10 Reasons why you need The Emotional Extremist’s Guide to Handling Cartoon Elephants book this holiday season

1. The Cartoon Elephant book, after being temporarily unavailable through Amazon, is now back on the market. The retail price is $26.95, but sometimes Amazon will let it go for a bit less.

2. Cartoon Elephants approach painful emotions with humor. If there is an elephant in the room in your family, this book is the starting point for approaching avoided conversations. You will recognize yourself and others in this book. There is no finger pointing or blaming.
3. Cartoon Elephants is something you can put on your coffee table. Because it is a graphic book with pictures and fun fonts, it is an easy read. The elephants will fit nicely next to big picture books about Africa and Asia.
4. The Cartoon Elephant book is being used to teach people in Dialectical Behavior Therapy skills groups about emotions. Loaded with psycho-educational material and teaching points, it cleverly accomplishes the task of making people think they are reading something fun yet giving them something valuable.
5. This book is not hard to read. There is no “plugging away” at chapters. If you want to bring something to someone’s attention in a way that is universally applicable, this book will do the trick. You don’t need to have painful emotions to appreciate elephants- you just need to have emotions.
6. If you are going to buy someone a self-help book for Christmas, this is safe bet.
Whether they believe it or not, everyone has cartoon elephants. The research proving this to be true is cited in the back of the book.
7. This book can be used and re-used, read and re-read. You can share it with family members, friends, or long lost relatives. It won’t go out of style. Emotions, as a rule, will be with you as long as you live.
8. You will get some food for thought about how and where you see yourself in relationship to your elephants. This is great for discussion groups, weekend retreats, and writing workshops.
9. This book is great for people of all ages. If you’re trying to get your kid to read something important, heavy, and deep, you can give them this book. It won’t take long to read and it is much more fun with illustrations.
10. The book will be the perfect introduction for my live series on emotions starting January 20, 2014. Of course you don’t need the book to sign up, but if you have the book you will have a better appreciation for cartoon elephants in general.



Loneliness and the New Year

Loneliness may have to do with a feeling as if something is missing. A loss of connection, a loss of relationship, a loss of well-being, or a loss of what could or should have been.

New Years Eve may bring up a loneliness for several people, and may be related to anxiety or discouragement regarding:

  • Personal failures or setbacks over the course of the year
  • Uncertainty about how to be around the people currently in your life
  • The relationships you think you should have but don’t
  • Comparisons to others who may be having “more fun” or “a better time” than you
  • Not being invited or included in the way that you think you should be
  • Not feeling a sense of connection to anyone
  • Anxiety about what it means for you (on this particular day of the year) to not be in the place you want in your life right now

Loneliness can happen to people who are surrounded by family during the holidays, to married couples, to engaged couples, to divorced people, to single people, to people who are with the people they want to be with, and to people who have a wide range of established connections and meaningful relationships.

Just like pain, loneliness doesn’t discriminate across ethnicity, class, gender, age, or social economic status.

There is always someone who is lonely!


  • If anxious indecision is part of your pain, accept whatever it is you have chosen to do (who you are with and how you will spend your time) to bring in the New Year
  • Find a way to acknowledge loneliness, even if the only thing you are doing is reading this blog post
  • Bear in mind that loneliness is not a reflection of personal failure on your behalf
  • Spend the holiday in such a way that is the most meaningful to you despite your loneliness
  • If there is someone you could reach out to or make a connection with- consider doing it
  • Remember that this too, shall pass

6 quick tips on mindfully navigating the holidays when you aren’t “feeling” it

Notice what you feel without judging. Sometimes people believe that if they don’t feel a certain way, they are missing out on some kind of grand, spiritual, or wonderful experience. I am reminded of the Charlie Brown Christmas special in which he doesn’t feel like he “should”.  Not everyone is awed, exhilarated, or spiritually “moved” this time of year.

Accept and acknowledge the mundane, the everyday, or the not-so-wow experiences this season.  Remember that the glue that holds us together in the smaller, everyday nuances of our existence and our relationships also has meaning. Foster the relationships that matter.

