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Feeling your Feelings

Feeling your Feelings

 By Jonathan e. Hart, LPC

Human emotions are unpredictable, complex, surprising things.

Feelings. We all have them.  It can be confusing when we don’t understand the feeling we are experiencing, or why we are even experiencing it in the first place.  Often the feeling doesn’t seem to match the scenario that triggered it.

We humans seem rarely to question our emotions.  They exist as reflexes.  They occur without our choice or invitation.  When we don’t understand them, we usually try to rationalize them away or turn them off.  This gets us into trouble more often than not, because simply not feeling our emotional reflexes is like trying not to kick when the doctor thumps us at the knee with the little mallet.   

The discipline that will help understand our emotional reflexes is to practice feeling them.  Learn what they physiologically feel like.  Does it burst or contract?  Does it rise or fall?  Does it feel like a flutter or a weight? Do I get hot or cold in my face, hands, etc.?  Where in my body do I feel it?  What does it make me want to do?   

This may seem silly, but all of our emotions have a physiological component.  We talk about our bodies and our minds and our feelings as though they are separate things.  We do this because we have to in order to be able to talk about them and learn about them.  But body, heart, and mind are all one thing.   

Think about the last time you got startled.  Chances are you jumped or twitched somehow.  Your heart rate accelerated and you experienced a sharp intake of breath.  You did not choose these things.  They happened.  They are the physiological component of the feeling of fear.  It passed quickly enough when you realized that there was no real danger, but they happened nonetheless.

Slowing down and taking the time to feel our feelings is particularly difficult when the feeling that is present is a negative one like fear or anger or loss.  

This process requires us to sit in the feeling, to allow it to exist without making it better.  This process requires the work of deliberately NOT managing the feeling, but rather observing it in order to understand it.

When we do this, we gain an edge.  We cultivate the skill of awareness.  We will more quickly recognize the feeling when it arises again, and more quickly be able to understand ourselves.  We gain a delay between when we feel and what we do next.  We can use this delay to make a conscious, careful choice about our next step rather than simply doing what the feeling tells us to do.  Particularly in relationship, this thoughtful choice can be the difference between a healthy, responsible interaction and a reactive, destructive one.  

In order to begin learning how to do this, take a moment and think about a mild emotion.  Don’t start with a really big feeling.  Think about the physical feel of it.  Cultivate an understanding of this physiological component, and pay attention.  You might be surprised by how often you feel that same feeling in other places.

When you’ve got a bit of practice with this, you can begin working on larger feelings, like the ones that rise up around conflict or arguments.  Again, slow down and pay attention.  You may be surprised by what you learn.

Perfectionism and Blogging

Perfectionism and Blogging

by Frank Theus, LPC

In my line of work as a therapist writing a blog or contributing to one is considered part and parcel of the profession; in fact, I know many fellow therapists who attest to how much they enjoy writing informally via a forum that invites conversation. Perfectionism has stood in my way before now.

“Every time I write a [blog], I have to remind myself that all I have to worry about is the next paragraph.” – Donald Miller

However, what does a therapist-blogger do when the writing becomes de rigueur du jour and try as best they can simply can’t lift a pen, or type out the next word much less “…the next paragraph” (Miller)?

Ignore the panic attacks? Obfuscate, deny, and delay regarding the topic and proposed deadlines? Stop writing? Quit the job? Does any of this seem extreme to you? Well, hello, I’m that guy who has been there, done that, and has those t-shirts.

You see, I hate to write. Duh!

Writing’s a powerful medium that can expose the author’s heart-life leaving them vulnerable to evaluation and critique – real or imagined – by others; and, my basic survival instinct wants no part of that. Perfectionism won out. Are you able to relate?

You see I’m recovering from perfectionism, triggered by the thought of writing, grammar, punctuation, and (reasonable) expectations of me around this topic. For a variety of reasons I failed to learn the basics in secondary school and later in my undergraduate years. In Abba’s infinite and providential sense of humor I was thrust into leadership roles within professions that required me to write for the sake of other’s careers. No pressure there. Right?!

