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Why Group Therapy Works: Part 1 

by Sam Bearer, PLPC

There is a lot of research out there evaluating the efficacy of group work to address lots of different issues. The evidence is clear that group work is tremendously effective in helping individuals make positive changes in their lives.  But why?  For the past two years, I have volunteered with a local ministry that runs men’s groups to address sexual addiction and acting out.  I have had the chance to observe and think about what makes these groups work.  This experience has helped me identify several different components that I believe are key to unlocking positive change in our group members’ lives.

The first is choosing to be vulnerable.  Every man that has come to our group has felt ashamed, isolated, and singled out by the experience of feeling trapped in his addiction or by being exposed in it.  The terrible discomfort of this experience may be enough to get him through the door and into therapy, but it doesn’t mean that the therapy will be effective.  The work each person has to do is to risk being totally open about his struggle in therapy.

Within a therapy group context, there is little room to shade the truth or hide parts of it.

One of the easiest and most prevalent ways of avoiding vulnerability is to share only the parts of the struggle that we have shared before, or can be framed as something that we used to struggle with or happened in the past.  So often, these past struggles are also very much present ones, but by placing it in the past, it puts convenient barriers up which it is easy to hide behind.  We have all tried to hide our struggles at one time or another.

At some point in our story, we learned it wasn’t safe to share and be vulnerable because someone close to us would exploit our weakness.

Group therapy is intentionally confronting this emotional reality and seeking to do the opposite.  Again and again, I have seen group members gently confront each other about whether or not individuals are sharing all of the impact of the story or just the safe parts.  When a group member deliberately and consistently chooses not to hide in this or other ways, it becomes possible for the other group members to empathize, connect with, and enter that individual’s experience in the present.  This willing vulnerability is a sign that change is already taking place in the group member as well as opening the door to the possibility of deeper, positive change.

Cultivating Patience

Cultivating Patience

Since I started working as a counselor after getting my degree, I have realized how little patience I really have.  

Cultivating Patience

I spent a lot of time both in classes and in my internship thinking about the problems my client might have and how best to approach them.  However, with people outside of the counseling room, I find myself much more prone to aggravation and frustration when things seem to be working less efficiently than I think they should.   The other day I was having some issues with the self-checkout machine at a local store.  After a few moments, I began inwardly cursing the machine and its creator when an employee came over to help me.  Some of my frustration spilled over into my tone in talking to her about that problem.  I had intended to convey my pique with the machine, but this lady took it personally.  I recognized too late that I might have chosen better words to express myself.  She sorted out the issue, and on my walk back to the car, a thought struck me.

It was not the machine that I had been upset with at all.  I was upset because the few moments wasted standing in the store were cutting into my time on a Saturday.  

It was the lack of progress toward the next thing that was bothering me, and I didn’t even have a “next thing” planned that day.  My internal feeling of stagnation triggered a sense of minor outrage that then affected another person’s day.  But why is that feeling of stagnation or no forward progress so hard for me?  I believe it is because I get a great deal of my sense of self or identity in the things I do or how I do them.  When things don’t go smoothly, a little bit of that sense of self is challenged.  The lady was simply reflecting back to me what I was feeling, an undermined sense of self or power.

Simply put, I needed more patience to deal with the situation.  I needed not just patience with her or the machine, but patience for myself to slow down and do the self-awareness checks I so often encourage my clients to do.  It is so important for me to recognize that my agency, identity, or power, or lack thereof, is not defined by those moments when things don’t go right, big or small.  Those things are practiced and displayed in those moments.  The patience required to handle them better, however, comes from pausing and remembering. Regardless of how I handle this situation in the present moment, I am worthy of the same kind of care I seek to display to my clients.  

My impatience in these kinds of moments is likely this lack of self-care in action and keeps me from caring for others in those moments as well.  This is why cultivating patience for myself as well as others, is the way not only to becoming a better counselor, but also a better human being.

By: Sam Bearer, PLPC

Opioid Addiction and Community Support

Opioid Addiction and Community Support

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Recently I (Lianne) was asked to be a part of the Mental Health and Wellness Summits created by Missouri Care, A Wellcare Health Plan, Inc.’s Community Impact Council for the Faith-based Community as a panelist.  The first Summit was on April 7 at The City of Life Christian Church in St. Louis, MO and it addressed the Opioid Crisis within the Faith-based Community.

