It’s a tale as old as time—a therapist schedules a new client, completes the intake, has a few great sessions, and POOF! They’re gone. They disappear off the face of the earth without notice, never to be heard from again. A term referred to as “ghosting" is when someone leaves a relationship without notice or a goodbye. It is all too common in the dating world and happens pretty often in the therapy world as well. It can be so disappointing for us therapists to not see the completed puzzle or the ending to your story, but the empathy part of us understands how scary vulnerability can be.
For the Client:
First there needs to be some self-reflection.
Why did I choose to not return for my next scheduled appointment with my therapist? There may be times where that therapist actually wasn’t a good fit for you. Unfortunately, not every shoe fits so you may need to try another shoe on to find the perfect match. If you found yourself dreading their therapy style or demeanor, whether it is too confrontational or lacking structure, it may just be an issue of clashing personalities and that is okay. You are allowed to decide the type of people you spend time with and prioritize in your life.
Does this scenario happen in multiple areas of my life? Have I no-showed for previous therapists, doctors, or dates before without an legitimate explanation? If so, there may be bigger issues of confrontation anxiety and avoidance at hand. Read on to the therapist section.
Was the emotional discomfort that led me to “ghost” actually progress? It can be overwhelming to experience emotions or talk about past traumas out in the open when we spend so much time suppressing those thoughts in our regular life. As uncomfortable as it is, we need to address these big issues and give them a voice so we can experience less shame that accompanies them in the long run. Knowing progress can be disguised as emotional discomfort helps us acknowledge that discomfort can be strength and growth in a positive direction.
Did I just get to a point where I was feeling better and didn’t feel the need to go back? That is okay too! Often times, therapists recognize the need to go deeper in session and maintain consistency in appointments so clients don’t experience a huge drop-off in emotion management and coping skills when life gets hard again. Clients do not usually have that insight, saying to themselves, "Cool! I feel better so I don't need to keep that next appointment!" Sometimes even one session of feeling heard feels like enough to get them back on their feet short-term so it is okay to re-engage in therapy when life knocks you down later. Other times, therapy happens in stages. We begin therapy with certain goals in mind that seem pretty surface-level, like creating positive habits or reframing negative thoughts to healthier perspectives. Then after meeting those goals and being discharged, clients may realize they have more work to do after testing out their new skills. Deeper work. Then we set up another session to determine the next stage of therapy.
Did I ghost my therapist before our first meeting? What does that say about my readiness to be vulnerable and make changes for the better? There is also the likelihood that a client just isn’t ready to take the plunge like they thought they were. Maybe they need to experience “rock bottom” to recognize the impact of their mental health and they just haven’t reached their low yet. On the same note, change is scary! Even if we know our mental health is struggling, it may feel consistent or comfortable compared to the uncertainty of making changes.
For the Therapist:
Be aware that avoidance and confrontation anxiety may be crippling for anyone based on their histories. Many clients who have emotional trauma histories may avoid anything that includes emotional discomfort. And what is more uncomfortable than experiencing the disappointment of cancelling an appointment or breaking their word? It can be daunting for some clients, especially the people pleasers, to even imagine what they would say to a therapist to end their treatment. It is our job to be understanding and compassionate, meeting every client where they are.
That being said, we have the right to decline appointments or rescheduling as well. It stinks that we have all been burned, and I know we all have. We set aside time to see a client and they no-show without a single bit of closure. It can be emotional for us to not see a client through to discharge. Sometimes we feel like we’ve failed or like we didn’t give them enough. You do not have to take it personally. It is okay to have those feelings, to recognize we aren’t responsible for client’s behaviors, and to see that we are allowed to have boundaries on who/when we reschedule. If we are continuously no-showed by the same person, we are allowed to recognize our time is valuable and can be better used to help someone else.
This may need to be a moment of self-reflection for us too. Every therapist's style is different. Some people really connect to us and others do not. If you find yourself in a position of frequent ghosting experiences, it might be worth it to review your demeanor, consult with trusted colleagues to gain an objective view, and refine your therapeutic style. Perhaps it is as simple as building more rapport on the shallow end of the pool before heading to the diving board in the 12-foot!
Options for the client who wants to re-establish therapy:
Reach out! Call. Text. Email. Message in a bottle. Send a carrier pigeon. Who cares! The likelihood is that your therapist will just be happy you are reaching out to become a healthier, happier you. No explanations required! It is in our job description to empathize with you and understand your needs, which may have been different when you ghosted than the present moment. Trust me, us therapists have plenty experience in handling clients who ghost us gracefully and without judgment, so don’t be afraid to contact us.
