The mechanics of change

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I am sitting in a hostel in Brussels, Belgium at this moment – taking some down time to rest before heading out for the evening.  I’ve been away from home now for four weeks and I can definitely testify that leaving one’s comfort zone for extended periods of time facilitates much internal transformation.  Next week, I’ll write more specifically about that.

Today, I’m reflecting on a conversation I recently had with my travel companion about the process of change.  When we decide to renovate some major area of our lives, what does that look like from the inside?  Going to a counselor is usually reserved for more significant repairs, so this question would certainly pertain to current or future clients.  I answered from my own personal experience though.  One of the core values of Phenix Counseling is that I cannot take anyone where I have not personally gone (in terms of the process of facing our own shadow selves).

So for me, it begins with awareness.  Recognizing not only the problem, but also (usually with the help of another), how I am contributing to the problem.  What is it about me exactly that is facilitating the pattern and how did I come to be that way?  I need this insight in order to have productive conversations with myself and that is pretty much the meat and potatoes of the change process for me.  Let me break it down:

  • When I figure out the past experiences that led to my current way of approaching things and what meanings I made of those past experiences, I can choose a new perspective that will give me the motivation and logic to take a different path in the here and now.
  • Looking at the question of – how did I come to be this way…why am I behaving dysfunctionally – helps me understand myself enough to figure out what need I’m trying to meet.  I have to brainstorm ways to meet that need in a healthier way if I am to have any hope of success. I turn these ideas into practical plans: what will do instead, when and how will I make that happen?
  • Then….the rubber meets the road.  Real life sets in and change comes down to tiny moments of decision we face in the everyday.  Here’s where that constant conversation with self comes in.  It’s a messy process and it took me a little while to try and explain it.  At first, I catch myself “after the fact”.  I resort to my old ways but at least I realize it soon after.  Then…I start to catch myself during the process.  I remember when I decided to relate to my husband differently, there were times when words from my old perspective would be coming out of my mouth but in my head I would be thinking, “you need to stop talking”.  Yet somehow…the word vomit continued and I was faced with cleaning up the mess afterward.  Then comes the ability to choose my new strategies before I mess it up.  This begins to happen more often than not until I solidify my new way of being.

Of course, it never happens in this linear fashion – I circle around and through these stages in no particular order until I establish some sort of stability.  Oh how I wish it was like the one-way journey of the caterpillar to the butterfly!  All of this has to happen within the context (cocoon) of others who can help me analyze and assess my thoughts and behaviors throughout the process and with folks who have the patience and ego strength to be on the receiving end of my changes.  I am blessed to have that kind of environment and often, I find the greatest work in therapy is helping my clients build such a support system before they can tackle the things they need to change within themselves.

I hope this little window into my world helps those who struggle to become who they are meant to be.  Our journeys are unique – others would describe their process differently but I believe the commonalities are the mess and the time it takes to cross the desert of transformation – it’s always longer than we planned.  Wherever you are in that trip, be encouraged and don’t skimp on the task of ensuring you have solid travel partners!

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Necessary Endings

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I stole the title of this post from a great book.  It perfectly captures a phenomenon I’ve been living out personally and that I see in the lives of my clients quite often: This business of hanging on to relationships far beyond their expiration date.

Why do we do this?  The short answer is fear, but let’s break it down more specifically:

Fear of rejection: how many times do we fail to set boundaries, fail to verbalize what is ok or not ok for us because we are afraid that when we do that, the other will reject us? They will not want to be in relationship with us.  Which leads us to the next fear…

Fear of being alone: many of us believe that anyone is better than no one.  We cannot fathom how we could ever be happy by ourselves and so we tolerate all kinds of shenanigans because we cannot be alone.

Fear of violating our responsibility or duty: For a million and one reasons, we feel obligated to the other to “help” them and/or not abandon them.  Anything from blood ties to our own sense of ethics to nice things they did in the past.  Whatever the reason, we use it to justify staying in the relationship because we “have” to.

