Dear diary…life is hard.

Expressive Therapy

Sbux1Every morning on my way to the office I stop at the same coffee shop. One of the joys of this type of routine is seeing the same people over and over, and developing some form of bond. For sure I have a few favorite baristas, and there is one in particular where we have developed quite a flirtation. She writes love notes on my coffee cup, and sometimes not-so-loving but enticing notes that make Sbux2me smile or even blush. (Yes, I’m still gay…or mostly gay…and that’s another post for another day.) Nice way to start the day. I also see the same customers over and over. The mechanic from down the street. The nurse from the nearby clinic. The retail manager from the mall next door. It’s reassuring to know I’m not the only caffeine junkie trying to get a fix.

Lately I’ve noticed this same guy every morning. I’m intrigued by him. He sits at a table right outside the front door. He has a stack of books that truly is just over a foot tall. Various books with no clear theme. Yes, I glance at the titles each day because I’m just that nosy! He also has a notebook where he is furiously scribbling notes. Some kind of journal. I haven’t been nosy enough to stand over him and read what he’s writing. My curiosity does have appropriate boundaries most of the time. But from the open books in front of him I imagine him to be capturing his thoughts on what he’s reading. Possibly he’s researching his own book. Perhaps he’s reading for deeper meaning and making a life plan. Maybe it’s a form of bibliotherapy, which is a fancy psychobabble term for reading books that encourage us to think and heal.

harry-potter-1640525_1280I love to read. All the time. People who know me well understand I have quite the love affair with the Harry Potter series. First it was from the perspective of an adult who didn’t quite get the hoopla of a children’s book. Then I read them and enjoyed every word. Then I reread a few years later for escapism. Afterwards I started to appreciate the psychology of this magical world. Books are written about it. Classes are taught about it. Entire fandoms have sprung up around it. I revisit the entire series every few years and always find something new to think about. This year it’s quills and parchment.

In the HP canon, Harry attends school at a time when computers are establishing dominance in educational settings and ballpoint pens have been around for a century. And still Hogwarts relies on quills and parchment for schoolwork, and the wizarding world hand writes letters for delivery by owl. Surely email is faster for keeping up with family and other wizards around the globe. Carrying quills and ink every where you go? Geez. Seems like a pen in the pocket or purse would be more practical. But is practicality really the best measure of an experience?

fountain-pens-1828646_1280I don’t use a quill and have never seen actual parchment. I collect fountain pens. Right now I own just under a dozen. I’ve recently started journaling in a lovely Moleskine notebook I carry everywhere. I’ve also started writing letters and cards on a daily basis. In fact, I spend a fair amount of time finding reasons to break out one of my pens and hand write something. Anything at all. Which is really a big deal for me because I have the most atrocious handwriting. I hate it. It’s the reason I’ve avoiding hand writing anything I could for the past twenty years. And now all of the sudden I cannot put down the pen. What happened to me?

notepadI discovered a new connection between my mind and the paper when I use an actual writing implement. For me it is the fountain pen. For Harry it is the quill. Writing something out by hand requires deliberate thought. It is an active process. When I see the stranger at the coffee shop writing in his notebook, he is truly thinking about what he wants to record because there is no backspace. There is a reason so many authors and poets and speechwriters compose in longhand. JK Rowling wrote the first Harry Potter novel in longhand. Quentin Tarantino. Joyce Carol Oats. Neil Gaiman. They all write longhand.

As I said I have taken to journaling. Every day. Sometimes more than once a day. It’s a form of expressive therapy that focuses on my internal experiences, thoughts, and feelings. It’s an attempt to make sense of the past and the present so I can better see the future. Journaling helps me process what is going on in my head so that I’m more active in my own therapy sessions. It has allowed me to uncover themes to the events in my life, and my role in those events. I can revisit something that I know has a meaning even if it hasn’t become clear yet. Sometimes my journal is like Dumbledore’s pensieve…a place to record excess thoughts and examine them later to spot patterns and links.

travelers-notebook-2245970_1280Sure, I could keep a digital diary on my computer or my iPhone or iPad or whatever device non-Apple users prefer. But I’ve found true joy in putting pen to paper and what it means for me to transfer my thoughts through a physical act. Deliberate thoughts where introspection leads to a new insight or just the release of pressure from clearing my mind. Sometimes I write a paragraph, and sometimes I write several double-sided pages. Maybe it’s all one topic, and maybe it’s a bit more jumbled steam of consciousness writing to just “clear the cache.” Certainly a blog like this is a journal, but what I write here for public consumption is not nearly as deep or personal as what’s in my little black book.

What have I learned so far? For a long time I have really hated myself. My thoughts and words and actions have been centered on so much self-loathing and self-sabotage that I marvel at how I’ve gotten out of bed some days. My view of myself has been so harshly negative for so long. Some of it dates back to childhood hurts related to being bullied in school and my family of origin. Trauma has played a role. Some of it is tied to failed relationships and rejection. And most of it is simply tied to daily life events that affect us all, but that my distorted view allowed to spiral out of control in a repeating cycle of self-destruction.

