Category Archives: Anxiety and Depression

Is Worry Useful?

By Andrea Wachter, LMFT

It’s human nature to worry. Having spent a lot of my time lost in the depths of worry, I’ve often wondered if it’s actually useful.

When it comes to worries, I like to distinguish between spinning and solving. Spinning is when our minds weave their fearful futuristic “what ifs” and there’s really no productive or effective outcome. Our nervous systems take the brunt of the worrisome webs our minds spin and nothing really gets resolved.

Solving, as opposed to spinning, is when we bring conscious awareness to the content of our worries and determine if there’s something we can actually do to address the situation, either internally through self-compassion and soothing self-talk, or externally with some type of action or realistic preparation.

These days, there’s certainly no shortage of issues we could worry about—from personal to global. Besides being natural and completely understandable to worry about people and situations we care about, for the most part, worry doesn’t help us navigate difficult situations.

Thoughtful planning and action can help. Asking someone else for help can help. Offering support or resources can help. Sometimes, deciding to let go and focus on the present moment can help. And sometimes, asking an invisible force that’s bigger than our minds and the material world can help.

Author and teacher, Eckhart Tolle says, “Worry pretends to be necessary but serves no useful purpose.”

Worry sure does pretend to be necessary and useful. In my therapy practice, I’ve worked with many people who struggle with worry— some part-time, some full-time. When we take a deeper look at their relationship to worry, I often notice a theme. A lot of people think that worrying will somehow protect them from or prepare them for painful situations that may or may not happen in the future. But does it really?

Worry doesn’t tend to prepare us for the future. It robs us of the present. Worrying is like trying to prevent something hard from happening in the future while causing something hard to happen in the present— worry. Worry is stressful and it’s hard work. We might tell ourselves that the right amount of worrying will help us get through a future hardship or disaster, but worry typically doesn’t have that kind of power.

I’m not suggesting that all worries could or should be ignored. Sometimes our worries are a natural result of care and concern and they need to be honored and met with compassion. Sometimes a worry might be indicating a need for an action step or a realistic preventative measure. If you’re worried about a physical issue, it might make sense to see a medical professional. If you’re worried about the state of your marriage, you might decide to see a couples counselor. If a big storm is predicted in your area, loading up on groceries and batteries might help, but worrying won’t. Unless you’re taking steps to actively do something about an issue or event that you’re worried about, worry isn’t actually helpful.

So, what does worry do? Worry makes our bodies feel as if the circumstances we’re worried about are actually happening, when in most cases they’re not. After experiencing my first big earthquake, I found myself frequently worrying about there being another one. Every little jolt, door slam, foot stomp, or thunderstorm sent me into a tizzy. Not to mention the quiet times my mind decided to get a jump on things and just plain worry without any noise or shake whatsoever. I realized after a while that if another earthquake actually happened, I wouldn’t have time to worry. I’d head to the nearest door or react in whatever way I managed to at the time. Worrying now won’t help me then. Canned goods, batteries, and bottled water might. But not worry.

So, I began to thank my mind for trying to anticipate and prepare for every possible future catastrophic quake. I began to reassure myself that I was actually safe in the moment. And, I continued my resolve to spend more time in reality and deal with life’s challenges when they actually arrived, rather than allow my mind to continuously create them in an ineffective attempt to prevent and prepare for them. Of course, like any change, this takes practice. It takes practice to have our wise, grounded, present selves be in charge rather than our primitive limbic systems. Fortunately, we get better at what we practice.

Even though worry feels like serious business, a sense of humor can help sometimes too. I remember a session with a client who was preparing to travel abroad for a few months. She was excited for the opportunity to travel, but she was also very worried about going off to a foreign country. She said, “I’m worried that my anxiety will ruin my trip.” Then she laughed and playfully said, “I’m worried about ruining my trip and I’m actually ruining my day by worrying about being worried!”

Another client was facing a frightening medical procedure. She spent months worrying about how much the procedure would hurt and how long it would take to heal. She worried about having to go through it all again if her condition didn’t improve. The dreaded day finally came and went. She later told me that the procedure wasn’t nearly as bad as she’d anticipated. She talked about how many months she spent worrying about the pain compared to how many minutes the actual pain lasted and she was amazed. When she began to talk about how much time she’d “wasted” worrying, I told her that the time wouldn’t be a waste if she could use it as a reminder to stay more conscious of her mind movies. We made a plan for her to increase her awareness of when her mind began spinning out on worries. She could then soothe her worries, like she might soothe an anxious child. She could ask herself if there were any realistic action steps to be taken. And she could gently redirect her worried mind back to the present moment.

I think we can all use this lesson. We can deal with the challenging parts of life when they actually occur, or we can deal with them in our minds constantly and also when they occur.

Nowadays, there’s plenty of grist for the worry mill. Personally, I could lock and load my worry full-time if I’m not careful, conscious, and in charge of who’s steering this tender ship. But I am. I realize every day that worrying about war, climate, school shootings, health, or my loved ones is not going to keep something really hard from happening. Worrying only makes my nervous system feel like the hard things are happening now.

So, if you are a periodic or perpetual worrier, try asking yourself: Is this worry actually helping me or anyone else? Is there some action I could take to prepare for this worrisome possibility? Can I soothe my worried mind and encourage it to loosen its well-intended grip? Can I reassure myself that whatever challenges life brings, I will handle them in the best ways that I can at that time?

And then, ever so gently, reel ourselves back from the not-now and into now.

