Surviving Your News Feed

social-mediaIn light of recent geopolitical events, many of us are wondering how to move forward in our daily lives. Sure, some were ecstatic with the outcome. Others were ambivalent. And there is a large percentage of people who are genuinely scared for what happens next in America as a whole, but also to individuals who might be living on the fringe – our marginalized compatriots who are segregated by race, ethnicity, national origin, sexuality, gender, gender identity and expression, and socioeconomic status to name but a few divergences.

If you’re anything like me, you’re checking your social media several times a day. Facebook. Twitter. Instagram. Pinterest. Snapchat. Tumblr. And who knows how many more you might have. Leading up to the election and inauguration, many of us went on a rampage of “if you think ____ then unfriend me now!” and ourselves choosing to unfollow, unfriend, and outright block those who in opposition of what we know in our hearts to be the best for all of America.

But the election is over. The President has been sworn in. Now we have to move forward with our lives and that can be hard to do when we feel beholden to the social media onslaught that can be psychologically damaging. How do you stay connected and sane? Is there a way to use social media without spiraling into a depression with every post on your friends’ walls? Here are a few strategies that make my life easier. Hopefully some of these will work for you too.

Have Good Boundaries

lineinthesand.jpegBoundaries. Not walls. Not fences. Just boundaries. Know where your line is when it comes to devoting time to social media. I remember my dear sweet Aunt Robin always had a retort about answering the phone. “It’s there for my convenience and mine alone.” I think maybe that’s a healthy way to view social media platforms as well. Unless you are a paid blogger or paid activist, this really is hobby work. Limit the amount of time you are willing to spend sitting in front of a computer looking at the world through somebody else’s eyes. Not only is this about the grand total of time, but the number of times a day you check your feeds.

Stephen Covey, famous for the Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, divided tasks into quadrants. I cannot share the rubric here for copyright issues, but you can easily Google this. Covey believed that we should devote most of our time to Quadrant II. Without a doubt social media for most of us falls into Quadrant IV, which is the no man’s land of wasted time and wasted life. He never advocated getting rid of these activities completely, but rather taught that we prioritize our time so we don’t get trapped in the abyss of hours gone by. Surely we can all agree that much of our social media time would qualify.

Digital Disconnect

With my clients, we talk frequently about a “digital disconnect.” This is another form of good boundaries but with some escalation. Take fixed periods of time where you “log off” of your social media presence. A good starting point is a two-day weekend. Maybe from there build up to a seven day “cleanse.” If that suits you well, consider a full thirty-day abstinence. I have no doubt that when you log back on, you will see things through a different lens.

Consider the Source

I admit that I have been one of those people who share snopes.com and other fact checking sites to refute various posts and memes. I don’t know at what point we decided as a society to blindly trust so-called facts on the Internet and give up our willingness to critically analyze a situation. I fear some of us never learned that skill, or maybe we have become complacent because if our friends post it then it must be true right? In research terms this is known as confirmation bias. We select data sources that confirm what we want to be true and discard other sources of information that might prove us wrong. This is very easy to do in social medial because we surround ourselves with likeminded “friends.” What would happen if liberals also watched Fox News or conservatives logged onto Politico.com every day? At the very least our preconceived notions might be challenged enough for us to consider where we get our information.

truthometerAs a cautionary tale of what happens when we remained ill-informed, we need only look at the recent lambasting of Sean Spicer and Kellyanne Conway when they tried unsuccessfully to pass of misinformation as “alternative facts.” Or the frequent reactions by liberal and conservative news outlets to the tweets of the now President when his facts are not quite accurate (attack at the Louvre, NY Times falling readership and apology for coverage, threats of cancelling federal funds to universities based on their selected speakers, etc.). Just because somebody said it, tweeted it, memed it, or shared it does not make it true. Fight to keep untruths and partial truths out of your psychology.

Maintain a Schedule

We are creatures of habits, some good and some not so good. We take comfort in the safety and familiarity of routines. I get up at the same time very day of the week. I have the same coffee beverage every morning while reading the news. We enjoy the same Friday night pizza date every week. Routines are good. Routines give us a sense of stability. Keep going to gym. Keep meeting your friends for happy hour. Get those regular massages. Exercise every day. Make sure you get plenty of sleep. Take your vitamins. Allow your routines to shield you and to make you feel more confident in your daily living.

