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Wellness in the New Year

by Mary Martha Abernathy, LPC

With a new year comes New Year’s resolutions.  People use the New Year to take stock of how the past year went and what changes or goals they hope to make for the upcoming year. What does wellness look like for you in 2017?

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) “defines wellness not as the absence of disease, illness, or stress but the presence of purpose in life, active involvement in satisfying work and play, joyful relationships, a healthy body and living environment, and happiness”  (Source: www.samhsa.gov).

I like that to pursue wellness does not mean that my life is perfect or easy.

To pursue wellness means I am pursuing a purpose and seeking joy. Wellness means that I am seeking healthy relationships, a healthy body, and a healthy environment.   SAMHSA has created eight dimensions of wellness: Emotional, Environmental, Financial, Intellectual, Occupational, Physical, Social, and Spiritual.  One of the great things about this Wellness model is that many of the categories overlap with each other.

Even if my work life adds a lot of stress to my day to day functioning I can still pursue my own wellness. That may look like exercising to increase some of the needed endorphins in my body.  It may mean I pursue some environmental changes and wellness. I can’t quit my job, but I can create space in my home in which I find peace and rest. It may also mean that I create an environment at my desk where I am reminded of positive relationships and purpose. Wellness may also look like me pursuing relationships with co-workers in an intentional way to make my environment more comfortable.

Some of our life stressors may not change too much over the coming year.  We can lose some weight, cut back on the alcohol, go to counseling, or try a new hobby; but will these things balance out the negative experiences?  Wellness allows us to hold in tension the stressful and negative parts of life, recognizing we can still find good.

Where can you find the joy and play in your life this year?  How can you pursue wholeness and wellness in life?

Life Lessons My Newborn Has Been Teaching Me

Life Lessons My Newborn Has Been Teaching Me

by: Melinda Seley, PLPC

Sometimes life’s greatest teachers come in the smallest of packages. After recently returning from maternity leave, I have been reflecting on some life lessons my newborn has been teaching (or re-teaching) me over the past several months.  Below are the top five:  

Silence the “always” and “nevers” and work to be present here and now.  

Caring for our newborn is one of the most demanding “jobs” I have ever had – it’s physically, emotionally, and mentally exhausting. In those first weeks with our boy, I found myself so afraid that this would be my new normal – being trapped in the house with a tiny little person who could only communicate via hangry crying and who needed something from me for what seemed like every minute.  I would never get to have friends again, enjoy a cup of hot coffee, attend church, or do anything beyond being at my boy’s beckon call.  This is always how it was going to be.  I found myself saying a lot of “always” and “never’s”.  And the only place they led me was to despair and fear. They made me miss the joy and uniqueness of that finite season and a season I had so longed to experience.  

Do you find yourself saying a lot of always and nevers about where you are in life?  If so, what would it look like to, instead, be present in this moment, right now? To be honest about and grieve the unique challenges, losses, and hardships you are experiencing, but to not forget to look for and savor the good. Right here and now.

baby hand

Some of the most significant growth in life comes through hardship or struggle. Don’t avoid it.

Pediatricians recommend that by 2 months of age, infants spend 30-60 minutes on their tummy.  Until he could successfully lift his head, my boy hated “tummy time” and was quite vocal about his dislike of it.  It would turn our happy, easy-going baby into a crying mess.  I wanted to avoid it; I didn’t want to subject my own son to struggle; and honestly, I didn’t want to subject myself to additional emotional exhaustion from needing to soothe him afterwards.  But the only way for him to grow and be able to hold his head steady was for me to allow him to struggle. To give him opportunity each day to face what he didn’t like with support so that he could grow.  Is there anything in your life that seems like it would be easier to avoid but really what you need most is to get down on the mat and spend time learning to lift your head – through the tears and grumbles?  What are you missing out on because it’s easier or more appealing to avoid the struggle?  

Value “being” rather than “doing”.  

