Category Archives: Mental Health

Words of Wisdom

We are now almost four months into living with various stages of COVID-19 restrictions.  It’s been hard, and we’re doing it.  Sometimes with grace, and sometimes it’s not pretty.  I can confess to a few episodes of “I DON’T WANT TO DO THIS ANYMORE!” along with some stamping of feet.

One of the ways that I’ve been able to cope during the last few months is through the wisdom of friends.  Three of these wonderful people have been willing to share their thoughts and methods about continuing during this time with you.  I thank them from the bottom of my heart.

So, take a moment, breathe, and see if their wisdom resonates with you…

Anita Woodard, Woodard Administration

“Dealing with the world of an ongoing pandemic is a balancing act. It’s acknowledging that the future is extremely unknown and that regardless of my desire for it to be otherwise, I can’t guarantee anything. How am I coping? I am lucky enough to be able to manage my time so that when I cannot deal with a specific element of the world, be that people, the news, or even just work, I take time for myself to do something I know will recharge my mental batteries. I make time to see loved ones, virtually, so that I maintain that connection. And finally? I remember history. This is not the first pandemic that humanity has dealt with, nor will it be the last. Living through history is rarely easy, but in the long run – things will work out. Eventually.”

LHC, Therapist
  • “Walking or yoga….every day…..especially if there has been something that is upsetting.
  • Doing normal things at a social distance with friends such as campfires and kayaking and painting over Zoom with my painting instructor.
  • Attending church services where my experience gets validated and supported by my spiritual community.”
MaryIris Reibling, M.S.W., R.S.W.
(Individual, Couple, Family Therapy; P.T.S.D., Trauma, E.M.D.R., Consultation)

“Today’s date is the last day of school before the ‘summer holidays’ begin.

The end of the school year picnics have been replaced with porch visits by teachers presenting students with their works of the past year ending abruptly at March Break.

Surviving Covid-19 has meant many things.

It has meant being/feeling isolated; physically/socially distanced; buying supplies of disinfectant sprays, wipes and sanitizers; wearing masks and the washing of hands continually for the past three months (seems so much longer).  It has meant being strategic in our practical lives as we shop less and buy in bulk.

It has meant being caught by surprise and having to acknowledge the unexpected and the uncertainty in our lives.

It has meant trying to make sense of our new reality, being fearful of getting sick, losing loved ones and losing our security and control.

It has meant dealing with feelings of powerlessness and helpless in a time of mixed messaging and chaos as we work through surviving Covid-19.

It has meant fighting an invisible enemy by not engaging with others, staying home.

For many Covid-19 has meant feeling very alone in the world together with everyone else in the world.  “Together apart” is the poignant catch-phrase describing our new world order.

The first two to three weeks of the new ‘normal’ were spent in denying and minimizing the threat of Covid-19 in an attempt to feel the illusion of ‘control’.  Paperwork was caught up and bags of shredded paper appeared on the curb on numerous garbage days.

The importance of routine and schedules took on significant importance as the rules for work and everyday life changed from moment to moment.  Morning radio took on an important role of reminding the world of it uncertainty and losses, while reassuring us.

Limiting the news of the day helped put some distance between the reality of Covid-19 and surviving emotionally and mentally.

Everyday walks were implemented in the beginning of April in spite of the coldness of the strange spring.  It seemed that Covid-19 had slowed the coming of spring.  The sun shone, but trees, shrub branches remained brown and bare. The sounds of the streets and roads were quiet as ‘staying at home’ meant safety for everyone.

Attempts were made to connect with others – some successful, some not, as everyone tried to find their own way through the confusion and disbelief.  The learning curves of technology and video visits were overwhelming at times.Support systems and routines were implemented – dinners with family, baking birthday cakes together, sharing breakfasts, reading bedtime stories — all virtual.

Talk of Victory gardens after the impact of World Wars inspired the planting of a vegetable garden in the spring to regain a sense control and survival.  The creation of a large berm in the yard has provided a sense of pain-staking purpose, a place to plant the bushes of beauty next spring – providing hope and a future beyond Covid-19.

The many unfinished tasks at home have become projects of gratitude in this time.

The perspective is now different—it is a process not task.  The pace is much more manageable.

Letter writing has had a resurgence —  connecting with family and friends in a meaningful way.

