change

Why Group Therapy Works: Part 1 

by Sam Bearer, PLPC

There is a lot of research out there evaluating the efficacy of group work to address lots of different issues. The evidence is clear that group work is tremendously effective in helping individuals make positive changes in their lives.  But why?  For the past two years, I have volunteered with a local ministry that runs men’s groups to address sexual addiction and acting out.  I have had the chance to observe and think about what makes these groups work.  This experience has helped me identify several different components that I believe are key to unlocking positive change in our group members’ lives.

The first is choosing to be vulnerable.  Every man that has come to our group has felt ashamed, isolated, and singled out by the experience of feeling trapped in his addiction or by being exposed in it.  The terrible discomfort of this experience may be enough to get him through the door and into therapy, but it doesn’t mean that the therapy will be effective.  The work each person has to do is to risk being totally open about his struggle in therapy.

Within a therapy group context, there is little room to shade the truth or hide parts of it.

One of the easiest and most prevalent ways of avoiding vulnerability is to share only the parts of the struggle that we have shared before, or can be framed as something that we used to struggle with or happened in the past.  So often, these past struggles are also very much present ones, but by placing it in the past, it puts convenient barriers up which it is easy to hide behind.  We have all tried to hide our struggles at one time or another.

At some point in our story, we learned it wasn’t safe to share and be vulnerable because someone close to us would exploit our weakness.

Group therapy is intentionally confronting this emotional reality and seeking to do the opposite.  Again and again, I have seen group members gently confront each other about whether or not individuals are sharing all of the impact of the story or just the safe parts.  When a group member deliberately and consistently chooses not to hide in this or other ways, it becomes possible for the other group members to empathize, connect with, and enter that individual’s experience in the present.  This willing vulnerability is a sign that change is already taking place in the group member as well as opening the door to the possibility of deeper, positive change.

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

Survival Tips for the Holidays

by Courtney Hollingsworth, LPC

Here are a few small tips for changing the ways you engage with your relatives around the holidays. It isn’t easy to change the ways we relate to people we’ve known most or all of our lives, but it is often worth the work. This list is by no means conclusive, but a good place to start.

Take people at their word.

Try to notice how often you are attempting to read between the lines of others’ words or times when you feel expected to know what someone else feels or wants without them actually saying anything. Reading between the lines or finding the hidden meeting is common in family systems that operate more passive aggressively. Taking people at their word forces others to speak up on their own behalf, say what they really mean, and address one another with respect.

Mean your words.

The reverse of taking people at their words is true as well. If you are frequently not saying what you truly mean, then feel upset when others are not doing as you want, odds are you were not meaning your words. Speak directly and kindly, and you can avoid many of the passive-aggressive communication games that conflict avoidant families tend to get bogged down in.

Check your expectations.

Holidays are filled with expectations and typically time with family is also, therefore holidays with family members can be a double whammy. It can become the perfect traffic jam of various expectations.

Know your limits.

Try to realistically assess your limits on various planes prior to making your holiday plans. Are there certain family members you have a lower tolerance for spending time around? Is your social/extroversion threshold depleted more quickly at family gatherings? Are there certain relatives’ houses where you become a worse version of yourself longer you stay? Does being around babies and toddlers bring out the worst in you? Is your alcohol tolerance lowered in family settings? Assessing your limits prior to making your plans can help you make a more informed choice, and perhaps plan action steps toward self-care when you can’t predict that your limits will be tested and or pushed.

Know your triggers.

This one is similar to knowing your limits, in that it can be helpful to do some self-assessment prior to walking into family dynamics that are laden with emotional landmines. Try to think about instances in the past when time spent with family has led to blow-ups, arguments, hurt feelings, or even the silent (or shouted) conclusion that you’ll never go back again. Try to see if there’s a pattern between these various situations. Do you tend to be triggered by your mom’s passive aggressive comments? Do you tend to be triggered by your brother’s constant bragging about his successful career? Do you tend to be triggered by your niece talking all of the toys leaving them for the other cousins? Whatever your triggers, knowing them in advance can help prevent them from being a surprise, or even activated at all.

