Thursday, February 16, 2023

Help You Help Me

Lately, I've been thinking a lot about the struggles of asking for help.  For many people, the idea of asking for help is just common sense.  Teachers say there is no such thing as a stupid question.  Friends say "let me know how I can help" when a loved one dies or some other life crisis hits.  Most of us are happy to help others when given the opportunity.  Many of us, in fact, will happily go overboard for someone else.  What, then, gets in the way of asking for help when we need it?

There are multiple facets, I believe, to this question.  As I have considered this in the past, I have tended to focus on life experience. If we have spent much of our time feeling unseen or unheard, the idea of asking for help would seem a waste of energy.  Better to focus on managing it yourself.   If help is unavailable or unreliable, there may be more trouble in asking for help and waiting for people to keep their promises than simply marshaling their own resources to solve the problem.  Consider people in Louisiana or Puerto Rico in the wake of those devastating hurricanes.  Waiting for outside assistance could lead to even more overwhelming losses. American culture, in general, also tends to value and reward independence rather than interdependence, in part out of a desire to avoid the dreaded co-dependence.  This particularly applies to men, who are socially expected to be invulnerable and unemotional.  Similarly, Black and African-American people are very often socialized not to need or to ask for help.  There is a strong expectation of independence and invulnerability. Already we are at a loss to reach out to others.

Trauma survivors, in particular, may struggle with the idea of help being either possible or probable.  Where was help when the trauma happened?  Why did no one interfere with the trauma?  Relational trauma (being trauma that happens between people in some level of relationship rather than as result of weather or other impersonal means), in particular, adds its own complications.  Pleas for help may have been not just ignored but mocked or used against the victim.  They may have been shamed for their attempts.  Victims may also have been threatened with harm to loved ones or other important people if they asked for help. If they did ask for help, those they asked may have been dismissive, preoccupied, or overwhelmed. They may have promised help that never came. In some situations, abusers may have been confronted, arrested, or removed but then come back to inflict more and worse pain. Certainly, this would be a deterrent to asking for help in future.

What I have been considering more recently is the question of how we know to ask for help.  One of the hallmarks of relational trauma, especially, is that abusers do not take responsibility for their choices.  Frequently, those abused are blamed for their own abuse or even for the abuse of others. "If you hadn't done X, I would not have had to do Y."  "I don't understand why you make me hurt you." "Why are you so stupid?"  The implication of this is that the trauma is their own fault.  Their problems are of their own creation.

Here's where the logic becomes difficult.  If my problems are my own fault, why would I think to ask for help?  If it's a problem I should be able to manage on my own, it does not make sense for me to seek help for something that is my responsibility. Trauma survivors, in general, tend to be hyper-responsible, and their sense of what is and is not reasonable to expect of themselves may be skewed. Survivors of emotional neglect will struggle to identify and to set boundaries because those were ignored or crossed frequently by the neglectors.  The whole concept of asking for help may seem purely ridiculous.

So, where do we go from here?  How do we challenge our fears and reluctance of asking for help?  To be fair, I don't have a definitive answer.  I still struggle with it. Why is it okay to need a mechanic, a doctor, or a plumber, but it is not okay to need emotional support or financial support?  How do I know what to ask for?  What do I do if I know I need something, but I don't know what?

Sometimes, it can be useful to reframe asking for help as giving others the opportunity to support you.  Paying attention to people's responses to our requests can help us understand them better and make better decisions about our future relationships.  Furthermore, when we allow ourselves to have needs in our relationships, we reduce the risk of being put in the position of being caregivers for everyone else and having our needs neglected.  Who leaves gifts for Santa Claus?  Nobody, because that is not how the relationship was established.  When we do not ask for help, others begin to assume we do not need it, so they do not offer.  Also, I think about Brene Brown's research where she states that we build connection through vulnerability rather than perfection.  If I reach out to safe people and ask for help, I could find a deeper, more satisfying connection.

Determining who is safe is a different blog post, as is what appropriate boundaries are around asking for help.  However, if there is someone in your life who seems reliable and supportive, who makes you feel more yourself rather than less, I wonder how it might be to risk asking for help or support around something you need?  Maybe something small?  How would it be to experiment with that idea?  It's just a thought.  What if you are worth love and care?  What if others might actually enjoy being there for you?  Could you ask someone just to listen and let you vent?  Could you ask for a hug? Could you share with someone that you don't know what you need, but you would like some support?  Those are hard questions.  I don't expect you to have an answer right now.