If your therapist wasn’t the right fit, it may be worth it to reach out to friends and family to get their input and a potential referral. Perhaps they have been in therapy before and may have a better idea of who may fit better for your personality style. If you are feeling brave, you can also contact the therapist you ghosted with a simple message of, “I recognize I ended therapy abruptly but I don’t know if you were the right fit for me. Do you recommend anyone who is more (place adjective here) that you could refer me to?” Most of us therapists are connected within the therapeutic community, so we probably do and we would be happy to help. Our goal is to get you to the place where you feel better, whether that is with our help or the help of a trusted colleague. If the therapist responds defensively, no need to contact them again or respond—that person may need to do a little work on themselves too.
Whatever your route, dig into your courage and find someone who can help you. We can't do this alone.
Welcome back! It has been a bit since I have posted but the new school year is giving me a chance to reset and reflect on what concepts have been coming up time after time in session.
Here’s something I’ve noticed lately: We can be real assholes to ourselves. What’s new, right? This is a tale as old as time. We have an inner bully that picks on us and makes us feel insecure about our decisions. It’s usually not intentional and it’s often the little voice in our head questioning our every move or being really critical of ourselves for the past. Soon enough, that voice becomes stronger and stronger until it becomes so predominant that we forget to question that voice.
How to spot that voice:
What these statements indicate to me is that my client is judging their past self based on their current knowledge. We are constantly growing so what seemed right for us at that time in the past seems so wrong to us now. It is okay to look back and say, “Wow, that really wasn’t the right choice. I’ve learned and have come so far now.” The people who concern me the most are the ones who insist they have no regrets because that indicates no change and no growth.
What to do about that voice:
1) Get curious. Try to understand what was going on in your life at that time that made you feel those decisions were the best for you then. Were you young? Did you come from a family that would shove big topics under the rug or avoid emotions/conflict? What were you feeling back then? Did you have a good support system and role models to show you how to make the right choices or did you feel all alone? Were the people around you critiquing you or questioning you? In other words, were you a victim of gaslighting where you were made to believe your perception isn’t real or that you are doing the wrong thing even when you weren’t? Getting curious means to give light to the fact that there is a reason for all behavior. We did not just do what we did in the past out of the blue, it was likely for a reason and often for emotional protection.
2) Get compassionate. Once you begin to understand the background and purpose to past behaviors, you should simply stop being an asshole to yourself (if only it were that easy, right?!). Self-compassion is the antidote. Allowing yourself some grace, some slack. Nobody is perfect, especially our past selves. Much of the time we don’t feel like we are acting in the wrong in the present moment and only hindsight gives us the vantage point to look back and really question who we used to be. However, we need to recognize our growth; that we have changed based on those decisions and are much more capable now of being a better person.
3) Be present. Now that you have an understanding of what was going on and how to be compassionate, you can focus on letting yourself be in the present moment without judgment. Whether you are currently making the right or wrong decision, you will have to capability to handle any outcome. Trust your intuition. Your gut often knows how to steer you to doing what is best for you.
As a therapist, I try my best to put these concepts into practice. How successful am I? Only I (and usually my husband!) know the truth! I’d like to give you an example from my life because we all have them, even therapists.
It may not surprise most people but when I was a teenager I was pretty rebellious. I drove after drinking underage, I snuck out and went to parties in open pastures, I lied to my parents (a lot!), and I felt pretty judged by some folks in my tiny home town. My parents did the best they could to support me but there was only so much in their power. I tested their love every chance I got (Surprise ending: They STILL love me! Phew!). Even now, years later when I go back to my home town I feel my stomach drop as we drive down the brick-paved main street: “What do people to think of me now? Have I done enough for them to think I’m successful and erase the old me? I can’t believe I used to be that way.” The shame fills my gut and I’m back to feeling like a little girl again. And it’s the truth, as a mother now it kills me to see how my actions impacted my parents (especially their sleep and gray hairs!).
But now here I am, a capable and (mostly!) secure adult. I can look back on my actions and understand my part. I was a teenager whose brain probably wasn’t fully developed (Look it up! It’s science! The frontal lobe, which helps us understand negative consequences to our actions, doesn’t fully develop until our mid-20’s.). I was emotionally inept and handled most hard situations with anger. I would do anything to get acceptance and belonging from friends, which I was craving. I was drinking so I could numb out the reality that I was worrying my family and felt like I wasn’t good enough in some aspects of my life. I was searching for acceptance in all the wrong places and I didn't have the tools to get what I needed in a healthy way. There was a purpose to all of that behavior. I can also understand the part of others better now too—not every person is able to be compassionate towards someone who is acting out but those are the people who often need it the most.
These steps to greater self-compassion are applicable to everyone. To the parent I saw months back who felt guilty about spanking their child when that was how they were raised but has since learned better ways to handle their children with empathy. To the person who still questions themselves for pursuing a divorce after they were cheated on but has greater understanding of what a healthy relationship looks like now. To the addict who would relapse month after month but suddenly gained insight into what they are actually numbing when we began addressing their trauma history. You are all worthy of self-compassion. Stop being an asshole to yourself. ;)
Happy Spring!! It’s finally here and, personally, one of my favorite times of the year. I hope everyone is getting outside in Nebraska to soak in the sun and take care of that vitamin D deficiency we’ve all been suffering from this winter!
