How to make the girls alright?

I’ve been thinking about the things we tell girls about their place in the world. About the beliefs that girls have about themselves and their worth. Mostly I’ve been thinking this because as a mother of two (!!) teen/tween daughters, I am confronted every day with doubts about what they need to learn and how I need to teach it to them in order to find success.

There is a struggle between reality acceptance and a fierce desire for them not to experience the things that I have as normal.

On my last day at a law firm, one of the partners (and I truly believe that he thought this was a compliment) told me that it was a shame I was leaving since they “were just starting to believe that I was serious about the job.” This after seven years, countless billion dollar transactions closed and managed almost on my own. This after having round the clock nanny’s on payroll so I could work until 2 in the morning several nights a week.

On the day my daughter was born, I conducted a conference call from the delivery room before my c-section. I turned changes to a document during my maternity leave. I left my toddler daughter and my husband on a vacation in Dubai so I could attend three days of meetings in Abu Dhabi “since [I was] in the area anyway.”

All that. And they were JUST starting to believe that I was serious about my job.

I know this is because I gave birth to two children while working as an associate. I became a mother twice while working for them. The thing is, my husband became a father twice and no one doubted his commitment to his firm. One of my co-workers had three children during the time I worked for the firm and no one doubted whether he was serious about his job.

I wanted to look at him and laugh. Laugh or scream. Laugh or scream or point out that this was why I was leaving. I knew there was no way they would ever make me a partner. I knew that, as the mother of two young children, there would be no benefit of the doubt. There would be no assumption of commitment and ability.

I would have to prove that which was assumed of my husband and male colleagues.

So I struggle because I know this is true now for my daughters. They have to show up and show more prepared than their male peers do in order to be taken seriously. They will need to be early to meetings that their male colleagues can arrive at on time in order not to be seen as scattered or disorganized. They will never be allowed to show emotion at work. Cry and you’re hysterical, get angry and you’re a bitch. Never mind the male partner who screamed at his associates and threw things when frustrated.

So it’s hard to balance my desire not to perpetuate this status quo that women have to work harder than men for the same results with the need to prepare my daughters for the reality of work. I want them to advocate for themselves and on their own behalf, but I also know that they will need to function in the world of work they seek to enter. I am hopeful that they will find a different reception when they work and have families than I encountered and certainly the men I worked with and for (of course there were no female partners in the corporate law firm group in which I worked) were good people and tried to be good managers and supervisors. There is also my own belief that arriving early and being more prepared is just good practice and what anyone should do – male or female.

But that might also be my anxiety talking.

Reinvention and self.

Before I was a therapist, I was a lawyer. I always wanted to be a lawyer, from the time that I was a little girl and read To Kill a Mockingbird in fifth grade, I wanted to work on behalf of people who needed help. In the beginning, and really until college, I thought I would be a public defender.

When I told my Grandmother this sometime during junior high, I remember she looked at me for a long time with a strange neutral expression on her face and then said, “well, I hope you’re prepared for a life of disappointment.” I could not imagine, then, what she meant.

In college, I worked as a paralegal for a large New York firm and was seduced by the benefits and perks of the litigation life style at a big firm. Perhaps I needn’t be disappointed after all – I could be well compensated and represent bigger clients. Everyone needs a lawyer, I told myself. Please note that I told myself this while working on tobacco litigation, so the denial was strong with me in those days. I think the idea of having unlimited free Starbucks and frequent flights back and forth to various cities in business class was pretty appealing to my broke college student self.

I moved back towards public interest work in law school and found myself interested in policy and international work. I wanted to be an arbitrator and even worked one summer in a Paris law firm specializing in representing parties in international arbitration. After graduation from law school, I took a job serving as counsel to an arbitrator managing several large scale class action settlements.

In short, when large class action law suit settles or reaches a verdict and a dollar award, the amount of the judgment must then be divided up among all of the people who are (or who qualify to be) members of the class or group that won the judgment. Often, there are thousands of qualified people to be members. Generally, these people must apply after the judgment to be considered a member of the class and receive a part of the settlement. Think about asbestos. We frequently see advertisements on late night television for people with mesothelioma or other asbestos related diseases to contact various law firms in order to receive money. This is an offer by a law firm to complete an application to be considered part of a class that won a judgment against asbestos manufacturers and created a pool of money for qualified claimants to access even if they weren’t aware at the time the law suit that they might qualify to receive payment. An arbitrator is often hired to oversee the disbursal of funds in accordance with the settlement agreement. In other words, the arbitrator is responsible for receiving the applications to participate and deciding if a person meets the standards to be a party to the judgment (usually proving that they were harmed in ways similar to the people named in the original law suit). As counsel to the arbitrator, I reviewed thousands of applications for inclusion in the classes we were overseeing and helped prepare recommendations for the arbitrator, who ultimately decided whether a claimant qualified to be a member of the class.

