Imagine a bookshelf in your therapist’s office, filled not with books, but with small figures of every possible description: human figures of all different kinds; everyday man-made objects such as cars, houses, and household items; animals of every kind, including insects, dinosaurs, and mythical figures; and natural objects of every kind, trees, plants, cotton for clouds and fog, sticks, and shells. The photo above represents a typical sand tray collection of objects.
In front of you is placed a large blue plastic tray, 2′ x 3′, filled with about 3 inches of white gypsum sand. Using any of the objects, you are invited to create a world of your creation in the sand. You may build a world representing some problem about which you may feel stuck, a world representing your entire life, or a world that may not have any conscious association for you. As you scan the multitude of objects to choose from, you are encouraged to not only choose objects, but to allow some objects to choose you, the overarching spirit of the exercise being one of play. You can also sculpt and part the sand, allowing the blue plastic of the tray to represent bodies of water, if you wish. After constructing your world, your therapist helps you explore what it means to you.
Below are four photographs of a completed sand tray by a client I will call Darin. His explanation of his world follows:
“So this corner with the piano and easel in it is is like an art studio. It’s a creative corner. That guy sitting on the piano, he was one of those figures who I didn’t ‘choose’; he chose me. I saw him on the shelf, and–I didn’t know why–I just knew I had to have him. Originally, he was in the corner behind him, but the piano bench was empty, and he was just drawn to sit there. So he’s sitting there, jammin’ away on the piano. Behind him is the trail in the sand left by the samurai warrior as he’s been fighting back the dragon. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I think the swirls in the sand represent vortexes of distractions the samurai might get sucked into. Meanwhile, on the other side of the river, Buddha is sitting on top of a mountain under a tree. I’m not a Buddhist, but I chose him because to me he represents serenity. That’s why they’re no swirls on the mountain. The samurai is trying to get to serenity, but the dragon is in his way. But, as you can see, he’s also made a lot of progress. In his wake is a die, representing that no matter how hard he tries, there will always be some degree of luck involved. In the river is a black swan and a white swan. They represent partnership and romantic love. On the shore next to them is a cluster of baby penguins. They represent–I don’t know–children, family…nurturing.”
There are different schools of thought in working with a client and their sand tray. Some therapists provide interpretations, not unlike interpreting dreams. Other therapists shun interpretation and instead see themselves as companions whose job is to support the client’s exploration of what their world means to them.
The mechanism of development in Kegan’s constructive developmental theory is the subject/object reversal. As I see it, the subject/object move is akin to shifting something from the subconscious to the conscious, from the implicit to the explicit. Expressive therapies like sand tray are one way to externalize what is currently going on for the client, and, by so doing, can be a part of shifting what we were once subject to, into becoming an object for our inspection, reflection, and choice.
Late last year, this blog reached a milestone: it’s 10,000th visitor!
I started this blog in June of 2010. A year and a half later, I reached my 1000th visitor.
As of January 3, 2013, a total of 12,735 unique visitors from around the world have visited this blog generating 17,206 visits. Not only that, this blog is now typically the #1 Google search result for “constructive developmental theory.”
My reaction to this is similar to the disbelief and gratitude I experienced at reaching my 1000th visitor, only now the exponential trend has more data behind it. Once again, I can only conclude that this blog is filling a void on the internet: the dissemination of theories of adult development in plain language. Such continued success is extremely gratifying. In addition to visitors, I also receive requests to use my graphic on this page summarizing the stages of constructive-developmental theory. This also validates my attempt to present the stages of the theory in a way that is understandable.
Below are some of the graphics that Google Analytics produced to describe traffic to this blog. I note a correlation between visits around the world and industrialized nations. Within the U.S., states with more urban populations seem to have more visitors. It’s important to note, however, that this may also be influenced by personal connections: I’ve lived in New York, California, Texas, and Massachusetts.
Other dynamics remain a mystery. Why, for example, was the busiest day on this blog August 14, 2012? This doesn’t seem correlated with anything that I can see I did. Perhaps that was the day that some spambot wanted to learn about how it might grow-up one day to become an operating system….
