Using Your Blue Mind



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I came across this book while reading a recent issue of Psychology Today.  By the way, Psychology Today is a great magazine.  You might not agree with everything going on in modern psychology, but there is usually a gem in every issue–even a tiny one.  Like this book recommendation.

The Washington Post reviewed it recently, and the last time I checked it was #12 on the New York Times list of best selling science books.  Not too shabby.  So, what did the Post have to say about Nichols’ book?

““Blue Mind” is a fascinating study of the emotional, behavioral, psychological and physical connections that keep humans so enchanted with water. Nichols examines seas and oceans, lakes and rivers, even swimming pools and the contents of our bathtubs in a study that is both highly readable and rooted in real research. He is a marine biologist whose passion for our planet’s water goes far beyond the classroom. He urges us to get closer to water, not only for our own sake but for the environment and a healthier future for us all. The blue mind of the book’s title refers to the neurological, psychological and emotional changes our brains experience when we are close to water. Nichols draws on science and art, hard data and anecdote, and plenty of experience, to explain our blue mind in detail. Not just what it is, but how we can enter into this state and — perhaps most important — why we should do so…The benefits of nurturing our blue mind go beyond just feeling good. Our blue mind is up against two other common states, as Nichols explains: red mind (stressed, anxious, overactive yet underproductive) and gray mind (numb, lethargic, demotivated and unsatisfied). Red and gray mind states are products of our modern lifestyles, habits and choices. Blue mind is a natural state that we all instinctively know but that many of us have forgotten…Ultimately, Nichols suggests that being close to water can make us not only happier, calmer and more emotionally healthy, but also more successful in life, relationships and even business. By tapping into an evolutionary urge that lies dormant in us all, we can access a powerful mental capacity for greatness. It’s something we all have the ability to do. This book shows us how to recognize it, stop ignoring it and tune in to it.” (Nicola Joyce, Washington Post)

Well, that’s interesting.  I grew up near water.  I have always lived near water.  I have always said that I could not live in a place where there was no water, and I never have.  I was even a competitive swimmer.  I can relate to the points raised in this book.  But, I wanted to make this premise more accessible.  I live in lake country, and living on and around lakes defines the culture of my state.  Many people live with lakes in their backyards.  We are not those people.   We live in an urban environment.  How could I bring the water here? Macro to micro as it were?

I decided to pick a place of high conflict in our house and add a source of water–the dining room table.  Everyone gathers at the dining room table to do homework, crafts, and eat.  It’s the place to be, and it’s the place to be contrary and persnickety in our house apparently.  Oh the arguments that have started in this space.  Rather than continue to henpeck everyone for arguing, I wondered if I could discourage cantankerous moods by adding more peace? Something like ‘Be the change that you want to see’? Make the space more beautiful.  More lovely.  And, of course, add a source of water and find out if Nichols’ notion was worth anything in a home environment.  The spas, hotels, and high end restaurants certainly take advantage of the idea of the blue mind.  Could I?



i added a rock fountain to a rather inconspicuous corner.  It’s not a loud fountain.  One has to be quiet to hear it, but that might be the point.  So, what happened?

Doireann sauntered in as she does and commented, “I like that.  It’s very Zen.”  She started spending more time at the dining room table.  Eadaoin is very high affect so she squealed with delight.  “Ooooh! A fountain! Pretty!” She sat directly next to it when she ate.  Grace commented as well.  “I like this very much.  It’s peaceful. ”  Milly wasn’t sure about it because it was different.  What I did notice was that when someone started to argue, another girl said, “Hey, we should stop.  Mom went to all this trouble to make it peaceful in here.  We should respect the peace.”

Did you catch that? “We should respect the peace.”  I didn’t tell them to do that.  Somehow adding a new element–a source of water–into the room changed the environment enough that the girls responded in such a way that they wanted to maintain the atmospheric change.  They wanted to behave in a way that would promote peace–at least in that space.  They also enjoyed the effect that the changed atmosphere had on them.  That’s significant.

It’s not easy to get kids to take ownership of their own home environments, but when it happens it’s a big deal.  In any case, I recommend Nichols’ book to you as well as perhaps introducing a small source of water into your own home.  It’s not a big investment, but it might produce huge dividends.


