Category: Anxiety

Are the holidays tough? If so, you’re not the only one.

There’s no way around it: the season of Thanksgiving and the holidays that follow suck for so many of us. As I’ve written here before, grief can be extra lonely and difficult when everyone around you is wishing you a merry Christmas or Happy Hanukah or meaningful Kwanzaa. All of us with complicated families struggle as we perhaps spend more time with family members than usual – or notice their conspicuous absences. Sure, spontaneous gratitude and good cheer may arise. But also there’s the potential for surges of sadness, sorrow, disappointment, anxiety, and pain.

Here’s what I want you to know:

The cultural myth that you “should” be happy at this time of year is not based in reality. If difficult things are happening or have happened to you, especially in November or December, it would be weird if you were suddenly all cheery. Same too if you have seasonal depression. Your low mood likely makes sense given the situation. And, when you beat yourself up for feeling bad instead of good, you’re adding to your pain.

Also, I want you to know that you are not the only one struggling right now. I have the privilege of sitting with lovely, kind, intelligent people every day who are grappling with how to navigate the holiday season without feeling crazy or eating all the cookies you didn’t actually like in the first place. I wish there was a secret handshake or cool badge people could wear to say you’re part of the club of people who’d rather just skip to January, so you could all know and enjoy each other, but alas… I don’t know of anything like that yet.

So, take good care. I MEAN IT. The only way to get to January is to get through November and December. And as stupid as it sounds, drink water! Sleep regular-ish hours! Take walks! Pet animals! And know you’re not alone. Really.

If I got a dollar every time…

Say I got a dollar every time I heard the following words:

  • “But other people have it worse.”
  • “Yeah I’m depressed and anxious, but I have privilege so I shouldn’t feel this way.”
  • “I’m not sure I deserve to be in counseling.”
  • “I’m worried I’m taking your time away from people who need help more than me.”

How much $$$ would I have at the end of a year if I faithfully put a dollar in a jar each time I heard a variation of these words?

Enough to go out to a great dinner. A really great dinner.

We often wish we could decrease stress and depression and anxiety by reminding ourselves of the hard stuff that other people face. But that’s not how it works.

I’ve written on this blog before about what I call “privilege syndrome” — the belief that if we have privilege in some way, it can be easy to feel guilty or judgmental about the ways in which we struggle. And this is common.

I wish that privilege could buffer us from anxiety. I wish that knowing about climate change or homelessness would mean that people with secure housing and middle class incomes could be immune or invisible from stress or depression or trauma.

But the brain and body don’t work like that. While those of us with stable housing or relationships may be less likely to experience trauma or stress, our nervous systems aren’t designed to tease out nuances of privilege. The body just experiences a flood of stress hormones like cortisol or adrenaline. The body just knows we’re depressed or anxious. The body knows we don’t feel okay, even if we try to use our intellect to convince ourselves we should feel differently.

And the research shows that judging ourselves for our responses and reactions don’t actually do much help.

Instead, I try to help clients cultivate neutrality or even self-compassion for our experience. It’s only by accepting what’s here – the pain, the suffering, the fear, the sadness – that we can begin to move through these difficult feelings. It’s only by acknowledging what’s true for us – whether we like the truth or not – that we can begin to move forward.

I see you, perfectionists.

Perfectionists, I have a heart for you. I get it. You don’t think of yourself as a perfectionist, you just think I don’t like to make mistakes. You know intellectually that your spouse/friend/employer would probably not dump you if you made a mistake… but why risk it? After all, making a mistake feels beyond terrible to perfectionists, like our lives and relationships and careers are on the line and the whole world could implode or explode at any moment.

So no wonder you live with a constant tension, a constant pressure, a constant anxiety, checking and double-checking to make sure nobody can find fault with you (except for you of course). And then of course if you’re critical of yourself—if you let Self Doubt or The Inner Critic be in charge—then maybe it won’t hurt as much if someone finds a flaw in you.

It’s not easy to live as a perfectionist. You might look like you have everything together on the outside—you might be organized, you might show up everywhere on time, your clothes are rarely wrinkled—but the inner reality can be so, so different and so, so difficult. It’s hard to live in fear of mistakes, to believe that mistakes will define us and make us less lovable (if lovable at all). It’s hard living with the belief that we’re one mistake away from unworthiness or that our worth in general stems from our ability to be flawless rather than our humanness. It’s hard to constantly compare ourselves to a version of ourselves we can’t live up to. And of course it’s hard as a perfectionist to open up to others, to admit what’s true: life is hard. Things aren’t easy. (Blog post continues after photo.)

