Two areas to consider examining if you’re feeling depressed:

By Joel Christie

One: What takes up your time?

Is your schedule too full? Or maybe you don’t really have a schedule? If you’re perfectly happy with how you spend your time, I sincerely congratulate you. But many of us spend too little time doing what replenishes us, or fortifies us, or bolsters confidence and helps us grow. Maybe we turn into workaholics or perhaps we gradually become trained to pursue small, temporary pleasures that ultimately leave us unsatisfied or even drained. We neglect our social lives, or we neglect adventure. Or perhaps we neglect our responsibilities because they’re too hard or just not especially fun, resulting in unpleasant consequences that can sew anxiety and depression, amidst the other consequences they bring. It’s not so different than the body’s need for nutrition: we need iron, and calcium, and vitamin B12, and whatever else, but also not too much sugar or saturated fat, of course, because why should we get to eat delicious stuff all the time? (Thanks, stupid body.)

Our souls need a healthy balance too, of course, just like those self-help books will all remind us. And if we’re looking for something to weaken the smothering hold of depression, this can be an invaluable area of life to examine. Extroverts may need an abundance of meaningful time with people, but they also need time to reflect and be introspective. Creative types certainly need time to create, but they may also need to spend time doing the grittier unpleasant tasks of training and application and bloody annoying paperwork. Why? Because these can be the kind of activities that promote growth and produce confidence as we realize our own competency and self-sufficiency. We need to be challenged. And we need time to rest, relax, and replenish. But then we need to get up and keep going. If we stop to reflect, most of us can identify areas in our lives that could benefit from more time and attention. So how about you? What could you benefit from spending more time doing?

Two: How do you approach problems?

Our problem-solving instincts can dominate our lives if we’re not careful. It looks different from person to person, but at its root, it’s trying to fix what we perceive is wrong with the world around us. Facebook arguments, staying late at the office every night to impress your boss, trying to make your spouse finally see your side of things, that one friend who never does what you want, bills, disappointing family members, and so on. There are a million places where our problem-solving instincts flare to life. We often get a small, short-term boost of empowerment from pointing out or identifying a problem—that “I’m smart” feeling that allows us to believe we’re on our way to fixing things. And indeed, identifying what’s wrong is the beginning of the problem-solving process. But identifying problems this can leave us depressed and depleted if we rarely see positive changes occur, either because of the lack of response our criticism produces or because of our disappointment with ourselves for not doing something more direct to fix the problem.

Yet most frustrating of all, our efforts often will fail to solve our problems. Repeat: our efforts will never eliminate all of the problems we are able to identify. Which is why gaining the ability to accept the slow, clumsy, annoying, and the perpetually ongoing process of problem-solving is so valuable. As we come to accept that problems are a normal part of life (and not things that “shouldn’t be happening to me!”), we can learn to expend less energy wishing they would just go away. We can cultivate durability, which frees us up to be more content before the problem is resolved as we gradually pursue the outcomes we desire. This doesn’t mean we ignore problems, it means we recognize that our problem-solving instinct will dominate us if we don’t shut it down from time to time. It means we’re better off thinking of ourselves as people who are able to keep striving and enduring in this world that is never short on problems than as people who need our problems to end in order for us to experience happiness.

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The Following Group is Bad for this Compelling List of Reasons:

By Joel Christie

Social media has become one of our culture's biggest outlets of expression. People share all kinds of things from their lives, including things that may make others uncomfortable or angry such as their views on social justice issues, politics, or religion. (I do this routinely.)

I suspect much of this has to do with our need for validation, but may also come from a desire to bring attention to things we feel are important. But I have increasingly come to believe that what we share is often counterproductive to the causes we are trying to advocate for. I’m talking specifically about posts that champion one side while vilifying another, categorizing that other group as idiots, narcissists, buffoons, bigots, greedy bastards, pigs, racists, blind zealots, and so on. Immediately we may think, "But they’re every bit as bad as the article says! Worse even! Have you heard what these people think?" And no doubt many of our friends would agree with our position. Yet I maintain that many and maybe even the most of these posts are self-sabotaging. I suppose it's possible you could grab the occasional neutral person who nods and decides "Yes, I now agree that this group of people are indeed awful after having read this." But in general, I doubt it.

If the group you are describing would not agree with the way you are describing them, it will almost certainly have a polarizing effect where both sides draw further into their separate war camps. There are endless examples I could choose from, but I'll go with the current barrage about college students, calling them lazy, weak, stupid, delusional, and a host of other names, mostly having to do with older generations being dissatisfied with how these college students are conducting themselves. To be clear, my point here is not about accuracy or inaccuracy. I do not seek to defend or attack college students by using them in my example, only to question the effectiveness of such posts. We could substitute virtually any topic where strong disagreement exists, and my point would be the same, even in the examples where I personally am the guilty party.

Of course, whether my post is “effective” will have a lot to do with my own expectations. If I’m hoping for someone with significantly different views to consider my perspective then I'm unlikely to find many takers with “The case for why people who think like you are bad” approach. People don’t like being called names. If I want them to listen to me, I’ll need to use inclusive language, and must embrace the difficult task of helping them feel they are genuinely invited to the table of discussion. But I suspect that this is the root of our collective problem: do we really want these people with whom we so strongly disagree to engage with us? If we dislike them as much as our language suggests, the answer is probably no. I think much of the time, what we want is to vent and to rally with our allies because it feels good to be right. Or maybe sometimes we just want to hold up our middle finger while we watch the world burn.

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The Value of Kindness

by Joel Christie

Things are tense in our society right now. Feels like there are these harsh forces at work, and we’ve ended up so divided that it’s hard to even talk to each other anymore unless you see eye-to-eye on everything. People can be so opinionated, so deliberately mean and hurtful and ugly towards each other. And proud of it! I don’t even have to touch on a specific topic, and you already know what I’m talking about. Facebook. TV. Your office. Traffic. In churches, temples, synagogues, or mosques or with folks who are not religious at all. In virtually any comments section. With friends. With family. With people we hardly know or a perfect stranger at the friggin grocery store. There’s no safe harbor. It’s so easy to find or impossible to avoid that we can just become numb to it. Meanness. Cruelty. Disdain and disgust. And flat out hatred. It’s tempting to blame politics or religion or whatever else happens to be the flavor of the particular conversation but take a peek at how vicious the comments can be beneath a youtube video showing you how to make sugar cookies, or how to fix your kitchen sink, or of a waterskiing squirrel. We seem to have a knack for the nastiness that requires little or no fuel or provocation. The neurons in our brains fire and up a criticism or an insult to the forefront of our thoughts, and away we go.

It sounds so obvious I’m embarrassed to say it, but what we need is a giant cultural injection of kindness. I find myself feeling immediately self-conscious in advocating for kindness, like when politicians say they’re against crime, or that they think it’s a good idea to create more jobs. Duh. Everyone’s against crime. Everyone supports creating more jobs. And duh, everyone knows it would be a nicer world to live in if people regularly practiced kindness towards each other, followed by a pat on the head and, “Yes, that’s sweet. Here, let me lead you down the hall to where the other five-year-olds are playing. You guys can build blocks together and practice kindness. Remember, no biting. Nap time is in an hour.”

It’s true, though. There isn’t a better starting place than kindness. Our society has gotten jaded and cruel, and it desperately needs this injection of life. Simple. And exceedingly difficult. And that’s the problem, isn’t it? I’m not sure we’re durable enough to practice kindness as a lifestyle. It’s easier and safer to keep our knives out, slashing with sarcasm, jabbing with criticism, eviscerating anyone we disagree with on politics, cooking, or what you thought about this season’s finale of whatever show. Because we know how it works. Kindness makes you vulnerable. We may play at it once in a while when the odds are in our favor, but what about when we doubt the other person will show us kindness in return? “Gosh, tempting, but I don’t really need another headache today, thanks anyway.” And the thing is, so often it turns out to be exactly that: painful. You try to be kind, and it gets spit back in your face. So why bother? It’s far too costly and offers too few rewards.

Yeah, we know it alright, which is why living a life of sustained kindness is one of the most challenging things one can attempt to do in this world. Because kindness it is so much more than just the absence of meanness. Sure, meanness sours the water and makes the road more treacherous to travel, but the mere lack of a hurtful remark is far different than the regenerative goodness that bubbles up when someone treats you kindly, lets you know he or she cares about you, hopes for your goodness and well being and makes an effort to bring you a little bit of that just because they want to see you smile. Yeah, we know how powerful that is too. We’re just doubtful it will happen to us.

Look, I’m as guilty as anyone, so this is definitely me speaking from within the kingdom of hypocrites. But what’s the alternative? Continue down this dark and lonely road, further fracturing apart, getting to the point where we can’t even stand to be in the same room as people unless they think and act the way we do?

