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Who Are You, Offline?

In the age of social media, the mega display, and the tech boom, we quickly forget that some things are better left to happen privately. Not everything needs displaying on a virtual platform. 

Who are you, offline? 

Necessitated by a need to be connected with others for work and to remain social, the pandemic increased, and our time online. Researchers are concerned about the impact on myopic behaviors and childhood development. Defined as short-sightedness, myopic is used in this context in a physical sense. Too much time in front of screens can affect eyesight. Could so much time online also shortcircuit our social and psychological behaviors? Is this something we need to step back from to look at more broadly? 

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The social aspect of technology can certainly be supportive in an increasingly isolated world. We find answers to our never-ending questions, reconnect to old friends and start groups that meet a unique niche. But overuse of social media indulges and conflates our desires for connection with our cravings for self-worth. And we fall into comparison traps. Sometimes, we behave more in ways online that we never would in person, throwing nasty and harmful comments to one another. When we’re more connected than ever, don’t we seem more divided?

There are endless subtle messages about how we’re supposed to be and behave, and this can become exacerbated when we live in a predominately online world. How much time do you spend disconnecting on purpose these days? Off-the-grid, without wi-fi, TikTok, Facebook, or Instagram. Here we can tune down the volume on the others: other people, the media, the rants, the noise. Without all the chatter, we can get quiet. Then we can finally hear something meaningful inside us. But it’s hard to disconnect when it feels like everything happens through our devices. 

In some ways, we make ourselves more vulnerable online. Someone can hack into our accounts. Young minds can become susceptible to distortions: hacked in ways of viewing themselves and others. 

Quickly, we get caught in a race of always trying to “get” something from others: more likes, more followers, more watches, more views, more shares, more stuff. Some of us might watch from the sidelines, never sharing ourselves, enveloped in envy and comparison.

We forget who we are when we’re constantly trying to be connected. In seeking validation from others, we give over control about who we are. We’ve lost power in our attempts to control something by what we choose to portray on our online platforms. We start to believe that life only is if it’s captured online. Hashtagged, followed, or retweeted becomes our sense of self. Lost in virtual reality, we start to care more about our image than our inner world. Everything becomes self-promotion.

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Societies expectations of us are often rigid, narrow, and confining; algorithms conflate them. People don’t see us how we are, though, and the media and our online presence can distort ourselves and other views. We see others how we assume they are. Socially, we all get lumped into boxes based on our cultures, races, genders, and various identities. These boxes are prescriptions and scripts for behaving and what we’re supposed to do in the world. But none of those categories ever mattered, and we got ourselves in trouble when we adopted those beliefs for ourselves. 

We can hardly undo all the subtle subconscious internalizing our culture has programmed into us. Often we don’t pause to question these behaviors or cravings ourselves. It takes undoing when we decide to step away from online life consciously. Something forces us, often at midlife or after a crisis, to reconfigure what we’re after while we’re alive. Away from the noise, we start removing the assumed “shoulds” about what your life should look like, who you should be, how you should act, and how you should feel. Those pesky shoulds will set your authenticity on fire. What are we projecting out into the world? Were they even our ‘shoulds,’ or did we inherit them?! 

Intimacy with ourselves and others is lost when we focus solely on the social aspects and feedback about our online personas. Our real lives are in the private moments at the end of the day when no one is looking, and there’s nothing to prove, gain or get.  

Who do you want to be while you are here? 
Are you living that way now, and if not, what is stopping you?
What are you choosing?

Offline, behind the scenes, when the door finally closes, you can stop trying. You can finally feel into the quietness with raw honesty. Placing your sense of self in the validation of another like social media is a setup: when others’ opinion of you matters more than your relationship with yourself, you’ve already lost. It’s when we set down the need to please others or outsource our validation that we finally let ourselves relax.

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Consistently finding areas that allow a softening, you can begin to let your life be what it will be—allowing yourself to emerge as you are without trying to capture or publicize it. 

Life only affords us 4,000 weeks. How do you want to spend it? 

I have not met a person who said they wished they had spent more time caring about others’ perceptions of them. (Let me know if you have.) Our elders would remind us that it never mattered anyway what the people around us thought. In the end, what will matter to you? Were you true to yourself?

Our difficulties quieting down and disconnecting leave us little room, to be honest with ourselves. In an engaged, authentic, and purposeful way, what if you made more room was to focus inward? Let yourself unplug. Turn the phone off; Put the device down. Talk to the trees (they’re good listeners.) Ask yourself better questions. What it’s all this for?

It’s all a process, this life offline. What happens offline in those minor, quiet, sometimes painful moments that no one else sees? The intimacy. That’s where we finally meet ourselves. You only have to figure out how to live with yourself, as you are and as things are right now. In the end, our relationship with our authentic ourselves is the one that matters most- not what is portrayed on some pages for others to like.  

When we care more about our image than our inner world, we outsource and ask for something from others that no one can ever give us. It’s a losing battle, one we lost long ago. We didn’t get the love or validation we needed from somewhere early on, so we made all sorts of systems to try and create a false version of it.

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We stay small when we stay comfortable with the people we are right now, glued to devices and frightened to step away. We can’t get honest with ourselves when we’re crowded with all the noise of technology, tweets, and news. Behind the scenes, off the screens, we are invited to meet ourselves. Offline, when no one else is looking, we can purposefully create authentic relationships. You can finally look at yourself in the mirror. Not needing to perform, promote or inflate in any way: the place of inner peace. Whatever the mess, whatever the suffering, whatever the feelings, whatever the joy: Be with it; it’s changing as we go. And it’s alright. 

Maybe there is a new life coming, one that you’ve been constructing behind the scenes, under the pain. How do you birth something new from inside you when you don’t know which way to go? What happens when you feel all that grief? 
Define yourself, for yourself. Become more of who you are. That’s how you set yourself free. 

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The Wisdom In Change

The waves roll inward, crash, and then recede. 
The wind exhales and shutters a breeze.
The sun that rises later sets.
The seasons change, the years go on. Times passes slowly in one way, quickly in another. Where do the years go? We say to one another, never expecting an answer. We already know. There are just moments strung together—the moments of our lives.

