Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Is tanning an addiction?

I noticed this article in the NYTimes reporting that frequent tanning mimics the effect of drug use. A teaser:
A study in 2005 did show that a large proportion of sunbathers met the psychiatric definition of a substance abuse disorder, based on their answers to a variation of a test often used to help diagnose alcohol addiction... Brain images later showed that during regular tanning sessions, when the study subjects were exposed to UV rays, several key areas of the brain lighted up. Among those areas were the dorsal striatum, the left anterior insula and part of the orbitofrontal cortex – all areas that have been implicated in addiction.
There is a on-going debate in mental health communities on what meets the definition of an addiction. There are many who suggest that neuroscience provides the defining characteristic--simply stated, that there are certain ways that the brain responds to stimulus that are classified as "addiction." This theory has been advanced to make the case for sex addiction, shopping addiction, gambling addiction, and so on. But the question of what is and what is not an addiction remains open for discussion.

Those are just my thoughts this morning. Read the whole article here.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Waiting until it is safe to feel happy...

A client in my office recently said, “I want to say that I am happy in my life, but I'm afraid that if I say that, then I'll be inviting trouble.” I have heard this—and said it myself—enough to know that my client is not alone in this thinking. Many of us have been taught or conditioned not to allow ourselves to feel happy for fear that the very act of feeling happiness will cause bad luck.

Are you keeping yourself from experiencing the full happiness of the moment, for fear that acknowledging it will jinx it? Not only is this what therapists call “magical thinking,” it is also a self-defeating way of managing our emotions: This belief prevents us from experiencing our happiness in the moment, keeping us waiting for a future time when it is safe and OK to feel happy.

Of course, there may not be any such future time, as our human lives and all the constructs of human lives are finite. There may not be a better time to enjoy your relationship, or to feel satisfied in your job. So, instead of allowing ourselves to be happy, or to feel satisfied, we dwell in the anxiety of not knowing if it is safe for us to feel good. The great irony is that our circumstance will certainly change, and there will be a time when we are not able to enjoy the life that surrounds us. And rather than enjoying what we had when we could, we borrowed from our future discontent.

In essence, we are waiting until we have permission to be happy. And, because we are conditioned to believe that the here-and-now is not the place for happiness, we will never be in a place where it is safe to feel happy. Each time something comes into our lives that we would be happy about, we will instead minimize it, refuse it, and worry that actually being happy would be back luck.

I remember asking that client, "What permission are you waiting for? What holds you back from feeling good, happy, in the moment?" I think that applies to many of us beyond the therapy room as well. I would invite you to try and recognize this pattern when it comes up for you, and to allow yourself to be happy in the moment.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Friday Culture: Mary Cassatt

Mary Cassatt was born on May 22 in 1844 in what is not Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. She became a professional artist in a time when the field was mostly closed to women. She often painted portraits, especially women and children. Cassatt's work captures the bond between women and children for many. Critics at the time said that Cassatt's colors were "too bright" and that her portraits were "too accurate." However, these are the characteristics that make her artwork so enduring.

Here are some of Cassatt's works.

 Self-Portrait, c. 1878

The Child's Bath, 1893

Child in a Straw Hat, 1886

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Self Love II

I wrote a post about self-love last week, and I wanted to continue to write about that theme. As I mentioned in that post, I believe that self-love is overrated in many parts of our culture; but I also believe that it is important to feel good about who we are in order to be mentally and emotionally healthy. 

 It should go without saying, but it does not, so I am putting it here: Feeling good about who we are does not come from other people telling us that they like us. It does not come from being socially desirable, or from being popular. It does not come from being attractive or wealthy or successful in business. Feeling good about ourselves will never come from anything or anyone outside of ourselves.

Feeling good about who are comes from inside of us. It comes from recognizing when we have done something helpful or kind for someone else. I remember one client who was very successful in his profession, and he was making a great deal of money. He came to see me because he felt “worthless.” We worked to identify the origins of these feelings, and discovered that he had been pursuing financial achievement for years and neglecting any kind of service for others, and this was causing him the feelings of worthlessness. He began to volunteer his time—tentatively at first, and then more and more—working at a homeless shelter. He reflected, at the end of our time together, “I feel that I do more good in those hours than in all the boardrooms and meetings I've had in my entire life.”

We also feel good about who we are when we accomplish something difficult, something that took effort and hard work and time. I had a client once who came to see me for depression. At our first session, I noticed he was wearing a class ring, and I asked him about it. He said it was not his ring: He had purchased it at a second-hand store. He then disclosed that he had never finished college, and that this was one of the most painful parts of his life. As we worked together, he decided to go back to school and get his degree. At this point in his career, the degree he was working on would not be helpful to him professionally, but it made an enormous difference to his sense of himself. He eventually did finish his degree, and at the same time his depression gradually lifted.

