This may not be my most eloquent post. It is so interesting to me because when I started my blog, I had a whole list of mental health topics I planned to write about that I haven’t even been able to address because the world keeps lighting itself on fire and I feel called to write more about my response to that than about the topics I planned. As I sit here today, my brain is moving faster than my ability to put words to my thoughts, but I felt a strong call to put these words out there. So, here goes.
Here I am. I am faced with another day of talking to my clients about another mass shooting tragedy in our country and even more specifically one in which the lives of young children were cut far too short. Living in CT and being a therapist during the Sandy Hook shooting was an experience that I could never have imagined when I sat in my grad school classes. And here I am again, almost 10 years and countless mass shootings later, trying to help my clients make sense out of something so senseless, trying to help them to work through their fear, sadness, grief, anger, and unavoidable vicarious trauma.
Fear. Days like this are filled with me holding fear for my clients. I hold the fear of my young clients, as they wonder if it will be their turn to have their lives threatened or taken away when they find out about kids like them being murdered in classrooms just like theirs. They process through emotional shifts that occur when the energy in their schools and classrooms change and as their fear intertwines with the fear of their classmates and teachers. I hold the terror of parents wondering how they can possibly send their babies to school when all they want to do is lock them in their homes and hug them tight. I also hold the fear for my clients who are teachers. Those wonderful people who had no idea that their job that was once about educating and growing the minds of children, making them feel safe and loved, would now be one in which they have to put their lives on the line as they fulfill their lifelong calling. I hold fear for my clients with no connections to schools but fears about what our society is becoming, about how no place feels safe anymore. Each shooting adds another place to the endless list of places we now have to watch our backs and our brains and bodies are not equipped for the weight and intensity of the stress that this is having on us all.
Sadness. Sadness is inevitable for anyone who has the capacity to feel empathy. If we stopped feeling sadness on days like today, we lose our humanity. I know for me personally, I push myself to watch the news on days like today because I do not want to lose mine. I do not want to accept that this is our new normal and I don’t want to allow myself to believe that this is what is to be expected and just move on with my day.
Grief. The grief we feel in situations like today is complicated in a way like no other. We grieve for the lives that were lost and the futures that will never happen. We also grieve for the death of others’ humanity as they lack the expected emotional and actionable response to this kind of domestic terrorism. We grieve for the normalcy that once was. I am part of the generation before the columbine generation. I was finishing my first year of high school when columbine happened and I remember how emotional it was, but it never created fear in me that it could happen in my school. But now, children of 2022 live in this fear every day. I grieve for the loss of what childhood was and the loss of the innocence that this generation of children could never comprehend.
Anger. I am angry. My clients are angry. How have we become a country in which we send children to schools where they can no longer feel safe? How have we possibly become a country in which being a teacher is a job in which you have to fear for your life? We feel this anger because the sadness and the fear are so overwhelming, we need to distract ourselves from it. The anger is less vulnerable, its more demonstrative. We hope that the anger will somehow drive change, even though it never does. The anger drives us to ask the people who have the power to do something to do just that and we then get angrier when nothing changes, when the next shooting happens. We feel the anger about the hypocrisy of politicians fighting to take rights away from women to protect the lives of unborn children while all they do in response to the babies who are already here being shot in their classrooms is send their “thoughts and prayers”. We feel angry because individuals care more about their financial bottom lines than the lives of children they claim to see as the important thing. We get angry because we see the hypocrisy of being pro-life as only being about pro some life, only pro birth. We feel angry because we feel powerless. We feel angry because nothing happens, nothing changes, and then we fear that nothing ever will.
And want to know what I say to my clients when they share all of this on a day like today? I say, “I know”. I say, “I can’t imagine how you felt dropping your child off today, that must have been terrifying.” I tell them I understand their feelings, their emotions, their visceral response to this atrocity that keeps happening. I normalize their feelings because let’s be honest, it would be more shocking if they weren’t filled with all these deep feelings after something like this happens. I can’t tell them not to be afraid. I can’t help them to find more rational thoughts and feelings to reduce their anxiety, stress, or sadness because what they are feeling is rational, what they are going through is expected. I feel so helpless in my ability to help people which is the very basic foundation of what I am trained to do. I want to tell them that maybe now, maybe this shooting, this time, things will change. I want to believe that somehow, some way, we will find a path out of this. But I can’t do any of that. We can’t do that. We must sit in these feelings. We must force ourselves to feel uncomfortable because without that discomfort, things truly will never change.
