Life Lessons

Know Pain, Know Gain

In last week’s post I urged you to examine your attitude toward big corporations – to stop seeing them as “Big Daddy” or depending on them for your security and future welfare.  I also gave you another challenge – to start seeing that none of us are automatically entitled to comfort and prosperity.  Here’s where I’m coming from on this.

We can all be reluctant to face the fact that life involves suffering and loss.  We’d rather think about what we feel entitled to and hold on to those things.  It’s hard to accept that our lives may not go the way we want.  Ultimately, we have difficulty accepting the fact that death will come for us all.

I want to propose a somewhat radical rethinking of this outlook.  I titled this post “Know Pain, Know Gain”, because I believe that if we don’t acknowledge our pain, we can miss out on all we stand to gain in life.

If we don’t accept the fact that pain, suffering, and struggle are an inseparable part of our lives, we will be living in an illusion.  Some people have been more upfront with their entitlement attitudes lately, but in fact most of us cherish a secret belief that our lives should be filled with comfort and ease.  Prosperity has turned our thinking around, many of us have made this mistake, and we’ve lost touch with our humanity and humility as a result.

What we’re finding out now is quite the opposite.  We are not entitled to prosperity and, in contrast, many of us are experiencing unfair, undeserved, uncaring treatment by banks and bill collectors.  We’re hearing that we’re not any good because we don’t have the money to pay our mortgages or our bills.  We hear we’re bad people, the bottom of the heap.  This is a lie.

But we still need to face the truth.  Struggle, suffering, pain, difficulty, and hardship are all a big part of life.  We don’t like having to face this, but it’s a fact.

There’s a second truth to face in all this, just as important as the first.  If we don’t let ourselves experience pain, suffering, and struggle, we will also never experience real joy and happiness.

One of the more difficult lessons I’ve ever learned is that the only way to know fulfillment and the deeper joy in life is by accepting suffering and pain.  They go together. To know one, you must know the other.

I believe our recent years of prosperity have caused us to lose our resilience.  When you look at people who have lived with hardship for a long time, like the people of Haiti who are suffering enormously now in ways that are hard to even fathom, what we hear is that they have resilience, they’re strong people.

In spite of overwhelming difficulties, they’re rising to the challenge to deal with their tragedy and loss.  Something about them is giving them the ability to cope.  In spite of their hardships, and the evil actions of some people in the wake of the devastation they’re experiencing, there’s so much goodness coming out, so much caring, love, and understanding.  These qualities are so important.

We need to get our capacity for resilience back, and we will.  But it will come through weathering the struggle and suffering of our current hard times.  We’ll learn to persevere and we’ll learn to be patient.  We’ll learn to hang in there and develop our own stronger, deeper sense of character.

This is an era we’ll probably never forget.  It’s a life-changing era and whatever comes after this, we’ll forever be affected by what we’re going through right now.  One thing I know for sure: we have the opportunity now to reshape our values in ways that will help our children, our grandchildren and our great-grandchildren.  We can become better people – stronger, kinder, more patient, hopeful, and loving.

So, hang in there.  These are most distressing times, but do the best you can, one day at a time.  Don’t let the obstacles, the hurdles, condemnation or any nonsense like that get in your way.  Find another path.  Keep going.

Never, ever quit.  Don’t let discouragement, despair, or defeat be permanent.  Get over it, pull yourself together, pull the pieces together.  Get up, keep going, and learn from this experience.  I’m right there with you.

The Key to Keeping Your Resolutions

New Year’s resolutions.  Some people make them every year, some never do.  Some of us occasionally try a few, thinking either “This time I’ll make real changes,” or, “What do I have to lose?”  Which kind of person are you?

Around January 1st, the media is full of “how to keep your resolutions” advice.  I noticed several articles this year with reasonably helpful suggestions.  Time and the Wall Street Journal both ran pieces worth reading, and eHow and resource articles contributed to the discussion.

