In this blog post for Natural Lifemanship, I explore the idea of "pressure". Often used in a negative way, "pressure" can bring to mind the idea of stress or coercion. In NL we use it as neither a good nor bad thing - it simply is a fact of life and relationships. The thing that makes it a positive or negative thing for relationships is whether that pressure is appropriate or not. Appropriate pressure is very different from inappropriate pressure (i.e. too much or too little) and YES there is a thing as too little pressure in a relationship!
In this blog for Natural Lifemanship, I share the story of my dog, Olive. A stray with clear attachment trauma, who has taught me so much about what trauma does to a developing brain - human, canine, or otherwise. We humans often believe we are separate from the animals around us, I hope this story helps you feel more connected to the fact that we are just animals too, and share so much with the others around us.
In this blog I wrote for Natural Lifemanship, I explore the two major camps of Equine Therapy we see in the field today (of course, not everyone falls into these two groups). In the equine healing professions it seems horses are treated as either tools for our benefit, or as other-worldly, all-knowing higher beings. What does this do to the therapy to believe either of these things? How is our work impacted, how are our clients impacted? It's a topic worth exploring for anyone going into the field. In Natural Lifemanship, we strive for a middle ground where a hierarchy is unnecessary - we are creatures with wants and needs, as are they, and a mutually beneficial relationship is possible if we really try.
Enjoy - and please leave a comment if you feel inclined!
This May I had the privilege of joining Natural Lifemanship at the Wild Horse Sanctuary in Shingletown, California - truly a once in a lifetime experience!!! For those of you who don't know, Natural Lifemanship offers a handful of trainings for therapists, horse professionals, and interested others to learn about how the brain, the body, and relationship all come together to make our lives better. We have an introductory training called the Fundamentals, and then a secondary training called the Intensive. The Intensive training is a 3-day small group experience in which participants get to choose an unhandled or rescued horse with whom to work on relationship building for the duration of the weekend. It is a deeply personal and profound experience, as well as a wealth of learning for professionals seeking to incorporate horses into their therapeutic work. The intention is for both the humans and the horses to connect and grow in a positive way through their interactions through the weekend. Natural Lifemanship feels strongly about equine work being mutually beneficial for both human and horse.
This time, we took the Intensive one step further - in partnering with the Wild Horse Sanctuary in California, we were able to work with 5 young mustangs who had had little to no contact with humans up to that point - and help them prepare for adoption. The situation for mustangs in the USA is a controversial and emotional topic - currently, there are more mustangs in holding pens around the US than there are free roaming on federal land. And unfortunately, the numbers of mustangs on federal land is unsustainable still. If left to their own devices, many mustangs would die of starvation - however, the current solution of rounding up mustangs (often by traumatic helicopter chases) and placing them in holding pens until they are adopted is also unsustainable. One of the major issues facing these mustangs in holding pens is that they are wild and few people are equipped to house, handle, and train a wild horse - so, many spend years, if not their entire lives in small spaces as a means to keep them from starving on federal land.
Natural Lifemanship has roots in the mustang herds of the West - it is in working to gentle mustangs that founder Tim Jobe developed much of his perspective on horse psychology and behavior that serves as part of the foundation for Natural Lifemanship. The truth is, there are quite a few differences between wild mustangs and domesticated horses - witnessing wild mustangs and experiencing the gentling process with them brought to light much of the disparities between natural horse behavior and what we see in most domesticated horses today, offering rare insight into the workings of the horse brain, especially when survival is at stake. Because of Tim's work with mustangs, and the mustang's place in the hearts of those who work with NL - we were so honored to get to spend time at the Wild Horse Sanctuary. Our Intensive took place in the same way it usually does - 8 participants matched with 4 mustangs to spend 3 days building a relationship. The goal is always mutually beneficial connection in any work we do. The goal for the training was to provide participants with an opportunity to experience themselves in a new and challenging situation, to learn to attune closely to horse communication, to practice calm and predictable relating, and to feel the process of relationship building that a client might feel in their one equine therapy session.
The training was a huge success - the participants were engaged, thoughtful, open and vulnerable - and therefore they were able to make great strides in only 3 days. Mustangs that couldn't relax with humans in their vicinity on the morning of day one were seeking out touch and curiously investigating their human counterparts by the end of day 3. The participants had to find their most quiet, calm, and sensitive ways of communicating while acknowledging how their own fears, patterns, and blind spots were obstacles to relationship. As a therapist and trainer, it is a great privilege to guide people through this process - it is one of my most favorite aspects of my work. It also doesn't hurt that we get to witness young mustangs experiencing relationship with humans, many for the first time, and we get to be a part of them becoming calmer and happier in our presence - a skill that will support them in having long, healthy lives with humans. And since we live in a world where horses (wild or not) intersect with humans, and often rely on them for safety and security - co-existing peacefully is an essential skill we are thrilled to be a part of building with them.
After we had wrapped up the training on day one, we were offered a guided walk into the back pasture of the sanctuary to look for some of the wild herds. We were fortunate to find one after about a half hour of walking. We got to visit with Lightning and his mares and foals - some of whom were curious and eager for small interactions. Lightning kept a close eye on all of us, and let us know when he felt we were too close - a message delivered clearly and with impressive calm authority. The presence of these (mostly) wild mustangs at the Sanctuary is difficult to describe. These horses are built to capably move through rough terrain - with stout legs and strong hooves.
The experience at The Wild Horse Sanctuary is one I won't soon forget - and the struggles of the American Mustang is often on my mind. If you are interested in learning more, or are wondering how to help, I have listed some sites below that offer some information. Special thanks to Windows to My Soul for their support for our training!! For more information on joining a Natural Lifemanship training (or joining us next year at The Wild Horse Sanctuary!) - please go to our trainings page.
PS - I am not an expert in mustangs, just sharing my experience - I hope to learn much, much more as life goes on, perhaps even gentling one of my own someday. I would LOVE to hear about your experiences with mustangs - please feel free to share pictures and stories!
In the last few years, I have fallen in love with a form of therapy called Equine Assisted Psychotherapy, or EAP for short. It's a bit of a fringe therapy, but it is growing exponentially as we learn more and more about its benefits. However, since it is fairly "fringe", many people haven't a clue what it actually means to do this work, or to be a client of EAP. So, here is my attempt at explaining it. Keep in mind, there are many ways to do this work - this is my experience.
Equine Assisted Psychotherapy (EAP) is, simply put, a psychotherapy session that is...assisted...by equines. A therapist, a horse professional (sometimes they are one and the same), and one or more horses come together to support a client in therapeutic growth - mentally and emotionally. This work can have physiological benefits, but that is only the goal as it relates to mental/emotional health (like a release in muscle tension due to decrease in anxiety). So goals are created much as they would be in typical office therapy - for example, a goal could be "decrease symptoms of anxiety", or "increase ability to recognize and manage emotions as they arise".
