Goals…Are They a Good Thing?

Some of us love setting goals. We have a vision of where we want to be.  Then we create a plan of what we need to do in order to make our dreams a reality. Perhaps we use “To Do” lists, or track our progress on electronic devices–either way, we feel that we are working towards what we want.

Western culture, and it’s bias towards “doing” vs. “being”, elevates goals as a key component of attaining success.  We have self-improvement goals around fitness  and weight-loss.  There are work goals, relationship goals, company goals…the list goes on.  Do a search on Amazon.ca for goal resources and there books that tell you “How to Get Everything You Want–Faster Than You Ever Thought Possible”.  It’s not enough that we fulfill our plans, but now we must do it as fast as possible!

Questioning Goals

As a human, I’ve been goal-driven for a long time. As a therapist, I’m starting to question if this behaviour is a good idea. By I pondering the idea of goals, I’m starting to see that they may be a double-edged sword–if done well, they can be a useful tool for providing a framework for accomplishment.  However, they can also be an unforgiving taskmaster that gets in the way of enjoying life.

Are Goals a Good Thing?

There is little double that goals are a tool to help us get things done. Goals can keep us directed and focused on where we are going.  We experience the satisfaction that comes from crossing items off our “To Do” lists or noting that we have met our aspirations for the day or week.

However, I suggest that while goals can help us to be focused on where we want to be, they can lead us to become too focused.  When we have a narrow view of where we’re going, we can miss the wonder, magic and possibilities that are outside of our line of sight.  For example, if we see the only way to reach a fitness goal is by attending cross-fit classes, we lose out on the beauty and fitness opportunities provided by a hike in the woods.

What happens when we don’t reach a goal?  As we become attached to the outcome of our efforts, if things don’t work out as we expected we may feel guilty, or that we’ve failed. We become fixated on what we didn’t do, versus what we did accomplish.  Goals become a way to be unkind to ourselves.

The Story of Sylvia

Sylvia is a 35 year old woman who has decided that  it is time to regain her health and fitness levels that had declined due to the changes in lifestyle during and after two pregnancies.  Sylvia’s two children were born within 15 months of each other.  The short period between pregnancies left little time for her body to recover.  Now, three years later, Sylvia is struggling to lose the residual weight gain.  Her blood pressure is higher than recommended, and she is often winded when climbing stairs. Sylvia has decided to lose 30 lbs in three months, and get in better shape, by going to the gym and watching what she eats.

For the first week, Sylvia is highly motivated to reach her goal.  With Heather’s (her partner) support, she was able to go to the gym five times.  She created a meal plan and stuck to it.  She removed all the ‘junk’ food from the house and left fruit on the counter for snacks.  When Sylvia weighed herself at the end of the week, she was a little disappointed that she had “only” lost two pounds, but figured that it was better than gaining weight. She vowed to “do better” next week.

For the following two weeks, Sylvia kept to her schedule…though it was getting difficult.  She was losing her excitement faster than her extra weight.  Heather was starting to feel somewhat resentful of Sylvia’s time at the gym as it was taking away from family time.  It was difficult for the couple to keep up with the time needed for the healthy eating plan and both were starting to miss some of their favourite meals.

By the end of the fourth week, Sylvia had given up on her weight loss, fitness and health goals.  Both children had come down with colds and wanted more attention.  She had been to the gym only once, and when there felt too tired to do a complete workout.  They were sick of the strict whole foods diet, and had started ‘cheating’.  Sylvia had gained back two of the total five pounds she had lost since starting this process.  She felt frustrated, hopeless and resigned that she would be carrying around the extra weight for the rest of her life.  She was afraid that she would need to start taking blood pressure medications.

What if there had been another way for Sylvia to formulate her goals that would have been more helpful?  Enter SMART Goals!


Goals are a tool, and like any tool they are most useful when we use them with skill.  The more thought we put in at the beginning when creating them, the better easier they will be to accomplish.  Used properly, they are no-longer a double-edged sword.

SMART goals are specific, measurable, agreed upon, realistic and time-based.

Let’s look at how Sylvia’s goals would have changed if she had used this method.

Specific:  Part of Sylvia’s goal was specific (lose 30 lbs.); however, what did she mean when she wanted to “get in better shape”?  Would she be able to do 50 squats in one minute?  Ride her bike up a steep hill without stopping?  Run up a flight of stairs?  Did she know her ideal blood pressure score?

Measurable:  A goal is measurable when you are able to determine where you are in meeting the goal.  In Sylvia’s case, it means not only answering the question of how she will know when she has reached it, but also creating signposts along the way.  For example, if Sylvia wants to lose 30 lbs. in three months, that means she would need to lose 10 lbs/month or 2.5 lbs/week.  She can measure her progress along the way.  Perhaps she can check her blood pressure on a monthly basis by visiting her local pharmacy.

Realistic:  In order to avoid frustration and discouragement, it’s very important that goals are realistic.  How realistic was it for Sylvia to lose 2.5 lbs/week?  Is this healthy?  How much work and commitment to exercise would it take to accomplish this part of the goal?

Determining if our goals are realistic often requires knowing ourselves (what we’re truly capable of), and finding out how much support we have from others (Heather is willing and able to support four gym trips a week, but feels that five is getting in the way of family life).  We may need to do some research to learn what others have been able to accomplish under similar circumstances.

Time-based:  Having ideas of timing are important.  When we know our timing, it makes the goals more concrete.  It’s the difference between saying I want to learn to cook Indian food sometime in the future and I’m going to learn to cook vegetable curry by the end of next month.  The months can fly by and we’re no closer to serving homemade curry to our friends!

Sylvia set a time limit of three months.  Based on all that she has learned by looking at the other areas of SMART goals, is this still possible?  As the creator of the goals, she can decide.