Now, in mid-February, bringing up New Year’s resolutions and asking whether you are making progress towards your goals looks suspiciously like an exercise in guilt-slinging.  But I’m coming from an entirely different perspective.  I know lasting change is hard to achieve.

Let me say that again.  Lasting change is hard to achieve.  I want to see you fulfill your dreams and reach your goals.  I want you to experience life in a full and satisfying way.  And I want you to have the best chance possible to become the person you are meant to be.  And so I have a message for you about how to keep New Year’s resolutions, or Valentine’s Day resolutions, or Easter resolutions – any time is the right time to step out in a new and better direction.

Let’s start with one of the resolution “how-to” lists I mentioned above, which is fairly representative of the more helpful offerings.  Sue Shellenbarger of the Wall Street Journal lists these very practical suggestions:

  1. Take one step at a time
  2. Get a little help from your friends
  3. Change your environment
  4. Announce your intentions
  5. Figure out your attachment to bad habits
  6. Expect setbacks

I think these are all valuable suggestions.  You’ve heard me before on the value of not getting ahead of yourself, living one day at a time, seeking support, forgiving yourself, and being realistic.  But something essential and supremely valuable is missing from this list, and from every other list I’ve ever seen – something without which I believe real change becomes impossible.

The essential, almost secret ingredient for success, the absolutely necessary thing for keeping your resolutions, is the priceless quality of hope.  You must seek hope – in the midst of the difficulties and challenges of life – in spite of pain, doubt, and discouragement.  It’s not easy, especially now, during 2010, one of the most challenging new years for our nation.

In economic terms, things don’t look good right now.  Life as we’ve known it has been turned upside down.  To thrive during these hard times, you must learn a new way of living – living from a place deep within yourself that seeks out hope.

It’s important for you to begin to understand what happens when you face real challenges.  Today’s struggles can and will trigger things that happened in your past, during other difficult and frightening times.  If you are having difficulty providing financially for your family, or facing foreclosure or bankruptcy, it will bring up memories of other times when you experienced failure, shame, and regret.  Your outlook on the future can become flooded with overwhelming, negative emotions.  It can become hard in the present to see beyond your leftover, debilitating emotional reactions.

Here’s a resolution I want you to make, now.  Call it a For-All-Time resolution.  Resolve to seek a clearer, more hopeful life.  Resolve to work toward understanding your old emotional reactions, and not letting them dictate how you look at the future.  Giving in to negativity, fear, and hopelessness will darken your vision.  When we see clearly – not with vision blurred by the past – we can always find precious opportunities in the present.

Make a new habit; embrace a new way, the way of hope.  It won’t be easy, but it’s the only way that works.  This message is for you, this message is for me – it’s for every one of us.

Practical Entrepreneurship

Last week I declared 2010 to be “The Year of the Entrepreneur”.  I promised this week to give you a practical illustration of what it means to be an entrepreneur – which actions a real-life entrepreneur might be taking right now.  I offer myself as an example, not because I think I get it right, but because I don’t quit.  I keep trying new things, exploring new ideas, and pursuing new ventures until a path opens up or the door slams closed.

I’m doing a lot right now to grow my business.  Sometimes it feels like I never stop working; I take quick breaks and then get back to one project or another.  I won’t let myself get complacent.  I’ll put on however many “hats” it takes to fulfill my dreams for myself and my institute.

Here’s a list of the ideas and projects I’m working to develop right now.  I don’t know how many of them will pay off, but I’m determined to fully investigate their possibilities:

  1. Veteran’s Program
    Veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan need new kinds of help.  Based on my years of experience working with patients with physical and emotional trauma and PTSD, I want to develop new programs and skills, new types of evaluations and tools, and new treatment combinations to help veterans and their families with the traumatic aftermath of military service overseas.
  2. New satellite office in downtown Petaluma
    A new office downtown makes practical sense for the institute.  It would provide a convenient location for many of the programs I’m considering, such as the Veteran’s program, as well as for individual patients.  It would allow me to interact more closely with my community.
  3. Outreach to the Petaluma business community
    People in the Petaluma business community – like many communities now – have a tremendous need for practical support with stress.  They’re willing to work hard, but as hard as they’re working they’re barely surviving.  Our institute can come to them with support, encouragement, and professional help for the effects of their stress not only personally, but in their relationships, with their families and children, with their co-workers, and on the job.
  4. Training programs
    Segments of the professional community, such as police, fire, and other first-responders are under stress both financially and from the inherent exposure to trauma in their professions.  We can help them retain readiness and effectiveness on the job, and learn to maintain good judgment and discernment with the public, while they are dealing with the pressure from budget cuts.
  5. Debriefing programs
    Traumatic events take a toll on EMTs, police, fire, hospital emergency room doctors and nurses, as well as the military.  I’m in the process of putting together a debriefing intervention team to help affected personnel recover from horrific events or series of events.  From observing the victimization of the people they’ve dedicated themselves to serve and protect, these first-responders experience what I call “secondary trauma”.  We can help.
  6. Increase staff skills
    There’s always more my staff and I could learn to increase our ability to help people heal physical and emotional pain.  We can take workshops, read, and practice and expand our skills and sensitivities.
  7. Expand staffing
    I would love to see some new team members join our institute and bring new treatment tools with them to add to the types of therapies we can offer our patients.
  8. Fundraising
    Fundraising will be a key to our success this year.  In the past, my wife and I sustained the institute from our own funds when we took on patients with special needs who were unable to afford treatment.  With the economic downturn, we can’t do that anymore.  Our funds have been depleted due to the substantial needs for therapy that have developed lately.  I want to learn how to tap the great charitable spirit of our community, explore grants and donor programs, as well as government contracts and partnerships.  The learning curve for me in this area is extremely steep.
  9. New treatment protocols
    I anticipate that the institute will grow and our staffing will grow.  When that happens, I will need to have institute policies and treatment procedures documented and internal training programs formalized. In the past,  I’ve had the luxury of time for more informal, one-on-one development for my current staff.  I can see that will change and I’ll need new systems in place.
  10. New workshops
    I have given workshops to numerous professional, business, charitable, and educational groups.  I would like to expand the number of workshops I have available to offer and create proposals, outlines, and resources for them.  I want to have a ready, off-the-shelf series at hand for when I meet with people and groups in the community.
  11. Spiritual growth
    I’m not talking here about being religious.  I’m talking about deepening our spiritual connection in applied, practical ways.  I want to help my staff better deal with the tough impact and bombardment of pain, discouragement, hopelessness, and despair our patients bring to us as they seek resolution and healing.  I know we all – myself included – can’t do this work without God’s ever available support and strength.  He is behind everything we do at the institute
  12. Book
    Last year, I began writing the book I have been contemplating and formulating for years but have put off because I thought I was “too busy”.  I realized that if I didn’t start writing, it would never happen.  I have a fairly complete first draft finished.  Getting this draft edited and ready for review by agents and publishers is one of my top priorities.  My book will deliver a message that I want to get into the hands of hurting people everywhere, who are suffering from childhood trauma or the devastating effects of horrific events and experiences.  I want them to know – there is hope.

Several of these projects have been in process for some time.  Some are new this year.  If you check back with me in three month’s time about my entrepreneurial activities, I expect the list will look different.

But I welcome challenge and change.  Not because it always feels good, in fact it usually doesn’t.  I want to let you in on something to beware of – life in the “comfort zone”.  The comfort zone is comfortable, yes, but it’s also a trap.  It’s a sidetrack on your journey to a life of satisfaction and fulfillment. It’s a crippling temptation to stop, compromise your dreams, and be less than you are meant to be.

This is an especially long post.  I want you to really get a picture of what I mean by entrepreneurship, and to be your coach and mentor.  I want to inspire you to step out in your life and your business.

Entrepreneurs don’t quit and don’t give up.  They call on courage and strength to keep going, and rely on God, family and friends to stay on their path.  Let this be true for you.