Thankfully the Summit was recorded because the information shared is valuable and educational.

During this half, you will learn about why opioids are so addictive and how this epidemic has grown to where it is now.  You will also learn about how Mental Health stigma’s are hurting our communities and the people within them.

The second half of the Summit talks about the addictive cycle and then the panelist’s field questions about this issue, care, counseling, and faith.

I hope you take some time to listen to the recordings of the Summit.  The information and wisdom shared will prove helpful to those in social work, counselors, parents, teachers, pastors, and other care providers.  Teens would also benefit from watching these videos with their parents and could lead to beneficial conversations to help your teen make good choices and bring understanding to them about the seriousness of the opioid problem.

To those with a loved one struggling, there is hope!  There are many services available to those who are struggling and for their loved ones.  These resources are highlighted in these videos.

There are more Summits coming up over the next few months.  Below is a list of Summit topics and dates.

-Saturday, May 12, 2018, The Church and Suicide (Body Shaming, Self-Image, Bullying, Depression)
-Saturday, June 2, 2018, The Church and Trauma: Mental/Behavioral Health and the Homeless Man
-Saturday, July TBD, 2018, The Church and Trauma: Domestic Violence

By: Lianne Johnson, LPC, CTP

New Year’s Resolutions

With the start of another new year, many of us find ourselves focusing on things we’d like to change in our lives – many of us call these changes New Year’s Resolutions.

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Popular points of focus include health and wellness, career goals, financial management, and planning for the future.  These are all very important things to evaluate regularly, and the beginning of a new year seems like a particularly appropriate time for evaluation and reflection.  However, we fail to actualize the vast majority of our resolutions, and this failure has a great, negative emotional impact.  This isn’t usually because of a lack of planning or resources to achieve our goals.  

Rather, it is because we lack awareness of the emotions driving us to make resolutions to change.

One of the clearest examples of this is with the proverbial commitment to eat better and lose weight.  Many of us overindulge, stress eat, or “reward ourselves” over the holiday season at the end of the year and then subsequently attempt to restrict our eating to healthier options or simply less volume overall in the new year.  We tell ourselves, “Well, I’ve had mine. Now it’s time to be good.”  We say we will “eat right” as if we were being bad or wrong previously and really knew it deep down the whole time.  This idea carries with it a subtle, or for some not so subtle, emotional sense of failure already. In addition, we may not acknowledge to ourselves the probability that we will eventually fail again, sooner or later.  Many of us reach this point and chuck in the towel.  The discomfort of making a change or the powerlessness we feel from our failures kills our energy and motivation to try again.  In the same way, our career has stalled for circumstances out of our control or our financial burdens may seem too great or confused even to attempt to overcome.  All or even one of these things can be enough to leave us feeling isolated and hopeless.

There is not a simple answer or solution to these problems, but a great place to start is by asking what emotion is motivating the resolution or desire to change.  It may be based on a negative view of self; for example, someone may feel that less valuable as a person because of dissatisfaction with his or her physical appearance.  A negative view of others may also motivate a resolution; for instance, it may stem from a desire to outperform a colleague.  Success at these kinds of resolutions will only reinforce the negative view of self or others.  It will validate the first negative, emotional experience as true. The person who had a negative view of self may feel more valuable after changing his or her appearance, but that only confirms the feeling that he or she lacked value before.  The person who wanted to outperform a colleague may feel even more contemptuous of the colleague after surpassing him or her.   On the other hand, failure often drives the negative emotional impact even deeper.  We can come away feeling even worse about ourselves or more embittered toward others than when we started.

This year, you might try making a few resolutions intentionally with positive emotional foundations, instead of recriminating ones.  The health and wellness resolution has always proven the most difficult for me to keep, but this year I am reframing my resolution.  I am going to give myself the opportunity to eat more healthy foods and exercise.  I know when I am doing so, I have more energy and feel more positive generally, but I am also giving it as a gift to my family.  Now more than ever I need to be present and active in their lives as my daughter begins to crawl and walk.  I want to give her as much of my energy as I can.  Try writing out your positive motivation on a flash card you post in your kitchen or bathroom.  Go back to it as often as you need to.  

