compassion

What Not to Say to Someone Struggling

by Melinda Seley, PLPC

Sitting with someone else in their pain can be hard.  We don’t know quite what to say. We want to fix it. Make them happy. Change their perspective so it doesn’t seem as bad. Keep them from wallowing in their pain. Or maybe we just don’t want them to bring us down. Feel their pain. Or for something to be required of us due to their struggle.  

This blog is for myself as much as it is anyone else, because sometimes – when someone else is struggling – we say things without even realizing how hurtful or unhelpful they might be.  In hopes of reducing the number of times this happens for all of us, I offer this list of “what not to say to someone who is struggling”:

  • “Just wait until…”

“You’re struggling with being single?  Just wait until you’re married, then life gets hard…”
“You’re struggling with being a new parent? Just wait until you have three kids…”
“You’re stressed out working part-time?  Just wait until you’re working full-time…”

Just wait until.  It can be hard not to compare our struggles to those of others, can’t it?  When someone else expresses a difficulty and we feel that our current position has more challenges, more pain, more stress, it’s difficult to meet that person where they are and offer empathy.  It is easy to diminish the pain of others when we don’t fully know what it is like being in their shoes.  We are all different. We have different strengths and weaknesses; different personalities that make certain things harder for some than others; different support networks; and we’ve had parents and teachers who have equipped us differently to handle life’s challenges.  If we are farther along in a particular life situation (relationships, parenting, working, etc.), it is easy to forget that the first time at something is often the hardest.  There are lessons you learn along the way that lead and guide for future increased responsibility, depth of relationship, etc.  If we had more supportive, loving, present parents than others, we forget that that makes a profound difference in our ability to handle stressors.

If you find yourself saying “just wait until” …what keeps you from being able to step out of the place of comparison, see the other’s struggle where they are, and offer a response of empathy?

  • “At least…”

“You’re struggling with paying your bills on your current income? At least you have a job…”
“You’re struggling with pain your parents caused you? At least your parents are still alive…”
“You’re struggling with being a parent?  At least you were able to have kids… “

At least. I find myself saying this to a friend when I want to point to what is still good or what didn’t happen that could have made their situation even worse.  At times, this can be helpful. Putting situations in perspective and finding things to be grateful for is not bad.  But when I consider my motivation for saying “at least”, it is often because I am afraid of feeling the other’s pain or “giving them permission” to sit in the pain of what is happening.  When I say “at least”, I am indirectly saying – “you can’t be sad/disappointed/angry/etc. about ____, because it could have been worse.”  Instead of validating their emotion in response to a bad situation and being with them in it, I basically said “you just need to be grateful it wasn’t worse.”  

What keeps you from giving the other space to feel their emotions before pushing them into a place of gratitude?  

  • “It’s only/You’re just…”

“You’re struggling with your husband being deployed? It’s only 3 months…”
“You’re in 10th grade and sad you just broke up with your girlfriend?  It was just a high school relationship….”
“You say you’re struggling with depression?  You’re just sad…”

“It’s only” and “you’re just”.  These are the phrases of minimization.  Of invalidation.  Communicating there is no reason to feel what is being felt.  Or at least to the extent that they may be currently felt.  Thinking that if they only had my perspective, they would see it’s not that big of a deal.  And again, while it can often be helpful to frame our experiences within the context of a bigger picture or in light of gratitude, I ask us to consider our motivation when inviting another to do so.  Does it help us avoid having to acknowledge that what they are going through is hard for them? Do we view our suffering as greater and therefore need to make sure others know that what they’re going through isn’t that big of a deal?  Can we be humble enough to consider how they, unique as they are, might be feeling this pain?

What keeps you from validating another’s pain rather than minimizing what they are experiencing?

If you read the responses above and a specific interaction with a friend or acquaintance came to mind, know that you are not alone.  Feeling another’s pain is uncomfortable. Often scary. And awkward. It requires something of us in that we have to see life from the other’s perspective and feel things on behalf of someone else.  

