Suicide Rising

Last week, news broke of the suicides of both luxury handbag designer Kate Spade and international food celebrity Anthony Bourdain.  Whenever high-profile celebrities complete suicide, we are reminded that depression and mental health conditions touch every class of people and inevitably look for explanations of why anyone, even wealthy, successful people, would take their own lives.  The truth is that suicide rates have been increasing dramatically over the past two decades.  The trends are startling.  Suicide rates have increased among every single age group from 10 to 74 since 1999.  Rates are up 25% overall across the country.  Approximately 300-400 physicians complete suicide every single year.  In fact, physicians are more at risk for suicide than the general population of both males and females.  Over 20 Veterans complete suicide every single day.  Keep digging, and the facts don’t get any better.  2/3rds of firearms related deaths in this country are due to suicide.  Over half of people who complete suicide had no known mental health problems.  1 million Americans lose their doctor to suicide each year.

Why are we seeing this dramatic increase in suicide rates?  The problems are deep and resonating throughout our culture.  Isolation and hopelessness are leading emotional triggers for suicidal ideation and attempts.  We tend to blame suicidal ideation and behaviors on mental health problems, but the conditions that contribute to suicidal ideation go far beyond what is going on in people’s minds.  Emotional circumstances such as grief and loss are certainly a factor, but so are economic circumstances (homelessness and dire financial pressures), relationship circumstances (isolation and rejection both romantically and socially), and employment circumstances (overwhelming stress, abusive management, lack of basic respect, micro-aggressions and discrimination or harassment in the workplace).  Once again, when it comes to suicide, we want to simplistically blame mental health problems and offer medications or treatment to individuals without ever addressing the root causes of the distress in the first place.  To be clear, of course people who have suicidal ideations need treatment and professional care.  However, as with all problems if you continue to live with the circumstances that are the cause of your distress, the relief you experience from individualized treatment is limited.  The alarming statistics with regards to suicide rates are indicative of our broader cultural problems, and we likely will not see remittance in these rates until we truly de-stigmatize mental health treatment, provide increased access without fear of retribution or loss of reputation (a primary concern for impaired professionals), and start to shift our culture of individualistic solutions to systemic cultural problems.

I have worked with countless individuals who are either actively suicidal or have been in the past.  In my clinical observations, most people who verbalize suicidal ideation do not really want to die.  They want their lives to get better and they feel so hopeless that their circumstances will change that they come to the conclusion they would rather die than to continue to live their lives under the current conditions.  This is not to say that there aren’t people who do truly want to die.  Getting at the truth of whether someone really wants to die is a critical component of suicide intervention.  When you can help someone recognize that there is hope for their life to get better, they may become more receptive to getting the help they need to prevent suicidal behaviors.  When someone really and truly desires to die, they may actually avoid seeking help altogether because they do not want the intervention that comes from admitting that truth.

We often call people selfish who complete suicide because of the pain it causes to their friends and family left behind.  For some though, the decision to complete suicide comes after a period of intense contemplation, during which time perhaps the only thing keeping them alive is the desire NOT to hurt their loved ones or cause them more pain.  In reality, some people who complete suicide believe that they are a burden to their loved ones.  They may not want to place a further burden on their friends and family by asking for help.  This is why it is often so hard for people who really want help to come forward, and why we sometimes hear that someone has completed suicide with almost no signs of distress to their friends and family, as was the case with Bourdain from initial reports.

Perhaps in light of the alarming trends we are seeing there will be some increased funding and decreased stigma towards mental health treatment.  That would be an excellent start.  The military is a useful example of how these issues play out in reality though, and I am speaking as someone with a background in clinical counseling with military service members and their families..  Certainly, in the military there has been increased attention to suicide prevention and response, yet actually dedicating the appropriate resources remains a problem.  There may be flyers posted everywhere and mandatory in-services and dozens of pages of written protocols and programs. When it comes to changing the culture of All-Results-All-The-Time-No-Excuses that causes soldiers and sailors to lose hope though, there is no light at the end of the tunnel so to speak.  It’s akin to treating the symptoms of a disease but never addressing the root cause.

We can continue to press for more treatment resources, and more public awareness so that we can foster a compassionate culture that responds to the needs of those contemplating suicide.  However, we must do more than that to foster a culture that allows vulnerability to exist and does not punish people who seek help.  We must seek to change the circumstances that are causing undue distress.  It is not reasonable to expect the intense and rigorous standards required by medical schools to result in people feeling so overwhelmed that they choose to die.  It is not reasonable to expect our military service men and women to behave as though they are robots with no feelings or needs of their own just because they signed a contract to serve their country.  When the needs of individuals cease to have any value to the systems that they work for, we cannot then blame the individuals for turning out to be human, with human limitations and human needs.  Neither can we expect people who are suffering from severe clinical depression to be able to battle the stigma of seeking help by themselves.  We all owe it to each other to listen with compassion when we know someone who is struggling, and advocate in any ways we can towards changing the outcomes of this growing problem.  More than just connecting someone to professional help, which should be done as soon as possible, we need to listen to people in order to discover the root causes of their hopelessness and fix these broader problems as well if we want to truly make a dent in this tragic epidemic.

For more information and resources on suicide, visit the National Institute of Mental Health here:

Balancing Internal and External Validation

Validation is a natural human need that comes from our origins as social beings.  While some species are content to live most of their lives alone, humans have always lived in groups, and thus our need for social acceptance is deeply engrained in our consciousness.  Acceptance from our peer group would have been literally a matter of life and death in early human history, because a person who had to survive on their own had much less probability of survival than those who were enmeshed within a group.  In light of our natural need for acceptance from other human beings, it’s easy to understand why many of us give significant weight to what other people think about us and whether they give us accolades or criticism.  As non-conformist as you think you may be, you still consciously or sub-consciously act or think in ways that reflect a certain value on what others may think of you.  Basic ways we conform include abiding by socially acceptable wardrobe choices, keeping appointments and schedules, showing up to work, paying for things you intend to take, and generally navigating the world without too much trouble.

