Duck, Duck, Goose

Muscovy ducks are ugly.

There’s simply no getting around it. Perhaps some find them in the category of, “So ugly, they’re cute,” the befuddling phrase used to describe certain regrettable-looking breeds of dog with what seems to be a permanent, long drip of slime on their maws. I don’t see it, in either the dog or the duck.

Muscovy are also an invasive species here in west-central Florida, driving out our adorable and good-natured native ducks. Thus, they are unwelcome both in, and by, appearance.

During an Emmaus retreat at the Franciscan Center in Tampa, I was able to observe a female Muscovy along the river last weekend. She was waddling along, looking into the river on her right and then to the ground on her left, seeking food. She was followed closely by one, then two, then four, large, ugly and showy Muscovy males. She seemed oblivious. They were posturing: just short of chest-bumping one another, fluffing up their feathers, strutting in circles and then, realizing she had waddled on further ahead, scuttling up closer to the object of their desire before devolving into posturing observed only by one another, and me.

Ms. Muscovy did not feel obliged to wear shorter feathers in her nether region or walk on her webbed toes to gain their attention, and indeed, it was apparently unnecessary. She had the power of her femininity, and that was sufficient. God knows how large the flock of males out-strutting each other got before she made her selection; the bells rang and I hurried off to join my fellow retreatants for Morning Prayer.

Flash back to the 1980s, when wearing brassieres over one’s clothing, instead of under, was all the rage for a few unfortunate years. During a lunch conversation, a male colleague (middle-aged, recently divorced and apparently adjusting with difficulty) mentioned his amazement at seeing this while out in a nightclub. A few of the females opined we would never do such a thing. If we weren’t married, he said, and had to be out there, competing for male attention…whoa, whoa, WHOA. A man, I said, for whom I was to “compete” by wearing my underwear over my clothes would not be the man for me. My female cohorts agreed. Divorced-dude was amazed.

Alas, times have, apparently, changed. Somehow the power to vote, own property, and be paid the same for the same work (let’s not go to where we compare part-time clerical staff with chemical engineers and whine about salary differences, okay?) seems cast aside for the “power” to wear vagina-hats in public, insist that tights are business trousers, and gain fame by posting indecent pictures of oneself to (anti)social media.

In our little yard, I cannot, from a respectful distance, tell Mrs. Bunny from Mr. Bunny, but apparently they can, and so things work just fine. Mrs. Cardinal is subtle compared to her (to human eyes) flashy husband, but trust me, when the six or seven species of birds – almost all larger – are sharing the seeds I have flung onto the front yard, it’s little, softly hued Mrs. Cardinal who commands attention and sets the rules. Mr. Cardinal does not seem to have any objections about being partnered up with his gently-toned, energetic little mate. Likewise the pair of black snakes, the ever-expanding clan of blue jays, or our resident crows, Poe and Annabelle Lee, and their hapless but fun-to-watch adolescent offspring: all seem content without the females doing strange and torturous things in a craven attempt for male attention.

Why are humans so singularly dysfunctional when it comes to male-female relationships? Can we blame it simply on the Fall and the impact of a long history of bad choices that have turned us slowly away from what we could have, and might still be, towards this strange situation in which much of our culture finds itself?

For almost three decades now, mental health professionals have dealt with body-image and sexuality issues created by a pornographic culture so pervasive that too many young women believe they should engage in sexual activity whether they feel like it or not, and many young males have incurred physical damage on themselves due to excessive masturbation with porn as the stimulant. Conditioned to images on electronic devices, a normal, living female is just not as attractive and too much trouble. We’ve all, no doubt, heard of the teen magazine that explained sodomy in how-to terms. In my work, this isn’t some abstract issue; I listen to young women wrestle with their discomfort and shame over what they feel obliged to do and the fear that their hesitancy to engage in impersonal sexual acts means there is something “wrong” with them. I help couples whose relationship has been torn apart by the husband’s pornography addiction and disengagement from his wife.

