“Why feel a feeling?”

Some people don’t understand what utility feelings can have.

For example, a client of mine, years back, said, “I just wish I were a robot. I don’t want to feel. Feelings don’t help anyone. They just make you feel worse. They just make everything go wrong.”

The devastation behind her words was palpable, while she sat across from me, looking at me blankly, wondering why I would respond so emotionally to such a simple question.

Yet, as simple as a question was, and as deserving as it is of explaining, I was struck by the probable history behind such a question.

Because, when your feelings are met with care, you intuitively come to know that crying when you’re sad means relief, and means caring from others.

You know that your happiness is likely to be met by joy in another person’s eyes, or by you doing more and more of what leads to that feeling — because happiness makes us want to do the happy-making thing again!

You know that your anger, when on-point and communicated clearly, can help you to set a limit, can help others to notice your side, can help you to protest or leave an unfair situation.

Feelings connect us to ourselves and to our deepest wants and needs.

Feelings connect us to others, telegraphing what we can’t always communicate so easily in words.

Feelings can have many flavors and textures, varying levels of intensity and depth, and they help us to know viscerally something about ourselves, our experiences, the world.

Feelings help us to connect.

If your feelings have been responded to with enough consistency, with enough kindness, and enough guidance, you know without even having to think about it that feelings come in waves, and when we express them, they release naturally and they end with relief and renewed perspective.

When your feelings have been met with disdain, ridicule, looks of incredulity, rolled eyes, or taunting laughter, you learn something very very different about your feelings. You turn against your feelings, turning against yourself in the process.

You equate letting people see your feelings with being torn down — and so you bury your feelings, deep deep inside, where you hope no one will see them.

You may not know what you yourself feel anymore. And when this happens, you also may feel adrift, empty, unmotivated. You’ve lost your sense of vitality, and your life force. You may seek ways to “stop being lazy,” and think that feelings are the last thing you need! People who’ve shut off their awareness of their own feelings may feel threatened by the very prospect of therapy that seeks to find the feelings again. “Why bother,” they may say. “Feeling has never led to anything good.” “I just need a few strategies.” “Why aren’t you helping me to just solve my problems?”

But feelings, when worked with carefully in a relationship that feels safe enough, can lead to a tremendous increase in energy and motivation. Far from making you “dramatic,” a careful exploration of feelings in a safe environment makes you more effective, less likely to fly off the handle or find yourself numbed out or enraged when you least expect it. (No one can hold all their feelings in forever, so they do leak, sometimes in ways you might not like or understand.).

Feelings bring you back home to yourself. They bring you to safe connection with others.

“Why feel a feeling?”

Because our feelings, when worked through carefully, tell us the truth. They tell us who we are and what we want, and what we love and what we won’t tolerate.

Feelings free up our love, our vitality, our well-being.

Blocking feelings leads to a sense of emptiness, to a sense of chaos, and to the anguish of unbearable aloneness, to pressure inside, and sometimes to chronic tiredness or pain.

If you’ve tried to block your feelings, it may be time to start getting to know them again. Safely. More tips on that to come…..



The trap of apparent competence

What is apparent competence?

You just got home from work. You’ve put in a full day of bubbly interaction. You have gotten stuff done, and you’ve done it well! You are truly competent at your job, and your skills are real. They matter. And yet, you feel like a fraud. No one has any idea how much you’re struggling. Your despair is just beneath the surface, threatening to overwhelm you.

Your partner says, “How are you?” And you respond, “Ah, just a little stressed.” You put your characteristic smile in place, and you trudge through the evening. Are you in despair? Loads. Do you feel like you’ve asked for help? Maybe. If you said you were stressed, you may have hoped that your partner would pick up on how you felt.

And yet, your partner read your nonverbal cues. The cues that keep telling people, “I’ve got this. I’m okay!”

You have learned to act as if things don’t affect you as deeply as they do.

But things do affect you. You do need help. The fact that you can manage your day does not mean that all is well. The fact that you smile when you communicate distress does not mean that you’re happy. The fact that you have a professional, clear demeanor when you tell your therapist that you’ve been considering self-harm does not make your distress any less.

