Gaslighting & How to Heal
March 24, 2017
By Chad Perman, LMFT
At the end of each year, to great fanfare, Oxford Dictionaries selects its “word of the year”—a word or expression that has generated a large amount of attention in the culture over the preceding twelve months. And, while we’re only a few months into the new year, it seems a good bet that “gaslighting”—a term first coined way back in 1938—will emerge as a strong contender in 2017.
While those of us in the psychology field have long been aware of the phrase, it’s only recently started to appear with regularity in the culture at large, becoming especially prominent during the election. Gaslighting, essentially, refers to a form of manipulation, a psychological means of controlling somebody—most often wielded by narcissists, abusive partners, dictators and cult leaders—that causes the victim to question their own sanity. The process often happens gradually, but eventually progresses to the point where the victim can no longer trust their own perceptions or beliefs, often leading to isolation, depression, anxiety, and increased dependence on the manipulator. However, the reason the term is gaining increased relevance this year is not because of a rise in narcissists or abusive partners in our society. Rather, it’s because some concerned citizens—psychologists, doctors, and historians among them—fear our entire body politic is currently at risk of being gaslighted by those in power.
The phrase itself originated with a 1938 play, Gaslight, which was later turned into a film in 1944, starring Charles Boyer and Ingrid Bergman. It tells the tale of a nefarious husband, after his new wife’s jewels, who attempts to drive her crazy in order to have her institutionalized. He deploys various techniques to achieve this end, most notably by dimming and raising the gas lights in their home and then, when questioned about it, denying any such change had occurred, suggesting it must be a figment of her imagination. Over time, his manipulative tactics work: the wife begins to doubt herself and, eventually, her own grip on reality.
In modern times, those attempting to gaslight us—consciously or not—usually adhere to a fairly predictable playbook. Taken as a whole, their tactics might appear rather obvious in retrospect. But remember, gaslighting doesn’t happen overnight; it’s a slow, gradual process aimed at steadily eroding our own sense of confidence and stability, leaving us vulnerable to manipulation. Anyone can be susceptible to gaslighting, no matter their personality, intelligence, income level, or family background. As such, it’s become increasingly vital that we learn to identify it when it’s happening. Awareness is key: if we know the signs, we can know what to look for—and then label it for what it is rather than succumbing to it.
How the Gaslighter Works
A gaslighter is often enormously charismatic or charming, a crucial first step in gaining your trust, loyalty, or affection. Soon, though, the lying begins—the bigger and more outrageous, the better. This is perhaps the most important tool in gaslighting, because it establishes a precedent and, repeated often enough, begins to make you question your own perception of events. If you catch the gaslighter in a lie, they usually won’t admit to it; in fact, they’ll often blatantly deny they ever said or did such a thing (“That never happened”, “You’re making that up”, “It’s all in your head”). Again, the goal here is to make you uncertain of yourself, gradually eroding your sense of confidence and stability over time. Quite simply, they are looking to sow confusion, knowing that the less confident you are, the weaker and more afraid you’ll feel, which gives them increasing power over both you and your reality.
As confusion sets in, the gaslighter often moves quickly to further isolate or disorient you. In addition to lying and denying, they begin trying to supplant your reality with their own. They become dismissive of your version of the truth, attempt to discredit those that support you or your views as liars, minimize your reactions as over-sensitivity or an inability to take a joke, and at times even directly question your very sanity (in essence, to paraphrase a famous Groucho Marx line, “Who are you gonna believe, me or your lying eyes?”).
The net effect of all of these behaviors can be devastating, especially in a relationship. Those subjected to gaslighting can fall into a state of perpetual confusion, depression, anxiety, or resignation. The constant onslaught of emotional abuse takes its toll, leaving the victim feeling stuck, hopeless, and dependent on their abuser.
How to Heal
Thankfully, though, there are ways to stop the cycle, and heal the wounds it has caused. First and foremost is becoming aware of what is happening, and naming it, even if only to yourself initially. Once you’ve learned what gaslighting is—how it works and what its effects can be—then you can begin to reclaim your voice, confidence, and sanity.
Here are a few ways to start:
Trust your intuition.
Listen to your own gut feelings. A gaslighter wants you to lose faith in yourself, because that means you’ll be more likely to give up control. But by continually checking in with—and believing—yourself, they won’t be able to undermine your reality.
Limit engagement and conversations with gaslighters
If you have to engage with someone who you feel is gaslighting you, keep the conversation short, and consider using phrases like “I’m not comfortable with you telling me what my experience is”, “I guess we’ll have to agree to disagree”, or “I don’t like how this conversation is going, and need to take a break.”