If you want to feel more connected and less detached, practice ways to participate willingly, go with the flow, risk being open, and become involved. Volunteer, show up for the holiday parties, attend services, and remain attentive and awake to what is going on around you. Although it is possible that exerting energy takes effort (and may not completely diminish loneliness), it gives you an option to temporarily shift your mood.

Find the stillness within– Crowds, shopping, to do lists, and holiday planning can be overwhelming. Finding stillness within yourself can help you cope adaptively, slow things down, find your wisdom, and stay grounded.  Bear in mind that you have the ability to find inner wisdom, but sometimes emotions and other people can get in your way of finding it. Try the suggestions below:

Find 2-5 minutes once a day from now until Christmas to sit quietly, observe your breath, and gently pay attention to whatever sensations arise within you. After sitting quietly, try writing: I notice… I would like… I feel…I sense…I think…I am aware of…I am most worried about…

If you are out shopping or involved in intense holiday planning, make sure that you don’t skip meals or shop on an empty stomach. Take periodic breaks that include sitting down and being away from loud noises, bright lights, and crowds. Consider what you need and the cost/ benefit of overestimating your energy and pushing yourself too hard.

7 Tips for handling stressful holiday interactions:

Try to plan your interactions or the time you spend with family in such a way that you can take “breaks” from emotional intensity.  This can include limiting or structuring the time you spend together, planning for short periods apart (ie, going for a walk), suggesting that you need a few minutes to clear your head, or keeping some things routine. Long periods of unstructured time can invite boredom or agitation.

Consider: “My family member is doing the best they can right now.” Instead of thinking “Seriously? That’s all they can DO?” Think of them as limited, finite human beings. Instead of doing this in a condescending way, try a stance of gentle acceptance. We are all bound to be disappointed in people we care about and sometimes it is just hard to deal with.

Appreciations: Try focusing on one thing about each family member that you like, respect, honor, or value. Make it a point to tell this to each family member. Sometimes when people hear what they are doing well they are less likely to generate conflict

If you exit, do it with grace. Don’t add insult to injury, make things worse, or behave in a way in which you would lose your own self-respect. If you can’t do anything to make it better, don’t rub salt in old wounds.  Try to plan ahead how you would cope adaptively if the “worst case scenario” were to happen.

If you are a person who focuses on controlling everything, pick one thing ahead of time that you are not going to try to control. Practice letting go, accepting what is, and acknowledging it openly. No critical comments allowed. 

If loss is a theme for you this holiday, do something special to honor the person in your life who is missing. Talking about what this person meant to you, how much you cared for him/her, or how you spent time together might help. Sometimes family members need to be invited to honor their sadness because they are so busy avoiding it. If no one is there to honor your own sadness with you, see if you can find a way to honor sadness within yourself.

Ways of being together as a family: Topics for everyone to share: Talk about a highlight of the week, a favored memory of a family event, a recent accomplishment, something they did this year to increase their quality of life, what each of you wants 5 years from now, or wishes that each family member has for each other.

Mindfulness for the holiday season: Christmas and the New Year

December is a time of year in which our sensations can be easily bombarded. It’s easy to get stressed about Christmas shopping, overcrowded malls, travel plans, holiday parties, familial obligations, and in some cases, snowstorms.  The practice of being mindful is the intentional practice of focusing attention on one thing. Focused attention calms and settles the mind, and circumvents the rat race of disorganized, divided, and unfocused attention. It is a way to come back to the current moment and show up for everything the moment has to offer.

Here are three different ways of being mindful this holiday season:

Five minutes of breathing:

Sit quietly for five minutes and focus on the rise and fall of your breath. Every time you notice your mind wandering or your attention scattered, bring your attention back to the rise and fall of your breath. This may be a useful exercise to do after driving in bad traffic, being in a crowd, or after coming home from work.

Savor sensation: Take a few moments to take in the entire experience of the following:

  • The taste of peppermint. Do you really taste peppermint when you eat it?
  • Do you ever notice how the air changes as it grows colder? Try figuring out how the air smells or tastes. I’ve noticed the winter air to be crisp, bitter, biting, heavy, cold, damp, salty, and even woody.
  • Pay attention to tastes and smells that you enjoy- in other words, don’t pass them up or take them for granted when you notice them.

