Tag Archives: Growth

When Relationships Fall Apart

hand shake in front of blinds by Lisa Blair, M.A. and David Bedrick, J.D.

Lisa and David are both Certified Process Work Diplomats. This article  first appeared here and is reposted with permission. 

Every relationship has two handshakes: one above the table and one below. The first handshake is a conscious agreement between the two people, saying “We’re going to support each other, care for each other’s needs, listen to and accommodate each other, and compromise when we need to.” These are important agreements, however they are limited. As time passes, it typically becomes harder and harder to keep these agreements because previously unrevealed aspects of each person will arise that will not be in alignment with this initial contract.

What conscious or unconscious agreements are you making in your relationship?

The second handshake is an unspoken, unconscious agreement between the two people that says, “We’re each going to put away those aspects of ourselves that would threaten the relationship in order to make our life work well together, to avoid conflict, and to make each other comfortable, so that we may reach towards an ideal vision of relationship.” This second agreement requires each person to suppress things about themselves—their personality, individual and cultural style, needs, and desires in order to not rock the boat. These aspects remain in the shadow of the relationship.

Suppressed aspects of each person may include: not wanting to be present or listen to your partner even though you think you ought to; taking alone time when you think you should always be together; following your own impulses (to travel, hang out with certain friends or family, watch your favorite TV shows, go skiing…the list is endless) even though your partner does not have the same level of interest in these activities.

Additionally, these things may include ways of expressing oneself or communicating in styles that are outside the comfort zone of the relationship or of the other partner. For example, one partner may naturally be more forceful, direct, or quick, in their communication style while the other partner is more sensitive, slow, shy, or quiet. The first partner may accommodate by suppressing their power and approaching the other with more gentleness. The second partner may suppress their softer nature and try to meet the other with more force. Neither is inherently bad to do, but these accommodations are not typically sustainable for long periods of time.

The Second Handshake Falters

At some point, the second handshake—which is not fully conscious—falters and the suppressed needs, desires, or ways of expressing oneself rise to the surface causing all sorts of problems. They come out in resentments, angerdreams, illness, moods, affairs, and other disturbing experiences. At this point, important questions appear: How will I deal with these problems? Will I get depressed and take anti-depressants in order to find a comfort zone? Will I ignore these impulses and revert back to the first handshake and say, “Okay, I found a way to settle in this relationship and I can do this for the rest of my life.” Do I have the desire, willingness, and courage to embark on a warrior journey of personal and relationship growth with my partner?

Common Roads Couples Take

What needs, desires and communication styles are you suppressing to not rock the boat in your relationship?

There are four common roads that couples take when faced with the challenge of addressing the unconscious needs, desires, and expressions that inevitably rise to the surface in all long-term relationships.

Road #1: We’ve found in our work with clients that if one or both partners aren’t open to working out a way for the newly surfaced needs, desires, or expressions to live, then the relationship will revert back to the status quo of the first handshake and develop coping strategies to deal with the disturbing aspects of the relationship. These strategies will inevitably be unsustainable and lead to more problems and pain. These individuals might in essence say, “I’m going to shop, gamble, take drugs, get depressed, or have an affair.” Or, “I’m going to put all of my focus, time, and energy into making more money and being more successful to avoid going home and relating to my partner.” Or as a couple, they might in essence say, “We’re going to go on more vacations so that we can pretend life feels good and our needs are getting met.” Reverting to the status quo of the first handshake is the most common road taken when suppressed experience surfaces in relationship.

Road #2: A second road that a couple may find itself on is that of their children having difficulties that require professional help to address. In effect, the children begin living out the disturbing behaviors that the couple is not making room for. The couple may send their child to therapy because they have problems, becoming the “identified patient”—the one who appears ill when it is actually the family system that needs healing. Why wouldn’t you want to send your kids to therapy? What’s wrong with doing that? Seems to make perfect sense. However, the couple’s avoidance of their problems is causing the child to act out and this will continue unless and until the child is no longer seen as the identified patient and the couple begins to take responsibility for their relationship difficulties. Of course, this may not be the case in every situation where a child is acting out, but it’s always something to consider.

Road #3: The third road that many couples take is one with a dead end. In this scenario, the couple’s relationship terminates because it can’t accommodate the changes. That’s as far as it could go. It reaches a limit. The newly risen suppressed material is more than one or both partners can hold. It is too threatening or causes too much pain. The container is not strong enough and the relationship comes to an end.

Road #4: The fourth possible road that a couple can take requires significant changing and growing. The arms of the relationship get wider allowing it to move forward with the formerly suppressed experiences now integrated into the relationship. This is the least common of all possibilities because it requires that both partners want to learn and grow individually and in the relationship. It means each partner has to be willing to self-reflect, recognize their good intentions as well as their unconscious priorities, communicate honestly and openly with their partner, work through often painful conflict, and live closer to their individuated and more authentic self. This is not an easy path and typically requires the outside help of a therapist to facilitate the relationship transformation.

This path also requires that both people in the relationship are genuinely open to whatever specific change is presenting itself. If it is truly not right for one of the people in the relationship to be open to the change on the table, then to stay true to themselves and their deepest nature, they must remain closed to that change and the relationship may indeed end. There is no judgment, no blame here. Both people are open to learning and growing, but their nature says “no” to that specific change and so, ultimately the person has to choose to be true to themselves over keeping the relationship in tact.

