The Weight of Flexibility

We all have our moments when we adamantly believe that we are right. It may lean into our values, our morals, or because “it’s always been done that way.” Our convictions are a valuable part of us, they help to define who we are and often govern how we see the world. The significance of our opinions are often driven by our emotions, but where do our thoughts fit in?

If we lean into our opinions with adamant rigidity, we risk falling down into the rabbit hole of judgement; sometimes to the point of hypocrisy. We leave our loved ones feeling misunderstood and we risk their emotional withdrawal. We are better served to find flexibility to help carry the weight of the exchange. 

Being flexible doesn’t require that we give up our convictions; it simply means that we are open to listening; to understanding another’s position. When we can include flexibility, we validate our loved ones, opening up the space for healthier communication and the consequent strengthening of the relationship.

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A Way to Look at Purpose

We are all at times perplexed by the question of “What is my purpose?” It seems big; it feels like somehow it should be attached to something obvious. We are also led to believe that once we have discovered our purpose, complete and ultimate fulfillment and meaning will be ours.

Perhaps purpose isn’t fixed. Perhaps it isn’t meant to be so obvious. Perhaps we find it in all different stages of our lives, perhaps it is in the every day. Perhaps it is how we choose to live.

I find my purpose in the work I do as a therapist. Not because of the years of service behind me, or the amount of people I have helped, but by my intention to make a person’s experience matter in that moment. 

I find my purpose in being a mother. Some days that involved story time on the couch, other times it was found in the tucking in of bed. It is found in thoughtful intention.

I can find purpose when I hold a door open for someone, or smile at a stranger as we cross paths on the sidewalk. I can find purpose in my prayers, my aim to be kind, my aim to be inclusive, my aim to forgive.

Purpose needn’t be fixed. It can be effective, it can be free flowing, it can be intentional.

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3 Tips to Making Decisions

We can all struggle sometimes in making decisions. Sometimes this comes from our experiences growing up; being overprotected for example, can lead us to not feeling secure in our decision making skills. Perhaps we had a controlling parent who made our decisions for us; perhaps we had to make too many decisions as a child and it left us feeling uncomfortable with the process as an adult.

In our every day life we are faced with many choices, to varying degrees. Sometimes, we may wrestle with bigger issues such as whether to take a new job; other times we defer to someone else for something as simple as what movie to go see or what to have for dinner. In any case, the ability to make decisions is an empowering process; one that allows us to feel in control over our own choices, giving us a sense of agency. Here are three tips that can help in making decisions:

  1. Make a pros and cons list. This seems self-explanatory but the important bit here is to actually write it down. It allows you to gather information (making an informed decision makes us feel more confident), without spending copious amounts of time on it – we don’t want to lean into avoidance. Writing it down also allows us to use both sides of our brain; bringing both emotions and logic to the process.
  2. Bounce it off a friend. Friends are probably the most objective person outside of a therapist as they truly have your best interests at heart.  Grab a cup of coffee, your pros and cons list and chat away!
  3. Back up your instincts. Let’s face it, once we have gone through both a pros and cons list, and talked to a friend, we usually come to the same conclusion that we had in the very immediate moments of having to make up our mind. Our instincts are a valuable tool in helping us make decisions; challenging our self-doubts and creating positive affirmations about our instincts can help.

The art of making decisions is like anything else; sometimes we just need a sense of direction and practice. The end result is a sense of self-efficacy and confidence in our ability to work out the kinks, big or small.

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Why Are We Afraid of What’s Different?

In yesterday’s post, I spoke about the feelings of inferiority and superiority in relationships. This got me to thinking about differences and why we often struggle with them; often, sadly, to the point of hatred.

We are pack oriented by nature; it is part of our survival brain and left over from the days when we had to fend for ourselves on the plains. As a matter of survival, we needed our tribe to increase our ability to defend ourselves and be protected from danger.

