Thursday, June 29, 2006

The Art of Asking Questions

One time someone was asking me how I decided to go into psychology. I told them that people just seemed to open up when they sat down and talked with me. He then casually said, "Because you listen well, right?" But my first response, and I had never thought much about this, was "No, because I know how to ask questions."

I think people are begging to be asked questions. It's not only that they like to talk and being asked questions frees them up to do so, though this is a part. It is also because people are afraid that the other person does not care. When you ask questions you say that you care about what they feel and know.

But asking questions isn't always an easy task. Most of the questions we ask one another are close-ended questions that stifle dialogue, such as, "How are you?" - "Fine." Those kinds of questions suggest that we want to know just tidbits about you. Open-ended questions are the best way to really get a person to open up and engage in dialogue. But asking open ended questions depends on actually be interested in what the other person might be able to share.
Which brings us to how asking questions is an art.

I believe real art comes from the heart. The artist actually is painting the way that they experience the world. They paint or sculpt or compose from the emotions that are bubbling up from them. Asking questions should occur in the same way. We simply need to be aware of what we want to know about a person. In everyday life we are very curious about the lives of other people. We ask hundreds and maybe even thousands of questions about other people over the course of the day. From "Why did you cut me off?" to "What's it like to be a spider?" These questions occur at our innermost soul. We simply need to "listen" or realize what we want to know.

But that makes it sound like to ask good questions you need to be some kind of mystic. But that's not true. But if you felt that way then you're asking the question, "How can I actually learn to do this?" and that is a good place to start. Learn from that feeling inside of you that might have arisen when I was sharing about paying attention to your heart... that is the kind of feeling that you need to let form itself into a question. Let your frustrations become a question. Let your anger become a question. Let your excitement and curiousity become a question.

Were you feeling angry, excited, bored, or frustrated as you read this?

Why were you feeling that way?

What questions did you want to ask to satisfy that emotion?

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Our Shattered Selves

I tend to talk to myself. Every once in awhile I will catch myself engaged in a full conversation, out loud, where I am trying to deride myself for a mistake, to remind myself to do something, or to teach myself a lesson. I am having a conversation with a part of my self. Sometimes the dominant self will say to the submissive self to stand up for itself. In a sense, I am a schizophrenic. I am a split person. I am not a whole self.

I think the reason I have been split is because, though by nature we humans are relational, I do not want relationships with others. Whether it is shying from relationship with God because I fear punishment and chastisement or from relationships with people who I fear rejection from, I tend to isolate myself. The problem is that I am still a relational being and thus I crave and need communication with others.

So I create inside of me various persons who communicate with each other and take up the various roles that have been created because of my fear. Some fear creates the persona that is controlling because lack of control is frightening. Then some fear creates the persona that is disorganized because facing the reality that the environment can never be controlled is frightening too. So I have many dyads of relationships who relate to each other. But in the end these create disharmony within myself. I simply end up communing with parts of me that are unhealthy and conflict erupts.

However, there is a solution. The solution is two-fold. The first is that we need to foster healthy and vulnerable relationships with other people. We can never break out of our fears outside of external relationships because communicating within ourselves guarantees we are in a state of fear. But by building relationships with other people we can approach them as whole people by being honest about what we really are experiencing.

The second is that communion with God is necessary. We cannot relate with others all the time. We need someone outside of us who we can talk to as whole beings at any moment. I cannot experience wholeness without communicating with God. By taking all of the thoughts which I would usually tell myself, I can pray and tell God all. This does two things: it allows me to store the information in memory and it allows both "parties" within me to tell their story. It probably does more than that but that is all I can think of. But I need to express the ideas in order for them to be better consolidated in memory, so trying to stop all communication is no solution. Second, praying to God means that I am no longer in conflict within myself. Instead of one part of me trying to convince the other part of me to be a certain way, I can express my desires and reservations as a whole person.

I believe that wholeness is God's desire for our lives. I live in constant fragmentation. But I believe that God mends up the broken hearted (the shattered hearted). God can and does mend us back together and makes us beautiful creatures. We are not destined only for wholeness within ourself, however. We are destined for union with God and others, that we might experience love in relationship.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Does Media Make Us Different?