Fear of hurting another: We are terrified of ever hurting our loved one’s feelings and so we hold back our truth.

So what’s the remedy?

Self worth: when we understand our worth, we cannot help but protect ourselves from dysfunction, even if that results in rejection.  It’s like the difference between a diamond versus a cubic zirconia ring.  The lengths you go to for protection and care of the diamond far exceed that of the CZ ring, simply because of the difference in worth between the two.

Self love: When we take the time to get to know who we truly are and develop compassion and grace toward ourselves, we enjoy our own company…we feel secure in our own skin.  From that place, we realize that while relationships are vital, tolerating any individual who violates our worth is unacceptable and being alone for a season is perfectly fine.

Responsible to, not for: We have a responsibility within our community to monitor our own thoughts, feelings and behaviors to be authentic and kind.  We are never responsible for though – anyone else’s thoughts, feelings or behaviors.  The only partial exception is in our role as parents where we are responsible for them to a certain extent but even in that, our kids have free will to make their own choices and must experience the consequences of those choices if they are to learn how to operate as adults.  There is a big difference between that “to” and “for”, so there is never a situation where it is healthy for us to stick around tolerating dysfunction in order to keep someone from thinking, feeling or behaving a certain way.

Hurt versus harm: When we go to the dentist with a problem, it is pretty much a guarantee that whatever is done to fix us will hurt.  While they make a diligent effort to prevent unnecessary pain, they don’t avoid their work just because some pain will ensue. What they do have to worry about is harming the patient.  If they are negligent or flat out unskilled, they can make mistakes that cause permanent damage to someone’s mouth and that is harmful.  Likewise, when we have to walk away from relationships, there will be hurt and that’s not a bad thing.  What we don’t want is to conduct the leaving in a way that is hateful, disrespectful or deceitful.

These remedies may make all kinds of sense but they are much easier said than done!  Our view of self is rooted in our experiences – particularly those of our early years and it is no small task to change the meanings we have made of those experiences.  Dealing with the inevitable guilt we feel when we begin to set healthy boundaries can be enough to turn us back to our old ways.  If you struggle with taking these steps toward health, seek out a counselor who can help you dive under the struggle to address the foundational meanings driving your resistance!

 

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Loving someone with anxiety

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“My loved one deals with anxiety – how can I be supportive?”  It’s a frequent question as anxiety tops the list of common mental health issues in the US.  When it comes to relationships, we want to love well, to actually be effective in our efforts to help but good intentions don’t always lead to good outcomes.  Thankfully, there are some proven strategies for loving well in this situation.

First, let’s look at the ineffective methods:

  • Telling your loved one to “just calm down” or “don’t worry about it”!  “Well now, I hadn’t thought of that” says your love one….”let me get right on that.”  Not!  Seriously?!  If it were that easy, this wouldn’t even be an issue.  Such statements minimize the very real experiences and emotions of our loved ones, inspiring guilt and shame that feeds the anxiety even more.
  • Over-spiritualizing the problem.  “If you’d just give this to God, you’d feel a lot better”.  Most faith traditions have scriptural encouragements about surrender and trusting one’s Higher Power.  Of course, these are relevant concepts in regards to our thought life and what we choose to mentally focus on.  However, anxiety has very real genetic and physiological roots that cannot be ignored.  Expecting an instruction of “just pray about it” to fix the problem entirely makes about as much sense as telling that to someone having a heart attack.  Prayer is ALWAYS important but for the love of all that is holy, the person having a heart attack also requires some additional actions to effectively address the issue!  Anxiety (and any other illness for that matter) is no different.
  • Guilt trips.  Detailing all that your loved one has ruined for you with their anxiety, in hopes they will be motivated to change is not effective.  Guilt and shame are horrible motivators.  They may power the vehicle for a few miles, but they never go the distance.
  • “Protecting” our loved one from their problems.  Anxiety is only ever conquered through facing our fears with the proper support.  Fixing things for our loved ones in order to protect them only feeds the anxiety by sending the message, “you can’t handle this – I’ll do it for you”.  There’s nothing wrong with helping but we have to ensure that we take on tasks that free up our loved one to focus on their personal work instead of enabling them to avoid their fears.
  • Assuming that what works for you will work for your loved one.  If you struggle with anxiety as well, it can be easy to push the strategies you’ve found effective.  It’s great to share your own experiences.  At least, it’s so comforting to know you’re not alone.  At best, maybe your suggestion will work.  But then…maybe it won’t and that’s OK.  Everyone is different so the answers vary for all.

