Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Are You an Optimist or a Pessimist?

During my first year of college, I sang in our church’s choir. In February or March of that year, we went on tour. We were only on the road a few days, and I only remember the specifics of two concerts though I’m sure we did more. Our gigs were all around Portland, Oregon, and culminated at a church in Cannon Beach. It was about a four hour drive between the church in Bellevue, Washington, and our first stop. As we were entering Portland, Gordon, our music minister, yelled up at the driver of our van, “Mark, how are we doing on gas?” Mark paused as he looked down at the gauge. Yelling back he said, “Well, it says half, but I’m not sure if it’s half empty or half full.”

We sometimes divide people into those who see the glass (or tank) as “half-full” and those who see it as “half-empty.” Pessimists view their world in terms of deficits and problems, always looking at the negative side of a situation and complaining that their counterparts view the world with “rose colored glasses” or, in some other way, refuse to see how bad things really are. Optimists, on the other hand, look for the good, for possibilities, assuming there will be a solution to whatever problem may come up along the way, without denying the reality of it. Now there are those, maybe quite a few, who don’t seem to fit neatly in either group, judging situations as they come up and projecting a realistic positive or negative outcome on it based on the available information. We’ll call them optimists too.  

There are characteristics, other than a predicted outcome, associated with optimism and pessimism that we don’t necessarily think of or may even be surprised to hear. Martin Seligman lists these traits in his book, Learned Optimism. According to him, the core of pessimism is a position of helplessness – the position taken in which there is nothing that can be done to affect a change in a situation’s outcome, which is inevitably bad. Likely, you wouldn’t be surprised to hear that many of the pessimists’ “I told you so’s” end up being self-fulfilling prophesies or, at least, made worse by actions taken or decisions made based on their negativity. Pessimists tend to give up more easily than optimists and get depressed more often. Seligman reports that optimists do better in school, at work and in sports. They get elected more often than pessimists, are healthier, and may even live longer. While pessimists assume a helplessness position, optimists look for opportunity and act within their sphere of control.  

For the Christian, there is every reason to adopt the outlook of an optimist. In fact, optimism is the Biblical position to take. The apostle Paul demonstrates his optimism in his second letter to the Corinthians. In chapter 4 beginning at verse 16, he writes: So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal. 2 Corinthians 4:16-18 (English Standard Version)

A couple of chapters later, Paul lists his personal “light momentary afflictions”...”with far greater labors, far more imprisonments, with countless beatings, and often near death. Five times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger from false brothers; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure.” 2 Corinthians 11: 23b-27

Paul acknowledges his situation and doesn’t deny reality; he views life and life’s troubles from an eternal perspective. While helplessness is associated with pessimism, choice and self-control are characteristic of optimism. In his letter to the Galatians, Paul lists self-control among the fruits of the Spirit. Some older translations use the word “temperance.” The emphasis here is that the Spirit-filled Christian can choose to resist the lusts of the flesh – exercise self-control.

The helplessness of the pessimist leads to giving in (or giving up) to external pressures – continuing in addictive behavior, procrastinating instead of studying for an exam, spending money frivolously instead of keeping to a budget. Acknowledging that one can act in a way that influences outcome, it is part of being an optimist. Victor Frankl, in his classic book Man’s Search for Meaning, observed that hope was essential for surviving the Nazi prison camps. “The prisoner who had lost faith in the future – his future – was doomed. With his loss of belief in the future, he also lost his spiritual hold; he let himself decline and became subject to mental and physical decay. Usually, this happened quite suddenly. . .” (p. 74)

I’m not proposing a “name it and claim it” mentality, or suggesting that anyone ignore the reality of any situation. Ultimately though, the Christian wins. Eternity, separated from sin and present with God, is what waits for us. Really, what else matters? I don’t know if Frankl ever turned to Christ. He did face a situation in which everything was taken from him. He was reduced to a number; he was separated from his family, humiliated, beaten, and confronted with the likelihood of death at any time. In spite of this, he declared to his fellow prisoners, “I (have) no intention of losing hope and giving up.” (p. 82)

So, how does a pessimist change? The first step is probably the hardest. It’s acknowledging that something can be done about it. It’s giving up on helplessness, and choosing to take control over one’s life. The next step is to work through a course of cognitive therapy (CT). That may mean seeking help from a therapist who practices CT. I’d never discourage this move, however, it may not be necessary in all cases.
Cognitive therapy involves analyzing one’s responses to the events of life that ultimately result in an emotional consequence, and then changing one’s perspective to one that is more realistic and useful. The formula is as easy as ABC. “A” stands for an antecedent event. It’s what happens out there in the world that results in a ”C” – an emotional consequence. “B” is the belief one has in the “A” that results in the “C”. After this is all laid out, you work through and, if necessary, make changes to one’s belief about the event that’s being addressed. This isn’t the place to go into all the details. Reading Seligman’s book is a good start, and it deals specifically with optimism. I have many of my clients go through Greenberger and Padesky’s, Mind over Mood, a manual that can be used as an adjunct to counseling or as a self-help workbook. This book deals mostly with depression and anxiety, which can be associated with pessimism. It deals more specifically with the mechanics of CT, than Seligman’s text, which may be beneficial if you are working through it by yourself.

