HelloI hope you are having a great Fourth of July weekend! My current column, on recovery from child abuse, is attached and embedded below.All the best,Tom MoonThe Examined LifeTom Moon, MFTRepeal the Fifth CommandmentAndy rolls his eyes and tells me with a sad smile that he’s just gotten a birthday card from his parents. Inside are well wishes, some clippings from his hometown newspaper – and a religious tract informing him that there is hope for people “trapped in the gay lifestyle.” He shrugs when I ask him how he feels. “That’s how they are,” he says. “They mean well.”Then he tells me how his parents realized he was gay. When he was ten years old, his father caught him in the garage in sex play with a neighbor boy. He ordered the other boy to go home and never come back, and when the boy was gone “he spanked me,” as Andy puts it – with his fists and a belt. That evening he got drunk, and continued to rage. Shouting “You still haven’t gotten the point!” he dragged Andy’s dog into the car and drove off. He returned an hour later without the dog, and Andy never saw the pet he’d grown up with again. The following day, his father left on a business trip. After he was gone, Andy cried inconsolably, and told his mother that he hated him. She slapped him and demanded that he never say such a terrible thing again. Then she held and rocked him and told him that what his father had done was wrong, of course, but that when Andy was older he’d understand why he’d done it. She assured him that his Dad really did love him deeply and only wanted the best for him. She advised him to “be like Jesus on the cross” and forgive him for “overreacting.”Andy tells this story with a bland nonchalance that I find chilling. I ask him what happened to his hurt and grief and rage. He shrugs again. “That was a long time ago. I’ve learned to forgive them. They’re my parents, after all, and they did the very best they could, considering how they were raised. They loved me the best way they knew how. The past is the past. I’ve moved on.”His body and feelings tell a different story. He’s a “nice guy” who is continually taken advantage of by other people, and he suffers from emotional constriction, depression, panic attacks, and insomnia. He’s in his early thirties, but already he takes daily medication for low back pain and chronic gastritis. He has lots of sex with men, but can’t connect emotionally with any of them because he doesn’t trust men. Periodically, he goes on drinking binges, and when he does – just like his father – he sometimes goes into uncontrollable rages.Genuine forgiveness comes at the end of the process of recovery from abuse, not at the beginning, and it never involves denying or minimizing the reality of what happened. Andy’s “forgiveness” is really an attempt to bypass the pain of his actual experience and preserve the connection with his parents, at the immense personal cost of losing contact with his own selfhood. His rage and hurt, denied and banished from conscious awareness, seethe in his body and emerge when he’s drunk, dissociated from his real history. If he is to recover from his symptoms he’ll have to reconnect with what he knew at age ten and lost.Alice Miller, probably the world’s best-known authority on the effects of child abuse, and author of thirteen books, including The Drama of the Gifted Child and Thou Shalt Not Be Aware, describes the healing process in this way: “…Instead of understanding and commiserating with our parents, instead of blaming ourselves, we start taking sides with the abused child we once were. This is the moment when we start loving that child, but this love can never come about without the prior insight into the tragedy we were involved in as youngsters. This is when we stop playing down our sufferings and embark on a respectful engagement with them and with the child. The doors barring us off from our own selves suddenly swing open.”Currently for Andy, layers of emotional amnesia, denial, shame, and guilt block the opening of those doors, because learning to speak the truth that his parents didn’t permit him to acknowledge feels like an act of betrayal, and, perhaps unconsciously, like a violation of the Fifth Commandment (for Catholics, it’s the Fourth) “Honor thy father and thy mother.”I sometimes wonder how different human history might have been if the Good Lord, in His infinite wisdom, had directed the Fifth Commandment to parents instead of to children. What if He’d told Moses “Thou shalt not harm thy children.” I wonder what would have happened if, right at the beginning of history, humanity had been taught that children aren’t livestock; that they have neither the duty nor the power to make their parents happy; that real love for parents can never be given on command, but only in response to love; and that when parents abuse a child the moral obligation lies with the parents to acknowledge and stop their wrongdoing, not with the children to forgive. Unfortunately, even today, almost everywhere on the planet these ideas sound subversive, blasphemous and anarchistic. We’ll have no real hope of ending child abuse until they become mere common sense.Tom Moon, MFTMindfulness-Based Psychotherapy / EMDROffice address: 879 14th Street, San Francisco, CA 94114Tel: (415) 626-1346Website: tommoon.net
HelloMy current column, on cognitive therapy strategies for coping with procrastination, is attached and embedded below.All the best,Tom MoonThe Examined LifeTom Moon, MFTOvercoming ProcrastinationJames is mildly depressed, and can’t seem to get anything done. His bedroom is piled so high with paper and laundry that his social life and his sex life are suffering because he’s too ashamed to bring anyone into his home. He’s so anxious about paying his bills that he avoids doing it and racks up late fees, even though he has enough money to pay everything he owes. He wants to go back to school and train for a new job, but puts off registering for classes every semester; and as a result he stays stuck in a boring, dead-end job. Here are some of the “psychological theories” which he uses to explain his procrastination to himself:
- He’s just a lazy, undisciplined person, and he’s stuck with this “personality trait” because of his faulty upbringing.
