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Blogs for counseling individuals

An ongoing series of informational entries

New years resolution

Walking Again - Thoughts on Grief and Loss

September 12, 2020

I woke up this morning with my eyes on fire. I continuously clear my throat as if I’ve been smoking all day without having smoked anything at all. My cats linger around the house venturing out for short periods only to come back in and languish longer. They tell a story of how they’re feeling without saying a word.

Remembering back to when I began thinking about becoming a therapist, the idea of wanting to help people live better lives rings in my mind. The thought of helping people find their strengths to live life better was at my forefront. It was like I took a hard shot of positive psychology that I thought would carry me through all my practicing. In school, this was a great idea. And then I started seeing clients. My idealism quickly shifted into the need to be able to empathize and explore loss. I started wondering to myself if grief has become an underdeveloped emotion in our culture, and even in my own worldview. I saw that even as I longed to help people find and develop their strengths that I also needed to recognize the injury. You wouldn’t expect someone to run on a broken foot. You’d care for the injury and as it healed you would work with the person to gain strength and run again. Unfortunately this attitude toward physical health doesn’t translate to mental health. It needs to. We expect too many people to run like athletes when they are seriously injured.

Treating an injury doesn’t mean sitting in our sorrow or licking our emotional wounds. It does mean making our pain conscious. It means knowing ourselves and recognizing our loss. If there is a s saccharine lesson that we can take from 2020 it is that we are being forced to cope with loss. We are working through grief in a prolonged way that this collective version on humanity has never experienced. You might read that last sentence and think, “this collective version of humanity? What the hell does that mean?!” It means us. When we grieve or cope with loss we are inclined to compare. It is natural, it gives us space to either pity someone with a greater loss or have guilt and gratitude that we don’t have it as bad as someone else. Comparison has a utility but it also robs us of actually feeling what we are feeling. So when you are inclined to say that “California has wildfires every year” or “we have it so much better than the Spanish flu pandemic” you are utilizing comparison to detach from your own feelings. It is natural, we all do it, but it keeps us from feeling the loss.

And why again would we bother to feel the loss? So we can grieve. Grief is the necessary and painful salve that pushes the infection out of the injury. I’ll use the broken foot metaphor and add a laceration for further impact. You break your foot and have a cut. It hurts but you work to ignore it. You are in denial about the pain. You might wrap it or try to walk it off but it still hurts. The pain intensifies and you become angry at yourself. Maybe angry that you didn’t treat it sooner or angry that it happened in the first place. You put some medication on it hoping that will clear up the infection. You wait a day or two. It still hurts. You don’t want to go to the doctor. You feel depressed at the idea that you may scar up and that your foot may need to be casted. You think of all the modifications you’ll have to make because of the immobility of your foot. You finally go to the doctor and they confirm that you do need treatment greater that what you’ve done. You accept it because you are tired of hurting and you don’t want the infection to spread. You realize you’ll have a scar and be off your feet for some time but are no longer carrying the burden of the injury. It is still tender, there is still pain, there will definitely be a scar, but for the most part, things have been accepted and you are healing.

Now apply this again to emotional injury.

Apply this to the losses you are experiencing today.

The broken foot story is a quick run through of the five stages of grief. They are: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. I will not expound on this much more because they have been written about more thoroughly by better experienced folks. Sometimes just hearing those words paired with grief is enough to feel the injury enough to know you are grieving. Remember, that denial is the first stage so if you are taking a loss and thinking you aren’t grieving… you might be. That is precisely what denial is.

I am finishing this reflection not talking about the macro losses that we have all experienced due to pandemic and natural disasters. Those are a little more obvious. Instead, recognizing and moving through small losses are differently important for a daily process. The loss of almost indistinguishable things piles up and impacts us. The fire. What it does to our bodies, our psychology, the implicit message of smoke in the air or knowing that people are being asked to evacuate. Even if these aren’t direct losses to us, they are things we deal with. They are injuries. We can feel them and grieve them.  

New years resolution

Self care as self discovery and the things that get in the way

September 25, 2019

I haven’t written a blog, updated my website, or even written for my own pleasure really at all this year. When I was a student, I was force fed material to reflect upon and then regurgitated it back through my own filters and lenses. This is called learning. I loved being a student and still love to learn; but I also realized recently that I’d been missing something. It was impacting how I saw myself and the kind of person I thought I could be. In my work, I am required write a lot. There are treatment plans and progress notes – not to mention the regular outflow of email correspondence. My fingers are busy! I began to feel a level of resentment about this and built a story about it that I’ve recently come to understand. I developed a belief that my clinical writing had supplanted my creative writing. Trust me, writing as a clinician is important. Although no one becomes a therapist for paperwork there have been many times that I have been grateful to be able to access my notes. But progress notes are designed for an audience of one, maybe two – me and the client. I have been missing writing for my self and I have also missed sharing what I write with others. I had decided that writing was no longer for me but for my vocation. I was falling into a state of oblivion, but we will get into that more later.

