The Path to Forgiveness

In this post, we explore the concept of forgiveness…What is it?  Who benefits?  Why is it important? And, most importantly, how do we do it?

The idea of forgiveness is a difficult thing.  When we have been disappointed or hurt by someone else our instinct is often to recoil and protect ourselves.  When a person close to us breaks our trust, the last thing we want to do is forgive them.  On the other hand, when we have hurt others, forgiving ourselves can be just as difficult.

However, in order for  true healing to happen, walking the path to forgiveness is a necessary journey.

What Is Forgiveness?

When we think of forgiveness, we may think of cheesy movies where by plot’s end, mortal enemies have become best friends–the closing scene showing them walking hand-in-hand into the sunset.  While this could happen in real life, forgiveness doesn’t usually look like this.

One way to describe forgiveness is to point out what it does not do.  According to Ron Pevny, in his book Conscious Living, Conscious Aging, forgiveness does not…

  • Mean that we have to ignore our hurt feelings.
  • Change the past, or assume that we have to forget what happened.
  • Mean that we have lost and the offender has won.
  • Excuse the act that did the wounding.
  • Absolve the offender of karmic or legal consequences.
  • Mean that we will resume a relationship with the other person–especially if it is not safe (emotionally or physically) to do so.

What forgiveness does is to provide the opportunity for healing and being able to move on with our life, without being limited by what happened.  According to Buddhist philosophy,  “Holding on to resentment is like picking up a hot coal with our hand with the intention of finding an opportunity to throw it at the one who has hurt us.”.

In The Book of Joy, Archbishop Desmond Tutu states,

“Forgiveness is the only way to heal ourselves and be free from the past.  Without forgiveness, we remain tethered to the person who harmed us.  We are bound to the chains of bitterness, tied together, trapped.  Until we can forgive the person who harmed us, that person will hold the keys to our happiness, that person will be our jailor.  When we forgive, we take back control of our own fate and our feelings.  We become our own liberator.”

When we can forgive, we are able to stop labeling our self as a “victim” and move forward from a place of growth.

Holding on to negative events that lead to ongoing feelings of resentment, anger, hostility may undermine our health.  In one study, psychologists asked people to think about someone who has hurt them, while monitoring their heart rate, facial muscles and sweat glands.  When people remembered these grudges, their heart rate and blood pressure increased.  However, when they were asked to think about forgiving these people, their stress responses returned to normal (Book of Joy, pg. 237).

Steps to Forgiveness

While it seems obvious that forgiveness is a good thing–for our physical and mental health–how do we do it?  Especially since rehashing the juicy details of past hurts can provide an addictive energy rush.

It’s important to remember that forgiveness is a process; one that is repeated over and over as new feelings and details arise as we work to let go.

Pevny breaks down the path to forgiveness into the following five steps:

  1. Uncovering and feeling what happened.  Before we can forgive, we need to be clear about what we are forgiving.  It’s important to explore the actual event–what were the circumstances?  Who said what?  What emotions did you feel?  Take your time and be gentle with yourself.
  2. Committing to forgive.  Forgiveness is a choice–sometimes a difficult one.  When we have held on to resentments for a long time, they become part of our story.  Forgiveness is choosing a new story.
  3. Humanizing the offender.  Forgiveness begins to happen when we are able to separate the person from the action.  To do this requires compassion and the ability to see the situation from the other person’s perspective.  Maybe there were things going on that you didn’t know?
  4. Honestly looking at your role in relation to the situation.  This is especially challenging when the emotions are still raw, so it’s useful to use your logic vs. emotions.  Human relationships are never simple.  As my grandmother used to say “It takes two to tango.”
  5. Forgiving and continuing to forgive.  Forgiving is an act of will–we choose.  This act will play out differently for each person.  For some, it’s a private, quiet letting go.  For others, they want to meet with the person involved and voice their forgiveness.  No matter how it manifests, forgiveness is an ongoing process.
What If I Need to Forgive Myself?

When we have hurt others, the feelings of guilt and shame that we carry can be overwhelming.  While we may be able to show compassion to others, doing so to ourselves is more difficult–if not impossible as we’re our own harshest critics.

Pevny suggests that the five steps are applicable to those working on self-forgiveness, and may include specifically asking for forgiveness from those we have hurt (if possible and appropriate).  However, sometimes the person we have hurt is ourselves.  Pevny writes:

“In a great many cases, what needs self-forgiveness is not harm done to others but personal weaknesses or perceived choices or actions that we feel have damaged our own lives.  Self-forgiveness depends upon our willingness to carefully examine our choices and actions and, in many cases, acknowledge that we did the best we could with the awareness we had at the time.  If we see that we did not do the best we could, it requires that we use our regrets not to berate ourselves but as important guideposts on our journeys into a positive, conscious future.  The biggest catalysts for our growth are often (perhaps mostly) what we learn from our mistakes, weaknesses and poor choices.”

