Beautiful chaos

I have the morning off today. I slept in. I went out for a walk. I got coffee. I sat by the river near our home. Thoughts swirling through my mind. Like they usually do. But this time with a long enough pause to articulate some of them. 

I recently watched a modern day Sherlock Holmes episode in which he described his experience of sensory overload by vividly articulating the cacophony that he hears at any given moment in time. It resonated with me deeply. 

I previously wrote a post on why I listen. And this morning I was thinking about why I share. I voraciously listen. To books. To articles. To TEDtalks. To clients. To friends. To family members. To politics. To religion. To nature. To silence. I soak it in like a dry and brittle sponge. Daily. Hourly. 

When I listen. I learn. I grow. I expand. I create space within myself for another. Another person. Another belief. Another emotion. Another story. I become inspired. I become thoughtful. I become curious. And ultimately I become connected. 

In all the listening. To all the noises around me. I simultaneously feel a sense of chaos and of beauty. Of overwhelmed and of purpose. Of cacophony yet intricately woven within, of meaning making which becomes euphony. 

The more I listen. The more I want to share what I hear with others. Ask anyone who knows me, friends and clients alike. They will tell you how I share. Songs. Articles. Book titles. TEDtalks. Comic strips. Sermons. Art work. Experiences I’ve had. I share. Because I can’t help it. It’s in my DNA. 

As I get older I am becoming more comfortable owning who I am. How I function and what makes me tic. And in my own experience of blossoming, I am finding that I can’t help but invite and even challenge others to do the same. A bud must eventually open. Or it dies all closed up tightly and never having expressed itself. That is tragedy of the most offensive kind. A life unlived. 

It is in the nature that is chaos all around us that we are able to witness beauty. I don’t know that we would honestly see beauty as we do, if it did not exist alongside and within the chaos that enshrouds so much of our life journey. That has given me such a profound sense of hope and healing in my own journey and this is yet another reason why I share. How could I not share hope? How could I keep that to myself? It would be the equivalent of the bud that never opens to blossom. 

I sit with clients each and everyday, listening to their stories. Their hurts. Their confusion. Their longing. Their loses. And my heart leans in toward all that chaos. Cacophony. And then there is a pause. A long, meaningful pause. A sitting in silence. An honoring of heartache. And then I cannot help it. I feel a sense of hope within my being that I cannot stifle or contain. It’s tiny bubbles effervesce. Sometimes in words. And often times in a simple presence. 

I believe that we all contain within us the capacity for chaos. We also contain the propensity toward rigidity. And often times life compels us to dance between these two poles. We swing between our chaos and our rigidity in attempts to control life’s happenings and circumstances. And for most of us, we reach sheer exhaustion at some point. Which necessitates pause and often times seeking of support or outside perspective. 

It is most often the case that we utilize all our resources. We expend all the energy we have. And we reach out only in desperation. Grasping for something to hold onto. We recognize our interdependence as a human species. We acknowledge our fragility. Our vulnerability. And it is within that moment that we become susceptible to change. Perhaps it is our desperation that creates the opening. Whatever the origin, this is where the real work commences. We’re ready to acknowledge our real desire for our situation to change. And without our knowing it we embark on our personal journey of changing ourselves within the safety and connection of another. 

This is why I listen. This is why I share. 

We forget this in our modern day self sufficiency that compels us to function as independently as possible. We ignore our inner longings for intimacy of being known by someone else. Of being seen and heard for who we are. Of experiencing a connection that provides a literal meaning for breathing. 

Connection is so vital to the human heart that it will literally stop beating in its absense. Relationship research has shown us that the most vulnerable among us, children and elderly alike, literally give up the will to live and their heart eventually stops beating in sheer protest of isolation and lack of human connection. 

For many of us we have experienced pain and the raw tragedy of being hurt by another human being. And in our self protection we withdraw. We pull back and we attempt to live life with protective armor. But we don’t realize that we do not function healthfully in isolation. We do not thrive in isolation. We slowly begin to lose hope and identity. We cannot blossom without connection. This can be argued philosophically. But in actuality it cannot. The science is simple. We need an other. 

This is why I listen. This is why I share. 

I simply cannot imagine a life lived any other way. 

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Why I listen

I have often filtered blank or confused stares along with comments of either confusion or bewilderment when I share what it is that I have chosen to do as my life’s work. Having wanted to be a therapist since early on in grade school, I never even doubted for a moment that I would find meaning, intrigue and joy in the work.

