How To Be More Emotionally Attuned in Life And Therapy

How To Be More Emotionally Attuned in Life And Therapy

I've been thinking and reading a lot about the idea of emotional attunement. Emotional attunement means not only being in tune with yourself but with the people around you.  It's a hard skill to master.

I often think the when problems arise in a relationship, whether it's therapeutic, a friendship or romantic, it is because we are lacking emotional attunement with our own feelings as well with the other.  This leads to disconnection. And disconnection means a feeling of loneliness and unbelonging, which is are the seeds of real depression. 

How Do We Become More Emotionally Attuned? 

The first step, I think, in any of this is being in tune with one's emotions. How do we learn to be in tune with our emotions? Mindfulness is often the first step. To check in with our feelings when we're sad, or lonely and anxious, to notice them and meet them with compassion sounds simple but much harder to do in practice. Mindfulness can be aided by a real meditation practice. Meditation helps us remain open to our feelings as they arise. 

Therapy is also important. A good therapeutic relationship will help us know ourselves and what we haven't been able to express in our everyday lives. Therapy will help us dig into all those unwanted feelings we have that have pushed deep down, and that need real love and compassion to unearth. This sort of attunement can change every relationship we have. 

Meaning vs. Happiness

Meaning vs. Happiness

I've given a lot of thought to depression lately. How politics influences it. How we maybe have gotten a lot of the causes it around it wrong, and that our current solution-- to medicate one's self out of depression-- is misguided and misses the point. That there's a reason that so many people are depressed and that suicide rates are rising at alarming rates.

I think part of the problem is distinguishing between happiness and meaningfulness. Happiness implies a life of pleasure. It means being able to sleep in late, and drink with friends and travel and buy things that you want. It's a life of thrills and leisure. It is about the individual. It is about making us feel some sort of joy. It often does not concern the rest of the world but concerns the self above all else. 

Meaning is a different ball of wax. I turn to Aristotle and his concept of "Eudaimonia," which is often mistranslated as "happiness" but implies much more. It suggests a meaningful life isn't selfish but has selfless elements. It implies virtue and sacrifice but also kindness and good relationships. It has little to do with materialism and the accumulation of wealth. 

I think this part of where the problem lies. Our culture stresses individualism as a way to reach happiness. Success and fame and wealth are overvalued and rarely seen for its superficiality.  Our world tells us over and over "this is happiness" in magazines, in movies and even the news. But maybe happiness is overrated. And maybe what happiness is often at odds with what is meaningful.

There's Nothing Wrong With Being Average

There's Nothing Wrong With Being Average

Life is a competition. Or so it is implied from a very young age. You're competing with your classmates for better grades. You're competing with the population at large for high SAT scores and getting into good schools. And as adults, we're competing for a small slice of the little pie that unfettered capitalism and globalization has left us. 

In this world, everyone is a possible threat or an enemy. And everything you do is a reason to produce, move forward or just the opposite, move backward and lose. You're on guard constantly. You must produce results. You must constantly prove your self-worth not only to your job but the invisible forces that constantly judge what kind of car you drive or what house you own. (I'm reminded of the business card scene from "American Psycho")

But this, in the world of free markets and neoliberalism, competition is a good thing. Competition breeds innovation. It creates a righteous meritocracy where the cream-of-the-crop rise and get what they deserve. The rest of us get what we deserve also. We're probably not smart enough or don't have the right skills. It is above all else fair, even it is vicious. But that is what is best for us. 

Except that it's not. Except that constant competition reeks havoc on our mental health. Except that constant competition leaves us terrified to make any mistakes and makes us unhealthy perfectionists. Except that constant competition rarely gives us a moment of real peace because we must constantly prove ourselves, constantly show how great we are. And a byproduct of this is that we're constantly judging everyone around us in comparison to where we are in life. This includes material goods but also job status. It's exhausting to live this way. So many of us are far more unhappy than you'd think. 

This stuff is so implicit in American culture, that it's hardly noticeable. It's just who we are as a country. And these values continue to spread to other parts of the world as the web of neoliberal economics spreads its tangled web to every pocket of the globe. 

