Whether you are looking forward to the holidays or not, it’s almost inevitable that you’ll experience stress in one form or another. Still, there are ways to get through the season unscathed and possibly even satisfied and fulfilled. Here are some reminders to help you through:
– Check in with yourself periodically throughout each day. How are you feeling? Are emotions coming up? What is your body experiencing? What do you need right now? What are those smaller parts of you – the barely audible voices, trying to tell you? Try to come up with a way to meet those needs while also maintaining the integrity you’d like to have with the rest of the world.
– Set small, achievable goals. If you’ve still got a big to-do list, try tackling the easiest items first, then work your way up. Also consider what you can let go of – who will really notice and/or care if something doesn’t get done perfectly?
– Know when to stick to your plans and when to be flexible. This includes your meal plan. Ask someone to hold you accountable so you’re not tempted to restrict at any time. And give yourself some slack to also enjoy the foods you like.
– Find someone safe to sit next to, especially come meal time. Social and family gatherings can bring a plethora of personalities together. Chances are you already know who’s going to bring something toxic to the table and who won’t. Who can you enlist to bail you out of an uncomfortable situation? Establish some SOS signals beforehand.
– Be curious about your surroundings. What and who are you drawn to? What or who can you learn more about? Initiate conversation by asking someone questions about themselves. Keep the focus on them and only share what you’re comfortable sharing about yourself.
– Have fun. Even in the most challenging of situations, you can always rely on yourself to provide some relief and entertainment. That could mean taking a break and going outside for a breath of fresh air. Or maybe initiating a board game or a round of charades.
Chances are, you’re gonna get through through this one way or another, so why not take a few proactive steps to make this a memorable occasion?
Wishing you all the best this Holiday Season ~ see you in 2020!
We all like to be liked, right? That seems obvious in today’s culture of social media where getting thumbs up and heart emoji’s can be the ultimate gratifying sign of acceptance. And who doesn’t want that? It’s great to be seen and validated. Unless… things start to go awry and the being seen part gets a little obscured as we present with more and more of what it takes to be noticed, because, let’s be honest – it can get a little addictive.
It’s not that external validation is a bad thing in and of itself. But when it becomes the sole thing that provides a sense of happiness – something that might not always be achievable, or something that’s only achieved by compromising a part of yourself – then it might be helpful to take a step back and see what else is going on.
Chasing after validation is not really the same as actually being seen and validated for who we are. The problem is that the more we run towards something that should feel good, we begin to lose touch with what actually resonates and supports us.
It’s about what guides you. Ask yourself – who or what might you be relying on to feel good about yourself? Friends? Acquaintances? People you don’t even know? A scale? The mirror? When we rely solely on these things to tell us about who we are, we begin to lose direction of our own feelings, possibly even our own morals and values.
The more I do this work of therapy, the more I am amazed at the wealth of knowledge that can be uncovered simply by going within and listening to the wisdom of one’s body. This may present another challenge because sometimes it can seem like we are eager – even overly eager, to get away from our internal experiences – and sometimes with good reason when going within can feel like an unbearable place to be; times when we are trying to feel anything other than the way we do. But I promise you that there is still valuable information there and it’s pointing in the direction of how to get through it, rather than run away from it.
When we ignore the somatic sensations that inform us how we feel about… a conversation, a person, an environment… we lose connection with what is important to us – with everything that makes us unique and individual and not merely one in the crowd. And while I get that there can be a certain safety in the anonymity of being just one in the crowd, the irony is that when we are better able to care for ourselves and our internal experiences, we are also able to be more available and receptive to the relationships that others have to offer. My point is this: if you can find internal validation of your experiences by being open to what authentically resonates within, then this opens doors for the authentic external validation we may be craving.
As usual, it comes down to balance. Both internal and external validation can be very valuable. And experiencing more of one than another can leave us feeling lopsided.
The more we are in relation with our experiences, the better position we are in to make wise decisions for ourselves – something that could potentially have positive impact on those around us as well. It’s about Self in relation to all of our parts within and in relation to the rest of the world.
The good news is that it’s never too late to get back to that inner compass. It might be tricky at first and you may need some help, but I believe that eventually you’ll find that going within has a lot of benefit. You can trust that your inner wisdom remains intact. When your Self is at last ready to show up and be with all the parts of you that have been longing for attention – attention not just from others really, but from you.
