Honey if you love me–please smile!

In middle school I remember many parties where we entertained ourselves by playing the game “Honey if you love me—please smile!”  The game consisted of the person who was “it” going around the circle repeating that phrase in hopes of getting someone to crack a smile—while the circle members did their best to resist.  Though simple, a good deal of strategy was employed in choosing the circle member to approach—who giggles the easiest?  Who can’t resist laughing at a funny voice?  Who will lose their cool if I’m 2 inches from his or her face?

As we approach Valentine’s day and our thoughts turn towards the relationships in our lives I wonder how many out there are playing “Honey if you love me—please smile!” on a day-to-day basis?  I don’t mean playing games with those you love, but rather trying to identify and manage the emotions of those close to you.  This is different than noticing when a friend or loved one is feeling up or down and responding accordingly, instead I mean when the focus is primarily on the other person to the neglect of noticing your own emotions.

Sometimes when a child grows up in a home full of chaos, perhaps due to a parent struggling with addiction or active abuse in the home, he or she learns to read the emotions of the adults in the family and seeks to manage their emotions.  This is a self-protective coping mechanism which can be vitally important at the time—if the child’s father is drunk when he comes home, for instance, the child needs to be able to sort out whether it is safer to stay out his way or engage and placate him.  However, the coping mechanisms we rely on in a survival mode, can turn into a hindrance once we are in safe and healthy relationships.

Still, you may wonder how being aware of the emotions of others can hurt.  As I noted, it’s ok to notice how those around us are feeling—but does it allow you to not pay attention to your own emotions?  Do you ignore your own bad day in order to run over and fix someone else’s?  The danger here is not as much being aware of others as allowing that to replace being aware of what you are feeling.  When we ignore our own emotions and needs it opens us up to having our boundaries violated, not caring for ourselves when needed, and potentially depression and other mental illnesses.  If you find yourself rushing to identify the emotions of those around you, take a moment to consider what you’re feeling at that moment.  Can you identify your own emotion?  Is it difficult to identify?  Do you feel guilty acknowledging how you feel?  Those who answer yes, may be struggling with codependent patterns in relationships.  Next time we will more closely define codependency and consider another way it shows up—when our caring for others becomes caretaking.  See you then!

What type of freedom do you choose?

These days we typically think of ourselves as “free” in our choices and how we live our lives.  However, for those struggling with mental illness and addiction the idea of freedom is often shaped by years of twisted thinking and recovery can seem an insurmountable obstacle due to fears of additional failure and the simple unknown.  Freedom sometimes comes to be seen in staying in the known entity of depression or addiction, choosing to be bound.

In these conversations I am often reminded of the following quote from Margaret Atwood’s A Handmaid’s Tale:  “There is more than one kind of freedom…Freedom to and freedom from.  In the days of anarchy, it was freedom to.  Now you are being given freedom from.  Don’t underrate it.” (p.24).  The quote is in a recollection by the main character of how her now fully controlled society was presented as she and other women were indoctrinated into their new profession as “Handmaids.”  The book is a first person narrative from a woman known as “Offred” (Fred being the man whose handmaid she is).  She shares this quote early in the book while considering the sharp contrast of the current society to her own past, when women lived in fear of rape or attack by men–a problem her society has “eliminated” by introducing extreme control.

This line always stood out vividly for me as a perspective on the different freedoms that one gains by avoidance vs. license.  In Offred’s current world, she is free of the fear of sexual violence, but lacks the freedom to be in any other type of relationship with men than as a handmaid (and faces serious consequences if she breaks the law).  In some ways she has adjusted, but when she is given a new taste of “freedom to,” she clings to it desperately.  As noted, the idea of “freedom from” becomes tempting for those dealing with mental illness, particularly when individuals become discouraged and begin to wonder if the fight is worthwhile.  There is a type of safety in the known aspects of the sadness, anger, fear, or broken relationships.  That perceived safety makes the unknown of change appear to be an overwhelming risk, leading to thoughts along the line of “at least I know what each day will bring if I stay here.”  The struggle with the illness can seem more daunting than the illness itself–particularly when the depression, etc. has been a part of daily life for many years.  Individuals can be tempted to draw back in to the pain and dysfunction, knowing they are losing other options, but choosing freedom from the struggle.

