Tag Archives: change

Approach Rather Than Avoid: Embracing Emotions to Minimize Suffering

Many of the clients who I see in my practice seek support as a result of unknowingly avoiding some or all of their emotional experience. Avoiding a painful or confusing emotion works really well in the short-term. So well that it often comes as a shock to people when it is suggested that they try something different. In real life, avoiding emotion often looks like avoiding certain situations or people, not a particular emotion itself. It is only when people grow frustrated with the results of living their life within these very particular confines that they begin to question what is truly driving the avoidance. Throughout the process of psychotherapy, they can begin to explore what it feels like to approach an experience rather than avoid it. In doing so, great richness can be found in relationships, opportunities for growth and a compassionate, empowered sense of self.

Take the example of a client I am seeing. As a child, she was the victim of prolonged sexual abuse by one of her primary caregivers. In order to survive this horrific experience, it became adaptive for her to eliminate feeling. The emotions one naturally feels were disabled so that she could navigate the world around her. She describes how, as she matured, it was difficult for her to turn her emotions back on in relationships after they lay dormant for so many years. As a result, she felt unable to express her opinions, frustrations and desires to her partner. She found herself avoiding conflict and intimacy. Resentment and hopelessness grew.

In our sessions together, we work toward enhancing her ability to identify her emotions earlier in the “cascade”. For her, this has meant tuning in to body sensations and the “bristly” feeling she experiences as a cue that something is going on for her emotionally. She can now label the emotions that she feels and is working to be able to express them in a way that empowers her. Although this work was initially very frightening for her, bit-by-bit she was able to challenge the belief that “emotions are dangerous” and instead see them as an important part of her psychological landscape.

It can be very confusing to recognize that not only do we avoid painful emotional experiences, but sometimes avoiding pleasurable experiences becomes a habit as well. As can be the case with depression, positive emotions can seem very threatening and the fear of disappointment can drive people to avoid acknowledgment of their own strengths, building healthy relationships or taking care of themselves. Although for the short-term this can result in a sense of self-sufficiency and insulation against pain, in the long-term it can lead to isolation and suffering.

Psychotherapy combines helping clients to see how avoidance worked for some time and how it was adaptive in order to cope with a stressor or painful situation. We talk about how reasonable it is to develop some way of keeping it together. At the same time, we discuss how this habitual way of responding usually does not work over the long term. We talk about how emotions, although powerful, do not have to overpower. My hope is that by cultivating their ability to approach rather than avoid, clients learn how to integrate their emotional experience with their values and long-term goals.

An Ode To Expat Mamas

Friends

This post is one of a particularly personal nature and also one that I am very excited to write. I think it is relevant to the general theme of this blog given that it relates to what it is like to be a mother abroad and the importance of social support for mental health. But mostly it is about friendship and its power to transform the experience of living far from home.

When I first moved to Switzerland, my son was just two months old. I had very little experience parenting in the United States much less parenting in a country where I could not speak the language, did not have a job and was far from the support of my friends and immediate family. I made an effort to reach out and luckily, there were a number of ways to meet other English-speaking parents in Lausanne. I now know that, during this initial phase of acclimation, there can be a tendency to open up to anyone with friend potential and very quickly become socially overextended. But, with lack of sleep whittling away patience, I moved into the phase of being more selective with potential social activities.

I was fortunate to meet and connect with some of the most creative, courageous and smart women from all over the world. Our countries of origin spanned most of the world: Taiwan, Ukraine, Austria, Poland, the Netherlands, Dagestan, Malaysia and the U.S. And despite our differences, we now share a chapter of our lives with one another that we all consider to be one of the most special and unique. We all had our first children around the same time and weathered some of the greatest ups and downs of this new experience together.

As it often happens in the highly mobile expat communities, that chapter is now coming to a close as these women and their families follow opportunities in other countries. Although we always knew the intensity of these relationships would change as our life circumstances did, it is still sad to go our separate ways.

I often tell clients that expat moms get the short end of the stick. In moving to Switzerland, they are usually the ones that experience the most dramatic changes to their living situations and, typically, are tasked with organizing life for the kids. They are immersed in the minutiae of daily life in a foreign country and often juggle a lot of balls. Whether they stay at home or work outside of the home or something in between, expat mamas have to be tough. They enter this life without many certainties about what the future may hold and develop a thick skin that allows them to weather the daily difficulties. They learn how to advocate for their children even if it goes against the grain and how to manage the childcare shortage. Many of these mamas are tireless entrepreneurs who put themselves “into the arena” in a big way. Expat mamas take things in stride, whether it’s the inconvenient laundry room schedule, the train stations without elevators or ramps, the two-hour lunch break from school, or the Sundays where nothing- I mean NOTHING- is open. In short, to be an expat mama, you have to be comfortable with discomfort.

One of the best things an expat mama can do is develop a strong network of genuine social support. Ideally, a playgroup for mother and child-where both moms and kids can enjoy the company of those who understand their experience. I believe that while it is not necessary to have a village to raise a child, it sure is nice to have one. And expat parents are uniquely in a position to enjoy the immense diversity of cultural perspectives while connecting with other parents who share the same fundamental motivation: being the best possible parents they can be.