What keeps you from being able to step out of comparison, give someone space to feel their emotions, or validate their pain?

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.

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.

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)

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.

8 Things I Learned about Parenting as a Stay-At-Home Dad

8 Things I Learned about Parenting as a Stay-At-Home Dad

One great thing about writing this blog is that I get to write about my family!  My wife, Hannah, is awesome and a full-time marketing force-of-nature. My daughter, Naomi, is also amazing and a full-time coloring expert. Because my wife has a terrific job that takes her on the road a lot, I get to split time working at Avenues Counseling and caring for our wonderful 2-year-old. It has been the best and most challenging experience of my life. I had no idea how hard it would be. So I wanted to pass on 8 of the things I’ve learned about parenting from this school of hard-knocks.

Avenues Counseling

 

  1. You’re not lazy. Parents are the busiest people on the planet; right up there with your friends when you need help moving a piano. So if you want to just read the bolded parts of this article (in between meltdowns and near death experiences), that’s okay. I get it. Give yourself a break. We are finite people, with a limited amount of time. The 24-hour day didn’t expand with your added children. You’re just not going to accomplish as much as you did before. That doesn’t mean you’re lazy.
  1. Comparing is counterproductive. Ignore all the amazing things your Facebook friends appear to be doing for their kids. What your kids need most is your love, reassurance, and calming presence. Competing for parent of the year will only make you both anxious. I’ve never had anyone come to counseling complaining about how their parents ‘messed them up’ by serving non-organic vegetables. Having a community that identifies with our missteps is more life-giving than comparing ‘highlight reels’ on social media.
  1. Take time for your relationships. Whether it’s your spouse or a close friend, spend quality time with people other than your children. Contrary to popular opinion, children do not always need to be the center of our lives. That’s a lot of pressure. They want to know that their behavior does not make or break us. You have a life beyond them, and that is good.
  1. Take time for yourself. Don’t neglect your hobbies and passions. Your children benefit from your happiness. Balance tedious tasks with activities that are enjoyable and meaningful to you. Not every activity has to revolve around your children.
  1. Have one goal for the day. Parenting does not always feel ‘rewarding.’ Though parenting is incredibly meaningful, you rarely see the results of your labor. And not seeing results from a day of backbreaking work can be very draining. That’s why I have one goal each day just for the ‘high’ of crossing it off my list. The goal can be as simple as reading a couple pages, doing a few pushups, or having lunch with a friend. Whatever it is, I’ve done something to improve my life today! I get to make a big red ‘X’ on the calendar. These little things add up and visible rewards are very energizing.
  1. Nurture who your child is. Even at a young age, I can tell that my daughter has her own unique personality. She is not me. Recently I took her outside to play soccer; she showed complete disgust for the ball and went straight to the garden. Now, I could try to shape her into my own idea of who she ‘should’ be to gain my approval, or I could embrace who she is and nurture and support her uniqueness. My job is to make her feel special about who she is, not tell her who to be.
  1. Have fun with it. Parenting is easier when you just embrace the chaos. It’s gonna get messy; just go with it! Clean up time can come later. Kids have endless energy. That’s a strength not something to be subdued; growing up takes lots of work. Turn into the curve, put down the phone, and be active with them. You’re not going to get much done any way. Embrace your inner kid and have fun. They’ll love it!
  1. Don’t put disposable diapers in the washing machine. That one just kind of speaks for itself. It doesn’t end well . . .

by:  Andy Gear, PLPC

 

 

Stop Verbally Abusing Yourself

Stop Verbally Abusing Yourself

Avenues Counseling

“You’re so stupid!”

“Of course you failed at that. It’s what you do.”

“No one could ever love you.”

These are extremely painful statements to hear; ones I cringe to even write out. And if these things were said out loud to you, they could easily be called verbal abuse. No one should be told those things. No one.

