Healthy Compartmentalizing

As I write this there is a lot going on, and I’m having all sorts of feelings about it. Black Americans being murdered by police and vigilantes, protests, people pissed off about protests, folks struggling from economic and mental health effects of sheltering in place for months, COVID 19 deaths passing 100,00 with no vaccine or even effective treatment in sight. It’s a lot.

The thing is, it’s not always the right moment for me to feel all that. When I am working it’s not like I have to be an emotionless robot, but it’s not the place for me to process my anger. When I am talking with friends who are people of color, it is not the time for me to put my anxiety center-stage. When I’m around certain family members or other people who have demonstrated low ability to listen empathically, it’s not the right time for me to open up to my vulnerable grief. 

That doesn’t mean that I’m not entitled to my feelings, that I “shouldn’t” feel sad or scared or stressed because others have it “worse,” or that I should bottle up my feelings and work work work until I collapse from burn out. In fact, quite the opposite. If we deny, repress, suppress, and distract ourselves from ever feeling anything difficult or upsetting, it will certainly come back to bite us at inopportune times and in unhealthy ways. We aren’t getting rid of our feelings, we’re just hiding them away for a bit until they ferment and explode. 

Making space to feel

What’s been helpful is finding the right time, the right space, the right people to accompany me Sometimes that means I’m accompanying myself, sometimes it means I’m with a friend, a partner, a therapist; whoever it is, I make sure it is someone who has the space to listen to me in that moment, and is not deep in their own feelings or in crisis and needing support. (Sometimes this means taking turns processing and supporting each other!) For me, it means finding a time when I’m not in-between appointments and rushed, but other people might find comfort in only having a few minutes to process heavy stuff so it feels like there’s some containment around it. The right space can mean home where I have some privacy, but other times walking in nature on a socially distant hike is the setting I need. When I have what I need, I can let myself feel and express—in healthy ways—everything. The rage and pain I feel at living in an unjust, oppressive world. The guilt I feel about the privilege I carry as a white person in a white supremacist society. The deep grief I feel at all that has been lost by so many of us. The fear and anxiety I feel about the unknown and uncertain future. 

I often feel a knot of fear in my stomach, a worry that if I start crying I’ll never stop. That has never happened. I know it won’t happen, and yet I fear it almost every time. And every time I let myself cry (or scream into a pillow, or sprint in the middle of a walk) the feeling builds, crescendos, and falls away, and I feel some measure of relief. More waves of emotion come, they always will. But they never last forever. 

Back to healthy compartmentalizing

In other moments though, when it’s not the right time, or not a safe space, when I need to be supporting someone else instead of making it about me, or when I’m just exhausted and depleted and don’t have it in me to feel any more, I engage in healthy compartmentalizing. I have often felt a wave of tears coming over me in public (I’m a crier), and I go through a little ritual in my mind. Like any “good” mindfulness practitioner, I start by acknowledging and naming my feelings. I try to do this in as welcoming a way as possible, even if it’s an emotion I’m sick or or scared of. Oh it’s grief, welcome. Oh hello fear, and its friend of late, anger and judgment (amazing how anxiety about the state of the world can so quickly flip into anger at a fellow pedestrian for walking too close). After naming, I imagine putting it into a box and lovingly setting it aside and promising to come back to it later. And then—and this is crucial—I go back to it later. Maybe I let myself cry in the car for a few minutes before moving on with my day. Maybe I talk about it over dinner with my partner. Maybe I process it in my own therapy. If I don’t keep up my end of the contract and go back to it, the feelings aren’t going to keep up their end and stay in the box for long. 

Do your own work

There’s a lot happening right now, and it is natural to have a lot of feelings about it. Your feelings may be different from mine, and that’s OK. Whatever you are feeling, find some space to process in ways that aren’t going to harm others (punch a pillow, not a person) or take energy away from others who need to be taking care in not giving support out. Therapy is a great space to process what you are feeling, so that you can stay in good working order. If being of service and supportive to others who are suffering and struggling is important to you, do the work to keep your mind and body and soul in good health so that you can show up and be a support to others, and not crash from burn out or explode from bottled up feelings. 

