People are suffering.
Just in time for Mental Health Awareness Month, I am realizing every single person I have come into contact with is operating at half capacity, maximum. People are struggling. Therapists are burnt out, clients, family, friends, strangers, community members. I am seeing us collectively grind to a halt in so many ways. Numbness, anger, confusion, exhaustion, fatigue…sorrow, fear, despair…
Honor your burnout. It’s okay to feel the way you are feeling. Everyone is feeling this way. At least everyone I know. There are always a few outliers who are afraid to admit this, so they nail a smile on their face and insist they are okay and look baffled and confused when someone else admits to being done with everything.
Sometimes at the end of a session, I will ask my clients what their takeaway is for this week (some insight gained, a new challenge they want to take on, something they want to give thought to over the next 7 days, etc.). Lately, most people look wearily back up at me and say, “I don’t know, I was hoping you could tell me?”. Because I have gotten this question so often this season, I decided to share my top 2 takeaways I have gotten myself:
I haven’t the foggiest idea if this is helping anyone or not, but it’s helping me. Sitting here typing and listening to my sad songs playlist (because sometimes tears need some encouragement). Grief is a part of life. We don’t talk about it much, but it is a part of the process. Sometimes we sift through the ashes and rubble and find little glimmers of hope. I keep them, too. Like the recent Humans of New York story. Or lines from my favorite TV shows. Or my clients that show up every week, no matter how challenging and painful the work is that we are doing. They are amazing people.
I hope you are feeling safe enough to let yourself grieve. Take time to notice the things that don’t suck amongst your tears. Honor your energy levels and adjust your plans to your needs accordingly.
Week End Update
I help people who don’t want to turn out like their parents. So most of my clients have a few things in common, such as anxiety, depression, relationship struggles, codependency, self hatred, and feeling like they don’t really know who they are. I keep my caseload small for my clients and myself; I want to provide the best service possible and keep my own mental health and wellbeing in check.
Recently, someone asked me how I deal with listening to people’s stories and trauma for 45 minutes to an hour and then just switch off the camera and go on to the next person or the next event in my own life. The truth is, I don’t. I generally have thoughts running quietly in the back of my mind about the clients I met with over the last week. I think about everything from the event they are looking forward to this weekend to whether or not my tone came across the way I intended at the end of a session to what new treatment techniques I need to review for next week’s sessions.
Some days with clients are celebrations of successes, accomplishments, and insights. Others are spent sitting quietly, holding space for the pain and confusion of suffering inflicted upon children, who are now adults, trying to make sense of it all. It’s a lot. I see beauty and tragedy and a lot of in-between.
Many weeks, themes develop in these sessions…none of my clients know each other and yet they are all struggling with so many similar challenges. One week, it seems like we are all talking about how to validate others, another week, we are all talking about how to speak up for ourselves. It is strange to me, and yet a phenomenon that is actually not all that uncommon for therapists who have a specialized niche. Presumably, everyone is coming in for the same thing, so there would be themes that emerge. That they seem to occur in the same week, despite various lengths of time in counseling still fascinates me.
And it makes me want to write something at the end of each week to my amazing clients. This week, for example, I want to tell them how hard they have been working. Remind them it has been an incredibly difficult week and that they have made some great progress amidst the chaos. As a client myself, I know it is bewildering to hear this from your therapist. You are sitting in your mess and having all these big feelings and scary thoughts and aha moments and someone sitting on the outside is saying, “Great job! Look at you go!”. These are the moments I want to insert the Chloe meme (of the little girl looking side to side with her eyes…google it if you don’t know what I mean).
This week, I want to remind everyone who has felt frustrated that they haven’t seen what they think is “so obvious” on their own, that no one can do this work alone. Even heart surgeons don’t perform their own open heart surgeries. Fish cannot comprehend the water they swim in, drink, and breathe through, though we can see it clearly from the outside.
I hope you have a wonderful weekend. Find some time to breathe. Drink your water. If you had some insights or aha moments, eat some protein; it’s good for your brain and all those new neural pathways you are trying to develop :-)
If you’ve read this far, thank you. We got this.