Returning to our example, Offred is torn at various points between the safety of status quo and her internal desire for a different type of freedom.  Ultimately, her desire draws her into the danger of pursuing it.  Likewise, though the struggle was difficult, I have yet to meet the individual who has tasted freedom from addiction or mental illness and was hoping to return back into the pain and bondage of the past.  Is a change scary if you have lived with this way for many years?  Absolutely!  Will working through your issues ensure you a perfect life?  No.  But it comes with the benefit of being able to experience life in a more full, connected, and (hopefully!) joyful way.

So what is the big picture?  No matter what your story is, there will be points where you will have choices about whether to press forward towards the hope of healing or to retreat into the familiar emotions and coping skills of the past.  There are certainly appropriate times for “freedom from,” but my hope is that you will trust those who have gone before you that change and healing ARE possible.  Change is not instant, easy, or even a straight line progression, it will have times of mistakes and feel strange, but a life with a healed outlook and managed illness is a worth fighting for.


A Very Stepford Life

Facebook.  Pinterest.  Twitter.  Blogs.  We have become adept at remotely keeping tabs on our peers–and our peers have become adept at presenting us carefully edited versions of themselves, their relationships, and everything else.  Logically we know we are seeing mere snapshots of a life but we still buy into the fantasy and and can become bitter over our own lack of perfection.

Speaking of perfection, do you remember the premise of  Ira Levin’s “The Stepford Wives”?  The story is fascinating and terrifying as it chronicles the strange town of Stepford where all the women eventually become single-minded, beautiful, meek versions of themselves, wholly focused on cleaning their homes and catering to their men.  We know little of the men’s actual thoughts on the process, but we do see that they actively submit their wives to this transformation (the book is unclear on what must be done to achieve the result) but we do see them walking through a process of increasing dissatisfaction with their wives.  The process seems to start when the local illustrator draws a picture of the woman, presenting her as a flawless version and creating a “blueprint” for who she will become.  From there, the men slowly separate sexually, emotionally, and with their time as they put the blocks in place to achieve their goal of having the “perfect” wife.

As I read the descriptions of the transformations I found my mind wandering to the potential blueprints of ourselves we alternately pine after and project on our social networks. We rush to pin and share pictures of perfectly manicured homes, clothing, and tips to become ever more the domestic goddess/fantastic parent/perfect wife and so forth.  Has the Stepford fantasy become something we confuse with reality?

In Levin’s tale, the men become enamored with a fantasy over a real, flawed relationship and life.  It is easy to fall into that both in our relationship with ourselves and with others.  So much perfection is presented to us as being attainable it becomes easy to become angry with ourselves when we don’t measure up.  We are now the ones drawing the picture of who we should be and (figuratively) killing ourselves to achieve the fantasy.  That dissatisfaction can spread into our other relationships and show up in frustration when the people around us don’t conform to the life we are trying to create.

There isn’t anything wrong with striving for improvement (sometimes it is needed and achievable), however, when that striving causes us to resent the mixed bag of messiness and happiness that make-up healthy relationships things are heading down a slippery slope.  (Please note, I am not addressing the need for change in relationships with unhealthy patterns, but individuals in basically healthy relationships.)  While I doubt any of my readers would replace their spouse or child with an animatron in pursuit of perfection, we can often lose out on enjoying the good things in our relationships because of our desire for perfect things.

If you find yourself on the dissatisfaction slope, perhaps it is time to stop looking at the imperfect that surrounds you and focus on the good.  Complement yourself.  “Catch” your spouse being helpful and thank him or her.  Remind yourself that children’s noise and messiness can be a sign of a happy and active imagination. True satisfaction does not come from perfection but from embracing the good within the natural flaws of life.