A topic that has come up repeatedly in session is the need to set healthy boundaries. A large portion of my client load consists of caretakers, people pleasers, and other people who fit the description of a codependent (see my previous post on the Human Magnet Syndrome for more information on these qualities). In addition to these characteristics, many of them also identify with being an empath, or a person who is highly perceptive to the emotions of others. When these people have a difficulty setting boundaries, they put others’ needs before their own and focus too heavily on fixing emotional discomfort their partners feel. There are always good intentions, but their partner never really learns how to deal with those big emotions (i.e. develop an emotional tolerance).
1.) “I feel (emotion) when you (action) because (how it impacts you).”
Expressing your emotions in relation to the other person’s actions allows the other person to gain empathy (i.e. to understand how their actions have impacted you on a deeper level). Notice in this sentence structure that the emotion is not tied to a personal characteristic—that creates defensiveness and feels like you are attacking who they are. Be specific so they can begin to link your emotional response with that particular behavior, not who they are entirely.
DON’T: “I feel disrespected when you’re lazy because I’ve raised you better than that.”
DO: “I feel disrespected when you do not put your dish away after breakfast because I end up doing it while I’m already running late to work.”
2.) “I would like (expectation).”
These expectations should be observable, measurable, and specific behaviors that you would like to replace the action stated previously. Again, your expectation should not be a characteristic, but rather a specific behavior that can realistically change. A focusing on a characteristic or using negative communication skills will usually result in defensiveness or resistance. Stay calm and state your expectation in a way you’d like to hear it.
DON’T: “I would like you to pay attention a little more to what you’re supposed to do after you eat breakfast.”
DON’T: “I would like you to get your head out of your ass and do what you’re supposed to.”
DO: “I would like you to put your dish in the dishwasher.”
3.) Optional: “If you choose not to, (consequence) will happen.” Or “If you do this, (reward) will happen.”
Some people need this step in order to abide by your boundaries and some may not. Using this step helps the person you are communicating with understand the exact outcome to their actions. This especially helps with teens and kids since their prefrontal cortex, which helps them recognize the consequences to their actions, has not been fully developed yet. Make sure the consequence and reward are specific, reasonable, and time-oriented to help with follow through. If you choose to reward, it is important to steer clear of bribery with material good/candy and use positive reinforcement instead; otherwise, they may feel entitled to their reward with each positive behavior.
DON’T: “If you don’t put away your dishes, you’ll be grounded for the next 5 months!!”
DO: “If you don’t put away your dishes, you cannot play with your friends after school until you put them away.”
DON’T: “If you put away your dishes, you’ll get some candy.”
DO: “If you put your dishes in the dishwasher, I would be so grateful to you."
4.) Repeat steps 1-3 OFTEN. Practice makes perfect.
5.) Model these expectations yourself and be consistent in enforcing the consequence.
I have recognized that many of my clients struggle with the same boundaries being broken over an over. Here are a few relatable boundaries I have heard in session:
Clients have asked, “But what happens if it makes my partner mad or causes a bigger conflict?” I usually tell them this, “Them not handling your boundaries well has more to do with them. The people who react the worst to you setting boundaries are usually the ones who benefited the most from you not having them before. They probably won’t like it. Some may throw a temper tantrum or become upset. The response of the person having the boundaries set on them does not dictate whether that boundary is right or wrong, but an indication that they recognize they can no longer take advantage of you like they once had.”
Clients have also told me that having boundaries feels like they are being “mean” to the ones they love and the consequences they give feel like ultimatums. Here is the truth:
Other boundaries that are helpful to learn include the following:
I must admit, I haven’t always been the best about keeping healthy boundaries and I think we all have slip-ups by caring too much. You are still allowed to care for others, but care about yourself too. I think this post is a good place to start in learning how set positive boundaries and become the emotionally healthy people we want to be.
Relationships can be complicated. A big part of my job as a therapist is to pinpoint distressing patterns in relationships and help my clients overcome them through fair fighting skills, healthy communication, empathy, and compromise. All that stuff is hard work to learn, let alone implement daily when our emotions run hot and your freakin’ husband left that stupid kitchen cupboard open again! You can love someone so much but let the smallest detail get to you. Like I said, relationships are complicated. :)
Now back to this “codependent-narcissist trap” idea. This book details the dichotomy of those relationships that survive around conflict, drama, substance use, and dysfunctional interactions. It explains the relationships that are so unhealthy but continue to exist despite how toxic they are, in which one person is deemed the “codependent" (others-oriented) and the other is deemed the “narcissist” (self-oriented). Both of those words have pretty negative connotations so I prefer to use the terms “giver” and “taker” in my sessions. The narcissist is typically the manipulator, the social butterfly, the substance user, the abuser, the workaholic, or any other type of person who dominates the relationship in some way. The codependent is described as the enabler, the nurturer/caregiver, the people pleaser, or the one who lacks all self-esteem. Surely, not every relationship can fall under those two black-and-white, all-or-nothing categories?