All the harsh words, sarcasm, and meanness we put on display, I think it’s a ruse to hide how fragile and hurt and afraid most of us are. We don’t have faith in each other. We don’t believe that folks from that other political party or religion or economic class or whatever other category people can be grouped into might be decent people. Nah, we’re pretty sure they’re not. After all, did you see what that one guy from that one group said about that one thing? Yeah, they’re no good. And the hard thing is, I can’t offer any guarantee that you’re wrong. Maybe they are just as mean and bad and hopeless as you think they are. Of course, they may feel the same way about you. And so here we are.

But I have a theory that if a few of us can bond together and decide this is what we want to do—be kind, be good to each other and be gracious to people even when they hold views we aren’t especially fond of, be durable enough to withstand an insult without returning it, be patient, and be determined to stick with it—if we could do this, we could start to make a difference even in this sea of negativity. I think it’s the truth. These articles are supposed to be short, so I’m obviously already out of time. But I would welcome suggestions from people for how this might be accomplished. Is it even possible? How could we get this movement of kindness off the ground? What might start to turn the tides?

If this appeals to you, I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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Built for Hard Times

by Joel Christie

Life can be really hard. Most would acknowledge that, but can our awareness of that actually help us in any way, or simply doom us to further misery? When asked what might help them deal with the fact that life so often feels overwhelming, unfair, mean, brutal, impossible or heartbreaking, I have heard many people say they'll feel better when their circumstances improve, which is certainly understandable. Circumstances impact how we feel, but they are also often largely beyond our control. So we need more reliable things to lean on. Friends and family. Life purpose. Faith. The pursuit of our dreams perhaps. And I think all of these are invaluable. All of the suggestions below pertain to your beliefs and your worldview, which means they are ultimately within your control to accept or reject as you so choose. So: what might help?

Accept that hardship is an inescapable, unavoidable part of life. Gosh, thanks for that uplifting gem? Yeah, that may have come off as grim, but I don't mean it to be fatalistic, I promise. The fact that life is often brimming with hardship does not nullify the possibility for it to also contain vaults of goodness, joy, and satisfaction. Along with this, when we accept that hardships are part of the gig, we become a little freer, strange as it sounds. We spend less time wishing that hardships wouldn't happen, pining for a world where we don't always end up getting hurt, only to end up hurt by our own impossible desires. This doesn't mean we simply discard hope. If you lived in the Game of Thrones universe, then yes, perhaps it would be best not to bother with hope. But here, hope is a wonderful compass for us when coupled with realism. It tells us what we want and what we should spend our efforts seeking. We must simply know that hardship will still accompany us along the way. This knowledge--this integral part of our beliefs--can normalize hardships, removing them from the category of "things that should not have happened," to things that have happened and will happen, and must, therefore, be faced.

Start recognizing how resilient you are. There are things in life that will grieve us no matter how strong we might be, such as the death of a loved one, the betrayal of a friend, debilitating health issues, and several others. Grief and sadness are precisely the right emotions in such situations. Yet it is critical that even in the midst of tragedy we do not completely lose sight of who and WHAT we are. Our brains are natural problem solvers. It's how we survived as a species in the past, and how we survive now. You could even say we are built to handle hardship. Certainly there are times we may not feel able to handle everything, but I think there can be a danger in allowing ourselves to accept this despair too often. I can't handle my bills. I can't stand one more of my kid's temper tantrums. I can't deal with my evil boss. My messy husband. My condescending wife. My noisy neighbors. Traffic. Politics. Society in general. Stop, and please try giving yourself a little credit. These things may all be substantial problems. But the more you are able to see yourself as a person with a brain that is highly adept at problem-solving, and the more you see yourself as durable, resourceful, and resilient, the less you will likely feel undone by anxiety and despair. And here's the cool part: you'll feel the effects of this diminished anxiety and despair even before these problems are fully resolved. If you realize that you are indeed often capable of facing the onslaught of life's tribulations it will change how you feel about the problems themselves. You will not likely suddenly come to love your problems, but you will likely feel far less dominated by them because you'll know that you are cut out to deal with them. And for those of you who think, "well, that may be nice for the lucky people who happen to have such confidence," I would invite you to dare to believe that you too possess numerous strengths and problem-solving abilities and that you are far more durable and resilient than you currently realize. After all, how many times have your bills or your boss or your toddler actually succeeded in killing you? Seriously. Consider all the stuff you've been through already. That should tell you that you're durable. Take some comfort from that.

Find things to invest yourself in that feel worth the effort. As I mentioned, our brains are wired to be problem solvers, so it comes very naturally to most of us to fixate on what's wrong. But it's critical that we also allow ourselves to strive after things that generate excitement and passion. I'm not talking so much about fun, per se, although fun is fine. But on those rough nights at the end of a brutal week, a little fun peppered in--or even a lot, with a whole big rush of dopamine and all that lovely stuff--will likely prove inadequate to buoy us indefinitely against the reality that there are always more glacier-sized hardships on the horizon. We need things that have a lasting potency to deal with that, things we can pull with us when we're feeling low, or uncertain about our future, or yes, even just bored. People tend to fair better in life both in the high seasons and low when they believe their lives matter and that they have a purpose. So invest some time in that question, because a part of your brain will likely remain hungry for answers. And the more pieces you find along your journey in this regard, the more stable your ship is likely to be as you face the many storms of life.

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What Are You Modeling for Your Kids?

By Joel Christie

How do your kids see you? As someone who handles problems with confidence and figures things out? Someone who is patient with others even when you are frustrated? Someone who is in control of him or herself? From the time kids come into the world, they are absorbing how to do life from us, their parents. They're absorbing what anger, and problem-solving, and anxiety, and sadness, and happiness, and confidence look like. Little if any of this is done consciously, especially at first. It’s experiential. It’s feeling mom or dad’s gentle arms of comfort, or hearing them yell, or seeing their loving smiles. It’s the feeling of having your attention verses not having your attention. It happens when they see how dad reacts if someone treats him rudely, or when they ask mom yet another question at the end of a stressful day and she still manages a gentle response. It’s little pieces at a time that are building an encompassing experience for the child that will deeply impact how they eventually interact with and understand the world around them.

Often I hear parents tell me things like, “He makes me crazy!” or, “She won’t listen to me!” or, “There’s nothing I can do when they throw a fit like that in the store.” It offers insight into how these people see themselves as parents: Does this woman believe she’s equipped to handle this difficult situation? Does this man feel strong here? Capable? It’s unlikely, given the vast power they ascribe to their child while portraying themselves essentially as victims at the emperor’s mercy. This is not to say the shrill cry of your three-year-old will not effect you, regardless of how grounded and healthy your self image might be—indeed, it will physiologically effect you, spiking your blood pressure and giving you an immediate jolt of stress to deal with. But for those who recognize such moments for what they are—invaluable opportunities—these parents can learn to navigate these rough emotional waters and to exemplify the characteristics they most hope to increasingly see within their children: self control, confidence, kindness, respectfulness, gentleness, and even empowerment.

The thing is, regardless of whether the parent is cognitively aware of it or not, the child is going through an imprinting process here. He or she is experiencing how YOU experience stress in these moments. When your son is throwing a fit in the store, and you come roaring back at him, shouting for him to shut up, he might actually shut up for the time being, halted by fear or shock. But he will also vividly experience you displaying what happens when you feel upset or stressed or annoyed: you shout and yell. Or you ignore your child. Or you respond calmly bur firmly. Or you throw up your hands and look for the wine aisle. Or a thousand other ways, all of which will be experienced both by you and by your child.

It should not surprise us when our children exhibit behaviors and characteristics similar to our own. It should also not surprise us if our children can eventually beat us at our own game. For example, we may discover that next time we have to shout louder to achieve the same results, or worse that we end up escalating things beyond shouting, demonstrating our own inability to remain in control. But the inverse may also happen where we demonstrate that when our son or daughter loses control, that they still see in us a picture of someone who is calm but firm, safe, and able to handle the child’s tantrum without succumbing to one of our own. Our kids are absorbing from us all the time. So be intentional. “You were feeling some big emotions back there in the store, but we don’t yell at people and throw things. That’s not okay.” Yelling and shouting may achieve short term results, but the long term cost will likely be exorbitant.

I don’t want to offer a false portrait of reality here: this isn’t implying that if you can only

manage to act perfectly all the time and never lose your cool then you will have kids who are also perfect angels. You’re allowed to feel frustrated, annoyed, sad, and all the rest of it, just as your kids are. But this discussion doesn’t need to be about perfection: it’s about being more aware and making a commitment towards your own character growth to enable you to model the kinds of behaviors you want to see in your children. And also in yourself.

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Thoughts From Relationship Land 2

by Joel Christie 

One of the first things I emphasize when working with a couple is that relationships inherently require work. The couple generally nods and indicates that they are well aware of this. So I emphasize it again: No really, relationships require hard work. Not just this one. All of them. There aren't any lasting relationships out there that just sail along without serious interpersonal problems at least sometimes. So the fact that you two are frustrated and genuinely upset with each other does not mean you're doomed. True, you guys could potentially split up, but if that's what you decide to do, you'll eventually find serious areas of frustration with your new partner. At least you two know where many of your areas of frustration are. So now, if you want to, you can start working on these areas together.

