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.

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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!

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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.

 

Phone-Life Balance: Using Mindfulness to Reconnect with Your Real Self and Your Real Life

I am honored to share a blog post I wrote for my friend and colleague Gordon Shippey’s blog: Phone-Life Balance: Using Mindfulness to Reconnect with Your Real Self and Your Real Life (also below). Gordon is a Licensed Professional Counselor in Atlanta, GA who specializes in mental health issues surrounding the Internet and our increasingly technological world, including issues such as Internet addiction, compulsive gaming, and addiction to online pornography. Please check out his website and blog for further information about prioritizing mental health in the technology age!

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We all know it’s true, that nagging voice inside is noticing more and more: We’ve become addicted to our smart phones. First thing in the morning (even before coffee!), last thing before turning out our bedside light, waiting at traffic lights or for tables at restaurants, and even during lulls in conversation with our friends and family, we light up our phones and check Facebook, Instagram, texts, email, news and other apps. For some it goes so far as answering calls during sex, or texting while driving – a fatal hazard! We hardly have time to enjoy a beautiful moment before we’re posing and taking pictures of it to post on our media pages. Our experiences are being hijacked by the cataloging of them, and all to supposedly help us feel more connected, maybe even more alive … but is it working?

Now that social media and the smart phones that put it constantly at our fingertips have been standard items for many years, the research is rolling in on how much better off we really are from these powerful inventions. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it doesn’t look good. According to a study at the University of Derby, the average smart phone user spends 3.6 hours on their device a day, with 13% of research participants showing full addiction behaviors. And it’s coming with a toll of less connectedness and increased depression.

11846633_1012552652112111_4359517682162020442_nI’m all for smart phones and social media! I love that I get to know the little goings on in my friends’ and family’s lives, and even “watch” their children grow up despite the sometimes thousands of miles between us. I love that I can quickly search for the nearest taco stand from anywhere that I am. I love that I can follow up on email or pay bills while waiting at the doctor’s office.

But what is the price for these conveniences? And what can one do about balancing the scale between help and harm? Borrowing from the ever-wise world of mindfulness, you may find that disconnecting from your phone for even brief periods of time brings great riches to the present moment you are actually living.

Instead of reaching for your phone first thing in the morning, try:

  • Doing a body scan and noticing where you need to stretch or which parts may need your special attention
  • Checking in with roommates, romantic partners, or children and asking them about their pending day

Instead of reaching for your phone last thing at night, try:

  • Engaging in progressive muscle relaxation where you tense and release the different muscles in your body
  • Checking in with yourself or your partner to share the “best” and “worst” of the day

Instead of reaching for your phone at a traffic light or while waiting in line, try:

  • Taking at least 3 deep, comfortable breaths
  • Really noticing the people and landscapes around you – the unique in the mundane, the little things you’ve passed a thousand times but never really seen

Instead of reaching for your phone while on your lunch break or eating meals alone, try:

  • Using your 5 sense to fully experience your food – what does it smell like, look like in full spectrum of color, feel like against your fingers and tongue, etc.?
  • Giving gratitude for the sun, water, minerals, plants and people who helped make it possible to eat your meal

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Instead of reaching for your phone while with people, try:

  • Listening with deep intent to what others are saying, or if they’re not talking, asking them questions and giving them time and space to fully answer
  • Sharing what’s on your mind – either your troubles or your joys – people won’t think you a complainer or a braggart – they do want to know who you really are!

If possible, push yourself to carve out moments of your day or week where you turn your phone off or at least leave it on vibrate in the other room. Delete apps that you notice are sucking up too much of your time. (I personally did this with much success in terms of improved productivity and time for, gasp, reading actual books!)

Remember, our phones may be really good at lighting up areas of our brain that our brain then interprets as a reward. They may be really good at distracting us from our boredom or anxiety. They may be really good at directions home. But they can’t replace the people in our lives. And they certainly can’t live our lives for us. A perfectly posed picture can’t replace the experience of taking in a gorgeous mountain sunset or your dog greeting you with his merrily wagging tail. And a perfectly choreographed video can’t replace the actual experience of your first wedding dance, new husband or wife warm in your arms.

