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Hope Forward: Surviving and Thriving through Emotional Pain: 2015

Monday, November 16, 2015

There's Been a Rash of Break-Ups Lately

And they are so very painful.  Really and deeply.  So its worth an updated post on the subject.....

All the memories, the promises, the plans, the hope for the future seem to come tumbling down.  Thoughts can seem endless and ruthless.

And the feelings too:  The ache, the longing, the hate, the love, the desperation, the sadness, the frustration, the grief.

And the ruminating and obsessing and ansiness and exhaustion and urgency and irritability.

And yes, of course, there's so much you can do to help yourself along, to work with your mind and heart.  Especially when its new.  When you are still in the "right after."  Even when you don't want to. Even when you don't feel like it......

Here are a few Tips:

(yes, they all start with "T" - just a way to remember them)

Talk:  Tell your story.  Tell your pain.  Pick a few trusted ears and talk it.
Time:  I know its cliche, but is true.  Time will help.  It will smooth things along.  Give it time.
Tell the Truth:  About yourself, to yourself.  First, work on unhooking your self-worth from the break-up.  It may feel like your sense of self is in the gutter, especially if you did not want the break-up.  But take your self esteem out of it.  You still have infinite worth and are lovable.  But also Tell the Truth about your part in it.  If there were things you did, or parts of your personality that may have contributed to the issues in the relationship, be brave and get to work on them.

Tune In:  Pay attention to the quiet messages - the damaging ones that your mind is sending you: (you'll never find someone else, you can't survive w/o him/her/this, you can't stand being alone, you'll never feel this way again, this is the only kind of love there is, I'm not doing this again, I will never trust again) And Tell those thougthts to go sit down and have a cup of tea.  Tell them that you know it hurts, but you're not going to listen to them bossing you around right now.  (You may have to do this over and over again, and you may also have to take them a part a bit, if they are still pushing you around).

Tease out bad equations:  if he doesn't want me/this = I am not wantable, lovable = I am doomed, no good = life stinks forever.  Or  if he doesn't want me/this =  s/he is terrible, messed up = what was I doing with him anyway = love stinks = I stink = I may as well eat/drink/starve/use = who cares anyway.

Take in the world:  Let your observing self take over for a bit.  Look at the trees, the sky, the birds.  Feel the wind.  Smell the rain, the fresh air.  Notice the world around you and take a break from the thinking.  When your mind starts in, say, "Thinking" to it, and go back to your observing self for a bit.

Take opportunities:   Say yes to going out with friends, or yes to resting or yes to anything that is healing and nourishing that comes your way.

Tolerate your feelings:  Don't fight them.  Let them be.  You don't have to act on them.  You can remind yourself that they will come and go and that some moments and some days will be better than others.

Thanks:  It does help.  It really does.  To keep up with what you yes have.  Make a list in your mind or on paper of what you are thankful for (eyes, fresh air, friends, a comfortable bed.....)  Studies show that this helps the brain release good hormones and helps us feel better and tolerate our sadness better.

There is a process.  Sometimes, it is helpful to see if its possible to fix things, or return.  But sometimes we need to work with what is.  And we can work with our minds to move forward and feel better while allowing all of our feelings.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

In the Story With You

There are lots of ways these days to change.  Lots of ways to gain insight, seek and find inner peace, love and meaning in life.  Lots of ways to work with our minds, our hearts, our spirit, our psyche.  Our traumas, our relationships. In the world of therapy there are lots of initials - CBT, DBT, EMDR, ACT (a personal favorite of mine). There are so many tools we have access to: mindfulness, writing, meditation, reading, somatic work, yoga, exercise, prayer.  So much more.  So many twelve step programs. So many therapies. So many ways to grow, to learn, to live.  And they all have value.  They all have so much to give us, to teach us, to help move us along toward better feelings, better experiences in life, better relationships, connections and ideas.

I continue to be an eager student of what comes my way.  I continue to welcome and seek new ideas, and old ideas that resurface and reinvigorate and recycle just when I seem to have need of them. And I marvel that in the vast sea of Internet and media, so much is so accessible, so easily.

