Thursday, December 6, 2018

Clear and Spacious Parenting in Complicated Times

All parents struggle to balance their normal current stressors -- friends and family, body and mind, household and job -- with their parenting responsibilities. But on top of that for some parents, current stressors can be complicated by conscious-or-not feelings about their own stressful pasts. Just like anyone else, a parent's unresolved traumas can be triggered, in a sense brought way too influentially back to life, by present day reminders. So if I was bullied the whole of sixth grade or caught up in drugs in high school and experienced real threat/violation and terror as a result, and especially if I haven't ever processed and integrated those happenings with a skilled compassionate other, I'm going to have a damn hard time when my kid approaches those ages and phases and situations on their path.

Parents in this case are doubly stressed and, if not aware and able to self-regulate when triggered, may not have the bandwidth to work effectively with their own past/present-blurred experiences of themselves and their worlds, let alone help their kids creatively navigate and grow through their most challenging here-and-nows. These understandably overwhelmed parents may feel too personally panicked or at a loss to calmly confidently support their kids while they are freaking out about schoolwork or popularity. Oftentimes, said parents will therefore consciously-or-not move to reduce their own extreme stress by avoiding entirely or managing too closely their kids' normal-hard stressful times.

Either is a mistake. For kids to develop confidence in themselves through difficulty and, for that matter, for parents to develop confidence in their kids, kids need to directly know and speak and act from their very personal and often conflicted feelings and values and needs -- with their parents' attentive but spacious support.

Where stress is complicated, parents may need their kids to be more ok than they can or should be given their circumstances, and those parental needs and expectations are the thing to work with in therapy, not the kids' failure to deliver on them (at least not off the bat). Otherwise those unexplored needs and expectations can lead to a parental habit of streamlining their kids' development, i.e., telling them in so many ways what to feel and want and do, and not, to be stress-free and happy... This rather than encouraging kids toward the healthy stress of seeking and finding and expressing how they themselves feel, unhappy included, and the honest exploration and brave sharing of what they themselves think, right or wrong.

As kids develop, they will naturally suffer periods of stress, unhappiness, fear, and doubt. Developing confidence through these times depends on their ability to consult their ever-sharpening awareness and act from their ever-maturing conscience -- increasingly apart from their parents' needs and views. Parents need to be able to encourage this individuation even though doing so leaves us somewhat on the outside of things, where we should attentively spaciously be, feeling kind of helpless, nervous as hell actually, trying to hold our kids and have their backs while they do the important messy work of figuring themselves out. This detachment on our part is hard but what supports, rather than stunts, our kids' successful development through their hard times. And it's a tall order for any parent, but especially one complicatedly stressed.

Again, where normal stress is complicated by a parent's prior traumas, parenting can become anxious/avoidant and lead to strategies geared toward efficient soothing of the parent, reducing their stress, rather than engaging and empowering the kid through any and every stress of their own.

So, first and foremost: Parents, prioritize your mental health. Get whatever support you need and deserve to untangle your complicated stress, i.e., to resolve any lingering traumas, so that your kids' normal or especial stresses become workable in your mind, and also in your heart of hearts. Your kids need you to know and really deep-down believe in who they actually are, not in who you need or wish them to be in order to put your mind at ease. With no shame or hesitation and with your integrity fully intact, please recognize if you're treading water at best and maybe even drowning in whatever stress you're facing, current or formative, and if you think that's negatively affecting your parenting. Please take it from me: It's ok if it is. With the right support, it's entirely workable. Even enjoyable.

Parents, send yourself to a good therapist before you put too much energy into addressing what you fear to be your kids' mental illness. If nothing else, you'll then be versed enough in the therapy process yourself to instill confidence in your kids' participation in his or her own therapy down the road if it becomes necessary.

Speaking of formative stress and trauma, parents, please try not to save your kids from your past. Consider that what they are facing and needing and liking and afraid of is probably not exactly what you experienced at their age. This is tricky. In a fundamental sense, all generations are working through similar social, emotional, physical, and mental challenges -- being accepted or rejected by peers, being successful or not academically, being embarrassed or entitled by family, being rebellious against or passive to authority, being attractive or ignored or idolized or bullied, being competitive and popular or notsomuch -- but the particulars of those challenges are different from generation to generation.

For example, whereas you grew up poor and couldn't afford gym equipment at home, and were therefore feeling proud and generous to give your son a home gym last month, his "meh" suggests that his interests and yours may be miles apart. He might enjoy a microscope or a trip to the ballet instead, either of which may leave you shaking your head. Or, you may have grown up with everything you needed and then some, and you may therefore overlook the poverty of academic creativity or severe social stress your kid is facing in a horrible school situation, expecting her to just suck it up and be automatically confident and grateful....

