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My Side Of The Room

When I’m introduced to a new person and they ask what I do, I respond that I’m a clinical social worker and then explain I work as a therapist with individuals and families. The responses I’ve received range anywhere from silence (not kidding-this really happens) to a “Well…that must be, interesting/rewarding/difficult.” The best case is when someone lowers their voice and said, “I had to go to therapy once during _____. It helped a lot.”

The bottom line is, it’s interesting to be the therapist at a party. While I think I have the best job in the world, I’ve found that it makes for awkward conversation and many people don’t know what to say. But stigma isn’t going to end unless we all work to end it, and let’s face it-we as a society feel more comfortable talking about pap smears than mental illness. So I’m going to share a few things (from my perspective alone) that I think about this incredible gift of working with people. Here are some of my thoughts from my side of the room.

1. I genuinely like you and care about your well-being. Actually, if we met under different circumstances, we would probably be friends.
I feel like finding a good therapist is unique, because unlike other service providers, you’re trying to find someone that is a) skilled, and b) likeable. Alternatively, f I’m looking for a mechanic, skill level is all I care about. Same thing for a hairdresser, lawyer, plumber- I could go on and on- but likeability matters little as long as I feel I found someone skilled and honest. Some people don’t gel with us personality-wise, but there are many professions and services where that simply doesn’t matter.

Why is being likeable important in therapy? The therapeutic alliance is paramount. The relationship matters more than anything else. Feeling that you like your therapist and he or she likes, cares, and can empathize with you is key to being able to partner together to meet your goals. When you bear your heart to someone even in a professional setting, you need to be able to trust in that relationship, which is built upon caring, compassion, and trust, and I personally feel it’s most effective when it goes both ways.

2. But we can’t be friends in the traditional sense. 
Sometimes I have to stop myself from emailing to find out about that job interview, funeral, surgery, or first date. Why? Because even though I do care, I won’t allow my objectivity to suffer. If I don’t maintain my professional boundaries (and these vary from clinician to clinician), I won’t be able to help you. My clinical rudder will no longer sail us in a straight line, and you are trusting me to do that for us. I do not take that assignment lightly. It’s not that I don’t enjoy chatting about light topics before or after appointments, but that’s as far as I’m comfortable with in order to do my job well. If we work together for any length of time, we’ll certainly get to know each other, but it’s still professional.

3. I am “assessing”, but never judging.
It’s hard to talk about some topics, and therapy can get pretty personal. Please believe me when I say I’m never judging you, your situation, or your choices- I’m simply assessing how all this fits together in order to meet the goals you dictate to me. I’m taking what you’re telling me and testing it on the litmus paper of what I know about your skills and challenges. I’m always looking for red flags in behavior, mental status, mood stability, and presentation. Once I get to know you well, this becomes easier and faster, and I can guess what you might think or feel in a given situation. But many times I’m wrong, and we can tease it out together. The important thing, though, is to look for it in the first place, and to work with someone that can do this with you.

4. I try not to worry when I haven’t heard from you, but I do anyway.
Only because I want the people I’ve met to do well, feel well, and be successful in whatever way they want or need to be. Sometimes it’s because our personalities don’t mix well, because I don’t have the skills you’re looking for, or maybe you’ve met your goals, but that doesn’t keep me from wondering and wishing you well.

5. I’ve participated in therapy, too, so I know what I’m asking you to do. 
As a clinician, there are times I challenge your thoughts. There are times I ask you to think differently, share stories, put things into a different perspective, and even keep your appointments when you don’t feel like it. I’ve gone to therapy to work on myself, too, and I know there are times that it’s amazing, and other times where it’s really hard. Understand that I know all that I’m asking of you, and I admire you for doing it.

