Mind your expectations….

Holiday seasons are tough on a lot of people. Those of us with “special” families have our share of Christmas horror stories …. too much drinking, too much drama, too much expectation. The media doesn’t help. We are bombarded from mid November on with the expectation that this is a time to be happy, to be connected to family which is supposed to be in and of itself a good thing, that we should buy, buy, buy, … Little wonder why the Help hotlines are overwhelmed at this time of year.  Those of us with out of step families feel well, out of step. We ask ourselves how is it that we don’t have the pie in the oven, the merriment around the tree, the peace and love we surely all crave.

When it comes to the media unfortunately their message will never change. They are geared toward making people believe that spending money will bring back that family feeling. It doesn’t. Know that.

What can change is how we talk to ourselves. I can mind my expectations by not creating a fantasy of what I want my family to be. This will be helpful because what I want it to be and what it is are a lifetime and a world apart. So what to do? How about I work on accepting what is? How might that be helpful? Well for starters, if I take the stance of accepting what is, it’s easy to go from there to being grateful. Gratitude I have come to learn is the great equalizer of shitty stuff. Have a parent with dementia? Being grateful for the small moments in between gives one the strength to make it through the harder moments. Have a relative with mental illness? Again, being grateful for the small moments means being able to cope with the bigger ones that make no sense. Being grateful for the small moments means being present to that. When you’re present, and grateful, the mechanism to blow things out of proportion whether good (fantasy family) or bad (every thing is ruined) is limited.

As this year comes to an end, and we, by definition of the holiday, get together with friends and family, be real .. both with yourself and with others. Mind your expectations and look for gratitude for the little things. Doing so has a way of making little moments grow just a little bigger…. Just enough to make things fine, just as they are.

Peace be with you.  

Sharing a Blog Post about Boundaries...

Hi... for all of you who have participated in the famous "tape" exercise... read on.


Marching to a different drum....

I march to a different drum, do you? I am not a 9 to 5er. As a psychologist in private practice I get to set my own hours, decide what days I work and when I take time off. My partner is a consultant who also works from home.

Sometimes I feel a little out of step with the world. I was recently telling my osteopath what my day was like: I get up, I have the time to exercise – which means driving to the mountain for a run, or walking up to the summit – both taking an hour plus in the morning. I come home, shower up, eat and then relax (or run errands) – often I am on my laptop (spending too much time on Facebook!) writing for this blog, or for the Argyle Institute creating their newsletter. I go to work in the afternoon – and most nights of the week I work till 8 pm or 9. I come home, eat a light dinner, read and go to bed. Personally, this sounds kind of sweet to me. It’s low stress, a relaxed pace, what’s the problem? But when I shared this with my osteopath he had a strong reaction about my working that late into the night – asking incredulously how I get anything done.

And somehow – that got me unsettled – albeit momentarily. Sometimes people think there is only one way to live, or a "right way" to live. Sometimes we get caught up in being like everyone else, or living in a socially prescribed way. Sometimes when my husband and I are out walking in the morning and I see all these folks getting on buses, or in cars, and going … I feel left out, or different, at least a wee bit uncomfortable .. until I remind myself, this is ok, what I choose is good, its good for me.

I have clients who have a very difficult time living with the ”status quo”. As such, they have sought out different lifestyles to cope – and even though they may be successful they are often reprimanded by family and friends for not living “like the rest of us”.

Marching to a different drum has got to be ok. The world needs diversity. People need several alternatives by which to work, live, play, heal, and connect. Celebrate your differentness! And next time someone says why are you like that you can say with confidence – because I choose to be and it’s good for me!

'Tis the Season ....

Now that summer is really officially over, I mean, I can’t even deny that anymore and I worked hard at it this year – going barefoot in my shoes till last week! – it is time to talk about how the change in seasons affect us. Many suffer at this time of year, whether from a lack of energy, a tendency toward feeling sadder, or outright Seasonal Affective Disorder – a type of depression that sets in once the temperature drops, light fades, and winter begins to set in.

