Tag Archive | Survival Tips

Survival Tip of the Day for Moms

Survival Tip for Moms:

Don’t assume that your daughter’s path will be the same as yours and then try to foist that opinion on her. We’re all entitled to learn our own lessons, take our own journey.
A great question from a Daily Muse reader. Just Ask Me. 

Survival Tip of the Day (#58): Be grateful.

The practice of gratefulness may be the most productive habit you can develop. Martin Seligman, the positive psychology guru, recommends that you write down at least three things you’re grateful for every day. For an old cynic like me, that’s a lot of gratitude, but I force myself to do it anyway. Air, family, and pedicures are good places to start. Today, Sunday, January 29, I am grateful for: 1. My amazing grandchild, Maya Rose, who makes me laugh with glee! 2. Zumba (although I wish the gal would stick with salsa, Indian, kumbaya, etc, and cool it with the hip hop, since I often find the lyrics offensive) 3. My wonderful son in law, who set me up with a new site for my ramblings.

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The Answer to the Question: Introducing my advice column: JUST ASK ME

Here’s the answer to the question posed by the Bruised Muse’s last post: Am I an advice columnist?  Apparently I am.  I’m the new advice columnist at http://www.dailymu.se (also, http://www.daily-muse.com), and I’m thrilled to be a part of such an exciting new venture.

The Daily Mu.se

Need Advice? Just Ask Us!

by  — August 31, 2011 — 1 Comment

110831 Just Ask Us 2C

Welcome to the Daily Muse’s advice column. I’m open for business, ready to provide thoughtful answers to your most pressing questions.

But first, let me introduce myself, so you know the editors didn’t just drag someone off the street to give advice on complicated life problems.

Although I’ve been a writer all my life, I never aspired to write an advice column—but I probably have the perfect background for the gig. I’m not just a writer, after all, I’m a psychotherapist and clinical social worker, too.

And I have quite a bit of life experience. Back before many of you Gen Yers were born, I got an undergrad degree in communications, then held a bunch of jobs—from car salesperson to corporate promotion manager—before finally accepting that I was more interested in understanding people than selling widgets. I went back to school for a PhD in Psychology, but never finished (although along the way I gathered some other letters, MA and MSW) because I began my writing career, which has included three nicely received novels, as well as published essays, poetry, and articles.

I’ve experienced all the usual things in life—career, marriage, and family, including now a grandchild—and I’ve also faced an extraordinary number of life challenges, probably more than my share. I’ve learned that, while styles and customs evolve and technology is changing our world at lightning speed, human nature and relationships—what we want and need in life, how best to get it, and how to cope when we don’t—remain constant.

The truth is, experience is only useful when we learn from it. And that’s what I’m here to share. I’ve learned so much that I write a blog, The Bruised Muse, celebrating surviving and developing resilience in the face of adversity. I’ve been working on a new genre of memoir, too. It includes self-help in the form of “survival tips” for reader takeaway (you’ll probably see a few sprinkled in my column)!

But enough about me. Let’s move on to you, and your relationships with parents, friends, spouses, co-workers, mentors, bosses. In this column, I’ll tackle questions about your career, love, sex, male/female roles, taking criticism, expectations, ambition, addiction, jealousy, loss. I’ll take on your pet peeves, life’s little annoyances, your worries about navigating this culture and the changing role of women, your existential despair, fear, boredom, bias, envy, anxiety, anger, sadness.

And I’ll do so for the same reason I sit with people in therapy: I want to help. To offer you perspective. To encourage your self-analysis, creativity, confidence, and compassion. To help you think clearly, consider all the options, set boundaries, and be realistic. To help you make good choices.

As I answer your questions, I have three promises to make:

  1. If I have a useful example from my own life, I’ll offer it, and I’ll always tell the truth as I see it, not necessarily as I (or you) wish it would be.
  2. If I’m unsure about something, I’ll consult an expert.
  3. I’ll probably make a joke or three in my answer, usually at my own expense, but I don’t do snark. I’ve been through so much in my life, believe me, I have empathy for whatever you’re facing.

You, Daily Muse reader, and I are beginning this adventure together. You’ll be anonymous, so don’t hold back, but do try to provide some context or background when you ask your question. And remember: The more interesting and honest the question, the more interesting and useful the answer.

So go ahead and Just Ask Me.

Need life advice? Write to:  advice@dailymu.se.

