"Rules" First, Then Flexibility

A disclaimer that the first bit of this post does talk about faith and religion. If reading about religion bothers you, replace religion/faith with academia/school as the concept will still apply. 

Years ago, someone once told me, “every now and then, you need to empty out your religious cup to figure out what you need to put back into it”. Essentially, not everything one learns will continue to have meaning, apply, or hold true as time goes by and one matures in their faith or understanding. Many people have a tendency to throw the baby out with the bath water. Take the time, do the work, to sort out what is important to intentionally take with you.

Fast forward to this past summer. I found myself having a conversation with someone about my frustrations of black and white thinking that religion can sometimes bring, and did bring for many years of my life. They then reminded me that one cannot simply be in the grey right off the bat.  There’s a need to learn the “rules” first. Then, after having a good foundation, one can learn to sift through the complexities of life, which will ultimately challenge rigid thinking. This made sense. 

Another way to think about it is thinking about our school experiences growing up. We start off in elementary school.  Then, we graduate and go into high school to build off what we’ve learned in the years prior. Some continue to post secondary education where critical thinking is fostered and encouraged, and an even more in-depth study and diversification on subject matters occurs. Each stages of learning builds off the learnings prior. You can’t go on to do quadratic equations without first knowing about the rules of addition or multiplication, right? Right!

Recovery is similar. There is a learning (or re-learning) that must occur around building a healthier relationship with food, weight, exercise, relationships, body-image, family dynamics, coping mechanisms, and so on. This period is important, and the specifics around implementation can look different amongst individuals. There is, however, life past the intense treatment regiments that are often needed to help you get back on track. It’s hard to learn how to be flexibility when building a foundation for recovery when the eating disorders is quite sneaky and slippery, never mind sorting out who’s motivation/values/thoughts is who’s, etc.

In faith, recovery, and many other facets of how this concept can apply, people can stay stuck in the early teachings and rules. There is a degree of freedom there. I don’t want to deny that. My early days/years of recovery, and the periods where I needed to be particular about what and how I ate were way better and more flexible than when I was in the throws of my eating disorder. There is, however, greater freedom past this. Sometimes, there is a need to return to the foundational pieces, and that’s okay too! Recovery, faith, life are not linear experiences. Everyday we make decisions that either move us towards or away the values we hold within these experiences. As scary as it can be to dip your toe into the unknown or flexibilities of greys, it can also be rewarding (remember, both things can be equally true!)

Take a second to think about where you could or would like to grow in your recovery (or faith). Then, try talking to your therapist about what you could do or how you could experiment with getting to know the greys. 

Shark Music - Being Aware of Our Past So We Can Be Present in Our Present

Someone recently told me about Shark Music. You know, like the music in Jaws? We all have it...that background noise that clouds or shapes our present, stemming from experiences/issues in the past. Check out this video about we can be aware of our shark music while still being present and attuned to those around us in the now. 

 

Living Spherically

   “You have to live spherically - in many directions. Never lose your childish enthusiasm - and things will come your way.” 
- Federico Fellini

I put on "Under the Tuscan Sun" last night. I was looking for something inspiring and light. TV has been irritating me lately. It seems that every popular show or new release is so heavy in content or linked with issues that can be traumatizing (or re-traumatizing). I'm not saying that someone can't be triggered by this movie, because they can. There is a reason, after all, as to why she ends up in Tuscany.  

One day, this whimsical woman enters the main characters life and shares the above quote. I'm immediately drawn to it. I think it fits nicely with what I tell clients. To be mindful about how they meet their physical, social, emotional, leisure, spiritual and mental needs. The importance of not overloading one area, neglecting the others. A sense of balance, while remembering balance isn't always allocating the same amount of time to each need. Life doesn't deplete our resources so neatly, after all.

I like the idea of growing in many directions. My mind leaps to another movie, "Centre Stage" (perhaps, some of you are starting to judge me on my flick choices... fear not, I'm well rounded!). In this movie, one of the main characters finds herself struggling at a prestigious ballet school. She was surprised by this as she had trained her whole life as a ballerina. It wasn't until she tried different dance styles, grew in different directions, that she was able to move forward as a dancer. 