Willing Partnerships

I underwent hip arthroscopy for a labral avulsion last Wednesday.  I had hoped for the debridement which meant that I’d be on crutches for a week and PT for a month.  Instead, there are now tiny anchors somewhere in my hip “anchoring” the detached labrum to its proper place.  It’s not a bad surgery really–two small incisions; but, it means four weeks on crutches and three months of PT.  Four to six months until I’m completely back to normal.  I can’t quite accept this.  I feel like I had the surgery months ago, and it was only eight days ago.  I have named my crutches Tweedle-Dee and Tweedle-Dum.  

If you are a person who is a primary anything, then you might understand my next statement.  I feel like I’m going nuts.  I’m anxious.  Really, really anxious.  I have been the primary caregiver and doer-of-everything for almost eighteen years.  I can’t even unload the dishwasher now.  It’s an event to even get out of bed.  I hate it.  I haven’t left the house.  I don’t know when I’ll be able to drive.  I certainly can’t go to the grocery store alone.  I need help with everything.  I have become dependent upon everyone around me for help.

This reminds me of an exercise I had to do when I was in college.  When I transferred from that tiny private college in New York state to the giant mega-versity in Minnesota, I got a job lifeguarding and teaching swimming lessons.  It wasn’t good enough that I had five years of experience or the gold standard Red Cross certification.  I had to go through another week of training because i would be working in a world-class facility designed to host NCAA and international competitions.  If an elite athlete needed rescuing, then we lifeguards would be the people to do that.  So, we were put through an exceptional amount of training and preparation.  We were also put through a great deal of diversity training.  

The exercise that stands out to me as I write this involved pairing off with another guard.  His name was Volkan.  He was from Turkey.  He was very respectful, kind, and handsome, as I recall.  He once told me that his name meant ‘volcano’, and then he said, “Like a volcano, I am peaceful on the outside but hot underneath,” and then he winked.  I was, therefore, very uncomfortable when we were put together for this exercise.  He always wore a tiny Speedo as many non-American males are wont to do, and I was wearing my red swimsuit with LIFEGUARD practically spackled across the chest.  He was required to blindfold me, and, for the sake of the exercise, I had to pretend that I was blind.  That was to be my temporary disability.  I then had to ask him where the bathroom was located, and I had to trust him to lead me from the entrance of the very large facility to the women’s locker room.  He tied the blindfold around my eyes very tightly.  I couldn’t see a thing.  I felt overwhelmingly vulnerable, and I also wondered if Volkan liked the exercise more than he should, recalling his prior flirtatious wink.

After I overcame my feelings of vulnerability, I felt paralyzed, leaning over, shuffling my feet.  All I could hear was Volkan’s voice guiding me.  He wasn’t supposed to touch me.  That was one of the requirements of the exercise.  We were supposed to respect every person that came into the facility and respecting their bodies was a requirement.  We could never just assume that we could touch them.  Sure, it would be easier to grab someone by the arm and lead them, but that’s pedantic and disrespectful.  What adult would want to be treated like that? I had to trust a guy that I barely knew to get me from point A to point B, and I felt almost exposed, blindfolded in my swimsuit.  That was the point though.  How might it feel to be blind? How might it feel not to know the way? How might it feel to need help from a stranger but not just a stranger? A strange voice? In a strange environment surrounded by strange noises and the echo and reverberations of bodies slapping against water, wet feet running past you? It’s disconcerting not to mention being half-dressed.  That, too me, amplified my dislike.  Would it have been so difficult had I been wearing pants? I like to wear pants.  I feel like I need them. 

Volkan did successfully lead me to the women’s locker room.  The sadist in me found comfort in knowing that Volkan had to wear the blindfold, too.  I had to lead him to the men’s locker room without touching him guiding him only with my voice.  It was a lot harder than I expected it to be.  I had such a strong urge to reach out and grab him saying, “Oh just come on then!” Do you know how long it takes to lead a blindfolded person through a huge facility to the locker room? A bloody long time! I realized how impatient I could be, and I saw how patient Volkan was.  We got to be friends after that.  I admired his fortitude, and he liked my “American humor”.  Had the term “snark” been in use back in the mid-90s, he would have used that word instead.  The two of us were continually scolded for not taking the exercise seriously enough.  That was my fault.  I kept saying inappropriate things while blindfolded.  What? I had to defend myself! I wasn’t wearing pants!

There are many metaphors embedded in this experience, but what stands out to me the most right now is the sudden loss of independence and self-reliance.  What did it feel like to be forced to rely on someone else’s perceptions of reality? What did it feel like to need another person so resolutely? How did I feel then when I couldn’t see? What would it have been like if Volkan would have been impatient, unkind, and expected me to act like a seeing person? 