Or frandorf@aol.com

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Fran Dorf writes the “Just Ask Me” column at the Daily Muse. Fran is a psychotherapist-clinical social worker and author of three acclaimed novels. Fran’s essays, poetry, and articles have appeared in anthologies, national periodicals, and literary journals, and she’s working on a memoir about the ridiculous amount of tsuris—or heartaches— she’s survived in her life. Fran also writes a blog, The Bruised Muse, which celebrates surviving life and achieving resilience in adversity. In her spare time, she reads everything, rants about politics, Zumba dances, skis, plays tennis, travels, and plays with her grandchild, Maya.

Surviving a difficult daughter-in-law: Am I an advice columnist? Sure.

A BRUISED MUSE reader wants an answer to her dilemma.  “Doris” writes:

Dear Fran,
I read your article on how to help the bereaved in Bottomline Secrets email and found it really helpful.

My situation is a little different, but I’m sure someone else has been through it and you may know how to help me.

About 2 1/2 yrs ago I met a wonderful widower. We fell in love and married 11 mos ago. We are both in our 60’s and each have 2 grown children. All the adult children seemed very happy for us except his daughter. She is still very much grieving her mother’s death of nearly 6 yrs ago. She would not come to our home at all. She finally agreed to let her husband bring the kids over a few times last fall.  After the wedding last summer she was still pretty “cool” but has gradually “warmed” to me over the winter. What really hurt me was a long letter she wrote to me just before the wedding last summer, where she went on and on about how she felt that I was taking over her mother’s house and taking her father away from her. (We have since sold the house and moved to another state). Anyway, it has gotten a little better over the last 6 mos, but I notice there is still a tension between us. I tried not to take her words and feelings personally, realizing that she is still grieving. Her father felt protective of her (even though she is 36, married and has 6 kids of her own) but I have to tell you it nearly caused me to call off the wedding and definitely took some of the joy from it.

She still visits the gravesite regularly, which seems strange to me as that is not my custom. I have never visited the grave of a relative.

So if you have any advice for the 2nd wife I would love to have it.

Thanks,

“Doris”

* * * * *

BRUISED MUSE replies:

Dear “Doris:”

Thanks so much for writing.  I’m very happy you’ve found true love at this point in your life. How wonderful, adorable, stimulating, reassuring, life-affirming, and even (I hope) sensual.

After my mother died, my father, believe it or not, took up with the woman who had been my mother’s hospice nurse.  My father was 78, Mary wasn’t even 60. It was a little weird to see my father affectionate with a woman who was not my mother, especially since he’d never been affectionate with my mother, but, well…all I could say was “Good for Dad.”  Mary was just a lovely person; she was, after all, a hospice nurse.

It sounds to me as if your new daughter-in-law may be suffering from complicated grief. CG is “an intense and long-lasting form of grief that can take over a person’s life. It’s natural to experience acute grief after someone close dies, but grief usually recedes into the background, and over time, healing diminishes the pain of loss.  People suffering complicated grief often say that they feel “stuck.”  “Complicated” refers to factors that interfere with the natural healing process, often related to characteristics of the bereaved person, to the nature of the relationship with the deceased person, the circumstances of the death, or to things that occurred after the death.” (I took this definition from www.complicatedgrief.org, the website of Dr. Katherine Shear’s program for CG at Columbia University in New York City.) CG can include intrusive thoughts about death; uncontrollable bouts of sadness, guilt and other negative emotions; and a preoccupation with, or avoidance of, anything associated with the loss. Complicated grief has been linked to higher incidences of drinking, cancer and suicide attempts, and it can be quite distressing not only for those who are experiencing it, but for those who are witness to it.  The fact is, complicated grief can destroy two lives at once, and it can get really, really ugly, especially when there’s anger and guilt.

I have the sense you don’t live near New York, where Dr. Shear’s program is located, but if you want to help your daughter-in-law and possibly change the situation, I highly recommend that you take the following two steps:

1) Research psychotherapists, bereavement counselors, thanatologists, psychologists, and/or social workers in her area, and find one who is trained or knowledgeable in the treatment of complicated grief. Many people, sometimes even therapists, are very uncomfortable with grief, and regular talk therapy isn’t always helpful. Research has shown that the most helpful treatment involves, among other things: role playing; narrative therapy; tape recording the bereaved person as she recounts the details of the death and the loss and then replaying it; and journaling.

2) Ask your husband to suggest that she see that therapist. Or perhaps the other sibling, if he or she has been more accepting, could be enlisted in suggesting this.

Beyond taking those two steps, there simply isn’t much you can do, except to understand your husband’s ambivalence, and try to approach your difficult daughter-in-law with as much warmth, empathy, and kindness as you can. I realize that this could be very difficult.  Perhaps you could write her a letter, in which you honor her mother and reassure her that you aren’t trying to “take over.”