View on Psychology Today

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The Benefits of a Responsible Adult Tantrum

By Andrea Wachter, LMFT

Tantrums are usually associated with children and are often considered unpleasant and unwanted. But what if we could welcome and accept tantrums the same way we do stormy days? And what if tantrums weren’t just for kids? Couldn’t we all use a healthy, conscious, grown-up tantrum sometimes?

Our emotions appear like weather patterns. We just get to choose whether we judge them, numb them, lash them out at others, or responsibly allow them up and out.

When I was studying to become a psychotherapist, a professor once told me that people generally seek therapy for one of two reasons: They’re either having a tantrum or they need to have one. I’ve actually counseled people for many additional reasons, but my teacher’s tantrum theory stuck with me over the years. As I‘ve worked with many clients (as well as myself), I’ve recognized the importance of an occasional adult tantrum.

We all experience bumps in the road that trigger emotions. These bumps can range from minor irritations to challenging hardships to major traumas.

A flat tire, a root canal, lost luggage: not fun, but likely something you’ll get over fairly quickly. Your child’s difficulties in school, a rough patch at work, financial problems, marital problems: these can get you down for months. And then there are those life-changing, sucker-punch events that can knock us down for the count: a cancer diagnosis, the death of a loved one, an unwanted divorce, a natural or unnatural disaster. Personally, I’d like to speak to the manager in charge of doling these out, but there’s no escaping the fact that they are part of the human experience.

Obviously, minor glitches are easier to deal with and recover from, but what about those ongoing stressful circumstances or the overwhelming realities we have to bear that truly feel unbearable?

How can we allow and express our natural emotions so that we don’t have to implode and hurt ourselves or explode and hurt others? This is where a self-induced, responsible tantrum comes in.

I remember a time many years ago when my little nephew (now a grown man with a child of his own) came over for a sleepover. We’d just finished a fun day at an amusement park and I informed him that it was time to leave. He was not at all happy about this new development in our day and he proceeded to have a full-on tantrum.

Being a new therapist (not to mention an aunt, which is infinitely less challenging than a parent), I told him it was fine for him to have his feelings, but we were still going to need to head home in a few minutes.

Well, have his feelings he did. That boy let it rip. He proceeded to fling his little body onto the ground, kick, scream, and roll around in the dirt. After what felt like a really long time (but was probably about a minute), he picked himself up, walked over to me, and with a tear-stained, dirty little face said, “I was mad. And then I was sad. Now I’m ready to go.”

Out of the mouths of babes.

In the therapy world, we might refer to my nephew’s actions as “fully expressing your feelings” or going through one or more of the natural stages of grief. Practically speaking, a healthy, grown-up tantrum can look like many things: hitting a punching bag, mattress, or pillow, talking about your feelings with someone who’s comfortable with emotions, crying, wailing, screaming, shaking, writing, drawing, or scribbling. Anything your body wants to do to express your emotions, as long as nobody (including yourself) and nothing of value gets hurt.

A friend of mine will occasionally email me a long string of curse words when life throws her a doozy. No spaces. Just one long string of words. She takes several of her favorite curse words and merges them into one very long word to emphasize her feelings. Depending on the difficulty of the situation and her level of emotions, several or more exclamation points might follow it up. This seems to do the trick for her.

If it’s not practical or possible to have a tantrum out loud, we can also have one in our imaginations. A client recently told me about a night when she’d been struggling with insomnia. She tried her usual list of calming tools—meditation, counting breaths, repeating a mantra—but nothing seemed to help. She knew she was filled with feelings and felt like she was about to burst.

Then, she remembered a time when she’d had a responsible tantrum during one of our sessions and how it really released the internal pressure valve. In my office, she’d hit a chair with a tennis racquet and screamed into a pillow, but here she was in the middle of the night next to a sleeping husband, next door to a sleeping child. So, she decided to imagine her tantrum. She pictured herself screaming at the top of her lungs and throwing around mattresses. Lots of mattresses. She said it really helped and she was eventually able to get back to sleep.

Whatever your choices of expression are, when you consciously, responsibly, unabashedly, compassionately, and safely allow yourself to have an adult tantrum, you’re more likely to move through your emotions and organically arrive at some form of relief and acceptance.

Of course, the more serious the life event, the longer the tantrum may need to last and reoccur. But, we all have the options of stuffing our feelings down, blasting them out in unhealthy ways, or fully expressing what we feel in a healthy manner and eventually coming to accept what life has brought to our door.

When we compassionately and safely allow ourselves to express our strong emotions, we can navigate the turbulent phases of life without hurting ourselves or anyone else. We naturally return to acceptance and presence rather than stay stuck in denial, depression, anxiety, addiction, or self-defeating behaviors.

So, the next time you feel filled to the brim with feelings, how about letting yourself have a healthy, safe, responsible tantrum? How about some extra support, extra tissues, and extra self-care, until your tear-stained self is ready to move on?

May we all, in the face of our adversities, follow in the footsteps of my young nephew: feel mad, feel sad, and then feel ready to go.

View on Psychology Today

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6 Things I Wish I’d Known When I Was Battling Depression

By Andrea Wachter, LMFT

I spent many years struggling with depression. After learning some important tools that helped me heal, I became passionate about helping others do the same. If you are feeling depressed, I hope these ideas can help you too.

1.  Catching ANTs (Automatic Negative Thoughts)

We generally don’t have a choice about the types of thoughts that pop up on the screen of our minds. They are usually a result of our personality traits, life experiences, and how we process what happens to us. But we do have a choice about whether we become aware of our thoughts, and what we do next.