I’ve been thinking about obstacles lately and the character that is built when we manage to surpass them. Obstacles are a fact of life, there’s no shortage for sure, and I can even acknowledge that they might add a certain yin-yang aesthetic to our worldly living. At the same time I’ve also been thinking a lot about what it means to be resourced. When I bring up the term resourced in my sessions, I often get a quizzical look, like what am I talking about? There’s no denying that fate and sheer luck play a major role in the toss of the dice that determines who gets what in this world. But by being resourced, I mean any and all of the things that set one up to do well in life. Basic needs like food, water, and shelter are a given and as we all know from failure-to-thrive studies, these are not enough. I’m talking about things like a safe living environment and financial stability; emotional awareness and support; intellectual stimulation and support; creative stimulation; a social network (family, friends, community); physical well-being and the ability for medical needs to be met; utilization of effective mental health services; cultural awareness and acceptance – of self and others; healthy coping mechanisms; problem solving skills; assertive communication and an ability to self-advocate. I don’t think this list is exhaustive by any means – just a some things I’ve come up with that seem significant.
The truth is that when we don’t have a lot of resources available to us, we are faced with an uphill climb that can literally take decades to surmount. And when you don’t have certain resources, how are you supposed to know what you should even be looking for in the first place?
One of the best questions I’ve learned to ask my clients in therapy sessions is “What would it have meant for you if your parents had had the resources they needed when you were growing up?” I can almost see the energetic shift sometimes when clients consider how life may have been different. It’s not about blame – there are millions of reasons that our parents may not have had access to the resources they needed. This is a generational issue – how so often struggles are passed down in a family from one generation to another. And it’s about a desire to break the cycle.
It’s here where the word privileged comes to mind – a term that I think has been tossed around more than usual lately. For me I think the term privileged most directly resonates when you consider those people who believe that they deserve their gifts more than others because they’ve earned them in some way, that they’ve worked harder or that they simply believe they are better and more worthy. It’s an undermining approach that completely dismisses the struggle and hard work of the have-nots.
Assumption is really important here too. So often suffering can come from the belief that we are alone in our experiences – that we alone don’t have resources while the rest of the world does. That’s simply not true. Like anything else, there’s always a continuum.
And on the other side – for those who have access to many resources simply by default to make the assumption that everyone else does have or somehow have easy access to these resources is a major disservice to the well-being of our society as a whole. The assumption that we all should have these resources seems to be more beneficial and something I can get behind.
Ideally we would all make the best of the resources we do have, and why wouldn’t we? If you happen to have money, why would you not use that? If you’re smart, then use that of course! While I 100% believe in the ability to overcome and surpass adversity, still it makes me think a lot about those who are set up to do well as opposed to those who fall through the cracks, unnoticed.
My guess is that when we think of privilege, we often make assumptions about money and power. And while I’m pretty sure most people will agree that money does offer certain advantages – perhaps most significantly the absence of financial stress – I also encourage you to consider other ways that power can be attained. Knowledge is power, we’ve heard that one before. But I’m hoping you can see that one can also find power in so many other things like emotional support and connection, creativity, healthy coping mechanisms and problem solving skills. Not everyone who has money has these things. Regularly we hear about people from low income scenarios who succeed due to the love, support and encouragement of those around them. I don’t think it’s a coincidence – they were resourced with support in ways that others often are not.
Maybe privilege is the wrong way to think about it. If basic needs of food, shelter and water are not enough for one to thrive in this world, then maybe we need to reconsider what basic needs should be. How are you resourced? What else do you need to thrive and succeed in this lifetime as opposed to simply being kept in a state of struggling to survive? The more resources we have, the more power we have. Resources beget resources when we actively use what’s available to us.
And if you happen to blessed with an abundance of resources, I invite you to consider joining the fight for equality in some way. Resources themselves are not what make you special, but maybe how you choose to use them is. In truth, I think that everyone is special in their own way; there is always plenty of character to go around.
If you’re not familiar with the ACE study, check out this video – it’s one amazing step to help tackle this very big problem, and hopefully helps in getting more people resourced: How childhood trauma affects health across a lifetime | Nadine Burke Harris
Not sure about you, but I can’t count how many times in my life when the topic of therapy has come up and the person I am with is quick to poo-poo this as whining about your parents and why can’t everyone just get over it already?