When One Partner Is a Grower and the Other Is Not

Painting of figures leaning against opposite sides of a tree
Source: Leonid Eremeychuk/123rf

In long-term relationship, such as marriage, there is sometimes one partner who is more of a grower (a person who loves learning, growing, and changing over time) and one who is not. In our experience, in heterosexual relationship, the grower is more often a woman than a man, but of course, this is not universally true. Women are more likely then men to go to therapy and pursue personal growth in general. Sometimes, we have found, a woman partner will call to make an appointment for couples therapy with her male partner. When we ask her, “Does your partner want to come to therapy?” she says, “Well, I’m going to check with him, but I think he’d be willing to.” In situations like this, it’s invariably the case that the woman alone wants to go to therapy and the man is really not interested in doing therapeutic work. She wants to look at the relationship and interact about it, figure out who she is, learn new things, and become a new kind of person. But her male partner may be saying, “This is hard work and it costs a lot of money and it’s taking away from my life.” For her, the therapy is life giving; for him, it’s not.

In this case, couples therapy is counter-indicated; the woman would benefit more from individual therapy. It will not be wise for her to embark on a path of trying to change him. Either she’s going to find a way to create meaningful “separations” from her partner without actually terminating the relationship (e.g., following a career that she never pursued, hanging out with friends that she never made time for, not caring so much if her partner is in a bad mood, or separating herself emotionally and potentially financially) or she may eventually need to leave all the way.

The Tao in Relationship

While there is certainly much to be said for our personal efforts to grow and develop in relationship and the fact that these efforts have a significant effect on the resiliency of our relationship, the truth is—what happens in our relationship is not only up to us. What happens in our relationships, including how long they last, is also subject to the Tao, nature, the universe, God—whatever name you wish to give it, it has its own timing. Relationships have their own course and we cannot only control the outcome.

In a public lecture, author, activist, and seven-time NAACP Image Award recipient Nikki Giovanni explained the Tao in relationship in a most amusing, creative, and accurate way. She said (we’re paraphrasing), “Remember those fortune telling machines, like Zoltar at Coney Island? They spit out a ticket with your fortune.”

“With relationships,” she explained, “it’s as if the fortuneteller spits out a card telling the person how long their relationship is supposed to last. For example, the card might read one night, two months, twenty years, or a lifetime. Not all relationships are meant to last a lifetime. When the relationship goes longer than it’s supposed to—which is the most common occurrence—all sorts of problems occur and if the relationship does end at some point, each of the people typically feel terrible about how it ended, they hate the other person, and there’s a lot of pain. When the relationship gets cut short for some reason, the two people often forever imagine how perfect the other person was and how they could have been the love of their life. However, when the relationship ends exactly at the time predicted by the fortuneteller—the least common experience in relationships ending—it is typically bittersweet. Each person feels love and kindness towards the other, gratitude for what they shared together, and at peace with the knowledge that it had to end.”

My One Problem

Arch reflected in waterby Cindy Trawinski

It is always foolish to oversimplify complex problems. Nonetheless from the viewpoint of the Dreaming, regardless of the complexity of your life, you can have only one problem – ignoring the Dreaming background to reality. Ignoring the Dreaming means marginalizing the deepest unformulated experiences that create your actions in everyday life. Every time you ignore the sentient, that is, generally unrecognized dreamlike perceptions, something inside of you goes into a mild form of shock because you have overlooked the spirit of life, your greatest potential power.

Arnold Mindell, Ph.D., Dreaming While Awake

I love this quote from Arnold Mindell, founder of process-oriented psychology also know as process work. .

It reminds me of the importance of awareness. It nudges me to be more curious and to open to the subtle disturbances I sometimes overlook. It helps me remember that, underneath my emotions, thoughts and beliefs, is an exquisitely responsive inner ecosystem. It reminds me that I too am an animal, a part of nature and that nature is moving through me. When I lose my connection to the deeper nature, when I step over my reactions or am lulled into the rhythm of my everyday experiences or identities, there may be a part of me that goes into a kind of altered state.

Learning how this happens specifically for me means, in part, learning what kinds of experiences I tend to marginalize, ignore or avoid. Discovering what kinds of events tend to pull me away from my awareness and what awareness I pull away from is a lifetime’s practice that I am only just beginning. But it is one that calls me forward.

Deep Democracy: Coming to Understand My Polyamory

by Rami Henrich, LCSW

This is the first in a series of articles about the intersections of polyamorous identities and psychotherapy, adapted from my article in Sexual and Relationship Therapy, “Social and therapeutic challenges facing polyamorous clients” (Henrich & Trawinski 2016).  In this installment, I explore the ways in Process Work influenced my understanding of polyamory and drove my research into the topic.

What Is Process Work?
In the late 1970’s, Arnold Mindell founded Process Work (otherwise known as Process-Oriented Psychology), which has its roots in Jungian psychology, physics, and Taoism. In very general terms, the practice of Process Work is one of understanding people’s “processes,” or said another way, the flow of experience as it unfolds in oneself and in the environment. “The Taoist view of life assumes that the way things are unfolding contains the basic elements necessary for solving human problems.” 1 In order to stay close to this “unfolding,” Process Work is focused on expanding personal awareness and “paying attention both to events that support your identity and to the disavowed aspects of life—to which you do not usually pay attention—that disturb.”2

As an awareness paradigm, Process Work has a wide range of applications including individual work, relationship work, and group conflict facilitation work. In the sections that follow, I discuss some of the Process Work theories and methods that have been most helpful to me as a person involved in a polyamorous relationship, as a clinician and as a support group facilitator for people who identify as or are exploring polyamory and consensual non-monogamy (CNM).