Over the years, though, and through all my training and experience, both personally and professionally, it still seems to me, that one of the most important, most essential healing elements is to have the experience of not being alone in our
story.  Of being understood.  Simply, truly, quietly, authentically.

Even when we work with skill based approaches, or philosophically based approaches, value based approaches, we are working with the idea that while the work is ours alone to take responsibility for, to practice, to expand from and with, that we are not always alone.  We can have company in our unique story.  We can know as we learn that the reason these ideas and experiences and therapies exist is that somehow, somewhere, someone, more than someone, understands what we are going through.  That no matter how unique our circumstances or our particular story is, we are not as alone as we feel sometimes.  And in the age of extreme media, and diminishing personal contact, and while we are learning and practicing and experiencing new methods, new ideas, new ways to work with our minds, its so vital to remember that the basics of healing are found in sharing our stories and resonating with each other.

Tuesday, August 4, 2015


I recently heard the following story:

A teacher walks into his classroom of third graders - just a bit late.  Five to ten minutes or so.  He is in a bit of a mood, feeling annoyed with himself that he is late, and in a hurry to get the class going. As he is walking in, one of his students, a little boy, is holding his left arm straight up, fist clenched.  With his right pointer finger on his right hand, he is pointing to his wristwatch and staring straight at the teacher.

Fuming, the teacher goes to the front of the classroom.  Steam coming out of his ears.  He is not interested in rebuke from this kid; he is not interested in having his lateness pointed out.  He is going to pull this kid out, he thinks.  He is going to yank him out of the class room, let him know who should be reprimanding who, give him a good loud message that everyone can hear and then send him to the Principal's office.  He will not be putting up with this kind of blatant disrespect from a student.  Things today have gone too far.  Way too far.

He then remembers his own private rule.  A rule that he has promised himself he will abide by.  No matter what.  He will wait.  He will wait 30 minutes no matter what, in any given situation short of a fire, to speak.  He will not react or respond to anything or anyone with words or actions for 30 minutes, no matter what.

He opens his lesson book, forces himself to ignore the child, and tells everyone to get out their math books.  He teaches the lesson.  He gives the kids a short break and he turns his attention to the boy with the watch, who is now running up to his desk.  Before he can get a word out, the boy says with utter sincerity and a shinning face:  "Look, Mr. Adams, my father got me a new watch for my birthday!  I couldn't wait to show it to you!"

I think that we have just got to work with our minds.  We have got to pay attention to our thoughts, our perceptions.  We just really don't know sometimes, what is really going on.  Even when we are calm, even when we are sure.  It's not that we cannot trust ourselves.  It's that we have to know ourselves.  We have to be willing to wait.  To consider the power of thought, of perception, of speech, and of our actions.  So much of our suffering is based on perception.  So much can be reworked.  Yes, we need to honor all of our thoughts and feelings, to use them as guideposts to our needs, our desires and  to propel us forward.  But if we don't slow down and sort out some of that thinking, if we get too wrapped up in what we think we know, in our thinking, we may be missing out on a whole new world both inside and out.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

The Land of Doubt and Maybe

It can be painful not to know.  Not to know if you should stay in the relationship or leave.  Not to know if you should stay at your job or try to find a new one.  Not to know if you should try to forgive someone who has behaved badly or who has hurt you.  Not to know if it is you who is messing things up, or if it's someone else's fault, or exactly, generally, what the breakdown of responsibility is.   It can be painful not to know if you should reach out and try to make an amend.  Not to know why this (whatever this is) is happening.  Not to know if someone can grow, could be worked with, could understand.  Not to know if we should invest time, or money or emotional energy or all three to find out, to work it out.  Not to know what will be worth the effort and what will just disappoint us further.  Not to know if our fears are real, or our feelings are trusted guides or only reactions based on old patterns of defense.

Here's what happens sometimes, to some of us.  We want it to get  better quickly, of course, when it hurts. We want to know, or we think we do. Give me a solution.  Fix it. Fix me. Fix him/her.  Don't make me wander around in it, or venture into the unknown, the unpredicable.   It's too uncertain.   Too frustrating.  Besides, we think, how will it help?  And sometimes especially when our emotional well-being or sense of self seems to be latched on to someone or some situation being different, we lose faith.  Often, we (usually unconsciously in part at least) hook our self worth, self esteem, peace of mind to what someone else thinks, understands, agrees with or does.  We get lost trying to find ourselves.