If you’re reading this, you have contributed to this blog’s success, for which I am grateful.
New Year’s is traditionally a time to take stock of our lives and reflect on our life journeys over the past year. In this spirit, this week The New York Times published a collection of memorials to notable people who died over the past year. One in particular caught my eye, for children’s book author Maurice Sendak, author of the classic Where the Wild Things Are. Instead of a written bio for Sendak, Times artist Christopher Niemann created this amazing series of drawings to accompany an interview NPR’s Terry Gross did with Sendak last year. It moved me to tears:
This reminded me of a striking Letter to the Editor the Times published earlier this year after Sendak passed away. It is the second letter down on this page by Kristina Blake. It is one of the most moving Letters to the Editor I’ve ever read:
Normally at this point I would analyze these items using theories of adult development, but this time I feel moved to let their beauty speak for themselves.
When you love something, it grows.
I wish you love for growth in 2013.
My name is Peter, and I’m a sugar-holic.
I’ve been a sugar-holic for as long as I can remember. When I was three years old and witnessed with awe my grandparent’s hot chocolate sauce becoming chewy upon contact with ice cream, I was a sugar-holic. When I was 12 years old, bought a blueberry pie and announced that I would be eating it for dinner, I was a sugar-holic. Thirty minutes later I was lying on my bed holding my stomach wondering what I had done. I was a sugar-holic when, over just the last few years, I obsessively rated all the designer ice cream shops in Cambridge with my favorite flavors: #1, Christina’s Carrot Cake; #2, J.P. Licks’ Oreo-cake-batter; #3, Toscaninni’s Tarimisu. The truth was, as a self-identified Dessert Person, I didn’t “have dessert”; dessert had me.
Before I tell the story of how I gave up sweets, I should be upfront about a few things that I realize some readers may hold against me. First, I’m one of those annoying people who has weighed 165 lbs. plus or minus three pounds since college. (I can still wear a pair of pants I had in 10th grade.) Second, I am someone with a fairly successful history of giving things up. When I was about 12, one day I decided that I was sick of biting my nails until they bled, so I stopped. When I decided to try and reduce my carbon footprint by buying only local fruit, one day I stopped buying bananas and orange juice. Until then I’d had a banana most days of my life and orange juice was my favorite beverage. When I wanted to give up having a car two years ago, I sold it and have never regretted it. Note that I’m in no way trying to conflate any of these habits with more serious addictions such as alcohol or other drugs. The point is simply that sugar is not the first thing I have given up. But none of these other things were as large a part of my identity as being a Dessert Person.
A year ago I enrolled in a Master’s program in Counseling Psychology. My internship was at a shelter for homeless veterans. Most of these men and women had histories of substance abuse. Coinciding with this experience I took a class in substance abuse. I loved it. One day it occurred to me that it might be a good learning experience for those of us in the class to experiment with giving up something in our lives that we were fairly attached to. By so doing we might develop some measure of empathy for our clients who were trying to overcome addictions. Coincidentally, this was around Lent.
Our professor, Dr. Richard Reilly, supported the idea and offered a very reasonable suggestion. Imagining a scale from 1 to 10 where 1 represented something that we felt would be extremely easy to give up and 10 represented something extremely difficult to give up, Dr. Reilly suggested that we choose something that we would rate about a 5. Those students who chose to participate in this experiment agreed to try giving up whatever they chose for a period of one month. That day I decided to try giving up the center-piece of my Dessert Person identity: ice cream. Knowing that I could eat other sweets in place of it, however, I rated this challenge at about a 4. Some of my classmates chose to try and give up smoking—way more than a 5! I was impressed.
Around this same period of time, I did some work with a homeless veteran named Danny. Danny was the first person I’d met who was on methadone replacement therapy for heroine. He was the most hyper person I’d ever met. In our first conversation he talked for an hour-and-a-half straight. He showed me pictures of his family on his cellphone. He wondered whether he was going to make it or not.