6. Many therapists, myself included, have had some exposure to mental illness that got us interested in the first place. 
We are by nature very empathetic people. Some of us actually feel it in the gut when you walk in, whether it’s a heaviness, a taut and tangled ball, or a lighthearted mood. But if you think it’s a coincidence that we understand so well, you’re wrong. Chances are we’ve seen something firsthand with someone we love, felt something firsthand by way of a diagnosis, difficult life experience, or we simply grew up as the friend who always listened and understood, but some combination of things brought us to this field. Our personal lives typically don’t get shared in the office, but they can certainly lend themselves well. Add solid clinical skills to a good imagination, and it’s easy for most of us to understand what you describe and put ourselves in your shoes. 

7. I am truly honored that you chose me. 
There are a million therapists out there, and I never take it for granted. Ever. To be a small part of the larger healing fabric that connects all of us, even for a short time, is something for which I will never be anything less than awed and appreciative. I tip my hat to your courage, your perseverance, and your amazing journey- and I am honored that you chose me to travel with for any length of time.

These are just a few items I think of regularly in my work. Of course, you’re always free to take it or leave my opinions, but please take on mental health for yourself and those you love. Someone you know might be struggling and you may not know it. Be brave and start a conversation, regardless of which side of the room you may find yourself. 

Ripple

“Ripple in still water. When there is no pebble tossed, nor wind to blow.” -The Grateful Dead

I’d like you to ask yourself a question:

“What’s the one thing I’m going to do for myself today?”

It can be anything. It doesn’t have to be something that people understand. It doesn’t have to be pretty, neat, or clean, and it doesn’t have to be acceptable to anyone else. You don’t have to explain it, rationalize it, or get permission. You don’t have to tell anyone about it and you certainly don’t have to understand it yourself. You don’t have to do anything else the rest of the day that you like, except for this one thing. It can be something that takes two minutes or lasts half a day. It can be something ever changing or the same thing forever. And it only has to fit one criteria: it must be something positive for your emotional well-being.

Maybe you’re seeing your therapist today. Maybe you’re going to the gym, as you know our emotional state is very tied to our physical health. Maybe you’re going to take a long, hot shower, or maybe you’re going to listen to some good music and sing in the car so loudly that other people stare at you. Maybe you’re going to read a magazine or start a new book. Maybe you’re going to see an old friend, or you’ll going to recharge with some quiet time. Maybe you’ll vow to let go of something instead, like judgment or negativity. Maybe you’ll identify something to improve upon within yourself. Maybe you find your solace in prayer or meditation. Maybe you’ll talk to someone about mental health and what it means to you, and your bravery will inspire someone else. Your possibilities are endless.

You might see this as only one small thing, but some of us believe in the ripple. You may never see where this goes, but take a moment to think how your one thing affects someone else. Will you be a happier customer to wait on in the grocery store? Will you take the time to listen to a dear friend? Will you make someone’s day easier, simply because you are taking care of yourself first? Will your children appreciate your serenity, and will your spouse appreciate your patience? Will you inspire someone to exercise, try a new hobby, or even leave the house that day? Mood and anxiety disorders tend to bring our focus inward, but your one thing accomplishes two goals-it takes care of you and people around you reap the benefits, too. It’s a seemingly small thing, but I believe there are no small things.

I challenge you to do one thing today for yourself and your health, even for a few minutes. Take on your mental health, and refuse to be passive. Rise to the call for action. Where there is an issue also lies the capacity for growth. We are all connected in ways we don’t fully understand, and I hold my arms out to you in solidarity. Let’s lift ourselves and one another into a state of well-being, health, and peace.

If you can do that with just one small thing, why wouldn’t you?

Swim Like A Salmon

“The conventional view serves to protect us from the painful job of thinking.”-John Kenneth Galbraith

Salmon swim upstream, and I read on Wikipedia how they are “anadromous”,-a word I did not know-which is from the Greek for “running upward.” I like to think that people can swim upstream sometimes, and I actually think most of us don’t do this often enough.

