5 Questions to Re-Align Your Life in 2016

When I look at the heart of what drives my work as a therapist, it is connection. Connection to our own wise minds and intuitive souls, and connection to those precious people in our lives. As social animals, authentic and secure connection to ourselves and others is profoundly life changing, and when we struggle with either finding or following our own truth or finding and connecting with our own tribe, it can lead to isolation, anxiety, avoidance of many kinds, depression, and a profound sense of lacking vitality and meaning in living.

IMG_4133

As 2016 fast approaches, and we all reflect on the past year and renew our commitments for the next year, I offer you these 5 questions to get you thinking and feeling and hopefully MOVING toward a life aligned with your truest self and deepest wisdom:

  1. What is most important to me in living this life? If I could wake up tomorrow living a life that prioritized these most important values, what would be different? Think honestly about what you want to be doing now that would allow you to reflect back on your life in a way that feels full and true to who you are. Would you be taking better care of your physical or mental health? Would you be more involved with your family or community? Would you be spending way less time on your phone, watching TV, or working round the clock and more time with your children, spouse, creative projects, social causes, or on adventures?
  2. If my answer to question number 1 feels “too distant” or “too grand,” how can I break it down into daily steps that will help get me moving in a meaningful direction? Try to think in terms of routine behaviors rather than a final destination. Start with the dream, but break it down into what you could be doing daily or often to make that dream clearer or nearer. Would you be setting aside money each month to afford a trek through the mountain trails to Machu Pichu? Would you begin couples counseling to support a new period of connection and intimacy in your romantic relationship? Would you devote more time to a community that feeds your soul or goals, such as a religious or spiritual organization or a Meet-Up group?IMG_4168
  3. If I’m honest with myself, what of my current habits or personal myths are getting in my way? The habits that are getting in your way are the ways you spend time and energy with little or no return on your investment. These are the things you do that feel meaningless, lifeless, and don’t recharge you. These are the things you do because you’re bored, tired, disconnected, etc. And there are myths that keep you stuck in these behaviors, such as “I’m always too tired or too busy,” “My idea has already been done before so there’s no point,” “I’m not putting myself out there again, people will just let me down,” etc. This question helps you figure out what space needs to be cleared to make room for more of what adds meaning – it could be literal space (a cleared out corner of your basement or garage for painting), “time” space (a freed hour on your schedule), or psychological space (challenging personal myths or addressing stuck places with therapy assistance).
  4. If I am feeling knocked down by difficult times or circumstances, what kind of person do I want to be going through this difficult time or seemingly unchangeable circumstance? We all face losses and limits, some of them incredibly profound – such as the loss of loved ones, our own health constraints, and financial or other situational complexities that either can’t be changed at all, or can’t easily be changed any time soon. If this is a dark night for you, take time to really reflect on what kind of person you want to be going through or accepting this painful truth. What values or personality characteristics do you want anchoring and guiding you on this difficult leg of your life journey?IMG_4150
  5. If I am feeling overwhelmed by these questions, what is one way of being in this world that is meaningful to me and what is one step I can take toward living inside that meaning? Sometimes looking at the big picture in this way can re-energize us toward action connected to our vital truths. But sometimes it’s just too much. We all have those moments when what we need is less “to-do” and more slowing down. We need to connect with and anchor ourselves in one accessible part of our meaningful life experience before we can move forward. What is this experience for you? If it’s community, is there one friendship you could focus on nurturing? If it’s creativity, is there an inspiring book you could read or a museum you could visit? If it’s compassion, is there someone who would find comfort in hearing your warm voice on the other end of the phone? If it’s presence, if there a way to set the intention for a routine of informal mindfulness?

Use your inner compass to guide you in gleaning from these questions and answers what may spark a small but vital change in your life. There is no one “right” way to do this thing called living, and no grand vision planned well enough to avoid the dark corners and detours of ourselves and the world. Remember: mistakes and reroutes are not only unavoidable, they’re welcome! They add to the organic spice of ending up in a life far richer than the one you originally imagined. Best wishes for a meaningful 2016!

