Friday, December 31, 2010

Balancing time in reflective solitude with time spent in community

During this busy holiday season, the invitations to spend time with friends and family are often abundant. I feel fortunate to be the recipient of so many extensions of friendship and love. This year alone, my husband and I juggled invitations to two holiday “game night” gatherings, a holiday music extravaganza, a Winter Solstice Concert, two gatherings with work colleagues, and visits with parents and siblings living at a distance.  Unfortunately, we couldn’t join every celebration even though we wanted to. As is often the case, several things overlapped. Early invitations and time with family won out. Those with large extended families may have an even busier calendar, keeping them active and running throughout these early Winter weeks.

Determining how to prioritize the many tugs on our time during the holidays can be quite challenging. With our focus so often on hosting and attending gatherings, some may find it difficult to carve out quiet, reflective time in solitude. Others may find they are disproportionately spending time alone – and may need to seek out community even when the call to isolation beckons.

For me, I am struck by how much more I sometimes try to squeeze in to these shorter days of Winter, and I wonder if I might not be a little calmer and more content if I gave myself permission to follow the bear’s lead and hibernate. I know that quiet reflection can be a curative balm for my spirit. Yet, I often struggle to create time for it, as the fast pace of the season catches me in its current. Slowing down and prioritizing time for myself is as essential form of self-nurturing. Even more so during these busy times. When we are running from thing to thing without allowing much time to process and digest and just sit, we can become tired and frazzled. When we are already depleted, we may become more vulnerable to absorbing the stress of others. As helpers who witness others’ pain and extend ourselves with compassion, this season can be especially challenging. Through empathy, we vicariously experience the grief that often accompanies the holidays– felt empathically in the presence of those suffering and heard through their stories of loss, despair, and family fragmentation. Providing support to others in their darker days requires us to be resilient in our right.  Our resiliency is fostered through a balance of enjoyable time in connection with others and replenishing time in quiet reflection.

Noticing the tension between the pull to be social and the desire for solitude, I’ve been able to say “no” a little more readily to others and “yes” a little more easily to time for myself. Spending time cooking delicious and nutritious meals has been especially healing and restorative for me lately. I also thoroughly enjoyed a Winter Solstice Singing Concert I attended, as it encouraged reflection, included silent meditation, and helped me connect with the meaning of the season. Since then, I’ve been enjoying time listening to favorite holiday music and jazz – and cherished the look, feel, and sounds of the candle’s flame and the crackling fire.  

As we enter into this New Year, I wish you peace, joy, love – and the nurturing balance of solitude and community that is right for you.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Wholeness includes both grief and joy

I notice how the world contains both grief and joy, birth and death, lightness and darkness, often so closely situated in time that we are left only with a sense that all are part of the whole. When there is darkness, there will also be light. Feeling joyful, I may also experience great sadness. I see this, and I breathe and I step back, grateful for the vantage point and the fluidity of existence.

I lost two people in my life suddenly in the past few months. One was a beloved friend with whom I’d shared many happy memories in the past and whose love for nature and animals rivaled all others. The other was a client whose wonderful sense of humor and keen insight were a joy and inspiration.

In the midst of the sadness and shock surrounding both losses, I have also experienced great happiness through the celebration of two of my wonderful, forty-something, female friends making the decision to become mothers. Their optimism and joy at welcoming their babies into the world has been heartwarming, inspiring, and contagious.

The juxtaposition of these experiences has awakened me more fully to the wholeness of my life and emotions. It has also encouraged me to reflect on larger meanings, the interconnectedness of all living beings, and the interrelationship of darkness and light. Needless to say, I don’t have it all “figured out” – and I realize that there really is no such thing as “figured out.” What I can do is breathe, open my heart to myself and others, and do my best to see the whole and keep a big picture in mind. In the midst of doing this, I also hope to bring people together more and more in connection and community. When two or more are gathered in pain, the grief is shared and the burden eased. When two or more are gathered in celebration, the happiness can be a ripple that spreads outward to inspire and uplift us all. 

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Creativity for Healing, Wellness, & Joy

Every person is innately creative. As children, we naturally express ourselves through art, music, dance, creating stories, and building imaginary worlds. We enjoy the process of creating without criticizing the outcome. However, along the way from childhood to adulthood, many of us receive messages that discourage our natural creativity—such as teacher criticisms of our efforts; parents saying, “What a nice tree” when we draw a crocodile; and adults claiming that pursuing the arts professionally is not a real choice. From these early messages, we may conclude that creative expression is reserved only for the extraordinarily talented. This is simply not true. Everyone has within them the capacity for creativity, and there are unlimited pathways to for creative self-expression. Creative activities can include dancing, singing, drawing cartoons, journaling, knitting, gardening, karaoke, playing the guitar, writing knock-knock jokes, decorating one’s home, making jewelry, and building furniture—to name just a few!

When we play and create, we allow ourselves to feel, to be spontaneous, and to take time out from our busy schedules and our many responsibilities to just be. Creativity is an important part of wellness, and creative expression has been found to reduce stress, promote health, and even improve the functioning of our immune system! Creative forms of expression are so powerful because they can help us tap into parts of ourselves that thinking and talking cannot always access. For example, an individual who is drumming may become so absorbed in the rhythm that he no longer feels anxious, and someone who spends ten minutes scribbling may have feelings of anger surface and then be released through the movement of the crayons.

