Heartfelt Thoughts: "I Feel Empty"

When feelings of emptiness arise, it can be a sign that a self-protective strategy is in use (often unconsciously). Emptiness is not an emotion, but a way you empty out your emotions. Being empty could have been a really useful skill when you were younger; it kept sadness, anger, and even happiness away so that you didn’t have to feel their presence. 

Now, being empty does one thing: it keeps you away from these important, guiding forces that are your emotions. You don’t do this on purpose, because if that was the case then you could just stop. This strategy has been used over and over again, to the point where it has become automatic. 

Is there hope that this emptiness will fade? Only if you’re willing to face the feelings underneath. 

In my experience, the more we can look and accept our feelings for what they are, the less control they have over us. Anger can simply be an activation of feeling in your body that indicates a boundary has been crossed. Sadness can go back to being a feeling of loss or longing that reminds you of what you must let go of. 

Real freedom comes from knowing in your bones that your emotions are your ally’s. They can’t hurt you. They show up at will only to guide you forward.

When It’s Time to Breakup With a Friend.

Oooooh, boy, the friend breakup.  Every people pleasers worst nightmare.  You’ve got this friend who you’ve known for a good portion of your life, maybe you met during college or another vulnerable time in your life, and they super don’t jive with who you are anymore. Part of you feels a bit like you “owe” it to them to continue being their friend and maybe even have an internal monologue going that says “come on, just suck it up and be their friend. It’s not like you have to see them all the time, so what’s the big deal?”.  

 Suffer Through It

Trap number one is believing that you have no choice in the matter, that your fate to be their friend has already been determined because you knew them in high school.  That’d be like saying, “well I remember liking oatmeal cookies when I was a kid, so I guess I still have to like those things.” I don’t mean to compare people to food, but what I do mean to illustrate is that sometimes we just grow out of things and yes, that includes people.  

It totally sucks to come to the realization that a friendship is no longer working out and the little guilt monster starts slinging out harsh statements like, “you’re not a good friend if you do this…. he/she/they need you and you’re just abandoning them…they wouldn’t do this to you”.  Trap number two is believing these little statements and using your guilt as a way to keep you from growing or expanding as a person.  However, guilt isn’t all bad.  

 Guilty Conscience

What that emotion is showing you is that you care deeply about the person in question.  You don’t want them to feel hurt or sad, and sometimes we register the guilt as a “message” suggesting that it’s not right to end the relationship and that only a person doing a bad thing would feel guilty. I think a better option would be to listen to this guilt and realize that you can use It to deliver your message in the most heartfelt way possible.  

The truth is that we cannot protect other people from their feelings; They’re going to happen whether we like it or not.  What we can do when it comes to a friend breakup, is recognize that our job is to communicate our intentions, feelings, and decisions to the other person.  We do not need to orchestrate the perfect moment to deliver our message in hopes that it will prevent our friend from feeling bad, sad, mad, etc. Our friend is going to likely feel those things, and that’s okay. It’s not up to us to prevent that. In fact, I’d say it’s better for them to feel all of those things in one honest conversation than to feel them slowly over time as we silently pull away without giving an explanation. 

How To Start

There are several ways to go about a friend breakup, but really the best way to determine how you want to do this is what would be an approach you can feel okay with? For some of us, it means being honest about how we’re feeling, communicating it in a kind yet assertive way, and moving on.  However, not everything can be conducted in the most perfect fairytale sort of way.  In some cases, being less direct is actually the more kind and appropriate way to handle the situation.  

For instance, breaking up with a friend who is highly self-deprecating, insecure, and see’s the world in a more negative lens, might be better served through small doses of weaning off the friendship. Setting more limits during hangouts (sorry I can only hang for an hour), bringing them along to group settings to reduce one-on-one time and keeping that cadence for a while might work to both of your benefit. 

If this feels wrong or too sneaky, know that it’s always your choice in how you want to approach this. The way I think of this particular approach is by asking myself the following questions (which I believe is found in many Buddhist practices): “Is It True? Is it Kind? Is it Necessary?” Depending on your friend, this might be the kindest and most necessary way to breakup. However, if your friend is blunt or maybe struggles with a personality disorder, you might be doing them more of a solid by being upfront and honest with them.  

Speak and Act From Your Heart

It’s so important that you first and foremost treat yourself with compassion while you’re going through this breakup.  You’re not trying to hurt your friend; you’re doing something that is really hard and it’s often not talked about (so it’s not normalized and we can end up feeling really ashamed at our desire to end a friendship).