When we’re plugged into our phones, we miss out on so much. We miss out on our beautifully unscripted and un-catalogued lives. These spontaneous moments are the treasures we all look back on with love and joy. Nothing could be more important.

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 owned by Amanda Carver.

“Inside Out”: 5 Important Take Away Messages for Navigating the World of Emotion

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I first saw a preview for the Disney/Pixar film “Inside Out” at a therapist’s training, no doubt! Immediately excited by the concept of a film that attempts to explain the function of emotions, I couldn’t wait to get to the theater. Anticipation was high, and the film delivered! Not all the metaphors are precisely accurate from a purely neuropsychological frame, but for a family film, they did an excellent job. The creative team beautifully executed the personification of brain and personality function in the mind of 11-year-old girl, Riley, as she negotiates the major life change of moving to a new city far from home. From this narrative, the main characters of her emotions Joy, Sadness, Anger, Disgust, and Fear take the audience on a wildly informative and entertaining ride.

There are so many things I could say about this film, and have ad nauseam to my sweet patient husband! For today’s blog post, however, I’m going to keep it simple. Here are 5 important take-away messages from “Inside Out” to help you better navigate the world of emotion.

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  1. We have all our emotions for a reason, including “negative” emotions
    A major theme of “Inside Out” is the battle between the main characters, Riley’s emotions of Joy and Sadness. As Riley traverses the huge adjustment of moving across the country, time and again Sadness bellows out in complaint and Joy attempts to contain this truth. However, by the end of the film, it becomes clear that Sadness has a critical role to play in Riley’s processing of change and ultimate self-preservation. Without Sadness, necessary grief and healing connection aren’t possible. This is true for the necessity of all our emotions, including emotions beyond the scope of this film.
  2. Emotional experiences are often complex
    We often try to squeeze our emotions into neat definitions as a way to understand what is actually a very complex experience! “Inside Out” shows us that we can actually feel many emotions, even seemingly opposing emotions, at the exact same time. Riley learns she can be sad about missing her old life while also feeling happy that her parents are offering her comfort. Acknowledgement and synthesis of complex emotional experiences creates a rich and meaningful life.
  3. Emotions can influence our interpretations, memories, and personality traits
    Emotions protect us in many ways – joy helps us continue to engage in life-affirming behaviors, fear keeps us from threats of harm, sadness can draw important comfort to us, and on and on. But emotions are not unilateral facts. They do, however, have a powerful ability to color the facts of life to their hue. This happens not just in depressing times, but in healthy times, too, with a cascade of influence from how we interpret our world, to how we code and recode memory, and even to our personalities as they develop and change over time. It’s extremely important to honor the internal experience of our emotional truths while also appreciating the limits of emotion to fully ascertain external truth.
  4. Emotional validation is not only empowering, it’s essential
    In the film, Riley’s well-meaning parents ask her to show her happy face during the stressful time of the move. Unbeknownst to them, however, their lack of empathic attunement to her understandable fear and sadness made it much more difficult for her to process her loss and adjust to her new life. As children, we largely rely on others to validate our experiences and make them real for us. As adults, we can provide some validation for ourselves, but never cease to need others in this way. Showing up for ourselves and others to say, “What I’m/you’re feeling makes sense” is an essential part of integrating and healing from our experiences.
  5. Connection with others is how we heal and thrive
    Self-validation is a good start. Additional coping tools such as mindfulness, exercise, and creative expression (to name a few) are also incredibly helpful in creating an adaptive life that doesn’t veer off track at the least little bump in the road. But even with all of this, it is through connection with others that we experience our richest meaning and our deepest healing. Reaching out in a moment of anguish or need and having someone reach back is the exact medicine the moment calls for. As social creatures we simply do not know how to heal our wounds or build vital lives without authentic connection with others.

