acceptance

Why Group Therapy Works, Part 2

by Sam Bearer, PLPC

In the first part of this blog series, we looked at how vulnerability in a therapy group is key to unlocking positive change in our group members’ lives.  The second way group therapy works is by offering the experience of unconditional positive regard of the group for each particular member, both in a single instance of intentional vulnerability as well as consistently over time.  This experience becomes an emotional touchstone for a reality fundamentally at odds with, and outside of, the negative emotional experiences that so often serve as the foundation for addictive behaviors.  If we didn’t have these negative emotional realities, or had a better way of coping with them, we would not have to resort to our numbing drug of choice. 

The trouble is that at some point we learned to survive the negative emotional storm by using something to numb, and we became hooked. 

As a result, we have lost the internal resilience to be able to handle it.  This dulls our awareness to such a degree that we are no longer conscious of the emotions that drove us to use in the first place.  One unique way that group work helps to uncover these emotions and simultaneously provide an experience of unconditional positive regard is through playing out the relational patterns and dynamics that an individual learned in his family of origin.  However, because the group is not that same environment, the members of this “new family” will respond differently to an individual’s usual style of relating.  For many, this brings up all sorts of anxiety, but it also brings the possibility of learning different ways of coping with these anxieties in the here and now.  Each member experiences the other group members reflecting on how they are affected by each other’s stories and then learns how more accurately to process, reflect, and self-evaluate openly with the group. 

A person may never have considered the questions or perspectives that are shared by others, or he may receive empathy from the very kind of person he assumed would regard him as weak or unimportant.

 The way group therapy ties both of the dynamics of vulnerability and unconditional positive regard together is a safe environment.  This is in part created by the therapist but must be maintained and reinforced by the group.  If safety is not a common value of the group, it won’t be possible to adequately support members or appropriately challenge them, which I will talk about more in the next part of this blog.

Cultivating Patience

Cultivating Patience

Since I started working as a counselor after getting my degree, I have realized how little patience I really have.  

Cultivating Patience

I spent a lot of time both in classes and in my internship thinking about the problems my client might have and how best to approach them.  However, with people outside of the counseling room, I find myself much more prone to aggravation and frustration when things seem to be working less efficiently than I think they should.   The other day I was having some issues with the self-checkout machine at a local store.  After a few moments, I began inwardly cursing the machine and its creator when an employee came over to help me.  Some of my frustration spilled over into my tone in talking to her about that problem.  I had intended to convey my pique with the machine, but this lady took it personally.  I recognized too late that I might have chosen better words to express myself.  She sorted out the issue, and on my walk back to the car, a thought struck me.

It was not the machine that I had been upset with at all.  I was upset because the few moments wasted standing in the store were cutting into my time on a Saturday.  

It was the lack of progress toward the next thing that was bothering me, and I didn’t even have a “next thing” planned that day.  My internal feeling of stagnation triggered a sense of minor outrage that then affected another person’s day.  But why is that feeling of stagnation or no forward progress so hard for me?  I believe it is because I get a great deal of my sense of self or identity in the things I do or how I do them.  When things don’t go smoothly, a little bit of that sense of self is challenged.  The lady was simply reflecting back to me what I was feeling, an undermined sense of self or power.

Simply put, I needed more patience to deal with the situation.  I needed not just patience with her or the machine, but patience for myself to slow down and do the self-awareness checks I so often encourage my clients to do.  It is so important for me to recognize that my agency, identity, or power, or lack thereof, is not defined by those moments when things don’t go right, big or small.  Those things are practiced and displayed in those moments.  The patience required to handle them better, however, comes from pausing and remembering. Regardless of how I handle this situation in the present moment, I am worthy of the same kind of care I seek to display to my clients.  

My impatience in these kinds of moments is likely this lack of self-care in action and keeps me from caring for others in those moments as well.  This is why cultivating patience for myself as well as others, is the way not only to becoming a better counselor, but also a better human being.