EAP is often confused with Hippotherapy or Therapeutic Riding - which is riding to improve physiological and mental development in those with injuries or mental/physical disabilities - clients with brain injuries, birth defects, autism spectrum, etc can benefit greatly from Hippotherapy. EAP is also often confused with EAL (replace Psychotherapy with Learning) - this is a practice done by horse professionals who are NOT licensed therapists, and whose focus is often on personal growth or coaching. Similar, but not the same. EAL can be powerful work - but if you are looking for psychotherapy, you need a licensed therapist - and EAP.
Let's say you are seeking a therapist - you want to work on something emotional, mental, or behavioral (i.e. stress, anxiety, depression, relationship issues, family issues, parenting, trauma, etc) - why might you choose EAP? My favorite reason...because it is experiential. That means that instead of going into an office and talking about your problems, you come to the ranch and experience your problems. Now that may sound unappealing, so let me elaborate. When we see a talk therapist in an office (and I'm not dogging this work, it can be very powerful) - we often arrive, talk about ourselves and our life, and then leave with some ideas about what we might do or think about differently in the week between our sessions. In an EAP session, you come to session and begin to engage in a relationship with a horse or horses - you interact, try to accomplish tasks, try to connect. In doing so, the typical things that often cause you problems in life happen IN session. Do you over accommodate? Then you will over accommodate that horse. Do you try to control others? Then you will try to control that horse. Do you get frustrated and quit easily? Then you will get frustrated and quit with that horse. Do you focus so much on a task that you forget to connect with others? Then that's what will happen with that horse. See a pattern here? So rather than spending hours and hours, weeks and weeks in an office trying to decode all your thoughts/feelings/behaviors - a therapist in an EAP session will actually have a chance to see your behaviors in action, generally right away. Many times, believe it or not, I am able to observe the very heart of a client's work within the first couple of sessions. Not due to any magic or genius on my part - but because who we are with the horses is who we are everywhere. THEN, the therapist, the client, and the horse all come together to make the changes necessary also IN the session. A client doesn't have to go home to try things out and report back, the client can try things out with their horse and therapist there to support them and guide them. The client gets real-time feedback and learns while anxious, or afraid, or angry - and is supported in changing that IN THE MOMENT. It is powerful, transformational, and encourages changes in the brain for a lasting effect.
So what might this look like in a play-by-play? When I have a new client, we begin with a bit of history - why are you here, what's been happening in your life, where do you come from, where do you want to go; that sort of thing. This can happen in my office or as we walk around meeting horses. Some clients prefer the movement and comforting interaction of horses while they talk about themselves. Then, we move into choosing a horse to work with. Here the experiential work begins. Some clients choose the horse that chooses them. Others choose the one that reminds them of something or someone. Others choose the one they feel connected to. Trusting yourself, listening to your preferences, and making a decision can bring up feelings and thoughts right away. For some, lots of work is done in the choosing of a horse - for others, it is a simple activity that lasts only the first session. Once the client has found their partner any number of things can happen each session; we simply encourage them to build a relationship. This involves spending time together, asking the horse to move from one place to another, perhaps grooming, navigating obstacles together, noticing how a horse communicates to us, and other things that we call 'groundwork' - like learning how to ask a horse to stop, turn, go, come to you, follow you, stand still, etc. while standing on the ground. We do as much of this as possible without any ropes/halters or other control devices so that the horses can be their authentic selves. Sometimes sessions include riding, but only when appropriate for the therapy. What does all of this matter? Well, as a client navigates all of these tasks they inevitably make requests, have to set boundaries, need to ask for space, deal with closeness and touch, manage frustration and fear, practice assertiveness, build trust, manage anxiety and internal energy...the list goes on. What I have found is that whatever comes up for my clients out in their "real lives" happens in our sessions - because what they are doing is building a real relationship with a horse. It may sound unusual to anyone with limited animal experience - but it is truly possible to have a real, mutually beneficial and reciprocal relationship with a horse - I see it all the time. And it is in this relationship, along with the relationship a client builds with their therapist, in which healing and growth occur.
So, some clients may spend weeks standing in a pasture trying to make a decision about which horse to approach - this happens when decision-making and trusting the self is the work. Some clients will spend their time trying to accomplish tasks, but forgetting to connect with themselves and the horse emotionally, leading to struggle in the task - this happens when connection to self and others is the work. Some clients will choose a horse that steps on their feet and pushes them with their nose - the work is then about boundary setting and self-worth. Every relationship is different, every session looks a little different. But ultimately, client, therapist, and horse come together to create an experience....then process that experience...and then try to have a new, better experience. All in an environment where authenticity, non-judgement, and vulnerability are sought and highly valued.
The goal in all of this is that the client learns a new way of being in the world - which is really what therapy is all about.
***Be on the lookout for a post discussing the mounted work of EAP - improving brain function, self-regulation, and relationship all at the same time!
Disclaimer: SOME therapists do an excellent job of being experiential in an office. I just prefer and find it more natural out with the horses. :)
The topic of ‘waiting’ has come up several times for me this week, in a variety of situations. I find it to be a powerful concept that can be fairly difficult to accept, and even harder to employ. As counselors, parents, teachers, leaders, and partners one of the greatest life pressures is in the feeling that we should always know what to do. “What if my client asks me a question I don’t know the answer to?” “What if my kid doesn’t listen to me?” “What if my partner does something hurtful?”
What if, what if, what if.
That feeling you are experiencing as you ask yourselves this question of “What if?” is anxiety. Do you feel it? Adrenaline causing a squeeze in your chest, making your heart beat louder and more quickly? That shortness of breath. That strong desire to jump into action? But ‘what if’ the best course of action was no action at all – at least at first? What if pausing, waiting, and silence were your best tools for a successful outcome?
When we experience anxiety and fear (fear of the unknown, fear of making a mistake, fear of being inadequate), our brains kick into survival mode, to our brains and bodies fear of the unknown feels just like fear of a predator – fear is fear. So, as the highly evolved animals we are, our brains and bodies jump into “save me” mode. Adrenaline courses through us preparing for fight/flight, which is exactly the reason we feel the need to jump into action – to hurl angry words at our partner, to get big and demanding with our children, and to launch into a know-it-all lecture for our clients. We are protecting ourselves in that moment. However, when we protect ourselves, when our focus is on “save me”, we aren’t using our relational and critical thinking capabilities. “Save me” mode doesn’t care about other people’s feelings, or about consequences and long-term effects.
So imagine that in that moment when your brain and body want to jump into action, to defend or to flee, that instead you choose to pause. To wait. To allow silence and space. This is not always easy, our desire to save ourselves is strong. Asking ourselves to pause in a critical moment takes practice and patience, and most of all, self-awareness. Because, we can’t pause in a moment we don’t recognize is happening.
