Friday, December 11, 2015

On the use of labels: helpful, restrictive or both?

Having just read an article about bisexuality, I began thinking about labels which can be informative and useful, and sometimes restricting and harmful, depending on the circumstances (

Some people love clarity and certainty, the more black and white the better.  Categorizing and organizing help us understand our worlds and the people within them. Naming people, places and things helps us feel safe and secure in a world where there is much chaos and confusion. But, these same labels may also lead to rigid, irrational stereotypes.

Using adjectives, descriptors and labels helps us communicate with each other. But, we may miss out on getting to know and understand all kinds of people because of our quick, initial impressions and assumptions.

For instance, the bisexuality article points out that if one describes herself as bisexual, that does not necessarily mean that she likes threesomes though some people interpret the label that way. Some also think that bisexuality means that a person is wishy washy wanting to sample many tastes in a cafeteria of choices instead of sticking to one theme, or type of person.

When labels produce inaccurate assumptions, they can result in narrowly stereotyping in a world where people can be full of many colors, tones and shades instead of being only black or white.

We gravitate toward descriptors in order to identify ourselves to each other and we like to belong to some community, some tribe. But, in fact we belong to many communities.

I am a psychotherapist, a mother, a daughter, a wife, an activist, a friend, all at the same time.  But, which labels do I use when presenting myself to you?  Which descriptors will you use when you help me learn more about you and your life?

And, let’s not over-categorize or stick people in boxes by viewing only one part of them and not the full, whole person who has many parts.

I try to be open to learning more about people before I judge them (especially) harshly, but it is a struggle.  It is so much easier to label and cross people off my list than to spend the time and energy it might take to see if we have any similarities, anything at all in common.  We might even explore our differences and be intrigued about each other’s uniqueness. 

How do we slow down our rapid judgements of ourselves and others, so that we can be more like children, just being curious in open, non-judgmental ways, without limiting people to just one part? How can we wonder about new ideas before rejecting them quickly out of fear or anxiety?  

Instead, we often create divisions, disconnections and separations based on minimal data, while there are already many lonely people in the world. Rigid beliefs can be distorted or inaccurate leading to inappropriate and unhealthy actions.  For instance, maybe we don’t need to rush to halt all immigration just because a certain faction of people has committed horrible atrocities.

Perhaps without the need for such restrictive labeling, we can realize we are all connected, and maybe we can love one another and ourselves just a little bit more easily, even if we object to some of our parts. 

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Working with Divorce (for psychotherapists)

How do we help struggling couples work through one of the worst times of their lives?  With great care. We listen not only to our psychotherapy clients about this terrible time of life but to divorcing family members, friends, and colleagues.

You have probably seen MTCA ads in NPI Reflects. The Middle Tennessee Collaborative Alliance (MTCA) group here in town offers couples a creative and different way to divorce. Some of us NPI members have been trained as Collaborative Divorce Coaches and we offer you our expertise if you are working with clients who are thinking about divorce. 

Before I became a MTCA member, I sometimes felt helpless when my individual clients and couples needed information about divorcing. I could certainly help them make some decisions about whether or not to divorce and about parenting issues, but, what often happened when my clients hired attorneys, was that I felt like I lost control or power to influence my clients’ divorce experiences or outcomes.

Not that we therapists need to be in control of our clients’ divorces but after investing much time and energy in our work with clients, we have sometimes felt like we were turning them over to an adversarial justice system without being able to assist them effectively during the process.  We often watched in horror as some of our couples experienced high hostility and severe conflict even when they may have wanted to divorce amicably, stay friends, or at least continue to coparent their children well.

In 2009, several professionals, including psychotherapists and attorneys, came together to create MTCA.  Collaborative Divorce processes had been developed and used in the US and Canada for many years prior to that time, but Tennessee was just getting on board to help couples complete their divorces with as little animosity as possible.  Couples tell us that they want to make their own decisions about their divorces instead of leaving those decisions to the courts. We owe many thanks to the founders of MTCA which include NPI members David McMillan and Julia McAninch.  

Because we believe in excellent care for our clients during divorces, some other NPI members also trained to function as Collaborative Divorce Coaches, Tiffany Davis and myself being two of them.  We 4 NPI members want you to know that you can use us for consultation about your clients’ divorce discussions, and for referrals to attorneys, financial professionals and coaches.