I think of Grace as I write this or even Milly.  I think of anyone with a deficit who is expected to perform as if they are not deficient.  We are all deficient in some way, but many of our deficiencies don’t impact our lives in a significantly measurable way.  Mental illness, however, can impact us.  It can disable us.  Ask anyone who has endured a season of depression if their ability to function was impacted, and they will tell you that it was.  What about anxiety? Anxiety can be a crippling disability.  And, then we step into the realm of mood and psychotic disorders.  Entire families can be disabled.  

This diversity exercise worked between Volkan and me because we were both willing, and that also stands out.  I was willing to be led, and he was willing to patiently lead me.  It was a good partnership.  What if I had refused to engage or believed that Volkan was entirely responsible for me? What if Volkan refused to help me, not respected my dignity and dragged me to the locker room, or had begrudgingly helped me but had done so with a negative attitude? There are so many ways a partnership like that could go when applied to reality.  What if I believed that Volkan was out to get me or actively trying to hurt me, or Volkan resented being asked for help because he was in denial? He believed I wasn’t really blind at all.  This is a common dynamic in families where mental illness is diagnosed in a child–denial.  An effective partnership becomes next to impossible in that scenario.

Willingness is key, isn’t it? Willingness is one of the core DBT values that Eadaoin and I have been learning.  You don’t accomplish much in life if you aren’t willing.  There must be a willingness to listen, to learn, to practice perspective-taking, to validate, to be humble, to be open to other ideas and solutions, to try again, to try something new, to be wrong, to ask for help, to accept help, and to admit that you don’t know but that, given that you are willing to try again, you might very well know at some point.

For me, I have to be willing to sit this month out.  I have to be willing to let others do for me, and I’m not accustomed to that.  That means that the laundry will be folded differently.  Towels will be hung differently (we all have our ‘things’).  The girls will be eating a lot of gluten-free chicken strips, and my bed looks like a gerbil nest because my husband doesn’t know how to make it.  I have to be willing to look for what works and give up my perfectionism and ambition to do it all so that my hip heals properly.  I have to find the willingness to practice mindfulness and radical acceptance.  It’s easy to say.  Hard to do.

This experience also gives me new insight into Grace’s world.  She apologizes a lot because she feels like she’s always asking for help.  She feels like she’s too dependent, and, well, she has become dependent.  That, however, is not her doing or her fault.  It is the nature of her illness.  Right now, I need help with everything.  I can’t even carry a cup of coffee because I need my hands to use my crutches.  I am forced to rely on everyone around me as is Grace.  It is very unpleasant.  I feel very anxious.  I understand, at least a little bit, why Grace feels so much anxiety.  But, as long as she’s willing to ask for help and I’m willing to help her, we’ve got a working partnership.  I can reassure her that I don’t mind helping her because that’s what I need.  I see this now.  I need my husband to tell me that he doesn’t mind helping me.  What would be even better? I would like him to say that he likes helping me because he loves me.  That’s what I need to tell Grace then.  It’s a privilege to help her.  That would be even better.  I think that it’s normal to fear being a burden.  Why would it be different for her?

Enter willingness.

She’s willing to show up and so am I.  And, I think that’s true for every partnership in life.  Both people have to be willing to participate.  If you’ve got that, then you can go somewhere together.  



Ignorance and Suicide

I want to address something. A friend of mine emailed me a link to a blog post this morning:

Robin Williams didn’t die from a disease, he died from his choice

Here are some quotes from Matt Walsh’s post written in the wake of Robin Williams’ passing:

“Suicide…I can’t comprehend it. The complete, total, absolute rejection of life. The final refusal to see the worth in anything, or the beauty, or the reason, or the point, or the hope. The willingness to saddle your family with the pain and misery and anger that will now plague them for the rest of their lives.”

“It’s a tragic choice, truly, but it is a choice, and we have to remember that. Your suicide doesn’t happen to you; it doesn’t attack you like cancer or descend upon you like a tornado. It is a decision made by an individual. A bad decision. Always a bad decision.”

“It makes us feel better to say that depression is only a disease and that there is no will and choice in suicide, as if a person who kills themselves is as much a victim as someone who succumbs to leukemia.”