But writing didn’t get easier for me then or by the time I went through graduate school as a 50-something reinventing retiree, or afterward here at Avenues Counseling. Finally, I shared my angst with my boss and we agreed I’d take a mini-sabbatical from writing. I wish I could say I used this holiday to constructively reflect, engage in intense psychotherapy to get at the root causes of my graphophobia, become a modern day contemplative Reformed-Benedictine, to journal (God forbid) but I didn’t do any of those things. Instead, I more often than not simply disengaged from any thought of ever writing again. I was good with that.

But here I am. Writing. Haltingly so. Imperfectly, and [relatively] free. What happened? I’m not sure; and, I don’t know that I have to have it all figured out.

Whatever the “it” is in your life that keeps you stuck or otherwise diminishes your quality of life maybe the first step is to be kind and gentle with yourself and to simply acknowledge it aloud.

But don’t stop there. Risk, yes, risk being vulnerable enough to tell someone that’s trustworthy what the “it” is. Ask for help, learn, grow, heal, and re-engage with enjoying the whole of your life. L’chaim!

How a Children’s Book Made Me Think About Cultivating Emotional Intelligence

Smile, Pout-Pout Fish…Or Don’t: How a Children’s Book Made Me Think About Cultivating Emotional Intelligence

by Melinda Seley, PLPC

Do the books we read to our children cultivate emotional intelligence, or communicate subtle messages discouraging awareness and honest expression of feelings?

Smile, Mr. Fish! You look so down. With your glum-glum face and your pout-pout frown. No need to be worried. No need to be sad. No need to be scared. No need to be mad! How about a smooch? And a cheer-up wish? Now you look happy: what a smile, Mr. Fish!

Of all the books my little one loves, this one most often gets relentlessly stuck in my head! With its well-crafted rhyme and adorable pictures, it captivates its little (and big) audience quite well. But the subtle message of the book has always made me a bit uneasy: you shouldn’t be sad, worried, or scared; there, you’re happy, that’s acceptable and good.  I realize there is a strong possibility that I am over-analyzing the book, but at the same time, I think subtle messages like this are important to be mindful of – both that we have been taught and that we are passing along to our kids (or nieces/nephews, friends’ kids, etc.).

If taken too far, a child can internalize that the only acceptable emotion is to be happy…which will have great consequences in his or her ability cultivate emotional intelligence and to healthily navigate life.

Accordingly, I found this article, published by the Gottman Institute, to be very helpful in identifying the following three do’s and don’ts for developing a child’s emotional intelligence:

  • Do recognize negative emotions as an opportunity to connect. Don’t punish, dismiss, or scold your child for being emotional.

    Do help your child label their emotions. — Don’t convey judgment or frustration.

  • Do set limits and problem-solve. — Don’t underestimate your child’s ability to learn and grow.

 

Given these guides, perhaps a helpful re-write of the book might read like this:

Hey, Mr. Fish, you look so down. With your glum, glum face and your pout, pout frown. Come sit beside me, I see your broken toy has made you sad. I would be, too, if it was the favorite toy I had. It’s okay to cry, it’s okay to be mad. But we cannot hit and we cannot squeal. How else can you show the sadness you feel?

 

 

 

Does Validation Matter?

Validation: Why it matters.

 

by Mary Martha Abernathy, LPC

We have all experienced a situation where we have not validated a person’s beliefs or behaviors as we interact with them.  We also know what it feels like for someone to ignore our feelings, minimize our experiences, or change the subject of a conversation when the topic really matters. Validating our own feelings and those of other people is an important skill to have and to hone.    

What is validation?  Validation means “acknowledging that a person’s emotions, thoughts and behaviors have causes and are therefore understandable”.  

