You Are Your Harshest Critic (You Don’t Have To Be)

You can control how you interpret setbacks.

A farmer in a small village was lucky enough to have a horse. His fellow villagers considered him wealthy and prominent because he possessed that luxury. He didn’t need to exert himself as much as they did. The horse carried burdens, transported the farmer, and plowed with him. The villagers used to comment, “you are so lucky that you have a horse.” The farmer always responded in the same way, “maybe.”

One day the horse ran away. The villagers passed by the farmer and tried to console him on his tragedy. “What misfortune!” they said. Curiously, the farmer responded in a similar way, “maybe.”

Several days later, the runaway horse returned. He brought several wild horses with him. The villagers were astonished at their neighbor’s fortune. “Wow!,” they exclaimed. “You are now so wealthy. You must be so happy at your good luck!” The farmer’s response was surprisingly the same. “Maybe,” he replied.

A few days later, the farmer’s son was taming one of the wild horses. He was thrown off and he broke his leg. The villagers were now dumbstruck. They felt so bad for the farmer. They congregated around the boy’s bed and told his father how terrible it was. “Maybe,” he answered.

Soon, soldiers came to the town to gather boys for their war effort. The boys of the town were taken away, except for the farmer’s son. The villagers all told the farmer how lucky he was that his son broke his leg. In consonance, the farmer responded, “maybe.”

Is one approach more meaningful to you than the other? The villagers gave interpretations of misfortune and blessing to the farmer’s vicissitudes. The farmer reserved his judgement. Perhaps both sides have their benefits. On the one hand, the villagers were able to appreciate the thrill of victory, but they also saw the agony of defeat. On the other hand, the farmer’s even keeled approach did not focus on the excitement of the highs, or the disappointments of the lows.

It might be most helpful not to see this tale as championing either specific side, but as highlighting a truism. Life’s events are not monochromatic. Few of your experiences and events are completely positive or negative. The meaning you give to your experiences can be more potent than those situations themselves.

Hamlet was onto something when he declared, “there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so” (II, 2). Some things are objectively worse than others. But the “thinking” is the most significant part that “makes it so.” The meaning that you give your circumstances can allow you to either surf storm waves or just barely tread water.

You might even take your search for meaning a step further. Did you notice that you interpret many of your unfortunate life experiences with self-criticism? Life throws you challenges, difficulties, and setbacks. The most painful thing about those hurdles is that you take them personally and interpret them as teaching you something negative about yourself. Here are some examples of responses that you might have had to some recent disappointments:

“I am such a pushover.”

“No one else would have made that mistake. They know what to do.”

“I am not so likable.”

“I am incompetent.”

“This is so typical of my life.”

“I am not capable.”

“How could I let that happen to me.”

“Why did I make that choice? I am so silly!”

“Here I go again.”

“This always happens to me.”

“It’s a cruel world.”

“The world is so unfair.”

“I always get stuck in these situations.”

“Sigh. I don’t know how to manage this altogether.”

“I am such a loser!.”

If you use those responses, you are choosing to take a self-critical message from an already disappointing event. The self-defeating lesson that you take about yourself doesn’t follow automatically. It is a response you are selecting to make.

You don’t have to do that. One of life’s greatest growth spurts comes when you allow yourself to see negative events as happening around you, even if you were partially involved in the outcome. Mistakes, bad decisions, and getting stuck in traffic are all components of existence. They are part of your being human. When negative things occur, even if you are partially responsible for them, you can choose how to react. You can allow yourself to see them as part of the great canvas of life, or choose to hear a message that teaches you something negative about yourself. The meaning you give them as demonstrating that you are defeated, incompetent, or silly comes from your interpretation. It is your choice. You can also choose to see it as part of life’s ups and downs, and an element of being human.

Sometimes you can follow the farmer’s example and take a step back when adversity hits. Are you so sure it is a downturn? Even if you think it is, do you need to hear resounding self-criticism from that situation?

You are not be able to control every outcome. When something that seems negative happens, you can opt to listen to the self-criticism it breeds. You can also choose not to. Perhaps even our farmer would agree. Maybe.

5 Reasons You Shouldn’t Go For Therapy

You’re not going to believe this tech savvy update to traditional therapy!

There are many really good reasons not to go for psychotherapy. These are legitimate, true considerations that make a lot of sense. It might be best to simply stay home.

On the other hand, therapy can help you be happier, make more money, and feel less lonely. It can allow you to conquer anxiety, shake negative moods, and reach your potential.

Here are the top 5 reasons to think about staying away from psychotherapy (with some answers):

1) Therapy is expensive!

