Category: “Shoulds”

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.

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.

 

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.

 

 

 

 

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. 

 

 

Why You Won’t See Me Quoted In A Magazine Next Month

images-2Last week, my email dinged with a message from a magazine writer asking for an interview. Hurrah! I thought. I love talking about therapy! But then I read closely. The writer wanted my expert tips on how parents should design their children’s rooms for optimal development, including the “right” kinds of toys. I felt my heart slowly sink back to it’s normal position in my chest. For while I love talking about counseling and kids, I hate doing anything to perpetuate parents’ anxiety that they’re not doing enough.

I laughed, thinking about my own kid’s room: a few pieces of used furniture; a motley assortment of stuffed animals (a few of whom have lost plastic eyeballs to our otherwise lovely dog), the usual assortment of kid-related clothing, and lots and lots of books. I’m pretty sure that if I had strong opinions about kids’ rooms, my own child’s room wouldn’t measure up. But the idea that kids only thrive in a very particular set of circumstances simply isn’t true.

So I ended up saying a big fat no to that interview request.

What’s in a kid’s room matters much less than who’s with that kid in life. Research supports that what matters most for healthy childhood development is the presence of caring, mostly-consistent adults, not the presence of particular toys in a certain sort of space.

Is this a missed opportunity for me to spread the good news about good therapy? Perhaps. But I’d rather miss out than spread misinformation and fan the flames of anxiety and guilt.

 

 

Newsflash! Self-Compassion and Self-Improvement Aren’t Enemies

Self-compassionI’ve been thinking lots lately about everything that gets in the way of self-compassion. For most of us, it’s much easier to feel compassionate toward others — especially children — than it is to feel some gentle kindness or understanding toward ourselves. When it comes to relating to our own imperfect selves, we’re impatient and critical. I’m an adult; I should have fixed this by now. I should have known better. I need to be accountable.

Newsflash: We can be accountable for our actions and offer compassion toward ourselves at the same time. We can look with a critical eye at something we’ve done that’s flopped while also trying to cultivate an attitude of compassion toward ourselves. We don’t have to pick between self-improvement and self-compassion. We can work toward both.

Self-compassion isn’t a ticket out of responsibility. It’s an attitude we can cultivate that allows us to learn from our mistakes more easily, with less getting caught in a useless web of beliefs about how terrible we are.

One Game-Changing Question for More Effective Therapy

visual-complexity-by-casey-hussein-bisson-creative-commons-by-nc-saIt was as bizarre and shocking and smart of a question as I’d ever heard. “Can you help this be more complicated?” the therapist asked. She was giving guidance to another therapist, a fellow workshop participant, about a client.

At the time I had never considered the idea that sometimes what is called for is creating room for complexity. The task of making something more complicated for clients seemed antithetical to why most people come to counseling in the first place. Clients come to therapy seeking safe guidance through the deepest, hardest, most private parts of their lives–and that’s usually complicated enough.

But as I’ve sat with this question over the last six years, my understanding of its value has grown. Because often clients come in wanting to transform a part of their life that’s grey or rainbow-colored into something black and white. Should I stay or go? Is he good or bad? Am I right or wrong?  

We seek simple answers when we’re overwhelmed and anxious. Uncertainty and ambiguity can be terrible to tolerate.

But settling for false dichotomies (like good/bad and right/wrong) rarely help us answer big questions in meaningful, heart-felt ways. And so I’ve come to see the gifts of that question from years ago. Here is what I know for sure: It’s only when we acknowledge complexity that we can move through it. It’s only when we name the messiness and complications of life that we can begin to sort through it all to see what to keep, and what to release, and what’s beneath, and what’s within.