I also think it’s wise to speak and act your truth, from a heartfelt place.  You don’t need to overly apologize, beat around the bush, or downplay your own needs (i.e. “it’s fine, I mean I guess if you don’t mind, but I don’t want to burden you”).  If you grew up wearing polyester but found out that it was giving your skin a rash, would you continue to wear it? I doubt it.  The truth is that sometimes friendships end and it’s up to us to honor that friendship and its subsequent breakup with dignity.  

 

My Top 5 Therapy Values

In Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, the major focus is on learning how to accept thoughts and feelings as they come (without trying to ward them off) while still committing to your values and the life you find meaningful. Values are different than goals. They have no “end point” and serve more like a compass does, always pointing us in the direction we are trying to go.

As a therapist and business owner, I have to follow my values if I want to feel in alignment with what I do. I use these values to guide me, my sessions and my business decisions! Here they are. :)

Compassion

 My client's often tell me that they appreciate the compassion I extend to all parts of themselves (especially the parts they deem as "bad" or "unlovable").  To me, compassion isn't about being nice or sweet, it's about recognizing that all of us suffer in some way and being present with the suffering, without judging or turning from it, is the hallmark of compassion.

Laughter

I absolutely love laughing with clients when the setting is right! I swear, I've earned some extra abdonimal muscles from the amount of laughing I've done with clients. Together, we can laugh with joy at the remarkable progress they've made, or we can laugh at a moment of recognizing an anxious thought for what it is.  Whatever the reason, I make sure to bring humor into the session when it's appropriate and the client feels safe with me.

Embracing Imperfection

This one is such a joy for me to experience! Client's often have this idea that therapists have their shit together, but the reality is that we're human like everyone else.  I love bringing my imperfections in the room to bring down the "perfection myth", but even more, I love helping client's embrace their own imperfections and see them as assets (or even as something to not give such a shit about).

Unconditional Positive Regard

When clients work with me, they often tell me that they feel safe and accepted by my unflinching and unconditional positive regard toward them.    I am fortunate in that being this way comes very natural for me, and I believe it has lead to very powerful and positive changes within my clients. 

Courage

Oh, boy is this one ever evolving.  I am naturally an anxious person, and for much of my life I lived in the shadow of my anxiety, too afraid to show my real self for fear of being rejected or seen as an imposter (um, hello imposter syndrome. Take a seat, I'll be with you in a minute).  Truthfully? My clients inspire me to be more courageous every day.  I'm reminded that we all have our own inner demons, but it's in how we face them that enhances our courage and strengthens our resilience.

Some days, I’m not as aligned with my values as I’d like to be, but that’s the cool thing about them. They don’t simply vanish if you’ve strayed from them. They’re one of the few paths that will reappear whenever we set our intentions to follow them. What are your values? 

How Does Therapy Help?

SHARING IS CARING

We live in a world where oversharing our personal information is a daily occurrence. Whether it’s sharing opinions on Facebook or photos of our latest vacation on Instagram, we are a species quick to offer up our most personal insights to anyone who will listen.  

How, then does therapy differ?  Are we not doing the same thing but in a room for an hour? 

Well, yes, but also no. The most obvious answer is that therapy provides a space where we are able to safely delve into our psyches with the aid and support of a trained professional.  But how and why does a relationship like this lead to self-growth and change where other relationships don’t?

THE FIRST RELATIONSHIP

Our first answer comes from the world of attachment theory, created by John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth. These two developmental psychologists concluded some profound insights into the world of how infants form attachments with their caregivers and why that first relationship is paramount in developing our sense of self, identity, and self-esteem.

Our first relationship with our parents essentially sets the foundation for how we, as future adults, relate to ourselves, our partners, and our internal working model we have of the world.  

When a child is in her infancy, she literally cannot survive without the aid of her caregiver.  Unlike other ground-dwelling mammals, humans are essentially dependent on their caregivers well into their teenage years.  Until a certain point, we depend on our caregivers to respond to our distress, to help us when we make a mistake, give us shelter, and to keep us safe.  

Children with secure attachment, learn that mom (dad, grandma, or any other caregiver) will respond to their needs, respect their boundaries, and show genuine interest in them.  They also learn that their caregiver is a safe person to rely on and is available upon request. 

Children with avoidant attachment learn that crying, screaming, or asking for aid will be met with resistance, withdrawal, or neglect and quickly learn that their cries for help are fruitless. These children appear calm, but research has shown that underneath their calm demeanor they are experiencing heightened anxiety (Wallin).  Often these children learn to mute their feelings and appear to have flat and neutral facial expressions.