The waves of change are the reminder of our impermanence. 

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The precious moments with your newborn, the heart-to-heart conversations with a loved one, the moments of honesty, vulnerability where you open. Why does this have to end? We plead in spaces of joy, freedom in relief, and where we feel the beauty that life finally gifts us. 

The tenderness of a hug. 
The cold drink on a hot day. 
The kiss of the sun on your skin.
The song that makes you want to sing or dance. 
The moments worth capturing, where you whisper to yourself, oh, I wish this could last forever.

Once we come to love something, we also recognize the potential for loss. We become attached when we feel good- we want it to stay. We cling. So yummy, I want more. Seconds, please? We don’t want to be reminded that we will lose it. Whatever it is, once it arrives, can you let the good be there? Without tainting it in any way with adjustments or corrections, notice what’s good and appreciate it before it goes. 

Our child grows up and no longer needs us. 
The drop from the high, the end of a trip. 
The sweet parting goodbyes. 
The post-fun blues. 
The last bite of cake. 
The rolling credits of the movie come, and we’re left to get back on to the next thing. 

Watch newborns discover their newest encounter. Young life is naturally absorbed: The learning and fascination of what they can find with their eyes, touch, taste, and voice. Babies don’t think about tomorrow or worry about yesterday. They are here now. As we age, we lose our ability to be present and flow with life. We pick up worries and aches as we grow. We store the inner mysteries and pains in the shadows. We let few people know what goes on there. 

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When the waves are life aren’t so pleasant, we become frightened that these, too, will somehow last forever. Will this ever end? We wonder in the dullest, more trying times. The wisdom of impermanence is that even in the difficult moments, we can remember that everything–all of it–is temporary. We cry out in our moments of pain, panic, fear, and confusion. The seeming never-ending pandemic, the heart-wrenching breakup, the ambiguous loss, the daily annoyances, and the fog of all that we still don’t know. Whether it’s something we witness outside of us or only things we feel deep within ourselves, the moments of pain will end. 

Something happens when we also recognize that however it is, it will not last. The impermanence that something will one day cease; whether beautiful, painful, sad, or exciting, radically we’re asked to become more present. Recognizing impermanence frees us from the struggle. Instead of clinging, hating, resisting what’s happing, we can learn how to manage the wave that is life right now. 

When we have a pleasurable experience: we’ve finally made progress, we notice our growth, we finally feel good, relaxed. Or maybe we just for a moment recognize that everything is okay, and nothing needs to be done except be here and breathe it in. Celebrate. 

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The bittersweet taste of life reminds us that it is all passing. That change will come, wanted or unwanted, and something else will greet us at the door soon enough. The mystery is that we never know just how some parts of life will unfold or the nature of the course of what will be ahead of us. 

Honest uncertainty is unpopular in most conversations. We feel comfortable with predictions, control. We want to know what’s ahead of us. We live with the illusion that we’ll be more equipped to manage it if only we knew. Yet, we never got the complete study guide for the crucial aspects of our lives: how to release or navigate pain and let in the wonder of all that is still unknown. We forget to contemplate the mysteriousness of our existence. 

In our progressive mindset, we end up living with a critical attitude that means we’re always looking for what’s wrong and what needs changing. It is undoubtedly helpful for growth, but we can quickly burn out if it’s the only lens we see in life. What happens when you accept the fact that none of this will last. Change is our only constant. Something you love, something you hate, something you… it will all go. The pain, the worry, the joy, the pleasure. These are the waves of your life. 

“I knew the moment I was in love when I noticed how much it would hurt to lose him,” a client said. The attachments that we cherish show us how much we will miss something once it’s gone. Can you tolerate both feelings at once? The love and the inevitable loss of it. Cherish it now. There will come a time when you miss the past; reminiscing, and looking back only to realize that what once was is no longer and never will be again.

When life meets us with difficulty, we forget that it will also end. It always does. Acknowledge the inevitable, and permit yourself to be in the space of it all. We have this now, so how can we appreciate it and find ways to ride this wave before it again changes form?

After meeting with some clients for years, we build a mutual affection and attachment. With time they trust me, and together we find ways to support their growth and healing. Our respect and trust for one another grow, and we become attached. Inevitably we must acknowledge that some way or another, I will leave them, or they will leave me. It’s frightening and causes a stir inside us because we don’t know. We want to keep what we have now, as precious as it might be, forever. Yet, we never can. 

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No one ever wants to talk about it: the end, the loss. And at the same time, it’s always our reality. Yet when it’s good, we want to hang on to it. Our youth leaves us behind, with only pictures and stories; now wrinkles imprint the memories on our faces. Our bodies hold the history of our lives; we have new aches where before there were none. Our looks and our resistance to it passing, our mourning, our constant reminiscing, trying to “get back” somewhere. When we know that things will end, we can appreciate and maybe even tolerate them more. When we’re grounded enough in ourselves, we can even loosen our grip on the fact that it’s all passing. 

Nothing will last. Everything will go. This beautiful day, this joyous feeling, the darkness, and the confusion-none of it will stay. That’s the paradox of life: what was born will one day die. They are a packaged deal. The gift inside of loss: vast parts of life are out of our hands. We only have now. The waves of our lives: It will all be okay. And if it’s not, remember that it too will someday end. 

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The Feelings Aren’t the Problem: It Gets Easier As You Go

“I’m most frightened to lose my mind.” A client told me when sharing her deeper fears about the consequences of long-term drug use. Whether you use drugs or fear dementia, who among us isn’t afraid to lose our minds? 

My client was afraid of not controlling her own psyche, yet her drug use took her away anyway. What if we need to lose it first to understand it better? What if we need to let go of the control we think we have to really be in control? What if that is one of the greatest paradoxes of life?

What are you frightened of feeling?