Goals in Therapy

When I start working with a new client(s), I ask them how they would like things to be different when they are finished therapy.  By answering this question, we are starting to to think about therapy goals.  Depending on the individual client(s) situation, creating SMART goals may then become part of the therapy process.

In the end, if used wisely, goals can be a tool that can help you to reach where you would like to be.

And now for something completely different.  Goals come in all shapes and sizes!  Enjoy?!


The Importance of Gratitude

For Canadians, this weekend is Thanksgiving–a time to get together with family and friends, eat copious amounts of food and think about what/who we are thankful for. While as a culture we have set aside Thanksgiving to be a time of gratitude, I suggest that gratitude is something we should be aware of daily.

What is Gratitude?

One of my recent, favourite books is The Book of Joy:  Lasting Happiness in a Changing World, written by Douglas Abrams.  In April 2015, Archbishop Tutu and His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama spent five days together in Dharamsala, India, to celebrate the Dalai Lama’s 80th birthday and to discuss, in detail, their thoughts on joy (it’s nature, components, and the obstacles to experiencing it).  The details of these conversations were chronicled by Abrams and compiled into this book.

How do these esteemed spiritual leaders define gratitude?

“Gratitude is the recognition of all that holds us in the web of life and all that has made it possible to have the life that we have and the moment we are experiencing.  Thanksgiving is a natural response to life and may be the only way to savour it.”

While gratitude may be a natural response to life, our experiences aren’t always positive.  What about thankfulness when life is difficult?

Gratitude When The Going Gets Rough

The opening sentences in M. Scott Peck’s classic book The Road Less Traveled is:  “Life is difficult.  This is a great truth.  One of the greatest truths.”  We know this.  As humans, we experience grief, loss, stress, sickness, anger, anxiety. Our fellow humans disappoint us, or we disappoint ourselves.  “Life is difficult.”

However, what if there are seams of light, threaded throughout the difficulty? If we can trust that they are there, thankfulness helps us to recognize these glimmers in the dark.

Why Practice Gratitude?

As human beings it’s easy to get stuck in the “full catastrophe”of our lives–the good, the bad and the ugly. It’s often hard to look up from our challenges, and it’s easy to take our good fortune for granted.  As Joni Mitchell famously sang in Big Yellow Taxi, “You don’t know what you’ve got ’till it’s gone”.  That’s why it’s important that we focus and be grateful for what is in our lives in this moment.

Abrams writes:

“Both Christian and Buddhist traditions, perhaps all spiritual traditions, recognize the importance of gratefulness.  It allows us to shift our perspective, as the Dalai Lama and the Archbishop counseled, toward all we have been given and all that we have.  It moves us away from the narrow-minded focus on fault and lack and to the wider perspective of benefit and abundance.”

The magic of gratitude comes from this shift in perspective.  When we are grateful, the glass is no longer half empty, but half full.

When I work with individuals who are coping with challenges, we often explore their history for times when they have survived and grown from past difficulties.  As we look at what they learned and the resiliency gained from this experiences, they may feel thankful.  While they wouldn’t want to re-live the rough times, in hindsight, they also wouldn’t ask to have them taken away–the benefits are too great.  This new perspective helps them to see the opportunities for growth in their current situation.

A Way to Practice Gratitude

One of the easiest ways to practice gratitude is to keep a gratitude journal. At the end of the day, take some time to reflect on the day and what gave you joy.  What helped you to learn or grow? Did an interaction with someone give you a lift?  Were you able to help someone else? Perhaps, not all the events were positive, and look for the benefits in those as well. Maybe your flat tire gave you a chance to relax while you waited for CAA. Maybe you kept your cool during a conflict. Think about the seams of light in the darkness.

Once you have thought about the day, pick a few to write about.

The benefits of this practice are a change of perspective (as discussed above), as well as an increasing sense of awareness.  When we commit to this daily exercise, we start to be mindful of things we can be thankful for. As we practice, our gratitude grows.

Gratitude is an enhancement to life.

Now, one of the best gratitude songs of all time…Enjoy!  And Happy Thanksgiving!




Part of a Family? Welcome to a Mobile!

Being part of a family (no matter how many people it contains) can be confusing. One of the things I love about therapeutic theories are that they can be explained in graphic detail. Just like taking the red pill in the Matrix, once you understand the concept, you can’t go back!  You see the dynamics everywhere! Theories about family structures are a perfect example.

Families and Mobiles

Depending on the type of therapy, there are different ways to explain family systems.   When working with couples or families I often use the graphic of a baby’s mobile.  When you look at the mobile on the right, all the pieces are in balance. Nothing is wonky or out of place. If the mobile’s characters had human emotions, I suggest that (though they may or may not be happy), they are comfortable with the status quo.

But what happens if the one of the characters makes a change?  What happens if one of the members leaves the mobile or a new member joins? It slides out of balance.

Families and Mobiles–Meet John and Sara Smith

John and Sara (both age 60) have been together for 30 years in a traditional-style marriage. They have two children (John Jr. (JJ) and Ben–ages 28 and 25).  JJ recently announced to his family that he and his girlfriend Carley had decided to start living together as they were recently discovered that they were expecting a child.  This news was a big surprise to John and Sara as they didn’t think that JJ and Carley were in a serious relationship, plus it was unlike JJ to spring news like this.  However, they liked Carley and were excited to become grandparents.

All went relatively well for the first few months.  JJ and Carley found a place to live and both their families helped them to move in.  There were a few rough spots on move-in day as the two families had not yet met. Even though everyone was on their best behaviour, Carley’s mom (Donna) voiced her definite ideas about where her daughter was moving, and John and Sara found themselves ‘biting their tongue’ a few times throughout the day. The Smith family mobile was starting to sway.