We can see pack oriented behaviour in any school yard; children deemed as different in any way tend to be teased more, they have an increased chance of being ostracized, and can be bullied for their vulnerabilities. Unfortunately, we only have to look at the news these days to see many examples of this in the adult world too; in many ways, society is still leaning into the fear of differences.

But aren’t differences what also make us unique?  Perhaps it is our job to lean into the differences, to be curious before placing judgement, to be open to the experience of another person. Ultimately, it can only lead us to a better place; one governed not by fear, but by compassion.

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“Is this Really About You?”

This is often a question that comes into therapy when a client is trying to make sense of something. A few years ago, a woman in her early fifties sought therapy for a work issue; having been employed at the same place for close to 27 years, she had recently taken stress leave due to a “bully-like boss.”  Although she had had her fair share of managers in her work history, this one was clearly taking a toll on her, as she described feeling undermined and questioned on every task throughout her day. She noted that the relationship began in an amicable and friendly manner, but somewhere along the line it changed, and she now felt anxious, insecure and quite frankly, “a wreck.”

As always, we begin with her story. I wanted to hear about her work history, the ins and outs of her position, her accomplishments and the times in her career where she may have faltered. I also wanted to explore the relationship she had with her current manager, from beginning to now. I asked questions about how her boss interacted with the other employees, who was on her good side and who had fallen out of her good graces and why. We explored the client’s current symptoms and how she felt at home versus at work; and if she felt any relief from her symptoms now that she was on stress leave. I suspected that what she was dealing with was a micro-manager type boss with aggressive tendencies, and it was important for me that the client see her from an objective light.

It took about seven or eight sessions for this client to get a better understanding of what was happening for her and what decisions she needed to make. Three years from retirement and a full pension prompted her to want to return and we needed her to be in the driver’s seat. Although a good portion of therapy was in preparing her to return to work, the first step was for her to fully understand that this “was not about her.” Although it certainly felt personal, it was, in fact not, and she was carrying more than she needed to. Her abilities and strengths at work were still in tact, she was a valuable employee; she had simply lost her confidence.

If something doesn’t make sense, we often need to ask ourselves, “How much of this is about me?” If you can’t find an answer, it becomes important to consciously decide to carry only what’s yours. When we are able to lighten our load through objectivity, we feel more like ourselves and are better prepared to deal with what comes our way. 🙂

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Chasing Happiness

Ever met someone who likes to blame the world for their troubles? Who often attributes luck as a contributing factor in their lives? Someone who tends to chase happiness; looking for that one thing that is going to make them feel satisfied? You may be interacting with someone with an external locus of control.

We know that when we have an overall sense of control over our lives, we have an increased sense of well-being; we have an influence over the direction of our lives. Our perception of where control lies, however, can have an impact on our behaviours, our experiences, the people in our lives and our environment. If we attribute our success or failures to outside influences, we lean towards having an external locus of control. We often feel helpless in the face of challenges and have a hard time giving ourselves credit for a job well done.

If we have an internal locus of control, we tend to have a stronger sense of self-efficacy, feel more confident when challenges come our way and are more likely to take responsibility for our behaviours.  As with everything, locus of control exists on a continnum; defining your locus of control is self-reflective and it provides us with the opportunity to challenge some of the ways we view our ability to have a sense of control over our lives. Moving us from chasing happiness to creating it.  

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Should I Get Diagnosed?

That is always a question that clients wrestle with at times. As a Registered Psychotherapist, I am not qualified to diagnose, yet I am able to recognize symptoms that are often indicative of an underlying mental illness. It is part of my job to suggest to the client the option of referral to a psychologist or psychiatrist for diagnosis as a potential part of their treatment plan.

Getting diagnosed for some clients is validating; they finally have a name to what they have been experiencing and can recognize themselves in the listed symptoms. It can be an empowering process as they begin to read about their diagnosis, join support groups online and have an avenue to express their own struggle with it. Suddenly, it just all makes sense.

Other clients have experienced a diagnosis as a label they can’t shake. They can feel stigmatized and defined by their mental illness, becoming even more burdened by its mark.

