This Therapist's Take
Thoughts, reflections, and ruminations
about life, therapy, and relationships
about life, therapy, and relationships
From the beginning of my life, I was always strong-willed. I knew what I wanted, and I always felt that no matter what life threw at me, I could make it happen. When my parents went to their first parent teacher conference with my kindergarten teacher, she told them that there was a bit of a battle between the two of us regarding who was in charge in the classroom. Then, when I was in third grade, my teacher informed my parents that she “knew my looks”, especially when I was unhappy about one of her decisions in the classroom. While my parents were likely a combination of being entertained and mortified by these comments, I think of them as reflections of my strength as a young girl and my unwillingness to concede to that which didn’t feel right. I see it as a reflection of a time in which I didn’t understand that being female meant something different than being male and that whatever I wanted was a possibility.
I was never taught that being a girl meant that there were limits to what I could pursue and achieve. My parents encouraged me to be strong, to set goals, and to push myself toward achieving them. They taught my sister and me that we needed to be able to be independent, and that as a woman, having a career is important in order to always be able to support ourselves without needing to lean on a partner, just in case. We saw our mother go back to school, get a master’s degree and pursue a new career in her 40s while balancing home, school, and work life through it all. I was taught, and then put into action, the belief that if you want it, you can make it happen with hard work and perseverance, no matter someone’s gender.
At the same time, it seems that there were some unspoken limits to what women felt like they could pursue in our world, and as I got older, they became more obvious to me. As I reflect on my childhood, and the status of female empowerment in the mid 80s and 90s, versus now, so many emotions arise. In some ways, my early childhood was a time of female empowerment and in other ways, the ceiling that prevented women from advancing in any areas of their lives felt more unbreakable than ever. While women were encouraged to pursue careers, there were jobs that our society classified more as “man’s work” versus “woman’s work” and any female that pressed, stretched, and expanded those limits had to struggle with balancing her own feelings of being a trailblazer to some, and a power hungry bitch to others. A man who knew what he wanted and pushed for it was strong, a woman was opportunistic, or arrogant. I grew up in a time when women were going to work in professional settings more so than at any other time prior in history, but at the same time there was a limit to how high they could set their sights in the organizations they worked for and (still to this day) women felt like they were forced to choose between careers and motherhood and were criticized no matter which path they chose. Men who didn’t get married were thought to lead a “bachelor lifestyle” or “sewing their wild oats” while women were considered spinsters or undesirables if they were single past 30. How confusing it was for me, to be raised to be strong and independent and forced to witness a society that seemed to challenge these important lessons that my parents instilled in me at the very same time.
Women have slowly eroded the wall between “less than” and “equal to” with blood, sweat, tears, muscle and mind. We have fought long hard battles and have had to celebrate even the smallest of wins as if we moved mountains. When you are the “less than” gender, your voice is stifled, and your message gets lost. Expression of emotion was unrightfully designated as weakness and expression of wants as needy instead of the actuality and recognition of the strength it takes to do so.
So why this topic now? There has never before been a time in my career as a therapist in which the world at large is intersecting with the mental health of my clients, my colleagues, my family, and my friends at every turn. With the passing of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, I am feeling broken this week. This woman was a champion for women. She empowered us, she fought for our rights, she fought for our equality, she fought for our health. I have sat for over a decade with women who have been used, abused, torn down, raped, assaulted, and so much more. I have listened to men and women alike revictimize these women stating how they probably deserved it and even allowed it to happen. I have heard people say that, “well if they were a strong enough woman, no man would try to hurt them” but haven’t we also proven that being a strong woman isn’t desirable either? So, the battle rages on and the right to choose what happens to our own bodies has been the longest, hardest, and most grueling battle that we have had to face. This battle is fought in our homes, in our social media, and on the senate floor. We are constantly being revictimized when we are victims, and our right to medical care is being threatened. I am challenging my clients who are feeling the feelings associated with this battle as anger, sadness, frustration, fear, and everything else in between to feel them. To own them. To know that this shows their strength. And, I am challenging myself to do the same, to find that inner strong-willed girl and not concede to that which does not feel right. These feelings that we are currently feeling are not bad feelings – although society will want to make you believe that. They do not make you weak, nor do they in any way make you a snowflake. These are the feelings that will drive us, give us strength and keep pushing us to break through walls, ceilings, and anything else that society puts before us. And, I suppose if you want to call us snowflakes, I hope you are ready for a blizzard.
I know many of you, after reading this far are probably thinking that this therapist should not be getting so political in her words, but unfortunately too much of this is beyond politics at this point. I just finished the book, “The Pull of the Stars” by Emma Donaghue. It took place during the Spanish Flu Epidemic in 1918 and one line keeps resounding in my mind, “My head was spinning. I said, faltering: I really have no time for politics. Oh, but everything’s politics, don’t you know?” So, there we are. Everything is politics, and everything feels heavy. But still we are here. And Still, we fight.
And, now I leave you with the powerful words of Tupac that feel more applicable now than they did when he wrote them in the early 90s.
And since we all came from a woman
Got our name from a woman and our game from a woman
I wonder why we take from our women
Why we rape our women, do we hate our women?
