We live in a society that values quantity over quality; there is a constant striving for more, for pushing *way* beyond our limits. As helpers, we may internalize this - we want to help every client that walks through our doors - and quickly!
But what happens when we take on too much? We get exhausted. Irritated. Overwhelmed. Resentful. The infamous 'burnt out.'
The solution is self-knowledge - to really learn what our limits are! To pay attention to when we feel overtaxed, and conversely, when we feel more comfortable. The goal is to find that learning edge - the place where we are working and learning and striving, but there is also some sense of ease.
For me, right now, this looks like taking 30-minute breaks between clients, having a lunch hour, and not seeing more than 5 clients a day. I have learned that when I do, it doesn't go well for me. I am beyond exhausted, irritated, and it's just not sustainable.
Admittedly, I enjoy an unusual amount of control over my schedule, which I am very grateful for. You may be asking - "Is this realistic for me?! - I have steep financial goals, my supervisors have large productivity goals for me, I have my own goals for what I want to achieve!" How do we account for these goals when we are working to identify and honor our limits?
This indeed necessitates a complex process of finding balance. It can involve asking for help - such as from supervisors or colleagues. It can involve learning how others have succeeded in setting limits in your specific workplace. The trick is finding the place where we do have some control, some ability to decide and live out our priorities. To make sure that we are pursuing our goals in the present in a way that is sustainable, compassionate, and leaves us more energized than miserable.
I'll offer another, non-work example from my own life. Like many Torontonians, I see a physiotherapist for back pain. I obviously want to progress to 100% functioning and zero discomfort asap. However, if I push beyond my limits, I will no doubt hurt myself, aggravate my condition, and delay my healing. If I instead work with my provider to find that sweet spot - where exercises feel challenging but don't give me more than 3/10 of pain, I can build my strength, and progress slowly but surely.
It is very important to note that we all have different limits! One example to take into account is the personality trait of high sensitivity - studied by psychologist Elaine Aaron. This is a biological trait that 15-20% of the population has - many of whom are helpers! It comes with certain superpowers that contribute to skill in helping: super-feeling, super-sensitivity, empathy, intuition, creativity, strong people skills, often a certain sense of spirituality and desire to help others. It also comes with certain limits - such as being easily overstimulated, and requiring significant down-time and limits in order to preserve these super-powers.
If you are curious about whether you could be classified as a Highly Sensitive Person, take this online quiz.
So, the path to finding and honoring our limits is certainly an individual one. And it is no way a static process - even those of us who have worked hard to identify and honour our limits are ever-reworking them in order to account for life's inevitable changes - changes in our own capacity, in our priorities, in what we are holding on our plates.
All this said, the very first step in honoring our limits is getting curious about what they are! On a day at work in a helping profession, if I come home feeling energized and inspired, what happened that day? On a day I feel completely burnt out - how much was I holding? Did I work with particularly difficult cases that took a good deal out of me? Did I see more clients than usual, not have as many breaks as I needed, take too much on (or have too much thrust upon me)?
Once I have a rough sense of what my limits are - how do I enforce these in the real world of my job? This might involve a courageous and vulnerable conversation with a supervisor - something like - "I care deeply about this work - so I need to honor my limits so that I can do my best work here. Can you help me?" Admittedly, asking for help can be a challenge for many and a topic unto itself - one that I have covered in past posts and intend to continue to write about in the future.
So - honoring our limits is not simple. It involves a complex process of continuously identifying them - since they can change, on a daily, even hourly basis! This isn't about perfection - it's about trial and error - getting curious about how we feel when we take on too much (which is, again, very individually determined!) and experimenting with easing up when we are overwhelmed.
Though not a simple process, the rewards of honouring our limits are large. It allows us to thrive in a helping profession in a manner that is sustainable, to actually stand a chance to enjoy our work, and to give from our abundance - our filled-up cups - rather than running on empty.
In the long run, there is no doubt in my mind that honouring and working within our limits is the best way to achieve our goals and dreams as helping professionals.
The other day, I was talking to a client about their difficulties in a close friendship. This friend asks of them things that require significant self-sacrifice, and they tend to feel guilty if they say no or reassert their own needs. They exclaimed – but if I put myself first, isn’t it selfish?
I have heard this many times before in my practice. I tend to work with helpers – people who have in some way devoted much of their life to taking care of other people, whether professionally or personally. I have observed and worked with voices inside my clients’ heads that say this very thing – If you don’t prioritize x person’s needs – you are selfish! You only care about yourself! This can be somewhat difficult - and dissonant - for me to witness, as, again, these tend to be people who have literally devoted their lives to helping others.