I have felt for a long time that many do not understand what it is that I do, let alone why it is that I continue to choose each and every week, to engage in the very personal art of talk therapy. Today I sat down at my desk hours before my first client would arrive, after doing some house keeping, finishing a cup of coffee and steeping a cup of tea for warmth and comfort, I wanted to write a little piece about why I choose to listen.

I am fairly certain that in my younger years as I dreamt of becoming a psychologist that I had no clear picture of what that would actually be like. Sure, I had an idea of what it would look like “me in a chair and my client in another or better yet a couch…” But with regards to what it would feel like, what the work would actually entail and the emotion that would be involved, I’m certain I had no clue. I loved to listen to my friends, I loved to hear their life stories and for some reason I cared deeply about their homes, their families, their relationships, their stressors. My heart would ache when there was pain or heartache. My soul would dance when there was success or accomplishment or joy. My mind would swirl when there was confusion or loss or unknown chaos. I was naturally curious. I was naturally right there, in the thick of it. Heart and soul.

By the time I had made it to my undergrad and declared my major in psychology, I was deeply rooted in relationships of all kind and my own study of people and human interaction was alive and well. In all honesty, I felt my degree had very little to do with that, if anything it discouraged me from wanting to follow through with getting the degree. It was heavy. It was dark. It was unpacking the nature of well-being and disintegrating it into sickness and dysfunction and it was disillusioning. It became all too easy for me to focus on the disease and the lack of health and absence of well-being and become consumed by diagnosis and how to treat each and every one and what ones could not be treated (according to the research at that time). I needed something more hope filled. I needed something to hold onto and not let go of, I needed to know that health and wholeness was possible, even for the most dysfunctional and diseased individuals. I had no desire to discuss those who could not get better; I simply did not adhere to this belief.

I could share many years worth of my own data on relationships and communication, both the formal and informal education that I received and I could tell of my own ups and downs along the way as I moved toward my career goal. Sparing the unnecessary details, I will share that I made it through grad-school, not without bruising and scars that still remain, but I survived and lived to tell about it. All I mean to say about that is that becoming a therapist is somewhat akin to participating in therapy. You get to become all too familiar with your own story, where you came from, what you learned, and how you carry all of those experiences and realities along with you today. It is an arduous journey. It is not for the faint of heart. It is emotional, it is taxing, it is messy and it is absolutely beautiful.

I became a talk therapist because I believed that people needed to have someone to share their life’s story with. Someone who was unbiased, unattached and unconditionally accepting of the process which one goes through to find one’s self, one’s purpose, one’s individual journey and the meaning within it.

I want to simply blast the stereotypes out of the water. I want to smother the noxious fumes that remain of misunderstood psychobabble. I want to instill a hope and a strong belief, backed up by scientific research, that people can and do change. Everyday. Through hard and meaningful work. The act of diving into psychotherapy, of being willing to look back in order to understand present and decide about the future, is stunningly beautiful and it is not to be ashamed of.

Each and every one of us, healthy, unhealthy, functional, dysfunctional… we all need to understand where we came from in order to figure out where we’re going. Somehow we need to start having the conversation about psychotherapy as preventative medicine, as holistic balance in a world that is out of balance and confused about priorities and health. There is no shame in doing the work of telling your story and integrating your past, present and future. It is powerful and life altering work and it is a privilege for me to guide in such a journey. I will go on choosing to do this work of listening, this art of living and loving and sharing in the beautiful stories of others. I am proud to participate in such a gifted kind of work.

Hope Monger

I had an incredible professor in grad school who used to tell us on a regular basis that the greatest purpose that we had in our job was to have hope. He said that clients would come to us when they were struggling with finding hope or they had already lost all hope, and what they needed most was to have someone else have enough hope for them to lean on. I remember this standing out to me as the single most powerful comment in a lecture that I had heard through all of grad school. Even now, years later, I bring those words to mind and hold onto them with fervor.

 The other day I had a client sitting in my office sharing her own experience in working with people who are struggling to get by and who are hurting for hope. As she sat there with tears in her eyes, expressing how helpless she feels in doing anything to change their reality, or even give them anything of value for problems so big, I found myself resonating with her on so many levels. Hope is what came to my mind. All any of us really need when we are feeling overwhelmed or lost or lonely or tired or scared, is hope. And when we cannot connect to or find hope on our own, we lean on someone else who has it, as though it were our lifeline.

 Perhaps hope is our lifeline. Perhaps if we were able to call on hope or even fall into hope when we are feeling like we have no other option, then we might just rest there gently until we find enough strength to get back up.