Rewriting our Stories…Sometimes We Need Help

Whether we need to forgive ourselves or others, walking on this path gives us the opportunity to rewrite our story–and sometimes the stories of others.  And we know that the journey isn’t easy.  Self-care is important.  If you start on this journey and feel that you are losing your way, please reach out to a trusted friend, family member or professional to provide support.  Sometimes, our hurts are too big walk up to on our own.

And now…a quick lesson in self-compassion.  Enjoy!

 

 

 

Resilience–A Gift From Hard Times

In 1978, M. Scott Peck (American psychiatrist) published his best-selling book The Road Less Traveled in which the first sentence reads:  “Life is difficult.”  Dr. Peck wasn’t kidding!  On a daily basis we deal with problems large and small–ranging from not being able to find our car keys to dealing with a difficult co-worker.  Usually, we’re able to cope with these challenges with the help of our friends, family and self-care practices.

However, what happens when we are hit with something really big?  A loved one dies. A marriage ends. A job is lost. We’re not the only ones trying to keep it together. On a global scale, the problems appear to be insurmountable. We only have to hear the local, national or international news to realize that, to put it very mildly, “Life is difficult”… and many of us are able to move past the challenges.  Why?  The answer is resilience.

The Concept of Resilience 

While the term ‘resilience’ was first the object of research in the 1970’s, it has now become somewhat of a buzzword.  A google search provides over 10,600,000 sites to explore–everything from physical resilience to the for resiliency in the work-place and why companies should encourage this trait in their employees.  The resilience that I’m focusing on is psychological resilience.

What is psychological resilience?  The American Psychological Association (2017) defines resilience as “the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats or significant sources of stress.”  It’s our ability to pick ourselves up after hard times and carry on–often wiser and more resourceful.

What Does Resilience Look Like?

Resilience doesn’t look the same from one person to another.  However, it does allow individuals to bounce back from a stressful or traumatic situation with “competent functioning”–i.e. the ability to ‘carry on’.   Like a piece of bamboo, we bend, we don’t break.

A common misconception is that resilient people are free from negative emotions or thoughts, and remain optimistic in most or all situations. Instead, a sign of being resilient is the ability to use proper coping techniques that allow them to effectively and relatively easily navigate around or through crises.  But what are these coping techniques?  How do we develop them?

Developing Resilience

Ideally, resilience is something that we learn in childhood through the key adults in our lives.  We were able to grow up in stable-enough homes and become securely attached to our primary caregivers.  Perhaps we were able to watch adults in our lives practice resilience. We were encouraged to develop our ability to self-sooth when we are emotionally upset  and taught self-efficacy (confident that we were able to take care of ourselves).  Our physical, emotional and spiritual needs were adequately met. Unfortunately, not everyone was fortunate enough to grow up in such an ideal nesting ground for resilience.  But it’s never too late to develop resilience.

The American Psychological Association suggests “10 Ways to Build Resilience”, which are:

  • maintain good relationships with close family members, friends and others;
  • avoid seeing crises or stressful events as unbearable problems;
  • accept circumstances that cannot be changed;
  • develop realistic goals and move towards them;
  • take decisive actions in adverse situations;
  • look for opportunities of self-discovery after a struggle with loss;
  • develop self-confidence;
  • keep a long-term perspective and consider the stressful event in a broader context;
  • maintain a hopeful outlook, expecting good things and visualizing what is wished;
  • take care of one’s mind and body, exercising regularly, paying attention to one’s own needs and feelings.
There’s No Time Like the Present

Just like it’s important to have a support system in place before it’s needed, resilience is the same.  If you have decided that the ability to bounce back from adversity is a skill you would like to improve, then start now–before a major life event calls for its use.

Resilience and Mental Health

Sometimes mental health challenges get in the way of increasing our level of resilience.

Karen Reivich and Andrew Shatté in their book The Resilience Factor:  7 Keys to Finding Your Inner Strength and Overcoming Life’s Hurdles, identify the five typical emotions that are associated with a lack of resilience, namely;

  1. anger
  2. sadness or depression
  3. guilt
  4. anxiety or fear
  5. embarrassment

While it’s normal to experience these emotions, the key to recognizing them as indicators of a lower level of resilience is whether they are disproportionate to the event (looking back you might catch yourself thinking, “I really over-reacted”), or if the same event triggers the same emotion repeatedly.  If this is the case, speaking to a therapist may be helpful.

Resilience and Gratitude

I’ve spoken to many people who have been able to successfully live through hard times and are grateful for the experience.  A common theme that runs through their description of the events is that, while they wouldn’t choose to repeat the experience, they are thankful for what they learned–a recognition of their strength, the creation of new relationships, or an increased sense of self-efficacy.

Hard times come to everyone, and we can choose how we respond and find meaning in them.

Now, here’s a very inspiring Ted Talk about trauma and resilience…Enjoy!

