Clinicians on the Couch: Q&A with Psychologist Charles H. Elliott

Clinicians on the Couch: Q&A with Psychologist Charles H. ElliottIn this regular feature, we talk with a different therapist each month about their work, advice to readers and therapy in general. You’ll learn everything from myths about therapy to obstacles clients face to the challenges and triumphs of being a therapist.

This month, we had the pleasure of interviewing Charles H. Elliott, Ph.D, a clinical psychologist and Founding Fellow in the Academy of Cognitive Therapy. Elliott specializes in treating children and adolescents with anxiety disorders and/or OCD. Along with clinical psychologist Laura L. Smith, he writes the popular Psych Central blog “Anxiety and OCD Exposed.”

Elliott also is a faculty member at Fielding Graduate University and the author of various books on anxiety, depression and self-esteem, including: Overcoming Anxiety For Dummies (2nd Ed); Obsessive Compulsive Disorder For Dummies; Anxiety and Depression Workbook For Dummies; and Hollow Kids: Recapturing the Soul of a Generation Lost to the Self-Esteem Myth. Learn more about Elliott and his work at his website.

1. What’s surprised you the most about being a therapist?

That almost everyone I know, whether my patients, friends, or whomever, can probably profit from psychotherapy at one time or another in their lives.

Therapy isn’t just for “sick” people or those who are experiencing severe emotional problems. No one goes through life unscathed or without encountering obstacles that they could be helped to get through.

2. What’s the latest and greatest book you’ve read related to mental health, psychology or psychotherapy?

Well, I guess I shouldn’t say it’s one of the For Dummies books I wrote with my wife! Actually, much as I do like those books, what I’ve found particularly interesting is a variety of social psychology related books such as, Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion by Robert Cialdini, Why We Eat More than We Think by Brian Wansink, Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength by Roy Baumeister and John Tierney.

The studies reviewed in these books are truly fascinating and riveting. And they often contain material that’s relevant to clinical practice as well.

3. What’s the biggest myth about therapy?

The general public often believes that the process takes years and years to get anywhere. Many people assume that the therapeutic process is endless. In truth, it’s often possible to make significant progress in just a few months, occasionally even more quickly.

Obviously, the length depends upon many factors such as the nature of the problem someone comes in with. Severe personality disorder issues can, in fact, require years. But most people find that they can start seeing progress much sooner than that.

4. What seems to be the biggest obstacle for clients in therapy?

Fear. People worry that the process will prove to be too painful to confront. They also worry that they will fail if they try to tackle their problems and that failing would be worse than never having tried at all. Sometimes they further worry that they would no longer know who they are if they got over their troubles.

When I encounter these concerns, I usually let them know that, although therapy can sometimes cause some discomfort, such distress can be taken in measured doses, one step at a time. I also help them see that not trying is a far bigger failure than trying and that almost everyone can make at least some progress.

Furthermore, if they don’t like the changes, they can always go back to their old selves and their old problems (something no one has yet taken me up on!).

5. What’s the most challenging part about being a therapist?

I hate to say this, but insurance companies, billing, and paperwork. These have all become increasingly onerous and time consuming over the years.

6. What do you love about being a therapist?

I mostly like helping people find more fulfilling, meaningful lives. It’s profoundly gratifying to see someone shift from being dominated and controlled by anxiety, fear, or depression to someone who enjoys life.

7. What’s the best advice you can offer to readers on leading a meaningful life?

I suggest that they work on living their lives without judging themselves so much. I also recommend looking for ways to help others. When people solely focus on their own worries and concerns, the quality of their lives usually deteriorates.

8. If you had your schooling and career choice to do all over again, would you choose the same professional path? If not, what would you do differently and why?

This is a tough question. I have often said, that in the next lifetime, I think I’ll come back as a social psychologist. They investigate the more interesting phenomena and I love social psychology research. On the other hand, it would be hard to let go of the clinical work I do. So, I guess I’ll make the final decision when someone offers it to me!

9. If there’s one thing you wished your clients or patients knew about treatment or mental illness, what would it be?

I hope that they can realize that all mental illness is simply an extension and/or magnification of problems encountered in everyday life. And “treatment” is not nearly as mysterious and convoluted as many people think. Therapy usually involves a series of carefully graded steps of confronting one’s issues head on.

10. What personally do you do to cope with stress in your life?

I try to slow down and take things one step at a time. I look out for my number one nemesis—a tendency to think that everything must be done all at once and to see everything that lies ahead as one, overwhelming whole. In truth, few things are particularly overwhelming if taken one by one.

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Clinicians on the Couch: 10 Questions with Psychologist Jennifer Kromberg

Clinicians on the Couch: 10 Questions with Psychologist Jennifer KrombergEvery month we chat with a different clinician about everything from what it’s like to see clients to how they cope with stress. Practitioners give us a glimpse into both their professional and personal lives. Plus, they share other tidbits, such as their thoughts on the biggest myth about therapy and leading a meaningful life.

This month we had the pleasure of interviewing Jennifer Kromberg, PsyD, a clinical psychologist with a private practice in Torrance, Calif. Since 2001 Kromberg has worked with a variety of clients, including individuals with eating disorders and their loved ones.

She also has a passion for writing about women’s issues and relationships, inspired by her work with women, couples and families. She explores how the unconscious influences our relationships in her Psych Central blog “Inside Out: Clean Out the Closet of Your Unconscious.”

Plus, Kromberg serves as a consultant to the Torrance Memorial Medical Center’s Medical Stabilization Program for eating disorders. And she’s taken four years of classes at the Institute of Contemporary Psychoanalysis in Los Angeles, and will continue her professional education at the Gestalt Institute of Los Angeles in Fall 2013.

1. What’s surprised you the most about being a therapist?

Probably the way people reacted to me outside of work in personal or social situations. After getting my undergraduate degree, I taught high school for three years before returning to graduate school to get my doctorate in psychology. When I was a teacher and people asked me what I did for work, everyone was delighted to talk to me about my profession.

After I started grad school and now that I’m a psychologist, when people hear what I do, they become nervous. They either assume I’m whacko or that I’m secretly trying to determine if they’re whacko. I always want to say, “Don’t worry, I won’t bite! I promise I’m not trying to analyze you!”

2. What’s the latest and greatest book you’ve read related to mental health, psychology or psychotherapy?

That’s a hard one because there are so many amazing books. My top three (in no particular order) are: Trauma and Human Existence by Robert Stolorow, Ph.D., The Suffering Stranger by Donna Orange, Ph.D., and Transforming Narcissism by Frank Lachmann, Ph.D.

3. What’s the biggest myth about therapy?

That therapy is supposed to help you feel happy all the time. To me, that’s impossible. My goal is to help people deal with the painful feelings that accompany many of life’s circumstances and help them see that they don’t need to be afraid of certain difficult feelings.

4. What seems to be the biggest obstacle for clients in therapy?

Realizing that therapy is a commitment to work. Many people believe that just by coming in to see me, I can make things better for them. I always ask people to think of me like hiring a personal trainer to help you get physically healthy.