Show up for the moment…even if the moment brings pain

Sometimes people experience a great deal of sadness during the holidays: Spending holidays alone, spending a “first” holiday after losing a loved one during the year, or being reminded of recent losses or relationships ruptures.

If sadness is part of your holiday, consider:

  • Reflecting on what is important and meaningful
  • Allowing yourself to grieve deeply and fully, to cry openly, to acknowledge everything you experience with your heart wide open
  • Honor what has been lost
  • Be gentle and tender with yourself

Singing, carols, generosity of spirit, pageants, and performances can move people deeply.  If joy is part of your holiday

  • allow yourself to be moved to tears
  • fully experience, absorb, take in, and reflect on what you have
  • share with others what you appreciate or love
  • allow for the positive
  • recognize times in your life in which things have been difficult- and how different they are for you now.

Wishing you a holiday in which your experiences are rich and meaningful- I will be back at my blog posting in 2012!

An exercise in mindfulness: Thanksgiving turkeys

In my groups, we spend time at the beginning doing some sort of exercise to slow down, pay attention, come into the room, and notice what is going on.  Some of these exercises are specifically directed at paying attention to the breath. When breathing is slowed, paced, and regulated, a person has a better tendency to think clearer and become organized. Using the breath to regulate emotion, attention, and physical arousal is a very critical skill that frequently gets forgotten about in the heat of the moment- especially a very emotional moment.

Breathing exercises can sometimes be difficult. If you were to spend five minutes trying to focus just on your breath, you may notice spacing out, thinking about other things, and generally not paying much attention to the physical aspects of your breath. Therefore, breathing exercises may sometimes be paired with counting, walking, or other more concrete methods to help you get in touch- and stay in touch- with your breath.

Here is an exercise that is a tangible way of following the breath– and can easily be taught to young children as a way to self-regulate. Place your hand on a piece of paper and trace around it. Every time you move up to the tip of a finger, inhale. Every time you move down to the crevice between your fingers, exhale. Try to work on slowing down your breath so that it is even and steady. When you are done, start over. Keep Mindful Turkeygoing until you notice feeling calmer, slower, steadier, and perhaps more connected. Be gentle and notice any frustration if it doesn’t “work” right away.

One way to do this exercise is to keep tracing and re-tracing back your hand on one piece of paper. Another way to do this exercise is to not use paper and pen at all, but to trace your fingers with your other hand. This method can be used when you are out and about, in a meeting, or (depending on subtly it’s done) even talking to other people.

However, if you trace a new outline on new paper each time, you can start to accumulate several pieces of paper. If you’d like to add a beak and draw in some feathers on your “hands”, you can start to ask yourself: How many turkeys does it take to get calmed down? If you get really good and regulating your emotions by regulating your breath, you may find that over time the number of turkeys it takes will eventually go down.

Autumn mindfulness

This week for mindfulness I am asking my participants to look at a leaf as if they have never seen it before. The instructions include observing the leaf carefully, looking closely at its color, breathing in its earthy leaf-smell, and paying attention to its texture.

The leaves of autumn come in all shapes, sizes, and colors. Some have bright colors and some have unusual patterns. Some have holes, rips, or tears. Some have started to turn brown and some have black spots on them. Some are wet and slimy and others are brittle and crunchy. Some are visually appealing and some are less appealing to look at.

Mindfulness is about being able to observe what is in front of us, without dismissing or evaluating, without throwing away or ignoring, and without inhibiting or suppressing. Sometimes what we observe is not pleasant. Sometimes we do not like what we observe, or we wish for things to be different. Sometimes we see what others are holding, or observing, or turning over in their palm- and we wish that our leaves were as exciting or pretty.

When we look carefully at the details of an autumn leaf, we start to see things that we haven’t bothered to see. Perhaps we are fascinated by the tiny detail of texture. Perhaps we are struck by the brilliance in color. Perhaps a mottled pattern draws us. Perhaps we notice liking, or not liking, or irritation, or impatience. Perhaps we notice jealousy.

When we can see what is in front of us- reality as it is on its own terms- we can give it our full attention. When we can give it our attention, we can start to get our minds around it. We can go through the necessary- even if painful- steps of what it is going to take to move through it instead of around it. We stop avoiding. We may start to see things not seen before. We increase awareness. We have new information- even if it is clarity about our own emotions.

