If you are struggling in a romantic relationship, or can’t seem to figure out why things with your beau are not fun, exciting and happy 100% of the time (or at least 90% of the time), I have a podcast for you. I recently had the pleasure stumbling upon this “On Being” podcast with Krista Tippett in which she interviews Alain de Botton, author of the most-read New York Times article of 2016, enticingly entitled “Why You Will Marry The Wrong Person.” In addition to having a name that rhymes, Alain de Botton lays down some validating truths about love. In the interview, de Botton talks about how most of us expect true love to be smooth-sailing and feel wonderful most of the time, but that holding onto this view of love can be harmful. de Botton explains how the best relationships involve conflict, fights, and drudgery. A focal point of de Botton’s view is one of compassion for the struggles of life. He says that the more generous we can be with our own and our partner’s flawed humanity, the better off we will be. I found his words to be quite comforting and I think you will like them too. Ps. Listen 'til the end of the interview for his refreshing take on flirting ;)
Love hurts...Ands that's ok
Will this relationship last?
You’ve fallen for someone. Maybe you’re in the first couple months of dating. Or maybe you’ve been with someone for a year or two or seven. No matter where you are in the stage of a relationship, you have probably wondered “will this last?” While no one can predict you and your sweetie’s future with 100% certainty, there is social science research we can look to for guidance on which relationships have staying power. This article outlines a couple of key findings from psychologist John Gottman’s pioneering research in the field of relationships.
One intriguing finding is on the role that physiological responses play in predicting relationship longevity. Gottman studied couples by having them engage in conversation with each other while hooked up to electrodes to study their bodily responses (heart rate, blood pressure and sweat production). Six years later he followed up to see which couples were still together happily and which had separated or were together unhappily. What he found was fascinating. The couples who were still together happily were the ones whose physiology was not aroused— when together, their heart rates had been lower, blood flow was decreased, and sweat production was down. In other words, their bodies had expressed signs of feeling calm together. The couples whose physiology had been activated (increased heart rate, blood flow and sweating) were more likely to have broken up. Turns out the sustainable relationships were the ones without heart-pounding intensity. Imagine that.
This research throws into question one of the biggest cultural messages we receive about romance— that we are supposed to feel “crazy” in love, fall head over heels, and have pounding hearts for that special someone. This is a message that we are steeped in from a young age, as we are spoon-fed Disney and other fairy tales. Its a message that gets continually reinforced almost everywhere we turn, we find it in everything from Beyoncé lyrics to romantic comedies. But what Gottman’s research shows is that having heart-pounding intense feels, rather than being a sign of true love, is more likely an indication of a relationship’s eventual demise.
This is not to say that anxiety in the early stages of a relationship is not normal. There is often nervousness when you like someone and wonder if they feel the same. But as the relationship continues, how are you feeling when you spend time together? If you have “butterflies” in your stomach, cultural messages about love may lead you to mistake that feeling for a sign that things are going well and you really like that person. Those sensations, however, could be an indication that you can’t relax around your sweetheart. Our bodies provide a wealth of information about how we are feeling and we can learn to tune in to ourselves through mindfulness and other body-centered practices, such as somatic therapy. Do you feel intense excitement, all aflutter, or even subtle anxiety when you spend time with that special someone? Society has probably told you that these feelings are signs of love, but as Gottman’s research shows, they may be an indication that feelings of trust, kindness, and calm — factors that predict the long-term sustainability of a relationship— are missing.
If you are interested in assessing your relationship’s potential, the second part of the article provides more information on the roles that kindness, respect, and expressions of interest play in relationship strength. Therapy is also a great way to get support about your feelings and relationships. If you are wondering if your relationship is right for you, or looking to understand yourself with greater clarity, contact me to set up a free 20-minute consultation.
Ali Kimmel, LCSW and I started Living Improv, a group that pairs improvisation (improv) with group therapy. Our experience as improvisers and social workers led us to realize that improv is healing and we wanted to share this gift with others. Often participants in a good improv class come out feeling more energized and joyful than when they walked in. But what happens when you leave improv class? Applying the rules of improv to everyday life can also be a powerful tool for increased fulfillment.
What is it about improv that makes people feel great? There are lists such as this one that outline the benefits of improv. Drawing on my own background in both improv and clinical social work I created my own Top 5 Reasons for why improv is beneficial, both on stage and in life:
1. Improv is play: We play a lot as kids, but somewhere between childhood and adulthood most of us stop. We may imagine we don’t have the time, think it’s a waste of time, or feel self-conscious. But without play, we miss out on a source of joy. Brené Brown, MSW, PhD has found in her research that adults who play tend to lead more authentic, connected and whole-hearted lives. (Brown, Brené. The Gifts of Imperfection. Minnesota: Hazelden, 2010. 100-101).