Our language has no shortage of phrases telling us we should be laid-back- “go with the flow”, “going with the grain”, or “water off a duck’s back”- referring to an “easy” mentality where we don’t sweat the small stuff. We all seem to feel the pressure to be this easy, low-maintenance, “cool as a cucumber” persona. My image of this mindset is that we take things as they come, accept what life hands us, and don’t obsess, worry, or fret. In other words, most of us “type A” people instinctively don’t do any of this, and we really sweat the small stuff, all the while telling ourselves we should go with the flow. Not only that, we’re all supposed to be mindful of our feelings throughout the process! At times, this is a tall order, and I would say occasionally counterproductive. We spend more time thinking about how we should be handling something instead of handling it, and I would argue that our methodology isn’t always faulty to begin with.

What if there are times that it’s not only okay to sweat the small stuff, but necessary? What if thinking outside the box with all our worrying, fretting, and imagination actually help us identify options and therefore, a more powerful, productive solution? If we never go against the grain, how do we spot the gaps? Where is the place for imaginative thought? If we simply accepted our first thought to any given situation, we might miss something. I think it’s okay to reframe, to see things from another perspective, and really chew on it for a bit before coming to a decision. We don’t need to accept the pressure to go with the flow, when the flow may not be going where we actually want to end up.

If you’re facing a decision or struggling with a situation, ask yourself some questions. How would you feel if you were on the receiving end of this story instead of the storyteller, or vice versa? What if you were a detective, and needed to exhaust all evidence before coming to a conclusion? What factors would change your decision- i.e. a different job, if it was about someone else, or if something hadn’t happened? Play devil’s advocate, and pretend it’s your job to come up with a counter argument. Sometimes, this can help identify what we miss if we simply go with the majority vote.

Someone might argue that going upstream is harder. I say harder is fine, because that’s where we get stronger. The brain is a muscle too, and needs exercise in order to grow.

Don’t be afraid to swim upstream. Just because everyone else is in agreement doesn’t mean you can’t question or raise other possibilities. Just because a thought enters your mind doesn’t mean you need to accept it, react to it, or believe it. Swim upstream. Go against the grain. Change direction. Use your mind’s potential to imagine, create, and think. If you’re not able to be mindful about it, that’s okay. Some days are hard enough already. You’ll get there eventually. And who knows-your “there” may lie upstream-and it’s up to you to go find it.

Change Is Not A Four Letter Word

“When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.” -Viktor Frankl

I just finished reading a wonderful, thought-provoking book-“You Can Heal Your Heart: Finding Peace After a Breakup, Divorce, or Death” by Louise Hay and David Kessler (2014.) The authors discuss using affirmations to change our thought processes surrounding loss. I’ll write a future post on grief, as it definitely deserves it own space. For now, though, I want to take a step back and think about how we look at any transition in our lives, as most of us don’t particularly enjoy them.

I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who told me they like change. In fact, most people that I know say they hate it. In my very humble opinion, the way that we all talk about change needs to change. It is not a four letter word, yet our society is full of people who all say we hate it. Our society which is changing all the time is full of people saying we hate change!

If we bring about our own change, that feels slightly better, right? Job changes, having babies, buying a new house, taking up a new hobby-these are all things that we typically choose. While they come with stress of adjusting to a new lifestyle, we don’t seem to dread it as much because our expectations are that life will improve in some way. We get a better paying job, we move to a bigger house, we expand our family, we start a new exercise program, all in an effort to improve and fulfill our lives. We are willing to put up with a bit of adjustment or discomfort in order to reach our goal. Sure, a move is expensive and stressful, but we’ll do it in order to have our dream house. Our expectations change how we view a situation and how we experience it. 

The tougher situations are when the change is an undesired one. We are fired or laid off from our job and have to find a new one quickly. While we do as much as we can, we know we can’t force someone to hire us, and we lose 100% control over how, when, and where we find a new position. Our thoughts follow suit-we worry about how long it will take, how long we can last without a paycheck, or how quickly our bank account will get depleted. Worry changes our expectations. Anxiety interferes with our thinking. We think unhelpful things like it wasn’t supposed to happen like this. We may being to worry that we won’t find as good of a job, or one that pays as well. Our worry may set our expectations without our even realizing it. We may expect the worst. We may make ourselves more uncomfortable during an already uncomfortable process.  