The last is ambivalent attachment, which is when children have a hard time being reassured or consoled by their caregivers.  These children will cry, kick, or push away their caregiver’s attempt at reunion or reconnection.  Generally, this occurs when a caregiver is unpredictably available or unavailable.  These children are preoccupied with the whereabouts of their caregivers and don’t like being left alone. 

THE INTERNAL PARENT

Our early relationships help us establish “internal working models” (Bowlby) of how we relate to ourselves and our surroundings. For instance, if a client grew up securely attached they would learn, through their parent’s responses, how to attend to themselves, make sense of scary situations, and essentially “internalize” their parents so that when they become adults, they have a healthy “internal” parent that can help them respond to their feelings and experiences. 

When children are very young, they don’t know how to make sense of their emotional reactions and often times need a parent or caregiver to help them put the pieces together.  When the parent or caregiver is abusive, neglectful, or withdrawn, the child doesn’t learn how to make sense of what they’re experiencing.  They may interpret feeling sad with extreme discomfort, fear, and confusion and eventually attempt to suppress that feeling when it comes up in the future.  

A responsive and attuned parent, would see that their child is sad, put the pieces together for them, saying something like, “you’re feeling sad because we have to go home and you want to stay and play”, and the child would have an understanding of why this powerful feeling just came on.

If a client grew up with parents who did not respond to him when he was distressed and who expressed annoyance at his feelings, he would learn ways to censor his fear, anger, or sadness as a means of maintaining proximity to his caregivers.  The problem, however, is that when this client becomes an adult, he still relies on the same self-protective strategies that were necessary in childhood, but now hurt him in his intimate relationships. This may show up as passive aggressiveness when he feels anger toward his partner, and his partner may interpret his passivity as a signal that he doesn’t care, when in fact he cares tremendously but cannot show it adaptively.  

THE SECURE BASE

A therapy relationship resembles our first relationships.  It represents the “secure base” (Ainsworth) that we can return to in order to make sense of our internal experiences. Through this relationship, we seek support, reassurance, and guidance so that we can start putting the pieces of our emotional experiences together.  

When we go to a therapist, we often project past relational experiences onto them.  This could be perceiving the therapist as the authoritative figure telling us “what to do”, the benevolent savior who will protect us always, the friend who you “pay to talk to”, or the person “telling me what I want to hear”.  Sometimes, we even place our will onto the therapist, assuming that they want us to do x, when it’s actually we who want to do x. 

A therapist who practices from an attachment perspective, will identify their client’s attachment style and work to give them a “corrective emotional experience”.  Essentially, this is when the therapist acts as the “good enough” mother who is attuned and responsive to the emotional reactions of her client.  This is not an act, rather it’s a way of responding to the client so that the client learns how to respond to their overwhelming emotions, bodily reactions, and thoughts differently.

As people, we’re very similar to library’s.  We all have stories that could fit into hundreds of books. As a way of making sense of our stories, we try to organize them and shelve them in their respective categories.  If I learned that relationships were shoddy at best and left me feeling empty, I would start to categorize any relationship that I had under that description: “Relationships Hurt Me”. I would then learn that if I wanted to know more about relationships, I’d fall back on previous experiences and use that as my internal working model of how people relate to and treat me. 

As an alternative example, if I never had a caregiver or parent help me make sense of my experiences at a young age, I would have nowhere to place those experiences and all of those stories would be scattered, lost in a pile somewhere, or completely out of order.  Going to therapy is the equivalent of having my stories, experiences, and memories put back together, giving them caring attention, and helping me understand why I felt the way I did.  

WHY DO I FEEL THIS WAY?

Feeling chronically overwhelmed, stressed, emotion-avoidant, and depressed floods the system and fatigues us. When we don’t understand what is causing us pain or making our brains fixate on thoughts or memories, we inevitably try to avoid, suppress, or repress whatever is plaguing us.  The problem is that we never get the chance to understand, accept, and move forward from those issues.  Having an attuned and responsive therapist will help us safely navigate the waters of our emotional ocean and give us the chance to find safe harbor when things get rough. 

Therapy is not a cure-all. It is an ongoing process that requires both parties participate.  The most satisfying client-therapist relationships are the ones in which a strong working alliance is struck, mutual respect and trust is given, and open communication takes place.  This also means allowing ourselves, as clients, to experience any and all emotions that come up toward our therapist.  And yes, that means anger.  The more we can identify and express what we feel toward our therapist, the more they can help us make sense of those feelings. 

If you’re seeking out therapy, I highly encourage you to find one who has expertise and knowledge on attachment theory.  It’s not an absolute requirement, but having that insight will help tremendously in the therapy relationship.

