My Inside vs. Your Outside

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A client’s mom recently asked me what I see as the biggest challenge for teens.  I thought about all  of the work I have done with so many different teens and answered based on what is most commonly discussed in my sessions.  As teens walk through the hallways of their high schools they encounter hundreds of peers at each class passing  and scrutinize the clothes, hair and bodies of their classmates.  These teens see what appears to be  ‘put together’ kids who look happy, confident and surrounded by friends and compare this image to their own inner struggles of anxiety, depression and low self-worth.

I remind my clients time and time again that they are comparing what they feel on the inside to what they see on others’ outsides.  A teen who is feeling insecure and shy sees a bubbly group of kids walk by and assumes that the bubbly girls are happy and ‘perfect’.  What the insecure teen doesn’t know  is that  Ms. Bubbly’s parents may be getting divorced, she may be failing in school or she may have an eating disorder.  Another piece of this puzzle is that as low as the insecure teen may feel, Ms. Bubbly might look at her and think that she has it all together and is stress free.

One never knows what is going on inside of another person  or what happens behind the closed doors of what appears to be the perfect home. Too often we assume based on what we perceive to be someone’s happiness, and so many times we have assumed wrong.

I have clients tell me that they work really hard to look “happy” at school so that people won’t know that they are suffering.  I ask if they share their sadness or problems with their friends and most of the time they say that they don’t; they don’t want people to know, they don’t want to burden their friends or it is just easier to not discuss their pain.  I’m grateful that these kids are able to open up to me (or rather break the silence after gentle therapeutic coercion; they rarely want to talk to me either).  I do wish they had others with whom they felt safe about disclosing their personal challenges.

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I have yet to meet the ‘perfect’ person.  I share this with my clients regularly and the notion that everyone has challenges and bad days.  It is true that some suffer more than others, but there is no one that is issue- free.  Often I use the word “human” when trying to impress upon my clients that no one is perfect.  We are all human; we hurt, we laugh, we grieve and we celebrate.

I must say, we grown-ups often fall into the same patterns of comparing our insides with others’ outsides. That one has a nice car, great kids or perfect vacations; not so true.  Just like with the teens, we adults are not always aware of the struggles that our peers endure. If you or your teen falls into the “compare and despair” habit, try to remember that things aren’t always as they appear.

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This soccer mom has retired her cleats

Although this post is a little less ‘therapist’ and more ‘mom’ than normal, I write with both hats as I know many of my clients who have been on a baseball field, pool bleacher or dance theater and can definitely relate to the sentiments presented.

Grab your cleats, water bottle, shin guards and GET IN THE CAR…the words of every soccer mom.

Week after week, practice and dinner, dinner and practice and then weekend games.  Home or Away? House or Travel League? Win or Lose?

The soccer moms were my lifeline “can you drive him, I have a client ?” .  “We are out of town, can he stay with you for that game?”   “I got this practice, can you get tomorrow?”.

We spent hours on bleachers together; the soccer moms (and dads).  Freezing our tails off and burning into lobsters – soccer has no regard for the weather, if the fields are  open they are playing.

So many different teams; the three-year-old clinics, the house league made up of kids from the elementary school, the All Star team and the merging of house teams to make a travel team.  Each season new faces; new players bringing with them new parents.

The parents became my friends.  I spent more time with them than with my dearest  girlfriends.  It was so very seasonal; we’d be in each other’s faces all  Fall until the break before a short indoor Winter season and then Spring season started up again.   We rarely spoke to one another off season, but there were always warm greetings and hugs  at the beginning of a new game rotation.

Tournaments, oh the tournaments. Up at o’dark thirty to drive hours to a field in nowheresville.  Myself, another mom and four boys in my van.  It was always sweeter heading out than the return trip with the sweaty socks and smelly boys on their phones in the back.    We’ve had team meals all over Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania, gathered in many a hotel lobby for pizza and once, even washed the uniforms in the hotel laundry room.  And, never was a weekend so much fun and connecting than the exhausting cold (and/or hot) tournament weekends.

Constant  laughter filled the parent cheering section.  We rooted for each other’s kids and cringed together when one of our players missed a crucial shot.  At every (and their were many) injury, all the moms pooled their Advil and ice in the spirit of healing.  On the sidelines we talked about books and vacation spots, we compared notes about our growing kids and tried to get the scoop on our own kid from a more-knowing mom.

