I don’t see myself as a “typical” risk taker — I don’t think I’d ever like to climb on the side of a jutted cliff or swim with sharks (yikes!). But sometimes something gets into me that pushes me to take a giant step outside of my comfort zone and push myself to my very limits. I recently engaged in one of the biggest challenges I have ever come across in my career: PUBLIC SPEAKING.
I was very fortunate to be chosen in April to be a presenter for the Association for Contextual Behavioral Sciences Rocky Mountain Chapter’s Regional Conference held on September 20-21, 2013. This association brings together professionals who utilize Acceptance and Commitment Therapy and Relational Frame Theory with clients in many different capacities to help reduce suffering and facilitate healing. I put together a presentation entitled: Embracing Our Bodies, Allowing Our Experience: An Acceptance and Commitment Therapy Approach to Treating Body Image and Disordered Eating Issues. This topic is near to my heart and I am always excited to explore the ways that ACT is effective in helping clients from this population.
In April, this sounded awesome! As the days, weeks, and months crept by, I found myself engaging in several anxiety-related activities that let me know that I was feeling quite nervous about presenting in front of so many national and international peers who have a vested interest and skills in ACT. Looking through the ACT lens, I was definitely utilizing experiential avoidance. I procrastinated by doing ANYTHING but work on my presentation (including cleaning and organizing), I filled up my schedule with other activities so I ‘wouldn’t have time to work on the presentation’, and I began having anxiety dreams, one of which included me standing naked in front of all of the mentors and people who have been meaningful to me on my professional path and not having a word to say. All of these techniques did not help to reduce my anxiety, but just delayed it and actually helped it grow.
When it finally came time to present at the conference, I felt the anxiety shivering up and down my body. I knew deep down that I was not nervous about my competency, as I have had training and lots of experience with Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, but more about being vulnerable and speaking in front of so many peers that I deeply respect.
Having “survived” this experience, I wanted to share a few things I learned from it, as it has opened up my eyes to the courage, vulnerability, and strength that clients embody every day:
Little did I know, I was utilizing all of the components of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy to help me get through my nerves and present my workshop on the very same topic!
This experience deepened my awareness of and empathy for the struggles that my clients engage with every day. Those in recovery from eating disorders, body image struggles, anxiety, or self esteem issues can seem paralyzed by the challenge of recovery — much like I was before my presentation. But I know from personal experience that it is possible to recover from an eating disorder and to face your fears and prove to yourself how strong you are!
It still will be quite some time before I submit a proposal to present at a national conference again, though
I was recently asked if I thought there was such thing as “good foods” and “bad foods”. To me, this is like asking “do you want to get stuck in a rigid cycle of all or nothing thinking?”. The answer is no!
For myself while I was going through my recovery many years ago, and for others who are actively engaging in recovery today, ‘all or nothing’ thinking can be a common yet very limiting and confining behavior centered not just around eating, but branching out to many areas of life. ’All or nothing’ thinking occurs in eating disordered behaviors but is not limited to this realm.
Many of us have caught ourselves thinking or feeling: “It has to be this way or nothing at all”, or “I am not able to enjoy my day until I do x, y, and z.” These limiting thought patterns can make us feel like there are only two extremes to choose from, both of them so extreme that they are unhealthy to maintain and actually diminish our life satisfaction. It’s like we’re keeping ourselves in a jail cell, yet we don’t have the key. What gives?
For people who are struggling with disordered eating (and this concept can be applied across many realms, struggles, or concerns), they can arrive at a dichotomous crossroads where there is some sort of decision or classification made about themselves and their experience. These choices might be related to weight, body shape, numbers, or certain food types and amounts. Once there is a “rule” set about these things, it can become quite rigid and hard to challenge. Some folks may decide that certain foods with lower fat or carb or sugar content are “good” foods, while everything else is “bad”. This is based on a fear of gaining weight, but I also see it as a fear of letting go of control.
What is the function of the “all or nothing” thinking? There can be numerous reasons for this, but one of the most common is that seemingly only having two choices (“good or bad”, or “right or wrong”) helps to create a focus where they can put their energy and attention. Food might be something that they can control, when something else in their lives feels out of control — whether it be emotions, a family situation, a relationship, etc. Food can be the “red herring“, the object that is focused on instead of what’s really going on underneath. The problem is, when a rule such as “I can only have x y and z food (even if I don’t really like it), but not a b and c foods (even if I love those foods)”, the body and the emotional self begins to feel deprived and to crave those foods that “aren’t okay”. This can commonly lead to eventual out of control behavior around food, such as bingeing or emotionally overeating and “feeling out of control.”
In recovery, I help my clients find the “grey area”. This can be very scary at times, as living in the “all or nothing” has felt safe, albeit not healthy at times. Only in the grey area can we embrace life’s imperfections, its joy, its silliness, its sadness, and to find ways to tolerate all of these without needing rules to govern them. In the grey area, there are no rules about food, emotions, or the human experience. So, to answer my original question, : “NO, I do not think there are things such as “good foods” and “bad foods”, as these trigger the dichotomous thinking and lead to a rigid, rule-driven, stuck emotional place. By offering ourselves and our experiences compassion, we can eat all foods – especially the ones that we really love! — in moderation and enjoyment.