Watch for those huge assumptions and disparities of experience that indicate that your and perhaps your whole generation's reality is very different than your kids' and theirs. Let that be so. Let your take on reality go somewhat, especially if it gets in the way of learning about and empathizing with theirs. Try to recognize whether and when you're bringing your past met or unmet needs or your successes or failures forward and mistaking them for your kids' present ones. Ask them about theirs, and trust what they tell you.

Finally, while you're doing whatever you can do as a parent to know and care for yours please also rouse your courage and confidence in your kids' fundamental good sense. Keep looking for signs of their developing character and values -- which may first appear as huge contradictions and conflicts! Hang in there through your worries about their seemingly many poor choices. Endeavor to notice and grow the seeds of discernment and maturity that I swear are extant within your kids, however buried or fragile. Resist transplanting in them your full-grown, well-meaning, not-theirs experience in an effort to subvert your stress, complicated or not. Let them have their own stress, and be with them in their reckoning of it. They will thank you later.

Tuesday, October 9, 2018

Ten Years

This November, it will be decade ago that I got my first paycheck as a Licensed Professional Counselor. Here are some things I've realized in that time through a combination of honest mistakes, wrong assumptions, many tears witnessed but way more laughter, and an unconventionally strong belief that there is a basically good sense to be made of suffering. I offer the findings below to clients and professional peers alike who might wonder what I mean by all that and how I've come to view this work.


Clients know themselves better than anyone else ever will. Even if they never make measurable therapeutic progress according to that best knowledge, they remain the ones who possess it. The key to tapping that wisdom is believing it's there, doing its dysfunctional darndest to manifest given the conditions that have shaped it. All my job has been and ever will be is to get closer to the client's knowledge -- to listen precisely and without judgment to her experience, identify the conditions she chronically needs and/or suffers, ask and notice how she expresses herself more or less honestly, and reflect all that workable if tragic logic back to her with my compassion and respect... I'm listening with as little bias as humanly possible for who clients really are through the overwhelming static of who they fear or regret they've become and staunchly supporting them in honoring and growing the former. It is at times a helpless thing but always a good thing not to presume to know, off the bat or ever, who clients truly are or what they ultimately should and should not do -- especially given any prior experiences of deference to others for answers fixes or saving that didn't go well... So. In the service of the integrity clarity and power of every client's self-discovery, my uncertainty will remain.


Speaking of uncertainty... There is wisdom in not knowing. Though we all do it all the time, living with the unknown is pretty hard to do confidently -- and exactly what I think people on a psychological or spiritual path fear doing, yet all the same aim to do. Not knowing is chaotic, outside every familiar line and box, unpredictable and beyond our control. For better and worse, not knowing is also the ultimate anti-habit. It's what we go to therapy for, to not know, to not be stuck in same-old-same-old and maybe finally be whomever and do whatever has eluded us while we've been busy reinforcing our comfort zones. Uncertainty is the bitch we must aspire to if we want to cut ties with intractable patterns of all kinds. But (good news coming...) uncertainty is also the thing we can trust to be every bit as creative as it is chaotic. And creativity is where possibility lives. Creativity is what's needed to formulate leaps and ventures that draw on extant but distant integrity and lost heart toward leaving wont and resignation behind. Uncertainty is where the if-onlys i-can'ts always-haves and never-wills go to die. Jumping in their graves? Now I can, so I will. It takes courage to go where we haven't gone; even though we go to therapy to do just that, it's daunting. So be it. Let's go anyway.


Where insights during sessions go, it's usually best for clients to keep them to themselves between sessions. At least for a little while. Most of us, when we realize something that seems as though it could liberate years of confusion, want to share it with friends and family. So it goes for clients, who will want loved ones to understand them as they learn more and differently about themselves through this kind of work. In the clear open space of good therapy, many fine insights will occur and some will prove as fragile as they are profound. They're not hardy enough at first to survive the mundane wilderness of everyday life, so they often don't, and so habitual thoughts, speech, and behaviors crowd back in. It's hard to change, to bushwhack new directions and stick with them when the old trails are so there already, so easy and inviting. I mean, think about it, if clients could've developed and maintained clarity and insight amid whatever their everyday life circumstances, let alone any triggering situations they face, they would've already. They haven't and can't -- yet -- which is why they're here engaging this last resort called therapy. For a little while, new learning deserves the protection of contemplation in solitude, a safe little cabin alone in the woods, not the challenges of group discussion and the real or perceived threats of debate. As clients become more confident with any fresh understanding and wrap their minds around changes to come as a result of it, others will pick up on that confidence and adjust much better to whatever's revealed.