By: Sam Bearer, PLPC

New Year’s Resolutions

With the start of another new year, many of us find ourselves focusing on things we’d like to change in our lives – many of us call these changes New Year’s Resolutions.

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Popular points of focus include health and wellness, career goals, financial management, and planning for the future.  These are all very important things to evaluate regularly, and the beginning of a new year seems like a particularly appropriate time for evaluation and reflection.  However, we fail to actualize the vast majority of our resolutions, and this failure has a great, negative emotional impact.  This isn’t usually because of a lack of planning or resources to achieve our goals.  

Rather, it is because we lack awareness of the emotions driving us to make resolutions to change.

One of the clearest examples of this is with the proverbial commitment to eat better and lose weight.  Many of us overindulge, stress eat, or “reward ourselves” over the holiday season at the end of the year and then subsequently attempt to restrict our eating to healthier options or simply less volume overall in the new year.  We tell ourselves, “Well, I’ve had mine. Now it’s time to be good.”  We say we will “eat right” as if we were being bad or wrong previously and really knew it deep down the whole time.  This idea carries with it a subtle, or for some not so subtle, emotional sense of failure already. In addition, we may not acknowledge to ourselves the probability that we will eventually fail again, sooner or later.  Many of us reach this point and chuck in the towel.  The discomfort of making a change or the powerlessness we feel from our failures kills our energy and motivation to try again.  In the same way, our career has stalled for circumstances out of our control or our financial burdens may seem too great or confused even to attempt to overcome.  All or even one of these things can be enough to leave us feeling isolated and hopeless.

There is not a simple answer or solution to these problems, but a great place to start is by asking what emotion is motivating the resolution or desire to change.  It may be based on a negative view of self; for example, someone may feel that less valuable as a person because of dissatisfaction with his or her physical appearance.  A negative view of others may also motivate a resolution; for instance, it may stem from a desire to outperform a colleague.  Success at these kinds of resolutions will only reinforce the negative view of self or others.  It will validate the first negative, emotional experience as true. The person who had a negative view of self may feel more valuable after changing his or her appearance, but that only confirms the feeling that he or she lacked value before.  The person who wanted to outperform a colleague may feel even more contemptuous of the colleague after surpassing him or her.   On the other hand, failure often drives the negative emotional impact even deeper.  We can come away feeling even worse about ourselves or more embittered toward others than when we started.

This year, you might try making a few resolutions intentionally with positive emotional foundations, instead of recriminating ones.  The health and wellness resolution has always proven the most difficult for me to keep, but this year I am reframing my resolution.  I am going to give myself the opportunity to eat more healthy foods and exercise.  I know when I am doing so, I have more energy and feel more positive generally, but I am also giving it as a gift to my family.  Now more than ever I need to be present and active in their lives as my daughter begins to crawl and walk.  I want to give her as much of my energy as I can.  Try writing out your positive motivation on a flash card you post in your kitchen or bathroom.  Go back to it as often as you need to.  

And if you find yourself struggling to keep it, remind yourself that every new sunrise, and not just the new year, brings a fresh chance to recommit ourselves to living our lives in a way we choose, not only for ourselves but also for those we love.

By Sam Bearer, PLPC

How You View Your Body Matters

by Melinda Seley, PLPC

In 2016, more than 10,500 females between the ages of 10 and 60 and from 13 different countries around the world were surveyed as part of “The Dove Global Beauty and Confidence Report”. The results of this study show that low body esteem is a common challenge shared among women and girls around the world, without regard for age or geography. Nearly all women (85%) and girls (79%) said they opt out of important life activities – such as trying out for a team or club or engaging with loved ones – when they don’t feel good about how they look.

And though the statistics may look somewhat different if men had been included in this study, I believe it is safe to say that the struggle with body image is shared among just about all of us. The impact of advertising and media showing unrealistic standards of beauty, an “always on” social media culture pushing for perfection, and our own personal experiences of shame and beliefs about our body leave us overly fixated on appearance and the believing that any imperfection is something to be hidden.