But it does make it harder for you to be understood and to get the help and validation you truly need.

Apparent competence is something we can learn when we’re young. If you learned apparent competence, it comes very naturally to you to act perfectly professional. Maybe you’re even the shoulder other people cry on. Apparent competence is a great skill that often has a great deal of heartache beneath the surface. We develop the mask of “everything’s fine” when we learn, at some level, that to show that we aren’t fine wouldn’t be okay. We learn to “pull ourselves up by our bootstraps,” to “just move on already,” that “it’s not such a big deal; quit crying over spilled milk.” When you’re deeply sensitive and you receive these messages as a child, you wisely learn to start masking your emotions. Even more harmful, you might have learned to invalidate your own emotions, telling yourself things like, “I should be okay! I need to just stop being dramatic — it’s no big deal. I’ll fake it till I make it. It’s fine.”

Apparent competence can help you to get through some very hard times. It can even help you to put a calm enough face on that  you can communicate in ways that maximize your chances of getting help.

On the other hand, you may also accidentally confuse yourself and other people. You may be stunned and feel rejected to find that, when you say you’re really upset, no one seems to care. Your voice is so calm, so measured, and maybe you’re even joking — they don’t hear distress! You’re smiling, though, and your makeup looks so perfect — they don’t see distress!

But your pain is real.

“So what can I do if I have this apparent competence thing?”

First off, awareness is a great first step. It’s not enough, but it will help you! If there are people in your life who are supportive of you — a therapist, a partner, a close friend – Explain apparent competence to them. You might say something like, “You know when I say I’m really upset but I act like things are okay? Well, they’re not really that okay. But I feel like I’ll burden people or something if I act as scared or sad as I feel. Can you ask me about it if I say I’m upset?”

Notice your apparent competence. Notice those moments when you feel awful, but you may be projecting something different. Sometimes, this skill is a big help, like if you’re in a class or at work and you need to keep things together for that moment to keep your job or participate in the class. At other moments, like with your partner or therapist, it may not be so good, because your needs aren’t being met or heard.

Experiment with dropping your mask a bit, in a place where it’s safe to. Maybe you work on not smiling or doing that “super polished delivery” next time you talk with your therapist or friend. Maybe you let yourself feel a bit more of what you’re saying. This involves taking a risk, being a bit more open with your true emotions and the depth of them. It can be a very rewarding risk to take, as you find that people hear you more clearly.

Use your apparent competence on purpose to pull you out of despair.

Yup, your apparent competence may sometimes be your best friend! Let’s say that you feel awful, but there’s no help available right now. You’re at home, and you’re miserable. You’re having terrible thoughts. No one close to you will be available until tomorrow. Well, one option is to acknowledge your own emotions, do some self-care, journal perhaps, or meditate. But what if the emotions are too hard to be alone with? Well, if apparent competence is one of the ways you’ve learned to cope, you might, for a short time period, want to get into a situation that will cause you to “act okay,” just to give you some breathing room from emotions that might overwhelm you. So go to a meetup, even if you don’t feel like it, knowing that your apparent competence has your back and will make it possible to socialize and have some fun amidst some truly lousy feelings! Or go to the grocery store, knowing that just seeing the cashier will pull you into a “happy face” for at least a moment.

This is not an ultimate solution. This is not invalidating the level of despair you really feel. This is a way to use your skill to get yourself some breathing room for emotions that are a little too hard to face head-on just yet.

Over time, the solution to apparent competence is to realize that it’s a skill you learned when you were young, but it’s one you can start to override when it’s safe to, and when it would be more helpful for someone to see what you’re really feeling.

It will take time to feel like it’s okay to express your true emotions. You may feel “dramatic” or “overemotional” on your first try or two, or feel stilted because this way of expressing yourself is new. Be gentle with yourself. Know that your emotions are worth tending to, that there are people who will accept you for who you are, and who really want to know if you need help or support. Realize that some of the people you’ve felt invalidated by may have accidentally invalidated the wrong part of your communication, and that this may have been an honest mistake — they didn’t know how upset you truly were.

