2018, The Year of ______

I recently had coffee with a friend who was looking forward to 2018 as her year of adventure. Adventure was a word spoken over her coming year from a trusted friend, and a word she has embraced as a guiding principle as she approaches decisions in the New Year. This may be as simple as embracing adventure of learning how to cook a new dish or as life changing as choosing to move to a new city and explore a new season of life.

My friend’s full embrace of this word spoken over her reminds me of the power of words. Words can speak both life and destruction. Choosing a word or theme has the great potential to speak life preemptively into this new year, knowing that curveballs and unexpected challenges will come. Perhaps choosing a word can provide an anchor within the storms that may arise.

Her word has prompted me to reflect on what word I would use to describe the theme of my 2017, and wonder what I want the next calendar year to embody. So often I head into the New Year with excitement and personal goals or resolutions that I only half-heartedly commit to because I know my track record is not great. And yet the process of reflecting and goal setting is an important one nonetheless, so I don’t want to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

As you reflect on 2017, what word would you use the describe the months, memories, lessons learned, personal growth, challenges, etc.? 2017 was the year of _______.

As you look forward to 2018, what hopes do you have for yourself, career, physical health, relationships, mental health? What do you hope to learn next year? What traits do you hope to grow towards?

2018 will be the year of ______.

Curbing Consumerism: Creative Holiday Shopping Ideas

In our affluent area, it's not uncommon to hear parents lamenting of their children's materialism but unsure of how to change it. With the constant barrage of ads, marketing, and social media, we fight an uphill battle. Adults get easily sucked into "more, more, more" and the upward comparison of keeping up with the Jones', too. The best way to give your children's perspective and a healthy relationship with money is to model it. Talk about spending, companies you believe it, budgeting, giving, and saving. Help your child learn to save, spend, and give with money they receive as well. How you structure your holiday shopping is a great way to put your money where your mouth is, pun intended! A few ideas to mix it up:

  • Adventure gifts. Give gifts of time together rather than crossing things off your list. Create family memories by going to the zoo, trying an escape room activity, go wine tasting, head up to the mountains, go for a hike, out to a show, etc. Think of what your family may enjoy together. The possibilities are endless!
  • Pick names. Lesson the load by encouraging each person to shop for one other person. This may allow for more creativity, thoughtfulness, and intentionality in gift giving.
  • Set a limit. Make a budget for each person and stick to it. This can limit overspending and shift the culture of expectation in the family.
  • Serve together. In lieu of gifts, give your time and money to organizations in need. Adopt a family to gift, serve a hot meal to those in need, spend time partnering with those who already have boots on the ground in your community.
  • Donate to non-profits. Give money to an organization in your loved one's name. Find something he or she is passionate about or provide a micro-loan to a developing entrepreneur around the globe. 
  • Buy socially minded products. There are many organizations that offer high quality goods that also contribute to the makers living with empowerment, dignity, and purpose.
  • Give homemade gifts! If you're crafty or handy, make your own gifts for family members. 
  • Balance the scales. In our family, we have created a tradition of giving a gift, donating to a charity, and gifting one adventure gift to each other. Each category has a set budget. This forces us to live within our means, not overspend, buy intentionally, and think outside ourselves.
  • Get creative! I recently heard of a family who goes downtown, gives each person a set amount of money, draws names, and then has an hour to shop for their person. There are points given for staying within budget, time limits, etc. At the end of the hour, everyone meets up for dinner to exchange gifts and stories.

Try new things that will help your family embrace a balanced relationship with money and spending this holiday season!

Conversation Starters from Inside Out

I love Pixar and their creative power in great story telling. So when Pixar released Inside Out, I was thrilled. Inside Out depicts the emotional world of 11 year old Riley. The film follows Riley through a cross country move and her new life in San Francisco. All the while, the viewers get an inside peak into Riley’s brain, run by Joy, Fear, Sadness, Disgust, and Anger, with special appearances like the Thought Train, Abstract Thought, and her old imaginary friend, Bing Bong. The film is chock-full of great insights that help us integrate our emotional world into everyday life. Here are a few ways you can use Inside Out to start a conversation about emotional well being at home:

  • What is each emotion's job?

