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Married With Baggage
It is not uncommon for stepmothers to feel exhausted and depleted. It is not uncommon for stepmothers to feel misunderstood, used, taken for granted, and the scapegoat when things don't go well in the stepfamily system. It is not uncommon for stepmothers to feel more like posers and actresses than actual human beings.
And all this adds up to exacting a price that no stepmother should or needs to pay.
Because the role of "stepmother" is so vague and ambiguous for most, many stepmothers try to overcompensate, fix other their spouses or even ex-spouses messes, and negate their own needs in the process. But there is a solution and it comes in the form of two simple words:
Yes, boundaries connect. I learned this 2-word mantra many years ago in a training program and I've used it ever since, for my clients and myself.
It's important to have boundaries in our lives, especially when one is a stepmother. But this is tricky business, given the stepmother is the one with the invisible target on her chest that screams, "Blame me for everything!"
Stepmothers need to know when it's okay to put up the bright red stop. They need to know when they've done enough conceding, enough "gutting" their way through their weeks and days. They need to recognize the warning their bodies give them when it feels like someone is stepping on their chest and it feels hard to breathe.
You know that feeling...that feeling you get when you agree to something that you really don't want to agree to. That moment when you say "yes", and it's as if you can feel all your essence, all that is you, slip down and go down the nearest sewer drain.
That feeling when you walk away and you want to kick yourself. That moment when you've said, "yes" when you meant "no' and you blame the other person for "taking advantage of you".
And for what? Why do we do this?
To keep the peace?
To avoid the conflict?
To make life less messy?
To get the ex-wife to like you?
To save time?
To look like the good guy?
To make sure the stepkids love you?
To be a saint?
To be the perfect stepmother?
To be the perfect wife?
To make life easier?
To ensure the smooth yet illusive "blended family"?
Uh huh, I thought so.
And you know how that feeling just sits in your psyche and you feel anything from slow burning resentment to out and out rage?
Usually when we get to this point, we also tend to get into a bit of a victim mode. We are being taken advantage of, we aren't being appreciated, we aren't being valued, we aren't being seen.
I finally learned the invaluable lesson of "Boundaries Connect" when one of my daughters was 15 years old. We were on the way to get her driver's permit. Now, this daughter had been testy and feisty and difficult to get along with (Duh, 15).
I asked the unforgivable question, "So, how was your day?" 'WHY DO YOU HAVE TO BE SO NOSEY MOM? WHY DO YOU ALWAYS HAVE TO ASK ME THESE STUPID QUESTIONS???!!!"
Quick background. I was recently divorced from her father and full of divorce guilt and how my divorce was going to screw up my children for life, and how I was accepting perpetual rude behavior from this one in particular because I had put her through this divorce and would be forever more making up for it for all eternity.
Well, I had just learned about the power of the mantra "BOUNDARIES CONNECT" and the two words came screaming at me. I had had enough and I made an illegal U-turn in the road and headed the car back towards home.
"WHAT ARE YOU DOING? WHERE ARE YOU GOING? THIS IS THE WRONG DIRECTION!!!"
Me, in extremely calm mother voice, "You are not getting one more thing from me from this point on until you learn to speak to me with respect in a civil and polite tone. I will never apologize to you again about the divorce. It happened. It's done."
The screaming and ranting continued with the expected, "HOW CAN YOU DO THIS TO ME? I NEED MY DRIVER'S PERMIT AND I NEED IT NOW, BLAH BLAH BLAH."
No no. Wasn't going to do it. Wasn't going to turn around. The verbal barrage continued. We got home and she ran into her room slamming the door, threatening to run away, go to her fathers', call Social Services.
I handed her the phone.
From that point on, our relationship changed drastically. It moved into a relationship of love—my daughter stopped her ranting, her demands. And if she slipped, I'd look at her and say, "You're not getting one thing from me until you speak to me in a way that is respectful."
It didn't take long.