This might be a good time for a reminder about healthy sleep hygiene. My clients always chuckle at this because of my vision of beds. Our beds have two purposes: sleepin’ and sexin’. When you climb into bed your brain needs to know you’re either about to sleep or about to sex. If it’s clearly not a romantic or sexual interlude, you will be training your brain to “shut down” so you actually fall asleep. And if there is some fun about to happen….well enjoy! Our beds are the not the place to watch TV or binge watch Netflix, read, eat, study, text, chat, etc. As comfortable as it might be to do things on a pillow top mattress under our favorite blankie, it sends the wrong message to our brain and disrupts the routine we need for good rest and rehabilitation. Sleepin’ and sexin’. And if neither happens in the first fifteen minutes, leave the bed and come back later so we don’t train our brain to the routine of staring at the ceiling.

Get Involved

getinvolvedMy clients have been asking for weeks how to feel better about the future in these seemingly uncertain times. One of the best things you can do is get involved! Political activism can actually be good for your psychology. It is future oriented and action oriented. It involves you as an active participant rather than a political victim. Join your local political party. Join a national organization. Attended rallies and marches. Call your representatives. Host fundraisers in your home (it’s never too early to start raising campaign funds). Write letters to the editor.

A secret to involvement to feel better is scaling it for your life. If all you can do is write a check, it’s enough. If you can only find time to write a letter to the editor or make one call to Congress, it’s enough. There is no minimum standard here, and in fact starting small might make it easier for this to become habitual. The point is to do it because it engages the logical part of your brain (frontal lobes) just as much as the emotional side (limbic system). None of us really wants to be slaves our amygdala! Emotional overload leads to anxiety and depression. Getting involved can ward that off.

Be Emotional

But, we are emotional creatures and our limbic system sometimes does get the better of us. It is important to allow yourself to feel your feelings. Let it happen. Be open to emotional expression. Vent to a friend. Go for a run. Schedule a massage. Call your therapist. Just be. You cannot completely suppress the feelings or they will build up and overtake you at some point. We’ve all seen friends who kept choking it down until there was an explosion of anger or frustration. Hell, we’ve been that friend! Accept that you are going to have feelings about all the things happening in your life. All of your feelings are valid. Yes, they are ALL valid. Feelings are not what define you as a person. How you respond to those feelings is where irrational behaviors might come in to play and that’s when you should reach out for some help. But short of that, feelings come and go. It’s part of the human experience. Let it happen. It’s good for you!

Positivity and Future Orientation

positivityOnce you’ve had those emotional “breakdowns” or accepted those negative feelings, it’s time to move forward. This is a great time to remind yourself of all the good things in your life. Yes, even when it feels like the world is going to hell in a handbasket you still have good things in your life. We need to maintain our sense of gratefulness. I find it helpful to make lists of things I am grateful for and to thank people for their contribution. Who wouldn’t love to open the mailbox and receive a handwritten thank you note for being a meaningful contributor to someone’s life? Writing that note encourages positive emotional expression. Since it uses emotion, memories, and rational thought, we are engaging multiple parts of our brain in a positive exercise. A little boost of serotonin and dopamine to improve our mood and outlook.

Being grateful for what you have is an easy way to help you decide what you want to have in the future. If you love meeting a friend for coffee, do that more often. If family reunions fill you with love and hope, make plans more frequently with relatives you might not see so often, even if you’re limited to phone calls for those far away. Spend time with those people you love – your family of origin and your chosen family. Focus on activities that bring you joy and happiness, and do as many of them each week as your schedule allows.

Find Your People

It really does take a village these days to be healthy in a pluralistic society and make meaningful civic contributions. Find your people. Find your tribe. This is especially important if you are part of a marginalized group. Reach out and be supportive. Reach out and ask for support. Build alliances because change takes time and continual forward momentum. It is exhausting. You cannot do it alone. There has never been a more important time in our living history to connect with those who support us, and hopefully even build bridges to bring new people into our tribes to grow our spheres of influence and emotional support networks.

Take care of you. Take care of one another. Love freely and openly. Just be.

Be at peace. -wp

 

A Day of Remembrance….and a Call to Action

Since the election, I have worked harder than I thought possible, with back-to-back sessions until 9 and 10 at night. I have supported friends and clients as they cried in anger, fear, rejection, despair, and anguish. So many of my transgender and gender diverse clients are scared for the future, their own and ours as a society. When you live your life in constant and genuine fear about your safety, your health, your relationships, your job, your children, your neighbors…..and everything else that makes up our daily existence, it is not an overreaction or overdramatization or distorted thinking to be terrified of what is coming down the pike. It is the reality of those pushed to the fringe who are trying to survive. Trying to stay alive. It is scary and it is sad. Tears, tears, and more tears. Though it all, I remained steadfastly resolute so that my clients had a safe space. Compartmentalization is a wonderful skill as a therapist to avoid burn out and emotional reactivity. But it takes a toll. For me that toll was this weekend.

