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Archive for May, 2010

I was proud to be a part of a special Memorial Day edition of “The Alternative” with Terry LeGrand this week.  Once Terry got me started talking about all the reasons I hate the US military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy towards its lesbian and gay troops, he couldn’t get me to stop.

It’s a disgraceful, insulting policy – and terrible for the mental health of our fighting women and men.  To hear why, take a listen to the show.  I come on about 11 minutes in.  You’ll probably end up sticking around to listen to the entire show – it’s always worth it.

To find out more about Terry and “The Alternative on LA Talk Radio,” check out Terry’s website and the show’s website.

If you love his show, you can become a Terry LeGrand “fan” on Facebook here.

As always, my thanks to Terry for having me on one of the most entertaining – and informative – shows on the radio.

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Ashley sent in an intriguing question a few weeks ago, which I’ve been pondering…

Here’s her question:

I’ve been thinking about a question for you for awhile, one that might be “deserving” for your blog, but I keep coming back to the same one, so I’ll just go ahead and ask:  how do you know if the relationship you’re in is “right” for you?  Obviously this is going to be different for every person, but it seems like a lot of the conventional wisdom — “wait, you’ll just know” — is kind of asking people to check in with their “guts” (or, I guess I should say, their “lizard brains”?), and maybe that’s not a bad thing…but it certainly makes it difficult to separate the considerations of what kind of partnership might really make you happy from whether or not you are just scared shitless to be alone.  At least it is for me.

And here’s my answer:

To submit a question to Ask The People’s Therapist, please email it as text or a video to: wmeyerhofer@aquietroom.com

If I answer your question on the site, you’ll win a free session of psychotherapy with The People’s Therapist!

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I received this timely and topical letter a few weeks ago:

Hello,

Now is the time of year when all the 3L’s at every law school are enjoying the time between graduation and starting their bar review (at least for me). Do you have any advice for us on how to keep our sanity during this 10 week adventure and not go crazy or over-stress when the big day finally comes?

Thanks,

JD2010

It got me thinking about my own bar exam experience – and brought back a memory from my law school days.

Close to graduation time, I was having a final meeting with a professor with whom I’d written a journal article. It was a pleasant meeting – the article was in print and he was pleased with it. He even said he was going to use it as part of his syllabus for a seminar. I was feeling as close to a super-star as I ever got in law school.

At some point I confided my concerns about the approaching bar exam. I told him it gave me butterflies in my stomach.

“Oh, don’t worry about that,” he assured me. “Only the real knuckle-draggers fail the bar exam.”

We shared a laugh, I shook his hand and left his office, but I knew – more than anything in the world – that I needed to pass that exam. I didn’t want to be a “knuckle-dragger.” I’m guessing you don’t want to be one, either.

The bar is a weird exam. It goes on forever, deals mostly with trivia, and no one cares how they do on it – you only have to pass.

In real world terms, the exam is entirely useless. At best, it gives you a smattering of a details from state law. At worst, it’s downright bizarre. I remember blowing a practice question because – it turns out – smoke-damaged – not charred – wood, didn’t count as evidence of arson in NY State. The wood had to be burned by a flame. Or something like that. I stared at the answer, wondering how anything so impossibly obscure could make it onto a statewide, standardized exam. But there were plenty of questions like that.

Anyway – first, here’s my exam-taking advice, handed down from my old roommate at Harvard, who went to Columbia Law School and got his JD a couple years before me. My psychotherapist advice will follow.

The trick to studying for the bar is not to bother with bar review lectures – they are a waste of time. Just take all the study materials and give yourself four hours to study them every weekday morning, from 9 am – 1 pm, for about three or four weeks.

Read the outlines front to back, slowly and carefully, then do all the practice tests, and outline each and every one of the practice essay questions. Check everything, make sure you understand anything you got wrong on the practice tests and – voila! You’ll do fine. In fact, you’ll be over-prepared, which is the idea.

