my space tracker

Hope Forward: Surviving and Thriving through Emotional Pain: 2011

Monday, December 19, 2011

Compassion Never Grows Old

A few weeks ago I came across an article about Hedda Bolgar, a 102 year old psychotherapist who is still seeing clients, lecturing and studying the unconscious mind. Bolgar says that she is

"eternally fascinated by the unconscious, where she says pesky problems hide." She says that she loves to listen, to understand, even when people are not saying, or, I infer, don't exactly know, what it is that is bothering them, shaping them, effecting them. I am moved by this, by how it is that after decades of listening to emotional pain, to trauma, to confusing character issues, Hedda Bolgar is, in fact, glowing.

Instead of presenting to the world a cynical view of human nature, of the stubbornness of many psychological issues, Bolgar seems to exude a generosity of spirit and hope. That we do have an unconscious mind, that it is worthy of study, that much of what pains or troubles us, or gets in the way of our growth and progress can be discovered and healed through talking. I continue to like the message that we can take a look at ourselves without doing it harshly. That being understood and allowing all our feelings can open doors to better ways of feeling, coping and living.

The ability to talk, to consider new ideas, points of view, to study ourselves without lashing out at ourselves or others, to release our aggression in productive and not impulsively hurtful ways are not only hallmarks of resiliency and maturity, but outcomes of good therapy. In our quest to live and be better, I think Hedda Bolgar's message of consistency, dedication to the craft and compassion is a strong one.

In the age of the Internet and texting where people can anonymously discharge feelings, make connections without having to show up, can weigh in and click off, Bolgar reminds me of the staying power that is possible. And that being with ourselves, and with others in real time has endless value. And that compassion never grows old. We can study our actions, our motives, our histories, our psyches with a curious and gentle eye. And we can study those of others with the same compassion, even if we are hurt, or lost or frustrated or don't agree.

Our stories are worth telling, worth hearing and we need not know exactly where we are headed in order to start.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Forget It - I've Got Nothing (Getting Underneath Uninspired)

Here's how it goes sometimes in marriages, in our relationship with ourselves, with others, at work: Something just feels flat. We cannot (only) chalk it up to depression, or anger or even massive disappointment. So what then? What is going on with us - inside of us - when we feel utterly uninspired? Forget "lack of motivation," since that doesn't explain it exactly either. When asked we could say, sure, yes, I love my spouse - or the arrangement works for me somehow, therefor I am motivated to stay married. Or I am motivated to go to work because I need the money, or I care about the project in general. Or I care about my own well being, so I keep on keeping on.

Motivation can fall into the background, though it does keep us going through the motions of our lives and our relationships. What comes up in therapy a lot, though, is something deeper, something a bit more spiritual: Inspiration (or lack of it). A feeling of yearning combined with vision, passion. Being awake to deeper desires, callings, a sense of mission and meaning, some urgency even. It is this feeling that seems to get sucked out in the undertow of routine life. And many people give up trying to find it. "I've got nothing," is what they tell me, or "Forget it," which is almost always a catch all meaning "I feel way too frustrated, or I'll never be understood," or "It will take too much effort," "It won't be fast enough," or "Sometimes I really think I hate myself."

Does venting help? Sure I think it does. It feels good to get it out, to calm the anxiety, to get empathy, to have your feelings, even hopelessness and self hate resonate with someone. It helps unblock the road to inspiration, when you think you've got none.

We get caught up in what seems to be the drudgery of the same old same old. And we think that in order to become inspired, or re inspired, that things will have to be new. A new job, a new relationship, a new place. (And that can help, sure, for a time). We can't always keep changing up what we have or make things that are not new become new, but we can be open to making what we have good, or at least better. And to finding inspiration. We can be open to the idea that just because we can't make something new, does not mean that we cannot make it good - really good. Just because we think we are stuck in the same old same old does not mean we actually are. We can refuse to try, to talk, to open the door, or we can be willing. Yes, it may take a little while to get there, to find the inspiration. We may have to dig through some anger, some old stuff, find out why we are asleep in certain ways. We may need to be willing to not chalk it all up to hormones or depression or circumstance and take a different look. Is it worth it? I think so.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Were these said to you as a kid? Do you say them to your kids?

And if so, do you believe them? What kind of impact did they have? Do they have? Of course each of us receives messages differently, but it's always curious to me how much of an impact words and phrases do actually impact us. It may not in fact be true that sticks and stones may break our bones but words will never hurt us.

So here are a few phrases that many folks have heard as they were growing up:

"You made your bed...."

"You are not working up to the best of your ability."

"You can accomplish anything you set your mind to."

"You should have known better."

"You should be ashamed of yourself."

"Sorry doesn't cut it."

"You'll get what's coming to you."

"Chin up." or "Man up." or "Suck it up."

"Stop crying or I'll give you something to cry about."

"Don't let the bed bugs bite."

What to they mean? How to they play in our heads? Do we really have control over letting bed bugs bite? Does "chin up" mean we should not feel sad when we are sad? Should we pretend things don't hurt? Ignore our feelings? Will we really get what is coming to us? Does this mean that we deserve to be punished? That we should be frightened or worried? That mistakes are not allowed? Is saying we are sorry not enough? Ever?

When, and for what, should we really be ashamed of ourselves? And at what age should we know better? How can we know what we don't know? How much can children know anyway?

Can we really accomplish anything we set our minds to? If we can't, then what? Does this mean we are suppose to have control over things so long as we try? How do we know what the best of our ability is, actually? What if we don't want or need to work up to the best of it? Are we failing if we don't? How hard should we try? And what about that bed we made? Again, does this mean we are stuck with what we have? That if we've made a mistake we have no choices. That taking responsibility for our actions means we merit no empathy for errors or mess ups. Or no help getting to a better place?

I think that in the gentle study of human behavior, as we talk through our frustrations and fears, our hopes and longings, it helps to take a look at the words we have heard, to see what runs through our minds. It's a small part of the puzzle of our lives, but worth a look.

Monday, November 7, 2011

"I Should be Grateful...?"

Sometimes when someone is sitting here in the office talking about what's on their mind, talking about what's bothering them, they will stop and say, "I suppose I should be grateful, it could be worse." This always reminds me somehow of having to finish all the food on our plates because people are starving elsewhere in the world.

I think the statement raises some very good questions, such as where do gratitude and a true sense of what we "yes" have fit in with emotional pain and feelings of discontent in our lives? And can we be both grateful and unhappy at the same time? Can we appreciate our blessings and still honor our longings? And why is it that we often feel the urge to temper our feelings? Do we think we should not feel them?

I find these questions come up in the context of marital counseling as well. How do we manage to be appreciative of our partners while we are furious, or frustrated or disappointed with them as well? And also when we talk about our parents. Can we feel our difficult feelings toward them and appreciate the positives too?

How do we reconcile our values with our feelings?

I think the answers are individual of course, depending on our own unique character and circumstance, though there may be some common truths. While some of us are more comfortable feeling how we feel, letting our feelings rise and fall and be what they will, others are more hesitant. We get besieged by shame, or guilt or hopelessness, or the idea that perhaps we are not suppose to feel the way we do, or that there really cannot be any good outcome, or that since there are others who have it worse, our feelings should not be what they are. Except that they are. I have not found that denying our feelings solves much of anything. We can't always get relief as quickly as we might like, but keeping ourselves in the dark does not usually offer us good results. Neither does attacking our selves for the feelings we have. Nor does misusing gratitude.