Stepmothers recoil when I tell them this boundary connects concept. It elicits fear. "What if I give a boundary and I get rejected?" "What if my husband pushes back?" "What if my stepchildren hate me for sure?"
I try to reassure. I can't tell you the times that the "Boundaries Connect" in action gives people more love, more respect. It's not about being stubborn or rigid. It's about being true to yourself and holding fast to the anchor of your being.
Ultimately, it's better to disappoint another to be true to yourself. And it's like that airline analogy. You know the one...you need to put on your oxygen mask first before you can help others.
We can't model self-love to our children, our stepchildren, our spouses, or our friends if we aren't self-loving.
So experiment today. Pick one small thing you're tempted to relinquish. See what happens...take a chance.
The only thing you have to lose is yourself.
Photo courtesy of Life Magazine
Here comes the bride and the groom. And her kids and his kids. And his ex and her ex. And her pets and his pets. And her family and his family.
When one remarries, they not only gain a spouse, they gain an entire village. And in this case, the axiom, "it takes a village to raise a child" usually doesn't apply. The reality is that for many, mass pandemonium ensues and all hell breaks loose.
I specialize in working with couples in remarriage and as someone who remarried when I had four teenagers, it would be an understatement to say that I understand intimately the challenges and struggles inherent in remarriage.
There's a reason I call my practice with these second hand roses, "Married with Baggage". Before their remarriage, many couples romanticized the notion of the "blended family" and getting another chance at love and marriage. They were determined to "get it right".
As anyone who brings to the marital table a pre-made family knows, the challenges of remarriage are not for the faint of heart. And there isn't a remarried couple I've worked with who has not experienced the balloon breaking disillusionment of the "blended" family myth.
What I have found in my work with these couples, and in my own remarriage of ten years, is that way too much time is spent on conflict about the children and the relationships with the ex-spouses. The guilt that individuals have over their previous divorce infiltrates the new marriage like a slow growing cancer. The guilt then metastasizes into full-blown angst over how the divorce and subsequent remarriage is affecting the children who quickly become the center of the newlyweds' focus.
Talk about a libido killer.
As these couples are legitimately tussling over the realities of stepfamily life, the bloom quickly falls off the rose of love that brought the two together in the first place.
Survival mode kicks in and couples find themselves in a marital rut as soon as the honeymoon ends and the realities of the complicated lives of stepfamilies begin.
It's been said that, "three's a crowd". The truth of stepfamilies is that not only is there a crowd, but often a messy hoarde of individuals who are all struggling to figure out how to figure out their place and role within the new "blended" family.
If these couples want to make sure they are not yet another dismal divorce statistic, it is critical that they take the time to find love in the midst of a crowd.
Without fail, when a couple comes in to try to sort out their complicated messes, I ask them if they have a consistent "date night" and the answer is always an abrupt, "No."
No date night is a potential deathblow to any marriage.
"Date night" is one of the most common recommendations any marriage and family therapist makes. It may sound like a cliché but it's not.
When my husband and I went on our honeymoon ten years ago, we went away for a month to lands far away where text messages and phone calls were difficult. The children were kept in regular contact but they were also put on alert that their parents were on their honeymoon and not to be disturbed (other than the obvious emergency that could only include imminent death or death itself).
We knew that when we got off that plane, there would be five children waiting for us. The phrase, "the honeymoon was over" became a reality as soon as our plane touched American soil.
Given that my teenagers were in the throes of angst and rebellion and were quite adept at crashing cars and getting under-aged drinking tickets, and my husband's daughter was only five and quite confused, the romance got swallowed up by the realities of focusing on the needs of the children to help them through this major life transition.
But we were also adamant about the non-negotiable rule we had made clear to them that our once a week date night was sacred and not to be messed with. We also made sure to get away for the occasional weekend, even if it meant holing up in some cheesy motel for a night.
Given that there is over a 70% divorce rate in second marriages, it is more than critical that couples give their marriage top billing. As an astute client of mine said, "We need to make our children our top responsibility, but we need to make our marriage our top priority."
