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Gratitude is more than just a platitude

This is the time of year when words like grateful and thankful start coming up a lot more. You see them on shirts and mugs and tv ads. We post about being #grateful, tweet about what we are thankful for, and take pictures of our turkeys, but are we incorporating these sentiments into our daily lives? Is gratitude part of our value system, both personally and in a societal sense? I wonder how often gratitude becomes more of a display than a lived experience. This is already going to be a different kind of Thanksgiving, so maybe this year it would be worth exploring the deeper meaning of these terms and their ability to improve our conscious awareness. What follows is my therapisty take on how to look at gratitude through the lens of improved mental health.

First let me talk about what gratitude is and isn’t. Gratitude is an acknowledgment of what we appreciate or are thankful for in our lives. Sometimes when this topic comes up, I get initial push back from clients because they fear that expressing gratitude will negate or invalidate their suffering. I will usually ask why it has to be either/or when actually both states can be simultaneously true. This is an example of our tendency to fall into binary thinking, rather than examine the complexity of a situation. I can be grateful for what I have in my life, while also sitting with an immense amount of pain.

I heard an example of this recently at a virtual suicide awareness luncheon I attended. The speaker shared about a time when she experienced the death of a loved one and a trusted friend suggested that she start an ongoing gratitude list. Her initial response was as described above and she said she didn’t have a thing to be grateful for. When her friend pushed, she started with her toothbrush and the list grew from there. She went on to reflect that this list was the life jacket that kept her from drowning in the grief she was experiencing. Maintaining this balanced perspective can help combat the brain’s tendency to put all of its energy into focusing on painful thoughts, memories, etc.

Another concern a client voiced to me once was that expressing gratitude could be seen as a form of narcissism, i.e., that you’re bragging to others about how great your life is. As we explored this, we came to the conclusion that there’s a fundamental difference between performative gratitude and an authentic acknowledgement of appreciation within yourself and toward those around you. The goal here is to avoid taking things for granted and this doesn’t have to be showy or egocentric. The emphasis can actually be on how great life itself is, not just your own experience of it.

As a marriage and family therapist, I frequently see connection breakdowns in relationships. Gratitude has long since retreated from clients’ vocabulary or has become weaponized. Marriage researcher, Dr. John Gottman, coined the term “negative sentiment override” to describe a relational pattern that happens when we can no longer see our loved ones for who they are, but rather all the ways in which they are falling short of our expectations. Everything they do pisses us off. They’re driving wrong, they’re cooking wrong, they’re breathing wrong, their entire existence is wrong. It is hard to unflip this switch, and sometimes we fear that if we do the other person will have somehow “won”. The problem with this distorted view is that there is zero room for positive change to occur. They could move heaven and earth for the relationship and it would still fall short. Now I’m not suggesting that we grab some rose-colored glasses and excuse all the errors of their ways, but taking a step back and acknowledging parts of the relationship that you would miss if they were gone would be one way to approach stabilizing things. Again, duality can exist – I can love someone and be angry with them at the same time.

A popular phrase used in the self-help world is that “gratitude is the antidote to depression”… and it’s not wrong. I would probably just correct and say that it is one antidote to depression, but not the end all be all. Depression is often times fueled by a hyper fixation on the past, on what was. I heard a call on a podcast recently where the listener described experiencing crippling depression. She was already on meds, in therapy, etc. but it wasn’t until she started a gratitude journal that she was able to pull herself out of it. Why would that be? Depression is greedy. It wants all of our undivided attention. It doesn’t want you to think about anything other than it. A shift towards identifying things in your present life that don’t totally suck can help get you out of your head and snap you back into the present. This intentional perspective change can be effective because it takes the power away from the problem. If depression doesn’t have your full and complete attention anymore, over time its grip on you can begin to weaken.

Incorporating gratitude in our lives requires awareness and intentionality. If practiced regularly, it can actually be a form of mindfulness and can help ground you in the present moment. If we start to push back on our automatic responses and autopilot thinking patterns, we will start to see that we have a choice in where our attention goes. Things that we usually brush past or ignore will start to have meaning again. I’ll give you an example of what I mean:

This morning I noticed myself feeling overwhelmed by all the things on my to do list. I knew I needed to slow myself down if I were to have any shot at getting it all done, so I decided to do a 5-minute meditation. Backstory: this is the time of year when my nemesis, mountain cedar, likes to make my eyes so itchy that putting my contacts in is pretty much impossible, and today is the first day of the season that I have been forced to wear my glasses. So I take them off, close my eyes, and do the mediation. When it was over, I opened my eyes and much to my surprise everything was really blurry. Like I legitimately had forgotten that I wouldn’t have glasses on when I came back into the room. I laughed at myself and put on my glasses, but then spent the next few minutes really thinking about how grateful I am to have corrective eyewear. If you think about it, this has allowed us to beat Darwinism in a way. These obligatory frames that I cursed all through middle school have allowed me to live a more vibrant life and for that I am thankful.

I have a lot of existential conversations with clients. These conversations range from questioning one’s purpose, to the meaning of life, to anxiety about death. A common theme that usually emerges from these discussions is a general fear of regret. They worry that they didn’t value the time they had, cherish relationships enough, or believe in themselves enough to go after what they wanted. In some cases, this causes significant distress and leads to feelings of paralysis. Now I’m not going to pretend I have all the answers here. This is a fundamental part of the human condition from which I am not exempt. I will say though, that if we only get to live once, I’d like to be where my feet are for most of it. Depression takes us backwards and anxiety pulls us into the worst-case scenario future. Mindfulness and gratitude allow us to be in our bodies in real time. If we live with intention in the present, we are grounded by the notion that all we are truly capable of is making the next right decision in that moment. Gratitude can keep us from missing all that life has to offer.