To validate someone means we are looking for the kernel of truth in another person’s perspective, even if we don’t agree with them.

Why is it important?  Well, it shows that we are listening to the other person and that we are trying to understand them.  It helps to strengthen our relationships because we can avoid a power struggle over who is right by validating the other person.  When we don’t validate others, it hurts.

How do we do it?  Pay attention to what the other person is saying.  Actively listen and reflect back to them what they are saying, without judging them!  We have to use our observation skills and we have to be pay attention to the conversation.  It is important to notice the little things, how is the person standing, are their arms crossed, is their face red, do they look like they are getting ready to cry?  All of these clues help us in conversation.  

We need to notice how a person is acting, listen to what a person says, and respond according to what we see and hear to help create and improve connection in relationships.

What’s the impact?  Like I said, validation helps to create connection. Validation challenges us to be present in conversation. We have to be listen to what the other person is saying in order to respond in a way that helps a person to feel understood. Validation can de-escalate a situation because you’ve avoided the fight and acknowledged the other person’s experience.  

Give it a shot!  

 

 

 

 

Information adapted from DBT Skills Manual for Adolescents, Rathus, Jill H., and Alec L. Miller. “Validation.” DBT Skills Manual for Adolescents. New York: Guilford, 2015. Print.

Reset Safe Connections Through Play Therapy

by: Isaac Knopp, PLPC

Reset Safe Connections Through Play Therapy

Big Figures, Small Worlds:

A big strong horse was the toy that Nate chose to play with in the sandbox. To anyone else this toy was just a small, plastic animal you might find at pretty much any toy store. But to Nate, who took his toy and plunged it beneath the sand and then looked up at me with wide and terrified eyes, it was more than a horse. Over the course of our time working together Nate was processing the sudden death of his dad. He always chose the horse, because to him, his dad was big and strong just like that horse.

Nate’s play was his way of telling me what he was wrestling with. Our kids have a different way of dealing with stress than we adults do. Play is a child’s way of grappling with the forces of the world and life that they cannot yet grasp. When our children encounter something too big, scary or difficult to grasp it gets incorporated directly into their play. Play is the essential and natural way a child resets their safe connections to others, self, and the world especially after they feel like their safe connections have been lost or threatened.

At times children will be classified as struggling with ADHD or having childhood anxiety, outbursts of anger, difficulty controlling emotions, self-regulating, and defiant behaviors. When in reality these classifications are simply symptoms of the child experiencing frustration in resetting their safe connections.

How do I give my child what he or she needs to succeed? As parents, our first thought is usually education, which is very important. However, often giving children what they need relationally can be a challenge because we feel ill equipped to meet them where they are. Learning how to connect with your child through play can give your child a big boost in self-image and development.

Connect Through Play:
  • Curiosity: Asking your child to explain what something means to them can be a window into their world.
  • Acceptance: Learning how to notice behaviors or play that seems bizarre yet may make total sense in their world of trying to reset their connections.
  • Empathy: Curiosity and acceptance create a platform for you to see the child’s expression of what they are really wresting with.
  • Trust: Once connections get established you will notice it is much easier for your child to rely on themselves as well as others. It will also be easier for you to trust that your child is doing important developmental work all the time.

In one of my last sessions with Nate, he walked up to the toy shelf to gaze at all the toys. His little hands brushed over that big strong horse, he then moved over to a red firetruck. He said, “I don’t need to play with the horse today”, instead he reached up and took hold of the truck. Although the horse was small it was big in Nate’s world. Through play, Nate was able to successful reestablish his safe connections.

“The Art of Distraction”

“The Art of Distraction”

by: Jason Pogue, PLPC

My wife and I are soon expecting our first child. We are excited and terrified all at once, and this spurs us on to read and talk with those who have gone through it all before. Though much of what we are practicing are techniques for ‘letting go’ and letting her body do what it was made to do, some of the techniques are purely in the realm of distraction. When the pain is so great, how can you or your partner distract you from it? These techniques for childbirth aren’t much different than the “techniques” we all pick up over time in a pain-filled world. I am reminded of this statement I’ve heard from a number of different wiser and older friends and mentors:

“No human being can fully bear the weight of reality.”