It’s not a bad thing to care about what others think of you.  In fact, going back to our primitive need for social acceptance, it helps our society function in many important ways.  Our conformity to social norms ensures that we remain out of jail, can function in the culture we live in, and that our basic needs get met.  However, having a healthy mentality also means that you do not overemphasize the importance of other people’s opinions about you.  When you place too much value on what other people think about you, this can become an engrained need for external validation.  External validation means that you are getting your feelings of self-worth based on sources outside of yourself.  Internal validation means that you are gaining your sense of self-worth based on what your own opinions about yourself are.  The problem with an over-reliance on external validation is that when other people inevitably come up with something to criticize about you, you may have a difficult time mentally getting past the critique and dismiss any positive thoughts about yourself you may have had.

Imagine that you have worked very hard on a project for work, and you have to present the information about your project to someone in a supervisory role.  Upon finishing your presentation, you receive a scathing critique of your efforts, and you are told that your quality of work was poor, your efforts were sub-par and your presentation clearly lacks any demonstration of creativity or competence.  Ouch.  In order to process all this information, you need to have a healthy balance of respect for other’s opinions, and belief in the validity of your own efforts.  Having a strong sense of internal validation does not mean that you dismiss any and all criticism you receive, but it does mean that you try to separate out the information you received, with how you feel about that information.  True, you may feel embarrassed, hurt, or angry about the critique.  It may have been unfair, and if it is then you have all the more reason to look to your own internal confidence in order to cope with the situation.  When this happens, recognize that someone else’s opinion is just that, an opinion.  You’re allowed to have opinions too, and your opinion should matter at least as much to you as external opinions.  Some people really do just criticize other people in order to feel better about themselves, and these are the people who often abuse authority when they have it and are a general pain to be around.

Yet there may be times when some valid criticism is given to you, and you need to have a strong sense of internal validation in order to receive that criticism about yourself.    When you value the positive qualities that you know you have, you feel buffered by a strong sense of internal confidence that isn’t going to be destroyed by one critical opinion, or even ten.  That sense of confidence comes from knowing that you are talented and competent in some areas, as are all people, and that you can excel in those areas while knowing you own limitations.  It doesn’t mean that you think you always have the right answers or perspective, and it doesn’t mean that you think everyone who criticizes you is wrong, or out to get you. You are able to receive a valid critique, while dismissing the parts that you know and feel confident are unfair criticisms.  You recognize that other people’s opinions and expertise can help you to grow and get better at what you do.

Receiving criticism is an important skill to master when working on the right balance of internal and external validation, but there are many other times in which we navigate those feelings.  These struggles show up in our relationships, for example, if you constantly seek approval from potential partners because feeling lonely makes you feels unworthy.  Or, if someone make an unflattering comment to you about your appearance and you vow to change something about yourself or burn whatever clothes you were wearing to combat the shame of feeling hurt by their comments.  Sometimes, your opinion is the only one that does matter.  If you feel good about yourself, your work, your appearance, your talents, your future, and/or your value as a human being, there is no reason to allow other people to change your mind.  One of my favorite quotes is “What other people think of me is none of my business”.  The internet tells me it was Gary Oldman who gave us that gem.  It’s a great little mantra to remember, though, when you find yourself stressing over what other people may or may not be thinking about you.  Having a strong sense of internal validation will help you brush off unhelpful criticism and stop worrying so much about what others are thinking or saying.  Another thing to remember if that if you wouldn’t say something to your best friend, then don’t say it to yourself.  You do not have to co-opt the negative opinions that others may have of you.

Work on finding a balanced approach to external and internal validation, in which you can receive what you need from others in order to grown and learn, while not adhering to a need for perfection that requires that others constantly show you attention and praise so that you can feel good about yourself.  Reflect on what you value about yourself, what your strengths are, and how you use those strengths to accomplish your goals.  Then, keep these values and strengths in mind the next time you find yourself over-emphasizing what others think of you.  Frankly, it will make your mind a much more pleasant place to be.

Building Frustration Tolerance

Many of us struggle from time to time with low frustration tolerance.  Perhaps you find yourself fuming at small inconveniences, or a minor infraction by your partner, peers, or children.  When our lives become overly stressful, it can be difficult to keep little things from becoming major annoyances, and it can be hard  to stop yourself from exploding verbally or mentally when one more thing goes wrong, even if it is just a minor thing, like a stubbed toe or being cut off in traffic.  Over time though, when we do not keep our frustration tolerance in check, our moods can start to feel out of control.  We can become angry and resentful in our daily lives, and snap at people we care about, contributing to the overall negativity in our environment.  It’s important to recognize when low frustration tolerance has become a problem, so that you can start to build more resiliency in your life and stop allowing minor frustrations to become overwhelming.

First, ask yourself a few questions to determine if frustration tolerance has become a problem in your life:

  • Do I find myself becoming disproportionately angry at minor inconveniences or mistakes?
  • Do I sometime snap and yell at people I care about (or strangers) when something frustrating happens?
  • Does anger and frustration seem to be impacting my overall mood in my daily life?
  • Do I regret or feel ashamed about my reaction to things when I become frustrated?


If you answered “yes” to any of these questions, recognize that you may want to focus some attention to building more resiliency to frustration, and improve your frustration tolerance.  There are several reasons why having better tolerance to frustration is an important skill.  Most importantly, having better frustration tolerance will help you spend less energy on things that are not worth getting angry about.  Our lives can be busy, complicated, stressful, and exhausting.  Focusing your energy where it will best serve you will help you feel better on a daily basis, and more in control of your emotions.  Having low frustration tolerance is just unpleasant.  Your mood is affected, you may ruminate on unimportant problems, and you waste time and energy reacting to stressors that should really be brushed off.  Of course this all sounds good, but how do you stop letting frustration affect your mood and relationships and keep your energy focused on what’s really important?

