Should I Get Back On The Horse? Two Ways To Approach Your Fear That Won’t Work.

If you get thrown off a horse, should you get back on? Some people will suggest that you need to get back on the horse immediately so that you will gain mastery over your fears. If you don’t get back on the horse, then your fear will haunt you the rest of your life.

Is this really true? Here are some ways of approaching fear that isn’t very effective. The first is to fight your fears or treat the situation like a battle zone. It means taking the reins, having control of the situation, bucking up, grinning and bearing it, tightening your muscles, and powering through. It can be coercive and forceful. In some cases it means blinding yourself, dissociating or disconnecting from the fear, or minimizing or reducing the value of what your fear might be trying to tell you. Generally it is doing the thing that you are afraid of as a way to prove yourself or prove your point.

The reason this doesn’t work is because it often means engaging in life as if it is a battle. Staying in the battle field often means getting hurt, risking relationships with others, being coercive, or putting the other on the defensive. Getting back on a high strung or agitated horse to gain mastery over fears is not an effective way to manage fear.

The other ineffective way of handling fear is to completely avoid anything associated with the fear. This means that any mention of the feared object or situation is avoided. Conversations stop, people stop making eye contact, the air becomes stilted and stale, people avoid people, and people avoid a wide range of stimuli that becomes associated with the feared situation. The person may be humiliated that they gone thrown off a horse, so they go out of their way to hide it. While people lead perfectly fulfilled lives without riding horses, the person who can’t drive past a barn, watch a television show with a horse on it, have a conversation about what happened when they were thrown off a horse, or set foot on a farm may find themselves restricted in ways that have nothing to do with riding the horse itself.

Handling fear effectively means being able to approach the situation with a flexible style that involves both challenging oneself, listening to the validity of the fear, being kind to oneself, backing off when things are too overwhelming, identifying smaller steps to approach the fear, and figuring out why the situation/ issue/ activity is important to you.

Fear is a useful emotion in that it provides information about oneself and one’s situation. Fear protects us from danger, gets us out of threatening situations, and helps us cope adaptively. Fear can also be so extreme that it takes over our lives, restricts our ability to do the things that are important to us, or prevents us from having a life- the life we want.

Here are a few questions to help you figure out your fear:

  • What about the situation, event, activity, or relationship is important to you? You may decide not to ride horses ever again, but does this fear bleed over into other areas of life that prevent you from doing what matters? If riding horses is not important to you, and it doesn’t get in the way of your life otherwise, it may not be an issue.
  • What does your experience- and your fear- tell you? Your fear may be telling you that getting back on an agitated horse is indeed a bad idea. So don’t go out and get hurt if it isn’t necessary. If horses aren’t your thing, let it go and move on. Don’t let your humiliation keep you attacking something that isn’t going to service you.
  • If you want to approach your fears, what would be the smallest step? Watching a TV show about horses, visiting a barn, feeding a horse, brushing a horse, walking a horse, and hanging out with horses are all behaviors that don’t include absolute avoidance but don’t force you into a situation that is potentially unsafe. You could also ride a smaller, more mellow horse with the help of a trainer.
  • If you are going to do the smaller steps, don’t white knuckle it. Relax your facial muscles, soften your jaw, breath slowly/ deeply/ evenly, maintain an open body posture, and take in the situation fully. If this feels threatening, do a smaller step- or limit the time you spend doing the activity. For instance, you could watch a TV show about horses for one minute, five minutes, or fifteen minutes. If this doesn’t challenge you, up the ante by going out to a barn. Find your middle ground, back off when you are overwhelmed, give yourself credit for your efforts, treat yourself kindly, and challenge yourself at some point in the future when you are in a better place.

Manchester By The Sea- A Psychologist’s Point Of View On How To Work With Lee

Recently I went to see an excellent movie: Manchester By the Sea. Here are some thoughts I have about how I would work with Lee.

As a provider of clients who experience intense, severe, and painful emotions; Lee really does fit the bill. General questions that I might consider asking include: What would it take to reduce pain, survive loss, and manage or cope in a way that made things better? What would help Lee feel less stuck? What resources or connections could sustain him better, enable him to bear the weight of his pain, or enhance his quality of life? What could him grieve more fully and to get through this crisis? What is he doing that is working, and what is he doing that is not working? Could he be more likable to himself, sustain the burden or his guilt, or have more fulfilling relationships?

One agenda item I have is getting Lee to stop doing things that could potentially make his current situation worse. Often times I have clients who have severe emotional pain and it is so intense and unbearable that they are looking for any distraction to take away the pain. The distractions sometimes have a short-term effect of feeling better, which makes them hard to stop. However, in most cases these distractions can make problems worse- and are not effective long-term strategies to mitigate the severity of what they feel.

