Why Is Everything So Bad?

Mass killings, black men unnecessarily killed by police officers, police officers killed in ambushes, women and children raped and killed on a daily basis, Muslims harassed and told to go back where they came from, Latinos called rapists. These and countless other crimes. America is in crisis.

And we are not alone. Violence and unrest is happening across the globe. Many people are asking the question, “Why is everything so bad right now?”

As a licensed marriage and family therapist, I get asked this question a lot. Clients come in because they want help. They want to figure out how everything got so bad. And they want help figuring out how to make changes that will result in a more peaceful, fulfilling life. Because what they’ve been doing isn’t working.

Individuals, couples, or whole families come in, and they are often overwhelmed by the pain, fear, anger and confusion they feel. There seem to be so many problems, they don’t know where to start. So we start with today. What is going on that they don’t like? What is going on that they do like? What needs to change? What needs to stay the same? We explore many aspects of their lives. We look for themes. We listen for process, the HOW of a couple or family: how do they go about communicating, how do they go about getting their needs met? Therapists listen to the words, but what we learn to hear is the process of how a family functions. And behind the process are the stories. The national, cultural, spiritual, and family rules for HOW the world works, and how the people in this particular family have learned to be in the world.

A good therapist will explore these stories, and help a family decide which stories are worth keeping and which stories are contributing to the pain and crisis that brings them to therapy and therefore, should be discarded or changed.

Sometimes families come in with a theory about why the pain and problems exist. “John’s dad was an alcoholic, so I think he has attachment issues and therefore, can’t be a good husband to me.” “Our daughter is stubborn and willful and so she tests us at every turn.” Often, the current dysfunction has more layers. A good therapist takes a thorough family history. We look at all of the family members and their role in the system. We look for family stories and family patterns that have been in place over many generations. We’ve learned to respect the entire system and understand how and why things are the way they are, and what will need to happen in order to change these patterns.

We often say, “Sometimes a positive change for one part of the system will be very painful for another part of the system, so be prepared. Positive change can sometimes be very ugly and uncomfortable along the way.”

I had a friend ask me if the recent world violence is due to poor access to mental health services. Are all of the violent people simply mentally ill? It’s a great question, with a complicated answer. There are certainly changes to the American health care system, and more specifically, the mental health care system, that need to happen in order for people to easily and effectively access care. There is a need for more human interaction and less screen interaction. There is a need for gun control reform. A need for prioritizing the human experience, our diet, our movement, our joy, over the almighty dollar. There are military needs when it comes to protecting America from threats like ISIS. There are so many things contributing to the unrest today.  If America was my client, what would my diagnosis be? How I would I proceed with treatment?

As I listen to the reports each day, I hear about the Brock Turner rape case, the shooting of Philando Castille, the mass shooting at a gay nightclub in Orlando, legislation in North Carolina that aims to allow discrimination against the LBGTQ community, and many other stories of people not respecting the basic human rights of others.

People are crying out. People who have been oppressed for centuries are crying out for equal rights. And people who have been in power for centuries are acting out in fear and anger at the prospect of losing power if marginalized and oppressed people finally having equal rights, and an equal voice.

When I work with families, I look to highlight the process, unpack the fears, and find a solution that honors the family and their values. If America were my client, I would highlight how our current issues with equal rights are in direct conflict with our proposed values. And when we collect the family history, we would all nod our heads and say, “Of course. This mess makes sense. The country was founded on the principal that ‘all men are created equal’ and the idea of personal freedoms, but the founders didn’t respect the indigenous people’s rights and liberties, nor the people they brought over as slaves who did much of the manual labor to build the new country, nor did they let women have a voice in the development of the new government.” This country was built for white men’s personal liberties and freedoms. Women, children and minorities were not seen as equals. They were not seen as worthy of rights.

But now, we know better. We have evolved. We know that men, women and children are all 100% human beings. And we know that no matter the color of our skin, or the name we call ourselves or are called by others, we are all from the exact same race, the one race of humans that lives on the planet earth: the human race. And we know that we are all deserving of the exact same rights. But shaking off hundreds and hundreds of years of bad habits is hard work.

On a micro level, I see it in marriage all the time. For example, for many, many generations, men worked tirelessly outside the home to make enough money to provide a good life for the family, and women worked tirelessly inside the home to provide a good life for the family. Now, we understand the benefit of having men at home more, in relationship with kids and partners more, cooking and cleaning and finding meaning and value in home life. And we understand the benefit of having women work outside of the home more, to use their skills in a professional capacity, to bring home money and energy from a meaningful and valuable career experience. And still…I watch couple after couple struggle with falling back into traditional roles that cause them pain and conflict. Men prioritize work commitments in order to succeed at work in order to provide their family a good life. But that life isn’t good without him in it. So the family complains and uses Harry Chapin’s “Cat’s in the Cradle” as their ringtone for dad. And I see women over-functioning at home, engaging in the vast majority of the cooking and cleaning, the parenting and the taxi-ing, on top of full time work, only to feel angry, resentful, and lonely.

So we have to try very, very hard to stay mindful of what our core values are, and work very, very hard to have our actions match our values, because it is very, very easy to slip into old patterns that we know no longer work.

My hope is that the current unrest, the current “Very Bad” state of things is the catalyst for incredible forward-moving change. Families in my office have a choice: to be curious, and listen, and invite the pain of change, to stay strong and persevere toward peace and fulfillment, because they know it takes work. And courage. And sacrifice. And caring more about the family’s health than any one person’s individual need for power or safety. Or they can quit, put their head in the sand, or get angry and demand that nothing change. They can scare everyone else into dropping their quest for peace and fulfillment. We all know a family who walks on eggshells and tows the line so one volatile member doesn’t explode. No one wants to be in that family. 

Many of my clients choose change. They choose bravery, to look at their role in the dysfunction. They choose strength, and use their skills and talents to work toward change. They choose humility, and allow that everyone in the family deserves to feel loved and safe and heard. They choose compassion over power. They risk discomfort to achieve something better.

I have a couple who came in after an affair. Their early work was ugly and painful. It was raw and scary. But they both chose to be curious, brave, strong and compassionate, and they left therapy saying their marriage was in a stronger place than before the affair ever happened. They used a painful disruption to reevaluate what they really wanted and needed from each other. And then they did the work to create a marriage that was better, stronger, and more fulfilling than before the crisis ever occurred.

My hope is that we will use this season of extreme violence and unrest to take a hard, humble look in the mirror, to dig into the work that will bring us as an American family to a place where all people feel valued, where all people have a voice, where we can truly uphold the original American ideal the yes, “All humans are created equal” and deserve equal rights and liberties.


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