First, assess your priorities.  Take stock of your life and identify 5 areas that are most important to you.  This may include your relationships with your family and friends, your success at work, making room for quality down-time in your life, working on special projects you care about, or accomplishing goals that you have set for yourself.  Recognize that these are the areas in which you want to focus the most of your energy.  Everything else is secondary, and thus does not deserve to have too much of your attention and energy.

Next, identify how low frustration tolerance has negatively impacted your life.  Perhaps you have said things you regret when you were frustrated, destroyed property when you were angry, or your overall mood has been soured because you get stuck in a negative mindset.  Recognize how this negativity has taken up space in your life that detracts from your real priorities. Make a commitment to re-focus your energy back on your real priorities, and stop giving energy to the frustrations that drag you down.

Finally, start working on ways to reduce the power that frustration has over your life, and begin to develop the skills you need to minimize that impact.  Some strategies to building better frustration tolerance include:

  • Start your day off with a positive affirmation. This can be as simple as a mental note you make to remind yourself that you are going to have a good day and not let small things affect your mood.  Alternatively, it could be a devotional or prayer that speaks to you and helps you center your priorities for the day.  Another possibility is starting your day with uplifting music that will help you get your mood in the right place for the day.
  • Build an arsenal of coping skills that you can use in the moment when a frustrating experience happens. Deep-breathing exercises, counting practices, worry dolls or a talisman, a personal mantra (“Serenity Now!”), and walking off or removing yourself from an overwhelming situation are all examples of coping skills that will help you deal with frustration in the moment and prevent the situation from taking control of you.
  • Allow yourself a designated amount of time to vent or process your frustrations, and then choose to let them go. It’s fine to give a voice to or acknowledge the things that get you down or cause frustration in your life, but don’t allow this time to go on forever.  If you have a friend, for example, that you talk to or vent to when you feel frustrated, allow yourself to spend no more than half of your time together ruminating or discussing frustrations, and then consciously change topics to more uplifting messages or acknowledge the positives you can identify in your life or day as well.
  • Use humor or comedy to help you build resiliency to negativity and improve your mood when you find yourself stuck in negative mindset or feeling angry too often. Watch comedy programs you enjoy, listen to comedy podcasts or radio shows, read humorous materials or writers you enjoy, and talk to your funniest friends.  Use inside jokes with your friends or family to lighten the mood or remind you about times that were fun or funny.  It’s hard to feel frustrated and angry when you’re laughing.
  • End your day with affirmations of gratitude. If you are partnered you can have a gratitude practice that you engage in right before you go to bed or at another time during the evening, when you identify at least one thing you are grateful for that day.  You could also do this practice with your kids if you have them, or just do them solitary.  You can write your ideas down, or just mentally take stock with intention.  Finding space to recognize what you are grateful for will help you keeps those priorities centered, reducing the power that frustration has over your life.


As you incorporate these strategies into your life, you are intentionally giving more energy to positivity and priorities, and taking energy away from the frustrations and negativity that life throws at you sometimes.  Keep practicing and building good habits, and you should begin to build your tolerance to frustration in a way that helps you feel more empowered over your thoughts, emotions, and behaviors.

How to Un-friend and Still Be Friends

Social media has changed our lives in so many ways, including how we communicate with our friends.  There have been many positive things that have come out of the rise of social media, such as reconnecting with old friends we haven’t seen or spoken to in many years, maintaining ties with people when you’re no longer living in the same area anymore, the ability to quickly connect and communicate with new friends you meet, and even connecting and communicating with people you haven’t met yet.  It’s been a great platform to share information, vocalize your views and opinions, or keep up with new happenings in the lives of people you care about.  However, social media can doubtlessly be problematic too.  With the rise of social media came the rise of cyber-bullying, the spread of fake news, and the virtual version of Un-friending.

In many ways, social media has complicated our friendships and other relationships.  Whereas you used to only have to hear your Uncle Fox ranting about politics once a year at Thanksgiving, now he may be blowing up your newsfeed with fake news every day.  Or worse, your best friend from high school hasn’t grown up much since then and is now engaging in unnecessary mudslinging and stirring up drama online, publicly hashing out her grievances and causing friction and conflict in front of everyone you’ve ever met.  Sometimes it’s easy to know when to un-friend someone online, such as in instances of cyber-bullying or malicious interactions with people you don’t really know that well or care much about.  However, at other times it can be more difficult, because you will still see this person in your real life at least sometimes, or because you actually value your relationship with that person and don’t want to lose them as a friend.

There are a few considerations you can use to determine if you should un-friend someone on your social media pages, and how you can continue to be friends in real life without having to lose a relationship that you value.  Ask yourself a few questions first to find out if you need to restructure your contacts or rethink your online relationships.

1: Do I interact with this person in my real life on a regular basis, or is this someone that I only see sporadically when we happen to be around a mutual acquaintance?

  •  If you don’t have a relationship with a person in your real life, and your interaction with them is mostly online, you don’t really need them bringing negativity into your online social scene.  It’s usually fine to un-friend this person without further ado and not worry about it, because you’re not really going to see them much anyways, and you both will probably benefit from less interaction with each other.  If you do engage with this person in real life regularly, you may choose to use a different feature to reduce their impact on your page.  On many social pages you can mute or hide the person so that you remain “friends” online, but you aren’t subjected to seeing their posts anymore.  Check your platform’s settings to see how you can utilize those tools.

