Do You Want To Get Well?

That is a question posed by a famous rabbi with a reputation for healing all sorts of problems, to a guy who had been a paraplegic for 38 years. “What a ridiculous question,” one says. Anyone who has lost the benefit of two healthy legs would want to experience the freedom of walking on their own power. The answer of the man who had suffered through almost four decades without the use of his legs was not what you might expect. He hesitated. He made excuses. I have done the same thing and it is likely that you have had the same experience with some of your problems.

How? For me, it starts with one particular phrase, “I will try.” The word, “try” comes from a word that originally means to “discover or to sit in judgment of.” That’s why court proceedings are called a “trial.” The problem with trying is that it is only a process of evaluation. It is not actually doing anything. Trying something is more about evaluating it or observing it and is really a passive sort of word. 

How does this apply to getting better? Trying to get better or trying to understand why I’m not better is not a solution. It is an evaluation. Evaluation is one of our biggest struggles. For those who suffer with anxiety, depression, addictions, and other issues, it is a constant process of self-evaluation that often becomes one of the most debilitating issues.

What are we evaluating? What are we “trying” that keeps us stuck? It’s not really a secret. We are conditioned in our culture not to feel bad things. Avoidance is our “go to” solution meaning instead of feeling what we feel and owning our experiences we are often evaluating how “we should feel.” We chase solutions to not feeling what we feel in needles, bottles, on the internet, at the movie theater, in a pint of ice cream, earbuds full of music, rocking the gym, running the road, buying destination experiences, anything not to feel what we genuinely feel. Meanwhile the alert system in our bodies sounds off with anxiety, depression, autoimmune disorders, irritable bowels, erratic blood sugar, disrupted sleep, and the beat goes on. Don’t worry though, just turn on your television or do a Google search and you will find a pill for that.

“An important and growing cost of our modern way of life is ‘cultural fraud’: the promotion of images and ideals of ‘the good life’ that serve the economy but do not meet psychological needs or reflect social realities” (Is Modern Western Culture A Health Hazard?, International Journal of Epidemiology, 22 Nov., 2005). Our culture is predicated on not experiencing what we don’t want to experience. But that takes work…unnecessary work that expends unnecessary energy and time often resulting in a rash of mental health issues. 

What if you were simply willing to get better? Getting well begins with willingness not trying. Willingness is an action. Willingness is acceptance. Willingness is simply answering yes or no to my present experience. Willingness is not about trying to feel what I don’t feel. It is about noticing what I already feel.

How will this help me get better? I invite you to participate in an experiment with me right now. Take a moment to move your right hand to touch your left arm. Notice what it feels like. Now pause for a moment then take your right hand and touch your left arm again and feel absolutely nothing. 

Which of those two options required more effort? Did you have to “try” to feel what it already feels like or did you simply feel it automatically. Chances are you had to expend some extra effort and “tried” not to feel the second time. You were probably able to do so because you are already well practiced at this.

Using acceptance and commitment therapy, an evidenced based therapy, I have witnessed many individuals and couples experience relief regarding the concerns that brought them to therapy. You can learn this tool as well. It will change your life. Willingness always does.

Live to Give

Is generosity an empathetic/altruistic response or is it self-serving?

If you have reviewed this website you may have noticed that I am a therapist who also happens to be a pastor. This week I’ve been preparing a sermon on the subject of giving. “Of course,” some might say, “that’s what preachers are always talking about.” I would do well to speak on the subject more often because generosity is life changing but I actually haven’t addressed it in quite some time.

I have also been tuned in to all of the talk in the news of late about narcissism and it made my therapist wheels start turning. Is generosity an empathetic/altruistic response or is it self-serving? Further, could our empathic responses be destructive to the very people with whom we want to help? Psychologist Paul Bloom thinks so. While I think his argument is more about naïve, superficial do-gooderism…a reaction to our environment where we solve problems on emotion. The bigger question is whether we really have concern for others outside of self-interest. And if we discover that all empathy is self-serving, does that deny the virtue of giving?

What is at the heart of our empathic, altruistic behavior?

We all have instances where we have witnessed sacrificial behavior. The reason these instances stand out in our memories is that they are unusual and somewhat rare experiences. But consider the more common expressions of empathy. You see a GoFundMe page for a friend in need and you give. The food bank is seeking donations for Thanksgiving baskets and you buy groceries. Your neighbor is sick and you mow her lawn. Do we do these behaviors for them? Or do we do it, in large part, for ourselves?