When someone is struggling with depression, their thoughts tend to be quite negative, hopeless, and self-critical. This makes it especially important to increase our awareness of the nature of our thoughts.

Tip: If you become aware of a thought that seems unkind or unhelpful, rather than automatically believing it or staying lost in its trance, try praising yourself for becoming aware of your thoughts.

2. Upgrading Unkind Thoughts 

Once you become aware of an unkind or unhelpful thought and praise yourself for breaking the trance and catching it, you are ready for an internal upgrade. Depending on how long you’ve believed a thought and how depressed you feel, it might take some time (and support!) to do successful upgrades. But since we get better at what we practice, with willingness and time, you can improve the quality of your thoughts.

When I was in the grips of depression, my mind was regularly playing and replaying unkind and unhelpful thoughts. A typical train of thought went something like this: I’m too sensitive to handle life. I’m not cut out for this. Things are never going to get better.

Not exactly an Oprah pick-me-up! My upgraded thoughts sounded more like I can handle what happens. Everyone has struggles. I am capable of change. I can do things to improve my life.

I learned that even if I didn’t believe my kinder thoughts at first, it was an upgrade in the system and I had to start somewhere. Eventually, I came to believe that there was nothing inherently wrong with me, other than my belief that there was something wrong with me! I learned that self-criticism helped me fall into the pit of depression and self-compassion would help me climb out.

Tip: Once you catch an unkind thought and praise yourself for catching it, try on a new thought that is either kind, or at least not unkind. If you have difficulty, you can imagine how you might speak to a child or a dear friend if they told you they were thinking the same way you’ve been thinking.

3. Distinguish Thoughts From Feelings

Sometimes our depressive thoughts can be so strong and persistent that they can drown out our emotions. Then, important emotions that need attention and compassion get pressed down, or depressed. Learning to identify our emotions and offer them kindness and warmth is a very important aspect of depression relief.

Usually, feelings are one word: sad, mad, scared, lonely, etc. Thoughts are generally sentences, sometimes serious run-on ones! Once you identify your feelings, you can practice offering them the same compassion you might offer someone you care about. If you haven’t been on the receiving end of compassion very often, this might be challenging at first. You can begin by trying on sentences like this: Of course, I feel this way. It makes perfect sense that I feel this way. I deserve compassion, not shame. 

Tip: Practice identifying your feelings. Here is a list in case you get stuck. Then, internally or in writing, respond to your feelings compassionately and see what you notice.

4. Do the Opposite of Depression’s Suggestions

As a psychotherapist, I often encourage people to follow their hearts and listen to their intuition. That is, unless they are depressed. This is because when we are depressed, we are not always in the best position to make wise decisions regarding self-care. My “voice of depression” used to advise me to isolate, stay in bed all day, oversleep, restrict my food intake, binge eat, or give up.

I had to learn to do the opposite of what that internal voice was telling me to do. I had to learn that when I was depressed and thought I should isolate, I needed to do exactly the opposite: reach out to a friend or therapist or attend a support group.

When the voice of depression told me to watch TV all day, I had to push myself to take a walk, read or listen to something inspirational. When depression told me to skip breakfast, I needed to do the opposite and eat a nutritious meal rather than set myself up for yet another episode of uncontrollable overeating, followed by even deeper depression.

Unfortunately, depression can zap the energy we need to do the very things that will make us feel less depressed. So learning to do the opposite of what the voice of depression suggests can feel like climbing uphill at first, but with time, our bodies and our voice of wisdom get stronger.

Tip: Stay on the lookout for negative thoughts that contribute to depressive behaviors, or that encourage you to neglect or be unkind to your body. Try doing the opposite (or the kindest action you can think of), even for a short time, and build the muscle of self-care.

5. Finding Safe Support 

Not everyone understands depression and knows how to respond in ways that feel helpful, but many people do. If you are struggling with depression, it’s so important to find safe support. The voice of depression might try to convince you that nobody will understand you, but that is just one voice, and it’s not true.

Remember doing the opposite of depression’s suggestion? If depression is trying to convince you that no one can help and there is no hope, it is lying to you. There are people who can help, and there is hope. It might take some trial and effort to find the right person (or people), but they do exist.

I remember reaching out to a friend during one of my darkest days and telling her how low I felt and how dark my thoughts were, and she simply did not get it. She remained totally silent, and I left our conversation feeling even worse. But I didn’t give up, and eventually, I found a therapist who totally understood me. I also began to gather tools that really helped, and now I share these depression relief tools with others.

It’s so important to find people who treat you with kindness, compassion, and non-judgmental understanding. Eventually, you can learn how to treat yourself that way as well.

Tip: If you are searching for a therapist, consider someone with cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) skills as well as mindfulness training. CBT will help you learn to challenge and change your unhelpful thoughts, and mindfulness will help you quiet your mind.

6. One Chapter is Not the Entire Book

When someone is depressed, it’s tempting to think that this is the way it will always be. But life has many chapters, and we don’t get to know what the next one will be if we give up on ourselves. I remember a client who spent years comparing herself to her seemingly happily married friends and feeling desperately lonely and depressed.

Despite my weekly reminders that life stories can change, she was convinced hers wouldn’t. But her story did change. She is now married and enjoying her new chapter in life. Additionally, a few of her previously “perfect and happily married” friends are now divorced. We all experience challenging chapters in our lives, just as we all experience change. Even if our life circumstances don’t change, if our minds change, everything can change. This is why some people have what is seemingly a dreary job and claim to be the happiest people on the planet, while others have literal fame and fortune and struggle with depression and addictions.

