Fear of the Unknown

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?

What Is Your Role in the Family?

We are coming up on a long holiday of being with family and friends.  As a therapist, it is a time to consider what being at home with the family will be like for each of my clients.  For some, it is a great joy they look forward to for weeks, for others, it is a stressful experience of regression and repression, and for others, it is neither good nor bad...it just is.  This is the perfect time to talk a little about your role in your family in therapy, and to consider your role in the family on your own.

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.

Take care!

The Power of Gratitude

You've heard it a million times, "Count your blessings".  But sometimes, that can be really hard.  Sometimes life feels hard.  A bad mood, a bad day, a bad month, can get anyone down - why would you possibly want to count your blessings then?

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!  

Getting Outdoors: Austin Style

I'm a big proponent of getting outdoors.  If you've followed much of my blog, or seen my website, you know that I believe nature to be an integral part of our well-being.  More and more these days, research is showing that our detachment from nature, the natural order of things, and our own human nature, is having a significant impact on us; our mental, physical, and emotional health are all being affected.

At Emma Long Park with my dog, Boogie

If you want a quick boost of happy, calm, centered feelings...head outdoors.  If you struggle with anxiety, depression, ADHD...head outdoors.  If you are having a bad day, a frenetic day, or a "why am I here?" day...head outdoors.  Nature always tops my list, for my own personal well-being as well as a professional recommendation as a therapist.  I know the activation energy can be hard.  It is so easy to say, "After I do this load of laundry", "After I finish this paper", or "Maybe I'll just watch an episode of Law & Order instead."  But really, get up, get out...you'll never regret it.

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

Emma Long is a beautiful piece of the hill country, west of Austin off of 2222. Turkey Creek hiking trail takes you far away from roads and buildings, through the woods, where dogs  (and humans!) can run off-leash.   There are also camping and park grounds that are great for cooking out, swimming, and general family fun.

Wild Basin Nature Preserve
805 North Capital of Texas Highway  Austin, Texas 78746

Wild Basin is a beautiful 227 acres in west Austin.  Over 2.5 miles of hiking trails criss-cross the property, with varying levels of difficulty.  Some trails open up onto amazing views of the hill country.  Guided hikes available, keep an eye out for the endangered species you can spot out here!

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

Shoal Creek Trail follows Shoal Creek north and south through the middle of Austin.  It varies between quiet nature paths and road-level biking paths - but the quieter spots away from Lamar are beautiful places to get away for a head-clearing run.  I recommend the portion of the trail that begins at 31st, where the trail drops below road level; you can almost forget you are in the middle of town.

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?

The Frustrating, Sometimes Terrifying, Totally Overwhelming but Totally Worth It Work of Being in a Relationship

Just like everyone else, when I am out in social situations I often get asked about what I do for a living. (Side note: Did you know this is largely a Westernized conversation starter?)   When people find out I am a therapist I either get the wide-eyed "I'm so not talking to you anymore" look - or I get the "Oooh!" look, followed by questions about my work.  Some questions I cannot answer because of confidentiality, but others, I can and am happy to answer.  One of the most common questions I get is about the types of cases I see, and most often, they're asking about couples.  Something along the lines of, "What brings couples into therapy the most?"  And the follow-up I often get is, "What would you say are some of the most important 'take-home' messages you give to couples?"

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?

The Human Animal

Have you ever been reading something and come across a passage that made you go, "Ah HA!"  A passage that somehow said something in a way that you had always hoped to be able to do, but had never quite been able to express?  Sometimes an author puts your own thoughts into words so beautifully, that all you want to do is carry their words around with you, like a neon sign above your head.  "This!  This is what I think!"

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?

What to Do with Those Rainy Day Moods

After a month-long hiatus (that involved moving both my office and my home), I thought it was time to pick up the blog thread again.  Funnily enough, though, I'm feeling particularly unmotivated today because it is rainy and chilly and dark.  So, in an effort to push through my lack of motivation, I'm going to write about the fact that it is rainy and chilly and dark.  But don't worry, this won't be a moody piece that reflects the weather, this one is about managing that moodiness.

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.
To stay motivated or manage moodiness throughout the rainy day:
  • 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!

This Is What I Should Be Doing Now

How many times do you use the word "should" on any given day?

"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.

A Time for Reflection

Today's post will be a little out of the ordinary.  Rather than information, tips, and tools for your daily life - I'm going to do the opposite.  I'm going to lob an idea out there and everyone may do with it what they choose, no tips, no tools, just some thoughts.  I suppose it is not unusual that I feel the need to reflect during this time.

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?

I have been reading lately about the concepts of ecopsychology, ecotherapy, green therapy, and nature-based therapy.  All are different names for a pretty similar idea - basically, that in all our ingenuity and excellence, we've lost our connection with the natural world, our environment and all the living things in it, including other humans.  It used to be that we spent all our time outdoors, in the elements, we knew the direction of the wind and the phases of the moon.  We worked alongside each other and among other animals, sweating and seeing the product of our labors.  I don't mean to romanticize life before the industrial age, it was certainly much harder in many ways, but there was a lot of good there too.  In a very short period of time, life has changed so much.  We now spend most of our time seated, indoors, in unnatural lighting, alone, with multiple electronic stimuli coming at us at once.  Is it any surprise then, that loneliness, depression, and anxiety are at an all-time high? What about ADD and autism? Or that relationships, both intimate and communal, are suffering?

