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Cultivating a Life that is Real: Finding Hope through Your Darkness

by Jason Pogue, PLPC

I have yet to meet anyone whose middle school years were not fraught with social perils and awkwardness and mine were no different. I can remember days I was so sure I had committed a social disaster that I laid in bed at night dreadfully imagining the possible fallout that awaited me the next day at school.  And yet, I would often awake the next day and march into school doing everything I could to pretend the truth that my knotted stomach betrayed was a lie and that none of the previous day had unfolded as it did. This got me through the day many times, but it was a miserable way to live. And, it still is.

The reality is we all still do this self-deception as adults because it gets us through the day, but we often never slow down to think about what it costs us. In the course of experiencing deeply confusing, painful, frightening, shame-filled, and aggravating events somewhere along the way we make a decision – whether conscious or not – to disown pieces of this experience that feel like too much to bear.

Just like middle school, we act like the wounds and emotions our bodies communicate we carry don’t exist, and we talk ourselves away from what the pit of our stomach knows is actual reality. We become so good at this that we disown parts of an experience while keeping all the good things so that as we move forward it seems like a bright and cheerful time even though it carries shadows on all sides of betrayal, crushed hope, or shame.

My point here is not to “miserable-ize” everything in your life, but to illuminate what is lost when we do this. The reality is what we disown is not only an event but our experience of an event. When we disown that experience we actually disown a part of ourselves – a part of the deep experience of our soul – and we take one more step away from ever being truly known by those around us. No matter how vulnerable we are with however many people, we always have those pieces in the back of our mind holding us hostage with the thought, ‘Yeah, but if they knew that about me they would run in the other direction.” We become lonely, and less and less real – no matter how many people or “positive vibes” we surround ourselves with.

Cultivating a life that is real and fighting loneliness begins with examining the pieces of our soul we have disowned, working through whatever discomfort kept us from doing this before, and bringing those pieces of ourselves back into the present so that we can live a more whole and connected life.

This is certainly not an easy task, but often when we face the darkness rather than run from it, we find some light. As English theologian Thomas Fuller once said, “The night is darkest just before the dawn.”

So what are the pieces of yourself you’ve left in the darkness? What are the parts of your soul locked away inside? Are you ready to face them openly? Are you ready for true connection? For whole-hearted living? Are you ready to be real?

Stopping the Runaway Train – Part IV: How to Name Our Experience

by Jason Pogue, PLPC

Here is the final blog in this series about gaining control over our emotions. So far, we’ve explored the very real experience of relational chaos and trying circumstances and looked at our ability to choose how we want to be in response to them, and we’ve discussed how the first step to stopping the runaway train is slowing down through relaxation exercises like the breathing one we tried together, and the importance of naming our experience. Here we are looking at how to go about naming our experience.

If you’re tired of being pushed around by the runaway train, and you’ve begun implementing regular relaxation exercises in your life, the next step is to really look at and accept the emotional experience present. For some this is easier than others, but for all of us we have a stunted emotional vocabulary so it can be helpful to use a chart of emotion words like the one below.

 

Take a minute and think of a recent conflict where you remember feeling overwhelmed internally. Think of the details of that situation – recount it in your mind. Are you feeling a bit of what you felt in your body then? Perhaps a tightness in the chest, or a sickness in your stomach, or a warmth in your arms and hands, or feeling like you just want to run out of the room – notice whatever is going on in your body as these are clues to our emotional experience. Now take a look at this chart. Notice we have all the words we typically use for emotion: happy, angry, sad, fearful, bad, surprised, disgusted. Try to identify which of these seems to fit what you’re experiencing, and then take it to the next outer-ring to further define that emotion. If you’re sad, are you lonely, vulnerable, despairing, guilty, depressed, hurt?

It may be more than one and that’s okay – emotions are complex.

You may find one of the more specific words that describe your experience are actually in an entirely different category than you thought. Perhaps you thought you were angry, but as you move through the layers you realize really you feel powerless. This chart certainly isn’t the master formula of all emotion, but it can be a helpful starting point to broaden our vocabulary of our internal world. Often we experience more than one emotion at the same time – and even those seem to contradict one another at times. We are complicated beings! The idea is to put words to what we are experiencing so we fully have a handle on just what’s going on inside us at the moment.

Again, it may seem silly or simple, but naming our emotional experience as precisely as we can is a crucial step in stopping the runaway train. Naming it period is actually a way in which we take back power, by putting boundaries around this experience and defining it rather than letting it define us.

