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Sarah Palin’s nickname in high school was “Sarah Barracuda.”

Supposedly, this reflected “her competitive streak.”

Charming.

How did this happen?  How does a child grow up with a grasping nature so extreme that she becomes nicknamed after a vicious carnivorous fish?

There aren’t many clues in Palin’s early biography, which reads like a carefully pruned and polished star cheerleader’s resume…which, of course, it is.

Sarah was born the third of four children.  That’s our one clue.  Perhaps she had to compete for attention with older and younger siblings.

At some point in Sarah’s life – I’d guess the first five minutes – she decided there wasn’t enough out there for her.  At least, not enough out there for her if she was going to share any of it with anyone else.

Maybe it was a sense of poverty.  Maybe the Palins were poorer than their neighbors.  Or maybe competing with those siblings was enough.  But somewhere during that childhood, profound feelings of deprivation developed in Sarah’s psyche, and a famine mentality set in.

After that, all we can do is sit back and watch a mighty appetite gobble everything in its path.

When people are subjected to a severe deprivation, like a famine, they hoard and deny others and generally act in ways they aren’t proud of.  During the famine in China that occurred as a result of Mao’s Great Leap Forward campaign in the late 1950’s, widespread starvation led to cannibalism among the rural peasantry.  Hunger can drive people to do terrible things.  They can turn vicious.

A bit like a barracuda, tearing off hunks of flesh to gulp down its maw.

A bit like Sarah Palin.

Here’s a charming quote from the Barracuda herself:  “I love meat. I eat pork chops, thick bacon-burgers, and the seared fatty edges of a medium-well-done steak. But I especially love moose and caribou.”

The mental image is of a gaping mouth, with sharp teeth.

How about her politics?  Could they even be considered politics?  Mostly, it boils down to Sarah, Sarah, Sarah – and making money for Sarah.

She quit her job as governor to give speeches to the highest bidder, write a book and work on tv – all for enormous sums of cash.

She was willing to speak (and no doubt thrill and inspire) the Tea Party wackos – for many, many thousands of dollars.

Even when she was working for John McCain, it was clearly all about Sarah – her expensive clothes, her big family (she has five children), her gigantic super-church, her enormous state – even the humongous “big box” stores she enticed to the little town of Wasilla to replace its now-moribund downtown.

Something in Sarah’s background left her feeling hungry – deeply hungry – and she is still grabbing up everything at the table.  Her “politics” are a philosophy of greed.  She can get married – but gay people can’t.  She doesn’t want to pay taxes – even to help other Americans survive.  She’s got her healthcare – if you don’t have yours, well, tough luck.  She’ll drill for every drop of oil in a nature sanctuary until her giant SUV is purring like a kitten, slurping it all down, belching, and demanding more. Immigrants can stay out – this country is Sarah’s, securely stolen from indigenous peoples and guarded with guns guns guns and more guns, wonderful guns.  Sarah doesn’t like government – she wants to go it alone, because she’s got hers, and you can worry about yourself, thank you very much.

Sarah wants to get a gun and go out in nature and kill something beautiful and devour it.

A couple more charming quotes:

“If God had not intended for us to eat animals, how come He made them out of meat?”

“I always remind people from outside our state that there’s plenty of room for all Alaska’s animals – right next to the mashed potatoes.”

Sarah is a predator.  She’s earning a lot of money chomping her way through a frightened minority of mostly older, white Americans who are terrified of the future and will buy all the double-cheeseburgers, super-size fries and giant cokes they need to maintain a secure perimeter of human fat cells.  Hunkered down in their gated retirement communities, clinging to their beloved guns, they crouch by the glow of their wall-size flat-screen plasma tv’s and defend what’s rightfully theirs – which is to say, everything.

Sarah represents insecurity in love.  Somewhere along the way, early on, she decided there wasn’t any love out there for her.  So she had no love to spare for anyone else.

Kill or be killed.  Eat or be eaten.

There’s room for you next to the mashed potatoes.

That’s the barracuda’s creed.

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When gay people come out of the closet, they usually run into some variation of the “but that’s unnatural” argument.  This is the apparently sensible claim that it doesn’t make sense to be gay.  Isn’t sex for procreation?  Why would two males or two females become romantically involved if they can’t have a child together?

It seems like a reasonable argument.  You can point out that some sort of gay behavior occurs in every species in the animal kingdom – which is true – or that gay sex is simply fun – also true.  But that only begs the question.  Why?  Why are there so many gay animals, and people, in the world when reproducing your own kind is the basis for a species’ success?  Having fun doesn’t seem to explain this apparent contradiction.

The answer is that gay people help nature hedge its bets.  A successful species typically keeps extra cards up its sleeve because the rules of the game can change without warning.  Gay people represent some important extra cards.  They are a natural, genetic variation that helps guarantee the successful raising of young.

Many species show wide genetic variation.  Dogs, for example.  You can breed a chihuahua that weighs 2 pounds.  Or you can breed an Old English Mastiff that weighs 300 pounds.

Why should canine genetic material be so mutable?  Because being tiny – or being huge – might come in handy.  You never know.

The ultimate disaster for a species – extinction – happens when its members fail to adapt to an altered environment.  That’s why you want to have as much flexibility as possible to respond and survive when something unexpected occurs.

It could be a meteor striking the Earth.  Or a volcano erupting.  Or a pandemic disease wiping out three-quarters of the population.  The game can change – and a species has to change too – sometimes a lot – in challenging new circumstances.

Having gay members of your species could make the difference between survival and extinction.  Gays are unique – and vitally important -because they do something no other members of that species will do.

I don’t mean have gay sex.

I mean raise other people’s children.

Gay animals are perfectly happy to pair-bond and mate with members of their own sex,  so their sexual relations are non-procreative.  They do not have children with their partner.  That means they are available to raise another animal’s children.

Say a heterosexual zebra, or otter, or muskrat or human is killed and leaves behind a helpless child.  Heterosexual animals, who can have  children of their own, will probably refuse to raise this other animal’s child, or at best do so grudgingly.  They have their own children, who are a higher priority because they will pass on their genetic material.  But a gay member of the species will happily step in and raise that helpless child.

He has no reason not to.  He is not caught up in the battle to mate and reproduce.  His preoccupation is caring and nurturing within a relationship.

If a male animal loses a female partner and is left with children who need care, he might have trouble locating another female willing to raise these children.  But a gay male would happily accept the job.

If a female animal loses her male partner and is left with young to raise, another male might reject the task of raising those children.  But a gay female would, similarly, be happy to help out.

Gays play a role in increasing the success rates for child-rearing in all species.  In the event of a large-scale disaster, resulting in many adult deaths, gays could fill an especially vital role in helping to raise the young.  They would not compete for sexual partners.  But they would help out with the kids.

It could make the difference to a species’ survival.

That’s what’s happening right now, with humans.

Many heterosexual human couples have children they are unable or unwilling to raise.  These children are put up for adoption – but there are too many of them to be cared for solely by heterosexual volunteers, who usually prefer to raise their own children.

That’s why, throughout the world, gays are the unofficial backbone of the adoption system.  Without them, many children would suffer terribly, never finding wiling, dedicated adoptive parents.

It is an open secret that in most states, the adoption system would collapse without the participation of gays and lesbians.  In 2007 it was estimated that there are 270,000 children living with same-sex couples in the USA.  Of these, one-quarter, or 65,000, have been adopted.  Gays are a small minority, perhaps as few as 4% of the general population.  But there is no question that gay people do a lot of adopting and provide loving homes for hundreds of thousands of children who desperately need them.

