is you risk reinforcing my “new book posting” behavior.
- You can respond with no response. That was a favored B.F. Skinner and Ivan Pavlov strategy. Think of it as putting me on a pain-free extinction schedule.
- You can respond with negativity or punishment. Skinner, Adler, and child advocates oppose punishment, because punishment can backfire, causing undesired behavior to increase, or triggering erratic behaviors.
True confession: When reading offensive or annoying posts, sometimes, even though I know better, I give into temptation, and respond with negativity. That’s nearly always a bad idea, mostly because option #3 of the preceding list is a poor extinction strategy. In one recent study, when social media posts received highere numbers of negative responses, the original social media posters responded back with even more posts. In other words, attention—even negative attention—acts as positive reinforcement and often increases the behavior toward which it was aimed. The take-home message is that, generally speaking, if you want to extinguish annoying blog posting behavior, following Skinner’s and Pavlov’s advice makes for good behavioral strategy.
Although I’m wary of the possibility of you all putting me on an extinction schedule, below is an excerpt from the Preface of our fancy new book. Right now the book is only available on the publisher’s website (https://imis.counseling.org/store/detail.aspx?id=78174), but I suspect it will soon make its way over to Amazon and the rest of the booksellers.
Writing a book about suicide may not have been our best idea ever. Rita made the point more than once that reading and writing about suicide at the depth necessary to write a helpful book can affect one’s mood in a downward direction. She was right, of course. Her rightness inspired us to pay attention to the other side of the coin, so we decided to integrate positive psychology and the happiness literature into this book. As is often the case when grappling with matters of humanity, focusing on suicide led us to a deeper understanding of suicide’s complementary dialectic, a meaningful and fully-lived life, and that has been a very good thing.
Before diving into these pages, please consider the following.
Do the Self-Care Thing
In the first chapter, we strongly emphasize how important it is to practice self-care when working with clients who are suicidal. Immersing ourselves in the suicide literature required a balancing focus on positive psychology and wellness. While you’re reading this book and exploring suicide, you cannot help but be emotionally impacted, and we cannot overstate the importance of you taking care of yourself throughout this process and into the future. You are the instrument through which you provide care for others . . . and so we highly encourage you to repeatedly do the self-care thing.
What is the Strengths-Based Approach?
Many people have asked, “What on earth do you mean by a strengths-based approach to suicide assessment and treatment planning?” In response, we usually meander in and out of various bullet points, relational dynamics, assessment procedures, and try to emphasize that the approach is more than just strengths-based, it’s also wellness-oriented and holistic. By strengths-based, we mean that we recognize and nurture the existing and potential strengths of our clients. By wellness-oriented we mean that we believe in incorporating wellness activities into counseling and life. By holistic we mean that we focus on emotional, cognitive, interpersonal, physical, cultural-spiritual, behavioral, and contextual dimensions of living.
You will find the following strengths-based, wellness-oriented, and holistic principles woven into every chapter of this book.
- Historically, suicide ideation has been socially constructed as sinful, illegal, or a terribly frightening and bad illness. In contrast, we believe suicide ideation is a normal variation on human experience that typically stems from difficult environmental circumstances and excruciating emotional pain. Rather than fear client disclosures of suicidality, we welcome these disclosures because they offer an opportunity to connect deeply with distressed clients and provide therapeutic support.
- Although we believe risk factors, warning signs, protective factors, and suicide assessment instruments are important, we value relationship connections with clients over predictive formulae and technical procedures.
- We believe trust, empathy, collaboration, and rapport will improve the reliability, validity, and utility of data gathered during assessments. Consequently, we embrace the principles of therapeutic assessment.
- We believe that counseling practitioners need to ask directly about and explore suicide ideation using a normalizing frame or other sophisticated and empathic interviewing strategies.
- We believe traditional approaches to suicide assessment and treatment are excessively oriented toward psychopathology. To compensate for this pathology-orientation, we explicitly value and ask about clients’ positive experiences, personal strengths, and coping strategies.
- We believe the narrow pursuit of psychopathology causes clinicians to neglect a more complete assessment and case formulation of the whole person. To compensate, we use a holistic, seven-dimensional model to create a broader understanding of what’s hurting and what’s helping in each individual client’s life.
