This has been a long week–a long two weeks, actually. I edit financial news releases, and we’re in the second busiest quarter of the year. This means working overtime, which is physically exhausting, but more than that, it means hectic, frenetic days in which the phone never stops ringing, deadlines are tight, and the mood is tense. I’ve found myself feeling guilty when it’s time to take my lunch break and realizing that entire hours sometimes elapse between having the initial thought that I need to use the restroom and actually leaving my desk to take that 30 second walk.
In a way, I don’t mind all of this *too* much–the days are long, but they’re absorbing and go by quickly; there’s a certain stress in the air, but it’s shared among all the editors, and the basic comradery that I’ve come to appreciate in my co-workers remains. What has been a bit harder has actually been managing my expectations once I’m finally leaving the office. It feels as though I throw myself into the day’s work, all the while looking forward to going home at the end of the day to relax and decompress, but once I’m actually inhabiting those precious hours I’m not quite sure what to do with myself. After reading all day, picking up the novel I was so engrossed in a few weeks ago doesn’t have the same appeal; after a twelve-hour work day, the idea of taking a run feels out of the question. Watching a movie or mindless television show usually wins out, but once it’s over and I realize that it’s (already) time to go to bed so I can get up and do it all over again, I’m left feeling hollowed out, numb, and as though I’m renting a small space in my life to live in and too exhausted to enjoy it.
And in the midst of the physical and existential weariness, I do know that I am lucky: I don’t feel this way *most* of the time, and I have a good job in an economy where good jobs are not easy to come by. Looking around at the same tired passengers on my daily commute, I can see that what is a notably long day for me is the norm for many, and I think with shame that I’ve really no right to complain. Everyone is dealing with his own dissatisfactions in life, managing them as best she can.
From a Buddhist point of view, getting caught up in my own hardships is 99% of the suffering I’m experiencing, and it’s true that waking up to the shared burden with my fellow human beings does lighten the load. However, it strikes me as I’m writing that this realization that, if we stop there, we run the risk of slipping into an almost apathetic, pessimistic (in the philosophical sense) attitude of, well, I guess this is just how life is, which I’m not ready to accept. So I suppose my challenge this week is to use the shared dissatisfaction as point of departure rather than a conclusion.
We are all tired, all doing our best to avoid pain and experience joy. How can I use this knowledge to think beyond my own narrow circumstances, to take my own discomforts less seriously? But also, how can I think more deeply about this dissatisfaction that, when I look around, is clearly shared in one manifestation or other with everyone I encounter?
The other night I was streaming an episode of the show American Odyssey when an intimate scene between two characters struck me in such a lovely way. For those of you who don’t know the show, it has a “network television series” feel to it and the main plot centers around a female soldier in the middle east who’s presumed dead but continues to survive. She discovered some secrets about the U.S. government over in the middle east and various U.S. officials want her dead. There are a lot of different characters in the movie who are directly involved with her and indirectly related to her situation back in the States. Several journalists in the U.S. are working to investigate her situation and story. One of the journalists becomes friendly with a woman and this leads to a romantic moment between the two of them. When they become intimate for the first time, she starts to move very fast and peel off her clothes. He stops her for a second and says, “Stay with me.” It was this moment that really spoke to me, but not because it was something new.
As a psychotherapist, a Buddhist and just another human being, I pay attention to my experiences throughout the day and naturally look for reminders of what’s truly important. One of the most important things, so I’ve found, is that staying with each other, when we’re with each other, truly adds a great deal of meaning to our lives. So often we’re caught in the trap of our own mind and by the habitual storylines that it gives us. We learn and are told how to “act” in certain situations and when a similar moment arises, the script in our mind starts to run. What’s sad about us becoming the script is that we are, indeed, faking our presence in the moment and totally out of touch with how we can connect with the other person. We’re not really connected with what’s going on in the moment because our mind is making so many assumptions about what’s happening, what things mean, who the person is in front of us, and all of this ruins the rawness and freshness of the moment. This happens in any and all of our interactions throughout the day, not just in intimate situations. The meat of life, the juicy parts that are so meaningful to us, can only be savored when we truly stay with each other. To do this, we need to have the courage to be vulnerable, open, raw, and true in how we are as things happen. Of course, this is easier said than done for a lot of people.
So many of us don’t know what these words truly mean and how it feels to embody them. I’m not here to tell you the “5 Steps to Perfect Vulnerability” because part of life is to figure this out as we venture into the world. Yet, I would like to say that in my near 30 years of studying our human psychology and relationships, staying with each other and truly being with each other is vital to our individual and collective contentment, health and happiness. Sure, people come and go so they may not stay, but we should try to stay with each other when we’re with each other. Nearly all of us fantasize about this and deeply desire this type of connection. However, many of us often get in the way of making it happen. So many of our relationships and friendships start with this desire for deeper connection, but then they fade away as the scripts, insecurities and habits kick in. I hope, for all of you, that you can come to understand and experience what it’s like to stay with you, to stay with me, and to stay with all of us whenever we’re together. If you already know, very intimately, what I’m talking about then please continue to inspire others through genuine connections. As always and with an honest and open heart, I wish each of you well.
Every year around this time spring creeps up on me and takes me by surprise: I’m going along, living day-to-day, probably a bit caught up in the grind of work, and have basically accepted the winter chill as an immovable fact of life as I know it…when one day, I wake up and find myself opening windows, digging in my closet for tee-shirts, buying sunglasses to replace the ones I’ve long since lost from last year, and marveling at the inexplicably good mood I’m in for no reason whatsoever.
As children, school vacations mark transitions between seasons and give us built in fresh starts, but for most of us, the adult world does not provide these little reminders, and it’s very possible for the months to simply pass in a blur. So, for me, the little nudge of warmth that enters the air, the first awareness of the lengthening of the days, the freedom from my heavy winter coat have become precious markers. The optimism and excitement that they breed is almost Pavlovian, such that before I can say to myself, “Laura, this happens every year–you always feels this way when spring first arrives,” I’m humming to myself, finding renewed energy, feeling invigorated by fresh hope.