What I identified in my inability to write is the feeling of a loss of self. Loss of self is often focused on people who are inactive. The person who turns into themselves is often seen as depressed. They may have difficulty getting out of bed or finishing a task. These are signs of implosion. Implosion is when the self collapses inward and is lost. Our culture does not like or encourage this at all. Many times, what our culture portrays as depressed is the caricature of the imploded person. What happens when the opposite happens though? What happens when a person is always doing, always moving, always tasking? This is a different state that is still struggling. It may even be depression acted out in a different way. When we are pulled from our self we disconnect from the very thing that feeds us. The state of always tasking puts the self in a state of oblivion. Oblivion is when a day is so filled with tasks that the self is lost. Instead of collapsing inward the self explodes outward into so many shards it is indistinguishable for the person who has lost it. Oblivion is celebrated in a culture that praises production over personhood.

So maybe before going further it might be worth briefly sharing what I mean when I say ‘self.’ To me, the self is who we are in our most authentic expression. The more we balance between implosion and oblivion the more likely we are to discover our self. When we are in touch with our self we are more able to see others because we are aware of our self-interest. When we are in harmony with our self we are less inclined to lay our problems at the feet of others and more prone to accept what is or work for reconciliation. In either case, there is peace because by being attuned to our self we can be in touch with what we really need and what we can actually give.

I find that much talk about self care addresses people who are in oblivion and permits them to slow down. But just because we occasionally pump the brakes on a runaway train toward the oblivion of the self means that we are actually slowing down. What I wonder more is if both implosion and oblivion are unconscious coping mechanisms to keep us away from our own greatness. Here’s the thing: being attuned to the self is extremely scary. If we admit that who we are is authentic then it means we have to come to grips with the fact that others may not like who we really are. It might mean that we won’t be accepted. It might mean if we are authentic we aren’t good enough. In the most tangible terms – “if I write this blog and no one reads it then can I really cope with that rejection?” When the self longs to show itself the ego quickly finds ways for us to defend ourselves. Ego protects us, but ego keeps us from who we truly are.

Ego protects in implosion by devaluing the self by pointing out all that we cannot do and confirms it by keeping us in bed, keeping us in the house, and keeping us from attempting to grow. On the other hand, ego protects in oblivion by stating what we must do for others, for our employers, partners, family, and church. The very things that could help us connect more deeply to our selves take us out of balance when we value them disproportionately to our selves.

Self care is taking time to explore your authentic greatness. Writing for pleasure is one way I do it. Sometimes it is writing like this that I share, other times it is writing just for me. Self care is likely different for others. Whatever it is, the practice of it is coming into alignment with our authentic self. Another example of my self care is to make breakfast on Saturday and then clean the kitchen. It is something that is done methodically and keeps me focused on a sensory experience followed by doing something that maintains the household. It brings me back to parts of my self that I miss during my work week. During the week I so often rush out in the morning and do the minimum to maintain the kitchen, my Saturday routine brings me back into an alignment that I recognize and practice. In current culture self care is also equated to spa days and other leisure activities and these are all great if they bring alignment. On the other hand, if taking time for self-care creates guilt then it might not be self care. Self care is an extension of the value we place on ourselves to be more than what we produce. Therefore, an essential step to self care is being in the practice of thinking of yourself as more than an object required to get things done. Instead you are a being in the world who is able to do many things and some of these things include rest. For the person inclined toward oblivion rest is the slowing down to hear myself. It is reminding myself that I am more than what I do.

Abraham Maslow hypothesized about a “Jonah concept” this is the assertion that humans are capable of greatness but are inclined to run from it. In the biblical narrative God invites Jonah to greatness and Jonah responds by running in the opposite direction. In our human narrative, we tend to run toward implosion or oblivion. Self care is when we shamelessly and authentically run toward who we truly are. Maslow suggests that we reach states of alignment with the self or ‘self-actualization’ when we’ve freed ourselves ‘historical hang ups from childhood.’ When mom and dad no longer have a grasp on what we ought to be we are free to be what we are. When we stop making excuses based on the perceived needs of others to also care for our own interests then we move toward greatness. I believe within this greatness we are also more authentically equipped to love and serve others.