Even though I agree with this statement I can often feel as though I should be able to fully bear the weight of it all…that to set the pain and sorrow aside for a moment is actually being inauthentic or callous toward others or myself. When this feeling of should is not actually coming from others, I can still shame myself for spending an hour in distraction with television, or avoiding what I think I need to be doing in that moment. But is distraction always a problem?

The truth is that reality is a mix of both beauty and brokenness – both joy and sorrow, pleasure and pain. Yet often we can find the sorrow and pain winning out…snuffing out our joy. It only takes a few minutes of reading the news to be overwhelmed by the amount of violence, death, corruption, hatred, deception, and malice in the world around us. If we were to remove every bit of distraction from our lives and force our eyes open upon the unending wounds of the world, we would be swallowed up by grief. Though it is a painfully important exercise to wrestle with the big questions of life, to constantly live in this place would be simply unbearable.

The question is not whether distraction is good or bad, but what kind of distraction(s) are we involved in and how flexible are they? Taking some alone time to listen to music is a far more healthy a distraction than drinking until you black out. A good distraction, or coping-mechanism can assist you to bear through an excessively painful or overwhelming moment until you are in a safe enough place to process what has occurred.

More than just assessing the kind of distractions we engage in, a healthy arsenal of coping mechanisms assesses how flexible our distractions are – after all, you probably can’t go into a room and listen to music for an hour when you have a presentation to give at work or when your little boy is crying because he is hungry again! Consider one healthy coping mechanism of sharing what your internal experience is with someone else – this can be hugely beneficial in calming our bodies down and feeling known, but it would be entirely destructive to engage in with an abusive listener waiting to use our vulnerability against us. Sometimes the ways we’ve been wounded erode our ability to assess one person from another, and instead of engaging in the appropriate coping mechanism we simply choose one way of relating to everyone.

The problem is not distraction, or coping mechanisms – these can be a gift at times to get us through unbearable moments. The problem is when a particular distraction or coping mechanism becomes our only answer to the pain, is destructive to our lives, or continuously takes the place of ever actually returning to the pain and sorrow that resides within us and in our world.

So how are you doing with the art of distraction? If you aren’t able to cope, or are seeing destructive, rigid, or unending distraction taking over your life I invite you to give us a call to meet with a counselor, grow these skills, and process the emotional turmoil beneath it all. You have the ability to not only survive the grief of this world, but to work through it so that you can take joy in your day-to-day life. Why not start using it today?

What is trauma and do you have it? An Intro to EMDR

What is trauma and do you have it? An Intro to EMDR

by: Courtney Hollingsworth, LPC, EMDR Therapist

Do you have trauma in your past? Probably. It can be defined simply as a deeply distressing or disturbing experience. any event that causes an unusually high level of emotional stress and has a long lasting negative effect on a person. More than the mind or body can bear. If nothing in your personal life story comes to mind when you read those lines, prepare yourself for the day it does, because that day will come. Why can I say this with certainty? Life. Life is filled with brokenness, loss, sorrow, and pain. No one gets a free pass from that.

Sometimes mental health professionals differentiate between “big ’T’ Trauma” and “little ’t’ trauma.” Big “T” Trauma is a sudden, big traumatic experience such as sexual abuse, domestic violence, combat, natural disaster, rape, a life-threatening event, unexpected death of loved one, and crime. But even more common is little “t” trauma, which tends to be a smaller event, is often chronic, or experienced over and over, such as verbal abuse, bullying, loss of a pet or job, divorce, betrayal, etc. Just because the trauma feels smaller does not mean the impact is smaller. A helpful metaphor for the difference might be the difference between having your body set on fire vs being burned all over your body by matches. Both cause painful and lasting damage; it just occurs differently.