Quite often, those being gaslighted begin to blame themselves for the situation, or feel as if they somehow deserve it. However, this is never the case (in fact, it’s actually part of the gaslighting). Be kind to yourself, practice good self-care, and always remember that you deserve respect and/or love from those around you.
Build a strong support system.
Talk with trusted friends, loved ones, or a therapist about the situation. Be open and honest about what’s going on, and enlist their support.
10 Tips for Making Resolutions Last
January 2, 2017
By Andre O'Donnell MA, LMHC
The new year is a popular time for making resolutions, setting goals, and trying to be our better selves. Gym memberships skyrocket, catchy self-help books briefly get more attention than dessert-themed cookbooks, Goodwill donation piles gather, and most notably, our “to-do” lists increase expansively.
Good intentions look great on paper and often help us feel temporarily better. However, there can be a discrepancy between well-meaning intentions and intended outcome. If a goal is set too high—as opposed to setting down-to-earth goals, focused on incremental changes—chances are that the goal will not be met, which only increases frustration.
Setting healthy lifestyle goals, such as joining the gym or planning to de-clutter your home, ought to be encouraged—but at the same time, devising effective time management skills can help us reach our goals with less distress, and persevere rather than giving up after a few weeks.
Part of effective time management means admitting and recognizing limitations, such as time, financial hardships, and family commitments. Again, good intentions are great. Even better, though, are smart, pragmatic intentions devised to reach satisfying outcomes. Reasonable, time-tested techniques can be used to make sure that resolutions last, long-term commitments are upheld, and goals are accomplished.
Tip #1: Keep one “master” to-do list, as well as subsequent daily (or weekly) to-do lists with achievable goals. Constantly referring to a long to-do list can be overwhelming, and often creates confusion about which tasks should take priority. Breaking down one to two realistic goals on a daily or weekly basis will mean that these goals can actually be achieved. No matter how busy the day can get, completing simple tasks—such as paying a bill, taking out the trash, or responding to an email—can be done within a matter of minutes. Putting off these easy tasks only means additional tasks get piled on for a later date.
Tip #2: Commit to completing one to two goals before you settle down for the day. This system operates as a self-bribery mechanism: you will not get your reward, such as dinner, a drink, or the latest Netflix crime drama, until you complete your tasks.
Tip #3: Plan on a Cheat Day. A Cheat Day could amount to a full day off from completing tasks, exercise, healthy eating, or operating at full capacity. Cheat Days can serve as a rest day or can be merged into the workday. A day off helps to re-charge and let out any inner-rebellions, such as eating ice cream or laying on the couch binge-watching movies.
Tip #4: Have an accountability buddy: find a partner to reach your goals with, such as an exercise partner, a fellow organizer, or a friend to help work with you on a project. Or, consider joining a group of like-minded people—a writer’s group, a political meetup, a walking club, or something of the sort.
Tip #5: Set up your tools in advance. Place your workout clothes next to your bed (if you work out in the morning) or next to your desk (if you exercise after work). Make your food the night before. Leave books or meditation tools (cushion seat, bell) out the night before in a neat and orderly fashion.
Tip #6: Remain flexible. Goals change. If a goal starts to appear unrealistic or devoid of motivation and passion, consider altering the goal. What is most important is continuing progress. If you realize it is unrealistic or financially unsound to work out five days a week at Crossfit, consider working out three to four days a week by walking, or creating a time-cutting gym routine instead, rather than giving up.
Tip #7: Follow real-life inspirations on social media that match your lifestyle. Chances are there are a plethora of working parents, broke college students, tired professionals, and more that make daily posts with tips, challenges, and stories. Also consider hiding social media posts that may distract you from achieving your goal (i.e. if you are trying to cut back on drinking, at least temporarily hiding posts from heavy drinkers will make it easier for you to stick with your goal).
Tip #8: Plan for unplanned days. Family emergencies, health problems, work debacles, and emotional distress sometimes come unexpectedly, often guiding us off course. Unforeseen setbacks are temporary; there will be days you will not be able to stick to your goals, and days when you will have to make adjustments.
Tip #9: Come clean with your resolutions and goals. Will the outcome of each goal help you to live a healthier and more fulfilling life? Which goals stem from what you think you should be doing rather than what is best for you?
Tip #10: Change and growth are inevitable. What constitutes a goal earlier in the year may change several months down the line. Part of setting resolutions and goals is to ignite change and growth. As we continue to work on reaching our full potential, our needs will change. Rather than being hard on yourself when a goal no longer works, consider that you may have changed and may now be at a different place in your life.