Get over it. Yes, I am sure that’s what everyone would like.
It reminds me of this great Bob Newhart clip I came across a while back, where he plays a psychologist and his approach to every client is the same: they get about five minutes to talk about their situation and suffering and his therapeutic response is to yell at them to Stop it! Hilarious. I love it. I wish it were so easy.
The desire to get over it is essentially the whole point of therapy in the first place, right? So I think we all want the same thing.
My guess is that the only difference between those who can get over it and those who can’t is the difference in coping mechanisms. We can all push things down, away, out of sight in one way or another and it just turns out that some of these coping mechanisms work better than others, and they may work for some of us and not for others. And sometimes what works at first, doesn’t work over time and it turns out that you have not really gotten over it after all. At least for some of us.
Earlier this year on NPR I heard someone say that the average age for someone to come out about childhood sexual abuse is age 52. Talk about our amazing ability to get over it. Don’t even get me going about the current ludicrosity regarding statutes of limitations around this.
This piece about whining about your parents though – I think it’s so significant and it’s really true that it does come up regularly. And I want to be really careful about blame here.
If we look at Brene Brown’s definition of blame, it’s really just “a way to discharge pain and discomfort.” Blame is obviously not a truth in and of itself. You can have the most loving, well-meaning parents who have the best of intentions, and still they can make mistakes. It’s entirely possible that the experiences they intend for their children is not how it all gets played out. Our parents provide our first relationships. They inform us about who we are in the world and what the world is all about. Those old wounds? Most of them happen when we are young, when we don’t have the most adaptive coping mechanisms in place yet. Those wounds happen most often at times when we are living with our parents. Even if the wounds themselves are not directly about our parents, parents still play a role simply because they existed (or didn’t exist) in the picture at a time when we still depended on them.
On a side note, I want to point out that I’m not trying to say that there aren’t parents out there who are ill-intentioned, because I don’t want to dismiss the people who have had that experience. I’m just saying that I believe they are very few and far between.
While I suspect there can be some danger in ruminating about bad experiences to the point of just being stuck, I do think it’s important to find the places where we are stuck and actively find ways to work through them.
From my perspective, it’s not really the telling of the story that creates relief so much. So I can see where people might think that endless whining gets you nowhere. But if that’s as far as the conversation goes, then it seems like a part of you is really being missed. The next question has to be – what was that experience like for you? And this is where therapy is so important because not everyone is trained to be a therapist. Not everyone can take their own stuff out of your story in the way that a good therapist is trained to do. It’s why family members and even sometimes friends can’t provide therapy for other family members and friends – because their own emotional investment is too great. And I think this is also where the stigma of therapy comes into play. All too often it seems that the person struggling is blamed for being in need of help, as though there is something wrong with them. I know I’m a little biased here, but why can’t we just start thinking about therapy as support? Support that we don’t otherwise have access to, for any one of a bazillion reasons? Because without that support, we’re just faced with the same old response of Just get over it! and the cycle continues.
Bob Newhart – Stop it! Trigger Warning: the “client” in this clip clearly struggles with some devastatingly serious issues. The hilarity comes in the form of the Newhart character’s over-the-top dismissal of them – an experience that I suspect that many of us can relate to on the receiving end, at least on some level and hopefully never to this degree!
It seems like we so often hear about about how important it is to trust our intuition and allow it to guide us through unpredictable situations. At the same time, we’re also told not to jump to conclusions or make assumptions about people, places and things that we know little about. These opposing bits of guidance can be pretty confusing, especially when the latter points away from intuition as opposed to supporting it. As it turns out the left and right halves of our brains work in very different ways and provide us with different approaches to understanding the world. The left half, which tends to be more logical and analytical, does everything in its ability to make sense of the information it’s given. While the right brain, which tends to be more emotionally and relationally focused, will pick up on subtle cues, especially when it comes to understanding others. The ironic piece here is that the more logical side – the left brain – is usually the culprit when it comes to generating nonfactual information that leads us astray. The right brain tends to be more truthful and on point when it comes to memory involving emotion. You can test this for yourself – first try to think of some mundane fact like what you had for breakfast on Tuesday last week – chances are good that you can guestimate fairly well, though to be sure you might have to go back in time to double check. Now, think about an emotionally charged situation such as where you were when you first heard about 9/11. Can you remember what you were doing, what the weather was like, who told you, what situation you were in at the moment? So interesting, right, that you can remember so many details about something that took place almost 20 years ago?