It is okay to need help.  This is normal and human.  We all need help from time to time.  It is okay not to know what you need.  That can be a real challenge when you were not allowed to have or acknowledge needs before.  It is okay to be afraid to ask.  It's not courage if you are not scared.  Should you decide to ask for help, I hope you can give yourself credit for your courage.  When you do ask for help, you are letting yourself know that you are worth the effort and the risk.  You are not responsible for the outcome, only the effort.

If this is something you might like to explore further, perhaps you might reach out to me and see if I could offer some help?  That would be a risk, but, what if you were worth it?

Be good to you.

Sunday, May 17, 2020

Compassion in the Time of COVID

In the last few months, I have learned a great deal about myself.  I have learned that teaching was easier in the classroom, and that my children's teachers are amazing people.  I have learned that I can actually miss my commute, because that is my time to listen to audiobooks and expand my world.  I have learned that working with people through a screen is a lot harder than working in person.  My world has certainly been different with this pandemic.

During this time, I have also seen people in fear and confusion.  People are not sure what to trust, who to listen to, or how to respond.  I have seen people who are frustrated with the government for very different reasons. Some people feel stifled and others feel unprotected.  Some are home with families or children who feel overwhelming, while others have been home alone for months. I have known some for whom this has been terrifying and very real due to their own illness or due to loss of friends or family, and I have known some for whom this all feels very overblown and distant. Furthermore, many are struggling to understand where others are coming from and how they can make the decisions they have. The common thread for all is that we are experiencing a time that is traumatic.  None of us is sure what is happening or how to respond to it.  None of us knows what safety looks like going forward or how we will know what that is.  We are trapped in an overwhelming, potentially lethal, situation over which we have minimal control.

Over the last five years or so, I have been learning about a model of therapy called Internal Family Systems (IFS).  It was developed by a man named Richard Schwartz in the 1980's. The core concept of IFS is that we are all made up of parts who each have their own role and way of being in the world.  My favorite example of this is cheesecake.

Let's picture that I am stopping by the grocery store on the way home from work (yes, this is a dated example) and I happen to see a cheesecake slice for sale. Part of me thinks,"I want that cheesecake!" Another part says, "You don't need it. It's not good for you."  A third part says, "I've been working hard. I deserve a reward." Another part might point out that it would be a waste of money.  Other parts might chip in their thoughts, too.  In the end, I either buy the slice or I don't, depending on who wins the debate.  In this example, the first part wants me to be happy, the second wants me to be healthy, the third wants me to be rewarded for my efforts, and the fourth is focused on economic matters. Others might be concerned about weight, outside perspectives, the response of my children, guilt after eating, etc.

The goal of IFS is to get to know and work with our parts so that the system functions more efficiently and so that trauma can be resolved. To work with those parts, we approach them with compassion and curiosity rather than judgment or expectation. IFS believes that every part is doing the best it can to try to help.  Some parts may be working off of old information or responding in an extreme way to extreme circumstances.  If we believe, though, that they are doing the best they can with what they have, how does that change our view of ourselves and our choices?  If I make a mistake or a poor choice, it is helpful to explore what was happening and why I responded that way. Certainly, this is more effective than shaming myself. If I can be compassionate and curious, I can learn more about myself and find a better way to meet a need or respond to a trigger.

A beautiful side-effect of IFS work is that we begin to develop more compassion for others.  How would my world be different if I believed everyone around me were doing the best that they could do?  All of us were brought up in a particular way in a particular situation with a particular set of beliefs and a particular set of caregivers. We have each had our own struggles and experiences, and we each have different strengths and points of view. How, then, should we all have the same understandings or reactions in a traumatic time?  What if that person, whose beliefs are so different than yours, is working out of their own understanding of what is best?  We all respond differently to trauma, and our responses are not always conscious.

While I have had many frustrations over the last few months, I have also benefited from compassion. Clients have been remarkably patient with technological issues.  They have forgiven me when my foot has been lodged so firmly in my mouth I have needed a shoehorn to get it out.  Friends have checked in with me about mine and my family's health. My children have received love and support from their teachers while we have been quarantined at home.  My husband and kids have been supportive to me as well. All of this has helped make this overwhelming time more manageable.