That being said, I think that we can employ gratitude to help us with emotional pain without using it to invalidate our feelings. It does help to count our blessings, from the simple to the sublime. We can breathe clean air; We can see fall foliage; we can walk; even the basics, that are not so basic to everyone, can be starting points when we are in emotional pain; gratitude can certainly help put things in proper perspective and give us context. It can help us to feel better and see things differently.

But emotional pain is still pain. We still feel what we feel, and sidestepping feelings in the name of gratitude or using gratitude to avoid what is true for us usually just stalls our progress. So here's where the talking can help. We can let all our thoughts and feelings breathe; we can tend to them, see what they mean to us and make forward movement from there. The trouble, I think, is not feeling how we feel so much as it is attacking ourselves for feeling how we feel and then acting on the attack without having given ourselves a talking chance.

Monday, October 24, 2011


According to Wikpedia shame is "variously, affect, emotion, state or condition." In here, in my office, it's what sometimes comes up when unpacking feelings, events, memories, and things that have shaped us. It seems to be lurking sometimes, underneath anger, exhaustion, fear. It often gets mixed up with regret, remorse and rumination. It comes out often during discussions about actions and choices, past and present, relationships, fantasies and wishes. We are ashamed about all sorts of things.

Sometimes, we are ashamed about what we have done because of what someone else might think or expect of us, or what we think they would think or expect of us. Sometimes, it is our relationship with ourselves that brings it on, when we believe we have crossed over a line and nicked our own values, beliefs or self respect. Or when we think we are out of control in some way, or have made an unforgivable mistake.

And of course, many folks carry a lot of shame from the past, from childhood wounds or violations, from the actions of parents, from having bad feelings about actions of their parents. Shame can be confusing and painful all at once. And talking about it can be far from easy.

While some shame can be simple, uncomplicated and fleeting, from, perhaps, a passing thought, or a feeling we don't think we should have, the other kind of shame is deeper, darker and seems settled into the psyche. It is this kind of shame that requires more tenderness, more airtime, and more studying. We cannot just wish or ignore it away.

People often ask me, "so, what do I do with this feeling?" I don't think there is any one true answer. It does help to study it though, I think, a bit, before deciding what you might like to do with it. I think when a feeling is so bad, we tend to think we should or would like to just get rid of it, make it stop. But shame, like any feeling, can be put to good use. Getting rid of it may be the ultimate goal, but sometimes feeling it, considering what beliefs are holding it in place, and how it may help to move us out of a bad situation, or dangerous behavior can be helpful. Sometimes shame is blocking our self esteem. It may be standing in the way of genuinely good feelings about ourselves.

Sometimes, shame, like grief and anger, while difficult to bear, can be a connection to a person or time that we miss or long for, even when, confusingly, the situation caused us pain or trauma. Feeling shame can be a way punishing ourselves for something; we may be confused about what we really deserve, or what our role was. It may be a way of protecting ourselves from acknowledging the shortcomings or errors of others, or protecting them and ourselves from anger or disappointment. It may be a way of holding us back, if we are afraid to move forward in other ways.

When shame is a deep emotional imprint, it does not generally go away by instantly changing the thought behind it. It takes a bit more than that. It's not as simple as knowing that everyone makes mistakes, or that you are not the only one, or it wasn't your fault, though these may be helpful and true. It takes talking, and bravery and a willingness to reveal it, and then it can be decided what to do with it and why.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Single and Looking for Love...

Or at least a date?

You are not alone. Seems that meeting someone has become more tedious. Why is it that so many people are finding that it's so hard to meet the right (right-enough) person. The difficulty meeting someone seems not to be biased towards men or women. In my office, I work with singles of both genders who interestingly enough have many of the same concerns about how and where to meet someone these days.

Most have tried online dating, the bar scene, a meet-up or two. A few have tried speed dating, bachelor auctions. A bunch more have tried flirting at concerts, on cruises, and at the grocery store. Some venues, it seems, work better than others. And some singles tell me that they are decidedly biased against certain kinds of venues, and for a variety of reasons. Some say having to be proactive at all feels wrong, who wants to feel "desperate" enough to have to actually go looking for love. (Though feeling desperate and being desperate are not the same. Feelings are not always facts, after all). But many believe you shouldn't have to look. Love - initial meeting and all - should just happen.

I agree. It should. But it doesn't always. One of the things that many singles who venture out looking must face is the slamming loss of that fantasy. The deeply romantic wish that love would just happen. The romantic in me must tell you that I do believe that it does happen. But the pragmatist in me also must tell you that going out looking can help things along.

Someone told me recently that she decided that she would have coffee with 200 men. (Not at the same time). She tenderly took her perfect "how I will meet the love of my love" fantasy, and all the longing that went with it, and tucked it safely away in her heart, and made a list of every possible way to meet a man. She then picked the three "best of the bad" options and committed to having coffee with 200 men. She married number 162.

I know the bar scene can be tiresome. I know that online dating is risky. I know that speed dating can be daunting and frenzied. I know that it's hard to bump into all that potential rejection and disappointment, to have to put in time, emotion, hope and effort. It does seem easier to curl up with a good book, a cup of tea and your cat. And your fantasy.

I think though, that there is an aura to meeting someone. The things you try may actually yield results, or sometimes, just by opening one door, somehow, another door opens too. I do not pretend that this is easy, not at all. It can help to stay curious about what the options are, what it means to try them, how and when to stay the course and when to take a break. It helps to unpack what gets in the way of making the effort, everything from fear to frustration. Usually, there is quite a list. And to consider that there is a difference between waiting and preparing. Doing what is possible to learn about ourselves, about what has shaped us, what holds us back, what we really long for, can go along way towards new doors opening. And of course taking exquisitely good care of yourself by nurturing your friendships, your body, your spirit and your creative drives goes a long way toward helping your resiliency during the search, toward surviving loneliness when it bites, and toward fostering a strong sense of self, which you can carry with you when love does, at last, knock.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Emotional Loneliness

It's that feeling that you are all alone in the world. Like you are in a vast vacant place, all alone, even in a room full of people. Sometimes it comes with a pang in your chest, a heaviness in your heart, a deep sinking feeling in your stomach. The feeling is sitting on top of the belief or thought - firm conviction even - especially in moments of severe emotional pain and longing - that no one understands, no one gets it, and no one ever could. Not exactly anyway. Sometimes, it melds into self pity, anger, sadness, grief, depression and hopelessness.

What follows is often a feeling of giving up, or rebellion. We think, "forget it, why even bother?" Or "that's it, I'm out of here." Maybe we mean actually, physically, or maybe it means mentally, emotionally, or that we will stop giving or trying or showing up. We may go to the idea that we are worthless then, undeserving of love. Or that the person who has hurt us is unworthy, either incapable or unwilling to give us what we need. Either way, it hurts.

