Using Your Past to Change Your Present

Most of us have found ourselves in a challenging situation for which there doesn’t seem to be a clear answer or solution. Stressful, difficult life circumstances can sometimes leave us feeling stuck with no way out, no clear direction for where to go or what to do, and powerless to the problem. When we feel powerless to our circumstances, it can be really difficult to pull ourselves out of the spiral of negativity and helplessness.

But here’s the good news: there are almost no situations in life that leave us utterly powerless. Let’s say that again: in almost every situation life throws your way, you can find something that’s within your control and your power. That’s right. Even when you feel absolutely powerless, there will be something that you can influence and change. It might be something seemingly small or insignificant, but that’s still autonomy. We all have it within us to make effective change and to improve our circumstances.

So how can we do this? Well, first we need to start with our past.

The first step in the problem solving process should be to assess what skills and resources you already have at your disposal—starting with your internal resources (i.e. your resilience, your positive attitude, your ability to shift your thinking, etc.) What does this have to do with your past? It’s significant, because certainly you have dealt with difficult situations and problems in the past. You already have problem solving skills and tools to manage difficult situations. Reflecting on your past can be useful to identify previous challenges you’ve overcome, what tools and skills you employed to handle the situation, and what you did to resolve the problems. Now you’re able to decide which of these skills and tools could be used to handle the present situation.

The next step of the problem solving process is figuring out what resources you have externally (i.e. your family and friends, community resources, advocates on your behalf, outside help, etc.). It’s important to access your external resources as well, because they are just as important in supporting you through the problem solving process. Also do a reflection on what external resources you used or leaned on in the past. Who or what were you able to call on for help and guidance? Then, you can decide which of those resources can be used in your present situation.

After you’ve reflected on what you’ve done well in the past to handle or overcome challenges, figure out which of your tools and skills are going to be most helpful and beneficial in the present. It may take a bit of creativity to figure out how you can use your resources from the past in the present, but that’s also part of solving problems. Bear in mind, you may have to alter or adjust the resources to fit the circumstances you’re facing, but it’s not impossible.

Remember, even small actions like changing your mindset, scheduling in time for self-care, or getting a good amount of sleep can be part of the problem solving process. These are all resources that you can use to help you manage the difficult circumstances. You may not be able to change everything in a big picture way, but it doesn’t mean that you’re powerless or a victim to life.

Take a moment to reflect on moments in the past when you’ve successfully dealt with real problems. Think about what you did well, what worked for you, which of your resources were most effective, and then figure out how you can use the skills and the tools that you already possess to start making change and finding a solution.

Why “Cancel Culture” Should Actually Be Canceled

Lately, especially online, there has been a major uptick in cancel culture. If you’re not familiar with cancel culture, it’s essentially the mindset that if someone does or says things that a collective group doesn’t agree with, they shun and shut out said person. It goes beyond holding people accountable for their words and actions, rather it’s an attitude of mistakes being unforgiveable and differing opinions being unwelcomed.

The problem with cancel culture is that it is a black and white mentality, which doesn’t leave much room for differences. We’ve probably all seen people on social media voicing their opinion and telling everyone something along the lines of “If you don’t agree with me, unfriend me.” While I understand that this sentiment comes from a place of feeling passionate about one’s own beliefs, I do not feel that this is a healthy way to deal with differing opinions and attitudes. Part of being in a community, in marriages and relationships, in families, means that we are going to disagree. It’s practically impossible to fully agree with someone in all aspects of life. Life is far too complex. Besides the unlikelihood of always agreeing with the people around us, it’s also not something we should strive for. Part of what helps us grow and learn is learning to live with people who are different than us. We must learn to tolerate the discomfort of disagreeing with the people around us.

Another reason why I disagree with the concept of cancel culture is that this “us vs. them” mentality is often what we see in cults or destructive groups. This mentality is what keeps people trapped in abusive power dynamics and keeps others on the outside. The “us vs. them” mentality does not leave space for differing ideas or beliefs, because they are seen as a threat to the integrity of the group and the culture that the group has created. You can see why being so engrained and indoctrinated in one belief and one point of view can be harmful. The more I surround myself with people who think and belief the same things as me, the more entrenched I become in that mindset and the further away I drift from being open-minded and willing to entertain differing points of view.

People often “cancel” celebrities who’ve made mistakes or done something unfavorable in the past, boycotting their movies, music, etc. This idea that none of us are allowed to mess up without being canceled is also quite toxic. People mess up; they say or do things they regret, whether or not they’re in the public eye. We have all, all of us, done something that we wish we could take back. Can you imagine if that mistake you made determined your future and your ability to be part of a community or to speak with your family and friends?

One of the elements of life that keeps us growing, honest, and humble is the ability to do life with people who have different beliefs than us. The ability to continue to show respect and regard for other people’s dignity is a skill that we need to continue to sharpen. Inability to see others as human beings because of their beliefs is not a signal of emotional health, rather emotional un-health. When you’re scrolling through social media next time, try to be more cognizant of who is partaking in this cancel culture. Make sure that you’re not falling into the trap of canceling people. Stay open-minded and humble and willing to sit at the table with people who might see the world through a different lens than you.

