After the tinsel fades

What to do about that holiday hangover
by David R. Farnsworth, MA, LPC, NCC

David Farnsworth, MA, LPC, NCCThis blog post was born from a reoccurring theme amongst my clients. Now with the holidays behind us, some may be left with unresolved feelings stirred up by obligatory holiday reunions – isn’t it amazing that an entire year of gatherings and milestones can be dodged or postponed save for November and December (missing Aunt Joan and Uncle Bill’s 25th wedding anniversary or Johnny’s birthday party is a little easier than say Thanksgiving or Christmas.)

Bottom-line: These unavoidable visits often have such a painful power to remind you that, as much as you hope people may have changed, often they are still the same.  These tricky, unconscious expectations you hold often set you up for disappointment.  The kind that quietly whispers, “maybe this year dad will give me a compliment and tell me how much I mean to him,” or “maybe my sister will stop bragging and competing with me.”  Even in ones 30s, 40s, and 50s, these silent expectations somehow reduce individuals to children again, pining for validation or to have unmet needs finally achieved.  You walk into the bear trap of deep rejection over and over again. This supposed festive visit to return to home and hearth becomes nothing more than further trauma, and you walk away with a lot more than just a tin of crunchy cookies.

Discarded Christmas Tree

Flickr Creative Commons Photo © wetwebwork

In retrospect: It is wonderful to expose this dynamic, but how do you deal with this unneeded pain after the party is over?  Do you always wonder why you don’t understand how others seem so happy during the holidays?  Do you leave those experiences feeling resentment only to take it out on those closest to you?  Are you even aware of how all these emotional dots are connected?

The decision to let certain family members into our lives and to minimize exposure with others is a difficult one. As adolescents, managing time and visits with family may have been impossible; however as an adult, have you ever considered that maybe some family members can actually be a source of emotional poison?  But then again, is it merely a perception of them that is the poison?  How do you change your perception of others’ hurtful behavior or lack of desired behavior?  Do you keep coming back to the same person expecting him or her to be a different?  Or is she/he consistently the same, as unfortunate as that may be?  Making sense of a mother who has created emotional distress or even neglect can be complex to navigate, but what you should know is that her behavior speaks more to her personality and struggles than it does to you.  But alas, human beings tend to internalize this neglect as a statement against ourselves.

Where to go from here: Luckily the holiday season is almost 12 months away – time to work on a few coping skills. I think that it starts with acknowledging and expecting people to be who they are and who they have always presented themselves to be.  If for some reason you get some long lost desired compliment or validation, then that is bonus.

You need to bring closure and mourn the loss of the silent expectations for which you still pine.  You need to let go of wanting these needs met by those people and find other areas of life where you can meet those needs.  Perhaps you already have a relationship that is ripe with meaning and fulfillment; however, you cannot grasp it fully because you are still looking over your shoulder through the eyes of the wounded child within waiting for some validation from someone you probably will never get?

Be courageous,

Being Normal

by David R. Farnsworth, MA, LPC, NCC

Just some thoughts on DOMA.

David Farnsworth, MA, LPC, NCCNow, I’m a therapist, not a lawyer or a politician, so when I think of DOMA, I think of the emotional aspect of its symbolism in the lives of lesbian and gay individuals. That is not to say that heterosexual folks can’t empathize, but it is quite a painful statement of inequality when your government declares that your relationship with the one person you love is invalid. With as much resiliency a gay individual can muster in that stiff upper lip, it is difficult NOT to internalize negativity into his/her identity as a person in this society. Just the mere verbiage alone…”defense of marriage act”… has such a powerfully insidious meta-message. Not only is a gay person unable to have his or her relationship validated by the government, the institution of marriage itself has to be PROTECTED and DEFENDED against gay people. How does this alone not make gay people think twice about who they are and who they love?  It is high time that discriminatory laws such as DOMA be ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court.

Yes, DOMA’s demise does not make same-sex marriage legal, and the LGBT community has many more legal fights ahead, but it is the statement alone that has the potency of an antidote to gay individuals and couples. There was an emotional healing that began to take place the other week that will continue on in the lives of gay people and those who love and support them. More importantly, our children will not grow up in a country where our government endorses discrimination.

Rainbow flag and blue skyAs I stood in the middle of Liberty Avenue in downtown Pittsburgh early that morning, I felt my husband beside me and my daughter’s hand in mine. A lesbian couple in their fifties gave their gay pride flag to my daughter who had already asked the simple and innocent question, “Daddy, why is everyone getting together in the streets on a work day and being all excited?” And thus, I had to explain to my 6-year-old daughter about one of the many injustices in the world. To which she replied, “Ok, I can celebrate something that should already be like normal!”