Throughout Carley’s pregnancy, she and JJ spent a lot of time at John and Sara’s home.  As they started to make decisions regarding their child’s upcoming birth, it became clear that Carley and JJ made decisions in different ways.  JJ, who has always been close to his parents, tended to consult them before committing to anything.  Carley, on the other hand, was used to making her own decisions due to her mother’s strong opinions.  The Smith family mobile was rocking.

During one visit, Carley overheard JJ asking Sara’s opinion about a home vs. a hospital birth. He told his mother that Carley felt strongly about having their baby at home, but that he wasn’t sure as this was Carley’s first pregnancy and he was afraid that something could go wrong.  Carley was furious!  She loudly let JJ know that she felt betrayed that he discussed their ‘private’ issues with his mother.  Carley told Sara that she “needed to mind her own business”. “JJ was now her partner ‘first’ and Sara’s son ‘second'”.  The mobile had tilted and moved out of balance.

How Family Systems Stay in Balance

As noted above, the individuals may or may not be happy in the family system, but they are satisfied with the status quo.  This status quo is kept in place by the roles (both physically and emotionally) each member takes on, as well as the expectations that each person has of the others in the system.

The system is also held together by traditions, family secrets, communication styles, and other things that make each family different from other families.

What Happened in the Smith Family?

If we look at the Smith family before Carley’s arrival, their mobile was in balance. Theirs is a long-standing system (30 years), with ‘ways of being’ that have slowly evolved over time. John and Sara had a strong base and provided the role of ‘sounding board’ for their sons. JJ and Ben were encouraged to ask their parents for support when making decisions. They had always done so.

Sara, as the only female in the family, saw herself as the ‘nurturer’ and had developed a close relationship with her sons–especially JJ as he was her firstborn.  In a house full of men, Sara saw her role as bringing “some softness” into their world.  While John worked outside the home to support the family, Sara had chosen to work part-time so that she had more time for her family.

In this story, a few things happened to shock the family mobile.

  • With Carley and JJ’s decision to live together, Carley has now entered the family mobile.  A new piece has been added.
  • Once the baby is born, another character will be added.
  • Sara is no longer the only female in the system, and will need to adjust to this.
  • JJ is now not only Sara’s son, but also Carley’s partner.
  • Family roles will undergo major changes as members become grandparents, parents-in-law, uncle, father, mother, sister-in-law, etc.

When we add in Carley’s family system, things become even more complicated if the two families spend time together.  Plus, we’ve only looked at the Smith family system/mobile. Similar events may also be happening in Carley’s family mobile.

A New Family System:  The Smith Family Mobile Back in Balance

As out-of-kilter as this mobile looks, it is possible for this family to have balance.  However, they will need to create a new mobile that incorporates the new family members, roles, communication styles, and ways of being.  It will take time, trust, respect and the ability of family members to communicate with each other.

Now that Carley and JJ have their own family, they will be creating their own individual family system that interacts with the systems of their original families.

One of the hopeful things about families is that they can be resilient. Sometimes family systems do dissolve because of negative changes, but often individual members can work together to create new systems.  Any event can change the system–including positive ones.  If we look at the Smith family, the building of the new mobile may start with something as simple as Sara asking Carley’s opinion about a family event. Perhaps John will comment on how well JJ is fulfilling his new role as a father and talk about his early experiences as a parent.  Ben may be a catalyst for the family as he becomes an uncle.

The road to a new family system will be bumpy, and well worth the effort.

And now, here’s a classic scene from the Matrix…enjoy!




When the Ground Cracked

At some point in our lives we go through periods of transition and discernment about where to go next.  We can learn so much from the experiences of others.

Below is the latest  “Point of View” article entitled “When the Ground Cracked” published in the October 2017 issue of Psychology Today.  It is a moving and honest account of moving through this process.  Here is Tova Mirvis’ article in its entirety. 

Tova Mirvis is the author of three novels and The Book of Separation, a memoir to be published this month.


The blind date had been arranged by a friend of mine who thought that this young man and I were perfect for each other. He was a first-year law student who knew many of my friends. I was a senior in college, a few months away from graduating and awash in uncertainty about what was to come.

In the Modern Orthodox Jewish community of which we were both a part, the rules of courtship were rigidly prescribed. Physical contact was prohibited. Dating was intended to lead directly to marriage and family. Since childhood, I had been taught to believe in a detailed set of rules and a preordained truth. Orthodox Judaism was a life built of minute actions, each one a single brick that contributed to a reliably secure structure.

Aaron, as I’ll call him, was sweet, soft-spoken, and gentle, and on our first date, at a local kosher restaurant, we catalogued all the ways we were similar. We had been raised in the same religious sphere, one that espoused the idea that you could be part of the secular world yet remain strictly observant. Ours was a world of studying sacred texts, adhering to the exacting laws of the Sabbath, and eating only food that had been rabbinically approved. The innumerable rules not only governed every aspect of our lives, they also built a community that was all-encompassing. By remaining inside it, we were surrounded by people who ordered their lives as we did, getting together for Sabbath meals and living in close proximity to one another. We didn’t have to challenge or struggle or question; we just had to follow the path laid out for us.

This was especially comforting because I sometimes felt the presence of a wily inner self. It was as if other versions of me were hidden inside, like a Russian nesting doll. Ever since I was a little girl, sitting beside my mother in synagogue, I would look around at the other congregants who were supposedly deep in prayer and wonder what they were really thinking. In accordance with the strict laws of modesty, the married women wore hats, many of which blocked their faces from view. I was curious about what more complicated stories might lie beneath. Were they as happy and faithful as they outwardly appeared? Did they really believe the content of the prayers they recited, or did they sometimes chafe at the abundance of Jewish laws that regulated their lives? Did they have any doubts, like me?

Aaron and I got engaged 12 weeks after our first date. I was a little nervous about how quickly we’d made this decision, but I pushed away the feeling. There was a clear path before me now. To be engaged seemed to lock in who I was and would always be. Getting married felt like an insurance policy against the possibility of change. At our wedding, I walked down the aisle, a tulle veil covering my face and casting the world in an ethereal haze. The ring on my finger bound me not just to my husband but to our religious life together.