 I sat with a woman who’s dear friend was recently killed in an accident over the past few weeks and I grieved alongside her, and amidst her pain and suffering and questions and doubts, her loneliness and her quest for connection, I heard her clinging to a hope.

 I have sat with a mother and father who were tragically processing a loss of innocence of their 5-year-old daughter, who were racked with guilt and questions and anger and sadness. I heard them asking if there was hope beyond this pain.

 I have listened as a mother pours out her heart, overwhelmed with regret and doubt as she questions why her daughters are in such horrible circumstances, and addicted and wounded. I hear her ask what is next. I hear her inquiring of hope.

 I have listened to countless others grieving, anxious, depressed, angry, addicted, confused, isolated and infringed, lost and insecure. There are days that my own heart becomes heavy and somewhat disillusioned by the amount of pain and suffering that goes around in this world and touches each and every one of us at one point or another.

 At the end of the day, I rest in the hope of healing. I rest in knowing that acceptance and peace are possible. I rest in the belief that all is not lost, and that good is still possible. That broken relationships can be healed. That while innocence may not be fully regained, that strength and perseverance are powerful tools for overcoming. I rest in the fact that addicts can get clean, that abusers can stop abusing, that we can learn to forgive and that we as human beings can dig deep and show up for one another. We can learn to be present in a way that literally heals the person we are being present for, and if that does not instill hope, I cannot imagine what will. 

Little Fish, Big Pond

I had the honor and privilege of attending a Gottman conference in Seattle, Washington this past week. This was not my first Gottman training, nor will it be my last, as I have come to have a profound respect for his research and clinical expertise! For those of you who have not been introduced to John Gottman or his wife Julie Schwartz Gottman, I will provide a brief description…

John Gottman has over 40 years of relationship research under his belt and is world renown for his work on marital stability and divorce prediction. He was most recently listed as one of the top 10 most influential therapists of the past quarter century, and has published 190 academic articles and has authored or co-authored 40 books. John Gottman PhD co-founded The Gottman Institute, with his wife Julie Schwartz Gottman PhD in a desire to share their research and clinical expertise in marital therapy. Julie Schwartz Gottman was named Washington State Psychologist of the year and is widely recognized for her work with distressed couples, abuse and trauma survivors and substance abusers along with their partners… So as you can see, their collective resume is impressive and incredibly humbling for us neophytes in the field of psychotherapy!

Coming back to my experience last week; sitting two rows from the front, where John and Julie were providing case consultation on real life cases one after the next, modeling their interventions and techniques with precision and a confident humility, the title for this blog post came to me.

There I sat surrounded by clinicians far more experienced than I, finding myself feeling rather small and inadequate. I sent a quick text to my girlfriend sharing this, and she responded with something along the lines of “just keep swimming”, a favorite line of mine from the movie “Finding Nemo”. I quickly decided that this line would be my motto for the entirely of the workshop and jumped back in, fully engaged and ready to soak up everything I could.

Little fish, Big pond. Just keep Swimming.

I have a dear friend who is embarking on a journey to community college to complete her associates degree, and my hat goes off to her for her diligence and stamina as she has been through a lot…. Scaling obstacles and fighting battles have become her specialty! While talking with her the other day, I heard her lamenting some of the same feelings and doubts that I had felt while at my Gottman conference…. “What am I doing here?” “How did I even get here?” “What if I fail?” “Is this really the right thing for me to do?” I heard myself respond to her saying, “We all have to start somewhere, and you are right where you’re supposed to be, just trust that.” Followed by some other familiar line like…

Little Fish. Big Pond. Just keep Swimming.

We’ve all heard the phrase “sink or swim”, and perhaps some of us feel more versed in this life experience than others, but as I thought more about this concept of swimming as a small fish in a large pond, I realized that this is where the weak get separated out from the strong… Sometimes we have to give it all we have simply to keep our head above water and we fear that we won’t be able to do it for much longer, but here is where will power and sheer determination come into play. One day we realize that our neck and shoulders have come out of the water and there is a tad bit less effort involved… and perhaps a little later we find ourselves actually wading through the water, possibly even enjoying the feel of the sand beneath our feet. A confident humility in knowing the effort it took to get there and strength it took to keep going.

We all have moments where we feel insignificant, lost and or out of sorts… We all have seasons where we are humbled and reminded that there is a whole world of knowledge yet to learn, and life yet to live… It’s what we choose to do with these moments and these seasons, how we choose to react that sets us apart. Do we quit swimming and start sinking? Or do we fight for dear life and kick like hell!