2. Improv is about authentic connection: One of the main lessons of improv is to be truthful and sincere, not to explicitly try to be funny. This may seem counterintuitive because many people think of improv as comedy. But the best improv scenes happen between characters who display a genuine emotional connection, not between actors who are trying to get a quick laugh. In life, many people think they must say and do things to please others, but being genuine with others facilitates true connections. And as humans, we need authentic connections for our well-being.
3. Improv is about taking risks and being supported: One of the foundational rules of improv is “Yes, And” which means that we follow along with our fellow improvisors’ ideas and we offer our own. In other words, we put ourselves out there (during which we may feel vulnerable) and we receive support. For those who struggle with shame (often a root cause of depression and anxiety) the impetus is to hide. Hiding, however, only exacerbates shame. The antidote to shame is opening up to others with whom we feel safe. Doing improv in a supportive space is a great way to practice the skills of taking risks, being vulnerable, and receiving and giving support.
4. Improv is a mindfulness practice: The psychological benefits of mindfulness are clear. Present-moment focus helps many people feel calmer, as it facilitates letting go of ruminating thoughts (often sources of anxious or depressed feelings). Improvisors need to be focused on the here-and-now in order to listen to their scene partners, contribute ideas, and move scenes forward. In other words, improv helps you to get out of your head. Often I find that while practicing improv I am free from even my heaviest emotional burdens.
5. In improv, mistakes are celebrated: Mistakes are seen as gifts in improv. If someone “messes up,” it’s often a portal to a whole new world or funny scenario. In our high pressure, perfectionist society we are often terribly afraid to make mistakes. Improv helps us relax and find value in our errors.
To learn more about Living Improv, or join our mailing list, please visit www.livingimprovgroups.com.
eating disorders and trans youth
For this edition of article corner I am posting this piece about how transgender youth are more likely to have an eating disorder than their cisgender female counterparts. This finding is significant and worth sharing for a couple reasons. First of all, because it debunks a prevailing belief that eating disorders only (or mostly) affect young, white, heterosexual, cisgender women. For over six years I have been treating clients with eating disorders and body image issues in my practice. My clients have always been diverse in terms of their race, age, gender identity, and sexual orientation. Eating disorders impact people of all identities, not just young, white, cisgender women. The article does not mention socioeconomics, but many people also assume that eating disorders only strike individuals from wealthy families. This is also not true. Eating disorders do not discriminate when it comes to class background either.
This article is also important because it expands the understanding of why eating disorders are prevalent in the trans community. Some studies suggest that trans teens develop eating disorders due to a desire to shape their body to be more in line with their gender identity. In other words, the idea is that trans folks with eating disorders are trying to gain or lose weight in order to change the gendered appearance of their body. However, the article explains that this is a limiting conception of why trans individuals develop eating disorders. The article quotes Don Maldonado, a coordinator at T-FFED, a Los Angeles-based collective that promotes awareness about eating disorders in the trans and gender-diverse community. Maldonado says “a lot of times there's this arrogance or conflation of gender dysphoria with body dysmorphia…. People think that once you're able to transition that your eating disorder will disappear. This is not the case.” What Maldonado is saying holds true to my experience in my practice. People develop eating disorders for multiple reasons. (There are almost as many different reasons for the why of an eating disorder as there are people with eating disorders.) However, for many people their eating disorder started as a way to cope with a difficult situation. Coping mechanisms help us manage painful feelings and circumstances (so can be positive) but some coping mechanisms, such as eating disorders, can also be dangerous to our health. Some individuals develop eating disorders to cope with the pain of trauma. We often think of trauma as interpersonal in nature, such as in the case of abuse. However, there is also societal trauma, such as discrimination, oppression and marginalization and this kind of trauma can factor into the development of an eating disorder. I have worked with a number of clients whose eating disorders developed as a way to deal with the societal traumas of sexism, classism, racism, and homophobia. Eating disorders among trans and gender-variant individuals might be connected to their experience coping with transphobia (or other types of oppression such as racism, sexism, and classism that a trans individual with intersecting identities might face).
The article states that: “eating disorders are most common among those who we have selectively ignored.” This is a profound statement, but doesn’t go far enough. It seems that eating disorders are most common among those whose bodies have been oppressed and systematically marginalized such as women, people of color, queer folks, people of size, poor people, and trans and gender-variant individuals. This is why eating disorders are a social justice issue. Eliminating eating disorders on a societal level will therefore require ending oppression in multiple forms.