Couples in remarriage don't have the luxury of hoping and waiting for the day they can truly focus on one another. They have to implant the priority of their relationship into the core of their lives from the moment they say, "I do."
As gimmicky as it may sound, couples in remarriage must build into their routines one-on-one time to reconnect after a busy day. They need to make date night a once a week priority. And an essential rule for date night: No talk of children, ex-spouses, finances or any other realities that could take away that loving feeling.
Couples need to use their date nights to fall in love once again, dream about the future, make plans and focus on one another.
After all, it's the reason they got married in the first place.
(My good friend, full of life at mid-life)
I'm all teary right now, a regular mess. I've been working on a baby shower invitation for one of my best friends and just sent it out. Flashes and images of my own children as babies are streaming through my mind, those most precious and innocent of years.
Fast forward to the teenage years when I was in the throes of four teenagers who were quite productive totaling four cars, getting four underage drinking tickets, and playing pranks that landed them in the local police station in the middle of dark and playful nights.
I was invited to a baby shower back in those days...those days of sleepless nights, middle of the night phone calls, and cab drivers who were well acquainted with each one of my children. I arrived at the Karmic Baby Blessing Shower (yes, remember I live in Boulder) with large bags under my eyes, harried, hormonal and particularly annoyed with one of my teenagers after his recent bold and loud pronouncement, "I hate you and you're ruining my life!"
We all sat in a circle with the mother-to-be; she, full of belly and new life, surrounded by those she loved...her cheeks rosy and her face expectant and excited about the new life she was about to bring into the world.
I wanted a drink and the decaf green tea laced with honey wasn't cutting it.
Before the gifts for the soon-to-be born baby were opened, the hostess asked each woman to give my friend a "blessing and a wish". I'm still hoping that my loud snort, a reaction as voluntary as a sudden twitch in the eye, wasn't heard.
As each woman softly and gently gave the imminent mother a blessing and a wish, the tears, ahhhh's, and handkerchiefs were in full abundance. Then it was my turn. I swear I had no intention of saying what I did, but this is what came out of my mouth in a very loud voice:
"THIS KID IS GOING TO BREAK YOUR HEART!"
Gasps were heard around the room. But did that stop me? Of course not. I continued,
"THAT'S RIGHT. THIS KID IS GOING TO BREAK YOUR HEART. YOU WILL POUR YOUR HEART, SOUL AND LIFE SAVINGS OUT TO THIS KID. YOU WILL USE UP EVERY BIT OF YOUTHFUL ENERGY YOU HAVE TO GIVE TO THIS CHILD WHO WILL NEVER APPRECIATE IT, NEVER GIVE YOU THE CREDIT YOU DESERVE UNTIL HE OR SHE HAS KIDS AND THEN YOU'LL BE LUCKY IF YOU'VE STILL GOT YOUR FACULTIES TO HEAR OR COMPREHEND THEIR GRATITUDE!"
I haven't been invited to another baby shower since.
But here I am, ten years later sending out invitations to a baby shower for my dear friend, and getting all sloppy sentimental about it.
And here's the deal with my friend. She will be 44 when her baby is born in March. Forty-four. That means she'll be 60 when her child will be getting his driver's license. 60...that age when retirement is on one's mind and thoughts of slowing down just a little to enjoy the fruits of your labor are the developmental task of the decade.
But not when you have a teenager. A teenager translates to loss of sleep, keeping track, crossing fingers and lecturing until you're blue in the face. Having a teenager means you better have a sizable reserve of energy, resilience, and patience to get through an age where your children find you old, antiquated and ignorant (which, let's face it, it doesn't matter how old or young you are...you will be a dinosaur to them).
My friend is not going to be making any headlines. In fact, 1 out of 5 women worldwide are waiting until at least age 35 to start their families.
