Category Archives: Mental Health

Living Dialectically

It's hard to live dialectically when you want to throw a temper tantrumLike everyone else I know, I’m tired of the pandemic.

Now that we’re at the one-year mark of the beginning of the first Ontario lockdown, it’s hard to avoid the commemorative pieces flooding the airwaves.  I’m ignoring them all.  I’ve lived through it.  I don’t need a reminder.

And yet, as someone who loves words, I’ve been thinking about the nouns, verbs and adjectives that have been created (or modified) to describe Covid 19.  We’ve been told to “shelter in place” in order to “flatten the curve“.  We talk about “airborne transmission” and “variants“.  Are we “asymptomatic“, while we watch the rates of “community transmission“?  We no longer live in families or have friends, but are part of a “bubble“.  Many of us are thankful for “CERB“.  Some of us can not only rhyme off the “Five Zones of Public Health Measures“, we know which ‘colour’ applies to the location of our loved ones.

With all the new words we’ve added to our vocabulary this year, I’ve decided to resurrect an old word, and use it in a new context.

My New Favourite Word–“Dialectical”

Living Dialectically and the moonAt its most basic level, dialectical means that two opposing things can be true at the same time.  For example:  when squirrels ate the sunflower seeds I planted last spring, I was angry that my dream of a sunflower hedge had been ‘digested’; while also feeling happy that the squirrels had found food.

Dialectics (or Dialectical Method) is as old as ancient Greece.  It was a method to hold a discussion between two or more people who held different points of view but wanted to figure out the truth by using logical argument.  Emotions weren’t involved.

Today, the idea of dialectics is best known as the basis for DBT (Dialectical Behavioural Therapy). In DBT, a therapist and client work together to develop the client’s acceptance of their current situation, while at the same time, working on ways to change it.   Details about DBT can be found here.

But why is this my new theme word?

The Idea of Control

Our desire for control is the theme behind The Serenity Prayer, written by Reinhold Niebuhr (1872-1971).  It asks:

God, grant me the serenity to
accept the things I cannot change,

courage to change the things I can,
and wisdom to know the difference.

No matter how you describe your religion or spirituality, one lesson over the past year is that there’s very little we can control.  Many of us have spent a lot of time and energy fighting against this truth–with little success.

The Serenity Prayer speaks to the dialectics of life–the things we can change versus those we can’t.  Pandemic time versus ‘a new normal’.  In other words, accepting today as it is while planning for the future.

Living Dialectically

A lot of articles are being written about how the authors are planning to live post-pandemic.  While they have no control over how long Covid will dictate a large part of their daily existence, they see themselves applying the lessons they have learned over the past year–less rushing around, less spending, more time with loved ones, lots more hugs…

They are living dialectically…accepting where they are today while working towards what they want in the future.

Molting bird looking disgruntledOne way to do this is to create a “future” list.  However, the list doesn’t include just activities, but how we want to live–emotionally, physically, and spiritually.  Are there new things we need to learn to fulfill our vision? People we need to reconnect with?  Skills to develop?

As we move through this pandemic, we can choose to do so with hope.  As we create our individual lists, what do we hope for?  Emily Dickinson said:

“Hope is the thing with feathers that perches in the soul and sings the tune without the words and never stops at all.”

As we keep living dialectically today, let’s keep leaving seeds out for the ‘thing with feathers’.

And now…an amazing video.  Enjoy!

“Interesting Ideas” for January 2021

Puppy with interesting ideasI am very fortunate to have friends that send me interesting ideas, articles, videos, or book suggestions on a regular basis.  While I use some as inspirations for blog posts or my work with clients, others are not blog or reference material…and they are too interesting not to share.

So, this is the first month of the “Interesting Ideas” post.  My hope is that this will become a monthly feature.  While not every suggestion will appeal to everyone, ideally something will pique your curiosity.

Here’s the selection for January…Enjoy!