- He’s deliberately hurting himself because he suffers from “masochism,” “unconscious guilt” or even a “death wish.”
- He’s “passive-aggressive” and is expressing pent-up hostility toward those around him by frustrating them.
Jim’s “explanations,” like so many popular psychological theories that people use to account for their behavior, make things worse because they make him feel wrong, helpless, and hopeless, and because they don’t suggest any practical solutions. His “inner critic” has latched onto some poorly understood psychological theories and is using them against himself. He isn’t alone: these kind of hostile and self-denigrating ideas seem to have captured the popular imagination as explanations for every imaginable problem – whether it’s a weight issue, shyness, substance abuse, relationship problems, or any number of other problems. A little psychology is a dangerous thing.But psychological theories for many problems do exist which are both testable and offer practical solutions. Anyone interested in learning a practical approach to overcoming procrastination might profit by reading the fifth chapter of David Burns excellent book Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy. The cognitive theory of procrastination which he describes is essentially that the apathy, anxiety, and sense of being overwhelmed which create immobilization begin with distorted thinking. According to the theory, the process typically goes like this: you start with such self-defeating thoughts as “This is too hard to do. I just don’t have the energy.” Or “There’s no point in even trying because I’ll fail anyway.” These thoughts create feelings of hopelessness and inadequacy. The feelings are taken as confirmation of the validity of your pessimism, and you respond by avoiding the “hopeless” tasks. This leads to decreased productivity, isolation, and paralysis, which creates more feelings of guilt, helplessness, apathy, boredom, and so on. These feelings “validate” the self-defeating thoughts which started the process in the first place, and a vicious circle results.The concept of distorted thinking is central to the cognitive theory, and clients in this form of therapy are encouraged to identify the specific ways in which their own “self talk” misrepresents reality and creates pessimism and immobilization. Patients in cognitive therapy are often directed to keep a daily record of their distorted thoughts” Merely paying attention to one’s self-defeating thinking can do much to relieve the problem, even if you do nothing else.Another one of Burns’ suggestions for overcoming immobilization is what the calls the “Antiprocrastination Sheet.” The way it works is that the patient breaks down a task that he or she has been avoiding into a series of manageable steps in which each piece can be completed in less than fifteen minutes. For each step, the patient writes down a prediction of just how difficult each stem is expected to be, using a 0 to 100 percent scale. If he or she thinks the task will be relatively easy, it is given a low estimate such as 10 percent; and harder tasks are given a larger number. In the next column, the patient is directed to write down a number from 0 to 100 predicting how much satisfaction you expect to derive from the task. Once all of these predictions have been made, the patient does each of the small tasks and then records for each one how difficult it actually turned out to be and how much pleasure was actually gained from doing it. This simple procedure usually helps people examine and rapidly disconfirm their distorted beliefs that the task at hand will be painful and intolerable if they don’t avoid doing it.In general, procedures like this one help people stop ruminating about their supposed internal deficiencies and focus their attention instead on the specific actions they can take to address the problem at hand. When people stop asking “What’s wrong with me?” and start asking “What can I do differently?” they’re already well on their way to overcoming procrastination.Tom Moon, MFTMindfulness-Based Psychotherapy / EMDROffice address: 879 14th Street, San Francisco, CA 94114Tel: (415) 626-1346Website: tommoon.net
- He must be getting a “payoff” from his procrastination, such as enjoying all the attention he gets because of his depression. In psychological lingo this payoff is known as “secondary gain.”
Hello,My current column, on the fictitious nature of our ego identities, is attached and embedded below.All the best,Tom MoonThe Examined LifeTom Moon, MFTThe Story of “Me”How many of us know who we are? After almost thirty years as a psychotherapist I’ve come to the belief that genuine self-awareness is relatively rare. It seems that our egos almost invariably begin, in early childhood, to develop and organize around experiences of what is lacking or missing, and to live from then on in a “story of me” based on these perceptions. A child who is unloved, for instance, may develop a sense of self based on the identity of “the one who isn’t loved” and tragically, may spend a lifetime trying to solve the “problem of my unlovability.” Some people who escape crushing childhood poverty may spend the rest of their lives trying to escape the perception that they really do deserve the contempt with which they were treated when they were young. It appears that, surprisingly early in life, a kind of “hardening of the categories” sets in. During the years when our minds have the least capacity for mature and balanced assessments, our ideas about who we are and what we can expect from other people solidify into a sense of a sold identity which, once formed, is remarkably resistant to change. The consequence is that many of us spend the rest of our lives trying to resolve “problems” which are fundamentally fictitious.Sine many of my clients are gay men, I’m sensitive to the subtle identities which develop in response to homophobic environments. All too many gay boys learn to identify with ideas such as: “I’ll never be the man I’m supposed to be.” “I will always disappoint others.” “I’m out of step.” “My feelings are wrong.” “My desires are unworthy of respect.” And so on. For many gay men, ideas like these hang around in the background of their minds long after they have consciously accepted and embraced their