Coping with Disappointment and Loss
November 10, 2016
By Sharon Grabner, LICSW
We all get pictures in our heads about how we think our lives should be or are going to be. These pictures drive our expectations, our hopes, and our dreams. But these pictures also reflect our values and priorities, our sense of what is right from the perspective of our own worldview. These scenes in our heads might encompass our visions, hopes and expectations for marriage, career, children, finances and health—essentially everything from how we expect to live, to how we expect to die.
But what do we do when real life does not match these pictures in our heads? How do we make sense of these (all too frequently recurring) moments of incongruity, when what we thought should be does not come even close to what really is. And how many of life’s situations fall into this category? We see them every day in our clinical setting and in our own lives as therapists – relationships full of promise wither and die, joy around an eagerly awaited child becomes fraught with anxiety or conflict, the ideal job is lost in a layoff, a loved parent disappears in dementia, a chronic disease stifles productivity, trauma robs one’s sense of self and safety, or elections do not deliver the hoped for outcome.
Any such mismatch between the core of what we have expected and the reality of what actually occurs can bring people to an acute sense of loss with accompanying grief, often masked by anger. I believe it is this gap, between the expected and the actual, that brings us all to distress and, potentially, reflection and growth. So what do we do when we find ourselves facing the gap?
There are undoubtedly many websites we could turn to that would encourage us all to employ the standard tools necessary for coping. The tools that can be found include diet, exercise, sleep, socialization, meditation and tending to one’s unique personal needs. But I think these only get one to the starting gate.
Therapy strives to go beyond the starting gate, to help clients look at beliefs and patterns in their lives that are either helpful or detrimental. And whether one utilizes professional therapy or not, I believe this particular focus of reflection is at the heart of coping with life’s multiple losses, including grief after an election.
Here are some questions to ask ourselves in the face of life’s disappointments. “From whose perspective do I believe this shouldn’t have happened?” “Was I entitled to have it go my way?” “Is the story over yet?” And perhaps most importantly, “What does it mean for me to live in the midst of death, loss and grief all around?” It’s in the struggle with these questions that we can find growth, centering and a solid stance in the face of the buffeting uninvited twists of life.
I leave you with the refrain from Leonard Cohen’s Anthem:
Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That's how the light gets in
How to Survive (and Thrive) During Difficult Conversations
October 24, 2016
By Elizabeth Vu, LICSW
For many of us, thinking about talking to our friends, co-workers, or relatives about social or political issues these days is enough to cause heartburn, migraines, and a serious case of “stick-your-head-in-the-sand-until-the-next-election-cycle.” However, these conversations can actually be a good opportunity for us to consider how to manage—and perhaps even enhance—these relationships, while still maintaining our own core beliefs and values.
One way we can start this process is to first try and better understand our own hot-button issues. What gets you the most stirred up? Which issues make the blood start pumping throughout your body? Can you pinpoint any triggers or events that led to these beliefs and feelings? Why are these particular issues important to you? Spend some time today trying to come up with specific events, stories, and experiences – these will help you out later. (And are also helpful to know in advance, so they don’t surprise you at the next family dinner!)
Next, reflect on what happens to you when you find someone who holds an opposing belief. Do you get fuzzy, angry, tearful, at a loss for words? Do you want to shut down? If so, take heart—this is exactly the place where you can start practicing how to hold onto your own values instead, protecting them from the storm of negativity and online (or real life) trolls. As the conversation heats up, here are some things to remember:
- Practice deep breathing – yes, it works – to calm your body and mind in the moment
- Feel your feet on the ground to stay present so that you don’t get swept away by your feelings
- Listen carefully to what the other person is saying
- Ask clarifying questions
- Request examples, to get a more specific understanding about their intended meaning
Patients often tell me about certain friends or family members who seem to like to argue just for the sake of arguing; they don’t actually believe what they’re saying, but enjoy the “game” of debating an issue. It’s important to be able to tell the difference, in order to manage your own feelings and to better protect yourself so that you don’t get hurt. Ask questions to clarify any confusing statements—and to show that you are listening carefully to what they are saying—even if you disagree with them. This will likely surprise them, but it will also help them feel heard, which will make them much more willing to listen to you in return. When it’s your turn to speak, work to ground the issue in real life as opposed to some kind of intellectual exercise or debate. This is where your personal stories can come in: share them boldly and confidently, seeing it as a challenge to express yourself and your beliefs, even when they’re different.