I also know what is going to happen next if this shooting follows the scripts of the shootings in the past. Somehow it will be pinned on mental illness. This lights an angry fire in me that is indescribable. Not only does this villainize mental health issues and those who are struggling, but it minimizes the actual issue at hand. Having mental health struggles does not equate to an excuse for something like this. Additionally, as a mental health professional, unless a client tells me specifically that they want to kill a specific person or themselves, I can do nothing if I think someone is exhibiting worrisome thoughts or behaviors so therefore, we cannot be that worried about how mental health and these shootings are woven together. We are doing so much work to destigmatize mental health struggles in our country and then something like this happens and we undo all that hard work by allowing it to be an excuse or an explanation for these atrocities. Instead, I want to focus on how this is affecting the mental health of our society, what this is going to do to the mental health of these children, of all children, of parents, teachers, of those with empathy, of the people who put life before all else.
So, I am going to challenge you all to not allow yourself to fall into the trap of just accepting that this individual was mentally ill. Being mentally ill does not give anyone an allowance to inflict terror on our country. These acts come from hate and are born in hate. Many people want to create a society, a country that normalizes and thrives off hate and then allows hate to be considered a mental health issue when it fits into the narrative that places blame outside of themselves. You can tell me all about your fight for the right to bear arms, but I will also tell you about my fight to save lives and I will keep fighting each day, I will keep speaking truth for myself and for those whose voices have been silenced.
The shoulds. They are one of the worst mental traps that we fall into in. They often perpetuate our negative self-talk, guilt, shame, and so much more. I think that we would all be amazed if we were to count the number of times in a day that we say, “I should…” and then struggle with doing the thing we are telling ourselves we should do. This cycle of “the shoulds” is one of the most vicious internal cycles we all experience. We remind ourselves of all the things we think we should be doing, these things are often completely overwhelming, and then, because we are completely overwhelmed, we shut down. When we don’t do the things, we think we should be doing, we shame ourselves for being so unproductive or being a failure, which then leads to more internal reminders of all the things we should be doing.
If we paid close attention, I wonder how many times we all would catch ourselves saying something like the following:
“I should exercise more”
“I shouldn’t eat this; I should eat more of that”
“I should make that phone call”
“I should read more”
“I should get more sleep”
“I should really redo my resume”
“I should make an appointment with that doctor”
“I should find a new job”
“I should have that uncomfortable conversation I have been putting off”
“I should visit my family”
“I should clean the house”
“I should garden more”
“I should get my work done”
“I should write that book”
“I should get outside”
“I should talk about this difficult thing in therapy”
“I should start therapy”
I am honestly feeling my own anxiety rise just starting to create this list. My heart is racing, my brain is reeling, my guilt is building. I can’t tell you how often I get caught up in “the shoulds”. For the past year, I have thought each day about how I should write a post again. Somehow it has been a whole year since I have written a blog. Telling myself each day that “I should” and then feeling like I was failing myself never helped how I was feeling about myself, nor did it get me to sit down with my computer and fill an empty page.
When I reflect, I can rationally understand why I did not write a post or do many of the other things that fell through the cracks over the past 12 months. But it takes that deeper reflection, and being able to challenge my self-talk to get there. Telling myself that I have failed never helped but allowing myself permission to not do things and instead focus on what I needed to get done did.
One of the first things I reflect upon in addressing my own “shoulds” is thinking about how all that we have experienced over the past 2 years since the pandemic began has affected our energy levels, our emotional capacity, and our relationships in general. I have reminded myself that with the added stress of the pandemic, my threshold for where I could go, who I could see, and what I could accomplish was different than pre-pandemic times. I had to give myself grace that my to do list might not get fully done, and that lowering expectations of myself did not mean that I was settling. It instead meant that I have allowed myself to be realistic with myself and my own abilities.
Don’t get me wrong, I still might create long to do lists for myself at times, but I prioritize them by importance and due dates, and I celebrate all I am able to do and get done – big or small. I make sure I recognize the tasks I accomplish and try to focus more of my mental energy on those, as opposed to the rest of the list that still must get done. I always try to include things that I know I can do so that I give myself the ability to have even the smallest wins. Sometimes, getting out of bed on time, or reading for 10 minutes is enough and it helps with starting momentum or checking things off my list. I also allow for some things that are bigger challenges because sometimes accomplishing those tasks gives me more energy and pushes me to do bigger things. I also continue to be sure to not beat myself up when they are not done because I know they are bigger and might take more time.