Sometimes I like to show the image above to clients when explaining the brain’s tendency to fill in the blanks. Invariably someone will identify it to be a triangle – which clearly demonstrates my point even though it’s not the right answer (it’s really just three angles). In an instant, our brains are happy to jump to conclusions in attempt to make sense of the world and if we are quick to accept these assumptions as fact, it’s pretty clear how stories can get jumbled all too easily only to find that we’ve dug ourselves into some pretty deep holes. I think that the stories we come up with are often generated from past experience – if we’ve had any kind of trauma in our past, it can easily come back to shape our experiences in the present and the future. And triggers especially can lead us to impulsive reactions that wind up only hurting ourselves or others. It’s entirely possible that we will fall victim to inaccurate judgment and even missed opportunities.
And this is where it can be so useful to bring in a mindful awareness approach. It’s ok to recognize that there is a part of you that is picking up on something – especially when it comes to some aspect regarding others – I think you can certainly trust that emotive intuition. And it’s also where I really, really encourage you to remain curious about the part of you that creates the story about what happened. It’s here where an ability to pause – something that we can absolutely cultivate through practice over time – becomes one of the most invaluable tools available to us. Ask questions about the information our left brains are so quick to fill in about the situation. Are there any past experiences that may have helped formulate this assumption? Is it possible to check in with someone about what you are picking up, for accuracy?
Despite that this natural phenomenon doesn’t always serve us well, I still find myself encouraging clients to trust their intuition. Intuition is such an important tool that will help to guide us through the unknown. And if we can couple this with holding a sense of curiosity about the story – to maintain an inquisitive approach and exploration – I think that you will find that you can absolutely trust yourself to make the best possible decisions in any given situation.
Alan Alda interviews leading brain scientist, Michael Gazzaniga, to understand the left brain/ right brain phenomenon.
If we look at Eating Disorders from the vantage point of coping mechanisms gone wrong, I think it’s important to consider how they might have felt helpful in the first place. I know this sounds dangerous because I certainly don’t want to romanticize them in any way and I’m pretty sure no person out there struggling with an eating disorder would wish it on their worst enemy. But in my experience as a therapist helping women in recovery, I’ve found there’s always a reason that an eating disorder has shown up and from what I can tell, this often seems to stem from a desire for connection in some way. Wanting to connect on a deeper level, or feeling as though you can’t connect, or even feeling the need for protection from unwelcome advances. The experience of an eating disorder is complex and can be confusing and consuming on so many levels. And if this piece – that of connection – is so important, then what better way to reconnect and heal than through the group process? Surrounded by people who understand how body image can play such a significant role in all of it, along with the experience of overwhelm and being torn between wanting to get better and not wanting to let go. The great thing about group is that you don’t have to figure it all out by yourself. When you’re surrounded by people in your tribe, you get a variety of perspectives, learn how others find success in recovery and can begin to see solutions in a new light. You learn the value in owning what is most concerning and important to you and as you interact socially, you start to find your voice and allow the group to act as your sounding board. The opportunity to both give and receive support helps to nurture awareness and acceptance of self and others. You learn to relate to yourself and others in healthier ways, by having a safe environment in which to test the waters; you learn what healthy boundaries look like and practice being assertive. And maybe most importantly, you get to see that others can experience similar difficulties and still grow past them. Not only that, but others in the group can bear witness to your efforts and validate your growth. If you’re considering it, I hope you’ll give it a try – group therapy may be just the thing that helps to propel you forward.
Happy New Year! When I first sat down to write this blog, I intended to title it “Spirituality Can Go a Long Way” and proceed to list all the pros of starting a spiritual practice. I quickly got stuck as I began to consider the myriad of ways in which one can do this. Proselytizing is not my goal (though if religion helps, then by all means stick with it). I also had to consider the idea of “spiritual bypassing” where the endeavor for bliss is used as just another form of avoidance – something I would rather discourage. What I finally came to realize is that it’s not so much that I want anyone to develop a spiritual practice as I would like for people to consider the possible benefits of connecting with a spiritual sense in their healing process. This could happen during meditation or when talking to your therapist or just when practicing some cognitive therapy on your own.