Naturally, if the couple decides to stay together, they want practical steps that will lead to positive results, so here is one practice that I think can be useful to almost every couple: Learn to communicate that you really hear what the other person is saying, and that you care about their feelings, opinions, and circumstances.

Imagine Susan says, "I feel like I don't have enough time to get everything done, and when I get home from work I'm so, so tired." Then imagine Brian responds by saying, "So basically I'm just going to have to do everything by myself: cooking dinner, getting the house clean, and never having any help from you ever again. So then we'll both die sad and alone from sheer exhaustion. Great." Then maybe Susan says, "Why do you have to be so sarcastic all the time? You are so selfish."

Her initial statement was: "I feel like I don't have enough time to get everything done, and when I get home from work I'm so, so tired." If you were guessing what Susan was hoping for when she said this, what would you say? That she was trying to provoke a fight? That she doesn't care about Brian and just wants him to have to take care of everything for her? Hopefully not, although unfortunately couples can come to believe these types of things about each other when they repeatedly fail to connect and do not find ways to demonstrate to each other that they really understand where the other person is coming from. I would guess that what Susan was hoping for was understanding. She was probably hoping Brian would say something like, "Yeah, you really have been busy. I totally get why you're tired." The entire conversation might have looked different after that. Instead, Brian struggles to get past his own frustration.

This isn't to say that we should discard Brian's frustrations here. Rather, this is about what's most important for the relationship: connection. Brian and Susan can certainly choose to remain in there separate places of frustration, unwilling to acknowledge the other person's place of hurt. But if they do, they will have to deal with their problems alone, without feeling cared for or aided by their partner, which will almost certainly lead to resentment and erosion of trust. Honestly, this isn't about Brian being a bad guy; it's about what will allow this couple to handle this stressful situation together. Very likely, both Susan and Brian have valid complaints, and indeed, if both Brian and Susan are able to express this to the other person—"Hey, I hear you. You're feeling really overwhelmed with all those extra hours at work," or, "You've been taking on tons of extra stuff around the house lately, and that's really starting to wear you out."— they'll stand a much better chance of figuring out a solution. But again, to be clear, finding solutions is really a distant secondary benefit, because there is no guarantee that just by listening to each other Susan will stop having to work so many hours, or that Brian will no longer feel overwhelmed by housework and other responsibilities. In fact, most problems couples face remain unresolved. And strangely enough, this fact remains true even with happy couples.

Okay, so what about the problem though? Does this mean my issue just get ignored? Temporarily, it might mean that. After all, if both people are trying to shove their own problem to the front of the line as the most important one, it's very unlikely that the couple will end up feeling connected, or that either issue will be satisfactorily discussed anyway. On the other hand, if over time, the couple develops the ability to safely share their issues, believing that it will be received with compassion and understanding, the likelihood that both people's problems and concerns receive the attention they need increases. Patience and trust are cultivated. The connection between the couple grows stronger. And their ability to handle difficult and stressful situations improves as well, not because they can suddenly solve every problem they encounter, but because they both have confidence that they have found someone with whom they can explore these difficult issues with, someone who cares enough to let them finish, and who makes it clear they understand and care.

How does this process start? By one or both people deciding that they will start it. By me repeatedly communicating to the other person that I care about their pain, disappointment, and frustration rather than simply responding with my own list of hardships. And by me believing that forming these connections with my partner is more important than solving a problem anyway, even if we happen to solve plenty of problems along the way.

Author's note: But what if the other person doesn't do it back?! It's a fair question. I'll take a crack at that issue in the next installment of Thoughts from Relationship Land

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Six Things That Can Help With Difficult Discussions

by: Joel Christie

Admit it: sometimes you want to change other peoples minds. Sure, we love our slogans like "to each their own," but take a quick glance at Facebook or any number of talk shows and you'll notice people busy at work trying to change one another's minds. Hey, it's okay. We're kind of wired this way. Unfortunately, I think the way we go about it is often much more derisive than we intend.

Take any topic people disagree and also care about. That certainly includes politics, social issues, religious issues, etc., but you can find plenty of fodder in the supposedly mundane as well. Ever see a Facebook post like: "The new Jurassic Park was epic!!!" followed by someone quickly slinging a ninja star into the mix: "That movie was so dumb it made me wish the dinosaurs were real so that one of them would kill me and put me out of my misery. How could anyone like something so stupid? And P.S., it's called Jurassic World now, not Jurassic Park." And then a small internet war erupts.

What's happening here? It's more than just the need to have an opinion validated. It's the need for the other person to change their view so that it better fits with my own. Maybe this person feels uncomfortable with diverging views, thinks he or she know better than the other, or believes he or she is just trying to help. Or, perhaps this person just wants to conquer whomever he or she happens to disagree with because it feels good to be "right." But wouldn't it be cool if we were all a little better at talking to each other, and as a culture began to gain confidence that we could disagree and still like each other? Sure, some people are great at this, but I suspect many feel their choices are limited to locking horns or avoiding a heated discussion completely. But here are a few things I think can help people engage in disagreement with much greater potential for a fruitful outcome:

1.) Learn to be okay with disagreement. We say things like, "Everyone is entitled to their opinion," but in reality, divergent opinions tend to make us uncomfortable, producing anger, anxiety, frustration, confusion, and fear, which we often want to get rid of as quickly as possible. We think "Why don't they just admit that I'm right?? Then there wouldn't be a problem!" Yet most of us would acknowledge that firing insults or "logic" missiles at someone rarely changes their mind. More likely they fire back or disengage. So why do we do this?

2.) Become more aware of your own emotions. As we pause to mindfully notice our emotions, we become increasingly capable of deciding how we truly want to respond, rather than simply reacting out of our lower/reptile brain. The reptile brain handles the important job of protecting us from threats, but can also cut us off from empathy and a desire to connect with the other person. As you can imagine, this is even more problematic if both people are operating out of the reptile brain, confirming back and forth to each other, "You're a threat!" and "Yes I am and so are you!" However, by noticing what is happening within us, we can increase our ability to keep our upper brain regions involved as well, particularly as we make this a mental practice we strive to do over and over.

3.) Develop genuine curiosity for the other person's perspective. This doesn't mean you have to end up agreeing with him/her, but few things shut communication down faster than when it is obvious we don't care what the other person has to say. How do we demonstrate curiosity? Ask genuine questions, not "land mine" questions meant to reveal the other person's ignorance or stupidity. And then listen.

4.) Focus on your own experience rather than trying to prove all the reasons the other person is wrong/ignorant/stupid/etc. "I really thought Jurassic World was fun. It made me laugh several times, and had a bunch of cool looking dinosaurs eating people." In couples counseling, we often tell people to use more "I" statements, and I think a similar principle certainly applies here. Consider the difference between "I am feeling upset about this," vs. "You are really pissing me off."

5.) Admit that you're not necessarily open-minded on every topic. A good way to gage whether I am open-minded on a particular issue is to ask, "What might begin to alter my beliefs/ perceptions about this issue?" If the answer is, "Basically nothing," then this probably isn't one of the issues you feel particularly open-minded about. And that can be okay of course! But it may make a discussion with someone who holds a differing view quite frustrating. And if neither person is open to changing their views on the issue at this time, it's worth asking "What am I hoping will happen as a result of this exchange?"

6.) Revisit the question of, "Why is this issue important to me? What would it mean if my views began to change?" That doesn't mean you have to change, it means you are creating an opportunity to better understand yourself and your own beliefs. Include in these questions, "What don't I understand very well about this part of my beliefs?" And then feel free to explore, even conversing with people you may completely disagree with. Who knows, maybe you'll both discover something new and valuable.

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The Quips of Violet Crawley

Joel Mag live

Joe No Mag liveBy: Joel Christie & Joseph Noecker

On the highly successful Downton Abbey, Maggie Smith plays the indomitable Violet Crawley, the Countess of Grantham. Known for her often scathing wit and old fashioned sensibilities, Violet, aka "Granny," is an immensely enjoyable character who exudes self-confidence, communicating her opinions and values with unashamed candor. Here are a few quotes from Violet, used as a backdrop to explore some concepts of mental health as she banters with Isobel Crawley, who she has reluctantly accepted as her confidant.

Violet: "Hope is a tease designed to prevent us accepting reality."
Isobel: "You only say that to sound clever."
Violet: "I know. You should try it."
Joel Christie's mental health insight: I love Violet's non-defensive posture here. Isobel calls her out for saying something she believes to be empty and needlessly gloomy. Rather than growing defensive or trying to explain why Isobel is mistaken, Violet takes ownership of what she said, enjoying her own ability to display wit if she so chooses, a great example of self-acceptance.
Joseph Noecker's mental health insight: Violet takes the opportunity to embrace ownership of her insecurities, thereby simultaneously reducing the power of their nature. It takes courage to self-expose a characteristic of which we are not so proud. However, as well Violet may be self-revealing an unwillingness to grow beyond this state by appearing to take some pride in her statement. Ego has a sneaky way to block our "authentic" growth.