2: Does this person typically make my day better or worse when I see their posts on my page? 

  • If someone is constantly posting things that annoy, enrage, offend, or otherwise sour your mood, you most likely don’t need them on your page. See the above reference to determine what the best course of action is in this case.  However, even if you don’t interact in-person with someone on a regular basis, if their posts generally make you happy because they are full of positivity, and you like keeping up with them and seeing what they’re doing, then it’s obviously fine to keep them in your feed.

3:  Do I believe this person actually cares about me and/or my family, or are they someone who wouldn’t be there for me in my real life if I needed some support?

  • Needless to say, if someone is making your day worse by being annoying, offensive, negative, or disrespectful, you probably don’t need them in your online life. However, if regardless of those things, you still value the relationship and believe they value it as well, then a careful approach is necessary.  You still have the option to mute or hide their posts.  If it doesn’t seem to be beneficial to have them on your page at all though, and you still want to preserve the friendship after removing them from your page, you can take steps to ensure the relationship isn’t damaged by the change in status.


If you want to remain friends with someone after un-friending, un-following, or blocking someone on your social media pages, then in person or phone contact is sometimes necessary afterwards.  This doesn’t mean you have to bring up the subject of un-friending them, but actually seeing each other or hearing other’s voices will reassert that the friendship is still valuable and you want to remain friends.  If there has been some kind of a significant conflict that played out in the social media world, particularly if it was public, then you may want to discuss the conflict and hash things out in person before writing the relationship off for good.  The important thing is that you make the effort to engage with the person after un-friending so that you both can recognize that you still care about the relationship.  If you are one who un-friended, it should be you that reaches out first.

There are times when this is unnecessary.   First, they may not have even noticed that you un-friended them.  There’s no point in making a big deal about something if you didn’t often engage in each other’s posts.  They may just think you haven’t been online much lately or didn’t notice that your posts weren’t showing up in their feed.  If they did notice or they bring it up, try not to make personal attacks.  Make a more general point about why you made that decision.  For example, if it was about politics, you can say “Listen, I just made the decision that it was healthier for me to reduce the political chatter on my feed because it was stressing me out”.  Or, if it was about because there was a public spat online, you can say “Look, I value our friendship and I didn’t want to continue to hash out our problems in front of everyone online, so I’d rather us talk things through in person”.

What if you’ve been un-friended by someone else?  First of all, don’t freak out or get offended.  If the relationship is meaningful to both of you in real life, you can still be friends or acquaintances and you don’t have to run in the other direction or escalate a conflict.  All of the above advise still applies, and sometimes the best way to repair a damaged online relationship is to make more of an effort to get together in person and/or via phone and focus on building real interactions instead of virtual ones.  If it wasn’t a very meaningful relationship in the first place, then it’s no loss and everyone can go about their business feeling better about the online friends they do have.  You can still see your uncle at Thanksgiving and seat yourself at the opposite end of the table like you always do.  Don’t let social media ruin important relationships that you value, but keep in mind that you certainly don’t have to allow people or posts on your newsfeed to make your day worse for no identifiable reason.  Now go adjust those settings!

This is Not a Drill

When I was in about 3rd or 4th grade, my classmates and I had all the standard safety drills in elementary school.  Fire drills, tornado drills, and the like.  There was one drill though, that I remember doing only once, which was the active shooter drill.  I don’t know that they called it exactly that at the time, but I do remember that they made all of us kids run zig-zag from the stairs of the school to the playground down the field and into the woods behind the playground, hiding wherever we could.  I remember it being somewhat odd that we had this new drill, and at some point they explained to us that if someone ever came into the school and started shooting, that this is what we were supposed to do.   I grew up in a suburb of Atlanta in a good school district.  Overall it was a great place to grow up, and felt safe most of the time (though not always).  This drill seemed a bit of an outlier, as though the district had heard about shootings in other schools and thought they should be prepared, just in case.  Never mind that the strategy they adopted was totally wrong and unsafe given our current knowledge of active shooter survival.  I’m sure they were doing the best they could back in the 80’s when this kind of danger was relatively new to the public consciousness.  These days, though, an active shooter with an AR-15 and hundreds of little kids zig-zagging across a playground is a recipe for our next national tragedy.

Fast forward to 1999, and I was a senior in high school.  In April of that year, the Columbine shooting rocked the national news.  Prior to that, news of violence in urban school districts was not unheard of, and discussions about guns in schools and how to keep schools and students safe were certainly in the public discourse.  The Columbine shooting was different, however, for many reasons.  The affluent, mostly white suburban school, the arsenal of weapons, the bombs, the depressed, gun-obsessed teenagers who idolized Timothy McVeigh, the suicides.  It was horrifying.  Not long after the shootings, a copycat began calling in bomb threats to my high school.  It was always around the same time of day on the same days of the week.  I was always in art class, which was located across the hallway from the school nursery, where the babies of students and teachers were.  My fellow art students and I would jet across the hallway and grab a baby before running across the street to a community center, where we stayed with the babies until their parents came to pick them up.  Even as I write this now, it sounds totally insane.  I didn’t go to a hard core inner city urban school. It was in a middle class, diverse, low crime town.  The bomb threats continued for weeks, and to my knowledge, they never caught the person.  It became clear pretty soon that whoever was calling the bomb threats in was pulling a prank to get out of a certain class, but in the aftermath of Columbine it seemed impossible to feel truly safe in that context.  Years later, in college and afterwards, when I would tell people about the drills and the bomb threats, they were horrified.  “What kind of school did you go to?  Oh you’re from Atlanta? That must’ve been so scary! They must have some really bad schools where you lived!”  Well… no, not exactly.   What kind of school did I go to?  A good one, or so I thought.