I used to pity my male college students, assuming the heterosexuals had their ability to focus on psychology (endlessly interesting to me but, I realize, not to all) cruelly challenged because, for a healthy straight young male, the proximity of female peers would normally be distracting. Now the female peers are often dressed in revealing clothing. I assumed (naively) that this placed an unfair, even uncharitable, if you will, burden on the males. Now I wonder. I wonder if, drowned since childhood in a flood of hypersexualized images, the presence in the next seat of a young woman with her breasts pushed up to her collar bone is…nothing. Now I feel sad about that; they are both missing something about the joy of being human: they have lost the capacity to appreciate one another.

He may be sentenced, until he works to change it, to a life of seeking ever-more extreme forms of sexual stimulation, and she will be reduced to claiming that her power comes from the right to have sex indiscriminately and wear unflattering pink hats in parades.

Meanwhile, Ms. Muscovy is enjoying the riverbank and may eventually pick some posturing, squawking, ugly drake from among her admirers.

The ducks have it figured out. Guess who gets to be the silly, sad goose?

 

Dr. Lori Puterbaugh, LMHC, LMFT, NCC

© 2017

Posts are for information and entertainment purposes only and should not be construed to be therapeutic advice. If you are in need of mental health assistance, please contact a licensed professional in your area.

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Plan B

I am very, very hopeful that, when I leave the office this evening and get into my Ford Fiesta, it will start when I first turn the key and that all four tires will be inflated. It gets regular maintenance and I expect it to start. My plans, including the amount of time I schedule for various commutes, revolve around the expectation (Plan A, as it were) that the little car will be ready to roll.

Sometimes, she is NOT ready to roll. She might have a flat tire, or a dead battery (Florida heat is rough on batteries). So, just in case of various emergencies, I have a jack, spare tire, some tools, a can of tire-inflator, a quart of oil, some water, jumper cables, a fire extinguisher, an owner’s manual and my AAA card. I also have a Bible and Rosaries for other sorts of emergencies. I would vastly prefer not to resort to any of these Plan B’s alone in a parking lot at night, but every so often I have been happy to have them readily available.

On a much more critical scale, military and police personnel have to have plan B at the ready in case of a worst-case scenario. Let’s say you are a special operator and you and your comrades are supposed to slip in silently, extract an American hostage or two, and slip out with the same seamless, silent efficiency. That would be Plan A: no one on your side gets hurt and maybe not even too many of the enemy. If enemies have to be hurt, they cooperate by succumbing very, very quietly. Plan B, entailing air support and extra personnel and a whole lot of messiness, is far from optimal. Plan A is effective if nothing goes wrong. If anything goes wrong, then you need Plan Bs. Plan Bs have a higher likelihood of success in the case of an uh-oh situation than Plan A, but are far less desirable.

Most of us don’t have to worry about extracting hostages or inflicting deserved mayhem on an enemy. We have to muddle through, discerning our purpose and doing our best to live rightly. Do we, who don’t have any expectation of being caught in a gunfight, need a Plan B? It’s become quite popular, especially in the business school world, to assert that a Plan B is an excuse to let Plan A fail.

I would argue that Plan B is part of the backbone of successful planning. Consider, for example:

You have promised your small children that, if everyone cleans up their bedroom by 9 AM Saturday, you will all go to the zoo! Yay! You had better have a Plan B already presented to them, too, in case of rain (as in, if it rains, we will postpone the zoo and have lots of fun doing “X” at home). You do not have control over whether or not it rains on your zoo day, but you have control over creating alternatives that account for circumstances beyond your control. Would you rather have Plan A – a sunny, fun day at the zoo? Absolutely; but if it’s wet, cold and dreary, kids who are able to be disappointed but know that all is not lost are easier to deal with than children who are whining because “you promised we could go to the zoo,” and claim they care not that it is raining and all the animals will be hiding inside, out of the weather. You promised.

There are thousands of possible examples: the college application that is Plan B if the desired, and worked-for, scholarship at your Plan A school doesn’t materialize; the back-up work plan if it takes longer to get a job in your field than you’d expected; the gift you will get for your child if the most popular toy that holiday season is out of stock. Would you rather get a full scholarship to an Ivy League school, a great job that starts exactly two weeks after graduation and be able to score Tickle Me Elmo, the latest Transformer AND the talking pony? Yup, yup and giddy-yup…but those are not all within your control.

