Sunday, December 26, 2010

Feelings as Facts

A patient recently told me she felt unloved.  She blamed her husband for not doing enough to demonstrate his love for her and said she was having doubts about whether or not to stay in the marriage.  I asked her how long she'd been feeling this way.  "Not long," she told me.  "Maybe a week."  I asked her what had changed about her husband's behavior over the past week.  She was not able to identify a single thing her husband was doing differently than he'd been doing when she did feel loved.

The problem, I concluded, was that she was accepting her feelings as fact.  This is called emotional reasoning and it goes something like this: "I feel unloved; therefore, I must not be getting enough love from my husband."  Another example: "I feel anxious and worried; therefore, something must be wrong."  Yet another example: "I feel sad/depressed; therefore, something must be wrong with or missing in my life."

Now any of these statements might be true.  However, feeling a particular way is not enough evidence for us to draw any conclusions one way or another.  We need more information.

The point is this:  Feelings are not facts.  Emotions are a valuable source of information but they should never be the only source of information.  This is particularly true with those emotions that have been problematic for us in the past.

Here's a personal example.  I used to be very insecure and jealous in romantic relationships.  I became upset when my significant other talked to or even talked about other females.  It didn't take long before this caused problems for me.  I often over-reacted to benign situations.  My suspicions and accusations pushed those I cared about away.  I knew I had to make some changes.

I started to interpret feelings of jealousy as a sign (or a "red flag" of sorts) that I need to take a step back or remove myself from a situation for a few moments.  First, I would acknowledge my feelings of insecurity.  Then I would attempt to determine whether or not they had any basis in reality.  Sometimes that meant calling a trusted friend or family member to explain the situation and get their point of view.  If I determined that I was over-reacting (because of my own insecurities) I did what I needed to do to cope with my emotions without taking my feelings out on my significant other.  If I decided that my significant other had, in fact, done something to warrant my jealousy I worked to identify an appropriate way to address the issue with him.

This took a lot of practice but over time it became second nature.  Eventually I even started to feel more secure in my relationships.

Anyway, the moral of the story is that accepting feelings as facts can create a lot of problems.  To really make good decisions you need a good balance of reason and emotion.  In other words, when your head and your heart are in agreement you know you are on the right path.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Practicing What You Preach

I'm the kind of person who sort of jumps from interest to interest.  For a while I'll devote a lot of time and energy to something.  Then my interest sort of fades and I move on to something else.  It's the same way in my professional life.  I like to learn new modes of therapy.  For a while I become very interested in it.  I read everything I can get my hands on and I incorporate it into my sessions with as many patients as possible.  After a time, something else catches my interest and I move on. 

I don't think there is anything particularly wrong with that way of doing things per se.  However, I believe I would probably better serve my patients by maintaining my enthusiasm for learning new treatments while not completely abandoning the "old" ones. 

I started thinking about this the other day.  I had a patient who could really benefit from mindfulness training.  If you can teach someone to practice mindfulness you can help them learn to better tolerate their emotions, which leads to increased emotional stability.  I dusted off the file labeled "Mindfulness" and pulled out my outline.  (Yes, I'm a dork.  I create outlines so I make sure to cover all the important points).  I hate to admit that I've sort of slacked off in my daily mindfulness practice.  As a result I'd sort of forgotten why I'd been so enthusiastic about it before.  I explained the mindfulness skills to my patient but I was nowhere near as confident as I used to be.  Fortunately, the patient didn't seem to mind.  She was genuinely interested and expressed a willingness to practice mindfulness regularly. 

Explaining mindfulness to my patient reminded me of how much peace it has brought me in my own life.  I need to go back to it, if for no other reason than to be able to confidently share it with those patients who could surely benefit from it.  In other words, if I'm going to "preach" it then I need to practice it.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Toxic Relationships

I've often wondered why some are so reluctant to end their relationships with toxic people.  I've had friends who continued to let people back in their lives over and over again even after these people repeatedly turned their backs on them.  When it inevitably happened again they were genuinely surprised and hurt.  I never understood their surprise, as whatever the person had done this time around was completely consistent with his or her past behavior.

Now don't get me wrong.  I believe in giving second chances.  Everyone makes mistakes and in general people deserve to be forgiven.  For me the problem is when the same person repeatedly engages in behaviors that are hurtful to me in some way.  At what point do you say enough is enough?  At what point do you decide that you don't want this person in your life anymore?

Relationships and/or friendships with some people are simply toxic.  The longer you maintain the relationship the more toxicity you allow into your life.  Here are some of the qualities of a toxic relationship:

*Most of the conversations you have with this person end with you feeling unhappy, hurt, angry, put down, guilty, etc.  In other words, the person makes you feel bad more often than he or she makes you feel good.
*The person always seems to want something from you, be it money, a favor, a ride, to borrow something, etc.  Healthy relationships as a rule involve give and take.  In this relationship it's mostly about you giving and the other person taking.
*The person is rarely - if ever- there for you when you need something.
*The person is constantly criticizing you and putting you down.
*The person never expresses happiness for you when something good happens in your life.
*The person is frequently verbally or physically abusive to you.
*The person is always getting angry at you for reasons he or she refuses to share with you.  As a result, he or she often goes weeks without speaking to you because he or she is "mad."  Then, he or she tries to pick up the friendship or relationship right where it left off a few weeks later as if nothing happened.
*The person always seems to be in a crisis that he or she wants you to help fix.

These are just a few examples.  The point is, if you have a friend who resembles the descriptions I gave above you might want to ask yourself if it is healthy for you to maintain a friendship with this person.  There comes a point when the costs of maintaining certain friendships far outweigh the benefits.  When this happens it's probably time to think about ending the relationship.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Admitting You're Wrong

I've often wondered why it's so hard for human beings to admit when we're wrong and to accept constructive criticism from others.  I include myself in this.  I've had to work hard to learn to accept criticism without becoming defensive and still I catch myself wanting to explain it away when someone gives me negative feedback.  There's definitely ego involved.  There are times when we become so attached to our desire to be right that we don't even stop to listen to another person's point of view.  When insisting we are right or denying the validity of criticism we do it so vehemently that it almost seems as though we are fighting to protect our very identities.  And I think in some cases that's exactly what we are doing (or at least what we believe we are doing).

Identity is really only a collection of ideas each person has about him or herself.  Included in these ideas are beliefs about ourselves, beliefs about others, values that we believe we should adhere to, expectations we have of ourselves (and others) and our behaviors, etc.  Some people expect themselves not to make mistakes.  To admit to making a mistake is to admit that they aren't living up to their own expectations, i.e., that they are "not good enough."  Other people believe they should never show weakness to others.  They equate being wrong with being weak.  Thus, even if they know they are wrong they'd never admit it because to do so would make them seem weak and vulnerable.

The inability to accept criticism stems from self doubt.  Confident people accept themselves as they are.  They recognize that they have both strengths and limitations.  They accept that they are human.  Thus, when they are wrong they can admit it because they are, after all, only human.

The irony in this is that people who cannot accept constructive criticism are the very people who could benefit the most from it.  Criticism provides a person with important information about his or her personal weaknesses that he or she would probably not otherwise recognize.  This helps a person to identify areas for personal growth, which is, in my opinion, something we should all be striving for.

Sunday, November 28, 2010


What does it mean to be grateful? Here are some thoughts:

*Gratitude means being thankful for what you have.
*Being grateful means not longing for more than what you have.
*To be grateful means not coveting what others have.
*Gratitude means saying thank you even for difficult experiences, as they generally have something to teach us.
*A grateful person is one who does not complain all of the time.
*Living a life of gratitude requires taking time on a regular basis to think about (or to write down) what you  have to be thankful for in your life.
*Practicing gratitude means recognizing that the good things in life are gifts that are bestowed upon you (rather than things that you earn or deserve). 
*A grateful person feels thankful for any opportunity to help others or to make the world a better place.
*To be grateful you must first let go of any and all sense of entitlement.
*Being grateful means not taking anything for granted.
*A grateful person is one who outwardly expresses his gratitude to others.
*Practicing gratitude means paying attention to all the "small" things we receive from others on a daily basis, such as service at the grocery store or post office, cooperation from coworkers, etc.