You are right! The Human Magnet Syndrome proposes that these qualities lie on a spectrum, where the outermost areas of the spectrum are the most dysfunctional and the innermost area is where the healthiest, most balanced relationships land. Rosenberg calls this spectrum "The Continuum of Self." The reason I use this theory so much is because I can see this dichotomy in various relationships—marriages, parent-child relationships, friendships, coworkers—and to make things even more complicated, where you lie on that spectrum can change from relationship to relationship depending on the other person you are in that particular relationship with! Clear as mud, right? I told you, it’s complicated! I’ll explain more on this later. First, let’s get to understanding the characteristics of each side of this spectrum.
Codependent / Giver
The most common and drastic scenario I have seen of this is when a spouse warns their partner, “If you keep ______ (you name it: using substances, not coming home at night, cheating, forgetting about your kids to focus on work, etc.), I’ll leave.” Usually the spouse appeases the codependent for a short period of time until they get back into their old routines (continues using, cheating, etc.), ultimately leaving the codependent to follow through on their threat. However, that spouse knows all along that the codependent won’t leave. And so the pattern continues.
Narcissist / Taker
In therapy I usually try to determine which partner lands on which side of the spectrum, as well as how severe they may be and what type of repairs the couple uses to reach the middle “balanced area.” It rarely happens, but sometimes I find two of the same “type” in a relationship. If there are two narcissists together, their relationship is usually defined by extreme high conflict and explosive arguments; whereas two codependents together may describe their relationship as pretty boring, low key, and emotionally unsatisfying. Thus, there is normalcy in a codependent-narcissistic relationship, depending on where each partner sits on the spectrum. The further inward on the spectrum towards “neutral / balanced,” the healthier the relationship. Oftentimes couples will use “repairs” to achieve that balance, which means they engage in their dysfunctional codependent or narcissistic behaviors, they gain awareness of how they impacted their partner, and they settle it through communication, compromise, and compassion.
The amazing thing I have recognized through my practice that isn’t discussed in the book is that a person can shift from one side of the spectrum to the other depending on the relationship they are in and where their partner lies on the spectrum. Just a couple of common examples: A female who has a history of unhealthy relationships with narcissistic men may begin dating a lifelong friend who has always been nice and treated her well (i.e. further outward on the codependent side). That female may describe her newfound romantic relationship as “too easy” and she may become demanding or entitled; therefore, catapulting herself over to the narcissist side of the spectrum for that particular relationship.
Another example of changing roles on the spectrum is a parent-child relationship. Typically children are on the taker side of the spectrum while the parents are on the giver side by helping them navigate the younger years and taking responsibility for their kids’ actions. Later on, that child may grow up to seek approval from a narcissist and care for that person the way their parents had always cared for them. Sometimes it can be seen as a way they show their love. For instance, I worked with a couple years ago where the wife always kept a package of Tollhouse cookie dough in the fridge and baked 2 cookies every night for her partner before bed because he “liked something sweet after all the salt I’d make him for dinner.” If she didn’t follow through, she felt like a failure and as if their night was ruined. Her self-esteem would be shot for days and she would constantly try to appease her spouse. Upon probing more into their marriage patterns and their histories, it became evident that she felt the most love in her childhood when her mother would comfort her with a sweet treat after a hard day. No doubt, this wasn’t necessarily something she thought was an issue in the beginning, but ultimately she found out that if she missed a night of cookies, her spouse would still love her when their heads hit the pillow.
Now how does this information apply to normal relationships—the ones that aren’t on the verge of divorce or destruction? It’s mainly for awareness, to help us understand our relationship patterns and to overcome some of the slight dysfunctions by learning new, helpful relationship tools. When I first discovered The Human Magnet Syndrome, I approached my husband with it and said, “I think I might be the narcissist!” He politely agreed, just gently enough that I wouldn’t become offended. (Gosh, this man knows me too well!) I like to think that our relationship constitutes a “normal” relationship where we can have awareness of how we are impacting one another and can repair our relationship through healthy communication.
My husband, being on the giving side of the spectrum, may happily take these tasks on, and often times would do them without question early in our courtship. But now it takes something as simple as one comment from him indicating how it is impacting him negatively for me to gain awareness, give an apology if necessary, and further discuss what I meant with him for further understanding or compromise. I may not always accept his comment right away but when he sets a boundary and stands up for himself, he is centering himself on the spectrum. That gives me the opportunity to join him there. Essentially, we make repairs. Healthy couples do that on the daily. We are all imperfect and, I especially, tend to put my foot in my mouth but we can still achieve balance together.
