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Re-Discover A Child’s Goodness

Every Saturday morning I go to a spinning class with our two daughters, which is truly the highlight of my week. On the way to the gym this morning the girls were asking me about a book proposal I am working on regarding how we are born with  goodness and how it withers or flourishes depending on what we are taught and the quality of our early relationships. I was mentioning how prejudice is taught, destroys goodness, and is not a natural way a child sees the world. Alaina, age 28 and our youngest, is a kindergarten teacher and immediately related a fun story that spoke to the openness of a child’s mind.

Alaina teaches in the same building in her hometown where she first entered school herself. The other kindergarten teacher in the building was Alaina’s first teacher ironically.  Alaina’s colleague is in her late fifties and on Friday was teaching a lesson on prejudice using the life of
Martin Luther King Jr. as an example of how things used to be, and how he helped millions overcome discrimination. As she spoke to the children she said, “Years ago when I was your age black people had to sit on the back of school buses, couldn’t drink from the same water fountains and couldn’t eat in the same restaurants as white people”.  The teacher could see little Jenny thinking deeply as she was discussing how unfairly people were being treated back then—Jenny then raised her hand and innocently asked “So wait…you were black when you were a kid.” Alaina then said mthat the best part of teaching young children is that they have little conception of prejudice. She has children from Australia, England, Japan, China and India in her class. They don’t see color as something that matters and when they talk about different religious holidays the children seem genuinely curious and interested. “They are naturally good to each other, and the ones with the greatest empathy are always the children who have the most friends and seem the most comfortable”. Alaina said these experiences remind her of the
wonderful movie “The Help”. She recalled how much the children in the movie loved “the help” and only began experiencing prejudice as they began modeling their parent’s behavior.

We all, at one time, possessed the open-mind andinquisitive nature Jenny displayed. We need, as a society, to return to the time when we viewed all people as equal, when our views of those seemingly different than us did not stop us from finding out who they are, what they are like, and what is the common ground between us. Inherent goodness opens doors, prejudice closes doors and allows goodness to wither, onlybeing expressed to a rare few.
Goodness comes from a pure heart and is expressed through the empathy we feel for others. Extensive studies at The Prejudice Institute in Baltimore affirm the obvious fact that children and adults who feel good about themselves feel good about others, and want to do good for others. In these studies 60% of children ages 11 and older had not yet developed a positive attitude about themselves. Poor self concept made children more prone to prejudice and lessened their desire to be giving. Our responsibility as adults is to rid ourselves of prejudice so we don’t pass on distorted thinking to our children and at the same time we need to foster their self worth by displaying our goodness within and toward others.                                                                                                                                                                                            How do we return to a pure state of goodness given how life’s experiences have changed the way we perceive and interact? How do we counter a societal trend to be self absorbed and self serving rather than being selfless and giving?

How do we Re-Discover Goodness?
We are born with goodness and also with the potential for destructive impulses. If goodness is fostered by the important people in our lives we move into the world without bias and prejudice and our world view is expansive. We can then relate to a diverse group of people and we are healthier and happier as studies indicate. If we are taught prejudice and bias we become narrow thinkers, more fearful and anxious and are only comfortable with those in our small group. We then tend to classify people as to good or bad. People can be trusted if they are in our tribe, religion, culture and political group, those outside are to be feared and not trusted. We are programmed physiologically and neurochemically for altruism, empathy and goodness. All mammals are programmed for cooperation in order to survive and thrive. Goodness is then good for us physically and spiritually as it is necessary on several levels. When goodness is fostered early in life instead of narrow thinking we feel good, are happier and we want to be giving to others.
As this potential develops we move beyond our group and want good things for our community and the world at large. We care about all people because we are all people. We see ourselves in others throughout our society and world.
This natural progression occurs when we stop trying to correct what is wrong with us and start discovering what is right with us. When goodness is rediscovered we naturally extend ourselves to others.

Good Relating
As adults rediscover their goodness they realize that in order to be and do good we need to develop our relationship skills as the ability to relate is the vehicle by which goodness is transferred from one soul to another. Thus becoming a better listener, being able to be present and maintain focus as well as being able to be truthful in a tactful, assertive way becomes important in transmitting goodness to others.

Recent studies have indicated that empathy, the heart and soul of the expression of goodness, is withering in our current society. A recent study at the University of Michigan’s Institute of Social Research found that college students today are 40% less empathic than they were in 1979, the largest decline coming in the last decade. We have become more self indulgent and as we gain materially we seem to be losing our perspective on the value of goodness and giving.
Numerous studies have indicated that as people acquire more wealth they become less compassionate, less ethical and more driven by greed (National Academy of Sciences, 3/12).

The Goodness Renaissance Project
We are living in a time of anxiety and uncertainty, feeling that we have lost our way. Goodness is the way. A true rediscovery of goodness is not just an option, it is a necessity. The Goodness Renaissance Project is an initiative to help people begin the process of rediscovering what we came into the world with and have lost. My hope is that this international effort will be the beginning of a goodness movement that will continue to increase by numbers daily, becoming a powerful force for placing good behavior and good
actions at the foundation of our society. Please join us in this most important undertaking at http://www.facebook.com/pages/The-Goodness-Renaissance-Project/104778329611615.