When it comes to prioritizing, I try to ask myself a few questions. First – I ask myself “why is this a ‘should’ and is it a need or a want?” By asked myself, “is this something that needs to get done?” I can decide where on the list it goes. If it is a phone call I need to make for work that I have been putting off, I talk myself through how I will feel when it is done to try to change my energy around it. I assess how much time each task will take as well, and knowing it will be a quick task can help too. If it is a want, and not a need, then the task might have lower priority on my to do list. I am also honest with myself about what will make me feel better. If my “should” is “I should exercise” I try to talk myself through it being about my health – both physical and mental – and then set realistic expectations around that as well.
I also reflect on the root of “the shoulds” that I place on myself. Am I telling myself that I should do something because it is something I want to do, I need to do, or I think would be good for me? Or, instead, am I placing this pressure on myself because of outside influences? As many of my clients know, I have a love/hate relationship with social media, and this is a primary reason as to why. While social media has helped us to stay connected with people that we may never have been able to remain connected to, we also get caught up in the comparison game and often those comparisons are unhealthy. When we get lost in an endless scroll on social media, we are seeing the curated world that people are creating of their social media personas. These perfect posts lead to the comparison trap which then, in turn, leads us down the path of “the shoulds”. The problem is, these shoulds are not typically based upon our own wants and needs but instead on what we think we should be thinking, doing, feeling. Taking time to question the why behind our list of shoulds, can help us to let go of the unhealthy, unnecessary, and unrealistic shoulds we place on ourselves that are rooted in the comparison game and instead focus on things that will serve us.
And lastly and probably most importantly, I remind myself that I am not perfect, nothing is perfect, and no one is perfect. Because of this, nothing will ever be able to be perfectly done. Perfection is a trap and can be paralyzing at times. If I let go of my own pressures of perfection, I feel the grip of it releasing me to just be me. And that, is absolutely good enough for me.
How do you measure, measure a year?
Throughout the past few weeks leading up to March 1, I can’t help but repeat those lyrics over and over in my mind. For me in my own life and throughout sessions with clients, there has been a sense of increasing reflection as we contemplate what the past year has meant for us. Some clients have reflected on the immensity of it all and how far they have come in what has felt like a short time, while others feel like so much of the past year has been wasted, as though they have had to put plans in their life on hold due to the heaviness and uncertainty that the past 12 months has thrown at them. Many clients feel trapped between these conflicting perspectives, creating anxiety and an overwhelming mixture of all emotions in trying to make sense of it all. How could a year have felt so long, and so short at the same time? How could a year feel so overwhelming and so empty simultaneously?
All of these conversations have led me to ask this question to myself. How do we measure these past 12 months? Do we measure the past year in the number of zoom calls we have had? Do we measure it in the number of banana breads and sourdoughs we have made, or the number of times we took part in some other collective social media activity? Do we measure it in the number of times we have said, COVID, corona, social-distancing, or ever the number of times we have simply said “because, 2020”? Do we measure it in the number of masks we have or have worn, or the number of times we have said under our breaths “It goes over your nose”? Do we measure it in the number of protests we saw happening across our country demanding equality and a light to be shone on the serious problems of social and racial injustice in our country? Do we measure it in the number of people who showed up to vote for our country’s new leader? Do we measure it in the number of people who have died of COVID, or even in the number of people who have actually survived?
I cannot picture a different set of 12 months of my life that have been more consequential for our world than the past 12 have been. At the same time, I also remember the moments that felt like the complete opposite in how they dragged. The metaphor of living through the movie Groundhog Day over and over again throughout the past 12 months has felt so real. We feel as though every morning when our eyes open, we will be living the exact same day as the day before and, in these same moments and on these same days, we are constantly saying to ourselves how shocking each new thing is that we hear each day, and how overwhelming the collective year has felt. We are bored and flooded. We are exhausted and restless. We feel both ready for change, and an urgent desire to return to the normal we once knew.
I recently saw a post where someone said that we should stop trying to return to how things were in the “before” and stop romanticizing it as being ideal. There were struggles before COVID-19 turned our world and lives upside down and I think a beautiful thing that we have been given in these past 12 months is an opportunity to reset in some ways. Another therapist that I know does not like the term “silver linings” and instead introduced me to the phrase “unexpected positive outcomes” and I think that pushing ourselves to find these outcomes is a perfect way for us to reflect on entering March 2021. Has anyone taken the time to measure the past year in the good moments? Can we measure it in the extra time we have spent with the ones we live with and love as we have been spending more time in our homes? Do we measure the ways in which our communities have helped others who have been in need? Do we measure it in any personal growth we have had in changing habits and behaviors such as exercise, healthy eating, reading, meditating and so much more? Do we measure it in the work we have done on ourselves through therapy or by ourselves to grow and work through our own inner pain? Do we measure it in just the fact that we have gotten through it all and are sitting here today to tell our stories?