Throughout the movie we come to see the vital role that each of the emotions play. Even Sadness, who is often neglected by the other emotions, comes to play an integral role in Riley’s adjustment to her new life. Our emotions are like a thermometer, alerting us to something important. At home, brainstorm each emotion’s job is in your life.

  • Who’s driving right now?

Each character in the film has a go-to controller of their emotional command system. For Riley, this is Joy. Because each emotion has a job, it is important to listen to them all in balance. We don’t always have to listen only to sadness or only to fear or only to joy, let each emotion have their voice. Throughout the day, check in with yourself and ask “Who is driving right now?”

  • Develop a new emotional language.

In our culture we don’t use very many feeling words. “How are you” is more of a greeting than a question expecting a response. Now that you have noted the importance of each emotion, it’s time to practice identifying & sharing feeling moments. Make this fun -- maybe use Uno or create color cards, be creative!  Each time you play a special card, share a moment when you felt the emotion correlating to that color: sad, angry, joyful, fearful or disgusted. With older kids, you may even share complex emotions where two or more emotions co-exist in one feeling.

  • What are your personality islands?

Riley has 4 main personality islands (family, friends, hockey, & goofy islands) formed from important core memories. Ask your family for a tour of their personality islands, asking “what is most important to you here? What memories come up on this island?” For extra fun, pull out some art supplies and draw each island.

Inside Out provides a non-threatening way to talk about our internal world, a place that can often feel nebulous or intangible. Use the characters and themes of the movie to start these important conversations at home!

Home for the Holidays? Practicing New Skills in an Old Environment

Heading home for the holidays can conjure the warm fuzzies of nostalgia and anxiety of old patterns or family conflict. Whether heading home from college, returning to your childhood home with your own family in tow, or hosting family yourself, spending time with family can often pull us into old patterns. It's like running into an old family friend who eternally views you as your 18 year old self.  Change can be hard for people to accept.

It is often in these early relationships that we learn many of our relating habits, whether through modeling, family rules, parenting styles, or life circumstances. When you have been working on improving your self and relationships, going home can feel like the ultimate test. Family systems want to keep the status quo. When you start to act differently, hold boundaries, or question the family dynamics, people react to restore the balance. 

As you venture home for the holidays you will be pulled to act in the old ways of the system. Here are some reminders as you practice new skills in an old environment:

  • Remember that you can only be responsible for yourself. You cannot control what others do or say, nor can you take responsibility for them. Speak for yourself, your experience, your needs, your feelings, and your hopes. Be mindful to make healthy choices for yourself and let others make their own decisions.
  • Trust that everyone is doing the best they can. All families have disappointing moments, say hurtful things, or miss the mark. The stress of this time of year may increase these moments. Even the most unhelpful relating styles, both in ourselves and in others, usually come from a place of good intentions. The tactic may have helped early on in life, but now may be backfiring. Remind yourself to assume the best in others, it will help you be more gracious to yourself and your family.
  • You are not the family therapist. After gaining awareness of yourself or your family issues, it can be tempting to point out the dynamics or challenges others face. Be aware, speak honestly, and be gentle. Remember your own growth happens slowly and with gracious support, and so it will for others if/when they are ready to see it.
  • Self care, self care, self care! If you are anticipating a challenging day, schedule some down time before and after to take care of yourself. Excuse yourself for a walk. Drink a cup of coffee in solitude. Go to bed when you need to. Call a trustworthy friend. Schedule a massage when you get home!
  • You will fail, and that's okay. Practicing new skills is clumsy at first. Imagine a junior high girl wearing heels for the first time, it's a little awkward! Eventually you will grow into these new practices and they will become second nature. Use this time with family to increase your awareness of yourself. Be gentle with yourself when you fail. Journal about your findings and use it as an opportunity to try again next time.