So, next time you look at an image of a perfect house/child/body and begin to regret your own life, remember that perfection is rarely reality and consider its potential price.


The Capitol asks you to consider…

So, “The Hunger Games” is (are?) upon us, this time in film form!  I read the books over the fall and was taken with the characters, the story, and the way the story was told.  I could probably spend 20 blog posts considering various psychological elements of the book (and plan to dig in with a couple of characters over the next week) but what keeps coming to my mind today is the eerie similarity between the current excitement over the film coming out and the excitement in the book amongst the residents of the Capitol over the annual Hunger Games.  When we sit back and consider, the vast majority of us who read these books have more in common with the vapid and occasionally cruel residents who fill the capital than with the individuals fighting for survival every day in the districts.  This is interesting, because we all read the books and want to be identified with Katniss and her friends (did you see any halloween costumes of Peacekeepers, Game Makers, or President Snow?).  We want to be aligned with the righteously angry, those who rebel against injustice, and those who protect the weak among us.  This is why I love literature; it provokes us to examine our lives and assumptions and can drive us to change.  So, before you pre-purchase tickets to the Friday showing, let’s take a moment to ask some questions:

1)  Consider where the majority of your time, talent, and energy goes.  What does your use of time tell you about what you value?  Is it time for an adjustment?

2)  How does the relative comfort and plenty of the world we live in shape how you view your problems and the problems of others?

3)  We aspire to be people who are heroes to those who are hurting–what are simple ways you can be a “hero” to someone around you?  Are their opportunities to make a difference around you that you may be missing?

The point of this is NOT that being comfortable and content is bad–it would be wonderful if all were comfortable and content.  Instead, the point is to urge consideration of the world outside of ourselves.  There are various times where Katniss remarks on the self-absorption of the people she meets in the Capitol with their abiding focus on clothes, gossip, and the next Hunger Games.  Their downfall is not what they enjoy or the life they happen to have been dealt, but their lack of concern for others and understanding that others are struggling around them.  My readers of Christian faith will recognize that caring for those in need is a call and command in various Bible passages that encourage the church to look after the widows and orphans in their midst (Deut. 10:17-19, James 1:27).

Make sure that you aren’t missing places you can make a difference, even in a small way.  Talk to the quiet person at church or in the office, put some granola bars in your car to give the man on the street corner, use your couponing skills to enable you to give food to a local shelter.  Most of the time being a “hero” simply starts with opening our eyes to the reality of the world around us and having the courage to engage.

Take-out Version: Stay engaged with the world around you–how can you be a hero to someone in need?


Their end, her beginning

Miss Edith Carr.  If the reader finds his or her feelings regarding Kate Comstock confusing in A Girl of the Limberlost, Edith provides an equal conundrum.

We initially meet Edith through the eyes of her fiance, Philip, who has come to the town near Elnora’s house to recover from a long illness.  Philip is devoted her for her beauty and refinement and they have known each other for many years.  Though devoted, we see Philip’s definition of a quality woman expand as he grows to know Elnora and appreciate her vitality, hard work, and love of nature.  He does not fully recognize it himself, but the seeds of a love relationship are being planted.

When Philip returns to Chicago we begin to see Edith more fully and see how she has a carefully cultivated image of self as being irresistible to all comers and worthy of worship by the man in her life.  She occasionally will end the engagement with Philip in a fit, but he manages to soothe the temper and reunite them.  Their relationship is finally broken when she is magnificently dressed in a gown designed in the purples and yellows of the emperor moth for their engagement party and when a live emperor moth appears at the party, Philip leaves her side briefly to send it to Elnora.  Edith then (rightly) understands that there is a deeper connection there than she imagined and is angry that he would try to make her like the moth which represents Elnora to him.  In this she is rightly angry (in my opinion).  However, it seems that another root of her anger is in her pride being wounded due to her belief that she has full power over Philip and that his role is to cater to her every whim.  In her anger she publicly throws her ring on the ground, ending their engagement.