As I am writing this, part of me feels like there was no way for me to even do a reflection on the past 12 months and give the immensity of it all justice. My brain is feeling the jumble of conflicting emotions even as I sit here trying to put into words all that I have felt and absorbed. Truly, there was and is no way for me to be able to fully articulate what this past year has meant for me, or for anyone else for that matter. The feelings and heaviness of it all are indescribable, and I also know that all of you who are reading this have lived through the same 12 months as me and have had your own experience of it that is individual to you. I just hope that you are able to take a moment to reflect on all of it, the good and the bad, the setbacks and the growth. I know for me, I am going to be sure to measure the last 12 months in what I have done, instead of only that which I have not. I am going to reflect and focus on the wonderful things I have seen communities do for one another. I am going to reflect on that which I have gained, instead of just all that has been lost. While this has been a year filled with loss, hate, and anxiety, I am going to honor all of those emotions, and still try to choose to measure this year in love.
Happy New Year! Although there may have been moments that felt like we would never make it through 2020, we did it. We made it. This has been a year of intense lows, and for others, some wonderful highs. In spite of the pain that 2020 inflicted upon us, we have found ways to persist and find our own strength in resiliency as individuals, in our communities, and in our world. There have been some lessons in finding joy in simplicity. Some of us have been forced to slow down in ways that many of us could not have ever imagined while at the same time some others have been thrown into a level of chaos that was equally as unthinkable a year ago. We have had to adjust, bend, reassess and reconfigure almost every aspect of our lives. We have had to fulfill roles that would have felt completely unimaginable 365 days ago (or should I say 366 – because of course 2020 was a leap year). We have borne the weight of loss and pain for ourselves, friends, family, and neighbors in such a way that feels so heavy that it is almost hard to believe that we have been able to survive the weight of it all. We have been faced with decisions that would have seemed so unrealistic had we not actually lived through them and here we are in January of 2021, as a changed human race.
I have spent the past year watching my community, my friends, family, and even my clients go through illness and loss that felt far too burdensome and overwhelming to bear. I have processed through the weight of 2020 with my colleagues, and the effect of that weight on our clients and ourselves simultaneously. I have explored the struggle with helping clients to work through that which felt impossible for them, while I too struggled with so much myself, and as we both tried to find peace and strength to overcome struggles that felt so insurmountable. Then, at the same time, I have watched others in my personal and professional life begin new relationships, get engaged, have to plan and replan COVID weddings that ended up absolutely beautiful, and others bring perfect new little babies into this world or new fur babies into their families. I have seen clients that have been in therapy for years and months make breakthroughs, find peace, begin to learn about themselves and their relationships, and blossom into their new selves while living, surviving, and thriving within the chaos. As I begin my New Year’s reflections, this juxtaposition of pain and progress, being torn down and rebuilt, living through loss and celebrating birth, has been one of the most beautiful parts of 2020 for me. When it all feels like too much for me to bear, I work to ground myself in this fact – that beauty can in fact reside in the beast of illness, loss, death, and hate.
So here we are, starting a new year. One of the most anticipated new years of our lifetimes. The newness of what January 1 brings us offers us a time to reflect, reassess, and look to what we want from what feels like a fresh start. While many can say it’s an arbitrary thing to only set goals on January 1, the idea of a blank calendar with so many possibilities can be refreshing. It offers us a way to brush off, wash off, and shut a door on things that have happened, and try to focus instead on what can be. That being said, as I reflect on the past 12 months, I can’t help but continue to think about where and who I was 12 months ago. 2020 felt like a special kind of blank slate – entering into the new “roaring 20s”. There was a lot of anticipation of what the 2020s would offer and how they would begin. As I reflect back, I cannot help but be somewhat in awe of the lessons I learned over the past 12 months, and in some ways how far from where I thought I would be that I have actually landed. I imagine that many of you are in the same boat as well and in so many ways, that is okay. Being able to set a goal, not meet it, but find some other area of growth in your life and see that as progress is truly a beautiful and refreshing thing. This shows our ability to bend and being able to bend, adjust our sails, and move forward in spite of everything, is one of the greatest strengths we can have. Usually, in a new year, I would try to offer the suggestion to look at past goals and see what has been accomplished, what has not, and why. As we enter 2021, let’s just accept that all bets were off this past year. Let’s celebrate whatever we accomplished whether we set that goal last year or not. Let’s look toward 2021 with the new lens of what we know now, and not try to fit the goals of any other year into the box of what we are still currently living through. While the idea of the new year and finally being able to say goodbye to 2020 feels so hopeful, we are still living in some chaos and let’s give ourselves the grace of accepting that. However, let’s also look at how our ability to adjust and bend has given us more than we could have imagined. Had we not been so flexible and had so much chaos not been thrown at us, we may not have picked up that new hobby, read that new book, started that program in school, or learned how to be more present in the place in which we are currently grounded. This is an important thing to focus on as we grow into 2021.
