Should you always tell the truth?

by Nathan Chua

Before I even begin talking about this touchy issue, I would like you, my readers to know, that I fully respect all opinions to the contrary of what I will share with you here. Like many other things, there are simply no easy answers to the problems we face negotiating through life’s vicissitudes.

Truth-telling can be tricky when we talk about it within certain contexts. More common among these situations where people struggle between being transparent or not, are instances of infidelity, or giving the dire news about someone’s imminent death. There are those, especially from some religious groups, that advocate for total transparency, that the old saying, “What they don’t know, won’t hurt them,” is unconscionable or unfair.

However, like most things in life that do not have easy answers, many also believe that telling the truth about a terminal disease or an affair may prove to be detrimental. In the case of an affair, there are studies cited that it is more likely for male partners to leave a relationship when they are the offended party. The revelation of a terminal disease may prove life-enhancing to one, but despairing to another.

I guess, the stand here is no different from what I have believed to be the best practice in therapy, which is to let the suffering individual, make his or her own decisions based on the prevailing circumstances. For it is the client who knows more about the people involved and the surrounding circumstances, than the therapist.

Frederick Humphrey, Professor Emeritus of Family Studies at the University of Connecticut refers to therapists who, by their influence or stature, encourage or even push their patients to truth-telling, as “Verbal exhibitionists.”

I often meet clients who treat me as some sort of expert in their lives, like I knew something about them that they didn’t already. These types of questions put tremendous pressure on a therapist. I often recuse myself from answering such questions, for it is in my opinion, the clients who are most equipped to provide such answers for themselves.

As in other things in life, there is always an option to keep a secret, a secret. There may also be instances when truth-telling can be liberating and useful to a relationship. But one thing I can guarantee for people who see me to seek advice on what to do, I will allow you to make decisions of your own liking, based on what is best for you, and the people around you.

The Extended Family

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I believe the only way to better handle the multiple relationships, is to realize the difference between urgent assistance and personal responsibility. Much of the confusion lies in determining which areas need intervention from the extended family, and which don’t. Unnecessary conflicts arise when relatives start to dip their fingers into areas where they should not be. For instance, fights between couples become fights between two sides of the family.

by Nathan Chua

If you think this is a phenomenon unique to Asian families, well, guess again. During the crisis of 2008, we saw how important the extended family is even in the US, where rough and rugged individualism is considered an asset, and an admirable trait. We witnessed how families banded together to assist each other survive America’s worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. Adult children of working age had little choice but to move back into their parents’ homes.

I think what makes our brand of extended family more complicated, is the involvement of uncles, aunts and cousins. With some, it can go as far as a clan no less. Although it is hard to blame the culture for this, as I see it as partly a failure of government institutions to improve social services like health, education and pension services. Families can only count on each other when crises strike, just as our current president described he envisions his future illness as one that should be taken care of by his children, or even his children’s children. In the more developed economies, individuals can manage to survive on their own through institutionalized government services.

Unfortunately, this dependence on family and the extended family, leads to another dimension of relationships that people need to maintain. It is difficult enough to relate to one other person, how much more challenging will it be if one needed to do it with a whole bunch of people!

I believe the only way to better handle the multiple relationships, is to realize the difference between urgent assistance and personal responsibility. Much of the confusion lies in determining which areas need intervention from the extended family, and which don’t. Unnecessary conflicts arise when relatives start to dip their fingers into areas where they should not be. For instance, fights between couples become fights between two sides of the family.

The second drawback is the debt of gratitude that parents and the older generation expect from the innocent young. Enormous amounts of pressure are dead weight on the young shoulders of a generation of children. The consequences are evident, not only in the social fabric of society, but also in the false selves that a whole bunch of kids have to assume. Their lives revolve around playing a rescuer role for the family, completely oblivious of who they really are. The debt of gratitude becomes simply a debt.

There is also that element of gossip. Many say that gossip is rather inconsequential. It’s just fun chatter that makes for an interesting piece of discussion at dinner time, or even during large family gatherings. No one gets hurt and everyone has a good time. It can even give participants that smug feeling, that they have insightful ideas, notwithstanding the fact that these ideas, are confined to the feebleminded task of faultfinding.

What is unseen is how gossip affects the very same people who engage in it. Yes, how many times have I heard people feel frozen in life, just because of the fear of being shamed by relatives. And yes, behind every gossip, is that part of us that feels shameful of some of the things that we all experience as human beings. It can be, most of the time, a projection of our own shame on other people. We participate in gossip thinking that we will never be or make the same mistakes as the other.

Now imagine the anxiety and depression that can provoke in anyone. Be perfect lest be subject to the same gossip mill that you were once a participant. For after all the flipside of gossip, is simply shame, a most powerful tool we use to feel above our own humanity.