I think it's time to kill for our women
Time to heal our women, be real to our women
And if we don't we'll have a race of babies
That will hate the ladies that make the babies
And since a man can't make one
He has no right to tell a woman when and where to create one
So will the real men get up?
I know you're fed up, ladies, but keep your head up
This is such a strange time to be a human. As the memes tell us (and memes don’t lie), 2020 has been a weird and scary year. I’m not going to go through it all, because I know you all have lived through it too, but when you actually sit back and reflect on what we have collectively gone through so far this year, something that you cannot deny is the resilience of our human race, while at the same time recognizing how broken we are as a result of the battle. We have as a society gone through something that could be considered a global (or at least national) complex and traumatic experience. For better or for worse, everything from the death of Kobe Bryant and the impeachment to the experience of covid-19 and now the national riots in response to the death of George Floyd are being experienced in such rapid succession that it is impossible for us to heal in between. To me, the scariest part of all of them is the divisive wound that all of the events, every single horrible thing that has occurred in 2020, has created in our nation. So many of these events could have been opportunities to heal and come together. Would it not have been a refreshing alternative to have come together and fight or grieve something horrible together instead of breaking us further? A therapist friend of mine said that she doesn’t like the phrase “silver lining” but likes to refer to the ability to find something good in bad experiences as “unexpected positive outcomes”. I have spent many a night praying and hoping that this, (insert horrific event here) this will be it, this will be the thing that brings us back together. Then, I wake up in horror seeing as I pick up my phone that that prayer was not answered and instead things have somehow worsened.
So here we are, as a nation, broken, divided, traumatized, struggling to find a path to healing. Our hearts hurt out of concern for our fellow human – dying from a disease that attacks their lungs, or dying simply for the color of their skin or for standing up for those who are judged by the color of their skin, or even for being prejudged as one of the “bad ones” of the police community even though we know that the bad ones are the exception not the rule. None of it is right. Even just writing that, my heart feels like it is shriveling up in sadness while simultaneously wanting to explode in anger. That my friends, is how I experience empathetic anxiety. A feeling of what to do, what can I do, how do I express my voice and concern without being attacked by one person for my stance or offend someone else at the same time. One of the most common responses to trauma is the feeling of not being in control anymore and I can tell you fully and completely, so many of my emotions feel out of control and I can bet that many of you are experiencing the same thing as well.
I cannot write this piece without acknowledging my privilege. I know in so many ways that I am part of those who get to experience this from a seat of privilege in the world. I am white, I am educated, I have been able to continue to work through the pandemic, I grew up in a home where food was never scarce and loved flowed freely and abundantly. I get to watch the news from my home that I own, on my nice TV. I get to feel safe while I experience the empathetic anxiety I am experiencing. I have to recognize that although the experience of this year seems to be so heavy that I cannot bear any more, that the weight of those who do not get to experience it all from my seat of privilege are bearing even more.
Now, you all know, one of my most important recommendations through everything with the pandemic was to take time outs, to turn the news off, and to stop going on social media as much in order to avoid the posts about the numbers of deaths, the people who are seriously sick, the fears involved in the projections of what may be going forward. To me, with something like covid-19, that made sense, but for what is going on our world right now, I cannot sit here and make that recommendation to you. I’m with you, I am even myself battling the want to tune out and avoid the news right now, but I know the responsible thing to do is tune in. I think with these current events, we need to force ourselves to experience the discomfort and then reflect on what it is these events are building for us. We will lose our humanity and empathy if we choose to turn our heads or put them in the sand. This morning even, I was talking about this a bit with someone and I reflected that George Floyd’s family does not get to tune out. His 6 year old daughter doesn’t get to distract herself with her dolls, his mother doesn’t get to go for a walk and turn her pain off. So, we need to lean into this discomfort if anything is going to change.
So I am going to end this by talking a bit about my religion and faith, but please do not take this as a religious post (as I know even being part of my own faith group is a privileged one that I am not going to try to impose upon anyone else and that religion in and of itself is one of the greatest dividers on this earth). I am Catholic and was raised in a Catholic family where my family was lucky enough to be able to send me to Catholic school. To be honest with you all, I actually have not gone to a non-Catholic school since I was 4 years old. I have read the bible, listened to the teachings of Jesus, sang the songs, and learned about all of the messages that as Catholics we should live our life by. I can reflect back even now to times where we awarded the kind students in our school with “peacemaker of the month” titles as our school tried to teach us about being kind to others. When it all comes down to it though, everything boils down to the golden rule. All the teaching, all the bible passages and all of the hymns, everything came down to that one message. As I continued in my education, I found that most religions almost always bring it back to the same thing too. So, as we move through this wild and scary world, as we try to make sense of it and as we try to figure out what our role can be as we move forward during such a strange time of uncertainty, let’s try to all collectively remember this - that we are all in this together, we are much more similar than we are different and most importantly - Love your neighbor as yourself.
Empathy is such an important part of what makes us who we are as humans and differentiates us from all other species on earth. It helps us to build compassion in our hearts for those who are suffering and provides us with a platform by which we connect to those around us and understand their feelings and emotions. When we have empathy, we are offered the opportunity to picture ourselves in the shoes of others and feel what they are feeling from our own points of view based on our own histories and experiences.