What follows is the humbling of Edith Carr.  In spite of being warned that Philip will not return after so public a break, she fully believes herself irresistable to him and demonstrates this in many ways.  When she fails to lure him back we see her begin to come to terms with the true nature of her attachment to him and how little she actually brought to the relationship.  Ultimately, she is broken to the point where she sends a message to Philip’s regarding Elnora’s location (Elnora having gone away to give Edith time to try out her plans to lure Philip back.  Philip at this point has been hospitalized for “brain fever” due to his distress over not being able to find her).  It is this action that shows that in her loss Edith has come to fully understand what it means to love another.

In an era that often sees love as something that you seek to get and earn we can learn from Edith’s struggle with her distorted view of what a marriage relationship should look like.  In her distortion, she believed that love was built on being something that others adored and expected that adoration to be shown in indulgences of all kinds.  When she has come to terms with her own imperfections we then see her wrestle with accepting that she is worthy of being loved.  Both of these are fallacies that many embrace.  The first is that love is about me having exactly what I want and desire and the second, that I have to be deserving of love to obtain it.  Both of these distortions belie the fact that healthy love is a gift.  It is not a commodity or something to be demanded.  It is not earned (if so, what infant could ever account for the depth of parental love).  Love requires the sacrifice of the giver–sometimes of time, sleep, comfort, or even sacrificing the safety of invulnerability.  In a healthy relationship there will be mutual care and sacrifice (we can discuss another day the difference between love and co-dependency) leading to both parties having their needs met.

Edith is at peace with herself, Elnora, and Philip at the end of the book–she is worn from her emotional struggle, but ready to move forward.  She struggled with whether she was still lovable after discovering that she was selfish because her original view of love was built on a concept that certain people earned it, fortunately we see her embrace a broader view and allow herself to be loved in a tender and deep way.

Take-out Version:  Love is something we should seek to give, not earn.  Take time to consider both how you give love in your relationships and your beliefs about who you have to be to receive love.

Small problems are problems too…

I’ve been trying to finish this blog post for over a week now and I keep struggling to bring it to life.  This is ironic because I’m writing on the topic of Bram Stoker’s “Dracula” and book about, ahem, the undead.  In order to not bury what I want to say too deep in this post, this book presents a stirring picture of the dangers of avoiding our problems and assuming that when an overarching goal is reached, the problems will disappear.

Here’s a quick recap:  In the tale, the main characters become deeply acquainted with the work of Dracula when they see their friend Lucy transformed into a hardened creature of the undead.  These men then become so focused on destroying Dracula himself, that they ignore the small signs of his preying on the other woman of their party.  She (Mina) ignores the signs as well even though she watched Lucy’s demise.  We see how the group’s knowledge from observing Lucy leads them to feel safe, but their focus on pursuing Dracula blinds them to what is in front of their eyes (Mina being targeted).  They almost lose Mina to the same fate as Lucy from their tunnel vision.

Going back to my original point, the character’s assume Mina’s fatigue is due to stress and will be resolved when their task is over.  We walk around saying, “well, when I get promoted I won’t have to spend so much time at the office and my marriage/relationship with kids/money problems will improve.”  Sure, sometimes changes in jobs do help with these problems, but if you are focused on the wrong issue (a better job will solve this) rather than the real issue (I need to tend to my relationships) then by the time the goal is reached the other problems have created deep damage that is difficult to repair.  In the story above, the difference between Mina’s survival and Lucy’s was understanding and intervention.  Once they acknowledged that the problem was more than Mina’s tiredness and intervened, they had the possibility to prevent her transformation as well.  The lesson we can take away is to acknowledge the problems in your life that seem small and deal with them.  You can work on relationships, debt, personal emotional health, etc. while pursuing other goals.  You may find that your goals are easier to reach with out the small problems weighing you down!

Take-out Version:  Don’t assume solving the big problem will resolve the smaller ones–take time to resolve issues as they arise!