I believe there is a sort of continuum that can be found in the competing phrases: “Give To Live” or “Live To Give.” The first is a sort of contract…a transaction where I give something in expectation that good will return my way later. The second is a worldview that values generosity in and of itself.

I don’t think it is my calling to evaluate where one person or another falls on that continuum but it is a good question to ask myself. What I have discovered while considering that question this week is empathy and altruism may not be all that connected. I believe empathy could be better understood as feelings of “oneness” or connectedness to the other. When I identify more with someone, I’m more likely to feel empathy  willing to make sacrifices for them. Within that definition, there seems to be some sort of contractual obligation “giving to live.” That is, we have to have some sort of agreement and I’m giving because it will help me in my living.

Could this be the reason why more people changed their Facebook profile images last year to a French flag (people who look and live more like us) after the Paris bombings and far fewer chose a Turkish flag after the airport bombing… an airport where my wife was sitting only a few days before? Do we more closely identify with one group over another and thus feel more empathy and make more statements of support and care?

Does this proclivity to more strongly identify with some more than others reveal self-interest and self-concern? If so, does that make our caring of others all about ourselves and cause us to suspect the warmth and empathy we get from others?

Oneness and generosity in the created and the Creator

I believe empathy can be self-serving (give to live) but I do not think it must be this way. Rather, I would argue that we have been designed to understand our world by means of our experiences. Because I understand what it feels like to lose a friend I am moved to donate time and talent to help someone who is grieving. Because I see your humanness, I am able to empathize with your losses and then consider what possible ways I might respond.

Oneness does help us empathize. But empathy is not the same thing as altruism (live to give). Altruism flows from true love, which is an action verb, and requires a willingness to expend self for the sake of another. True love enlarges the population you are one with. So, straight people find themselves in the experiences of gay people; Christians in the experience of Muslims; liberals in the experience of conservatives. Altruism moves beyond simplistic understanding with oneness and best reflects the character of God who self-sacrificially loves beyond measure, choosing to take up our problems as his own.

Therapy Is For Women?

bartenderMen are 3 times more likely than women to commit suicide and 4 times more likely to be diagnosed with alcohol abuse. However, we are half as likely as women to go see a counselor. Talking about our feelings is not generally a man’s territory because of a lot of the cultural messages we receive about masculinity can get in the way.

I have struggled with those same messages and sought out some of the same well worn but ineffective solutions as most men. Growing up I learned to hunt, fish, fight, chew tobacco, and drink a beer. I joined the Marines, went to war, and checked off all the “masculine” boxes I could. None of these proved a long term solution for dealing with thoughts of insecurity or incompetence.

Through the years I have discovered the messages I learned about masculinity were incomplete. My own journey has included working with a therapist on more than one occasion and also discovering that some of the best organizational leaders in our culture value feelings and relationships as among the most effective tools in their arsenal. Current issues of the Harvard Business Review and Time Magazine affirm this.

Maybe you are going through a crisis or experiencing a chronic downturn of some nature. If so, give me a call. My training and experience with counseling men is two decades plus. I understand firsthand what does and doesn’t work for men.

If You Just Had More Faith…

Is it true that if a person simply had more faith they would not experience chronic negative emotions like anxiety?

One of the more interesting stories in the Hebrew Bible is also what scholars believe to be the oldest in all of scripture – the book of Job. Even if you have never read the Bible you may have crossed some of the cultural references to the story that remains a timeless account about human suffering. For instance, Neil Simon’s Broadway play, God’s Favorite, is based on Job as is South Park’s Season 5 episode 6. Davy Jones mentions Job in the Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest and then there is the still frequently used phrase, “the patience of Job.”  One could go on and on with such references but my point is that this story is a classic that might be worth a read even if you have never picked up a Bible. If you do decide to read it and it confuses the hell out of you give me a call and we can enjoy a discussion over a cup of coffee.

The reason for my reference to this book is that Job has some friends who are not unfamiliar to me. They show up in the midst of his misery to share their collective wisdom which basically amounts to, “if you just had more faith or if you just were more honest about your sin then you would not be having all of this trouble.” Down South where I grew up we would call that a bunch of hogwash – translation…a load of crap.