If you are confused about your emotional experiences, wonder if emotion has created unhelpful narratives about your life, or struggle with engaging in healing connection with others, a therapist may be helpful in guiding you to a more contented and meaningful life.

Amanda Carver, LMFT is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in Atlanta, GA. 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 owned by Amanda Carver.

Beyond “I Love You”: 3 Ways to Elevate Your Love Relationship

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“We loved with a love that was more than love.” ~Edgar Allan Poe

Early in a thriving relationship, we all savor those three little words from our romantic partners: I love you. Upon the realization of love, whether it be a slow crescendo or a clanging epiphany, we long to share our hearts with our partners and have such tenderness returned. “I love you” holds intense power in moving a romantic commitment into deeper, more intimate territory.

Over time “I love you” can lose not only its exuberance but also its meaning as it takes its place on the shelf of other common experiences in life. Or conversely, “I love you” may seem too common a phrase to fully communicate the depth of one’s feeling, connection, and commitment to another.

In her pioneering work with adult attachment theory and the development of Emotion Focused Therapy (EFT), Dr. Sue Johnson focuses on the necessary components of active and thriving attachment connections. Love and the communication of love is important, yes, but so to are additional behaviors that create security and maintain passion in a relationship over time. In her book “Hold me Tight” Dr. Johnson discusses the qualities of what she calls ARE relationships – that is, relationships where partners are Accessible, Responsive, and Engaged with each other.

Being accessible, responsive, and engaged are the hallmarks of secure attachment. When our partners by and large respond to us in this way, it tells us we are important and can count on them. It also keeps the spark alive, for it is within a trusting connection with another that we feel and risk intimacy and passion.

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“I carry your heart (I carry it in my heart)” ~e.e. cummings

Much like an infant who cries for a parent to hear the cry, respond to the cry, and soothe the cry, in couples we look to our romantic partners to show us they don’t just care through words, but are truly available in action. The child whose parents didn’t hear his cry or responded with hitting, ignoring, or shoving a bottle in his face without notice that it was actually a dirty diaper that needed changing may grow up to experience relational connections as unsafe. So, too, do we learn to feel unsafe with our partners when we have the sense that they don’t really see us, aren’t really there for us, and can’t be counted on to sit with us through life’s difficult storms.

In addition to “I love you,” meaningful ways to communicate deep care and commitment include:

  • “I’m here for you”
  • “What you’re saying/feeling makes sense to me”
  • “I believe in you”
  • “You are most important to me”

All words must be followed up by actions, in this case the actions of being deeply present:

  • Making yourself available in times of need, and making quality time with your partner a priority in the never-ending competition for your energy
  • Giving your partner your undivided attention while s/he shares of her/himself
  • Listening and validating your partner before jumping straight to “fixing” it or shifting topics
  • Offering big and small gestures of support for your partner’s dreams or through his/her fears, including affection
  • Showing up with your own vulnerability

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    “To love at all is to be vulnerable.” ~C.S. Lewis

If you want your partner to really know and feel what s/he means to you, “I love you” isn’t enough. If you want a relationship that anchors and inspires you each to be your best self, you will have to reach deeper inside and offer each other accessibility, responsiveness, and engagement.

Sometimes when we did not grow up with models of this type of relationship, when our current relationship is stagnant from conflict, betrayal or distance, or our inner child is still hurting from lack of attunement from when we were young, seeking the assistance of a couples therapist can be helpful. Consider finding an EFT therapist in your area who is specially trained in how to strengthen the attachment between romantic partners to create secure and lasting bonds.

Amanda Carver, LMFT is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in Atlanta, GA. 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.

