Category Archives: Psychology

Growing Strong in Your Weak Places

“The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places” (Ernest Hemingway)

Ernest Hemingway spoke of a universal psychological truth, when in A Farewell to Arms, he suggested that you grow stronger in your broken places, much like a wound that heals itself by growing a protective scab.

Those who suffer through difficult experiences and invalidating environments have to find within themselves a strength that others don’t necessarily have to. They grow stronger in their weak places.

Strengths through Suffering:

If my family was abusive, my psychological survival would demand of me that I stretch myself beyond the normal requirements for human development.

I might have to develop special abilities to numb my feelings, get into my head, or depend on myself, in order to survive such an upbringing. As a result, these facets of my human capacities will become more developed in me than they will in others, and might give me special advantages, in spite of their drawbacks.

If I become skilled at numbing, suppressing, or silencing my feelings, I might be particularly skilled at working in professions that are too emotionally intense for others. I might handle the job of a paramedic, that would make others queasy, with an even keel, or I might keep calm in a crisis situation when others lose their ability to think or to act.

The Need to Rise Above our Vulnerabilities

The world is filled with people, who due to their trials and tribulations in life, have developed unique facets of themselves that have propelled them into successful endeavors: Comedians who learned that laughter was the best medicine to cheer up their depressed mothers, business men who vowed to never lack money in order to overcome the suffering endured by their parents, and world travelers who came to embrace freedom and independence to deal with the anxieties of getting too close to others.

Alfred Adler, one of the early psychoanalysts, developed the idea that human beings have an inherent need to rise above their weaknesses and excel at something.

Oftentimes our particular hardships become the driving force that propels us to succeed, or that supplies us with a mission for our life and a reason to get out of bed in the morning.

The Desire to Be Super-Human

A colleague of mine recently finished his dissertation on what he calls the “Superwoman Schema”. This is a mindset originally found in a subset of African-American women. These women develop a belief that they must be strong at all times, never show their vulnerable emotions, never allow themselves to depend on others to have their needs met, and always set their own needs aside to take care of others.

This Superwoman schema, helps such women develop the thick skin that allows them to keep afloat in tough environments, and not let their personal feelings get in the way of what they need to do.

Although disavowing one’s own needs and setting one’s feelings aside comes at a price, it is undoubtedly also what has propelled some women like these to achieve great success.

If you have watched the Real Housewives of Atlanta, you will know what I mean. These ladies do not easily let their vulnerabilities show. Having a thick skin has helped many of them rise above tough upbringings, feelings of abandonment and histories of abuse.

Attending to the Underlying Wound:

Of course, the strengths that are born out of weaknesses, also tend to have their downsides. The more one tends to pursue life goals out of an underlying wound, the more these goals tend to take on a compulsive quality: I MUST be strong at all times, I can NEVER allow myself to depend on others, I NEED to ALWAYS be smarter than the next person, I can NEVER make enough money. These dictates soon become tyrannical and perpetuate a judgment of oneself as never quite good enough.

Being human for such people is a dangerous reminder of the past they are trying to leave behind. They therefore spend their lives aspiring to rid themselves of their human frailties. Of course such endeavors are ultimately futile since one can never become what one is not.

Instead of dealing with their pain, and grieving the nurturing they didn’t receive, such people instead disavow their feelings, hoping that they can out-run them. With each accomplishment, however, they only alienate themselves further from who they truly are, and remove themselves one step more from the self-acceptance they ultimately long for.

As long as we cannot accept all of our human experience, including the full gamut of human emotions, from assertive anger, to the pain of disappointment, from the sadness of loss, to our need for closeness, we will always fall short of realizing our most precious project: to become who we are, not more than who we are.

Dr. Rune Moelbak

 

About Me: I am Rune Moelbak, Ph.D., clinical psychologist in Houston, Texas. I help people attend to their emotional wounds so they don’t have to spend their entire life running away from their pasts.

The Psychological Meaning of Drug and Alcohol Addiction

An addiction to drugs and alcohol is not really an addiction to the drugs or to the alcohol. Rather we become addicted to a way of life. Our drug of choice, for better or for worse, helps us find our bearing in the world, and it is much more difficult to let go of a way of existing than it is to let go of a simple physiological enjoyment… 

My Own Sweet Addiction:

Recently I tried to break my own addiction to coffee. Over a period of time I felt that my daily dose of mocha served more to keep me afloat than to enhance my well-being. Instead of giving me a pleasant kick, coffee had started to become my daily crutch; a simple means to not feel utterly exhausted. After two years of gradually increasing my daily fix to simply stay alert, I finally found the resolve to kick my habit.