The Year of the Entrepreneur

entrepreneur – “a person who organizes and manages any enterprise, especially a business, usually with considerable initiative and risk”


Last week I made a bold suggestion: I believe 2010 should be the Year of the Entrepreneur.  Why do I feel this so strongly?

I believe that many of the financial models and systems we’ve relied on in the past aren’t going to work well for us anymore. I doubt that banks and corporations will provide positive support for the future lives and livelihoods of the people of America.  It’s time for us to let go of “business as usual”.  We can’t linger over what we’ve lost or the way it used to be before this Great Recession.  Life will never be the same again.  Let’s move on, reinvent ourselves, and learn and embrace some new skills.

I believe strongly that the best model for personal and financial success is the way of the entrepreneur.  Becoming an entrepreneur is both financially smart and emotionally smart.  Being an entrepreneur draws on your creative juices and forces you to think on your feet in new ways.  It forces you to continually develop new skills and new ways to build your business.

Entrepreneurs are constantly on the lookout for emerging business opportunities and new needs starting to show themselves in the culture that they can build businesses around.  The best entrepreneurs work not only to build their own businesses and financial security; they also focus on finding ways to serve the very human needs of their communities that aren’t exploitive, opportunistic, or greedy.  The self-serving approach to doing business, so widespread until recently, must become a thing of the past.

Being an entrepreneur gives you more opportunity to grow personally than when you work for someone else.  It forces you to take more responsibility for the outcome of your business.  No one will be there to do your work for you, or tell you what to do.  You can and should gather expert advice and information, but ultimately only you will shape your own direction and goals.

Becoming an entrepreneur will help you rediscover the capabilities and qualities about yourself that you may have forgotten.  You will begin to explore – truly, it’s an adventure – and find the parts of yourself you lost while working for others.  You will be challenged to harness your strength and courage to overcome your fears of the unknown.

Issues of faith and trust will become paramount.  Being an entrepreneur will force you to examine where you really place your faith and trust, and where you don’t.  When you discover an area where you don’t have faith and trust, such as in your own abilities as an innovator or leader, that’s the area you need to go to within yourself to develop new skills and directions for your life.

This year, 2010, this moment, is a great time to embrace entrepreneurship.  I can’t recommend strongly enough how valuable it is to pursue.  Even if you work for someone else, you can take a more entrepreneurial approach to your job and your life.  Explore your options, study your opportunities, pay attention to your dreams.  Don’t be afraid to dream BIG.

Go out into the world determined to grow and make a difference.  Do well for yourself while doing good for others.  Believe in yourself.  Make this your year.

Next week: A practical illustration – the entrepreneurial actions I’m taking right now.

A New Yardstick

At the beginning of this New Year, many people – both patients at the institute and friends and acquaintances in the community – have shared a similar concern with me.  They express, in one way or another, that at the start of 2009 they never expected to end up where they are now.  They feel they should be further along, that they’re not getting anyplace.  In fact, many feel that they’ve actually lost ground, personally and financially, over the past twelve months.

I can acknowledge that this is how they feel, but I also recognize that they are speaking from their emotions and pain.  I have empathy and compassion for them and gladly share it.

At the same time, I want to offer them – and you too if you are struggling with similar thoughts – a fresh perspective.  I believe, truthfully, that most of us in fact are definitely moving forward.  It may not be tangible right now, it may look like we’re only treading water, but the truth is we are making progress.

For months, many of us have been working very hard just to keep up.  Or, we may not even be keeping up or meeting our overhead, even using our very best efforts.  When this continues for an extended period of time, when we are struggling to survive day after day, we get physically and emotionally exhausted.  We become vulnerable to negative emotions like worry, frustration, discouragement, and despair.

Our view of life can become dark and hopeless.  But let me assure you, that view is not an accurate picture of where we are.  We may not be able to see what’s at the end of this road that we’re working so hard to survive on, but there will be light at the end of the tunnel, these times and our efforts will pay off.

What we need – what I strongly encourage to my friends and patients – is to find a new “yardstick”.   We need to change the way we measure our progress and success.

