Saturday, October 30, 2010

Your Happiness Makes Me Happy...

It's a dilemma, isn't it? We want to see those we care about happy, and if they're not we're not happy. So, is that healthy? What if that person just wants space to be angry about something, without being "coaxed" out of it, or wants to figure out how to make things better without involvement from anyone else? Can we let go enough to let them figure it out?

People have begun to realize that they are dependent on others for how they feel, and want in return to make others happy.

This tendency to people-please is usually done unconsciously but the consequences are something we definitely are aware of - frustration, anger, hurt, rejection, etc. This then can escalate in to a fight or at the very least cause resentments to pile up that in turn can cause two people to grow further and further apart until they wake up one day and wonder why they don't love each another anymore, or even like the other person in many cases. Which can be especially exasperating when they might have once been passionately in love or really, really good friends.

Although the first step is awareness of the behavior that caused the effects/consequences, the answer brings up all sorts of frustration for those who first find out they are co-dependent.

"So, how do I change it," they ask, often in desperation.

"By becoming aware of the needs you have, how they did not get met as a child, and how you will have to find healthy ways to get them fulfilled you for YOU," I respond.

"What does that mean?"

This is when I pull out the One-Way Relationships Workbook and we get started. Co-dependence isn't easy to break. It takes courage. In many cases my clients find it too much of a challenge and ask to do something else. In other cases, those that keep working on it begin to see the faulty conclusions they made as a child and the way these beliefs have made up their suffering today. We begin to change those beliefs until they are more empowering ones.

I usually first ask the other person to work on having compassion with him/her self. This is vitally important as painful events begin to come up along with painful feelings. Many times the client has to grieve what was lost in his/her childhood, such as innocence. This is often the case because a co-dependent is asked to grow up quite fast, to become the adult because someone else would not take responsibility for his actions, so the co-dependent took responsibility for everything (or close to it). Part of the process is learning what to take responsibility for in a relationship and what not to take responsibility for. Can you just let the other person have their feelings and not take it personally or try to change it? That's the challenge, because this is what is healthy behavior and easy to do for those who did not grow up with parents modeling just the opposite.

Regardless the process, it takes time and it takes commitment. Despite the amount of work needed to stop being a co-dependent, it is most certainly worth it. My clients have felt freer and much happier in their lives as a result...and so have I.

Homework: Begin to research it...are you a co-dependent? Does your mood depend on the mood of those around you? Do you take responsibility for what goes wrong in your relationships leaving the other person off the hook and not taking responsibility for anything? If the answer to any of these is "yes", then it is worth it to begin the process of stop being co-dependent.

Advocating For Yourself

One the things that I have noticed in my professional practice is that people struggle when it comes to advocating for themselves. Confrontation is one of those issues that people seem to want to avoid at just about any cost, including themselves. Instead of finding a way to ask for what we want or need, we push it down and hope it goes away. Everything could be resolved by making simple requests, yet we are afraid that the person we ask will not be open to hearing what we are saying or, worse, will reject us in some way. And, we take it personally every time someone does not give us what we want.

It would be simple for us to calmly ask for what we want/need. So, why do we not just do it? Could it be that we become so emotional ourselves that it is almost impossible to be calm with someone else? Usually we are attached to what we want from others and this gets a response from us, one that is hard to control and makes us more emotional in our asking for what we need from others.

Leslie (all characters are fictitious though based on clinical experience) came to me to reduce her stress, but it quickly became evident that she had been traumatized a great deal as a little girl. Her father would come home from work and would often stomp up the stairs to her room, dragging her out of bed by her feet and demanding she refold the laundry. She would often get beaten and told to refold the clothes over and over again until they were "perfect".

Through the course of our art therapy sessions Leslie discovered that although she was one of the toughest women I had ever met, she was deathly afraid of confrontation. She would become angry when someone would do something to offend her, but instead of confronting the offending person she would express her anger elsewhere, usually on some unsuspecting person (picking a fight with someone that was more her equal rather than an authority figure) or on her self (cutting or using drugs).

It took several attempts, but she began to realize that her fear of her father's abuse was no longer in control over her. She was choosing, instead, to work with people she felt safe with and begin to ask for what she needed, despite the anger and despite her fear. Leslie learned that asking for her needs to be met was appropriate, and that how she asked made a difference. She learned to ask in a way that expressed how she felt, rather than attack, and asked rather than be defensive and angry. It was through practice on being calm, yet assertive that Leslie found her voice.

She is still working on her goal of healthy communication and advocating for her self in appropriate ways (facing the confrontation). However, she has begun to take her sense of control/power back and her self-esteem with it.

Homework: An art therapy directive that works well with the issue of fear of confrontation is having the client make a drawing that illustrates the walls she has around her. In Leslie's case she drew four distinct walls and was able to identify each of them as specific actions she has taken to isolate herself from other in order to not be hurt by them. When you can identify what doesn't work, you can begin to change it to what does/can work.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Pandora's Box

So, how many times have you heard the story of Pandora's Box? Several? Me too. It seems to have either found it's way in to our psyches, or the story was created to convey what was already there...the fear that if we let our emotions out, if we take the lid off of that box, we will "lose it" and "all hell will break lose". We will have no control over our anger, over our sadness, over our rage, etc. And, these emotions will destroy us (or those around us) if we let them out.