I don’t want to undermine the importance of nutrition. Getting our nutritional needs met is very important! Some foods have higher and more diverse nutritional content than others, and these foods will make our bodies feel strong, energized, and healthy.
I think that sometimes when ‘all or nothing’ thinking becomes extreme, folks can become convinced that only certain foods with low fat, sugar, salt or carbs means “eating healthily”, when in reality, we need a good dose of those things for our bodies to function fully. Consulting with a nutritionist is a great way to learn about your body’s specific needs. When fear consumes certain foods for you, the true meaning of nutrition and health can go out the door, and the “food rules” can become more about control than about truly nurturing your body. Don’t forget to also nurture your soul — sometimes an ice cream sundae is just what your soul ordered!
By exploring what’s really going on underneath, and having compassion and tolerance for those feelings, we are able to move forward and walk the life of value that we’ve always wanted.
Tell me, what is your experience with “food rules” or “all or nothing thinking” and what are some ways to find more balance and flexibility?
It’s that time of year again. The media pressure to work out and have the ‘ideal’ body has waned a bit since the New Year’s Resolutions campaign, but now it’s coming back in force as the weather warms up and we are all eager to get outside and enjoy the sunshine: “get your best bikini body yet!”, “are you ready to hit the beach?”, “three tips to lose weight FAST to fit into that tiny bikini!”. Then there’s the comparisons to celebrities who have the “perfect bikini body” and whose pictures are spread throughout the internet and in magazines as the “ideal role models” for how your body ‘should’ look this summer. Whoa. I’m exhausted even thinking about it. I can feel my chest start to tighten as I almost fall into that trap: “how will I EVER get my body to look like THAT??”.
Who said that anyone had to have a certain body appearance or type in order to wear a bikini? Where is the logic in that? It doesn’t make sense to me and it feels very shaming, judgmental, and narrow-minded. For those of us who embrace and love our bodies no matter what they look like (or are desiring to do so!), these messages can be very harming. Bikinis come in all shapes and sizes, just like our bodies do. And we all have a right to enjoy our bodies, whether in a bathing suit, a dress, a towel, a jumpsuit, a clown’s suit, or whatever we may choose! I’m of the belief that if we are able to physically put on a bathing suit, we are ‘bikini-ready’.
I found this great article on the Huffington Post that inspired this blog post which asked readers to submit photos of their own fabulous, REAL, bikini bodies! What I loved about it was the energy radiating from these women (no men included in this exercise, though I think that would be a GREAT idea, as men are subjected to media and social pressures as well).
These beautiful bikini babes were jumping around, swimming with fish, enjoying the sun, and even in one case, running through snow, all embracing their REAL, healthy bodies. I could just feel how happy they were, and even if some of them have had body image issues come up (which can happen no matter WHAT your body looks like), they were not allowing those to bulldoze their fun in the sun and water (or snow).
An important point: your body might naturally look a certain way — thin, heavier, whatever. It’s not what your body looks like that matters as much as how you feel in your body and the amount of joy, acceptance and satisfaction you are able to experience in your body. Exercising and eating foods that feel great to your body are certainly healthy practices, but we must remain present and balanced in these pursuits so as to not damage our self esteem and body image.
I wanted to offer some food for thought on this topic as we head into summer and are bombarded with messages that (mostly) tell us that our bodies are not good enough and that we need to change.
If you are looking for support in embracing your beautiful, awesome, real bikini body or in accepting yourself in any other way, please feel free to contact me for a complimentary consultation. You can reach me at email@example.com or 720-340-1443.
Forward on to enjoying the sun, the beach, food, friends, and OURSELVES!
Today is a snowy day in Denver! As the wind blows and the temperature plummets, I am reminded of the gift of slowing down. When something comes up that takes us out of our regular routine (whether it’s weather, illness, unforeseen obligations, etc), we might have no choice but to S-L-O-W D-O-W-N. I greet this ‘slowdown’ with anticipation and also a bit of anxiety. What to do on a snow day? Play out in the snow? (did that, nose froze!). Read a book (yes, please)? Peruse the internet ? Have you ever felt this way?
As I noticed all of the feelings I was experiencing and the thoughts I was having, I brought myself back to the present moment and asked:
“What choices do I have with this experience?”
I realized that I have the power to choose acceptance of this moment, EVEN THOUGH I still might feel some anxiety (or whatever else). I became aware that this concept is something I have been working on with clients recently: finding a way to be with slightly uncomfortable feelings while making a choice that helps me to make steps towards being the person I want to be. And today I really want to be peaceful and embrace the cold and snow because I know that tomorrow the sun will come out again, the flowers will be nourished, and the birds will awaken. It will be spring once more.