Make a private game of unavoidable unpleasantries.

Now, this is a little bit nuanced because it needs to be done discreetly and with wisdom, but can be helpful in surviving unavoidable unpleasantries. However, if you and your spouse or sibling share a negative feeling towards a person or behavior, you can make a private game out of how often you have to witness or endure that behavior. For example: does your dad tend to condescendingly correct other peoples grammar? Making bets on how often that will happen during the time that you spend with him. Does your aunt make snide comments under her breath? Rather than fume as you, it can be a survival strategy to find a way to laugh about it. What makes this game nuanced is you certainly don’t want others to find out about it or extend it to the point of being disrespectful.

Change is Loss and Loss Requires Grief

by Melinda Seley, PLPC

Several months ago, I went on a very restricted diet in hopes of resolving some chronic health issues.  And quite frankly, even with the hope that this change could bring about something good, it was haaaard.  I felt totally overwhelmed by having to figure out a new way to eat, with new recipes and new ingredients, and finding the time and energy to do so.  I wanted to throw a 2-year old style tantrum – particularly by flailing on the floor – for not getting to just eat what I want to eat.  And throughout the process, I was reminded of two things: change is loss and loss requires grief.

Change is Loss

In their book, Leadership on the Line, Linsky and Heifetz note that “people don’t resist change…they resist loss”.  Have you thought about change as loss?  Even when change is due to the best of circumstances, it requires us to lose something – whether it be a routine, a relationship, familiarity, a place that holds memories, convenience, a reputation, a known experience.

Change means unknowns. Change means having to relearn something. Change requires you to face the reality that you’re not in control.  And change often makes us face things within ourselves that we could conveniently avoid when things were status quo.

How might naming the change you are facing as loss be helpful to you in navigating it well?

Loss Requires Grief

The English Oxford Dictionary defines grief as “intense sorrow, especially caused by someone’s death.”  Grief is most often and naturally associated with death – so much so that the Oxford Dictionary even defines grief with a reference to it.  However, any loss we experience – big or small – is a cause for grief.  Not just the death of someone.

I am often asked in the counseling room what it looks like to grieve.  And though it looks different for everyone, in every situation, I believe there are some core components to this process of grieving:

  1. Name what has been lost. This includes very specific details of what you lost – because every single detail matters in understanding how you have been impacted.
  2. Allow yourself to feel. Sadness can be uncomfortable. And deep sorrow can be scary. But healing cannot come until you face your pain.  
  3. Consider if there is something you need to do to honor your pain or what has been lost. Do you need to journal about what ____ meant to you?  Do you need to create a photo book? Do you need to tell someone something?  
  4. Recognize that grieving is not a linear or predictable process. Grief can often be surprising and strike us when we are most vulnerable. A smell, a taste, a word spoken can bring with it a flood of thoughts and emotions that require going back to step one above. That is okay. That is how grief works. It is an ongoing, unpredictable process.

If change is loss and loss requires grief…it logically follows that change requires grief.  Have you considered this in your life?  Even changes that are bringing about something good have some element of loss intertwined with them when we stop to fully consider it.  How might it be helpful for you to name change as loss and grieve that loss today?

Wellness in the New Year

by Mary Martha Abernathy, LPC

With a new year comes New Year’s resolutions.  People use the New Year to take stock of how the past year went and what changes or goals they hope to make for the upcoming year. What does wellness look like for you in 2017?

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) “defines wellness not as the absence of disease, illness, or stress but the presence of purpose in life, active involvement in satisfying work and play, joyful relationships, a healthy body and living environment, and happiness”  (Source: www.samhsa.gov).

I like that to pursue wellness does not mean that my life is perfect or easy.

To pursue wellness means I am pursuing a purpose and seeking joy. Wellness means that I am seeking healthy relationships, a healthy body, and a healthy environment.   SAMHSA has created eight dimensions of wellness: Emotional, Environmental, Financial, Intellectual, Occupational, Physical, Social, and Spiritual.  One of the great things about this Wellness model is that many of the categories overlap with each other.