Part 2: …And I Feel Fine

We are living through a collective trauma together. And yet you feel… ok. You feel weird about it, even guilty. Shouldn’t you be freaking out or something? Is there something wrong with you that you aren’t sad, anxious, or on edge? Are you lacking a heart like some kind of a sociopath? Are you in denial? 

I guess that’s possible – I don’t really know you after all. But honestly, most likely? No. Instead, I’m guessing it’s one or more of these reasons: 

  • You’ve been anxious your whole life and this feels like a relief, the crisis you’ve been afraid of is here and you are surviving. Your nervous system feels better than it has in years. 
  • You are introverted and feel relieved at the lowered social expectations and obligations. The amount of socializing you are doing feels right, you’re able to visit for shorter periods of time on zoom calls, instead of being stuck at a party for hours when you only wanted to be there for 45 minutes. You have more one-on-one or small group convos and fewer big meetings and no crowds. 
  • You feel less alone. Everyone around you is now anxious and worried, they way you have felt your whole life. You finally feel validated, normal, 

If you are feeling more or less fine right now, it really is OK to use this time to do something for you. Of course you want to and should help others — talk to your anxious friends, check on lonely family, volunteer to shop for elderly neighbors, whatever you are comfortable doing. And then, take care of you. Read, do art, cook, bake. Talk about your deep stuff in therapy. You don’t have to use your therapy sessions to talk about the pandemic, and you don’t have to feel guilt about processing your childhood wounds during this crisis time. If you are not in crisis, then use this time and space to dive into your long-term work. Trust me, your therapist will be thrilled to talk about something aside from COVID anxiety! 

Part 1: It’s the End of the World As We Know It…

So. We’re all living through a collective trauma together. You, your friends and family, the grocery store clerk, random strangers around the globe, and your therapist. That may be obvious at this point, but what may not be so obvious is how and why it’s affecting you in the ways it is. Any of the following experiences sound familiar?

  • Forgetful, distracted, difficulty focusing. One of the biggest features of this pandemic is the complete upheaval of daily routines. Our brains work by looking for patterns, learning what to expect is coming next. We go on auto-pilot for chunks of our day, because we’re so used to the drive to work or the walk to the park that we don’t use much conscious brain power on those tasks and that energy is freed up to think through other stuff. That’s why you (used to) arrive at work and not remember anything about your commute. Now, though, life is turned upside down and your usual patterns and routines are out the window. Your brain doesn’t know what to expect next. As a result, you’re using a lot of conscious brain power to do the basics of living. This is why you are so exhausted when all you have done is shower, take a 15 minute walk, and attend a work meeting on Zoom. You are expending a lot of energy remembering to put on a mask, scan the sidewalk for people getting too close to you, disinfecting your groceries, etc. No wonder your brain is tired that you can’t remember what you walked into the kitchen to do. 
  • Irritable and snappy. We are living with a lot of uncertainty right now. What will happen in a day, a week, a year? How many people will get sick or die, are we going to enter a global economic depression, what will be the political aftermath of this crisis? How will I survive it all? Our minds like to feel a sense of control and predictability, and that is in short supply right now. That can lead to a lot of impatience with other people, a fear about scarcity, and a tendency to see others as a threat instead of supports. If you are feeling angry, on guard, and assuming the worst in others right now, it could be your own difficulty with uncertainty.
  • Worried or anxious all the time. If you or someone you love are in a high-risk group, you may be experiencing a lot of worry about getting COVID-19, hyper-vigilance for any kind of tickle in your throat or raised temperature. Constant sympathetic nervous system (“fight or flight”) activation is exhausting, and creates a feedback loop that can keep you stuck there and unable to appreciate and take in the moments of calm that you do have. 
  • Tired but can’t sleep. Your routines and rhythms are off with working from home or no work. You’re not getting enough sunlight. You’re not getting enough exercise. You’re drinking too much. You’re eating at weird times. All these things can throw off your sleep schedule. You might be yawning all through the evening but then when you try to go to sleep you’re wide awake, worrying. 
  • Sad AF, or pretending you’re not. If someone you know is sick or if you have lost someone, you have first-hand experience how exhausting grief can be, whether you are feeling it or using all your energy to shove it under a rug. 