Feeling good about ourselves also comes from stopping when we are about to do something that we know we will regret. I once worked with a woman who was struggling with a long-lasting heroin addiction. She only used about once a month, but during that time she would be gone from her family for two or three days. She had tremendous shame around her addiction. We worked together for a long time. It was difficult, frustrating work for both of us. She would make progress, and then go back to using. But overall, her use did decrease. She eventually stopped using, and we agreed that she would graduate from therapy. One day about a year later, she was diagnosed with a serious illness and was told she would only have about six months to live. She called me and came back into therapy. When I asked her how she felt about dying, she said, “I'm surprised, but I am OK with it. I mean, I'd rather not die. But I always said I didn't want to die an addict—and now I know that I won't. And that gives me peace.”

These are the things that help us feel good about ourselves—that help us develop self-love. It does not come from other people reassuring us that we are good or worthy; it comes from knowing in ourselves that we have done the difficult thing, or the thing that was valuable and helpful to another person which we did not need to do. It does not come quickly from reading a self-help book or watching a lecture, and it is not cheaply purchased with platitudes. Self-love builds over time, and it comes from the things we do when we choose to live up to our potential to be our best self.  

Friday, May 11, 2012

Friday Culture: Mary Biddinger

Mary Biddinger is a poet and professor living in Akron, Ohio. She was born in California, she attended the University of Michigan, Bowling Green State University, and the University of Illinois at Chicago. Currently, she is an Associate Professor of English at the University of Akron.

Biddinger's work is wonderfully Midwestern in character, and she brings that lens to topics like love and relationships. She blends social commentary and personal awareness without sacrificing beauty. Take a moment today and get to know this poet. I'll let her work speak for itself... here are three poems:

A Hex Symbol and Bildungsroman

Portrait of Myself as a Piece of Red Candy in Your Mouth

Tuesday, May 8, 2012


I hear and talk about "self-love" often in therapy, and it occurs to me that the term is usually define pretty badly. If I'm going to be honest, the phrase "love yourself" tends to conjure up an image in my mind of the worst kind of fluffy pop-psychology. But I think that self-love is a worthy goal indeed, so I wanted to write about what I believe self-love to be, and how to cultivate it.

1. It's not narcissism.

Many of us were raised with cautions against becoming too full of ourselves, or being too proud. And while narcissism is a real problem, self-love is not narcissism. Narcissism is an absorption with the self, a sense of grandiose self-importance, and is often characterized by a lack of empathy for others. Self-love is an unconditional respect, compassion and affection for one's self. One can be a narcissist and have self-love--but interestingly, many narcissists do not have authentic self-love.

2. It's worthwhile, but it's not an answer to everything

"Self-love" is sometimes conceived of as a panacea for every possible psychological wrong, from depression to abusive relationships to alcoholism. And while many people may find increasing their love for themselves to be a part of their overall mental health, it is not a magic cure-all. There are plenty of people out there who deeply love themselves, but engage in self-destructive behaviors. It's too simple to just say, "Well, those people obviously don't love themselves." What is more realistic is that mental health is complex and there is no one single fix for the incredibly diverse difficulties that humans can experience. But even so, self-love is important and worthwhile.

3. It requires self-knowledge

Self-knowledge is the answer to the questions, "Who am I?" and "What am I like?" Think about the process of falling in love with another person--one of the first steps is to get to know that person. We go on dates; we ask questions; often we are fascinated by every little detail of their lives. This knowledge of the beloved object is as important to the love of someone else as it is to our own love of our self. When we have a good working knowledge of our selves, we can being accept and understand what drives us.

4. It's an active process, not merely an attitude shift

"Love" is both a verb and a noun, and as humans we are only capable of "doing" verbs. In other words, we cannot possess self-love without actually taking steps to love ourselves. "Love" is something we do. Think of the things that people do to fall in love with one another--among other things, they get to know each other, share intimate details, share new experiences, and touch each other in intimate ways. All of these steps help cultivate and deepen love. The same thing is true about self-love: It's not a realization we come to once. It's an active process we choose each and every day.

Friday, May 4, 2012

Friday Culture: Keith Haring

I wrote a personal blog years ago, and I had a tradition of posting something "cultural" every Friday. Usually, this was some poetry, or a piece of music, or selections from a visual artist. During the month of May I'm going to bring this tradition back. I think it's relevant here on my professional blog because I believe that art has much to say about mental health and self-actualization. After all, artists philosophers, poets, writers, and musicians throughout history have had commentary of the human condition.

With that said, today is the birthday of Keith Haring. After moving to New York at the age of 19, Haring achieved public recognition with chalk drawings in the New York subways. Haring's art famously addresses the HIV/AIDS epidemic, but he made art about a wide range of social and political themes of his time, such as apartheid and the crack cocaine crisis. Haring himself was diagnosed with AIDS in 1988, and continued  to increase awareness about the AIDS crisis. Haring died of AIDS-related complications in February of 1990, leaving behind a legacy of art commentary on social issues.

Haring's work is still under copyright, so I cannot post any of it on this blog. Instead, I'm giving a link to a video about Haring. The video is an overview of an exhibit of Haring's work at the Contemporary Art Center in Cincinnati from 2011. It includes an interesting history of Haring's development as an artist.


 Also, today's Google doodle is in honor of Keith Haring.