Unfortunately, in a few states, right-wing religious zealots have persuaded politicians to ban gay adoption.  It is not clear whether this misguided attack on children and the rights of gay people is constitutional.  A court battle is raging in Florida.

Meanwhile, these laws prevent gay people from playing a role nearly as ancient as life itself.  That is a tragedy, which could result in a calamity.

It’s also unnatural.

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Last October, a law school placement director friend of mine forwarded me an email with a juicy piece of big law gossip. A former associate at Sullivan & Cromwell had offed himself. He was 39.

The body was discovered beneath a highway bridge in Toronto. A few days earlier, it was revealed that since the mid-90’s, he and a co-conspirator made ten million dollars on an insider trading scheme. He’d stolen insider information from S&C, arriving early in the morning to dig through waste baskets, rifle partners’ desks and employ temporary word-processor codes to break into the computer system.

“You can’t make this shit up,” was my friend’s comment. “Wasn’t he from around your time?”

It took a minute to locate the face. Gil Cornblum. Jewish, a bit pudgy, with big round glasses. Gil, in that ridiculous little office two doors down from mine.

What was Gil like? Mild-mannered, pleasant, always smiling.

I should have known something was wrong.

The pieces fit together.

Gil kept weird hours. He used to chuckle that he liked to get in early so he didn’t have to stay late. It turned out he was in at 5 am, combing the firm for insider tips.

The lavish wedding, too. A mutual friend was invited up to Canada to watch Gil tie the knot, and was blown away.

As people do in these situations, I stopped for a moment to contemplate Gil’s death. His body was discovered at the bottom of a highway bridge. He was still breathing, according to the bits of news I found online.

So far as I could tell, that meant portly, lovable Gil Cornblum threw himself off a bridge on a Canadian highway in the middle of the night and lay on the bottom – of what? A rocky riverbed? – shattered and dying.

Suicide amounts to punishing whoever is supposed to take care of you because you feel their care is inadequate.

Certainly, the care we all received at S&C was inadequate, and we committed suicide a little each day just by staying there and putting ourselves through that abuse as our lives passed us by. Our slow suicide manifested in other ways as well. Most of us mistreated ourselves by neglecting our health, letting our friendships die off, ignoring our families, our hobbies, our lives.

Maybe insider trading was Gil’s grand suicidal gesture, his protest against the abuse he received. He put his entire life on the line, knowing he might well be caught, end up in jail and lose everything. He was playing Russian roulette, and maybe he knew he’d kill himself if he got caught.

And all for what? Money.

(more…)

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Most of the Western world seems to have had a good laugh this week at an unidentified Arab ambassador to Dubai.

This gentleman rushed to annul his marriage contract and cancel his wedding after he finally got a look at his bride-to-be’s face and realized she was cross-eyed and had a beard.  She’d worn a niqab, a heavy veil, during their courtship, so he’d never actually laid eyes on her until moments before they tied the knot.

It’s a great story, and it does seem pretty silly to marry a woman when you haven’t even seen her face.

But before we laugh too hard at another culture’s ridiculous, sentimental notions, maybe we should take a look at some of our own.

Like marriage.

The People’s Therapist is well aware that he sounds like a grinch when he writes about this subject, but here goes.

Marriage makes no sense.  It is a lot of sentimental clap-trap.

And I’m sorry, gay folks, but you’re out of your minds if you think this tired old convention is going to make you any happier than it’s made the heteros.

A couple is happy because it’s happy.  Getting married, if it has any effect at all, usually only helps to break you up.

Before you start drafting that angry comment, consider the reality of a wedding.  You stand with your partner, your best friend, someone with whom you share a very personal, private relationship – in front of a roomful of family, friends and near-strangers. What do you do in front of all those people?  Promise you will stay together forever.

No one can promise that.

A relationship takes place in the moment.  You probably have a shared dream – someplace you want to go together, and that’s great.  But no one knows if that dream will last, or if you’ll get there.  That’s why it’s a dream.

Relationships are like movie film – lots of tiny boxes with a little piece of shared experience captured in each one.  When you take all those little moments of shared experience and line them up, it tells a story that seems inevitable.  But it never was inevitable, and there’s no way to know what’s coming next.

The worst part is that couples often become hyper-focused on the wedding itself.  These affairs can be enormous undertakings nowadays, which grow into monsters that gobble your life.  The wedding -essentially a big party for your relatives – can become the shared dream.

That means, when the wedding’s over…there’s nothing left to chase.  Some couples find themselves staring at one another, blinking in the sunlight, wondering what to do next.  And that thing to do next might not be something they want to do together.

Maybe the ultimate reason I’m so down on marriage is that I’m a therapist, and I’ve seen divorce, up close and personal. And yes – gay divorce, too.

It’s awful.

I don’t know if it’s the rotten state of divorce laws – they date back to the Victorian era, when a woman was essentially a piece of property – or just the broken dream itself, but people can lose their minds during divorces.  I’ve seen couples sue one another until they’re both bankrupt, and then keep suing.  The lawyers are happy to take their money until there’s none left, at which point they walk away and leave the unhappy partners to battle it out on their own.

It’s ugly.

But most marriages end that way.  In divorce.  In the US, 50% percent of first marriages, 67% of second and 74% of third marriages end in divorce.

Wow.

I’m sorry. I might be the Grinch. But I didn’t invent that reality.  It just is.

Instead of bemoaning the death of family – or whatever you want to call it – how about we face the fact that you can’t judge the quality of a relationship based upon its longevity.  You might spend a marvelous three years with someone and decide that it’s time to move on. Or you might stay together for sixty years and be totally miserable.

It’s not about staying together with the same person forever.  It’s about finding something that works in the moment – the here and now – and enjoying it.  Wake up each and every day as though it were the first day all over again, and decide then and there if it’s  where you still want to be.  If it is – great.  It is isn’t – also great.

Why does that seem so awful?

Because there’s a child inside you who longs for stability.  All children crave stability – it’s what they thrive upon.  And marriage regresses us into that child.

An adult doesn’t need a relationship or a ceremony to provide him stability.  He carries it within himself.  He can leave one relationship, be by himself, or enter another relationship.  It doesn’t matter that much.  He’ll do just fine.

An adult doesn’t need a parent – he contains his own parent.  His partner can be his friend, his ally, his playmate, his companion – his equal.

An adult is a whole person, not a half person.  And if the other whole person leaves to try something different, he remains a whole person.

I suspect there ought to be some sort of legal protection for couples who have children.  Perhaps civil union is the answer for those legal issues.

But traditional marriage is a silly, out-dated custom.

When you pull up the veil, and see what’s really there, you might be in for an unpleasant surprise.

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The People’s Therapist displayed his legendary tact and discretion during a recent interview with the lovely and talented Kashmir Hill, Associate Editor of the esteemed yet tasty legal blog, AboveTheLaw.com.

Despite my best efforts, tongues appear to be wagging regarding certain shocking revelations about The People’s Therapist’s previous incarnation as a high-powered Wall Street lawyer at Sullivan & Cromwell, a top white-shoe firm.  To put it bluntly – though I am loathe to – I told the truth about the toxic environments at big law firms, and the psychological toll they take on the people who work there.

Twitter is a-buzz and Buzz is a-twitter with these shocking revelations.  Facebook is…uh…blue in the face.

Curious?

Here’s the link for the interview.

For more juicy brilliance from the lovely and talented Kashmir Hill, you can also check this out this site (highly recommended by The People’s Therapist.)

Those of you with heart conditions or delicate sensibilities – please exercise caution.

This material may be inappropriate for young children or those recently graduated from law school.

