Written By Julie Terraciano, MFT
What are the signs that we are arriving at burnout stage? Why might we allow ourselves to get there before we are truly conscious that we have over-extended ourselves? What little “vacations” or breathers might be helpful throughout the year to refresh us?
Since this is vacation season, I have been contemplating these questions as I work with clients and listen to conversations outside the office. It is human nature to seek renewal. Current brain research supports this as well.
Apparently, the brain thrives with: proper hydration, good diet, rest, love (including friendship), exercise, creativity and novelty. Taking ourselves out of our element, out of town, out of state, wherever we might find different activities and different perspectives can be good for our bodies and our souls.
If we are fortunate enough to visit a different culture and lucky enough to immerse ourselves in different ways of being and thinking, these experiences can leave us feeling enlightened. If we can manage to have healthy visits with family or friends, we can return refreshed. If we go away to take part in workshops to pursue our passions, we can restore our energy.
When we don’t have the luxury to take the big trip, little road trips can be helpful. Visiting a friend in a nearby town or another part of the state can give us the change of venue that can support new ways of thinking about old problems.
In therapy, clients sometimes talk about being stuck…in their work, in a relationship, in the way they see themselves, the way they relate to their families, the way they communicate. As their therapist, part of my role is to help them look at these challenges differently, based on what they are telling me and what I sense from their words and their presence in the room.
There are times in all of our experiences when we need a break from our usual way of doing things, our customary way of thinking. I often suggest that clients breathe when faced with a dilemma. Pursuing our own forms of meditation….drawing, writing, music, dance, yoga…all help us breathe differently. Conscious breathing can provide little vacations from habitual ways of being, relief from the annoying and the sometimes terrible challenges that we all come across in our lives.
Written By Terry Potente, LCSW
Like all human endeavors, the practice of psychotherapy has ups and downs, trends and reactions. Since the expanding practice of psychotherapy began in cities at mid 20th century, much has come and gone and come back again. Prior to the professionalization of psychotherapy, mental health treatment was handled by a medicine man, minister, midwife or wise person in the local community who knew the troubled person and the context of the problem. The relationship was intense, personal and often a mix of religion and theater. This is still the norm in many parts of the world.
Universally, an essential element in mental health treatment is the relationship of therapist to client. In the early post war years, psychoanalysis was the trend and the therapist was a figure in the background. Passive, unexpressive, the relationship of the therapist to patient was that of a mirror or blank slate. In extreme reaction to that model came innovators. For example, Murray Bowen out of Georgetown and Salvatore Minuchin out of Philadelphia developed schools in which the therapist was directive, involved, opinionated, and quite intrusive. and often dramatic. The persona and role of the therapist was large. Bowen would hospitalize entire families to challenge behavior and communication patterns of family members. Munuchin set up reenactments in which he would direct the action and responses of family members. Individual psychiatric hospitalization or medication was considered extremely passé.
With another turn of events, the concept of "chemical imbalance" defined mental health problems and medication became the therapist with the actual therapist as a prescriber or a referral to a prescriber of meds. The act of talking to a therapist was considered a fairly useless means of treating mental illness or mental problems, very passé. very undramatic and "scientific".
Yet there was always a counter culture of practice. Virginia Satir, flamboyant and caring, promoted healthy relationships as the key to mental health even in the face of insults by peers. Jungians continued to practice deep, spiritually based, talk therapy. Relationship between client/patient and therapist was the important element. The more intuitive, relational style was sought out by seekers but wasn't considered "scientific" by the medical elite. Yet therapists, perhaps guiltily at times, sought a deeply relational practice, in which empathy, attachment and atunement made the work more satisfying and intuitively successful.
Our lives are full of beginnings and endings. I used to hate endings. But I am beginning to see how important it is to end, so that something else can begin. We see this in nature – after summer we have fall and winter. We begin and end a school year, or a calendar year. I am writing this as the year of the Tiger ends and the year of the Rabbit begins. When this article is printed, it will be the season when Christians contemplate the last part of Jesus’ human life. We need to end one thing to make space for another thing to emerge.
John O’Donohue, in his wonderful book of blessings called To Bless the Space Between Us, introduces his chapter called “Beyond Endings” with these words:
“Often what alarms us as an ending can in fact be the opening of a new journey - a new beginning that we could never have anticipated; one that engages forgotten parts of the heart. Due to the current overlay of therapy terminology in our language, everyone now seems to wish for "closure". This word is unfortunate; it is not faithful to the open-ended rhythm of experience. Creatures made of clay with porous skin and porous minds are quite incapable of the hermetic sealing that the strategy of "closure" seems to imply. The word completion is a truer word. Each experience has within it a dynamic of unfolding and a narrative of emergence. Oscar Wilde once said, "The supreme vice is shallowness. Whatever is realized is right." When a person manages to trust experience and be open to it, the experience finds its own way to realization. Though such an ending may be awkward and painful, there is a sense of wholesomeness and authenticity about it. Then the heart will gradually find that this stage has run its course and the ending is substantial and true. Eventually the person emerges with a deeper sense of freedom, certainty, and integration.”