Just some things to think about...

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Feelings as Habits

So I made it through the wedding and I actually really enjoyed myself.  When all the hubub died down I was emotionally drained.  During the days following the wedding I wavered between feeling exhausted, happy, anxious, and at peace.  When I first noticed myself feeling anxious I was confused.  Why would I be anxious?  After all, most of the excitement had died down and things were starting to go back to "normal" (whatever that means).  I did a brief inventory of what was going on in my life and ultimately determined that I had addressed everything that needed to be addressed and that there was not really anything in particular that I needed to worry about.  I immediately felt better after making this determination.  Still, several hours later I noticed myself feeling anxious again.  I did another mental assessment, determined that all was well, and again felt better.  I repeated this procedure several times a day.  After a few days it occurred to me that I'd been feeling so anxious for such an extended period of time (maybe starting two or three weeks before the wedding) that feeling anxious had become a habit of sorts.  My mind was simply resorting to the state to which it had become accustomed.  It took another week of reminding myself that I had nothing to be anxious about before my mind started to catch on.   

The fact that emotional states can become habitual is significant because I think that people often maintain a negative emotional state for no other reason than the fact that they've become used to feeling that way.  Research supports this observation.  Many studies have shown that, for example, feeling and expressing anger breed more feelings of anger.  Feelings of depression often lead to negative thoughts that create more feelings of depression that lead to more negative thoughts.  Any given emotional state is self-perpetuating,  In other words, feeling any given way becomes a habit.  When happiness breeds more happiness there typically aren't any problems.  When the self-perpetuating emotions are negative, however, they can be very disruptive.

I want to stress the importance of paying attention to your feelings.  Sometimes people interpret feelings of anxiety as a sign that something is wrong and they begin looking for things in their lives to worry about.  And of course if we look hard enough we can all find something in our lives to worry about.  The reality is that feeling anxious does not necessarily mean that there is, in fact, something to be anxious about.  That is why it is helpful to ask yourself, "Is there anything in my life right now that seems to be causing my anxiety?"  If the answer is no then recognize that there is no external cause for your anxiety and that it is most likely coming from some biochemical process taking place in your brain.  This gives you permission to stop looking for things to worry about...which is always a huge relief.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

When Good Things Happen

I once did this self-help exercise that asked me to list the happiest, most exciting moments in my life.  That wasn't too hard to do.  Graduation from high school and then college were natural first picks.  I quickly made a list detailing my life's defining moments.  The second part of the exercise asked the following: "Which part or parts of you were present for each of these events?"  I put some thought into it and wrote down my answers.  As I looked over my responses I noticed something surprising; "Anxious Melody" was the only "part" of me that was present at every single event. 

So what does that say about me?  Well, it's pretty clear that whenever something big happens, whether good or bad, I feel anxious.  I'd say that this is probably true for change as well (i.e., whenever there is a big change in my life, whether good or bad, I feel anxious).  I don't think I'm unusual in this aspect.  Many people experience anxiety during periods of change and/or uncertainty.  What I think is sort of sad, however, is that anxiety is the predominant emotion I experience when good things happen in my life.  If you recall, the exercise I mentioned earlier asked me to identify the happiest, most exciting moments of my life.  One would logically assume that a person would feel happy and excited during these times.  But not me - oh no.  Me, I just feel anxious.

So what should I do about it?  Well, I've simply accepted it.  Some would say that it is simply not acceptable to feel anxious in situations where most people feel happy.  Some would say that it's a problem that needs to be treated.  I was first diagnosed with an anxiety disorder when I was five years old.  I've been developing ways to adapt to and cope with it for most of my life.  I've received treatment and have been taking medication to manage my symptoms for over ten years.  Most of the time I don't feel anxious.  This is an improvement for me and I am grateful for it.  And still, when big things happen in my life I feel anxious.  I probably always will.  I just try to cope with it in healthy ways and find hope in knowing that I'll get through the transition and the anxiety will eventually fade. 

I share this story for a few reasons.  For one, I think it is important to work to address and solve problems whenever possible.  When you've done all you can do, however, it is important to know when to stop fighting against what is and to simply accept it.  Secondly, I think anyone who has ever struggled with anxiety will probably be able to identify with some of what I've said.  And lastly, it's relevant to me at this particular point in time in my life.  I'm getting married on Saturday and my anxiety has been off the charts this past week.  So wish me luck...

Friday, November 5, 2010

America the Superpower

I don't talk about politics very often on this blog because I know it can be a polarizing subject and my aim is to bring people together, not to divide them.  However, given the recent midterm elections and the ever growing hostility between the two political parties I thought I should take a minute to reflect on the current political situation. 

The focus of the midterm campaigns was on the nation's financial situation, to include the economy.  This makes sense, given that so many people are unemployed (or underemployed).  People are worried about the national deficit.  They believe that our government is spending too much money and digging a financial hole that we'll never be able to get out of.  I'm not going to pretend to know the actual ramifications of an expanding deficit.  I'm assuming that at some point the taxpayers will be forced to pay for it.  I don't think anyone would argue that we should just continue spending and increasing our national debt without worrying about it.  The conflict arises over how to go about decreasing the deficit.

Now I'm no economist, but I have done a little reading on the subject.  From what I understand, there are two basic ways to decrease the national deficit: raise taxes (so the government takes in more money) or reduce spending (so the government spends less money).  Raising taxes is not popular.  No one wants to see more money coming out of their paychecks.  What about reducing spending?  Well, here's the thing.  A significant majority of government spending (and I mean a SIGNIFICANT majority) goes to pay for the following: Medicare, Medicaid, SSI, public assistance programs, and defense.  What politician wants to risk their career by proposing cuts to disabled people, uninsured children, or the military? 

So you can see the problem.  If we are to decrease the deficit in any significant way we have a choice between two unpleasant options.  Either raise taxes or cut government programs for some of our neediest citizens.  Or...reduce defense spending.

I work for the military and I support our service members 100%.  But here's something to think about.  What are our nation's priorities?  People say they want to decrease the deficit but they are not willing to give anything up in order to do it.  America is the only remaining world "superpower."  We need a big military so we can send troops all over the world to defend our way of life.  Or so goes popular sentiment.  I wonder though, can America really afford to be a superpower anymore?  I'm not saying we should cut our military down to nothing, but perhaps we could just mind our own business and let the world deal with itself.  That's not to say we shouldn't get involved in conflicts that threaten the safety of our country, but do we really need troops everywhere that we have them?  We have military bases all over the world in places where there isn't any conflict at all and hasn't been for decades.  Meanwhile, here at home, the economy goes down the tubes and we bicker about how to decrease the deficit.

It seems to me like our country has some hard choices to make.  The fact of the matter is, taxes are going to have to be raised, either now or later.  AND spending is going to have to be cut from places we don't want to cut it.  So what we really need to do as a nation is examine our priorities.  What is most important to us?  Where do we need to spend the most money?  Where can we spend less money?  It's just something to think about...

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Self Destructive?

I recently read a short story by Stephen King called "Quitters Inc."  The story starts when the main character runs into an old friend at the airport.  The friend looks younger and fitter than ever and says he's making a lot of money working for some big corporation.  He tells the main character that his life turned around when he quit smoking.  When asked how he managed to quit he hands the guy a business card for Quitters Inc. and promises him, "They'll cure you."  The main character asks about the program used at Quitters Inc. to help people quit.  His old buddy refuses to say, stating that the contract he signed with Quitters Inc. has sworn him to secrecy.  The main character persists but his buddy won't budge. 

The next day the main character stops by Quitters Inc. after work.  The staff refuse to tell him about the treatment program but inform  him that he won't be charged a penny until he's been smoke free for a year.  The guy comes back the next day to begin treatment.  He shakes hands with the doctor and follows him down the hall.  "When does the treatment start?" he asks.  He is told that it already started - the moment he shook hands with the doctor.  It is too late to change his mind now.

