In search of better self-soothing


While it’s understandable that people who suffer from PTSD and traumatic grief use alcohol or drugs to cope, it is ultimately self-defeating and harmful. There are better ways to cope, if you’re interested.


Alcohol and drug use are not uncommon in people who have suffered tragic losses and traumatic events. In one 2010 study, a sample of 587 patients with traumatic childhood events was found to abuse cannabis (44.8%), alcohol (39%), cocaine (34.1%) and heroin/opiates (6.3%).[i] It is understandable to try to ease one’s pain by numbing it with alcohol or drugs like cannabis, cocaine, and opiates. Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and grief can be very upsetting and painful experiences and may involve reliving the traumatic experience or loss repeatedly, leaving a person to feel out of control and miserable. However, one of the many downfalls of self-medicating one’s psychological distress is that it never gets fully resolved because it is always avoided and shelved for a later time. Unfortunately, that later time never seems to come, unless a person has a crisis and is forced to get treatment because of their behavior. For example, people who store their pain and ignore it until they can’t stand it any longer can do self-destructive things like self-mutilation and suicide, or become so intoxicated that they have to be hospitalized or go to a rehabilitation facility. At that point, the person might be willing to give up their substance of choice and learn some new coping skills. However, even then, some people are not ready to stop and abstain completely.

When many people think of trauma, they think of veterans and people in the military. Indeed, there is a high prevalence of both PTSD and substance abuse in veterans[ii], but there are traumatic events that are not related to combat as well. Sexual and physical abuse, neglect, and emotional abuse in childhood can leave emotional scars on people that is tempting to dim with alcohol or drugs. Domestic violence, moving vehicle accidents, extremely contentious divorce, and being bullied as a child can also lead to post-traumatic stress.

Some of the things that people use alcohol and drugs for when they have PTSD or experience a traumatic loss are

  • Distraction from the disturbing stimulus
  • Decreasing anxiety
  • Decreasing the intensity of reliving the trauma through intrusive thoughts, body sensations or memories
  • Being able to be amongst people without being hypervigilant
  • Managing their energy levels
  • Being able to sleep at night

Many people are using drugs or alcohol to soothe themselves and try to function better in life. Wanting to change all these things is a positive sign of self-love in a person. However, alcohol and drugs only temporarily take care of these important psychological and behavioral functions. They are not a long-term solution.

I respect the pain that my clients suffer and understand that the coping skills they use when they come to see me are the best they could come up with so far. However, I also think that if we’re going to work effectively together, they need to be open to trying healthier ways to cope and to resolve the trauma or loss so it doesn’t keep bothering them. I find that letting go of drug or alcohol use, while difficult at first, makes it easier for them to make good decisions about managing their mental health symptoms. When a person is numbing their pain with drugs or alcohol, the exposure part of therapy can’t really happen, so that the person can’t learn to tolerate painful feelings and thoughts, and change their response to that. It can be a vicious cycle whereby the person avoids and avoids, never feeling ready or capable of confronting the pain, so the pain remains buried longer and longer. This makes it less and less desirable to face the music, so to speak, and the person who is actively trying to block the pain ironically lives with it longer. They often make the people in their lives unhappy in the process too, since there are many things the person cannot face, talk about or do because of their avoidance.

Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT), developed by Dr. Marsha Linehan, can be useful in developing skills to tolerate negative feelings and thoughts. It is a combination of Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and uses Eastern principles such as mindfulness to learn to be with one’s pain while being able to observe it and make good decisions about how to respond to it. By gradually becoming aware of and tolerant of one’s internal experience, through awareness of thoughts, feelings, and body sensations, a person can build resilience to the changing tides that cross their mind/body. That resilience makes it easier to do the work of resolving trauma and traumatic loss.

If you are interested in learning about these methods, please give me a call at 661-233-6771. If you need help in becoming sober, I recommend that you use AA/NA to assist you in sobriety.

 

[i] Khoury, L., Tang, Y., Bradley, B., Cubells, J. and Ressler, K. (2010). Substance abuse, Depression and Anxiety, 27(12): 1077-1086.