So where do you see yourself and your spouse on the spectrum? How do you achieve balance? I hope this has given a little food for thought and adds to the health of your relationship the way it has ours!
Attached is the psychoeducational worksheet I threw together to better explain this spectrum to my clients in one sitting. You can reach the file by clicking the "Download File" button to the right of the image. It’s much easier to show them this than to have them read a book (although the book is very insightful and gives way more examples for further understanding—I’d highly recommend it!). Go ahead and have a look, print it out, and talk about it with your spouse. I’d love to hear any insights that come from your conversation!
Thanks for tuning in! Until next time!
Raise your hand if you feel like your emotions get the best of you sometimes. (ME!) We’re human, we are meant to experience emotions. They are actually protective to some degree. Imagine never having anxiety—we’d be reckless and would act without caution. Imagine never having fear—we probably wouldn’t be in existence because our ancestors wouldn’t have known to run from that bobcat. Imagine never having emotional pain—we’d likely have little insight into what actually matters in our lives and what to be grateful for. But sometimes those emotions are overwhelming and we have a hard time dealing with them (see my previous blog post, Emotions are like Waves).
In the words of a recent client, “Alright, I can understand that I need to look at my feelings now but what the **** do I do with them?” Ahh, good question!
There is a 4-step process I typically use with clients.
“Only four steps?” you ask—easy enough!
1.) Identify the trigger
Your emotions do not just appear out of thin air. They are the instinctual reaction you have to events that occur around you or stressors that involve you. If it isn’t immediately apparent, perhaps you could do a little investigating: When did this feeling start? Are there a combination of mild stressors that might be impacting your emotions? Any changes that have occurred recently?
2.) Do an inventory of your bodily responses and emotions
I usually have clients close their eyes and scan their body from head to toe for discomfort once they discover their trigger. Most clients recognize the bodily sensation of tension in their back, pressure on their chest, a choking/ball feeling in their throat (the one that happens right before you burst out crying), or knots in their stomach. Then I help them gain insight into what their body is telling them by determining which emotions are present. Could it be betrayal, jealousy, disrespect, frustration, hurt, annoyance, fear, or any of the other hundreds of emotions known to humankind?
The only emotion I do not allow clients to hide behind is anger. Anger is considered a secondary emotion that needs a primary emotion to fuel it. Think about it, most of the time anger is a response to another emotion that we haven’t gained full awareness of. For instance, a client in the past has come to me angry about a promotion they did not get at work. This person was RED hot, fuming at the beginning of our session, having just left the meeting where they were denied. Throughout the session, it was evident that their feelings were hurt, they felt underappreciated for their extra hours, and they felt betrayed and rejected after feeling their boss had led them on.
There are always feelings underneath the anger. In my defense to my husband, it often stems from hunger. If you are reading this, honey, please restock the ice cream in our freezer. I'm hungry again. :)
3.) Take a deep breath and validate those emotions
Emotions can be overwhelming but there is a reason you have them. They are valid and understanding them is never a weakness. Here are a few of my favorite validations to repeat with each inhale:
4.) Express yourself
Talk it out with a trusted confidant. Whether it is a spouse, a friend, or a parent, get the emotions out and connect with others using “I feel…” statements. The next thing you know, they may be validating your emotional response and relating to it too. If this is absolutely not an option, turn to journaling for a little more introspection and connection within yourself.
There you have it, folks! My tried and true steps to managing emotions. The "basics," if you will. Of course, there may be other things that impact your ability to use these four steps to better manage your emotions (e.g., trauma history, current unhealthy relationships, etc.), and in those cases, these steps might be something you work with your therapist towards.
Most of you know my little family is moving to another house soon. Trust me, I know how many cool things lie ahead after we move but it is so overwhelming to leave the home I brought my kids to from the hospital. It is also overwhelming to think about the great friendships I will be moving away from. The people who seem like my second family on the cul-de-sac.
I know the relationships will still be there at the end of the day, but it is sad to leave the community that has been built in that circle. A feeling of protection because we all have each other’s back—whether it is borrowing that giant ladder to change the batteries on our beeping fire alarm, or getting that late night text that we left our garage door open for the 800th time, or the kids, young and old, playing with one another daily, or the thoughtful meals and gifts sent our way after our kids were born, or the late nights in the driveway— those are the memories I will miss.
It is always scary to move to a new place because, as they say, "you can't pick your neighbors." Moving is like playing Russian roulette: you could be safe or, well, you get where I'm going. If I was given a chance, I would pick my neighbors all over again in a heartbeat.
The years you’ve embraced my family,
The beers we’ve drank in front driveways,
The tears you’ve understood through parenthood,
The ears you’ve lent when I need to let it out,
The fears about change you’ve encouraged us to pursue.