Brain KeyMost of all I learned that I’m far more culpable than I wanted to admit. I am usually the architect of my own unhappiness. I have been one of the worst for taking care of myself despite what I advise clients. I learned that I have a creative side that wants to burst free and see the world. That I love deeply and passionately and have much to give others. That my view of the world, sometimes healthy and sometimes not, is perfectly valid so long as I use it to shape my life into something meaningful. That I am actually a fairly interesting person who deserves happiness and joy. And that I alone am responsible for making that happen.

Some of this was a bit tough to accept. After all, who wants to learn that no matter what happens in life we are ultimately responsible for our happiness or lack thereof? Getting over trauma requires an investment to be healthy again, and fair or not we have to do it. Moving past a failed relationship requires owning my part in the failure. Acknowledging positive qualities and traits is healthy and realistic, and good for me even when I want to discount myself. Seeing all the potential in life helps me set and achieve goals alone and with others. Yes, it’s been quite a journey and there is no end in sight. As long as my hand can hold a pen, I will be journaling to better understand myself.

Journaling just for me requires a level of honesty I was not ready to accept at first. I had to strip away the pretense of what I imagined a journal to be. This is not “Dear Diary, today Johnny called me a fag and everybody laughed at me. Still I think he’s the cutest boy in school.” This is real. It is deep. It is meaningful. It has helped me see the world and my place in it in a far more realistic way. I love that. And now I’m off the journal some more…

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Enjoying Our Lucky Friends

I stumbled across an article this week where the author had this crazy notion that the happiest people are around when things are going right for other people instead of for themselves. The underlying assumption is that we too often define friendship based on having people around us when our lives are falling apart, and commiserating with others in their own misfortune. We reach out in times of need, or boredom, or to help others. Yet when things are going great for our friends or loved ones, we are less available. Happy people, so the argument goes, spend more time with their friends celebrating others’ success and triumphs.

Hmmm…there does seem to be a certain logic to this thinking. When I apply it to my own life, I am happier when I’m surrounded by happy people; likewise, I’m far more unhappy when those around me are miserable, or when I’m avoiding people because I think they are too happy for my sanity or for their own good. The more I thought about it, the more I realized why people are who present with things go right for others are happier.

For one thing, there is a certain amount of social learning that happens in our relationships. That’s a psychobabble word that basically means we learn how to behave from watching others. If our friends are happy, and we help them celebrate those joys, we should be seeing how they accomplished this happiness and maybe it will give us guidance. Also, I think there is something to be said for “leading by example,” and if I want my friends to celebrate my success and happy moments, I need to show them how it’s done! I’m going to raise the bar here! Up the ante! No puny celebrations…because when it’s my turn I want a party to rival Times Square on New Year’s Eve.

It’s good for other people too. There is research that shows us that storytelling changes the memory of the event. When your friend tells you about a particularly great date, the memory becomes more meaningful for them. The same is true for you. When you share the details of how you won a tough court case or worked long hours to earn a promotion, or even fought the laundry monster to finally defeat your sweat stain arch nemesis, these events have even more positive meaning for you.

Probably the best reason I can think of take pleasure in the joys of others is because it makes us happier. Sure, there is an altruistic component and it’s great to be there for friends. I bet there’s even a cutesy coffee mug with that sentiment you can give your bestie. But let’s not underestimate to value to ourselves in supporting those around us. Without getting into all the science of dopamine pathways and neurotransmitters, we feel good when we are happy and those good feelings can come in waves of positivity when we share in special moments of those close to us.

Here’s a challenge for you. Take a look at your social media footprint from the past 30 days. How many of your friends’ posts about good things in their lives did you simply “like” versus comment on with words of affirmation? You don’t even have to count for me to say it was too many. I’m guilty of it too. So for the next few weeks, let’s try and make a conscious effort offer some words of affirmation to our friends’ lives to help them celebrate their joys.

Bibliotherapy – Or How I Learned to Write What I Feel

Over the past few weeks, a popular prime time television series has included a plot line about adult siblings meeting for the first time. Part of the story has included their deceased mother’s journals. Box after box of journals. Journals documenting nearly every day of her adult life, from the mundane to the extraordinary. For some reason watching those episodes made me think of the oft-used phrase “Dear Diary.” That, in turn, let me to think about the excitement of adolescent diaries along the lines of “Dear Diary…I met a boy…” And welcome to the windmills of my mind. The life of a therapist always making connections.

Bibliotherapy is a rather unfriendly word for a relatively simple act – the expression of feelings through the written word. We’ve all done it in some form or fashion. Don’t believe me? Ha! I dare you to look at your Facebook posts or Twitter feeds. Complain about a bad day? Participate in the annual fall tradition of 20, 30 or even 40 Days of Thanks? Share really great news that made you happy….including the emoticon? Congratulations! You are well versed in bibliotherapy.