[ii] Meisler, A. (1996). Trauma, PTSD and Substance abuse. The National Center for Post-traumatic Stress Disorder PTSD Research Quarterly, 7(4): 1-3

Learning Emotional Literacy


How do we make best use of emotions when they arise? How can we turn them into useful allies instead of pesky interference from the body?


As a culture, we’re not big on identifying, naming and allowing for our own emotional responses to stimuli. We seem more prone to suppress emotions until they become unbearable to hold in, and them act them out in undesirable behaviors or until they become calcified into negative mood states and physical maladies. Wouldn’t it be nice to prevent that calcification and allow our feelings to flow through us instead?

I think that as early as possible, we should teach children how to identify their feelings accurately, tolerate them, and express them appropriately. Many children are taught that when they express their emotions, they’re being “bad” or “naughty.” Really, they are doing their best to let the grownups in their lives know that something needs paying attention. We need to teach them better ways of expressing their feelings that are age-appropriate. If we teach them that their feelings are wrong, they grow up suppressing them or acting them out and can’t enjoy life the way they’re meant to. It’s up to us to help them turn their emotions from these powerful forces they don’t understand, to acceptable and even helpful signals in their bodies that they can make wise decisions about.

Emotions are there to alert us to something that’s happening within us or in our environments. They can be powerful allies that protect us from harm, allow us to enjoy life, and grieve our losses. We don’t have to fear them anymore than we fear breathing, digesting food, or going to the bathroom. They are a natural, healthy part of our bodily systems and we need to make space for noticing and experiencing them. We don’t need to act on them all the time, which some people mistakenly think is part of this equation. Instead, the more mindful we are of them, the better we can decide what to do with them when they arise.

Since many of you reading this blog may not have had emotional literacy training as kids (since you’re probably at least a teenager, if not older), it may be harder to make up for what you didn’t get as kids. Nonetheless, I believe it’s never too late to learn how to deal with emotions in a healthy way. This is by no means a comprehensive piece on how to achieve emotional literacy, but I can put out a basic map of where your journey might lead you.

First, you need to be able to identify when emotions are coming up. Some people don’t know the words that go along with the feelings, so you might want to familiarize yourselves with the basics. Of course there are sad, mad, happy, scared, the strong emotions that most of us are able to identify readily. But if even that seems foreign, then you can start with what’s happening in your body.

Mindfulness is a good place to start. When you feel tightness in your chest, your arms feel like moving outward, and you feel flushed in the face, what might that be expressing? If you feel like hurting someone else or hitting something then you’re probably angry. If you feel a fluttery sensation in your stomach, your breathing is restricted or rapid and shallow, and you feel light-headed as a result, then you’re probably experiencing fear. These are just two examples of matching physical sensations with emotions that can signal to you that your emotions are activated. Sometimes, people can just describe what’s happening in their bodies at first. That’s fine, it’s a good place to start. As you become more emotionally literate, you start to link the feeling names to the body sensations… and then you’re cooking with gas!

Next, you notice what you tend to do when emotions get activated. You notice that you might snap at people when you’re mad, cry when you’re sad, or avoid certain situations when you’re scared. This awareness allows you to take the next step, which is noticing what the consequences of your behavior are, and deciding if they are helping you or hurting you in life. If your tendency is to self-harm or drink alcohol when you’re angry or sad, then that probably isn’t helpful in the long run. If you tend to lash out or snap at people, which results in losing friendships or hurting other important relationships, that is also a behavior you might want to discard. It’s not that you judge or insult yourself for having these behaviors. You simply notice them and what effect they have on your life.

Next comes the exciting part. Once you notice which behaviors go with which feelings, and which you don’t want or do want, you can start to make informed decisions about what you want to do when the feelings come up. When you get mad at someone, you might pause and say, “I’m feeling angry. I know this because my fists are balled up and I’m feeling flushed in the face. I want to hit this person, but I can’t because I’ll get in trouble. I also want to yell at them but that will damage our relationship. What can I do instead?” This is an important juncture in your decision-making ability that signals a more sophisticated level of emotional literacy. Instead of acting out (hitting, yelling) or acting in (self-harming, saying mean things to yourself), you can express your anger directly but respectfully. You might need assertiveness training to learn how to do this, but it’s great that you can get to this point when you can make wise mind decisions (to use a phrase from Dialectical Behavior Therapy). When you observe your feelings nonjudgmentally, you have a better chance of making decisions that will benefit you and the people around you.