Most of the time, I help people work through this part of the self – this Critic part that calls them selfish if they don’t prioritize everyone else. That makes them feel guilty, full of shame, even sometimes unable to breathe, holding the weight of the world, if they don’t devote themselves to the care of someone else. In my practice, we land on this part in order to help transform it.
Usually this transformation involves some kind of Anger. As clinical psychologist Harriet Lerner says in her book The Dance of Anger, self-sacrifice tends to result in stores of – often repressed – anger. Anger that our own needs are not being adequately met – that we are giving too much – and not receiving enough – and that it’s just not fair! Another important point that Lerner makes is that Anger and Guilt are incompatible feelings – meaning that if we allow ourselves access to the anger, the guilt just about melts away.
However, usually, when we have a Critic part that calls us selfish, that urges us to self-sacrifice, the anger is repressed, and therefore inaccessible.
As well, this Critic part usually holds some pain, some past memories about how hard they tried to maintain relationships, or help significant others. Most folks have learned this pattern from early development. They have been the helpers of their families, tending to others emotional or practical needs. There is usually the sense as a child that – if I don’t help, my caregiver may fall apart. Or somehow no longer be available to me. Or worse – be mean. So I have to help in order to receive.
For this blog post, however, I clearly can’t work directly with you, your memories, or the part the calls you Selfish. All I can really do is appeal to the other side, the side that knows self-care and boundaries is not selfish, and I will try to call up this part in you. I will offer some of my own ideas, from the part of me that believes that self-care is one of the most profound ways that we can bring kindness and compassion into this world.
So, first and foremost, I want to appeal to the notion that You are Worthy of Care. How do I know? Because you are alive.
Spring has sprung, and shoots and small plants are finally starting to come alive in Toronto. Crocuses, daffodils, and a blue/purple wildflower whose name I don’t know that has begun to dust some of the city parks. Each plant has its own willful determination to rise out of the ground, reach toward the sunshine, works to transform sunlight to energy to keep it alive, to meet its needs.
Doesn’t each individual plant deserve the water, sunlight, and minerals that it needs? Would it be fair to pick one out – and say – this one isn’t that important – it should devote all its resources to the other plants?
But isn’t that just what this Critic voice says – that if you don’t prioritize the needs of everyone around you over your own, you are SELFISH?
I’m actually about to board an airplane. We’ve all heard the safety instructions when you board a plane, yes? Always put on your own oxygen mask before assisting other passengers – even your own kids. The only way that you can help anyone else is by first and foremost making sure that you are safe and well. Imagine trying to help when you are oxygen-deprived, flailing around, trying to find the other masks but not fully conscious yourself! Don’t we as helpers get pulled into doing just this – continuing to help even when we are totally burnt out, need a break, but the relentless voice inside says – YOU MUST HELP!
The drive to help is a beautiful, precious, much-needed quality that makes the world a better place. But when it becomes compulsive, it robs us of the ability to honour our own needs and boundaries.
This week, I am celebrating the holiday of Passover, and so its themes are on my mind. On this holiday, Jews re-enact the Jewish collective memory of being redeemed from slavery in Egypt; it is a re-living of the transformation from slavery to freedom.
Compulsive helping, compulsive caregiving, is a kind of slavery. It is the product of an internal voice that says – if you don’t do this – You are BAD, you are Unworthy. It is a trap. There is no choice. It is a kind of giving from a place of scarcity.
Freedom is about choice. It is about coming to learn and know that we are free to choose – that in the tension that can arise between our needs and those of the people around us, we can sometimes prioritize our own needs, and sometimes those of others. When we are overflowing with abundance, let’s say, we can choose to share. But we need not feel compelled to give even when we have run out for ourselves. Freedom is saying – yes – I choose to give and help when I can – it makes me feel good, it gives me a sense of purpose and meaning – AND I can also choose sometimes to reign in my helping, and redirect it toward myself. I can choose to Invest in myself - both because I am Worthy of Care AND because when I invest in my own wellness, I ultimately have more to give.
If you feel trapped, enslaved in helping, you may need some help practicing compassionate boundaries. This is simply a way of saying no while still validating the experience of the other person. It can sound something like this:
Dear friend/loved one/child/client/spouse: I’d love to help you right now, and I care deeply about what you are going through, but I need to attend to my ________ [own needs] right now. If you like, you can also add – “Can I help you later/in a different way/?
