Good Stuff

Tanya Ruckstuhl LICSW

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Lately I’ve been chewing on the balance between care of self and service to others.  I believe we all exist in a web of connection. Consider the underground fungus: it transmits nutrients to tree roots, which keeps the trees alive and in return protects the fungus from drying out.  If the fungus gives away too much of its nutrients it dies, and if it gives away too little, it struggles to live.

As humans, we hold this tension of self versus other constantly: Do we check in on our elderly neighbor or take those few extra minutes to savor some time alone?

Too much service to others creates depletion, resentment and fatigue.  Co-dependents are not happy people. They give and give, and exhaust themselves and wind up indignant and angry that their needs are never someone else’s top priority.

On the other hand, folks who only care for themselves, who spend their time and energy in sole pursuit of their own betterment suffer from isolation and meaninglessness. Without sustained and reciprocal connection to others, our existence lacks purpose.

I want to live in the intersection, to promote and protect my own well-being without apology while actively supporting the well-being of others. There’s a way to do this, but it takes a spirit of experimentation and willingness to make mistakes and plenty of time to get it right and then have the balance go and shift on you so that what worked at one point no longer works. No matter, its what we’re here for. Share your good stuff. Just make sure you keep some of it for yourself.

Relationship Repair

By Tanya Ruckstuhl LICSW

I once called a client a “walking vagina.”  For real. This was years ago.  I’d like to think I’m more delicate with my Sword of Sarcasm these days; but the truth is I’m not always able to tell the difference between useful humor which cuts through defenses and damaging humor which just hurts feelings.

I know I’m a weirdo and my humor can be fully wrong. I rely on the quality of the relationship, the trust my clients feel towards me that they can come back and tell me if something I say lands in a way that hurts rather than helps or clarifies. This requires trust and courage on the part of my client and humility and non-defensiveness on my part. And it’s helluva good practice for IRL—because people (including this therapist) are imperfect and language is an abstract, approximate tool for building reality.

The backstory of my inappropriate comment was this: my young adult client was being texted in the middle of the night by a guy who was only interested in no-strings-attached sex, while she had a huge crush and yearned for a relationship with this same fellow. This happened enough times that she knew what was going on, but still found it irresistible when he booty-called her. I was trying to engage her self-protective anger to increase her ability to resist him. So, I told her he was treating her like a vagina delivery service. This worked! She stopped responding to him. Yay! But I also hurt her feelings. Boo!

When I hear about how many supposedly terrible therapists there are out there, I wonder what the hell is wrong with my profession?! Then I wonder: what if there are just these unfortunate moments when the therapist is trying to say something useful in a unique, therefore noticeable way but they get it wrong?  And if the client feels hurt but they don’t go back and have a conversation, then the comment becomes this toxic thing that erodes trust. And that doesn’t even include the (abundant!) times when the therapist is trying to summarize what is happening and they just don’t get it.

In real life, like in therapy, we are constantly trying to understand one another, communicate needs, make meaning, provide care, and feel received. If you have conflict in your life or in your therapy, try this: call upon your courage and talk to that person.  It might not work. They might lack humility or willingness to hear your perspective. They might deny responsibility for hurting you, and when that happens it really sucks. And it might work: you might feel better understood or better understand where they were coming from. But no matter how they respond, you will be operating from a place of courage and willingness to process your pain, rather than withdraw from connection.

Trusting Teens

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By Tanya Ruckstuhl

My kids are seventeen now, and share their own car. Each milestone towards their independence feels like a celebration and loss both. Parenting teenagers is categorically different than parenting younger children. For one thing, they have strongly held opinions and great oratory skills. Teenagers are natural born litigators, able to argue a point to (my) exhaustion.

When they were young, my primary job as a parent was exposure: to provide safe and stimulating experiences so that they would experience the world as a large, varied and mostly safe place. All our trips to the parks, aquarium, zoo, swimming and even the grocery store were fun ways to build that understanding.

Now that they are older, my job has shifted from creating their experiences to supporting their choices. It’s mostly my job now to affirm their competence, to offer my opinion but to always convey the message “I trust your judgement.” When we are trusted, we feel and are more competent and make better choices.