Therapy can be a great place to start the process of gaining emotional literacy. It’s a safe place where you can risk expressing feelings that you might have learned were “unacceptable” or “bad” by your caregivers growing up. It’s helpful to identify these feelings, especially long-buried ones, with someone else’s help. It doesn’t feel quite as lonely and scary that way. When you have emotional literacy, you can do deeper levels of therapy more easily and resolve trauma and grief with more self-assurance that you won’t get swallowed whole by the feelings that come up. It’s also helpful for everyday life, keeping you from getting in trouble with people in your life like your boss, partner, friends, etc. If you need help achieving emotional literacy, please give me a call. I’d love to help.

Would you like to be part of a research study?


Dear Readers,

I’m wondering if you could please help me out.

I’m conducting a survey regarding people with medically unexplained illnesses and how they cope with their illness and make use of their resources, including medical professionals. Medically unexplained illnesses that the survey included are Fibromyalgia, Myalgic Encephalomyelitis or Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, and Multiple Chemical Sensitivities. I’m seeking participants for this study who are affected by one (or more) of these illnesses personally, are 18 years or older, and are English-speaking. This qualitative questionnaire is meant to help service providers understand the needs and strengths of people with these conditions, how they cope with stress, and how they make use of the resources available to them. It is my hope that increased understanding and knowledge about these conditions will help improve service delivery and empower people with medically unexplained illnesses to make better use of the resources available to them. Once collected, I will analyze the data using grounded theory methods. I’m hoping that you can encourage anyone you know who fits the criteria to fill out the questionnaire, which is available at this link:

https://www.surveymonkey.com/r/YJJTRYC.

The questionnaire is anonymous and I will do everything in my power to protect the privacy and anonymity of participants. If you have any questions or suggestions regarding the survey, please don’t hesitate to contact me at lisalarsen69@gmail.com. I appreciate your assistance in this matter. If you’re interested in the results, please contact me at that same email address. Thank you in advance.

Making Space for the Vulnerable


When I think of mothering, I think of protection and nurturance of ourselves and each other when we’re at our most vulnerable. Our culture does not look kindly upon people who are different, vulnerable, or sensitive. We value instead independence, self-reliance, and sturdiness. However, without sensitivity and vulnerability, we cannot enjoy intimacy, love, and openness to new experiences. A world without vulnerability and sensitivity would be a very harsh, sterile existence, I believe. On Mother’s Day, I hope that we can make space for the sensitivity in ourselves and in others.
How does one go about taking space for the vulnerable? I believe that all behavioral and conscious change starts with paying attention first and foremost.

What are the tendencies towards not making space for it? Impatience, judgment, harshness, and certain expectations all can hamper our making space for the vulnerable. We must that just as we are sensitive and would not want to be treated certain ways, other people are also sensitive in their own ways. Impatience comes up quite a bit when other people are not doing what we think they ought to, especially with children. However, we can be impatient with other adults. When we soften our gaze on other people and remember that everyone needs time and space to grow and learn, we can start to change this tendency.

Judgment is ubiquitous in our culture as well, and it’s very tempting to fall into thinking of other people who are different as inferior. In a divisive environment such as ours, it can be very easy to classify people into them and us, excluding people without perhaps giving them a chance to explain whether coming from. We may still hold onto our beliefs that we hold dear, yet give other people the respect of allowing them to feel and think differently from us. Instead, we can remember that we all struggle, we all falter, and we would not want to be treated as harshly as were treating either ourselves or the other person. What does the person in that moment need? What could help them achieve their goals and be a better person? How can you facilitate and nurture that in yourself and others?

Similarly, when we feel harshly towards other people and are in aggressive mindsets, we can ask what it is that we need to make more space for the other person. Anyone in the 12 step recovery culture knows the phrase HALT, which stands for hungry, angry, lonely and tired. We can check in with ourselves and see whether any of these conditions is fueling our aggression and harshness. Then we can lovingly take care of ourselves so that we can maintain kindness and compassion towards ourselves and others.

