Better Health: Smart Health Commentary Better Health (TM): smart health commentary

Latest Posts

Are Illness Coping Mechanisms Learned From Parents?

Photograph: Roger Bamber

How far do we travel from our parents’ patterns?  A question psychotherapists and their clients have been wrestling with for decades.

We can’t escape the parental imprint.  Some of us may not want to.  But those of us who did hope to be different often find ourselves in our 40s or 50s unexpectedly leaking parental behaviors or attitudes we thought we had purged ourselves of in our 20s.

I sometimes hear myself saying to Richard, my partner, as he heads out the door for his Tae Kwon Do class, “Be careful.”  He has a second degree black belt and has been studying for years.  He is always careful.  My admonition is a spillover of my father’s anxious voice warning me to be on the lookout for endless, unnamed dangers hiding in plain sight at every turn.  Other times I see myself tighten up like a fist when something I thought I had control over twists in an unpredictable direction.  It is not my jaw that clenches in agitation; it is my mother’s jaw, on my face.

How our parents do or did illness is a powerful pattern.  Did they suffer in silence, while allowing no one to offer tenderness or help?  Did they submerge into illness and allow it to define who they were?  Did they use illness to control and manipulate?  To get attention?  Did they remain engaged in living and loving?  Did they learn from illness to become more fully who they were?  Did they become nastier to each other?  Or sweeter?  And finally, did they take care of each other — physically and emotionally?

My parents, who kept each other at a distance when well, became even more separated when ill.  They went so far as to resent each other for their increasing incapacities.  It was not pretty.

There were times when I was in the thick of my pain condition, that I isolated and withdrew from Richard.  But more often, I allowed my pain to teach me to reach out for comfort and connection.  I had to.  For me, the voice of pain was more powerful than my parents’ example.

Dealing with illness can be a consuming job.  When you find yourself behaving in ways that don’t create the kind of bridge to your partner that will help lighten the load for both of you, pause and ask yourself:  “Am I playing out a pattern that doesn’t really belong to me?  Whose voice am I speaking with?  Can I do it differently?”

How did your parents deal with illness?  What did you learn to do and not to do from them?


Barbara Kivowitz is a psychotherapist, business consultant, and book author. She blogs regularly at In Sickness And In Health.

Understanding The Subtext Of The Therapeutic Relationship

When we talk about psychotherapy, one aspect of what we look at is the process of what occurs in the therapeutic relationship.  This is an important part of psychodynamic-based psychotherapy, meaning psychotherapy that is derived from the theories put forth by Freud.  Psychoanalysis (the purest form of psychodynamic psychotherapy) includes an emphasis on events that occurred during childhood, and a focus on understanding what goes on in the relationship between the therapist and the patient, including the transference and counter-transference.

In some of our posts, our friend Jesse has commented about how it’s important to understand what transpires in the mind of the patient when certain things are said and done.  Let me tell you that Jesse is a wonderful psychiatrist, he is warm and caring and attentive and gentle, and he’s had extensive training in the analytic method, he’s on my list of who I go to when I need help, so while I want to discuss this concept, I don’t want anyone, especially Jesse, to think I don’t respect him.  With that disclaimer…..

On my tongue-in-cheek post on What to Get Your Psychiatrist for the Holidays, Jesse wrote: Read more »

*This blog post was originally published at Shrink Rap*

Does Your Therapist Think You’re A Narcissist?

Psychotherapy is, by it’s nature, a narcissistic endeavor.  That’s not to say that the patient is a narcissist, but the journey itself is meant to focus on patient’s interior life, and it’s not always about the greater good.  In my last post, several commenters said they feel uncomfortable talking about themselves or worry that their therapist will mistakenly think they are narcissistic because they talk about themselves in therapy.

It’s not at all unusual for people to express some discomfort about talking about themselves in therapy, or to comment, “all I do in here is complain,”  or “You must get tired of hearing people complain/talk about their problems, etc….”

I won’t talk for other psychotherapists because I only know how I feel.  It seems to me that the mandate of therapy is for the patient to talk about the things they have been thinking about.  The truth is that most people think about themselves, and issues of the world are interpreted by individuals as they impact them.  Some people Read more »

*This blog post was originally published at Shrink Rap*

Therapy Is About Having An Honest Relationship, But Is Lying Ever OK?

We’ve been having a great discussion over on the post Tell Me…. An Ethical Dilemma.  The post talks about a young man who wants to know if he can check “no” to a question about whether he has a psychiatric disorder if his illness is not relevant to the situation.  The comments have been fascinating — do read them– and very thought-provoking.

One reader asked, ” If a patient asked if they were boring you, and they were, would you say yes?”

This is a great question, and of course the right thing to do is to explore with the patient what meaning the concern has to him.  But is that all?  I’m not very good at doing the old psychoanalyst thing of deflecting all questions, and mostly I do answer questions when they are asked of me.  This can present a really sticky situation because one can not think of any clinical scenario in which it would be therapeutic to have a therapist tell a patient, ‘Yes, you’re boring, OMG are you boring,’ or ‘No, in fact, I don’t like you.’  And not answering could be viewed as negative response by the patient –if you liked me, you’d tell me, so clearly you don’t like me.  So if the exploration of the question doesn’t take care of the issue, and the patient continues to ask, what’s a shrink to do? Read more »

*This blog post was originally published at Shrink Rap*

Do You Think You Have OCD?

When I leave for work in the morning, I go through my precommute checklist. Train pass, check. Wallet, check. Coffee mug, check. Smart phone, check. Keys to the house, check. Only when I’m sure that I have everything I need do I open the door and head outside.

Sometimes I worry that this morning routine is becoming too much of a ritual. Is it possible that I have obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD for short)?

Probably not. The fact that I am able to get out the door every morning means that my daily ritual isn’t interfering with my ability to function, says Dr. Jeff Szymanski, a clinical instructor in psychology at Harvard Medical School.

You have OCD when obsessions and compulsive behavior Read more »

*This blog post was originally published at Harvard Health Blog*

Latest Interviews

IDEA Labs: Medical Students Take The Lead In Healthcare Innovation

It’s no secret that doctors are disappointed with the way that the U.S. healthcare system is evolving. Most feel helpless about improving their work conditions or solving technical problems in patient care. Fortunately one young medical student was undeterred by the mountain of disappointment carried by his senior clinician mentors…

Read more »

How To Be A Successful Patient: Young Doctors Offer Some Advice

I am proud to be a part of the American Resident Project an initiative that promotes the writing of medical students residents and new physicians as they explore ideas for transforming American health care delivery. I recently had the opportunity to interview three of the writing fellows about how to…

Read more »

See all interviews »

Latest Cartoon

See all cartoons »

Latest Book Reviews

Book Review: Is Empathy Learned By Faking It Till It’s Real?

I m often asked to do book reviews on my blog and I rarely agree to them. This is because it takes me a long time to read a book and then if I don t enjoy it I figure the author would rather me remain silent than publish my…

Read more »

The Spirit Of The Place: Samuel Shem’s New Book May Depress You

When I was in medical school I read Samuel Shem s House Of God as a right of passage. At the time I found it to be a cynical yet eerily accurate portrayal of the underbelly of academic medicine. I gained comfort from its gallows humor and it made me…

Read more »

Eat To Save Your Life: Another Half-True Diet Book

I am hesitant to review diet books because they are so often a tangled mess of fact and fiction. Teasing out their truth from falsehood is about as exhausting as delousing a long-haired elementary school student. However after being approached by the authors’ PR agency with the promise of a…

Read more »

See all book reviews »