When I originally started thinking about the topic of self care I thought about it in my own life and what I wasn’t doing to pursue my greatness. I individualized the problem. The more I thought about it, as this reflection developed, the more I realized that there are systemic issues that impede the human species pursuit of alignment with the self. I think of why I individualize the pursuit of self and realize that it is part of my vocation and culture. In my vocation I most often see individuals or small systems (couples or families) and work from a micro level. It would be irresponsible for me to end this reflection here and not acknowledge issues in our cultural macrosystem that keep people from their self. And yet, from my own culture, early in my adult life I read Thoreau’s Walden. I identified that Thoreau’s pursuit of self and simplicity was taken into his own hands – though many people don’t enjoy this luxury. So as much as I am writing about states of implosion and oblivion and the need for the self to be addressed on an individual level, I need to also affirm that culturally we have built systems that keep humans in these states. Let me give examples. Implosion can come from lack of access to education, jobs (even entry-level and low skill jobs), and food. I have heard people tell me that the need to lay low and wait for their next food box, literally conserving calories to survive. I have worked with people who have a deep desire to be employed get passed over for interview. These people are in a system that continues to push them toward implosion, sucking away their feeling of value and self-worth. On the other hand, there are people compelled into oblivion by the combination of economic need and external search for validation. Our value for consumerism often compels us to purchase more than we need and blurs the line between luxury and necessity. People are free to spend their money as they will, but the compulsive cycle of earning to chase an external state of peace can put people in a state of oblivion. What can be worse, is the position of people barely earning enough to survive but also feeling hard pressed to build or develop skills to advance. In many ways, these people can feel states of implosion and oblivion all in the same day. I believe that our species has developed systems to keep us from our selves. These systems serve fear and scarcity. It is countercultural to acknowledge that the pursuit of our self-actualization and alignment of the self is frowned upon from the constructs in which we frame our lives.

Thoreau stated that “the mass of men live lives of quiet desperation.” In a time preceding modern psychology he was observing the way culture inevitably separates humans from their selves. His answer was to go into the woods. He heavily invested in his self care through deep introspection and separation from culture. In our modern, technology-saturated, age the ability to step away seems to be swelling into the self care movement. What I think is important isn’t to view self care in the way of escaping society and obligation. Instead, self care is intentionally coming into alignment, even if it is a small daily task. It is not surrendering to implosion or oblivion but valuing and developing the fullness of the self.

New years resolution

The Season of Resolution: Thoughts on an Integrated Approach

December 30, 2018

I have been seeing rumblings of it for months. It comes in a snarky meme of how 2018 didn’t go as planned, or in the way every gym in my neighborhood has banners offering the promise of a “new you in 2019.” It is almost the end of the year and for many of us it means it’s time to evaluate and set some goals.

It is interesting to me that our culture seems to fixate on goals that make people less. “I’m going to lose weight.” “I’m going to stop drinking.” “I’m going to cut out sweets.” These are all narratives that imply loss. It’s as if we begin every year on our own naughty list and white knuckle through January to see if any of these resolutions actually fit. How we state our goals is important. Taking a negative view may reveal our own feelings of inferiority that could be changed to a kinder self-reflection. What if instead of the above statements we resolved to be healthier, change our relationship with alcohol, or recognize the dependence we have on sugar? These are small changes in language that may have a big impact on how we reflect on what we want for ourselves.

And this is where the war is: what do we actually want? This is a very human problem and we struggle to admit that what we want now isn’t always what we want later. We often blame moments when we don’t meet our idealized image of ourselves as being, “not really me.” This is true even if those behaviors are what we do the majority of the time. Carl Rogers called this separation of the idealized image of ourselves in comparison to our actual behaviors “incongruence.” The word literally means that things are out of place. So when what we do doesn’t match with who we think we are the result is that we are miserable. Happy New Year.

But it doesn’t end at this point. Because we are more than just one representation of ourselves. Contrary to the way we portray ourselves to others, every person is multifaceted and filled with contradictions. The brain doesn’t like this. The brain likes resolution. The brain doesn’t always get what it wants. And it is literally our brains that divide the parts our ourselves and how we self-reflect. The left side of the brain likes logic and order. It is the part of us that creates the language to write down what we want and how we will get it. The right side, on the other hand – or brain, likes creativity and experience. It is the part that first, has the experience, but then can’t put it into words without the help of the left – but with no right, the experience would be lost. What I’m saying is that the brain works best when it is integrated in both sides, when we consider our whole selves in our thoughts about our ideal self we leave more space to reflect on ourselves as we actually are. I guess, the question to pose is: Can you love the part of yourself that got up for thirds at Christmas dinner and also love the part of you that will get up at 5:00AM on January 1st to go jogging? Your right brain loved the experience of that food and all the sensory pleasures that came with it; but your left brain really wants to check that box that says you met all your goals of the first day of 2019.

