When you have no reason to feel the way you feel

People tell me all the time that they don’t deserve to feel the way they feel. When they start to feel sad/distressed/upset, they immediately think of all the positive things they have in their lives, convince themselves that they have no reason be upset, and spend a considerable amount of time in their heads trying to argue away the existence of their emotions. The problem with this kind of response is that it doesn’t make emotions disappear in the long run.

If you are one of these people who has “no reason” to feel the way you feel, here are a couple of things you can try:

1)   Make a list of all the stressors going on in your life. Brainstorm every little thing, even if it seems small. Little things (like an annoying smell) can actually create a lot more stress than actually realize. Doing this exercise can help you actually identify the extent of your stressors. Some people find it quite validating.

2)   Identify if there have been recent changes, losses, or shifts in relationships or life situations that have been hard on you. Sometimes these things seem subtle; such as no longer being able to have lunch with a friend who is suddenly preoccupied with something else in his/her life. This person may have a good reason to stop meeting with you, but the interactions and what they meant to you are suddenly no longer available. This naturally may elicit sadness.

3)   Consider if your environment tends to diminish, dismiss, or ignore your requests to be heard, get your point across, or communicate what you feel. Sometimes people end up in pretty harsh environments and then blame themselves when others ignore or dismiss them.

4)   Even if you can’t figure out why, try focusing instead on the what. What you feel is experienced in your body. A tightness in the chest, a pit at the bottom or your stomach, or a sense of restlessness and agitation are all feelings. When you focus on the what, try to make space for the experience of your feelings to simply exist, without you trying to change them. Your feelings are probably trying to tell you something! This is the opposite of what you do when you can’t figure out why (i.e., ruminate endlessly, suppress feelings, and try to talk yourself out of experiencing what is felt). Give yourself the opportunity to simply allow feelings to be-without a wordy, logistical, or rational explanation.

 

Three mindfulness exercises to use right now to quiet your mind and focus your attention

One of the reasons mindfulness is used is to get yourself calm. If you are a person with a lot of anxiety, your anxiety might get in your way of handling problems, thinking clearly, or addressing something with your full attention.

Mindfulness is one way to lower emotional arousal, center yourself, and help you get back on track. When emotional arousal returns to baseline, accessing the problem solving part of your brain becomes easier.

1)   Inhale to the count of one, exhale to the count of two. Keep going until you get to the bottom of six. Start over. Do this for about three minutes. If you get lost or distracted simply start over. The point is to have something to focus your attention on; which helps cut the distractions of your mind.

2)   Trace your hand. Inhale on the way to the tips of your fingers, exhale on the way to the crevice. This can be done with pen/ pencil on paper or with the finger of the opposite hand. This is a tactile way to “trace” your breath and focus your mind. Keep your attention on your breath.

3)   Pause for three minutes and focus your attention entirely on sound. Try to tune in to every possible nuance of sound. See what you can hear that you typically don’t pay attention to. If your mind drifts, bring it gently back to the experience of hearing.

When individual therapy with adolescents doesn’t work

Individual outpatient therapy with adolescents can sometimes be limited in that

1) It can fall into Question and Answer sessions-losing the spontaneity and flow of a helpful interaction

2) Adolescents have shorter attention spans, and keeping them focused on painful topics on purpose can be, well, painful!

3) Sharing personal information with an adult you don’t know, but were paired up with because your parents are making you, doesn’t always have the desired results.

4) Adolescents aren’t necessarily going to do things differently because an adult is telling them to.

Group therapy has several advantages in that

1) Its members will be able to tell your daughter if they like it, how it is helpful, and what it has done for them.

2)  It is private (no one knows each other outside of the groups) and participation can be minimal (it doesn’t have to be about you all the time).

3) Group members can help each other think things through, make decisions, look at consequences, generate feedback, and put words on experiences in way that an adult provider may not be able to.

4) Talking about peer situations leads to identifying oneself in peer situations- thus what matters is sometimes brought up by someone other than yourself- or an adult, who may not have a clue.

(Hey! I’m not in high school anymore!)

Click here to see more on what group can do for your daughter. 

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.

 

 

10 things you can do to survive painful life situations

1) Remember what matters. Consider the connections you have and what your current relationships mean to you. Do something today to honor those relationships, even it if is just expressing appreciation or liking.

2) Look for meaning in the current situation; including spirituality, faith, understanding, vulnerability, and connection. Sometimes our own painful situations get us to take our guard down, soften our stance, and risk letting others in.

