Bullying and Forgiveness.

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I was bullied growing up. It wasn’t fun. 

I find that many of us who had difficult social pasts have complicated relationships with the concept of “forgiveness” and “responsibility.” 

It’s very similar to how many abuse victims have complicated relationships with how culpable they “should” hold their parents or caretakers, those who “should” have been protecting them when they were young and vulneralbe. 

On the one hand, the kids who were mean to me were, you know, kids. 

When we’re kids, we make poor decisions. Our brains aren’t developed. 

Cognitive science reveals that the development of moral reasoning is a complex, uncertain process. It’s very unclear when children, broadly speaking, develop enough agency to truly be responsible for their behavior like bullying. 

Today, I’m connected on social media with more than a few of the people who bullied me as a child. Many of them seem to have grown up to be responsible, reasonable, apparently kind adults. Some of them seem to be good parents, at least as best I can tell. 

That doesn’t change the fact that they were mean to me in grade school, junior high, and high school— and that my negative experiences with my peer group had a profoundly negative impact on me as I tried to have friendships, professional relationships, and romantic relationships later in life. 

Does the “me” of today have any right to hold those people accountable for how they behaved toward me thirty years ago, when all of our brains were underformed? 

I don’t know. 

How about those people who were enduring complicated lives of their own? Does that mitigate any of their responsibility? 

I don’t know. 

What kind of role did I play in what happened to me growing up? I was a tough kid to know, and probably a tough kid to like. As I endured years of bullying, I developed quite a protective shell that made it really tough to get close to me socially. 

Do I hold the difficult, moody, reclusive past “me” partly responsible for what happened, or is that just victim blaming? 

I don’t know. 

Here’s what I do know: the “me” of the past wouldn’t want the “me” of today to be held hostage to his pain. 

He wouldn’t want me to live in bitterness. 

He wouldn’t want me to hang on to resentment for the sake of honoring his pain. 

“Forgiveness” is a complicated subject for most people who grew up painfully. It means and implies different things for different people. No one can impose their beliefs about what forgiveness is and isn’t on to anyone else. 

It annoys me greatly when I see somebody opine that “forgiveness” is necessary to personal growth. I don’t know that that’s true. 

I think everybody has to decide for themselves if and when it’s time to forgive. 

That said: I absolutely see people refusing to even consider “forgiveness” as an option, because they think it’s somehow a betrayal of their past selves. 

“Forgiveness” gets even more complicated as a concept when we’re talking about active abusers, as opposed to peer group bullies. 

We all need to take our time and figure out for ourselves what forgiveness means to us. 

We need to give ourselves permission to forgive, or not, as we feel able and ready. 

We need to acknowledge our right to feel what we feel and need what we need, no matter how much time has passed. 

No one gets to tell you you “have” to forgive or forget. 

But don’t get tricked into thinking you “have” to hold on your pain in order to “honor” your past self. 

Your past self does not want or benefit from your current self’s suffering. 

 

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Don’t fall into a therapy rut.

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We need to be super careful to not fall into ruts. 

What is a rut? 

A rut is getting stuck. Getting stalled. Treading water. 

It happens to almost everyone at some point. You feel as if you’re not really making headway in a long term project, but you’re not necessarily regressing either. 

You’re just…there. 

One of my big concerns with people in therapy is to not fall into ruts. 

Falling into a rut in therapy or personal development is deceptively easy. 

It often happens after we’ve made some progress. We look back upon the progress we’e made, and we’re both satisfied and kind of tired…so we take our foot off the accelerator. 

Taking our foot off the accelerator is fine, of course…but if we’re going to back off, we need to be super mindful of how long it’s been, and we need to have a clear idea of when we’re going to start goosing the gas pedal again. 

Personal growth is hard work. Therapy is hard work. Healing is hard work. 

It’s very understandable for people to want to find reasons to kind of back off that hard work. 

It’s absolutely true that the pace of therapy and personal development ebbs and flows. The pace of life ebbs and flows. We shouldn’t expect healing or recovery to always be rocketing upward; of course there’s going to be some give and take. 

We just have to be mindful. We have to stay sharp. 

I’ve seen people fall into holding patterns in therapy after making big leaps of progress…and then stay in those holding patterns for literally years. 