For the sake of simplicity, if for no other reason than I prefer to avoid “psychobabble” when at all possible, let’s talk about journaling instead. This blog is my personal form of journaling, though not my only effort. Journaling is a great way to explore your feelings and experiences over time. Just about every self-help book and pompous daytime talk show circuit “expert” recommends journaling. Research has shown that effective journaling can be a good tool in your toolbox of psychological wellness. And I firmly believe it’s critical for me to “know myself” before I can know anybody else or how to include them in my life.

So now I write a blog. I’m just starting this new project, but I’m excited and hopeful others will at least get a chuckle every now and then, if not find something useful. I also keep a private journal on my MacBook (Day One app, available for iOS devices). Just the other day I wrote an email to an ex who was my first love. Classic unsent letter exercise. It still sits in my draft folder for me to tweak until I’m satisfied. I doubt I’ll ever hit the SEND button, but that’s not the point. The point is for me to explore my feelings. Often times it’s easier if I write them down rather than having them swirl around in my head in what I imagine looks like a satellite view of a hurricane approach the shore. Yes, there is a metaphor buried in there what would amuse Freud. Journaling, in whatever form, is for me. And it can be for you, too.

Why do it?

  • Gives you a chance to sort through all the clutter in your head by getting down on paper. Then you’re better able to concentrate on your wants and needs.
  • Allows you to step back and evaluate your thoughts, emotions, feelings, actions, and reaction.
  • Express thoughts that sometimes you are too scared to say out loud.
  • Explore your core values, and learn to bring your emotions and desires in line with those values to live your best life.
  • Step back and see things from other perspectives.
  • Explore a creative side of yourself and turn negative energy into positive energy.
  • Look for recurrent themes in your life that are holding you back, and recognize the things you do well that propel you forward.

How do you do it? Where do you start? How do you know you’re doing it right? Will it help? Those are great questions I often hear from clients when I assign journaling as homework. That’s right…I give therapy homework. Sometimes clients resist and roll their eyes. Eventually they give in. And in many cases, they have continued their journaling well after we have finished using it in therapy. I bet most of them even continued after their therapy was over.

There are lots of books and guides you can buy, borrow, rent, or download. And they are totally unnecessary. If you completed junior high, you already have the skills you need to journal. It’s writing. That’s it. Pretty simple, huh?

I’m serious. There is no right or wrong way to begin this. Some people begin in a very structured way using a diary app or similar format. Others carry a notebook with them and jot down thoughts as they occur. Some people write long and winding narratives for hours on end. I’ve seen great work come from what we call “stream of consciousness” writing where you start with whatever words land on the page and continue without thought until you run out of words, with no regard to punctuation or structure or style. To my mind, and based on my experiences with clients and my own life, the way you do it is far less important than the fact you are doing it.

I like to occasionally review what I’ve written to start looking for common themes. Do I feel depressed the same time each year? Am I writing a lot about hurt feelings with my friends and family? Do my thoughts about my work sound like maybe I want to make a change? Are there lots of mentions about something that excites me that maybe should be a new hobby? What’s working and not working in my life? What do I want to be different?

As with most things in life, practice does not necessarily make it “perfect” but does make it a lasting habit. Try and develop a regular writing habit and see what you learn about yourself.

A New Adventure

Following the lead of so many others before me, I have decided to start a blog. Now before you get to excited, this is not going to be one of those tell-all blogs where I recount the darkest secrets of my clients or share titillating tales spun in session. Like you, I of course would enjoy reading such things. After all, it’s human nature to want to know more about other people….and especially the fascinating inner workings of a troubled mind. But this is not about sharing interesting stories while changing the names to protect the innocent, the stupid, or the otherwise unfortunate souls who landed on my couch. This is about my own exploration of life based on what I learn through the therapy process and through my own living.

Why am I starting this project. Well, there are several reasons:

  • Given I strongly promote journaling with my clients as a means of reflecting on life events to uncover themes for deeper meaning, I will just this blog as my own journaling. I suppose you could say that I’m going to heed my own advice.
  • Everybody needs a creative outlet. I love anything artistic and expressive, from photography to dance to writing to sculpture to craft beers.
  • I simply love to write. I’m an avid reader of all genres, and lately I’ve been focused on writing book chapters for edited series of professional manuals. It’s not the most interesting writing, and I’d like to explore a style more along the lines of what I enjoy reading.
  • I have long been encouraged by friends and colleagues to write something. Anything. Just to write because they’re relatively sure my writing “voice” would reflect my seemingly interesting story telling.
  • Lastly, writing is a form of self-care. I’m a strong proponent of self-care activities that we do just because we enjoy them and they enrich our lives. Writing is one of those activities for me.

I hope that you will enjoy my musings as much as I enjoy sharing my thoughts. Of course, I would love to hear from you so please chime in.