I am a “doer”. I like lists and I especially like to check them off. Life with a newborn doesn’t allow for many lists other than feed, change diaper, soothe, repeat (with the occasional change clothes and spray with stain remover mixed in!). In the first days of being home all day alone with my son, I texted my husband, “I’ve showered and done a load of laundry…today is already a success!” And in doing so, I realized that my definition of success was based merely on how much of my “to do” list I could accomplish…instead of savoring just being with my new, precious child who relied on me for everything and who I had longed to have.  Do you struggle as I do to find your identity in what you do rather than just being?  What would it look like to keep the to do list, but give it a whole lot less weight in determining your worth?  You are not what you do. You are not the boxes you check off. You are you and that is enough.

The first time will be the hardest…the important thing is to lean into the fear and do it.  

After 3 weeks with our little guy, I felt like maybe I finally had the hang of this whole parenting a newborn thing. But I still had not left the house with him alone. I was afraid – what if something happens when we’re out and I don’t have what I need or worse yet – I look like I have no idea what I’m doing as a mom?!  My fear kept me stuck in the house and unable to move forward.  And then I read somewhere an encouragement to do something I feared as a new mom each day.  And suddenly I felt a resolve within me that I would not let fear rule me. I had to name the fear and walk through it. After leaving the house for the first time and realizing that I could survive it (and more importantly, our little one could survive it!), it got easier. I had concrete experience to learn from.  What is fear keeping you from doing? What do you need in order to move through that fear and do something for the first time?

Stop comparing.

Being a first time parent is hard. There are so many unknowns, big adjustments, differing opinions on how you should care for your little one, exhaustion, and fear. Every parent is different and every child is different. I found myself looking around me at friends who are on their second, third, fourth child and thinking, “They are handling life so much better and they have more than one child! I can’t even manage {fill in the blank} and I only have one kiddo!” So much shame. And insufficiency. And failure. But my comparing isn’t fair. Those friends of mine have walked through the challenge of adding their first child to their family and they had to do and experience all these things for the first time, too.  And they questioned themselves, felt unsure, and were overwhelmed just as I have been.  And they learned along the way how to do it.  Comparing myself to others in different seasons or places in life discounts their journey to get where they are and the journey I have not yet walked.  And experience is one of life’s greatest teachers. When I stopped looking around to compare and gave myself grace to navigate this completely new role with my unique child and my unique strengths and weaknesses, I found so much more joy in the process. Do you find yourself making endless comparisons?  Are they fair? What would it look like to acknowledge that you have unique strengths and weaknesses and experience is a great teacher?  Would that make a difference in your joy?  

Do you need to learn (or apply) any of these life lessons along with me?  What are you learning where you are on this journey of life?  

 

Finding My New Normal After Divorce

By:  Lianne Johnson, LPC

I have seen, and personally experienced, a tendency to overlook the impact of relational trauma on our functioning. Why is it that even when our life circumstances change – we live through a relational trauma or betrayal, we are separated from our spouse, we unexpectedly become a single-parent, we go through a divorce, we discover abusive realities in our partner – Why do we keep living (or pressuring ourselves to live) as though these changes haven’t happened?  Why do we keep living as though our bandwidth for interacting with life hasn’t changed?

Sometimes when I realize I am pressuring myself to live as though my life hasn’t radically changed, I just sit and shake my head at myself.  I ask myself in these moments, “Why am I pressuring myself?  What am I fearing?”  The answers to these questions are usually the same, no matter the circumstance.  Part of the answer is that I desperately want to live like I was living, before my life changed without my permission.  I want my normal back.  I want what was known to me.  The other part of my answer is that it saddens me to feel like I am letting people down by no longer being able to perform as I had been.  I fear others won’t understand, or won’t care to take the time to learn, the basic equation I now have to live by: My life radically changing when I experienced trauma and betrayal in my marriage + an unexpected long season of separation and suffering + ultimately getting divorced + being a single mom + running a business = having less bandwidth for life.

