Sometimes “Crushing it” Means Asking For Help...

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So often I hear people talk negatively about themselves in respect to challenges or situations they are struggling with.  The myth being that, in order to fit the category of “doing well” we are not struggling or don’t have difficulty. Truer, is that to live is to struggle in some capacity, always, and I say this dialectically because of course, life if not just to struggle.  Life is to live, connect, be vulnerable, get knocked on your ass, get back up and keep running at something meaningful.  Life is all these things.

Often, I have clients come to session and report some really challenging experience they had over the last week and feeling disappointed or frustrated with themselves for having difficulty.  The myth again arises that if we are in therapy, working on ourselves, and doing it “right” or doing it “enough” we won’t struggle.  Truer, is that the more we learn about ourselves and ways of coping more skillfully, the less we will struggle unnecessarily, but not in general.

I love when a client comes in with a story about how they got through something really difficult. Yes, you guessed it, I say: “I am so glad this happened!”  The goal is to struggle skillfully, the goal is to learn how to deal with difficulty, go through painful experiences and not further the pain or hurt ourselves, make situations worse, or cope in ways that keep us stuck destined to repeat said struggle.  The point is to be in your life and awake enough to be in the struggle.  When someone talks about how they ran right up against some deeply painful experience, felt the pain, reached out for support, were gentle with themselves, used 10 different distress tolerance skills and now here they are with the report... THAT is crushing it!

Asking for help is one of the most challenging tasks, especially when we are already feeling vulnerable. The in the middle space between when something happens and when we know what is going to happen because of it, is one of the most intolerable places in the human experience. My greatest teacher so far: Uncertainty. The alternative is something I like to call “presenting” which is when we go through something real difficult and then once we are through to the other side, talk about how difficult it was but here we are, and we got through it just fine, thank you.  Ultimately, getting through challenges and struggle the hardest way possible: ALONE. A great teacher of mine used to say, "This is one of the hardeest things you will ever do, why on earth would you want to do it alone?" Brené Brown calls this in the middle phase being “face down in the arena.” Those face down moments are the ones we are most compelled to have as few people (none if possible) know about. It is hard enough to tolerate the uncertainty and feel powerless, letting others know we have no clue what to do next feels like way too much.

Bottom line: It’s true that those moments of raw vulnerability feel unbearable, but it’s one of the few places that the real magic happens. Connection like no other connection, repair like no other repair, because the parts of us that we struggle so ferociously to protect are available, and only then can we have exposure to a new experience. I saw this quote on Instagram this morning and said out loud, “YESSSS.” Sometimes, “crushing it” means asking for help.  Sometimes “crushing it” means saying no, saying I was wrong, or being vulnerable when you want to harden up and hide.  I see people crush it all the damn time, it’s why I love what I do.  Keep crushing it guys…

5 Ways to Mark the New Year Without Invalidating Yourself with Resolutions...

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Happy New Year! We made it, it was a tough one…

New Year’s Resolutions are quite invalidating considering the very nature of the concept is that we "decide" on changing something and then do it.  Wouldn't that be a blast?! Behavior change is quite complex, and is rarely a discrete or single event; however, we tend to view it in such a way. Change occurs gradually, over time. Change must be intentional and is never easy. In fact, there are only about 15-20% of things we do in our lives that are not habitual, meaning about 80-85% of our behaviors happen automatically.  Deciding to change something that is essentially happening on its own, doesn’t work.  We often have resolutions that are grandiose and global, for example, this year I will finally stop smoking, drinking, lose the extra weight, get healthy, figure out my life, etc. That’s a lot. Resolutions are also often things we feel we “should” change rather than things we are particularly motivated or compelled to change.

Change is incredibly difficult, and while we often believe we aren’t accomplishing our goals or changing things in our lives because we aren’t trying hard enough, it has very little to do with trying. Things we really want to change about ourselves and are unable to change, is not because we aren’t trying hard enough, but that something is getting in the way- something is wrong. Things unconsciously maintain our behaviors; our behaviors serve functions and often we may not even be aware of what they are. Sometimes the something that is wrong is we are completely missing the mark on the approach to behavior change, particularly around setting SMART goals vs. less effective means such as deciding or white knuckling tactics. Without behavior chain analysis which breaks down behavioral sequences into itemized slices including thoughts, emotions, and actions taken, we really don’t know why or what maintains certain behaviors.  Behaviors are also usually layered, so for example weight loss is not as simple as, “I am going to finally lose the weight,” we must examine the different facets at play. We cannot responsibly target weight loss without talking about our beliefs about ourselves, emotional eating, family of origin behaviors around food, the function food plays associated with escaping distress, numbing discomfort, and masking other emotional challenges.  Then we look at health and healthy weight loss which involves exercise, knowledge of macronutrients and nutrition, all of which require access, resources, and a lot of change.