The first days after quitting, were horrible, of course. I felt quite down, my body started aching, and I had trouble staying awake during important meetings. Gradually, however, the withdrawal symptoms started wearing away, and life started to get back to a new normal. And just when I was feeling the wonderful clarity that comes with a sober mind, I started realizing that I am not the kind of person who wants to live a life without coffee.

Coffee for me is more than just a kick in the morning or a tool to stay awake. It is the enjoyment of sitting on my sun-bathed patio reading a book while treating myself to an aroma filled cappuccino. It is the satisfaction of sharing laughs with friends after a well-deserved meal that needs just that finishing touch which only coffee can provide. It is a reason to go out on a Sunday afternoon  and spend a couple of hours in a coffee shop for a slight change of ambience… It is not just a cup of coffee, but a lifestyle. Its effects go far beyond the simple physiological kick…

What this tells me is that: The addiction to coffee, just as the addiction to alcohol, cannabis, or any other drug or habit, is mainly a psychological addiction.

Addiction as a Love Affair with Life

It is easy (relatively speaking) to beat the physiological part of an addiction, but it is a monumental task to rid oneself of the addiction to life as we know it and enjoy it WITH our cherished addiction.

In the addiction literature, this psychological component of addiction is often minimized. It is referred to as the secondary gain or the reinforcement enhancing effect of addiction. And yet, it is this psychological, social, and contextual significance of the habits we form that is most likely to make us return time and time again to that cigarette, scotch on the rock, or sweet cup of Joe…

If there is any doubt in your mind about the power of our psychological needs in shaping our behavior, lets turn to an episode of the TV-show Frasier for support. In the episode “Where There’s Smoke There’s Fired”, Frasier agrees to use his psychiatric expertise to help his “manager” Bebe, break her smoking addiction. At one point, as Frasier and Bebe are sitting at the dinner table, Frasier asks her “What do you like so much about smoking?” Bebe’s answer, although fictional, is quite illuminating of the psychological impact a drug can have:

I like the way a fresh firm pack feels in my hand. I like peeling away that little piece of cellophane and seeing it twinkle in the light. I like coaxing that first sweet round cylinder out of its hiding place and bringing it slowly up to my lips, striking a match, watching it burst into a perfect little flame and knowing that soon that flame will be inside me. I love the first puff, bringing it into my lungs. Little fingers of smoke filling me, caressing me, feeling that warmth penetrate me deeper and deeper till I think I’m going to burst. Then whoosh!… watching it flow out of me in a lovely sinuous cloud, no two ever quite the same.

After hearing Bebe’s monologue, we are bound to wonder: Is this an addiction or a love affair with life? Surely giving up smoking will for Bebe not simply be about giving up on cigarettes, but about letting go of a very meaningful engagement with life…

Treatment of Drug Addiction is Treatment of a Lifestyle

The problem with many of our understandings of psychological phenomena, not least in the field of addiction, is that we are mired in a dualistic understanding of the world. What this means is that we separate objects in so-called objective reality, from our subjective experiences and the lives we live. This often creates a barrage of treatment approaches and techniques intended to target the physiological or brain-based components of our psychological experience, or that focus squarely on our behaviors and not the motivations, intentions, and meanings of our behaviors.

And yet, a cup of coffee, a cigarette, or a glass of wine never really exists outside of a life context of real people who fill their lives with experiences of a meaningful nature. An alcoholic beverage is never just that, but is always in some way a meaningful activity. It is a drink I have as a part of feeling included when I am out having a good time with my friends. It is a drink I need in order to deal with emotions or stress, which would otherwise eat me alive. It is a symbol of living the high life, a way to protest against lack of meaning in another area of life, or an enjoyable ritual in its own right. Regardless of whether or not the drink helps fulfill a healthy or unhealthy need, it is never just a drink, but a slice of life.

Coming to terms with addiction is therefore always about coming to terms with the psychological choices and meanings of the particular existence I live. Treatment of drug addiction is not the treatment of a drug, but the treatment of a life. Beating the physiological part of addiction is the easiest part. Creating a new life, and finding new ways to organize what one finds enjoyable and meaningful about life is by far the hardest.

At the end of the day, this is one of the reasons why the desire to change a habit, frequently requires a change in self or a new outlook on life. Therapy, of course, is one way to facilitate this process…

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Want more? To read more about my meaning-based take on the treatment of drug and alcohol addiction, download my article: The Value of Adopting a Human Science Approach in the Management and Treatment of AddictionYou can also read an interview with me on a Humanistic Approach to Addiction published by Sociedad Iberoamericana de Informacion Cientifica (SIIC) in both English and Spanish

About me: I am Rune Moelbak, a psychologist in Houston, TX, providing individual and couples therapy for people who want to get to the root of their problems. To read more, visit my website: www.bettertherapy.com

Couples Therapy: Why Arguing Might Help Your Relationship…

Why Couples May Not Argue Enough…

At first glance it might seem that one of the major reasons couples decide to pursue couples counseling is that they fight too much. Ironically, however, the fights couples engage in are often the result of a determination by both partners not to fight. In fact, many couples do not feel completely safe to express their complaints, and feel rather timid, guilty, or ashamed about stating their own needs and desires. Rather than voicing their complaints to each other, they therefore instead try to suppress them.