The business school model against Plan A, very interestingly researched by Doctors Shin and Milkman, focuses on short-term goals with brief time periods. One test, for example, was that some participants were asked to consider a Plan B if they failed at the brief task while doing the brief task. If you have 10 minutes to unscramble sentences, and the reward for success is a free snack and some are warned up front that, hey, you might want to think about where else on campus you can score some free food in case this doesn’t work out for you, those participants might be a bit distracted from the task at hand. You have given them two tasks. That doesn’t mean they were not motivated for Plan A (the free snack) but rather they had to do two tasks at once: the task for the free snack and figure out where to get free food if the buzzer went off before they finished the first task. This is one of several experiments in their research. Other business writers have emphasized the belief that asking people on a project to have a plan B is like giving them permission to fail at plan A.

This is an interesting perspective and very narrow in its focus. There are risks in over-generalizing the findings of any particular piece of research, something Doctors Shin and Milkman know. Unfortunately, readers who see a non-academic’s cheerful, “Hey, if you develop a plan B you plan to fail,” misstated summary of Doctors’ Shin and Milkman’s work might leap to the conclusion that Plan B means Bad Plan. That is not what the researchers concluded.

I would propose that there are a few common reasons for a bias against adequately thinking through a Plan B when preparing to execute Plan A. These are by no means comprehensive –

  1. “I have done everything that success requires and so I am entitled to success.” Ah, the entitlement myth, in which a benign and biased-towards-you universe bestows what you have earned even though there is far less of whatever you want available than there are hard-working and deserving candidates. Hundreds of people might apply for that scholarship, and all of them have great GPAs, hours of non-mandated community service and glowing endorsements from their local Mother Teresa. Yet the committee (and its computer program) can only give the scholarship to one applicant. Scholarship, job, internship…failing to achieve that one, ideal Plan A doesn’t mean you personally failed. It means that you didn’t get Plan A, probably for many reasons outside of your control.
  2. “I am terrified of not meeting the expectations of those close to me (parents, often) and so most pour everything into Plan A. Anything less than absolute success means I have failed them – and myself.” This speaks to the narcissistic parent (“I am a perfect parent and you, my ought-to-be-perfect child, are the Exhibit A in proof of my perfection”) projecting the need for boundless success and admiration onto the child. Spouses can do this to one another, and children might fall victim to Pygmalion coaches or teachers.
  3. “If I have a Plan B, it will surreptitiously make me turn into a lazy slug who will fail to put in the effort required for Plan A.” This is the, I can’t trust my own strength of character theorem, and one can only say in response to this, “Know thyself.” However, lack of a Plan B is not going to singlehandedly turn an unmotivated sloth into a laser-focused, goal-oriented powerhouse. If you know you need to work on your intrinsic motivation strength, now would be a good time to start.
  4. “Plan A is my heart’s desire and I cannot bear to consider life without it…so I will just not consider the fact that Plan B might be necessary.” This is idealistic and romantic, and if you are not a good-hearted male under age 21, you probably need to accept a teaspoon of reality. If you are a good-hearted male under age 21, I will cut you some slack. That is the healthy age range for passionate idealism with a dose of immortality myth. The rest of us have to deal with the reality that life changes constantly. Your robust good health, your vision and hearing, the career you love, your neighborhood…will all change. If there is not a Plan B, you will have the alternative of crushing despair on top of the burden of grief, time after time after time.

I began this essay, spurred by a friend’s report of an adult daughter who, failing to get the job she’d applied for after college, is moving back home without any particular plan. Apparently, there was no Plan B. This led to curiosity about the “Plan B” issue in general, and discovering Shin and Milkman’s research. Not long after I began this essay, the book Option B, by Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant was released. I am looking forward to reading Option B and have no idea of its contents other than it was born within the heartbreak of unexpected grief and the part of the grieving process that requires that we shift to an alternative vision of our future.

Dr. Lori Puterbaugh, LMHC, LMFT, NCC

© 2017

Posts are for information and entertainment purposes only and should not be construed to be therapeutic advice. If you are in need of mental health assistance, please contact a licensed professional in your area.