But with practice, you will. And then you will have a choice to pause. And in that pause you give yourself time to slow your heart rate, breathe a little more deeply, and remember that as a clinician you don’t need to have all the answers, as a parent you don’t need to have control, as a partner you don’t need to win the argument. In pausing you allow your brain and body to remember that it is in fact not in danger, that this person or feeling you are confronted with is not the enemy, and that in giving yourself a moment you get to make a conscious choice as to how to proceed.
Clearly, I am a strong believer in the pause, the wait, the silence. But, not everyone agrees with me. I cannot tell you how many times I have been told, “Waiting doesn’t work.” Waiting out my anger or discomfort, waiting out my child’s tantrum, waiting out the moment…doesn’t work.
My question in return has become,
"At what point in your waiting did you decide your waiting wasn’t working, and therefore stopped waiting and did something else?"
To me, it is like a law of the universe – waiting works, because when you decide to wait out discomfort you don’t stop waiting until discomfort has passed. When you decide to wait out a child’s big emotions, you don’t stop waiting until the wave of emotions have passed. Waiting always works if you allow it. And when waiting is done in a calm, loving, compassionate way – it saves you from hurting your relationships, including the one you have with yourself.
So in the end, you do save you…but you also save the relationship in the process.
Anger. We all experience it. Few of us enjoy it. Fewer still understand it. Why does it happen, and what is the point? Anger, like any emotion, is the product of body and mind in response to a stimulus. It happens so quickly that we don't really get a choice in the matter. But, thanks to a highly developed neocortex, we do get a choice in what we do with it. It may not feel that way sometimes, but it's true. But in order to do something constructive with our anger, we need to better understand it - we have to dig a little deeper. Emotions show up to tell us something - they arrive to deliver a message. We can accept and hear that message, or we can ignore it. But, it's coming either way. Anger is no different.
If you have ever spent much time with a therapist, you have probably heard the question, "What is beneath your anger?" For many, this is a frustrating question, eliciting a response like, "What do you mean beneath my anger...I'm angry, that's it!" But many in the field of psychology call anger a 'secondary emotion', as in it comes second to a primary emotion...the thing you feel first. So to better understand anger, we have to allow space for that first feeling that leads to the anger. Most often, our primary emotion is more vulnerable - it's fear, or hurt, or helplessness. But, being the human animals that we are, we don’t like vulnerability. The body and brain don’t distinguish between physical vulnerability and emotional vulnerability. Fear of loneliness and fear of a saber-toothed tiger are interpreted as the same in the mind and body – they are simply fear. The body’s natural response to vulnerability is to protect itself. Fight, flight. Anger. We wrap ourselves in an armor of anger. And it works, sort of. We defend, we feel strong, we are independent and self-sufficient – we are not weak! No!
But, here’s the kicker. When you wrap yourself in sturdy armor, you have trapped yourself inside…along with those vulnerable feelings. So yes, you are strong on the outside. But you are alone with vulnerability on the inside, separate from everyone else. For many of us, being alone with our vulnerability means…MORE ARMOR! Pile it on, layers and layers of anger, defensiveness, stone walls – vulnerable you on the inside, everyone else on the outside. And this works for a while, it can “work” for a lifetime. But the real tragedy here is that whatever we repeatedly do, we become. This is because the brain grows and develops based on repetition, based on experience. So the more we defend against vulnerability, the more we let anger control us…the easier it becomes. And then anger is our habit, angry is who we are.
However, there is another way. We can ask, “what is beneath our anger?” We can tap into our vulnerability, understand it, take care of it. And then our emotions have delivered their message, and they can go. This is what we miss out on if we don’t attend to our emotions. We don’t realize they simply need to give us a message, and when we receive it the emotion subsides. Now some emotions are stronger than others, and some never fully leave – but they do subside. They become manageable, tolerable. So many of us don’t know this because we have spent all our time fueled by avoiding, fueled by protecting against…trapped in our armor.
So what does it look like, in real life? An example. As I wrote this blog post on anger, my writing program crashed. Twice. Losing the majority of my writing in the process. My initial reaction was to 1) curse, 2) slam my laptop shut, 3) stomp around the house muttering, cursing, sighing. I realized I was angry. Like super angry. Recognizing the irony of my anger about my post on anger, I stopped and asked myself what was underneath this anger. Why was I so angry? And in giving myself that moment, I realized I was disappointed – I thought what I was writing was good; I thought I was almost finished. Knowing I need and want to write a blog post creates this small nagging anxiety in the back of my mind, until I get it out. So I was disappointed, I had almost cleared myself of that anxiety for a while. I realized I was also afraid. What if I can’t remember what I was writing? What if I can’t make the second…third version nearly as good as the first? I’m a ‘stream-of-consciousness’ writer (I think that’s just something I made up, but go with it). Thoughts pour out of me. Then when I am finished, I go back and read, edit, add, re-write. But it is really difficult for me to stop midway through a first draft and then try to pick up where I left off later. (I’m realizing this is why I wrote most of my school papers in one sitting, rather than doling out the work over several days/weeks). So, there is that vulnerable feeling. I am so disappointed, and I am scared that I don’t have it in me a second…third time. Digging deeper still, I recognize my fear also looks like doubt. I’m thinking, “Why am I even spending all this time on a blog post – I don’t have anything to say! I’m not a writer!”
But, if I don’t write about this, I will have that nagging feeling. I’m disappointed because I really enjoy the act of writing and am sad I lost my first…and second thoughts. I’m afraid because I’m putting myself out there, I could be rejected. I also remember that my blog doesn’t exist because I am important and others should listen. It exists because I have thoughts I want to put into words, and that if these thoughts are even remotely helpful to someone else – even one person, it was worth it. It is why I studied psychology; it is why I am a therapist – to help myself and others live a life of our choosing. But I recognize I cannot write coherently about anger and vulnerability while in an angry, vulnerable place. Which means it is time for a break to get re-centered. Get my stream of consciousness back. Twenty minutes on my yoga mat, and now I feel like I can face this page again. Could I have come back to this after only 20 minutes had I not faced what was beneath my anger? I don’t think so, maybe you could have, but I couldn’t. I’d still be stomping around in the house, maybe have turned on the TV in disgust, thinking “Screw it, nobody is going to read this anyway.” That’s where my anger would have gotten me. It’s not very appealing, is it?
We all experience anger, it is not shameful or low, it just is. But, as conscious beings, we also get a choice in what we do with our anger. Do we let anger run amuck? Or do we search beneath the anger, listen to its message, and then let it pass? Do we allow ourselves space to decide? To acknowledge our vulnerability, learn from it, use it – so we can get back to nourishing our souls with writing, connecting, listening, loving?