Isobel: "How you hate to be wrong."
Violet: "I wouldn't know. I'm not familiar with the sensation."
Joseph Noecker's mental health insight: While Isobel states an obvious observation of the ego in all of us, Violet takes the statement further that indicates either an absence of separation between her ego and higher self – or a potential celebration of her conscious choice to live in the world of the limited view of the ego. Living in the land of ego can be quite satisfying in the moment but it never sustains. The hunger for "more" or the "best" or "smartest" rages on for a lifetime while living in this state. Of course, Violet also may slyly be making fun of herself. I find her quotes so enticing because of the inherent mystery of the meaning or perhaps dual meanings behind her quips.
Joel Christie's mental health insight: In refusing to ever allow Isobel to gain the upper hand, Violet is being a bit disingenuous here. We all know what it feels like to be wrong from time to time, unless of course we are dangerously disconnected from reality, which Countess Grantham certainly isn't. So why the front? I think in this case, Violet is simply reinforcing an old pattern that has existed between herself and Isobel for as long as they have known each other. Violet, the grand Countess, has a lot of her self-worth tied up in her important title, and a countess can't be shown to be wrong, can she? Her self-worth is threatened by the notion that she has made a mistake, which is unfortunate since mistakes are a common, normal, and even healthy part of life, providing us with the opportunity to grow.

Violet: "Why the lamentation? You don't have to see him if you don't want."
Isobel: "You make it sound so easy."
Violet: "There's nothing simpler than avoiding people you don't like. Avoiding one's friends—that's the real test."
Joseph Noecker's mental health insight: Violet seems to be demonstrating a self-honest gesture in owning her feelings regarding others here while taking honest ownership of the stance that even friends can be excluded at times. We are exposed to her ability to access what she feels and her courage to express even when outside opinion may not support her views. Though I sense a potential disparity in her ability to access authentic feeling and actions as she distinguishes between strangers and friends. Violet is such a wonderful representation of our own inner struggles between authentic, honest interaction, empathy and feelings for others, and perceived societal expectations regarding relationships.
Joel Christie's mental health insight: Violet seems to be more comfortable setting boundaries than Isobel, apparently feeling little obligation or social pressure to spend time with people she doesn't like. She acknowledges that it is more difficult with friends, however, which raises an important mental health issue, since creating boundaries with the people we do like can be just as important or more so. Should I head to Vegas with all my buddies if I have a gambling addiction? Probably not. Being comfortable setting boundaries is a vital part of establishing and maintaining healthy relationships, something that Violet seems to understand quite well.

Violet: "Principles are like prayers. Noble of course. But awkward at a party."
Joseph Noecker's mental health insight: Violet speaks some straight talk here. She displays in one brief comment that many things about life have virtue but to the Ego and persona, remaining true to their value in all situations is at the very least, difficult and awkward. There is an underlying message conveyed here that "what others think" trumps all in most cases. This reflects an underlying insecurity dependent upon external validation for one to feel good about self.
Joel Christie's mental health insight: In mentioning the party/ social setting, Violet seems to reveal that the opinions of others are powerful forces in determining what she should or should not do in a given situation (which is certainly true for many of us). Yet there is a conflict here as well, since Violent seems to feel one's principles are indeed important, it's just that they become subservient if they might cause awkwardness. It's possible in the long run this dynamic could damage self-esteem, since avoiding social discomfort becomes more important than adhering to my own principles. In other words, it could leave me doubting I have the strength to stick up for what I believe in.

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The Talent Question

by Bethany DuVall

As an artist, I hear it from people all the time:
"I appreciate art, but I have no talent."
"I can't even draw a stick figure."
"If only I had the talent, I would paint/draw/write..."

So I started asking people: What do you think talent is? Almost everyone had the same response: Artistic talent is the mystical unicorn that carries your ideas directly from your brain to your hand so that they flow seamlessly out from your fingers onto the canvas.
I've never met this unicorn. Here's what I know about talent and art making:

1. Getting your hand and your mind to work together is a skill that you can learn. A mechanic who's been working on cars for twenty years will usually be better at her job than a mechanic who started six months ago. This is not because of talent. It's because of practice.

2. Coming up with images and ideas for creative projects, appreciating beauty in all its forms, and connecting your experience with creative expression – this is talent. We all have it to some degree. A mechanic with the intuitive ability to understand engines as a whole will pick up the skills faster than one who does not, but both will pick up the skills with practice.
Even if you have both the creativity and the skill set, it is very unlikely that you will ever produce an image that is exactly like the one you imagine. In 23 years of painting, I never have. In fact, accepting this has had such a profound impact on my work that I remember the exact moment of that epiphany.

In 1997, I was alone in my college dorm painting. I was working on a piece I'd tried twice before and had wasted miserable amounts of acrylic and canvas on these failed attempts. But I couldn't get the picture out of my head. It was Father Gregory from the movie The Mission. He sat on a rock in the middle of the rain forest playing a primitive recorder while native tribesmen stood among the trees, weapons raised, ready to strike. As he'd played his haunting melody, the tribesmen cautiously lowered their weapons and came out to listen. Father Gregory's voice came over the music: With an orchestra, we could have charmed them all.
I'd seen the movie only once, about four years earlier, but Father Gregory's comment on this moment had stuck with me. I kept trying to capture it, and kept failing.

But this time, it was working, sort of. Father Gregory's face under my brush was correctly proportioned, but the features and pigment were off. The trees around him were taking on a washy, haunted look. This was not how I remembered it. I remembered beauty and peace. There was a quiet violence in the painting before me.

I considered gessoing over it – the artist's version of erasing the whole thing. But something was right about the painting, even if it wasn't what I was going for. I sat back and stared at it. I'm not sure for how long because the scene started stirring into different things in my head. In the movie, this scene was a triumph. But I was old enough now that I knew more about the devastation that European colonization and missions created in the Americas. I began to see that forcing the painting into my preconceived direction would be telling a story that wasn't true. I began to understand that however well-intentioned, this moment was an assault on a way of life.
I gave in to the direction the piece wanted to go. I let the musician become a native man holding the same recorder Father Gregory had played, and imagined the way the music would change in his hands. The trees became the faces of the listeners. They were screaming silent screams. It was disturbing and beautiful and true, and the best work I had done to that point.

You can learn skills. If you can't draw a stick figure, that's a good place to start. If you have ideas for artwork, or even just an appreciation for beauty, that is reason enough to learn the skills. The artwork has things to teach you. Our job is to meet the images in our heads with the best of our abilities and grow from there. And if you ever meet that unicorn, don't send it my way. I have too much fun learning from my mistakes.

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Mindful Eating

by Simanto Khandaker

3 steps to having a more mindful eating experience:
Preparation (Remove distractions)
Observation (Utilize all senses while eating)
Reflection (Bringing awareness to how the body & mind processes the experience)

Preparation: The goal is to minimize distractions and maximize opportunities to be present. For example, finding a secluded location, turning off the phone/tv/computer, washing dishes, removing disruption by informing others about your intentions eating mindfully.

Example: When i'm eating with a group of people, I usually take a few minutes to set my food, and put my phone face down, on silent, and about an arms length away from me. Usually, in front of my food, where I have to reach across my food to get the phone. It allows me to be conscious about my reaction to the phone's vibration (ringing).

Example: When I'm eating alone, I put my distractions (phone, reading material, computer, to do list, etc.) in another room, set my table, wash dishes used to prepare my meal before eating. This allows me to minimize the to do list before moving onto the next step.

Observation: This is the big one! The goal is to use all the senses while eating: taste, smell, touch, hearing, and sight. Observation can be more impactful if the first step, preparation, is done to the best of our ability. Minimal distraction allows us to focus on the experience.

Example: Eating a peanut butter sandwich: I look at the bread, the ratio of peanut butter, how it flows, the grains and patterns of the bread, the crust and other characteristics that I see. When I pick up the sandwich, I feel the texture of the bread, the temperature, the peanut butter, etc. As it approaches my mouth, I smell the sandwich, and after every bite I try to find another aroma. I observe how it impacts my taste buds, and listen to my chewing or other sounds. I give myself 5 - 10 minutes before moving on to the second half and reflect on my experience.

Reflection: The goal is to create an open connection with our body and mind. For example, I observe my thoughts, feelings, body posture, stress, etc... Taking an inventory of myself.

Example: When I have a peanut butter sandwich, my mind usually goes back to when I was in college. My roommates and I used to make, hot pressed, peanut butter sandwiches. The bread was toasted, the peanut butter melting, the jelly combined with the peanut butter and bread. It was something we did when we didn't want to cook and were too tired to go out. It was quick and delicious. At this time, my body is relaxed, eyes are closed, and I feel happy to have gone through the experience.