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Children need a lot of attention.  When they don’t get it, they’ll often act out – misbehave – in a desperate attempt to be paid attention to, even if the result is negative attention.

I had a patient who used to vomit frequently as a child.  It became an unpleasant regular event during family meals – but he managed to distract his mother for a few minutes.  Even if she was cross and impatient with him, at least she was paying attention.

Scott Brown, the newly-elected US Senator from Massachusetts, grew up in a family where there wasn’t much time available to devote to raising children.  His parents divorced when he was an infant, and both the mother and the father have since remarried three times each.

Scott’s mother was living on welfare at various periods during his youth, and Scott sometimes ended up getting shipped off to live with his grandparents or his aunt.  He had siblings, too.  My guess is there were enough other children around to consume whatever time was available for Scott.

How did the young Scott Brown respond to this situation?  He acted out – badly.  By the time he was 12 years old, Scott was arrested for shop-lifting from a record store and brought before a judge.

This is where things get interesting.  Brown’s story is that the judge, Samuel Zoll, shamed him by sentencing him to write a 1500-word essay on how his siblings would feel watching Brown play basketball in jail.

The People’s Therapist suspects something else happened, too.  Scott had finally forced a father figure – Judge Zoll – to pay attention to him.

That’s why he stole from the record store in the first place.  He didn’t need records.  He needed a parent-figure’s attention.  And he got it – even if it was negative attention.

From that point on, we see a string of events suggesting that grabbing attention – even negative attention – became an unconscious impulse in Brown’s life.  Here are a few examples that jump out at you:

1.  Posing nude for Cosmopolitan Magazine as a law student;

2.  Using the “F-word” as a State Senator during a debate on gay marriage at a high school; and

3.  Presenting his daughters, Ayla and Arianna Brown, as “available” (whatever that was supposed to mean) during his acceptance speech for the US Senate.

The biggest attention-getter of all was politics itself.  Brown seemed to run compulsively for everything there was to run for, from Property Assessor to Selectman to State Representative to State Senator.

This latest campaign, for the US Senate, was an even bigger attention-getter, and once again, it was negative attention. Brown’s role was the spoiler.

Teddy Kennedy, a legend in the Senate, devoted much of his life to fighting to guarantee decent healthcare for all Americans. On the cusp of achieving this goal, Kennedy died after a courageous battle with brain cancer.  Brown’s job?  To get elected on a wave of Tea-Party cash, so he could shatter Kennedy’s dream.  Brown had to get elected so he could be the 41st vote that would allow the small Republican minority from mostly under-populated states, representing an even tinier minority of Americans, to abuse the filibuster rule and destroy years of hard work by blocking healthcare reform.

We can only hope a father figure – perhaps President Obama could fill in for Judge Zoll? – will arrive to give Brown the attention he needs.  Maybe he should be forced to write a 1500-word essay on how his siblings would feel watching him destroy a chance at decent, affordable healthcare for millions of Americans.

This country has had enough of angry little children in positions of authority.

We need leaders who can behave like adults – who win our admiration for what they achieve.  We do not need another attention-grabbing miscreant who will stop everyone in their tracks by throwing up at dinner.

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The People’s Therapist was working out at the gym on the elliptical trainer the other day when he realized he’d come to the end of an issue of The New York Review of Books – his customary cardiovascular/literary fare.  In desperation, I reached for whatever other reading material happened to be lying around, and discovered a deliciously tacky gossip mag.

Flipping open at random, I found myself confronted with a headline about Prince William, the future king of England.  Apparently, he’s got a new girlfriend – Kate Middleton – and the rumors are that she’s “just like his mother, Princess Diana.”

What caught my psychotherapeutically-inclined interest was how commonly this trope – marrying someone like your parent – emerges in popular culture.  It’s so unremarkable that we take it for granted.

But it raises an interesting question:  Why does it seem like people really do choose partners who are just like their parents?

The answer relates to how you adapt, as a child, to your early environment.

One of the patients I saw this week, for example, grew up with a father who was extremely narcissistic.

When I use this term, I don’t mean it in the sense of merely being egotistical, but in the Freudian sense of being unable – like Narcissus in the Greek myth – to see past his own reflection and realize that others have separate needs and concerns.

The whole world, for this woman’s father, was about him.  He sucked up all the attention and ignored everyone else’s needs.  His wife – my patient’s mother – fell into a caretaker role, appeasing and placating him.  When dad had one of his rages, mother and daughter ran around doing whatever it took to calm him down.  Their own needs were ignored.

My patient evolved behaviors to handle living in an environment with a narcissist – mostly running around doing everything for him and always letting him have his way.  When she grew up into an adult, she went out into the world expecting to find another narcissist for a partner.  That would feel familiar, and almost comfortable, since it was what she was used to – it matched the skills she’d adapted as a child.  She knew everything there was to know about handling a narcissist – dating anyone else would bring fresh challenges she wasn’t sure she could handle.

Sure enough, later in life, my patient found herself dating guys just like her dad – high-maintenance guys who demanded all her attention but never seemed to notice her needs.

It’s as though my client – and perhaps Prince William and everyone else – adapted to an environment the way an animal evolves.  If you live in a pond, you evolve web feet.  Once you have web feet, you expect to live in water, because you aren’t much good anywhere else.

But humans aren’t ducks, and the strategies you adopt to survive in your childhood environment don’t have to become permanent physical characteristics.

Children have little choice but to adapt to their environment.  They don’t control much of anything – they need to adapt to survive.

But adults can choose the environment in which they wish to live, and they can shed an old adaptation if it becomes self-sabotaging.

My client didn’t have web feet, and she didn’t have to live in a pond.  She could change, and choose a new environment that better suited her adult needs.

That meant she could stop dating men like her father, and ask herself who she really wanted in her life.  It also meant she could learn new adaptations to address this new sort of person.

For someone used to placating and pleasing a narcissistic tyrant, it was an adjustment to meet someone calm and relaxed and caring – someone who expected a balanced give and take in a relationship.  My patient had to remember not to do everything for her new boyfriend, and to enforce her own boundaries as well as respecting his.

It was all rather new, and a bit scary – like a duck acquiring new feet and learning to live on land.  But she caught on fast.

Prince William, for his part, might choose to marry someone like Princess Diana, or he might not.  His mother may well have been a lovely, giving person and the perfect model for a mate.

The key is that the prince be aware of his unconscious adaptations and ask himself what he, as an adult, truly desires in a partner. He’ll never find what he needs marching blindly into an old pattern simply because it feels familiar.

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Christine Daniels was a transsexual sportswriter.  For many years, she was known to thousands of sports fans as a columnist for the Los Angeles Times, writing under the byline “Mike Penner.”

Christine transitioned into a woman in April 2007 and began using her female name on her column.  In late October 2008, she returned to appearing, and writing, as Mike.  On November 27, 2009, she chose to take her own life.

This is a tragic story.  It’s also an opportunity to talk about gender – an important and often misunderstood topic.

We’ll begin by differentiating, and then examining, three gender-related variables that define all of humanity.  They are:

(1) gender assignment at birth;

(2) sexual orientation; and

(3) personal gender identity.

You can think of these variables as three separate sliding scales – everyone falls somewhere on a continuity within each one. You – like everyone else – had a gender assigned to you at birth, awakened in childhood or adolescence to some sort of sexual orientation and discovered within yourself some type of personal gender identity.

1. Gender assignment at birth: I’ll take this one first because it seems simple.  What could be more obvious that the gender you’re born with?  We’re all born either a boy or a girl, right?