IMG_4184

Amanda Carver, LMFT is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in Atlanta, Georgia. She specializes in providing Emotion Focused Therapy (EFT) in helping couples create and enjoy lasting love and affection in their relationships as well as helping women create deeply meaningful lives. All written content and images owned by Amanda Carver.

 

Advertisements

How to Help Your Therapist Help You

Honored to have contributed to mindbodygreen with this article about how to get the most out of therapy! How to Help Your Therapist Help You

Do you have ideas about what has helped make your therapy more meaningful or beneficial? Please share!

You’ve mustered up the courage to say, “Something’s off in my life right now.” You seek the assistance of a helping professional to get back on track, and feel relieved almost immediately. You’re starting to make productive choices.

Maybe you’ve realized sadness or anxiety has hijacked your life, or you’re struggling with chronic conflict or lack of connection in your most important relationships. Maybe you’ve realized that despite having everything you always thought you wanted, you’re still not fulfilled. Whatever the reason, you’ve decided you are important enough to seek assistance with creating the life you want.

Some individuals seeking therapy think that their therapist will “fix” the problem that they are facing, even if they don’t realize this dynamic is at play. But therapy is work, for both parties involved. It takes reflection, a healthy balance of self-analysis and self-acceptance, and a commitment to follow-through.

If you’re in psychotherapy or counseling treatment or are considering gaining the assistance of a mental health professional or coach, the following tips will dramatically enhance the return you can gain from this powerful investment — an investment in you. I offer these tips as both a psychotherapist and someone who has benefited from being in therapy.

1. Don’t skimp on sessions — make it a practice.

People sometimes seek therapy services with a “one foot in, one foot out” mentality. This may look like frequently canceled sessions or forgetting or not doing homework. Unless you are on vacation or experiencing a true emergency, it is essential to attend sessions weekly (or at whatever interval you and your therapist have determined is best).

Building a relationship with your therapist and the regular contact that requires is the foundation for gaining the most from your therapy experience! Even on days when you’re feeling down (especially on these days!) or when the sun is shining and you’d rather spend an afternoon at the park, remind yourself that it is a commitment not just with your therapist, but with yourself.

2. Work between sessions. (It’s like “therapy homework.”)

Some therapists assign homework. This could be as simple as thinking about a certain topic or as specific as reading chapters in a book or practicing specific relational or coping strategies. Some therapies are designed to include homework on a regular basis, such as behavioral treatments like CBT or DBT. In other types of therapy, homework is more of a periodic way to enhance your growth experience.

Even if you aren’t assigned specific homework, it’s important to bring the thoughts and questions you engage with in therapy outside the office. Try exploring and practicing techniques you have worked on with your therapist in other relationships. Journal. Talk to supportive friends or family members about the questions you’ve been thinking about. Engaging in the process will help you transform a slow-paced recovery into a life-altering experience where the change you seek gains noticeable traction.

3. Get radically honest.

Therapists are trained professionals who are likely predisposed to offering compassion and support. We’ve taken this natural inclination to be helpful and learned specific ways of interacting with you that may assist with positive outcomes in your life.

Our ability to help you is severely limited if you aren’t honest with us. This includes the big things, like history of abuse or drug and alcohol intake, and the “smaller” things, too, like not having a sincere interest in a homework assignment.

I can’t tell you how many times a case has “cracked open” into meaningful change because a client finally disclosed needed information about him/herself and problems. If you’ve found yourself lying to your therapist, don’t beat yourself up! Shame about problems is normal, as is the impulse to lie. Just take the opportunity to be brave and correct this information with your therapist.

4. Practice transparency.

Somewhat different from telling the truth, being transparent means telling the truth in incredibly subtle and internal ways. It’s having the courage to speak up and say, “No, I don’t think you got that quite right,” or, “I’m struggling with thoughts that you are judging me right now.”

