Sunday, August 30, 2015

That whole self-care thing...

When I was in second grade, I had an accident.  You know the kind I mean. I can almost tell you the exact day it happened because we were dressed up as pilgrims and Indians (yes, they're Native Americans, but this was the early 80's) in preparation for Thanksgiving.  I was not overly thrilled with my outfit, but it was the best we could do. I had a faux patchwork skirt on and a yellow shirt, I think. I don't remember the color.  We were sitting in class, and I realized I really needed to go to the bathroom.  I raised my hand, but we had these dividers that were supposed to keep us from cheating off of each other's papers.  My teacher did not see me, and I was afraid of getting in trouble if I got up without permission or if I interrupted. Eventually, the inevitable happened. Naturally, I was quite embarrassed, my classmates had varying unpleasant responses, and I had to change into other clothes when my mother came.  My teacher later told me that, in case of that kind of emergency, it was okay for me to go without waiting to be acknowledged. Good to know.

Never would I ever have guessed that some 30 years later I could actually forget that I needed to go to the bathroom. It happens, though.  The urge comes to me, and I deliberate about how inconvenient it is and whether or not I really need to act on it. Much of the time, particularly if I am away from home or alone with my kids, I put it off.  What's funny is that it doesn't take very long to manage, and I know it cannot be good for my body for me to hold it for so long. At the moment, though, it just feels unnecessary and irritating.  It seems strange to put off such a basic function, but it is representative of a larger tendency many of us have to put off self-care.

When I mention self-care, most of my clients think of big, grandiose gestures: taking a week's vacation in some resort away from their children, having someone else do the housework for a month, quitting their jobs/relationships, losing 80 pounds, etc.  One former client of mine, however, brought it into perspective. She lived in an abusive situation with her family-of-origin.  She felt unable to work, and she did not have the means to live away from them.  When we got to discussing self-care, she brought the conversation back to basics: "I need to make sure I eat. I need to make sure I drink enough water. I need to take my medicine."  She did not have the resources to do much in the way of getting away from her situation, but she recognized what she could give herself within the situation. I really admired her insight and awareness.

Many of us tend to ignore self-care as inconvenient. We forget that it is a necessity. There are many analogies to the problem: cars need gas, flowers need water, babies need nutrition and love.... I think we suffer the delusion that trying to make ourselves work and complete tasks is the same as being productive.  I taught school for a couple of years, and the second year we had a snowstorm that kept us out for several days. To compensate, the school board decided to take away spring break that year. The kids came to school, but none of us were very productive.

Ironically, taking time for self-care actually improves productivity.  If we have the right nutrition, rest, and hydration -- not to mention exercise -- we are more able to do what we need to do and to do those things more efficiently. Anyone who has raised children is aware of the importance of young children taking naps. Life gets really ugly when they don't, and everyone is miserable.  Conversely, if they take naps, everyone catches a break, and all are better equipped to face the rest of the day after. Taking a break takes time away in the beginning but gives it back on the other side.

I have a pet theory that depression exists, in part, because we do not take care of ourselves and address our needs, so our minds and bodies shut down and narrow our vision until we can only focus on ourselves. Often, when we can start to address our own needs and listen to ourselves, the depression can lighten or disappear.

So, I suppose I need to be making bathroom visits more often. It's not convenient, but I sure can focus better when I have. Nothing is much longer than 60 minutes with a client when you really have to go. I wonder what little changes you could make in your life that might make a difference? Can you make sure you eat? Try to eat healthy foods more often? Drink more water? Go for a walk with a friend? Give yourself time to sleep? Journal? Listen to music? Do artwork?  Self-care does not have to be grand. It just needs to be. Giving to yourself not only helps you become healthier physically and mentally, but also shows you that you care about yourself, and that is a message we all need. Find something small to do for yourself, and then ice the cake by being proud of yourself for doing it. Who knows? It might become a habit.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Reconnecting with you

When do you feel most yourself? Is there something that you do or someone you spend your time with such that you become utterly un-self conscious?  Maybe you lose yourself in music, doing artwork, exercising, volunteering, or playing games. Maybe you have a friend or a spouse who sees you as you are and encourages you in being yourself. What did you enjoy doing as a child? Can you recall someone from your childhood who made you feel loved and safe?

 It seems so much of our time is spent meeting obligations and trying to be some vision of ourselves that we think we ought to be that we often end up losing our true senses of self. I wonder what would happen if you engaged in an activity that you used to love or made time to be with someone with whom you feel safe and accepted? If we connect with and listen to ourselves, we can make better decisions and we have more confidence to do what we need to do.  Give yourself a break and spend some time being with you.

Friday, August 21, 2015

Hope... and other emotions

My birthday was this week. For the most part, it passed pleasantly and quietly. My family was generous and thoughtful. When I left my office today, however, I decided I wanted to treat myself to a lunch out. This does not happen often, and I thought it would be a gift of self-care to me.