- We value the positive emphasis of safety planning and coping skills development over the negative components of no-suicide contracts and efforts to eliminate suicidal thoughts.
Happy New Year!
As a method for putting 2020 behind me and focusing on a hopeful 2021, I engaged in some forward thinking (rather unusual for me) and wrote an op-ed piece for the Missoulian newspaper to be published TODAY! Below, I’ve pasted the beginning of the article, along with a link to the whole darn thing in the Missoulian. If you feel so moved, please share and like this. . . and I hope you experience the return of happiness in 2021.
The Return of Happiness: Your 2021 Guide
Usually a great source of snarky humor, the Urban Dictionary lists its top definition for 2020 as, “The worst year ever.” Sadly, even the Urban Dictionary couldn’t find creative inspiration from the horrors of 2020. Goodbye, 2020; you will not be missed.
. . . for the rest of the article, click below:
Yesterday, for Halloween, I dressed up as agitation. I wasn’t alone. Everywhere I went, everyone I saw, and around every corner, I encountered agitation. Maybe it was herd mentality. But no one developed immunity.
This too shall pass, and it did. Last night I took a deep breath and exhaled, slowly. And then like all the best Yogis, I lingered on the outbreath. My costume, all the layers of agitation, melted away onto the floor, into the carpet, down through the flooring, seeping back to the earth where agitation can rest.
Today is my favorite day; a day to throw myself into the gift of an extra, socially constructed, sacred hour. In stark contrast to all my previous years on the planet, today I plan to stay here—in this sacred hour—all day.
Having fallen back, no matter how long in coming, this particular hour arrives with surprise. What shall I do in this dark hour before dawn? Shall I spend it now, or wait and spend it with Rita on a walk up the river. Which hour of this 24 will be my sacred, extravagant, unexpected hour?
Every year, I’ve rushed into this gift. Anticipating its disappearance even before it appears, I’ve tried squeezing enough productivity into one arbitrary hour to compensate for my perpetual time management problems. But this is a new year, a new day, and a new hour, and, after shedding my agitation costume, I now see peace. It’s a bumpy peace, much like the washboard road to East Rosebud Lake. We may get rattled, but we shall arrive.
What I’d never discerned before is that the sacred hour is an illusion. Like many things, the sacred hour was created out of nothing but time for someone’s convenience and instead of recognizing its nothingness, I’ve tried to grab it, wrestle it to the ground, and suck out its imaginary nutrients. Year after year, I’ve mulled its significance and then experienced angst over how to spend it. As I do with Mary Oliver’s query, “Tell me, what is it you plan to do. With your one wild and precious life?” I’ve demurred. The question is too big. Everything will eventually vanish, and if I choose one thing I’ll be left with only one companion: my own judgmental vengeance.
Peaceful, deep breathing is almost always about the outbreath. Fancy meditators and Yoga practitioners coach us to pace our breathing, and then to extend the outbreath into the place of no-breath. Oddly, the place of no-breath is the place of life and peace, if only for snippets at a time. While being still, without breathing, for a second or three or six before the in-breath comes again, the body’s physiology slows down, nearly halting in parasympathetic bliss. In the sacred space of the outbreath, peace happens in the body, and when peace happens in the body it can—with practice—transfer little seedlings of peace to the mind. The common admonishment, “Remember to breathe” is less profound than its uncommon sister: “Remember to not breathe.” Remember to let yourself extend your peace for a bit longer than usual today. Remember to be with peace tomorrow. Especially, remember to mingle with peace on Tuesday. You know why.
Today’s brief illumination is that there’s nothing special and nothing especially sacred about this extra hour. But also, like all hours, there’s everything special and sacred about this extra hour. It’s just another hour that, along with its pesky minutes and seconds, was simply created for the convenience of counting.
I’ll probably forget all this by Tuesday, but for today, I see every hour is a collaborative creation. Every hour we get to return to the beginning, resetting our intentions, and refocusing on the mystery of what is and what might be.
