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Repotting time

My mama says lots of memorable and useful things. One of her best is about the periodic need people have for repotting. If you’ve ever had a house plant, or a garden, you know what happens when you get lazy and let the thing grow so big that the roots end up molding themselves to the pot. The same thing happens to people. Some experience it more often than others, but at some point, we all feel the need to move into a new pot. Our roots get all bound up. We can’t get enough spiritual nutrients. We begin to droop. Mama says, it’s time to repot yourself. Note that she doesn’t say, ask someone to repot you. It’s a thing you have to do on your own, albeit with help, most times.

I’m feeling might root bound lately myself. The pot I’ve been in for the last seven years is feeling too tight. There’s no room for growth, and I’m constricted.

Noticing that it’s time to repot one’s self (again) is simultaneously terrifying and invigorating. No one who’s ever changed jobs or careers or partners or towns is a stranger to that feeling: standing on the event horizon of an exciting new start, terrified to step out into it. I’m at the tug-of-war stage of repotting just now (I’ve done this several times as an adult, I’m starting to see the patterns). I know my current gig isn’t doing it for me anymore in terms of allowing me to stretch in productive, growth-fostering ways-but it’s steady. In particular, the paycheck is steady, and that’s a major consideration at midlife.

So, how to decide when and where to plant myself next? Jean Baker-Miller, who was always decades ahead of her time (her “New Psychology of Women”, written in the 1970s, is still revolutionary) is helpful with questions of repotting. While Dr. Miller intended her list of 5 good things to be an evaluation tool for interpersonal relationships, I find that it works for careers as well. Her 5 good things are: increased creativity, increased clarity, increased self-worth, desire for more (in her case, relationships, in mine, projects related to a career position), and increased zest or energy.

When I think about my current gig as a  graduate school professor, I find that I see it now as energy-zapping, ego-deflating, and generally something I need a break from, rather than something I want to do more of. Seven years ago, when I finished my PhD and began my first job  as a professor, I felt the five good things keenly. I felt creative about my teaching strategies and ideas for curricular changes, I felt good about myself based on my new status as a professor, I felt that I’d have time to do the things most central to my mission in this life: advocate on behalf of children and women, write about those issues, and help younger people learn to be effective therapists. Although there were the usual ups and downs; stupid meetings, stupid decisions by pointy-headed administrators, and difficult co-workers, the balance sheet still came out in the positive- until recently.

Now when I look at JBM’s five good things and think about my work, I get frustrated and angry. I don’t have those things at work anymore. We’ve had some big personnel changes in the leadership of the university over the years, and the cumulative impact is that my responsibilities for record keeping and nose counting keep climbing, while at the same time, I matter less and less to the institution and loose my creative freedom a tick at a time.

This slide in balance hasn’t been particularly dramatic. I imagine it’s the same for most workers in organizations at different times. Day by day, my sense of mission and accomplishment has shrunk, while my sense of being forced into a too-small pot has increased. It’s now time to find a new pot.

During the next year or so of transition, I know I need to refocus on my overall mission for this life. I need to stretch creatively and loose 99% of the administrivia in my life. That much is abundantly clear. I’m still working on the details, which means I need to spend a lot more time doing creative thinking and processing (I LOVE the new adult coloring books by Lacy Mucklow & Angela Porter- they’re perfect for focusing thoughts) and talking to folks in the new line of work where I’m planning to plant myself.

If you’re in a similar situation, I encourage you to use JBM’s list of good things. If your current gig isn’t meeting those, what are your options? Can you make enough changes in your work setting to make a difference in the goodness? If not, what’s your ideal pot? If you don’t yet have a clear overall mission for your time in this life, now is as good a time as any to meditate on that and start forming ideas about what shape of container would best support your progress towards those dreams. And a bit of gardening advice- rootbound plants don’t bloom.

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Thump thump thump….here come the helicopters (parents)!

One of the great joys of being a professor in a graduate program is watching as young adults grow into creative professionals from being ex-college-students. Every fall, we welcome a group of twelve or so young people, most of whom graduated from their undergraduate programs mere months prior, to campus. Over the next two years, we do the sometimes difficult work of molding them into capable, responsible, and confident beginning therapists. When they leave after graduation, most of them go on to lead rewarding, full, and pro-social lives.