The Transgender Day of Remembrance (TDOR) began after the 1998 death Rita Hester (http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2015/11/20/the-trans-murder-that-started-a-movement.html). Rita was murdered in Boston. She was savagely attacked in her own apartment and stabbed twenty times. She did not die right away. She died of cardiac arrest as soon as she arrived at the hospital. The following year, Gwendolyn Ann Smith organized a memorial for Rita that has grown into an international event in more than twenty countries. At each event, the names of those who were murdered the previous year are read or displayed. This year’s list included nearly 90 lost souls from the past twelve months.

candleheartAs I participated in my first TDOR, lighting a candle on in support of transgender and gender diverse people everywhere on behalf of mental health professionals, I was speaking out. Not just about the past twelve months, but about the coming twelve months. And the twelve after that. And so on. The candle I lit on behalf of mental health professionals represented our commitment to do all we can to prevent violence, end oppression, and heal those who are hurting to build communities of love and unity.

As the ceremony progressed and I had time to reflect on the past two weeks and the spirit of the room, I started to have a very emotional reaction. I knew immediately it was a release of all the feelings I had been dealing with for two weeks. I delayed my own reaction to the election and our future so that I could remain available to my clients, my friends, and my family. I had let it build and build and build. I had been holding it back for as long as I could….until I couldn’t.

238When I saw the names of those murdered across the globe (https://tdor.info/), I couldn’t hold it in any longer. I sat there crying and crying, trying my best not to actually sob. Each name that flashed across the screen brought out another tear. And another. And another. The most painful reaction was every listing of “unidentified woman” or “unidentified man.” The nameless who were killed and disposed of without anybody even realizing they had been taken from this world. Where are their families? Their loved ones? Their friends? Who has not yet noticed somebody is missing from their life?

Sad as that was, my reaction only got worse as I let my mind wonder. I tried to imagine what it must have been like for Rita Hester the night she died. I tried to imagine somebody entering my home, the safest space I have, with the sole intent to kill me. What it must be like to feel the knife slice through skin over and over and over. Feeling cold steel cut into muscle, cut through arteries or veins, pierce vital organs. Tearing through nerve endings and flooding my brain with pain signals. To see another person looking into my eyes as they stabbed deeper and deeper out of nothing but hatred and malice. And then they leave me there. In my living room, bleeding out. How terrifying would that feel to me to know I was dying, all alone, just for living my genuine life. What would those last few moments of consciousness reveal to me? What would be my last thoughts and feelings as the life drained out of me and I slowly left this plane of existence?

I cried. A lot. At one point a friend asked if I was going to be okay, if I could get through the ceremony. It occurred to me as I looked around the room that I was crying harder than anybody else. I don’t think it’s because I was more affected by senseless murder than anybody else. I don’t think it’s because I’m more aligned with a community than anybody else. I don’t think it’s because I’m a more sensitive person than anybody else. I know what happened….I stopped taking care of me and let it all build up to the point it was like a dam bursting, with a river of emotion pouring downstream and washing away all my safety and security.

Two days later and I still have not recovered. I’m still crying. I’m so sad and so angry. I’m so fearful for my friends and all those beautiful souls who are just living their truth. I want to do more and I feel powerless. And that makes me cry all over again.

socialjusticeI will be fine, this I know. At some point I will be cried out and something else will try to take over. A sense of tragic normalcy where I once again feel numbed to news coverage of hatred and bigotry because it has become just another thread in the tapestry of our society. I cannot allow this. I would rather cry every single day than become blasé to cold-blooded murder rooted in hatred and persecution. Instead, I will channel this sadness and anger into action. I will continue to stand up for the marginalized and disenfranchised group of people who have accepted me into their subset of our larger community and shown me much love and grace. I will continue to fight not only for mental health parity but social equity. I will honor the commitment I made when I lit my candle. To prevent violence, to end oppression, and to heal those who are hurting to build communities of love and unity.

What’s Really Wrong With Me?

WWWM

For the past decade I have been conducting psychological testing for various reasons. Sometimes a person wants to know if they have ADHD or a learning disorder. Sometimes we are looking at career options and want to determine if college is a good choice, or maybe if a specific job fits their knowledge, skills, and abilities (KSA’s). Maybe it’s about a legal matter and making recommendations that are useful to an attorney or a probation department. Most often what I do is a diagnostic study to understand whatever is happening and make appropriate treatment recommendations. It’s the answer to the “what’s really wrong with me and what can I do about it” question.

In the course of hundreds of evaluations, something I’ve noticed is a lack of consistency and sometimes an outright lack of agreement among clinicians. Just this month I was beginning a therapy relationship with someone who disclosed every diagnosis along the Autism spectrum. Last month a client presented with “bipolar, major depression, anxiety, ADHD, PTSD, ADD, generalized anxiety, panic attacks, learning disorder.” What a laundry list! How is it possible for one person to have so many labels? How can one person run the gamut of an entire spectrum like Autism or psychosis? It’s more common than you think, and here are a few reasons why.

