Humming our inner harmony and striking therapeutic chords with music therapy

One of my forms of self-care and relaxation is to read great books.  My favorite author, Jodi Picoult, just came out with an amazing new book called “Sing You Home” which focuses on a music therapist and her journey to find her true identity.  As difficult as it was to tear myself away from this book, I was enthralled by the character Zoe’s profession and realized that music therapy is a channel of therapeutic healing of which I am curious to increase my experience and knowledge.  As I follow Zoe’s path and am honored to be able to peek into the parallel healing path of her client’s journeys, I was inspired today to learn a bit more about music therapy and to see how it impacts my local therapeutic community.

So what exactly is music therapy?  According to the American Music Therapy Association, “music therapy is the clinical and evidence-based use of music interventions to accomplish individualized goals within a therapeutic relationship by a credentialed professional who has completed an approved music therapy program.”  Further, interventions incorporating music therapy can help promote wellness, manage stress, alleviate pain, express feelings, enhance memory, improve communication, and promote physical rehabilitation, among other benefits.  These positive effects are also goals that I infiltrate into my own therapeutic philosophy; so what makes music therapy so different from talk therapy?  Or play therapy?

To answer this question, we do not need to delve into clinical jargon.  As I do with many therapeutic tactics, I encourage us both to think about ways that music has impacted our lives in spiritual, emotional, cognitive, philosophical, and even physical ways (come on, you know that you cannot help but dance along to some of your very favorite music!).  Personally, when I am feeling low or anxious, I know that I can turn on my favorite music artist and I will automatically be transformed into a different emotional sphere.  Or, when I am looking to relax or help myself fall asleep, I can play soundtracks of nature music and my brain is calm and soothed.  The same goes for amping myself up to go out for a run: I put on some upbeat tunes and I am ready to go.

Music therapy is a type of “alternative therapy” that can effectively connect with clients who may be looking for a different form of therapeutic healing.  This can often be found in unique populations, specifically children, the elderly, and those that are in hospitals and healing from various health issues.  Music therapy incorporates clinical research from a variety of facets to create the most effective interventions for clients, correlating data with biomusicology, music theory, psychoacoustics, and comparative musicology to facilitate a therapeutic experience.  As the therapist plays a musical instrument and often helps the client play the instrument as well, the music experience helps to enhance cognitive and motor skills, aids in self-reported increase in quality of life, facilitates a diverse awareness of social skill sets, and deepens a personal and spiritual self.  This holistic approach to therapy, infiltrating person-centered, talk, emotional, and musical aspects to therapeutic healing can  comprehensively relate to each and every one of us in some capacity.

Locally, I uncovered the Metro Music Therapy Center, who note that music therapy is very effective with specific populations such as those affected by Alzheimer’s, forms of autism, cerebral palsy, Parkinson’s disease, down syndrome, and those who have suffered strokes.  The Children’s Hospital has a music therapy program in which children sing, play instruments, laugh, and self-soothe with the aid of music therapists because “music stimulates all of the senses and can increase self-awareness and confidence.”  It can get us out of our heads and into our bodies.  In addition, the Colorado Association for Music Therapy creates a community for dozens of local music therapists to share information, receive support, and connect through shared passion.

It is wonderful to find all of these local resources that I can pass on to clients who might benefit from music therapy.  As therapeutic healing knows no limits and is always eager to explore new avenues, it is of benefit to me and my colleagues to develop relationships with music therapists so that we can provide a diverse and comprehensive range of services to clients with a diverse range of needs.

One of my favorite aspects of my profession, and one of the factors that assures me that I will find energy in my career for many years to come is that there is continually more to learn as we delve into new avenues of research and clinical application every day.  Along with music therapy, there is a world of dance therapy, speech therapy, equine therapy, and other alternative forms of therapeutic touch that change lives of thousands of people daily.  The need for counseling and therapy is only increasing and with so many forms that can help us connect with ourselves and others, I know that we can all find inner peace.