Finally, find joy in these moments with family! Here's to a healthy & happy holiday season!

Girls & Sex Event

Think about the first time you talked about sex or sexuality with someone you trusted. You were probably young, curious, maybe even afraid to ask uncomfortable questions that needed to be answered. And in our modern times, any understanding of female sexuality is met with new challenges due to the reach and influence of technology.

You may have heard me talk about Peggy Orenstein's Girls & Sex or read some of my reflections on the book. Her work has reinvigorated my passion for creating safe places to have honest and frank conversations about female sexuality in this new landscape shaped by social media and technology. 

Rather than letting young women stumble into this new terrain by themselves, a few colleagues and I have teamed up to spend a weekend honestly engaging this very conversation in January. Our hope is to equip and empower the next generation to better understand themselves and their sexuality in a healthy way through honest dialogue with safe people. 

We'll be partnering with local professional therapists and using Peggy Orenstein’s NYT bestseller Girls & Sex as a guide. This event is geared towards young high school and college aged young women. Topics include messages about sexuality, experiencing sexuality versus appearing sexy, and consent. Friday night we will hold a simultaneous parent seminar to help parents talk with their daughters about these topics in a non-shaming way.

If this sounds like the type of conversation you are eager to have, find more information & registration here! If this sounds like the type of conversation you wish you could have had 10 or 20 years ago, consider donating to our GoFundMe here to make this event available to any young woman who may be interested in participating. 

Feel free to contact me for any questions! Looking forward to seeing you there!

From Fractured Communication to Whole Messages

A common reasoning for seeking counseling is to improve communication skills. Many of us grew up in families that struggled to model healthy communication, conflict resolution, and expressing emotional needs. Without the proper training we use the same faulty tools we learned, leaving our communication fractured, passive aggressive, defensive, and unclear. It is not uncommon to only partially communicate our thoughts and feelings and yet feel wholly unsatisfied with the result.

Communicating in whole messages involves four components: observation, thought, feeling, and need. Communicating via whole messages ensures you are doing your part to best represent what is going on internally for you and not put the listener in the position of mind reading (spoiler alert: they cannot read your mind, no matter how long you’ve known them). Let’s take a look at the four parts of whole communication:

  • Observation: what do you notice?

  • Thought: what are your interpretations about the observation?

  • Feeling: how are you feeling about the observation?

  • Need: what need would you like met/what request can you make?

Examples of whole messages:
O: I noticed you’ve been silent since I got home.
T: I realize that I may have frustrated you with what I said earlier.
F: I’m feeling hurt by your silence.
N: When you're ready can we talk about what happened so we can move forward?

O: Finals are coming up soon.
T: It’s important to study and do well.
F: I feel like you don’t trust me to budget my time.
N: Can you let me study on my own timeline?

Are there certain relationships that you are noticing feeling the most frustrated in communication - your marriage, workplace, with children, friends? Where can you start practicing whole messages this week?

Embodied Healing

I have recently been reading The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel Van Der Kolk, MD., a book exploring the ways in which our brains, minds, and bodies both hold, and in turn, can heal trauma. Trauma may feel like a scary therapy buzzword, and it becomes tempting to push it away from ourselves “I am not a vet, I wasn’t abused, etc...I don’t have trauma.” The reality is, we all experience trauma in our life, whether it be “little t” traumas, or a “big T” Traumas.

Our brain holds trauma in a very primal, emotional part of our brain called the amygdala which is responsible for our fight, flight, or freeze reactions. This part of our brain is responsible for keeping us safe. When we experience trauma, however, this part of our brain can become hijacked and triggered if it feels similar to the trauma of the past, though there may not be imminent danger in the present. This leaves our bodies in prolonged states of stress, tension, and adrenaline. Our bodies, like this part of our brain, hold onto the experience of trauma as well, manifesting in aches, pains, tension, and sometimes medical issues.

