Chicken Little’s Cave

Chicken little 2A few months ago, I shared a talk on how anxiety robs us of our freedom.

Remember Chicken Little?  That’s where this story begins.

Chicken Little is the one who was scampering about one day until an acorn fell on her head.  After being hit, she became hysterical and started yelling, “The sky is falling!” immediately mobilizing to warn her friends of the imminent danger.  The story has a variety of endings, one of which has her retreating into a cave.  In her quest for safety, she is lured there by a wily fox, and in a tragic turn of events the cave of safety is where she meets her end.

Anxiety is universally experienced.  Even when it’s covered in anger, masked by sadness, or cloaked in skepticism: We. Are. All. Anxious.

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What’s the falling sky in your world?

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What’s the cave you’re retreating to for shelter?

Think about that for a moment.  Is it food?  Work?  People?  Exercise?

Or, maybe it’s cloaked in existential terms: Achievement?  Belonging?  Success?  Independence?

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The cave is a great metaphor for three possible ways we try to manage our anxiety: 1. We hunker down in the cave to control it (unsuccessfully).  2. We flee to the cave to avoid it.  3.  We sink into the cave, feeling paralyzed and imprisoned by it.  Initiate surrender.

The problem is, when we retreat into the cave looking for safety, in our own ironic way, we end up becoming consumed by our anxiety.  It swallows us up, like the deep caverns of a cave.

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Anxiety limits our freedom in several ways:

Disrupting connection:  When we retreat to the cave, it keeps us from relationships.  We’re so preoccupied with our fears that we push away genuine connections to focus on managing those fears.  Or, we pull our favorite people into our caves and depend on them to “fix” our fears so that our demands keep us from genuinely loving them.

Flooding:  We allow those shadows to loom so large on the walls of our cave that we become self-absorbed and lose sight of everything else.  They become all-consuming.  Perspective is lost.  Our story gets dialed down to our anxieties and nothing more.

Increasing Guilt/Shame:  When anxiety is viewed as a disorder, we tend to feel guilty and ashamed of it, which only serves to increase our worry.

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Our culture sets us up to be more anxious.

 

As a culture, we pathologize anxiety.  We have the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V), which has 12 anxiety-related disorders, and hundreds of variations within.  There are about 50 types of anxiety medications, not including generic forms.  There’s also a common language that we use in every day conversation about stress, worry, nerves, anxiety, and fear.

Cultural education about anxiety can be helpful, but it can also lead to over-concern about our symptoms, as abnormal and disordered.

Now, add to this cultural landscape the idolization of safety, and you have the perfect storm.

When I gave this talk, it was right after the Super Bowl, and the Hyundai Genesis commercial captured it well.  It’s the one where the dad follows his son around as a portable safety net, there to catch him any time he’s about to fall.  The commercial touts that Dad’s ability to predict and prevent accidents for his son is his “Sixth Sense”.  You can also look at any insurance commercial to find that safety and prevention is priority one.  There’s a problem with this.

Our world isn’t safe.

There are dangers all around us, and we experience pain and suffering all the time.

When culture preaches safety while we are, simultaneously experiencing danger, it increases our anxiety.  Then, when anxiety is also viewed as unsafe by our culture, it creates more anxiety.

It’s the perfect storm to leave us ducking into caves for shelter.

The good news is we don’t need safety the way we think we do.  When we huddle in our caves, we miss out on the freedom of being truly alive.

 

How do we face anxiety with courage?  Stay tuned….

 

In the meantime, consider your own falling skies, and consider the caves you retreat to.  How do they block you from the people and the things that truly matter?

 

 

When Attachment Hurts

I recently wrote an article for an adoption blog on attachment issues.  While this article was meant for those who have children with complex trauma backgrounds, the theory of attachment is applicable to all.

Our underlying view of attachments will shape the way we experience others and relate to them.  I hope you find this article useful on your journey towards greater self-awareness.  

When Attachment Hurts

The buzzword in the adoptive community is, unequivocally, attachment.  For those who have never adopted or fostered, this word may have vague associations with dusty textbooks and archaic research studies.  But for those of you who have chosen the joyous and painful journey, this word has flesh and bones to it, in the form of your child.

The historical, prevailing wisdom dissected attachment into four categories.  These categories had a variety of names, all with similar, delineative meanings: Secure/Balanced; Anxious/Enmeshed; Avoidant/Detached; and Anxious-Avoidant/Ambivalent.

From my perspective, this view of attachment anaesthetizes the true complexity of it, and by doing so, diminishes how adoptive parents experience it in real time.  It also leaves these parents with an incomplete framework for understanding the rapid-fire emotional changes they witness in their traumatized child, and it gives little insight into managing those changes.  An example?