The two years between the arrival of newly-minted B.A. holders and the departure of newly-minted M.S. holders can be tough on everyone involved. Learning to be a competent therapist isn’t easy. The content material; diagnostic categories, pharmacology, neuroscience, counseling skills, theories, and techniques can be overwhelming. Learning to make meaningful connections with total strangers who have lives very different from your own can be exhausting. Developing an identity as both an adult and a professional can be the most difficult aspect of the entire process, especially for 23 year old students whose parents don’t identify as professionals.

The notion of professional identity has been belabored for years in the counseling literature. How do you “be” a counselor? How, if at all, is that person different from who you are at home or with friends? How do you put on this new identity without loosing sight of your former self? Students can struggle mightily with all of these issues, and as much as faculty and supervisors want to help them, it’s a battle each person must face on his or her own.

An interesting cultural turn has recently made this struggle more difficult and less likely to resolve by the time the students leave us. Their parents are now jumping into the graduate program, sometimes at the invitation of the student, but just as often not. Comedians and pundits have talked for years about the silliness of millennial parents over parenting their children to the point of the absurd. Children are no longer left alone to explore the outdoors, even in safe neighborhoods. Parents go to high school dances. They go on graduation trips. They heckle college professors who “give” their child a B or lower.

And now they’re coming to graduate school.

I’ve heard from colleagues around the U.S. that they’re now being contacted by the parents of students about a range of issues, from admissions to internship placement to graduation requirements. Last week, I had my first experience with a parent of a graduate student interfering in the student’s educational experience. I was stunned, to say the least.

And now I’m sad, mostly for the student. The early twenties aren’t easy for most people who are making big transitions from a late adolescent stage, which is drastically extended in modern culture by the university experience, and early adulthood. At the point in their lives when young people most need to wrestle with issues related to independence, freedom (and it’s twin, responsibility), and adult identity, parents are figuratively putting their feet in the doors of development, halting or delaying the process of maturation immeasurably.

I am glad this student’s parents love him/her and are supportive of the journey of higher education. I wonder if they realize that without allowing any struggle at all on the part of the student, they are effectively retarding his/her transition into adulthood. I’m hoping that the parents will learn to allow the child to work through the difficult passages of life with much less interference in the future; I can’t imagine mom or dad calling the boss about a workplace issue, but I guess it’s very possible in the current climate.

It’s my own generation of parents that are crippling their children by eliminating rehearsal for adulthood by removing all obstacles. And it’s us who will have to live with the way we’ve so poorly tended our duties. I’m left hoping not to have to talk to the parents of my doctor before s/he will give me my pills in the old lady’s home.

It’s our mess, X’ers. We need to fix it before it ruins us all.

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The proper care & handling of the highly gifted individual

One of my favorite stories about my Dear Spouse from his mother goes like this: When he was in kindergarten, the teacher expressed concern that since he rarely talked in class, often stared out the window for long periods, and didn’t always do the “work” the other kids were doing, he must be mentally challenged. Mommy knew that this was totally wrong,but instead of telling the teacher that she, herself, was the mental midget in the equation, Mommy called a psychologist friend and had her give DS an IQ test. Turns out, he’s a genius. Mommy 1, teacher 0.

More recently, the youngest child of Dear Spouse has faced his own set of challenges within our beleaguered public school system. Said child, who has just started that horror show called “middle school” is really not a fan of busy work. His philosophy is that if he can make an “A” on the test, why does he need to do a dozen problems for homework every night?

In this age of strained school budgets and high-stakes testing, gifted kids have completely been left by the wayside. Outside of a very few remaining state math and science academies, there is almost no place in the average public school corporation to nurture young smarty pants-es. You’d think with the big push for more STEM graduates, school systems would be stepping on themselves to create the best possible incubators for young geniuses to explore their minds and worlds.

Nope.

