The Joy (and not-joy) of Relationship

We had a family gathering at my house on Friday evening, since my sister and brother-in-law were visiting from Florida. The thing that stands out in my mind about it is that everyone was so GLAD to see each other. There was tangible joy, just to be together.

It is one of the greatest blessings I know to feel that love and see the connections between people I love. It makes the hassles of planning, communicating, cleaning and cooking all worth it, in spades.

Hearing laughter and chatter, seeing the men holding babies that are not their own, and LOVING them, seeing nieces and brothers helping themselves in the kitchen and a sister-in-law stirring pots is pure contentment to me.

I missed those that weren’t here, also. Nieces and nephews busy elsewhere with their own lives, great-nieces and nephews involved with other parts of their family, a brother on a book tour, parents who are no longer with us, aunts and cousins who are far away, all are missed.

Not everyone is blessed with joyful relationships. There isn’t always joy in these relationships, either. There can be irritation, hurt feelings, disappointment and confusion, as well. In some families there is outright hostility and estrangement. It pains me when I see it in families I know and love. I see and hear about painful relationships daily in my work as a therapist. It is a primary source of anguish and bewilderment for my clients.

The Dalai Lama encourages compassion for others, and reminds us to see that we are the SAME as others, and not so different. Understanding that the other is experiencing the same feelings, challenges, desires and frustrations can equalize things and help us to find empathy for him/her.

Terence Real, who wrote The New Rules of Marriage (Ballantine Books, 2008) and other books explains that many of us get caught up on an “escalator of contempt” which shuttles us back and forth between grandiosity (better than) and shame (worse than). When we think we have all the answers we look down on others with contempt and disdain. We pump ourselves up as more important than, smarter than, more talented than, etc. and grandiosity reigns. When we put ourselves down as stupid, unworthy, inadequate and unlovable we are in shame and are treating ourselves with contempt.

What gets missed is the experience of same as. We are fundamentally the same as everyone else, with inadequacies and amazing traits; quirks and gifts; bad behaviors and generosity; wisdom and foolishness; strengths and weaknesses. We are all human.

In recent years I have experienced some painful conflict in personal relationships. Some of it related to miscommunication and misunderstandings, some to unrestrained words of anger and judgment, some to differences that got translated into weaknesses and shortcomings. I was forced to see attitudes and behaviors in myself that were extremely hard to admit. The primary thing I must acknowledge is that I can be critical, shaming and grandiose. I also can feel rejected, ashamed, misunderstood, mistreated and unworthy.

Terry Real recommends stepping off the contempt escalator and remembering the other person is much like I am; not less than me and not better than me. It helps me manage my reactions and feelings when I remind myself, “same as.” The other person is struggling just like I am, feels similar feelings, and has many great qualities as well as shortcomings, just like me. The other is trying to be understood and get needs met just as I am; and is NOT out to get ME.

And I began to use a phrase in my head when I was feeling frustrated with someone and thinking, “they should have…” or “why don’t they…” The phrase I said to help me let go of judgment, anger and hurt feelings was “JUST LOVE ‘EM.”

It serves to remind me that the most important thing is that I DO love them, and that calms me down and allows me to accept them just as they are, which is, after all, what I want them to do with me. It takes me off the “contempt escalator” and allows me change my thinking, which changes my feelings and actions.

I try to say this to myself, as well, when I get a case of the “I should have…”

Posted in Codependency, Counseling, Grandiosity, Relationship, Relationships, Shame, Transformation, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Roll with it

This is the time of year that everyone (especially in northern climes like Minnesota, I think) starts to pack in a lot of summertime activities, knowing that fall is about to descend. And, it is prep time for students and teachers returning to school. I am one of those again; this time I’m teaching a class in the Social Work graduate program at SCSU; providing instruction in the fundamental skills needed to be a social worker.

I am eager to dig into this class and learn the process of teaching the theory and skills of my profession. Interestingly, the textbook to be used is the same one I had when I started my MSW program at Louisiana State University in 1987. That was Edition 2, and now I will use Edition 9. Wow! Has it really been that long? I love the synchronicity of this and can see that it is THE book, and has evolved appropriately to be current and cutting edge.

I feel that I have evolved in a similar way–changing and adapting to stay up-to-date and fresh through the years of honing my craft and helping others who are in the beginning stages of their careers.

This is another aspect of resilience, I think; adapting and growing through challenges, upheavals, changes. Becoming stronger and remaining fit to perform necessary tasks and fulfill new roles.