And here was where my grandmother’s prophetic words came to truly mean something to me. There is a painful disappointment to doing this kind of work. The idea of being able to offer people compensation for some truly horrific factual circumstances sounds wonderful on its face. I imagined myself as a kind of Robin Hood proxy – disbursing funds from a wrong-doing corporation or government body to needy and deserving claimants. An updated Erin Brokovitch, helping people who needed money and deserved compensation for the wrongs done to them to access money that was already won on their behalf.

That was not my reality.

The reality is that the letter of the law often prevents deserving claimants from participating and often benefits claimants who are less factually harmed. In order to qualify, people must submit evidence of their injury, evidence of how the injury happened, and fill out multiple forms as required by the terms of the settlement – as decided by the parties to the original suit or the judge in the original case. In many of these cases, the wrong done prevented claimants from accessing education and assistance – the very things which might make them able to correctly complete and file a petition to be a member of a class. No matter how simple these forms seemed to the lawyers who drafted them, they are overwhelming and scary to a person who has no education beyond the fourth grade and who is functionally illiterate. Not to mention many of these potential claimants have led lives that have instilled distrust of authorities and government agencies – the very ones offering membership in the class to begin with.

Everyone who I knew in these jobs was well-meaning and desperate to help people. They were good, kind, honest, and self-sacrificing – there is not a huge amount of money earned by the lawyers and arbitrators managing the settlements. But the job itself was painful and disappointing in a lot of ways. It was also numbing to the sad facts of the reality that these people who were desperately in need were experiencing every day.

I didn’t believe I was actually helping. I felt overwhelmed by the sheer volume of misery intractably present in our society – under the surface in so many ways to my privileged middle-class upbringing up to this point. When my fiancé accepted a job in London, I moved with him and for a time continued working remotely, but when I was able to tie up all of the classes I was working on, I was ready for a change.

Large law firms and unlimited resources beckoned and I became a corporate lawyer. Again, I told myself that everyone needs a lawyer and corporate lawyers (specifically securities lawyers working internationally) helped companies and governments borrow the money they need to grow and serve their employees and citizens. The United States government could not fund all the things it does (not to mention the things it should be doing and does not do) without access to debt. It issues borrows money from people willing to lend it in small amounts for an interest rate determined by the market and in the aggregate those small amounts become enough to fund large scale projects and business growth and development.

That’s the story at least.

It’s true up to a point. I enjoyed the work and found I was good at the attention to detail and organization required. I was focused and driven (even while having two babies, but that’s a story for another time) and I think my clients were pleased with me.

But it was exhausting and I realized that my drive to understand and to help people wasn’t really satisfied by the macro-scale help provided to firms accessing the capital markets.

I quit when we moved back to America from London so that I could stay home with my kids and pursue a degree in counseling.

But again that’s a story for another day.

My career path hasn’t been entirely straight, there have been some hard stops and left turns (let’s not even get into the brief six month flirtation with becoming a pastry chef and attending the Cordon Bleu in the year before my wedding allowed me access to a work visa in London and begin to seek jobs in law there). I am familiar with reinvention and have been feeling some urges toward another reinvention. Merging my two interests law and therapy. I think companies and law firms could be run in much better ways than they are. Could offer much more receptive environments to skill development and passionate pursuit of excellence.

What are people’s thoughts about reinvention and change?

Collective trauma

I wrote yesterday about the things that clients often say and I felt worried after I finished it about how frustrated the tone was. I wasn’t even aware of how frustrated and tired I was feeling. I took a nap yesterday afternoon after I finished with clients and I slept for two hours. Hard. That’s not usual for me. I say I’m going to take a nap and then I just lie there, answering emails, checking Facebook, doing a lot of nothing but also not doing the something I set out to do – sleep.

But yesterday I slept. Drool on the pillow. Contacts dried out in my eyes (because why take them out if you never actually fall asleep). Slept.

And then I did it again today.

I’m not sure why or how I am so tired. I’ve been doing some self inventory and I don’t feel like these are depressive symptoms, but I’m trying to be watchful. I think I’m just really fatigued from the stress and the worry about what will happen next. The collective trauma that our country is experiencing is wearing us all out. It’s draining our energy and making us all feel overwhelmed and desperate. Frantic and desperate for things to go back to normal. Or to find some way to fix what is unfixable.

I think I sounded frustrated with clients because I feel that frustration myself and I want so badly to have the answers for myself, my children, as well as for my clients.

And it’s impossible.