The impulse to grow is very often in competition with the impulse to seek comfort. Both growth and comfort are parts of healing and recovery. 

But what happens with a subset of people is, they get comfortable with a therapist, or with a technique, or with a routine…and they lose the inclination to keep pushing forward. 

This makes sense for some people. Many people in therapy haven’t really had the experience of feeling comfortable and safe. When they get into a therapy relationship or a healthy routine that they can live with, it can feel like an entirely new world. 

It’s tempting to just kind of hang out in that world. 

But we can’t afford to do that indefinitely. 

I’ve done this myself. For years, I was seeing a very competent, very experienced, very wise therapist. We had a good relationship (we still do); and I know I very much got to the point where I knew that if I wanted to just go in and chitchat, as opposed to doing serious therapy work, my rapport with my therapist would absolutely allow me to do that. 

So I fell in a rut. 

It wasn’t permanent, and luckily it was something I eventually recognized and shook out of…but therapy is so expensive, in terms of money, time, and emotion, that we really can’t afford to just be hanging out with our therapist week after week. 

I don’t think people intentionally get stuck in a holding pattern in therapy. 

I think people find themselves feeling comfortable and safe— and that’s an unfamiliar, really cool feeling that they want to preserve and enjoy. 

So unconsciously, I think they push the “pause” button. 

The deal they kind of unconsciously make with themselves is, even if I don’t make any more progress in therapy, even if everything else goes to hell…I’ll still have this comfortable, safe, space and relationship to fall back on. 

Like so many things, it’s a tempting fantasy, especially if we’ve grown up lacking intimacy and attachment and consistency in our lives. 

But falling into a rut in therapy isn’t worth the illusion of comfort and safety it provides. 

Therapy and healing and recovery require us to continue to reach out, continue to work, continue to stay sharp, continue to push ourselves. 

We can pace ourselves. But we can’t get too comfortable for too long. 

 

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Don’t feel guilty if you happen to feel good right now.

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So at this point, you, like me, have probably seen dozens of posts about what a dumpster fire 2020 is turning out to be. 

You might have even made a few of those posts yourself. 

Social media assuredly has its downsides, but one of its upsides is that it gives us the opportunity to vent, and to have our feelings acknowledged and validated by others of like mind. 

(The research suggests that social media mostly connects us to others of like mind— which does create the “echo chamber” problem…but it’s kind of nice when it comes to expressing ourselves and feeling less alone.) 

The thing is, when every other post we see on social media is about how much of a dumpster fire this year or the world is; or how scared and angry people are at the current situation; or how hopeless and frustrated people are about the immediate future…it becomes a little awkward when we have something OTHER than negative feelings to report. 

I’ve talked to a few people recently who have expressed that they feel guilty for actually feeling good, making progress, or having positive life events occur during this time when everybody else seems to be unhappy. 

It’s a drag, but completely understandable. When other people are expressing— often colorfully and at length— how unhappy they are, it can feel like poor form to insert a positive experience we’re having into the mix.

If you’re feeling this way— awkward or guilty for having positive things happen to you or feeing good right now— you’re not alone. 

And that feeling of awkwardness is, in a way, kind of good news. It means you have empathy, which in turn means you’re not a narcissist or a sociopath. 

(I hope the narcissists or sociopaths following my page is relatively low anyway, but just in case you were wondering, the presence of empathy is a good indicator that you’re not.) 

Yes, it’s awkward to feel good or to have positive things happen during a time when the entire world seems to be on fire. 

But you don’t have to feel guilty. 

The fact is, no matter how bad things get out there, there will always be at least some distinction between your personal life and the big picture. 

Yes, the two are very intertwined. We’re very much a part of the whole, and what happens to the whole absolutely reverberates in our individual experience. The distinction between our lives and the life of the plant and its inhabitants is often a very thin one. 

But the fact remains that you can experience something in your life that may seem to run somewhat counter to what the majority of the world is experiencing. 

Some people had good things happen to them on September 11, 2001. 

Some people had good things happen to them on November 22, 1963. 

And some people are having good things happen to them right now, in the midst of this public health crisis. 

Why is it important to acknowledge this? 

Because we all need to realize that, no matter what’s happening in the world at large, we still have to experience and manage our own lives. 

Yes, we need to keep up with what’s happening in the world. Yes, we need to do our part to take care of our fellow humans and be part of global solutions as opposed to global problems. 