Now That You’re Cured…The Second Half of the Journey

There is a belief that once someone has been cured of cancer, they should feel ecstatically happy.  Why wouldn’t they?  The treatments are over!  They are cancer-free!  The battle has been won!   However, many of the people I have met during this stage of their cancer journey don’t feel like it’s time for a party.  In fact, they feel that their journey isn’t over.  If the first half of having cancer is the treatment, then the second half is ‘after the cure’.

In this post, we’ll explore some of the physical, emotional, spiritual and social challenges that can be part of post-cancer life.

Why Am I Not Happy?  What’s Happening Emotionally.

Last year, I was able to take a tour of the Grand River Cancer Centre.  I didn’t see it, but I’ve heard that a gong is rung each time a patient completes their series of chemotherapy treatments.  While some patients thought that this was a useful ritual to signify the end of a challenging time, others have shared with me that they didn’t.  Some were too tired.  Others were remembering fellow patients who were unable to finish their chemotherapy treatment.  Many were busy integrating their experience and the ringing of a gong wasn’t significant enough.

Depending on the treatment you received, there are emotional side effects…depression, anxiety and anger.  There is also the fear that the cancer will return leading to hyper-vigilance about any physical symptoms.  A headache no longer is just a headache.  These emotions are normal and learning to cope with them is part of post-cancer recovery.

One reason for these emotions is that you may feel that you are now on your own.  During your treatment, your calendar was filled with medical appointments. You were supported by medical staff, and received regular updates on the state of your health.  You had a routine.  Now cancer-free, you’ve graduated and expected to go back to your life–without the supports you became used to.

Since the mind and body are connected, what you are feeling relates directly to your physical self.

Your New Body

It’s accurate to say that your ‘pre-cancer’ body is different than your ‘post-cancer’ body.  Depending on your cancer and treatment, you could be learning to cope with fatique, chronic pain or numbness, early menopause, weight gain or loss…to name a few.  As more people are sharing their post-cancer experiences, cancer is being seen as not only an acute illness, but also a chronic one, because some of these changes are permanent to some degree.

A task of thriving in the second half of the cancer journey is to find ways to cope with these changes. Talking with your doctor, therapist support (i.e. massage) and/or other cancer patients who have tools to share from their own experience can be helpful.

However, on a deeper level, I think that one of the biggest physical challenges is the loss of body confidence.  How did I get cancer in the first place…especially if I took good care of myself?  There may be feelings that your body betrayed you and is no longer trustworthy.  In this matter, time can be the greatest healer.  While there may continue to be flareups of anxiety/mistrust as medical checkups or routine illnesses come up; over time, if you remain cancer-free, some form of trust will redevelop.

What’s Going On Spiritually?

A cancer diagnosis can make us ask many existential questions…especially when we survive.  Why did I survive while others didn’t?  What am I meant to do with the rest of my life?  I’m a good person, so why did I get cancer?  The cancer journey puts us in touch with our mortality…often for the first time.  These questions are normal and, while difficult and uncomfortable, can lead to a greater sense of meaning and purpose.

Our New Social Reality

Often when you are in active treatment, you’re surrounded by family and friends who want to help.  Offers of food, transportation or household help arrive.  However, after given the cancer ‘all clear’, these supports disappear as the crisis is over.  Sometimes people who supported you expect that you’re back to normal.  Unfortunately, as noted above, you have a new body that may not allow you to do all the things you used to.  You may not have the energy to socialize or find talking difficult.  As You wrestle with spiritual issues you may need time alone.  Friends and family may not understand.

Another social reality you may struggle with is coming to terms with who wasn’t there to support us during our treatment.  Often we can be surprised and delighted by who showed up to help, and we can be sad and disappointed by those who we thought we be there for us and weren’t.  One of the tasks of this stage is to come to terms with this disappointment and figure out how or if this changes your relationships to these people.

The “New Normal”

At some point, there was an expectation that after treatment you would return to your old life, only to discover that the ‘old life’ no longer exists.  Maybe you see your relationships differently.  Perhaps your energy level or physical abilities are not the same.  It’s time to create a new normal that takes into account the massive changes you have gone through.

Here are two resources that I’ve read and think are helpful on this journey…

Picking Up the Pieces:  Moving Forward After Surviving Cancer by Sherri Magee, PhD & Kathy Scalzo, M.S.O.D.

This book takes up where the books on how to cope with cancer treatment leave off.  Written from the concept of putting pieces of a puzzle together to form a healthy whole, the book describes a four-phase healing process–each relating to the physical, emotional, spiritual and social aspects of the new normal.  There are lots of tools, quotes from cancer survivors, and valuable information describing may be occurring for you.  Magee and Scalzo set out the tools needed to create your own healing plan.

The Cancer Survivor’s Companion:  Practical Ways to Cope With Your Feelings After Cancer by Dr. Frances Goodhart & Lucy Atkins.