There really is nothing new under the sun. People still share the same unwanted advice today when they encounter suffering. For people of faith this is pretty unsettling because it can throw them into a moral tailspin causing them to doubt their faith at a time when that may be one of the only things helping them hold it together. By example, I read a post by an acquaintance on his Facebook page the other week. He spoke about his anxiety and some unhelpful soul posted beneath his public lament that he should be, “anxious for nothing” a reference found in the Bible used out of context to shame people who are hurting into believing that if they just had more faith they wouldn’t be feeling the way they do now – to which I say, “hogwash.”

Over the years of doing therapy with people who have a faith based worldview, I have noticed how many feel guilty for their anxieties. “If I could just trust God more or I know God is good but I clearly do not trust because I keep feeling anxious.” Is that true? Is it possible to trust God fully and still experience chronic negative emotions?

Let me suggest a better maxim and then illustrate it with a Lament Psalm – poetry from the Bible where people expressed their feelings related to pain and suffering. Here is my suggestion for people who are dealing with anxiety and have a faith based worldview.

Because I trust God, I bring him my anxiety again and again.

The first couplet of Psalm 62:8 says, “Trust in him at all times, O people.” And in the Hebrew language in which this is originally written the assertion is strong. But what does it look like in action? The next line reads, “Pour out your hearts to him, for God is our refuge.” Trusting God looks a lot like venting, crying out in our confusion, sharing our fears and despairs.

Take a closer look at this Psalm. The writer is under assault by others. He likens himself to being a tottering fence, something easily knocked over. He is asking his enemies, “how long are you going to harm me?” He knows their intent. But their evil is the worst sort, one that pretends to be good but is really evil. “They take delight in lies. With their mouths they bless, but in their hearts they curse.” It is likely the psalmist could say, “with friends like this, who needs enemies?”

So, how does he talk to himself? Look at the cyclical pattern: reminder-pain-reminder-warning-reminder

  1. He starts with some truth. My only rest (or silence/peace) is in you God. You alone are my fortress. I will never [ultimately] be shaken.
  2. He laments. But you enemies are trying your best to destroy me, a weak, tottering fence.
  3. He reminds himself. Remember, look for rest and peace in God alone, it is only there you can find it, even when the ground is shaking
  4. He warns self and others. Don’t trust in your position, don’t trust in ill-gotten gain. And if God blesses you, don’t trust in the blessing
  5. He cycles back to truth. Remember this one thing: God you are strong and loving. You will remain righteous (which doesn’t mean perfect…righteous means just or virtuous) in your dealings with us.

While the Psalm ends, I suspect the writer could easily have kept the pattern going, as in starting again with the first verse or adding more to the pattern.

This pattern of truth, honest admission of pain, reminder of truth is a picture of acceptance which is a Jewish and Christian worldview that contrasts with avoidance which is a sort of stoic (Greek, Roman, and Eastern Religious – think Zen – worldview) that seeks to empty the self of and be unperturbed by the chaos in and around us. God does not remove us from the storm. Instead, we express our trust, we lament, we groan, we pour out our troubles and we circle back to the one truth we can hang our hope on.

If you feel guilty much of the time when thinking about your level of trusting God, consider this alternative narrative: it is the greatest act of trust to keep bringing God your troubles, even when things or your response to them do not get easier.

So, does trust in God remove our anxieties? Not as much as we might think. But, if you could no longer feel guilty about your anxiety (which is what I believe is the intent of the Biblical reference to “be anxious in nothing) might you in fact feel more peace as you trust God through the storm?

Restoration Community Counseling

is the private practice of Eric Greer, a licensed Marriage & Family Therapist since 1998. A full range of counseling services are offered to individuals and couples. Don’t let the license in marriage and family therapy fool you. Family therapy is simply a holistic perspective that takes into account the systems and groups of which you are a part or have been connected with in the past. It does not require working with additional people in session, although family therapists are the only discipline of licensed mental health providers with extensive experience and training in doing so. I have also done extensive training in evidenced based therapies like ACT and EMDR for trauma, anxitey, depression, and addictions. The thoughts in my blog will range from random to professional and will have a smattering of “God stuff” throughout. Why? So, when people see me for counseling they can read my thoughts on these matters without thinking I have some particular agenda or need to proselytize. My writings are meant to make me more transparent as a person who happens to be a therapist.