sexuality, sometimes with very destructive effects on the course of their lives.Many very successful people are dogged by “failure” identities, which strikingly demonstrate how often massive evidence to the contrary can fail to disconfirm our grim convictions. When reality and our identities conflict, many of us go through some remarkable mental gymnastics to preserve the identities. All too many successful people experience themselves as impostors, for instance. In the impostor syndrome it is my failures and disappointments that are real: my achievements and successes, since they conflict with the “story of my failure,” are dismissed as flukes or con jobs.Not all our mental maps are about what’s wrong with me; often deep distrust of others is built into the mental landscape. This is the case, for instance, in “the story of my victimization.” It can be very difficult to come to conscious clarity around the identity of “the one who will always be wronged by others,” because this story usually develops in response to actual experiences of (sometimes horrific) victimization or oppression, and challenging the story of victimhood is easy to confuse with denying the reality of those experiences. But when real experiences of victimization congeal into a solid identity we can start to see those around us as perpetrators no matter what they do, and ourselves as the victims of injustice no matter how others actually treat us. Some people with this psychology are very dangerous to others because they perpetrate from the victim stance. And they’re able to do this without guilt because they view themselves as innocents who are merely defending themselves no matter how egregious their actual behavior is. One of the most famous historical examples of this psychology was Adolf Hitler, who avenged himself on millions for the (very real) abuse he suffered as a child.Fortunately, we aren’t all puppets of our childhood conclusions because our human capacity for self reflection and self awareness can do much to correct distorted self-perceptions. I believe that one highly effective treatment for “the story of me” is Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy, which is a combination of standard cognitive therapy techniques and mindfulness meditation practice. In cognitive therapy we learn to pay careful attention to our “top ten tunes” – to the recurrent background themes and ideas with which we give meaning to our experience. In mindfulness practice we learn to be present to our direct experience as it arises, prior to our ideas and interpretations about what it means. In being conscious of what is actually here, we gain access to the freshness and ungraspable aliveness of our immediate experience, and begin to understand that any fixed ideas about ourselves are inevitably one-sided and misleading. That makes it more possible to appreciate the fundamentally unfathomable mystery of our own being. When we can do that, we can begin to appreciate the enigmatic intimations of these words of the Buddhist meditation master Kalu Rinpoche, “We live in illusion and the appearance of things. There is a reality. You are that reality. When you understand this, you will see that you are nothing. And being nothing, you are everything. That is all.”Tom Moon, MFTMindfulness-Based Psychotherapy / EMDROffice address: 879 14th Street, San Francisco, CA 94114Tel: (415) 626-1346Website: tommoon.net
- HelloMy current column, on meditative techniques I call "heartfulness practice" is attached and embedded below.All the best,Tom Moon
The Examined LifeTom Moon, MFTThe Practice of HeartfulnessAre you on our own side? I don't mean are you on your own side against other people, but rather: Are you consistently loyal to your own well-being and highest good? Are you self-forgiving and patient with yourself when you make mistakes, or are you more inclined to be angry and self-punitive? When you go through difficult times do you respond to your own suffering with acceptance and self-compassion, or with self-blame and guilt? Do you regard yourself as your closest friend, or are there times when you treat yourself as an enemy? These are important questions. Recently in this column I reported on research which suggests that self-compassion is more important than self-esteem in creating resilience and emotional well-being.But the human mind has an amazing capacity to turn against itself. One of the effects of growing up in a competitive and individualistic society such as ours is that almost everyone in our culture seems to have an “inner critic” which relentlessly evaluates our performance in the tasks of life, and consistently finds it deficient. I believe that the attacks of this inner critic contribute to a myriad of problems – anxiety and depression, dissatisfaction and despair, addictions and compulsions, and on and on. In addition, when we turn against ourselves, we lose motivation to overcome our own suffering or protect ourselves from abuse at the hands of others. We may also feel that we aren’t worth the effort to try to meet our goals and achieve our dreams. It is also possible that gay people may be especially vulnerable to acquiring the habit of harsh self-criticism because so many of us have grown up with a conviction of our own “basic badness” – a sense that in some vaguely understood way we’re out of step and not who we’re supposed to be. Even for those of us who have long ago come to terms with our sexual orientation, our inner critics often continue the habit of telling us that we’re unlovable or unworthy of respect because we’re less valuable than others in some undefined way.But the good news in all of this is that, just as self-denigration is learned behavior, self-compassion is also a skill which can be taught and learned. I’ve become convinced that meditation and concentration techniques exist, which, when practiced regularly, can do much to make us friendlier to ourselves. I call these “heartfulness practices” because they all originate in the intention to hold oneself in one’s own heart, and to develop a loving acceptance of one’s own experience. All of the practices are based on the ancient Buddhist idea that we develop the kinds of qualities we want to have by deliberately “inclining the mind” in their direction.Here’s a brief