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The Messy Middle

The Messy Middle

As an adult, I find myself dismantling unhelpful, internalized attitudes and beliefs that I picked up from my youth. One that I’ve been confronting recently is this belief that “If you aren’t moving forward, you are moving backward.”

Have you heard that one too?

This belief makes me think about moving sidewalks in airports. My kids and I always love to get on the sidewalks that are moving in the opposite direction so we have to work extra hard to move forward toward our destinations. We giggle as we run full speed but hardly move at all. And then, when we stop, the sidewalk pulls us back, defeating all of our progress. This is a good time.

But it’s not fun and playful if we are all on invisible moving sidewalks that quickly eliminate our progress if we dare to stop moving. Operating from the belief that I’m on an invisible moving sidewalk that requires my chronic movement and dedication to not backslide, is exhausting at best, and fear and shame inducing at worst.

What’s funny about this belief system is it doesn’t follow physics. Well, I don’t know much about physics at all actually…but I feel pretty confident in asserting that if I’m not moving forward, I’m actually staying still.

And is there value in staying still?

That is the lesson I am learning in my life right now. In recent years, I have felt like life is asking me to slow down in important ways. I have been asked to confront and settle into spaces of “not knowing.” While this makes me feel messy, confused and vulnerable, I am learning to trust the process. It feels painfully slow and I’m not sure how or when it will conclude, or what that will even look like. Is this my midlife crisis?

I love how Brené Brown describes this messy place like being on Space Mountain. You are on the roller coaster, it’s too late to get off, and you are in the dark and can’t anticipate the twists and turns you are facing, nor do you know how and when it will end. But it does. It will.

Brené Brown discusses how you cannot skip this messy middle place. She even asserts that this messy middle place is “where the magic happens.”

I’m not feeling all sorts of “magical” but I am learning valuable lessons inherent in this space. I was listening to a guided meditation recently where the guru asked me to start breathing in ways I’d never considered breathing before. I’m used to breathing into my chest, or even down towards my stomach, but this guru asked me to breathe into my back and sides. He asked me to attend to the feeling of expansion from my ribs laterally, instead of feeling my breath move up and down.

That’s what this feels like. A new way of breathing that feels sideways. A way that is teaching me about how I can expand in ways I hadn’t anticipated. It is teaching me to settle and not be reactive. I am learning to be more deliberate and slow as I sort through all the messy pieces I am confronting. 

I am learning to be more present. I am learning to be “ok with not always being ok.” I am learning that I don’t have to be “productive” to be whole and worthy. I am learning to be compassionate with myself. Staying still, right now, is where I am learning to truly listen. So yeah, that all feels cool. I haven’t come out the other side, but I am so glad to learn that choosing to slow down and stop for a period is not the same as moving backwards. Just the opposite.

 

It’s OK to Fall Over

It’s OK to Fall Over

Over the Christmas break, I was gifted an evening of night skiing with my brother and my husband. I was so stoked to dust off my old ski gear and strap on my salopettes. It had been years since I had been skiing – an activity that my family and I used to love. Growing up, we would spend one week each winter in the Alps (a 12-hour drive from where I grew up in the U.K.) where we would ski to our heart’s content each day. It had been a huge family bonding activity, one that we all look back on with fondness. 

Fast forward 11 years, and I was missing the feel of the snow beneath my skis and the crisp mountain air in my face. On the evening that we were supposed to go skiing, I pulled my old gear out of its dusty box, got dressed (well…my snow pants from when I was 15 were markedly tight, because I don’t have the body of a 15-year-old anymore, thank goodness my body has grown with me!), and we headed for the slopes. 

As we approached the towering mountainside, I noticed my thoughts turning towards fearful nerves and “what ifs”. Like, what if I couldn’t remember how to ski anymore? What if my pants that were so tight they had to be undone fell down while I was skiing (please no!)? What if I fell over? What if I hurt myself? 

I acknowledged my nerves to my brother and husband, who were regulars on the mountain, and apprehensively clipped myself into my skis and we set off. As we glided up the mountain on the chair lift, taking in the glorious nature around us, I found myself setting the goal to “just get through the whole night without falling over” this evening. 

