Friday, July 28, 2017

Grandma's Medicine

A recent Washington Post article detailed a mental health initiative in Zimbabwe that utilizes “community grandmothers” -- lay health workers trained in counseling skills, problem solving and self-care -- to help provide vital mental health services to the millions of under-served people facing emotional challenges. These elders are a vital source of support and healing for a nation of more than 14 million residents -- who are served by 13 psychiatrists​ throughout the entire country.

Known as the Friendship Bench Project, this effort highlights the crucial role of connection and listening in facilitating healing. As a trained social worker, I would never underestimate the importance of the education I received, which enables me to diagnose mental illness, discern appropriate treatment protocols for various presenting problems, and understand psychopharmacology’s use in abetting symptoms. But decades of book learning is useless without the gifts of compassion, empathy and unconditional positive regard that all of us can learn and practice. Feeling heard, validated and supported help empower individuals to value themselves and their experiences, and to make healthy choices that move their lives forward. Knowing the difference between generalized anxiety disorder and OCD, for example, requires specific knowledge and assessment skills. But any of us can provide a safe and welcoming embrace, an interest in each other’s feelings, fears and experiences. Like these African grandmothers, we can ease other’s suffering, and their isolation, by the gift of our genuine interest and presence.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

No Fear

Any belief that generates fear or feelings of unworthiness is false; it's a lie...Our authentic self would never abuse us; it comes from love. --Don Miguel Ruiz

Freedom comes with realizing that our fear is not real. ​Our fear is created by the beliefs and thoughts we let rule our lives. Whether we fear snakes, being alone, losing a job or death, all fear is empowered by the beliefs we carry. The death of a loved one will hurt, and we will feel loss. But fearing that experience is a choice. Losing a job may create hardship or unknown consequences, but fear is not an intrinsic component of loss. If we can courageously choose to feel our experiences rather than fear them, we may discover a range of possible reactions, including wonder and awe, a well of inner strength, a softness within us that allows for the tenderest of connection. It is said that love is the opposite of fear. When we foster beliefs based in love, we expand our possibilities, our faith, our compassion for others, and our value of ourselves.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017


My teachers have all come with the same message. Not “I am holier than thou,” but “You are as holy as I am.” -- Neale Donald Walsch, Conversations with God

Even if we can resist the pursuit of perfection, most of us find ourselves striving to be better than we currently are, to grow, ​whether it be in knowledge, insight, skill or physical strength. Accepting ourselves as we are can feel like “settling.” But consider the quote above. What if, just as we are, we are already “perfect”? What if our ideal self is flawed, and quirky; passionate and doubting; stubborn and patient and loving and fierce? Being our best selves needn't mean pushing ourselves to change. Perhaps, with our failings and questions and achievements, we are​ as we are meant to be. Maybe perfection is messy. Maybe it includes mistakes as well as accomplishments. Maybe our “holiness” resides in all that we are, exactly as we are.

Friday, June 16, 2017

Lost and Found

Sometimes what we appear to have lost is simply something it was time to leave behind. --
Marianne Williamson

I cried tears of joy on my son’s graduation day. But I was also overwhelmed with sadness, a deep grieving for the end of the long chapter of my son’s childhood. I was struck, like so many parents before me, by the swiftness of the passing of time, and felt the bittersweet loss of my “little boy”, who almost magically appears to have transformed into the young man poised to launch into the larger world. But the quote above reminds me that endings need not be infused only with grief. Indeed, movement forward embraces possibilities that are yet to be, and can mark the necessity of endings to make room for the new, the better. “Leaving behind” my son’s school years speaks to his readiness to embark on his next adventure. Without doubt, graduating high school is an essential step in his journey to the person he is to become. Alongside my wistfulness for the gummy smile and sweet baby smell of his younger years, I can confer gratitude on all the stages that brought him to this milestone. And he can find his way forward to his truest, most brilliant self.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Happy Mother’s Day! 