Now, that term has no meaning.  There is no such thing as a “good school.”  There is no school where children can be kept safe from gun violence, from bullying, from racism, from sexual harassment or assault, from exposure to drugs and alcohol, not even from predatory teachers.  As hard as we try to put in policies and security procedures, and codes of conduct and mental health resources, we have been unable to protect our children from the world that we have created.  A world in which violence is glorified and murder makes you a celebrity.  A world in which anger is the most readily accessible emotion and violence an acceptable recourse when you feel provoked.  A world in which we are quick to label violent criminals as part of the mental health crisis, yet refuse to properly fund community mental health centers, or put social workers in every school, or teach basic communication and conflict resolution skills to children.  Teachers are vilified, blamed, and punished for classroom problems that originate in the home, yet we refuse to give teachers the support they need from social workers and school psychologists to help families become successful in the classroom.  I say families, and not just children, on purpose.  Families need to be treated as a whole, to ensure that we see and address all areas in which the family is struggling.  We keep insisting that test scores are the best way to measure a child’s potential and progress, scores which completely ignore a child’s emotional, social, and psychological progress.  While politicians starve our public schools of resources and ignore the needs of the mentally ill and struggling families, we have turned our anger on each other, vilifying our fellow citizens and digging our heels into the culture wars to make up for the lack of a functioning public sphere.

Our schools should not be war zones, yet that’s what many of them have been for decades, and any attempts by parents to get their kids into a “good school” are increasingly fruitless.  There is no panacea to solve the culture of violence that has resulted in the mass shooting epidemic that we are currently suffering through.  It cannot be solved with thoughts and prayers, it cannot be solved by banning bump stocks, or raising the age to purchase certain weapons, or bringing religion into schools.  It cannot be solved by school resource officers, as we so crushingly discovered during the Parkland shooting, and it cannot be solved by instituting more anti-bullying campaigns.  Trying to imagine any of the teachers that I grew up with as pistol-packing renegades seems not only incredibly dangerous and ineffective, but incredibly unfair given the sacrifices and responsibilities that we already expect from teachers and our refusal to pay them properly for the amazing work they are doing every day.   We are way beyond all of those ideas now.  People continue to shout their ideas for solutions, and many of those ideas have merit, while others seem reactionary and insufficient.  I am not going to pretend to know all the answers.  I certainly have my own opinions about what I would like to see happen, but I fear that nothing we can do at this point will be sufficient without an enormous cultural shift that our country seems unprepared for and unwilling to recognize.  The problems that go into the making of an active shooter are deep and resonating throughout our culture.  Lack of empathy, isolationism, misogyny and racism, rampant abuse and violence in our neighborhoods, families, schools, and media, easy access to weapons ranging from hunting weapons to handguns to military style assault rifles, glorified violence on television both fictionalized and reality based: all of this has indoctrinated us to the point where we don’t even try to stop the violence any more, we just try to prepare for it.

I am sick.  I am sick of this culture of violence.  I used to get angry when I would hear people say that they don’t like to watch the news because they don’t like to see all the violence and terrible things going on in the world.  How could they just turn a blind eye and pretend it’s not all happening?  I understand this more now.  It comes from a feeling of abject helplessness in the face of the world we have created.  It comes from a sense of self-protectionism, akin to hiding in a closet while a gunman murders your classmates.  I used to watch Law & Order episodes like a junkie.  Ditto the ID Investigations, and Forensic Files, and other reality based crime shows.  However, after years of working with victims of violence and abuse in my real-life job, I cannot see violence as entertainment anymore.  I don’t ignore it, I can’t ignore it, and my job necessitates that I continue to confront it daily.  Yet I can’t shake the feeling of helplessness and self-protectionism.  So I will continue to battle as I have always done, one life at a time, one client at a time, and one family at a time, which includes my own.  This is the only way I know how to fight back against our cultural sickness.

A few weeks ago, my daughter filled me in on some of the 2nd grade struggles going on in her school that week.  A student did not want to include one of her friends in their games, and was trying to get the other kids to leave the other kid out.  This upset my daughter because she didn’t want her friend to be left out.  We processed this for a while, but she came to her own conclusion: “I’m going to stick up for my friend tomorrow”.   “I think that’s a good idea, I’m proud of you,” I said.  Meanwhile, back at work in my office, we prepared for another annual active shooter drill.  So when the alarm came on via my computer and cell phone, alerting to the fact that there was an active shooter (exercise) on premise, I closed and locked my office door as instructed, and listened as we heard pretend gun shots, people running through the halls, and the first responders practicing their take down in the building.  Back in elementary school, zig-zagging across that field, it seemed silly, remote, and implausible.  Sitting in my office that day, listening to shots fired and the boots running through the hallways, it felt more real than ever before.

It’s on all of us to change the culture that has created this mess that our children are now paying for with their lives.  What each of us can do is going to be different.  Perhaps engaging in the policy battles and protests, perhaps donating to or volunteering with your local school systems or other organizations, perhaps changing your buying or viewing habits to promote more of what you want to see and support, and less of what continues to sicken us.  I can’t come up with a catch-all prescription and say “here’s the solution, this will fix it”.  I just know that most of us can do something, including our feckless leaders, and we all have to be a part of creating the world our children deserve.  I will continue to hope that we can make progress together, despite the political barriers that seem insurmountable at this time.  I can increasingly sense the desperation, the anger, and the futility that is seeping into every area of our society.  I’m not willing to give up, though I understand why people do.  When it feels overwhelming, I try to remember that even though I can’t change everything I want to change about our culture, I can still be responsible for my little corner of the universe.  I know that small scale change leads to bigger changes later on.  If anything is clear to me now, it is that change comes from the bottom up, not the top down.  To me, that means working on myself, on my own family, with my clients, with my friends, and with my community.  I want bigger change, but I can’t single handedly pull it off.  To that end, bottoms up.