Having been skiing quite a lot growing up, I had been very confident on my skis and barely fell. But here I was, 11 years later, hoping that skiing was like riding a bike or a horse, and that muscle memory meant you could just pick back up where you left off. I told myself if I can make it through the evening without falling over, it would be a success. That was my goal. And I worked toward that goal, I went slower than I could have, I took safer routes than I could have, I turned slower and certainly did not attempt any jumps. I even sat out on some runs. When the evening was coming to an end, I quickly agreed that it was time to go because so far I had made my goal of not falling over – what if I did one more run and that was where it all went downhill (no pun intended)?

I loved my evening of skiing; it was a fabulous gift and so good for the soul! But, as I look back on the evening, I can’t help but regret my goal of not falling over. With that vision in mind, it stopped me from fully living in the moment and having the most fun I could have had. I was so concerned that I would look like I’d lost my skill level, that I actually looked like I’d lost my skill level by going so slow and avoiding anything remotely adventurous! 

I had self-sabotaged! I had not lived in the present moment, I had been more conscious of what I looked like, and I had set an AWFUL goal. What is wrong with falling over when you’re trying something you haven’t done for 11 years? Would I care if I went skiing regularly and then went with someone who hadn’t skied in 11 years and they fell over? No! So why did I put that on myself?

My daughter is currently in the phase of life where everything is brand new to her. Walking, climbing, jumping, sliding…the list goes on. She falls over about 200x a day. And the most miraculous part of that? She jumps back up without any look of embarrassment and tries again. She could not care less about how she looks and would probably never set the goal to not fall over, because that would mean she’s not having fun doing what she wants to do. 

I learned a valuable lesson during that skiing trip, that falling down is not the enemy – living in fear of falling down is the enemy. Falling down doesn’t stop you progressing – but living in fear of falling down stops you progressing. It reminds me of the beloved phrase from the classic 2004 film A Cinderella Story featuring Hilary Duff, which says “Don’t let the fear of striking out keep you from playing the game”. Call me cheesy, but I think that phrase epitomizes the lesson I learned that night. I was so scared of striking out that I barely played the game.

In eating recovery, there will probably be times you strike out or fall over, and that’s OK. It’s all part of “playing the game”. In fact, that’s expected. In fact, that’s part of recovery.Don’t put your eating recovery on hold because you’re afraid you won’t always do it perfectly all the time. Don’t be too worried about what your dietitian or therapist or doctor will think if you have a bad day in your recovery – they will likely understand better than anyone. 

Don’t listen to that little voice that says it’s easier on my self-esteem to not try than to try and fall over. It might be causing you to move slower or take safer routes, like me on that mountain. Think of yourself in the way that you think of a child you love who is learning to walk. They fall over and you probably don’t berate them for it. You probably lovingly hold them and tell them it’s OK and to try again. 

Think of the power you would have in your recovery if you could lovingly hold yourself when you fall over and tell yourself it’s OK and to try again. That’s a lesson I learned from my experience of skiing again: it’s OK to fall over – don’t let the fear of striking out keep you from playing the game.

 

Gardening Themes for Cultivating your Mental Health

Gardening Themes for Cultivating your Mental Health

As the days grow a little longer and the temperatures begin to flirt with the idea of staying above freezing, my gardening soul grows restless. I feel a need to get my hands in the dirt and order more seeds than I could possibly ever grow.  I love my garden. One thing I love about gardening is that as I work, I often find myself making connections to the therapeutic work I do. There is something about open air and plants that leave me feeling connected to the earth, and waxing poetic about my existence on it.  (more…)

Lessons Learned from a Year of COVID19

Lessons Learned from a Year of COVID19

As I write this, it is exactly one year ago that my phone exploded with emails detailing how every organization I was involved with would be closing due to the COVID-19 pandemic. It was terrifying, and if I’m being totally honest, a little bit thrilling to see life as we knew it shift and evolve completely. I sensed that we were a part of history, and that this would be a day I would remember for the rest of my life. As time has moved slowly forward, and we haven’t reached normality yet, I have found myself musing over the lessons we’ve learned during this unique time.

What have we learned?

We are resilient. 

