coping

Cultivating a Life that is Real: Finding Hope through Your Darkness

by Jason Pogue, PLPC

I have yet to meet anyone whose middle school years were not fraught with social perils and awkwardness and mine were no different. I can remember days I was so sure I had committed a social disaster that I laid in bed at night dreadfully imagining the possible fallout that awaited me the next day at school.  And yet, I would often awake the next day and march into school doing everything I could to pretend the truth that my knotted stomach betrayed was a lie and that none of the previous day had unfolded as it did. This got me through the day many times, but it was a miserable way to live. And, it still is.

The reality is we all still do this self-deception as adults because it gets us through the day, but we often never slow down to think about what it costs us. In the course of experiencing deeply confusing, painful, frightening, shame-filled, and aggravating events somewhere along the way we make a decision – whether conscious or not – to disown pieces of this experience that feel like too much to bear.

Just like middle school, we act like the wounds and emotions our bodies communicate we carry don’t exist, and we talk ourselves away from what the pit of our stomach knows is actual reality. We become so good at this that we disown parts of an experience while keeping all the good things so that as we move forward it seems like a bright and cheerful time even though it carries shadows on all sides of betrayal, crushed hope, or shame.

My point here is not to “miserable-ize” everything in your life, but to illuminate what is lost when we do this. The reality is what we disown is not only an event but our experience of an event. When we disown that experience we actually disown a part of ourselves – a part of the deep experience of our soul – and we take one more step away from ever being truly known by those around us. No matter how vulnerable we are with however many people, we always have those pieces in the back of our mind holding us hostage with the thought, ‘Yeah, but if they knew that about me they would run in the other direction.” We become lonely, and less and less real – no matter how many people or “positive vibes” we surround ourselves with.

Cultivating a life that is real and fighting loneliness begins with examining the pieces of our soul we have disowned, working through whatever discomfort kept us from doing this before, and bringing those pieces of ourselves back into the present so that we can live a more whole and connected life.

This is certainly not an easy task, but often when we face the darkness rather than run from it, we find some light. As English theologian Thomas Fuller once said, “The night is darkest just before the dawn.”

So what are the pieces of yourself you’ve left in the darkness? What are the parts of your soul locked away inside? Are you ready to face them openly? Are you ready for true connection? For whole-hearted living? Are you ready to be real?

Stopping the Runaway Train – Part IV: How to Name Our Experience

by Jason Pogue, PLPC

Here is the final blog in this series about gaining control over our emotions. So far, we’ve explored the very real experience of relational chaos and trying circumstances and looked at our ability to choose how we want to be in response to them, and we’ve discussed how the first step to stopping the runaway train is slowing down through relaxation exercises like the breathing one we tried together, and the importance of naming our experience. Here we are looking at how to go about naming our experience.

If you’re tired of being pushed around by the runaway train, and you’ve begun implementing regular relaxation exercises in your life, the next step is to really look at and accept the emotional experience present. For some this is easier than others, but for all of us we have a stunted emotional vocabulary so it can be helpful to use a chart of emotion words like the one below.

 

Take a minute and think of a recent conflict where you remember feeling overwhelmed internally. Think of the details of that situation – recount it in your mind. Are you feeling a bit of what you felt in your body then? Perhaps a tightness in the chest, or a sickness in your stomach, or a warmth in your arms and hands, or feeling like you just want to run out of the room – notice whatever is going on in your body as these are clues to our emotional experience. Now take a look at this chart. Notice we have all the words we typically use for emotion: happy, angry, sad, fearful, bad, surprised, disgusted. Try to identify which of these seems to fit what you’re experiencing, and then take it to the next outer-ring to further define that emotion. If you’re sad, are you lonely, vulnerable, despairing, guilty, depressed, hurt?

It may be more than one and that’s okay – emotions are complex.

You may find one of the more specific words that describe your experience are actually in an entirely different category than you thought. Perhaps you thought you were angry, but as you move through the layers you realize really you feel powerless. This chart certainly isn’t the master formula of all emotion, but it can be a helpful starting point to broaden our vocabulary of our internal world. Often we experience more than one emotion at the same time – and even those seem to contradict one another at times. We are complicated beings! The idea is to put words to what we are experiencing so we fully have a handle on just what’s going on inside us at the moment.