As we continue to navigate this pandemic, I hope we can all find some space for compassion, both for ourselves and for others.  None of us have been precisely who we would like to be, but I believe we are all doing our best. If you are having trouble finding your compassion, I hope you will reach out. You are, after all, worth it.

Monday, April 15, 2019

Now in Network with Aetna!

Hope Grows is excited to announce that we are now in-network with Aetna at our Glenridge location.  We are looking forward to welcoming new people.  We are still empaneled with BCBS/Anthem and Cigna as well.  Sometimes, change is a good thing.

Thursday, June 21, 2018

"You're Worth It" vs. "No Problem": The Importance of Inconvenience

If you ask anybody who comes to talk to me, they will tell you I have a slightly different response to "thank you" than what most people would say.  When I hear "thank you," my preference is to say, "You're worth it."  This may sound silly, but it is very important to me.  Lately, I have been reflecting a lot on the message that we give others when we say something along the lines of "no problem" or "it's nothing."  Other languages do the same thing.  In French, they say de rein ("it's nothing") or pas du tout ("not at all").  Spanish speakers say de nada ("it's nothing)".  What does this say to others?  You may think I am overthinking this (it wouldn't be a great stretch for me), but it seems to me that this implies that one is only worth giving to if it does not create inconvenience to someone else.

Think about someone you love.  It might be a child, a partner, a parent, a pet, a friend... Are they ever inconvenient?  I would guess so.  I have two children and a husband that I love devotedly.  Are they ever inconvenient? Of course!  Children wake up in the middle of the night and need tending to.  My husband sometimes forgets upcoming events or can't find things that seem to me to be readily visible.  My cat is getting old, possibly senile, and occasionally incontinent.  Are any of those things inconvenient? Of course! Does that mean I love them less? Not at all.  I am inconvenient, too.  I don't have much energy, and I don't get the things done around the house that need doing.  My laundry hasn't been folded in God-knows-how-long (my job in the house) and Mt. Cotton has turned into a range of not-yet-folded mountains (earth science joke for the nerds out there).  My kitchen floor has not been mopped in... way too long.  I can be lazy, irritable, sarcastic... super inconvenient.  Am I still loved? I believe so. Nobody's left yet.

What if the message we send is not that people are not inconvenient but that they are worthy of inconvenience?  Life is not easy, and it is not straightforward.  It requires us to deal with stressors that we cannot bypass or easily reconcile.  What we need is not the belief that things are going to be easy but rather that we can make it successfully through the stressors. Feeling valued and supported helps us have the courage to face change and take risks.

The problem with "no problem" is not just that others may not recognize their value but also that we tell ourselves that we are not worth inconvenience.  Inconvenience, to be clear, is different than entitlement.  I find, myself, that I tend to give up on something for myself when it becomes inconvenient.  It's not altogether laziness, I don't think.  I think it's that I have never learned to value myself enough to cope with the inconvenience.  Discipline has always been an issue for me, though I think my values are good.  I am responsible, but I don't always have the energy or willingness to push through on things for me.  Exercise is good for me.  I know this, but I have not been willing to push past the physical or mental discomfort.  I need to do a better job of keeping up with documentation and finances in my business, but I have not yet motivated myself to do so.

Now, to be fair, I don't think these things are because everyone said "No problem" to me when I said "Thank you." It's not that simple.  Depression, anxiety, and ADD are significant contributors, to be sure. At school, I learned most things pretty easily and did not have to struggle overmuch.   I do think, however, that I never consistently got the message that I was worth inconvenience.  This is not to say that nobody ever did anything inconvenient for me, but more that I got the message that it was a lot of trouble and not something others wanted to deal with. I learned to focus on others and their needs and not to prioritize my own. I don't think anyone intended me to develop those beliefs, but there was not a lot of focus on teaching me something different. Changing those thought patterns will take time and effort, which, I guess, is ironic.

How does this change happen?  Patience, I think, and time.  Replacing criticism with curiosity. Practicing trusting. (Yes, none of these are complete sentences -- poetic license?)  I don't have all the answers yet.  Maybe that's another post.

None of us is responsible for others' beliefs or feelings.  At some point, we are all responsible for ourselves.  We have a choice, however, to consider the messages that we give and reinforce in others and ourselves.  I hope to give my children the idea that they are worth inconvenience and struggle.  I joke that they still live at home and don't bring in any money, but they are seven and four.  Ultimately, their value is not dependent on whether they make me happy or meet my expectations.  They have value simply because they are. 