Everyone has the capacity to have empathy for those around them, but some experience it more intensely, and more overwhelmingly, than others. Because of this, empathy does not always feel good. Sometimes, the weight of the emotions we feel for others can be exceptionally heavy and create situations in which we need to take a step back and focus on some self-care and time in which to recharge. Some people also choose to cut off their ability to be empathetic towards others, creating a situation that can lead to unsettled emotions including anger, frustration, and lashing out toward those whose pain they are witnessing. What people do not realize is that all emotions will and must be felt. If we do not allow the emotions to show themselves in such a way that they are naturally present, they will come to a head in more maladaptive and unhealthy manners.
I think that this struggle with empathy is quite evident in the world around us right now, specifically in how we as a society are responding to covid-19. As we continue to discuss the struggles our world is facing in our sessions, the virus and the way in which our society is responding to the virus feels incredibly heavy for my clients who continue to feel empathy for those who are being touched by it. And, those who experience empathy more intensely are the clients that are continuing to struggle with how to cope more acutely. They are the ones who continue with feelings of depression and sadness when they watch the news and see how people are continuing to get sick and die, and when they see the faces of the medical professionals on the frontlines. They are the ones who continue to have anxiety grow as they see people who do not heed warnings about what may happen if we do not continue to work together to reduce the number of those infected. They are the ones who continue to worry about their children, and all of the children that are missing their friends, missing school, and struggling with how to understand that which is going on around them. We discuss our worries about individuals – those who are sick, those who have died, those who have lost loved ones, those who have lost their jobs, those who are working on the frontlines, the children who are missing friends and school, the women who are being abused in their homes, and so very many more. It would be impossible to list all of the groups that are continually being affected by covid-19. We explore the contrast of their feelings of sadness with the anger that they see in the eyes and hear in the words of those who are not experiencing the same level of empathy that they do and their struggle with resolving the difference between the two responses to the same world. Even this contrast that is overwhelming at times because it feels impossible for someone who experiences empathy intensely to understand how someone could not feel it at all.
Something that I have processed through as a symbolic act throughout this time is the simple idea of wearing a mask. I have come to the realization that one of the most important and deciding statements that was made by the professionals and experts was the explanation that wearing a mask is to help protect those around you, not yourself. As I look around and see the response to the recommendation of wearing masks, some respond with wearing one proudly, showing that they care for others and as a way of expressing that care, their empathy, their concern about making others sick, even if they themselves are not feeling any symptoms. It feels like something that people can grab hold of, take control of, and act on. Still others refuse and react with such overwhelming anger in response to wearing a mask that feels at times almost impossible to understand. This simple act of wearing a mask has become symbolic of taking sides in something that we all should just be in together. The “mask” has become the way in which we have chosen sides between empathy and anger and proved the struggle our society has with being able to come together in unity over something that is affecting people no matter what side they fall on.
As we explore the heaviness of what my clients who are highly empathetic are experiencing in response to the world around them, some clients are struggling with how to make sense of and work through the emotional toll that it is bearing upon them. As we sort through their experience of what is seen on the news, shows up in their news feeds and other social media posts, we process through the weight that these normal and natural emotions bear upon them. I try to remind them that empathy is not a sign of weakness at all and instead allowing oneself to experience it, much like every other emotion that is hard to feel, actually shows strength. I remind them to not allow others’ anger to influence their sense of self and that instead of allowing themselves to be overwhelmed by their experience of others anger or ignorance, to instead wear and express their emotions proudly and then focus on self-reflection, how to disconnect from the triggers and then focus on the people, relationships, and experiences that offer opportunities to recharge.
Relationships and running households in general can be challenging to navigate in the best of times, throw in a global pandemic and things can get even more difficult. As I have worked with my clients in navigating being home with significant others and running households with the added stress of social-distancing, shortages of toilet paper, working at home in general, and for some trying to homeschool children while also trying to work full-time, some patterns have been emerging. Couples are feeling more tense, with increased stress and demands, shorter tempers, and overall increased reactivity. Here are a few things that may help you and your significant other as you continue to try to make your household run as smoothly as possible as you navigate through this trying time.
1. Vocalize and communicate your needs to your partner. Even in the best of times, we want our partners to read our minds and figure out what we need without having to ask. We expect our partners to be mind-readers and expect them to know what we want/need without having to ask. Having these unrealistic expectations of them is both unfair and unrealistic. We are setting our partners up in these moments, increasing opportunity for resentment. Instead, tell your partner what you need and want from them. Let them know when you have hit a wall and you can’t do that load of laundry or make that meal for them. Show your vulnerability and be honest when you have hit your limit of what you can handle.
2.Be aware of what your partner’s needs might be. While it’s important to vocalize to your partner what your needs/wants are, it’s also important to try to tune into what your partner may be trying to communicate non-verbally or indirectly. There are a lot of feelings going on right now for everyone and we are struggling to always make sense of them. You should be the person that knows your partner the best, so by being aware of when he/she doesn’t seem like themselves and then checking in when you see that can really go a long way.