 I was correct that marriage was the best way to quiet my questions, at least for a while. We had three children and raised them the way we had both been raised. I dutifully instilled in them the Jewish teachings that had been drilled into me, though I sometimes heard an inner voice questioning what I was saying. And I still found myself glancing at the people around me in synagogue, though now I was one of the married women wearing a hat that drew a line across my view. I quietly wondered: Did anyone else harbor fantasies of escape? Did they ever feel that the truest parts of themselves had to be kept out of sight, even from those who presumably knew them best?
“I don’t know if I really believe in this,” I would sometimes confess to Aaron, wishing for the freedom to lay bare my full self, hoping that we had the kind of marriage in which we could burrow down to the raw truth. An anxious look would flash across his face. “But I want to be Orthodox,” he would say.

“I know. We are,” I would assure him, tucking away the questions. We had originally connected because we were so similar, the life path we yearned to follow so rigid and certain. Now, years later, there was simply no way to change course.

At night, in the dark, my unease emerged nonetheless. I lay awake imagining the firm ground below me giving way to cracks. Or pulling a thread on a sweater and watching as it came apart in my hands. I wondered what would have happened had I not gotten engaged so young, so quickly. What if I had allowed myself the time to question and wrestle and experiment? What if I hadn’t been so afraid of the unknown?

I continued to observe the rules of Orthodoxy, hoping all this activity might eventually take the shape of actual belief.  I felt alone in my marriage but warned myself away from the hard places—it was easier to remain in denial about the differences between us, which I saw no way to change. I still didn’t know if anyone else felt the same searing loneliness, the same jagged-edged doubt that I did. But I couldn’t hide from the fact that I didn’t believe in the tenets of my faith. And there wasn’t any space inside my marriage for the person I was slowly becoming.

As I neared my 40th birthday, my questions took on an urgent tone. For how long would I try to deny what I really knew? I recalled how on holidays as a child, I eagerly anticipated the moment when a group of designated men blessed the congregation. With their black and white prayer shawls pulled over their heads, these men recited a special incantation while the rest of us followed the strict admonition not to look at them, mindful of the stories of what supernatural punishment could befall a person who did: Some said you would go blind, or become corrupted. Automatically heeding the rules, I kept my eyes squeezed shut, afraid of seeing something forbidden.

Now, I could no longer keep my eyes closed.

I left my marriage. I stopped going to synagogue. I began to break the religious rules. After years spent trying to keep both my marriage and my faith intact, the two came apart with a single snap.

Surely many married people have room to change and evolve within their relationship. Surely, for some people, marriage and faith can be disentangled, one remaining intact while the other falls away. But for me, leaving one necessitated leaving the other. From the start, they were entirely intertwined. Orthodox life was the foundation that my marriage was built on, so as the former dissolved, so did the latter. Both were structures that were supposed to match the shape of who I was, and instead, both had come to feel like a vise.

Divorced and no longer Orthodox, I had no clear path before me. There were no more assurances that if I followed a specific set of rules I would be blessed and content. There was no longer a defined, clear-cut way to raise my children, whose custody my ex and I shared. Now at sundown on Friday, when I once would have lit the Sabbath candles at an exact time, preparing for a day to be observed in a precise way, I could go anywhere, do anything. But I wasn’t sure what I wanted that to be. Now when I ate nonkosher food or wore sleeveless shirts that I once deemed immodest, it was hard to recognize myself. Each transgression was new and destabilizing, each its own separate leave-taking.

 Gone, too, that web of community that had always surrounded me—those invitations to Sabbath dinner tables, that comfort of knowing that community members would show up with meals if there was an illness or death in my family. Many of my Orthodox friends ceased speaking to me altogether. I discovered that sometimes the price to be paid for freedom is loneliness.

But slowly, the sense of disorientation began to ease. Soon it felt less strange to break rules that had once seemed so taboo. I accepted that change always comes with loss. I came to understand that the people who no longer spoke to me were part of one small world; with time, there would be other worlds I would discover for myself. I began to enjoy the fact that I could sample new foods, explore new places, entertain new ideas, meet new people, try out new ways of being.

I still had questions: How could I maintain a sense of tradition? How could I ease my guilt about having upended so much of my life? But now there was room for doubt and uncertainty, growth and change. I didn’t have to convince myself that I believed things when I didn’t. I didn’t have to teach my children to adhere to rules whose validity and value I questioned. It became easier to say what I really thought. There were no easy answers, but after all this time, I felt as if my eyes were finally open.

You’re Feeling Angry! Now What?

Anger is often thought to be one of our scariest emotions.  Being around someone who is venting their anger can be frightening. It’s often disconcerting and embarrassing for the person experiencing this powerful emotion–especially as they try to fix the fallout from their outburst.  For some people, they are so afraid of their anger that they bottle it up, only to cause harm to themselves or, like a shaken-up bottle of pop, experience a larger blow-up later.

Last week’s post was about the relationship between being “nice” and anger.  I noted then that a key to using anger wisely is being aware of when we become angry, pay attention to what it is trying to teach us, appropriately discuss the situation, and then release the energy that anger brings in a healthy way.

Meet Fred…

Fred is a 60 year old man with a short fuse.  If asked, Fred would describe himself as “sometimes frustrated, but not angry”. However, if you asked Fred’s wife (Lila) or son (Justin), they would be able to give you many examples of when his anger got the better of him and left a trail of destruction in it’s path.  Fred works for an on-line lighting distributor, where he has the reputation of being a “great guy”, hardworking and always ready to deal with the “difficult” situations.