So, what works?

  • Asking your loved one about their anxiety (when they are feeling OK) with genuine curiosity that seeks to truly understand.  The more you enter into your loved one’s story, the more you will intuitively love well because you have connected with their experiences and emotions.  Even if you struggle to make sense of it all, your efforts are never wasted.  If you stick with it, understanding builds and your inquiries demonstrate to your loved one that you care and are interested in their world.
  • Asking about what is helpful.  Not in general terms…be specific.  “When is it better for you to have some space?  When is it helpful to have someone by your side?  Should I just sit with you or are there words that are helpful? Does a hug help or would touch make it worse?” This is not a one-time interrogation.  It’s an ongoing conversation that again demonstrates your interest, helps your loved one explore their own needs and trains you in loving them well.
  • Modeling a healthy lifestyle that values sleep, good nutrition and exercise.  These are the number one “medicines” for anxiety (though prescriptions have their place too).  Avoid the temptation to give advice in these areas.  Instead, seek a healthy lifestyle yourself and invite them to join in specific aspects of it: cooking healthy meals, visiting restaurants with healthy menus, going for a walk at the local park, shutting down life at a reasonable hour, protecting the bedtime hour from over-stimulation, etc.
  • Giving your loved one a safe space to verbalize their fears and concerns without judgment or “fixing”.  It is so tempting to provide answers that we hope will change our loved one’s thinking but it simply does not work that way.  Instead, we listen, again with a genuine curiosity that seeks to understand how they arrived at their conclusions.  We ask questions that explore the evidence upon which their thoughts are based.  We ask questions that explore alternative perspectives but we ask our questions without agenda…without the intent to lead them to the conclusions we want them to have.  They must have the freedom to arrive at their own pace, and to wrestle with their thoughts.  It is then more likely that they will ask for your perspective and at that point (not before), you can offer it to a heart that is actually open to hearing it.
  • Praying for and with your loved one.  In your prayers, take their fears seriously, present them to God and ask for comfort, support and strength.  Use the same nonjudgmental approach before God as you do with your loved one.  If God is who we say He is, then He can handle business without our directions.
  • Finally, do your own work.  Monitor your motivations.  Do you find yourself wanting to fix or control “for their sake”?  That must be addressed and counseling could be the way to do that.  Pay attention to your boundaries – ensure you are not taking on so much that burnout is inevitable.  Again, you may need support in addressing that.  When all is said and done, live the change you want to see!

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Doing

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You climb up the pole, figure out how to hoist yourself to stand on top, then leap to grab on to the bar….all while your teammates hold on to your harness rope.

Experience is the greatest teacher they say…  Whatever dysfunctions we have going on in our lives (and yes, we all have some) – we come by them honestly.  None of us wakes up one morning and decides to be defensive, destructive, avoidant, etc. for no reason.  We approach life based on the experiences we’ve had and the meanings we’ve made of them.  When those meanings are no longer functional, that’s where therapy comes in.  Together, we explore past experiences and how we interpreted them to identify the sticking points that cause negative results today.  Then, we work together to re-examine those experiences and expand the meanings to understandings that lead to more positive ways of doing life.  The healthy relationship formed in therapy provides a model for the rest of life and offers a safe base from which to go out and change our worlds for the better.