Ok so I’ve presented you with some concepts, now what do you actually do with them? I’ve created a self-inventory exercise that I’ll share, and then I’ll give you a few activity suggestions. Take what fits and leave the rest.

I have come up with a list of different areas of our lived experience that one could express gratitude toward. This is certainly not exhaustive, so feel free to add any other category you’d like. What I want you to do is grab a pen and paper and for each variable write about anything you are grateful for that relates. This could be in paragraph form, bullet points, or whatever format you like. My only requirement is that you don’t overthink it. I am giving you semi-vague instructions because I want you to take this and run with it in the way that best suits you. Here goes:

  • Mind
  • Body
  • Relationships
  • People
  • Pets
  • Environments
  • Experiences
  • Objects
  • Accomplishments
  • Actions
  • Abilities
  • Talents
  • Creative expression
  • Senses
  • Basic needs
  • Sacrifices
  • Struggles
  • Time
  • Culture
  • Values
  • Nature
  • Spirituality
  • Personality

How was that?

Did anything surprise you?

What feelings came up?

What does this tell you about your lived experience?

How could you incorporate this type of awareness into more of your life?

Here are a few ideas…

  • Write gratitude letters to important people in your life (including one to yourself).
  • Create a gratitude mandala – there are lots of examples of these on Google, but the premise is to put your name in the middle and create spirals of words representing things you are grateful for all around it.
  • Start a #365grateful photo project. I know, I know, I started this off by hating on hashtags a bit, but this is a pretty cool project. Basically, you take a picture of something you are grateful for every day for an entire year and create an album out of it.
  • Make a gratitude journal. Write down 3 things each day, make an ongoing list, or just go stream of consciousness.
  • Conduct a meditation practice focused on gratitude. There are lots of guided ones on the various mainstream apps.
  • Have conversations with loved ones about gratitude. Learn from others about their relationship with the concept.

So there’s my festive holiday spiel! If you’re reading this to the end, then I am truly grateful for your time and attention. My intent is not to give concrete directives for how to live life, but rather to offer a framework through which you get to explore that for yourself.

Now go eat some turkey/tofurkey, and have a safe and happy Thanksgiving!

-Christen

PS – If you’re curious, the cover photo is of my Thanksgiving cactus from last year, which decided to bloom again just in time 😀

Relationship Gridlock

In my experience, the most common reason couples report they are seeking therapy is communication. By the time you get to me you probably have a pretty good sense of what the problems are in your relationship, and you’ve likely tried to varying degrees to work through them on your own. But they’re still there. Those perpetual, reoccurring issues. Conflictual themes that like to sneak up on you and sabotage your connection with one another. You’ve tried every which way to talk through it, argue through it, get over it…but it keeps coming back. This is relationship gridlock and you’re seemingly stuck.

The good news is that with an open mind and a willingness to step outside the well-worn paths of your comfort zone, deeper and more effective communication is possible. Here are some key ingredients to improving the quality of communication in your relationship. Some of these are borrowed from the Gottman Method for Couples Therapy, in addition to my own insights from working with couples. See what you think…

  • Move from a win/lose mindset to one of collaboration and compromise – If one of you wins, you both lose. This type of adversarial dynamic sets the relationship up for failure and almost always ensures that nothing productive will come from all of the energy you are expending in trying to solve the issue. Compromise is easier said than done, but one way to evaluate your own position is to identify how much of your stance relates to your core values/beliefs and how much of it you may be flexible on. This requires honesty and a conscious effort to remove stubbornness from the equation. The goal is to move from, “How will you or I deal with this?” to, “How are we going to handle this together?”.
  • Shoot for a two-way dialogue, not a one-way diatribe – The dynamic should be more like a back and forth tennis match rather than a football game where one team is dominating the possession time. Make a statement and give your partner a chance to respond before moving on to something else. Otherwise you’ll spend an hour pouring your heart out only for your partner to have forgotten half of what you said and most of the points they wanted to make. This doesn’t honor your feelings or theirs and will likely leave you both feeling frustrated and unheard.
  • Be curious, not all-knowing – We are terrible mind readers. I repeat, we SUCK at mind reading. This is so, so important to remember because I see this tripping people up all the time. I hear phrases like, “She thinks I’m [fill in the blank]” and “I’m sure he feels [insert an off-base feeling here]”. Now this comes from a good place and in some ways it’s almost a natural result of being in a committed relationship. We think we know our partners inside and out, so at some point our brain starts filling in the gaps for them and we stop asking questions. The problem is that sometimes you can have an entire conversation with the partner that lives in your head without ever talking to the partner that lives in your reality at all. Then you’ll have negative feelings toward reality-partner because fantasy-partner said something snarky to you in your imagined conversation. See where I’m going here? Instead try checking your assumptions with your partner. Say something like, “I’m wondering if you feel [xyz]?” or just a simple, “What do you think about that?” should suffice. The idea is to create room for a dialogue in which each partner feels they can be heard rather than pigeon-holed.
  • State the obvious – While we are not great at reading our partner’s minds, we can also fall into the trap of expecting them to read ours. Nothing good can come from this. Your intentions, thoughts, and/or feelings might seem obvious to you, but verbalizing them can only increase the chances of being on the same page with your significant other. So instead of assuming your partner knows you feel hurt by their actions or ignored when they’re on their phone too much, clue them in and say it aloud.
  • Ask for what you need – To do this you first have to know what you need. Here’s an example: I get angry because my partner forgets to take out the trash. There is a fork in the road here – I either focus on my partner’s absentmindedness, they get defensive, and we end up slinging insults at each other OR I ask myself why this is bothering me first. What need is under the surface? Maybe it is the need to feel supported or cared for. I can’t tell you how many times I have helped couples connect dots between fights over seemingly mundane things that are actually fueled by much deeper needs. Getting stuck talking about the trash is like rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic. There’s always more to the story.
  • Avoid harsh conversation start ups – I’ll use the metaphor of a package to illustrate this point. If you receive a package wrapped in barbed wire, you’re going to get hurt so much along the way just trying to open it that by the time you get inside you almost won’t care what’s inside. Or you won’t even open it at all. The barbed wire represents the harsh method of starting a conversation about a conflictual topic. Something like, “You always mess this up” or “I’m so pissed at you”. The contents of the package (i.e. the point you are trying to get across) could be entirely valid, but your message gets lost in the delivery and a fight ensues. The moral of the story: wrap your packages in brown paper. A soft start up follows this formula: 1) I feel ________ 2) about _________ 3) I need _________. If it sounds basic and boring, that’s because it is. The idea is to stay emotionally regulated and focus on what you’re really trying to communicate to your partner. Otherwise you’ll just get lost in the weeds of strong reactions.
  • Adjust your expectations – You can’t wrap every long talk up with a bow. If you have been gridlocked over an issue for an extended period of time, expecting that every conversation you have must yield a solution in order to be successful is only going to make you feel defeated. Work toward developing a dialogue in which you are taking turns suspending your own judgement in order to understand your partner’s position more clearly. If you both do this simultaneously, it can do wonders for your connection even if you don’t immediately arrive at a solution.
  • Table it…but go back later – Be aware of when you’ve reached the point of no return. If you’re emotionally flooded or exhausted from the intensity, it is ok to take a break. You’re probably at a point where nothing productive is going to come from forcing the conversation anyway. There is a bit of an art to doing this though. If you’re pushing pause, find a time that you can agree to try to come back to the issue. Otherwise it’s easy for things to get swept under the rug, lie dormant for a while, and then come back up again at the most inopportune times. The key here is to be honest when you need to take a step back, but also intentional about regulating yourself and revisiting the issue with a clearer mindset.