Pessimists usually have reasons for taking on a negative outlook. One of the more popular is, “I don’t want to be disappointed when it turns out bad” or something like that. The thing is, optimism is Biblical, it yields better, more positive results, and is healthier for you. Consider your outlook, do you tend toward being a “half-full” or a “half-empty” kind of person?

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Dr. Kyle Pontius is a licensed psychologist and the Clinic Director at the Meier Clinics in Laguna Hills, California. He holds a PhD from Alliant International University and is a graduate of Talbot Theological Seminary, Biola University. Dr. Pontius lives in Rancho Santa Margarita, California, with his wife, two sons and two cats. He is actively involved at Saddleback Church, and enjoys art and music.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Missing the Obvious

Sometimes during sessions, I think my clients simply miss the obvious. By that I mean, sometimes there is something that seems so clear to me that I can't believe they can't see it too. A common example of this is when the client has hopes that someone they love will change but yet it is evident to me that their loved one is taking little to no responsibility for their part of the problem. Thus, without assuming responsibility, there will be no awareness of the need to make changes, not to mention there will be no accountability. Similar to this is when the client keeps thinking and doing things the way they have always thought and done things, but they are confused as to why their situations do not improve. These roadblocks seem obvious to me, as their clinician, but often elude the client. 

I wonder how many times God is sitting up there, shaking His head, thinking the same thing about us. Sometimes we just miss the obvious! For example, the very fact that you and I are here means we have tremendous value in God's eyes; otherwise, He would not have created us. He did not have to bring us into existence, He chose to. Yet how many people struggle with self-worth? And how many people do not realize they have purpose in life? It is obvious that we were meant to be children, siblings, parents, grandparents, aunts or uncles, friends, coworkers, etc.; whatever relationships we have, we were meant to fulfill those roles. However, we also have other purposes or missions as well. 

God created us for multiple reasons, but we question what that one ultimate purpose may be and wonder if we are fulfilling it. And what about those tricky relationships? We wonder why we have to be around these people or why God placed us in the family he chose for us. While some of these relationships can be very difficult and heart-breaking, we have to know that God has a purpose for these in our lives or we would not know these people. That is not saying God approves or likes how people mistreat others – not at all. But He knows we are capable of profiting from these relationships if we trust Him, as He says in Romans 8: 28, “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” These difficult relationships are allowed by God to help shape us into the person He desires us to be. This is the same with difficult situations, as God only allows us to experience that which He knows has the ability to strengthen us spiritually, relationally, emotionally, etc. Another obvious piece of this is that God is bigger and more powerful than any of our circumstances, no matter how impossible they might seem. John 16: 33 says “I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” Whether we grow from difficult relationships and situations depends upon our choices as to how we think about and respond to these. Thus, pray for understanding, for guidance, and to be responsive to God. 

In other words, if it is happening, then there is a reason. It's either happening because it falls into God's perfect will or permissive will, but none-the-less, God is very aware of what is going on and has allowed it for some reason. There are no accidents or coincidences. God has it under control without being controlling because that is just how awesome He is. 

So the next time you question something, remember the obvious: 

  1. You are here because you are supposed to be 
  2. You have value and worth because God chose to breathe and speak you into existence
  3. You have many purposes
  4. You have something to offer difficult people and situations 
  5. You have something to learn from difficult people and situations
  6. You can grow from difficult relationships and situations, especially spiritually
  7. God is bigger than your circumstances. 

You are part of the great tapestry God is weaving together, and your thread is 
supposed to touch multiple other threads (people and their lives) and your thread is meant to be in God's masterpiece for as long as He chooses to weave you through. Remember, God loves you! It doesn't get much more obvious than that. 

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Angie Witman is a licensed clinical psychotherapist and a licensed clinical marriage and family therapist. She is a Christian counselor for Meier Clinics in northwest Kansas, where she grew up. She has counseled for 22 years and has been employed with Meier Clinics for the past 15 years. She is married and has two children. Scrapbooking, crafts, gardening, and cooking are a few activities she enjoys in her spare time. Angie and her family are active in their community and church. For more information on Meier Clinics and our therapists, please visit meierclinics.org. 


Friday, February 14, 2014

What is Love?

This question was the most searched phrase on Google in 2012. So what’s the answer? 