3.Process through the emotional toll that this situation is having on you with your partner. It is also really important for you as a couple to acknowledge when your reactivity to one another may really be about the bigger picture of coping with how covid-19 is affecting the world around you, and then in response your household. We know that in general, we take our negative emotions out on the person that we feel the closest to and safest with. In the same way that a child may take anger and aggression out on the parent they feel the safest with, as adults we often take out the stress we have associated with outside triggers on our significant others. So, take this as an opportunity to be vulnerable. Explore with your partner your fears, worries, and anxieties. Express to them how you feel and open the door for them to be vulnerable with you as well. This is an opportunity for you to also acknowledge that you and you partner’s reactivity to the world around you may be coming out as reactivity to one another and by being open and vulnerable, you may be able to create a new closeness to one another that you had not experienced before.
4.Give each other breaks, from each other and from your children. Let’s be honest here – I do not care how much you love your partner or how much you see your partner as your best friend, there is no one in this world that you can be with 24/7 without getting frustrated or annoyed. Allow your partner to have some alone time and autonomy and ask for it for yourself too. Having space is a really important part of how we recharge. Tell your partner you need to take a walk by yourself, or suggest they take a time out and watch a show by themselves that they really like. Additionally, if you have children, offer to take the kids for a walk or a drive so that your partner can have alone time in the house and also speak up and ask that they do the same for you.
5.Offer to do chores or tasks in the house that your partner usually takes care of. Being home more means more chores. More laundry, more cleaning, more cooking. Talk with your partner about how to make everything work for both of you. Take turns cooking and cleaning so that neither person feels too much weight on their shoulders. Also pay attention to the ebbs and flows of both of your work responsibilities if both of you are still working and how stressful household tasks may be. Lastly, make sure you are both sharing expressions of appreciation for what the other person is doing. It is very easy to take things for granted in terms of household tasks, but especially in this time of high stress, being thanked and shown appreciation will go a very long way.
6.Find your shared interests. There are so many couples that are finding new things to do at home together. Through this stress, it can be so easy to get lost in the anxiety and worry and disconnect. Try to figure out what connected you in the beginning of your relationship and build upon it, or try to find new things that you and your partner can do together in your house. Play games, do puzzles, cook together, get outside and enjoy nature, or take on a home project that you have been wanting to tackle. Just remember, do these things together.
7.Take timeouts from technology. This is something I stress to couples in all sessions, but I think it is especially important right now. Not only is technology a distraction from one another during shared time together (which in and of itself is enough reason to take the technology time out), it can also be extremely triggering right now. Our phones and computers are now filled with a lot of stressful news, triggering social media posts, and unending e-mails and requests for work. Since we are (mostly) working in our homes now, setting boundaries around work time and home/family time can be difficult but it is also more important than ever as we need to let our brains rest. And, while I think it is very important for us to all be informed about what is going on in terms of the virus, we also need to make sure we are not allowing ourselves to be flooded by the information or triggered by how it is being delivered. Talk with your partner about setting time aside where neither of you will be on any of your devices and giving one another allowance to remind each other when the devices need to be put away.
Through all of this, you and your partner are going to be working toward building new routines and rhythms together. You both need to give one another grace and be patient if one of you is struggling to catch up and adjust. Throughout the past month and a half, things have been shifting and changing quickly and the adjustment to these changes can be difficult as we all are trying to gain control over whatever we can. Communication and connection are key as is allowing your partner to process through their emotional response to the stress around them. Be there for one another and be together.
Here we are. Over a month into practicing more stringent social distancing in response to COVID-19 and it feels like a lifetime has passed since I last put some of my thoughts and reflections together into a post. Like so many of you, at the end of some of my days, I find myself struggling with feeling completely drained as I work through creating what my new normal workday looks like. Other days I feel empowered through my work, finding peace in the normalcy of working with my clients, helping them hold their emotions that are so similar to mine. In the moments of empowerment, I find myself also adjusting and almost accepting what my new normal has become. As I continue to fall into this new routine, I find myself focusing on the need to process all of the emotions that I am experiencing in response to both my own experiences and the experiences of my clients, family, and friends as I know how important it is for me to reflect on and process through them in order to not feel overwhelmed and flooded when they come rushing in.
Through all of this, the underlying emotion that almost everyone is feeling is a sense of anxiety like they have never experienced before. No one, including myself, is exempt from the overwhelming heaviness of what is going on in our town, state, country, and world and it is important for us to all understand the normalcy in the overwhelmingness of this emotion. While much of the anxiety is coming from a few different triggers, a lot of the heaviness is founded in our struggle with feeling out of control.
We are no longer feeling like we are in control of almost every aspect of our lives - where we go, who we see, how we work, how we exercise, where we shop, how we learn, and how we spend our free time. We are worrying about our friends, family, and neighbors that are losing their jobs, closing their businesses, and are beginning to get sick and we recognize in so many ways that there is nothing we can do to help them. We don’t know what the end of this all looks like, nor do we know when the end will even happen. We think about when we will be able hug our loved ones, go to our favorite restaurants, or be back in our offices or classrooms.