The work done in the therapy room is not effective without implementation into daily life.  Healing requires doing.  We must test out our new meanings, creating new experiences that will cement those meanings in our hearts and not just our brains.  This is the terrifying part.  It can be so comforting and enlightening to have ah-ha moments in therapy.  “Whaaat?!  That’s why I’ve always done that?  Oh my gosh, this totally makes sense now!”  Those insights are wonderful and make for much internal relief and de-stressing.  But then….we have to act “as if”.  If this new understanding is true, what do I do differently?  This is where the terror comes in because it is a great act of vulnerability to go out into an unchanged world with our changed selves and trust that we will be successful.

Sometimes, this becomes a stumbling block for clients.  It could be because we need to do more work on our own internal anxiety before we can take action.  Often though, it is due to confusion about how to actually handle things differently.  Isn’t it normal to need some practice with a new skill before we use it ‘for real’?  This very basic truth about learning is why I believe therapy has to be active.  Perhaps the most common technique is to role play anticipated situations/conversations.  That is an incredibly valuable exercise as we get to form new words and even hold our bodies in different positions than we have before.

I am finding though, that there are plenty of additional ideas for experiential learning.  Last week, I joined a team of colleagues at WinShape to participate in team building exercises with a facilitator who happened to be a therapist.  As we funneled tennis balls through short plastic tubes, held mousetraps in our joined hands, and moved a bowling ball without touching it, I saw so many connections between these activities and the principles that clients are often struggling to implement in their lives:  Creative problem solving, collaboration, trust, believing they can do hard things, believing it is possible to do things differently than before, etc.  Our activities culminated with a climb to the top of what they refer to as the “Pamper pole”.  I’ll let you imagine why it has garnered that name.  Let me just say that I have not experienced that level of terror in a very long time!  Conquering it was the best thing that could have happened though, at a time in my life when I’ve been questioning my ability to rise to the amazing mission unfolding before me.  It gave me absolutely tangible proof that I can dominate and that has already provided energy to move forward with the hard things.  There is nothing like actual success to fuel further success.  The same techniques I used to get through the exercises at WinShape are the same techniques I will use to power through the obstacles I face in the rest of my life.  That is how this works.

I am so excited to bring these kinds of activities back to my clients.  Not just individual sessions, but family sessions, groups and especially corporate workshops.  I have a passion for leadership development and building corporate culture, so this approach fits perfectly!  I do promise however, not to utilize 30 foot telephone poles 🙂

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Weary

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Sholom Park

If you read last week’s post, you know that sleep has been an “issue” for me lately.  Generally speaking, exhaustion has been my constant companion.  At first, I chalked this up to the aforementioned backsliding on sleep hygiene.  But…in my heart I knew there was more to the story.  There always is.

There is a popular metaphor about the frog in boiling water.  The story goes that if you put a frog in a pot of cold water, set it on the stove and turn on the heat…the frog will stay in the water as it continues to get hotter.  Apparently, the gradual rise in temperature is not something it notices and eventually, it will literally boil without ever jumping from the pot as it is free to do.  Now, let’s put aside the very reasonable question of who discovered this awful truth and why.  The point is, it illustrates how we can get so normed to dysfunction or negative circumstances/emotions that we remain oblivious to its dangers.

As I pondered this season of exhaustion and wondered what in the world was wrong with me, I realized that my daughter’s birthday is March 2nd.  Those who know me, realize exactly what that means.  Words cannot describe how much that little girl was the center of my world and what trauma it meant to lose her 22 years in.  How could my body not remember the process of giving life to this central figure?  How could it not mourn the absence of whom it had birthed?  You see…that’s the thing.  The body remembers.  Often, when sleep is elusive, it is absolutely connected to emotional traumas.  What that means is that sleep hygiene becomes even more important as a means of tender loving care for these wounds.  There is no healing without rest.  At the same time, there is no rest without healing so facing the emotional traumas is a must.  And so, I make space to hold.  Wednesday morning, I will head to Sholom Park in Ocala with a dear friend.  It will be a time for reflection.  A time to honor Christina’s memory and to check in with my own grieving process.  It has been five and a half years.  It would be easy to take this process for granted.  To be that frog in the ever hotter water.  To flip the auto pilot switch on which – to be honest – I do much of the time at this point.  However, grieving a child never ends and I must set aside time to reconnect with it.  In the meantime, I treat myself with grace.  I value my imperfection, my brokenness and I seek out people and environments who do the same.