Science tells us that behavior changes only when we specifically target something and work to shape the behavior incrementally. If you have a big goal or something you really want to change in your life, start with something you can absolutely accomplish.  Be specific and make sure the behavior is measurable.  Make your goals SMART like your phones.

  • S- Specific: be as specific and detailed about your goal as possible. Clarity on what exactly we are working towards.
  • M- Measurable: We need to be able to track the progress and measure the outcome. How much, how often, how will we know when we have met the mark.
  • A- Attainable: The goal must be feasible and achievable. Do we have control/influence over it?
  • R- Relevant: The goal must be compelling and feel worthwhile, goals must be meaningful to the person trying to attain them.
  • T- Timely: What is a realistic timeframe? Goal will be completed day/week/year.

If you are going to make a New Year’s Resolution make it a SMART one.  Here are some alternatives for marking the New Year.

  1. Vision Board- Make a collage of cut outs with images, words, phrases, and designs that capture the essence of what you want to manifest in the year to come. You can do this with friends/family/clients/partners.
  2. Write a letter to your future self- Write a letter to yourself next year describing your hopes, wishes, fears, and goals for the new year. Seal the envelope and open it next year on New Year’s Day.
  3. Write a letter to your-past-self: Write a letter to your past self, marking all the progress, accomplishments, challenges, connections, and events over the last year. Take note of things you are proud of and things you want to do differently in the New Year.
  4. Future Mapping- Map out the next one year with specific benchmarks of things you would like to accomplish.  Look at the different domains of your life; emotional, relational, career, spiritual, physical.  Decipher between short-term and longer-term making the goals SMART and broken down into manageable parts.
  5. Intention Setting: Set intentions for the upcoming year in each domain (emotional, relational, career, spiritual, physical).

Do Less: How to Halt the Glorification of Busy by Finally Allowing Enough to be Enough.

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Are our unrealistic expectations of ourselves and over-functioning behaviors the very catalyst for maintaining our "not enough" self-states? I'm sure many of you are familiar with the saying, "Put on your own oxygen mask first."  It is one of those sayings that we say to each other when offering unsolicited advice about someone else's over functioning, people pleasing, or self-sacrificing behaviors.  Although in practice, many of us do not adhere to this sound advice. It makes since considering we wear "busy" as a badge of honor, so the more you have going on and the more people counting on you, theoretically, the more important you are.

Brené Brown says, "We are so busy that the truth about our lives can't catch up."  In a lot of ways "busy-aholism" is a very effective, yet maladaptive coping strategy. If we are too busy to slowdown and pay attention to our intuition, bodies, emotions, things our environment is communicating to us, and the impact of our unavailability, is it even real? If I am too busy to acknowledge how not fine I am, aren't I fine? No, it's real, and will rear its head in indirect, painful, sabotaging ways. 

Bottom line: The glorification of busy is not a sustainable model! Turns out, there is a limited supply of psychic, physical, mental, spiritual, and relational energy. Our energy is our most valuable asset, we must support each other in prioritizing alignment of our inner and outer worlds because even if we don't subscribe to this belief, the objective truth is THEY ARE THE SAME WORLDS. 

People: Do whatever you got to do to protect your energy, it’s sacred and in limited supply. We have been talking a lot over the last week about burnout and feeling tapped out trying desperately to fit it “all” in, and noticing increased vulnerabilities surrounding our tendency to just push harder.  Here's the equation:

We all have 100% energy to expend each day, unless you are a parent, or a caretaker, or a human, so likely none of us are starting each day with 100%. Everything is connected so if you are operating in the model described above you are running on fumes the latter half of your day which impacts your energy the following day.  Notice your give-get ratio, the things on your calendar that you want to do vs. the things you feel you "should" do.  If you have a lot more shoulds than wants you are heading down the road to burnout. 

  • 100% - 10% For disrupted sleep, evening anxiety about tomorrow, self-judgment about not doing more the day before, sick kids, sick dog, expired milk. 
  • 90% - 10-20% For morning commute, making lists for the day, early morning meetings that are frustrating or not what you expected, spilled coffee, cold weather, etc.
  • 70-80% - 20% For workday, life, emotional labor, people pleasing, not saying what you actually mean or want to say, and any other added stressors impacting your workday.
  • 50%- On an ideal day, when we have 100% energy we are half way done before we do anything other than our bare minimum responsibilities.  
  • Subtract additional 10% each added non-essential activity; meeting friends for drinks, going to the gym, conversation with family members, taking care of children, showing up for friends shows, concerts, parties, after work networking or work related events. 