The land of doubt and maybe can seem like an endless mine field.  We just don't know exactly where the emotional bombs are or what the point of forging forward is, or how, even if were were willing. So much so sometimes, that we don't even want to look around.  

Seems to me though, as I continue to hear so many stories of emotional pain, frustration and confusion, that we are more resilient than we think, sometimes more reslient than we want to be.  And most of the time, when we ease up on our selves, we somehow can tolerate not knowing just a little bit better.  I find too, that we when this happens, the instinctively correct answers seem to come, they seem to emerge from some quiet healthy place deep within, and then instead of the land of doubt and maybe being littered with bombs, it becomes abundant with possibilities. 

Monday, May 4, 2015

Monster Bash

I know there is a great and worthy debate about the various ways to deal with anxiety and treat anxiety disorders - from mindfulness to prayer, spiritual fitness to embracing the rage,  from CBT to ACT, from unpacking unconscious repetitions, analyzing the sources and then, some gentle but worthy combination of all of the above.  So many good ways to work with our human mind and heart.

Do we feel our feelings and use them guideposts? Do we push them away? When do we act on them and when do we sit still and wait?

So here's another combo, in some way of all of the above.  And by no means do I think this is easy or fast, but I do think it's useful.  It plugs into the possibilities and ways that we help ourselves live life and feel life and more forward:  Telling the monster to sit down and be quiet.  Here's what I mean:

For most folks who have some kind of recurring anxiety or continuous anxiety, whether it seems to be situational or external (a kid acting out, job stress, money issues, relationship issues), or whether it seems to be more internal (having the idea that worry keeps us safe, or that if we don't worry we will get blindsided, or that we have to worry over it to figure it out, being overly concerned about what people think of us), there are usually recurring underlying story lines.

There is a strong case to made for analyzing the story lines.  Studying the different fears and the different thoughts underneath the different feelings.  And almost always, it's the quiet chaser thoughts that are ruling the day and have us by the throat.  It's not that we think "I am so overwhelmed."  It's that underneath that we think "I cannot handle the overwhelm.  I cannot stand it.  I'm doomed no matter what."  And it's not that we think "I screwed this up." It's the quiet whisper of  "I am terrible. I am worthless. I am worse than everyone else. I am not okay.  I am not safe.  I cannot have what I need and I never will.   Things will never get better or be okay."

And it's not that we ask ourselves "How will this ever get better?" It's how we ask it, and with what tone: curiosity or animosity?  And  that we hear underneath "It will never get better.  I am a bad mother/father/spouse/person. It is terrible to make mistakes.  Forget it, you're hopeless. You're awful.  Things are awful and you will lose everything.  You cannot stand this."

There are themes, though, that we can identify.  And after we get to know our themes, and after we've done our inner research and we have answered those deep whispers, in addition to continuing to answer them, we can also see them as one of my young clients does:  as monsters.  Funny looking, over sized grouchy monsters.  And we can feel them coming.  We know the feelings they bring.  We know the theme thoughts they bring.

And we can tell them to go sit in the gallery.  Go sit down because we know what you have to say, and we know what feelings you bring and we know that going along with you only is a repeat of the same old same old and never takes me anywhere but down.  So go sit down in the bleachers with the other monsters and be quiet."

Here are examples of "monsters":

Triggers: Hard day at work, disagreement with spouse, lots of housework to do, kid getting in trouble, unexpected expense, someone saying something mean  , difficult conversation with a parent. (add your own recurring themed ones!)
Feeling lead: Dread, panic, frustration, doom, shame, guilt, resentment
Thoughts (see above)

So sometimes we need more exploration and answering the quieter thoughts and feelings, and sometimes if we see the same triggers over and over again, and we've been through all the real and deeper answers to the deepest whispers, its time to say to the monster, "Yes, I see you.  I feel you coming on again.  Here you are again.  Now, sit down and be quiet, I've got a day to live."