In cultivating mindfulness and self-compassion, we learn to be kinder to ourselves and to others. Without this, the world is not a very pleasant place to live. How empowering and exciting it is to know that each of us has the opportunity to become a beacon for nurturing, compassion, and positive growth. When enough of us develop this within ourselves, we spread the light of awareness and create a nurturing environment for all of Earth’s inhabitants.

Medically Unexplained Illnesses: It’s not just all in your head!


Having a stigmatized chronic illness can make it more challenging to cope with illness. This is an introduction to CFS, FMS, and MCS, all medically unexplained illnesses. Having compassion and greater understanding for people with these conditions, may help sufferers reduce their stress.


A Brief Introduction to Medically Unexplained Illnesses

Some chronic illnesses have specific titles, treatments and are much more easily understood by medical professionals. They have a consistent set of diagnostic criteria and so they are easy to diagnose, treat, and maintain. More research is done to find drugs and treatments that help with their treatment, and so while they are not curable, they are treatable and people can have a fairly decent quality of life with those illnesses. Some examples are diabetes, thyroid disease, osteoarthritis, and some psychiatric disorders like depression and Bipolar illness.

However, there are some illnesses, like Fibromyalgia (FMS), Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS), and Multiple Chemical Sensitivity (MCS), whose symptoms are not well-understood by medical professionals, and since those symptoms overlap with other disorders and don’t lend themselves well to specific diagnosis, they don’t get as much research funding and effort. Their causes are also not well understood either; hypnotheses include viruses, childhood trauma, injury, psychiatric disorders like depression and PTSD, chemical reactions gone awry, etc. The fact that the disorders are not well-understood does not mean that the disorders are any less distressing to sufferers. It also doesn’t mean that they are simply “psychosomatic” (i.e., psychiatric symptoms masquerading or perceived as physical disorders). There has been a great deal ofstruggle to gain legitimacy in the medical field for people who suffer Medically Unexplained Syndromes (MUPS), as people with these conditions have an added stress of not being believed by family, friends and medical professionals. If they could point to a well-defined diagnostic label like cancer or arthritis, they might have a chance to be believed by others. Some prominent medical researchers have suggested that these disorders are purely psychological, and that if they just got Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, they would be fine. However, as anyone who has coped with fatigue, joint pain, cognitive dysfunction (like poor memory and concentration), or extreme discomfort after chemical exposure can attest, it is not just “all in your head.” Other people demean MUPS symptoms as “just being lazy” or “the yuppy flu.”

Fibromyalgia is perhaps one of the relatively better-researched MUPS and is characterized by joint pain in 11 of 18 tender points on the body, fatigue, insomnia, and at times cognitive dysfunction, like mental “fogginess” that makes it hard to concentrate, focus, or remember things. Many people with Fibromyalgia are limited in what they can do, how they can move, and sometimes their employment opportunities and capacities are severely hampered by their symptoms. Similarly, Chronic Fatigue Syndrome can negatively impact fulfilling social and occupational roles, and sometimes they have to apply for disability as they struggle to even achieve minimal activities of daily living. CFS has many similar symptoms to FMS (fatigue, cognitive problems, joint discomfort) but also have tender lymph nodes, flu-like symptoms, and “post-exertion malaise” which means that if they do too much during the day, they feel even worse for the next day to week. You may be able to see how this could interfere with holding down a job, raising children, having a social life, or running a household. While these disorders usually affect women, men can also be affected. Children and adolescents can become ill with CFS and FMS too, although it’s much rarer.  Most of the studies on CFS and FMS that have been done involve adults from 40-60 years old. It affects all socioeconomic statuses as well as ethnicities.

