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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.

 

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

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.

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.

The Estrangement of the American Couple

 

American couples are increasingly growing distant in a society driven by image, fears of ageing and the uncertainties of a rapidly changing world.  According to the World Health Organization we have one of the highest rates of depression, stress, anxiety, addictions, diabetes and obesity in the civilized world. Our children reportedly have the highest rates of childhood diabetes and obesity, and the depression rates for children are two and a half times what they were a few years ago. Eating disorders and substance abuse are common not atypical in today’s schools. Each week we spend 22 hours less with our children than parents 20 years ago; we are essentially becoming ESTRANGED from our children.                                             

                              Money Can’t Buy Love

We are spending more than ever before, with the national savings rate at the lowest point since the Great Depression. Studies have proven that compulsive spending and financial insecurity causes estrangement in our marriages. Our competitive nature drives us to spend what we don’t have in order to be on par with our neighbors and associates. We are in a contest we don’t enjoy, can’t win and can’t seem to stop.

                           Stop Aging to Secure Love                                                   

We lead the world in money spent on cosmetic procedures; we spent $14 billion on these procedures in 2006 with one billion being financed. One third of the people having these procedures had a household income of less than $30,000. The obsessive pursuit of beauty causes additive behavior which has also been proven to cause estrangement from those closest to us. Our society is increasingly fostering unhealthy relationships that are based on appearance rather than encouraging the process of learning how to establish and maintain genuine love.

                                Loving a Fantasy

             The pornographic industry has grown exponentially as it offers, along with sex chat rooms, a quick fix to the chronic problem of emotional distance in long term relationships. Americans spent $13 billion on pornography in 2006, every second we spend $3,075 on pornographic sites .Spouses who pursue porn on a regular basis ultimately feel estranged from their partners as no one can compete with the idealization of porn figures. These idealized images foster perfectionism and a false sense of what love and intimate sexuality really mean.

                         We’ve lost that Loving Feeling

          Couples from all walks of life tell me on a daily basis how they long for the “in love” feeling they had in the early years of their courtships. Estrangement has been defined as a state of indifference where there had formerly been love, affection and friendliness. Many couples have come to believe that sexual relations dwindle simply because of years spent together. The facts point more in the direction of couples losing intimacy by buying into a fast paced culture, a culture of estrangement that stresses beauty, money and an anti-ageing formula of success. We are becoming a society that lacks relational integrity- the capacity to place relationships with family, friends and community above the need for image and status.

                             Performance Addiction

          ESTRANGMENT is, in part, the result of the cultural forces outlined above that have been absorbed into the psyches of many individuals. These forces have been identified by other theorists but not in terms of how they deteriorate levels of intimacy in our long term relationships. They leave many with a feeling of indifference to those they once “fell in love with“. Americans long for closeness they lost long ago. Unfortunately we are looking in all the wrong places. Many have fallen prey to what I call Performance Addiction-the belief that perfecting appearance and achieving status will secure love and respect. This irrational belief system is hardwired early in life and reinforced by cultural expectations. Performance addicts tend to value achievement over character and status over relationships.   

                        The Path to True, Lasting Love 

     Performance addicts believe they can perfect their way to happiness. They must return to the “scene of the crime” when they first started believing that performance would be the answer to their longings for love. Awareness of this original story is necessary so that old dysfunctional beliefs can be replaced by learning new behaviors that  foster authentic intimacy. This transformation takes time, patience and dedication.

        True happiness, love and respect come when people have developed high relationship skills, especially the capacity for empathy. Recovery from the estranged state only comes when we learn in our hearts and in our heads that relationships are in fact the key to gaining what has been missing all along.  True love and sexual intimacy is based on uncritical affection, not on the constant comparing and contrasting yourself and your spouse to others, the hallmark of a performance addict.                                                                      

Once we identify the means to regain lost love we can restore a feeling of hope in our ongoing relationship.  I have witnessed many poignant stories unfold as couples re-gain intimacy and restore balance to their lives and families. These individuals have learned how to know and love a real person rather than chasing misguided cultural myths. Rather than remaining estranged, they have learned how to maintain relationship integrity in the most complicated time in our history. Our current climate is emotionally disturbing; the methods we have adopted for salvation have increased alienation. Interpersonal closeness is the only reliable tool to establish a resilient personality in the face of difficulty. Rather than being driven by the cultural forces and early conditioning that have driven us apart we need to establish the relational path to regaining love and a sense of optimism going forward.

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

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

   

Matters of the Heart aren’t Rational

       When I was studying at a psychoanalytic institute many years ago I heard the saying “we all marry parts of our mother and father”. At the time being a single man I thought this idea was a bit extreme. Now after 30 years of treating couples and from my own personal experience I can say it is not so farfetched. Of course it stands to reason that we are attracted to what is familiar, particularly familiar behavior. People often wonder why they pick people to love who ultimately present them with the same conflictual issues they experienced in their families. It seems paradoxical but in fact it makes good sense. We return to the scene of the crime whenever we have not resolved old issues, whenever we don’t understand how our emotions regarding love developed.