The power and the pain of it is that it is entirely, utterly, your choice.
**Working with children on the concept of anger? I LOVE this visual from The Gottman Institute: The Anger Iceberg!
This video that's circulating the internet, the one of the teen girl being ripped out of her desk by a "peace officer" in a classroom, has grabbed me and won't let go. If you haven't seen it, it is a violent interaction between an adult and a teen on a school campus. Which, in every way, is disturbing to me. Some may describe it differently - if you have a strong stomach, watch it yourself and see what you think. (I will not be sharing it here.) Lots of talk has occurred about who the teen girl is, who the officer is, and who was in the right. Honestly, I don't think any of it is relevant. Yes, her history could explain some things; yes, what happened leading up to this could be of interest. But in all seriousness - she is a teen...a child, who was sitting quietly and was forcibly removed from her seat, causing injury. Nothing else really need enter the conversation.
Our culture has a long history of treating children as second class citizens. Whether we like to acknowledge it, we believe children should be quiet and obedient...some may say "respectful", but too often what they actually mean is "obedient". Consider how classrooms are set up, how children are expected to behave within them. Consider how quick we are to anger when children don't "do as they're told". There is still debate over whether or not it is ok to hit a child. Some call it "spanking", but hitting is hitting, folks. Think about all the times we mostly get exasperated and annoyed when children are upset or angry. Would any of this thinking fly if you applied it to your husband, wife, mother, boss, employee?? No? Interesting....
So, as a family therapist, and one who has spent some intensive time working with at-risk children with serious behavior issues - I have been thinking about this video a lot, as well as the conversations that are happening around it. I have been thinking about what I would have done, what my beliefs and professional knowledge would have informed me to do. I've been thinking about why so many people want to justify this officer's actions. Because I absolutely believe this situation could have been resolved peacefully. I know this because I, and the therapists I work with, do it all the time. Not because of any magic of character or secret phenomenon. But because from our experiences we have learned one very simple, very powerful thing: that for our children's sake we CANNOT allow anger to cause us to lose control of ourselves. A child's (including a teen's) brain functioning still has a long ways to go in its development. Executive functioning (problem-solving, impulse control, cause-effect thinking, emotion regulation, etc) is still under development until our mid-twenties. And that's if we've had a stable, safe upbringing. So, at best, a teen's ability to control her impulses and regulate her emotions is under-developed; therefore, if you are the adult in the room with this child, your number one job is staying calm. You have to show her how. Honestly, most of my professional advice for parents comes down to this: do what you have to do to stay in control of yourself, to stay calm. Take a break from the moment, BREATHE, get professional help, call for backup...whatever it takes. Because the moment you lose control of yourself, you've lost the moment.
I think we can all put ourselves in this officer's shoes to a certain extent. She is defiant, the whole class is watching; he is thinking "She WILL leave this classroom if it's the last thing I do." Anger is creeping up and taking hold. But is that really what is important here - unquestioning obedience? Is this teen exiting the classroom actually the thing that matters? Or is modeling to this teen that no matter how defiant she is, the adults will never harm her; and modeling to her that when you are mad, frustrated, livid even, you can still do the right thing - isn't THAT what we want her to take away from this? So the challenge is, and this is absolutely a challenge - it doesn't come easy to any of us. The challenge is: You cannot ask a child to do what you cannot do yourself. This is a common refrain among professionals who work with "tough" children. You cannot ask a child to do what you cannot do yourself. If you can't handle a difficult situation calmly - how can you expect them to?
So, regardless of who said what, or how this moment came to pass; a man responsible for the safety and order of a school campus let a child anger him to such an extent that he lost control of himself and became violent. This was an extraordinary event, one many of us will never experience I hope. However, I do believe there are lessons for every day life in this. Anger is a natural feeling we all experience, it arises for various reasons and no one is so regulated that they avoid anger completely. But, what we DO with anger is a CHOICE we make. No matter what anyone else does, we still get to choose how we respond to them, to life.
It just doesn't matter how disobedient or difficult this girl was being - she still needed to be treated like a human being who was struggling to make a good choice. It doesn't matter how angry the peace officer was, he still needed to find a way to calmly resolve the situation. Because now, this girl not only has physical wounds but emotional as well. Her trust in her school administrators, police officers, and adults in general (if she ever had any) has now been horribly ruptured, possibly irreparably so - and what kind of choices does a teen with no faith in her school, law enforcement, or authority figures make? What kind of adult does she become?
And what's more, when we allow anger to take over, what kind of person do we become?
I've been on a writing hiatus. I am told this is the most surefire way to let your blog die. However, after more than a year of being immersed in some life changing work, too many thoughts are swirling in my head, telling me it's time to write them down again. If it ends up just being for me, I am ok with that. But my sincere hope is that there are others who might engage with these thoughts, in whatever way is useful - agree, disagree, cause to think, cause to change, cause to unfollow. I like to hear others' perspectives and I like conversations that make me stop and think - this is why I write a blog rather than simply in a journal. Perhaps much of what I write will be just for me. But if not, I hope you will say something, ask something, push back - because, as Gary Snyder says, "...to think clearly we must avoid narrow interests or entrenched opinions."
The purpose of this blog going forward will be about the same - my experiences and thoughts as a professional psychotherapist, applied to the day in day out aspects of our lives. I am currently pulled to think on and write about the topics of connection, fear, relationship, nature (human and otherwise) - pretty similar to before. However, I may stray into theory and philosophy some these days as I am reading and challenging my own thinking more. It's possible I've grown more holistic and "woo woo" in my time away - so, if you do decide to read along, prepare yourself for that.
As I have said before, take what fits for you, leave the rest.....but maybe let it percolate first. I intend to do the same.
Dr. Siegel is an MD, specializing in psychiatry for children, adolescents and adults. His work is largely centered around brain development, and more specifically, interpersonal neurobiology - which in an overly simplified nutshell means he studies how experience shapes the brain. He is a prolific author, and any one of his books are a great resource for anyone. His latest book, Brainstorm, discusses the adolescent brain. (Highly recommend for teenagers, parents of teenagers, and anyone who works with teenagers.)
Last night, Dr. Siegel spoke at length about Brainstorm, but also about advancements in research on brain development in general. Three major ideas he spoke on last night I felt were concepts that not only inspire me to continue in the direction I am headed professionally, but they are also concepts that I think are easy to take home and apply in your own life, right away.
1) "Being Present" makes us happier and healthier
Cultivating Mindfulness, where you practice focusing on what is happening in the moment, using your senses to take in information, and calm your thinking about the past/future, has incredible positive effects. Previously, the positive effects were hard to communicate - the general consensus was 'it just makes you feel better'. NOW though, we know that practicing mindfulness, slowing down your thinking, using your senses, and focusing on the present moment ACTUALLY CHANGES YOUR BRAIN AND BODY.