Reminder: Give yourself permission to be present and accept that sometimes it will be challenging. Each attempt is a step closer to having a more mindful eating experience.

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What to do with Paradigms

by Joel Christie

We all have paradigms, those patterns and structures that shape our thinking and beliefs in certain particular ways, wherein we like some things, and dislike others, trust some sources, and distrust others, etc., etc.. It's inescapable. And though it might be tempting to label this as a bad thing (as some indeed have), doing so would merely be acting out of one's paradigm. Ha. No, the fact that we operate out of paradigms is neither good nor bad, it is simply one of our primary ways of managing thoughts and information.

Our paradigms affect the way we live of course. If I have come to believe that all oranges taste bad, I may in fact miss out on that one magical, extraordinarily lovely type of orange that I would actually totally enjoy. However, the overriding hostility I feel towards oranges in general also helps me avoid eating plenty of yucky bad oranges I don't like. (I like oranges fine, by the way. But I know some anti-orange people out there... You know who you are.) Regardless, we all do this. We may attempt to not do it, insisting, "But I am open-minded!" Ah. But in so doing we are nevertheless demonstrating a paradigm diligently at work making sure we aren't close minded. Again, there's no need to worry about the fact that you and I and everyone else operates out of paradigms.

But that is not to say that the content of the paradigms we develop cannot be harmful. Certainly it can be, and in a variety of ways. I could come to believe that exercise is nothing more than an annoying waste of time that leaves me feeling sore, sweaty, and generally gross. Why would I want to spend my time doing something that makes me uncomfortable and that I don't enjoy? That's stupid. Duh. ...Except that exercise is also critical for maintaining health, regulating chemicals within my body, assists in keeping me on a consistent and reliable sleep schedule, and giving me energy though out the day, the lack of which could contribute to depression as a result of a dopamine deficiency, and a general sense of lethargy, which I also don't enjoy. Not to mention that exercise allows me to be in good enough shape to run from a bear if I should happen to come across one. All good things. And all things I will miss out on if my paradigm tells me there is no point to putting in the hard work that comes from exercising. It might also prevent me from discovering certain types of exercise which I enjoy. Bummer.

Some aspects of our paradigms are formed consciously: "Goodness, this seminar on Shakespearean literature certainly has helped me rethink the implications of Macbeth, just as I hoped it would." But many aspects of them are formed subconsciously, which means I may lack awareness about why I believe what I believe/ want what I want. "Hmm, now that you mention it, what drove me to sign up for that seminar on Shakespearean literature in the first place? I mean, I know I like Shakespeare and all... but why? Did it have anything to do with the fact that my father often praised me for being 'As witty as Shakespeare?' Dear God, I'm nothing but a puppet!" And so on.

Regardless of how and why our paradigms are formed, we can be confident that they will deeply impact the decisions we make, the way we feel about ourselves and others, and the things we enjoy or don't enjoy in life. Examining our paradigms not only helps us understand ourselves better so that we have a clearer sense of why we believe what we believe, it can also open up space for us to challenge and change beliefs we may possess which contribute to depression, anxiety, poor self esteem, and plenty of other belief-rooted maladies. For those interested in such change, a good way to begin examining a paradigm is to ask myself how I came to believe something, and why I still believe it, or no longer do. Journaling can be one way to do this, or simply sitting alone with my thoughts. Conversation can also help me unpack my paradigms, though of course this means I will be rubbing up against someone else's paradigms. But that's okay! These why questions can lead to greater illumination, producing a stronger sense of self confidence and also indicating areas where I would like to see growth and change occur in those portions of my paradigms no longer satisfy me. And that can be downright life changing.

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The Cost of Our Expectations

by Joel Christie

Healthy expectations have the potential to create boundaries and direction within our lives, such as "I expect to be treated respectfully by others," or "I expect that my hard work will help me solve problems and achieve goals." If these things don't happen as I expect, it may signal to me that change is needed. Useful. Healthy. Good.

But let's be clear: many of our expectations are not only unhealthy, they are outright destructive. "I expect my boyfriend to take me to Paris every other weekend. A girl deserves to be treated right, doesn't she?" Or what about: "I expect my wife to buy me a Ferrari for my thirtieth birthday. She'll do it if she loves me." And this one: "I expect my kids to behave perfectly, in every situation, always. Forever. With no exceptions. Period."

See? Expectations can be trouble. You might think, "Well duh, of course those expectations are a problem because they're completely unreasonable." Ah-ha! But that's the real issue, isn't it? We almost always think our own expectations are reasonable. "I expect my kids to get straight A's—I certainly did, after all," might seem reasonable to mom or dad, but for the kid who is genuinely giving his or her best only to fall short, we could probably imagine those expectations feel quite different. "But she's not giving her best," I often hear parents say. So in this case, the unreasonable expectation might be that the child always gives her best. And yet do any of us always give our best? Of course not. But we tend to have this strange ability to muster up sympathy for our own tiredness, boredom, lack of effort, etc. Hmm...

When we say, "I expect," what we're really saying is, "I will not tolerate less than..." Not only can this set us up for frequent disappointment, it can also send a strong message towards those whom our expectations are aimed at that we will not accept them unless they meet our expectations. This not only feels lousy, it is also very hard on relationships. Have you been on the receiving end of someone's expectations that you were unable or unwilling to live up to? It sucks, doesn't it.

I've heard the objections to this. "So I'm just supposed to throw my standards out the window? Not hope for anything? Not expect anything of anyone?" Not at all! What it means is that we learn to shift our expectations towards being healthier and more realistic. If my son is struggling with math, and I come to realize that he frequently puts in considerable effort, my expectation can change from "Get straight A's" to "Keep on trying; I like that you're learning the value of perseverance."

Rethinking our expectations absolutely doesn't mean I suddenly become a doormat in my relationships, or that I am not passionate about anything. No, changing our expectations in this way means coming to understand that everyone has flaws and imperfections, and that sometimes I will feel disappointed by others just as they feel disappointed by me. In those moments, I can either choose to communicate how disappointed I am by the way this person has failed to meet my expectations, or I can express that I care about them. But it's tough to communicate both of these things successfully at the same time. (Often, a good indicator of which of these I am communicating comes from the way the person responds to me.)

The cost of expectations can be steep indeed. Parents who communicate to their children time and time again that they failed to live up to expectations might or might not end up with children who learn to perform and achieve as required. But their children will very likely remember that mom or dad didn't approve of them when they failed, making their love feel conditional. And it's much the same in our relationships as well. If what I expect from others is perfection, I will always eventually be let down. And so will they.

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Who Do I Think I Am? The Role of EGO in Relationships

by Joseph Noecker

What role does Ego play into our meaningful relationships?

The concept of the enlarged Ego within significant relationships takes quite a bad rap within our proverbial cultural identity. But what are we really saying about it and what are the ramifications of possessing this Ego in terms of relationship and is it truly large??

Well, let's take a look at the definition of Ego through the eyes of Carl Jung.
The Ego represents the sum total of our thoughts, ideas, feelings, memories, and perceptions of who we think and feel we are – or in shorter terms, the center of consciousness.
From where we stand in our personal lives, it is everything we can perceive about ourselves. Our roles, recognized traits, behaviors, and desires are wrapped up in this perceptual package. And perception is truly what is at play here. For our total make-up is comprised of much more than what we can see, feel, perceive etc... The Unconscious is a haven for all that we cannot acknowledge in our day-to-day conscious lives.

This is truly fascinating and yet totally understandable if you are now thinking this is confusing to grasp. For, to accept this is to admit that our Egos do not know all. And this has magnificent ramifications within our intimate and close relationships. For, if we do not know who are as individuals then how can we relate authentically with another – no matter how awesome he or she is.

So, let's get back to this "large ego" thing. When one says that another has a large Ego, what is really being said is that this person is putting too much stock in only what he/she can perceive about him/herself or is over-identifying with particular aspects of his/her life at the expense of less known and more unconscious areas.

Now this sounds like heavy stuff, does it not? But, the good news is that it really just requires a simple idea to live by.

We want to become more conscious about ALL that we are. This means paying attention to our emotions, daydreams, unexpected overreactions, night dreams, our patterns of relating to each other – all of those things that surprise our Ego or our sense of conscious understanding of our previously perceived definition of ourselves.

And it is difficult to do alone. So intimate and close relationships are potentially wonderful wellsprings to do this work while solidly building the foundation that our Authentic Self has been craving all along.

Jung said that that there is no such thing as a conscious, psychological relationship between two people that are in a state of unconsciousness.
The more that we grasp of our own unconscious, the more conscious we become. And it is in this state of consciousness that we are able to connect at the spiritual and intimate levels most deeply.

To the degree that we are conscious of our inner and outer world Self, (way beyond what our Ego wants us to think), we are able to relate to others more intimately, compassionately, authentically, and from a stronger foundation of trust.
We can learn to relate to each other from a position much closer to who we truly are versus just who we "think" we are.