Again, it may seem silly or simple, but naming our emotional experience as precisely as we can is a crucial step in stopping the runaway train. Naming it period is actually a way in which we take back power, by putting boundaries around this experience and defining it rather than letting it define us.

Once we can precisely define our emotional experience, we will then be ready to explore why it’s there, whether it’s helping us or not, and how it may relate to our past wounds that are perhaps still pushing us around to this day.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Source: Russel Tarr, Using Plutchik’s Wheel of Emotions to improve the evaluation of sources (Available at: http://www.classtools.net/blog/using-plutchiks-wheel-of-emotions-to-improve-the-evaluation-of-sources/, last accessed February 20, 2017).

Shame and Contempt, Part 4: Countering Self-Righteousness & Other Righteousness

by Jonathan Hart, LPC

In my earlier blogs in this series, I explored Shame and Contempt as unhealthy and unproductive mutations of Guilt and Judgment, and the ground that Shame and Contempt grow from, and the flipside of Shame and Contempt. Now that we’ve named Guilt and Contempt as potential major players in our inner worlds, as well as looked at the places from where these fickle foes plant seeds and grow, I would like to discuss how to counter the powerful pulls of self-righteousness and other righteousness.

The truth is that we are all good at some things, and we are all bad at some things.  Neither one can ever speak to our value as a human.  Performance, skill, ability, and aptitude are all completely irrelevant to our dignity and worth.

When we stand either over or under another human, we are out of place, and it wears on our souls.

The beginning of change is in observing what has always been automatic, accepted, or unquestioned.  Pay attention to the thoughts and voices with which you speak to yourself, and with which you speak of others.  Notice the elements of self- or other-righteousness.  The more you notice them, the more they will bother you (hopefully).  That dissatisfaction is necessary to finding the change you need.

If you feel stuck, seek an external observer: a mentor, pastor, friend, or counselor who is not overly impressed with you, who will be honest with you, and with whom you can be honest in return.  Work together to identify the places you need to work on.

Stepping out of self- and/or other-righteousness is a challenge, but when you find the room, you will discover a great relief in your being, and a larger amount of freedom and acceptance with and for your fellow humans.

Shame and Contempt, Part 2: In our Daily Lives

by Jonathan Hart, LPC

My previous blog is this series proposed that shame and contempt shape our worlds more than we know.  Do they? Here I am going to look at the vicious villians of shame and contempt in our daily lives. Listen to your words and your thoughts.  Pay attention to your verbs.

It may surprise you how often you use “being” verbs in your daily life to describe yourselves and others.

Daily Contemp

Every time I shout at another driver in traffic, “Idiot!” (the full sentence by implication is “You are an idiot!”) I express contempt.  I express my feeling that the other driver’s intelligence is defective, that they are in their very being worthless.  And this, because they did something careless or something that I didn’t expect.

Daily Shame

When I make a mess of things, make a mistake or deliberately do or say something hurtful, if I beat myself up about it, I am operating in shame.  “Idiot!  I can’t believe I did that.”  I am expressing self-contempt, saying that because of this thing, and maybe others like it, I am of no real value in the world.  I believe that everyone who hears of it would agree, and that they would be correct in having me summarily executed, that the world would be better off without me.

Living Truthfully

Of course, we don’t articulate either of these thoughts fully.  If we were to articulate them fully, we would have to retract our statements.

So if (a) Shame and Contempt themselves are lies in their essence, and (b) most often we don’t really believe in the full extent of what we are actually saying, then there is a lot of falseness in our daily lives that we simply accept as “normal”.