In their chapter where job loss is highlighted, Hay and Kessler argue our society places our identity and value on our jobs. They illustrate how we ask a person “What do you do?” very soon after meeting them. In the example above, the authors suggest certain affirmations such as “My value lies beyond any job” (page 155) in order to remember our intrinsic value as human beings. They recommend we not think poorly of ourselves because we lost our job, and I would argue we can apply this logic to any chance we face. Because of our expectation- our identity is our job- and because of anxiety (worry about the future) we come to “hate” the process.

Similar to the authors, I’m going to suggest asking yourself some questions, regardless of what you’re facing: what if we had no expectations? What if we looked at things more like a mathematical equation, and simply tried to find a solution? Or, what if we agreed sometimes there is no answer? What if we simply had faith in ourselves? What if we looked at change as singularly neutral events-things that either happen or don’t happen-and focused on what we can control instead of what we can’t? What if we stop thinking of people as lucky or unlucky? How would you feel if you approached change with faith, strength, and love? How would you feel if you didn’t think of change as a four letter word? What if you chose to validate yourself as strong and able to manage the discomfort of what lies ahead of you?

Hay and Kessler say we don’t have to like all that has happened, but we can still feel positive about how we handle it. If we hate change and all that comes with it, we will feel negative. We deserve so much more- we deserve love. We deserve love even in the face of unwanted change, even if it means changing ourselves and the way we think about it.

The authors have many great points throughout, and I think we can take their lessons on a broader scale (check out the book here.) For me, anger, resentment, and hatred stay stuck in a very uncomfortable place. But love moves. Love grows, and blooms, and turns into things more beautiful than we can ever anticipate. 

Turtle Time

“I know that each of us has much to do. Sometimes we feel overwhelmed by the tasks we face. But if we keep our priorities in order, we can accomplish all that we should. We can endure to the end regardless of temptations, problems, and challenges.” -Joseph B. Wirthlin

I have a strategy that I’m guessing you already do, even if you don’t realize it. I affectionately refer to it as “turtle time.” Turtles instinctively retreat to their shell when predators are near. Last week, I talked about keeping your focus, and this concept is another way to keep yourself on track. Allow me to explain.

At times, we can all benefit from pulling into our shell. When things are too busy, hectic, or stressful, or a mood episode is approaching, we need to prioritize our safety and well-being. Isn’t it wise to “turtle up”, and consider a mild retreat in order to reassess, refocus, and reorganize? The retreat can be physical, emotional, or intellectual, but it’s a break to care for our minds, bodies, and spirits. I realize we can’t stay that way all the time, but if we temporarily let some things go to keep ourselves well, I’m all for it. In fact, I think it’s downright healthy.

If you go to the ER with a broken arm, you can safely assume you’ll be there for hours, right? It’s not because the staff aren’t skilled, or because they’re not moving quickly, but simply because they triage. Emergency rooms prioritize their patients based on severity of symptoms. If your broken arm is being weighed against a heart attack and motorcycle accident, you’ll wait every time. The ER deals with the most serious first, and when life is throwing a lot at us at once, we can adopt the same strategy. Pull a bit into the shell when you need to attend to the most pressing things first. Reassess. Refocus. Reorganize. Decide what you’ll deal with now, and what can wait. Do some triaging, like you’re running your own personal emergency room. In a way, sometimes we are!

Sometimes, the most pressing thing is getting out of bed. Sometimes, it’s getting to work or returning a phone call, or paying a bill. Sometimes, it’s making sure we exercise or do another healthy coping skill to maintain our mood and well-being. Sometimes, the most important, most pressing thing we can do is lower our expectations and let go. We can let go of what is happening, what we’re worried about, what our expectations might be, and our judgment of how we think we’re doing. Sometimes, it’s okay to pull into the shell for a bit and give ourselves a much needed reprieve. Turtle time is a conscious choice to put some things down in an effort to preserve our physical, emotional, and spiritual well-being. When we are ready, we will pick them up again and move forward.