When you are "present", your body releases Telomerase, an enzyme that actually helps to slow the aging process in your body. When you are "present", you brain actually expresses genes in a more healthy way helping to prevent disease in the body. When you are "present", inflammation is reduced in the body (inflammation is thought to be one of the most damaging problems in modern health). Being "present" also results in more brain integration (a whole other topic) which in turn makes us more able to regulate our emotions and control our nervous system.
Being present is a very good practice, you can start today easily. A great introductory activity: sit comfortably, close your eyes, place a hand on your chest, and notice your breath for at least 5 breaths. That's all you have to do, notice your breath, pay attention to what it feels like. Easy!
2) Being more like an adolescent is just the thing adults need
Neuroplasticity is the idea that the brain continues to grow and change through the lifespan. This means the brain can heal itself over and over, but it can also change in a way that's not so great for us. The brain is like a muscle, it needs activity to keep it strong. Some of the best activities include:
Active emotionality - what we might call "passion"; care about something, laugh, cry, love
Social interactions - research consistently shows that we, without a doubt, NEED other people to survive and thrive; talk and listen
Novelty - trying new things challenges and renews the brain; go learn something new
Creative expression - challenge the status quo, think outside the box, tap into your creative side
Funnily enough - these are the exact same things that adolescents are drawn to as they transition from childhood to adulthood. So, simply put, in order to stay young, ACT YOUNG.
3) Trust your Gut
We have significant clusters of neurons around our hearts and our intestines. Our bodies receive information in non-verbal, unconscious ways through these clusters that is extremely valuable. Yes, we are conscious beings with the advantage of critical, analytical thinking - but don't ignore it when you "just know something", your body is communicating to you just as much as your thinking brain!
I hope you feel as inspired by this information as I am - how could you apply this in your everyday, real life?
Why is it that we, as human beings, are so ready to label and classify others? Imagine walking down a busy street, passing people right and left. A man brushes past while talking on his cell phone, wearing a dark suit with his hair neatly combed - what do you immediately assume about this person? That he is successful? That he is wealthy? That he is busy...or smart...or a workaholic?
Every one of us is guilty of passing judgment on another person - we assume, we label, we decide. But why do we do it? This automatic thinking process (as in, our brains do it automatically) actually has evolutionary origins, there is a very real, very valid reason for why we do something that in today's world can get us into a lot of trouble. It has to do with safety, and protecting ourselves. Imagine a prehistoric human walking alone in a vast wilderness - he happens upon a large predator, teeth bared, claws exposed, snarling and growling. Now imagine what would happen to this prehistoric human if he had to stop, examine this predator and go through the conscious thinking of "What is this creature?" "It is showing me its teeth, why would it do that?" "Look at those claws, I wonder what that means when he has them stretched out toward me?" "What an awful sound! It is so loud and intimidating, I think I am intimidated by this creature!!" "If I am intimidated, I should run away!!!" In the minute and a half that our poor prehistoric human took to decide the creature he encountered was dangerous and should therefore flee....he was killed, by said creature. Luckily, that is not what happens. When a human happens upon a predator, our heart rate increases, we begin to sweat, and in a split second we know we've stumbled into a dangerous situation and need to RUN. Not because we thought it through, but because we just knew.
Throughout our evolution, this automatic thinking process has saved humans from thousands of easily life threatening events. It is often a very good thing to have going on inside of us - these are our instincts. In our modern culture though, life has shifted so rapidly that evolution hasn't quite caught up. There are much fewer predators out there that we might happen upon on our walk to work. Yet, our minds are still cranking out those automatic thoughts. Those automatic thoughts quickly and efficiently categorize - often into two blanket categories: familiar and unfamiliar. And in modern day life, where we routinely come into contact with millions of others in real life or through media/technology, our automatic thinking is in overdrive.
This automatic categorization of familiar and unfamiliar isn't just limited to people, though. Most commonly, I see this crop up in our modern lives as fear of the general unknown....fear of change. In our private lives, in our work, in our social constructs, in our politics, in our culture at large - familiar is good, unfamiliar is bad. We fear what we do not know...and if we aren't careful, that fear dictates our lives. Certainty makes us feel safe, there is no grey area, no ambiguity to wrestle with if we are certain. In the grey area is where we question ourselves, our purpose, our path - it is admittedly a very scary place. But is it worth it? Is it worth it to question what you "know"? For some, maybe not. But for many, I would argue that what lies within the unknown is a world of possibilities for yourself, your future, and for those you affect.
So, I challenge you, particularly as we head into the new year, to examine the things you are "certain" of - how did you get there? Did you arrive at certainty through introspection and reflection? Or was it the easy, automatic way? Ask yourself WHY you must live in a certain place, or go to a certain school, or have a certain thing, or believe a certain belief - is it a decision based on your values, your purpose, your needs - or does it come from something else? Does it come from fear of the unknown?
A highly respected, yet "outside the box" thinker of family therapy is a man named Carl Whitaker. He said, "There is no such thing as an individual, only a fragment of a family." I truly believe this. Never are we able to walk this earth without having an interaction with another human being that influences us in some way - this is the most obvious with our own nuclear families. Our interactions with them either bring hurt, joy, renewed strength, adjusted boundaries, reflection, consideration, peacefulness, or any of the other many emotions and thoughts that come during our human experience. The important question is, what happens with you when you go home? I believe this to be important because if you can reflect a little before, and prepare for the visit, you are much more likely to have a satisfying experience while you are with all your loved ones.
Some theories and therapists talk of birth order when considering roles in the family. Are you the eldest? Responsible, level headed, accomplishing all your supposed to? Or perhaps a middle child - taking care of others and ensuring peace and harmony over the holidays...while also sinking into the background a little? Or maybe your birth order has landed you as the youngest - "the baby", never able to truly be an adult when you are at home? More than likely, some of these characteristics fit for you, but there are many other ways you play a role in the family that may have nothing to do with strict birth order. Perhaps you belong to a step family, with layers of competitive feelings and complicated negotiations for belonging. Perhaps a family member passed away earlier than expected, and a family dance ensued, everyone attempting to sort out where they fit in now.
The message I am trying to convey - is that everyone plays a role in the family (whether they are aware of it or not), but it rarely fits completely into a predetermined category. If you're on a path toward a healthy, enjoyable relationship with your family, it is important to take a step back and examine what role you play when you are all together. And then ask yourself, is this what I want? How else could I be when we are all together?
Familial relationships are always complex, with layers built upon layers as time goes by. Time for reflection (and a good therapist) can help you discover the patterns in your family, the roles everyone plays....and with that awareness, you give yourself a choice. Is this how I want it to be? Or do I need something different?
Happy Holidays to everyone, I hope you take the time to step away from the "shoulds", take time to reflect, take time to recharge - so that your new year can begin with love and purpose.