Toxic Positivity

Most of us have met people whose typical response when we tell them about our problems is something along the lines of… “Chin up!” or “It’ll all be okay, just look at the bright side.” or “Well, at least…” (“at least” is one of my least favorite phrases someone can say when I’m talking about my problems or my feelings). If you’re like me, these types of responses can be so frustrating. It leaves me thinking “Do you even care about anything I just told you?”

What do those responses all have in common? What do they sound like? Toxic positivity.

Toxic positivity is a term that has been gaining in popularity in recent years, and more and more people are starting to become aware of it and recognizing it. So what is toxic positivity and how is it different than just positivity?

Toxic positivity is characterized by being positive in an emotionally unhealthy way. It’s positivity to the point of causing emotional damage. Usually it takes form in ignoring or suppressing emotions, downplaying or diminishing problems and struggles, and using positivity as a means to avoid. And it’s not the same as being positive or being optimistic. You’ll notice that it’s toxic because it feels like the person is pressuring you to take on the same positivity and set your real feelings aside.

Here’s an example of what an encounter with toxic positivity might look like. Let’s say you’ve been working so hard on a project at work, dedicating months of your time and energy into it, and you’ve just found out that it’s being discarded by the higher-ups. You’re outraged, hurt, confused and upset. You go to a colleague who works on another project because you need someone to talk to. As you’re trying to process what you’re feeling and vent about your frustrations, your colleague responds by saying, “Don’t get mad! It’s not worth it to be mad. Just try to look on the bright side. You still have a job!”

How do you imagine you’d feel in a situation like this, receiving that response? Probably even more outraged, hurt, confused and upset, right? All you want to do is talk about what happened and have someone lend you their ear so you can vent. And their response is to tell you not to be mad and to cheer up. It’s pretty invalidating.

The problem with toxic positivity, and thus why it’s toxic, is that it IS invalidating. It leaves no room for feelings other than happiness. Anything that’s outside the box of ‘happy’ and ‘cheerful’ is not allowed. You’re not allowed to be mad. Sadness? Nope, no room for that here. Grief? Sorry, that’s not welcomed here. Just “good vibes only.”

So why do some people meet our problems and struggles with this toxic form of positivity? Well, the answer is likely that they meet their own problems and struggles with it, too. People who use toxic positivity as a means to avoid do not give themselves the opportunity to sit with their own feelings. They are not comfortable with the pain, the sorrow, the anger, the loss. So they push it away and shove it down and use a little saying like “Keep calm and carry on” to mask what they’re really feeling. People who are unwilling to let themselves feel their feelings, and who are not comfortable with their own emotions, are not going to be willing to let other talk about or express emotions other than happiness.

If you’ve read any of my other blog posts or have any prior knowledge of emotional health and emotional intelligence, you’ll already know why it’s so important for us to be able and willing to talk about our emotions. Just because we don’t acknowledge them, or just because we say “Everything will be fine!” does not mean those feelings go away. Ignoring our emotions is never the answer.

Unfortunately, people who are not comfortable with their emotions will not be comfortable with other people’s emotions. Even more unfortunately, these people might be your family, friends, coworkers, or romantic partners. We obviously can’t force people to drop their toxic positivity routine and start being emotionally intelligent people. It’s not our responsibility to change other people. So, instead, the challenge is choosing not to surround yourself with people who don’t give you space to sit with your feelings and express your emotions. The challenge is also to surround yourself with people who are willing to go there, willing to see and know you, because they also want to be seen and known.

Look for the people whose response when you share your struggles and pain is, “I hear you. That’s so painful.” Look for the people who really listen, who accept you and all of your emotions no matter how big or how uncomfortable it might get. Those are people of substance and those are people who will be there for you when you really can’t do life alone.

The Messages We Received (Family of Origin)

Most adults realize that their childhood played a huge part in shaping who they are today and a big part of their identity. What many adults don’t realize is the subtleties that they picked up on as children and how those affect them even into adulthood.

As kids, we all received messages from the adults in our lives, whether they were explicit and direct messages such as spoken rules, or indirect and subtle messages such as unspoken rules. Sometimes we may not even realize that there were unspoken rules in our homes growing up, until we start to examine and work through our issues as adults. We might not have any awareness about the influence of our childhood messages until we find ourselves in conflict in adult relationships and partnerships. Adults who are parenting might not be aware of the messages they received from their parents until finding themselves struggling with their relationship with their own children and their own roles as parents.

These ‘messages’ that I’m referring to are related to what we learned from our parents about what is and isn’t acceptable, what is and isn’t welcomed, what we do and what we don’t do, etc. It’s all about how watching our parents and picking up on their actions and interactions taught us about how to be people.

Our parents also sent us messages about whether or not it was acceptable to show, talk about, or feel our feelings. Did your parents tell you not to cry or tell you everything is fine when you got upset, angry or sad? Did your parents come to you with all of their problems and dump their emotions on you looking for support? Did your parents offer you comfort and permission to feel your feelings? All of these different scenarios will have shaped the way that you “do” feelings and emotions as an adult.