Specifically, this means you must stop measuring your success in dollars and cents.  That’s an old yardstick we all have in us.  It can be easy to mark our progress in life by our savings account balances, the value of our homes, our cars, and other material possessions.  Let me offer you three ways to help you change your mindset and turn in your old yardstick for a new one.

  1. Stop trying to live up to your own unrealistic expectations.

I’m going to ask you a painful question.  Do you value yourself based on your net worth?  If your answer is yes to this question, at least part of the time, you’re not alone.  Identifying ourselves with our possessions, equating our worth as a person with our money and belongings is a temptation as old as man.  Remember you are a unique, valuable, irreplaceable human being with intrinsic worth and abilities.  You have immeasurable value in yourself and in the contribution only you can make to the lives of those you love and to your community.

  1. Stop trying to live up to others’ unrealistic expectations.

Here are a few more painful questions.  Does what other people think of you tend to run your life?  Do you see yourself mostly through the eyes of others?  Have you exchanged the pursuit of your own passion and calling for a pursuit of status or acceptability?  If you didn’t feel driven to live up to other people expectations, how would you see yourself differently, and what might you do differently with your life?

  1. Stop using “if . . . then . . . “ thinking.

Does this sound at all familiar?  “If I could get (fill in the blank) dollars saved in the bank, then I’d be happy” – or feel safe – or be ready for retirement – or able to go on a nice vacation – or free to try a new career, the list could go on and on.  This is a form of wishful, magical thinking.  It’s a way of postponing life and action.  The truth is that there are no guarantees.  As I’ve written about before, we don’t know what tomorrow will bring.  While planning is important, we truly need to live one day at a time, making the best of what is in front of us today.

I want to add one other thought from my recent experiences with patients and friends.  People who are in debt now and getting behind on payments are frequently being treated by lenders and creditors not as if they have made mistakes, but as if they are bad people.  They attack people’s self-worth in an effort to recover the money owed.  I think these tactics are despicable.  I’ll write more about this in my next post.

“Secondary Victims”: APA 2009 Conference, Part 2

As part of her presentation on PTSD at the recent American Psychotherapy Association conference in Las Vegas, psychologist Dr. Debra Russell of Beaufort, South Carolina identified and defined an important category of trauma sufferers – “secondary victims” of trauma.

Secondary victims, according to Debra, are a community’s first responders – police forces, fire crews, EMTs, and emergency room physicians.  These invaluable, heroic professionals witness traumatic events as a part of their daily job.   Hour after hour, they follow their calling to rescue primary victims of trauma, such as car accident victims, crime victims, and the victims of sudden heart attacks.

Debra knows her subject.  She is a former police officer.  She writes,

“Although most professionals in the field of PTSD or disaster responses have had some type of pre-trauma training or preparation, the most experienced may develop an unstable psychological response following a specific situation.  Police and fire academies have classes on trauma and PTSD reactions.  Emergency medical services (EMS) professionals have attended trainings that often explain the possible reactions following a horrific accident.  Physicians save and lose lives daily but for some reason, they become traumatized.  The most seasoned professional, including the medical and psychological fields, may develop PTSD after responding to many similar situations or one horrific scene.  In addition, observers of trauma may experience the traumatic effects of the primary victims, often with the feelings of powerlessness similar to the victim.  It appears that one day, something triggers the PTSD response for this person.”

Let me highlight one phrase: “The most seasoned professional, including the medical and psychological fields, may develop PTSD . . .”.  I strongly agree.

Over a period of time, professionals in the field of trauma treatment will themselves become traumatized.  It’s unavoidable; we’re only human, not superhuman.  It’s a hard thing for me to accept but it’s true.

We have to pay careful attention, all of us as treatment personnel.  There is an impact to helping people through trauma that must be addressed.  Our patients’ trauma can affect us as much as it affects them.

Here at the institute, we do our best to help our treatment teams with the impact of trauma.  We stress the need for professional self-care, including good nutrition, exercise, getting enough rest, and enjoying refreshing activities away from work.

