E is for Expectations, Enthusiasm, and Exuberance

If there is a perfect metaphor for how I have been showing up in my online dating life, it would be Tigger. I am Tigger. Tigger is me in a new relationship: bouncy, trouncy, flouncy, pouncy. Fun, fun, fun, fun, fun!  Check out this clip of Tigger meeting the other creatures from the 100 Acre Wood for the first time.

It’s me! I show up with high expectations, unbounded enthusiasm, and what is possibly an excess of exuberance.

This approach did not work well for me in my first serious online dating relationship (hereby referred to as MFSODR) last summer. Partly because she didn’t have a good background in all things Pooh-related and could not fully appreciate my metaphor, but primarily because we had extremely opposite attachment styles. My anxiety showed up in an orange and black striped outfit, cute ears and a penchant for being noticed. The more I bounced, the more she backed away, like Rabbit into her hole.

In fact, this afternoon I had a conversation with another online dater, and our talk has me rethinking an earlier and ongoing conflict MFSODR and I had about boundaries:  She thought I had none. I couldn’t understand why she was so defended. I wore my heart on my sleeve, but I’m not sure I ever caught more than a flash of hers.

So, maybe it is too much to expect someone I hardly know to meet the Tigger in me so soon. Further conversations with women I’ve met online indicate as much.

“I think you’ll find that most women on here (the dating site), have extreme boundaries,” my new friend said after I’d explained my tendencies toward Tiggerness. “I think you’re going to find it rough going.”

But why must I dampen my newly rediscovered enthusiasm? Why should I hide my exuberance or lower my expectations? Maybe I shouldn’t.

Human beings are wired for connection. We are meant to be in relationship. Perhaps, we have taken our fear of dependence too far and have idealized those who don’t get too attached, those who seem to source internal validation effortlessly. In short, we need one another. We need intimacy, to truly show up for one another as wholly ourselves.

I spend my days counseling folks to show up as their authentic selves, to be vulnerable, to reach toward rather than turn from.

There are enough scary things out there—we shouldn’t fear showing up exuberantly for those with whom we desire closeness.

The wonderful thing about Tiggers
Is Tiggers are wonderful things
Their tops are made out of rubber
Their bottoms are made out of springs
They’re bouncy, trouncy, flouncy, pouncy
Fun, fun, fun, fun, fun
But the most wonderful thing about Tiggers
Is I’m the only one

Tiggers are cuddly fellas
Tiggers are awfully sweet
Everyone el-us is jealous
That’s why I repeat and repeat

The wonderful thing about Tiggers
Is Tiggers are marvelous chaps
They’re loaded with vim and with vigor
They love to leap in your laps
They’re jumpy, bumpy, clumpy, thumpy
Fun, fun, fun, fun, fun
But the most wonderful thing about Tiggers
Is I’m the only one
I’m the only—

Ouch…

B is for Behind (Already!) or Boundaries

I decided a few days ago that B was going to be for Boundaries—a relevant topic now that I am a counselor and caregiver (see A is for Alzheimer’s). But then life intervened in unexpected ways and while I should be cranking out my C is for . . . blog, I’ve still not gotten around to B. Also, there’s the little matter of a poem to go along with. Every time I sit down to write a poem, I get interrupted. Poetry is challenging enough without constant interference. I wrote one the other night, but I’m not sure it is suitable for public consumption—in fact, I know it isn’t. So, back to the drawing board.

A few words about Boundaries. Boundaries are those imaginary lines that we draw in the sand between us and the rest of the world. The word “no” is a boundary, as in “No, I cannot help you move this weekend (or ever).” Boundaries are personal bubbles, as in “if there are 90 empty seats in the movie theater, don’t sit right next to me if you don’t know me.” I am continually amazed at how often this boundary gets violated (especially in Bellingham). Boundaries can be fences, hedges, the edge of the lawn, a strategically placed flowerbed, or (if you are Cheeto Satan) a $65 billion wall between countries. What all of these borders, imaginary or actual, have in common, is they separate me from the rest of you in some way, or us from them, or my yard from your yard, or my body from your body, or my time from your time. Stepping across the line means I am choosing to merge some part of myself with you.

As a counselor, having boundaries means that I must keep our relationship confined to the counseling setting. It’s a bit odd, this particular boundary because while you (the counselee) may chose to tell me (the counselor) many intimate details about your life, I will not reciprocate with intimate details of my own. Normal relationships (friendships, intimate partners) rely on the mutual sharing of such information across boundaries to create a sense of closeness. You tell me an intimate detail, a secret, something you’ve not shared before, and I reward you with a secret/intimate detail of my own, our friendship grows, intimacy flourishes, the exchange is reciprocal.

