A collection of posts related to heroism, counselling, and the therapeutic journey.
Spring is often thought of as a time of change and transformation. The snow melts, the mud gives way to green grass and new growth, and being outside in the bright sun helps ease some of the loneliness and isolation of winter's harshness. In our inner worlds, change is not always as explicit as the shifting of the seasons - there is lots of back and forth, sometimes with bursts of energy that move us forward. How do you make sure that you are changing in a way that is healthy? That moves you closer to the person you want to be, and the life you want to live?
Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) hinges on identifying key values and finding ways to live those out. This approach holds that values, in contrast to the specific goals that serve as signposts along the journey, serve as overarching themes or points on a compass that can help us move towards the life that we want to live. Goals can be checked off a list as complete, and if we are constantly goal-focused, we may lose sight of opportunities for meaning and enjoyment along the way. Happiness is not an endpoint, as much as society might present it that way at times! Chasing happiness can leave us feeling frustrated and empty-handed, but values can be accessed during the good times, the bad times, and everything in between. Even in the midst of pain and adversity, we can find small ways to live in alignment with our values.
Pain is the price of caring - if we truly value something or someone, there will be inherent pain because life can be messy and humans are not perfect. I don't get to have a loving relationship with my partner without experiencing occasional hurt or frustration, because we aren't robots and we will inevitably run into disagreements or miscommunications. However, even in the face of this hurt, I can still choose to live by my values (respect, communication, harmony) by choosing to take steps that will help us resolve whatever it is that we are facing, together.
As you consider the changes you wish to bring into your life, reflect on how you can connect with your values.
What values will you choose to live by as you move into the next season of your life? Whatever you choose, may the path forward be characterized by growth and ongoing insights into what makes you unique and what you hope to enjoy throughout your time on earth.
When Christmas Isn't Merry
At the best of times, holidays can bring on a mixture of joy and stress. The music, the hustle and bustle, the endless advertisements promoting the latest gift and displays of wealth - sometimes, excitement and enthusiasm get streaked with dread, perceived inadequacy, or loneliness. Seeing the picture-perfect families, presents, meals, and decorations on TV and in store displays might leave us feeling hollow, or remind us of our losses and disappointments.
In times where you are struggling to manage loss or isolation, the holiday season can be a cruel reminder of how much things have changed.
What can we do to care for ourselves during the holidays? And what about this year, especially, where so many of our traditions and gatherings have been changed or cancelled?
Allow sadness to be there - make a space for it, let it sit beside you for awhile, and don't try to push it away. What we resist persists!
Care for basic needs - make sure that you're getting enough water to drink, and that you're fueling your body with the energy it needs. If cooking a meal feels like too much, then gather some nutritious snacks that you can graze on throughout the day (need some inspiration? try this: https://www.healthlinkbc.ca/healthlinkbc-files/healthy-snacks-adults). Keep an eye on your sleep routine, and try to give your body the rest that it needs.
Reach out virtually - whether it's by phone or by Facetime, connect with the people you care about. Remind one another that this is an unusual holiday season and that there will be opportunities to connect face-to-face when it is safer to do so. You might watch a show together using an app like Watch Party, have a virtual games night, read a Christmas story together, or do some holiday baking and decorating from different kitchens - there are many different options to engage with your loved ones. It's not the same as in-person, but something is better than nothing.
Find the familiar - even if we can't physically get together with our friends and loved ones this holiday, we can feel a bit more connected if we watch some of our favourite shows, dig out the old holiday classics, and settle in for an escape from living in a pandemic. Or, if you're a reader, rediscover a series that really spoke to you and get back into the shoes of your favourite characters.
