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How To Get Unstuck In Life

A discussion with author, therapist and Rabbi, Shimshon Meir Frankel. His new book, The Wisdom of Getting Unstuck was recently published by Mosaica Press.

What led you to write a book?

Around nine years ago, I devised a six-week relationship enrichment program geared towards individuals and couples. With permission from the participants, I recorded our discussions. I walked other practitioners and rabbis through it as well. I also taught the program as a series of classes to students in our local yeshiva. Along with the earlier recordings, I recorded and transcribed the classes. Although I faced a small setback when losing some recordings from a damaged USB flash drive, I found the entire experience to be fruitful and insightful. When Mosaica Press reached out to me and expressed interest in doing a joint project, I was excited to already have a Google Doc with sixty-four pages to devote to writing a book. 

Many people encouraged me to “get my message out there.” Like everyone, I needed some encouragement to get started. If it weren’t for certain rabbis’ encouragement to write the book, I’d still be second guessing myself. Since the guiding principles and tools in my relationship program (and book) are sourced in Hashem’s Torah, I didn’t feel like I could take any credit for them. And to boot, the voice in my head constantly reminded me, “You’re not worthy.” Had the rabbis not told me that I must certainly take credit for the ideas, I’d still be stuck. There probably wouldn’t be a book. One rabbi in particular said to me, “I’ve seen some of these Torah sources before. I didn’t see what you see, but now I do. You’ve really got something here. You’re not just allowed to take credit for it. I think you should take credit for it.” I suppose, since I’ve written the book, I may now say that I truly own the ideas.

This led to a burning desire to write down many of the Torah-driven tools and principles that I use in my practice. I brainstormed for a year and typed out more than 500,000 words.I chose to start with this particular book because it focuses on the main thing that we all suffer from, the main ailment that negatively affects our soul, the very thing that always gets us stuck. We easily get lost in the negative labels that we’ve adopted over the years. I’m referring to the old stories which hold us back from moving forward and from having productive and fulfilling lives. I zeroed in on how this affects our relationships and the relationship we truly want to be having with ourselves.

I also wrote the book as a wake-up call. I’m a huge advocate for redefining how we think about and treat people’s problems, especially the most common ones of anxiety and depression. There’s a better way to get unstuck, to grow, and to better one’s relationships than what traditional psychotherapy has had to offer. We have to roll with the times. There is very little point to analysis. How many practitioners claim to no longer embrace the medical model but are still telling their clients: “You may be feeling anxious but it’s more important to find the underlying cause.” The Jewish approach is very different. Both the symptoms and the root of the cause are treated as the same. Psychological analysis can really backfire. Therapists mean well, but are ritually throwing their clients deeper into their most painful struggles. Without Torah guidance, psychotherapy can be very misleading. Like all fields of study, psychology may be one of the wisdoms of the world, but it does not stand on its own.  The Maharal begins his Nesiv HaTeshuvah with a quote from Mishlei: חָכְמוֹת בַּח֣וּץ תָּרֹ֑נָּה בָּ֜רְחֹב֗וֹת תִּתֵּ֥ן קוֹלָֽהּ, “Wisdom shouts out into the public fair; in the streets she gives forth her voice.” We know based on a Tanchuma that chochmah is Torah. Why does King Shlomo pluralize the word? It should be chochmah, but instead, he writes chochmos. The Maharal explains that King Shlomo is referring to the different wisdoms that exist in the world. He likens the philosophies and sciences to the limbs of the body. Hashem’s Torah he calls the rosh, the head of the body. Torah is the true brains behind the field of psychology. Psychotherapy should not be practiced on its own.

What did you learn during the process of writing this book? Were there any surprises for you?

Oh, yes, I had many surprises along the way. What I didn’t realize was how much the writing process itself mirrors the struggles of normal everyday life. And for an author, writing is their life. It’s what consumes most of their thoughts and time. There are many stages to the writing process, and just like in real life, it’s not unusual for an author to begin feeling uneasy somewhere along the way.