Change is hard. I work daily with people who are pursuing change. Now it is my turn and it is much harder than I expected, with each curtain and kitchen item I pack into a box. I know we’ll be keeping in touch, but this is my written thank you to each and every one of you. I appreciate the feeling of family you helped me feel in our first home.
Cheers to you! I'll miss seeing your faces every day, even though I know you probably peep in my windows when our blinds are left open! :P
Let’s talk feelings. Some of you may be thinking, “Aw, here she goes again with the feeling talk!,” but it is so important to normalize this conversation. Saying how we feel and being able to sit with the unpleasant feelings of others is really hard for people in our current society. It’s considered taboo or shameful to express yourself. Then if we do, we often feel like a burden onto others when they blame themselves for our emotional reactions. Let’s get one thing straight: Although we can impact how other people feel, every person’s emotions are completely separate from that of any other person. There is no blame in it. We choose to feel a certain way based on how we perceive our world and the interactions we have in it. There it is—I said it. We CHOOSE to feel a certain way.
Why would anyone choose to feel depressed then? There are plenty of reasons. It is not a straight forward answer. We may have been wired this way from our negative childhood experiences (see my post on Emotional Minimizing here). We may not feel like we are worthy of happiness. We may have never had anyone validate our feelings or teach us how to handle the hard emotions in an effective way. An emotion like depression may be something that feels natural and comfortable based on our own perception of ourselves.
Emotions are like waves on a beach.
In therapy this concept is referred to as building your emotional tolerance. We all have a certain amount or types of emotion we are accepting of. Some people can only accept the good/positive emotions, but any instance of distress or negativity spirals them into a deep darkness where they are consumed by their tsunami wave. Whereas others may have really high emotional tolerance based on their experience of trauma and their ability to be emotionally resilient. These people are able to experience emotions like fear, uncertainty, and embarrassment with the understanding that emotions come and go, that they will never be stuck in that emotion forever. They can manage feeling cruddy for a day because eventually that wave will go back to sea and they can experience positive emotion again.
So, the question is, “How do we build emotional tolerance?”
Building emotional tolerance is like treating severe allergies.
I recently had a client with severe allergies help me develop this analogy. Our allergies don’t go away if we toughen through them or ignore them. Sure, you can medicate them, but only for a short time. Sometimes your allergies could even get worse if you choose to avoid any treatment. Emotions are the same: ignoring and avoiding them means they will grow into this huge monster inside of us that we can no longer control. You can medicate your emotions but you are not dealing with the real issues.
This client mentioned that she receives a monthly shot to treat her severe seasonal allergies, noting that the shot contains small amounts of the allergen that gives her the most trouble so she can tolerate it in her living environment. That is what we need to do with emotions: learn to let them into our lives in small doses so we can build our immunity to them. Therapy is just that. It is exposure to the emotions we avoid in real life but in small doses, in a safe and validating environment. If we allow ourselves to experience our emotions with a qualified professional, we may experience acceptance of those emotions. We may learn to manage those emotions better so we don’t turn to booze, self-medication, unhealthy relationships, isolation, etc. We may develop a healthier life altogether without letting the tsunami of emotions overwhelm us.
I encourage you to explore your own emotional experience: is it a wave that comes and goes or is it a tsunami? How do you tolerate those emotions?
Let this reflection be a guide in whether it is time to take the step into therapy and further self-understanding.
I’m baaaaack!! My maternity leave is over and I’m happy to say that we’ve welcomed a baby boy, Murray, into our family and home.
Here are a few pictures from the day of his arrival if you'd like to meet him.
Precious, right? ***Insert heart-eyes emoji.***
Now it’s no secret that I hated pregnancy. I complained about it daily and I experienced almost every negative symptom you could imagine…. Alright, I’m exaggerating. But still! Most people in my life knew about the physical discomfort because I took them up on every opportunity to complain about it: the weight gain that briefly messed with my self-image, the swelling, the hemorrhoids, the acne, the sciatic nerve pain that made it so I could barely walk at 36 weeks, the fear about the upcoming surgery (C-section mama, right here!). Did I mention the swelling? There I go again-- complaining! Trust me, it was bad.
However, this pregnancy felt a little different from my first with my daughter. Shortly after Christmas my doctor called me with news that I tested high for a certain kind of protein (alpha-fetoprotein) in a genetic test. My doctor kindly explained to me the risks of testing high, in which my baby could experience growth issues that could lead to stillbirth in the later stages of my pregnancy. My medical team, including my OB and a perinatologist at Methodist Women’s Hospital, kept a close eye on my baby's progression. Luckily, my Murray grew steadily and showed nothing that alarmed them in the bi-weekly and weekly ultrasounds. My perinatologist and I had an ongoing joke that I was his easiest patient and some of our appointments weren’t much longer than him giving me a thumbs up and strolling out the door saying, “Looking good in there, I’ll see him again on tv next week!” Both he and my OB did a great job of calming my nerves during our appointments, but I must admit, the anxiety lingered in the back of my mind when it wasn't busy. Those moments were pretty scary and anxiety-provoking as I neared the end of my pregnancy, but I had the best outcome I could have asked for!