Finally the doctor tells him about the treatment.  Our protagonist follows the doctor to a set of green curtains, which the doctor parts to reveal a window that looks into a room with a small bunny nibbling at rabbit pellets from a dish.  The doctor presses a button and the bunny begins to hop around.  His fur is standing out in all directions.  The doctor pushes the button again.  The bunny stops hopping and runs to the corner where he cowers fretfully.  The doctor proudly explains that if the bunny is "jolted" enough times while he's eating he will eventually learn that eating = pain.  He will then stop eating and ultimately starve to death while a bowl of food sits ten feet away.  "It's called aversion training," he explains.

The protagonist quickly changes his mind about the treatment and tries to leave, but it's too late.  Treatment has already started.  He is told that representatives from Quitters Inc. will be watching him daily.  If he smokes a cigarette, his wife will be brought to the "bunny room" and given a few jolts while he watches.  If he slips up again, he'll get a "jolt" himself.  A third slip up and he and his wife will be brought to the "bunny room" together.  A fourth time and his young, mentally disabled son gets a beating.  A fifth time and it's "jolts" for him and his wife and beatings for his wife and son.  The punishments get progressively worse until the tenth slip up, at which point the treatment (and the patient) will be terminated.

The main character lives in fear for a while but manages to avoid smoking.  Soon, his life begins to improve.  He starts spending more time with his son.  He gets a promotion at work.  He starts exercising and losing weight.

One day, while angrily sitting in traffic, he gives in to temptation and takes a few puffs from a cigarette.  When he arrives home he finds that his wife is not there.  Eventually, he heads to Quitters Inc. where he is forced to watch his wife endure a few jolts in the "bunny room."  Afterward, he has to explain to his wife what is going on.  He expects her to be angry and is surprised when she tells him that she's actually happy.  She tells him that Quitters Inc. is saving his life.

Anyway, the protagonist does not relapse again and goes on to lead a happy and successful life.

This story made me think.  It dawned on me that it does often come down to forcing a person to make changes that he or she knows are good for him.  A person might halfheartedly try to quit smoking only to give up a day or two later.  A person might say, "I know I need to start exercising" but never get around to it.  Someone might recognize that she is drinking too much but tell herself that she's young and she'll slow down when she gets older.  It often takes something big - a heart attack, the death of a loved one, a DUI - to get a person to actually make the changes that need to be made.  Why is this?  Why is it that people so often seem content to continue down a path of self-destructive behavior, even when they know it is not good for them or when they can clearly see that it is having negative consequences?  In the story, the character mentions that he's tried to quit smoking many times but has never made it longer than a few days before giving up.  Yet when he is placed under duress he is able to withstand temptation and only has one brief moment of weakness.  Why don't we have the motivation to make these changes on our own, without pressure?  Why would we rather do what's bad for us than what's good for us?  These are just some questions I started pondering after reading "Quitters Inc."  I don't have the answers, but would love to hear any insight other might have.   

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Stop thinking!

American culture values rational thought.  We tend to admire those who are level-headed, who make logical, well thought-out decisions.  In fact, most of us would say that the "right" way to make decisions is by conducting a rational analysis of the risks and benefits of all available options.  "Good" decision making is an intellectual process.

Now I'll be the first to admit that it is typically less than ideal to make choices based entirely upon one's feelings.  In fact, emotions frequently interfere with judgment, rendering one incapable of making good decisions.

My personal belief is that decisions are best made using a combination of both thought and feeling.  This is what Marsha Lenehan, creator of Dialectical Behavior Therapy, calls the "wise mind."  The wise mind is the place where your rational mind and your feeling mind join in agreement.

So there are clearly times when it is beneficial to set your feelings aside in the name of good decision making.  I also believe, however, that there comes a time when it is best to set rational thought aside.  Consider this: most of us probably know or have known someone who we believe "thinks too much."  In my work I have encountered many patients who tell me they over-think things or that they can't turn their minds off when they want to relax.  Perhaps you can recall a time when you completely over-analyzed a problem or situation and ended up distressed or confused.   Clearly, it is possible to over-think things.  This can cause us to second guess ourselves, to look for meaning where none exists, or to become so overwhelmed by the sheer number of possible options that we become paralyzed and unable to take action.

I make this point as a reminder to myself.  I am one of those people who tends to think too much.  This inevitably leads me to question myself, my life, and the decisions I've made, which ultimately creates anxiety and self-doubt.  Of course, sometimes it is beneficial to examine yourself and your life, to identify where you can improve, to change direction, or to set new goals for yourself.  This is not, however, something that needs to be done daily.  Thinking too much about what I've chosen to do with my life just leads to insecurity and restlessness.  It prevents me from being satisfied with who I am and what I've accomplished.  There comes a time when it is best to just stop thinking - and enjoy living.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Coming and Going

From time to time I've had patients tell me that everyone who comes into their lives eventually leaves them.  Upon discussion, they are usually able to identify at least one person  who has consistently been there for them (thereby acknowledging that not everyone leaves them).  Still, they feel abandoned and unlovable. 

I've given this some thought and have reached the conclusion that it is the rule - and not the exception - for most people who come into our lives to eventually leave.  Sometimes there are reasons - someone moves away or you have an argument - and sometimes there really isn't any reason.  You simply "lose touch" with one another. 

I was thinking the other day about the various friendships I've had over the years.  The friends I had as a young child were no longer my friends by the end of  middle school.  I had two close friends as an adolescent who were like sisters to me.  We had a falling out during my junior year of high school and stopped speaking to each other after that.  I became close to a high school friend during college.  We were inseparable for years until she got hooked on drugs.  I eventually had to stop talking to her because I couldn't be a part of how she was living her life (and I couldn't stand watching her destroy herself).  After college I had two really close friends that I spent almost all my time with.  Nothing "happened" that ended the friendships; we just gradually drifted apart and went our separate ways.

And then there are the old boyfriends - the men who, at the time, I couldn't imagine living my life without. 

The fact is this: people come and people go.  Some really special people remain with us throughout our lives -- for me that's been my family.  Still, far more people have entered and left than have stayed.  And that's ok.  I think that's how it's supposed to be.  We cross paths with certain others, learn from one another, and then continue on our journeys.  And sometimes, the impact of those meetings linger long after you've both continued along your separate roads.

Sunday, October 10, 2010


Normalization is a simple yet powerful therapeutic technique that is often very effective in alleviating some of a patient's distress.  To normalize essentially means to let a person know that there are others who are going through what he is experiencing.  He is not alone and he is not, in fact, crazy (as he may have feared).  Even outside of therapy normalization relieves anxiety.  You tell a close friend about a problem you're having with your significant other only to find out that she has had the same problem with her significant other.  You immediately feel better.  You're not alone; what you're going through is "normal." 

Many people strive for normality.  People afflicted by a chronic illness long to be "normal."  Members of families with a lot of conflict wish they had a "normal" family.  Adolescents who don't quite fit in with their peers want only to be a "normal" teenager.  If you think for a moment you can probably recall a time when you bemoaned your own circumstances and wished for a "normal" life.

What is normal anyway?  Does it mean being just like everyone else?  (And doesn't that assume that everyone is alike)?  I personally believe that normality is an illusion.  We tend to think that because we have problems we aren't normal.  And yet, the people we think are normal have their own problems; we just aren't aware of them. 

I recently started reading a book by Paulo Coelho.  He is a gifted writer.  Time and time again he has created compelling stories with deeply existential themes.  Each time I finish reading one of his novels I am left contemplating the meaning of life for weeks.  One of the characters in Coelho's "The Winner Stands Alone" asks, "What does normal mean?"  Of the character Coelho writes, "He always asked the people he chanced to meet what 'normal life' was like, because he had forgotten."  He started keeping a list "of what constituted normal attitudes and behavior, based on what people did rather than what they said."  The list portrays a quite cynical view of humankind, but I thought I'd share a few of the entries on the character's list (with my commentary, at times):

*Normal is anything that makes us forget who we are and what we want.

*Spending years studying at university only to find at the end of it all that you're unemployable.  [How many high school graduates pursue a subject that arouses their passion only to find there are no jobs in this field?  They get a degree only to find that it's essentially useless.  They find something more practical to do but are forced to abandon their passion].

*Retiring and discovering that you no longer have enough energy to enjoy life and dying a few years later of sheer boredom.   [Is it lack of energy?  Or is it that for years we have so few interests outside of work that we don't know how to define ourselves once we stop working?]