I read an interesting blog on media in the church the other day that got me thinking. The author pointed out that the church has been changed as the media as changed. For example, the reading of Scripture used to be a public event. Before the printing press, the church would have to meet together to hear the Word and would have to hold on every word. But now that Bibles are widespread, reading the Bible has become a private affair.

Of course, the impact has been on more than just the church. Technology has been shaping our lives since the day we we born. Medical technology can save our lives. Consumer technology can change our recreational activities. But how does technology change us as people?

As I sit here, I'm watching TV that I muted during a commercial to type this blog. I'm on a laptop connected to the internet wirelessly. I am sitting in a recliner chair. I am enjoying the breeze from a ceiling fan. I am wearing comfortable clothes in a comfortable environment. Does all this change the way I view the world? What about the way I view myself? Does it change the very way I think?

A recent article in USA Today found that teenagers were retreating from face-to-face relationships and engaging in more online interaction. The benefit (according to my values) is that these teenagers are becoming increasingly less private with their lives and are gaining an increased appreciation of relationships that previous generations never have. While these technologies are occurring within an individualistic culture, they are at the same time revolting against individualism through online networking and text messaging.

Yet the dangers are obvious. These children of technology are losing the ability to relate to people of other generations, who value face-to-face interaction and etiquette. They also are beginning to fracture relationships by being so self-disclosing that they no longer respect the feelings of others because of the "anonymity" of the internet. And at it worst, the technocommunication encourages a relativistic view of human communication, where words are given meaning by the reader. In face-to-face communication, words are coupled with vocal intonations, gestures, affect, and many other non-verbals which can communicate meaning. But with text-based communication, the reader can interpret words in any manner that they wish. At times this can be hurtful, such as when one takes a joke as an insult. But culturally, this is bound to produce the belief that messages are entirely internal and that how one reacts to a neutral message determines what the meaning was.

All of this is to say that it is important to be aware of how we interact with technology. When we go online to chat, we may be reinforcing cultural values that do match with our aspired values.

Saturday, June 17, 2006

Christian Psychology is Heresy?

I have found an interesting site arguing against Christian psychology which sums up some of the major rebuttals to what I am currently dedicating my life to. Now I first need to be careful, because I am obviously tied up to what I do. And I have already argued for ways in which therapy can actually help the church. But here I want to discuss a few of the arguments against Christian psychology. You will find these arguments on their website.
  1. Psychology encourages "talebearing." Essentially, talebearing is when the client retells stories from their past that cast them in a positive light. First of all, yes, psychologists generally do want clients to share stories from their past. However, talebearing would be considered generally bad and unhelpful for the client because it would perpetuate negative factors in their life - whether it be denying their own problems, trying to live a fantasy, blaming others, or whatever. Nearly all therapists would agree that this is bad. But talebearing will still occur and can be useful. If a client tells a story which was not completely true to what actually happened, that can still be useful because that is how the client actually remembers it. Even if they remember something totally different from what actually happened, the therapist needs to work with that memory because that memory can be shaping them even if it wasn't true.
  2. Christian psychology accepts the teachings of Freud, Jung, Rogers, etc. I have spent a yearlong sequence of classes critiquing these theories from a Christian perspective. What we hope to do is not throw the baby out with the bathwater. We try to take the good parts from these theories and throw away the mumbo jumbo.
  3. Christian psychology only teaches people how to understand themselves through a human perspective. Now this isn't fully wrong. I'm not saying that Christian psychology can take the place of studying the Word but I am saying that it can add insight. It is important for the Christian therapist to remember that certain things are wrong and certain things are false. But there is much to be gained if we devote ourselves to a rigorous self-analysis, even if it is human based. We would never doubt that medical students are helpful even though they have gained their knowledge from secular sources. I'm not in favor of huge theoretical models that conjure up that the reason we hate our fathers is because of an unresolved Oedipal complex, for example, simply because it can lead us too far off the conventional track. But I do favor using common sense and observation, as well as solid research, to back up certain therapies. Also I should add I support the spiritual disciplines, which encourage a healthy spiritual life.
  4. A healthy faith and church life can provide everything that therapy does. This is a judgment call. I personally think that serious mental illness is a problem. There are others who might not. I know that if a person is depressed, the church does not have much to offer them in terms of a solution, although it offers support, hope, a sense of purpose, and a feeling of belonging (some believe that it can alleviate mental illness and I admit I need to learn more about that, it was not my personal experience). But the untrained Christian will not know how to encourage a depressed individual so that they can find relief. But like I said, some in the church still believe that depression is God's testing of us to see if we persevere. I cannot disagree with them theologically. It just seems masochistic to me to continue to suffer when there is a possibility of a solution.
I suppose you should read arguments from both sides before you make your own decision. There are definitely some good points in what they are saying. It was tempting to me to move away from psychotherapy at one point because I was told that Biblical counseling was the best option, because the Bible has the real truth (obviously I changed my mind back). But we ought to consider the facts from both sides. I don't want to totally discard their opinions simply because I disagree with some of them. In fact, healthy debate with anti-psychotherapy adherents could probably help improve the integration of Christianity and psychology.