Tapping into and expressing our creativity is a natural resource for wellness. Creating connects us with our authentic self, provides a healthy outlet for emotions, and provides a vehicle for seeing and experiencing the world differently. Today, I invite you to experience the freedom and joy of creating.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

The Importance of Sleep

Nurturing our physical wellness includes prioritizing sleep and rest. Running around, trying our best to juggle multiple roles and responsibilities at home and work, we may sometimes sacrifice sleep in order to squeeze a few more hours out of the day. Sometimes, we feel these extra hours with our eyes open are essential to get done all the things on our “must do” list. Other times, we may see these extra hours of awake time as the only time we have for ourselves.  This is tricky, however, as research consistently highlights the importance of sleep.

There are clearly variations in what amount or type of sleep is advocated, but the importance of getting enough for your body to recharge itself is a consistent message. Some studies point to 7 ½ hours to 8 ½ hours of uninterrupted sleep as the range for optimal health. For some people, especially those who are empathic and sensitive to the stimulation around them, 9 hours may be preferable. Some research talks positively about a natural waking time in the middle of the night and supports the idea of a nap during the afternoon lull in energy most of us experience. 

Regardless of which philosophy and research resonates with you, the importance of sleep is undisputable.  As much as some trends hold true, every person’s body and needs are unique. As our own best barometers for health, the more attuned we can become to our bodies, the better able we’ll be to determine the amount of sleep that is right for us.  For me, 8 or 9 hours is ideal. I can “get away with” 7 or 7 ½, but I am not as sharp or clear-headed. It is worth it to me to get to bed a bit earlier – or start my day later – to respect this need.

We can also develop increased sensitivity to our own natural rhythms. When do you feel most energized – morning, afternoon, early evening, late night? When do you feel most sluggish? When does your body naturally want to be awake and to sleep? When we push hard to defy our natural rhythms, we often feel depleted. Sometimes this struggle against natural rhythms is at work with the person who stays up really late – and then wakes at 6:30 a.m. to get ready for work. Staying up late may be the natural rhythm. However, 5 ½ hours of sleep per night is inadequate. Perhaps working in the early morning is really the problem. How can you change your schedule to honor your own natural rhythms? And when that is not possible, how can you get yourself to sleep early enough to give your body the restorative time it needs to unwind and heal? 

It is essential that we give ourselves enough time to rest and recharge our batteries for each new day.  Waking feeling rested, I am excited about the day ahead, the people I’ll have the privilege to share time with, the discoveries we’ll make together, and the time for work, play, rest, and creativity. 

Today and every day, I wish you restful sleep and the rejuvenation it brings. 

Friday, December 3, 2010

Connecting with Peers - and Reducing Isolation

While our family and friends are critical supports in our lives, there is a limit to what we can discuss with them and the depth at which they’ll be able to understand our profession-specific concerns (unless they, themselves, are in the field – or another helping profession). Rural counselors, those in private practice, counselors in busy group practices, and those in overwhelmed community mental health settings can feel isolated. Sometimes by the reality of their geographic isolation and other times when the pace and demands of the job sometimes erode opportunities for connecting on more than a superficial level with peers. Staying well in these circumstances requires getting creative and actively working to gather the support you need.

To build your support network, try attending networking events, national and regional conferences, and professional training programs. Post questions and participate in online forums for counselors through the online community I created at or sites like Linked In and Psychology Today. Do research to find out who in your geographical region is doing similar work to you, contact them, and schedule a time to talk in person.

When meeting in person isn’t possible, use the phone and email colleagues – to vent, to ask questions or for support, to take a moment to tell a joke or catch up. Even if your “local” colleagues end up being three counties or two hours away, they can be a resource for you. There are several free teleconference services where the only fee is the price of the phone call through your local phone service provider.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Why is it so hard for me to prioritize my own wellness?

Sometimes it is hard to put into practice all the great advice we give others about self-care. When we know so much intellectually about what it takes to be well and stay well, it can be confusing to reflect on how little we may heed our own advice at times. So what gets in the way? Why is it so hard to prioritize our own wellness as helpers?

Many helpers were peacemakers, listeners, and devoted caretakers long before they entered their specific healthcare or healing arts profession. We may find it difficult to prioritize our own needs in the same way we prioritize others’ needs – and may even feel it would be impossible to prioritize ourselves more than others. Those of us drawn to work in healthcare and healing arts may have learned at an early age to become other-focused rather than self-focused. As a result, we may not feel that we need or deserve the same nurturing we accept others need and deserve. We may also have exceptionally high standards for ourselves - and yet be compassionate and forgiving of the shortcomings, mistakes, or inconsideration of others. Like those we serve, we may find ourselves struggling to turn off our own internalized litany of “shoulds.” Shoulds that may drive us to accomplish tasks and be there for others (clients, friends, family members, colleagues, etc.) without consideration for our own needs.

I love reminding clients, other helpers, and myself, that there is no such thing as "should." Sometimes they'll argue with me that there are indeed some very strong "shoulds" we must all follow - like we "should not" kill people and we "should" be respectful of our elders. I disagree that these are viable shoulds. Instead, they may describe beliefs - but even beliefs have grey areas. Even killing can be grey. If your life or the life of your child were threatened and you could either kill the attacker or let him kill you, is there really a hard rule for that? Is it really so clear-cut? I think it is grey. In the example of respecting your elder, I think that depends as well - on the elder and how you define the word "respect." Usually, our "shoulds" were given to us during childhood and have remained in place, unquestioned, since then. I encourage you to question them. I love the expression, "Stop shoulding all over yourself." I encourage you to repeat it to yourself often.

If you are struggling to put self-care practices into place in your life, you may want to consider exploring the thoughts and patterns that get in your way. Consider time in meditation, writing about it, talking with a counselor, and spending time in dialogue with friends and colleagues. You deserve excellent care, just like your clients. If ever in doubt, just ask. I'm happy to remind you.