Mindfulness can be effective in just a few minutes. What is mindfulness and how is it effective?
“Mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way;
in the present moment, and
A great book for introducing yourself to this concept is: Mindfulness for Beginners by Jon Kabat-Zinn. Kabat-Zinn is a famous teacher of mindfulness meditation and the founder of the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center.
Today, offer yourself the gift of slowing down, breathing deeply, checking in with your body awareness, noticing your thoughts but trying to not attach to them. This video is a great tool for experiencing the benefits of mindfulness — whether you have a snow day or a busy day – truly allowing us to feel our bodies and to follow their lead into our experience. I invite you to try it yourself — whether you have an hour to give or even just five minutes.
Happy Valentine’s Day! St. Valentine reminds us that life should be filled with love - for our friends, for our partner, for our family, for our community, and, extra importantly, for ourselves! Have you shown yourself love lately? Sometimes I think the greatest gift we can offer each other and ourselves is to slow down, notice, and be grateful for the world around us. Here are a few great tips for focusing on this reconnection and being present with yourself amidst a busy, chaotic world:
I don’t know about you, but I’ve spent a lot of my life trying to change something. When I was a teenager, the focal point of the thing I wanted to change was myself. This dissatisfaction with myself, or parts of myself, spiraled into an exhaustive effort and cycle of “if only I looked like…if only I could do…THEN, I’d be happy”. Let me tell you how that ended up: in an eating disorder. Only when I was able to accept myself, ALL of myself, and the range of emotions I experienced on a daily basis, was I able to stop destructive behaviors and lead a value-driven life. I know that I am not unique in the way I was thinking; I believed that my emotions were the problem and that my thoughts were “bad” and that I needed to change all of it. When I stopped struggling with all of those beliefs, I was free. That didn’t mean accepting the negative beliefs and talk I was saying to myself, but stopping the struggle with my emotions, as I learned that it is not the emotions themselves that create dis-stress or dis-orders, it is the struggle, or attempted control, over the emotions that is the problem.
Eating disorders such as bulimia, anorexia, binge eating, compulsive over-exercising and other types of disordered eating behaviors as well as body image struggles can be borne out of a desire to find happiness and peace — but somewhere that mission gets diverted into destructive behaviors that lead to suffering. It seems that there is a call to find a way to “be with” our emotions in non-destructive ways.
I am currently getting trained in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, an empirically-based therapy that “makes no attempt to reduce symptoms, but gets symptom reduction as a by-product”, writes one of its founders, Russell Harris. This approach is rooted in values, forgiveness, mindfulness, acceptance, compassion, living in the present moment, and accessing a transcendent sense of self, a therapy that encourages us to accept what is without judgment, and to be find some peace in our struggle (while acknowledging that some type of suffering is part of the human experience). ACT has been clinically proven to effectively treat eating disorders and other types of conditions such as OCD, anxiety, chronic pain, and stress, amongst many others.
ACT uses six core principles to help people develop more psychological flexibility and to get out of some of the rigid patterns that keep us stuck in self-destructive pattens:
I’m eager to utilize this approach with clients and am excited about the way that it encourages us to be ourselves, knowing that we are okay just as we are. To me, this is a big sigh of relief!
Are you interested in applying some of these principles in a hands-on experiential way? Are you ready to cultivate a more peaceful, accepting relationship with food and yourself? Join me and colleague (and ACT expert) Christine Allison, MA, LPC on March 2nd, 2013 for a workshop where we will practice all of this!
Early bird special ends on 2/15 so ACT now!!!
Held at my office, 709 Clarkson St, Denver, on 2/3 from 10am-2:30pm, the early bird rate is $65, and after 2/15 it will go up to $85.
Contact me to sign up TODAY — seats are filling up!
See the flyer here:
Read more about ACT: Embrace Your Demons by Russ Harris
Happy New Year!
2013 is opening up as a bright, fresh breath of air, full of possibilities! How do you approach the New Year? Are you one who makes resolutions to change something, start something or stop something? Are you one to focus on deepening practices that you are already currently doing? Whatever your approach, the underlying theme that I hear from clients (and from myself!) is: I want to be happy and healthy. This is a very doable, energized mindset — but what if you are setting yourself up to fail? The way that we approach this goal is critical to our end result.
The #1 New Year’s Resolution in America is to lose weight. We have all been there. I have been there. I committed myself to working out every day for 30 minutes and had a “goal weight” that I wanted to reach by a “goal date”. Then, when my stamina for getting up early to go work out wore down, I felt badly about myself. When I wanted those delicious foods that I really enjoy but couldn’t have them because they weren’t part of my “diet”, I felt badly about myself. When I lost 10 pounds, I felt proud, like I had accomplished a goal (more of an uphill climb). . . but then that satisfaction wore off and the weight I’d lost came right on back. I felt devastated. This is very common. Why?
