How to Wash Your Own Brain

Have you ever had someone with a bad case of a winter flu bug come up and shake your hand?

I know. Kind of a personal question. None of my business, really. But I’m pretty sure your answer is “yes” if you can permit your mind to wander about into that bit of memory trivia. Disgusting as it may feel to even recall such times gone by.

We have all been given advice from multiple directions when it comes to warding off the demons of winter influenza, “remember to wash your hands often.”

Having a bit of an OCD tendency myself, I’m rather quick to follow such advice. But not so quick when it comes to another kind of advice seldom rendered despite risk of contagion.

Now I am referring to something I’ll call, “remember to wash your brain often.”

Hate to say it, but there is an epidemic of crazy thinking, speaking, acting……even blogging?…….in our world today. When even our English language dictionaries are beginning to define terms like “fake news” and “post-truth” within this past year, and now the term “alternative facts” is used in defense of our new executive administration in Washington, well, we’ve got a sick society out there coming up to shake heads with us. That’s right. Whether we know it or not, we shake heads daily with people who aren’t feeling well, and who care very little if any about how we’re going to feel after they’ve spread their crazy thinking all over us.

So I was asked this question on Facebook earlier today, “Are there any techniques for sane people to survive this??” Context being a meme about the current state of political affairs in Washington. By the sounds coming from my therapist colleagues in area counseling clinics these days, this is the question of the year, and we’re only just beginning. People are coming out of the woodwork asking for help in staying sane.

Since I’m not getting paid for this, I will venture to grant others their money’s worth with this seemingly glib advice, “remember to wash your brain often.” But the thing is, I’m serious. We really do have to take some precaution to protect our own sanity in a world of increasing insanity, as in epidemic head shaking contagious “let me brainwash you with my own latest alternative facts” insanity.

So how do you wash your own brain?

In today’s counseling clinics, one often hears the term, “Cognitive Behavioral Therapy.” As generally applied, this means learning to “re-think” life as soon after it happens as we can. And by re-thinking, I mean taking a look at what our minds say to ourselves about life situations we face and then taking a second look. A second opinion we render for ourselves. Only this time re-wording whatever it is the mind first said to self. Quite often, the mind first says what it has heard others say. Others who may well be speaking crazy talk. And while others are not brainwashing us in any literal sense, it is as if they are shaking heads with us and spreading their own crazy and insane thinking all over us. By repeating someone else’s statements of fact(?) within our own minds, we may come away with one of two basic states of emotion.

Consider yourself for an example.

If your own emotional state is that of “self-love,” that is not a sign of disease. You’ve probably just shaken heads with someone who has told you the truth in love. Someone who loves you as he or she loves himself or herself. When love is spread, leave well enough alone. In fact, go shake someone else’s head and spread your good health.

Notice I didn’t say “self-obsession” or absorbed, preoccupied, conceited. These are all opposite of self-love.

If your own emotional state is that of “self-fear,” then you may well have shaken heads with someone who spreads his or her own self-fear and you may have just been brainwashed not in a good way. You’ve been in touch with someone who is self-obsessed, absorbed, preoccupied, conceited. And now you’re starting to feel self-obsessed yourself. This is when you know it is time to go and wash your own brain.

How?

1.           Rewind the tape. Imagine a remote in your own hands. The camera captured the whole scene, and you can re-play it to see and hear what just happened. What was said to you that you first took to be true? What did you then tell yourself about what this would mean about you if it really was true? If it was an item you just read that left you feeling this “self-fear” state of emotion, go back and read it again before asking what you believed was true at first glance.
2.         Reword the message. Imagine the camera is now on you and you are being asked to have the final word about whether you agreed or disagreed with the earlier comments. And why or why not? This time say it in your words and not those that were just spoken or written to or about you.
3.         Rewash your brain. Imagine the camera had failed to capture your message and you needed to do another take on what it was you believed is true or not true. Consider it a rinse cycle in your wash by saying it again, perhaps using even different words just to get the point across on what you really agreed or disagreed with and why.
4.         Rewrite your response. If at all possible, put your own thoughts into writing as a way of re-minding yourself about what is true and false. Even if you choose not to share what you just wrote, re-read it for your own benefit and know these are your own words for yourself and not someone else’s talking or writing about you.
5.        Reward yourself. Say something positive to affirm yourself for having your own thoughts, beliefs, voice, pen, or post. You have just taken a step forward to survive in today’s world as a sane person! You have just defined yourself as a person of self-love and not self-fear. You have something important to now give to the world, to neighbor as self, and you no longer need to feel self-absorbed or preoccupied with your own insecurities.