Surviving Covid-19, music, dance and movement of the body, have become sources of joy as we become reacquainted with ourselves and our lives during this time as we look forward to the future in September with renewed hope.

Stay Safe, Be Kind, Seek Joy…”

 

 

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The Precariousness of Balance…Especially During Covid-19

Balance is a topic that has been coming up a lot recently, both personally and with clients. During this time of Covid-19 many of us are trying to figure out how to juggle the reality of daily existence while not knowing how long restrictions and physical distancing will last.  

The following post from the archives, talks about the concept of balance and how we can apply it to our lives today.  

Take care and be safe!

When people find out that I publish a blog post on a regular basis, they often ask where I find ideas to write about.  I share that the inspiration can come from lots of different areas.  Sometimes it’s a book or article that I’ve read. Sometimes a discussion with a friend, colleague, client or stranger has been the spark.  And then there are posts that  I write as a way to wrestle with a topic that I am puzzling with…such as today’s post on balance.

What is Balance?

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines ‘balance’ in a number of ways…

  • as a piece of equipment used for measurement
  • physical equilibrium (keeping your balance on a sailboat)
  • the equal space between two opposing elements (junk food vs. exercise)
  • in the context of art, balance is an aesthetically pleasing integration of elements
  • an amount in excess especially on the credit side of a bank account
  • mental or emotional stability.

The ideas of physical equilibrium, space between opposing elements and mental/emotional stability are somewhat helpful, but they don’t quite fit what I’m looking for.  They are describing an exact point, but life is made up by a series of ‘points’ or moments.

Balance as a Concept

At some point during the time that a client and I are working together, we will talk about how things may be different when they have finished therapy.  What is their picture of life after ‘the change’?   In order to discover your view ‘balance’, substitute ‘balanced’ for ‘finished therapy’ or “What is your picture of life after you have achieved a level of balance?”  I suspect that each of you will answer differently.

When we recognize that what is an ideal balance for one person, is completely out of balance for someone else, it becomes clear that ‘balance’ as a concept is incredibly individual.  Also, what a balanced life looks like at one stage of life no longer fits at a later stage.  To complicate things, that sense of being balanced can change from one day to another depending on energy levels, weather, people contact, or an endless bunch of other factors.

Finding Balance…By Paying Attention to the Opposite

I wonder if being able to live a balanced life requires a certain level of self-awareness…knowing not only when we feel balanced, but also being aware of when we feel ‘off-balance’.  Feeling ‘off balance’ is one of the most common reasons that people begin to see a therapist.  They may not be sure what is going on, but they don’t feel ‘right’.

Similar to the old saying, of “If it isn’t broken, don’t fix it.”, maybe we don’t recognize that we are living a balanced life, because everything is ticking along nicely.  We are living our lives with few problems.  We look for balance only when we become aware of it’s non-existence.  Then we play the game of adding more of this and less of that in an attempt to bring back feelings of equilibrium.  How many of us have thought that “I just need more sleep… or less work, or more fun, or less … and life will be better”.

Once we can imagine what a balanced life looks like for us…what we are aspiring to…how do we get there?

Tools for Living a Balanced Life

It appears that the search for a balanced life has been a human activity for a long time.  Here are some of the tools that I have found:

  • The 80/20 Rule:  The idea behind this tool is that when looking for balance it’s unnecessary to micro-manage things in your life or constantly correct when things feel a bit off-kilter.  People use this as a way to balance spending (80% of total income) and saving (20%), or managing food.  If 80% of your diet is healthy, don’t worry about the rest.
  • The Buddhist Idea of the Middle Way:  The Buddha came to this idea after living a life of extremes.  In his youth, he was a wealthy prince, and then chose to give it up to live as a ascetic.  As a holy man, his practices were so extreme that he almost died.  As part of his spiritual journey, he discovered the value of living between the two extremes, or the Middle Way.
  • Everything in Moderation:  This tool fits with the Middle Way as the search for balance doesn’t preclude anything–just don’t do too much of it!
  • The One in/One out Rule:  This tool helps to maintain balance once it has been reached.  Basically, for every new thing you add into your life, something else must leave.  This could apply to things, people (in some cases) or activities.
Can We Have It All?