Your sleep difficulties are probably not related to the loss of a child.  However, I am willing to bet money (and I am not a gambler) that you have your own unique story of pain and longing that lurks beneath the surface of insomnia.  Take the steps, yes, to develop a better bedtime routine but do not be fooled – attention must be paid to your emotional health so give some thought to how you will address that.  Keep in mind that you may not remember the relevant factors right now.  Just this morning, I remembered another crucial anniversary that is absolutely contributing to my exhaustion.  One associated with much heartache.  How the heck could I have forgotten that?  I am a therapist…I specialize in these connections!  So there you have it, none of us are immune to these dissociative habits that we develop to keep ourselves protected.  The brain is an amazingly complex and tricky son of a gun.  Venturing into its depths is not for the faint of heart and seriously not a journey to take alone!  If you’re ready to get to the root of sleep difficulties…enlist a qualified wilderness guide.  I promise it is one of the scariest, yet best decisions you’ll ever make!

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Sweet Dreams

bed

(wayfair.com)

The best preachers deliver the messages they most need themselves :).  That’s the principle behind this week’s post…on sleep.  I’ve definitely fallen off the wagon in this area of life and so perhaps by writing about healthy sleep habits, I will jump-start my own process back to the land of nod.

According to the CDC, more than a third of Americans do not get enough sleep on a regular basis!  Clearly, I’m not alone.  First – what do they mean by “enough”?  The general guideline for this study is 7 hours per night.  Interestingly enough, geography, race/ethnicity, employment and marital status all seem to affect the odds of healthy sleep.  Those of us here in the Southeastern US for example, are less likely to hit the 7 hour standard.  But why?  What are the factors making this such a widespread issue?  The culprits tend to be longer work hours as well as longer commutes to work which push other aspects of life into the wee hours.  Shift work (now more prevalent thanks to a global economy) wreaks havoc on the sleep-wake cycle.  Finally, most everyone is entertaining themselves on some sort of screened device late into the night, despite the fact that we have well established the harmful effects of blue light from those devices on the body’s production of melatonin – our sleep hormone. This is especially common for those living in high stress situations.  For many – the additional factors of chronic illness, medication side effects and sleep disorders come into play.  All of this adds up to a major concern: consistent sleep shortages contribute to heart disease, obesity, depression, lowered immunity, type 2 diabetes and other ills!

No matter the cause, developing healthy sleep habits is part of the cure.  In my work with clients, I always assess quality and quantity of sleep.  If we find deficiencies, I encourage my clients to consider changes in their sleep habits as adequate rest is absolutely necessary for fueling whatever work we are trying to do in therapy.  What does that look like?  Here are the guidelines I usually work with.  Adjustments are made to align with each person’s unique situation so discuss these with your doctor to create a plan that works for you:

  • Do not get into bed except when it is time to sleep.  Our beds often become associated with work and we need to retrain our brains to associate bed with sleep.
  • Avoid caffeine four hours before bed (this includes chocolate).
  • Avoid naps during the day until your sleep-wake cycle has been established.
  • Set an alarm for one hour before bed as a daily reminder. When it goes off, cut out all screen activity (TV or computer).
  • Eat a small snack of complex carbs.
  • Drink a cup of warm milk or Sleepytime tea.
  • Dim the lights – consider putting your bedroom lamp on a timer to automatically dim each night.
  • Shower, get ready for bed, etc.
  • Journal the concerns of the day.  This allows your brain to ‘let go’ of these issues.
  • Listen to relaxing music.
  • Read relaxing material.
  • Turn lights out at the same time every night.
  • Consider use of a white noise machine or earplugs.
  • Use a relaxation exercise to quiet the central nervous system.
  • If you lie awake for 20 minutes, get out of bed and do some other quiet activity in dimmed lighting until you feel sleepy – repeat as often as necessary – do not lie awake for endless amounts of time
  • Wake up every morning at the same time. Do not use a buzzer-type alarm which has been shown to kick off an adrenaline rush (not how you want to start your day).