With the people I see, I also want them to develop the same beliefs.  I hope to help them get to know and value themselves.  To do that, I need to model respect for them and for myself. Boundaries, compassion, and patience all help in that area.  Whether you come to see me or not, I hope that you will learn to be gentle, to be good to yourself, and to remind both you and the ones you love that

You're worth it.

Friday, August 25, 2017

The Importance of Right Now

This is a theme I have touched on before, but I find it is relevant again. As much as I might need a good thought on the evils of procrastination, this is not about that.  This is more about the importance of perspective.

There have been a number of changes and transitions in my life lately, some of which were anticipated, and some of which I did not see coming.  Where I have had some clients leave therapy because the time was right to do so, I have had others who have stopped for other reasons. I expected to need a dental cleaning but not to have a crown fall out.  Life, I guess, is like that sometimes.

In those moments when I start feeling overwhelmed and chasing multiple rabbits down multiple holes, it is difficult to maintain a sense of perspective.  It seems like, however life is at any point, it will always be that way. This is great when things are going well, and we can feel optimistic. When things are not going well, time seems to slow down and illuminate problems in technicolor. Depression, in particular, is excellent at making painful moments feel like forever.

Aaron Beck, founder of a school of therapy called Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (or CBT), described a "cognitive triad" or "negative triad" of thoughts that occur in depression.  Casually phrased, the triad  of thoughts says, "I'm terrible, the world is terrible, and things will always be terrible."  While I'm not altogether sold on CBT, I think Beck nailed those thought processes.  When we are down in the pit of depression, it can seem impossible that there could be a way out or that we deserve one if we can find it.

I remember a few years ago being afraid that my life would be either staying at a job that was horrible for me or having to go back to retail for a living because things would only get worse.  Now, two years into starting my own private practice, I have a job I love that mostly pays the bills.  When the census drops or when financial stressors pop up, it can be hard to trust that things will rebound or that life will get better.  Experience, however, has shown that things generally do get better... perhaps not on my preferred timeline or in the manner that I would expect, but I have never yet lived in the pit forever.  This goes back to that old %100 success rate of surviving everything life has thrown at us so far.  We've all done it.

So, what do we do in times when we are overwhelmed, depressed, and scared? First, we can try to be grateful for what we do have.  I have a home I'm not going to lose, I have a loving husband and two amazing children, and I have a job that I truly enjoy. Being grateful doesn't mean we can't be sad, but it does help us remember that we are not without resources.  Second, we can try to show compassion toward others.  Recently, I've been listening to The Book Of Joy, written about a week-long meeting between the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu in which they discussed what joy is and how joy can be attained. In that book, both of those wise men discuss the power of showing compassion to others.  When we feel compassion, we recognize our connectedness and feel less alone.  It's not about looking at others and being grateful that we are not in their place (this is not connection but separation) but rather recognizing that all suffer and that we are all human beings together. Third, we can practice whatever basic self-care we can: eating healthful meals, sleeping, exercising, spending time in the presence of safe others, etc.  One of my favorite self-care activities is snuggling -- with my husband, my children, my cat... Safe physical contact is a great healer.

All of us get in spaces where we feel trapped.  Sometimes, that trap is in our own minds. One of my favorite maxims is to "keep your perspective in perspective."  When I am aware that I am depressed, I am also aware that my perspective is off and that I am likely less able to see positive things, be creative, or think clearly.  In those times, I try to practice the above and reach out to my support system as I am able.  If you find yourself feeling trapped, I hope the above is useful to you. If it's not enough or if you just want another connection point, I hope you will come find me. Then, the two of us can walk your path together. We'll start where you are right now and move into whatever comes next.

Monday, January 30, 2017

Hope Grows is Changing Gardens!

Hi, All.

Due to lease changes, Hope Grows Counseling, LLC is moving to a new location effective March 1, 2017.  The new location will be:

5555 Glenridge Connector
Suite 200
Atlanta, GA 30342

Phone number and e-mail contact information will stay the same.  I am currently working with insurance companies to ensure a smooth transition. I look forward to continuing the work I love in my new space.  Feel free to contact me with any questions or concerns.