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.

Take care.

Boredom With a Capital "B"

It may seem obvious when you stop and think about it, but in the moment it's easy to forget.

Boredom = Trouble

Now let me preface by saying many people out there suffer from neurological imbalances and hereditary mental illness that have nothing to do with boredom and truly only improve with intense therapy, medication, or a combination of both.  But what if you are experiencing a little more anxiety than usual, some obsessive thinking, restlessness, lack of motivation, or are feeling a touch of depression, with no history of mental illness?

It might be time to take stock of how you're spending your time.  Think about a typical day.  Perhaps you go into the office every day like you're supposed to, but find yourself obsessively checking email, or getting on Facebook over and over, sighing, waiting for the clock to hit 5pm, not really focused on your work.  Then you head home, put on your comfy pants and settle into the sofa...only to get up for dinner and to go to bed.    Now in all fairness, sometimes we need a night like this.  (I need regular nights like this). But what if it is every night?  What if weekends look like this, too?

Too much free time makes us unhappy.  It's that simple.  When you have too much free time you think too much, analyze too much, and want too much.  Being busy keeps our minds occupied, makes us feel like we are contributing, builds confidence, and expends physical and mental energy.  It also helps keep us in the moment, it is difficult to ruminate on the past or worry about the future if you are focused on the now.  Our brains need stimulation, otherwise it will devise its own activity - typically in the form of worry and obsession.

But not all activity is created equal.  Frenzied activity at work, plus a jam-packed social schedule, a demanding exercise routine, and not a moment for yourself can be just as troublesome.  So what's a person to do?

Often, when I have clients who come in feeling restless, lost, confused, and unmotivated, one thing I do is ask them about the things they love.  What brings them joy?  Passion?  Fulfillment? In session, we explore ways to make sure these things have a prominent place in their lives.  For example, a (pretend) marketing rep comes to me feeling lonely and disconnected and tells me that they spend most evenings at home in front of the television.  Maybe it turns out this person has a secret, unfulfilled love for drawing.  I would encourage my client to make a trip to an art store, explore drawing classes and commit to spending an evening or two a week to drawing.  It's a simple, yet surprisingly effective step toward reenergizing a person.

More and more I see people who have gotten away from the things they love.  We are a culture of achievers, where financial success is synonymous with success in general.  Many of us have forgotten that life is also about play, passion, creativity, laughter, risk and love.

Often...not always, but often, I see boredom in people not because of their circumstances, but because they have lost their way, they've misplaced what they love.

While I by no means am suggesting that getting a hobby will cure you of depression, I do believe that refocusing energy into the things that light us up will change your life for the better, even if it's just a tiny bit.

But what about that boring job, you may ask me?  I have found that devoting yourself to things you love to do, when you have the time to do them, makes doing the things you don't like doing more bearable...because guess what?  At 5pm you're headed to your drawing class.

For those of you who are more visual learners...close your eyes.  Imagine yourself as a body of water, with the ability to move, adapt, and overcome obstacles.  If you sit still, ruminate and settle, what happens?  You grow murky, unclear, stagnant.  Consider your life's passions as the spring water that injects movement and life into you - they give you clarity, energy, and strength.

So, are you bored?  Are you the stagnant pond, or the flowing stream?  What do you want to do about it?

Choosing The Right Therapist

I have recently had a personal experience that reminded me of how hard it is to find a therapist.  Hard is maybe too light a word, terrifying, confusing, exhausting...those actually fit a little better.  Finding a therapist for the first time, or finding someone new, can be a daunting task.  The truth of the matter though, is that the work that it takes to find the right therapist is worth it - there are bad therapists out there, just like there are bad doctors and teachers.  There are also great therapists out there who just aren't quite right for you and your needs. And then, there are great therapists out there who will see you for who you really are, who will hear you, support you, help you, guide you.  So, take your time trying to find someone, here are a few ideas on how to get started.

If you have a friend who works in the mental health field you (ethically) can't go to them for therapy (sorry, guys), but they can be great resources for referrals.  If you don't mind asking them for their input, they are probably your most valuable resource.  Not only will they know tons of therapists in all sorts of specialties, they also know you and are probably the best suited to find you a good match.

I would also recommend asking close (trusted) friends if they see anyone, and if they would recommend that person.  A personal recommendation is by far the easiest way to get started.

If these options aren't available to you, it's time to go online.  Use online search engines (PsychologyToday, GoodTherapy, local counselor or therapist organizations, etc) to pull up a list of people in your area.  Many of these search engines allow you to search based on location, fees, insurance, and specialties, so that you can find a good fit.  This will at least give you a group of people to choose from that you know you can afford, or that take your insurance, or have an office in your area.

The next step is narrowing down this group (which could be only a handful of professionals or a ginormous list, depending on your location and needs).  It is likely that you will come across several different kinds of professionals, and knowing the difference between them could be helpful so you don't get overwhelmed.  The likely professions you will come across are:

Psychiatrist: MDs who specialized in psychology/psychiatry.  This is who you will need if you require medication.  But be aware, psychiatrists typically schedule people for less than 30 minutes, do not counsel, and cost the most.  A psychiatrist is often mostly focused on medication management - some still actually counsel their patients, but it is rare.