Arthur P. Ciaramicoli, Ed.D.,Ph.D.

http://www.facebook.com/pages/The-Goodness-Renaissance-Project/104778329611615

 

 

The Mind of the Bully-The Empathy Solution

Not long ago a patient of mine pleaded with me to find time to see her son in consultation. Marie is a single mom raising two boys, ages 19 and 16. She has been divorced for several years, her alcoholic husband hit her one too many times and she left him when the boys were quite young.

Her oldest son Nathan has had a very troubling life, often acting out in school, quite aggressive and extremely disrespectful of authority. He quit high school in his junior year, has drifted throughout the country and eventually found what he has come to call his new family, the infamous group called white supremacists.

I agreed to see Nathan and our one time consultation proved to be invaluable in my further understanding of the mind of the bully. Nathan proudly let me know that he has beaten blacks, Jews, gays, Italians, Puerto Ricans etc. He made it clear in the early moments of this consultation that he and his fellow supremacists were the only ones who were truly protecting American values.  His initial story was not uncommon, I am sure you have heard these descriptions of violence in the name of distorted views of justice.

The Real Story-The Hidden Injury

    Nathan was particularly prideful about his hatred of blacks; he talked of how they were truly inferior, less intelligent than whites, living off the system as he continued to ramble on about their destruction of white society for several minutes. I listened for the most part as he ranted. At one point he commented that he knew I must agree with his views.” After all my mom said you’ve been at Harvard and “there aren’t many blacks walking around in Cambridge”. I of course informed him there were many black professors at Harvard and in particular several who were noted for their brilliance in the medical school.  He argued and again I just let him vent. After I was able to calm him by listening attentively I slowly asked him if he would give me an honest answer to an important question. He proudly said of course as I knew he would not want to convey retreat. I asked him if he thought he would score higher on an IQ test than one of my black colleagues if I could arrange for testing in a few days. He fumbled for an answer and for the first time I could see his exposed vulnerability. “I’ve never been school smart; it doesn’t matter anyway on the street”.

I then complimented him for answering honestly. He was surprised as he did not exactly answer my question. I mentioned that he revealed his answer without many words and although he was feeling angry I could tell he was an honest person. Nathan, at this point, had calmed down somewhat and I knew I had his attention. I then asked if I could ask a second question and he agreed. His pride seemed to be pushing him forward.

                               The Scene of the Crime-the Original Story

I asked Nathan how it came about that he developed such hatred for blacks. He went on tell me how he grew up in a poor neighborhood outside of Boston. He was one of the few white kids on his street and he was taunted and hit on the bus repeatedly by black kids who were older and stronger. He felt totally humiliated day after day. “I told my old man what was going on but he was always too drunk and never did a dam thing about it, my mother was too scared herself and eventually we moved but not after me learning what these n……were really all about”.

The Bully was Bullied

As Nathan told of his early suffering and how his rage developed he began to mellow, at one point his rage turned to tears. The origin of his hatred was clear, there is always a story of hurt, humiliation and damaged self worth behind feelings of rage. We ended our conversation that night and I never saw Nathan again. His mom moved to Florida to take care of her elderly parents shortly thereafter. A few months ago I received an email from Marie saying Nathan had left his so called friends and was living with the her and his grandparents. She said things were still quite difficult, his temper could erupt at any moment but he was enrolled in an IT school to gain certification as a technician. She also mentioned he seemed to be benefitting from conversations with her father, an ex marine who had great respect for what violence can do to a person’s life.

                                               An Ordinary Human Being

You may think of Nathan as unusual and in many ways despicable. After all he took delight in bullying and beating innocent people. He is however not so unusual in terms of the development of a bullying personality. Aggression fosters aggression, empathy fosters empathy.  Nathan, like many other abusers, was abused himself. He lived with unbearable humiliation, lacked the support of a stable family to help him cope and as a result eventually feel prey to the seduction of the supremacists. They initially offered him connection, support and a family structure that seemed to guarantee him safety and security. They united with him in rage toward a common enemy as they superficially built up his self esteem. They praised him for following their dictates and rewarded his bullying under the disguise of protecting white people who were being robbed of their independence and rights.

I am reminded of the classic studies by psychologist Stanley Milgram when he was determined to understand how seemingly ordinary people could commit atrocities such as those perpetrated by the Nazi’s during the holocaust.

Dr. Milgram designed an experiment where some individuals were told that they were helping researchers to find ways to improve memory. They were divided into roles of teachers and learners. Learners were to memorize a set of words, teachers would administer the testing. In actuality the learners were actors implanted by Dr. Milgram. Teachers were to deliver and electric shock for wrong answers, beginning with 15 volts. The control panel of the electroshock machine was labeled slight shock to danger to severe shock. Even though the learners were shouting “ I can’t stand the pain” at 450 volts, once the experimenter stated that he would assume all responsibility two thirds of the teachers continued to elicit shocks to the very end of the scale. This result shocked the researchers themselves but proved that ordinary, decent people could perpetrate acts of violence and cruelty.  This experiment has been duplicated many times indicating that when people shift their sense of responsibility to an authority they are capable of doing immense harm. Nathan had shifted his sense of responsibility to group leaders, freeing him to unleash his sadistic side without evoking his conscience.

                            Human Beings are born to Care not Hurt

Numerous studies indicate that we are genetically programmed to care for each other. If however were abused, neglected or humiliated the capacity for empathy withers and we are left with a sense of helpless rage toward those who inflicted suffering on us. I was asked recently by a reporter if empathy can be taught. I answered in seconds, “absolutely”.