This makes me reflect on issues around identity. Sometimes, we get so tied into thinking of ourselves in only one way or in one particular light. You know, "the wife", "the student", "the jock", "the golden child", "the hockey player", "the smart one", "the pretty one",  "the sick one", etc. We are so so so much more than just any one of these labels, parts or identities. For many, it can get scary when these labels get challenged or end, especially if that's the only thing they've associated with or tended to in their lives. Can you guess what movies I'm thinking of now? You nailed it, "The Breakfast Club".

Then, this last part of the quote, "to never lose your childish enthusiasm". "Hook" comes to mind. Come on old man Peter Pan, use your imagination. Believe! The food doesn't have to be so grey... you can fly!  Yes, we have responsibilities in life. Yes, sometimes we have to make grown up decisions, which mean we don't get to stay out late playing in the creek. Let's just make sure we are still playing in that creek. Let's make sure we see humour in things and be silly from time to time versus always being paralyzed by making the "right decisions". 

Things will come your way. Yup. Sometimes. And, sometimes, we will still experience pain. It's not all or nothing. It might just make life a little more enjoyable if we are living a little more spherically and childishly. Sounds better than being one dimensional and rigid, no?

Values

We all have values. You know, those standards we try to live according to. They are the areas we give importance to. There are tons of them: independence, health, creativity, self-acceptance, God's will, growth, knowledge, strength, stability, adventure, kindness, world peace, reliability and so on.   Have you thought about what your values are? Here are a few things to consider. 

Where to Start? 

It can be hard to think off the top of your head what it is that you value. Luckily, thanks to the internet, there are lists and lists of values already laid out. The Personal Value Care Sort exercise (W.R. Miller, J. C’de Baca, D.B. Matthews, P.L. Wilbourne, University of New Mexico, 2001) is great for helping sort through your values by putting them in one of the following three categories: very important to me, important to me or not important to me. What l like about this exercise is that it demonstrates how not all values are ranked the same in terms of importance. This knowledge can help in times when values compete.  More on that in a bit. I always find it interesting that everyone's columns are filled differently. After completing the exercise, was there anything that surprised you? Were there some values of importance to you that you have been neglecting? Was there a time in your life when you were more aligned? If yes, what was different? 

Our emotions are important sources of information. They are trying to communicate something to us. Next time, when you’re feeling guilty, unsettled or angry, stop and think if there is a value that’s been breached. This can help to identify what it is that’s of importance to you. Do you feel unsettled when running late? It could mean you value punctuality or reliability. Angry when someone keeps doing things for you that you think is reasonable to do for yourself? Maybe you value independence. 

Sometimes They Compete and/or Contradict.

Humans hold many different values, and sometimes, two values that are both important, compete. For example, one may value health (sleep) as well as reliability. For many, sleep is often sacrificed in order to get an assignment or presentation done on time. Some may find ways to honour both (working ahead, delegating, etc). While others may take the hit grade wise in order to stay rested.

It is also possible to hold contradictory values, which can lead to cognitive dissonance (mental discomfort by holding two contradictory values). This is where DBT (Dialectical Behaviour Therapy) does a great job in advocating that two opposing things can be equally true.  Just because your values are contradictory does not mean they (or you) are wrong. It is completely possible to value being social while also valuing solitude. When cognitive dissonance is present, try practicing radical acceptance, reminding yourself that "you are doing the best you can” and "it is what it is". 

What’s Getting in the Way of Living According to Your Values?

Sometimes acting according to one’s values is hard! There are many influences and factors that play into why one does or doesn’t do this. Having a sense of awareness to the barriers present is an important step as it then allows you the opportunity to come up with a different approach or plan. 

It can be helpful to think about how someone who is living according to value “X” would act, behave, think, carry themselves, engage, etc. Then, attempt to do the same. “Act as if” or “mimic” these behaviours until it becomes more natural or normal. If you value self-acceptance, people are likely showing themselves compassion and kindness (in words and actions). Start doing the same. It can also be helpful to have your values written down or typed out for you to see throughout the day. 

Sometimes They Aren't the Same as Other’s.