description of a heartfulness practice that I have been finding especially helpful with anxious patients:Sit in a relaxed posture and close your eyes. Imagine that, behind you and slightly above your head, are beings who love you and wish you well. These beings can be family or friends; they can be spiritual figures; they can even be purely imaginary beings or pets who have a special love for you. These beings have your back. Imagine them radiating love and compassion into you. Bask in that warmth like a puppy lying on a rug in the sunlight. Once you’ve evoked feelings of comfort and safety, bring to mind a specific worry you may be currently having, such as concerns about your health or finances. Imagine that your loving beings are sending love in the form of compassion into the heart of your worry. You might go through several worries in this way. If your brain pairs the worry with the experience of being loved and cared for, you will find that the intensity of the anxiety diminishes. At the end of the practice, let go of visualizing both your worries and the loving beings, and spend a few minutes basking in the soft glow of compassion and safety which the practice has evoked.Regular practitioners find that, once they are intimately familiar with the bodily experience of self-compassion they can evoke that felt sense at will, and once that skill is developed, it becomes possible to take regular heartfulness pauses throughout the day. This simple practice involves briefly stopping whatever you’re doing, taking a few deep breaths, noticing whatever you’re sensing and feeling right now, and then deliberately holding it in compassion and acceptance. This simple practice can do much to lower stress, clear the mind, and reset our intention to live with self-compassion.I am so convinced of that value of heartfulness practice that I am starting a heartfulness skills training group with my colleague and intern, Mark Sponseller. The group will meet on Thursday evenings, and in each session we’ll introduce and practice a new heartfulness practice. Anyone who feels they might benefit from being a part of this group should feel free to contact me at (415) 626-1346.Tom Moon, MFTMindfulness-Based Psychotherapy / EMDROffice address: 879 14th Street, San Francisco, CA 94114Tel: (415) 626-1346Website: tommoon.net
Hello,My current column, on building trust in our intimate relationships, is attached and embedded below.All the best,TomThe Examined LifeTom Moon, MFTI Trust My Husband, But…Q: Mark and I have been together for a year, and have been living together for six months. We’re in a monogamous relationship, we’re registered as domestic partners, and I consider him my husband. I love him deeply, but he does one thing that drives me crazy. He’s in regular email contact with his last boyfriend. He says that the guy still has feelings for him, but claims that, as far as he’s concerned, he only thinks of him as a friend now. I’m not so sure. Sometimes I’ll walk in and he’ll be hurriedly closing out of something on the computer as if he’s got something to hide. And while I’m not proud of this, lately I’ve even been spying on him, going through his email and listening to his phone messages. (I haven’t found anything.) I’ve tried to talk with him about why I do this, but his answer is that if I really trusted him I wouldn’t be suspicious or jealous of his “friendship.” He also throws it in my face that I have some photos of my last partner up in a wall display of pictures of my friends. He says it bothers him that I would display pictures of an ex in our home, but that, since he doesn’t complain I shouldn’t either. I don’t see how the two things are equivalent. Anyway, I do trust Mark, but I think about him and the old boyfriend all the time. Suggestions?A: You’ve raised an important question. As more of us enter into marriages, discussions in our community about what constitutes loyalty, commitment, and fidelity in our relationships couldn’t be timelier. My suggestion is that you take down the pictures of your ex and that Mark stop emailing his. You say you trust him completely. No you don’t. Not that that’s a bad thing. Here’s what I mean:All of us know from hard experience that people are capable of lies and betrayal. No one gets very far in life without being deeply hurt by someone’s dishonest or selfish behavior – whether it’s a family member, friend, or partner. It’s a universal human experience. And if we’re honest with ourselves, we all know that there are people in our lives that we’ve abandoned or betrayed, too – whether the cause was our greed or selfishness, or just the ordinary day-to-day dullness, unconsciousness, and insensitivity to which we’re all prone. That’s why, in all significant relationships, trust doesn’t just spring up out of nowhere. It develops and deepens slowly over a period of years, as and to the degree that both parties consistently demonstrate trustworthy behavior.According to the religion of romantic love, however, this fact of life isn’t supposed to apply to your soul mate, the perfect lover who exists solely to meet all your needs. From the day you meet you’re supposed to love and trust each other completely, because you’ve “known each other forever” and have complete faith that neither of you would ever do anything to hurt one another. “Love,” as a bizarre slogan from an old Hollywood movie assures us, “means never having to say you’re sorry.”In reality, having been together for a year, you guys are still in the early stages of getting to know one another, and the trust between you is still developing. It would be more realistic for you just to admit this fact, rather than treating trust as something you are automatically owed. At the one year point, your relationship is like a sapling that you’ve recently planted. Someday it’ll be a sturdy tree, but today it’s vulnerable, so you need to build a fence around it to protect it. In the same way, you need to protect your relationship with a safety zone, especially in the early years. And the way you do that is to go out of your way not to do anything to arouse fear or suspicion in each other.In the traditional monogamous commitment both parties “forsake all others,” and that includes not remaining in contact with former partners or displaying their photographs