You can learn to communicate in a more authentic way. As you learn to acknowledge your emotions for what they are, you’ll be able to take much better care of yourself, to start to befriend your emotions, to be able to see when they’re too upsetting to face head-on, and to see when they are appropriate to communicate. Your communication may be “dramatic” for a little bit, because you’ve pent up so much pain for so long. Work to be specific in your requests, to ask for help that others are likely to be able to give, and to learn tools to manage the level of distress you’re really feeling.

This will get better, over time.


4 things your depression could be trying to tell you

Is your depression trying to tell you something important?


In this post, I’ll list 4 different things your depression may be trying to tell you. Maybe one will resonate. Maybe all of them will!


1.  You need more connection.

We all need connection. We need to feel like we’re seen; we’re heard;we belong. When these needs aren’t met, we suffer. When we’re abandoned or betrayed, we can shut down too. (For more detail on this, see my post on abandonment depression.)If these needs don’t get met for a long time and you don’t know how to get them met or if you ever will, you may start to withdraw, to be passive, to quit trying. It’s painful to feel rejected and left out. A person who is suffering with depression may find that it’s simpler to isolate, to quit trying, than it is to keep trying to connect and to feel like it won’t work. But your depression could be signaling you about the importance of connection in your life. It may be telling you that it’s time to reach out for help.

2. You need to work through toxic shame.

Guilt is a powerful feeling. When it’s in check, it signals us when we’ve behaved in a way that isn’t in keeping with our values. It propels us to apologize, or to behave differently in the future, or both. Shame happens when we feel a disconnect from other people, and that we’re unworthy of connection. Guilt and shame can lead us to reevaluate our values and our behavior, and to turn over a new leaf. But in the case of depression, guilt turns into rumination. Shame feels like a void that you can’t escape. It feels like there’s no redemption, no way to come back to connection with yourself and with others. You retreat. With help, though, shame can be worked through. Maybe your depression is signaling you that it’s time to do this work so you can find your way out of the prison of shame?

3. You’ve been through a trauma that it’s time to really resolve.

When you endure something traumatic, there’s too much happening to process all in that moment. And you feel powerless. When we feel powerless, we shut down. This is something our brains and bodies do to try to help us! Think of a mouse playing dead so that a cat moves on to chase a live mouse. That momentary immobility, that playing dead, is a way that mouse survives! Humans can have a reaction like this too. When it becomes a habit, it can look and feel a lot like depression. Coming out of this kind of depression benefits a lot from a trauma-informed approach, because this isn’t “depression as usual” — this is a special adaptation, sometimes to one big event, and sometimes to many little events. The impact of trauma can be transformed, and you can get your vitality back. Maybe it’s time to get started on that process.

4. It’s time to get support to truly grieve so you can finally move forward.

Grief can hit us really hard. There are stages of grief we go through as we come to a new equilibrium in our lives, as we arrive at acceptance and resolution. But if your grieving is stopped before it resolves, you can feel stuck in despair, feeling unable to truly grieve or move forward. Grief demands that we grapple with what’s been lost. If you haven’t had support to grieve, though, or you’ve had the feeling that it’s “negative to think and talk about it,” or “crying is pointless anyway; it’s time to move on”, you may find yourself with feelings of depression that are saying, “Wait. Stop! This loss is important. It needs recognition.” Your losses matter, and your depression may be telling you it’s time to give them the attention they deserve.


Depression as a time out to regroup

Depression is often a signal. It’s a signal that it’s time to slow down. It’s time to reconnect with a self that we’ve lost track of, or to reconnect in relationships and hobbies that nourish us.

Depression, when you get help for it, can lead to big life changes. Depression is often saying, “My life no longer feels livable as it is.”

Often, depression is saying something very important. In therapy with me, we listen carefully to your depression. We pay attention to cues of unmet needs. We identify places and ways in your life that you’ve shut down, and we look at how and why that may have made sense for you.

