Newsletter 625 – Life, Careers, and Sun in September

Mary Pipher is a clinical psychologist, best known for her writings. I have profited from many of her books, especially The Middle of Everywhere that chronicles her work with immigrants adjusting to life in America, and Writing to Change the World with its practical implications for established and aspiring writers who want to impact others. With this background, I eagerly read Piper’s recent article in Psychotherapy Networker (July/August, 2015.)

Piper describes a September trip to the Oregon coast with her husband. As a sunset 2one-time Oregon resident and husband of a native Oregonian, I relished Piper’s descriptions but I was especially interested in her perspectives as she approaches the end of her career. Now almost 70, she has no plans for the future. Instead she tries to be “present for my life every day.” Quoting two poets she writes, “I’ve been where I’m going…. I’ve got a tiny future and a great big past.” Piper concludes that being her age is “a place to rest in the September sun before the cold and darkness come.”

In these times when everybody seems to be rushing, there is value and great peace in resting by an ocean at sunset. But doesn’t it sound empty and hopeless, sitting around waiting for the cold and darkness to come, with no thought to the years ahead? How different from 90 year-old Jimmy Carter’s press conference last month announcing his brain cancer. “I’ve had a wonderful life,” he said. “I am completely at ease…. I’m ready for anything and looking forward to new adventure. It is in the hands of God whom I worship.”

These are age related stories, for what Pipher calls “the September afternoons of life,” but there are principles here that apply broadly—to ourselves and to the people we work with regardless of age. Ask yourself what you might have said had you been on the beach with Dr. Piper. Here’s my answer: “I applaud your desire to pause and take stock when you face choice points in life. You’re right, things may get more difficult, but think about new adventures that might be over that horizon. Set goals and make some plans that might fulfill you and impact others. Trust God to lead as you set sail into the next stage of life. Don’t ignore your future. It could be better than your past.”

Please comment. Tell us what you might have said on that beach.

Newsletter 613 – New Perspectives on Burnout

burnout 2Can anything fresh be said about burnout? That was my reaction when I saw the May/June, 2015 issue of Psychotherapy Networker magazine. The PT editor calls burnout “that mélange of weariness, depression and apathy, seasoned with a tincture of cynicism [that] has become as persuasive as the common cold.” Originally the term described physical and psychological breakdown that came to counselors and other care-givers who had become overly burdened with the crises and stresses of their clients. Now the term can apply to anyone, including pastors, business people, homemakers, students, performers,  and overworked, overwhelmed people in any field or profession. Sometimes these individuals cling to the “exalted, if never quite admitted” belief in themselves as admirable individuals who never give up, consistently perform superbly, or believe that they have a duty to help everyone who appears with a need.

The proposed remedies tend to be similar, focused on self-care and work-life balance. This means more times for rest, reduced workloads, better time management, and various relaxation and meditation practices. An entire industry of books, videos, and seminars has arisen to help burned-out people do more of some things (like sleep, exercise or time management) and less of others. According to the lead PT article, however, “workplace initiatives on individual self-care and work-life balance are not only doomed to fail, but may make us worse.” Even among believers in such activities “the empirical evidence shows they make no difference” largely because burn out is a reaction to uncontrollable circumstances. Treating the symptoms fails to address burnout’s causes.

What matters most is not how demanding a job is, or the level of responsibility. What matters more is how much personal control and competence one has in performing the work. Research supports the conclusion that when we are fulfilled in our work, committed and able to do it better, we are less likely to burn out.

These observations are not intended to squelch traditional self-care measures. One PT writer argues that self-care does help, especially “targeted micro self-care” that involves mini-practices like short prayers, frequent deep-breathing, and brief exercises.

Have you ever wondered why Jesus never burned out despite the demands of his work and calling? Of course he rested and hung out with friends. But he also had clear purpose, direction, and boundaries that let him stay focused and in control. Do you agree? How have you prevented or handled burnout? Please comment.

Newsletter 611 – Are we Getting Better at What we do?

getting better 1Professional counseling does not occupy any of my time thee days but that’s where I have most training, where I am licensed by the state, and the subject of much of my writing and teaching. Not surprising, then, Psychotherapy Networker (PT) magazine goes to the top of my reading pile whenever it arrives. The articles on therapy have surprising relevance both for mental health professionals and for non-counselors like many who read this newsletter. The March/April issue addresses an issue that we all could consider profitably: We are older as a discipline, profession or individual. But is there any evidence that we are better? Stated differently, “Do our old ways fit the new times?” The PT answer seems to be “not much.”