Yes. It is. Psychotherapy with a licensed, experienced therapist can easily run $300 a session. Since most therapy consists of more than one meeting, you have to multiply that cost by the number of sessions. In addition, many of the best therapists are “out of network,” which means that insurance companies don’t cover therapy or only reimburse a bit for each session.

Psychotherapists invest a tremendous amount of time, effort and energy in their education, developing their expertise, and working with their clients. They might deserve the money they charge and it is often well spent. At the same time, price can be a bar that holds many back from therapy.

The answer: Lisning.com. Lisning.com is a new website I designed that provides text message therapy the way it is supposed to be. I created and developed Lisning to give people the best therapeutic experience possible. It features expert therapists and coaches that are caring, honest, and sincere. The price barrier to entry is extremely low. Sessions with an expert start at $29 a week! You can’t beat that price. Even if you think you can’t afford that, pass on a few lattes and you’re good to go.

I am sure you will love therapy on Lisning.com. But…if you don’t, you can get a full refund. No questions asked. It’s win – win – win!

2) Therapy takes so much time

Right again. The average psychotherapy session lasts 45 – 50 minutes, once a week. There are times that one meets more frequently, and sometimes less often. It’s a commitment. Then you have to include the time it takes to get there and back. If you’re meeting your therapist week after week it takes a lot of time. If you are working, you need to find someone right near your office, or open at night or on the weekend. It’s not so easy.

Answer again? Lisning.com is text message therapy, all online. It uses a different model. Instead of meeting with a therapist at a scheduled time, you write as much as you want, as often as you want. Your therapist responds to you frequently, on a reliable schedule. You can write on your own time, read on your own time, and think on your own time. It’s like taking the 45 minutes of a session and spreading it throughout the week. Not only can you fit it into your schedule, it actually helps the therapeutic relationship develop quickly. The frequent, smaller doses of therapy are consistent and dependable. They work to help you create a deep, caring, connecting relationship. Think about it. Which would you prefer…one huge latte once a week, or several delicious ones throughout each day?

3) I can’t find a good therapist near me

It is hard. Therapy is both an art and a science. There are many therapists out there. Not every licensed therapist is going to “get you.” You have your own rhythm and tune and your therapist needs to be in sync with that. If you are restricted by your location…agghh! How can you find someone to work with? That’s why many people find therapists by referral. Even so, it can be hard to find a referral source that understands what you need. What worked for your friend or family member, or the name that your doctor or clergy person knows, might not work for you.

Here’s the answer: You guessed it…Lisning.com. When I designed Lisning, I looked around. I noticed that there are some platforms that claim to offer text message therapy. There’s a big, big problem with them. They operate like the CIA and NSA – shrouded in secrecy. You can’t choose your therapist. You merely fill out a form and they match you with someone. The best they offer is that if you’re not satisfied, they’ll pair you with a different therapist. I couldn’t believe it! It sounds like George Orwell’s book Nineteen Eighty Four, where everyone is under constant surveillance by a supreme agency known as “Big Brother.”Why can’t everyone choose their own therapist?

I understood that it worked for those companies’ business model. They want to be able to make sure all the therapists on their site have clients. So they take charge of assigning people evenly to different therapists. It might work for business – but it doesn’t work for therapy. How can they take away the power of choice? In fact, those sites are run by businessmen, trying to make a profit from the therapy. I was determined to create something very different.

On Lisning.com, each therapist fills out a detailed profile. You get to know them and see their training, education, and expertise. You can sense their personality and feel if you would like to work with them. I believe that a relationship should be based on honesty, openness, and truth. You decide…not Big Brother! Also, therapists on Lisning get paid fairly, while keeping therapy economical for clients. This is therapy the way it should be.

4) I don’t feel comfortable going for therapy

How true! How could you? Therapy often brings up discussions you don’t want to have. Some deep part of you might ache to talk about them, but often they are not pleasant or easy to bring up. When you are sitting with another person, no matter how good of a therapist they are, it can be challenging to talk about uncomfortable things. For some people, even the act of going to a therapist’s office can be shameful. As a society, we have made major leaps in normalizing therapy. It no longer is the taboo that it used to be. Still, it can be hard to bring yourself to go. Once you’re there, it can be hard to have conversations about difficult topics.

The answer: Lisning.com anonymity. Your therapist does not need to know anything about you. You send messages with complete confidentiality. You can choose an alias and not share anything about yourself you don’t want to. As the therapy progresses, you might want to tell your therapist more about yourself. You are welcome to, but you don’t have to. You discuss it on your own time, when you feel comfortable. Perhaps all therapy should be that way…your name is no different than other personal information. Share it when you want to. It is unusual for in person therapy, but it’s the way we work on Lisning.com. Share when you care.