One of the things that first attracted me to the Shambhala Buddhist tradition as opposed to other lineages was the “not too tight, not too loose” approach. I remember one of my first teachers pointing me to Chögyam Trungpa’s discussion of the beauty of “fresh start” as a way to to help me emerge from the exhausting, well-worn cycles of over-thinking to which I am prone. Sometimes, even with one’s meditation practice, you need to shift your awareness from the object of your focus to drink in the sensory world, gain some perspective, and remind yourself of the aliveness of the present moment. It can be transformative…when I remember to do it.
That’s the magic of spring, though: the change that comes over me around this time every year comes whether I remember it’s coming or not. I suddeny feel as though I am airing out the stale patterns of thinking I’ve slipped into without even realizing it, as though I’m rediscovering what it means to be alive. That the same thing can happen and feel very different each time reminds me that this actually true of all things, all days, all moments. Too often I stop myself from delving into the mystery of my existence by picking up on familiar threads of feeling, scanning my memory for when I’ve felt similarly, and then labeling it as an already known quantity–“Oh, this happened last time I did…”
But this has never happened before. I have no idea what the next moment will feel like. And if I can stay with the moment I’m in, investigate it, I’ll get a breath of fresh air, even in the middle of winter.
For those of you contemplating dropping carbs and processed foods to give the Ketogenic Diet a crack, I thought I’d offer my experiences. To give you a back drop, I’ve been on a few different diets through the years. Generally, my goal has been to try out a new way of eating to see if it helped me lose weight and if it was something that I could adopt as a lifestyle. In fact, adopting it as a lifestyle was my biggest hope. I’ve tried Atkins, South Beach, the 6-Day Body Make Over, and now the Ketogenic Diet. Atkins and the 6-Day Body Make Over were initially used to quickly drop weight, but I wanted to see if the core principles could be combined with other diets. This is the longest stretch that I’ve ever gone with one of these diets, and I’m starting to think about how and when I might move toward a diet that includes carbs.
Ketogenic Diet Basics
Fat…this is your main source of energy. Protein is next, and then carbs. The goal is to to keep the total number of net carbs (carbs that are not fiber or sugar-alcohols) no more than 20-30 grams a day. This way your body burns through all of its sugar stores. Your sugar stores consist of blood sugar and glycogen stores (often in water weight). Once your body has burned through these, it switches gears. This is when your liver starts converting fat (consumed fat and body fat) into energy. Thus, it produces ketones that your body uses for energy (ketosis). However, because your brain needs a tiny bit of glucose each day, your body will convert a small amount of protein (your muscle or protein you consume) into a replacement carb. Regardless, it’s much easier to lose fat on this diet because you’re constantly burning fat. If you keep your caloric intake slightly below your daily allowance, losing weight is pretty easy and consistent. At first, your weight loss is water loss, but after a week of 20g of carbs or less a day, you should be in ketosis and the fat starts to get used.
Learning to Eat Differently
It wasn’t too bad in the beginning because I was very motivated, but I had to watch everything I ate like a hawk because I wasn’t used to eating in this limited way. Most diets involve a great deal of carbs so it can be a bit tough, but doable. As time went on, it became easier because everything became a habit. Sure, there were tendencies to go toward carbs, but my high motivation made it easier to stay away. If your motivation is lower, it’ll be tougher. After a while, I quickly knew what I need to stay away from or limit. As with any diet that is contrary to the mainstream diet, it requires us to cook a lot for ourselves, and that’s what I’ve needed to do. To make it easier on myself, I focused on how to cook on the weekend and use left overs for much of the week (dinners and lunches). Fatty meats, cheeses, oils, butter, cream in my coffee, and lots of carefully chosen veggies are typically found in my meals. However, if you’re not a meat eater, this diet may pose some additional challenges for you. If you’re vegan, well, I have a hard time seeing this diet working for you. Regardless, it is possible to adjust to, but you’ll need to cook.
Feeling Hungry is Different
When I get hungry…I’m just hungry. There isn’t a madness the comes up in me where I have to get food. And when I’ve become really hungry and eat, I don’t eat much more than I normally would. I used to go overboard when I ate carbs, but I don’t now. Also, it seems to take a little bit longer before my hunger goes away. My guess (this is totally a guess) is that it takes my body longer to process what I’m eating. Therefore, I’m thinking that there might be a delay between eating and the nutrients getting into my system. So, the hunger can linger a bit but it does go down quickly. Also, my emotional eating has really gone way down, which is awesome.
Emotional Eating and Our Brain
When we eat, especially higher carb meals, our brain gets much higher doses of dopamine and serotonin. Both of these neurotransmitters are “feel good” chemicals. I think the real reason that Americans are so overweight is because our mental health is poorer. Anxiety, depression, and too much stress bring our “feel good” chemicals down. As a result, food becomes a natural anti-depressant…but then we feel depressed again as we gain weight. This is a very sick cycle and one to be cautious of. Now, I’m definitely an emotional eater and so I’ve been known to binge, which I’ve loved and hated, but with this diet I have never binged. I have emotionally eaten a little, but I don’t get the same neurological benefit (increases in serotonin and dopamine) as I used to. Consequently, eating doesn’t reinforce feeling better. Instead, eating is to eat, and then I’m done. I really love this diet for this reason because I was really tired of the intense ups and downs.
Lots of Veggies and Keeping Regular
One thing that I love about this diet is that I am forced to eat a lot more veggies. It’s pretty awesome. Roasted Brussels sprouts with bacon, broccoli with some cheese, creamed spinach, etc. There’s so much you can do. Now, some veggies are higher in carbs, and this is where people who take this diet on have to watch their consumption and choices. Especially if your focus is to drop weight. And sadly, when you’re trying to keep the carbs super low, fruits are really an option, unless you have….maybe….one bite. But I tell ya, you can make stir-fries like crazy. What’s more, veggies help you stay super regular and this will help things move through your system and make you feel thinner. Some people have complained that this kind of diet isn’t good for your digestive tract, but I’m not so sure this is true. Mine feels great.