In our town, “gifted education” is determined largely by the parents lobbying the superintendent’s office for the inclusion of their young genius, and once added, the young genius is mainly treated to extra homework, not gifted- specific teaching approaches. The upshot is that the “gifted” class is full of doctor’s kids, professor’s kids, and kids of friends of the administration. Some of these students may actually be gifted, but mostly, they’re just privileged. In said “gifted” classes, the mostly White, all upper-middle class students do more homework than their less advantaged peers, and sometimes tackle more advanced subjects. In high school, they can take Advanced Placement courses which can lead to college credits for their work. This is, I fear, the norm in most U.S. school corporations, rather than a tragic aberration.

Truly gifted people are hard to define. It’s like porn, it’s hard to say what it is, but you know it when you see it. Back in the 1990’s, when we had rules about these things, to be placed in the gifted class, a kid had to score 2 standard deviations (about 30 points above the mean) above the average of 100. This means that only about 3% of the entire population of students should fall into that category, and that having rich and loud parents is not sufficient grounds for inclusion in the class.

I am not a fan of IQ tests, for a lot of reasons I’m not going to get into today. However, having some sort of standard aside from mommy’s letters and phone calls to get into the program seems like a better plan. Neither of the older children of Dear Spouse have had Black kids in their “gifted” classes, and certainly, no poor kids. I feel certain that there are smart Black and smart poor kids in our county, but they’re not being identified, which is tragic.

Nearly as tragic is the fact that the kids who are tagged “gifted” are not treated as such. The usual flat, old, worn-out, crappy pedagogy forced onto the masses are used with the “gifted” students, too. Lectures followed by guided practice, then independent practice, and a test, are the only teaching methods I’ve noticed at the middle school in any of the academic subjects. I’m not entirely blaming the teachers, some of them might have other, better ideas that are being squashed by the testing overlords, but that is certainly the only approach I ever see from the parent end of the scope.

Gifted people are not like the rest of us. Those folks who truly make up the 2-3% of the population whose brains are measurably more powerful than the rest of ours need different teaching, different parenting,and different job environments to truly shine. They wilt and wither under the standard teach and test models in education. They are terrible at following “because I said so” rules at home. They quit if the boss makes them go to a lot of pointless meetings.

Not all gifted adults are working for Google and riding around on hover boards or pioneering new brain surgery techniques. A shocking percentage (in my anecdotal experience) are sitting on a couch somewhere, smoking weed and working minimum wage jobs. A whole lot of them are working at slightly better-paying crappy dead-end jobs that come nowhere near challenging their prodigious intellects. It’s a sad fact that many highly gifted adults spent their k-12 careers trying to avoid extra homework, wondering why they had to do all the busywork if they could already understand the concepts, correcting the textbooks (this happened at our house this week), forgetting assignments that don’t interest them, skipping the dullest of classes, and not infrequently, dropping out. Many develop depression and/or anxiety due to the difference in how they view the world and how their family and peers view it.

If gifted kids are really lucky, they get born into families with other gifted folks. For example, Dear Spouse produced three more people as bright as he is. None of them are a breeze to parent, as is usual among the gifted. All three are completely different in temperament and personality, but all three also exhibit common giftedness-related annoying qualities to the parental units. They’re often forgetful of common sense things, like wearing a coat in the winter, don’t notice piles of laundry pooling around them (this might be a boy thing, too), can’t be bothered to do tedious repetitive homework, would rather read a novel in class than listen to a lecture they could give, and can make a hundred arguments against almost any task or chore. Luckily for them, they have parents bright enough to see through the nonsense and obstinate enough to make them do the thing anyway. And these are basically good-natured kids who have all of their basic needs met, and don’t live in an abusive or violent environment.

I’ve worked with several families over my career where this isn’t the case. Either the kid is so much smarter than the parents that s/he runs the house (which leads to anxiety because developmentally it’s wildly inappropriate) or the gifted child is so far different from the rest of the family that s/he grows up feeling disaffected and detached and lonely. Sometimes, these kids find better chosen families as adults and turn out fine. Sometimes, not so much- addiction is a problem of smart people from way back (see: Byron, Lord).

I’m not pretending to have answers to the problem of wasting the minds with the greatest promise in the service of the minds of more modest abilities. There is an entire body of literature about those things. I’m saying we need to DO  what’s in that literature to support and nurture those among us who might not fit the usual mold because they’re extraordinary and precious.