I have done a lot of reflecting this past year on how okay it is to not be okay. Additionally, I have reflected on the idea that it is also okay to find your joys where you can and embrace and celebrate them when it feels like others are hurting or are in pain and that this act is not selfish. I think that this is one of the greatest lessons that I have taken away from 2020 and I hope that you are able to do that too. I also want to thank everyone who has read or shared any of my posts from this first year of my blogging journey. I hope you found some laughs and some support. I hope that they helped to make you feel heard and maybe normalize or put words to the things that you may have been struggling with but could not explain and that they may have helped you get through some of the tough moments and strangeness of these past 12 months. It has been a challenge for me to face some of my vulnerabilities, has offered me a chance to process through and understand my own feelings, and has given me joy and purpose when I hear how helpful they have been for some people as well.
So, here’s to 2021. Let’s hope for change, let’s hope for growth, and let’s hope for a world filled with kindness, love and good health.
Christmas has always been one of my favorite times of the year. I love the aspects of Christmas that go beyond the commercialism that makes people frustrated and stressed out about what Christmastime has become. I love the magic of it all. I love the gift buying, wrapping, and giving because I love to see the faces of my family and friends when they open the thing that I picked out or made for them that I thought would be perfect. I love the tradition and the togetherness because my family and friends are the most important people to me, and I love sharing my favorite time with my favorite people. I love honoring my loved ones that have passed away in the decorations I adorn my home and tree with and the food that I cook and serve to the people that I still have in my life. I love watching and re-watching the same movies, year after year, remembering times snuggled on the couch as a child watching those same movies with my parents and sister growing up. I love listening to Christmas music because its something that roots me in the magic, and each song captures the excitement of the season so perfectly.
In saying all of that, I am going to start this by stating that during this Christmas week in this year, I am not okay. Even as I write this, I can feel the emotions building up in my throat, and some tears beginning to well in my eyes. I am sharing this because I want everyone to know that they are not alone if they too, like me, are not okay right now in this Christmas season. I am still so thankful that in 2020 and all that this year has taken away, I have been able to continue to do the work I do and find joy and peace in holding for others that which they cannot fully hold for themselves. As therapists and caretakers, this year has been like no other for us in that we have had the experience of providing support through a collective traumatic experience that is affecting us in the same way and at the same time as our clients are facing it too. While we may work through experiences and struggles with clients that mirror some of our own histories, never before have we been living through it all at the same time in the same way we are this year. I know that throughout the past 9 months, I have talked a lot about it being okay to not be okay, and right now, this is no different. It is also important for anyone that is a caretaker, a helper, a shoulder to lean on, or therapist too that it is important to recognize your limits, you needs, and find your person to lean on too.
For the past few weeks, I have sat in sessions with my clients processing through their very complicated emotions about the holidays this year. The emotions are what they are because this year is so complicated. I, along with my clients, am struggling with the decision making of who it is safe to see. So many of my clients, friends, and family are facing tough decisions and even tougher conversations about what the holidays are going to look like this year including if they will travel to see their family, who they will see, what they will do, and how to make sure everyone remains safe and healthy. There is the worry about seeing people and putting them at risk, but also the worry about not seeing people, worried that this may be the last Christmas with their loved ones as well. Everything and every decision have become so polarizing throughout this whole year and it feels like making decisions about what to do for Christmas is the culmination of all of the pain, all of the disagreements, and all of the turmoil that 2020 has thrown at us. Some families are so split about how they view the right way to approach COVID, and many people are worried about how these divisions may leave lasting scars on their relationships even once the pandemic is over.