Actually, that’s not the case.  Perhaps as much as 1.7% of the human race is born with a degree of sexual ambiguity, and between 0.1% and 0.2% of people are ambiguous enough to attract specialist medical attention, including, in some cases, surgery to disguise or correct sexual ambiguity.  These people used to be called “hermaphrodites” but the modern term for them is “intersex.”

Intersex people exist and always have.  They are a normal part of the range of human difference.  Unfortunately, they live in a world that mostly ignores their existence or treats them like freaks.  And they can have a tough time of it, dealing not only with the medical issues involved in their difference, but also the accompanying stigma of not looking, or feeling, like everyone else.

2. Sexual orientation: This variable should be familiar enough to most people.  Orientation refers to which gender you choose for a sexual partner – essentially, with which gender you choose to fall in love.

You’re probably used to hearing about lesbian and gay people and their lives, but even sexual orientation can get a bit tricky to parse.  Bisexual people exist, and sexual attraction can be fluid and change over time.  Sometimes people are surprised by an attraction they weren’t expecting to feel.

It should be common knowledge that gay, lesbian and bi people face discrimination and even violence in their lives, as they fight a campaign for greater understanding and acceptance of their difference.

3. Personal gender identity: This is where things get really interesting.  There are countless ways to experience one’s own gender, and perhaps even more ways to express it outwardly.

The transvestite – or “cross-dresser” is a person who enjoys dressing like someone of the opposite sex.  There are male cross-dressers and female cross-dressers.  A “drag queen” or “drag king” is a man or woman who is a performer, and cross-dresses as part of his or her work as an entertainer.

A transsexual is a person who feels that his or her gender assignment at birth incorrectly represents who he or she really is.  For example, a person with the outward appearance of a male at birth, but who is transsexual, will come to understand (usually during his early childhood) that he is actually female.  It is as though a female brain were placed in a male body.  Transsexuals often take hormones supplements or seek gender confirmation surgery to confirm their personal gender identity by matching it with the outward appearance of their bodies.

If this is beginning to sound complicated, that’s because it is.  There are countless terms used to describe people who express their gender in ways that don’t conform to societal norms.  My favorite, for its sheer simplicity, is “trans” – a sort of catch-all word for people who experiment with gender appearance and identity.  But there are many people who would argue with that definition and that usage.  That’s the nature of gender – it’s complicated, everyone is different, and the topic triggers fervent debate.  Mix in the additional complications of gender assignment at birth and sexual orientation and – well, you’ve got nearly endless diversity and plenty of room for misunderstanding.

Christine Daniels was a transsexual woman.  She decided to return to her male identity and live as Mike for the final year of her life, but I have chosen to honor the women whom I suspect she really was by referring to her as a female.

I have had the privilege and honor over the years to know and work with many trans people, including transsexuals and cross-dressers, as patients and as friends, neighbors and co-workers.  I have also known and worked with a number of transsexual psychotherapists, who remain valued and respected colleagues.

If it’s tough negotiating society as an intersex person or a gay man or lesbian, it is even tougher to live each day as a trans person.  I don’t know what it is about gender in particular, among the vast array of human differences, that ignites such misunderstanding and hatred.  Perhaps it is simply sexism.  The widespread oppression of women across the globe is an example of humanity at its very worst.  However you account for it, trans people face horrendous discrimination and persecution.

I have no doubt that Christine Daniel’s life was made more difficult by the misunderstanding of her trans identity.  Her death was a terrible waste.  We lost a talented, valuable, unique person.

You might think you don’t know any trans people.  Perhaps you do not.  It is far more likely that you do, but don’t realize it. Many transsexuals are “stealth” – they do their best to disappear into the background.  Their only desire is to live in a way true to themselves, and they are well aware of the persecution and violence that could greet them if they were found out by the wrong elements.

If you do have the good fortune to welcome a trans person into your life, I implore you to be gentle, and supportive, and sensitive. These are some of the best people you could ever meet and know – and, if you win their trust, they might introduce you to a world of  folks who do things their own way, in their own inimitable style.  They are a group of human beings whose path in life has taught them profound lessons in compassion, understanding and personal strength.

I’ll close with a link to a site that I wish didn’t have to exist.

Remembering our Dead, and the International Transgender Day of Remembrance, were created to honor trans people who have been victimized by violence.  It is a sad statement on the condition of humanity that these innocent people were murdered simply for being true to who they were.

In honor of Christine Daniels, please vow that you will become one more voice on the side of acceptance, and celebration, of trans people and transgender identity.

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The news has been full of reports of Heidi Montag-Pratt and her claim to have undergone 10 separate plastic surgery procedures in one day.  That includes rhinoplasty (a nose job), breast augmentation, lip collagen injections, chin reduction, and god only knows what else.

“I’m beyond obsessed,” is the frequently cited quote.

It certainly sounds like it.

The death of Michael Jackson also put plastic surgery into the news this winter.  Fans – and others – pored over photographs documenting the strange transformation that rendered him unrecognizable from his early days as a child star.

The question, amid all this hullaballoo, is whether there’s anything really wrong with plastic surgery.

A person clearly has a right to alter his appearance, and if he thinks the results are beautiful, that’s his business.  Plenty of people choose to cover themselves with tattoos, or get a multitude of piercings.  There isn’t much difference between that and having your nose straightened or your chin or breasts made larger or smaller – is there?

Not really.

We all have the right to look however we want to look, and I’m fine with plastic surgery – unless it becomes an addiction.  That’s when it stops being about controlling your appearance and making yourself happy, and starts to become a compulsion that can make you miserable.

The definition of an addiction is simple:

1) you no longer receive the same pleasure from the activity; and

2) you lose control over it.

That’s where the trouble starts.

It can feel very good to have plastic surgery.  If there’s some funny little quirk of your appearance that bothers you, and you finally get it addressed, it can be immensely liberating.  Several of my patients have had “boob jobs” and they might laugh about it, but say in all seriousness that it made them feel more confident and that they’re happy with the results.  One of my patients had a face lift, and was similarly pleased with how it made her feel – more youthful, less wrinkly, more confident.

The problem is that something that feels very good can become addictive if you become fascinated with that good feeling and try to recreate it again and again.

Along the way, you can ignore underlying problems.

There is a tendency, when you don’t feel good about yourself, to locate what bothers you in one particular physical feature.  That bump on your nose, or smallish bosom, which others hardly notice, might be inflated to enormous significance to you – until you become convinced that you would feel entirely better if you could just correct that one problem.

Initially, it might work.  At last – bigger breasts.  Or a smaller chin.  Or fewer wrinkles.  Or whatever.  Other people might not notice, or vaguely think you look better.  But to you – it’s a vast relief.

Then you go back to do it again.

One of my patients had her nose done, and was happy with it – even if other people didn’t much notice.  That’s when she decided to have her chin done, too.  And then get it re-done, to get it just right.  And then a piece of bone came loose, and she had to repeat that surgery.

That’s when she realized the chin surgery was probably a mistake all along.  Instead of getting the same good feeling after each surgery, she only felt worse.

She realized it was becoming an addiction, and that she needed to stop using plastic surgery to escape doubts about herself, and her ability to find love.  There was nothing more that a scalpel could do for her.  She needed to find out why she didn’t like who she was – and address it in therapy.

It is impossible to say whether Heidi and Michael are examples of addiction, or just people who enjoyed altering their appearance to suit their own tastes.  But the signs – chiefly the sheer number of surgeries – are there.

Plastic surgery tends to have diminishing returns.  You can only operate on your body so many times before features scar up or grow distorted.  There’s also the issue of losing what makes your appearance special in the process.  The “ideal” features produced by plastic surgery tend to have a certain blandness.  The goal of plastic surgery, in most instances, seems to be making someone look more like everyone else, instead of making him look more himself.

