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We don’t earn acts of Grace!


      I was cycling the other day, near our summer home along the beautiful coast of Maine with a wonderful long time friend. As we passed thunderous waves he turned to me and said, “You work so hard you have earned this, I’m so glad for you”. He was surprised that I disagreed that I “had earned this” and immediately thought I was being self critical. He was mistaken in that I wasn’t feeling self critical at all, just realistic from my point of view. I know many people, friends and clients, who have worked as hard as I have and they have died of prostate cancer, breast and uterine cancer, and some are terminally at the moment. They have earned this good fortune as much or more than I.                                                            I think when we grow up with a negative story about ourselves we tend to have a punitive self voice. We believe that our fate in life is due to our achievements, our successes and when things don’t go well we feel less than, as if we failed and didn’t perform as well as we should. This attitude puts us at the center of all life circumstances, it makes us mistakenly think our lives and the lives of those close to us are exclusively dependent on our actions. We are therefore never in a position to accept acts of grace. Grace comes are way not because of what we do or what we don’t do. It is a variable some believe is directed by God, others believe it is the Universe directing our fate. I will leave the potential debate as to the causal agent of grace to theologians who possess far more wisdom than I in this matter. 

        The critical point for our purposes is that we are often not in control of the circumstances that effect our lives. When self criticism is an integral part of your self voice is it hard to accept that you are not always accountable for the direction of your life. If you were held overly accountable early in life, made to feel unrealistically responsible for others this tendency can be crippling and needs to change for you to feel emotionally liberated.

       Life, to a certain degree is like the weather. It is a beautiful day today, sun is shining, and the sea is glistening. I have been given, through grace, a beautiful day. I didn’t earn it, nor would I be responsible if it were raining. I am, of course, not implying that we have no control, just that we do not have ultimate control. We need to be able

 to distinguish what comes under our roof and what does not. I refer you to chapter 5 in “The Curse of the Capable, Loosen the Rains and Lift the Burden-Control” for further study if you wish.

Are you Preoccupied or Selfish?

In this morning’s group session one of our members abruptly announced he was going to take a three month trip across country with his wife and would be leaving group. Members were astounded as we have a guideline that when someone is going to leave they pick a date, and give advanced notice so we can go through a compete process of saying goodbye. This entails giving and receiving direct feedback, settling any leftover conflicts etc so the ending will feel and be complete. I have been through this process many times with clients and I have noticed over the years that the way people end, in essence how they deal with loss, is quite predictive of how their life will go in the future.

   How we cope with endings, how direct or indirect we are in our communication says a great deal about our ability to maintain closeness, intimacy and friendship. Rob is a very good person but highly self critical despite being enormously successful in his business, which is why he can afford to take such long vacations. He has suffered, by his own admission what I call “The Curse of the Capable”. He masks his insecurity and vulnerability through his achievements. This method has worked for him in business but certainly not in marriage and with the relationships in his life.

   Rob’s inability to let people know in advance that he was leaving fits with a number of difficulties he encounters in his life. He had difficulty telling his dying father that he loved him, he has difficulty telling his adult children how much he cares, turns his head away from whomever he is addressing when he is saying something positive that could bring about an intimate feeling. He struggles, in essence, with the fear of not being good enough in the eyes of others. He has difficulty taking the chance of being vulnerable, a necessary step to maintain intimacy, because of his irrational personal story that views vulnerability as exposing weakness and insecurity. He was afraid he would disappoint people if they knew in advance of his departure, he didn’t have the faith in himself to believe he could state his intentions and emerge with a positive rather than a negative outcome. Ironically we are all happy for him that he is finally leaving work and making a giant step to enjoying life.

   He told the group that he thought we knew he was leaving since he had mentioned on different occasions about taking such a trip. He mentioned that he had this conversation in his head so many times it felt like it actually took place. Another common dynamic of those who are preoccupied is that they have meetings in their minds so often they start to act upon these meetings as if others actually attended. The other result of being preoccupied is a person like Rob thinks about a particular issue so much they expect others to appreciate their efforts and understand their needs when do they finally let others in on their obsessive thought process at its conclusion. One of the women he has helped considerably told him she was very disappointed that he did not have the concern to inform us, or have the trust in group members to let us in on his plans. Another member, a fellow business owner who has felt considerable camaraderie with Bob, echoed her sentiment but added, “I think below the surface Rob you are a very selfish man, I think you tend to want things your way and don’t consider how you affect other people”.

      I interjected at the end of the meeting that I think there are in fact, two kinds of selfishness. One is based on truly not caring about people, individuals who are narcissistic by nature and use other people simply for the self interested function they have. The other, particularly for people who suffer from The Curse is based on being preoccupied. Rob is not a good listener for instance; he is often planning his response as a person is talking to him. He is so worried about his image that he is rehearsing his response rather than listening. Like many who are preoccupied his memory and concentration are compromised which leads to people close to him feeling un-important and not heard. People, like group members, end up feeling that he is self centered and selfish. I think, through knowing Rob for some time, that this is a surface explanation and does not speak to the anxiety he is experiencing on a deeper level. He is not a man who does not care; he loves his wife, his children and truly cares about group members. His preoccupation however, a common dynamic among achievers, makes his relationships less than satisfying. The irony is that when he relaxes, pays attention, gets involved beyond himself, people find him loveable and kind. Rob must change the old story in his mind that says love and respect is dependent on achievement to the realization that achievement is important in life but ultimately without the relationship skill of empathic listening life will always feel like something is missing.