When both partners have held in their private desires and wishes for too long, however, a fight eventually erupts, but these kinds of fights are the “symptoms” and not the “problem”. In fact, we might say that couples need to fight more – not less – or that they need to develop greater comfort expressing their complaints to each other on an on-going basis.

The Double Bind of the Unhappy Couple…

Let’s look at an example of a typical couples interaction to illustrate the point:

Jane dislikes her neediness and tries to curtail her natural desire to spend more time with Tom. She really wants to ask Tom to take her out more often and spend more time talking with her. However, knowing that Tom feels threatened by such demands, and questioning her own right to feel this way, Jane tries her best to give Tom his alone time. Yet the more Jane suppresses her feelings, the more resentful she starts to feel, and she now instead picks fights with Tom about not doing his part of the household chores, or makes belittling remarks about his work projects.

In the mean time, Jane gets absolutely no credit for her effort to give Tom his space. Because of her periodic outbursts and her subtle criticisms, Tom knows her encouragement of his alone time is really just pretense, and so all her good efforts are ultimately in vain.

Tom on the other hand feels guilty for his desire to spend time alone so he forces himself to spend more time with Jane. Jane, however, notices the forced nature of Tom’s half-hearted invitations to go out for dinner, or the rote manner in which he brings her flowers, so Tom gets no credit for this either. Instead, he ends up feeling that he is “damned if I do, and damned if I don’t”. This impossible bind is bound to lead to anxiety and ultimately result in an angry demand for more alone time. However, Jane now feels pushed away and has confirmation of her greatest fear which is that “Tom really doesn’t care…”

Compromising is Not the Solution…

In the name of compromise, and in order to please each other, both Tom and Jane are stuck in a lose-lose cycle. They settle for less than what they really want. And yet in exchange for their plea deal, they do not really get the peace they bargained for. Instead they end up feeling both unsatisfied and unappreciated.

The problem is not Jane’s desire to spend more time with Tom or Tom’s desire for more time alone. The problem is that both Jane and Tom are too timid and too inhibited to express their immediate desires to each other and to examine what is really underneath them.

Instead of arguing about roses that are two days too late, or acceptance of independence that is always only temporary, Tom and Jane need to be able to have a talk about what they really want. They need to develop a relationship where there is room for all their feelings, also the one’s that at first glance seem irrational, childish, shameful, or vulnerable. If they are able to talk about their differences in such a mutually accepting way, both Tom and Jane can feel more secure with each other, and more known for who they really are.

And then, as it so often happens in the absurd theatre of life, they may discover that the conflict between them loses its stronghold. Tom, now free to be himself and to express his true feelings, discovers that he actually likes to spend more time with Jane, and Jane, now feeling understood at a deeper level, discovers that she no longer needs to cling to Tom in order to feel connected.

And so it is that when we stop trying to force a solution to our problems, and instead focus on understanding what the problem is really about, the problem is free to morph into something else and to bring about its own resolution…

About me: I am Rune Moelbak, Ph.D., a couples therapist in Houston, Texas. If you would like to read more about this topic, I warmly recommend this classic couples therapy book by Dan Wile. You can also visit my own website for more information about the couples therapy process. 

Why Psychotherapy is not about Solving People’s Problems…

The Uncommon Wisdom of Psychotherapy…

Psychotherapy is not about solving people’s problems, at least not in the same way as a math teacher helps you solve a math equation, or an auto mechanic helps you fix a broken car. As a person, your problems cannot be separated from you, and you can therefore not simply treat the problem without in some fundamental way becoming changed yourself.  In fact, as I will explain, sometimes the very desire to solve your problems, may itself be part of the problem…

This is a difficult idea to understand in a society that values self-improvement and shows us every day how we can use the latest technological advances to improve how we look, how we feel, and how we perform. Self-help gurus, experts in the media, and the latest “solution-focused” psychotherapies, seem to offer us the knowledge and techniques to “fix” ourselves and become who we want to be.

Why our Symptoms are not Problems to be Solved…

The idea that we can solve our psychological issues by finding some technique or rational solution, is often the product of an unstated dualism. The symptom that bothers us, be it a perceived character flaw or some other deficit or deficiency, has often become split off from ourselves. It has become a part of ourselves that we do not accept. We experience it as incongruent with who we want to be. Our disliked symptom seems to serve no role and have no contribution to make. It is considered “irrational” and unwanted. And the best thing therefore is to find a way to be rid of it.