Better Energy and Water
When I was eating any and all carbs, my hunger would frequently spike and sugar cravings were intense and frequent (I can be a bit of an emotional eater, so that never helped). However, when I cut out sugars and ate only brown rice and quinoa, the spikes of hunger and cravings were less, but kinda still there. After a couple of weeks on this diet, my cravings totally tanked and my energy became level and enjoyable. I don’t have severe dips in my energy and I don’t need my afternoon caffeine to help me deal with my post-lunch hangover. Now I don’t feel supercharged, but my energy is very steady. When I exercise (which need to happen more frequently), it’s a little bit of an adjustment. However, I can’t give you a full report because I have yet to get to the gym on a regular basis and exercise like I used to. But if you do a search, I’m sure you’ll find others who report their experiences.
Also, my water intake is awesome and you need to keep the water flowing. This helps keep your energy higher, your blood cleansed so the ketones don’t build up too high (if you have extra ketones that are being used for energy), and as with any diet, water will help digestion. I’ve found that I can consume about 50-70 ounces a day and I’m good. I’ve consumed less, but don’t feel as good. I’ve consumed more and don’t feel any different compared to my 50-70 ounce average. Now, this doesn’t count the water that I get from my veggies or the coffee that I have in the morning.
Calories Still Count…They Always Do
Some people have been under the impression that this sort of diet gives us permission to be gluttons, but this is not the case. Calories still count and if you over eat, you’ll gain weight, but it’s a little harder. Too much protein will especially screw you up because the body will convert excess protein into a sugar and then use that for energy while storing (aka, gaining) fat. So be aware of your caloric intake and remember that the more weight you lose, the less your daily intake will be. If you exercise, then you can burn off a bit more and give yourself a little more leeway with your portions.
How Fast Do you Lose Weight?
I started this diet December 1 2015 and I was at 216 lbs (I’m 6′ tall by the way). Within the first month, I went down to 210. Over the course of the next four months, I lost 15 more pounds and am now at 195. My ultimate goal is to reach 180. I’m sure that I could have lost this weight quicker, but I was purposefully trying to make this a lifestyle change and as a result, I haven’t restricted my eating or caloric intake too much. I eat what I eat and when I’m hungry. So the weight loss has been gradually and there have been times when I’ve stalled with weight loss. There are a lot of different factors that go into losing weight so there isn’t a way for me to tell you how quickly you’ll lose it. Obviously, if you’re exercising the weight loss will go quicker. But if you haven’t been working out, you may see your weight loss stall because you’re gaining muscle while losing fat, and muscle is heavier than fat. If you’re in this situation, it’s better to go by how your clothes fit rather than what the scale says. However, I would recommend getting a scale that does a full body scan. This way you can see your fat and muscle percentages change. I’ve purposely not worked out because I wanted to see how my weight would change without gaining muscle. Now that I’m 5 months in, it’s time for me to start working out again…and this will help me reach my goal quicker.
Eat Earlier in the Day
One thing that I’ve found that really helps me drop weight again after stalling a bit is to make sure that I eat my last meal as early as I can. I generally wake up at 5:30am and am hope around 4:30 pm. I’ve made it a point to eat right when I get home so I have a solid 12 hours before consuming anything of consequence. When I’ve done this, it helps my body burn more fat because it has a longer period of time without food. If you try this, you’ll see a noticeable different in how slim you are the next day. This is because things have moved through your body and then it starts to chip away at your fat stores. When I wake up, I get some calories from cream in my coffee but I don’t have my morning snack until 7:45am. This means that my body has gone 12-14 hours without food. But what’s awesome is that I’m still not crazy hungry. Of course, I miss eating with my fiancee, but sometimes I’ll snack with her when she has dinner at 8pm. I don’t eat anything too big, mostly low calorie veggies. And having veggies so often, especially things like broccoli, helps the food move through. This also leads to us feeling thinner because we don’t have 2 days worth of food hanging out in our intestines.
Is the Keto Diet Hard on Your Liver?
First off, I haven’t conducted research or combed through various articles, so know that my thoughts are speculative, but I believe informed. When we’re eating processed carbs and sugars, our pancreas gets hammered because it has to produce so much insulin. At the extremes and over many years of abuse, diabetes sets in. With ketosis, our liver is doing all of the work. So, might the liver get a bit overwhelmed? Sure, it might but I’m not sure. If we approach this logically, then my guess is that it would after a while because it’s doing all of the work to process fat. The Keto Diet is the extreme opposite of a high carb diet. The ideal diet, which is my long-term goal, is to eat some carbs but to refrain from processed carbs (pasta, breads, etc.) and stick with brown rice, beans, and quinoa like carbs. I think this is the ideal balance and probably the healthiest for our bodies. Additionally, portions always need to remain balanced. Too much of anything taxes our system and will surely lead to problems over time.
What About Alcohol?
I love wine, beer, creative cocktails, and liquor. The variety of flavors and experiences in all of these are awesome. However, if you’re going on the Keto Diet or plan to stick with it as a lifestyle, you have to make some pretty big adjustments. With wine, beer and cocktails, you’ll get sugar and this isn’t good. However, if you drink straight liquor (I’m a bourbon and rye whiskey kinda guy), you’ll fair much better. However, ketosis will be interrupted as your body and your liver process the alcohol. And alcohol does get used as energy first when you consume it. If you haven’t eaten recently and you go for a drink, your buzz will be stronger but your body will burn through it quicker. So, there are pros and cons to this. Just know that ketosis will be paused until the alcohol is gone.