Additionally, as we talk and speculate about the virus and someday going “back to normal”, we are also reminded that we don’t even know what the new normal is going to look like “when this is over”. Many of us are beginning to recognize that normal may never look like the normal that we knew pre-coronavirus and a feeling of loss in connection with this realization is also feeding our anxiety. We are feeling that we can no longer prepare for anything either, which is contributing to the feeling of no longer being in control of our own lives. What we need to remember through the what-ifs of our future and the recognition of things possibly never getting back to how things were before, is that the anxiety you feel through all of this is also completely normal. This is where you need to give yourself grace and allow yourself to feel the emotions that don’t feel good. This is where the “we are all in this together” rings truest and loudest and that the best way to take control in these situations is to accept that you cannot control it all and you need to continue to ride the wave.
For those that having discussions about the virus helps in easing the weight of the enormity of it all, we find ourselves talking about it daily, or even hourly. We talk about and speculate about what will happen in our world, what will happen if we get it, and sometimes we even wonder if we have already had it. Day in and day out it occupies more space in our conversations than any other topic. While many people are shutting down during discussions about the virus attempting to avoid the stress that the conversation may create, others are welcoming the conversations as the shared anxiety feels easier to bear. We need to remember that neither of these reactions are wrong. We all need to make the choice to react in the way that helps us to feel in control of ourselves and ease the weight of dealing with an experience we could never have imagined outside of a Hollywood movie.
In this world that is feeling wholly out of control, instead of driving ourselves into deeper states of anxiety or exhaustion by trying to hold on to and control everything in sight, we need to recognize the things that we do actually have control over and put our focus there. We can start with bringing our focus to the here and now, trying to prevent ourselves from getting too far ahead in trying to speculate about what is going to happen in the months to come. We can accept and recognize that we cannot control where we go, but we can control our space that we are in and what we do in our space. We can control how we balance our responsibilities for work, school, parenting and such with our personal self-care and finding time for relaxation and downtime. We must remember that what we are going through is not a normal “work from home” or “home school” experience and we must give ourselves the grace to recognize when we are doing enough and when we need to take moments to recharge. We are figuring out how to exercise at home, work in the same spaces as our family members, and make due with the resources we have at hand. Some people are also taking control by donating money, food, or sewing masks, or even painting rocks with colorful hearts and placing them around neighborhoods in order to remind us all that we are all in this together. Some are taking up new hobbies or cleaning and organizing their houses. Others are taking advantage of downtime, catching up on movies or televisions shows they have been meaning to watch. Whatever gives you a feeling of accomplishment and balance is where you should focus your energy right now. By finding a balance in all of this chaos and allowing space for adaptation, you may be able to reduce your anxiety significantly.
As I speak with my clients about the struggle with needing control in our current situation, I remind them about how grounding it can feel to build routines. Creating new routines is a very important part of feeling in control in our lives and this time of uncertainty is no exception. While many of us may be finding it difficult to establish routines in this new normal, making even small changes to establish some normalcy will help us to find some peace. So take some time to reflect on how can you begin to find those small moments in your life to establish the normalcy that routines bring to you. These do not need to be grand gestures to show on social media, these can be waking up at the same time every day, eating normal meals at normal times, and finding and setting aside time to read and talk to your family and friends. What I remind my clients, and I want to remind all of you, is that there should be no judgement on whatever you are doing to reduce your anxiety right now. There is no contest for who social-distanced better than others. The only thing that matters is that you are staying home and staying safe.
I have sat and stared at this blank document many times over the past week. Part of me doesn’t know what to say about everything going on because I don’t have the words. Part of me doesn’t know how to make sense of the jumble of racing thoughts, emotions, and feelings I am experiencing as I sit with clients, speak with my family and friends, watch the news, and scroll through the variable rainbow of reactions on social media. So please bear with me and give me some grace as I try to make sense of it. I hope that my words help you to not feel alone in your reactions and in turn bring you some peace.
In many ways, this situation is putting things into perspective. We are being forced to reflect on what is important to us and this time is serving as an opportunity and reminder to slow down. While we can get caught up in the news and scrolling on social media which makes our minds race, we also are being given an opportunity to take a step back and turn things off and separate a bit from the chaos. We are so lucky that this is happening in March and not in December. We are able to get outside, go for walks, hikes, and bike rides. We are given the opportunity to not rush around to this activity and that, and instead we can read the book we have been meaning to pick up or play the board game that has been sitting in a box for who knows how long with the people we are closest to. I also have been reflecting on the fact that I am actually thankful that this is happening now, in 2020. I am reminded of riding on Spaceship Earth in EPCOT as a child and seeing the scene where the son and father are speaking with each other over the computer while the father is away somewhere in a different country. How strange and foreign that seemed and here we are, in a place in our world that we are able to telecommute more readily and I am grounding myself in the thankfulness I have that both on the federal and state level we, as mental health providers, are being supported in utilizing teletherapy so that we can continue to support our clients through this unsteady and uncertain time.
So many people are responding to the craze in our grocery stores and with an obsession of hoarding materials that do not always seem helpful or necessary for this current situation. But, as I reflect on this, I begin to understand. As humans right now, we feel unsettled, and wholly and completely out of control. There is so much that we do not know about this virus and how different it is from others like it, that we do not know how to react. As humans, anytime our feeling of being in control is rocked we feel uncomfortable and we react, grasping at any possibility of gaining that control again. In my therapy sessions, I challenge my client to think of someone in the ocean, that feels their footing disrupted even temporarily. They begin treading water, to flail and splash and try to find their way to solid ground again. Many of these reactions are not helpful and may in fact create a worse situation as they tire themselves out. They fight against the current, not realizing that by letting go of trying to be in control, may in fact be the best way out and the quickest way back to control again. What I try to help my clients to see is that if the person has the skills to ground him or herself, they would know that the ground that they were standing on solidly before is still there, that they just need to put their feet down and find it. This is what is happening around us right now. Because the waters we are in right now feel so foreign to us, we are not sure if we feel safe to put our feet down and find the ground that will make us feel safe.