For some this may sound like a no brainer, but for others not so much. I have to acknowledge that some people have been led down some damaging paths, religion-wise, where a part of recovery entails healing the part of themselves where spirituality seemed to go wrong. But still, if we take spirituality out of the process, then all we are left with is what we “know.” And ultimately it seems that there is so little that we ever actually know for sure. Death and taxes, as they say – right? That’s it. So I think a spiritual connection can still be helpful in a very selfish, self-serving sense – and I mean that in the best possible way.
What I’m talking about, is the concept of being open to the idea that information may come from somewhere other than our minds – the idea of letting answers come to us as opposed to feeling like we have to somehow contrive them. I’d like to explore the benefits of this aspect of letting go, of not knowing, of giving things up to something that may feel greater than yourself. It’s a place where you may feel connected with god or the universe or ____(fill in the blank)____ by going within – looking for answers as they travel through you as means to stay connected to your body. Going within is the key here as I believe it is often the place where the most wisdom resides and also the place where the greatest healing will take place. For me, the creative process itself exists within the spiritual realm. I want you to try this in a way that keeps you grounded and in your Self – body, mind and all, as opposed to something that takes you away from where you are. The spiritual sense comes in when you can suspend what you “know” about a situation – and I’m not trying to say that what you know is either right or wrong, because it’s not that simple – but to suspend this information and create space somewhere within you where you can become curious and open about what else might be there or what else might begin to arise. This approach may not exactly seem natural at first, and definitely doesn’t always make sense – but I can tell you that it’s often the place where the most wisdom resides. It’s a place where you allow answers to present themselves. And still you engage your mind by being discerning – is this information harmful in some way? Is it helpful? How? You engage your body to see what resonates and holds true. And to hold this new information that comes to you, also without making a quick judgement, but to remain curious about it and see how it might play out. This new information too, does not immediately have to be right or wrong, black or white. But maybe it has something valuable to offer, to teach you. And the more you practice this, the more information you gain, the deeper your understanding unfolds. And when you think about it, this is also where you create some flexibility – to try things in ways other than what’s been keeping you stuck. It’s the place where you can see what’s on the other side of your defenses, what it is that a part of you may have been trying to protect for so long. Maybe it’s the place where you can learn about why it is that you’ve been doing what you do and at last you might begin to see an opportunity to create positive change.
Another reason to invite spirituality into your practice is that you can intentionally begin to connect with a sense of compassion, kindness and unconditional love in a way that feels nurturing and supportive. And I really believe this does go a long way. One of my favorite meditations is the Loving Kindness Meditation where you bring to mind an image of someone that offers unconditional love, experience what that feels like in or on your body, and then practice offering that same unconditional love and kindness to yourself and others. If you’d like to check it out, you can listen to my version of this meditation here:
I do think that this type of openness and curiosity and going within can bring some wisdom and relief in ways that you never imaged. In the end, you may even be able to trust that the experiences you’ve been through may have a greater purpose than you currently know.
As the holiday season descends upon us, it’s not really hard to imagine the things that potentially push us off kilter when faced with being thrown into or left out of the hustle and bustle all around.
On the one hand there might be considerable pressure to do everything; attend every party, buy the perfect gifts, cook for a zillion people and still maintain the usual responsibilities with work and relationships. And on the other hand one might find her or himself faced with loss for the first time or repetitive absence in some form or another. Add anxiety and depression into the mix and you can find yourself faced with an increased challenge just to get through the day.
As tempting as it may be sometimes to wait for something to change externally, you may find it helpful to know that there are some things you can try doing to get your brain back online and functioning the way you’d like it to.
You might already know this, but there are two typical ways that our bodies behave in overwhelm.
One is a state of increased agitation and the other is a state of feeling shut-down. Both can present on a continuum and can even be experienced together at one time.
In our brains, the vertical processing system is at play here: bottom-up and top-down, where information is taken in at the brain stem, sent through a series of channels up to the pre-frontal cortex (where we have the ability for rational thought) and sent back down.
Think of it this way:
Bottom-Up processing goes from Physical Sensations → Emotions → Thoughts.
Top-Down processing goes from Thoughts → Emotions → Physical Sensations.