If gridlock is something you’re struggling with, I encourage you to share this list with your partner and try these tools out. It might feel cumbersome at first or even a little silly, but those experiences may be helpful because they can slow down the process of communication and increase your awareness.

One last thought to take with you into tackling this – conflict can be an incredible opportunity for long-term growth and stronger connection if you can learn to tolerate the discomfort in the moment. In the words of Viktor Frankl in Man’s Search for Meaning (which I highly recommend reading), “suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds a meaning”. You’ll probably never look forward to disagreements with your partner, but viewing them as a means to grow closer and improve intimacy can radically transform the outcome.

From chaos comes clarity

So we’re a few weeks into this thing, and we still don’t know where we’re going to end up. It seems the unpredictability of it all is getting to people, some more than others. What is different about your friend A, who is continuing to spread optimism and hopefulness, vs. your friend B, who has been perpetually stuck in all the doom and gloom scenarios? How do some people continue to thrive in the face of uncertainty? Let me try to break it down for you. I’ll start with some more abstract ideas and end with the more concrete.

Something that has become increasingly clear for me is that all we really have control over is what we choose to do in the present moment. Nothing beyond that has ever been guaranteed, even before the pandemic. A lot of the feelings of control we have are really just illusions. I’m not saying this to freak you out, but rather to free you from expectations of what “should be” that might be weighing you down. In times like these, it can be helpful to shift your focus to the here and now in order to detach from the outcome…because there is no way to know what that will be.

I believe that a healthy relationship with control exists when we can simultaneously accept what is, while also focusing on what we can do to effect change. In the words of one of my clinical heroes, Dr. Drew, we have to accept “reality on reality’s terms”. I don’t have to like it or approve of it, but fighting reality is futile. Attaching to projected outcomes can also be detrimental because it makes us inflexible and creates a narrow view of what could be.

This brings me to the idea of locus of control. Where does control lie? It’s really not a black or white answer, but most of us fall somewhere along a continuum between internal and external feelings of agency. Those with more of an internal locus of control (friend A from above) tend to feel like they can make things happen, while people who fall more on the external side of things (friend B) typically have a sense that things happen to them.

When COVID-19 came crashing into our lives, it pushed a lot of us towards the external end of the spectrum. That is to be expected because it was an external event that occurred on a global scale. However, choosing to stay in that mindset for too long can be problematic. My fear as a clinician is that it is going to cause an uptick in overwhelming depression and anxiety for many people. Combine that with new social distancing policies and we could be in real trouble if we don’t act.

Here are some action-oriented strategies you can use to get yourself closer to that internal locus state of being:

  • INVEST in yourself. Unplug from that which is overwhelming and find ways to work on personal growth. This could mean reading more, taking an online class, doing at home yoga videos, listening to a meditation, etc.
  • NOTICE what is around you. Practice mindfulness and gratitude toward your space, your comfy couch, your adorable pet, whatever brings you joy in your surroundings. If you feel so inspired, rearrange and shake it up a bit!
  • TAKE IT OUTSIDE! Here in Texas we are fortunate that springtime means lots of mild, sunny days. Walk, ride your bike, do some yard work, or have your coffee outside. Take in all of the seasonal blooms and changes. Nature knows a thing or two about resiliency.
  • EVALUATE the influences you are surrounding yourself with. Seek out friends, family members, podcasts, etc. that inspire you, rather than fuel feelings of fear and powerlessness. Turn their volume up and lower the volume of anything or anyone who is taking your peace.
  • RECONNECT or deepen connection with important people in your life. Reach out to old friends you miss, play board games with your kids, and/or have an intimate conversation with your partner. Social distance doesn’t have to mean emotional disconnect.
  • NAVIGATE through challenges by seeking out resources and support. Google it, talk about it, write about it, etc. If you’re overwhelmed, ask yourself what the next helpful step you could take might be. Keep it simple and work in small chunks.
  • ACCEPT the things you cannot control. If you find yourself stuck in a worry cycle, assess how much control you have over the situation, if the answer is not much, then shift your focus toward something else you can control. We have a finite amount of energy we can use in a given day, so this is about improving your efficiency.
  • LIMIT the amount of time you are consuming the news and social media. It is a delicate balance to stay informed and grounded at the same time. Watching 20-minutes or 24-hours of news cycles isn’t going to change the outcome, but it is sure to impact your well-being.