And if you find yourself struggling to keep it, remind yourself that every new sunrise, and not just the new year, brings a fresh chance to recommit ourselves to living our lives in a way we choose, not only for ourselves but also for those we love.

By Sam Bearer, PLPC

Survival Tips for the Holidays

by Courtney Hollingsworth, LPC

Here are a few small tips for changing the ways you engage with your relatives around the holidays. It isn’t easy to change the ways we relate to people we’ve known most or all of our lives, but it is often worth the work. This list is by no means conclusive, but a good place to start.

Take people at their word.

Try to notice how often you are attempting to read between the lines of others’ words or times when you feel expected to know what someone else feels or wants without them actually saying anything. Reading between the lines or finding the hidden meeting is common in family systems that operate more passive aggressively. Taking people at their word forces others to speak up on their own behalf, say what they really mean, and address one another with respect.

Mean your words.

The reverse of taking people at their words is true as well. If you are frequently not saying what you truly mean, then feel upset when others are not doing as you want, odds are you were not meaning your words. Speak directly and kindly, and you can avoid many of the passive-aggressive communication games that conflict avoidant families tend to get bogged down in.

Check your expectations.

Holidays are filled with expectations and typically time with family is also, therefore holidays with family members can be a double whammy. It can become the perfect traffic jam of various expectations.

Know your limits.

Try to realistically assess your limits on various planes prior to making your holiday plans. Are there certain family members you have a lower tolerance for spending time around? Is your social/extroversion threshold depleted more quickly at family gatherings? Are there certain relatives’ houses where you become a worse version of yourself longer you stay? Does being around babies and toddlers bring out the worst in you? Is your alcohol tolerance lowered in family settings? Assessing your limits prior to making your plans can help you make a more informed choice, and perhaps plan action steps toward self-care when you can’t predict that your limits will be tested and or pushed.

Know your triggers.

This one is similar to knowing your limits, in that it can be helpful to do some self-assessment prior to walking into family dynamics that are laden with emotional landmines. Try to think about instances in the past when time spent with family has led to blow-ups, arguments, hurt feelings, or even the silent (or shouted) conclusion that you’ll never go back again. Try to see if there’s a pattern between these various situations. Do you tend to be triggered by your mom’s passive aggressive comments? Do you tend to be triggered by your brother’s constant bragging about his successful career? Do you tend to be triggered by your niece talking all of the toys leaving them for the other cousins? Whatever your triggers, knowing them in advance can help prevent them from being a surprise, or even activated at all.

Make a private game of unavoidable unpleasantries.

Now, this is a little bit nuanced because it needs to be done discreetly and with wisdom, but can be helpful in surviving unavoidable unpleasantries. However, if you and your spouse or sibling share a negative feeling towards a person or behavior, you can make a private game out of how often you have to witness or endure that behavior. For example: does your dad tend to condescendingly correct other peoples grammar? Making bets on how often that will happen during the time that you spend with him. Does your aunt make snide comments under her breath? Rather than fume as you, it can be a survival strategy to find a way to laugh about it. What makes this game nuanced is you certainly don’t want others to find out about it or extend it to the point of being disrespectful.

The Difference between Dangerous and Unsafe

by Jonathan Hart, LPC

Whether we are talking about job sites, relationships, or simply walking down the street, we routinely confront the question of safety.  The fact is that we live in a dangerous world, and safety is a real question for all of us.

I have recently struck upon a difference between dangerous and unsafe.  The world is a dangerous place, but it is not always unsafe.  In terms of relationships with other human beings, we are all dangerous to each other: we all have the potential to cause hurt, whether deliberately, by mistake, by ignorance, or by accident.  

What makes a person safe or unsafe is how they handle their dangerousness.  It’s what they do when they have caused hurt that makes the difference.

Driving a car is a dangerous thing in its very nature.  How I handle that responsibility is what makes the difference between being a safe driver and an unsafe (reckless) driver.   The reckless driver des not acknowledge the inherent dangerousness of driving a 2 ton vehicle at 40 miles an hour among dozens of other 2 ton vehicles.  A reckless driver does not consider what the other vehicles might be doing but demands his or her own way, and that everyone else must make way for their vehicle.  People who are reckless in relationship behave similarly, and they act in relationally unsafe ways.

