Tell Me A Story


People need to be heard, and to have their feelings validated. Everyone has a story – how they grew up, what happened to them, and how it affected them. Not everyone has had a tragic past or experienced trauma, but the most important thing is how one experiences and feels about what has happened in their lives. A seemingly small thing, like a parent being critical, may not have much effect  on one person, but could be felt as significant, even traumatic, to another.

If stories are not told, if feelings are not understood, experienced, and released, they become stored in our bodies.  I realize there is no way to prove this, but the evidence is there:  if you are anxious, you might get a headache, or feel sweaty or nauseous.  If you are sad, you likely will feel heavy and tired; if joyful, the opposite. Frightened, the heart beats faster — and so on. Many believe unprocessed feelings can cause illness.

I don’t know why our culture seems to facilitate denying, minimizing, or ‘stuffing’ emotions. We don’t want to feel our pain, yet the way to heal the hurt is to feel it.  To feel it is to release it, and while this can be a solitary or even spiritual thing, it is sometimes  beneficial to share with someone else. There’s a saying that a feeling shared is halved, or something like that.

For myself, I have found that writing is very helpful in sorting out and expressing feelings, especially when I was younger and had a hard time trusting others.  Now I find that I talk more and write less, because I have people in my life who understand and listen.

Sorting out emotions, especially when it comes to relationships, is not always easy.  One often has to be okay with contradictions and uncertainty; it’s normal to have more than one feeling about a person or situation, or to have layers of emotion. It’s important – and difficult – to be able to sit with the feelings, to just experience them and not get caught up in analyzing what it all means. There is information there, but words can complicate matters if applied too concretely.  I think of feelings like waves of the ocean, always changing and flowing.  If not allowed to flow, they will become a stagnant pond.

When feelings are allowed to felt and released – especially old, stored up pain – there is more room to let in other people, to let in acceptance, joy, exploration, understanding, and empathy. And I tell people it doesn’t matter if it’s something that “shouldn’t” bother you.  You feel the way you feel – give yourself permission!

We are all important. We all have our stories, and none of them are insignificant.  When I go to nursing homes to see clients, most of them are too sick or tired or medicated to talk much. But there’s always those few who, week after week, pour out the story of their lives to me, and what a privilege that is.

Rilke rio

In future blogs, I hope to explore and discuss various different emotions in more detail.  







Most people are hard on themselves, more so than they are on others.  I have found this common thread running through clients, friends, and myself. We tell ourselves we are stupid, we shouldn’t have done that, said that, should have done something different. We ask ‘what’s wrong with me?’, “why am I like this?”  and so on.

Once I gain a client’s trust and make a real connection (which does not always happen, I am not going to pretend I’m the best therapist for everyone), there often comes a point where we get down to what’s going on inside his or her head.  Now, some people don’t notice their thoughts, and it’s all a muddle of swirling words and image, but most people are aware of at least some ‘self-talk’ — and that is where change can begin.

Let me break it down:

What do you tell yourself?  Do you criticize  yourself, tell yourself you’re a loser, a failure, will never amount to anything?  Do you berate yourself endlessly for saying the wrong thing, for wishing you had done something differently? Do you call yourself names?

Imagine you are your best friend.  Would you tell your friend they are a failure, or ask what’s wrong with them?  For most people, of course the answer is no.  So why are you treating yourself worse than your friend?  You would likely tell your friend everyone makes mistakes, no one’s perfect, or something along those lines.

So why are you holding yourself to a higher standard than your friend? For many people, I believe it’s important to ask ‘why’, and answers often emerge during individual therapy.  But there is something most of us can do, starting right now:

  • Whenever possible, notice your thoughts. Awareness always comes first
  • When you notice yourself being critical or negative about yourself, DON’T FIGHT IT.  By fighting against the thought you are actually reinforcing it. So –
  • Accept the thought.  “Oh, there I go again, calling myself stupid”.   Just notice and accept.  You can tell yourself it’s OK to think/feel that way, you are human.  Humans make mistakes. Humans are not perfect.
  • As you become more accepting, change the thought (reframe it):   “I’m not stupid, I did the best I could at the time”.