Maybe you have already tried these things, with little success. Someone just won’t listen, or worse, they mock you for your passion. At times like this, it’s more important than ever to remember your core values, and to remind yourself that you don’t have to choose between your beliefs and your relationships. If you’re feeling disheartened, or fear the conversation is escalating beyond your comfort level, you can simply say, “I think we are just going to be on different pages this time; maybe we can talk about this again in the future.” Remember: you don’t have to continue a conversation that has crossed the line into disrespect or verbal abuse.
These discussions are difficult for all of us, but in our increasingly polarized culture, it’s important to continue trying to have them. If you’re having trouble, try “practicing” these discussions with like-minded friends or family members, and don’t be afraid to tell people when an issue is important to you. If your companion is unable to engage in a respectful conversation, accept where they are at, and remember you have shared what is important to you. There will always be another chance to engage, if you’re feeling up to it!
5 Reasons You Should Take Self-Compassion Seriously
October 10, 2016
By Caitlin Cotter, LICSW
“A moment of self-compassion can change your entire day. A string of such moments can change the course of your life.” —Christopher Germer
We’ve all been there before: falling short of our expectations, making bad decisions, being overlooked by others, or letting others down. We want to be perfect, but since we’re only human, it’s just not possible. When we feel discouraged, ashamed, rejected, or ‘less than’, we often respond by getting down on ourselves, criticizing our perceived failures, and enhancing the pain. Thankfully, there is another, better way to handle these difficult thoughts and feelings when they arise—and a growing body of research is showing that it has all kinds of benefits.
It’s called “self-compassion”, and essentially means treating yourself with the same kindness, gentleness, and acceptance you likely already extend to others, accepting your own strengths and imperfections equally. And though most of us don’t come by this naturally, it’s absolutely something that can be learned and cultivated. Here are five important reasons to consider starting your own self-compassion practice today.
1) Self-Compassion is a Better Motivator than Critical Self-Talk
Often one of the biggest reasons we are so hard on ourselves is to try and motivate change. We dislike things about ourselves and so we push ourselves to be better by sending disapproving messages: “I shouldn’t have had that ice cream, I’m so gross,” “I can’t believe I screwed up on that test, I’m so stupid,” “Why did I say that? Everyone probably thinks I’m a loser.”
This is something we often do without even being aware of it, something we likely learned through how others responded to our shortcomings very early in life. Criticism and disapproval, as a motivational strategy, can often be passed down and internalized from generation to generation, without any kind of awareness that this is not the best approach. Society and popular culture contributes to this too, sending constant messages to us about the value of winning, or making money, or being the best.
Research shows that self-criticism is associated with increased stress, fear of failure, and avoidant behaviors. However, those who are able to be more accepting of their shortcomings tend to have a greater sense of competence, a lesser chance of procrastination-related stress, higher reported levels of optimism, reduced feelings of isolation, and—paradoxically—are actually more motivated to try and improve themselves.
2) Self-Compassion Vs Self-Esteem
Most of us grew up hearing all about the importance of having good self-esteem. The problem with chasing after self-esteem, though, is that it relies heavily on praise and positive feedback from others—and we can quickly become dependent on feeling “above average” or fitting in. Seeking this, we soon find that we’re habitually comparing ourselves to others, noticing their flaws in order to feel better about ourselves. In addition, we often put ourselves down when we don’t meet the high bar our self-esteem is based on. It’s like being on a roller coaster: our self-esteem goes up and down, mostly based on our perception of how others see our value.
By practicing self-compassion, we can learn to embrace ourselves for who we actually are. No matter what’s going on with the self-esteem roller coaster, we can still maintain a sense of emotional balance. We accept that falling short or being average is simply part of being human, and therefore unavoidable. Our need to see ourselves as “better than” is replaced by a deep sense of interconnection. The view that we are just as deserving of love and support as any other human being makes it easier to treat ourselves with kindness, and also helps us feel less isolated and alone.
3) Self-Fulfilling Prophecies
A self-fulfilling prophecy is when a prediction comes true, in large part due to the beliefs and behaviors of the individual. For example, Mary believes that no one wants to date her. Therefore, she predicts that no one will ask her out. Because she believes this is how it will go, Mary avoids social situations where other single people might be around—hoping to protect herself from the rejection that she is sure will occur—and thus drastically lowers the chances that someone actually will ask her out, which only confirms her belief.