I am sure that if the mothers of various nations could meet, there would be no more wars. 
-- E.M. Forster

Parents want the best for their children. We want our children to be happy, safe; to achieve their dreams, to be proud of who they are. We want them to live in a world of peace and limitless possibilities. Legions of men support pacifism and resolution of conflict by peaceful means. But every mother I know would not think twice about embracing the children of a sworn enemy. The responsibility, empathy and nurturing that defines motherhood is not bestowed only on our own children. Being a mother means being a mother to everyone -- always. ​We are mothers to our friends, to the earth, to our pets, to all beings in need of unconditional love and acceptance. Being a mother is the blessing of all creation, and the most meaningful role I could imagine. This Mother’s Day, may all of the “mothers” of the world, regardless of gender, inspire us to meet each other with peace, love and gratitude. And may we celebrate them for their investment in all the world’s children.

Thursday, May 4, 2017

Shine On

The sun shines on everyone without discrimination. - Pema Chodron, Buddhist

None of us thrives in darknesss. We need to step out from the shadows to soak up the energy that comes from the light. Yet, sometimes we can feel as if grace and fate and all good things are beyond our grasp. That we have missed our chance, that our flaws and mistakes eliminate our access to universal goodness. Yet, in truth, the sun doesn't ask our permission to cloak us in its healing. Simply being on this earth is our entrance fee to its sustaining and fueling charge. We don't need to “earn” our place in the sun. It's the same with our worth. Acknowledging our innate value, that we matter simply because we exist, is our birthright. As we can choose to turn our faces toward the sun, we can embrace our lives--each and every one of us--as the singular gifts they are from the universe. Let it shine. Let US shine, as brightly as the Earth’s star.

Friday, April 28, 2017

Feelings can be scary. Intense emotions, like rage or grief, can feel overwhelming or out of of our control. But if we can step back from our experience and look more closely at what we feel, we find that other, more tender emotions lie beneath that intensity, emotions that can teach us more about ourselves and even allow us to connect more authentically with others.

Under the Cover of Darkness

Anger, for example, is a secondary emotion; that is, its appearance masks more vulnerable feelings like fear and hurt. When we have been mistreated, we may feel more powerful tapping into our anger at the slight than if we allow ourselves to feel the pain of our hurt or disappointment. I've often seen clients keep their partners at a distance with bluster and rages, only to dig deeper to discover that the explosive partner is terrified of being hurt, and acts out in order to feel safe from the perceived threat of being abandoned. Uncovering our vulnerabilities is courageous work; to allow someone else access to our hurt, fear and insecurity can feel like we are standing naked in a snowstorm. But the truth about our most vulnerable feelings is that they are universal -- all humans have felt them. Some of us are better skilled at burying our softness, but only when we bring these emotions and yearnings into the light, and toward each other, can we be fully seen and accepted. Our shared hurt and fear, our mirrored sadness and despair, can be bridges that bring us closer together, not keep us apart. The next time you feel enraged at a situation or person, peek beneath the anger. The fear, grief or shame you see there is an opportunity to know yourself more honestly, to accept your vulnerability as gratefully as your strength, and to offer yourself with more truth and wholeness to someone else.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

“My roof is leaking. The roofer is estimating the repair may cost $5,000. Not to mention the
money outlay to fix the stained ceiling. Tuition payments begin in a mere four months, and
despite our creative finagling of loans, grants, savings and begging the college for a few extra
dollars, our budget remains short. My arthritis is causing my hands to ache and throb, and on
top of everything, it's raining!” I was depressing myself with my internal rant of complaints as I
drove to the office. Could things possibly get any worse? I was about to spiral into Olympic-level
catastrophizing when I instinctively turned my head at the stop light to scan the greening forest
preserve I pass every day. And there it was, high above the tree line, wedged between thick
graying branches void of the first bud of spring. A hawk’s nest.

From a hundred yards away, I could faintly make out the curves and juts of the twigs, the weight and size of the nest making it look more precariously housed than it probably was. Centered in the nest was a magnificent hawk, itself scanning the preserve, possibly contemplating the best path for hunting breakfast. The bird’s head was a lighter shade of the ashy brown feathers that covered its body. It's eye flicked in its orbit as I watched. The bird looked to be at least three feet tall, though my
perspective could have skewed my vision. Its beak parted and I thought a caught a flash of
silvery tongue. I noticed my own mouth was hanging open, so in awe was I of this rare
communion with a creature I'd seen this close maybe only once or twice in my life. The beep of
a horn behind me brought me back to the present and reminded me to get the car moving. But
my energy was changed from that moment. Worries about money, stress about what ifs,
irritation at having to live with the drywall dust and hammer-pounding that accompanies home
repairs -- it all seemed like nonsense compared to what I'd just seen. The beauty of nature, the
wondrousness of atoms and energy coming together to create a soaring creature that embodies
majesty, the fortuitousness of being able to see the hawk in its home, perhaps just moments
from its next flight shook me with gratitude. How lucky was I? Being a sheltered suburbanite
who rarely veers from the confines of subdivisions, strip malls and paved streets, I knew I might
never experience the kismet of this meeting again. I blessed that powerful creature, the
Universe who gifted me with this sight, and let me heart expand with joy. Yes, indeed -- how
lucky I am.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Boundaries and Bloodlines

