This blog isn't just about me. It's about you. It's about him. It's about her. It's about all of us and about what it means to be us. It's about psychology, mythology, literature. It's about growth, about growing pains, about challenges, and about triumphs. It's about the people I have met, personally and professionally, who have loved me, who have hurt me, who have touched me, amongst whom there hasn't been one who hasn't left me feeling that I am the wiser for having met them. At times in this blog I may refer to my patients, when I do, it is after obtaining their consent, and in such a way that they might be unrecognizable even to themselves. To maintain their confidentiality I have taken creative liberties in recounting my work with them. I have changed identifying details and any names used, but have retained the ideas they have shared with me, ideas that have moved me and have inspired me to write about them. It is my hope that their stories of self-discovery, conveyed through my words, might serve as a torch that sheds light on your journey inward and helps you better write what you would like the story of your life to look like.

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After the Happily Ever After

by on May 12th, 2015

This post is also available on Psychology Today.

 

“It’s hard to see the light when you can’t find the tunnel,” my patient Dylan said during a recent session, questioning whether he and his girlfriend Anya would be able to find a way to bridge their differences. This post outlines my work with them, guided by the principles of Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT). EFT is a treatment approach for couples grounded in over 30 years of research on love that asserts we are relational by nature and built biologically to seek connection. However, just because we are capable of connecting doesn’t mean we are able to as evidenced by our rising divorce rate. In fact, many of us struggle in knowing how to connect and in being able to repair the inevitable disconnections when they arise in our relationships. Rigorously researched, EFT is an empirical validated treatment approach in which 7 out of 10 distressed couples who undergo this type of therapy get better, giving us reason to believe that we can not only see the light but the entire landscape, providing us with a road map for creating the kind of love that lasts.
 

Poets, writers, and musicians have long exalted the mystery of love, likening it to all things mystical, magical, and unexplainable. The poet Ranier Rilke in the poem Love Story describes it as a state of merger and implores his lover to see “…everything that touches us…takes us together like a violin’s bow…[and] draw[s] one voice out of two separate strings.” More recently Ed Sheeran in his hit single Thinking Out Loud reminds us “people fall in love in mysterious ways” and “maybe it’s all part of a plan” evoking existential notions of love. These beautiful but impossible to achieve ideas have imprinted upon us the sense that love is something that happens to us, not something that we create.

For those who of us who somehow manage to mysteriously fall in love, there’s even less understanding of why people stay in love. Fairytales are no help here. They end where the process of learning to make love last begins. Country songs provide more guidance but frequently they are directed towards love after it ends. In particular, after the husband who’s been left for a more doting lover is drinking too much, with remote still in hand, wondering what went wrong.

Unbeknownst it seems to writers and poets, the last 30 years has led to a burgeoning of research in the science and the psychology of love, demystifying what it is. Love is not capricious or ephemeral. In fact, it is a highly evolved emotion that is hard wired into our brains. During moments of deep connection our brain releases oxytocin, the bonding hormone. It’s what helps us to continue waking up every three hours to nurse our infants and the high we feel lying close to our partners as they stroke their fingers through our hair or when we feel deeply understood by them. Such findings lend credibility to what psychologists studying attachment have known all along. We do not seek novelty in love, what we seek is safety and security, which can only occur in committed, loving relationships. With half of us divorced and that number steadily rising, maybe we ought not to follow Ed Sheeran in his suggestion that he’s “just going to keep making the same mistakes,” and instead find ways to learn from our mistakes, to deepen our connection to our partner and to create the kind of love most of us have sought in our life but has seemingly eluded us.

Anya and Dylan

“Dylan’s parking,” my patient Anya says to me as I crane my neck into the waiting room searching for her boyfriend. “We drove separately today.”

I’d been working with Anya and her boyfriend, Dylan, for six weeks. They had been together for nearly two years. Both divorced, with kids, careers, families, and ex-spouses, they struggled to find time to see each other, and in the last few months found themselves fighting much more. In our first session, Anya had brought up an incident she felt captured how she felt. “It was Sunday morning. We were having sex when his daughter kept texting and asking him to take her to the soccer field to kick the ball around. Mom wouldn’t, could he? It wasn’t an emergency and it wasn’t his weekend. I wanted him to say no. He didn’t. He couldn’t focus and left abruptly. I felt confused about what had happened. I thought maybe it was me. It was early on in our relationship and I hadn’t realized then how responsible he felt for his daughter and for meeting her every desire immediately.”