Tuesday, Wednesday, and beyond will bring as many sacred hours as we can count. How shall we spend those hours? For me, I hope we can collectively linger with our outbreaths on Tuesday as we begin, together and again, to build peace, reclaim justice, embrace empathy, and restore democracy . . . one bumpy and sacred hour at a time.
This is the assignment for my happiness students at the University of Montana. Check it out.
About a decade or two ago, the concept, “Random acts of kindness” gained traction. Now, about a decade or two later, I’m a little sad that random acts of kindness has become the most common way we talk about kindness. I say this despite the fact that I’m a big fan of randomness.
For your assignment this week, I’d like all of us to break away from the randomness mentality and embrace intentionality.
Intentional acts give us—as actors in the grand theater of life—greater agency. Instead of being stuck with a script someone else wrote, when we embrace intentionality, we become the author of every scene. Rather than randomly responding to opportunities with kindness, we can exert our will. What this means is that when an opportunity for kindness pops up, we already have a plan . . . and that plan involves creatively finding a way to respond with kindness. How cool is that?
Let’s think about this together.
Toward whom would you like to demonstrate kindness? A stranger? If so, it might feel random in that you might act kind in a moment of spontaneity. But your spontaneity—although wonderful—is a moment when your intentionality (to be a person who acts with kindness) meets opportunity. In this way, even acts toward strangers that seem or feel spontaneous, will be acts that reflect your deeper values and character.
Maybe you’d like to intentionally be kind to a friend, a parent, or a sibling. Again, this requires thought and planning and the ability to step outside yourself. Assuming that others want what you want can backfire. You’ll need to step into another person’s world: What would your friend, parent, or sibling appreciate?
To stay with the theater metaphor, you’re the script-writer and you’ve written yourself into this performance. For this week, the script or plan includes a character who values kindness and who watches for opportunities to share that value with others. You’re that character.
Your job is to translate your kind character into kind action. I don’t what that will look like for you. Maybe you don’t either. That’s the magic—where opportunity meets planned spontaneity.
Your other job is to write a summary of this experience (100 to 300 words) to Dan and me and to post it in the correct Moodle destination.
Have a fabulous week!
This is a photo of the James River in Richmond, Virginia this past Sunday evening.
There’s a new song on the internet. An appalling remake of an old song. Aside from making me depressed when I’m working on happiness, listening to the new song reminded me of an old blog post I wrote in June, 2018. I used words and imagery from Don McLean’s American Pie to write of my disappointment with the GOP. Although I submitted this piece to a few news outlets, there was only one taker: Me. That makes sense because I almost always publish my own blog posts.
Skip this if you’re sick of political stuff.
The Day the GOP Died
By John Sommers-Flanagan, Ph.D.
A long, long time ago, the Grand Old Party stood for family values, moral standards, and apple pie. Now, with Trump as leader, it’s more like family torture, infidelity, and borscht.
Less long ago (Thursday, May 31, 2018), former House Speaker John Boehner quipped: “The Republican Party is kinda taking a nap somewhere.” Boehner was drinking a bloody Mary at the time, so maybe we shouldn’t blame him for not noticing that his former party’s nap has already lasted nearly two years.
Given there’s no chance the GOP will get woke, it’s time to say, “Bye, bye American GOP.”
The GOP was mortally wounded on a Super Tuesday back in September, 2016. In seven states, the Party of Lincoln voted to nominate Donald Trump for President. Sure, “Lying Ted” won a couple states and a few #NeverTrump folks were hanging on, but the die was cast, probably in some Trump casino, where the GOP’s mortal soul was traded for unlimited gaming opportunities. No longer was the GOP about marriage, civility, and moral virtue. Instead, along with Trump, so-called Republicans were embracing race over rights, disrespecting gold star families, degrading and sexualizing women, and undermining family values. And there was that White Nationalism thing. His crown stolen, Lincoln would have been apoplectic.
Resuscitation attempts failed. The Access Hollywood recording created a ripple of discontent and the gnashing of a tooth or two. But hey, it was locker room talk, and everyone knew who had the votes and who had the money. Jeff Flake and “Liddle Bob Corker” gave us hope, but our hope quickly gave way to calling respectful Black football players sons of bitches and making parents cry and children scream. Opposing Trump was too costly. Not only would there be hate mail, hate email, hate instant messages, and hate signs posted on your lawn, there would also be death threats, lost fundraising revenue, and lost elections. Republicans like balanced budgets. Opposing Trump did not pencil. #NotWorthIt. DJT would refuse to yield.