*Making fun of anyone who seeks happiness rather than money and accusing them of "lacking ambition."

*Criticizing anyone who tries to be different. [It is human nature to fear the unknown].

*Investing a lot of time and money in external beauty and caring little about inner beauty.

*Never laughing too loudly in a restaurant however good the joke.

*Postponing doing the really interesting things in life for later, when you won't have the energy.  [I admit that I'm guilty of this one.  I usually put off things I'd like to do -- especially traveling -- until I "have more money."]

The list is much longer.  If you have a chance to read the book I strongly encourage you to do it.  In fact, if you have the chance to read anything by Paulo Coelho I strongly encourage you to do it!

Well, I've gone on enough.  Until next time...


Saturday, October 2, 2010

Another mindfulness handout - mindfulness of thoughts

I made a bunch of these handouts a while back.  I posted a few a long time ago and wanted to post another.


I recently attended a training with several of my coworkers. I thought the speaker (Robert Grant, Ph.D.) was unique and really enjoyed hearing what he had to say.  I was surprised to learn that not all of my colleagues felt this way.  In fact, some of them were deeply disturbed by the speaker's message.  I heard that one woman in particular was so upset that she didn't want to return for the second day of training.  I honestly don't know what upset them so much -- I heard all this "through the grapevine" and didn't feel comfortable asking them.  I do, however, have a guess...

One of the topics the speaker addressed was how to forgive someone who has done something very bad to you.  He stressed that this is not always desirable or appropriate but indicated that some patients will want to forgive their perpetrators and we should be prepared to help them (when our clinical judgment says this is a good idea, of course).

The speaker explained that when we are de-humanized by a person we in turn tend to de-humanize that person in our minds.  The person who violated us is a monster, something other than human.  When embarking upon the path to forgiveness (forgiveness is a process, not a single event) the goal is for the "victim" to learn to see the perpetrator as human.  In order to do that a person has to acknowledge that he (and, in fact, all humans) is capable of the same type of behavior in which his perpetrator engaged.  Perhaps if his lot in life had been different - if he'd had different genetic vulnerabilities or the "right" combination of traumatic experiences - perhaps he could have turned out like the perpetrator.  A person might surmise that in order for his offender to have done such horrible things he must have experienced a lot of pain, suffering, and maltreatment in his own life.  This does not in any way condone the perpetrator's actions - it just enables one to see him as human.

This might not seem to be all that controversial of a concept.  What happened, however, is that the speaker gave some examples.  He attempted to empathize with (and to thereby humanize) a hypothetical sex offender.  The murmurs of protest from the crowd were immediate.  The speaker reiterated that he was not condoning the behavior of sex offenders and was not saying that a sex offender should not be punished.  Still, the crowd was displeased.

Personally, I thought this was a demonstration of how difficult it is to forgive someone who has done terrible things.  If a room full of chaplains, psychiatrists, and psychiatric social workers are resistant to empathizing with a hypothetical sex offender then forgiveness must be a difficult thing indeed.  This experience made me realize that we should never take forgiveness for granted for, when offered, it is truly a blessing.

Friday, September 24, 2010

What are you seeking?

Whenever I'm having a slow day at work I try to spend the time reading about things I can use to enhance my skills as a therapist.  Last week I attended a training on the spiritual and existential impact of trauma.  The speaker mentioned Victor Frankl (among other people) and his contributions to existential psychology.  I'd previously read some of Frankl's work and was interested in his ideas.  I found myself with a bit of free time the other day when a patient cancelled at the last minute and decided to do a little delving into Frankl's teachings.

I stumbled upon an e-book published by the Maritime Institute of Logotherapy ( in Nova Scotia entitled "Life with Meaning."  I thought I'd share one of the ideas that really stood out for me.  Here goes...

How many people do you suppose spend their lives in the pursuit of happiness?  As an American, I need only to look at my country's Declaration of Independence to be assured of my inaleinable right to seek or create happiness for myself.  The human desire to be happy is certainly understandable but, according to Frankl, it is misguided.  Happiness, Frankl asserts, is not a goal that can be achieved; those who perceive it as such are likely to be disappointed, again and again.

I think many of us can relate to this.  We believe that graduating from college, getting a good job, making a lot of money, getting married, travelling the world, etc. will make us happy.  At the moment we attain what we have desired we do, in fact, feel "happy."  But the feeling is short-lived; once the novelty wears off we realize that nothing has changed.  Perhaps we identify something else that we believe will make us happy and go after it.  This will ultimately lead to more disappointment.  Still, many of us will perpetuate this cycle -- pursuing goal after goal in the hopes that, once attained, they will bring us happiness -- indefinitely.  It is, after all, our inaleinable right to do so.

Frankl, however, asserts a truth that is profound in its simplicity:

"...Happiness can not be directly attained, it can not be pursued.  Rather, it must ensue as the consequence of having experienced, or accomplished something meaningful, or having met one's fate with a courageous attitude" ("Life with Meaning," pg. 23). 

In other words, happiness is a natural byproduct of living a meaningful life.  Instead of searching for happiness, our time would be better spent doing things that we find meaningful, for this is what brings true, lasting happiness in life. 

Friday, September 17, 2010

How do you help someone who doesn't believe he/she deserves self-compassion?

I wrote recently about self-compassion, which is also sometimes referred to as self empathy.  Someone asked me what techniques a person might use to help someone develop self compassion when that person is particularly sutck in his negative way of thinking or when she truly believes that she does not deserve to be treated kindly.  I've given some thought to this and wanted to share my ideas.

Most depressed people enter therapy because they want to feel better.  Thus, they would likely agree that "treating myself kindly" and "believing that I am worthwhile" are valid treatment goals.  Trying to convince the person that she deserves to be treated kindly is probably futile.  If he were that easily convinced he wouldn't need therapy.  So how do you convince this person to start being kind to herself when she doesn't believe that she deserves it?

One way is a cognitive behavioral technique called "acting as-if."  You explain to the person that it's not particularly important whether or not he believes he deserves to be treated kindly.  (To really drive this point home ask if he's ever been polite to someone he really didn't like.  Most people have.  Point out that he didn't believe that the person in question deserved kind treatment and yet he managed to be polite to him anyway.  The way you treat someone - including yourself - does not necessarily depend upon how you feel about that person).  You explain to the person that in order to reach the goal of "believing I am worthwhile" she has to start by pretending she already believes it.  You work with her to identify specific ways a person with a strong sense of self-worth might behave (to include self talk).  You ask the person to practice doing these things.  You can frame it as an experiment -- try it and see what happens.  It certaintly can't hurt anything.  What the person will likely discover is that simply by being kind to herself she feels better and starts to believe in herself more.

The other possibility depends upon use of the therapeutic relationship.  If a therapist has a strong rapport with a client the therapist can use this to help the client make progress.  Because the client trusts the therapist he might be willing to try a particular therapeutic technique simply because the therapist expresses a strong belief that it will be helpful.  Essentially, you ask the client to borrow your hope or your belief, to take a "leap of faith" and try something you believe will be helpful, even if he doesn't believe it himself.

No one technique works for everyone but it never hurts to try.  It is also important as a therapist to keep in mind that, despite your best efforts, no one can help everyone.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Personal Congruence

Congruence refers to "a state of agreeing."  It denotes harmony and alludes to balance and equilibrium.  A lack of congruence creates discord, tension, and oppostion.

Personal congruence refers to a state in which a person's values and beliefs are consistent with the way he or she lives his or her life.  A person achieves personal congruence when what goes on in his internal world is consistent with what he says and does in his external one.  Dieter Pauwels (  explains that, "On a deeper level, personal congruency exists when your true desires (intention), your thoughts (attention), feelings, and actions are aligned with your core values."

Why does this matter?  The reason is inherent in the definition of the term congruence.  Personal congruence leads to internal harmony.  It enables a person to be at peace with himself and therefore to experience true joy in life.  Without it, a person is left feeling conflicted, confused, and unfulfilled.

How do you cultivate personal congruence?  There are a number of ways to do so and I won't attempt to create an exhaustive list.  It seems to me, though, that if you want the way you live to be congruent with your values and beliefs then the logical first step would be to identify what you value most in life.  After all, you cannot live in accordance with your values if you are not sure what those values are.