Psychiatric Nurse Practitioner: An NP (nurse practitioner) who did a psychiatric internship.  These nurses work with psychiatrists and can prescribe medication - they also are more likely to counsel and often cost less than a psychiatrist.

Psychologist: PhD level therapists.  They have had more education and typically cost more.  Sometimes they do research.  More education could mean better therapy, but doesn't necessarily mean it.

Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW): Masters level social work therapists.  Social work programs typically focus on community health and meeting day to day needs, but more and more the programs also spend a good deal of time on counseling and psychology practices as well.

Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC):  Masters level counselor.  This is your standard masters level counselor/therapist.  They have studied psychology, counseling theories, and counseling techniques.

Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist (LMFT): A Masters level therapist with a specialty in marriage and family therapy.  This is basically an LPC with a specialization in relational therapies, also known as systemic therapies.  This therapist is more likely to talk to you about your family, relationships, work and living environment to get a sense of your whole life "system".

You might also see therapists that call themselves "interns" or "associates".  That means that they have a masters degree and have passed their licensing exam.  For a period of 18 months to several years, they meet with a supervisor and document the time spent with clients and in continuing education.  This is a typical licensing process everyone must go through.  Interns and Associates are often the most inexpensive ways to receive therapy.

So, you have a list of potential therapists, but how do you choose??  My suggestion would be to go to each individual therapist's website and read a little about their approach, who they are, and who they see.  Every therapist will specialize in certain kinds of therapies and also certain kinds of problems.   Pay attention to things that resonate with you.  Go with your gut.

Also on their website it should say whether they engage in a free phone consultation, or perhaps a free initial face-to-face meeting.  Take advantage of those things.  If you are able, set up a few first sessions with the therapists that stood out to you the most.  Go meet them, or at least speak to them on the phone.  The most important factor in successful therapy is the relationship between you and the therapist.  If you don't like them, or you don't feel you "click"...move on.

Choosing a therapist may feel daunting, but it is entirely worth the process to find the "right one".  What I have personally experienced, and what I hear over and over from clients, is that picking up the phone and making that first appointment is the hardest part of all.  Get over that first hurdle and you could be stepping into one of the most significant relationships of your life.


My last post was an all-about-the-brain info session.  Today I want to look at how that info can be applied in relationships, specifically during arguments.  Because we've all had an argument go really badly, and probably would like to try to not do it again.

So, just to refresh our memories...the brain can be separated into three big parts - old brain, midbrain, and new (frontal cortex) brain.  The old brain is sometimes called the reptilian brain, because it controls all our most primal processes...breathing, blinking, sex drives, heart beats, etc.  The midbrain houses our emotion center, among many other things, and is largely where our emotions live and are monitored and processed.  The frontal cortex is our most evolved portion of the brain, where cause-effect, logical analyses, decision-making, and impulse control all exist.

So why is any of this relevant to today's topic of arguments?  Well, consider the last big argument you had with someone, a loved-one perhaps.  Did you get so flustered you couldn't make your point?  Did you say something you regret?  Were you upset by how the argument ended?  Hours later, did you wish you had done things differently?  All of these scenarios can be explained by your brain and body's response to the act of arguing.

As the argument began, did you notice your heart started to beat faster?  Did you feel warmer, more uncomfortable?  That is your body's response to intense emotion, be it fear, anger, hurt, or whatever.  As you experience the fear/anger/hurt, your brain does a very primal thing.  It feels threatened.  And while this kind of threatened (fear/anger during an argument) isn't the same as the kind of threatened you would feel if a large predator were staring you down, your brain doesn't really distinguish the difference.  So, your brain, feeling in danger, resorts to primal responses like fight/flight/freeze.  In order for your brain to "save you" from the danger, it accesses the deep, old brain that just reacts to the threat...and in doing this, it pretty much turns off the frontal cortex.  You can't react if you are weighing cause and effect, and you certainly can't flee if your frontal cortex is controlling your impulses.

So, think about your argument.  What happens when you are arguing with someone and you no longer have access to your rational, decision-making brain?  What's going to happen if your only choices are fight/flight/freeze?  This is why we so commonly either lash out, run away from or avoid the argument, or just kind of shut down all together.  Our brains are telling us that that's the only way we'll survive!  When you say something hurtful you later regret, that's your "fight" instinct.  When you "just have to get out of here", that's your "flight" instinct.  And when you go into systems overload, and sit, like a stone, just nodding along while your partner yells...that's your freeze instinct.  Your brain is trying to protect you...but it's no way to communicate, and has probably gotten you into trouble at some point.

The trick then, is to get your frontal cortex turned back on.  The first, and most important, step is to calm down. This is why many therapists tell their couples to take time-outs when arguments get too heated.  Yet, most couples would report that time-outs don't work.  Why?  Because in reality, the body/brain needs a solid 20-30 minutes before it can really calm down and reengage the frontal cortex, and many people find it difficult to put an argument on hold for that long.  But 20-30 minutes is a minimum that is necessary.  Doctors report that it can take up to 3 hours for cortisol (the stress hormone) to fully return to normal levels after we get agitated.  This is why I don't subscribe to the "don't go to bed angry" belief.  Sometimes, it's just too late and you are just too tired to be constructive - so go to bed, things will look better in the morning and you will have had time to calm down.  Time-outs and "fleeing" are different things though, a time-out means you intend to return to the argument when you are calmer, "fleeing" means you have no intention of having the argument, ever.