“First, suicide does not claim anyone against their will. No matter how depressed you are, you never have to make that choice. That choice. Whether you call depression a disease or not, please don’t make the mistake of saying that someone who commits suicide “died from depression.” No, he died from his choice.”

“Second, we can debate medication dosages and psychotherapy treatments, but, in the end, joy is the only thing that defeats depression. No depressed person in the history of the world has ever been in the depths of despair and at the heights of joy at the same time. The two cannot coexist.”

I will now give you this:

Mutations on three genes could predispose people to suicidal behavior

The genetic basis for suicidal behavior

I will also give you this because Mr. Walsh’s post smacks of gnosticism:

The Matter of Knowing

Stigma is still an issue today because of the prevailing attitude in Mr. Walsh’s post.  What is that attitude? Choose.  Pull yourself up by your own bootstraps.  Get over it.  Stop being so selfish.  Find your joy now! It’s time to stop feeling so sad.

The reason he can’t comprehend suicide is because he isn’t clinically depressed.  Mentally healthy people should not be able to comprehend suicide.  Suicide is indeed a symptom of mental illness.  If you are mentally ill particularly with mood and thought disorders, then suicidal ideation will not be new to you.  This is why one of the criteria for a mixed state is suicidal ideation.  It’s not a choice.  People don’t simply choose to end their own lives.  They don’t choose to ignore joy.

Joy is an impossibility for certain mental illnesses.  

I don’t expect Mr. Walsh to comprehend this.  I didn’t recognize the face of these diseases until I saw them in my daughter’s countenance.  I did, however, grow up with a parent who tried to commit suicide many times.  Both my paternal grandparents died by suicide.  A family friend died by suicide a few years ago.  Looking back, I can see how he declined.  I don’t believe that he chose to die.  I believe that his suicide was a symptom of his untreated mood disorder.

I respect Mr. Walsh’s right to voice his opinion, but I vehemently disagree with him.  His view is one of the reasons why stigma still exists today particularly in the Church.  His post is judgmental and shaming, and it is ignorant.

I do, however, agree with him on one thing.  Where there is life, there is hope.  Feelings are not facts.  You might feel like you can’t go on.  You might feel worthless.  You might feel like if you disappear today, then no one would miss you.

Those are all feelings.  They are not facts.  They are not truths.  What is true? You are valuable simply because you exist.  Hold on to that.

And call this number or visit this website:

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline or 1-800-273-TALK (8255)


Not So Different After All

A friend sent me this article, Seeing the Child, Not the Disability, this morning.  It’s a short op-ed written by Dr. Dennis Rosen, a pediatric pulmonologist practicing in Boston.  He’s one of the good guys as revealed here:

I started my pediatric residency 18 years ago this summer, two months after my oldest was born. Over the years, I have cared for thousands of children with all sorts of conditions, and I try to connect with each and every one of them in a special way. With some, I talk about what they’re reading, the sports they’re doing, the instruments they’re playing, their dreams or their fears. With others, the communication is nonverbal, whether they are babies who haven’t yet learned to speak, or their development is delayed. I have yet to meet a child who fails to kindle my compassion or to bring out in me the most basic desire to try to help.

What he wrote next, however, may either bother you or cause you to almost produce an emotional yawn:

Perhaps this is why I was so shaken by what I had just heard, about mother and son being shunned by others who were unable to see the son she loves as a child instead of as a condition or disease.

I read this statement, took a sip of my coffee, and initially thought, “Aw, muffin.  It’s okay.  I was shaken the first time I experienced this, too.  You’ll get angry the second time it happens.  The third time? Well, you’ll just be used to it.”

Shunning children, teens, and adults because they are viewed only as a representation of their illness is more than just common.  It’s an expectation.  We know that it will happen because we expect it.  It’s called ‘stigma’.

Eadaoin watched girls in her school call the special needs students “monsters”, and she was mocked for choosing to sit next to them at lunch and in art class.  According to Eadaoin, however, they were sweet, and she enjoyed making friends with them.  It was true that they had communication delays, and one of the boys was a “hugger”.  He would often hug Eadaoin too hard and hurt her, but she understood that he was trying to communicate.  One girl could only grunt and vocalize to communicate.  This didn’t bother Eadaoin.  She saw them as people not defined by a disability.  Just people.  Like her.  Because they are.