One of the reasons that many people search for a balanced life is their desire to have/or do it all.  But is this possible?  Maybe, but not at the same time.

Perhaps one piece to the search for a balanced life is that we need to expand the time-frame.  Rather than asking if we’re balanced in this week, month or year; maybe we can ask if we are living a balanced life at this stage.  Or what if the Merriam-Webster definition is right and balance takes place in the moment, only to shift out of balance so easily?  Hmmm….the search continues….

And now…an amazing display of balance–elegant, graceful and inspiring….Enjoy!

 

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Becoming a Wild Human

Who doesn’t love wild fairy tales?  These stories have been a mainstay of many a child’s bedtime routine–introducing us to mythic characters while teaching  life lessons from the safety of our pillows.  Think of the grandfather/grandson from the Princess Bride!

There’s something about hearing the words “Once upon a time…” that makes us settle into our seats and listen…

A Story…

Once upon a time, a human was born into a ‘good’ family.  The parents had looked forward to the birth of their child and they planned to do all they could to raise her to the best of their abilities.  Their child would be protected from harm, sheltered from sadness, and provided with everything she needed.

Two women passing a babyThe small human thrived in this stable environment, and as children do, started to become curious about the world outside of his family unit.  When he was three years old, he wanted to climb the slide at the park.  “Oh no!  You may fall and be hurt.”, said one parent.  So, the child reluctantly left the slide and sat on the bench beside his parent.

Once this small human started school, she wanted to walk down the street to visit her friend.  “Oh no!  You may not make it there safely; besides, how will I know that you arrived?”, said the other parent.  So the child was accompanied to her friend’s house by her parent, with strict instructions not to walk home on her own.

As the child grew, he continued to be cosseted and protected by his parents.  While he loved them, he was feeling trapped.  He knew that there was a bigger world beyond his Silhouette of young teen through glass in restaurantparents’ and he wanted to explore.  Unfortunately, he was unable to fight against the cocoon woven by his family.  Every time he struggled, his family was there to provide solutions–money, things, contacts…

Eventually, not trusting in his own abilities, he stopped struggling and stayed in his safe world, taken care of for the rest of his days.

Another Story…

This story attributed to Henry Miller, the writer, about a little boy in India who went up to a guru who was sitting and looking at something in his hand. The little boy went up and looked at it. He didn’t quite understand what it was, so he asked the guru, “What is that?”

“It’s a cocoon,” answered the guru, “Inside the cocoon is a butterfly. Soon the cocoon is going to split, and the butterfly will come out.”

A wild butterfly emerging from cocoon.“Could I have it?” asked the little boy.

“Yes,” said the guru, “but you must promise me that when the cocoon splits and the butterfly starts to come out and is beating its wings to get out of the cocoon, you won’t help it. It is important not to help the butterfly by breaking the cocoon apart. It must do it on its own.”

The little boy promised, took the cocoon, and went home with it. He then sat and watched it. He saw it begin to vibrate and move and quiver, and finally, the cocoon split in half. Inside was a beautiful damp butterfly, frantically beating its wings against the cocoon, trying to get out and not seeming to be able to do it. The little boy desperately wanted to help. Finally, he gave in and pushed the two halves of the cocoon apart. The butterfly sprang out, but as soon as it got out, it fell to the ground and was dead. The little boy picked up the dead butterfly and in tears went back to the guru and showed it to him.

“Little boy,” said the guru, “You pushed open the cocoon, didn’t you?”

“Yes,” said the little boy, “I did.”

The guru spoke to him gravely, “You don’t understand. You didn’t understand what you were doing. When the butterfly comes out of the cocoon, the only way he can strengthen its wings is by beating them against the cocoon. It beats against the cocoon so its muscles will grow strong. When you helped it, you prevented it from developing the muscles it would need to survive.”

Becoming a Wild Human

Each of these tales is a cautionary tale about what happens when life is made too easy for us, and we don’t have the opportunity to gain strength and wisdom by learning lessons through adversity.  Neither the parents or the boy were bad people, only overprotective of what/who they loved.  All were unaware that there are lessons to be learned at each stage of development.