I’ve been talking a lot in session lately about willing hands. I find that the things that come up a lot in session are the things I most need myself. Not because I’m not listening to clients, but because I think we as a collective society need some willing hands. We’re all trying to control, we’re gripping the wheel so tightly. Trying to find a way through the traffic and chaos caused by a collapsing economy, terrible civil rights trauma and abuse, people dying, fear of getting sick, fear of our families getting sick. We all want to know how to chart a course through this so we can get to the other side of it.

And we can’t.

So many of us can’t.

While there are probably people who could, but most of us aren’t them.

There’s nothing I can do to help my kids not to feel isolated from their friends. There’s nothing I can do to get my kids back into their schools with their qualified and caring teachers and peers.

There’s nothing I can do about what’s happening. Apart from using my voice and donating my resources to things and causes that I believe in. These are things that I do and try to do regularly in ways that are focused and as effective as I can make them. But they often feel so small and insufficient.

Because they are small and they are not sufficient to change what is happening.

But aside from the need to do something about the things that cause our collective trauma, we need to take care of ourselves. We need to be soft with ourselves and offer ourselves care because we’re all suffering too.

Therapist thoughts…

There are certain things that therapists hear from significant numbers of their clients. I’m not arguing that clients are all experiencing the same things or that they even mean the same things when they say the same words.

As a therapist, it’s my job to meet clients where they are and to take them at their word when they tell me about their feelings and experiences. This does not mean that I don’t sometimes have a reaction to the things they say – including doubt or resentment – but it is my job to process that reaction and to provide empathic and nonjudgmental support to my clients.

That said, there are times when it is hard not to react when clients say certain things.

“I’m desperate to feel better”

I believe that my clients believe this will all of their hearts. What I sometimes have reason to doubt is that they are truly desperate. I believe firmly that clients are coming to therapy because their current circumstances have become too hard to cope with. But desperate?

A desperate person will cut off their own arm to escape from a trap. I think we often use desperate to mean willing to do anything.

The reality is that I have found a lot of clients come into therapy wanting to feel better but not necessarily ready to do things differently or to change in order to make that happen. A therapist hears desperate and often believes – yes, here is a client willing to radically alter their behaviors and beliefs in order to change how they are feeling and experiencing the world.

Not true.

The reality is that desperate is hopeless. It’s overwhelmed and stuck. It’s lost. The clients that I have that are desperate aren’t feeling willing to do anything. They’re not desperate to feel better -they’re desperate to find the answer to the hopeless conundrum of how their life can become more livable.

This leads me to the next common thing I hear and respond to:

Why haven’t you done more to help me with this?

I always feel frustrated when this one comes out in therapy. I know it’s a client who is feeling frustrated too. A client who feels overwhelmed and scared about whether they ever will feel better.

This, to me, also reflects a client who hasn’t internalized the need for them to help themselves. A client who hasn’t come to terms with the idea that therapy is not a magic wand.

I wish therapy was a magic wand. I wish that I could make things better for my clients from the first session. I wish I had the answers. I wish there was some right thing that I could say that would help clients to move past the things that have hurt them. The relationships that have brought trauma and pain into their lives that continue to affect them months and years later.

I hear this and my skill crawls with shame and anxiety. I worry about whether I’ve not done enough. I doubt my skills and my assessment of the situation. I question whether I’m the right therapist for the client. I question whether I’m capable of helping this or any client.

The answer, and it’s never the answer the client wants, is that there is no fix. There is no undoing the past and the pain it has caused. There is grieving and processing and a consequent reduction of pain that can come from building a life worth living and staying focused on the present moment.

But fixing it?

No.

It’s not possible.

And this is probably almost as hard for me to accept as it is for clients.

Because no therapist got into the profession wanting to hurt people. No therapist does the work because they don’t want people to feel better.

But the thing I have learned is that I am largely powerless to ACTUALLY MAKE people feel better. I can provide support and I can provide care and I can teach skills and suggest solutions to problems that inhibit people’s ability to pursue their goals.

But I can’t make anyone do anything. I can’t make anyone feel anything.

Which leads me to the last common thing that I hear from clients:

All you want to talk to me about is how I feel about things”

This usually goes along with a demand that I tell them what to do or that I tell them what goal they should set.

Yes. I want to hear about your feelings. The facts matter less to me because I want to know how you feel about them. I’m willing to stipulate the facts are as you experienced them. I’m not here to cross-examine. I’m not here to doubt your story about what someone said to you or what happened to you. I believe that it is your experience that matters.

I’m on your side.

But therapy is about feeling your feelings and becoming aware of how they drive one to act in certain ways and how those ways can be counter-productive to actually getting one’s needs met.

In order to change how you act, you need to know how you feel.

So yes. I want to know how you feel just as much as I want to know what you did.

They’re inextricably linked.

One is just harder to access for most people. One requires a lot more vulnerability to share and report.