When coming upon the ending of a particularly life-nurturing relationship for me, O’Donohue’s idea of “completion” was helpful. I could feel “complete” instead of holding on to the idea that I was missing a part of me. Something in the relationship, and in me, was now “complete.” This is different from the idea of “closure” which allows less access into the richness of my past interactions.
It is easier when “completions” occur by our choice. However, even in endings that are not by choice, this sense of “completion” can be authentic. It may take longer to feel complete, but it is possible. Different layers are a part of this completion process. My father died when I was a teenager. Decades later, I am still discovering subtle layers of understanding that contribute to “completion” and wholeness.
We often help our clients in this process of completion. The process involves creating space and safety for any unprocessed feelings to emerge. We create this space and safety through deep listening. The client feels accurately heard and/or seen. We use different methodologies including dream work, art, observation of and integration of the body and its language, ritual, and active listening and reflection to connect to unconscious parts of the psyche. We understand that the psyche attempts to protect us when we are confronted with something we don’t like by going around what it perceives as a threat. We, as therapists, are guides in being able to hold the “awkward and painful” so that these feelings are integrated into a sense of being whole and complete.
“Often what alarms us as an ending can in fact be the opening of a new journey - a new beginning that we could never have anticipated; one that engages forgotten parts of the heart.” Here’s to forgotten parts of the heart. May we rediscover these parts in ourselves and allow these parts to come forth in others.
Written By Tina Smelser, MFT
I have been thinking about the meaning of practice lately, and would like to share some of my thoughts with you. I’ve been realizing that pretty much everything I am doing is practicing something. For example, if I am not practicing standing up straight, I am practicing not standing up straight. I first had this realization a couple of years ago, when I had let myself go too long without a vacation. I started looking ahead excessively, overly focused on my upcoming vacation, unwittingly practicing being somewhere other than where I was in the present. What I discovered was that once I actually was on the vacation, it was very difficult to give up what I had been practicing. When I was hiking in the woods, I was looking forward to eating lunch. When I was eating lunch, I was thinking ahead to the book I wanted to read. When I was reading the book, I was anticipating taking a nap. It took me a couple of days to actually be there, enjoying what I had been looking forward to as it was happening! I try to remind myself now that if I want an enjoyable vacation, it would be better to practice being fully where I am in non-vacation mode, making it easier to be really be there when I reach the vacation!
This is a type of practice that is unconscious, where we get better at a behavior by repeating it, but without even realizing that we are doing so. We do this all the time with body postures, messages we tell ourselves, ways we communicate with others.
There is also conscious practice, where we purposefully set aside time, space, and energy to engage in a specific behavior. It might be a creative pursuit, such as music, writing, or drawing. It might be the physical practice of a sport, the spiritual practice of meditation or prayer, or the physical/spiritual practice of a body/mind discipline such as yoga or T’ai Chi. There is great power in practicing whatever it might be and observing the changes over time in yourself and in the form you have chosen to practice. To nurture your practice, you may want to find a class, a group, a teacher. You may want to set aside a specific time of day when you know your energy is most in sync with the practice, as well as a place that is as conducive as possible. Having these frameworks in place can help support your intention to practice.
In looking for inspiration for this article, I turned to a couple of my favorite books, The Listening Book-Discovering Your Own Music, by W.A. Mathieu, and Free Play-The Power of Improvisation in Life and the Arts, by Stephen Nachmanovitch. In The Listening book, in a small chapter called, “Telephoning Counts”, Mathieu writes of the importance of the preliminaries of practice, likening it to clearing the forest as part of building the house. He says that when you are dialing the number of the babysitter so that you will have time to practice, you can say to yourself, “I’m doing music now”. (p. 79).
In Free Play, Nachmanovitch writes about the difference between the typical western way of looking at practice, and the typical eastern way of looking at practice. “The Western idea of practice is to acquire a skill. It is very much related to our work ethic, which enjoins us to endure struggle or boredom now in return for future rewards. The Eastern idea of practice, on the other hand, is to create the person, or rather to actualize the complete person who is already there. This is not practice for something, but complete practice, which suffices unto itself”. (p. 67-68). He also stresses the importance of ritually preparing for practice, and finds that in preparing to create, he is already creating. (p. 74).
Practice takes discipline. The discipline of doing something even when you might not really feel like it. In the contemporary New Age mentality, there is an underlying directive to “Follow your Bliss”, or “Go with the Flow”. I wonder, does this contradict the idea of practice, which might not always feel like bliss, or flow? Perhaps a way to hold both is in seeing the bliss or the flow as the overarching inspiration, while understanding that the small steps on the path may not feel always blissful or flowing, but may be a necessary part of the journey.