Parents who speak critically of themselves or others may inadvertently send messages to their children about value and worth. Parents who place high significance on performance-based actions like good grades, good behavior, etc. will likely send messages to their children that their worth comes from what they produce. Parents who attempt to control and micromanage every aspect of their children’s lives probably sent messages that they don’t trust their children enough to hand over the reins a bit.

An important part of the work we do in therapy is start to identify the messages that we received as children when we were growing up, and start to process how those messages have manifested in our adult lives. For example, if your childhood centered around being praised for good grades and good behavior (but you were ignored or rejected or punished when you didn’t perform well), as an adult that may look like the need to constantly be productive or the tendency towards workaholism as a way to show high performance. The message you received as a child could have been something along the lines of “You are only good when you can show the family and the world what you’ve done. Your worth is based on your accomplishments.”

Once we’ve identified what the messages are that were directed at us as children, it’s not enough just to accept it as the truth or the way it is and move on. It’s also not correct or healthy to blame our parents for everything either.

As adults moving towards growth and health, we need to be the ones to do the healing and the ones to break the cycles. We have to be the ones to create new messages for ourselves, our partners, our families and children about what is and isn’t acceptable, what is and isn’t welcomed, what we do and what we don’t do, etc. We need to be the ones to decide what messages from our childhood were damaging, hurtful, unhelpful and untrue. Then the work becomes starting to unpack the effects of those messages, break down the beliefs we have formed based on those messages, and start to form new beliefs based our own messages about worth and value. This is hard, complicated work. But this is the sign of growth and maturity.

Accepting and acknowledging the pain caused by our parents is not always easy or comfortable. We often want to excuse their behaviors or justify why they did what they did. Excusing and justifying is not the same as understanding and empathizing. Understanding and empathizing says “I can see why you did this, if I put myself in your shoes.” And at the same time, it leaves room for acknowledging the pain. Excusing and justifying says “Well they must have had a good reason for what they did” and tends to say that we deserved the pain. Rather than excusing our parents’ actions, words and behaviors, we can aim for understanding and moving forward, creating our own new messages and rules for our homes and families.

Why Your Thoughts Are More Powerful Than You Think

At any given moment, most of us have dozens of thoughts going through our minds. Some of them insignificant like “The car in front of me is yellow” and others more significant that have more influence over how we feel and behave. It’s inevitable to have thoughts pop into your head, and many of them go unnoticed; some even pop up without us realizing it or so quickly that we don’t have time to even realize it was a thought.

The insignificant thoughts come and go, hardly having an impact on our day-to-day. The more significant influential thoughts, however, are part of what shape the way we feel and behave. They also reinforce beliefs and neural pathways (thought patterns) in our brains.

So what happens when those thoughts we have turn out to be damaging? Let’s take a look at how our thoughts have the ability to influence so much about what we believe and feel about ourselves and the world around us.

First thing’s first: what is a thought? Essentially, it’s words put together to form a coherent sentence. Usually, but not always, thoughts are triggered by what we see or experience. We give meaning and importance to these put together words. Perhaps without noticing, we decide if the thought is important, is valid, is meaningful, and we often place emotion to it.

That’s to say, we have a thought, and almost instantly, if we’ve put meaning to it, an emotion comes up in response. Let me give an example. Let’s say I walk into the break room at work and everyone is chatting excitedly but when they see me, they go silent and start looking at each other. This would be my “trigger”, the event or situation that happens. My first thought might be “They were all just talking about me.” So, how might I feel following this thought? Well, I could feel embarrassed, maybe angry, probably confused and hurt.

We can see how one thought leads to an emotional response. What happens next is that my emotions often play a large part in how I behave, react, or act. Continuing with this example, if I’m feeling embarrassed and hurt, I might decide to immediately turn around and walk out of the break room. And I also might spend the whole day avoiding those colleagues. If I’m feeling angry, I might lash out and accuse them of gossiping about me. Neither of these scenarios are very healthy responses.

The other thing that this thought does, if I give it meaning, is perpetuate a core belief I have about myself (for example: I’m unlikeable.). These kind of thoughts are damaging because they reinforce unhealthy core beliefs, which continues this cycle of thoughts, feelings, and actions.

Taking a look at that thought “They were all just talking about me,” the first thing I need to do is recognize that it’s just a thought, not a fact. I also need to decide if this thought is helpful or harmful. This particular thought is not helpful, because I don’t actually know what is going on that caused my coworkers to stop talking abruptly. It’s also not helpful, because it leads me to feeling embarrassed and angry, which in return, causes me to avoid or lash out.

Once I’ve identified that a thought isn’t helpful, the goal is to replace that thought with a thought that is helpful. In this scenario, I could tell myself “I don’t know what they were talking about.” This is a pretty neutral and truthful thought. Hopefully, this thought would lead to a more neutral response, such as feeling curiosity or simply feeling unbothered. I might simply greet my coworkers and then go on about my business. The point is that I did not catastrophize the situation by letting my thoughts dictate my feelings and behaviors.