Once the energy is gone, it is gone. What most of us do is carry on anyway with the rest of our obligations by "pushing" through, which leads to burnout, emotion minded behaviors and feeling not enough, never enough. We can re-up and recharge with self-care practices, however ironically self-care is usually the first thing to go when we can’t “fit” it all in.

Prioritizing Return on Investments:

If I have 20% energy left where so I want to spend it? If we start operating with the belief that once the energy is tapped out it is gone, our decision making may be more aligned with things we value. 

  1. You are the product: Taking care of your energy is necessary for anything and everything else.
  2. Do one thing at a time: Being one minded about your tasks means staying in the moment, not multi-tasking and completing one thing at a time. Break your day into manageable slices of time.
  3. Throw away the all or nothing attitude: There is actually quite a bit of gray within the black and white.  If you didn't do EVERYTHING it doesn't mean that you suck, letting good enough be enough. If you can't do EVERYTHING can you do something, what can you do? 
  4. Your Best is Enough: Be Kind to yourself, you are doing the best you can.  
  5. Slowdown and check-in with yourself: My therapist calls it the "give-o-meter" how do you know when you are running low on giving juice? My old answer was "Um, I have a meltdown?" That's not effective! Notice how your energy levels are feeling before committing to one more thing.  Give yourself permission to say, "I'll get back to you, I'd love to but I have a lot on my plate today." 
  6. You can change your mind: Say "No", make adjustments, reschedule, make room for balance.  Remember progress not perfection. 
  7. We are all in this together: Validate your people when they take care of themselves.  Reinforce skillful give-get relationships by communicating honestly and directly with safe people in your life.  This is a practice, we aren't going to do it perfectly, leave room for people to be imperfect including yourself.

Why Our “Help” isn’t Very Helpful: What’s Missing in the Generation of Fixing and Problem Solving

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“Don’t worry about it, you’re fine!” says the well intentioned helpful, yet invalidating friend. When I teach Validation to my clients I start with a story: I am out with a friend having dinner, we order coffee at the end of the meal and when my friend goes to reach for her cup, she spills coffee all over the table, and herself.  My friend starts franticly grabbing for napkins and says, “Oh my gosh, this is terrible, I want to go, I am so embarrassed, I can’t even believe I did that, oh my gosh.” I turn to my group and say, “Okay, if I want to validate my friend, what do I say? How do I handle this?”  90% of the time people will say, I’d say; “Don’t worry about it,” or “It’s ok, it’s just a little coffee,” or “It’s not a big deal” or “It’s not that serious, it’s totally fine.” Obviously, the intention behind these comments is to try and make my friend feel better, and less embarrassed.  The problem with these comments is that they are quite invalidating. YIKES, your help isn’t helpful. 

Validation is defined as “the act of making or declaring something officially acceptable; or recognition/affirmation that a person, their feelings, or opinions are worthwhile.” In Dialectical Behavioral Therapy it is the acknowledgment of another's experience and feelings as having causes and therefore being understandable. In other words, validation is: that makes sense, YOU make sense; I see you.  To say to someone, it isn’t a big deal, or don’t worry about it when they are really worried about it, and to them it is a huge deal, invalidates their experience.  

Invalidation makes difficult situations worse. Validation would look like saying something like, “I am sorry you are embarrassed,” or “I bet, I would feel the same way if I were in your position,” or “I get it, it is embarrassing.”  Usually, the person will very quickly come to their own conclusion if they notice they are overreacting or acting in an imbalanced way to the set of circumstances at hand. The big problem with invalidation is so much of the time it is unintentional, and in fact is meant to be helpful or make someone feel better.  In my practice, people show me every day that they are doing the absolute best they can with the tools and coping skills they have, and if they had more effective strategies they would do even better.  I think about validation like a magic bullet, I joke with my groups that once you validate someone’s experience you can pretty much say anything else, once people feel seen and heard, disagreements or challenges seem to land much softer.  