Sometimes the feeling lasts for a few minutes, sometimes a few hours, and sometimes it gets chronic and lasts for a long while. Sometimes it comes and goes. It's not unusual to feel some emotional loneliness even in the best of relationships. Though we may wish it, we cannot be connected all the time. And when we are hurting this way, it often eclipses all of the good things that may exist in our lives or in our relationships.

In our primary relationships emotional loneliness can be especially painful, as we expect and long for emotional connection there first, and when it lapses or does not happen the way we need it to, we can lose control, lash out, or turn to self destructive behaviors to cope, giving us, perhaps, temporary relief, but ultimately adding more difficulty or bad feelings on top of the pain.

There are options, of course. We do not have to suffer, though sometimes this can seem like our mantra, that we are meant to suffer. We can decide to take good care of ourselves, not just when the loneliness spikes, but in general. We can talk things out with someone, write, walk, sit quietly. We can decide that though it hurts, most likely, we are not the only ones who feel this way, and that it is possible to study what causes it, when and how it happens, and if it is new to us, or in fact a feeling we know well, from years ago. And we can make use of it to get ourselves better and direct our energies toward progress.

And when it comes to loneliness in marriages, I have worked with many couples who are able to sort through the confusion and come closer. Yes, it takes work to untangle the feelings, the history and the needs, but it can be done. And when we are willing to do the work, we do get closer to those we love; we go easier on ourselves and others and we get much more of what we need.

Monday, September 12, 2011

At My Age...

Sometimes in therapy, when we come up with a particularly interesting insight, have an "ah-ha" moment or hit on something that rings deeply true, folks will say to me, "I can't believe I hadn't figured this out before now." Or "At my age, I can't believe I am only just now realizing this." It's funny though, because I hear these from clients of all ages, and on just about every topic from relationships with current partners to childhood influences. And each time I hear them, I marvel at how we seem to expect ourselves to know things that we can't really know until we study ourselves a bit, talk things out a bit, and take dedicated time to reflect on our desires, our feelings, our needs and our actions.

So too, the question "why now?" comes up in therapy. "Why now am I talking about the incident with my old neighbor?" Or "why now does my difficult relationship with my brother matter?" Or "why now, after all these years, does it matter how my mother treated my father?"

And "Why can't I, at my age, figure this out by myself?" "Why isn't there a quick answer that will move me from point A to point B?" "Why is it that the talking helps?"

There are some good articles and studies out about the benefits of talk therapy, which are great to read, but still and all, it's from listening to my clients' life stories, hearing their pain, their feelings, their ideas and their own progress that my own conclusions are drawn. We can (and should) take time to sit with ourselves, to review our motivations, character and longings. But there is something different about talking. There is some kind of progressive relief in being able to say anything, and being heard and understood.

I'm not sure, definitively, what the answers are to the "why now" and "at my age" questions. I think that at least some of the answers lie in the truth that when what we have always done to protect ourselves or to survive, or to keep us going seems to stop working for us, or seems to get in the way of having more of what we wish for, we have to look for a better way. Sometimes that happens in our 20's and sometimes in our 80's and sometimes anywhere in between. And we are, in many cases, better able to study things, endure the difficult feelings that may come up, when we are older and have more support, or life experience behind us. Perhaps also, parts of our past come up years later simply because it's time. Somehow, between our psyches and our spirit, it just becomes the right time to deal with old hurts, traumas or just to start talking about ourselves and our lives.

I think too, that when we ask these questions we are asking them with a bit (or maybe a lot) of frustration sprinkled in, and probably some self attack as well. And often, some sadness. We do wish that we could connect the dots of our past and present more readily, but it doesn't always happen by itself.

The good news is that when we can take out the self attack, let all our feelings flow, often, we get relief on many levels. We get to honor all of our feelings. We get to know ourselves much better, we find new ways of getting what we need that don't trip us up, and we get to move forward.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Would You Marry You?

It may seem like a silly question, but it does have a serious purpose. That and, would you stay married to you? And then, why and why not? I ask this very gently because it is rarely (if ever) a good idea to question yourself harshly - though many of us do. But here in the office, as folks very diligently sort through the ups and downs of marriage, the disappointments, frustrations, angers, and desires, it does help sometimes to take a look at how you view yourself, as well as how things look from your partner's spot.

Most of us do find ourselves assessing the virtues and flaws of our partners, both as individuals and as partners. And this definately has a place. Yet, so does taking a look at how we are as marriage partners. Again, with curiosity, not with criticism, I think it helps us to take a look at what it's like to be married to us.

In studying ourselves in our role as marriage partner, we can reaffirm our good qualities and contributions. We we can also take a look at where we could grow, or how we could shift. Of course, this brings up lots of feelings and often, lots of philosophy and many good questions.

What do we expect from our partner? What do we expect from ourselves? Where do our expectations come from? What do we understand about male/female differences in expectations and needs? What kind of effect do we want to have on our partner? What are our fears? How do we express anger, loneliness, disappointment and fear? How much of our emotional and physical satisfaction should come from our partner? How much should we give? How equal do we expect things to be, and how often?

And how do we express gratitude, appreciation, joy and love? How often? How affectionate are we? How do we receive love, thanks and affection? Do we invite it, encourage it, ask directly for it, openly appreciate it? How important do we think small acts of kindness are? What about contact during the day? Phone calls, text messages?

And usually we do have to take a look at how we were treated as children, and if and how that shows up in our marriages. So many couples fair so much better when they unpack things a bit, study them, and talk about things. When couples are in crisis or when one partner is feeling angry, deprived, lonely, or out of sync, it becomes necessary to open things up for discussion.

I think that among our choices, when we are in emotional pain in our marriages, we can decide to take a deep breath and step into the willingness to talk in productive ways, to see ourselves more deeply, and to go forward towards better.

Monday, August 15, 2011

In Search of Emotional Intimacy

So I am taking a detour from talking about anger. Lately, folks who have been here with me in the office, on the couch, talking, are talking a lot about emotional intimacy in its many forms. Seems we humans are constantly seeking it - in our marriages, families, friendships, work relationships even. We need deep connections on a feeling level. Some of us need a lot of emotional contact, others less so, but we do seek it out. And when we do not have enough of it, we suffer.

We need to be and feel close to others. We need to feel understood, supported, appreciated and connected. Of course we know that we cannot have all those feelings all the time, but we have to have enough to keep us, to sustain through the ups and downs of life. We especially need to have enough emotional intimacy to hold us through difficult times. And if things are going south, or seem to be in one relationship, or part of life, we need to have a strong dose of emotional intimacy in other parts of our life, in other relationships, to carry us through.

Emotional loneliness is only tolerable for limited periods of time. And we can turn to all kinds of ways of coping when we are suffering. For some it's drugs, or alcohol, or food, shopping, gambling. Others get into relationships that may seem like they will provide relief, but turn out to cause more trouble. And some dive into work, or a hobby. There is of course, a broad range of ways to cope.

Some of us are more readily able to experience emotional intimacy, or to build it, be open to it and cultivate it. Some of us are more afraid, more frustrated, more confused. It's not like anyone gives us lessons. And we are, after all, all a mixture of our own biology, culture and experiences.