Well, it depends on whom you ask. 

Physicist Jim Al-Khalili says love is chemistry, a powerful neurological condition. Psychotherapist Phillippa Perry says love has many guises. Philosopher Julian Baggini says love is a passionate commitment. Romantic novelist Jojo Moyes says love drives all great stories. Nun Catherine Wybourne says love is free yet binds us.1 

One thing most will agree on is that love is complicated, and at times, difficult. With February comes Valentines Day, and with Valentines Day comes thoughts about love. Some people feel good about the love in their life, and others, not so good. 

What is a couple to do when they’ve lost that loving feeling? 

The Bible has a lot to say about love. The most popular group of verses on love that are often recited at weddings is found in 1 Corinthians 13:4-8, 13. “Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails. And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.” 

John, Jesus’ disciple, said this about love in John 3:16, “For God so loved the world, that He gave His one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” 

In Romans 5:8, Paul wrote, “But God demonstrates His own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” 

In his letter to the Christians in Galatia, Paul wrote, “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” (Galatians 2:20) 

These are just a few verses on love, but they demonstrate one commonality: love is an action. The Bible clearly focuses on the behavior of love versus the feelings associated with love. He gave His Son, who died for us. God loved me and gave Himself for me. Love is patient and kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices in truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails. Then Paul says, “And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.” Note two things about this passage from 1 Corinthians. First, love is the action behavior and, second, it’s our highest calling. We are not called to “feel” love; we are called to “act” love. 

If you are no longer feeling in love with your spouse, continue to behave as though you do feel love. Much like a parent will continue to behave in a loving manner toward a child or teen who may not be behaving very lovingly back, Christ chooses to love us all whether or not we choose to love him back or even accept him. Often times, if you behave in a loving manner, your spouse will too. 

Seek counseling if this alone is not changing your situation. Unresolved anger, unrealistic beliefs or expectations, serious boundary violations or betrayals, or poor communication can challenge marriages. A trusted counselor can help you find forgiveness, deal with your anger, open the channels of communication, and begin to rebuild love and respect in your marriage again. 


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Dr. Lisa Naatz joined Meier Clinics in 2013. She has over 20 years of experience working with adolescents, adults of all ages, couples and families. Lisa is passionate about intervening during the emerging adult years, which is a critical time of identity development and change. To find out more about the services at Meier Clinics, visit meierclinics.org.


Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Immanuel Prayer in the Therapy Room

What is the goal of Christian counseling? To help a person overcome an obstacle that seems too big? To help someone feel better about who they are and their life circumstances? To improve communication to strengthen relationships? However, don’t we as Christian therapists make it our goal to help our clients see themselves the way God sees them? 

I have found in my own life that the times I have grown the most have been when I have received love instead of condemnation, forgiveness instead of retribution, acceptance instead of rejection. My eyes are opened to the truth of who I am, and the lies I had believed are exposed and released. That’s when I most experience the mercy, grace and love of God in a real and tangible way. 

Sometimes in the therapy room, I am aware that the client can get stuck trying to find the core truth that is believable to them when they are in pain. They may know the “Sunday School” answer, but it doesn’t always feel true to them. How do we get from knowing what we ought to believe to experiencing the truth with our senses so that we can live out what we know? 

Immanuel Prayer is being taught now in some churches to help people connect with the Lord and experience His Presence by augmenting the capacity for joy and secure attachment. When we experience secure attachment, our pain can be used as a tool to grow closer to the Lord through perseverance, character and hope (Rom 5:3-5) rather than as a mechanism to detach from others, God and even ourselves. 

As clinicians, we know how important it is to develop rapport and build trust with the client so they can have a secure attachment with us and work through the pain. In Immanuel Prayer, the facilitator helps the recipient find a time of connection with the Lord, using a direct interaction or an appreciation memory. Instead of going into the place of pain right away, the Immanuel Prayer process helps the recipient stay in a place of connection with the Lord which helps augment the capacity for relational joy, safety, peace and any other positive attribute the recipient is aware of. She is asked to notice how she is feeling emotionally and what she might be experiencing in her body. This deepens the connection she is having with the Lord and lets the Holy Spirit work in whatever way He wants to. 

The more the recipient feels God’s presence of joy, peace, excitement, awe and wonder, the greater the opportunity the Lord has to help her see herself the way He sees her—that is, in LOVE. I’ve seen many of my clients’ facial expressions change from distress to joy when the Truth about who they are in Christ’s eyes is realized. Feelings of worthlessness begin to change to worthiness and the “Sunday school” answer gets more fully actualized as the client experiences the love of the Lord through a felt relationship with Him. 

To find out more about Immanuel Prayer, you can go to AliveWell.org.