Now every day I when I look hard enough, I can see my own reflection in my son’s dark eyes and it reminds me that he was so worth the pain. With each coo and each grin (usually after a spit-up or a #2), it reminds me that he was so worth the pain. Looking back on my pregnancy, it makes me appreciate being a mother and the purpose it has given me. So many good things, including my baby, come from pain.
When my clients describe their painful histories and their feelings that “it” will never get better (whatever their “it” is for them: anxiety, depression, trauma, grief, addiction, marital issues, etc.), I understand their fear. Many of them have let their traumas define them and can't see a life where it doesn't. But the reason I am posting this blog entry is because of an email I recently received from a client. We were working together for about a year on the trauma history that impacts her relationship with her husband and kids and she asked that I contact her when I return to work from maternity leave. We decided to use my leave as a "trial run" for entering the maintenance stage of therapy, in which my clients would contact me for a session on an as-needed basis rather than regularly weekly appointments. She writes back, word for word:
"Whoa," I thought. The phrase, "almost makes the pain worth it," really hit me. It hit me hard enough that I wrote an entire blog post on it. Could the pain of our trauma histories ever be worth it later on? I thought more on this question and what I am taking from my client's comment is this: her newfound ability to understand herself (i.e. where her negative thoughts and certain behaviors originated), her discovery of how strong she is to work through those issues rather than “just get over” them, and her present peace of mind/general happiness since taking action is probably a place she never would have gotten to without experiencing pain in some form. I think we sometimes get stuck in autopilot and it may never register to us to get help in understanding ourselves unless something terrible happens (addiction, marriage trouble, work stress, etc.).
Now with my new baby boy, I know the pain is worth the purpose I feel as a mother. Don’t get me wrong, I could do without the 5:00 AM wake-up call, but it calms me to remember that I’m his person. I’m who he goes to for nurturance and comfort. My client knows that through her pain she has found connection with her family and compassion for herself. Must we actually experience pain to reach self-actualization? Probably not, but it sure lights a fire under our butts to reach out for help when we feel we can't go on.
So, what actually makes the pain worth it for me? The insight. The understanding. The new ways of living. The new ways we can learn to love. What is it for you?
Note: Permission from my client was obtained before sharing the above email anonymously.
Let’s face it. Parenting is hard—like, really hard. As Brené Brown says, our children are hardwired for struggle and it is our job to create a foundation of worthiness, love, and belonging so they grow up into emotionally healthy adults. However, much of the time we as parents don’t realize how our words and actions are impacting their emotional development. Making it even harder, it seems like there are a billion rules to parenting and the rules keep freakin’ changing! No parent can keep up!
One parenting pattern I have seen time after time in my practice, as well as in my own upbringing, is the impact of emotional minimizing. My clients often report they have been told they are “too sensitive” or they fly off the handle too easily with no understanding about why. They may say the people in their life do not listen and only offer advice or fix-it solutions to their stressors. They may have been told all throughout their lives that, “Well honey, it could be worse” or that they are throwing themselves a pity party at the onset of any difficult or strong emotion. Now don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of people who play the victim role and throw themselves a huge fiesta of a pity party that could last days, weeks, or years.
Let’s get one thing straight: Emotions, including difficult ones, are good for us! We need them to protect us and we need to start learning how to trust them and understand them! When was the last time you felt scared? That fear likely protected you from a worst-case scenario. For instance, my daughter ran toward the street as I was attempting to get her into the car. My fear put me into fight-mode (i.e. fight, flight, or freeze), which enabled me to sprint after her (yes, as I was 8 months pregnant) and scoop her up before her feet hit the pavement while a car passed by. When was the last time you felt upset or angry? There were likely feelings underneath it to better understand. Possibly some hurt or some jealousy or some sadness that was mismanaged. An example I have seen in my office includes the following: Husband and wife are at each other’s throats over little things. The anger outbursts have nothing to do with the anger, but with feeling disconnected from one another as they both recognize they are going down completely different paths in their personal life. Helping them understand their underlying emotions and how to respond to them in healthier ways led them to a happier marriage down the road.