This fear of our emotions leads us to hold them back as much as possible. We don't allow ourselves to feel what is there. We push them down and hope they'll magically go away.

The only problem is that they don't go away. Instead, they grow and get bigger, only to explode down the road or come out in deviant ways, leading us to believe in Pandora's Box even that much more. Because, "See. I knew that if I expressed my emotions they would destroy things."

So, how do we change our relationship to our emotions?

How about considering another way of looking at Pandora's Box? What if instead of one box there are several boxes. Imagine there is a wall of shelves, and on those shelves are multiple boxes, each representing a different emotion and/or a different negative experience. When you are ready, you get to take down a box from the wall of shelves and then open the box long enough to deal with the emotion you choose. You then get to put the lid back on and put the box back on the wall. It's not overwhelming because you are only dealing with one emotion/issue, not every possible emotion all bottled up at the same time.

How much could you get done by approaching it this way? In my professional experience the answer is "a lot".

So, which box would you like to take down and work on?

An art therapy directive that works well with this analogy is the Inside/Outside Box. You choose a box (I usually have several shoe boxes to choose from for my clients) and then choose an issue you are dealing with. Once you have chosen, open the box and put magazine images you have cut out inside and on the outside of the box. The negatives go inside, while the positives go outside. You then put the lid back on the box to close the negatives back in, letting the positives out. Every situation has positives and negatives. And, sometimes just looking through magazines and choosing images that call to you can put you in touch with the positives and negatives.

Have fun with the directive. Play with it and see what happens.

You are the one in control, and you can take any box down you would like, or put any box back on the shelf until you are ready to work on it with someone you trust.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

It's OK to be YOU!

Who am I? Who am I, really? Do I like to be flashy or plain? Am I outgoing or keep to myself? What is my favorite color? Blue? Pink? Light green? Pine green? Am I in to sports? Or art? Do I like to drive a fast car? An economical one? Am I attracted to brunettes? Blonde's? Redheads? What kind of job do I want to do for the rest of my life? Am I happy in this one? Should I change? Stay the same? Do I like fish? Steak? Do I want to stay is this relationship? Leave? Am I spiritual? An atheist? Am I happy with me? Or, is there something I want to change about me? How can I accept myself more?

There are soooo many questions that when we get to explore the possible answers to them we find that we are varied and unique from any one else. Conversely, when we keep ourselves from exploring who we are, or are kept from exploring who we are by our primary care-givers while growing up, we find that we become stunted in our growth and unhappy.

Chelsea (all characters mentioned in this blog are fictional, though based on clinical experience) was a 26 year old woman who was engaged and had a two year old son. She had very little sense of who she was and would hardly ever speak up for her self as a result. Her fiance began making unilateral decisions for her and her son, and she found her self shutting down more and more. Before long (and not surprisingly) Chelsea was majorly depressed. She could not understand why, though, as she seemed to have everything she wanted and needed to be happy.

It wasn't until we began to explore who she was separate from anyone else that the answers began to come up. Chelsea had been raised to be the "perfect little girl". She was quiet, calm, got straight A's throughout school, looked pretty, and always did what her parents thought was right for her. She had never gone through a rebellious stage with her parents, and therefore never really became aware of who she was as an individual.

So, we began to explore who she was, without judgment or condemnation.

Turns out she was an artist and she loved the Soul Collage Cards. She began to explore the challenges of what it was to be an adult, and still make time to explore things she enjoyed. She loved shopping, dining out, traveling, and partying with friends. However, she also loved her son and her fiance and wanted to create a stable and happy home.

Before long, Chelsea was realizing that it was ok to have the longings and desires she thought were "taboo". She also realized that she had to find ways to balance her life so that all of her desires could be possible. She began speaking up with her fiance, asking to be included in decisions made regarding the family. She realized that she didn't have to be that perfect little girl anymore and instead started to relax with expectations she had for her self. She was smiling again and feeling more and more in control of her life, having it work for HER.

Homework: Take time to discover YOU! Give yourself permission to want and desire things in all aspects of your life/personality. Then, find that balance to have it all work for you. Even if you can't have what you desire now, look for ways that it can work in the future. Don't give up on you and what you want. Instead, find ways to give voice to your dreams!

What is most important to YOU?

There are so many times that we make our decisions based off of what we think others want us to do, rather than what we feel is best for ourselves. We place what others want from us above what we want for ourselves or feel is important. We do this to avoid making someone angry or disappointed in us, to make someone else happy with us, and to find approval. However, we also do this at the expense of our selves.

If left unchecked, making decisions based on what others think can lead us to unhappiness at best and deep depression at worst.

So, what can we do to break the cycle?