In this book, the authors look at the emotional reality of post-cancer life–including sleep and sexuality.  Each chapter contains coping strategies and coping strategies.  I especially  appreciate that Goodhart and Atkins have included ways for friends and family members to support ‘their person’.

As Dr. M. Scott Peck notes in the first line of The Road Less Traveled…life is difficult.  And it can also be joyful, no matter where we find ourselves.  If you are in the second half of your cancer journey, take your time and be gentle with yourself.  If you are supporting someone, thank you.

And now…something to think about…a Ted Talk by a cancer someone who completed her cancer journey.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Comings and Goings…The Circle of Life

People come and go in our lives for a variety of reasons.  Sometimes it’s because we meet a new friend, or a relationship ends.  Maybe we’re the one coming and going as we change jobs or move to a new city.  At some point, our entrances and exits are more substantial…we are born and we die.  That’s the circle of life.

In the Not So Distant Past

While both birth and death are an unavoidable part of the human experience, I suggest that as a modern culture, we treat each of them very differently.  However, this hasn’t always been the case.

As a big fan of Call the Midwife, I never tire of watching the sanitized TV version of babies being born. The series takes place in an East-London neighbourhood, during the 1950’s and early 1960’s.  Among other things, it chronicles the progression from the norm of home births to hospital births; and the resulting changes in the expectations of everyone involved.  I’m not advocating one birth experience over another, just noting the shift of birth taking place at home vs. taking place in a medical setting.

Like birth, death has also moved locations. In the past, the common practice was that we died at home–circumstances allowing. Ideally, the dying person was surrounded by family and/or friends who were there to offer comfort to the individual and each other.  Family members shared the final tasks of preparing their loved-one for burial. Visitation was held in the family home. Birth and death were very personal, yet community, experiences. Now, most of us can expect to die in a hospital, and prepared for our final resting place by funeral home staff.

A Semi-Current Picture

According to Statistics Canada, in 2014 approximately 259,000 Canadians died. The Fact Sheet published about Hospice and Palliative Care in Canada reported that 70% of those deaths occurred in hospitals.

On the flip side, 2014 saw approximately 384,000 Canadian births (142,000 in Ontario). A December 2015 Toronto Star article outlined a three-year McMaster University study that noted midwives attended 10% of all births in Ontario (2014 is included in their data).  Of this 10%, 20% of these births occurred at home.

The bottom line…most of us will come and go in a hospital.  However, the picture may be changing.

Thoughts on Current Practices of Life… 

Midwifery, was regulated in Ontario in 1994, as a publicly funded service. Currently there are more than 700 registered midwives in Ontario who provide neonatal care to pregnant women, attend their deliveries and look after the mother and baby following birth.  With the 1994 law, midwives have hospital privileges (including access to hospital staff and resources). The blending of the two options gives expectant parents more choice of where to deliver their babies.  It is no longer a binary decision of at home with a midwife vs in hospital with a obstetrician (most family doctors no longer deliver babies).

According to the McMaster study, for women with low-risk pregnancies, babies delivered at home were at no greater risk than those in hospitals. We can have the best of both worlds.

…and Death

The same choice has begun around end of life decisions as well. The number of hospice centers and palliative care support is growing steadily.  According to an Ontario Ministry of Health and Long-term Care position paper:

“Ontario is working to provide patients with more choices for palliative and end-of-life care.

This includes investing in more hospice care across the province and expanding caregiver supports that help families and loved ones support palliative patients at home and in their communities. Ontario will also support more public education about advanced care planning so that patients’ wishes for end-of-life care are understood. The province is establishing clear oversight and accountability for Ontario’s palliative care services, to further advance patient-centred care.”

It will be interesting to see the effects of assisted death legislation on end-of-life location options.

Speaking of options, there are now death doula’s or midwives who spiritually help individuals and their families through the death process.  Training programs to become a death doula are now available throughout Canada and the US.  Both MacLeans magazine and Global News have covered this subject.

Death is Making an Appearance

While our culture tends to hide death–even in the language we use to describe death (“passed away” or “passed on”);  I have started to notice some changes.  Besides the increased visibility of hospice and palliative care and debates on assisted death, end-of-life has started to take up space in our current frame of reference.

At first it was something I glimpsed out of the corner of my eye.  A colleague had mentioned that he had attended a weekend workshop on “home funerals”.  The event took place in a private home, and included information about the rules and some basic skills for taking care of your deceased loved from death until burial. While not for everyone, this is a fascinating alternative to the current practice.

Next, over the six-month period, numerous articles appeared in the local paper:

  • A story about a Romanian cemetery (called the Merry Cemetery) where the crosses are etched with colourful epitaphs and drawings describing the deceased’s life and/or personality;
  • A helpful article about “tying up the loose ends of life”;
  • Another article assuring readers that “death doesn’t have be so frightening”;
  • A commentary of the Mexican tradition of the Day of the Dead–a family celebration that sees family members and friends having parties in local cemeteries as they visit their loved ones;
  • And finally, a review of the book  “The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning: How to free yourself and your family from a lifetime of clutter.”  A new reason to declutter.