The brain is a brilliant thing. When it starts to think something it looks for all manner of proof to reinforce those thoughts. So, if your brain believes things are getting harder in life, it will seek out proof to confirm that. If it thinks things are getting scarier, it will find loads of reasons for that to be true. A depressed brain will look outside at a sunny day and bemoan the fact that there is a risk of getting skin cancer, that since it’s so nice more people will be outside and that might make things hectic. A depressed brain might see the change in season and daylight saving time as a terrible obstacle… darkness much earlier, colder weather, the isolation winter tends to bring around. To the depressed brain it’s all a burden, it’s all difficult and it’s all something to endure.

As the temperature drops and winter sets in, many of us give up the activities that are natural defenses against depressive thinking and feeling. We exercise less, get less day light (lets remember that it gets dark earlier – it’s not that it gets dark and stays dark for six months!), eat less healthy (scientific fact), probably drink less water, and are less social. All these things combined make it very easy indeed for the brain to believe it’s depressed. Negative behaviour begets negative thoughts and feelings.

I don’t want to minimize depression either. I work with folk who suffer greatly. However I have also worked with those, like  myself, who due to the changes in the weather, have changed their behaviours and habits and thus have found themselves depressed and anxious.

Before you go to the doctor for medication – have you tried spending your lunch hour outside? Walking a minimum of 30 minutes a day? Yes it’s colder – dress for it, the technology to go out in the winter and stay warm is available. Have you eaten healthy today? Have you slept well? Have you called a friend? Made contact with a loved one? Have you done something positive for yourself today? Have you spent a moment reflecting on what you might be grateful for?

These are small steps that cumulatively affect the brain in a very positive way. Positive behaviour begets positive thoughts and feelings. Each step challenges the brain to believe that things are good, ok, manageable, and possible. Each step confirms your own ability to cope with less light and with the changing season. Each step challenges your brain to see what is right with you and your world.

Be positive! It works!


I watched Requiem for a Dream (2000) over the weekend. It’s a sad, sad story about addiction, loneliness, and the impossibility of some to deal with feelings. Ellen Burstyn plays the mother of a heroin addict. She herself lives alone and is, I guess, dying of loneliness.

While I “appreciate” addiction – I get it, I’ve seen it, it’s awful, mostly an illness – but somewhere along the line I believe it’s a choice, usually of how one copes with feelings and anxiety. What I saw happen to Ellen’s character is not so much a choice - sort of. She comes from a time and culture that puts a lot of value in what a doctor says and believes. They are the professionals, what they say must be right, must be good for the patient. She gets her “drugs” prescribed to her. She becomes addicted to diet pills, and then God knows what else is prescribed in a bid to help her cope with the "side effects" (read addiction to speed).  By the movie’s sad end, she has become anorexic, psychotic, is shackled, force fed, and finally given electric shock treatment – which renders her a vegetable.

I have had so many clients come into my practice that have been prescribed medication – for depression and/or anxiety – by a GP, with no request for follow up by a mental health professional. Personally I find this unbelievable. In my training I learned (maybe wrongly, but I don’t think so) that depression usually has a predictable course, that it doesn’t last forever, and even WITHOUT medication it often resolves itself within six months to a year. I learned that medication is a SHORT-TERM solution that is intended to help “lift” the individual enough to be able to do the work one might do in therapy, to help them cope and work on resolving the depression or anxiety all together.

But that’s not what I am seeing. People are being put on medication, like Effexor, Paxil, Celexa, Prozac, Cloazepam, for years. Years! without EVER having seen a mental health professional! I have seen people being put on several different medications, to alleviate depression and to help them sleep all at the same time .. again for years. It is my belief that the end result of being on something for so long is that the brain loses the natural ability to create the neurotransmitters/hormones required to do this “work” itself. Sometimes the brain stops producing the required serotonin for example all together – why bother it says, a pill to do it for me is on the way!