Tonya was one of my first clients. She was a 32 year old woman, married for seven years with two children. She came in to therapy because she wanted to deal with the anger she had from her husband's infidelity, but soon found out that she was more angry at her mother for having so much control over her. Tonya quickly learned that it was her self she had to look at. Why was she giving so much control over to her mother? Was it because her mom would put her down if Tonya didn't do what she wanted? Was it because her mother would use the past failures as a reminder for why Tonya should do what her mother said? All of these things were going on, but Tonya could not seem to see a way out of trying to please her mother, to let the fear of disappointing her mother in, recognizing it, feeling it and then letting it go.

It wasn't until I asked her, "In this moment, with your mother not in THIS room, what do YOU feel is the right thing for you to do?", that Tonya began to see her self as separate from her mother's desires for her.

Tonya struggled with answering this question at first. I had to repeat it several different times, in different ways, until she finally was able to begin to get the idea that it was ok to have a differing view from someone she cared about. She wrote two letters to her mother. One expressed everything Tonya was thinking and feeling, without holding anything back. This also took some work, encouraging Tonya to get in touch with her deepest anger and resentment seemed to assist her in letting her become aware of what she was really feeling.

The second letter was what Tonya requested from her mother; the letter Tonya could give to her mother. This letter was the filtered version of what Tonya had wanted to express, creating requests of her mother in considerate yet assertive ways.

It didn't take long before Tonya felt she had more control over her own decisions, separate from anyone else. She decided to stay in her marriage and continue with her family, making some decisions that her mother did not agree with, but ultimately taking care of her and her immediate family needs above pleasing her mother.

I watched as Tonya went from a sad and angry person to a smiling and joyful woman. She felt free from constraints that had been holding her down for so many years, able to finally find her own voice and believe in her own sense of self-worth, separate from any one else.

Homework: Take the time to find out what is most important to YOU, separate from what you may think anyone else will respond to it. Learn to place importance on what you feel is best for YOU, before any one else. Yes, you want to consider the impact of your choices on others and weigh it against what you feel is important to you. However, be aware that putting what someone else thinks you should do above your own sense of what is important is dependence and ultimately unhealthy to your well-being. Find your voice. Take healthy actions. Take care of what is important to you first.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Let Go of Pushing Yourself So Much

One of the things that I've noticed about our culture (here in the U.S.) is that we push ourselves (and others) to accomplish things. We build buildings, hike up mountains, tear down forests, lay down roads, make money, go to games, have children, buy and sell homes, upgrade the car, go on the vacation, party, and generally pack our schedules so full with activities that we do not have time to rest, etc. To compensate we eat food that makes us feel happy for the moment (but bloated later on). We drink alcohol and smoke cigarettes (or pot, etc). We watch TV to distract us from feeling generally unhappy and unfulfilled in life. And, then when we go get an EKG and are surprised to find that our hearts are not functioning correctly and our bodies are filled with fatty substances that make us look unappealing, which in turn makes us feel worse about ourselves. So, in our depressed state we stuff a doughnut in our mouths and plop in front of the TV to keep the cycle going over and over again. It's no wonder we feel like we're losing our minds!

We look to romance or moving to a new location/job to make us feel better. Maybe complaining to everyone that will listen will help. Or, blowing up at the neighbor for parking too close to your driveway and blocking you in. Yelling at the computer when it doesn't do what you need it to do.

All of these are distractions from what really needs to occur... change needs to come from within our selves.

So, how do we make the change to being more happy, more content with life?

Start with slowing down. I'm serious. Slowing down is not a bad thing. It can allow you to relax. To have fun. To do something you enjoy without pushing yourself to get something done or accomplish something important.

How about that walk you wanted to go on? Have you taken it yet?

Or, that trip to Colorado you were longing for? Has it happened?

What about snuggling with your husband, wife, daughter, nephew? Have you taken the time to play with them? Throwing the frisby? Playing Yahtzee? Telling them you love them?

How about taking a nap? When was the last time you took a nap? Not a long one (that would mess up your sleep for the night), but what about one where you dream of your next vacation. Where would you go? What would you do? How would you feel? Allowing your self to relax in to what can be good about life.

Stop thinking about what isn't getting done. Let it go.

Relaxation is one of the things that rejuvenates the body and recharges the brain so that you can better tackle that busy life you have when you get back to it. An article recently quoted on NPR indicated that research shows people who get 10 hours of sleep in a 24 hour period do better and are more productive than those who do not. Can you believe that!? I'd say it's time to take advantage and work on increasing our sleep time each day.

Either way you go, you will always benefit from letting go of pushing your self. Stop trying to make someone else happy, or keep them from getting angry with you. Let go of frustrations because you can't get something done when you want. It will happen in time. They say that 90% of our problems resolve themselves. That's pretty impressive! Maybe it's time to let a few things go and start to do things that make you feel happy with you...right now.

Homework: Let go of pushing your self so much, and start to do things that make you feel happy with your self and the world. Relaxation is key to good health.

