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I’m doing a lot of reading these days on the topic of forgiveness, somewhat related to the process of healing and repairing rifts in relationships but also on a general cultural level. It’s a tough slog going from Hargraves, “Families & Forgiveness” to Ketcham’s “Spirituality of Imperfection” to Simon Wiesenthal’s “The Sunflower: On the Possibilities and Limits of Forgiveness”. There are as many opinions on how forgiveness can and does work on the individual and cultural levels as there are authors writing on the subject.

Forgiveness is best considered a highly subjective, personalized experience. In my own experience, forgiveness and forgetting NEVER go hand in hand, but forgiveness for me does mean, “I will not hold this action you have committed against me over your head as a divisive weapon between us any longer”. (And yes, I track the fact that the action happened at all as data point to analyse across future time in the creation of an experiences and detailed mental picture of the individual in question. But it’s not being actively used as a reason to stay distant, not necessarily at any rate; healing can begin.)

This article, while largely written for adults trying to teach kids better ways of saying “Sorry” and meaning it, also has some solid insights for adults trying to be better at saying sorry themselves, or encouraging those who have hurt them to offer meaningful apologies.

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It’s a sad fact that we are conditioned as a culture (by and large; I’m taking some broad generalizations here) to not want to take a lot of responsibilitites for ourselves, our choices and particularly our mistakes. Few of us like to draw attention to ourselves, especially if we fear punitive reactions or responses as a consequence of standing up and saying, “This is me” or “I did this”. Given the rising number of clients coming into counselling seeking help for self-esteem and disempowerment issues, however, I’m a firm believer that it’s long past time we challenge the cultural scripts on appropriate responsibilities and self-empowerment through mindfulness.

Easy words to say, obviously; damned hard concepts to live with any kind of consistency in the face of governments and social networks that want to reduce us to conveniences, algorithms, and consumer data.

So how do we start challenging those scripts? As with everything, it starts by looking at ourselves as individuals; as Gandhi said, “Be the change you want to see in the world”. Even if your parents weren’t the best models for empowerment and responsibility, that’s no excuse to be stuck in their system any longer than you need to be. This article provides some excellent questions to start the process of self-reflection without allowing that process to devolve into self-blame and self-loathing for the things we have done, conscously or not. I’ve printed them out and keep them stuck to the wall in my counselling office where I can see them for myself every day… not just for my clients’ benefits, but for my own daily challenges as well.

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One of the big things we look for in family system dynamics is the impact of trauma, not just on the individual in the counselling room, but on the family in general. Like pieces of a puzzle coming together, sometimes we have an opportunity to see how a client’s depression or anxiety may result from the confluence of a number of confounding variables, including personal internal (often invisible or unconscious) conflicts between the client’s own lived experiences and inherited family values intended to keep the family unit together and, in theory, protected.

Values around protecting family secrets, especially those rooted in perceptions of shame around an old suicide, history of mental health issues or substance abuse, or sexual traumas (for example) sometimes become internalized in the system as a value for secrecy or simply not discussing difficult subjects. These values in turn get handed down to subsequent generations who then learn that not only are they not to talk about difficult subjects, but that difficult emotional expressions are not tolerable within the family system; children growing up within family systems organized around the value of “keeping the peace”, for instance, often have limited effective skills for handling conflict, as one example of a hereditary outcome to a previous generation’s trauma.

This article provides a simple overview and opening discussion around such issues, from an interesting scientific standpoint of how the brain chemistry may actually be modified by trauma in ways that also potentially transmit from one generation to another. This certainly opens up the discussion of whether depression as a hereditary predisposition is due to being a learned behaviour or a genetic one, or (as my own suspicion has long been) a combination of both kinds of factors.

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I’ve been a big fan of John Gottman since I first read “Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work”, long before I became a psychotherapist myself. He’s not a therapist, he’s a researcher with 25 years of watching couples interact in his “Love Lab” project. In that time, his success rate for predicting couples that will stay together versus those on the verge of implosion, is somewhere north of 90%. A big part of his observations revolve around behaviours he has termed “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” (criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling) and how couples attempt ? or don’t ? to repair connections when those behaviours occur.

This article from Psychology Today does a great job of summing up those behaviours and their potentially-destructive impact on relationships; the section on how to circumvent or repair them is, in my opinion, pretty scanty, but sometimes the hardest work I do with clients is simply getting them to (a) *SEE* these behaviours in the first place, then (b) acknowledge their intimacy-destroying impacts. Relationship counselling is often largely about then figuring out how best to build more effective repair attempts into the relationship interactions.

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I’m not usually a big one for the numbered lists of “Things You Should Do” to improve this, that, or the other thing that seem to be all the rage on social media these days. Once in a while, however, something comes across my desktop that seems to actually have some good, practical ideas ? not completely fleshed out, mind you, but enough to start a person thinking about things that might be worth… well, thinking about, at the very least, and perhaps actually experimenting with introducing as change processes within struggling or stuck relationships.