Even if my work life adds a lot of stress to my day to day functioning I can still pursue my own wellness. That may look like exercising to increase some of the needed endorphins in my body.  It may mean I pursue some environmental changes and wellness. I can’t quit my job, but I can create space in my home in which I find peace and rest. It may also mean that I create an environment at my desk where I am reminded of positive relationships and purpose. Wellness may also look like me pursuing relationships with co-workers in an intentional way to make my environment more comfortable.

Some of our life stressors may not change too much over the coming year.  We can lose some weight, cut back on the alcohol, go to counseling, or try a new hobby; but will these things balance out the negative experiences?  Wellness allows us to hold in tension the stressful and negative parts of life, recognizing we can still find good.

Where can you find the joy and play in your life this year?  How can you pursue wholeness and wellness in life?

Embracing Grief Rather than Running

by: Lianne Johnson, LPC, CCTP

shutterstock_139543490I shared in my previous blog about my journey from fearing grief to embracing it. To embrace grief at any level requires a response from us, and it changes us. 

When we choose to embrace our grief it changes who we are. 

Brene’ Brown expounds on this point when she says, “Grief requires us to reorient ourselves to every part of our physical, emotional, and social worlds”.

Allowing myself to grieve allows my emotions to function as they were meant to.  Acknowledging a sad day or a hard day (even if I have no idea WHY I feel sad or happy) is healthy and good for me. 

When I think about my process of learning to no longer fear grief, I often think about a book I used to read to my boys called, We’re Going on a Bear Hunt by Michael Rosen.  It is a book about a family out in search of a bear and along the way they run into many obstacles.  Each time they come across an obstacle they say, “We can’t go over it.  We can’t go under it.  Oh no, we’ve got to go through it.” 

This is how I see grief – we can’t get around it no matter how much we would like to, but we must go through it to reach our best chance at emotional healthiness. 

Allowing our grief to exist acknowledges that pain, sadness, and loss are a part of our everyday lives.  Acknowledging these hard and painful emotions normalizes the human condition and experience on this earth.  To live is to have pain.  To live is to have loss.  To live is to hurt.  Therefore we must acknowledge its impact. 

Is Grief Good?

Is Grief Good?

by: Lianne Johnson, LPC

shutterstock_174741554To allow yourself to experience grief, and to choose to engage in the on-going act of grieving, is difficult and takes courage. I believe it is something we must actually choose to learn how to incorporate into our lives. According to Brene’ Brown, who has studied emotion and vulnerability for 15 years, we fear the emotion of grief the most. I agree.

As humans, we tend to run from what we fear. So if we fear the emotion of grief, then it makes good sense to say we will likely run from feeling and experiencing it in our lives to the best of our ability.

Why do we fear grief so much? As I asked myself this question, I realized I believed lies about grief and grieving.

Here are some lies I have either believed myself or have heard from others –

~”If I let myself feel sadness or pain, it will only make it worse.”
~”If I let myself acknowledge my grief, I will never be able to function again. It will engulf me.”
~”I don’t have time to be sad.”
~”I need to think positively and not dwell on the bad (on the pain).”
~”The pain from my grief will be so painful, I will not sustain under it.”
~”If I let myself grieve, I am just having a pity party for myself.”
~”Grief only comes when someone dies, and no one has died, therefore I shouldn’t be in pain.”
~”Something is wrong with me because its been “this much time” and I am still sad about ____.”

There are some deep-rooted misbeliefs exposed in the comments above. The assumptions exposed are that grief is bad, weak, wrong, only “okay” when someone dies, and that it exists on some sort of definable timetable.

I started learning a lot about grief and grieving 5 years ago when the landscape of my life radically changed through my divorce. Wrestling with betrayal, and the loss of our intact family, is something I am still grieving. My days are no longer shadowed by grief, but it still pops up from time to time. Some days it may pop up for a moment, some days it may take up residence for a few hours. It has taken me awhile to learn that I will be “okay” in living a life now sprinkled with grief on a daily basis.