In conducting group psychotherapy sessions over the years I have witnessed many individuals develop this capacity even if it was under-developed for most of their lives. Human beings cannot resist empathic attunement. Even Nathan, with all his rage, began to soften as he felt understood. I saw in his eyes the hurt humiliated boy who desperately was searching for understanding, belonging and safety. When we don’t feel secure and safe we are vulnerable to being manipulated by predators and we are vulnerable to forming long lasting prejudices that fuel resentment and chronic unhappiness.

                                             The Societal Factor

If as a society we want to reduce bullying and aggression we have to place more emphasis on teaching cooperation and less emphasis on idealizing the win at all costs attitude. We reward the aggressor in many instances on a regular basis. Professional athletes and celebrities act with disdain for human life and we forgive them because they perform and achieve on high levels. This attitude promotes valuing status over character and achievement over quality relationships.  If our goal is to become rich materially at the expense of becoming poor spiritually we will continue to witness acts of terror. Our young people will continue to take their lives as they envision no hope for fairness and equality in a society devoid of empathic understanding of differences.  Developing and expanding our innate capacity for empathy is the salve our society is in desperate need of, let us all place our inherent goodness as the guiding motivation to living and behaving with compassionate and tolerance. Our youth is in need of rescue, it is a critical, immediate need we are responsible to fulfill.

Arthur P. Ciaramicoli, Ed.D., Ph.D.

http://www.facebook.com/pages/The-Goodness-Renaissance-Project/104778329611615

Author of The Curse of the Capable: The Hidden Challenge to a Balanced, Healthy, High Achieving Life.

Basic Goodness in our Troubled World

Goodness is defined as the best part of anything. Goodness is surely the best part of human beings. It is when we act with kindness, generosity, strength and integrity. Henry David Thoreau said that “goodness is the only investment that never fails”. It never fails because when we engage others with an attitude of goodness we produce what we are biologically and spiritually programmed to do. We produce the hormone oxytocin, which has been called the hormone of compassion which is elicited when we bond through the relational qualities that goodness embodies. We all possess basic goodness but depending on how resilient we are in facing day to day challenges this inherent quality can recede into the background of our lives.

What interferes with our basic nature?

We probably all remember being told to “be good” by our parents and those of us raised in one of the major religions remember being told to “do good” in the service of others. Over time these phrases have been taken for granted and have seemed to have lost the basic message they were intended to deliver. If we do not appreciate the value of goodness we are unlikely to live from this perspective. Human beings are kinder to each other when we feel safe and secure. With the rise of aggression in our culture, the threat of terrorism, the increase of bullying in our schools and in our workplace we find ourselves in a position of fear. Fear creates anxiety, anxiety creates distorted thinking and ultimately distorted thinking creates an inflexible, overly simplified view of the world. These recent changes in our culture have promoted a lack of good will toward others and fostered more self absorption and less outward giving.

                                        Black and White Thinking

Studies have proven that when we feel secure bias and prejudice is markedly reduced. Perception and mood are closely related, when we feel understood and secure we are more likely to perceive accurately and more likely to do good rather than do harm.  Social psychologists have long established that avoidant or anxious individuals will bolster their own self worth by imagining that their group, whether ethnic, religious or otherwise is superior. This defensive posture creates rigid thinking, the black and white perceptions that promote simplified theories of human beings and their affiliations. Rigidity protects a fragile sense of self; it creates an artificial road map that gives an insecure person answers and direction to life complexities. Establishing a world view on anything but the truth will ultimately create more and more fear. Anxious people avoid new ideas and new ways of thinking, while avoidant people run from new challenges, both fearing loss of self esteem if they give up their entrenched beliefs.

                                      To Do Good We Must Feel Good

If we have a solid sense of self we are far more likely to be gracious to groups other than our own. We emerge with greater tolerance of differences when we have been loved, respected and understood in the early parts of our lives. If we received the empathic resonance all young people crave we grow with optimism and with an excitement about learning new and novel ideas from new and novel people. It begins in our families. If our parents had friends of diversity, if they were open to learning new possibilities to replace less functional ideas we are likely to value and feel happy when learning. This is the opposite experience of those who grew up in insecure households where the enemy was outside and the only good people remain inside. Goodness then takes on a distorted meaning promoting the idea that we should only be and do good to our own, not those unlike us. If you talk to any early childhood educator they will tell you it takes only a few days in the initial school year to identify the empathic children who love life, love learning and most importantly love making friends. Knowing how to express goodness makes us happy, more energetic and more resilient. We have more skills to manage daily living. We are not limited in our pursuits of knowledge and we are not limited in the array of people we can befriend. Young children feel the way we feel but they don’t think the way we think, therefore learning must take place by doing and feeling. When learning is recorded on a visceral level it is embedded in the deepest part of our memory bank. Experience shapes our early outlook of ourselves and the world, children pay far less attention to what we say and far more attention to what we do.  The old saying, “ do as I say not as I do” is an hypocritical message based on myth not on the true realities of how  learning actually takes place. We are the models, the teachers who must convey a sense of excitement about doing good for all people.

                                             Teaching Goodness

To uncover the basic goodness in each of us we must make a disciplined effort. We must recognize that goodness is part of our being; it is at the heart of our humanness. We have to move away from excluding anyone based on bias and prejudice. Goodness is not just for those who adhere to the Judeo-Christian ethic or the Buddhist or Muslim ethic or for that matter goodness is as much inherent to atheists as to any group. We are all born with this inherent capacity. But what if we have been raised to believe that one group is superior to another, or that several of our thinking patterns are superior to others. I can assure if you think your education, race, religion, vocation, income, or location make you superior you are profoundly mistaken and doomed to a life of superficial relationships.