So one treatment agenda is to reduce risk taking or crisis-generating behavior. Specifically, Lee tends to get drunk, pick fights, and throw punches. The natural consequences for this behavior can result in serious injury, concussions, brain damage, head injuries, broken jaw, soreness, swelling, or other various medical trauma. Drinking heavily can result in poor decision-making, hangovers, dehydration, and liver damage. Other natural consequences of his behavior include legal problems, court dates, jail time, being seen as a threat in the community, increased relationship conflict, and isolation. Grabbing the gun of an officer might result in unintended harm to other people. Not only would Lee have the current dilemma of living with the intense and painful losses he has suffered, but he would have to address the above consequences in addition to everything he has already gone through.

Some people actually believe Lee’s behavior is justified. They would say that because he is in unbearable pain, he should be able to act the way he does. Or he should be let “off the hook” because his behavior is understandable. I would encourage those people to consider: Would you recommend your closest confident or best friend- who is deeply hurting- do something that could result in head trauma? Liver disease? Incarceration?

Another “justification” for Lee’s behavior is that he has significant guilt and self-hatred and he is trying to punish himself. After all, the law did not punish him enough! What would be an effective punishment, and how long does he need to punish himself for his actions? Are self-inflicted/ high-risk behaviors actually effective in making him feel less guilty? What if a police officer was shot by accident? What type of effective repair work needs to be done? What lifestyle habits could he change to prevent bad things from happening in the future? What would he need to do to redeem himself in the community? And what would it take for members in the community to find forgiveness, employ him, or tolerate him being around?

How would treatment move Lee towards growth, movement, and decreased pain? There are several ways to approach this- the key being a sensitivity and flexibility to what Lee would be able to handle at the time he seeks help. One is a baseline ability to talk about what happened. As he pieces together his story, there may be parts that are difficult to talk about. Avoiding these topics might show up in the form of escaping, not talking about it, dissociating, becoming numb, becoming argumentative, keeping one’s distance, staying detached, avoiding intimate relationships, leaving, drinking, or even picking more fights. The difficulty is that there are multiple reminders (or stimuli) that will show up throughout his life that he may not be able to avoid. These may include:

  • Conversations about young children
  • Seeing a house fire in the news
  • Talking to his ex, Randi
  • Seeing Randi’s newborn
  • Getting news that young children die or are dying
  • Randi saying “I love you”

For instance, what if he is watching the evening news and suddenly there is coverage about a house fire? What if Lee has a building tenant who loses a child to death, and Lee is present when the tenant tries to discuss it with him? What if Randi tries to contact him again or “shows up” in an unexpected manner? Maybe Lee can try to avoid these situations in the short term, but inevitably life, reminders of life, and young children are the life that surrounds us.

Therapy would work on staying present with emotional discomfort when these topics come up; and doing so in the presence of one or more people. That means not attacking, hiding, or getting drunk. It means being willing to experience grief, pain, discomfort, or tears. It means staying in a conversation and having a willingness to tolerate the stuff that seems unbearable. The more Lee does to avoid it, the worse it is going to get.

Healing results when a person’s grief can be managed, survived, and tolerated. Healing is about experiencing, talking about, and coming to terms with what happened in the presence of others. Healing happens when people can forgive themselves and each other and can make changes to prevent bad things from happening in the future.

Healing doesn’t happen when a person is literally “stuck” in blocking out all things reminding them of pain, and lives a life where they are blind and deaf to such triggers; avoiding any stimulus in real life that will inevitably show up at some point.

Healing doesn’t happen when emotions literally control lives, and people can’t engage a full, meaningful, rich, and productive life as a result. Healing doesn’t happen when there is no compassion for self or others, when there is no forgiveness, and when there are no second chances.

 

What if I’m wrong?

Here are a couple of thoughts on the business of being “wrong.” First, the question itself begs a certain dichotomy to form in a relationship. It implies a one-up, one-down position. It can make one person more powerful, keep another at a distance, or in extreme circumstances serve as an opportunity to belittle or berate. What does being “wrong” imply about the relationship, the importance of keeping a relationship, or the way that people will continue to relate to each other? Is it worth it to damage or hurt a relationship to be “right”? If one person is “wrong”, then how is the relationship handled in the future? How do people move forward?

Next, being “wrong” might be rephrased as being technically inaccurate. If you are responding in a way to that does not match reality in a reasonable sort of way, you may be considered “wrong.” However, in some circumstances this begs the question of differences in opinion, perception, feelings, and agendas. A person can have a valid point of view, see things differently, or see aspects of a situation that another person is not able to see. This can prevent communities from being rigid, thinking “inside-the-box”, refusing to consider alternatives, or being racist or non-diverse in their thinking. Trying to understand the validity in where others come from can help us be more understanding, have better relationships, be more forgiving, and become less “stuck” in the right/wrong dichotomy. If you are technically “wrong”, this also might be your opportunity for self-correction, learning, or growth. Consider teasing out the differences of being “wrong” vs. being technically accurate, and if being “wrong” has anything to do with conflict around perspective, perception, intention, or emotion.