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Many of my clients talk of anxiety that they wish would go away. Who wouldn’t want relief from constantly feeling anxious? A daily state of inner unease. An undercurrent that doesn’t allow one to feel safe. It makes perfects sense to crave relief and freedom. Yet becoming aware of anxiety can trigger more fear—the anxiety about the anxiety. When self-awareness grows enough, you start to witness your dysfunctional patterns without all the tools to know how to manage them. Growth and change are hard. Awareness is powerful; experimenting in our coping and healing is vital in our development.  

Whatever the stage, we can offer both ourselves and others compassionate kindness. When we see our need to grow but don’t yet know what to do, we can practice patience with ourselves. We can ask for support from others while we learn. It’s all process. It’s all learning. It’s all okay, even when it sucks. 

Clients with a severe preoccupation with their anxiety are afraid to feel, tolerate, or soothe their anxiety. Much easier and adaptable to shift energy into overthinking, busy in their minds. I don’t have to feel it, but I will think about it. Maybe I can think my way out of it. 

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What if we didn’t turn away from, analyze, or get rid of the anxiety or the anger? What if, instead, we listened to and felt it? 

I’m curious about a pervasive desire to avoid, numb, or get rid of the emotion. When I lead my clients toward the thing they most don’t want to feel, we feel the resistance. Why is it difficult for men to let themselves cry? Why is it difficult for women to feel and embody their anger? What is the message that we miss there? 

Your anxiety. Your sadness. Your anger. Your fears. 

Recently, a client, who was trying to develop ways to avoid and distract herself from her anxiety for years, was amazed at the idea of engaging with it. I was asking her to do a 180. By turning towards, instead of away from the uncomfortable feeling, we could listen in a new way. “Let’s invite your anxiety to tea,” I said, changing the tone of the interaction. “What does it want you to know?” When she listened, she heard that her anxiety asked for connection. So, in a hard time, she reached out to be more connected to her family. 

From our engagement with it, she realized that feelings have messages. By becoming too avoidant and fearful of them, she missed the mysterious meaning in it. She missed knowing herself more. The anxiety was not the problem; it was the thinking about the stress that left her destabilized, with hot flashes and panic attacks. We began healing her anxiety by finding a way to make it safe enough for her to listen to herself more. 

Even when some clients were feeling more stable, they were so conditioned to find the problems, the issues, or the pain that they couldn’t let themselves feel good. With one client, we started noticing how he was continuously preoccupied with searching for anxiety. When will it show up? Where is it? 

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We can get so fixed in our feelings that we might not let ourselves feel the changing tides. When satisfaction and joy finally arrive, can we let it be there? My client wasn’t yet able to let himself feel stable. He got so focused on the preoccupation of removing the anxiety that he had tethered himself to it. Wired to look for problems, he couldn’t let himself notice the growth and positivity he was busy building. 

Sometimes we get so stuck in our places that feel familiar, even if they harm us. It is comfortable to be in what’s safe, already known, especially if we never engage with it. Growth and expansion don’t happen if we never ask ourselves different questions or dive deeper into an exploration of what we’re afraid to feel. There is gold in there. If only there weren’t so much fear. 

In the words of Tara Brach, “What are you unwilling to feel?” 

What messages might you be missing if you’re unwilling to feel them? 

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Musings

Who Are You, Offline?

Intimacy with ourselves and others is lost when we focus solely on the social aspects and feedback about our online personas. Our real lives are in the private moments at the end of the day when no one is looking, and there’s nothing to prove, gain or get.

How to help an addict

Mis-perceptions of addiction, and an overemphasis of drugs, combined with the undervaluing of relationships, majorly impact the outcomes in treating addiction.

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Your Therapist Doesn’t Have the Answers. You Do.

“Am I normal?” “Did you know?” “How far back does this go?”

These are some of my favorite moments in the session. When clients become curiously interested in themselves and their wiring, I know we are on to something great. 

There are a few assumptions that people have when they learn I’m a psychotherapist. Some assume that my job is to give advice; and that I can and will psychoanalyze them. The latter may be partially true. The former is, fortunately, a myth.

Depth psychotherapy is not like most other markets that we pay for in capitalism. We’re not selling you a product. You can’t screenshot or capture it. It constantly changes and updates on its own, without any downloads. If you stay with it, something inside you expands. 

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There is an inner compass that we all hold. We know the way to go, the direction we would choose. On some profound level, we know and love ourselves, despite our messiness. If only we were in touch with this compass, we could move through life a little easier. We could choose for ourselves, let it all happen, and role with the rockier waves of life. We could find peace. Life wouldn’t always go our way, but we’d be okay when it didn’t. We wouldn’t resist. We would welcome whatever came: sorrow, rage, confusion, fear, grief, and feel it all along the way. We could stay in the process of our lives. 

On Advice
I don’t see myself as all-knowing. I’m in no position to give advice or tell others what they should do. In intricate areas of life, like personal decisions, inner understandings, and commitments, I don’t believe anyone “knows” what the right thing is, and I think we should be wary of anyone who acts as if they do. Seeing myself as an advice giver puts me in a dangerous spot-a place of power and promise, one in which I know I’d eventually fail.

As a therapist, my role is to show up dedicated to staying with the process and supporting clients in figuring it out for themselves. As we grow and evolve across our lifetimes, we all must learn to steer our ship. We all have our paths to walk.

Consumerism as Avoidance
Believing that someone has the answers to the process of life is tantalizing. Sadly though, we cannot apply the same approach to the self discovery as we do to most of daily purchases. We are brainwashed to believe latest product will bring lasting happiness or that our materials possessions will make us feel whole. Capitalism would like us to believe it has the answer to our current predicament. Yet nothing external can soothe the process that is hurting inside. A fallacy that many structures of society would have us believe: Society’s most severe and ignored addiction is consumerism. 

Thankfully, life becomes a lot easier when we learn how to let life live through us instead of figuring it out or filling the void with something outside of us. When we allow life to unfold, instead of trying to control it, we enjoy the experience a whole lot more. We only need to learn how to be with life while it’s happening. We only need to stay present for it all. The challenge is that it’s hard to stay with the pain: no one showed us how.

