The Question

Question

There are times in a session when the answer to just one question turns on the light and the darkness flees from comprehended truth. Nothing changes but everything is different.

A beautiful young woman came in for therapy with concerns about tackling the challenges of her college assignments and trying to decide what direction to take after graduation. She was a former model from Europe, in her mid twenties, creative, and academically excellent. During the initial assessment, I heard her life story. She spoke about her childhood, high school years, and modeling career. In the process, some common themes became apparent ~ like her love for children, her passion for art and her struggles in relationships.   Through several sessions, we talked about ways to handle her tendency to procrastinate with assignments and about how to concentrate in class. She also disclosed that she had professional opportunities on both sides of the Atlantic. However she felt that either choice would cost her personally and affect other people’s perspective of her.

While she reflected on her choices, I suggested a simple exercise, to which she agreed. First, I asked her to imagine this was the only time in our lives that we would meet; we would never see each other again. I would have to form a memory of her from what she said and did in this brief moment.

She was intrigued by the idea and said she was ready to proceed.

I then asked, “What would be the one thing about yourself that you would want me to know about who you are?”

Her answer was instantaneous. “That I am not stupid!”

In the following silence I looked at her golden blonde hair and beautiful face and comprehended again the impact that stereotypes can have on a person’s life. This woman’s choices ~ the compelling drive ~ was the concern that how she looked dictated what others thought about her and so in every circumstance or relationship she tried to dispel the myth that she was stupid. It is not that she believed she was stupid; on the contrary, she knew herself to be an intelligent and accomplished human being. Her constant battle was against prejudice, ridicule, and dismissal based solely on her physical appearance.

As we continued to unpack this idea she was able to see that many of her past choices and actions with her family, intimate friends and career were a reaction against public opinion. She was screaming back at the world that she was not who ‘They’ said she was and her actions would prove them wrong. Paradoxically, this need to be seen as an individual and the corresponding need to deny the stereotype had been hindering her from making the choices she genuinely wanted to make. She needed a divorce from ‘public opinion’ and to develop the courage to make choices about her future based upon what she was passionate about.

Nothing of her circumstance actually changed in that moment  but her realization that she did not have to live according to these stereotypes took away the fears that haunted her every choice. That was over ten years ago. From that moment, she started following her own path, making decisions based on her own needs, desires, and inherent abilities.

Society still ogles the outside ‘package’ and makes a snap judgment about a lovely woman, but that woman no longer cares. Her choices are based on what she knows to be true about herself, and about what she decides she needs to be a whole and healthy Self. For a time, that included modeling and the financial gains that accompanied being an ‘animated robot modeling expensive clothes,’ because that opportunity created others. Today she is ‘Mom’ to two beautiful little souls and uses that intelligence she always knew she had to make the world a better place.

©sjs2013

What would be your answer to this question? What are your actions and choices saying? Questions like these can help us to learn about ourselves and about the reasons we do things. Sometimes we do the same things over and over even though they cause us pain. Then we need to ask ourselves; ‘Why do I keep doing this again and again?’ Sometimes, a better question is; ‘What am I trying to say by that choice?’

Therapy really works.   By reflective listening, empathy, and unconditional positive regard a therapist can help you see what is going on inside.

(Story used with permission)

 

An Inconvenient Truth

inconvenient truthThanks to Al Gore, we have a phrase embedded in the collective consciousness which embodies the act of acknowledging a reality that is painful, unfortunate, or unpleasant. Mr. Gore was, of course, referring to climate change, and how the impact that continuing to deny the science would have consequences far greater than anyone can imagine. The movie of the same name was back in 2006 ~ how right he was. Climate change has been global, devastating, and relentless. As people continue to argue about the science, the world burns.

So it is with the consequences of childhood trauma. Developmental Trauma is an inconvenient truth.

It is Child and Youth Mental Health Day.

This is important ~ there’s not enough recognition of the mental health issues our children face, there’s not enough resources when we DO acknowledge the need for mental health services, and we don’t do enough to prevent the single most significant factor in child and youth mental health.

Episodic, persistent, chronic, or unremitting trauma in childhood (usually in the family of origin, but for many children, in the care of various versions of child welfare, social services, government ministries, or private agencies) has profoundly negative and lifelong consequences. As the work of Dr. Nadine Burke-Harris and Dr. Vincent Felitti have demonstrated, adverse events in childhood are not something children ‘get over.’ Experiencing the degree of chronic stress that trauma induces for an extended period of time fries the nervous system, inhibits brain development, and causes the formation of coping mechanisms or safety-making behaviours which carry on into adulthood.

