Staying sane in an insane world – three pillars of sanity

It was a warm spring day at the beach with a view till the edge of the couples counselingearth when my client turned, looked me square in the eye, and said. “Well, tell me then Roy, how do you keep your sanity?”

Living in San Diego, I have the great fortune of year-round fantastic weather. On occasion I will meet a client in an outdoor setting at a local beach or park. Many clients have tremendously therapeutic experiences while face to face with the “bigness” of the Pacific Ocean. It was on one of these occasions where that “bigness” sparked my client to ask me a question that produced one of my most effective tools to help my clients monitor and maintain their own sanity while living in an insane world.

Meanwhile, back at the beach, I stood ready to regurgitate all of the nifty methods and tips from one of my many cognitive behavioral books. Catching myself in this thought, I gave myself a mental slap in the face and told myself, “just answer the man’s question.”

The answer began the night before. My daughter was messing around with an old travel tripod I bought in Hong Kong years ago. Trying to get the perfect angle to film her homegrown music video, she adjusted one of the legs to be much shorter than the other two.

“You can only adjust it so far before it won’t stand up anymore Dad, it just keeps falling down.”

I replied, “Yes, it does sweetie, yes it does.”

She didn’t know it, and neither did I at the time, but she had stumbled into helping me answer my client’s question. I got up and showed my daughter how the weight of the camera when it’s tilted throws off the balance of the tripod. We wound up incrementally adjusting the length of one of the tripods legs until the tripod was stable.

“Wow Daddy, I guess you have to be careful and pay attention to the length of the legs to make sure they all work together!”

“Yes you do sweetie, yes you do.” I replied.

Meanwhile, the next day, back at the beach…

There I was, as peaceful a setting as there could be; warmth of the sun, sounds of the surf, smell of the sea, a harmony of man and nature. Oh yeah darn it, there’s a client waiting for an answer his question. What came out of my mouth in the next seconds spawned hours of fruitful therapy thereafter. Here’s what I told him that day at the beach along with a brief explanation.

“Three things, three simple things that are sometimes hard to do: Community, Boundaries and Self-Care,” in the next breath I added, “and even those things in balance within each other.”

Community

When I think of the word “community” I define it as: a group that has intimacy. “What does that mean?” you ask. Okay enough with the therapist talk, back to plain English. A community is a group of people, ranging in size from a small family to thousands, having shared thoughts and feelings with a feeling of connection to each other. More simply put, community feels like home. While I’m not going to get into to many fights getting people to agree that having “community” is a good thing in the battle to retain sanity, the key is being able to discern healthy from unhealthy community. The bigger question then is what makes a healthy community? Here are some questions to help evaluate if your communities are healthy or unhealthy:

    • Do you feel free to express your thoughts/feelings/needs within the community?

Freedom to express thoughts, feelings and needs in respectful ways is an essential component in the building of healthy community. Lack of this freedom results in a decay in the feeling of connection that defines community. This is not a license to “fire at will” with every thought and feeling. Also, don’t confuse “freedom of expression” with “talk till I get my way.” You are responsible for the words that come out of your mouth, and if they cause reckless irresponsible damage then you must own and correct that pattern either by yourself or with a counselor. This is an opportunity to look at the things that may be interrupting the free expression process within your community and learn what the options are.

Remember you aren’t required to be part of a community, you choose to be part of one. You can remove yourself from an unhealthy group. Please make sure that before you do, you have honestly investigated what role you may have played in the process before you infect the next community you are attached to.

In a healthy community freedom of expression is the beginning of a bigger process that creates, maintains and restores connection. Who do you feel closer to: the ones that know your secrets or the ones you keep secrets from?

    • How does the community respond to your thoughts/feelings/needs?

Building on the ability to express our thoughts, feelings, needs, and assuming that you are able to do so in a clean and clear fashion, then you can effectively evaluate how your community is responding to your needs. Before any evaluation of others start, you have to look at yourself and your own expectations. Are they reasonable? Are your requests an expression of your own brokenness?

To assist in this process, I regularly ask clients to list their expectations of how other’s should respond when they express thoughts, feelings, and needs. First, self evaluate the list. Does it appear reasonable? Okay, easy job done. Trickier part is to take that list and share it with the members closest to you within your community and get their feedback. You might be surprised at the communication gap between yourself and those closest to you.

    • How do you contribute to the needs of your communities?

Let’s shift gears here, from “Ask not what my community can do for me” and move toward, “what you can do for your community.” This is going to be very unpopular with many, downright offensive to some, and politically incorrect at a minimum. Many of the clients that have difficulty within their community also contribute the least to its health. So, go back to that list you made about things you expected from others, then ask yourself how well you provide those things to others. Now there’s a reality check moment, glad that’s over. Wait! You’re not done yet, now share with others in your community and see if they agree with your self-evaluation.