I didn’t start out okay with my grief. For the better part of a year after my life had radically changed, I was angry at the pain of my grief. I tried to numb it, run from it, and mask it into something it wasn’t. I fought it, and I suffered for it.

I had to learn how to not fear grief, but rather how to embrace its presence. I had to learn grief is not containable, it cannot be managed, and it lacks predictability. It can last a moment or remain for the better part of a day. It does not ask for my permission to overshadow a day. I also had to learn that when grief rears its head, it doesn’t mean I am weak.

My journey to no longer fear grief is much like my process of no longer fearing thunderstorms. As a kid, I feared thunderstorms (and if i’m being honest here…my fear lasted into my early adult years). It didn’t matter if a storm came in the day or night. To me, the loud bangs of thunder and sudden flashes of light freaked me out! Now as I sit with my youngest son during a storm to calm his fears, I wonder, “What was I so afraid of? It’s just a thunderstorm!” I believed unfounded lies about storms: “something bad is going to happen,” “what if it never stops,” “I am not okay and I won’t be okay until the storm goes away…” and on and on my thoughts would go. Do you see the similarity between storms and grief? With both, I feared what I didn’t understand.

Allowing ourselves to feel grief, is as important as allowing ourselves to feel joy. When we try to numb only the emotions we dislike, feeling we set in motion the beginnings of living an emotionally handicap life. Over time, we will not only numb the emotions we don’t like, but the emotions we like become numb as well.

Is Taking Care of Yourself Important?

Is Taking Care of Yourself Important?

by: Courtney Hollingsworth, LPC, EMDR trained therapist

It seems like our culture has some pretty disturbing contradictions when it comes to the way we interact with ourselves. We certainly live in an age of self-promotion, some would even say selfishness. “You are what matters,” “get yours,” “look out for you,” are common phrases and mentalities in our society and ideologies being taught to our children. If you look at that aspect of our cultural message alone, you might conclude that we are rock stars at self-care. However, we are also living in the age of “push yourself,” and “never settle for less than your best.” It is a badge of honor to be overly busy or thoroughly stressed out. People “top” one another in conversations about how little sleep they get, how little time they have to eat or relax.

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Do you wear out and neglect your most valued possessions? Do you leave your tablet or phone on the floor? Do you keep driving your car for thousands of miles past when it needs an oil change? Would you let your 5 year old play with your wedding ring? Most likely not. So if we truly are valuable, why do we tend not to treat ourselves that way?

The toughest part of taking care of ourselves is believing that we are worth it. This is a difficult battle fraught with deeply rooted negative self-beliefs cemented inside us a long time ago. Fighting this battle often takes time, persistence, a trusted friend or good counselor, and lots of courage.

The next most difficult part of embracing self-care is that it is not black-and-white, nor is it consistent. What to one person is self-care might not be to another, and what is self-care one day may not be the next. There are times when exercise is wonderful self-care, while other times it is a nap. Watching television for an escape from stress or pain, or for relaxation, can be the perfect option; but other times it is just unhealthy avoidance or numbing. An ice cream cone can be a good treat or an over indulgence. A day off can be a perfect respite and rejuvenating, or it can be irresponsible.

So how do you know? Well like I mentioned above, first you have to believe you are worth it. That you are worth being treated like you are valuable…..by yourself. Next you have to question yourself and your motivations, rather than numb your self-awareness away. You need to ask yourself what you need, rather than what you “should” do. Because guess what? You are worth it.

toughest people to lead, live with, love

by: Frank Theus, PLPC

toughest people to lead, live with, love…

 

You know who that person is. He’s the socially awkward single at church who falls asleep during your homily snoring loudly enough for most to hear. They are the neighbors who are polite enough from a distance but who make no effort to approach because, well, you’re not a member of the parish congregation. It’s your sibling who has been labeled by the rest of the family as having “unresolved emotional issues” and s/he chooses to distant themselves from the rest of you because, after all, when s/he is around for more than a couple of days all hell breaks loose. It’s the co-worker who has a knack for being able to drive you and others crazy because of her increasingly bizarre antics in the office. It’s the parent who is wounded and wounding others through their chronic passive-aggressive anger, lying, and substance abuse. It’s that women at your 12-step meeting whose recovery has little to do with program work and more to do with hooking up.