The search for emotional intimacy is so universal; it never ceases to amaze me though, how difficult the search can be, not just to find or create it, but to maintain it, especially in our primary relationships, where we often hope it will just maintain itself. So much of the day to day stuff of life gets in the way, as do our histories, our feelings, our assumptions. I see here, though, in the process of therapy, that things can get worked out. We can get much more of the sometimes elusive feeling we need. It takes time; it may take a bit of talking, a bit of exploring, a bit of unpacking what's blocking us, but it pays off. We don't have to be deprived. We just have to be willing to search.

Monday, August 1, 2011

10 Questions to Ask Yourself About Anger

By no means am I suggesting that the answers to the following questions are easy, readily available to you, or in any way obvious, though some may be. I think, rather, that they may serve as guide posts toward progress, relief, and insight. While anger is not always the culprit, it does often lurk underneath depression, anxiety, restlessness, discontent, or irritability. While certain angers are clear and apparent, others are more subtle. I think it pays to pay attention to them. Having anger does not mean that you are an angry person, that you have a temper; it just means that you have real feelings, some old, some new, and that tending to them may improve your life in many ways. How we feel anger, what we do with it, is usually based on a mix of genetic, hormonal, biochemical and socialcultural factors. Given that, we can ask ourselves the following questions in our quest to feel better.

1) How was anger expressed or suppressed in my family?

2) What are my earliest memories of feeling angry? With whom? For what? What other feelings do these memories bring up?

3) What are my earliest memories of someone feeling angry with me? Who? For what? What other feelings do these memories bring up?

4) What are my views or ideas about anger?

5) What is the connection between my sense of self and anger?

6) What am I willing to learn about someone elses point of view, character traits, personality?

7) What are my views about forgiveness? Do I forgive myself for mistakes, oversights or missteps?

8) What are my views about compromise, sacrifice and tolerance in relationships?

9) What does anger do for me? To me? To those around me?

10) What would I like from myself when I am angry? What would I like for myself?

Here in the office, each question can be a path to more insight, to relief and to better feelings. Sometimes, it's the talking itself that moves things along, not necessarily the answers. Anger is such a dense topic I think. I see a lot of folks who shy away from it because it can be so painful. Or because of what they think anger may say about them. Many folks find that studying things helps. We don't always or only have to focus on "anger management." We can focus on"anger curiosity," and see where it leads us.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Letters To and From (more tools for anger)

Don't send.

But write, write and write. One of the best parts of anger is that it creates a lot of energy. While it may be hard to think of anger as having good parts to it, there may be an upside. And on the upside may be this: We can learn a lot more about ourselves and others. But we do need relief, and most of time with anger, at least the anger we know we are feeling, we want the answer right now, and sometimes the best course of action is to wait, to not act on impulse.

But waiting, when you are boiling, is no easy feat. So letters, I think, are a good way to do two good things at the same time. First, writing letters brings on relief. Maybe not relief like Niagara Falls flowing relief that we might like, but at least some. Second: writing can slow us down, help us wait, which can make a huge difference in how we respond. And sometimes this can be relationship saving. Letters help get feelings out and clarified, and help us learn more.

So there are two main types of letter writing:

1) Letters to the person with whom you are angry.

2) Letters from the person with whom you are angry.

Both can work wonders. When you write to the person with whom you are angry, let it all out. Say everything. Say anything you want. Write, rewrite, and write again. Give yourself the freedom to put it all out there.

One of the best tools for anger though, is writing a letter to yourself from the person with whom you are angry. You can apologize, explain, analyze. You can write whatever you think you might want to hear from that person. You may even be able to understand where they are coming from. Ironically enough, much relief from anger can be had from understanding the other person's character, history and perspective. Amazingly, you may find that in addition to getting relief, you will open up new doors inside yourself as well. Sometimes, you can even figure out if you had a role bringing your anger about. This too can be relieving.

Some guidelines.

~Don't write letters on email, text, Facebook, etc. The temptation to send them on impulse is way too great. Try the good ole fashioned way: a pad and pen. Or a word document. You can save them, print them, put them in a safe box. But don't send them.

~If you do feel tempted to send, have someone you trust, who knows you well and respects you enough to be honest with you, read it first. Discuss the pros and cons of sending it.

~Wait. Wait at least three days, three weeks or even three months. Reread your letter on a different day, at a different hour, and during the day, and then if you still want to send it, discuss again with a trusted third party.

As always, easy does it. And of course, letter writing is only one of many tools to deal with anger and with hurt. But I do think that when we are willing to tend to anger, to acknowledge it and work it though, we benefit in many ways.

Stay tuned!

Monday, July 4, 2011


Okay, at the risk of sounding hokey (is that the word?) I am going to tie anger into the theme of July 4th. It's not such a stretch, since declaring Independence from anger can actually be cause for celebration. If only it were that easy.

Since many folks have been asking me lately about how to deal with anger, I thought maybe this would be a good day to start a series of posts about anger. (At least I think it will be a series. We'll see how it goes.) And since anger is such a hot topic, I am looking forward to posting on it.

I think anger is such a hot topic because it's so painful, and because there are so many different faces of anger. And because anger can influence the way we act, and live and love and work. We often don't know we are angry, or how angry we are until we have really talked a lot about ourselves, or our moods, or our history, or what is not working as well as we'd like it to in our lives. Sometimes anger hides behind depression, addiction, people pleasing, busyness, sleep. Sometimes it's right there front and center. Anger is not the same thing, at least not all the time, as temper. Anger can last a few minutes, a few hours or a few decades.

So in the quest for independence I think there are a few basic ideas to begin with, and then a whole bunch of tools that can help move you from where you are to where you want to be. The ideas are these:

~Some part of you has to be willing to consider the idea that you may be angry (if its not clear to you).

~You (most likely) cannot order yourself to stop being angry.

~To move through and on from anger, some part of you has to be willing to, or want to.

~Letting go of anger does necessarily mean that you have to forgive or forget.

~Most likely, when you are angry, some part of that anger is directed toward yourself.

~Paying attention to anger is well worth the effort. next post will start with some "tools."
Enjoy the fireworks.

And an unrelated PS....for anyone interested in some great webtools for social workers, check out this blog post.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Night Panic

"If I'm feeling hysterical, its usually historical." ~ anonymous

Someone once told me that nothing good happens after 10:00 at night. Of course I know that this is not a universal truth, but for anyone who is prone to worry or panic, or sleep disturbance, late night can bring anxiety to new heights.

At night, paranoid thoughts can increase, self attack intensifies, and what may have seemed like forgivable mistakes can become relentless self doubt. A friend of mine, who has some humor about her night panic, tells me that some nights she is convinced that there are goblins in her hallway, monsters under her bed and aliens on her roof. Her boss is waiting to fire her; her doctor is waiting to give her dire news and her husband has three secret other wives.

She knows its her brain on rev, but still and all she worries. And the worry is real, and it is painful. She worries about her kids, her marriage and her financial situation. Some nights the worry turns into obsession and the obsession turns into sleeplessness, and the sleeplessness turns into more self attack.

Physical and mental exhaustion, hormones, biorhythms, brain chemistry can all contribute. So can an unresolved bad feeling in a relationship. So can the darkness itself. And one's personal history, even if the connection is not readily apparent. Somehow, late at night the mind can start conjuring up a parade of bad thoughts. An attack of "what ifs" or a barrage of "awfulizing" can take over rational thought. When the anxiety gets really bad, it can leave you longing for relief, but believing that none is really possible. If only there were an ice pack for the brain.