It takes at least two weeks of consistency to see a change in sleep quality so once you’ve developed a routine that works for you – stick with it for the long haul.  When you consult with your doctor, ask about nutritional changes/supplements that can help improve the quality of your sleep.  Do your homework to learn as much as you can.

I hope these suggestions will bring improvement in this vitally important area of your life. Check back here for a report on my progress in the coming months!  I’d love to hear from those of you who make changes as well 🙂

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The toughest job

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We parent as well as we were parented.  That can be a comforting or frightening statement…depending on our history.  I remember when I first gave birth, I was determined to do this thing “right”.  This is how I had been trained to approach everything for 20 years.  Certainly, this task – the most important one I’d ever tackle – demanded my best.   Then, to make things really interesting, my little one was diagnosed with a chronic illness for which there was no cure.

Looking back on my parenting path, I see a developmental journey:  Stage one was the thirst for knowledge.  I had been essentially an only child.  I had never babysat a child, never changed a diaper.  To say I was ‘green’ would have been an understatement.  But I was diligent and committed.  I knew that there was much from my history that I did not want to repeat so I read the books, listened to the radio shows and subscribed to the magazines.  Stage two was about behavior.  I was raised in a culture that valued presentation and good behavior and while I was determined not to use the same punishments, I was still invested in similar outcomes.  Except…this little girl was not at all interested in conforming as I had been.  She marched to the beat of her own drum.  Stage three was bedlam.  My well crafted systems were not working.  My home environment changed and my beloved was dancing at the edge of dangerous canyons.  I was completely undone.  Stage four found me in complete retreat.  I was forced to go back to the drawing board to figure out what my true parenting goals were and how I was going to accomplish them.  From a faith perspective, I began to realize that while it was easy to focus on my daughter as ‘the problem’, God’s spotlight was squarely on me…what was being unearthed within me by her refusal to fall in step with my beat?  Slowly, my focus changed as I entered stage five.  From behavior to relationship.  From nagging to introspection – an awareness of what each conflict was meant to teach me.  Not that I abdicated my responsibility as a parent.  I was still the authority but I streamlined those functions and attempted to spend more time on personal growth and pursuing intimate connection with her.  I am forever grateful that my final parenting stage (six) was an imperfect attempt at unconditional love.  I solidified my understanding of who she was as a person…what she was responsible for (which I was not) and what I was truly responsible for as her mom.  Unfortunately, I had just crested this summit when she disappeared.

Maybe you recognize yourself somewhere in these stages.  It’s helpful sometimes to know that you’re on a developmental journey, that this will get better.  This isn’t a researched and validated developmental theory but hopefully, it is still helpful in reassuring you that this is normal – whatever your “this” is.  That there is a progression here.  Don’t get me wrong.  It didn’t play out in the linear way I’ve presented here.  It was more like a circuitous roller-coaster ride that cycled in and out of the stages in no particular order. Once again, if that is how you’re feeling, you’re not alone.

I have a passion for coming along-side parents on their journey.  I’m not a “drop your kid off and I’ll fix them” therapist.  In my view, it begins and ends with parents – if for no other reason than we have the ultimate responsibility and authority to respond to whatever is happening with the child.  We are the leaders in this equation.  Our children give us an opportunity to grow as people in a way no other interaction can and I love helping my clients harness the occasion.  As parents flourish, children naturally improve.  This only happens however when parents feel safe.  Safe to vent, cry, blame, speak the truth of what they are actually thinking and feeling without judgment.  The last thing we need is someone to make us feel like a failure.  What is needed is empathy, encouragement and hope.  A place where our ugly is held and our pain is validated.  Where root causes are unearthed and processed so that we move in a different direction.  That is what I do with my clients so if you’re looking for a coworker on this – the toughest job of all; give us a call.  The rewards in stage six are well worth the journey!

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