Coping Mechanisms
A common term in addiction and recovery, coping mechanisms are the ways to soothe ourselves amongst the problems and challenges we are ensuing at any current stage of life. When we drink and use substances more during a pandemic, we are finding ways to cope. Maybe we need an escape or a soothing; perhaps we need to alter ourselves inwardly, finding relaxation when stuck at home in a time of uncertainty. Before COVID, maybe we needed to adjust ourselves: we drank to become more social.

Another coping mechanism is to deflect from our deeper feelings within ourselves. We defend against our fear and project our pain onto others. Some of us cope by freaking out and try to control others. We expend our energy blaming others instead of working on bettering ourselves. Much of the political divide is centered around this process. We can spend most of our time focusing on the problem in the others. Yet it is us, after all, who are in charge of our lives. And, (if we’re not manipulating others,) it is only ourselves we have any power over.

If we can understand how we cope with life challenges, we can get to know ourselves better. If we knew that, when we get depressed, we tend to start drinking, we are on the path towards finding alternative outlets that might cause us less harm. If we realized that when we’re lonely, we pick up our phones to scroll social media, we are one step towards engaging with our loneliness. 

Curiosity opens us. 
For my clients who want to understand themselves better, there is a curious drive to learn about their complexities, inner worlds, conflicts, and feelings. “I love the process- it feels like we’re trying to solve a puzzle,” a client says when we have a powerful session. An admirable voyage, when we engage with ourselves, we open. When we are disengaged or cut off from ourselves, we’ll miss what’s happening, lost in another world that confuses our heart’s desire with a craving.

The problems arrive when we defend against life and what it brings to us through denial and avoidance. When life meets us with despair, we must learn how to let that pain move through us. The way to let life live through us means we must find the strength to take it in, digest, compost, fertilize. Churning through the pain and the fear, eventually, we might use our pain to take action and, maybe, create something else.  

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When a client asks me to tell them what to do in a particular situation, I am cautious. While I assist in their process, clients develop their capabilities to navigate the struggles that will meet them at different stages of his life. I don’t tell people what to do, thankfully. I make it safer for them to feel whatever they feel while going through it. I’m not giving advice-I’m providing an experience. One in which we can all feel and choose for ourselves. 

The goal of psychotherapy isn’t to feel better but to get better at the feeling. 

Beyond finding solutions to momentary problems, psychodynamic style of therapy offers a place to experience a process. One in which you learn how to navigate issues on your own through expanding your self-understanding, creating a sustainable way of navigating your inner world, no matter what the outer world offers up.

Few of our early environments taught us how to engage with these complexities within us when we get confused, off-centered, and stuck in places that feel heavy. The feelings are often our roadmap- if only we knew how to listen and explore them. Recently a client said, “I’m not sure I know how it works, but I’m starting to trust the process.” In the middle of a prime personal crossroads, we don’t know where his life will lead, but we are trying to help him navigate it better on his own. 

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What We’re Not Talking About and Why it Matters

The elephant in the room no one wants to touch. You evade it, pretend things are okay. Something remains unspoken—an awkwardness: the boundary violation, the adoration, or the confusion. 

The avoidance that keeps us from progressing forward. 

The idea you aren’t yet able to share.  
The crush withheld from disclosure. 
The resentment that you bury. 
The envies, jealousies, or rage. The fear.  

You have a felt sense that something is off. An edge to your conscious awareness: that leaves you with an erry tension in the air. 

Avoidance is a verb: to steer clear from, dodge, ignore or evade. 

We defend against what is uncomfortable. The pandemic asked us to stop avoiding things that have been there all along: inequalities, anxieties, death. Interpersonally and collectively, what are we not talking about? What do we leave out? 

I’m interested in not just what’s said but what isn’t said. Why don’t we let ourselves be honest and vulnerable with one another? How come we don’t talk much about death until it’s right in our face? Why don’t we expose our hearts more often? 

Avoidance helps us escape something we perceive as painful. Ever run into or reconnect with someone from your past that upset or betrayed you? Did you notice the tension of what wasn’t said? The awkward feelings float somewhere in the air but are never spoken. We tell ourselves reasons to keep our deeper feelings locked away. Maybe it’s better to leave things alone. Sometimes it hurts us more to avoid. 

At times we’re slapped conscious about our avoidance. A client called it a lightbulb moment. “I had many others tell me I had something with my relationship with my mother, but I always dismissed it.” He could no longer avoid what he now knew, at least not if he wanted to take responsibility for his personal growth. 

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Another client who recently had a significant loss spoke of noticing that she had avoided her grief only because her daughter started asking about the deceased. She didn’t know how to tell her. Confronted by her core value to be a good mother, she had to face what she avoided. 

What we choose to avoid is interesting. Whenever we focus on some topic in conversation, we are, at the same time, choosing to NOT talk about something else. When we watch one channel, we are choosing not to watch another. Maybe a family avoids talking about a deceased loved one because they want to avoid their grief. Or grief becomes consuming, avoiding any pleasure or celebration. Many corporations and institutions have long avoided acknowledging that white supremacy continues to permeate our society. We can avoid admitting our privileges.

What ISN’T said says a lot. To my mind, subtle avoidances may, on the surface, allow us to skirt around what we believe will be uncomfortable. Whether it’s addressing the hurt we’ve caused another individually or acknowledging system oppressions within our societal structures, over time, those unspoken areas do more damage when avoided than when they’re voiced. Reparations can only come when we acknowledge the pain caused. In our societal reckoning, we must bring our shadows out into the light. Avoidance doesn’t help us evolve.  

We avoid for many reasons. Maybe we avoid as a way of protecting ourselves or others from some version of pain. We don’t want to confess the betrayal, so we live within guilt, believing that we’re sparing the other harm. Maybe we don’t like to acknowledge the inevitable end of life, so we avoid discussing it. It’s uncomfortable and feels easier to sidestep.  

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Sometimes we avoid transparency to manipulate another. We don’t tell the truth, hoping to sway the process in our preferred favor. Sometimes we tell ourselves we have to avoid to preserve the relationship because it doesn’t appear to withstand talking more openly. Avoidance may be the only way to keep what’s there, even if what’s there is broken. 