Well, because it might be the very thing that turns your bad mood, bad day, or bad month, around. More and more research is emerging that shows that focusing on and expressing gratitude can actually change the way you feel, and change the way you perceive your life. Yes, a good day can make you feel grateful, but also it turns out, feeling grateful can give you a good day.
In this HuffPost article, research from UC Davis and U of Miami showed that "participants in the gratitude [journaling] group felt better about their lives as a whole and were a full 25 percent happier than the... group [that journaled about daily hassles]. They reported fewer health complaints, and exercised an average of 1.5 hours more".
This NY Times article described the effects of gratitude, "Cultivating an “attitude of gratitude” has been linked to better health, sounder sleep, less anxiety and depression, higher long-term satisfaction with life and kinder behavior toward others, including romantic partners. A new study shows that feeling grateful makes people less likely to turn aggressive when provoked..."
Many more studies exist, although I will not post them here. They are out there in the interwebs for anyone interested in more verification - but if you'd rather, take it from me....gratitude is good for you, whether you feel grateful at this moment or not. Beginning to cultivate gratitude sometimes requires effort, and can feel like another task on your to-do list at first, but over time it becomes habit (that's how our brains work, what we repeatedly do becomes easier and easier and even moves into our automatic thinking).
If you are interested in cultivating gratitude, consider journaling (either writing or drawing) or mindfulness practices like meditation and yoga. Choose a moment in the day (like just before bed) to jot down the things you are grateful for that day...it could be as simple as a warm cup of tea and getting home from work 20 minutes earlier.
There's no better time to be grateful than on Thanksgiving - give it a shot, and watch your moods and perspectives shift toward the positive!
If you are in Austin, there are a plethora of beautiful places to walk, think, and play. Here I've shared with you a few of my favorites - just in case you need a little more nature in your life.
Emma Long Metropolitan Park
1706 City Park Rd, Austin, TX 78730
Wild Basin Nature Preserve
805 North Capital of Texas Highway Austin, Texas 78746
Town Lake Trail
Town Lake Trail is a 10-mile hike and bike trail that wraps around Lady Bird Lake (the portion of the Colorado River that runs through downtown Austin). A well-worn trail that is entirely lakeside - what this trail lacks in solitude, it makes up for in personality, location, and approachability. A great place to walk with a friend or ride your bike. Stay away from the very center of town (S. Congress/S. First areas) if you are looking for quieter walking.
Shoal Creek Trail
31st and Lamar
Barton Creek Greenbelt
Various locations throughout town
The Austin Greenbelt is one of my favorite aspects of this city. All over South Austin there are pockets of secluded nature that provide awesome opportunities for walking, running, biking, rock-climbing, and general nature-adoring and exploring. I encourage you to not miss out on the wetter weather months on the Greenbelt, when Barton Creek runs full.
It is remarkable that Austin has kept such stunning pieces of wild nature intact within our city limits - all you need is an hour...although I'd recommend giving yourself several to really de-stress and reconnect. Take your dog, your kids, or just your journal, and let yourself remember the magic and peace of just BEing in this world.
If you are interested in a guided therapeutic experience in the outdoors, look no further than my Nature Therapy Group, being held at Wild Basin on Nov 17th. Please click here for more info.
I'm always looking for more places to visit - where are your favorite spots in and around Austin to reconnect with nature, and yourself?
In other words, "Is my relationship normal, and what advice can you quickly give me about it?" ;)
I most often get asked about my couples' counseling work - more than family work, kids or teens, writing/speaking, etc. Couples are the hot topic. Throughout the evolution of the human being, there has always been coupling - yet, it seems to consistently confuse us and create more conflict than almost anything else in our lives - and I lump myself into that group of 'we' as well.
Psychological systems' theory would say that is because the energy between two individuals is the most intense relational energy we experience - many, many counseling theories and techniques have been developed over the decades just to examine and help with the things we do in response to this intensity. When we feel the intensity of a one-to-one relationship we do any number of things, like bring in a third-party (how often do you complain about a problem to anyone but the person you have a problem with?), we engage in fight-flight-freeze (also known as arguing, leaving the room, or going silent), or if the relationship is overwhelmingly intense, we cut-off (i.e. divorce, disown, run away...). So if any one-to-one relationship can be uncomfortably intense, imagine a romantic relationship - not only is it one-to-one, but it also includes sex, co-habiting, parenting, and blending values/families/beliefs. In a nutshell, a romantic relationship, especially a long-term one, can easily be the most complicated relationship in our life.
Is it any wonder, then, that I get asked questions about couples all the time? Not really. Let's see if I can answer some of those questions in a real life, take-home kinda way.
From my experience (my blog posts are always from my experience, fyi...take what fits, leave the rest), couples come into counseling when they've hit the end of their rope. Actually, Gottman's research shows that couples wait about 6 years after a problem begins, before asking for help. When they do come in, what I hear most is, "We need to work on our communication." I always smile a little inside when I hear this because, in my mind, what I'm being given is the enormous task of helping a couple figure out their entire relationship. Relationships are ALL about communication - communication is the blanket term for just about everything. Money issues, sex, parenting, conflict, bonding, intimacy...it's all about relating to each other and communicating to each other, verbally and non-verbally. During the therapy, as we comb through the relationship, what I often discover is that I am being asked to side with one of the partners and help the other one "see the light", in a way.
It is one of the hardest things that a romantic relationship asks you to do - let go of being right. Let go of "your way". Let go of how things "should" go. The more you are able to do that, the less resentment, criticism, and unfairness you will feel, and the more able to really hear you partner you will be. I suppose that's the first 'take-home' message - let go!
The second 'take-home' is be kind. It may sound overly simplistic - but most of our greatest relationship issues arise from an inability to be kind to each other. I use the word 'ability' because I believe being kind to your partner is a skill you must develop, it doesn't just happen. It is something you have to choose to do - because it is so much easier to be critical, to be defensive, to give the silent treatment, to roll your eyes and walk away - so you have to make a conscious choice to be kind, every single day. When I get asked about the most succinct advice I can give to couples, this is what I say.
The fact that being kind has to be a conscious decision means you have to actually pay attention to your relationship and how you behave in it, which is not always easy. As we get older it becomes more and more difficult to pay attention to a partner - children, work, in-laws, illness, money...those can all be very worthwhile distractions. But at the core of it all is you and your partner, you two are the foundation and therefore deserve plenty of attention - if you don't work, everything else is affected. Yes, you have to figure out how the bills will get paid and who is getting up with the baby in the middle of the night, and you have to deal with some of the great joys and terrible griefs of living - but it is possible for all those things to be sorted out with kindness - it's not easy, in fact, at times it can feel downright inconceivable, but it is possible.