Taking Care Of Yourself on Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving: A mixed bag of feels and experiences for a lot of people.  If you’re going into a thanksgiving dinner and you’re coping with mental health difficulties, then this post is for you.  Some tips that I think might be helpful for you include.

PREPERATION: 

Much in the same way people who are making Thanksgiving dinner prepare for the cooking by providing themselves with enough time to set up everything for recipe making, you are going to do the same thing. 

Your ingredients will vary depending on what you’re trying to accomplish tomorrow (i.e. survive the questions, fake it till you make it, not have a panic attack or crying spell, get through the dinner without collapsing into yourself, eating in front of people, and the list goes on). 

Get yourself ready the day before or a few hours before by armoring yourself with some mantras, activities, distraction tools, and whatever else you’ll need for the big day. 

SET AN INTENTION:

This one is very similar to preparation, but instead it’ll be a bit more internal.  What is your intention tomorrow when it comes to the way you’ll treat yourself?  For instance, my intention is to “treat every moment I have a difficult feeling or reaction with compassion”.  Your intention can be whatever you want and something you can write down or just repeat in your mind a few times throughout the day.

GET SUPPORT: 

If you have a person in your life, whether in your actual physical vicinity or someone you can reach out to via text, ask them if they would be willing to provide some type of support during the holiday.  If they agree, come up with some specific boundaries or guidelines in how you’d like to have a supportive dialogue or what type of help you’re looking for. 

I know in the past if I was struggling around the holidays, I’d talk to a trusted friend or partner beforehand and tell that person that I needed to at least be able to express my feelings via text, even if that person couldn’t text back right away.  This gave me a sense of comfort and helped me feel supported just knowing that another person was available.  

KEEP THINGS IN PERSPECTIVE:

Remember, this is just one day.  You do not need to change anyone’s mind about their political beliefs, impress anyone, or participate in any conversation that you don’t want to be a part of.   You especially don’t have to explain yourself, your feelings or mental health to anyone if you don’t want to.  If you feel safe enough with the person you’re talking to, by all means, share away! But know that you have a right to your boundaries and can set them at will.

UNWIND:

Self-care after an event like Thanksgiving is super important because it can help you relax, restore boundaries, and return you to equilibrium.  I’m all about doing self-care rituals at the end of a long day; I think of them as a peace offering to my mind, body, and spirit.  Come up with something you can do, even if it’s 10 minutes, at the end of the day if you can. 

Five Questions To Ask A Therapist

I don’t know why, but my go-to metaphor (or is it an analogy?) for describing how you find the right therapist is like buying a pair of pants.  There are a TON of brands and styles, and sometimes it takes trial and error before finding a pair that actually fits you.  Therapists are no different.  We all have varying backgrounds, certifications, worldviews and treatment modalities and what works for one client may not work for another.  

I would describe my style as more process-oriented, focusing on what’s happening between me and my client so that I can get to the heart of the matter.  My emphasis is also on emotions, helping people feel them, relate to them differently, and express them.  I’ve worked with a handful of clients where this approach was just not going to work, and that’s okay! We determined that a more skill-based therapist would suit their needs and a referral was made.  Done and done.  

Here are my five questions to ask a potential therapist before you start your session.

1)   What Is Your Approach To Therapy?  

This question is important because it all comes down to what you’re looking to accomplish. Like I said above, if you’re someone who is striving to understand yourself better, to explore past traumas, make sense of relational wounds, etc., you might want to work with a therapist who is more process-oriented.  If you’re struggling with obsessive thinking, unhelpful behaviors, and depression, a more skill-based, cognitive-based therapist may be more for you.  

2)   What Is Your Fee and Do You Accept Insurance?  

Fortunately, therapists are legally bound to tell you this before you start your session, so it’s likely this will come up anyway.  This question is important because you want to be able to afford your therapy and if you’re banking on using your insurance, you’ll want to make sure the therapist is in-network (takes your insurance).  

In some cases, therapists will offer a sliding scale fee and you can call your insurance to see if they will except out of network reimbursement (that’s when the therapist submits a receipt to the insurance and you might get some money back).  Both you and the therapist have to be able to afford to live, so it’s good to know if a) they can afford to work with you and b) you can afford to work with them.

3)   What’s Your Style? Are direct in session or more reflective?

Surprisingly, therapists can be very direct, upfront, and not at all sugar coat their opinions. I know some clients who need this and respond really well to this approach.  If, however, you’ve experienced any kind of relational trauma, PTSD, depression, or other shame-inducing experiences, you may find that a therapist with a softer edge is more for you.  This could be someone who infuses compassion-focused interventions, where the goal is not to tell you how to “fix” something, but is all about making sense of why the thing exists in the first place.  If your psych-savvy, you could even ask your therapist what their Myers Briggs profile is!