Another strategy is simply acknowledging that a thought is just a thought. Instead of replacing the thought with another, I can simply acknowledge “That was an unhelpful thought. It doesn’t mean anything” and try to continue on without giving that thought any more of my emotions or energy. Not every thought deserves to have emotion put to it. If that were the case, we’d be emotionally exhausted at all times. Imagine driving down the road and thinking “The car in front of me is yellow” and having to place some kind of feeling or emotion behind it. Sounds silly, because it is! We get to decide what thoughts deserve our energy and attention.

Next time you find yourself spiraling into a spin of big emotions and unhealthy behaviors because of one little thought that came to mind, take a moment to recognize that you are the one who gives power to thoughts. Ask yourself, is this thought helpful or true? Give yourself permission to let that thought go, picturing it floating away in the air like the wisps of a dandelion. Replace that thought with one that is helpful, or at the very least neutral. This is not an easy feat. After all, the beliefs that we’ve formed about ourselves have formed over years. It takes time to build new neural pathways and form new beliefs about ourselves. These are the first steps in that process. Remember, your thoughts can be very powerful, but only if you give them the power.

Cultural Burnout

Most of us are probably familiar with the idea of burnout in the mental health sense of the word. The idea that you’ve reached a point of mental, physical, emotional (or all of the above) exhaustion so much so that you can’t seem to function properly. It happens when we are forced to be “on” all the time (always working, always caring for someone, always stressing out, etc.). It’s like an overload of information and eventually we can’t seem to take anymore.

Some common signs of burnout are apathy, exhaustion, frustration, feeling like what you do is meaningless or won’t have an impact, depression, and sleep disorders, to name a few. Normally, what we need to do when we’re experiencing burnout is take a break from whatever it is that has pushed us over the edge and set some healthy, firm boundaries to make sure we don’t reach that point again.

Just like we can experience burnout from our jobs, our personal lives, our responsibilities, in my experience, we can also experience “cultural burnout.” I am certain that I didn’t coin this term, but I’ve definitely experienced it myself. If you live cross-culturally, in a different country or culture than your “home” country or culture, you may have experienced it, too. How I would define “cultural burnout” is: the feeling of burnout as caused by the constant need to adapt to and live within a culture that is not completely familiar to you.

I use this phrase of “being on” to refer to experience of having to constantly be on alert, prepared, and thinking about and planning for future interactions and situations. A prime example of this would be the act of preparing a dialogue in your head or practicing what you might say if you’re going to run an errand or have an appointment in a different language. In your home country/culture/language, you’d probably have to prepare less for this sort of thing. You’d walk into the doctor’s office without giving much thought as to how you’d explain your symptoms. You’d go to the post office to mail a letter and you’d know exactly what to say to get the errand done quickly. When functioning in a language that’s not your native language, everything takes a little bit more thought, effort and planning. No wonder you’re exhausted just from doing simple tasks! It’s not a normal or typical experience to put so much mental work into our daily tasks and outings.

Even if you’ve reached a level of being comfortable with the language, anyone who’s learned another language knows that there’s so much more to a language than just the words. It’s the cultural elements of the language that can be so challenging to communicate or understand. After four years of living in Spain and learning and speaking Spanish, I still find myself in situations where the context goes completely over my head and I have no clue what people are talking about. This can be especially challenging for social interactions and relationship building. Foreigners might feel frustrated or hopeless about communicating and expressing themselves; I’ve heard many people say “I feel like I can’t be myself in x language.” Struggling to build community and find friendship in a foreign place can leave us feeling lonely and isolated.

Regardless of how much you love the place you’re living, and despite having no regrets moving to and starting life in this place, there will likely always be aspects of the culture that are hard for you to accept. It’s human nature and it’s normal, because we’ve grown accustomed to and comfortable with how things are done in our “home” country and culture. Moving to a new place, you may struggle to understand the “why” behind systems in place, behaviors, and things that locals find acceptable. This also ends up highlighting the gap between your home and host cultures, furthering the feeling that life is just that much more challenging abroad. If you struggle to understand the “why,” (even though the local people might not understand it either) and you spend a lot of mental and emotional energy trying to, or fighting against it, you’re likely going to end up feeling burned out.

All of these factors, and more – because the list could go on and on—are part of what leads up to the feeling of cultural burnout. You reach a point where you just want to throw your hands up in the air and say “Forget it! I’ll never understand it and I’ll never make this work.” Or you might say to yourself “Well, it doesn’t matter anyway. I don’t even care anymore.” Apathy, hopelessness, frustration, exhaustion.