I hope this is helpful. Know that as I am writing, I am also reminding myself to practice this as well. This is a humbling experience we are all going through, but this too shall pass. Remember to breathe along the way.

Stay safe, healthy, and grounded ❤

-Christen

*It should also be noted that the title of this blog came from a 311 song lyric, and they have long since been one of my favorite bands. Just wanted to give credit where credit is due!*

Bullseye

I haven’t the slightest clue what to tell you that will make you feel better. The honest truth is that no one does. I am not a Zen master who radiates calm and sprinkles peace into your life the way my dad dumps parmesan cheese on his pizza. Nor am I a quick-fix healer who offers you hope in the form of motivational quotes on Instagram and clickbait to some sort of get-better-NOW(!!) pyramid scheme. I am, however, a therapist who works very hard to see things from angles that can often seem hidden when you’re in the throws of anxiety, fear, sadness, *insert overwhelming feeling here*. This is my attempt at providing you with ways to explore and acknowledge feelings as they come up, rather than be all-consumed by them.

So, like a week ago life seemed to still be humming along at a relatively normal clip for most people (at least in our country). Fast forward to the COVID-19 present and it seems that there are new restrictions rolling out every day that we really have no control over. Some of us are working from home, others are still working out in the far less trafficked world, some now have no job to go to, others are tirelessly trying to entertain their out of school kids, etc. We are all experiencing our own unique aftershocks from these changes, however universally each one of us has been launched onto the proverbial dartboard of grief.

Sometimes when I suggest to clients who haven’t experienced an actual death that they might be grieving I get some sideways looks, but hear me out. Grief is about loss and we get attached to a whole lot more than just someone’s physical presence on this planet. In our current state of affairs, we have all lost beliefs and/or tangible things that we previously knew to be true about our lives. I would encourage you to identify and acknowledge what this loss looks like in your own life presently. You’re already feeling it, but now we need to put words to it.

One of the most widely known grief models, the 5 stages of grief, was developed by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross in the 1960s. Since then, it has stood the test of time and can be a very helpful way to explore the twisted, tangled, knotted up mess that is the grieving process. I’ll outline it for you here with some rather generic examples, but to get the most out of it try matching up your own experience thus far with some of the stages.

So, you start out at normal la-di-da functioning….and then BOOM…things have changed…

Stage 1 – Shock and Denial – “I can’t believe this is happening”, “No way this is real”, feelings of avoidance, confusion, and numbness are common.

Stage 2 – Anger – “This is frustrating, unfair, and ridiculous!”, feelings of anxiety, irritation, and shame often show themselves here.

Stage 3 – Depression and Detachment – “There’s nothing I can do”, “I can’t deal with this”, here comes the overwhelmed, low energy, blah train.

Stage 4 – Dialogue and Bargaining – “How did this happen?”, “What could I have done?”, this is when the desire to reach out and tell your story can emerge, you’ll be looking to find meaning in what has happened.

Stage 5 – Acceptance – “I am ready to move forward”, “I have a new plan for the future”, you’ll likely start feeling a new sense of security and empowerment.

…then the idea is that you return to meaningful life and go on your merry way…sound good?

Ok, so it’s not quite that easy. It should be noted that this process is NOT linear and will look different for everyone. There is no magic amount of time or ratio for how long to stay in each stage. Some people will skip stages and get stuck in others. Sometimes you’ll think you’ve reached acceptance only to one day find yourself back in anger. One big thing I want you to take from this though is that it is normal to feel all of these feelings during this time. Give yourself permission to wrap your head around what you are going through. We are all in uncharted territory here and ignoring these feelings is only going to perpetuate our discomfort.

This is seeming to be a one day at time process, so when you notice you are overwhelmed try increasing your awareness of what stage you might be in. Sometimes just the act of stopping and trying to understand a feeling can be enough to take the edge off just a little bit. Strong feelings always pass eventually, just not usually on your preferred timeline. Be compassionate toward yourself and let go of expectations that you have to have everything figured out. It is not possible.

I am in the midst of reading the book Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott at the moment (which I highly recommend!), and this passage has continued to resonate with me as I myself have tried to adapt to what life is throwing our way. Use it if you’d like…

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We are on a global journey where we cannot see the destination, but in all actuality we always have been. Nothing is more certain than the two to three feet ahead of us, therefore we need to trust ourselves to make the best decisions we can based on our reality. Afterall, that is all we really have control over.

As this continues to unfold, I intend to keep up with my writing (that’s what the above-mentioned book is all about), so stay tuned. For now, I’ll leave you with a quote I heard on Mad Men (but is probably really from someone much more refined):

“Our greatest fears often lie in anticipation.” – Don Draper

Stay safe, healthy, and grounded everyone ❤

Meditation – Do I HAVE to do it?

