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At Affordable Relationship Counseling in San Diego, California, licensed marriage and family therapist, Dr. Barbara Cunningham, often suggests books to her clients that might lead them toward making deeper meaning of their own life experiences. TUESDAYS WITH MORRIE, by Mitch Albom, which covers existential themes, is reviewed below.,

“If you’ve found meaning in your life, you don’t want to go back. You want to go forward.” -Morrie Schwartz

The symbiotic nature of the mentoring relationship through time and space is beautifully depicted in TUESDAYS WITH MORRIE by Mitch Albom. Indeed, the term “mentor” is eponymous with a character in the Odyssey, who advises Telemachus, and pushes him forward in his search for his father. It is especially instructive for the student of marriage and family therapy studies to read TUESDAYS WITH MORRIE as if he were assessing both men from the psychosocial, contextual, and lifespan perspectives. From each of these vantage points, the careful reader will not only internalize Morrie’s lessons, but also become aware of changes in both men as a result of their interaction over time and space. Thus, observing both intrapersonal and interpersonal movement as well as changes one or both men make in their larger environments is cogent to the student of systems. In an effective manner, this remarkable bestseller serves as a kind of adjunct text for individual and family life cycle development students, for it will demonstrate to the budding clinician the notion that everything is connected and must, therefore, be interpreted in a contextual manner, and that when change occurs within one person, change will also become apparent in all whom he/she touches. In a Virgina Satir-like manner, the reader will be taken on a peak experience, the emotional learning experience, the real stuff of learning…the kind of teaching mold from which Morrie Schwartz emerged: the Confluent Educational Movement of the Sixties.

Clearly, Morrie, the former Brandeis, sociology professor of 37-year-old Mitch Albom, is not an ordinary man. He is an extraordinary man whom we meet as he faces his own slow but steady death from Lou Gehrig’s Disease; he is inspirational, because he exemplifies the apex of emotional maturity. It is with a sense of concomitant awe and recognition of developmental stages completed in a timely fashion that we watch him transition into this final life stage, exhibiting a joie de vivre to the end.

On the other hand, Mitch, consistent with his pattern of disconnectedness and negative feelings over his previous life cycle stages, has lost touch with his beloved professor since he graduated in ’79, despite his intention to always keep in touch. It is not surprising that he did not follow through, for in letting important relationships like the one he enjoyed with Schwartz go, we realize that he is merely following a familiar pattern of letting go all that is important to the heart. So, as might be expected, he has also lost touch with his old friend, his wife, and, ultimately, with the essence of his own personhood. In the fast-track culture in which he lives, a culture which is more egocentric and self-serving than those of other times, Mitch shows how his emotional maturity has been retarded by the interplay between family of origin issues and the materialistic values of his generation. His drive to succeed in the business world at the expense of his sense of connectedness to others suggests both a fear of intimacy and an abiding external locus of control (defining his worth in terms of society’s definition of success).

The question of individual differences in native-born resiliency should also be compared and contrasted. Morrie, who had a childhood colored by the loss of his mother, and impoverished further by a cold, distant father, apparently overcame even these attachment challenges, as can be inferred by his admirable responses to his final developmental tasks–end stage intimacy outcomes are positive and, this, in large part, results in an integrity of the life review. It is clear that Morrie displays an emotional maturity impressive to any lay person or to any clinician. Probably not lagging seriously in prior developmental milestones despite non-normative changes in earlier life, the clinician might have to consider biological, individual variants. This humanistic professor, product of the idealistic Sixties, well represents Steve Wolin’s Challenge Model of Resiliency (1991). No Damage Model was Schwartz, but rather a stellar example of initiative, humor, creativity, healthy relationship attachments, independence, insight, and morality.

Albom, a successful sportswriter and unsuccessful spouse, is lurched back in time when he mindlessly but serendipitously sees an ailing Morrie beamed into his living room from his television, which is tuned into Ted Koppel’s Nightline. He is transfixed as he hears how Morrie intends to ‘teach’ his last course to a nationally televised audience: a course on how to live even while dying. The dialectic of teaching others how to live while in the midst of facing death and even enjoying one’s last days when physical handicaps demand a return to the dependency of childhood is difficult at best (especially if one can smile despite needing someone else to ‘wipe my own ass”).