It’s sharing your inner world with your therapist, especially as it relates to your therapist and your treatment. It may seem like you’ll hurt your therapist’s feelings, or that the information is not that important — but trust me, the “meat” of the process of therapy comes in these more intricate interactions where you allow yourself to be a fully authentic person.

Please note that these tips are offered under the assumption that you are working with a competent and compassionate therapist. Good therapists may sometimes point out problems or unhelpful patterns as a way to encourage healing and growth, but they know how to do so without judgment.

It is imperative that you feel safe with your therapist in terms of knowing that your therapist has your best interests at heart and will keep what you share confidential. If this is not the case, please consider speaking openly with your therapist about your concerns, or seeing if a different therapist may be a better fit for you.

Photo Credit: Shutterstock

Shining the Light on Sneaky Emotions, Part 3: I’m Not Upset, It’s Just a Stomachache

In my last posts, I’ve been sharing information about sneaky emotions as a way to help you shine the light on what’s really going on in your emotional life and increase your chances of feeling better.

We’ve discussed Anger as a Rowdy Ruse and Depression as the Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing. Today, I want to talk about psychosomatic symptoms. To recap, psychosomatic symptoms are physical symptoms that arise in response to an emotional trigger. The energy of the emotion is converted, so to speak, into headaches, stomach pains, diarrhea, or other physical ailments. The reason this happens is twofold.

First, our emotional and physical experiences are always tightly connected! We do not have a mind separate from our body. Our emotional wisdom literally courses throughout our nerves. We cry when we’re sad, clench when we’re angry, tense when we’re anxious, and have all felt the literal ache of a broken heart. More and more, researchers are learning about the wonders of the vagus nerve in your abdomen that is the biological explanation for the long held concept of the “gut instinct.” Embracing the fusion of emotion and body is essential, and this post is certainly not about trying to unnaturally separate them. 22059_100569169979883_1506761_n

“Denial Ain’t Just A River In Egypt”

However, another reason emotional energy gets converted into physical symptoms is because of denial of our emotional truths. Denial is a powerful defense mechanism that when used sparingly, can effectively help us cope with difficult life experiences. Consider the person who denies the extent of a terminal illness to the point of seeking profoundly helpful treatments versus the person who denies the extent of a terminal illness to the point of ignoring her/his need for basic medical care. Some denial is helpful, and all denial is human. But when we can’t accept our emotional truths to the point of repeated psychosomatic symptoms, the level of denial can be deeply ineffective, not to mention literally painful.

If you are someone who struggles with chronic pain, such as headaches or gastrointestinal issues, and a doctor has confirmed that your pain does not have a physical cause, you may consider addressing it through an emotional route. I am not suggesting to dismiss your physical symptoms! Your pain is real and deserves your attention. I’m also not suggesting that your pain is “all in your head.” As I established earlier, there’s no such thing as a complete separation of mind and body. What I am saying is that in addition to engaging in appropriate medical care, you may also consider some deep soul-searching about other causes in the emotional realm, such as disowned anxiety, anger, or sadness.

Popping medicine, or worse, avoiding the activities of your life in some way due to chronic psychosomatic pain without also addressing the underlying emotional causes is much like slapping a Band-Aid on a festering wound: your pain will only get worse. Logically, we can see how this happens. If you’re anxious, say, by social interaction or job performance issues, and begin downing Mylanta and avoiding those situations as much as possible convincing yourself the whole time the real problem is this “bad stomach,” then your anxiety will worsen as you continue to avoid the situation, and your bad stomach will worsen as you continue to avoid your anxiety. On the other hand, if you can begin to connect the dots between your emotional and physical experiences, and then honor or heal those emotions, you will likely experience physical healing as well.