Your instinct not to take what she says personally is probably right, but at the risk of offending you, I would also ask you to consider your own role here.  You may be completely innocent, but here’s Survival Tip #1, from February, 2011.  It’s one of my favorite quotes from the brilliant psychiatrist (and novelist) Irvin Yalom, from one of his shorter works, The Gift of Therapy.  He says:

“Once an individual recognizes their role in creating their own life predicament, they realize that they, and only they, have the power to change the situation.”

The Bruised Muse has found, in her life and in her psychotherapy office, that life gets a whole lot easier when an individual finally recognizes that she (or he) ONLY has the power to change how she behaves in the world, and how she responds to others’ behavior toward her.  She does NOT have the power to change the others’ behavior.  And so, with that in mind, I’d suggest you ask yourself seriously if you have offended this woman in some way. (I mean other than by your existence.)

On the other hand, I’d ask: How far does she go in offending you?  Does she call you names?  Just ignore you?  Accuse you of things you haven’t done?

Try to separate what you wish for the relationship with her and her children, from what’s happening, from what’s possible.  And do set boundaries.  If her behavior is truly abusive–ie, for example, if she calls you names–explain (using “I feel” statements) that this hurts your feelings and you simply won’t tolerate it.

On the other hand, this could have NOTHING WHATSOEVER to do with you.  Remember what I said above about the factors related to complicated grief.  One factor is the nature of the relationship with the deceased.  Was her relationship with her mother particularly difficult, strained, or ambivalent?  I certainly don’t suggest you take this up with her, but just knowing the truth of things (the actual truth, not the idealized truth) can help.  Knowledge is not only power, it can be comfort too.

As for visiting grave sites, some people find comfort in this. Regular visiting of a mother’s grave after six years MAY be a sign of complicated grief. After 17 years, I’m still OCCASIONALLY drawn to my son’s grave, but I usually stand there for a few minutes, place some small stones on the brass marker, wince at the hollow sound of stone on brass, and leave. I simply do not find my baby there.

Good luck, and let me know how it goes.
Fran Dorf (THE BRUISED MUSE)

Survival Tip Learned on Vacation

“Betty” says: What do you need psychology for? If you’ve got problems, just get over’em. If you’re captured and held captive for fourteen years by a psychopath…just escape. If your father is an abusive alcoholic, just hit him over the head with a frying pan. That’s what I did, and I turned out just fine.

The Bruised Muse sure learned a lot on vacation!!

Surviving the End of the World, May 21st, 2011

Survival Tip #5: Since it seems the world is going to end tomorrow, the Bruised Muse thought she’d make a comment about our impending doom.  Folks, the world is full of delusions: big ones, small ones, round ones, square ones, juicy ones, dry ones.  Some delusions shout, some whisper, some spit, some transmit, some conspire. Some irritate, some ingratiate, some scare. Some delusions reach for the sky, others originate inside the head. Some are found in books. Some ripen with age. I once knew a guy who was absolutely convinced that his head was shrinking.  He encouraged me to measure his head and insisted this would prove his head was shrinking.  I got a tape measure, but he was unimpressed.

It is an unfortunate fact that delusions are round and completely impenetrable. Arguing is useless. Offering facts gets you nowhere. Pointing out contradictions is pointless.  There’s simply no way (except perhaps with medication) to eliminate delusions, talk the person out of them, or alter their shape.  Your best bet is simply to refrain from engaging, because if you happen to get in, it can be hard to get out, and you do not want to be stuck inside a delusion. It can be really scary in there.  Your best bet is to (calmly and quietly) look for some humor in the content of any delusion you happen to encounter, have a giggle (to yourself) and then withdraw.

Surviving Optimism

Certain members of my family (who shall remain nameless) always accuse me of being “pessimistic,” while I believe I’m simply a realist. Well, according to neuro-imaging researcher Tali Sharot, author of a new book called “The Optimism Bias: A Tour of the Irrationally Positive Brain,” discussed in the New York Times today, most human beings inaccurately predict most outcomes in life because our brains are hard wired to be unrealistically optimistic. I haven’t read Dr. Sharot’s book yet, but I suspect this may have something to do with the fact that in order to live our lives we have to psychologically and neurologically set aside the existentially depressing fact that we’re all going to end up as wormfood. In any case, our neurons efficiently encode unexpectedly good information, but fail to incorporate information that is unexpectedly bad. For example most people believe they will be highly successful when the odds are against that outcome. Underestimating risk also makes us less likely to practice safe sex, save for retirement, buy insurance, or undergo medical screenings. It is of course not surprising that those of us who realistically predict outcomes tend to be mildly depressed.