So, how do you know if you were raised by an emotional minimizer? Of course, some of the tell-tale comments I referred to above. But also, how did your parents handle your emotions? If you were upset as a child, how did they respond? Did they tell you to go to your room until you were done throwing your fit or tell you crying wasn’t allowed at the dinner table? If so, they were teaching you that hard emotions must be hidden or avoided. I think many of us have fallen into this trap as parents where we tell our kids to contain their emotions to their room, and that is okay as long as there is a repair. A repair means that the parent approaches the child shortly after, consoles them with a back rub or positive touch as they are calming down, makes eye contact, and helps them understand how to respond to that emotion in a healthy way. For instance, “Honey, I saw that you were very upset about not getting to play outside longer. It is okay to feel sad when you don’t get something you want, but it is not okay to hit mommy or anyone else when you feel that way. Instead you can take some deep breaths and talk to mommy about playing outside another time. When mommy tells you to come in for dinner time, I’m trying to keep you healthy and strong so you can keep playing and learning! I love you so I want to keep you healthy and strong.” Follow that up with a hug and some deep breaths together, and voila! You have a repair! You are validating her emotions, letting her know she is still loved, and giving her the information she needs to respond to that emotion in a healthy way without feeling shame about them.
Then it is our job as parents to role model this for them and help them use this skill in later emotional outbursts. It takes time for little ones to understand and use these skills in practice, but this effort goes a long way as these children grow older (those behaviors are harder to fix later on). I also want to emphasize that this does not mean we as parents cannot lose our cool from time to time. I’ve been guilty on multiple occasions of losing my lid! But it means that we must make a repair attempt—explaining to our kiddo that we aren’t perfect, apologizing, and letting them know how we will attempt to learn from it. After cooling down, I have been known to approach my daughter and say, “Lydia, mommy was very short with you and I didn’t mean to take my frustration out on you. I’m sorry and need to keep working on my patience.” Again, followed up with a hug and a kiss, my repair attempt was successful as she scoots along to her next activity!
So, for the emotional minimizers who might be reading this blog and may not be consciously aware of it until they saw some of the “red flags,” what are the big take-aways?
The more we learn as a society how to understand, express, and manage our emotions in a healthy way, the better off we will be in loving and respecting one another. Let’s make the effort for a better “us” as a whole by learning what vulnerability is and how to let our emotions play a role in our lives.
There’s this myth going around lately that I’ve heard time and time again since the beginning of my practice as a therapist—a myth that many of us have come to believe in our adult lives. This myth has made us feel shameful and self-indulgent and resentful. It impacts our well-being and our ability to care for those around us. It enables us to be self-critical rather than compassionate.
The myth I am referring to is that self-care is selfish. It isn’t true, and I won’t have you thinking that way! So, what is the difference between those terms? The way I explain it to clients is like this: Selfishness is putting your wants before the needs of others OR others expecting you to put their wants before your own needs. On the contrary, self-care is putting your needs before the wants of others OR other people putting their needs before your wants. Clear as mud, eh? Just hear me out!
Let’s look deeper into selfishness. In our fast-paced lives, we are often asked to sacrifice our own well-being for the comfort of others. Some who are reading this blog may, unknowingly, be expecting the same thing of those around us when we act impatiently or without compassion to those around us. For instance, I have worked with a client in the past whose family of origin expects them to attend every holiday for several hours on the holiday. Essentially, the family of origin are expecting their children to sacrifice their needs of new, healthy traditions in their chosen family and would often guilt-trip my client into attending. However, the reality is that the family of origin can celebrate their holiday on any given day but they expect others to prioritize their desires of not being alone. Therefore, there are two sides of selfishness: one side is demanding their wants or desires are important and responded to, and the other side is prioritizing those wants above their own needs.
So, why do we give in to the selfish wants of others?
So, what is the mystical concept of self-care we’ve been referring to? Self-care is when we gain awareness of what our personal needs are (emotional, mental, physical, spiritual), then we don’t compromise them. Self-care can come in many forms: A run, bike ride, or walk outside. A cup of coffee in the morning. Five minutes of meditation. A church service. A conversation with our spouse or a friend for connection. A bath or shower. Mindfulness. A chiropractor or massage appointment. Asserting ourselves with family or the ability to say “no” without needing a reason. A motto or affirmation of some sorts (“I can handle what today gives me” is what I use on a daily basis). Sitting on the couch with a magazine or a favorite tv show, uninterrupted. All of these things help us to maintain connection with ourselves, bring us a little joy, and help us to be the best people in the relationships we prioritize.
When does self-care go to far? Let me reassure you, this RARELY happens, but I’ll address it if you are concerned about overcompensating! Self-care is going too far when it impacts the needs of others you prioritize. Thus, one client’s perceived need for a deep tissue massage and facial twice a week may not be logical when their family is on a budget and there are four mouths to feed on a teacher’s salary. Therefore, we can be creative in meeting our personal needs. Get that client a bubble bath, a mud mask, some lavender candles, and one of her kids to walk on her back, and voila! Good as new!
Now I encourage you to take a look at your life:
What are your personal needs and how can you fulfill them?
How have you compromised your self-care routine?
When are you giving in to the selfish wants of others at your own expense?
When are you being selfish in your relationship with others?
Drop a comment below and let me know what your self-care go-tos are!