Self-soothe - we can soothe our overwhelmed nervous systems by taking time to slow down and nourish each sense. One way to do this is to make a list - for each of the five senses, what do I find calming? Comforting? Go back to that list when you need some soothing. For example, my list might look something like this:
Sight: pictures of loved ones, mountains, beaches; the colour green
Smell: mint, vanilla, eucalyptus, lavender, freshly baked cookies
Touch: a warm blanket out of the dryer, a heat pad against my back, soft socks, lotion on my hands, lip balm
Taste: mint, ice water, dark chocolate (in moderation)
Hearing: piano music, soundtracks to some of my favourite movies, ambient noise like waves crashing onto a beach, guided meditations on Insight Timer
Plan ahead - most of all, try to remember that this is temporary. We are living in a historic time, and this isolation won't last forever. Chances are, though, that it will make us more appreciative of the little moments that many of us took for granted before COVID - holding hands, visiting and having coffee, sitting in a coffee shop or public place and reading, going to concerts, singing with others - these are all on pause, but they will be back.
Wishing you and yours a safe, peaceful, holiday season.
Starting to Drift? Drop that Anchor
One of the most profound metaphors that I have encountered in my counselling career came from Acceptance and Commitment Therapy training with Russ Harris, a brilliant Australian physician-turned-psychotherapist. I'm going to paraphrase it below. I use this strategy often in my own life, and its proven especially useful in the chaotic whirlwind of 2020.
Imagine that you're on a ship in a harbour. A storm rolls in, and the water becomes more choppy and violent. The wind starts to whip around you. The sky is dark and unpredictable. You cannot control the storm, but you can choose your response to it - you could rail against it, shake your fist, scream at how unfair it is, and get pummeled by the rain. Alternatively, you could respect the power of the storm, drop the anchor, ride it out in your cabin, and then continue on your journey when it is safe to do so.
This is the same struggle we experience with our own thoughts and emotions - we try to block them, fight them, push them aside, or numb them, when doing so usually wraps them tighter around us and causes us more pain in the long run. Whether this pain manifests as distance in our relationships, performance issues, or bodily complaints, we end up paying a price. In contrast, if we can gently acknowledge that our thoughts and emotions are there, drop an anchor to connect with our own physical experiences, and turn towards what matters, we can appreciate our emotions and inner experiences as the temporary, though daunting, phenomena that they are.
Here is an ACE framework for dropping anchor, coming from the work of Russ Harris. I've added in an example in italics so that you can see how it might play out in a moment of emotional pain for someone who is grieving the loss of a loved one and trying to surf the waves of anguish as they arise.
Acknowledge the thoughts and feelings that are present. Name them, as this validates your own experience and allows you to observe them from a bit of a distance. Identify and label them with respectful curiosity, like a scientist describing something that they see unfolding in front of them.
In this moment, I am feeling sad. I'm noticing thoughts that make me want to cry, like missing my loved one and wondering how they could possibly be gone.
Connect with your body and your immediate physical experience. This isn't to block or distract from the thoughts and feelings you have acknowledged, but to make room for more dimensions of your experience. Notice the physical sensations connected with your thoughts and feelings; move your body and bring your awareness to this movement. You could stretch, breathe and notice the sensations associated with inhaling and exhaling, press your feet into the floor, have a cold drink of water, or do any combination of the above.
I'm noticing a tightness in my chest, and my eyes feel hot as though there are tears waiting to fall. My stomach feels twisted and contorted as waves of sadness wash over me. I stand up and gently stretch my shoulders back, opening up my tense chest. I put my hands on my face and feel their coolness against my warm cheeks. I take a deep breath in and slowly let it out.
Engage in what you are doing. Bring awareness to your actions right here in the moment. Take a step, however small, towards the things that matter to you (life goals, relationship goals, personal wellness goals, etc.). Every incremental step forward matters. Ask yourself, what small thing can I do right now that aligns with my values?
I take a drink of water and notice the way that it quenches my thirst. I breathe in deeply through my nose and slowly exhale a big, heavy breath through my mouth, feeling some more of that tension shifting. I turn towards my inner pain and I regard myself with as much compassion as I can muster. I've made a commitment to be kinder, and less harsh, to myself in moments such as these. Life is hard enough without adding self-judgment and deprecation. This is a hard moment, and grieving is painful. It's okay to feel this way. I notice another wave rising, so I return back to acknowledging my thoughts and feelings...