I witnessed something very different, however, a few weeks ago at our local “splash pad”.  My friend and I took our girls to the park, and her little girl was desperate to get wet in the fountains of water.  Her daughter has epilepsy.  Grace has COS.  Milly has an autism spectrum disorder.  Taking those three together anywhere is always interesting.  As we watched Grace ride herd on my friend’s daughter and Milly, we both noticed a boy with low-functioning autism.  He was ecstatic to be in the water, jumping, flapping, smiling, and awkwardly running back and forth between what were clearly two favorite sources of water.  He had an aid who was shadowing him, giving him a wide berth to enjoy himself.

My friend and I enjoyed watching this boy.  We own a company that produces material for ASD children and caregivers and professionals who work with children on the autism spectrum so we began discussing what is known about ASD children and water.  They love water.  Consequently, there is a higher risk of drowning for ASD children than for neurotypical children due to this simply because they will often run from a parent or caregiver when they spot a lake, pool, or fountain; and, ASD children are runners.

As we watched our children and this boy, we noticed that a girl had come on the scene.  She didn’t appear to be a kind girl.  She reminded me of Veruca Salt from the Roald Dahl novel Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.  She was loud and abrasive, and she had “bogarted” this boy’s favorite water toy–the firehose.  It was something that looked like a large hose that could be aimed, and this girl decided to aim it directly at this boy’s face and chest.  It didn’t matter where he went on the wet playground.  She sprayed him in the back of the head, upper back, and face.  And she laughed.  When she felt convinced that he was far away from her she would then screech, “Mom, look at me!”

My friend and I turned to look at her mother who was, in keeping with Roald Dahl’s creation of characters, a caricature of a woman with a beehive hairdo, huge bosom, and large teeth.  She was pointing and laughing! My friend and I were incredulous.  I am one to sit back and observe before allowing my anger to influence me.  My friend, however, was viscerally affected by the sight before us.  I think I was in denial.  Could this really be happening?

The boy tried to communicate to the girl that he did not like being blasted in the face with water by putting his hands in front of his face and grunting, but the girl continued to blast him in the face with water.  Over and over again while laughing and jumping up and down.  I looked at her mother again who was…laughing.  My friend muttered, “Twat…” under her breath.  I looked around at everyone.  There were mothers everywhere.  This situation was impossible to miss.  Everyone was looking away.  The boy’s aid looked utterly helpless.  He was looking at this girl’s mother as if to plead for an intervention.  Clearly, the girl’s mother was as pleased to bully a special needs child as the girl herself.

What do you do? We felt compelled to do something.

My friend and I decided to intervene.  I clandestinely told the 16 year-old city employee stationed outside the splash pad about the situation while my friend stood behind me, arms crossed, looking intimidating.  I thought it would be pointless.  What is this poor kid going to do? Instead, he looked enraged.

“Show me who the mother is.  Where is this girl? Thank you for telling me.”

The situation ended quickly thereafter with the mother and the girl leaving tout de suite.

This is a perfect example of an adult and her offspring viewing a child solely as their disability.  He wasn’t really a person with value because he looked different.  He couldn’t speak.  He ran around awkwardly.  He flapped.  He grunted.  People like that don’t have feelings, right?


They do.  More than they can even begin to communicate.  As Dr. Rosen goes on to express:

I couldn’t help recognize the cruel irony of these strangers withdrawing from this child because of the very sounds and movements that he uses to try to interact with them, undeniable expressions of his humanity.

I realize that my friend and I can be firebrands, but that is what we do.  We are advocates.  It’s easier for us to step in sometimes when we see a cruelty like this at play because we’ve done it before.  The more you do it, the easier it becomes.  I don’t care at all if someone gets mad at me particularly if that person is bullying a vulnerable person.  Go ahead.  Take your best shot.  You’re only digging a deeper hole for yourself.

There are other ways, however, to include others and contribute to ending stigma and social exclusion.  Dr. Rosen suggests:

Faced with such a child in the park or at a restaurant, too many of us just stand there and stare. Instead, notice the twinkle in the child’s eyes, even if they are half-hidden behind smudged, thick-lensed glasses. Return the smile, even if it twists unusually or is wetter than what you’re used to. Wave back at him when he jerks his arms toward you, and say hello, even if it’s hard to understand exactly what she’s saying.

These children, and their families, will notice, and feel welcomed.

This is true for all of us for we are all differently-abled.  Every single one of us.  There is no one who is 100% perfectly-abled in this world.  Some of us are just better at compensating for our deficiencies than others.  I think when we can all finally see this truth, then we will see that we really do have something in common with that odd, flapping kid at the playground.