If you are a compulsive helper, I’d also like to encourage you to think about your rigid helping as a way that you neglect yourself. I know this sounds harsh – but I am responding to the voice that says – You are Selfish if you don’t prioritize others’ needs. So, I’m trying to be equally dramatic😊 But I do believe this to be true on some level. How dare you, as the person who is in charge of putting on your own oxygen mask, deny yourself your own needs?! How can you call yourself a compassionate person when you are consistently placing your needs behind everyone else’s? That is not treating yourself with the honor and dignity you deserve by virtue of being alive.
So, if you have resonated so far with this post – I urge you – BE MORE SELFISH! Honor your own needs above all else – and then you will have the freedom to choose to give and help from your bounty.
It's finally, FINALLY, Spring! I almost can't believe it. Here in Toronto, we've had quite our share of late Winter storms. I know I'm not alone in being So. Ready. For this warmth. For this growth. For the promise of freshness, renewal, vivacity that Spring can bring.
In thinking about Spring, Play comes to mind. Perhaps because it's finally nice out. It's finally possible to spend a few moments outside without completely freezing. There's a sense of possibility, excitement, something new in the air.
And so, I would like to explore the benefits of play for adults. Not as something that you must do, something else to add to your already impossible to do list, but as something to allow into your life at your own pace.
But before I do, let me speak to what might be some of your hesitations. I know that as helpers, as people who tend to carry the weight of the world on our shoulders, we can have a tendency to be Super Serious All the Time, to view all aspects of life as Really Important. Play can feel a bit - silly, out of reach, unrealistic. Not part of our mental state.
I know that this can definitely be true for me. Part of what helps me personally in being able to access play at times is my immersion in the Jewish calendar, and right now in particular, the Holiday of Purim. This Holiday, which begins tonight (Yay!), asks adults to dress up in costume, get giddy, drink if that's something you do, and be merry. In dressing up, and in altering our state of consciousness, there is the theme of communicating different, less dominant aspects of our identities, perhaps ones that we tend to keep more covered up, more masked.
These rituals help me play. They helped me spend a good chunk of time last night wrestling with poster board, scotch tape, and scissors, trying to make myself a Witch's Hat. Knowing that I had no idea what I was doing, but somehow, the spirit of the holiday let me experiment, see how it went, try things out, adapt as needed, be open to how things began to form. I was very focused, very mindful. I came out with a less than perfect but very functional Witch's Hat that I am very proud of, and a greater sense of ease and joy.
Psychotherapists have been writing and thinking for many years about the therapeutic benefits of play. Donald Winnicott, a British psychoanalyst, wrote extensively about play and its benefits for kids and adults alike. In his 1982 publication Playing and Reality, he writes, "play is universal... playing facilitates growth and therefore health" (p.41). I will offer you some of his insights re: play, as interpreted by, well, me:
Perhaps it will be helpful if I relate these principles to my own experience of creating a Witch costume for myself for Purim. Regarding the principle of surprise - I was certainly surprised by my progress re: my Witch's Hat and my ability to construct something witch-hat-like! Re: communication, I definitely feel that my creating and wearing this costume tonight will be a communication to myself and to others of the ways that I feel an affinity (perhaps wishful) toward the Witch persona - and the earthy, creative, healing, powerful elements that it contains. Important is the spontaneity, and the sense that we are not playing because we think we should be playing (since Donald Winnicott said so!) or just because we put it on our calendar. We go through so much of our lives pushing through on what we believe we should be doing. Play is a chance to get out of that, at least momentarily. To make a Witch Hat because I bloody feel like it! There is an aliveness, a creativity, a self-expression. All of this can feel very exciting indeed.
Play also tends to involve a mental state akin to mindfulness, or a state a flow. There is the sense that I am fully in what I am doing. Certainty, we could all benefit from more of these moments! Finally, play can give us the sense that we are all powerful - that we have creative energy, that we have the ability to control things in a life that has so many parts that are not under our control. I may not be a millionare, but hey - I can turn a piece of paper into a hat, and it makes me feel pretty powerful!
So I'm not going to tell you how to play. Because I think part of this is discovering this state for yourself, cultivating this attitude as you engage in various activities that could be playful. I know that some of us can access play at times during our everyday adult activities, such as during exercise, cooking, perusing items in the grocery store. Certaintly if you have kids - or have access to kids - you can play with them! As an aside, if you do have kids, and you are looking to find a way to be more playful with them, perhaps few more pearls of wisdom from Winnicott:
Sometimes, play is best accessed spontaneously, not necessarily planfully. This might involve, say, an evening where we shut off TV and other technology, and let ourselves seek activities that stimulate us, that bring us back into the moment, that help us express some aspect of ourselves. Perhaps this might look like baking, crafting, gardening, playing sports, having sex, playing instruments, hobbying of any kind. Perhaps it is lingering on our routes home, window shopping, or people watching. Alternatively, we play while we are using our technologies, watching our shows, playing our internet games, posting our images onto various social networking sites.