I realize there are times when medication is in fact useful. Sometimes we find ourselves suffering too much and we have to take advantage of medication, not doing so would be "causing harm". However there needs to be a balance doesn’t there? There needs to be follow up, accountability, and assessment as to the outcome of taking something for so long.

A piece of the movie was very disturbing and that was the part of the doctor never even looking at the patient. He would look at the file in his hand and decide what needed to be done without ever looking at the person. I actually had a doctor like that once. He refused to answer my question, just out right refused, and then stopped acknowledging me all together. I was dumbfounded and didn’t know how to respond. That’s unacceptable behaviour.

The medical profession might do well to consider the whole person, in the context of all the resources available to them in terms of coping.  I would say the same to any mental health professional – do not get the notion that you are the only support available to a client. And if you are, then it behooves us professionals to help those clients expand their network of support. We can model that for them by speaking to each other - doctor and psychologist, doctor and therapist, doctor and social worker. Individually, we are but a small slice of their life and all clients SHOULD have a far greater network than just one therapist, or just one doctor and certainly more than just a bottle of pills.

Come on helpers, we can do a whole lot better.

Men and Work

Men, sadly, are socialized to believe that who and what they are in the work world is who and what they are period. While there has been a sea-change insofar as realizing the 25 year career in the same company is something from a by-gone era, what hasn't changed is how men  develop their identity and define themselves according to work. Workaholism is still an acceptable form of escape for men – escape from family participation, self evolution and self reflection, from the intimacy in one’s relationship, from dealing with going after what your heart “wants” rather than what you “should”  …  I say it’s acceptable because it’s often not recognized as workaholism in the first place. Most people look at a man who works 60 hours plus a week and think that he is successful, that he has a “big job”, he is important, depended on, making lots of money.

There is a new population of men however, those that have left corporate life either forcibly or of their own volition, long before retirement is even a consideration. As they adapt to another kind of life, many are finding work in the form of consultancy – offering their expertise in piece meal chunks. They report that while they no longer enjoy the “benefits” of a full time corporate gig such as a health plan, retirement contribution, paid holiday (they are hard pressed to come up with more) – they are discovering that being available for family, living on their own time frame, having time for self-care, and not marching to the corporate drum is life changing, and more importantly, extremely satisfying.

As therapists I wonder how we might help the men that come to see us. Many come questioning where they are at when this work shift happens. There is uneasiness, in the beginning, when not getting up to the sound of a buzzer, leaving the house, getting on planes, coming home late, like so many others. There is a discomfort, in the beginning, recognizing the “differentness” of routine.  Many experience a fear of becoming obsolete, worrying that the youth that nipped at their heels in the corporate landscape will leave no room for them to finish off their working years in contentment. Some, after a time, question whether they can re-enter the corporate world at all.

I don’t believe the corporate world can handle these men who have now understood the great cost to themselves and their families paid during the earlier years of their careers. The sacrifice of time away from the nurturing of a marriage, or the raising of children, and investment in one’s self, can’t be reclaimed. The corporate world doesn't have room for the conscious, relationship-invested man. It’s all or nothing. And happily, that’s just not good enough for many a man anymore.

There is a great need to redefine one’s self, to come to terms with the myth that socialization has fed us. Men are more than the sum of their career. They are human beings in need of contact, in need of a space to be vulnerable, in need of acceptance regardless of what work path they choose. It’s time to embrace the change and respect the differences among us, and the benefit of those differences.  It’s time to honour our humanness in every aspect of our lives. 

The Way We Talk...

Couples often show up in my office with a wish to improve how they communicate. I think we all look for ways to be in a relationship and get our needs met, to be able to articulate those needs, and to respond to our loved one with equal care. No small feat!

Part of the difficulty lies in the fact that most of us believe our partner ought to know what we need and want. Some of us have the mistaken notion that our partners can read our mind`, or that everyone feels this way so why can’t s/he get it? When we carry those kinds of beliefs around our inner frustration mounts. What is wrong with this person that they don’t get it, that they just don’t understand that NOW is the time to approach me, that NOW you should tell me you love me…. and the sad reality is, many of us are screaming this out by the time we decide to share. Not very sexy indeed!

