Blogs for counseling individuals

An ongoing series of informational entries

How Are You?

August 23, 2018

The precarious implications of “How are you?”

“How are you” is a well-intentioned greeting. Because of some of its implications, I have worked away from using it as a greeting for therapy sessions. Out in daily life the exchange of “how are you,” is expected to have a response of “fine.” In therapy, it may have a much more evaluative tone. It may be worthwhile to see what the phrase really means.

Breaking down the meaning of the phrase

The word ‘how’ is an adverb asking for the condition or quality of an object. The word ‘are’ comes from the verb ‘to be.’ And the word ‘you’ is reference to another person. So, when a therapist asks, “how are you?” as an initial statement they are also asking, “what is the quality of your being?” or if you really want to get out there, “what is the condition of your existence?” Pretty heavy for a greeting.

I would say people likely don’t reflect so heavily on the phrase elsewhere. The thing about therapy is that it is a sacred time meant precisely for reflection. A question like “how are you” is asking a person to immediately evaluate their mood. That is asking a lot.

Evaluating without reflecting

What is also asking a lot is to immediately attach an attribute to certain emotions. If a person has been taught to equate positive or negative connections to specific emotions then this could be difficult. For instance, if a person was taught that it is never okay to show sadness then a sad person may respond to a question like, “how are you” and reflect on his sadness as negative even if it is appropriate or warranted. On the other hand, a person may respond to the question, “how are you,” stating what they have done, maybe a family event, and reflect that it was ‘good’ even if in the midst of it she felt isolated or disappointed. We are often prone to evaluate in the direction that is most socially acceptable.

Is there an alternative?

Many clinicians are taught to work from a place of non-judgement. This is a difficult venture for any human to not work from an evaluative process. There is always good and bad, short and long, light and dark. The point isn’t to eliminate observation but to be slower to judge whether an emotion is inherently positive or negative. The idea is to let something be for long enough to see the connectedness in the opposites. This means that with every light that is cast there is a shadow. No light, no shadow, and vice versa. When we are stuck in a black and white mindset it is nearly impossible to see the world any other way and can create more hardship in our inner lives.

What it means

When we take time to let events and emotions exist without immediately attaching value to it we can reflect deeper on what it means to us. Understanding what events and emotions really mean to us is the discovery of our selves. Attaching meaning as only good or bad leaves life in a black and white landscape that leaves little room for the beauty of human experience.

What is a therapist’s job?

Therapists will ask “how are you?” I inevitably do it out of habit. But when I have the ability to suspend judgement, to suspend evaluation, I find that clients are more able to take time see the nuance in their emotions and perception of life events. If I can hold the space to help a person resist determining something as good or bad, black or white, they are suddenly able to fill in the grays of their existence and color their world with more meaning. Psychologist and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl said, “In some ways suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds a meaning, such as the meaning of a sacrifice.” If you are suffering a lack of meaning in your life and would like to fill it with more depth and color, therapy could be a useful tool.

New years resolution

The Season of Resolution: Thoughts on an Integrated Approach

December 30, 2018

I have been seeing rumblings of it for months. It comes in a snarky meme of how 2018 didn’t go as planned, or in the way every gym in my neighborhood has banners offering the promise of a “new you in 2019.” It is almost the end of the year and for many of us it means it’s time to evaluate and set some goals.

It is interesting to me that our culture seems to fixate on goals that make people less. “I’m going to lose weight.” “I’m going to stop drinking.” “I’m going to cut out sweets.” These are all narratives that imply loss. It’s as if we begin every year on our own naughty list and white knuckle through January to see if any of these resolutions actually fit. How we state our goals is important. Taking a negative view may reveal our own feelings of inferiority that could be changed to a kinder self-reflection. What if instead of the above statements we resolved to be healthier, change our relationship with alcohol, or recognize the dependence we have on sugar? These are small changes in language that may have a big impact on how we reflect on what we want for ourselves.

And this is where the war is: what do we actually want? This is a very human problem and we struggle to admit that what we want now isn’t always what we want later. We often blame moments when we don’t meet our idealized image of ourselves as being, “not really me.” This is true even if those behaviors are what we do the majority of the time. Carl Rogers called this separation of the idealized image of ourselves in comparison to our actual behaviors “incongruence.” The word literally means that things are out of place. So when what we do doesn’t match with who we think we are the result is that we are miserable. Happy New Year.

But it doesn’t end at this point. Because we are more than just one representation of ourselves. Contrary to the way we portray ourselves to others, every person is multifaceted and filled with contradictions. The brain doesn’t like this. The brain likes resolution. The brain doesn’t always get what it wants. And it is literally our brains that divide the parts our ourselves and how we self-reflect. The left side of the brain likes logic and order. It is the part of us that creates the language to write down what we want and how we will get it. The right side, on the other hand – or brain, likes creativity and experience. It is the part that first, has the experience, but then can’t put it into words without the help of the left – but with no right, the experience would be lost. What I’m saying is that the brain works best when it is integrated in both sides, when we consider our whole selves in our thoughts about our ideal self we leave more space to reflect on ourselves as we actually are. I guess, the question to pose is: Can you love the part of yourself that got up for thirds at Christmas dinner and also love the part of you that will get up at 5:00AM on January 1st to go jogging? Your right brain loved the experience of that food and all the sensory pleasures that came with it; but your left brain really wants to check that box that says you met all your goals of the first day of 2019.

So my reflection on thinking about resolutions is to consider how much I am integrating my whole self into what I’d like to see change in 2019. I want to have both the right-brain experience of changing my behavior and the left-brain achievement of meeting my goals. Here are some 

questions I am asking myself as I do it.

Why do I want this goal in the first place?

Am I actually fine the way I am?

Why am I not at peace with that?

Am I letting outside influence tell me what I really want – and am I listening to my whole self to get a picture of the adjustments I want to make in my life?

Does the goal I set reflect positively about myself?

Will there really be any difference in how I see myself if I achieve this goal?

The problem with goal setting is the implication that there will be a pay-off once the goal is reached. This might be externally true. You might make changes in your behavior that reflect in a way that makes you look like you are more put-together. Even if the outside looks different, if inside changes aren’t made toward self-love and self-acceptance then there will always be something to strive for and something to reinforce the feeling of not good enough. If we know this about ourselves then we have a guide to our happiness. We allow the parts of ourselves to do the things they need to do to regulate between doing and being. We have more wholeness in ourselves, we might even also love ourselves in a way that equips us to better love others. That’s a resolution I can get behind.