At some point you’ll realize you know everything – even the bar only covers a discrete universe of information. I was so over-prepared that I spent the last few days before the exam hanging out at my cousin’s beach house, relaxing. By that time, I knew what I needed to know and it was getting repetitious.

If you follow this method, you will most likely follow in our paths and do extremely well on the bar exam – better than you have to do.

For years now, I’ve shared this advice with friends and clients. To a man, they have rejected it.

One client, last week, said “that’s not going to happen.”

I asked why, and she said “because I could never do that.”

Now I’ll put my psychotherapist hat back on, and talk about the infantilizing effects of legal education.

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I am happy to admit I do not know what lies at the farthest reaches of outer space, I do not know what happens after I die, and I do not know how long my relationship with my partner will last.

No one knows these things.  They are unknowable.

You might feel uncomfortable with these sorts of unknowns.  Uncertainty might make you anxious.  Infinity without end, your own mortality and the prospect of breaking up are scary – they challenge your sense of stability.  The child inside you still craves stability, even if the adult accepts it is only an illusion.

For better or worse, nothing is more common in this world than infinity, decay and entropy.  They are the building blocks of a universe that consists largely of vast stretches of emptiness with, here and there, some dust floating around.

A good parent behaves a bit like a con man, tricking a child into accepting a made-up world unreflective of the universe around him.  A child’s ideal world is a fantasy – small, secure and numbingly repetitious.  He goes to sleep at the same time every day and wakes up at the same time every day.  Meals are always the same, and at the same time, too.  Friendly imaginary characters like muppets and  cuddly purple dinosaurs are provided to reassure him things are okay.

As an adult, that type of environment would feel stifling.  Leaving things unknown – and occasionally surprising – can be more fun.  In part, that means accepting that expectations drawn from the reality of our daily lives might not be generalizable to the world as a whole.

For example, we live out our lives stuck to a round ball of rock by a mysterious force known as gravity.  If we keep traveling in any direction, we end up back where we began.  Just like your childhood neighborhood, that reality might feel safe and normal.  But simply because the Earth is designed that way doesn’t mean the universe is – space may well continue on forever.  Yes – without end.  Forever.

Same thing with death.  As a child, you got used to waking up each day and seeing the same friendly faces.  But as you get older you realize that situation isn’t permanent – people die, and you will too.

You can cling to the familiar childhood notion of waking up and starting a new day each morning by adopting primitive imaginary belief systems like reincarnation, or a heavenly paradise.  You can reproduce the familiar trope of a loving family with a strong parent figure through the invention of a god or goddess or a whole pantheon of imaginary deities.  These comforting, commonplace notions might permit you to evade the concept of a permanent ending for your life.

It’s more satisfying, and more fun, I think, to admit you don’t know what happens next.

One of my fond memories of attending Harvard University was studying with Stephen Jay Gould, the brilliant paleontologist.  Gould’s specialty was blowing his students’ minds by reminding them that their assumptions might not be generalizable to every situation.  He gave a lecture on how things would look if you were only a quarter inch – or 40 feet – tall.  My assumption – like a child’s – was that things would be pretty much the way they are now, except I’d be smaller or I’d be larger – essentially I’d be looking up at stuff or gazing down at it, but that would be that.

Gould explained that at 1/4 inch tall, gravity would no longer be an issue – you could probably jump from a great height and ride the breeze…but you might get your foot trapped in the surface tension of a puddle.

At 40 feet tall, your bones would be unable to support your body weight, which would be measurable in tons, and you would instantly collapse from the effect of gravity upon your mass.  You would be well-advised to take to the seas, like a blue whale, in order to survive.

Things look different, depending on circumstances.  As an adult, they are far more complex – and interesting – than they were when you were very young.

As a child, relationships were supposed to last forever.  Mommy and Daddy – the two relationships that mattered above all else – were necessary for your survival, and you took it as a matter of faith that they had to be there or you would perish.