5) I’m not sure if I need therapy or life coaching

That’s tough. For many decades, psychology focused on curing mental disease. In the US, most government spending on psychology also was in that direction. More recently, psychologists and therapists began taking techniques that focused on mental illness and using them to help people maximize themselves. This is sometimes known as positive psychology. (It was discussed in detail in the January 2000 edition of American Psychologist and introduced by this famous article, Positive Psychology: An Introduction). Life coaching is on that spectrum between psychotherapy for a disorder and to be the best you can be. It helps people find techniques and ways of accomplishing their goals.

Accordingly, you can view mental health as a continuum. Some people have a more pronounced mental health issue which encourages them to seek therapy right away. Others have the same issue, but less intensely. It still prevents them from reaching their potential, but the urge to see therapy isn’t the same. Both people can benefit from therapy or coaching.

Let’s take anxiety as an example. If anxiety severely hampers a person’s functioning, she might be pressed and seek therapy right away. If someone has low levels of anxiety, it is probably hampering her ability to achieve financial success, have a more connected relationship, and maximize her potential. She is still functioning pretty well. So well that she is convinced that she doesn’t need therapy. Yet, if she would, she could make more money, have even better relationships, and be happier. Isn’t it a crime for her not to go for therapy?

Often, whether you call it “therapy” or “coaching,” the difference in name only. Many experienced psychotherapists can intervene for a mental health disorder, practice positive psychology, or be life coaches. On Lisning.com, we call all our experts coaches. They are there to provide life coaching, help with a mental health condition, and everything in between. We use the term “coach” for all our experts because it gives them the freedom to be there for whatever you need from them.

One last thing. On those Big Brother sites, they tout the fact that they have “licensed therapists.” Did you know that no psychology, social work, or counseling license covers text message therapy? Licensure covers in-person therapy and sometimes has something to say about video therapy. Text therapy is completely not governed by licensure, in any state. Advertising that therapists are licensed for text therapy is like an airline saying all their pilots have driver’s licenses!

Lisning.com is truthful and honest. You can plainly see each coach’s education, degree and licensure. It is open and free to see. Our whole platform is based, and built, on honesty, truthfulness, and real relationships. We don’t use false marketing to pretend licensing applies where it doesn’t.

Come Aboard!

In my private practice, I favor deep, insightful discussions that explore who a person is. At first, i was resistant to the idea of message therapy. Then I thought a lot about it. I noticed that the linchpin of meaningful psychotherapeutic work is the relationship between a client and his therapist. This is often called the therapeutic alliance. I wanted to find a way to bottle the power of that therapeutic alliance and with access to therapists beyond one’s locale, at a price that was both fair for therapists and very much affordable for clients. I designed Lisning based on the integrity, sincerity and focus on relationships that I use in my in-person therapy practice. I aim to bring those principles to a wide audience, using technology, talented experts, at an affordable price. How could you resist joining?!

Come explore Lisning.com. Get to know our stellar coaches. Browse their extensive profiles. Sign up and take a giant step forward to your happiest, richest, and most fulfilling life. Your best self is waiting to meet you!

Shmuel Maybruch, LCSW is the Clinical Director of Lisning.com and a psychotherapist in private practice.

3 Myths About Pornography Use In Couples You Might Still Believe

Pornography use in committed relationships is on the rise. It has become a fixture even in relationships that appear blissful and idyllic. With the ease of technological access to porn constantly increasing, its use has become a significant issue for many couples. Whether you are are in a committed relationship or thinking about one, or you are a counselor, member of the clergy, or a therapist, here are 3 myths about pornography use among couples you need to know:

1 – If We Had More Sex, We Would Have Less Porn

This sounds like it makes sense. People can have strong sexual drives. If a couple is not having sex enough to satisfy both partners, a spouse might turn to pornography to satisfy his desires. As likely as this sounds, logic, research, and my clinical experience demonstrate that it is usually not true.

Firstly, many couples, if not most, are not able to have enough intimate moments to satisfy their desires for each other. Stresses vie for most couples’ attention. These include career related pressures, childrearing demands, domestic responsibilities, relationship issues, financial burdens, and social callings. Obligations make many couples feel overwhelmed and not able to devote enough time to each other, let alone share meaningful sexual experiences. Simply stated, many couples feel that they are not having “enough sex.” If so, almost all contemporary couples should be driven to pornography. As much of a fixture as pornography is, it isn’t universal. Clearly “not enough sex” does not necessarily lead to pornography use.