Others are struggling with how to carry holiday traditions into 2020 when it feels like it is impossible to do so. So many of us are struggling with how to feel like our hearts are in the season, when it feels like they are so broken by all that has been lost, taken away, and rocked by the suffering and reality that this year has brought us. For so many of us, traditions – many of which have been passed on from generation to generation – are ways that we honor our loved ones and bring us joy season after season. This year, it feels like those traditions are one more thing added to the list of losses that 2020 has given us and is affecting our ability to focus on that which we still have.
While many of us are struggling with what the holidays will look like without the big celebrations that we are used to, I have also sat with clients who have lost loved ones to COVID over the past 9 months and who are still grieving the immense loss and lack of closure that they cannot even fathom facing what a Christmas celebration would mean, especially with their loved ones missing on that day. With my clients that are in the medical field I have processed through what being on the front lines of COVID treatment means for their holiday season. They have explored their emotions about how they cannot see any of their family or friends because of their exposure to the virus putting anyone they come in contact with at risk and the deep layers of loneliness that they are feeling because of this.
Unfortunately, there is really no “right” therapy response to this all. There is no magic therapeutic wand to reduce the pain or anxiety, because so much of what we are feeling is rational, understandable, reasonable, and based on the real human experience of 2020. So many of my clients always say they want to feel “normal” and for once, I can say that there is such a thing as being normal and having so many mixed and complicated emotions is what is normal. While I cannot speak for all of the therapists out there, I can guess that many of us feel the same way – we are here for you, we are feeling it with you, and we promise to keep supporting you in the best way we can. Allow yourself to feel all of the heavy feelings that you are feeling, but also feel hopeful that as we continue to lean on the medical world that has brought us a promising vaccine, that soon we can find our way out of this all and back to one another in the New Year.
I have a really hard time with the “good vibes only” message. As a therapist, something that I stress to my clients on an almost daily basis is that there is no such thing as a good emotion versus a bad emotion and by trying to cancel out emotions that do not feel good, you are preventing yourself from feeling feelings that are real. All emotions are real and normal, and they all serve some sort of purpose for us in our lives. The wide breadth and range of the emotions that we experience is part of what makes the human experience so beautiful. If we are trying to only find the “good vibes” and remain in happiness, excitement, and contentment, and therefore not allow ourselves to feel the depth of sadness or grief, or the intensity of our anger and frustration, we are denying ourselves the necessary experience of emotional responses to the world around us. Without fully feeling the lows, we cannot even fully understand and experience the highs. Additionally, I stress to my clients that facing, accepting, and feeling the feelings that are more uncomfortable and vulnerable shows greater strength than trying to live in a world with only sunshine, rainbows, and smiles. Now, don’t get me wrong, I know it is important for us to be able to push through the feelings that do not feel as great, but in order to do so in a healthy way, we have to do just that. We have to push through. There is no detour or shortcut for our emotions. We must feel them in order to move forward.
In trying to achieve a “good vibes only” persona or project it onto others through conversations and social media posts, you may be denying yourself and others a safe place to feel everything that they are feeling and may be preventing them from feeling safe enough to be vulnerable. Additionally, you may be preventing yourself and others from having a deeper emotional relationship if you are trying to prevent the “negative” feelings from being part of your interactions. Also, if you are projecting a message of the fact that success can happen by just shifting your emotions to a positive thought process, and that by just thinking positively you will manifest everything you want, you are not honoring the experiences that people have that may affect their ability to move forward and may not be recognizing how your own privilege may create blinders to their struggles and history. Again, you may be creating a situation in which those around you may not feel safe being vulnerable and may be judging themselves for not being able to just forget the hard and difficult things they are faced with.
If we are projecting the message that people should only experience good vibes (and that it is even possible to control the very natural emotional response system that our brains and bodies possess), we are not allowing ourselves and others to feel okay with the real human experience of emotions. Bad things happen and if we are trying to only see the good things in our lives and avoiding the bad ones, we are also avoiding the natural responses that we have. When our brains respond to stressors or triggers in a way that does not feel good to us (e.g. with sadness, anxiety, anger, or fear), it is telling us and maybe even warning us about trouble or threats. We fight with family and friends, we go through stressful days at work, we lose important people throughout our journeys and we do not feel good about it. Our uncomfortable emotional response to these events is telling us about how we should respond to it, and possibly that these things may be things we should want to avoid moving forward. I cannot tell you how often I have said to clients in sessions that I would be more worried if they were not sad when they got bad news, or found out about the passing of a loved one and that they become visibly relieved that they are told that the emotions are normal and real. Sometimes being given permission to be sad, angry, and anxious is exactly the thing missing from their lives. Emotions are a basic part of our instinctual response to stimuli around us. When we try to deny that response, we are throwing off the entire functionality of how the machine of our body and brains work and those emotions that we are pretending are not real are going to find their way out some way, and often in unhealthy ways including negative self-talk, bad habits, and isolation. When we try to push the “good vibes” only message to our friends and family, we are telling them that they “shouldn’t” feel what they are feeling and that if only they could just make themselves happy, everything will be perfect. When working with families and couples, there is nothing more triggering within a relationship than when someone is told that they “shouldn’t” feel a certain way, even if they are being told that with all good intentions.