But as an adult, you begin to understand that the universe might have no end, that all life must draw to a close – and that a partner is only a companion for as long as you – and he – decide to stay together.

An adult’s world needn’t be child-proofed.  It can be a bracing – and liberating – experience to see things as they really are instead of how we expect or wish them to be.

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This week’s question was a bit long, but it raised interesting issues, so I’ll print it in full:

My boyfriend and I have decided to have a wedding. We’re not getting married in the legal sense, and in fact I share many of your views on civil marriage and lifelong commitment, but we like the idea of a party with our friends to celebrate our union with one another as it is right now and will remain for the foreseeable future, and we’ve been together long enough that we don’t think people will take issue. I spent part of this morning working on some words I could say that, for me, define my commitment.

When I was six years old, my dad left my mom. I asked each of them, at different points, why that happened, and their answers have always resonated with me. My mom said that my dad had told her that he decided at one point early in their relationship that he wasn’t going to bring up a problem unless it ranked a 9 or a 10, and then one day he looked around and there were piles of 7’s and 8’s. He told me that my mom had all kinds of expectations that she never communicated, but would then get disappointed and upset when they weren’t fulfilled. When I was brainstorming my vows this morning, here’s what I came up with:

I promise to be with you as long as we both so choose.

I promise to talk to you when there is a problem, even a little one, but to do so with love.

I promise to be honest with you about my expectations.

I promise to learn how to be a better partner to you every day.

I only got that far before I looked at it and realized what I had done. What a slap in the face. Right there in the middle, my parents voices were still telling me what not to do in a relationship. In my mind, these are the two reasons relationships fail, so I have to do the opposite. My question is whether this is really a bad thing. It’s not like the promises I’m making, to communicate clearly with a partner, are so strange or egregious, and I’ve known for a long time that some of my habits in relationships were governed by those words I heard as a child. Still, it makes me want to reconsider what it is that makes a meaningful commitment between two people, and define it as what it is, rather than what it’s not. How worried should I be?

Maggie

And here’s my answer:

To submit a question to Ask The People’s Therapist, please email it as text or a video to: wmeyerhofer@aquietroom.com

If I answer your question on the site, you’ll win a free session of psychotherapy with The People’s Therapist!

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It’s frustrating, trying to teach lawyers the fundamentals of doing business. Several of them arrive in my office each month, wanting advice on changing careers. But they haven’t got a clue.

That’s because they still think success is making your parents happy. Lawyers start out as the kids who do everything right. They behave. They obey. They get good grades. Typically they aren’t especially talented at anything – just good at everything. The formal education system is designed to reward that sort of bland “goodness.” It isn’t about getting an A in any one subject – it’s about getting “all A’s.”

That doesn’t make any sense in the real world. You don’t need all-A’s, you need to discover the work that you love to do.

A friend of mine at Harvard failed or nearly failed half his courses every year. His grade-point average was dismal. Why? He was in a laboratory day and night, doing PhD level, cutting-edge bio research. He used to laugh at the academic advisors who lectured him about his grades. Now, after a successful career as a scientific researcher and inventor, he’s become a millionaire venture capitalist.

He knew what he wanted to do, and knew that his GPA wasn’t going to hold him back.

A lawyer would never take that path – in fact, he couldn’t. Legal education is all about exams, exams and more exams, and being the very best on every one, even if only by a tiny percentage. From that one extra point on the LSAT to that one extra point on the bar exam, it’s about everyone doing the same thing, but beating the next guy by a hair.

With that training, you end up utterly unequipped for the world of business, which is why the transition to business is so difficult for a lawyer.

Legal education, and law firm work, is infantilizing. It regresses you into the child who instinctively desires to delight a parent. You try to please an authority figure by doing what they say. You do the work, and make them happy.