There are tons of ways to calm down and everyone needs to find what works for them, but a great way to start the process is by removing yourself from the person with whom you've been arguing.  Don't go vent to anyone, that will just keep you riled up.  Go for a walk, take deep, slow breaths, play with a pet, watch your fish swim in their tank, listen to soothing music, pay attention to things happening around you, connect to the world with your five senses.  All of these things are just ideas, take them or leave them, but all of them will help soothe you and bring you back to a more relaxed state.  Find what works for you.

When you are calm, and thinking clearly, address the problem.  But always, always keep in mind, "What am I trying to accomplish?"  What is the point of the argument?  Are you trying to communicate that you've been hurt?  That there is a problem in the relationship that needs to change?  That you need something from this person?  Stick to the point, and don't let yourself get sidetracked.  Stay in frontal cortex land of impulse control and rational decision-making.  If your goal is to hurt the other person, to inflict damage, to win, you either haven't given yourself enough time to calm down, or this is a person you might reconsider having in your life.

It takes practice to have calm discussion-like arguments, and for some, it may just not be possible.  With time, and practice, it will get easier though.  We all make mistakes, and then there are some out there who really don't mind a big explosive argument.  So a final step I will recommend is the after-the-argument conversation.  When the argument is long finished - revisit the topic to make sure both parties felt heard.  If the argument got out of hand, REPAIR.  Apologize, forgive, explain feelings and own up to mistakes.  John Gottman, a very well-respected couples therapy researcher and therapist who I will one day probably do an entire post about, would argue that the repair after the argument is the most important step of all.  I tend to agree.  Don't leave a hurtful, explosive argument unresolved - it will only become fuel for the fire.

What do you think?  I'd be very interested in your feedback!

Who's Driving This Thing, Anyway?

I have been told once or twice that when I talk about something I often go on slight tangents - I mean, sometimes you gotta tell a side story to make the first story better, right?  Well, I had a few ideas for what I might write about today, but realized that one specific tangent kept popping up.  Instead of taking you all on a long, winding journey of a post today, I've decided to do something short(ish) to get some of those "side story" details out of the way.

So today, we talk about the brain.

When I started my masters program for counseling, it didn't even occur to me to think about brain chemistry and functioning.  But as more information emerges about how the brain operates it becomes more and more clear that the mind-body connection is so interwoven that we couldn't possibly separate the two.  As a therapist then, knowing about the brain has become an integral part of what I do.  It has also helped me understand my personal life as well.  If you take anything from what I write about today, my hope is that it would be a better understanding of how the mind and our emotions influence our bodies and our behaviors.  In other words, we are not as consciously in control as we think - unless we make an effort to do so.

For our purposes, I want to talk about the brain in three parts; the hindbrain or "old" brain, the midbrain, and the frontal cortex or "new" brain.  The "old" brain controls our unconscious/automatic functions like breathing, our heartbeat, and blinking. It is also where "fight, flight or freeze" originates.  All of these automatic functions have come about for pure survival.  If we had to be conscious in order to breathe, or if we had to analyze and problem solve before fleeing from a predator we would all be in real trouble.  These things kick in without us having to think about them - which can save our life, but perhaps also get us into trouble.

The mid-brain is largely where our emotion centers lie.  Of course, there is a lot more to the mid-brain than emotions, but for our purposes that's what I am focusing on.  This is also the area where memories are made.  Anxiety, depression, joy and fear  - as well as our ability to monitor and control the feelings - all dwell in the middle of the brain.

The "new" brain, or frontal cortex, is unique to highly evolved mammals, like humans.  This part of the brain houses our problem-solving, analyzing, decision-making and impulse controlling functions.

Some interesting factoids about the brain:

  • We go through different growth stages in our lifetime where different portions of the brain are being developed, making connections (most of the growth happens in the first months of life)
  • Our frontal cortex is the last to develop, and isn't finished until we are in our mid- to late-twenties      (Our decision-making, impulse-controlling center isn't ready 'til our late twenties!!  Teenagers make a lot more sense now, huh?)
  • The brain is what we call "plastic", it makes and changes connections throughout our lifetime.  What we repeatedly think and do creates connections in the brain - we can change beliefs and behaviors, but it takes time to build new connections and let the old ones go
  • Because memories and emotions live in the same place in the brain, our memories and emotions are linked - that being said, it is impossible to have an objective memory, all memories are subjective (i.e. We put our own meaning to memories, we don't simply record them like a video camera)
  • When we feel threatened (physically or emotionally) our brain goes into fight/flight/freeze mode down in our "old" brain and our frontal cortex turns off to allow that to happen.  You cannot make sound decisions when you are emotionally charged.
  • The act of putting words to feelings (talking/writing) actually helps the brain process the emotion from a place of raw feelings to a place of logic and reason
  • Our minds can cause physical change: stress and fear can make us physically ill, and then conversely, joy and relaxation can make us physically healthier

There are so many ways in which this information applies to our personal and professional lives.  Consider conflict in a relationship, the behavior of children and teens, or your own behavior when you feel angry or scared.