Celebrating beauty and achievement in recognition of International Women’s Day 2011

Yesterday, March, 8, 2011 marked the 100th anniversary of International Women’s Day.  I love celebrating any type of achievement or group, and was eager to learn more about the history of this holiday.  International Women’s Day, which was originally termed “International Working Women’s Day”, is marked on March 8th every year since 1911, and has become something of a global celebration of women.  Hillary Clinton posted a video and message yesterday, reflecting on how meaningful it was to receive an enthusiastic response at the 1995 Beijing Olympic games for her speech about human rights being inclusive of women’s rights and vice versa.  As I stopped to think about this message, I eagerly agree about the importance for us all to realize that women’s rights are equal to men’s rights, and that all humans should receive the same civil privileges.  There has been much progress in recognizing this and making changes, however we still have a ways to go.  Hillary cites this point in her message, describing how women continue to be affected by poverty, illness, war, and abuse.

On International Women’s Day, women of all ethnic, social, political, spiritual, and cultural backgrounds stand together to represent the strong and respectable women that they are.  This is one of the most beautiful things about this holiday — a type of gathering that is noticeably absent among men — that we can put our differences aside and unite with our similarities and dreams.  On this day, women look back at all of the struggles they have endured in pursuit of justice, equality, peace, and each and every woman is acknowledged for making history while standing together.  You don’t need to be a First Lady, a spiritual leader, or a political activist to make a difference and to spread the word about women’s rights.  History is abundant with evidence of women struggling to achieve equal footing to their male counterparts.  In Ancient Greece, Lysistrata initiated a sexual strike against men in order to end war, during the French Revolution, Parisian women marched on Versailles to demand suffrage for women — and a similar pursuit followed later in the United States.  As the Industrial Revolution came to the United States at the turn of the century, so did an opportunity for new growth and change in ideology.

So where have we gotten today with honoring the goals of International Women’s Day?  As women still trail men in what they earn and traditional gender roles are still maintained, there is still some thought to be put to this question.  However, to me this holiday is not about arguing and demanding change, as some of these roles are functional and in place for a reason.  This holiday is more about recognizing the amazing strength and success that inhabit women around the world.  Women pursue challenging careers while tending to infant children.  Women earn doctorate degrees while taking care of loved ones.  We are champions at dual careers and we must stop and applaud ourselves for our achievements.  We are sisters in all of these roles and this is something that no one can ever take away from us.

As events take place in more than 100 countries to commemorate International Women’s Day, I am proud to be among role models that I respect, learn from, and lend a hand to as we move forward on our paths of life.

A celebrity’s influence: the powerful voices of fame as advocates in eating disorder recovery

One of the reasons that we love celebrities and entertainment so much is that they seem almost unreal, like beings who may appear to be like us but are in some way untouchable. They can offer us an escape from our daily grind, as we sit front row for the ups and downs in the lives of movie stars, singers, athletes, reality stars, and politicians. While the hype about a movie star’s love life might distract us from the reality of our own lives and give us a laugh, the truth is that celebrities influence us in ways the are more dynamic and serious than we might be aware of. We have heard many times about the danger of connecting too closely with a celebrity — as comparing ourselves with them, their possessions and their fame can almost always leave us feeling lacking. However, I would like to offer another side — a more constructive side, one that can be helpful if channeled in a healthy manner — to the power of celebrity.

Celebrities suffer from eating disorders, just like millions of the rest of us do. This is one thing that makes them “human”, makes us feel like maybe they can relate to some of the emotions, issues, and struggles that we experience. As eating disorders are built out of a drive for perfection, a desire to succeed, and a dangerous “need” to change ourselves until we fit an ideal, these controlling symptoms can be similar to the cut-throat industry that is Hollywood and fame. As I was doing research for this article, I knew that I could find a few examples of celebrities who have recovered from eating disorders and who are now using their celebrity to speak out in advocacy for eating disorder recovery. I was shocked to find a list of more than one hundred names, the majority of which have recovered, but several of which have passed away from these serious disorders. And I am sure this is a partial list.

I was inspired to write about this today because I came across a video this morning posted by actress Demi Lovato, who has been in inpatient treatment for “emotional issues” for several months. While no one has directly stated that she was dealing with an eating disorder, it appears that this was at least part of what she was struggling with, and in her video she speaks honestly about the challenges she has been faced with. She also appeared calm, strong, and inspired by her journey and I hope that at some point when she has long been recovered that she will use her voice to help others with similar issues (she already hinted at this in her message!). I wanted to write today about the positive influence that celebrities can have on society, as they are often discredited with being negative and damaging impacts on normal people. As celebrities continue to lend their voices to a variety of causes and make donations to worthy foundations,I am hopeful that we can move forward in a healthy way, sending messages of self-acceptance and self-love instead of one that we can never be “enough”.


