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Fighting Against Hysteria

WARNING: This is a long post and I recognize in our current culture, most people want to read a blog that has 3 quick bullet points they can skim. Just understand that to write this particular post in that manner would be to contradict the very point I am trying to make. So, please forgive me in advance for the length and flow. I hope you can read it through in its entirety.

Every one of us has been judged, rightly or wrongly, by another human being. We’ve all been told at some point that we are wrong, that we need to change, that we are headed in the wrong direction. Each of us, too, has gotten frustrated when we do not see the kind of change we had hoped for in others and in ourselves. I have been practicing psychiatry for over ten years now and I have come to realize that the process of change is very complex and difficult. For some, success and failure are measured by whether or not they can get out of bed in the morning, let alone make it to the job or the gym. There are some who know all too well what they should do, but feel trapped by what they are compelled to do. Their spirits are willing. Their bodies are weak. We, as outside observers, might be quick to judge them. We theorize, often incorrectly, that they fail to change because they WILL NOT. They, however, would plead with us to understand that it is not a matter of willingness. They simply CANNOT. In the face of these conflicting interpretations of reality, we are left with a difficult decision:

Do we judge and condemn them? Do we label them? Do we shun them? Do we chalk their situations up to a lack of faith, a moral weakness, a stubbornness of pride? Or do we remain with them in the mystery of their struggle, accept our own insecurities associated with unanswerable questions, and feel to whatever extent is possible the burden of their pain?

The truth is, no one can know the depths of the human heart! We find ourselves deceived by it constantly. To judge is to say, “I know your heart!” When we get past all the rules, laws, boundaries, ultimatums, punishments, and demands in our relationships, we are still left with that “not-knowing.” Did they change out of fear or out of love? Did they stay the same out of fear or out of love? Who can know for sure?

I have found that those who try to find a cookie-cutter, one-size-fits-all, black-and-white answer for the challenges and triumphs of human growth and change do so for their own comfort and security. When they are faced with a situation or person they do not understand, these people have to force their own understanding of reality on that person or situation because they cannot deal with any unknowns. “Accept my truth, my reality, or get away from me. I can’t stand you if you don’t. You threaten my reality.”

I must admit that for a long time, I was that person. If I’m honest, I still struggle against that old man inside of me. We all do. Humans have an inherent need to compartmentalize truth in order to survive. When confronted with another person’s experience, one that may contradict our own reality, we feel the need to pound their square peg into our round hole. We long for a clear cause-and-effect relationship to explain why they are “that way.”

So-and-so relapsed on alcohol or drugs? It must mean he did not work hard enough in his recovery. Jane Doe can’t seem to lose weight? It must mean she is lazy. But when you delve into the human psyche and spirit, these kinds of explanations are much too cheap. If we were to ask why So-and-so didn’t work hard enough or why Jane Doe lacked motivation, suddenly the picture of reality becomes fuzzy. Now we find ourselves playing with a set of psychological rabbit ears that sit atop life’s staticky T.V. screen. We are hoping to find a perfect position of clarity that enables us to make sense of what’s playing out before us. This we do in order to avoid the fracturing of our fragile worldviews, worldviews that make no room for mystery. Herein lies the essence of all pride, prejudice and judgment.

Very few people are capable of change in the face of such pride and spiritual prejudice. I have realized this both professionally and personally. During an extremely dark time in my own life, I had people who spoke truth to me, but in two different ways. The first group demanded that I accept their understanding of the situation and conform to their rules of reality. They left no room or time for my acclamation to their truth, nor did they display any desire to understand my reality, the one in which I felt trapped at the time.

Looking back, I can honestly say I was incapable of seeing or conforming to their truth. The only way I know how to describe that pain is by likening it to a prisoner, chained to a wall, enduring the shouts of angry inquisitors, crying, “FREE YOURSELF!!” all the while writhing to the point of bloodshed against the shackles and shouting back, “DON’T YOU GET IT?! I CAN’T!!!” One man, who at an earlier time in our relationship claimed I was like a second son to him, told me in the midst of my despair, “You made your bed. Now it’s time for you to sleep in it.” He was correct, of course, but his admonition did nothing to help me change. A minister’s wife looked at me straight in the eyes and exclaimed, “You disgust me!” She, too, was correct. I was worthy of her disgust, but there again, her words did nothing to help me, but simply hardened my heart all the more.