Multiple Chemical Sensitivities (MCS) is perhaps the most controversial of the MUPS and while it shares a few symptoms with FMS and CFS, it is more focused on negative reactions to exposure to chemicals in every day products. Some of those products include cigarette smoke, gasoline, solvents, perfume, clothing dyes, dryer sheets, cleaning agents, pesticides, and hairspray. People have a range of symptoms when exposed to these types of chemicals, including respiratory problems, skin rashes, headaches, cognitive problems, etc. people with FMS and CFS sometimes have sensitivity to smells, but it is not a defining feature of either of those conditions. Because there’ve been some studies where people failed to show increased sensitivity to certain agents in a laboratory, some medical professionals regard MCS as merely a psychosomatic illness. However, the reactions are real, cause physical and mental distress, and sufferers are not merely imagining what they experience. Instead of invalidating people’s experience, it seems more beneficial when doctors, friends, and workplaces can work with people who are sensitive to smells to make them comfortable, happy and productive. Other people might not perceive the same smells as threatening, because they get no physical reaction. However, there are number of factors that might contribute to some people’s extra sensitive reaction. I will address these factors in the next blog post.

This is been an overview of medically unexplained illnesses, which are often chronic and whose prognosis is often uncertain. Many of these illnesses overlap in symptoms, but the sufferers have very real struggles in meeting their life roles and functioning well. Hopefully, with more understanding, research, and compassion, we can make their experience a little better and a little less stressful. I will be writing about them more in future blog posts, in specific the link between psychological factors and physical symptoms of these illnesses.

Coping with Loneliness


Being alone doesn’t have to equate being lonely. There’s a distinction, and your interpretation of the state of being alone makes a big difference in your experience.


Lonely panda
Loneliness is a normal feeling, but we don’t have to dwell in it forever. A lot depends on what you tell yourself about being alone.

With the upcoming holiday, Valentine’s Day, much of the focus is on people who are involved with a loved one romantically or sexually. There is not very much attention paid to people who don’t have dates or romantic partners. People can feel pressured to either get into a relationship in order to not be lonely and be perceived as undesirable, or to feel inadequate because they are not romantically involved. There is a difference between being alone and being lonely, as Adrea Cope notes[i]. Being alone can be seen as a choice or a condition imposed upon a person by cruel circumstances. Loneliness is an emotional reaction to the state of being alone. It sometimes involves an element of grief about lost relationships or lost opportunities for being with people.

By contrast, one can view being alone as a choice or as a decision to be independent. Being alone is not necessarily a sign that you could not find a partner if you wanted one. Rather, it can be a deliberate choice to be autonomous, liberated, and free to live your life the way you want. Some of us experience being alone as a pleasurable experience, one they seek out to regulate the balance between being with others and being by themselves. Have you ever wanted to just have some “me” time?

Being alone can also be cleansing after a relationship that didn’t work out. I’ve seen a lot of clients rush into relationships after they break out because they don’t want to be perceived as “losers.” The implication is that if you’re alone, you can’t get a date. Sometimes it takes time to learn what went wrong in the last relationship. It also takes time to heal from the damage that relationship might have caused.

People who take the time to evaluate what went wrong, how they contributed to the demise of the relationship, and what they need to do now to grow and heal are well positioned to have a healthier relationship next time. It’s crucial to observe how you interpret your aloneness. What are you telling yourself about it? How are you interpreting it? That process of recognition and acknowledgment can make your alone time much more pleasant and productive. You can use journaling or meditation to explore what messages you’re sending yourself, and perhaps also open up to new ways of seeing your alone state. What self-valuing messages can you use to start replacing the criticism and pessimism?

There’s no rule saying you have to be in a relationship in order to be sexy, desirable, lovable, or a “winner.” In fact, some very likable, sociable, and interesting people are single, by choice. I believe it’s time we respected the diversity in people’s need or desire to be with another person. Some people feel very little need to be in a relationship and prefer solitude, while others have a strong desire and need to be in a relationship. The level of involvement is really up to each person, and I don’t think there’s a need to shame people for wanting what they want.

One caveat about being alone: Sometimes depressed people isolate, as do people who have Panic Disorder, Agoraphobia, and at times, PTSD. It’s important to distinguish between preferring to be alone because you like your own company and feel comfortable enjoying life that way, and avoidance. It’s understandable to avoid being hurt, as you have been in the past. No one can fault you for that. However, it often is accompanied by emotional misery and time spent either in self-reproach or immobilized numbness. If that is the case, I encourage you to get psychiatric care. You don’t have to be in contact with people all the time, but the time you spend whether alone or with people should generally be at least neutral, if not pleasant. If it’s hard to be around people and/or yourself, there’s a good chance that some healing needs to happen, to restore you to normal interpersonal functioning.