One thing that I am sure of, is how beautiful it is to see that that majority of the people in our country are understanding the significance of our current situation. While we still experience the naysayers that are comparing our reaction to this to reactions to pandemics past, most of our country is seeing that by staying home and keeping our distance, we are trying to learn from what happened in the past. We know that our actions are part of working toward preventing the number of those lost with COVID-19 from reaching the numbers of those that were lost in past experiences. We have to remember that we will never know if this was an over-reaction, but I, for one (and, I know I’m not alone), would not want to see what would happen if we did not react enough.
We are also seeing how we are all in this together. I am trying my best to focus on the beauty of people helping people, instead of my own fear of how this virus will affect me personally. We are seeing those who have, give to those who do not have. We are seeing celebrities not only give money to charities, but also reading to children, sharing the gift of their voices in song, and share how they are coping with being at home with their children and offering support. We are seeing landlords give residents free months in order to take the weight of bills piling up off their shoulders. We are seeing internet companies offer free services to children who need to connect in order to continue their learning. We see restaurants making the most of being shut down by setting up a system in which people can buy food from their business to be delivered straight to hospital workers in their communities. Applications are offering free access to their content in order to stay fit and healthy at home. I can go on and on, and when I think of these people, these organizations, these companies I am finding some peace because it restores my faith in knowing that when it comes down to it, we aren’t red or blue, left or right, we are all humans. This is where I am finding my ground, in being human, in being in this together.
As we approach Valentine’s Day, attention is commonly drawn to celebrating love and relationships. You may be thinking about celebrating your current relationship with your significant other with a romantic dinner, chocolates and flowers. If there are some stumbling blocks in your current relationship, you may also be reflecting on your partner and whatever struggles you both may be going through. If you are single, your focus this week may be on your desire for a romantic relationship while you process through feelings of loneliness or sadness. This can also be a time to reflect on past relationships, reflecting on why they may not have worked out. You may not even be focusing on romance at all and instead gearing up for an epic celebration of your friendships with some Galentine’s or Palentine’s fun.
Unfortunately, most people forget about the most important relationship of all – the one that we have with ourselves. When you think about it, you are the person that you spend the most time with. You are the person that you talk to the most, the one with whom you are having the deepest, rawest, and most honest conversations. How often do you take the time to focus on the relationship that you have with yourself? How often do you focus on growing self-love and self-appreciation? The way we see ourselves and the way we treat ourselves directly affects how we relate to the world and how we build relationships with others. When we do not offer ourselves love and grace, it is very difficult to build healthy relationships with other people in our lives.
It is, at times, astonishing to me how our society has created such a world that makes it so difficult to find self-love. We are often surrounded by messages of being not enough, messages that tell us how to “fix” ourselves or become better versions of ourselves. We are shown snapshots of others’ lives that appear perfect in their well-filtered images, images that we could never live up to in our real lives because they are not reality in and of themselves. These messages are in our face and at our fingertips all the time. They define how many people choose to measure themselves as they appear to be directed by what society sees as the ideal. Messages hit us from every angle and every form of media, constantly reminding us of what we need to do to change ourselves in order to create happiness. How does one find self-love and happiness when all the messages being received are focused on reasons not to do so? And, how do we avoid the anxiety that we experience when we feel like we can never measure up?
So, when we think about these societal ideals and the messages we ask ourselves about what it would take to create this self-love and happiness, a lot of it comes back to how we set goals. Goals can be a very funny thing in that they can both drive us forward, while also making us feel poorly about ourselves when we don’t think we are getting to our end goal quickly enough. Don’t get me wrong, I am all for goals. I am all for wanting to grow, wanting my clients to become the best version of themselves. I could not and would not be able to do what I do each day without the belief that we all have the ability to create and manifest better versions of ourselves. But, one of the biggest struggles my clients face when it comes to goal-oriented discussions, is how to be both okay with who they are in the present and finding happiness with their accomplished progress, while also continuing to work toward achieving their ultimate goals and not feeling setbacks when they don’t achieve their goals as quickly as they would like.