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Cathy Conway is a Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor at the Meier Clinics in Wheaton, Illinois. She has counseled for 15 years, and has been at Meier Clinics since 2009. Cathy enjoys working with a broad range of clients and is most interested in integrating faith into the healing process. She is a trained Immanuel Prayer facilitator and mentor in her church. 

Friday, December 20, 2013

The Character of God in Changing Circumstances

Someone once said that the only constant thing in life is change. As Mary reflected on the words the angel of God delivered, this thought may have run through her mind. She had to know it was impossible for her life to stay the same. As she shared the words the angel spoke with those in her life, the ripple effect to them probably felt more like a hurricane than a small wave. The blessing that was to come would not only change her life forever, but it would also change the lives of all mankind. Although not at the same magnitude as the change in Mary’s life, daily we are faced with changing circumstances. It may feel as though the only constant thing in life is change; however, this is not true. The character of God never changes. 


As the sights, smells and sounds of the holidays are upon us, we are faced with changes presented as challenges: the financial strain of travel and presents, difficult family members, the absence of loved ones, getting ready at work for vacation, children out of school for an extended period of time. The list could go on and on. Thankfully, God’s Word offers insight and wisdom to help us weather the challenging storms of change. 

Following are a few tips to remain focused on the character of God during changing 
circumstances: 

  • Acknowledge the storm. When the disciples woke Jesus to tell him of the storm, Jesus “…rebuked the winds and the waves, and the sea was calm.” (Matthew 8:28) Don’t minimize, deny or ignore the challenges and changes. If something is frustrating to you, even though it is not upsetting to others, be honest with yourself. Problems and negative emotions do not disappear because we bury them. Give yourself freedom to think and feel differently than those around you. Healthy emotional expression includes noticing and admitting what we feel and expressing it in a healthy way. 
  • Trust His character and keep your focus. “Seek first His kingdom and His righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.” (Matthew 6:33) We know that God means to prosper us and not to harm us, to give us hope and a future (Jeremiah 29:11). When the storms of life bring unwelcome change, focus your gaze on God. He is our Rock, Fortress and Shelter. Challenge yourself to keep your thoughts on things you can control and not on things you cannot. Energy will be depleted by feeble attempts and desires to change others. You are responsible for your own actions and reactions in the midst of change. Ask God what He wants from you today; keep your focus on Him. Rest in the knowledge that He loves you and has a plan for you in the midst of what you are experiencing. 
  • Stay in the present. Find your purpose for the day and keep it in focus. “So do not worry about tomorrow; for tomorrow will care for itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.” (Matthew 6:34) If we spend our energy, time and thoughts on feeble attempts to figure out all the plans of tomorrow, we will be filled with anxiety. Likewise, focusing on the past can cause negativity and depression. The Bible tells us today has enough cares of its own. Our energy and focus is to remain on what is set before us. 
  • Extend forgiveness and grace to yourself and others. “And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.” (Matthew 6:12) Unforgiveness is a poison that causes physical and emotional problems. Do not permit bitterness to steal your joy and focus on this beautiful season. Work toward forgiving those who have wronged you. Seek peace and give the gift of grace and mercy to yourself and others. 
  • Shed unrealistic expectations of others and yourself. “Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then, you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is – his good, pleasing and perfect will.” (Romans 12:2) We are here to bring glory to God, and He is the “reason for the season.” So, why do we spin our wheels trying to live up to an airbrushed standard propagated by media, society, friends and well-meaning family members? Jesus didn’t walk this earth worrying about fitting in, impressing his disciples, and living up to the standards of the day. Get real and be the person God created – not a frustrated fusion of how others want you to act and react. Likewise, give others room to shine. Release your control of their actions, thoughts and feelings. 
  • Rest in the knowledge that He is in control. “He is the Maker of heaven and earth, the sea, and everything in them – he remains faithful forever.” (Psalm 146:6) Our creator loves us. He works in ways we cannot comprehend. Much needed opportunities for wisdom and growth can masquerade as unwelcome change and challenges. When we are weak, He is strong. He can and will, through challenging seasons of change, bring glory to Himself. 
 
Just as Mary endured whirlwinds of change and challenge, we too can weather life’s storms of change. Mary’s steadfast trust in God and obedience to Him granted Jesus to the world. We can also offer blessings to others if we trust in Him and allow Him to work in and through us.

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Melinda received her Master of Arts in Counseling from Dallas Baptist University in 2000. She has worked as a Licensed Professional Counselor since 2005, working with adolescents and adults. Melinda describes her therapy as an eclectic approach to family-oriented and cognitive behavioral therapy. She previously worked at the Meier Clinics Day Program and is currently part of the Outpatient team. She is an adjunct professor for Dallas Baptist University’s undergraduate psychology program and recently wrote their Study of the Family online course.