Tip: Remember that storms pass, feelings pass, situations pass. Some may feel stronger and last longer than others, but things pass.

If you are battle weary from depression, I hope you will stay on the lookout for any unkind or unhelpful thoughts. Praise yourself if you catch one, and upgrade to a kinder thought. Practice identifying your feelings and offering them compassion. If you have difficulty, imagine how you might speak to a child or a dear friend or wish someone would speak to you. Practice doing the opposite of what the voice of depression suggests. Reach out to safe support people and see how the next chapter unfolds.

View on Psychology Today

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The Benefits of Being Highly Sensitive

By Andrea Wachter, LMFT

Have you ever been told that you are too sensitive? I sure have.

I always felt different than most of the people around me. I seemed to take everything to heart, while others seemed so much more resilient.

My siblings seemed unaffected when our parents scolded us, and I wanted to disappear in a spiral of shame. I felt crushed when a budding romance didn’t bloom into a full-blown relationship, while my closest friends seemed unfazed when it happened to them. I could barely recover from relationship glitches, while others seemed to bounce back unscathed.

It took many years for me to realize that we are not all the same breed. Some people are not crushed at the thought of disappointing another person. Some people are more centered or resilient in the face of conflicts and challenges. Some people want to lash out instead of in when they feel angry or hurt.

I remember a turning point when I made peace with being a sensitive breed. I decided to stop viewing my sensitivity as a flaw or a curse but rather as a personality trait that required excellent self-care.

I began to respond to the “You’re so sensitive” or “You’re too sensitive” comments with a shame-free, “Yes, I am.” Or “I am, so please be kind to me.” Or simply, “Thank you.”

After working with many highly sensitive people in my therapy practice (including myself), I have found some considerable advantages that accompany this characteristic. Here are a few.

Sensitive people tend to experience pleasure more deeply.

If you are highly sensitive, you may have to cope with feeling difficult emotions more intensely than some people, but the flip side means that you get to feel the sweet things in life very deeply too. You might have to use a lot of tools to weather the storms of life, but when the storms subside, you get to fully bask in the sunny moments, thanks to feeling things so deeply.

Sensitive people can be very empathetic.

Another benefit of being sensitive is that you can have very deep compassion and understanding for the struggles that other people face. As long as you don’t absorb other people’s problems or think you’re responsible for fixing them, being a sensitive breed can contribute to being a really caring person.

Sensitive people can be very perceptive.

Sensitive people tend to pick up on things that others might miss. Being aware, observant, and insightful can be very positive qualities. There are a lot of situations, tasks, and jobs that require great perception and insight. This can make the gift of sensitivity an excellent asset to many different career paths and life circumstances.

Sensitive people can deeply embrace new concepts.

While sensitive people tend to absorb a lot and often work on letting go of challenging experiences, hurt feelings, and unhelpful thoughts, they can also use this quality towards positive or productive input. Given a handful of healthy tools or new concepts, a highly sensitive person can use their gift of sensitivity to embrace and absorb information and reap many benefits.

Sensitive people can be very creative.

People with high sensitivity can often use their sensitive nature to tap into their inner creativity. Some of the most creative people I know are extremely sensitive. Of course, they might have to deal with their external world a bit more carefully than some, but when they use their awareness and clarity to tap into their internal world, amazing things can happen. Being sensitive can give someone a front-row seat to the inner show of creativity, intuition, and clarity that lives inside us.

Being sensitive encourages people to practice excellent self-care.

While some people can get away with postponing their needs at times, sensitive people often feel the effects sooner and stronger than most. A person who feels everything fully needs to fully take care of themselves. A client of mine put it this way: “Other people can get away with skipping a meal now and then or neglecting their sleep for a few days. I’m a wreck if I do that. Oh, maybe that’s not such a bad thing? It forces me to stay on top of my self-care!”

Sensitive people tend to be very aware of their surroundings.

A high level of sensitivity can give you a highly attuned sense of your immediate environment. Sensitive people are often accused of missing nothing, which is not necessarily a negative quality. They are often the first to spot a dolphin in the ocean, a deer in the woods, or danger on the horizon. Sensitive people can be quite helpful and handy on a beach walk, a forest hike, or a natural disaster.

If you are a highly sensitive person, take heart. Once you make peace with this innate trait, you can learn to weather the storms of life more effectively, take care of yourself more respectfully, and fully reap the many advantages of being a sensitive breed.

View on Psychology Today

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Self-Parenting: What’s Your Style?

By Andrea Wachter, LMFT

Parenting and nurturing a child involves many things: How we speak to our children, how we treat them and what we teach them, to name only a few. How we engage in these behaviors can also apply to how we parent ourselves. Whether or not you are the parent of a child, if you are old enough to read this blog, you have more than likely adopted a style of “self-parenting.”

In my years of counseling clients, I have noticed that when it comes to self-parenting, most of us tend to adopt either our parent’s style of parenting (sometimes attempting to do an even better job than they did) or the exact opposite style. For example, the adult child of a neat freak might be extremely conscious of cleanliness or they might completely rebel and live in a pigsty. The child of a chronic dieter may strive to be an even more vigilant dieter or go to the other extreme and struggle with overeating. Usually, these patterns take shape without our awareness. Often people don’t realize until they are in therapy that they have either earned a PhD in their parent’s style of parenting or utterly flunked the subject.