Listen to your verbs.  I challenge you to change your being verbs into descriptive action verbs and see what changes in your experience as you walk about your life.  –JH

(Coming Soon: The Flipside of Shame and Contempt)

Kids, Feelings, and Parents, Oh My!

by Mary Martha Abernathy, LPC

Inspired by How to Talk so Kids will Listen & Listen so Kids will Talk, by Adele Faber & Elaine Mazlish

Parenting is exhausting.  Taking part in relationships with adults who struggle to communicate their emotions is hard enough, but engaging with kids who don’t know what they are feeling or how to tell you their feelings is even harder!  Being in tune with our children’s emotions and experiences allows us to more naturally engage in our relationship with them.

Just because kids are “young, little, a baby” does not mean their emotional experiences are less real or matter less than our own experiences.

The author of How to Talk so Kids will Listen & Listen so Kids will Talk describes her experience of parenting and how she “could be accepting about most of the feelings [her] children had, but let one of them tell me something that made me angry or anxious and I’d instantly revert to my old way [of parenting]” (page 3).  Her old ways were when she would disregard, minimize, invalidate, avoid, or ignore another person’s experience.

How do we feel when someone disregards our feelings?  How do we feel when people pretend they didn’t hear what we said? Or, when people try to “help” or “fix” a situation when all we want is someone to listen.

When we feel listened to and understood it is easier for us to manage our emotional responses.  The same happens with our children.

When they feel listened to and understood, they are able to work through their emotional experiences and problem solve more clearly.   Often, children are just wanting someone to intently listen to them.  Our attunement to the conversation and small responses, like “uh-huh” allow our children to know we are paying attention.  This response only works if you are looking at them, not at a screen!

Children need help naming their emotions and giving words to their experience.

The naming of emotions acknowledges their experience and helps to increase their engagement in the relationship. It also helps to teach children about emotions.  It can be helpful to have an emotions chart on the refrigerator with faces on it, or for older kids a wheel of emotions.

Being in relationship with our kids is hard work. This hard work is laying the framework for better relationships as they age. We hope they have learned about their emotions and how to verbalize them and deal with them safely.   We are teaching something important to our children that they don’t yet know is important!

The Healing Power of Tears

 

by Melinda Seley, PLPC

 

Tears have a complicated place in our society. Have you ever had a good cry, and felt (strangely) a little bit better afterwards?  Well, there is a scientific reason why that is the case.

In 2010, photographer Rose-Lynn Fisher worked on an amazing photography project called Topography of Tears. In this multi-year long project, she collected and examined more than 100 human tears under a microscope.  Among others, she studied tears shed while laughing, grieving, and responding to change, as well as basal tears (those meant to keep the eye lubricated) and reflex tears (those that respond to an irritant in the eye).

Fascinatingly, Fisher found that the appearance of tears is different based on what elicits them; and not only is their appearance different, but the physical composition also varies – most notably, emotional tears contain the neurotransmitter leucine encephalin, a natural painkiller that is released when the body is under stress to help improve one’s mood.

 

Our physical bodies are so intricately connected to our emotions that a chemical is released to help heal us emotionally when we cry!

 

So this remarkable discovery makes me wonder – when we view crying as weakness, what are we really doing? Why do we have a tendency in our culture, as well as other cultures, to view crying as something to be squelched, and prohibit our bodies from naturally responding to distress? What kind of healing are we missing out on?  It seems that we are rejecting the very thing that can actually physically aid in our healing!  If this is you, what does it look like to let those tears flow? What do you need or to believe in order to do that?

{A Smithsonian article describing Fisher’s project in more detail can be found here – I encourage you to read the whole thing!}

 

Stopping the Runaway Train – Taking Back Your Thoughts and Emotions

by Jason Pogue, PLPC

When I was a young boy I took piano lessons for a number of years. In the early years, many of the songbooks I’d work through at my teacher’s prescription contained songs that were fun and also built crucial fundamental skills. One song I remember so clearly was called “Runaway Train.” This song was composed of two chords you played back and forth that sounded like a steam engine chugging, with an occasional whistle blow. The notes became shorter and shorter so that the pace of the train seemed to be getting faster and faster as if it were running away down a mountainside. Eventually, I mastered the pacing and finger control of this song, but initially I remember the more I attempted to increase my pace – as ‘the train ran away’ – the more I actually lost control until the song just became a muddled mess of noises.