Relationships can be difficult when the players within it hold different values. Of course, us humans, like snowflakes, are made up of differing values and beliefs. This doesn't mean we can't be in relationship with someone who doesn't value what we value, however, it does mean we will need to learn how to navigate these differences. Usually, we can learn a lot from these differences. Other times, the differences are too great and can be deal breakers within the relationship (such as if one person values monogamy whereas another person is wanting an open relationship). Having a third party, such as a therapist, can be helpful when trying to navigate these differences. 

They Can Act as Anchors Admits Change/Uncertainty.

Life can feel pretty uncertain at times. There are many seasons of change that occur, some that leave us feeling untethered. The neat thing about values is that they go with you wherever you go. Yes, values can change over the course of time or experiences, however they are pretty constant pieces of ourselves. You typically don’t wake up one morning, all of a sudden, hating the value of fairness or creativity. Learn to trust this part of you and do your best to act according to them, especially in times of uncertainty. 

We Feel Better When We Live According to Them.

Think about the times you acted in a way that was consistent with your values. Now recall a time when you didn’t. How did you feel? Likely, there’s a difference. If honesty is of high importance to you, it makes sense that you would feel unsettled after we told a lie. Keep this in mind, especially when it's tough to do so. Play the tape/situation forward and imagine how you'd react/feel by following or not following your values.   

 

Trees, Lakes, Leaves and Dirt - Symbolism in Nature to Recovery and Wellness

Having grown up surrounded by vast forests on the shores of Lake Superior, the beauty and power of nature has always been a part of my life. Admittedly, one I took for granted. I often feel land locked since moving to Guelph, although make do by enjoying the rivers that run through it and/or by visiting various trails that surround it.  

In between my undergraduate degree and my masters, I took some courses in horticultural therapy*, taught by Guelph’s own, Mitchel Hewson. Having had a taste of horticultural therapy years before, knowing I was going to become a psychotherapist after my masters and my love of nature, it seemed like a good fit. I love, regardless of whatever the season, there are things we can take away from nature, applying them to recovery and/or health and wellness. 

Sometimes, we have to go through trauma in order to grow. There are some trees, such as the Jack Pine or Aspen, that require fire in order for the resin on its pinecones to melt and open. Only after this can its seeds emerge. Now, I’m not saying, we should go out and burn down all the forests for this to happen.  What I am saying, through the process of something initially thought as devastating, there can be benefits. Life teaches us lessons through various means. They don’t all occur after trauma, but some do. I often wonder if I would have learned about boundaries and assertiveness or the benefits of challenging distorted thinking at the age that I did without having gotten sick. Of course these skills can be taught/learned without trauma, but for some, it acts as a catalyst for growth.

We need to fertilize and water the soil in order for plants to thrive.  I have a few plants, mostly in my office, that are in desperate need of fertilizer and nutrients. The leaves are dry and droopy, and the green isn't as rich as it can or has been. Just like plants, we too need to feed and water ourselves if we want to grow. We can do this by literally nourishing our body’s physical needs with food and water.  We also have emotional, mental, social and spiritual needs tend to as well. Check out the post on self-care to learn more about meeting your 5 basic needs.

Bloom where you are planted… and when necessary relocate. The plants in my life are surviving… but they aren’t flourishing. The short winter hours and direction of sunlight are not optimal growth conditions. I know if I changed these conditions, it would thrive. I do think there is truth to trying to bloom where one is planted, and sometimes, you’ll do better if you relocate. I remember when I was in treatment, my friend sent me a quote: “Bloom where you are planted” (various sources cited). I get what she was trying to tell me: make the best of where you are right now, I know it’s tough, but it’s possible to flourish there.  She was right. I could have dug my heels in and resisted treatment, or I could use that opportunity to grow. And, I did. But, there came a point where if I wanted to keep growing, I needed to leave. 

Pruning required. Some trees require pruning for optimal fruit growth to occur. Otherwise, the tree will expend too much energy and nutrients in trying to feed all of its blooms and branches versus making a shorter distance to fewer branches. Sometimes it's fruit yield and quality suffers. We all do things that aren’t in our best growth interest. And, sometimes we do things that completely hinder growth. It's important, in the early stages of treatment, to focus on what solidifies recovery and builds a sturdy foundation. It's extremely difficult to prioritize this if there are 50 other demands requiring one's attention. There's only so much one can do before something gives. As your recovery/health/wellness strengthens, it's possible to take on more, however regardless of where you are in recovery, it's always good to take stock of where your resources are going and if its producing what you want. 

