After the Credits Roll

When I leave a movie, I can’t help but compare it to my own life. Whatever moods or themes resonate with me remain stuck in my mind. I think about the similarities between my life and the movie. Sometimes these thoughts leave me feeling like my own life doesn’t measure up. I’m not happy enough or fit enough or fulfilled enough. It’s a frustrating feeling based on some illusion that these life-goals are attainable and sustainable. After all, Hollywood shows us that it’s possible.

One problem we have in our society is that we tend to think that, like in the movies, we are going to have the perfect ending. You know what I mean, I’m sure… At the end of the movie, the protagonist of the film drives off into the sunset, or reunites with a loved one, or gets the girl, or accomplishes a mission, or grieves a loss, or overcomes a big hurdle. Often, he or she winds up in a better spot. There is a sense of resolution and relief, of profound and lasting positive change. The end.

This is what we want for ourselves, too. Resolution. An ending that is better than the beginning. Eventually feeling better than where we started. And the movies appeal to us because they give us the idea that we can wind up there, too. And, what is more, that we can remain there, permanently. And seeking this ending can become our lifetime goal. We imagine that it is attainable and that it will endure.

Don’t get me wrong, I love this feeling. But it is a fantasy. Because none of us gets to stay in a good spot forever. That’s just not life. It’s not reality. In reality, we may get to the climaxes we see in the movies. The difference is that we won’t stay there. We’ll reach a goal, a personal apex. But we will inevitably backslide. And then the journey will begin again.

Life is a series of perpetual highs, lows, and in-betweens. And coping with this reality is what it’s about. I think some of us become more depressed and anxious when we think that there is some positive end-goal, some delightfully happy ending. And that once we find it, we’ll stay right there basking in the sweet goodness forever. Like in the movies. But it’s simply not going to happen. And, really, we can live with that truth. We can cope. We can evolve even as we struggle through life’s muck.

A challenge we all face is to know what comes after the happy ending, should we ever reach it. Because, trust me, life isn’t over after that. And it’s impossible to stay in one place for too long. And that, my friends, is the stuff of real life. It’s where fiction ends and reality begins.

©2013 Stephanie A. Heck, Ph.D.

The United States of Children

Even though I am not a child psychologist, my work as a psychologist has intensified my devotion to children. One experience that (I sincerely hope) is common among therapists is that through our work, we develop a deep awareness of the rippling effects of childhood experiences. In my office, for instance, I hear endless tales that link psychological symptoms to earlier childhood experiences. These stories (shared with me by my brave and strong patients) have shown me, time and again, that we have to do a better job with our children. Because how we treat them has a direct effect on how they will feel about themselves, what they will expect from relationships, and how they will treat others (including their own children) as they age.

But, how? How can we do a better job?

American culture needs to develop an open discourse about child development. Most parents enter parenthood with very little, if any, knowledge of the stages that children go through as they grow. And this is a shame. A crying shame. Because there are vast stores of information about childhood freely available to us. It goes without saying that psychologists and neuroscientists and pediatricians and anthropologists and sociologists (among others) have been studying and categorizing children’s development for decades. We know about brain development, cognitive development, social development, emotional development, motor development, and moral development. We even know about the development of cognitive feats such as deception. That’s right: lying is a cognitive developmental milestone! There are clearly delineated stages for all of these trajectories. And we must understand them and help our children to navigate them well.

So, why is the vast information on child development not commonly dispersed? Why is it not talked about freely, as a matter of course in our society? I find this incomprehensible, because children have a right to be understood. And we can’t understand them without this basic, simple, readily-available knowledge.

Our ignorance about child development does our children a tremendous disservice. In my practice, the single most effective intervention I make with parents is to give them basic education about the developmental stage of their child. When a parent understands their child’s behavior within a developmental context, their patience with their child grows, and their compassion and empathy for their child is restored. It is quick. It is simple. It is an effing no-brainer.