An individual's indestructible goodness lives right in the defended center of a bigass blind spot, and as we know, blind spots show up in all manner of bad habits. To get to the good stuff, we must enter at the racing thoughts and terrible moods and horrific relationship fails and make our way into the void to find the meaning and sense of it all. Getting to the good via the bad = business as usual in my world. But clients are shocked when I say progress is not going to be about conquering, fixing, transcending or in any other way eradicating badness. Nope. We're in search of a core goodness here, which for better and worse is identifiable in both our up AND down moods, our skillful AND reckless speech, our loving AND punishing actions. A client presents because he can't relax enough with the bad to glean any useful information from it, has in fact long been trying to be rid of it, and so it has grown, like weeds ignored or made stubborn by attempts to destroy them... So I do what he yet can't. I stop antagonizing and turn toward and relax with and wonder about his now invasively preponderant bad self, and in that manner of beholding we get to know what amounts to confused learned human attempts to navigate connections and prevent losses and protect vulnerabilities, i.e., his panicked hyperthink, his anger and control, his sabotage and clinging, and we find the basically good root they reduce to, i.e., his resilient capacity to bear and grow through great stress, especially when it's all recognized as inspired by and headed toward some kind of love. Eventually, and quite naturally, we start talking about about him living more readily and relaxed from there.


I will never forget the moment nine years ago when I realized the gravity and potential harm of the work of psychotherapy. It's probably not what you think. The realization was not that clients would feel much worse before they got better or that I would say or do something stupid and upset an already suffering human. (Both happen and it works out.) It was that clients were feeling settled and clear during our sessions, laughing and full of hope, and then going back home, whatever that was, to conditions that wouldn't support the awareness and self-compassion and changes we were hosting in my office several planets away.

It was that a depressed client whose daily life revolved around his seat in a brown recliner in his mother's house would feel worse because of feeling better, his self-loathing reacting so quickly to the faintest arising of self-acceptance during our talks, for no adequately horrible reason I could find in his story, like a steely dark curtain cutting through a sunny blue sky killing the light of his face and the room as it came down around him, all this followed by his further descent into what I imagined from his description to be that thick dark grave of a chair when he returned back home... It was that a bipolar client's subtle insights and middle-way moods, which we had appropriately treatment-planned and objectives-accomplished, wouldn't even hit the radar of the husband and kids at home who were used to noticing her only when she became an emergency, flipping out screaming or unable to get out of bed due to various physical ailments that seemed to serve to keep her in check... It was that all the clients who dared to relax through trauma into honesty with me in order to see themselves more completely, who developed confidence and formulated a way to be and do more genuinely through our talks, couldn't hold their true shape when they got back to the people who were used to them warped however they always had been...

I seized up with tension and fear for days after a brilliant raging client unleashed verbally at me, notsomuch because she went off but because the thought occurred to me when she did that I could be harming clients with hope. We feel so productive together for a little while -- clients feel seen and understood and I feel wise and esteemable because I offer conditions for them to make incredibly real and responsible sense here -- and then they are confounded and discounted if not aggressed against hard out there by families and communities and social systems that want them to change but don't let them. No wonder clients are disappointed and angry as a result of this work...


But there's a good kind of suffering to foster and bear... Continuing per the prior paragraph, therapy is a daring venture that's perhaps best begun without hope. That is to say, the risks of therapy are real and clients must understand and consent to them -- in a way, give in to them. Again, the risks are notsomuch that clients will get worse, more lost, less confident -- not that we will discover through our work that they're even more fucked up than they thought they were before they walked into my office.... The risks are that clients will feel better, clearer, more confident, and will find their way to a lost truth that there was never anything intrinsically wrong with them to begin with, and as such, they may wonder how in the world they got as lost as they did... Then they may feel angry and grievous about all that time lost, and then they may feel quite alone.

What?!? YES. Hello again, suffering.

Imagine waking up one day and feeling thoroughly genuine and rested and clear and then going out the door and finding strangers and clutter and harsh weather and bad air where the people and places and climates you'd always known and accepted if not loved, and called familiar if not home, had been before. Nothing changed but you, such that the way everything felt before is no longer available, and the way things feel now is strange and differently desolate. Those change-based outcomes that you wanted and I supported -- decreased depression and anxiety, increased confidence and clarity, more honest communication, better health -- those outcomes are yours now. You've changed from the inside out and are rightly and consciously uncomfortable with what was inaccurately commonly known to be "true" about you (and others for that matter) before the real you stood up, and so you are in some ways unrecognizable by and maybe even unacceptable to the people who asked you to come see me in the first place....  

For a time, if and because clients change how they understand themselves and their worlds, they may feel as though they belong absolutely nowhere, and that is a suffering I ask clients to bear.

If I've exaggerated the picture to make the point, let me be clear: The work through therapy to be better acquainted with oneself and by extension one's world is very good and important and leads ultimately to better relationships, new and old, and to better health, mental and physical, and to better intentions and choices and impact. But ultimately is not immediately. Success in therapy takes time and follow-through and strong support and also a willingness not to hope for specific outcomes and, for that matter, not to fear them either. It takes a resignation of sorts to hurt differently, without shame, and to fall apart, but with integrity, and to rebuild with lighthearted determination.