So, I said this was going to be just an information giving post - despite the fact that I would love to go into how all this brain stuff can apply in therapy.  The brain is so complex that many neuro- specialists compare it to the universe - impossible to know fully.  But from my "skimming the surface" blog post today, I hope I have set some groundwork for future posts.  But first, I would like to hear your thoughts.  How do you see this information applied in your own life??  What do you take away from this information?

Am I a Grown-Up Yet?

Differentiation.  One of my favorite things. A big, jargony word that you might hear a therapist use from time to time.  So what is it, and why is it important?

The term differentiation was coined by a man named Murray Bowen, a big-wig of family therapy. Bowen defined differentiation in two ways: interpersonal and intrapersonal.  Intrapersonal differentiation means to separate thoughts from feelings within yourself.  Interpersonal differentiation means you know where your own self ends and another person begins.

Bowen also believed that differentiation is a process of balancing two life forces: the need for togetherness and the need for individuality.  All theoretical jargon, I know, but keep reading as I attempt to de-jargon.

Intrapersonal differentiation (aka differentiation within yourself) has to do with recognizing when something is a thought and when it is a feeling, and reflecting on these two things before taking action.  Our brains are completely subjective, everything we think is filtered through feelings, memories, and experiences.
As children we follow a very simple process: we have a feeling, the feeling brings about thoughts, we say the thoughts.  But, as we grow older, this simple process gets more complicated and often causes problems (ie saying exactly what you think to your boss/coworker/roommate = not good).  It becomes much more important then to pause and reflect before acting.

For example, let's say you are in a situation where you feel threatened (a spouse is angry, your boss puts you on the spot, a guy cuts you off in traffic), if you react simply from your emotions you'd probably either fight back (yell, argue, criticize) or freeze in fear (speechless, paralyzed, brain burp).  If you pause and reflect, considering both your feeling of being threatened ("I feel threatened, I wonder why?") and thinking about rational alternatives ("Maybe he's had a bad day"), you are much more likely to respond with empathy, with clarity, or with patience.

Interpersonal differentiation, the idea of having a sense of self no matter what is going on around you, is the second piece to the puzzle.  I heard a great quote the other day that applies directly to this idea, "The more you like your own decisions, the less you need everyone else to".  What I gain from that is knowing and trusting yourself is powerful, it gives you a firm foundation from which to base all your choices.

One of the most important (and perhaps most difficult) interpersonal differentiation tasks is that of separating from your parents.  As a child, having the approval of your parents is vital, and you have emotional responses to your parents' feelings.  As a teen, you rebel against them and their approval to show you are becoming an adult, but you still secretly want the closeness.  And as an adult, it comes time to really, actually outgrow needing your parent's approval and to outgrow feeling tied to their ups and downs.  I'm not suggesting that your parents' opinions don't matter, or that you should feel nothing about them... what I am suggesting is that knowing and trusting yourself is an incredibly important aspect of becoming an adult and you can't do that when you look to someone else for answers.

Sometimes it's easiest for me to think of interpersonal differentiation as, "I am me, and you are you, and we don't have to think/feel/be the same for us to be ok".

We want to belong, to feel connected, but we also want to be our own people - so we are continuously looking for that balance.  Differentiation is a life-long journey often referred to in a general sense, as "maturity".  It is something we are always working on, no matter our age.  Bowen described differentiation as being on a continuum - we are somewhere in the middle with no one being completely on either end.  Different people may call it different things, but in the end, these things almost always come up as we attempt to become adults.

If you are still wondering 'why should I try to be differentiated when it is such hard work?' then I will leave you with one final thought.  Life is full of unexpected events and surprising people, some wonderful and some terrible.  A person who is unable to separate thinking from feeling, and who doesn't know where they end and someone else begins, is simply being pulled along for the ride.  If your partner's bad day ruins your day, if getting cut off in traffic leaves you livid for hours, if you need others' validation to feel beautiful or important - who is running your life? You?  Or everyone else?

Relationships: Asking for What You Want

Ahh, the movies.  Relationships in the movies are so exciting, aren't they?  Drama, emotional connection, lust, everything a person could want.  Yet, the movies leave something out, the boring stuff that happens in between the exciting stuff - no need to guess as to why.  Yet, often it's the boring and hard stuff that sets the groundwork for the fun stuff, especially after the "happily ever after" of the movies.   Sometimes it feels like we have confused real relationships with the fictional ones - I know I'm guilty of it.  In both my professional and personal life I have come upon this issue over and over.  The most distressing statement I often hear (or think) goes something like, "He/She should just know, why don't they get it?"

Sound familiar?

It is a beautiful and romantic idea that our partner "just gets it", that they see into our soul and understand us completely, that they are our "other half".  Unfortunately, that is not always how it works - especially in newer relationships. In the beginning of relationships (i.e the first few years) we are still only scratching the surface of who this partner really is.

For whatever reason, be it socialization, the movies or the media, we have come to believe that a real partner is able to anticipate and meet all our needs.  So when we bump into the real-life relationship that doesn't meet up to those standards, we get disappointed, frustrated, and often want out.  However, a lack of understanding doesn't mean our partner doesn't love us, it's likely that they are just as frustrated as you.  The study of systems theory (the basis of marriage and family therapy) helps to shine a light on why this may be.