Morrie’s palpable enthusiasm to Mitch’s return to his life is illustrative of Morrie’s ability to enhance and enrich his own growth and development through connection. His manner of finding the positive in perceiving transitional challenges, thus reframing what might have once seemed overwhelming, buoys his journey, for it is all about the ability to live in the moment and in so doing, achieving a kind of freedom which subsequently empowers him to creatively move through and onward to the next milestone task in his life cycle.

Indeed, Morrie delights in the prospect of teaching Mitch one final class: in it, he sees his opportunity to generate wisdom while completing an important task during the last life cycle stage, a life review. Through Mitch, Morrie will also re-connect with a piece of his past, tasks which are generative and are consistent with what is important to do during the eighth life stage.

Thus, in what will prove to be a mutually beneficial partnership, the young man and the old man agree to meet every Tuesday for fourteen weeks. Through deeply affecting dialogue, Morrie offers consummate love, liberally spiced with humor, aphorism, examples, reminiscences, and philosophy. Schwartz personifies successful completion of the developmental tsks of Eriksen’s seventh and eighth age life stages.

Conversely, through Mitch, the training clinician sees what it looks like to not age well…what it looks like when a man has experienced significant failure in negotiating the earlier developmental tasks of adulthood. Morrie offers a picture of intimacy instead of isolation, of generativity instead of stagnation and of ego integrity instead of despair. On the other hand, in listening to Morrie, Mitch, who feels an intensified awareness of his years of isolation and angst of emptiness, is in increasing pain and paralyzed to move forward. He can now admit his drive toward materialistic acquisition has been tragically misplaced over many years. As the sole audience for Morrie when he completed his life review, Mitch became empowered to reframe his own notion of what it meant to live and be a success.

The astute, psychologically-minded reader could handily identify points at which Albom hit developmental lags, just as Albom identified them himself as he listened to Morrie’s review of his own rich life course. Albom effectively illustrates how individuals are agents of change in one another, and then how profoundly individuals affects one another from differing generations, historical contexts, cultures and life experiences intersecting.

As a result of what had synchronistically become a highly successful theraputic alliance, Mitch begins to question his values and reorder his priorities. Most impressive to the training clinician is the fact that Morrie has moved him forward in his individual development, evidenced by his initiative in reconnecting with his brother, suffering from the same disease, from whom he had been estranged for many years. Morrie is able to go ever so ‘…gently into that good night’ (rather than railing against death, as Dylan Thomas exhorted his father to do)after completing his life review, taking joy from his own initiative in getting on Nightline, teaching a former student their mutually, most memorable class, his involvement in a book project, and organizing his own living tribute memorial.

From a holistic perspective, we see in these two men an example of the systemic concept that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Teacher and student are profoundly changed by and through one another. Teacher is empowered toward a more joyous letting go of mortality intersecting with his memories of his past history.

Though not free of stressors, he sees it as a life well-lived, exemplified and capped by his ability to be of benefit by connecting with a younger individual.

Conversely, instead of feeling the joys of intimacy through ties to mate, work, and larger society, Mitch suffered an emptiness borne of his compulsive need to define his success in material terms, not serving his healthy development. Mitch is a man whose psychosocial development got ‘stuck’ somewhere in time. Morrie models generativity when most people would allow the physical stagnation to spread to emotional anguish and/or stagnation, thus cutting off their life force energy in spite of the fact that they are still blessed with life.