If you’re considering plastic surgery, ask yourself whether you are really addressing a simple matter of a physical quirk, or whether there’s more going on that you need to stop and examine.  If the insecurity seems to involve more than just a bump or a wrinkle, it might be time to look deeper, and ask yourself what’s wrong with accepting yourself just as you are.

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The People’s Therapist is of course strictly non-partisan.  It is hardly my place to take sides in political matters, and I am loathe to betray a hint of bias in these pages.

However.

How could anyone NOT admire our magnificent President, Barack Obama, as he faced down those ignorant Republican hacks in Baltimore last week?

The most striking feature of the President’s performance, beyond his clarity of purpose, intellectual stamina and firm grasp of the issues, was his perfect calm under pressure.  There’s a reason they call him “O-calma.”

The Republicans hurled their snide partisan attacks, distorting the facts in their own inimitable way.

Obama stood at the podium, holding his ground, even smiling, and reached out in friendship and cooperation.  His face expressed perfect equanimity.  When a brief lull came in the Republican attack machine, he explained why it wasn’t about politics – it was about action.

He was masterful.  It reminded me of the Buddha.

I’m serious.  Here’s why.

When Siddhartha Gautama, the historical Buddha, renounced wealth and privilege and left his father’s palace to wander as a monk, one of the first disciplines he sought in his path to enlightenment was meditation.

Following the meditation practices of his time, the Buddha embraced three refusals.

First, the refusal to move.  He learned to sit perfectly still.

Second, the refusal to breathe.  He mastered slowing his breaths until they were barely detectable.

Third, the refusal to think.  He cleared his mind of all extraneous distraction so he could sit in perfect peace.

These refusals were designed to promote calm – to permit an inner space to exist, where he could be strong within himself.

Like a mighty tree – the wind blows, the storms howl, the seasons change.  But you are stillness, firmly rooted in the earth.

A self-barrier, an invisible boundary, protects you from attack, granting you the space to contemplate all paths and decide on your direction ahead.

Young children have no self barrier – they spill their emotion in all directions and confuse other’s emotions with their own. But an adult can learn to contain his feelings, and to insulate himself from the attacks of others.  He can find a place of serenity within.

I have no doubt that Obama felt anger at the Republicans’ hypocrisy.  Perhaps he also felt fearful of the immense challenges ahead in his administration.

But, like the Buddha, his self-barrier remained intact.  Within, he located a place of calm. The clamor and tumult outside only strengthened his resolve to walk the Middle Path – the path of moderation.

There is a useful lesson in the President’s grace and his dignity.

Let’s save the planet from environmental dangers.

Let’s treat immigrants with the respect and gratitude they deserve.

Let’s provide every American with decent healthcare.

Let’s give LGBT people equality, which is all they ask.

Let’s work to establish understanding, and peace among nations.

This isn’t politics – it is an expression of our best selves as humankind.

We can follow the path of the Buddha, and remain strong within ourselves.  We can refuse to be drawn into fear or anger.

In so doing, we can make the world a better place.

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The recent arrest of the actor, Charlie Sheen, on domestic violence charges will make for a very brief, very important post.

I have no idea if Mr. Sheen is guilty of these charges, or what actually happened during this incident.  I only mention it in order to raise the vital issue of domestic violence.  Violence between partners and families happens.  It is all too common, and it can devastate lives.

Here’s what you do if someone with whom you are in a relationship turns violent towards you:

Leave.

That’s it.  Pack your things and go.  Or kick him out and change the locks.  It’s over.

If you need to, call the police, or request an order of protection to prevent this person from returning to your life.

Sound harsh?

Think about it.  You deserve a partner who treats you like gold – who cherishes you and celebrates you and adores you.

No one – NO ONE – deserves to be violently assaulted.

If someone has assaulted you violently, that person is in no place in his life to be in a relationship with anyone, least of all you.

He might be ready sometime in the future, but he needs to find the help he needs to change.  That will take time, and that is his job, and he will have to tackle it on his own.  It is no business of yours.

You cannot change someone from within a relationship.  You can stay or you can leave.  That’s it.

With something as serious as domestic violence, you must leave.

If you feel an urge to blame yourself, or explain it away, or return to a relationship with an abuser, there is a serious problem that must be addressed in your own therapy.  It could be a return to feelings you had during previous abuse, during your childhood.  I don’t know – that will have to be explored.

But you cannot return.  You must leave, and stay away, and not look back.

Okay.  That was easy.  Shortest post yet.

And one of the most important.

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We found out last week that Tiger Woods has checked himself into a posh rehab center for sex addicts.

This raises the issue of whether sexual addiction really exists.  I think it is a fair question.

After all, we’re all sex addicts, to some degree – sex is a normal, necessary human drive.

Sex also seems harmless.  It feels good, and if you use a few sensible precautions, no one has to get hurt.  With other addictions, like alcohol or drug abuse, kicking the habit entirely seems like a sensible goal.  But except for a few monks and nuns, no one abstains completely from sex.

So maybe it’s like food – moderation is the goal, controlling your appetite so you don’t get fat.

But that doesn’t seem right either.  No one can say how much sex is enough for another person.  Maybe you like it every night. Maybe you like it every month.  Maybe you like it two or three times a day.  That would appear to be nobody else’s business.

Does sexual addiction exist?

In my experience, it does.  It’s a bit like marijuana addiction.  Plenty of people have sex – or smoke pot – without any detrimental effect.  It isn’t innately addictive.

It only becomes an addiction when you decide there’s a problem.

Usually, the indicators are:

1) you’re no longer enjoying it the way you used to; and

2) you don’t feel in control of your behavior.  In other words, it becomes compulsive – you can’t stop.

I’ve worked with sex addicts who cruised online for hours, exhausted, but unable to leave their computer. Some patients set up endless series of anonymous hook-ups, staying up all night until they were so physically exhausted they lost their jobs.  These patients didn’t look forward to the sex anymore – they felt compelled to repeat the same weary pattern.

Typically, with sexual addiction, it isn’t the sex act itself that you’re craving.  It’s the feeling of being pursued by someone for sex – catching a stranger’s attention, and making him want to have sex with you.

Think about it.  When was the last time you had someone’s positive attention focused entirely, like a laser-beam, on you? Probably back when you were a small child, and then it was a parent’s attention.  It made you feel important, loved, cared for – the center of someone else’s world.

As an adult, you rarely get that sort of focused positive attention – except when someone is pursuing you sexually, trying to get you into bed.  It’s hard to compete with a sexual pursuit.  It brings an affirmation, a high, an ego boost that can feel terrific.  All they want is you, now, right away.  The focus is entirely on you.

Once the sex is over, though,  you crash.  The other person’s interest fades, and you realize you hardly know him.  You might even feel awkward in his presence and just want to be alone. It’s a bit like a hang-over.

A sex addict, like any addict, runs to what once felt really good – especially when he gets angry and feels deprived in other ways. He keeps searching for the easy high of being pursued for sex – trying to escape again into that good feeling.  It becomes like a drug.

After a while, like all drugs, it stops working.  If you do manage to attain the high again, you crash even harder afterwards.

That’s sexual addiction.

The treatment – which Tiger is presumably undergoing right now – is similar to the approach you’d take with any other pattern of addictive behavior.

First, there’s an intervention, in which the people in his life let him know how his addiction has harmed them.  Certainly his wife, and maybe the other women he’s been sleeping with, could confront him with how he’s hurt them by lying and betraying promises.