Believing in My Path of Heart
One of the greatest gifts that Process Work has given me is the ability to accept my wild, adventurous, intense, and outrageous nature with greater ease. As much as I knew I could never really deviate from my deepest self and path of heart, I was nonetheless intermittently conflicted about my relationship scene and wondered if something might be wrong with me, wrong with us. I had a tendency to pathologize my curiosity, my intensity, my sexual explorations, my counter-culture relationship, and my general out-of- the-boxness, but Process Work helped me to see the value in my own inner diversity. It offered a perspective that emphasized “the belief that inherent within even the most difficult problem lays the seed of its solution.” 3 In other words, Process Work suggests that what you doubt about yourself or what you think is wrong with you may in fact be the seed of something beautiful and useful that wants to unfold and be lived more completely. For me, the idea that my family’s polyamorous relationship might somehow be perfect and hold exactly what is needed was a radical and deeply relieving perspective.

Process Work does not rely on preconceived notions of what is right or wrong, “it follows experiences rather than holding fast to any culturally determined standards.” 4 According to Julie Diamond and Lee Spark Jones, “following the flow of process involves caring for the absurd and impossible and going against conventional beliefs and ways of seeing things. … [it] also involves going with what is happening in a given moment, rather than resisting it.” 5 This lack of judgment, attention to personal experience, and respect for the unconventional was liberating. As I began to unfold and follow the flow of my individual and relationship experiences, my internalized judgments and resistance began to slowly dissolve. This cleared the way for me to embrace my path of heart more fully.

In the words of Arnold Mindell:

The path of heart makes you feel strong and happy about your life because it follows your dreams, your dreaming body, your mythical task. … If you view the world from the path of heart, you understand it to be the place … that you need in order to grow. The world is awful and awesome; from the viewpoint of the path of heart, what happens is meant to be used, completely and fully … to find our entire selves. 6

By bringing forth awareness of how polyamory is an aspect of my life myth (or the path of my life), Process Work has helped me to de-pathologize my view of myself and my relationships. It has kept me close to the dreaming and meaning that flows through this path, and it has paved the way for greater self-development and relationship growth.

Becoming Aware of Marginalization and Internalized Oppression
Cindy, Tom, and I have always been aware that our non-monogamous relationship meant that we were outside the mainstream, but Process Work provided me with the additional framing of marginalization, which has helped tremendously. To realize that non-mainstream people are marginalized by the dominant culture in such a way that it leads to internalized oppression confirmed my experience and provided some relief. As Mindell points out, in addition to external forms of oppression, discrimination and bias, “many people from minority groups are plagued by self-doubt, self-hatred or hopelessness and think these feelings are only their own problems” 7, when in reality these people “suffer from different forms of internalized oppression picked up from the mainstream.” 8

It is often difficult to recognize internalized oppression because it can take on the form of an inner critic, a relationship argument, or some other personal manifestation, but Process Work helped me to de-personalize it and wake up to the ways in which our family’s difficulties and feelings of self-doubt were not entirely our own. Such pervasive forces can creep into a polyamorous relationship and have a huge impact on the interactions and atmosphere of the relationship. “You can exhaust yourself dealing with your personal pain and fighting, not only the mainstream, but members in your [relationship] who are unconscious of oppression’s effects.” 9 In addition, internalized oppression and inner criticism can enhance and reinforce marginalization that occurs within the relationship and between the members. Having some awareness of the internalized oppression goes a long way towards minimizing these effects, because “every time you free yourself from a sense of internal oppression, you begin to transform the cultures [and relationships] you live in.” 10

 

Read the remainder of this article and learn more about deep democracy and polyamory at the KPACT website.

How to Create Fulfilling Relationships After Experiences of Abuse

hanging heart
Photo Credit: Something old, something new by Rachel Samanyi via Flickr CC BY 2.0

by Niyati Evers, MAPW

I am pleased to share this article by my friend and colleague, Niyati Evers, MAPW, and diplomate in Process Work. Niyati is a sex-positive therapist with Alchemy of Eros, a Portland, Oregon-based professional counseling services organization that seeks to create a welcoming, non-judgmental space where people can explore issues around relationships, intimacy, power, passion, desire, sexuality, life transitions, and personal transformation.

This article has been edited and condensed from its original version.

Many people experience abuse and trauma. Abuse may occur in adult life, during childhood, or through experiences of war and other traumatic events, and can take many forms, from physical and sexual abuse to emotional and psychological forms of abuse. If you are currently in an abusive relationship, experiencing recent trauma, or need immediate help, click here for a list of resources.

What Constitutes Abuse?

Process-oriented Psychology defines abuse as a situation where one person consciously or unconsciously misuses their power over another person, and where there is a power differential that makes it impossible, dangerous, or extremely risky for the person who is being abused to defend themselves.

Having lived through an abusive relationship myself, I know firsthand how hard it can be to come to terms with these experiences and the scars they leave behind. It can be challenging to navigate those inner scars and painful memories when trying to create new and fulfilling relationships.

Past experiences of abuse often reverberate in the present, and triggers may show up in a person’s bodily sensations.

Past trauma may manifest through visceral, physical responses that don’t seem to make sense or correspond to the current situation. The circumstances that cause these responses are sometimes called triggers. My personal triggers often involve some kind of sudden or unexpected noise. One of my triggers, for example, is a loud knock on the door—it can send my heart racing as I catch my breath in my throat.

It’s difficult to get rid of these triggers. They seem to get embedded in memory during a time in your life when you needed to be on high alert because your physical, emotional, or mental survival was at stake. Triggers function like an internal warning system, letting you know that there’s danger ahead.