In closing, being lonely is a state of mind that crosses everyone’s path from time to time. It doesn’t need to be a constant visitor, and the way we view other people and ourselves can make a big difference in how long and how strong we experience loneliness. If you are without a romantic partner this Valentine’s Day, I strongly encourage you to embrace it and see it as a chance to spend time with a cherished loved one: yourself!

[i] http://thoughtcatalog.com/adrea-cope/2014/04/the-difference-between-being-alone-and-being-lonely/

2017’s Antidote to Poor Physical and Mental Health: Altruism and Volunteering


Contrary to the idea that we are all out for ourselves, there are definite benefits to working together not only to survive but thrive emotionally and physically. Volunteering, kindness, and altruism are all good tress individually and collectively.


the-hands-of-help-and-friendship In this age of rancor and hatred, it seems more important than ever to make this a year of kindness and civility. We’ve seen a rise in hate crimes, bullying in the schools, and xenophobia that is hard to stomach sometimes. However, we can each be individually responsible for how we conduct our lives and how we want to be in the world. There is not just a benefit to society in being kind to others; we also stand to gain individually by turning our focus outward and helping our fellow human beings. Some social theorists such as Richard Dawkins and Charles Darwin believed that we are hardwired for selfishness, competition, and ruthless egoism. However, other theorists state that altruism “flies in the face of” theories that we are programmed genetically to be selfish. Instead is survival of the fittest, we’re just as naturally inclined toward social resilience. Social resilience is defined as “’ the capacity to foster, engage in, and sustain positive social relationships and to endure and recover from stressors and social isolation’” (John Cacioppo, quoted in Seligman, 2011, p. 146). The same author just quoted argues that we survive as humans because we work together and combine our strengths and resources to help one another. Seligman gives further examples in the animal and insect kingdom of how working cooperatively both productivity and survival.

There is also evidence that volunteering can reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety. Being kind to others takes the focus off of one’s own inner strife, as well as develops skills and social networks that buffer stress. In addition, volunteering and kindness engage a person in meaningful activity, which can be described as a “flow” state. Flow is described as “the experience of working at full capacity,” in which a person uses challenge and skill to accomplish something that is rewarding at a deeper level than immediate gratification (Peterson, 2006, page 67). In a flow state, we can lose track of time because we are so absorbed in what we’re doing; athletes describe it as being “in the zone.” Of course, when you’re feeling depressed or anxious, we naturally want to avoid other people. There’s a strong tendency to get trapped in inaction and avoidance. Milton Erickson helped a wealthy lady who was depressed overcome her isolation by prescribing altruism to the members of her church. He told her to get some potting soil and to give African violets to all the members of her church for every major life event; this not only increased her social interaction, but engaged her in an activity that she loved (caring for and raising flowers). Instead of just keeping all of her flowers for herself, she reached out and blessed her community with kindness and generosity. They repaid her favor with their love and appreciation. This is one small example of how you can be involved with other people in an informal, yet meaningful way.

Some people may say, “I don’t have the time for this” or “I don’t have the energy.” If you consider the act of being depressed or anxious, and you consider how exhausting it is to feel fear, self-loathing, and concoct negative scenarios from the past or future, you might argue that you already have plenty of energy that is being directed at self-sabotaging pursuits. How would you use that energy if it weren’t engaged in these negative pursuits? You don’t necessarily have to volunteer 40 to 100 hours per year, although that can definitely boost the positive effects of volunteering. Consider small ways that you can help people you know already. Maybe someone just needs a phone call and to know that someone cares about them. Perhaps an elderly or disabled person in the neighborhood needs help with housework or yard work. There are many ways to reach out beyond yourself and to be kind, so much so that you might find yourself enjoying it more and more. I encourage you to think of ways to help other people, or even animals or the environment. Ultimately, they are all part of the web of existence and our actions come back to us and sometimes unexpected ways.