Then, fellowship is created.  Tiger goes to a place – a rehab center or a 12-step group – where he can meet other people who share his problem, and exchange stories and experiences.  He is educated about his addiction.

Finally, self-awareness.  He is encouraged to be honest with himself, and own up to how he’s been living, and decide for himself whether he wants that pattern to continue.

I haven’t met Tiger Woods, and I cannot say for certain if he is a sex addict.  He might just be a guy who needed to get out of his marriage and do some dating and decide what he wants in a relationship.

Only Tiger can decide if he has this addiction, or whether he’s going to address it.

But that’s the nature of any addiction – no one can make these decisions for you but you.

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Dear and Brad and Angie and Madge:

I think it’s great you have chosen to adopt children who needed homes.

But I want to make sure you know what you are getting into, so you can do it right.

Here are some pointers on adoption.

First of all – please do not fall for the myths.  An adopted child doesn’t come from “heaven” or a baby store – he is someone else’s child.  That birth parent – usually due to terrible circumstances – has done the unthinkable, and abandoned his child to someone else’s care.

That is a tragedy.  In an ideal world, no child would ever have to be taken from his parents.

Your adopted child will feel this separation at a cellular level – even if he was removed from his parents at birth.  He will live with the pain of that trauma his entire life.  He will want to understand what happened, and he will have fantasies about his birth parents, and feelings about them, including anger at them for what they’ve done, and fear about what it might say about him, and his ability to find the love he needs.  This is normal and natural and unavoidable.  It is your child’s right to have these thoughts and feelings.

Your job isn’t to erase your child’s trauma.  It is to help him process it, and to support him through a recovery into a new life with you.

Please don’t ever utter that old line about adopted children being special because they are chosen.  That’s nonsense – and it minimizes the reality of an adopted child’s pain.  Adopted children are special because their parents gave them up.  They are wounded, traumatized children who need extra care because of what they’ve been through.

As you process your child’s trauma with him, please do your best to be honest and open.  Never, ever lie to him.  If you can include his birth parents in his life, please do.  He has a right to know the truth, and to try to maintain whatever relationship he can with the parents who brought him into this world and share his genetic material.  If you feel threatened by the presence of his birth parents, please recognize that this is your problem, not your child’s.  Deal with it on your own.

Be aware that adopted children often display two responses to their situation:  hyper-compliance and testing behavior.

The hyper-compliant child realizes he’s not with his “real” family, so he plays along, but he doesn’t trust it.  He’s on his best behavior because he doesn’t want to receive another shock, and another dislocation.  He tries to be everything you want him to be – no trouble at all.  Along the way, he may neglect his own needs in his attempts to please you.

The testing child is also distrustful.  If his own birth parents disowned him, why should he trust you?  So he tests you. If you claim to love him just as much as your birth children, then how will you react when he smashes a toy, or refuses to obey you?  He wants to know if your love is real – if it is the truly unconditional love he needs so badly. He may attempt to drive you away in the process of testing your love.  There could be some tough times ahead as you struggle to enforce boundaries in a way that communicates love and safety.

Raising a child is never easy.  With an adopted child, you’ll have a slightly different task – one laden with unique challenges.

If you do it right, you’ll bring joy to the life of a child who needs you.  And a special joy to your own life as well.

Namaste.

The People’s Therapist.

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Rage is helpless anger.

If anger finds a productive outlet, it can achieve great things (See Martin Luther King, Mahatma Gandhi, et al.)  King and Gandhi believed their words could be effective agents for change.  There was a receptive audience somewhere – white Northerners, the British public – who would listen, and perhaps embrace a new direction.

But when you feel no one is listening, you lose a sense of efficacy, of control over your environment.  So you go into a rage.  Instead of turning your anger into words, you go into action on unexamined feelings.

Rage is essentially a temper tantrum.  Just like a frustrated toddler who throws a fit because he can’t have his way.

There is nothing more destructive.  Especially when the phenomenon takes place on a large scale – affecting an entire culture.

Mass rage occurred in China from 1966 to 1976, during the so-called Cultural Revolution.

China was humiliated during the 19th and 20th centuries by the fact that it had somehow slipped a couple hundred years behind the Europeans in terms of technological advancement.  This was a temporary situation – China led the world in technology for eons, and they caught up quickly.  But the humiliation and helplessness of those years led to a feeling of rage that exploded in such bloody events as the Taiping Rebellion of 1850-1864 (a civil war triggered by religious fanaticism) and the Boxer Rebellion of 1898-1901 (an outburst of violence by ultraconservative forces against foreigners.)  The ultimate scream of rage was the Cultural Revolution, in which the Chinese, lost in a cult-like worship of Chairman Mao, turned their fury upon themselves, destroying their educational system, smashing their monuments and treasures – and losing an entire generation of human achievement.

It hasn’t only happened in China.  Hitler somehow convinced the German people that they were “humiliated” during WWI, and used it as the trigger for a convulsion of violence against innocents that resulted in the virtual destruction of Germany as a nation.  American Southerners convinced themselves that they’d been “humiliated” during the American Civil War, and used that as the pretext for a bloody outbreak of violence and oppression against innocent African-American citizens during the late 19th century – around the time Mark Twain termed the USA “The United States of Lyncherdom.”

Exactly the same thing is happening today in the Muslim world, and we can only hope they get over it soon.

The pattern is familiar – the “humiliation” of the Muslim nations by foreign occupiers, a deep sense of helplessness and the fall-back into conservatism and reaction, clinging to backward traditions and rejecting anything new that might smack of acculturation.  Then comes the violence – always the violence, officially focused outward on the forces of change, then turned inward, producing cruel persecutions of helpless minorities, and – ultimately – an orgy of self-destruction.

In the end, rage always results in harm to yourself.

The Chinese Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution destroyed their own institutions, persecuted their own intellectuals, dismantled their own universities.

It was a source of amazement, during the 1992 Los Angeles riots, that the rioters were burning their own neighborhoods.  They weren’t burning down Hollywood, they were burning down South Central.

Muslim reactionary fanatics – so-called “terrorists” – destroyed the World Trade Center.  But most of their continuing violence seems aimed at other Muslims, mostly within Muslim countries.  If some young man wrapped himself in explosives and blew himself up in a crowd in the USA, it would be a national trauma.  But this awful event appears to occur on a weekly basis in the Muslim world.

The answer?  A familiar one in the world of psychotherapy:  put your feelings into words.  Don’t go into action on unexplored emotion. Contain the feeling, and investigate it.

Humiliation is when someone tells you something true about yourself that you’ve avoided seeing.  It was hard for the Chinese to own up to falling behind in technology, especially when they’d always led the way.  And it was hard for white Southerners to own up to human slavery being a heinous crime, or for Germans to accept that an imperial age had passed Germany by, and that their boundaries would be limited to those of a mid-sized European country – not a world empire.

It must be tough for the Muslim world to realize that it is due for some self-examination and fresh thinking around issues like democracy, freedom of speech, the treatment of women and separation of church and state, where they are clearly falling behind the rest of the world.

These are truths that need to be heard, and processed.  Instead of lashing out in violence, they could put their upset into words, and achieve personal growth.

If only someone in the Muslim world believed we were listening, and would open up – take that risk – and tell us what’s upsetting him. Perhaps he could write an article, or give a speech, or start a movement – a peaceful movement – that would bring attention and understanding to what Muslims are experiencing around the world.  He could answer the question on everyone’s lips after 9/11 – “why do they hate us?”

Then perhaps we could understand what their upset is really about, and bring this horror to an end.

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A patient told me she couldn’t get over a guy she’d been seeing.