Two weeks later, with a quarter of a pint of Ben & Jerry’s sitting in my freezer door, I hadn’t had any ice cream. And then something interesting happened. Every time I opened the freezer, I would glance at the carton of Ben & Jerry’s and think about Danny. After two weeks I had to confront the realization: “This is too easy.” Danny had given me a window into what a life-or-death struggle with addiction was like, and if I wanted to have the slightest idea of what he was going through, giving up just ice cream wasn’t going to cut it. It was time to raise the ante.
I glanced at the collection of lollypops and mini candy bars I’d collected over the last few weeks from the candy dish at the local public pool I swim at. That was it. I would try giving up sugar entirely. For me, I would rate that about an 8 or 9.
A few days later, I found myself standing in front of a vending machine at the library craving a mid-afternoon snack. The first thing that hit me over the head was the fact that 90% of the items in the vending machine were candy. Standing there alone surveying my choices, a vision came to me. I imagined my classmates from substance abuse class standing in a semi-circle behind me. A woman in the class who had also decided to give up sugar, Cindy, was talking to me like a wrestling coach: “You can do it, Peter! You can do it!” The two class clowns, Felicity and Debbie, gently mocked me by pointing to their favorite candy bars. My friend Ann stood there smiling quietly in a way that I knew meant support. After some consideration of them, myself and Danny, I selected Wheat Thins.
Imagine my surprise when I read the ingredients on the package—something I was now doing religiously—and found sugar to be the sixth ingredient of twelve. In Wheat Thins! This prompted me to reflect on exactly what I meant by “giving up sugar.” Sugar is in catchup. Sugar was in every variety of yogurt from my local dairy except Plain 0% Fat. My favorite granola lists “Evaporated cane juice” as one of its ingredients. Reacting to all this by becoming a Sugar Nazi seemed self-defeating, so I redefined what I was giving up as simply “sweets,” broadly defined. I would eat fruit and other naturally occurring sugars. Would I eat honey? Maple syrup? Sugar substitutes? I didn’t know. I decided I’d figure out those details on a case-by-case basis. As a practical matter, my commitment to giving up sweets meant that I replaced ice cream in the evening with yogurt and fruit and replaced sweets during the day with nuts or crackers.
Two weeks later, I began to notice some differences. I was sleeping better. I fell asleep faster. I was more likely to remember my dreams, perhaps because I was sleeping better. I wasn’t drowsy in the afternoons as much as I used to be. Frankly, I felt like a new man. I couldn’t believe it.
A few days later I passed the free food table at school. Sitting on it was a single piece of chocolate layer cake—five layers, to be exact. For the past two years, I had walked by this table and lunged at anything on it like a vulture. Now, for the first time, I just kept walking. The primary emotion I experienced in doing so was nostalgia. I thought, “Ah, yes. I remember when I used to do that. But that’s not where I am now.”
When I explained this transformation in class, I shared another vision. I imagined I was in a boxing ring in a crowded stadium wearing a silk robe with a hood. My classmates were in my corner giving me a pep-talk. In the opposite corner stood my adversary: an eight-foot tall giant paper bag of sugar. Then the camera view in my vision zoomed out and provided a helicopter view of the stadium. The crowd was going wild. It zoomed out farther, still, showing the stadium as a whole and revealing a collection of other stadiums surrounding it. Each was filled with a roaring crowd and a brightly illuminated boxing ring at its center. In each was one of my classmates going up against their self-selected nemesis. We were all in this together.
At the end of class, one of my classmates, Ashley, gave me the drawing above depicting her boxing match with a pack of cigarettes. (Click on the image to see a higher resolution version.) I particularly appreciated the fact that in the drawing her expression suggests anxiety while her thought bubble transforms into another face that looks more like terror. I understood and was touched.