Cheerio Confusion:

One moment your child is clinging to you at breakfast, with loving arms encircling your neck.  The next moment she screams and smashes the cereal bowl following a simple request to wipe Cheerios off the table.  That same child, who was just doting on you, is now reminding you that you’re the worst parent ever, there’s never been anyone more horrible than you, and she wants to hurt you.  You’re bewildered.  You ask yourself why this is happening when the same request the day before yielded swift compliance—a completely different response.

Does reading this bring validation, intense emotions, or your own physical reaction?  If you said yes to any of these, then chances are you’ve experienced this, first-hand.  This attachment pattern is the most confusing and troublesome for adoptive and foster families.

Now bear with me while I get theoretical.  It’s important to have a framework that demystifies this experience.

While a traditional attachment view would say that the girl in our story has an ambivalent attachment, confining her to that box misses the fact that this style is a combination of two other attachment patterns.

Rather than compartmentalizing attachment styles as  secure, insecure, enmeshed, and ambivalent, I prefer to view attachment along a spectrum.  Take a look at the picture.  Think of it as a fulcrum, where the closer you are to a secure attachment, the more balanced the scale.  When you move along the fulcrum to one side or the other, it tips.  So the middle represents an emotionally balanced connection.

AttachmentSpectrum

On one side of the spectrum is enmeshed (clingy), the opposite of this is detached (avoidant or hostile), both are equally insecure attachments.  The fourth style, ambivalent, is demonstrated at the bottom of the diagram as a patterened response of moving between one end of the fulcrum and the other—between detachment and enmeshment.  The more extreme the attachment disorder, the more likely we are to live between the two ends of the scale, rapidly pinging back and forth.  For those exhibiting an ambivalent attachment, the imbalance is dramatic and polarizing.  The point, here, is that this type of imbalance quickly creates chaos.   

Unlike a compartmentalized view of attachment, this spectrum view presumes that all of us have dynamic attachment patterns.  We all move along the spectrum and the frequency and severity of that movement depends on the amount of stress we’re under.  This means that I’m not defined by being anxious, or avoidant, or insecure in my relationships, I will move between those descriptors, along the fulcrum, depending on my level of stress.

So why does this matter to you?

The more ambivalent your child’s attachment pattern, the more easily they kick up your own stress.  How many of you feel like, during crisis moments, your internal, emotional state reflects that of your child?  How many of you feel guilty when the same angry insults they are hurling at you are rising up in your mind regarding them?  Don’t.  You’re being triggered.  Rather than judging yourself, know that you’re under tremendous stress, and the chaotic emotions you feel mirror what they’re feeling too.

The good news?  They can move from the edges of the spectrum closer to the middle.   The other good news?  So can you.

Rather than trying to move your child from one attachment “category” to another, you can think in terms of lessening the frequency and duration of their polar responses between enmeshed and detached.

If we’re aware of how these traumatized children are moving across the spectrum of attachment, we can better understand how to tailor our responses.  De-mystifying this experience is the conquered first step.

Once you understand this, the next step is to consider how to calm yourself down when their shocking responses are programmed to suck you in to their emotional vortex.  If you’re drawn in to the chaos, the likelihood of the two of you overreacting is high.

Now, let me make this very clear:  This. Is. Not. Easy.

I have tremendous respect for those who have made the decision to foster or adopt.  And working with a child who exhibits this ambivalence on a regular basis is very difficult.  So any suggestions I make or insight I offer I do with the understanding that this is painful and exhausting.

It’s for this very reason that it is essential to find a supportive community that understands adoption, to provide support and resources during crisis.

There are two traps I see parents fall into.  And the first trap initiates the second.  First, they view the attachment as overly fragile.  Because many parents have been indoctrinated with the importance of healthy attachment for their child’s healing, they often believe they have to tiptoe around the child with the utmost sensitivity, which ends up being burdensome, exhausting, and can lead to increased triggered responses on the parent’s part, as well as tension and anxiety for the child, who is attuned to your responses.

The second trap is that because of this fragile view of attachment, parents are so concerned with maintaining the connection in order to generate healing that they end up living in enmeshment while believing they’re creating a healthy attachment.

What does this look like in real time? 

Long, drawn out conversations about emotions and copious amounts of time spent trying to engage your child to facilitate the connection (the belief being that time spent correlates with attachment security).  In reality, spending too much time in emotional conversations with your child increases the likelihood that you both become stressed and you both overreact.

Parents’ hypersensitivity to their child’s emotional cues will likely increase their child’s hyper-vigilance.  And if the parents view the attachment as fragile, this will increase their sensitivity to the child’s cues.  It’s a vicious cycle.