With my therapy clients, I encourage viewing change as a process. For example, to learn how to manage one’s anger, it takes practice to recognize the early signs of anger, practice to disengage from it, and practice to find a constructive way to express it. After practicing other ways, often for years, the new behaviors may feel foreign. It takes repetition for the new ways to start to feel familiar. I have read that it takes 21 days to change a habit. While I tend to balk at statements that give one number that supposedly can apply to everyone for anything, I can appreciate idea of practice that is implicit in this statement.
I hope that these ideas have spurred your thoughts, and will encourage reflection about what you may be consciously or unconsciously practicing in your life.
I had the opportunity this week to feel really stressed out. I call it an opportunity because it gives me something of current interest to share with you. Fortunately, I’ve been in enough therapy, done enough therapy, taken enough courses, read enough books...to have some idea of what to do about it. Of course, every body and every psyche responds differently, but I will share my tips with you.
If you feel panicked,
The reason this works is that when you are panicked, your brain is sending signals that you are in danger. Your adrenaline is running and your flight/fight/freeze response is kicked into gear. The blood leaves your limbs to get your heart pumping so you can run. That is why you may perspire, feel your heart pounding, and not be able to think clearly. You want to do things to let your brain know that you are not in immediate danger. Chances are some past trauma is being triggered in you. Trauma memories are different from regular memories – the mind thinks that you are in the midst of real danger again and responds appropriately for the past danger but not for the current situation. You can thank your body for trying to protect you and then give it signals that the danger was in the past and you are actually safe right now. The tapping helps with stimulating both sides of the brain. The hugging and swaddling help to calm down the nervous system. When our bodies are forming, the skin is formed at the same time as the nervous system, so the skin is very sensitive.
If you are feeling anxious,
This is not an exhaustive list, but I hope some of these tips may help you. The reason that psychotherapy is more helpful in reducing stress and anxiety than reading an article is because we are all different and have different things that may be causing the stress. When trying to identify the stressors and while working on specific solutions to address the stressors, it is often nurturing and helpful to have an objective guide.
I am writing this article close to Lunar New Year, Year of the Water Snake. It is supposed to be a year filled with connections, transformation, and discerning what choices need to be made. To me, it sounds like a recipe for a lot of emotional turmoil. So I thought I would share with you my thoughts on dealing with emotions.
Many of you know of Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor, the neuroscientist who had a massive stroke in the left hemisphere of her brain. She gave a very popular TED talk, and wrote the book, My Stroke of Insight. In her book, she talks about how any emotion needs 90 seconds to be triggered, to cause a response, and then to be flushed out of our bloodstream. This means that when you are angry the physiological response occurs, and after 90 seconds the automatic response is over. After 90 seconds you CHOOSE to let that emotion continue. Some of us allow the emotion to continue for decades, for a lifetime. But the automatic response is actually physiologically over in 90 seconds. According to Dr. Taylor, we choose to hang on to our feelings of misery!
I found this information to be fascinating. I first learned about it when a friend shared about her father who had had a stroke. He told his friends that if he cried, they should just let him cry and it would be over in 90 seconds. And sure enough, it worked. I know so many people, myself included, who hold back feelings, instead of allowing them to flow for 90 seconds. If you allow those feelings to be fully felt, it is easier to release them. After the 90 seconds, if you choose to hang onto the feeling, then you are in the past instead of in the present.
Okay, so here is my recipe for dealing with those unwelcome, difficult feelings:
When we grasp onto a feeling and try to keep it there (such as joy or outrage), or wrestle with it to try to get rid of it (such as sadness or embarrassment), we are stuck. We are most alive when we can experience our feelings and then allow them to dissipate. So fully feel your joy, or fully feel your sadness, or fully feel your embarrassment for 90 seconds. Then notice how it dissipates. Notice how after 90 seconds, you are feeling something new. Clinging to one feeling is static; it dampens our ability to fully experience the present.
Birdwings, by 13th century Persian poet Rumi gives us beautiful imagery and lovely guidance for the flexibility we can cultivate in processing feelings:
Your grief for what you've lost lifts a mirror up to where you're bravely
working. Expecting the worst, you look, and instead, here's the joyful
face you've been wanting to see.
Your hand opens and closes and opens and closes.
If it were always a fist or always stretched open,
you would be paralyzed. Your deepest presence is in every small
contracting and expanding, the two as beautifully balanced and
coordinated as birdwings.