4)   Do You Have a Lot of Experience Treating X?

If the answer is no, consider looking elsewhere. If the answer is no, but you feel a really strong connection with them and like everything else they have to say, give it a day to think on it.  It wouldn’t make sense for a client who is newly diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder, for instance, to work with someone who specializes in grief therapy.  Yes, they may be grieving their diagnosis, but that is just one small part of the bigger picture.  It would be better to see someone who has experience with that diagnosis and can create and effective treatment plan.  

5)   How Will I know I’m done with therapy?

This is a tricky question because there is no clear-cut sign that you’re done.  However, it is important to understand what the goal you and your therapist will be working toward and getting a clear idea of what will constitute readiness for termination.   Typically, I like to tell clients that we’ll know when they’re done with therapy when certain things take place like: a reduction of panic attacks (i.e. you’ll go from 3x per week to 1x per month and won’t respond to the attack the same way as before), an increased feeling of connection with others, or when you and I are finding that there’s less of a need to talk about your presenting issue because it’s not as impactful, etc.  

Going to therapy is a lot different than going to the doctor.  With a doctor’s visit, there’s usually (usually) a visible thing that you’re treating (like a tumor, broken leg, diabetes, etc.).  In therapy, the presenting problem is usually not so visible, but a lot more nuanced. Talking to your therapist about what will determine the end of the therapy can do two things: Get you both on the same page and establish a working alliance/treatment plan.  

As you will discover, finding the right therapist takes time and persistence, but if you’re committed to the quest, you’ll likely strike gold! The best way to look up a potential therapist is to go to psychologytoday.com, type in your zipcode, and start the process.  Once you’ve done that, you can start to refine it by presenting problem, insurance, and therapy modality if you already know which one you respond the best to. 

 

Growing Up With A Narcissistic Parent

Narcissism is certainly a word that is on the tips of everyone’s tongue these days.  It’s no secret that many people in power fall onto this personality spectrum, but identifying a narcissist in your own home can be a lot harder than one would think. 

WHO AM I?

When you grow up with a narcissistic parent, your sense of self can slip away like the frog in a boiling pot.  You may not notice it at first because for you, this is just how life is.  Mom (or dad) is really demanding, focused on how the family looks, and is not showing a whole lot of interest in how you feel.  After a while though, the pot starts to boil and you notice yourself feeling more anxious, depressed, and self-doubting. 

Why does this happen? Why does growing up with a narcissist damage our sense of self and wellbeing? As children, we have no choice in who are parents are and since we are vulnerable and actually need them to survive, we adapt to who they are and what they want very quickly.  When a parent is mean, neglectful, or critical towards us, we often will internalize that and assume it’s because we’re “flawed”.  “Why else would mom say that to me if it wasn’t true?”. For children, it’s much safer to assume that they are the bad ones than to accept that a parent is acting in a cruel way.  

Additionally, children learn to censor themselves based on how their parent responded.  For example, if a child is crying because they fell down and their parent repeatedly tells them to “Get over it” and to “Stop crying or I’ll give you something to cry about!”, that child will learn to ignore their sadness and suppress their tears because mom or dad will reject them if they show this particular feeling. 

 IT MAKES SENSE

If we were to think about families as representations of tribes from ancient times, then from an evolutionary perspective it would make sense for children to censor themselves so that they don’t get “kicked out” of the tribe.  Being exiled is such a fundamental fear in most human beings and it shows up even within our own families. 

 Narcissists will often use shame to domesticate and train their children to behave in a particular way. I’ve worked with client’s whose narcissistic parents would criticize their clothes, the food they ate, and the jobs they took because it didn’t “fit” with how the parent wanted their child or family to look.  These clients then grow up to be very self-critical and are blinded to what they actually want for themselves.  It causes mass confusion and because they grew up with such a critical parent, they’ve internalized that same criticism. 

 STARTING AGAIN

What can you do now that you’re an adult? Coming to terms with the fact that a parent is a narcissist can be very complicated and often requires therapy from someone with experience working with adult children of narcissists (ACONS).  The first thing ACONS may experience is something similar to those going through grief.  

Many of my ACONS experience deep resentment and anger, then move on to sadness over the loss of the support they never received from their parent.  After those two emotions have been felt through, usually a sense of clarity, acceptance, and empowerment will emerge.  