Why go through all the effort of letting go and being kind? Because the very things that make a long-term romantic relationship so complex, intense, and conflictual, are also the things that make a long-term relationship intimate, fun, and full of some of the most rewarding love you'll experience in a lifetime.
So, what do you think? What other words of wisdom are out there for couples? What have you been told, and what have you told others?
What an amazing moment of shared experience. To have someone else articulate your own thoughts or feelings - it can make a person feel less lonely, to say the least. Sometimes we really need that, to see that their are others out there who feel the same way. To know that we are not alone in our thinking, in our feeling. But, that's not what this post is about. This post is actually about my shared moment with an author. My, "YES! That's what I've been trying to say!"
In today's age of hyper intelligence, super achievement, and constantly advancing technology, sometimes we forget that we are simply animals. We may be the few conscious, self-aware animals on the planet - but we are still animals. Unfortunately, with this consciousness, we have chosen to dismiss our animal side as wrong or ignorant, and in doing so, we dismiss an integral part of ourselves. While some instinctual behavior can get us into trouble, dismissing the fact that we have animal instinct gets us into more trouble.
The more people I have met, either socially or in my office, the more I think about the human being as an animal. As a human race, or perhaps this is more a Western idea, we seem to have decided that because we have this consciousness, this higher order thinking, we are somehow immune to the dangers of our environment, of animal life. Yet, everyday, I interact with wounded human animals.
I wanted to communicate this to people, but never could find just the right way to explain it. Barbara Sher, in her book, Wishcraft, however, gave me the words.
"If a seed has to grow with a rock on top of it, or in deep shade, or without enough water, it won't unfold into a healthy full-sized plant. It will try - hard - because the drive to become what you were meant to be is incredibly powerful. But at best it will become a sort of ghost of what it could be: pale, undersized, drooping...we ourselves are the only creature we would ever expect to flourish in an environment that does not give us what we need! We wouldn't order a spider to spin an exquisite web in empty space, or a seed to sprout on a bare desktop. And yet that is exactly what we have been demanding of ourselves."
How many of you expect to be highly successful and serenely happy - despite being squashed, under-nourished, or under-supported? We may be conscious animals, but we are still animals. We need light, air, food, and water - we need an environment conducive to our growth and well-being. Without it, how can we possibly be our best? We wouldn't expect it of anything else living on this planet.
But, that's not where the story ends. The incredible upside of having this higher order thinking is that we can choose to do something about it. We can choose to reflect, we can choose to talk with a therapist, we can make changes to our lifestyle so we eat better, sleep more, exercise more, get outdoors and stress less - we can even choose how we see and understand the people around us! (Interested in this idea? Take a minute for "This Is Water" by David Foster Wallace)
However, you can really only make these changes when you recognize that you are not immune, that you have been affected, that you are overcoming obstacles. If you ignore the animal in you, if you ignore the hurt animal in you - how can you ever accept it, use it, control it, heal it?
Waking up on a cold, rainy morning has always been hard for me. In my mind, these are the mornings that are perfect for sleeping in, burying under the covers and forgetting my to-do list. Isn't it great when that happens on a Saturday, and you can actually roll over and snooze for another hour? Clearly, yes. But what to do when that happens on a workday? Or worse yet....a Monday? Now there may be some of you who spring out of bed no matter what (although I'm guessing you are few and far between, and also, what's your secret??), and then there are plenty of you who are awakened by children or other necessaries and you don't really have time to even consider the roll-over, bury your head, snooze button option. For those of you who think, "I don't have time in the morning to even consider hitting the snooze button!" I encourage you to try to find even five minutes to do something positive and quiet before your day gets going - even if that means getting up five minutes earlier.
What follows is a mix of personal and professional ideas - as I always say in session and here on the blog - take what fits for you and leave the rest. (Unless you notice that nothing fits...then maybe check in with your rainy-day-grumpy-meter...)
First thing in the morning:
- When you open your eyes in the morning, try not to immediately run through your to-do list or leap out of bed. Give yourself a couple minutes to arrive mentally and emotionally (similarly to coming out of meditation). Lie quietly, take in sensations through all five senses, stretch from your toes to your fingers overhead. Take a couple of deep breaths before sitting up. Arriving in the moment can change the whole outlook of your day.
- Create a routine in your morning that includes a self-care ritual. For example, I absolutely do not take care of anything else until I have a cup of coffee in my hand. Warm coffee (or tea) in my hand makes the day seem much brighter. For you it might be something else - perhaps it's putting on your slippers and comfy robe, or sitting on the floor quietly with your pet for a moment, or stepping out onto a balcony or porch for some fresh air. It can be that simple, and only take a couple of minutes.
- Do some light morning yoga. Don't worry about the right mat or stretchy pants - even five minutes on the floor doing some gentle stretching will help you wake up, get your blood flowing, and work out stiffness from the night.
- Breathe. All. Day. Long. Breeeaaatthhheeee. Deep, conscious breaths that empty and refill your lungs help bring in energy and shed moodiness.
- If you have the option, choose something approachable and relatively easy/enjoyable to do first in your day. Accomplishing something right away will motivate you to keep going, as well as boost your mood.
- Get some exercise. Any kind of exercise. Take the stairs, do some stretching, walk around the office, start your day off with a trip to the gym. Whatever sounds do-able.
- Take regular breaks. Research consistently shows that sitting still all day long may be one of the most unhealthy behaviors today's humans face - it also makes you drowsy and slows your heart rate/metabolism. Get up every hour or so and stretch, move, have a chat with someone, go to the bathroom, whatever - not only will your day go by more quickly, but you will have more energy (i.e. focus and motivation) throughout the day.
- Play! Find a way to inject some fun and play into your day. Pets are great for this. So are friends and kids. As adults, play is highly underrated. It helps us laugh, relax and feel good again - don't let your to-do list keep you from it.
- And finally, one of my favorite mood shifting ideas is the "mood shift music playlist". This is an idea I stole from a personal friend - so big thanks to them for it. A mood shift playlist is basically a playlist of songs (try Spotify or iTunes) that you put together that begins with moodier, quieter, sadder songs and then progresses into more neutral music which then progresses into happier, uplifting music. Now depending on your preferences, this list could ultimately finish with some all out happy dance tunes...but that's up to you. This playlist can help you mentally transition from a negative place to a positive one - music has wonderful powers. Here's a truncated sample playlist:
- "Codex" by Radiohead
- "Perth" by Bon Iver
- "From the Morning" by Nick Drake
- "To Build a Home" by Cinematic Orchestra
- "Burning Stars" by Mimicking Birds
- "Second Song" by TV on the Radio
- "40 Day Dream" by Edward Sharpe & the Magnetic Zeros
The take-home message here is be gentle with yourself. Taking extra steps may feel like...well...extra...but in time I hope you will notice a difference and feel the worth of being kind to your self, what is commonly referred to as "self-care". Self-care is not selfish - it makes us better able to do our jobs, to parent, to relate, to learn, to grow, to help others. There is nothing selfish about that.