In abusive situations, a watchful, high-alert mindset often becomes second nature. Having lived with a partner who could suddenly change from charming, gregarious, and playful into a vicious and violent monster, I learned how to watch for and read subtle signals that indicated imminent changes in his state of mind. This was my way of protecting myself from the abuse that would inevitably follow his mood shifts.

Sadly, as many of us know and have experienced, abusive behavior frequently repeats itself. My previous partner was a veteran with post-traumatic stress disorder. After living through war and violence, he too was deeply traumatized.

Knowing that it’s not easy to change our triggers, and that these negative feelings do not readily disappear, how do we navigate life after trauma without repeating cycles of abuse? How can we transform our experiences in ways that allow us to have healthy and happy relationships?

  1. Know Your Triggers

Triggers differ from person to person, depending on the kind of abuse each person experienced. Your trigger may be a sudden, loud sound; or the feeling of being approached too close, too fast; or the way someone touches you, or where they touch you. Your triggers are specific to you and your history.

Knowing what triggers “set you off” is helpful in many ways: This knowledge can help you put your own reaction in perspective and differentiate it from what’s actually happening in the moment.

By letting a partner know what your triggers are, you can help them understand where your responses are coming from. This can go a long way towards preventing painful conflicts between you and for your partner(s).

  1. Get to Know Your Triggered State

Knowing how you tend to behave, feel, and react when you are triggered can deepen your understanding of yourself and your relationships. It allows you to have constructive and supportive conversations with your partner(s) about what’s going on and what each of you needs, rather than responding from a reactive, defensive standpoint.

One of the ways in which I behave when I am triggered is that my “lawyer mind” tends to take over. I withdraw emotionally and I question my partner’s behavior from a place of suspicion. My current partner has told me that, when this happens, he feels like he is on the “witness stand,” that he’s being interrogated. Recognition of this pattern gave me the awareness to explore the feeling behind my reactions.

  1. Learn to Set Boundaries in Direct and Constructive Ways

If you have lived through an abusive situation, you may find it overwhelmingly difficult to connect with personal power after trauma. Your relationship with power may be colored by very negative and destructive experiences. You may feel a great deal of fear when using your body or voice in a way that could affect another person.

One of the major challenges for people who have survived abuse lies in their relationship with power. Abuse often undermines a sense of personal power.  If you cannot connect to your own power, you may inadvertently bury your aggression and rage, causing these feelings to emerge in passive, indirect, harmful ways in your relationships, such as

  • ignoring a partner
  • withdrawing emotionally
  • blaming or guilting a partner unfairly

In its most essential nature, power is neutral. It is energy—energy you can use in positive or in negative ways. The good news is that positive power builds its own momentum: the more positive experiences you have of using your power in your relationships in constructive and direct ways, the safer you’ll feel to keep connecting to and expressing your power.

  1. Understand Your Inner Abuser

People who have experienced abuse may repeat the cycle inwardly, against themselves. Your inner abuser may shame and blame you for what happened, using any kind of “lesson from the past” as a way to criticize you: “See, if you had only listened to yourself better or stood up for yourself more. You brought it on yourself by not being stronger and speaking up.” While it seems like the “inner abuser” wants you to protect yourself better, this voice perpetuates the abuse by blaming you while ignoring the circumstances and power differentials that surrounded the abuse.

The inner abuser also doesn’t allow you to experience the real feelings and real losses that follow abuse. In our culture, there is a tendency to view victimhood negatively—and while each of us can get stuck in feelings of hopelessness or helplessness, that doesn’t negate the facts of abuse. In an abusive situation, you were the victim. To heal from trauma, you need to make space for feelings of loss, grief, fear, and rage—feelings you couldn’t feel at the time because, in situations of abuse, it is often unsafe to show any feelings at all.

  1. Let Go of Impossible Expectations

Letting your partner know about your triggers does not mean that your partner will never trigger you. To expect that of anyone is not only unfair to the other person—it also creates a dynamic of over-cautiousness where the other person may feel like they have to “walk on eggshells” around you.

Yes, you have every right to expect that your partner(s) treat you with respect. At the same time, it is important not to hold your partner responsible for your triggers. Your triggers are part of your history. It’s critical to learn how to distinguish between when abuse is happening or repeating itself (and your reaction is appropriate to the actual situation); and when your reaction emerges in response to a trigger and from your sense of your own history.

At the same time, communicating about your triggers will help your partner understand why you may have seemingly “disproportionate” reactions. Meta-communication, or naming what you are noticing or experiencing in the moment,  is one helpful tactic. Meta-communicating with your partner may sound like this: “I’m triggered—I need space to process this. I will come back into the relationship later, but right now I need to come back into my own skin first.”

The Power of Sensitivity

Knowing you have lived through an experience of abuse doesn’t turn you into “damaged goods” or make you a worse partner. On the contrary: the sensitivity and awareness that people who live through abuse develop by necessity can be a huge asset in any relationship. If you have experienced abuse, you will pick up on information and see signals others may overlook. Your experience often magnifies your ability to empathize with others’ feelings.

Know that having lived through the abuse of power can potentially make you an expert and teacher in how to use power in ways that heal rather than hurt, nurture instead of demean, and deepen instead of destroy relationships.

Read Niyati’s full article, or listen to the podcast, on the Alchemy of Eros blog.

Your Best Friend Tells You They Are Kinky

leather pride flag
Credit: Leather Pride Flag image by Marcus Schmöger and António Martins, 31 March 2005

by Carrie Jameson, LCPC

So, your best friend tells you they are kinky and/or they practice BDSM (Bondage and Discipline [BD], Dominance and Submission [Ds], Sadism and Masochism [SM]). Whether it is your best friend, a sibling, parent, or child,  you may want to be an ally, but simply don’t know what to do or say.