I also want to mention another discipline that I feel to be absolutely essential – the therapeutic modality I created and call Reichian-Physical Release Therapy (RMFR).  RMFR provides real healing for trauma and its debilitating effects.  My staff and I use it regularly to remain effective in our work.

These actions are extremely important to preserve our ability to defuse the pain and stress we absorb from our patients.  But I believe that maintaining loving, healthy relationships with our spouses and families, along with nurturing our spiritual life and faith in a higher power, are even more essential.

Finally, I feel strongly that a passion for the work we do, combined with the humility to ask for help when we need it, sustains the mental health professional.

I’ve seen too many good people, people with the heart and skill to help others, neglect themselves and eventually burn out and become unable to function in their chosen field.  Caregivers must also care for themselves in order to continue to give to others.  Not that it’s easy.  But it’s vital, and I’m grateful for fellow professionals like Dr. Debra Russell who are helping get the message out.

Lessons for Surviving in Hard Times

Our current financial crisis is frightening.  Most of us have never seen things this bad before.  Any problems that existed before the crisis are intensified now.  The loss of a job or savings can feel like the final straw.  I have empathy, because I too feel the crisis.  But this is not the worst time I’ve ever gone through.

Before I became a psychotherapist thirty-nine years ago, I helped run my family’s construction business in New Jersey.  We were successful until we ran into difficulties with unions and organized crime.  They wanted control of our business and properties and we fought against them.  They were very powerful and there was no real help to be had.  We lost our business, our homes – eventually, we lost everything.  It was a very traumatic time in my life.

But it was also the time when I began to discover the direction for my life.  The discovery came about through my crisis and loss.  I realized that other things besides financial survival were important to me, such as caring for my employees and their troubles.  Even though I was young, my loyal employees loved me and trusted me.  Despite my very best efforts, my family, my employees – and I – all ultimately experienced a tremendous financial loss in our lives.

But out of that loss came much that I’m living out to this day.  It was the beginning of a complete change of life.  It left its scars, but at the same time it led me to a path I’m grateful to be on.  I’m fulfilled by the work I do.  Because of my experience, I’m able to help people today and offer them encouragement, hope and relief from their pain in ways I could never have dreamed of then.

I hope the following lessons from my experience of financial loss will encourage you.  These principles – and taking life one day at a time – have been of great value to me.

  1. Refuse to Take On the Spirit of Fear
    Don’t allow the spirit of fear, which is present on a massive level, to overpower you.  Try instead to rise above it.
  2. Deal With Reality
    Face reality; don’t bury your head in the sand.  Look at the hard facts of your financial situation, as painful and traumatic as they may be.
  3. – But Recognize that Facts Aren’t the Complete Reality
    Don’t let facts determine whether you’re happy or sad, fulfilled or miserable.  Acknowledge the value of non-tangibles, like health and family.
  4. Don’t Let Your Emotions Dictate Your Perspective
    Don’t let your emotions and history determine your outlook and future.  Don’t fixate on what’s been taken away or lost.  Be aware of it and then shift your perspective as quickly as you can. 
  5. Appreciate What You Have
    Embrace the things that really matter, like family and friends.  Recognize and appreciate the ways your life has been rich and full.
  6.  Examine Your Spiritual Life
    Where are you spiritually?  Is this an area you’ve neglected, or that you’ve used as an escape?  Seek spiritual guidance, and aim to trust in God’s provision while taking responsibility to do your part.
  7. Reach Out to Others
    You are not alone.  Many people are experiencing what you are, and far worse.  Be charitable because so many are in need.  If you can’t give monetarily, give of your time and yourself.
  8. Look for Opportunities
    Is this the time to develop a different career, to improve your relationships, or to grow in new ways?  What about your life needs to change?
  9. Find Help
    Examine your emotional life.  If wounds from your past are distorting your life now with fear, this is a good time to get professional help.  There’s help out there for you. 
  10. Don’t Give Up
    Hang in there.  Don’t let your finances determine your future.  There’s far more to life than that.  Through all that we are experiencing, I believe something will come out of this for good.