But here’s what I want to say to clients when I hear this: I promise that I won’t judge or reject your feelings. I promise that I will hear them and empathize with them and tell you that you’re not crazy for having them. I promise to be a safe space to talk about them. And I promise to help you put yourself back together after we do.

Feelings are scary. They’re uncomfortable to talk about and experience. They often make clients react – through tears, through anger, through physical tension. And it feels like pandora’s box if we open up the feelings box will the client ever be able to shut it and go about their day?

I don’t know.

But yes. Your feelings are what I want to talk about. You’re the expert on you and your circumstances. It would be too easy for me, from the safety of my therapist’s chair, to tell a client what to do without full understanding of the consequences of those actions. Without the ability to adjust to the client’s lived reality.

Your guess is as good as mine about what to do. Your instinct is better.

I think many therapists are feeling overwhelmed and frustrated right now. I know I am. COVID is making us all feel out of control and frustrated with the inability to make a plan or to imagine what will happen in the future. We want to solve it and figure out what comes next. Clients want this too and they’re, naturally, coming to their therapists for it. But therapists, right now, it seems are feeling so much internal pressure to fix and to know and to solve and we’re carrying that into sessions and feeling pushed to fix and to know and to solve.

And we’re overwhelmed.

Like our clients. We’re desperate and we feel shame that we can’t fix and know and solve. Where normally we would also be able to reassure ourselves that it’s not our job to actually fix someone’s life – we want to because it would show us that it’s still possible to fix and to know and to solve.

We’re helpless.

But we still want to hear about your damn feelings.

Like Riding a Bike

On our most recent vacation travel, I found myself riding a bike for the first time in a number of years. I’m not actually aware of the last time I had reason to ride a bike, much less of the last time I was confronted with the opportunity. But on this trip, in this place. The bike was the predominant mode of transportation.

Bikes with wide, soft, stable tires and sprawling handlebars. Bikes with baskets, all in a soft minty sea foam green lazed about on the town we visited green spaces and walkways. On the boardwalks and in the courtyards a dozen or more bikes at one time would congregate, leaning drunkenly against each other and the walls and ground. Reclining from their toil of carrying around sunburnt and distracted tourists.

In the town we visited, people seemed outnumbered by bikes and if one wanted to engage with the community, it was by needs be on the seat of a bike.

So I rode a bike.

To dinner, a bike.

To the beach, a bike ride.

To the drug store for forgotten batteries. My bike chaperone attended and waited patiently for me to emerge and reclaim it from where it gathered with other sea foam colored squires awaiting their charges.

At times I didn’t want to ride the bike. I felt uncomfortable and slightly on the edge of running out of control on its wide, squashy seat. But I knew that like, well, riding a bike – it would come back to me how I used to love the freedom and ready transport of my red Schwinn bicycle (with curved handlebars and 10 speeds) when I was a pre-teen. Before a car, a bike was freedom to go where I wanted to go on my own terms and timeline. Now, in this vacation town, I felt forced to abandon my true automotive freedom and rely on an unsteady, wobbling progress under my own power.

I felt that at any moment I might collide with others. I felt that I needed to focus entirely on my technique and what was directly in my path lest I swerve to follow my wayward gaze directly into a tree or the oncoming cyclists – similarly careening just on the edge of control along the paths and walkways.

It was one day when I found myself alone on the bike, riding down a quiet residential street that I realized I finally did not feel out of control. I finally was not worried about technique. I was riding. I was not thinking or worrying or planning or analyzing. I was riding. The bike ride required my full-attention, yes, but I wasn’t feeling overwhelmed or out of control. I was just doing this one thing in that one moment.

Doing a new activity (or resuming a long forgotten one) can help to force us into the present. To draw our mind back from the scary, uncertain future and forward from the unsettled and unsatisfied past. It makes us focus on the moment in which we are living. Such a difficult thing these days where we feel trapped and uncertain. Desperate for change and yet fearful of what that change might mean.

In DBT skills therapy we talk about engaging in pleasant activities “one-mindfully” which means committing to them wholly. It means building a sense of mastery over what was difficult by focusing on that task without concern for the future. It does not mean just doing that which is easy, it means focusing on things that take us outside our comfort zone and force us to pay attention to our actions.

And so I rode along that quiet street and felt at peace doing something old in a new setting and from a new perspective. At one with the bike carrying me to freedom from my every day cares and stresses. Thankful for the change of pace and chance to exercise a long forgotten sense of possibility and wonder in the moment.

Sandpipers among the waves

Our family has just returned from our one week vacation from the four walls of our house. I was reminded how much a change of scenery can jar you out of your established routine and force attention on small actions and activities.

Even if that change of scenery is mostly just a different house for a week.