Dylan had been divorced for four years. He had initated the divorce. Still guilt ridden he had trouble saying no to his daughter. “I don’t want to disappoint my daughter or do anything that would upset her,” he had said in response to Anya. “Most women I have dated cannot understand my relationship with my daughter. She’s my priority and nothing is going to get in the way of that.” He felt he had to be available to his daughter whenever she needed him and that not doing so would undermine his relationship with her. As a result, he would change plans with Anya last minute if something came with his daughter. “I need Anya to be more understanding. My daughter is 15 and she’s going to go to college soon. I want to spend whatever time she wants to spend with me, even if it’s not my weekend. I’ve been trying to make Anya more a priority, but I can’t seem to get it right with her.” While Dylan’s desire to please his daughter is of Herculean proportions, he also treats Anya with a similar devotion. Recently, after she left for work and he stayed to take a conference call, he washed her dishes, made her bed, and noticing she was out of milk ran to the store to replace it. In his mind he tries to compensate for what he can’t give Anya more of, himself, and feels criticized when despite all his effort she gets upset when he changes plans or cancels for his daughter.

The Wails of Disconnection

Settling into the couch Anya tugs on her lips as she sometimes does when she is nervous. She begins with some hesitation, “Dylan had taken his daughter for spring break to visit his sister in Washington. He didn’t invite me because having me around makes his daughter uncomfortable. While he was away he was busy with his family and I didn’t hear from him very much. When he got back he was supposed to come straight from the airport. I was excited and ready to surprise him in lingerie but he texted me after he landed that he was going to go home first and clean up. It took him a few hours to come over so I had changed before he arrived. Not long after coming over he began texting his sister who had not been getting along with his mother. As the day progressed he seemed distracted, watched the highlights of the Masters on T.V. and continued to text his sister. As I was saying to him I wish you would turn your phone off his sister called and he picked it up. I hit the roof. I said things to him I wish I could take back. I told him to f— off. I don’t think he felt his behavior was rude, so I wanted to provoke him. He was quiet and not responding. I was hurt and he added salt to my wound with his silence.”

We fight because attach, which we are biologically wired to do. In the animal kingdom the zebra that strays from the pack is bound to become someone’s lunch. Connection with the pack creates security and ensures survival, while disconnection can be a harbinger of death. We humans have a similar need to connect. The negative downward spiral we see in couples stems from feeling emotionally disconnected from our partner. When we feel disconnected, some of us, like Anya, protest loudly and in ways that pushes our partners away, often when we need them the most.

In the still face experiment, psychologist Dr. Edward Tronick videotaped parents playing with their infants. As the parents laugh and talk with their children, the infants respond by gurgling, cooing, and smiling in response. When researchers instruct parents to become still faced and not respond the infant quickly picks up on this and attempts to re-engage the parent by cooing and pointing, things that the parent had been responsive to in the past. With continued unresponsiveness from the parent the infants screech, scream, and display negative emotions such as frustration and anger, some eventually turned away, withdraw, and become quiet, feeling powerless to affect their parents. It’s difficult watching the infants squirm as the parent following the researchers’ lead continues to be unresponsive.

I imagine most of us feel concern for the infant who is being stone walled and are empathic to their remonstrative wails directed towards trying to get their parent to re-engage. A similar pattern occurs in love relationships but when it’s our partner who is screaming at us because of the disconnection they feel we don’t feel quite as empathic. In such moments both partners are likely to feel defensive, with their armor up, unable to hear each other over the clanging of their protective covering. In some couples the pattern we see is similar to Anya and Dylan. Anya, the protesting partner, is likely to feel desperate, abandoned, and not important, leading her to respond to Dylan’s silence with anger. The withdrawing partner tends to respond like Dylan does by retreating. Hearing Anya’s frustrations as criticisms that he hasn’t been able to please her, he pulls away. It’s difficult for him to stay present when he feels attacked, as he withdraws Anya becomes more frustrated and attacking. Unlike Dylan, other partners might attack back which leads both of them to blame and criticize the other, with neither feeling understood by the other, both escalate trying to prove their point and attempting to show the other person why they are wrong. In other instances both partners may be withdrawn, with both having emotionally left the relationship a long time ago there is little left to fight about.

But there is some good news here. The problem is not you (Phew!). But neither is it your partner (Sorry!). There are no bad guys here. The problem is the negative cycle of relating that couples get stuck in.

Rub-a-Dub-Dub is Why We Fight

Directing his attention towards me Dylan says, “I don’t understand what happens. Anya goes from 0 to 60 in under five seconds. One minute we’re having a great time and laughing, the next minute something comes over her, her mood shifts, and she’s gone from fun to furious.”