So what can you do, apart from packing up and moving back home? (Sometimes, that might be the solution, but not always.) Just like when you’re experiencing burnout from other aspects of life, it’s important to find ways to set limits, get rest and respite, and take care of yourself. I believe it’s important to try and connect with people who understand you and who you understand, interactions that feel like they take less effort. Maybe that’s seeking out people in your city that are from a similar or the same home culture as you; or perhaps reaching out and connecting with friends and family from back home. Another idea is to schedule more challenging or taxing appointments strategically. Can you avoid seeing all of your different doctors in one week, and rather spread out the appointments a bit more? Is it possible to do some of the appointments or errands online, rather than in-person? How can lighten your load a bit and make this more manageable? Self-care is going to be a tool that you need to have ready to use, too. It’s important to find ways to take care of yourself and recharge your battery, especially when daily life seems to be so much more draining than it should be. Find outlets to take care of your physical body via exercise, good nutrition, hygiene, sleep, etc., as well as ways to take care of your soul (mental and emotional health) through practices like mindfulness, relaxation, connection and intimacy with others, hobbies or activities that you delight in, etc. Your ability to care for yourself is a crucial element to make cross-cultural living work well.

Many people also find it helpful to see a coach, therapist, or counselor who lives cross-culturally and understands the very unique experience. Look for mental health care providers who have also lived in a host culture and can relate to what you’re going through. Cross-cultural living can be an amazing, enriching experience, but it doesn’t come without its challenges. If you feel that you’re experiencing cultural burnout, start making a plan for how you can care for yourself, and reach out to a counselor like myself if you’d like some extra support with managing the challenges.

Why Doesn’t Therapy Always “Feel Good”?

It’s not an uncommon thought or belief that going to therapy will make you ‘feel better.’ Most of us have a concept of therapy that tells us that we should always leave our appointments feeling happy, light, and like we’ve had a break-through. So, why do we often leave our therapy appointments feeling worse than when we went in? There’s a common misconception that therapy is a quick fix for all of our problems, when in reality, therapy should be treated more like a marathon than a sprint. There’s also a misconception that going to therapy will rid me of my ‘negative feelings’ and leave me feeling happy and free, when really, we should expect to experience a lot of emotions, some uncomfortable, during the process of therapy. This is a sign that we’re doing the work.

A marathon, not a sprint.
Let’s start with this idea. I often tell my clients that the learned behaviors and thought patterns, unresolved issues with family members and mental health challenges such as anxiety don’t develop overnight, and therefore they can’t expect to resolve these issues overnight. Not only do we need to take time to build rapport and a relationship filled with trust between the client and the therapist, but we also need to understand that the work we do in therapy is often a slow-burn type of work. This can be difficult for many folks, because we have these unpleasant feelings and experiences and we want rid of them now, and fast. It’s normal to seek out a quick fix for those kind of feelings, but honestly those are just band-aids and don’t address the root of the issue. Band-aids, although they stop the bleeding immediately, don’t actually do much in the way of letting a wound heal, do they? The wound needs to breathe, close up, allow new skin to grow and form, the scar might need time to fade. This is a process and can’t be rushed. Most of us who’ve used band-aids know that once we take the band-aid off, the likelihood of us accidentally reopening the wound and starting to bleed again is pretty high. So we need to treat the wound with care, avoid causing further damage to it, sometimes care for it daily with a routine.
The same goes for our mental ‘wounds.’ A band-aid fix won’t really make it go away and won’t really address what’s causing the problem. As hard as it is to be patient in therapy, one of the most important things we can do is to trust the process and know that it’s going to take time.
The consistent work of addressing the issue, taking steps towards reconciliation, falling back down and having to get back up, realizing that what we were trying wasn’t working and going back to the drawing board, is all part of the process of growth. If you can stick with the process, it will certainly build resilience and give you an opportunity to prove to yourself that you can do hard things. It’s a commitment to yourself and to the work you’re doing.

Therapy isn’t always comfortable.
Anytime you dig something up that you’ve had buried for a while, you can expect that it’s not going to feel very good. Why else would you have buried that thing, other than to avoid uncomfortable feelings? We put things in boxes and store them in the back of our closet in an attempt to save ourselves the discomfort of feeling lonely, hurt, ashamed, rejected, etc. The process of therapy involves getting those things out of the boxes, sorting through the boxes, and taking a good long look at what we’ve stored away and ‘forgotten’ about for so long. And it’s probably no surprise that this usually results in those feelings coming back to the surface.
But wait! This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Remember, there aren’t ‘bad’ emotions. Emotions are just emotions; they help us tune into a need, a wound, a longing in our hearts. They aren’t ‘good’ or ‘bad.’ If we can look at emotions more neutrally, then it’s not such a bad thing to feel these feelings.
Another part of the process of therapy is learning to be able to tolerate feelings that don’t feel ‘good’ in the moment. Tolerating our feelings is the first step, followed by honoring and appreciating them. Being able to sit with negative feelings, identify what the emotions are telling you about yourself and your needs, and understand why you had/have those emotions based on what you experienced is all part of becoming emotionally intelligent and healthy.

So, no… your time spent in therapy might not always leave you feeling on cloud nine. I’ve had several clients remark to me “I always end up crying after our sessions,” and I tell them “That’s pretty normal. You’re digging up stuff that you’ve kept underground. You’re talking about things you haven’t ever talked about. You’re acknowledging heartache and pain and loss that you haven’t ever acknowledged. Of course you’d cry!” I think this is one of the gifts of therapy and the process of growing. It doesn’t always feel good in the present moment, but if you are also putting in the effort to work through your sorrows, losses, traumas, and grief, then navigating these feelings can be an incredibly healing part of the process.