So what helps?

Well, I think that sufferers of night panic have a few choices, and any one or a combo can bring relief at one time or another. And first things first is being willing to believe that relief is both okay and possible. If you are stuck in the thought, however subtle, that the worry is actually keeping you safe from anything bad actually happening, you may need to address this belief first. Planning, consulting and considering can bring good results but when we are stuck in panic, obsession and rumination the pain can be intense and can block the way to solving real issues or getting relief from relentless worry.

Here are a few ideas, in no particular order, that can help with night panic:

~Listen for the thoughts under the panic. Write them down in a stream of consciousness, no holding back fashion. Look over them the next day and see which thoughts are fueling the feelings. Come up with a few good reassuring answers to the panic thoughts (even if you don't believe them 100%.)

~Come up with a few reassuring mantras to say to yourself such as "this too shall pass," "the worry is always worse than the actual event," or "even if something bad happens I can find support and get help."

~Talk back to the panic. Tell it to leave you alone, get lost, that feelings are not always facts and you will not let its panic messages ruin your night.

~Go to bed earlier. I don't mean to sound glib, but for night worriers, turning in earlier can help.

~Distract your mind. Read. Watch TV. Listen to music.

~Take a personal history. Think back to what bed time was like when you were a child. What are your memories? What were your parents doing late at night? Where were they? Did they tend toward calm or toward anxious? What feelings come up? Consider connecting the dots between your experiences now and the experiences that may have shaped you as a child.

~Make a list of everything and anything that is on your mind from things to do - to things that are worrying you. Leave nothing out. Then put the list away to review during the day.

~Make a gratitude list, a victory list, a list of things that are good and right with you, and in your world.

~Follow the feeling and see where it takes you. Don't fight it, study it. Get curious and wonder if it is new or old, familiar or strange. What or who does it remind you of? Might it have a benefit, a message, or a purpose?

~Talk, talk and talk some more. Talk about the things that may be making you feel angry, frustrated or helpless.

In the back and forth between accepting and feeling your feelings and actively using cognitive or behavioral techniques to help bring on relief, consider that there may be many good roads to relief. Often times there is meaning in our experiences, and when we are willing to tap into what that meaning is, we can end up with a richer life experience and better nights.

Monday, June 6, 2011


A few days ago I took a long walk with an old friend. Sheltered by the trees and the quiet, she spoke of how very much she wished she could get a deeper grasp on the subtle facts of her own life and perhaps tell a new story. She was referring to the nuances of her emotional life, such as her constant worry about her professional success, her preoccupation with trying and failing to write great poetry, her feeling that most people don't really care all that much about her and her resistance to spending money on herself.

These things interfere with her enjoyment of a day, with her feeling contentment from her many accomplishments and blessings, and with her making progress professionally. As I was listening, I wondered, as I often do when I listen, about whose story she was telling. Her own, of course, but not only.

Her sister is a competitive, very successful, somewhat famous medical practitioner. Her mother is a musician who longed for fame, but never quite excelled. And her father, though kind, always made it clear that he sacrificed many of his own needs and dreams in order to support her and her sister.

I wondered if she had given any thought to her own narrative as it relates to her early experiences in life, and the experiences of those closest to her. Had she paused lately to think more about what has shaped her deeper and more subtle (unconscious) beliefs?

We were in the shelter of a great park, but we were not walking a therapy walk together, though the conversation certainly leaned that way. But it reminded me yet again how much we really can gain from taking the time to consider our narratives. Of course, in therapy, in the shelter of these four walls, the conversation often leans that way, when it seems it will be useful. Studying narratives can shed light on the connection between our current emotional lives, the lives of those we love and may have been shaped by, and the obstacles to having more of what we might like.

People who come in to therapy often tell me that they feel a quiet (or not so quiet) discontent. They wish somehow that they felt more serene, more content in the day to day. Yes, they want to achieve, to accomplish, to excel, but they are seeking a balance between the desire for success and progress and the wish for a deeper sense of internal peace. I think it's possible. Probable even. And I think that considering our narratives, and connecting the dots between our internal lives and those of our family can help shed light on what holds us back, what it will take to move ahead, and how best to be both mindful and content, while making satisfying forward motion in life.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Do Your Insides Match Your Outside?

There are times when we feel like we are a mess inside, yet we smile and say "fine, thanks," when asked how we are. Not everyone who asks how we are really wants to know, of course. And in our professional lives, social lives, and even with those closest to us, it's not always necessary to say everything. It is not always recommended either.

The glitch is that if you are walking around in emotional pain, and your insides are bruised or churning, and you are terrific at "acting as if," or you are simply not sure what do to with yourself and your pain, looking like nothing is wrong can just deepen your isolation and keep you in the problem.

More than that, though, many folks tell me that they wish their insides would match their outsides, at least most of time. People in emotional pain often wish that they could speed up the process of feeling better and not have to be in the bad feeling for so long. Even though staying with the feeling can often lead to new and better things, to more information about ourselves and to progress.

There are those who wear their emotions on their face, or whose pain is reflected in their eyes. But for those who remain pretty skilled at walking around as if all is well, yet feel like their inner world is collapsing, things can get pretty lonely.

There may be hours, or days where this is fine. Appropriate even. But after a while, acting can become exhausting. It can contribute to health issues, work problems, destructive behavior, or serious self attack.

So where's the line? When is enough acting enough? Who do you tell your troubles to? When do you answer honestly, "I'm a mess actually," or "I feel lousy," and when do you keep up the facade? Usually, I think, when we are truly honest with ourselves about how much we are hurting and are willing to credit ourselves with being worth the effort it takes to go for a more blended life, we open up to the right people. It often does bring relief when we tend to emotional pain by letting go of the pretense of being "just fine" when we are not.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Exhausted? What Kind of Tired Are You?

Sometimes people come in to my office and sit down on my couch and tell me how very tired they are. Exhausted, in fact. Most folks these days have busy lives, lots of things on the "To Do" list. Work, family, just the activities of daily living take up time and space and energy. Physical and mental.

But usually when folks tell me that they are exhausted -with a negative connotation - it's a cue to something deeper, something in the emotional or psychic realm. Of course, if you are having trouble sleeping, falling asleep, staying asleep, or sleeping well, exhaustion has yet another layer to it. But I have found that even when you are sleeping well enough, you can still feel exhausted.

So what gives?

Usually, when we unpack and study exhaustion we may find a few good possibilities:

~Exhaustion can be looked at as a defense - our unconscious mind's way of protecting us from something that we might not want to know - or feel, or might be afraid to know or feel.

~Exhaustion can be looked at as a messenger, nudging us to pay closer attention to our mental and physical health.

~Exhaustion can be a spiritual experience, alerting us to the idea that we may need to slow down and tune into our deeper selves or our spiritual life.

Often, exhaustion is a signal that we are angry, or feeling frustrated, hopeless or resigned about something, or someone. Sometimes it's a way of rebelling against a routine we don't like, but don't think we have a choice about. Sometimes, we may be exhausted because we are busy - on an unconscious level - fighting off a feeling, or trying not to feel it.