So, I went to Olive Garden. It isn't overly swanky, but I don't have to cook, and I don't have to clean it up, and I don't have to take care of  kid crises while I'm there.  I had an excellent server, and I enjoyed my lunch.  Somewhere in the midst of all of that, I realized I was feeling hopeful.  I have been working hard lately to make changes in my practice and to grow both as a professional and as a person, and this can be stressful and daunting at times. Today, though, I had a sense of calm and of hope. This does not happen as often as I might like, so I decided to take the moment and just let it sink in. I didn't question why it was there or how long it would last. I just accepted the gift.

Funny, isn't it, how we tend to go on auto-pilot with our emotions? We go through the day focused on the next thing we have to do, telling ourselves we don't have time to think about how we feel. (Thinking about how we feel is a strange statement, no?) Often, when I ask my clients how they have felt in the last week, the answer is "I don't know."  That answer can come up for a number of different reasons.

Sometimes people say they don't know because they don't want to face the question. When that comes up, we have to work through the discomfort, and sometimes accept the discomfort as a feeling. Other times, they haven't stopped to notice their feelings, and the question takes them by surprise. Still other times, my clients don't have the answer because they have stopped paying attention to their feelings.  This last is particularly true of my clients who are in recovery from trauma.

Many times, survivors of trauma -- particularly childhood and/or chronic trauma -- have lost their emotional vocabulary. When they went through the traumas they survived, their feelings were ignored, devalued, or suppressed. At that time/those times the feelings were not useful to survival. When survival is the focus, emotions just add confusion and detract from the function of staying alive.  The problem is that survivors often struggle to reconnect with the emotions when the trauma has ended.  They learn to focus on other people and read them and to ignore themselves and their own needs.  Recovery involves reconnecting with oneself, and this means getting to know and listen to one's emotions.

I remember a comedian from the 80's (yes, I'm dating myself) who joked that he had figured out how to solve the problem of the blinking 12:00 on his VCR. He simply took a piece of black electrical tape and put it over the display. Voila! He didn't have to see it anymore. We do this with emotions as well. We tend to fear anger, sadness, and shame, in particular. These so-called negative emotions seem overwhelming, and we tend to avoid them until we cannot do so anymore.

The fact is that emotions are not good or bad in themselves. Their purpose is to give us messages. I equate them with the "dummy lights" in a car ("check engine," that glowing red gas pump, etc.). Those lights tell us when there is something we need to attend to in the car to keep it running safely. If I put electrical tape over the gas gauge because I don't have the money or the time to stop for gas, I will eventually end up on the side of the road with a problem. If, however, I can find a way to put gas in my car (taking the time, and/or asking a friend or family member for support) and I keep an eye on the gauge, I will find that the red gas pump stops glowing, and I know that the situation is managed for now.

Emotions are the same.  If we listen to them and respond to their messages, we can make changes we need to make and know how we are doing internally.  If we attend to our feelings, they will pass on their own. If we shove them down, we miss important information, and we start experiencing secondary issues like depression, anxiety, and physical health issues such as headaches, stomachaches, and other digestive issues.

It takes courage to look at those feelings, and this is where therapy comes in handy. It provides a safe space to explore how you are feeling and what messages your feelings are giving you.  When you have that information, you can make an informed decision. Therapy can help you identify your feelings, learn to trust them and respond to them appropriately, and learn to trust yourself. I enjoy doing this work with my clients, and I feel honored when I have that opportunity.

I wonder what you are feeling right now and what it is telling you? I'd love to help you figure it out. Until then, I will enjoy my feeling of hope and hold on to some hope for you, too.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Thought to ponder...

It seems to me that you cannot have responsibility if you do not have control.  If this is true, how would this change your perception of your life and yourself? What do you give up if you accept this?

Saturday, August 8, 2015

The Gift of Time

There have been many "never"s in my life. "I'm never going to finish this paper." "I'm never going to find someone to marry." "I'm never going to find a job." "I'm never going to be able to get out of this job." "I'm never...."  The list goes on.  What is interesting is that I was wrong about all of those "never"s.  I managed to complete all the papers, I found a wonderfully loving husband, I got out of a job that was painful and hurtful to me, and I have found a job that I love. A primary component of all of these changes was time. To be fair, it was not as simple as sitting and waiting. I actually had to write the paper, go out on dates, apply for jobs, and make decisions to leave and to take new opportunities.  The point, though, is that things changed with time.

People say that "time heals all wounds." Though I am not sure that I agree completely, I think time presents another gift:  time is always passing. Things are constantly changing. Change can be a scary proposition, but its inevitability can be comforting.

Many times, my clients come to me feeling stuck and at least somewhat convinced that nothing will ever change in their lives. Depression, in particular, can give you the sense that everything is hopeless, that you are worthless, and things will always be that way.  At its worst, it can lead people to suicidal thinking.  Suicide often is not about wanting to die but about feeling there are no other options. People feel stuck and trapped in overwhelming situations and suicide sometimes feels like the only way out, or a last resort to have some control over their situations.

Part of what is important at that time, aside from ensuring current safety, is to remember that things do change.  I tell my clients that tomorrow will be different from today.  Their hair and fingernails will be longer, the Earth will be in a slightly different place in space, and the weather will be different. None of this may solve the current problem, but it promises the possibility of situational change, new ideas, new resources.