Once we can precisely define our emotional experience, we will then be ready to explore why it’s there, whether it’s helping us or not, and how it may relate to our past wounds that are perhaps still pushing us around to this day.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Source: Russel Tarr, Using Plutchik’s Wheel of Emotions to improve the evaluation of sources (Available at: http://www.classtools.net/blog/using-plutchiks-wheel-of-emotions-to-improve-the-evaluation-of-sources/, last accessed February 20, 2017).

When We Lie to Our Kids

by Courtney Hollingsworth, LPC

There are many reasons why adults lie to kids. Kids are gullible. It’s in their best interest. It’s to protect them. They wouldn’t understand the truth. It’s easier. It’s just a little white lie.

Once you begin to erode your kid’s trust in your word, it’s a very slippery slope.

One that is much more difficult to climb back up than the discomfort or inconvenience that sometimes accompanies telling the truth. Even “small” lies can cause severe damage. A tornado can destroy a house, but so can termites.

Here’s the truth: Kids know. Maybe not every time. Maybe not very early on. But soon enough, they know more than we adults realize, and by the time we do, we’ve already damaged their trust in us. Researchers at MIT have confirmed this truth. Think about when you were a kid and you were internally questioning something an adult told you. I bet a specific scenario or a specific person readily popped into your head.

Kids inherently and subconsciously know they are dependent on adults to survive. This is why a child going out the front door and walking wherever they please is a rare event. It is what causes that brief panic in a store when a kid feels lost. Many children are not even willing to go into the basement alone. Their security is in their attachment to a more competent and trustworthy individual, an adult, because of their inherent knowledge that they are not competent to care for themselves in this world. There is a very healthy importance to this attachment, and in order for it to be healthy, it has to be one they can depend on. Lying and withholding information causes deep fractures to the security of this bond. More simply, it causes deep hurt to our children.

When kids are lied to, not only do they begin to question their trust in the person who’s lying, they also learn to mistrust themselves. When what they know or feel is true is being redefined for them as not true, they are learning self-doubt and a mistrust of the world. When a kid is told that what they know is true, is untrue, they are learning that they can’t trust themselves. This makes them susceptible to bullying, mean friends, sexual abuse, manipulation, abusive dating partners, and the list goes on.

So while a little white lie can feel harmless, it has the power to do far more damage than the truth.

Shame and Contempt, Part 4: Countering Self-Righteousness & Other Righteousness

by Jonathan Hart, LPC

In my earlier blogs in this series, I explored Shame and Contempt as unhealthy and unproductive mutations of Guilt and Judgment, and the ground that Shame and Contempt grow from, and the flipside of Shame and Contempt. Now that we’ve named Guilt and Contempt as potential major players in our inner worlds, as well as looked at the places from where these fickle foes plant seeds and grow, I would like to discuss how to counter the powerful pulls of self-righteousness and other righteousness.

The truth is that we are all good at some things, and we are all bad at some things.  Neither one can ever speak to our value as a human.  Performance, skill, ability, and aptitude are all completely irrelevant to our dignity and worth.

When we stand either over or under another human, we are out of place, and it wears on our souls.

The beginning of change is in observing what has always been automatic, accepted, or unquestioned.  Pay attention to the thoughts and voices with which you speak to yourself, and with which you speak of others.  Notice the elements of self- or other-righteousness.  The more you notice them, the more they will bother you (hopefully).  That dissatisfaction is necessary to finding the change you need.

If you feel stuck, seek an external observer: a mentor, pastor, friend, or counselor who is not overly impressed with you, who will be honest with you, and with whom you can be honest in return.  Work together to identify the places you need to work on.

Stepping out of self- and/or other-righteousness is a challenge, but when you find the room, you will discover a great relief in your being, and a larger amount of freedom and acceptance with and for your fellow humans.

Shame and Contempt, Part 3: The Flipside

By Jonathan Hart, LPC

In an earlier blog, I explored Shame and Contempt as unhealthy and unproductive mutations of Guilt and Judgment, respectively, and how we live as though we believe them even though they are profoundly untrue.

Here, I would like to discuss the ground that Shame and Contempt grow from.

Self-Righteousness

The most obvious and familiar feeling that engenders shame or contempt is self-righteousness.  We are most often aware of self-righteousness in others, especially when it is directed at us.  It is identifiable by our reactions to it: “How dare you look down your nose at me!?”  “Little Miss (Mr.) Goody-Two-Shoes” (I know I’m dating myself here.)  “What a stuck-up jerk!”  “Think you’re better than everyone else, do you?”