I came across information about the Good Green Death Forum (an event organized by the Green Burial Society of Canada) and DeathCafe.com (a social event where people talk about death with the goal of increasing their awareness of life).

Ideas about death appear to be popping up in popular culture.

Why Does This Matter?

As a therapist, I tend to look at things through the lens of mental health.  While birth is usually a happy event (no matter where it takes place), I have concerns about how we deal with the end of life. With the movement of death from plain sight over the past decades, it has become scary.  Combined with our culture’s fixation on youth, this fear has escalated.  As with most things in life that we don’t understand, when we push them away they become something mysterious, and to be feared.

But do we have to continue to treat death this way?  Instead can we use a familiarity with death as a tool to help us live more aware and fulfilling lives?

Another Way to Look at Death

In many Buddhist traditions, a purposeful contemplation of death is one practice that is used to help individuals become aware of the constancy of change and life’s fragility.  The concept is that when we realize that nothing in life is permanent and everything is easily broken, we look at events in our lives differently.  We may appreciate to a greater level not only what we have (including health, relationships, and things), but also the people we love.  From this perspective, while we may grief loss (from the breaking of a favourite cup to the loss of something greater), we understand it to be part of a greater whole.  As well, to quote a best-selling book title, we “Don’t sweat the small stuff…and it’s all small stuff”.

Death as an Exercise

I’ve come across a few books over the years (The 7 Habits of Highly Successful People and She Means Business (to name a few) that advise readers to become comfortable with their own death as a way to add focus to their lives.

These authors lead a guided exercise in which the reader imagines, in detail, their own funeral or memorial service–paying particular attention to what their family and friends are saying about them.  These imaginary statements become nuggets to be mined as you set life goals.  I’m not sure if it works, but could be an interesting exercise.

Finally…

We can’t hide from the comings and goings in our lives…whether it’s us or someone else.  However, we can become less fearful and more mindful.

And now…somewhat predictably, but none the less still moving after all these years (movie came out in 1994)…The Lion King – Circle of Life.  Enjoy!

 

 

Are You Laughing? Humour and Health

Humour is a funny thing (no pun intended!).  What one person thinks is hilarious, another person barely breaks a smile.  What’s counts as humour in one culture, is seen as insulting in another.

Not only is humour tricky, we hold certain beliefs about it’s value–especially regarding our health.  In this post we’ll explore three areas of belief about humour’s effect on mental and physical health:  popular culture, science and personal experience.

Laughter:  The Best Medicine

Much of our beliefs about humour and health are thanks to Norman Cousins (June 24, 1915 – November 30, 1990), an American political journalist, author, professor, and world peace advocate.  Norman believed in a link between emotions and the successful fight against illness.  When diagnosed with a crippling connective tissue disease, he tried to alleviate his pain by watching television comedy.  Norman discovered that laughter helped to decrease his pain levels for a period of time.  He continued this practice until he was cured and went on to write a collection of best-selling non-fiction books on illness and healing.

As a culture, we now attribute laughter to being able to:

  • strengthen our immune system
  • improve our mood through the release of endorphins
  • lessen feelings of anger
  • reduce pain
  • decrease stress.

Laughter is thought to provide these benefits even when we don’t find something to be funny. Enter laughter yoga…a practice involving prolonged voluntary laughter. It’s based on the belief that voluntary laughter provides the same physiological and psychological benefits as spontaneous laughter. Laughter yoga is done in groups, with eye contact, jokes and playfulness between participants. Apparently, forced laughter soon turns into real and contagious laughter.  If you’re curious, you can find out more here.

What Science Suggests

Originally, when I started thinking about this post, I naturally assumed–based on common thought–that comedy was good for our mental health.  However, as I researched, I learned that the study results are inconclusive.  Some find no correlation between boosts in psychical or mental health and humour, others that there are minor improvements and still others that suggest any improvement is short-lived.

There is even some thought that Norman Cousins illness was misdiagnosed and his ‘cure’ would have occurred given enough time.

It looks as if the scientific jury is still out!

The Value of Personal Experience

As my old aunt used to say, “The proof in the pudding is in the eating!”  In other words, try it for yourself to see if it works.  So it is with the benefits of humour for mental and physical health.  At the end of the day, usually what we care most about is what works for us and the people that we love.  Treat the effects of humour on your life as a personal science experiment.

Here’s what I’ve learned about the effect of humour by watching myself, loved ones and clients:

  • Laughter feels good.  There’s nothing like a full belly laugh to bring on physical relaxation.  If having a good cry is on one side of the coin, a good laugh is on the other.
  • Laughter can be contagious (or not).  There is an old story that I am guaranteed to laugh at whenever I tell it…often to the point of being unable to continue to share it because I’m overcome with a fit of giggles.  Usually others don’t find it funny…maybe it’s my delivery!
  • Sharing humour strengthens relationships.  When we laugh with others we are sharing a common experience, which leads to positive memories.  Even when we share a lighthearted moment with a stranger there is a connection.
  • Laughter helps diffuse conflict.  There have been times in couple therapy when during a heated moment, one of the partners is able to step out of the argument and see some humour.  When the other partner is open to this, the mood lightens, attitudes shift and there is a moment of healing.
  • Dark humour can be helpful.  Even when things feel really bleak, being able to laugh (not at anyone’s expense) can help make things a bit more bearable.