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Ghosts

In the past week, my family lost two Grande Dames, the likes of whom we shall never see again. They were sisters. The elder died unexpectedly, the younger faded out after a long period of debilitating illnesses. Loosing one of them would have been tough, loosing them both almost simultaneously can only be described as shocking. Their relatives joked that the younger sister was always afraid of being upstaged by the elder. so she had to go out at the same time just to have a nicer funeral- that actually might be truthful in some way.

While I was travelling to and from and around the two funerals (both in a small town down south, where my people have lived for many generations) I was struck by the feeling of being watched, followed, seen by unseen eyes. It is quite likely that this feeling was a by-product of stress (the air journey was awful, delays and changes galore) and sadness. However, I think the core of it is more opaque and dense than simple stress.

I’ve made the choice to do as many Americans before me have done; I’ve gone west (and east, and north, and south at various times) to find my fortune. I’ve left home, answered what Joe Campbell referred to as the hero’s call, packed up my knapsack, and gone. Most of the time, this feels right and as it should be. I can’t imagine how restricted and confined I’d feel if I still lived in the town where I grew up. It’s a perfectly good town, but the world is huge, and I aim to see most of it.

It’s a good thing I have the wanderlust- it’s nearly impossible to be an academic and stay put. Higher education demands mobility, at least early on in an academic career. Most professors are not-from-around-here. The idea behind that is to inhibit intellectual inbreeding, which is important when designing universities. You really don’t want all of the professors at State U to be from that state.You’d have a very limited view of life that way.

On the other hand, having all these islands of outlanders sprinkled around the country makes from some odd conglomerations of folks. College towns, and colleges inside of other towns, are often communities of outsiders and rootless wanderers. Many have come with or created families and have stayed in one place quite some time, but they’re (we’re) still not OF the place. Many times, professors pile up together like rats on a raft to make their own little rootless floating communities of chance and location.

I don’t often think of the place where I live now as a raft and myself as a rat on it, but when I go home for real, it does strike me that although I’m not around much anymore, I do still have long sucker roots that go back into the soil of that little southern town.

I am very much aware that my situation is far from unique. Black folks left the south in their hundreds after the Civil War, and again after WWII to seek better jobs up north. White folks did, too. Refugees are everywhere around the globe. People move all the time just because.

However, since this is my one life, it does strike me as a big deal that I live in one place, but am bound to another. I do not believe I’d ever live there again, nor do I want to. I’m fine where I am, and I’ll probably move a few more times to places that interest me or offer opportunities.

I am mindful of the ghosts. There are ghosts that do a fair job of haunting me every time I return to that town. Ghosts of people and events that shaped my life in a million big and small ways. Most of them are friendly and welcome. Some, of course, strike up a chorus of ache and grief for the missing of the people and times that were then and aren’t now.

When I come back here, mostly the ghosts settle down. I don’t have the stinging feeling of acute loss and memory and separation much. Ghosts do fade a bit, but they don’t ever wholly disappear. If I’m quiet for a while, I begin to feel them at the edges of my consciousness, just hanging out, reminding me that things are different now. And although that’s expected in a life of any length at all, it does pull at me from time to time and I wonder how many more ghosts are ahead, how many more I can live alongside peacefully.

I’m not entirely sure how to manage all of them, some days. That is a work in progress, one I imagine everyone has to master at some point or another. For now, I’m just trying to keep them peaceable and placated so I can get on with the present. We’ll see how that goes.

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Common factors versus specific ingredients in therapy: Who wins?

One of the Big Issues in psychotherapy is, and has been for ages, whether the common factors (empathy, trust, the therapeutic relationship) or specific ingredients (the techniques) are more important to helping clients get better. This argument rages on, especially in training programs. We have limited time with our students to prepare them to go out into the world and make it all better for everyone (which is not much of an exaggeration in how most of us see our mission). So, how best to spend our precious semester hours: focusing teaching on the common factors or the specific ingredients?