I will do the best I can to guide you in the direction that you want to go, and I will definitely be there with you for support, pep talks and tough love, but you have to do the work. I can’t do it for you.

5. What’s the most challenging part about being a therapist?

I would imagine it’s similar to what’s hard about being a parent. You have to give people the space to do what they need to do and let them set the pace of the therapy. Sometimes people make decisions that I don’t agree with, but after stating my piece, I have to let them find their own way, in their own time, hoping that they know that no matter what, I’m here for them to celebrate or help pick up the pieces.

6. What do you love about being a therapist?

I really love people. I love hearing their stories and learning about their lives and perspectives. I love how much I learn and grow by helping them learn and grow. The entire journey has been so rich.

7. What’s the best advice you can offer to readers on leading a meaningful life?

Try to remember that life’s answers are never about changing what’s on the outside. The answer is always about shifting on the inside. Oh! And also try to get comfortable making a huge fool out of yourself. It will open up your life.

8. If you had your schooling and career choice to do all over again, would you choose the same professional path? If not, what would you do differently and why?

It’s hard to imagine not doing what I do. Although I always thought if I could be on two career paths, I’d like to be a detective. That is also a career that involves understanding people, perspectives and contexts and trying to put the pieces together for a better understanding.

9. If there’s one thing you wished your clients or patients knew about treatment or mental illness, what would it be?

If you are willing to work, there is always hope. No matter what has happened or what mistakes you’ve made, there is always hope. Don’t ever give up on yourself.

10. What personally do you do to cope with stress in your life?

I am in my own therapy and have been since I started graduate school. I don’t feel like I can ask people to work harder than I’m willing to work. I should add that I believe being in therapy is necessary for doing the work that I do. Therapy helps me process my feelings about my work and my life. My therapist challenges me constantly to learn and grow, so that I can help others learn and grow.

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Anxiety Experts Reveal What They Really Want Everyone to Know About Anxiety

Anxiety seems like a simple, straightforward topic. After all, it’s a common emotion—everyone feels anxious from time to time. And it’s a common condition. In fact, it’s the most common mental illness in the U.S. Anxiety disorders affect about 18 percent of adults every year.

And yet there are many, many misconceptions. Misconceptions that affect how we view anxiety and how we see ourselves. Misconceptions that affect how we navigate anxiety and how we navigate our lives—limiting them and making them less joyful.

We asked anxiety experts to share what they really want readers to know about anxiety. Below, they reveal a variety of interesting, and often surprising, insights.

Anxiety can be very helpful.

“[L]isticles’ that discuss the ‘top 10 ways to get rid of anxiety’ can unintentionally send the message that anxiety is dangerous and needs to be eradicated completely,” said Emily Bilek, Ph.D, an assistant professor of clinical psychology who specializes in anxiety disorders at the University of Michigan.

But anxiety isn’t just normal. It’s adaptive and useful. For instance, anxiety tells us when we need to be more aware and alert, such as crossing a busy intersection or traveling through a new city, said Zoë Kahn, a licensed clinical social worker in private practice, primarily seeing clients on the Eastside of Los Angeles. It tells us “what tasks we haven’t completed [and] what deadlines are looming.”

Psychologist Alicia H. Clark, Psy.D, also emphasized that anxiety can be rational and productive. “Anxiety is there to help us protect what we care about most, harnessing our focus and energy to do what is needed.”

For instance, you start worrying that your friend or family member hasn’t reached out to you in a while, she said. You wonder, what’s going on? Is there something wrong? What can I do to reconnect to them? That zap of worry “can be just the boost you need to do something proactive about it.”

You also worry about different work demands: Did I respond to that email? Did I carve out enough time to complete the project? Have I been thorough enough in my report? These worries help you remain laser-focused to get things done, and to do a good job.

You worry about your health: You’re tired, and get winded too quickly. You have an unusual mole on your skin. All these worries prompt you to take action, and consider whether you need more sleep, more movement or a medical checkup, said Clark, author of the book Hack Your Anxiety: How to Make Your Anxiety Work for You in Life, Love and Work (co-written with Jon Sternfeld).

Bilek likened anxiety and fear responses to house alarm systems. They help us respond appropriately when there’s a true danger or risk, she said. Some people, however, have an especially sensitive system. “It goes off when there is a true threat like an intruder, but also when there is a strong wind.”

We shouldn’t focus on eliminating anxiety.

Instead of trying to get “rid” of anxiety, Bilek encouraged readers to focus on how anxiety is interfering in your life. “When we identify what matters to us and may be missing from our lives due to anxiety, we have a better chance of figuring out how to solve the problem.”

Bilek shared this example: You love to sing, but you get nervous about performing in front of others. To quiet your anxiety, you stop auditioning for solos. You stop participating in group performances. And, over time, you stop showing up to rehearsals. In the short term you feel better, and find relief. But through avoidance, you also teach yourself that you can’t cope in these kinds of situations. And, as more time passes, you start avoiding other situations to avoid feeling anxious. Which is why you decide to see a therapist who specializes in anxiety and helps you face your fears in a safe, systematic and effective way (i.e., through exposure therapy).

In addition to facing your fears, it’s important to keep a curious, open mind about anxiety, Kahn said. She suggested asking ourselves this question in a loving, inquisitive way, without judging or criticizing ourselves: “What am I feeling and why?” “Sometimes it helps to use the tone of voice with yourself that you associate with loving kindness, such as a close friend or relative.”

If you feel anxious regularly, there’s a reason.

“[A]nxiety doesn’t just spring up out of nowhere,” said Laura Reagan, LCSW-C, an integrative trauma therapist in the Baltimore metro area who specializes in developmental trauma related to childhood experiences. That is, if you’re “anxious most of the time, with frequent spikes in anxiety that are intolerable and sometimes lead to panic attacks, that’s a signal that something more is going on.”

That more is typically rooted in traumatic events from childhood and/or adulthood or in unmet attachment needs from childhood—believing your emotions were too big, you were too needy, you had to be “good” all the time, she said.

This is common when you grow up with a primary caregiver who’s depressed, chronically ill, overwhelmed with anxiety or grief, or overwhelmed with the demands of raising a child, Reagan said. In other words, the caregiver is “unable to attend to the child’s emotional needs.”

And this can have devastating effects. For instance, trying to be “good” all the time suppresses your curiosity, anger, sadness and any other feelings your caregiver can’t accept or handle, Reagan said. This leads you to become detached from your inner wisdom, creativity and compassion, along with all the qualities that make you you, she said. Which leads to perfectionism, anxiety, depression, despair. It leads to being inauthentic and to distant relationships.

Reagan wants readers to know that you don’t have to live with this debilitating anxiety; you can feel so much better when you work with a skilled therapist who uses somatic methods to learn how your anxiety started and to resolve it. She noted that effective somatic methods include sensorimotor psychotherapy, somatic experiencing and yoga therapy (her favorite is LifeForce Yoga).

Indeed, Reagan used to think “I’m just an anxious person.” She struggled for years with “constant low-grade anxiety, which sometimes spiraled to panic and self-loathing and fear that things were never going to be OK.” Thanks to therapy, she learned that this was a response to her experiences with developmental and shock trauma. (Shock trauma is any event a person interprets as life-threatening or terrifying, she said.)