The month came and went, and I remained “sugar-sober.” I felt great, physically and emotionally. I tried to understand why. A critical moment to explore with an addict is what is going on for them just before they have the urge to use. Typically, they feel an emotion that they do not feel they have the ability to regulate by themselves, for example, anxiety. As a result, they reach for a drink or a cigarette. I was realizing that food evoked emotions that were equivalent to real-life experiences. If drinking castor oil could be likened to stubbing your toe, eating ice cream was like getting a hug. So whenever I felt like having desert, I tried to explore the unfulfilled emotion that was underlying the urge. Sometimes it felt like an urge to celebrate. Other times I felt a little down. So I experimented with playing my piano or calling somebody, instead. It seemed to work. Inserting this pause between impulse and action was critical and liberating. Some in the addictions field refer to taking this pause as “urge surfing.”
Inspired by these initial positive results, I decided to try and make this change permanent.
A few weeks later, I attended an open house. Among the hors d’oeuvres was a bowl of mixed nuts. I inspected it carefully to see if it contained any yogurt chips or anything else that might have sugar in it. I saw none. So I took a fist-full of nuts and shoved them in my mouth. A split-second later, I felt a chocolate chip melting on my tongue. And then something surprising happened; it tasted disgusting, sickeningly sweet. On impulse, I spat it out into a napkin. I reflected that this reaction made sense. By giving up sugar, my body had re-adjusted its baseline of what “sweet” tasted like. After a few months of mostly fruit, the thing I used to crave had become alien. All this time I had been terrified that if I accidentally had some sugar, I would relapse and be unable to get back on the wagon. Instead when it happened, my automatic reaction was, “Patooey!” This realization made it much easier to continue my sobriety.
After two months, I had lost weight. Depending on what pair of pants I was wearing, I dropped four belt loops from about 168 pounds to 161. I couldn’t believe it. I hadn’t even been trying to lose weight. A few months later I had dropped to 158—the first time I had gone below 160 since college. I needed to find a way to gain weight. Crazy! Maybe I had a tape worm.
I’ve now been sugar sober for six months. This experience has been far more profound than I could have imagined and inspires questions of a more philosophical nature. I have successfully given up something that previously was such an integral part of my identity that the choice to give it up would never have occurred to me. I was subject to sugar. Giving it up meant giving up me. Yet, I now had to confront the incontrovertible truth: I was still here. So that prompted a scary question: “What else am I so close to that I can’t even see that I might benefit from giving up?” What if I gave up my piano, for instance? What would I do instead? Sing, probably. O.K., what if I gave up singing? Draw? How about giving up talking? Let’s take this thought experiment even farther. What would happen if I gave up expressing myself at all? To be clear, I’m not asking these questions because I actually intend to give these things up; I’m asking these questions to explore the bigger question of “How much can you give up and still be ‘you’?” I imagine a spectrum; at the left end are those things I am strongly attached to (oxygen, for example) and on the opposite end is sugar—something that at one time I thought I could’t give up but now have. What’s in between that I can’t yet see?
I mentioned this to my friend Anne who is an executive coach, and she said something very wise. She suggested that I should turn this experience around and instead ask, “What have you gained?”
Hmm. Good question.
The first thing that came to mind was that somehow I felt like there was more of “me”–while not even really being sure what that meant. Having thought more about what that might mean, I think the main thing I have gained is a closer relationship with myself. I’ve gained an understanding of my emotional relationship with food, the emotional component of addictions, and the social component of recovery. Having Cindy, my “Sister in Sugar Sobriety,” and a community in my corner of the boxing ring made a significant difference. I can now see that they provided both support and a sense of accountability. One of the greatest challenges facing those giving up smoking or drinking is having to make a whole new set of friends. In my case what I gave up was benign enough to allow me to keep all of my friends. I still go to birthday parties; I just pass on the cake and ice cream.
And then I remember Danny. No longer in the shelter, I have no idea where he is. I wonder how he’s doing, whether he’s even still alive. He provided me perhaps the most important ingredient of all: the moral conviction to try. By so doing, he inspired me to experience what it can take to move that which we are subject to, to becoming an object for our inspection and development, and for that I will never forget him.
In my last post I mentioned visiting the Laboratory of Adult Development at Massachusetts General Hospital. There, the director, Dr. Robert Waldinger, mentioned to me two researchers who had explored the topic of the development of wisdom, Monica Ardelt at the University of Florida and Barbara Fredrickson at UNC Chapel Hill.
