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In Between

One of my favorite times of day is twilight. The sun has set, painting what colors it will against the clouds on the horizon, and darkness has begun to fall, but just barely. The sky is a soft blue-black and the streetlights are just beginning to flicker on. It’s neither day, nor night. It is in between.

There is a French idiom that captures the nature of this fleeting moment: entre chien et loup. Translated literally, it is between dog and wolf. It is the time when the light is so dim that one cannot distinguish a dog from a wolf.

Figuratively, entre chien et loup represents the threshold between certainty and the unknown, between hope and fear. It is a precipice that is often encountered in therapy.

As humans, we’re wired to crave certainty. A predictable world is a safe world. And yet safety can also ensnare us, keeping us tied to the comfortable and familiar, and precluding any possibility for change. People enter therapy when they are ready for change, or at least when they think they are ready for change. When they feel stuck in an endless sameness that is at once comfortable and chafing.

As a psychologist, I walk with people down the path of choosing to either stay tethered to the dog or to approach the wolf. Most of our time is spent entre chien et loup, in that in between space, which is full of possibility, and also often fear. We explore this space until the once unfamiliar and threatening becomes old hat, until old, troublesome patterns transform into new, promising ones.

There will always be another twilight, another time when one is compelled to choose between staying the same and changing. It is during these times that it is wise to proceed with caution, but to proceed nonetheless.



Weather vs. Climate

Hello, Minnesota! Welcome to winter!

There’s no more denying the past few days of subzero temperatures, snow, and ice here in the Twin Cities. Winter is no longer coming. It has arrived. I tromp out into the snow in the mornings, my breath fogging the path in front of me, to start my car. I slip the key into the ignition and turn, waiting through the beat of silence before the engine churns to life. The interior lights flicker for a second, and then, vrooooom, the engine reluctantly starts. The methodical scrape, thump, scrape, thump of my shovel (which I’ll admit my husband mostly wields) can be heard alongside the deep, throaty whirr of snow blowers doing their thing. Yep, it’s winter all right.

Here in the land of the U.S. Pond Hockey Championships, we can count on blustery temperatures, waning sunlight, and shoveling all winter long. The climate is pretty invariable.

On the other hand, the weather can still change day-to-day. Early in the week, we had a heat wave of almost 15 degrees. Of course, now the temperature is holding steady at 6, with a wind chill of -12, but who’s obsessively checking the Weather Channel for updates, er, I mean, who’s counting?

And so follow mood and emotion. Mood is akin to our emotional climate, the backdrop to our daily experience that stays more or less the same as we pass through our days. Feelings, on the other hand, are the equivalent of emotional weather. Only somewhat predictable (on a good day), sometimes intense, and always fleeting, our feelings change much more rapidly and frequently than do our moods.

It’s easy to confuse emotions for moods. We feel seething anger toward a partner, bubbly joy celebrating a birthday, or intense sadness following a breakup, and we’re tempted to slip into thinking, for good or ill, “Well, I guess this is how I’m going to feel for the rest of my life.” Okay, we don’t often outright think such things, but we start to behave as if it were true, especially when the feelings we experience are on the darker side of the continuum.

But unlike moods (think: winter), which rarely spontaneously change to something completely different, feelings (think: sleet) can change on a dime, if we allow them to naturally flow without insistently pulling them close or pushing them away. I might not like the weather (or what I’m feeling) today, but I can be pretty sure that it will be at least somewhat different tomorrow (yes, there are variations in the weather in Minnesota, even if it doesn’t feel like it sometimes).

When we start noticing that the emotional backdrop to our days feels like a six-month Minnesota winter, it’s probably time to look into interventions beyond wait and see. We Minnesotans have somehow adapted to the long, cold winters (I think mostly through summer amnesia, but I digress). We hunker down, stock up on firewood, wax our skis, and learn to cope with adverse conditions. When depressed, we can tinker with our diets, exercise, sleep, relationships, medication, and so on, until the long darkness gradually brightens into spring.

I’m writing this in my office, looking out on the ever-narrowing street, downsized by ever-growing piles of snow. And now, I think I will go home and revel in the remaining hour or so of daylight (with bonus visible sun!). Right after I tromp out to my car and coax the hibernating motor back to life.

More Perspective

More Perspective

Happiness Is

Are you happy? Do you find yourself seeking happiness? And if so, where do you look?

If you come up short on answers to those questions, don’t fret; they’re all trick questions, focused on the achievement of happiness, rather than the experience of it. Let me explain: We are often conditioned to think of happiness as a destination. Buy this, master that, meet this person, support that cause, and you will be transported to that ephemeral, but much sought after place called being happy. When you arrive at being happy, you will feel contented, comforted, and full of joy. The other, perhaps darker feelings, like sadness, anger, and fear do not take up residence in this place, in being happy. Or so the promise goes.

But happiness isn’t a place or an endpoint. You won’t find it in Hawaii or at Disney World. It’s not hiding somewhere behind a job promotion or within a bigger house. Rather, happiness, like all of the other emotions, defines the contours of a state. Sometimes it is present by itself, but we often experience it in conjunction with other feelings. We call these muddled states things like bittersweetness, cautious optimism, and guilty pleasure.

As is true with our experience of every other emotion, our grasp on happiness is fleeting. We feel it, and then we don’t. Contrary to what many pop psychology texts and certainly most advertisers would have you think, that’s exactly how happiness is supposed to work.


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