We need not be the equivalent of germaphobes in relation to this insane society we live in. Just as we shake a few sick hands, so we will converse with a few sick minds out there. There are a lot of bugs going around these days. Self-fear, obsession and conceit is becoming an epidemic from the top on down in our land.

No worries. When you feel yourself starting to come down with something, and even well beforehand, just go ahead and wash your own brain.  Often.

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Treating America’s “dysfunctional family”

For those of us whose academic and professional work has included the treatment of sick marriages and families over the years, it may be helpful for us to share a few insights here and there about how to find hope in this new 2017 of turmoil as Americans living in the United States. Or at least to stir a conversation.

Many folks going through 12-step recovery programs have found help and hope that also can bear much fruit in social media discussion, and elsewhere. Churches are in particular need of such discussions these days among their members.

Of course, we know at the outset that most dysfunctional families resist treatment or recovery. Starts with such psychological defense mechanisms as denial, or repression, or displacement, or projection, etc. But for those who do begin the hard work of recovery, these families have a remarkable resilience in “getting well” and becoming functional in the future.

Dysfunctional families begin in isolation. They have a sense of their own exceptionalism, or even superiority. They assume their strength comes from unity and so they often unite against a common enemy which they regard as “otherness” or “differentness.” They form tight bonds and boundaries; walls, if you will, to protect them from “stranger danger.” And they conserve the status quo at all costs. They are, by their very nature, conservative and prefer both an inward focus and a backward focus.

We know some things about dysfunctional families through the work of treating alcoholism and addiction, but I’ve always had the opinion all families have some level of addiction, secrecy, and self-protection from external reality. All families are susceptible to becoming little “post-truth” or “post-fact” societies.   Indeed, all of us as humans have some denial of reality that works to destroy us even in our quest to survive. It’s a bit of “chicken and egg” speculation as to whether our self-destructive tendencies begin with the individual or the family giving birth to the individual.

Doesn’t really matter.

What we do know is that dysfunctional families have role assignments that fly below everyone’s radar. And everyone becomes addicted, or dependent upon their own role for the family system itself to survive. Typically we have the user, the enabler, the hero, the scapegoat, the mascot, and the lost child. Every member plays a key role in conserving the family dysfunction or preserving the enmeshment from any healthy outside interference.

In case you’re not familiar with the terms I’m using here, the roles may be briefly defined this way:

User = the one who most often suffers from narcissism caused by deep personal insecurity (the Bible calls this person an idolater whose only ability is to love things and use people instead of being able to love people and use things).

Enabler = the one who keeps the user’s bad judgment and harmful consequences from becoming a source of his or her even deeper insecurity, makes excuses for him or her, puts out the fires started by his or her bad judgment

Hero = the one who tries to fix everyone else’s problems instead of covering them up (usually the one that seeks treatment for the user or even the family rather than conserving the secret, but never until he or she is totally burned out from trying to first fix it all alone)

Scapegoat = (also called the Bad Guy role) the one that family blames for the whole mess by having rebelled in ways that draw the fire and attention away from the user (giving the user all the more excuse to use)

Mascot = the entertainer who distracts the family from its own pain by making people laugh or otherwise avoid having to face their reality

Lost Child = the one who just goes along in order to get along and feels quietly miserable in ways others don’t even notice

Understand this: each of these roles is a miserable role. No member of a dysfunctional family is happy. Even the mascot burns out after awhile.

Were such a family used in a parable or allegory for today’s USA, there is a chance in my own opinion that each role could be identified with a particular segment of our citizens. And my guess is you might even find yourself to be living within one of these segments.

But if not………….