One of the most important aspects of self-parenting is how we speak to ourselves, sometimes referred to as self-talk. This is so important because most of us engage in constant internal conversations. Self-talk dramatically affects how we feel about ourselves and thus plays a significant role in our day-to-day experiences as well as in the choices we make in life.

As you consider what kind of self-parenting you engage in, keep in mind that there are essentially three styles of parental communication: one is healthy and two are not. You can probably guess which one you should strive for.

#1 Critical Self-Parenting:
The voice you would hear if you employ this style of self-parenting is often unkind, angry and even hateful. Someone with this style of self-parenting constantly beats themselves up for not living up to their own expectations. Instead of learning from mistakes, a critical self-parent uses mistakes to confirm that they are not good enough and deserve to be punished. They are unforgiving with themselves and don’t recognize that all humans are imperfect. They use self-berating as a means of motivation. And even when they do succeed at something, they tend to focus on what they haven’t achieved.

#2 Neglectful Self-Parenting: This is the opposite extreme of critical self-parenting and often involves procrastination and depression. A person with this style might avoid tackling a problem or project, continually coming up with reasons not to do it. They also may speak to themselves unkindly, but their self-talk does not motivate them to take action.

Let’s look at how these two styles might play out in the real world using the example of a mother trying to get her child to clean his room.

• The critical parent might first criticize their child. If the kid doesn’t comply, the parent yells at him. And finally, the parent punishes the child if the room is still not cleaned up.

• The neglectful parent might just let her child live in a pigsty and ignore it. This might seem like an easier route, but failing to teach the child important life skills will likely lead to future problems and unhealthy consequences.

In the case of self-parenting:
• The critical self-parent berates herself until the job is done, feeling bad about it the entire time. Even when the job is completed she finds something wrong, telling herself: “I should have cleaned the house last week and I should have done all the windows too!”
• The neglectful self-parent lets her house go and uses excuse after excuse to avoid cleaning up.

# 3 Loving Self-Parenting: With this style, a person’s self-talk is kind and respectful. They don’t expect perfection — progress and process are sufficient. They encourage themselves by being supportive, rather than by beating themselves up as an attempt to self-motivate. On the other hand, they don’t just let things slide. They get things done because they feel encouraged and authentically motivated.

Being a loving self-parent is more effective than employing either the critical or neglectful styles because it leaves you feeling better throughout the process of pursuing a particular endeavor or goal. If you get stuck, you aren’t distracted by self-criticism or depression. Instead, you shift into problem-solving mode, trying to figure out what kind of help you might need in order to move forward. You treat yourself with compassion, rather than criticism.

What kind of self-parenting do you engage in? How do you speak to yourself throughout the day? How do you teach yourself when faced with a learning curve in life? How do you treat yourself during life’s many challenges?

Whenever I see the bumper sticker that reads, It’s never too late to have a happy childhood, I think about how a loving self-parenting style is how we can give ourselves the happy childhood we may not have had. No matter what kind of upbringing you experienced or what kind of self-parenting style you have adopted up until now, it’s never too late to treat yourself with compassion and kindness. By lovingly nurturing, encouraging, and motivating yourself, you can become the parent you always wanted.

View on The Huffington Post

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Emotions 101: How to Reveal and Heal What You Feel

By Andrea Wachter, LMFT

One of the most important aspects of being human is the fact that we have feelings —all day long. And yet, rarely are we taught healthy ways to cope with them. Who among us learned about coping with emotions in school? And how on earth did such an important lesson get glossed over? How many of us were taught in our families that it’s healthy and healing to cry or safely express our anger? (And this is not because our parents or teachers were bad people. In most cases, it’s because they were not taught how to deal with emotions themselves!) Sure, some fortunate people had an amazing relative or teacher who was really safe and welcoming of feelings, but for the most part, that is not the common case.

Most of us were raised with well-intentioned messages to stop crying immediately (presumably so that we would feel better). Little did our innocent caregivers know that telling us not to cry, or giving us a cookie or a bottle every time we were sad, might give our little brains the message that expressing sadness is not okay and we should keep it down.

As for anger, most of us were told to go to our rooms and come out when we were ready to behave. Again, well-intentioned and likely meant to help us be good rather than what it really did — which was teach us to hold in our anger (which then leaks out later in inappropriate ways or “leaks in” on ourselves in the form of self-criticism, depression or addiction).

So what do we do with feelings if we are not going to stuff them down or blast them out in hurtful or destructive ways? How do we cope with emotions so they do not transform and manifest into addictions, anxiety or depression? Well, I’m glad you asked!

For those of you who never got the lesson on Emotions 101, here are the basics:

In the same way that there are primary colors and secondary colors, human beings have four primary emotions and many secondary ones. The four primary emotions are: sadness, anger, fear and happiness (with an array of variations on each, for example, irritation and rage are lesser and greater degrees of anger).

Our natural state is to be present and at peace. Then when a feeling arises, if we are healthy and not lost in depression, obsession or addiction, we experience and express that feeling and then return to peace and presence. Just look at children. They are in the present moment. When a feeling is triggered they may need to cry or have a tantrum. If their feelings are welcomed, acknowledged and validated, and they are done fully expressing their emotions, they move back to being present again.