Before you go further, it might be helpful for you to try the following thought exercise.

THOUGHT EXERCISE
Think back in your life to something that was special or precious. Remember how you felt. You may have wanted to tell someone close or trusted about this precious thing, experience or person, but maybe you were nervous too. Ask yourself the following questions and make a note of your answers:

  • What did you feel in anticipation of telling them?
  • What kinds of thoughts did you have before you told that person?
  • How did you prepare for the conversation?
  • What were your concerns? What was at risk for you?
  • How did you hope that person would react?
  • How did they react and respond?
  • What did you feel afterward? 

In the exercise above, you might have felt concerned, anxious, afraid, ashamed, or embarrassed about what you had to say. In the same way, it is often difficult for people to disclose their interest in kink or BDSM to friends, family, and loved ones. They may have many concerns and fears about how you will react and worries about how this new information will impact your relationship. In your role as a confidant, your response to your friend or loved one may add to feelings of fear and shame or may help to alleviate them. In part, it’s up to you.

Remember, it very likely took a lot of thought and courage for your friend or loved one to come out to you. It is still uncommon for our society to talk about sexual topics openly. BDSM is often judged and labeled as “not normal” or “wrong” by mainstream culture. Your friend or loved one is sharing a part of their life that is likely very important to them—how will you respond?

ABOUT BDSM
For some people, BDSM or being “kinky” is an identity. For some, it is an orientation. And, for others, it is both orientation and identity. Still others may consider it more of a leisure activity or serious interest (in academic research, also referred to as serious leisure) but not necessarily an orientation.  People may practice BDSM for fun, as a spiritual practice, to explore relationship dynamics, as an aspect of their sexuality, and for many other reasons. For many, it is a deep and profound experience. The person disclosing to you likely has their own way of thinking about kink or BDSM and how it fits for them, their interests, lifestyle, and identity.

HOW TO BE AN ALLY
Here are some suggestions for providing support and responding to a loved one, if they share their kink or BDSM interests with you:

  • Be curious. Ask questions if you want to understand something. You may even want to ask your friend or family member what it was like to disclose this information to you and how you can support them.
  • Trust that your friend or family member knows what they are doing, from a psychological and physical safety perspective. If you have concerns about their safety or well-being, you can share your concerns—but ask first to determine whether they are open to discussing them with you.
  • Don’t assume you know what BDSM or kink is for your friend or loved one. BDSM and kink are broad umbrellas terms that encompass many different practices and activities.  Many people have interests in some but not all of these.  It is especially risky to base your opinions, reactions, or impressions on popular media or pornography (books or movies like 50 Shades of Grey or Secretary, for example).  Instead, ask your friend or loved one how you can learn more.
  • It’s okay to feel uncomfortable. Honor your feelings (and recognize that your friend or loved one may have different feelings). Go slowly in conversation if that helps; or talk a bit and then agree to return to the conversation at a later date, if that feels right. Set limits on the type or extent of detail you want to hear about someone’s kink or BDSM activities. Be direct and state your preferences—for example: “I would like to know about the club you attend but please don’t share graphic details of scenes with me just yet.”
  • Don’t assume an interest in BDSM or kink is related to past trauma or any psychological dysfunction. In fact, studies have shown that people who participate in BDSM show lower levels of depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, and other psychological concerns.
  • Resist blaming kink or BDSM for other issues. Don’t assume your friend’s relationship challenges or psychological difficulties are automatically related to their kink practices.
  • Honor the trust shown to you. Remember this person trusted you with a confidence. Don’t out them (i.e., disclose this information) to others without their consent. They may have told you, but may not want their participation in BDSM more broadly known.
  • If you want more information, you can also do some research on kink and BDSM. Dossie Easton and Janet Hardy’s When Someone you Love is Kinky may be a good place to start. The National Coalition for Sexual Freedom (NCSF) website also provides a variety of articles and resources. You may want to ask your friend or loved one about other resources they would recommend.

Read more of Carrie’s posts here.

Healing from Affairs — Cheating is not Polyamory

Photo Credit: Paper by Steven Guzzardi via Flickr CC BY-ND 2.0

by Rami Henrich, LCSW

Affairs can surface in a long-term relationship.  Can healing occur when the affairs have been covert, repeated and ongoing?

Several years ago a couple, Peter and Sherri (not their real names), a married, het/cisgender couple, came to see me. They had been married for approximately 25 years. As are my usual questions when I first meet folks for psychotherapy, I asked, “So what brings you here today? How do you think I can be of assistance?”

“Well,” Sherri said, “My husband thinks he’s poly amorphous.”

Hmmm, I thought, and I asked her: “Do you mean polyamorous?”

“Yeah, that!” she said.

“And what makes the two of you think that Peter is polyamorous?”

Peter responded: “I’ve been with about 25 women during our marriage—even the day after we got married.”

“And did you and your wife agree to an open relationship?”

“Not exactly!” Sherri piped in. “I didn’t know anything about all this until last week when Peter told me that he is poly amorphous! Is he?!”

This was the beginning of a course of therapy to both understand the distinctions of an open marriage; to delve deeply into feelings of betrayal and decimation of trust; and to explore the possibilities of healing and forgiveness, staying together, or ending the marriage.

It was a long process, but the couple rolled up their sleeves to embark on the endeavor and were determined work on themselves as individuals and the relationship they shared.  A breakthrough came when Sherri discovered the ways in which she had been “cheating” on the relationship. Although it was not sexual in nature, she recognized that she secreted away parts of herself from Peter. She had hid important aspects of her inner and outer worlds from him. Seeing for themselves that the cheater and cheated one lived in both of them, and that each of them had been “cheating” on the other,  healing began.