He was no good for her.  He didn’t even seem to want to go out with her.  But she couldn’t let go.

“But I love him,” she explained.

Well, in a manner of speaking.

She was in love with him like a child – the way a child loves a parent.

A child’s love is based upon dependency.  A child loves whoever takes care of him, because he cannot take care of himself.

When a young child says “I love you,” he means “I worship you and you are all-powerful and I depend upon you utterly and you are everything and I couldn’t survive without you.”

It’s the same way religious people relate to their chosen god-objects.  It’s no coincidence they often kneel before statues or altars and refer to “Lord” and “Almighty” and “Heavenly Father,” and so on.

If you live in an island with a volcano and it erupts and burns down your village, you can respond as an adult, and take up volcanology research.  Or you can regress under the stress into a child, and talk to the volcano as a parent-object, asking what you did wrong to make it angry, and trying to please it.

A child is so utterly dependent upon a parent that, if he displeases the parent, he will always locate the fault within.  He will not think – oh, it’s just a volcano, they erupt sometimes.  It must be about the child, something he did – his fault.

My client was relating to the guy she was dating the same way.  And she was beating herself up pretty bad.

Adult love is very different from child love.  It begins with loving yourself.

Then you add three ingredients:

Attraction, Trust, and Respect.

That’s what it means to love someone else, romantically, as an adult.

1.  You are attracted to him.  This is simple enough.  The common mistake here is trying to ignore sexual attraction and turn a friendship into a romantic relationship.  You cannot go out with the guy you SHOULD go out with.  You have to go out with the guy you WANT to go out with.  “But he’s so nice” is not a reason to date someone.  You have to be into him, too.

2.  You trust him.  If someone values you, his attention is focused on you.  Monogamy is the clearest manifestation of a mutual fascination.  But even in the early months of dating, before monogamy enters the picture, trust is already an issue.

Are you worried he might not call?

You shouldn’t be.  You should trust his interest in you.  If you don’t, there’s probably something wrong.  If you value yourself, you will find someone who values you as well.  And if he values you, he won’t leave you wondering if he’s going to call.

3.  You respect him.  The best relationships contain a note of mutual awe.  You think your partner is pretty darned terrific – and he returns the compliment.

Happy partnerships are a bit mysterious – they are secret clubs, with only two members.  We don’t know what Napoleon saw in Josephine, or Gertrude saw in Alice B, or John saw in Yoko – but these famous partners were clearly fascinated with their spouses, and their fascination was returned.

A mature, respectful relationship between equals might seem pretty dull stuff compared to the headlong thrill of worshipping a parent-object like a child.

Yes, it is a bit calmer.  Far less drama.

But believe me, it has its pleasures.

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Dr. King would have turned 81 this week – an excellent opportunity to discuss ageism, an insidious form of  discrimination.

The starting point in any discussion of discrimination is why difference is an issue at all.

Some of your discomfort with difference derives from sheer inexperience.  It has been proven that a witness in a courtroom will more  accurately identify a defendant of his own ethnic background.  Most of us are used to seeing faces that look like our own.  Faces that are different tend to blur into sameness.

Another basis for discrimination is what psychotherapists call “transference.”   That’s when you transfer an expectation based on an earlier encounter into a prediction about future encounters.  If you are used to seeing Asian men deliver restaurant food and spot an Asian man carrying a bag from a Chinese restaurant, you might assume he’s delivering it.  That happened to one of my patients last week when he showed up at a friend’s place with take-out.  The doorman called up a delivery.  My patient was a guest, not a delivery man – and he felt insulted.

Transferences can crop up anywhere.  If you grew up in a world where African-American people, or Jews, or Muslims, or any other group, were supposed to be dangerous, violent, money-grubbing, untrustworthy or whatever, you might carry an unconscious assumption from that early programming.

Some of the worst discrimination arises from what you fear in yourself.  Think of the “straight-appearing” gay man who disdains the effeminate gay man.  Or the “bourgeois” African-American who looks down on the “ghetto” African-American.

Seniors face all three sources of discrimination.  They are unfamiliar, since our society tends to shunt them aside, separating them from the mainstream of younger people.  There is also transference – the images of older people in the popular media are often misguided and condescending, leading you to make assumptions about older people you meet in the real world.  And finally, you fear old people because you fear growing old yourself.

A few years ago I introduced a new member to one of my psychotherapy groups.  She was 77 years old.  No one else was over 50. The new member’s arrival triggered discomfort, especially in the youngest members, who expressed it by becoming flustered and telling her over and over again how terrific it was to have her join us.  Their response felt out of place and condescending – like it was all about her age.  Instead of the bright, prickly, opinionated, vain, complicated person in front of them, they seemed to be seeing a small child.

Over time, the group confronted this issue and explored unconscious feelings.

But their initial – and bizarre – reaction was all too familiar to the 77 year-old.

She shared powerful examples with us of ageism in her daily life:

  • If she went to a restaurant with younger girlfriends, a waitress always seemed to ask “oh, is this your mother?”
  • If she went out to shop for clothes with younger friends, the clerk told the younger people they looked great in their outfits, then, if she even noticed her, added, “even you look great!”
  • When she went to President Obama’s inauguration, a man chased her down and insisted on asking her age, then exclaimed “You’re terrific!” for no apparent reason.  This was typical – people are always telling her they “love” her  for no apparent reason.

Enough.  Let’s listen to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the man we’re honoring on his birthday.  I hope, if he were still with us, he would be treated at the age of 81 as the man he truly was – not some crazy stereotype about older people based on ignorance, misguided assumptions, and fears of death and dying.

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Sometimes a patient will stop during a session, mid-sentence, look abashed, and say:

I must sound ridiculous.  Here I am, prattling on about my problems.  And there are so many people who have it so much worse than I do.

Gerald Lucas, a psychotherapist I studied with years ago, had a useful response he employed at those moments:

It’s true, some people do have it worse, but then some people have it better, too.  So, please, keep talking.

The fact is we live in two different worlds at once:  the first, in which our petty cares are the center of everything, and a second universe in which we realize our place as a tiny piece of a larger whole, unimaginably fortunate to have a roof above our heads, enough to eat and clean water to drink.

We’re used to accepting this split as an element of the human condition:  it is the same existential dilemma we face in striving to achieve our dreams, fully aware that we are headed for the grave.  At some level, our efforts on this Earth are as pointless and egocentric as the tombstones erected over our meager remains once we’re gone.  It all ends in dust – just as it began.

The lesson here, if there is a lesson to be drawn from a tragedy like what’s happened in Haiti, is that life is an all-too-brief opportunity for joy, and it shouldn’t be wasted.  So let’s try to keep a sense of perspective, even when our own challenges threaten to overwhelm us. Perhaps it isn’t asking too much to stop and locate the abundance in our lives, and share a bit with others in need.

A good way to support the Haitian relief effort is via The Clinton Foundation’s website.  President Clinton is the UN Special Envoy to Haiti and has shown a long-standing dedication to addressing poverty and environmental degradation on the island.

Here’s the link:  http://www.clintonfoundation.org/haitiearthquake/

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The first thing the People’s Therapist notices about the Tea Party people is that they come to everything from a sense of deprivation.  They are always – always always always – talking about their money, and how they don’t want anyone to get their hands on it.  It’s theirs.  They need it.

There isn’t enough of it.

If we spend their money on other people – say, on healthcare or schools or feeding the poor – then they’ll starve.  This is a famine.  It is every man for himself.