Point in Timesign
Any psychological evaluation represents a brief moment in time. Hopefully an evaluator thoroughly reviews your history, including medical and mental health records and prior evaluations. That’s certainly a best practice. It does give us more information (data points) to consider for diagnostic purposes. But even then, your evaluation a single slice in time of what that clinician observed or recorded (testing) on a specific day. Having a bad day? Testing might underestimate your best abilities. Forget your medication? Your mood might be a little more off kilter than usual. Or paying attention might be pretty hard. Leave your glasses at home? Probably going to make it hard to complete testing with speed and accuracy. Or the biggie…did you hold back some information? Sharing all the details is important for an accurate diagnosis.

Even if everything goes just as it should, it’s still entirely possible that a diagnosis can be right in that moment but not really accurate for your daily functioning. Or it might be accurate for problems lasting a few weeks or a few months, but not forever.

bullseyeMoving Targets
Another consideration is that diagnoses can be “moving targets.” There is a lot of overlap in symptoms for various disorders. For example, problems with attention and concretion can be related to ADHD, depression, psychosis, intellectual disability, learning disability, dementia….and on and on. Having mood swings? Could be a bipolar disorder, but it also could be a normal variation of depression or even personality traits. Behavior problems? Might be ADHD, depression, anxiety, Autism Spectrum Disorder, psychosis, personality-related, or a bona fide conduct disorder. See how easily this can all be confused? Yes, we get lots of training in diagnostics (psychopathology), but it takes good rapport and good investigative skills to understand what’s really going on.

This is never more true than with children and adolescents. Symptoms can look very different in young folks. Depression in a teenager often includes irritability, hostility, and acting out. Which can look like an oppositional defiant disorder. Some behaviors could be the result of medications affecting the developing brain. And, quite often, children and teens simply cannot verbalize what is going on the same way you and I can. They try, but they themselves might not understand it in order to explain it coherently.

Treatment = Change (hopefully)
Another consideration is that appropriate treatment really should change diagnostic labels over time. If you are taking medication and engaging in weekly therapy, your depression should get better and eventually that label should go away. Or perhaps your Major Depressive Disorder transitions to a Depressive Disorder NOS and then to nothing at all. ADHD frequently abates over time as the adolescent brain develops into adulthood. But not always, and more and more adults are given a label that traditionally had to be first diagnosed in children.improving together

The biggie here is Autism Spectrum Disorder. With appropriate and consistent treatment (social skills training, therapy, and possibly medication), it is very common for the more severe symptoms related to communication and social interaction to greatly improve to the point it really can be hard to see that a label is appropriate. The same is true for learning disorders. The schools refer to this as “response to intervention” and is now formally measured for those receiving special education services.

Arriving at the right diagnosis can sometimes be pretty straightforward. Other times it feels like I am a detective solving a mystery. The end result will depend on the available information, how willing people are to be open and honest, and the skills of the clinician. It is vitally important that you feel comfortable with the person evaluating you. You are far more likely to be open and honest if you feel safe and secure.

Feel free to contact my office if you keep asking “what’s wrong with me” and it seems like nobody can understand you.

Owning Ourselves

As we progress through life, we meet people and sometimes have no idea what role they will play in our story. Nearly two decades ago I met  a teenage girl in Starkville, Mississippi. Her family is very near and dear to my ex, and once I spent some time in their home I understood why. They are a crazy mess of love and laughter, support and affirmations, success and struggle, hope and faith. Angie struck me as an awkward teenager. Pretty. Amazing vocalist. Witty (which I value more than funny). Smart. But there was a lot of teen angst when I met her. She was struggling to define who she was and what she wanted for her life.

I’d like to say that two decades later I know why Angie came into my life. I don’t. We aren’t at all close. She lives in New York and I am in Texas. I have not actually been in a room with her in more than ten years. We reconnected via Facebook, as is becoming a ubiquitous story. We’ve chatted a bit online. Exchanged messages and emails. And yet I feel I understand her much more now. Certainly distance lends perspective, but so does the maturation process. Hers and mine.

In fact, I will freely admit that Angie has become a source of inspiration for me. Perhaps that’s why she came into my life. I’m not going to tell her story. It’s an interesting one, but it’s not mine to tell. Much of it comes through in her music (Check her out here ). What I will say is that she is living the artist’s dream in NYC. We all know that dream. We’ve seen it in countless movies. Starving artist perfecting her craft on the gritty city streets, singing in clubs and doing odd jobs to make the ends meet. Waiting for that big break that might never happen. And if there is no break that’s okay because at least she’s being true to her craft and her dream. It’s a great plot line for a Lifetime or Oprah movie of the week. And, like most works in progress, her last chapters have not yet been written. We get to all hold out hope she does get her big break, whatever that turns out to be.