Are you Parenting your Partner?

I see a lot of clients for marital/relationship counseling, and one of the most common and frustrating factors that people struggle with when they come to see me is something that I call the Parent/Child Dynamic.  This happens when one partner has taken on the role of the Parent, or Director, in the relationship, and the other partner is stuck in the role of the Child, or Adolescent.  In these relationships, one person is basically in charge of knowing what needs to be done, and they end up having to ask, direct, or otherwise nag their partner to complete responsibilities that need to be handled.  This is an unhealthy relationship pattern for many reasons, but it’s not the fault of one partner of the other.

Honestly, the way I see this dynamic play out most often occurs with a woman in the role of Parent, and a man in the role of Child/Adolescent.  However, this is by no means the only way it happens.  I’m going to use the example of a woman in the Parent role to illustrate my points here, but be aware that these roles can occur in any relationship with either partner taking on these two roles.  In this situation, the woman/Parent is constantly having to tell her partner what chores need to be done, what bills need to be paid, what child-care responsibilities need to be attended to, what planned events or activities need to be prepared for, what needs to be purchased at the store, what pet care duties need to be fulfilled, and on and on and on.  Often, I hear from the partner in the Child/Adolescent role “I don’t mind doing whatever she needs, she just needs to ask me”.  It sounds like cooperation, but it’s really a form of relinquishing duty.  In this example, the woman is in charge of knowing everything that needs to be taken care of, and is in charge of making sure everything gets completed on time and as needed.  The man essentially can say he is helping and cooperating, but he takes no part in being pro-active about responsibilities.  This dynamic is damaging to relationships because the relationship is not functioning as a partnership, but as a Parent/Child relationship.

For the person in the parent role, it’s exhausting.  You didn’t sign up to parent your partner, you wanted someone who would share responsibilities, support you in both tangible and intangible ways, and be, well, your Partner.  For the person in the adolescent role, it’s equally frustrating.  After all, you didn’t sign up to be treated like a child, nagged about your duties, and punished verbally or emotionally when you didn’t do your chores.  It’s infantilizing, and for men, also emasculating.  In most cases, you both came into this relationship looking for a partner, and when it starts to feel like you’re in a Parent/Child relationship, it’s going to start to feel less like a partnership and more like a drag.  No one wants to be treated like a child, and no one wants to have to nag their partner like a parent.  Even worse, sometimes the person in the adolescent role will become resentful about being treated like a child, and will begin “acting out”, by saying they will complete certain tasks and then “forgetting”, or just saying they will do it later and then dragging it out until their partner starts nagging them again, causing more frustration, resentment, and even arguments.

The solution here requires both partners to make some changes.  First, you need to have an open discussion with each other if you feel that this is the kind of dynamic that is developing in your relationship.  You need to both recognize the role that you have been playing and discuss what you really want your partnership to look like.  If you have been in the adolescent role, recognize that it is not your partner’s job to tell you what needs to be done around the house, remind you of the responsibilities that you agreed to, and direct all functions of the household duties.  You’re an adult, so act like it.  Don’t want to be nagged about taking out the trash or helping with dishes or children?  Then start being more pro-active about what needs to be done so your partner doesn’t have to “assign” you chores to do.  In some circumstances you can both agree about what needs to be done and assign who is responsible for doing it.  However, in my opinion, this is not ideal.  Chore lists are for teenagers, not adults.  If you don’t want to be treated like a teenager, then act like an adult.  It’s fine to have some general roles if you both prefer to do certain tasks.  For example, one person may be primarily responsible for mowing the lawn or cooking dinner.  These divisions may occur naturally based on what each partner prefers to do or is more capable of doing well.  That’s not a problem.  But all partnerships require some give and take, and if you notice something needs to be done, just do it.  There’s no point in keeping score.

If you have been in the parent role, you may be in for some frustration as you try to make these changes.  It will be hard to refrain from engaging in your role as director and assigner of duties if you have been used to doing this, because if the pattern continues, you will see things that need to be done and either end up doing them yourself, or feeling secretly insane inside as you wonder when and if your partner is going to step up and do what needs to be done.  This will take some adjusting because while you are used to knowing what needs to be done, and when and how to do it, you will need to allow some space for your previously adolescent partner to step into their new adult role.  Give it some time, because one of the most important parts of fixing this problem is that you refrain from asking multiple times for something to be done, or reminding your partner of the things they said they would do.  If you get frustrated and start asking multiple times or reminding your partner over and over about something they said they would do, the pattern starts to get further engrained.  Sometimes, unpleasant things may happen, like the trash piles up or a bill incurs a late fee.  I know, I know, this shouldn’t happen.  But you are trying to break unhealthy patterns, and you must give your partner some space to feel the consequences of their own inaction rather than you pointing it out to them all the time.  People will not grow up and take responsibility if you always fix everything for them, nor if you criticize how they do everything.  If your partner feels like they can never do anything right, they will likely just stop trying.

These changes are not going to happen if you do not talk openly and frankly about what the problem is beforehand.  For example, if you have, in the past, tried to passively stay silent while the lawn went un-mowed or the dishes piled up, “testing” your partner to see how long it would take them to notice and step up to the work that needs to be done, then continuing that pattern is not going to help.  You have to figure out how to walk the line between direct communication about what you both need and expect from your partnership, and being the director and supervisor of everything.  This means that you may need to let go of some of the things you want to control.  The towels may not be folded the way you like them and you might run out of toilet paper.  Partnership is a growth process.  As individuals, we all have to make adjustments when we choose to become a partner to someone else.  If you want that partnership to develop in a healthy way, you need to recognize that it is not your partner’s responsibility to conform to what you want them to be.   You both need to make adjustments to find the dynamic that works for you both.  But don’t allow an unhealthy dynamic to fester and grow in your relationship.  You both need to be part of the solution, so recognizing and talking about the Parent/Child dynamic and how it is damaging your partnership is a good place to start changing.

