On Mothers, patriarchy and false expectations

When, many years ago, I read Funerales de la Mamá Grande by Nobel Prize García Márquez, the figure of the ‘Big Mama’ the “absolute sovereign of the Kingdom of Macondo” didn’t sound like a hyperbole to me. I had already lived in Colombian towns where mothers were idolized and motherhood overrated to extremes.

Idolization of the mother figure, presented as a glorification of the feminine, is rather an inheritance from patriarchal times. Overstretched images of female beauty or saintly motherhood, a strategy used to cover up oppression, has contributed to patriarchy burying women’s voices and dominating social action to the benefit of men and detriment of women.

The more I traveled and met people, the more I witnessed how among Hispanics, moms respond to the supermom myth by overdoing their maternal role. We don’t have to go very far to find the overprotective, the intrusive, the co-dependent or the abusive mothers. And maybe, because we were immersed in such culture, all of us bear at least traces of each of these. Mea culpa! I confess my sins.

Many Latino mothers’ lives revolve around their offspring, and their ‘care’ can become asphyxiating. Which explains why it’s not infrequent to find awfully dependent adult children in our culture.

We also often find mothers overwhelmed with guilt, blaming themselves for their children’s shortcomings, feeling pushed to behave up to impossible expectations about what motherhood ‘should’ be.

If we were to be totally truthful to ourselves, Mother’s Day could each year be the perfect timing to examine unfinished business with moms, assess our current relationship with them and even quit seeking the impossible ideal of a mother that only has existed in our minds.

‘Good-enough’ mothers

To help average moms overcome guilt and shame about not being perfect, English psychoanalyst and pediatrician Donald Winnicott coined the term “good-enough mothers” in 1953.

Those were the days when psychology research started to support earlier Freudian thoughts that interactions between mother and child during the early years were central to the development of the child’s inner world. Mothers, paralyzed with uncertainty about the extent to which their deficits could affect their brood, flooded pediatricians’ offices.

Providentially, psychology also discovered that it’s the frustrations stemming from mother’s impossibility to attend her child’s every need what challenges the child’s forcing him to adapt to reality.

So, in a way, what Winnicott was telling moms was: dare to err. Your children might even learn to appreciate those mistakes as opportunities to mature and grow!

I’ve seen mothers doing sacrifices that children should acknowledge and praise. Many mothers proffer unconditional love; their hearts healing from wounds caused by insensitive accusations or blaming by their offspring, made in a moment of rage.

No doubt. Exemplary women, who forgive faults that only their mother’s heart could forgive, also exist. And, yes, many moms are available when things go oops! for their children.

But there are also dark sides to this story.

‘Good children’ and ‘not good-enough’ mothers

Let’s take the times of the infamous Colombian narco Pablo Escobar, when sicarios justified horrible crimes as means to meet the terms of their ‘duties’ as good sons. They were determined to take their moms out of poverty. Sadly enough, many of these mothers gladly and gratefully or at least silently received dirty money not even asking where it came from, as if ignoring the truth would made the misdeeds right!

Studies showed that most of the above moms were awfully permissive. It’s difficult to believe that Pablo Escobar’s mother herself never thought of his son as a criminal.

History offers many cases of mothers who used their children for profit. Far from being ‘good enough’ mothers, these moms – maybe forced by poverty and lack of methods for birth control -exploited their children. This was common in the early days of industrialization, when parents gave up their 5-year-olds to sweatshops for survival. These children worked 16 hours in a row; tied with chains and whipped to force them work beyond their capacity.

Even to this day, millions of children are exploited or neglected and abused in the world.

Not all moms are created equal

It’s easy to see that motherhood is in no way the same for all moms. While some rave on their experience, others may have trouble bonding with their child.

Many women decide to hand on their child’s care on to another person so they can carry on with their careers. Some openly neglect their children out of lack of knowledge about their parental role, lack of energy, mental illness or deficient love. And there are even moms who consistently say and do terrible things to their children, scarring their lives forever.