From The Atlantic:  What Moving House Can Do For You

From BBC News:  Lockdown mental health:  Tips for Helping Your Child

From The Guardian:  Why Your Most Important Relationship is With Your Inner Voice

2021 Resolution….Let’s Eat for Mental Health

New Year's fireworksWelcome to 2021!  May everyone be healthy and safe.

The data isn’t available for 2021, but if you are like the 30% of Canadians who made resolutions going into 2020, almost half of us had goals around eating better and losing weight.  However, with the arrival of Covid-19, many of us fell off of the resolution bandwagon.  When we’re in survival mode, it’s difficult to change habits.  In fact, we often resort to comfort activities.  Baking and online shopping, anyone?

person under their own personal raincloud signifying mental health troubleOne of the results of Covid-19 is the negative effect on our mental health.  Anxiety and depression levels are increasing rapidly across all age groups, as we live with uncertainty, isolation and 24/7 news coverage about pandemic numbers and positive or negative testing and vaccination numbers.  We are grieving not only the death of loved ones but the loss of regular, physical contact with our friends, family members, coworkers and casual contact with other humans.

So, as we move into 2021, what can we do?

What Some Of The Experts Are Saying

As the pandemic continues, experts are offering suggestions on how to get through the waiting period for the life to return to a ‘familiar normal’.  A recent University of Waterloo article, provided data from a study that asked a number of scientific psychologists for their ideas of how to get through the pandemic.  Their results were tabulated, and…

“The most common psychological recommendation was to establish a sense of agency — to find a way to remain in charge of your day-to-day life, despite pandemic uncertainty. Research in psychology shows that such mental focus can help regulate emotions in the face of uncertainty. It includes finding ways to reframe the pandemic as a manageable challenge, to find “something that you want to get out of bed for,” as one interviewee mentioned, or to establish structure and habits to compensate for lack of external structure in a lockdown-imposed work from home.”

The entire article can be found here.

Let’s Put It Together:  Eating for Mental Health

Cartoon of a woman asking questionsWhat would happen if we combined our desire (i.e. resolutions) for making positive dietary changes with our need to improve/maintain our mental health?

Disclaimer:  I’m not a dietician!  Any ideas that I’m presenting are based on research articles and websites that I’ve read.  I’ve linked to these resources throughout this post.

The Link Between Diet and Mental Health

Researchers in the relatively new field of Nutritional Psychiatry are discovering the links between dietary patterns and mental health.  Basically, the more we eat a ‘western’ or highly-processed diet, the greater our risk for anxiety and depression.  Based on what I’ve read, I’ve found three areas in which diet affects our physical health–leading to declines in mental/brain health:  Obesity, the Gut/Brain Axis and Inflammation.

Obesity

Cookie, not great for eating for mental healthEven before the pandemic, the numbers are frightening.  According to Statistics Canada (2018) data; 26.8% of Canadians 18 and older (roughly 7.3 million adults) reported height and weight that classified them as obese. Another 9.9 million adults (36.3%) were classified as overweight – bringing the total population with increased health risks due to excess weight to 63.1% in 2018.

When we think about mental/brain health, obesity is linked to higher instances of Alzheimer’s disease and depression due to vascular cognitive impairment (which can be caused by lifestyle habits such as poor diet and excess weight).

The Gut/Brain Axis (GBA)

We don’t live in our bodies alone.  Instead, we share our gut with trillions of microbial organisms (bacteria, viruses, and archaea) that make up our microbiome.  Our brain and gut interact using a system of neural (the vagus nerve), inflammatory responses and hormones–making up the brain/gut axis.

Eating for mental healthWhen our microbiome is in a healthy balance, this system works well.  Unfortunately, the gut imbalance can happen due to chronic stress, poor diet, environmental toxins and infections.

While the science on this is relatively new, a study (mentioned in the above link) found rodents undergoing emotion-like changes based on changes in their microbiome.  When fecal gut microbiota from humans with depression was inserted into rodents, the rodents showed depression-like behaviours.