So go ahead -- make a list of your top ten values.  Then narrow it down to your top five.  For those who need it, here is a list of common values to get you thinking:

Family relationships; friendships; career; money; education; fun/leisure time; spirituality/religion; community interaction; politics; physical health; change/variety/excitement; creativity; helping others; intellectual stimulation/knowledge; independence; belonging; public recognition; etc.

Once you've identified your top five values think about what you do on a regular basis that exemplifies each one.  For example, if you value physical health you might write, "I exercise four days per week."  If you value family you might put, "I call Mom three times a week" or "I visit my sister weekly."

When and/or if you come to a value for which you are unable to identify an accompanying action that exemplifies it you have identified an area in your life that needs work.  Identify one thing you can do (preferably on a regular basis) to exemplify this value and develop a plan for doing it.  Start small if you need to -- maybe exercise once or twice a week to start, for example -- and then work your way to where you want to be.

I hope this is helpful...

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Self Compassion

In working with unhappy people I've noticed something that many of them have in common - they almost universally treat themselves unkindly.  When they make a mistake they berate themselves severely and attribute their error to the fact that, as people, they are utter failures.  They "encourage" themselves to work harder by constantly reminding themselves that they are not good enough.  They blame themselves when something goes wrong, even when there is no possible way they could have caused it.  Given their incessant self abuse the fact that they are unhappy is really no surprise.

What does surprise me -- again and again, no matter how many times I see it -- is how attached to this way of thinking some people are.  With most people, I need only to point out that the way they treat themselves is a significant part of the problem and that it has to change if they ever want to be happy.  The desire to move beyond the cloud of depression and self doubt is usually enough to motivate people to begin to make changes.

Then there are those I encounter less frequently, who cling rigidly to their ways of thinking even after it becomes clear that they are hurting themselves.  This stubborn attachment speaks to how deeply entrenched their depression has become.  It is not enough to teach them how to treat themselves better because they do not believe they deserve better treatment.  I have to be more creative, to work harder, to think differently if I have any hope of helping them learn to be happy...

My intention when I began writing was to stress the importance of self-compassion.  For those who easily make the shift from treating themselves unkindly to practicing self compassion as well as for those who need to be convinced that they are worthy of such treatment -- learning to be compassionate towards oneself facilitates self love.  When we love ourselves we are able to love others more fully and without expectations that they will fulfill for us our unmet emotional needs.  When we love ourselves we are able to love others as they are and for who they are.  We don't need them to change to accommodate us.  When we love ourselves we can love others unconditionally, without needing anything from them in return.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Thoughts on Thinking

I seem to go through alternating periods during which I think a lot and feel very creative followed by periods of time during which I do very little in the way of deep or creative thinking.  It seems like I am most creative when I am dissatisfied with my life.  I suppose that makes sense -- malcontendedness spurs me to change-focused action.  This typically involves a great deal of thinking.  First I have to identify the exact nature of the problem.  Then I have to come up with satisfactory solutions.  Once I've decided on a solution I have to come up with an action plan.  So I guess it makes sense that I do a lot of below the surface pondering when I'm unhappy.

Then there's the rest of the time.  It seems strange to me that I don't feel compelled to analyisis or introspection when I'm content.  One would think that this is the time when I have the most energy to put towards that purpose.  But it's also the time when I have the least motivation.  I'm happy with the way things are and simply want to enjoy them.

Then there's stress, which seems to paralyze me like nothing else can.  I think that's where I am now.  That is why I'm blogging about thinking - I'm so stressed I really CAN'T think right now!  But this too shall pass, as everything always does.  Until then, I hope everyone will bear with me!

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Mindfulness While Stressed

I recently got a stark reminder of how easy it is to give in to emotion and act without thinking when you're under a lot of stress.  I'm in the middle of planning a wedding, one I said I wanted to be small and simple.  Unfortunately, I'm learning that small and simple is practically impossible unless you elope.  I'm not one who particularly cares what type of flowers we have, what the bridesmaids wear, or what food we serve at the reception.  However, these are all things that have to be decided and I feel so overwhelmed by all the work that has to be done.  My family has been extremely helpful and I am eternally grateful.  Still, I've been letting the pressure stress me out and I've found myself reacting without thinking and thinking without thinking about what I'm thinking - the exact opposite of mindfulness.

Case in point - last week we - my mom, two sisters, my fiance', and I -  met with the flower-and-cake lady.  I wasn't feeling well and just wanted to hurry up and get it over with.  My older sister was trying to explain something to me and I snapped at her.  She didn't say anything but later my mom told me I'd hurt her feelings.  I apologized to her but I still felt really bad.  Here everyone is going out of their way to help me and I acted in a manner that was completely thoughtless and ungrateful.

Maybe something good came out of it though.  It reminded me of the need to be mindful.  To simply accept the stress as it comes without getting caught up in it.  I know I'll have to remind myself to do this again and again but that's ok - it's all part of being mindful.

Monday, August 16, 2010

After Achievement

Sometimes the natural progression of life scares me.  You look back on how things used to be and compare them to the way things are now and find that everything is different...

I am a person who started out with a lot of goals in life.  We all know that goals provide motivation and oftentimes help to create a sense of purpose.  Without goals, we often feel like we're wandering aimlessly without any direction.  What I've noticed, however, is that sometimes achieving a goal can cause problems.  For one thing, a lot of us see the accomplishment of a long-desired goal as a turning point in our lives.  We think that things will be different (i.e., better) after we, for example, finish school, get married, or get a promotion.  Once we reach these goals, however, we become disappointed when they do not bring about the drastic changes in our lives that we thought they would. 

Also, there are times when achieving a goal leaves you feeling strangely empty after the initial excitement wears off.  The goal that was providing you with a sense of direction and around which you organized your life is gone, leaving a vast and empty space behind.  For a time you feel lost and your life lacks structure.  I know I struggled with this for quite some time.  After college the goals I set for myself were more abstract (e.g., "Be good at my job," "Maintain close relationships with my family," etc.).  While they provide me with a template for how to live my life they don't offer a clear course of action the way my previous goals did (e.g., "Earn a bachelor's degree, then earn a master's degree, etc.).  That's when I started working on learning to just be satisfied with the way things are.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Bad Day?

I got up this morning, took a bath, got dressed, and poured myself a bowl of cereal.  I sat down and proceeded to dump half the bowl in my lap and on the floor.  Annoyed, I set the bowl down and ran to the bathroom where I tried to towel dry my pants.  I quickly realized that there was too much milk on them and they were going to have to be washed.  I pulled them off, sprayed them with stain remover, and dumped them in the washing machine.  I pulled another pair of pants out of the closet and turned on the iron.  As I quickly ironed the wrinkles out of the pants I thought to myself, "Well, I can see how this day is going to be already." 

If I'd accepted my thought as truth it could have been a self fuilfilling prophecy.  I would've left the house in a terrible mood, convinced that the day was shot.  Instead, I said to myself, "Wait a minute.  Am I really going to let this ruin my day?"  I thought about how ridiculous that would be, to literally "cry over spilt milk."  The morning's mishap hadn't been an omen fortelling the awful day that lay ahead.  It had been an accident, plain and simple. 

I thought this was a good example of how what we tell ourselves influences how we feel.  I continued to be annoyed as I ate my then-soggy cereal.  I was even a bit annoyed when I left the house.  By the time I got to work, however, I was feeling ok and I believe that the rest of the day is just going to get better from here on out.

Monday, August 2, 2010


One of the things most people associate with therapy is having your dreams analyzed.  The father of psychiatry - Freud - did indeed encourage people to share their dreams during therapy sessions and was able to assist in interpreting them.  I do not know if they still teach aspiring psychiatrists how to interpret dreams in school but I know that it was not so much as mentioned in my clinicial social work curriculum.  In recent years I've felt very disappointed by this.  Patients often share with me dreams that they find strange or believe might be meaningful.  My response is typically something along the lines of, "Hmm.  That's interesting.  I wonder what it means."  In other words, I don't know anything more about the "meaning" of the patient's dream than he or she does. 