The ability to experience humour is an important human characteristic.  It makes life more fun…and we all know that we can use more of that!

And now…here’s some classic comedy to tickle your funny bone.  Enjoy!

Core Beliefs…We’ve All Got Them!

If someone asked you how you know something, what would you answer?  I learned it at school.  My parents taught me.  I checked on Google.

When we’re talking about facts or skills, it’s often easy to remember how or when the information came to us.  However, if I asked you about a personality trait or ability, such as if you are kind or able to keep a secret, your response may be, “I’m not sure, I just know (whether I am or not).”

Depending on the question, you may feel embarrassed or proud. Either way, there is an emotional charge that is a result of how you feel or what you believe about yourself, in the context of the trait or ability.  In other words, my question would have come upon one of your core beliefs.

What Are Core Beliefs?

Core beliefs are the very essence of how we see ourselves, other people, the world, as well as the future.  Our core beliefs then inform how we operate in the world.  Below is a list of common negative core beliefs.

  • I’m not good enough.
  • I can’t get anything right.
  • I’m stupid.
  • I’m inferior/nothing/worthless.
  • I’m a bad person.
  • I’m insignificant.
  • I’m unattractive (ugly, fat, etc.).
  • I’m useless.
  • I’m a failure.
  • I don’t deserve anything good.
  • There’s something wrong with me.
  • I’m abnormal.

While it’s painful to think these things about ourselves, the pain is increased when these belief systems are used to navigate our way in the world.  When we incorporate negative core beliefs into our psyche, they become self-fulfilling.  We think we’re a failure, so we don’t try new things, which seems to prove that we’re a failure…and the cycle continues.

Where Do Core Beliefs Come From?  An example. 

A kindergarten class is preparing for the end-of-year concert.  Everyone is working very hard to get the song right and the teacher keeps moving individual children around to maximize the quality of the sound.

In the back row stands a boy named Jeremy.  Jeremy loves to sing and has been practicing the words every day as he walks home from school.  Jeremy sings with enthusiasm and his teacher has moved him a few times in order to find the appropriate place for his ‘sound’. Finally, in exasperation, the teacher suggests that Jeremy not sing, but whisper the words, in order to fit in with the group.  While Jeremy doesn’t completely understand what just happened, part of him sees that his way of singing doesn’t fit.  Maybe he doesn’t fit? Maybe there’s something wrong with him?  Jeremy grows up, never to sing again, and becomes hyper-aware of being ‘too much’ when out in the world.

Core Beliefs in Therapy

Often a key part of therapy is discovering our core beliefs (both negative and positive) and then exploring their history and validity.  One way to do this is through life review therapy.

Life Review Therapy involves looking at our past from the perspective of today.  The goal is to help the individual, couple or family to find meaning and resolution regarding a painful incident and be able to move on with greater awareness and sense of calm.  Often the painful incident involves the creation of a negative core belief.

The Example Continues…

Our young singer, Jeremy, is now 35 years old and has decided to see a therapist to deal with long-term social anxiety that has affected his life on many levels. He made his education and career choices (accounting) to fit in with his fear of interacting with groups of people.  He choose a smaller post-secondary school and a program that would allow him to work somewhat alone.

Jeremy accepted a junior management position three years ago, and discovered that he is good at it.  Due to his management skills, he was recently offered a promotion that will involve speaking in front of groups of people to present financial information. On one hand, Jeremy wants the promotion–he’s become bored with his current position and would like the extra income.  On the other hand, he is terrified at the thought of presenting and ‘making a fool of himself’ in front of his colleagues.

With his therapist, Jeremy explores the history of his social anxiety. He talks about the thoughts that are linked to his feelings when having to interact with groups of people. They treat the process like a science experiment–looking for similarities in thought content and events. Jeremy reports that he’s afraid of being ‘out there’.  He remembers that people are often telling him to “speak up” as they can’t hear what he has to say.  This direction increases his anxiety as he swings between wanting to be heard and ‘being out there’.

During therapy, Jeremy remembers his kindergarten experience and is able to begin to unravel his current feelings and how this core belief has affected his life.  Is this belief accurate? He was also able to process the anger that he feels on behalf of his young self towards his teacher and her actions.

Jeremy did accept his promotion and learned skills to cope with his social anxiety.  A big piece of his ability to move forward was that he was able to question the negative core belief that was holding him back.

This is a very strait forward example and determining our core beliefs are not often this direct.