A word about what I think “turtle time” isn’t. It is not about hiding out long term. It’s not about being in a depressive episode and staying in bed all day-although it can be very, very hard or impossible to get out of bed. It’s not withdrawing from your support people and things. It’s not because you don’t want to deal with things for an extended period. It’s not so you don’t have to confront the people, situations, or circumstances that life has dealt you or you have helped to create. Turtle time is not because you can’t do it, because we both know that you can.

Remember the other side-once the turtle comes back out, it travels onward. Once the imminent threat is removed, they come out, and move on. Sure, they move pretty slowly, but I sincerely doubt the turtle minds.

In fact, from the turtle’s perspective, it is exactly the right pace. And I’m willing to bet we’re all moving at exactly the right pace.

Keep Your Focus

“I’m facing Niagara Falls-the wind and the mist and the dark and the peregrine falcons-and I’m going to stay focused on the other side.” -Nik Wallenda

I’m a big picture type of person. It’s not that I can’t handle the details; when I need to, I can hunker down with the best of them. The big picture is just easier for me to see, like stringing beads together to create something larger. Individual notes aren’t a song unless they’re played together, and I’m really good at hearing the music.

That is, I’m good as long as I can stay focused. Focus is easy to lose when we are distracted by either internal or external stimuli. In other words, when our brains are busy or there is much happening around us, focus is one of the first things to suffer. It’s an official symptom of major depression, attention deficit disorders, and anxiety. We are distracted at work, at home, when we’re driving. Our minds are elsewhere.

Mindfulness has gained much popularity in the west for this very reason- we all know we’re distracted. We’re not in the moment at all, and in fact, we do so many things automatically that we forget we did it. While driving, we think, “Wow, I don’t remember getting here already!” In some ways, this is a coping mechanism for our brains, or we wouldn’t get anything done at all, especially under stress. But sometimes we’re too unfocused and it derails us from what is healthy and productive. We get knocked off our square, as it were.

How do we keep it together? Remind yourself of what’s important. Remind yourself of what can be done today, and only for today. Or only for the morning, if you must. Divide and conquer your day, your tasks, in order to stay focused on your goal. Yes, other things may distract us and we attend to them if we must, but keep your eyes on the end zone. Especially for those unanswered questions: how long will I stay at this job? Will my relationship last? Will my kids be okay at their new school? Some things can’t be solved now, and we don’t need to allow those worries to consume us. Keep two lists- a weekly or daily list (whatever is easier) and a monthly list. Your decisions will stay current and relevant. Tackle what you can now, and try to discard the rest. Make a “worry box” if it helps you, where you write down your concerns and distractions and put them in the box. You’d be surprised at how often I do this and weeks later realize I’m not concerned at all about what I wrote down. All worrying does is distract from the present and keep your mind in the future. Don’t allow your past to haunt you, either. Pay attention to how you’re feeling- Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, the legendary psychiatrist and expert on grief, was famous for saying that any anger older than fifteen minutes was old anger and not about the present. Whether or not you agree with her, pay attention and ask yourself some questions. Allow yourself to feel whatever you’re feeling, and focus on healing. Focus on your goals. Focus on now.

Tune in to right now. Tune in with how you feel, what you are experiencing, and keep your focus. Don’t allow the static to derail you. Don’t allow other people, situations, or your mood to take you off track. Keep your story real, fair, and objective, so you can stay kind to yourself. Stay true to what you know your goals to be. Do the things that help keep your focus, even when you don’t feel like it.

Be like a camera lens and snap a clear shot, regardless of the blurry objects in the background. Those blurry objects don’t matter in the big picture, and only you know what you want the big picture to look like. Make it happen. 

Practice Makes Perfect?

No, not perfect. If you read my last post, you already know I think it’s counterproductive to aim for perfection.