Women Who Run With the Wolves, Myths and stories of the Wild Woman Archetype by Clarissa Pinkola Estes, PhDRecently, I was given the book Women Who Run With the Wolves:  Myths and Stories of the Wild Woman Archetype by Clarissa Pinkola Estés, PhD.  I had read (and lost) this book years ago, and was thrilled to have it come back into my life.  It’s one of those classics that shares new wisdom at each reading and at each life stage.

In her book, Estés analyses myths, fairy tales, folk tales and stories from different cultures to uncover the Wild Woman archetype of the feminine psyche.  (Note:  The author is talking about an archetype as defined by Jungian psychology, which applies to all genders.)

What does it mean to be “wild”?  The author equates being wild with moving from society’s strict rules of conduct–i.e. being “nice” to be able to live authentically from a place of wisdom.  Wild isn’t always nice.

How Do We Get There?

The main premise of the book is that there are a set of skills that must be learned in order to become “wild”.  Being “wild” takes courage, as well as the ability to have patience when sitting with discomfort.

Each chapter/story of the book outlines a particular skill that must be mastered in order to progress throughout life.  These skills include:

  • Living through a loss of innocence (marking the end of childhood)
  • Developing the ability to discern one thing from another
  • Developing and trusting our intuition
  • Recognizing our family (and these are not necessarily the people we’re related to biologically)
  • Being able to judge who will be a good romantic partner
  • Knowing when it’s time for things to die (such as relationships).
Why is Wild Important?

Pack of wild wolvesBesides being a Jungian analyst and cantadora (storyteller), Estés also studies wolves.  She marries her vision of a wild human with the idea of a wolf–able to take care of itself, form strong relationships with others, ability to discern what is healthy for itself and the pack…basically, an innate level of confidence in its abilities to thrive–even when things get tough.

Being in touch with the “wild” part of our nature stops us from being used by others because we are able to smell out when something isn’t quite right.  When “wild”, we don’t put up with things that are harmful to us in order not to make waves.  “Wild” humans care about others and can be fiercely loyal to their “tribe”, while at the same time knowing when it’s time to let go of people, places, things or ideas.  I think of “wild” humans as being sure-footed.

As illustrated by the stories above, when we don’t develop this side of ourselves, we don’t live our fullest lives.  In a worst-case scenario, we can become prey for others because we don’t have fully developed senses to route out the danger.

So here’s to being “Wild”!  Not in a “you better have bail money” kind of way, but by being able to confidently stand on our own two feet and smell which way the wind is blowing kind of way.

And now…thinking of the Princess Bride…here’s one of my favourite scenes.  Enjoy!

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When Life Throws You a Curve Ball.

Baseball pitcher throwing a curve ballYou don’t have to do it all. Sometimes life throws us a curve ball.  Maybe we have been diagnosed with a serious illness.  Our partner has ended the relationship or died.  Something else happens, and we suddenly find ourselves living alone and struggling to cope.

It is at the curve ball points in life that people often seek out a therapist.  When I’m working with people who are at this point, one of the common challenges they are encountering isn’t emotional but involves the regular tasks of life.  They are stressed about home maintenance, groceries, laundry, auto repairs, cutting the grass/snow shovelling…all the ‘bricks and mortar’ things that need to be done, no matter what else is going on in life.

It is these seemingly ‘simple’ items that can make our situation appear to be even worse than it already is.  Everything is overwhelming.

A Story…

Edith is a 40-year-old, parent of 10-year-old twins.  She was diagnosed two years ago with fibromyalgia.  By working with her doctor and making lifestyle changes, her symptoms had decreased significantly.  Just as Edith thought that life was beginning to feel manageable, her long-term partner said that they wanted to end their relationship and was moving across the country.

Edith was devastated!  Suddenly she became a single parent of twins as well as in charge of running the household on her own.  The increase in stress led to an increase in her symptoms.  Anyone of these changes in life situations would be enough to make someone feel overwhelmed.  Unfortunately, Edith was handed both–with one exacerbating the other.  Edith was having trouble coping.

The Power of Habit

Humourous photo of sheep wearing sunglasses saying "All these people shouting I'm doing me yet doing the same thing as everyone else".One thing that is true about humans, is that we are ‘creatures of habit’.  If we’ve done something for a while, we feel that we should continue to do it…and in the same way.  On some level this mode of being serves us well. We don’t have to keep rethinking how to do routine tasks…we go on autopilot, leaving brain space to think about other things.  However, sometimes this habit isn’t in our best interest.  We need to make alterations.  Habits are difficult to overcome when our lives are on an even keel, and when we are stressed we don’t usually have the mental space to make changes.