So in this blog, to whomever may read it in public or in private, please be encouraged. Embrace the honesty and authenticity of your love. Bring your legitimacy and quest for legalization inward to know that your love is yours and it is valid. Even though the death of DOMA was a grand taste of external validation, enjoy it like the sweet pleasure of dessert, but may you always remember that your true nourishment will come from within yourself.

Nothing can be harder than watching your spouse, partner, boyfriend,or girlfriend endure this discriminatory pain, so hold them close and remind them that the love you share is more powerful than laws and especially other people’s fears.

And to all lesbian and gay individuals out there… know that a very wise 6-year-old insists that you all celebrate that which “should already be like normal!”

Be well,

Now and Zen

by Don Laird, MS, NCC, LPC

Don LairdWellness molds our understanding of optimal health. It is a state of being that maximizes an individual’s potential over a lifespan. Moreover, it carries the energy to illuminate the physical, emotional, spiritual, and environmental components wired in each of us. In our quest for wellness, we begin to develop certain habits that, while they may seem simple enough on the surface, are often difficult to practice in our non-stop, high-stress daily lives. Stress, worry, and anxiety in relation to work, family, and a constantly changing world are now a part of our routine. In short, most people feel as though they have no sense of peace, calm, quiet, and serenity. Most believe that creating serenity takes more commitment than they have to give and that it will just happen one day. However, some simple adjustments just may help propel you in a healthier direction.

Change happens. Change is constant. Change can sometimes seem scary, but it doesn’t have to be. Habits are the most difficult (and often the last things we want) to change. Once we are able to modify poor habits with rewarding ones we begin to experience a healthier perspective with ourselves and others in the world. This is not a one-time change in your surroundings or work environment. You can’t predict the things that may happen to you, and you are certainly unable to control how other people act or think. The only thing you can control in your situation is how you respond. Response matters. You can respond to the same event with anger, apathy or worry or you can respond with peace, calmness and tranquility.

Ask yourself: How well do I prep for my day on an emotional and spiritual level? Am I sacrificing my mental health for a vague “someday?” It can be easy to prepare for the everyday tasks, but what happens when the bottom falls out on your best laid plans? The following may seem elementary, perhaps you’ve heard it all before, but have you made the effort lately?

Slow it down

Slow it down. Do you begin every morning as though there was only 30 minutes left before the earth explodes? Starting your day out in a stressful dash creates adrenaline and adrenaline has nowhere to go if you aren’t prepared to run a marathon. So try waking up a few minutes earlier than usual (Stop making that face and thinking “Yeah, no, that’s not happening”). Allow yourself 10-15 minutes of meditation before letting the noise in. Light exercise should be another piece of your morning practice. Find quiet and calm in the morning and make the most of it. If you start to feel anxious, take one task at a time.

Be Mindful. Lots of people talk about “mindfulness” these days, but what does it mean? Mindfulness involves paying attention “on purpose.” In order to be mindful, I have to be purposefully aware of myself, not just vaguely aware but staying in the moment. This is difficult to do because we are often attempting to train (and overloading) our minds to multi-task. With mindfulness we are concerned with attending to what’s going on right now. That doesn’t mean we can no longer think about the future or the past, but when we do so we do so mindfully, so that we’re aware that right now we’re thinking about the future or past.

Living with stressLiving with Stress. Stress can create unhealthy responses. Do any of the following apply to you when faced with stress: anger, feeling overwhelmed, “comfort” eating, drinking alcohol or taking drugs, surfing the net to shop impulsively, etc? Instead, create healthy alternatives to cope with stress. Healthy habits include:  exercise, meditation, yoga, taking a walk, drinking some water, and deep breathing. It only takes about 10 minutes to reap the benefits of meditation. Quiet reflection will promote stress relief, as well as increase your tolerance to excessive worry and tension.

Be perfect in your imperfection. Let go and just be. Your life will NEVER be perfect. Accept it. Learn to be perfect in your imperfections and limit your expectations of others. You have no control over their actions or thoughts, only your own.

Reduce the racket. Our lives are filled with auditory and visual clutter — social media, news, email, and texting. It’s disorder to our psyches and frankly, pointless. Limit these things and create some new space, some quiet breathing room.

Make “someday” start today. Pittsburgh Psychotherapy Associates is pleased to announce the addition of health and wellness courses to energize the body and nourish the mind. Serenity Sundays Wellness Program begins June 30, 2013 with four classes (including Transformational Reiki, Relaxation & Stress Reduction, Gentle Yoga, and Tai Chi) to help you relax, re-energize and find your center.

