Thursday, March 31, 2016

The Ties That Bind

The mythology of family reads like a fairytale: loving parents who don't yell or scold; strong sibling bonds that are forged from mutual respect and a desire to protect one another; communication that's fluid; boundaries that are flexible but still strong enough to shelter. The images of family our culture promotes highlight the ideals we all wish for and, indeed, deserve. But many families fall short of these picture-perfect scenarios, some, unfortunately, to dangerous degrees.

When to Sever the Ties 
Most therapists would agree that family relationships can be an integral part of our support network. Family members, we hope, champion us when we are low and celebrate us at our heights. Rarely do we recommend ex-communicating family members, advocating instead for clients to attempt to open communication, assert their needs respectfully and engage in conflict resolution to attain an equanimous end. But sometimes, clients find that an intimate relationship is destructive or toxic, no matter what efforts are made to change it. Whether due to the presence of violence, substance abuse or emotional manipulation, clients may decide that their very survival requires distancing themselves from people they still love. This decision is intensely personal and individual to each client; and almost always grueling to enact. It can, however, be an act of self-love and self-respect. The bonds that connect us should feel embracing and nurturing. When they become chains of fear or distress, or ligatures that constrict our growth, we may have to choose ourselves over the dreams of a family that is not to be. 

Friday, March 25, 2016

The Child Inside

The concept of the "inner child" has been a near-constant focus of therapy since the 1970s . From psychiatrist Charles Whitfield to new age practitioner Louis Hay, helping professionals have advocated clients accessing their "inner child" to understand unresolved childhood wounds and to facilitate healing, growth and insight.

Learning to "Self-Parent"
We all have unmet needs, long-held disappointments, grief that's been stuffed down or unexpressed. Rarely are the "fits" between parent and child so perfectly matched as to avoid hurts, assumptions or misunderstandings, especially during the early years of life. We may long for the unconditional love we were unable to feel from our caretakers, or for the praise or recognition that may have been inconsistent. The beauty of acknowledging and understanding the needs and hurts of our youngest "parts" is that we no longer need to rely on others to provide us what we lack. With the guidance of a skilled therapist or spiritual counselor, we can learn how to identify and validate the pain we still carry from decades-ago events. We can develop the skills to tend to our hurts, to respond to our needs with compassion and nurturance. We can rewrite the negative scripts programmed unconsciously in our childhoods to include a more balanced, affirming and forgiving sense of self. We are no longer reliant on others to assure us of our value. We can be our own "inner child's" good-enough parent, encouraging, loving and cheering ourselves on to a more healed and resilient self. 

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Overeaters Anonymous--Providing Nourishment for Recovery

Addiction and the desire for recovery are common reasons people seek out counseling and twelve-step groups like Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous. Due to public education, more laypeople and professionals are gaining understanding about the similarities between alcohol and drug abuse and process addictions like sex, gambling and workaholism. Some substances can be avoided completely--like alcohol or drugs--but one addiction involves a necessity to our existence that we cannot live without--FOOD.

Finding a Food Balance 
One accessible and effective tool for people with an unhealthy relationship with food is Overeaters Anonymous (OA). Despite its name, the twelve-step program of OA is applicable to individuals with a variety of eating difficulties, from anorexia and bulimia, to binge-eating and overeating. Similar to AA and NA, OA utilizes support group meetings, peer sponsorship and OA-approved and -produced literature to help participants learn how to manage their addiction behaviors around food, and to provide an understanding and empathic environment for people to begin their individual recovery plans. While some twelve-step programs approach abstinence with an universal agreement of its definition, OA is unique in its approach of supporting each individual in customizing her commitment to abstinence based on one's type of eating disorder, medical diagnosis or personal dietary needs. If you think you may have a disordered or disruptive relationship with food, or are concerned with how much food occupies your mind and daily tasks of living, consider consulting with a clinician who specializes in eating-related treatment, or seek out an OA meeting in your area. Food is a requirement for life, but it need not be a source of pain, anxiety or anguish. 

Thursday, March 10, 2016

The Reward of Authenticity

One of the scariest risks we take is the choice to be authentic. Being real with others requires us to be vulnerable -- if we are rejected or misunderstood, we can't blame others' reactions on the mask we are wearing. We feel the pain more deeply when our truth is maligned, our dreams dismissed. But intimacy is only possible when we offer up our authentic selves.

The Real Deal
Sharing our real feelings, our fears and fantasies, our secrets and failures, requires courage and resilience. When we let someone in to see our authentic self, we are demonstrating deep respect for the other. We are saying "You are important enough for me to risk showing you the 'real me.'" Being authentic is a priceless gift, and the only way we can truly feel accepted is when we know it's really us that our partner is embracing. If we present anything less than our genuine selves, we can never be sure that the affection or respect we receive is ours to keep. We question the strength of a connection that could be based on who we WANT to be, rather than who we truly are. Security comes from a sense of safety, and safety is elusive without the foundation of Realness. 

Thursday, March 3, 2016

The Web of Life

The hiking paths in Red Rock Canyon provide breathtaking views of red mountain ranges, limestone formations that have existed since the time of dinosaurs, and occasional sightings of wildlife--from thumb-sized geckos to stubby burros and majestic wild horses. The landscape is dotted with cactus, mesquite, patches of wild, deep green grasses. Making our way across the rocky trails was a reminder of how we -- like nature -- rely on our environment for sustenance and support. When drought hits, animals can count on the lifesaving liquid inside the cacti to tide them over until the rains come. Shallow, dry river beds are dotted with stones and boulders that artfully contain rainfall and direct it to parched areas that need it most. Like the interconnectedness of desert animal to its landscape, we humans are as much a part of each other's survival. The mountain caves offer cool respite on scorching summer days, as we can provide a safe embrace for those who are overcome by life stressors. As the sun-heated rocks support nimble lizards with a natural "warming station," our words of comfort and encouragement can help others access their courage to take risks to move toward better circumstances. Like the river beds protect the water supply, we can guard each other's dreams and provide emotional sustenance. We are part of a system that grows and thrives optimally when we allow  our individual gifts to be "used" by one another to move us all forward.