The importance of connectedness between generations, within families, extended families, communities, career netweorks, agape friends, and between hearts and heads is repeatedly driven home throughout this spiritual book. With each metaphorical example, the reader is charged and changed. Circular causality is on bold parade as Morrie’s empending death marches toward finality before millions, and it is Mitch who, at the same time as his demise, seems to be reborn. Rippling further outward, Morrie’s exemplary way of dying is portrayed to a nation of television viewers, also affected, by witnessing Morrie’s inspirational approach up close and personal. Most saliently, Morrie offers himself to Mitch as an opportunity to develop intimacy with another human being, perhaps the crowning human achievement and one that has eluded the younger man until his professor’s death. Thus, old and young men goad one another toward increasing their respective levels of emotional connection in facing death by and through

one another. By comparing and contrasting where each of these men are when we meet them in terms of their lifespan stage and how each of them subsequently handles the respective tasks that their chronological age suggests, the student can see how feedback loops compliment the completion of milestones within a specific context.

It is difficult to say who got more out of the Tuesday meetings: Mitch or Morrie. Is there an irony to the fact that when people are dying, the living seem more able to hear what they have to say? Should an individual’s ability to reverse developmental emotional retardation as a result of their vertical communication with another be questioned? Did Mitch, in fact, change enough to donate a portion of the proceeds from his bestseller to Lou Gehrig’s Disease research” The circular causality of human interaction and the dialectic that it is possible to find joyous tranformation on the other side of painful transition, even unto death, is part and parcel of the beauty in this little book.

At the close of TUESDAYS WITH MORRIE, Morrie tells the story of a wise, little wave reminding another frightened little wave that he is ‘not part of a wave, [but]part of an ocean.’ Morrie Schwartz and Mitch Albom are testament to Katherine Kubler-Ross’ assertion that ‘…one of the most productive avenues of growth is found through the study and experience of death…individuals who have been fortunate enough to share in the death of someone who understood its meaning seem better able to live and grow because of the experience. Indeed it is patently clear that human beings do have the capacity to utilize an interpersonal relationship positively and move themselves forward, especially if the context is right. Morrie’s life–and death–reflect a man whose ego identity thrived as a result of the composite power and cumulative wisdom of most of his life choices. As Eriksen asserts, ‘Those who can accept [death]accept the whole [more than the sum total] of their own lives and those who get to such a point of maturity find that death loses its sting.

Morrie tells Mitch that “We have a sense that we should be like the mythical cowboy…able to take on and conquer anything and live in the world without the need for other people.” Poignantly, at the end of the book, Mitch resumes a relationship with his ailing brother, Steve, thus exhibiting hope and promise that intimacy will no longer elude him, even after Morrie is gone. And at the beginning of the book, Mitch describes Morrie as “…a small man who takes small steps, as if a strong wind could, at any time, whisk him up into the clouds.” It is a certainty that Mitch Albom would echo the idea that big heroes can reside in small places.

Dr. Cunningham is a relationship counseling expert. She practices couples counseling, marriage counseling and treats relationships issues of all types in San Diego, CA. She offers evening hours and a complimentary telephone consultation. You may reach her at 619 9906203 or visit her website at http://www.Cunninghamtherapy.com

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As a marriage and family therapist in San Diego, I practice couples therapy and individual therapy using an intergenerational perspective. I specialize in helping couples and individuals live more meaningfully in their most important relationships. Relationship counseling and individual counseling is better to seek sooner rather than later when one experiences chronic challenges in relational functioning. Research has shown that couples typically wait 6 years before seeking couples counseling. It is wiser to get help earlier and before problems fester, causing resentments to harden and become more resistant to treatment.

Dr. Murray Bowen was a pioneer of marriage and family therapy.   He believed that human beings live in interdependent emotional systems. His insights are profound. I am guided, in large part, by his ideas. James Framo, another early MFT leader, observed that clinically, Bowen’s ideas address the basic question of how one can deal with one’s family’s nuttiness without cutting off from the family. Just as Socrates urged people, “Know thyself,” Dr. Bowen encouraged people to “Know your family.”  Such an effort can enhance one’s ability to live in a more fulfilled way in one’s current relationships. In an early post I listed five of my favorite quotes from Murray Bowen. Below are *more quotes that typify Bowen’s deep and unique  level of understanding of the human condition:

“Family systems theory is based on the assumptions that the human is a product of evolution and that human behavior is significantly regulated by the same natural processes that regulate the behavior of all other living things….Homo sapiens are far more like other life forms than different from them.”