Crying Is Good For The Soul - Letting Go of What We Do Not Want

Angel loves to try to make me laugh. She is slender, in her mid-thirties and angry much of the time. Until she begins to cry. Then, suddenly, she becomes humorous. "Oooh! I hate it when this happens! Makes me feel like a fish out of water, gasping for breath, only to realize I have two hungry fishermen looking at me, ready to skin me alive and eat me for dinner. I hope they choke on my bones!" She laughs, and looks at me expecting me to laugh too.

She knows it is a distraction, and is using it to the best of her ability to keep her self from feeling foolish. The ache in her eyes is obvious, however, and when I do not respond to her self-depricating, dismissive humor she slowly stops. This is when she allows her self to cry with out stopping it. Then, another defense comes out. Instead, of humor, she begins to get angry, lashing out. When I don't respond to it either, she finally begins to calm down and says to me, "You're not playing fair."

This is when I smile. "I know. But, you need this." And, she does. Angel has grown up not allowing her self to show pain, because showing pain was showing vulnerability. And, those that loved her (her father and grandmother) would attack her for it. Who wouldn't learn to dismiss their feelings and express their pain in angry ways? I know I would. And, I have.

But, I also know that it didn't work. I still felt miserable. I still felt unhappy. And, I knew that I wanted it to change. So, I cried, allowing the hot tears to fall down my stinging cheeks. They were my outlet for release.

Release is a good thing. It is not always important to cry, though the body needs it from time to time as there is a toxin that can only be released through our tear ducks. We can also release through exercise, being creative, sleeping, writing, talking to someone we trust, laughing, etc. They are all healthy releases for pain.

But, sometimes, the best thing to do is cry. Let it out. Let it be ok that you are crying. Choose a safe place to do it at first. It helps us realize that we do not have to feel shame for expressing our pain, that maybe showing our pain is a strength, instead of a weekness. It frees us up even more and we no longer feel constrained to express how we are feeling. That release. Letting go of what we do not want: pain, sadness, fear, grief, loss, etc. Letting them go is one of the healthiest things we can do. And, crying is one of the healthiest ways to do it.

Homework: Find time to cry. Let it out. Choose a safe place that you feel comfortable in. Dont' force it though. Allow it to come when it is ready. Trust the process. Trust your self.

Knowing the Precious Difference Betweeen What We Can and Cannot Control

This concept is the next step in realizing how to use healthy boundaries. It comes up time and time again, "So, how am I supposed to deal with some one when they get upset with me because I said 'no'? How am I supposed to deal with that anger and guilt?"

What people say, how they respond to us can bring about hurt. We were raised to be considerate and sensative to others feelings, after all. However, it can be taken to an extreme, where guilt and anger are used as tools to manipulate and even coerce. This type of control is what we want to avoid.

Unfortunately, instead of avoiding the anger and the guilt by simply walking away, we do everything within our power to make that person stop being angry or stop our own sense of guilt from hurting us. This allows them to get what they want from us. In this type of dynamic, what they say and how they say it has more control over us than what we think and what we do to take care of ourselves.

We give away this power to control ourselves for many different reasons. We do not want to lose their love, companionship, friendship, or caring. We may not want to feel the all-consuming guilt that resides within us after years of conditioning that tells us we are some how responsible for another person's happiness. We believe this is true! After all, we have no choice. Right? We grew up having no choices, so what is there to believe that is anything other than what we were told or what we were forced to endure???

This is where you have a choice. When someone tries to use guilt to get you to do what they want you to do, then it is important to walk away. Get space. Calm down. When you are calm you can think more clearly and then choose what you want to do, separate from the guilt or anger or hurt feelings. Ask your self, "How can I take care of myself here? What do I need to do to take care of myself given what is going on? I know I can't change him. So, given that is the case, what do I need to do to take care of me?" Waiting until the answer comes to you and then acting on it will set you free. You are your own best-friend! You are your own safe-place! Trust in this.

Once you practice this a few times, you begin to feel it. You feel free. You feel at peace. You feel happy again. All the things that are great about being human. They are at your finger tips.

Some people may feel that this is being "selfish". This is a distinction that I work with many people on. There is such thing as being a "healthy selfish". There is such a thing as being an "unhealthy selfish". As always, there is a balance between putting ourselves first, and considering the feelings of others. Although we want to see others happy, it is not our responsiblity to sacrifice ourselves in the process. In day-to-day interactions, we must take care of our needs first so that we can have more energy to assist others in meeting their needs. Finding this balance can be tricky. But, it is important.

It is also important to note that once you allow this for your self, you must stop using your anger and guilt to try to control or manipulate others. Watch out. We have been conditioned to use these tools and we have gotten to the point where we don't even realize we are doing it. When you are angry, walk away. You have a right to your anger, but you do not have a right to take it out on others. We cannot change others. They are going to do and say what we may not want them to do and say. You can make requests, but using anger or guilt to control them will only get this vicious cycle back in place, and it will also make you feel miserable about your self.

You know you care about others. Now, what is it going to take for you to begin to care about your self? What are your needs? What are your wants? Do you allow your self to express them? Or do you push them down in order to please others or avoid someone's anger? You have to decide if you are going to live miserable any more, or if you are going to choose a happy life. It IS your choice. No one elses. And, even though someone may be angry initially whe you set a healthy limit, they most of the time will adjust and come around.