And no… going to therapy two or three times isn’t going to solve all your problems. I’ve heard people talk about how they want the answers to their problems right now and they don’t want to spend time and money on seeing a therapist. That’s their right, but it’s not the perspective of someone who is ready for change and growth. The commitment to the process of therapy is also a gift. It’s a commitment to yourself and an act of self-love. If you’re willing to say, “I’m going to engage in this process and know that it’s going to take some time,” you’re telling yourself that you’re worth it. What a beautiful message to tell yourself and a beautiful gift to give yourself.

So, if you’re currently in the process of working through your ‘stuff’ in therapy, please rest in the knowledge that you’re on the right path and that the effort and energy and money you’re investing is so worth it.
And if you’re wondering if therapy is right for you but aren’t sure you’re really up for the commitment or for bringing up the past, ask yourself if you’re ready to give yourself the gift of healing and growth. I do hope you’ll take those first steps in that process. You deserve it.

Raising Emotionally Healthy Children

Parents spend a lot of time, energy, and resources on promoting their children’s cognitive and physical development. Rightfully so, as these are very important elements in a child’s development, as are meeting milestones.
What we don’t talk about as often is making sure that children are growing in their emotional intelligence (EI), too. Just like we want children to be smart, have strong healthy bodies, and meet milestones related to their growth and development, we must also focus on helping children develop their EI and become emotionally healthy people.

What can parents do to promote the EI of their children? Start young, first of all. When children are infants they rely on non-verbal communication to tell us how they feel. They cry, have tantrums, get loud and big with their feelings. They are uninhibited, because they haven’t learned from society, from peers, from family members that they need to squash down their feelings in order to conform, appease the adults, not rock the boat. They just instinctively know that they need cry and make it clear to the adults that they are upset. But what happens to babies whose cries are ignored? They do learn to squash it down, in a way; babies who cry and do not receive attention or a response from a caregiver stop crying. They learn quickly that their cries don’t get the response they need; this is a major problem because it leads to attachment disorders and the inability to connect and bond with others– especially caregivers. In this phase of development, parents need to be attentive to baby’s cries and non-verbal cues.

As toddlers, before developing language skills, children continue to rely on non-verbal communication to tell their grown-ups how they feel. Although, now, they’ve got a little more physical strength and autonomy over their bodies. It may come in the form of hitting, throwing, falling down and rolling on the floor. Chances are, if you are parenting or have parented a toddler, I name it, you’ve seen it! In these moments, it’s so tempting for parents to put their child in time-out, scold or discipline this ‘acting out’ behavior, or chose to ignore the ‘acting out’ behavior. I put ‘acting out’ in quotations, because although it’s often seen this way, what children are doing in these moments is really not an attempt to be defiant or embarrass you in Target. It’s an attempt to communicate feelings as best as they can. Let’s put ourselves in their shoes for a moment. Imagine you’ve had a terrible day, you’re exhausted, and you just feel so angry. Now imagine that not only can you not speak, but you also don’t even have words to put to what you’re feeling. Frustrating, right? Your little one is probably feeling that way too. They’ve got the ability to feel all the big feelings adults do, but without the vocabulary or ability to say it. All they can do is use non-verbal!

In these moments, as parents, what can you do? First things first, you must check-in with your own feelings and regulate your own emotions. If you are meeting their anger with anger, it won’t do much to de-escalate the situation. Check-in with yourself: am I feeling angry, shame, fear, hunger, exhaustion? Acknowledge your own feelings first, do what you need to do to regulate them (deep breaths, quick grounding exercise, etc.) before you can address your little one’s feelings. As parents, it is crucial for you to be emotionally intelligent if you’re going to model and teach it to your children.

Next, give space for big feelings. You’ve raged before. You’ve sobbed and heaved until you can barely breathe. You’ve been exhausted to the point of collapsing. Give your kid permission to feel the same. This might look like sitting down on their level and just being a calm presence, giving a hug when/if they’re ready, or providing them with a comforting hand on the arm or favorite toy. But the key is to accept the emotions, and to INVITE your children to show them. Remember, if we punish kids for feeling big emotions, they WILL learn to stuff it down.

Another crucial element to raising emotionally intelligent children is modeling EI. Be open and vocal about your feelings. It’s okay for you to verbalize what you’re feeling. You don’t have to be stoic and emotionless as a parent. Of course, maintain appropriate boundaries about what you share with your children, but be willing to say if you’re sad, mad, worried, happy, etc. This helps your children learn that in your home, you talk about how you feel and it’s met with empathy and understanding.

When children can’t verbalize what they’re feeling, it’s also helpful to give names to their feelings. For example, when another child takes a toy away from yours and they get mad, you can say “It made you mad when ‘so and so’ took the toy from you, didn’t it?” Or, “You’re sad that Daddy has to go to work. I’m sad too.” This helps children in two ways: first, it communicates to them that their feelings are welcomed and that you understand them. Second, it helps kids learn the vocabulary and names of feelings that they otherwise might not know. So, again, it’s important for parents to also be educated on the different feelings and to tune in and pick up on how their children are feelings. This, as you may imagine, requires EI.