For a long time, I angrily fought the equation I now had to live my life by.  I didn’t fight it by taking on more than I could, I fought it by being angry with life and retreating.  It wasn’t until I started to accept my new normal that I started to enjoy life.

Part of accepting my new normal was learning to like the person I am now.  To accept the me I am now.  I am different.  My traumatic experience changed me.  Learning to be a single mom, a divorced woman, changed me.  I am not quite sure how I could live through all of that unchanged.  But I guess the biggest thing I had to learn to do was accept the new me, my new normal, and learn who I had now become.

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Emotional Reflexes, Bees, and the Artillery of the Soul

Emotional Reflexes, Bees, and the Artillery of the Soul

As children, we build ideas about how the world and relationships work. After an injury when I was small, I was getting stitches in the emergency room. My parents tell the story that while the medical team worked on me, I was happily explaining to them about how nurses grow up to be doctors. That was how I thought the world worked. Someone eventually informed me that doctors and nurses are not developmentally related, and what I understood about doctors and nurses shifted.

A lot of times, we develop beliefs about relationship based on how relationships happen around and to us. As young children when we got into trouble, Mom or Dad might have said, “What were you thinking!? What’s wrong with you?” Being children, we don’t have the ability to challenge the notion that there might be something wrong with us. To a child, Adults define what “Normal” is. So we begin to believe that when we make a mistake, it is because we are defective somehow. If we were “normal”, we would have known better.

Fast-forward to adulthood. If nobody ever explains this scenario to us, if no one ever reshapes that belief or tells us otherwise, chances are that we still believe it on some level. We likely operate as though what we do is a direct indication of who we are. If I lie, then I must be a liar. If I fall for a trick, I must be a fool. If you don’t like me, it’s because I’ve caused you to dislike me. If you hit me, I did something to deserve it.

These defaults operate consistently and automatically. When I was small, I got stung twice in the eyelid by a yellow-jacket. It was very painful, and my eye was swelled shut by the next morning. I have never liked anything with wings and a stinger ever since. I still have a powerful physical reflex when I hear a buzz near my ear. I learned that bees are dangerous.
As an adult, I know that bee stings are not as painful as my emotional reflex tells me, but I do know that they can still hurt pretty bad. What I know, however, does not matter when I hear that buzzing sound, especially when it’s close to my head. I still have a tendency to run away while swatting at whatever was making that noise.

These defaults are powerful things. We don’t choose them, we just live by them. The trouble is that sometimes, these defaults are simply not true. They are real, and they are potent, but they are often based on faulty information. The fact is that the mom or dad mentioned above was wrong: making a mistake or doing something foolish was not matter of something being wrong with me. It was a matter of being a child and not knowing how the world works. They reacted and spoke as though the child should have had the knowledge and foresight of an adult.

When I was in the military, I was assigned to an artillery unit. My first night on a live-fire mission was pretty awful. Every time the crews fired the cannons, I nearly jumped out of my skin. After a while, I could anticipate the commands that led up to the pull of the trigger, but try as I might, I just couldn’t get my body to quit jerking around when the shot went off. My body was reflexing to the concussion as if to say, “Something is coming for you, kid. You are gonna die.” It took a while of rehearsing and experiencing the concussion and the jumping, but eventually the jump reflex passed. My body had to learn that this sudden noise and the accompanying shockwave were not actually a threat to me.

Unlearning our emotional reflexes can follow a similar pattern. We can come to understand and truly believe that mom or dad was wrong, but the emotional reflex is still there, and it is still powerful. The feeling will still kick in, and sometimes we have a hard time remembering that it is real but not true.

The unlearning happens through practice. We can eventually grow to recognize the lie and speak the truth to it: (my identity is not actually based on my performance). We will still have the reflex, and after a while, we learn that this feeling does not actually have the power to define me. I can make mistakes. I can even look like a fool, and I will still be OK. All of our efforts to avoid the feeling actually prolong it. I *have* to feel the concussion over and over again in order to learn that it doesn’t actually have the power to harm me.