One day, something happened to Fred.  It was a Friday, and he was looking forward to a quiet weekend.  The last few days had been challenging as customers were complaining that they hadn’t received their orders in the time-frame promised.  The shipping snafu wasn’t his fault, but as the Customer Service Manager, all complaints came to him.  When 5:30 p.m. arrived, he rushed out the door heading for home.

As Fred left the building he remembered that Lila had the car that day, and he would be taking public transit.  Furious, he walked to the subway, angry at Lila for needing the car, and himself for letting her use it. A large group of people were waiting on the platform.  An announcement informed riders that trains were late due to an accident on the tracks.  Because of  the crowds, Fred had to stand the entire trip–reluctantly giving his long-waited-for seat to an elderly woman who was weighted down with shopping bags.  When Fred finally walked in the door, he was angry, hungry, tired and stressed.  All that he wanted was to be left alone with his dinner.

Fred at Home…

When Fred arrived home he was greeted by the loud and excited voices of his two grandsons (ages 4 and 6) who had dropped in with their parents for a surprise visit. The young family had waited for him to get home so they could say hello.  GRANDPA!!! GRANDPA!!!  COME SEE THIS!!!  At that point, Fred could no longer control the anger that had been building up in him over the past few days. This wasn’t what he had expected!!! After his long week and difficult trip home, he deserved a quiet homecoming!!!  His generosity of sharing his car should be recognized by his wife having his dinner ready when he walked in the door!!!

His loud roar of “LEAVE ME ALONE!!!” shook the house.  His grandchildren, terrified and crying, ran to their parents for comfort.  The adults looked at Fred in horror.  While they were accustomed to his outbursts, he had never blown up with his grandchildren–whom he adored.  Fred stormed out of the room and went upstairs.  Justin and his wife quickly bundled up the children and left.

The next day, Justin informed his father that he wouldn’t be seeing his grandsons until he learned to control his anger.  His son refused to allow his own children to experience the fear and pain that he had experienced as a result of Fred’s unpredictable rage.  Lila blamed Fred for the newly created rift in the family and didn’t speak to him for days.

This was a wake-up call for Fred.  Lila (who usually didn’t react to his anger) wasn’t giving in.  He hadn’t realized that his son had such feelings regarding his childhood, and the thought of not seeing his grandsons was upsetting.

Anger Out of Control

While Fred’s story is fictional, his buildup and release of anger is common.  Fred is a “nice guy” out in the world–even giving his seat up on the subway despite wanting to keep the seat for himself. However at home, where he feels safe, Fred doesn’t feel the need to hide his frustration/anger and let’s it out whenever he wants to.  Fred’s family, either through habit or fear, allows him to carry on this way.  This is the way their family dynamics works.

If we look at behaviour change–either in what we want to do differently or behaviours that we will no longer tolerate from others–there is often a tipping point.  A place where the status quo is no longer acceptable. For Fred’s family, the tipping point came because of his grandsons.  Lila, Justin and his wife had decided that the family dynamics had to change.

Fred has to make a choice–between allowing his anger to control him and lose his grandchildren (and maybe other family members), or to learn to manage his anger and work towards healing his relationships with his wife and son.

Awareness of Anger In The Body

For most of us the first hint that we’re angry is the experience of emotion.  Sometimes we start yelling, other times we may get very quiet as we seethe and mutter under our breath. The first step in being able to express our anger in an appropriate way is to be aware of when it starts, and like most strong emotions, that is in our bodies.

While Fred appears to have a short fuse, I suggest that his fuse is long and slow-burning.  In fact, it can take days for him to blow.  If Fred was able to watch the connection between his emotions and body sensations, he may notice a slight restriction in his chest after he has dealt with the first few customer complaints.  As the day goes on, he may become aware of how his stomach is starting to ache or the place between his shoulder blades becoming hot and tense.  When he gave his seat to the woman on the train, he may have noticed the tightening of his neck muscles.  With practice, Fred will be able to recognize these body sensations as signs that he is becoming angry.

Anger as a Teacher

Once Fred is able to notice the physical warning signs, he is ready to take the next step…look at the events and thoughts that occurred leading up to his body sensations. Anger is a wonderful teacher. It arrives when one of our key boundaries or values have been crossed.  Sometimes we don’t even know what these are, but anger shows us.

When we look at the situations in the story when Fred became angry, there is a theme of ‘loss of control’–he didn’t have his car (when he wanted it), he had to give up his seat on the bus (due to public perception and societal norms), and he had expectations of how he would spend his time when he returned home (which didn’t happen due to the spontaneous family visit).  Is being in control a boundary or value for Fred?

If Fred was working with a therapist, they may explore what control means to Fred.  His history with control or loss of control.  How does this fit in with Fred’s role as Customer Service Manager–where he is expected to fix issues not of his own making?

Releasing Anger

Like all emotions, anger is energy–not good or bad–just energy.  There are two parts to releasing the energy of anger in an appropriate way–the physical and emotional.  It’s often useful to release the physical energy first, so that you’re in a calmer place to release the emotional energy.

Ways to release anger energy:

  • Breath or count before saying anything.  This idea has been around for decades…because it works!
  • Exercise. Go for a walk or run.  Walk up flights of stairs. Do jumping jacks.  Anything to get your body moving.
  • Walk away.  If possible, take a break.  If not possible, breath or count.
  • Write a letter and then destroy it. The idea is to get the angry ideas out of your head and onto paper.  Many people have found this exercise to be emotionally cathartic, not just for anger, but other strong emotions as well.
Rebuilding Relationships

We’re human and all make mistakes.  As much as we want to be able to control our strong emotions, no one is able to do it all of the time.  Therefore, it’s important that we make the effort to fix what we broke.  One of the best ways to rebuild a relationship is an honest apology.

How do we apologize when we’ve made a big mess?  When?  I suggest that a heartfelt apology can only come after we have calmed down and processed ourselves (or with a trusted person) about what happened.

Steps of an apology.

