Families Matter/Family Matters February 2020 Edition!
Welcome to the February 2020 edition of Family Matters – Families Matter, our new blog authored and curated by FSDP’s Guest Blogger–pioneering harm reduction therapist, educator, advocate and author Dee-Dee Stout.
Good enough. I don’t know about all of you, but I stopped making New Year’s resolutions years ago. For me at least, they seemed just another way that I was saying to myself, “you’re not good enough”. And of course, we know how poor the outcomes are for those resolutions: according to one survey, only 8% of us follow through and successfully complete out resolutions. Ouch! However, this doesn’t mean I don’t have goals, or as I’m calling them now “a direction I’m headed right now.” Yes, it’s more cumbersome but it lands better on me. So what direction am I headed in 2020? The Land of Good Enough. And I’m not talking only in actions but mostly about getting OK with being “good enough” in all areas of my life. This may not sound very challenging but it sure is to me – and apparently also to several others with whom I’ve mentioned this topic. And why is that? Well, that’s part of what we’re going to explore in this New Decade’s Family Matters/Families Matter blog.
2020 is perched on a precipice of many important as well as disastrous moments in our lives: climate crises (now occurring horribly in Australia as I write this); elections including the Presidential this fall; racial & faith killings; further drug use crises & legalizations of (more) psychedelics; the coronavirus outbreak, and more. So how does this concept of “good enough” help us through these and other challenges? Let’s find out together.
I can’t recall when or where I first heard the phrase “good enough” but I’m pretty certain it was in something I was reading related to parenting. The general idea was that we are all unable to be perfect parents so perhaps embracing the concept of simply being “good enough” would be a positive move. Think of this as “harm reduction parenting”! Somehow, the author seemed to be saying, we need to let go of the need to be perfect parents as this is utterly unattainable anyhow. So what if we looked at that in relation to other areas of or lives too? Perhaps it’s due to my age now but I’m exhausted from trying to please everyone else: parents, children, students, even clients sometimes. And I don’t mean to suggest that embracing “good enough” means I am giving up on gaining new skills or learning. Not at all. To me, accepting I am “good enough” is the only way to make change. It was the brilliant psychotherapist and theorist Carl Rogers who said, “The curious paradox is that when I accept myself just as I am, then I can change.”
This is true of us in recovery especially. If I can only see what needs to change, I will get overwhelmed at the huge task in front of me. That will likely lead me to feel more stressed out which will likely lead me to increase my use of those old habits/behaviors that are causing me & others pain. It’s a vicious cycle. Where I think we get terribly confused is in the word “acceptance”. We seem to think that if we accept where we or someone else is, it means I agree with the behavior, that somehow I’m saying, “sure keep on doing what you’re doing; it’s ok with me!” Nothing could be further from the truth. The truth is we humans aren’t terribly adept at holding two competing ideas at the same time, what some consider to be the definition of “critical thinking.”
The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function. – F. Scott Fitzgerald
I’m working with a family right now (the parents and the son) who’s oldest son has struggled with chaotic drug use for some time. After hundreds of thousands of dollars spent, numerous types of treatment (some truly terrible, they now understand) and countless hours with me, things seemed to be in a pretty good place. Then the bottom fell out: he overdosed. Thanks to Narcan, he is alive. Things went well again for a brief period and then again, his drug use got out of control.
In another family, the son did well this semester only to suddenly drop out this semester. The had tried a new therapy and was really hopeful even after more trials of medications than either of us can count in the past 5 years. But now, with yet another “failed” attempt, his depression has returned.
These are familiar stories to most of the families I work with and hear from, but also from their loved ones chaotically using substances. It’s tempting to get angry and frustrated, or to even want to quit trying (me too as I’m also human!). But what we really all need to focus more deeply on in scenarios such as these is that we’re all doing the best we can in some pretty awful circumstances. And we definitely need to have more compassion for each other, along with some ‘radical acceptance’ of the reality of all our unique circumstances.