Perfection isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

Usually when perfectionists come to counseling, they’re coming to therapy for issues that they see as distinctly separate from perfectionism. But feeling out of control, experiencing anxiety about personal and the political, and feeling alienated and isolated, can all link back to difficulty allowing ourselves to be human and make mistakes.

There’s sometimes a mistaken belief that perfectionists have that anxiety and perfectionism is helpful, that without that pressure and tension and Inner Critic they may not be as effective. If I don’t beat myself up, how will I do my best?

But research shows that we learn and perform much better when we’re open and curious and allow our humanness to shine (including the messy parts). Shame and self-judgment, it turns out, bite us in the ass more than we think. It is possible to create a different relationship with ourselves, the Inner Critic, Self Doubt, and our lives.

Here’s a perfectionism test if you’re curious to learn more… and you’re always welcome to talk through concerns in our Kirkwood therapy office.

Abortions: When the Political Is Personal

It’s hard to turn on the news in Atlanta right now without hearing about the new anti-abortion bill that’s been passed in Georgia or anti-abortion legislation in other states like Alabama. This legislation fires up people of all beliefs and backgrounds. But it can also be triggering—if not outright re-traumatizing—to women who have made the difficult choice to have an abortion.

And most of the women who find themselves stirred up by all the talk about abortion will likely stay silent. Talking about abortion is still taboo even though an estimated one in four women will have an abortion during their lifetime. For many women, a past abortion is a secret they don’t share out of fear of judgment or because of judgment they impose on themselves. As a result, there can be tremendous shame, guilt, and unresolved grief—often leading to isolation, depression, and increased anxiety.

Grief? Yes grief. It’s totally normal for women who have abortions to need to grieve. Unfortunately it’s also perfectly normal for women to believe they “shouldn’t” need to grieve. But abortion is complicated for many women, a difficult choice at a difficult moment in their lives. Grief is normal and natural.

We know that the antidote to shame and unresolved grief is speaking our truths—the messy, complicated truths—to safe people in safe places. As abortion continues to be a political issue, I sincerely hope that all who have actually experienced an abortion are surrounded by comfort, love, and support. You are not alone.

Talking Drugs with your Teens: Good Luck!

Every time I do a presentation for parents of teens, two questions just about always come up:

  1. Will my kid be a functional, productive adult, even if right now they’re (fill in the blank):
  • not doing enough homework?
  • not doing anything but homework?
  • not taking school seriously enough?
  • taking school too seriously?
  • going out too much?
  • not going out enough?

AND…

2. What is the “right” thing to say to teens about drugs and alcohol?

The first question has an easy-ish answer: Despite (or because of) your kid’s idiosyncrasies, they will most likely make it through adolescence relatively unscathed and learn enough adulting skills to have a pretty reasonable life, even if their life, values, and priorities are different from yours. Most of us get through adolescence. If you’re reading this, I’m guessing you did.

But the second question is trickier. What is the “right” thing to say to teens about drugs and alcohol?

For starters, I’m pretty sure there is no one right thing. Teens (and the rest of us) are getting insane mixed messages about drugs, especially marijuana, right now. Some parents buy marijuana for their kids; some pull out a frying pan and an egg to give a 1980s-esque demonstration showing this is your brain on drugs. Some places it’s legal; some it’s not. Some people swear marijuana helps with anxiety, depression, creativity, and sleep; some people argue it interferes with all of the above as well as with brain development, makes ADHD and motivation worse, decreases efforts to build alternative coping strategies, and lowers the effectiveness of anti-depressants.  It’s especially tricky when we consider how common marijuana use is among white people as well as people of color, and yet marijuana laws are so selectively enforced, with huge disparities in enforcement based on race. A black teen getting caught smoking marijuana may face drastically different legal consequences than a white teen doing the exact same thing. So how do you create rules or express family values when there are so many shifting cultural messages, and no coherent community principles or agreed-upon research to support, reinforce, or guide you? Not so easily.

But I think there’s an even more important question that’s even harder to answer. How do parents build a strong enough relationship with their teens to be able to talk about drugs and have the best chance of a positive impact? That’s the gazillion dollar question. And it has no simple answers… except maybe family counseling (which is of course my bias).

I loved this article and this follow up  for their thoughtful discussions of these topics. Pro tip? Print the article and send it to your kid and ask them what they think about it. Sometimes introducing a topic through an article is a way to open up a conversation without defensiveness.

Hi, I’m Dana – She/Hers/Her (Gender, Gender, Gender!)

I led a workshop yesterday on mental health for parents of high school seniors. Introducing myself, I said, “I’m Dana, and my pronouns are she/her/hers.” Those same pronouns are at the bottom of my email signature. Were the workshop attendees confused by my sharing of pronouns? I couldn’t tell. But for lots of reasons, saying my pronouns is something I’m trying to do more often.