Imagine you have a broken arm and someone brushes past it, nailing you right where it hurts the most. It might send you shrieking in pain, even though the offense is unintentional. In relationships we also develop parts of ourselves that are raw and at times unbearably sensitive. We all have them. We develop them as a result of interactions in our current and/or past relationships. They’re the invisible wounds we accumulate, because we are human, we feel, we hurt, and we bleed. And when triggered, sometimes these wounds bleed all over our relationship. You know you’ve chafed one of these spots when you find yourself overreacting, or find your mood shifting radically and rapidly, like Anya does. Anya has a history with Dylan of him changing plans or not knowing till the last minute if and when he can meet, which has led her to feel like she is not a priority to him. She also grew up in a family in which her parents were unable to be attend to her and left a 17 year marriage in which she felt invisible to her husband. As a result, she’s hypersenstive to even minor offenses. “I don’t ask Dylan to give up time with his daughter, but when he makes plans with me I want him to keep them and when he’s with me I want him to be with me. When he spent the time we had together texting and talking to his sister, who he spent the week with, I felt invisble. Once again I was reminded I’m not important to him.”

Raw spots are mutual offenders. When ours are irritated, we act in ways that chafe our partners’. Growing up Dylan’s father wasn’t around much. He left early for work and returned late. His father died young and Dylan has always longed for a closer connection with his father. As a result, Dylan puts a lot of pressure on himself not just to be a loving, available father, but a father that puts his daughter’s needs above all else, including Anya’s and his own. In addition, Dylan felt his ex-wife was critical and verbally abusive towards him and when Anya’s raw spot of not feeling important is triggered, she says things to him that remind him of his marriage in which he felt trapped and verbally attacked. As he withdraws, feeling emotionally bludgeoned, it further chafes Anya’s raw spot that she’s not important enough to stay present for. Her choice words said to get a rise out of him like “F— you”, lead him to feel more unappreciated, unloved, and rub against his raw spot. During heated moments he walks out leaving Anya to stew, which further enrages her. The negative spiral that leads them to fight stems from their raw spots being chafed, leading them to feel disconnected from each other, and when both of them feel emotionally abandoned and misunderstood, they begin to question why they are together in the first place.

The Utility of Gorilla Glue, Crowbars, and Other Such Instruments in Relationships

“It’s hard to see the light when you can’t find the tunnel,” Dylan says holding his forehead in his hands.

“Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall. Humpty Dumpty had a great fall. All the king’s horses and all the king’s men, couldn’t put Humpty Dumpty together again,” I overheard my daughter singing with my neighbor’s three-year-old. Listening to them with older ears made me wonder why we teach our kids such depressing nursery rhymes, especially ones that don’t teach them much about resilience. But luckily you’re not an egg, and neither is your relationship, which unlike Humpty Dumpty can be put back together again.

Taking a deep breath Dylan continues, “There are things in our relationship that I hold myself responsible for. Like the first time I told you I loved you and left soon after, in your words bolted, because my daughter had a game. I let you drive home after we’d been drinking because my daughter wanted me to take her to get a Brazilian blowout. I often wouldn’t know till the last minute if I could get together and change plans if Rhea needed anything. But that hasn’t happened for a few months. I’ve tried to change, but your reaction creates pressure for me to do the right thing all the time. I know you want someone who treats you like their priority and I’ve tried but I feel what I give you is never enough. I try to understand your needs and wants, so I want the same in return not someone who tells me to go ‘F’ myself because they don’t feel they are not getting my attention for a small moment in time as I deal with a delicate and timely matter. Your over reacting has not just happened once, but on several occasions, so there is an obstacle here which we are not able to be overcome.”

Anya softens initially, she’s hurt, and he acknowledged her pain, but then she crosses her arms hardening again, as he shifts from being vulnerable to more angry and accusatory. I add looking at Dylan, “You have tried very hard to please Anya but feel terribly caught between Anya and your daughter, and no matter what you do, you feel like you can’t get it right. You put a lot pressure on yourself to make her happy and you’ve tried in different ways to show her how important she is to you. But there’s a part of you that wants to give up because you feel exhausted and that no matter what you do it won’t be enough.” I notice tears roll down his cheeks and Anya reaching for his hand, seeing his vulnerability allows her to lower her guard.

She stays with his struggle, and recognizes she need to find a better way to express her anger, and that she needs to learn to lean into him with hurt, not rage. “My words ‘f— you’ felt like nails on a coffin to Dylan,” she says quietly, “And I might need a crowbar to fix this and maybe gorilla glue to seal my mouth shut when I’m angry.” Speaking to him directly she says, “I lose track of my love for you in these moments. Who you are. How hard you’ve tried to gain my love and approval. You even read Beowulf because I like it. You’re not even a reader. I want to learn to give you more of what you need and to be more patient. I know how caught you feel between Rhea and I. And I know you’re trying. I also know how cutting and hurtful my words can be. I’m sorry.” She added she hadn’t been aware of the urgency Dylan felt about responding to his sister. Since he had been with her all week she figured it was something they had already discussed while there. She asked him to include her more in what he is doing, rather than reading his texts and responding on his own. “Communicating what was going on would have helped me to better understand the urgency you felt,” she adds pulling him close to her.