In good health,

The Nature of Change

by Don Laird, MS, NCC, LPC

Change cannot be circumvented. It wills us, not with some deterministic arrangement or hidden metaphysical resolve. It creates us as we create it, willfully, positioned somewhere between effortless thought and complex expression. Indeed, one can easily immerse deeply in the warmth of the summer sun and hope that it will never set. Yet, this wish fabricates an immediate childish hope to crystallize a single moment in time and space, a snapshot of ourselves forever in the noon time of existence.

In a few short hours, and in spite of all our efforts to embrace the moment, the sun will set leaving us to face the dim and the dark while obscuring the spaces that might have offered us comfort during the hours when light fell in abundance. Now the shadows consume, and nature has willed its change. And in a few months, the warmth and duration of the sun will be a recollection as summer bows to autumn. Leaves once green and carefree will now spend their final days boasting bold reds, oranges and golds — timeless symbols that change is before us. Like the seasons, everything changes. It is the only true constant. An acorn planted for a child’s school project will one day tower over her head as a mighty oak. Its roots taken a firm grip of the earth. Its core developed to a rich, mature state. A house that someone once called “home” for more than 30 years will eventually belong to another. With change, whether good or bad, comes the need for adjustment.

Humans are not built well for adjustment. It is a word synonymous with discomfort, fear and pain. We avoid it when we can, and celebrate it if “everything worked out for the best.” Yet, when a life paradigm shift occurs our horizons are expanded, thoughts and emotions that we once believed were impossible or didn’t exist come to life. It is our moment to shine or to fade into the shadows.

So, we anxiously await change. We sit by complacently and hope for the best. I often think how the changing seasons in our own lives leave their impact on us as individuals. With change and the necessary adjustments, we grow into stronger people, with deeper convictions and a clearer sense of who we are. Just as that mighty oak planted so many years ago has weathered the storms of its life, so must we. With change, our society can develop into a better humanity, standing tall and sure, roots firm, with arms like branches spread far and wide to touch the clouds and capable of growing into another season.

Working with Your Inner Critic

by Don Laird, MS, NCC, LPC

Nothing’s either good or bad but thinking makes it so.” ~ William Shakespeare

Our inner critics (I call mine “Chuck” for reasons too lengthy to explain here) relish our thoughts, especially the “irrational” ones. What makes something good or bad? Despite what my ego tells me, it’s not my thoughts. Our personality structure consists of the Body, the Ego, and the Spirit all working in tandem, at least on a good day. This has important consequences for the creative process. Creating is often pre-reflective, non-verbal, being present in a very committed and intimate way that is unconditional and removed from the everyday “stuff” that constitutes are thinking, rational ego.

Consequently, talking too much pulls one toward ego. This is an important lesson for all those who engage in a creative endeavor. Writers, poets, painters, dancers, musicians and, yes, even therapists are at their best when they are mindful to the art of silence. It is the sense of risk that our inner critic fears the most and consequently this is part of the arsenal he or she will use against us at our most vulnerable moments.

We learn very early in life to pass judgment on those parts of ourselves that don’t meet the expectations of others and, thus, fulfill a self-prophecy to live through a very tiny part of our totality while casting other “unacceptable” parts of ourselves into the shadows, where we keep them hidden in the darkness. There are many ways of exposing this inner critic, which Psychologist Carl Jung coined the “shadow.”

Jung held that the unconscious could be an attentive companion and mentor to the conscious and that psychic wholeness or individuation comes from bringing equilibrium to the unconscious and the conscious. He professed the foremost way of doing this was through dreams. I believe that this relationship is also part and parcel of the creative journey. The key is navigating the strict chart that the rational, conscious mind, the “I that I think I am”, has mapped for us.

Here are a few pointers when dealing with your inner critic:

Give a name to you inner critic. Just like a pet, you name it, you own it! Personification will assist you in dealing with negative thinking. This way, you are more likely to begin a personal dialog between you and your “shadow.”

When struck by a negative thought, ask your inner critic for her or his hand to dance. Sound silly? Do it now, and while you’re at it, gently, seductively whisper into her or his ear that you are taking the lead in this dance. By integrating these mental gymnastics into your creative life you will be open to the possibility of experiencing creative freedom, and then the true dance can begin!

Challenge you inner critic by giving shape to the existentials of life, “What does the warm, engrossing blackness where creative ideas spring from look and feel like?” Draw it, write it, map it, BUT don’t think about it!

Successful artists are successful for a number of reasons, but here are five to remember:

  1. They are passionate about their work.
  2. They are risk takers.
  3. They are technical experts at their craft.
  4. They feel comfortable with failure.
  5. They are “strange and unusual” and damn proud of it.
  6. They consign art and creativity to the theatre of everyday life – something they do with every nuance of their existence.

Creativity is important to our health. Never underestimate the power of a journey. And if you feel at times that you’re not up to the test, remember this: if you don’t risk the journey, you risk even more.