Sounds simple enough, right? But coming from a culture that is addicted to the pursuit of happiness and avoidant of the more challenging emotions, most of us are taught at a very young age to stuff down our feelings. We are too often fed or given a pacifier when we are sad, or scolded and sent to our rooms when we are mad. So many of us have been taught that there are good and bad feelings when in truth, all feelings are natural and need to be expressed safely. And when they are, they naturally move through us. It’s when we stuff them down and/or blast them out that we end up getting into trouble. (And by trouble, I mean feeling depressed, obsessed or addicted to something.)

Depression, anxiety, addiction and obsessive thinking are all good attempts to avoid and distract from feelings but in the long run, they don’t work. Letting out our feelings in a safe manner is what helps us move through them and return to peace. It’s healing and natural to express our feelings. In fact, crying has proven health benefits. Scientists have examined and compared the tears that are produced by onions with the tears that are produced by emotions. While the tears caused by onions were made of 98 percent water, the tears that were caused by emotions contained actual toxins. So crying is actually one way the body has of healing itself. When you allow yourself to cry, you are releasing and relieving yourself of toxins! Crying also helps to remove chemicals and hormones that are stored in our body from stress. That’s why people will sometimes say they feel relieved after letting themselves cry.

Of course it’s not easy or fun to cry or to be angry, but it is essential in order to achieve emotional health. The need to express feelings is as natural as having to go to the bathroom. If we have a feeling and we hold it in, then we are not going to feel well or be well. Many of us treat our feelings as if they need to be figured out or fixed. What they really need is to be welcomed and felt.

We basically have three options once we identify that we are having a feeling:

  1. We can implode (i.e., stuff it down, avoid it or pretend it’s not there).
  2. We can explode (i.e., blast it out disrespectfully or destructively).
  3. We can express it safely and appropriately.

Too often, we tell ourselves that we shouldn’t have our feelings or that we shouldn’t bother anyone with them. We judge ourselves as weak. We tell ourselves we can’t talk about it or that we don’t know how. So many of us then end up using substances or obsessing on something or going into a dark place of depression in attempt to distract and numb ourselves from the feeling or in an attempt to get some comfort for it. This might work temporarily, as most distractions do, but then we end up with the same original feelings inside, plus on top of that, feeling badly about ourselves or our behavior (or lack of behavior, in the case of depression).

So let’s say you decide you want to learn how to have a healthier relationship to your emotions. What to do next? There are basically two parts: One part is about is how you let them out and the other part is about what you put back in.

In order to let your feelings out, it is important to find safe people to take your feelings to. A safe person is someone you feel accepted by and comforted from, whether that is a professional, a friend or a family member — and eventually, yourself!

The second part is learning to receive kindness, compassion and comfort for your feelings. We need to receive comfort not only from others but from ourselves as well.

It’s important to know that all emotions come in waves. Sometimes small, manageable waves. Sometimes medium-sized, and sometimes, big tidal waves. The next time you experience a wave of emotion, see if you can tell yourself that it will pass. Try saying something soothing, nurturing and comforting to yourself and/or doing something soothing (and non-harmful) for yourself. This could be talking with someone you feel safe with, journaling, drawing or creating some art to express how you feel. The key here is to find the emotion inside of you and see how it would want to come out (safely).

The more compassionate and kind you are toward yourself when you are having feelings, the sooner and more successfully those feelings will move through you. And once you are comfortable with all your emotions, there is no longer anything to avoid or fear. Whatever the feeling is, you welcome it up and return to peace and presence until the next wave comes.

We all need a safe port in a storm so that when life gets hard, we have someplace to land. For many, their “safe” place to land is obsessive thinking or checking out in some way. When you can turn to internal soothing and external support, then you always have truly safe places to land that do not leave you feeling worse afterward. And you will have learned the most important lesson in life: how to reveal and heal what you feel.

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Confessions of a Recovering Perfectionist

By Andrea Wachter, LMFT

I used to be a perfectionist. Actually, it would be more accurate to say I was a black-belt perfectionist! Not that I ever came close to being perfect, but I had an internal program that told me I should be. My quest for perfection didn’t make me perfect, but it did bring me a whole lot of misery. Every time I did or said something that I thought I shouldn’t have, I beat myself up: I can’t believe I said that! How can I ever let this go? What will they think of me now? I think I really blew it this time!

I know now that I was not alone. Perfectionism is rampant in our image-obsessed, achievement-driven culture. Those of us who buy into the notion that we should constantly be doing more and achieving more tend to believe we’ve failed when our efforts are anything less than exemplary. I have nothing against self-improvement, but when we don’t deprogram ourselves from perfectionism, it doesn’t matter how many improvements we make. It will never be enough. This is because perfect is not only impossible, it’s un-human.

A lot of my clients tell me, “I’m not a perfectionist! I am far from perfect.” To me, the definition of a perfectionist is not someone who does everything perfectly. (If that were the case it would rule out, umm… everyone!) I define a perfectionist as someone who thinks they should be doing everything perfectly.

Now that I’m on the other side of perfectionism (many years and tears later), I can’t exactly say I’m thrilled when I make a mistake, but I no longer expect myself not to. These days, I refer to myself as a recovering perfectionist and I have the honor of helping my clients put down their internal whips and embrace the notion of being perfectly imperfect.

Not only does perfectionism make us miserable on the inside, it also it makes it hard to live life on the outside. How satisfying is it to be a student when nothing less than an A is acceptable? How hard is it to enjoy a sport or a hobby when nothing less than a perfect score or outcome will do? And how hard is it to be in relationships when we are unable to receive feedback without crumbling or getting defensive?