As adults, we have the power to now make sense of what happened to us when we were younger. As children, that ability is not fully developed because we have to rely solely on our parents for our survival and can’t afford to be reflective then.  The beauty of being alive today is that once a child leaves the home and becomes an adult, he or she can cultivate and create a new family to belong to.  One that is comprised of caring partners, trusted friends, co-workers, schoolmates and peers from various social groups. 

If you decide to pursue therapy, again make sure you’re working with a therapist who understands narcissism and how to help you heal from past traumas.  This is so important because you may decide down the road to have limited to zero contact with your narcissistic parents and you’ll want to have the full support of your therapist to help you get through that period of time. 

A great resource where you can find therapists who treat ACONS is the website willieverbegoodenough.com.  There, you can find a clinician in your area who has the training and desire to support you through this journey of self-healing.

 

 

Self-Care Matters

We've all heard the term "self-care" and probably assume that we're already doing it or that we don't need it.  I hear things like A) "I'm doing just fine with my schedule and don't need to make adjustments", B) "I'm way too busy for self-care; Who will take care of the kids? Make the money? Feed the cats if I stop what I'm doing?", C) "Self-care is just an excuse to be lazy and selfish". 

Rarely do I hear anyone say "I make a priority to care for myself every day and take breaks when I need to".   So how do you move from A to C into self-care haven? 

First you need to reprioritize some aspects of your life.  You don't need to overhaul everything, become a spiritual master, have the most balanced life, or even sacrifice much of your time to achieve this.  All you need to do is ask yourself "how do I make sure I get my needs met and create a sacred space for myself on a daily basis?"  The answer can be surprisingly simple.  

Here are some tips to make sure that you prioritize your needs, feelings, and space. 

THE RITUAL

Find at least 30 minutes each day to honor yourself.  I've found that my self-care practice truly begins in the evening, when all of my chores are done, the coffee is prepped, and the computer is shut. My routine takes about 30 minutes and is super easy to implement because it came from a place of acknowledging what felt right for me (i.e. evening time allows me to unwind and reflect on the day).

It looks something like: dimming the lights to create a soft, warm glow, which inspires relaxation; putting on lavender essential oils on my neck and in a diffuser so that the soothing smell is accessible; Having a cup of tea or kombucha; Sitting on the couch with a book or a movie (the movie obviously makes self-care time longer, but it just depends on the day).

Yours could look similar or it could be vastly different! You just have to find what makes you feel nourished and how that shows up in your life. I know some people who vibe on early morning jogs where it's just them and the road, where others find sustenance in creating a meditative space during lunch at work, or having a meaningful conversation with a loved one. It really depends on what feeds your mind, body, and soul.

MAKE IT YOUR OWN

Redefine what self-care is.  If you're like many who think it's greedy to take care of yourself, consider what the long-term effects are of NOT investing in self-care.  Most people don't realize that their decision to avoid self-care can lead to chronic fatigue, severe burnout (which could lead to low work performance, angry outbursts, high blood pressure, getting fired, etc), depression/anxiety, and lack of emotional engagement with others.  In the long term, it's far more selfish and damaging to deny your needs.

When we set boundaries, we are essentially saying no to the things that do not serve us,  and yes to the things that do. For example,  "No, I won't be able to work an extra hour tonight" is saying "Yes, I want to spend time with my kids and hear about their day".  That, my friend, is self-care! 

WHAT’S THE STORY?

Let go of your story around self-care.  This kind of ties back into my last point, but ultimately we carry around ideas and stories about what it means to be a (insert blank; working professional, single mom/dad, successful lawyer, community leader), and think that if we focus on our needs, it means we're going to reduce our amount of success or become lazy and self-indulgent.  

Nothing could be further from the truth.  Self-care leads to better productivity, more energy throughout the day, sleeping better, and feeling more in tune with our friends, family, and relationships.  Investing in yourself is like putting the oxygen mask on before assisting others: You can't do shit if you're not functioning properly.  Think about what you're saying yes to each time you invest in self-care!

Flowing With Your Depression

Oh depression.  Would it be weird to say that I am actually profoundly grateful to my depression? I suppose it would be without context.  When I experience depression, I feel it not just in my thoughts, but deep within my bones, my emotions, and the way I hear, see, and visualize my surroundings.  It’s an entire taking over that happens, and I’ve learned over the years to have a sort of “evacuation plan”, if you will, for when it hits. 

Much like a storm, I can often see it coming ahead of time.  Suddenly, as if a switch was flipped, I notice the tides changing, experience myself going inward and away from others, and feel my energy implode on itself.   The me that would go through this several years ago would simply sink into the swamp of sadness, wallow in its despair, and slowly decompensate until it was over. 