Often in the fears, anxieties, and letdowns of our day-to-day lives, we can begin to feel like our entire world is like trying to play “Runaway Train.”

Everything seemed to start out okay, but before we knew it our hearts, minds, and actions became a frantic, out-of-control succession of muddled noise. In this series, I want to share with you some tools I use personally and with clients to help stop the runaway train that our thoughts and emotions can become. You can read the first post in this blog series here.

You may be reading this saying, “Jason, I feel like a runaway train but it isn’t because of my thoughts and emotions – it’s because all this stuff crumbling around me!” Let me begin by saying the last thing these tools mean is that your trials aren’t real. Life is comprised of the most breathtakingly beautiful and desperately dreadful moments and everything in-between, many of which we have far less control over than we wish or pretend. The control we do have in the midst of the trials is how we want to “be” in them and respond to them. When we don’t think about, exercise, and work toward consciously being the way we choose in the face of tough circumstances, within no time our negative thoughts and emotions will have us on the runaway train to anger, despair, loneliness, and numbing.

However, with some tools in our belt and intentional practice, eventually we can exercise our control so that – though the ‘train’ is speeding up and forcing us to uncomfortably keep up – we aren’t overwhelmed by it, and we can get through the trials without things escalating into a mess of muddled noise.

I hope you will join me in the coming months here as I walk through these tools and how to practice them. If you’re wanting a jump-start, or wanting some help learning these tools and practicing them, why not grab a friend and meet weekly to try them out? If you want a more in-depth experience putting these tools into practice today, give me a call or send an email and we can setup an appointment so you can begin taking back your thoughts and emotions, and living a more present and less frantic life.

Men, Sexual Trauma, and Healing…

Men, Sexual Trauma, and Healing…

by Frank Theus, LPC

Back in October 2014, I wrote a blog article entitled Abused Boys http://avenuescounselingcenter.org/abused-boys. My commentary invited readers to enter into an ongoing blogversation shattering the silence specifically for men who were discovering that they were survivors of sexual trauma, in particular, and other forms of abuse. Now two years later, in light of the work I do as a Certified Sex Addiction Therapist (CSAT®), I felt the need to re-visit this e-discussion.

Did you know that according the U.S. Veterans Administration (VA) 1 in 10 men* – that’s 10% of the male population – have suffered trauma resultant from sexual assault.

Per U.S. Census data that would translate into the following:

  • Approximate # of Males in the U.S. 138,053,563 (49.1% of gen’l population) = 13.9 million Male sexual assault victims*
  • Approximate # of Males in St. Louis County 493,000 = 49,300 Male sexual assault victims*

Imagine with me what these numbers might mean to you. If you attend a church service on Sunday morning, which has on average 185 persons in attendance; and, if it reflected the U.S. general population, there would be approximately 91 male attendees. Of that number there would likely be nine fellow image bearers of God who are sitting next to you, serving alongside of you, suffering in silence regarding their past abuse or assault. These men aren’t numbers, they are our fathers, brothers, nephews, grandsons, veterans, coworkers, clergy, coaches, elders, deacons, husbands, neighbors, bosses, friends…

But Who Would Do This?

  • “Those who sexually assault men or boys differ in a number of ways from those who assault only females.
  • Boys are more likely than girls to be sexually abused by strangers or by authority figures in organizations such as schools, the church, or athletics programs.
  • Those who sexually assault males usually choose young men and male adolescents (the average age is 17 years old) as their victims and are more likely to assault many victims, compared to those who sexually assault females.
  • Perpetrators often assault young males in isolated areas where help is not readily available. For instance, a perpetrator who assaults males may pick up a teenage hitchhiker on a remote road or find some other way to isolate his intended victim.
  • As is true about those who assault and sexually abuse women and girls, most perpetrators of males are men. Specifically, men are perpetrators in about 86 out of every 100 (or 86%) of male victimization cases.
  • Despite popular belief that only gay men would sexually assault men or boys, most male perpetrators identify themselves as heterosexuals and often have consensual sexual relationships with women.
  • These same male victims may have an additional burden of confusion, shame and humiliation if their abuser was a female.” (VA)
  • Early onset exposure to pornography due to adult permissiveness (neglect) or intentionality (abuse). (Theus)
  • Covert incest wherein the male child feels more like the emotional-romantic-surrogate partner to mom. (Adams)

As these men make their way into counseling and, in particular, the ones who come to see me for my help as a CSAT®, it’s usually due to problematic/at-risk behaviors around sex and sexuality that they have sought to hide for so many years but now has exploded into the light of day. These hurting men are at a tipping point or have “hit bottom” and, much like someone drowning, desperately need rescue.