Persistence works. We keep on living even in the face of tough things. We can do hard things. We can beat our personal Goliaths. For many, the pandemic has been a time where mental health struggles have increased. Rates of eating disorders have increased, rates of domestic violence have increased. People have lost their jobs and lost their loved ones – the pandemic has been horrifying for so many people across the world. And if you’re reading this, you’ve made it through that. You can do hard things!

We work well together; together is better than alone. 

There has been a special sense of togetherness that I’ve felt while we’ve been separated from one another. My parents (who still live in England) have been totally locked down since March of last year, with strict rules regulating when they can leave their house, for what purpose, and how often. They are not allowed to see other people at all. Yet, they reported that there is a marvelous sense of togetherness that they each feel while segregated in their own homes, almost like the feeling that prevailed during the war years of the 1940s. They expressed a sentiment that abounds in the UK is that we humans are stronger than any of these elements that wage against us, and that we will simply be victorious. While we may be physically separated from our loved ones, we can share in that glorious feeling that we are fighting the same battle and will eventually succeed.

We are creative and adaptive. 

Look how we have adapted to this situation! We are used to sanitizing everything, wearing masks, and using zoom like it’s all we’ve ever known. We’ve been creative and learned that it’s OK to ask for help to meet our typical demands in an unusual environment. For some that might look like extensions for deadlines, for others that could be changing their job, and for others that could be looking for the silver lining like being able to wear pajama bottoms most of the time.

We need to take care of ourselves, in all ways. 

Self-care has almost never been more important than right now. We need to know our own limits and set boundaries that help us to stay sane through these times!

Our thoughts play a huge role in the way we feel and the way we act.

What I tell myself when bad things happen is important. When the clinic closed, think how differently I would have felt if I had told myself “coronavirus is going to infect me and I will likely die” to “what an exciting opportunity this is to live life differently for a short period of my entire life”, and in turn, how different my actions would be.

We are more similar than we are different. 

We each are trying to get through this time and keep our loved ones close – that unites us more than our political or religious beliefs may separate us.

How are we different now?

Preparation is important…

otherwise we run out of toilet paper!

Some things are more important than others.

For example, relationships matter…a lot. We have seen how being isolated from one another makes us feel.

Fluff doesn’t matter much; we know more about what is important. 

We got down to the basics, for some people that included family, for other people that included having time without work which meant figuring out what are necessities and what is considered fluff.

We are harder in some ways; softer in others. 

I would guess we are “harder” in that it would take more to knock us down now; we know we are larger than many trials, and we recognize our own strength in the face of them. Yet, I think we are softer in how we view others’ needs, the suffering of our fellow men/women, and in how we make time to care for our own needs.

What we can control and what we can’t control may be clearer. 

We know that we cannot control a pandemic, and we cannot control what our neighbor chooses to do. But, we have learned that we can control our behavior in response to events, and we can control how prepared we are.

Overall, I am so grateful for the lessons I’ve learned throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. It has been one of the most difficult years of everyone’s lives, with circumstances that we will hopefully never have to repeat again. As we aren’t through this yet, keep your chin up, seek help when you need to, and move toward the things that keep you going. We will get through this!

Special thanks to Dean Barley, Ph.D. (the Director of the BYU Comprehensive Clinic) for sharing some of his thoughts on this subject.

 

Becoming a Hopeful Realist

Becoming a Hopeful Realist

I was discussing with a friend what I should write for this post. He brought up an interesting idea. My friend discussed the common glass half full vs. glass half empty scenario. He said there could be a third group: the people who see half a glass of water. Between the optimists and the pessimists there are people who simply see things for what they are. While this analogy might not work perfectly, it reminded me of one of the most interesting concepts I’ve learned of in recent memory. (more…)

Emotion Through the Lens of the Body

Emotion Through the Lens of the Body

When you stop to think about it, you can probably identify physical manifestations of your emotions. It’s not uncommon to hear people describe the state of being excited as “light” or a “butterflies in my stomach” feeling. When we are sad, we may identify as feeling sluggish or tired. Grief is similar- when we experience profound loss, there are physical symptoms that accompany the intense, dysregulating emotion. Commonly described physical manifestations of grief are things like headaches, stomach pain, back pain, chest heaviness, weakness or tightness in muscles, and changes in breathing and sleep.  (more…)