Headaches and Including Carbs Again
Last but not least we need to talk about headaches. A few months into this I made a batch of cream cheese frosting for a coworker and as an avid cook, I try what I make to ensure that it’s good enough. I debated on what to do here…and I ended up deciding to take a small spoonful to taste the frosting. Wow was that a mistake. Within five minutes I experienced the worst headache in my life. My head was pounding like mad and my whole body felt completely off. So not only was I in pain, but I felt slightly lightheaded. What was really cool about this experience was that it helped me change my relationship to sugar. Before this, sugar and fat together was the most delicious thing ever. Now, it meant pain. Talk about reducing your desire for sweets! I also did a little test about a month ago where I tried some carbs, just to see how it felt. I had a few falafels while at work and felt a little light-headed within an hour. It wasn’t that bad but I did feel different. To be clear, I’m not saying that this was a bad thing. My purpose in trying the falafel was to see how my body would react and if I could jump to something like that when I start to incorporate carbs again.
What This Taught Me…
… is that reincorporating carbs needs to be a slow, deliberate, and a well thought out process. Especially if I don’t want to return to having big cravings. In fact, I think it’s important for everyone to pay more attention to how their body feels when they consume certain foods. And I strongly recommend that you pay attention to how you feel, regardless of what diet you try. And as always, check in with your doctor to make sure you’re not in danger of having some major problems. Chances are they won’t like the Keto Diet, but it can’t hurt to check in with them and use their knowledge as a resource.
Every evening and every morning I pop open the lovely Apple News app and scan through the latest news. One of them talked about sugar and it’s addictive properties. While I’m going to post something on the Ketogenic diet, which I’ve been on for about 5 months now, I wanted to add to the talk of sugar. Yet, I’d also like to speak briefly about those of us who are overweight, stressed, anxious, and depressed.
First off, eating anything results in an increase in levels of serotonin and dopamine. These are commonly known as the feel good neurotransmitters (aka, chemicals) in the brain. However, when we eat sugary and fatty foods (see the picture for this post), these levels go up even more. As a result, we feel great and man do we enjoy eating this stuff! Now some articles have likened sugar addiction to that of cocaine…well, I’ve never tried cocaine so i don’t know about this. Also, I don’t know the research so I can’t make direct comparisons. However, I concede the point that sugar is hard to kick. But is it hard to kick only because of the physical process? I don’t believe so.
In the U.S., most of us are overloaded with life. We have kids, work, multiple jobs, expectations from parents, a tough home life, the negative effects of Facebook and social media, etc. Most people that I’ve met suffer from at least mild forms of stress, anxiety or depression. Just like alcoholics can be “functioning,” so can those of us with milder forms of stress, anxiety and depression. And in a country where the majority have less and less, it would make sense that most or many are struggling. It’s for these people that sugar comes to the rescue as a nice, albeit crappy, kind of antidepressant.
So we eat, and eat, and eat…and then our portions get larger and larger. But then we start gaining weight and now we feel worse about ourselves. So let’s eat some more. And what’s especially sad about this situation is that nearly all of the foods out there have highly refined carbohydrates (sugars, flours, pastas, etc.). The more refined the carbs, the better we feel while we’re eating and for a short period after. In my opinion, this is the cycle. We feel a little or a lot crappy, we grab some food, it feels great, we feel bad again or worse, we eat again…and so on. The cycle really needs to stop.
Now I’m not going to tell you that you should do what I’m doing. In fact, if you make any dietary change it should, ideally, be a thoughtful one that’s planned out and based on some scientific knowledge. For example, if you try the Ketogenic diet and consistently cheat with regular carbs like pasta, your health can seriously get bad. So, please be cautious. Yet, I would encourage you to drop refined carbs for one week…just one week, and see how you feel. For me, not having carbs has resulted in decreased hunger, better and more even energy, and even better focus. In fact, my experience has been so good that I’m not sure that I ever want to have a cupcake ever again. The ups and downs are worth it, I crave food much more when I eat sugars and refined carbs, and now that I haven’t had sugar in 5 months, I get seriously painful headaches if I have even a spoonful of frosting.
My hope is that you’ll consider a diet change and not because I’m saying it, but because you want something better for yourself. A week can’t hurt you. Just stick with brown rice, quinoa, veggies, meats, and healthy fats and see how you feel. You might be a bit surprised. Regardless of what you do, I wish you the best.
“We spend all our energy and waste our lives trying to re-create these zones of safety, which are always falling apart. That’s the essence of samsara – the cycle of suffering that comes from continuing to seek happiness in all the wrong places.” ~ Pema Chödrön,
Yesterday morning, I sipped my coffee and stared out the window, allowing my mind to wander as I eased myself into the day, It was one of those rare moments of pure appreciation: I was so grateful to have the leisure of sitting there, for the silence, for the warm mug I held in my hand. From there, my mind shifted gears to focus on the more concrete, overarching points of gratitude: work, partner, friends. It occurred to me that I just don’t have to work as hard to be happy these days, that I feel perhaps the most settled and contented that I ever have in my life up to this point. And then, in a matter of seconds after having this thought, I found myself experiencing a wave of anxiety, a little pocket of panic, that seemed to come out of nowhere.
This experience of sliding between immense gratitude and paralyzing fear is a familiar one for me. I’ve noticed it especially this past year as quite a few loose ends have come together after years of struggle. In fact, I think it would be fair to say that the better I feel about life in general, the more little spikes of anxiety pop up. And even though I know they are feelings/thoughts, as fleeting and impermanent as any other, it’s hard not to read into them, to wonder if these are somehow foreshadowing some heartbreaking upset of fortune, if some part of me knows that tragedy is just around the corner.
I’ve tried to dismiss these panics as a habitual pattern, a conditioning to worry born of so many years of uncertainty. I often attempt to distract myself with work or physical activity, inpatient for the feeling to pass and pressuring myself to get back to “normal.” And sometimes it works: I come back from a run and wonder at how I could have ever let myself get so caught up in a bit of dark fantasy. And as time has passed, I’ve noticed that the strength of these attacks has weakened as I’ve begun to trust the good things that have come my way a bit more, little by little.