When we are self-critical, we hold negative beliefs about our value and potential. And then, unfortunately, we often create situations where these beliefs are confirmed. If you see yourself as inadequate, you might pick a partner who is very demanding and critical of you. You might not apply for that promotion you want, predicting you'll get turned down. Your actions, rooted in these negative self-images, begin to shape how you are in the world and how the world responds to you. It can quickly become a destructive cycle. In other words, “You can’t hate your way into loving yourself.”
Practicing self-compassion can be a path to truly loving and accepting yourself, and feeling truly loved and accepted by others. If you can learn to see yourself as deserving of love and kindness, you are more likely to believe it when others see that in you, too. By changing how you are with yourself, you can transform your behaviors, your relationships and how you feel in the world.
4) Impact on the Brain and Body
Research has found that self-critical thoughts are like an emotional attack, and can trigger the fight/flight response in our nervous system, which leads to increased levels of cortisol, the “stress hormone.” Over time, high levels of cortisol is linked to increased risk of depression, anxiety, digestive problems, headaches, heart disease, sleep problems, weight gain, and cognitive impairment.
Conversely, practicing self-compassion triggers the tend and befriend system in our brain, which releases oxytocin, a hormone associated with love and bonding. Elevated levels of oxytocin can produce feelings of calm, safety, compassion, and trust. Oxytocin can also lower the levels of cortisol (and stress-related high blood pressure) while reducing feelings of fear and anxiety.
There are so many things we have to face in our lives that we can’t control. However, we can control how we respond to ourselves in the face of these hardships—and research shows this can have a big impact. For example, in a study of chronic acne sufferers, those who practiced self-compassion experienced lower levels of depression, as well as less physical discomfort, from their acne.
5) You Deserve It. We All Do.
In her book, Self-Compassion, Dr. Kristin Neff writes that the 3 core components of self-compassion are self-kindness, common humanity, and mindfulness. Self-kindness is the ability to shift our actions and inner dialogue to a softer more empathetic tone, similar to how you might speak to a dear friend. Common humanity is a sense of interconnectedness and belief that your feelings and experiences are part of being human. Mindfulness helps us become more aware of how we treat ourselves and builds our capacity to observe our experiences and reactions in a non-judgmental and balanced way. We don’t want to ignore our feelings, but we want to avoid exaggerating them as well.
How to Start:
- Go to self-compassion.org and take a quick self-assessment test to find out your current self-compassion levels.
- Practice observing how you speak to yourself. When you notice self-criticism, pause and think about how a loving friend might respond. Or, if the roles were reversed, how you would respond to a friend in the same position as you. Try speaking to yourself in this way instead and notice how you feel.
- Start a daily compassion journal. Try to jot down one or two kind, non-judgmental statements about yourself or your experiences each day.
- Take a compassion break. If you notice yourself feeling stressed or defeated, stop for a few minutes and put your hand on your heart or even give yourself a hug (I know it sounds silly but it can work!). Take some deep breaths and repeat a few kind words such as “I am doing the best I can” or “May I be at peace. May I feel loved.”
Finding Balance in Troubled Times
August 1, 2016
By Chad Perman, LMFT
“Ours is not the task of fixing the entire world at once, but of stretching out to mend the part of the world that is within our reach.” —Clarissa Pinkola Estés
There’s something in the air lately, you can almost feel it. I started sensing it a few months ago, and my clients are beginning to bring it up in sessions a lot more often, too. Quite simply, we’re feeling overwhelmed—made anxious by the contentious political climate of an election year, saddened beyond words by the mass shooting in Orlando, the violence in Baton Rouge, Minnesota, and Dallas, burned out by a news cycle that continues to both reflect and amplify our fears. If you’re a compassionate person, one who strives to make the world a better, more meaningful place, times like these can feel quite disheartening.
Which is why we need to remember, more than ever, to hold a space for goodness, hope, presence, and gratitude in our daily lives. It can be hard to do with so much noise and negativity all around us— believe me I know. But it’s also one of the best antidotes we have available, a way to balance the scales and reset our perspective. Our brains are quite literally set up to overlearn from negative experiences and feelings, and primed to respond in a fight/flight/freeze way to any perceived threat. Thousands of years ago, this served a distinct evolutionary advantage—the more you feared, and acted out of that fear, the better your chance of survival. However, in our modern cultural moment, the brain’s built-in ‘negativity bias’ actually works against us. It overlearns from the anxiety and fear provoked by images of violence and hatred on the news, or viral videos on social media of tragedies occurring throughout the world, or even just the email your friend forwarded to you yesterday about the upcoming election. And the more of this you consume each day, the more frightened and hopeless your perspective becomes, until eventually a sense of learned helplessness starts to set in.