Helping Couples Feel Love: Why I’m an EFT Therapist

Most agree that romantic love has a powerful way of defining our lives for better or worse. When things are going well with our partner, the rest of life often feels manageable because of the strength of that bond. But when our couple relationship is going south, the emotional toll from that lack of connection not only feels terrible, it has a way of falling like dominoes into other life domains. I have a special passion for helping individuals and couples create and enjoy lasting love and affection in their relationships. This passion led me to become a Marriage and Family Therapist, and from there has led me to become an Emotionally Focused Therapist. With all the different types of therapies out there to help people through relationship difficulties, how did I arrive at Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT)? Because I profoundly believe in the healing power of this treatment! Here are a few reasons why:

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It’s a mystery of human chemistry and I don’t understand it; some people, as far as their senses are concerned, just feel like home. ~Nick Hornby

1. People aren’t ill or broken, they’re stuck in painful patterns

Since the birth of psychotherapy, the lens with which we’ve viewed people has been intrapsychic and at times even pathologizing. Freud saw people’s motivations in terms of internal drives rather than interpersonal needs, and that concept has stuck over the course of generations. I’m not saying that mental illness isn’t very real – it is. But many aspects of behavior, especially in terms of relational behavior, are better understood from an attachment frame. We are social creatures with an innate need to form secure and lasting bonds. This need is so innate we fail to thrive without it, and many experiments in the research literature highlight the significance of our need for attachment as being as important as food or water. This begins with parent and child and continues with other important figures and our potential romantic partnering with another person. Thus, much of what happens with couples that isn’t working is based on attachment fears being activated and protests against emotional disconnection. If you look way beneath all the fighting, demanding, emotionality, and withdrawing, you find that these actions are not pathological or unfixable, they are our way of saying, Do you really see me? Are you really there for me? We aren’t broken for wanting this connection. We are hurting and afraid because we don’t have it or can’t trust it.

2. Couples communication needs authenticity, not rules

So much of traditional couples therapy and the general public’s concept of couples therapy is about communication skills. I’m all for good communication! But simply learning to speak and listen and compromise isn’t enough. Not only do many of these communication methods leave couples feeling stilted or awkward when they’re trying to discuss something as profound as matters of the heart, they also fly right out the window in more heated moments when those discussions have shifted into the realms of sex, money, family, or who forgot to start the dishwasher (warning: strong language, scene from comedy clip). In EFT, couples aren’t taught specific skills for communication. Instead they are guided to experience real vulnerability and attunement with each other in ways that feel authentic and meaningful. This type of bottom-up learning not only feels more relevant, it is profoundly lasting.

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What I want most, is to know what you hear in the silence between us. ~William C. Hannan

3. It works!

Dr. Sue Johnson began developing EFT in the 1980s because she realized something was missing in our understanding of couple’s pain, conflict, and healing. This was during a time when attachment was being more fully recognized as a relevant part of the human experience thanks to the pioneering work of John Bowlby. But most were still focused on the parent-child attachment and not thinking much about how attachment needs play out in adult relationships. Over 2 decades later, Dr. Johnson’s treatment approach has been proven to work by meeting the gold standard in research. Studies have shown time and again that it’s not only the attachment frame that’s important, but EFT’s way of accessing that frame that creates truly lasting change.

4. Secure attachments are transforming

When couples create secure attachments with each other, it does more than lead to deepening love and commitment. It can change each partner’s entire experience of themselves, each other, and the world. I know this because I’ve seen it in others and I’ve experienced it personally. Since being in a securely attached relationship, I’ve felt my entire self and life shift toward the more steady and the more alive – the “roots and wings” of Earth Meets Sky. When you have a partner as a secure base, you are able to go inside yourself and gently embrace all the beautiful and scary parts of who you are as well as approach the world with far greater curiosity and confidence. Old wounds diminish and any future feels possible because you know in your deepest heart that your partner will be by your side.

In short, I’m an EFT therapist because I hope to help others create and deepen this kind of transformational love. We all need it, and we all deserve it.

If your relationship is hurting from conflict, distance, or even deeper relational traumas such as infidelity, consider turning to the guidance of an EFT therapist. EFT therapists have a unique way of helping you heal in individual therapy as well. If you live in the Atlanta area, please feel free to contact me to see how I may be of assistance in helping you and/or your partner create and deepen the powerful bonds of love.