3) Keep in mind the “bigger picture.” How do you think you will be looking at this situation in ten years? Sometimes focusing on our current pain prevents us from seeing reality in perspective.

4) Sometimes, when we are in pain, we look around us and see how other people don’t have to go what we go through. Instead, consider what you have right now that someone else would want (A job, an able body, health, a place to live, a relationship, a child, a parent, someone to love you, a garden outside your window).

5) Consider rehearsing, imagining, or writing out a scenario in which you cope adaptively. The key is that you don’t avoid reality and that you respond in such a way that you maintain your self-respect.

6) If you can’t solve a big problem right now, solve smaller problems. Sometimes taking care of smaller problems gives us a sense that we are doing something as opposed to being passive or helpless.

7) Give your mind a “break” by planning adaptive distractions that have nothing to do with your current life stressors. Sometimes perseverating on a painful situation makes us think that we are actually doing something to solve it.

8) Take care of your health. Remember that physical activity can help you “shift gears” by releasing endorphins and changing your physiological arousal. Don’t forget to eat. When you eat, pause and actually taste the food.

9) The only way to get through a situation is to survive the moment. Instead of denying, avoiding, or escaping the moment, breathe into it. This moment too shall pass.

10) Consider how you typically respond to a crisis. Do you do anything to make it worse, such as complete avoidance, threats, or escalations? Take the first step towards doing what works. Be effective and do what is needed, even it if is hard.

What should you do with the elephant in the room?

The elephant in the room usually refers to the thing that’s not being said. Typically the thing that is not being said should be obvious, but it is not.

Things that don’t get said have a tendency to create a bit of stress! Consider what happens if what needs to get said doesn’t get said.

  • It becomes avoided
  • No one brings it up
  • You think someone else should bring it up
  • By not talking about it, it gets ignored
  • Ignoring it makes it worse
  • Ignoring it makes it so that others continue to do and say things that create problems or are hurtful

Generally the cost of bringing the elephant into the room is one in which people have to contend with something big.

If the big thing is in the room, this might generate anxiety or even anger. The participants in the room would have to tolerate a conversation in which stuff was out in the open, even if it meant dealing with things that are hard to talk about. However, if the elephant could be invited in to the room and managed, it might just be the case that elephants would eventually become easier to handle.

One quick tip for bringing the elephant into the room is to describe in an accurate, matter-of-fact way what you have observed. This helps lower defensiveness and doesn’t come across as an attack. Keep your tone of voice neutral and curious, and be ready to hear the other person out- even if what they are saying is hard to hear. Consider that the other party may find it just as difficult to talk about, and it may take more than one try to bring the elephant into a place where it can be seen for what it is.

Consider: What is it costing you to keep the elephant out of the room? 

On being “right”: Demystifying the “stiff and rigid” cartoon person from The Emotional Extremist’s Guide to Handling Cartoon elephants.

StiffRigid2 copySometimes being “right” has to do with maintaining a sense of justification, power, or virtue. Sometimes being “right” has to do with feeling valued or heard, or even finding others to support your point of view. Sometimes it has to do with taking sides, feeling validated, or knowing that you have something important to add that is being left out of the equation. Sometimes being “right” has to do with not sacrificing a point of view, a perspective, or an observation.

Sometimes, when people feel emotionally threatened, they focus on the “right”-ness of where they are coming from. When threatened, attention is often narrowed and constricted to the threat- thus making it difficult to shift perspective, see things from different points of view, or understand the person who is identified as a threat. Sometimes being “right” has a certain quality, characteristic, or experience that feels guarded, shut down, or even restricted. It’s a way of being that builds walls, doesn’t let other people in, and sends a strong message. It builds a dichotomy in which one person has the upper hand, and the other person doesn’t.

Sometimes people need to be “right” to gain a sense of influence, power, or importance in a relationship or situation. Being “right” may have to do with making a statement, communicating something strongly or clearly, or not yielding to an expectation. It may have to do with mattering.

Sometimes being “right” means sacrificing a relationship, failing to get along with someone, or being seen as someone who is approachable. This can create difficulties in important and unavoidable relationships.

Sometimes being “right” isn’t so much about being non-negotiable as much as it is about trying to define values, being clear about how much you can take, knowing that you can no longer make the sacrifices you are making, or suddenly realizing the demand that someone is placing on you. Sometimes it is difficult to define the “right”-ness of your experience and keep important relationships.