I hope that in my lifetime, our society will begin to take a hard look at the ways that we can do better by our children. One start, one very simple start, would be to introduce the basics of child development into our cultural language.

If you agree with me, then I recommend that you read this recently-published book:

“The Children’s Bill of Emotional Rights” by Eileen Johnson.

I’m sure I will get back to this book in future blogs, but quickly… Johnson lends clear and simple insights into understanding and communicating effectively with children. Her formulas are straightforward and no-nonsense, encouraging respect for children while offering advice for how to raise them into psychologically healthy adults.

Do our future a favor: read it. And then tell your friends and neighbors what it says.

©2013 Stephanie A. Heck, Ph.D.

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Birth of a Mother

I have been reading a book by Daniel Stern called “The Birth of a Mother.” Daniel Stern was a psychiatrist who worked with parents and infants, who wrote extensively about this work, and who has been a major professional inspiration to me.

In “The Birth of a Mother”, Dr. Stern writes about the phases women go through as they enter into motherhood. During pregnancy, he writes, women spend a great deal of time fantasizing about their baby–the kind of child it will be, the role it will play, and the relationship it will have to her. (Of course, this is all fantasy, and eventually the real baby will replace the fantasy baby in the mother’s mind, if all goes well.)

According to Dr. Stern, these are some common baby roles/identities expectant moms imagine:

-The baby will be a giver of unconditional love

-The baby could be a replacement for a deceased love one

-The baby might be expected to be an antidepressant

-The mother may wish to fulfill her own dreams vicariously through the baby

-The baby could be expected to be the glue that holds the parents’ marriage together

-The mother may worry that the father will experience the baby as his competitor for his wife’s attention/affection

-The baby will enable the parents to become the perfect family

-The mother may worry that her baby will perpetuate particular flaws that run in the family

-The baby can be seen as a gift from the husband, from medical science, or from God

-The baby may be expected to contribute to the upward social mobility of the family, especially when the parents are emigrants

-Mothers may also imagine that their baby will be the family conciliator who will bridge interpersonal divides and repair damaged relationships among family members

-Babies are also sometimes expected to carry on the family traditions in terms of work, education, status, etc

Reading Dr. Stern’s categories made me aware that in my first pregnancy, I had hoped my baby would be a “dream fulfiller” as well as the “family conciliator.” First, I had wanted him to be a girl, since girls are scarce in my husband’s family–so I thought having a daughter would endear me to my in-laws. I also wanted a daughter so that I could experience the loving mother-daughter relationship I never had with my own mother but had yearned for. Learning that I was having a son simultaneously shattered both of those fantasies (and even more so when I found out my second baby was another son, since we were stopping at two).

After I had embraced the gender of my baby, though, I began to imagine that he would be the magnet that would finally draw my family together. And, more than that, he would help me to build closer relationships with my husband’s family. But–once he was born–it was clear that no baby could work these kind of interpersonal miracles. And it was too much to ask of him. Over time, I had to let go of my wishes and accept the reality my baby and of motherhood, with all of its beauty, wonder, pain, and fatigue.

And now, as I reflect on this, I am completely amazed by the mental work that women do as they become mothers. Really–becoming a mother is probably the most maturing experience a woman can have.

I wonder–do any of these fantasy-baby categories sound familiar to you? Do you remember how you reconciled your fantasy baby with your real-life baby? If so, did it require a lot of mental effort, or was it instantaneous and natural?

©2013 Stephanie A. Heck, Ph.D.

Compassion in a Narcissistic World

There are times when I struggle to have compassion for others. Although it comes easier some days, many days I find myself in an “I’m right, you’re wrong” stance. This happens, of course, when people disagree with me. Or when I’m feeling victimized. Often those times occur simultaneously, which is no surprise.

Luckily, I’ve discovered that there are ways out of this bind. I’m working on building my skills in this area, so I’m writing about it now to organize my own thoughts.