But practice is another story. Practice is important, and definitely a worthwhile goal. I took piano lessons as a kid, and my teacher always told me to make sure I practiced my songs correctly. In other words, she didn’t want me practicing my mistakes. Why? Because if we practice something enough times, our brains and our muscles commit it to memory. My teacher explained this, and said that if I practiced it wrong, it was much more difficult to fix. In fact, she thought it was harder than learning it from scratch. Overwriting our brain’s muscle memory is challenging.

How do I apply this to mental health? Practice what works, and work very, very hard to change what doesn’t. If you are prone to a negative thought process, your brain has made this a habit. It can become your default setting. It will be like me playing the music wrong. Even when I know I’m playing it wrong and my brain is saying, “No, that’s not right!”, my fingers will make the mistake anyway. The same can be said for our thought process. We can recognize we’re in a negative cycle, but if we don’t work to change it, we will do it again and again.

Keep in mind, I said it was challenging, but not impossible. Practice every day, whether or not you feel you need it, and regardless of how you feel emotionally. The time to practice a new skill isn’t when you actually need it, yet this is what most of us will do! We think to ourselves that we’re feeling anxious, and we should practice that deep breathing our therapist told us about. Deep breathing is really hard to do when we’re anxious unless we’ve practiced enough to really nail it, but we forget to practice it until we feel anxious! A bit of a catch-22. Alternatively, if we practice regularly and often, it becomes memory. It becomes habit. It becomes something our amazing brains can implement, and will eventually implement automatically.

Decide what your skills are going to be, and practice them each day. Regardless of what you’re trying to change, you can add or replace old habits with practice. Whether you’re practicing an actual skill or attempting to change a thought process, it requires doing it over and over again. How many times you need to do it before it becomes automatic can vary, but the time will pass either way, so what are you risking to begin? Begin today, not tomorrow. Begin now.

It’s not just going to happen magically. We have to work for it, like anything else, and it requires patience and perseverance. Know you are worth the effort and begin again each day. And practice, practice, practice.

Lessons From a Recovering Perfectionist

“Good enough is good enough. Perfect will make you a big fat mess every time.” ― Rebecca Wells, The Crowning Glory of Calla Lily Ponder 

If there was a 12-step program for perfectionists, I would have been the originator and president. My brain is just hard-wired for perfectionist behavior and thought processes. Luckily, I deliberately make choices to the contrary, and here’s why:

When we strive for perfection, we always fall short.We might perfectly execute a certain task, but a critical eye will notice the room for improvement elsewhere. In the cost-benefit analysis of this method of thinking, the idea of doing a good enough job is far outweighed by any attempt at perfection.

What do we risk when we attempt perfection?  The easiest answer to that question is “certain failure.” We will never be perfect, the things we do will never be perfect, and we will never perfect our roles as parents, co-workers, clinicians, and friends. We will always fall short. Thus begins the downward spiral of negative thinking, where we outline our mistakes, promises of “next time” and “I failed” and “I’m not a good _____.”  Worse yet, we may not even try next time. We risk disappointment in ourselves, lower self-esteem, and added stress. We risk losing touch with ourselves. We risk launching ourselves on a slippery slope of distorted thinking.

The perfectionist sees the deficit instead of the effort and accomplishment. The perfectionist has overwhelming anxiety of not being perfect and thereby not being any good at all. This is much different from seeing our strengths and working from them. This is where things are either black or white- either we’re perfect or we’re no good. If we buy into this process, we don’t even stand a chance at fulfilling our desires and finding happiness. We will always fall short with this method of thinking, and we also risk convincing others that we’re right.

How about we try to see ourselves as good enough? Donald Winnicott, pediatrician and psychoanalyst, coined this term in his research with mothers and infants. The “good enough” are the parents who meet their babies’ needs more often than not, allow them to feel in control of their environment, and remain cognizant of their abilities while maintaining safety. Winnicott recognized we don’t need to be perfect to raise healthy, well adjusted children. We simply need to be good enough. We will never be perfect, so let’s aim for trying as hard as we can, keeping in mind that we will mess up once in a while. That’s not only okay; it’s human.