I’ll say it plainly: this process sucks. It almost never happens as quickly as we want it to, and it is almost never linear in healing. We go back and forth. We continually recognize new areas where this same old thing is in play. We have to keep fighting with this painful feeling, and we often feel like the fact that we have to fight this hard with it means that we are somehow defective. Then we realize we’re doing it again.

But eventually, with work, with awareness, and with the help of trustworthy friends and lovers, we come to believe the truth, and the reflex fades in potency. We experience a freedom and confidence that we never imagined, and eventually that freedom becomes our new “Normal”.

By Jonathan Hart, LPC

How Do You Define Abuse?

With so many opinions and definitions in our culture about abuse, how do you define abuse?

Must a bruise be present for you to believe your friend or neighbor is being abused?  If there is not bruising, can abuse still be happening in a home?  Why is it when women sit in my office trying to share with me their story of abuse their eyes are hooked on the floor, shame is palpable in the room, words start to flow out of their mouths but then stop as though they are scared to say anything?  I believe abused women are scared to say, “I’m being abused” because they are often disregarded and misunderstood.

It seems fair to say that as a culture we do not fully grasp what abuse is and the many forms it presents itself.

Avenues Counseling

The following definition of abuse can be found at Crying Out For Justice.  Its a little long, but please stick with me.

“Abuse is fundamentally a mentality. It is a mindset of entitlement. The abuser sees himself* as entitled. He is the center of the world, and he demands that his victim make him the center of her world. His goal is power and control over others. For him, power and control are his natural right, and he feels quite justified in using whatever means are necessary to obtain that power and control. The abuser is not hampered in these efforts by the pangs of a healthy conscience and indeed often lacks a conscience.

While this mentality of power and control often expresses itself in various forms of physical abuse, it just as frequently employs tactics of verbal, emotional, financial, social, sexual and spiritual abuse. Thus, an abuser may never actually lay a hand on his wife and yet be very actively terrorizing her in incredibly damaging ways.”

Was your definition similar to the one above?  In my experience, we tend to think about someone who abuses as simply having an anger problem.  We say, “If he would just go to an anger-management program and counseling and work hard everything will be fine.”  This is how I used to think, but not anymore.

I have been learning a lot about the nature of abusive men.  Partly because of my own personal story and partly because I work with many who are wounded by abuse.  Our society seems to think that an abuser just needs to change his behavior by going to counseling, anger-management classes, and read books (or some variation thereof).

But an abuser doesn’t need to change his behavior, he needs to change his beliefs.

His fundamental thinking in which he believes he is entitled to treat his spouse however he would like.  For me, this shift in thinking has monumentally changed how I view abusive men and how I care for those who have been wounded.

Did you know…

-An abuser isn’t always abusive?  He will go through days and months without being abusive.  This can cause confusion on behalf of the abused.

-An abuser wants to create as much confusion as possible to those seeking to “figure him out”.  So he will try to get you (the abused, the counselor, the friend, the pastor) to focus in the wrong direction.  Oftentimes this will look like the abuser blaming the spouse for all of the relational problems and painting himself to be the victim.

-An abuser is usually the guy everyone likes.  He’s easily likable, enjoyable, and can tend to come across as laid-back.

-An abuser will want you to focus on his feelings but not his thinking.  He fears that if you figure out his thinking you will strip him of his power to control.  Hence why he seeks to create as much confusion as possible (see above).

It is important that we begin to grasp the nature of abusers so that we can see it, stop it, and seek to bring healing.

 

-By Lianne Johnson, LPC

*For this post I used the male gender to represent the abuser and the female to represent the abused.  The genders could easily be reversed, and in no way am I saying it can’t.  Some of the above thoughts are adapted from Lundy Bancroft’s book, Why Does He Do That?, which is an amazingly great book.