In addition, there is a certain cost to being “wrong.” Everyone at some point in their life has probably had an experience in which they thought something to be true, accurate, or reasonable but found this to not be the case. The cost to being “wrong” is often related to embarrassment, shame, humiliation, or perhaps the loss of trust or leadership. Are you able to correct your actions based on what happened? Can you tolerate the pain of your own humiliation and consider what really matters? If the inability to bear the cost of being “wrong” results in isolation, criticism, withdrawal, and becoming more adamant that you were “right”; you may want to give some thought to what it is costing you in terms of your relationships.

Here are some final questions for you to consider:

  • What are your intentions? Sometimes we are in long term work, romantic, or family relationships that must be giving careful consideration.
  • What are the intentions of the other person? (Are you sure, or are you assuming? What evidence do you have?)
  • What is the true cost of being told you are “wrong”? What do you have to gain by making sure others know you are “right”?
  • If you are “wrong,” can you tolerate your embarrassment enough to grow, learn, regroup, or reconsider how you will handle future situations?
  • Is it more important to be right than to be effective? (Consider what the relationship means to you and if your own self-respect in handling the situation is on the line).
  • Are you unforgiving of other people when they are “wrong”, thus unable to forgive yourself? Is your own criticism preventing you from moving on, getting unstuck, or responding in a way that is potentially painful but perhaps necessary?

Have you been told to change your “bad mood”?

Here are some steps to figuring out your mood- and what to do if, indeed, you want to change it.

Our moods- or our feelings- can be extremely important in helping us understand ourselves, organize our behavior, know what matters, and have better relationships. One of the first steps to figuring out feelings is to be able to describe, understand, and put words on experience. Think beyond just being in a “bad mood”: Try figuring out what, exactly, you are feeling. Instead of thinking about your mood as bad or good, try approaching this task with curiosity. Are you down, flat, depressed, lethargic, or disinterested? Are you irritable, angry, frustrated or impatient? Are you struggling with loss or sadness? Remember that feelings give us information about ourselves, our situations, and the people around us.

Next, consider what is valid, relevant, and sensible about what you are feeling. Some reasons that others tell us to stop being in a “bad mood” is because they want us to behave a certain way. Consider this: If the person telling you to stop being in a “bad mood” got what they wanted, what specific action would that entail? If you stopped being in a “bad mood”, would you stop avoiding conflict, go to work, keep a relationship, participate fully in an activity, or attend a social event or function? We may know and understand our mood, and have a good reason to feel the way we feel, but our mood gets in the way of rising to the occasion and meeting an obligation.

Expressing negative feelings frequently or pervasively can hurt relationships; on the other hand never being to share our innermost pain can prevent us from having more meaningful and connected relationships. In other words, ranting, venting, or complaining can join people in their beef against the universe, while expressing vulnerability can increase caring and intimacy. Consider how acting or expressing how you feel works or doesn’t work for you. Does it bring you closer to the people you care about, or does it tend to push them away?

Next, consider if you want to change how you feel. Is someone else trying to get you to change how you feel? If so, trying to change how you feel can be much less effective.

One way to change how you feel is to act in ways that are incompatible with how you feel. In some situations, acting on how we feel can enable us to feel congruent and genuine with what is going on for us on a more personal level. However, sometimes moods are so pervasive that they interfere with our lives. If your “mood” is interfering with your ability to organize action, meet obligations, make deeper connections with others, keep relationships, or engage in meaningful activity, it might be time to experiment with alternative behaviors to shift gears, engage your brain differently, or do something you wouldn’t typically do.

Here are some suggestions: Express appreciations to other people, talk about what you value in the relationships you have, avoid “complaining”, practice not talking about anything negative, shift gears by doing an activity that demands your attention, shift gears by doing a something physical (washing dishes, raking leaves, taking care of a child), become invested in someone else’s problem or dilemma, try generating compassionate reasons for why people behave the way they do, soften your body and facial expression, wish other people well, do something that challenges you, do an activity you like or enjoy, or do an activity for someone else that they like or enjoy. Doing these things even if you don’t feel like it– may help you change your mood all by yourself.

How group therapy works: Behavioral activation, personal relationships, groups, intimacy, connection, and growth.

Newer behavior therapies are looking at how people can change their behavior despite how they feel. The difficulty with focusing on behavior change is that most clinicians think that by focusing on behavior, private experiences such as thoughts and emotions are ignored.