EMDR is helpful with a variety of big “T” Traumatic experiences that have caused a person to suffer from PTSD. EMDR can has also been proven to be effective for clinical issues that can be the result of little “t” trauma, such as depression, addiction, anxiety, and self esteem.

Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) is an evidence-based treatment for trauma. More than 27 studies (since 1989) have demonstrated EMDR’s effectiveness in treating Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). The Department of Defense, Department of Veteran Affairs, American Psychiatric Association, and the World Health Organization all recommend this treatment.

For more information about EMDR or to set up an appointment, please contact Courtney Hollingsworth​, LPC, EMDR Therapist at ​courtney@avenuescounselingcenter.org

Finding Pluto: Why knowing our stories is critical to healthy relationships

Finding Pluto: Why knowing our stories is critical to healthy relationships

This all looks really sciency, doesn't it? But look! It has Pluto on it.

This all looks really sciency, doesn’t it? But look! It has Pluto on it.

By Jonathan E. Hart, LPC

Someone asked me the other day, “Why do we need to look back in our lives to explain why we feel bad about things?”  My answer was simple and succinct:

“Pluto.”

The non-planet was only discovered because astronomers were looking for something they couldn’t see.  They had noticed a “wobble” in the orbits of Neptune and Uranus that shouldn’t have been happening if there was nothing else out there.  Math-magicians and astronomers then calculated the mass that would cause these wobbles, and the approximate location in which it would be, and started looking.  They eventually discovered Pluto and its moon, Charon (per this website).  They would likely have never seen Pluto at all if they hadn’t looked for the reason behind that wobble. 

This is a metaphor for our emotional lives.  There are times when we have emotional experiences that seem to be out of proportion to the events at hand.  When something that seems trivial bothers us,  we commonly try to ignore the feeling by telling ourselves “I feel silly.  I’m making a big deal out of nothing.”  We essentially try not to be bothered … and yet we are bothered. 

If you’ve tried this, you can probably verify that this strategy is rather useless.  The bad feeling builds up with repetition until we feel like we have to say something.  By that point, what we say or do is often quite out of proportion to the situation. 

This is usually because what is “visible” – that is, the obvious situation – is most often not all that is in play.  There is more “mass” involved than can be seen.  Getting at that mass will help explain what is happening inside us.

It might have been easier to chalk up that planetary wobble to the visible planets.  The observers could have said, “There is no other explanation.  Neptune is just… crazy.”  It would be annoying every time it was observed, but we would have to shrug our shoulders and walk away.  It sounds foolish when we are talking about astronomy.  It is just as foolish to do this when we are talking about our hearts and minds.

The things that bother us do so for a reason.  When we give our feelings some credit, we have discovered a “wobble”.  By noticing the wobble AND acknowledging that it is there (instead of pretending it isn’t or blaming it on the visible circumstances), we have the opportunity to look around and discover what the other “mass” is that is affecting our experience of what is visible.

Everything makes sense when we know enough story.  What we feel is not always completely reliable, but it makes sense.  Our emotions often don’t match the scenario we are facing, but when they don’t, it’s not because we’re crazy.  It’s because we don’t know enough about ourselves or each other to sufficiently explain it. 

If you have discovered a “wobble” in your current experience, and you would like a little help figuring out what it’s all about come on in and let’s talk about it. –JH

When “Can’t” Isn’t a Four-Letter Word

When “Can’t” Isn’t a Four-Letter Word

 Can't Sign

“Can’t is a four-letter word.”  “Can’t never could.” “I think I can, I think I can, I think I can.” Did you grow up hearing any of these phrases (or something similar)?  Encouragements from parents and caregivers to help you face a new challenge that you currently weren’t able to conquer.  An acknowledgement that negative thinking or giving up too easily with “I can’t” will hold you back from growing and learning to do new things. Instilling and maintaining a “can do” attitude is important – to push through the fear of inability and courageously take a risk, believing that you can do something and acting out of that hopeful and determined belief.  If you don’t try, you won’t grow and learn.

