Truth, Trust and Gas-Lighting

Ingrid Bergman in the 1944 film, Gaslight.

Ingrid Bergman in the 1944 film, Gaslight.

I wrote the statement below in response to a therapist-friend questioning whether mistrust has become a "new cultural phenomenon."

"We can't trust each other and can't agree on reality. It makes everyone feel shaky. It's one thing to disagree on an issue, but another thing to not even agree on the existence of the issue!" 

I was a college student when the beating of Rodney King , the acquittal of the officers, and the subsequent riots happened. At a vigil on campus the morning after the acquittal was announced, one of my Social Work professors implored us to remember what we saw in that video, and the feelings it stirred. She warned that in the coming days and weeks, the truth of that terrible beating would be minimized, spun or explained away. She urged us to hold onto our perception of that video in the face of gas-lighting in the media.

What is gas-lighting? It's a term derived from a play (and later movie) in which a husband essentially tells his wife that the dimming of the gas lights in their home didn't happen, when in fact, it did. This is a crazy-making form of abuse in which one's reality is questioned, manipulated and distorted. As a therapist, I have worked with patients who have experienced this type of treatment as children and in adult relationships. With couples, I work to listen to each person's deeper truth in the storm of the conflict. In healthy relationships, we grow by having our unconscious assumptions and patterns compassionately challenged and changed over time, while our deepest truths are simultaneously fortified. How do we work with this dynamic in our community and body politic?

We are facing serious problems as a world, nation and in our communities, and I am becoming alarmed by our apparent inability to agree on facts. How do we address these issues and work together when we can't even agree on the existence of the problems, or on evidence and facts? How do we hold on to what we know and hold deeply to be true, while also being open to hear others' perceptions? How do we discern which people and groups are interested in working toward a common solution, and which are simply gas-lighting, or are incapable of doing so? Who do we truly trust - in our relationships, communities, and in the media?

These psychologically complex questions I normally grapple with in my practice, are becoming increasingly relevant for all of us to take into the world.

The Arc of the Moral Universe

Since the election, many of my patients have been overwhelmed by worry and despair. Many are worried for their personal safety, or that of their friends and family who are people of color, women, muslim, LGBTQ, immigrants, etc. Many are afraid that our government will become increasingly unable to protect us from discrimination, pollution and exploitation.

As we sit together in the despair, I have thought of this quote, which has been attributed to MLK  (its origin is a bit more complex). This quote has provided perspective as we stand poised to experience a rollback of many rights, institutions and societal norms we have come to take for granted.

Some folks find comfort in the latter part of the quote, "it bends toward justice." However, I think it is imperative at times like this that we remember that "the arc of the moral universe is LONG (emphasis added)." Reflecting on the length of the arc is clarifying. On which side of that moral arc do you locate yourself? If you believe in justice and equality, perhaps a remedy for despair is to be found in gathering with your community to push on that arc?

Study Links Childhood Trauma to Adult Depression & Physical Ailments

Dr. Burke Harris helps a patient.

Dr. Burke Harris helps a patient.

It comes as no surprise to many of us, especially to therapists, that children exposed to trauma and abuse, if untreated, become adults with depression and physical ailments. The publication of a recent report by the Center for Youth Wellness collects research quantifying and measuring "adverse childhood experiences," or ACEs and their impact on youth and the adults they become. You can read the report here.

Dr. Nadine Burke Harris, a pediatrician and founder of the Center for Youth Wellness, spoke today on KQED's Forum, and you can stream the show here. She is advocating for universal screening of children by pediatricians at their routine physicals. According to Dr. Burke Harris, “Toxic stress affects the entire developmental trajectory of the child. The changes to your DNA, the changes to your hormonal systems, as well as the changes to your immune system and neuro-development.”

I hope that with Google's $3 million donation to the Center, that psychotherapy can become more available to all - especially to our traumatized children. Even adults who are depressed as a result of childhood trauma can heal with effective therapy and other self care measures.

The Price of Keeping a Secret

I was intrigued by a recent article in The Atlantic entitled, "Why You Can't Keep a Secret." The author cited several current studies which show that people who are keeping something hidden or secret have suppressed immune systems, are less physically able, and give up more easily, among other things. There is a cost for keeping things to yourself, and sharing upsetting memories and experiences is often tremendously helpful.

As a psychodynamic psychotherapist, I understand the powerful negative impact that keeping things hidden from others, or even yourself, can have. Depression, disturbing dreams, anxiety, intrusive thoughts or behaviors, and even physical symptoms may be pointing to a part of you which has been held in darkness for too long, and which longs to come into the light of day.  

It can be terrifying to even think about sharing hidden, often shame-laden or traumatic memories! I understand this, and work with my clients to form a safe space imbued with gentle curiosity. 

As a therapist, I have had the pleasure of witnessing clients experience tremendous relief from such sharing, freeing them up to participate in, and enjoy, their lives and choices more fully.

Meditation for Anxiety

If you're struggling with feeling anxious, meditation is an easy and proven tool you can use to feel better today.

If anxious, you may find yourself in the throes of excessive worrying, sleep troubles, and panic attacks, which can lead to physical symptoms. You might feel a tightness in your chest when you breathe, sweaty palms, or an occasionally racing heart (Of course, please see your physician immediately if you have any physical discomfort, and to rule out any medical problems).

There are many ways to meditate, and it can be hard to know which form is right for you. I am sharing this link to UCLA's Mindful Awareness Research Center, which is a good place to start. If you click on the link, you will be taken to a page with eight different recordings of meditations you can use today to decrease your anxiety & re-connect with your body and breath. Try to notice without judgement how you, and your anxiety, feel before, during and after you meditate. What stands out?

Effective psychotherapy has also been proven to help reduce symptoms of anxiety. If you're interested in exploring starting psychotherapy, feel free to call me for a free phone consultation. (510)269-7029