We are all just fish learning how to swim.

Emotional Contagion

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Social psychologists study relationships and people interactions, and the concept of “emotional contagion” is widely used within the scientific realm to talk about the impact of internal states of one person on another…. its kind of a fancy way of saying that we are influenced by the people that we hang with, and the environment that we socialize in and live in, each and every moment. The practical application of that is somewhat overwhelming to me as it points out the Significance of the choices we make around who we hang out with and where we live/work/play etc.

If the internal state of another person, whether that be playful, fearful, happy, sad, angry, dysregulated or any number of other states of being, have emotional and long term impact on my overall wellbeing, then that seems to imply the importance of being very choosy with whom to relate, connect, partner with, work with, etc. So how do we go about making those decisions that have such long term impact?

Most of us don’t go about this process all that intentionally… unfortunately far more of us kind of just “land a job” or “meet a friend through a friend” or “go on a blind date” or “strike up a conversation at a coffee shop” or “meet at a party” and through any remote similarity or connection, we “attach”, “become friends” and “associate with” these random encountered people. Is that all bad? No, not all bad. These random associations and meet ups can turn out to be quite meaningful and purpose filled and we can find others in the world who see it similarly to how we do, and who have similar hopes or goals or desires or fears, and we can Connect with another human being in a very meaningful way, that impacts our “internal state” in a positive growth kind of way.

Unfortunately the opposite can be true as well. We can meet someone, begin to associate or hang out with, and before we realize it, they are a “friend” and someone we are seeing frequently, and without even being mindful of it, we begin to be influenced by this person or these people, and they are impacting our internal state.

Does that not scare the hell out of you?? By choosing to hang out with someone on a regular basis, you are actually allowing them to impact your internal state of being!!! Am I the only one that this is a bit disconcerting to??

A simple and not so long term impactful example would be when you see someone else taking a drink of water, and you suddenly find yourself reaching for your water cup or bottle without even thinking about it, feeling thirsty. Or seeing someone wipe their nose or brush it off, and immediately finding yourself brushing your nose to make sure nothing is there. These are subtle, yet classic examples or how we are influenced by what we see in others around us. So if we are influenced by someone simply taking a sip of water, how much more are we impacted by someone who is angry all the time and wears that in their demeanor? Or someone who is anxious or worried about everything and constantly expresses their anxiety about everything in their day to day life?

Dr. Dan Siegel, a neuropsychiatrist and well known author in the world of neuroscience and brain integration speaks of this concept in his book Mindsight in which he describes the idea of “mirror neurons” and “resonance”, in which he outlines the way in which we are impacted by one another and in fact are wired to even feel what others feel…”When we attune with others we allow our own internal state to shift, to come to resonate with the inner world of another…” he continues by noting that it is this ability to resonate with another being that allows us to connect on a deeper level and even attach to another being. “This resonance is at the heart of the important sense of “feeling felt” that emerges in close relationships.”

It’s the beauty and the beast of this emotional contagion… We can be so very positively influenced by another being and the way that they life their life and on the other hand we can be very negatively influenced by another being. Socially, emotionally, spiritually… even physically. Ever noticed how couples that have been together for many years start to almost look like each other, let alone act a lot like one another?  They have been in “training” and they have been influencing each other through mirror neurons and resonance for so many years that even their physical attributes and mannerisms start to match up. (you can read a lot more about influencing your brain and reshaping how you think and behavior in any one of Siegel’s books, which i HIGHLY recommend.)

So who is influencing your inner state of being?? Who’s inner state of being are you influencing?? These are the questions that I am asking today, and that I am challenging each of us to ask. Because there is nothing superficial about an internal state of being…

It is at the heart of who we are as people. It’s how we come to see and experience the world, it’s how we relate to the world and to each other, and how we navigate our way through life, and that is Significant! Yet so many of us take it so lightly and think so little about who we engage with or who we allow to have space inside our world…

Today I am contemplating emotional contagion and I am choosing to be intentional about who and what is influencing me, and how I am influencing those around me. I hope that you can do the same!

How do you define success?

I had considered titling todays post “how do you handle failure”… however it seemed a bit dark for a title, so I opened with your definition of success. I believe that these two things go hand in hand: both how you define success and how you handle failure. Seems to be that you can learn a lot about a person by how they view their success and failures and how they behave accordingly.