We teach goodness by the way we live, not by holding on to fixed ideas to shore up our sense of self. Be honest with yourself, acknowledge situations and people who threaten you and go about resolving these issues rather than punishing innocent people for being their authentic selves. You will never be comfortable in your own skin unless you have the courage to allow yourself to be vulnerable and discover where you need to grow and learn. In many instances we need to un-learn mistaken positions we have held on to defensively. Old hurts are recorded deeply in the brain; we are programmed to remember what caused us fear. Fear creates rigid thinking which leads to false theories and inaccurate judgments. Re-evaluate your past with today’s wisdom and in the process you will release your dormant innate goodness. Thomas Paine, one of our Founding Fathers when asked about his philosophy of life, replied “My country is the world, my religion is to do good”. Our world would surely be a better place if his words became synonymous with our actions on a daily basis.

Arthur P. Ciaramicoli, Ed.D., Ph.D.

http://www.facebook.com/pages/The-Goodness-Renaissance-Project/104778329611615

Author of The Curse of the Capable: The Hidden Challenge to a Balanced, Healthy, High Achieving Life.

 

Suffering Unleashes Goodness

A few weeks ago I was talking with one of my patients about his recent release from the hospital where he was treated for a major infection. He was telling me he had to get home to cook the turkey for Thanksgiving. He was bringing the meal to his elderly parents, his mother is recovering from her second bout of breast cancer and his dad is currently struggling with the effects of Leukemia. Joe also mentioned that he invited a few of his workers to dinner as he knew they had nowhere else to go for the holiday as their families were far away.

I met Joe some time ago when he was referred to me for stress related work problems. He had a thriving construction business, owned several rental properties in addition to a beautiful home on Cape Cod. He son was turning 8 and his wife complained of his working seven days a week and not being a very tolerant husband. Joe has always been a perfectionist, holding himself and others to very high standards. He had trouble maintaining employees as he often drove them as hard as he drives himself.  His anger would often get the better of him, leading to physical altercations on a few occasions. Nevertheless he impressed me as well intentioned and in many ways good hearted.  I could tell early on he was not someone who would be easy to work for or live with. His intolerance for anyone who didn’t see things his way seemed to be a characteristic of his black and white thinking. He once told he had no room for the gray in life, “you either step up and do the work or get out of the way” was his motto.

Out of Despair Kindness Arises

       One rainy day Joe’s entire life ironically changed for the better. He fell off a roof and became paralyzed. He was used to scaling buildings, walking great heights and using potentially fatal power tools. On this day, he was in a hurry to make a dentist appointment. His attention dropped, his foot slipped and the next thing he knew he was on his back struggling to breathe.

As you might expect Joe went through a profound depression after the accident. Joe’s wife eventually filed for divorce, continuing a time in his life that seemed like the worst nightmare possible.

I lived through Joe’s depression. I visited him in a Boston hospital after I learned he was paralyzed. His first words to me were, “Doc, can you believe this happened to me? What am I going to do? I could lose my business. How will I support my family? This is crazy. I can’t live like this! You know I can’t!” I cried when I left his room. I felt empty with a deep sense of sadness as I drove home, wondering how I could help Joe and how he could ultimately help himself.

How could this man, in his late 30’s, very successful, two homes, real estate, land purchases, see it all come crumbling down and recover? His wife had left him. Two years later his father developed leukemia; then his mother discovered she had breast cancer. The only friend he felt understood his plight was a fellow paraplegic he met in rehab. Unfortunately, his friend committed suicide shortly thereafter, not being able to cope with the life of a paraplegic. We started our journey with a momentous mountain in our path.

The first two years of our meetings were filled with grief, anger and despair. I listened as Joe told me how much he missed walking, running and skating. He’d been a stellar athlete and a very physical man all his life. How could he ever work out again? How could he regain his business? Would he disappoint his son?  He was afraid he wouldn’t be able to teach him how to hit a baseball, fish, ski, etc. Would his ex-wife’s new boyfriend take his place in his son’s heart? All these fears filled his mind, all based on a loss of complete control.

He constantly asked me what I thought about regaining his business, how could he continue his role as a father and whether he would ever drive again. We found a physical therapist who would train him to condition his upper body so that he could move more adeptly in his chair. He called truck manufacturers to see if a vehicle could be made for him to drive. We talked about how he could train men to be part of his construction business. He eventually trained two men, and he even had them hoist him up on to the very roof he’d fallen from to face his fear and most importantly, “to finish that goddamn job.”

We made a plan to call old customers to let them know he was back in business. He asked the baseball commissioner of his son’s league if he could coach his team. Last spring they won their division and his son could not be more proud of his dad.

Today, Joe’s business is again successful. He goes to job sites daily and works out at a gym three times a week. He has made his home handicap accessible and has become a great cook. He had abandoned his church after the accident, but today he and his son attend every Sunday morning. “It gives me such a good feeling to be there with him.” He has unleashed the kindness that had been buried within him for years.