Acceptance & Commitment Therapy

A favorite movie of mine is Saving Private Ryan. Be warned that it is very violent but I would say it is in no way gratuitous. Anyway, there is a scene in the movie where the group of soldiers on the mission to save Private Ryan are faced with a dilemma – whether to kill an unarmed German soldier they have captured who has just killed their friend in combat or to release him because they cannot take him with them. It is an emotional scene highlighting the gray area of the battlefield where up and down are not always as they seem. The Captain played by Tom Hanks ends debate when he orders the prisoner to be released and sent away explaining that it would compromise who they are as people to do otherwise. However, it comes with a high price because later in the movie the same German soldier takes the life of another member of their squad.

The Captain’s decision was the right one. But the cost highlights how ineffective it is to send away a problem without full resolution. My own experience in counseling at the VA introduced me to this concept and caused me to investigate the value of a therapeutic approach called ACT (Acceptance & Commitment Therapy). For some time in my life I would “send away” or suppress difficult memories with ineffective solutions that created more problems. And, because I’m human I still do so from time to time. However, the tools I learned in ACT have brought me great relief and I have since taken time to better understand the therapeutic approach to share it with those with whom I work.

Acceptance and commitment therapy is a form of treatment that helps people observe their thoughts and emotions without judgment (Hayes, Strosahl, and Wison 1999). From a spiritual lens, the apostle Paul says it this way, “take every thought captive” (2 Corinthians 10:5). The basic idea is to identify your values and take action, regardless of your internal state (your thoughts or feelings). Acceptance and commitment therapy does not focus on trying to change thoughts or feelings, but it does emphasize how changing your behavior can help you live a happier life. This type of therapy helps you develop psychological flexibility.

In everyday language psychological flexibility means holding our own thoughts or emotions a bit more lightly and acting on longer term values rather than short term impulses. If we trust every thought or emotion without “taking it captive” and interrogating it we can often overlook more important sustained patterns of action which bring true meaning. Acceptance and Commitment therapy is based on the following assumptions:

  • We can learn to observe our thoughts, emotions, and traumatic memories without becoming overly involved in their content.
  • Accepting our thoughts and feelings reduces our emotional suffering because we are not trying (in vain) to change our internal states.
  • Mindfulness (which can incorporate your own spiritual disciplines if you have some) is a skill that can help you as you practice acceptance.
  • Who you are is separate from your thoughts or actions. Some people might call this their soul or essence.
  • It is important to identify what you truly value and then work to act in ways that are in line with those values.

If you think this approach to handling your anxiety, traumatic memories, addictive behaviors or other concern could change your life like it has for thousands of others, please contact me.

 


Hayes, S.C., K. Strosahl, and K.G. Wilson. 1999. Acceptance and Commitment Therapy: An Experiential Approach to Behavior Change. New York: Guilford Press.

Why Would I Work With A Counselor

Every day millions of people search online for help with their problems, wondering if it’s finally time to reach out for direction and support to handle sadness, depression, anxiety, stress, fights with their partner or spouse, and family issues, among others. Here are some of the questions and mistaken beliefs I have encountered as a therapists.
Can’t I just talk to my friends about my problems?
Talking to a friend about mental health or personal issues can bring you temporary relief, but can also make the problem more deep seated in the long run because you become more identified with the issue the longer you complain without intervention.
Nobody can change my situation, so why pay to see a professional about it?
There is a saying that “your world changes when you change.”  A professional, licensed therapist is trained in ways to help you respond to your world differently. We have at least two college degrees and extensive supervised training thereafter. There are thinking patterns, that have neurological responses of which you are completely unaware. I can show you how you are holding yourself back and perhaps help you find insight and freedom. It’s often a cage of your own making!
I’ve felt this way so long…
If you had a persistent fever, would you just say “oh well” and live with it? Or would you go to a health care specialist who could evaluate, diagnose, and treat it? The average person doesn’t realize how common mood and relationship problems are to the human condition, and that they can be (and are) identified and studied. Whole systems of therapy are developed for common issues, much as drugs are developed for physical ailments.
What will people think?
Those who seek therapy usually realize that it doesn’t matter what people think! It matters how you live every day of your limited, precious life, and whether you can enjoy that to a higher degree and love more fully. Besides, you would be surprised how many of those “imaginary people” you think are judging you are actually clients themselves.
Is it time for you to feel better? It’s time!