Ideally, we even find a way to bring a playful spirit into our work. Wouldn't that be so great?! This is also Really Hard! I am looking to find ways to do this more with my own work. For instance, I'd like to find a way to make this blog post series feel playful for me. Sometimes it does. It feels like a way that I can play with and express certain ideas, certain parts of myself and my practice. Often it feels like work - something I've committed to doing, something that I feel some pressure to make somewhat useful or relatable to you all. So, I sometimes struggle with - how do we make our work more playful?
Perhaps for now, let's keep our eyes open for moments at work when we feel some of these experiences - spontaneity, excitement, in the flow of things, surprising ourselves and communicating new parts to ourselves and to others. Perhaps these precious moments exist at times, and all we need to do is look out for them, be pleasantly surprised when they do arise. And perhaps ask ourselves - hey, how did that happen? How can we re-create this?
Happy Spring. Happy Purim for those celebrating. May we find ways to access Play even as life continues to have serious, heavy elements. Not because we think we should, but because it will make us come more alive.
As helpers - helping professionals, or people in all kinds of helping, caregiving roles - it can be really hard to reach out for help when we ourselves are having a hard day. February can be a hard month in general; we're all pretty Vitamin D deficient by now, we've been slammed with several snow storms that, although beautiful, make our lives more difficult.
Valentine's Day doesn't necessarily help. As a classically romantic holiday, it can seem to privilege our romantic relationships over all of our other ones. Perhaps we are not partnered. Perhaps the people who are most supportive to us are not necessarily our romantic partners. In fact, all of our relationships can be very important to our well-being, not just our romantic ones.
This Valentine's Day, I've been thinking about love in all kinds of relationships, self-love, and why it can be so hard for us to reach out for help. We might really need support from others right now. Again, it's been gray and stormy out. It seems that everyone I speak to is so tired, moods are low, we might have some disbelief that Spring will really come.
So we may all need support right now. But again, it can be so hard to reach out and ask for help - especially for helpers, who can be so much more comfortable giving than receiving. Why is it so uncomfortable to ask for help, to learn to receive?
For one, as lifelong helpers, when we help others, we end up feeling skilled, capable, strong, needed. On the other hand, when we ask for help, disclose our vulnerability, we may feel weak, needy; we may worry that we are burdening the other, an old tape that can play in our minds that likely stems from messages we received as kids.
Two, it can be really risky to ask for help! What if the response we get isn't helpful?! What if it reinforces our wounded beliefs that we are a burden, that our pain makes us needy? What if the other person responds dismissively? What if they can't or won't hear us, don't respond in a way that helps? What if they are busy, unavailable, distracted?
On an existential level, there is always a level of uncertainty when we risk asking for help; we can never predict with absolute certainty how the other person will respond. We may indeed end up in more pain than when we started; the pain and disappointment of having disclosed, and not being helped, being missed, being unseen.
So yes, I'll admit, it is a risk, every single time we are brave enough to ask for help, lean on another. Because, what if we lean toward another, and the other person moves? Then we can fall!
It can feel much safer to tell ourselves - we don't need anyone. There's less uncertainty, less risk. But then - we are left alone with our pain. We are often lonely. We are left with only our helper role, never able to get our own help! And isn't that just so unfair?!
So, to quote singer-song-writer Sara Bareilles, I wanna see you be Brave! Consider who in your life feels supportive most of the time, has the potential to respond to your vulnerability in a compassionate and empathic way. Allow yourself to experiment with asking for help, with being vulnerable, with needing others!
Allowing ourselves to recognize our need for others is in fact a sign of psychological health. It is a recognition of the interdepent nature of being a human being. (Look into attachment theory if you want to learn more! You can also check out the following book: Attached: The New Science of Adult Attachment and How it Can Help You Find - and Keep- Love.)
Again, allowing ourselves to need others, to reach out for help, is a risk. It can be super painful when you reach out and the other person isn't supportive. But what about those precious moments when the other says or does just the thing you need?! Or, is willing to learn and get curious about what you need, able to adjust themselves to meet that need, and just really makes you feel loved and less alone. How magical, how healing!
Yes, we can protect ourselves from the risk of being re-injured, but then we cut ourselves off from the possibility of receiving, of connecting through our vulnerability, of feeling so much less alone.