In exploring their work, I found the following table of Ardelt’s model of wisdom very striking:
I originally found the table on the website www.wisdompage.com, which, in turn, cites Ardelt’s original paper “Wisdom as Expert Knowledge System: A Critical review of a Contemporary Operationalization of an Ancient Concept” in the Journal Human Development.
To me the above table is highly evocative of the Self-Transforming Mind of Robert Kegan’s constructive developmental theory: valuing multiple perspectives of self and other, seeing both “the dark and the light” sides of human nature, and having a tolerance for ambiguity. What I found new was the explicit association of wisdom with positive emotions including love and compassion.
On an intuitive level, these characteristics seem to make sense to me. What comes to mind is the proverbial mountain climb to ask the wise sage living in seclusion at the top, “What is the meaning of life?” A one-sided answer like “42″ would be disappointing. In short, we expect so-called wise people to say things like, “Well, it could be this…or it could be that,” all the while appearing to have compassion for us asking.
Combined with Kegan’s theory of development, it would appear that such wisdom is the result of a predictable possible path of development. Such a theory suggests that not only is no one born wise, but that wisdom can be cultivated—which seems to offer some hope for the rest of us.
A few months ago I had the pleasure of visiting the Laboratory of Adult Development at Massachusetts General Hospital, home of the longest-running study of adult development in the world. Started in 1939, the study has followed two cohorts of almost 700 men living in the Boston area. This study was the basis of Dr. George Vaillant‘s book, Aging Well: Surprising Guideposts to a Happier Life from the Landmark Harvard Study of Adult Development.
Dr. Vaillant is now retired, and the lab is directed by Dr. Robert Waldinger. When I asked him to what he attributed this study’s longevity, he acknowledged the contributing factor of luck in securing funding at a time when there was more funding available. When I asked what led to a medical study that valued qualitative interview data so much rather than just focusing on quantitative measures, he explained that both he and Dr. Vaillant had psychoanalytic training, so a study limited to numbers “just wasn’t going to work.”
The study identified six factors we can control that contribute to aging well: education, alcohol abuse, smoking, marriage stability, exercise, weight, and coping mechanisms. The primary factors that affect successful aging that we cannot control are parents’ social class, family cohesion, longevity of ancestors, and childhood temperament.
One of the things I like about Vaillant’s research is that it starts with real people’s lives and induces a theory from there. While theories of adult development such a Robert Kegan’s constructive-developmental theory certainly have their place, I think it’s also important to mine real life stories for wisdom on development, too.
I recently ran across a beautiful article on resilience in families by Froma Walsh (2003). Walsh defines resilience “as the capacity to rebound from adversity, strengthened and more resourceful. It is an active process of endurance, self-righting, and growth in response to crisis and challenge…the ability to withstand and rebound from disruptive life challenges.” She then suggests a very comprehensive list of “Key Processes in Family Resilience” (see chart below).
I’m struck by the sense that so many of these skills are enhanced through greater complexity of perspective-taking. My guess would be that more complex thinking can help avert interpersonal conflict and enhance resilience.
Walsh, F. (2003). Family resilience: A framework for clinical practice. Family Process, 42(1), 1-18.
Last year RSA (Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce) contacted me and asked if they could use some of the materials from this blog in a publication they were producing relating to adult development and society. The report has recently been published, and I’m very impressed.
Entitled Beyond the Big Society: Psychological Foundations of Active Citizenship, the report provides an extremely thorough yet highly understandable analysis of what kind of citizen is required to enable globalized society to succeed. This analysis relies on the work of Ron Heifetz to discern the difference between technical problems, which can be solved by experts, and adaptive challenges, which require human development to address successfully. This is where the report brings in the adult development theory of Robert Kegan. The authors’ expansive agenda includes providing a very cogent summary of Kegan’s work, as well as specifying competencies for effective global citizens.
The entire report is available for free here:
I highly recommend it.