Even worse, when the screaming starts, it’s never “I really need you to hold me”.  It’s usually “You are such a _____! You never do anything right!” - in the end giving your partner NO information about you (other than your rage) and more information about him/herself that s/he would care to have. On top of that we have now added fuel to the fire and the hurts accumulate and resentments grow.

How can we train ourselves to remain authentic, to articulate that authenticity, even when it makes us appear vulnerable? So many times in the last few weeks I have heard people come in and describe this sensitivity as weakness! Imagine, sharing your longing with your spouse is weakness! Imagine, sharing your loneliness with your partner is weakness!! We’d be doomed as a species if that were true!

What is true is that NOT sharing those soft and tender feelings is weakness! I abhor using the word weakness all together – so let’s not. Not sharing those soft and tender feelings, out of fear, only encourages that fear to grow. Not sharing those feelings isolates you further, puts more distance between you and the person you want to be close to. Not sharing those feelings creates a block to the antidote for all that sadness and loneliness. Sharing (the antidote!) those soft and tender feelings acts like a magnet and draws your loved one closer. Sharing breaks your isolation, opens your heart, permits contact to happen, helps strength to grow…. all that from sharing from your heart.

Equally important to sharing is listening. Listening is an equally challenging task. In order to hear you must be present. In order to hear you must put your defences down. In order to hear you must accept that what your loved one is feeling is what your loved one is feeling – no ifs and or buts. In order to hear you must understand that when your loved one tells you what they are feeling, it is not an attack or a criticism of you. In order to hear you must offer each other the space and time to speak.

It’s a real piece of work to come together as a couple and give yourselves the room to be  vulnerable, to create a space between the two of you that is shared and sacred where real feelings can be expressed and appreciated.  Allow yourselves to be vulnerable – there is truth in that and there is connection and healing in the truth. 

The Precipice

I've been listening to Tony Robbins lately. He's pretty inspiring I have to say. He is also exhausting to watch and to listen to if you ask me. On the other hand I felt that way after a Paul McCartney concert - please, stop, I can't handle any more!

Where do some people get their drive? How do they get the energy to do the things they do? It's obvious these men are living out their passions. They believe in what they do with every fiber of their being - they know they are doing what they are meant and want to do. But that's Tony Robbins and Paul McCartney...

I want to figure this out for us ordinary folk.  It will happen that we find ourselves on the precipice of change. I think that's a very fortunate and important moment to be aware of. We all have the potential for greatness in what ever way we wish to define greatness. Yet in the moment that we realize potential looming just beyond us - over the precipice, just over there - we pull back. And what is that about? Are we too afraid to take the leap? Is it that we are too afraid to fail? Too afraid to live up to what it might be like to succeed? Some tell me they worry about what people might say should they even take the first step to realizing their potential .. and that's not even about failing or succeeding its just stepping out of one's stupor and trying something they want to try!

You have to wonder sometimes at the obstacles we set before us. If we put half the energy into just getting into motion to reach a goal - rather than putting that energy into manifesting the obstacles .. seems to me we would see a lot more fulfilled people living up to their potential. What are the stories we tell ourselves about being able to step up? What are the stories we tell ourselves that hold us back?

I read in a book not long ago - a book about our relationship to money - that people tend to resist, or suffer, when moving from one neighbourhood to another. They used this metaphor to explain the fact that more than 60% of lottery winners end up back in the same place or worse within two years of a win - having moved into another financial "neighbourhood" and not being able to tolerate it.  I imagine its the same for any kind of success - if you come from a particular neighbourhood, and succeeding at what you love potentially moves you out of that neighbourhood - well that can be scary don't you think? Here you are - alone, in unfamiliar surroundings, with people you're not sure are friend or foe, away from your tribe....