This is where I’ll ask you to add five plus two, which I’m sure you can do before finishing this sentence. Now, think of ten minus three. Instead of seeing yourself as a “less than” equation, try adding up your good qualities and efforts. You will arrive at the preferred, true result-how very good enough you are. Think of your five plus two. Consciously and deliberately choose your five plus two. There is cause for celebration in our imperfections, if only we allow it.

I’ve done the cost-benefit analysis, and I promise it’s worth it.  

The Voice of Reason

“Logic is the beginning of wisdom, not the end.” -Leonard Nimoy

For those of you living with a mood disorder, or if you are at all sensitive to stress and anxiety, you know that at times we lose our rational thought process.  I call this losing my voice of reason. Personally, a good analogy is the morning before I put on my glasses. Large objects are okay, but smaller things are blurry and I couldn’t see well enough to drive safely. My brain sort of feels this way when I lose my voice of reason-things take me longer to process and require more energy. Cognitive distortions are based on this very concept, that we as humans do not always see things as they are. To some degree, we all do this-it only becomes pathological when we do it more often than not and it interferes with our daily functioning. 

Part of what we work on in therapy is to try as hard as possible to keep and develop the voice of reason. There are many ways to do this, but we can also work outside of the therapy office to improve this for ourselves. Here are some things I keep in mind for myself when stress is starting to compound:
Keep a schedule. 
It’s amazing how fast we forget our usual routine when we don’t feel our best. These are the times when I convince myself that it’s okay to skip the gym because I have errands to run, but I’m always sorry later when I feel more stressed. Have a written schedule that you make when you feel good so you can refer to it when you’re not. I call it a “loose” schedule, because you want to leave yourself extra time for things that may take longer than planned.  For instance, if I only budget myself a fifteen minute block to complete two tasks (which is not enough time if I’m stressed) I run out of time which leads to MORE stress! The exact opposite of what I want. I usually take the time I think I’m going to need and double it just to be safe.
Keep your expectations low to reasonable.
I am the person who takes on too much, and often thinks, “how bad could it be?”  As I get older, I see that the answer to that question can sometimes be, “pretty awful.” When we start to lose the voice of reason that helps to “check” us, we can get in over our head, which again, leads to more stress. This is another one of those negative feedback loops that leads to the exact result we are trying to avoid, so it helps to head it off before it can get going. Setting small goals that we are relatively sure we can reach feels much better than falling short of a lofty idea that we can’t seem to tackle.
Develop a trusted support system. 
I know this has almost become cliche, but it’s truly important have people in your life that understand. They may be be professionals, they may be a support group, or a combination of family and friends or all of the above. Having those individuals in our life who get it, get us-and with whom we can be ourselves-is critical to keeping our voice of reason.
Check it out with others. 
Okay, so we don’t want to make it a habit of checking out each and every thing with others and be unable to make decisions without them. I get that. But, it’s okay to do this when we don’t feel well.  Sometimes we need a little help from a support person when we are worried we can’t trust our own voice. A skilled therapist is an obvious choice, but many others can help. As many of you know, what we think may be “intuition” might actually be our distorted, depressive or anxious voice talking! It’s easy to mistake one for the other, and we often feel we can’t trust our own judgment. So go ahead and bounce some things off of people that you trust when you need it, as long as they have your primary interest at heart-your emotional well-being.
Pretend it’s someone else. 
Since it’s sometimes easier for us to be rational (even when we’re feeling irrational ourselves) with a loved one, pretend the situation you’re trying to figure out belongs to them. What would you advise your spouse/mother/sister/friend in your situation? Sometimes that automatically brings our voice of reason back into focus. I use this technique often for myself when I can’t talk to someone else. Since I tend to be way more forgiving with others than I am with myself, so this really helps me to see whether I’m being fair to myself and to identify possible solutions. 
Think back on previous situations and identify alternatives.  
This one is tricky, I know, as we never want to look back at mistakes simply to make ourselves feel worse. However, there are times that we can benefit from looking back as long as we don’t ruminate, obsess, or allow our past to bring us down. As objectively as possible, think of a past situation and try to figure out what you would do differently and why. This may help you hear your voice of reason in the present more clearly. Something like, “I know that in the past, under stress, I don’t tend to make the best decisions, so I’m just going to put off buying a car right now until I feel better.” This one actually happened to me, by the way, and now I can say I am NOT the proud owner of a minivan (I’ll tell you that story later-it’s a good one.) But recognizing that I have that tendency helped me to avoid making another mistake in the present.