Older children who can talk and form complete sentences can hopefully start to name their feelings, perhaps with a bit of help and guidance. Now that they’re older, parents can start helping children connect their feelings to their bodies by asking, “Where do you feel the anger in your body? Does it make your hands hot, or your tummy feel tight?” Another aspect of EI is recognizing that our feelings don’t exist just in our brains; rather, they are a part of our physical self and manifest in different bodily sensations.

Grade school children, who developmentally can follow a line of cause and effect, can start to identify how their emotions affect their behavior and can start to develop ideas about healthy ways to cope with difficult emotions. If your child gets angry and breaks something they really love, without judgment or shaming them, parents can help walk them down the line of cause and effect. Children can start to understand how their behaviors have consequences, and this can be used to empower them to start using healthy coping strategies. Teaching kids (even very young children) how to do deep belly breathing is a great place to start. It’s also a good idea to help your children identify a variety of coping skills to deal with worry, sadness, anger, fear. At this age, the crucial element of teaching and modeling EI, is that parents are also using coping skills to regulate their own emotions.

To summarize, from a very young age, children start observing and picking up on cues from their parents about what is and isn’t welcomed or accepted in the home. They can either learn that “negative” feelings are punished or ignored or stuffed away in a box, or they can learn that those feelings are normal and human and that we don’t have to hide them from the people who love us. It’s so important to note that children who learn that there’s no space for their feelings will struggle to talk about their feelings as adults. Children who are forced to stuff down the bad stuff, will struggle to be vulnerable as adults. Children who do not learn healthy coping skills will likely develop unhealthy coping mechanisms as adults. When you consider the development of your children in regards to their academics, growth, motor skills, and language skills, please don’t forget to equally consider their emotional intelligence and take steps to help them develop this way. You’re helping them have more chances for success in their work, relationships, and with their own children in the future.

World Mental Health Day

Today, October 10, is World Mental Health Day. A day recognized by the World Health Organization as a day to raise awareness for mental health issues and give a spotlight to mental health care organizations and workers to discuss what needs to be done to provide accessible mental health care worldwide.

On this day, I wanted to write a quick blog about my thoughts on mental health after working in the field for several years, as well as cross-culturally.

First of all, I’m happy to see that mental health is something that is becoming less and less taboo in many places. When I worked at a public high school in the U.S., my students were open and willing to talk about mental health with me, their classmates, their friends, etc. The stigma around mental health still existed, but I could see that it was growing smaller with that generation of young people. Still, the stigma around mental health existed perhaps for their parents, grandparents, caregivers, and many teens had trouble speaking about their struggles to their older family members.

I also noticed during my time working with at-risk youth and families (in multiple cities, at multiple jobs) that mental health care is far less accessible and affordable in lower socio-economic areas and amongst those families. The care that’s available to families receiving Medicaid (in the U.S.) is limited, and typically the workers are spread thin. I speak from experience, as a case worker who had about 50 children and families on my caseload, all of whom received Medicaid and had mental health diagnoses. Rarely were my colleagues and I able to accomplish everything asked of us in that role, let alone able to provide quality care to our clients.

Another thing I took note of as I got more into the world of therapy is the expense. I think we can address the elephant in the room and just say, therapy is expensive. If you go to a private practice or group practice therapists, you’re looking at paying upwards of 70 USD. And don’t get me wrong, therapists deserve to make a fair wage, and they have expenses related to maintaining their license, continuing their education, keeping up with a business, etc. But the reality is that many people cannot afford therapy consistently when we consider how low the minimum wage is in countries like the U.S.

Now that I’m living and working internationally, I’ve also noticed that there’s a great need for mental health care for people living outside of their home culture. It is a huge undertaking to try to make life work in a different country, culture, and language. Personally, I find myself thinking I’ve adjusted to life in Spain, only to realize there’s a glaring new reality for me to face that I’d never considered before (see: public health care, or self-employment taxes). Many people who live or have lived cross-culturally have expressed to me a feeling of being misunderstood, like the people around them who are ‘monocultural’ just don’t seem to understand. I’ve realized there’s a need for international therapy, with therapists who have also got some cross-cultural experience and can relate.

One last thing that has caught my attention over the course of my work with children has been the need for parents to get comfortable with talking about mental health with their children. When I meet with parents whose children are struggling with transition, feeling homesick, anxiety, and other mental health problems, I find it very helpful for parents not to shy away from these topics with their children. In fact, I often encourage parents to appropriately share their feelings, their struggles, their experiences with their children as an invitation to their children for conversation around these topics. If kids see their parents are able to say, “You know what, I’m feeling really homesick. I’m missing family and the comforts of our old home,” it gives kids permission to feel their feelings AND to talk about those feelings, too.