When I suggest to people that they may want to try something different, I’m often met with the response “but I’ve always done it that way” or “so and so will be so disappointed if I stop doing this” or “If I don’t do it, I’m failing as a …..”.

These comments especially come out at curve ball times, when we trying to cope with a new reality.

We Don’t Have To Do It All!

It often comes as a surprise to people that they don’t have to do it all.  They are allowed to ask for help or ‘outsource’ tasks.

CEO of Everything by Gail Vaz-Oxlade and Victoria RyceOne of the best resources that I’ve found is the book CEO of Everything:  Flying Solo and Soaring by Gail Vaz-Oxlade and Victoria Ryce.  While the title is aimed at ‘newly single’ people (either through death or divorce), the book is valuable in many situations.

Both the authors speak from experience (Gail through multiple divorces; Victoria because of the death of a spouse).  Between the two of them, they cover everything from coping during the early stages of change to childcare to dating to housing.  They share their thoughts and experience on what to look for as you make decisions on whether to outsource or not.

The thing that I appreciate most about this book is that it gives the reader permission not to have to do everything.  In fact, the authors logically explain why it’s impossible–especially if you’re trying to cover the work of a missing person when life has been turned upside down.

Story Continues…

raking leavesAfter a while, Edith realized that she needed help with her ‘to do’ list.  She figured out what she could manage based on her health and time commitments.  Talking with her therapist she was able to see how the difficult emotions of grief and guilt were getting in the way of making choices about what tasks she could let go of.  Edith knew that, after her own self-care, her main priority was supporting her children through this change.

Once Edith became clear about where she wanted to focus her energy, she created the list of what else needed to be done and who could help.  Even though Edith didn’t feel comfortable asking for help, she began to accept offers from friends and family.  Thankfully, she could afford to pay someone for any other help she needed.

The road ahead for Edith and her children wasn’t going to be easy, and at least she had less on her plate taking up her time and energy.

But What if you can’t afford to hire someone?

Not everyone is as fortunate as Edith in being able to hire help.  This is where your support system can come in–those friends and family members who help each other when the going gets tough.  With an established support system, we’re less likely to feel uncomfortable asking for help.

However, not everyone has been able to create such a system, either due to being new to an area, work pressures, etc.  So where can we look for help when facing a curve ball?

  • Talk to the people you know and explain what you’re looking for.  You may not be able to get help for free, but there are often people who are willing to do work at a lower rate.
  • If you belong to a church group or other organization let people know that you need support.  You don’t need to go into a lot of detail, and most organizations (especially religious groups) have committees or ministry staff set up to help.
  • Check with local high schools for students looking for volunteer hours.  In Ontario, secondary students are required to complete 40 volunteer hours before graduation.  Volunteering for household chores does count towards these hours–since they’re not being paid.

And now if you decide to get help for household repairs or chores, watch out for this guy!  It’s some classic British comedy for the series Some Mothers Do Av Em.  Enjoy!

 

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Let’s Be Kind to Ourselves

Recently, I had dinner with two close friends.  As the evening progressed, we talked about how sometimes we struggle with negative voices in our head. These are not the kind of voices that tell us to do harm to ourselves or others, but the ones that undermine our confidence and leading us to feel negatively about who we are and what we do.

If we’re completely honest, I think that all of us could have the same conversation.  Sometimes this voice tells us that we’re not good enough. That it’s only a matter of time before everyone else notices how we’re faking it, and the image of ourselves that we’ve built comes crashing down.  Maybe the voice tells us that we’re too thin, or not thin enough.  If we were only a better partner or friend, or did thus and so, then our life would be perfect.  Once we learn how to (fill in your own words here), then all will be well.  We will have made it!  We believe that our life isn’t perfect, because we are ‘lesser’ than others.

Sometimes we know where ‘the voice’ came from.  We recognize the tone or words.  In some cases, it belongs to a critical parent or teacher.  In others, the voice belongs to a ‘friend’ who really wasn’t a friend.  The owner of ‘the voice’ may no longer be in our life, but their messages persist.  However, what if they lied?  What if we’re good enough the way we are?