During times like these, our overworked brains need to be provided with a sense of safety and balance to allow us to keep engaging with life rather than retreating from it out of fear, anxiety, anger, or despair. So how do we do this? Well, here are a few tried and true ways to go about it:
Cultivate Mindfulness & Presence
First and foremost, we need to find a way to ground ourselves and accept whatever emotions might be arising in any given moment. The best way to do this is to increase our capacity for mindfulness—“a moment-by-moment awareness of our thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, and surrounding environment”—and find ways to make this a part of our daily routine. Numerous studies have shown that just a few weeks of mindfulness practice decreases stress and negative emotions, enhances compassion, and even boosts our immune system. If you don’t already practice some form of mindfulness, here are two easy ways to get started.
- Headspace: this is the one I most often recommend to clients (and also use myself). It’s a website and phone app which offers a free series of stuctured 10 minute meditations to ease you into developing a daily mindfulness routine.
- R.A.I.N.: a simple and powerful mindfulness tool that offers us a way to work with and through difficult and intense emotions. It can be used in most any situation—especially when we are feeling overwhelmed—to help us gently reflect on what is happening inside of us, and learn to accept whatever is.
Limit Your Media Exposure
We all have different thresholds when it comes to consuming the barrage of news, media, and images available to us these days, and it’s important to know your own personal limit—and then set up healthy boundaries to keep yourself from feeling overwhelmed. Remember: It’s ok to put down your phone, step away from your computer or television, or unplug from media altogether for a bit when the news starts to feel overwhelming. In fact, sometimes it’s necessary.
Connect with Others
We are social creatures by nature, and the more we connect with others the less isolated, depressed, and anxious we tend to feel. If you’re feeling overwhelmed by the world around you, try making more time in your day to talk through it with those around you. Share how you’re feeling with the people in your life and hold space for them to do the same with you.
Take in the Good
In the midst of especially troubling times, it's more important than ever to learn how to consciously "take in the good". To make a purposeful effort to seek out and appreciate all the daily acts of goodness and kindness taking place throughout the world, as well as to reflect on the small good things that happen in your own life each and every day. Doing so helps us find balance in the middle of all the noise, and enhances our sense of humanity and gratitude. Remember, for every awful thing you hear about in the media, there are scores of amazing and compassionate acts taking place as well. These things won’t often get the same amount of news coverage or attention, but it’s not because they aren’t happening. So, we have to make time to seek them out and to remind ourselves that this world can be a beautiful and awe-inspiring place, too. If we don’t, we will very quickly lose sight of the fact that, our own anxiety to the contrary, this is actually the very best (and safest) time to be alive in human history, by most any metric.
Make Time for Self-Care
Create space in your day for the things that bring peace, contentment, relaxation, or laughter into your life. Around the Wellspring office, this takes all kinds of forms. One of my colleagues sets aside time to watch animal videos on YouTube in the midst of a stressful day, another walks around the nearby Botanical Gardens. Personally, I like to put on headphones and lose myself in a good podcast or some music I enjoy, read through a favorite book or poem (currently I’m reading Maggie Smith’s new poem, “Good Bones” several times each day), or find something online that makes me laugh out loud. Engage with nature, with art, with exercise. There’s no wrong way to do this and plenty of reasons to make time for it—even a simple 10 minute break from the stress and routine of ‘real life’ can have a beneficial impact on your overall mood and mental health.
These are difficult and trying days for many of us, and it can certainly feel overwhelming at times. But there’s work to do—to “mend the part of the world that is within our reach”—and in order to do so, we need to find ways to recharge our own batteries and bring our minds back into balance. The better care we take of ourselves, the better able we will be to engage with the world around us. And this world needs all of the love, compassion, kindness, and attention we can give it right about now.
How to Stay Sane in a Crazy World
July 12, 2016
By Nancy Owen
Violence. Racial injustice. Mass shootings. Sexual discrimination. Hatred. Anger. The media is filled with stories recently about so many scary, difficult topics. It’s overwhelming. It is hard to find any reason, or make an action plan, in the midst of this glut of information. I am a straight, white, cisgender female, which sometimes seems to make it even harder to know how to respond, what to do. I have never experienced the type of discrimination and injustice, the pain, that many of my friends must deal with on a daily basis. I am actually the benefactor of hundreds of years of privilege, much of that outside my awareness, just something I have grown up expecting. How do I relate? How do I make a difference?
For me, this past week has been one of sadness, overwhelming sadness, and I have found myself at a bit of a loss as to what to do. And I’m a therapist, trained to deal with crises, and feelings, and difficult painful situations! I do have a few thoughts though, based on what has been helpful for me personally these past few days.