Boundaries

I you haven’t read the book, Boundaries by Cloud & Townsend, and you really want a full and practical understanding of boundaries, please pick up their book. The role of good boundaries in every part of our lives (family, work, money, health, etc.) is essential in maintaining sanity in an insane world. Attempting to boil down Cloud & Townsend’s work into small digestible bites, here’s how I ask client to conceptualize their boundaries.

Boundaries serve a basic function. They set trigger points for healthy responses when we encounter certain unhealthy experiences. A boundary response creates a positive, or at least a less negative consequence than the old response (repeating negative consequence). The better you are at defining and maintaining your boundaries, the less likely you are to be sucked into any unhealthy personal or community dynamics.

“Sounds pretty easy then, just set up some strict rules and cut anyone that can’t follow them out of my world, no problemo.”

Well, you got me. Before you start stacking the bricks of your wall too high, consider this one warning about boundaries: While boundaries are great tools they can also be misused to any limit your personal growth.

“Huh, come again?”

Here’s an example. A divorced woman, who’s ex-husband was engaged in serial infidelity, makes a boundary about trusting any future mate. “I won’t ever allow myself to have the wool pulled over my eyes again. I’m going to know where he’s at and who he’s with at all times. That way I know that I’ll never be hurt again.”

Poor woman, while I understand her desire to insulate herself from any “relational pain” in the future is great, she is choosing a boundary that blocks her own need to process her unresolved current pain. Until then, any relationship she participates in will be tainted with mistrust, secrecy, and suspicion (all great enemies of intimacy). When setting your boundaries be mindful that they aren’t in conflict with any personal work that you may need to do.

Self Care

The third pillar of sanity. This is of one those words that seems very obvious in meaning but often varies greatly from person to person. So to make sure we’re all on the same page, here goes: Adequate self care means taking personal responsibility for attending to one’s own physical, mental/emotional, and spiritual well-being. Now defining what “well-being” is or isn’t can get complicated and judgmental, so let’s just say a few words about caring for the mind, body, and soul.

Physical Care – Are you taking good care of your body? Chances are, you’re a liar. My apologies if you’re not one of these people, but most, especially men, don’t immediately seek help with physical problems. Do you eat enough vegetables? Exercising often enough? Taking the right supplements? Sleeping the right amount? The list goes on and on with all the ways you can do a better job of taking care of your body. Be careful, it can be easy to go too far.

Mental/Emotional Care – If your community doesn’t or can’t provide mental and emotional support, then you must take responsibility to find another that can. For example, if your immediate family isn’t able to provide a safe emotional environment, then you may need to reach out to one of many support group meetings; join a church, hobby group, and/or seek a lay or professional counselor.

Spiritual Care – In the course of my practice I’ve worked with people of many different faiths, and, to me, the most noticeable difference between those whose faith was a positive impact on their healing and those to which it was a hindrance was the level of maturity they had in their faith.

“Whoa, Whoa, Whoa,, Okay, what does ‘mature’ mean?”

I define that as experienced enough in life to know that you don’t know everything. Maturity is reflected by being respectful toward those who have chosen another path without feeling defensive or cavalier about your own. Maturity is free, open and honest expression between you and your higher power. Maturity is a sense of peace and wholeness regardless of the event.

As I watched my daughter wrap up production of her music video for the day. I gently removed her precious camera from the tripod as she urged me to be careful. After safely placing the camera into her growing hands I started to put the tripod away. I noticed how one part of the leg slides up into one above it, and then that part into the one above it. So many different parts working together to hold the weight of the off balance camera. Such is life, so many people (parts) attempting to work together to stay stable in an instable world.

Because life, sometimes by our own creation and sometime with no input, will on occasion put tilted cameras on top of our tripod, we are wise to be mindful of the length of our own pillars of sanity. Getting the balance right becomes the name of the game. The simple message is that all three pillars are important and work best when neither are neglected nor over-emphasized.

 

Just like when my daughter looked toward me with fear about making sure that her camera didn’t drop, we all want to believe that when life events occur that our tripod can: a) handle the weight and b) not tip over. The tripod that can hold the most weight and find stability, even when a camera (life event) is positioned awkwardly on its top, is the tripod with all three legs working in harmony to compensate for the weight of the camera.

One of the many lessons I teach clients is that sanity doesn’t come to you by accident, you have to create it. So be mindful of Community, Boundaries, and Self-Care, and how they can help you stay balanced, but only when they are in balance.

Roy

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