I went to the web hoping to find some tips on dream interpretation -- something simple that could help me in my practice but that wouldn't require me to enroll in some special training program.  I found some useful tidbits on the following website:  I used the tips provided in a recent session and was able to help the patient make some connections between his dream and the circumstances in his life.  I thought I'd share these tips for anyone who might be interested, either to help them better understand their own dreams or to help others understand theirs. 

1. Create a written account of the dream in as much detail as you can recall.  (I've read that it's best to write your dreams down as soon as possible after waking up -- that's when you are most likely to remember them).

2. Ask: "When you think of this particular dream image, what other things come to mind?"  For example, when you think about the dream what are your feelings?  What are your thoughts? 

3. Examine your emotional reactions to the dream.  Think about times in your past when you have felt these same emotions.  Ask how those situations from the past relate to what is happening in your life right now.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Through A Child's Eyes

This past Father's Day my family had a cookout at my Grandpa's house.  I love these special occasions because they seem to be the only time our extended family is all together.  Year after year there are more and more children at these events as my sisters and cousins get married and start families of their own.  As I watched the little ones play -- and yes, as I joined in (the "big kids" are ALWAYS welcome to join them) -- I was struck by their unrestrained joy and the sheer pleasure they found from the simplest things.

My Grandpa bought a golf cart a few years back and as soon as it comes out the kids pile in (and on, wherever they can fit) eagerly, laughing with glee as the one adult on board kicks it in gear and takes off around the yard.

When my uncle's wife brought over a tot-sized slide the kids immediately began clambering up the ladder, eagerly anticipating the two seconds of joy they would experience en route to the ground.

My uncle's wife also brought over one of those round wading pools that miraculously seem to hold as many children as want to swim in it.  There's always room for one more, even when it appears to have reached maximum capacity.  My mom joked that if we set the bottom of the slide in the pool we'd have an instant water slide.  "Do you think it'd work?" I asked.

"I don't know," she replied.  "Try it."  So I did -- and it worked!

There were squeals of pleasure as little bodies piled out of the pool and raced to the slide.  As I watched them I thought to myself, "I can't remember the last time I got that excited about something."  I felt a twinge of jealousy as I wondered, "When did I stop getting excited like that?"  I couldn't remember, but I knew it had happened long, long ago.

I thought about this some more on the way home.  I wondered if children must inevitably lose their unbridled passion as they grow or if there is some way that they can keep it.  I strongly suspect that it is us -- the adults -- who are responsible for smothering it.  In the name of socialization and proper etiquette we quell those ecstatic squeals -- "Shh.  Use your inside voice!"  But maybe, just maybe, it doesn't have to be that way.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Always Learning Something New

No matter how much a person knows about himself it seems there's always something new to learn.  It became clear to me today just how very much I do not like being the center of attention.  I announced to my family today that my boyfriend and I are planning to get married.  Suddenly my older sister and my mom are congratulating me and excitedly making plans.  I immediately felt uncomfortable and tried to withdraw into a crossword puzzle.  I guess I know that I'm not going to be able to escape being the center of attention when it comes to my wedding -- I suppose it's something I'm going to have to work on getting more comfortable with.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Do We Really Want Stability?

How many times have we -- in the midst of our busy and sometimes chaotic lives -- wished for a more peaceful life?  How many of us long for stability, or at least say we do?  Stability is constancy, immobility, steadiness, fixed, and settled.  Peace is neutrality, calmness, lull, placidity, quiet, stillness.  We say we want these things -- we often long for them.  However, we are rarely satisfied when we have them.

Think about it.  When we do finally get a quiet Saturday with nothing planned many of us complain of boredom.  "There's nothing to do!" or "I'm bored!"  We finally obtain the peace and stability we have so desired and we find ourselves bored because we are so accustomed to being constantly entertained.  Some synonyms for boredom include sameness, familiarity, slowness, and routine.  But aren't these the very things we say we want?  Supposedly we yearn for a slower paced life and the comfort of routine and familiarity.

If we are really honest with ourselves then we must admit that most of us would not be satisfied living a stable, peaceful life.  Most of us would find this kind of existence boring.  Some antonyms of boredom include excitement, pleasure, elation, action, and entertainment.  These are the American way!  If we're not being entertained, feeling excited, or experiencing pleasure then we must be missing out.  We don't really want the stability of engaging in the same routine, day after day.

There are, of course, exceptions, myself being one of them.  I love boring days.  I can spend them reading, napping, or chatting with friends and family without any pressure or time constraints.

These are just some things to think about.  When you find yourself longing for peace and stability you might want to think twice.  Do you really want these things?  Or would that just be boring? 

Sunday, July 4, 2010


I recently read a book entitled "Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life" by Winifred Gallagher.  The major premise of the book is that how you experience life depends upon what you pay attention to.  Whether you focus on the negative aspects or the positive aspects of a situation influences how you perceive that situation.  Your mood at any given moment is significantly influenced by the type of thoughts on which you choose to focus your attention.  Whether a bad mood is fleeting or sticks around all day depends upon whether you choose to focus your attention on those feelings or to direct your attention elsewhere.

In addition, the type of life you lead depends upon the types of activities to which you choose to devote your attention.  The types of activities we find fulfilling are those that hold our attention, where we can lose ourselves in the activity and look up to find that hours have passed in what seemed like only minutes.

These are not necessarily new ideas but reading the book inspired me.  Lately I've noticed that I lack vitality.  I don't ever get excited about anything and the passion that once fueled me to action burned out long ago.  I'm not unhappy by any means but I definitely feel like something's missing.  As I read this book it dawned on me that I don't engage in any activities that interest me enough to give them my sustained and undivided attention.  I need to find things that challenge me in that way.  I used to have those things in my life.  For example, I used to journal and to write poetry.  I also went through a phase where I drew and painted.  My walls are proudly adorned with my mediocre artwork.  I once kept a visual journal and each day I looked forward to coming home to create something new to add to it.  For awhile I made music videos using The Sims 2 -- until my computer crashed and I lost all of my hard work.  In my younger days I used to go out to night clubs every weekend to dance.  How I anticipated those outings!  Each weekend held exciting possibilities.

I don't do any of these things anymore, for various reasons or for no reason at all.  The fact is that I need something in my life that captures my attention.  As of right now I don't know what that thing will be but I will keep looking for it.


Saturday, June 26, 2010

Postponing Happiness

We are all guilty of putting some thing or another off.  We say we'll get to it tomorrow or over the weekend.  Sometimes we do.  Sometimes we don't.  How many of us, though, put off being happy?  Initially you might think this is a ridiculous assertion -- who doesn't want to be happy?  The sooner the better, you might think.  But there are those of us who view happiness as a goal to be achieved -- "I will take this journey, obtain certain things, and when I'm done I will be happy."  Why put it off though?  Happiness isn't a destination.  We don't reach a point in life where things are how we want them to be and then stay there, happily.  Life is constantly changing.  Your happiness doesn't have to.  Happiness is something you do right now, in the present.  Happiness is an attitude, a choice you make in each moment you live.  You can be happy while you work to attain your goals.  You can be happy when you experience a setback.  You can be happy when life is exactly as you want it to be and when it is not.  You don't have to put it off -- you can be happy now.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Inside Out or Outside In?

One thing I've noticed in working with my patients is that they often expect the changes in their lives to begin on the inside.  "Once I'm feeling more confident I'll go on that job interview or try to meet new people."  "Once I stop feeling so anxious in social situations I'll start socializing more."  "When I stop feeling depressed I'll start doing more around the house."  The assumption seems to be that they will begin to feel better and that feeling better will enable them to do the things in life that they would like to do.  Most of us operate under this assumption, at least at times.  How often do we put off doing something until we feel like doing it?  We assume our feelings will drive our behavior.

I'm sure there are instances in which internal change precedes external change.  I believe, however, that doing things in this order is infinitely more difficult and time consuming than it needs to be.  If we insist upon doing things this way we run the risk of never changing at all.  What if we never reach a point where we "feel like" changing our behaviors?  Do we just continue to wait, hoping our emotions will eventually "come around?"