  • Make a statement of what we are sorry for.  For Fred, this could be saying he was sorry to his wife, son, daughter-in-law and grandchildren for yelling at them.  He would need to come up with an age-appropriate statement for his grandchildren.
  • Describe what caused the reaction in the first place.  Fred may have realized that his outburst was a result of having to be on the receiving end of numerous customer complaints that he was powerless to prevent.
  • Outline what we will do differently in the future. While none of us are perfect, or have a crystal ball, we can problem solve for the future. Fred could agree to look at ways to manage his anger using the suggestions noted above.  He may agree to see a therapist to further look at his tendency to have temper tantrums.

Fred and his family have some work ahead of them.  Not only does Fred need to learn about his anger and how to manage it in order to make changes; ideally, he and his family will be able to forgive him for his past behaviour and how it has affected their lives.

And now…here’s some wisdom that doesn’t get old…enjoy!

All I Really Need To Know
I Learned In Kindergarten

by Robert Fulghum

All I really need to know I learned in kindergarten.
ALL I REALLY NEED TO KNOW about how to live and what to do and how to be I learned in kindergarten. Wisdom was not at the top of the graduate-school mountain, but there in the sandpile at Sunday School.

These are the things I learned:

Share everything.

Play fair.

Don’t hit people.

Put things back where you found them.

Clean up your own mess.

Don’t take things that aren’t yours.

Say you’re sorry when you hurt somebody.

Wash your hands before you eat.


Warm cookies and cold milk are good for you.

Live a balanced life – learn some and think some
and draw and paint and sing and dance and play
and work every day some.

Take a nap every afternoon.

When you go out into the world, watch out for traffic,
hold hands, and stick together.

Be aware of wonder.
Remember the little seed in the styrofoam cup:
The roots go down and the plant goes up and nobody
really knows how or why, but we are all like that.

Goldfish and hamsters and white mice and even
the little seed in the Styrofoam cup – they all die.
So do we.

And then remember the Dick-and-Jane books
and the first word you learned – the biggest
word of all – LOOK.

Everything you need to know is in there somewhere.
The Golden Rule and love and basic sanitation.
Ecology and politics and equality and sane living.

Take any of those items and extrapolate it into
sophisticated adult terms and apply it to your
family life or your work or your government or
your world and it holds true and clear and firm.
Think what a better world it would be if
all – the whole world – had cookies and milk about
three o’clock every afternoon and then lay down with
our blankies for a nap. Or if all governments
had a basic policy to always put thing back where
they found them and to clean up their own mess.

And it is still true, no matter how old you
are – when you go out into the world, it is best
to hold hands and stick together.

© Robert Fulghum, 1990.
Found in Robert Fulghum, All I Really Need To Know I Learned In Kindergarten, Villard Books: New York, 1990, page 6-7.

Are You a “Nice” Person?

When you think of a ‘nice’ person, what pictures come to mind?  Do images of a kindly neighbour handing out homemade treats for Halloween, or the individual who lets people cut in front of them at the grocery checkout pop into your head?  I’d wager this week’s coffee money that the memory of the individual who pointedly let you know that she was unhappy about this or that was nowhere to be seen. Too bad!

Webster’s on-line dictionary defines ‘nice’ as “pleasing, agreeable, pleasant, kind, well-mannered and well-behaved”.  Not surprisingly, the definition doesn’t include such adjectives as assertive and angry.  Are ‘nice’ and ‘angry’ mutually exclusive? Continue reading Are You a “Nice” Person?

What’s “The Point”?

In the early 80’s I was introduced to the 1971 album “The Point” written and narrated by Harry Nilsson. An animated version was released shortly afterwards.  This musical (one of my favourites) is the tale of a boy named Oblio–the only person in the Land of Point without a point, and therefore, ‘different’.

This story is suitable for adults and children alike…with a message that still has a “point” over 45 years later.

For the last long weekend of the summer, take some time to relax and enjoy…. Continue reading What’s “The Point”?

Welcome to the Transition!

Traditionally, in Western culture, we often think of January 1 as the beginning of a new year, but for me it’s always been the day after Labour Day.  Just like the week before December 31 is taken up with New Year’s Eve preparation, for me, the days leading up to the first day of school involved choosing new supplies, deciding what to wear and checking the school office window to discover the name of my new teacher.

Living in a city that is home to two universities, it’s clear that the September start of a new year doesn’t only apply to children, but to young adults as well.  The beginning of their new year is obvious as the streets become filled with U-Hauls and the traffic in the city core picks up.  For some (and their families) it’s not only the start of a new year, but the start of a new life–with lots of feelings of excitement and trepidation. Continue reading Welcome to the Transition!

Grief is a Genesis, Not a Finale

Often the greatest wisdom comes from someone who is, or has lived through, a certain experience. When I discovered this “Point of View” article  entitled “Grief is a Genesis, Not a Finale” in the May/June 2017 issue of Psychology Today, I knew that I wanted to share it on this site.  Below is Ms. Sabbage’s article in its entirety. 
The author, Sophie Sabbage, continues her journey, and is the author of the book and PT blog The Cancer Whisperer.
Before I was diagnosed with incurable cancer at the age of 48, I had passed grief by like a stranger on the street. I had reserved it for death and heartbreak, the shattering losses that bend us double—but not for the regrets, disappointments, and failures that also ask us to grieve. I thought it brought closure, but now I know that grief gives life.

The news of my condition unfolded over a six-week period, one tumor at a time. First my lungs; then the lymph nodes in my throat and chest; then my bones—ribs, shoulders, spine. And finally, multiple lesions in my brain. My options seemed extremely limited, but I soon heard about a pioneering oncologist in Mexico who was reversing late-stage cancer and didn’t turn patients down. After emailing him my scan results we clung to this whisper of possibility, waiting for it to mature into certainty.