Perfectionism and Neoliberalism

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I don't have the time or bandwidth today to write anything of length today, so I wanted to point you all to this Jacobin article about Neoliberalism and Perfectionism. It's a well-researched and thought-out piece on the effects of neoliberalism on mental health

One key paragraph struck me a particularly relevant to my work: 

"One consequence of this rise in perfectionism, Curran and Hall argue, has been a series of epidemics of serious mental illness. Perfectionism is highly correlated with anxiety, eating disorders, depression, and suicidal thoughts. The constant compulsion to be perfect, and the inevitable impossibility of the task, exacerbate mental-illness symptoms in people who are already vulnerable. Even young people without diagnosable mental illnesses tend to feel bad more often, since heightened other-oriented perfectionism creates a group climate of hostility, suspicion, and dismissiveness — in which the jury is always out on everyone, pending group appraisal — and socially prescribed perfectionism involves an acute recognition of that alienation. In short, the repercussions of rising perfectionism range from emotionally painful to literally deadly."

This, in a nutshell, is the idea I've been struggling with in therapy. A good many people in our culture are feeling depressed and anxious, despite having all their basic needs taken care of. And they often blame themselves for feeling that way. But what if they aren't to blame? What if the culture is broken? What do we do then? 

The Wisdom Of The Body

The Wisdom Of The Body

”It’s also helpful to realize that this very body that we have, that’s sitting right here right now…with its aches and its pleasures…is exactly what we need to be fully human, fully awake, fully alive.” - Pema Chodron

Your body is wise, far wiser than you know. It tells truths no rational thought can. It speaks to us with its rhythms. it tells when it is hungry or tired, but also when it is wounded or when it is scared. The whole of your existence, even those memories that have been lost are tied up in its movements and sinewy strength. 

Western society since the enlightenment has told us to trust rationality above all else, that the mind is separate from the body. And much of talk therapy was built on the belief in scientific rationality above all else. As a result, the importance of the body has been lost in that equation. But there are many new perspectives out there that are looking to reconnect the body to mental health. And societies in South Asia and China have been preaching being grounded in the body for nearly 3000 years.  

Some Musings On Work And The Death Of The Soul

Some Musings On Work And The Death Of The Soul

How strange the idea of work is. How strange is it that we spend the majority of our waking hours at jobs we don't love, spending our time in ways we don't enjoy or control, making money for wealthier people than us,  in order to have a shelter and enough food to eat. And how strange it is that we worship entrepreneur billionaires as Gods because they control the capital, because they get to spend their time as they want and pay us to keep helping them get richer. 

Some of you may respond, "duh" this is how the world is. Yes, this is how the world is. But so much of this strikes me as not only odd but inhumane. Capitalism makes everything transactional. Decisions are not made from love or empathy but are cost-benefit analyses. And work, therefore, becomes transactional too. We are willing to put up with work that might bore us or we hate, because of how much it pays and the lifestyle it affords. And this turns everything into a numbers game. And this makes "productivity" a value that's worthwhile. 

This is reflected in people's opinions about their jobs. The most common attitude I hear towards work is "I don't love it, but it pays the bills." Sometimes people downright hate their jobs. It's rare to hear someone say their job is wonderful and reasserts the values they hold dear. Work becomes a burden, a burden that just happens to last for most of your life. It's not the horrors of chattel slavery of course. But there is something ignoble about how we've structured our society.

In this world, entertainment becomes the new opiate for the masses. Unable to connect to our work in meaningful ways, we search for ways out in our sports, our movies, our shows. Without them, we can no longer hide from our thoughts. Without them, we might start to see how our society has failed to give us what we crave: our humanity. And we less resemble individuals who are searching and growing and more reflect the world around us: vain and attention seeking but lonely and wanting desperately to connect. 

*

The Crystal Cathedral and The End of White Protestant America

The Crystal Cathedral and The End of White Protestant America

In 1980, one of the most opulent and magnificent churches ever built opened in Garden Grove, Calif. Aptly named the Crystal Cathedral, it featured a shimmering glass exterior, which would glow bright red during a California sunset as if God himself lived inside of it. 

The cathedral was commissioned by Robert Schuller, one of the great megachurch pastors of his day. Schuller was hugely influential for his "power of positive thinking" brand of Protestant Christianity. Positive Christianity was an offshoot of the "Prosperity Gospel," a strand of Christianity which stated that material wealth and the teachings of Jesus go together like ice cream and pie. The largely white and people of Orange County ate up "the power of positive thinking" as their spending power increased, mostly because Schuller was reinforcing their lifestyles. Here was a man telling his congregation that positivity and making money were God's virtues. At the height of his powers in 1977, Schuller, whose congregation was at least 8,000 strong, commissioned the Crystal Cathedral for $18 million dollars.

