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 where all too often telling the truth, and I am talking about your inner truth, is not valued 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 positions or preferences openly maybe because they are afraid of engendering discord. Especially among the so-called “spiritual communities” debate is seen as undesirable. It’s like 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…

I’m aware that loving those who are different could pose 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 not love 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 a personal kind of love, but also of love for humanity, for other sentient beings, for the planet. Even unconditional love might be strong and bumpy.

When we invest our love on others, it’s better not to expect that they would behave or feel or talk in a certain way, that would be loving a potential not what is. Love is based on acceptance. I love you for who you are not for what I want you to become. We could, of course, deliberately choose whom to love based on our preferences and yes! we need to set proper barriers to keep bullies outside of our physical, emotional and mental spaces. But what if it’s love that chooses us. For example, we’re tied to our family and we didn’t choose it. We’re tied to our peers, etc. Then we need to look at duty.

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

Not being true to ourself, idealizing the person we love, being unable to accept the other, are all barriers to love.

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.

Days when we’re so gloomy…

How are you feeling today? Are you into the “pursuit of happiness”? Or are you maybe feeling miserable?gloomy-placid

Porfirio Barba Jacob, a Colombian poet who died in 1942, comes to mind. In his “Song of the Profound Life” he talks about how variable the human psyche is. Some days we’re full of joy, some other times we’re really mournful. And in any give day our mood could go from mournful to placid after just a few minutes of listening to children play and laugh. Minutia can also and, I’d say, inexplicably, spoil a whole day.

Here are some verses of Barba Jacob’s poem:

“… there are days when we’re so placid, so placid…
— Childhood at sunset, sapphire lagoons! —
That a verse, a trill, a hill, a passing bird,
And even one’s own sorrows make us smile.”

But…

“…there are days when we’re so gloomy, so gloomy,
Like in a gloomy night the crying of a pine grove.
The soul moans then with the pain of the world:
Perchance not even God himself can give us solace.”

Maybe our changing moods are just the expression of normal responses to life, to what we see, to what we eat, to what we breath, to what we hear, to a misunderstanding. Life is delightfully variable. Our variability could probably be explained as the reflection and result of the cycles that take place inside our bodies and might involve hormones and neurotransmitters. But – the egg of the chicken? – the release of our hormones and neurotransmitters are on turn prompted by mood and experience!

In a world with a pervasive “medical mentality” it looks like there will come a time where we will be all diagnosed with a mental illness. Gloomy easily becomes “depression” under the eyes of the psychiatrist and “placid” or even joyful might become “manic” under the eyes of the same physician who witnessed your sadness a few weeks before.

The new Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM V) released this year, has relaxed the criteria used to diagnose certain conditions. The consequences?

As a rationale for the changes we hear the concern that many people are not properly or timely diagnosed and go on suffering for a long time without proper diagnosis and/or treatment. However, the of this “relaxed” criteria most often lead to abuse in the prescription of medications for symptoms that if not interfering with daily life functioning could be treated without invasive procedures.

Statistics tell us that Bipolar disorder affects every year approximately 5.7 million adults in the United States (about 2.6% of the population age 18 and older). Also, almost 15 million of adults are diagnosed with Major depressive disorder, with a higher prevalence among women older than 32. To this numbers add 3.3 million of people suffering from Dysthymic disorder (chronic, mild depression). And 40 million people suffering from anxiety.

Data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Surveys shows that  “Antidepressants were the third most common prescription drug taken by Americans of all ages in 2005–2008 and the most frequently used by persons aged 18–44 years. From 1988–1994 through 2005–2008, the rate of antidepressant use in the United States among all ages increased nearly 400%…. About one in 10 Americans aged 12 and over takes antidepressant medication.”

Are we trying to standardize a “normal” mood? Should all human beings behave the same, feel the same, deal with life in the same fashion? I wonder why aren’t we more focused on providing children with undivided attention, meaningful experiences, skills to face challenges, challenges to develop those skills… so that they grow up resilient and accepting of the variability of life.

We need not be concerned about gloomy days or despair if we don’t have placid ones. Life is variable!