Secondly, research in the field of pornography use in committed relationships has not found a connection between sexual desire and porn use. As researchers found, “desire did not seem to discriminate between males who use and males who do not use.” Committed or married men can be comparable on the scale of sexual desire and some will use pornography, while others won’t.

This is buttressed by my professional experience. Pornography use is not usually connected to a couple’s frequency of intimate experiences. Often couples are very sexually active with each other, while one of them still resorts to pornography use privately. More sex does not mean less porn.

2 – Religious Couples Don’t Have Porn

Another common belief is that religious people, whether single or married, use pornography less, or not at all. This is patently not true. In my practice, I see individuals both in relationships and not committed that are devoutly religious and struggle with pornography use.

This is borne out by an astounding study. A group of researchers analyzed Google search terms on a state by state basis. They found a clear trend. States that are generally identified as more religious and fundamentalist had a higher prevalence of pornographic search terms on Google. Think about that: the more a state identified as religious, the greater amount of sexual terms were searched for. Another group of researchers was incredulous, so they independently replicated the same study – and found the same results.

The first researchers then found something else even more amazing. They anonymously surveyed citizens of the states that demonstrated high pornography use. Although the respondents were anonymous, most people replied that they did not use pornography. Imagine that! In the states that were clearly using porn, people did not admit it, even anonymously. It seems to indicate that religious communities see two things with regards to online pornography: increased use and decreased honesty about it.

Clearly, increased religiosity does not indicated less pornography use. It appears to sometimes indicate the opposite.

3 – Pornography Use Is a Spouse’s Private Business

It would be so nice if this were true. One spouse uses porn. The other ignores it and they have an exciting, committed, and passionate relationship.

In most situations, a spouse sees partner porn use as a form of infidelity. To most spouses, it makes little difference whether their partner is committing an affair with another person or through watching porn. A partner whose spouse watches will feel deep anger, resentment, and question their relationship. They will also experience their own self doubt, question their ability to trust their partner, and feel depressed mood. This is such a common pattern of behavior that I adopted a term for it in my practice: virtual infidelity. Although pornography use is usually online, with no relationship or connection, a spouse feels just as shunned. She questions herself, her relationship, and her spouse. Although virtual infidelity seems very different than an affair with another, the effects on one’s spouse, and one’s relationship, are very similar.

Researchers recently studied a large group of married couples for almost a decade. They examined the effects of porn use on the marriages. Not surprisingly, they found that, “the probability of divorce roughly doubled for married Americans who began pornography use.” Often, therapy for both spouses, as well as the couple as a unit, is the most effective way to assist their recovery from virtual infidelity. Therapy can be with a therapist in an office, or through a recognized, effective online platform such as Lisning.com, which hosts experts in individual therapy, couples therapy, sexuality, and therapy for porn use.

It is important for first responders, such as clergy and educators, as well as therapists, to expect strong reactions from a spouse and make room for those reactions. It is advisable for clinicians to center a large part of their work with couples recovering from a spouse’s use to addressing those spousal feelings and rebuilding the spouse’s world after the cataclysmic blow it sustained.

Pornography use among couples is the new frontier in relationship development and enhancement. Individuals, couples, responders, and therapists have to be are aware of the truths about pornography use in relationships. The more knowledge people have about pornography among couples, the greater ability they have to understand its impact.

Rabbi Shmuel Maybruch, LCSW is a psychotherapist with a practice focus  on individual and couple relationships. He is an expert on pornography use and its relational impact. He can be reached via this site, ShmuelMaybruch.com.

Freedom Has Its Price: The Upsides of Negative Thinking

Do you want to think positively? First, get in touch with what benefits you get from negative thoughts.

As spring begins to spread its warm embrace, Passover rapidly approaches. On the holiday’s majestic eve, millions around the world will sit down at the Seder and vividly discuss the nascent Jewish nation’s exodus from Egyptian bondage millennia ago. Jewish law stresses that an integral aspect of the Seder is for each participant to make the story personal. The Seder cannot be complete with a participant reclining and merely recalling a story of long ago. A fully engaging Passover experience can only be attained if you envision yourself as if you were freed that evening from brutal servitude in Egypt. Consequently, the Haggadah liturgy transforms the Exodus into a three dimensional narration that unfolds as the Seder proceeds.