We take a holistic approach, looking at your relationship with yourself, your relationship with others, your work, your lifestyle. Often, this leads to more than just “feeling better.” It leads to finding a whole new sense of who you are and what you want in your life.

Maybe your depression is telling you that it’s time for a change, and it’s time to stop doing it alone.

If this is the case, finding a therapist you click with and who can help you to decode your depression can help!

With help, you can find the keys to decoding your depression, and it can be the beginning of something new, something vibrant, something good.

The process of healing from depression is the process of coming alive again.




Social Anxiety?

Social anxiety can be agonizing. It’s awkward! It’s hard to talk about. It makes you feel like you’re forever on the outside. It’s adrenalizing, but with no clear actions to take. And it’s exhausting as well.

  • Are you a professional that loves your job, but dreads lunch time or meetings with your coworkers?
  • Are you terrified when someone approaches you to talk?
  • Do you freeze up in conversations, and only later come up with what you wish you would have said?
  • Are you overly agreeable with people, forgetting what you think and feel because your social anxiety takes over and makes you forget your thoughts?
  • Do you go to social events, and then spend hours later wondering how you came across, cringing at something awkward you may have said or done?
  • Or do you try to nerve yourself up to go to a party or out with friends, but your anxiety won’t let you?
  • You know that, in order to have the relationships you want, you need to leave your house sometimes—but you’re scared, or suddenly so tired, or so wired, that it’s just too hard to get out.
  • You know that people like you pretty well, most of the time—but your worry gets in the way of you really feeling that.
  • You know you’d be happier if you could be around people without being so overwhelmed—but you haven’t found a way to do that.
  • You’re stuck in a habit of fear, pain, short-term relief when you avoid social situations—but longing for something more.
  • You see statuses of friends of yours on Facebook, and you notice groups of friends together, people out doing adventures you wouldn’t dare dream of—and you feel that old ache. You’re isolated.

Social anxiety does that. It’s isolating. It’s often connected to a feeling of shame — that somehow, there’s something indefinably wrong with you. This shame goes hand in hand with a fear of rejection. It eats away at your real connections. It makes you feel alone. It makes you STAY alone, perpetuating the feeling of aloneness.

People who feel social anxiety often try several things. Maybe you’ve tried telling yourself not to be anxious. This usually makes it worse!

  • Maybe you’ve tried to go into social situations anyway, and have found yourself feeling claustrophobic, afraid, and acting awkward because your anxiety keeps you from being natural.
  • Maybe you’ve tried staying home and telling yourself that you don’t care. That you’re just an introvert. That you don’t need people anyway.
  • Or you’ve tried some anxiety-management techniques: You take a deep breath, tell yourself it will be okay. Sometimes they help a little bit, but nothing seems to ease that deep, gnawing fear.

What’s it like when you’ve overcome your social anxiety?

! Here’s what the other side looks like:

  • You are confident, able to talk with anyone.
  • You can look people in the eye and say what you think.
  • You get home from work and ask yourself, “What would I like to do this evening?” And you have a genuine choice about whether to stay home, go to dinner with friends, or take your colleague up on her coffee invitation.
  • You go home at the end of a party or a meal out and just do what’s next on your to do list, or just take a rest—without all the rumination about what you said and how you came across.
  • You’re able to just be yourself in situations, and know for sure that you are enough.

And then other things start happening:

  • An acquaintanceship becomes a friendship, then a deeper friendship.
  • You start an activity that you fall in love with.
  • You can laugh off the kind of awkward interactions that used to upset you.

And you have more energy than you’ve had before. It’s one of the most common things my clients mention when their social anxiety diminishes — they realize that their anxiety was exhausting! Not only did it deplete your physical energy, it fed other physical pains as well — headaches, neck and back pain, an upset stomach, and just feeling generally stiff and riled.

Once you have more energy, you’ll notice how tired you used to be.  You have the energy and the motivation to think, plan, dream, and come up with ideas and plans that you couldn’t even imagine before.

Self help strategies for social anxiety

There are several things that can help you to change your anxiety. Working through and past any toxic shame you’ve been holding is one of the most transformative ways to work with it.