But somewhere along the way, after pushing through our fear or inexperience to get beyond “I can’t” when we are young, we can develop a belief that we can (and should) be able to do everything. And be everyone to everyone.  And never disappoint anyone.  We forget that we are human, and with that reality comes certain limitations – limitations of having finite time, emotional capacity, energy, and abilities.

For some of us, “I can’t” still comes too easy and holds us back from trying something new or risking…and if that is you, I encourage you to consider what makes “I can’t” roll off your tongue. Is it protecting you from the risk of failure? Does it feel safer to remain in the comfortable place of what you know?

But for some of us, embracing “I can’t” can be a path towards freedom.  A way to embrace our humanity and draw healthy boundaries around what we were made to be and do. Some versions of “I can’t” change with seasons of life while others remain true our entire lives.  “I can’t be a mom, work full time, be President of the PTA and have a perfectly kept household.” “I can’t have a chronic disease and do everything the way I used to.”  “I can’t be responsible for your emotions.” “I can’t obtain everyone’s approval.” “I can’t be perfect.”

Saying “I can’t” isn’t always about fear or failure, sometimes it’s the healthiest acknowledgement of our humanity that puts us on a path towards freedom.  Where might it be helpful for you to say “I can’t” today?

-Melinda Seley, PLPC

Stress Management in the Mountains

Stress Management in the Mountains

by: Jonathan E. Hart, LPC

One of the hats that I wear in my life is that of a Scoutmaster. I love being with these young men and helping them learn leadership and character. I love hanging out with them and being a part of their world.

stress management

We recently participated in a trek at Philmont Scout Reservation near Cimarron, NM,  a 10-day backpacking journey of 76 miles. Hiking in the mountains of New Mexico, among such sights as are simply not available in Missouri, one might think that stress would melt away and relaxation would be almost a foregone conclusion, especially for one who loves the outdoors.

I found this rest was harder to come by than I thought.  One thing I noted often was our tendency to focus on getting to the next Destination.   We hiked an average of 7 miles a day with 40 pound packs on.  Our stops provided opportunities to participate in program activities like mountain biking, railroading, cowboy action shooting, and tomahawk throwing (to name just a few).   

It is easy when hiking in a group to get caught up in “getting there” in order to have the time to do the activity offered. The tendency is to put your head down and put one foot in front of the other in order to “get there”.  Consequently you will see little more than the rocks, the heels and backpack of the person in front of you.  

I had to remind myself (and the boys) often to slow down, get a little space between ourselves and the next guy, and LOOK AROUND.  “We’re in the MOUNTAINS!  Look at that valley!  Let the massive magnitude of this place sink in, let the sheer sense of scale take hold for just a moment.  Look at this little river snaking through this rich green valley! Listen to the water and the birds! Literally SMELL THE FLOWERS!”

stress managementWhen I did so, we would take a moment, stop or slow down and “ooh and aaah” appreciatively, snap a few photos, and then put our heads down and get back to the “business” of hiking.

When I returned to “civilization”, I noticed a profound similarity between this experience of hiking and to that of driving.  We can become focused on “getting there” rather than on the journey.  We fixate on getting past “this slow idiot” in order to be behind then next slow idiot. We race and race to “get there” rather than allowing ourselves to take our time and to enjoy the journey.  

I think the focus on Destination over Journey is a challenge that faces many of us when it comes to stress and our often futile attempts to manage it.  We need a regular reminder that most of our stress is often self-applied and actually unnecessary.  In the midst of our tasks, if we can slow down and look around, shift our focus from “getting there” or “getting it done” to finding delight in the doing and in the journey, we just might find our lives more livable and enjoyable.  –JEHstress management