It may take some real reflection to discover what kind of tired we are when we feel exhausted.

Yes, maybe we are working long hours, or are busy with life, going through hormonal changes or seasonal allergies, but often, exhaustion has a deeper meaning. We may need to sit quietly, write freely, talk it out with a trusted other, to let the possibilities surface. When they do, we can find relief, renewed energy, and of course, hope.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Nothing to Say (Everything to Say, actually)

There are times when things seem so bleak that we think we have nothing to say. Often, when we think or feel or believe that we have nothing to say, it's because, in fact, we have everything to say. Perhaps we just don't have the right ears to hear it, or we are fearful of not being understood, or of being misunderstood. Maybe we are afraid that we won't get the right words out, or in the right tone, or with the right message. Maybe its because we have experienced being told we are wrong, or we have experienced being dismissed or diminished or disrespected. Perhaps we feel hopeless that our words will not matter or make the desired impact. Maybe we are not at all sure what impact we would like them to make.

Fear, frustration and fury often lurk beneath the surface of "nothing to say." Sometimes, we have the idea that we if say what we want to say it will cause harm, or more harm, or will create a distance rather than a closeness. Of course, this is true at times. Hence the old adage "Does it have to be said? Does it have to be said now? And does it have to be said by me?"

And another sage saying "Say what you mean. Mean what you say. Don't say it mean." These are handy ideas, but sometimes we don't know what we mean. We need to talk things out a bit first in order to figure out what we mean. And sometimes we do sound mean, when we are angry, impulsive or emotionally seeking to lash out at someone who has hurt or frustrated us.

So how do we choose the right words, the right ears, the right time or place? When do we say what we need to say? When do we wait?

A few things, perhaps, can help. First, it helps to know what the goal is. What is it we are seeking? Second, it helps to know what kind of response we might like. Third, it helps to know what kind of effect we might want to have.

When we need to just talk, freely, openly, without reserve, without worry of our effect or our affect, to just be heard, and perhaps understood and supported, then we need more neutral ears.

If we want to inflict pain (if we've been hurt), it helps to know that. If we want to get a message across, get information, get insight, it helps to know that as well. Our choices can be be guided by our goals when we pause to consider what they are. It helps to slow down a bit and give ourselves the gift of relief in ways that help heal us.

It also helps to know that when we feel blocked into silence we can respect that, but we can also know that it does not mean that we have no outlet. We can look under the block and find the right path out.

Monday, April 11, 2011


"...I started to write about my envy. I got to look in some cold dark corners, see what was there, shine a little light on what we all have in common. Sometimes this human stuff is slimy and pathetic - jealousy especially so - but better to feel it and talk about it and walk through it than to spend a lifetime being silently poisoned." ~ Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird

First of all, let me say that if you are looking for a bit of comfort and company in a moment of quiet sadness, any of Anne Lamott's non-fiction books will do the trick. I am unabashedly a big fan.

Next, I wanted to write a bit about jealousy, since it comes up often in the work of psychotherapy. Jealousy implies that someone else has something (or someone) that we believe we want, need and cannot ourselves have. In its most painful form, it can leave us feeling bitter, undeserving, deprived and altogether twisted.

In my office folks come in to sort through jealousy of many varieties. I often hear about how the parents, marriages, accomplishments, finances or talents of others are more desireable, better than, or just better.

Some folks are jealous of what seems to be other people's peace of mind, mental stability, spirituality or inner calm. What I find to be so real and so human is that as painful as jealousy can be, most of the time, the things we want are things we can have, and the things we cannot have are things that may very well not be good for us, for our exact nature, character or personal growth.

Jealousy implies that what we do have, what we "yes" have, is unacceptable, not enough, or insignificant. It implies that we are less than.

Jealousy's greateness however, is that though it can be painful, it can also be our teacher. If we hang out with it for a bit, and see what else comes up, we may find out a great deal about what our deepest wounds are, as well as how to heal them. We can also discover what our deepest wishes are, what our priorities are, what we value, and what we might strive for.

Sometimes jealousy is a familiar part of our past emotional lives, a feeling we grew up experiencing, perhaps about or around a sibling or parent or friend. Maybe feeling it is familiar, and sets us up to act in old familiar ways or feel other old familiar feelings. Like being unloved, or left out, or deprived. For some, jealousy was, or is, a great motivator, helping to spur us on to achieve and accomplish.

We can employ jealousy by studying it, and not bracing for it. We can let it take us to that part of us that is so human, where we can forgive ourselves and accept all of our feelings. Jealousy can reteach us that we can be willing to believe that no matter what color the grass seems to be on the other side of the fence, we can plant our own grass and help it to grow.

From there, we can begin to heal, to feel better, to grace ourselves and to find out how to get more of what is available to us, and to reach real satsifaction within ourselves and our lives.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is most often experienced after someone has been through an event that has caused horror, intense fear, helplessness, shock and/or intense physical or emotional pain. PTSD can occur both after being part of the event, or after witnessing the event. The event can be on-going (such as war or abuse) or a one time occurance (an abuse incident, an accident).

Sometimes, however, if you have been through, or are going through an intense loss, a difficult divorce, a sudden change in a relationship, a sudden job loss, you can experience PTSD symptoms.

People with PTSD often reexperience the traumatic event. They often have flashbacks, nightmares, difficutly concentrating. Folks who suffer from PTSD may have physical and emotional reactions to triggers (such as a place, person, smell, object, sound). They are hypervigilant, or avoidant. They may have difficulty sleeping, calming down, thinking clearly. They may feel frustrated with the on going nature of their symptoms, wishing for relief but not being able to "make it stop."

Often, PTSD changes the way people feel about themselves and the world around them. Feeling joy, happiness or serenity can seem impossible.

People suffering from PTSD don't always credit themselves with the real-ness of their experience or their symptoms.

So why am I writing about PTSD? (I don't often post about disorders or diagnoses). Because I think its important not to underestimate your experiences and symptoms or downgrade your feelings. Often in my office when folks come in to talk about pains or life changes, they carry with them a lingering idea, a wish maybe, that they ought to be able to control their feelings better or that they should not feel them at all. Feeling feelings and making good decisions about if, when and how to act on them is an ideal goal, perhaps one that we have to work towards all of our lives. You can suffer emotionally and not have PTSD symptoms. You can also have PTSD and not believe you have it, and then not give your emotional life the attention it deserves and needs.

There is plenty of help for PTSD, for complicated grief, for bruised insides and the pain of difficult life transitions. We can honor ourselves and our pain by recognizing it for what it is and being willing to take good care of ourselves.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Feeling Depressed? What Really Helps...

It seems sometimes when you are really feeling down, and your depression is acting up, that very little will really help. We have more day light now, and the cold air is starting to feel more refreshing than freezing, but is this helping those of you who are suffering from moods that are in the ditch, or anxiety that is flying high?

Not so much, actually.

So what then? If you are among the walking wounded today? Functioning outwardly just fine, but inside feeling like you are black and blue, or numb, defeated or deflated? And tired. Really tired.