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Men and Stress, Please Don't Fix Me

by Peter Rivkees

Stress that is not dealt with is a real issue affecting just about every living creature on earth and can be managed successfully with a little bit of self-awareness and effort.

We all stress over money, work, and family relationships (yes your pets count), personal and family health, world events and everything that we hold as important to us. Research shows that almost 70% of us feel that stress has a negative impact on our physical health and mental health. Symptoms of stress that we can experience include anger, general irritability, fatigue, disturbed sleep patterns, addiction, passive aggressive behavior, depression and sexual dysfunction are but a few. We all experience stress in our own unique way based on our past experiences over our lives. When we were younger we may have dealt with stress by acting out with slamming doors, refusing to listen to our parents or eating an entire bag of Doritos and some of us in our adult years may do exactly the same things. How do you act when you are under a lot of stress?

My therapy practice focuses on the men so I'll share with you how stress directly impacts the lives of men and potentially every interaction in their lives. For most men we have been brought up to hide our emotions, do anything in our power not to appear weak and live life as if it were a continuous competition. We are the perfect candidate for physical and psychological issues directly related to stress. Most men are programmed not to ask for help when help is needed most, to keep up the bravado that makes us "real men". We are more apt to hire a golf coach to improve our swing than hire a therapist to work on our family, our marriage, our relationships with our children our career, our siblings, our boss or our coworkers. My wish for all men is not to be remembered for our golf handicap, but for the impact we make on those that are most important to us in our lives.

We would rather suffer in silence, saying "I've got it under control ", or take out our stress on those in our lives at home and at work. We have been conditioned, some will say brainwashed by our parents, media and any other sources from our earliest memories that "real men" get over it, don't cry or just don't get emotional. The truth is that every man, woman and child is born with the same set of emotions. We pretend not be afraid of anything, have an "I can conquer anything attitude", but in reality we are most afraid of discovering who we are and how we got to be who we are.

Discovering our inner self requires courage. The same courage that we have or pretend to have when facing the challenges of everyday life. Being a man in today's world is scary, frustrating and full of uncertainty. Changing our attitudes towards self-help and awareness will be an evolutionary versus revolutionary process and only you can start your journey of self-discovery. Dealing with stress through regular exercise, listening to music, reading, seeking professional help with a therapist are the leading activities to help relieve the symptoms of stress. Unfortunately, many men turn to negative harmful behaviors including alcohol/substance abuse, behavioral addictions like gambling, exercise and pornography that only lead to self-destructive behaviors and damaging relationships that sometimes cannot be healed. The unfortunate result of not dealing with or ignoring stress will often lead to feelings of shame, fear and loneliness.

I often use the phrase "hiding in plain sight" to describe how we often wear masks that hide how our inner self is truly feeling in contrast to the mask that we project to others. We may appear "fine" to all that we are connected to in our personal and work lives, but inside if asked "if you really knew me, you would know that I am really __________ " afraid, scared, lonely, suicidal, sad, angry, confused, depressed, an addict, a failure, in debt or whatever you chose to fill in the blank. If we could only recognize and be comfortable in knowing that we are not perfect and that all men could truly benefit from exploring ourselves without the self-judgment or external judgment that "men do not go to counseling unless they are broken" what a better life we could have. We would open up our hearts to others and demonstrate true compassion; we would be vulnerable with ourselves and with those that we love. We would be better men, better husbands, better fathers, better in life.

Learning and growth does not often come from a place of comfort. True learning and growth comes from a place of discomfort when we push through the uncertainty of not knowing the answers to life's questions or being able to fix any problem with our tool kit. Men want to fix any and all problems that are presented to us as soon as possible and we practically know the perfect fix before the other person has fully described what the problem is. Most people aren't looking for someone to fix them; most people would prefer someone to listen to, a shoulder to cry on, a hug or gentle reassurance that you are in their corner or just someone to sit next to in silence.

When I work with men, I understand that we are not accustomed to expressing emotions, that it is just really hard to admit to someone else, let alone ourselves that our world is not perfect. I want to create a safe environment built on trust so men can learn to understand what emotions are, how they feel, how to accept them, how to heal, how to communicate effectively, how to be angry, how to be sad and most importantly how to feel real joy and happiness. I choose to believe that our purpose is not to live a life hiding in plain sight; it's your decision to make as to what you can do to become a man that makes a difference in others' lives and to live a life that is full of all the rewards that you deserve.

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Questions about Purpose

by Joel Christie

At one time or another, most of us have had wondered "What's the purpose of my life?" or "Do I matter?" These are not just midlife crisis questions. No, these kinds of questions will likely tug at us over and over throughout our lives. Even in this era of constant entertainment and distraction, the brain and the emotions it generates tend to return to such questions. I might enjoy watching Downton Abbey or The Walking Dead, but eventually I'll need a break. Something else. Something more. Same goes for riding roller coasters, or playing Monopoly, or sitting in that massage chair in the mall. Not that there is anything wrong with pleasure and fun, of course. But activities we place in the "fun" category may fail to satisfy that part of our brain that's asking questions about purpose. Unless, for example, I happen to love movies, and also happen to be a movie critic, wherein I perceive part of my purpose being to inform the good citizens around me of what's worth seeing, and what's putrid garbage, thereby striving to increase the overall artistic threshold of society. Or some blather along those lines. Whatever. It doesn't have to make sense to you. The important thing is that it satisfies that part of my own brain. That tugging insistence that I matter in some way.

It's hard to predict when this "tugging" will happen. Sometimes it's when we're feeling driven and strong. Sometimes it's when we're feeling low or unsuccessful. (And indeed, it is very hard to conceive of "success" at all without acknowledging we want things to end up a certain way, which quickly leads back to the concept of purpose.) People have mulled over these questions for eons. And as you have likely noticed, we have arrived at many different conclusions. Some are eager to tell you they've solved this dilemma. Some say it's different for everyone, or that it changes over time. Others have concluded that such questions are ultimately unanswerable, or else that the answer is "There is no purpose to life: not to mine, yours, or anyone else's."And yet, we find that throughout humankind, from one society to the next, people report that these kinds of questions circulate through their minds, sometimes subtly (such as vague feelings of depression or anxiety), other times with obnoxious persistence (like a guy who sits down to write an article on the subject).
So why does the brain do this? Why does the brain expend energy thinking about whether or not I, as an individual being that presently exists here in the year 2015, has purpose, and, perhaps more significantly, whether or not I am satisfactorily connecting with this purpose? Let's follow this existential rabbit hole a little further:

Maybe we find comfort in the notion that my life is bigger than just me. Maybe these questions are an attempt to make death less scary. Maybe having purpose is just a great antidote to boredom. Or perhaps it's just something that societies have propagated to keep people busy. But of course that only leads to other questions, like why it should matter to me whether other people in my society are busy or not, so long as they aren't trying to steal my sheep or burn down my grain fields, right? Regardless, the concept of purpose certainly is integrated into our societies, right from childhood. We could translate, "What do you want to be when you grow up" to be a kid friendly version of "What significance do you hope your life will someday take on?" or "Why do you think you matter, O young one?" Then again, maybe the subconscious reason we ask kids purpose-minded questions is so that they'll take care of us when we're old, bringing us all the way back around to basic needs again. Sheesh.

Okay, let's settle on this: there are lots of possible answers to the question, "What is the purpose of my life?" (And there are perhaps just as many possible answers for "Why does my brain care about whether my life has purpose or not?") The part that seems easier to clarify is that these purpose related questions are there. Some part of me wants an assurance that I matter. So what do I do with that?
Start exploring!

If you find yourself happily resolved on this matter, congratulations! But for those of you still pondering questions of purpose and meaning, I encourage you to take measures to explore them in greater depth. Anxiety and depression are likely byproducts when the brain is confronted by something it perceives as a significant problem, and the fear that your life doesn't matter or lacks purpose would qualify as significant for most people. Facing the issue will lead to not only greater understanding but also a reduction in fear (eventually) and an increased sense of empowerment, self worth, and lasting durable happiness that is not so dependent on whether or not you happen to currently be hang gliding or drinking your favorite beer.

"My life matters because..." can be a potential place to start this journey. What can you come up with? And if you're not satisfied, then feel free to seek ways to change this. Maybe help out at an after school reading program. Or patent that invention you've been tinkering with for the last decade. Or talk to your boss about taking on some different projects that match more closely with your passions. Write a novel (or an article on purpose). Go on a spiritual retreat. Whatever you decide to do, connect it back to that question you began with: "My life matters because..."

You're the one who needs to be satisfied by the answers you come up with. But even spending time considering this question should generate some measure of hope and satisfaction, particularly as you pursue the pathways that open up in response to the questions you're allowing yourself to experience. We don't have to "solve" a problem to start to feel more empowered. We just need to know that we are making progress on our journey. And if these purpose questions are indeed ruminating in your thoughts, perhaps it's because some part of you is eager to progress further along your own journey of discovery. If that's true, then you probably won't find the satisfaction you're seeking watching Downton Abbey or riding roller coasters. Not in the long run. Because your mind is hungry to better understand your purpose. So go explore. And when you find pieces of your purpose, grab hold of them with vigor.