Goodness Changes the Brain

A few weeks ago, after one of our individual sessions, Joe remarked, “I am a better person as a paraplegic.” “I turned my life around; I’ve come to believe that people are basically good. So many strangers have cared for me, given me their best to help me get better; they made me a more compassionate person. I was always so hard on people; I never realized how difficult it was for me to trust anybody.”

The tragedies of Joe’s accident made him slow down and reflect as the circumstances overwhelmed him with emotion. He was not known for expressing feelings readily. Loss of control can be a blessing. It can actually lift a burden one has been carrying all through life.

Joe tried so very hard to control all aspects of his life—his work environment, his wife, his son, etc. He always thought he was doing the “right thing.” He never realized that people could not relax around him. They worried he would be easily displeased or that they would disappoint him if they didn’t make that “all-out” effort he encouraged.

Today he has learned how to listen rather than using his old style of lecturing. He can tolerate vulnerability rather than giving anyone who has a doubt a pep talk. He understands human frailty in a way he never considered before. As a result, people feel closer to him and he feels closeness with many people he never experienced closeness with before.

People who remain open to new experiences and who expand their social circle have an expanded capacity for learning. Their brains develop new neurons. They find life interesting, not a chore. They like to find the novelty in every situation and “mix it up” a little, as opposed to the routine predictability I often see in many of my adult clients.

Joe lives near the church where I rent space to do my group sessions. After group on Friday mornings, I meet Joe at his home for our weekly session.

One Friday morning I was early and arrived before him. I talked with Ronnie, a recovering drug addict who is staying with Joe—not because Joe needs help, but because Ronnie needs to put his life back together. Ronnie lost his job, his wife, his driver’s license and most of his friends because of cocaine; and he is having trouble figuring out how to adapt to the circumstances of his life.

When Joe arrived, he roared up on the motorcycle he had custom-outfitted for his particular disability. He had come from the lake where he was overseeing the construction of a dock at a camp for handicapped children so they could learn how to kayak and water ski. Last winter, Joe went skiing on a special ski with his young son in Aspen. He also won a deep sea fishing contest with his son in Canada this past summer.

Giving is a Survival Skill

A number of scientific studies as of late have indicated that being a giving person, an individual with a warm heart who extends himself or herself to others derives significant psychological benefits. Goodness stimulates the pleasure center of the brain, releases the feel good chemical dopamine,  and as a result this kind of empathic attunement is thought to protect our species by fostering cooperative efforts. Joe derived the benefits of giving as he was forced into a state of vulnerability. He learned through his tragic accident how vulnerability increases interpersonal capability. It would have seemed impossible to him to imagine loosing the use of his legs and immerging a happier person. It is a fact I have been privileged to witness. When we are open and honest with ourselves we can be open and honest with others. In the process we discover goodness in ourselves we can share with the rest of the world. It is surely a protective, connective process that allows us to remain healthy and vibrant. The opposite is true when we remain isolated and pre-occupied with our self interests to the exclusion of others.

In my experience leading group therapy sessions over the years I have continually noticed that when people become involved with other members in an empathic way they begin to feel better. The cure for depression and anxiety is not within but between us, as we enter the world of another we take a mental vacation from ourselves while influencing our neurochemistry positively.

Arthur P. Ciaramicoli, Ed.D., Ph.D.

http://www.facebook.com/pages/The-Goodness-Renaissance-Project/104778329611615

Author of the Curse of the Capable: The Hidden Challenge to a Balanced, Healthy, High Achieving Life.

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The Holidays are Coming…

Holiday Stress Tips

It’s that time of year again and many of my patients are already anticipating the pressure and emotional turmoil that each of our families bring to the holiday table.

One of my clients just left a session saying, “I love them all but they drive me crazy”. I asked her what behaviors specifically drive her crazy. She talked about her uncle who drinks too much, her mother who is a perfectionist and has to have “everything just right”, making everyone uncomfortable. She talked of her husband not helping enough with her sons on Christmas morning, the cousins who talk to load, each too much, sing off key and the aunt who makes the same horrible cake every year and on and on. We were both laughing at this point as Marie is incredibly funny and of course her Spanish family sounds so similar to my Italian family that I couldn’t help feeling right at home.

I’m guessing no matter what ethnic background you come from you can identify. At one moment when Marie became a bit somber I asked her how it would be to be without her father, who died of a heart attack in July. She began to tear, and started recalling all the Christmas’s of the past, how she wished she could return with him to those days. I asked if her perfectionist mother, her uncle who drinks too much, her aunt who is the horrible baker and her cousins who talk to loud and sing off key were there. Of course she remembers they were all present. Despite their idiosyncrasies her memories were filled with crazy love despite the imperfections of her family.

Marie is feeling more pressure this holiday season because it will be the first without her father. She is less tolerant of the shortcomings of family members because her loss over rides everything else.

As we age the holidays can still maintain their magic but they also consist of many memories we wish we could re-enact. We all lose people and dreams along the way. Maybe were not in the marriage we fantasized about, or maybe some are alone and wondering if there magical Christmas or joyous Hanukah will ever be with a special someone. Maybe we never quite reached the status we desired, or made the money we thought we would, or maybe we, like all other human beings, are forced to cope with the realities of an ever-changing life. Our dreams have been disrupted and the season and our lives are not quite what we fantasized.

Marie realized as we talked about her Dad that eventually a holiday season will come when all these irritating people will not be present, and she may indeed miss them. After all her Dad was expected to be here for many years to come. He wasn’t perfect but he was her first boyfriend and he truly loved family. He taught her to cherish all family members despite their faults, and family to him was not just blood relatives but all those whom he engaged in a genuine relationship.