For example, as I indicated earlier, I had the opportunity to brainstorm for a year. I typed out over 500,000 words. And then came the reckoning. I knew it was coming. I took a creative writing class in middle school. At the time, I submitted a twenty-page paper. I had such a thoughtful teacher. Instead of criticizing my work, she said, “I see that you’ve written many stories here. Just choose one and write that one for me.” So when my writing coach told me that I had to choose one of the books to start with, it was painful. I remember holding on to that pain for about five minutes, and like every uncomfortably muddy feeling along the way, I let it go. 

I’ve been watching your videos and really like them. One concept you shared stuck out for me. You said that if someone is insulted or offended in a relationship it is because they are insecure in that relationship—they aren’t confident in the relationship. So, if I am challenged in a relationship, it is really about how I perceive the relationship. Am I understanding that correctly?

Yes, perception is key. When a person is feeling emotionally negative it’s an indicator that they are lacking confidence. When a person feels insulted by another person, the first place to check is the nature of one’s relationship. When our relationship is shaky, it means we lack confidence in the relationship. If we always find ourselves getting offended in the relationship, it might be in our best interests to take a break from this particular relationship.

Another way to gain confidence in the relationship is by pinpointing and strengthening the glue that’s been holding the relationship together all along. This effort to label and define what binds two people together is what changes our perception of the relationship for the better. There’s nothing more powerful for a relationship than bringing to light the very elements that hold it together.

You also mentioned that I might not be confident in knowledge of something and that could also be part of insecurity in a relationship. Did I get that right?

Not quite. If we are discussing a topic with someone and we feel insulted, it may be due to our lack of confidence about the subject matter. Although it’s easier to put the blame on the other person, educating ourselves about the topic is a better way to go. It allows us to gain confidence about the subject matter, and as a result, be less prone to feeling offended.

Are there some immediate steps you can suggest to someone to become more comfortable in a current relationship?

The best way to grow comfortable in one’s relationship is by focusing on the basics. When one’s relationship is feeling shaky, it behooves him or her to go back and focus on reinforcing the emotional baseline of the relationship. The following two fundamental steps help a person to begin feeling more comfortable in his or her relationship:

1) Create Undivided Moments

Giving someone undivided and focused attention tells him that he is important as an individual. This top-priority individual time builds connection and trust. This time does not necessarily need to be hours — even ten minutes is effective. In times of trouble, people turn to a person who made them feel important. Everyone needs to feel important to someone. Denying a person individual time forces him or her to seek it elsewhere. Whether it be spontaneous or fixed time, we must make sure our moments together are mutually enjoyable. It’s important to listen to the other person. A person wants nothing more but to feel understood. The point is to be a person’s confidant and pillar of strength, providing him or her with emotional security.

2) Focus on Appreciation

Appreciation is crucial to any healthy relationship. Spend five minutes a day appreciating all the good this person adds to my life. (This doesn’t have to be one chunk of time.) Appreciation is something we do for ourselves. Focusing our attention on a person’s best qualities helps combat the anger, frustration, worry, negativity, and overwhelming feelings of daily life. Bringing to mind his or her unique qualities helps us focus on what a gift this person truly is. We don’t want to get to the point at which we have to lose something to appreciate it. Find joy in what you have NOW.

Just to go back to your book. What can a reader expect to take away from your book?

There are times in our lives when we feel anxious, down in the dumps, or lack impulse control; we feel unsure and disconnected from ourselves. How we perceive these moments of instability in our lives directly affects how we define ourselves and our relationships, and how we engage the world as we walk our own path. 

We may not always be conscious of it, but much of life takes place smack dab in the muddy middle.

It’s reassuring to learn that none of us are alone when it comes to stumbling into the muck. We all know what it’s like to lose direction in life. Whatever path we’re taking, we’re all bound to get stuck at some point along the way. It’s not always clear how to move from point A to point B. Yet, there’s hope. Every time we pull ourselves out of the muddy middle, the wiser and more confident we become.

Once we are fully aware of our whereabouts, we can always ask ourselves this most poignant question: “Where do I go from here?”

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