Not so in counseling or therapy, which works differently. You tell me (the counselor) a secret, and I reflect it back to you, usually with a question. Something like “what meaning might you assign to the anger you have for your father?” or “what would it mean to you if she asked you out on a date?” or “how has being abused as a child affected your parenting of your own children?” Or maybe even (if I’m feeling stuck) “how do you feel about that?”

As a counselor, I have to have Boundaries because how helpful would it be if you disclosed your traumatic childhood to me, expecting insight and healing, and I said to you “Wow! My childhood was traumatic too”? Or, even if I did determine that some level of self-disclosure might be warranted (a quick rule of thumb re: self-disclosure: it can be ok if it helps the client, but not if it’s only for my own sake, i.e. to make me feel better), how helpful would it be if I confused you by having loose boundaries in the therapy room but then ignored you when I ran into you at the supermarket? If I took your money (or insurance payment) under the auspices of helping you but came to rely on your feedback and your insights? If you leave a counseling session knowing more about your therapist or counselor than he/she knows about you, somebody’s Boundaries are too loose.

Therapy is a very specific sort of exchange, one that depends on firm Boundaries. Less than firm Boundaries create all sorts of havoc and may result in the counselor or therapist losing their license. Lapses in ethics often result from lapses in Boundaries and can be a very slippery slope. Loose Boundaries can lead to inappropriate friendships and perhaps even sexual liaisons between therapists and clients. Sleeping with a client is never a good way to help them heal. It might make the client feel special initially, but will eventually destroy them (and probably the counselor as well).

Even something as seemingly benign as a friendship can become problematic between a therapist and client. As your friend, I have a vested interest in telling you things you want to hear, things that will keep you as a friend. As your therapist, I have a duty to tell you things that you might not want to hear but need to, things that will help you heal and move forward, things that a friend wouldn’t tell you. Boundaries make it possible for me to be your counselor.

Confused yet? It’s tricky, I know. But trust me, this is one lesson you’re better off NOT learning directly.

Related Haiku (this is an old one, but relevant)

Please do not invite
me in and then abandon
me at the threshold

G is for Gender–Way Beyond Pink and Blue

GThis is going to be a long and rambling blog. My apologies up front. Gender is a complicated minefield of a topic, and I have a lot to say about it. I am no expert, just someone trying to make sense of it all without offending anyone. 

No matter what class I seem to land in seems to bring up gender as a recurring theme. I have to say, I know a whole lot more about gender now than I did two years ago when I started this program. Gender used to be binary—or at least we only ever talked about it in terms of the male/female binary. Now we discuss gender as occurring in a sphere. Two years ago, I had never heard of a pansexual or a demi-girl, or even the idea that gender occurs on a spectrum and not as the binary male/female boy/girl man/woman paradigm.

Take a look at this chart. It’s not a joke (although, I have to admit, when I first saw it I thought it was). Mind blowing, yes? These symbols represent the current (and rapidly changing) gender landscape.

gender symbols

 

If you’re like me, somewhere between the ages of 40 and 60, you grew up in a time when gender norms just started breaking down. I remember being a child and overhearing my parents and grandparents complain about the hippies, going on and on about how they could no longer tell the boys from the girls now that the boys had long hair. You grew up when girls no longer had to wear dresses to school and were no longer confined to three careers: nurse, teacher, secretary. If you were an athletic girl, you may have even tried out for the little league team. Title IX had an impact in that girls’ sports got funded, finally.

Women became doctors, lawyers, dentists, fire fighters, and police officers. Men became flight attendants and nurses, started taking care of children, changing diapers. Stay at home dads became a thing. Gender roles became more flexible, but generally males remained males and females remained females. Gay men may have been more effeminate and lesbians more masculine, but boys wore blue, and girls wore pink and nobody played coy about the biological sex of their newborn child.

I grew up as a gender nonconforming child, never fully comfortable in the trappings of girlhood. I preferred my Red Ryder BB gun to dolls and spent my free time outside, building tree forts, fishing, and playing baseball with my brother. I wanted to be a boy but not because I felt uncomfortable in my body. I wanted to be a boy because boys had more freedoms, fewer constraints.

When I was about six, somehow I had heard about sex change operations (what is now called sexual reassignment surgery). Since we didn’t have a television and were fairly isolated in our small community, I have no idea how I might have learned about such a thing. Nor do I know what possessed me to ask my Mema about it, maybe a sense that if I expressed my desire to not be a girl, she would stop buying me girl stuff. But there we were in her Gran Torino—I leaned over the console from the back seat. “Mema, there’s an operation you can have if you don’t want to be a girl anymore. I could be a boy,” I ventured.