I remember years ago, my now husband saying something that, to this day I was so shook by.  We were having a conversation about something important and he finished saying his part, and without skipping a beat I immediately went into “helping” by offering suggestions, giving him ideas, action plans, etc.  He said, “Meghan, you didn’t even acknowledge what I said.” I was so taken aback since I was right in the middle of my award-winning helping shining moment, and as a trained therapist obviously had no doubts about my listening or empathy skills.  This moment was humbling. Of course, it mattered to me that my partner felt invalidated, and I realized in that moment that I often do a “silent” validation, meaning I reason a person knows I assume the best about them, and am on their team, etc… Then I go straight into the important part of fixing. Turns out, I had it backwards.  The important part is the validation, the problem solving and fixing is secondary, and honestly people are much more capable of solving their own problems because they have a better handle on the big picture than others do.  It is the worst when you are talking to someone about a challenge you are facing and they start throwing platitudes of low hanging fruit “solves,” things you already thought of days ago and passed over because they weren’t solutions or they were overly simplistic. “Why don’t you just…” Hey helper, that isn't helpful! 

So, one of the many important lessons my marriage has taught me: even if someone knows we care, assume the best about them, and always have their backs, sometimes they still need to hear us say it out loud. This happened before I was trained in DBT and learned that there is a significant difference between empathy and validation. Marsha Linehan, Ph.D. the researcher who developed Dialectical Behavioral Therapy as well as the 6 levels of validation believes it is impossible to overestimate the importance of validation. 

Attention Helpers- What to try instead:

  1. Validation Level One: Being present.  Listening to someone in a supportive nonjudgmental way. Staying present when someone is in pain is difficult, a lot of folks are uncomfortable with other people's difficult emotions, sitting and listening to someone without trying to fix, change or control their experience is very powerful.
  2. Validation Level Two: Accurate Reflection: Demonstrate that you are listening and hear them by paraphrasing or repeating back their feelings, thoughts, assumptions or behavior.
  3. Validation Level Three: Mind reading:  Reading a person's behavior or your knowledge of this person to find the subtext or what they aren’t saying out loud but may be feeling. (Check in with them about it, you may be wrong.) “I am guessing that you may also be feeling” or “Underneath that I bet you may also be feeling”
  4. Validation Level Four: Behaviors based on history: We react to the world based on our life experiences and biological wiring, assuming if someone is having an emotional reaction there is a reason or a cause even when the reaction is not one you relate to or identify with. Identifying why it makes sense for this person given their history or biology that they may react in a certain way.
  5. Validation Level Five: Normalization: Reacting to the current situation as anyone in this position would. Identifying with someone's experience because it makes sense to you, in other words if you were in this situation you would be having a similar experience.
  6. Validation Level Six: Radical Genuineness: Be sincere and mean it. This one required consistency and trust, this means treating someone like an equal and a human who is capable of figuring this out.

Validation level four is a sure thing, even if something doesn’t make sense to you, can it make sense to you knowing who this person is that they would be having this experience and it makes sense to them? I believe everything we do has a distinct meaning, we come by our beliefs and our world-views honestly, it doesn’t mean we are always right or justified in our actions or reactions but we have clear reasons that drive our human experience, everything is connected. It is possible to validate someone’s feelings without validating their behavior.  For example, if Johnny threw a chair at the teacher because he was angry you can say, “I can see you are very angry, you have reasons to be feeling the way that you do and, it is not ok to throw chairs or act out our anger in violent ways."  

9 Step Survival Guide for Coping Like a Boss This Holiday Season...

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If you think you’re enlightened, go spend a week with your family.
-Ram Dass

I’m going to say it; the holidays and family are a lot. They were a lot before Trump became President, they are on a whole new level of a lot this year. Since November 8th, I have had many conversations with clients and friends about how difficult it is to understand the divide after the election. How does one metabolize that their values and politics are so different than the people they learned about values and politics from?  It’s one thing to be angry and judgmental of that “somebody” out there in middle America who voted for Trump because they are “ignorant, uneducated, or racist,” but what happens when the somebody is your mom, dad, favorite uncle, sweet grandma? Where do you put that? I don’t know! But here are some tips on coping with the holidays…