By the end of the session, Dylan is able to acknowledge his contribution to what occurred but still seems puzzled as to why Anya gets so upset with him even after all the nice things he does for her. In response I suggest, “Bringing in Anya’s trash cans and mowing her lawn are wonderful gestures and ways of showing her how much you care, but they don’t compensate for her need to have the person she loves pay attention to her, and to make her a priority.” Noticing their arms wrapped around each other I add, “When we are able to meet each other and understand each other at a deep level, that kind of connection feels like what you are probably experiencing right now. It’s like a warm blanket that comforts us on a cold, dreary night, and that kind of intimacy requires time and attention like you both gave it today.”

As a couple, identifying the negative spiral you have gotten stuck in and the raw spots that are contributing to it, allows you to understand your partners deeper emotions and vulnerabilities, and to not react to their surface emotions, like anger. In the 2015 Disney movie Cinderella, the narrator wisely encourages us to take off our armor and to remember, “the greatest risk any of us will take is to be seen for who we truly are.” Sharing our fears and hearing our lovers’ allows us to lean into each other and begin the work of creating safety in our relationship, leading us to reach for each other in a way that doesn’t lead the other to pull away or attack back. In safe relationships we are able to reach for each other in a way that allows us to stay present, engaged, and responsive, and when we are unable to do so we can repair the disconnection by tuning into each other and healing the hurt feelings.

After proposing to Jenny several times, the love of Forrest Gump’s life, and her repeatedly saying no, he finally asks her, “Why don’t you love me, Jenny? I’m not a smart man but I know what love is.” We are finally catching up to what Forrest seems to have known along: Love is not mysterious. We can understand it. And repair it when we break it. When you pick up a book to read you assume the implicit risk that as you turn a page you might get a paper cut, maybe even the worst paper cut of your life. Likewise, in a relationship we might get hurt or wound our partner, but that’s not the problem. Just like a paper cut is inevitable if we read enough, hurts and wounds are inevitable if we relate enough. The problem is that we don’t do the work of healing those wounds that lead to disconnection. We have been told we just need to find someone who fits us, and preferably perfectly, then we will live happily ever after. Such ideas have done us a great disservice because all relationships romantic or otherwise require some work. Perhaps what we need to ask ourselves is not will I ever find someone who fits me, and instead roll up our sleeves and ask ourselves who do I want to do that work with, to create the kind of love that lasts long after the happily ever after.

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The Darkness is the Key

by on March 10th, 2014

This post can also be found on Psychology Today

Unsaved Preview Document 3In oneself lies the whole world, and if you know how to look and learn, then the door is there and the key is in your hand. Nobody on earth can give you either that key or the door to open, except yourself. -J. Krishnamurti

“Mom, I can’t sleep. Can you tell me a story?” my 8-year-old daughter Anika asked, clasping her hand in mine and leading me to her bed.

Pulling the covers over us, she tucked her hands between her chin and pillow, and looked up at me. When I hesitated, unsure which story to share, “I’m ready,” she said and reached up to move my lips with her fingers, “You can start now.”

“Okay,” I said laughing, “Once upon a time there was a…”

“No, Mom,” she jumped in, covered my mouth with her tiny hand and asserted, “not the creepy one about Oedipus Rex, you know the guy who burned his eyes so he could see. That’s going to give me nightmares. And not the one about Eisik, and the treasure, and the journey we’re all on. I’ve heard that one too many times.”

Moving out of her reach I began again. “Once upon a time there was a man named Nasrudin1. Some thought he was a very silly man. But if you ask me I think he was very wise and didn’t even know it himself. One day Nasrudin was outside his house. He was on his hands and knees frantically searching for something under a lamppost when his friend passed by and asked him what he was looking for. My key he said to his friend, I lost the key to my house. His friend being a nice person also got down on his hands and knees and tried to help him look. Some time passed. Eventually it was so dark they could barely see each other, when his friend asked him where he had lost his key. I lost it inside the house Nasrudin replied. If you lost your key inside the house, his friend asked him very confused, then why are we looking for it outside? Because Nasrudin said with a gleam in his eyes this is where the light is.”

Suddenly lifting her head off the pillow, Anika asked, “Ummm…so Mom, I’m kind a confused too. Why would he look for the key outside his house when he lost it inside? No offense but that story makes no sense. Who would do that?”

Her question took me back. Some years before Anika was born I was determined to move to California. I was in the final year of my Ph.D. program buried in books, while NYC was buried in snow. “I’m sick of the weather here,” I had insisted as I discussed post doc opportunities with my supervisor. “The winters are too cold, the summers too humid, and the people always grouchy. But even more importantly I can’t meditate here. California is the only place I can.” I had grown up bi-coastally with holidays spent with my extended family in Southern California. In my time there I had come to believe Huntington Beach, California was the only place I could meditate and that my spiritual development hinged on moving. Unswayed by my questionable reasoning my supervisor cautioned, “You can move to California, Dana, it’s beautiful there. But the only problem is you’re going to take yourself with you.” He was right of course. I can’t meditate here either. The problem wasn’t the noise in New York City, but the noise inside my head, and unfortunately I took that with me.