What do you do to keep motivated? I'd love to hear your thoughts. Enjoy the rain!
"I should really do some cleaning today."
"I should have gone to yoga this morning."
"I should try to be more like my sister."
What about the even bigger "shoulds"?? "I should be married by now." "I should become a banker like my father." "I should want to have kids, right?"
The word "should" is tricky. It comes from our expectations, our plans for ourselves, either in looking forward to our futures or in looking backward at our past. In theory, expectations are a good thing. When we are young and making plans for our lives, expectations give us something to shoot for, a goal, a direction. Yet, as we grow older, we use these expectations like a road map. As though it will help us predict our futures and keep fear of the unknown at bay.
"I should go this way, and then I should go this way, and then I will arrive at my expected destination."
But, what happens if what we were planning doesn't work out? We all know what a detour feels like. What if you don't get that scholarship after all? What if your college sweetheart really isn't right for you? What if you get that marketing job you always wanted and find that...well...you hate it?
The dangerous thing about making plans for your future is that you don't have all the information yet. You aren't actually making an informed decision, you're really just making an educated guess. We have to do that, over and over again, or else we might never get out of bed in the morning. But, we get into trouble when we're so set on these plans that it becomes a tragedy when they don't work out, we cling to our expectations insisting that they work, that they are right. All the while our real life is moving on without us.
Let's say you always wanted to be an ad man and wear a nice suit, take clients out to dinner, see your work in a 30-second spot on TV. You work hard through college and the interview process until it happens; you've landed the job at Wieden Kennedy. Yes! Your plans are working out! But, six months into it you are arriving later and later at work, you loathe the sight of tomorrow's suit you have to wear, and client dinners are making you crazy (If I have to drink one more old-fashioned...). Turns out the only thing you love about your job is the after hours, when everyone else has left for the day and you are alone with your ideas, sketching out new pages for tomorrow's presentation.
What I see in my practice over and over again is this person 5 years later, or worse, 15 years later. They've finally hit a wall so hard they have to admit their plan isn't working out for them. Their expectation that this was what they wanted has kept them from feeling like they could stop and say, "Wait a second, I don't like this. This is not a good fit for me." As this person sits in my office, they begin to realize they've wasted years of their life on an expectation, on "should".
It is not easy to look back at months or years of work (in your career, your relationship, your lifestyle) and know you need to walk away. It is perhaps one of the most difficult things for a person to do - to release expectations and allow real life to seep in. The flashy marketing world may not hold a candle to the quieter and more frugal world of the artist, for you. The man of your dreams might be a balding high school teacher, rather than the suave hedgefunder you always imagined. Your dream life might be made up of gardening, cooking, and raising happy kids, rather than the glamour of being an earth-shattering non-profit director.
The thing is, it's all ok. If it's right for you, if it is your bliss, don't let expectations and plans get in the way. It's ok if two years ago you were sure you were right, only to realize today you were wrong. That's life, you have more information today than you did two years ago.
You are the only person on the planet who can live your life like you can. So forget "should", forget what you expected things to be like, and look around at how things are. Look at how you are. Don't be afraid to ask yourself, "Is this right for me?", even if the answer is no. In facing your fear of the unknown, you might find you're looking at your best possible life.
I have been thinking about the families in Connecticut a lot lately, as I did with the families in Aurora, as I did with the many families all over the country who have been affected by violence in the past. I have felt real sorrow, and also anger, despair, and other natural responses for grief. What is interesting is that I feel as a nation, we are in a bargaining stage of our grief. What if we change gun laws, will that make it better? What if we talk about mental health stigma, or parenting, or security, will we be able to avoid this feeling, this sorrow, again in the future? It's a normal part of the grief process to seek answers and hope for things to be different. I'm not writing today to offer words of advice, or suggestions for dealing with a tragedy - those ideas are readily accessible through many great resources, like my friend Tara's blog, or here.
I think today all I want to do is plant a seed, or perhaps, I am just selfishly using my blog as a forum for thinking in print. For the past couple of months I have been exploring an idea, and then tragically, this event in Connecticut happened and reinforced my desire to continue my exploration. The idea begins with culture...how and why did we get to this point, is this really where we want to be, and do we have the power to change it?
I am no expert on culture, anthropologists and sociologists study for lifetimes to get a handle on culture, I will not make any claims here about historical fact or evidence. What I will say is from this therapist's perspective, we are getting off track. I see depression, anxiety, dissatisfaction, and fear like they are epidemics - sweeping through our population with no end in sight. Would conversation about mental health issues help? Certainly. Would it change the fact that the number of mental health diagnoses occurring in our country are growing exponentially? Probably not.
Here comes the flyball, catch it if it resonates with you, drop it if it doesn't...please don't chuck it at my face if you dislike it. My growing feeling, as I age and as I practice therapy, is that as a culture we have gotten away from many things that make us caring, social human beings. For 99% of our human existence we lived close to the land, we engaged in physical labor, we knew where our food came from, we knew where our children played, we knew who lived next door (or in the next hut, or tipi, or cave..) Since the industrial age our lives have changed radically. The concept of community has almost all but left us. My mind boggles at the idea that my actions can affect someone thousands of miles away, and that they can affect me in return. Were we ever meant to have such power? And then, what is the psychological impact of all of this change?
Are human beings really built to live separate from all other natural life, indoors, sheltered and entirely unaware of the natural processes they affect or that affect them?
In my own life, I have made the commitment to at least pay attention to the way I live, and attempt to live closer to nature; nature in the sense of the outdoors, and nature as in my own nature, human nature. Any therapist will tell you, awareness is the beginning. I pay attention to that restless, slightly depressed feeling I get when I haven't gotten enough exercise outdoors and all I really want to do is go for a horseback ride. Or that distracted feeling I get when I'm overwhelmed by obligations and need a quiet walk out of sight of the traffic and bustle of the city. I pay attention to when I feel tired, and I try to let myself sleep right then, not in two hours when everything is done. I try to eat real food, with ingredients I've heard of and can pronounce. I remind myself to talk to my neighbor, instead of just nodding hello. To really hug someone and look them in the eyes, try to see them as they are. I water my plants and I feel the heartbeat of my dog. I remember to breathe...to slow down.
For some of you, these things I am working on are already a part of your life, for others, these things may seem unimportant or unattainable. The reason I write about them now, in the wake of such tragedy, is because I feel that the experiences that connect us to each other, to non-human creatures, and to our natural world, are the threads of humanity that keep us from ignoring, hurting, and destroying each other, and ourselves.
I would love to hear your thoughts on the matter...I could have written on and on for pages, but had to stop somewhere.