Boundaries are necessary, helpful, even reassuring. But they can be challenging to put in place.
Between family members especially, clients may report feeling guilty or selfish when they set
limits to protect themselves or establish healthier dynamics.


While there are innumerable reasons to set boundaries, people may feel that saying “no” to
family members will damage the relationship or indicates a lack of loyalty. As therapists, we
encourage clients to honor the bonds that are important to them, but not to blindly assume that
a genetic link to another requires the client to sacrifice their time, energy, will or happiness for
the sake of someone else. We don't automatically owe family members our allegiance --
certainly, many clients come to therapy with a history of abusive or unhealthy family
relationships. As in relationships with friends, spouses and coworkers, the most fulfilling and
effective family dynamics are laced with respect, communication and mutual investment. Pulling
the “but we’re related! ” card is, at best, a weak argument for why we should agree/do
for/support a family member, and, at worst, a toxic manipulation that uses guilt and obligation to
get the desired reaction. Accepting less-than-respectful treatment from family members just
because they are family doesn't display loyalty or commitment to the family over self, but
minimizes the inherent value of people on both sides. Respecting our needs as equal to others
-- even the “others” within our family tribe -- can enhance the health of relationships, model
self-respect, even provide a safety net to prevent unequal power distribution. Firm, clear, yet
flexible boundaries can actually provide the structure for family members to deepen their
connections and feel safe within relationships that may be the longest lasting in our lives.

Friday, April 7, 2017

As parents, our instinct is to protect our children from harm, to buffer them from life’s challenges and hurts. Divorce can be a difficult experience that tests our abilities as parents to provide our kids with a canopy of safety that keeps at bay the struggles inherent in this major life shift.

Learning from Experience

Parents in intact families may unconsciously run “interference” at times between their child and the other parent. How many kids know which parent will fork over $10 for a movie, or which one is likely to overlook missed chores? But in divorced families, where the differences in values, rules and expectations between parents may be more overt, knowing when to step in and when to keep out of the way of the other parent/child relationship is crucial to our children's healthy development and maintaining working boundaries between the now “two” family systems. Especially when one or both parents is carrying anger or hurt from the ended marriage, it can be easy to step in to “rescue” a child from what we perceive is unhealthy or damaging behavior on the part of the other parent. But short of our child experiencing physical or severe emotional harm from the interaction, we serve both systems best by letting the participants work out the interaction organically. All children, whether young or older, in intact or divorced families, need to develop individual relationships with each parent devoid of influence from the other parent.

Children need to learn who each of their parents truly are, and this best happens when dynamics are shaped by only the child and parent actually involved. I regularly remind clients that, if their ex is truly a selfish or narcissistic or unreasonable personality (or, conversely, generous, forgiving and flexible) the client needs to have faith in their child's ability to learn who the parent is through direct experience. We may think we are protecting our kids from our ex’s bad habits, but those “habits” are part of who the other parent IS, and our kids need to learn that their parents are real people, with faults and flaws and sometimes poor choices in their backgrounds. Seeing their parents as “real” allows kids to give themselves grace when they falter themselves. And the sooner children can know who their parents are authentically, the sooner a genuine and mutual relationship can develop. Again, if a parent is physically abusive or verbally attacking or shaming our child, we need to advocate for the child's safety. But in most cases, parents need to step back and let the child learn how to navigate the relationship with the parent in this new incarnation. Our kids need our protection, but they also need us to believe in their ability to discern who others are, their motivations and quirks and characters. Sometimes we do need to give them shelter, but much more often, our task as parents is to encourage our children to fly.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

The Other Side of Fear

Abandon hope. I frowned, flipping back to the front cover of my book. Yep, I was smack dab in the middle of my daily Buddhist meditation reader. I reread the first line of the entry again. Abandon hope. What the...WHAT?!?! Could Pema Chodron--admired, wise and renowned Buddhist nun--possibly be suggesting that I give up hope as a way of achieving peace? As I read on, the answer was clear. Yes. Yes, she was.