Likewise, my patient Christine an MFA student at Chapman University said to me last week, “I have to move to Chicago. I’ve got so many ideas but I can’t write in Orange County. It’s so plastic here. It’s an inspirational wasteland. This place has sapped all the creativity out of me. Besides, what’s the point in even trying to overcome my writer’s block? No one is going to want to read what I write anyway.”

“It’s true,” I replied, “Orange County can feel that way. But what stays with me are your words, ‘No one is going to want to read what I write.’ I wonder if you aren’t writing with an audience in mind rather than writing what you love, which is likely to get in the way of your creativity. It reminds me of a song by Macklemore called Make the Money in which he says, ‘This is my job I will not quit it, sure I questioned if I could go the distance, but that’s the work regardless of who’s listening.’ In your case that’s the work regardless of who’s reading. The work of believing in yourself, that you’re producing something valuable, is about your self-worth, and that’s likely to be present irrespective of where you live. In the song Ten Thousand Hours also by Macklemore he says, ‘I stand here in front of you today all because of an idea, I could be who I wanted if I could see my potential.’ It’s not a question of the skyline you see when you look outside your window, it is a question of the terrain you see when you look within, and unlike Macklemore you don’t see your potential.”

“I’m fascinated,” Christine said smiling, “by your ability to relate most things back to a Macklemore song.” Pausing she added, “And in helping me see the path to feeling good about my writing lies within, not 2000 miles east of here in Chicago. I might still wind up there, I hope. But it won’t be to cure my writers block, it will be because I really love it there.”

“I love your stories, Mom, but I really don’t get that one. Who would do that?” Anika asked again bringing me back.

“Do you remember the episode of Jessie in which Jessie gets stuck in a trap Zuri and Ravi place to catch burglars? Ravi pulls Zuri to the side and asks her if he can have a word. ‘I hope that word isn’t key,’ she says, ‘because I don’t have one.’ The point of Nasrudin’s story is that in life we all have the key, or the answers, but we look for them in the wrong place. Like when I lived in New York City I felt I had to move to California, I thought life would be better here. No snow, no winter coats, happy people year around. But that’s not really true. We have rain, we have earthquakes, and if everyone were so happy I wouldn’t have a job. And for some reason I thought I would be able to meditate here when I couldn’t in New York.”

“What’s meditate Mom?”

“What Nana does when he says ‘Ommmm’ loudly.”

“You meditate Mom? I’ve never seen you do that.”

My dad had asked me the same question recently. “Do you meditate? Your mom and I have been attending a meditation group on Friday nights. The leader was talking about how important meditation is to spiritual development.”

I was beginning to feel haunted by my inability to meditate. But not being able to do so has led me to realize as important as it is to look within for answers, it is also important to remember the answers that are right for one person may not be right for another.

“I imagine Dad there are many paths to spiritual growth. When Joseph Campbell the mythologist who wrote The Hero with A Thousand Faces and whose work movies like Star Wars are based on was asked a similar question he said he underlined sentences2. I feel a little bit like him. What helps me to grow is reading and relating. I grow most spiritually in relationship with others, not in isolation as some Buddhists and Indian priests advocate through meditation and seclusion.”

‘In the middle of the journey…I came to myself, in a dark wood, where the direct way was lost. It is a hard thing to speak of…but…in order to tell of the good that I found there, I must tell of the other things I saw…’ commences Dante’s journey through the dark sinuous woods of hell, in which he plunges the depths of darkness to find the light that shines throughout. William James, the 19th century philosopher and psychologist, has referred to such people as twice born, those who are willing to enter the woods and look at the things they need to change in order to live a life awakened, not crushed, by adversity3. But too many of us, like Nasrudin, stay away from the darkness, eventhough it is only in entering it that we face ourselves, our demons, and find what has been with us all along, the key.

Where have you been looking for your key?

Do you even know that it’s lost?

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1In Sufi stories Nasrudin is often depicted as an amalgam of foolishness and unparalleled wisdom and stories about him use humor to convey life lessons. His actions reflect the confusion we all feel, while revealing the deeper wisdom seeded within each of us.

2From SAGA: Best New Writing on Mythology edited by Jonathon Young

3From Broken Open by Elizabeth Lesser

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Racial Teasing: Personal Reflections on Being Different in America

by on October 6th, 2013

“Well, who am I?” the apothecary asks Jane Eyre as she slowly begins to awaken, echoing one of the central themes seeded in Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, her struggle to know who she is. The novel begins with Jane locked away for being disobedient, where she finds herself drawn to her reflection in the mirror. Unable to recognize herself she wonders who is “the strange little figure there gazing at me” before embarking on a circuitous journey to discover the parts of herself she cannot yet see. Bronte’s genius lies not only in crafting a novel whose lyricism croons our heart, but also one which nudges us to consider the question that plagues it, “Who am I?”