The first thing I did after Orlando was to reach out to my friends in the LGBTQ community. I did the same last Friday, reaching out to my friends who are persons of color. I did not know what to say, and I did not have the right words, but I had to say something—I could not be silent and live with myself. So I said what I felt, and I expressed my sorrow, and I held space for them to say what they were feeling and experiencing. The conversations were meaningful, even though we had no answers or solutions. We were just being human, experiencing this pain together, and trying our best to see one another.
I am also trying to listen to myself during this time, and doing the things I need to do to take care of myself. This is different for different people – I need both social interaction and solitude, in differing measures. I need to be with my family, my close friends, those people I love who understand me and care for me. I need physical closeness, hugs and snuggles and light conversation. And I need to be by myself, so I can cry, and feel my feelings, and try to process what all this means, to me. I need different things at different times, and I have to take ownership of telling others what I need. Quite often, the people in my life will come through for me in big ways, if only I let them know what I need. Sometimes that’s the hardest part.
I also need to be an advocate, both for myself and others. Sometimes this means having difficult conversations with friends, acquaintances, and colleagues who express discriminatory or ignorant statements that are hurtful to people of color, or LBGTQ persons, or anyone who is different or marginalized. These conversations won’t always result in a changed opinion or some kind of sudden enlightenment, but sometimes they will, and we can’t always know the result of speaking up—of the seeds we may be planting—until much later. But either way, for myself, I know I have to be willing to engage people in those tough conversations. It’s scary, but it’s necessary. And it can be healing, too .
I have teenage children, and they too are deeply impacted by what is happening in our culture. They are afraid. They are angry. They are confused. I talk to them, and we read the news together. I encourage them to moderate their intake of information, as they have great difficulty doing that. We do fun things together, because sometimes we just need to change the conversation when it becomes too much. And I encourage them to let me know what they need—and then I figure out how to provide it. Give them space, or hug them and hold them close, or be angry, together. Really angry. They need to be able to have whatever feelings they are having, whenever they surface. Sometimes that might be inconvenient to my schedule, but that doesn’t matter; I need to make the time to be there when they need me. And in times like these, when the world seems like a scary and confusing place, our children need us more than ever.
Finally, I am working to find ways to get involved in making a difference. I can’t wait for the persons of color or the LGBTQ community to recruit me—I need to reach out, look around at what’s happening in my own community, and do something. It might just be making a post on Facebook or some other social media outlet about what I am feeling, or re-posting something I find helpful. Or it might be joining a protest or an advocacy organization and finding out what I can do to help on the ground level. There are a myriad of ways to be involved right now and I have often found that simply getting involved can be both empowering and healing, helping me get through that sense of overwhelming helplessness that accompanies difficult times like these.
Setting Boundaries with Your Smartphone
July 1, 2016
by Andre O'Donnell
Peanuts cartoon and comic strip character Linus van Pelt is well known for holding onto a dirty, torn apart blanket everywhere he goes. Based on his utter loyalty and attachment to the blanket, it is deemed “the security blanket.” Flies circle around his dilapidated blanket as he drags it on the ground. He sucks his thumb. Hair and clothes are tattered and unkempt. Linus does not care one bit. Take Linus’s blanket away and anxiety abounds.
Linus is also known for his often wise musings, as if clutching on to his blanket gives him the confidence to tap into his intelligence. Holding on to this dirty blanket could be Linus’s way of coping with his insecurities: equal parts protection and symbolic representation. The blanket acts as a shield and at the same time, represents areas of unease.
Young children often hold on to a ragged blanket or stuffed animal to maintain a sense of comfort. This security blanket or stuffed animal is known as a transitional object, an item that provides comfort as the young child begins to individuate from a parental figure. Transitional objects can follow us through adolescence and adulthood as well. We use temporary objects all the time to elicit a sense of safety and reprieve. Holding a photo of a loved one or wearing a favorite watch are two common examples. Even a ritualistic cup of coffee, chewing gum, cigarette habit, purse, or favorite hat can hold temporary comfort amidst the day-to-day grind. Linus is a well-loved character because we can all relate to him, to some degree.
Peanuts originated in the 1950’s, long before smartphones, phones with keypads, or even computers had come into fruition. Perhaps if Linus were created today, he would wander the earth with a well-used iPhone, decked out with a cracked screen from overuse. And, should Charlie Brown or Snoopy ever mischievously steal his beloved iPhone, it would be safe to assume that Linus would experience a paralyzing amount of anxiety and worry.
