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Fear of the Unknown

American novelist Wendel Berry expressed a powerful concept in a poem titled “To Know The Dark.”

To go in the dark with a light is to know the light.

 To know the dark, go dark. Go without sight,

 and find that the dark, too, blooms and sings,

 and is traveled by dark feet and dark wings.

   – Wendel Berry

We often perceive the dark as evil, harmful, or wrong. The concept of light vs. dark is an age-old concept. The attitudes around “the dark” have are often conflated with disaster. According to Berry, the label “dark” may be best described by the unknown. We fear it.

It can be uncomfortable to move into the spaces of the unknown. Typically when we approach uncertain situations or areas with caution. Sometimes the best strategy to explore the hidden things is to lean-in to the unknown by embracing without predictability (go without sight). When we do, we find the unknown sings with beauty.

This process isn’t always easy. Some people find companionship helpful. A partner could be a spouse, parent, or close friend. When seeking a companion, its best to find somebody who can offer support, without judgment, or contribute to the fear.  Others find it helpful to ask for help from their Divine power for protection and guidance.

What of “dark feet and dark wings?”. Perhaps the exploration of the beauty of unfolding song originates from allowing for the steps through new elements to emerge naturally. Wings typically signify power and movement. Could real change and receiving come from flying with confidence, embracing the tension by thinking of what happens “to us,” is happening “for us”?

Jeff Lundgren, ACMHC

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Is Masturbation a Problem?

Sexuality is a charged topic for both adults and some children. Messages about what behaviors are appropriate and inappropriate are woven into the fabric of our cultural traditions, moral codes of conduct, and family systems. Negative messages cause a great deal of harm, mainly when the message contains sexual shaming. Masturbation is one of these topics.

Masturbation is extremely common, yet because it is private, we don’t talk about it with our children or a spouse. According to research, self-stimulation is a normal activity experienced by nearly all people starting at very young ages and can be observed in utero (Yang et al., 2005). Masturbation (like any behavior) can be both healthy and problematic; it is also experienced differently based on age. It well understood that nearly all males and most females will, at some point in their lifetime, masturbate.

When is it Healthy?

Nearly all professionals agree age-appropriate stages of self-stimulation is healthy. For example, exploring one’s body and how it responds sexually is a beneficial aspect of maturation. Men and women can learn what an orgasm is, so they are better equipped to educate their spouse on what types of sexual touch they enjoy. Also, individuals can use masturbation to self-sooth as a coping mechanism for mood regulation. For many people who (for whatever reason) are not in an intimate relationship, masturbation can be a healthy outlet to release sexual tension. Many relationships do not have an equal balance of libido. For some “higher libido” partners, masturbation can offer a method to balance sexual needs.

When is it Not Healthy?

Behaviors become problematic when they negatively impact, work, school, or one’s social life. Like all sexual behaviors, masturbation may conflict with religious values. In a recent study from students at Brigham Young University, researchers reported the perception of pornography (a common corollary with masturbation) is the primary predictor of negative outcomes, not the pornography use itself (Leonhardt, Willoughby, Young-Peterse, 2018). It is important to inventory what our values are and why we have them. It can be helpful to challenge what we believe, while still honoring our values and the values of others. In many situations, individuals with strict religious tenets regarding masturbation find themselves in harmful shame cycles leading to increased rates of depression, compulsivity, or suicidal ideation (Beagan & Hattie, 2015). Researchers don’t diminish the value of traditional moral values. However, they do suggest creating a healthy relationship with our values within the normal range of human experiences.

Myths about Masturbation

We tell stories and create myths to justify attitudes about sexuality. Some common myths include masturbation causes homosexuality, is an addiction, leads to infidelity, will lower sexual desire, create hypersexuality, may cause you to go blind, and causes cancer in men. These things are not true. However, there are things that do occur. For example, a partner may feel betrayed when they learn their spouse masturbates.  Couples can contract what cheating is, and what betrayal is. Feelings of betrayal are especially common when erotic material is involved. People engage in negatively impacting habit-forming behaviors with all sorts of things, including masturbation. Also, some coping mechanisms prevent healthy attachment in relationships.

Talking about Masturbation to our Children

It’s helpful for parents to have discussions with their children about masturbation in age-appropriate ways. For example, 5-year-old children don’t typically need to learn about orgasm mechanics, but talking about what “feels good” is more appropriate. Also, shaming a child by saying, “don’t touch that,” could be replaced with useful comments such as “that feels good, maybe you should do that in private.”. Children without parental guidance will learn about masturbation from friends or erotic material. Pornography doesn’t typically represent healthy sexual education. It is also beneficial to create safety for children, so as they begin to explore their sexuality (in person or with others), they feel safe to engage a parent about their experiences. Normalizing sexual desire, response, and anxieties create wellbeing for developing children. Lastly, it’s helpful to remember that not all children have the same sexual interests, levels of desire, or attractions at the same age as other children. It’s important to meet our children where they are at.

Talking about Masturbation to a Partner

An important aspect of contracting between couples includes the topic of masturbation. As a part of healthy sexual practices, discussing what is acceptable (or not) is essential. While there are many options, some couples will incorporate self-pleasuring behaviors into their relationship as a method to balance sex-drive differences. Often one partner may feel betrayal if they learn their spouse masturbates. When couples talk openly with each other about their feelings and attitudes regarding sexuality, it usually removes the stress in these situations. A good place to start is becoming aware of your own sexual biases and perspectives. Some couples find it helpful to discuss these feelings with a competent therapist. It’s important to remember masturbation doesn’t constitute cheating. Marriage isn’t the antidote for fulfilling all sexual needs. Many married people masturbate. Much of the time, masturbation creates better sexual experiences for couples.