Fast forward over 30 years later to 2011. Schuller is retired and his congregation is trending downward. And his organization has enormous debt for a series of real estate deals caused by the Great Recession of 2008. So Schuller's church does the unthinkable: they sell the Crystal Cathedral to the Catholic Church.  

What happened in those 30 years? Well, as Robert Jones, the author of "The End of White Christian America" points out in his book, the demographics of the country and specifically, Orange County changed drastically. Orange County, which was once an entirely White county, had seen a large influx of Latinos and Asians in the 2000s who generally had no traditions in Protestant theology. 

The Latino population is the real key here as Latino countries almost always are Catholic. And Garden Grove was lacking in enough Catholic churches for these people. So a deal was struck with the struggling megachurch. The Catholic Church bought the Crystal Cathedral for a ridiculous $57.5 million dollars. 

 

The Perils Of Love and Pets

The Perils Of Love and Pets

Recently someone told me about their dog's death. There was an emotional crackle in their voice. They said it had come on suddenly. One day they took their dog to the Vet. Two hours later they got a call saying that the dog needed to be put down. And like that their dog was gone. They have a new dog now, but they hesitated initially to get him. They didn't know if they wanted to go through the pain again, knowing they would lose someone they loved in near future. But they decided it was worth it.   

I heard another story recently about a new cat owner, who was in their early 20s, who was feeling stressed out about the responsibility of taking care of a living thing. It was their first experience in the matter. The cat was unusually needy and needed a lot of petting and attention. And the cat scratched and bit when it was unhappy. "I feel like I'm not doing enough," this person said. "I want her (the cat) to feel loved," this person said through some tears.

I recount these anecdotes because I've been thinking about the perils of loving some person or an animal. Love is often painful. An underlying assumption with any meaningful relationship is that loss will happen. Maybe the other person or pet will die. Maybe you will. Maybe you'll move away. Maybe you'll have a fight. Maybe your best friend gets married and you don't get to talk or see them often. Loss is inherent in everything we do. Nothing can stop the vicissitudes of life.  

And there are the other pains of loving someone. People are flawed. People can be difficult. People can hurt you. And there is often a burden and guilt that comes along with loving someone. You are in some way responsible for them and their happiness, especially if they are your children, partner or pet. And to fail at making them happy is to confront the pain that you aren't good enough, that you have failed in your duties as a caretaker. And there are times when none of us feel good enough as we are. 

How We Are Losing The Battle To Keep Carbon In The Ground

How We Are Losing The Battle To Keep Carbon In The Ground

The burning of fossil fuels, including, oil, gas, and coal, has been the world's primary energy source since the Industrial Revolution. But that same action has created the world's greatest existential crisis: Climate Change.

The scientific consensus tells us that if the world raises it's temperature by 2 degree Celsius than the human population will suffer catastrophic effects because of changes in the climate. In order to do that, however, it's generally agreed upon that we must keep at least 80% of the remaining fossil fuel reserves in the ground to even have a chance at avoiding the catastrophic effects. 

Yet the opposite is happening. Oil companies keep spending money to extract fossil fuels from the ground at alarming rates. There is the $54 billion Chevron Barrow Island project for example, which its website claims "proves that with the right management, industry and the environment can co-exist." It is expected to continue producing natural gas for at least 30 years. That's time we just don't have. 

Or take the Alberta Tar Sands, one of the oil reserves in the world, which turns bitumen into oil through a highly pollutive process.  The Tar Sands are supposed to produce oil for the next 40 years at least. 

A Retrospective On 2017 And Some Thoughts About 2018

A Retrospective On 2017 And Some Thoughts About 2018

It's grey here in Vancouver. Grey skies spilling grey rain on to grey asphalt streets. Grey jackets with grey people with blank expressions on their grey faces. The grey wind makes me shiver with each passing gust. It is less a winter wonderland, more the despairing winter of The Waste Land. 

But all this greyness gives me time to reflect on the year that has passed. So much has happened. In one sense the world feels like it's falling apart. Climate Change runs amok. The champions of greed and avarice seem to be winning as people continue to suffer. Nuclear war may be upon us soon. And Deepak Chopra is getting rich. 

But personally, this year has been one of great growth. I've managed to keep up a blog consistently, which is no small achievement. I've started my own psychotherapy practice that is doing well if not outright thriving. I have healthy relationships, including romantic, friendships and family. I am also in better shape than I've ever been.  I moved into my own place, which is a luxury most people in New York City cannot afford. And I feel less anxious and more connected to my everyday life than I have maybe ever. In short, I am content in a way I have never been.