Homework: Find that balance between self-care and tending to the needs of others. Work towards taking care of your self first, and then think of what you can do to assist someone else. Children can also learn this valuable lesson, on how to take care of themselves instead of giving too much of themselves away.

Creativity Heals

One of the things that I've noticed more than anything about being an art therapist is how creativity, allowing one's self to be creative, can open a person up to heal more than just about anything else I've ever seen.

Creativity is the essence of what is alive and exciting and flowing and rejuvenating about life. It allows us to tap in to possibilities, as apposed to shutting ourselves off from the world. It opens us up to what we may want or what needs to be expressed so we can let go of the negative and painful emotions/feelings we’ve held on to for so long. Those same negative feelings can burden us, making us feel guilt and anger, sadness and regret. All of these emotions cause a cascade of unhealthy chemicals that are released from our bodies that eat away at our mental and physical health, until we are literally dying.

Whether creativity helps us to get the negative emotions out, or whether it allows us to open up to more positive possibilities, it is healing. Allowing creativity to flow is key to recovering from life’s pumps and bruises, its traumas and disappointments.

Creativity can come in many different forms. You can, of course, use art to be creative. Art can be just about any form of expression using just about any medium, from painting, to sculpture, to ceramics, to interior design, to hair design, to designing clothes, etc. These possibilities are endless and can be a great deal of fun (another positive and important aspect of healing, allowing your self to have FUN!). Other aspects of creativity are in every day life. They can be in your cooking, raising children, smiling at people, balancing the requirements of life such as shopping and work. Creativity comes when we are looking at the possibilities rather than the impossibilities.

So, try it! Open up to being creative. Look for your options. What would you like to do that would be fun? What would make the situation fun? Or, at the very least, more relaxing? You are the one in control. We may not be able to control those around us or the world’s response to us, but we most certainly have control over our response to the world! Choose to be creative NOW, and then see what happens…

Point to this lesson: Work with the individual to get beyond the blocks that would keep her from being creative (i.e. open to solutions, rather than closed off). Work in small ways. Start with something simple. Then, use the analogies that arise (through symbology and metaphor) to open up the possibilities in her life.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

We Can Give Too Much of Ourselves Away

Were you raised not to ever say "no" to your elders? Do you tend to want to please others? Does someone's anger at you make you cringe away from confrontation?

If any of these fit then you are probably struggling with giving too much of yourself away to others. It's not hard to do. When you think about it, it makes sense. If you have to always say "yes" to people's requests or demands on you, you will be always pushed for time, never able to take time for yourself or to just relax. You may develop resentments towards people and withdraw, creating an overly rigid boundary just so you don't have to face yet another request from someone.

Or, as a people-pleaser your needs are always secondary (or nonexistent) when compared to someone else's. Think resentments and frustrations would build up if you were always aware of what someone else wanted and never allowed yourself to be aware of your own needs, wants, or desires? I would.

And, heaven forbid that someone get angry. Chances are it would trigger our own anger and then things would get said and damage would get done. Regrets would build up and life would feel out of control.

Always giving to others can eat away at our very core. It begins by feeling like we don't know who we are because we haven't really ever spent much time with ourselves. We may be afraid of what we will find, not sure there is anything there, or not sure that we will like what we do find.

Regardless the fears, it is vitally important to not give too much of ourselves away. There is, of course, a balance to this dynamic. You don't want to give too much, but you also don't want to spend too much time on yourself so that you never experience a fulfilling relationship. YOU have to figure out what the right combination is for YOU, separate from anyone else. Though the work is hard, it is also extremely worthwhile.

So, be careful. Take a step back from all your activities. If this is hard to do, then take it one step at a time. A little hear and a little there can make for a good start in the right direction.

Regardless, do it. Take time to find out what you want (in ANY situation). What do YOU feel comfortable with? What don't you feel comfortable with? And, then respond accordingly. You have a right to say "yes". But, you also have a right to say "no". Become picky over where you will give your time and energy, and where you will not. Give your self permission to pick and choose. The people around you will adjust. It will make a big difference, after all, in keeping you from getting burned out, turning in to a crazed-beast when the straw breaks the proverbial camel's back. Who wouldn't want to keep that from happening???

Homework: Take a step back before you respond to requests. Get some time to reflect how you want to respond. Then, find an appropriate way to communicate it. Negotiate if you have to. But, also take care of your self FIRST.

Have Fun! It Makes a Difference...

Yes, believe it or not, having fun can have a therapeutic affect!

Think about it. What happens when you are having fun? Are you worrying during this time? No. Are you upset when you're having fun? No. Are you depressed when you're having fun? No! So, if you are free from all of these things for even just a few moments each day, what do you think the affect would be? I know this is a hard one if you're used to being miserable for most of your day, but take a guess anyway.

Ok, so you're absolutely FEEL better!

