Therapist to therapist with Tiffany M.

Today, a new kind of “series” will start running on the blog. This new thing will be called “Therapist to therapist” and it is practically me asking a bunch of questions to some master therapists out there!

First on the list is Tiffany M., whom I consider something as a virtual mentor. Her super helpful website “Hey Tiffany” is totally dedicated to young therapists out there trying to to build a successful practice. If you haven’t been there already, RUN there, now!

Tiffany M. is (probably a superhuman) Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist who holds a private practice in San Francisco. She has a Masters of Science in Clinical Psychology. She works psychodynamically with a psychoanalytic background. I admire her combination of humour and serious work and her fresh way of thinking. I’m glad I found her in this deep sea of the web. She decided to make a video response to my interview questions! Without further ado, here she is!

"Therapist to therapist with Tiffany M."

Where the birds always sing

Death is so common and yet it manages to startle me every single time. Do you ever get used to the natural process of things? Do you ever get used to the pain one’s absence leaves you with? And if you could, would you want to?

These last days all I hear about is people dying or people getting serious issues - physical or mental. It’s that disruption of the normal-ness that annoys me, too. But what is ever normal? We’re lucky to have normal days. However, this is totally dissonant with our experience as human beings (and with the presentation I have to give on Sunday about stress - talk about irony!). We think we’ll be there tomorrow to finish our conversation with that particular someone, we think we’ll get to hug our partner the next time we’ll see each other, we get really anxious about our future and how this future will turn out to be. Am I gonna make the right choices? Am I gonna marry the right person, am I gonna do the right job, will I ever be happy? Of course we need this potential future to be there, how else would we do anything again otherwise?

But it’s not just that we need it. We’re totally immersed in this safety bubble. We literally forget that our time here is brief. So, so brief. And we can cry all we want to, but it ain’t gonna change a thing (trust me, I’ve tried). Today, a person I value deeply came really close to death, without having any serious health issues before. Death can be so intrusive, so disruptive, so violent. Life after death, too.

I’m afraid to lose the people I love. But I’m afraid I’ll have to, sooner or later. Yalom says the idea of death can save us, but can it save the people we love, too? Ok I know that’s not what Yalom meant, but having lived an unlived life is one thing, having to survive without the ones you love is totally another. And it’s that life that can be scarier for me, than anything else.

I think The Cure have very well articulated what I’m trying to say, in their song “where the birds always sing”.

But the world is neither just nor unjust It's just us trying to feel that there's some sense in it No, the world is neither just nor unjust And though going young So much undone Is a tragedy for everyone It doesn't speak a plan or any secret thing No unseen sign or untold truth in anything... But living on in others, in memories and dreams Is not enough You want everything Another world where the sun always shines And the birds always sing Always sing…

Yes, living on in memories is really, truly not ever going to be enough.

image from "the Guardian"

Lena Dunham on death

I recently read Lena Dunham’s book Not That Kind of Girl: A Young Woman Tells You What She’s “Learned”. I love Lena Dunham for a million different reasons and as the book shows, we share a mutual death anxiety from a very young age.

Yet another time, I’m writing about death! This blog isn’t much fun, is it?

She writes:

As a little kid, an unnamed fear would often overtake me. It wasn't a fear of anything tangible – tigers, burglars, homelessness – and it couldn't be solved by usual means like hugging my mother or turning on Nickelodeon shows. The feeling was cold and resided just below my stomach. It made everything around me seem unreal and unsafe."

Yes, death can do that. It’s a cruel thing to think upon, even more when you’re a little child.

She also writes that she used to have a serious sleep problem (just like I've had) and that for her,

...sleep equaled death. How was closing your eyes and losing consciousness any different from death? What separated temporary loss of consciousness from permanent obliteration?”

Good question, Lena. And not one to dismiss easily, I’m afraid. She keeps writing:

I think a fair amount about the fact that we’re all going to die. It occurs to me at incredibly inopportune moments — I’ll be standing in a bar, having managed to get an attractive guy to laugh, and I’ll be laughing, too, and maybe dancing a little bit, and then everything goes slo-mo for a second and I’ll think: Are these people aware that we’re all going to the same place in the end? I can slip back into conversation and tell myself that the flash of mortality awareness has enriched my experience, reminded me to just go for it in the giggling and hair-flipping and speaking-my-mind departments because . . . why the hell not? But occasionally the feeling stays with me, and it reminds me of being a child — feeling full of fear but lacking the language to calm yourself down. I guess, when it comes to death, none of us really has the words.