We always had a season end party;  often at my house which was a lot of fun.   Fourteen sweaty boys in my basement playing X-box and a bunch of parents celebrating another good season of soccer and teamwork.

With the start of each season  we would lose a player or two. They moved, switched schools or went to another team.  For me, it was  sad.  I missed the kid and I missed the mom, my friend.  I would bump into her at the grocery store, we hugged, caught up and moved on to our shopping list.  Where was the bond? Was it a real friendship? All those texts between games, the laughter in our soccer chairs with the sun beating on our faces, it was so genuine at the moment and then our kids took us to different fields and new parent groups.

I could always count on the next season bringing another new kid with new parents.  New friends.  More car pool combinations.   More tournaments and laughter.

Last year there was a shift.  High school made for more options: Cross Country team, track, swimming and basketball.  The kids had new and differing interests. They also had more school work and less time.

My kid began Cross Country/Track all three seasons;  he liked it and was progressing really well. Daily practices, weekly meets as well as a heavy academic load plus soccer practices and games became overwhelming.  It was too much to make it all work and something had to give – my kid quit soccer.

Suddenly, I am a track mom.

But, what about our soccer friends? The connections, the games, the great coach and the wonderful memories.

Was it all just that: soccer? He misses it, he loves soccer, but he is running and has joined a new group of athletes.  Does he feel the loss like I do? I miss the team, the friends, the game.  Sure, he  misses it, but he is a sixteen year old boy, not a hormonal therapist mom who oozes in emotions.

Don’t get me wrong, track is great. The parents are wonderful and supportive, the coach is tough and committed.  A Cross Country meet can be half as long as a soccer game and the school provides buses!, but I miss MY soccer people.

What does it all mean? This role of being the kids’ mom to whatever activity is the activity du jour? Are connections fleeting? Were they real? Was it just in the moment on that one field?

I don’t have the answers, but I do have great memories and wonderful people in my heart that I know will cross my path again be it in the produce section or on some bleacher in my future.

 

Retired cleats and shin guard (oh so stinky)

Retired cleats and shin guard (oh so stinky)


Pure Joy

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I have been a voyeur on the camp photos and videos where my kids are spending the summer.  Ok, not really a voyeur since the camp is putting it out for all of us parents to see, but it feels a little voyeuristic.  The camp does a fabulous job at portraying the daily happenings of the kids;  there are photos, slideshows and videos.

The thing about these sightings is that everyone is smiling.  Either there is excellent editing, or these kids are just happy!  I keep thinking about when the kids see a camera; they gather together arm and arm and smile because that is what one does when they see a camera.  So, is it really all that fun, or is it the view of the camera?

The videos are showing more unposed fun.  There are the moments when the kids stop and scream “WE LOVE CAMP” as if they have been prompted (honestly, I don’t think they have), but for me the best moments are when the camera is just filming life.

A special moment at this camp is Shabbat (the Sabbath).   The camp has religious services,  a special meal and increased music on Shabbat.  I just watched one of the Shabbat videos and could feel the joy emanating from the kids and adults.  There is a traditional banging on the tables during some songs and, as my kids have reported to me, the song leaders jump from table to table with their guitars. (I was relieved when my daughter guaranteed that the kids scrub the tables extra hard after this table jumping event).  I saw little girls spontaneously breaking into dancing circles in the middle of the dining room while their bunk mates ran over  to join the dance.  This wasn’t posed, this was fun and ruach (Hebrew for spirit).

Then the therapist in me takes over.  Not every kid is happy every single moment;  of course not.  There is homesickness, bunk drama, kids being excluded and overtired campers and staff.  There are bad meals, rainy days and even some boring ‘learning’ time, as I have been told.   I am reminded again and again, without some down moments, how could any of us ever truly appreciate pure joy?  I am not sure we would experience it as wholly if we didn’t have a yucky day with which to compare it.

At camp though, my gut says that the joy outweighs the yuck.  Weeks of sleepovers, constant play dates, cool counselors instead of naggy parents telling  you to take a shower.  Sports, music, dance and craziness instead of school and homework.  Camp has an unfair advantage over the rest of life, how could it not?  One very long vacation.