Jumping in front of me he lowered his head towards me and asked, “Who are you?” I had always tried to keep a low profile in school, not wanting to be seen, but his question seemed absurd considering he sat behind me in homeroom. He was wearing a black shirt notable for its declaration ‘Proud to be Italian’ carved in blood red lettering. I kept my eyes fixed on it, too scared to let them wander. I remember thinking I would have never worn a shirt that revealed my ethnicity anymore than my skin color already did. I would have sooner died than be found in a t-shirt that announced I was ‘Proud to be Indian.’

Who am I? I had wondered. I didn’t know then. I know now who I was: Someone who was too embarrassed to be Indian, and too Indian to be American. An outcast. Alienated and isolative. Someone who didn’t belong anywhere. Someone who never felt good enough. Someone who a few years later would punish her body by starving and purging it to fit in.

“What are you doing here?” he questioned, as he blocked my path, and the door out of school. A group of boys gathered behind him and fanned out around me. Leaning close to my face and pointing with his index finger he questioned, “Did you lose your way?” Turning his head to one side and cupping his ear with his hand he continued, “What? I can’t hear you.”

When I didn’t respond he enunciated each word with labored clarity, “Do-you-speak-English?” and after a brief pause slapped his friend’s back as he ducked his head up and down with laughter adding, “Gandhis don’t belong in this town. Gandhis belong in Gandhi-field, not here in Bergenfield.”

I had stood speechless.The fiery words that clamored within me smoldered in my mouth, but I had swallowed them, I always did. I felt relieved when he turned away from me and began to walk away, but looking back he had shouted, loud enough for everyone who had been looking on to hear, “A f—ing dot head is who you are. Go home!”

“Why are people so mean?” my older daughter Saige wondered out loud.

I couldn’t have gotten to her fast enough. We hadn’t watched the 2014 Miss America Pageant live, but she was excited to see Nina Davaluri’s performance in the talent segment, because her dance teacher Nakul Dev Mahajan[i] had choreographed it. Having eschewed television, it was my patient who had mentioned a woman of Indian origin had won the pageant, while warning me “some people are not happy about it and are saying some pretty racist things about her.”[ii] Waiting for the YouTube video to load, Saige had read most of the comments below it, before I had scrambled my way to her. Looking up she had asked, “Mom, what’s a dot head?” I wish I had warned her as well.

“Because we sometimes wear a bindi like with Indian clothes, a ‘dot head’ is way of making fun of people who are Indian. When I was younger sometimes people would say that to me to tease me because I’m Indian.”

“That must have been hard Mom,” Saige said snuggling her head on my shoulder.

“It was hard. It made me not want to be Indian. I didn’t want to go to school. I felt kind of alone and sad. And while it might have been easier for me if I didn’t have experiences like that, because I did it’s made me a better person. Those experiences, and coming to terms with them, have made who I am.”

I patted the empty space beside me to encourage my younger daughter Anika to sit. “Sometimes people might say things to you that are mean about the way you look, about being Indian, if they do, that doesn’t mean that there’s anything wrong with you, or with being Indian.” I wish I had known that. “If they do I want you to tell me about it. There’s lots of things we can do to stop it from happening.”

“Like in 1st grade when Erin was being mean to me and Mrs. McDonald made us read Love, Ruby Lavender and discuss it during lunch?” A girl in Saige’s class had written a note to her telling her she was her 4th best friend because she didn’t like her dark skin color and hair.

“Exactly, you told me about it and you were scared to tell Mrs. McDonald about it, but when you did she stepped in so that it didn’t continue.”

“Mom,” Anika said climbing onto my lap to get a better look at the laptop Saige was holding, “I didn’t know that an Indian person could be Miss America.”

“Of course,” I responded, “that’s why Nana and Nani left everything behind in India to move here. They always told me if you worked hard and never gave up you could be anything you want to be in America.”

“Does that mean I could be Miss America?” Saige asked eagerly.

Beauty pageants, regardless of who wins, evoke mixed feelings in me. “Yes that, or you could be an astronaut, the president, a veterinarian, a psychologist. Though it’s pretty cool that someone Indian won. I didn’t think that could happen.”

“Maybe Nana and Nani were right. When you grow up in America, you can be anything you want. You just have to keep practicing and trying.”

I nodded in agreement, though the one thing I never wanted to be when I grew up was Indian. I spent a lot of time hating and hiding that I was, and trying not to look in the mirror, which would make salient what I was most ashamed of that I am Indian.