In the meantime, Angie posted on her Facebook this statement that stopped me midway to raising a much needed cup of coffee to an eager mouth craving a caffeine infusion:

I could be wrong, but I feel like folks’d be a lot happier if we approached adulthood less about owning property and more about owning ourselves.

Could be wrong? I doubt it. I think she couldn’t be more right. This is a woman who gave up so much to follow her dreams. She really puts herself out there with her music and her live performances. Following the progression of her songs, you can see moments in her life where she is gaining true insight. I’m not sure that’s really her goal, but it comes across regardless.

“Living within your means, but knowing that, no matter what your means, you always have YOU. Prince or pauper, unless you know and love yourself, the rest is all bullpoop.”

 I think of the growing Tiny House Movement (http://thetinylife.com and http://tinyhouseblog.com , I think about simplification and focusing on what matters in life. Believe me when I say I’ve spent just as much time as anybody trying to amass the perfectly curated collection of possessions. The right car, designer labels, house full of enviable decor (which is easier when your partner is a designer…double-edged sword), photos of great travel, and on and on and on. It’s pretty easy to do with enough money and time. To the point I’ve actually lived in a home and had TWO large storage units full of “stuff.” I don’t even remember what all the stuff is anymore. So clearly it was important! 🙂

What Angie’s describing is the quintessential existential crisis. Who are we? What is our place in the world? What do we want? What will fulfill us? Self-actualization. It’s the end-game of the human experience. And she’s sharing that insight most of us get at some point: it’s about the living and not the things.

Consider Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. We start with the most basic of survival need and build upward. Once we have food, clothing, and shelter and a physically safe space to live, we can focus on love and connecting with others. Self-esteem and self-respect develops when we are accepting and valued by others. Self-actaulization is the top of Maslow’s pyramid and represents a state of realizing our full potential and reaching it. If we miss a step, we never get to the top and slide back down. Each level is built on the one before it. Later in life, Maslow actually argued for a stage beyond self-actualization that he called self-transendence. He came to realize that self-actualization is only possible in conjunction with self-transendence based on having a higher goal beyond ourselves that we can reach through altruism and spiritualism.

Do we need the trappings of life to reach the top of the pyramid? Can we be happy living in a tiny home? A cramped fifth-floor walk-up? Is that five-star restaurant so much better than a candlelight dinner at home? Are designer labels necessary for self-esteem? Angie’s right. We spend way to much time focused on finding stuff and not near enough time finding ourselves. We lead over scheduled lives trying to acquire all the things we think we’re supposed to have to be happy, and we don’t take enough time to enjoy what we do have. We work too many hours to make more money for the next purchase or experience. We spend too much time trying to impress each other with status symbols or social media-worthy happenings. And then crash into bed, exhausted and unsatisfied, wishing there were another way.

There is another way. A simpler way. A more emotionally and spiritually satisfying way. Stop chasing things and start chasing life. Stop living through cars and houses and wardrobes and exotic destinations. Start living in this moment. Start by accepting yourself just as you are, regardless of what you may or may not have, and believe that it is enough. Because it is enough if you let it be enough. YOU get to choose what is right for YOUR life. YOU get to set YOUR priorities. Not me. Not the neighbors. Not the snarky church lady two pews in front of you. No the other soccer moms. Not the guy in the next cubicle. You. It’s all on you to decide just how happy you will be with what you have.

Now…it’s time for me to start clearing out some storage space with a donation to the thrift store. I’m letting go of things, and in doing so I’m letting go of the mindset that led me to the things. Ready to join me? Ready to walk another path? One less travelled and far less littered? Hand in hand we go.

The First Session.

How to begin.

Therapy 1The questions I am most often asked by friends, family, potential clients, and even strangers at parties are “What is therapy like? What happens?” Some people who have never sat on the couch genuinely wonder what goes on behind that closed door. Others use this is as a way to tease out my particular therapeutic style. Most often, though, it is a question about what happens in the first session with any therapist. I certainly understand the question.

Picture it. Jonesboro, Arkansas. 1998. A young man goes to a therapist’s office for the first time. There was nothing that drove me to therapy. I was not depressed. I was not anxious. There had been no breakup. Work was good. School was good. I went to the therapist because it seemed like I should. Most of my friends were in therapy. Everyone had an “analyst” even if they had nothing to analyze. And then we analyzed that! Seemed very Woody Allen-esque to me.