When we’re in perfectionist mode, it certainly doesn’t make our relationships perfect. In fact, it makes them very difficult since our standards are so unrealistic. But when we allow ourselves to be imperfect, others can speak their truth without worrying that we will be crushed or retaliate. When someone tells us that something we did felt hurtful or hard for them, we can hear it, take it in, and either apologize or discuss it without thinking we (or they) are unacceptable. And when we let go of perfection in ourselves and we don’t expect or demand it from others, it makes life a whole lot sweeter for everyone.

I remember the first time I realized I was no longer a perfectionist. I was spending the day with a friend and she told me that something I’d said had hurt her feelings. My immediate thought was not the usual, Uh, oh! I’ve ruined the friendship! And I didn’t experience the usual pit in my stomach caused by my feelings of inadequacy and anxiety. Instead, I thought, It’s okay. I don’t have to be perfect. I calmly told my friend that I was so sorry that I hurt her feelings. I even thanked her for telling me.

Whew! What a relief. Life is so much easier without having to strive for unattainable goals. For you Eagles fans out there, you might remember their classic song, called Already Gone. One line from the song has stuck with me for decades because it highlights a truth that is so… dare I say, perfect in its wisdom. Even if you’ve never heard the song, the line is still profound (cue electric guitar here): “So often times it happens that we live our lives in chains, and we never even know we have the key.”

One key to feeling free is to break loose from the chains of perfectionism. Our culture, families, teachers, coaches, or innate drive may have instilled the need to be perfect, but it is within our power to let go of that need. We hold the key.

So here are some tested guidelines from a recovering perfectionist:

• Let go of the notion that you need to be perfect and instead strive for making peace with imperfection.
• Acknowledge that letting go of perfection does not mean you’re a slacker. You can motivate yourself with kindness, joy, passion, creativity, responsibility, and devotion — rather than a self-defeating obsession with being perfect.
• Learn to see yourself as having innate value as a person, regardless of what you accomplish.
• Notice how you can love others, even though they are imperfect, and see if you can begin to do the same for yourself.

Try this exercise:

First, repeat the following sentence a few times and notice how it feels: I need to be perfect.

What thoughts or feelings come up? How does it feel in your body to repeat that sentence?

Now, try repeating I don’t have to be perfect.

How do you feel when you say that?

When we walk around all day telling ourselves we blew it or are not good enough or that we should be perfect, we are reciting what I call nah-firmations (the unhealthy alternative to affirmations). It’s like trying to grow a plant by feeding it poison. How about feeding yourself some human Miracle-Gro and uploading a new message that will truly set you free. As the Eagles sang so beautifully, we have the key!

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Stop ‘Shoulding’ On Yourself

By Andrea Wachter, LMFT

“I shouldn’t have said that.” “I shouldn’t have done that.” “I shouldn’t have eaten that.”

These are common phrases I hear from clients in my counseling practice. So many people are so hard on themselves so much of the time, believing that self-criticism will help them attain their goals. Many of us have all been raised with a “no pain, no gain” attitude. Our plugged-in culture runs at such an unnaturally fast pace that it’s led to an epidemic of stress, anxiety, and depression.

Many of my clients think that self-berating will get them in line or keep them in line. Many people fear that if they stopped beating themselves up or being really hard on themselves, they would never get anything done. Is self-hate really an effective motivator? Can’t we motivate ourselves with kindness, passion, or encouragement?

I work with people in all walks of life– nurses, doctors, personal trainers, teachers, etc. — and I often ask them if they speak to their patients, clients, or students the way they speak to themselves. They wouldn’t dare. They’d likely be fired if they did, not to mention that they often view others which such different standards and with so much more compassion than they do themselves. Why do so many of us feel compassion and kindness toward others but then turn inward with a whip of self-criticism and perfectionism?

Many of us were raised with the belief that if we were kind to ourselves and liked or even loved ourselves, we would be conceited. But is that true? Can we upgrade the program on that one and all agree that self-care and kindness is not necessarily self-grandiosity and entitlement?

When someone lives with the internal program of “shoulding” or self-criticism and perfectionism, what usually ends up happening is that they are either anxious about getting things done and getting them done perfectly, (a thankless, never-ending job since none of us is perfect!) or they end up burning out or rebelling and are unable to get things done at all. This often leads to feeling depressed because they can’t keep up with their self-imposed rules, regulations, and expectations.

So where does all this “shoulding” leave us? Some people “should” on themselves regularly with high, unrealistic expectations. They are very driven, perfectionistic, achievement-oriented, and outer goal-focused; a human doing rather than a human being.

Others fall into the opposite extreme of the spectrum and find it hard to get much of anything done. They struggle with procrastination and then beat themselves up about it. They struggle with depression and feel badly because they can’t get themselves to do what they set out to do.

Then there are those who bounce back and forth between anxiety and depression. They may also “should” on themselves but then rebel and can’t seem to get themselves motivated. I used to be a “bouncer.” I was either gung-ho on some new fad diet or completely (and understandably) binge eating. I was either totally into some new Jane Fonda workout or I couldn’t get myself off the couch. I was swearing off alcohol or all-out partying. (I wasn’t a big fan of moderation, you might say!)

So, if listening to your harsh mind messages is one option and shutting down and feeling badly about yourself is the other, you may not realize there is a door number three. Door number three is following your heart. It’s making your choices out of love and kindness and what feels the most right to you, rather than making your choices because of a self-imposed whip or rebelling from the self-berating and going on strike.