“Look at yourself in the mirror: you have not taken one peep.” Sophie says to Jane Eyre prior to her initial failed attempt to marry Rochester. Turning toward the mirror Jane sees “…a robed and veiled figure, so unlike my usual self that it seemed almost the image of a stranger.” While we repeatedly find Jane not recognizing her reflection, we see a different Jane emerge in response to Rochester, who she does eventually marry, as he teases her that he would like to visit Europe with “a very angel” like her “as [his] comforter.” Jane is quick to retort, “I laughed at him as he said this. “I am not an angel,” I asserted; “and I will not be one till I die: I will be myself.”

It’s taken me some time and self-reflection to get here, where I can say, I like who I am and what I see. And while I haven’t seen a “Proud to be Indian” t-shirt, if I did, I would wear it, finally knowing that I am.

I’m not sure what that boy and others like him who teased me see when they look in the mirror.

I know what I see.

When Dumbledore finds Harry Potter returning repeatedly to the Mirror of Erised he says to him, “The mirror shows us nothing more or less than the deepest, most desperate desires of our hearts…The happiest man on earth would look into the mirror and see only himself, exactly as he is.”

What I see is myself.

This post can also be found on Psychology Today

[i] http://ndmdance.com

[ii] Public shaming page regarding racist tweets about Miss America: http://publicshaming.tumblr.com/search/miss+america

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Finding the Possible in Impossible Relationships

by on September 1st, 2013

This post can also be found on Psychology Today http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/life-liberty-and-the-pursuit-insight/201401/finding-the-possible-in-impossible-relationships

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“Only connect,” E.M. Forester in his classic novel Howard’s End implores us.
But can we connect?

If you’ve read Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, as I recently did, you might find yourself asking the same question. In sharing the thoughts of the character Lily Briscoe the narrator remarks, “She had done the usual trick – been nice. She would never know him. He would never know her. Human relations were all like that, she thought, and the worst…were between men and women.”

“I’m so depressed,” I said to my girlfriend Miranda. “There’s no hope for any of us to understand each other. It’s a failed mission, like jumping on board Apollo 13 even after knowing it explodes. We keep signing up for relationships, thinking we can relate, but having the mission go up in flames every time.”

Her sound advice to me was, “Can you please stop reading that book?”

And I did for a little while.

“You’re a book whore,” Miranda quipped after I had dusted it off and finished reading it, and had done so in place of meeting her for lunch. “You know you don’t have to go all the way with every book on your shelf.”

“I needed to find a way for my mom to see the value of going down all the way to the bottom of the ocean with me,” my patient Amy, a senior in high school, but with the depth and wisdom of a 70-year-old recently said to me. “I love your analogies and over the week I thought about the one you shared with me about plumbing the depths of the ocean. My mom and I swim at the surface. Our conversations don’t go very deep. And as you said the fish are nice there, but the coral buried deep in the ocean are stunning. But she’s content at the surface. Because I want to have a deeper relationship with her, I felt I needed to find a way to encourage her to join me down there. So guess what I did? I was listening to NPR, it was a segment on Ted Talks. I was using my headphones, but I decided to take them off and play it for my mom, so she could hear what I was listening to. She thanked me and we even talked about it for a little bit.”

Here was my 17-year-old patient trying to relate to her mom in a way I’m not sure I’ve tried to with my own. I skimmed the surface with my mom. What could I do to encourage her to come see the coral with me? While relating is a two-way street, can I say I have I done my part? Can you?

“What you’re talking about reminds me of a book I just finished reading by Virginia Woolf. The novel allows the reader to do something we have trouble doing in our day-to-day lives, truly understand the subjectivity of others. As the reader we have the vantage point of knowing what each of the characters is thinking. That Lily is thinking about painting and how intolerable she finds Mr. Tansley; Mrs. Ramsay about the children and why her husband looks so sullen; and Mr. Bankes about how to leave the table graciously and get back to work. Having access to their thoughts allows us to see where they are coming from, while they cannot, and as a result have difficulty understanding each other. In playing the NPR segment for your mom you allowed her to know what you were thinking, something the characters do not do.”

Amongst the Sufis—Islamic mystics of the order of the poet Rumi—it is believed there are three ways to God. The first is prayer. A step up from prayer is meditation. And a step up from meditation is conversation. The Sufis diverge from other theologies in their emphasis on direct experience and believe spiritual growth stems from connection with a beloved other, a beloved teacher. Likewise, in Sanskrit from the Vedas, the word ‘namaste’—now readily a part of our English vernacular—means ‘the divine in me sees the divine in you.’ Although the two originate in different parts of the world, both find a place of convergence in their emphasis on understanding relationships as an instrument of self-knowledge. It is through connection, by allowing ourselves to see and to be seen, that we find our way back to ourselves, and to each other.