It seems apparent to me that we would regard self-righteousness as a negative character trait or behavior when we see it or experience it from anyone.

However, most of us actually practice this at some point ourselves. We experience self-righteousness in ourselves when we say or think things like, “I would never…” or “How could you…”.  When we shake our heads and “cluck our tongues” to say “Tsk, tsk, for shame.”  When we say, “THAT person deserves to be…” . It is at its core an internal feeling of being better than the other person.

What makes self-righteousness distinct from contempt?  Self-Righteousness is the soil from which Contempt grows and flourishes.

Contempt is the external expression of the fundamental (and often unquestioned) internal belief in our own goodness (self-righteousness).

The trap of it is that we tend to highlight the things we are good at or things that we think make us look good, and exclude the things we are less good at or embarrass us.  When we operate from self-righteousness, we act as though we have the right to determine the worth of another person.

Other-Righteousness

Other-Righteousness is a term that I am pretty sure I made up.  I use it to describe the sensation that others are by nature better than oneself.  It functions in relationships when we “know” that our significant other is smarter, better, wiser, etc.  We put them on a pedestal that says, “You know more about XYZ than I do, so I will always yield to your opinion on this.” Socially, we experience the sensation that everyone who sees us is judging us or pitying us.  We feel that they are worth more than us.

Not only do we have this feeling, we believe it.  Not only are we judged, but we deserve to be judged.   We automatically believe that others have no real compassion when we make a mistake, that they are laughing at us or scorning us, and that we deserve it.  It is the core belief in our defectiveness and shame.  It is a wearisome way to live.

What makes “other-righteousness” distinct from shame?  The answer is the same as to the similar question above:  Other Righteousness is the soil from which our sense of defectiveness grows.

Shame is the external or surface expression of the core (often unquestioned) belief in others’ superiority.

Also similar is the trap.  When we believe in our own worthlessness, we highlight and expect all the screw ups and shortcomings and exclude examples of our genuine goodness.  When we operate from other-righteousness, we live as though everyone around us has the right to condemn us.

My next blog will look at how to counter these formidable foes.

Shame and Contempt, Part 2: In our Daily Lives

by Jonathan Hart, LPC

My previous blog is this series proposed that shame and contempt shape our worlds more than we know.  Do they? Here I am going to look at the vicious villians of shame and contempt in our daily lives. Listen to your words and your thoughts.  Pay attention to your verbs.

It may surprise you how often you use “being” verbs in your daily life to describe yourselves and others.

Daily Contemp

Every time I shout at another driver in traffic, “Idiot!” (the full sentence by implication is “You are an idiot!”) I express contempt.  I express my feeling that the other driver’s intelligence is defective, that they are in their very being worthless.  And this, because they did something careless or something that I didn’t expect.

Daily Shame

When I make a mess of things, make a mistake or deliberately do or say something hurtful, if I beat myself up about it, I am operating in shame.  “Idiot!  I can’t believe I did that.”  I am expressing self-contempt, saying that because of this thing, and maybe others like it, I am of no real value in the world.  I believe that everyone who hears of it would agree, and that they would be correct in having me summarily executed, that the world would be better off without me.

Living Truthfully

Of course, we don’t articulate either of these thoughts fully.  If we were to articulate them fully, we would have to retract our statements.

So if (a) Shame and Contempt themselves are lies in their essence, and (b) most often we don’t really believe in the full extent of what we are actually saying, then there is a lot of falseness in our daily lives that we simply accept as “normal”.

Listen to your verbs.  I challenge you to change your being verbs into descriptive action verbs and see what changes in your experience as you walk about your life.  –JH

(Coming Soon: The Flipside of Shame and Contempt)

Shame and Contempt, Part 1: What are they?

By Jonathan Hart, LPC

Shame and Contempt.  These are feelings we have a hard time making sense of.   Both are loaded words, powerful concepts to consider.  As internal feelings, they are more common than we realize, and often shape our worlds more than we know.

Shame (v. Guilt)  (see this blog for a more long-winded examination of this distinction)

Shame is a feeling of being defective.  This is different than guilt.  Guilt is the knowledge of having done wrong.  Shame is the sense that “I am wrong,” or that “Something is wrong with me.”

The clue to distinguishing these two feelings from each other is the verb.  