“Speak up! (Easier said than done)”

“The same thing happens again and again,” complained my friend. “I can’t get a word in edgewise at meetings and when I try, I just get talked over – like I’m not even there.” We commiserated about being talked over in meetings, and I offered all the usual well-intentioned platitudes about being assertive. The conversation nagged at me. How many clients, students, colleagues and friends have I urged to “be more assertive,” as if speaking up were ineluctably both a) easy and b) unfailingly effective. Obviously, neither is the case; I ought to know.

Some relevant personal disclosures: I am radically introverted. I detest unnecessary conflict. Many experiences have shown me the wisdom of saying very little when I feel attacked and while this is, at times, incredibly useful, at other times it just makes things worse. The “worse” that results from speaking up tends to come right away: schoolyard bullies, for example, delight in prey that “fight back,” like cats playing with still-living mice. The “worse” that grows from silence usually comes later, which makes it hard to know when to retreat into silence and wait it out, and when it is worth taking something to the mats.

Some months ago, at a meeting with colleagues, I attempted several times (in vain) to make a point about a problem in the plans for a mutual project. The particulars aren’t relevant here; what matters is that I was trying to point out that if A, B, C are to be combined into D, and the current volume of A, B and C are 2D…well, we need to plan for 2D and not just D. The person in charge of the meeting plowed cheerfully over my objections. Alas, I continued to have concerns about the arithmetic and this was treated as some sort of mutiny and personal betrayal (it wasn’t). No explanation that it was merely a math problem was helpful. I spoke up, I tried again to speak up, and it was, clearly, not effective. Despite efforts to move forward as if all were fine, the relationship appears to be irretrievably damaged. (We did turn out to need 2D – and I did not reference the disagreement; it seemed inappropriate.)

A few months later, my unassertiveness floundered in the personal realm. Details are not necessary; suffice it to say that one person (call this person ‘Bob’) misrepresented a conversation to another (call this person ‘Sam’). Sam approached me with great distress as if I were somehow behind a plan that would involve many people descending upon Sam’s home (there was no plan and had there been, I would have been against it). Fortunately, there was at least some history here of the same type of thing happening in the past with Bob…Bob known to be of the temperament to leap to unexamined conclusions.

A few weeks later, my reluctance to engage in repeated attempts at being assertive ending up costing me two friendships. Back to word problems we go. Friend A said something interpreted to mean something entirely different than A intended by friends B and C. I was (as is regrettably often the case) lost in thought and didn’t hear precisely how the point was (mis)made, or mistaken. B and C elected not to confront A at the time. I, having heard A make this particular point very clearly many times, knew it was not meant as interpreted. When B and C were angry, I felt blindsided. It smacked of the recent colleague problem and social near miss. It is a poor excuse, but it seemed as if, after one attempt, it was useless to be more “assertive.” I felt, as it was with my colleague, that there was apparently no making things clear. I gave up – I dropped my end of the rope – have lost friends B and C, have a strained relationship with a valued colleague, and must face the fact I am the common denominator.

I don’t believe I am the only one at fault. Dismissing legitimate concerns, running off with rumors, closing off explanations: there are plenty of missteps to go around…but there, in the middle of it, am I, retreating into watchful silence when speech seems futile. Determining what is and is not futile obviously takes wisdom, which I lack.

I will still encourage clients to be assertive when it is the appropriate thing to do…we’ll just have to explore whether, and when, it is the appropriate choice.

 

Dr. Lori Puterbaugh, LMHC, LMFT, NCC

© 2017

Posts are for information and entertainment purposes only and should not be construed to be therapeutic advice. If you are in need of mental health assistance, please contact a licensed professional in your area.

Too busy!

People brag about the strangest things.

Not getting enough sleep is one; are Americans in some sort of dysfunctional competition to see who can get by on the least possible sleep – regardless of the effect on their mental and physical health?

Another is being busy – so very, very busy – that one could not possibly do anything healthy, or creative, or refreshing in any way.

Is it real busy-ness? It’s hard to say, but I have my suspicions that it often comprises some combination of underestimating how much time is frittered away on time-wasters, taking on a lot of extra and unnecessary tasks, and, sometimes, more than a hint of pride. You know, the people who find out you actually read books in the evening or squeeze in a date night with your spouse and give that little smile and a hint of a sniff when they say, “Well, it must be nice…” Well, yes, actually, it is. Very nice.

