Category: Reflections on Counseling

Put Off The Laundry! Instead: An Important, Overlooked Tool for Habit Changing in the New Year

I should be doing laundry, or scrubbing the toilet, or any number of household tasks. But I’m here to tell you to put those things off. If you have a few moments (and I’m going to guess so, if you’re reading this blog post) it’s likely the most useful way you can spend this time is in the simple act of focused self-reflection.

Studies and anecdotal evidence show that when we take time to reflect on a regular basis, we are often able to grow and make changes in ways that otherwise have been impossible. Last year I posted some year-end reflection questions here, and I just spent an hour looking over my own answers from a year ago and answering the same questions again, from where I am today.

Having time and space to reflect is both a luxury and a necessity (kinda like all those other good things: physical movement, time with people who care about us, nourishing food, etc.). Sure, it would have been helpful to have spent the last hour doing laundry or another hundred household tasks, but when we prioritize the immediate, it makes it harder for us to make medium and long-term changes. I believe strongly that most of the time household tasks can wait – what’s a little extra laundry tomorrow? – in favor of reflection that could have way more long-term payoff. 

So here are a few questions to kickstart some reflection time. Turn off your phone notifications, find a quiet space, and give yourself 10 minutes to reflect.

  1. To the extent I have control and influence over my life, how would I like to start the new year?
  2. What would I like to let go of (self-defeating thoughts, behaviors, relationships, etc.) as 2019 starts? Who and what can support me to do this? What barriers can I anticipate and prevent?
  3. What would I like more of in 2019? Who are what can support me to do this? What barriers can I anticipate and prevent?
  4. What are the values and priorities I want to keep front-and-center in 2019?

Surviving Grief During the Holidays

It’s that season. You know the one – the one where there’s upbeat Christmas music playing in stores, and it seems like everyone’s talking about The Holidays (Christmas, New Years – and, less often, Kwanzaa and Hanukah). It’s a special time of year! we’re told. A time for cheer! And parties! 

And the holidays sometimes really, really suck for people who are living with grief and loss. Those with grief don’t usually get a lot of attention at this time of year, or ask for it. (Who wants to say “oh, I’m decorating the tree thinking about my dear friend who died!” or “Hanukah feels different without my mom”). And yet, there’s a large group of us who are mourning someone who was important to us. And we’re more at risk for depression if we’re grieving and feeling isolated when we’re “supposed” to be feeling cheerful. 

I think it’s worth acknowledging that this particular time of year is chock-full of landmines for those of us grieving. Grieving is different for everyone, but a recipe you love might also be a recipe you associate with someone who’s died. The person you called first thing on New Year’s Day may no longer be around. Or, you might have had a terrible relationship with your cousin, but feel immensely guilty for not missing her. Did I already say this can really, really suck? It can be super stressful, even when we’re trying to be brave or have fun or appreciate what we do have.

Here are some great tips about surviving the holidays while living with grief.

And I want to plug the terrific book It’s OK That You’re Not OK. I don’t get paid to do so; I just sincerely loved this book and found it useful.

Take good care – especially now. Self-care is not a luxury when grieving; it’s a necessity.

 

 

 

 

“We’ve got to tell the unvarnished truth.”

I spent the weekend immersed in suffering. It’s a weird thing to say, but I’m not sure what else is there to say after a long weekend in Washington D.C. spent at the National Museum of African American History and Culture, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, and the National Museum of the American Indian.

I’m grateful for the time at these museums, the time to learn and to remember and to witness. It’s so easy to think that we alone have suffered and are suffering, that our suffering is context-less, that this moment will last forever.

But these museums provide an urgent reminder of not just atrocity and genocide and collective trauma, but that times change (for worse and for better) and that people can survive hardship and fight for dignity and impact the world in positive, beautiful ways. These sites remind me that we must not forget our shared humanity and the ways that our suffering is all connected. We suffer when we act in ways that strip the humanity from others or from ourselves. We suffer when we can’t see ourselves or others as fully human. (And yet, so often, it can takereal effort to see one another as fully human!)