Why does weight loss have such a powerful and motivating force upon us? It can make us feel elated — for a while. Then when it’s not sustainable it can make us feel some of those uncomfortable feelings (guilt. . . shame. . . disappointment) . . .when we don’t “succeed” at it. This sets us up to continually feel badly about ourselves, initiating a cycle of dieting and deprivation that only leads down a road of misery and yearning for that chocolate chip cookie. Dieting is the leading cause of eating disorders (note: not everyone who goes on a diet develops an eating disorder, however, the diet mentality is a strong trigger for those who might be at risk for eating disorders) and can also lead to bingeing, purging, and other self-destructive behaviors. Losing weight can “talk a big talk” and convince us that we will love ourselves if only we weighed X amount. It sure is convincing — and a lot of pressure! What’s the deeper need? And how can we meet that as well?
I’m not saying that it’s not okay to have goals, intentions, motivations — I think those can be very healthy and enriching things! I am asking us to contemplate the types of goals that we set and the reasons we are setting them. As I mentioned earlier, the most common desire for those setting resolutions is to be happy and healthy. Yes, for some this means losing weight in order to lower blood pressure or decrease the risk of diabetes or other health-related reasons. For those who are looking to lose weight so that they will feel better about themselves, I believe that there has to be more to it than that. Just losing weight is not going to make you feel better about yourself (see above). In face, it may have the opposite effect (again, see above).
I ask you: what are you really looking for? What do you truly need?
…and others. Does weight loss bring these things to you? I want to invite a radical idea: what if you accepted yourself just as you are today? What if you didn’t need to change/add/subtract/stop anything about yourself to be happy and accepted? Close your eyes for one minute and try to imagine what that might be like. You. Are. Beautiful. Just. As. You. Are. ! These are intentions that foster recovery from eating disorders, addictions, low self-esteem, and other issues.
Special New Year’s bonus: Download my “NewYearsIntentions” handout that encourages reflection of the past year and includes a guided meditation to embrace intentions for 2013. I hope that this year is a happy, balanced, nourishing year for you all!
Looking for a guide on your journey of self-discovery? Send me an email and let’s chat! I offer a complimentary consultation to explore what this exciting chapter of your life might look like!
Growing up, I spent many giggly hours watching ‘Winnie the Pooh’ and reading the books about Pooh, Tigger, Piglet, Eeyore, Rabbit, Owl, Roo, Kanga, Christopher Robin, and all of their friends. As an adult, I look at these stories and realize the powerful messages they send us: unconditional love and acceptance, the beauty of simplicity, that we are all unique and different. The Tao of Pooh and The Te of Piglet offer extended meditations on these lessons of peace and understanding.
Today I re-watched one of my favorite episodes, “Winnie the Pooh and a Day for Eeyore”. The psychotherapist in me couldn’t help but focus on the different roles adopted by the characters as well as the humanity in the story. This particular episode centered on Eeyore, the gloomy donkey with a rain cloud perpetually hanging over his head. Many of us, myself included, can identify with the sadness and despondency that envelopes Eeyore each day. Perhaps there is a part of you that really relates to this. Do you allow this part to have a voice? Do you push it away and try to ignore it because it feels consuming and dreary? Do you judge it and tell it that it doesn’t belong? These actions are the very thing that Eeyore fears. . . that being himself is too heavy for anyone else to love or accept.
When Eeyore goes to hide away and isolate, Pooh goes to find him and try to understand why he is so gloomy that day. Pooh, finding out it’s Eeyore’s birthday, goes to round up his friends to bring him gifts and celebrate. Of course, things go awry (Pooh, unable to control himself, eats the honey that he was bringing for Eeyore, and Piglet trips on his balloon gift and it pops). In the end, all of these characters, who might represent parts of ourselves, sit down at a table and celebrate Eeyore’s birthday. Giving Eeyore space, love, acceptance, attention, and not trying to change him in any way — these actions allowed Eeyore to feel safe and enjoy himself after all. He found that the popped balloon fit better in the (empty) jar of honey than it would have it it was still intact — showing us all that sometimes when things don’t go as planned, they actually turn out better. The silver lining of an unpredicted experience.
Who are the parts of you? Do you have a Tigger — a part that struggles to focus or commit, sometimes says or does the wrong thing but is lovable just the same? Do you have a Piglet — a worrier who wants everything to be okay but doesn’t always know the answer? Do you have a Pooh — a thinker, with great ideas, a peace-keeper, also lovable for his faults? An Owl — wise, knowing, but overcompensating for not being perfect? An Eeyore — gloomy, sad, despondent, brought to life and empowered when his voice is heard and validated? Can all of these parts of you sit down at a table and share a birthday celebration without judgment, exile or banishment?
As Pooh says at the end of this story: “Everybody’s alright, really”. This is a very healing perspective on the essence of human nature — after all, Pooh is the bear that can heal us all.
Take a look at the video yourself and share your perspectives on what Pooh and his friends can teach us — as children, but even more meaningfully as adults.