But we also need to take care of ourselves. 

I know I sound like a broken record on this point, but I’ll say it again: taking care of ourselves is not in conflict with doing our part to take care of our fellow humans and help heal society. 

The truth is we need to do both. 

We cannot neglect our own lives because we’re throwing all our energy into saving the world. 

I’ve met therapists, doctors, and first responders— people I consider genuine heroes— who have created absolutely miserable personal lives because they’ve neglected the balance between caring for themselves and caring for others. 

It does not serve the world for you to be miserable. 

If anything, you being miserable makes you less able to contribute to big picture solutions. 

Mind the distinction between your life and the life of the world at large right now. 

And don’t feel bad if you don’t feel as bad as every post on your social media feed. 

 

 

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You’re not going to separate your individual issues from your relationship issues.

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You’re not going to separate your relationship issues from the issues with which you struggle as an individual— or vice versa. 

I WISH it was the case that we could “quarantine” relationship and individual issues and problems. 

If that was the case, then we could work one each domain in nice, neat little packages of time and energy. From a therapy point of view, it would be so darn efficient. 

Sadly, that’s not the way it works. 

What we struggle with as individuals, will seep into our relationships. 

What we struggle with in relationships, will boomerang back on us as individuals. 

It’s really, really hard to create and sustain a healthy life if you’re immersed in toxic, exploitative relationships. 

It’s really, really hard to create and sustain healthy relationships if you’re daily wracked with depression, anxiety, or addiction. 

Mind you: that’s not to say that we need to “solve” our individual issues before trying to have a relationship. 

A lot of people seem to think that. They think that there’s no point in trying to connect with others if they’re struggling with something on their own— that such attempts to connect will only ever result in failure and disappointment. 

To the contrary: relatively often it is the case that we actually NEED certain relationships in our lives if we have any realistic hope of overcoming our individual struggles. 

As anybody who has benefitted from a therapy relationship, a therapy group, or a Twelve Step fellowship can attest, relationships can sometimes be the key that finally unlocks what we need to do and be to overcome our individual struggles. 

The point is, don’t think you can address individual and relationship issues in isolation. 

Don’t imagine that, if you want your relationships to grow and thrive, you can just keep putting off that depression or anxiety or addiction problem. 

Also don’t imagine that, if you want to live a productive, peaceful life, it’s possible to continue subjecting yourself to relationship dynamics that result in you feeling inadequate, lonely, and frustrated. 

Emotional and behavioral problems and solutions exist in dynamic systems. 

The word “system,” in psychology, means that what happens at one end of an equation, necessarily affects the other end. 

“Dynamic” refers to the fact that systems are always in flux. Something that is dynamic is always changing and changeable. 

Why am I telling you all this? 

Because I want you to have the best possible shot at solving— or at least chipping away— at your sources of unhappiness. 

And in order to do that, we need to be as realistic as possible about what creates and sustains our problems and challenges. 

If we get it in our head that we can somehow “quarantine” our relationship problems to our relationships, and our individual problems to ourselves, we’re not living in the real world. 

We’re setting ourselves up for failure and frustration. 

The good news is: once we concede that our individual and relationship problems coexist and interact, we can use that fact to our advantage. 

We can use our strengths as individuals AND relationship partners to help address both our individual AND our relationship problems. 

We can approach our problems from multiple directions— because we’re being realistic about the fact that our problems have multiple dimensions. 

The fact that our individual issues interact with our relationship issues turns out not to be the bad news— it’s actually the good news. 

But only if we unflinchingly see and accept the situation as it is— not as we’d prefer it was. 

 

 

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To help others, you NEED to help yourself.

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Caring for ourselves and caring for other people is very much not a zero sum game. 

But some people seem to think it is….which is a bummer. 

I’m a psychologist, and I got into psychology because of my interest in self-help. And both clinical psychology and self-help tend to emphasize the health and welfare of individuals. 

That is, they tend to be about making the life of the person who is in therapy, or reading, better. 

I strongly believe in making individuals’ lives better. It’s kind of my mission statement. 

(You think I’m kidding? My personal mission statement— which, by the way, is a thing everybody should have, i.e., a personal mission statement— is “to contribute to making as many peoples’ lives as possible, as awesome as possible.) 