The simple answer is no…however, there are so many potential benefits that can come from a regular practice that I would highly recommend giving it a go. Developing a meditation habit is a lot like taking a multivitamin. It is not a cure-all, you won’t feel anything immediately, but over time you’ll be healthier for it. Plus, it’s free and you can do it practically anywhere!

Upon suggesting this to clients, I usually get mixed responses that range anywhere from feeling hopeful to intimidated to skeptical. I recommend that a meditation practice be done in addition to continuing work in therapy, utilizing healthy coping skills, improving communication patterns, etc. For those struggling with anxiety, it can help get you out of your head and back into your body. If you’re caught up in a negative head space, it can help create distance between your emotions and your reactions to them. If done consistently, it can foster a sense of internal calmness even when surrounded by external chaos. Results will of course vary from person to person, which is the nature of creating a personalized routine that works in whichever ways are best suited for you.

Below are some ways I have seen people get tripped up when attempting to begin a practice. I share this list in order to provide a framework for successful practice, as well as to normalize the fact that sometimes we can unintentionally get in our own way. If you identify with any of these stuck points, they would be great things to explore and bring up in therapy because they might have relevance in other areas of your life as well.

  • The all or nothing approach – “I’m going to meditate every single day no matter what” can quickly turn into “I was so busy the last few days that I forgot to meditate and broke my streak, so if I can’t do it every day then it’s not worth doing”. – Cut yourself some slack! Set realistic goals and don’t be too rigid. The mantra “some is better than none” could apply here. Doing some meditation is more beneficial than doing none at all. If you fall off, get back on the horse and keep going.
  • The longer is better approach – There are a few reasons why trying to meditate for too long too quickly can be problematic. One of the first concerns I usually hear from people is that they don’t have enough time to meditate, however research suggests that only 3-5 minutes of meditation per day is enough to make marked changes in brain function if done consistently. Also, the skill of being able to notice your thoughts without following them takes time to build. Trying to sit with a head full of thoughts for an hour right off the bat can be overwhelming, so start small and work your way up.
  • The stop all your thoughts approach – The goal of meditation is not to turn your brain off or to stop thinking, but rather to become the observer of your thoughts and learn to notice them without becoming consumed by them. This practice over time will allow you to create space between thoughts and responses in a way that promotes a sense of curiosity without judgement and a more stable sense of self. If your mind starts to wander, just notice that and return your focus to the breath.
  • The “I tried it 3 times and I don’t feel better” approach – I’m going to blame this one on our culture. Quick fixes and magic solutions sound great in theory, but in reality they either don’t exist or aren’t sustainable. Meditation in and of itself is not a panacea. In the midst of a crisis, it’s probably not going to provide much relief. Practice it proactively before a crisis though and it might be influential in how your mind and body respond to the stress. Remember, it’s like a vitamin not a Vicodin.
  • The avoidance of being alone with yourself conundrum – For some people being still and alone with one’s thoughts can be more anxiety inducing than some of their biggest fears. If this is the case, keep it short and sweet in the beginning in order to develop more of a tolerance for the discomfort. This is where guided meditation can be helpful because you can focus on following the instructions rather than getting lost in your own head.
  • The multitasking approach – Listening to a meditation while doing something else can be counterproductive when trying to improve awareness and concentration. Contrary to popular belief we can really only do one thing at a time. I’ve heard everything from “I listened to it while I was driving, taking a shower, cooking, etc.” which is shortly followed by an “it didn’t work”. To put it frankly, the meditation script will only work as hard as you do. Find a comfortable space away from distractions and give yourself permission to invest the time in your own well being. And for those of you who need to hear this, self-care is not selfish 😊

Where to start

So now that you know about the do’s and don’ts, how do you get started? These days there are several ways to use technology to assist you in the learning process. There are seemingly endless amounts of apps, Pinterest boards, and YouTube channels to choose from.

https://www.meditationintexas.org/ is also a great resource.

Some yoga studios offer meditation classes as part of their curriculum. It is a personal preference as to whether you choose to practice alone or amongst others.

A few apps that I have had success with are Head Space, Simple Habit, Waking Up, and Calm. They all offer free versions with an option to pay for more content if you like them.

Happy meditating!

 

One of the dirtiest words in therapy…

Our entire profession is based around helping and sometimes lovingly pushing clients towards it. There are models and stages focused specifically on attempting to understand it. Clients come to us hoping to grasp it or being told by someone else that they need it. It is especially relevant this time of year as people make resolutions for themselves to achieve it. That seemingly simple, yet incredibly powerful word is change. What does that look like and how do we define it?

Change for the purposes of this discussion can be defined as, “the act or instance of making or becoming different”. Seems fair enough, right? Here’s the issue that I have run into: when applied to a human being this term can actually impede progress. There is the implication that if one changes then maybe they were inadequate before. Their very state of being was “wrong” or “not good enough”. It reinforces all or nothing thinking, I’m either the same or different, which is something we actually spend a lot of time trying to teach clients not to do. I would like to pose the idea that in some ways using the term “change” with clients can actually get in the way of growth.

Case in point, the work I have done with juvenile delinquents. They were repeat offenders who were put into a residential facility and told by every authority figure under the sun that they needed to change. Guess what they absolutely didn’t want to do? They dug their heels in deep and told me time and time again that they didn’t want to change. They liked who they were and no one was going to tell them who to be. This was when I started to see the power of language unfold before me. Adolescents are black and white thinkers to begin with, and then when you tell them to “stop being you” they’re going to meet you with a wall of defenses, plus or minus some choice expletives.

The more I thought about their resistance, the more I realized that they were kind of right. Upon taking the time to get to know them, they were so much more than their poor choices. I didn’t meet a single kid who I felt needed to change the core of who they were. They did however need to reinvent their perception of themselves and their role in society.