I love this time of year because there is so much energy given to gratitude. Thanksgiving is a holiday that may bring trepidation and anxiety to folks recovering from eating disorders such as bulimia, anorexia, or binge eating disorder, but it is also a day where we are invited to sit down and be thankful for what we have.
There’s not a day that goes by where I am not giving thanks for my recovery from my eating disorder. As I sit and hold space with my clients who are finding their own journey to recovery, I am regularly reminded of my own process and the steps that brought me to where I am today.
The recovery process of an eating disorder is fraught with ups, downs, twists, and turns, and many frustrations and confusions about these peaks and valleys. Why can’t I just stop these behaviors? some might wonder….or, Why am I not able to see myself the way that others do? I have had to answer these questions myself, and the passion I felt for my own health and healing ignited my career path to becoming a psychotherapist who helps others get here too. Sometimes my clients and I contemplate what they could learn from their eating disorder. What is its function? What are its needs? What is it trying to tell you? And even: What is it wanting to help you with?
I know, thinking of an eating disorders as “helpful” might seem bizarre and unconventional. Eating disorders are painful, destructive, and demeaning, you might say. I agree — they are those things. But by looking at it in a new way, in one that invites gratitude and healing instead of illness and pain, we might find a more peaceful path towards the end goal: recovery.
In the spirit of gratitude and thanks, I wanted to offer some insight into what I learned from my eating disorder (perhaps that I might not have learned in the same way if I hadn’t ever had an eating disorder) — and what you can too.
These are a few thoughts that came up as I was contemplating gratitude today, Thanksgiving Eve. I learn new things every day that I am grateful for in my recovery as well as things that my eating disorder has taught me.
I invite you to think about what you are grateful for today and every day and to foster some energy in that direction. If you have recovered from or are in recovery from an eating disorder, what are you taking from the process? What do you want to look back on in ten years and remember about this journey?
Recovery is lifelong. Every day brings a new opportunity to utilize skills, tools, and learnings from our life’s path. And I’m always growing and learning.
Have a Happy Thanksgiving. I am grateful for all of you!
Are you looking for support on your journey to recovery? Please contact me today or call me at (720) 340-1443 to schedule a complimentary consultation!
I have embarked upon a journey of significant life changes and milestones as of late, and am grateful for the twists and turns along my path as well as for all of the benches that have been provided and upon which I may rest.
I came across a poem today entitled “The Bench” by Anne Edwards on a wonderful site called EatingDisordersRecoveryToday.com and found it so touching that I wanted to repeat it here. I hope it can provide encouragement and support for those on any life journey…and in recovery from an eating disorder:
By Anne Edwards
©2010 Gürze Books
I know the journey is hard.
There’s a bench just up ahead
Under some trees.
Let’s sit down,
Stop for a while.
We don’t have to talk
Unless you want to.
We can listen to the birds sing,
Feel the wind,
Enjoy the view,
The life that’s out there for us.
When we are both ready,
We can continue
Our journey of recovery.
I know it has its bumps
And steep hills,
But it also has its
Easier, smoother valleys and vistas.
The most important thing,
Is that we not travel it alone.
It is a journey meant to be taken
Hand in hand.
Last week I had several colleagues suggest to me that I read the article “The ‘Busy’ Trap” in the New York Times. ’Oh, yes’, I responded to them. ‘I noticed that…but I was too busy today to take a look at it. I’ll try to put it on my list for tomorrow.” Ironic, right? When I finally sat down today to read the piece, I was left with tears in my eyes by the end of it. The message of this article speaks so true to me, as well as to many others, which is why it was posted all over social media; I am guessing I was not the only one who was ‘too busy’ to read it. Trust me, allow yourself the several minutes out of your day to read this piece; it will take you by the shoulders as well, shake you, and ask ‘why do you feel the need to be so BUSY all the time?’.
Several points struck me about this piece: one, that we ‘choose’ to be busy. It’s almost a distraction, a buffer, from our raw, naked selves. The author, Mr. Kreider, points out that those who work three jobs and don’t have a spare minute to sit on the couch because they need to provide for their families are busy….but mostly really tired. They don’t have a choice. The rest of us are busy because it can make us feel important, worthy, useful, productive. But if we are too busy to slow down and truly live our lives, to allow ourselves to do activities that feed our souls instead of drain them, then we are losing a part of ourselves and not gaining anything.
I am one of the busy ones. Mr. Kreider speaks of fleeing the city to an ‘Undisclosed Location’ where he could write in the morning and play in the afternoon, but where he had no phone or internet and he ‘remembered buttercups, stink bugs, and the stars’. Being a business owner, a perfectionist, and a recipient of society’s pressures and expectations to SUCCEED, I often feel like I should be busy.
When I went on vacation in June, a whole week was spent in the countryside with no phone, no internet, no television, and only the canal, the cows, the sheep, and the birds to provide distractions. It was incredibly difficult for me to sit and be idle. I realize now, after being back in the busy-ness of work, that idleness is not just challenging for me. Mr. Kreider realized that “idleness is not just a vacation, an indulgence or a vice; it is as indispensable to the brain as vitamin D is to the body, and deprived of it we suffer a mental affliction as disfiguring as rickets.”