Why are we so mean to ourselves?

We’ve talked about some of the places where our negative messages come from, but why do we continue to believe them?  On a basic level, it’s because we continue the behaviours (even negative ones) that serve us in some way.

At a recent workshop (Mindful Self-Compassion presented by Diane Frederick), Diane showed this clip of an interview with Dr. Paul Gilbert.  Dr. Gilbert is a British clinical psychologist, author, and the founder of compassion focused therapy/compassionate mind training.

Gilbert suggests that one of the reasons we don’t give ourselves the benefit of the doubt is because of society’s current fascination with ‘winners’.  Dr. Gilbert cites the increase in reality programs where, instead of focusing on the winner—in which there was usually only one or two—we negatively focus on the ‘loser’.  Because we’re human, we’re programmed to want to be part of a group.  In fact, until fairly recently in our evolution, being excluded from the group meant certain death.  No one wants to ‘be voted off the island’!

Another reason that we beat ourselves up is that we want to know where we fit in hierarchy.  As humans we compare ourselves to others.  However, not so long ago, we only compared what we did or had to our close neighbours.  Now, through the magic of social media, we can compare to everyone—even if the comparisons aren’t realistic or true.  Not only do we get the negative messages from past people in our lives, but now also from mainstream media; and our self-worth suffers in the process.

A third reason we continue to be mean to ourselves is that we think it helps us to succeed.  If we didn’t have that negative inner voice, we might give in to our baser instincts—eat whatever we want, spend every night devouring the latest Netflix series, or not giving 110% at work.  How are we to get ahead in life if we don’t keep trying to improve ourselves?  We don’t want to fail.

Why Should We Care?

Simply put, when we’re mean to ourselves, we are hurting ourselves.  We are both the perpetrator and victim.  Our mental health suffers.

Anxiety, depression, stress, rumination (negative, repeating thoughts), perfectionism, fear of failure and shame are the outcomes of a habit of ‘beating ourselves up’…and we can choose to do something different!

How Do We Stop?

Be mindful of your inner life.  We do this by checking in with ourselves throughout the day…especially if you notice physical symptoms (headache, tense muscles or stomach issues).  Our bodies are a wonderful barometer of what our mind is doing.

Argue with that inner voice.  Through mindfulness, once you become aware of how you are being mean to yourself, argue with that voice.  One Cognitive Behavioural Therapy method is to question the validity of our negative thoughts.  A good way to do this is in writing.  Write down the negative statement, then beside or underneath it, list a rebuttal.  Keep going until ‘you’ win the argument.  At the same time, rather than using an “I” statement, move the statement into the third person (i.e. using your first name).  This provides distance and makes it less personal.

Imagine that the voice is talking to your best friend or other loved one.  Would you say those things to them? You can also imagine yourself as a small child that you are taking care of.

Download and use “Ditty”.  This app lets you record a negative statement and then pick a funny way to play it back.  It’s hard to take a mean message seriously when it’s being said to the soundtrack for “the chicken dance”!

Focus on the positive. Some people love to use affirmations, others not so much.  If positive affirmations work for you, go for it.

Invite the voice in for tea.  If arguing with your inner critic doesn’t work, try looking at it with compassion.  Sometimes we spend a lot of energy fighting against something.  However, once we accept what we don’t like it loses its power.

Life is sometimes difficult and the world can be a scary place.  We need to be kind to others, and to ourselves….

And now, this beautiful song has become one of my new favourites…Enjoy!

 

 

 

 

 

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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!

 

 

 

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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!

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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!

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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!

 

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One Perspective: I’ve learned to live with my mental illness

There is an old saying…”We can’t climb into another person’s skin.”  The meaning I take from this is that, while we can show empathy to others, we don’t know their intimate experience–mental health included.  That’s why it’s useful to hear directly from others.  The following First Person article, was published in the July 23, 2018 issue of the Globe and Mail.  First Person is a daily personal piece submitted by readers.

My disquieted mind is like a party I was invited to, but I don’t know who sent the invitation. Trading cloaked glances across the open bar, ice clinking audibly in swirling glasses, olives skewered onto toothpicks with a tidy, yet menacing accuracy. The conversation becomes hushed around me as I move about the room. I look to the door, but can’t navigate my way to exit. None of my bipolar highs or lows or my various anxieties have ever been gracious hosts. Yet, the invitation remains, unavoidable and persistent.