Here are some ways in which you might re-consider being “right”:

  • Even if you are “right”, consider the impact that communicating being “right” has on the relationship.
  • Stop thinking about one person being “right” and the other person being “wrong.” Start thinking about it as “this is my experience” and “this is the experience of the other person.” Make space for them to be different.
  • Sometimes it makes sense to simply stop bringing it up. Refraining from pointing out your point of view can challenge you to tolerate differences, anxiety, or some other threat in order to make for better relationships. Making strong overtures in which you are constantly proving your point can exhaust any conversation.
  • If you are in the middle of one of those conversations that bring out the “I have to be right” in you, consider having the conversation while practicing loose and floppy (refer to the cartoon elephant book for more specific guidelines!).
  • Consider what you would lose if you found out conflicting information that challenges your “right”-ness. What’s the threat?

PS- Want to get a free Cartoon Elephant book? Make sure you check out the last blog post for details…

Get your cartoon elephants (emotions) some air!

Air1 copy

Here are some tips for breathing:

  • Put one hand on your stomach and one hand on your chest. When you breath deeply – into your diaphragm- the hand on your stomach will go up and down. This is one way to develop a feedback loop that will help you breathe in such a way that gets oxygen where it needs to be. Shallow breathing, hiccupy breathing, or shortness of breath can often induce panic like sensations, and can be reflected in the rise and fall of the upper chest.
  • When you breathe, think of ways in which are simply creating space for what you feel. Counteract urges to restrict, suppress, ignore, judge, or inhibit what you feel. Breathe in, around, and through emotions. Practice gently curiosity- soften your stance and allow what’s there to be there. Try softening your facial expression to encourage and invite the process.
  • Find a time during the day to check in with your breath. It’s often when we’re NOT paying attention to our breath that we can make the best use of this simple and accessible skill.

Like cartoon elephants? Sign up for my mailing list to receive notifications on when the book is ready: The emotional extremist’s guide to handling cartoon elephants: How to solve elephantine emotional problems without getting run over, chased, flattened, squished, or abandoned by your true cartoons.

 

 

How to change the behavior of someone you care about deeply

First, acknowledge what you cannot control. When others do things that are destructive, hurtful, irritating, annoying, or have painful consequences, the acknowledgement itself is simply a way in which you are looking and seeing what is actually going on. Not wanting something to be true, ignoring the fact that it is happening, attacking the person for the behavior, and making threats often reflects an inability to accept and acknowledge what is there. Often people don’t want to accept reality because it means something very painful. The acceptance of what is and the acknowledgement of what you cannot control can lessen the drama around the fight. It can also get people unstuck from repetitive impasses. However, it often means grieving what has been lost.

Next, do something for the relationship itself. Having a strong relationship will make you much more powerful and influential than having a rocky or weak relationship. One way to do this is to focus on what you appreciate, value, or like about the other person. Make it a point to express this directly. Another way to do this is to create time together in which you actively listen to what the other person has to say. Don’t interrupt or disagree- instead, just see if you can focus on understanding how they see things. Pay attention carefully to thoughts, experiences, feelings, and opinions. See if you acknowledge how they see things- even if you don’t see them that way. You may want to simply reflect and summarize what they are saying, and use statements like “If I understand you correctly…” Try to be gentle, warm, and receptive. Temporarily suspend efforts to fix or control their behavior.

Finally- if you desperately want them to stop doing something that is hurtful- focus on naturally occurring consequences of their behavior. When you try to control or change someone’s behaviors by threatening, being coercive, or being cold and withholding, it could really damage the relationship. Be direct in expressing your own feelings and reactions about their behavior- without making threats. You will be more powerful and influential when the relationship is strong, spending time with the person is a pleasant experience, and you are liked. Therefore, treat the other person as capable of choosing. Treat them as an equal. When they are fully aware of the realistic, natural, unwanted and painful consequences of their actions, their options for choosing increase. Consider your role as an ally who helps them think through their actions. There will be a big difference between (you) trying to control the outcome through threat or coercion vs. (them) having to face what they are doing and figure out what they want to do about it.

Repeat the steps. Sometimes you will be able to accept and sometimes you will not. Practice acknowledgment of what you cannot control over and over again. Build the relationship. You don’t have to ignore to deny what they are doing. You just have to have a way to address it in such a way that your voice matters, you don’t lose your own self-respect, and you don’t lose sight of what is important.