Let’s all make Marie’s realization our holiday perspective. Life and family seldom go according to our dreams but we can make awesome memories if we give in to the reality of the people in our lives. We all know what to expect, try to accept or at least develop gratitude for the fact that we are here one more year to celebrate togetherness. It takes little ability to get along with people who act exactly the way we desire. True compassion, empathy and wisdom exist when we give up control and develop a loving heart with the family we were given, not the one we created in fiction. Someone your sitting next to this year may not be here next holiday season, and it could be you!
Arthur P. Ciaramicoli, Ed.D.,Ph.D.
Author of The Stress Solution: Using Empathy and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy to Reduce Anxiety and Develop Resilience

A Christmas Story


It has been several years since my Dad’s passing but there is one Christmas gift he gave that I remember more than any other.  Years later I still feel enormously grateful for the gift he gave me that never faded, never worn out and never failed to be a gift that sustained me throughout my life. I hope all parents will remember the meaning of this story as you contemplate what to give your children this season.

When I was 9 years old I asked for a Lionel train for Christmas. I wanted that train so much that I couldn’t think of anything else. I dreamed about it day and night, imagining what it would look like speeding along its miniature track. Nobody else in my neighborhood had a Lionel. I would be the first to own one, and that I believed would make me special.

On Christmas morning I woke up when it was still dark and tiptoed past my sleeping brother. The stairs creaked in our apartment so I stayed on the edges, hoping to keep the magic moment to myself. A light was on in the kitchen and I peeked in to see my father sitting at the table, drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes. He looked up at me, something shifted in my heart and I knew there would be no train under the tree.

Without a word I ran into the living room and stood before the Christmas tree. Blinking back tears and still believing in miracles I hoped the train would just suddenly appear before me. Maybe I missed it, I thought, picking up boxes and shaking them. Maybe it’s in a closet or maybe it’s outside on the porch.

“Arthur.”  My Father’s voice was gentle as he kneeled down next to me. “We could not afford the train. I’m sorry, because I know how much it meant to you.”

He put his hand around my wrist and squeezed, a gesture he used only when he was discussing issues of the utmost importance. “You may not understand what I am about to say now, but someday you will” he said. “On this Christmas morning, with just you and me in this room, I would like to give you a gift far greater than anything money can buy. I want you to know that I will always love you. No matter what happens in your life, I will always be with you, believing in you,supporting you,cheering for you. No father could ever love a son more than I love you, and that love will never rust or need repairs-it will always be yours, now and for the rest of your life.”

I must have given him a look of doubt and perhaps confusion-How can love make up for a Lionel?-for he squeezed my wrist tighter and leaned toward me. I breathed in the familiar, bittersweet odor of Chesterfields and Maxwell House coffee, mixed with plenty of sugar and cream. “Believe me  Arthur,” my father said, “this will come to mean more than any other gift I could give you, I promise you that.”

This Christmas, many years later, it is still the best gift I could have ever received. His love, even after he is gone, lives inside me in a very powerful way. Try to give the gift of eternal love this season, it is truly everlasting.

What is your favorite Christmas Memory? Please share it via comments below.

Connect with me on Twitter @DocAPC

Arthur P. Ciaramicoli, Ed.D.,Ph.D.

Author of The Stress Solution: Using Empathy and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy to Reduce Anxiety and Develop Resilience

10 Ways to Make Your Holidays Special

10 Wyas to Make the Holidays Special

  1. Write something very personal to those closest to you.
  2. Take time to purchase holiday cards that speak to the uniqueness of the person your addressing.
  3. Prepare or purchase foods that you know will please others, tailor your choices to those who you will be with.
  4. Make a toast before your main meal that honors the elders at your table.
  5. Include in your comments poignant stories of the history of the family.
  6. Watch “It’s a Wonderful Life” sometime during the holiday season.
  7. Open gifts with your favorite holiday music in the background.
  8. Choose music that enlivens the spirit and is holiday focused.
  9. My favorite is Karaoke at the end of the day; you’d be surprised how much fun it is for all.
  10. Don’t be inhibited, get up there and sing and dance. Make a video for golden memories.

Arthur P. Ciaramicoli, Ed.D.,Ph.D.
Author of The Stress Solution: Using Empathy and Cognitive  Behavioral Therapy to Reduce Anxiety and Develop Resilience

We All Have A Theory of Love

We all develop a theory of love based on our early experiences. Often these theories are quite inaccurate. Some believe if they acquire wealth and status they will be loved. Others believe if they are pleasing and compliant they will win the love of those they desire. Still others think if they are aggressive they can talk people into loving them, being relentless in the pursuit of love.  Some believe if we acquire love. Ironically none of these approaches work but we hold on to what we consciously or unconsciously have learned and we seldom realize the futility of our beliefs. The irony is that even if we did not like the way we saw love expressed these behaviors create a familiarity with certain types of people that profoundly influences who we choose to love.                                                                                                                

Where Did It Start?

If you were born in a family where your mother doted on your father you come to believe that this pattern is a form of love. If you were born into a family where one of your parents was always over-doing and desperately trying to please you may come to believe that this tendency brings love. The pattern you witnessed thousands of times before you reached adulthood became embedded in your psyche and dominates the way you try to maintain intimacy. We are extremely impressionable early in life. All human beings want to be loved so whatever relationship patterns you experience gets recorded in our young minds as the way to obtain affection. These patterns are very difficult to change without awareness and the courage to try new behaviors.