But yesterday morning, the potency of the anxiety took me by surprise. I felt it rise up in me so quickly that it almost felt as though it was too late to cope with it in any of my usual ways. And so I had no choice but to let it come, to feel myself eroded by a fear so intense that it felt like I was experiencing a grief for enormous losses that had not yet occurred. However, something interesting happened: when I surrendered, allowed myself to experience the grief without marshalling all my energy towards ignoring it or denying it or calling it names, a much broader spectrum of experience opened up for me. It was like sipping a drink of amazing complexity: up front and right away I tasted the fear–that I don’t deserve such good things, that they’ll be wrenched away from me any moment, tensing up for unimaginable pain; yet as I stayed with it, no one stab of fear took over, and gradually this fear softened into a recognition of the sweetness of that which I was so desperate to lose; this sweetness flowered into an appreciation for the substance of these blessings, a richness so often cut off from my day-to-day, surface level acknowledgment. It was here that the fear of loss and the appreciation for what I have merged into a kind of infinitely deeper gratitude that somehow fostered a comprehension of beauty which not only accommodated fear and pain and sadness but was dependent on these experiences.
There, sitting quietly by the window, letting my mind wander to its darkest places, I discovered that there is a space in between dwelling on the fear of impermanence and shutting down all at the first hint of change. It is possible to acknowledge these fears as imaginings of very real inevitabilities and to also harness this knowledge to see something much more complicated and enriching. I realized that, much more than even the absolute worst-case scenario, what I’m most afraid of is that I might live my entire life tensing up in expectation of the very pain which is an essential ingredient to a rich, complex human experience. And that would be such a shame.
One common thing that I hear from some clients or potential clients is that they’re unsure whether therapy actually “works.” Sometimes the person wondering this is just skeptical. Other times, they’ve already decided that therapy won’t do anything to help them, their relationships, or their family situation. Other times, they’re skeptical but they remain open to the possibility that therapy could turn out to be useful. The most challenging situation is when the person believes that, “nothing works.” Though you might think that these three scenarios are basically the same thing, but they’re actually quite different. So today I’m going to explain why therapy does work and how certain conditions in a person’s life greatly influences the usefulness and success of therapy. But first, let’s identify and define what we mean when we use the word “therapy.”
Therapy isn’t a “Thing”
If you relate to the word therapy as though it’s a single thing, idea, or concept, this is mistaken. It makes sense that you would relate to the idea of therapy in this way, but therapy is a very complex and organic process that evolves differently for each client. Its foundation is based on two primary factors. The first is based on the therapist and the other is based on you, the client. The quality of the therapist, their training, their individual efforts to maintain a high level of proficiency (personally and professionally), and the therapy and theory that they utilize are huge factor in whether therapy is helpful or not. However, therapy can’t do anything for a client unless they’re willing to talk about anything and everything. Also, the client needs to be able to eventually identify which situations or aspects of their life that they would like to improve. Next, they need to be willing to make changes in how they’re approaching their life on a daily basis.
As you can see, the foundations of therapy are not just based a single thing. In fact, it’s dependent upon both people, not just the therapist. Furthermore, the therapeutic process is typically very different for each person and it can be experienced differently depending on a number of other factors. First, we all have different problems and personalities, so what’s done in a session with one person will be different compared to another. What’s more is that if the sessions consist of multiple people or is in different kinds of settings (such as inpatient therapy or group therapy, etc.), the approach what happens in therapy will take on a different form. And finally, therapy is often continued outside of sessions and this occurs when the client reflects upon what’s happened in therapy as they go about their daily lives. If the client is not willing to continue the work and reflect upon things outside of their sessions, then there they probably won’t see much change. However, when people make changes outside of therapy sessions, it’s not uncommon for the therapist to come up in their mind or even in conversations. Many clients have told me how I’ve come up at home or that they think of me at certain moments in their life. This happens for all clients and it means that therapy has become helpful and that the person is working. The fact that they’re actually thinking about things as they’re doing them is a great sign. Now, having considered all of these factors, we can now see just how silly it is to think of therapy as a simple thing. To make this mental shortcut is about as helpful as saying that having kids is just the process of giving birth and feeding them until they move out. All parents know that it’s so much more complicated!
“Just talking about stuff isn’t going to help anything.”
If you’ve thought this or said it, you’re right. That’s why therapy is about talking AND taking action. The therapist is there to support you as you decide what you’re going to change. These changes involve behaviors, how you make meaning of events or experiences, how you experience and communicate your emotions, how you relate to your thoughts and emotions, how you problem-solve, etc. The way that I work as a psychotherapist is that I support you as you determine how to move forward…or if you’ll move forward at all. I might have a suggestion or an idea, but I’m never going to tell you that you have to do something. It’s your call because it’s your life. If you decide to keep doing the same thing and experiencing the same outcomes, that’s up to you. And you won’t get any judgment from me. Why? Because your life is your life, and our therapeutic relationship consists of one or two hours of contact a week. We’re not in each other’s lives and after all, these sessions are only about you. They really have nothing to do with me or any other therapist. However, talking, openly and honestly is necessary.
Talking is needed because this is how we uncover the things that have been influencing you for years and it helps us determine how things have come to be this way in your life. We’re not raised or taught, for the most part, to be psychologically minded. Meaning, the dominant culture in the U.S. doesn’t emphasize enhancing our self-awareness in order to identify our patterns of thinking, feeling, and behaving, especially at very deep levels. Consequently, if you haven’t been in therapy or trained as a psychotherapist, there’s a 99.9% chance you’re not aware of everything. Even psychotherapists have to develop and maintain this higher level of self-awareness in order to be of any use to their clients. And higher degrees of self-awareness needs to be maintained, which means we have to do things to keep it higher. It’s not enough to do a few things to enhance it, it takes some level of effort to maintain it. Self-awareness, at a the deeper levels, requires consistent practice. So, if you’ve concluded that you know everything about yourself and how you are, then this is your first obstacle. If you continue to think this and enter therapy, then you’re not likely to benefit from therapy or change for the better until this defensive wall is weakened. And yes, it is a defensive wall. It’s okay that you have a wall up, you’re not a bad person for doing this, but it’s important to understand the purpose the wall serves. When you’re willing to explore it and willing to consider taking it down, then therapy has the potential to be of use to you.
“Therapy doesn’t (or won’t) work for me.”