If research funding is any sort of barometer of importance (and I’m not sure it is), you’d have to conclude that specific ingredients are where it’s at- sorry, I am pathologically incapable of ending a sentence with “at”, so here’s a useless clause. Almost all of the funding coming out of the big federal programs at NIMH, SAMHSA, and NIH are targeted at finding out what, specifically, works for all sorts of people and their problems. Some of the big pushes are aimed at developing multi-modal programs, where, for example, you might have medication management alongside psychotherapy and job skills training for addicts. The programs aimed at research on therapy itself, however, tend to focus on the specific: determining if cognitive-behavioral therapy works for people with eating disorders, finding new diagnostic indicators for PTSD, deciding how long a person with depression needs to be in cognitive-behavioral therapy to get back to work, etc. All of the big federal agencies fund big studies with the hope of finding big answers to big questions, and their work is extremely important.

The findings from the studies funded by the big agencies, and private entities, often drive what insurance companies and Medicaid/Medicare will reimburse providers for providing. The idea, called “evidence-based practice” sounds like solid common sense: they’ll only pay you to do things that research tells us actually works. It’s supposed, I guess, to keep therapists from waving feathers around and chanting and getting Blue Cross to pay for it. I’m all for effective treatment, as long as that’s really what we’re looking for in the research.

Here’s the rub: all of the big studies funded by the big agencies with big grants, which are the bases for the guidelines for reimbursement, look at the small picture- the specific ingredients. And guess what? We’ve known for at least two decades now that the specific ingredients aren’t as important as the common factors in treating clients effectively.

There were a couple of Very Important meta-studies in the 1990’s (Wampold comes to mind) that pretty clearly showed that it matters a lot less what you do in therapy than it does how you do it. Of course, because all endeavors must have critics, the idea that how trumps what has its detractors. Most often, they claim that common factors, which are squishy feelings, can’t be said to be more important than “medical” interventions, like behavior charting and thought stopping techniques. The medical-model side of the house, which often controls the federal funding apparatus, seem to think it unthinkable that the major mover in therapy is the relationship.

I imagine there are a couple of reasons that common factors theory isn’t taken as seriously as it might be. One reason is the squishy-feelings aspect of the common factors themselves. How do you “empirically” measure such things as empathy, insight, clinical judgment, and connection (I have empirically in quotes because I don’t believe true empiricism is possible in therapy research, but that’s a blog for another day)? It’s far more simple to measure how depressed or anxious a person getting Treatment A is than his neighbor in Treatment B than to devise a way to measure how Therapist A connects or doesn’t with Client B versus Client C. The second, more insidious, and I imagine, honest, reason for the continuing popularity of specific ingredients theory is the basic struggle between the chalice and the blade, or the feminine side of healing being rejected by the more masculine side.

It’s not a popular (or possibly, wise) thing to do to say that our whole Western medical model, especially in psychotherapy, may be predicated on the repression of the feminine. It’s also not really where I was planning to go with this essay when I started writing it, but I think at this point, leaving aside the obvious conflict between empiricism and feminism would be cowardly of me.

I don’t have any solution for the common factors vs. specific ingredients divide, but I think it bears more investigation, and probably with a bit of irony and a slightly jaundiced eye.

As for where I’m leaving off in regards to how to focus time with students of psychotherapy, I leave that to the recently departed genius Miller Williams, an excerpt from the magnificent poem, “The Associate Professor Delivers an Exhortation to his Failing Student”.

If one Sunday morning they should ask you

the only thing that matters after all,

tell them the only thing you know is true.

Tell them that failing is an act of love,

because like sin,

it is the commonality within.

How failing together we shall finally pass.

Grief is love holding on to what is no longer-

During the New Year’s festivities, I learned that a favorite elderly relative suffered a massive stroke and will not likely be among us much longer. She is in her late eighties, lived a very full and vibrant life, and had been declining for some time now. But I’m not ready to give her up. Some wise person told me once that grieving is love that refuses to let go. That’s where I am today, and probably where Edna St. Vincent Millay was when she wrote these words (which I found courtesy of Poetry Foundation). If I’m selfishly holding on rather than letting go with greater wisdom, at least I’m in good company.