But improving an individuals’ life does not have to come at the expense of improving the lives of other people, or working toward change in cultural norms and values. 

I’m not sure where we got this idea that it has to be a zero sum game, between improving our own lives and improving the lives of the people around us. 

In my view, those projects— working on ourselves, and helping other people— are inextricably entwined. 

One of the reasons I got into self-help when I was a teenager was because I was suffering. 

I’d been depressed for as long as I could remember— which was both a cause and an effect of the difficulties I experienced fitting in with the kids around me. 

On top of that, I was struggling with undiagnosed Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder— which meant that I was getting a lot of feedback that I was “lazy” and obviously “not trying hard enough” at school. Which confused me, in that it was my experience that I was exerting a GREAT DEAL of energy to function at school, and deepened my depression and anxiety. 

For years, I suffered with feeling pretty horrible, on a day to day basis. 

And while I was feeling horrible, I can tell you that my world pretty much centered on my own suffering. I just had no bandwidth or energy to really get invested in anyone else’s suffering— not that, at the time, I would have necessarily had anything to offer someone who was suffering, anyway. 

We can’t give away what we don’t have. 

It was only after getting into pop psychology, and FINALLY identifying some tools and skills to climb out of that emotional trench, that something interesting happened: I very suddenly became not just aware of the fact that there were a LOT of people out there who suffered like me…but I became passionate about helping them out of THEIR emotional trenches. 

I’m not sure I can adequately express how immediate and emphatic the connection was between feeling better, and strongly desiring to give other people the helping hand that self-help gave to me. 

Why am I telling you all this? Because it forms the basis of my strong belief that if we are to help other people, we truly need to help ourselves. 

And when we do find effective tools and skills to help ourselves, not only are we better positioned to help other people…but we are strongly, intrinsically motivated to do so. 

Lots of people reading this know exactly what I’m talking about. 

Many of the people who follow my work do so because they know what it’s like to hurt. 

Many of the people who are my friends, colleagues, and fans are in helping professions— and their passion for helping comes out of the pain they’ve experienced. 

Helping ourselves is not the opposite of helping others. 

It is a vital prerequisite. 

Is it the case that there are some people out there who are ONLY interested in helping themselves, and who couldn’t care less if anybody else’s life improved? Sure. 

But that doesn’t mean helping ourselves and helping others are in conflict. 

It just means they are in conflict for those specific people. 

I want as many people to be as emotionally and behaviorally healthy as possible. 

That means I have to walk my talk of staying emotionally and behaviorally healthy myself. 

And so do you, if you also want as many people to be as emotionally and behaviorally healthy as possible. 

Don’t buy into the falsehood that there is a necessary dichotomy going on here. 

Focus on making those goals complementary. 

 

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You can stop apologizing. Really.

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We need to get a handle on this “apologizing” situation. 

If you haven’t noticed, a lot of people apologize for a lot of things. 

YOU probably apologize to a lot of people for a lot of things. 

And each time we make an unnecessary apology, our self-esteem takes a hit. 

Why? Because when we apologize, we’re sending a message not just to the person to whom we are apologizing, but to ourselves, that “I just did something regrettable.” 

When we apologize, the unstated assumption is that we would take back the thing for which we apologized if we could (but we can’t, so an apology is the best we can do). 

Genuine apologies are very necessary in society. 

We absolutely do and say things that have unintended consequences, that we can’t take back. 

There are absolutely times when we very much wish we could undo something that we did, or unsay something that we said— and we want to mitigate, to any extent possible, the damage that we’ve done. 

In those situations, apologies are essential to maintaining and repairing relationships. 

But then there are those other times. 

Those times when we apologize not because we’ve done or said something we regret…but because we’re nervous we may have upset someone. 

There are the times we apologize because we’re afraid that, if we didn’t, someone may not like us anymore. 

There are those times we apologize because we’re afraid that, if we didn’t, someone may try to hurt us. 

Those aren’t apologies that derive from our regret over a situation, or our ability to do what we can to undo some sort of damage that we didn’t intend. 

Those are apologies that derive from a suspicion, deep down, that maybe we don’t have a “right” to feel a certain way. 

Maybe we don’t have a “right” to express ourselves. 

Maybe we don’t even have “right” to exist, to take up space. 