So, after reflecting on my past years working in the field of mental, as someone who has also received mental health care, what are my takeaways?
Well, for one, we have got to continue the dialogue around mental health. The more we talk about it, the more we normalize it and it becomes less scary. (This goes for suicide too. And no, talking about suicide, does not make people suicidal. It saves lives.) We need to find people who are willing to enter in to these kinds of conversations with us. Comfortable with being uncomfortable. Because yes, many times– if not most times, talking about our struggles is uncomfortable and humbling. But it’s necessary. (I’ll write another blog post about this topic soon.)

Two, we need more access to affordable mental health care and affordable therapy. Many therapists do offer sliding scales or pro bono therapy, which can be very helpful. It’s also crucial that governments do more in the way of insurance, funding, and providing resources to mental health organizations. The mental health organizations that already exist are enormously under-funded and over-worked. This is a systematic change that has to happen at the government level.
As individuals, we can advocate for ourselves to our insurance companies (asking for reimbursement or an allowance for mental health services), inquire about sliding scales or assistance (often times even private agencies will have funds from donations to help people in need of assistance), and look for online free resources to aid in mental health.

Three, we need to practice really good self-care. Self-care is a great form of prevention as it relates to anxiety, depression, burn-out, and some other common mental health problems. You can get dozens of ideas for self-care by simply searching for it online. It’s important to note that self-care can’t be a replacement for therapy, medication, or treatment, but if you’re experiencing mild symptoms of anxiety or depression, it can serve as a great tool in conjunction with those.

Lastly, I encourage you to try to remove your own feelings of shame or stigma around mental health and get the care you need. There is NO shame in going to therapy, taking medication, or needing help. It’s a brave and courageous thing to step out into the world and ask for help. You don’t have to do it alone.

If you or someone you know if looking for affordable counseling, especially from a cross-cultural perspective, please contact me to inquire about international, English-speaking counseling. I offer online and in-person (in the Malaga, Spain area) counseling and a free 15-minute video or phone consult to get started.

Take care of yourself, and be well.

Back to School Blues?

We’ve made it to the end of September, and at this point, most children have returned to school. The start of the academic year can be an exciting time for kids– back to school shopping, meeting the teachers, finding out which friends are in their classes. But it can also be a challenging time for kids and parents.
Younger children may suffer from separation anxiety, which is characterized by anxiety brought on by being separated from parents/caregivers. Children who have separation anxiety have a difficult time saying goodbye when it’s time to go separate ways, but also have a really hard time preparing for the separation.

School-aged children typically outgrow separation anxiety, but may have a hard time managing the transition back to school. After being home with family during the summer, it might be challenging to spend all day outside of the home. Although many parents do a great job of maintaining some type of summer routine, it’s not typically as regimented as the school-year routine, so many kids find it difficult to get back into the routine of waking up and going to bed early, sitting in a classroom for several hours, doing homework and projects, and other typical school requirements.
It’s not necessarily that kids don’t enjoy school — some do and others don’t, for many reasons– but the transition back into the routine requires some mental, emotional, and physical “work.”

Don’t be surprised if the first few weeks, or even the first couple of months, back to school don’t go as smoothly as you planned. It’s normal for everyone involved to feel a bit of anxiety, frustration, or loss of control during a time of transition.

You can help your kids adjust to the “back to school” season a few ways. First, be patient and remember that we all handle transition differently. If you’ve got more than one child, this is certainly true. What may be effortless for one child, could be quite challenging for the other when it comes to transitioning back to school. Second, help your child name what they’re feeling. Are they anxious because they’re afraid the work is too hard? Lonely because they don’t have any close friends in class? Sad to be away from family or the pet all day? Naming the emotion and where it comes from helps us feel that we have some ownership and authority over what we’re feeling. Third, help your kids identify their resources at school, which can ease with the transition (friends, teachers, teacher aides, support staff, study and time management tools, etc.). Where and how can they receive support when they need it?

It’s also important that we teach children skills to be able to manage these types of transition and to gain/develop important life skills. Figuring out what they have control over is a big one. It may be something as simple as having control over what they take for lunch, or something more complex such as who they choose to be friends with. In any given situation, no matter how out-of-control we may feel, there’s always some element that’s within our control. We also must teach kids to learn how to modify the situation where and when possible. For example, if your teenager finds it really difficult to get along with their math teacher, can the schedule be changed? If not, is there an assistant in the class they can go to for help? If not, can they get math help outside of class?

And of course, sometimes difficult situations can’t be modified. What do we do then? Try to reframe the situation and look at it from a different perspective. We certainly have control over our outlook on life and whether or not we choose to let difficult situations own us. For older kids or teens, this could be a great opportunity for them to learn soft skills like working with others and managing expectations versus reality.

Parents can think back on what these transitions were like for them, listen empathically to their children’s concerns, and remind them “We’re in your corner. We’re on your team.” Then, parents and children can strategize and think creatively together to manage the transition back to school.

Remember, transitions don’t last forever. Eventually, we learn to integrate the changes into our lives, and it becomes a normal part of life. Your children will find their rhythm and their routine, it may just take some time. The important thing is that they know their parents hear them, support them, and love them through it.

(If your child is struggling to manage the transition back to school, feel free to reach out to me for more information about counseling or parent consultations.)