Even therapists get the blues

I feel depleted. Perhaps it is the time of year, the sticky hangover of Halloween chocolate combined with autumn’s shorter days, or the way the school year feels serious now, entrenched at almost two months in. The end of year holidays await, little twinkles of light on the horizon, but as I write it is just another Thursday, an interstitial moment, neither the beginning nor end of anything.

what’s going on?

Friday is All Soul’s Day, the solemn counterpoint to the costumes and pretend gore of Halloween. Thought religion holds no pull for me, I like this idea of commemorating the dead, of making soul cakes or creating altars in the manner of Dia de Muertos. It could be that this is what is weighing on me, the heaviness of missing and the missing of comforting ritual to honor and remember those who have passed.

There are also the times in which we live, the tragic mess of last week—(thankfully) foiled bombings, the shooting in Kentucky, and the massacre in Pittsburgh, all (and more) against the backdrop of rising global fascism, starvation in Yemen, and the demonization of a group of migrants by a man who uses the stoked-up fear-based admiration of others to fill his emptiness. Generally, I cope with news overwhelm through a bit of healthy avoidance. This, comes, however, with attendant feelings of unease and the uncomfortable acknowledgment that my ability to avert my eyes with little consequence is a form of privilege.

looking for clues

These moments of malaise and times of high anxiety are part of being human. People often put a premium on denying these feelings. We ignore the tendrils of worry and dread that insinuate themselves into our psyche. Those tendrils grow in the dark. They obscure our ability to think and feel freely. But if we pay attention to the clues provided by our bodies and minds, we may remove some of their power.

For me, the first signs are in my sleeping and a suddenly casual approach to food. I wake at odd hours. I unthinkingly skip meals or am drawn to unhealthy snacks (like the bags of Pirate Booty I was eating for lunch a couple of Tuesdays in a row). My thinking process becomes sluggish. If I don’t pay attention to these signs, if I do not name the malaise, it starts to become more solid and feels less transitory.

but then what?

I’ve gotten better at noticing the preliminary signs. Figuring out what to do, if anything, about the feelings remains a process. Some things are simple (eat healthy, regular meals). Other things are difficult to do in the midst of a busy life (take a restorative break by, say, reading a book for fun). I always come back to writing out my feelings. For me, this makes those feelings more manageable. And today I’m adding the step of posting them in a public environment, as a professional, both as a way of feeling connected and hoping that I may help someone else feel less alone.

What works for me may not work for you. But the first step for all of us is to notice our internal weather patterns, to recognize what we are carrying in our bodies, and how it manifests itself in our moods. Recognition does not mean that the mood will lift, but it might help us realize that this, too, shall pass.

The superpower within

You have the capacity to neutralize many disagreements, get the focused attention of others, and connect more deeply with your partner, your kids, and your coworkers. This underutilized, often unrecognized and underdeveloped superpower is called listening. It is available to us all. And if we join up with like-minded individuals exercising this skill, we have the power to (potentially) change the world.

barriers to listening

Everyone is familiar with the painful, sometimes annihilating ache when our thoughts, feelings, and experiences are not taken in and considered by others. When we feel angry, sad, guilty, shamed, defensive, hungry, tired, or not heard ourselves our ability to take in another person’s point of view is stifled. If you include the common family and societal experiences of having our thoughts, experiences, and feelings minimized and ignored, it’s amazing that anyone has developed the ability to listen at all.

In a country divided by politics and lack of agreement about what counts as fact and what is fiction, listening in the larger social discourse has become rare. In this environment it feels natural to respond from the gut. The nature of reality is at stake. Who can listen when such fundamental issues are up for grabs? Disagreements take on a moral component. There is no point in listening to someone you regard as repugnant and morally bankrupt. When you feel attacked as a person, it is impossible to take in another’s thoughts. Add in online interactions, which allow people to react and insult without seeing the effects of their words, and you’ve got yourself the makings of a dysfunctional communication stew.

knowing how you feel and who you are

As a therapist, I keep in mind this bigger picture while working within family dynamics and the particular issues a client brings to session. Listening is thorny. It isn’t intuitive. To do it properly, you need to let the other person’s thoughts and feelings in without judgment, almost take them on as your own, and briefly stand in another’s shoes. This can feel (and can be!) threatening, particularly when you are working on your sense of self, identity, and personal boundaries. How can you effectively listen to others while still figuring out who you are as a person? You need clear boundaries in order to let ideas safely in.