All the Feels

All the Feels

Recently, I’ve had a lot of people disclose to me that they wish they could be less [insert mental flogging device here]. The end of that sentence often looks something like “perfectionistic” or “depressed” or “reactive” or “anxious” or “opinionated” or “attention seeking”. Sometimes it’s the opposite, and people wish they were more [insert mental flogging device here]. The end of this sentence often looks something like “slimmer” or “fitter” or “a better mother” or “kind” or “creative”. As you can tell…we are a complex bunch, aren’t we? We each seem to wish we were different in so many ways. (more…)

A Wounded Healer

A Wounded Healer

The full memory on my computer has forced me to take a trip down memory lane and peruse through all of my various files to see which ones were worthy of keeping and which could be dumped. I stumbled upon many of my old assignments from graduate school. As I opened one file, I began to reflect on an idea I heard when I was in a particularly moving class in my master’s program. I have seen this theme play out over and over in my own life and in the lives of clients, friends, etc. The idea I’d like to share is the idea that we are, or can become, wounded healers.

Physical & Emotional Wounds

We’ve all fallen down as kids (or, let’s be honest here, as adults) and scraped up our knees. We’ve experienced small wounds: paper cuts, acne, blisters, etc. We’ve experienced larger wounds: wisdom teeth surgery, broken bones, c-sections, etc. It’s always incredible to me to watch the way our bodies heal after they are wounded; to see new skin replace the old; holes close up; our bodies return to normal (or at least semi-normal) function. To watch broken toes and broken legs help us run again. Our bodies are miraculous!

We all carry emotional wounds as well. Wounds that feel just as real and just as serious as broken bones. Broken hearts that feel so excruciating we would have sworn we were experiencing heart failure. Anxious minds that feel just as debilitating as any physical ailment. Grief that feels as heavy as trying to carry a car up the mountain on torn ACLs. The healing that comes with our emotional and mental wounds looks very different. We don’t see the fresh layers of skin or healing bones, but we know that something is changing. We feel more whole, quicker to smile, more like coming back to ourselves.

We All Haves Wounds; We Are All Healers

If there’s anything I’ve learned as a therapist, it is that all of us have emotional and mental wounds. Some that are deep and some that are more superficial. These wounds shape us and change us, forcing our emotional skins to regenerate and our mental bones to regrow and strengthen. I have also come to know that each of us has a deep-seated ability to be healers. Our woundedness does not take away from our capacity to be healing influences. In fact, at time I think that it is our woundedness that allows us to serve and love and aid others more fully. To be truly empathetic requires us to access our wounds. To sit with someone in pain beautifully forces us to sit with our own pain as well. As such, we become wounded healers. We use our wounds to push us forward into more empathy and compassion. We don’t need to be healed to be healing influences, we can do so even as we are still wounded and healing ourselves.

Woundedness as a Gift

I know it’s so cliché to say 2020 has been a really difficult year, but wow! It really has been such a difficult year! As many of you, I have felt more anxiety this past year than in any other time of my life. I have felt afraid and uncertain. This anxiety that I have experienced has felt like a “wound” for me. In talking with a friend, they asked me if I could view my increased anxiety as a gift. At first I scoffed at the idea. Dealing with heavy emotions was not a gift! It was painful and at times, felt too heavy to bear. However, the more I thought about it, the more I realized that this increase in emotional difficulty really was a gift. When friends talked about the heaviness of anxiety, I had a little bit of a better taste as to just how painful this was. When clients spoke of the frustration and desire for anxiety to just go away, I could understand a bit more what this was like. My woundedness didn’t make me less of a good therapist, friend, or healer, it actually helped me connect to people in ways I never could have if I hadn’t experienced an increase in emotional pain myself. My empathy just skyrocketed after this experience and I believe I’m a better therapist, friend, and healing influence because of it.

Embracing the “And”

In what ways are you a “wounded healer?” How are you embracing both your wounds and your capacity to be a healer? What makes this difficult? My clients have been some of my greatest examples of wounded healers. It’s not always easy to get to a place where one aspect does not feel more valuable or important than the other, however, there is a unique power and beauty that comes from embracing them both!