It might not seem like therapy can help, but this is probably because you’re not truly willing to do anything different in yourself or in your life. And sometimes people will try something different, but if it doesn’t “fix” the problem right away, they give up immediately. Change takes time, so we have to stick with it for a while to really test out our solutions. Also, anyone can attend therapy sessions, for many weeks, and not see improvements in their life. In fact, I can go to the gym and sit my butt on the stationary bike, but if I sit there and read without moving my body, should I expect to get healthier, skinnier or more muscular? Of course not. Therapy works in the same way. If you’re a passive participant in therapy, not much will change. Sure, there are times when you just need to vent and complain about something, but if that’s all you’re doing then not much is going to happen. Also, if you’re not interested in gaining insight or identifying how you could change to make things better, things will continue as they have. However, if you’ve never been in therapy and you’re saying that it doesn’t work, well that’s a different situation altogether.
When someone claims that therapy won’t be able to do anything for them, it’s usually a sign of fear or past resentments. Somehow the person feels threatened by the fantasy of therapy. And I use the word fantasy because any time we’re speculating about an experience that we’ve never had, it’s a fantasy or a fiction. In fact, that’s all it can be. Regardless, this negative view might be the result of the person’s sensitivities. They may have been harshly criticized throughout their life and imagine that a therapy hour consists of them being told that they aren’t doing things right. This can be an uncomfortable or downright upsetting thought for some of us. It might reminds us, whether we’re aware of it or not, of some pretty intense memories. Or maybe the person has felt constantly criticized by their partner or spouse and don’t feel like being ganged up on in a session. These fears stop a lot of people from participating in therapy. My suggestion is to give it a try, to give change a serious try, and then you can see for yourself.
Some Positive Accounts from My Therapy Clients
So far, we’ve talked about the negative views that we might have about therapy and how various factors figure into its success or failure for clients. While these are important to remember, I’d like to end here by sharing a few stories about people who have really benefited from therapy. The first one is my story.
When I was young, life was pretty difficult, family life was intense and tumultuous, and I was experiencing a great deal of anxiety and depression. I entered therapy around the age of 10 and I continued for nearly 10 years. Honestly, therapy helped me stay afloat and the older I got, the more I got out of therapy. In the beginning, it was a safe place where I could talk about anything, say anything, and allow myself to feel what was really going on within me. This, by itself, helped me so much because I didn’t really have a relationship where I could express freely and feel deeply understood. As I got older and matured, I loved using therapy to gain more insight into myself, my life, and to figure out how the world worked. The fact that I was using therapy was huge and I came into each session wanting to work on things. As I gained more insight, I used therapy to help me figure out how I could change, and then I made those changes. I never thought that therapy would make it so that my life wouldn’t ever have any problems, but what I learned was how to deal with problems, obstacles, relationships, and emotions in a much healthier way. Today, I can honestly say that my life is much better off and contentment is something that I feel regularly.
A previous client that I worked with was middle-aged and had never been in therapy. She was going through some pretty intense changes in life and her world was upside down. She struggled over the course of a year with how to cope with all of the changes and she had to make some pretty big decisions. Yet, therapy was a place for her to speak freely, be challenged to make changes when she felt stuck, and to decide what she wanted for her future. Her other choice was to simply allow life happen to her, but she went another way. I learned several months after we stopped our sessions that she said that our time together was exactly what she needed, and that her life was so much better.
Another person that I worked with was having a lot of trouble in relationships, in herself, and with a career path that was rather stuck. What’s more is that she was very afraid of being vulnerable. Therefore, she had a very difficult time admitting to herself and others how she really felt, what she really thought, and how she lived. There was a lot of shame going on and she was of the belief that she didn’t deserve much of anything good in this life. Over the course of a year and a half, she pushed herself to disclose everything in our sessions. This enabled us to work with what was really going on for her. We would practice meditation together, and then we would come up with things that she could do to move herself in the right direction. Most importantly, we worked to change her relationship to her thoughts and her emotions. Instead of buying into them as though they were absolutely true, she came to learn where they had come from. We gently challenged them and she came to realize that these thoughts were no longer helpful to her. In fact, they held her back. In the end, she grew to know herself inside and out, how her past had influenced her most basic assumptions about the world, and she knew how to challenge them so that she could ultimately do what was best for her. The icing on the cake was that she found an amazing partner, and acquired a great new job.
What’s common in all of these stories is that the person made an effort to change and they were willing to explore what was really going on inside of them. They were willing to figure out what they wanted, identify what they needed to do, and then they went outside of their comfort zone to do those things. Sometimes it took them a bit to get there, but they eventually made changes. And these changes were in how they thought about themselves, how they related to their thoughts and emotions, and how they took action in their life to get things moving in a different direction. In my professional opinion, this is what’s needed for therapy to be effective. Ultimately, therapy is a massive resource that can propel you forward…but you have to be willing to do the moving, regardless of the pace. If you are willing, then change can happen quite quickly for you.
As always, drop me a note through my contact form if you’d like me to address a specific topic for you, and I wish all of you the best.
Yesterday a dear friend whom I know from graduate school visited from London. Even though I adore her and have been excited about this visit for months, there was part of me that was undeniably anxious as the time to meet up with her drew near. Some of the anxiety was purely logistics–finding her when she doesn’t have a working cell phone in the States, coordinating with the other people who came to town in order to see her, worrying over entertaining her.
But as I meditated first thing yesterday morning, the ticker tape looping through my brain was less to do with logistics and more to do with a discomfort in my own skin. It had been five years since I saw my friend last, seven since we were in school together, and when I look back on both of those periods of my life, it doesn’t take long to summon the visceral feelings of insecurities which occupied so much of my psyche–that I didn’t deserve my admission to our prestigious university (seven years ago), that I had not kept up with my peers in life achievements (five years ago). A lot has changed for me since then: I’ve gained stability in my career and the love of an amazing partner; I’ve learned to laugh at how seriously I took myself in graduate school; I have compassion for the inferiority complex born of floundering with a liberal arts background in a struggling economy. And yet…it was almost as though I was afraid that I would somehow lose all the ground I’d covered, be infected by the ghosts of my former selves once I was surrounded by these people with such strong associations for me.