I showed up for my first session and the therapist matter-of-factly asked what was wrong. When I explained that there was nothing wrong and I was perfectly happy, he had the unmitigated gall to accuse me of masking symptoms and living in a state of denial. Well now we had something to discuss! And we did. For three weeks. And I got bored. And then he got bored. We ran out of things to talk about. And I found other ways to spend money and be entertained.

I’m not sure if that was how my introduction to therapy was supposed to unfold. From what I hear from friends and colleagues, there is no one single way for a therapist and client to first connect. That’s certainly been my experience. In the last decade of working in mental health in various office, jail, and correctional facility settings, I have never found one sure-fire way to begin a therapeutic journey.

It’s perfectly normal and natural to feel nervous about your first counseling session, or your first session with a new therapist. I understand it takes a lot of courage to share your feelings and experiences with someone you just met. Our first interaction is really about establishing an initial connection. You deciding if I’m a good fit for you, and me deciding if I can help you. We work together to identify and understand your concerns and develop a plan to make changes in your life. This process usually takes several sessions. I think of it as the “getting to know each other” stage of our new relationship. This is a collaborative process, but ultimately you are in the driver’s seat.

Switchback at the base of Cape Smokey, Cabot Trail, Cape Breton, Nova Scotia.See, that doesn’t sound at all scary, does it? In my mind, therapy is a purposeful conversation between two people where one of those people happens to be in need of some assistance and guidance and the other one has some training to be helpful. We talk. A lot. We both talk. And I listen. A lot. We discuss. We explore. We. Both of us talking together. It’s a collaboration. And from my experience, if you’re able to talk to a friend then you’re pretty well able to talk to a therapist.

I know what you’re thinking….”does that mean you’re a paid friend?” Absolutely not! I am a paid professional who is good at relating to people and getting them to open up about what’s working and not working, and then helping them find better ways to problem solve and be happy. It sometimes seems like a friendship because there is genuine caring and a certain amount of back-and-forth in my conversational approach. But I am not a paid friend. I am a therapist and my job is to help you live your healthiest and happiest life.

But stop and consider this. If it often seems so friendly, doesn’t that mean it’s not really that scary? I sure hope so. I like to think I’m the least scary person on the planet. I take great pride in making people comfortable so we can effectively problem solve. I try really hard to lessen any anxious discomfort and allow you to focus on what’s happening. Does that mean it’s all laughter and giggles? No chance! There are tears sometimes. Every now and then you might even make realizations you didn’t want and consider throwing a brick through my window in the wee hours of the morning. I just ask you show up at the next appointment so we can talk about it and keep moving forward. And maybe that you wrap that brick in a reminder slip so I know who to bill. Just kidding. Sort of.

If you really want to get a feel for what that first session will be like, ask to talk to therapist for a few minutes over the phone. Most therapists are frequently quite busy and booked much of the day, but there are opportunities to return a five-minute phone call. Given that therapy is not inexpensive and requires some commitment, it only makes sense to me that you might want to chat me up for a few minutes before making an appointment. It’s similar to the “free consultations” offered by a lot of professionals, just briefer. Though it would be unreasonable to expect more than five or ten minutes, it’s a sensible request and one that I always honor.

From there the journey is something we navigate together. There is no one right way or one right path for all clients. See what happens. Take the chance. I don’t know the statistics on people dying from anxiety or fright in a therapist’s office but I’m pretty sure those are some low odds.

Happy SandSo back to the original question. When I went to therapy “for real,” the first session was nerve wracking. For all of about ten minutes. I didn’t know what to expect. It was a woman. And a very young one. Fresh out of school, in fact. But I went because someone I trusted recommended her. The interaction was professional, but friendly. She asked me so many questions I thought she was ghost writing my autobiography. We talked. We laughed. I cried. She comforted. I felt like she understood me. It still wasn’t that easy for me to open up, but once I did my life got a lot better. I returned. There was a lot of back-and-forth as I thought through issues and she made poignant observations and helpful suggestions. And from time to time I still check in as needed. Yes, therapists sometimes sit on the couch as well, but that’s a whole other blog entry. If you’re in pain or confused about life or want things to be different, go that first session. Walk through the door. Take that first step on a journey of enlightenment and improvement. It can be so worthwhile.

Living behind masks

drama-masksWhen I was in high school I became enamored with a drama class. It was purely happenstance, as there was no other elective available for the last period of the day besides Spanish. In Arkansas two decades ago, I didn’t feel a great need to know Spanish. Drama won out.

I am secure enough to admit I was a horrible actor. I never got cast in any production. My projection was weak. My suspension of disbelief was lacking. Still, I was intrigued by the notion of disappearing into a character. Exploring a whole other world and living the life of another person. Being something other than I was. Something better, more interesting, more enjoyable. The drama masks, smiling and frowning, represented a world a possibility limited only by the imagination.