Later, the GOP voted that a generation lost in debt was preferable to confronting their friendship with the devil. Obsequious coveting of the naked emperor became de rigueur. Satanity laughed at tweets about pig’s blood, shitholes, and witch hunts. Fox News had spoken.
Even later, or perhaps earlier, there was Russian meddling, references to Rocket Man, and about 50 departures from the White House staff or cabinet. Going along, the GOP normalized talk about sex, presidential lies, and fantasized audio recordings. There were payments to porn stars, pay to play with China and Indonesia, and open theft of our national morality, with Trump metaphorically riding away in a taxpayer paid for golden golf-cart. The evangelicals were copiously ignoring the growing cracks in their church bells.
Mostly the GOP lay in a Boehner-nap, awakening only briefly for intermittent nips of bloody Marys and rye. A few free market optimists imagined the GOP was saving its strength for one last-ditch effort to #DumpTrump. But, right about then, because the three politicians I admired most were already dead anyway, the rest of the GOP joined them. The Republican Party, upon whom we could formerly count for at least a façade of morality, had its thousand points of light torn away like a Puerto Rican roof. Final confirmation of the GOP’s death occurred in July with continuing news from the Mexico border that made us shiver. John McCain’s angel was in a body cast, because he was “Dying anyway.”
The GOP, having given away its moral authority to speechless speakers, vapid veeps, and the money man, is no longer grand, no longer old, and no longer alive. The Party of Lincoln is dead. Let’s drive our Harleys to the coast and pray that the Party of Trump is short-lived.
John Sommers-Flanagan is a clinical psychologist, professor of counselor education at the University of Montana, and author of eight books. The views expressed here are solely the views of John Sommers-Flanagan, and not representative of the University of Montana or Don McLean.
And here’s the youtube link for the new song: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QQPeVJQaUSw
In my great and unmatched wisdom I hereby proclaim that today is Opposite Day.
Never mind that Opposite Day is a fictional children’s holiday and that it’s officially celebrated on January 25. Just because today’s not January 25 and I’m not a child, doesn’t mean I don’t get to say opposite things. I get to say opposite things because I’ve said I get to say opposite things.
When my nephews were little, we never waited for Opposite Day. Instead, we’d suddenly start playing the Opposite Game. It’s just like Opposite Day, but spontaneous. We’d say hello when we meant goodbye. I’d say things like, “Tommy, you’re the smartest person I know!” Or, “Paul, you’re one good looking guy.” I was totally hilarious, maybe the funniest uncle ever to exist on planet Earth.
Sometimes our spontaneous opposite games got a little out of control, but that was the point. One time, when grandma showed up and Tommy and Paul rolled their eyes and said, “It’s terrible to not see you” she looked hurt. We had to call time-out and explain the game to her. Even after the explanation, she didn’t seem to get it.
Funny thing, even when you’re playing at saying things that are the opposite of the truth, sometimes people don’t catch on. People get confused. For example, if the media happened to be listening to us, they might get confused and literally report things we said, even though we meant the opposite. That’s especially funny. When that happens, whether it’s by accident or on purpose, the correct response is to say, “I was only joking.”
After a while, if you intermittently play the Opposite game and mix it with being normal, people won’t know when to take you seriously and when to not take you seriously. For example, the other day I made a phone call, it was a perfect phone call. I said, “Hey dude, I’ll bring you over some of that medicinal plant you’re needing for nausea. It really sucks to feel sick, and I want to help. I’d like you to do me a favor though. If you could spontaneously give my boss a call and tell him how much you appreciate my great and unmatched wisdom, that would be nice.”
To be certain that I’d communicated perfectly, I ended the conversation by saying, “I’m only joking you know. I’m quite the humorist. Never mind what I said before. You look really good today.”