However, an interesting thing happened as my meditation session came to a close: as the sun came up, filling the room with the first hints of daylight, my attention was overtaken by the new day seeping into my awareness. It was just a moment, a flicker of absorption in something outside my own mind, but it was enough to remind me of the ease that comes with opening myself up to whatever is happening here, now. It occurred to me that, rather than being threatened by my own reaction to these people from my past, I could be curious to see what would come up as we all mingled our past and present selves together. That this could be just an extension of my practice, watching my mind go to darker places but also bubble up with joy as we reminisce, treating both extremes as familiar cycles of thoughts that would be here one moment and would be gone the next.
And it turns out, the less caught up I am in my own mind, the more present I can be with myself as I am, with others as they are now. The more curious I am about another person’s experience, the more opportunity I have to take a fresh look at my own. And maybe, just maybe, my former selves can be old friends, rather than heavy burdens.
As a family psychotherapist, I’ve worked with many parents that tell me that no matter what they do or how hard they try, their kids never seem satisfied. Parents do their best to support their kids, but it’s as though the game is rigged, because they can never win and what they’re doing is never good enough. These parents are worn out and exhausted. There’s yelling and screaming in the house, the emotions always seem to be intense, people are walking on egg-shells, and the ups-and-downs never seem to stop. And over time, parents can start to check out, lose their patience, and they watch the relationships in their family start to sour (including the one with their partner). They’re often desperate for some sort of relief. In order to help those of you who are in a similar situation, I’m going to offer some important points to keep in mind and these have the potential to change things for everyone in your family. I’m also going to give you a simple formula that you can use to help guide you. Keep in mind that these are generalities and that everyone situation is unique. Ultimately, the best thing you can do for yourself after reading this is to seek out a family systems psychotherapist to get the customized support you need.
Kids Are Not Like Adults…
“Well of course they’re not,” you might say. Yet, many of us who interact with kids seem to forget this. Why do I say this? Because many of the parents that I work with will always engage their kid in a discussion when their kids complain or oppose something that they don’t like. When parents do engage their kids in these situations, they often end up worn out, the kids are pissed, and theres a good chance that the parents, you, have been manipulated. Some conversations are just not helpful to have, but we need to know how to identify helpful and unhelpful conversations and when it’s best to just listen and empathize with out kids.
Neurologically speaking, the adult brain is more developed and refined. Adults can openly consider more detail in various situations and entertain a variety of perspectives before coming to a conclusion or making a decision. We tend to approach kids, without sometimes realizing it, with the assumption that they’re interested in approaching each situation and discussion in the same way. But kids are not like adults! No, they have very little power and control over their lives, and so their default-position is different than our own. This means that the majority of discussions that involve rules and limits are rigged, but adults don’t remember this.
And now it’s time to piss off the younger people
…so long as your kids are limited in what they can do (which they should be so long as they live in your home), they’ll greedily fight for everything they want and whine about what they don’t want. They’re pros at doing this and that’s because they’ve figured you out and they’ve learned to how exploit your weaknesses.
So parents, it’s fair to expect your kids to be greedy and avoidant…but this does not, DOES NOT, mean that they’re bad! Nor does this give you a pass to be mean, belittle them, or use this to take jabs at their character. Kids are supposed to be like this and what’s more, WE were like this. Remember? It’s okay to acknowledge that your kids will manipulate and lie. In fact, we can find some humor in their attempts and love them for it. But it doesn’t mean that they’re bad kids or bad people.
Adults Can Learn A Lot From Younger People
“Ah the cliché,” you say, “we can always learn from everyone…blah blah blah.” Yes I know, but set this aside for a second and hear me out. Kids are amazing and the reason I adore working with them because they’re honest and they often don’t give a shit about being politically correct. Younger people tend to be more honest and authentic and they’ll show they’re junk to the world with less hesitation. Though, we may want them to restrain this a bit!
And now it’s time to piss off the adults…
…stop trying to pretend that everything is fine and hiding the fact that you may not know what to do or what you’re doing! Not knowing is okay and it’s also okay to be honest with yourselves (also your family systems psychotherapist) and to look at your own weaknesses and mistakes. Your kids can see through your façade and if you work to maintain it, they learn not to be honest…just like you.
“Why drop my guard,” you ask? Because being honest and more humble about your weaknesses and screw ups will get you to a better place than lying. It might suck to do in the moment but you’re playing the long-game. You need to understand your mistakes and weaknesses at a deeper level if you’re going to do anything about them. Trying to save face ensures that you’re going to screw up again and again because you’re unable to make the changes that you really need to make. Also, your example teaches your kids to lie and to avoid admitting the truth to themselves. When everyone is dishonest, conversations turn into debates and these turn into a heated battles. We get everything we don’t want by avoiding our own reality, even though it seems to make sense in the moment. It also makes sense why adults tend to emphasize how they look rather than being honest.
As adults, we’re trained by the “adult” world that we need to be political, diplomatic and as a result, liars. We’ve learned to suppress what we really think and feel and we don’t do what we truly want to do. This is how we forget what it was like to be a kid, but this is where your kids excel. In this way, our kids are our role models and guides…but this doesn’t mean that they’re always right or wise. It just means that they’re honest and more authentic than we tend to be. Often times we’re so practiced at telling ourselves our defensive and reactive lies that we forget how to be honest like our kids. They can help us remember the beauty of being more authentic and honest in our expressions. So what do we do? No, we don’t regress back to childhood and act like them. Rather, we need to combine our experience and knowledge with their courage to be honest and authentic.
Putting It Together: Parents Always Win…Unless They Give Their Power Away
Here’s the simple and straight-forward formula for parents: Focus on setting limits and expectations that are fewer in number but are very important. Be consistent with your kids, your limits, and your expectations at all times. Be sure to give them as much independence and as many choices as possible. Genuinely be willing to listen to their complaints or concerns, but remember that you always have the final decision. You can feel deeply confident about that. And they need you to be calm, confident and more stable than them. When you are, they feel safe and you model how a healthy adult handles difficult situations.