Let's say you've gone through the check list of pick-you-ups, like a long walk, or a hot shower, or good talk with a good friend. You've put your face to the sun, taken some quiet time, and even put pen to paper to sort out what's bothering you. And nothing seems to be helping much. What do you do when the old standbys don't seem to be making a dent in your down? What if your mood seems to be going on and on, and sadness seems to be edging its way toward real depression?

So lots of people have been telling me lately, when I ask, that in addition to giving themselves permission to feel how they feel (since the effort it takes to suppress your feelings often just adds to the pain), that they are willing to consider two things.

First, that maybe somewhere under the low mood, or above the high anxiety is anger.

It may take some digging, or some talking to uncover what's lurking underneath, but it's usually worth it. Sometimes anger, painful as it can be, can help turn moods around. We don't have to stay angry, but if we are angry, it helps to know about it.

And Second, maybe somewhere under the depression is an old belief still standing its ground and talking its talk. Maybe some quiet message about your self worth, or your abilities, or your future. Probably something negative and disrespectful to your sense of self.

And well, you know me, it helps to unpack it, to study it, to bring out into the light of day. Better feelings are not always fast in coming, but if we know what's getting in the way, then we have a good chance of clearing things up. And actually, this can really help.

Monday, February 28, 2011

Meeting Yourself Where You Are (Even if you are a hot mess)

Lately I've been talking with a lot of folks who don't want to feel how they feel. And then, more deeply, are trying not to feel how they feel. And of course this is so very human, to want relief, to want to distance ourselves from feelings and situations that are painful, uncomfortable and seemingly unbearable.
It's not that we can't tolerate a bit of sadness now and again, or that we expect to feel great all the time. Most of us understand that moods ebb and flow, so do hormones, brain chemistry, and connectedness in relationships.

But sometimes we get caught up not only in the difficulty of feeling bad feelings, but in the wish and struggle not to feel them. And while, as always, I think that talking things out goes a long way toward relief, progress and new insights and ideas, there are some basics that I think help while we are on the path:

Meet yourself where you are. If you are feeling awful, don't fight it. As bad as anger, frustration, grief can feel, trying not to feel what you feel only delays true relief.

But that doesn't mean that you can't take a breather. If you are a hot mess, cool off a bit by writing things out, talking things through, taking a walk, or a run. Use the rule of three: Wait three hours, three days or three weeks before making decisions based on your feelings. While you are waiting, consult with someone neutral and trustworthy. Making decisions when you are a hot mess can be risky.
And easy does it. When you are in acute emotional pain, go easy on yourself. Bad feelings do pass, and when things ease up a bit, you can take a broader look at what's going on, and put your attention toward making things better all around.
Consider studying your feelings a bit. Even when you feel revved up with a mess of difficult feelings, you can take a deep breath and few minutes of quiet. Anger can teach us what we stand for and believe in. Fear, what helps us to feel safe. Frustration, what we might long for. Are your feelings familiar? Do they remind you anything or anyone? What memories do they evoke? What are your usual coping strategies? Do they work? Where are you successful in finding good relief, and where could you do better?

Though intense bad feelings may be hard to bear, they are also guideposts to our past, our desires and to progress. Even hot messes can yield us better feelings when agree to be with ourselves a bit and go easy.

Monday, February 14, 2011

"S/he Does Not Love Me for Who I Am...but Only for What I Do for him/her..." 5 Relationship Love Myths that Can Break You

Just in time for Valentine's Day! And of course, served up with my usual suggestion that talking helps. It's useful to take a deeper look at why we believe what we do about love and companionship and what it takes to create and enjoy good loving relationships.

Sometimes our beliefs are well grounded and supported by experience. And sometimes, it only seems that way. And they lead to decisions that may not always yield good results. Sometimes, beliefs seem to be supported by facts, but actually, they are myths so embedded in the psyche, that they lead folks down a rocky road. So here are a few of the more common ones....let me know what you think.

Myth #1: S/he does not love me for who I am, but only for what I do for him/her. Okay, I do hear this more from women than from men, but it still derails many a good relationship. The truth is, I think, that we do love our partners both for who they are and for what they do for us. But when we somehow feel used, or unappreciated or are living with unresolved anger or frustration, we feel unloved. And we start to gather evidence for this. And then we decide that it's true. S/he does not love us. Or we decide that our partner is not capable of real love, or that we are not lovable. This myth can be toxic to relationships, and this leads to the next myth (and vice verse):

Myth #2 I do not have to tell my partner with words that I love him/her or show him/her with gestures. They should know. Or they do know. Or s/he is so confident, independent, happy, etc., I really don't have to say or do much. Now, most folks say, when they hear this, "of course, I know I should say it more, or show it more, but its not really that important." The fact is, that most of us need to hear the words and see some evidence on a regular (daily) basis. Bring home his/her favorite dessert. Shovel the sidewalk when she asks. Call often. Order tickets to his favorite sporting event. Buy flowers. Clean up a room. Plan something fun. Whatever s/he says will make him/her feel loved, don't analyze it, just say it and do it. Regularly.

Myth #3 Its fine to tell my partner what is wrong with them and how their family of origin contributed to their personality and character, hang-ups and issues. This does not bother him/her Fact: You may have a lot of insight, and in fact, you may very well be right. And of course, when someone wants to, studying family of origin stuff can really help people to learn more about what has shaped them and if and how they might like to shift things. But telling your spouse what's wrong with him/her and how his/her family caused this is most likely to land wrong and be hurtful. I am definitely a believer in being gently curious about this in therapy, but it often pierces like little bullets when said outside the therapy room. Its one thing to understand your spouse's history, and that may even be helpful to your relationship, but telling him/her what's wrong with their family usually causes a rip, even when they know you are right.

Myth #4 If I have to tell or teach him/her what makes me feel loved, then they don't really love me.

Myth #5 If they don't catch on right away, remember, or if I have to repeat it a lot, then they really don't love me.

I know that if you are in emotional pain, especially from extreme frustration, or have been feeling neglected and disappointed for a long time, its hard to be willing to consider that your beliefs about love may really be myths. Of course, there are times when we don't get what we need and we believe we never will and we decide its time to make a change. But I really encourage taking a look at what keeps you attached to your beliefs. Its often worth considering, even when you think these myths are not operating in your relationship. It's so human to want to make sure we are loved, to feel and believe we are loved. Even in the best of relationships, doubt can nudge at us. Its so worthwhile to take a look at what scares us and what reassures us, and weed out the myths.

Monday, January 31, 2011

Thinking Like A Therapist/Analyst (Getting UnStuck)

"If you always do what you always did, you'll always get what you always got."

"Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results." ~ Albert Einstein

Often people come in to therapy because they are stuck in some way. Or at least they believe they are stuck. Either in a difficult relationship, or situation. Or a job, or perhaps, (and this is often the most painful kind of stuck), in bad feelings, thoughts or beliefs and ideas that no longer serve them well. And a lot of the time, these ideas and feelings seem so automatic that they are hardly noticeable. Like lightening during the day. And when we hear the thunder, feel the fallout, from these ideas and feelings, then we know something is wrong.
So what's the fallout? Bad habits, lots of fighting with your partner, self-attack, lashing out at others, feelings of hopeless, self pity or extreme frustration, anxiety and depression. And the feeling that we are stuck.