So, repeat after me. It is completely okay to not be okay. If 2020 has taught us anything, it is that things are not always okay. Obviously mental illness, stress, and bad things always happen. As I said above, all of these experiences are part of the human experience. There is no one in this world who has never gone through bad things and who has not felt the intensity of all of the emotions that can be felt. Some clients believe that others have gone through significantly tougher experiences throughout their lives and I notice that everyone is constantly comparing their pain and experiences to others in their sessions. I always remind them that there is no hierarchy of pain and that whatever pain they are experiencing is theirs to own and proudly wear both as an accomplishment of resilience, and as a way in which they define how they navigate through their world. And, as we have been living through 2020, that is no exception. So many of my clients have been experiencing the chaos of this year in different ways and have had different ways in which a global pandemic, social injustice and unrest, significant political divisiveness, and so much more have affected them personally in different ways. That being said, so many of them are having the same emotional response to what is going on in our world and explore their experience of anxiety, sadness, worry, fear, stress, grief, depression, and so much more. And while these emotional responses are not new to 2020, the intensity of them is different. I cannot remember a time in which I have had so many clients presenting with similar emotions and the same emotional weight on their shoulders. As a therapist, 2020 has been a difficult year in that I cannot always help clients to challenge thoughts about their triggers because many of their triggers are in fact rational, normal, and completely understandable. We are living through history right now and understanding the magnitude of that will hopefully help us to also understand that all of the emotional responses that we are having are normal and understandable and so I stress this to my clients, that what we all are feeling is normal. I help them to realize that what they are going through in their personal lives is heavy and would be heavy even without all of what 2020 has given us. When you combine our own personal struggles with all of 2020 and everything that is happening this year at a national and global level, our threshold has been broken, and our cups of what we can hold are overflowing. Let’s own it. Let’s admit that we are not okay and figure out ways to try to get through it. Whether that is directing our energy into activism or into self-care or something completely different. We cannot take away the triggers, we cannot pretend that the world around us does not feel like it is falling apart at times, but we can try to take control of what we can control, and try to make peace with our feelings and recognize that in feeling all the feelings, we are human and empathetic. Instead of trying to challenge those feelings that are considered bad, let's accept the idea of “all vibes” and that it is completely okay to not be okay.
The Affordable Care Act has been a hot button topic since it was originally implemented. You are either for it or you are against it and your feelings about it may be intense. Unfortunately, most of those opinions are not typically founded upon a direct knowledge of the role that it can play in the lives of Americans across our country. I have sat with friends and family and heard them say that people working minimum wage jobs do not deserve to have health insurance based on their background or education levels and that their employers should not have to foot the bill for minimum wage workers to have healthcare coverage stating that, in essence, someone needs to be at the bottom of the ladder and those people at the bottom are not deserving of the privilege of affordable healthcare coverage. I have also heard those same people degrade these same Americans for seeking out insurance coverage through Medicaid, calling it a handout, even if these same people are paying the same taxes that everyone else is paying. When I hear these messages, my mind spins contemplating how people I love and respect, can have such little respect for lives of their fellow humans. How do we ever break the cycle of the “haves” remaining the only “haves” and the “have nots” always having not if we only maintain a system in which those with privilege are allowed access to affordable healthcare, especially affordable mental healthcare? Maybe that is what these people are actually hoping for, but in my mind, I hope and pray that this is not the case. Now, don’t get me wrong, I know that the original implementation of the ACA was not perfect or always smooth but the promise of all people being able to have access to affordable healthcare, and for me specifically affordable mental healthcare, felt like such a possibility for larger changes down the road.