A daily struggle: discovering our comfort level with social anxiety

Writing about social anxiety is both fascinating and….anxiety provoking.   This condition can seem so relatable and yet challenging to define.  I like to write blogs in a way that my message can seem universal — that we all can understand a part of the issue and thus feel more connected.  Social anxiety is one of these topics that, at least to me, appears something that we can all say “oh yes, I know how it feels” in one capacity or another.  For some of us, it’s minimal and it is easily overcome.  For others, social anxiety is a crippling and devestating type of anxiety disorder that can strongly affect our quality of life.  Those that identify with the second definition may agree that social anxiety is not often given the credence that it deserves, and that is why I write about it today.

So what is social anxiety?  Is it possible to truly overcome it?  Social anxiety is defined as a type of anxiety — or worry, discomfort, fear, apprehension — about social situations, interactions with others, and being evaluated or scrutinzed by others.  For some of us, this might be felt when meeting new people such as going into college, going on a first date, or entering a new career where there are people that you want to impress and perhaps form deep bonds with.  There are different types of social anxiety and thus differing degrees of intrusion on people’s lives.  Developmental social anxiety is “normal”, occuring in early childhood as we learn about social interaction, develop our identities, and define our life scripts.  This type of social anxiety is typically constructive and we grow out of it.  Chronic social anxiety may persist throughout adolesence or may develop while one is in adulthood.  This form of social anxiety can bring on feelings of self-consciousness, judgment, evaluation, and critisicm of the self — and a fear that others are doing these same things to us.  This constant fear is quite unsettling and can make the decision to go into situations in which we need to socialize excruciating.

Social anxiety (also called social phobia) is complex, as it involves an internal component and an external component — fear of how we are perceived by others can be deepened by reactions of others (or how we perceive those actions/reactions) and that ties into a judgment of ourselves in that situation, which is a factor that is solely our own experience.  Termed “the least understood anxiety disorder” and one of the most common as it is thought 7% of the population suffers from some form of it, social anxiety can range from a phobia of a certain situation (such as a work party where your performance is evaluated), to an overall generalized fear of being judged by others.  Many people who struggle with more extensive forms of social phobia reach out on the internet — a form of connecting where you can have more control over how you are perceived as you can choose the extent and type of interaction you will engage in, with someone who is not physically present.  Role play and fantasy games and forums in which you have the freedom to just “be” are common arenas where those with a social phobia can feel most comfortable.  I found an online message board:, where those who have experience with this issue can talk about treatment, ways that anxiety has affected their lives, factors that influence anxiety, and where they can offer each other support.

Speaking of treatment, how is social anxiety addressed in therapy and can it be absolved?  The answer depends on the extent that the anxiety is affecting your daily life, say clinicians who specialize in this issue.  Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) has been proven to be effective in decreasing feelings of panic and interrupting thought patterns that lead to intense social phobia reactions.  Group therapy is also a great method for developing new interaction skills and increasing comfort level with social situations.  Clinicians state that groups should be focused only on social phobia, and not intermingled with other types of anxiety so as to protect the fragile atmosphere of healing.  With a dedication to working through issues related to social anxiety (self esteem, self confidence, the way in which we have learned to socialize), it is possible to lessen panic and fear of judgment by others and to feel more comfortable going out with groups of people. 

Have you had a personal experience with social phobia?  The best way to start looking at resolving this concern is to find a therapist who is empathetic, accepting, and not judgmental of you — someone who does not minimize the issue but instead offer you a safe environment in which to explore underlying factors.  Gradually push yourself to take a risk:  take a close friend or family member — someone you trust and feel comfortable with unconditionally — and visit a bookstore or coffee shop.  Just observe how people interact with one another.  Observe yourself in that situation and visualize yourself engaging in a conversation with a “safe” person — perhaps the barista or bookseller.  Gradual steps pave the way to great success!

Projecting care inward: why are we more compassionate with others than with ourselves?