I admit it, I also like this one for the unabashedly Buddhist approach to relationships. Every one of these twenty items is a “special project” unto itself, and even as a student of Buddhism I have to admit I’m not always as good at some of these as I’d ultimately like to be. But as Pema Chodron writes, sometimes we just have to start where we are, and not wait until some future-perfect moment that always seems to be just over the horizon, never nearer or further away than an excuse to not start today, right now.

As Lao Tzu wrote, “The journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step”. Any one of these twenty suggestions starts with such simple movements towards change.

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2013 is getting off to its usual start in a flurry of snow, a flurry of activity, and a flurry of new clients. While I am always happy to see new faces in the office, it’s a reminder that the holidays in particular, and winter in general, are stressful times for relationships and individuals alike. Good mental health care is as vital as good physical health care; staying mindful and compassionate when managing stress and depression is every bit as important as getting a flu shot or upping your vitamin intake during the cold dark months, resting and eating well, walking carefully on snowy or icy surfaces, and not throwing your back out while shoveling!

I’d also like to remind current, new, or potential clients that my 24 hour cancellation notice policy does not apply in the event of bad weather. This is particularly good to know as we head into a wintry week in which flurries are forecast every day between now and next weekend. Allow yourself lots of extra time to travel, and if you can’t manage the travel just call or email on the day or prior to your session, and let me know you can’t make the scheduled appointment.

I hope everyone is doing well as we move into a new year, and if anyone needs a little boost in their homework or some additional resources for dealing with ongoing issues or situations, contact me for an appointment and we’ll try to get you moving in the right direction again!

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The rolling over of one year into another is both a a tough time and a hopeful time for people ? often simultaneously. Never mind the stress of financial and scheduling issues or family obligations around the holidays; where many people struggle the most is with our love-hate relationship with the New Year’s Resolution.

The “hopeful” aspect of resolutions is that the New Year often signals new beginnings, new opportunities, new dedication, and above all, the best of intentions. 365 days is a long time to stick with something, however, and the undisciplined among us ? myself included ? frequently don’t make it out of the first month (never mind the first quarter) of any new year with those resolutions intact. I learned a long time ago that going to the pool in January is a waste of time because of the Resolutioners crowding out both the aquafit classes and the swim lanes; by the beginning of February, however, everything is largely back to normal. Ergo, when December rolls around and we look back on our successes and failures of the year, a lot of people get really down on themselves for not measuring up to the hopefulness of January, not sticking with the resolutions, and not making the goals we’ve set for ourselves… often year after year after year.

One thing I’ve learned through working with clients throughout the year is that the consistent issues, not just with New Year’s resolutions but ANY kind of goal-oriented process, often revolve around not having a really clear mental image of what the end goal looks like, and not having a realistic scope of what’s involved in reaching that goal. This is where my previous life working in a project-oriented development field comes in extremely handy, because in doing Project Management, if you don’t have a clear eye on the project scope, and realistic milestone goals defined within that project, the project is fairly drastically handicapped from the outset. Sheer stubbornness might get you to the goal regardless of those impediments, but it’s not the most efficient way of getting from A to B, nor of maintaining effective, sustainable self-development practices thereafter.

Articulating goals is a key first step. Almost everyone in western culture understands how to make a New Year’s resolution: for example, “In 2012, I’m going to lose 80lbs” (this may or may not be a real-life resolution; I decline to comment.) Stating intent is a great first step. But then what?

For a lot of people, defining the big goal is a be-all-and-end-all action. In counseling rooms around the country, therapists often face clients who come in with big goal intentions such as, “I want to improve communications with my partner/parent/child/etc.”. At that point, the best tool in my bag is to say to my client, “That’s a really fabulous Big Picture goal; what does that actually *look like* to you?” Often clients haven’t gotten further than articulating that big goal, and this is the point at which both clients and New Year’s Resolutioners often get stymied without help, because they lack clarity in understanding what that goal actually entails.

If the big goal is (coming back to our example) losing weight over the course of the year, a project management approach might look like this:

1. What are my dependencies (the things which will affect or be impacted by my big goal, like familial support, budget requirements, special requirements such as training materials or equipment to meet the goal)?
2. What do I already have on hand that supports this goal?
3. What are the big changes that the goal requires (eating habits, for example; special foods, a gym membership, and the scheduling to fit attending said gym)?
4. What is my support network for this goal?
5. How can I break the big goal down into monthly or weekly milestones I can track for success or mid-course refinement?