I can get into a wreck whether I am a safe driver or not, but it is more likely and typically more severe when I am reckless.

Let’s talk about relationships.  My responsibility when I speak is ALWAYS to speak the truth and to be respectful. That responsibility never changes and is never removed.   If I speak to you harshly for any reason at all, I owe you an apology, period.  Having said this, I have to acknowledge that there are a lot of reasons I might speak to you harshly.  I might be having a bad day.  I might be in a hurry, or in pain.  You may have done something to offend me.  You might have made a mistake that affected me somehow.  You might have been a jerk toward me and I responded in kind.  In this, I am dangerous: I have a lot of potential to hurt you.  

What makes me safe or unsafe is how I handle that responsibility both before and after I cause hurt.  

I am a safe user of words when I consider the words and tones I am willing to use, when I resist the tendency to speak in anger or harshness.  I can still get into a “wreck” so to speak:  I am still capable of speaking in hurtful ways.  When I am safe, I will do so less often and with less intensity, and I will stop myself sooner.

When I do cross that line, what happens next is important.  If I blame you or say you deserved it, I am creating an unsafe environment.  If I refuse to acknowledge the hurt, I am creating unsafety.  If I tell you you’re too sensitive or that you’re making a big deal out of nothing, I am creating unsafety.   If I say “I’m sorry, but…” I’m actually saying, “This is why I ‘m not sorry,” and I am creating unsafety.

What makes me relationally safe is when I own my responsibility and the fact that I broke my responsibility, and I genuinely apologize for crossing a line.  When I am open and accepting of the fact that I am human and fallible, I am more willing to be called out on misbehavior and better able to resist the defensiveness that naturally arises.  If I can accept my own humanity, I am likely more able to accept your humanity and we can have a human conversation. 

We are always dangerous to each other, but it is never a foregone conclusion that because we are dangerous, we are unsafe.  As we pay attention to the dangerousness of living and interacting with other human beings, take up our responsibility for conducting ourselves appropriately, and own our mistakes and limitations, we engage in “safe driving”.  So… buckle up, it’s dangerous out there.

Change is Loss and Loss Requires Grief

by Melinda Seley, PLPC

Several months ago, I went on a very restricted diet in hopes of resolving some chronic health issues.  And quite frankly, even with the hope that this change could bring about something good, it was haaaard.  I felt totally overwhelmed by having to figure out a new way to eat, with new recipes and new ingredients, and finding the time and energy to do so.  I wanted to throw a 2-year old style tantrum – particularly by flailing on the floor – for not getting to just eat what I want to eat.  And throughout the process, I was reminded of two things: change is loss and loss requires grief.

Change is Loss

In their book, Leadership on the Line, Linsky and Heifetz note that “people don’t resist change…they resist loss”.  Have you thought about change as loss?  Even when change is due to the best of circumstances, it requires us to lose something – whether it be a routine, a relationship, familiarity, a place that holds memories, convenience, a reputation, a known experience.

Change means unknowns. Change means having to relearn something. Change requires you to face the reality that you’re not in control.  And change often makes us face things within ourselves that we could conveniently avoid when things were status quo.

How might naming the change you are facing as loss be helpful to you in navigating it well?

Loss Requires Grief

The English Oxford Dictionary defines grief as “intense sorrow, especially caused by someone’s death.”  Grief is most often and naturally associated with death – so much so that the Oxford Dictionary even defines grief with a reference to it.  However, any loss we experience – big or small – is a cause for grief.  Not just the death of someone.

I am often asked in the counseling room what it looks like to grieve.  And though it looks different for everyone, in every situation, I believe there are some core components to this process of grieving:

  1. Name what has been lost. This includes very specific details of what you lost – because every single detail matters in understanding how you have been impacted.
  2. Allow yourself to feel. Sadness can be uncomfortable. And deep sorrow can be scary. But healing cannot come until you face your pain.  
  3. Consider if there is something you need to do to honor your pain or what has been lost. Do you need to journal about what ____ meant to you?  Do you need to create a photo book? Do you need to tell someone something?  
  4. Recognize that grieving is not a linear or predictable process. Grief can often be surprising and strike us when we are most vulnerable. A smell, a taste, a word spoken can bring with it a flood of thoughts and emotions that require going back to step one above. That is okay. That is how grief works. It is an ongoing, unpredictable process.