  1. Agree to Disagree: Perhaps we can accept that Thanksgiving, Christmas Day, Hanukkah, and other holidays may not be the most effective time to hash out political differences.  Setting limits as a family beforehand can be a helpful, productive way to navigate this murky landmine. For example, deciding as a family that politics are off the table, agreeing to help each other stay on track by holding everyone accountable and letting anyone attending the celebrations know in advance your home is a politics-free zone.  The holidays are already often loaded with emotions running high, this may just not be the time or the place. That doesn’t mean having these conversations isn’t crucial to staying connected to yourself, your values, and your family, so definitely do make the time.
  2. Don’t judge yourself: Criticizing yourself, resisting reality, or invalidating your emotional experience only makes things worse.  When we feel shame, self-judgment, and guilt for the emotions we are having we create additional suffering.  Even if you don’t like the emotions you are having, or wish you weren’t having them: you are. Accepting yourself completely as you are and validating the emotions you are having as having valid causes helps to give us ownership over our experience.  Often, we say things like “Be positive, everything is going to be great!” That may not be true and your soul knows it. “I shouldn’t feel anxious about going home, I am lucky I have a family, I have so much to be grateful for.” It is likely true that you have so much to be grateful for, AND you’re anxious, dude! One doesn’t cancel out the other. Allowing ourselves to be where we are and validating our experience decreases suffering, while judgment and criticism or trying to demand ourselves to feel different than we do increasing our suffering.
  3. Have a wing(man/woman/human): Family can be challenging; did I already say that? Having an ally, a trusted friend or partner can help quell the stress and anxiety.  Guest holiday goers are great buffers too! People are usually more generous and more self-preserving with there is an outsider at the dinner table.  It is also helpful for accountability, having someone who knows you in your adult self may make regressing into your 16-year-old self less likely, and/or accessible. Friends are also validating, it is helpful to have someone around to reality check your experience with, for example “that was crazy yeah?” or “Was I out of line when I responded in that annoyed way to my dad after he asked me to explain gender pronouns again, for the 10th time?”
  4. Have an Overall Objective: How do I want to leave this holiday feeling about myself, my family, and my behavior? Having an overall outcome that supersedes all other petty quips, frustrating moments, or difficult interactions is a complete game changer.  It is your north star guiding your highest self to remember the objective even when mood, other people, or unforeseen circumstances make justified anger look desirable. Think about how you will feel after you have gotten through this holiday and crushed it, let that drive your commitment when there is let’s call it, interpersonal bait?
  5. Have an Exit Strategy: We are planning for a successful holiday season here people, by using these simple but not easy strategies, and we are not in control of anyone by ourselves.  Having an exit strategy even if you never use it, helps increase feelings of autonomy and confidence while decreasing anxiety and worry. Have a car, or a cab number on hand, and a plan for bowing out gracefully if need be.
  6. Walk Through the Worst-case Scenario: Coping ahead is about imaging all the things that could potentially be difficult, go wrong, or get in the way, and then coming up with ways to effectively deal with them.  We visualize ourselves getting through these difficult experiences and have a plan for if they happen, which surprisingly takes a lot of the power away from the worry thoughts.  I will often ask people what they are most worried about happening, what the worst-case scenario might be, and they don’t know.  In their minds, it is just bad, real bad.  Taking time to really think through it in a tangible way not only makes the worry specific rather than global, it also works to create exposure to the worry by thinking about it in a practical way. So let’s go there, the thing happens, now what? People are often surprised by how skillful they can be while imaging coping with this scary situation. I also always ask people to rate on a scale from 1-10 how likely is it that this will happen as a way to reality check the worry and the intensity by measuring probability.
  7. Don’t Wing it! Have a plan and know your limits. Know how long you’re staying, what you plan to do while visiting, and any activities you have in mind; “groupthink” family activities are a recipe for conflict. I usually suggest using the 48hr rule with family events, even when I am at hour 47 and I’m like, this is great, everyone is getting along so well, I don’t want to leave.  Without fail, come the 48hr mark it’s time to go. I also have a great family who I adore and thoroughly enjoy spending time with.  If you are flying over multiple states you may need to adjust this and use another strategy like breaking up your time by seeing friends, day trips, or group activities.
  8. Self-Care on the Road: There is a very interesting experience people have when travelling or adapting to a new environment which is daily practices often fall off. It’s interesting from a mental health perspective because we need self-care even more, not less, when we are adapting, out of our comfort zones, around sometimes intense historical triggers or on the road in a constant state of flux. Our self-care may be the only constant, and a really effective way to stay grounded. I usually suggest committing to 3 daily practices, journaling, meditating, checking in with yourself, exercising, taking breaks, schedule time to be alone, going for a walk, connecting with your spirituality, and connecting with your people.
  9. Be Brave, Be Generous, Be Kind: You are doing the best you can. Your family, however limited some folks may be, are doing the best they can too.  Showing up to these events or showing up in other ways that are meaningful to you is both joyous, and at times painful.  Some people choose to spend the holidays with their family of choice, some people don’t have family to spend the holiday with, everyone has a different experience.  This is a time of year where there’s a spotlight on what you have, and things you may not have or wish were different in your life.  Be gentle with yourselves and with each other. Life is a lot, we are all in this together.