During childhood, we are learning "the rules" of society.  Remember that saying, "Everything I ever needed to know, I learned in Kindergarden"? It's not a bad saying really - at age 5 we are learning how the world works, and we carry that information with us into adulthood. We learn how to treat others, we learn what men and women do, we learn how different relationships work - and we learn these lessons by observing our world around us.  As a child, the world around us is usually made up of our families - our parents, siblings, and any close friends or relatives.  For a child, family = world.

The behaviors and relationships we observe in our families as children become the beliefs we have about behavior and relationships in the world.  This literal interpretation, 'if it happened in my family it must happen in all families', is normal thinking for a child.  But then that interpretation stays with us and becomes a belief in adulthood.  "My parents divorced suddenly and it surprised me, therefore I don't know when a relationship will last."  "My parents are married and fight all the time, fighting must be what married people do."

Yet, beliefs and rules are created about every aspect of the world, not just the big pieces, meaning beliefs can get pretty specific - as specific as what kind of milk to keep in the fridge.  With all the different details that make up a family, is it any wonder that by the time we reach adulthood we all have our own set of rules for how the world works?

So what does this mean for your relationship?  At the very basic level, it means that for every belief you have about how a relationship works, your partner may have another.  Unfortunately, this gets in the way of the "he just gets me" romance.  On the other hand, it also means that maybe your partner isn't a selfish bozo, but just clueless as to what your "rules" are.

The solution?  TALK.  Talk to your partner about your needs, tell them what you believe, what you hope for, what you want.  Be specific!  No, it's not romantic to sit your partner down and say, "I love flowers.  When you bring home flowers it makes me feel appreciated, loved and special. Please, sometimes, will you bring me flowers?"  But, will you get flowers every now and then?  Probably so, and that moment will be romantic.

For the bigger issues, it may take months or years of conversations before you begin to understand each others beliefs and rules - but if you are going to spend months, years, or decades with this person, those conversations are worth having.  Real love isn't like the movies, in reality there are slow, boring, difficult parts - but real love is also better than the movies, because with effort, it can last a lifetime.

Life: Unplugged

For me, the natural world has always been a place of peace.  Life seems to slow down a little in the countryside; there is no hurry, everything is right where it is supposed to be, doing what it is supposed to do.  So when it came time to plan a summer vacation this year, I got very excited at the prospect of spending two weeks in the Wyoming mountains with friends and family.

During the trip, we spent our first few nights camping.  Now, Wyoming camping is different from other camping I've done.  There is no concrete slab for your RV, a site for your tent, a water faucet, or a rusty old grill that has seen its fair share of hot dogs.  There is you, your tent, and the land.  Perhaps a frightening prospect at first glance, but after two days of eating sandwiches, sitting around a fire, and swimming in the lake it hit us.  Peace.  Quiet.  Stillness.  This is what we had come for.  And then another remarkable realization occurred; I hadn't looked at my smartphone in over 24 hours.  In fact, it was dead.

Hmm, could these two things be related?

My phone, as is common these days, is my lifeline.  I text with just about everyone I know, I use it for work, the map application has saved me from getting lost more times than I could ever count, my calendar is saved on it, all my emails are on it.  So, in my normal day-to-day, I need it.  Very much.  It simplifies my life and allows me freedoms for which I am grateful.  Above all else, it keeps me plugged in - to my family, my friends, my world.  However, always being plugged in means always being "on".  I am always the therapist, the girlfriend, the sister, the daughter - all at once.  Wearing all of these hats, all day long, can be exhausting.  This is where the vacation comes in.

I take a vacation to escape, to relax, to just be me. Yet most of the time, I'm "relaxing" while still checking my email every hour, and answering every text that 'dings'.  I didn't realize that I was still "on", until I went without my phone for a couple of days.  Now, I cannot ignore the impact remaining "on" has on my ability to vacate.   I'll give an illustration.  I'm sitting by a campfire listening to the banter and laughter around me, watching the flames dance, seeing more stars in the sky than I thought possible.  I am paying attention to everything around me, and to nothing, all at the same time.  Then, my phone 'dings', immediately interrupting the impenetrable quiet that only nighttime in the wilderness can offer, interrupting my daydream about the stars and the fire.  I check my message - and in doing so have completely removed myself from the world around me.  My colleague has texted a work question.  Now, my brain clicks into work mode.  I am thinking about things happening hundreds of miles away - and unfortunately, keep thinking about work long after I have replied to the message. When I finally return, both mentally and physically, to the fireside, I have to settle back into relaxation all over again, from the beginning.

I compare the experience to being awakened in the middle of the night.  Each time you wake you have to begin the sleep process all over again; these interruptions keep you from ever achieving a deep, rejuvenating sleep.  In vacation, interruptions keep you from ever achieving deep relaxation, real escape.  So, while your two weeks meant for relaxation felt nice, it probably didn't restore you as it could have.  My conclusion?  Give being phone-less a try, for as long as you can stand.  Notice how much more present you are in your surroundings, and with your friends and family.  Notice what uninterrupted vacationing can do to still your soul.