Furthermore, the more we learn to receive, the more we learn or re-learn that we are worthy of receiving care, love, and support. The more we learn that our value is intrinsic, beyond our ability to help others, way beyond our productivity, even beyond our generosity, compassion, and love that we offer the world. We are worthy because we are alive, because we live and breath, because we are creatures with feelings and needs.
And, perhaps paradoxically, the more we are able to receive, the more capacity we have to give to others. We begin to give from our bounty, rather than only from our scarcity.
So be brave. Experiment with leaning on someone supportive this month. Allow yourself to gather evidence about who is likely to be supportive to you, who can be compassionate to you. Shift your viewpoint to looking for who might be capable of giving you the support you need, rather than only looking for who needs your help.
Open yourself up to receiving. Happy Valentines Day <3 !
A new, young 2019. We've hopefully taken a period of rest, a break, and also likely some reflection - looking back, looking forward. This can be lovely, but for some of us, this is an opportunity for our Critics to sneak up on us. To tell us we are not doing enough for ourselves, for others. That we are lazy, inadequate, don't have 'what it takes' to reach our dreams.
We all have internal Critics. Some are meaner and stronger than others. There are at least two kinds of Critics. One Shames us, tells us we are bad, don't meet up to its expectations. The other Scares us, tells us all kinds of scary stories about how we won't be ok, won't be able to cope, are just plain not strong enough. Sometimes, the Shaming and Scaring critic can yell at us at once, which is just plain overwhelming!
I was recently at a clinical peer supervision meeting and a colleague introduced me to a Netflix show - Big Mouth - that does a great job personifying the Shame Critic. It does this with its character the Shame Wizard - a scary, slimy, intimidating character that oozes out of the shadows and attacks people when they are already feeling badly about themselves.
Here is a clip of Jessi, a teenage girl who has made a mistake and already feels terrible, and the Shame Wizard comes and, well, SHAMES her!
What is especially hard about being attacked by a Critic is that it can feel like the Critic is ALL of us, that we have no other parts left. Like our entire being is the Shame Wizard and there is nothing left. In fact, however, Critics are always just one part of ourselves attacking the rest of us - but because they can be so strong and loud, we forget that the rest of us exists!
So, in the spirit of Big Mouth and its Shame Wizard, what can help as a first step in working with Self-Criticism is to externalize the voices that shame or scare us. Most often, we are not aware of these voices, they are more unconscious, and instead we are more aware of the change of feeling - from wellness to shame, anxiety, overwhelm, helplessness, hopelessness, etc. See if you can give voice to the Shaming or Scaring parts of you when they are active. Say what it is saying, out loud, to yourself!
This may seem counterintuitive. In fact, our natural instinct when we are being attacked by Shaming or Scaring voices is to push them away, distract, try to get away from them - NOT hear them out! But in fact, when we can give voice to these parts of ourselves, we begin to experience them as only one part of us, not our entire being. Only the Critic part believes us to be inadequate, incapable, lazy, fat, bad, whatever. There are other parts, perhaps less developed parts, but they are still there, that do not hold these beliefs.
When we give voice to the parts that Scare or Shame us, that can sometimes be enough to defuse them. When we actually hear the mean or catastrophic things we are saying to ourselves, that it sometimes enough to recognize how ridiculous it sounds. That can sometimes be enough to make space for other parts of ourselves, parts that are more compassionate, that can get Angry at this attack, or that can say - Ouch! It hurts so much when you attack me! I need your support, your encouragement, your acceptance - NOT this attacking!
Fortunately for the character Jessi in the above video, she has another strong part of her that gets very angry at the Shame Wizard. That rises up and says - "Get the Fuck out of here" - and proceeds to load her very sizeable shot gun. If only we could all have this character by our sides when our Shame Critics rise up against us!
So, to recap, when you have a Critic rising up against you, Step 1 is to give it voice! What is my Critic actually saying?! Say what it is saying out loud. To yourself.
Once you can get these explicit messages, Step 2 is to ask yourself - How does this Critic make me feel - right now? This will definitely seem counterintuitive - the Critic makes us feel bad or scared - and we try so hard not to feel this way. However, as Emotion Focused Therapy philosophy teaches, we need to feel it to heal it. See if you can go inside, name the feelings you feel as a result of the Critic's attacking. Maybe you feel defeated, scared, overwhelmed, helpless. Maybe you are deeply sad and hurt at the way your critic is treating you. Or maybe, like Jessi - you get Pissed!
Step 3 is to Ask yourself what you need from the Critic part of you. If you feel angry, you might need your Critic to, in Jessi's words, "Get the Fuck out of here!" If you feel ashamed and defeated, you might need your critic to encourage you, to accept you, rather than crush you. If you feel scared, you might need your Critic to comfort you.