One of my sons has taken on a heavy load of volunteering and working on top of a demanding academic schedule. He loves his volunteer work and loves the money he makes at work. He doesn’t want to give any of it up. Now his boss is asking him to work both weekend days. I feel protective of his free time and don’t want him to.  We discussed why he should limit his working hours and how to respectfully set a boundary. At the end of the conversation, he rehearsed what he would tell his boss and I complimented him on his word choice. It was different than mine. It was better. More succinct. The whole conversation was one of those lovely opportunities where I could still exert some appropriate protection by sharing my ideas and he could then handle the situation on his own entirely.

If you have teenagers in your home, be sure to tell them that you trust their judgement. It’s so important to their emerging independence to feel and to be seen as competent.


Handling Harassment

By Tanya Ruckstuhl LICSW

These days the news is rife with stories about sexual assault and harassment by men in positions of power against girls, women and boys. My clients—many of whom are survivors of sexual abuse—are torn between feelings of relief that their stories are finally in the main stream and despair that they live in a society where sexual exploitation by men in power is so pervasive.

Meanwhile the decent, non-rapey guys out there–the vast majority of men–are grappling with the painful realization that so many men are sexual predators and fear that they too will be painted with this broad brush.

It’s easy to want to turn away from the numbing repetition of this upsetting information. We feel overwhelmed, shocked, and unable to screen out the pain and anger of the victims who are finally coming forth like a tidal force, we are exhausted by determining degrees of wrongness, trying to figure out what should happen next both to individual perpetrators and as social response to this pervasive injustice.

Anger and the fear of anger cause us to retract from each other, to avoid the difficult, useful work of coming together to talk and listen and think about this problem that touches us all. Every man has a woman he loves, be it his mother or sister or daughter or wife. Every woman has a man she loves, be it her partner or parent or child or brother. We cannot get away from the connection, and therefore we cannot get away from the need to have conversations.

After genocide, truth and reconciliation process is primarily about allowing people to tell their stories and be heard by perpetrators and victims alike. This process humanizes both sides, allows them to weep and heal together. It takes enormous courage to tell and to listen. I want to remind every big hearted man out there that if you want to help us heal, this is your job right now; listen to the women in your life. Ask them for their own stories with this experience. If it hurts to hear, remember it hurts a lot more to go through it than it does to hear it.  As a therapist, the most important gift I can offer is to bear witness to the experiences of my clients.  The simple act of listening is the most overlooked magic.

Every woman I know has experienced at least attempted sexual abuse by a man.  There is a portion of this that may be innocent misjudgement: men are charged with sexual initiation in a patriarchal society. I used to joke that if I weren’t a woman I’d still be a virgin because there is no way I’d ever have the courage to initiate sex. So given that in the beginnings of relationships men almost always are the ones to initiate sex, and women consent or refuse it, how do we proceed?

There should be bright, clean lines such as no sexual relationships between people in substantial power disparities (such as boss/employee or perspective boss/employee, or religious leader/follower or famous person in specific field/person wanting to become successful in said field).  These bright, clean lines are further delineated by simple questions such as: “Can I kiss you?” “Do you want to have sex?” Consensual sex is fun for both parties and career safe.

For men: if you are so successful that you can’t find someone to sleep with who is in a similar power position as you are, look for someone who has nothing to do with your line of work and doesn’t care about it.  This is hard on the ego but great for avoiding sexual harassment accusations. And dude, no matter who you are, don’t sleep with someone who works for you.

How do you avoid being misunderstood if you are man? More bright, clean lines here: Don’t view women in your professional life as sexual beings, no matter how pretty they are. Take a good look at the way you interact with women. Ask yourself, would I say this to a man I worked with?  “That dress is pretty,” is fine, just as you might compliment a male on his awesome tie. Comments about a female coworker’s butt, breast size or shape is a hell no, just as complimenting a male coworker on his formidable penis size would not go over super well at the water cooler.

For the women: remember that most men are just like us: decent, imperfect, and trying figure out this incredibly complex thing called life. Most men wouldn’t try to take unfair advantage of a woman even if they could get away with it because it would make them feel disgusting. Avoid the temporary comfort of cynicism which comes with the half life of despair. Tell your story. Claim your equal space. You belong right here, at the grownup table.