I’m reminded, too, of the 1987 slogan of gay activists in the midst of the AIDS crisis: Silence = death. I saw that echoed in a quote from historian John Hope Franklin on the wall at the African American History and Culture Museum: “We’ve got to tell the unvarnished truth.” 

So much of counseling is learning to speak outloud the unvarnished truth – as painful and difficult as it sometimes may be. The unvarnished truth can be freeing, and powerful, and can guide us into discovering what’s next. Speaking the unvarnished truth about our experiences and life in therapy can be a brave, life-saving act – an act that protects our humanity and the humanity of others.

 

 

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.

 

What Information Should Families Have If Their College-Age Kid is Depressed?

I read with sadness but not surprise this article about suicide on college campuses. A big question the article talks about is when and if parents should be informed if their age 18+ kid  is struggling.

I’ve written before about the rise in anxiety and depression in teens and the general public. The news on the subject continues to be disturbing, with a 33% rise in depression diagnoses between 2013-2016.

I’m so glad that depression is continuing to be identified more quickly, and that more and more people are willing to seek help. But these numbers – and the stories behind these numbers – speak to a pretty terrifying moment for young adults and those who love them.

Anytime I work with a new client, we talk openly and honestly about confidentiality. Lots of us have had the terrible experience of having someone betray our trust and confidence, and I’m committed to keeping therapy a private space. It’s impossible to get the most out of counseling if we’re worried about someone out of the psychotherapy office knowing what we’re talking about.

BUT – I tell everyone – if I start getting worried about a client in an immediate life-or-death kind of way – I will tell that client directly, not going behind their back, and we’ll talk about if my concerns are justified or not. If so – if a client agrees they’re in a scary moment – together we’ll figure out a way to pull in someone from their life who cares about them, and loves them, and desperately wants and needs them alive.

I love being a therapist, and I take the responsibility of it incredibly seriously – both in figuring out when and how to support someone to get more help, if needed, and when to uphold and protect confidentiality if more support isn’t needed.

 

TV Families and What They Have to Do With Us

TV Families and What They Have to Do With Us

I haven’t seen the new reboot of Roseanne but grew up on the original series (along with so many other shows… I was permanently indented into my family’s couch for a few years there.) It’s been interesting to follow different reviews of the new version, including critiques of its social or political messaging and diversity as well as positive reviews (sometimes both from the same source).

But what’s been most interesting to me is what the show has already spurred – lists of other shows that may be worth watching for their depictions of “real” America and real families. I read this list with tons of interest: it includes shows I’ve heard of like Black-ish and Fresh off the Boat, and then others that my pop-culture-oblivious self had no idea about (like The Good Place and Speechless).

So why does this matter so much I’m posting about this? Because there’s often a link between what we watch and how we feel about ourselves and the world. When we consistently don’t see people who look like us on TV (as is the experience of most people of color), we get the message we don’t matter, and that our experience isn’t important. We begin to believe the lie that a “normal” exists and that we’re different in a bad way. Racism on TV shows can make us more racist too

There’s also lots of research, of course, that shows that when we only see stick-thin actors with perfect skin, we compare ourselves negatively to those images. In these and other moments, these TV images can make us feel worse and more isolated instead of what good TV can do: make us feel more connected and empathetic, and even boost our emotional IQ.

So I’m putting Black-ish on my list, along with a handful of other shows. Maybe you will too.

Instead of Resolutions, Try Reflections: 12 Questions to Reorient for the Coming Year

Instead of Resolutions, Try Reflections: 12 Questions to Reorient for the Coming Year

I managed to carve out two hours last week to reflect on the year that’s almost past. It can be hard for me to think about goals or even intentions for the future without such reflection. And the truth is we learn best when we can think about what’s happened and what we might do differently next time. When I sat down and thought and wrote about these questions, I was able to clarify to myself how I got in my own way during 2017 (mostly by overcommitting) and imagine what I want more in the future. I’m sharing my reflection questions in case they may be useful prompts for you as well.