THE MIDDLE PATH

What I’ve learned over time is that fighting it through sheer willpower and succumbing to it willingly are not the best courses of action.  Both encourage some form of extreme behavior and only end in disappointment (not the greatest outcome for a depressive episode).  The middle path, which is a mixture of doing what you can to support yourself and gently allowing depression to speak to you, seems to be the most self-compassionate response a person can take. 

Karla McLaren, a revolutionary in the realm of emotion study, considers depression to be “the stop sign of the soul”.  What she means by this is that depression is an organic manifestation of something happening within our minds and bodies.  It could be that we are over working, committing to too many tasks at once, having unrealistic expectations of ourselves and others, or simply taking in too much without a healthy amount of rest or output.  When these experiences occur, it’s natural for our entire being to say STOP and feel a sort of disconnection to everything.  It’s as if depression steps in and makes an executive decision to shut the whole thing down, close up shop, and asks us to re-evaluate what’s working and what’s not.

Although depression is often not a pleasant experience for most people, it can be helpful to form a new relationship with it.  I find that when I tune into the message it’s sending me: to slow down, take inventory, and rest up, that I allow it to do its job and it recedes shortly after.  

DEPRESSION IS ON A SPECTRUM

Now, a little disclaimer:  There are different levels of severity to depression.  The level that I’m referring to is a mild to moderate form; something that takes you out of commission for a few days.  The more severe forms of depression require a deeper level of intervention and treatment and can often include hospitalization and medication management, and there is absolutely no shame in that.  If that’s where you find yourself residing, I would highly recommend looking into therapy and medication (if that’s what feels right).  However, that’s not to say this information won’t be helpful, it might, but use it as an addition to your existing treatment.

Some ways of coping with depression that I've found takes a middle path approach are:

LET PEOPLE KNOW WHAT’S GOING ON:

Whether it’s friends, family, or coworkers, it’s good to let someone in each group (or whomever you feel comfortable sharing with) know that you need alone time, might not be very responsive via text/email, and that you’ll touch base when you’re ready.  I think, as someone who’s been on both sides of the fence, it can be really beneficial to your own self-care and to the people who care about you to know what's going on.  Stating what it is you need not only lets others know what’s up, it is an act of honoring yourself and seting healthy boundaries that keep you in the drivers seat.

HONOR YOUR NEED TO REST:

This will look different for everyone, but typically it will involve slowing down, going to bed earlier, and letting yourself curl up on the couch for hours at a time. It can also mean doing gentle exercise like yoga or taking a mindful walk in nature.  Resting is a wonderful way to let your mind and body recover from the many hats we wear throughout the day.

TAKE TIME OFF IF NECESSARY

If your job is flexible and accommodating, reach out to your boss or supervisor and let them know that you will need to take some time off to focus on self-care.   Most employment sites are aware that you are protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act and will provide reasonable accommodation to support your wellbeing.  Obviously this doesn't mean that you can take as much time off as you want anytime you want it, rather it's about taking a look at what you reasonably need during a depressive episode and requesting it. 

If taking time off is not something you can afford to do, find ways of building in "time off" during your hours of work. That might look like taking 10 minutes every hour to simply zone off, distract yourself, or walk around the block.  It might also look like brining something with you that is grounding, i.e. a "worry stone", lavender essential oil, or even visualizing a safe boundary around you that protects you from external pressures.  

GET OUTSIDE:

This doesn't need a whole lot of explanation, but it does warrant to say that going outside can act as a gentle reminder that life exists outside of you, that nature is constant yet ever changing, and that you exist in the world.  If you have a backyard, go there! Take your bare feet and press them into the earth and feel the support of the ground below you.  If a park is nearby, take a small trip to that place and let all 5 of your senses do their thing and bring you into the present moment.

UNPLUG FROM SOCIAL MEDIA:

I always find that I feel a little better when I take time away from social media (which includes mindlessly scrolling through the internet, watching Netflix for hours at a time, and browsing FB and Instagram), and usually it is because I've stopped vicariously living other people's lives and have stepped into my own. There's a sort of pressure that we unknowingly place on ourselves to show the world the best version of ourselves and that can become rather exhausting, especially when you feel far from your best.  

I know there are some people out there (I've been one of them), who proudly proclaim to everyone they meet that they're "done" with social media and semi-want you to acknowledge their greatness and beautiful willpower.  You don't need to be one of those people (not that they're bad, it's just coming from a place of ego), but you can be the person who unplugs after a certain time of day, for a weekend, for weeks, months, however long you feel comfortable doing so.  Just as long as you provide some space for yourself to unwind and digitally detox for a little while. 