I admit: I am guilty.  On the scale of 1-5, testing how much self-compassion we have (1 being lacking in self-compassion and 5 being high in self-compassion, with 3 being the average), I scored a 2.13.  Maybe I am even a hypocrite.  Why is it that so many of us in the helping profession have no difficulty offering unlimited amounts of empathy and compassion to those that we work with, but when it comes to treating ourselves with that same kindness, it’s nearly impossible?  I think that many of my friends and colleagues that help others — counselors, social workers, nurses, caregivers — could empathize with this statement.  I also am certain that many other folks, even those who have no training in garnering empathy and compassion skills, could agree that showing self-compassion is difficult.  As one friend put it:  “we are our harshest critic”.  Those of us who have a career in helping people are ethically expected to engage in self-care, which in turn means treating ourselves with kindness and respect so that we can be psychologically fit to work with our clients.  That can be hard to do if we criticize ourselves more than accept ourselves.

What is self-compassion?   According to a well-known blog on the New York Times’ website, self-compassion refers to “how kindly people view themselves”.  The article also talks about “new research” showing that giving ourselves a break and accepting our imperfections may be the first step towards better health.  This philosophy doesn’t seem too new to me, but the fact that we neglect to do this rings all too clear.  People who score high on the test of self-compassion tend to have lower levels of anxiety and depression and a higher quality of life.  Seems simple, doesn’t it?  The more you offer yourself kindness and acceptance, the less depression you will feel.  Take the test of self-compassion and see how you score.  Is it what you expected?   Higher? Lower?  This test is set up as “26 statements meant to determine how often people view kindly of themselves and whether they recognize that ups and downs are a part of life”.  The latter part of that statement is KEY to coping with life:  we all have ups and downs, we can get through them, and you are not alone.

Kristin Neff, who is featured in the article and known as a pioneer in the field of self-compassion warns that “the biggest reason people are not more self-compassionate is because they worry about becoming self-indulgent.”  This is interesting: there is perceived to be quite a fine line between offering ourselves kindness and being seen as someone who indulges themselves so much that they care more about their own needs than others.  These two poles seem pretty different to me but for those of us who are sensitive and perceptive, it can be a battle to determine what defines self-compassion and what defines self-indulgence.  Some self-indulgence is okay, even healthy, but when is it too much?  I think that our culture influences us to indulge ourselves to excess and this in turn can ignite our fears of falling too deeply into this trap.

A further point by Neff:  “I think that self-criticism keeps people in line”.  So, therein lies the complexity of this question.  Self-criticism is believed to help keep us from going overboard into the land of excessive self-indulgence.  However, self-criticism is the antithesis to self-compassion, and so an effort to limit indulgence can in fact cause us to become very critical of and hard on ourselves.  With all of this teeter-tottering between compassion, indulgence, and criticism, no wonder our society is riddled with anxiety about achieving perfectionism!

Cultivating self-compassion instead of choosing self-criticism is difficult, however it can lead to longterm happiness and can help alleviate emotional issues.  Neff cites an example of women who struggle with emotional eating.  If a group of women really want to have some doughnuts, but criticize themselves for perhaps having eaten some a few days ago or for even wanting to eat the doughnuts, then the stress of this self-criticism will project them into a uncontrolled episode of emotional eating.  However, if these women treat themselves with self-compassion and give themselves permission to have some doughnuts because they taste delicious and they really want some, then they will not over-eat.  Compassion breeds happiness and peace, while criticism breeds depression and self-hatred.

Where are you on the scale of self-compassion?  If you are high, then that is wonderful!  If you are lower than you would like to be, I encourage you to write yourself a “letter of support”, as you would for a friend trying to get a new job.  Cite all of the wonderful things about you and why you deserve to be treated (by yourself) as a kind, intelligent, beautiful human being.  Then read this letter out loud to yourself — you will be amazed at how empowering it feels!

Healing the mind-body connection through body-centered psychotherapy

Have you ever felt like your body and your mind were disconnected, that you could not tell how you were feeling in your body based on your mind’s assessment? Maybe you have never thought about this — which would be a good indicator that perhaps your mind-body connection could use some more attention. Maybe you have felt a different type of mind-body connection, a toxic one, where you can feel pain in your body that has debilitated you emotionally. I know that sometimes when I am feeling low emotionally, I can feel it in the tension in my shoulders. Massage therapists could tell you how you are feeling emotionally based on the movement (or knots) in your muscles.