This couple eventually decided to separate, but considered their work a success. Each found what was most accurate for themselves in terms of lifestyle, values, drives, preferences, and so on.  They took the high road to healing, making forgiveness a priority. It was not a simple task by any means but, in this case, it was a worthwhile one.

Pull the Next One Up

summit
JONATHON RELD Shot at Maiden Dam, near King Williams Town, Eastern Cape, South Africa

by Marc Kelly Smith

When you get to the top of the mountain
Pull the next one up.
Then there’ll be two of you
Roped together at the waist
Tired and proud, knowing the mountain,
Knowing the human force it took
To bring both of you there.

And when the second one has finished
Taking in the view,
Satisfied by the heat and perspiration under the wool,
Let her pull the next one up;
Man or woman, climber of mountains.
Pull the next hand over
The last jagged rock
To become three.
Two showing what they’ve already seen.

And one knowing now the well-being with being
Finished with one mountain,
With being able to look out a long way
Toward other mountains.
Feeling a temptation to claim victory
As if mountains were human toys to own.

When you ask how high is this mountain
With a compulsion to know
Where you stand in relationship to other peaks,
Look down to wherefrom you came up

And see the rope that’s tied to your waist
Tied to the next man’s waist,
Tied to the next woman’s waist,
Tied to the first man’s waist,
To first woman’s waist … and pull the rope!

Never mind the flags you see flapping on conquered pinnacles.
Don’t waste time scratching inscriptions into the monolith.
You are the stone itself.
And each man, each woman up the mountain,
Each breath exhaled at the peak,
Each glad-I-made-it … here’s-my-hand,
Each heartbeat wrapped around the hot skin of the sun-bright sky,
Each noise panted or cracked with laughter,
Each embrace, each cloud that holds everyone in momentary doubt …

All these are inscriptions of a human force that can
Conquer conquering hand over hand pulling the rope
Next man up, next woman up.
Sharing a place, sharing a vision.
Room enough for all on all the mountain peaks.
Force enough for all
To hold all the hanging bodies
Dangling in the deep recesses of the mountain’s belly
Steady … until they have the courage …

Until they know the courage …
Until they understand
That the only courage there is is
To pull the next man up
Pull the next woman up
Pull the next up

Up

Up.

To read more about Marc Kelly Smith, founder of the poetry slam, go to www.marckellysmith.net

Cultural Competence and Bias

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by Cindy Trawinski, Psy.D.

As therapists, we recognize our ethical obligations to know and acknowledge the limits of our training and skills. We know that our expertise grows over time with experience and supervision, training, reading, dialogue and further training. These activities contribute to our mastery of specialized areas, methods or skills. But what about cultural competence? How do we become culturally competent? Does it just happen naturally or is there something we need to do?

I think of cultural competence as an evolving set of attitudes, knowledge, skills and awareness that supports my ability to relate to “other-ness” or the unknown in myself and those around me. Other-ness can also be thought of as experiences, ideas, practices, beliefs, and so on that I do not identify with, believe, do practice, or endorse.   In thinking about cultural competence, I focus on my connection to other-ness.  For me, it is less about achieving a level of proficiency as measured or defined by someone else and more about an ongoing process of refining the skills, attitudes and awareness practices that support my capacity to relate to and work with other-ness in myself and others.

In developing expertise in an area of practice, I might study, write and do research to deepen my knowledge base.  In mastering a particular treatment model, I study concepts, clinical vignettes and research. I also practice basic skills (or interventions), learn to identify particular patterns or signals and seek out supervision to help me perceive and respond to what I can not yet completely behold, understand and articulate.

In cultivating cultural competence, I rely heavily on my ever-changing ability to develop new attitudes and relationships as well as the capacity to use my awareness in new ways  to relate to ideas, practices, identities and other information I may not yet fully understand. I challenge myself to identify places where I am blocked from understanding or relating, instead of glossing over them and using my privilege to ignore or forget the experiences of others I do not in that moment connect to. Developing attitudes and growing awareness sometimes means exposing myself to and relating to people, practices and ideas that may feel foreign to me.  It may mean looking at deeply held beliefs and subtle biases that are not easy to identify or that are embarrassing or troubling. This can be a very difficult process!

Everyone Has Bias
One of the reasons the process of cultivating cultural competence is so difficult is bias. None of us want to have prejudices or biases but they are inevitable. In our work at LifeWorks Psychotherapy Center supervising and training therapists, we begin with the premise that every therapist, and in fact everyone, has bias. Bias starts with our experiences and the information we gather in life and gets filtered thru our identity and culture. Some of our biases are known to us, while others may be unknown or hidden.

Every therapist, no matter their identity or background, has bias. We define bias as anything (for example, any idea, belief, opinion, reaction or emotion) that limits one’s capacity to relate to another as whole and equal, or that which creates a tendency to marginalize aspects of another’s experience.

Therapeutic bias, if unexamined, can hinder or even endanger the therapeutic relationship but it can also be a looking glass into experience that can enlighten, deepen and transform our connections to our clients.

Observations from Our Practice
In our practice, at LifeWorks, we work with diverse clients, who identify across a variety of religions, genders, sexualities and relationship constellations, including: lesbian, gay & bisexual (39% of clients); trans, queer and genderqueer (13%); non-monogamous and polyamorous (40%), and clients who are kink and/or BDSM-identified (23%). And many clients endorse more than one of these identities.