These days, maybe it's true that the 40's are the new 20's when it comes to having children. But what does it mean for these children whose parents are practically eligible for AARP when they are born? What burdens will they have in their young lives with elderly parents who may need care and support before they graduate from college?
I envy my friend who is expecting her first baby at 44. Youth is wasted on the young. This is a true statement in so many ways. And what may be lacking in physical energy will surely be compensated for with wisdom, experience and the advantage and luxury of truly being able to get to know one's self before becoming a parent.
This child will come into the world with parents who have had fifteen years to build and secure a marriage that is solid and free of the dual task of growing up and being a parent at the same time. This child will come into the world with parents who have had the time to explore the world, build a solid savings account and be more than besides themselves with excitement that they are going to be parents in the late summer of their lives.
This child will come into the world with a mother who has the body of a teenager herself, a practiced Pilates and Yoga instructor and a father who is an osteopathic doctor who has the heart of a young warrior, eagerly anticipating the responsibility of nurturing and protecting the son he wasn't sure he would ever be able to have.
I think back on the outburst I had at that baby shower so many years ago. I still believe every word I said...being a parent will break your heart, over and over again. Sometimes your heart will be broken in the worst of ways, the ways where flood waters of pain and worry will course into the innermost places of your psyche and being. And sometimes your heart will be broken in the best of ways, when you see that your child no longer needs you or depends on you but delights in your company anyway.
Being alive is a miraculous event and age is just a number. I'll be a great support to my friends when their baby is born, but honestly, I won't be offering to babysit. I'm just way too old for that.
It was first thing in the morning and he came into my office with hesitation and reluctance. It was clear to me that showing up at that ungodly hour was the last place this 14-year-old boy wanted to be. His coming to see me was not his choice; just like his mother's wedding he'd been a groomsman in seven months earlier.
He sat on my couch, his discomfort apparent as he shifted his weight nervously from side to side, trying to adjust to the new surroundings and to me, a woman who was a complete stranger to him.
He surprised himself by opening up quickly. His words spilled out, landing on top of each other, words that had been suppressed for far too long.
When he was five, his father had been killed by a drunk driver. Memories of him had been diluted with time, but they were clear enough to remember the Dad he loved and still missed.
His mother had met a man only a year before...a man with two daughters and a son. The man's son was the exact same age as him. They had nothing in common.
His home had been sold, the home that was the preserver of the memories of his father, the home that gave him comfort on those quiet early mornings where he swore he could hear the sound of his father's voice declaring that another great day was yet to be had.
The new home was big enough, he didn't want to complain, and he had a room of his own. But his mother's new husband had lugged all three of his children with him and the boy felt like an extra, an outsider, a P.S.
His older brothers had moved on to the adventures of college and he had felt abandoned to navigate the wilderness of his new home and new life.
His eyes betrayed his feelings of powerlessness as he leaned towards me, his hands nervously outlining the edges of his well-worn baseball cap. He mumbled, "I don't want to seem ungrateful, I really don’t, but nobody asked me."
Nobody asked me. His muted pronouncement sounded like a glaring indictment.
"I resent how my stepdad comes into my room without asking. I hate how he tells me he loves me. I hate how he insists on weekly "family" meetings. He's not my family and neither are his children".
I was impressed with the boy's ability to describe how he felt at such an awkward age. I was impressed with the earnestness in which the boy spoke. I was impressed with the boy, an honor student, an excellent athlete, well liked by all...the boy who had had the rug pulled out from under him for yet another time in his young life.
I nodded in agreement as I listened to him. And I wasn't surprised. When his mother and her then-boyfriend had told me during a session several months earlier of their plans to wed and "blend" their families, I could see the big red warning sign illuminate my office.
They were blind to it. They were innocent and overcome with the hope that the pain of the man's divorce and the horrendous loss of the woman's husband were going to disappear with the merging of their families.
"We are going to be one big family and it's going to be wonderful!" they both exclaimed. "Our children get along so well!" They joked about being the next Brady Bunch.
I worried that I was becoming a cynic but I had seen this scene played out in my office one too many times.