I am a firm believer in going forward with behavioral change in spite of how we feel about it.  Emotions are a valuable source of information but they can hold us back from doing things that are important to us if we allow them to.  "Fake it 'til you make it" and "Feel the fear and do it anyway" are phrases that embody this idea.  If you want to be confident then act confident: walk with your back straight, head up, and shoulders back.  Make eye contact when you talk to people.  Refrain from fidgeting.  Voice your opinion.  Even if you're shaking with fear on the inside you can still behave in a manner that exemplifies confidence.  If you keep practicing, over time an amazing thing will happen: You will begin to feel more confident.  People will respond to the confidence you project and this in turn will reinforce your behavior.  One day, you'll wake up and realize that you're no longer pretending - the confidence you exude is the real thing.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Reflections on a book

I recently read a book called "Happiness is a Serious Problem" by Dennis Prager.  There were a lot of good points in the book but I thought I'd share a few of the ones that stood out most to me.

1. Unhappiness is easy.  It takes work to be happy.

2. Ask, "Will this make me happier?" before engaging in a particular action.  (This may require foregoing immediate pleasure).

3. Try to be happy unless something happens to make you unhappy instead of being unhappy unless something happens to make you happy.

4.  Human beings are never completely satisfied with anything - we always want more.

5. Dissatisfaction does not have to make you unhappy.

6. Being happy does not mean avoiding pain.

7. Expectations lead to unhappiness.

8. Gratitude is the key to happiness.

9. Meaning and purpose are necessary for happiness.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010


I don't have much to say -- which is the problem, actually.  I go through these periods of creativity where ideas just come to me and these blog posts practically write themselves.  Then there are times when my mind seems to just take a vacation.  Try as I might, ideas simply don't manifest themselves.  I look for inspiration -- I read about subjects that interest me, I pay attention to current events, I draw upon others' experiences -- but during these slumps even when I become inspired I can't seem to put two thoughts together or to generate a coherent sentence.  There are a lot of things I've been thinking about, it's just that my ideas seem incomplete and I find it impossible to draw any conclusions from them.  So instead of writing about anything meaningful I decided I would write about the fact that I have nothing meaningful about which to write.  I imagine this is just temporary -- I've been feeling a bit stressed lately and that makes it hard for me to think clearly.  Even at work I have difficulty thinking clearly -- I certainly don't do my best work when I'm stressed.  Anyway, I will definitely have more to say later, hopefully some time in the near future...

Sunday, May 30, 2010

What is Truth

I've long believed that reality is relative.  Simply put, when I say reality is relative I mean that no two people experience the same version of reality.  For each person, his or her reality is a combination of sensory input, context, past experiences, interpretation, and probably countless other factors.  These all contribute to a person's perception, which is his or her experience of reality. 

What are the implications of having as many different versions of reality as there are people to experience them?  I'm sure there are many but one in particular is this: If reality is relative there really is no Truth (with a capital "T").  Now I know there are many who would disagree, particularly in America where truth is that which can be demonstrated via the scientific method.  Yet there are those who do not accept science as the keeper of truth.  There are those who flatly reject even those facts which have been rigorously tested and repeatedly verified by scientific research.

Aristotle proposed a theory of truth centuries ago called the Correspondence Theory of Truth.  The theory states that something is true if it accurately describes the world.  According to this theory there is a truth-bearer - the person making the original claim - and a truth-maker - the entity that verifies the correspondence between the truth-bearer's statement and real-world conditions.  Before the truth-maker can verify the accuracy of the truth-bearer's statement, however, one must first establish the precise meaning of the statement in question.  For example, "grass is green" is true if what is meant is that grass appears green to the average viewer under normal conditions.  However, "grass is green" is false if what is meant is that "green" is an inherent property of grass (because the green appearance of grass is created by light conditions, neural receptors in the eyes of the viewer, etc.).  Truth can only be determined after meaning has been established.

And perhaps that's a big part of what truth is - shared meaning.  After all, members of a given culture or religious group often share beliefs about what is true.  The more people who believe something is true the "truer" it seems to become.  Think about the Salem witch trials.  A large group of people became convinced that there were witches among them.  Whether there really were witches among them (truth) was irrelevant.  Enough people believed it and these so called witches were burned at the stake.

To a certain degree I think truth exists in the eye of the beholder.  What is true for one person may not be true for another.  That's not to say that there are no facts -- I just think it might be more difficult to distinguish between fact and fiction than is commonly assumed.

Sunday, May 23, 2010


It's important for people to have goals.  Goals motivate us to work hard.  The possibility of achieving a desired goal makes the future a promising place.  Goals provide direction and guide action.  They help to establish a sense of purpose and thus make life more meaningful.

It is useful to define goals clearly so that we understand what we're working towards and we know when we've achieved it.  It is possible, however, to be too specific.  It's important to leave room for flexibility.  If a person has a highly specific goal then there is only one acceptable outcome.  Success is narrowly defined.  This can cause people to pass up on other opportunities for growth that might also lead to a sense of achievement and personal fulfillment.

It is also important not to focus too intently on a given goal.  If all of our efforts are focused on achieving one specific outcome we are likely to miss potential opportunities that present themselves.  While it is important to focus on our goals in life it is equally important to be present and to participate fully in the world around us.  If we achieve a desired goal only to realize that we've missed out on life then what have we really gained?

Sunday, May 16, 2010


There are many different types and levels of risk.  Some of us are very comfortable taking risks and may even find it exciting or motivating.  Most of us, however, are a little less comfortable with risk.  The higher the level of risk the less comfortable most of us become.

It's virtually impossible to go through life avoiding risk altogether; it would also probably make for a pretty boring existence.  I wonder though, what most of us would do if given a choice between a somewhat risky option or an option with no risk involved.  Many of us would choose the no-risk selection in order to avoid the discomfort, anxiety, and uncertainty associated with risk.  Risk is uncomfortable.  Most of us tend to avoid feeling uncomfortable whenever possible.

There is nothing wrong with wanting to be comfortable.  The problem occurs when we are so "addicted" to comfort that we refuse to follow any path or pursue any change that would take us out of our comfort zone. When we make choices in life based solely upon what's comfortable for us we miss out on opportunities for growth and are prevented from reaching our full potential.

The majority of us would agree that life is most meaningful when we are growing as individuals.  If we cling to comfort at all costs we become stagnant.  It's important to realize that while risk creates discomfort it's also essential for growth.  No one enjoys feeling uncomfortable but we can tolerate it.  If we can challenge ourselves to take risks in spite of the unpleasant emotions evoked we will find that the potential gains are well worth it.  Even when we take a risk that doesn't pan out well we may learn from these situations and apply the information to our future endeavors.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Finances and Getting Ahead

My boyfriend and I were recently having a discussion and it became apparent that our philosophies on the subject were fundamentally different.  I started a second job a few weeks ago and was complaining to him that I really don't like it and want to quit.  He stated that the second job is a way for me to "get ahead" and to "better myself."  He explained that I shouldn't be satisfied making the amount of money I'm making at my current job - it's really just enough to make ends meet with a little left over - and there's no significant raise or promotion in my near future.  He said that it's important in life to constantly be working to better yourself.  He proposed that for me, bettering myself includes becoming more financially stable.  That means I need to make more money.  Hence, the second job.

Now I'm all for bettering oneself but I also strongly believe that we should learn to be happy as we are and with what we have.  I went to college to do what I do for a living.  I knew I was never going to be rich when I chose to go into this profession.  I don't feel like I should have to work a second job that I don't like in the name of "bettering myself."  Why can't it be enough to make what I make, save what I can save, and enjoy whatever I can afford to enjoy?

This is one area where my boyfriend and I have agreed to disagree.  As for the second job -- I haven't decided whether or not I'm going to quit.  I'll keep you posted.

Saturday, May 1, 2010


Change is an inevitable part of life.  Nothing in life is permanent.  Everything changes.  For most of us -- regardless of whether the change is good or bad -- change causes stress.  Why is this?  Why should we feel stressed about something that happens constantly and repeatedly over the course of our lives?  I've been giving this a lot of thought recently and have come up with a few ideas.