Jessica Benjamin wrote a psychology paper about the “doer / done-to” dynamic that happens in relationships. She emphasized how easily (in our all-about-me society) we fall into a victim-perpetrator way of being together. You may know what I mean…this kind of togetherness consists of the one-way street of feeling used or attacked or taken for granted by someone else. It’s the forgetting that there is another side to every story. That there is more than just you. That the “perpetrator” has a one way-street of his own, and is likely feeling as “done-to” as you are. And, to complicate matters more, in any relationship, there is more than two one-way streets. There are two-way streets and, especially in families, highways! The psychology of how people come together is endlessly complex and multiply-determined. And, given that truth, how are we supposed to get along??

I recently found a minute to organize my kids’ clothes (new season, new sizes). The task of organizing hand-me-downs drives me nuts. I hate doing it. Yet it must be done (sigh of resignation). I do this (dreadful) chore in our guest room, where there is a bed to put the clothes on. I haven’t been in this room in months, and in my absence, our cat has moved in. And covered the entire bed, including blankets that don’t belong there, with her fur. And her puke. Yes. The bed and my collection of cute toddler naptime blankets are crusted in cat puke and fur. So, now my dreadful project just got worse, since I have to clean the bed, too.

Here is a sample of my internal victim monologue: “Who put these blankets here? I’ll bet it was my husband. He slept up here once. Can’t he tell baby blankets from adult blankets? Doesn’t he know the cat would wreck them?? And that stupid cat…I’m so done with her. Can you say lethal injection? And my kids…maybe they did it. Ugh! Why does everyone have to make my life HARDER??!? I am going to go wreck all of their stuff and puke all over everything! And I’m not making dinner ANY MORE!”

This is me being “done-to.” Being narcissistic. Driving wrecklessly down my one-way street. The trick in these moments is to flip my perspective. To imagine the tired, sick, delerious state my husband was in when he went to sleep in the guest room with too-small blankets. Or to imagine the fort my kids may have been building in there with the blankets. And (now here is a stretch) to imagine my old-lady cat gagging on furballs (delish). Essentially, the trick is to appreciate many perspectives at once. (While also trying to not lose my own, but that’s another blog.)

I do this better some days than others. But when I do, I feel more relaxed and connected to everyone. I feel the relief of intimacy, which is not possible when you’re being (mentally) victimized.

What’s that song “life is a highway”? That’s pretty much it.

Happy cruising.

©2013 Stephanie A. Heck, Ph.D.

Childism

I am a psychologist. I work part-time in my own private practice where I treat a number of parents. I love to work with parents, especially new parents who are raising young children. This group needs a lot of support, and I have always felt that our society does very little for them. Of course, I’m a parent myself, so I relate to their struggles. Many of the parents I treat in my practice had very difficult childhoods, where they were typically neglected, demeaned, hit, rejected, abused, and/or made into their parents caretakers. These patients often struggle to rewrite the family script–their goal is often to not do to their children what was done to them. I cannot tell you how much I admire them for their willingness to look realistically at their own stories in order to change the psychological family trajectory. (And, let me tell you, they are doing it, and their children are thriving.)

I recently read a book by Elisabeth Young-Breuhl called “Childism: Confronting Prejudice against Children.” Dr. Young-Breuhl was a psychoanalyst and political scientist with an expertise in prejudice. This combination of careers allowed her to look at her patients through a unique lens–one that simultaneously saw individual psychology and cultural influences (i.e., prejudice). Let me tell you, this is a heartbreaking book. It is heartbreaking (to me, anyhow) because it captures a deep truth.

Here is a crude summary of what Childism says:

~We live in a culture that historically has not valued children as individuals with the right to be respected and taught.

~We have viewed children as our property, to be treated as we like.

~Many of us have wanted children to meet our own needs, rather than recognizing that children’s needs must always come first.

~We, as a society, allow parents to hit their children, in the name of discipline. (If you hit an adult, you can be charged with assault. If you hit a child, we call it “spanking” and say it’s for their own good.)