A recent informal sampling of therapists in our practice revealed that approximately 25% of their clients had explicitly indicated that they had had previous therapy experiences where their therapist’s bias regarding kink or non-monogamy was an obstacle to their care, or hindered their experience in therapy.  In our recently reported research (See: “Social and therapeutic challenges facing polyamorous clients,” Sexual and Relationship Therapy, Henrich & Trawinski, 2016), 50% of clients identifying as polyamorous had seen therapists that they felt lacked cultural competency or were biased.  Participants in that study reported that therapists were uninformed about polyamory, or biased toward monogamy.

Even therapists who themselves identify as marginalized in some way – for example, those who are LGBTQ, kinky, non-monogamous or polyamorous – may have subtle or not so subtle biases about the groups with which they identify.  These biases may show up in therapists as reservations, judgments, concerns, worries about their clients or as strident beliefs, one-sidedness and even extreme positive regard.  Neither being inside or outside a given community offers immunity from bias towards that community (or towards any other).  Our experience and research confimrs that bias affects us all.

Emphasizing Wholeness
Our work on bias is shaped by the concepts and methods known as process-oriented psychology or processwork. Developed by Arnold Mindell and others, processwork is both a depth psychotherapy paradigm and a phenomenological approach to working with human problems that emphasizes wholeness, the flow of experience and awareness and the importance of all points of view Mindell coined the term “deep democracy” to describe the idea that all voices are important to the well-being of the whole.

Using process-oriented methods and awareness, we have been teaching psychotherapists — and learning ourselves — to detect and identify bias, unfold its meaning, and learn to relate to aspects, attitudes and behaviors of clients that they may find difficult, disturbing or troubling.  In our experience, therapist bias is often a reflection or expression of some quality or trait that the therapist has a tendency to marginalize or overemphasize in themselves.  Something important, and often subtle or outside of awareness, may need to be known or understood better, and can be uncovered by looking closely at spontaneous or troubling reactions and perceptions.

From our perspective, it is probably impossible to get rid of bias entirely but we have found that it is possible to embrace and transform therapist bias into something that enhances the capacity to experience and support clients’ wholeness. It takes time and practice to develop the skills, awareness and attitudes that support the capacity to learn and grow from our bias — and in so doing, to increase our ability to understand, relate to our clients and to support their process of change.

There is no quick fix that we are aware of.  In our experience, the awareness and transformation of therapist bias is more like a lifelong endeavor.

Returning to Therapy — A Profound Act of Self-care

returning to therapy
“Spiral” by Khairul Nizam, licensed under CC BY 2.0

by Cindy Trawinski, Psy.D., Dipl. PW & Rami Henrich, LCSW, Dipl. PW

“I can’t believe I’m here… again.”

Some people returning to therapy for the second, third, or fifth time often wonder “why do I need to go back to therapy?” “was there something I should have handled the last time around?” “maybe I am not really getting to my issues…is it me, my therapist, the approach, or the entire endeavor?”  

Some clients say they feel as though they’ve “failed,” that they weren’t “strong enough” to take care of themselves on their own.  Sinking into self-reproach, they feel wonder if they are somehow fated to repeat a cycle of false or temporary solutions to a problems that seem intractable. Maybe a previous, positive experience in therapy imparted a sense of resilience or well-being that now seems shockingly absent. “Didn’t I already go through this?” They ask themselves. “Isn’t that part of my life over?” 

For others, returning to therapy is a natural part of their self care and personal growth regiment as getting a haircut, going to the dentist or eating three meals a day.

Clients come back to therapy for many different reasons. Recent trauma, loss, or significant life events—such as a change of relationship, job, move, or other transition—can create inner disturbance or bring up patterns that have not been fully resolved.  Questions about one’s identity, sexuality, or spiritual beliefs can prompt deep-seated uncertainty. Relationship conflicts or disappointments can leave us feeling in need of support.  Ongoing issues like depression, anxiety, addiction, and self-harm can interfere with daily life and relationships. All of these difficulties, worries and questions can motivate a person to make a change and seek help.

This brings me to my main point: returning to therapy is a profound act of self-care—even if you don’t realize it at the time. If you are thinking of returning to therapy, consider the possibility that you are responding to a deep awareness that you want or would benefit from help, support or guidance to find or create a new sense of yourself.

In her article “Starting therapy, again…” San Francisco therapist, Carly Earnshaw, MFT, explains that “[r]egardless of whether your last therapy went great or awful, you have an advantage over the first time you tried therapy.” Here are the some of the reasons she gives for why:

  • You have a better idea of what therapy is about
  • You have a clearer understanding of what works and doesn’t work for you in therapy
  • You’re aware of the investment and the payoff

I encourage you to read her article in full, as it speaks to the different mindsets and assuages the fears I often see in clients who are returning to therapy.

Considering seeing a mental health professional again? Below are a few quick ways you can prepare to make the most out of your next time in therapy:

  1. Understand that you are not alone. It is not uncommon for clients to return to counseling when it has worked for them in the past, or out of a desire to find something that will work. Countless people come back to therapy throughout their lives, building on each experience. In fact, your therapist is likely one of those people!
  1. Take your time. If you have decided to seek help, you do not have to book an appointment immediately or stick with the first therapist you find. Allow yourself the time to research and explore your options—remember, you now have a stronger sense of what you’re looking for.
  1. Be mindful of your therapist’s responses and attitude. Whether calling to get in touch or engaging in your first session, pay attention to your intuition and comfort level, as well as how your therapist reacts to you. Listen to how she interprets your words and recognize that, while she intends to help, she doesn’t have all the answers. Again, take your time and be patient until you find someone who you feel hears and appreciates you on your terms.
  1. Don’t be afraid to ask for what you need. If a certain approach works best for you, or you need to speak to someone who understands specific issues—such as PTSD, polyamory, kink/BDSM, the experiences of racial and/or gender minorities, or religious convictions—speak up. Your therapist may not be qualified to provide what you need, but chances are she can refer you to a colleague who can.