-What in my life would I happily get rid of if I could? 

-What in my life would I be happy to have more of?

-What external factors are holding me back?

-What internal factors are holding me back?

-Where do I feel most insecure professionally and personally?

-Where do I feel most confident professionally and personally?

-What were the big areas of learning and growth for me this year in terms of my personal life and work? 

-When I was fatigued, why?

-When I was energized, why?

-What goals were easiest and hardest to meet this past year – and why? 

-If I gave myself permission to dream big, what would I want for this next year or in general?

-What big areas of learning and growth do I want in the coming year, both personally and professionally? 

 

 

 

What the Media Gets Wrong about Depression and Anxiety

What the Media Gets Wrong about Depression and Anxiety

Here are your instructions:

Go stand on the Beltline. Hang out across the street from my therapy office at Ponce City Market. Go anywhere in Atlanta. Go to Decatur or Midtown or wherever. Look around and do this: Spot the person who’s struggling with depression, anxiety or grief. 

Trick question? You betcha. I was grateful to read this story from Slate called Stock Photos are Terrible at Depicting Illness, Mental or Physical. In a nutshell, it’s looking at the feeble attempts made by photographers — and newspapers, and websites, and bloggers (including me), and everyone else — to depict anxiety, depression and other mood disorders. If you want to see for yourself, do a web search for “depression” and see what comes up. Same with “anxiety” and “grief” and “stress.”

The reality is that most people who are struggling are experts at looking like everything is fine. My clients work hard not to show how rough things have been. My clients don’t walk around with their head in their hands all day, double face-palming with tears streaming down their cheeks. They don’t crouch in a corner photogenically. They are working or going to school, being social, acting like everything is normal (even when everything feels terribly abnormal).

In counseling, we work so that acting “normal” comes from a place of feeling “normal.” Just because you can pretend you’re okay doesn’t mean you should have to. After all, you have better things to do with your life than spend copious amounts of energy trying to look like nothing’s wrong.

 

A Way Out of Loneliness — And It’s Link to Depression, Anxiety and Other Ailments

A Way Out of Loneliness — And It’s Link to Depression, Anxiety and Other Ailments

The research is out, and loneliness is a public health epidemic. I was struck by this story on NPR earlier this week about not just its connections to depression and anxiety, but also its link to stress and resulting physiological problems. Of particular note: about 40 percent of people experience loneliness. That means there’s a lot of people feeling lonely… meaning we’re simultaneously alone in it, and also not alone with the experience.

The story comes from reporting from — who knew? — the Harvard Business Review about the impact of loneliness on workers.

I see teen and adult clients every day who you wouldn’t expect to be lonely. Lots of people have busy lives that may look fulfilling from the outside. Lots of us have relationships with people that have substance and depth. And yet – it may be that when we’re alone with ourselves, loneliness creeps in. Or we’ll be at a party, or at work, or with our families, and feel separate, like we’re pretending to feel something we don’t actually feel or pretending to be someone we’re not. Sometimes when we feel isolated, we stop going out — and then, as a result, feel even more isolated. Or we get busier and busier to avoid the feeling altogether.

There is a way out of loneliness that doesn’t require becoming busy beyond belief. I work with people every day on loneliness in a few different ways. First, we work so that relationships can become more authentic – so you have to hide less of yourself. This can mean dropping the need to look perfect, to yourself and others, which isn’t an easy task for many of us. We work on figuring out what you want for your life, so that you spend less time on things that feel fake or meaningless to you. We also work on your relationship with yourself. How can you spend time with yourself in a way that’s comfortable, and grow to have a relationship with yourself that’s companionable? Loneliness loses its steam when we grow comfortable with ourselves, and with being ourselves.