I've heard and found that if you step onto a path of honest self-discovery, you're screwed, because it is inevitable that parts if not all of what you thought was true will be found not to be so, and that will take quite some adjusting to and involve some amount of discomfort. Though I can promise you some amount of ease and health and clarity, and that even a kind of beauty will arise in you and out of this work, it will come at the price of a different kind of suffering. You'll realize, bittersweetly, how ok and alone with that okness you've always been, and you'll stop trying so hard to change yourself and others or to change any minds, including your own, about yourself or anyone else. You'll stop arguing and begrudging and stalling so much, and you'll probably cry a lot. And then, finally and without fanfare, you'll find you're truly you and only yours. Free from self-doubt and resistance, you'll begin to deeply feel a lot better.


So. If therapy is about knowing myself best through leaning into my badness and being uncertain about everything I've known to be true so far and that leads to some level of detachment from others while I incubate insights and then I'm in existential crisis wondering whose life this is I'm living now that my familiar people no longer make sense to me nor I to them because I'm finally truly me, more awake and aware, sad and alone... Well, then. I'd like to go back to blissful ignorance and sleep, thanks. And how about a refund, too.

Hang on. There's joy. It's this:

With respect for the contemplative heart where all religions intersect, I best understand the Buddha's story. He chose to leave his comfort zone. He turned toward unpredictable suffering and felt badly and thought a lot. Along the way he indulged and denied lots of hope and fear. In the end he sat still under a tree through intense barrages of his own mental habits. And he bore them. He let them privately rise abide and go before they became speech and behavior and in his holding they changed from arrows into flowers. He stayed with himself and watched his personal fear and pain change into things harmless and workable if not beautiful and then he spoke and acted from there. He saw his own heart through whatever the obscurations of his day, and he did the same with others whom he taught to do the same with themselves. And so on.

Whatever insights the Buddha had in that sitting were not witnessed or validated by anyone but the earth upon which his body sat and his hand rested. No one else could or needed to understand his experience and many would be along to challenge it. He was essentially alone with it. When there was no "other" to persuade, or to be cruel or crucial to, or to be coveted or believed by, and it was just him and the natural inherently unpunishing uncongratulatory elements around him, he could just be and act according to what some traditions trust to be a fundamental sanity or goodness. When he did that, he let all others just be according to that as well, not naively or idiotically, but with sharp sight and unbiased regard and unconditional compassion and warmth.

May we aspire to cultivate enjoy and offer even a semblance of such hard-won beautiful things, not at all separate from our personal suffering, to everyone. And I mean everyone.


To reach me, go here.

Friday, May 19, 2017

Dog Ears, Office Plants, and Quantum Physics

Image result for snowflakeDid you ever see the movie, What the Bleep to We Know...? It's really good, so I highly recommend it. It's a 'quantum physics for dummies' deal for people like me who fall asleep when they read and need constant entertainment via many senses engaged in order to pay attention and learn. There's one part in the movie about a Dr. Emoto and water crystals that blew my mind... You can look into it in more detail here. But here's a quote from that website for the purposes of this post:
What has put Dr. Emoto at the forefront of the study of water is his proof that thoughts and feelings affect physical reality. By producing different focused intentions through written and spoken words and music and literally presenting it to the same water samples, the water appears to 'change its expression'.
Play Mozart, the crystal looks beautiful. Throw hate at it, the crystal looks sick and warped. The movie and Dr. Emoto's work are many years old and so while all this is nothing new, with meditation practice, fuller awareness, and a paradoxical willingness to relax and ease up on myself and others so that we can all really get a lot accomplished, I'm continually reminded of Dr. Emoto's finding: How we feel literally changes the space we're in - no profound words or obvious actions necessarily needed - our energy conveys subtly in ways we can't imagine, and it has tremendous impact whether we know it or not. 

Had an interesting morning relevant to all that today: Woke up a little stressed, with racing thoughts and regrets, and I just kinda hung out with it the way I suggest everybody hang out with their discomfort - give it some space, let things settle, don't act yet, just wait... I let it swirl, cooked a good breakfast, let the discomfort drop through a few levels and assume different versions, did some business stuff, sat still for a few minutes and looked outside as far as I could see, welcomed the insights that eventually bubbled up, conveyed them with good intention, and then leashed up my dogs for a run. I was happy, so I spoke to the boys in that stupid voice I don't allow many people to hear me speak in, saying words to my furry little dudes that aren't really words but noises full of approval and appreciation. 

As I did this, every time I spoke happy nonsense to them, their ears turned backward toward me and lay softly down and their gaits slowed and lightened some; they seemed more relaxed and attuned - or was it I who was? When I would cease the sweet nothings talk, they went back to their running and sniffing and pooping, content. When I shared the love again, all the same happened when I spoke to them - they were softer, they literally softened - or was it I who was, and who did?