Image description: goldfish floating in a fishbowl of water
My amygdala is the only part of me that never seems to run out of energy. Day or night, it is always there to run out of control, spin wild horror stories, or come up with the most inane possibilities. This tiny, reptilian part of our brain, responsible for keeping us safe by activating our fight or flight response, is wearing me out.
Getting ready for bed last night, it asked me, “What if you didn't do that COVID test right? What if you really have it, but you’ll never know because you didn't stick that swab far enough up your nose or twirl it effectively? You’d be infecting people and not even know it. You could be sick for weeks and there’s nothing you can do about it.” I sighed and turned down the comforter, imagining this tiny little thing. The size of a bean, rife with energy, day or night, ready to jump into action and sound the alarm, even when there is nothing to be alarmed about. This tiny part of my brain exhausts all the other parts of me. And I feel so sad for it, because it's only doing what it knows how to do. It is doing what it thinks is right. It’s protecting me and keeping me from harm. All. Day. Long.
As I thought about it, my tiny amygdala took shape in my mind. I could see it, small, petrified, wild-eyed, and needing me to offer reassurance or safety. I imagined its trembling self imploring me to find a way to get another test Right Now. At 11pm. And do it right this time. I imagined giving it a hug, calming this shaking, frenzied part of my brain, and let it know it would be okay. We would find a way to take care of it. I reminded it of all the vaccines, hand washing, and sanitizing we have been doing. And when it began to pipe up that “some people don't even know they have it! Some families are all symptomatic and only one tests positive! Some people are vaccinated and still get sick!” I nodded and soothed it and acknowledged that yes, all of this is true and we will still be okay. We can only do what we can do. We will be okay. I thanked it for bringing to my attention that my “spicy stick” (what the kids are calling the test swabs) swizzeling skills can be improved upon and assured it that next time I would be more attentive. And in the meantime, I will rest when my ever exhausted body implores rest, take my vitamins, eat the fruit, and drink the water.
This morning, I decided that my tiny amygdala needed to have it’s image personified. The nice researchers at the University of Wisconsin have generated this image of our amygdala and I have included it here so that you, too, can print and illustrate what your bean-sized stress center looks like to you. Drawing and journaling are fantastic ways to contain our over-run emotions. Get that sh*t out onto paper. Tell me you don't notice a difference after you do. Every time, it doesn't matter what it is. Drawing or writing it out helps. It doesn't change anything but you. Which (if you’ve been listening to your therapist) is the only thing you can change :-)
I hope you have a peaceful day today. I hope you are able to recognize your sweet, protective anxiety center for the care-er that it is. And I hope you are able to offer it a hug and some reassurance that We Got This.
Your average amygdala, compliments of http://pages.stat.wisc.edu/~mchung/research/amygdala/
My amygdala, compliments of genetics and environment.
I just did a small Yoga with Adrienne session. It's the first time in weeks I've been able to focus enough to do this. My mind is constantly jittery, even when I am relaxing...
It wasn't always like this, but it has been like this. The weeks (months, years) after 9/11. The weeks (months, years) after my daughter was born. Uncertainty, change, lack of familiarity even in a familiar environment. I remember that I have been here before to ground myself and send a reminder: I have been here before and I have survived. Thrived, even.
This reminder doesn't necessarily make me feel differently in the moment. Not at all. But it does remind me that it won't be forever. Things may be forever changed, but this phase of change does not last. It morphs into a new normal, a new familiar, and eventually, a new routine that I will eventually not think of as new. It will just be...how it is.
I know how much I enjoy Yoga with Adrienne and it was frustrating that I couldn't allow myself to participate in what I knew was good and helpful to me. Maybe there is something you used to enjoy that your brain and body will not let you fully participate in right now. That's okay. Just be in this moment. Eventually it will pass and morph into a different one.
Here's how: allow yourself to move through it. Feel all the feelings, check in with yourself to see what you need, and then do the thing you need to do for yourself. For me, that thing has been a lot of naps. And eventually, a Yoga with Adrienne episode.
What's the thing you are looking forward to getting back to? How are you meeting your needs until then?