 Ralph’s Story

Ralph grew up as the youngest of five children, his father was aggressive and often frightening when he would take one of his tantrums. Ralph was close to his docile mother but always wished she would stand up to his father and make the atmosphere in the house calmer. Ralph’s dad wasn’t a bad person but he was a critical person. He nevertheless was his father’s favorite, probably because he tried the hardest of his siblings to please his dad. He would tolerate his father’s negative mood just to be with him as he derived some sense of connection by doing what his dad asked of him with energy and compliance.

  Ralph married someone very similar in temperament to his dad and he adopted a pleasing role with her. Eventually he developed an anxiety disorder as he couldn’t stand the lack of reciprocity in the marriage and ultimately they agreed to divorce. He remained a very involved father with his son, trying very hard to not repeat the sins of his father.

 Familiarity Breeds Repetition

Ralph has worked extremely hard to overcome the patterns he developed in his family, especially the non-productive, inaccurate theory of love he possessed. Being in a group therapy situation where all members are examining the unsuccessful theories they have constructed gave Ralph the sense that he was not alone. He discovered that many good, compassionate people have lost their way due to misguided attempts to find love. He realizes now that we all tend to gravitate to what is familiar even though it has caused us pain. It is human nature to be attracted to what we have experienced in our own families even though it is not a rational choice. Love is constructed through emotional learning not reason. We need to essentially unlearn what we recorded early in life.                                                     We also need to be keenly aware of our state of mind when we meet potential partners, it is especially important to factor in the variables that may cloud our vision. If you were recently divorced, experienced a death in your family, lost your job, or maybe you were diagnosed with a chronic illness, all these situations make you vulnerable and short sited. Of course the greatest contributor to poor relationships is our distorted theory of love.

  The Steps to Real Love

1)    Know your state of mind.

2)    Understand the behaviors you learned in your own family about love.

3)    Be dedicated to unlearning the patterns you know are misguided.

4)    Have the courage to try new, constructive behaviors, such as being assertive if you are typically submissive, becoming less intense if you typically overreact, etc.

5)    Expand your capacity for empathy; it’s necessary to enter the world of your partner to maintain closeness.

6)    Pay attention to your feelings and when you feel discomfort in the relationship express assertively and directly.

7)    Never be deceitful, dishonesty destroys the spirit of intimacy

8)    Don’t expect your partner to make up for your childhood hurts, that growth can only come from your own efforts.

9)    Spend more time learning about your partner’s character than about their resume.

10)                        

Work hard at discovering the inaccuracies of your theory of love and commit to understanding and implementing each step above.

Arthur P. Ciaramicoli, Ed.D.,Ph.D.

Charlie Sheen-”Winning” in America

Each morning I wake up, get ready for my workout, and turn on the TV as I take my first steps on the elliptical machine. Recently I see Charlie and his latest quips leading the morning news. Shortly thereafter my colleagues, journalists and media pundits tell viewers that he is bi-polar, schizophrenic, addicted to cocaine, or heroin, has a sex addiction and an anger problem that will shortly end his life.

The Pain of Generalizations

I have been a practicing clinical psychologist for over 35 years and I cannot diagnose Charlie Sheen with any certainty. I have watched the interviews and can see that he appears, and I accent the word appears, impulsive, angry, disoriented and quite anxious mixed in with grandiose thinking. However until he has been sober for a significant period of time it will be unclear as to which diagnosis will aptly fit his personality. Substance abuse frays our nervous system and it often takes months for a person’s neurochemistry to recover. In many cases when addiction ceases more than one diagnosis may be applicable. We generalize when we want to appear certain in the face of ambiguity for an assortment of reasons. Some people want to appear as the expert, others are prone to categorizing because they can’t stand the slow process of truly getting to know another person. Still others are simply unaware of the hurt they can cause a vulnerable soul by assuming and not knowing the truth.

Winning is an American Theme

We love winners in our culture, we love to follow the lives of celebrities and unfortunately we seem to love to see those who supposedly have everything fail in the public eye. Charlie Sheen, after all, is a winner as he frequently states according to the lifestyles our culture idealizes. He is a millionaire, he is a celebrity, he attracts the attention of millions every week on his TV show and he has the freedom to travel the world, speaking his mind and hanging out with seductive, attractive women. Doesn’t his resume speak to success according to our image driven way of thinking and behaving? Maybe it is not Charlie Sheen that is on display these days; maybe it is our way of being that is in the limelight.

We Win when We Understand the Truth

So if winning is not having celebrity status, if it is not simply created by acquiring money and notoriety, then what is winning in the truest sense of being human?
Study after study has proven that winning psychologically, emotionally and spiritually is when we become good people with a deep understanding of human nature. Money and status are not evils if they are seen from a realistic perspective. If you earn money because every day you do something you love and if what you do is in the service of others your occupation is a winner. If your character is such that you enjoy giving to others and if you enjoy creating an environment in your home, in your friendships and in your work where people can thrive due to your grace and generosity you are a winner of the grandest proportion. If you know how to love and sustain intimacy, if you are humble despite your achievements, if you disdain arrogance and value open mindedness, and oppose oppression of all people you are a spiritual winner. If you want to contribute to making our world a more compassionate, free and loving place to exist long beyond your lifetime you are a humanitarian winner.