If you are able to define a different role for yourself, then you are the hope we all need here in America. This is especially true if you can honestly say you used to be in one of these dysfunctional roles but have now gotten free and found a healthier way to live. Given that, you are now part of the solution instead of the problem. You need to help those in your former role learn your new role. They will block you to hold onto the devil they already know, but you need to gently remind them that life doesn’t have to be this way. There are healthy roles to change into through recovery and therapy.

If you are not able to yet differentiate or separate yourself from one of these dysfunctional roles, if you feel like the burned out enabler or hero or scapegoat or mascot or the unrecognized lost child nobody even notices, then here is where your hope lies. It is inevitable that a crisis will come about in which these roles no longer function to preserve the system. Then, people will be forced to learn new roles that do function for survival. Every dysfunctional system will eventually implode. After which it will become reborn and free to become functional.

Yes, it is hard for such change to happen. It’s hard for it to happen even in one single family. The crisis has to await some new member entering the family to play a healthy role, or some old member leaving and removing an unhealthy role player (the loose rock that starts the landslide).

It is even harder for it to happen in a macro community or system such as a nation. Takes a lot of loose rocks to start that big of landslide. But there is always a first and second rock. The second is all important for reasons I may offer in a future blog.

On a global level, all of humanity is one big dysfunctional family awaiting our next crisis. As a Christian, but also a family therapist and pastor, this is where I view Jesus. He’s the assigned family therapist who helps start the rockslide, helps create the crisis, helps create the new reality with the new roles, and who gives hope to the hopeless and treatment to the sick. Does God have other therapists on staff? I believe so. But Jesus is my therapist. And I in my own sick human family have high hopes that if we do what he says, and assume new roles he prescribes, we really can get well. And we really can live in that functional family Jesus calls The Kingdom of God.

What is more, if we can play a role in the incremental changing of the macro system of all humanity, just one person at a time, then we can create a crisis big enough to easily re-form and heal this single nation even TIME magazine has now named the Divided States of America.

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Giving Jesus His Voice Back

Quick quiz: “I know I am loved if someone goes to the trouble of really listening when I speak for myself, instead of just listening to what others are saying about me.” True or False?

Okay, and now for extra credit: “I know what it is like to have others be afraid of even hearing what I might have to say for myself, so I protect them by not really saying it.” True or False?

My last blog referenced how to know which football team to root for on TV by identifying the color of their uniforms. That’s my wife speaking for herself! And, borrowing from such a metaphor, I at least implied that fear and love are wearing very different colored uniforms. And if perfect love really does cast out fear, as we read in the Bible’s New Testament, I John 4:18, then it pays to know which side we’re on in this contest. Are we sometimes rooting for fear even against our own self-interest?

Even yesterday, while watching our Cincinnati Bengals with my mildly interested wife at my side, I noticed her looking up and yelling, “go, go, go!” when she saw a ball carrier advancing down the field. My immediate reaction was to yell back, “NO, STOP HIM! He’s a bad guy! We’re for the Bengals!!!! He’s with the Ravens.” I offer this little exchange as an example of how we all sometimes root for fear in our world, even when it is against our own self-interest. But the bigger irony in all of this is that, as a husband, I am sometimes afraid to hear my wife’s own voice and so I fearfully correct her. I take away her voice, because she’s rooting, in my humble opinion, FOR THE WRONG DAMNED TEAM! In my own way yesterday, I found myself rooting for the right football team but for the wrong marriage relationship, which is far more in my own self-interest than the meaningless outcome of yesterday’s Bengals-Ravens game. I was rooting for fear against love. I was rooting for the wrong colored uniforms, far more than Sue was.

Okay, let’s stop there for a minute.

Have you ever been on the side of a relationship where your voice was dismissed, taken away, not heard, or was otherwise countered? Have you ever been afraid to speak your mind because, frankly, someone else would be afraid to hear what you really felt or believed? Or wanted? Or needed? Have you ever allowed anyone to take away your voice? And, bottom line, have you ever felt unloved in a relationship?