The number one way to combat this is through awareness.  You need a clear understanding of the landscape to know how to respond.  Picture the attachment spectrum in your head; consider where you fall on that spectrum during moments when you’re most upset.  Do you tend towards anxiety? Avoidance? Or toggle between both?

Now, what do you notice about your child?  Can you pinpoint where they are on that spectrum during times when they’re upset?  What would it look like to view them as more resilient?  What would it look like to stay calm while they are in crisis?  What do you need to remember from what you’ve learned, here, to be able to do that?

For traumatized children, we can respect the nature of their attachment to us without being overwhelmed by its fragility.  Putting language to the interaction patterns with them will allow us to better understand their actions and our reactions, moment by moment.  As we begin to understand those and get perspective on the obstacles we’ll face, we open the doorway to incorporating interventions and experiencing them, and ourselves, with greater resiliency.

Buried beneath their stressed responses are the personalities of some really awesome kids, full of vibrancy, curiosity, and creativity.  And buried beneath your stressed responses, you’ll find the reflection of your former self, the pre-adoption part of you that was also more vibrant and more curious.  I bet you’re longing to see that.

The New Mentor?

Mentoring

As I was skimming articles the other day I came across this headline from Harvard Business Review: “Find a Micro-Mentor for Your Next Short-Term Project”

I felt immediately deflated.

It was the management tip of the day, and the description indicated that since mentors are in short supply, securing their attention requires offering a short-term arrangement of less than a month to complete a singular project.

The idea that future mentoring might parallel the micro-blog trend is disappointing to me.  The term is currently used to describe a variety of personal and professional relationships where the more experienced pedagogue imparts upon the newly minted protege wisdom, guidance, support, and perspective for self-development.

If professional mentoring is trending towards brief stints with one, task-oriented outcome, what differentiates it from project management?

The etymology of this word comes from Greek mythology.  Mentor was the friend to King Ulysses who cared for the King’s son, Telemachus, during his twenty-year absence.  Mentor’s influence on Telemachus was formative to his insight, moral development, and character growth, thus the association of his name with this valuable role.  (source)

There are many famous and exemplary mentoring pairs, even ones that pre-date the creation of the word.  In the Old Testament there’s Elijah and Elisha; in the New Testament, Paul and Timothy; there’s Socrates and Plato; Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross; Freud and Jung; in more modern times, Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra; Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot; Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, and the list goes on and on.

There’s a fascinating history in between the mythological introduction of the word and our current usage.  It’s worth researching to understand the evolution of the concept and how its changing usage mirrors cultural trends.  I’ll leave the rest to your own intrigue.

The modern iteration of the term was initiated with the 1978 pivotal work, The Seasons of a Man’s Life.  It was at this critical juncture that mentoring ideology moved from communal learning to self-actualization. (source)

Rather than emphasizing individuation, I believe the goal of mentoring is not only to benefit the people on both sides but also the lives of their surrounding circles of influence.  If mentoring becomes self-actualizing or condensed project management, the community suffers.  This form of reductionism, if broadly applied, would also leave us without essential accountability.

The longevity of the mentoring relationship is one of its most endearing qualities.  The opportunity to meet with a trusted adviser who understands us, knows our history, and is available to our questions is invaluable.

While I understand that there’s a denotative divide between personal and professional, here, I sometimes wonder if there should be.  If we divide mentoring relationships categorically, we lose the impact of the term as indicative of someone who gets the whole picture and shapes the whole person.

If our culture is trending towards this type of reductionism regarding mentors, I hope we can resist the temptation to trend with it.  I’m concerned that if the original intention of those relationships is diminished, it will lead to less accountability and minimal opportunity to be sharpened by the wisdom, insight, and character of those who have gone before us.

For my own love of poetry, I wonder what T.S. Eliot’s works would’ve been like had he spent only a month with Ezra Pound…

 

Pixelated People

Garry Winogrand--airportI’ve been walking the streets of the Capital over the past few days, enjoying a mini holiday.  I’ve also been discovering this urban wonderland afresh through a 50 millimeter lens.  On Thursday as I began to experience DC from a multi-lens perspective, I happened upon an exhibit at the National Gallery of Art featuring Garry Winogrand.

For those of you who don’t know, Garry was a still photographer, mainly working in the 60’s and 70’s, who was adept at capturing human emotion with rich metaphor as subtext.  He sought to convey both the connection and fragmentation between humans, and did so mostly in his home state of New York as well as in California and Texas.  He juxtaposed urban life with country fairs in ways that were startling and compelling to admirers of his work.  He became a teacher of the medium, both formally and informally, and many of his photographs were unveiled posthumously (a fact that has intrigued many for the perceived implications that he was less interested in showcasing and more interested in capturing the art form).