And, feeling better can shift us out of anxiety. It can shake us out of depression. It can give us the confidence we need to choose something different to spend out time on! So, what do you have to lose?

Aaah. Yes. Resposibility. It is the one thing that gets in the way. Right? Or, how about, looking silly? Maybe, being childish keeps you from having fun? Or, is the idea of all the horrible things in the world that are happening to people each moment keeping you from having fun? The anger you feel towards the abusive things your mom did to you while you were a child? How about dad? Your ex?

Whatever it is, I ask my clients to put that aside, just for a few moments and go have some fun. It could be to watch a fun movie or a fun TV show that makes you laugh. It could be to play with your niece or nephew, getting down on the living room floor and wrestling with them. It could be to go fishing by yourself, just you and the fish and the sun beating on the rippling water. This last week I had a water balloon fight with some clients and they LOVED every minute of it! So did I! And, even though they struggle with severe mental illnesses, they forgot about it and had fun. It made the rest of their day enjoyable, and that can be rare for someone that has been diagnosed with Major Depressive Disorder or Anxiety Disorder.

Homework: Look for something fun each and every day. The more minutes that you spend with fun the more you are going to feel better. Even if you don't feel like at first, do it anyway. Make the effort. And, then spend more time with other people that have fun with you.

You will find that this will make the biggest difference in your day!

How Art Therapy Works...

How art therapy works:

We all have walls up that keep people from getting too close. We have them in our language, through speaking to one another in words as well as in body language. We have not learned how to put those walls up when we are creating art. The process of being creative calls people to be fully expressed, not held back. This allows things to come up naturally.

Art does not lie. Things that we did not know were going on with us come out in the art work. Just like it comes out in our dreams, art work is created without a filter that tries to restrain it. In art therapy, this process allows us to talk about what is going on as well as gives the creator an outlet to express him or herself and become aware of self.

This process allows things to come up quickly, so it is important for the art therapist to be aware of this and work with the client to establish trust in the therapeutic relationship first. This is necessary before too much is shared and the client can become scared by her vulnerability. The process must go at the client's pace or it can become detrimental. Have a sensitivity to what can negatively affect the client is important as an art therapist. This sensitivity is acquired through clinical experience and is vital to creating a healthy therapeutic relationship.

When the balance between creating art and being able to open up and trust the process is found, the experience can be magical and more than worthwhile.

The Cards in the Blog Entries Are...

The cards in the blog entries are collages that I have done that represent personal struggles and/or aspects of my personality. They are a version of the "Soul Collage Cards" that were introduced to me by a certified Soul Collage Card Trainer. However, to tailor them to my experiences in art therapy I added words to the backs of them, giving them depth and meaning for me, and a good reason for exploration with my clients.

As you read these blog entries I will be adding them in. Although the cards do not refer to the stories I'm telling directly, they are good illustrations for the work that comes from self-exploration and the joy a person can find in accepting themselves through creativity.

Time to "Reclaim" Your Value/Worth

In all my therapeutic experiences (and possibly even prior to that), the one theme that just keeps coming up over and over, the one that seems to get in the way the most, is the theme that surrounds how valuable or worthwhile we feel we are. So many times, people have grown up in homes where they were either not told they were valuable or not shown. In fact, often, it is just the opposite. Abuse can take many forms (physical, mental, sexual, emotional, etc). However its form, the impact is the same: it is toxic and destructive. Each person that receives such abuse, whether it is a once in a while phenomenon or a regular occurrence, walks away feeling a little less than they did before.

So, how do you change this feeling? And, why is it so important to change? Why not continue feeling worthless? For me the answer is obvious, but for others they seem to ware it like a badge of honor.

Jenna was one of my first clients (all references are fictional, though based on personal experiences). She was a skinny, tall teenage girl who slunk down in her chair and didn't say much. She was only mildly interested in interacting with me, but when I began to bring out the art supplies she perked up. She was the third child in a seven children family. Although she knew she was loved by her parents, she felt like she did not matter, that her only value was in how many chores she could get done at home and how invisible she could become.

It took some time, but Jenna began to allow her self to be interested in things and express her creativity more and more. As she began to see that she was good at it, she grew in confidence. “You matter,” I would tell her. She would look at me in disbelief. “What’s in the way of YOU knowing that you matter,” I asked her. She shrugged her shoulders and didn’t seem to know how to answer this question. Despite this initial reaction, it wasn’t long before Jenna said clearly, “My family doesn’t believe I was molested by my brother.” This statement would have shocked me when I had first began doing therapy, but I found it was common to find abuse associated with lack of self-esteem.

We worked on it, her self-esteem. Before long Jenna began to believe she was worthwhile. She began to experience confidence enough that she began to stand up for her self. We had to work on how to do this in healthy ways, but it worked. She became more outgoing, having fun and relaxing around people, no longer shy and withdrawn.

That simple statement, “You matter,” can have a profound impact on someone. As a therapist, I am in a position of authority, but any person can make a positive impact on another human being. All you have to do is say the words, and then begin to believe in them for your self. Sometimes what we have to do is tell ourselves "I am worthy" over and over until we begin to let some of this truth sink it.