Each person has to find the best way to listen and talk to themselves. The idea is to develop, over time, the habit of observing your thoughts, and to be compassionate with yourself.

I have used this method, and over time have found that I rarely think badly of myself. When I do slip up I find that there is little of the emotional intensity behind it.  None of what I have said is original, and a lot has been written about how changing your thinking changes the brain, but right now I am just focusing on keeping it simple — how to feel better about yourself.

I welcome your comments!





The Myth of Security


Bearing in mind recent events surrounding tropical storm Harvey, and another hurricane on the way, this not meant to be insensitive.  I am distressed when I see and hear about hardship — I know what it’s like to have your life turned suddenly upside down.

I’ve been collecting poems and quotations since high school, and in recent years have combined some with my own photos (this one is Lake Michigan on a frigid winter day).  The above quote by Helen Keller is one of my favorites, and it means more because she saw so clearly, despite being blind and deaf.  Expecting to have security in life is unrealistic; it is one reason many people seek therapy.  They come because of a divorce, or job loss, or the death of a loved one. They come because there was an accident, an illness, a past trauma, or a drug and/or alcohol addiction.

The common thread is this: “I didn’t expect my life to turn out his way”.

No one thinks tragedy or misfortune is going to befall them, unless, perhaps, they have already experienced such things. Then they are in a struggle to accept what is — versus wishing it were different.

It’s human nature to shut down and try to ‘avoid danger’, but life happens. While precautions can be taken, there is no way to plan for every possible thing that can go wrong.  People who try to do so can be crippled with anxiety.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had to learn this lesson, and had to keep my “face toward change” when I wanted to turn away.  Have I always treated life like a daring adventure?  Not usually. It was easier to face and even welcome change when I was younger, but then,  I was looking for something outside of me to make me feel safe.  Now I know that security comes from the inside, and this is something I try to help others move toward.  It may not be a ‘daring adventure’ but it is a journey, and a rewarding one.





What’s emotion got to do with it?

Emotions have a lot to do with a lot, actually.  But not just emotions; we humans are also uniquely capable of reasoning, of logical thought.  To put it simply, we have higher brain functions.  Yet it’s commonly thought that feelings come from the lower, more primitive part of our brains.

So we struggle.

I have struggled for months now to find my voice for this blog.  There is so much on the Internet about mental health and mindfulness and changing one’s thinking — and changing the brain — that the more I read, the more I want to know, and share.  But I have to use my own voice, my own opinions and experiences to communicate.  For the time being, I’m winging it.

What I do know, from my experiences both as a therapist and as a fellow human, is that many of us tend to be ruled by our emotions.  Even if we logically think, for instance, that a person is not good for us, we still feel for the person (or feel guilty, or any number of emotions) and maybe stay too long in a relationship.  I am not making a blanket statement about difficult relationships; just using that as an example.  Of course I believe it’s possible people can change — if they want to.

Not everyone enters counseling because they want to change. Sometimes they need to express those complicated feelings, sometimes they want to understand themselves better, and there are many more reasons. But in order to change, I think a person often needs to make an ongoing effort to understand the interplay between emotions and reason.

To illustrate, an illustration:

Cxhwo-gWIAAVFDG.jpg large

Borrowed from Social Work Toolkit

As you can see, it is a cycle: feel and name the emotion, accept it, rationally look at it, try to understand what it means in a particular situation, and don’t judge yourself for the feeling.  We are human, we have feelings.  That’s a fact.  There is nothing wrong with having a so-called “bad” feeling; it’s what we do with it that matters.

Sounds simple, but it’s not.  It is a delicate task that takes time and effort and practice,  but it’s worth it to make a beginning.

And now I have made my beginning here.