“Therapy that goes deeper, beyond coping skills, to help you access and heal the attachment and/or trauma wounds causing persistent anxiety will make you feel better than you might imagine is possible,” said Reagan, host of Therapy Chat, a podcast focused on psychotherapy, trauma, mindfulness, perfectionism, worthiness and self-compassion for therapists and the general public.

Reagan also suggested taking the ACES survey to find out if you’ve been affected by childhood trauma or attachment issues.

Anxiety is “a normal part of the human condition,” Reagan said. Anxiety is also useful, and can spark productive action. But when your anxiety starts shrinking your life, and dictating what you do and don’t do, it’s time to seek help. And here’s the good news: Anxiety disorders are highly treatable. The key is to see a mental health professional who specializes in treating anxiety.

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How to Navigate Two Annoying Parts of Parenting

Parenting is an amazing adventure. It is an honor and a privilege to raise a human being. It is fascinating, and wonderful to witness your kids evolve, and to grow alongside them.

But parenting also has many annoying parts—frustrating, challenging, and sometimes downright maddening parts. And sometimes it’s these annoying parts that can bleed into the beautiful stuff.

However, there are many effective things we can do when specific challenges arise.

In How to Be a Happier Parent: Raising a Family, Having a Life and Loving (Almost) Every Minute KJ Dell’Antonia, a veteran journalist, author and mom of four, shares common problem spots along with a variety of valuable solutions. Her book is packed with practical tips, interviews with experts and stories from parents. Below are two challenging areas and what can help from Dell’Antonia’s excellent, encouraging, insightful and honest book.

Discipline

Most parents find discipline to be hard. It’s hard when your toddler is having a major meltdown at mass or the grocery store. It’s hard when they’re sinking their nails into your skin. It’s hard when your middle schooler takes your credit card and refuses to apologize.

It’s hard to be consistent. It’s hard not to lose it when your child is not listening to you. For the billionth time. It’s just hard to discipline, because parenting is hard.

First, it’s important to truly understand discipline. It doesn’t mean to chastise or control. Dell’Antonia interviewed pediatrician and author Dr. Kenneth Ginsburg, who emphasized that we are teachers, and our role lies in “guiding a kid to navigate the world safely.”

According to psychotherapist Tina Payne Bryson, “the behaviors that are the most challenging, and that drive us the craziest, are actually telling us something really important. They are telling us the specific areas in which our kids need teaching, support, and skill-building. Instead of focusing on what we need to take away from our kids for them to learn their lesson, think instead of what we need to provide for them to learn so that they become self-disciplined.”

Dell’Antonia reminds us that it’s the nature of kids to explore, push, test, forget. Which is tough, because it also tends to happen when we’re at our emptiest and most exhausted.

It’s also important to discipline ourselves, and to stay as calm as possible. And if we can’t, then it’s important to take a break. Because here’s the reality: Our stress response sparks our kids’ stress response. According to Bryson, “When we are reactive, angry, unpredictable, our children’s primitive brains are getting the ‘threat’ signal, and the brain cares first about safety. No learning can be done when kids don’t feel safe.”

Sometimes, it’s helpful not to engage—like when your child is having a mild tantrum or your teen is stomping around the house, screaming “I hate you.” Other times require clear-cut consequences—like not being able to use your car for a month. The key is to carefully pick your consequences, and to hold firm.

Processing what happened is valuable, too. According to Dell’Antonia, you might talk about why the child was tempted to behave the way they did, how they came to make the wrong decision, how they felt afterward, and how to keep it from happening again.

When things have calmed down, and you’re back to normal (or as Dell’Antonia writes, “the modified normal that is your punishment”), tackle something together with your child. This helps you reconnect and remember you’re on the same team. Maybe it’s gardening, baking or cleaning out part of the basement.

Homework

Homework can be frustating for various reasons: Maybe your child gets massively anxious about getting the right answers. Maybe your child has various tantrums throughout the night over finishing a few fractions. Maybe they refuse to even get started. Maybe your kids are coming home with way too many assignments. Maybe you feel like homework hampers family time—and everyone ends up feeling miserable.

The first step, according to Dell’Antonia, is to change your perspective on homework. In short, it’s not your homework. When we shift the responsibility of homework from our kids to ourselves, we rob our kids of learning how to achieve on their own.

I love the analogy Dell’Antonia uses: the goal of basketball isn’t to get a ball through the hoop. “If it was, we could get a ladder, or lower the hoop, and then all go out for ice cream. But no, the goal is to learn to get the ball through the hoop as best as a player can and to figure out where you belong on a team, how to follow the rules, and even ultimately whether you really want to be on the court.”

Plus, when you’re emotionally invested in your child’s homework, you send the message that what’s more important than family time, your relationship with your child, or who they are is their book report, science project or report card. You also can become the bad guy: If you’re involved in everything from nagging your child to sit down to making sure everything is done, and done correctly, suddenly it’s all your fault that homework is hard and that they forgot it at home.

The key is to remember the actual goal of homework. It’s for your child to learn, and to make mistakes (and again to learn). It tells the teacher how your child is doing. You also want to communicate to your child that you believe in their capabilities and competence, and that their “best work is good enough.”

You can support your child by helping them understand instructions and by encouraging them to make intentional choices around homework. Dell’Antonia shares this example: “When are you planning to get your homework done? You’ve got soccer from four to five and Holly is coming over for dinner.”

She also notes that every situation is different, and every child is different.

Sometimes it’s best to hire a tutor to work with your child, especially if helping them with instructions turns into you writing the whole paper. Another option is to talk to the teacher. Maybe your child is getting too much homework. Maybe you want to know how long an assignment is really supposed to take—because your child seems to be taking much longer.

Parenting is hard. Many rewarding, meaningful things are. But we also can meet those challenges. Sometimes it requires a slight shift in thinking. Sometimes it requires creative strategies. Sometimes it requires letting go.

Either way, the annoying, frustrating parts don’t have to become the whole pie. They can be a sliver, while the beautiful stuff is the biggest portion—and only keeps growing.

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Why Accepting a Diagnosis of Bipolar Disorder Is So Difficult—and What Actually Helps

One of the biggest challenges in treating bipolar disorder is actually accepting the diagnosis. Because, of course, if you don’t believe you have an illness, you won’t focus on managing it.

Psychotherapist Sheri Van Dijk, MSW, RSW, has run a group for individuals with bipolar disorder for over a decade. When she starts teaching the skill of Radical Acceptance, about 95 percent of her clients say they’re currently struggling or have struggled with accepting their diagnosis.

Because acceptance is hard. And it’s hard for various reasons.

It’s hard because acceptance entails grief and loss. “[T]here is a loss of what the person expected for their life that they think they might not achieve now, given this extra challenge they’re facing,” said Van Dijk, who has a private practice in Newmarket, Ontario.

There’s also grief and loss about changes in lifestyle, such as taking medication, eliminating substances and not being able to work while achieving stability, she said.