If this is a strange notion to you, think about it. When you do something that you physically enjoy, such as going for a run, does that tend to elevate your emotional state as well? Yes, endorphins are at play, but moderate exercise has been proven to decrease feelings of depression overall and deepen the mind-body connection, helping you become accustomed to reading the signals passed between the two spheres and addressing any pain. The mind and the body are much more in sync than we realize on a day-to-day basis, and if we do not notice where we are holding our emotional pain in our bodies, we risk damaging the mind-body’s delicate synergy.

When you have experienced emotional trauma such as depression, a loss of a loved one, an eating disorder, a divorce, or physical abuse, to name a few, chances are you are holding some of that pain in your body. Our bodies can be battlefields for our pain — somewhere we project our distress when it gets too much to bear. This can be seen in self-harm capacities such as cutting and eating disorders. Another effect of emotional trauma is dissociation — distancing and disconnecting from awareness so as to lessen the sensation of pain. While our pain may be held in our bodies, we have distanced ourselves from it as a protective mechanism — but in turn we have also disconnected ourselves from our bodies.

So how do you notice where you hold your stress, tension or pain in your body and how do you release it? Practicing mindfulness meditation and deep breath-work can begin the process of reconnecting with our bodies and appreciating the present moment.

A weekly open therapy group is held at the office of Kate Daigle Counseling on Wednesdays at 5:30pm. At this group, we get into deeper forms of healing the mind-body connection and processing this experience. Find out more and RSVP at


Orthorexia: The thin line between healthy eating and an eating disorder

In honor of eating disorders awareness week, I am reposting one of Kate Daigle Counseling’s Denver Post blog posts as it is very relevent to this week’s focus: a dangerous strain of eating disorders entitled “Orthorexia”.

I thought I knew about just about every strain of eating disorder out there. As I was doing some research online, I found out that I still have a lot to learn as a counselor and as a human being. Have you ever heard of orthorexia? Didn’t think so. Do you like to eat healthily? Lots of us do; it’s one of the newest ‘fads’. But this fad might border on the line of eating disordered if we let our tendency to control of types of food we eat (in the name of ‘health’) become too central in our life. What is “orthorexia”? “Ortho” comes from the Greek term that means “right”. It is defined as a ‘different kind of eating disorder’, and the term was first used in 1997 by California doctor Steven Bratman. It is not clinically considered a medical term, but doctors and therapists are seeing more issues with obsessive control of types of food that their patients will allow themselves to eat. Bratman states that people affected by orthorexia “create severely limited diets in the name of healthy eating.” He goes on to say that for many folks it may start as a commitment to live a healthy lifestyle. As the client reads more and educates him or herself about food, they may cut out a type of food they will eat, such as red meat. Then processed foods. Eventually they will only eat certain foods prepared in a very specific way. It’s as if the Atkins diet, which was a pioneer in the cutting-out-types-of-food diet culture made it seem ‘normal’ to limit variety of foods it is okay to eat.

How does this affect mental health? Just like all types of eating disorders, orthorexia latches on to the control aspect of our personalities. Some doctors have found it common to symptoms of obsessive-compulsive disorder, which is also common for people who are affected with bulimia or anorexia. Instead of restricting amount or bingeing and purging, people with orthorexia might spend hours fixating on finding the “right” foods and determining how they can be prepared. Like anorexia and bulimia, this can take up copious amounts of time and be very expensive. So orthorexia does not have the same health threats as other eating disorders do, but doctors fear that it can lead to the development of a more life-threatening disorder. In this way, orthorexia could be considered a screening tool for other eating disorders and, if detected, can help us find treatment for the person before it gets too serious.

The jury’s still out for me about consideration of orthorexia as a valid mental health condition. What do you think?

Cutting and self harm: a gateway to physical and emotional pain going viral

I love reading articles (both online and in print) as I find it is relevent and important for me to stay up-to-date on current events for professional and personal reasons.  It saddens me how many of these articles I find are focused on an increased risk for mental health disorders.  “Trends” of complex issues that are arising in our community.  I guess this gives me job security but in an unfortunate capacity!