If change is loss and loss requires grief…it logically follows that change requires grief.  Have you considered this in your life?  Even changes that are bringing about something good have some element of loss intertwined with them when we stop to fully consider it.  How might it be helpful for you to name change as loss and grieve that loss today?

Seven Desires of Every Heart

by Melinda Seley, PLPC

In their book, The Seven Desires of Every Heart, Mark and Debra Laaser outline the following seven universal desires that every person has – regardless of age, gender, culture, or religious background:  

  • To be heard and understood  

This includes thoughts, feelings, needs, struggles, and opinions.

  • To be affirmed (specific and concrete acknowledgement of someone’s strengths)

This includes specific and concrete acknowledgement of one’s strengths.

  • To be blessed

Not only being affirmed for specific strengths and things we do well, but knowing that we are worthy and loved just for being who you are (not what you do).

  • To be safe

This includes physical, mental, emotional, and sexual safety.  

  • To be touched

We never outgrow the need for non-sexual touch and particularly a lack of confusion between sexual and non-sexual touch.  

  • To be chosen

  • To be included (more of a community aspect than “to be chosen”)

This is more of a community aspect than “to be chosen” above.

When you think about your own life and experience, how have these needs been met or left unfulfilled for you?  Perhaps it would be helpful to read that list again.  Often, when needs are met, we are not even explicitly aware that we had the need because it was inherently satisfied.  However, when our needs are not met, it can be overwhelming and stir within us very strong emotions.  We can become angry with the person not meeting our needs. We can become angry with ourselves for having the need.  Or think there must be something wrong with us for having the need in the first place. Unmet needs, particularly in childhood, can shape us deeply.

If you can identify one or more needs above that have been left unfulfilled in childhood, in a previous stage of life, or currently, I would encourage you to consider – what does it look like to grieve that unmet need?  Perhaps it looks like naming what has been left unfulfilled and allowing yourself space to sit in the sadness of the fact that you, as a human being, have a fundamental need that has not been met.  Can you give yourself permission to do that?

The motivation for considering these unmet needs in your life is not to point a finger of blame for pain you have experienced, but rather to grow in awareness of how your heart and mind have been shaped and how that impacts the way you engage in relationship with yourself and others.  And to consider where there is cause for rejoicing…and where there is a need to grieve.  Doing so ultimately allows us to live whole-heartedly and connect more fully with others.

How You View Your Body Matters

by Melinda Seley, PLPC

In 2016, more than 10,500 females between the ages of 10 and 60 and from 13 different countries around the world were surveyed as part of “The Dove Global Beauty and Confidence Report”. The results of this study show that low body esteem is a common challenge shared among women and girls around the world, without regard for age or geography. Nearly all women (85%) and girls (79%) said they opt out of important life activities – such as trying out for a team or club or engaging with loved ones – when they don’t feel good about how they look.

And though the statistics may look somewhat different if men had been included in this study, I believe it is safe to say that the struggle with body image is shared among just about all of us. The impact of advertising and media showing unrealistic standards of beauty, an “always on” social media culture pushing for perfection, and our own personal experiences of shame and beliefs about our body leave us overly fixated on appearance and the believing that any imperfection is something to be hidden.

Are you aware of how you relate to your body?

Often our relationship to our body happens subconsciously, but as the Dove study showed, it can have significant impacts on the choices we make and how we engage with the world around us. If you find yourself unsure of your relationship to your body, perhaps the questions below can serve as a helpful self-assessment:

  • Do you constantly weigh yourself, check yourself in the mirror, or obsess about a body part that isn’t the way you want it to be?
  • Do you continually use negative terms to describe the way you look?
  • Do you believe everything would be better if your body was different?
  • Do you feel that you have to do something to change your appearance before you can have fun, go on vacation, etc.?

If you answered yes to any of the above, it might be helpful to consider where your ideal body image came from. Who has defined that for you and what does it mean if it is not achieved? And what do you believe is needed in order to achieve that body? The reality of living in this world is that our bodies will fail us – either through sickness, injury, chronic disease, hereditary issues, bad choices, or age. Is there a place you need to grieve your broken body?