Lessons from the Plague
My entire household has come down with some sort of plague. Whilst I was in and out of fever dreams, I kept thinking of ways to incorporate it into helpful bits of information for my blog or FB page. But, as is common with plagues, I was not able to retain much of it. We are still in the midst of this obnoxious virus, but I will try to piece together what I can.
The First Time I Went to Therapy
The first time I went to see a therapist, I was in college. I hadn't thought to do any research to find someone other than what was available at the counseling center. I didn't understand her credentials (she was an LCSW-C, which meant she was a licensed social worker... I wanted to see a counselor, not a social worker!), and to be honest, I am not even sure what I was looking to get out of the whole process. Allegedly, she was adept at managing all things related to surviving college and everything that goes along with it. But the only thing I really remember about her was that she had 2 party size bags of Doritos sitting in her office as though she was on her way out the door to a super fun get together with friends. Either that, or she brought her groceries into her office, instead of her house. I could never be sure.
Every week I sat there, resentment building, annoyed that she was clearly having a better time in her life than I was, since she was leading a life that required party sized bags of Doritos while my life had been split in two. It didn't help that her approach was not a match for my shell-shocked self. All in all, she was probably a very nice person, but her no nonsense approach and reactions to the few things I disclosed did not make me feel at ease (to say the least) and I was equally relieved and sad when she pointed out that this was not a good fit.
Seriously, she fired me! I didn't know therapists could even do that!
Side note: we can, and we do, but some of us are more gentle about it that others. But I digress…
Was this all there was? Where was the nurturing, comforting, ‘I get it’ lady I had been hoping for?
Here’s the point. If you’re reading this, chances are you’re contemplating finding a therapist. Or maybe you have found a therapist but aren't sure if they are the right one for you...remember that thing they said the other week that made you so mad? Or the time they gave you that look and you had no idea what it meant? Or maybe you are staring down a list of names from your insurance company, everyone with different alphabet letters after their names (do they even matter?). And then there is that one friend who suggested you try their life coach...
Wherever you are in the process, there is only One Thing that matters:
The journey of healing from a dysfunctional family (that has stayed that way) is a lifelong path. Most people who come to me are at a point in their lives where they cannot take it any more and are overcome with fear that there is nothing to be done.
I am here to tell you there is plenty that can be done.
Breaking it down into manageable pieces is key. And that is exactly what we are going to talk about today.
When I shared my last post, I warned the readers that it was guaranteed to leave at least a few of them sputtering, "Yes, but...!".
And I was right.
This post is for anyone who indignantly sputtered and is still confused as to why.
Ahhh, the Yesbuts. A favorite of the righteously indignant everywhere. "Yes, but you don't understand!" and "Yes, but I have the right to expect...!" It is also popular among minimizers, especially when trying to understand and defend against the possibility that they have been a victim of Emotional Neglect.
What do the indignant and minimizers both have in common? Denial. Denial that stems from Emotional Neglect.
Don't believe me?
Let's take a look at Emotional Neglect and how to know if you have really been exposed to it.
I am so angry!
Feeling angry and frustrated a lot? Annoyed that people aren't living up to their end of the deal? Most of the time, there is a fairly logical explaination for this. You are expecting too much. Of others and of yourself. This is what happens when Reality and Expectations collide.
I know two kinds of people around this time of year. The ones that can't wait to see their family and loved ones and build more memories, and the ones that are already feeling panic and dread, even though, as I write this, it is not even Halloween.
The first kind really seems to like their family. They accept each other, flaws and all, and are pretty closely knit. If there is alcoholism or mental illness, it is actively addressed and the family supports recovery.
The second, plays a strategic game of survival. Being closely knit comes from obligation rather than genuine interest and acceptance of one another. There are expectations and rules to be followed. There are roles to play and formalities to contend with. Alcoholism and/or mental illness is minimized, ignored, or stigmatized.
I will be honest. I know a lot more about the second type of family than I do the first. And I also know how to approach the holidays (and every other day of the year) so that you can finally maintain your integrity and self-worth, while loving your family.
Cindy Goeller is a licensed therapist who loves listening to others, eating Maryland steamed crabs, and exploring the Finger Lakes of New York. When she is not in session with her clients, she can be found writing, baking, or spending time with her family.