When I think about successes and failures, I cannot help but think about how one defines the terms, and how they vary widely from person to person. And once they have been defined, how do these definitions impact our lives?

For example: If my definition of success in a marriage involves deep conversation and weekly strolls through the neighborhood, sharing emotions, and philosophical debates, how will I feel about my partner’s silence in the evenings, or lack of desire to be active?

Or if my definition of financial security involves a loaded savings account and a plush 401K, how will it impact me if my partner feels it’s more important to have a nice home and nice things for quality of day to day life?

Without realizing it, we all go into relationships with these templates or expectations of how things should feel or how they should look, and we don’t mean to be selfish, but it’s difficult to change what you have always thought or how you have viewed things.

The challenge of any relationship in life is that we each bring our own set of templates or expectations, as well as definitions of successes and failures, and often times these do not line up or match someone else’s.

For some of us, there is a realization somewhere along the journey through life, that our template or expectations may not even be serving ourselves very well, let alone another relationship. At that point we are left with more questions than answers. What are my options? Do I have options? Is it possible to change? I will readily admit that this particular junction can be rather stressful and presents with a rather daunting level of involvement.

But is it possible to reconstruct these templates, either for the sake of another or simply for the sake of a healthier definition or expectation?  Dr. Dan Siegel says yes, through the study of interpersonal neurobiology, we now understand that we can remap the way a brain functions. This allows us to change the way we think and the way we behave. How is this possible? Through literally rewiring the brain to focus on something different and therefore encourage a new, and perhaps healthier template to emerge.

The simple science is that “neurons that fire together, wire together”, which is another way of saying what you think about and what you regularly do, become your template for how you think and what you do… so if you want either or both of those to change, you have to begin to think and behave in a way that is more in line with what would be considered healthy.

Perhaps in order to further explore this, one could benefit from identifying what their templates are and what expectations come with those templates. We need to first identify these definitions and expectations before we can begin to look at how they were created in the first place… let alone go about the work of changing them.

The more that I explore within the field of psychology, the more I realize the long and arduous process, of becoming, of changing, or growing, of expanding… and the more I get excited for the ride.

Facing Fear

In my line of work, there is a lot of talk and hype around depression and anxiety, as both disorders and symptoms. We also tend to do a fair amount of assessment around mood and affect regulation (a fancy way of saying the ability to increase positive feelings and minimize stressors and negative feelings). All of these symptoms and disorders are very widespread and popular in experience, and I don’t want to minimize any of them, but it seems to me that we have drastically under-focused on fear. Fear as an emotion, fear as a symptom, fear as a crippling disorder.

Whether an individual, a couple or a family, I see fear more often than I see any other symptom… and the glaring reality is that these fears are CAUSING vast amounts of anxiety and depression and mood dysregulation.  So, we provide treatment for the symptoms that our patients present: depression, anxiety, sleep disturbance, mood instability, etc.  All the while, we often miss what is underlying these symptoms: fear. We as professionals end up spending a great deal of time providing “symptom management” rather than healing at the root cause of the symptoms.

What is it that is so powerful about fear? How can a single emotion have such a widespread impact on our daily lives? Many of us do not even know that we are afraid, let alone have the ability to share with someone else, what we are afraid of and be able to connect this to the many other symptoms that we experience. Why is fear so difficult to identify, let alone fully understand the ripple effect of widespread influence?

My hunch is that in a culture where we turn to medications as quick relief and abatement of discomfort, that somewhere deep down, we know that there’s no medication that will treat fear. Sure we can give you an anti-anxiety to reduce the feelings that often come alongside fear, however all we’ve done is blunt the affect, we have not directly addressed the fears and what resides below the fear. Which leads me to my next question, of why are we afraid? What are we afraid of? There are many different ways to answer these questions… and I will begin by acknowledging that the bulk of what we fear is being judged, or unaccepted by someone else or a group of people. And from this very large and pervasive fear stems many more fears of inadequacy, insecurity, doubt, shame, and failure.

So how do we begin to address the fears and their underlying influence in our lives? I propose that we begin with a journey of self-discovery, perhaps alongside someone to guide in the process, to explore the many facets of who you are, and what you contribute to this world.

Our contributions do not have to be large and world wide, they can be a small and still be incredibly significant. Our positive impact on even one person can send even the greatest of fears far from our mind, even if momentarily. We need to identify what we have and what we give to our world.  Once we have identified that, we can begin to explore how to continue to give and creatively be who we are, in a world that is much in need of thoughtful, compassionate, caring individuals.