As your thoughts focus on personalizing the jubilation of freedom from pitiless Egyptian oppression, you might contemplate mini-redemptions that you have experienced in your own life. In the same vein as the Exodus, you might consider the joy you have felt as you were liberated from an unpleasant employment experience to a job that fits your passion or from a souring personal relationship to a thriving and dynamic one.

One of the victories that you might not be able to yet celebrate is a freedom from the affliction of self-doubt, negative thoughts, and an internalized image of both past and future failures. In our generation of self-help books, positive psychology, and motivational blogs, it is curious that these pernicious thoughts still plague most people. Why is it that a society committed to self-growth and actualization suffers so prominently from the very scourge that it is trying so hard to obliterate?

Perhaps one reason that these undermining ideas are part of our collective and personal conscience is that we work too hard to simply eliminate them. The first step to effectively removing these biting ideas is to come to notice that self-defeating thoughts and feelings of worthlessness are painful, damaging and detrimental…and helpful. Usually, a thought that you are unable to achieve your goals or your happiness has a silver lining. That is often why your mind creates them and keeps them around. Until you become in touch with the benefits that your mind sees in self-effacing thoughts, there is a great chance that they will linger and grow, despite all efforts that you make to dissolve them.

There are many pluses that your brain might see in negative thoughts. Some might be easier to focus on, and others are more difficult. These benefits aren’t necessarily rational or logical, but your brain has taken them as evidence that negative thoughts are a way of accomplishing something positive. When you see how you mind wants to perpetuate negative thoughts because of the redemptive value they have, you can become closer to letting them evaporate.

One advantage that your mind might see in self-critical thoughts is that they prod you to be more productive. Since you are constantly barraging yourself with thoughts of worthlessness, you work harder to prove your worth to yourself and the world. As you make phenomenal efforts to escape the pain of those negative thoughts, you rise up the corporate ladder, garner societal prestige, or increase your income. Your mind notices that your adverse thoughts also have a very positive side. Since they have such benefits, it is highly unlikely that your brain will let go of those negative cognitions.

Your mind might see disapproving thoughts as bringing you another desirable goal. They might help you maintain your memory or closeness to your parents. It is likely that your parents created your internal compass of self-censure which developed into a necessary component of your thinking. The reproach your parents provided as a child might have been necessary, deserved, and important. They might have had your best interests in mind, their own welfare as a priority, or both. They might have rebuked in a way that was gentle, measured, and balanced…or perhaps not. It doesn’t necessarily matter. Criticism comes from parents. Accordingly, even though self-criticism is caustic and undermining, it provides the strong advantage of allowing your mind to connect you to your parents. That benefit is something your brain can sense, and will not allow itself to dissolve those feelings easily.

Focusing on positive thinking alone will not be as productive or sustained. The brain wants to keep the negativity around because it perceives value in that. If you think about how your brain sees positive results from negative thoughts, you can begin to try to replace the harmful cognitions with encouraging ideas that might achieve similar results.

As we approach the clear air of spring and the freedom of Passover, your mind might yearn to breathe free. A crucial step closer to that goal is to let yourself become aware of how your brain sees gain from your pain and positive from your negative. As you allow yourself to probe the complexities of what good you get from the bad, you might be able to attain goals and feel freer than you have in the past. When you sit at your Seder you might not only rejoice in the euphoria of the national and individual Egyptian exodus, but the sweetness of personal freedom from the bondage of your own mind.

Haman Let His Thoughts Hang Out…and He Followed

It might be important to think about what you are thinking about.

What’s on your mind?

That can be a hard question to answer.  Your mind is so magnificently complex that you might be thinking many thoughts at the same time. Some can be easy for you to access, and others more difficult. When you try to address your layers of thoughts honestly, you might gain insight into who you are, and some things that make you happy, sad, or confused.

You can sometimes be hiding from yourself. If you are not in touch with your thoughts, it doesn’t mean that the thoughts aren’t there. It simply means that you are not allowing yourself to focus on them. Since they are still present in your mind, they might come out at inopportune moments or through your behavior, even if you are not aware of it. That is what happened at one of the critical junctures of the Purim story.

The Megillah describes that Mordechai, the Jewish sage and leader, was supposed to be terminated on Passover. Instead, he was paraded victoriously around the city on that same day, bedecked in royal robes on the royal horse, led by his archenemy and planned assassin, Haman.

The Midrash (Koheles Rabbah 5:2) illuminates the background that pivotal story. Achashverosh, supreme ruler of the Persian Empire, had a troubling dream the night before. He envisioned Haman, his second in command, standing above him with a drawn sword, disrobing him from his royal attire, removing his crown, and attempting to kill him. Achashverosh tried to shake the dream but it recurred throughout the night. It was almost morning, and Achashverosh still struggled with his nightmare.