The Other Side of Fear

Chodron writes that hope and fear “is a feeling with two sides.” Regardless of which side we find ourselves, we are always looking to change what IS. We strive to end pain, or find an answer, to distract ourselves or improve our circumstances. Whether we choose hope or fear, we are effectively avoiding the Now, attempting to circumvent our discomfort or transform our experience into something “better” or “different.” Chodron posits that abandoning hope is “an affirmation, the beginning of the beginning.” If we can step away from the traditional Judeo-Christian interpretations of hope that permeate Western living, we can realize that both hope and fear come from a feeling of lack, that we are missing something, that the Now is not perfect in itself, even in its uneasiness, its imperfection, its hurt. Only by leaning into our real experience in the Now can we learn our limitlessness, our tenderness, our ability to embrace another with true compassion. “Hope robs us of the present moment,” Chodron writes. With courage and practice, we can learn to let go of hope and fully lean in to what is, and all that this moment has to teach us.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

The False Gains of Co-dependency

The False Gains of Co-dependency

Co-dependency, with all its negative connotations, also brings benefits that make these behaviors difficult to surrender. For the “enabler” (the person who ‘does’ for the other what the other could/should do for themselves), care taking is often appreciated by others, and even society affirms people who sacrifice to meet the needs of others. For the individual who is being enabled, it can feel nurturing to have someone willing to rescue or “fix” things to ensure a desired outcome. These benefits make it challenging for clients to see how leaving behind co-dependent behaviors can improve their well-being and relationships. Educating clients about the role and importance of functioning can be a way to understand why a more egalitarian dynamic is desirable. For the enabler, giving up their over-functioning behaviors can provide the client with energy to devote to more fulfilling endeavors, and can offer a sense of relief from the constant sense of over-responsibility that plagues the enabler’s life. In turn, the person being enabled can discover their own unique competencies when they decide to stop under-functioning and take charge of his own life and the outcomes of his choices. Steering his own course can be an affirming and esteem-building path that results in heightened competency and more positive self-image.

Change is scary, and adopting unfamiliar ways of relating and coping comes with the fear of the unknown. But growth, strength and resilience will replace skewed functioning and unequal power dynamics. Healthy inter-dependency is the truest path to real intimacy, equality and connection.

Tuesday, February 28, 2017


I now know what it feels like to be truly “unplugged.” For the entire week of our Caribbean cruise, I was unable to access the Internet or send or receive emails or texts. I couldn't scan Facebook or Pinterest. I couldn't even confirm the balance in my checking account through my bank’s app. The cruise line did offer a costly Wi-fi package, but we decided to spend our money on our onshore excursions instead. I let my phone die, shoved it to the bottom of my suitcase, and proceeded to be fully present to my long-anticipated vacation.

As the days wore on, I noticed a loosening of my shoulder muscles, my jaw relaxing. I spent time waiting in lines for dinner, a drink or my shore tour to start talking with my fellow vacationers. Instead of checking my phone, I watched the waves foam against the sand and tracked the flight of a flock of cormorants that followed us into port. I noticed the subtle differences of the light playing on the ocean at dusk, beneath cloudy skies, when the moon was rising. I woke up each morning and ended each night without updating my Facebook status or keeping current on emails. I'm hardly a slave to technology, but within 24 hours of being “phone-free”, my mind was quieter, my pace slower, my breathing deeper. No doubt being on vacation brought me a renewed sense of calm and peace. But being completely inaccessible to the connectivity that is everpresent in our modern world provided my with a freedom and lightness I've not experienced in many years. I'm hoping to challenge myself in my daily life to take “breaks” from my internet connections on a more regular basis. Vacations aren't the only times I could benefit from being more present. And both my body and my mind benefit when I allow myself to turn off, step away and disconnect from blinking cursors and pinging texts. Perhaps I can find inspiration and relaxation not only in a tropical vista, but in my own backyard.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Sober Living