On the flip side of all this happy-happy, I can attest that when I've been in a hurry, anxious for whatever reason, impatient and not at all stupid-sweet with my words but rather stupid-sharp, the boys get edgy and resistant to whatever it is I'm demanding of them. Nothing works well until I settle down and drop all the antagony going on.

And then there's my office plant... My office has no windows to the natural world outside, but I wanted something with life in there, so I have a plant that lives a mediocre life via irregular watering and plant lights on a timer. It's not in the best shape - brown tips on many leaves indicate it needs better drainage and should be re-potted like now to accomplish this... I keep promising I will. And I will.

But this plant... The way it reacts to good sessions when there are no other obviously changing variables than the client's energy and my energy and the time of day, is amazing. Most sessions go pretty well, and when there is especial insight and connection going on, I swear to you, out of the corner of my eye, I watch that plant perk up. The leaves move upward and the shape of the plant becomes, in my view, really beautiful. The movement of those leaves has nothing to do with light or water because I have plant lights off during sessions and the leaves can lift no matter if or when it's been watered or had light that day. 

Starting today, with all predictable hopes and fears around having a "bad session" intact, I intend to start noticing how the plant responds to sessions that are especially challenging or end without ideal resolution.

Out of all this comes the thought that when things look and seem beautiful and full of possibility, perhaps we can take some credit because if we're able to see them that way, we're likely contributing to or at least just supporting the beauty and possibility we're seeing. Likewise the thought that when things look ugly and impossible, we might want to check out how we're feeling in addition to being however occupied we are with how what we're looking at ought to change to make us feel better. 

One last thought... When we feel one way and try to mask it with words and actions to the contrary, we would do well to check out the result. Whether I'm white-knuckling it through a conversation full of should-haves and supposed-tos energy, trying to convey something I don't feel, when all I really want to do is cry or say I'm afraid or this isn't ok or I love you... Whether I'm telling one of my dogs he's a good boy when I wish he'd leave me alone or I tell him he's a fat dummy when I'm completely in love with him... The real me is coming through, shaping the space around.

Monday, May 1, 2017

How to Turn a Tantrum into Something a Little More Productive

I love it when life gives me the opportunity to apply mental health strategies in my own world that I spend my days encouraging others to apply in theirs. Said opportunities are usually amplified in the form of Very Hard Times so that I really notice them and am left with no choice but to apply said strategies to them.

The other morning there was a mix of pain, stubbornness, need, and frustration going on. I was feeling not healthy/strong or independently wealthy enough. My back hurt a lot, and college tuition looked a lot like Mt. Everest. As a result of my personal pain and frustration, my daughter seemed never realistic enough, my business seemed never productive enough, and, taking it a little further, donald trump would forever and always be an absolutely irredeemable jerk.

It was an ever-extending tantrum of sorts, with me not feeling ok and everybody and everything else therefore appearing just as not-ok. I was working with a lot, legitimately hurting and concerned about important things. But momentary helplessness was making it all seem permanently unworkable. The feelings were not the problem -- they were logical given my history and current take on what was happening -- but my unawares projection of them outward was changing the way things looked to me such that I couldn't see or navigate life accurately.

This is dangerous, this panicked projection of personal experience onto other people/situations such that they cannot be seen clearly -- and it is the primary topic of really good therapy sessions.

Here's what I tell others during really good therapy sessions:

Listen, there's intelligence to that pain, fear, anger, or worry you're feeling. There's heart in there, too. There's something you care about here, something you value that's threatened. Don't avoid or discharge those negative feelings before you identify what's at the center of them, driving them. Let the feelings swirl there for a bit, acknowledged but unencouraged, and just hold them loosely until they fall apart some. Whatever is left of them after a little while will be wise and workable, something you can cultivate into a helpful next step.
Great. So here I am in a literal bind -- my back is so tight I can't move in most directions -- and I've got to let my feelings 'swirl' and 'fall apart'? Oh and there will be something 'workable' at the center of this physical and financial stress? I don't think so. This mindful approach, it's just plain dumb. It's not going to pay for college or unkink the back or get the daughter to understand what's gotta happen next.

Hold on a minute. This resistance is probably what clients think and feel when you say such 'dumb' things to them, and you gently push them onward, through tension or panic, toward their own good sense... And more often than not, things improve.
Ok... I actually have to relax and not project this helplessness any further, I think. Like right now while it's hard and I would rather pointlessly search for answers in my flurry of pessimistic thoughts. I cannot not personally do this -- can't not apply mindfulness strategies toward some kind of practical mental health benefit -- and still be a legit clinician who guarantees said strategies will work for clients.