He was still mulling over his terrifying dream when Haman entered the royal chamber. Haman had intended to discuss the immediate execution of Mordechai with Achashverosh. Yet, Achashverosh sensed that Haman might have had ulterior motives in coming, too. He might have been trying to assault him. To test Haman’s thinking, Achashverosh asked him to recommend a procedure for honoring a loyal subject. Haman responded that the honoree should wear royal robes. Achashverosh inquired as to which ones. Haman explained that his intent was Achashverosh’s coronation robes. Haman further recommended that the man ride on one of the king’s horses. Achashverosh asked which horse Haman meant. He again responded that he referred to the horse used during coronation.  Haman added that the honoree should wear the royal crown. When Achashverosh heard that, his visage turned angry. He understood that Haman was expressing his own desire to usurp the monarchy. Then Achashverosh silently decided that the time for Haman’s own end had come. He had received proof positive that his sixth sense was correct. Haman was planning a coup. Achashverosh began to plan for Haman’s own end by telling him to prepare that royal parade for Mordechai, instead of for himself.

It is striking that Haman was unable to disguise his thoughts. He unconsciously let them to slip out plentifully. He wasn’t only filled with thoughts of aggression; his persona seemed to exude them. His aura expressed that he was planning to usurp the throne. Achashverosh instinctively sensed this, and his concerns materialized in his dreams. Haman might even have been able to successfully plan his coup if he paid attention to what he was thinking and bifurcated his thoughts from his actions. Instead, he let his thoughts and desires influence his speech and behavior, and gave himself away to the King.

This narrative is as a powerful declaration as to the role of thought and its interplay with actions. All people can generate and harbor negative thoughts or feelings. The difference between a person who leads a morally correct life and one who does not is the ability to work through those thoughts productively. Wonderful people can have not-such-wonderful thoughts. A person who wants to meet with success acknowledges those thoughts and addresses them. Perhaps he will decide to be simply cognizant of them and not let them lead him to incorrect actions. Perhaps he will try to change his cognitions. Maybe he will be more conscious of situations that trigger those thoughts. Perhaps he will embrace all of these, or address the thoughts in a different way. The only way to decide how to navigate and address thoughts is to first notice that they are there.

What often sets people that thrive apart from those that dive is not the thoughts that they have, but how they deal with them. The more you are in touch with the layers of thoughts in your mind, the more you might be able to discover and understand yourself. This can lead to a more fulfilling and successful life, which is something to celebrate, not just on Purim, but throughout the year!

By All Means…Paint!

Multiple selves might be the truest self.

“It’s just not me.”

“I know who I am and I know my strengths. This just doesn’t fit.”

Have you ever thought something similar? You understand your capabilities and your skills. You are aware that some things are beyond their range. It can take courage to look at yourself so frankly, but you summon the fortitude to make that assessment. That is being true, forthright, and honest.

Or is it?

Self awareness might have its downside. We might feel so in touch with who we are that we restrict ourselves. Our previous experiences mold our identity, our concept of who we are and the behaviors that we engage in. When we face situations that challenge those familiar identities, we can be reluctant to embrace them. Instead, we might try to avoid those experiences or alter the circumstances so they still fit with how we see ourselves. If we are unable to change that environment, we might feel stress and tension as we are pulled between our identity and the reality we encounter.

On the other hand, becoming involved with a circumstance that does not fit with how we see ourselves might provide phenomenal opportunity. It can push us to expand who we are and what we can do. New situations unmask our different capabilities. Events that challenge our identities can help us embrace a larger sense of who we are and who we could be. Truth and honesty mean to uncover the panorama of one’s abilities, not to falsely limit oneself.

Yet, we often do not like our identities to get shaped as life progresses. Even when we consciously make a change, our identities might lag behind. One example is what social psychology terms the “impostor syndrome.” Someone who begins a new profession or job might have an acute awareness that he is in his new position, but might remain partially incredulous. It can be hard for the former medical student to see himself as a practicing resident, much less an attending physician. It might be challenging for the former pupil to feel comfortable on the opposite side of the teacher’s desk. They can feel like charlatans, imagining that the patients or students see right through their ruse. In reality, it is usually only the practitioner that has the doubt. Everyone sees him as qualified…except his own mind. He views himself as the person he was, not the one he became. Social psychology suggests that the best cure for the impostor syndrome is to keep on doing his job. As one is more involved in that behavior, his identity gradually welcomes it as part of him.