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The Value of Play

by Aubrey Gainey

Work Hard, Play Harder. We have all heard that motto from time to time, maybe in a meme we saw on Facebook or from a friend describing their weekend festivities. This simple saying can emerge as a justification for a recent vacation to Vegas or serve as an excuse to play golf for the third time this week. Are there any actual benefits from this life mantra? Is it actually healthy to work hard, but play harder? As a counselor in training, I explored this notion of play and the benefits adults can acquire from this simple, yet easily forgotten behavior.
As a counselor education student, I am studying and learning about play therapy (in particular for children aged 3-12). Research has shown that play therapy has helped children overcome obstacles, cope with trauma, and grasp stressful life challenges through the use of play. Although it may seem very simple, there is an art and science to this type of therapy. Young children cannot verbally discuss their concerns, so they are able to express their emotions through the act of play. Unstructured play gives children a sense of control in their lives and provides them an outlet to express themselves. As Friedrich Froebel once said, "Children's play is not mere sport. It is full of meaning and import."
So how do we play as adults? Is it forbidden once we are no longer children? What does it look like in adulthood? Sometimes we get so caught up in our lives that we forget to have fun on a daily basis. We go to work, then come home tired, and find ourselves doing obligatory activities like laundry and dishes. Why should playing only be every now and then? Who said it should only be for kids?

Here are some ways you can incorporate play into your daily life:

1) Play through your long lost hobbies...
When was the last time you did an activity that you really enjoyed and that you would consider play? I know that forcing myself to go to the gym is not one of them, but riding my bike on a beautiful day around a lake? Bingo! I used to love to ride my bike as a child and somewhere on the path to adulthood, this fun hobby got lost. Think back to things in life that you truly enjoyed doing. It doesn't matter if you were "good" at it, just that you genuinely loved the process. Try to remember what activities brought you a feeling of happiness and contentment. Pick up that paint brush again and start painting. Turn on your favorite music and start dancing. Grab your basketball and head to a nearby court. Try not to judge yourself, just accept and enjoy this moment.

2) Play with your pets...

Try playing Frisbee or throwing a ball with your dog. Not only will your pet be thankful for this, but you will also get exercise without realizing it. Playing a simple game of throw and catch can also create a sense of mindfulness. Throughout the day, our mind is in a million places at once and focusing on one activity can decrease stress by allowing us to stay in the present moment. The simple act of petting your dog/cat can act as a relaxation technique and reduce that tension from all of the stressors in life.

3) Play with your kids...

Playing with your child helps build a strong connection and a healthy parent/child relationship. Instead of just watching your kids play, join them. Even though sitting on the park bench may seem like the adult thing to do, playing with your kids can be beneficial in many ways. Not only will you burn more calories moving around than sitting, playing is fun! Push your child on the swing set and then swing yourself. Kick around a ball with your kid, and then play a game of Simon Says.
Don't have children? Take your nieces or little cousins to the park. I'm sure your relatives won't mind the free babysitting. Another great bonus: laughter is guaranteed! It will bring you right back to childhood.

4) Play for exercise...

We all know the benefits of exercise and at some point have bought a membership to the gym. Does going to the gym have to be the only way adults get fit? No! Playing can be a great way to stay active and will help you feel more energetic, happier, and more alive. Instead of going out to dinner or sitting on the couch with friends or loved ones, do a fun activity together. Not only are you connecting to others, but you are also doing physical activities that will reduce your stress and get you healthy. Take a walk in a park with a friend or go jogging with your partner. Join an adult kickball team or sign up for a salsa dance class with a buddy. Make exercise fun again so that you will enjoy incorporating it into your life. It doesn't have to be torture when you think of it as play.

5) Play for wellness...

Play can serve as an easy, fun, and cost effective stress reducer. Although the act of play can be very simple, it is often abandoned once we leave childhood. William Glasser, an American psychiatrist, said that fun is an essential part of our basic human needs. Notice that he didn't say want but need. Even as adults, we need to include fun into our lives in order to make us feel balanced and healthy. How do we have fun? Play!
Don't underestimate the power of play, because not only can it help you stay balanced, it can make you happier and less stressed. As Ralph Waldo Emerson said, "It is a happy talent to know how to play." Just because we have been on the planet longer, does not mean that play is restricted from our lives. Play can be a valuable asset to add to your life, no matter what your age. When's the last time you played?

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Illness and the Family Unit

By Keisha Delva

      In terms of serious injury or illness happening to a loved one, I tend to use the metaphor of being in a really bad car accident. Like a car accident we don't necessarily see it coming, and the impact is sharp and sudden. It may throw us into a state of shock or we may become very emotionally reactive. The aftermath can be long-lasting, costly and cause us a great deal of physical and emotional pain. Since certain adjustments have to be made, we are reminded of the incident on an almost daily basis, until we have resolved all resulting issues, which in and of itself is re-traumatizing.

      There are obviously many things to consider when a loved one becomes ill. Some of the common questions are: Will they recover? Are we able to get them the best care? How will we cover the expenses of the recovery process? When my mother had a stroke, I found myself asking all these questions and more; most of which I didn't have the answers to. You may not either. Finances are a major concern for many people and if your family member is no longer able to work or care for themselves, there may be a shift in the roles of many of the members of the family. Understandably, the person who is ill suddenly becomes the focus of the entire family. There doesn't seem to be much time or space left to address how that loved one's illness is impacting the rest of the family unit. Depending on the nature of the illness, our family member may change in ways that causes them to become almost unrecognizable. If it is an illness that has affected their brain, such as stroke, a traumatic brain injury or Alzheimer's disease, we may find them behaving in ways that are strange or foreign to us. The family member is still living, yet we may find ourselves still going through the grieving process, as the person that we once knew them to be, is gone.

      Whether the illness we are speaking of is mental illness or a physical medical condition, it is undeniable that it will take its toll on the affected person's loved ones. We will worry, feel stressed, and feel sad. We may begin to neglect to take care of ourselves by developing unhealthy eating and sleeping habits, as a means of trying to cope with our stress. Concurrently, we may find ourselves wrestling with feelings of guilt or shame for any of the conflicting thoughts or feelings that we may have throughout this time. Feelings of resentment may develop for suddenly becoming our family member's caretaker, yet we may feel that we don't deserve to have a break or to take time to process our emotions, much less have the right to complain.

Here are a few of the tips that I found helpful in the early stages of my mother's recovery:

1.    Ask for help: You do not have to handle everything on your own. If the people in your life have some idea of what you and your family is going through, they will be more understanding and will likely want to do anything they can to assist you. This applies both at work and at home.

2.    Talk to a therapist: Talking to someone who is trained in techniques and interventions to cope with stress in healthy ways can be very helpful. They will listen empathetically, without judging you or trying to tell you what you "should" be thinking or feeling during this time. Our family and friends mean well, but you may find that they cannot relate to what you are going through, or are trying to rush you through the healing process.

3.    Nurture yourself: Making rest a priority and eating nutritious foods goes a long way. Make time to do simple things that you enjoy such as taking a warm bath, going for a run, or reading a good book. It may seem silly, but engaging in small, pleasurable activities is a very effective means of relieving stress and naturally boosting our mood.

      It is crucial that we take time to address our own emotional and physical needs during the distressing time of illness in our family. If we ourselves are not well, we certainly will not be of any use to someone that needs our help or is dependent upon us. Preventative care has been proven to be the single most important means of maintaining good physical and emotional health over an extended period of time. While you are caring for your loved one, remember to care for yourself too.

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Conflict Can Be Less Awful. Seriously, It Can.

Joel Mag liveCynthia Morales Live1

by Joel Christie and Cynthia Morales

Few of us enjoy conflict. Maybe the debate team captain? Or possibly trial attorneys? But if we're being honest, most of us would say we feel uncomfortable, intimidated, and even afraid of conflict. But why is that? Cynthia and I are both counselors who work with HD Counseling, LLC, and we thought we would take a few minutes and explore the question: What is it about conflict that seems to be so unsettling for us as human beings?
[Note: This discussion pertains to non-violent, non-abusive conflict.]

Cynthia: To start I'll share my mental associations of conflict and they may resonate with our readers. When I hear the word "conflict" my mind immediately goes to problem, unpleasant, bad, defensive, and a feeling that I just want to avoid it. I get a twinge of anxiety, a fleeting wave of guilt and even a brief passing of irritability which come right on the heels of thoughts about some of my own personal experiences. Just by being mindful of myself in this way I quickly accessed some fear-based internal experiences related to conflict.