The list could go on-and-on couldn’t it? But, before we close out the list just yet who’s missing in action (MIA) here?

You know who that person is.

 

Could it be that the “who” that is MIA above might just be you and me?

 

 

Wait a minute, Frank. What are you suggesting?

What I’m suggesting is that too often you and I get so caught up in living life and managing our myriad of relationships that we seemingly are unable to slow down enough to look longingly at our own visage in the mirror. In other words it’s easier to recognize the other troublesome folk in your life because, I suspect, it keeps you from facing your own pain and agency.

Remember the list above? Before you can deal well with the “tough people” in your life with authenticity, healthy boundaries, and empathy you must first fully embrace and love the unique person you are.

I’m inviting you to embark on a journey. It’s one that challenges you to leave certainty as you have come to know it. This will require courage because it inevitably calls you to slow down life and to risk exploring your respective storied-life, baggage and all. We all need to do this very thing from time-to-time.

I’m inviting you to embark on a journey.

You see, when you take time to be safely guided into exploring the baggage of life or as one writer described it, “[y]our own dark nights” (DeGroat), you are in effect choosing to take responsibility for how you will now live. It’s learning to exercise a self-care that isn’t selfish because it’s transforming you to grieve the shadows of your “false and private self” (Merton). It’s a change-process that grows deep confidence from within enabling you to say aloud standing in front of the mirror, “This isn’t the way it’s supposed to be!” And, in time, realize a renewed sense of compassion and hope for self and resilience in living with the toughest of people.

Resources for your consideration and growth:

Books:

  • Henri J.M. Nouwen. The Return of the Prodigal Son: A Story of Homecoming. New York: Doubleday, 1994.
  • Henri J.M. Nouwen. The Wounded Healer: Ministry in Contemporary Society. New York: Doubleday, 1979.
  • Chuck DeGroat. toughest people to love: how to understand, lead, and love the difficult people in your life – including yourself: Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2014.

Online:

http://avenuescounselingcenter.org/

Finding My New Normal After Divorce

By:  Lianne Johnson, LPC

I have seen, and personally experienced, a tendency to overlook the impact of relational trauma on our functioning. Why is it that even when our life circumstances change – we live through a relational trauma or betrayal, we are separated from our spouse, we unexpectedly become a single-parent, we go through a divorce, we discover abusive realities in our partner – Why do we keep living (or pressuring ourselves to live) as though these changes haven’t happened?  Why do we keep living as though our bandwidth for interacting with life hasn’t changed?

Sometimes when I realize I am pressuring myself to live as though my life hasn’t radically changed, I just sit and shake my head at myself.  I ask myself in these moments, “Why am I pressuring myself?  What am I fearing?”  The answers to these questions are usually the same, no matter the circumstance.  Part of the answer is that I desperately want to live like I was living, before my life changed without my permission.  I want my normal back.  I want what was known to me.  The other part of my answer is that it saddens me to feel like I am letting people down by no longer being able to perform as I had been.  I fear others won’t understand, or won’t care to take the time to learn, the basic equation I now have to live by: My life radically changing when I experienced trauma and betrayal in my marriage + an unexpected long season of separation and suffering + ultimately getting divorced + being a single mom + running a business = having less bandwidth for life.

For a long time, I angrily fought the equation I now had to live my life by.  I didn’t fight it by taking on more than I could, I fought it by being angry with life and retreating.  It wasn’t until I started to accept my new normal that I started to enjoy life.

Part of accepting my new normal was learning to like the person I am now.  To accept the me I am now.  I am different.  My traumatic experience changed me.  Learning to be a single mom, a divorced woman, changed me.  I am not quite sure how I could live through all of that unchanged.  But I guess the biggest thing I had to learn to do was accept the new me, my new normal, and learn who I had now become.

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