I forgot all about the drama masks until the mid 2000’s, when I met a drama therapist by the name of Lori Yates. She was a social worker at North Texas State Hospital, a maximum security forensic hospital. Lori is quite the therapist, willing to try anything and everything. Plus she is quite the cut up. Drama therapy obvious was a fit for her. One of her techniques was to have patients craft masks and then wear them during productions of their own creation and direction. Some of the masks at the hospital were extraordinarily beautiful, reminiscent of Mardi Gras or a masquerade ball. Others were dark and scary, and clearly represented pain and tragedy. All were intriguing.

Masks do serve a purpose. In sports, we wear masks and faceguards to protect delicate features and reduce the risk of injury. More often, though, masks are for hiding our identity…which can be a variation on protection if we think about it in terms of protecting ourselves from the ramifications of our choices. Superheroes were masks to protection their friends and family. Criminals and various bad guys where masks to keep from being caught. At Halloween we wear masks to be rewarded with candy…and as adults to (hopefully) hide some of our suboptimal behavior.

Wes Mask2This past New Year’s Eve, I myself wore a mask. The whole night I disappeared behind this mask, surrounded mostly by strangers who had no idea of my identity. It was quite liberating. I danced more freely than I had in years. I was not afraid to look around and see people. I didn’t shy away or avert my gaze. I observed. I witnessed. And then I imagined that probably most people wearing masks were having a more free experience than usual, just like me.

When I saw the pictures from NYE, I was struck by the thought that we live our lives behind masks. Physically invisible, but role-defining nonetheless. I “act” a certain way during therapy sessions. I’m different when playing softball. I’m more liberated when dining and drinking with friends. Somber and contemplative in church. At home with my partner and cats, I am probably something very few people have ever seen. Each role of my life is a variation on the core of who I am as a person. The physical masks may be gone, but still I live as different people depending who needs me and what I need.

I’m not sure I like this. As therapists, we frequently advise our clients to live genuine and authentic lives. We say this from an authoritative role of expertise based on training and experience. And quite likely there is the assumption that therapists live mostly perfect lives because of out training and experience. (If you only knew!) Who you are should be consistent in your life, or so we say. Imagine the shock and awe of having my best friend point out that I was willing to tolerate deplorable manipulative behavior from another friend because I was afraid to rock the boat. My bestie pointed out that this was not the first time, and I had tolerated similar behavior on the softball field. Though he did not make all the connections for me, I was well able to see it in myself. In my different roles, while wearing different masks, I had set up different standards of how I was to be treated.

Wes Mask1We all do it. Thinking about your roles. Think about the masks you wear. What do you expect as a wife or a husband? As a mother? As a child? How about as a manager or an employee? As a parishioner? Neighbor? What about as a friend? Now here’s the real question….are your expectations for how you are treated consistent across all those roles? Does it change depending on what mask you wear? Do you wear masks to hide from your own disappointment that you are not living your values? If I’m honest, this definitely applied to me. I didn’t realize it for a long time. And now that I think about what Lori was doing with those masks in the hospital, I see the real impact. Those patients had to express their needs wearing the masks so that they felt safe to build up to making healthy and assertive demands without the masks. Lori was teaching them to not hide behind roles and masks, and to see themselves as whole persons. Not broken and fragmented, and not having to play games to meet their needs Intellectually I get it; practically, I’ve been lacking in my own execution.

Removing a MaskToday I’m giving myself the same homework I’d give a client. I’m making a list of my core values and beliefs, what I want for my life and my world. And them I’m making a list of all my roles. Each role where I am not living my truest life gets a higher level of scrutiny so I can see where I’ve sold myself out. With insight and awareness comes the need to change something. Either my expectations or my actions. I’m pretty confident it will be my actions and that all of my roles will firmly reflect who I am as a whole and healthy person and I can stop wearing masks. I invite you to try this exercise as well. Let me know what you discover about yourself when you stop hiding behind the masks.

Gifts to myself…perfect “fits.”

giftsAs another holiday season winds down, an inevitable truth remains – nobody got everything they wanted. You need only look at the crowds in the stores to see the high rate of exchanges of those gifts that didn’t fit right, didn’t look right, or were simply so off-the-mark that even using them for next year’s White Elephant parties seems questionable. And I, like everyone I know, was left a little underwhelmed by my holiday haul. Year in and year out. What am I to do? Gifts to myself…that’s the answer!