Then came salvation: another group of people who spoke truth into my life, but in an entirely different way. It is to these people I am indebted for the changes I’ve experienced in my heart and life over the years. They were and still are the people to whom the more I confess, the more they have said, “I get it, I love you, I am here.” There was no need for judgment or condemnation. They knew I had done enough of that to myself. Instead, they refused to give up on me through my struggles. The difference between the two groups can be summed up in one word: compassion!

Now, understand me: I do not condemn the people in the first group (or at least I try hard not to – I still struggle sometimes like everyone else). I know I have been guilty of inflicting the same judgment and condemnation on others. It is not easy to love others when our own survival depends upon maintaining a rigid, unbending reality that cannot tolerate the mysterious. If you are reading this post and I have been the person who has judged you, perhaps even spoken truth into your life, but without the necessary compassion you needed at the time, PLEASE FORGIVE ME. It just goes to show that we all need compassion, even in our failure to show compassion.

But I would also like to challenge each of us to contemplate: what is that one necessary ingredient in our relationships that must be present in order to lead to lasting change. I finished reading The Brothers Karamazov and there is a quote from the book that sums up the answer to my question perfectly. Though long, it is one of the most succinct and compelling treatises on compassion I have ever read. A man stands trial for murder and his lawyer, asking for leniency from the court, echoes what we all long for in the midst of our failures and misunderstandings:

“I swear that, if you condemn him, you will only make it easier for his conscience, for he will end by cursing the man whose blood was spilled, instead of weeping for him. At the same time, you will destroy the man he could have been, because you will doom him to remain blind and embittered for the rest of his life. On the other hand, wouldn’t you rather punish him sternly and painfully, indeed, inflict upon him the worst punishment imaginable, but a punishment that will save his soul and regenerate him? If so, then smother him with your mercy: Then you will see and hear him flinch and shudder in awe: ‘How am I to endure this mercy? What have I done to deserve so much love? Can I ever become worthy of it?’ Yes, this is what his heart will cry out…And he will bow before your great act of mercy, because he is yearning for an act of love, and his heart will catch fire and he will be saved forever and ever!”

God help me to grow in my compassion for people every day. Amen!

Here is a test of the depths of your compassion for people. On a scale of 1-5, to what extent can you repeat these statements to someone you know who is struggling?

  1. No matter how long it takes, I will always love you.
  2. No matter how long it takes, I will keep seeking to understand your struggle.
  3. No matter how long it takes, I will never lose faith in the process of your transformation.
  4. No matter how long it takes, I will never give up hope that you can see this to the end.

758px-Van_Gogh_-_Starry_Night_-_Google_Art_ProjectThis weekend I got to see empowering love in action. Jim Savage is a therapist in Addison, TX who hosts a monthly meeting at the Dallas Recovery Center called the Artist’s Recovery Meeting. In typical 12 step fashion, the first part of the meeting includes a testimony from a local artist who is in recovery. The stories of metamorphosis from a raging alcoholic or addict to a recovered and contributing member of the arts community is as inspiring and beautiful as the art being displayed and performed.

The second half of the meeting is an open forum for artists of all mediums and levels of ability to express themselves through their work. Music, poetry, painting, photography, and even a standup comedy routine were on the lineup. What struck me the most throughout the evening was the level of support, encouragement, and admiration for the artists, no matter what their stage of development. One member of the group had never done art before, but was so inspired from attending these monthly meetings that she decided to purchase a sketchbook of her own. That night she presented her drawings for the first time. She wanted to be involved. Share herself with us. Become a part of something bigger than herself. We were all impressed by her bravery, her openness, and her creativity. In return for what she shared, the group gave her praise, encouragement, and a challenge to keep drawing, keep sharing, and keep inspiring others through her personal and artist journey.