Repeating this technique three to four times during a period of intensity is powerful. Like any strategy, it gets easier with more practice. Life is painful, and it is up to us to care for ourselves, learn to acknowledge our pain, and find a way to continue living that brings meaning and enrichment.
With kindness and respect,Annelise
The Phoenix and the Flame
As we move through life, we inevitably run into people and situations that hurt us. The human psyche takes a horrendous beating as it is shaped and sometimes twisted by life experience. However, one premise in my practice of counselling is that hope exists, no matter how faint it may seem at times. We can change, and we can change our lives. Despite feeling broken at times, we can eventually, painfully, and perhaps triumphantly emerge into a different world.
A quote from Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, a Swiss psychiatrist and pioneer in the field of grief and loss:
The most beautiful people we have known are those who have known defeat, known suffering, known struggle, known loss, and have found their way out of the depths. These persons have an appreciation, a sensitivity, and an understanding of life that fills them with compassion, gentleness, and a deep loving concern. Beautiful people do not just happen.
When we look into the flames of our lives, the fires that have burned us, we can learn to use those flames to forge something new. As Elisabeth wrote, for some people that might be a sense of compassion and appreciation. For other people I've worked with, pain has kindled a fierce determination to own their voice and act in alignment with their true values.
Like the phoenix, we have the potential to face the intensity of our experiences, burn, and rise from the ashes.
The phoenix in Heroic Counselling's logo was born from a couple of places: the symbolism of renewal and hope described above, and a nostalgic fondness for Jean Grey and the X-Men courtesy of my late oldest brother Lars. He died at 24 in a car accident on a cold, wintry Alberta road. I miss my brother, but at this point in my own journey with grief I remember him with love. I remember what he stood for, and the incredible impact that he had on my life as a mentor and role model during the relatively short time that we shared. In my life, loss continues to accentuate the relationships that matter and the values that I want to enact as I move through our imperfect world.
With gentle compassion,Annelise
Heroic Counselling: An Origin Story
I've been considering starting a private practice for years now, but I always hesitated. There are so many moving pieces. I don't have the time right now. What would I even call my business? Finally, with Covid-19 and events in my personal life leading to some soul-searching and reflection, I decided that 2020 would be the year that I took a professional leap of faith.
After wandering around and rehearsing a variety of names, and plenty of Googling to see what was already taken, I landed on "Heroic Counselling." I haven't looked back since.
What does heroic mean? Brave. Courageous. Adventurous. Valiant. Noble. Altruistic. Determined.
These qualities align beautifully with my view of counselling. It's not about someone in a position of authority telling another person what to do, but it's about embarking on a journey into an inner world. Being vulnerable, facing one's fears, and taking the difficult parts of one's lived experience and holding them up to the light of day - not a walk in the park, and certainly not for the faint of heart.
When you think of some of the most heroic stories in literature and film, the heroes didn't have an easy road. They struggled, they suffered losses, and at times they lost faith in themselves. Yet somehow, they found the strength and grit to keep going. Spider-Man used the death of his beloved uncle as a catalyst to become an altruistic crusader. Luke forfeited a hand and still continued on his quest to lead the resistance against a fascist, formidable empire. Katniss volunteered for a sadistic display of mortal competition to protect the life of her younger sister. In each of these cases, the hero chose their values and stood by these in the face of intense loss, fear, and pain.
We don't have to be defined by our traumas, but we can use them as a catalyst for growth and transformation.
Change takes immense courage. The hero stumbles and has to get back up again. When we are working to shift patterns of thinking, feeling, and acting that have potentially been present for years, change can be time-consuming and exhausting. As we change ourselves to be healthier, kinder, and more secure, we pass this forward into our relationships and our careers. One person going to therapy and addressing their demons can have positive ripple effects throughout their personal life, as they become a better parent, more thoughtful partner, and more effective colleague. Their kids grow up having a parent who is emotionally present and they eventually pass this forward to their own children.
Just as we pass down our traumas, we can also pass down our healing. Wouldn't that be an amazing legacy to leave behind you when your heroic journey is complete?
Take a leap. Be your own hero. Grow, heal, and move forward with your life, one courageous step at a time.
With fierce respect,Annelise