There are consequences to chronic avoidance. When we continuously try to evade or sweep thoughts, feelings, and truths under the rug, we are sidestepping our way through. Longstanding avoidances manifest psychosomatically in our minds and bodies, causing more disease and suffering. Children feel when their parents hide or lie to them: it lives somewhere in their psyche. Our personalities can manifest around misinformation. We become suspicious and untrusting in relationships where we don’t feel we’re getting the whole picture–some part of us senses it. What we avoid will find its way into our worlds whether we like it or not. We might as well be honest with ourselves. 

The nature of avoidance tells us to believe that what we’re avoiding SHOULD be avoided. It’s better to keep it quiet, pretend it’s not there. 

Because it might feel uncomfortable to say the thing that no one else wants to say, it might feel awkward to expose yourself more and feel the emotions that you’d instead not let yourself touch. Inherent in nature, avoidances make us turn our backs on ourselves. We are frightened, afraid of what we’ll find, and cling to the safety of what we already know. Shame lives here. 

We can never have a curiosity with our backs to ourselves. Honest inquiry helps us soothe the shame that avoidance convinces us of. We must give rise to the parts that beg to remain hidden. This exploration is rich with possibility, if only we could bear it. Whatever we’re avoiding needs considering. If we can lift it up, we could shift something essential. We only need to start to be open and curious enough to engage with it.

Drinking, drugs, overworking, social media, intellectualizing, staying busy-any behavior can be a form of avoidance. The behaviors aren’t in themselves the problem. Mysteriously, those behaviors are helping us avoid something else. What is it about avoiding that feels temporarily relieving? Consequently, how does it also block the authentic nature that lets us live a complete life?

Who do you avoid talking to, and why? Think of the awkwardness around someone you disagree with or don’t like. How does one even start talking to someone of the opposite political divide these days? How do you engage with someone who’s had a vastly different life journey than you? How do you engage with someone that, on the surface, you don’t like very much? Are you turned on or off by the idea of it? 

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Engaging with others that are different, have a different life experience with openness, compassion, and curiosity can enhance your heart, compassion, and understanding. It also provides the benefit of authentic connection, something we as humans need to survive. We often avoid these opportunities because it makes us question our sense of what we know to be genuine and value in ourselves. 

Sometimes we avoid for protection: we try to avoid getting hit by a car when crossing the street. We try to avoid being hurt by others; we don’t want to hear anything from them that makes us question ourselves. 

But maybe there are times when we avoid things that might serve us:

  • Letting down our guards
  • Listening non-defensively
  • Speaking up for ourselves
  • Asserting our needs

We avoid things that are uncomfortable even when those things are necessary for our growth. 

I came into sessions one day after having surgery on one of my fingers. I noticed which clients mentioned what was different about my presentation. Some clients inquired and expressed their good wishes; other clients ignored or missed it completely. I wondered if some of them had noticed but felt they could not ask me. I pondered to myself about what that meant about them and our relationship. 

We are mysteriously complicated: Our shadows, inner worlds, and messiness of the human experience. Sometimes we can be afraid of ourselves, fearful of others. Sometimes we royally mess up. And many times, we want to avoid it all. Avoidance happens on our interpersonal levels and our collective realms. Some of us avoid emotions, or adventure, or change. Sadly, some of us avoid self-reflection. What might we begin to learn when we ask ourselves more intentionally, what might we be avoiding?

There is a mysterious quality about what we avoid and why. In your relationships, are there areas where you are evading? What have you wanted to try to speak to but have thus far avoided? At the core of it, what are you unwilling to feel?

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Ambivalence is a Stage of Change

A client struggling with anxiety and depression told me how sometimes he wants to socialize but finds that he frequently cancels at the last minute. “I get a migraine, and then as soon as I’m there, I want to leave. I feel stuck, wanting to get out, but I’m dependent on a ride.” He’s ambivalent about socializing: he both wants it at the same time he doesn’t.  

I note that he feels conflicted and anxious. Something tells him to go out, and sometimes he feels the need to pull in. He feels frightened, unsure of himself and how to interact. He feels ashamed. Most strikingly, he is aware of all of this. 

As usual, I want to hear more. 

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Ambivalence carries a negative connotation in a world where we like certainty. We become intolerant and wary of letting ourselves have mixed feelings or doubt. We don’t want others’ having any mixed feelings about us. When the world feels scary, we feel safer with knowing

What happens when you don’t know what you want, which direction to go or how to change? Maybe part of you wants a committed relationship, but part of you also enjoys the freedom of singlehood. Or perhaps you want to stop drinking but don’t know how else to soothe the shame underneath. 

Sometimes ambivalence is a form of self-preservation. If I don’t know, I can stay where I am because at least this is familiar. It wouldn’t always be wise for us to jump into a significant commitment or change without knowing what we’re getting ourselves into. We’d not often buy a house without seeing it or marry someone we haven’t met in person. My client stayed home as a way to defend against social rejection. Our ambivalence can be a way to protect ourselves. 

No matter our stage of life, ambivalence is always around. As kids, we might want to make our parents proud, but that conflicts with our desire to carve our unique path. Maybe part of us want to travel the world after school, but another part feels that it’s more reasonable to get a job. 

Tolerating this space inside us that is unsure and uncertain about what to do, opens room for the process to unfold. 

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In the traditional stage of change, ambivalence is like contemplation. Sorting through what we want, need, and how to make it happen. Maybe we are excited about whatever is next. Perhaps looking forward also makes us look back on the past. We can feel both a desire for something new and the comfort of the familiar. We might not know how to embrace the space between two opposing desires. 

We might be frustrated by our own or someone else’s ambivalence. Why won’t they just change?! You might ask. Outside views of someone else conflicted states often leave us puzzled. Several clients talked in sessions of the life they envisioned, once freed of their addiction. They could imagine a fulfilling future: a family, a house, a job, and freedom from dependency. Some had even verbalized their awareness of their tendency to sabotage their recovery. Then they’d disappear from treatment for days at a time. I was left worried and confused. Then I realized that this was all part of their process. Sometimes we have to move forward and backward while we figure out our path. 