If you’re feeling any of this, you are not alone. And I could give you a dozen tips for improving your sleep or focus, decreasing your anxiety or fear. But the truth is, this is a difficult time. We are living through a collective trauma together. Improving your sleep hygiene or practicing mindfulness will likely improve some of your trauma-related symptoms, and that’s worthwhile. And also, you’re still gonna feel it, cause we’re still going through the trauma. It’s good to tend to your mental health; in fact, it’s necessary, so you can stay as functional as possible to get through this. But have realistic expectations, and don’t get lost in self-criticism if you just can’t get your sleep or anxiety under control right now. We’re not through it yet, we are still in it.

Therapy during COVID-19 (part 2)

While we may need to stay six feet or farther away from each other physically right now, we also need to find ways to come closer together socially, emotionally, and spiritually. That starts with keeping your mind and heart healthy, so that you are available to connect with and help those around you. 

We all have traits, quirks, defenses, anxiety symptoms that get in the way of connecting. Maybe you experience self-conscious thoughts that prevent you from being fully present when someone is talking to you. Or fear of vulnerability that makes you shove your thoughts and feelings into a box. Each of these things is like a layer in between you and other people. The layers can build up to a thick, tall wall that makes you feel alone even in the presence (digital or face-to-face) of others. 

In stressful times, these defenses can get stronger and make it even harder to feel connected, even when connection is what we need most of all. 

Therapy right now can be a place to talk about how stressful the outside world is. But it can also be a place to look inward and identify what your layers are, and figure out how to peel them back. Use this time to explore your inner world, get to know your layers. Learn more about how to be present with yourself and available for contact with others. Practice giving yourself permission to enjoy what’s happening in this moment without worrying if you are “doing it right” (whatever “it” is). Learn to speak without a censor or filter editing every word. 

You can figure out how to get through this with your mental and emotional health not just intact but improved. Therapy can help with peeling back those layers and being your authentic self right now. And since you are stuck with yourself a lot now, you might as well learn how to enjoy your own company.

Therapy during COVID-19 (part 1)

These are stressful and uncertain times for all of us. 

When you think of going to therapy right now, the first thing that comes to mind is probably getting support for the anxiety and fear that is all around us now. And that is definitely true — therapy can be a space to talk about what’s stressing you out and your fears about the future. But these uniquely stressful conditions are also weirdly creating a near-perfect environment for some people to dive into deep self-reflection, healing old wounds or conflicts, and investing in personal growth. 

Let’s start with the slower pace of life right now. You probably have more time on your hands than you are used to, with no commute, no in-person social obligations, and limiting your trips out into the world. Just having more time alone can make space for self-reflection. In addition to more time, we’re also experiencing a shift into a more thoughtful, intentional way of life. Things we used to do mindlessly — like coming in the door and tossing our keys somewhere — have now become mini mindful rituals where we have to pay attention to what we are doing in order to remember new routines and build new habits. We think carefully about what supplies we need so we can get it all in one trip. We pause to wipe down surfaces and wash hands thoroughly. We have to be more present in the moment and less distracted by multi-tasking. 

These changes can be the building blocks for a deeper kind of mindfulness and self-reflection. You can use those 20 seconds of hand-washing to do a scan of your internal experience: what are my emotions right now? How is my body feeling? Eyes getting tired from a week of binge-watching TV? Give them a break by writing long-hand in a journal. At a loss for what to write? Consider these prompts:

*Many aspects of life feel “on pause” right now. If you could decide what the world would look like when we hit “play” again, what would your ideal world be like? This can help you explore your values and desires. 

*Name five people in your life for whom you are grateful. What do you love about them? Now consider what is challenging in each of those relationships. Are any of those challenges or problems ones you want to heal? What stops you from offering apologies or asking for them in these most important relationships? 