I cautiously asked, "Are you sure you don't want to wait awhile? You've only known each other six months. High school is a tough time for any kid and any parent, and you may want to consider allowing your children the chance to make it through high school as scar-free as possible."
Their rush to happiness blinded them.
"Oh no! We want to get married soon and everyone will adjust just fine."
I looked at them and said in a not so subtle way, "Well, you both seem to be in perfect agreement on this, and I wish you all the best. You are about to go through the fires of hell, and I will be available to help you extinguish the flames that are sure to flare up and threaten to destroy!"
They thought I was joking and laughed. I told them I wasn't and they shrugged their shoulders. Three months later, for better or for worse, they got married.
Upon their return from their honeymoon, reality hit home like an unwelcome credit card bill after an impulsive buy. They had a household of unhappy campers, one of them being the well-spoken boy sitting in my office.
I worked weekly with the family for months to help them develop more realistic expectations and allow the patience of time and care to persevere.
Because of what the research says, my work with couples in remarriages and my own personal experience, I've lost my faith in the notion of the "blended" family. I am emphatic when I tell couples it is a myth...a strange notion perpetuated by people who believe in happily ever after who are still trying to find it.
Expectations are pre-meditated resentments in disguise. Having an expectation that you can take children from completely different family systems, beliefs, and traditions and throw them all into one home, like an Osterizer blender, and press, "Mix" and expect smooth results, isn't realistic, and it's not healthy anyway.
My four children were teenagers when I married my husband nine years ago. He brought (every other weekend) a reluctant five-year-old daughter into the mix, a young girl who wasn't too thrilled at being pulled away from the comfort and familiarity of her home with her mother.
Nobody asked my children and nobody asked her.
It's nine years later and there is no blended family. My children are now in their 20's. When we get together, they are their own family unit with their own familiar ways of relating, talking, and living their lives. My stepdaughter is 16 and is still an only child who is used to the ways and traditions of the home of her mother and the time she spends with her father.
And it's really just fine. Everyone is happy. Everyone has adjusted. It works because there are no expectations, no pressures, no false illusions of some newly formed family that pretends that no one else exists.
It's easy to get caught up in our own desires, in our own wish lists...but wish lists are just that. Magical thinking doesn't make things happen. But love, acceptance, patience and time do.
As for the children...it's important to ask the children. Not that they get to decide, but just so they know they are heard, that they matter, that they have a voice, that they count.
Having a "blended" family isn't a sign of success, but children who know they are seen for who they are, is. And there is no greater gift we can give our children than that.
(Questions, oh the questions that are really nobody's business)
In life and in remarriage (which strongly implies that there was a previous divorce for most), as women we are often asked personal questions that many of us seem compelled to answer.
Because of the complexities of remarriage, the questions can be especially invasive. People want to know about the divorce, the new marriage, the ex’s, the kids, the step-kids, on and on.
All the questions that are really nobody’s business.
I don't know why it's taken me years to realize this. I am by nature a very open person. I put myself out there. I'm vulnerable, I'm honest about my shortcomings. I'm sure I have blind spots, but I am willing to take a look at whatever patterns I have that may be hurting others or myself.
I also don't think I'm unique. I don't think that I am all that or anything special. I believe that at the core of it, we are more interconnected to one another as human beings than not. We all want to be loved. We all want to be seen. We all pretty much struggle with some kind of neurosis, some kind of anxiety, some kind of deep fear. This seems to be universal.
Because of this belief, there have been many times I have not been as protective as I could be of my privacy. I have given personal information to people who hadn't earned the right to hear it. People who weren't safe. I was and still can be an "over-sharer". Let me give you an example.
Years ago, I was nine months pregnant with my second child. My first child was only 14 months old when my second was born. I lived in Laguna Beach at the time, and sometime around my due date I was at the grocery store with my baby/toddler. There was a long line at the checkout stand. I started putting my groceries on the conveyer belt and the cashier looked at me, looked at my huge bulging stomach, looked at my son and said loudly, "Whoa! How did you let that happen??? Don't you know how it all works?”