People might not want to give up what they perceive to be the positive parts of manic episodes, “which can make them feel great, alive and very creative,” said Michael G. Pipich, MS, LMFT, a psychotherapist who specializes in mood disorders in Denver, Colo. It can be hard to accept that this euphoric experience is actually part of a mental illness, he said.

“For many, it’s the only way for them to get anything done before they get depressed again. So they will often deny there is any kind of problem, or sometimes even find blame in others to deflect responsibility for owning their bipolar disorder.”

People also struggle with acceptance because there are no tests to “prove” the diagnosis, Van Dijk said. “Complicating matters further, if an individual sees two psychiatrists, they may receive different diagnoses.”

This is one reason why Van Dijk tells her clients that it doesn’t matter what they call what they’re experiencing, because “bipolar disorder is different for everyone.” “Putting a label of bipolar disorder doesn’t change the person’s experience; they know what symptoms they’ve been having and what the issues and problems are they’re dealing with.”

Sadly, it’s hard to accept any kind of mental health diagnosis because stigma is so prevalent and persistent. People often feel ashamed and fearful about how society will view them with their diagnosis, Pipich said.

But even though acceptance is difficult, it’s still absolutely possible—and so is leading a meaningful, fulfilling life with bipolar disorder.

First, it’s important to validate your concerns. For instance, according to Van Dijk, you might tell yourself: “Of course it’s difficult for me to accept this, because it makes my life more difficult, I face challenges others don’t, it’s scary….”

Below, you’ll find other ways to accept your diagnosis—and how loved ones can help.

Understand what acceptance really is.
Acceptance isn’t liking something, or even being OK with it, said Van Dijk, the author of several books, including Calming the Emotional Storm: Using Dialectical Behavior Therapy Skills to Manage Your Emotions & Balance Your Life and The Dialectical Behavior Therapy Skills Workbook for Bipolar Disorder.

Acceptance is “acknowledging that this is reality.” Can you acknowledge that you’ve been given a diagnosis of bipolar disorder?

Learn everything you can about bipolar disorder.
“We all can fear what we don’t understand,” said Pipich, author of the new book Owning Bipolar: How Patients and Families Can Take Control of Bipolar Disorder. As humans, we tend to fill the gaps in our knowledge with our own worst nightmares—and with horror stories we’ve heard from others, he said.

Pipich often tells people, “while you don’t have to fear a bipolar diagnosis, you certainly can fear what an untreated bipolar disorder might do to your life.”

Reconsider what the diagnosis means.
“Having a bipolar disorder diagnosis is not a curse,” Pipich said. “It’s an opportunity to get the help you need.” It’s an opportunity to improve your mental and physical health. It’s an opportunity to compassionately care for yourself. It’s an opportunity to improve your relationships and your life.

Break acceptance into bites. In other words, instead of accepting “I have bipolar disorder,” find something small that you can accept. According to Van Dijk, you might accept: “Right now my mood is lower and I have to take meds,” “I am struggling with anxiety,” “I am having problems with substances,” “I have to increase my self-care,” or “I’m more irritable and lashing out at the people in my life who I care about.”

Focus on right now—versus the future. Instead of thinking about what bipolar disorder holds for the future, again focus on what you can accept right now. After all, things change. Van Dijk shared these examples: “I’ll never work again” can become “I can’t work right now”; “I have to take meds for the rest of my life” can become “I need to stay on my meds at least for the time-being.”

Make a list. It’s natural for people to flip-flop with acceptance, said Van Dijk. “For example, someone might accept they have bipolar disorder, and then when they realize that this will prevent them from pursuing a specific career they’ve always dreamed of, they go back to fighting the reality.”

It’s also common to go through stages, she said: After denying the diagnosis, a person accepts it and starts treatment. When they feel much better, they no longer think they have an illness, so they stop taking their medication and become unstable again.

“When you go back to not accepting anything, you keep working on turning your mind back to acceptance,” Van Dijk said. She suggested creating a pros and cons chart, asking yourself: “What are the pros and cons of accepting my diagnosis and not accepting my diagnosis?”

Write a letter to yourself. Sometimes Van Dijk has her clients write a letter to themselves when they’re stable. They might write a letter to their depressed self, providing support and encouragement: “[Y]our mood will change, you won’t be depressed forever, you have to stay on your meds and go to your appointments, it will get better, etc.”

For Loved Ones

“Loved ones are a valuable resource in bipolar acceptance,” Pipich said. But they, too, can struggle with acceptance. Some think bipolar disorder is an excuse for bad behavior, and that accepting the diagnosis means accepting all those negative behaviors, he said. Some fear that the diagnosis will be a label that follows their loved one, “doing more damage in the future than the disorder can do itself.”

This is why it’s important for loved ones to get educated, as well, and to find professionals who specialize in treating bipolar disorder. It’s also critical to bring all your questions and concerns to your sessions, Pipich said.

“Many times, I see a family with different opinions and different levels of acceptance. So attending educational sessions, for example, can help to unify the family towards a single acceptance strategy. With a solid background of knowledge about bipolar, you can begin to collaborate together with treatment pros, not just remain in fear of what a bipolar diagnosis is all about.”

When you better understand bipolar disorder, you also can remind your loved one that it’s not their fault that they have an illness, Pipich said.

According to Van Dijk, one of the best ways loved ones can provide support is by asking: “What can I do to help?” Often people will need you to listen to them in an “accepting, understanding, non-judgmental way.”

Sometimes, they’ll need more hands-on help. Van Dijk shared these examples: A person over-spends during a hypomanic episode, so a loved one holds onto their credit card until they’re more stable. A person isolates themselves during a depressive episode, so a loved one joins them on a daily walk. A person has substance issues, so a loved one drives them to AA meetings and counseling sessions.

Pipich stressed the importance of being positive and encouraging about treatment. “[A]void disparaging statements about doctors, therapists, medications, and other aspects of bipolar treatment.”

He also emphasized consistency. “A person’s journey through bipolar stabilization has its ups and downs, and in some cases, plenty of them.” Your loved one might even seem like they’re giving up. Which can leave you feeling discouraged and wanting to give up, too. This is when it’s vital to remain resolute in supporting the treatment goals, and seeking your own therapy can help, too, Pipich said.

Some researchers believe that up to 5 percent of the population has some form of bipolar disorder, he said. “That’s about 350 million people worldwide. Accepting your bipolar diagnosis definitely means you are not alone.” And it also means that you will get better.

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Vital Lessons to Start Teaching Your Kids Really Young—and How to Do It

As parents, there are lots of skills we need and want to teach our kids. Most of us focus on the basics, such as teaching our kids how to feed and dress themselves, how to tie their shoes, how to count, and read and write.

After all, these are foundational skills, which are critical for our kids to become more and more independent.

But, as child therapist Natasha Daniels, LCSW, pointed out, as we’re teaching our kids concrete skills, we might be forgetting other skills that are just as significant, such as emotional intelligence. “Kids aren’t always born with empathy, kindness and compassion. These skills have to be taught, fostered and grown.” And we can plant these seeds as early as toddlerhood, she said.

To start, Daniels suggested helping your child to label their emotions (more on that below), and teaching them how their actions affect others. For instance, you might say: “When you shared your toy, you made her so happy” or “When you took that toy from him, you made him sad.”