I am blessed to be given the gift of providing support to those who are struggling with eating disorders and I am grateful that I am allowed to be a witness of their journey towards wholeness and recovery. I have learned from my own recovery as well as from supporting the recovery of my clients that sitting with idleness is a challenge. We feel we should be busy, doing something, or distracted in order to be at peace or of worth. At the end of the day, it feels good to say ‘I did this today’. It is a great feeling to accomplish a goal, but I am reflective now of how I define these goals. I would like to place as much value on reading a book in the hammock as I do on ‘getting tasks done’ from my to-do list. Shifting this perspective replenishes my vital energy and supports my life-long recovery. Sitting with myself in an idle space is not a piece of cake, but it is the pathway to embracing all parts of myself and finding value in the simplest things.
It has been some time since I’ve written…and I’ve really missed it and missed my readers! While on break, I realized the therapeutic value for me in writing blog posts and journal entries and I am eager to process some of the other things I learned while away from my “regular life”.
I was fortunate to be able to take three weeks and travel overseas on a journey of self-care, connecting with loved ones, and exploring new places. Now that I am back in the office, I have been reflective of a few things that I learned and noticed while I was away. These musings have benefitted me deeply as a person and as a psychotherapist and I thought it might be helpful for others if I posted them on my blog.
Reflections from a journey away from routines, control, and expectations:
1.) One of the first things I learned was how challenging it was to give up control, expectations and routine! It proved to be an exercise in self-restraint to separate myself from my work and “just be” (though I did get this down after a few days of adjusting!). Three weeks away from email began to give me symptoms of withdrawal…which I quickly realized was not a healthy thing. I confronted how tied to my work and my home I am, and I learned that it is imperative for me to have boundaries in the way I spend my time, my energy, and my resources. I desperately wanted to be present and aware during my journey, and this was shown to require more work to accomplish than I had thought! The benefit of this, though, is noticing that there is extraordinary value and meaning in the simplicity of life, and things don’t need to be complicated!
2.) I also learned that we are all the authors of our own happiness. I spent time in some very rural areas and met people who live simple, humble lives. These people work very hard and enjoy the bounty of their work as they feast on the fresh produce from their gardens, sip the wine from their grapes, and enjoy the meat of the cattle they have raised in their own pastures. This is all they need to be happy. The beauty of their lives struck a deep chord with me and I notice how contrasting the aspects that make up my life seem to be from this simplicity. I am motivated to pursue that simplicity and the appreciation of the earth as the wonderful people I met do every day. Through making these connections and observing this way of life, I realize that I have a choice. It does not matter how much money I have or what I own; I can enjoy the beauty of life simply by embracing the gifts of the present moment.
3.) Relationships are the roots of a beautiful life. Spending time with loved ones and forming new relationships with friends from afar can deepen our sense of self, our connection with our world, and manifest priceless new memories for a lifetime. In nurturing my relationships and in embarking on new friendships, I was offered a fresh perspective on life: joy is experienced in the present moment, in a joke with a friend, in the taste of a delicious fruit, in the sound of a bird’s song. It does not matter what language we speak or if we understand the words of another — connection is felt inside, in a language that does not use words. Joy is who we are, not what we own or where we have been. In giving up control of where I was going and what I was doing, I was able to embrace the raw beauty of what IS…without needing to change anything.
Now, back home where there are many other gifts and examples of beauty, I am grappling with how to integrate my experience abroad with my experience in my home. It has not been a simple transition however I am grateful for how many definitions of peace, beauty, and happiness I have discovered!
I am hopeful that some of what I learned could strike a chord for you as you embrace the challenges and the gifts on your life’s path. Whether you a in recovery from an eating disorder or managing stressors of a different kind, I know that life can be overwhelming. I encourage you to take a step back and think about the choices you DO have and how you can find peace in a moment of every day.
The holidays are a time of togetherness for family and friends. They bring a certain warmth of sharing love and memories, often coupled with catching up with loved ones who have been away for some time. The holiday season is also filled with food, drinks, and more food — another way that families show and share love. What if you start to notice behaviors with a loved one that are abnormal or self-destructive? I recently read an article by the Huffington Post entitled Parents are the First Line of Defense Against Eating Disorders in College Freshmen. This article gives helpful tips for noticeable signs that your college freshman may have developed an eating disorder after their first semester away from home.
Going away to college can be a perfect storm for eating disorder development: the child’s first taste of freedom and choice, the endless array of dorm food and late night pizza runs, the desire to fit in with new friends through food, drinking, and overindulgence. In the article, some of the signs are noted as: a noticeable weight loss, a withdrawal from family and friends, and over-concern with meal preparation, discussing that college is very stressful or anxiety-producing, and excessive exercise. While one or two of these symptoms might not necessarily mean that an eating disorder is present, these can be signs to keep in mind and notice if they intensify or inhibit the student’s life.