Now, I realize not everyone can take vacations, but unplugging can have benefits even in small doses during your everyday life.  Have a lunch break?  Great!  Leave your phone behind.  Go for a walk.  Eat alone at the park. You won't regret finding even short periods of time when you aren't "on".  Have a long commute?  Put your phone away and find a good playlist.  Notice the scenery.  Practice your meditation breathing.

With all the roles we play, with all the hats we wear, the pressure and stress can keep us from achieving a real sense of calm.  Give yourself a head-start by putting the smartphone down for a bit.

Knowledge is Power: The Enneagram

If you know me well, you know that I love learning new things. I'm a reader, a Googler, and definitely, a Wikipedia link clicker.  So, imagine my joy at coming across a book on the Enneagram, a theory and process of identifying personality types.  Umm, a book that offers insight into my personality and natural preferences?  Yes, please!  The Enneagram is similar to the Myers-Briggs in that it provides you with a personality type that can increase your understanding of yourself - your fears, your preferences, and your natural tendencies. Also, both the Enneagram and the Myers-Briggs have online versions of their tests, bonus!  What I love about the concept of personality types is that you can uncover some insightful information that has the possibility of leading you toward a more intentional life.  The danger in these things is that it is easy to fall into a very limiting trap - seeing all traits as set in stone.

In the field of psychology, many would argue that personality is permanent, you are who you are.  To a certain extent, I agree.  Someone who prefers solitude to social interaction will probably always have that preference, with small variations depending upon age, relationships, and accessibility through their lifetime.  However, I am a strong believer in self-awareness - know who you are, both the good and the bad, so that you can develop what you like and move away from what you don't.  If you are content being an introvert, there is no reason to change it, it is a natural tendency that probably rejuvenates and restores you (introverts, see this awesome Tedtalk about your quiet power); however, if you wish you weren't such an introvert, knowing and understanding your tendencies can help you change.  You can't change something you don't know anything about.

Here is where we come to the Enneagram, one of several ways to learn a little more about your own natural tendencies.  With the Enneagram, there are nine "types", all are given names such as "The Individualist" or "The Helper".  Each type comes with a description of personality traits, preferences, fears, desires, etc.  The Enneagram Institute offers a truncated version of their test for free online, with summaries, comparisons, and even descriptions of how your Enneagram knowledge can help you in business, love, and parenting.  I want to reiterate that not all pieces will fit, no one can ever be all parts of their type all at once, nor is anyone totally and singly one type.  Human beings are complex individuals, impossible to define in a single paragraph, especially through a lifetime.  BUT, the fun here is that some of the descriptions are scarily accurate, as in "Wow, I totally do that" - and can even lead you to a couple of "Hmm, that makes sense" moments.  For example, for "The Peacemaker" type, one of its strongest desires is for both internal and external peace, hence the name.  While this may sound like a positive trait, and often is, it can also help explain why Peacemakers tend to detach from people, situations, and experiences - preferring peace at all costs....not always such a good thing.  If a Peacemaker wants to work on that tendency toward detachment they can now, knowing it can stem from a desire for peace, address their detachment with more clarity.

With any profiling or diagnosing my personal philosophy is to take it with a grain of salt.  No one really fits the mold perfectly (perhaps because there is no mold for human character). Hopefully, though, as you go through life you gain self-awareness, from whatever source (a good personal therapist being a solid one). Without self-awareness, we are reactive - responding to life in ways we never expected and cannot understand.  Knowledge is power; learn about yourself and you will see that you can choose how to walk through this journey known as life.   

A better life through plants and animals?

So, a very interesting article crossed my path yesterday, and has subsequently become the inspiration for today's post.  The article discusses the launch of a new project in San Francisco in which homeless individuals are paired up with dogs in need of foster care.  In return for the basic training that the dogs will be provided, these individuals will be given a small stipend and a space in affordable/supportive housing.  While some may think this is an unnecessary use of money, or a silly idealistic fantasy better suited to a film script, I think it is genius.  I would even argue that this plan could teach all of us a thing or two.

It is all too common for a distraught client to sit across from me in my therapy office and describe intense feelings of boredom, dissatisfaction, loneliness, and depression.  Often, clients want to know how to "fix" these feelings.  It's as though they are asking, "What's the trick, here?" Sorry, everyone, there is no quick fix. Life is hard the whole way through.  But, there are ways to make this hard life really wonderful and worthwhile.  At one time or another, we all wonder "What is the point? What is the meaning of my being here?"  Some find answers through religion and spirituality, others find answers in a personal passion or specific cause - I am going to do something I almost never do, and oversimplify.  I believe the secret is connection.  Connection is our greatest defense against inevitable loneliness, sadness, meaninglessness, hurt.  We can connect with others through relationships, through our spirituality, our cause - but we can also connect with life through the natural world, through plants and animals.  Now here is where I assume I will lose a few of you - animals? plants? Really?

Yes. A plant will make your life better.  So will a dog (or cat, or fish, or ferret, whatever).