Third, since helping others is a powerful way to build kindness, teach your kids to do things like hold the door and give their sibling a hand, said Daniels, author of the book How to Parent Your Anxious Toddler.

Below, you’ll find other vital lessons to start teaching your young kids right now—and the details on doing it.

Teach your kids they’re capable and competent. Let your kids do more tasks on their own. Because the less you do for them, the more they learn what they’re made of, said John Duffy, Ph.D, a clinical psychologist, author of The Available Parent and co-host of the podcast “Better” with his wife. “This gift is both invaluable and indelible. Children will maintain that sense of competence for a lifetime.”

Duffy encouraged parents to challenge kids to do things they normally wouldn’t—doing laundry and dishes, contributing to adult conversations about politics or religion, troubleshooting computer problems and even helping to repair a car engine.

“Invite them into these spaces. You will marvel at what they’re capable of.”

Teach your kids to understand and cope with their emotions. Parents often tell their kids to calm down, behave or do better, and get frustrated when they inevitably don’t, said Natalia van Rikxoort, MSW, ACC, a social worker and certified life coach who specializes in ADHD and family coaching. “What your kids won’t tell you is that they have no idea what these things really mean, let alone how to put them into action.”

Again, give your child a vocabulary for their emotions. If they’re starting to have a meltdown, kneel down and say, “I can see you’re feeling frustrated” or “I know you’re really disappointed.” Review a feelings chart when they’re calm, she said.

Janine Halloran, a licensed mental health counselor and founder of Coping Skills for Kids, also stressed the importance of educating about emotions. Encourage your kids to identify when they’re feeling happy, mad and sad: “What makes you feel happy? How does your body feel when you feel that way? What does your face look like?”

Reading and watching TV are great opportunities to identify feelings, too, said Halloran, author of the Coping Skills for Kids Workbook. You might ask questions like: “How do you think Katina felt when that happened? How would you feel if that happened to you? What do you notice about Quentin’s face and body? What do you think he’s feeling?”

Teach your child coping skills. Put different actions on a chart or index cards that your child finds calming or enjoyable, such as doing jumping jacks, taking a short break, playing with your pet, going outside and listening to music, van Rikxoort said. “When you sense your child is becoming overwhelmed, prompt them to choose a coping skill to use.”

When your child is having a meltdown, van Rikxoort suggested focusing on what their behavior is communicating or what skill they’re lacking. For instance, they get upset when you ask them to clean up their toys. Maybe it’s because they’re overwhelmed by such a big task, and have no clue how to begin.

“If your child is a bit older, you can talk to them about what makes cleaning up difficult and what might be done to make it easier.” And you can model how to separate tasks into smaller steps, such as cleaning up the blocks first and then putting away the art supplies.

It’s also helpful to teach your child to ask for help—something van Rikxoort has already started doing with her two-year-old. When her daughter gets frustrated, she says, “Help please.” “Now when a toy rolls under the couch, rather than have a meltdown, she asks for help. Kids are often too embarrassed or afraid to reach out for assistance when they need it, so it’s important to let your kids know that asking for help is OK.”

Lastly, label your own emotions. You might say, “I feel so happy because …” “I’m a little sad because …” Halloran said. “When parents have more challenging feelings, they can demonstrate that it’s possible to make a change to how they feel,” such as: “I’m feeling mad, so I’m going to take a sip of cold water and take a belly breath to calm down.”

Teach your kids the golden rule. This rule encompasses everything from compassion to cooperation to forgiveness, according to Catherine O’Brien, a licensed marriage and family therapist in Sacramento, Calif., guiding new parents on the road of parenthood. It’s also the foundation for essential conversations like understanding fairness and justice and building connection with others, she said.

The first step is to model the golden rule ourselves, and to treat our kids with respect. “[A]s parents, it can be easy to think of us as being the adults and them as being ‘just kids,’” O’Brien said. “It puts an invisible separation between us and them. But we’re all human individuals and deserve to be treated as such.”

Listen intently to your kids, without interrupting or judging what they’re saying. When you lose your cool, take responsibility and apologize. This shows that it’s OK to get frustrated, you can work through conflict, and that everyone is accountable for their actions, O’Brien said.

Here’s another strategy: Instead of forcing your child to apologize for taking someone else’s toy, ask the other child how it made them feel, and then ask your child how they can help to make things fair or better, she said. (If you rush the apology, they might not realize what they did wrong, and learn that they can do whatever they want as long as they say “I’m sorry” later, she said.)

O’Brien also stressed the importance of teaching your kids that they need to ask others for permission to hug or kiss them. Everyone is different: Some kids are physical, while others freeze up when another child hugs them, she said. Similarly, don’t make your child hug or kiss anyone either “because it is expected, like a grandparent, uncle or family friend.”

As Daniels noted, “Regardless of what we teach, our actions will always be our children’s biggest teacher.” So whatever you want your kids to learn, model it. Because they will emulate it, she said. Of course, we’re also human, and we make plenty of mistakes. And that’s OK. Because we can also model imperfection, self-acceptance and how to pick up the pieces.

Click to visit original source at PsychCentral

How to Best Support a Loved One with Bipolar Disorder

Bipolar disorder is a difficult illness. For Arden Tucker, an episode of depression can be especially debilitating. Like many who experience bipolar disorder, Tucker fears she won’t recapture the essence of who she really is, the person she was before the depression began.

“My bipolar depression can feel insidious,” she said.

That’s because even though Tucker takes medication, her depression is cyclical, so it’ll return “again, and again, and again.”

Her partner of 35 years is a tremendous support. One of the most important ways Tucker’s partner supports her is by checking on her when she starts to get depressed. She asks Tucker if she’d like to share how she’s feeling, and if she can identify the trigger for her sinking mood.

Colleen King’s wife knows her warning signs well, and they have an agreement that her input is always welcome. “She expresses her concern about my well-being, and will talk with me about any behavioral or emotional changes she’s observed.”

King noted that her wife is like her barometer. Because she feels emotionally safe with her, King regularly shares how she’s doing, and requests her wife’s feedback.

Sometimes, Tucker’s partner makes suggestions. For instance, when Tucker is feeling anxious, her partner asks if her anti-anxiety medication may help to calm her and minimize the emotional pain. King’s partner does the same. She encourages King to reduce her stress and use her coping skills, which include exercising, meditating and working in the garden.

Tucker’s partner also motivates her to get out of the house when she becomes depressed—which is vital so she doesn’t isolate herself even more. For instance, she might invite Tucker to the dog park. “She knows that I particularly like and often miss the other regular dogs and their owners.” Her partner also looks for events they can attend together, along with making plans with their close friends. Anything outside is especially helpful. “The fresh air and distraction from the ruminations in my mind always come as a welcomed treat,” Tucker said.

Of course, everyone is different, which means that your loved one might need a different kind of support. They might balk at suggestions and get defensive. They might feel like you’re telling them what to do. Both Tucker and King are psychotherapists who specialize in treating people with bipolar disorder. Below, both experts shared tips that are important and helpful for supporting anyone with the illness.