In stating a need from the Critic, your feeling state can shift. Maybe you begin to feel entitled to your Anger at the Critic; Maybe you go into sadness and pain at how badly it hurts to be attacked in this way - and then find yourself feeling entitled to comfort and care.
Feeling Angry or Sad is very different than feeling Weak or Bad - would you not agree? Anger and Sadness in this case are very healing emotions that help us get our needs met - i.e., space from the critic, comfort in our pain.
Perhaps I will write a follow-up post to get more into why our Critics can be so mean, and more about how to soften them. For now, if you take nothing else from this post - Give Voice to your Critic! Experiment with giving it mean, harsh, scary, demeaning voices. This helps to separate the Critic Voices from the rest of us - and this in itself can help take the edge off of the impact of its attacks.
Happy (belated) New Year. May you make room for your more gentle parts via giving voice to the Critic - and seeing what else is there!
Not sure if you've noticed - but it's really really dark outside. Near the darkest time of the year, my people start lighting candles. Maybe you are lighting candles too - it just feels so natural and cozy, eh?
Chanukah recalls the darkness of a history of religious persecution and celebrates our survival, our renewal, an honouring and pride in our own spiritual light. It is only through having survived this period of darkness, of refusing to hide our Jewishness, that we have come to this light. Only in the darkness do the candles shine bright.
Last night, some friends and I met in order to sing songs, connect, and celebrate Chanukah. A friend taught us a song - not a Jewish one as far as I know - but one that resonated so deeply. The words, penned by poet Wendell Berry, are as follows:
To go in the dark with a light is to know the light.
To know the dark, go dark. Go without sight,
and find that the dark, too, blooms and sings,
and is traveled by dark feet and dark wings.
It took time for me to learn the words and make any sense of them. Eventually, I concluded - it's a song not so much about light but about darkness! A wise friend added - it's about the movement in darkness - we cannot see, but we can still travel, move. The darkness can be transformative. It can take us places. We need not avoid the dark, and assume that it is only a place of stuckness and of fear.
I've been writing in past blogs about the process of feeling hard feelings, why it is so hard, and thinking deeply about the conditions that allow us to do so in a way that is healing. Perhaps the best way to go into our own darkness is through being connected with the light of another - whether a trusted friend, a therapist, or a part of the self that is particularly present and comforting. In doing so, we are not alone with the darkness, with the emotional pain. Rather than getting stuck in it, we are able to move through it.
Take the example of emotional pain. When we can go into our emotional pain, really know it, EXPERIENCE it, we learn the truth of our having been hurt. I think it's safe to say that we have all been hurt to some extent or another - albeit to varying degrees. In allowing and experiencing our emotional pain, we learn that our hurt was and is real. We learn to feel entitled to our pain. We learn that we never EVER want to be in that kind of experience again. Perhaps we get into a sense of despair and deep sadness, of how vulnerable we really are as humans. Perhaps we dip into a sense of feeling just so existentially alone in this pain. Perhaps we get a sense of how unfair this hurt was - an anger and even a rage at what occurred. We learn that we most definitely didn't deserve it. Perhaps we arrive at a sense of pride at having survived it. This is the movement in the darkness.
And what of the light in the darkness? There are times that I have experienced myself - and have witnessed in my therapy clients - of deeply feeling and expressing pain in the presence of another. At the best of times, we end up feeling seen, even held. This experience of connection transforms and lightens our pain. Just as candles transform the darkness into an experience of coziness and warmth. When we can experience, express, and make meaning of our pain in the presence of a supportive other, what often follows is a feeling of lightness. Of being unburdened. An openness, an open-heartedness. A feeling of connection. Maybe even gratitude for the connection we are privy to. Have you ever had any of these feelings?
As we move closer to Winter Solstice, and the darkest night of the year, see if you can get to know BOTH your darkness and your light a bit better. We need to get to know both in order to live fully, to get to know our True Selves a bit more.
For some guidance in this process, I highly recommend the following book by Hilary Jacobs Hendel, LCSW: It's Not Always Depression. If you live in downtown Toronto, come by Hard Feelings and pick it up - we have it in stock!
Although I didn't grow up celebrating Halloween, I am loving some of the decorations I am seeing this year. There are friendly ghosts, giant spiders and webs, pumpkins with all kinds of faces. And yet, some of them are pretty scary! I am glad I'm not a kid - because I think I'd have nightmares!
Perhaps you read my first blog post - which was about why and how to feel feelings. Perhaps your response - whether conscious or not - is - But feeling feelings is too scary! What if I feel too much?! What if it hurts?