Child and youth mental health is negatively impacted by these experiences, manifesting as anxiety, depression, suicidality, obsessive-compulsive tendencies, behavioural problems, academic failure, and ever earlier addictions to name only a few ways.

The key to making it different? One caring adult. 

Nearly all of the effects of childhood trauma are mitigated by one safe, secure attachment to an adult through those formative years. A ‘Cookie Person.’ That one adult who listens, takes the time to notice ~ really notice ~ where a child or adolescent is at mentally, emotionally, socially, and physically.  Literally (and metaphorically) having milk and cookies with a child or youth who needs to talk. To be heard. To be safe ~ to know where ‘safe’ can be found.

As this infographic from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation shows, 64% of American adults have 1 or more Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs), and there is a 95% likelihood that additional types of trauma accompany even 1 ACE. This is soooooo disturbing.

Infographic: The Truth About ACEs

How many of our child & youth mental health issues could be prevented if the experience of trauma were routinely assessed of children seeing paediatricians, nurse-practitioners, emergency room personnel, school counsellors, or accessing mental health services?  As Dr. Burke-Harris and her staff proved over the course of twenty years, routinely assessing children, educating parents, creating community resources, and when necessary, intervening for the sake of safety in a timely fashion can have a HUGE impact on mental wellness and health outcomes across the lifespan.

Our children are the future of the humanity.  Educate yourself on childhood trauma. Get involved in your community – here in Kelowna, Canadian Mental Health Association, The Foundry, Boys & Girls Club, YMCA, Boy Scouts, Girl Guides, coaching amateur sports leagues, volunteering at the local school, getting to know your neighbours, and educating yourself are just a few of the ways you can make a difference.

Be that Cookie Person.

Additional resources:

https://www.rwjf.org/en/library/collections/aces.html

The Deepest Well (Nadine Burke Harris)

https://centerforyouthwellness.org/our-story/

https://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/acestudy/index.html

CMHA Kelowna

The Foundry Kelowna

 

Finding Social Balance

In 2016, “social life” means something entirely different than it did in 1976 when my social life was the most important thing going ~ or so I thought at that age. Being very connected was important to me, and I tended my friendships with some care. Back then, the individuals whom I considered as friends were a bit more changeable than now, but the number hasn’t really fluctuated much over all those years. I was (and am) friendly to everyone, but intimate with only a few.

referralSocial media has simply expanded that circle. Today, I have 450+ friends on Facebook (all of whom but one I know in person), multiple followers on other social media platforms, but still only 3 or 4 truly intimate friendships. The rest of my social circle consists of people in varying degrees of closeness and interaction. Different from my youth, a few of those really close, intimate friends now reside primarily in my Facebook feed.

Long distance relationships in the past were hampered by the conditions under which they existed; snail mail, telephone calls, and occasional visits. In 1976 when I was corresponding with a friend living in Alaska, the wait between letters was weeks (hard to fathom, I know) and the friendship developed its own rhythm, defined by the medium. Not so today. My close friendships formed while in Kuwait continue through the various forms of social media even though most of those friends are now scattered across the globe. Immediate (“Posted 0 minutes ago”) news, live interactions, video feeds, IM, Hangouts, shares, and other instant communication feed and maintain the connection. While I miss the enjoyment of being in their physical presence, the friendships continue to ebb & flow in real time, as they did while we were together in the same geographical location. These are friendships which began as three-dimensional; the migration to digital friendship was an easy one.

Not so much for those friendships that begin in digital media. There are significant differences between in-person and online friendships, and when an individual does not make this distinction, problems may arise. The various forms of socialising that are possible on the Internet have given rise to an often false sense of being connected; fostering an intimacy that is arguably of a different quality than is possible in three-dimensions. Social media and instant, long distance communication are here to stay and as a consequence, for the sake of our mental and emotional health, we need to learn to integrate this relational reality into our social lives in a healthy and beneficial way.

This month’s bazaar Kuwait column is all about balance. (as a pdf: all-about-balance-october)

And for another perspective, Mary McGillivray & Mirel Gonzalez share the history of the development of their online friendship.

Not really cheating …or is it?

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Building connection through shared activities.

Couples often come for help because there has been infidelity, or the mutually acknowledged imminent risk of an affair. Also often, in completing a clinical interview and exploration of the history of the relationship, it becomes evident that ‘cheating’ was happening in significant ways before the physical affair.