 

  • First we need to remember that established methods that have worked for years are not necessarily bad just because they are old.
  • At times we all succumb to fads that claim to be revolutionary breakthroughs. (Mindfulness and evidence-based practices are among the most recent.) Therapists aren’t the only ones “succumbing to the allure of novel procedures and fancy theories, particularly those that promise quick and dramatic cures” and changes. In time most fads fade and we rush to something new.
  • Despite all our approaches, methods, theories, and training seminars, this conclusion emerges as “one of the most robust research findings in the psychological literature: all therapies…produce the same level of results, regardless of the particular insights they promulgate.”
  • “We need to embrace what our research tells us: a professional relationship organized around empathy, genuineness, respect, openness, congruence, collaboration, and goal consensus helps people change.”
  • Cultural awareness counts a lot. Mary Piper writes that the main area where “we’re failing right is taking into account the impact of the larger culture on all of us…. The kind of verbal, cognitive, come-and-sit-down-in-an-office [or talk on the telephone or Internet] approach is deeply unsuited to the poor and underserved populations that we’re ignoring.” Overall our work “remains largely a white, upper-middle-class phenomenon.” Often we fail to recognize and understand the growing elderly population or the young emerging generations where we’re not connecting.
  • No one of us can connect with everybody but we must not forget that we work and lead in community.

 

This picture is not limited to mental health professionals. For all of us the question remains. We are getting older but are we getting better? Please comment.

Newsletter 603 – The Mindfulness Explosion

Homepage_RotatorI read a number of magazines that expose me to information and trends that may be unfamiliar but that also can have relevance to my interests in counseling, coaching, leadership, ministry and futuristic issues. Psychotherapy Networker is one such publication. The current (January/February, 2015)  issue on mindfulness stretched and disturbed me but the best article is Mary Sykes Wylie’s lengthy overview on the popularity and perils of mindfulness. 

Wylie describes mindfulness as a “kind of stealth Buddhism,” popularized, westernized, and mass-marketed without the “bells, chants, prayers, and terms like dharma and karma.” From modest beginnings, interest in the mindfulness movement has exploded, making extravagant claims about its effectiveness. It permeates the health-care and mental health professions, the US military, numerous corporations, university courses, sports, and even churches. It has captivated and impacted “regular people—teachers, truck drivers, carpenters, business executives, stay-at-home mothers—trying to find the inner stillness beneath the turmoil of their lives.” Mindfulness is relentlessly marketed as a form of personal stress reduction, even though there is no accepted definition of what it is or how it is done.

 One leader defines mindfulness as a form of meditation that involves “paying attention on purpose in the present moment nonjudgmentally.” Thousands of scientific articles have studied mindfulness but one massive review concluded that the research is not very rigorous and gives limited evidence of its effectiveness. And as mindfulness has become a huge business and fad it also has produced a backlash of critics.

 What does this mean for you or me?

Be cautious. Mindfulness is Buddhist based and promotes techniques that may be inconsistent with many elements of Christianity and other non-Eastern ways of thinking. From her secular perspective Wylie writes, ”Mindfulness is an entire worldview and religion… entirely subjective and inherently unfriendly to the necessarily objective methods of empirical science….While it has been acclaimed and sold as a quick, no-risk, easily-mastered technique to achieve just about any desired goal….in fact it is a far-deeper…and less well-understood process than many people realize.”

·      Be open. Many practices are valuable, despite their origins, and consistent with our Christian and professional beliefs. Meditation, for example, is a biblical concept but with a focus that differs from mindfulness meditation.

Wylie’s article is worth reading. What do you think? Please comment.

Newsletter 598 – Depression and the Fear of Terrorism

PARIS EST CHARLIE 2One of my closest friends is Parisian. He has lived in Paris for most of his life and was there last week. Following the terrorist attacks he sent me an email message stating, in part: I’ve experienced the waves of terrorism in 1986 and 1995 in Paris. I’ve also experienced 9/11 in NYC. I know how to “protect” myself from these tragedies: I usually turn off the TV and limit my access to the media – non-stop media updates tend to format people’s minds and make them more anxious. I do not cut myself off but I deliberately watch less TV and listen more to the radio (to avoid the impact of images.) I listen a couple of times throughout the day – but do not keep the radio on all day long. The more we dwell on negative issues, the worse they get in our thinking and the more entrenched in our brains.

I thought of this when I read the November-December 2014 issue of Psychotherapy Networker magazine focusing on depression. The authors write that despite diverse therapeutic treatments and anti-depressant medications (most of which work about equally well,) depression is increasing and becoming “the most important public health issue in the world.”