So my reflection on thinking about resolutions is to consider how much I am integrating my whole self into what I’d like to see change in 2019. I want to have both the right-brain experience of changing my behavior and the left-brain achievement of meeting my goals. Here are some 

questions I am asking myself as I do it.

Why do I want this goal in the first place?

Am I actually fine the way I am?

Why am I not at peace with that?

A m I letting outside influence tell me what I really want – and am I listening to my whole self to get a picture of the adjustments I want to make in my life?

Does the goal I set reflect positively about myself?

Will there really be any difference in how I see myself if I achieve this goal?

The problem with goal setting is the implication that there will be a pay-off once the goal is reached. This might be externally true. You might make changes in your behavior that reflect in a way that makes you look like you are more put-together. Even if the outside looks different, if inside changes aren’t made toward self-love and self-acceptance then there will always be something to strive for and something to reinforce the feeling of not good enough. If we know this about ourselves then we have a guide to our happiness. We allow the parts of ourselves to do the things they need to do to regulate between doing and being. We have more wholeness in ourselves, we might even also love ourselves in a way that equips us to better love others. That’s a resolution I can get behind.


How Are You?

August 23, 2018

The precarious implications of “How are you?”

“How are you” is a well-intentioned greeting. Because of some of its implications, I have worked away from using it as a greeting for therapy sessions. Out in daily life the exchange of “how are you,” is expected to have a response of “fine.” In therapy, it may have a much more evaluative tone. It may be worthwhile to see what the phrase really means.

Breaking down the meaning of the phrase

The word ‘how’ is an adverb asking for the condition or quality of an object. The word ‘are’ comes from the verb ‘to be.’ And the word ‘you’ is reference to another person. So, when a therapist asks, “how are you?” as an initial statement they are also asking, “what is the quality of your being?” or if you really want to get out there, “what is the condition of your existence?” Pretty heavy for a greeting.

I would say people likely don’t reflect so heavily on the phrase elsewhere. The thing about therapy is that it is a sacred time meant precisely for reflection. A question like “how are you” is asking a person to immediately evaluate their mood. That is asking a lot.

Evaluating without reflecting

What is also asking a lot is to immediately attach an attribute to certain emotions. If a person has been taught to equate positive or negative connections to specific emotions then this could be difficult. For instance, if a person was taught that it is never okay to show sadness then a sad person may respond to a question like, “how are you” and reflect on his sadness as negative even if it is appropriate or warranted. On the other hand, a person may respond to the question, “how are you,” stating what they have done, maybe a family event, and reflect that it was ‘good’ even if in the midst of it she felt isolated or disappointed. We are often prone to evaluate in the direction that is most socially acceptable.

Is there an alternative?

Many clinicians are taught to work from a place of non-judgement. This is a difficult venture for any human to not work from an evaluative process. There is always good and bad, short and long, light and dark. The point isn’t to eliminate observation but to be slower to judge whether an emotion is inherently positive or negative. The idea is to let something be for long enough to see the connectedness in the opposites. This means that with every light that is cast there is a shadow. No light, no shadow, and vice versa. When we are stuck in a black and white mindset it is nearly impossible to see the world any other way and can create more hardship in our inner lives.

What it means

When we take time to let events and emotions exist without immediately attaching value to it we can reflect deeper on what it means to us. Understanding what events and emotions really mean to us is the discovery of our selves. Attaching meaning as only good or bad leaves life in a black and white landscape that leaves little room for the beauty of human experience.

What is a therapist’s job?

Therapists will ask “how are you?” I inevitably do it out of habit. But when I have the ability to suspend judgement, to suspend evaluation, I find that clients are more able to take time see the nuance in their emotions and perception of life events. If I can hold the space to help a person resist determining something as good or bad, black or white, they are suddenly able to fill in the grays of their existence and color their world with more meaning. Psychologist and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl said, “In some ways suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds a meaning, such as the meaning of a sacrifice.” If you are suffering a lack of meaning in your life and would like to fill it with more depth and color, therapy could be a useful tool.

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