“Amy in To the Lighthouse there is a part in which the narrator suggests each of the characters, sitting around the dinner table hiding politely behind their smile, is grateful that what they are really thinking about cannot be known to others.” Reaching for the book lying on my desk I quoted, “‘All of them bending themselves to listen thought, ‘Pray heaven that the inside of my mind may not be exposed.’ You did something different Amy. You invited your mom to enter your world, to see your mind, rather than share the same space but not relate like them.”

The older I get the more I realize the most enduring moments are the ones in which we try to connect with others—like Amy and her mom—no matter how problematic such an endeavor may seem. Maybe Forester, echoing the wisdom of the Sufis and the Vedas, was right to exhort, “
Only connect! That was the whole of her sermon. Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, 
And human love will be seen at its height. 
Live in fragments no longer. 
Only connect…”

I wish I could write I have done something extraordinary to connect more deeply with my mom. I realize while I am a psychologist, first and foremost I am human, saddled with human fallibilities. Still, the coral are quite lovely at the bottom of the ocean, and the person I would like to see them with the most is my mother.

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The Oedipus in All of Us

by on August 18th, 2013

“Is Oedipus Rex a true story?” my older daughter Saige1, just shy of ten, asked me. Having me as her mother she probably learned about the Greek tragedy Oedipus the King by Sophocles before she learned to tie her shoelaces.

“Stories like Oedipus Rex are myths, Saige. They’re stories that are passed down from one generation to the next. What’s important about them isn’t whether or not they’re true, what’s important about them is what they mean, what they teach us about who we are, and how to live.”

“Like Oedipus couldn’t see what was right in front of him, right Mom?” my younger daughter Anika had chimed in. “He taught us to go to the eye doctor. If he couldn’t see Mom why didn’t he just get glasses?” she questioned as she tapped on hers.

“Glasses probably wouldn’t have helped Oedipus,” I said smiling, but trying not to laugh. “That’s the kind of seeing you have to do with your heart, not with your eyes.”

This post has moved to its new home on Psychology Today http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/life-liberty-and-the-pursuit-insight/201309/when-we-can-t-see-what-s-right-in-front-us. Thanks!

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On Forcing Things

by on August 4th, 2013

I am quite certain I alienated most of my peers in graduate school. They had good reason to distance themselves from me. Being intolerably, gratingly competitive, I elbowed my way into receiving a full fellowship in a field of study, clinical psychology, that provides fellowships with reluctance; working as an apartment manager for the housing department for which I was compensated with a free apartment and a living stipend in New York City for 5 years; and various T.A. positions; all of which were highly coveted in the leaner years of the late 1990s.

No, I don’t blame you if you find yourself recoiling from me, and clicking the “x” icon up top. But my observations, self-congratulatory as they may seem patient, forgiving reader do bear relevance on how I have grown.

Reader, can you tell I just read Jane Eyre?

But, as usual, I digress.

I didn’t know then, being a fledgling Jedi, what Joseph Campbell did, “Follow your bliss and don’t be afraid. If you do, you put yourself on a…track that has been there…waiting for you…and doors will open where you didn’t know they were going to be…and wouldn’t have opened for anyone else.”

This post has moved to its new home on Psychology Today. To read more please go to: http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/life-liberty-and-the-pursuit-insight/201309/forcing-things

 

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What’s Driving Your Relationship: Love or Fear?

by on July 22nd, 2013

Have you had the occasion to clap with one hand in the air, with the other tucked in your lap? I don’t suppose most of us have, but imagine if you did. It wouldn’t surprise any of us when our ears would be assaulted with a deafening silence, or a whoosh at best. Aren’t relationships similar? Doesn’t it take two hands, two people, to create the symphony or the cacophony that ensues after such encounters? What can we learn about ourselves from the kind of love we co-author and inscribe in indelible ink on our heart?

This post has moved to its new home on Psychology Today to read more please go to: http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/life-liberty-and-the-pursuit-insight/201309/whats-driving-your-relationship-love-or-fear

 

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For the Some of Us

by on July 15th, 2013

“What will your blog be about?” my patient Christine, a writer, had asked me recently. “Most blogs are about the writer or an aspect of their life or interests.”

I hadn’t given much thought to what I wanted to write about, having been more focused on why I wanted to write. In my office I reach only one person, one soul at a time. Through this blog my hope was to reach many more. Christine’s question helped me to consider how I wanted to do that.

In accepting the 2013 Oscar for best picture for Argo Ben Affleck had said, “…it doesn’t matter how you get knocked down in life because that’s going to happen. All that matters is you gotta get up.”

His words stayed with me, they reminded me of the Japanese quote I had shared with Christine when her book was turned down by the third publisher, ‘Fall down 7 times, stand up 8.’

This post has moved to its new home on Psychology Today. To read more go to: http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/life-liberty-and-the-pursuit-insight/201309/the-some-us

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