“One of the most important aspects of family dysfunction is an equal degree of overfunction in another part of the family system. It is factual that dysfunctioning and overfunctioning exist together. ..An example would be the dominating (overfunctioning) mother and passive father.”

“The more a therapist learns about a family, the more the family learns about itself; and the more the family learns, the more the therapist learns, in a cycle which continues.”

“The overall [clinical] goal [is] to help family members become ‘system experts’ who could know [their family system] so well that the family could readjust itself without the help of an outside expert, if and when the family system was again stressed.”

“Relationships are cyclical. There is one phase of calm, comfortable closeness. This can shift to anxious, uncomfortable overcloseness with the incorporation of the ‘self” of one by the ‘self ‘ of the other. There there is the phase of distant rejection in which the two can literally repel each other. In some families, the relationship can cycle through the phases at frequent intervals. In oher families, the cycle can stay relatively fixed for long periods.”

“The basic building block of any emotional system is the triangle. ”

“Important changes [between the couple] accompany the birth of children.”

“The problem of the ‘triangled’ child presents one of the most difficult problems in family psychotherapy.

Dr. Murray Bowen was one of the important pioneers in marriage and family therapy. As a clinician who specializes in relationship counseling, I am guided, in large part, by his ideas. To learn more about my model of practice, visit me at http://www.Cunninghamtherapy.com or call 619 9906203 for a complimentary telephone consultation.

* Quotes are cited from FAMILY THERAPY IN CLINICAL PRACTICE by Murray Bowen (1978)

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An enduring and fulfilling marriage reflects emotional maturity and mastery on the part of both partners. Is it healthy to express anger in your marriage? In TO A DANCING GOD, Sam Keen says “Yes.” He has a dialogue with anger (pp. 114-119). Writing in the persona of anger, he says, “If you doubt that I am the companion of love, remember the ecstasy of the reconciliation that comes after fighting. After a good expression of clean anger, lovers have established the integrity of their separateness, and they may come together without fearing that either will be eradicated by the act of love. If you can’t fight, you can’t love.”  I do not completely completely agree with Keen in his connecting the expression of anger with healthy partnership. I believe it IS important to hold onto oneself in a partnership. There are contexts in which it is perfectly valid to be angry at another. At other times, one is merely “spewing” one’s own anxiety about self onto other and/or one has an “agenda” to get the other person to change-to “fix” what is wrong with THEM. Good couples therapy assists each partner in their effort to identify and then change their part in an unhelpful dynamic.

In other places on my blog, I have emphasized that two strong “I’s make the most enduring and stable “we.” Whether the anger is really reactivity aimed at manipulating or changing another to suit you is the question one needs to ask oneself when angry. While a lot of people will swear to the heightened pleasure they feel from “make up sex,” this pleasure may be had without any real effort to arrive at increased mutual understanding and compassion for what each other may be up against. It may be based upon coming together after fearing the growing distance between you. It may be less about the healthiness of a clean expression of anger and more about soothing anxiety after the distance from a fight. The couple come back together and enjoy the momentary warm and fuzzy return to closeness. However, the intimacy is illusory and not based on resolution of any  of the issues that created an impasse and led to the explosive argument. In fact, nothing has been addressed and resolved. Is your anger  valid ?  Or is it an attempt to make the other person change instead of owning up to what YOU need to do to make things better in the relationship?

Reactivity in any form, including anger, may or may not be a reliable indicator of one’s true position after calming down and really thinking through what is going on between you. The propensity to blame another for the situation ignores the systemic and co-determined nature of troublesome dynamics.

Make no mistake.  Anger is real. It is powerful. A good rule of thumb:  Do not act upon it until you buy some time.  Take time to cool down. Self-soothe. Think. Reconsider. Then reconsider again. Try to see your own part in the dynamic. Take on these challenges. Then revisit the problem.