The upshot is, while it is true that the extended family plays a vital role in helping both the young and the old generations survive in a Third World country, we must be aware of its limits. Be careful to make it a healthy interdependence. Be watchful that most deeds are done based on love, and a willingness to give, without any expected return of the favor. Do it because you love, not because it is the way it is supposed to be, for it is at bottom, an act of love to be accepted, not an entitlement to be claimed.

Is mindfulness the answer to emptiness?

by Nathan Chua

All of us have had that feeling of being sad, despairing, lonely or empty. These are moments when we don’t seem to have any purpose and meaning to go on with our brief experience of being alive. It can be frustrating, making us feel that we are left alone in our “quiet desperation,” as Thoreau had described. We have always longed and searched for that one key to lasting happiness that will take us to an elevated sense of being. It is something we seem to always just see in others, but not in ourselves.

I for one, am no exception. It has been a lifelong search. Until I stumbled upon what has now become somewhat of a craze: mindfulness. Ronald Siegel is an expert on mindfulness. It was wonderful to hear him point out one big reason for our feelings of emptiness. He used the metaphor of the sine wave to drive his point.

Most of our struggles stem from keeping the low points of the sine wave up. Like other experts that have found the reasons for our neuroses, it is not just the feeling bad that gives us trouble, but it is feeling bad about feeling bad. Siegel explains that like the sine wave, it is when we fight the lows that our highs become lower. The wave turns flatter; hence we experience that feeling of being flat or empty. Mindfulness tells us to fully accept those emotions as our friend, who tells us there’s indeed something to be concerned about. It helps us acknowledge the emotions and experience them in parts of our body. We resist the temptation to interpret these emotions with irrational statements. Thoughts like, we are failures for feeling sad, or that we should always be liked by everyone, every time, or that we should be happy all the time.

Here’s how one source defines what mindfulness is:

“[Mindfulness] changes your stance from being actively involved in the drama to being an impartial observer. It encourages you to become a witness to the unfolding of your thoughts and emotions – less critical, more accepting.”

I have a couple of instances in my life that I am fond of relating to my clients. One experience was when I was forced to stop work for three weeks by a former employer, right at Christmas time. Since it was a contractual arrangement, it meant no income for three weeks, just when everyone was celebrating for the holidays. I stopped making interpretations to my feelings, and just started to stay with them, and see in which parts of my body is this sad and worried emotion manifesting. Slowly, like a leaf coming down the river, the emotion goes away. I also used my feelings of sadness and hurt to reach out to friends and seek company.

The second and perhaps one of my favorite things to do, happens when I come home. I have two small potted shrubs in front of my house that bloom what probably are some of the most fragrant flowers I have ever smelled in my life. These blooms do not last very long and appear just a few times a year. You can say I stay in the moment, to stop and smell the flowers. This is probably what Marilyn Peterson referred to when she wrote, “Spirituality has nothing to do with organized religion. Instead, I view it as our reverence for life and our activities in behalf of all that is life affirming.”

Yes, mindfulness has taught me to affirm life, both in its worst and best moments. The key to leaving that emptiness is in living, laughing and crying each moment with acceptance and affirmation. Life is short, stay mindful of each moment, and witness the real colors of living.

What makes counseling different from other ways of learning?

Let me start this post with two points.

Point One:

If there was one thing that cuts across all forms of helping activities in the realm of mental health, it should relate to learning. Counseling is no exception for me, as it involves learning, the same way we learn from lectures, talks, workshops and even church sermons. In that case, why then is there a need for personal therapy?

Point Two:

People frequently mistake counseling for seeking advice. It is seen as sort of a lecture or public forum, only that it is done in private, and advice would come as personal to the client as no other medium can provide. This means they don’t have to worry about guessing if the advice they heard from a lecture or a talk, is personal or applicable to them or not. This in part answers our question about the need for personal therapy from point number one. However, the reasons are much more complicated than this.

I have always contended that counseling is a process of discovery. It is a journey through life with someone who’s dedicated to helping clients find a way to themselves, or their real selves. This is what makes it special and different from all the other approaches to learning.

Secondly, and more importantly, it is experiential. How many times have we heard it said that the longest we keep information from a long-drawn-out lecture or sermon, can only be retained in our memories for the next 20 minutes.

Counseling is an avenue in which the lessons are long-remembered after the experience. It is analogous to experiences in life that we find unforgettable. That awesome trip you had in a place that you just ticked off from your bucket list…That brush with a life-and-death situation that you will always remember to tell in intimate gatherings…These are but a few examples of how experiential learning can be remembered so much more vividly, that a lecture or a talk can find hard to duplicate.

In my experience, I have at times been tempted to offer advice to people who see me. Clients would often come after numerous people have given them advice that made sense, but somehow they could not believe will work for them. This only goes to show that decisions that are offered from the outside, will be difficult to apply, until those same decisions come from the very person who asks for it. It is at times only in experiencing the learning process through counseling, that decisions can be made with courage, and new wisdom can be proudly owned, by the one who seeks it, and eventually lives it.