Its no small task to change our thinking, or to even get to the root of what our thinking really is. And then, the funny thing often is, when we are able to really get to the heart of our ideas and our thoughts, we are often resistant to letting them go, to changing our minds. We are quite attached to our beliefs, even when they no longer serve us well. And even to our pain. Sometimes our misery is familiar, comforting, or seems to keep us connected to what we have lost.

So here's where thinking like a psychoanalyst or therapist can come in handy. We don't have to operate with a heavy mandate of solving anything so fast. It's lovely when good changes can come about and new solutions surface, and that usually does happen when things get talked out well. Sometimes, it does happen quickly. Either way, it happens when we can do a few things the way analysts are trained to do.

Be curious. Study the problem. Without judgement or criticism, let all ideas and beliefs and feelings flow and be talked about. Just airing them out brings relief. And studying what you really believe and why.

Next, and at the same time, and in no particular order: Wonder why you hold on to what you believe. You can ask yourself, "What is my objection to reconsidering this belief?"
Some 12 step folks suggest making a list of all your fears and then taking each one through the following question analysis: Why do I have this fear (belief). Where and when did it originate? How do I perpetuate it? What would I do differently if I did not have this fear?
Recently, someone told me, "I will not give in to my wife's crazy requests. If I do this, I will be at her mercy. And I will not sacrifice what I know is right." (His wife's requests were not dangerous to anyone). As a result, this man fights with his wife a lot. They are both frustrated, in quite a bit of emotional pain, and thinking of divorcing, even though they do love each other.
Tucked away inside this belief is lots of good info. Why does this guy belief this? What are his objections to thinking differently? What would happen if he believed that giving in to his wife was a great way to make her happy? (And so what if he still thinks she a bit nuts. He loves her). What if, in addition to letting his frustration fly (to someone besides his wife), he learned that some of his beliefs were really his fathers, or his uncles or his way of protecting himself against the way he was treated as a kid? What if he would feel better about himself, not worse, by studying his beliefs?
There are lots of possiblities and examples. And we when let them breathe, we too breathe easier. Life gets better. We can get comfortable in our own minds.
When we feel stuck in the same old thinking and the same old pain, we can find relief by stepping back and letting some fresh air in - in the form of curiosity. It's hard to do when you are suffering, but stepping out just a bit, and into curiosity can go a long way toward new and better things.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Suffering and Loveliness

"When I am willing to question and therefore feel whatever is there - terror, hatred, anger - with curiosity, the feelings relax, because they are met with kindness and openness instead of resistance and rejection. To the degree that my feelings are familiar, that I've felt them before in similar situations - feeling left out, rejected, abandoned - the willingness to allow them offers a completely different scenario than the situation in which they first developed. ~ Geneen Roth, Women, Food and G-d

I've had my head in Geneen Roth's newest book, Women, Food and G-d. And its good.
Among the gems in her latest book, Roth talks about reteaching ourselves loveliness. She talks about acceptance, letting go of self - hate, being willing to feel our feelings, living in the moment and using our compulsions to teach us about who we are, who we want to be and what we need.

Okay, the ideas are not altogether new. The 12 step folks have been talking about these for decades, and so have meditation masters, religious leaders and therapists. Sometimes its the same messages with different wrappings. But the messages are aways good. And Roth's packaging is gentle and easy, and often poignant. That does not mean that living the message is easy, but that's the good news, actually. It means there is possibility.

The messages stretch beyond food and eating disorders, they flow into marriage issues, career, grief, finding love, personal growth. One big obstacle to progress is the negative voice. Roth (and others) call it The Voice. The 12 step folks call it "the disease." Some call it your negative tapes, your inner critic. Your repetitions. Whatever you call it, its the voice that says you can't be helped, that there is no hope, that its all bunk. That you are awful, or that those who are frustrating you are awful. Its the voice of status quo that keeps you doing what you've always done. Its the voice behind the idea that familiarity is comfortable (and it is sometimes!), but not when it is driven by fear, or by the not quite clear notion that in order to stay safe, you will have to do what you always did.
Many of us find that what worked to protect us most of our lives often stops working for us once we are in relationships, or trying to advance in careers, or personal growth as we age along. When we slow down and study things a bit, we can see inside ourselves, our relationships and let things breath and change.
Here in my office, where feelings are welcomed "with tenderness," as Roth says, things can get sorted through, and life can get better.
I often work with couples and individuals who are suffering. Some from obsessions, from anxiety, rumination, or anger. Some from frustrating relationships, fear or grief. People often find that progress and relief come from talking it out, from letting your fear flag fly, letting your anger breath, and then uncoil.
I really like Roth's idea of reteaching ourselves loveliness. Its such a soft approach to all the hard feelings we endure when things are not working quite the way we'd like them to. It is lovely to feel and not be swept away from it. It is lovely to feel and not necessarily act, or destroy or lash out. Or in. It takes practice, of course. But Roth says that we are very good at practicing suffering, that we can redirect ourselves to practicing kindness, to ourselves and to others.
I am, of course, inclined to agree.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Is It Worth the Effort? (Landing on the Upside of Hope)

  • "How you spend your days is how you spend your life..." Writer Annie Dillard

  • So, I am thinking about hope. And about resiliency and about moving forward, about acceptance and about effort. And a lot of folks I know are thinking about these as well. I like the idea of paying attention to what we believe about the intersection of hope and effort and emotional pain and healing... so here are some thoughts...

Is it worth the effort?...

It's the question that nags at our psyches...but it nags quietly. And it has many variations...

Is it worth the effort it takes to work through my anger?
Is it worth the effort it takes to say the right things even when s/he has hurt me so much?
Is it worth it to help him/her understand what I need? (When I wish they would know already)
Is it worth showing up at a 12 step meeting when I'm not really so bad off right now?
Is it worth it to talk about past pains, since they are in the past?
Is it worth it to reach out to someone I've hurt and make amends?
Is it worth it to learn how to forgive?
Is it worth it to keep a budget?
Is it worth it keep talking when I can't exactly define how it helps?
Is it worth it to work on the issues in my marriage?
Is it worth it to learn about my character?
Is it worth it to develop my creative side? To write? To sing? To paint? To dance?
Is it worth it to sit quietly and learn how to slow down?
Is it worth the effort to read things that will inform me, support me, inspire me?
Is it worth it to pray? To meditate?
Is it worth it to consult with someone when I am confused, impulsive or trying to understand something better?
Is it worth it to remember to be grateful for what I do have?
Is it worth the effort to take care of my mind, by body and my soul?

and then this, too...

Am I worth it?
Is s/he worth it?
Am I better off on my own?
Is it (am I) worth the money?
Is it (am I) worth the time?

and then this, too...

What if it doesn't help?
What if it doesn't work?
What if it no one approves?
What if the results are not fast enough?
What if it seems too hard?
What if s/he hurts me again?
What if I have to sludge through a lot difficult feelings?
What if.....(you fill in the blank...)

and what if it is worth it? Or at least worth an honest try?

I think sometimes that when things seem bleak, hope almost seems painful, as if answering "no, its probably not worth it" will protect us from further hurt, further disappointment, further frustration.

I land on the upside of hope. Yes, I think, in most cases, its always worth it.