But in all truth, we have all been marked in some way by our mother’s mistakes. Moms are human! They will never be up to our idealistic expectations.

The consequences of prizing maternity too highly

I wish that we could from an early age understand that mothers can’t (won’t) be perfect.

Myths about mothers that continue lingering in our society, on one hand promote adoration of mothers and on the other hand allow for all the blaming mothers take for the weaknesses and shortcoming of their offspring.

Another troublesome aspect of valuing maternity too high is that women who decide they won’t have children tend to be seen as unsuccessful by their peers. Pressure comes from their families and friends. The choice of not having children seems unbelievable in a world that thinks a woman finds realization in maternity.

Is your relationship viable?

You’ve had fight after fight and you are struggling to save the relationship. You tried counseling sessions; you listened to your friends’ advice, read books… and you’re still struggling. You’re not happy. You’couple strugglingre afraid of saying or doing something that might further hurt the relationship.

Most couples disregard the fact that they have personal histories that preceded their current relationship. These histories are made of childhood experiences at home, at school, with friends. This history includes previous relationships and also deeply rooted beliefs around which our lives have come to revolve. This background, this history and stories, determine the way we relate to others and lead us to forming assumptions that kill communication (you think that you know what s/he meant… but you don’t verify to learn if your conclusions are right).

Love is hard work. Crushes are fed with desire, expectation, sometimes obstacles that keep passion alive. They are exciting roller-coasters. However, once the relationship goes steady, people often leave the fire unattended. They feel the “goal” has been met, they belong to each other now, and they forget the ongoing need to nurture the relationship.

This is very dangerous.

To know if your relationship is still viable, it’s important to examine what  are you contributing to the relationship. Are the two of you growing together? Are you going in the same direction? Have you been supportive enough? Do you really respect and accept each other? Are you willing to negotiate and take responsibility for you mistakes? Are you competing or sharing?

When a couple comes for therapy to me, I let them know I am treating the relationship as a third party and I invite them to do the same: understand the relationship as a different entity. The struggles in a relationship are not about who you are or s/he is. The relationship is made of what you bring to it. It has a life of its own. You can nurture it or you can hamper it. You can keep it alive or you can kill it.

If in times of trouble you examine the relationship to assess if it’s still viable and you come to the conclusion that it’s not… the next problem you might be facing is that you would keep trying to fix it. It is difficult to end a relationship, after all you have made an emotional investment on it. Having a companion seems more desirable than being on your own. Changes are scary.

However, trying to fix an agonizing relationship against all odds, might lead you to even more dangers. You might find yourself trying to change the other person to suit your needs or to change yourself to keep it running.

Big mistake!

You can change the way you communicate or change some of your behaviors but you cannot change yourself and you cannot change the other. After all you didn’t engage in a relationship with the ideal other, your enter a relationship with a real person. Trying to change the other denotes lack of acceptance… you might be transmitting the message that the other is the wrong person for you and you cannot love her of him until they conform with your ideal. Ouch!

What needs to happen in a relationship is that either you have an unconditional acceptance of who you are and who the other person is or you will fall into a “violent” relationship.

Violence refers not just to the shouting, the insulting, the sarcasms or the hitting… violence includes your disapproval, criticism, rejections, belittling… because violence is not allowing the other to exist on their own terms.

Intimacy is not being naked on a bed or becoming confidants. Intimacy refers to a relationship where you can totally be yourself, express yourself, in the presence of the other without fear of being rejected, abandoned or betrayed.

If your relationship has become violent –as per the above definition- or/and you lack intimacy, look for help. If you have sought professional help and keep hurting, it’s better to end the relationship and avoid causing more pain.

On anger, indiference and indignation

chemistry-of-love-heartThere is a big difference between experiencing anger and indignation. Making out the difference between the two feelings might prove useful for people who are seriously working on a spiritual path. Many religions exhort people to prevent anger. Buddhism considers anger one of the three poisons (with greed and ignorance) that prevent us from achieving Nirvana. Christians list ire as one of the capital sins and capital sins are considered the source of all sins. Islam considers that anger prevents you from using wisdom. But the great masters didn’t call for a state of indifference towards the state of affairs in the world. Preventing anger should not alienate us from advocating for the unprivileged or taking action against injustice.