Many of us fear our feelings, and for good reason. As such, I wanted to follow up with some explanation of why feeling feelings can be so hard - and, accordingly, why it can be so helpful to bring an attitude of self-compassion, curiosity, and patience with ourselves if we are learning to make more space for our feelings. So, here goes. Some reasons why feeling feelings can be so hard, in no particular order.
1. Biology. Some of us experience our feelings more deeply than others. Elaine Aron, PhD, has done important research on "highly sensitive people." In short, these are people (myself included) who feel our feelings more profoundly - whose feelings - both emotions and physical, as well as sensory experiences - are just more intense.
When highly sensitive people have "good enough" caregivers as kids, and have developed the capacity to feel their feelings, they can make space for big emotions - which actually offers them special gifts and ways of contributing to society through their sensitivity. However, if, as is often the case, they were responded to when young with - "You are Too Sensitive" - they become ashamed or afraid of their big feels. Feelings become threatening - so much more so given how intense they can be! Making space for big feelings when you are a super-feeler who has been invalidated is definitely possible - but hopefully you can see how it could feel very intimidated. For more on the subject of biology as it relates to feeling, please see this excellent blog post by clinical psychologist Sarah Thompson.
2. Development. As I've alluded to above, our early development and responses we received from our primary caregivers strongly impact our relationship with our feelings. If we were ignored, dismissed, invalidated, or even penalized for expressing emotion, we begin to associate our healthy emotions with fear and/or shame. And who wants to feel fear or shame?! So, we learn to avoid even the healthiest of our feelings because of this pairing.
Implicit family rules - which are often cross-generational - also play into things. If there was an unnamed rule of - "We don't express emotions in this family" - we learn that feelings are not ok, that they have no place. As kids, we may have learned to minimize, downplay, or ignore our feelings in order to fit in, to belong.
3. Society and Culture. Western society is pretty driven by productivity, I think. If we perform, produce, make a living, we are valuable. We tend to put more value on rationality and evidence then intuition and inner experience. We may get the societal message that our inner experience doesn't matter - all that matters is how much money we make or how many degrees we have or other external markers.
I've also been thinking a lot lately about masculinity and I think things may be uniquely hard for men in terms of developing a capacity to connect to feelings. Men seem to grow up learning that "boys don't cry" and that feeling feelings or prioritizing relationships is [insert insult here]. This is obviously ridiculous - men can have rich inner worlds just like any other human being. But, in receiving these messages - whether implicit or explicit - men have nowhere to put their feelings, no outlet, no permission to feel or express. And so, the quest of feeling feelings may be unfamiliar at best; at worst, feeling feelings can be linked to the shame and fear of being (societally) ridiculed for being human.
Many cultures and subcultures also have their own rules and stigmas against feeling and expressing feelings. I've actually done some work around stigma in the Jewish community around feelings and mental health. In response to hard feelings - and experiences of anxiety and depression - there can be messaging that can sound like - "Be Strong and not Weak, survive, be resilient, succeed, rely [only] on your intellect." I understand this messaging as coming from historical trauma, the need to survive, and an understandable difficulty and avoidance of processing the pain of Jewish history and experience. Many other cultures and ethnicities have overlapping, though distinct, implicit messaging around feelings. These cultural norms can make it very challenging to experience and express more painful emotions - even those that are extremely healthy.
4. Existential reality and trauma. Life is in some ways tragic; though it can include much joy and beauty, it is also full of pain and suffering. As I write this, I am inevitably deeply influenced by recent violence against the Jewish community in Pittsburg. I feel a good deal of grief and anger, a little fear - and I also find myself disconnecting from my feelings at times. Perhaps because they are so big - they feel "too much." That is in part because the violence is unbearable - unfathomable - indigestible. And so, my disconnection is perhaps healthy, a way to cope, a way to sometimes disconnect from the grief and the anger so as to go about my day. So it goes with any kind of pain or trauma. We disconnect as a defense against actually experiencing the internal impact of what has occured. This can keep us going, help us cope and even survive, but has costs when it becomes habitual - when we disconnect from our feelings too frequently. When we become too used to disconnecting from our inner experience, we do so in times of joy as well as in times of pain. We become anxious and depressed. We lose the healing power of emotions like sadness and grief, which help us mourn and ultimately let go of the loss, and anger, which helps us hold others accountable and set boundaries. But, still, it makes total sense that we wouldn't want to feel the impact of extremely painful realities - and certainly not all the time.