in your home, especially if such behavior creates discord. But of course we’re way too evolved and sophisticated for these outdated ideas. We don’t try to “own” each other; we aren’t “possessive”; we know that if you love something you have to let it go; and that jealousy is a primitive emotion based on “patriarchy” and “insecurity,” blah, blah, blah. One result of these naïve ideas is that too many couples believe that mutual trust should just spring out of nowhere, and that neither party should have to set limits on what they do to help foster it. I see the consequences every week in my office.If you want your relationship to last, do your best to respect all of each other’s feelings. Don’t treat your partner’s jealousies, fears, suspicions or vulnerabilities with contempt, nor your own with shame. And never begin any sentence with “If you really loved me….”Tom Moon, MFTMindfulness-Based Psychotherapy / EMDROffice address: 879 14th Street, San Francisco, CA 94114Tel: (415) 626-1346Website: tommoon.net
- HelloMy current column, on using mindful pauses to cool the wanting mind, is attached and embedded below.All the best,TomThe Examined LifeTom Moon, MFTCooling the Wanting MindMost people seem to take it for granted that happiness means getting what we want. We believe we’ll be fulfilled and happy if we gratify our desires, and frustrated and unhappy if we don’t. Because of this belief, we spend most of our waking hours leaning into the future, trying to get somewhere different from where we are right now. A lot of this striving is based in biology. To survive, all animals have to be goal-directed, and it’s obviously necessary and healthy to pursue legitimate aims, like maintaining health, paying the rent on time, building positive relationships or healing old pain.But what we overlook too often is that getting caught up in wanting not only doesn’t create happiness, it’s a major source of stress and suffering. The problem with a life devoted to pursuing desires is that even the most pleasurable experiences eventually end. We’re routinely separated from things we enjoy, and someday that separation will be permanent. Friends drift away, passion wanes, careers end, and eventually we all die. That’s why grabbing and clinging to the things we want must inevitably lead to suffering and pain.An additional psychological complication of the focus on striving is that the mind tends to transfer unfulfilled needs from childhood into the present. Early wounds and deprivations often take on a life of their own - even after the original issues have been largely or even wholly resolved. When that happens our natural desires to feel worthy, attractive, safe, successful, or loved become like thirsts which we can never quench. Then we’re like the proverbial donkey trying to get a carrot held out in front of it on a pole: no matter how fast we run, it's always still ahead.The human brain has at least three built-in biases which obscure the defects of the wanting mind and keep us on the treadmill of endless striving. First, it overestimates the pleasure of future gains and the pain of future losses. Second, it tends to overlook or minimize the safety, peace, and satisfaction of this moment - including the many things already resolved or accomplished - in order to keep us scanning for the next threat or opportunity. Finally, and most important, it makes the future seem like a real thing when in fact it doesn't actually exist and never will. Always and forever, there is only now.The challenge is to relate to our desires with wisdom: to pursue legitimate desires without becoming completely obsessed with them, and to enjoy life's pleasures without clinging to them. That’s why holding wants lightly is helpful in everyday life, bringing more ease and less trouble from desires (as well as creating less trouble for others).There is a simple practice which can help us our wants lightly and return us to the ease of the present moment. It’s called the mindful pause. Here’s how to do it:Begin by designating several minutes three times a day that you will pause and check in with yourself. Begin each mindful pause by stopping what you’re doing. Take several deepbreaths, placing your full attention on each in-breath and each out-breath. When inhaling, completely fill the lungs, hold for a second, and then exhale slowly. Physiologically, deep breathing stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system, which evolved along with the sympathetic wing (the part that responds to threats and excitement) to relax you once stress-inducing situations have passed. By activating the parasympathetic nervous system you can take advantage of its natural cool-down effects and relax in the present moment. Doing this creates positive feelings, enhances positive emotion, and strengthens the body's defenses.Now shift your attention to what’s going on internally. Become aware of any and all physical sensations throughout your body. If you come across areas of tension, invite them to soften. Become aware of any emotions that may be present and see if you can greet them with a curious and compassionate attention. Become aware of any thoughts that might be present. See if you can observe these thoughts, emotions and sensations as passing events and refrain from engaging in their content or pull. After you’ve become aware of your internal experience, bring your attention back to your breath and follow your breathing for a few rounds, allowing all thoughts, sensations, and emotions to be however they are .When you’re ready, with awareness, set your intention for how you want to proceed in the next moments of your life and what you want to focus on. Return to whatever you were doing with greater awareness. After practicing at regular times for a few days, also begin to use the mindful pause whenever you’re experiencing a distressing emotion or difficult situation to respond to it mindfully instead of reacting in an automatic, possibly destructive manner.When practiced regularly, the mindful pause can do much to awaken us from the trance of wanting, and help us to remember that, beyond all our desires, we can access a natural ease and contentment by simply attending to the present moment.Tom Moon is a psychotherapist in San Francisco. His website is tommoon.net.