We are extremely fortunate to have the ability to drive to a new place and the means to take week for our family to relax and unwind. A week to get out of our ground hog day existence of the past five months of zoom meetings, google hangouts client sessions, zoom ballet classes and socially distant soccer workouts. I think we all felt a bit overwhelmed as we blinked into the sunlight on that first beach day.

I was reminded, too, of the calming sensation of ocean waves and a sudden summer rainstorm. Of the feeling of renewal that comes from new experiences and also the comfort and reliability of having those new experiences in somewhat familiar places.

One morning at the beach I watched the sandpipers run back and forth along the waves, scrabbling forward to peck for shells as the waves recede and scooting back as they wash toward them anew.

I think I’m too often like those sandpipers and not often enough focused on slowing down and just watching the waves themselves. The waves are calming and soothing and often remind me of renewal and continuity. Aspects of life that are easy to lose sight of in our daily focus on what’s next.

That is a thing about the groundhog day experience, it forces us into awareness of what is our routine. It forces us to think about ways of changing that routine when it becomes too much and ways to inject some unpredictability into days that often feel stiflingly predictable.

Mental Health and Policing

I’m putting up front that I’m talking about police and mental health specifically here, I’m not getting into systemic racism and violence. Nor am I reaching the militarization of police departments leading to over-reactions to protest and ordinary acts of civil disobedience. Those are topics for another time.

As a trainee counselor, I was so fortunate to work for the Counseling and Psychological Services center at the public university where I received my master’s degree. I went to work each day and offered free counseling and group therapy to students and found it such a rewarding place to work and to learn.

But I remember the first time I saw police officers come into shabby, cosy, warm office space to escort a crying student out in handcuffs. I felt scared and overwhelmed. Worried for the student’s therapist – had the therapist been threatened? Was the therapist hurt? What could possibly have caused the police to need to come into our center and remove one of our clients like that?

The student was suicidal. They came to their therapist telling them of persistent suicidal thoughts that had progressed to plans. The student was terrified. Overwhelmed. Helpless in the face of their brain’s relentless attacks on their safety and sense of self. The student was willing, even eager, to be hospitalized and medicated. But university policy required that the police be involved. University policy required that they handcuff the student for transportation. University policy, enacted by well-meaning administrators and enforcement officers trying to keep students, therapists, and officers as safe as possible.

Imagine if that was your child. Imagine if that was you – terrified and overwhelmed by your own mind, being treated like a danger. The trauma. The humiliation.

This is what I kept thinking about when I read this article in the Washington Post:

https://www.washingtonpost.com/nation/2020/07/24/police-huntsville-alabama-mental-health-call/?arc404=true

I read that article and a cold sense of dread settled in my stomach. This was an officer trained in the way that the President says he should be trained. An officer with good intentions. An officer who was extremely lucky in the situation he found himself in.

We are asking police to handle situations they are not equipped or meant to handle. A cop with a gun and a taser and handcuffs (among all the other tools to subdue someone breaking the law that we see as standard) on his belt is not a calming or soothing presence. No amount of training can allow them to handle someone having a break from reality because that person will see those things as terrifying and aggressive and often respond in kind.

These situations should be handled by social workers or counselors. Imagine if we shifted some of the funding from police to mental health professionals able to handle the situations described in this Washington Post story without having to warn a husband looking for help for his wife that they’ll have to shoot her if she behaves irrationally in the midst of a psychotic break. Note, the husband in this story did everything he could. He called the day before when his wife was calmer begging for help – trying desperately to get her the medication that she needed for her brain to allow her to be capable of dealing with police officers in a rational and calm way.

I have not treated Kanye West or even met him. I cannot diagnose him. But, I think any professional watching his twitter feed recognizes the similarities to a person in the midst of an unmedicated manic episode. I watched people on social media judge his wife for saying supportive things about his increasingly grandiose ideas. I watched smart people who I respect question his wife. I listened to news stories and podcasts blaming her for validating his ideas in public. But here’s the thing, a mental health professional knows that a person in the midst of a manic episode will turn on people who challenge them. If you challenge the validity of their beliefs you can forget about convincing them to take your medication or see your doctors or get into your ambulance. I felt hopeless because of course it seems that way if you haven’t lived with or worked with someone experiencing a mania. Police officers shouldn’t be asked to know this. It’s not their job. Just like it’s not really the job of twitter commentators or entertainment journalists.

A police officer is employed to challenge. Not validate. It’s a function of the job. It’s human instinct to challenge that which we don’t agree with. The officer in the story says that they would ALWAYS chase a person running away. Think about that for a person afraid that people are out to get them. For a person who believes that outsiders are trying to harm them. Chasing confirms their fears. It makes them real. Someone IS literally then out to get them.