Pride, or arrogance, aren’t necessarily obvious. Healthy humans have a normal, natural need to feel needed and wanted. This is a good, but the fear that somehow your absence will cause all of creation – or at least your workplace or the kitchen at home – to immediately crumble into dust is not good. Even Jesus and Moses sometimes sneaked off for some very necessary R&R, either to be alone with God or also with some of their most loved, trusted friends.

Some people are going through a stage of life that is very busy. People with school-aged kids who each  participate in one extra activity will indeed be temporarily overly busy, driving to practice or lessons. They check homework, look under the sofa for shin guards, and use their vacation time for pediatric appointments for yet another ear infection. This stage is transient. Even too-busy parents, though, often hide time-wasters into their day.

When someone asserts always being “too busy” to do things they claim they really want to do, then I suspect that perhaps they don’t actually want to do those things. It would be better to say, “Oh, no – last thing I want to do is be stuck in a gym five mornings a week,” then to dodge exercise by pretending they are just too, too busy. Once they are honest about the issue (apparently they would rather do something else than spend hours on the human version of a hamster wheel) they are free to figure out how to meet the essential need (enough exercise to stay healthy) and stop dodging reality with brag-worthy busy-ness.

It’s hard to give up the busy excuse to oneself. It might be a polite dodge to other people (but remember that “let your yes mean yes and your no mean no” admonition?) but it’s just pointless to lie to oneself.

 

Dr. Lori Puterbaugh, LMHC, LMFT, NCC

© 2016

Posts are for information and entertainment purposes only and should not be construed to be therapeutic advice. If you are in need of mental health assistance, please contact a licensed professional in your area.

A little out of sync…

Intellectually gifted children are a challenge for grownups.

Their ability to learn and apply information may be far ahead of their peers but their emotional and motor skills may be completely normal (read: average and right on schedule). So your highly gifted six-year-old, who can visualize Johnny Depp’s pirate ship but whose little fingers can only manage 5-year-old’s motor skills, will be angry and frustrated to the point of tears over a boat that looks perfectly fine to you. Your gifted twelve year old will, with the emotional fragility of a middle-school-aged heart, grapple with the existential questions peers more often face in college.

This kind of asynchronous development is hard for the child, too…and will continue to be so, until adulthood. It’s easier for adults to find a few intellectual peers with whom to deeply connect. The more gifted the child, the harder this will be, simply because of the mathematical odds. Intellectual giftedness comprises only 2% of the population. Highly gifted persons are less than 1/1000 of the population; for them, the odds of finding someone on par, or, an even happier event, encountering someone sharper in intellectual terms, is slim. It’s important for grownups to be aware of the interior struggles gifted children face and provide opportunities for support, encouragement and sometimes some careful education on why they feel so different from other kids.

Add to this gifted kids’ tendency to need a little less sleep, be a little more bouncy, be in a hurry to learn and do, ask a lot of questions…or, conversely, be very quiet, observant and introverted, and the challenge for parents and teachers becomes clear.

Interested in learning more? There are a lot of resources out there: American Mensa and SENG are two excellent sources of information and support for the gifted child (or grownup) in your life.

Dr. Lori Puterbaugh

© 2016

Posts are for information and entertainment purposes only and should not be construed to be therapeutic advice. If you are in need of mental health assistance, please contact a licensed professional in your area.

Avoidant Personality Disorder, Social Anxiety, or Just Shy?

Simple shyness? Social Anxiety Disorder? Avoidant Personality Disorder? What’s the difference? Are we just pathologizing normal behavior? Why so many labels?

Well, the labels exist to help professionals differentiate between constructs. That’s what most diagnoses are: categories put together by committee, identifying particular experiences or patterns of behavior, thinking and/or feeling that tend to co-occur. That’s an extreme simplification, but it’s a good jumping-off point for us.

Shyness is normal-people-speak. It’s the way we describe someone, or ourselves, when we are a little reluctant to “blow our own horn” or “put ourselves out there” (whatever THAT means). A little shyness means some mild worry about doing the right thing, not embarrassing ourselves, and wanting to avoid being a nuisance.