And yet, how many of us have a tape that plays in our heads that sounds remarkably similar? Or maybe not quite as extreme as the statements above, but still carries with it the same underlying critical, harsh message and/or lack of compassion?

Why do we think it’s okay to talk to ourselves the way it is not okay for anyone else talk to us? Or maybe we don’t even consciously realize how severe our self-talk is. Day in and day out. An endless reel of criticism and condemnation in the face of life, that by its very nature is just hard.

These voices can come from many places – maybe they were given to you by the ones who are supposed to love and encourage you most; maybe they are what you think is needed to keep your drive alive to excel at life; maybe it’s in your DNA to be self-critical and perfectionistic; maybe it’s how you try to remain “humble”. Wherever they come from and however they’ve been formed, I wonder what it would look like to say, “It’s not okay to talk to me like that,” and to start replacing them with the voice of compassion for yourself.

Drawing upon the research of Dr. Kristin Neff, below are some practical ways to begin to better relate to yourself with compassion and to respond to the critical, harsh reel in your head:

1)   Be kind to yourself. Pain, failure, disappointment are part of this life. We are not perfect beings and never will be. Extend to yourself the same grace, forgiveness or understanding you would extend to others when you mess up or things don’t go the way you hoped they would.

2)   Remember the bigger picture. You are not alone in whatever you are experiencing. Sometimes this is hard to believe because we are all working really hard to cover up our own places of shame (and unfortunately, we’re really good at it), but I guarantee you are not alone. It is often our weakness that connects us the most to each other. Stop using this against yourself or allowing it to isolate you and start looking for ways to connect to others in our shared human experience of weaknesses.

3)   Be mindful. To begin changing the way we speak to ourselves, we must start by being aware of how we do it. Being self-compassionate does not mean avoiding your negative thoughts or difficult emotions. It means experiencing these thoughts and feelings with the posture of kindness and in the context of being human. This keeps us from over-identifying with our negative thoughts and emotions and allows for thoughtful consideration of how there might ways we could do things differently next time around.

So…as some version of the tape is currently playing in your head now, please remember: your words have impact. Instead of continuing to verbally abuse yourself, please be kind, remember the bigger picture, and be mindful as you talk to yourself today.

by:  Melinda Seley, PLPC

Empathy Requires Vulnerability

“Yes, empathy requires some vulnerability, and we risk getting back a ‘mind your own damn business’ look, but it’s worth it.”  – page 100, Daring Greatly

 

I’ve been slowly making may way through Brene’ Brown’s book, Daring Greatly.  It’s a great book.  It even made #1 on the New York Times bestseller list!  I honestly haven’t read a book written by her that I haven’t fully enjoyed and learned from yet, but if I ever do I’ll let you know.

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After having read the quote I opened this post with, I stopped reading.  I had to think more about what she was saying.  I thought to myself, “Empathy requires vulnerability?  Really…hmmm, why?”

When we choose to empathize with another in their suffering and/or emotion we are choosing to say, “I will not ignore your pain, your emotion, or your needs, and I am here for you.”  Saying something like this absolutely requires us to be vulnerable!

Choosing to empathize with another requires things from us, doesn’t it?  Showing empathy requires that we be vulnerable.  Vulnerable with our time, emotional and mental energy, our personal comfort (or rather discomfort that can come when we become involved in another’s situation), sometimes it requires that we speak into their pain and sometimes we sit in silence with our friend.  In your friendships do you think its “worth” all of the things it may cost you to show empathy?  Sometimes I have found that the very thing keeping people from experiencing healthy  and intimate friendships is their lack of willingness to “step into” their friends lives.  To show empathy.

If we choose to not show empathy to those we claim are our friends, spouse, family, etc., then we can never hope to have relational intimacy.  As Brene’ talks about in her book – We need to move about our relationships with COURAGE.  Courage is what we need be vulnerable, which leads to our willingness to choose and risk showing empathy to another.

Courage is the first step….once we have courage nothing can stop us!

by: Lianne Johnson, LPC