One of my favorite things to remind my clients is that you can be both a work in progress and a masterpiece at the very same moment. You can have pride in who you are, what you have persevered through, and how you have grown and kept pushing yourself forward to bigger and better things. For some people, it is too easy to get trapped in fear that if they express pride in their progress throughout the process of working toward goals, that they will become complacent and let go of the motivation that was driving them in the first place. Too often in sessions, my clients are struggling with feeling like they are not doing enough and therefore not measuring up to whatever image or status by which they are determining their worth or the progress they are making, and therefore create stories that convince them that they are not enough. These stories affect their ability to maintain the self-love that is so important to developing a healthy relationship with one’s self. Many clients also begin beating themselves up the minute they have a minor setback or the first time they may stray slightly from the very narrow and very straight path that they believe is the only way to get to their ultimate goal. Sometimes the symptoms of both anxiety and depression are rooted in their struggles to see their strengths and abilities and then fuel the negative stories that they tell themselves. Other clients struggle once they achieve a goal. They convince themselves that the value of that goal is no longer enough, never allowing themselves to relish in the positive feelings or accomplishment that they should be allowing themselves to experience. Sometimes, being able to acknowledge a goal being achieved is anxiety provoking as well because it proves to a client their own strengths – something that is difficult to face for a person who struggles with fostering self-love and appreciation. Again, by refusing to see progress and personal strengths, my clients keep riding these merry-go-rounds of emotions and maintain their mood and anxiety symptoms.
So, let’s get off this merry-go-round, lets focus on our accomplishments and our strengths. Let’s realize that we can continue to move forward BECAUSE of these strengths. Let’s give ourselves grace for the stumbling blocks on our path and allow them to show us our strengths, not just our weaknesses. Let’s accept the reasons to love ourselves that are right in front of us each and every day.
Grief is a funny thing – it is something that is hard to fully understand because it affects everyone in their own unique ways and can be expressed differently as well. Some people express their grief outwardly – they post about it, they show their sadness through tears and words, they wear their grief like a badge of honor for all to see. Others keep their grief inside. They internalize it, keep it for themselves, hold it in their hearts. Some people react with sadness, others with fear, some with anger, guilt, emptiness. Sometimes grief also comes with waves of relief if the loved one we lost had been suffering with illness or pain. Our grief can depend upon the age and life of the person that we have lost. When we lose someone who lived a long full life, and a person that filled our lives with that love, we grieve differently than if it was a young person that had much more life to live. We grieve about what that person may have brought to our lives and the world had they lived on. It really is complicated.
Typically, as we talk about grief in therapy, we discuss the model of the Five Stages of Grief, which is one of the most well-known models of grief understanding, developed by Elizabeth Kübler-Ross and first discussed in her book On Death and Dying in 1969. When we talk about the stages of grief (Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, and Acceptance) we must remember that these stages are not linear, we can go through all 5 stages in just a few moments as our mind tries to make sense of the loss. We may revisit certain stages years later as we are processing through the absence of a person at different times in our lives. There is no time limit on grief, no rules for the speed by which we process the emotions of the loss.
When I think about grief, I am reminded of a training I went to a few years ago with John Gottman, one of our nation’s foremost researchers on relationships. When he talked about grief, he stated that he believes that we earn our grief in our lives and the relationships we share with people. He believes that the degree to which we grieve, the degree to which we feel the pain of our grief is based on the degree to which we loved. I really thought that this was such a beautiful way to make sense of the intense pain that we often experience in our losses and I often reflect this to my clients when they are coping with the pain of losing someone they loved. When we have a complicated relationship with someone we have lost, we also have a more complicated grieving process. The pain is not always just about who we have lost, but also about the loss of what could have been, the loss of a chance for reconciliation or repair.
Grief also seems to be more complicated when we reflect on the grief that we as a people experience when someone famous has died. I, as I am sure many of you, am feeling a deep sense of grief today in response to the sudden death of Kobe Bryant, his talented daughter, and the 7 others that were on the helicopter with them. To be completely truthful and much to my husband’s chagrin, while I love basketball, the NBA is not really my thing. I typically don’t watch many games, I get excited for former UCONN players when I see them doing well, but overall, I do not call myself an NBA fan. I also did not know much about Kobe before yesterday, other than the fact that he had a long, amazing career and came back from a scandal to become a family man that many could and should look up to. Regardless of my lack of interest in his life, I kept watching the news about the tragedy, listened to tributes by those who knew and loved him, and read articles and messages from fans and friends alike in response to his death. This got me thinking, what is this all about? Why is it that we feel such pain when we lose these people that we have never known personally?
I think this is also a complicated topic. Grieving someone famous and the emotional response that we feel in response is dependent on so many different things. When we reflect on losing someone young, like Kobe and Gianna, some of our grief is around the loss of what may have been. We grieve what that person could have done, what they could have accomplished, the lives that they will no longer be able to touch. In this case, we grieve the loss of Gianna’s future and the loss of the good that Kobe was dedicated to bringing to the world of basketball and beyond.
I also think that the grief we feel so deeply in these losses is felt because we begin to reflect on our own loved ones. We think about what it would be like if someone in our life left the house to do something they do routinely, and they never came back. We think about what it would be like to lose our partners, our parents, our children, our friends, without being able to say goodbye. I can’t count the number of times I have seen the meme about it being an underrated blessing to leave your home and come back safely. People are posting this because they feel it so deeply, because this loss reminds them to reflect on the simple yet important blessings they have in their lives that are often taken for granted. We watch his friends speak about him, through tears and pain, and we think about all our friends and loved ones and think about what it would be like for us to be celebrating with them one day, and then have them gone the next. We simultaneously experience empathy, sympathy, and grief with self-reflection and fear. This isn’t selfish, this isn’t being self-absorbed, it is normal, and natural, and just a part of the grieving process.