So, one day I led a group and explored this topic with them. I gave them the example of a phone. Phones have been reinvented many times throughout history. From the old school rotary phone to the latest smart phone, they have come a long way. Each reinvention of the phone has improved upon it’s predecessor, but one thing has always remained constant: they’re all still phones. They didn’t change into something else, rather they became better versions of themselves.

It was at this point that I began to see lightbulbs going off with the kids. The fact that I was giving them permission to still be who they were and grow at the same time seemed to be such a relief for them. Honestly, isn’t this the crux of the adolescent experience anyway? It is a time marked by self-exploration and fine-tuning, not a journey to turn into a completely different person.

What is the alternative to change anyway? If you don’t do it then you fail? How is that helpful? A sense of failure can bring up such strong feelings of guilt and shame that any remaining motivation goes down the drain. So here we are back at square one. Repeat this sequence a time or two or ten, and you almost can’t blame someone for saying to hell with the whole thing.

So if you’re reading this, I encourage you to think about yourself, your goals, and your life as a perpetual work in progress. It’s the idea that you’re doing the best you can, and you also want to do better. Reinvention is a continuous process, and in my humble opinion that will never change 😉

Creating meaning through grief and loss: How to find yourself and become someone else

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. This is a field where you truly never stop learning, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. Over the weekend I was fortunate enough to attend a Masters Series workshop at my alma mater, Texas Wesleyan University. Dr. John Winslade is a prominent narrative therapist in the field, and he presented about ways in which we can assist clients who are experiencing grief. Spending a Saturday exploring loss may not sound thrilling to the average person, but as a therapist it is crucial that you become comfortable working with it because it will come up time and time again in practice.

As I was going through this training, I started to think about the ways in which loss has assisted me in becoming the professional that I am today. I can honestly say that I wouldn’t be at the point that I’m at without experiencing some of the difficult feelings that accompanied losing close relationships in the past. I wouldn’t be me. I have become who I am because of the meaning I have been able to uncover and hold onto. I’ll speak more on this in a bit.

So, Dr. Winslade started off the presentation by discussing stoicism. It might seem a bit odd to associate a school of philosophy with counseling theory, but many of the principles align quite well with narrative practices. The stoic focus on creating a life and living wisely, well, and ethically. It is the philosophy of becoming rather than being. Under these assumptions people are actually freer than they think they are. In the narrative perspective this can be seen as empowering clients to re-author their dominant stories in ways that allow them to regain a sense of control over their own trajectory through life.

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In particular, we honed in on the stoic conceptualization of time. They hold the idea that there are actually two types of time, chronos and aion, that govern our experiences of the world. We need both and have the ability to switch back and forth between them.

Chronos is the favored approach in our culture, as it is comprised of the past, present, and future. They are very discrete, separate categories, and in relation to loss this view tends to emphasize staying in the “here and now”. We are urged to accept loss as quickly as possible because the dead are gone now and now is what is important. Take a few days off work, grieve the way the steps tell you to, and then keep moving forward. It sounds a bit harsh, but much of grief psychology is grounded in the idea that we need to stay present-centered. This is not totally wrong, but may only be part of the framework necessary to allow people to grieve effectively.

Aion, on the other hand, is more about a sense of how things endure through time. The past, present, and future are seen as fluid, meaning that they flow into each other. The past continues into the present, and the future too influences and creates the current moment. They are not seen as mutually exclusive categories, but rather as infinitely subdivisible based on perspective and awareness. So, in this type of time death does not have to mean the end of a relationship. We can hold people from the past in our present and future by incorporating them into who we are becoming. Death ends a life, but not a relationship. This is a counter to the current perspective, which encourages people to “let them go”. From this lens, they’re still there because we can remember them and they live on through us.

I don’t know about you, but I found this idea to be incredibly comforting. It frees us from some of the constraints imposed upon us by societal standards and allows for a richer experience of connection and life. Again, being very much about balance I think there is a use for both types of time, but it seems that a lot of the current views our culture has about death are heavily based in chronos. Keeping aion in mind during conversations gives the therapist an opportunity to help clients explore loss in a more holistic way. If you are a clinician and really interested in this topic, check out the narrative practice of re-membering and also read Michael White’s article entitled, “Saying Hullo Again” for more information about clinical application.

With this background in mind, one significant loss in my own life came to mind that I want to share to help illustrate the depth that can emerge from using this approach.

I have always been a dog lover. I worked in the veterinary field for 14 years before becoming a therapist. I have truly seen the good, the bad, and the unthinkable. While going through grad school, I worked as a vet tech and as I was getting closer and closer to moving on to another career I remember feeling quite sad that I would be leaving all of my knowledge and skill behind.

At the same time, my old Rottweiler, Suzie, was diagnosed with bone cancer in her front left leg. Because I worked at the clinic I was able to diagnose it early, keep her as comfortable as possible with medication and acupuncture, and monitor the progression of the tumor over time. When she was first diagnosed she was given about 6 months to live, but stubborn old Suz ended up sticking around for 1.5 years.

She was my first dog that was just mine. I got her when I was 19 and she was just 10 weeks old. She stuck by my side through failed relationships, moving across the country and back, and my journey to becoming a counselor. I’ve never had a dog who was so in tune with what I was experiencing on the inside, even if I wasn’t showing it on the outside. It was like she could see right through me. If I was sad, she would literally come lay on top of me. If I was happy, she would greet me with her big toothy smile and be full of life.

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I loved the level of trust between us. I could let her off leash anywhere, turn my back, and never have to worry about what she was doing. If we were hiking, she would run up ahead but never too far. She would stop, turn around, and wait for me to catch up. She wouldn’t let me out of her sight. I really believe that she took care of me just as much as I took care of her.