I’ve heard it said that the longest 12 inches is from the head to the heart. The heart is a loving voice. It’s our intuition, the part of us that is compassionate and kind. It can be hard to hear that voice if it’s being drowned out by the megaphone of the mind. A kind voice is in there though– we all have it.

We were not born shoulding on ourselves. We learned every internal rule we have. Fortunately, we can unlearn them. We can learn to delete the harsh messages in our minds the same way we can delete a virus from our computer. We can upload new, kinder messages. We can get things done from a place of balance and sanity. We can rest in a place of peace, relaxation, and self-worth.

See if you can pause throughout the day for a few moments and ask your heart rather than your head: What feels right for me in this moment? I promise you will still get things done. It just won’t be from an anxious place of trying to prove you are worthy or a depressed place of thinking you aren’t.

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Mind Movies

By Andrea Wachter, LMFT

Most people walk around lost in thought. It can be very enticing to spend the majority of our time thinking about the past or the future, and as a result, miss out on the present moment (otherwise known as reality!) Many years ago, when I began to read books on the topic of mindfulness, it was like someone took a bag off my head. I hadn’t realized how much time I lost to being lost in thought. I have authors like Eckhart Tolle and Leonard Jacobson to thank for the “bag lifting” and I now spend many more moments of my life in the presence. I also have the honor of teaching my clients and students the simple tools that I have been taught.

Walking around lost in our minds is like mistaking a movie for reality. And whether our “mind movie” is an exciting fantasy or a dreaded horror story, it is not actually real. When you are actually watching a movie in a theatre, it’s pretty safe to say you know the movie you’re watching is not real and the chair you’re sitting on, the sticky floor beneath your feet, and the tub of popcorn on your lap are real. Unfortunately, when it comes to our mind movies (aka our thoughts), we tend to lose our logic and truly believe that our imagination and our perceptions are real.

Upon learning this, many people tell me they enjoy their fantasies, and that fantasizing gives them hope. That’s fine, but I think it’s important to know that most fantasies end with pain, due to the fact that reality sets in. And in reality, everything is temporary and has its ups and downs. Fantasies lead us to think that reality is not sufficient. And even if a fantasy does come true, it will not likely go the way the mind movie promises or end the way the Hollywood movie ends.

Take romantic relationships for example, one of the bestselling mind movie topics. Someone might fantasize about a new relationship and think they will be so happy when they get one. They might spend countless hours feeling dissatisfied with their life as a single person. Then, when they finally do get into a relationship, they do not generally say, “Ahhhhhhh this is it. This is what I always dreamed of.” (At least not for very long!) This is because reality sets in and in reality there are challenges. However, if we are able to remember that our mind movies and expectations were just fantasies and ideas, we can be in a better position to work with reality and make it as healthy as it can possibly be.

All this is not to say that there is anything wrong with having a goal or obtaining new things, new relationships and new experiences. This is to say that when we spend vast amounts of time fantasizing about some future person or event making us happy, we usually do not end up staying happy for very long. Mind movies prevent us from living in the present moment and set us up for constant disappointment. This is because no one is happy all the time and everything has its ups and downs and everything by nature is temporary.

The good news is that if we can live more in the present, enjoying the sweet moments and enduring the challenging ones, we can learn to live our lives in reality, rather than being lost in fantasy. More good news is that once we really know and remember that everything is temporary and has pros and cons, we know that there is no where to arrive and we can learn to simply be which makes life a lot calmer, easier, and more peaceful. This sounds simple but those movies of the mind can be extremely habitual and enticing.

In order to live more in reality, we need to keep our eyes open for the movies that are playing in the theatre of our minds.

There are basically four “movies” our busy little minds tend to play (and replay). Some people hang out mostly in one or two; some bounce around all four. See which one sound most familiar to you.

Showing in theatre #1 we have, Future Happiness. This movie theme sounds like, “I will be so happy when…” “It will be so great if…” or “I hope… happens.”

Then playing on screen #2 is, Future Fear. This script is more like, “I hope … doesn’t happen,” “What if… happens?” or “It will be so horrible if…”

Moving back to the past, we have on screen #3, Past Longings. Included soundtracks are, “It was so great when…” “I wish I could go back to….” or “I was so happy when…”

And finally, playing in theatre #4 is, Past Regrets. Here, the common tracks are, “I can’t believe I…” “If only I had done…” “I wish I had… instead.”

While there’s nothing wrong with enjoying a fond memory or looking forward to a future event, when we spend our time primarily lost in mind movies, we live in pain, anxiety, depression, or regret and we miss out on our actual lives.

Just like the weather, actual reality is an ever-changing variety of experiences. Reality can be wonderful, but it can also be painful, and sometimes just plain ordinary. But it is reality. Once we truly know this, we get to choose if we are going to live in an unreal movie with its false promises and horrifying predictions or if we are going to live in actual, factual reality. We get to decide if we are going to enjoy a spring day when it’s lovely outside or dread the winter days ahead. We get to decide if we are going to curse the current storms or accept them, knowing that hating the weather will not change it, it will only change our levels of acceptance and peace.

See if you can begin to catch yourself when you realize you’re lost in a mind movie. Praise yourself for being aware enough to catch it and then bring yourself back to something in the present moment. It might be as ordinary as the chair you are sitting in. It might be as lovely as the sun setting in front of you. It might be experiencing a painful emotion about something that just happened. It might be your body breathing.

Remember that all feelings and experiences pass, both the sweet and the sour. But mind movies are set for continuous re-runs. So, try asking yourself from time to time: Am I in a made-up mind movie right now am I here with what is actually here?

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