If the Tea Party people are willing to spend money on anything, it’s guns.  Their own guns, and a seemingly endless supply of guns for the military, which can never have enough guns, because there are ENEMIES everywhere.  We are in danger.  We need to entrench, hunker down in a defensive posture, and wait out the storm, gripping our guns tightly and hoarding our money just like we hoard our food.

To many people, the fact that other developed countries offer free healthcare – as well as free schools, free fire departments and lots of other basic necessities and still somehow manage to eat and breathe and go about their daily lives, argues strongly that the Tea Partiers are over-reacting.  In fact, to many Americans, those Tea Party people seem a little…well…nuts.

What’s going on  here?

As a starting place, it is a basic principle in psychotherapy that money is a surrogate for security in love.

Young children love security – they flourish in an environment that most adults would find stifling.  The safer the better is a good general rule for raising a happy child.  You’ve probably noticed that when you finish reading a picture book to a small child he doesn’t want you to read another book to him.  He wants you to read THE SAME BOOK to him, again.  And then THE SAME BOOK again.  And then again.  It feels safer that way.

Young children like dinner to be at the same time every night.  And breakfast at the same time every morning.  And yep, they like lunch at the same time – in fact, they like to eat the same thing every single time, if possible (preferably something safe, like pizza or chicken nuggets.)

Most of all, children crave security in love.  They need you to love them ABSOLUTELY, unconditionally and totally.  In fact, they are literally of you – they came from your bodies – so you must love them as you love yourself.  You must delight in them, utterly, or they will sense that something is wrong, and blame themselves, and start to worry.

That’s where the problems start.

What if a parent doesn’t love herself?  Not all parents are certain that they like who they are.  Nor are they all capable of providing an environment of absolute stability or safety.  Life can feel like a storm-tossed sea sometimes, and even good parents often feel overwhelmed and filled with doubt about themselves and their future.

A child raised in a house that doesn’t feel safe will start to compensate by trying to create safety on his own.  This can lead to a host of symptoms that follow him into adulthood.

Children in an insecure environment can employ magical thinking, imagining themselves having impossible powers and responsibilities, such as the power and responsibility to keep parents from fighting or abuse from recurring.  Roles get reversed, and the child believes it has the responsibilities of the parent.  The child can learn to distrust authority and feel he has to do everything for himself.  Sometimes this ties into obsessive compulsive behaviors, eating disorders, sexual compulsiveness – a whole gamut of issues.

These children can also adapt hoarding behaviors, trying to create safety by collecting possessions.  It could start with matchboxes or comic books and develop into a full-blown hoarding compulsion, or an obsession with money instead of the things that really matter in the world – other people, love, caring, relationships and connection with our fellow beings.

Any of this sound like those Tea Party people?

My work with the Tea Partiers (if they were to file, en masse, into my office) would be to symbolically re-parent them, to take them back to the scared children they once were, in a world that felt insecure, and to have them address themselves as the parents they needed, and still need, in order to feel safe and secure.  They need to learn to self-soothe, to address messages to themselves intended to calm those scared children.

Then maybe they can accept that President Obama isn’t Adolf Hitler, providing healthcare to all Americans isn’t going to result in the apocalypse, the military isn’t the only route to a feeling of safety in the world – and putting money before people is the surest route to a wasted life.

On the other hand, helping others – offering care from a place of abundance – is the surest path to joy.

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It seems like Tiger Woods could use a visit, doesn’t it?

Everyone agrees he’s had a rough month.

So let’s go there.  What if Tiger showed up in my office?  What could the People’s Therapist do to help?

Patients often show up at my door when they’re in crisis.  Many people feel – wrongly – that they have to hit bottom before they call a therapist.  I’m guessing Tiger is feeling pretty shattered at the moment.  It would have been better if he’d shown up a few months or years ago, when he was in better shape, before all this bad publicity came down on his head. But you take ’em how you get ’em, and right now Tiger needs help.

My goal would be to create a safe space, and employ specific techniques designed to get Tiger talking, honestly and openly, as much to himself as to me.  We’re there to explain, not to blame.  He’s had enough of that to last a lifetime.

What I notice first about Tiger is that so many people hate him.  Mud is being slung from all sides, including the front covers of the supermarket tabloids, and even stuffy, anonymous Accenture, the management consulting firm, has dropped him as their representative. He can’t seem to do anything right lately.  It all blows up in his face.

This situation seems especially odd since Tiger is someone who’s spent his entire life trying to please.

That’s the root of the problem.

Tiger Woods grew up learning that good things would come to him if he pleased everyone.  As the greatest golfer in history, he had that lesson amplified by an apparently endless positive feedback loop.  He was able to consistently wow us, and we, in return, showered good things on him – money, celebrity, houses, boats, cars.

The problem was that Tiger never made the separation into adulthood.  That’s when you stop functioning as a child and start functioning like an adult.

If we’re operating unconsciously, we will all relate to the world around us as a child does:  the way we operated within our families – mostly the way we related to our parents.  For Tiger, that meant seeking to please, at all costs.

When you function as a child, you function as a parent-pleasing machine.  A child has to please the parent.  Like a baby bird in a nest, a child must scrupulously attend to pleasing its parents because it depends upon their care for survival.

An adult is different because he is self-sufficient.  He can feed and clothe himself.  He can decide for himself who his best self will be.  He can, like Nietzsche’s uber-mensch, decide on his own morality and ethics.

Let’s get back to Tiger.

Following the standard, societally-acceptable pattern, he married a beautiful woman and stayed faithful and utterly content in that relationship.  To all outside appearances, he was a paragon of virtue, a model citizen – exactly what we like to see.

Behind the scenes (at least, according to widespread allegations) we now know that wasn’t the case.  In reality, Tiger was cheating on his wife and acting out sexually – with multiple other women, including prostitutes.

Why would he do such a thing?

Because he wanted to.

The real problem is that Tiger was ignoring his own needs in order to please symbolic parents who had blown up into the entire world.

It is perfectly legal and acceptable for a man to sleep with just about any willing partner he chooses.  It’s called being single.  The only problem, for Tiger, was that he was doing all that and pretending to be happily married at the same time.  That meant he was lying to people, living inauthentically and damaging his relationship.  That was cruel and inconsiderate to all concerned and that’s why everyone seems to hate Tiger right now.

All Tiger needed to do was stop pleasing everyone else – acting like a child – and ask himself what he really wanted.

If he wanted to be married, which means being faithful to his wife, he could choose that.

If he wanted to be single, which means free to experiment sexually to his heart’s content, he could choose that.

But he had to make up his mind.

Monogamy is always a trade-off, but it’s not something that should be imposed on anyone.  Successful monogamy is really a form of mutual fascination.  Two people grow so fascinated with one another that they lose interest in sex with other people.  They come to see that an investment in one another will pay a richer dividend.

Tiger, on the other hand, created a seemingly “perfect” marriage to please the outside world.  Inside, he wasn’t ready.  I’m guessing he was angry, at some level, that he had to be what everyone else wanted him to be, all the while forced to sneak around behind everyone’s backs to get what he felt he truly needed and desired.  In the end, that situation ended up hurting everyone and making no one happy.

My work with Tiger would concentrate on making him conscious of his right to be an adult, and take care of his own needs first.  If he wants to be single and date many women and experiment with freedom, that’s okay.  The key is that he live openly as his authentic, best self.

My guess is that Tiger will take some time to explore his sexuality with a number of women, but that it will be open and honest this time round.  Eventually, he’s likely to find someone special, and monogamy will be a natural expression of that fascination with a special partner.

Tiger doesn’t have to change who he is.  He has to be more who he is – to trust his best, most authentic self, and simply be, as an adult, with no more pleasing others, and no more lies.

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