We’re probably not born with anger.  However, as human beings, anger might be an intrinsic resource that, by using the memory of having been hurt, allows us to create boundaries meant to protect us from abuse.

Anger is in many cases born from experiencing frustration or feeling that we were not taken seriously; it might be the feeling that, understandably, follows bullying. Anger is a personal thing. And still, we always have the choice of taking things personally or not. We have the choice to stand our ground, turn our back or react aggressively. We must not make others responsible for our actions.

One of my most important realization about anger came about when I finally understood that behind anger is also the realization that no matter how much I’ve worked to be a loving person there are still times when my love is not unconditional and not enough. If it were, I am sure there would be no room for anger. I would just accept the other exactly as she or he is. I think that most of the anger we experience is actually against ourselves but we might project it unto others. This is so especially if we feel we have failed in becoming the loving person we want to become.

We need to know that anger is damaging to us and we need to learn to let it go. I use to say that anger is like experiencing an earthquake, the heart is the epicenter. We damage ourselves more than anyone else when we hold on to anger.

Anger is then, related to power issues. If someone makes me feel less or I realize that I am still less than the ideal me, then I get angry.

But what about indignation? A similar emotion to anger, indignation has moved advocates, spiritual warriors and other courageous people to heroic action. Indignation stems from not accepting injustice (not when you feel your brother received a better Christmas present) but, for instance, when you see children starving to death knowing that food is wasted somewhere else. Any sign of  social injustice and oppression, if we are socially aware, causes indignation in righteous people.

We must not see spirituality as a state of indifference or mistake indifference for a peaceful stance. Emotions stemming from indignation are not “personal.” Indignation is a state of the heart that moves us to play a role as healers on a larger scale. Healing is not limited to the role of soothing the other… it often involves fighting old patterns, empowering ourselves and others, unveiling uncomfortable truths.

Mindfulness is what would tell us the difference.

 

Barriers to love

BDcard“Love is all there is,” some say. But really?

I find that we live in a society were all too often telling the truth, and I am talking about the inner truth, is not seen as an asset. I see people smiling when they feel like crying or shouting out loud in order to hide their grief or their fear. I also see people refraining from expressing their political preferences openly maybe because they are afraid of engendering discord. Especially among the so-called “spiritual communities” debate is seen as undesirable. Is like if we have built a society where only likeness could be trusted.

But in the world of duality in which we dwell we find ourselves constantly swimming between two waters.  Call it whatever you may: the law of polarity; the unity of opposites; Thanatos and Eros; destructive vs. constructive forces; yin and yang.

Our lives are driven by opposing drives or forces. One day, we love; the next, we hate. Today, we have faith; tomorrow, we worry or feel overwhelmed by doubt. We navigate through life driven by either duty or pleasure, pride or guilt and shame.

If we could at least honestly acknowledge the inevitable truth of our dual nature, we would not carry on pretending to be loving people when deep inside we are maybe despising others or pulling them out of our lives on the grounds that, for example, they are not as evolved, knowledgeable or spiritual as we are…

Loving those who are different could be a challenge. And there is no doubt that those people who are difficult to love are usually the ones needing love the most.

Friendship, partnership… any meaningful relationship for that matter… must be built on love, that’s true. But love is not of the very mushy nature depicted in novels and movies! True love is strong and veritable, long-lasting and loyal. And I am not referring solely to personal love. Unconditional love might also be strong and bumpy.

When we invest love on others, it’s better not to hold expectations that they would behave or feel or talk in a certain way. Love is based on acceptance. I love you for who you are not for what I want you to become. Another thing is that we could of course deliberately choose who to love based on our preferences and we need to set proper barriers to shield us from bullies. But often it’s love that chooses us. We’re tied to our family and we didn’t choose it. We’re tied to our peers, etc.