These are rhetorical questions, because for many years in my practice of marriage counseling, I saw families where one voice was privileged above all others. Or one voice was silenced. And so that unit functioned on fear, rather than on love. We call these dysfunctional families, or dysfunctional marriages. And in my own role of counselor, I would need to gently call the couple, or family, out on their own crap. “Is it okay if she/he speaks for you rather than letting you speak for yourself?” “Is it okay if she/he speaks to me about you, or would you rather she/he speaks directly to you about her/himself?” “Or is that not okay?” “Does that ever happen at home, or is it just happening here in my office?” Rhetorical questions, but they needed to get answered, aloud, in order to help restore a bit of balance in this unit. And restore some love. It was an essential part of re-storying a family or marriage whose narrative had somewhere along the line shifted from love……….to fear. “When was it that she/he stopped listening to you? I wonder what you said that caused her/him to silence your voice?” (As noted above, it can sometimes be as subtle as rooting for the wrong ball carrier, or the wrong colored uniforms.)

Now some of you know that in my own life’s work I went from being a clinical social worker to being a pastor after 30 years or so. But what you may not know is that I found in dealing with the church a kind of dysfunctional marriage with Jesus. One in which his voice was too often not heard or accepted. One where he was silenced. One in which he was only spoken for. Or spoken about. And, as with all dysfunctional marriages, they make for dysfunctional families in which even the children are not lovingly listened to. Once they grow out of those early cute talking stages where kids say the darnedest things, and dare to become wrongly opinionated or moody teenagers, their voices are somehow silenced. (Newly joined church members may resonate years later when their voices no longer seem to matter very much.)  The family functions with fear, not with love. They root for the wrong colored uniforms, even against their own self-interest. (Here I’m obviously speaking of church families, as connected to the church’s own original marriage to the Christ. You know. The one who speaks for himself using red letters in the Bible.)

If one reads the New Testament beginning with the Gospel of Matthew, it’s interesting to note when the red letters, the voice of Jesus, really get going big time. It’s in Matthew 5, after the message of Emmanuel is delivered in that first Christmas story of Christ’s birth, that this now grown-up Emmanuel starts to really talk. A lot. Solid red letters. Has a lot to say, in case anyone loves God enough to actually listen to what he really has to say for himself.

Early on, Jesus tells about what others have said “about” him. Those who did their own part in talking “for” him. And he goes about rather gently and politely correcting them. As if to say, now that I am allowed to speak for myself, here’s what I really think, or really feel, or really believe, or really mean. “You have heard it said………but I say unto you….” Jesus gets his own voice. And his disciples, those who actually went to the trouble of climbing up the high hillside in Matthew’s Gospel, 5:1, begin to love Jesus as they give him his own voice. They let this new Emmanuel of Christmas now grown up…….speak for himself. For a change.

That, my friends, is what most needs to change within today’s church, if we’re to restore or re-story God’s own preferred story or narrative in our world today. We need to give Jesus his voice back. We need to let God speak for himself, for a change. Not Abraham, Moses, David, Solomon, the Prophets. Not Paul, Peter, the Apostles. They try their very best to speak about God and for him. They inform our theories and theologies, or dogmas and doctrines. But when they are doing all the talking, we stop listening to Jesus. And before we know it, our marriage is based more on fear than on love. And we wonder why our family isn’t getting along like it should. Why are we so divided?

Are we afraid to let God speak for himself as Emmanuel, Jesus?

Are we afraid of those red letters in the Bible?   The ones that sometimes contradict what we thought we knew for sure “about” or “for” God?    Are we afraid to give Jesus his voice back?  Are we afraid to be more than Christmas and Easter church people, where we see Jesus only in silence lying on a manger or dying on a cross?  Or speaking to us from before the resurrection?  Are we afraid of that Jesus, or do we love that Jesus enough to let him have his own voice?

Again, I’m asking rhetorical questions, but they need to be answered, aloud, in order to establish a bit of balance back into the relationship between Christ and Church. Otherwise, this old retired marriage counselor is predicting we’re only going to see a dysfunctional family based on fear. Rooting for the wrong colored uniforms. Against our own self-interest.

“There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love.” — I John 4:18

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