Self-Care: We’re Talking about it Wrong

As someone in a caregiving profession, I know all about “self-care”.  Other people in caregiving professions and  high stress jobs are frequently reminded that we need to take care of ourselves in order to ensure our long lasting ability to continue to perform our work with ongoing engagement and consistent quality.  In fact, we’re lectured about it constantly, as if some extra yoga and another pedicure will absorb some of the daily stressors we experience in our work and home lives.  It’s true that if you don’t take time out from your normal obligations to do enriching and meaningful activities, your quality of life will suffer.  However, the way our culture has become accustomed to pointing to “self-care” as the primary remedy to all of the stress that has built up in our lives is problematic.

One problem with this over-used prescription is that it is just another way of deferring responsibility to the individual to resolve all of the culture induced distress that has become overwhelming in the first place.  For example, if your primary stressor is your job and/or working conditions, self-care can only go so far in remedying the problem.  If the conditions that you work under do not change, the stress is going to remain.  Certainly you can develop a set of coping skills, habits, and life-enhancing activities that will increase your quality of life outside of your job, but if you keep returning to the same stressful environment day after day, the amount of relief you will experience is limited.  While some of us have choices in the kinds of jobs and career options we pursue, it’s not always practical, feasible or even desirable to just go out and find a new job when the stress levels become unmanageable.

Administrators, managers, and supervisors love to hand out the self-care prescription when employees complain about their workplace stressors.  It’s easy to see why they do this.  This absolves the company of any responsibility to manage the workplace environment in a way that promotes the wellbeing of their employees by offering on-site services to enrich employee health and happiness, ensuring employees have reasonable work expectations and sufficient resources to do their jobs well (including fair compensation), and prioritize employee mental and physical health in their overall business plans.  By telling employees “make sure you’re practicing self-care”, the employee becomes responsible for managing whatever workplace expectations come their way, and if they can’t handle it, it’s their fault for not taking care of themselves.

Another problem with our approach to using self-care as a catch-all recommendation for worker health, is that we tell workers particularly in the caregiving professions that they need to practice self-care “so that you can care for others”.  We also tell this to parents, reminding them that one of their duties is to care for themselves so that they can continue to care for others.  The reason this is problematic is because we again are ignoring the needs of the individual in service to the sacrifices that individual is making for others, whether that be to their workplace, their family, or others.  The assumption is that if you are burnt out and stressed beyond reason, that you cannot then attend properly to the needs of others.  It’s not that the statement itself isn’t true, it’s that this is the wrong way to look at self-care.  Taking care of yourself is something that you deserve independently of your value to your workplace or your family.  You should take care of yourself because you deserve to reap the benefits of enjoying a good quality of life enriched with the things that relax and rejuvenate you.  Will it make you a better caregiver, employee, parent, or colleague?  Probably.  But that’s not the point.  Maybe you like to exercise, meditate, pamper yourself, engage in spiritual practices and reflections, spend time with the people you care about, or give back to your community in meaningful ways.  These are things that you should do because they enrich your quality of life and connection to others, not because you owe it to the people you give other forms of care or service to.  You should go about doing the things that help you to enjoy your life because it is your life and you deserve to enjoy it.

One thing that would be more helpful to most people would be if their employers starting looking at employee mental and physical health as something that they have a stake in too.  Some employers have found creative ways to support their employees beyond providing a general recommendation that employees take care of themselves.  These measures can go from ideas such as bringing in massage therapists or other service providers on site, allowing flexible or work from home schedules, up to profit sharing or co-op models that provide employees with more stake in their own companies.  Such approaches to managing employee mental, physical, and financial health can go a long way towards increasing quality of life without increasing the pressure and burdens on employees to find their own solutions to workplace stressors.  We can all support companies that engage in practices such as these, which reflect a business model that values the employees.  We can also support each other by dropping the “so you can take care of others” part of our encouragement to care for ourselves.  We all have a limited time in which to live our lives, and it can be a great joy and source of personal satisfaction and meaning when we care for others, whether that is our clients, our friends, or our families.  Moreover, we deserve to care for ourselves, as well as to receive the care others have for us, because our lives are independently valuable.  We are not only mothers, fathers, children, caregivers, or employees.  We are individuals deserving of our best quality of life as we see fit, and the steps we take to care for ourselves can and should be done to enhance life for the pure joy of it, not merely to preserve our ability to care for others.

Do you have to forgive an abusive parent?

Many people struggle with healing from an abusive childhood, and when the abuser was a parent, the healing process can be particularly complicated.  Everyone has a unique story and the impact on individuals is affected by many different factors.  The severity, frequency, and tactics of the abuse, and emotional strain on the victim all impact the degree to which people are able to cope with and recover from past trauma.  One area of struggle can revolve around the concept of forgiving your abuser.

Forgiveness is often one our culture’s go-to prescriptions when it comes to dealing with painful incidents that continue to impact our current lives.  These prescriptions may come in the form of religious instructions, moral obligations, and the promise of healing.  While forgiveness may be an important and helpful step in the recovery process, it is important to understand who it is being done for and why.  Otherwise forgiveness itself becomes confusing, complicated, or even meaningless.

At one time in my career I was working as a hospice social worker.  Most of my patients were very elderly, and the majority of them had supportive and loving families who had the comfort and peace of the patient as their priority.  However, occasionally I worked with families where there was significant emotional strain in the relationship between the dying parent and the adult son or daughter, sometimes due to past abuse by the parent.  Needless to say the issues each family was dealing with were unique and there were long and fraught histories involved.  I had some family members who spoke to me about their own process of forgiveness and how it helped them to heal and find their own peace, and I had other families who had no interest in a dramatic reconciliation at the deathbed.  They were tired of being judged for keeping their distance from a formerly abusive parent, and their own healing was better served by strong boundaries and detachment.  Our society loves a Hollywood ending, and popular culture is littered with depictions of those reconciliations.