Now, I can't tell you how many times I had heard that same obnoxious IT'S NONE OF YOUR BUSINESS question before. And I can't tell you how many times I answered it. I could just kick myself for how many times I answered it.
This time was going to be different. My face turned red and I tried to create a boundary of privacy and said, "Well, I'm sure your mother explained to you how these things work."
I was so proud of myself. It had no effect.
"No, really, I mean it. HOW DID YOU LET THIS HAPPEN TO YOU?"
I was a 28-year-old woman with a college degree. I had left the Catholic Church years before. However, I went into "obedience" mode and answered the woman's intrusive question.
"Well, you see, I was nursing full time, still got my period when my child was 7 weeks old and was using a diaphragm. I must just really be fertile."
She was shaking her head with disgust as if she didn't believe me.
I turned around and saw the long line of people leaning towards me uniformly as if choreographed, raptly caught up in the details of my fertilization and poor timing.
They were looking at me with huge grins on their faces, making no attempt to hide their unexplainable glee at my story.
I grabbed my groceries and my baby and walked out furious with myself. Why did I feel the need to explain my personal life to complete and total strangers? What the hell was wrong with me?
This pattern continued every time I got pregnant (which was 2 more times). "Oh, don't you know how babies are made? What were you thinking? Aren't you aware of over-population?"
Always the questions, the questions that implied accusation and judgment.... always me, trying to explain, justify, rationalize something that was nobody's business but mine (and maybe my husband's).
Years later during my divorce, the rude questions began again. I was the other half of the quintessential American dream couple. The couple Barbie and Ken would have been jealous of. The couple no one ever thought would get divorced. The questions were often and relentless.
People I hadn't heard from in years were suddenly totally interested in me. Phone calls came in like telemarketers on steroids. "Mary, I heard you're getting a divorce. I'm so sorry. WHAT HAPPENED?"
Again, the unnecessary need to try to explain "my side of the story". Again, the horrible feeling when I got off the phone after exposing myself, getting naked with those who didn't deserve to know, hadn't earned the right to know, having the sinking feeling that I had just been used. 99% of those people, once they got the "dirt" never contacted me again.
I started getting smart. And I started coming up with the perfect comeback line:
Obnoxious nosey person: "Mary, how did you allow yourself to have four children in under six years?"
Me: "WHY DO YOU ASK?"
Obnoxious inquisitive person: "Mary, why are you getting divorced?"
Me: "WHY DO YOU ASK?"
Obnoxious nosey person: "Mary, are they real?”
Me: "WHY DO YOU ASK?"
Ah ha! This began to work. People would stammer and stutter and change the subject. Some were like bulldozers and refused to be stop. For people like this I would usually relapse into my codependent need to be "honest". Again, I would chide myself and tell myself, "Okay, no need to beat yourself up, just keep working on it. It's a long-standing habit. Stay with it. Learn to say nothing. Learn to keep saying, "Why do you ask?"
I've spent a fair amount of time working on this. Deciding when I want to share, expose, be vulnerable. I continue to naturally be a person who is willing to share my humanness, but I’ve slowly learned to do it on my own terms.
I'm learning that every relationship, even the close ones, even the most intimate ones, need privacy...a place that is just between them and them. A place for me where it is just between "me and me".
My newest revelation has been on how this applies to my husband. My husband is a quiet man. I am a person who loves to connect with others. I love to connect with him. Sometimes when he's quiet, I pry. I probe. I get in his face.
"What's wrong? What's going on?”
"No, really what is it?"
"No, no, it seems there is something. Talk to me."
Inevitably, this leads to some kind of dance. One step in his face, one step he backs away, another step in his face, another step back. The dance that can commonly lead to a fight.