I think that if we’re constantly comparing our object of love against some ideal that we set up early in live, we’re likely to be disappointed more often than not. Expectation often comes from our unconscious desire for perfection. Perfectionism comes from growing in an environment that required perfection as a requisite to be accepted and loved.

Enough is enough: no more lies about vitamins and antidepressants

AntiDepressants-FE01-wide-horizontalI was not surprised when three recent studies published in the Annals of Internal Medicine suggested people are wasting their money on multivitamins and minerals to no avail.

“In conclusion, β-carotene, vitamin E, and possibly high doses of vitamin A supplements are harmful. Other antioxidants, folic acid and B vitamins, and multivitamin and mineral supplements are ineffective for preventing mortality or morbidity due to major chronic diseases (…) supplementing the diet of well-nourished adults with (most) mineral or vitamin supplements has no clear benefit and might even be harmful. These vitamins should not be used for chronic disease prevention. Enough is enough.” (Annals)

Pharmaceutical companies such as Baxter (Oneaday multivitamins) or Pfizer (Centrum) haven’t precisely proven impeccable ethics or that they truly work for the benefit of their clients.

Instead, they have excellent lobbying, public relations and marketing skills. They have pushed vitamins on us for decades, convincing the public that they are essential for our wellbeing. And they have also convinced us that if we’re depressed we should take their antidepressants. But now, we finally listen to information that has already been available since the 1970s: some vitamins, minerals and antidepressants are actually deleterious for your health.

Bluntly said, pharmaceutical companies pursue profit, not health.

Under more rigorous studies, it has become clear not only that they have deplorable side effects but also that antidepressants are actually no more effective than placebo and certainly no better than good psychotherapy.

Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (SSRI) such as Prozac, Zoloft, Paxil, Luvox, Celexa, and Lexapro, Wellbutrin, Effexor, Serzone, and Remeron are associated with serious side effects including suicidal thinking, abnormal bleeding, and seizures. The FDA has issued warnings about the use of Fluoxetine (Prozac) in pregnant women since it has been associated with birth defects.

In patients who are using other medications for common conditions (aspirin, ibuprofen, or other drugs for depression, anxiety, bipolar illness, blood clots, chemotherapy, heart conditions, and psychosis), ventricular arrhythmia or sudden death can occur.

Several class actions have been filed against Eli Lilly, Pfizer, and GlaxoSmithKline, the manufacturers of Prozac (fluoxetine), Zoloft (sertraline), and Paxil (paroxetine), respectively, to compensate for suicides or homicides by patients in the first few days or weeks after they were prescribed one of these drugs.

What’s the matter with researchers who have failed to see this?

We have become a pop-a-pill culture. We’re looking for fast solutions instead of getting ready to do our part in having a healthier life. Problem is also that we have become more focused on illness than on disease. More money is invested in commercials that promote pills than in commercials that promote healthy lifestyles or for that matter, little money goes to produce uplifting movies. I even wonder if the increased rate of depression in the United States could be related to the depressing content of what we see on TV.

The good news is that in recent years, contemplative practices such as meditation, mindfulness, hypnosis, Reiki, TaiChi or Qigong have proven to be more effective to treat cases of depression than medication. These practices return health matters where they belong… to our own hands. Regular exercise and a diet that restrict the intake of carbohydrates have also proven to have a positive impact on mood. Let’s not allow pills to take the power out of us. We have come to believe that solutions to our problems reside outside of us. We depend on the expert, the pill, distractions. We’re not invested enough in taking control of our own lives. It’s time to regain body wisdom and take good care of ourselves.

The secret for mental health is perception

Perspective...
Perception is key to mental health

Almost 25 years ago, when I was training to become an art psychotherapist, I hypothesized that there must exist a balance between perception and projection in order to be able to enjoy optimal mental health. Imagine a continuum where at one end we see people displaying resilience and turning crisis into opportunity; people  keeping their peace of mind in the midst of turbulent times.  At the other end of the continuum, people who seemingly have lost all sense of reality, and in between, different degrees of relational conflict, mental disorders or dysfunctions.