References

https://www.nationalservice.gov/sites/default/files/documents/07_0506_hbr_brief.pdf

Peterson, C. (2006). A Primer in positive psychology. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Seligman, M. (2011). Flourish. New York, NY: Atria Paperback.

A Piece of Me Went With You


Losing a loved one is hard enough, but when you feel as though a part of you died too, it makes it even harder to cope with the loss. When you’ve lost someone you have known for many years and very intimately, your personality is influenced by that person, and vice versa. Sharing a life together, as family members and spouses do, makes it hard to distinguish where your personality is distinct from the other person’s. That’s not necessarily a bad thing if you have good boundaries. If you know your own mind, your own wants and needs, and are comfortable setting limits in order to protect yourself from unwanted intrusions, then having parts of another woven into the tapestry of your personality can be a welcome addition. Sometimes a mellow person can take the edge off their angry, sharp-tongued mate, or a bold, assertive family member can encourage their loved one to be more self-assured and outspoken. These bits of the other person shine through in the tapestry when necessity calls for it, and also when we make a conscious choice to emulate that loved one’s best qualities. Sometimes it’s automatic and unconscious, however; we are influenced without even knowing it. Of course, in the case of family members influencing each other, there is a genetic component that is also unconscious and at times mysterious.

I often hear from clients who have lost a spouse or long-term lover, “I can’t ever be the same again.” I can understand where it might feel as though that’s true when you first lose someone, but I think it’s a limiting belief that in time is not necessary. It creates worry, anxiety and adds to the pain of grief. In some cases, the loved one’s death does change a person’s personality, and not necessarily for the better. However, I think that personality, and being in general, is fluid.

We generally are not the same at 20 as we are at 10, or at 30, 40, 50, and so on. There are some fundamental qualities like introversion or extroversion that usually remain stable over time, but I think bringing conscious awareness to how we behave and treat ourselves and others makes a huge difference in whether our personalities and psychological health becomes stuck or not. Pain of loss or trauma can make people feel stuck and stunt their development, but if worked through it can be transformative in a positive, healthy way too.

When I hear someone say, “I will never be the same,” I think that may be true but not necessarily for the reason you think. Since personalities change over time anyway, you very well may never be the same. But the death is only part of the picture of your development as a person. The pain of the person’s death will shape your experience as a human being, no doubt. Yet it isn’t necessarily a permanent change and the pain itself will probably morph over time from intense, sharp and burning to a muted, softer ache. At first you might find yourself wanting to be alone all the time, or feeling angry and very prone to tearful outbursts after the loss. As that dissipates and becomes less painful, you might find it acceptable to be around people again. You might even crave others’ company, and that’s okay too. The more you can see what you’re going through as part of an ongoing process, the less alarmed and fearful you need to be about the changes you’re going through.

Ultimately, you get to decide the person you want to be. When you first lose someone, very little feels within your control. This might include your personality and what you feel was taken away from you when you lost your loved one. With time and consciousness, however, you can restore those parts of your loved one and who you were when you were with them, and maybe improve upon those aspects as well. If you would like help working through this type of loss, please give me a call: 661-233-6771.

Grateful for our Hardships


How to derive strength and positive change from trauma and loss, especially with help.


When something tragic happens to us at first, it’s overwhelming, scary and painful. It takes all we’ve got to get through it, survive it, and heal from it. The thought of recovering from it enough to see the positive aspects of the event is remote and difficult. However, the ability to eventually find gratitude for our hardships helps make us resilient and stronger than before. It is an important aspect of healing, and transcending, trauma and loss. But what would allow you to be grateful for such a tragic event?

Dr. Martin Seligman stated that he and colleagues asked visitors of his website about traumatic events that happened to them, as well as a subjective wellness survey; he found that people who had survived at least one traumatic event in their lives had more strengths than people who had none (Dr. Seligman’s website). What is it about hardship that makes people become stronger? Is it the ability to relate to others? Maybe it’s being tested against extreme stress and surviving, that gives people a boost of confidence they might not otherwise have. Perhaps it makes a person appreciate their loved ones or re-evaluate their priorities in light of what happened to them.