I don’t blame the police, but I think there should be mental health professionals responding to that call described in the story. If that means fewer traditional cops (these professionals will have to be paid, after all and municipal budgets are not infinite) because funding will have to be allocated and there will be fewer calls requiring traditional cops, then I’m all for it. I think we tend to look at the defund the police movement in a black and white way. It is a reallocation movement. It’s talking about spending money on the things that will work in these situations. It’s ending the one stop shopping where we ask police to do too much.

I think about that student all the time and pray that they got the help they needed to not only cope with their suicidal thoughts but also to process the trauma of the process of their hospitalization. I saw several other students led away in much the same way. To be clear, I don’t blame the police. Their job is to keep that student alive and to get them to the hospital. But I blame the policy and the university for not having an alternative system in place to get them to the hospital in a less traumatic way.

Shame and uncertainty

I watched that video of the interaction in Central Park between a man politely asking a woman to put her dog on a leash and her extraordinarily inappropriate and dangerous over-reaction and thought of one thing. Shame.

I watch videos of grown people throwing tantrums in grocery stores about being asked to wear a mask. In those I see two things. Frustration and Shame.

I watch the news and see police acting with extraordinary force against largely peaceful protesters and see…SHAME.

I’m speaking largely to my fellow white Americans here. We are in a shame spiral. Not that we are shameful, because I’m sure most of those cops, those people throwing fits, even that woman in Central Park, are probably reasonably OK people in most circumstances. People who know them best would probably say they would never imagine that they would act this way.

But the actions of so many of us these days reflect such deep feelings of shame and embarrassment. I know it’s hard to hear about Karens, of which I am demographically one one, and not feel shame. It’s caused me to think about my past actions and to experience intense regrets about times that I could have done more or done better. And it’s uncomfortable. It’s hard to tolerate or focus on for too long. But shame is different than the guilt that I feel when I think about my past thoughts and behaviors. Guilt is motivating. Shame feels hopeless.

I once saw Brené Brown give a lecture about shame and she said something that has stayed with me. She said “we are never more dangerous than when we are in shame.”

It’s totally true. When my kids fight in the backseat and I get mad at them, I’m annoyed at the sound of it, sure, but I’m mostly wondering where I went wrong that they can’t get alone (news flash for those wondering, siblings fight. As an only child I don’t have the practical experience to accept that out of hand as a given the way people who grew up scrapping with their brothers and sisters can). I’m feeling like a bad mother, I’m worried that if I was a better mother they wouldn’t be fighting.

I am not saying that just because these things are uncomfortable that we should not do them, or that we are unable to do them, or that worrying that we are not as good as we would like to think we are is a reason to look away from our actions (past, present, and future). I’m simply acknowledging the deep discomfort that comes with feeling that your actions aren’t always correct, right, moral, or just. It’s uncomfortable to think that you might be in the wrong – or have been in the wrong in the past. It’s uncomfortable to think that my reactions to my kid’s fighting in the back seat (read: yelling at them) were not good. They probably made the kids feel worried, anxious, and uncomfortable – certainly not my goal when I was engaging in them. I was mad, at the time, because their fighting made ME feel so inadequate and ashamed. It made me question myself as a mother and as a person. And then, later, my reaction compounded the questioning.

This absolutely does NOT justify the behaviors in those videos. The people in those videos are dangerous. But if we can acknowledge the reason they’re dangerous, then can start to address it. SHAME.

Once I realized my own shame, I was able to talk to myself about doing bad vs. being bad. I was able to turn that shame into something that is actually functional – guilt. I was able to apologize to my kids and to work to repair our relationship. To talk through how I reacted and how they would like me to react in the future.

As Brené Brown (again!) points out – Guilt is I DID a bad thing, Shame is I AM bad. If someone feels they’re being told that they are bad, no matter how bad the behavior, they’re not going to respond with a belief that they can ever fix it. If you are intrinsically bad, how can you ever be good? But if you DO bad things, you can improve. You can DO better.

So, fellow Karens. Can we please agree to tolerate the discomfort of feeling shame for long enough to realize that it’s actually guilt we feel? We need to work hard to DO better. None of us are born able to tolerate having things not go our way. But, Karens, we have to start learning – the way that BIPOC Americans have had to learn long before we have – that we don’t always get to do what we want when we want. We’ve had a long period of getting our way and it’s uncomfortable to acknowledge that we can’t and shouldn’t always get our way. That what we want might cause others pain. That how we instinctively react in situations might come from deeply, and often unconsciously, held prejudices and beliefs and that they are wrong. Our instincts are not always right because they are the product of our environment and our family and what we have been taught to fear and love. And, I hope we can all agree, our families are NOT always right.