As the rescue operation unfolds it oftentimes reveals a life story of various forms of at-risk behaviors from adolescence into adulthood, porn-induced erectile dysfunction (PIED), STDs, immersed in shame-guilt, feeling stigmatized, dissociating, confusion, distorted-negative core beliefs, lack of boundaries, anxiety-depression-PTSD, anger, and addictive-compulsive behaviors around the use of substances and other process addictions (e.g. money, work, gambling, food, video gaming, and tanning) as an attempt to have “control”, to “survive”, to “escape” and/or to “numb out”.

As important as it is to know that rescue has been extended, my clients begin to realize that what they are undertaking is a journey into sustainable sobriety-recovery and wholeness of their mind, body, spirit, and vital core relationships.

This process is akin to a crucible, yet one wherein the client is extended invitations to explore the deepest issues of their heart in order to grow deeper insights and tools to engage their stories, past, present, and future with real courage and hope. (Allender)

Are you ready to journey? I pray you are.

 

*NOTE: Many believe – as do I — that the actual conservative number is 1:6 men or 17% of the male population has been sexually abused. If so, the above numbers would be adjusted to:

24 million men nationally
84,00 men within the county
15 men inside our sanctuaries.

 


Resources:
www.1in6.org
http://www.malesurvivor.org/index.php
Abused Boys: The Neglected Victims of Sexual Abuse by Mic Hunter, PsyD
Allies in Healing: When the person You Love Was Sexually Abused as a Child by Laura Davis
Always Turned On: Sex Addiction in the Digital Age by Robt Weiss, LCSW, CSAT-S & Jennifer Schneider, M.D.
Sex Addiction 101: A Basic Guide to Healing from Sex, Porn, and Love Addiction by Robt Weiss, LCSW, CSAT-S
The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma by Bessel van der Kolk, M.D.
The Healing Path: How the Hurts in Your Past Can Lead You to a More Abundant Life by Dan Allender, PhD
The Wounded Heart: Hope for Adult Victims of Childhood Sexual Abuse by Dan Allender, PhD
Victims No Longer: Men Recovering from Incest and Other Sexual Child Abuse by Mike Lew, MSW
Wounded Boys, Heroic Men: A Man’s Guide to Recovering from Child Abuse by Daniel Jay Sonkin, PhD and Lenore E. A. Walker, EdD

How a Children’s Book Made Me Think About Cultivating Emotional Intelligence

Smile, Pout-Pout Fish…Or Don’t: How a Children’s Book Made Me Think About Cultivating Emotional Intelligence

by Melinda Seley, PLPC

Do the books we read to our children cultivate emotional intelligence, or communicate subtle messages discouraging awareness and honest expression of feelings?

Smile, Mr. Fish! You look so down. With your glum-glum face and your pout-pout frown. No need to be worried. No need to be sad. No need to be scared. No need to be mad! How about a smooch? And a cheer-up wish? Now you look happy: what a smile, Mr. Fish!

Of all the books my little one loves, this one most often gets relentlessly stuck in my head! With its well-crafted rhyme and adorable pictures, it captivates its little (and big) audience quite well. But the subtle message of the book has always made me a bit uneasy: you shouldn’t be sad, worried, or scared; there, you’re happy, that’s acceptable and good.  I realize there is a strong possibility that I am over-analyzing the book, but at the same time, I think subtle messages like this are important to be mindful of – both that we have been taught and that we are passing along to our kids (or nieces/nephews, friends’ kids, etc.).