Getting diagnosed is a choice afforded to a client; in either case, therapy’s greater aim is to treat the person. That includes their symptoms, but it also includes their competencies and strengths, their core beliefs, patterns, interests, what they are passionate about, their self-care regime, their coping strategies, their support system, their history, their story. As a therapist, I am ever mindful that with or without the diagnosis, It is the relationship that heals.

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What is Perceptual Narrowing and Why is it Important?

In psychology, we have a term called perceptual narrowing. Essentially, it is our tendency to narrow our intentional focus when we begin to feel worried or panicked about something. It is why we will often get stuck in a rumination or worry. As a result of perceptual narrowing, we will often miss information that may be useful to us in looking at the situation more objectively.

Perceptual narrowing tends to happen when we are stressed; we focus in on one thing as our heart rate increases and our breathing shallows. If for example, I am trying to get out the door and I feel rushed,  I focus on my fear of being late. My perception narrows, I have less access to my peripheral vision, and before you know it, I have dropped something, forgotten something and probably spilled something. It is usually at this point that I take a deep breath and remind myself to slow down.

It is important to recognize that perceptual narrowing is part of our system’s response to stress. I suppose when we lived on the plains, if a big storm was coming, we would have needed to focus all of our attention on securing our safety. In today’s world, many of our panicked thoughts are perceived ones and we end up going to worst case scenario thinking – our increased stress response induces perceptual narrowing, leaving us feeling scattered and sometimes frayed.

We can; however, begin to recognize when this is happening and remind ourselves to pause, slow down, focus on our breathing. We can use self-talk to “take it one moment at a time,” and to “look at the facts.” This will allow our rational voice to weigh in on what first appears to be a runaway worry.

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Challenging Negative Core Beliefs

Building on our post from yesterday, today we will look at how to begin to challenge our negative core beliefs. The first step, and often what brings people to therapy, is to identify them. Usually, the messages we received consistently are often found in the “unspoken rules in the family,” and can be tied to what role we play in the family. Examples that I have heard from clients:

  • “As long as we were there to work, we were valued.”
  • “I have never felt good enough in her eyes.”
  • “It was all about achievement. If I got a 90, it was why didn’t you get a 95?”
  • “I was the caregiver in the family.”
  • “I was the black sheep.”

Once you have identified the message that has led to a core belief, the next step is to ask yourself, “Does it have to be this way? Whose voice am I really listening to?” 

The third step is to replace the message with one that is more accurate; reflective of what you would have wanted to hear instead. Example: “I may have been the caregiver, but I deserve to be taken care of too.” Replacing the new message, every time you hear the old one, is the key to creating a new pathway in your brain, putting out that torch once and for all. 🙂

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How We Carry the Torch

When we are little, we have a very blurred line between need and want. As part of our attachment system, and the inherent knowledge that we can’t survive without our caregivers, we are quite egocentric as children. As our rational brain develops, we begin to think of ourselves outside of others and by adulthood, have a much clearer delineation between what we need and what we want (or at least we hope so!)

As a result of our egocentricity, we internalize everything as children. This includes messages that get repeated to us, both spoken and unspoken; resulting in core beliefs that can often define who we are. If for example, the message we consistently received is “you can do this; try your best,” we learn with time that we have the power within us to achieve our goals; a good core belief to have. If, however, the message we have received is “nothing you do is good enough,” that also follows us as we navigate through life.

When we are children, we are powerless to change core beliefs; they become an ingrained part of our self-identity and as a result feel very real. Once we bridge over into adulthood, we often “carry the torch,” unbeknownst to us that we have the ability to influence and change our negative core beliefs. Our rational brain certainly has the capacity to begin to question how we identify ourselves, but very often, we lean into what we feel to be true, creating a self-fulfilling prophesy of sorts.

The good news is that it doesn’t have to be this way; forever imprisoned by our negative core beliefs. Tomorrow’s post will address how to begin the process of challenging those very messages that affect the decisions we make in life.

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