The research data out of The Gottman Institute is long term, and unambiguous, encompassing multitudinous couples. Sometimes, something apparently innocuous grows to become A Thing which can threaten the health of an already existing intimate relationship. When individuals within a committed relationship begin to make emotional connections with a degree of intimacy that rivals their primary partnership, trouble brews

3 ways we may be cheating

It is a myth of epic proportions (and a completely unrealistic expectation) that one individual is capable of meeting all of another’s need for emotional connection and intimacy. Paradoxically, it also a reality of being human that we need to experience a degree of intimate connection with another individual that is mutually exclusive; to be known and accepted as is. This need is what makes the pain of betrayal so significant. When an individual, as part of a couple, discovers that this degree of intimacy has been extended to a third party, emotional and psychological security evaporates.

In what ways might you be unintentionally or inadvertently jeopardising the health & happiness of your relationship?

Are you contagious?

We have known for hundreds of years through behavioural observation that emotions appear to be contagious, but these conclusions were only based on patterns of behaviour.

Recently, that’s been changing. With the advent of functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI), scientists have been able to see how the brain lights up in response to emotional stimuli, positive or negative, and in the process, have been able to observe changes in the brain’s response to external emotional influence.

happysadbrainactivity_400x200

There are two primary processes at work – focus, and scan, which have very different functions. When we are focused on problem solving, the “Task Positive Network” which is part of Executive Function, engages, and our brain process is almost completely cognitive. In other words, we’re thinking. The brain suppresses other “unnecessary” functions in favour of quick processing, creativity, and hyper-focus. In other words, when this Task Positive Network is engaged, the brain blocks out social/emotional processing. When interacting with people, we use a different part of the brain, the Default Mode Network. We scan; looking for verbal and non-verbal cues that will allow us to gauge the other’s emotional state. We have the ability to “tune in” to people, offering an appropriate social and emotional response to what we pick up.

happy-sad-facesPractically speaking, we have an unconscious tendency to end up mirroring the mood of the dominant individual in our immediate sphere. Apparently, these changes happen at the speed of light very rapidly and mostly at a subconscious at the neural synapse level. We aren’t aware of the change in frequency in brain activity that happens neurologically as we make the shift. If you think about it, you can probably come up with an example of a time when you felt that emotional shift – from positive to negative (or vice versa) after an encounter with someone. We even have language that expresses that experience; “He was a real downer.” “I always feel good after I’ve had coffee with her.” We might not be able to point to a specific action the other person did, nevertheless we experience an internal shift in feeling.

This is where mindfulness – as opposed to mindlessness – becomes key.  Mindfulness is so much more than just “paying attention.” It is being aware of both the external circumstances and, simultaneously, of our own internal landscape.

body-map-of-emotions

Why does any of this matter? Because when we live mindlessly, we are at the emotional mercy of the strongest mood we encounter. It is also a sad truth that we are more likely to be swayed by a negative mood than a positive one. Our mood might pick up a little if we’re with a particularly sunny friend, but we are much more likely to feel flattened by someone’s downer mood. Now neuroscience has begun to compile a body of data indicating that living on autopilot can mean life is much more difficult than it has to be.

Here are some things that help us manage our own emotions in any context:

  1. Selfcare: When we are hungry, angry, lonely, tired, or sick, we are much more easily influenced by the moods of others. At the same time, we are also more likely to be negative to begin with if we have not had enough sleep, or not pursued some emotionally and psychologically renewing activity recently. Take care of yourself, first. Check out Selfcare on Pinterest
  2. Learn & Practice mindfulness: Don’t live on autopilot. Pay attention to your own inner responses to your external environment. Question your responses by choosing to tune in to the automatic self talk that is constantly running in the background of the mind. It’s there for everyone – I mean everyone – and those repetitious, under-the-radar thoughts compel a reaction before we have a chance to choose a response. Mindfulness is a cultivated habit.
  3. Journal: In some form, process what’s actually IN your head. I often suggest “morning pages” to my clients (Check out The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron for instructions) but any form of reflection will work. Do a vlog like Jake Sully in Avatar; look up art journaling on Pinterest and try it; take five minutes a day to record an audio file on your smartphone. Think over the day, and work through the times/occasions when your inner landscape was impacted by the external situation. Do this consistently for at least 30 days, then go back and review. You will be surprised at what you learn about yourself. Journaling ideas
  4. Focus on “Positive Emotional Attractors” – this is not just some sort of spizzy, think-yourself-happy exercise. Research supports the contention that focusing on strengths (as opposed to weaknesses), practicing empathy, and consciously monitoring and managing stress levels has a beneficial payoff through increased creativity, internal resilience, and self-motivation. Cultivating gratitude (as a bonus, check out www.unstuck.com – a gloriously helpful place to explore. There’s even an app)

When we focus on what is going right, mindfully cultivate a habit of gratitude, and look for ways to compassionately connect with our fellow human beings, life seems easier …and we all want that.

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