I invite you to think about your core beliefs.  What are they?  Do you know?  How many of them are positive?  Are they helping you to go the places in your life that you want to go, or are they preventing you from living your best life?

Now for something fun…Enjoy!

 

 

 

Let’s Go Fishing…and Learn Something

“Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.”….Maimonides

When I think of fishing (which isn’t often), I think of two things.  The first is the gorgeous scenery in the Oscar-winning, 1992 movie A River Runs Through It.  For those who haven’t seen it, the story is about the two sons of a stern minister — one reserved, one rebellious — as they grow up in rural Montana. Fly fishing is a major theme in the movie.  Part of the landscape’s beauty may be due to the fact that one of the brothers is portrayed by a young Brad Pitt!

The second is self-sufficiency.  When we are able to feed ourselves, whether by growing, fishing, hunting or foraging; there is a confidence that comes from knowing that we are able to provide food for ourselves and loved ones.  Self-sufficiency is a value.  It is also be a component in therapy and mental health.

The Art and Science of Therapy

Therapy is a cross between art and science.  The tools that a therapist uses arise from specific theories that have been tested by research to show that they are helpful to clients.  Ideally, a therapist has studied a few different modalities of therapy and is able to have various tools in their tool belt that they can use.

The art comes in how to apply the tools.  Good therapy is molded to fit each individual client.  Individuals in pain are not like cars with faulty brakes–the same intervention doesn’t work for all!

Skill-building in Therapy

It has been my experience that clients don’t want to see a therapist for ever….and ethically, my role is to help them to feel better and move on with their lives.  One way that this goal is accomplished is through skill-building.

Skills come in all shapes and sizes…

A couple comes to therapy looking for relationship support.  As they describe what has brought them in to therapy, it becomes clear that communication is challenging, so we work on communication tools.  We work on spotting patterns that block positive discussions. We look at ways to get around this barriers as well as how to talk to each other to avoid their creation in the first place.

For individuals seeing a therapist for anxiety and depression, skill-building is a major part of therapy.  Clients will learn techniques to help lessen their anxiety as well as ways to monitor thoughts that may be contributing to their anxiety or panic attacks.  Similar tools can be used to manage anger.

For anxiety and depression, one of the skills that I teach the most often is a breathing exercise.  The free 20-minute download talks you through the exercise, as if you were in the office with me…though the wave sounds are only in the audio version!  You can find the exercise here (at the bottom of the Welcome Page).

My wish for clients, is that once they have learned and become comfortable with necessary skills, they will become self-sufficient in managing any remaining issues that brought them into therapy.

The Joy of Homework

Even more important than learning a new skill or coping strategy, is putting in the time to practice it.  This is the reason that I often suggest homework to clients.  Sessions usually last for 50 minutes, so the more work clients can do outside of our meetings, the more successful therapy will be.  Based on the theory of Experiential Learning, homework provides an opportunity to apply skills in different areas of life and in different ways–cementing the new ability into a client’s tool kit.  They have learned to fish!

If you’re curious about this connection, you can find out more by reading this previous blog post.

Back to Fishing…

When clients are able to leave therapy with the skills and tools that they need to help to keep themselves mentally healthy and/or better cope with life’s challenges, I believe that this is one indication of successful therapy.  To repeat  the quote by Maimonides,

“Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.”

And now…speaking about fish, who said they can’t be adorable, interactive and cute!  Enjoy!

Looking for Patience in a Fast-Paced World

Never cut a tree down in the wintertime. Never make a negative decision in the low time. Never make your most important decisions when you are in your worst moods. Wait. Be patient. The storm will pass. The spring will come.      Robert H. Schuller

For some reason, the topic of patience has come up a lot lately in  conversations with family members, colleagues, clients and friends.  I’m not sure if it’s because we were coping with the rush to prepare for Thanksgiving, the fact that many of us spent time with seldom-seen family members for the holiday, or because the novelty that is “September” is over and we’re into routines.  Whatever the reason, we seem to be bemoaning a lack of patience–for others, for ourselves, for life.

What is Patience?

We talk about patience all the time.  We often advise our children to have patience.  But what is it?

The Oxford on-line dictionary defines ‘patience’ as “the capacity to accept or tolerate delay, problems, or suffering without becoming annoyed or anxious”.  While this description may apply accurately apply to our experiences around the Thanksgiving dinner table, I don’t think it’s what we’ve been talking about.  Instead, the context of the ‘patience’ that I’m hearing about has to do with the ability to wait.  How do we cope when things are not happening as quickly as we would like, or think they should?

Delayed vs. Instant Gratification

We live in a very fast-paced world.  With each new technological development we expect that we’ll be able to accomplish things quicker than ever before.  For example, I remember when communicating with others far away involved sending a letter or paying for an expensive phone call.  We didn’t expect quick responses, and there was a sense of anticipation about receiving one (delayed gratification).  Now, with ‘instant everything’, we’ve lost our ability to wait.  In fact, we get anxious if we haven’t received an immediate reply to an email or text (instant gratification).