- HelloMy current column, discussisng strategies for coping with the stresses of the holidays, is attached and enclosed below.May your Thanksgiving be joyful and peaceful!All the best,TomThe Examined LifeTom Moon, MFTWho’s in Charge of Your Holidays?The holiday season is a time of fun and celebration for many people, but for those who are suffering grief or other forms of emotional pain, it can be a time of deepened sadness. For many in the LGBT community it’s is an especially challenging time, partly because the images of family togetherness clash with the realities of family estrangement in many of our lives. But I believe that this can be a peaceful, even a joyful, time for us if we respond to the season with authenticity and integrity.Here’s an example of how not to do the holidays. I know a couple, whom I’ll call Henry and Carl, who have been together for twelve years. Every winter, they dutifully pack up and take crowded and uncomfortable flights to cold places to spend the holidays with their families -- separately. Both of their immediate families “accept” their relationship, but in each family “the relatives wouldn’t understand,” so they avoid scenes or embarrassment by spending Christmas and New Year’s apart.As our community grows and strengthens, fewer and fewer of us are willing to accept that kind of disrespect for our relationships anymore. But subtle forms of homophobia still emerge every year in the lives of too many LGBT people. When straight people marry, their loyalties are supposed to shift from the original to the new home, and the new families they’re about to create. But the families of gay sons and daughters often treat them as if they’re perpetually away at college rather than as mature adults with their own lives and relationships. Is it really your duty to make this a time of enforced togetherness with people with whom you aren’t really close? Our real families are the people who are genuinely important in our lives, and if we don’t feel like going “home” for the holidays, maybe that’s because we’re already home.Many of us unthinkingly comply with old conditioning by mechanically going through the same rituals every year: buying presents we can’t afford for people we hardly know; getting too little sleep and exercise while partying too much, getting too frantic, drinking too much, eating too much, etc. If, in the vital area of sexuality, we’re able to swim against the current of the dominant culture and claim for ourselves the sexuality that’s natural to us, then we can also do the same with the holidays. It’s surely within our power to perceive the difference between what we do because we love doing it and what we do because we’ll feel guilty or out of step if we don’t.For some people, for instance, the best treatment for holiday depression is just to slow down. As the winter solstice approaches, the darkest and coldest time of the year, a lot of us feel a natural tendency for the body to hibernate, for the mind to become reflective, for the heart to turn inward, and for moods to be more melancholy. But in our compulsively extroverted society, where almost everyone is afraid of turning inward and blue moods are all but illegal, most of us run the other way and become even busier, and more socially active. But if you find the celebration treadmill more exhausting than enjoyable, why not make a deliberate effort this season to spend time alone with yourself to reflect on your life, be in nature, have some quiet walks, meditate – whatever soothes and quiets you.For the majority in this country, “the holidays” means Christmas. I’m not a Christian myself, but I do feel love for Jesus as a great being, and would personally be happy to participate in a holiday honoring his birth if I thought the celebration had anything to do with manifesting the values for which he lived and died. The fact that Christmas has become a festival of greed and excess must get a lot of people down, because every year we hear complaints about the commercialization of the holiday. On the other hand, criticizing the hypocrisy and shallowness of “society” is a time-honored but cheap way to feel smug and morally superior without ever having to do anything oneself. So, if you’re one of those people who want to have a holiday which reflects your spirituality, you might make the season more rich and meaningful by resolving to take specific actions to act on those values before the end of the year. You can, for instance:Write a “gratitude letter” to someone who is important to you, expressing all the ways in which you appreciate him or her, especially including those things you’ve never said.Initiate one act of peacemaking within the circle of people you love.Give a “gift” to at least one person that doesn’t involve spending any money.If you can afford to do it, you can give a gift to someone you love of something that they really need – but make sure they never know you are the gift-giver.The fundamental question here is really “Who’s in charge?” All we really need to make the holidays a rewarding time in our lives is the imagination and courage to define for ourselves what they are and what they mean.Tom Moon, MFTMindfulness-Based Psychotherapy / EMDROffice address: 879 14th Street, San Francisco, CA 94114Tel: (415) 626-1346Website: tommoon.net
- Hello,My current column discusses ways to replace the destructiveness of the inner critic with a more compassionate inner protector. It is attached and embedded below.All the best,TomThe Examined LifeTom Moon, MFTCultivating an Inner ProtectorEckhart Tolle, in his modern classic, The Power of Now, writes: “You have probably come across ‘mad’ people in the street incessantly talking or muttering to themselves. Well, that’s not much different from what you and all other ‘normal’ people do, except that you don’t do it out loud. The voice comments, speculates, judges, compares, complains, likes, dislikes, and so on...It is not uncommon for the voice to be a person’s own worst enemy. Many people live with a tormentor in their head that continuously attacks and punishes them and drains them of vital energy. It is the cause of untold misery and unhappiness, as well as of disease.” Does any of this sound familiar? Almost everyone in our culture seems to have an “inner critic,” which relentlessly evaluates their performance in the tasks of life, and consistently finds it deficient. In my experience, the attacks of the inner critic contribute to a myriad of problems – anxiety and depression, dissatisfaction and despair, addictions and compulsions, and on and on.One of the things that makes the critic so problematic is that, while it speaks with a tone of parental authority, psychologically, it develops when we’re very young, usually about five or six years old, so it’s really a child’s idea of parental authority. That’s why its judgments tend to be unreasonable and sweeping. (“You never do anything right!”) rather than mature and discerning.Is the inner critic more of a problem for people in the LGBT community than