In many ways, smartphones have come to represent a modern day security blanket. Offering us on-demand music, videos, photos, social media applications and games, a smartphone is a one-stop fill-all-your-needs security blanket in compact, modern form. While smartphones are wonderful tools that have surely benefited our lives in many ways, it can be all too easy to use them as distractions from dealing with anxiety and stress. Awkward social situations can quickly be remedied by simply glancing down at your phone. Distressful family events or moments when you simply want to be distracted can now easily be filled by scrolling through emails, Facebook, Instagram, checking the weather, or browsing the app of your choice.
Nomophobia is a state of anxiety caused by either a misplaced smartphone or a smartphone with a dead battery. Short for "no-mobile-phone-phobia", this state of mind elicits a fear of not being able to communicate with others and losing connectedness. This is not a psychological diagnosis, nor is the fear of losing one’s phone irrational. Payphones are a dying breed. Google Maps are a legitimate dependence. Many need to stay glued to the phone for work. The real question is what happens when we use our smartphones to feel better? And what meaningful connections and moments in our actual lives do we miss out on by doing so? Picture a group of heads hunkered down over bright phone screens while a gorgeous sunset overlooks behind and you get the general idea.
Surely nomophobia could also represent anxiety around not being able to cope with certain social situations and their associated feelings should you ever find yourself without a phone. Not being attached to our mini, portable computer can make us feel as if a tentacle has been severed between us and our externalized world. In a sense, smartphones have come to act almost as an extension of ourselves, rather than a simple device we use to get our needs met.
Losing the motivation to overcome obstacles and fears prevents us from the deep, internal rewards often derived from getting through such challenges. Facing social anxiety at a party can help us to boost our self-esteem. Sitting with our emotions in the moment can help us get more in touch with ourselves. Doing all this work does not require ditching your smartphone, but instead asks: are you using the phone as a daily yoga-prayer-mindfulness substitute, or are you using it as a car, something to take you from point A to point B? Once you choose to set some boundaries with your phone, you will naturally learn to decide when to use it and when to take a few minutes to just deal without it instead.
It can also be helpful to remind ourselves that technology itself cannot get rid of awkward social situations, boredom, fears, crushes, “butterflies,” and all sorts of other feelings; it is virtually impossible for technology to mitigate all the ebbs and flows that come with human relationships. Whether these patterns emerge through online dating sites, twitter retorts, or in-person conversations, the same thoughts and feelings we human beings have been experiencing for thousands of years still remain. Your smartphone will not fix or change any of this.
Taking steps to make peace with your smartphone can propel you towards time-tested coping skills—such as counseling, exercise, and spirituality—to help you deal with life’s ebbs and flows. By setting boundaries with your phone, you can begin to move towards a more balanced life that includes meaningful relationships and healthier coping skills, using your phone as a tool rather than a crutch.
Lastly, always remember to have fun. Smartphones are incredible entertainment devices and help us stay connected with our friends, our family, and our world. Being mindful of whether or not you are using your phone to avoid unpleasant feelings is much different than playing solitaire on the bus to pass the time, or writing an email to an old friend. Below is a list of ten tips for how to set better boundaries and begin to make peace with your smartphone.
Ten Ways to Set Boundaries with Your Smart Phone
- Take a break from your phone each day for at least 10 minutes. Walk around the block, run an errand, or exercise without your phone.
- Set your phone settings to dim two hours before bedtime each night.
- Try deleting a few social media apps and use your internet browser to access them if you really need to use them.
- Find at least two healthy substitutes a day, such as taking five deep breaths or drinking a cup of water, for the times you would normally use your phone to avoid unpleasant situations.
- Carry a small object around with you that brings you comfort or peace—a small memento, a piece of jewelry, a photograph, an inspirational quote or prayer.
- Don’t take your smart phone with you into the bathroom.
- Turn off notification sounds and settings. Do you really need to know immediately each time someone comments on a Facebook post?
- Designated “no phone zones”. Set up phone free areas in your home or workplace.
- Give your phone a human name (i.e. Wanda, John etc.) Referring to your phone by name can help you set boundaries. “Wanda has been distracting me too much lately, I need to stop taking her with me each time I go to the bathroom— it’s getting weird.”
- Each time you take out your phone for distraction, pause and ask yourself what you are feeling. Once you’ve identified a feeling (boredom, anxiety, stress, exhaustion, etc.) try asking yourself if there is anything else you can do in the moment to deal with these feelings rather than using your phone.