I can tell you as a therapist, when the ACA was initially implemented it really gave me hope for my clients. At the time of it going into effect, I had been working in the mental health field for over 7 years and had seen the way our healthcare system was really failing those who were truly most in need. I saw clients with serious mental illness have to debate between getting a job and being able to continue to have health insurance because their employers did not offer health insurance for them, or if they did it was so expensive they wouldn’t be able to pay their bills if they were to enroll. How frustrating it was to sit with clients, hour after hour, day after day, week after week, year after year, and hear about how the healthcare system and the government that they were paying taxes to, was failing them. Some clients would come to therapy, begin medications with their prescriber, and then finally stabilize to the point of being able to work. Once they started working, they would make too much money for Medicaid and be dropped but also not have access to affordable healthcare at their job. This would mean they would lose their insurance, decompensate, and lose their jobs and the cycle would begin again. I would see single mothers, working full time jobs, struggling to make ends meet, but also not being able to take overtime hours because if they made too much money, they would lose their health insurance. I have sat with clients who have medical debt, which is one of the most common and daunting categories of debt, that feels so insurmountable that their anxiety about debt takes precedent in sessions over other stressors in their lives that we should be focusing our time on. I sit with clients as they worry that if they get a necessary medical procedure, it may prevent them from being able to pay their mortgage. I have had clients that thoughtfully mull over the pros and cons of using the health insurance that they pay into for their therapy sessions because they worry about how going to therapy will lead to a mental health diagnosis and that whatever diagnosis they are given will forever be a red letter on their medical file as a pre-existing condition, a pre-existing condition that could mean healthcare coverage would be impossible if certain aspects of the ACA are taken away. Then, as the therapist, sitting with the necessity to make an appropriate diagnosis for a client, knowing that by doing so, I may be affecting important aspects of the client’s future only because they decided to seek out help. A prime example of this is the rape victim being revictimized by the healthcare system by being strong enough to get help. So many broken aspects of the system that is meant to fix us, inside and out.
I am sure that many of you, unless you have been directly impacted by it, cannot wrap your head around the way in which offering people affordable health insurance can change things and can open doors to things that they never thought were possible. And, if you have made it this far into this post, I hope you have some willingness to hear me out a bit more. I thought that it may be helpful for me to share my own story of the ACA and the impact that it has had on my life personally. My story begins a lot longer ago than you may have anticipated – in the summer of 1999. When I was 15 years old, I was the passenger in a pretty horrendous car wreck. Without getting into too many of the gory details, I broke my back in multiple places, underwent surgery, and also went to mental health treatment in response to the trauma I withstood. It was a horrific time in my life that made me who I am today and inspired me to be the therapist that has created this platform to explore so many of these topics that are dominating the mental health space we are currently existing in.
From that accident and my physical and emotional injuries, I was left with 2 possible pre-existing conditions. None of this was my fault, none of this had to do with decisions I made, but here I was with physical and emotional scars that I still have today. These pre-existing conditions have led to continued medical treatments including additional surgery, therapies, treatments, and at times, medication. Until the ACA was implemented, I was trapped in a system of being underpaid and burnt out because I needed health insurance. I was in a relationship with my now husband at the time, but we were not yet married. And if you have been on this blog journey with me, being independent and self-sufficient was important for me. Without the ACA, I would never have been able to pursue my dream of being on my own with my own therapy practice. I remember the years between me striking out on my own, and when I got married, feeling such worries and anxieties about what would happen to me if the ACA was repealed, and how I would be able to continue to do the fulfilling work I was doing as a therapist and still have medical coverage if my pre-existing conditions prevented me from having access to insurance on my own. I share all of this because having a face to the ACA, a face of someone who has been doing it right, may help to humanize what it can do for people in our country. I am so thankful for the opportunity to start my own practice and I know that I would never be where and who I am today without feeling secure in my health insurance coverage in order to make the jump into private practice.
As I said in my last post, many people may be critical of my decision to become a little political in these posts. When I think back to last January, when I decided to begin this blogging journey, I had a very long list of therapeutic topics I was ready to write about. But then, 2020 happened, and everything that was no longer is. What I do on a daily basis has been centered around politics in a way that it has never been before, I feel an obligation to be a voice for the human side of the theoretical topics that are the hot topics in our world. I am unsure if any minds were changed through this post, but hopefully I have offered some additional enlightenment and maybe opened your minds to the possibility of different ways of looking at things. To be honest, this post may be a bit more for me, and to help me to process all of the thoughts that are going through my head and heart through this crazy time. Regardless, I want to thank you for reading and joining me on this journey.
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.
I have been practicing therapy for 14 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.