If this sounds like it could be you, take the followings steps:

  1. Admit to yourself that your physical problems may also be influenced by emotional distress
  2. Remind yourself that this is human, it’s not all in your head, and you are not weak or false for having this experience
  3. Confirm through a doctor that there aren’t medical issues causing your problems
  4. Through solitary self-reflection or with the assistance of a trusted friend or helping professional, begin looking at what emotion(s) may be stuck for you
  5. Allow yourself to honestly evaluate your dissatisfactions and insecurities
  6. Validate your emotional experience and if needed, seek validation from others as well
  7. Begin to look at ways to alleviate your distress, and accept help if needed: Do you need to learn specific coping skills? Face a fear? Confront an aggressor? Set better limits? Grieve a loss or old wound? Take steps toward your values and dreams?
  8. Give yourself time to heal, and trust in the wisdom of your mind and body to guide you in this work

Remember to be gentle with yourself as you embark on emotional discoveries and change. Harshly criticizing your experience is just as damaging as the original denial. With a curious and compassionate heart, allow your emotional truths to unfurl. With time you will blossom into all heights of healing.

IMG_2274
All content owned by Amanda Bowers. This post is dedicated in memory of her beloved dog, Ruby.

Getting Back on the Horse

I’ve been through my fair share of troubles. There was a span of time in my early thirties where I experienced many tremendous losses in quick succession. When I say I spent months hibernating except for work, I wouldn’t be exaggerating. Being asleep where I could either not feel my pain, or could reconnect with a better life through dreamland was far preferable to facing the reality that I had to rebuild my life. And yet I did wake up and slowly but surely rebuilt it. I don’t assume that my personal journey of healing is the one and only way to get back on the horse. I also know sometimes we get knocked down in smaller ways that still feel deeply impacting and strangle us from moving forward. From a personal and professional place, I’ll share some ideas about how to get your feet back under you.

Honor the Pain

In mindfulness there is the concept of neither ignoring nor clinging to thoughts, emotions, or experiences. You let them come and go as ripples in the water of your life. Sometimes this is a really difficult thing to do. You either want to completely push down your upset feelings, or you wallow in them, soaking in the tub of despair until your fingers get pruney. In the most mindful way you can muster, it is imperative to honor your pain. This may mean powerful crying jags, brutally honest journaling, speaking your truth to others, delving into artistic expression, or even allowing time alone to just sit with the sadness or anxiety or anger of your situation and notice it rise and fall again and again. It’s ok to feel bad. Allowing yourself to feel it is the only way to heal it.

Enlist Support

Whether it’s in gaining a wiser perspective of your situation, or in simply having someone to acknowledge your pain with you – enlisting support is essential. Support comes in many forms: friends, family, professionals. Choose carefully! Don’t expect that well intended but emotionally stunted sibling or friend to suddenly know how to validate and encourage you. Instead, seek the guidance of those you know to be supportive, or even from professionals, such as therapists, life coaches, or other healing artists. Allow those offering their support to do so. Accepting a dinner date with your best friend may be tremendously soothing to your bruised ego or aching soul, even if it won’t “fix” it.

Nurture Your Body and Soul

This seems obvious, but it’s often during our most difficult times that we forget the basics, such as sleep, nutritious food, moving our bodies, and engaging in spiritual practice. These basics are essential to your recovery and to making the wisest decisions about how to proceed. I’m not suggesting that you put pressure on yourself to dramatically change your diet or exercise routine in a moment of high stress – but do at least eat, clear your head on a walk around the block, and read an inspiring poem or trusted scripture. Allow yourself to be grateful for the smallest things, knowing that gratitude is not a way to discount your pain – you can hold both in your heart at the same time.

Begin Re-imagining Your Life

When you’ve had a bit of recovery time under your belt, get real about who you are and where you want to be headed. If you’re not sure about your goals and are feeling rather directionless, then check in with personal values, passions, and curiosities. Do you value community? Then begin considering ways to be helpful to others, maybe volunteer work or a change in careers. Are you passionate about decorating and crafts? Then maybe it’s time to figure out new or bigger projects to inspire you. Keep to the promises you’ve made to yourself to be healthier, more authentic, and more engaged with life. Don’t get bogged down imagining a life that can’t be (such as with someone who has broken up with you). But DO allow yourself to dream big – there’s no telling the brilliant, beautiful life you can create!