Finally, what I dislike most about the anti-Christian psychology movement is that it proposes very little middle ground. They don't propose a research backed Biblical counseling model. They don't say what the good points of Christian psychology are. They simply want to tear the entire "tree" down. I have experienced my own dissatisfaction with many of the theories. But I still think that doing therapy requires extensive training, a background in research, personal contemplation and informed decision as to a theoretical model, learning about working with people different from oneself, and personal development. I think together all those factors produce the best therapists. I think that Christian therapy still seems a bit too secular and I do in fact see that as a problem. But I think its possible to move further towards a Biblical, effective method of talking with people that can heal people's souls.

Thursday, June 08, 2006

Intermittent Explosive Disorder

I had studied Intermittent Explosive Disorder just recently in my psychopathology class and the American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders had reported that this disorder was "apparently rare" although it admitted that no prevalence study had ever been conducted. Before I got to this phrase I had remarked at how common the symptoms seemed. All it took was a reaction that was "grossly out of proportion to the stressor."

But a study that hit the news recently found that 5-7% of Americans suffered from the disorder. I have a feeling that this will be the new diagnosis of choice for clinicians, just like ADD and ED. But I think this is sadly appropriate. Our society has been infiltrated by a hateful spirit, particularly on the road.

I remember taking a test for road rage as a 17 year old in the middle of a traffic school class. I scored extremely high because I had answered "yes" to questions like: Have you ever fantasized about killing or severely hurting other drivers on the road. Certainly not a bragging right, even for an adolescent. I remember that being a turning point for me, as I was forced to face my own vicious anger. But how many people have not had that opportunity, or have refused to face that truth even when it stares them in their eye?

I have considered myself fortunate to have had a change of heart since that day. I assure you I am a much improved driver and am thankful that I have avoided drivers who seemed ready to "severely hurt" me. But I know that many of the drivers on the road are filled with rage. They fume with anger as they wait on traffic. They may not take it out on another car. But many will take it out somehow, often on someone in their own family.

Sunday, June 04, 2006


I read Henri Nouwen's The Return of the Prodigal Son and he brought up something I had never heard suggested in the many times I have heard the story of the prodigal son (Luke 15). Nouwen said that the call of every follower of Christ is to become like the father in the story.

If you are unfamiliar with the story then it goes something like this: boy asks father for his share of inheritance, boy runs off to foreign land to gamble and spend his money on prostitutes, boy goes broke, boy comes back to father to ask to become a servant, father embraces his son and lavishes his riches on him by throwing a feast, boy's brother is pissed off cuz he was always the good kid and never had a party thrown for him, father tells the brother that he could have celebrated anytime. Maybe you should just read it yourself!

Oooook... back to the father. The father is the God-figure clearly from the story. He forgives graciously and holds no wrong against his son, even though he ran off to waste his money. The father was waiting for his son to return and runs to him when he sees him in the distance.

Some of us can relate to the story of the prodigal son. I know I can. And some can relate to the older brother. I can relate to his legalistic sense of entitlement too. But I had never thought that my goal in life is to become the father. But it makes sense for we are called to become like Jesus who is God.

I wish I had more time to write on this. But maybe this is something you shouldn't be spoon fed. Maybe you need to think about this yourself. You don't need to be a man to become like the father. In fact I think the father has many of what we might call feminine qualities. He runs after his son, embraces and kisses him, and gets incredibly excited at his return - not precisely what we would call a cowboy man. But the father demonstrates love. He demonstrates the ability to love unconditionally. I believe we should all aspire to be like the father - loving and seeking those who need to be loved and found.