Talking about Masturbation to Church Leaders

In many faith traditions, ecclesiastical leaders counsel parishioners regarding sexual behavior. Not all religions have sex-positive perspectives. In many cases, such leaders have no training regarding sexuality, trauma, or psychological situations. A lack of training can be problematic. This doesn’t suggest the support of an ecclesiastical leader cannot be helpful. Individuals seeking counsel from their church leader should remember boundaries are essential. It’s okay to tell a church leader what questions or statements are inappropriate or feel uncomfortable. This is especially true for parents whose children may be questioned regarding their sexual behavior, to communicate what forms of communication are acceptable and what is not.

References

Leonhardt, N. D., Willoughby, B. J., & Young-Petersen, B. (2018). Damaged goods: Perception of pornography addiction as a mediator between religiosity and relationship anxiety surrounding pornography use. The Journal of Sex Research55(3), 357-368.

Beagan, B. L., & Hattie, B. (2015). Religion, spirituality, and LGBTQ identity integration. Journal of LGBT Issues in Counseling9(2), 92-117.Yang, M. L., Fullwood, E., Goldstein, J., & Mink, J. W. (2005). Masturbation in infancy and early childhood presenting as a movement disorder: 12 cases and a review of the literature. Pediatrics116(6), 1427-1432.

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We Need Others

Human beings are social creatures and need connection. Psychologists, anthropologists, and philosophers have suggested many reasons for why we need connection.  These reasons include: providing for physical and emotional needs, creating tribal safety, invoking social and economic efficiency, and offering structure for human development.

As I’ve explored this topic, I find our need for others is multifaceted. In mental health, there are overlapping influences, often termed the biopsychosocial model of health. This phonetic amalgamation promotes the importance of three overarching schools of thought: (1) our biology, (2) our thoughts and emotions, and (3) our social environment. Our social connections are no small matter. We experience social connection with family, friends, church relationships, clubs, and work situations.

One reason I feel we need others, is to create affirmation and validation for our life journey. As children, we look to authority figures for validation. At first, this person is usually a parent or guardian. When we enter our adolescence, we turn to friends. As adults, we may seek approval from peers, or authority figures such as church leaders, a spouse, or a boss at work. Marriage relationships uniquely create opportunities for seeking intimate affirmation and validation. As a therapist, I see couples desiring validation if they are “enough,” or if they are “doing things right.” These bids for validation are expressed in a variety of scenarios in the kitchen to the bedroom.

Eventually, we arrive at a place where self-confidence eclipses the need to seek validation from others.  When this occurs, we help support others, and our self-esteem is self-sufficient.  I don’t think this process is a bad thing. Instead, I feel the understanding we gain is helpful and includes three important concepts.

First, as other people bid for validation from us, we should feel complimented, as we are now a companion in their healing journey. Affirming another is an opportunity to support and honor the path and choices others make in a way that creates self-awareness and growth, confidence, and security while allowing for a space of safety.

Second, we need to know how hurtful rejection can be for those who seek for an affirming voice from us. As children, we are often told “no,” “don’t,” or “you cannot.” Usually, these commands are barked from parents who want to protect their children. However, as a conscience being willing to aid in the healing journey of others, an affirming voice such as “you can,” “you’ve got this,” or “I trust you,” is more effective.

Third, understanding your attachment style, or the attachment style of others can assist in explaining how validation and affirmation are expressed.  An assessment of how you engage with others can aid you and those you love to help establish securely attached relationships.  For example, some people will anxiously seek for attention, and others pull back when things get messy, avoiding receiving the needed help the connection brings.

As humans, we connect with others for a variety of meaningful ways. Seeking affirmation and validation is a human characteristic that moves people toward a place of self-confidence. We start by trusting the voices of others we trust, and then we move to trust our internal voice.  We do these in elaborate dances that deserve our attention and our nonjudgmental observation.

If you or a loved one needs help in understanding or seeking validation, please give me a call at 801.944.4555 to schedule an appointment today.

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Am I an Empath?

An empath is often described as one who identifies with another person’s emotions as if they were their own. This personality trait goes beyond the usual definitions of relating to others.  For example, being sympathetic is merely understanding another’s experience.  Empathy moves beyond this definition, where somebody feels for or with another person.  Sometimes highly sensitive beings perceive what others are feeling so intensely their emotions are being pulled about with little understanding why.  This experience can be challenging for some because their life can turn upside down when family members or close friends experience the agitating cycles of life.

Despite this challenge, this form of empathy is often thought of as a gift.  I agree with this perspective.  Those who relate emotionally to the experiences of others in this fashion often assist in the healing experiences for others because they validate others feelings in meaningful ways.  Sometimes those who are empathic bridge communication gaps where language has no nourishment.

Recently neuroscientists have discovered the human brain contains specific brain circuit structures called mirror neurons.  These neurons primarily respond by interpreting the emotional state of others, then translating these experiences into mirrored responses.  This research provides scientific answers to how this process occurs.  Furthermore, the latest research describes how human beings experience and interact in their environment and how we are wired to connect.

If you’re very empathic and highly sensitive, what can you do to create emotional stability?  I recommend taking a moment in the morning to establish an emotional baseline.  As you feel a shift during the day, ask yourself, “is this mine?”.  It may also be helpful instead of thinking “why” are you feeling this way, ask yourself “who” may be feeling this that you are picking up on.  This isn’t to say all emotions belong to others.  When it is your emotions, it’s possible there is somebody in your social-field who is picking up on you whom you can connect with.  This reality of the human experience presents an ideal opportunity to become vulnerable and realize that you’re not alone.  After all, we are biologically wired to understand how others feel and experience the world together.

photo credit: canstockphoto.com – pressmaster

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