vulnerability

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.

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.

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.

Kids, Feelings, and Parents, Oh My!

by Mary Martha Abernathy, LPC

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Healing Power of Tears

 

by Melinda Seley, PLPC

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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!