Listening

I woke up this morning thinking about presidential candidates throughout the history of the United States, and how they have the privilege to travel the country, hearing people's stories. I'm a psychiatrist, so naturally I love hearing people's stories. There are many ways to learn about the diversity of people living in the United States and to connect to their lives -- from watching documentaries to reading biographies. But nothing is as genuine as shaking someone's hand, sitting close with them, and hearing their personal experiences and perspectives.

I feel so privileged to have been able to hear many deeply-held personal stories. These shared stories are the greatest gifts I could imagine. The differences and commonalities are sometimes surprising, but they are invariably understandable and relatable. Through these conversations, over and over again, I am gifted feelings of connection and love. Though I never yearn for the stress or responsibility of holding public office, I woke up this morning wishing to be able to travel our country so that I can shake so many people's hands and hear so many people's stories.

In a way, many of us are about to have that opportunity. Thanksgiving is coming up. Along with the experience of family gathered around a table that is overflowing with food and gratitude, Thanksgiving often brings air travel. Crowded airports full of people from across the country. Blue states and red states, women and men, people of all races and creeds sitting side by side in rows of plastic chairs, waiting for delayed flights. What would it be like to turn to someone, someone who seems like they are probably very different from you, and ask them about their experience? And then, here's the really special part -- just listen with no judgment and no assumptions and really value what the person is telling you. What if you then shook their hand and thanked them for sharing?

Broken Pieces

On the, sometimes, bumpy road of life, things will inevitably break. What we do with those broken pieces creates our unique narrative. I have always found the ways in which we hold the broken pieces together to be profound and beautiful. We form scars and we heal. We lose the unblemished beauty of youth and we grow into complex sophistication. In realizing our frailty, we find our strength. Knowledge of our limits illuminates our path. Our regrets and mistakes, as much as our successes, create our story. They have made us into the people we are today.

Manageable Falls

Imagine a baby learning to walk. The ideal approach for the parent or caretaker is to allow the baby enough space to have minor falls. The kind of fall where the baby can pick herself back up and try walking again. These experiences are important because the act of overcoming them gives the baby a sense of mastery and confidence in her walking. At the same time, you don’t want the baby to take such a serious tumble that she ends up hurt or terrified, and cannot pick herself back up to walk again. As a parent, you want to try, as much as possible, to allow the little one enough freedom where she can experience manageable falls.

I find this image of the baby learning to walk a helpful one to keep in mind, because I believe the concept applies to individuals across the age spectrum, engaging in most activities. We should strive, as much as it is possible, to lead our lives and to open ourselves up to situations where we can experience such manageable falls – and even manageable failures.

We are taught to push the limits. If you fail; try, try, and try again until you succeed. To never fail is to miss out on experiencing the valuable self-confidence that emerges when you succeed at the task you weren’t able to accomplish previously. But to be able to get back up on that proverbial horse, you can’t have been knocked unconscious by the initial fall.

Just as a parent provides a dependable environment for the baby learning to walk, so that she may fail yet still feel safe to try again; we should allow ourselves, no matter our age or circumstance, the opportunity to experience manageable falls.

The Holidays and Family

The holiday season can be a challenging time for many people because it puts a focus on family. People who are without family or whose family is filled with strife can feel particularly alone at this time of year. I think part of the reason that so many people struggle with this is because of how family is ordinarily conceptualized. People equate family with genetic relatives and a traditional family structure.

I think family is a feeling. Family is love, acceptance, and commitment. Family is shared values, traditions, and experiences. When thought of in this way, it becomes clear why family is said to be so important. When someone sees family as a treasured concept, as opposed to a set of people one is born or married into, that person has agency in creating her family. She can choose her family members, creating a group where she “fits in.” A group that will stand by her even during hard times. She can create traditions that will be meaningful, predictable, and comforting. She can share positive, loving experiences with others during the holidays.

Locating the "Crazy"

In today’s dizzying world, change happens so fast and individuals carry so many varying responsibilities all at once. A person can easily feel overwhelmed, falling behind, and even “crazy.” “Crazy” is not such a politically correct word anymore, and many people don’t like to say it out loud. But in the safety of the therapist’s office, it emerges… the secret fear that one is “crazy.”

“What is wrong with me…?”
“Why can’t I…?”
“Sometimes I worry that I am crazy. I feel crazy.”

You may be picking up on something that is real and important. Take that feeling seriously, but don’t jump to the conclusion that it is you. Pause a moment to locate the “crazy.” Many times, especially as women, we assume, or we are told, that the “crazy” is in us. We believe that there is something wrong with us if we are struggling to fit in or we can’t cope. Sometimes that is true, but many times the “crazy” is in the situation. Many times life is just “crazy.” We find ourselves in “crazy” predicaments where not being able to fit-in or cope is actually typical or even “normal.”

When you find yourself in the midst of “crazy,” consider whether the situation can be changed. You might be surprised. You might be able to get the support needed if you speak up. If you step back and assess your options, you might be able to just walk away from the “crazy” situation. Unfortunately, sometimes there is nothing we can do to change the situation and we have no choice but to remain there. You might have to just muddle along the best you can. But to struggle without the added burden of thinking that something is wrong with you is a major improvement in your personal emotional experience.

The Need for New Definitions of “Normal”

I spend a fair amount of time in my psychiatric practice helping women come to terms with the idea that they are “normal.” These are incredibly competent, engaging, intelligent, kind, funny women who juggle work and family, maybe not always with ease, but quite well. In spite of everything they are able to carry on their plate, with only occasional spills, somehow these women doubt themselves. Deep inside they feel that something is “wrong” with them; that they are not doing a good job at life. I have been in this situation so many times that I have come to realize that good, competent women doubting themselves is a norm these days.

Why would this happen with such regularity? How is it that a large proportion of women have gotten the idea that they are “not normal?” First, let’s take a look at how “normal” has been defined. If, let’s say, normal was defined as having a Y chromosome, then 50% of people would, by definition, not be normal. We should then question that definition because it doesn’t make sense, at least for 50% of people.

I’m not saying that normal has been defined explicitly as having a Y chromosome, but maybe there has been a similar process going on. Much of psychological theory predates the women’s lib and civil rights movements. Of course, even more of psychological theory predates the rise of the internet. Sigmund Freud attended medical school in 1881. Although his psychoanalytic theory was informed by his work in psychiatric hospitals and by his research on hypnosis, much of it stemmed from his self-analysis. He often claimed he had little understanding of women.

Beyond the field of psychology, many other cultural ideas about how the classroom and workplace should function predate the large numbers of women who choose or need to work, to earn money, to achieve.

What if the current definition of normal is in fact normal… for a certain percentage of people? And, what if there are also other ways to be normal?

Genomics and medical research keep giving us an increasingly greater number of illnesses and disease models to diagnose with and be diagnosed with. New viruses and bacteria to worry about. New gene sequences that, we are told, encode stress, difficulty, or tragedy.

The world is changing at a faster and faster rate. These changes should not only prompt us to define new pathologies. We also need to continually understand and create new definitions of normal.