Have a written plan.
“It can be a huge challenge for support people to get a positive response from someone while they’re in a manic, depressed, or mixed state episode when there isn’t good communication and a pre-existing plan on how to support them back to stability, said King, LMFT, who also specializes in treating depression and anxiety at her private practice in Sacramento, Calif.

She suggested sitting down together and writing out a plan that: spells out what would feel supportive for your loved one and help them to get stable; along with specific signs unique to them that indicate the start of an episode (e.g., “they no longer go grocery shopping and forget to eat; they begin multiple home projects and work on them until 3 a.m. without being tired the next day”).

For instance, Therese Borchard and her husband have several critical rules. As she writes in this piece, “I call the doctor after three days of incessant crying or no sleep. I tell him when I’m suicidal. He stays with me when I’m a danger to myself. However, the most important rule is this: I have promised him that I will take my meds.”

King also suggested readers ask their loved ones about the kind of language that feels supportive and non-judgmental to them. This helps to reduce defensiveness and conflict. For instance, she said, instead of telling your loved one, “You’re being…,” you might say, “I’ve noticed you seem…” This “can get the message across in a direct yet gentle and encouraging manner.”

Lastly, include suggestions for self-care and coping strategies to manage symptoms, and involvement of their doctor and therapist, King said.

Genuinely listen to your loved one. Validate how they’re feeling, and listen with compassion and empathy, said Tucker, AMFT, who provides culturally diverse psychotherapy services for individuals, couples, and adolescents who may be dealing with depression, stress, anxiety, grief and loss, relationship issues, or transitions through life.

“We are each unique individuals and our feelings are our ‘truths.’ Feelings are neither right or wrong.” So accept your loved one’s reality, without interjecting your own views or beliefs, without judging their feelings, thoughts or desires, she said.

Don’t mistake emotions for a crisis. King’s clients often say that they feel like they need to hide their emotions from their loved ones, because they automatically assume they’re having an episode. But really they’re just experiencing normal emotional responses to life.

“So while communicating your concern is appropriate, understand that people with bipolar disorder are going to have bad days, get frustrated, excited, or sad just like everyone else,” King said.

Don’t encourage a brighter outlook.
Tucker stressed the importance of not telling your loved one to stop attaching such importance to their struggles and simply adopt a brighter perspective. “Many, many well-meaning people suggest that one’s religion and closeness with their respective God can deliver them from suffering.”

The problem? People who are very devout may see themselves as failures because they haven’t been able to heal or feel better, she said. They may feel great guilt and shame.

Help your loved one find good resources. Help them find a support group or a program of peers, Tucker said. It’s incredibly important for your loved one to surround themselves with other people who have bipolar disorder because they can provide understanding and empathy, she said. After all, they’ve been there, too. They get it.

You might start your search at your state’s behavioral health department, or ask for additional resources when contacting an agency, organization or non-profit, Tucker said.

The Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance offers in-person support groups and online groups. NAMI Peer-to-Peer is a free, 10-session educational program for adults with mental illness to help them understand their condition and get better. NAMI Connection is a free, peer-lead support group for people living with mental illness.

Care for yourself. It’s also critical for you to have your own support and self-care plan, in addition to knowing your personal warning signs that you’re becoming over-stressed, King said. For instance, you might consider joining a support group for loved ones of people with bipolar disorder. Maybe you, too, work with a therapist.

Ultimately, Tucker’s clients tell her that when their family and friends show them that they matter—regardless of the barriers they’re facing—they feel “held and loved.” “This unconditional love and support provides a desperately needed foundation for clients who too often identify themselves as ‘feeling lost.’”

Her clients also are grateful for the patience their loved ones show them, particularly the ones who are closest to them “who witness or experience behaviors or symptoms of bipolar disorder that are not considered normative by people who do not understand these challenges.”

While it’s not always easy, you too can show your loved one that they are undoubtedly and unconditionally held and loved. And maybe you can do the same for yourself.

Click to visit original source at PsychCentral

How to Figure Out Who You Are Outside of Work

If you love what you do, it’s all-too easy for it to consume your identity—especially if your career is demanding and fast-paced. You find yourself checking email after hours, and thinking about work. All. The. Time. You find yourself falling asleep with a laptop in your bed.

It’s also all-too easy for work to consume your identity when money is at stake. For instance, therapist Erin K. Tierno sees clients in New York City, where in order to survive financially, they must prioritize work—“because there will always be another person eager to fill their position.”

It’s common for young professionals to feel so emotionally drained by their work that they have zero energy to dedicate to dating, hobbies, friendships and everything else, said Lauren Canonico, LCSW, a psychotherapist and consultant in private practice in New York City.

For many people work—and overwork—is comfortable. What isn’t comfortable is what resides outside the office walls. Because inside there are clear-cut steps, structures, systems and goals, while other areas of life don’t adhere to a rulebook.

“There’s no magic number of dates to go on before you find the one. No set amount of difficult phone calls with your mother before she ‘gets’ you and understands what you need from her,” said Canonico, who offers affirmative counseling and therapy to adults and teens, and clinical consulting services to individuals and organizations.

“Life is much grayer and murkier, which is scary—particularly when your capacity to tolerate discomfort is all used up during your work day,” she said.

But letting work define you is problematic. When they’re not at work, Canonico’s clients describe feeling anxious, overwhelmed, lost, stuck and disconnected from themselves.

Licensed mental health counselor Diane Webb noted that when people don’t nourish their passions, they report a lower sense of who they are, a surge in depressed mood and a sense of emptiness. Some of Webb’s clients describe feeling like a real-life version of the movie “Groundhog Day.”

But it doesn’t have to be this way. Below, you’ll find a range of tips to help you figure out who you truly are outside of work, and as Webb said, “give your life a richness that is full of things that enlighten you, teach you, thrill you and soothe you.”

Wander your city. This is what Tierno prescribes to clients who can’t find anything they’re interested in outside of work. Tierno is a licensed clinical social worker and founder of Online Therapy NYC, where she specializes in helping dynamic, intelligent, driven, busy people to connect in healthier, more fulfilling relationships through online therapy.

That is, explore your city without any agenda. The only rule is to pay attention to what piques your interest. Because that’ll likely point you in the right direction.

“If your eye catches a spectacular piece of pottery in a shop window, let yourself go inside and spend some time looking around. Could this be the fledgling stages of a ceramics hobby?”

After you’ve gathered some data on what you might be curious about, give yourself several months to explore these interests, Tierno said. For instance, you might take a local class in wheel-throwing.

Don’t be surprised if you feel some discomfort: “[T]hese muscles have never been used before, or at least not in a very long time,” Tierno said. You might be used to being in charge and being seasoned at work. Try to embrace the unfamiliar, and focus on the process.

Set boundaries. Many people don’t have strict boundaries between work and home. Understandably. As Webb said, “People now carry their ‘office’ with them all day via their smartphone and other devices.” Maybe you actually work from home several days or every day. In other words, our home is no longer the place we exclusively relax and leave work behind.