So, say you are concerned about a loved one’s behavior and mood changes and worry that he or she might be developing an eating disorder? How do you approach them so that the disorder doesn’t get worse and he or she might seek out help? This is a very tricky and touchy area, as eating disorders such as bulimia and binge eating disorder are plagued with feelings of guilt and shame and often are kept in a place of denial. Anorexia nervosa is also difficult to approach due to the rigidly-controlling and overwhelming feelings that this disorder might inflict on the loved one.
Here are a few tips for trying to show you care about a loved one who might have an eating disorder or body image struggles; I found many helpful hints in the book Good Girls Don’t Get Fat by Robyn J.A. Silverman, PhD which is a very powerful book about “how weight obsession is messing up our girls and how we can help them thrive despite it”.
1.) Your teenage daughter stands in front of the mirror and says she is ‘ugly and fat’, pointing out the flaws in her thighs and waist. What do you say? ”I think you have a beautiful body. Think of all of the amazing things that it does for you: ride your bike, play soccer, dance, run, jump. When I look at your body I see a body that is open to a whole world of exciting possibilities.” Try to re-direct the focus away from negative thoughts about the body towards positive, accepting, and hopeful thoughts about the amazing capabilities of our bodies.
2.) Do you notice your daughter or son starting to control food and avoid certain types of food due to potential weight gain? What can you do? Model for him or her a positive relationship with food and your body. Try out many types of foods and express how delicious they taste. Love food for the energy it provides, for the way that it makes your body feel. Be adventurous, be brave. Treat your body with kindness by exercising, eating intuitively, and not worrying about how much or what type of food you are eating. Your children will notice this body-acceptance and hopefully adopt it themselves.
3.) You are a father and are noticing your daughter comparing herself to others, not ‘measuring up’, and starting to refuse food so as to lose weight. What do you do? Compliment her for things about her that are amazing and are not tied to appearance or weight. Help her see her strengths in writing, sports, or theatre without using the way she looks as a defining component. Tell her she is beautiful and remind her of this often. Model a safe, secure, and loving environment so that she can feel okay to be just who she is.
4.) Your daughter does not make the volleyball team, feeling excluded and ‘not good enough’. She begins to isolate herself and work out in her room for several hours a day in order to ‘get in better shape’. What do you do? Perhaps you had an experience in school where you felt rejected or that you didn’t measure up to the standard. Share that experience with your child, show her that it is a normal, if painful, growing up experience, and that she thrives in many other areas. Help her understand how you got through that experience, what you learned from it, and that you are always there to talk with her. Help her to channel that energy into self-esteem building ways, such as joining a yoga class or volunteering at an animal shelter.
5.) You notice large quantities of food disappearing and that your partner has little energy, significant mood swings, and wants to be alone a lot. What do you do? Don’t confront her right away, but try to spend more time with her where food is involved: cook together, eat together, and talk without distraction (like tv or computer) while sharing a meal. Don’t criticize her food choices or amounts. Show her that you care but offering to spend time doing her favorites activities. If she is isolating, invite her to watch your favorite television show together. Create a positive, safe, and nurturing environment and model healthy eating habits to her. Offer yourself as someone she can talk to and not be judged. She will do so when she is ready. Also secure support for yourself: go to therapy, talk with loved ones, do research.
Struggling with an eating disorder or body image issues is devastating for the loved one as well as her family and friends. The more that this is talked about and normalized, the less hidden and shaming it will be. There is always hope, and there is always a time and space for recovery.
One of my greatest strengths as a therapist is the fact that I am human. I am achingly human. In school, they try to teach therapists-in-training how to set boundaries between yourself and your client — how to leave the feelings, emotions, and process of therapy in the office so that it doesn’t affect your home and personal life. On the other hand, we are taught (and it is reinforced) that having empathy is a primary asset of a great therapist. So….being able to “walk in my client’s shoes” should help me become a more dynamic therapist, but I also need to learn to leave those shoes at the front door. Whew! This is one of my biggest challenges currently in my career.
Being able to feel and connect with clients can help build that relationship that allows the client to feel safe and secure to risk what it would be like to make some changes in his or her life. I think that this ability to empathize deeply with clients can ignite a charge of positive progress in the therapy, and I also think that this quality needs to be carefully monitored. Therapists are at risk of burn-out if they don’t engage in self-care on a regular basis. And I think that being a client ourselves is one of the highest forms of self care — for several reasons.
I have had clients ask me if I have been in therapy myself. Honestly, I can’t imagine not having been in therapy, and I am quite open about it. When I chose my career path (or it chose me…), much of the drive and inspiration that took me there came from experiences and growth I have had in my own years of being a client in therapy. I learned valuable tools to help myself find peace and happiness and I also learned a lot about the therapy process itself. How could I know that I wanted to be a therapist if I’d never laid on that couch? I couldn’t imagine it. In my training program, we were encouraged to attend therapy ourselves, and though it was not required, it was given to us for free. This, my university and professors thought, helps to build an amazing counselor — one who knows what it’s like to be across from the therapist, one who is open to working on his/her own issues, and one who can process the anxiety and awkwardness of a first therapy session with you — because they’ve been there.