Friday, January 20, 2017

The Power of Intention

So, I've been quiet on here for awhile, and somehow we are almost done with the first month of the New Year.  A new president was inaugurated sometime in the last hour, and we are all waiting to see what will come next.  Many of us have also been thinking about resolutions for the year and setting goals for what we would like to achieve.  It's funny how easily, I think, we tend to dismiss the worth of the plans we make at these times or the effort of making the plan.  How often do you hear someone remark that politicians never keep their promises? How often do we laugh and joke about violating our New Year's Resolutions the next day or the next week? "My New Year's Resolution is not to make any more New Year's Resolutions. Ha, ha!"  While I think it is true that we often do not follow through on those goals, and despite what has often been said about the "road to hell," I think intention has great value.

When people ask me about the value of therapy, I think many of them expect me to elaborate on the relief of depression or anxiety, the improvement of relationships, or the increased capacity to manage stress.  While I believe all of these are definitive and worthy benefits of therapy, I find that I tend to focus on a different aspect -- living life with intention.  Many of us live life essentially on auto-pilot.  We do the same things we've always done and expect that life will generally stay the same. People may come and go, we may change jobs, and the weather may become interesting from time to time, but life in general will be predictable.  The sun will rise in the east, my five-year-old will plunder the refrigerator for fruit any and every time he is hungry, and traffic will be generally miserable in Atlanta at 5:00 on Wednesday.  After awhile, we stop paying attention to our lives, ourselves, each other, and the world around us.

One of the core benefits of therapy is that it shakes us out of our complacence.  We start to look at what we are doing, what and who is around us, and how we respond to all of that.  We start to explore who we really are, what we really need, and what we really want.  So much of our reality is taught to us: what to attend to,  how to respond to pain in others and ourselves, what to value, what to ignore, what to expect of ourselves and others, what our worth is.... Much of this is not verbally expressed but is learned through interaction and implication. One of the beauties of therapy is that it helps us to stop and evaluate for ourselves the lessons we have learned and whether or not those lessons hold true. We learn to explore and trust ourselves.

From that exploration and trust, we can then develop true intention.  When I know who I am and what I value, I can make decisions about what is best for me and how and what I want to share with the world. I am no longer a passive recipient of what others tell me or what I expect to see, but I am open and curious and attentive. My world, both internal and external, becomes alive for me and I engage with it in new ways that create strong and impactful meaning.   I am aware of the choices I am making and why and how I anticipate those will affect others around me.

Therapy is not about changing who you are but connecting with and becoming more fully who you are.  Depression, anxiety, relationship problems and life stressors can all complicate or obscure our self-awareness and sense of empowerment, and as we resolve those issues, we likewise become more intentional. Intention gives us a sense of direction and a motivation to stay open and aware.  I wonder how much longer our resolutions would last if we had more self-awareness?  We all slip back into old patterns and Auto-Pilot from time to time, but trying to live with intention helps us to do so less often and for shorter periods of time.

Self-awareness can start with practices of mindfulness - focusing on awareness without judgment. Paying attention to physical sensations is often a good point of departure. What do I notice in my body and where? Where do I feel pain or tension? Where do I feel relaxed? Is there a pattern to when I feel tension or relaxation? What can I do that changes that?  What message does this pain/tension/stress have for me?

We can also practice mindfulness of our environment.  What does the space you are in look like? What do you see around you?  What do you hear immediately around you? What do you hear that is further away? If you are quiet, do you hear something you hadn't noticed before?  What do you smell? Does that smell have undertones you recognize? Do you have a taste in your mouth? What are your hands touching? What does that feel like? What does the floor/ground feel like if you stomp on it? How does your body feel where you are sitting/standing/lying down? What is it like to focus on the here and now? How is your body responding to that?

There are many other practices that can help develop awareness. In therapy we also look at emotional awareness and engagement. We look at family history and relationships and the messages that were passed down in the family.  We look at life experiences and how we interpret and respond to those.  As we look at those things, we develop a sense of self that can lead to a sense of intention.

Who are you? What do you value in yourself? Others? The world?  What gives you confidence? What creates fear? What and whom do you trust? How do you decide?  All of these are difficult questions, but, I think, worthy of exploration.  If you would like some help in finding your answers to your questions, I hope you will find me. It is my intent to help my clients connect with themselves in such a way as to be able to live in intention.  I may not always succeed, but it gives me a framework and a path to act on what I value.  I wish for you to be able to find the same for yourself.