The truth is, most people exhibit certain behaviors when they are feeling a certain way. For example, an anxious person might become overly chatty, focus on “safe” topics, avoid talking about anything personal, or present as very “intellectual”. Someone who is afraid of being disliked or judged might acquiesce easily, become a people pleaser, and become excessively compliant. Someone who is afraid of being excluded might become critical and judgmental in order to avoid the vulnerability of feeling more ostracized. Someone who has a hard time with intimate relationships might inhibit self-disclosure, refrain from sharing personal information, or lie to avoid the risk of discovery. Someone who has a lot of self-hatred might be dismissive of compliments, avoid positive feedback, or avoid rewarding activities.

The benefit of looking at how you behave when you feel a certain way increases opportunities for therapeutic interventions. All of the examples listed in the above paragraphs are behaviors that matter in personal relationships- and will likely show up in group settings. Being able to identify what you do when you feel a certain way is one of the steps to understanding what alternatives are available. Knowing where and how you get stuck is the first step to experimenting with how you can get yourself unstuck.

Here are some examples:

If you are anxious and tend to be chatty or intellectual, try experimenting with the following: Tolerate pregnant pauses, awkward silences, and situations in which there doesn’t seem to be anything to say.

If you have a tendency to be a people pleaser, try asserting yourself in minimally threatening situations. Ask for one thing and then change your mind at the deli counter or a restaurant. Experiment with introducing small things that may be somewhat different from the norms of your social circle.

If you tend to have prickly relationships and often feel threatened, try softening your facial expression, making gentle eye contact, focusing on what you have in common with others, and refraining from criticism.

If you struggling with intimacy, connection, feeling visible, or being “known”; or you have extreme social anxiety, you may want to consider small ways that you make yourself a bit more visible or known. If being the center of attention is too much, find ways in which you can start to voice your thoughts, feelings, and opinions in less riskier situations.

If you have a lot of self-hatred, practice being receptive to the positive things. Make eye contact when receiving positive feedback, allow yourself to feel the warm fuzzies, and treat yourself with kindness on purpose by doing things that are personally rewarding and enjoyable.

Part of identifying how services can be helpful is being able to observe and describe one’s own behaviors. This includes being sensitive to the impact it has on other people the consequence of how it makes you feel- as well as the ways in which current behavior simply doesn’t work. Being able to figure out what specific alternative behaviors you can do when you have the urge to do what you’ve always done is one of the keys in successful treatment. Increasing meaningful relationships and creating a fulfilling life takes work, feedback, sharing, and challenges. Changing one’s behavior often puts people in touch with emotional discomfort. What is the benefit? The benefit is that if one acts and behaves in a way that signifies being “better”, one will be less controlled by emotions and thoughts- especially thoughts and emotions that don’t “go away”! Taking risks is scary, but the cost of not making these changes is sometimes worse.

Three things you need to know about anger: Is it mentally “healthy”?

The problem with figuring out if anger is “good” or “bad”; “healthy” or “unhealthy” doesn’t allow any opportunity to figure out what anger does, how it works, and why it makes sense.

Think of your living room couch. Is it a “good” couch or a “bad” couch? Wouldn’t it sort of depend on a bunch of different things- such as comfort, style, how old the couch is, how many people can fit on the couch, or if the couch actually suits you? Usually if a couch has a use, serves a purpose, or does what it is supposed to it is considered valuable. While it is possible that you are sick of your living room couch- perhaps you think it is time to get a new one- your couch may be necessary to hang on to for now. On the flip side, you may be very happy with your living room couch. This could make it more likeable and increase your tendency to say, “It is a good couch.”

Emotions- like anger- are like couches. Instead of thinking about anger as being “good” or “bad”, it is more important to consider the following:

How is anger serving a purpose, fulfilling a function, or doing something useful? Anger can function to communicate, get someone to back off or change behavior, or change a situation for the better. Think of it like a red flag, a signal, or a message.

Is the way in which the expression of anger is effective? In other words, is the way you communicate your anger working for you?  What a person can make use of their anger by being aware of it (experiencing, tolerating, and understanding what it does for them) it increases the opportunity for effective expression (ie, another person heard, understood, and responded accordingly). On the other side, ranting or attacking often hurts relationships and doesn’t always send a clear message about expectations or desired change.

What are the relationship consequences for how the anger is being expressed? Relationships at some point might undergo rifts, misunderstandings, and irritation. The ability for people to tolerate these things in relationships sometimes help people grow, initiate important discussions, and bring about change or intimacy. On the other hand, anger that is overly intense can damage relationships, hurt other people, or add insult to injury.

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. 

Is someone you love in extreme emotional distress?

Did you miss the teleseminar in February on

How to Be Around People in Extreme Emotional Distress? 

If so, make sure you sign up for my mailing list so you can be alerted to upcoming classes for April, May, and June of 2014.

Online classes cost about the same as an insurance co-pay, are packed with information, and present opportunities to listen live and ask questions.

Discounts and announcements for all upcoming classes are available to persons on my mailing list.

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.

 

 

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?