Number 5 there is often the best thing for helping people look really closely at the goal to which they’ve just resolved themselves. Weight loss is easier to measure than, say, general fitness improvements. Being as specific in one’s goal-setting is extremely important; it’s difficult to plot the rest of the project plan without knowing *exactly* what it is you’re trying to achieve. And don’t beat yourself up too much if you find you don’t know how to articulate those goals right off the bat. Sometimes we don’t have the language or the clarity to express what we really mean with goals like, “I want more intimacy with my partner.” (Developing that explicit clarity is one place where working with therapists is extremely useful and worth both the time and money.). Get as close as you can to clear expression of your goals, then work on breaking them down into things you can achieve on a smaller, ongoing basis.

Weekly and monthly milestones help you see both your successes and your challenge areas throughout the year, and also provide a structure for developing mindfulness around those goals. If you make a point to check in with yourself on a weekly basis, you may find it becomes easier to keep those goals, and the behavioural changes that support them through the week, at the forefront of your mind. Resolutions of the vague kind are harder to maintain if we don’t check up on them now and then, which is a self-discipline issue for a lot of us. Also, the weekly check-ins allow us to tweak the processes depending on how other variables are affecting our ability to sustain our resolutions from week to week: work or life plans may take priority from time to time and make staying on the resolution track difficult. But if you see this happening over the course of a couple of weeks, it becomes easier to adjust the plan at week 3 or 4 or 5 than if you let things slide unconsciously until Month 8, then panic and try to get your resolutions back on course after ignoring them over the longer term.

Smaller goals are also generally more achievable in the shorter term, and this in turn can lead to a greater sense of accomplishment that carries you from one milestone to the next. Success criteria doesn’t have to be measured in a single year-end Win/Lose binary state; some weeks will be better than others, and if you succeed in your goals three weeks out of four, that starts the next month out on a great success rate. Bear in mind, those smaller milestones need to be as realistic as your big goals; losing 80lbs in a year is realistic. Losing 10-15lbs in a week is not.

Once you know what the milestones are, it becomes easier to go back to the other items in the project plan and deal with them. You may want to put “joining a gym” as a dependency, but if budget constraints are also a dependency, what else can you do in the short- to medium-term to move you toward your milestones and goal until budget constraints will allow for that membership fee?

Remember also, there are always options, even if they’re not your first choice. Just because you don’t LIKE having to exercise to lose weight, doesn’t mean the only way you’ll make yourself do it is by committing financially to a gym and letting Expenditure Guilt motivate you to go. Trust me when I say, that just adds unnecessary pressure to the project’s Success/Fail criteria that comes dangerously close to self-sabotage for many (especially at the end of the year when people doing the mental reflection then have to deal with both the failure of the goal AND the sense of wasting money in the process).

It all sounds like a complicated process, but really it’s not. It’s all about being clear and positive in articulating your overall resolution goal(s), setting realistic and achievable milestones within the goal, and checking in with yourself frequently enough throughout the process to make the work become a good habit instead of shoving it to the back of your mind and relying on stubbornness to carry the day. Resolutions provide a great framework for making positive changes, but making them in the fever of hopefulness instead of the clarity of mindfulness, brings the potential for dismay come next December. A little extra planning work in January can make the entire rest of the year flow so much more smoothly!

[Addendum: As I’m investigating working towards building barter-for-service links through services like swapsity.ca, I came across a much more succinct blog post about this exact same topic for financial matters: http://www.swapsity.ca/posts/view/145.]

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http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/07/19/trusting-families-to-help-themselves/

The NYTimes article above provides a clear case in favour of how social services (and, in the same vein, many mental health professionals such as myself) often do better work with their clients by empowering them to build solutions from within their own knowledge of strengths and resources, rather than dispensing advice and solutions. The F.I.I.’s work proves this works as well on a community-at-large level as on the individual level.

The article also highlights the difficulty for agencies and practitioners alike in disciplining ourselves to avoid the tendency to advise and solve. Advice, no matter how well-meaning, is based in OUR experiences, filtered through OUR values, and in the end may be inappropriate in a client’s or community’s different context. The need to solve other people’s problems is a slippery slope rooted by a lot of motivations that are often more about us than those we think we’re trying to help.

The F.I.I. is doing some excellent work to build self-empowerment within communities by helping collectives assess their own resources, and developing strengths that support the community toward flourishing. This is an approach I can get behind, even as I have to remind myself more regularly than I’d like to admit, that I’m not in the business of advising, but rather one of encouragement. It’s not my understanding of resources that will help someone most, it’s the understanding we can develop in someone else, based on what they already know… even when they don’t know they know it.

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I will be taking a break from the crazy-busy summer (if not from the heat) from July 29 to August 15. Clients who need to talk to someone are requested to make use of the walk-in clinic facilities at KW Counselling Services in the interim, and session schedules will resume on the 16th.

I will have very limited phone coverage during this period, checking voicemail only sporadically. I do not anticipate having any email access at all, and will catch up with written communications on my return.

Have a safe and happy summer!