Plant near other trees.  As a kid, we had cherry trees growing in the back yard. The type of cherry tree we had required other cherry trees to be near by so they could pollinate each other. We too need one another for support and growth. We aren’t islands and don’t do well in isolation. Some need a lot of contact and stimulation from others to thrive, while others do better in smaller doses. One is not more right than the other. What's important is knowing and building the type of community that promotes and maintains growth.

*For more on horticultural therapy, check out: "Horticulture as Therapy" by Mitchel Hewson. 

Just Jump - Moving Towards Our Goals

I was watching a show the other night where contestants had to make their way through an obstacle course. One contestant found himself at the top of an obstacle, needing to jump across it in order to continue on. Simple enough right? Just jump? Worst case scenario, he doesn't clear the jump and lands in some water, foam or some other soft landing.  Yet, he couldn't do it.  He would reach out in preparation to lunge himself forward, then put his hands down as he decided on another approach. He'd do a squat, stand up, do another squat and so on. Up and down, step forward step back. He was mentally and physically stuck. And the longer he rethought his strategy, the harder it seemed for him to move forward. He eventually timed out.  

We have all been there.  We pass up an opportunity to go on a trip we've always wanted to go on, or we tell ourselves it's too late to learn a new skill or take part in a class of some sort. So, What can we do to help us move forward in reaching our goals or passions. How do we move past the fear?

Be Intentional and Act. Life has a way of passing us by and there are a lot of demands that bid one's attention. Set some time aside to think about what you want and what's getting in the way of moving towards it.  In making these goals, don't forget to make them S.M.A.R.T. to increase their likelihood of fulfillment. Then, make a point of taking the next steps towards meeting your goal. Don't just think about it, do. Even setting 5 minutes out of your day to work on your goal is better than nothing! Just start!

Make a list of what you want to do and break it down. There is nothing too big or too small that can't go on this list. Write it down. Some things may take longer to complete than others. That's okay! In the beginning, try knocking off some of the easier goals to help build confidence, experience and momentum.

Once you've picked something, break down the steps of what needs to happen for your goal to reach fruition. Want to learn how to swim? A sub-goal might be calling your local pool to see when they offer lessons. You won't have to do this for every goal you want to accomplish (sometimes it's helpful to just jump in), however other times, it might make the larger goal more manageable. It can also help you stay on track!

Recognize Your Emotion. It's okay that the goal or desire may bring up some fear, trepidation or some other feeling. Fear doesn't mean we shouldn't do something. Emotions aren't the only one who has access to the drivers seat. There's difference between being overcome by your emotions and acknowledging their presence. Remember to balance your emotions (and sometimes distance or defuse them) by focusing on your values and/or rational (wise mind).  

Take stock of your thoughts. Take a step back and check in to see if your thoughts are in line with your goals/passions/values. Challenge those thoughts that tell you you are too old or that it is too late. Also, watch out for those self-fulfilling prophecies. If you tell yourself you can't do pottery, you likely won't sign up for it, and you still will not have learnt how to make it. 

Replace "No" and "I Can't" with "Yes" and "I'll Give It a Try".  Pick a day to intentionally make an effort to saying 'yes' to things you would have typically said 'no' to. Have that as your goal for the day or week. See where that takes you. As always, safety is a priority. Common sense still applies. Unsure of what to say 'yes' to? Check it out with a therapist or trusted friend.  

Build Accountability.   Choose a few people you trust and tell them about your plans/goals. Learn which supports will encourage you versus those who tend to project their fears onto you. Think about what role you would like your supports to be. Need someone to accompany you? Would it be helpful to have someone check in on your progress every now and then? Maybe it's just helpful running your goals by someone else. 

Don't Expect Perfectionism, Embrace the Process. You might completely bomb in your attempt and steps towards reaching you goal. That's okay! We can't be good at everything we do and there is nothing wrong with that. Don't use this experience as a reason to stop trying new things or to feed into your negative self-perception. Re-frame the experience and move forward in a more positive light! 

What are your goals? What do you want to do next? Come on... let's start doing them!