When I am working with clients to process and heal from childhood abuse, we discuss forgiveness and what it means for their individual recovery process.  Some of the things we have to figure out through that process include knowing who the forgiveness is for (the victim, the abuser, or someone else), how it will or will not facilitate their healing process, and why it is being given.  The answers to those questions help people come to an honest conclusion about whether they want to forgive their abuser, whether it will help at all, and the intentions behind that forgiveness.  I don’t ever tell people that they need to or have to forgive their abuser in order to heal and recover from an abusive childhood.  If people feel forced to take the moral high ground by offering forgiveness to someone who may or may not even be in their life anymore, they may continue to struggle to recover because it feels insincere and obligatory.  However, if that forgiveness is offered for the right reasons and at the right time, it can be an important step towards releasing the control trauma can have over their life and emotional wellness.  The “right reasons and right time” are not for me to decide.  Those decisions need to be made by the individual who is healing from that trauma.

As friends, families, communities, and caregivers, we can place value on forgiveness without making it into an obligation for people who have been abused.  Coping with the emotional labor of processing the abuse inflicted by a parent who is supposed to love and care for you is difficult enough without having social pressure to rush the process and bring it to a convenient and neat conclusion.  Allowing abuse survivors to direct their own recovery and determine why, when, how, and if forgiveness is a part of their healing journey is a more supportive and intentional way to promote recovery.


Aly Raisman Speaks for Survivors, and Herself

This past Friday, Olympic Gold medalist Aly Raisman delivered a powerful victim impact statement at the sentencing portion of convicted sexual abuser Larry Nassar, former doctor to the USA Gymnastics team.  Nassar pled guilty to 7 counts of sexually abusing minors, but he has been accused by over 150 athletes of manipulating his position as their doctor by sexually abusing them under the guise of providing medical treatment.  The depth and scope of his abusive practices are horrific, but as with many of the abusers who have been exposed over the past year and half, he had a network of people behind him helping to cover up his abuses and discredit or silence his accusers.  Raisman made clear in her statement that victims everywhere are fed up with being silenced and dismissed by saying “You do realize now the women you so heartlessly abused over such a long period of time are now a force, and you are nothing.”

I have spent much of my career working with survivors of sexual abuse, both as a victim advocate and as a therapist.  The criminal justice system has long been a source of frustration for me and my clients, both because of its re-victimization of survivors who do come forward, and the difficulty that victims have with receiving any kind of justice at all.  Specifically, I find myself infuriated when cases are dismissed outright because “there is no evidence”.  The message this sends to everyone is that a victim’s testimony is not evidence.  It is only when dozens and dozens of women come forward with the same stories that their word can be trusted and used in a court of law.  It takes a powerful army of survivors to put away 1 single abuser.  This is the broken system that victims are forced to contend with if they want any measure of justice for the crimes against them.  We don’t do this with other types of crimes.

Raisman spoke forcefully against her abuser in court, questioning the system that allowed his abuse to continue for years and calling him out directly for being a manipulative predator of the worst kind.  It can be difficult for a survivor to see Raisman, who is a successful, high profile woman, speak out in court and think “I couldn’t do that, she has more security, money, and support than I do; I have too much to lose by speaking out”.  Yet one of the first things Raisman acknowledged when she began to speak was that she was scared, and she didn’t want to come to deliver her victim impact statement.  Even strong, powerful women can feel scared and small when facing the prospect of speaking out against an abuser.  No one is protected from criticism when speaking out about their own abuse, because our culture has ingrained an atmosphere of victim blaming and doubt into our collective response to crimes of sexual abuse.  I have personally borne witness to enough horror stories of how victims have been treated to know that we have a serious, serious problem.  Policies have gotten better over the past 40 years or so, but in practice, much of the shame and blame continues.

Sexual abuse survivors need first and foremost to feel safe again, which means being believed and supported when they come forward.  When their experiences are minimized and dismissed, or when they are blamed for the actions of their abusers, the healing process is damaged and it may take years or decades before they are able to seek help again.  Healing after sexual trauma is possible, but we can all contribute to making this process more accessible to survivors by believing and supporting victims and taking their claims seriously.  However, until the criminal justice system undergoes reforms that will enable more victims to confront their abusers in court, countless victims will go without justice and countless abusers will remain free to continue to perpetuate their crimes.  The problem of sexual abuse, harassment, and exploitation continues daily.  Anyone who cares about this issue must continue to speak out in support of survivors and demand changes in the systems that perpetuate the abuse if real change is to be made.

If you have been a victim of abuse, please know that while your circumstances may be unique to your particular experience, there is a lot of support available to survivors these days.  It is important to know who, in your personal network of people, you may be able to trust and confide in for support.  Yet even if you do not have a supportive group of family or friends around you, you can find support by reaching out for help from your community and from online resources.  Finding an individual therapist or support group is one way to start the healing process.  However, there are also many other online resources and forums where you can receive information and support if you are not ready to seek support in person or if you have difficulty finding resources in your area.   If you have not been victimized, but know someone who has, you can be a supportive presence to them by believing them, listening, and providing reassurance that that abuse was not their fault, and that you are willing to stand by them as they heal and seek help in whatever form they need.  Do not try to force the person to go to the police if they are not ready or do not want to report.  As discussed, the criminal justice system sometimes serves to re-victimize and cause more pain to survivors.  However, if a survivor does want to report, you can encourage and support them through that process, or help them to find a victim advocate.  For more information about support and resources, visit, or call the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-4673.

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