If taken too far, a child can internalize that the only acceptable emotion is to be happy…which will have great consequences in his or her ability cultivate emotional intelligence and to healthily navigate life.

Accordingly, I found this article, published by the Gottman Institute, to be very helpful in identifying the following three do’s and don’ts for developing a child’s emotional intelligence:

  • Do recognize negative emotions as an opportunity to connect. Don’t punish, dismiss, or scold your child for being emotional.

    Do help your child label their emotions. — Don’t convey judgment or frustration.

  • Do set limits and problem-solve. — Don’t underestimate your child’s ability to learn and grow.

 

Given these guides, perhaps a helpful re-write of the book might read like this:

Hey, Mr. Fish, you look so down. With your glum, glum face and your pout, pout frown. Come sit beside me, I see your broken toy has made you sad. I would be, too, if it was the favorite toy I had. It’s okay to cry, it’s okay to be mad. But we cannot hit and we cannot squeal. How else can you show the sadness you feel?

 

 

 

“The Art of Distraction”

“The Art of Distraction”

by: Jason Pogue, PLPC

My wife and I are soon expecting our first child. We are excited and terrified all at once, and this spurs us on to read and talk with those who have gone through it all before. Though much of what we are practicing are techniques for ‘letting go’ and letting her body do what it was made to do, some of the techniques are purely in the realm of distraction. When the pain is so great, how can you or your partner distract you from it? These techniques for childbirth aren’t much different than the “techniques” we all pick up over time in a pain-filled world. I am reminded of this statement I’ve heard from a number of different wiser and older friends and mentors:

“No human being can fully bear the weight of reality.”

Even though I agree with this statement I can often feel as though I should be able to fully bear the weight of it all…that to set the pain and sorrow aside for a moment is actually being inauthentic or callous toward others or myself. When this feeling of should is not actually coming from others, I can still shame myself for spending an hour in distraction with television, or avoiding what I think I need to be doing in that moment. But is distraction always a problem?

The truth is that reality is a mix of both beauty and brokenness – both joy and sorrow, pleasure and pain. Yet often we can find the sorrow and pain winning out…snuffing out our joy. It only takes a few minutes of reading the news to be overwhelmed by the amount of violence, death, corruption, hatred, deception, and malice in the world around us. If we were to remove every bit of distraction from our lives and force our eyes open upon the unending wounds of the world, we would be swallowed up by grief. Though it is a painfully important exercise to wrestle with the big questions of life, to constantly live in this place would be simply unbearable.

The question is not whether distraction is good or bad, but what kind of distraction(s) are we involved in and how flexible are they? Taking some alone time to listen to music is a far more healthy a distraction than drinking until you black out. A good distraction, or coping-mechanism can assist you to bear through an excessively painful or overwhelming moment until you are in a safe enough place to process what has occurred.

More than just assessing the kind of distractions we engage in, a healthy arsenal of coping mechanisms assesses how flexible our distractions are – after all, you probably can’t go into a room and listen to music for an hour when you have a presentation to give at work or when your little boy is crying because he is hungry again! Consider one healthy coping mechanism of sharing what your internal experience is with someone else – this can be hugely beneficial in calming our bodies down and feeling known, but it would be entirely destructive to engage in with an abusive listener waiting to use our vulnerability against us. Sometimes the ways we’ve been wounded erode our ability to assess one person from another, and instead of engaging in the appropriate coping mechanism we simply choose one way of relating to everyone.

The problem is not distraction, or coping mechanisms – these can be a gift at times to get us through unbearable moments. The problem is when a particular distraction or coping mechanism becomes our only answer to the pain, is destructive to our lives, or continuously takes the place of ever actually returning to the pain and sorrow that resides within us and in our world.

So how are you doing with the art of distraction? If you aren’t able to cope, or are seeing destructive, rigid, or unending distraction taking over your life I invite you to give us a call to meet with a counselor, grow these skills, and process the emotional turmoil beneath it all. You have the ability to not only survive the grief of this world, but to work through it so that you can take joy in your day-to-day life. Why not start using it today?