And what is keeping you from accepting the body you have and being free in your body – to live and engage fully in life?

What Not to Say to Someone Struggling

by Melinda Seley, PLPC

Sitting with someone else in their pain can be hard.  We don’t know quite what to say. We want to fix it. Make them happy. Change their perspective so it doesn’t seem as bad. Keep them from wallowing in their pain. Or maybe we just don’t want them to bring us down. Feel their pain. Or for something to be required of us due to their struggle.  

This blog is for myself as much as it is anyone else, because sometimes – when someone else is struggling – we say things without even realizing how hurtful or unhelpful they might be.  In hopes of reducing the number of times this happens for all of us, I offer this list of “what not to say to someone who is struggling”:

  • “Just wait until…”

“You’re struggling with being single?  Just wait until you’re married, then life gets hard…”
“You’re struggling with being a new parent? Just wait until you have three kids…”
“You’re stressed out working part-time?  Just wait until you’re working full-time…”

Just wait until.  It can be hard not to compare our struggles to those of others, can’t it?  When someone else expresses a difficulty and we feel that our current position has more challenges, more pain, more stress, it’s difficult to meet that person where they are and offer empathy.  It is easy to diminish the pain of others when we don’t fully know what it is like being in their shoes.  We are all different. We have different strengths and weaknesses; different personalities that make certain things harder for some than others; different support networks; and we’ve had parents and teachers who have equipped us differently to handle life’s challenges.  If we are farther along in a particular life situation (relationships, parenting, working, etc.), it is easy to forget that the first time at something is often the hardest.  There are lessons you learn along the way that lead and guide for future increased responsibility, depth of relationship, etc.  If we had more supportive, loving, present parents than others, we forget that that makes a profound difference in our ability to handle stressors.

If you find yourself saying “just wait until” …what keeps you from being able to step out of the place of comparison, see the other’s struggle where they are, and offer a response of empathy?

  • “At least…”

“You’re struggling with paying your bills on your current income? At least you have a job…”
“You’re struggling with pain your parents caused you? At least your parents are still alive…”
“You’re struggling with being a parent?  At least you were able to have kids… “

At least. I find myself saying this to a friend when I want to point to what is still good or what didn’t happen that could have made their situation even worse.  At times, this can be helpful. Putting situations in perspective and finding things to be grateful for is not bad.  But when I consider my motivation for saying “at least”, it is often because I am afraid of feeling the other’s pain or “giving them permission” to sit in the pain of what is happening.  When I say “at least”, I am indirectly saying – “you can’t be sad/disappointed/angry/etc. about ____, because it could have been worse.”  Instead of validating their emotion in response to a bad situation and being with them in it, I basically said “you just need to be grateful it wasn’t worse.”  

What keeps you from giving the other space to feel their emotions before pushing them into a place of gratitude?  

  • “It’s only/You’re just…”

“You’re struggling with your husband being deployed? It’s only 3 months…”
“You’re in 10th grade and sad you just broke up with your girlfriend?  It was just a high school relationship….”
“You say you’re struggling with depression?  You’re just sad…”

“It’s only” and “you’re just”.  These are the phrases of minimization.  Of invalidation.  Communicating there is no reason to feel what is being felt.  Or at least to the extent that they may be currently felt.  Thinking that if they only had my perspective, they would see it’s not that big of a deal.  And again, while it can often be helpful to frame our experiences within the context of a bigger picture or in light of gratitude, I ask us to consider our motivation when inviting another to do so.  Does it help us avoid having to acknowledge that what they are going through is hard for them? Do we view our suffering as greater and therefore need to make sure others know that what they’re going through isn’t that big of a deal?  Can we be humble enough to consider how they, unique as they are, might be feeling this pain?

What keeps you from validating another’s pain rather than minimizing what they are experiencing?

If you read the responses above and a specific interaction with a friend or acquaintance came to mind, know that you are not alone.  Feeling another’s pain is uncomfortable. Often scary. And awkward. It requires something of us in that we have to see life from the other’s perspective and feel things on behalf of someone else.  

What keeps you from being able to step out of comparison, give someone space to feel their emotions, or validate their pain?