Abstinence is NOT sobriety. Abstaining from drugs, alcohol or an addictive process like
gambling or sex is the beginning stage of recovery, the foundation to living a sober lifestyle.
Sobriety is the long, challenging, but rewarding journey of living a life of integrity, service to
others, spiritual development and accountability. Many addicts can have periods of being
“clean”, and can fall into the trap of false hope that they ca n stay clean by simply resisting the
urge to use. But treatment specialists know that, time and again, addicts will fall back into their
addiction if they are not learning, practicing and living by the tenets of a sober life. Alcoholics
Anonymous (AA) and many other 12-step groups provide a structure, a community, for addicts
to learn the life skills and develop the spiritual foundation to help them sustain their abstinence
and develop a healthy, truly sober way of living. Being sober includes fostering respectful
relationships, being transparent and honest in what we say and do, and shedding the
self-centeredness that marks the addict’s movement through the world. Only through sobriety
can addicts hope to connect with others, with their Higher Power, and find the strength to make
using truly a part of their past, and not a constant threat to their present. Abstinence allows us to
put on the running shoes, but sobriety gives us the strength, faith and hope to finish the race.

Friday, January 20, 2017

From the Inside Out

We all want to be liked. Having friends, getting positive feedback, knowing people enjoy our company feels ​good. We gain a sense of esteem and value from others’ appreciation of our talents and presence. Many clients have told me that the flattering opinions of others helps them feel they matter. Unfortunately, relying on others to “fill us up” leaves us vulnerable to becoming an empty vessel. We can't guarantee that we will always hear accolades from “adoring fans”, but we can be assured that our ​own voices are constantly available to us. 

The loudest critic resides in our minds. Whenever someone else rejects or dismisses us, it's our own
​self-regard that tells us to disregard that feedback, or to clutch it in a death grip. If a part of us is already doubting that we are smart, or talented, or powerful, we will seize on others’ criticism and begin to give it weight. We are unable to embrace criticism that we don't suspect could be true. To counter these emotional threats, we must practice providing ourselves with the positive scripts that celebrate our successes and note our gifts. We have the most powerful cheerleader within us at every moment. When we can build our inner resilience and confidence by recognizing our own worth, the voices outside become less relevant. Our value becomes an inherent part of us, unassailable by the messages from the world, and we are “filled” to overflowing. 

Thursday, January 12, 2017

ME Time -- the second 50 years

“I have enjoyed greatly the second blooming...suddenly you find -- at the age of 50, say -- that a
whole new life has opened up before you.” - Agatha Christie

My family is taking every opportunity to remind me that I will soon be turning “the big 5-0.” We
pass a speed limit sign: “Mom, even the sign is warning you that you're going to be 50!” My wife
filled out an AARP application in my name. And asked if I had earned the senior discount at the
movie theatre. I don't mind (much), though, because I'm continuously reminding THEM, that,
come February 9th, they and their needs are going to have to get in the back seat, because life
will be ALL ABOUT ME.

Mine, All Mine

For as long as I can remember, I've told myself that, when I turn 50, I'll have truly earned the
right to call my life fully mine. I have no idea why I chose such an arbitrary number, and not 30,
or 45, or even 15. Indeed, I support clients in owning their lives fully and authentically from the
moment we begin work together, and I wholeheartedly believe we all have a right to live by our
own truth and vision of who we are and what we want. Perhaps it's being raised in a more
traditional family, where the women were expected to be -- and enjoyed -- caretaking their
families. Maybe it's my “nurturer”personality -- for years, I didn't sit down, eat, or wrangle the
rights to the remote control until everyone else had their turns. And I don't regret the decades of
putting others’ needs first. I gained fulfillment, purpose and a sense of achievement knowing my
efforts helped my family members feel cared for, supported, and celebrated. But now it's MY
time. Whether it's a nap in the middle of the day, or saying “not interested” to an invitation, I've
given myself permission to do what I want, when I want. My family is used to hearing my
opinions, and they would be surprised if I suddenly censored myself when it comes to claiming
my values or beliefs. But I'm not entirely sure how any of us will react when, for the first time, I
push myself to set my needs squarely before theirs. They tell me I should have done this years
ago, that I never needed a particular birthday to dawn in order to assume the universal right to
meet my own needs. And as much as I am anticipating saying “I'm not doing that because I
don't want to,” I wonder if I'll hesitate when my choice impacts the comfort or preference of
someone else. What I do know is that I'm excited to find out. I'm pretty sure that this blooming is
going to be FABULOUS.