The best thing about being in charge of the opposite game is that it keeps everybody else off balance. In comparison, I’m always on my game, because I’m the only one who knows when the opposite game rules are in effect. Sometimes I forget whether I’m playing the opposite game or not. Hey, not really. You and I both know I’m the most self-aware and evolved person ever to inhabit the planet. Me forgetting? Not possible. Or, maybe it’s possible, but I’d never forget the important things.
I remember how me being in charge of the opposite game worked with my nephews. At the end of the day, sometimes I’d hug them and yell, “I hate you.” They knew what I really meant.
Oh, and BTW. Thanks for reading this. I value you as a person and I hope you love yourself. You know one thing that might help. If you’d just keep this blog post to yourself. Don’t share it. Seriously. I’m joking.
Writing is hard. I know you already know that.
Reading is hard too, especially if you have to read bad writers, which is why I hope you haven’t already started thinking, “Reading this blog is hard. . .”
My point is that putting words on a page and hoping they pile up and turn into clear, coherent, and meaningful prose (or poetry) is so difficult that it creates self-consciousness and worry and other neurotic thoughts and emotions linked to being judged and rejected. And just in case you feel tempted, you don’t have to tell me that good writers never write, “My point is. . .” because my other point is that I’ve been getting lots of rejections lately.
I’d rather not admit anything about my writing rejection rate; I’d rather have you think that everything I write gets published. There have been thousands of pages, eight books, and 100+ professional articles—all published, but that’s NOT the point (I also know that using ALL CAPS is bad form, like shouting while writing, and that no one but Dave Barry, former humor columnist, GETS AWAY WITH ALL CAPS).
This summer, not unlike last summer and the summer before that, and other ad nauseam summers of my life, was a summer of writing rejections. I like to say, “There were a plethora of rejections” because I like the word plethora. But let’s not go into the details because one year I tried to count up all my rejections and it was like counting cloudy days and I got depressed and I vowed to never count rejections and instead to only count acceptances and publications and successes and smiles and sunshine, and I also vowed to write long sentences if I feel like writing long sentences, because as far as I can tell, that’s what Sigmund Freud did, and he got a couple things published.
Instead of numbering the rejections, let me share just one.
This summer I wrote a proposal for a trade book on Suicide in American. It was supposed to be a proposal for a trade book on Suicide in America. But the first version of the proposal managed to include an extra “n.” How that typo slipped in there after 43 readings, including my traditional oral reading before submitting—I cannot say.
Anyway, just remember this, Suicide in America is not the most fun topic, but it’s even a worse topic when you make a typo in the first line. After experiencing the horror of seeing the typo and correcting it, I sent the proposal out to a dozen or so agents and got a dozen or so rejections. Not the most fun outcome. However, not to be deterred, I stole some of my sample chapter material and used it in a continuing education course that I DID GET PUBLISHED (notice the ALL CAPS, BECAUSE, YES, I AM YELLING).
I thought about sending all the agents who rejected my book proposal a copy of my first check from the CE company, along with a photo of my finger, but that belongs on this list of tips and sage advice for all you writers who will inevitably need to cope with rejection.
- Even though you want to, don’t write a snarky email or letter back to the person who rejected your wonderful work. No doubt, the snarky email will feel good in the moment, but you could regret it later. I speak from experience. Being at conferences with people who have received photos of my finger is awkward. Instead, vent to your friends and colleagues, and thank the person who rejected you for considering your work.
- Listen—sometimes. Lots of trade book agents and publishers tell you in advance that they plan to ghost you, so sometimes there’s nothing to hear. But on occasion, there’s this thing that happens called feedback. You can take it or leave it, but if you want to develop your writing skills, take it—or at least take some of it sometimes. The corollary to this is that reviewers can be nasty. This is especially true of academic reviewers, many of whom have come to believe that it’s their responsibility to shame fledgling writers. My advice on that is simple: Ignore the reviewer’s tone because he/she/they likely have poor social skills and are compensating for their loneliness by trying to make you feel bad, or something like that. Ignore the tone, but listen to the content.
- Go Big or Go Home. Being that you’re an amazing person with fantastic ideas, don’t, as former President George W. Bush might say, misunderestimate yourself. Feel free to submit pieces to the New Yorker or the New England Journal of Medicine or other fancy publications that begin with the word New. Then, get ready to be ghosted, rejected, and humiliated. If—odds are low here—you get something accepted, you’ll be like Rocket Man.