Learning how to listen is a process. Step one? Pay attention to your feelings. Identify the emotions that come up when you feel heard and when you don’t. Think about the barriers to your capacity to listen—what is happening inside for you? What is getting in the way? Initially you may need to sort through your feelings after the fact. Eventually it will get easier to recognize them in the moment and make decisions based upon them.

some ideas are wrong—and should be corrected

Being a good listener does not mean being aggressively neutral. Some ideas are simply wrong. You do not need to listen to insults or take in lies. If you are a member of a dominant group, you have an obligation to challenge those who denigrate and disenfranchise those who hold less power. If you feel up to it, you can take on the emotional and experiential worlds of those whose views you find abhorrent as a way to better understand the potential causes of hate and perhaps feel compassion (another underutilized superpower!). But you do not need to legitimize someone’s beliefs in order to listen and understand.

You may discover that you hold some of these beliefs, or learn that your words are coming from a place of fear or guilt. Grappling with the prejudice within and confronting how many of us benefit from systems of power is often more difficult than taking on prejudice in others. But it is only by pushing past our initial discomfort and listening deeply to the wronged and wounded that we open space for change.

There will also be times when it will not be possible for you to listen or for others to hear. When emotions or other circumstances block your listening capacity, be gentle to yourself. You may also need to back away from those who seem unable to listen.

imagine if everyone developed their capacity to listen

When I am feeling particularly Pollyanna-ish, I imagine what a different world this would be if we all developed the superpower of listening. It would be transformative. We could take others’ words in and take them on. The compromises that would result would be shared, pragmatic, and emotionally connected. But of course humans and our larger systems are too complicated and flawed, too hungry for power and domination, for this vision to come to fruition. So I’ll take it small, slow changes, one interaction, reader, and client at a time.

Talking with your teenage son about sexual consent

Getting beyond facts and rules

Talking with your preteen or teenage son about sex can be awkward. Talking with him about sexual consent may feel even more so. The default parent go-to is often to provide the rules:  

  • No always means no (although in current thinking, the idea is that yes means yes, which focuses on getting positive consent).

  • The absence of no does not mean yes.

  • Consent to one form of sexual contact does not mean consent to further contact.

  • Even when the answer has been an enthusiastic yes, either partner can decide to stop at any time.

  • Consent is not possible–or legal–when he or his partner are under the influence of alcohol or drugs. 

Facts and rules set clear expectations and boundaries. However, discussing consent with a potential partner in the heat of the moment may not feel straightforward. In addition, although the general stereotype of teen boys is that they are always ready for sex, your son likely has boundaries of his own, though he may not be aware of them. 

a series of conversations

Like consent itself, which consists of a series of check-ins as partners become more intimate, the best way to prepare your son for a lifetime of consensual sex is to start these conversations early and have them often. If you start this before puberty kicks in, that’s ideal, but it’s never too late to bring it up. You can also supplement these conversations with books (see resources below).

first steps: How will he know when he’s ready?

The best place to start is by talking with him about how he will “know” he is ready for physical contact with a potential partner (this section owes a lot to a Speaking of Psychology interview with Andrew Smiler, PhD, author of Dating and Sex:  A Guide for 21st Century Teen Boys) You don’t need to start with the big stuff. You can start small with conversations about when he would know he was ready for holding hands or kissing. Over time you can move on to conversations about other sexual contact.

The benefit to starting with your teen’s wants and needs is that it will get him thinking through his own readiness and signs that he wants to take things to another level with a romantic partner. In my experience as a counselor, I have found that teen boys often have sexual boundaries that get glossed over by assumptions that they are always ready to have sex and to go as far as they can with a partner. By opening these assumptions up for exploration, you can help your son not only think about his needs for consent, but also think about how he would ask a potential partner about her or his needs and boundaries.

These conversations are practice

These conversations, particularly at the beginning, will likely be awkward, as awkward as his initial conversations about consent will be with future potential partners. By working through that awkwardness with him, you show your son that those conversations are vital and that moments of awkwardness can be tolerated.

Resources

These are some books that might be helpful to you or your son, both about sex and about consent. They sometimes contain graphic information about the mechanics of bodies, sex, and particular sex acts. Please take a look at reviews for these books to make sure they fit with your family’s beliefs and approaches before passing on to your son.

Dating and Sex:  A Guide for 21st Century Teen Boys by psychologist Andrew Smiler, PhD.

Sex: An Uncensored Introduction by Nikol Hasler

What Does Consent Really Mean? a graphic novel by Pete Wallis, Joseph Wilkins, and Thalia Wallis