   Babies learn to love their parents without knowing if they are beautiful, handsome, intelligent, rich or poor. It is not an intellectual exercise. The memories of these early experiences, when we are cognitively not able to discern what appropriate behavior is and what it is not, are recorded deep in our psyche without our awareness. We remember experiences based on feel far more than experiences based on fact.

                                             But Love Should Make Sense!

    Intelligent people often become disturbed because they falsely believe that because they are intellectually quite capable they should be able to pick the right love partner. Not so I am afraid. Bill Clinton by all accounts is quite intelligent, has a highly developed capacity for empathy, yet he had an affair with an intern in the white house. We all know quite capable people who seem to make ridiculous choices in love relationships. When we fall in love all reason goes out the window. Why? Because matters of the heart are not governed by reason. Until we understand the story we created in our minds about ourselves and love early in life we are governed by those initial experiences.

                                              Returning to the Scene of the Crime

     Let me give you an example. Recently I began working with a woman in her mid-thirties who was referred to me because her marriage was falling apart. She called shortly after her husband was arrested for a DUI, driving under the influence. She is an attractive, intelligent woman who one would think would have been able to choose a good life partner. Marie’s husband by all accounts is an active alcoholic. The irony that troubles her most is that when she met Paul she was determined to pick someone unlike her father. Her dad, who she loves dearly, is also an alcoholic. She has tried to rescue him throughout her life; he has never accepted treatment, refused to go to AA and to this day remains active and a constant worry for Marie. So why would she return to the scene of the crime if alcoholism caused her so much pain?

                                              Matters of the Heart Bring us Back in Time

   We return to our past behavioral patterns that were emotionally hard wired if we have never worked on understanding our story and resolved past conflicts. Today Marie realizes she denied the extent of Paul’s drinking because unconsciously she was returning to the past in an effort to emerge with a different result. She could never facilitate her father becoming sober but with her rescue mentality she felt, and I accent “felt”, she could finally be effective in saving a man in distress. She had always been the one trying to help her dad, and even today she is the only one of three sisters who remains in contact with her dad.

                                      Everyone has a Unique Love Story

   Marie’s story is fairly straightforward and not complicated to understand. However many of us have more complicated stories that result in confusion in terms of who we choose to love. Make sure you spend time getting to know yourself in relationships with others before you make love choices that could bring you back in time in an unfortunate way. It’s complicated for sure but when you’re in empathic relationships with rational others, when your able to give and receive feedback openly we are all in a position to learn a great deal about the story we carry forward to new people.

        If you are interested in learning more about this subject please read chapter 7 in The Curse of the Capable, Learning to Read Between the Lines-Intimacy.

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

Change Your Negative Life Story

I try to teach my clients and those close to me that negativity is a learned perspective. When we are growing up we are all exposed to views of the world that are not objective or reasonable. Anthony, one of my group clients grew up with parents from two different countries who met in Europe during the last world war. Even though they have been living in the United States for over 50 years they still consider themselves to be suffering from prejudice from American neighbors and former co­­‑workers. Anthony grew up hearing Americans are greedy, selfish and biased against all foreigners. His parent’s pessimism pervaded much of their thinking and he was often told to shy away from anything unfamiliar. Basically their view of life was to take no chances and never stray from family as “outsiders” could not be trusted. He realized as time went on that his parents assertions were mainly based on their own insecurities and unwillingness to trust.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                 Despite knowing this reality as an adult he has remained an untrusting person, very afraid to take chances and afraid that he will be ridiculed if he reveals his true nature to anyone. His first wife eventually left him as she could no longer tolerate his unhealthy attachment to his parents and his un-willingness to make friends and socialize.

      Anthony, interestingly, is a member of one of my group sessions where 4 of the 10 members were born in other countries and all immigrated to the states in the last several years. Anthony was initially surprised that these individuals did not experience the bias he expected. In fact three of them were recruited by American companies, helped to find housing and were graciously received by their colleagues. They had difficulty of course, adjusting to a new culture but none spoke of the bias that Anthony had been taught to experience. It wasn’t just the fact that members from other lands had a different experience that eventually made the difference in his world view.

        What changed his pessimism into a reality based view of life?                                                     First and most importantly he developed trust in myself and group members. As he said “I can see and really feel how you all care about each other, at first I thought you were all playing a role but over time I realized you were complete strangers at one time, from all over the world and now you have come to truly like and respect each other, you’re like a family of friends”.

        Eventually, based on this established trust, Anthony was able to systematically examine his views of life and their accuracy. He essentially was able to obtain a consensus view based on objective feedback rather than the hard wiring he adopted from his family. This is the critical juncture for change. We can only change our old story by having the courage to take in objective feedback in the present. I have seen this process result in profound changes in many lives. It is not simple or easy, it requires the courage to change based on your faith in the well meaning of others trying to help you move forward in life while leaving the biases of the past behind. Anthony and many others who are truth seekers, what I call “spiritual learners” arrive at a place of comfort within and with others that is truly life saving. One of my previous blogs describes the “spiritual learner” concept and chapter 16 in “The Curse of the Capable-With an Open Heart and Open Mind-The Spiritual Learner” is a more complete reference for you as well.

   

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.

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.

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