Over a century ago, a young artist began to carve out his way in the world. He realized the joy, excitement, and vitality that he had from painting and made it his full time occupation. Meanwhile, his younger brother contemplated becoming an artist, too. In a letter, the older brother lucidly painted a picture of his own journey to becoming an artist. He described that he was not born with remarkable artistic talent, so many advised him to take a traditional approach to earning a living.  They encouraged him to give voice to his then present abilities and use them to find a way to make ends meet. They recommended that he find reasonable aspirations. He retorted that the human mind and soul has so much ability and capability that sometimes creating aspirations and goals can be a way to contain oneself. Man is so majestically powerful and multifaceted that seeing oneself in a certain way can be deceiving. With a veiled reference to the soul he declared boldly, “it is the height of conceit to try to force one to define what is indefinable.”

The artist continued to pursue his passions and crafted his career in art. He vividly described that his choice in dedicating his life to painting was still replete with uncertainty. He had to contend with a voice inside him that asked, “are you a painter or not?” He counseled his younger brother that if he were to become an artist, he would face a similar internal challenge. “If you hear a voice within you saying, “You are not a painter,” then by all means paint, boy, and that voice will be silenced,” he recommended.

When the older brother composed his insightful letter at the age of 30, he hardly imagined that a century later one of his portraits, Portrait of Dr. Gachet, would become one of the most expensive pieces of art ever sold, at over $82 million (currently adjusted to approximately $150 million from that 1993 price). That artist who eloquently penned his thoughts was Vincent van Gogh. By following his heart and expanding his identity, he became one of history’s most acclaimed artists.

Van Gogh’s words ring true beyond his specific situations. Most of us can have van Gogh moments, experiences, or episodes. We may have a preconceived identity which we don’t want to alter. Sometimes, fighting the change might be productive. In many other situations, allowing ourselves to expand and embrace a larger identity can be a glorious experience and golden opportunity.

The Sages express that some righteous Biblical figures, such as Abraham, experienced Divinely ordained adversities. Nahmanides explains that G-d designed those hardships to draw out those individuals’ internal character strengths. Encountering hurdles and overcoming them provided opportunity for those righteous people to actualize fortitude that was latent and dormant. Nahmanides is addressing the extraordinary tests of Biblical proportions, such as the injunction to sacrifice Isaac. Interestingly, contemporary challenges and upheavals can have similar results. Shifts and new developments can enable one to expand his identity and reveal talents and abilities that were dormant and unrealized.

One might see a large part of psychotherapy as helping one manage and embrace change. In therapy one can find words to describe life changes, summon his abilities to cope with them, and perhaps use the experiences to grow. One’s past can predict his present, but his approach to the present predicts his future.

This psychotherapeutic perspective was expressed autobiographically by Salvador Minuchin at 95 years old. Minuchin was a pioneer of family therapy and a well known icon. He recently published a brief retrospective in which he described some of the changes he went through in life. Minuchin explained that his experiences shaped him and helped him both discover and rediscover himself. The helped determine who he became as an individual and how he crafted his psychotherapeutic attitudes. His blend of candor and insight are a tribute to him both as a person and as a therapist:

“I grew up in a Jewish family in a small town in Argentina that was a kind of shtetl where, up until the age of 12, I didn’t know anybody who wasn’t Jewish. Then at 18, I went to medical school, and my world grew larger. At 20, I was put in jail for three months with a group of other students for protesting against [Argentinian President Juan] Perón, and my concept of myself changed again: I became an Argentinian Jew who was committed to social justice. From then on, I was a revolutionary and a fighter for social justice, and it seemed natural that I should join the Israeli army, in which I served as a doctor during the War for Independence. Later, when I emigrated to the United States and was on the staff at Wiltwyck School, I was a cultural outsider and found myself identifying with poor black people as I learned to speak English. And as I came to feel that I belonged with the staff and children and families at Wiltsyck, I felt I expanded.”

Minuchin’s multiple experiences unmasked several parts of his personality. He identified with each new experience and embraced it. Minuchin narrates that he took that idea with him as he became a therapist. He drove to encourage his clients to see new circumstances as opportunities to expand and see who they were capable of becoming. He explains:

“I wasn’t interested in their “true self”: I wanted them to experience a series of selves and the expansion of possibility that can grow from that experience. Above all, I wanted them to recognize that there were more ways of being than what their life experience so far, whatever it was, had made them aware of. What I did in therapy was say to people, “You know, belonging may give you a sense of security, protection, harmony, but it also limits you and creates an invisible pattern of relationship that fools you into believing it’s the only way of being.”