Is it natural for your most complex relationship to be with yourself? Some nights, I fall asleep in the bed of one likeness and awake in another. Some mornings my visage looks like an offence, as if the mirror is trying to disparage me. Other days I see the face of an old friend, my heart swelling and breaking concurrently as I ask, “Why am I so hard on myself?”

Everyone wants to be free of themselves at some point, counting down the minutes to the weekend to intoxicate ourselves and create moments we won’t remember. It’s easier to say, “I love you” when drunk, faded, high or rolling anyway. Many of us will gladly sacrifice a slice of control for a helping of chemically induced simplicity. The small become large, the indifferent become invested. But what is perspective without a window; what is scale without reference?

Perhaps internal peace is meeting one’s self in no man’s land, between the trenches, caked in grime. Looking up and recognizing the resemblance, breaching the gap that separates us from our real selves – a silent pause, commanding in its stillness. To catch and maintain our own gaze is powerful. We hide our darkest corners most aptly from ourselves.

I want to fall in love with myself, but it’s never been that simple. At 27, I find myself on a fulcrum, feeling the past behind me, a soundless breeze on the back of my neck reminding me of everything I’ve lost, every object dropped, every person who removed themselves from my life.

I don’t fear these accusations of inferiority and inadequacy as I used to, but I admit to my trepidation surrounding them. My most difficult endeavour was admitting my deficiencies, confused by what strength actually was.

My faith in myself never falters, except when it does. I live with self-doubt, all-encompassing and seemingly endless, waiting for a day that may never come. Grand victories may be rare, but with patience and perseverance they arrive. I gave a speech at my grandfather’s memorial service and it was enthusiastically received. I probably wouldn’t be writing this essay had that not occurred. It was a victory in an unexpected place from unexpected people with unexpected consequences. I was able to exhale and breathe for another day. My grandfather would have been proud.

I’ve discovered that it’s not the elimination of so-called shortcomings that leads to self-improvement. It’s more about sensibly maintaining composure when that composure is called into question, especially when it’s me who’s doing the questioning.

I know there is no cure for my mental illness, no dusting hands off and settling down after a job well done. There is balance and consistency. The world doesn’t change; you need to change within it. I suppose that’s why I take my medication every morning and every night without fail. I’m recovering from whispers and shadows. My pills come in handfuls – my anxieties I consume single file.

It’s been years in the making, but when I have a good day, it’s mine. In these moments, I control as much of my destiny as possible. My social anxiety has kept me on a short leash my whole life and my mental health has at times taken my legs out from under me. But when I wake up early, start writing, survive another yoga class and lay down for an early bedtime, it adds another solitary brushstroke to the canvas that is the true, unflinching and unremitting me.

So, here I stand. I’m not a boy, but I’m not far divorced from boyhood. I’m intelligent, but applying that intelligence has proven a difficult and layered struggle.

I was never successful in school; my attitude was loud and my interest quiet. My indifference about formal education did not evaporate over the summer between Grade 12 and my first year at Concordia, which in retrospect is about as shocking as the sunrise. Since turning 20, I’ve been in and out work, missing multiple years cumulatively, because of my mental health. I have a lot of love in me, but I’ve never been able to make any of my relationships last at least a year. Life is complicated: My friends’ lives are complicated, my life is complicated and my family’s is as well.

I am the cat who climbed too high; those closest to me bring the ladder and carry me down.

As far as we travel, we never leave ourselves. We might lose ourselves around a dark corner, but we will always be there. My faith is to no deity or prophet; my faith is a manifestation that exists between the gaps of my ribs, looking out, viewing the world with colourful inquiry and nervous anticipation. I suppose I’ve found no god and no ego to be a worthwhile forfeit. Between the heart and the heavens, warmed by a lack of expectations, I find peace and feel courageous in my lack of understanding.

The truth is what happens between the lies. Back at the party, in my mind, the hostility suddenly abates. I can recognize old friends I simply could not see before. We will greet each other happily. When a round of socializing leaves me dizzy, I retreat to the bathroom for a brief reprieve. I wash my hands and look to the mirror. I love you, Jack.

Jack Altman lives in Vancouver.

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