So, as we move through these next few days and weeks, and we hear more tributes and see more outpouring of love for a great man and his daughter with such a promising future, lets also take time to understand our emotions in response to this loss. Let’s hold our family and friends close. Let’s say I love you when we hang up the phone. Let’s shoot a few sock-ball baskets into garbage cans. Let’s take direction from Kobe’s passion. Mamba, you will be missed.
Happy New Year! We are one week into 2020 and for me, as I am sure for many of you, in the first week of getting back into my routine after the holidays. This week is the sort of unofficial start to the new year. As I scroll through social media or see news articles, I can’t help but be bombarded with topics around New Year’s resolutions. As I consider my goals for 2020, I reflect on goals I have set in years past and then reflect on both my current personal and professional life. This helps to guide how I set goals for myself in these different areas.
So, if I am being completely honest, I initially set a goal for myself to start a blog about three New Years ago. I thought it would be a great way to reflect on topics that interest me, share about experiences, process through patterns that I am seeing with clients throughout my sessions, and offer a place for people who are not ready to walk into my office to gain some insight into what therapy may look like. Every fall for the past few years, I have started lists of topics to write about, have started writing posts – in my head – and decide that while I am home over the holidays, I will get the first post written. I tell myself that it’s the first post that I am struggling to write, that once I get through that first post it will be smooth sailing. I will find a groove. I will gain the confidence. But, much like when many of my clients set goals during their sessions that never come to fruition, my holiday breaks have come and gone without a word being typed.
What is this about? Is it that this isn’t a good goal for me? In the classes I teach, I work with my students about how to write goals for their clients. Goals should always be S.M.A.R.T. (who doesn’t love a good mnemonic device?). For those of you who don’t know what S.M.A.R.T. means – here it is – goals need to be specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and time-specific. This way, when you go back and reflect on your goal, you have a measuring stick to see how you did. My goal was all of these. I was specific in what I wanted to do, I could measure whether I did it or not, I knew I was capable of writing a post, it was realistic to think I would do it, and I gave myself a deadline. So, why could I never get myself to do it?
The next question with goals, is whether the person setting the goal WANTS to set the goal for themselves. Don’t get me wrong, this was something I really wanted to try (I thought), and people around me were very encouraging of me doing it. But somehow, I kept allowing life to get in the way of pushing myself toward this goal. That was always my excuse. I was too busy, I forgot, I had too many other responsibilities, I was going to go in a different direction with my focus (sound familiar?).
This is where my good friend Motivational Interviewing (MI) comes in. In MI, we assess the readiness, willingness, and ability for someone to achieve a goal. Typically, we scale these questions from 1-10. I thought overall, that I was ready to write something (maybe a 7 or an 8), and I definitely was willing to give it a try (I’ll say I was at a solid 8 for that). I think what was stopping me was how I assessed my ability. Don’t get me wrong, on a completely rational level, I knew I was completely able to write something. What was stopping me was my confidence in my ability to write something good. What if no one found what I was writing interesting, or helpful, or relevant?
I think this is something that stops people in their tracks with goals all the time. I can’t tell you how often a client sets a goal in a session that is completely S.M.A.R.T. (e.g. I am going to join a gym this week and report back to you next week about my experience) but comes in the next week feeling like a failure because they did not achieve the goal that in their mind, should have been easy. As we continue the discussion about their goals, we dig deeper, we see that they have some thoughts about themselves and the goal that are holding them back. This negative self-talk is preventing them from pushing themselves into achieving the goal, thus maintaining patterns of the negative self-talk and low self-worth (so in the example of joining a gym they may say, “I am so out of shape, that I’m not ready to join the gym yet,” “I’m not comfortable being in workout clothes in front of people,” “what if I don’t know what I’m doing there and people are watching me screw up”).
This got me to thinking both about my clients, and my own personal goals. How can we push ourselves through the anxiety of not feeling like we are enough, and therefore start working toward the goals that we think will make us feel better about the problem that is preventing us from pursuing the goal (did I lose you there?). What I am talking about is the cycle that prevents us from achieving our goals. That is, in our example of joining a gym, (because its January and that is what we are all thinking about right now!) you feel bad about your body image, so you want to exercise in order to lose weight, but, you feel so badly about your body image that you are too anxious to join a gym and then feel even worse about yourself because you aren’t doing the thing that you know will make you start feeling better about your body image. Doesn’t that sound exhausting? The real work needs to focus on challenging those irrational thoughts that maintain the cycle and build confidence in ourselves. We need to remember that even if the step forward we are taking is on shaky ground, it is still a step away from the negative place we were in before.
So here I am, it was a few years in the making, but I finally wrote a post. I challenged some of the self-doubt I had about being good enough. I recognize that even if it’s not perfect, I pushed myself into something uncomfortable and I know I will be better off for it.
I have been practicing therapy for over 10 years and have worked with countless individuals, families and couples. While I do not want to claim to be an "expert" on all things therapy or life (because I always believe that there is room to grow and learn) I have noticed throughout my time connecting with my clients that similar struggles and repetitive patterns present themselves that affect how clients experience and see life. I wanted to take this experience with my clients and the knowledge I have gained and share it here, so that maybe it can touch others lives the way it has helped my clients.