Minuchin developed an inspirational level of cognitive malleability. He had the courage to let his experiences shape him, and to embrace both his multiple situations and his transformation. He then used that mindset to create his therapeutic approach.

Minuchin concludes: “At 95, I think of myself as having journeyed through life as many different people, and I think of a line from Antonio Machado, one of my favorite Spanish poets: “The road is not the road; you make the road by walking.” I hope in my own walking I’ve cleared away some debris for those who will follow.”

Like Minuchin and van Gogh, we have different experiences through life. Sometimes they are the results of choice, like following one’s passion and becoming an artist. Other times they are the product of our circumstances, like some of Minuchin’s realities . Either way, we might cling on to our past identities and make minimal alterations. Alternatively, we can allow ourselves to embrace our shifts and appreciate the new selves they uncover.

As you go through life, circumstances will probably change. They might challenge your identity and convince you that you are an impostor. They might communicate to you that you are not a painter. Yet, perhaps you can make your own road by walking.

By all means…paint!

Do You Have A Shalom Bias?

Your marital bliss might depend a lot on what society you are part of

A married couple harmoniously navigates decisions, raises a family, and resolves its occasional arguments. Is this amicable relationship a happy marriage? Whether or not their connection is a content one might depend on their personal, mutual, and sociocultural views of marriage. For some, matrimony might be synonymous with teamwork and synergy toward common needs, tasks, and goals. For others, it also demands something else – a deep, emotional friendship and connection. How strongly the individuals value the former, the latter, or a combination of them will usually determine how satisfied they are with their relationship.

Marital relationships have undergone tremendous transformations over the centuries. These can result partly from changes in broader societal, communal, and religious norms. In many contemporary environments, there is an expectation that married spouses relate to each other as intimately close friends. As integral as this aspiration is in current Western society, marriage was not always viewed with that perspective. For example, in Victorian England, where women could not vote and were largely unexposed to education, it would have been untenable for most couples to assume that they could become closest friends. One does not even need to stretch so far back in time. Astonishingly, the first study to investigate and discover empirically that many British women felt emotionally lacking in their marriages came out in 1993. Many British women expressed that their husbands seemed to have an inability to do the emotional work that was deemed necessary to have a happier marriage. The findings themselves might not be so surprising. But it is astounding that research was just beginning to explore the emotional needs that British couples have from each other in marriage only twenty five years ago.

In many contemporary societies, women and men have similar sociocultural and educational opportunities. In this unique setting there is both a possibility – and often a demand – for a couple to have an emotionally mutual relationship. Consequently, a large part of what can make a present-day marriage satisfying and successful is that both members interact with each other as intimate friends. Mutual connection, sharing, and discussion of each other’s vulnerabilities can create a powerful connection that helps two partners feel emotionally satisfied and close.

A deep, satisfying marital relationship is possible now more than perhaps ever in history. Correspondingly, if this profound friendship is perceived as lacking or insufficiently developed, it can severely hurt a couple’s marital satisfaction. A sense of harmony and “getting along” can feel grossly inadequate for many modern day couples. Since they see themselves as having the potential to create an emotionally deep relationship, they also view their marriage as under stress when that connection is lacking.

Despite the general cultural shift toward marriage as an intimate friendship, dating or married individuals still might have very different expectations for their marriage. Cultures, subcultures, personality, and other factors can shape an individual’s emphasis on the emotional aspect of the marital connection. Couples experience marital strife when there is a large gap between what they thought their marriage would be like and what it ends up being. If both members of a couple feel content with a relationship that fulfills their individual and familial goals but does not need to penetrate emotional depths, they might consider a marriage without intimate friendship very fulfilling. It can satisfy their personal and collective needs. Similarly, if both members of a couple desire a deep, emotional feeling relationship, and they provide that for each other, their marriage might be thriving. Discontent and disconnect often takes place when one’s expectations and one’s reality differ.

The implications for dating or married couples can be widespread. If an individual or couple feels lacking in marriage, it might be important for them to be in touch with their expectations for marriage. Conversations about marriage can be most productive when each spouse is open to explore – individually and as a couple – how they see their ideals and goals for marriage. In order to create an ideal relationship it can be important to conceptualize – and often discuss – what that would look like. Differences and similarities might be discussed by individuals themselves or in therapy.

The first step on the journey to a stronger marriage might be becoming more in touch with one’s own conceptions of marriage and relationships. When one becomes more aware of how he would like his marriage to be, he can focus his effort toward creating that reality. It might take effort, energy, and work on the part of both him and his spouse to proceed along that path. But the more one knows where he is going, the more likely he is to get there.