Yesterday I came across an article in the Denver Post titled “YouTube videos of cutting stir fears“.  Cutting is a form of self-harm, which is described as “the intentional, direct injuring of body tissue WITHOUT suicidal intent.”  The most common form of self-harm is skin cutting, but it can also be evidenced by scratching, burning, banging or hitting of body parts, hair pulling, or ingesting dangerous substances.  This topic is dear to my heart, especially during National Eating Disorders Awareness Week, because eating disorders are considered to be a form of self harm and there often are signs of other types of self harm evident when one is affected by an eating disorder.  Also, in my work studying the mind-body connection, I am deeply empathetic to those who feel their emotional pain play out on their bodies and in turn elicit physical pain — which is, actually, used as a form of relief from the emotional pain.  The complex cycle of physical and emotional pain playing roles of soothing one another can get dangerously out of control, and can result in an unintentional suicide.  Self-injury is most common amongst young people, and 14-24% of teens and young adults have engaged in some form of it.

The article talks about “how to” guides on YouTube that affected individuals are posting to “help” others learn how to perfect the form of cutting.  This reminds me all too well of the pro-eating disorder websites that teach others how to “succeed” at an eating disorder and offer “support” for achieving the eating disorder’s deadly ideals.  They promote eating disorders as a type of lifestyle.  Canadian psychologist Stephen Lewis, who co-authored a study focusing on the rising numbers of these cutting videos on YouTube, said the videos “feature haunting music and rich imagery that may attract young self-injurers and trigger the behavior, especially in those who have just started to self-injure.”  He also stated that of the 100 videos that the study focused on, there were more than 2 million views in the online community.

While one benefit of these videos might be that they are taking the topic of self-harm out into the public views so that we can talk about it more, I worry about the careful handling of this type of situation.  There is a fine line between giving education about a dangerous behavior, promoting elminitation of the problem, and “giving ideas about how to do” self-harm.  For those of us who advocate for increased mental health education and prevention of self-harm, we must walk this fine line and raise our voices in a way that promotes health and not further harm.  I understand deeply the connection between our emotional minds and our physical selves and how the pain we might be feeling can somehow be coped with by transferring the pain onto our physical bodies.  Sometimes this physical pain is easier to bear.  However, this does not lessen the emotional pain, but only push it deeper inside of ourselves in self-destruction.

If you know someone who might be engaging in a form of self-harm, do not hesitate to reach out for help from a trained professional.  As with eating disorders, the earlier you can detect a problem, the earlier you can start the path of recovery.

It’s National Eating Disorders Awareness Week! How are you going to help spread the word?

This week is a very important week for raising awareness and spreading educational resources about eating disorders. February 20-26th are seven days set aside to “finally talk about it”. As talking about eating disorders is scary for many of us who have connections to these deadly disorders — a loved one possibly developing one, a person who is currently struggling with one, or someone who is in active recovery — the thought of really “talking about it” can bring up anxious feelings. Why? Because, as mentioned in my previous blog posts, eating disorders are complex and seductive mental health disorders that threaten your physical and mental health, as well as affecting close relationship ties. It’s hard to tell someone that you have been restricting food or bingeing and purging. It’s hard to hear from a loved one that they have been experiencing out of control eating and feel they cannot stop. This can bring up so many mixed feelings: shame, guilt, and worry.

So, this week, we’re going to open the door to talking about eating disorders and we’re going to offer numerous resources and activities that can help erase the stigmas of eating disorders. Because you know what? We all have some connection to eating issues. Whether it’s being on a diet, exercising to achieve a goal, or trying to change the way you feel by using food to cope, men and women world-wide get it. We don’t all develop eating disorders, but we all have personally felt the effects of controlling food (type and/or amount) or know someone who has. And it we all do just one thing, we can really change the world.

The National Eating Disorder Association has a link with events and activities that are going on in your area. If you live in Denver or in the surrounding areas, the Eating Disorder Foundation is hosting a Candlelight Vigil for those wishing to join in a community gathering recognizing National Eating Disorders Awareness Week.

The Fourth Annual Candlelight Vigil will be held to honor those taken by this terrible illness, those who continue to struggle,and those who have found their way to the light of recovery. It will be held at 6:30pm at the Wellshire Inn at 3333 So. Colorado Blvd, Denver, 80222.

Here are some resources for eating disorder awareness: Males and eating disordersPeople of color: eating disorders affect us allAthletes: a coach’s guide to eating disorders; and I t’s Time To Talk About It: an essay by Jenni Schaefer, eating disorder ambassador.