For many cisgender people (cisgender: people who’s gender identity matches what they were assigned at birth) the movement toward saying pronouns has been a bit baffling. Isn’t it obvious when someone’s male or female, man or woman? Not always. I was excited to go to a great workshop recently all about gender with multilingual Atlanta therapist Irene Celcer (her website’s in Spanish), hosted by the Georgia Society for Clinical Social Work. We talked about the difference between sex and gender (“sex is biology; gender is society”; “sexuality is who you go to bed with; gender is who you go to bed as”), gender incongruence (often known as gender dysphoria) and best practices for therapists working with LGBTQIA+ clients.

Especially given Atlanta’s big-big-big population of gender-nonconforming queer people, and the continuing discrimination and abuse they face – and often resulting trauma – it’s important to me that I and other cisgender therapists and counselors do our best to be respectful and helpful to these clients.

For lots of us who are no longer young adults, it’s a bit jarring to re-think our old ideas of gender, ideas we took for granted as reality. But one of the things I love about being a therapist is that I get to rethink old ideas and learn new ways of seeing and being. I am so grateful for this work.

I love the creativity of all the different affirming bathroom signs popping up around Atlanta.

Revisiting Habits, asking “How’s This Working For Me?”

A month ago I went cold turkey.

No online, paper, or radio news.

No social media.

No falling down the internet rabbit hole.

It wasn’t a particularly well-thought-out, planned-for decision. (Which defies everything we think we know about habit change – right? Conventional wisdom is that habits are easiest to change if we have a plan, have prepared, told significant others, have figured out alternatives, etc.)

But I had no plan. It was an impulsive decision, and I had prepared no one, including myself. I just knew that I felt attached at the hip to the news cycle, and wasn’t sure if it was serving me even though it’s easy to believe that we “should” be paying moment-to-moment attention. Life felt loud, like a bunch of clanging bells always ringing, shaking me out of my own thoughts and efforts. I felt attached at the hip to social media because of FOMO, but didn’t find myself happier or more connected as a result. (The research supports that anxiety and depression and isolation can actually increase because of internet usage!) I’m not morally opposed to the internet, and am grateful for the amazing things that happen on it and because of it. I hold no judgments of other people’s internet habits, but was finding that my own habits weren’t feeling particularly skillful. In other words: was it really worth the time and attention I was giving it?

Now, it’s been almost a month and I find that the impulse to open news and social media websites has mostly faded. Sometimes I find myself staring at my email, wanting there to be something entertaining and new there that somehow I missed, but then I realize – oh, I’m tired – or, oh, I’m not doing anything – and close the computer. Somehow, taking a sabbatical from most of my online world has reduced my stress and quieted the clanging.

I don’t miss the news. I hear from friends or family about what’s happening politically, and am concerned but also don’t miss the roller coaster ride. I’m finding other ways to be involved and engaged – reading more books (like The New Jim Crow and Mindful of Race), getting together more with colleagues, and listening to a series of Tara Brach’s lectures on Mindfulness and Psychotherapy. Somehow it seems like I’m experiencing more spaciousness as well – perhaps because I’m bombarding myself less with stimuli. I certainly don’t feel worse. If anything, I feel a bit healthier – a bit more here, in the present moment, with therapy clients and when I’m with family or alone.

My experience has reminded me that taking a step back to assess a part of our life – even a minute, mostly inconsequential part – can sometimes be useful. In the words of America’s favorite non-therapist therapist, Dr. Phil, “How’s that working for you?” He’s cheesy as hell, but it’s a great question.

 

The Hardest Things To Talk About Are Sometimes the Most Important

It’s easy to circle around the hard things: Death, shame, our heart’s disappointments. They can feel too intense to name directly: abuse histories, experiences with sexual assault and harassment, death and loss, abortions and miscarriages. They hover at the edge of our consciousness, where we try to push them away and distract ourselves: the ways we’ve messed up or been let down, our regrets and fears, our shame and sense of unworthiness. They hover at the edge of our consciousness, where we try to push them away and distract ourselves. They can be overwhelming. We worry that if we let ourselves feel the feelings, we may get too immersed in them to find our way through.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot with the #metoo movement and #whyIdidn’treport. I’ve been asking the question: How is that I haven’t known until now that some of my beloved friends and family members have been assaulted? How is it that even in intimate relationships, these things go unspoken – and unasked about?