I wish I could be one of those young people who seems totally unaware of the fact that her gleaming nubile body is, in fact, fallible. (Maybe you have to have a gleaming nubile body to feel that way.) Beautiful self-delusion: Isn’t that what being young is all about? You think you’re immortal until one day when you’re around sixty, it hits you: you see an Ingmar Bergman-y specter of death and you do some soul searching and possibly adopt a kid in need. You resolve to live the rest of your life in a way you can be proud of. But I am not one of those young people. I’ve been obsessed with death since I was born. […]

The fact is I had been circling the topic of death, subconsciously, for some time. Growing up in Soho in the late 1980s and early 1990s, I was aware of AIDS and the toll it was taking on the creative community. Illness, loss, who would handle the art and the real estate and the medical bills — these topics hovered over every dinner party. As many of my parents’ friends became sick, I learned to recognize the look of someone suffering — sunken cheeks, odd facial spotting, a sweater that no longer fit. And I knew what it meant: that person would soon become a memorial, the name on a prize given to visiting students, a distant memory.”

When it comes to death, age doesn’t matter. Death has such an ugly face. But it’s the idea of death, as Yalom has said so many times, that can save us, can awaken us to lead a life more conscious. Lena Dunham has also expressed this in her own words:

I thought about all the things I hoped to get done in my life and realised: I'd better get cracking. I can never spend a whole afternoon watching a Singled Out marathon again if this is what's going to happen.”

And here I am, having spent a whole afternoon watching a “Mystery Jets” live on youtube and looking at photos of Northern France.

image from here.

A Spark of Existential Therapy in Greece

"In the beginning of October, I was lucky enough to participate in a two-day workshop with Dr. Kirk Schneider, here in Athens, Greece! It was organized by “gignesthai,” the Hellenic association for Existential Psychology. I’ll write to you about this experience, with my own little words and from where I stand today. Maybe if I wrote this post some days later, I would focus on totally different things. I couldn’t possibly bring to you all of what happened there, or all of the wonderful things Dr. Schneider said to us, but I’ll share with you my personal experience (along with a lot of quotes), hoping that I’ll do it justice (and if he ever reads this piece he won’t feel disappointed; oh, the angst!).

The workshop started with Dr. Schneider asking a girl from the group this simple (?) question: “How are you?” She answered, and he posed the question again for a few more times, saying there are many layers of asking, and he could keep asking her, but he actually had to stop for the sake of the workshop’s purpose! What amazed me was his stance during his asking that question. He was so relaxed, tranquil even, so open to what he was going to hear. I can’t imagine myself asking this (or any question for that matter) repeatedly, with such kindness and eagerness in my face and body. I suppose I would feel anxious about what the other person would answer, but then again maybe that’s my personal burden, this anxiety that’s hugging me like a super cute but also asphyxiating little bear."

Read the rest of my post for the New Existentialists blog here.

Think positive; or maybe don't

“Think positive” was my motto when I was in high school and my my most hated expression some years after college. Seasons change for sure, but what has since remained quite the same is my slight aversion for excessive positive thinking. Let me be clear; I do not hate all positive thinking, I just hate it when it’s unrealistic. And now, to my amazement, research shows it might not even help you as much as you’d expect. Thank you research. For once, I like you.

Gabriele Oettingen, a professor of psychology at New York University and the University of Hamburg, and her colleagues have conducted studies that:

Fantasizing about happy outcomes — about smoothly attaining your wishes — didn’t help. Indeed, it hindered people from realizing their dreams. Why doesn’t positive thinking work the way you might assume? As my colleagues and I have discovered, dreaming about the future calms you down, measurably reducing systolic blood pressure, but it also can drain you of the energy you need to take action in pursuit of your goals.

A-ha! So you ought to find a balance between energetic pursuit of your dreams, with a spoon of positive thinking and two cups of realism. Realism, is not the same as negative thinking, and I feel the need to underline this, because some people might think it means so. Gabriele Oettingen writes:

Some critics of positive thinking have advised people to discard all happy talk and “get real” by dwelling on the challenges or obstacles. But this is too extreme a correction. Studies have shown that this strategy doesn’t work any better than entertaining positive fantasies.

What does work better is a hybrid approach that combines positive thinking with “realism.” Here’s how it works. Think of a wish. For a few minutes, imagine the wish coming true, letting your mind wander and drift where it will. Then shift gears. Spend a few more minutes imagining the obstacles that stand in the way of realizing your wish.

This simple process, which my colleagues and I call “mental contrasting,” has produced powerful results in laboratory experiments. When participants have performed mental contrasting with reasonable, potentially attainable wishes, they have come away more energized and achieved better results compared with participants who either positively fantasized or dwelt on the obstacles.

When participants have performed mental contrasting with wishes that are not reasonable or attainable, they have disengaged more from these wishes. Mental contrasting spurs us on when it makes sense to pursue a wish, and lets us abandon wishes more readily when it doesn’t, so that we can go after other, more reasonable ambitions.

“Reasonable ambitions” sounds plausible! One can always dream for world peace though :p

photo from google