That strategy is doom for an entrepreneur. To succeed in business you must separate from the parent, and begin to parent yourself. That means letting go of pleasing others, and becoming the authority figure in your own world. You’re the boss. You follow your own instincts. You make yourself happy.

Here are some rules for stamping out the lawyer in you and embracing the business person:

Develop people skills. A young lawyer asked me to help him get out of law the other day, and I suggested group therapy, so he could work on his interpersonal communication. He nixed that idea, saying it wouldn’t be a good idea for him, since he “tends to shut down in groups.”

If you are trying to do business, you can’t “shut down in groups” – you have to “light up” in groups. Business isn’t about disappearing into your office and working all night. It’s about networking, working contacts and getting people excited about you and what you’re selling. Which brings me to another rule…

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My patient looked me in the eye.  Tears poured down her cheeks.

“It hurts so bad.  Why does it have to hurt so bad?”

I often sit in a room with another person in emotional agony.  It’s part of my job.  I sit.  I listen.  I don’t interrupt.  I tolerate the feelings, and do my best to understand.

“Why won’t he call me?  Why doesn’t he love me?”

I told her what I knew to be true.

“This guy isn’t worth your time.  He isn’t worth these tears.  This isn’t about him.  It’s about you.  And these are old tears – the tears of a heartbroken child.  Your heart was broken long before you met this guy.”

A child’s first love affair is with a parent – and a little girl’s is typically with her father.  She instinctively adores this powerful man who controls the world.  She would do anything to win his attention, his delight, his love.

Sometimes things go wrong.

The father might be distracted by other things – his career, his marriage, something.  His baby daughter adores him.  But his attention turns elsewhere.

For that child, his rejection is akin to abandonment – which is akin, for her, to death.  The resulting pain is cellular, and unendurable.  It is a child’s heartbreak.  She thinks she is going to die.

That’s what my patient was feeling now.

We talked about how it felt, attempting to physicalize the symptoms to make them more conscious.

A cold steel ball in the gut.  A choke in the throat – like a cry rising up and getting stuck.  An ache at her core.  She cried all the time, and couldn’t sleep.

This was heartbreak.

We returned to her childhood, to see where this hurt began.

Her father sounded awful – a swaggering bully, who verbally and physically abused his wife.

Still, when my patient was little, he became the positive focus of her life.  She recalled afternoons spent sitting on his lap, being fussed over.

That ended abruptly when she was 10.  Her father left with a mistress, then moved back in a year later – with the mistress in tow.  After that, her childhood was a blur of drunken rages.  Her father fought endlessly with both wife and mistress.  The little girl got lost amid the drama.  She spent most of her time alone, wounded by his rejection.

Now she was repeating the pattern.  She’d found a guy like her father – a swaggering, charismatic bully who paid attention to her for a few weeks, then lost interest.

An adult doesn’t waste time on someone who doesn’t return her care.  But a child loves differently – without question.  The child seeks to please.  If the child’s love is rejected, she locates the fault within.  She must be to blame for refusing to please.

This is the formula for heartbreak – the pain of a rejected child.

My patient was pining for a someone who never existed, any more than the father who made gestures at parenting before he disappeared into his own self-fascination.  Both men constituted a promise, not a reality  Both appeared when they felt like it, then left.  Neither deserved her love.

The first step in recovery from heartbreak is to recognize that this is a child’s pain – and address it as such.  This is a cry of need that you have to answer yourself, by bringing your child the parenting she craves.

Instead of assigning importance to someone for whom you are unimportant, start treating your child as important.  If you are there for yourself, you will not experience solitude as a child experiences it – as abandonment.  You will feel secure in your own care.

The message for your child goes something like this:

You are good and unique and important.  I love you.  You deserve my love.   I’m never going to put anyone else’s needs before yours, because you are mine – you belong to me – of me, and with me, and rely on me for care. You are my special love, always first in my heart.

Those are words a parent should tell a child, each and every day.

No one should ever break a child’s heart.  Or let a child’s heart stay broken.

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