Today, in a highly technological world, despite the booming population we feel more disconnected than ever.  We have been separated from each other, and from the natural life that surrounds us.  So how do we reconnect with the abstract idea of "life"?  I offer up this idea: one way we can reconnect is by experiencing a relationship with a living thing, any living thing.  A small plant, while unobtrusive, requires patience, responsibility, and in return gives you purpose.  Ultimately, because you spent time and energy on this plant, you are connected to its life. You are connected as living, breathing things who have become intertwined.  Imagine how that experience might be amplified with an animal; a creature with a heartbeat, wanting to connect back.

Consider this.  In your day to day life, how often would you say you stop and attend to the well-being of another? (parents, you can disregard this question) What would that do to you?  Science tells us that caring for an animal can extend your life, decrease stress, and increase positive feelings about yourself.  Even the simple act of petting an animal slows your heart rate and breathing.  History tells us that human beings have always searched for a way to connect to things greater than ourselves.  The Earth, community, life energy, your god.  These are all attempts at the same thing: connection. Yet feeling connected in these ways can be a life-long journey.  A plant, a pet - these are ways for you to feel connected right now, in your real, everyday life.

Try it. Even if your situation isn't as dire as homelessness, spend some time really caring for a life other than your own.  You could find connection, purpose, joy - or at the very least, a little bit of company.

Meditation for Beginners

Five years ago, the word meditation would not have crossed my lips, not because I thought negatively of it, more that I felt it had nothing to do with me.  Meditation to me was a silent monk, sitting cross-legged on a mountaintop...surely he and I had nothing in common.  Certainly, he felt wonderful and contemplated great things - but I imagine he didn't have to make sure the dog was walked and the dishes cleaned before he raced out the door for work.  It wasn't until I began taking yoga that I was introduced to a much more approachable side of meditation, and felt the physical benefits that I now crave.  

One significant effect I have experienced both professionally and personally is in managing anxiety - a very common issue among anyone breathing today. So common, in fact, many would not even recognize that their level of anxiety might not be healthy. A racing heartbeat, muscle tension, excessive worry, and difficulty sleeping are all possible symptoms of anxiety (there are many, many more).  In therapy, a client and therapist can discuss a multitude of topics concerning anxiety, often getting to the root of the problem and, hopefully, coming to a resolution of the excessive worry.  But what many clients are looking for is help for the everyday symptoms in the meantime.  

The idea of meditation can be daunting.  Sitting perfectly still and clearing the mind for an extended period of time isn't exactly a natural state for people today.  Even I believed that meditating on my own was too difficult.  But then, I had an "a-ha" moment,  my very wise yoga teacher at Black Swan Yoga here in Austin said, "The simplest form of meditation is conscious breathing." Breathing!  Even I can do that!

But "conscious breathing" is very different from the mindless in-and-out breathing we do all day, so the question becomes how to "consciously breathe", really?  A very straightforward way to conscious breathing is through counting. This is something that can be done in 2 minutes, while sitting at your desk, riding the elevator, or walking to your car.  Take an inhale as you slowly count, 1-2-3-4, pause, then exhale as you count 1-2-3-4.  Repeat this pattern for several breaths.  Even better is to inhale to such an extent that you feel your lungs stretch - bet you don't inhale like that all day long!  Slowing and deepening your breath helps to relieve anxiety, making you feel more grounded and calm.  Focusing on your inhale and exhale also distracts your mind, if you are counting, then you aren't worrying.

Another excellent way to try out meditation is through the guided meditation apps that are available for download, (search in your App store for "guided meditation"). These apps offer short (ranging from about 5 to 20 minutes) guided meditations that walk you through relaxing your body and focusing on your breathing, all you have to do is listen.  You also have the options of music or nature sounds to accompany the voice that guides you.  After only a few minutes, you will feel calmer and more focused, and much more able to continue with whatever it is you have to do that day.

The reason I talk about these simple forms of meditation here, and why I encourage my clients to use them in my therapy practice, is because in our anxiety and stress filled lives, taking a moment to calm ourselves is more important than you may think.  When you are stressed, your brain releases a hormone called cortisol into your body.  Chronic stress, and subsequent prolonged cortisol in the body, has been shown to cause high blood pressure, trouble with concentration, suppressed immunity, and many other physiological changes.  Chronic stress has even been attributed to a shortened life span.  So while we can't avoid worry entirely, managing anxiety and stress is an important aspect of everyday health.  How's that "I don't have time" excuse sounding now??

I hope this information proves useful, and also, I am curious as to what other paths to simple meditation are out there?  What works for you??

Take care of your selves, and happy meditating!


Hello, and welcome to my new blog! 

I am a licensed marriage and family therapist-associate practicing in Austin, Texas (www.kategose.com).  In my time in the psychotherapy field (as both a therapist and a client) I have noticed an unfortunate trend.  It seems many people believe therapy to be only for a select few, as though seeing a therapist were an admission of failure, weakness, or defect.  

I, and countless others, would beg to differ.  

My hope in writing this blog is to explore another side of therapy, the side that works for the emotional well-being of anyone, everyone.  I will share information, ideas, and thoughts about the many ways in which concepts taken from the field of therapy can be applied to your everyday life.  A little bit of knowledge can go a long way.  

This blog is not meant to replace the meaningful work that can be done with a good therapist; a powerful therapeutic relationship is irreplaceable.  However, what happens in between sessions in your real, everyday life, can have a lasting impact.

I look forward to the conversations, take care!