Watching her slow down after her diagnosis was tough. Every day I would assess her comfort level and try to make the most of the time she had left. Then came the study abroad trip to London. I committed to this trip with the thought that I would likely have lost her long before we were set to depart. She had other plans though. I struggled with leaving her for two weeks and feared that she might take a turn for the worse while I was gone. Luckily, I had my parents to care for her and my veterinary colleagues were on board to help out if necessary. So, I gave her a million hugs and kisses and set out for the airport. I knew that this trip was going to be a once in a lifetime experience, but I never could have imagined just how much it was going to influence who I would become.

I could go on and on about this trip (which I may do in a future post), but for now I will just say that London was where I discovered my love for narrative therapy. We spent a week immersed in learning theory and practices from two of the finest clinicians across the pond, Mark Hayward and Amanda Redstone. Mark broke the concepts down into a way that profoundly shaped my view of the therapeutic process. His presentations appealed to the theory nerd in me, and I really appreciated his authenticity.

Amanda, well she struck a chord that I had been trying to protect, and at one point I left the room in tears. This sounds awful, but it was actually quite healing. Her presentation about using narrative therapy to address grief and loss was my first exposure to the unique way the narrative perspective uses re-membering to keep relationships alive even after someone has passed. We did an experiential exercise where we worked through these conversations about lost loved ones to uncover what they gave us and what we gave them during life, as well as ways in which they still impact our present/future. The most powerful questions to me were, “What do you think they would say about where you are in your life today?” and “How do they influence who you are in this moment?”.

So, in the evenings after each one of these training days, there were a lot of thoughts and emotions swirling around in my head. I was fortunate enough to have some really awesome colleagues to debrief with while we went sightseeing and experienced the city. One night I was talking about how much I missed Suz and how I felt sad to eventually leave my job working with animals, when my friend said, “Why would you have to totally leave working with animals? You should look into animal assisted therapy.” That got my attention. I always assumed animal assisted therapy was akin to bringing dogs to nursing homes/hospitals or having a comfort dog. Not that I was opposed to those things, but it had never occurred to me that I could actually use a dog in a therapy session with a client. I was ecstatic.

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The Suz made it through my absence just fine and greeted me with her wagging nub when I returned home. As I researched more and more on animal assisted therapy, I began to think about what an amazing therapy dog she could have been. She certainly helped me through my fair share of struggles. She gave me confidence, taught me patience, and showed me unconditional love. When the day came a few months later to say goodbye, I held her in my arms, kissed her head, and vowed that I would keep her memory alive through my work. And so, the idea to incorporate animal assisted therapy into my future practice was born.

It took me two years to feel ready to get another rottie. I wanted to be at a place in my career where I could devote the time to preparing and training my dog to be a reliable work companion. In May of this year, I brought Gretta home. She is almost 8 months old now and full of energy. Even as a small puppy I could tell that she had the right disposition to help people. She loves people and is always curious rather than fearful of new situations. She reminds me of Suz more and more every day, and I like to think that Suz had a paw in bringing her into my life. If it weren’t for her I would have never gone down this path and I will be eternally grateful.

More news to come on Gretta. She can’t take her certification test until she’s at least 1 year old, so for now we’re working on her training outside of the office. In the future, the hope is that she will become a fixture in my practice and an ambassador for her breed. I think Suzie would be proud. Until then you can follow her on Instagram if you’d like: gretta_makesyoufeel_betta.

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It is through loss that I have learned about living life. My best hope is to help clients find their own meaning through some of life’s most difficult moments. With the use of these ideas, as well as a trusty canine companion I am optimistic about what is to come. Memories endure over time, and time doesn’t have to end unless we allow it to.

 

 

 

All I was searching for was me

Music has such an interesting way of transporting you back to certain feelings and memories that may have otherwise been long since forgotten. I heard this song while I was getting ready this morning, and my mind went back to a place that feels far away today. Here’s the story…

While in graduate school, I had the amazing opportunity to study abroad in Australia for two weeks. I was going through a bit of a rough transition in my own personal life and struggling to deal with the ambiguity that lay ahead.

One evening I took a stroll through some gorgeous and incredibly hilly Sydney neighborhoods with a few colleagues, who have since turned out to be great friends. We stopped in a local pub and began chatting with the bartender. Interestingly enough he was from Ireland and felt just as out of place down under as we Americans did.

The place was pretty quiet and he was working alone, so he started to play DJ and tell us about his favorite bands. I was born and raised to be a music lover, so naturally I began talking shop with him. I can’t make a lick of it myself, but I have an ear for a wide range of styles.

So he starts telling us his story about how he moved there with his wife and kiddo. He’s describing the cultural differences and the quirks of the neighborhood. The things he likes and the things he misses about home. I guess it’s the inner therapist in me, but I really enjoy getting to know about someone’s background. It helps to put them into context in the present and highlights the complexities of being human.

He’s describing some of the hardships he’s been through, and we’re commiserating over times we’ve felt down on our luck. Then his face lights up and he runs over to the stereo. He says that I must listen to this song. It literally changed his life and got him out of some dark places. “It is impossible to listen to this song and still be unhappy”, he says. Cue the song…

“Keep your head up” by Ben Howard

It was just what I needed to hear in that moment. For the rest of the trip I walked around with my earbuds in listening to it over and over again. I ventured out by myself on lunch breaks from training, admired the giant fig trees in the park, and started feeling more alive. The fog that I had been walking around in started to lift. Looking back now it’s incredible to me that a chance meeting with someone from halfway across the world who I will never see again changed me in such a profound way.