So we end up apologizing for all of those things. 

Many times we can’t even help ourselves. Many people reading this will identify with what I’m talking about: it’s not that they set out to apologize all day, every day, but the words “I’m sorry” just spill out of their mouths, again and again. 

After years and years of needless apologies, is it any wonder our self-esteem gets a little ragged? 

Years and years of proclaiming, in not so many words, “I’m not sure I have the right toe exist, to feel, to take up space?” 

So what can we do to limit our seemingly reflexive propensity to apologize? 

First thing’s first: we have to notice when we’re doing it. 

We have to keep track of the situations, the feelings, and the thoughts that tend to lead us to all of these apologies. 

We have to observe— not judge, but observe— ourselves doing the thing. 

Once we start to recognize those patterns— especially the thoughts that tend to goose us into apologizing— we can start to learn to talk to ourselves in a different way. 

We can start being on notice for the “warning signs” that an unnecessary apology is imminent. 

We can start talking back to that voice in our heads— which, usually, is a voice from the past— telling us we are not worthy. 

Like most of these projects that reshape our inner landscape, this is a long term proposition. It doesn’t change overnight. 

But you have the right to exist. 

You have the right to feel. 

You have the right to express yourself. 

And it’s about time you truly felt you didn’t have to apologize for any of those. 

 

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Getting real about triggers.

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We need to talk about triggers. 

I know, I know. No one likes to talk about triggers. 

In fact, the word “trigger” itself has kind of become sarcastic cultural shorthand for “somebody’s being oversensitive.” 

But triggers are real, and have to be managed if we’re realistically going to recover— not just from trauma, but also anxiety, depression, and very definitely addiction. 

And we need to talk about triggers now more than ever, insofar as much of what is going on in the world right now is triggering the living daylights out of a lot of people. 

Let’s be clear about what a “trigger” is. When I use that term, I’m referring to an event or stimulus that happens outside of us, that swiftly (usually, immediately) makes a cascade of reactions in our bodies and mind more likely. 

We often think of triggers in the context of trauma, because the diagnostic criteria for PTSD discusses how trauma survivors are particularly sensitive to reminders of their trauma. 

The example many people may be familiar with is the sound of a car backfiring triggering the memory of firearms, leading to an anxiety reaction on the part of a veteran. 

It’s not just auditory reminders of a traumatic event that can be triggering, though. 

It’s very common to get triggered by multiple sense modalities. Sights, smells, even temperatures and textures, can all be potent triggers. 

It’s also very common for bodily sensations to trigger us. Sweating, being out of breath or struggling to breathe, or the sensation of losing our balance or falling can very easily be triggers. 

We also need to remember that we’re not just talking about anxiety disorders like PTSD. Depressive episodes, addiction cravings, and even psychotic breaks can be triggered by things happening outside of us. 

Why do we need to particularly understand and respect our triggers right now? 

Because right now there things happening that are absolutely triggering to large numbers of people…who don’t seem to realize that they’re being triggered. 

Right now, in the cultural zeitgeist, there is massive uncertainty about really important— life or death, literally— issues that affect us all. 

Right now many of the routines and institutions that significantly contribute to our lives being organized and predictable are in states of significant disruption. 

Right now, many of us are looking at apparently open-ended situations where our social support networks may not be as available, or available in the ways we’re used to, as they’ve always been. 

These situations aren’t “car backfiring” types of triggers…but make no mistake, they are triggers. 

These situations are absolutely making post traumatic, anxious, depressive, and addiction relapse responses far more likely. Particularly in people who have histories with those conditions, and who are more vulnerable to them…but not just in those people. 

The only way to manage our triggers is to be aware of them and prepared for them on a practical level. 

We can’t afford to deny and disown the fact that we are vulnerable to triggers— even if we feel embarrassed to admit it. 

There is absolutely no shame in getting triggered. Everybody gets triggered. It’s not a mark of weakness or inferiority. 

It’s a mark of having a functioning human nervous system. 

The world is triggered right now. 

And I assure you: you’re probably triggered right now. At least a little, at least in some ways. 

Get curious about what’s happening in your head and heart and body right now. 

Don’t avoid it. 

Pay attention to it— with patience and compassion and clarity. 

We can manage our triggers, even in this stressful time…but it won’t happen by accident. 

 

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