I do not think I would be the happy and relaxed parent I am today without the influence of my mama friends. Even though moving abroad meant starting over and forging my own way in many respects, I somehow feel like the friendships started here have been there all along. And I am confident that these relationships have left a mark that will last into the future.

(Image courtesy of artur84 at FreeDigitalPhotos.net)

No Place to Land: The Expatriate Experience (Part 2)

Expats have developed strengths that help them to face unexpected difficulties in life
Expats have developed strengths that help them to face unexpected difficulties in life

“Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” –Mary Oliver, 1990 

Life stressors like divorce, health concerns, child educational issues, and caring for aging or sick parents are very difficult no matter the geographical setting. However, when these issues arise for those who are living abroad, they can seem simply insurmountable. I have found that, in general, expatriates are a hardy bunch. They usually feel ready to take on the challenges that living in a non-native country entails. Often they have experience from their childhoods traveling and experiencing different cultures and changing environments. Or they bravely fall in love with someone from a different country and open themselves to the prospect of a multicultural relationship. Sometimes the expat experience beckons to those who are looking for a fresh start and a chance to cast a new die for their lives.

In any case, those who choose this kind of life are usually prepared for the emotional challenges that characterise it. They are not surprised by days that require dealing with language challenges, reaching outside of their comfort zones, and getting lost for hours. But, throw in one or more of the major life stressors mentioned above and these “expat virtues” can be sorely tested.

A client once described to me how living abroad and dealing with a major life stressor left her feeling like she had “no place to land,” that she felt too disconnected from support in her country of origin but also not intimately acquainted enough with support in her adopted country. As a result, she struggled to carry the weight of the stressor by herself, without knowing how to direct the emotional resources she had cultivated through the challenge of living abroad in order to more effectively manage her experience.

Deciding to take the plunge and live outside of your country of origin for an extended period of time is not unlike dealing with a major life stressor. As you consider what life might be like following a major change, it is easy to get caught up in anticipation of the worst-case scenarios or doubt your abilities to manage what might arise as part of this adjustment. However, if this was where the thought process ended, than no one would live abroad. There is a point at which the thinking flips to consideration of all possibilities in a more balanced way. Regardless of how you think about an event, however, there is no certainty about how these thoughts will correlate to the future. So, there is a self-confidence and awareness of an ability to be flexible in the face of the unknown that is necessary in deciding to live abroad.

Once my client could connect to these gained skills and her own quiet strength, she felt more empowered to manage the stressor and was able to develop a plan to deal with it in a way that reflected her values. She came to believe that she could do it, even when there were days when she encountered extreme challenges to this belief. Concurrently, she created a support system that she could turn to for information and empathy. She admitted feeling surprised that increased self-reliance actually helped her to feel better able to seek support, rather than confirming her initial fear that asking others for help would make her reliant upon them. In essence, with hard work and courage, she created a safe place to land for herself.

Although it can certainly be more challenging to deal with major life stressors as an expat, it is not impossible. Those characteristics that often draw people to living life abroad can also be utilized to cope with unexpected difficulties that challenge emotional well-being. The decision to live outside of your country of origin is one that cannot be made without a great deal of courage, hope and belief in your abilities to cope with difficulty. And though we do not get to decide when and how major stressors will arise in life, the same hard-won attributes that help us manage other difficult situations/decisions can be called upon to help us through.

(Image courtesy of smarnad at FreeDigitalPhotos.net)

Identifying Emotions

Sometimes a visual reminder is necessaryVisua
Visual cues are useful for planning and problem-solving. But how about using visual cues for emotions?

Practicing mindfulness can help us to get to know and to befriend our experiences, no matter what kind of experience it may be. When first beginning practice, it can be challenging to identify various emotions and their correlated thoughts, body sensations and behavioral impulses.

Identifying emotions is helpful for a variety of reasons. On a physiological level, it transfers energy from the very primal “emotion brain” of the amygdala to the area of the brain dedicated to helping us organize, remember and make sense of information. When we identify and label an emotion, we are essentially activating a part of the brain that can help us to problem-solve, inhibit undesirable behavior or respond more effectively to what we are experiencing. We still may choose to deal with that emotion in a more primal way (say, slamming your fist into the wall) but at least more of our cognitive resources are engaged and this action is more intentional.

Furthermore, once an emotion is identified, you have more information to work with. Rather than trying to slog blindly through a muddy and sort of icky, disconcerting experience, we can instead be more aware of what we’re experiencing, how long it might last, and what kinds of things might be able to make the experience more manageable. That being said, emotional events do not consist only of the “negative” stuff. Greater awareness of joy, pride, wonder, love and all those positive (for most people) feelings can be very useful as well. When we make note of a good feeling, we are essentially saying, “Hey, this is good stuff. I am going to pay attention.” And the more we cultivate emotional recognition, the better we can be at catching and enjoying a similar emotion in the future.