Years ago I started a tradition of giving myself one Christmas gift: a nice Swiss watch. I did this because it’s not an item I cannot reasonably expect others to buy for me, and I’m assured to get exactly what I want. I love watches. The mechanics. The design. The style. The symbolism. The race against time. And Swiss watches are the best, at least in my not-so-humble opinion as someone who used to sell timepieces. This is the first year I did not reward myself with a new bauble. Try as I might, every time I tried a watch on I kept thinking something was wrong or that I was missing out on something better. After reflection, I decided to give myself several gifts. There was no need to wrap them. None of them were found in a store. Instead, these gifts are ideals and goals. Somewhat lofty perhaps, but they fit me perfectly and there is no need for exchanges. And already I’m more excited than I ever was with a watch. Perhaps something on this list would be a good gift for you, too?

perfect

  • Forgiveness. We all do wrong. We all are wronged. There is no perfect person among us, and there is no way we can ever be perfect in all that we do. And focusing on forgiveness helps me remember that. Not just forgiving others who offend me or slight me. This is about forgiving myself for all of my shortcomings. Not being nice enough. Not being charitable enough. Not making enough money. Not spending enough time caring for myself. Not learning a foreign language. Not learning to play the piano. Not keeping the “ideal” weight. With so many opportunities to be hard on myself, it would be all too easy to be my own worst enemy and hold myself back. Instead, I’m giving myself the gift of forgiveness. As long as I’m living my best life and trying to leave the world better than I found it, it’s more than enough.
  • Patience. I want it all. Right now. Actually two minutes ago. Or an hour before that. I am so impatient with life goals and ambitions. I used to think there was a timeline for everything. Graduating school. Internship. Private practice. Children. Cabin in the woods. Million-dollar retirement account. Boy have I made myself crazy trying to live my life on an arbitrary patiencetimeline versus letting life unfold. My practice will grow just as it should so long as I continue to do my best work. I’ll retire when I’m no longer capable for working, not when my IRA’s and 401k’s have the “right” balance. Family will happen when it happens. In fact, it’s all going to happen when it happens and I’m going to be okay with that. I do not have to micromanage every detail of my life. Sure, I will work towards the things I want but I refuse to see my efforts as any semblance of failing just because the timing might not be what I’m told it should be.
  • Charity. That watch I wanted all year and got so excited about buying? I gave that money away to charity. I can’t wear it on my wrist. I can’t show it off at parties. Nobody will be impressed or envious. Many will not understand. That’s okay. Others got hot meals, gifts for their children, places to sleep, and affordable or free therapy. I have no idea where it all went or how it was dispersed, much less the ultimate trickle down effects as one person helps another help another, but I know it was a far better use of my resources than another possession I did not need. This year I will focus more on what I call the “give back.” I maintain a certain amount of slots for free or low-cost therapy for those who cannot afford quality care. And yes, despite the growing push for national health care there are still too many people who are uninsured or even with insurance cannot afford to get help. I can afford to do more. We all can.
  • Boundaries. I discuss this with all of my clients. Boundaries are very good things. In addition to avoiding offense and maintaining prosocial ties of equitable benefit, boundaries allow us to be “us” in the face of all those day in and day out boundariesrequests for our time and support. How many times has a friend called in “crisis” and you leapt to their side to be supportive, only to kick yourself later because it’s just another in a series of “drama queen” moments that you find humorously pointless? Or all those invitations for dinner or drinks or parties or celebrations that create more stress than joy for you? If you’re that stressed out around the people who are supposed to be your circle of support, where is the benefit? This year I’m giving myself the gift of “no.” I will remain social and engaged. I will strengthen ties with those  important to me. But I will also have no problem saying “no” and investing time taking care of myself. I deserve that. My clients deserve that. My family deserves that. My friends deserve that. And did I mention that I deserve that?
  • Goals. There are so many things I want to do with myself, and if I can do all of the things above than I will have opportunities to set goals and achieve them. I won’t share all that I want to do, but I will say one of my big goals is to write a book and this year I will start that process. Will it ever be published? Probably not, but that’s not what matters. The point is that it’s something I want to do for me, and I’m giving myself the gift of this goal and I am going to enjoy my efforts. It’s a big goal to be sure, but it’s hits all the hallmarks therapists encourage for their clients for “SMART” goals. Specific. Measurable. Attainable. Relevant. Time-bound.

zenIf you could give yourself any non-material gifts to improve your life, what would they be? What is missing that would make you happier and allow you to better love yourself and those around you? What would you add to your life to accomplish your goals? Make a list. Be detailed in why you want it and how you will use it. Then share it with those closest to you. In fact, maybe turn it into a group activity and hold each other accountable to make sure you truly cherish the gifts you’re giving yourself. I suspect if we spent a little less time focusing on material giving to others and more time focusing what matters in life, we would be happier and healthier.