So here’s my take away. As great as Ben Howard is, I don’t think his song has magical powers or anything. I do however think that storytelling can be healing both for the author and the audience. We are social creatures with a natural propensity to want to relate to one another. We want to feel understood. Stories give meaning to our lived experience and motivate us to keep moving forward. This was yet another unexpected lesson in narrative therapy that reinforced just how well this theory fits with my worldview.

I feel like the least I can do is pay it forward and share this song with the hope that someone else will be in the right place at the right time and need to hear it. And to my Irish bartender friend, I hope that life treats you well. Cheers!

Sydney

Only the curious have something to find

In my ever-evolving journey to grow as a therapist, I have started challenging myself more and more. It only seems right that if I’m going to push my clients to explore the boundaries of their comfort zones, then I should do the same for myself. To put it simply: nothing changes if nothing changes, and it is up to you to make the change. No one else can do it for you.

So, what is it that keeps us stuck? Why is it so hard to venture outside of what we are used to? For many the answer is one of the most hated, avoided, and despised words imaginable…fear. There, I said it. You can too. Go ahead and try it. Admit that you are afraid of the unknown, and I promise you’ll still be standing after you do.

Our culture treats fear in such a paradoxical way. Going to see a horror film about a demented clown -well naturally you’d pay for those nightmares. Screaming your head off at a haunted house – what a fun thing to do with friends and family. Admitting to your partner that you’re afraid that one day they’ll get tired of you – whoa, hold the phone…there’s nothing enjoyable about that conversation. Avoid, avoid, avoid.

It seems that irrational fears fueled by social acceptance are easy to share/post/blog about/whatever, but our here and now fears that are grounded in reality are more apt to be ignored/avoided/misunderstood because they can lead us to question ourselves. We like being scared of things that are safely outside of our control, but when it comes to something that speaks of our own self-worth, value, or character – no thank you!

Am I good enough? Can I really do this? What if I fail? What if people don’t like me? The “what if” rabbit hole is an incredibly hard place to get out of. So, here’s a “what if” that might help shift your thinking in a more positive direction: what if you were able to replace fear of the unknown with curiosity? Instead of fearing that your partner will bore of you, now you’re curious about ways to maintain excitement in your relationship. You could even collaborate together and brainstorm about it. This alteration in your mindset could be the difference between growing closer rather than drifting apart. In one scenario you allow fear to threaten your sense of self in the relationship, and in the other you actually reach out and deepen your connection. When I’m afraid, I feel stuck. When I’m curious, I make space for creativity and free-flowing thought.

Truth be told I was terrified to go it alone and start my own practice. It was always this thought floating around in the back of my head, but being the risk averse person I am I would ruminate over all of the infinite ways it could go wrong, which meant in the end I would do nothing. Later I told myself, I’ll do it later. Then one day an opportunity came my way from a colleague that I just couldn’t ignore. I felt like later was knocking on my door and trying to break me out of my safety net. So I took a deep breath, and I did it.

I left behind the security of working for an agency I loved. I started with zero clients and minimal knowledge as to how to run my own business. Marketing was an incredibly daunting task in which I had to find the confidence to advocate for myself and branch out. This journey is far from over, as I’m only a few months in. In the end though, when I am able to be curious and open to learning from the process, I realize that facing my own fears has been one of the best ways for me to help clients face theirs. I’m afraid that old comfort zone is going to have to make way for some fresh ideas. I’m way too curious to let fear get in my way.

The power of a label

Labels are absolutely everywhere. In a literal sense, they are stuck on food products, prescription medications, and medical folders across the globe. Check out your mattress – there’s a label, the inside of your jeans – another label, the sun visor in your car – ok you get the point. Their purpose is to give us a sense of what the product contains so that we don’t have to deconstruct it and do the research ourselves.

Labels help us improve efficiency, categorize things, and in turn become more productive. But what happens if a label is inaccurate? Maybe it gets mixed up or it’s not up to date? Someone with a food allergy just ate their worst nightmare, someone takes the wrong medication, or a record gets misfiled forever. How helpful was that label then?

While working as a counselor in juvenile detention, I became acutely aware of the ways in which labels could limit, and in some cases damage, any hope my clients had for their own future. They would call themselves criminals, bad kids, no good, and worthless. These labels had been given to them by society, their families, and sometimes even each other. Because of this I made it my mission to get know who they were, rather than just what they had done.

It is difficult to describe the feeling that you get when someone with their whole life ahead of them looks at you and tells you that they have given up. Honestly, my first instinct was to very directly (and respectfully) challenge that thinking. My goal was to empower them to say to hell with anything in life that doesn’t support who you want to be. I wished so badly that they could see themselves the way I saw them. This approach would work for a while, but you better believe that after any setback or struggle all of the old thought patterns would come rushing back in. I found myself at odds with these pervasive labels in almost every interaction I had with a kid. Every. Single. Day.

So after some reflection, here’s my take on the matter. In life, we are going to receive a lot of feedback about ourselves, whether it be from the media, the judicial system, or our closest relationships. We have a choice as to whether we are going to accept or reject allowing someone to use super glue to slap a label on us for all of eternity. It is important to be selective about which labels you choose to embrace and show the world, and which ones you refuse to be associated with going forward. Just because I make a mistake does not mean that I am one. Language makes a huge difference.

The trick is that it’s not really how others see you that matters, it’s about how you see yourself. No one can make you feel or think a certain way. Not even me (this would usually get a chuckle out of the kiddos). I will always look back on my time at juvie fondly and with a full heart. I am certain that I learned just as much from working with those kids as they did from me, if not more so. And to set the record straight, in my opinion there wasn’t a “bad” kid to be found there. Just too many expired labels.