Start with Teeny Weeny Baby Steps

We’ve all heard the famous Lao-tzu quote, “A journey of thousand miles begins with a single step.” It’s true! But don’t worry so much about the miles, just take a step. A teeny weeny one. I can’t emphasize the teeny weeny enough. Whether you have a detailed life plan, or just a glimmer of something that could provide you hope, start moving in that direction. Be both structured and spontaneous. Don’t get too caught up in all the planning. This step is mostly about ACTION. Pick at least one thing to do differently, and then DO it … just one tiny little bit at a time.

I promise no matter what curve balls life has thrown you, the heartache and bitterness can fade into gratitude and vitality again, or you may even feel those things for the first time because of the important lessons you’ve learned.

IMG_0617All content owned by Amanda Bowers.

Gratitude: The Cure for What Ails You

I come to the page this morning to share something that’s been on my heart and mind, a practice that is my no. 1 go-to for moments of frustration, anxiety, inertia, and even hopelessness. Even when mindfulness seems like too much energy to muster and I am stuck in a place where my mind refuses to grant me a moment’s peace, I can always count on gratitude to help me take that next step forward in a healthy direction.

I practice Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) with kids and teens, teaching the skills of mindfulness and coping on a near-daily basis to those whose brains can barely grasp much less practice the concepts, and to those whose hearts and minds have been harmed in ways unfathomable. Yet I keep teaching it, because at the heart of this behavioral treatment, there is a depth of wisdom, a philosophy even, that can powerfully change lives. One aspect of this treatment is the ability to hold two seemingly opposing concepts at the same time – “I am doing the best I can and I can do better.” As well as shifting perspective, back and forth between the forest (life goals) and trees (mindfulness). Gratitude is an excellent way to quickly shift perspective. In the midst of feeling there’s too much of this and not enough of that, you stop and recognize what already is and how absolutely perfect the present moment can be.IMG_1785

For some, taking a moment to reflect on gratitude may come quite easy. You stop and think, “My family, my job, my health.” For others, perhaps those in great pain and loneliness, it may be more difficult. Yet I am here to tell you that one doesn’t have to search far to find something or someone to be grateful for. Even with my most pained clients, all it takes is some gentle nudging to get them on their feet and smelling the roses of gratitude. It doesn’t cure a problem. It is not an ever-lasting happiness pill to pop. But in that moment, it can give you the oomph you need to take the next step toward your healthy life.

I invite you to take a few moments right now and consider at least 10 things you are grateful for in this present moment. Things that do not need to come to fruition in order for you to be grateful, but what you are grateful for right now. If you’re having a difficult time getting started, start with the basics: you have met enough of your basic needs to be here right now (food, shelter), you can read, you at least have the desire to desire more for yourself (you want to want, which is a start). As you gain in ability to open your heart in this way, consider even more specific and “simpler” things: the exact gift of the bird song outside your morning window, the freedom of feeling the earth beneath your bare feet, sipping your favorite tea from your favorite mug, and as I always say, the sweet summer perfection of strawberry rhubarb pie.

My 10 Things

1. getting to sleep late right in the middle of the bed, surrounded by pillows and the dabbling of morning light
2. looking back and seeing how I always get back on the horse, no matter how hopeless that may have seemed at times
3. fresh berries – blue, black, rasp, or straw
4. in the midst of summer, everything is gorgeous green – and the flowers!
5. these clothes that cover me, often softly
6. these feet that take me where I ask, usually without complaint
7. the Internet – seriously. So much knowledge, so many connections right at my fingertips
8. just how often I remember my dreams, the glimpses into my deeper struggles and knowing
9. human touch on a daily basis, hugs are profound
10. the cardinals, blue jays, squirrels and chipmunks who make it worth being outside despite the mosquitoes

IMG_1794

All content owned by Amanda Bowers.