Perhaps this should have been obvious to me, but growing up in a large family with 4 sisters and 2 brothers, the boundaries weren't so clear. I've realized lately that even with my husband, the person I am the closest to, what's going on for him is really none of my business. He's aware that he can share it with me. I don't need to become an interrogator to know what is going on for him.
I'm discovering the power that space has. When I create that space for my husband, when I back off, leave him alone with his thoughts, it gives him the room to come to me...or not.
And I'm also realizing the value and worth of my own privacy, my own private world, my own inner sanctuary...that sacred place of relationship with only myself.
And perhaps the next time someone asks me a question that crosses that privacy line, instead of saying, "Why do you ask?" I will say with calmness and grace, "It's none of your business."
(This is not me or any of my friends, but if we died our hair brown and permed it, it could be)
Therapists drive me nuts.
Okay, I know that may sound strange coming from one. But seriously. I live in Boulder, Colorado where 1 out of 4 people is a therapist. I have my "normal friends" and then I have my "therapist friends".
The normal friends are well, normal. Screwed up like everyone else but not all analytical and microscopic about it. My therapist friends don't know how to leave the office at 5:00.
Occasionally, we (the therapist friends) get together for dinner. I go into observation mode. These women all talk about their practices and their clients. I don't get it. Why? Why are they talking about their clients? Why aren't they just relaxing and unwinding and talking about important things like Botox and shoes? Why are they acting like their clients are any different than them?
I know them. That one over there...her marriage sucks. Seriously, she should have ended it years ago. The one over there, the one who is way too skinny but works with eating disordered teenagers, she needs to purchase a mirror and fast. The one in red, she is one angry lady I can tell you that much. She needs some medication.
Sometimes I walk away from those dinners questioning myself. Why don't I talk about my clients? Why don't I compete with these other therapists and tell them about my practice and how successful I am with the most challenging of clients?
One time I invited one of my therapist friends to dinner with my normal friends. This was a big mistake. One of my normal friends was complaining about her husband...the kind of complaining women do that is therapeutic. The complaining where all the other women, myself included, nod our heads and say things like "What an ass" or "you poor thing".
My therapist friend went into therapy mode. She interrupted my friend (who has a kick ass marriage by the way) and said, "You know, AS A THERAPIST, I just gotta say that I think your husband must feel misunderstood by you, not heard by you, you might want to try, blah blah blah."
My venting girlfriend stopped in her tracks, stopped her words and drank her wine. There was an awkward silence.
I sat there embarrassed I had asked this therapist friend to come. My other friends sat there glaring at me. I had brought an unwelcome intruder to the party and she was ruining all of our rantings and ravings. What are girlfriends for if you don't feel free to complain about your spouse and kids? No one comes to dinner to be psychoanalyzed.
For a moment, when my therapist friend was throwing out her professional credits like medicine to a reluctant child, I questioned myself. Why don't I do that? Why don't I challenge my normal friends and try to get them to see that they are screwed up and doing it all wrong? Am I a wimp? Am I not professional enough? Am I not wise enough?
Self-examination is a tricky thing. As a therapist, my main rule is that I better walk my talk. I better be congruent and I better not suggest something to my client that I'm not doing, practicing or willing to do myself.
This makes for a constant lesson in humility. As soon as I get something down, some other inconsistency jumps up in my face with a big smile and a wave.
Some people compare self-examination to peeling an onion. They want to look at each layer, removing the layer and then examining the one underneath. They stop short of the analogy. It's fine to take a look, an honest look at oneself. It's fine to try to understand what motivates us to do the things we do. It's admirable to try to change destructive and negative patterns so we can become better people.
But peeling an onion inevitably leads you to nothing; there is no core to an onion. Sometimes self-examination is self-indulgent. Self-help becomes an obsession, an addiction, self-absorption.
The wise therapist does well to not take him or herself too seriously. The wise therapist does well to remember the Jeopardy satire on Saturday Night Live where "Therapist" was one of the categories and the Sean Connery character casually says, "I'll take THE RAPIST for $100 Alex".