Guilt uses action verbs: did/didn’t, acted, failed to act, etc.  Shame uses State-of-Being verbs: am, is, was, were, can/can’t, etc.  Guilt says “I did [a thing that was wrong].  I crossed a line, I lied, I acted in this way or that”.  Shame says, “What was I thinking?  What is the matter with me?  Why can’t I …?”.

Distinguishing between shame and guilt is important for two reasons:

  1. Guilt is a healthy emotion that leads us to learning to do better things and resist doing harmful things.  We appropriately don’t like how guilt feels, and because we don’t want to feel that way, we make different choices.
  2. Shame is always a lie.  Shame never results in real change or learning, it only self-reinforces.  “What did I expect?  This is what I get.  I am such a screw up.”  Most often when we evaluate ourselves in this way, we are evaluating our whole being on the basis of our bloopers reel.  It is to feel worthless, pointless, and without value to the world at large.

Contempt (vs. Judgment) (see this blog for a more long-winded examination of this distinction)

Contempt is at its core the shaming of another.  In similar fashion to Shame, Contempt uses being verbs, whereas (like Guilt) Judgment uses action verbs.

It is to measure the person or thing as inherently defective.

Judgment is objectively or subjectively describing something.  “I like/don’t like this thing/person”, or “You hurt me when you said…”, or “I like/don’t like how you talked to me.”    Contempt makes the evaluation about the being of the person or thing itself.  “You are such a fool.”, or, “What is wrong with you?”, or “What were you thinking?”

Again, this distinction is important for two reasons:

  1. Judgment itself is not a bad or hurtful thing.  Contempt is the sentiment most folks are referring to when they say “don’t judge”.  We all make judgments every day, and these are healthy and needful assessments of our world.
  2. Like shame, Contempt is always a lie.  It is to speak as though we are authorized or have the capacity to determine the worth of another human’s existence.  To express contempt is to say that the person or thing is worthless, without value, and that destroying them would be a non-issue.

So What?

Shame and contempt shape our worlds more than we know.  My next blog in this series will look at how we use shame and contempt in our daily lives to describe ourselves and others.

Stopping the Runaway Train – Part II: The Importance of Naming Our Experience

by Jason Pogue, PLPC

This is the third blog in a series. So far, we’ve explored the very real experience of relational chaos and trying circumstances and looked at our ability to choose how we want to be in response to them, and we’ve discussed how the first step to stopping the runaway train is slowing down through relaxation exercises like the breathing one we tried together. Today we will explore the importance of naming our experience.

[Remember, this all takes time, patience, and practice. So, though our blog series chugs along, stopping the runaway train usually takes some serious time and discipline and perhaps help from a friend, mentor, or therapist. If you want to take the next step in this regard, feel free to email or call and setup an appointment.]

“You can’t just change plans last minute! I have studies, and work, and a life to plan of my own!” I shouted over the phone. My brother’s wife wisely jumped in, “This is getting unsafe – we need to have this conversation when we aren’t driving through this crazy weather.” She was right, and I was out of control. And, I wish I could say I realized it in that moment and stopped the runaway train of my anger – but I didn’t. I did hang up, but I was still furious.

My brother and his wife were taking a cross-country road trip for their honeymoon. Based on a number of legitimate reasons including weather, they had to change the days in which they were arriving to visit me in St. Louis where I was working my way through my graduate studies. When my brother delivered the message, I was in the midst of a hectic life – running from work, to class, to work, to making dinner, to studying through the night, and so on. I was moving so fast, that I didn’t skip a beat when my anger overtook me – I just let it fly without a moment’s delay.

Now, after the fact, I can look back and realize that anger wasn’t primarily about what was going on. I was feeling overwhelmed with life, and feeling like my schedule and anxieties were invisible to my brother and his wife.

This experience hit on threads in my story of times when I felt like my experience took the back seat to others, and I was so tired of that feeling of being trampled or not worth people noticing my needs.

All of this was actually pretty removed from anything my brother or his wife did, but I was moving so fast that in the moment I had no capacity to understand this because I had no ability to name my own experience.

We live in a culture that values ‘busy-ness’ – where being on the go is often a status symbol of our success.

There’s nothing wrong with a healthy ambition in your career or life, and yet sometimes we are moving so fast we entirely lose touch with ourselves – with what is actually going on inside our minds and hearts. We enter autopilot.