*What did you learn about coping with stress from your family of origin? What are the ways you’ve developed on your own to cope with tough times? Are there coping tools you got from your family that you want to keep, or let go of? What other habits, beliefs, values did you get from your family that you want to hold on to, and what do you want to let go of? 

*What are you the things you are enjoying or valuing about this time of slowing down and staying at home? What do you want to take with you when the pace of life picks back up again?

This time of crisis does not have to be a time of holding in place, just getting by. You can use this time to invest in yourself and your growth. You can use this time to identify what is important and valuable to you, what you want to choose to build or maintain and what you want to let go. Whether you do this through journaling, art, therapy, or a combination of methods, give yourself permission to use some of this time to get below the surface anxieties and feed your soul.

Eight Tips to Make the Most of Online Therapy

Here in San Francisco, we’ve all been “sheltering in place” for at least a week now. We’re trying to settle into the new normal, even as we also expect that things will keep changing and creating a constantly evolving sense of normal. 

Part of that change has been a switch from in-person therapy to online sessions, for me and for every therapist I know. While I’ve had some experience with this mode of working, it’s new to a lot of people and some folks have been encountering some bumps during this adjustment period. With that in mind, here are some tips that could help you make the most out of your video therapy sessions:  

1. Give it a chance. Some people have a knee-jerk reaction to video and shut down the option before giving it a try. Since we’re all stuck with this for at least a couple more weeks (but probably longer), you owe it to yourself to give it a try before writing off the possibility of therapy altogether. 

2. Find a private spot. Negotiate with your roommates for 45 minutes of privacy and relative quiet. Time your session with your spouse’s ability to take the kids for a walk. Put a sign on your door to remind folks not to knock for the next hour. Whatever you can do to make sure you feel safe that you won’t be interrupted and can really dive into the material that matters to you. 

3. Do a test run. If the platform your therapist is using is new to you, spend a few minutes before session checking it out and doing any trouble shooting necessary. Many platforms give the option of doing a test call or checking your video and audio connections and your internet speed to make sure you are in good working order technologically. 

4. Have a “plan B.” If the video call is glitchy or delayed, have a plan in mind or an agreement with your therapist about a back-up (phone, a different platform, etc) so you don’t have to use session time figuring that out. 

5. Negotiate wifi. If multiple people in your house are using internet at once and that’s making it hard to have a smooth session, see if people can stay off streaming services for the hour of your call. 

6. Silence. Take a moment to silence devices you don’t need, turn off phone or laptop notifications that will distract you, close browser tabs, etc. When the session is going, maximize your video screen so you can’t see other programs, apps, or browser tabs. Support yourself in staying focused on just your therapy session. 

7. Create a pre-session ritual. Once you have all your technology and privacy needs taken care of, try to take a few moments to get yourself centered and into a therapy headspace. Take a few deep breaths, experience the quiet, review your journal for the week, think about how you want to use your session time. 

8. Revisit your goals. While you might feel compelled to talk about your COVID19 anxiety for some or even most of your session, you don’t necessarily have to pause your longer-term therapy goals during this time. The slower pace of life, the extra time now that you are doing less, the global focus on individual and communal health — these conditions can actually create an environment for some deep therapy work to thrive, even on video!

The problem with text therapy

You’ve probably seen the ads for Talkspace, Betterhelp, and other digital therapy services meant to “disrupt” the therapy world. Maybe they even sound good to you — a bargain price, and access to your therapist whenever you want instead of at a set appointment time each week.

But with anything, there’s a shadow side, a catch. There are a lot of problems with these services, including issues with privacy and confidentiality for clients, and serious concerns around professional ethics and compensation for therapists. On top of all that, I seriously question whether any effective therapy or personal growth work can happen via text.

 

Getting Out of Your Comfort Zone

Text therapy probably sounds pretty comforting, easy. Less intense and nerve-wracking than face-to-face interactions. You don’t have to make eye contact. You can just stop responding for a while if you feel overwhelmed or annoyed or done. You don’t have to see the impact your words, tone, or energy have on another human being. All the same reasons you probably prefer to text friends or romantic partners instead of talking on the phone or seeing them in person. It’s easy, and you don’t have to get outside your comfort zone.