Love Changes Us

Dr. Susan Johnson the creator of Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT) proves what I have found true in my own life as well as my practice – Love Changes Us.

 

She did an experiment that showed how our brain images change when we face something we fear while with someone we love as opposed to being alone or with someone we don’t know.  Perhaps it is not a surprise to you that the result of the experiment showed a positive brain response when the subject was with someone they loved as they encountered a fearful stimulus.  The article mainly highlights a couple who is having trouble relationally and shows how the wife’s brain responded to her husband taking her hand while being exposed to the fear stimulus both before and after having done EFT as a couple.

After EFT the wife responded with less of a fear response when her husband took her hand while she experienced the fear stimulus.

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EFT is validated to be an effective therapy for couples with positive outcomes (to read the article I reference click here)

Immediately after reading this article I was reminded of 1 John 4:18 where it says, “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear.”  This verse isn’t saying we are not supposed to fear, but when we do fear and we are in the presence of love, love takes (“casts out”) away our fear (or lessens its power).

I have feared a lot in my life – “Will I be able to pay my bills, can I make it as a single mom, will people judge me because I am divorced, will I be loved, will I be alone….”  I have a lot of fears and maybe you do too.  I have learned in my life to not hate what I fear.  I used to try to numb my fears or run from them, though this never worked for long. Through the course of many trials that had many fears I have learned to embrace my fears.  I have learned that the fear itself is not scary at all – its what I do with my fear that matters.

So what do I do with my fear?

I RUN to God who has promised to love me and cast out my fear.  Love has changed me – God’s love has changed me.  I wonder what my brain looked like on the day I began to have a relationship with Him!

-by: Lianne Johnson, LPC

When People Love Us, We Are Transformed

There is something quite amazing and magical about watching a persons life being transformed by the power of being loved and accepted by others – When People Love Us, We Are Transformed.

 

After watching Despicable Me 2 for the 6th time with my sons I started to wonder why exactly we all seem to love it so much.  I mean think about it, we have watched it 6 times and the movie is 98 minutes long which puts us as having spent 588 minutes of our lives on this movie.  So I started thinking – is Despicable Me 2 really worth the 588 minutes of my life I have given it?  Why yes it is!

For starters, who doesn’t love those Minions?  Seriously, they are so cute and hilarious with all of their funny noises and behaviors.  This movie has me and my sons laughing over and over again.  But then I thought, “There has to be more to why we love this movie….what is it exactly?”  Then it hit me.

A huge part of the story in both of the Despicable Me movies is watching Gru, the main character, learn his true identity and self-worth through being loved by others who see him for who he truly is.

We see his character go from a cold-hearted villain who is mean and is literally stealing the moon from the sky, to a man transformed by the love of three little girls he adopts in the first movie.

Despicable Me
The second movie opens with Gru dressing up as some sort of princess for one of his daughters birthday parties – and immediately you think – this man has been transformed!  The second movie does a great job of portraying the realities we all face when we are in the midst of transforming love –

When we are experiencing the love of another, and I am talking about deep love that moves us – a natural response to this kind of love when never experienced before is to go on defense.

And defense, at times, looks exactly like what we see happen to Gru – the more the love of others (specifically his three daughters and the character Lucy in the second movie) challenges his current view of himself (his identity, self-worth, etc.) the more his relational fears surface.  The closer Lucy gets to Gru, the more we see flashbacks to Gru’s childhood.  We see Gru coming up against the “demons” in his past – being made fun of, seeming unloveable to all humans, unaccepted, and fearing rejection.  It appears that the more he is loved and delighted in by his daughters and Lucy, who ultimately becomes Gru’s wife by the end of this movie, the more his “demons” seem to rear their heads.  Ultimately Gru has to choose to trust their love of him, embrace the changed man he has become, and no longer allow the “demons” of his past to rule his current life.

These movies do an excellent job of showing us how love can profoundly transform us if we risk letting it in.

-Lianne Johnson, LPC