Sure, this sounds simple enough. “But what about all of the debates and all of the nuances in situations that confuse me!? I want my kids to have what they want and to be happy…but they’re suffering!” It can be hard to imagine your family dynamic changing to something positive with your kids. This formula is easier said than done. It takes time for change to happen and you’ll need the support of a psychotherapist trained to work with families and kids to get there. But this general formula works if it’s applied consistently. The following paragraphs will provide you with alternative ways of looking at your situation and some advice on how to change your approach to your kids. As you read through them, know that the truth of the situation is that you’re not responsible for how your kids feel, they are. Even when they’re very young. Your job is to support them, in a healthy way, as they learn how to deal with their own frustrations, difficult situations, and their emotional reactions. Your job is not to fix their emotions and when you try to do that for them, they learn that others are responsible for how they feel. This is a dangerous road to go down and I’ve seen the outcomes of this in many families.
Being a Parent and a Kid is Frustrating
Sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but this is the way it’s supposed to be. Parents need to set limits in order to teach their kids about the world. We need to help them understand healthy boundaries and to help kids feel safe as they deal with the anxiety and confusion of growing up. Your kids won’t like you all of the time and they’ll hate the limits, but you need to remember that you’re playing the long-game rather than trying to be their friend or be liked. If you feel a desperate need to be like by them, then this is a signal that you need to get some support in order to determine why you want them to like you so much. Ultimately, you’re guiding their development by limiting their freedom and expecting things of them so that they can handle, later on, how the world really works. If you’re stuck in being liked, you won’t be able to do this for them. As adults, we know that we have to manage complex situations, deal with red tape, be civil with people we don’t like, and get through frustrating situations without screwing ourselves. By setting limits and expectations for your kids, you’re helping them navigate these situations and develop these skills early on. This means that the parent-child dynamic can be quite frustrating for everyone, and that’s the way it’s supposed to be.
Consistency is Queen
By being consistent and communicating limits and expectations to your kids in advance, you’re providing them with a safe psychological container. Younger people are supposed to be all over the place and when they’re left to their own devices, they typically won’t impose limitations on themselves. (Heck, adults probably wouldn’t and that’s why shows like The Last Man on Earth is so funny!) When kids have too much influence and power, they remove their limitations and are in charge of raising themselves. This is the most terrifying thing for any kid to do because they’re biologically or psychologically equipped to do this. They’ll hate the limits and fight the expectations, but psychologically, they’ll feel more secure with them. They’ll never admit to this (though I’ve had some kids admit this), but they want to be contained, protected, and limited because growing up is scary. And it’s important to inform them of these limits and expectations in advance because it gives them time to prepare. When these are implemented, they know its coming and want to count on you following through or keeping your word.
As the parents and adults who care for these amazing kids, we need to be very consistent in creating and maintaining the container so they can feel safe. Our challenge is to also loosen their restrictions and expectations as they get older so they can grow independently. Sadly, there isn’t a rule book or blueprint for how to do this. As a result, parents always need to lightly monitor how their kids are growing. Your consistency provides them with a foundation that they can fall back on when they feel completely lost. When they know that they have a safety net, they can take risks with more confidence. Remember when they were little and they wanted to go off on their own? They’d start to leave you to go be with other kids but at some point, they would turn around to see if you were there. They wanted to know that you were watching them, that you were making sure they were safe, and they were still connected to you. As kids get older they still want to know that you’re there and that they can come back when they need to. Instead of calling you or looking back, your growing kids have internalized the memory of those moments and your stability. This brings brings them security to venture out into the scary world without looking back.
Don’t Get Lost in the Weeds
By all means, listen to the frustrations, concerns, and gripes of young people with sincerity and an open heart and mind. Give them the space to really be upset (this does not include flipping out and throwing things, including you!) and dislike something that you do. They want to be heard, understood, and to have their feelings validated. However, we need to remain calm, gentle, firm, and consistent with our limits and expectations of them. When we can maintain this disposition, we can serve as an emotional dampener for our kids. However, if you’re just as freaked out as them, then nobody will calm down for a long time. Now let’s say that your kid raises some legitimate points amidst their freak out or upset. You should feel free to consider their point of view, but I would suggest that you take some time on your own before responding or making a decision. Definitely discuss the points and your doubts with your partner because you need to be on the same team and on the same page.
In the end, we need to assume and use the power of our role as authority figures without abusing it. When your kid begins to oppose your decision, you can feel deeply confident that you have the power to make the final decision, though you may need some time to make it. In this way, you don’t need to get lost in the details or become overwhelmed by your own insecurities (easier said than done, of course). Listen to them, consider the situation, and communicate your decision when YOU are ready. If your decision is final, and they need to be, you can lovingly say to your kid, “I know this sucks and that I’m a pain in your ass right now, but this is what I/we have decided is best.” If you do this enough and remain gently firm, they’ll stop nagging you. Since your dynamic has not been like this, they’ll push you even harder in the beginning. This is because they’re used to how things have been, but stick with it. Again, work with a family systems psychotherapist to help this process along and get the support that you need.
Of course, there’s so much more that we could discuss, but this introduction is a good start. I can’t say it enough, get the support of a family systems psychotherapist because the road probably won’t be very easy. And I use the term, “family systems psychotherapist,” because not all therapists are trained in family therapy and the complexity of working with families and kids. Keep this in mind when you meet with a psychotherapist and there’s no harm in using one therapist for the family, and other therapists for individuals in the family. Though, start slow and consult your family psychotherapist on different ways to provide support for the family and each of its members. Also, remember that change takes time so don’t rush it, and make solid changes that you’re really committed to because these are the ones that will last. Quick and unplanned changes tend to create more problems, so be a little selfish and don’t create more work for yourself. If you’re in the habit of making quick, reactive, and impulsive changes, that’s when you’ll probably end up saying, “Nothing ever seems to work.”