Camp is truly my kids’ favorite place in the world.  It’s not that they don’t love their parents and enjoy family time, I know they do, it’s just that camp offers a joy, a pure joy that I have yet to see replicated in any other form.

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Girlfriends

Girlfriends can be a lifeline for many women.  We seek out our girlfriends when we need advice on anything from parenting to shoes, when we need a shoulder to cry on or confirmation that the men in our lives are being jerks.  Our friends are there to listen to us vent or to make us laugh until our stomach hurts.  Our girlfriends provide us with support, validation and good times.

Many of us have friends from different times in our lives.  Childhood friends that still remember us in pigtails and call us by our maiden names; several friends from my old stomping ground in Boston draw a blank when hearing about this Laurie “Levine” person (people, it’s been over 20 years). We have college friends, friends that we made at work, in the neighborhood or through our children.   The first time I was called “Adam L’s mom” by a pre-schooler and his mom, I knew that I was in foreign territory.

I work with many women who talk about their friendships during therapy sessions.  They have been hurt or slighted or angered by their friend and choose to examine their emotional reaction to the interaction in this safe and non-judgmental environment. It is not uncommon for women to struggle with the old feelings that many of us had as youngsters; “where do I fit in?”,   “am I cool/thin/smart/rich/fill-in-the-blank enough?”  Why do we as women continue to doubt ourselves in our friendships and in our relationships with other women?

A common question that I ask all clients upon the intake and assessment process is who is their support network: where are your people?  I am saddened to say that there are women who report to not having a support network.  Sometimes they blame it on work, or being busy or sometimes they simply don’t desire a social circle.  But, often their isolation is due to shyness, depression or not knowing where or how to find a friend. Together we discuss what they would like in a friend, how they would go about finding a friend and why they think it is so hard to open up and make a friend.

I have had other women clients  talk about friendships ending, like a “break up” with a boyfriend.  I conceptualize this cooling off period in a friendship like a couple that separates; after years of having sex with this partner, it’s hard to go back to holding hands.   There isn’t a term for the ‘break up’ with our women friendships: we drifted?, parted ways?  It can be awkward, uncomfortable and extremely painful. Life transitions are a traditional time of  shifting friendships: a marriage, the birth of a child or a divorce or death of a spouse.  We tend to befriend those with similar lifestyles; the mommies in playgroup or the empty-nesters that travel together.

Sometimes though, the ending of a friendship can be more personal such as a disagreement that can’t be resolved or when one feels that her needs in the relationship are not being met and she needs to extricate herself from the friendship as an act of self-care. I have a client that says she “leaves friendship corpses in her wake”.  She worries about fluctuating friendships and what that says about herself as a friend.  We have talked  about what a healthy friendship looks like, how she can get her needs met and how to set boundaries when appropriate.  We have also practiced conflict resolution in therapy sessions. She has successfully negotiated some difficult relationships after talking it through in therapy. This helped her gain the skills and confidence to approach  an important friend and honestly share her concerns about the conflict at hand.   (Needless to say, I am very proud of this client who may or may not be reading this post.)

Another client has talked to me about feeling like a third wheel.  She tears up as she tells me about her very close friend that she introduced to another of her good friends  because she thought they would hit it off.  They hit it off so well, that they buddied up  to the exclusion of my client.  They vacation together and text daily and when my client joins them for lunch, she feels excluded and left out.   The heartbreak is palpable.  My client is sad and resentful; something many women feel when enduring the pain of losing a friend.

Many of us have witnessed our kids, particularly daughters endure this kind of pain.   We expect this kind of behavior in children, pre-teens and teens.  The reality is that it happens with adults as well.  Many of us carry old wounds and vulnerabilities into our adult friendships.  What pushed our buttons in 8th grade, if not healthily resolved, is going to be promptly reignited as an adult.   The hope is that we have matured and worked through our decades old insecurities of adolescence, but there are some wounds that hover longer and reach deeper than others.  Having constantly been the shy girl that doesn’t know how to reach out can rear its ugly head at the PTA meeting or that loud girl with no filter may continue to offend her friends at the office.

I cherish my friends. I know I have made mistakes and I work hard at righting my wrongs and working through difficult times no matter how painful or awkward because I honestly know that I can not make it in this wacky world without my friends.  I hope that you, too, have enjoyed this gift of friendship: the joy, the fulfillment and the laughter.