If you have been there before, what do you look for in a new therapeutic relationship? We would love to hear your thoughts, opinions, and stories. Feel free to leave a comment below, or reach out to us on TwitterFacebookTumblr, or LinkedIn.

A Primer on Growth and Change

PIC-0020-225x300What is growth? What kinds of changes do face?  How does growth and change occur?  How long does it take to change?  Trainer, consultant and author, Julie Diamond, Ph.D., offers insights into change that should resonate with therapists and clients alike.  Julie is author of Power: A User’s Guide and A Path Made by Walking (with Lee Spark Jones).

by Julie Diamond, Ph.D.

The older I get the more I realize that many of the things I found insurmountable when I was younger changed when I wasn’t looking. In my early twenties I struggled with intense jealousy. It was crazy. If two of my friends even just talked on the phone I would feel insanely left out. And I hated being alone, to the point where the thought of having to be alone for extended period of times sent me into a panic. I spent 99% of my energy working on those two things.  They felt permanent and overwhelming, and seemed to define me. I look back on them now and not only are they gone, but I don’t even remember when they left. It’s as if, one day, they just packed their bags and left.

But now I know they didn’t just leave. I got bigger. As I explored myself to find why spending time alone was so bad, I grew in self-awareness. As I wrestled with a nasty inner critic (that fanned the flames of jealousy) I grew in confidence. My sense of self grew bigger in relationship to my fears and anxieties.

When I work with people on their personal and professional development now, I think in terms of this distinction: What kind of change process is this? What needs to change, the behavior or the attitude towards it? Will this change of its own accord, and if not, what kind of efforts are needed? I find it helpful in working with people to parse their problems into types of issues and types of change.

So here’s my little Primer on Personal Growth and Change, and it starts with the question: What is the nature of the thing we’re tackling?

Is it a complex, trigger, or edge?

We all have scars forged in life’s battles and sometimes they get aggravated under the right conditions. These “triggers” or complexes create zones of non-navigability, and in some situations, they make us insecure and ineffective. These things rob us of our freedom. They are fears that inhibit us, triggers or emotional reactions that hijack our behavior, and moods that makes us feel dejected or dispirited.

These things can and do change, but only with sustained effort and awareness. Their roots are often tangled in past experiences. And sometimes the process of working on it is its own solution. Like me in my twenties, working on jealousy and phobias, unpacking, examining, and working through my fears and complexes changed me.   While you’re distracting yourself by focusing on these triggers, you’re also growing a solid sense of self. In fact, these things take hold only to the degree that your sense of self (Big “S” Self) is small. Working on these old patterns and stories increases your self-awareness, and helps you carve out a deep and abiding center, capable of facing of life’s challenges.

Am I struggling with my nature?

Sometimes we struggle not with a complex or fear, but with our own nature. We don’t like ourselves, or some part of ourselves. We all grow up in a context that prizes some behaviors and disavows others. And so we grow up wanting to fit in, and be like others. We think we’re too loud and try to be quieter. We struggle being an introvert in an extroverted family. We’re called hyperactive, so we try to chill out. It’s in the nature of a culture to prize some behaviors over others in order to socialize its members to adapt and survive.

Yet some things won’t, and can’t change. They belong to us, like white on rice, part and parcel of our incarnation. These are our unique traits, and like them or not, they are the raw material from which you form yourself. Your traits are the hand you are dealt in the poker game of life, and learning to play that hand is the only option you have.

Traits become a great source of strength and wonderful talents, once we grow comfortable with them and use them to their fullest. If we are comfortable in our introversion, others will be too. If we come to appreciate our bossiness and see it as potential leadership, it will be a great ally for us. If we can discover what’s good about being easy going and conflict avoidant, we can make it work to great advantage.

So, changing, in this regard, means acceptance, changing our attitude towards ourselves, or maybe changing what we do or who we socialize with, so that our traits more naturally fit in, and are better appreciated and put to use.

Do I need to learn something new?

Learning isn’t for the faint of heart. The more I work with people on their personal and professional growth, the more I appreciate the complexity of learning.

Learning is a behavior we have to learn! But we aren’t taught how to learn. In fact, many of us were taught how not to learn by focusing on being right and avoid making mistakes. And then we make it worse by trying to compensate  against that, and defensively embracing ourselves as we are, seeing doubts or challenges as a threat or injury to our self-esteem.

When change means learning something new, it can be straightforward, but often it’s not. Because to learn, and learn well, we need a loving ability to hold ourselves at the edge of discomfort. Learning requires a good mix of muscle, self-love, and endurance. And we need to set ourselves up for success by breaking things down into manageable bites so we don’t get overwhelmed. We need the freedom to make mistakes, but also the discipline to examine them and learn from them.

Change and growth isn’t just a straight path from A to B. It’s a process. Thankfully. There’s a lot to discover along that path, as long as we take time to discover what kind of change process we’re in.

Julie will be in Chicago in April!

On Friday, April 1, Julie will be talking about power and reading from her new book, Power: A User’s Guide, at the KPACT event, 6-8 pm, at Tribe Healing Arts Center. 2 APA-approved CEs available.  

On Sunday, April 3, LifeWorks will host a day-long workshop with Julie for psychotherapists, entitled Beyond Ethics: Power in the Helping Relationship. 4.5 APA-approved CEs available.