You’re really not that different from him after all.




An Evening Post

Grace cried this evening.

It wasn’t tears brought on by lability.  One grows used to those tears.  Sometimes those tears seem almost like crocodile tears.  I almost feel numb to that sort of emotional display because it seems to be brought on by a shift in brain chemistry.  I know that Grace’s medications need to be adjusted.  It almost feels like a surreality.

This was different.  This was honest.

Grace didn’t cry often as a baby, and she rarely cried as a toddler.  She cried when she woke up from her naps.  That’s it.  Her preschool teacher once told me that she didn’t think she could ever stand to see Grace cry.  She has always been that sort of girl.  Happy and somewhat quirky.  Even as a toddler.  In her own world.  And whatever her world was like, there was no crying.

So, when she cries, it affects me.  I don’t like to see anyone cry.  I might cry if someone cries in front of me.  When Grace cries? I suffer.

She wanted to help Eadaoin babysit tonight, and Eadaoin looked at me in silent desperation–a plea for help.

“Grace, I think it’s better if Eadaoin goes alone.  You had a sleepover last night, and you said that you were really tired earlier today.”

“But I love taking care of little kids, Mom!”

Eadaoin looked conflicted.  “Grace, it’s just that it’s going to be late, and it’s hard for me to babysit with other people with me sometimes.”

Grace didn’t understand.  I looked at Eadaoin.  I looked at Grace.  I decided to tell her the truth.

“Grace, I think what she’s trying to say is that she feels responsible for you, too, when she’s babysitting, and she wants to focus on taking care of the children that she’s being paid to look after.”

“Yes!” Eadaoin said with relief.

Grace looked confused for a moment, and then her expression changed.  She looked at me.  She looked at Eadaoin.  I saw tears well up in her eyes.  She understood, and in her understanding of what was being implied I felt pain bloom in my chest because I knew that something painful was blooming in Grace’s chest, too.

She turned around and silently walked up the stairs, but I could hear her crying.  I couldn’t let her go upstairs alone and cry by herself.  I found her on the edge of her bed, tears streaming down her face.  I had no idea what to do.  I just wanted to take it all away.

What’s the right thing to do? What’s reality here? She can’t babysit.  Just yesterday she told me that she didn’t recognize her dad.  For a moment, she forgot who he was.  She needs to take constant breaks in the day.  She needs supervision.  And yet, she is still a 13 year-old girl who couldn’t wait to babysit when she was nine.  She loves children.  She still wants what every other girl wants.  She still talks about being married one day.  She still has dreams.

I sat quietly on her floor.  I asked her what she was feeling.  She said, “I feel sad.  I don’t like what’s happening to me…”

I cannot adequately express how painful this is to watch.  I want to understand it.  I want to know why this is allowed.  There are no satisfactory answers, and I know that.  Right now there are people in hospices watching their loved ones die of terminal illnesses.  There are people with early-onset Alzheimer’s who are slowly losing their lives, and their families must witness it.  There are cancers and diseases the world over, and there are no good answers as to why innocents suffer.  They just do.  It is the human condition.

It is brutal.  It is the great equalizer.  It won’t matter who you are, where you come from, or the size of your bank account.  Suffering knows no bias.  Everyone will experience it.

I spent time with Gracie in her room.  I tried so hard to just listen this time.  I wanted to validate her rather than be Supermom and fix everything.  I can’t.  I can’t fix everything, but I can be her witness.  I can let her know that I’m here.  I have no good answers, but my presence is an answer albeit a poor one sometimes.

I went downstairs to make bread, and, as I was measuring out the gluten-free flours, a scene from “Steel Magnolias” played in my mind.  Sally Fields’ character was angry.  She was standing in front of her daughter’s coffin, who had died due to her body’s rejection of a kidney.  She was surrounded by her friends who were all crying and trying to comfort her.  She stopped and suddenly shouted out that she wanted to know why.  She just wanted to know why her daughter had to die.  That’s how I felt.

Why did my daughter have to have schizophrenia? Why did she have to be regressing so quickly? Why did she have to experience so much suffering? And why did she have to be aware of it? She knows! And her self-awareness is causing her so much pain.  WHY?!

And then I started crying.  And I really hate to cry.