“Believing that something is wrong with us is a deep and tenacious suffering,” according to the book jacket of Tara Brach’s remarkable book, “Radical Acceptance.” She goes on to discuss the trap of our habits that often occurs, calling it “the trance of unworthiness.” I love that idea: I’m in a trance and that’s why I’m having such a hard time making a change! And after all, if I’m not worthy of change, why should I bother? I know that’s how I felt during my 2 decades of troubled drug use. And I had lots of people around me in their own trance unable to see me as anything but a damn drug addict. It wasn’t until I had people who deeply believed in me and my ability to make change – and managed to get my own tiny amount of acceptance of where I was – that I was able to begin to recover from a lifetime of pain. It wasn’t quick nor without pain but I wasn’t alone and I had purpose in my life again. So how do we start this practice of self-acceptance? There are several ways of course and I encourage you to seek one or more that feels good to you. One that I’ve just become aware of and use myself as well as with clients is something fairly new called “Mindful Self-Compassion.”
“Mindful Self-Compassion” is a way to “[learn] to embrace yourself and your imperfections [and] gives you the resilience needed to thrive.” Why do so many of us have such a difficult time loving ourselves? I suspect much of this comes from our false belief that loving oneself means thinking we’re perfect or better than others. Or perhaps it comes from the seemingly nearly universal idea that if we’re loving ourselves, we’re self-centered or selfish. Nothing could be further from the truth! Self-compassion, according to Neff & Germer, has none of these traits. And in fact, they argue that if we can’t learn to love ourselves compassionately, we also can’t do so for others. It’s also just good for us: “Individuals who are more self-compassionate tend to have greater happiness, life satisfaction, and motivation, better relationships and physical health, and less anxiety and depression. They also have the resilience needed to cope with stressful life events such as divorce, health crises, academic failure, even combat trauma.” We don’t have the research yet but I’d say it’s safe to assume that cultivating mindful self-compassion would also lead to better parenting and possibly even reduce the need for medicating ourselves so much (for me the term “medication” includes prescription drugs as well as illegal substances used problematically).
So how does this translate in relationships to others? Neff & Germer believe that there are “2 types of relational pain: connection, when…people we love are suffering, and disconnection, when we experience loss of rejection and feel hurt, angry or alone.” They believe that we are each responsible in part for each other’s emotional states, which they call “emotional contagion.” This of course flies right in the face of those of us taught that we are ONLY responsible for our own emotions and NEVER for others (they are responsible for their own feelings). Perhaps we got that one wrong? In the meantime, let me share with you my favorite brief meditation that I’ve used for more than 20 years. It is in the lovingkindness tradition so fits with our discussion of Mindful Self-Compassion and can be used as way to take a “Self-Compassion Break” the next time you find yourself upset with someone, including yourself:
With your eyes open or closed, in any position you are in though sitting is generally thought best (but I use this walking & even while driving). Repeat the phrase below 3 times and between those repetitions, breathe deeply in through your nose (holding briefly) and exhale through your mouth.
May I be filled with lovingkindness
May I be well
May I be peaceful and at ease
May I be happy*
(*A suggested substitution here if you find “happy” to be too uncomfortable or challenging right now, use the word “kind to myself.”)
Now I’m not going to suggest that these ideas of radical acceptance and mindful self-compassion are easy for most of us to attain. I’m constantly practicing these concepts. But I do best when I’m able to accept where I am and appreciate that I’m doing the best I can right now: sometimes that’s great and other times, I struggle frankly. What I’ve learned in my 6-decades plus of life is that I’m not alone and if I keep actively working on these notions of mindfulness and self-acceptance/compassion, I am able to feel like I really am “good enough” some days. And that’s definitely a positive change. That also seems like a “good enough” place to begin for this New Decade. Join me.
All images courtesy of unsplash.com
 https://finance.yahoo.com/news/many-people-actually-stick-resolutions-214812821.html?guccounter=1&guce_referrer=aHR0cHM6Ly93d3cuZ29vZ2xlLmNvbS8&guce_referrer_sig=AQAAAIQ_LjZjZKDh5IS6cLk99vcJy7ccHqZ-nekHQEYlSjWWoodJzCrPYCVy7agi8zV5u3IVgQg5iPY6qFzA1hSTjukhnAktz9jeKj0oyFWxWJfYMsEuBzoxmTPGK-BcMOcyR-AkIAEtkDnCed8TB99shKGMRrvI94ZXibZZpXhG20n8. Accessed 1.23.2020.
 From “Radical Acceptance” by Tara Brach. Bantam Dell, 2003. P24.
 “The Mindful Self-Compassion Workbook”. Kristin Neff, PhD & Christopher Germer, PhD. The Guilford Press, NY. 2018.
 Ibid. p1.
 Ibid. p130.
 Ibid. p34.