This desire for instant gratification affects not only our desire for communication, but every aspect of our lives.  And, this lack of patience is supported by our society.  Want to lose weight?  Mainstream media will provide lots of diet plans that tell you how to lose 10 kg in 10 days!  No exercise required!  Not to mention, all the ‘get rich quick’ schemes, self-help gurus that provide advice that will solve all your problems in three easy steps…the list goes on…

We are in a state of hyper-drive all the time.

The Gift of Time

Some things take time. Their progress can’t be rushed.  Take an oak tree…we can provide the acorn with the best nutrients and elements it needs to grow, but we can’t make it grown any faster.  The same restrictions apply to the growth of a child, relationship, business or learning a new skill.  In fact, when we try to rush some things, the results can be hard to manage at best, and disastrous at worst.

According to medical knowledge, losing more than 1 kg a week isn’t a good idea.  Think tortoise rather than hare…weight loss is more healthy and successful when the progress is slow and steady.  When we jump down two sizes in two weeks, chances are that we’ll be back up three sizes in six months.  Managing this up and down, is difficult and ultimately hazardous to our health.

When we think about relationships, not giving them time to develop can be dangerous.  According to Bill Eddy, LCSW, Esq., and Megan Hunter, MBA–authors of Dating Radar: Why Your Brain Says Yes to “The One” Who Will Make Your Life Hell; one of the warning signs at the beginning of potentially unhealthy/dangerous relationships is that they move very quickly–‘love at first sight’.  By not taking our time in a new relationship, we don’t allow ourselves to get to know someone in different ways, allowing us to spot potential problems.

Sometimes it takes hard work (and self-compassion).

One definition of patience is the ability to persevere.  To me, this means endurance.  To keep going when it gets tough.  To ignore the siren song of instant gratification and hold steady for the rewards that comes from waiting, struggling, falling down three times, and getting up four.

However, when we are in pain, discouraged or exhausted; this is easier said than done.  Enter self-compassion.  When we are attempting to do something difficult, and it’s not going as quickly or well as we’d hoped, these feeling are normal.  Why would we feel anything else?  This is when we get to take care of ourselves.

  • Recognize the challenge of what we are attempting.
  • Forgive ourselves for what we see as our failings.
  • Take a time-out for self-care so that we can come back tomorrow with renewed energy and endurance.
Patience From the Perspective of Mental Health

When we are dealing with a mental health challenge, having patience is really hard.  We’re in mental pain that often translates into physical pain because our mind and body are connected.

Sometimes people come into therapy thinking that they’ll feel better immediately and get progressively better from there.  They believe that therapy is somehow magical!  Sorry to disappoint, but therapy is hard work.  It’s often two steps forward and one step back.  There is progress, and it takes time and work.

Let’s look at anxiety.  When a client starts working on anxiety, we look at ways to decrease their discomfort level through the use of breathing exercises (see here for a downloadable version), changes than can be made to improve diet, exercise, sleep patterns, and social interactions.  It takes time to see results from these activities, and persistence in practicing them.  At the same time, we are looking at thought patterns and body sensations that trigger anxious moments.  Like a scientist observing a phenomenon, we are collecting data.  The more information we have, the better, personally-focused tools we can create.

This process requires the client to have patience and be willing to continue to tolerate discomfort and trust that their hard work will pay-off in improved mental health.

Final Thoughts on Patience

Sometimes the search for patience is like looking for the mythical unicorn.  However, unlike the unicorn, patience does exist.  We all have it, and like a muscle it requires regular use to make it stronger.  Here are easy ways to flex that muscle!

  • Send someone a letter and ask them to ‘write’ back.  You can even provide the stamp!
  • Allow yourself extra time to get somewhere.  This will make you feel less rushed and give you the opportunity to show patience to others.
  • Send someone a text and then mute your phone.  See how long you can go before checking to see if they responded.
  • Sit with discomfort.  Watch it.  See how long it lasts.  What does it feel like mentally and physically?
  • Don’t give in to instant gratification.  See how long you can hold out!  Find positive distractions.

And now…here’s some wisdom on this topic from  Amanda Lambert…. Enjoy!

 

Happy Thanksgiving…Unless You’re a Turkey!

What’s not to like about Thanksgiving?  It’s a long weekend, the weather is usually wonderful, and the tradition is to celebrate with good food, family and friends.  Plus, there’s not the pressure of gift-giving that can accompany other celebrations.

However, if you’re a turkey, Thanksgiving isn’t a favourite time of year!  According to this site published by the turkey farmers of Canada: Canadians purchased 2.2 million whole turkeys for Thanksgiving 2017. That’s 31% of all the whole turkeys that were sold over the year.

So, if you’re a human…I wish you a restful Thanksgiving weekend.  If you’re a turkey…RUN!!!

The Importance of Gratitude

For Canadians, next 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!