Canonico stressed the importance of having a dedicated workspace to give yourself some concrete separation, if possible. Maybe that’s an office, or a desk in your living room or the same corner of the couch or kitchen table (depending on how much space you have). She also suggested changing clothes as soon as you get home (or perhaps stop working), “to ‘take off’ the day”; and not checking email or working for at least one hour after waking up and two to three hours before bed.

Boundaries are critical when you’re just starting your career, too. You might be tempted to work long hours and be available to your clients all the time. However, Canonico said it’s best to set boundaries right away. This way, “your clients and colleagues [don’t] have to ‘unlearn’ having 24/7 access to you. It’s easier to loosen as you go than tighten along the way.”

Other examples of boundaries include: not responding to work-related matters on weekends, and requesting another team member if you’re feeling overworked or overburdened, said Webb, who has a private psychotherapy practice in Clifton Park, N.Y., and pens the blog The Peace Journal about helping people develop emotional wellness as a lifestyle choice.

Your “boundaries with work should suit your work environment, the needs of your position and your individual needs to have the best result.”

Revisit old hobbies. Reflect on the activities and hobbies that you loved as a child, teen or young adult. Then carve out time to practice them. According to Webb, this might be anything from sports to hiking to baking.

Revisit relationships. “When someone’s work life takes precedence, their personal relationships often start to suffer,” Webb said. This is why she recommended refocusing on your relationships with a partner, kids, friends and family. Spend quality time with them. Have real conversations without interruption.

Create space to just be. “We have to intentionally create space for our true selves to emerge, which means holding time for ourselves to just be,” Canonico said. This is also a helpful way to practice tolerating discomfort.

Canonico shared these examples: You might spend 20 minutes in the morning drinking your coffee or tea, without any digital devices, or spend Sunday afternoons by yourself. Notice what thoughts and feelings arise. Where does your mind go when there’s no task or structure?

If you do need some structure, Canonico suggested finding writing prompts or doing Julia Cameron’s Morning Pages.

Meet like-minded people. Check out local meet-up groups, spiritual centers or adult sports teams, Webb said. Think about other places around potential passions, such as book clubs, art clubs and non-profit organizations.

Experiment with new experiences.
This might include anything from trying watercolor painting to taking a dance class to participating in National Novel Writing Month, Canonico said. Even if you end up not enjoying an experience, that’s still important information. “There’s no such thing as failing when it’s an experiment.”

Tierno’s clients are initially fearful that their work success will suffer if they focus on other things. However, she finds the opposite is true: “[P]eople’s work lives actually flourish when they dedicate time to rounding out their life experience. That fulfilled person brings far more energy and curiosity to their work life, and is a heck of a lot more interesting to talk with at the company holiday party.”

Click to visit original source at PsychCentral

Parents Share What They See as Their Role in Raising Their Kids

Parenting involves a lot of minutiae, and from sunup to sundown, the days can feel crammed. And amid all the details—changing diapers, potty-training, making meals, driving everywhere, helping with homework, doing bedtime—what can get lost is the bigger picture.

Even if your kids are older and don’t need as much hands-on attention, your days are likely quite full. Which means it can be tough to pause and reflect on your role in raising your children.

Yet, knowing your role as a parent is vital. It’s like a writer knowing the theme of their story. It’s the infrastructure for everything that happens, driving their plot and what their characters do. Your role as a parent guides your actions and the choices you make in raising your kids. It guides your answers to tricky questions and situations.

We asked parents to share how they see their roles, along with suggestions on how you might go about identifying your own role. After all, it’s personal.

Ryan Howes, Ph.D, a psychologist who has 7- and 9-year-old boys, sees his role as a mirror: to help his kids see who they truly are and how they can be effective in this world. For instance, he might tell one of his sons who’s an introvert: “You have a big event coming up, and I know how those exhaust you, so let’s take some time to be mellow today.” He might tell his other son, who’s an extrovert: “You’re so excited to be around people! That’s wonderful! Let’s see how you can use that skill to help others feel included.”

In other words, how Howes guides his kids really depends on who they are—not on what society subscribes or what his past or ego believe they should be. He wants to help his kids become the best version of themselves.

“My biggest fear is that they work for years to reach some external goal, only to realize it was never congruent with who they are at their core,” Howes said. He tries to find ways to encourage their natural tendencies and interests. If one son loves playing music, Howes finds instruments and makes time to help him learn. If the other doesn’t like crowds, Howes helps him to decline those invitations and learn to cope when saying not isn’t an option.

Therapist Shonda Moralis, LCSW, who has a 16-year-old and a 6-year-old, sees herself as an unconditionally loving guide. This includes allowing her kids to “venture out, discover what lights them up, make mistakes, and enjoy successes.” It includes picking “them up when they fall or nudge—sometimes kindly shove—them back in the right direction when they veer off-course.”

Moralis, author of Breathe, Mama, Breathe: 5-Minute Mindfulness for Busy Moms, also gives her kids room to grow within safe limits. She doesn’t dictate what they should do and how they should do it. Because if she did, they wouldn’t “learn to make their own healthy decisions—including mistakes, which I view as invaluable learning opportunities.”

Other parents also see themselves as guides and teachers. Emily Fonnesbeck, RD, a dietitian and mom of four, believes it’s her role to teach her children how to create and achieve goals, care for themselves, make wise decisions and love and serve others. “That is in large part influenced by my faith and values, which I hope to pass on to them.”

Psychologist Kevin Chapman, Ph.D, whose daughters are 11 and 13, believes his role is to steward his kids “in becoming spiritually, emotionally, and physically healthy adults with a stable sense of self that allows them to effectively contribute to society.” He also believes it’s his responsibility to teach his daughters to recognize the importance of emotions, and the effect they have on navigating the world.

Clair Mellenthin, LCSW, a child therapist and mom to three, also helps her kids learn to navigate their emotions, new places and relationships. She helps them “shape their knowledge about self and others.” She prioritizes listening to them to learn about what they need and want to experience. “[U]ltimately, they get to make their own decisions and hopefully, launch successfully into adulthood with a strong foundation to stand on.”

Rebecca Wong, LCSW, a relationship therapist and mom to two daughters, believes it’s her role to teach her kids about the various realms of human experience, including physical, emotional, spiritual and intellectual. She also teaches her kids that they have inherent worth and imperfection is good and normal. She teaches them about healthy boundaries so they protect themselves and don’t hurt others.

Identifying Your Own Parenting Role

Self-reflect. “The more insight we parents have into ourselves as individuals, the more able we are to deliberately choose our behavior and parenting style, instead of unconsciously imitating our childhoods,” Moralis said. That is, how were you parented? How does it affect your parenting and habits today?

Chapman encouraged readers to consider these questions: What behaviors, both positive and negative, do you model for your kids? What behaviors do you need to modify? Are you emotionally regulated around your kids? How do you communicate love, security and safety to them?

Mellenthin suggested these questions: Can you look in the mirror and feel proud of what you’re doing? Are you using certain situations to punish your kids or allow them to learn? What feels best inside of you?

Turn to reputable resources. Howes suggested learning about child development and reading Unconditional Parenting or The Whole-Brain Child. Wong stressed the importance of identifying where you struggle in relationships and working on that. She suggested reading Parenting from the Inside Out and Facing Codependence.