~We have established social systems for “child protection” which further traumatize children who have often already suffered horrible traumas.

The bottom line is this: we don’t help parents to help their children. We don’t, as a society, openly acknowledge how hard, stressful, frustrating, relentless, and intense it is to raise a child. We don’t offer needed support to young families. We allow severe economic disparities to exist, putting tremendous stress and strain on large portions of our population. And when this population has children, we do not step in to help relieve the pressure of parenting under dire conditions. Then, when the children of these over-stressed parents (who often have untreated trauma histories of their own) start to act-out, we medicate or incarcerate them. We cut spending on education and early intervention, but some states will spend as much as $200,000 per year per child to jail children. Young-Breuhl argues convincingly that we have to stop this shit.

We have to start looking at the cost to our society of not valuing our children. We have historically been so self-absorbed that we haven’t see beyond our own generations. We have not looked ahead. We have only looked at now. And this short-sightedness has taken us in the wrong direction. And our kids pay for it. And if things don’t change, their kids will pay for it, too.

For the sake of contrast, take a look at a couple of policies in Sweden:

~Parents get a total of 13 months of paid maternity leave and the father is required to take at least 1 month of it. (There has been a discussion about changing this to 15 months and requiring the father and mother to each take 5 and then split the last 5 as they feel appropriate.)

~Parental leave can be used to take off time for parenting classes before your child is born.

~Parents can save up their maternity leave for more than 5 years (i.e., use it for doctor’s appointments, school visit days, etc.).

~Daycare cost is based on your family income with a government imposed maximum. (Currently about 1/10th as much as in the U.S.!)

~If you have a new child, your other children get a month of free daycare so you can concentrate on the new one.

~Sweden has outlawed spanking, and has implemented other forms of non-violent discipline (for the greater good of their society).

I know that these ideas may not apply to you. Certainly, we are all unique individuals with a wide range of values, principles, and histories. But I encourage you to read this book, to recognize and tolerate its truths, and to work hard to change our national attitude toward children.

And if this is all too depressing, check out The Irreducible Needs of Children by Greenspan and Brazelton instead. Maybe I’ll write about that book next.

©2013 Stephanie A. Heck, Ph.D.

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More Simply Human

In 1947, psychologist Harry Stack Sullivan wrote:

“In most general terms, we are all much more simply human than otherwise, be we happy and successful, contented and detached, miserable and mentally disordered, or whatever.”

Sullivan believed that human struggles can be linked to the delusion that we are alone in our suffering and are alienated from others in our problems.  He wrote that we mistakenly assume that no one has the troubles that we face, and that we suffer in isolation, apart from everyone else.  He called this construct “the delusion of uniqueness.”  (I call it “poor me.”)

Over 65 years later, I believe that Sullivan is still correct.  Many of us are caught up in the notion that we are alone, that we suffer alone, and that no one understands the pains and pressures of our lives.  For me, mental health stems from the awareness that, in fact, we are not at all isolated, but instead we are vastly interconnected.  We are not unique in our problems.  We do not struggle alone.  And the belief that we do makes us miss countless opportunities for connection, and the healing that connection offers.

Sullivan’s theories also focused on the social and cultural aspects of human psychology.  He sought to understand and to teach the interaction between the person and society.  We know ourselves, he said, through our interactions with others.  And we shape and are shaped by our social influences.  We do not exist in isolation at all.  Instead, we come to be how we are through ongoing interactions with our social world.

In this blog, I hope to address the ways that we humans are  more interconnected than we are disconnected.  I hope to highlight the ways that connection teaches us about ourselves, each other, and promotes health.  I also hope to discuss the impact of larger societal structures on the ways that we understand ourselves, and, ultimately, how we can find fulfillment through knowledge, connection, and openness to each other.

For, after all, we are all more simply human than otherwise.

©2013 Stephanie A. Heck, Ph.D.