If I ask a client to track his or her mood over the course of a week, they will find that they are not always at the same level of depression or anxiety. Some days might be an 8 while others are more of a 5 or 6.  When people are depressed, they tend to miss these changes and have the sense that they have always felt as they do right now.  So we discuss times that they have not felt that way and what was true about those times  Often, we find patterns related to depression and can identify how those patterns emerge and change. Recognizing that change has happened and will continue to happen can be very liberating.

However bad today is, tomorrow will be different. Time keeps coming, providing opportunities for change and growth. There is grace and hope in time. Odds are that the sun will come up again tomorrow, and we can try again.

Mary Ann Rademacher said: "Courage does not always roar.  Sometimes courage is that small voice at the end of the day that says, 'I'll try again tomorrow.' "  I think she said it well. Let's get to tomorrow and see what happens.

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Comparing Apples to Jackrabbits

I spend a lot of my life observing.  I have long been a fan of people-watching, and I daresay it led me somewhat to the profession I am in today.  People fascinate me. I love their intricacies and the little details that make them who they are.  In all of this observation, however, I frequently find myself looking at others and comparing myself to them.

Many skills I do not have. I like to tell people that I have "all the coordination of a three-legged elephant with a short leg." Sports will never be my thing. When I was in kindergarten, I was pulled out of regular academic studies for remedial P.E. Things did not improve much from there in terms of my athleticism.  Similarly, while I love music, I am not a musician. I played the flute for eight years, but I was never able to produce the sweet, rounded tones that some of my compatriots could. Could I have practiced more and become a better athlete or musician? Yes, I suppose. Has it been worth it to me? I guess not.  I've learned to accept that I will never be a gymnast or a concert flutist, but I can enjoy the talents of others in those areas.

What can be harder for me is when I compare myself to people in my field. I find that people with whom I was in school now have doctorate degrees or have been in management positions in companies or have publications in journals. I catch myself wondering why I have not made their achievements and wondering whether I am good enough.

The answers to those questions are varied. Could I have gone to school for a Ph.D? Probably. I suppose I still might, but when I got done with my Ed.S program, I really wanted to get experience with people.  Similarly, I have never felt a strong pull to do research and develop that sort of writing. As far as management positions go, I have preferred to work directly with clients rather than focusing on the administrivia of management.

As I consider my answers to those questions, what I find is that who I am and what my skills and preferences are differs from those people with whom I am comparing. This makes me different, but not better or worse.  My path has been my own, and I have become the person I am today. As I head along that path, I will continue to change. With that point of view, comparing becomes irrelevant.  No one else has had my life and my particular circumstances, and even if they had, their responses might be totally different. The only person I can compare with, then, is myself.

Many times, clients come to me frustrated that they are not as successful as others that they know. They identify success in terms of money or relationships or attainments.  As we continue the conversation, however, we often find that they have been very successful in other ways.  Many of my clients have suffered abuse in childhood or adulthood. Many have gone through debilitating depression and great losses.  In these cases, it seems success may need to be redefined.  For trauma survivors, the survival of the trauma is a success. For people who struggle with depression, success can be as simple as getting out of bed, getting dressed, or taking a shower.  Those things may not look like much to others, but anyone who has been there is aware of what a challenge those things can be.  Comparing themselves to those who have not faced those struggles is like comparing apples to jackrabbits. I also say, "You can't compare pain." Two trauma survivors may have similar or different stories, but their pain will be unique to them and their paths will be their own.

Furthermore, many of my clients are hyperfocused on their lack or their "failings" and ignore some impressive strengths. Resiliency, courage, creativity, compassion, and other gifts tend to be glossed over or belittled.  They have the latest mental technology to detect faults and defects, but their tools to detect their strengths and positive attributes are stuck in the stone age. Much of how we see ourselves depends on our perception and interpretation, and learning to change those can be challenging.

One of my favorite exercises to do with clients is to have them list everything they have done right that day. I encourage them to note everything, even if it seems silly or minuscule: "I brushed my teeth. I got the toothpaste on the toothbrush without dripping it in the sink. I remembered to spit rather than swallowing my toothpaste. I spat in the sink and not on the counter." Etc, etc.  As we read over and add to the list in session, clients begin to laugh and smile and get excited about adding more. Often times, they will say, "but that's not an accomplishment. You're supposed to do that." My response is to ask whether there have been times they could not do those things, and the answer is usually yes. In that case, I say, it's an accomplishment.

Ultimately, we all have areas in which we need to grow and areas that are more well-developed.  It helps to be able to be mindful in our self-assessments, meaning that we note what is there without placing judgment on it. What is is. Should doesn't matter. Finding a balance in our focus on ourselves and being able to accept the good as well as the less helpful aspects can help us to make better decisions and have the courage to take next steps.

I like to tell my clients that they are my heroes, and I firmly believe that.  I have great respect for the people who go through all of these struggles and still face the world everyday. It is an honor to learn from them and to grow with them. My hope is that they can learn to value themselves at least as much as I value them. They are worth it.