Even so, the “entire mental health establishment still regards the condition as an individual problem, confined within an individual skull.” Without criticizing individual therapies and medications, the PT writers note the massive evidence showing that individual depression is in reality “a vast and cultural problem inextricably linked to the basic habits, mores and expectation of our era.” These include our relentless competition, determination to attain unrealistic goals, and “unflagging desire for more–more money, more status, more power, more stuff and more happiness–all of which can create conditions for chronic low mood.”

Just as an unending (media or other) focus on terrorism can train the brain to be fearful, so too can brains be influenced and depression worsened by therapies that dwell on reciting symptoms or telling affected people that they have a solely genetic or brain disorder that is likely to persist. Maybe we need to get beyond the defect model, honor the strengths of depressed people, and help them learn how to get clear of the mood lowering impact of our changing social values and expectations.

It’s a paradigm change to view depression as a social as well as an individual and spiritual issue. What do you think? Please comment.

Newsletter 566 – Should You Care How the Brain Works?

 

NG Brain 2Richly illustrated with remarkable photographs, National Geographic recently (February 2014) published a cover-story article on “The New Science of the Brain.” About the same time (January-February 2014) Psychotherapy Networker  produced several articles under the title “Untangling Brain Science: How Has it Lived Up to its Promise for Therapists? Brain science may be the rage among psychotherapists,” writes one of the authors. It also infatuates many leaders, coaches, educators and others even though “most people can feel their eyes glazing over and their own brains going offline when threatened with serious neuroscience.”

For centuries, of course, people helping has been working, education has been making a difference, and the Holy Spirit has been working in the minds and lives of people who never heard of brain science. Why care now, especially when the field is so quickly changing, so complex and so difficult to comprehend? Here are conclusions among many  in National Geographic and the Networker:

  • Just about every mental function and emotion “results from external stimuli and a vast range of neural activities and connections drawing on many brain regions interacting with each other.” Don’t assume that any thought or behavior involves only one part of the brain.
  • Brain science is “roughly comparable to where biology was…around 1825.”  So don’t draw too many conclusions about what we know now.
  • At present, brain science has little if any relationship on how we bring change. But as it develops the field has huge potential for practical usefulness in the future.
  • Neuroplasticity is the idea that brain tissue changes. The things we do and think repeatedly bring changes in the neural structure of the brain. That’s how habits, addictions and attitudes develop. It takes time, repetition and determination to bring change in the brain. In contrast if we don’t stimulate a certain part of the brain, “the cortical real estate is taken over by other functions of the brain. Apparently we have use-it-or-lose-it brains.”
  • “Anything we consistently give attention to teaches the brain to produce more of it.” The same is true of negative thoughts.

As a non-specialist, I try to read broadly in the brain science area, learning from experts who can communicate clearly (that’s a rare breed) and applying what I can. How do you respond to all this? Please comment.

Newsletter #546 – Selling Therapy and Coaching

Changes are coming – they’re already here – if you are a counselor or coach. Disappearing are the days when potential clients hear about our services through brochures, business cards or even well-designed websites. This is the major message of an entire series of articles on “The Selling of Psychotherapy” in the September-October issue of Psychotherapy Networker magazine. Although written for therapists the articles apply equally to coaches and maybe to churches, colleges and leaders. Here are two key takeaways.

online-shopping - typicalThe client population and client expectations are changing. In the lead article, coach and therapist Lynn Grodzky shows that with increasing frequency clients no longer come expecting to be passive recipients of long-term “treatment” from non-expressive counselors who say little apart from asking questions. Potential clients today tend to shop for helpers like they shop for cars, churches and bargains at supermarkets. They shop like they make on-line purchases, comparing, contrasting, and learning as they go. Many have done their homework, often on the Internet. Grodzky calls them educated consumers (ECs). Before selecting a service provider they want to know what they can expect, what it costs and how long it will take.

Our services have to be changing. Of course there are times when the old long-term therapy is best. But “like it or not, if we want to stay in business we need to grasp the difference between the patients of yesterday and the educated mental health consumers of today.” To market successfully we must clarify our brand–who we are, what we do best, and what makes us unique. We must understand how potential clients think and how we best communicate with them. How can we connect with people who do much of their shopping and communication on their hand-help devices? (How does your website look on a small screen?)

Several years ago I attended a leadership conference with a pastor friend from Europe. He asked if it is possible to succeed today if we try to bypass American marketing tools. It is hard to imagine how Jesus would reach people today but he did understand and communicate with the unique characteristics of his audiences.

The current Networker articles are worth reading. They’re available on line at www.psychotherapynetworker.org. How does this apply to you? Please comment.