I’m wondering how this relates to my own clinical observation that the experience of actual trauma seems to subsume the optimism bias in making the traumatized more emotionally reactive, and more often than not changes the worldview of the traumatized toward a more pessimistic, anxiety-ridden, depressed view of the future. Or is this altered view that traumatized people exhibit merely realistic, a kind of adjustment to the “natural” optimism bias? Given the growing amount of trauma in the world, this seems to me like an important issue that may affect our ability to move forward as a species.

What do you think?

Writing for Survival: Fran on She Writes.com

I wrote the following piece on writing and my new book for a great writerly website called, shewrites.  As usual I’m out there with honesty.


I’ve just completed a memoir in essays I’m calling “How I Lost My Bellybutton and Other Naked Survival Stories,” in which I try to make sense of the ridiculous amount of “tsuris” I’ve had in my fifty-seven years. As I begin sending it out into a publishing world that’s become quite weird, I’m feeling surprisingly Buddhist. Of course I want to entertain, illuminate, and move others with published work, but finding and telling my own story in my authentic voice, sometimes using my (recovered) sense of humor, has helped me accept that I actually write to survive. Writing is my solace, therapy, coping tool, refuge, calming mechanism, path to healing, and way to make sense of life.

So what have I survived? Well, who’s counting, but just for starters we’re talking a husband’s brain tumor (1 time), the same husband’s cancer (2 times), my own miscarriages (3 times), breast cancer and a mastectomy whose aftermath nearly killed me (1 time, so far), a brother who thinks he’s the Angel of Philadelphia from the Bible (He’s not unlovable, but 1 deluded brother is plenty), and familial mental illness that I realize now pervaded every corner of our house in the Philadelphia suburbs, however in denial my father was. (3 mad aunts, 2 depressed parents).

None of it comes even close to the 1994 death of my three-year-old son, Michael. Surviving that is, I believe, one of the two greatest accomplishments of my life.

My relationship with writing has been explosive and fickle, beginning when I wrote to cope as a teenager, secretly. Like a junkie who keeps going into rehab, only to relapse every time, I’ve stopped when I lost focus on process, suffered rejection, envied another writer’s talent or success, had to abandon a project that didn’t work out, didn’t realize that everything you do, even that which fails or hurts, can teach.
I’ve even condemned and ridiculed my Muse without mercy, beaten the poor thing over the head until she shuts down, rebels, abandons me, or even hits back. Here’s a Survival Tip She-writers might find useful:

Survival Tip #1: Do not beat your muse. She’s sensitive, and doesn’t respond well to bullying. Who does?

Even during my most successful period, when I had multiple book deals, foreign translations, a German best seller, film options, nice sales, great reviews, I kept beating my Muse for not being better. I kept trying to quit.

And then came December 7th, 1993, my version of Pearl Harbor Day, the day my son had a seizure. My husband and I rushed him to a Hospital, but we arrived with our baggage in Hell.

At the time of my son’s death I had a two-book contract that I tried to fulfill by frantically finishing the second book in a few weeks. What a sight I must have been, pounding on the computer, a wild-eyed zombie—in a bathrobe, since I hardly ever got dressed. The editor rejected that violent mess of a book, and I lost my deal.

Was I thinking I could plow through such a loss, or maybe put off grief until later? This kind of grief makes you insane. And in my insanity, I stopped writing again, just when I needed it most.

I spent the next three years walking around wearing only my bathrobe and my grief, only vaguely aware of my daughter and husband, like floaters in my field of vision. People suggested I write a journal, but I became enraged at anyone who presumed to tell me how to cope. One desperate day three years later, I scrawled the words “Help me” over and over in a notebook until they dissolved into unrecognizable strokes. Eventually I turned that journal into my unconventional third novel, “Saving Elijah.” Writing that book saved my life. Even so, when my next novel didn’t sell to a publisher, I gave up writing again.  Here’s another tip:

Survival Tip #2: Rejection and failure come with the territory. Art is subjective and interactive. 

I went back to school for social work, and now have a clinical practice I love. I also facilitate “write to heal” workshops. And writing eventually lured me back, first poetry to cope with the trauma of sitting with other people’s trauma, and then after surviving the breast cancer (barely), I started the bellybutton essay, to which I added Other Naked Survival Stories, including several about my son, what Hell is like, how I escaped it. The book is part memoir, part self help, with 70 or so Survival Tips based on all I’ve learned about psychology, resilience, and coping with emotional pain. Writing the tips—the real ones and even the bits of schtick I threw in for fun—was instructive for me, and I hope will be for readers, too. Here are a few tips more for writers that aren’t in the book:

Survival Tip #3: Banish all self-censorship, whether you’re “writing-for-healing,” or writing a first draft.