On the verge of unfamiliar, unknown, and foreign, it seems natural to return to what has felt safe and familiar. Routines keep us feeling safe, sustaining us. What comforts us keeps us safe, preserved, and yet, nothing gets challenges there. If we decide to always remain in our comfort zone, our self-preservation begins to limit us.  

“In the long run, I want to be able not to use substances to make my anxiety go away, but right now, it’s the only thing that I know will work,” a client told me recently. He was ambivalent about trying to find another way. In the face of change, it’s natural to feel unclear. It’s when we’re unable to become curious that we might become stuck and paralyzed in shame. 

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Fear plays a prominent role in our states of ambivalence. We are more likely to make self-directed positive changes when others meet us with kindness. To explore our ambivalence, we only need a dose of openness and curiosity. There is an uneasy feeling that comes when we make space for both: what we know and what we might want but don’t yet know. 

What does it mean if I make this commitment? 
What does it require of me? 
What will I have to give up?  

Sometimes we stay safe within ourselves. Even when we want to grow, we might also be frightened about what’s on the other side. We might be afraid about the journey to get there. Giving up what we already have and know is a risk.

Ambivalence can become our home. Inaction is itself a choice to remain where we are. Not moving with but against our conflicted states of mind can make us feel stuck. One client walks the line between two different needs: to connect and to self-protect. Another client navigates the ambivalence of giving up drugs to soothe loneliness and grief. How do we trust the road ahead when there are no guarantees?

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The comfort of what’s known feels safe when change feels overwhelming or challenging. Sometimes we need to sit in our uncertainty while we figure out what it is that we want. Transformation, in any shape, whether it’s moving homes, becoming a parent, or entering recovery, is never an easy journey. Maybe ambivalence is the space we stay in while we sort through. 

What happens inside us when we’re frightened of something new, unknown, and uncertain? Can we recognize that even though part of us wants to transform, another part prefers the familiar? We are constantly finding more clarity, feeling our way, broadening our understanding, and making meaning of our lives. There’s a curiosity to the complexity that ambivalence offers: so much unknown and still undiscovered. While there, we can always ask more questions.

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“It’s not fair” and the Cries of Our Inner Child

“It’s not fair,” the six-year-old in her wanted to say. 

We were mid-session, exploring the frustration and overwhelm she felt with another significant blow to her already tragic life. Her young pet died suddenly from an aggressive cancer. 

She associated to her younger self, recalling her mother’s words: 

“Life isn’t fair.”

Life isn’t fair, sure, but that’s not the point.

Logical responses do little to quell emotions that stir up inside us when life throws us painful curveballs. My client had already gone through unforeseen challenges that naturally made her encounter heavy emotions: grief through loss after loss after loss. She took her mother’s words as fact and guidance: hide those feelings and get used to them. But what of the exhaustion? What of the times when we’re emotionally overwhelmed and tired of all the challenges? What about when we want a break? 

The reality is that life is not fair. We can’t always change our circumstances, so instead, we try to find ways to accept them. A healthy adaptation, and yet, a child’s emotions don’t go away when dismissed, ignored, or rejected. They often go underground. Unheard feelings create a life of shadows, and these emotions seep out in harmful ways like depression, aggression, and addictions. 

Logical responses to emotional matters do little to help our process. Together we explored the feelings my client had in reaction to her mother’s words. It was all so logical, though: life isn’t fair. As an adult, my client began to do what was done to her: she shut down her own emotions and learned to buckle through. It worked for a while until it didn’t. Although we’d like to reason away our feelings nevertheless, they seem to persist. Ever have a crush on someone and try to squash it through reasoning? Ever have a life dream and try to talk yourself out of it?

How did it go? 

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Often matters of the heart need to be responded to with the heart. Topics of the mind do better when we understand how our emotions may be intruding. We must learn the difference when both reason and humanity intersect.

Learning to shut down her feelings didn’t allow my client to explore what was needing expression underneath. I wanted to make space for the unheard six-year-old. What were you trying to convey? I asked.

We found that it was about her frustration, confusion, and sadness. Her inner six-year-old was still speaking; she was never fully heard. Together, we discovered that when she felt “overwhelmed, frustrated, and powerless,” as an adult, she shut herself down by isolating and keeping her pain to herself: she suffered alone. Our work became about feeling her deeper feelings and then finding spaces to share them with others. She was learning to feel, accept, and then share in safe places.  

Making room for undiscovered feelings allowed my client to reconnect with her disowned, long-buried parts. She needed to share this overwhelming sadness with someone who would listen. She needed to be heard. 

So much of our internal wiring comes indirectly- we adapt to what happens to us from other people. We respond to people’s actions and our life circumstances first by making meaning of them. We believe what our parents say and do until we have reason to think otherwise. Dangerously, we might never question them. 

Our youth begs us to grow and expand. Yes, we often lack words to communicate our feelings along this process. Schools don’t teach us about our feelings or how to express them. Most of us picked up our understanding of our feelings and how to act through the people we grew up around. Did your family act out their anxiety and anger with loud outbursts, or were they the secret and silent type? Were only the men allowed to be angry? Were only the women allowed to cry? 

The emotional body is a powerful force. Whether it’s a pizza you want but say you shouldn’t have or a fantasy of running away from life’s inevitable problems, we can’t always reason ourselves out of our feelings. Sometimes we need to feel them. We need first to listen. 

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We need both understanding and a language to convey what’s was going on inside us. Absent both, we act out our emotions instead of communicating them. Attuning to the actual children in our lives requires openness to what is going on behind the scenes. Behaviors are attempts to deliver messages; we’re just often conditioned not to listen.

As adults, we continue to have our inner child, who holds the unexpressed and stuck emotions that often come out in acts like a tantrum or outburst. Road rage is an easy target for unheard anger or misdirected sadness. Hysteria lets us predict (with confidence) there is more going on beneath the surface. 