I know this was a lot, and just a taste of really big and important topics. Hopefully, though, it gives you a sense of why it can be so challenging to simply "feel our feelings" - and how many forces we may have inside, for good reasons, to distract, stay only in our heads, and even shame, judge, or scare ourselves for feeling. We also may at times need to be able to disconnect from our inner experience so that we can be present and effective in our lives.
So, my point is, if you fear your feelings and/or have trouble feeling and making space for them - see if you can be gentle with yourself! This is hard work. It is in many ways a life-long journey. May we all move closer to a reality in which we can greet our internal experience - even if it is Fear of Feelings - with kindness and compassion. (Perhaps more on this later).
Fall can be a time of freshness. Of increased vitality. Something new in the air. Leaves are transforming from green to vibrant flashes of yellows and reds and oranges. What better time for me to be writing my first blogpost ever (Exciting! Scary!) and introducing you to the benefits of working with feelings.
Right now, as far as therapies go, behaviourally and cognitively oriented therapies are in vogue. That's great - because sometimes we do need to modify our behaviours or cognitions when they are not supporting us. Still - there is really nothing like working directly with our emotions. Our emotions speak to our inner selves, the core of who we are. To what we truly want and need. And guess what?! There really are evidence-based and transformative ways to work with them - to allow them to be, just as they are, to understand what they are trying to tell us, and to transform them in several different ways, which I will introduce below.
As far as arriving at our emotions - Les Greenberg, who developed Emotion-Focused Therapy, says: We cannot Leave a Place we have not first Arrived at. Painful emotions are the absolute worst. No one wants to feel them. I often don't want to feel mine. Yet what happens is that when we avoid feeling them - they become worse. They take on a life of their own. They terrify us, control us in ways that we may not even understand. They make us anxious and depressed. We lose the capacity to feel Positive, life-giving feelings - since if we are afraid of feelings, we avoid even the good ones.
So Step 1 is to actually Feel our Feelings - even the hard ones! A great way to learn to do this is through Focusing. Focusing is a practice created by psychologist Eugene Gendlin. It is different than mindfulness - which is also super in vogue - in that rather than simply re-focusing on our breath, or noting and then moving away from our feelings, we go into feelings. We do this by first noticing the way we experience the feeling in our bodies. This is so radical in our society, where we tend to be a bunch of talking heads and essentially forget for most of the hours of the day that we even have a body. It can therefore be challenging - and it can take time to develop this muscle.
Once we can go inside, and see what we are experiencing in our bodies, we can then give the experience a name, a description. Maybe we are feeling a surge in our chest. Maybe there is a tight ball there. Maybe a sinking feeling. Maybe a warmth or a tingling. Whatever is there - invite it to be, get curious about it, describe it - rather than pushing it away or intellectualizing!
For me, as I write this blogpost, there is a surge of something in my chest. I know it is some mixture of excitement and anxiety - but in focusing, I try to stay close to what I am actually experiencing inside and name the sensations as I am experiencing them rather than analyzing or rushing to label it with traditional emotion words. As I notice this feeling of "surging", it changes. For me in this moment, it loses its intensity when I focus in on it.
Perhaps I will go more into the practice of focusing in a future post. For now, feel free to experiment with focusing via the following instructions:
Step 2: So once we can actually feel our feelings in our bodies, then what? Do we actually want to stay there, in the muck of bad feelings? Of course not! For one, the irony, the paradox, is that when we actually allow our feelings to be as they are, they run their course. They change. They come, and then they go. I promise. They really do. They might come back, but if we keep allowing them to run their course, they will fall just as they rise.
Furthermore, in the presence of a caring other - such as in therapy - our feelings can be transformed. For example, if I am feeling hopelessly depressed - and all alone, and I express this to a caring other - and I receive a caring response, I might begin to feel a sense of Connection in addition to my feelings of Despair. This can be transformative! From now on, my feelings of despair have some link to my feelings of connection. I learn that I can be in Despair and feel Connected. The despair loses its power, its terror. It becomes bearable. It transforms into something different - maybe it turns into sadness, or a sense of longing.
Speaking of despair, I know that some of you are feeling kind of hopeless or sad about the end of summer. I get that. I love summer as much as the next Torontonian. I challenge you to see if you can allow both the feelings of sadness at the loss of Summer and the excitement and vivacity of fall. See if you can allow this mixture - and see what it makes! Red plus Yellow makes Orange. Play with what comes for you when you mix emotions! Perhaps Sadness and Excitement together makes a whimsical hopefulness - an openness or curiosity to what comes - both inside and out.
Happy Fall Colors ya'll. Would love to hear your thoughts, whether or not this resonates or is helpful, and any suggestions for future posts.