It's not magic, but if we practice it, repeat it and move on, we often see that new feelings and thoughts and ideas present themselves and life opens up in ways that are so much better than being led around by the same ole' same ole monsters.

photo credit:  | Dreamstime Stock Photos

Monday, April 13, 2015

Don't Ask - Don't Tell

Seems like there are so many ideas in the world about how to live our internal lives.  Religious ones, spiritual ones, philosophical ones, psychological ones.  Sometimes, its hard to know where to focus our thoughts, our energy.  Sometimes it feels like it's so overwhelming, why even bother to ask.

And similarly, why bother to ask about ourselves, or about others, or about how to work with our minds?

In my office I hear a lot of pain.  I hear a lot of fear.  And urgency.  And more fear.  Fear of not getting what we want.  Or what we think we want.  Fear of having things we don't want.  Fear of not being good enough, happy enough, satisfied enough, loved enough, lovable enough.  Fear of making wrong decisions, or of being left out or missing out.

So lots of times we don't even ask.  We function in ways that seem to be what we need, but somehow, don't actually move us forward.  We stay safe, and somewhat asleep to what thoughts are repeating, what ideas are guiding us, what notions keep us stuck.

We think that if we ask, if we look, we will have to do more, know more, figure out more.  We think we will be told things we don't agree with, or that will keep us from getting what we believe we have to have.

I have seen this played out in a thousand ways:

Pursuing a partner to the point of pushing him/her away.
Pursing money to the point of losing a job.
Pursing a point to the point alienating someone, or sabotaging a relationship or job.
Pursing relief externally to the point of addiction, compulsion, danger to one's self or others.

And the opposite:

Ignoring what someone tells us they feel, need or are effected by to the point of damaging a relationship
Ignoring that quiet, innately healthy voice that we hear whispers of, when we are quiet.
Ignoring good advice, good sense, good wisdom to the point of destruction or loss.

It's hard to ask.  It's hard to get curious about our behavior, our minds, how to work with our minds.  We are afraid.  And it takes a bit of time, a bit of talking, to clear the path and come to what works for us, uniquely, individually, and instinctively.

But when we are willing to ask, we are on the way, and that in itself is something.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Internal Solutions for External Problems and Agency Over Our Lives

Usually when something is going wrong in our lives,  if we are going to address it,  we first look to change it from the outside.  We look to change the person, place, situation, relationship, routine.   We are convinced that while we could look at our attitudes or perceptions or behaviors, really, something external has got to be different.

And sometimes that is true.  We need things to change.  Sometimes they can change.  Sometimes external problems need external solutions.

But sometimes, we need an internal solution to an external problem.  We need to slow way down and take a second look at how we see things, how we and others experience them.  We need to get curious about our convictions, our assumptions, our beliefs about why things are going the way they are going.

Its not about assigning or reassigning blame.  It's not about blame at all, actually.  And in fact, when we can take the blame out, even just for a little while, we can discover so much more about ourselves, and about what we need and feel and believe.  And moreover, we can come to a new agency over our lives that is not dependent on something or someone being different, or in fact, on any outside shift.

We can open ourselves up to what the meaning might be for us, on our journey, in this life.  We can shine a spiritual light on things, and wonder what we might glean from our struggles, our pain, our circumstances.  And how experiencing them differently might make all the difference.

I'm not suggestion that we stay in unhealthy or harmful situations, but I'm saying that we can often be surprised at how much internal definition we can find and how relieving that can be when  we work with how we experience others, how others experience us, and not just what we take for granted as facts  - or what we believe on a surface level.

We can go not only deeper, but broader, to what other possible experiences might be like.  We can risk some vulnerability for the sake of discovering  more of our authenticity and fortitude.  We can work it out inside and that can be life changing.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Start the Conversation (and the dangers of not starting the conversation)

It's not always easy to start the conversation.  Especially if the conversation is about a difficult topic, like not being happy in a marriage, or not feeling happy with one's job, or children or sense of self.
Sometimes we don't know how to start.  Sometimes we don't know who to start the conversation with.  We don't know what we will say.  We are afraid, even, of saying anything.  What if we don't have the right words? What effect might our words have? What effect would we like them to have?