Survival Tip #4: Draw blood. This is the (oddly) healing part. Corollary: It helps to examine and unpack your psychological baggage when you’re forced to deal with trauma in your life, and/or when working with it in your writing.

Survival Tip #5: Learn craft. Learn more. Craft (and even art) comes with practice and study, and with a willingness to write and rewrite, examine and reexamine the material (along with your mind and heart) to shape it so it resonates emotionally with other readers. Corollary for Older Writers: Do not be dismayed that on the Internet, your writing is called “content.” Fuss with it anyway. Writers fuss because they care about each word.

Survival Tip #6: Learn to distinguish between criticism or honest reaction, and snark. Criticism can help you in your work. Snark is about the person giving it. Corollary: Don’t become overly fond of your words, but learn to stand your ground on the words that work.

Survival Tip #7: Tell the truth. Or your truth, anyway. But don’t expect to be thanked. Corollary: To tell your truth, find your authentic voice.

Survival Tip #8: Count your blessings. One blessing is that you have the gift of writing to see you through this life.

Semi-reformed cynic that I am, I feel blessed to have been able to use my writing to see myself as a survivor, rather than as victim of emotional (not to mention physical) suffering. I’ll be thrilled if readers find my new book moving, wise, funny, and (God forbid) inspirational, but whatever happens out there in the big bad publishing world, I know that I can no sooner give up writing than give up my nose. I’m definitely keeping my nose, since I no longer have a bellybutton. As for how, exactly, I lost my bellybutton, that, Sister Survivors, is a long story, which I hope you’ll read about in the memoir.

Writing Prompt: Here’s an idea I explored in my novel, “Saving Elijah.” I recommend it for anyone who’s suffered trauma, loss, illness, or emotional pain. (That would be just about everyone!) With all the creativity and imagination in She-Writes-Land, I trust we’ll see some interesting results. Post and tag your efforts so we can all enjoy them.
Imagine a scene in which you (or a character) meet God, or God’s emissary. Place the scene in any era: the 1950’s or 1500’s, the future, now. Any locale: France, Detroit, your kitchen, the New York Stock Exchange, a dusty road. Dress God in any guise: someone meaningful from your (or the character’s) past, a dead father, a purple angel or demon, a crooked old man. Now write the scene, with dialogue. You might (but don’t have to) start with your character imploring to God, “Why me?”
Why me, indeed.

Warsaw: Quityerbitchin.

So I’ve heard that in the Warsaw Ghetto, where corpses littered the streets, residents would write on any scrap of paper they could find–poems, stories, diary entries, bits of prose, snippets of information– roll up these messages and shove them into small crevices in the wall around their prison. They surely did this hoping their words would survive even if they didn’t. They did this knowing little about the world outside those walls, and perhaps even knowing that their written cries of anguish could well end up as more fodder for the laughter of madmen. One such message may have told the story of a notorious, purple-winged angel who was always bitching and complaining about one thing or another.  God said, Quityerbitchin and do something. The angel decided that the only appropriate thing to do would be to cut off his purple wings and cut out his sharp tongue.  Now mute and flightless, the angel began to weep copious tears that turned into scraps of paper on which people wrote messages of hope that would survive and be read forever.

Survival Tip #1: Surviving your “life predicament”

Other blogs offer snark about the Oscar broadcast on this day after, such as why in the world did Melissa Leo take away poor old (very old) Kirk Douglas’s cane, the BRUISED MUSE gives you survival tips that might really be useful in your life.  For Survival Tip #1, here’s one of my favorite quotes from the brilliant psychiatrist (and novelist) Irvin Yalom, who literally wrote the book on group psychotherapy. This quote is from one of his shorter works, The Gift of Therapy.  He says:

“Once an individual recognizes their role in creating their own life predicament, they realize that they, and only they, have the power to change the situation.”

The Bruised Muse has found, in her life and in her psychotherapy office, that life gets a whole lot easier when an individual finally recognizes that she (or he) ONLY has the power to change how she behaves in the world, and how she responds to others’ behavior toward her.  She does NOT have the power to change the others’ behavior.

To begin learning how one actually is in the world (as opposed to how one believes one is), one must first develop some curiosity about it.

More about curiosity in another post.