Lessons on Self-Worth

There are those moments in life that stop you in your tracks and make you reflect. These moments often revolve around, although are not limited to, tragedy. I found myself in such an experience recently that made me reflect back to a time in my life when someone showed me kindness. Back then, I had a difficult time being able to show this to myself, let alone accept it from anyone else. When you struggle with low self-worth, it’s hard to understand or comprehend why on earth someone would go out of their way or do the unexpected for you. In this particular situation, the act of kindness came in the form of a black zip-up hoodie that was bought for me by a colleague, who left it for me for the next time I came to work. There were no-strings attached to this purchase. This person wasn’t “into” me. They were literally just being kind and thoughtful. 

I can’t recall, at the time, how I responded. Did I say, “you didn’t need to do this” or “you shouldn’t have”? I can imagine I felt somewhat guilty. I bet I thought how I now owed them to somehow balance or justify the act of kindness versus simply allowing it. I likely didn’t tell them (although, I finally told them this past week, 11 years later), how much it meant to me. How, during this time, my life felt very lonely and isolating. My mental health issues weren’t at their best. 

Now, I find myself in quite a different place. My self-worth is intact and present. How did I get here? Being into self-reflection, by trade and by personal curiosity, I have often thought about this over the years. As future volumes of wiTHIN come out, I do get into more detail regarding this process. In the meantime, here’s a few things that have shaped my journey to self-worth. 

My School and Job: I didn’t always know I wanted to be a therapist. Although, when I figured it out, I knew helping others help themselves also meant I needed to do the same. I’m lucky  that while studying, and now working, I get to talk about skills that foster health and wellbeing every single day… the same things I too need to practice. 

Growing up, I had this one coach who told me they would never ask me to do something they hadn’t had to do themselves or at least weren’t willing to do. I carry this practice with me. It would seem strange if I said to my clients, “believe in yourself, have self-worth’ and yet didn’t share in this same belief.

Therapy: I wouldn’t be where I am without numerous mental health care providers who walked alongside me as I looked, avoided, took a break from, re-looked and worked on my stuff. I needed help to sort through all the distorted thoughts, beliefs and behaviours I had carried with me over the years. I needed to learn and implement (key word) what I was being taught in therapy.  I didn’t get to where I am today overnight. It was a process and I stumbled a lot. I’m still human with insecurities. The difference is, I have a healthier way of dealing with them now, (and in the future) than I did years ago. 

I also needed to learn what my values were. Not what I thought they ‘should’. I needed to figure out what I thought and held dear to me. Then, every day, attempt to live accordingly.

Modelling: Certain professors, therapists, colleagues, friends and mentors all had an influence on helping me realize my self-worth… because they themselves modelled it. I’d catch glimpses of it through their behaviour: how they carried themselves by holding their heads high and looked you in the eye, how they talked assertively, the way they took risks, the way they stood up for themselves and others, they way they implemented boundaries. All these interactions showed me there was another way other than how I was living my life. I then tried to mimic their behaviours. I did what they did in the beginning. 

In time, I had to learn that my self-worth existed outside of these people. That was a hard lesson to learn. It scared me to say good-bye and to not have them in my life the various ways they had been. It took time to realize my self-worth was not dependent on them. I had to learn I could stand tall even if I didn’t hear it from them anymore. I needed to internalize it. I did internalize it.

Saying Good-bye, Welcoming Change: In learning what healthy relationships  and behaviours looked like, both towards myself and others, I had to make changes in my life. There were some relationships I choose to say good-bye to, even if that meant feeling lonely at times. I needed to trust that as I got healthier, I would find healthy people. Sometimes they would fall into my lap, other times I had to take more action to find them. I also had to say good-bye to behaviours and lifestyle choices that did not foster self-worth. Whether that was the eating-disorder or other destructive coping mechanisms. 

Learning to Say “Thank You”: In learning to accept my self-worth, I had to stop justifying why it was okay for me to have self-worth. I had to trust that as a human being, I had it. It didn’t matter what sport I did, what my weight was, who my friends were etc. Self-worth existed for the sole fact my heart was beating. No ifs, ands or buts. It just was what it was. And, because it was what it was, I had to stop trying to find a loop hole. I started by just saying “thank you” when other’s showed kindness or gratitude.  