for others? My own impression is no – intense self-criticism is ubiquitous in the American psyche – but it may be that sexual minorities have a recognizable “flavor” to their inner critics. For gays and lesbians, it often speaks in the language of internalized homophobia. Even for those who have long ago come to terms with their sexual orientation, for instance, it may still tell then that they’re unlovable or unworthy of respect because in some way they’re “less than” or “out of step” with others. While they may no longer be blaming themselves for their sexuality, often the habit of self-blame has merely been focused on other aspects of their personalities.But it is possible to counter the damaging effects of the inner critic by deliberately working to develop an inner protector. Where the critic judges you, your inner protector will instead offer compassion, acceptance, and where necessary, forgiveness. When someone we care about suffers, we naturally feel compassion, which means the wish that this person not suffer, coupled with a feeling of sympathetic concern. In the same way, we also have the power to extend compassion to ourselves which isn’t self-pity. We simply recognize that "I’m hurting right now,” and offer ourselves the same warmhearted wish for suffering to end that we would offer any friend grappling with the same pain or difficulty. Studies have shown that self-compassion has many benefits, including reducing self-criticism, lowering stress hormones like cortisol, increasing self-soothing, self-encouragement, and other aspects of resilience. It can also help to heal any deficits in receiving caring from others in our childhoods.The practice of evoking self-compassion usually takes only a few seconds, and there are meditative techniques which facilitate it. Here’s one example:Pause for a moment and bring to mind the feeling of being with someone you know cares about you, maybe a close friend or family member, or even a pet. Let yourself feel that you matter to this being, who wants you to feel good and do well in life. Now bring to mind any difficulties or suffering you may be experiencing, and imagine that this being who cares about you is sending you waves of well-wishes and compassion. Bask in this compassion, taking in its warmth, concern, and goodwill. Open to feeling more understood and nurtured, more peaceful and settled.The power of this visualization is that the experience of receiving caring primes circuits in your brain to give it, both to yourself and others. Having received compassion, let go of the visualization and turn your attention to what it feels like in your body to be on your own side. Strengthen that feeling as much as possible. One way to do this is to offer yourself well-wishes such as “May this suffering pass”, or “May I be happy, peaceful and safe.” Have some warmth for yourself, some acknowledgment of your own difficulties, some wish for things to get better. Feel that this compassion is sinking in to you, becoming a part of you, soothing calming and strengthening you. Finally, ask yourself: Now that I’m on my own side, what's the best thing to do in this situation?When you practice self-compassion regularly, you’re strengthening the neural pathways that support it, and creating an inner protector that will be available to you in times of pain or stress. When you turn to it, you’ll find that, because you’re freer from the dread, anxiety and guilt which the inner critic induces, you’ll have greater clarity to make decisions that are more rational, mature, and self-affirming.
Tom Moon, MFTMindfulness-Based Psychotherapy / EMDROffice address: 879 14th Street, San Francisco, CA 94114Tel: (415) 626-1346Website: tommoon.net
- HelloMy current column discusses the traditional habit of making New Year's resolutions, and expands the concept to creating a "personal mission statement" which sets out the guiding values which govern your life.Enjoy, and Happy Holidays!TomThe Examined LifeTom Moon, MFTWhat’s Your Mission?The beginning of the new year is traditionally a time for setting new goals and making resolutions about the kinds of course corrections we intend to make over the next twelve months. The practice of making New Year’s resolutions can be helpful, but it can also be superficial. It’s easy to resolve to exercise more, save more money, or take a class, but not so easy to have a clear idea of the big picture of our lives. Not very many of us live with a sense of unified purpose, or have clearly defined ideas about where we ultimately want to go or what we want to achieve. Most of us drift from day to day, responding as best we can to whatever comes at us.That’s why it can be useful to spend some time crafting a personal mission statement – a description of the life goals and guiding values which provide the ultimate motivations for the more immediate tasks of daily life. There are many potential benefits to having a mission statement. It helps us not miss the forest for the trees. It guides us in making difficult decisions when faced with the confusing choices that life presents to us. It provides a sense of meaning. It creates a sense of optimism and personal efficacy. It gives us courage and resilience when the going gets tough. It serves as a personal compass: when we have a clear understanding of our destination we also know when we’re off course.Good mission statements are simple, clear and brief. The best ones are usually no longer than three to five sentences. A thoughtfully-composed statement succinctly summarizes your guiding values, what you stand for, and what you intend to contribute to the world. Write it in positive terms, focusing on what you want to do or become, not on what you don’t want to do or be. You know you’ve captured your mission when remembering it gives you a sense of purpose, excitement, and hope. An authentic mission statement will make you feel good.My mission statement crystallized for me years ago when I made a commitment to live by the moral principles of Buddhism. Every element of Buddhist ethics serves one, and only one, purpose – the ending of suffering. One of the sentences in my mission statement, then, is a commitment to act in ways that decrease suffering, both my own and that of those around me. This simple purpose guides and informs my work as a therapist, but it also provides a clear guideline for how to conduct myself in my personal relationships. Whenever I’m uncertain about something I’m thinking about doing with my partner or with friends or family, all I have to do is ask “Is this action likely to lead to more suffering or to less suffering?” The answer is usually fairly clear, and provides immediate guidance about what I should do. That doesn’t mean that I always wind up doing the right thing, of course, but understanding my mission does mean that I almost always know when I’m going in the wrong direction.If you’re persuaded that there might be some value in composing a personal mission statement, the next question is “How do I go about doing it?” Defining