The experience that night taught me something about therapy and life. Every human being wants three things from their relationships:

  1. To be known: Art is an expression of self. Copying someone else’s painting, singing another person’s song, or mimicking another person’s dance is only art insofar as it allows the performer to infuse some element of themselves into the experience. When clients enter my office, they do so in order to express themselves. Many are nervous about the encounter. They wonder and worry whether or not they will be heard, understood, and related to.  Clients share the good, the bad, and the ugly about their lives, trusting that their therapist will not form quick judgments or opinions, but will take the time to know them fully. The best therapists do so with diligence and care. Common phrases that I hear in therapy are “I don’t know where to begin”, “does that make sense”, “not sure if I’m explaining this correctly”, “I know I’m just scratching the surface here”,  and “I hope you understand where I’m coming from.” It is hard to be vulnerable. There is always a chance of being misunderstood. I tell my clients every day that they may need to tell me their story several times and several ways before I “get it”, but if we keep working at it and don’t give up, the understanding will come. If we want to experience deep, fulfilling relationships we must know ourselves and be known by others as we truly are. Take the risk, keep sharing your story, and don’t forget to hear and understand others too.
  2. To be accepted: Being known is not synonymous with being accepted. Just watch some of the early episodes of American Idol. Some contestants are accepted and advance in the competition and others are rejected and sent home. Rejection is one of the biggest fears associated with transparency. It is a risky business. When someone understands who we truly are and refuses to accept us, the blow to our psyche can be staggering, but when we share our struggles and find understanding and acceptance, it can heal the deepest of wounds. Supportive environments like AA/NA/CR/Al-Anon/CoDA help struggling members find the love and acceptance they need to discover their true selves and decide how they need to change. Therapy is a place where this can occur as well. Many clients fear abandonment. They sit in a therapist’s office because they have been abandoned by people like friends and family who should have loved and accepted them the most. Often, they seek counsel on how to change themselves so they can become more acceptable to others. The goal of therapy is to shift their insight toward loving and accepting themselves. If you cannot do this, you will never be able to accept the love and acceptance that others provide you. This is the value of sponsorship in the recovery community. Individuals seek out members with similar life experiences who can understand their stuggle  and will accept them in whatever stage of recovery they may be. Nothing should surprise a sponsor or a therapist. If something does, it doesn’t mean they or you are bad. It just means you need someone with a different expertise or experience to guide you. Don’t get discouraged if it takes you several tries to find that right fit.
  3. To be empowered: Understanding and acceptance are great, but if we stopped there, no one would ever change, grow, or experience new challenges and opportunities. Ultimately, each of us wants to be empowered to succeed in life. True love empowers. In AA, the motto is “keep coming back. It works if you work it.” Artists are never satisfied with painting one picture, singing one song, or writing one story. We want to continually create, improve, push the limits, grow. The same is true for life. Relationships should empower us to be better, more fulfilled, and complete. Psychologically, we would describe this process as self-actualization. Friendships challenge us. Sometimes there is conflict. Unfortunately, this is the destructive illusion of social media. We surround ourselves with virtual people who like all our posts or simply defriend us if they don’t. As a result, we have become sensitized to the friction that should be a natural part of any relationship. We disagree, we argue, we question, we push, all the while providing love and acceptance in the process. This is the beauty, the dance, the song of relationships. Feedback is important. Those who observe your life, much like those who observe art, have the right to say “I like that” or “I don’t like that.” Don’t dismiss the dislikes. Observe and explore them. It doesn’t mean you have to accept them as the truth, but they can challenge you in ways that simple praise may not.

Artist’s in recovery was a great experience for me. I witnessed something amazing that night: not just the beautiful products of art but the beautiful processes of art. Life is the same. May each of our lives continue to produce beauty. Don’t give up on the process!!