Written By Terry Potente, LCSW
Recently my husband and I took our grand kids aged 9 and 4 to the Academy of Sciences for a lovely day in the rain forest As we were about to leave, grandfather and granddaughter left to get the car and the 4 year old took off to see the penguins He is in a wonderful stage of adventure, going off and coming back to check in to his secure base. He is always in sight after hiding a second or two. But this time, the check in was interrupted. I had no idea where the penguins resided, having never been to that part of the museum. And by the time I found the penguins, the 4 yer old had slipped away to some other exhibit. For the first time, we had lost each other! Round and round I searched. No 4 year old in an orange shirt. I was hoping he was just around the corner, but not this time.
Now, I am not prone to drama and wild thoughts about abduction. He would make too much noise for sure if anyone tried to hijack him in the crowd . However it was a challenge to not panic and to stay focused. Finally I decided it was time to enlist aid and headed toward the security guard that magically appeared, in an orange vest. Just as I headed toward her, there was a flash of an orange shirt. There he was coming toward me. We saw each other at the same moment. What a deep breath of relief! We hugged and his words tumbled out: "I'm so glad I found you, I was just about ready to cry." Many hugs and soothing followed, really for each of us. It was a moment of very secure connection. And of course we talked about it and what to do to be safe.
This was a little trauma. A kind of upset that happens to everyone. Responses to little traumas vary with age and culture. As a child I may have heard much criticism and blame for getting lost, inconveniencing the grownups, being thoughtless or selfish. Or maybe even a: "don't be such a big baby." It took a long time to find the caring in that approach. Often the adults felt shame and self blame when things went wrong and projected it outward on kids. This is a microcosm of what can happen in big Trauma too. Shock, panic, insecure connection, shame and blame.
Therapy is really the process of reestablishing a secure connection. If there are unresolved little traumas or big Traumas, the connection can be restored in the healing of the therapeutic relationship, without shame or blame. When the secure connection is strong, we can explore and discover anew.
Written by Tina Smelser, MFT
“I wish I could just have a big epiphany and see everything differently…”. In my work as a psychotherapist, more than once I have heard a client directly or indirectly express frustration about the hard work that it takes to make real, lasting changes in his or her life. I respond that in my experience, it usually takes small, gradual steps over time to really start seeing, feeling, and behaving in new ways.
It is no wonder, in this present-day culture of the “quick fix”, that we expect changes to happen quickly. Glancing through a women’s magazine while waiting for a haircut recently, I see ads that state, “30 seconds to radiant skin”, “5 minute workouts”, and “speedy suppers”. I even heard a late-night radio advertisement claim to “change your child’s problem behavior in one minute or less!”
I have had the fantasy of marketing my work with the statement, “real change takes time”, as an antidote to the dramatic promises of quick and easy transformation. When I half-jokingly mentioned this to a marketing friend of mine, he said, “you’d be wasting your money”. I guess I already knew that.
In pondering the question of epiphanies, I talked to some friends and colleagues about their experience of epiphanies; times when there was an illumination that resulted in a shift in the way they saw themselves, or their world. As I recount some of what I learned, I admit that my findings are not based on a large body of scientific research. I quote the friend of a friend who says, “every generalization that I’ve made in my life has been based on a sample of no more than seven”.
I heard about a range of epiphany experiences. Some people immediately recalled a specific, memorable, life-changing moment when everything became clear and their experience of themselves changed. Others spoke of several, smaller epiphany experiences where there were more subtle, yet very real shifts.
I noted that there were different conditions that seemed to enable people to be receptive to the epiphany; in some cases, being in nature was an important element, in another, being a part of a spiritual group or in the presence of a spiritual teacher. One person had a life-changing epiphany while on LSD. In most cases people were away from their everyday, fast-paced lives; even if only for an hour on a bodywork table or in a psychotherapy session. Sometimes it was during a transcendent period in life, such as the birth of a child, the death of a loved one, or a serious illness. Some experienced moments of deep clarity while walking, doing yoga, or engaging in more vigorous forms of exercise.
In myself and my clients, I have noticed moments of finally “getting” something that one has been exploring and working on for a long time. Perhaps one knows something intellectually, but the shift comes when one knows it on an emotional and physical level as well.
Unlike the “happily ever after” promise of the fairy tale, the changes that an epiphany brings are not just instantaneous and not just positive. Once the clear understanding arrives, it can often take quite some time to integrate the changes based on that understanding. Sometimes the changes may be very unsettling; for example, when one suddenly knows with certainty that he or she can no longer stay in a relationship, a job, or a town. The ripples from the epiphany can involve a great deal of pain and struggle, the type that are a necessary part of growth. It can also be painful to return to the challenges of daily life after having experienced the timeless, spiritually-connected quality of an epiphany.
It was inspiring for me to talk to people about their epiphany experiences; it seemed to bring them to a time of deep engagement with life. It is rewarding as a psychotherapist to serve as a witness to both the occasional grand and the frequent subtle epiphanies in the lives of my clients.