The call didn’t come for two weeks. My husband, John, took it while I was putting our 4-year-old daughter, Gabriella, to bed. I could hear the sound of his voice downstairs, but the words were muffled so I focused on her bedtime story and helping her fall asleep. This involved lying next to her while she snuggled into my armpit and kneed me in the ribs a dozen times before her perpetually moving legs finally gave up the ghost. When she looked up at me and said, “Mummy, my legs won’t let me sleep,” I wondered where they would carry her in the future and if I would be there to see it. I wondered. I yearned. I prayed.

John said walking up the stairs that evening was the steepest climb of his life. He had to tell me that the oncologist who doesn’t turn patients down had turned me down; that I was that far gone.

Grief didn’t burst its banks when he told me. There was no wailing or gnashing of teeth. Instead it visited us like a living entity and enfolded my whole family in its blanket. John was desolate. It had taken us so many years to find each other and he loves me so much. But his pain distracted me from mine. I could attend to it instead of cratering inside. I could kiss the top of Gabriella’s head, pull my husband onto the bed with us and take what this moment had to offer: the great love we had found, the scale of which could only be matched by the sorrow we felt at the prospect of leaving each other after too short an embrace on Earth; and our high-voltage daughter, who wears her father’s smile as she explodes toward tomorrow and whose legs have a life of their own.

Grief became my guest and an almost constant companion. I was letting go of what I had achieved in life (like conceiving Gabriella after being told I couldn’t have children) while lamenting what I hadn’t achieved and wouldn’t: buying a forever home for my family when I could finally afford it; withering with my husband into beneficent old age while our daughter rises into her purpose like a blood-red sun on a black-and-silver sea; writing books. Each day brought another letting go. The vision in my left eye faded. I forgot how to spell simple words and sometimes forgot the words themselves. I closed the consulting business I had spent 20 years building. I stopped driving my car. The large tumor on my vertebra, at the midpoint of my neck, pressed against my spinal column and truncated my countryside walks until I could only putter around the garden. And the day came when I couldn’t pick up my daughter from a standing position—which was almost more than I could bear.

With each loss I turned toward grief instead of away from it, and began to discover its true nature. This was partly prompted by discovering that, according to Chinese medicine, grief is held in the lungs. Since I had lung cancer, this begged the question, “What have I not been grieving and why?” I was convinced that cancer is as much an emotional and psychological disease as it is a physical one, so this line of inquiry seemed as essential to my healing as the medical treatments that slowly began to turn things around. My cancer needed me to grieve and I needed cancer to discover my grief.

(Photo courtesy of Sophie Sabbage)

The biggest breakthrough came when I visited a small herd of horses in a field just a few minutes’ walk from my house. I had grown up with horses in the lush green valleys of South Wales, where galloping into the wind over the vaulted hills was the best way I knew how to silence the incessant inner self-criticism that marked my teenage years. I continued riding as an adult, usually on vacation, and it had remained one of my greatest joys in life. That day, just a few weeks after the Mexican doctor turned me down, the horses walked up and encircled me, like the standing stones of Stonehenge. Initially, I was delighted, but as I stroked their soft necks I realized I would never ride again because my tumor-clad spine couldn’t tolerate any jarring. And thus, in a wet field on a cold winter day, my heart broke like a levee with grief.

Far from dragging me down, however, grief raised me up. As it rolled through my cells I felt lighter, freer and literally more able to breathe. My body continued to break down for a while, but my heart’s locked-in hurts began to heal. I was able to forgive those I hadn’t forgiven, from the girl who bullied me in the playground as an 8-year-old to the various sexual assaults I had discounted because I didn’t want to make a fuss. Perhaps more important, I was able to forgive myself. I knew the part I had played in my disease, the ways I had mistreated my body through my youth, the relentless bending my life into an apology for my blessings as well as my flaws. Physically, I could barely turn my head from side to side, but emotionally I was beginning to lift it without shame.

There is a “break” in the word breakthrough—something must break for something new to grow. This is what grief does. It broke my denial, restoring me to the stark naked reality of what I was facing and thus to the natural order of things. It offered a bridge from the life I had planned to the life I was actually living. Where fear closed my heart, grief opened it. It drew back the curtain on what I have loved and do love. Because its purpose is to keep love alive.

When some of the long-standing friends I had assumed would show up with vegetable casseroles retreated from my imminent demise in awkward silence, I felt hurt and angry. Among these was my best friend for nearly 20 years. We had fallen out nine months before my diagnosis over some differences that had been brewing for some time, but I felt confident that we would resolve them. We had been business partners as well as friends and often taught conflict resolution to our clients. We needed time to lick our mutually inflicted wounds, but we also knew how to heal them. It was what we did.

On hearing I had cancer she emailed me to “find solace in one another again,” but I was wary. I was extremely vulnerable at that time and death was stalking me like a permanent shadow. My condition didn’t heal the hurt or diminish the depth of our differences. Nor did I want cancer to become a get-out-of-jail-free clause for the things we both needed to apologize for and forgive. Instead, it called for a deep dialogue and heartfelt reconciliation—or so I thought.

She wasn’t up for it. I asked for a meeting to talk through what had happened between us instead of brushing it under the carpet. I said things that were better saved for face-to-face, or  not said at all. I was raw as sushi at the time and regret how I handled it, but I don’t regret refusing to gloss over undercurrents of animosity when I most needed to feel safe. She requested that there be “no further communication between us.” And that was that.

At the time I didn’t know that this decision would free me to move into a completely new sphere of friendship, vocation, and service—or that gratitude would supersede the pain. I have not forgotten who she was to me and still miss her acutely some days. But I remember her with love, not rancor, because I gave our friendship to the river of grief that has merged with my bloodstream and now flows like oxygen through my beckoning life.

Grief released friends who backed away as gratefully as it received the friends I had long since alienated or lost touch with. They reappeared with gentle eyes and ready hands as if the years between were merely parentheses in an unfinished sentence. All of it liberated me to love more honestly. And thanks to grief, the authentic intimacies of my life prevailed.