Joel: Great point about remembering past conflicts and how much they can affect us; times when I was hurt or felt like I "lost" or at least wasn't heard or understood. And depending on how I see these interactions, I might start to feel like my views don't matter very much. I might feel like I usually end up trampled, or possibly that I have to trample the other person if I want to be heard, respected, validated, etc.

Cynthia: Conflict can bring us to a pretty discouraging mental space, definitely. Your description suggests some valid reasons for conflict's bad reputation. When I think about why we fear conflict, I believe some of us learn to regard it as this terrible, awful, no good, very bad situation that leads to an even more terrible, awful, no good very bad situation. Some of us are programmed that way for legitimate reasons. Conflict itself has the capacity to threaten crucial aspects of wellbeing such as belonging, validation and self-esteem.

Joel: Yup.

Cynthia: We want to protect those things, and how we do so determines the nature of conflict. In a more defensive type of mindset, we may unknowingly be drawn into an argument with someone that has less to do with the issues at hand and more about securing power of our wellbeing. Hence the trample or be trampled approach you mentioned.

Joel: Earlier you also talked about a list of negative things we might associate with conflict, starting with the fact that it will involve some kind of problem. And if we don't think there is much of a chance that the problem gets better as a result of the conflict, I think that could be another reason we want to avoid it. That, and not feeling equipped to deal with disagreement and conflict, like you were saying.

Cynthia: That's a great point, Joel. Our beliefs and attitudes about conflict definitely influence our relationship with conflict. If we believe we aren't able to handle it, then that can leave us feeling pretty helpless about things, and even scared that things will get worse. When we view conflict through fear-based lenses, we perpetuate ineffective conflict resolution skills. However, conflict doesn't have to be seen that way. We can mindfully view conflict as an opportunity to achieve some important positive growth both within ourselves and in our relationships with others. It's the first step to being able to navigate the obstacle course that is conflict.

Joel: I think if we can remember our own durability before, during, and after a conflict, that helps a lot; being able to tell myself I am okay and that I still like myself even when someone disagrees with me. Am I putting too much importance on others validating me, when they are flawed human beings just like I am? Also, knowing that it's not automatically bad if the process of conflict is clumsy or uncomfortable. That's normal. But if I can't accept that I may have the added pressure of wondering why I can't be suave and perfect all the time. Hopefully, instead I can focus on listening to what the other person has to say while remaining true to my own beliefs and values (where that applies), and knowing that my own views do not have to be discarded just because someone else does not like them, or agree with them.

Cynthia: Absolutely Joel, and you conveyed a really empowering lesson about how we can embrace conflict.

Joel: I love giving empowering lessons.

[*Cynthia hits Joel with a half-full mug of coffee*]

Cynthia: Being mindful, compassionate and accepting of our experiences during conflict can lead us to being better prepared to work through it. Being less attached to the outcome of conflict also helps us to hear the person with whom we have conflict. It defuses that power differential I mentioned earlier and allows us to hold both our own beliefs as well as the other persons in a much bigger space of compassion. Conflict doesn't have to be so bad, huh?

Joel: It really doesn't, although the very nature of it—two people seeing things differently, and having those "at-odds" ideas or beliefs intersect—probably means that conflict will still be stressful for most of us. And I do think there are instances with certain people with whom it is wise to choose not to enter into conflict with. This doesn't have to mean cowering in fear, especially when we have that concept clear in our own mind: "I am making a choice not to engage in conflict with this person because I do not believe it would be productive or helpful. I am not running from them, or falsely acquiescing to what they want. I am simply not engaging in conflict with them at this time." Using your own good, discerning judgment, it might even be appropriate to tell the person some of this. Regardless, as Cynthia said several times, so much of this has to do with learning to control our own fear and being able to accept differences that may exist even after the conflict has "resolved." If we can do that, conflict will have much less of a negative impact on us.

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3 Things You Can Control in the Natural Birth Process

by Melyssa Marshall

As it goes in life, we grow and learn from experience. The thoughts and expectations that become part of our world views are picked up and accepted as we go through life and experience it. Experience can be done to us, we happen upon it, we make plans for it, we choose into it. Whatever the case, experience is unavoidable. Kind of like breathing. By being conscious, we are experiencing.

As a Doula (birth assistant), I've learned that each birth experience is different and cannot be - nor should be - completely controlled. There are many factors and variables that make up the atmosphere and circumstance, and only so many of those are up for election or adjustment. This can breed a sense of insecurity from fear of the uncertain or unknown in the experience, especially when it's a mother's first birth. But while these may be out of our control, there are factors within our control that can aid to ease insecurity and eliminate fear.


As natural as expectations come, you would think we'd have a better gauge of where to set them. The reality of natural child birth is that a woman can count on her body to get from point A to point B. But by no means should there be an expectation that the line between points is straight. No, the design that happens within those points would rival any abstract artist on their best day. So a more realistic thing to do with expectations would be to hold them as hopes. While the two can be said to be related, hope differs from expectation in that it does not call for judgment or invite some kind of level of evaluation. An expectation will be met or not met. But a hope by definition recognizes the possibilities. In childbirth, it is best to hope for your experience.


There's something to be said about the connection between mind and matter. The strength in mind or willpower is no small force, rather one to be reckoned with. Focusing your intention is of most importance in labor and birth in order to minimize what pulls at and distracts strength in mind. And to be sure, there will be plenty of things and thoughts pulling at your strength. It's often best to vocalize intention so that those supporting your experience can know how best to encourage your strength and to be your strength wherever possible.


Come what may, the birth experience is final. There's no going back in order to do something differently nor can you pay an extra fee for a do-over. From minor disappointing details to major negative outcomes, the amount of processing that happens postpartum is up to you. You can think through every moment and talk through every detail, but nothing will change the experience. The onus on you will be one of response, taking an accepting posture towards the experience. Acceptance in some cases doesn't mean approval of an outcome or a detail or even someone. Acceptance can be merely acknowledgement and will be a helpful first step in moving forward.

I've come to find that these aren't just helpful for the circumstance of labor and birth. They translate to all sorts of area and happenings in life. Choosing to hope, focusing intentions and accepting the experience are all things in our control every day. So whether you're about to give birth, planning to give birth, or not even close to thinking about birth, consider them for your life today.

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Anxious and Stressed: A Technique to Reduce Anxiety and Stress

by Adam Tharkur B.A.

Progressive Muscle Relaxation or PMR as it is commonly referred to as a tension release exercise I have used with many clients. One of the first things I do with all clients is finding out what is bringing them into counseling. For the clients who share they have obstacles like stress or anxiety, which are preventing them from reaching their goals, I recommend PMR. I have also used it for client's with panic disorder, the results have been positive.

I noticed a growing trend since I began seeing clients. Different people with different stressors all had the same concern- anxiety. It is not uncommon for a client to come in due to concern of a possible, future event which they cannot control. For instance, applying for a job, and becoming anxious during the wait period even though there is nothing more they can do at the time. Same applies for clients who show signs of depression; in most cases the depression comes from past events that a person wishes to change. However, unless scientists have developed a time machine which allows individuals to change their past, the individual is in a standstill until they choose to move forward. The idea of staying present and keeping it in the "here and now" can be daunting, I am not dismissing that. PMR may be the answer to continuously staying in the present moment.

I will share an experience I have had using PMR with one of my clients. A client came to seek counseling due to his continuous panic attacks starting in Christmas of 2012. Although he has been given medication to combat these attacks, he wanted a more lasting solution that does not have many side effects that comes with medication. The client disclosed that he had sexual dysfunction and insomnia from the medication. In addition to the medicinal side effects, we learned during our sessions that he was constantly living in fear that he might have another panic attack at any moment. I taught this client PMR techniques so he may implement these during stress provoking situations, such as work. With PMR and counseling, the client was able to determine what the best course of action to apply at work. Once he determined the appropriate action, and implemented it, he was no longer distracted by what he should have or could have been doing. Instead, he was able to focus on his responsibilities and therefor increase productivity. Once this client saw the progress he made with PMR and counseling in a professional setting, he attempted to apply the techniques with personal goals and duplicate the results there as well.

In my experience and opinion, PMR cannot be the only intervention. As I've shared through my example, counseling plays an important role in identifying the client's triggers and the causes of their issues. With the above mentioned client, I used cognitive behavioral therapy techniques which allowed the client to become aware of his anxiety by using a technique known as paradoxical outlook: Welcome the panic attack rather than being scared which may intensify the episode. Though frightening for some, this is also the most effective way to apply PMR efficiently.

As for my client the use of PMR helped quell the intensity of the panic attacks. He felt like he was in control for the first time. The client has maintained his job for almost three years and has no written complaints from his supervisors about his work performance. Through counseling, it allowed him to have one more tool in his toolbox to combat panic attacks and endorsed a new stronger resilient person.

If you would like more information regarding a Progressive Muscle Relaxation script, I have provided a link Progressive Muscle Relaxation . Remember this is only a tool; this alongside counseling may garner better results.

Progressive Muscle Relaxation Script

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