Look carefully this week at things you don’t want to see. See if you can notice, gently, with willingness and awareness, the things that are easier to ignore or avoid. Allow for this to be.

Finding joy this holiday season…Yeah, right…

Creating positive life experiences is critical if you are down, depressed, unhappy, and without joy. This generally involves a few steps- a necessary first one includes making the time for pleasant events. This means actively seeking out what is desired, what matters, and what is important. But creating positive life experiences is more than just looking for positive life experiences. It also means being willing to absorb, receive, feel, and benefit from them once they show up.

Here is a list of not-so-un-common factors that can really get in the way of experiencing joy:

*Thinking or believing that if you express joy, contentment, or happiness people will think that you “don’t have anything to be upset about”, thus making your pain invalid; or that people won’t “get it” if you show contentment/ receive comfort.

*Thinking or believing that you don’t deserve happiness, contentment, or joy.

*Minimizing, attacking, or downplaying small moments of happiness, joy, or contentment (“This is trite/boring/dumb”).

*Becoming critical, judging yourself, or constantly comparing yourself to others to who have what you want.

*Thinking or believing that you were born with innate or problematic characteristics (You don’t get to have positive experiences because there is something fundamentally wrong with you).

*Minimizing or downplaying what you like, what you want, or what you experience.

*Avoiding letting people know what you like/want so they won’t “get you”, expect things from you, or have the option of getting close to you

*Hypervigilance for the next “bomb” that’s going to drop

*Avoiding happy people at all costs because it highlights the fact that you are missing out big time.

Looking for joy in the moment is a skill that takes practice, time, commitment, and in some cases, quite a bit of effort. It involves your participation in the fullest way possible. It’s about jumping in, taking risks, expressing curiosity, showing up, and being alive.

Sometimes it means letting go of what gets in the way of joy, and sometimes that involves risk.

Acceptance, pain, and the holidays

It’s interesting to me to hear from persons receiving psychotherapy services how they observe changes in themselves, but when returning to certain contexts, family situations, or holiday “scenes” they experience the same frustrations and interactions that have been happening with family members for years. Returning to old environments can be an extremely potent in evoking old, familiar, and even painfully uncomfortable feelings- more so than what some people realize. Old patterns of interacting start happening despite the best of intentions to step back, not “attack”, or somehow magically not be hurt or pained in the same way that has happened in the past.

Here are a few helpful suggestions:

1) Just because no one else observes painful or ugly interactions doesn’t mean that what you notice has no merit. Sometimes it’s hard to think of your reactions as valid or useful when there is a “stuck” quality in the interactions- even if there really isn’t space for you to say it out loud. You may need to save it and say it out loud in other, more receptive settings.

2) Radical acceptance is one of my favorite skills for a reason. Despite the fact that I certainly can never accept all things at all times, I nonetheless believe it is a skill worth revisiting again and again and again. Allow for whatever is. Notice emotions in the room. Notice your own emotions. Notice urges to control, interrupt, or attack. Notice if there is a constant need to save face or stand up for yourself.

3) Consider: “My (family member) is doing the best they can right now, and that is all they can do.” Instead of thinking: “SERIOUSLY?? That’s ALL they can DO?” try to come up with reasonable, valid, and compassionate reasons for their behavior. Sometimes when we recognize the limits of people around us, sadness creeps in around what has been lost, missed out on, or left unsaid. Sometimes what others can give us just isn’t enough of what we want or need from them. This too is part of wholehearted acceptance of what is, in the very moment it is.

4) Try to think of what you like or appreciate about the person, and make an attempt to comment on it. Simple things such as being picked up from the airport or the effort of preparing a nice meal is fair game (of course, don’t be sarcastic!). Highlighting what is valued can increase positive emotions and set the tone for more pleasant interactions- and may take some willingness on your part to ignore or overlook what is driving you nuts.

5) Structure your time if at all possible. Family stressors can be exacerbated by boredom, poor planning, being taken out of your “regular” schedule, or feeling overburdened/ overwhelmed with cooking and cleaning. Take breaks to catch up with supports outside of family, plan for “down time”, and/or plan to get out of the house (exercise, movies, libraries, museums, church).