Realizing and Trusting Self-Worth Feels Better Than the Alternative: There comes a point when you have to do something different, because what you have been doing just doesn’t work any more. Building healthy relationships, getting enough sleep, eating properly, taking the time to self-care, using skills etc. feels so much better than when I don’t. It doesn’t mean there isn’t pain, hurt and tragedy in life, but I now don’t need to add to it by believing I suck, or that I can never change. It feels good to know people love me and to be able to accept it (boundaries still apply). I had to trust this feeling. And, in the beginning, it felt weird, strange and unfamiliar. Like most things, the more you expose yourself to it, the more you become accustomed to it… the more you can own it.

"Stress Me Out"!

In high school, my most said expression was, "Stress me out". Check my yearbook, I'm not lying. I wish I did more to help myself out during this time other than simply vocalize it (although that's a start). I didn't have the skills then that I do now. If you have a pulse, at some point in your life, you will (and likely already have) experienced stress. It's not just something you experience while "adulting". It touches people at any age range. So, if it's part of the human experience, might as well learn some skills to cope and manage it, right? Right!

Stress Comes in All Forms. There's this misconception that stress only occurs in negative situations (ie: losing a job, financial pressures/worries, death, illness, injury, etc). Not so! Stress can also occur in positive situations as well (ie: having a baby, moving cities for a dream job, getting married, etc). These situations may be things you are looking forward to, but they are also, demanding something from you. Stress doesn't necessarily have to be foreshadowing of doom and gloom. Having an understanding that stress can occur in both positive and negative events can help us understand, prepare and/or cope.

Awareness. It can be helpful to take an stress inventory (such as the Holmes-Rahe Stress Inventory) to assess potential contributing factors. Sometimes, people know they are stressed, but do not know why. Or, they may brush off the events in their lives as 'nothing' when that 'nothing' might actually be 'something'. Stressful events can also build up. You may not have experienced the death of a spouse, but stress can still be felt through an accumulation of smaller events as well. Once you have awareness, then you can do something about it, and even be proactive!

Limits. It's okay to know what you can and can't manage. There is no shame in this. Knowing you are about to enter a stressful season might mean you don't take on anything 'extra'. Family coming to visit over the next holiday? It might be a good time to hold off on starting your kitchen renovations or decreasing your medications you've been hoping to get off of, etc. There's no need to be a martyr and take on more than you can handle. This will likely stress you out more, as well as those around you.

Food, Sleep and Exercise. The more and more I work in this field, I am constantly reminded and reinforced around the benefits of having a normalized, healthy relationship with food, sleep and exercise. Often, when one of these areas gets pushed to the sidelines, trouble is looming. Maintaining balance in these areas alsobuilds resiliency. Sure, things come up and your routine may get jostled around some. The idea isn't to be perfect, as it is to do the best you can in meeting each of these needs. Can't get outside for that hour walk you normally do everyday? 15-30 minutes is still better than nothing, or maybe you decide to go every other day. Thinking of staying up an extra two hours to study for that midterm? Let that temptation pass. Stop. Eat. Sleep. These things are so important. Your body, mind and mental health appreciate it!

Routine/Schedule/Normalcy. Don't try to 'wing it'. There is a benefit to having a plan when it comes to managing stressful situations/events. Try planning out what needs to get done and when. We don't always have the luxury of foresight, but there is something to say about following some sort of routine and schedule. A sense of familiarity can also be comforting when life gets thrown upside down. If you always enjoyed meeting with your Monday night bridge group, still try to do this. Whatever you are dealing with will likely still be there afterwards. Give yourself permission to do the things you can that bring normalcy as well as bit of a break. And, if bridge is the last thing you can handle right now, maybe you skip a week or three. 

Check Your Thoughts. As always, being flexible in thinking can be helpful when faced with stress. Challenge those black and white, all or none thinking styles. Keep an eye on that part of you that easily jumps to catastrophizing. Be aware of the "shoulds" that sneakily find a way into our vocabulary that only puts unnecessary pressure on ourselves. Change what you can, accept what you can't.

Lastly, Get Help. We can't do everything on our own all the time. It's okay to need someone to help you during stressful times, whether it's an objective third party (ie: like a therapist or social worker) or a friend. It's okay to ask for and receive help!