Sunday, July 26, 2015

The Importance of Perspective

My husband and I have a unique distribution of labor.  He cooks. I clear the table. He loads the dishwasher, and I unload it.  I do most of the heavy lifting, and he takes the kids back and forth to daycare. There are many reasons for this set of circumstances, including physical limitations and personal preferences. My husband thinks Home Depot is a land of torture, and I enjoy fiddling with things and looking at possibilities there. My husband does the laundry and I do the folding. Honestly, he would do the folding, but I tend to be particular due to years in retail. If I want it done a certain way, I had best do it myself.  Anyway, this all leads up to a story that really brought home for me the importance of perspective.

When my husband and I were first living together and we had started dividing up the laundry chores, I used to come to bed and find a pile of clothes on the bed waiting to be folded.  My interpretation was that my husband wanted me to fold the clothes on his timetable. I was irritated. I was aggravated.  I felt pushed and taken for granted. I was worried that he thought I was lazy and just did not say so. Needless to say, I have a vivid imagination that I need to put a rein on. I was chasing rabbits in my head and becoming more and more upset.

Finally, I decided I needed to approach him about my frustration.  I talk to my clients all the time about being assertive, and I thought I'd best practice what I preached.  So, I went to him and said that I wanted to talk to him.  He agreed, and I mentioned that I felt pushed by finding the clothes on the bed, and I felt aggravated that I found them at night when I wanted to go to sleep.  I asked him if he thought I was lazy or wasn't doing enough.  He got a funny look on his face and said, "Stephanie, I don't think you're lazy.  I dump the clothes out on the bed because I need to empty the bag so I can reload it to do more laundry.  That's just the most expedient place to put it."

I was chagrined. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that my husband is not passive-aggressive and is not that invested in my choice of activity.  I realized that I had put my fears and my perspective on him rather than looking at things from his point of view.  Ultimately, I asked him at least to warn me if there were clothes on the bed so that I could fold them before it was bedtime.  He agreed, and we've not had any more trouble since.

So many times, we bring our pasts, our fears, and our perspectives to the table and assume that others see us the same way we see ourselves.  Often, when I speak with my clients and they describe other people's thoughts and criticisms of them, we find that those are their thoughts and criticisms that they fear others share. It can be so difficult to check our own thoughts or to speak with others about our fears and get their interpretations. What we think in our heads often sounds very real and true until we say it aloud or write it down.

Therapy can be a helpful place to work through those thoughts and learn to explore alternate perspectives. One of the lessons that can be hard to learn is that others see us differently than we see ourselves.  They do not live in our heads, do not have our histories, and, generally, do not pay as much attention as we think.  The ideal may be not to worry so much what others think, but this can be hard to come by. Recognizing that they do not always share our perspectives and looking for other interpretations can be helpful steps. I like to say "keep your perspective in perspective." It always helps to remember where you are coming from and what influences you.  Some people may be judgmental and hurtful, but many people are caring and giving and see positives in us that we may not see in ourselves. It pays to keep an open mind and keep your perspective in perspective.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

On Readiness

My 8th grade algebra teacher was a very kind and patient woman named Mrs. Collier. Math has never been my thing, and I found myself totally at sea in her class.  She never embarrassed or shamed me, and she was available if I wanted help in solving the problems at hand. Somehow, I scraped by with a C. I had always been a good student, and the C was upsetting to me on its own. To cap off the embarrassment I felt, my teacher recommended that I retake algebra the next year in high school.  The idea of having to retake a class felt humiliating to me. What she told my parents, though, was that I was not ready to move on to geometry and that I had not understood the principles of algebra enough to move on to higher math. I agreed, but I was hurt.

As it turned out, I took algebra again the next year and ended with a 98 average.  Things made sense that year in a way they hadn't before, and I was able to feel a sense of accomplishment rather than shame or fear about my skills. Now, this did not set me up to be a mathematician by any stretch of the imagination, and I was glad to be done with math after my junior year, but, looking back on it now, I can see Mrs. Collier's point. I wasn't ready.

The important thing to consider about readiness is that readiness is different from willingness, eventual capacity, or interest.  Readiness is about having the necessary skills and resources to do something.  I wanted to learn algebra. I wanted to do well in the class. I was not at a point where my brain was equipped to handle that information in a useful way. That was not a reflection of me as a person. It was just the way things were.

Clients often come to me and express frustration with themselves that they are not "over" their trauma or loss or that they haven't conquered their anxiety or depression yet. These changes do not happen because we want them to but because we take the steps and develop the skills and the readiness for those changes.  If your depression "magically" disappears, how will you know how to cope with it if and when it returns? If you force yourself to "forgive" and "be over" your trauma before you have worked through it, you may well find yourself with increased anxiety, depression, or physical health problems.

Similarly, clients sometimes talk to me about having been in therapy before and not having accomplished what they wanted to accomplish.  Often, as we discuss where they were at the time and what was going on in their lives, we find that they were not in a good place to make the changes they wanted. They weren't ready.

Truly, we sometimes have to make changes before we are ready (moving, changing jobs, having a baby), but I think ideally the most effective change comes organically. I very much believe that therapy is about learning to listen to and honor yourself and your needs and feelings. With that comes the need for acceptance.  Acceptance is not approval but simple acknowledgement that things are as they are. If I want to take a trip to Europe, that's fine, but I don't get there by wanting to be there. I have to plan, save money, and make arrangements. Once I finally start the trip, I have to wait the time it takes to get there. I have to acknowledge and accept where I am before I can make the appropriate next steps.

Therapy is a journey that takes preparation, effort, and time. Ultimately, all of that creates a self-awareness and engagement with life that does not often occur without those elements. The journey itself is a gift and should be appreciated.  You'll get there when you're ready.