But what if our inner voice said - "It's fine, go for it, it will all be good, better even. You're going to love it!" what if THAT's what our voice said instead of "No! Too scary! They all think you'll fail! You'll die alone!" .... I bet if our voice, that automatic, knee-jerk voice, was the latter - we'd be doing more with our life, with our potential, with our energy. I bet if our voice said "This is going to be awesome, let's jump!" - we would reach out and connect with the folks in the new neighbourhood, befriend them, give to them, love and be loved by them ... and grow, and succeed.

The precipice... place of terror or place of excitement? Place to shrink back from or place to seize and grow and thrive? You tell me...

What we long for.... Valentine's every day

Well here we are, St. Valentine's Eve.... and all over the airwaves people are talking about what to do, how to do it, how to deal with this day - that ostensibly is there to honour love. I was interviewed on the radio over the weekend, asked what I thought about the holiday - and I couldn't get away from the idea about how it accentuates our loneliness, how tough it must be to live up to the pressure this holiday proposes. As I think further I'm astounded at the psychological pressure we are all put under - by the media. Think about it. Todd van der Hayden told me Valentine's is an 18 BILLION dollar industry - what?

All that being said - what happens on this day? We become hopeful, wishful, begin to develop expectations - that we don't articulate, and so it seems a recipe for disaster already. As the day or evening draws near, tensions rise because we start to notice little signs that what we are pining for as a testament to our partner's love for us - isn't manifesting. Now we're in trouble. At the same time is the story of the person who has done something and worries it isn't good enough, not grand enough of a display. The pressure is mounting on both sides. We begin to brood, feel unloved, begin to alienate ourselves and our loved one until things crumple into a heap and we all go to bed hurt and angry. That's not celebrating our love is it?

I would like to propose that the kinds of things we are wishing for are things we can give each other and ourselves - everyday! In order for a couple to remain healthy, connected, loving - its the small things that count. The daily acts of love. The daily expression of gratitude and appreciation for your loved one. We need to build on that. This is the work of couplehood. People often think all you need to do is be there when it comes to sustaining a good relationship. But it's so much more than that. Being in a couple requires you to be sensitive to your partner's needs; requires that you step out of your own experience from time to time and really get a sense of what they are feeling. It's so important to learn how to really hear what someone is going through and let them know you understand - because it is just as important to YOU to be understood and validated.

It's also important to share your appreciation of your partner. So many times in my practice I see the same reaction:

Husband (or wife): "I'm so thankful for you, I so appreciate the things you do. I realize I don't always tell you, or I'm not good at showing it but I really am grateful for all you do."
Wife (or husband) responds, literally in shock): "I never knew you felt that way! I thought you didn't care at all! I thought you didn't notice anything I do!"

Imagine - walking around in your life thinking your partner doesn't notice anything you do. Even sadder is imagining the partner that walks around with so much gratitude but keeps it to themselves. And again, the consequence of that - is an experience of alienating and being alienated that results in a horrible stalemate between two people. Most of the work couples do when they come to couple therapy is to repair that bond that has broken due to the alienating process. They come to find the connection that they lost.

This Valentine's Eve... and tomorrow and the day after that - let your partner know you appreciate them, that you need them, that you are grateful for your relationship. Do one small act of kindness just for them. Listen to them and allow yourself to receive the same in kind. Our hearts were meant to be connected.

Anxiety Anyone?

So I don't mind sharing that over the past few weeks things have been tough on the personal front.  A combination of work, family, and health related things have all gone down at the same time making dealing with cumulative stress an issue for me. So I ask you - do you suffer from anxiety? The kind that gnaws at your gut somewhat relentlessly? The kind that sometimes wakes you up during the night and there you find yourself mind racing, worrying, having a tough time getting back to sleep? We can then spiral into this place where the incessant feeling in our body is non-stop. We have some how passed a tipping point where in we can no longer calm down. That's my experience of it anyway. And you don't have to "look" like you're losing it, and it doesn't mean you are so put out that you can't work or do what you have to do ... you just don't feel "good", calm, rested, your best.