Each person has their own version of low self-worth. I had one client who thought "I am no good." I had to challenge this belief, identifying it as a belief that was handed down from his care givers, but was only their opinion. Not the truth. The truth is what we determine for ourselves. We can give power to a negative belief (which will give us certain outcomes) or we can choose to give power to a positive and empowering belief (which will also give certain outcomes). WE are the ones who get to choose. Not our family. Not our significant others. Not our children. No one, but us.

Homework: Determine what belief YOU want to have in your life. Then, take the time to spend a few minutes "trying it on" as if it were true. How would YOU feel if you believed you were fundamentally a good person? A loved person? A smart person? A dependable person? Whatever your negative belief is about your self, turn it around to the positive and then sit with it for a few more minutes each day! Then, let it sink in...

Saturday, July 17, 2010

What the heck do you mean, "Create Healthy Boundaries"?

One of the cornerstones to the work I do with my clients focuses on the necessity of creating healthy boundaries, both with them selves and with others. I’ve worked with people both in individual sessions on this concept, as well as in a class/group that has now lasted nearly three years.

It’s a complex topic. What the heck is a “Healthy Boundary”? And, how do I apply it to my life? These are valid questions, and ones that we explore during our time together. Boundary issues often show up when discussing relationships. We want to give so much of ourselves to those we love that we forfeit our own needs in the process, often times not even allowing ourselves to become aware of them in the first place. Working on becoming aware of our needs, finding healthy ways to set healthy limits both with ourselves as well as others, and taking care of ourselves first (before anyone else) is the goal of this work.

1st - Work on becoming aware of your needs.

2nd - Find healthy ways to set healthy limits both with your self, as well as others.

3rd - Take care of your self first (before anyone else).

Tonia was in her sixties, with bleach white/blonde hair that went down her back and frizzled at the ends. She was one of the most religious people I had ever met, full of rigid expectations for how she should live her life and how others should behave. She used this rigidity to feel safe, because she did not know how to say “no” to others requests or how to acknowledge and then make requests around her own limits.
In the group, we discussed how you become aware of a limit that you might have. I explained to them that, “Feeling angry, resentful, or uncomfortable are red flags for knowing that a boundary of yours (a limit) is not being honored.” After this basic discussion, Tonia piped up with a relevant question, “After you realize you’ve stepped over a boundary then what do you do about it?” Tonia’s exasperation was evident. She had spent so much of her life trying not to make anyone angry that she couldn’t possibly conceive of the idea of telling them “no”.

My answer was short and to the point, “You make a request.” I asked her to give an example of a place in her life where she was feeling frustrated or not at ease. She explained that her son had been expecting her to take care of the grandkids since there was a fourth baby on the way. Although Tonia enjoyed her grandchildren she was also exhausted and was unable to pick them up when needed, etc. She also was feeling overwhelmed and concerned that her own stress levels were getting too high.

“So, how do you feel about telling your son, in an appropriate way, that you can no longer take care of the children due to physical limitations,” I asked.

Tonia scoffed at this idea. “I can’t just not be there for him! He needs me too much. What would he do if I wasn’t there for him and the kids?”

“It’s your choice.” I reminded her. “You can continue to take care of the children. Or, you can set a healthy limit. It sounds like you have a good idea what your limits are. Now, the challenge is you either listen to them and take care of yourself, or not. Either way we have to deal with the consequences of our choices. Which consequences are you ok with dealing with? Which choices would keep you from a breakdown?” Without my trying to ‘tell her’ how to go about it, Tonia was able to then feel a sense of control over what was the right way for her.

Less than a month later, Tonia came to class to share that she had finally told her son that she could only take care of the children two days out of the week. She exclaimed, “I feel so happy with what I’ve done! I really feel like it was the right thing to do. And, funny enough, my son was able to find someone else to take care of the kids the rest of the time. I think I’m really enjoying this boundary-stuff.” She smiled, but then quickly looked concerned. “Now, if I could only figure out how to set a limit with my daughter-in-law. She is so dang selfish!”

“Remember,” I reminded her. “You can’t control anyone else’s behavior. You can only make requests. If they do not honor your request, then you have to take actions to take care of yourself. So, given this statement, does it help to know what your request will be?”

“Oh, yes.” She said. “I think I’ve got a good idea.”

Tonia became one of my most devoted group participants. She also became less rigid with her expectations of others and of her self. It was a great process to watch, not to mention a relief. I was, after all, one of those she had pretty high expectations for, and she wouldn’t hesitate to let me know from time to time!

Goal for this session: Becoming more aware of how to use healthy boundaries in your own life!

I Didn't Know I Had A Problem!

Becoming aware is both a challenge and a gift. We are capable of it, but at the same time we seem to resist it. Out of a defense mechanism? Because we weren't raised to be aware of what was going on with ourselves, let alone others? Regardless the reason for not being aware, the key to changing our lives is doing what it takes to open our eyes to what is stopping us from getting what we want, then focusing on what we want regardless. What stops us can include our motivations, limitations, and issues. Many times, it is only through others that we're able to see what these are only because we are too close to the issue, while someone else that (we trust) can have the necessary point-of-view to bring perspective.