- Find a Small Pond. Going big or going home is a broken philosophy, unless you finish the guidance with go home and find a small pond where you can submit your work, become a big fish, and find the positive reinforcement you crave. Publishing a short comment in your neighborhood newsletter is better than having nothing published. Look at me. I’ve got a blog. I publish here all the time. The best part of the deal is my publisher loves my work.
- Turn it Around. Rita and I have an academic friend who says we academics should live by the turn it around in 24 hours rule. He says that as soon as he receives a rejection letter/email from a professional journal, he starts his timer and submits the manuscript to a different journal in 24 hours or less. Never having achieved that, Rita and I try to live by something more like a 24 day rule. Either way, push yourself to revise and resubmit to someone, like my blog publisher, who’s likely to love your work and publish you yesterday.
- Mingle. If you’re sitting around feeling sorry for yourself, you need to get out more because, duh, you’re not alone. If you find them, you’ll discover that most writers are mostly sitting around feeling sorry for themselves most of the time. So mingle. Share your sorrows. Maybe form a writing group or a book club or a knitting clutch. Embrace the Hegelian dialectic that, although you’re plenty special, you’re also simultaneously not really all that special.
- Write More. There comes a time when you need to get right back on that bus that bucked you off. Nobody becomes a better writer without writing. Visualization is good for golf and relaxation, but not so much for writing. Reading is good for writing, but only if you’re also putting fingers to keyboards and digits on screens. Somebody said this already: Read, write, repeat.
- Practice CBT on Your Neurotic Writer-Self. Albert Ellis liked to say, “Don’t be a love slob.” What he meant was to not be too needy. He would ask his clients things like, “What the holy Hell are you thinking?” He drove home the idea that you can perform badly at lots of things, get rejected, fail, and still have, what he called, “Unconditional Self-Acceptance.” In other words (which is another phrase my editor hates), Ellis is saying you shouldn’t confuse your performance with your SELF. Let’s say you get rejected. You’ll likely feel sad and disappointed. That’s normal and healthy. But don’t use your Vita to measure your SELF.
I’m hoping you find this list of tips for handling rejection helpful. If it’s not, feel free to let me know. I’ll be sad and disappointed But I’ll get over it. I plan to keep writing anyway. I hope you do too.
This weekend in Missoula is the Annual Montana Book Festival, so I’ve got books on my mind. In a stroke of good fortune (and thanks to Susan O’Connor and Rita), last night I got to meet David James Duncan, the author of my all-time favorite book, The Brother’s K. Talking with DJD was ALMOST as fun as reading The Brother’s K, which, if you haven’t read yet, should be on your reading list.
Speaking of Davids and books, several days ago one of our fantastic UM Doc students and I had a book review published in the Journal of Contemporary Psychotherapy. The Doc student’s name is Ariel Goodman (not David), and I have the bragging rights (and honor) of being the co-author of her first (of many to come) publication.
Our review is of Trauma-Sensitive Mindfulness by David A. Treleaven. Ariel and I both liked the book. Although we take him to task a bit for less than perfect scientific rigor, overall the book is very well written and has many excellent ideas about how to safely employ mindfulness with individuals who have previously experienced trauma.
Here’s the review: Goodman-Sommers-Flanagan2018_Article_DavidATreleavenTrauma-Sensitiv
Also, thanks to James Overholser, editor of the Journal of Contemporary Psychotherapy, for giving us the opportunity to do this book review.
This comes from Rita. It’s her musing on life and death and spirituality. She tells me to warn you that it’s not everyone’s cup of tea. This is true. But then again, who gets to avoid a cup of tea of life and death and spirituality.
You be the judge . . . if you want.
And if you like this, go to her blog and like it and become an email or WordPress follower.
Have a fabulous weekend.
Before the snow came, I burned rotten, misshapen wood. Dirty wood, not even worth cutting up for the woodstove. Wood filled with unremovable, wayward screws. Such fires are my last resort. Enduring the scorn of my carpenters, I save every scrap of wood—wood that was once a seed that grew into a tree that was […]