I am writing about this today because I feel it is crucial for our interests and most especially for the interests of our clients that therapists engage in self-care. A therapist who is burned out and has no outlet to process will have challenges being present for his or her clients. I also think that if we are in therapy, or have been in therapy, we are showing a commitment to the therapeutic alliance itself. We believe in it. We respect it. We are just like everyone else. I get the sense that sometimes therapists are regarded as “in power” or “the leader” in the therapy room. This, in my opinion, is furthest from the truth. The client is the expert of his/her own life and story, and the therapist is the listener and sometimes the guide. I know that if I was a client today and my therapist shared with me that he/she has been in therapy at some point in their lives, I would feel very connected to my therapist — that he or she is a person, just like me, who has things they need to work out, just like me. And they care enough about themselves (and their clients) to talk to someone about those issues.
Going back to the start: I am human. This serves me well sometimes, as it enables me to empathize and connect with clients on a very real level. This also challenges me sometimes, as I work to define my own emotions in my own life. Therefore, I go to therapy. Going to therapy, though it can come with all sorts of pre-conceived notions and judgments, is the act of a strong and resilient person — someone who cares enough about him or herself to commit the effort to making a better life for themselves. I’m not going to lie — it often takes a lot of hard work, patience, and honesty. But for me, those three are virtues in the handbook of freedom and happiness. Being a client in therapy has made me a better woman, therapist, friend, family member, and citizen.
What has it done for you?
Today is National Coming Out day. I did a little bit of research about this civil holiday and found that it is borne out of the event of the first march on Washington by Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender people (LGBT). The march was on October 11, 1987 and signifies the LGBT community’s struggle for acceptance in society. Every October 11 since then has recognized this message. The purpose of National Coming Out Day is to promote honesty and openness about being lesbian, gay, or bisexual (read more: http://www.qrd.org/qrd/www/orgs/avproject/NCOD.htm). I think this is a courageous, outstanding, and respectable event for all of us to bring to our awareness, especially after the recent tragic deaths of four teenage boys who committed suicide after being bullied for their sexual orientation.
I have written before about the dangers of social media and how this ‘instant connection’ we have through Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, and other sites can interrupt honest communication and can promote misunderstanding and bias. I do have to say that today I am encouraged to see many people post to their Facebook accounts messages about being advocates for the LGBT community: (______) is a straight ally and today is National Coming Out Day. Donate your status and join me in coming out for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender equality by clicking here: http://bit.ly/9xGNV2. I have seen a few people come out today on Facebook, garnering love, support, and empathy from their friends and family. No matter when or how one decides to come out, it can be risky as you cannot predict the reactions from those you open yourself up to — especially on a social media network. Brave and confident souls, I commend you and support you!
The New York Times online blog writes today about the challenges of coming out to parents and loved ones…and how it has never been easy, even without social media. Coming out can be intimidating for the gay/lesbian family member, as they may fear if they will still be accepted and loved after this revelation. The recipient of the news may also go through emotions, feelings, resentments, regrets, and all sorts of other reactions to the news – especially if their son/daughter/parent had waited many years to open up. In the NYT blog, an adult daughter talks about her trepidation about coming out to her mother, and how she felt the only way she could do it, at age 28, was to write her mother a letter and mail it across the country.
The uncertainty of being accepted or judged by family members can escalate into anxiety, depression, anger, and sometimes tragedy. After Tyler Clementi’s suicide last month after his roommates unjustly exposed him to the internet, his parents have come forward and said that they did not know he was gay. I can only imagine the complexity and anguish that must have been going on in Tyler’s mind and my heart goes out to him and his family. Perhaps, with the right circumstances, Tyler could have opened up to his family and his path would have shifted from secrecy about who he is to openness and self acceptance. But we will never know what “could have been”, and it’s tormenting to imagine that now. We DO have the choice to change the way we judge, treat, and criticize people who are different from “the mainstream” and we CAN make this world a more understanding place for every type of person who lives in this diverse society.
Today, I embrace each one of my friends and family members who are of the LGBT community, whether they are open about their sexual orientation or not. I am an ally to each one of you as a friend or as a counselor. Today, on National Coming Out Day we must all lend our voices in support of the LGBT community, because there are plenty of people who still judge and attack them. On some message boards today, there are plenty of comments — those supporting National Coming Out Day, and those who believe it should not matter. There still is bigotry in this society, and it is unfortunate to see. However, there is also a lot of progress in accepting multiculturalism and diversity.
This day is a chance for those who have never felt safe to embrace who they are, and for those who have confidence to give their hand to those less sure about being out.