We as a society have lost sight of what it means to be free. We have forgotten what it means to tolerate being uncomfortable. I write a lot about anxiety and the fear people feel with things are unsettled or unknown. People want certainty. We want resolution. But freedom IS uncertainty. We feel we cannot tolerate instability, change, shifting sands without drowning. Police want the certainty of an arrest completed, an investigation uninterrupted, discipline without question or interruption. Their thought, our action. The problem is that we, as a society, have given them the power to blow through interruption, introspection, doubt, and safety. We’ve given them the power to impose their will on anyone who disagrees or resists. It seems that lately the police feel that the consequences for disobeying any of their orders is death. We have made them that way by arming them and training them to treat citizens of this country as the enemy. But individuals with free will do not follow orders. They do not always make the right choices. And so we have consequences under the law. But I think we all agree that consequences have gotten out of whack when the police can murder a man for resisting arrest. Where a woman can threaten a man with deadly force for asking her to leash her dog.

The consequences for not wearing a mask is denial of entry. That is not, in any way equivalent, of the denial of right to live. There are consequences for exercising our individual autonomy and freedom – but I think everyone should be able to agree that autonomy stops where it hurts someone else. Wearing a mask is not about only hurting yourself. Choosing not to vaccinate your child (when you are able) is not only about hurting yourself. Consequences are appropriate to encourage the choice that benefits society. But death is not a consequence for choice. Or it should not be in a free society. Physical harm is not a consequence for choice in a free society.

Are consequences distressing? Sometimes, absolutely. But they can be tolerated.

We can tolerate the discomfort of not getting our way. Frustration is not pleasant, but we can cope with it by soothing ourselves after the fact (you’re in a grocery store, people, if the mask is unpleasant, buy some ice cream or a bottle of wine, go home and scream and then eat the ice cream – you’ll be ok). We can tolerate the discomfort of guilt. Feeling guilty is uncomfortable, but we can cope with it by doing better next time or making amends for previous times.

We have to work on our distress tolerance.

Cognitive Dissonance in the age of COVID

I’m wondering how everyone is handling the incredible rise in COVID-19 cases in this country. We live in Texas, home to one of the worst areas of community spread currently in the country or the world. We’re facing a fall where our children cannot go back to school. Where we cannot resume social interactions for fear of worsening the spread.

Y’all. I’m tired of these four walls. Our family is planning a driving vacation to a private house in the near future. We’re so lucky to be able to do this and to do it in a way that feels safe. We are doing a drive that would normally take two days in one, we’re bringing all of our groceries, we’re staying in a private house rather than among others.

And still.

I feel guilt about traveling at all. All around us our neighbors have travelled and I’ve felt a combination of jealousy and judgment. I’m having a hard time with the cognitive dissonance of it all.

Of course I feel sad that my children will have another disrupted school year, but at the same time I’ve loved the slower pace of our family’s life in the last four months. Cognitive dissonance.

Cognitive dissonance is the uniquely human ability to hold two competing and inconsistent thoughts, beliefs, or values in your mind without settling on one. It is uncomfortable. It can make us indecisive.

A quality I’ve noticed has grown worse lately. Even a decision about what to eat for dinner becomes overwhelming because as much as I know we need to eat, I don’t know what I want to eat when every day feels so much the same as the day before.

I am also feeling intense shame re-reading these words because I know that these are privileged dissonances to hold. For essential workers and those for whom work is essential for survival the cognitive dissonance that they have to hold is much more tragic – the desire to live competes with the desire to survive. The family’s need to pay their bills competes with the desire to stay healthy and a part of the family for a long time to come.

I feel intense shame and guilt that we, as one of the richest countries in the world, have not been able to solve this dissonance for people. That we have proven so unwilling to give up our comforts to keep others safe.

And so I return to my own cognitive dissonance. To travel right now is inherently selfish. It is a luxury that I do not need. But to change venues right now also feels necessary to stave off the loss of energy and motivation that comes from feeling trapped.

We are not trapped, we have been choosing to stay home. But through travel I often find improved mental health, improved family relationships, improved energy and motivation.

And so, we travel but try to do it in the safest way we can in order to resolve the dissonance and the discomfort it brings. To do something that your values tell you is selfish ie., bad feels, well, bad. We have to resolve the dissonance either by doing something different or convincing ourselves that what we are doing is not so bad. As a person who tries to be mindful about my choices, this is a tough one to resolve.

So we are going in a way that feels less bad. I wish it could feel good and I could be totally at peace, but I think that discomfort is important because it makes me check my behaviors. It makes me curb the impulse that many Americans seem to be giving in to and to say I’ll be fine. The truth is that we are likely to be fine. But we don’t want to make those around us not fine. So we’re monitoring symptoms, avoiding contact with others now and will avoid contact with others there. We wear our masks and maintain our distance.

But I probably won’t be posting pictures from restaurants because we have agreed not to go to any. I was disappointed with this because there are some great restaurants where we’re going. But, I know that looking at a different four walls is worth it for us, and taking precautions lessens the guilt to a point where I’m hopeful that we can at least enjoy the trip for what it is. A chance to look at four different walls.