our ultimate purposes can feel like a daunting task. One way to begin might be to ask yourself questions such as “At the end of my life how will I know if I have succeeded?” or “For what would I most like to be remembered after I’m gone?” One humorous question that can still be helpful at any age is “What do I want to be when I grow up?” Other questions that might be helpful are “What does success mean to me?” and “What makes me genuinely happy?” Don’t be in a hurry to come up with answers right away. Sit with your questions. Let them percolate. Gradually, a deeper understanding of your ultimate values and guiding purposes will begin to emerge. I can’t emphasize strongly enough that a mission statement isn’t something you just make up. It isn’t about stringing together impressive-sounding platitudes, or acting like the proverbial beauty contestant who announces at the pageant that she’s committed to working for world peace. Your mission is already embedded in the core of your being. You don’t invent it: through examining what you long and hope for, what brings you joy, and what values stir your blood, you discover it.As it becomes clearer you can begin composing definitive sentences which describe it. The statement you compose isn’t cast in stone. It will naturally evolve through the years as you go through the stages of your life and as you gain deeper insights about yourself. But once you have your mission statement, take it seriously. Keep it close to your heart. When you start to get bogged down in the details of daily life, think back to it – it will act as a compass to keep you on track, and it will provide you with a wide angle lens through which you can keep the larger picture in view.Tom Moon, MFTMindfulness-Based Psychotherapy / EMDROffice address: 879 14th Street, San Francisco, CA 94114Tel: (415) 626-1346Website: tommoon.net
- Hello,I hope the New year finds you well and happy!My current column, on strategies for coping with shyness, is attached and embedded below.All the best,TomThe Examined LifeTom Moon, MFTCoping with ShynessIf you see yourself as a shy person, you’re not alone. A 1975 survey by a Stanford researcher found that 40% of Americans thought of themselves as shy. Interestingly, when the research was repeated in the nineties, the figure had jumped to 48%, almost half the population. Why the increase? It may be that as community life in America deteriorates and isolation becomes more common, we’re increasingly out of practice and less skilled in functioning in social situations.Is shyness more prevalent among gay people? To my knowledge, the question hasn’t been researched, but there are some good reasons to believe that it may be so. Because we typically grew up feeling on guard and experiencing rejection at the hands of the people from whom we most wanted acceptance, many of us have learned not to feel safe in social situations. In addition, many of us are sensitive and reflective, and shyness may just be a natural part of our temperament.That brings me to the strategy for coping with shyness most often recommended by therapists who specialize in treating it – which is simply not to make it wrong. In other words, instead of treating it as a defect of character which needs changing, see it as a normal result of the natural modesty and social anxiety which everyone feels. When it becomes problematic, it isn’t our feelings that are the issue, but our behavior – responding to our discomfort by withdrawing so much from social contact that opportunities for relationships with other people are lost and legitimate needs for connection go unmet. If you’re suffering from this kind of avoidance, it isn’t necessary to try to make yourself feel differently than you do. Instead of beating yourself up for being uncomfortable in social situations, accept your feelings as they are, and shift your attention from how you feel to what you do.The most common mistake that shy people make when they’re with others is to become so preoccupied with their own fear and awkwardness that they don’t pay much attention to the people around them, and consequently don’t give others much to which they can respond. The way out of this trap is to make the fundamental rule in social situations to shift your attention away from your own feelings to what’s going on around you. Focus on the goal of making contact, accept rather than fight your feelings, and then do something. The worst thing is to do nothing at all, because silence and reserve are often mistaken for lack of interest, or even hostility. Almost anything you do to reach out, even if it feels clumsy, will at least convey interest. If you don’t know what to say, just practice making eye contact with others, and smiling. Nothing more convincingly conveys friendliness and the desire to connect.Once you do connect with someone, what do you talk about? A good rule of thumb is to talk about the situation you’re in, the other person, and yourself – in that order. If you don’t know what to say, ask questions. Use your curiosity, especially your curiosity about the person you’re talking with. Ask open-ended questions, not yes/no questions. And once the other person starts talking, pay attention. Resist the temptation to drift back inside to check in with how you’re feeling or to critique how you’re doing.What do you do if you don’t make a good impression, or if the other person isn’t interested in talking with you? Shy people typically make the mistake of treating experiences like that as catastrophes, but in fact they’re very common in social gatherings; in fact, they happen to everyone. The important thing is not to personalize such incidents – that is, not to see them as commentary on your worth as a human being, or as unique experiences which happen only to you. No one is universally loved, but with practice it’s possible to learn to take that reality in stride.Overcoming debilitating shyness is mostly a matter of patience and practice. When we stop running from social situations, and instead treat them as opportunities for practicing social skills, most find that the pain of social awkwardness begins to diminish. There is no quick fix: it can take months or years of diligent practice before social confidence becomes strong and reliable. There are some valuable resources which can be helpful in the process. Many people have profited from reading a popular self-help manual called Shyness: A Bold New Approach, by Carducci and Golant. In addition, the Shyness Clinic in Los Altos, California has been offering individual and group counseling to shy people since the late ‘70’s. Their website is shyness.com, and is very much worth reading. Whatever you do, don’t expect social anxiety to disappear completely, because it’s part of being human, and everyone experiences it to some degree. But with practice, anyone can learn to manage it so that it isn’t paralyzing.Tom Moon, MFTMindfulness-Based Psychotherapy / EMDROffice address: 879 14th Street, San Francisco, CA 94114Tel: (415) 626-1346Website: tommoon.net