I’d like to tell you about a training program that the US Military uses to foster gratitude after traumatic experiences, as relayed by Dr. Martin Seligman in Flourish. The name of the program is Post Traumatic Growth and is headed by Brigadier General Rhonda Cornum, Dr. Richard Tedeschi and Dr. Richard McNally. It’s based on the idea that “we should make the most of the fact that trauma often sets the stage for growth” and it teaches soldiers how to create ways to grow because of their traumatic experiences. Soldiers are given a psychological test that measures how much benefit they derived from traumatic experiences and are then taught to understand their response to the trauma, reduce their anxiety, tell other people about their experiences in a helpful way, and to create a “trauma narrative” that helps them see that they both lost and benefited from the experience. In addition, the life principles that foster strength in the face of challenge are spoken, and this helps people remember that they can get through other challenges in the future as well. To learn and grow from the traumatic incidences is the ultimate power over the events, and this program helps them do that.

I greatly admire this program and encourage you to think about sad or trying times in your life. Yes, there were pain, fear, sorrow, and anguish. But you’ve survived those times, and you have the opportunity to learn and grow from them.

Created for Connection, Part I


I consider it courageous to show others our vulnerable, less polished and impervious sides, in situations where it is most tempting and easy to be jaded, phony or manipulative. I see this question of whether to connect when interacting with couples, families, friends, politics, and even day-to-day encounters with strangers. While we have exercise caution and care with our hearts and guard against being taken advantage of, we also can act as though we have more to fear than we actually do. How do we decide where there is a real threat of being hurt, physically or emotionally, and where we can let down our guards?

The Disconnected

I have met people who were extremely guarded and afraid of being hurt, although they would never admit to this. They hold up their shield of not-caring, or of cynicism or even aggression to keep themselves from being hurt themselves. The world can indeed be very frightening and dangerous, and we have a duty and responsibility to ourselves to accurately assess when to defend ourselves from others.

But when we can’t shift from that state of protectiveness once the threat is over, or can’t tell a truly dangerous situation from one that merely seems threatening, or one that is neutral but reminds us of past hurts, then we become rigid and incapable of opening up when we want to. And that is a sad and lonely state of existence. Even when such people connect, they often do so from a superficial, win-lose stance. By this I mean that the person feels that they must win and someone else must lose to be safe. Are they concerned for the loser? At this point, it’s every man or woman for themselves, and all such people care about is that they weren’t the loser. Empathy is lost at this point, and when empathy lost any kind of dehumanizing, cruel behavior is possible.

Hearts-Wide-Open

I have also met people who are so open and willing to experience anything and everything that they often get hurt in relationships. They tend to attract people like the ones described above, because they are easy prey for cynical, selfish people. They expose their soft, vulnerable sides in hopes that people will take care of them the way a parent takes care of a child. Unfortunately, the world is not made that way. When we reach 18, our society assumes that we are adults, capable of taking care of our own emotional and physical needs. When we depend on others to look after us and protect us from situations where we should exercise good common sense, we run the risk of being treated pretty savagely. We need to balance of looking after ourselves, but not exclude considering others’ needs and wants.

A Balance of Connection

Somewhere in the middle of these two extremes, we can meet each other and have a reasonable expectation of civility. Some of what we expect of each other depends on our cultural backgrounds. In some cultures, to leave oneself open for possible exploitation is a foolish act that leads to automatic exploitation. For other cultures, there is a level of trust that favors the tender-hearted and assumes the best in people. I think the United States is somewhere in the middle of the spectrum, but is edging towards the cynical end increasingly as time goes on.

We have to make choices about how to use our sensitive, tender parts of ourselves with others, and how much to give of our vulnerabilities to others. Unfortunately, the world is becoming increasingly inhospitable to this practice, as violence escalates and we become increasingly jaded and greedy. How do we carve out a space to meet soul-to-soul with others’ vulnerabilities and hold each other, and ourselves, in a tender, careful way? How can we show love, appreciation and kindness to each other even when we’ve been hurt in the past and have doubts about humanity’s worth? These are some of the issues that are especially salient to people who have been in traumatic situations, and can be explored in psychotherapy.