Do it then, I said to myself. Like now! Calm down. There's no bear here, no gun pointed at my head. Put the phone down. Crate the dogs. Take some time. Find some space. Walk around, let go, hang on, give up... These were random helpful thoughts that came and went in the service and process of trying to relax -- not avoid or discharge, but self-regulate to the point where I could simply abide -- with exactly what was happening.
Five minutes went by... Then: bllllooouuurrrp (that's a bubbling-to-surface sound in my mind)... A new thought happened while I was looking out the kitchen window checking out a beautiful big pine tree outsdie:
Eff everybody and everything... I'm gonna grow my own kale! Right on the deck. Square foot gardening. There's no reason I can't do that. I don't need a single person's help. I really can do that. Like right now if I want to. Then I don't have to spend a dime on kale ever again. I'll even grow tomatoes and spices, too. Yeah. Eff the grocery store! Eff tuition! I'm doing this.
There's a whole bunch of analysis we could throw at where these apparently irrelevant thoughts came from in my psyche and how they actually do connect to the specifics of the overwhelming stuff I was working with this morning. But suffice it to say there was power in these statements. Possibility, purpose, and intention had arrived. The texture and vibe of the moment changed, a lot. And with that, everything outside me this morning -- all those specifics of physical pain and tuition and tension with my daughter, none of which had changed a bit -- began to look and feel different to me.

Borrowing from teachings I practice and study: The sky of possibilities had opened up.

Importantly, those thoughts about growing kale made their way to my locked up shut down heart, too. I thought of my late sister, who has, I admit, become the idealized One and Only Person Who Will Ever Really Understand Me since she died, and who occurs to me in my most difficult moments. In her lifetime, she faced everything I was looking at this morning and then some. She also very successfully did the square foot gardening thing. She said, "Yeah, Jen, you go grow your own kale..." That felt pretty sweet.

OK. Mind open... check. Heart open... check. Body open... well no, but two out of three's good enough.

Within a few minutes of this shift, believe it or not, I received three communications from people it did me a lot of good to hear from right then, and my day and immediate future opened up with new options. I'm still in pain, still don't know exactly what to do about college tuition, but -- and this is so very much the point -- it all looks different and possible when space is recognized and wisdom has some room to gather itself.

Very Hard Times really are found to be workable when feelings, which mark the human experience without exception and are basically good and fundamentally intelligent as they are, aren't flooding the entire picture and coloring it completely hopeless. When the flood recedes, there are stretches to be done, other colleges to be explored, meaningful conversations to be had. Everything can work, maybe not the way I had planned, but somehow. Everything must be workable, in fact, even the most unimaginable traumas and tragedies. I say this in many different ways at work, with a huge respectful humble inner bow to people and their suffering:

This is your life, and it's a basically beautiful one at that, which must be able to accommodate all the stress and struggle of a hard morning or decade -- the stress being inevitable and the emotional struggle with it originating from a place of goodness and warmth and want for things to work out, for ourselves and those we love...

And if we're feeling saintly, even those financial aid gods and presidents we don't like so much. No idea if I'll grow my own kale, but I'm very glad for the possibility of it that occurred in the ever-present space of a claustrophobic moment.

Monday, February 6, 2017

How to Navigate A Sh_tstorm

The pessimistic energy we give to thoughts and rants about how wrong everything is eclipses our view of the conditions for constructive change that are there and waiting - likely screaming at some level - to be known and cultivated. So maybe we should think good thoughts, snap ourselves right out of the shitstorm we're in, visualize our way into sunny skies mental health hard bodies reliable relationships constant confidence nice bosses fair pay sane presidents no regrets immortality and baby bunnies...

No. Eff that positive psychology shite. Ok wait, I'm sorry. Stay with me for a minute more.

There's a fine place for positive psychology, but not in the context of this post... Not in the context of working our way through serious and/or habitually hard times. The science of positive psychology, misinterpreted and misapplied, can amount to hyper-popular profit-making pansy-producing approaches and mantras around the idea that suffering is somehow avoidable and requires swift correction.

Listen... If things seem wrong - if you feel sad angry afraid betrayed cheated embarrassed vulnerable or violated - I say it's because you care about something very much. In fact, I guarantee it. Now you may not be communicating or acting skillfully about what wrong thing is happening to threaten what you care about, and we can and must talk about that, but your negative experience of this moment situation or pattern in your life is perfectly good and sane, and your negative feelings around it should be met and mined for their brilliant intelligence.

Yes, brilliant intelligence. 

Please consider not dimming or dumbing down the way forward by too quickly throwing good thoughts about happier times at your suffering - or anyone else's for that matter. Optimism and pessimism are flip sides of the same coin. They eclipse reality equally tragically well and interfere with the recognition of creative possibilities you've been longing for. It's as if we think those possibilities are somewhere other than right in the middle of the shitstorm we're in... No, no, no!

To discover the way forward hiding in painful plain sight, be literal about the shitstorm you're in, especially if it's really bad. See hear smell taste and touch exactly how wrong the weather is. Don't think about it as much as feel it. And tell someone who isn't afraid of you, who trusts that you know yourself best despite the current crazy you're manifesting, all about it. Don't abandon this wrong moment or phase for any other one, past or future. Stay safe and stay with what's happening - stay with yourself - until things calm a bit and logic, tenderness, and possibility become apparent.