Mindfulness to emotion can be a tricky topic to introduce. We humans are generally great walking cascades of emotion from one moment to the next so pinpointing what is happening takes practice. Plus, we are collections of learned emotional associations that can be triggered by very subtle or even subconscious stimuli, for instance: a barely noticeable but familiar smell -> memory of your first love -> feelings of nostalgia.

One useful tool I’ve found for helping people to practice takes the form of a handy little device, called “Feeling Magnets.” The founders recently offered me a chance to test this little metal box and its myriad magnets with mindfulness class participants. I found it to be a very useful. It is not very technical- always a plus for me- and due to its portability and discretion, facilitates regular emotional checking-in. Plus, it gives the user an opportunity to put words to their emotional experience, explore emotion/behavior patterns and ultimately, to step back and respond to emotions in a more mindful way. Seeing the emotions you are experiencing written in front of you can help to strengthen the neural connections that will ultimately contribute to the building of a new habit: checking-in, recognizing and validating your emotional experience, and choosing how to proceed.

Simple but effective, "Feeling Magnets" help with mindfulness to emotion.
Simple but effective, “Feeling Magnets” can increase mindfulness to emotion.

As a big fan of visual reminders and cues,  I recommend this simple but effective tool to mindfulness enthusiasts and those who are curious about their emotions. Anything that helps us to witness and wonder at the incredible capacity of our mind gets a gold star from me.

(Image courtesy of Stuart Miles / FreeDigitalPhotos.net)

Is Mindfulness Indifference?

It is normal to have lots of questions about practicing mindfulness.
It is normal to have questions about practicing mindfulness

During this weekend’s introduction to mindfulness class, a very useful question came up: Does being mindful mean being indifferent to our experience?

This question struck me as being particularly useful in that it helps to capture and put words to the challenge of being non-reactive to our experience. From our first days, our reactions to our physical and emotional experiences are reinforced: a baby cries when he feels hungry and is fed. As we mature, we learn that not every experience requires action, and not every experience means something about the past or future. For instance, as adults, we know that the sensation of hunger does not mean that we will die if we do not eat immediately. Awareness + maturity = wisdom.

Purposeful attention to what is present in a particular moment is mindfulness. Jon Kabat-Zinn describes “non-judgment” as one of the attitudes that provides a foundation for practicing mindfulness. When we notice an experience, be it physical, behavioral, emotional or cognitive, it is very common to judge that experience as important or unimportant, worthy or unworthy, or even desirable or not. And judgment leads to action- whether it means simply putting a thought into a certain mental category or engaging in some behavior. Mindfulness teaches us how to simply notice our experience fully, without being dominated by the habit of judgment or action.

If we mistake the equanimity extended to our various experiences for indifference, we risk missing out on a lot of information. We pass up the opportunity to cultivate discernment in our judgments about experiences and make a balanced response to the full range of events unfolding in a particular moment. Indifference implies that the information we gain during an experience is not important and, therefore, not worthy of our attention. In addition, most of us are not naturally indifferent to our thoughts- quite the opposite. So, it is likely that obtaining indifference to our experience would require striving for a different mind state.

Rather, mindfulness helps us to open ourselves equally to all experiences (whatever our judgment about them) exactly as they are. Being mindful helps us to recognize and validate what is present for us in a given moment (even if it does not make any sense or fit with our values), and to respond to that moment with compassion and acceptance. In practical terms, it has the capacity to create some space around our deeply ingrained mental habits, thereby opening up opportunities to do things differently in life.

It is difficult to describe what is like to relate to yourself in this way, which is why the practice part is so important. Although the concept of mindfulness is not technical or metaphysical, we English speakers do not possess the language to easily describe the experience. It is best left to experience to show us how opening to the abundant richness of any particular moment- and letting it unfold exactly as it is- can help in forging a different relationship to thoughts, feelings, behaviors and body sensations.

(Image courtesy of digitalart / FreeDigitalPhotos.net)

New Pathways

Even when a path already exists, you can make a new one.
Even when a path already exists, you can make a new one.

As a visual person, I use a lot of metaphors in my work. A personal favorite relates to the development of new habits, and particularly, new thought habits. Over time, we build up a certain way of thinking about a situation or ourselves or a difficulty until it becomes more or less automatic. This thinking habit becomes a well-worn, frequently-trod path through the landscape of our mind.

For instance, when faced with the prospect of making a presentation at work, some of us have developed the habit of thinking about the worst thing that could happen. Or, when receiving a stinging comment from the mother-in-law, some of us may descend automatically into self-criticism (or revenge fantasies). There are hundreds of mostly automatic thoughts zinging through our mind on a given day. It can be interesting to take a step back and slow down to see if it is possible to make a new path.

Making a new path does not mean that you can never use the old path. It just means that you are opening up options for yourself, consciously cultivating a different type of thinking (that perhaps is more rational and compassionate) that can ultimately impact how you respond to a situation. It will take time and patience to create that new path, just as it did to create that old one. But the beauty is that as a result of this new response flexibility there is greater awareness of choice and of freedom from (as Jon Kabat-Zinn puts it) “the tyranny of thinking mind”.

Change takes time but our mind is an amazingly flexible vessel for our thoughts and motivations. What kinds of new pathways would you like to create for yourself?