And yet this separation of our irrational and problematic parts from our cherished and rational self is a flawed starting point for change. It assumes that we are like a four-legged lizard that can simply lose its tail when it is no longer needed. We might as well be trying to spit out our own tongue or eat our own mouth, because the task we have set ourselves is just as contradictory.

Discovering the Logic of our Symptoms

The problem is that our annoying little habits and traits only appear senseless and tasteless when we have defined our problem in too narrow of a way. Only when we cut our symptom off from  a wider interest in understanding ourselves, does the symptom appear like a bad tooth that can simply be plucked without any repercussions for the rest of us.

Once we begin to understand what really keeps the symptom in place, however, we realize that the symptom is often a sign of an internal conflict with which we are struggling as a human being. The symptom, therefore, far from being a problem we can simply solve, is thus in fact a solution to a problem which we have not been able to solve. It points us toward a larger issue of which we are not aware. The symptom indicates that something is awry, but does not indicate what exactly. This however is what psychotherapy is for… 

Hence, a person who desperately wants advice about how to stop having panic attacks, discovers through psychotherapy that the panic attacks are really a result of the person’s battle against his own impulses. The person has not allowed himself to admit to feeling angry with his parents and has in fact waged an ongoing battle against himself to not feel certain feelings that produce anxiety and discomfort. His need for tight control of his emotional life and the impossible bind that he not be who he is, is nevertheless a failing strategy. His anxiety attacks indicate precisely this.  

The person’s pursuit of a solution to get rid of his anxiety attacks, as if they were simply irrational and alien intrusions into his existence, keeps the real issue at bay. Instead of heeding the message of the symptom, the person now instead enters into a battle with a part of him which he cannot understand. He may try anti-anxiety medication, relaxation techniques, and whatever other desperate solutions people can offer him. But because his attempt at a solution is an attempt at covering up the real problem, whatever he tries to do is destined to fail. He is like a person attempting to become a lizard, or attempting to divide himself in two. He wants to rid himself of the symptom, but does not realize that the symptom is connected to him, just like his nose is connected to his face.

How Psychotherapy Can Help Us

Many of our psychological symptoms and issues are the result of such impossible battles with ourselves. The more we try to fight against what we don’t like, the more the disliked parts of ourselves are forced to return with a vengeance or to appear at the most inopportune times.

When we instead stop trying to solve our problems, and start to be curious about what sustains them in the first place, we may discover to our surprise that our symptoms all of a sudden disappear.

If I am feeling angry but cannot accept anger as part of my life, this is not really a problem to be solved, but is rather a problem that begs a whole new series of questions. Why am I for example uncomfortable with anger?  Might it be that I fear that it can be destructive and make me lose the love from others on which I desperately depend? If so, how did my sense of love and worth in relation to others become so tenuous? And what repercussions does this have for my ability to assert my own needs without feeling guilty or bad? Might it force me to act out my resentment in passive aggressive ways that interfere with my ability to both endure and maintain intimate relationships?

These series of questions are all contained within one single symptom. What started out as a panic attack has now given way to an exploration of inhibited anger, problems with intimacy, and questions about tenuous self-esteem. These questions have not simply displaced me from the real issue, but have problematized my initial problem, and made it about something more than the simple removal of a symptom. As the problem has shifted, so has the nature of my symptom and the solutions that now seem relevant. Rather than being solved, the symptom has now dis-solved.

Instead of battling my symptom, which had initially been a blemish on my self image and a nuisance to get rid of, the symptom now instead shows itself as a gift in disguise. Unwrapping its message leads to ever greater riches in my understanding of who I am and why I am the way I am. Instead of running around like a lizard wanting to lose my own tail, I now begin to integrate all aspects of myself into one unified congruent existence… Instead of solving my problems, I begin to understand what they are really about in the first place… This is what psychotherapy can help you do. 

About me: Rune Moelbak, Ph.D.  is a psychologist and psychodynamic therapist in Houston, Texas. To read more about the theoretical principles that guide me in my work, visit my website, or listen to this recent podcast where I explain more about my approach to psychotherapy  

The Phenomenology of Flirting

The first three Saturday’s in January, Dr. Kevin Boileau from The Existential Psychoanalytic Institute & Society (EPIS) will interview me about my dissertation research on flirting.

As part of my doctoral degree in psychology, I conducted a phenomenological study of people’s experiences of flirting. The goal was to discover more about the things people experience, think, and do when they flirt and to find out exactly what makes an interpersonal encounter a flirtatious one. What I discovered might surprise you…

We will also get to talk more about the phenomenological perspective on psychotherapy in general as well as other existential and psychodynamic themes. So listen in: January 4/ 11/ 18, 3:30 PM, Mountain Standard Time. Click Here to Listen: EPIS-Radio: Radio for the Thinking Person