She turned to look at me, taking a long drag off of her cigarette. After a moment she blew the smoke out the side of her mouth away from me. “Those people are sick,” she announced and turned around to back the car out of the driveway. End of discussion, but message received loud and clear.Genderbread-Person-3.3

These days I sit in classes with people who introduce themselves and then announce their preferred pronouns, as in, “My name is Jennifer and I prefer the pronouns ‘she’ and ‘her’.” I have to admit, the first time I heard such an introduction I didn’t quite know what to make of it. Many of my classmates identify as queer or pansexual, and there are a lot of trans* people at Antioch. I generally introduce myself as a lesbian, but I recently learned that many younger people believe that to be a lesbian is to be transphobic.

I am not transphobic, though I have a lot to learn and am still wrapping my head around what it means to be trans*. I’m pretty sure it’s more than feeling like a boy who is trapped in a girl’s body or vice versa. Recently, I’ve listened to speakers who identify as trans* but not as transwomen or transmen, just trans, as in somewhere in between or not even.

One speaker said that he (and he did identify as a transman) probably wouldn’t have transitioned from female to male had he stayed in his native country. In his homeland, being a butch lesbian pushed the cultural boundaries enough. But when he moved to the U.S., he decided to transition because being a butch lesbian wasn’t far enough out there, culturally speaking. He wanted to push the boundaries further.

I don’t think I want to be something other than a cisgendered lesbian. But I do understand what it’s like to be misgendered and misunderstood.

I’ve written about this before here, but it’s a story worth repeating. A number of years ago, I took my then four-year-old nephew to the community pool near his home in a very upwardly mobile suburban enclave in the Pacific Northwest. I wore my one-piece speedo swimsuit and a pair of cargo shorts, and sat on the edge of the hot tub where he enjoyed a soak and roughhoused with a couple of friends. He looked up at me as I dangled my legs in the bubbling water.

“Auntie Pammie,” he said, “are you a boy or a girl?”

I looked back at his wide open and innocent face, and I could tell immediately that he was genuinely puzzled, that his four-year-old awareness of what made a boy a boy and a girl a girl was in direct conflict with what he saw represented in me. In his world, girls did not have short hair and wear cargo shorts. In his world there was one way to be a girl and another to be a boy, and he could not figure out where to put me.

“It must be confusing,” I said to him. “You don’t usually see girls with such short hair or wearing clothes like I wear. But, I’m here to tell you, I am a girl, buddy. I’m definitely a girl.”

I smiled at him and thought about all of the ways I could identify myself as a female. I have big boobs for one thing, but I wasn’t going to go there with a four-year-old. I wore diamond earrings, but that didn’t make me a girl anymore, not like it did 25 years ago. I shaved my legs. I was, in fact Auntie Pammie. I tried to think of how else I could convince him that I was a girl, beyond the obvious.

“Okay,” he smiled and went back to playing with his friends in the water.

I breathed a sigh of relief, and his question has become a bit of family folklore. My brother and sister-in-law were slightly mortified when I relayed the question to them later, but once I started explaining his confusion, they began to understand. He wasn’t being impolite or impertinent. He simply had no social construct for me.

While I can easily forgive my nephew his four-year-old’s confusion and innocent question, I’m more hesitant to grant a pass to the woman who mistook me for a man in the women’s restroom awhile back. I had just finished washing my hands in the public bathroom at an Oregon beach when a woman entered, saw me, and, obviously startled, went back out to look again at the sign on the restroom door. I just shook my head and walked by her, leaving her to puzzle things out on her own.

Incidents like the one at the beach happen to me fairly often, more so recently. I would like to say that I am unfazed by people’s confusion, but their obliviousness continues to bother me.

We need to push the boundaries in order to stretch the social construct. That’s what this shift in gender identity is all about. And while many of us are beginning to understand and accept that some people are born “in the wrong bodies” and want their minds and bodies to match (though, there is a school of thought that purports if we could culturally accept gender as nonbinary, and accept everyone just as they are, there would be no need to make our bodies and and our minds match vis a vis sexual reassignment surgery, but it’s a controversial stance. For more info, check out Alice Dreger and her TED Talk), it’s still pretty radical (and, frankly challenging to grasp) to consider gender as nonbinary, as not an either/or but as a whatever.

Changing (or negating) our genders to push the boundaries? I guess that’s where change happens. On the boundaries. If no one ever pushed, nothing would ever change.

 

 

E is for (what else?) Ethics

 

EDon’t have sex with your clients. Just. Don’t.