Name the irrational voice.
Name it so you have something to talk back to! I like to think of my irrational thought process as “Oz.” While it can be quite convincing, it’s simply not real. Naming the unhelpful thought process allows me some degree of separation, where I am free to just be irritated, but not swept away in cognitively distorted process that is no longer productive. 

Become a voice of reason for someone else.
Yes. Yes, you can. If you’re reading this, I’m willing to bet you’re one of the people who gets it, and paying it forward feels amazing. 
Whether you have a mental health diagnosis or not, or you love someone who does, I think all of these techniques are useful in day to day life for many of us. Coming up with our own list of tailor-made strategies to manage life’s stresses and surprises can go a long way in our emotional well-being and peace. Know yourself, and you can know how to be well. 

What keeps your voice of reason in focus?

On Perseverance

“Here is a test to find whether your mission on earth is finished: If you’re alive, it isn’t.”- Richard Bach

Last weekend, we taught my older son to ride a bike.  The bike is his first two wheeled, pedal version and was his fifth birthday present.  I had forgotten what an analogy this process is for life until yesterday, when I came away with fresh (albeit watery) eyes. 

Watching his initial excitement, then frustration, along with his constant getting-back-on reminds me of really sticking with it even when it hurts.  Listening to myself, too, instructing him – “Don’t look down, look where you’re headed” and “You’ve got it, just keep pedaling”, and “Push your feet- push!” and thinking we all need to coach ourselves similarly when things get rough. 

It’s easier sometimes to think of how hard things are.  The difficulties are magnified instead of our progress, our victories overshadowed by suffering and defeat.  We are harder on ourselves than anyone else.  At times, instead of celebrating how we “kept pedaling”, we focus on the scrapes, bruises, and sore muscles.  Somewhere in that space, there lies a balance of acknowledging our injuries, taking a water break, and getting back on the bike.  It’s a space of letting go, forgiving ourselves our faults, and moving on.  A space that little kids can naturally find.

Similarly, we all persevere.  We all keep pedaling, each and every day, no matter what it looks like.  We all keep going through whatever it is we’re going through, with some injuries visible and some not.  Some actual tears and some that are held in our hearts until we are ready to let them go.  But we all keep going, in spite of the obstacles we face- a mood or anxiety disorder, physical illness, difficult relationships or grief from incredible heartbreak. We deserve credit every day for what we do, without clouding it with the “should haves” or “could have been betters”, because it is enough.  We are always enough. We carry onward, even if we don’t know why or where we’re headed.  At times, the load on our back is heavy, but we move forward and through and around if we have to, but we move.  There is sometimes a tangible reward, like learning a new skill, but other times we have no way of knowing why we do it or where we’ll end up.  But we keep at it just like my son on his bike. He kept at it, even when he was hurt, his feet wouldn’t work with his hands, and he was tired.     

I have so much faith in the resilience of the human spirit, because I’ve seen it. You are persevering, right now. Even if you need a water break to stop and do what you need to do, promise to get moving again.  It doesn’t matter that you pause, and it doesn’t matter for how long.  It may not be pretty, it’s certainly not easy, and you might have a tendency to find your faults. Instead, try focus your sights on your effort as opposed to how far or how fast you’re going. Depression or anxiety will try to tell you that you can’t, but you are already doing it. Trust that you will move again when you are ready.  When your feet, hands, and heart are in it again.  You are always enough, even if you don’t think you are, because you are here. 

Today I watched him fly up and down the street, now a competent rider, and I can no longer tell who the teacher really was.