Social Anxiety Disorder (SAD) is a psychiatric label that covers a level of shyness that interferes with someone’s daily life. That’s the test: whether the person’s regular life is constricted by worry about saying/doing the wrong thing in social settings and a tendency to avoid social gatherings or work or school related activities. It’s anxiety: there are both physical symptoms of fight-or-flight (elevated heart rate, for example, or more perspiration) and psychological symptoms (worrisome ideas about being in the spotlight and doing something “stupid,” for example). People with SAD usually have close relationships and get through daily life pretty well, with bumps along the way when big events or unusual circumstances – public speaking at a work meeting, for example, or large gathering – looms.

Avoidant Personality Disorder (APD) is sometimes confused with SAD. ADP is markedly different, though, because it encompasses a global low self-esteem and fear of being judged and found wanting in just about every way. So, for example, the person with some social anxiety has close friendships but might feel a bit anxious about going to a wedding reception with a lot of people s/he doesn’t know. The avoidant person has few close relationships out of fear of people finding them just not good enough to be friends. The APD person suffers anguish before annual performance reviews, and even gentle constructive criticism is received as devastating evidence of how deficient they are.

The fear is not “just in their head.” Fear is always a full-body experience. When a situation seems to be a threat (for the person who suffers with APD) to be judged and found wanting, the body responds before the logical, higher brain has even identified what is happening. So the amygdala has sounded the general alarm – the endocrine system flies into action, and as a result logical assessment is curtailed. Telling someone whose heart is pounding, whose blood is full of adrenaline and a massive dose of glycogen and is primed to run away that they are just overreacting is not helpful. Learning how to manage this, how to recover from the old messages of being “less than” and “not good enough,” is a process, not an instant fix. It can be healed.

There’s much more to these labels and to the details of treatment, of course, but perhaps the useful take-away today is: help is available. A lot of people will find that solid self-help approaches based in cognitive-behavioral therapy research (David Burns, MD’s books are excellent examples of these) quite sufficient for mild to moderate social anxiety. When that anxiety is all-pervasive, and there are few relationships out of fear of being found wanting, and loneliness and fear of being judged rule one’s life, the additional support of a counselor might be more helpful than trying to struggle through alone. Ironically, group psychotherapy can be quite effective for these difficulties – but it’s hard to find them.

If you know someone who is struggling, try to help them get help.

 

Dr. Lori Puterbaugh

© 2016

Posts are for information and entertainment purposes only and should not be construed to be therapeutic advice. If you are in need of mental health assistance, please contact a licensed professional in your area.

Toxic Myths, revisited

A lot of people ask about toxic myths: what does that mean? Why “myths?” (I’d like to say, well, buy the book, and sometimes do).

The toxic myths are examples of lies dressed up as truths. Our culture is seething with them, but in Toxic Mythology, I only addressed a few.

For example, consider the myth that people can compartmentalize their lives. Someone can, within this myth, be an absolute scoundrel in their personal life but supposedly be capable of being completely trustworthy and honorable in their public/vocational role.   Conversely, they can (per the myth, at least) be a sociopath in their professional life but be kind, tender and good in private.

So…if you buy this myth, you have to be willing to:

Vote for someone who swears to uphold a particular principle while having a personal and/or professional life littered with betrayals and a habit of acting on expediency, not principle;

Believe your child who promises she didn’t really cheat on that exam or plagiarize on the paper (despite the software evidence) after same child was grounded for “borrowing” money out of your wallet without permission.

Keep on an employee whom you overhear lie to customers because you haven’t caught that employee lying to you.

Convince yourself that your gossipy acquaintance never, ever would talk about YOU behind your back.

Does any of that sound reasonable? Of course not; these are, however, the toxic myth in action. Our culture tells us that it’s perfectly reasonable to believe that compartmentalization of character is possible and (further) that we should be “judgmental.” That’s another myth for another day.

 

Dr. Lori Puterbaugh

© 2016

Posts are for information and entertainment purposes only and should not be construed to be therapeutic advice. If you are in need of mental health assistance, please contact a licensed professional in your area.