Washington State law forbids it and even goes so far as to outlaw intimate relationships with former clients. Forever. The American Counseling Association (ACA), in section A.5 of its 2014 Code of Ethics prohibits sex with current clients as well, as do all of the other professional organizations, but they don’t put a complete ban on sexual relationships with former clients forever, instead imposing a five year moratorium on sex with former clients.

And still. Therapists have the dubious distinction of being disciplined most often for violating this particular ethical code. In fact, they (we) outpace all other helping professions in this area, leaving lawyers, doctors, and even massage therapists in the dust.mother

But say your aspirational ethics around this issue are intact. Say you are really clear that you would never, ever engage in a sexual relationship with a client or former client, or with their family members. There are still a thousand different ways to violate client trust or for a counseling relationship to go off the rails.

The ACA’s code of ethics state that the primary responsibility of the counselor is to respect the dignity and promote the welfare of the clients (Section A.1). The document goes on to say that counselors must act in such a way as to avoid harming their clients (Section A.4). It’s a lot like the Hippocratic Oath: First, do no harm.

But what causes harm, exactly?

Consider the following scenario (borrowed from my Ethics textbook): You are the only counselor in a small town. Another therapist is a two-hour drive away. When you moved here, you became good friends with the school principal, and her son and your son are best friends. She asks if you would see her son professionally. His grades are slipping. He has started acting out at home. He’s defiant and surly. She doesn’t have time to drive two hours each way to take him to a different therapist. Could you just talk to him a few times? You want to help.

What to do? What to do? What could possibly go wrong?

How about this situation: You’re seeing a client who is a writer. You, too, dabble in the written arts. The client mentions his blog during a session, and as soon as he leaves you Google his name, find his blog, and settle in to read it. Your curiosity piqued, you search for him on Facebook. Research, you tell yourself. What you find out will help you understand him better. The next time he comes in you say, “Great blog! I have one too. You should check it out. And if you have any feedback on my writing, I’d love to hear it.”

ethics cartoonWhat’s wrong here? Why not bond with a client over a shared passion? Maybe trade a few sessions for a critique of the novel you’ve been working on. After all, the writer doesn’t have a surplus of cash. It would be a win-win. Right?

No. To borrow a phrase from Cheryl Strayed’s book of quotes Brave Enough: “The short answer is No. The long answer is No.”

You are the therapist. He is the client. It is a one-way street. You must consider all the ways in which your actions could possibly harm the client. You are not friends, buddies, colleagues. You are the keeper of deep secrets, a confidant, a compassionate listener, a mirror. Just in asking, you’ve violated the trust implicit in the counseling relationship. And the client is paying you for a service. Asking for a personal favor, for feedback places an extra burden on the client, a burden he did not sign up for.

Okay. One more. How about this? You are seeing a client who struggles with self-esteem, with feeling heard and being seen. She shares with you some of the poetry she has written. You tell her it is beautiful and moving and wonderful. You email her a couple of poems from your favorite poets and hope they resonate with her the way the do with you. She sends you more of her poetry. It really is beautiful, full of amazing metaphors and gorgeous imagery. You tell her as much. She should be published, you say. She glows in your effusive praise.

What? Is there a problem?

The short answer is Yes. The long answer is Yes. Now the client is seen. Now the client is heard. But by you. Instead of helping her gather her inner resources and find her intrinsic value, you’ve taken a short cut. Basically, you have given her the needle and the spoon and pushed the plunger down, mainlining self-esteem. You are now her source, her dealer, her heroin. Congratulations, you’ve created an addict.boundary issues

There are so many other things to consider here as well. What is poetry? Who sends poems? Poetry is the language of love. People in love send poetry. Poetry is metaphor—a word can have a thousand meanings in a poem. What you read and what the client meant might be vastly different.

What would an ethical counselor do in any of these situations? And why? An ethical counselor must always consider the needs of the clients first. In some respects, a therapist has to see the future and ask herself, “How will my actions and words now impact my client down the road?” “Will I be helping or hurting my client by taking this action?” “What is my motivation?” “Am I getting my own needs met or am I meeting my client’s needs?”

Instead of praising a client’s poetry, ask them what writing poetry does for them? What do they get when they create? How do they feel when they are writing? What’s their process? Explore. Ask questions. Help the client find her own meaning in her work.

I could write for days on this topic. But the bottom line is this: There is a power differential in the therapeutic relationship. The ethical therapist uses her power for the good of the client. Never for herself.

And I’d love to hear your thoughts on the scenarios I’ve presented. What could possibly go wrong in each of these situations? Let me know what you think!