Question: If your life was a piece or product of art, what would it be? How would you describe it? Who have you shown your art to? What was the response? Where have you found a community that understands, accepts, and empowers the beauty of your life?





We all have a story and that is why I love what I do. I get to hear people’s stories every day, and yes, they are often filled with pain, but whose life story isn’t? The exciting thing is that in every person’s story, there is always room for redemption. That’s why I was excited to talk to Rebecca Carrell. Some of you know her from the KCBI Morning Show on 90.9. But many of you don’t know her back story, the one that led her to radio in the first place. She reminds us that when you have a desire you want filled, God always brings you home to the place where that desire can best be filled.

Check out Rebecca’s blog at and be sure to listen in to the program tonight at 6:30pm and 10:30pm on 90.9 KCBI. We will not only here Rebecca’s story, but also talk about the challenges that parents face in deciding how much social media should be allowed in the home with their kids. If you can’t listen tonight, you can also listen to it tomorrow once it’s posted online by clicking here.

Recently, I did a radio interview with David Griffin, one of the lead pastors of Community Life Church in Forney and Sunnyvale, Tx. David has some great insights into the questions we often ask when we suffer loss. If you are interested in the two part radio interview, check out the “For Christ and Culture” website and search “Responses to Tragedy” to hear the full programs. Here are some frequently asked questions:

  1. Is God really omnipotent? Tragedy tempts us to question God’s power. We are not alone in asking this question. The Israelites asked it over and over again in their 40+ year journey from Egypt to the promised land. They faced many tragedies (some of their own making), but God made good on His promise and blessed those who continued to trust Him. Israel’s journey to the promised land has been used as a metaphor for our life’s journey. We can take courage, knowing that the God who parted the Red Sea at the beginning of Israel’s journey and dried up the Jordan River at the end is the same God who leads us through the sea of loss and tragedy. Cling to Him and He will carry you through.
  2. Is God really omniscient? Tragedy tempts us to question God’s knowledge. We wonder if He was as blind-sided as we were when the pain struck. Psalm 121, however, reminds us that He is the God that “neither slumbers nor sleeps.” He knows all, is prepared for all, and has the answers for all situations that confront us. Confusing is one of the worst parts of suffering unexpected tragedy. Thankfully, we have an omniscient God who can see past the shadows of the valley to the radiant sunshine of the mountains beyond.
  3. Is God really benevolent? Most often, tragedy tempts us to question God’s goodness. This isn’t a new temptation. The serpent tempted Adam and Eve with this question thousands of years ago. Fortunately, we have an answer for that too. Tragedy comes as a result of sin. Sin taints every aspect of our humanity: body, soul, and spirit. God’s goodness, however, makes him infinitely just and infinitely loving. In our finiteness, we have trouble understanding how God can bring about perfect justice and perfect love at the same time. The Bible tells us that His means can be summed up in one word: REDEMPTION. Redemption is the transformative process that turns tragedy into triumph. That which was meant for evil is used for something good. Brokenness now becomes perfection. When you face tragedy, don’t limit God by demanding that he simply take away your pain. Allow Him the time He desires to provide perfect redemption for your circumstances. In the interim, allow yourself time to grieve, but not as someone who has no hope. You have no idea what miracles He may have in store just over the next hurdle.

QUESTION: What tips have you found helpful for ministering to people who have suffered a tragic loss?

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I am a board certified psychiatrist, author, speaker in private practice with Southwest Clinical and Forensics in Dallas Tx. I also serve as an adjunct professor at Dallas Theological Seminary. I have a passion for helping people through painful circumstances, be they physical illnesses of the brain, psychological conditions of the mind, social problems of everyday life, and/or spiritual crises of faith and worldview.


All information provided is for educational purposes only. It is not a substitute for a professional evaluation or treatment. If you are experiencing emotional distress, please contact a mental health professional. Dr. Henderson cannot respond to inquiries about prescription refills, or medical or psychiatric emergencies over the internet. If you are a patient in need of assistance, please contact Dr. Henderson’s office directly, call 911 or go to the nearest emergency room.

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