1st - Explore what is bothering you. Begin by asking, "How am I feeling?" and "What is making me feel that way?"

2nd - Work towards increasing your insights and comprehension of self/personality/issues.

3rd - Begin to make changes that are in alignment with what you want to create.

When Roger walked in to my office I knew I was going to have my hands full. He was extremely intelligent when it came to ideas and concepts. He blew my mind, in fact, with his own version of human powers and what we are capable of accomplishing. However, he lacked the basic knowledge of how to live with others on a daily basis. The costs were obvious. He was not able to have a long-term relationship, and when he did he thought his job was to give himself over completely to her wishes. He was also not able to live with anyone because of simple things that he neglected to take care of or become aware of, such as cleaning up after him self or being quiet when someone else was trying to sleep.

Coming in to the sessions, Roger constantly spent time on his ideas, they were his escape from having to face the pain of life. As I began to ask him to share about his daily life, not showing the interest in the ideas, rather the content of his life, Roger slowly became aware of just how “out-of-whack” he had become. Before long, he realized that what he wanted (to be in a loving relationship) and what he was creating (disorganization, chaos, and lack of connection with others) were not in alignment with that goal. Thus, his discontent.

So, we went to the task of looking at what was needed to bridge the gap. And bridge it, he did. Before we knew it, Roger was using skills that made a difference and opened his eyes to how he was impacting his life. He began to use healthy boundaries both with himself and others, refocusing his energy on himself first - placing his needs in an equal level of importance as the woman's, and accepting him self as he is without negativity or harshness attached to his view. Roger also struggled with his sexuality, thinking that he was a bad person simply for having sexual feelings. He had to work hard to let go of this concept, not seeing it as the truth, and instead refocus his beliefs on that it was ok to be sexual when he was appropriate with his expression of it (not doing harm to self or others, etc).

He is still not yet in a long-term relationship, but Roger feels he is much closer to this goal, and in the meantime, much happier with himself.

Goal from this session: Explore, and then work towards increasing insights and comprehension of self/personality/issues.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Trust you? Are you kidding???

Emily (all characters presented in this blog are fictional, yet refer to experiences I have had with others through therapeutic interactions) had come in to my office looking like the typical biker chic recovering from acid. She had her hair pulled down around her face, black eye-liner covering her eyes, and made minimal eye-contact, shifting her eyes instead around the room. Her eyes would occasionally settle on mine, staring me down to let me know that she was not scared of me. She was there because she had come to a class that I offer which talks about what it takes to create healthy boundaries, and she was intrigued. The curiosity came from learning (for the first time in her life) how to take care of her self so that she felt self-respect again. She was also curious as to whether or not I was as good at helping others as I had presented my self to be.

Every new client goes through a period of asking themselves if they can trust first the person sitting in front of them, and second whether they can learn how to trust themselves. I knew that the process started with conveying interest in what was going on with her, genuine concern for her struggles, and the communication of hope that existed and could be obtained. She did not know how she would get there, but she saw in me my confidence that it was possible and she began to consider the possibility for her self.

It was obvious that she had gone through a traumatic past, but she had to share that in time. I had to make sure she did not share too much too soon or the damage could be done again through re-traumatization. So, I asked her to start simple. Draw a house. "Tell me about the house. Is it a happy house? A sad house? Who lives there?" Draw a tree. "Tell me about your tree. What kind of tree is it? Is it by itself or in a forest? How strong is this tree?" Draw a person. "Who is the person? How do you know her/him? What is it about that person that made you draw her/him?"

We have defenses built up in our body language and in our speech with one another. But we do not have defenses built up around creating art. Art never lies. What we are dealing with comes in the moment (whether we are aware of it or not), and it comes out in what we create. Having someone create art cuts through all the walls and gets to the heart of expressing what is going on. It is one of the fastest means of uncovering what someone is unaware of (that I know).

Emily drew her house, her tree, and her person. At the end of it she looked at me and said, "I have expressed more about what is going on with me by drawing a hut, a palm tree, and a hula girl than I ever imaged! Do you think I secretly long to go to Hawaii?" I laughed at her question and she smiled. She and I both knew that she had begun to share things that were important to her, something she had not done in a very long time. She had projected a great deal on to the things she drew. And, in that process she told me a great deal about how she views her self, her life, and what might be in the way of getting better. It was the first step toward establishing a trust with someone else and the healing process that would make a huge difference in her life.
Homework: Take small steps to open your self up to what you are feeling. Find someone you trust to assist you in this process. This is a process, not a race. Allow it to unfold in it's own time. You are the one in control. Wait until you are ready, but also continue to take baby steps to your goal of self-discovery and healing. Trusting your self more and more will come as you make healthier and healthier choices, placing your self first above the needs of others. Taking care of your self, and eventually learning how to balance this with assisting others in taking care of their own needs.