Autopilot isn’t always bad either, but when it comes to relationships it becomes a barrier to knowing others and being known. It’s like trying to be in relationship with a robot. So, after we’ve incorporated various relaxation exercises into our life to help manage our big emotions like deep breathing or mindfulness, another crucial step is putting words to what is going on in our internal world without judgment.

The last part can trip many up because we want to justify ourselves. Maybe a small piece of us wonders if it’s okay what we’re feeling? Perhaps we shame ourselves that we should never feel such things, or we blame others for what we are experiencing internally. Much of this comes out of what we’ve learned about emotions from both our families of origin and our experiences along the way. These areas are another step of exploration, but for now we must simply name our experience.

Just as a doctor cannot move forward with treatment without fully understanding all of the symptoms, so we cannot move through our internal emotional experience without fully understanding it from a distance – without judgment. What is there, is there. To jump to judgment before fully understanding it would be to like the doctor treating you without asking any questions about symptoms – yikes! To avoid naming it, is to brush it under the rug and give what control we have over how we want to be back to the runaway train. This is why naming our experience, and the accompanying emotions, is so vital to not being ruled by them.

 

Kids, Feelings, and Parents, Oh My!

by Mary Martha Abernathy, LPC

Inspired by How to Talk so Kids will Listen & Listen so Kids will Talk, by Adele Faber & Elaine Mazlish

Parenting is exhausting.  Taking part in relationships with adults who struggle to communicate their emotions is hard enough, but engaging with kids who don’t know what they are feeling or how to tell you their feelings is even harder!  Being in tune with our children’s emotions and experiences allows us to more naturally engage in our relationship with them.

Just because kids are “young, little, a baby” does not mean their emotional experiences are less real or matter less than our own experiences.

The author of How to Talk so Kids will Listen & Listen so Kids will Talk describes her experience of parenting and how she “could be accepting about most of the feelings [her] children had, but let one of them tell me something that made me angry or anxious and I’d instantly revert to my old way [of parenting]” (page 3).  Her old ways were when she would disregard, minimize, invalidate, avoid, or ignore another person’s experience.

How do we feel when someone disregards our feelings?  How do we feel when people pretend they didn’t hear what we said? Or, when people try to “help” or “fix” a situation when all we want is someone to listen.

When we feel listened to and understood it is easier for us to manage our emotional responses.  The same happens with our children.

When they feel listened to and understood, they are able to work through their emotional experiences and problem solve more clearly.   Often, children are just wanting someone to intently listen to them.  Our attunement to the conversation and small responses, like “uh-huh” allow our children to know we are paying attention.  This response only works if you are looking at them, not at a screen!

Children need help naming their emotions and giving words to their experience.

The naming of emotions acknowledges their experience and helps to increase their engagement in the relationship. It also helps to teach children about emotions.  It can be helpful to have an emotions chart on the refrigerator with faces on it, or for older kids a wheel of emotions.

Being in relationship with our kids is hard work. This hard work is laying the framework for better relationships as they age. We hope they have learned about their emotions and how to verbalize them and deal with them safely.   We are teaching something important to our children that they don’t yet know is important!

The Healing Power of Tears

 

by Melinda Seley, PLPC

 

Tears have a complicated place in our society. Have you ever had a good cry, and felt (strangely) a little bit better afterwards?  Well, there is a scientific reason why that is the case.

In 2010, photographer Rose-Lynn Fisher worked on an amazing photography project called Topography of Tears. In this multi-year long project, she collected and examined more than 100 human tears under a microscope.  Among others, she studied tears shed while laughing, grieving, and responding to change, as well as basal tears (those meant to keep the eye lubricated) and reflex tears (those that respond to an irritant in the eye).

Fascinatingly, Fisher found that the appearance of tears is different based on what elicits them; and not only is their appearance different, but the physical composition also varies – most notably, emotional tears contain the neurotransmitter leucine encephalin, a natural painkiller that is released when the body is under stress to help improve one’s mood.

 

Our physical bodies are so intricately connected to our emotions that a chemical is released to help heal us emotionally when we cry!

 

So this remarkable discovery makes me wonder – when we view crying as weakness, what are we really doing? Why do we have a tendency in our culture, as well as other cultures, to view crying as something to be squelched, and prohibit our bodies from naturally responding to distress? What kind of healing are we missing out on?  It seems that we are rejecting the very thing that can actually physically aid in our healing!  If this is you, what does it look like to let those tears flow? What do you need or to believe in order to do that?

{A Smithsonian article describing Fisher’s project in more detail can be found here – I encourage you to read the whole thing!}