They will, I promise. They can't not.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Holiday Help!

For many, holidays mark a time for family, food, warmth, conversation, celebration, and abundance. For many if not more of us, they are tinged with dissatisfaction or irritability if not profound grief, outright panic, or downright depression.

Loss and loneliness can feel unbearable.  

Whether occurring in some form this holiday season or some time ago... Whether this is your first or tenth year without partner, child, parent, friend, sibling, pet, job, home, or health... It can be hard to feel grateful, to make superficial or meaningful conversation, to be present with the absence of someone or something you really needed or loved.

Holiday speed and real or imagined pressures are also a biggie.

Chronic anxiety does not lessen with crowded malls and restaurants, high gift giving or receiving expectations, woefully easy-to-incur online shopping debt, conversations about president-elects, or excessive alcohol/sugar intake and sleeplessness. It can be hard to relax, to feel heard or seen or anonymous enough, to connect authentically and appreciatively with ourselves, let alone each other.

So here’s to being kind...

To yourself if you're having a hard time or know you will in the coming weeks. To others if you're ok, and regardless of why they may be having a hard time.

Find an environment, make an environment, BE an environment, wherein some retreat from the bustle and tension can unconditionally be had and kindness — just the smallest most meaningful gestures and things — can be mutually felt and offered.

Conditions That Make For Workable Holidays

Because holidays can exacerbate mindlessness, know how you feel. Would you drive across the country, clueless in an overheated car with soft tires and no oil? If you can put effort into knowing your vehicle, please put effort into knowing your human self. Even if you can't rest or eat or exercise or cry when you want to, please know all the same that you are indeed tired, hungry, restless, or sad. I can't emphasize enough how much potential is catalyzed and how many possibilities emerge for self-care when we simply know -- when we don't argue with -- how we feel.

Because holidays can exacerbate impatience and control in relationships, don't know how others feel. If your attempts to figure other people out leaves you feeling exhausted from the dashed expectations that result from trying too hard to anticipate/manipulate the private world of another's experience, just stop trying so hard to know. Hands off! Trade the stress of mental chess and hopes/fears around peoples' thoughts, feelings, or intentions for the daring gracious business of asking how they are, letting them talk, and learning something about them that you could've have guessed to be so.

Holidays can stir up grief, so grieve intentionally. If you're feeling a current, recent, or old loss, please know and honor that. Set aside time and space to just sit down and pay homage to the missing person or relationship. Your grief is a testament to your caring and courageous investment, no matter how it ended. Without a nod to your grief, your "inner compass" -- designed to lead you to future relationships that would be sweetly relevant to your needs and capabilities -- is busted. Tears are cleansing, painful memories are clarifying, and space/time given to these is profoundly restorative.

Holidays can stir up seriousness, so laugh intentionally. Go through the motions of finding something stupid, something silly, something pointless, something completely disconnected to the demands you feel the holidays are making on you, and watch/read/say/do/pursue it. Detach from the "important" things you're doing -- seriously even the most excellent generous things you're doing -- in order to aerate your view. Your good works will be even better with lightness.

Holidays can pressure us to prioritize, so go ahead and do that. Like a diamond that needed more crushing to shine, let any extremes of this holiday season meet with your determination to radiate whatever wattage you've got. Take yourself out of the dark for a minute, out of the vice grip of your well-intentioned but too-intense schedule and claustrophobic to-do list. Sit, breathe, speak sparely and move slowly, make soft and sustained eye contact. Linger, emanate, be. Then, in that space, contemplate what's important, and act on it.


Jen Erickson, LPC offers psychotherapy, meditation and self-regulation training, and trauma resolution to adults in her Berwyn/Exton offices, on the Chester Valley Trail, and via video. Find her: Call her: (610) 427-0698. Email her:

Trauma Resolution: A Crumbling Castle

 According to trauma researcher and clinician, Besser van der Kolk, we are all living testimonials to events that are no longer happening. Ideally, we are functional testimonials — healthy and constructive expressions of the conditions that have shaped us. Where there are unprocessed traumatic events, in other words where there is post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), this is not the case. But it can and should be. Humans typically integrate traumatic events into workable experience in the same way we do non-traumatic events — by feeling, thinking, and talking our way into and through the memories of them. Whether we loathe or welcome the process, through listening to songs that “take us there,” through conversations and contemplations that directly reference the attack, even through jokes and nightmares that poke or stab at the heart of the loss or humiliation, we tend to relate to our traumas.

As creatures geared toward balance and healing, sense and meaning, we are inclined to have this kind of flexible relationship with everything that happens to us. We therefore experience ever-maturing, adaptive shifts in our present view of the past. Attention and awareness lead to insight such that we can make meaningful use of whatever has happened. We can live with it, not despite it. We can move forward constructively from it. A difficult past won't ever be changed of course, and need not be prettified, but will become workable — for some people even motivational — if we and our supporters can relate to it.