As I meandered through the Gallery exhibit, I was struck by the dramatic switch from frames of disconnection to connection.  So often both were found in the four walls of one photograph.  In the middle of the exhibit, there was a detailed explanation of why he enjoyed taking pictures in airports.  He considered airports to be hubs not only for arrivals and departures of planes, but also the patterned entrances and exits of human connectedness.  He found those transits to be rich sources for portraying the contrast.  He would see loved ones issue tearful and dramatic good-byes, then immediately exit and ignore everyone around them as they boarded planes.

It was the space between apathetic humans walking in proximity that particularly interested him, according to the exhibit.  As I registered this intentional decision of his to seek out disconnection and portray it, I was struck by a thought.  Where do we see that kind of fragmentation on display currently?  In a post-911 world, we don’t find it in the same way in airports, at least not the juxtaposition of tearful good-byes to apathetic plane entrances.

His decision to seek out airport disconnection seemed worth pondering, so I came up with a few other places where cultural fragmentation is currently on display.

Urban streets: These streets host masses of feet committed to perpetual motion and marching in horizontal and vertical patterns, sometimes sliced across by a diagonal line, cutting the cadence of the toed rhythm.  These feet are continuously kicking their way through crowded intersections, attached to legs, arms, and elbows, blocking out and defending against fellow humanity.

The fact that shoving others in a crowd is such a defensive act contributes to the cold and sterile disconnect.  In order to take such a defensive posture, we have to make a decision that our agenda, needs, and desires are more important, thereby elevating ourselves and diminishing the humanity of the people around us.

Grocery stores: Where tomatoes share a common fate, but are divided by vastly different purposes depending on the purchaser.  We’re all there to buy the same produce, meats, dairies, etc. but the varying combinations of utility seem to be more divisive than uniting.  If I smile at people in the grocery store, or hold the door for them, or help them with their carts, I usually get a startled or confused look.

My takeaway?  Connection is inherently unexpected.  We’re more inclined to anticipate dodgy glances, fights over the last loaf of fresh-baked bread, or Bluetooth calls piercing the air with the hope of dialogue that just isn’t meant for us.

Have you been in Target lately?  Fighting over the grocery store conveniences is extended further to clothes, home goods, electronics, and pet supplies.  The larger quantity of stuff only increases the combination of decisions we have to make that leave us with a strong agenda, haphazard pathways, and little interest in interacting with others in our laser-focused task orientation.

Trains, Buses, Taxis:  Maybe the new airport of disconnection comes in the form of trains and automobiles.  It would seem that any invention meant to move people is also prone to silence them between point A and point B.  When there is noise, it’s not directed at the kind stranger, it’s at our electronic devices.  And elevators?  We all know that they are champions of awkward silence designed to glue our gazes to the beyond mundane fake, wood floor, or poorly patterned carpet.

This exercise is not meant to shame or judge or even point out our flaws in engaging in these patterns.  I’ve made the decision many times over to push through crowds defensively or sit in silence on a bus or fix my gaze to the elevator floor.

I have noticed, however, that the times when I do break pattern are times that are generally rewarding.

To reach out to a surrounding someone when the expected cadence is disconnection is a startling and bold act.  So when we do it, we may get initial surprise or confusion, but oftentimes there’s a softening, and a remembered realization that we’re all human, and that the crowds we’re pushing through are not objects but beings.  The feet we’re kicking against are not speed bumps but are lives with failures, successes, and plans of their own.  The hands that are fumbling to pick out ripe produce are hands designed for work and for play, just like ours.  The eyes that are shifting downwards in the elevator are beautiful, lucid, and brimming with stories, both happy and sad.

We are united by the fact that we’re people.  We share common experiences, emotions, stories, failures, successes, body parts, family units, hobbies, work goals, daily routines, and the list could go on and on.

So maybe this seems basic, or soap box-esque, or unimportant, but when I share these same stories in counseling, there’s often a deep exhale.

Why is that?  Because it’s normalizing.  To know that we’re all people and we all experience the world in similar ways means that maybe our fears, failures, and shortcomings aren’t so very different from others.  And if that’s the case, maybe it’s worth the risk of reaching out in connection during those times when connection is least expected.

I’d like to share this quote from Winogrand that is eerily applicable here:

I like to think of photographing as a two-way act of respect. Respect for the medium, by letting it do what it does best, describe. And respect for the subject, by describing as it is. A photograph must be responsible to both.

When we ignore others on sprawling, urban streets or avoid them in elevators or push past them to get produce, do we allow their humanity to be what it is?  Or do we diminish it, overshadowing their personhood with the immediacy of our agendas?   I believe we all want our humanity to be respected in those moments; so it seems worth the effort to respect others within a deeply self-conscious and fragile divide.