I agree with marriage and family pioneers, Michael Kerr and Murray Bowen. In their classic work entitled FAMILY EVALUATION (1988), the reader is called upon to consider the uses of anger in a close relationship. Is someone “angry” because they are merely emotionally reactive to another or are they taking a reflectively determined posture for self? As Kerr and Bowen (1988) assert, “Everybody proclaims the importance of being a self, but much of what is done under that rubric is selfish and fails to respect others. Many so-called ‘I’ positions are really attempts to get others to change or are attempts to pry oneself loose from emotionally intense situations” (p. 108). Such efforts may reflect an inability to see one’s own part in the problem or an unwillingness to take responsiblity for one’s own contribution to a reactive dynamic.  Anxiety that gathers steam between two people often produces polarizing postures that are critical and blaming (or even revert to contempt) of one another. This propensity toward blame is a red flag for people who are getting stuck in the mire of relationship trouble. They are unable to see their contribution to the co-determined dysfunctional dynamic.

An effort toward differentiation of self puts no pressure on others to change. There is a realization that the more one pressures another to change, the more that person will “push back” and remain the same. Most importantly, being a principle-driven self is not conditional–it does not require the other person’s cooperation. It is not about, “Well, if only HE would begin to (fill in the blank), then I COULD (fill in the blank).  It is key to realize that differentiated positions are not fueled by anger or righteous postures. As Kerr and Bowen insightfully point out (p. 108), “Anger can sometimes be a stimulus to clarify one’s thinking, but it is not a reliable guide for action. When someone angrily and dogmatically claims to be a ‘self,’ he is usually unsure of his position and is blaming others for his plight in life….Differentiation is a product of a way of thinking that translates into a way of being. It is not a therapeutic technique. Techniques are borne out of efforts to change others.” Amen.

Dr. Cunningham practices in the heart of Mission Valley and offers evening hours and a complimentary phone consultation. To get more information, call her at 619 9906203 or visit her at http://www.Cunninghamtherapy.com

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At Affordable Relationship Counseling in San Diego, CA, Dr. Barbara Cunningham offers a resiliency or strength-based approach to counseling, whether she is treating individuals, couples, and marital partners. She views challenges as a natural and an expected part of what it means to live a life. When we expect life to be nothing but rainbows, smooth seas, and laughter, we set ourselves up for bitter disappointment. Life is a fabric, a woven tapestry of good with bad, difficult with easy, happy with sad, sickness and health. Having realistic expectations going in to life transitions, such as marriage, parenting, and career changes, is part of the ability to function well. Some people become so paralyzed by change, transitions, and challenges that they never move forward–they are frozen in whatever place they were emotionally before the onset of the change, transition, or challenge. Others merely “get through it.” And then there are those who seem to thrive and prosper as they sail from navigating stormy sea after stormy sea. Who are these thrivers and how did they get that way? Differences in the way one thinks about life and the way one lives in one’s relationships can make one’s life look very different. How we think about things affects how things come out in many cases.

So what about those people who thrive as opposed to merely surviving through their life challenges? Wolin and Wolin (1993) discuss such resilient people in their book entitled THE RESILIENT SELF: HOW SURVIVORS OF TROUBLED FAMILIES RISE ABOUT ADVERSITY. How is it that some people have the capacity to rebound from hardship in a way that they bounce FORWARD (as opposed to merely bouncing back)? This is the book to read if you are interested in resilience and a useful synthesis of research and clinical experiences on the subject. The book will help the reader abandon the notion that they are not captains of their own ship. After completing this book, the reader will appreciate that they can shape their life rather than being shaped by childhood experiences beyond their control. The Wolins call their approach the “Challenge Model” as opposed to the “Damage Model,” as used by movements such as Adult Children of Alcoholics. People, for example, who overcome childhood trauma may view their experiences as giving them a badge of courage, a kind of Survivor’s Pride.  Strategies are discussed, case examples are provided, and insights are offered as a result of conceptualizing cases from this Challenge Model perspective.

No one escapes life without scars. Rather than incapacite us, painful feelings can sharpen our sense of joy and gratitude.  How one can rise from adversity and rise like a phoenix out of the ashes is at the core of this book. Read it and be inspired!