New Year, No Shame
It’s New Year's and if you are a human being with a pulse this means that you’re probably being bombarded with “New Year, New You” messages. You know the ones — glossy magazine headlines telling us to make resolutions to repent for the holiday glut, advertisements for gym membership discounts, and co-workers talking about their diets. Here’s what I think about all that - it’s bullshit. Don’t read those glossy magazine covers, don’t fall for those gym membership ads, and if your coworker starts telling you about their diet, just start humming really loudly. All that New Year diet resolution business is toxic. The message is meant to make you feel bad about yourself and besides there is plenty of research out there to prove that diets don’t work. To counter all the body-shaming New Year diet crap out there, I’ve decided to post Lindy West’s article from this past summer “My Wedding Was Perfect And I Was Fat As Hell The Whole Time.” West is a Seattle-based fat rights activist, writer extroardinaire, editor and performer. I recently read this article and I found it inspiring and beautiful.
If you are a person who lives in a fat body, or a body that is not defined as beautiful by mainstream culture, or if you have ever felt like you were not enough in some way (or that you had to be different in order to be happy) I think Lindy West’s words will resonate with you. West’s message is a vital one. It counters the mainstream fat-shaming world that says women have to be thin to be brides and that people need to lose weight for their wedding. I’ve heard so many people (some are individuals I know and like and think have good lefty politics) make comments about wanting to lose weight for a wedding or other event. Fuck. That. Shit. Be yourself, live in the body that is yours. Don’t wait ’til you are thinner to live your life. If you do, your life will pass you by and you will hate yourself in the process.
Also— being fat or “overweight” does not mean someone is unhealthy. It’s high time we uncouple the notion of what it means to be healthy from body size. Studies now show that being “overweight” (having a BMI between 25 and 30) is less associated with mortality than being “underweight” or even a “normal” weight. Read this article for the proof! (And here’s the Journal of American Medical Association article if you’re in the mood for something a little more academic). Also— so much more goes into being “healthy” than just diet, exercise, and body shape. That’s just one small sliver of health. What about social and emotional health? Having a strong social support network? Getting enough sleep and rest? Playing? Making art? These all factor into one’s overall health, but the world we live in puts way too much of an emphasis on body size, eating and exercise habits when determining what it means to be “healthy.”
This is my favorite quotation in West’s article:
“When I think back on my teenage self, what I really needed to hear wasn’t that someone might love me one day if I lost enough weight to qualify as human – it was that I was worthy of love now, just as I was.”
I think this is a message that we all need to hear again and again and again: You are worthy of love right now, just as you are, and you are enough. You don't need to change in order to be happy, you don't need to make six figures, or get married, or be in a relationship, or "get your shit together,” or meet all your New Year’s resolutions, and you certainly don't need to lose weight or change your appearance. You are beautiful just the way you are. Happy 2016!
Last month in a Modern Love column entitled “The Five Stages of Ghosting Grief," Rachel Fields wrote about the grief that comes from not hearing back from a date.“Ghosting” (if you haven’t heard of the term) refers to the experience when a date (or someone with whom you’ve had a romantic and/or sexual encounter) simply never responds to your call or text. The original “Five Stages of Grief” were formulated by Swiss Psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross in her 1969 book, On Death and Dying. The five stages are: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression and Acceptance. I found Fields’s article about ghosting grief to be witty and humorous. She writes about how when the man she was dating did not respond to her text, she went through a period of denial in which she imagined he had failed to write back because he was asleep, had dropped his phone in the toilet, or had died. She says that “any of these options were comforting.” Kübler-Ross’s “Five Stages of Grief” were originally meant to be about the experience of bereavement over the death of a loved one. Grief, however, can be experienced in relation to many types of loss (not just the physical death of someone we are close to). We experience grief, for example, over friends moving away, the loss of a job, a change in identity or role, or the loss of a home. Seemingly positive life changes may even elicit feelings of grief, such as graduating from college and experiencing a loss of community. We may also feel grief over the death of a person we are not close with, such as a celebrity. When grief is non-traditional in nature (ie. not over the death of a loved one) it is sometimes referred to as disenfranchised grief. Disenfranchised grief can sometimes be more painful because in addition to the grief feelings, our pain is not validated by those around us because our loss is not seen as something traditionally worth mourning. Ghosting grief is a great example of disenfranchised grief. Who feels sad when a date bows out of our lives by not responding to our text? Well plenty of people do, but it’s not the kind of grief that the people around us may readily understand. I also love Fields’s article because implicit in her experience of ghosting grief is another kind of disenfranchised experience— that of having what she calls a “two-week relationship” with the man who ghosted her. In our society, long-term relationships are often the only relationships that are seen as real and valid. A relationship with someone for two weeks (or even two dates) is rarely taken seriously. Even supportive friends may just not understand how someone could feel sadness over the loss of a two-week relationship. By expressing her despair over the loss of this guy, Fields is also saying “I really liked this person that I’d only been on a couple dates with.” In a world that holds up marriage and long-term unions as the only meaningful romances, this feels like a radical and courageous statement.
Articles I find interesting that you might like too :)
Elizabeth Ehrenberg, LCSW is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in Oakland, CA.