If you do just one thing, you can save a life. Find out more about eating disorders at:

Battle hymn of the dedicated parent: a counselor’s perspective

I am sure many of you have heard of the recent memoir written by Amy Chua entitled Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother.  It’s very difficult to avoid the conversations and controversy about the content of this book — which focuses on the parenting style of a Chinese “super-mom”.  Chua, a Harvard Law professor, is the American-born daughter of Chinese immigrants, and is married to another Harvard law professor, Jed Rubenfeld.  They have two daughters Sophia and Lulu (who were 15 and 13, respectively, at the time the book was written).  Doing research about this topic was a bit overwhelming, as I found dozens of blogs and articles vehemently asserting their opinions about Chua’s parenting style.  Why so much chatter?  Chua writes about raising her daughters to achieve their utmost potential, using rigorous means and strict rules to help them “be the best” according to the Asian standards of parenting in which she was herself raised.  Chua has been criticized for severely limiting her daughters’ social activities (sleepovers, excursions, birthday parties with friends) and in an example that many of the blogs use, she has been chided “for calling her daughter ‘garbage’ in the company of other people because her daughter misbehaved”.  Chua expected that her daugthers “get straight A’s in every subject except for gym and drama”, and rigorously monitored their piano playing, sometimes denying them a bathroom break or a snack until they got it “perfect”.

I am not here to continue the condemnation of Amy Chua, especially since I have not yet read this memoir and feel that I cannot voice my own thoughts on her unique choices until I do.  The New York Times wrote an article about the backlash over the memoir entitled “Retreat of the Tiger Mother”, citing that a part of the book that people tend to overlook is the ending, where Chua admits that many of her parenting strategies did not work and they in turn elicited a rebellion from her youngest daughter Lulu.  I wanted to give a perspective on parenting choices and strategies on the part of a counselor who works with families of all types.  I also wanted to lend a sensitive ear to the cultural aspects of this debate, which is mentioned in several blogs but overlooked in others.

I believe that every parent has the best of intentions for their child and loves him or her unconditionally.  Factors such as economic status, financial resources, location, family support, and culture all impact the way that we raise our young.  To give you persepective on the wide variety of responses I located about this book, National Geographic wrote a post commenting on the ways that real tigers in the wilderness raise their young as compared to the strategies used but this “Tiger mother” in her Asian culture.  Whether we are human or animal, we want our children to succeed.  American culture is known to be “accepting and laid back — almost too allowing” when focusing on the achievements and potential of offspring.  We want them to succeed but to “try their best, whatever that means to them and we will love them no matter what”.  Our individualistic culture contrasts with the collectivistic culture of Asian countries, which puts a strong focus on respect, achievement, and honor.  Achieving to the BEST and BIGGEST potential to honor the family, even if those qualities are not naturally aligned with the child’s personality.  Culture defines all of us, and when it comes to taking care of the most important gift we can give the world — our children — our culture plays a dominating role in dictating what we think is best.

When are cultural expectations too much for a young developing mind?  And an emotional mind?  How does a child of a Chinese family live in American society and balance both cultures?  I believe these questions are defining themes in Amy Chua’s book, and they cause me to reflect on personal and professional experiences I have had with this topic.  Growing up, my best friend was a Chinese girl who was the daughter of two very proud Chinese immigrants.  As her friend, I witnessed firsthand the struggle she experienced to reconcile her desire to please her parents and her wish to live fully and freely in the American culture.  She achieved very highly, pleasing her parents, but it seemed from my perspective that her attempts to please were “never quite enough” and that this impacted her relationships with family and friends.   As a counselor, my role is to treat the relationships in the family with as much respect and honor as I can.  If I were to work with a family such as Amy Chua’s, I would be challenged to consider the Chinese cultural undertones that are the foundation of the family and also to help the younger generation assimilate into the American society in which they were born.

Diversity is one of the most beautiful things about our country.  Mixing cultures together also forces us to focus on what choices we want to make regarding the caretaking of the generations to come, and to consider what messages we want to send them.  I think one of the most insightful things I learned about Chua’s book is that she “is still learning” and I think that this is the ultimate lesson of parenting:  we are all still learning and we all have opportunities to make changes in a new day.