3 Steps to Mindful Living

Meditation. Zen. Mindfulness. These are now words of mainstream 21st century consciousness. Yet many don’t really know what they mean, or more importantly, how to use these concepts to enrich their lives. Some people envision monks meditating in monasteries at the tops of foreign mountains, others think of yoga practitioners twisting themselves into ever complex poses, and yet others may think of a blank slate heart where perpetual serenity whitewashes emotions off the canvas of life. In truth, all of these ideas are true. And yet they don’t have to be your truth. It is entirely possible to enjoy a more mindful life without devoting hours in meditation or yoga, and while still enjoying the stirrings of passion, hope, and what this Southern girl likes to call sweet sassy molasssy spunk.

So what is mindfulness? I’ll be the first to admit I am in no way an expert on the definition or practice of this art. The more I read about mindfulness, and the more I talk to people who value a mindful lifestyle, the more I realize that mindfulness is a subjective concept and practice. For me (and for others who share this mindset), mindfulness is more about living than reflecting. It’s more about being in the present moment than remembering that ugly altercation with a co-worker, running your to-do list over and over, and looking forward to dinner with your partner such that you don’t notice the lunch you’re eating now. (And we all know that dinner can then be filled with looking forward to dessert, to sex, to sleep … fill in the blank.) Mindfulness is a way of life that helps you slow down, enjoy the present, experience more novelty, and enhance your connection with yourself, those precious to you, and the world around you in all its beauty and strife.

So how can one become more mindful without signing on for hours of additional “work”? The easy and difficult task of it, is simply this:

1) Attention: We live in a world where our concentration is pulled in more and more directions at once. We can be bathing a child, planning tomorrow’s staff meeting, and casually glancing at work emails to which we feel we must reply as soon as possible all at the same time. We can be eating dinner, watching T.V., and remembering yesterday’s sorrows all at the same time. Mindfulness asks us for our full attention. Something we’ve probably not mustered to that extent since grade school when learning multiplication or creating a splendid holiday craft were all our minds could hold at any one time. Children and animals are exemplary models of mindfulness, yet as adults we have the ability to sustain our attention, and experience meaning from that attention in ways that a child never could. When mindful, we are in the present moment. That is all. You can be in the present moment listening to Prince, or eating a gourmet hamburger, or marveling at the exact curves and taste of your lover’s lips. You can be mindful when you’re driving to work or responding to emails or cooking dinner. Ask yourself to slow down and focus on this moment and this moment alone. Ask yourself, “How can I give this moment my full attention?”

2) Awareness: Now that you’ve slowed down enough to even realize what you’re doing or how you’re being in the moment, allow your awareness to blossom. Not sure how to do this? You can start by paying attention to your 5 senses: What do I touch, taste, hear, smell, see right now? What is this person really trying to communicate to me? What am I really trying to communicate to this person? How does my child’s hair smell right now, and now after I’ve bathed her? How many different colors are in this flower? How many different tastes in this strawberry rhubarb pie? How can I experience this moment instead of going through the motions of this moment? How is it different from all the other moments, even from other similar moments? This doesn’t mean you must get lost in all the intricacies of the particular: the early morning splash of light, the sound of an ambulance passing by, the photocopier oozing ozone into the air. But it does mean that as you remain in touch with your task, you recognize what you are doing as you are doing it, and what the world is offering back.

3) Participation: You’ve slowed down, you’ve noticed the moment, now release yourself to be in that moment. We all have our daily agendas. And agendas themselves are not to be discouraged. Yet getting from point “A” to “B,” or marking this and that off your to-do list does not mean you have to be mindless along the way. You can dance when your favorite song comes on the radio. You can compliment a co-worker’s new hair cut. You can savor the sweet sunshine you taste in your orange juice. You can notice your feelings and neither avoid or cling to them. You can merge into the moment – energetically – such that you experience flow. A flow from this to that to this. Nothing is ever the same. Each moment is always only what is. And when you’re really looking, what is, is so so much.

(Ideas about mindfulness influenced by Marsha Linehan’s Dialectical Behavior Therapy, a type of psychotherapy practice.)

IMG_0663
“I have lived with many Zen masters – all of them cats.” ~Eckhart Tolle

All content owned by Amanda Bowers.