Inflammation

tissue inflammationAccording to this 2019 Psychology Today article, inflammation is the body’s defence mechanism for infections, irritants, stress and physical trauma.  The body produces small protein cells called cytokines in response.  According to the author, studies link depression and anxiety to inflammation and high levels of cytokines.

While this may all be overwhelming….

All Is Not Lost

An article published in PNS:  Proceedings of the Nutrition Society, described the results of a study published in BMC Medicine.  They wrote:

“One randomised controlled trial published this year in BMC Medicine demonstrated quite striking effects of a 3-month dietary intervention on moderate-to-severe depression, with a significantly greater improvement in the dietary intervention group and remission achieved in 32 % of this group”.

The dietary intervention that seems to have the most positive effect on mental health is one made up of whole foods–i.e. the opposite of the Western, processed food diet that is common in our culture.

The Mediterranean Diet

An infographic describing the Mediterranean Diet - eating for mental healthAccording to the Mayo Clinic, interest in the Mediterranean diet began in the 1960s with the observation that coronary heart disease caused fewer deaths in Mediterranean countries, such as Greece and Italy than in the U.S. and northern Europe.  Actually, it’s more accurate to say the “Mediterranean diet” is not a diet as such, but a way of eating with slight variations depending on which Mediterranean country you’re looking at.

It is comprised of lots of fruits, vegetables, nuts and legumes; moderate amounts of fish, poultry, eggs and dairy products.  Eat limited amounts of red meat.

Studies such as this one, published in the British Journal of Nutrition, show the link between positive mental health and the Mediterranean way of eating.   The Mediterranean diet has also been shown to reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s and heart disease.

As I delved deeper into my research, it was easy to become overwhelmed by the amount and complexity of the information.  My 2021 resolution? Keep it simple. Move to a more whole foods diet, while being kind to myself.   Change is never easy, especially during stressful times such as these.

A carrot dressed as a superheroLet’s all raise a carrot to better mental health in 2021!

For more information, here’s a Library of Congress documentary on the Mediterranean diet to get you started.  Enjoy!

 

 

Riding the Second Wave of Covid-19

Riding the Covid19 waveAs I write this post, Canada is seven months into the COVID-19 pandemic, and at the beginning of the second wave.  While the virus remains the same, there are differences between the two waves–medical experts’ knowledge of how COVID works, the time of year, government responses (I’m speaking of Ontario) and our experience of COVID fatigue.

As we move into the upcoming Winter of COVID, how are ways we can successfully ride this wave?

I’ve Been Reading…

Over the summer months, a very good friend (and researcher) has been sending me articles about COVID experiences worldwide.   Many of them have discussed how the pandemic has negatively affected mental health (increased levels of anxiety, depression and loneliness).

Another common theme is that many of us are attempting to cope in unhealthy ways such as increased alcohol and drug use, poor diet and lack of exercise.  These strategies can lead to a vicious downward cycle of addiction and poor mental/physical health.  For a few of us, extreme exercise has been our tool of choice.  As one person I know wisely said, “At the end of COVID, we’ll either be a hunk, a chunk or a drunk”.

A final group of articles speaks to how our grief has been affected by restrictions around being with loved ones at their time of death, changes in funeral practices and lack of in-person support.  An October 11, 2020 NBC News article suggested that, “The Covid-19 pandemic will be outlasted by the grief pandemic.”

However, while the situation is dire, I suggest that it’s important not to bury our heads in the sands of avoidance, or to float in the waters of despair.  Instead, let’s take stock to get a clear picture of where we are–somewhat like weighing ourselves after the early pandemic baking extravaganzas.  We may not like the ‘number’, and we know where we’re starting from.

It’s About Having a Plan…

We are no longer ‘COVID innocents’. Because of our experience we know what’s coming.  As one news article stated, “Winter is Coming.” no longer relates just to Game of Thrones!  We lived through the tail-end of last winter, and it was hard (and short).  After a three-seasons of socializing outside, we’re staring down the tunnel of potentially five months of weather-induced, minimal human contact.