In the absence of overwhelm, this process is smooth and mostly unnoticeable as we take information in, establish that everything is reasonable and that we know how to respond, processing goes back down and we go about our day as usual.
But in overwhelm, complex chemical reactions disrupt this process as information is perceived as dangerous and gets “stuck,” making top-down processing incomplete – which might leave you feeling unproductive or even paralyzed.
In agitation mode, information stops at the pre-frontal cortex and physical sensations and emotion remain highly activated. The best approach here is to start cognitive, taking a top-down approach. Go outward rather than inward to make sense of the environment. It may help to make lists or read emails – try journaling or talking to someone who can help you understand. Not a good time to make important decisions. Not a good time to listen to moody music. Stay cognitive until emotions and physical sensations start to calm down and feel connected in a safe way again.
In shut-down mode it’s even worse where information stops before reaching the pre-frontal cortex and physical sensations, emotion and thoughts all remain highly activated (I know that this may look opposite, as shut-down can feel numbing and maybe even feel safe in some way). The important thing to know is that in this scenario you will be better off taking a bottom-up approach to get back online. Start with small body movements, connect with tactile sensations like knitting or making artwork, try tossing a ball or doing yoga, go for a walk. This is the time to listen to moody music or watch movies that feel empathic in some way. Eventually cognitive access will return.
And if it seems like both forms of overwhelm are happening, you’ll have to check in to see what part of you is more activated and start there.
At the extremes of either continuum, you might need help from professionals – a therapist, a psychiatrist, etc. But if you’re able to have some awareness of what’s happening, it can’t hurt to try these approaches to see what shifts you can make on your own.
And this time of year, you might even be able to get back to enjoying all – or at least some of – the great things the holiday season has to offer once again.
It’s kind of a funny concept to preach self-love when so many of us are totally comfortable berating ourselves at any given moment.
…I know I did well on that test, but I should have done better.
…Look at how ________ she is, why can’t I be more like her?
It’s amazing how easy it can be to revere others and detest ourselves.
Have you ever asked what’s the point in doing that?
Have you ever stepped back and brought a little curiosity to this scenario?
What is the part of me that drives me to so dislike myself?
When you think about that dislike, can you feel it somewhere in your body?
Self-love isn’t just about loving all the other parts of ourselves that do good. It can start right there, learning to love the part of you that that is doing the self-hating.
Yeah, I said that and I mean it.
I truly believe that there is always a logical explanation behind why we do the things that we do.
It’s not that we should ever love the experience of being beaten up – by ourselves or anyone else. And you’ll have to trust me on this one: you never deserve to be beaten up.
But we can love the part of ourselves that has good intention, even if that intention may be a little misguided.
Just as a test, try it out. Meditate and go inward for a moment and try offering some gratitude for the part that always tells you that you’re falling short in some way. Pay attention to the sensations in your body as you do this. What do you notice? Softening perhaps? This part of you wants you to listen for sure and it likes when you do.
Loving the intention of the self-critic is important, and it’s a first step; you may also be happy to know that you don’t have to forever be subject to its criticism. There is another way.
I’ve always appreciated the metaphor of water to describe the experience of emotion. Sometimes we feel waves gently wash over us and sometimes they come crashing down.
When water is kind, we may not even notice. But when it’s turbulent, it’s definitely got our attention. What to do?
Everything changes. Moment to moment nothing stays exactly the same. Even times when we feel good, or neutral, the waves don’t last forever. And the same is also true of turbulence.
Waves will always arise and will always come to an end. So why are we so often taken by surprise? I’m guessing it’s because we’d rather pretend the waves don’t exist.
What happens if we see the waves and go into them?
It’s ok to be scared. You can own your fear.
Try letting go of the stories that are there, and just be with the sensations in and of themselves. Just you and the wave. Prepare yourself as you see it coming and get on your surf board to be with the wave as you ride it out. Feel the strength, the pace, the volume.
Ask what message it’s trying to bring you. What does it need from you?
Maybe it actually wants to work with you and not take you down after all. Let it know that you are willing to listen as long as it agrees to not overwhelm you. And you’re also not going to run away. It’s understandable to want protection from overwhelm, but emotion in and of itself is harmless. It’s there for a reason. What is it trying to tell you? What does it need you to know?
Approach every wave as though it’s an opportunity to learn something new.