The thing is, therapy is meant to a place to grow, heal, and change. And by definition, you can’t do that if you stay in your comfort zone. If therapy is easy, comfortable, and allows you to wiggle out of uncomfortable feelings and situations, then you aren’t getting what you need out of the process.

Therapy isn’t meant to be horribly uncomfortable either. There’s a productive window, just outside your comfort zone but before you get flooded with anxiety and become unable to think. Negotiating that place with your therapist is part of the process, part of the important job of getting to know yourself better, knowing when you are getting overwhelmed and how to calm yourself down. This is a very useful skill to have in life, in job interviews, talking to strangers at parties, and a million other situations. If you are always avoiding getting uncomfortable, you never learn how to do this. You stay stuck.

 

Words Are Only Part of the Picture

Text makes it hard for you to do your work, and makes it hard for us therapists to do our work too. Text is a very limited form of communication. As a therapist, I am looking at ALL the ways you communicate with me, not just the words you choose. I’m listening to your tone of voice, the pace at which you are speaking, the energy behind your voice. I’m paying attention to your body language, eye contact, and the way you gesture and move. I put all this together to form a complete picture of what’s going on for you in every given moment.

I can’t tell you how many times someone’s words said something very different than their body was saying, and being able to call my client’s attention to that and explore leads to huge breakthroughs and changes. That can’t happen over text. The truth is, therapists need to actually see your body language, hear your tone of voice, to be able to diagnose you and to provide effective treatment.

 

A Time and a Place

Without a doubt, for some people in some situations text “therapy” can be a good thing. If you are unable to access any other form of mental health care for instance, or if you truly are only looking for someone to just listen. Peer support text programs provide a wonderful service, a way to be understood and feel less alone.

But if you are actually looking to address real mental health concerns (for example, depression, anxiety, or disordered relationships to food, drugs, sex, etc.), text therapy is not going to cut it. And if you are looking to actually push yourself to grow as a person, change unhealthy patterns in your relationships, work, and life, texting someone is not going to do the trick. Texting is easy, and easy does not bring about change.

“OMG I’m such a perfectionist!”

If you have ever uttered this humble brag, or heard your teen child or student say it, check out my guest appearance on The College Prep Podcast to learn why this is not a good thing.

Tune in to hear more about:

  • What perfectionism is and isn’t
  • What the underly beliefs are that provide the root of perfectionism
  • What behaviors are signs of unhealthy perfectionism, and
  • What teens and parents (and everyone!) can do about perfectionist tendencies, including when to address the behaviors versus the underlying beliefs

163: Why Perfectionism in Teens Is Not Always Healthy

Feeling more stressed than usual? You’re not imagining it.

If you’ve been feeling stressed, tense, overwhelmed these past months, you are not alone. A recent survey by American Psychological Association found that Americans are more stressed than we’ve been — or at least since this survey started in 2007. The current political situation, the near-constant news updates, conflicts on social media, and the fear and uncertainty about the future have all created a sea of stress… and some of us are barely keeping our heads above water.

This stress can hit in a lot of different ways. Perfectionist types — prone to obsessive thinking, self-criticism, and anxiety — tend to feel it in the following ways.

 

Problem: Obsessing

If you are prone to anxious ruminating, politics can become one more thing stuck in your brain. You can find yourself obsessively consuming news or social media, and endlessly thinking, thinking, thinking about what’s happening or what might happen next. In the sea of stress, these intrusive thoughts are like a rip tide that can pull you under, and you find yourself unable to focus on anything else or get to sleep.

Solution: Limit news and social media. Set a schedule for when you can read or watch and when you can’t, and stick to it. Use an app to lock yourself out of your phone if you worry you can’t hold yourself to it. Come up with three things you can read, watch, do, or think about instead — things that have nothing to do with politics. Keep a book of short stories on hand, watch an old tv show, plan inventive dishes to cook for friends.