When adults respond to a child’s feelings with logic, it shuts down a necessary conversation towards understanding the inner world. Chronic responses in this manner teach children to shut down their own emotions. On a massive level, we end up with a society of adults who over-intellectualize and become disconnected from their feelings. Is it any wonder we have more depression and addiction than ever before? 

Many clients would defend against deeper feelings and immediately say they don’t want to sound like a “victim.” Socialized to be intellectual, many males don’t want to appear weak, whiney, or devoid of taking responsibility. And yet, I can’t help but notice that the child within them is trying to speak. 

When we’re defending against playing “a victim” to what happened to us, we reject our inner realities and the feelings that lived underneath. When we uncover and dig beneath the defense of the victimhood, we learn about what emotions we’re avoiding.

We can be victim to our circumstances and our unconscious as much as we are to our traits, race, and heritage. We didn’t choose these things, but they are ours now and ours to navigate and understand. Knowing and understanding the parts of us that are victims to our relational ways of responding to others and ourselves is both: we accept the reality we didn’t choose. And we take responsibility for the feelings we have about our lives. By choosing to take responsibility for what happened to us, we are set on a path to free ourselves. 

Victim-mentality is a state of feeling helpless. And there is much to be learned by exploring the authentic feelings that arise when we feel lost and lacking confidence in our ability to navigate life. However, when we reactively shut down on ourselves, we’re defending against understanding ourselves more deeply. 

“I think some part of me knows I’m depressed. But another part of me doesn’t want to believe it.” Another client said recently. 

In a world that steers us to our minds, logic, and feeling good, we become frightened to see ourselves as victims of our emotions. We shy away from exploring the feelings underneath. 

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We’d rather not accept the harm caused to us by someone else, so we turn on ourselves instead. We don’t want to feel our raw anger lest we do act on it destructively. We are scared by our grief because it might paralyze us. It’s frightening to believe we might be vulnerable. 

Acceptance of what has happened is essential in moving forward with life, but it should not overstep the inevitable and critical emotions that come with the experience. 

We relish and welcome our pleasure, like a tasty meal or a crisp drink on a hot day. We don’t need logic or reason that, of course, it tastes good: We enjoy, we accept pleasure readily. We cannot always reason away or sidestep the pain, confusion, and grief that envelopes us. To live a full and authentic life, these feelings must have room to speak. 

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Time, Patience, and Process: A Musical Thing

“Patience is not simply the ability to wait–it is how we behave while waiting.”
– Joyce Meyer


Time. It’s something I think about time a lot these days. Over a year into the pandemic, time has warped and twisted our former lives. Days have blurred into months, and now years. 

As humans, we track our minutes, hours, days, and years to keep us moving. 

Our clock counts the hours we slept… or didn’t.
We count minutes until dinner arrives or the workday ends. 
We note the length of our jobs and relationships in years. 
Sometimes we race against time. Sometimes we will time to pass faster.  

You might have three more hours left during your weekend. 
You might have two years until you finish school.
You might have five weeks until your next day off. 

Often we don’t know what time will bring. 

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For better or worse, time follows our days, organizes our appointments, and chains us to our routines. We become impatient for time to pass when we’re uncomfortable. It’s human to want to rush past the annoyances and get back to feeling good. 

When surrounded by so much loss, uncertainty and grief, time can start to feel even more precious. Our anxieties tell us that we don’t want to waste our time. 

How long will this take? 

Many clients begin therapy by asking how long it will take to feel better. Like much of society, they want relief, results, and outcomes. Sometimes we need quick results and short-term relief, like when we take an aspirin to help us get through the pounding headache before an important meeting. But if we lean on short-term relief and fixes for the bulk of our lives, we miss out on deeper understandings. Very often, the place in between here (the pain) and there (the healing) is where we foster resilience, hope, and vital learning. We often miss it because we’re so focused on the result. 

Where are you impatient? 

Maybe it’s the frustrating moments like when you’re stuck in traffic or waiting in line. Perhaps it manifests towards your partner, or kids, or parents. Sometimes, we lack patience with ourselves, wishing we were somehow better. 

Google tells us that patience is the capacity to accept or tolerate delay, trouble, or suffering without getting angry or upset.  Maybe you noticed a lack of patience after month four of quarantine. Perhaps you lose your mind after two hours on hold with customer service. On the spectrum of our patience, and we all have our limits. 

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The pandemic taught us about our need for patience. Our old ways of life drastically changed without promises of a return. We learned to manage our frustration and tolerance of the unknowns. 

Patience and its inverse are sometimes simple, yet often profoundly complex. It’s not only our ability to wait alone that makes us have patience but how we wait: the tone, the quality of our waiting. 

When we’re unhappy, we can get overly focused on relief so often that we forget to find meaning on our way there. 

How we do anything affects the quality of our experience of it—waiting included. Can we find the meaning and the value in the process of waiting?  

Sometimes we’re awaiting the end of something frustrating, painful, or annoying. Many clients want so badly to get out of treatment that they aren’t yet curious about their inner struggles. So focused on getting out of it, we never learn from it. 

Our fast past culture creates little room for understanding our impulses and reactions. It isn’t comforting to slow down and ask more profound questions about ourselves. There’s so much else we could be doing

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We don’t always have the power to make life happen faster or according to our timeline. When we future-focused, we can forget to consider the quality of our waiting. What do we do, and how do we feel and behave while we’re on our way?    

Recently a client was musing on his dissatisfaction with his efforts. He was meditating, exercising, and reflecting but still struggling with sleep, anxiety, and low self-esteem. He wanted the pressure in his chest to go away; it made him feel insecure.  He had little curiosity about his experiences or feelings- he just wanted to feel better. Naturally, we all want to feel better when we’re hurting. Yet, our preoccupation with relief often indicates a sense of shame about our feelings or our capacity to tolerate them.  

We need to feel a sense of safety in those spaces to become curious. 

A Shift Towards Process – Curiosity of the Now

Much of my work with clients is rooted in fostering a curiosity towards themselves. To better understanding what’s going on inside, we often have to slow down. Vital interest in self-understanding, these places usually get buried underneath the stigma, fear, and shame of looking inward. 