But then the rest of the scene continued to play as I cried, and there in my kitchen I watched Olympia Dukakis drag Shirley MacLaine forward to be punched in the face: “Knock her lights out! Take a whack at Weezer!”


And, I laughed.  Such is life.  It is truly bittersweet.  Mine doesn’t stop.  A friend commented today that she has never understood my life.  We never get a break.  It’s true.  We don’t, but that is our life.  I don’t know if there is purpose in that or not, but I suspect that we are the ones who determine that.  I can add meaning to all this should I choose to.

I am grieved to my core that my daughter is in pain, but I have the privilege of sharing her journey with her.  And, I will be with her to the end be that in body or spirit, however she chooses to let me.  I will do whatever I can to honor and add to her dignity so that she always knows that she is beloved and worthwhile regardless of her momentary abilities.

And so, for tonight, I stop asking why.  I turn to Christian theologian Stanley Hauerwas who once said, “What we owe a mentally or physically disabled child is not to ask why God permits this, but to ask ourselves what kind of community we must be so that this child can live as full a life as possible.”

That? I can do that.



Interpersonal Effectiveness

Every Thursday is DBT Day for Eadaoin and me.  She really doesn’t like it although I think she is learning a lot.  She will begrudgingly admit that.  I really like it, but I read psychology books for fun.

Yesterday, we began the unit on Interpersonal Effectiveness, and I was so excited.  This is the unit I’ve been waiting for.  I really want to increase my own interpersonal effectiveness, and I can’t wait to learn more skills.  I also want Eadaoin to walk away with one thing: We are successful in relationships when we have the skills to be.

Isn’t that an interesting idea? We weren’t born knowing how to communicate with respect.  We didn’t come with an imaged hard drive, pre-loaded knowing how to act, how to behave, how to adjust ourselves to every situation and circumstantial climate.  We have to learn how to do that.  We don’t instinctively know that feelings aren’t facts.  Thousands of years ago, if we felt fearful, then that was probably a valid instinct.  Fear meant ‘run’ or ‘fight’ or ‘freeze’.  Other mammals do it.  I came home the other night and saw four rabbits on my lawn.  They all just froze like little Peter Rabbit statues: “If I sit here, rooted to the ground, silent, and still, then the huge human coming toward me won’t see me.”

Does this instinct serve us now? Sometimes.  Always? No.  It doesn’t help us during a conflict at work or in a highly-valued relationship.  Feelings usually come with a language all their own like “What if…” and “I’ll never be able to…” and “I’m so _____” and “They always _____”, and these automatic thoughts often prevent us from getting what we want.  This is why learning Interpersonal Effectiveness is so important, and it starts with one question.

What is your goal?

The context for this question is relationships.  So, when we discuss “the goal” we are speaking in terms of our effectiveness in relationships be that at work, at school, in friendships, in parent/child relationships, in romantic relationships, etc.  There are three priorities that we keep in mind at all times when we discuss a goal in terms of interpersonal effectiveness:

  • The relationship
  • Our objective
  • Our self-respect

Here is an example:

Relationship: Keeping and maintaining healthy relationships


  1. How do I want the other person to feel about me?
  2. How do I get the other person to hear what I am saying?

Example: If I care about the person or if the person has authority over me (i.e. a boss), act in a way that keeps the person respecting and liking me.

Objective: Getting my goals met in any type of situation (getting what I want)


  1. What do I want?
  2. What do I need?
  3. How do I get it?

Example: To say ‘no’, to ask for something, to resolve a problem, to be listened to

Self-Respect: Keeping or improving how I feel about myself


  1. How do I want to feel about myself after the interaction?

Example: What are my values and personal beliefs? Act in a way that makes me feel good about myself.


Think about these three goals as priorities.  When they are unclear, you may become indecisive.  For each interaction, it becomes a matter of what is most important, what is secondary, and what is tertiary.  For example, you may have had an interaction with a friend that didn’t go well.  S/he may have behaved in a way that hurt your feelings leaving you feeling conflicted.  Perhaps you know what motivated the behavior.  It really had nothing to do with you.  At the same time, you want to respect yourself, and you don’t feel that letting the conflict fall to the side unaddressed will nurture your own self-respect.  The relationship deserves the attention, and, truthfully, your friend ought to know that their actions, while not really about you, affected you negatively.  This act then becomes an act of self-care as well.

So, your list might look something like this:

What are my goals?