Are you aware of how you relate to your body?

Often our relationship to our body happens subconsciously, but as the Dove study showed, it can have significant impacts on the choices we make and how we engage with the world around us. If you find yourself unsure of your relationship to your body, perhaps the questions below can serve as a helpful self-assessment:

  • Do you constantly weigh yourself, check yourself in the mirror, or obsess about a body part that isn’t the way you want it to be?
  • Do you continually use negative terms to describe the way you look?
  • Do you believe everything would be better if your body was different?
  • Do you feel that you have to do something to change your appearance before you can have fun, go on vacation, etc.?

If you answered yes to any of the above, it might be helpful to consider where your ideal body image came from. Who has defined that for you and what does it mean if it is not achieved? And what do you believe is needed in order to achieve that body? The reality of living in this world is that our bodies will fail us – either through sickness, injury, chronic disease, hereditary issues, bad choices, or age. Is there a place you need to grieve your broken body?

And what is keeping you from accepting the body you have and being free in your body – to live and engage fully in life?

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).

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.

When “Can’t” Isn’t a Four-Letter Word

When “Can’t” Isn’t a Four-Letter Word

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“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

The Healing Presence of Brutal Reality

The Healing Presence of Brutal Reality

by: Jason Pogue, PLPC

Do you know that uncomfortable tension when you realize you are trying to be somebody or something you are not?

I’m not sure what it feels like for you. For me, it is as if my mind begins to separate itself from my heart, trying to press ahead and leave my knotted stomach and racing heart behind. If I just do these things I can pull it off and no one will know. Often my mind is so good at this that it can be in this place for weeks before I start to recognize my body aching from carrying all the tension – my tight shoulders and aching legs like clues to the mystery of where I actually am. And, no wonder it sometimes takes weeks! Prior to beginning my own counseling journey my mind was in this place for years unaware – racing ahead to avoid the deep fears of being “found out” as an imposter or discovered as someone broken beyond hope. Perhaps my mind was racing ahead at light-speed to avoid the deep pain that I didn’t know how to experience yet, unaware that this pain collects interest over time.

Recently I sat down with some colleagues to discuss an interview with a prolific psychiatrist and author, Irvin Yalom. Irvin recounted early in his career a moment when he sat in the therapy room with “a red-headed, freckled woman, a few years older than” him. In the first session, this woman shared with Irvin that she was a lesbian. Irv writes, “That was not a good start because I didn’t know what a lesbian was. I had never heard the term before.” I about burst out laughing when I first read that. This is the prolific therapist Irv Yalom! Yet even Irv has moments where he must make a choice. Am I going to try to be someone I’m not, or be real in this moment with this person?

Irv, being the gifted therapist he is, made the split-second decision that “the only way [he] could really relate to her was to be honest and to tell her [he] didn’t know what a lesbian was.” And so, he invited her to enlighten him in the coming weeks about her experience and they developed a great relationship in their work together.

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The truth that this little story reveals to me is that what we all need most is genuine and honest connection. If that exists, we can learn from each other and enjoy each other even in our differences, failures, finitude, and confusion. However, this connection is impossible when my mind is racing ahead of my heart – when I’m living in a world designed to protect me from the present, rather than risking being honest about the reality of what is happening right now.

Unfortunately the world we live in continues to tell our minds to run ahead…to forget about the moment because you have a million other things to do, too many things to worry about…or to forget about the moment because what if the moment is unbearable? And yet, it is only when we risk acknowledging the present reality of the now – when we don’t shy away from our fears, inadequacies, wounds, guilt, powerlessness – that we can ever truly enjoy the beauty in and around us and the joys of living in this world.

If you’re tired of trying to be someone you are not, what is stopping you from being who you are? What is stopping you from stopping, and entering into the reality of now?

(The interview with Irvin Yalom can be found at: https://www.psychotherapy.net/interview/irvin-yalom)