My Wish for Charlie Sheen

Stop listening to the pundits on daily TV, resist fighting yourself and others and seek out the help of an experienced, empathic, proven mental health professional. Stay in treatment with that person until you can sustain an internal sense of calm and happiness that you have never before realized, then and only then will you be ready for the rigors and benefits of primetime.
Arthur P. Ciaramicoli, Ed.D., Ph.D.

http://www.balanceyoursuccess.com

Is Sex Necessary to Sustain Intimacy

In my last group therapy session members were discussing their levels of happiness in relation to all aspects of their lives.  This particular group ranges in age from mid-forties to mid -fifties. One of the women who was recently divorced said her major frustration in life is not having a sexual partner. “I haven’t had sex in more than a year, she kiddingly made light of the situation but we could all tell she was genuinely frustrated. As members began to open up she was surprised to hear that some married members do not have sex regularly. Two of our male members said they basically live in celibate marriages. Her reaction, “I don’t think I could stay married, why do you stay in such a negative situation”. Ironically the two men who currently have celibate marriages have been married the longest. One indicates that he has gained a new understanding of his situation over time. “My wife struggled with her weight all her life, as the years went on she felt more and more unattractive despite my telling her she looked good, I still love her but I have never been able to change her mind. Then menopause came early and the lights went out completely.  I admit I have been angry with her for a long time but through couples sessions I realize that it is not personal, it is something she is working on and I finally have come to believe it is not about me. I have hope for the future because I know we love each other and we’re both trying”.

                                    Sexual Desire is Complicated

    In my practice the story above is a very common, particularly as people age. There are a multitude of reasons as to why people become distant sexually. Unresolved conflict, ill health, poor fitness, depression, anxiety about body image, alcohol or drug use, sexual abuse and of course hormonal changes are all influential factors. In addition a person’s history with affection within one’s own family is a very important factor.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                            One of our group members is a person we all admire tremendously. He is not a driven or self absorbed person, his character is outstanding and his devotion to people in his community is quite impressive. He was divorced several years ago and his second marriage has been the best relationship of his life. However his wife has never had strong sexual desires and as she has aged her desire for sex has diminished greatly. Ron has periodically talked of his longing for her and how rejected he sometimes feels. He has periodically brought up the subject with her and he ultimately feels uncomfortable as his wife usually ends up feeling terrible. She loves him deeply and realizes she is disappointing him in significant ways. Ron knows his life loves him. They communicate well except for this very touchy subject, and have both been very committed to their children from both of their previous marriages. In our last group session he was asked how he copes with such infrequent sexual contact. “I don’t know really, I try to focus on the other aspects of our relationship. My wife is a very affectionate person, we cuddle on the couch and in bed so it’s not like I can’t feel her interest. I think of how wonderful she has been to my family, my dying father, my daughter over the years and I love how committed she is to the students in her class. I should talk to her more about our sexual relationship but I just don’t like hurting her. All in all I cope by knowing she is the best thing that ever happened to me. Do I wish we could make love occasionally? Of course but for now I have to look at the whole picture”.

                                        What is the Answer?

Sexuality in the early stages of a relationship is easy, takes very little skill and is usually filled with idealized projections of who the other persona is and how they will change our lives. As time goes on reality sets in and those who use sex for functional reasons often become disenchanted quickly. Sexual intimacy for them is not about loving it is about satisfying needs to lift self worth.  They seldom remain engaged long enough to truly love the essence of another person. They move on to another fantasized person who will temporarily serve as an anti-depressant.

         What about those individuals who come to truly love their partner. What do you do when sexual intimacy is lacking and emotional distance is growing? How do you decide to go on if you know intimacy may not be a major part of the relationship? These are extremely complicated questions for sure and they will take time and patience to answer accurately. It is most important to ask yourself if you are allowing for intimacy to develop. Examine your own behavior first and with the help of your partner try to be honest and open as to what you bring to the relationship that may hinder intimacy. For instance,  many people underestimate the need for relationships to be fostered and not taken for granted. If you don’t water the plant it withers, love is no different. After you have worked out your part with clarity you are in a better position to access the level of genuine love in your relationship. If it is truly absent it will be easier to make decisions. For instance my two patients above love their wives and thus they have decided to remain committed and will continue to work on the possibilities.

                                      Empathy creates Intimacy

   In order to maintain intimacy in any quality long term relationship we have to go beyond physical attraction to encompass the heart and soul of the person we have committed our lives to. Empathy leads us from the initial superficial connection to a deep, heartfelt relationship that involves knowing and loving the whole person. When we love and accept our partner’s imperfections we also find ourselves more acceptant of our own limitations and shortcomings.

     It is foolish to assume your sexual relationship will remain the same as when you first met. Many people long for the return to the initial infatuation phase.  It is far more fulfilling when we actually experience the depth of love that goes beyond imagination to a reality that is supportive, dependable and expansive. Ultimate intimacy is when two souls join together as one. As we have seen this may or may not include sexual intimacy. In any event when you establish this kind of depth you are in a much better position to judge the relevance and importance of sexuality to you and your partner. In my experience when couples love deeply and empathically they find a way to re-engage affectionately and often reach a satisfactory level of sexual intimacy.

                                          Arthur P. Ciaramicoli, Ed.D., Ph.D.

                                 Author of The Curse of the Capable: The Hidden Challenge to a Balanced, Healthy, High Achieving Life.

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