How I learned to stop worrying and love Tiana’s Splash Mountain

I have not been a person historically comfortable with change. I don’t think this makes me particularly unique amongst human beings as we are generally not comfortable with change. But, the mere thought of change has generally sent me into an emotional state and caused such distress that I am unwilling and unable to put into practice the skills that I have learned as a therapist.

As I prepared to enter high school, my parents briefly considered buying a lovely piece of property in a town 35 minutes from the one where I attended high school. They hoped to build their dream home on the banks of a small pond contained in the property.

I became so upset and cried so hard that I refused to even raise my head to look at the property on the times when they would drive there and try to show it to me. I am ashamed to admit that I could not cope with the idea of changing high schools and leaving behind my friends and everything that I knew. I could not imagine how I would manage to make new friends and enjoy experiences different from those that I had long expected to have.

I think that’s the real crux of the fear with change. We know what to expect with the same. We know that even if we are unhappy with the status quo, it is an unhappiness that we can cope with, because we have been coping with it.

The familiar brings comfort and certainty. It brings continuity and certainty.

And yet I love the unexpected and unplanned nature of travel. I love that I don’t know what to expect. That I don’t know if I’ll like everything or that I’ll be comfortable in the places I go. Travel pushes boundaries and it encourages taking chances. Every restaurant is unfamiliar. Even the grocery store is a wonderland of the unanticipated. When things are unknown and new, one is forced to pay attention. To be mindful of the moment and to let go the ideas of past and future. Wholly consumed with the moment’s survival and experience. Travel keeps us present in the here and now in a way that the familiar allows to drift.

My reasons for loving Walt Disney World, then, are completely the opposite of my reasons for loving most other travel. Disney is familiar and constant. It inevitably invokes memories of past visits. The smells in the park remain the same year after year and because our sense of smell is the most immediate trigger of memories, just walking into the park and smelling the hot buttered popcorn, the sugary sweet cookies of the Main Street Confectionary, the musty, faint chlorine tempered with the tar of cannon shot found on Pirates of the Caribbean. All of these scents bring back such strong memories of visits with my family. They are constant and inspire a warmth and continuity that most travel does not allow.

So I understand why the thought of change brings such upset to people who love the parks so much. The announcement that Splash Mountain will be re-themed to tell the story of the Princess and the Frog sent the internet into a spasm of grief and worry. And I understand it. I have strong memories of the first time I rode it with my husband (then my boyfriend) and forcing him to warn me before the drop. Clinging to his hand as we watched the buzzards cackle. Screaming on the way down.

I also remember the Nautilus and 20,000 Leagues under the sea. I remember how amazed I was to see (what I thought was) a fully-functioning submarine in a castle’s back yard. To descend the steps into the dark, close quarters, and to feel it move around UNDER WATER (again, I was small, I had the magic of belief).

Those magical moments were so crystal and clear because they were FIRST experiences of a thing. That’s not to say there aren’t firsts in the fourth or fifth ride, there are. That is the magic of Disney. But over time, much of the joy is in the drifting back or in the connection to the past.

This is why I love change at the parks. Because change forces presence anew. I have to be in the moment on this new ride to take it in and to really notice what is happening in that ride. When Disney is an adventure rather than a comfort.

I’ve written before about one-mindfulness and focusing on the feelings and experiences of the moment. One of the fastest ways to ground oneself in the moment is to check in with the five senses – what can I see, smell, taste, touch, and hear right here right now. New experiences allow us to engage all of the senses without fear that one of them will highjack the moment and mix in the nostalgia and memories of past experiences of that very same sensation. When we engage with the world one-mindfully, we can leave the anxiety and worry about what’s next or what’s past behind.

I realized on the last trip that we took, in the summer – when it wasn’t terribly crowded and we went spur of the moment and therefore had less planned. That those other trips where I’ve gotten up 180 days before traveling to book dining, 60 days before to book fast passes have been driven by focus on what’s next. Maybe this is a foible of mine, but it’s so hard to focus on what IS if I’m worrying that we’ll miss for our FastPass for the Haunted Mansion while waiting in line for Small World. On that summer trip we were able to be in the moment and present with our kids. We weren’t so much focused on what we had done before or what we were scheduled to do next. We wandered.

And it was an adventure.

So this is why I’m looking forward to the re-themed Splash Mountain. Tiana is a wonderful American princess and it is a delight to see her have a home in the parks. The new version of the ride doesn’t remove my memories of what came before (and much of the original experience, for me, will remain – the drop, the slow climb, the water). It will, though, force me to experience it anew. To be present as I ride it. To feel that magic of adventure again.

And also, maybe, there will be beignets in the gift shop.