Within three months of medical treatments and emotional healing my life force returned along with my vision and ability to spell. I can pick up my now 6-year-old daughter. I even galloped a dappled grey horse along a Moroccan beach. I wrote a book. I am still living with the death sentence I was given over two years ago, but it keeps the channels of grief open, which rise and fall like a tide, but always deliver me back to the shores of what I cherish most. My greatest wish is for cancer to leave me so I can raise my darling girl until she is self-assured enough to run headlong into her destiny. But I hope grief remains. My love is less without it. Not entirely itself.

Grief is the most unlikely gift cancer has conferred on me. It walked me through the fog of my despair into a vast landscape where I could see the heavens overhead and feel the mercies underfoot. Grief freed my spirit before it left my body and, in a very real sense, it raised me from the dead.



The Monster Under the Bed…Childhood Anxiety

As parents, we want the best for our kids–to be happy and healthy–physically, emotionally and mentally. It can be heart-breaking when we see them suffer and unable to enjoy all that life has to offer.  One of the ways that children can struggle is with anxiety.

What is  Anxiety?

Simply put, anxiety is the fear of what might happen.  We experience a trigger such as an invitation to a party. Our social anxiety ramps up.  As we imagine ourselves standing tongue-tied and lonely on the edges of the party, the emotional centre of our brain becomes activated, stimulating the fight, flight or freeze reaction.  Next thing we know, we’re having a full-blown anxiety or panic attack.

Anxiety is a condition that can make our world become very small as it is a condition of “avoidance”.  When we have been anxious in one situation (e.g. a large party) we seek to avoid similar experiences in the future (no more parties!).  The more anxiety-producing events there are, the more we start to avoid things.  Untreated anxiety can lead to depression.  In extreme cases, we may become afraid to leave our homes due to the fear of anxiety or panic attacks.

Anxiety in Childhood

While we can think of anxiety as being a ‘grown up’ challenge, according to the website anxietybc, anxiety is one of the most common mental health concerns for children and adults, affecting upwards of 20% of children and adolescents over their lifespan.

The good news is that childhood anxiety is very treatable.  With support from parents, teachers, family members and therapists; anxious children can learn ways to cope with their anxious thoughts and develop new patterns of behaviour around triggers.

Signs That Your Child May Be Suffering From Anxiety

It can be difficult to admit that your child is struggling.  However, if your child is showing any of the following behaviours, they may be suffering from anxiety.

  • Clinging, crying and/or tantrums when you leave
  • Excessive shyness, avoiding social situations
  • Constant worrying and/or worrying hours, days, or weeks ahead of an event
  • Avoiding situations or places because of fears
  • Complaining of frequent stomachaches or headaches that prevent them from going to school
  • Taking part in repetitive physical behaviours such as nail biting or hair pulling
  • Experiencing sudden and frequent panic attacks
  • Asking repeatedly for reassurance, but not comforted by logical answers
  • Has difficulty falling asleep, frequent nightmares, and difficulty sleeping alone
  • Experiencing perfectionism, self-critical, or very high standards that make nothing good enough
  • Feeling overly-responsible, people pleasing, and showing excessive concern that others are upset with him or her, as well as unnecessary apologizing

If your child is dealing with anxiety, it is not a reflection on your parenting.  There are many reasons why children can be anxious. Please don’t take your child’s anxiety personally. 

Why Should We Be Concerned?

As parents, we sometimes hope that the negative behaviours that our children are showing are ‘just a stage’ and that they will ‘outgrow’ them.  Unfortunately, due to their nature, untreated anxiety issues become worse over time.

Unlike adults, young children don’t have the language or concepts around anxiety to explain what they are experiencing.  They can begin to think that they are different from their peers, while at the same time not understanding why they feel unable to take part in the same activities as others.  These feelings can lead to a lack of self-esteem and the confidence that comes from  mastering new situations and skills (social, mental and physical).

What’s a Parent or Caregiver To Do?

As the most important person/people in your child’s life, there are lots that you can do. The Anxiety and Depression Association of America suggests the following ideas for parents to do at home to help their child to cope with anxiety.

  • Pay attention to your child’s feelings
  • Stay calm when your child becomes anxious about a situation or event
  • Recognize and praise small accomplishments
  • Don’t punish mistakes or lack of progress
  • Be flexible, but try to maintain a normal routine
  • Modify expectations during stressful periods
  • Plan for transitions (For example, allow extra time in the morning if getting to school is difficult)
  • Talk to your child’s teacher, principal, etc. to create a support plan that can be followed both at school and home
Other Resources

There are many resources to help parents and caregivers as they support their children. Websites such as WorryWiseKids and AnxietyBC provide a wealth of information as well as links to other useful sites.

Depending on your child’s age and school district, schools usually have access to on-site social workers, child and youth workers and other specialized staff members who are experienced in helping children with anxiety issues.

A wonderful, child-friendly workbook for parents and children is The Anxiety Workbook for Kids:  Take Charge of Fears & Worries Using the Gift of Imagination by Robin Alter, PhD, CPsych and Crystal Clarke, MSW, RSW.  Divided into chapters, this book covers everything from explaining anxiety and the brain to how our body reacts to anxiety and coping skills.  It also helps children to identify their own triggers and gain mastery over them.

Sometimes, your child’s teacher or social worker will suggest that they see a therapist. When looking for a therapist for your child, check to see that they have experience working with children as this requires a different skill set than working with adults.  Depending on the age of your child, they may do well with a therapist skilled in Play Therapy.

At the end of the day, we want our children to feel better as they grow and enjoy their family, friends and activities.

The 2015 movie Inside Out is one of the bests movies I’ve seen to help children understand feelings.  Here’s a clip…Enjoy!