Trauma survivors often become disconnected from their body, unaware of what they are feeling or of what the body may be trying to inform them. Becoming connected to our bodies helps integrate both the little and big “t” traumas into our story, loosening the grip of its power over our present reality. Psychologists used to believe that merely talking about the traumatic story would help loosen its grip, but more current research indicates that involving the body in this process yields more lasting results.

If you are looking to heal the effects of trauma in your past to experience more freedom in your present, consider integrating your body into your healing as well. In addition to working with a trained therapist, finding a certified body worker or massage therapist can loosen tension, help you become more aware of bodily sensation, and allow you to experience safe physical touch. Practicing yoga similarly connects you with your body, releases emotion, and empowers you with core strength. Journaling is a helpful way to work through your story and moments of your day by tangibly using your body to write. Therapies like EMDR utilize natural body processes to integrate trauma. Mindfulness, breathing, and meditation exercises help ground you while teaching you to view yourself with compassion. Self-care activities, including exercise, eating well, and sleeping well will help maintain your results. We are embodied people, we cannot divorce our bodies from our inner world.

Please note that if your trauma history includes physical or sexual abuse or assault, some of these practices like yoga or bodywork may be triggering and challenging in the beginning. Safely working through these steps with your therapist will help you pace your healing well.

Responding to #MeToo

In the last few weeks stories of Harvey Weinstein have littered news sites as celebrity survivors come forward sharing their experiences of sexual victimization. Weinstein is not the only high profile person to gain the spotlight for sexual assault allegations, prompting the viral #MeToo campaign, where women have courageously come forward sharing their experiences of assault, rape, and sexual harassment.

Tragically, the experience of womanhood includes enduring unwanted sexual advances, the unsolicited up-down glances of strangers, unsolicited sexual images, infantilizing comments like “Honey, sweetie, babe, sweetheart” made to adult women, catcalling on the street, unwanted touch, unsolicited sexual comments, and for one in four women, sexual assault. These unwelcome sexual advances may be made from friends, family, strangers, or people in power.

In the midst of these behaviors, women are often told to lighten up, get a sense of humor, and learn to smile or brush off these advances for the sake of their careers, relationships, or reputations. Essentially, women are taught to minimize their experiences and remain silent as “boys will be boys”.

As thousands of women come together to demonstrate that these stories are not just Hollywood scandal, but a pervasive, enduring problem in our society, how do we respond?

Listen. Take time to ask and understand the experiences of women in your life. Respect their stories, and respect if they are not able or willing to share at this time. This is not your chance to argue or blame shift, but to truly hear what her experiences have been like. Use phrases like, “Tell me more. What was that like for you? What do you need right now?”

Educate. Take time to do research about what constitutes sexual harassment, abuse, assault, and rape. At least one in four women will experience sexual assault or rape in their lifetime.One third of women have experienced sexual harassment in the workplace. In California 99% of women have endured street harassment.

Evaluate. Behind each #MeToo is a man or boy who made the advances. Challenge yourself to ask hard questions like, “Have I been that person before? How do my attitudes towards women affect my behavior? In what ways do I act or speak disrespectfully about women? Have I remained complicit or silent as others have treated or spoken about women disrespectfully? How do ‘jokes’ about women contributed to #MeToo? How can I stand up for women when I witness harmful conversations, jokes, or behavior around me?”

Support. For many assault and rape survivors, when stories like Weinstein’s break, a flood of memories, flashbacks, and nightmares may return. Many other women struggled to offer #MeToo because of rampant minimization, thinking their experiences of harassment were “not that bad”. Support your sisters by naming and denouncing sexual harassment, assault, abuse, and rape. Support women as they heal. Become advocates for change in your own circles and beyond.

So...you're a Christian Counselor?

I currently see clients at Community Presbyterian Counseling Center (CPCC) in San Ramon. At the center, we often get questions from clients like "Presbyterian? Do I have to be a Christian to come here? Are you going to use the Bible in session?" The root of these questions is about how faith plays a role, or doesn’t, in professional counseling. You may have even wondered the same. Here are a few answers to common questions:

What is Christian counseling?
Christian therapists may answer this question differently from practice to practice. I answer that I am a therapist who is also a Christian, whereas other therapists will advertise themselves as Christian therapists. These answers likely impact the type of integration of faith into sessions. I believe that good, evidenced based mental health care can be an extension of God's healing hand toward spiritual, emotional, and relational wholeness. The desire to integrate faith into the therapy room, or not, is always exclusively the client’s. I will always respect the values, worldview, and beliefs my clients bring into counseling.