Dirge Without Music

BY EDNA ST. VINCENT MILLAY

I am not resigned to the shutting away of loving hearts in the hard ground.
So it is, and so it will be, for so it has been, time out of mind:
Into the darkness they go, the wise and the lovely.  Crowned
With lilies and with laurel they go; but I am not resigned.
Lovers and thinkers, into the earth with you.
Be one with the dull, the indiscriminate dust.
A fragment of what you felt, of what you knew,
A formula, a phrase remains,—but the best is lost.
The answers quick and keen, the honest look, the laughter, the love,—
They are gone.  They are gone to feed the roses.  Elegant and curled
Is the blossom.  Fragrant is the blossom.  I know.  But I do not approve.
More precious was the light in your eyes than all the roses in the world.
Down, down, down into the darkness of the grave
Gently they go, the beautiful, the tender, the kind;
Quietly they go, the intelligent, the witty, the brave.
I know.  But I do not approve.  And I am not resigned.
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Journey-Making

As I struggled to stay up until 9:00 last night (thanks, jet lag), I caught an episode of a new series on PBS, Sacred Journeys. This episode was about Jerusalem, highlighting the choices of several very diverse American citizens who had gone there to find…something.

One of the statements made by the narrator that struck me as fascinating was about the “physicality of place”. His general point was that, even with all of our high-tech video and audio devices, there is no substitute for being present in a location to evoke the psyche. The whole series is about the topic of pilgrimage, a concept that isn’t yet dead, or even resting. Several religious traditions including Islam, Judaism, and Hinduism, require their followers to make a physical journey to sacred sites in order to fully grasp the messages they offer. Many of the people on the show were Jewish or Christian and were visiting Jerusalem in search of physical pieces of their faith traditions. However, such journeys are also popular among the un-churched masses, today’s “spiritual but not religious” group. This trend seems to point to an unmet need basic to humans not always adequately answered by Religion.

But, why in this time of easy (ish) travel and easy access to information from all over the planet, do people still find it so necessary to pack up a bag and hit the road to find their souls? Certainly, a thousand years ago, when life moved at a much slower paces and there were no video feeds from the Church of the Nativity on Christmas Eve, it made sense for people to journey to sacred places in order to see where important events went down- even if the travel was much more dangerous and difficult than it is today. What is it about “the physicality of place” that still attracts us to the idea of leaving our sofas and stocked fridges and heading out for the unknown?

These questions led to two possible answers, one courtesy of Carl Jung, the other from my Celtic ancestors.

Carl (and Joseph Campbell) liked to make an analogy of a person’s life to the journey of a hero in myths and legends. The idea here is that each person is the hero is his or her own little mythic tale, beginning with The Call and ending with The Return, with many adventures in between. Over the years, this concept has attracted a great deal of attention in the psychotherapy community, from James Hillman and Archetypal therapy, to Michael White and Narrative therapy. Seeing yourself as the hero in your own myth can create feelings of purpose and continuity where chaos existed previously.

The second consideration is related to the image for this essay- the labyrinth. Mazes and labyrinths have been used as tools for prayer and meditation for untold time. Currently, many churches (especially the Episcopal) have prayer gardens with labyrinths on the church grounds. Walking over the four quadrants and into the center (which also is the basic layout of a mandala) is supposed to assist the walker in his or her meditations by making a physical journey to match the cognitive one.

Although many churches have labyrinths, they aren’t exclusive to Christians. The idea is most probably more ancient than that, meaning it likely has pagan roots. Apparently, taking a short, symbolic journey to sort out your thoughts is equally as old and powerful as taking a longer more literal pilgrimage  to a place of some spiritual or historical importance. There seems to be something about the act of walking, making physical contact between the liminal world of ideas and emotions and the literal world of physical sensation, that humans crave at a very basic level.

All of which brings me to my point: no matter how hard Western civilization tries to sanitize and disembody the human experience, it will always be defeated by the basic wiring of the human animal. We, as a species, are not only our thoughts. We are not only our words. When we suffer, we must have motion, physical contact with people and places and all of our senses in order to process the thing that caused the suffering and to heal. No drug can ever replace tactile experience (although some medicines are very helpful to many people). No “talk therapy” alone can fully wrap around the totality of any human experience: for that, we invented art, dance, play, and journeys. We need to use all that we have in order to heal what’s broken and strengthen what’s healed.