 

Problem: Feeling powerless

Perfectionists often struggle with self-criticism or feeling “not good enough.” When that combines with politics — especially political activism — the result can sometimes be a sense of powerlessness. No matter how many calls you make or marches you attend, your inner perfectionist voice tells you it’s not enough. You beat yourself up for not doing enough, not being effective enough. Your inner perfectionist might think this criticism is the only way to motivate you to stay active, but in reality, feeling terrible about yourself leads to burnout and apathy.  

Solution: Set realistic expectations, and find a sense of fulfilment and satisfaction in whatever actions you take. There are a hundred organizations to support, dozens of calls to make, and an impossible number of events to attend. Decide for yourself what is actually realistic, what you can manage. When you accomplish your task for the day or the week, take a moment to feel some satisfaction and pride about what you did. I don’t mean feel full of yourself or think you are saving the world by calling your senator — I mean letting yourself get energized by feeling effective and engaged in something you care about.

 

Problem: Overwhelm

If you are sensitive or anxious in general, swimming in the sea of stress is even more exhausting for you than for others. There may not even be specific thoughts running through your head, you may just feel drained by the atmosphere of anxiety around you. The feeling of overwhelm can easily lead to collapse, giving up, or feeling depressed.

Solution: Engage in self care. Know what recharges you and make space for that in your life, so you have energy for action too.

What’s the Point of Feeling Emotions?

What’s the point of feeling emotions? Especially ones you might find difficult, distasteful, even scary. You might be thinking, “I don’t want to wallow in sadness,” or “I don’t want to get stuck in anger and not get out of it.” We have a lot of fears about emotions, and spend a lot of time trying to dodge, distract, or avoid feeling things that we’re worried will overwhelm or harm us.

Emotions serve an important purpose. There’s a reason they’ve stuck around through the process of human evolution. Emotions tell us when and how to act — to run from danger, stand up for yourself, connect in grief.

There’s an important distinction here, between core emotions — which bring us this wisdom about the world and how we want to respond to it — and defensive emotions — which take us down a rabbit hole of anxiety or feeling stuck.

Likely you’ve experienced this with a good cry… You feel hurt or sad, tears come and then stop, you reach out to a loved one to connect, you exhale a big sigh and feel a little lighter, relieved. You might not be done with your grief or hurt — another wave or waves might come later. But for the moment you feel complete and are ready to move on to a new experience — maybe a moment of laughter or joy, maybe peace and calm. That’s an experience of core emotion.

Contrast that with a time you felt stuck in your emotions… Maybe you are trying really hard not to feel sad, but you can’t really get rid of it. It is always nipping at the edges of your awareness, and as a result you feel down all the time or maybe even slip into a depressive episode. Maybe you are trying to suppress your anger, and then you end up feeling low-grade irritation constantly until you snap and explode.

Another common experience of defensive emotion is when you cover up what you are really feeling with something that’s easier for you to express. For some people this might be feeling hurt or sad, and covering it up with anger (“whatever, I didn’t like her anyway, she’s awful”). Other people might feel uncomfortable with anger and mask it with sadness (“He stood me up and I feel like such a loser, I suck”).

So how can you tell the difference?

Core Emotions

  • Embodied – there is a physical experience of the emotion (muscle tension, tightness, lump in throat)
  • Relatively short – last seconds or minutes generally
  • Movement – they rise and fall
  • Relief or sense of difference at the end

Defensive Emotions

  • Stuck in your head, racing thoughts
  • Persistent – don’t seem to come to an end
  • Ruminating – thoughts that run in loops, endlessly repeating
  • Stuck – don’t change over time or end

If you notice you are feeling defensive emotions, try sitting still for a moment. Ask yourself, are there any other emotions I am feeling other than this stuck one? Is there hurt under this irritation? See if there is some real grief, hurt, sadness that needs a moment of feeling. Or is there anger that wants to fuel effective action on your behalf? See what it is like to make some space for core emotions.

So what is the point of feeling emotions? The point is to get in touch with your internal compass that is telling you when to run, fight, connect, breathe. To connect to yourself and to others, to feel alive and resilient and in motion, rather than constricted, overwhelmed and stuck.