OBJECTIVE: to communicate kindly so that the rift in the relationship is healed #2

RELATIONSHIP: to preserve and nurture the relationship #1

SELF-RESPECT: speaking with kindness and honesty about how I feel will help me feel empowered in the relationship but will not come at my friend’s expense. #3

On paper this looks so easy, but it’s not.  This is all skills-based.

What stops us from achieving our goals?

1. Lack of skill

You actually do not know what to say or how to act. This is important to note.

Many times we think that a person is unwilling or lazy when, in fact, they lack the skills to know how to engage or problem-solve.  They may not even know what they want or need.  So, it is always very important to ask: Does this person have the skills to “do relationship”? Do they need help, mentoring, modeling, or coaching?

2. Worry thoughts

You have the skill, but your worry thoughts interfere with doing or saying what you want.  Some examples of worry thoughts are:

  • Worries about bad consequences: “They won’t like me.” or “He’ll think I’m stupid.”
  • Worries about whether you deserve to get what you want: “I’m such a bad person, I don’t deserve this.”
  • Worries about being ineffective and calling yourself names (self-judgments): “I won’t do it right.” or “I’m so stupid!”

3. Emotions

You have the skill, but your emotions (anger, frustration, fear, guilt, sadness) make you unable to do or say what you want.  Emotions, instead of skill, control what you say and do.

4. Can’t decide

You have the skill, but you can’t decide what to do or what you want.  You can’t figure out how to balance:

  • Asking for too much versus not asking for anything.
  • Saying no to everything versus giving in to everything.

5. Environment

You have the skill, but the environment gets in the way (this can be particularly relevant to work environments):

  • Other people are too powerful.
  • Other people may have some reason for not liking you if you get what you want.
  • Other people won’t give you what you want or need unless you sacrifice your self-respect.

I want to elaborate on the idea of worry thoughts because this is very common.  Many of us are not effective in our relationships, both personal and professional, because of what we believe.  We have a thought; we then believe that thought, and then that belief becomes an action.  Here are some common worry thoughts and corresponding “cheerleading” statements.  Do you relate to any of these statements?

  1. Why bother asking if it won’t make a difference anyway?
  2. If I ask for something, s/he’ll think I’m stupid.
  3. I’m such a bad person that I don’t deserve it.
  4. If I say no, they’ll never talk to me again.
  5. Saying no to a request is always a selfish thing to do.


  1. Just because I didn’t get what I wanted last time doesn’t mean that if I ask skillfully this time that I won’t get what I want. OR It never hurts to ask.
  2. It takes a strong person to admit that they need help from someone else and then ask for it.
  3. I can understand and validate another person and still ask for what I want.
  4. I can stand it if I don’t get what I want or need.  Nobody has ever died from being uncomfortable.
  5. If I say no to people and they get angry it doesn’t mean I should have said yes.
  6. I can still feel good about myself even though someone else is annoyed with me.
  7. I can make bad choices and still be a good person and receive good things.

This is an introduction to interpersonal effectiveness DBT-style.  My favorite part of this approach is the focus on self-respect.  Dignity is not a small thing.  I have seen so many relationships that seem to function at the expense of others.  We see this in office settings.  There isn’t true collaboration.  There is a power differential that thrives on stealing the self-respect of employees and adding it to the narcissistic manager.  This dynamic exists in friendships and marriages as well.  The notion that self-respect ought to be a priority and goal in all our interactions is encouraging and exciting.  It raises the bar.  The encouragement that we ought to step back and ask, “How do I want to feel about myself after this interaction is over?” is so refreshing because it reminds us that we are an equal partner in all our relationships, and we get to choose how we show up.  We choose how we caregive.  We choose how we work.  We choose how we treat others, and, in that choosing, how we feel about ourselves changes.  For better or for worse.  It does, however, place the responsibility for our actions fully on our shoulders.  This is a good thing.  It prevents victim thinking and keeps us empowered and aware.  Should we suddenly realize that the unspoken rules of a relationship, either professional or personal, prevent us from getting what we want–meeting our goals in terms of self-respect, relationship, and/or objective–then we have good information that we can use to take action.  Even if we can’t leave said relationship immediately, we know something that we didn’t before.  This framework provides a new way for experiencing ourselves, others, and the myriad relationships that we will have in our lives.

Adapted from Miller, Rathus, and Landsman (1999)


Skills Training Manual for Treating Borderline Personality Disorder by Marsha M. Linehan