As you may know, one of the characteristics of people with psychotic disorders is that they have grown a mysterious inner – and usually scary – world populated with perceptions nobody else shares with them. They see unique things and hear alien voices or sounds, phenomena that we call hallucinations. They generate beliefs and thoughts that are not founded on the reality others perceive and we call these experiences, delusional. Their cognition, thought process, mood and speech become disturbed as a consequence of  distorted perception.

At the in between positions in the continuum, we find “neurotics” (a definition we no longer use in the mental field – exception made for psychoanalysts, of course) who might experience being victimized, tormented or oppressed by people who somehow resemble (or without resembling, elicit a memory of) their childhood caregivers. They could become extremely sensitive and any level of stress throw them out of balance. Their perception is affected by the projection of their personal inner world onto others. We call this phenomenon transference.

“Healthy people” at the other end of the continuum (and Freud would probably not accept this term since all of us go through neurotic episodes at some point) tend to have a more accurate rendition of their reality. Let’s say that their day is not so easily spoiled. They are calmer and less reactive; they think before they act; they accept responsibility for the consequences of their words and actions without feeling “sorry,” and they certainly have the capacity to see opportunities where others see disasters or dangers.  This is because they know that as adults you can’t place the blame on others for the way they feel. They choose the impact the other person or the circumstances will pose on them.

After these many years working as a psychotherapist, I think my hypothesis might be right… People who learn and practice mindfulness, people who meditate, who make sure they are well rested and nourished, seem to have a brain (and guts) with the perfect amount of endorphins and other neurotransmitters. They seem to become better listeners and instead of becoming bitter or reacting harshly to another human being, they are capable of stepping back, looking at a given situation from a calm perspective, feeling empathy for the other and responding not from the ego but from the heart.

“The essence of love is perception,” said Marc Gafni, “Therefore the essence of self love is self perception. You can only fall in love with someone you can see clearly – including yourself. To love is to have eyes to see. It is only when you see yourself clearly that you can begin to love yourself.”

I say, the key to mental health is solving the pending business of the past so that they don’t interfere with the capacity to perceive what is really going on.

 

The power of meditation

One of my favorite gurus is Osho… a controversial figure. He dared speak the truth even to the face of his placiddetractors. He blurted blistering opinions on almost anything from the medical establishment, to corporations, to schooling, to meditation. He was a witness to the fusing of two worlds, the West and East worlds, a fusion he deemed necessary because he didn’t seem the split that characterized the world would help us go forward.

We hear often that we live in a free world, but this is just a sweet chimera. Half of the world has been and continues to be under more or less obvious oppressive regimes. This has being going on for centuries. And the West… well, just look at the media reports on the NSA surveillance and now the more recent New York Times’ report unveiling how the AT&T has a deal with the US Drug Enforcement Administration, to which it has provided with 26 years of phone call records. Privacy has gone through the drain.

Osho understood freedom and the illusion of freedom very well.

“The freedom from something is not true freedom.
The freedom to do anything you want to do is also not the freedom I am talking about.
My vision of freedom is to be yourself.”

In “Autobiography of a Spiritually Incorrect Mystic,” a compilation of nearly 5,000 hours of Osho’s recorded talks, we learn not only about his life but also about the importance he gave to meditation.

Meditation, he said, is the only thing that can give us freedom. It will free us of the mind.

Psychoanalysis and psychosynthesis, he said, work on the mind and make us more conscious of the mind. Instead, meditation makes us observe the mind and to the extent we stop identifying with it, we transcend. Transcendence IS freedom.

Osho encourages dynamic meditation and practicing it alone… if you feel comfortable with it. The group, according to Osho is for people who have grown uncomfortable with their egos. They can “dissolve” into the group and forget about their egos for a while.