Harness your own assets. Identify your strengths, skills and interests, and use them in ways that most benefit your kids, Howes said. For instance, if you’re a natural-born artist, teacher or explorer, how can you use that to support your kids? This also helps you spot your biases. Howes shared this example: You’re highly organized, but your child is the opposite. How can you step out of your comfort zone to make the most of their free-spirited nature?

Learn about your child. Pay attention to your child’s temperament and natural tendencies, as Howes illustrated above. Moralis also noted that some kids need more direction than others. “It is about being tuned into your child, his natural proclivity for impulsivity versus restraint or caution and guiding accordingly.”

Don’t live your child’s life. Howes advised against seeing your child as “a redo of your own life.” He knows so many people who’ve spent decades achieving their parents’ goals, “while they withered a little with each passing year.” “I’ve seen parents who are insecure with their intellect forcing their kids to always perform above and beyond…Or the ashamed introvert who pushes her introverted children to be the life of the party because she never could.”

Some call the theme of a story its heartbeat or soul. Which I believe are perfect terms for thinking about your role in raising your kids. Because your role is what gives your parenting meaning, purpose and life.

Click to visit original source at PsychCentral

Accepting and Caring for Your Sensitive Soul

You’re a sensitive person, and you’re not particularly proud of it. You’ve probably been told oh-so many times that you’re too sensitive and too emotional. You’re delicate and fragile, and you need to toughen up. You need to build thicker skin—or you’ll never survive in this world, or get anything done.

Maybe you grew up believing that you’re also too picky, too serious and too quiet. You’re too hesitant with making decisions. And you’re high maintenance on top of all of that.

“We live in a culture that doesn’t tend to value qualities associated with the trait of sensitivity, so I think many of us grow up thinking there’s something wrong with us,” said Laura Torres, LPC, a holistic mental health counselor who specializes in working with sensitive individuals, and gave the above examples.

Many sensitive souls also grow up in families or around peers where they’re the only sensitive person, she said. Which often leads you to dismiss and bury aspects of your sensitivity in order to fit in. You pretend these qualities simply don’t exist. You find yourself regularly apologizing for who you are—and resenting it.

And you end up internalizing your “differences as deficiencies or weaknesses versus competencies and strengths.”

We also start to perceive our sensitivity as problematic because of the way environments and workplaces are set up, which naturally caters to the majority in our culture. So there usually isn’t an emphasis on taking breaks when needed, quiet spaces, natural lighting, minimal stimulation, and understanding sensitivity as a valuable trait (versus some liability), Torres said.

That means “we’re forced to accommodate and adjust to a lifestyle that’s not as conducive for our sensitivity, which often leaves us feeling under-resourced and over-stressed.”

So what can you do? Do you deny an integral part of yourself? Do you stop listening to your sensitivity? Do you make it your goal to grow thicker, tougher skin?

What you do is you honor yourself. Below, are five tips on how.

Focus on strengths and benefits.
In her workshops, Torres asks individuals to list all the strengths, benefits and things they love about being sensitive. For instance, maybe you’re able to read the energy of a room and know exactly how to make it more comfortable. Maybe you’re a teacher who knows when her students need extra support. Maybe you’re able to really savor a delicious meal. Maybe you’ve used your deep appreciation for art, music and nature to connect with your children.

It’s also helpful to get super specific, and identify the situations where your sensitivity has supported you or someone else. Torres shared this example: “Empathy is something I love about being sensitive, and here’s a time it was helpful: I could tell something was wrong because of his tone so I asked a little bit more and he ended up opening up and really appreciating my support.”

“Like anything, what we focus on grows so the more we can focus on the qualities we love about ourselves, the easier it becomes to notice and continue to live into a person who fully embraces and appreciates their sensitivity,” Torres said.

Meet your needs.
Notice the early signs that you’re feeling drained and overwhelmed, and give yourself what you need in that moment. “One of the huge benefits of being highly sensitive is that we are very aware so it tends to be pretty easy for us to notice what we need in those moments”—though it’s not always easy to follow through, Torres said.

For instance, maybe you need space, and thereby need to set a firmer boundary. Maybe you need to ask for more time to complete a project. Maybe you need to say “Let me think about it,” when someone requests your help (instead of automatically saying, “absolutely!” and realizing you’ll need three days to recover).

Carve out downtime. Torres noted that sensitive individuals usually require more downtime than less sensitive people. Consider building downtime into your schedule before you drastically need it. Think about your own definition of downtime. What genuinely relaxes you? What rejuvenates you? What helps you shut out the noise of the world and tune into yourself?

For instance, maybe you schedule 20 minutes of reading time after your kids have gone to bed. Maybe you eat your lunch at the park, while savoring your food and your natural surroundings. Maybe as soon as you get home, you take 10 minutes to put on your headphones, close your eyes, listen to classical music, and let your mind wander.

Channel your sensitivity into speaking up. Torres noted that sensitive individuals tend to hold back from expressing their needs and their truth because they anticipate that the other person will be disappointed and upset. But not speaking up ensures that the other person never really gets to know you—the real you—and you start to get resentful, she said.

When you do speak up, any of the outcomes are beneficial. According to Torres, the other person ends up being receptive and appreciative, which deepens your relationship’s security; or they become upset and disappointed, and you’re able to work through it, also deepening the relationship; or they get upset and disappointed, and you’re unable to work through it, which helps you “move on from the relationship so that we create space for someone who is able to be receptive and loving when we show up fully. “

You can use your sensitivity to express yourself with empathy and compassion. You can start your talk on a positive note: “You’re a great friend and I’m telling you this because I care about you…” You can be vulnerable, share your feelings and take responsibility. (Learn more in this piece, along with specific examples.) You can be genuinely curious about the other person’s feelings and perspective, and listen fully when they speak. And you can remind yourself that your heart is important, too.

Find comfort outside your comfort zone. Your sensitive soul isn’t a hindrance that stops you from pursuing your desires and goals. You can still honor yourself as you try new, intimidating things. According to Torres, “going beyond your comfort zone is only helpful if you’re still in your resiliency zone or window of tolerance, meaning that you’re not so far out of your comfort zone that your body is going into fight or flight.”

As you push past your edges, she suggested considering the resources that help you stay in your resiliency zone. For instance, you’ve decided to attend a networking event for podcasters. But you don’t know anyone. So you “bring a friend, reach out ahead of time to the organizer to know what to expect [and] brainstorm some easy conversation starters.” In other words, you prepare in a way that aligns with and is respectful of your sensitive nature.

Again, your sensitivity isn’t a problem or burden or obstacle you need to overcome. Rather, your sensitivity helps you notice things that others don’t, Torres said. Which is vital for both your profession, and your family life. Your sensitivity creates “space for others to be vulnerable and show up more fully.” You may notice that a friend is struggling with something that goes beyond baby blues—and support her in getting the help she needs. You may pick up on a client’s need, and find a creative way to accommodate it.

Your sensitive soul is a beautiful strength. It might take some time for you to realize it, but focus on respecting it anyway, even if acceptance isn’t a reality just yet. Act as if it is, and your thoughts will eventually follow.

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