Asking takes courage, though of course it takes more courage to name outloud, to ourselves and others, the hardest things we’ve experienced. That’s why I have so much respect for all who continue to share their stories of surviving trauma, including assault and abuse.

We need these stories to be out in the open. The hardest things to talk about are sometimes the most important. For healing, we need to be able to hold each other with compassion and support – and to hold perpetrators accountable for their actions. For a more just society, we need to call out abuse and abuse of power. We need to address barriers to naming these difficult truths out loud – barriers that are significant to all people, and barriers that are often most profound for women of color.

I am continuing to work to make workspace a safe space, for all stories, for all aspects of self, for all experiences that have led us to this moment. I am working to ask and to listen to your stories, even the ones that are hardest to tell.

 

 

 

 

Taming and Treating “Privilege Syndrome”

 

At some point, with many clients, comes an earnest variant of the same question: Who am I to have pain – or see a therapist – given that so many other people suffer in visible, heartbreaking ways?

I call this the Privilege Syndrome. The reasoning usually sounds like this:

• If I don’t live in a less-developed country where I only have access to one meal of day, I should be happy. (But I’m not.)
• If I have money, I shouldn’t feel depressed. (But I am.)
• If I have a job, I shouldn’t be annoyed with my work. (But I am.)
• If I don’t have to represent my race on a daily basis, or live in fear of violence, then I shouldn’t complain about the challenges I do have. (But I do.)
• If I have a loving family, I shouldn’t be lonely. (But I am.)
• If others respect me, I shouldn’t live in fear of rejection. (But I do.)
• If I haven’t survived one or more traumas, I shouldn’t be suffering. (But I am.)
• If my life looks good on paper, I should be happy. (But I’m not).

How lovely that so many of us know that other people also struggle! How terrible that we deem ourselves not worthy of struggling and suffering because of our privileges!

From a mindfulness perspective, Privilege Syndrome is all about getting caught in a mindstate of comparison, or what I and many other mindfulness practitioners call Comparison Mind. The good news about Comparison Mind is sometimes it makes us feel superior to others! But the bad news… well, you know all about the bad news of comparison. We end up feeling inferior and unworthy – and then judge ourselves for feeling so bad.

The truth is that we increase our suffering when we can’t acknowledge and accept our own pain and heartache. When we dismiss or minimize our own pain because So-and-So has it worse, we are acting from a faulty belief that suffering is reserved only for others.

The only “cure” for Privilege Syndrome is to learn to accept and honor our own suffering – no matter our privilege – while also acknowledging the suffering of others. When we can work toward the end of our suffering and the suffering of others, we stop comparing ourselves. Instead of landing in Comparison Mind, we access compassion. Instead of being better than or worse than others, we’re simply with ourselves and with others. That is connection. That is healing.

 

A Quick Judgment Reality Check: 2 Questions & 3 Fast Facts

A Quick Judgment Reality Check: 2 Questions & 3 Fast Facts

Let’s do a quick reality check in the form of two questions:

  1. Mentally jot down one aspect of your life that you’re worried others judging you about. (Physical appearance? Certain unwanted habits? Your status with work?)
  2. Now ask yourself this: In the last month/6 months/12 months, how many times has someone BESIDES YOURSELF explicitly judged you specifically for those particular things? 

I ask these questions today with curiosity and sincerity. Judgment’s been on my mind since a local magazine writer contacted me to ask about parent shaming for an article she’s writing. (I’ll post a link when the article comes out!)

So often, articles about shame, guilt, and judgment focus on people besides ourselves giving us a hard time. And this does happen. In unhealthy families and friendships and in abusive relationships, we can get torn down and made to feel unworthy for who we are and our choices. And when we go against cultural norms because of values, beliefs, or life circumstances, it can feel like we’re swimming upstream and alone.

But most of the time WE are our worst enemies when it comes to judgment and guilt. Here’s how:

  • We compare ourselves to the curated versions of other people that they showcase online – without accounting for the fact that social media profiles reflect only a very partial reality.
  • We compare ourselves to an ideal version of ourselves – and usually our benchmarks for that ideal self keep moving, meaning we never feel okay just as we are. We “should” be doing more. Right?
  • We have unrealistic expectations of ourselves. We cannot do everything. We cannot be everything to everyone.
  • We spend time around people (and websites or blogs) that add to our already-existing worry about not being enough. 
  • We believe our worst moments mean something big and absolute about us. 

It’s natural to compare ourselves to others, and sometimes it’s useful. But if you find that your mind is full of anxiety, guilt and fear of judgment, it may be worth checking yourself to see where the judgment is actually coming from. You don’t need to beat yourself up. But you can see clearly – and seeing clearly is the first step to knowing what you may want to do differently.