   As group ended we could all see Rob felt awful, several people encouraged him to continue phone sessions with me and to not perseverate on the negative comments exclusively. He certainly had a strong tendency to cement criticisms in his mind. As I walked out of group with him, everyone was waiting in the parking lot. They all hugged him individually and made him make eye contact. As he walked away with tears in his eyes, I asked him how come he didn’t hug me. He returned, looked directly at me, and gave me a huge hug and said “ I wish I had the courage to let people in more, I am still afraid of the outcome, guess I just didn’t want to feel vulnerable, I love everybody in this group, including you”. As I walked away I said to myself,” This is not a selfish man!”

Intimacy: The Heart of a Meaningful Life


       I have been a practicing clinical psychologist for many years and in that time I have seen clients from many countries and all walks of life. Despite their diverse backgrounds if I were asked what is the one common, elusive aspect of life that all humans, regardless of circumstance long for I would have to say sustained intimacy.

         Most people can create intimacy initially but few are able to sustain rich intimacy with a spouse, friends, children and colleagues that is lasting. Regardless of wealth and professional success in the end if intimacy is missing one’s soul is devoid of the richness intimacy provides. When this occurs it creates a desperate sense, a growing uneasiness inside that prevents calmness and ongoing joy.

     People start to feel more anxious and begin to look for ways to ease the emotional pain caused by the ongoing yearning for love. This state of mind can lead to addictions, depression, anxiety and an ongoing sense that life has lost its meaning.

     I can always discern the quality of a person’s internal life once I understand the degree of intimacy a particular individual has been able to create and foster.  No matter how successful individuals are in other areas of life if intimacy is lacking the spirit of the individual will falter and grow weak over time.

     What are the ways you can begin to foster the kind of closeness you desire?

         First of all remember your self-care is an important factor in your ability to be present. If you’re eating poorly, not exercising, abusing alcohol, and not sleeping adequate hours you are probably not in a position to maintain intimacy. If you’re not feeling alive it is hard to listen to those close to you in a manner that conveys interest, patience and a willingness to go beyond the surface of relating.

         Knowing how to listen and express empathy are also critical keys to fostering closeness. Listening from an empathic position requires a willingness to enter the world of the other person while leaving your own preoccupations, biases, and judgments behind. This ability needs to be practiced and improved regularly. It is an art that makes another person feel heard and deeply understood. It is an ability that allows you to truly understand the heart and soul of the person you love.  It is not enough to understand, you must be willing to put your understanding into action, into words and behaviors. Nothing is more powerful in establishing a close bond as being able to listen and respond in the manner I am describing. I have worked with couples on the brink of divorce and once they have followed this formula over time they often create a degree of sustained intimacy they have never experienced in their lives.

   First you need to take good care of yourself. Secondly this allows you to be in a position to listen and respond on a deeper level that goes beyond the surface to the heart of those you love. In a romantic relationship you also have to develop a mature understanding of sexuality. In the Power of Empathy we stated that “ We touch bodies when we have sex, but we can only touch hearts and souls with empathy guiding the way………what we seek in the sexual experience is not simply the release of tension but the momentary merger of two souls that simultaneously confirms and expands the relationship between us. This is ultimate intimacy, the moment when two hearts and two souls join together as one”.  This experience allows us to feel more affectionate as we age with our changing appearance as we have a deep love for the person, far beyond the surface and deep within the essence of the person before us. 

     This is just a brief overview of how to essentially grow love and intimacy. I welcome your questions and comments as this is a complex process that deserves more space and time.

Change Your Story and Balance Your Success in 2010

10 Ways You Can Change Your Story and Balance Your Success in 2010.

  1. We all write a story about ourselves early in life, realize it is always part fiction.
  2. If the mirrors you look into early in life are distorted, so is your view of yourself. Commit to seeing yourself accurately today.
  3. You cannot re-write your story alone; we are all too subjective to obtain a rational view of ourselves.
  4. Choose rational people to help you re-write your story, to find out the truth of who you are today.
  5. Expand your empathic range so that your choice of intimate friends is growth promoting.
  6. Realize that the path to true self knowledge and balance comes from sustained intimate relationships.
  7. We learn the most when we commit our hearts to those around us, playing it safe keeps you static.
  8. Your romantic relationships reveal more about your true story than any other human contact. Love brings our stories front and center.
  9. In order to live a balanced life self care has to be a priority, taking care of oneself is never separate from the care of others. Abuse yourself and you indirectly abuse others.
  10. Intimacy is the greatest predictor of a balanced life; if you don’t how to maintain love you will never overcome the negative story of the past.

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