Some people are afraid to put themselves into the equation, thinking they should just live with things as they are, or that their needs are too needy, or too shameful, or not "normal."  Some people think the other person's needs are too needy, too demanding, or not normal.  Sometimes we are afraid we will hear things we don't want to hear, or learn things we don't want to learn about ourselves or someone else.  We think we won't be able to deal with it.

Sometimes we don't start the conversation because we think we will be met with ridicule, or with dismissal or harm.  And there are times where that may be true.  Sometimes we don't start the conversation because we fear being misunderstood, laughed at, or not taken seriously.

And sometimes we don't start the conversation because we believe it won't make a difference anyway.  And sometimes we think that if we start the conversation we are going to make something become real that should not become real.  That we will be stuck with our words as if they are signatures on a contract, as if they are facts forever.  We don't know that we can walk through them without taking any action.  That even if our feelings get stirred up, we don't have to act.

Sometimes we don't start the conversation because we don't really want to.  And when we unpack that a bit we learn that we don't want to because maybe we just are not ready to open up that door. We are afraid of where it will go.  

And sometimes we don't start the conversation because we don't want to because somewhere in the back of our minds we want to take some kind of action and we don't want to veer off the path toward that outcome.  We have in mind what we are going to do and we don't want to think it through, or give another outcome a chance.

From where I sit, in the therapist's chair, all these years, I see what happens when the conversation does not start.  I see marital problems get swept under the rug until one person or the other has an affair, or leaves or blows up big time.  I see people quit jobs on a whim, lose it with children, hurt themselves or others.

Sometimes we are not sure how to talk safely.  But we can learn.  We can learn the right enough words to start with.  Whether we are starting the conversation with ourselves, with our partner, our boss, our kids.  The conversation does not have to be, in fact mostly, should not be, a once and done, intense blow out.  It can be ongoing, and rolling and open ended and gentle even.  We can start with "Hi, I kinda like the idea of starting a conversation - would you join me?"

Recently, someone said to me "As long as we keep talking we'll be okay."  And I'm thinking how great that is.  That I really believe that.  While we are not always emotionally able or ready to jump right in to the deep parts of the issues, and while we may not know exactly where the conversation will go, I think its true.  As long as we keep talking, we are not entirely alone.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Tea With Your Thoughts

I know, sounds odd.  But learning how to work with our minds can go such a long way toward bringing us a peaceful and meaningful inner world - which often translates to a feeling of health and satisfaction in our outer worlds.

Traditional CBT (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy) has long been teaching us how to hear our thoughts, understand how they cause and effect our feelings, our urges, and result in actions and then, of course, consequences.  CBT in it's many useful forms has helped many tune in to their thoughts, sort them through and refute the ones that are based on faulty beliefs, old destructive thought patterns or self-attacking inner voices.  Talking back is often an effective and powerful tool.

But here's another take on the back talk because talking back, getting so involved with all the negative thoughts, trying to refute them, argue with them, tell them they are wrong (especially when we are not so sure we disbelieve them or we have not yet understood their usefulness to us or their origins) sometimes just does not work as well as we might like it to:

Invite them in for tea.  Let them keep talking.  Tell them you hear them.  Tell them to come on in, sit down, have a cup of tea.  And while they are talking and having their tea, do what you know is the right thing to do anyway.

Folks often ask me about how to really sort out the healthy thoughts from the unhealthy ones, and the truth is, it's not so hard once you tune in to doing it.  The unhealthy ones are the ones that have you by the throat.  They are the ones that command you, harangue you, tease you, urge you, guilt you, condemn you, condemn others, spook you, demean you, egg you on toward harming yourself or someone else, with words or actions.

And the healthy ones come from a quieter place.  A place inside that is calm and willing to feel feelings, even sad ones, slower ones, frustrating ones, and just be.  The place that knows that difficult feelings can motivate not debilitate, can inspire and not extinguish your sense of creativity and self. The better thoughts are more reasonable, more poignant, more in line with your overall value system and belief system.

It does take some tending to, for sure, to figure them out, but we don't have to be ruled by them without paying attention to them.  We can tune in, invite all our thoughts to have a cup of tea while
we keep on going from our hearts.