To learn more about Dr. Cunningham’s model of practice, visit http://www.Cunninghamtherapy.com or call 619 9906203 for a complimentary telephone consultation. Dr. Cunningham specializes in couples counseling and marriage counseling. She also is expert at counseling individuals looking to make sense of their part in relationship challenges.

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Steven and Sybil Wolin (1993) researched how survivors of troubled families rise about adversity. They identified 7 clear qualities of resiliency. These qualities include: 1.) humor; 2.) relationships; 3.) initiative; 4.) morality;  5.) creativity; 6.) insight; and 7.) independence. Think about which resiliency most dominates your personality and build upon it. Your partner’s? Recognize it as well. And then validate it.

Resiliency is what happens when people thrive, don’t just survive, after adversity. Instead, you bounce FORWARD, not in spite of the problem, but BECAUSE OF it!

When resilience is looked at in terms of love and marriage, it is easy to see how these seven qualities might present great opportunies for  a couple to reach for one or two of them in an effort to get their connection even safer and more solid. For example, if one had the resiliency of intiative, one would not wait for one’s partner to pay them a compliment. Instead, they would be proactive and pay a compliment themselves. Get the idea? See what other examples you can come up with in looking at each core resiliency named by the Wolins. I would love to hear your responses. Take a look at the resiliency of creativity and see what you can do here. Have fun!  Onward!

If interested in my resiliency-based marriage counseling practice in San Diego, do visit my web site at http://www.Cunninghamtherapy.com or call for a complimentary phone consultation @ 619 9906203.

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One of my clients complains that it is almost predictable that when she and her husband have had a weekend that has been unusually close and harmonious, he will invariable start a fight or put up walls to push her away. She recalls how wonderfully he surprised her with a phenomenal anniversary staycation. She was so impressed with his efforts, so touched by his many acts of tenderness and affection-indeed, the weekend was full of positive and unforgettable memories. Then, BOOM! He started a fight with her over some trivial issue that neither of them could remember in session. When one thinks about this phenomenon, it seems contradictory that problems would develop right after good times. Yet I hear similar stories frequently in my practice! So what gives?

I believe that safe and secure bonds make for an intimacy that can stand the test of time. One area of unsafety for one partner may set up a mirror opposite area of unsafety for the other partner. For example, I have a married client who is pursuer. She is always going after her partner for “more.” He becomes reactive to her hot pursuit and then distances even more. And herein lies their troublesome sequence, which escalates the second one partner either makes a further move “toward” or the other partner makes a further move “away.” In terms of unsafety, the pursuer has fears of being “left,” of being unimportant, unneeded, and maybe even being abandoned. The distancer has fears of being swallowed up by the relationship demands, feeling incorporated into the being of his wife, and of losing self. He begins to wonder where he stops and she begins. As Harriet Lerner insightfully notes, “Many of our problems…occur when we choose between having a relationship and having a self.”

There is hope for couples who get “stuck” in this unhelpful sequence. To be able to know how to remain, at times, separate from an intimate other while, at other times, remaining connected to an intimate other is, from my theoretical practice perspective, the stuff of healthy relationship dynamics that can stand the test of time. The effort to master this challenging but rewarding relational dance takes time and a commitment to practicing theory between sessions. Please visit me at my web site to learn more about my model of practice and get some free tips just for stopping: Just go to http://www.cunninghamtherapy.com/ and look around!
I welcome the opportunity to talk to you!

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 Alcoholism & Substance Abuse in Diverse Populations – Second Edition

I am excited to report that the academic textbook for which I wrote a chapter is finally released. Edited by my former dissertation chair and her husband, I am proud to have written chapter 13 entitled: A Family Systems Treatment for the Impaired Physician. The book, edited by Gary W. Lawson and Ann W. Lawson, is entitled Alcoholism and Substance Abuse in Diverse Populations, second edition. To learn more about me and my model of practice, visit me at http://www.Cunninghamtherapy.com or call for a complimentary phone consultation at 619 9906203.

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