During Collaborative Divorce, attorneys advocate for their individual clients so that your clients will have rigorous legal guidance and support.  Also, Coaches will not work with your clients as therapists during or after the divorce, so you need not fear you will lose your clients to us.  We want to work with therapists to achieve the best results possible for families and their futures.

The collaborative process is exciting because it uses a multidisciplinary team to help each couple develop an excellent marital dissolution agreement.  The beauty of Collaborative Divorce is that the couple maintains much control of the process and outcome of their divorce, not handing over the reins to aggressive, adversarial litigators.  We have learned though that Collaborative Divorce is not for everyone and it is most useful for those couples who are communally committed to the time and energy it takes to work together. Collaborative Divorce often takes less time than a litigated divorce and expenses are often much lower than the expense of litigation.

In Collaborative Divorce, the couple designs their own parenting plan with our professional teams, and the attorneys make sure that the plan fits with the legal requirements for divorce.  Collaborative Divorce Coaches act as emotional supports to the couple, not replacing therapists but as adjuncts, facilitating the collaborative process and team meetings, and making sure that the process does not become adversarial.

One more fact: Collaborative Divorce is not always easy and nice, although we would like that to happen. Sometimes, couples who have already been having difficulties communicating will continue to have trouble in the collaborative process.  But, with Coaches helping to understand their communication patterns, their histories and inner workings, we can facilitate the process effectively, helping couples learn to work together in new ways at times.  We try to help them move forward in their lives instead of staying stuck rehashing the past.

Feel free to use any of us Coaches or any of the other professionals on the MTCA website ( if you have questions about MTCA, Collaborative Divorce, or the variety of ways couples can divorce.  After all, litigation and mediation are best suited to some couples and some MTCA attorneys also function as litigators and mediators. One size does not fit all but we try our best to match clients with the most appropriate process to ensure success.

Sexual Assault is alive and well in 2015

I was a college student in the 1970’s where some young men were aggressive, some sweet and kind, just like today. Women and men participated in drinking and drugging on campuses, and rape sometimes occurred.

Nowadays, with rape so common nationally and globally, we need to understand why men still abuse women. We can agree that some men choose to physically overpower and control women in all sorts of ways. This is not just about rape by strangers in dark alleys but rape in fancy educational settings, housing privileged kids where rape is an institutional hazard, a nightmare, and a disgrace.

Rape is also the buying, selling and renting of children’s and women’s bodies in a society that prizes and rewards economic greed and financial success. Sex trafficking is rampant with children being stolen to become commercial property, thereby becoming slaves.

In the 1970’s and 80’s here in Nashville, we young women marched in protest about issues like women’s equality and rape. These days sexual assault seems not to have decreased even while gender roles and acceptance of sexuality differences have evolved positively. Probably because rape is not about sex but about power.

What can we do about this continued tragic state of affairs? First, by admitting that a large portion of the problem is that we are nested in a society whose social norms allow for and promote the abuse of children, women, minorities and the poor.

Being hesitant to say “no” to male sexual or aggressive behavior may be partly due to some girls’ and women’s buying in to the patriarchal idea that sex is something that a woman “gives” to a man, something he can “take from” her, “stealing her virginity.” Even the phrases sound criminal, describing a power exchange. Children also are taught to obey adults, increasing their risk.

These days, I would think that men would be even more careful about getting consent to sex. Even if the perpetrators and/or victims of rape are drugged, drunk, or impaired, men need to be absolutely sure their partner is a willing, adult sexual partner.

Although women are now seen as more equal to men than in the past in some ways, sexual violence is slow to change. Domestic violence of all sorts continues and Pat Shea of the YWCA encourages men to help solve this problem.

We grow up being highly influenced by our media, advertisements, movies, and magazines, many which glorify girls’ and women’s bodies as commodities. To decease sexual violence, parents need to teach their children about respecting each other’s bodies and how to deal with conflict in a nonviolent manner, something they may know little about.

Perhaps if men felt better about themselves, they wouldn’t rape. But, this problem goes further than that on a macro level. This is about economics, buying and selling products and services. After all, making money is a large part of the American Dream.