Whether in something concrete like the bus’s arrival or the love of our lives, I’m convinced there is an essential component to notice along the way. We miss so much it if always narrowed in out the outcomes. In our results-driven culture, we can forget the unfolding of the journey before us. There is something in the process, in the way we behave along the way.  

You don’t need to love the experience of waiting, but you could find something to appreciate about it.  What would it be like if you looked up, felt your breath, or engaged with the strangers around you the next time you were waiting in line? How might you appreciate the process of building your muscles and not just the eventual shape you hope to achieve? What might you enjoy about your last days of supposed quarantine before it ends? Not always future-focused, what’s good and worth appreciating here and now? Might we be missing out on something vital if primarily focused on the future and hopeful outcome? 

Alan Watts, a British philosopher, spoke to life being like music: the song as a journey. If life is like a song, you don’t dance to a song or listen to music, waiting for the end. When we listen to music, we enjoy it as it goes. Life is while we’re living, now. That includes the waiting to get wherever it is that we’re going.   

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Choosing to focus on the process with curiosity and patience might make the waiting more exciting. It may also provide some relief. 

“and the thing was to get to that end, success or whatever it is, maybe heaven after you’re dead. But we missed the point the whole way along. It was a musical thing, and you were supposed to sing or to dance while the music was being played.” – Alan Watts.

Accept, Then Change Comes

At the beginning of a session recently, a client asked me desperately how he can change himself. He had recently moved home and was quickly swallowed inside his messy family dynamic while caregiving for a dying parent and managing his partner’s destabilizing mental health. He had a lot on his plate, was hardly sleeping, and had little space for himself. 

Highly aware, he talked of his reactive behaviors and impulses, like wanting to run away or raging against family members. He couldn’t accept himself and he was at war with his feelings. He pulled me to give him something concrete about how he could stop the desire to get high. 

I didn’t bite. 

I spent most of the session validating, normalizing, and assisting him with identifying his boundaries and how he didn’t uphold them. I highlighted that he was hard on himself, which made sense, given his early trauma. I aimed to shift his perspective, so I made it okay that he wanted to run away. Radically, I made it alright that he wanted to get high.  

We had a push-pull session: I focused on wondering where he could make more room for himself while he ruminated about how to stop himself from himself. He wanted to change the family dynamic and get others to take more responsibility. I highlighted his over-functioning and advocated for his needs. We’d meet in the middle for a moment before he’d pull back and again attack himself. 

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I realized that I need a different intervention before he left. On his way out, I showed him a Carl Rogers quote that has helped me shift my self-perception: “The curious paradox is that when I accept myself just as I am, then I can change.” 

My client felt he had to change himself before he’d feel better. He wanted to be able to look in the mirror and like himself. He asked great questions and was putting in the effort, I thought he only needed to shift his approach. I asked him to look at his situation differently- get a new perspective. It’s not always about changing oneself but accepting ourselves as we are, now. 

It’s impossible, and hard, and you can’t fix it. I said to him. Might as well be kinder to yourself through it.

My job isn’t to help my clients not get high, which is nice because that would be a lot of pressure and responsibility. My job isn’t even to help clients resist the urge too high. I don’t pretend that those feelings aren’t there: I know the desire to run away and escape from painful and stressful situations is a feeling that lives within all of us. Some of us are more aware of it, and some of us have more we want to run away from. 

My role is to help clients discern the differences between feelings and their actions in reaction to those feelings.  

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My client seemed to be running from the impossible realities of his life and feeling guilty for it. Some people get high to soothe the self-criticism. Some to quell the rage of injustices they’ve occurred. Others need to escape boredom (hello quarantine.) We’re human, and we are always trying to self-soothe, be it through shopping, alcohol, social media or drugs. 

Self-criticism, anxiety, anger, grief, fear, and uncertainty are all normal emotions. They’re also uncomfortable and difficulty to tolerate. To avoid the now, we can so easily get caught up in and focused on the idea that we’ll feel better later on, down the line, when such-and-such happens. 

I’ll feel more secure when I make more money.
I’ll be happier with myself when I lose weight.
After COVID, life will be better.
I’d like myself more if only….

Clinging to that-which-is-not-now is magical, enticing, and normal. It’s also not real.

Having goals and working towards them is an essential aspect of growth, but if we place our happiness on and attach to those ideals to feel better, we can tangle ourselves up in anxiety, depression, and self-sabotage. The act of willing ourselves to feel better has a boomerang effect when the focus is solely on the future potentials: we end of feeling worse.

If we keep waiting to accept ourselves or our situations, we’ll never be satisfied until such-and-such things happen. We’re dependent on things that are not now, always believing that having the thing will bring us the satisfaction. To fill the void. My client felt he had to change himself in order to live with himself. An admirable feat, there was just so much to change, and so very much to process, which would take time. Until then, I thought, let’s make peace with how things are now. That’s all we really have.

Our critical and evolving mindset is beneficial for our growth, and yet, it can get in our way when we can’t accept how we are right now. Our frustration is exacerbated when we cannot control our situation or the others in our lives. Our only power is to focus on the self, and work there. We can try to find ways to feel better now, before we have those things we dream of.

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The truth is, so much of what goes on outside of us is beyond our control. Reality. We can’t control the people we’re in a relationship with, be it partners, co-workers, or our children. We can only ever accept and govern ourselves and find ways of connecting with those people in ways that support and serve us. 

People often assume that therapists have the answers and help fix what appears to be wrong. This mentality contributes to the shame and stigma that keeps people from embarking on psychotherapy because no one is broken.

What if nothing is wrong? What if we only need to shift how you are viewing it? 

Therapy can be a process of changing your relationship with yourself—a place to learn how to accept our imperfect, flawed, dysfunctional ways of being. When another person can sit down and look at the mess of life that is real with us, something changes.

The resistance we have against our current realities causes us the suffering that manifests in a variety of ways: we all have our preferred defenses. Sometimes we only need to ask ourselves different questions.

When might be it beneficial to accept, rather than force change?