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Having your wounds kissed by someone who doesn’t see them as disasters in your soul but cracks to put their love into is the most calming thing in the world. ~Emery Allen

Amanda Carver, LMFT is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in Atlanta, GA. 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.

Navigating the Iceberg: Diving Deep to Re-Connect with Your Romantic Partner During Conflict

IMG_1567In working with couples and in navigating my own love life with all its heart swells and perils, I’ve found that conflicts between romantic partners are some of the most painful encounters we experience as adults. Hardly anything can derail our days or our lives more than being out of synch and in discord with our significant other.

Dr. Sue Johnson, the creator of Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT) wisely declares, “Conflict in romantic relationships is 90% protest at emotional disconnection.” Over the past 25 years, she’s pioneered EFT as an empirically backed method of assisting couples based on adult attachment theory – the theory that the attachment needs we are all born with do not go away just because we grow old enough to “take care of ourselves.” Rather, we continue to need emotional connection and responsiveness throughout our lives, primarily from our significant other.

When I work with couples, I’ve taken to calling it the “Iceberg of Disconnection” – the ability we have as couples to hyper-focus on the tip-top jutting out of the water and then continue bumping up against each other due to failure to note the fuller berg below. No blog post could possibly summarize the complexity of EFT or how to create deeply secure attachments. However, I will share my go-to approach based on EFT principles for how to dive below and potentially reconnect with your partner when the protests of disconnection arise. IMG_1569

  1. Stop the Conflict Long Enough to Consider Your Deeper Distress – How many times have you found your day unraveling due to conflict with your sig other about something “silly”? For instance, let’s take Claudia and Jeremy (*names and story fictionalized). Just the other night they got into a bitter argument about “Game of Thrones.” Now some might say that nothing could be more serious than if Daenerys Targaryen assumes the throne or not, but Claudia was far more interested in curling up in her partner’s arms for the night than hugging a cold pillow on the couch. The first step in reconnection is to take a step back and realize you’re not arguing about what you think you’re arguing about (at least not most of the time). Claudia was not angry that Jeremy was only minimally interested in GoT, and he was not distant because he believed she was over-invested. They could have argued all night about which stance toward the show was more “normal” and driven each other crazy. Instead, at some point (about the time she was huffing her pillow and blanket into the other room), she turned around and admitted, “I’m so sad right now.”
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  2. Name Your Protests for What They Are – Claudia was sad because she experienced Jeremy’s lack of interest in GoT as disconnection. That fantasy shows were a common way of connecting with her now deceased brother only added to the depth of her yearning not just for Jeremy’s physical presence but also his emotional presence during this TV event. When she was finally able to say, “I’m sad because I wanted to share this with you and it reminds me of my brother,” it totally changed the conversation. She was able to further explain, “When you put down people engrossed by a TV show it also puts down previous ways of connection that I’ve enjoyed.” Yes, she was angry. But she was also sad, feeling small in so many ways. Claudia needed to speak from her deeper truth in order to draw Jeremy into the connection she was so hungry for.
  3. Respond in Kind – When she got more real with him, Jeremy could have used it against her and continued with distant quips. But instead he allowed her vulnerability to draw out his own. He was able to admit, “When you become so absorbed in the show I feel left out because I just don’t enjoy it the way you do.” This further changed their conversation. From the depths of vulnerability the ice melts, and there’s safety to explore “softer” emotions like sadness, shame, fear, and yearning. There’s room to create connection. IMG_0286

Often when one member of a couple is nagging or yelling it is an attempt to say, “I feel your distance, please reconnect with me!” And when the other person is cold or withdrawn, it is a way of saying, “I am also upset about our disconnection and simply don’t know what to do.” The only way to move past your original disconnect is to be brave enough to name and share your deepest emotional truths with each other.

If you lack the language to speak about your truths or are uncertain about how to respond to your partner, please read Dr. Johnson’s book “Hold Me Tight” and consider the additional assistance of a couples therapist to help you create a deeply sustaining connection.

All content and images owned by Amanda Bowers.