I believe that resistance to change creates stress (suffering).  Even if you're not actively doing anything to prevent the change from taking place you might be resisting it internally.  In your mind you might be wishing that things would stay the same or you might be having difficulty accepting that things are now different.  This internal resistance puts you at odds with what's happening in the outside world.  This conflict between internal and external creates tension.

Change is often accompanied by uncertainty, particularly during periods of transition.  The outcome of a given change might not be known.  While the change is being implemented and before any results have been produced there is a period of uncertainty.  Many people have trouble tolerating uncertainty.  We often fear the unknown.  When we are faced with uncertainty but are unable to tolerate it we become anxious.

Another reason change can be stressful is because often it requires us to do something to adapt.  That is to say that one change might require us to make additional changes in our behaviors in order to re-establish equilibrium.  The changes we need to make in order to adapt might not be readily apparent.  We might need to brainstorm or problem solve in order to identify how to adjust our actions so that they make sense given the change in circumstances.

Change is stressful for all these reasons and probably others.  The challenge for me -- and for all of us -- is to learn to approach change with equanimity.

Friday, April 23, 2010


I've been experiencing so much anxiety lately!  It's that kind of chest crushing anxiety, where you go through the day feeling like you can't breathe.  I'll admit that I have a slightly anxious personality but this kind of anxiety is not typical of me at all.  So what's going on?

That's what I've been asking myself, honestly.  I've recently made some big changes in my life.  I started a second, part-time job and my boyfriend is moving in with me next week.  The second job isn't all that stressful and doesn't require an overwhelming amount of work.  Yet the moment I start thinking about the work I have to do my heart starts to beat faster.  I initially concluded that the second job, no matter how "not stressful" it seems, must be stressing me out.  But I don't think that's the whole story...

Because if I'm really honest with myself I have to admit that what's really stressing me out is that my routine has been altered.  In mental health, we use something called the "downward arrow" technique to identify beliefs that fuel negative emotions.  You start with an automatic thought.  Mine is, "It is bad that my routine is going to be altered."  You then ask, "What does that mean to you?" or "Why is that important?" (Or in this case, "Why is that bad?")  I might reply, "If my routine is altered I might neglect to do the things that are important to me."  Then you ask the same question again - "What does that mean to you?"  I respond, "If I neglect to do the things that are important to me then my life will be completely out of control."  And that would be bad because?  "Because I can't handle it if my life is out of control."

And  that's what anxiety is really about -- control, or the lack thereof.  My routines are meant to provide me with a sense of control, to bring order to chaos.  Without the routine, I feel completely out of control.  This makes me anxious. 

So what do I do?  In all honesty, I will probably just create another routine that works with my new schedule.  Will that solve the problem?  It will decrease my anxiety, yes, but it won't fix my belief that I need to be in control of my life.  So the next time some big change occurs that requires me to adjust my schedule I will again become anxious.  What I need to work on -- and this will take time -- is learning to accept that I don't have to be in control and that I can still be ok. 

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Simple pleasures

I wrote last week about feeling restless.  I've been working to combat this by trying to find simple things to take pleasure in.  I count as a success any two moments when I look at the clock and think, "Wow, I can't believe that much time has gone by."  For isn't that the meaning of living in the moment?  That is to say, aren't you really "living in the moment" when you get so caught up in it that you lose track of time?  Mindfulness means fully participating in the present moment.  You can't do that if you're constantly looking at the clock or if you're "there" but have a million other things on your mind.  You aren't really "participating" in the present moment when, for example, you are in the midst of an enjoyable experience and you think to yourself, "Aw man, I gotta go to work tomorrow."  You aren't really "present" when, for example, you are spending time with someone you love and worrying about the fact that you really don't spend enough time with that person.  How many of us live that way though?  I think most of us do, most of the time.  I simply aspire to stop living that way SOME of the time -- to be mindful as often as possible so I can be fully present in each moment.

Saturday, April 10, 2010


Lately I've felt so restless.  What a feeling restlessness is!  One might think that of all the unpleasant emotions one could experience restlessness doesn't seem that bad.  I would disagree.  Restlessness is so disruptive.  It breeds discontent.  When you're restless it is impossible to enjoy whatever it is you are doing because you are so distracted by wanting it to be over.  When you're restless you cannot relax.  The word is exactly as it sounds -- you are without rest.  There is no peace when you're restless.  You are constantly yearning for something more -- something other than what is.  I think restlessness is the antithesis of mindfulness.  I imagine that the cure for restlessness is acceptance -- acceptance of whatever is in the present moment.  I have yet to find reprieve with this solution but I believe I will.  I just have to keep trying.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Interpersonal Relationships

Last week I attended a seminar on interpersonal therapy.  I'm not going to get into detail about the treatment, but I think the theory underlying the therapy is interesting.  The basic premise of the this treatment model is that an episode of depression is always triggered by some kind of interpersonal difficulty.  I think this is interesting because it speaks to the importance of our relationships with other people to our happiness.  I'd venture to say that we as humans cannot be happy without at least one - usually more - significant interpersonal relationship in our lives.  Think about it -- when asked what we value most in life the majority of us will put family or friends somewhere at the top of our list.

Unfortunately, when life gets tough our interpersonal relationships are often the first things we neglect.  For example, my job is getting stressful -- when I come home I'm irritable and want to be left alone.  My interpersonal relationships suffer.  I feel worse.  Here's another example.  I have increased responsibilities at home - a new baby perhaps, or a family member becomes ill and needs my help.  I have very little free time and I don't make it a priority to spend time with loved ones.  I become isolated and feel unsupported. 

I think it's important to remember that our relationships need to be a priority no matter what is going on in our lives.  Our relationships are what give our lives meaning.  They enrich our lives and are a primary source of positive emotions.  When we neglect our interpersonal relationships we deprive ourselves of the love and support that are vital to helping us successfully navigate through difficult times in our lives.

Saturday, March 27, 2010


Purpose: a result, end, aim, or goal of an action or object

Over the course of human existence mankind has sought to define its purpose.  For centuries philosophers have asked and attempted to answer the question, "Why are we here?"  Today, there are countless self-help programs devoted to helping one find his or her purpose in life.  It seems that people have a need for meaning.  We are not content to "just be" -- we have to have a reason.

I'm no exception.  For a long time when asked to name my greatest fear I'd reply, "purposelessness."  I think it was detrimental to my sense of self-worth to believe that I'm here for no reason.  No, it was more comforting to believe I was special, that my life was created to serve some unique function that only I could fulfill.

In fact, I think that's the real drive behind this search for meaning -- we simply cannot bear to think we're not somehow special.  (That's not to say that we aren't all special or unique -- I happen to believe that we are).  I wonder, though, why there aren't more people who strive not to find purpose but to just be.  Maybe that's enough.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Why Self Awareness?

It has been said that in order to know others we must first know ourselves.  Many people see self-exploration as a pointless endeavor and wade through life clueless about why they do what they do and about how it affects other people.  In my field (mental health) it's important for clinicians to have self-awareness because there's always a risk of projecting our own issues onto the people we're trying to help or of our biases interfering with the helping process.  So that explains why people in my field should seek self-awareness.  But what about other people?  Why is it important to understand oneself?  After all, it takes a significant amount of time and effort and sometimes it leads to learning things about oneself that are uncomfortable or even painful.  Why bother?

1. Becoming aware of your weaknesses helps you to identify areas and opportunities for growth.  You can't "fix" something (or improve upon it) if you don't know it's "broken."

2. Knowing your strengths and weaknesses, your emotional triggers, common patterns of behavior, what you value and what you don't, etc. helps you to make better decisions.  Knowing these things about yourself helps you to predict how you will respond to a particular course of action.  This enables you to make choices based upon what is likely to result in the most favorable outcome for you.

3. Knowing more about how and why you have particular emotional reactions helps you to become more comfortable with your feelings and leads to more emotionally enriching experiences.  It's common knowledge that we're more comfortable with what we know and less comfortable with what we don't.  (In fact, we often fear the unknown).  Knowing about our emotions helps us to become more comfortable with them.  It also makes us better able to manage them.

4. Identifying your psychological and emotional needs helps you to identify what motivates you.  The more motivated you are the more you are likely to accomplish.

These are only a few of the reasons it's important to know oneself.  There may be more to come...

My Favorites