JOURNAL, MEDITATE, FIND A THERAPIST:

If depression is considered the stop sign of the soul, it can be really useful to get introspective and let the feelings, thoughts, images flow from your mind so that you can observe them either through written word, meditation, or by talking about them with a therapist.  This is a time of growth, healing, and of letting the things that aren't serving you go for a little while or permanently.  Growth is not something for the faint of heart, so take stock in the fact that you are doing something that requires a tremendous amount of strength.  

Take time to listen to your mind, body, and intuition and feel into the experience of depression. Again, you don't have to let it control you and you certainly don't want to try to control it.  Your goal is to take a middle approach that encourages self-efficacy, rest, and mindfully moving through the emotion with gentle awareness of what it's asking you to do, which is to slow down, re-evaluate, and recover. 

For anyone struggling with suicidal thoughts, please call 911, your local crisis line, or the national suicide prevention line at 1-800-273-8255.  You are worth getting the help that you need and you have every right to ask for it, no matter what. 

Anger Is Not The Monster You Think It Is

Anger has gotten some pretty bad press in the past couple of decades (centuries, maybe?).  I’ve heard things like “my anger doesn’t serve me”, “anger is evil and unnecessary” and “I refuse to get angry”.  From early in our childhoods to well into our adulthood and beyond, the message that often gets repeated is something like: Anger bad.  Happy good.  How unfortunate!

PROTECTOR

Not only does your anger protect you, it also signals that a boundary has been crossed or an injustice has occurred, and it is your body’s innate wisdom alerting you to this fact.  I often reference the fantastic sociologist and scientist, Karla McLaren, who is a pioneer in emotion research and emotion linguistics.  Her book “The Language of Emotions” is a must-read for anyone who struggles with understanding emotions.  In this book, she refers to anger as “The Honorable Sentry” that helps us maintain our boundaries, communicate effectively with others, and restore our dignity. 

THE WRONG ASSOCIATION

For most individuals, anger is associated with violent rage, interpersonal arguments that go south, being mean to others, or hurting someone intentionally. Essentially, it’s learned that anger is something to be ashamed of and repressed. None of these represents what anger wants us to do.  To lash out and hurt another person only leads to internal and external pain, and drives us into potential despair, depression, and physical discomfort.  To repress may even be more dangerous, because it pulls your further away from your authenticity, it creates a deep imbalance both emotionally and physically, and creates more opportunities for pain and boundary violations to occur in your life.  You become more vulnerable if you shun, dismiss, or deny your anger.

HOW TO WORK WITH ANGER

So, what’s the healthy approach to working with your anger instead of betraying and denying it? First it’s important to understand the nuances of anger, the way your body feels when anger arises, and the messages you received about anger.  Anger comes in many forms, and most of us don’t like to admit to anger so we use words like: annoyed, frustrated, pissed off, irritated, irked, upset, etc.  If these feelings come up for you, that is anger doing its job.  It’s telling you: “Something doesn’t feel right.  My boundary feels violated…I don’t like what is happening”.  Excellent, now you know that anger is present. 

PHYSICAL REACTIONS

The second is that anger usually manifests in our bodies in many ways: tightening of the stomach, heat rising from your face, quick breathing, intense focus, and a keen awareness of your surroundings.   When these two feelings and sensations happen you’ll likely experience two things (since we are often taught two black-and-white forms of expression): the desire to attack or the need to suppress and slap a wobbly smile on your face. 

THE RESPONSE

There is ALWAYS more than one way to respond, and it does not have to be those two ways. In fact, it shouldn’t be.  The other option you have is working with your anger, or as Karla McLaren says, “channeling” your anger so that you can right the wrong with honor and reassert your boundaries safely and appropriately. 

Acting assertively is often the best choice, because it respects your rights and the rights of the person who wronged you. You’re not saying “you’re a piece of shit and I hate you” nor are you saying “oh, you’re right, I guess it’s all good”.  What you’re saying with assertiveness is “I respect myself by alerting the other to the transgression, stating that it was unwelcome, and calmly acknowledging their humanity in that all humans make mistakes”.  No one gets hurt, the boundary was re-established, and you get to go on with your day!

CHECKING IN

The next time you experience anger, take a moment to pause and do a little personal inventory.  What happened that caused the anger? How can you effectively respond to it without resorting to lashing out or repressing? Your anger is not evil, bad, or something to fear.  It is your own personal alarm system that wants, more than anything, to keep you safe and protected.

Check out Karla’s website at www.karlamclaren.com or get one of her amazing books to learn more about the wondrous world of emotions!