Is this Biblical counseling?
No. Biblical counseling is typically provided by lay counselors or pastoral counselors and is generally aimed at understanding the challenges of life solely through what is written in the Bible. Though some biblical or pastoral counselors may have advanced training or certifications, it is not generally regulated through a licensing board nor does it require advanced degrees. Biblical counseling does not always take into consideration what we know about mental health from research. My undergraduate and graduate training is in psychology and marriage and family therapy; though my education took place in Christian institutions, I am not a pastor. If you are looking for a Biblical counselor, I may not be the best fit for you.

Do I have to be a Christian to come here?
Absolutely not. I see clients of all faith backgrounds and clients without any religious association. Some clients come to CPCC because a shared Christian faith feels comforting. Many clients walk through the doors because they have heard we provide professional quality help in the community. In practical terms, therapy sessions between these two groups of clients may be indistinguishable.

How will faith be part of therapy?
The decision to integrate faith into therapy, or not, is exclusively the decision of the client. We all walk through life with a worldview lens, which may include religion. We may explore the ways your worldview affects your experiences or find ways to help you live more congruently with your values. If faith is part of your worldview, this may come into sessions. Some clients appreciate the understanding of a shared faith background, and desire no further explicit conversations of faith in sessions from week to week. Other clients explicitly do not want faith to be discussed in session. Still others request elements of faith to be included on occasion in counseling sessions. I will follow your preference and level of comfort.

Do the counselors use the Bible or pray during sessions?
Praying, using the Bible, or other spiritual practices are sometimes requested from clients of faith. If these elements are included, it is always after a discussion of comfortability with the client’s expressed faith, and not intended as an influence from the counselor’s values. Similarly, prayer or Scripture may only be used if it supports the overall goals of well-being and mental health of the client, which may be discussed between therapist and client.

If you have more questions about how faith and counseling interact, please contact me.

Antidotes to the Four Horsemen

Last week we discussed Gottman’s Four Horsemen the Apocalypse. Hopefully you are beginning to notice which horsemen you tend to use. As you grow in your self-awareness, you can begin to catch yourself and instead choose to communicate differently. Here is what Gottman has found to be the antidote to each of the four horsemen.

Rather than criticism, complain without blame. Practice using “I-statements” that reflect your thoughts and feelings. Rather than “you are always late!” (criticism), try “I feel unimportant when you show up late without calling.” Stick to communicating your feelings and needs rather than placing blame on your spouse.

Rather than contempt, build a culture of appreciation and respect. Each one of us wants to be loved. Curb contempt by intentionally communicating your love, respect, and appreciation towards your mate. This is built in small moments each day - be specific and genuine. “I really appreciate the way you handled the discipline with our kids today.” or “I’m so proud of the way you tackled that meeting, I know you have been stressed about it.”

Rather than defensiveness, accept responsibility. Rather than deflect blame, diffuse the situation by taking responsibility for whatever is your part in the issue. It takes two to tango. For example, “I can see how I may have contributed to your hurt feelings here. I apologize for not calling you to let you know I was going to be late.”

Rather than stonewalling, practice physiological self-soothing. Stonewalling often occurs when one or both partners is feeling emotionally flooded. The only way to re-engage well is to take some time to calm down. Perhaps you can go for a walk, practice breathing exercises, listen to music, journal, or go lie down. This break is truly a break, not a time to rehearse arguments or nurse wounds. It takes at least 20 minutes to physiologically calm down, so any attempts to resume the conversation sooner will not be fruitful. As a reminder, whoever is calling for the break is responsible for setting up another time to pick up the conversation again.