What kind of solutions do you have for this? I have friends and colleagues who say have a glass of wine. My response is no thanks. First of all it's depressive - to me anyway. Second of all I'm not a big fan of using alcohol as a coping strategy. Some suggest Ativan. Again, for me, I have to say no thanks. I guess I have strong beliefs about my personal resilience and a wish and desire to overcome difficult passages on my own. Add to that I'm in the middle of reading Anatomy of an Epidemic by Robert Whitaker and it is making me rethink the whole medicating mental and emotional health issues. The changes the brain undergoes in the name of getting help just makes no sense to me.

And so I'm left with figuring out how to calm down, how to take a bite out of this relentless anxiety. Well you're not going to like my answer.... I just took an hour and a half vigorous walk -  that's right I exercised - and the anxiety and experience of stress I was having is no longer there. Now I know it is not going to last - which just means I will need to do this again tomorrow, and then the day after and the day after that - but it works. I feel better. I feel "in control" of this. I feel I can manage my stress .. and I need to because the things going on in my life at the moment that are challenging are not changing any time soon. So I NEED to exercise.

This is available to all of us. I'll keep you posted on my progress because I think an alternative to medication is an absolute necessity. I am also going to be taking an eight week Stress Reduction "course" and plan to share what I learn there.

If you have any suggestions to add to the stress and anxiety reduction tool kit, please, post!

Happy calm day to you all.

Making a Choice

“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing; the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” - Dr. Viktor Frankl

I love this quote by Dr. Frankl. It speaks to me of the great power we all inherit to determine how we deal with the world. When we feel helpless in the face of someone's behavior, we can remember Dr. Frankl's words and take solace. We are not victims to our reactions. We are not powerless in determining the outcome of an exchange. We can in fact choose, specifically, and deliberately how we will engage with someone - regardless of their behavior.

I was told a story by a young person of how their parent, seemingly mentally ill, was sometimes so persistent in demanding a response that it bordered on abuse. This young person, we can call him Sam, reports that he gets so angry at the persistence (bullying?) of his parent that the "conversation" often ends up in screaming, yelling and more often than not, violent outbursts. Sam doesn't want to hurt his parent's feelings, he wants to be a helpful son, wants to have a healthy sense of family, but feels thwarted in that because nothing he does changes his parent's behavior. 

A husband and wife seem to argue all the time. At the root of most disagreements is a threatened sense of connectedness. When the connection between them is disrupted the individuals become distressed. When individuals become distressed they act out in ways that rarely speak DIRECTLY to the rupture in the connection. Rather, hurtful words come out and the more attacked a partner feels the more hurtful the words tend to become.  People find themselves spiraling into a terrible dance where one reaction begets another reaction begets another and on it goes. 

I find these two stories very linked. Both speak to a certain re-activeness. Both speak to a loss of power in deciding and determining how one might respond. We rarely put ourselves in our partner's, parent's, friend's, sibling's, child's shoes when we are in the throws of a conversation/argument. We automatically become defensive and in that moment give up our our power to choose. Alternatively, some of us make the mistake of making ourselves responsible for our loved one's feelings. If I stand up for myself I will hurt them; if I'm assertive, they will become angry, sad, depressed; if I "win" they will lose; I can't be truthful it will be too painful. Without even realizing it we give up our power.

So what might it take to hold on to that moment Dr. Frankl talks about? What might it take to make that moment of choosing how to respond available to us? And even if in the first moments of an "engagement" we lose our footing and become defensive - is it impossible to pull back from that place? Is it impossible to be compassionate with our selves and say "Ok, Hold on.. I can do this? How can I choose to respond in a way that is assertive, respectful and preserves my dignity?"

We all have the strength to do this - step back, consider what we might say, consider what our loved one is feeling (really), decide whether to engage or not, decide to be authentic, decide how to engage. By demonstrating that strength, by exercising that power, we show others how to avail themselves of that same strength. 

What does your anxiety look like?

So many of us struggle with anxiety. In fact, some level of anxiety is just a normal experience given the world we live in. But what do we k...