It can be a very humbling process. Many times through the years I have seen a “new” technique or approach introduced and embraced, and realize I knew something very similar to that YEARS ago, and had not really incorporated it. I often have a sense of “I knew that once! Why haven’t I been doing it?” or “Damn, I could have written that book!” It is disconcerting but I have come to realize it is an outcome of living a lot of years and being in a career for 30+ years. I also know that I can’t do it all, nor does it make what I have done less valid.

That’s where “roll with it” comes in. Here’s a definition:

“to adjust to difficult events as they happen–roll with it.”

Etymology: based on boxing, from the literal meaning roll with the punches (step back or to one side as you are being hit), so that you do not receive the full force of the attack.
Cambridge Dictionary of American Idioms Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2003. Reproduced with permission.

We need to adjust, be flexible, accomodate and sometimes, in order not to get knocked down, we need to take the punch and move with it. The ability to bend and be tough are essential skills in this world. Seeing our imperfections, errors, shortcomings, and misses is part of rolling with it. Understanding our fallibility but not letting it undermine our self-confidence and sense of purpose can be difficult, but when we do it we can successfully move forward and attain more wisdom. Owning those truths about ourselves improves our resilience and enhances our ability to accept things, people, events, that we cannot change, and helps us gain tolerance of others, as well.


Posted in Counseling, Resilience, Therapy, Transformation, Transition, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

More transitions; so what’s new!

So, I am in the middle of more transitions. Does it ever stop? No, we just get to cruise sometimes. I am not in cruise control right now, but in the midst of some heavy traffic, construction, detours. I need to be on my toes.

My love relationship ended earlier this summer, due to core differences in our values and worldviews, and an erosion of good feelings between us.  It has not been easy, but my busyness has certainly helped to distract me from the loss.

I have had lots of company, fun weekend activities, a heavy workload and the process of my father moving from assisted living to nursing home. It has been hectic, challenging, rewarding, fun and draining.

Last weekend I spent 4 days with my team, Sand Shells, as crew at the Susan G. Komen 3-Day for the Cure in the Twin Cities. It was, as always, moving, inspiring, exhausting and exhilarating. My ankles are still swollen and bruised, and I wasn’t even trying to walk the 60 miles! I helped to set up and run Pit Stop 3 with my team. We handed out food, water, Nuun (our sponsor’s sports drink) and encouragement. We used the theme, “Wild, Wild Breasts!” If you haven’t been around the 3-Day, it is quite focused on breasts and having fun, so plays on words and irreverent themes rule the day. We had western outfits and props (even a photo op with a pony!) and got a lot of smiles out of the walkers. The spirit and energy of my teammates was amazing to watch.

The Closing Ceremonies, where I was allowed to wear a pink shirt and walk with the survivors, created feelings that are beyond words. The inclusion and validation we survivors experience fills my heart up to the brim, and reminds me how precious it is to have come through breast cancer. There was a moment during the Walk that I was encouraging walkers with water and thanks, and suddenly one of them said, “No, thank you, Survivor. Walking three days is nothing compared to chemo.” She had seen my “Survivor” button. It was so unexpected and so powerful that I melted into tears. It made all the sweat, exhaustion and body aches worth every minute.

Earlier I had visitors from Sweden and spent a week with them. It is a special thing to show them around the area to which the Emigrants came and have them get to know their American family better. I spent a weekend with one of my best friends, her siblings and cousins and had a ball. The laughter and cameraderie were delightful.

I have had a full schedule at work, because of taking time off here and there, and filling up the remaining spaces with clients. Always feeling behind and overwhelmed by paperwork, but managing to keep my head above water and give clients what they need from me. At times I have heard positive feedback and have been moved to tears by the growth, insight and relief they express, as well as their gratitude.

Finally, I have just started a new endeavor of teaching a foundational social work class at our local university. My first class met this week and I did well, I think. Thanks to a great curriculum I inherited from others, and help from several professors there, I got through it and feel optimistic and enthusiastic to continue it. It does challenge me, though, and I see that I am a student this fall too, as well as those in my class!

Posted in Counseling, Health Issues, Relationship, Renewal, Resilience, Transition, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Workshop, March 31, 2012

Along the Way: Transformation through difficult times…

Relationship, Resilience, Respite, Renewal (the 4 Rs)

March 31, 2012

Unity Spiritual Center

Sartell, MN

Susan Holmen, LICSW, ICADC


Using music, meditation, journaling and sharing, Susan explored the journey of transformation. The group looked at the 4 Rs and discussed their personal experiences and challenges.