Now that we have an idea about what the game board looks like, let’s plan our strategy using Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs as a template.

Be prepared:  take care of the ‘bricks and mortar’ stuff.

There is a sense of safety knowing that our basic needs (food and shelter) are covered.  It’s hard to function when we’re concerned about how we are going to get to the store during a possible lockdown if our furnace will stop working requiring someone to come into our home, or we are running low on prescription medications.

If possible make sure that you have some extra staples (food and medicines) on hand if stores move to limited hours, or there are shortages as the wave continues.  I’m not suggesting building mountains of toilet paper in your home!  Also, think about your physical space and what you may need to do to prepare.

Establish or re-establish social networks. 

Once our physiological and safety requirements are met, next comes our need for human connection.  While many of us were able to see more of our loved ones and expand our ‘bubbles’ during warmer weather, those bubbles burst once children went back to school and limited contact became much more difficult.  Cooler weather is also becoming a factor (though many of us are extending the Fall season by using patio heaters, fire pits, etc.).

Stay connected however you can during covid-19Think about who you would like to be connected to, and then talk with them about ways to spend time together.  We know what helped (and didn’t) last time, so we’re not recreating the wheel.  Maybe Zoom calls didn’t work as well due to technical challenges or ‘Zoom fatigue’.  Is the use of FaceTime apps (if possible) or shorter Zoom calls the answer?  In some cases, can small in-person bubbles be kept in place or restarted?  A friend of mine has started to write letters by hand to her friends and family.  Not only is she using this as a mindfulness practice, but enjoying the anticipation of checking the mailbox for replies.  For some of us, sending holiday greeting cards is making a comeback.

One way to continue to see people in-person is to come to terms with the cold of winter.  A podcast on “The Big Story” talks about how people in far northern communities deal with cold and near-darkness for several months of the year.  The answer–change their mindset about winter.  Embrace the colder, cozier months.  You can listen to this podcast here.  Personally, never having been a fan of the cold, I’m investing in warmer winter clothing so that I can see friends and family outside.

Spend time this Winter developing a new skill.  

Maslow’s next level is “Esteem”–not only the respect that we feel for ourselves but also the respect we feel from others.  Now can be a great time to think about how we would like to grow and develop.

Has covid-19 got you feeling frozen?While there are many websites that list activities/hobbies to take on while in lockdown, I’m suggesting that we go deeper.  What kind of human do we want to be going forward?  When we look back at this time (5, 10 or 20 years from now), what will we see?  And it doesn’t have to be all serious–play is important as well.  In my new snow pants, I’m planning to build some monumental snow people, that may be the talk of the neighbourhood!

Relax and give back. 

Self-actualization.  Now that our other needs have been met, we can relax while having a sense of reality.  Because we are in a safe and clear place we have the energy to provide support for others.  Based on the research on how mental health is being negatively affected by COVID, it is clear that the need is great.  Providing help can be as simple as taking the time to really listen to others when you sense that all may not be well with them, or waving at others on your physically distanced walks.

This BBC video talks about how one person’s life was changed by randomly receiving a bunch of flowers.  It’s not difficult to do–even in these times.

Fighting Covid-19 stress with snow angelsSome things are in our control and some are not.  The fact that the second wave is a reality is beyond our control.  However, we can attempt to influence its progress by wearing masks, washing our hands, practicing physical distancing, and following other guidelines recommended by public health officials.  We also have the choice of how we frame our experience.  This is an opportunity to grow our resilience.  Me….I’ll be making snow angels.

And now…because so many of us are adopting Pandemic Puppies, here’s some puppy love!  Enjoy!

 

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 a 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…”

 

 

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, “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 its 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 an 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!

 

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 Estes, 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, Estes 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), Estes 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!

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!

 

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 the 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!

 

 

 

 

 

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 labelling 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 to walk up to on our own.

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