In the case of unprocessed trauma, the ability to relate to past traumatic events is not yet developed or supported. Whether it’s a week or a decade post-trauma, for the PTSD sufferer, the memories of a senseless event are as sharp and vivid as the original experience of it. Without support, the traumatized man, woman, or child can’t approach those memories let alone integrate or make sense of them.

Instead he lives in two worlds:

One world is surreal and full of people who want him to be ok, need him to get back to normal, think he should move on. The other world is the real one, the one that stopped when the trauma started. That world is comprised of the preserved sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and feel of the trauma along with a deeply felt strong ongoing sense that something very bad is very close.
Who wouldn’t want to wall off an unbearably real world of events that cannot but must be acknowledged and integrated, a world of happenings that can't have happened but did, and put it away in favor of a world that he and everyone who loves him wishes still existed?
Picture a sand castle, one of those award-winning ones with sharp corners and intricate details. Now construct a barrier around, above, and beneath it with whatever kind of material you think is indestructible. The barrier will keep creatures, waves, and weather from it. Whenever you happen to glimpse that castle, whether daily or decades from now on your deathbed, it will appear intact. Nature should’ve worked on it, elements and creatures should’ve worn it down, but the barrier has kept the castle pretty much how you left it.

For the PTSD sufferer, the castle is, of course, the traumatic memory. The barrier around it includes various substrates of a single devastating obstacle to trauma processing: the sufferer cannot relate presently or safely with her memories of a real event.

The child or elder abuse was not shared... The college rape was not reported... The commanding officer was not knowledgeable or assertive about PTSD treatment... The financial or emotional needs of family overwhelmed the sufferer’s need for treatment... The protocol offered was not trusted or effective... The treating clinician was not properly trained...

The trauma therefore cannot be met, let alone be related to and resolved. It is segregated, wanted desperately to be gone, and in that way, denied and preserved.
In truth we can’t completely or permanently segregate, can’t effectively get rid of, anything we’ve experienced. The denied memory, the walled-off castle, will passively degrade and leak into the surrounding environment, impacting everything around it in sometimes subtle, sometimes disastrous ways despite all efforts to compartmentalize it.

But for a PTSD sufferer whose castle is a nightmare that actually happened, walling it off and keeping it out of the mind’s eye (even via extreme measures like sedation and sleeplessness*) seems like a damn good idea.

Those leaks of traumatic material are flashbacks, uninvited-therefore-intrusive glimpses of an intact trauma memory. One of many problems with flashbacks is that their triggers are not always known, and so are not easily avoidable. The green water bottle on your desk could send your office mate into a panic attack or dissociative state because something like it was in her view before, during, or after the moment she was attacked five years ago. For you, it’s a green water bottle. For her, it’s retraumatization, and it reflects and perpetuates the tragic preservation-through-avoidance of traumatic material.

Though PTSD treatment strategies and protocols differ in how much exposure to traumatic material is necessary for resolution to occur, they all aim to make the client’s references to past events approachable in the present so they can be recognized by the client as not actually recurring, as not so close or inevitable — as workable even if at some level forever troubling. Easier said than done.
Relating to trauma flexibly and confidently is a gradual and uncomfortable process that usually depends on someone other than the PTSD sufferer being able to do it at first, i.e., a psychotherapist who is trauma-trained and trusted.
At first, it is the therapist who provides a calm, safe container in which the existence of a client's trauma can be bravely met and gently (indirectly and non-specifically) explored. As the client masters self-regulation skills to manage the anxiety that will arise as he orients to the memories, specific details of the trauma can also arise and be navigated more readily in the client’s private experience, even if not discussed in explicit detail with the therapist.

Through a therapeutic relationship that includes privacy and dialogue around traumatic material, the client grows in confidence, recognizing himself as a trustworthy, reliable, capable container for his own shifting experience. Now a spontaneous mixing and mingling of previously siloed material can and will occur — of bad memories and good, of grief and possibility, of personal experiences and others’ experiences, of a dark past that really happened and a rising-sun of a future.

The castle, the dysfunctional testimonial to a PTSD sufferer’s unbearable but real experience, is now seen and felt and crumbling — never completely unhad, but softened by a gull’s landing, by rough and gentle waves of reference, by the winds of anger and probably at some point a ready rain of tears. PTSD that is exposed to the brave and spacious care and sense of the client’s natural ability to heal, and those who support that healing, simply cannot help but resolve. 


*Sedation, though certainly not a goal, can be achieved by way of prescribed psychiatric medications, especially in the absence of concurrent psychotherapeutic support, as well as self-medicating with legal or illicit substances. Sleeplessness, also not a goal, is achieved by way of the anxiety and hypervigilance that mark a PTSD sufferer's days and are especially heightened at night, when she is asked to enter a sentient being's most vulnerable state of mind and body: sleep.

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