“The workshop provided a nice balance of quiet introspection and interaction with others. The insights Susan shared awakened several ‘aha!’ moments of consciousness in me. It’s an experience that could be repeated over and over and would likely uncover something new each time.”  Sara M.



Posted in Alcoholism, Caregiving, Codependency, Relationship, Renewal, Resilience, Respite, Transformation | Leave a comment

The pain of alcoholism–Part 2

It is difficult for me to see how accepted alcohol abuse is in our culture. Drinking is pervasive and over-drinking is tolerated.

I hear of young women and men who are close to losing their children due to neglect or outright abuse. Their drug of choice may be marijuana or methamphetamines, but what leads them back to these drugs is the drug alcohol, because they and the world see it as harmless. Friends and family say, “It is just a few drinks, that isn’t so bad.” They risk losing their kids so they do not have to give up the “pleasure” of alcohol and drug use.

I had a friend, a charming Southern woman, raised in grace and wealth. She was hospitalized in her fourth relapse, for drinking perfume. She had used alcohol all through her life to manage loneliness, insecurity and fear, and was encouraged to drink to “calm your nerves.” She continued to do just that, in whatever form she could find, in spite of losing everything to her drinking.

I see a man who has had treatments since age 20, has destroyed his liver with alcohol and now, in his late 50’s he relapses every few months. He has warrants out for his arrest in three states, got his wife put in jail one night, is getting evicted for frequent police calls and blames everyone else for his problems. His doctors tell him he will die if he drinks again, and yet he does drink again and again. Answering a question of what prompted him to start again this time, he said, “I just wanted a beer while I watched the ballgame.” Just like a hundred thousand other guys on a Sunday afternoon. How many of them will face liver disease, divorce, DWI’s, job loss or worse? One in ten.

One in ten people who drink becomes alcoholic. It is the rare person who never tries alcohol, because our society values drinking, so almost everyone is at risk for alcoholism. Our culture tends to see alcohol as a necessary and welcome part of life; without which, life would not be as rewarding. Some people hold this belief, even when their families have been devastated by alcoholism. Because they don’t seem to have “alcoholic” struggles they take alcohol use lightly. This framework tends to set up those persons who will have alcoholic struggles.

Over-use of alcohol is tolerated, even accepted. By the time it is clear that a person cannot handle it like others, much damage is already done. Then, often that person is judged when the problems mount and they can’t seem to drink like others do.

But maybe some of those people who take alcohol use lightly are having more struggles than they are willing to admit. There is a wide range of symptoms and results of alcoholism—from the obvious late stage symptoms (chronic, frequent overuse, multiple problems and consequences, numerous losses, concern of others) to the less obvious early to middle stages, where alcohol use is regular, occasional problems occur, relationally, medically, legally or vocationally. There may be efforts at cutting back or quitting, but alcohol use always returns; sometimes worse than before. These persons (or someone that loves them) may have concerns they are drinking too much, but they quickly justify it and explain away the concerns, so they don’t have to feel uncomfortable about their drinking.

 I often say to people that one simple way to judge your relationship with alcohol is to ask: “Is my drinking the way I would like it to be, and if not, do my efforts to make it that way work?” In other words, if you wish and intend to not get drunk, does that work or do you still get drunk? Do you make promises to drink less but fail at it? Do you have remorse and fear about your drinking but continue to drink anyway? Do you find yourself explaining to yourself or others why your drinking isn’t a problem? Important questions to ask, given 10% of drinkers become alcoholic.

It is widely believed that the only viable route for an alcoholic to take to get better is to abstain from alcohol. I have seen this proven to be true over and over again.

Making a choice not to drink is not easy. It means giving up the quickest way to feel better. It means feeling acutely, life’s pain. It often means exclusion. It means the culture is not supportive of what you are trying to do and sees it as abnormal. It frequently means a major life style overhaul.

I learned early in AA: “Recovery isn’t complicated; you just have to do one thing—CHANGE YOUR WHOLE LIFE.” Wouldn’t it be great if friends, family and neighbors were willing to change just a little bit of their lives to support alcoholics change theirs by having some alcohol-free events?

Posted in ACOA, Addiction, Alcoholism, Codependency, Health Issues, Relationship, Relationships, Transformation | Leave a comment