And then, of course, there are management tools for in the meantime:


Orienting to what’s happening both within and around you.

Learning how much interaction you can handle, and giving yourself outs when you need them.

Planning in advance for social situations, and figuring out what helps you the most.

Finding a friend or two that you can talk with about your anxiety — friends who won’t try to fix it, or frantically try to calm you, but who will listen and empathize and maybe remind you of your neat qualities and why you’re fun to hang out with.

Simple self-care stuff — drinking water. Letting your nutrition nourish your energy and ease your jangled nerves.

Giving yourself plenty of time and space to unwind, journal, take a hike — do things that nourish you and your mind and body.

And gently taken, incremental, mindful risks. Like hanging out with two friends in a slightly more crowded place than usual. Or like extending a conversation with a colleague just by two minutes beyond the norm. Or saying “Hi” to people you see on your walk.

Simple things can add up, and help a lot over time.

My favorite therapies for social anxiety

I’ve used several approaches with clients with social anxiety. The ones that have worked best for my clients are:

  • Sensorimotor Psychotherapy and somatic experiencing techniques (two similar methods). Anxiety affects every part of the body, and noticing and working with the reactions in the body (rather than pretending it’s all in the brain) is very powerful.
  • Relationship-oriented therapy. We start with eliminating any anxiety you feel working with a therapist, and expand your comfort zone from there.
  • Working with feelings of shame that sometimes underlies the fear.
  • Trauma therapy techniques that focus on building a sense of safety in the moment.
  • Honorable mention: Hypnotherapy. It’s not my go-to technique these days, but I’ve used it to help clients with social anxiety, and it works quite well.

You don’t have to be hobbled by social anxiety, and you don’t need to forever merely “manage” the symptoms.

When you work through social anxiety, you see the whole world differently. Moreover, you are a part of it. You belong, and you know it.







How to Ease Anxiety and Center Yourself 5-4-3-2-1 Technique Video

Here’s a quick way to ease dissociation, derealization, and anxiety. It’s the 5-4-3-2-1 technique, and I’ll walk you through it step by step:

The hidden emotion that may be keeping you stuck

(This blog post is based on the work of Sheila Rubin and Bret Lyon, who offer therapy trainings in Berkeley California.)

There is an emotion that can instantly make us feel stuck and stupid.

Not only that, it can actually make us momenterily stupid!

This emotion can make other feelings hard to feel or resolve. It can hijack your thinking, your grieving, and your anger. It can take you into loops of hopelessness, helplessness, and an inability to move.

It can isolate you. It can prevent clarity. It can keep you in a cycle of blaming yourself and sometimes blaming others.

It can steal your energy and your sense of ability to move forward.

What is it?

It’s toxic shame.

Toxic shame is a sense of being unlovable, fundamentally flawed.

It’s an emotion, but it also acts as a trauma in the body. We need to work with both pieces of that in order to help you move forward.

Shame also is not healed through intellect, through advice-giving, through your friends and loved ones telling you that you’re wonderful, or through you taking on yet another self improvement project.

What can heal it?

A whole combination of things, actually! It isn’t usually done alone, though. One definition of shame is a “break in the interpersonal bridge” — in other words, it’s a feeling of disconnection from other people, from relationships. We can relate to each other in ways that help to rebuild that bridge to yourself and to other people.




300 Steps to Take Today to Stop Overwhelm

Just kidding!

Healing Shame

I just took an excellent webinar from a couple in Berkeley, Bret Lyon and Sheila Rubin,on helping clients to identify and heal shame. There were a few facts that got my attention, made me think about how often shame gets in people’s way, and also what a silent but influential force it can be in our lives. Often, people who are suffering from intense shame don’t even know that shame is the issue! It can be tricky to detect, powerful but illusive. Here are some signs that what you’re struggling with is shame-related:

  • You feel stupid. As Bret and Sheila shared, shame makes us stupid. (It’s a freeze response that shuts the brain down.
  • You can’t identify your feelings. Shame dampens our emotions.)
  • You try to problem solve, and you can’t. You end up beating yourself up, or getting distracted. Shame depletes energy and robs us of focus.
  • You can’t get moving. You feel stuck. (Yup, shame works to keep us from moving too much. It’s a self-protective thing, but most often, when people feel shame, they accuse themselves of being lazy. They don’t understand that it’s shame that’s damping their energy to keep them small.)
  • You experience rage that seems to come out of nowhere. (Shame often hides behind other emotions, so we can feel shame and then be diverted into a big wave of some other emotion. Shame is often afraid to be seen.)
  • Instead of getting mad, you get apologetic. Ever have the experience that you have a conversation with someone, and it’s hours, or days, or weeks, later, that you suddenly feel angry? Shame made you submissive and apologetic at the time of the conversation. So you didn’t notice the anger until later.

So…..You think you might be experiencing shame. What are you to do?

  1. Recognize that you’re experiencing shame, and that shame makes it very hard to think clearly or to have an accurate self-perception. So whatever you’re thinking or feeling about yourself probably isn’t accurate in the moment you’re feeling shame. Being aware of this can help you to get a little bit of distance from your self-judgment.
  2. Find someone caring and accepting to talk with about your feelings. Preferably, someone who will share her own vulnerability with you rather than telling you what to do! For one thing, shame tends to thrive in isolation and in secrecy. And since it’s one of the most agonizing emotions in our emotional repertoire and it blinds us to certain good things about ourselves, one of my biggest suggestions is that you don’t try to struggle through it alone.
  3. Realize that you feel shame because you’ve been shamed at some point in your life. The legacy of that shame is somatic, emotional, and cognitive — quite a package. You feel this feeling not because you’re bad, but because, at some point, someone shamed you.  This can be repaired through a relationship with someone who can counter that shame and help you feel a sense of connection in relationships again. Group work is excellent for this. So is working with a gentle, compassionate therapist who will give you reality checks about who you really are.
  4. Consider that the shame may be an emotional flashback, a communication from a part of you who was shamed when you were young. More about emotional flashbacks here.

Shame can be healed!

I know it can. Otherwise, why would there be a website called healing shame? 🙂

All joking aside, you  can work past the effects of shame. Since shame is, at its core, a relational experience, healing needs to be relational as well. That said, shame also makes reaching out for relationships and being vulnerable difficult. So if you’re getting mired in shame, it’s time to find help.

Shame thrives in isolation. Connection heals shame. And no matter what your shame may tell you about yourself, you are worthy of deep connection.

Therapy for Kids

I used to work in childcare, and I was often brought in to work with “special needs” kids because those kids were often drawn to me. I came to realize how these kids often played out their fears and concerns, and learned how to do a few things: Help demystify kids’ behavior problems, and play and talk with kids in ways that made sense to them. In the midst of all that, I came to be known as someone that could talk with parents and teachers about the “difficult” kids, someone who could often identify what was happening with a kid, and what she needed most.

I love that work. A few stories really stand out to me:

I was once asked to work with a second grade girl who I was told “doesn’t speak at all”. The implication was that she was emotionally disturbed. When I hear something like that, I keep my eyes and my ears open and work with different avenues of communication. Within moments of meeting this girl, she was giggling as we made funny faces at each other. She didn’t speak, but she didn’t seem disengaged at all. I got out some drawing paper, and we were soon having fun drawing together. The most fun came when I turned on some music, and we danced. When her father came in to pick her up at the end of the day, I chatted with him about how delightful his daughter was. I mentioned that we had lots of fun playing, and that she didn’t talk. Any idea he might have about that? It turned out they had lived in China for several years and had just moved to the states. She didn’t know English! The teacher who brought me in to work with this girl had assumed emotional disturbance, and the cause of her lack of speech was so much more straightforward! It was good to get some recommendations to the management of that daycare to help this girl get the language help she needed. I knew it would help to let her spend time with a Chinese teacher who knew both Chinese and English.

In another case, I got to work with an autistic girl. I was told she was terribly shy, and that she never talked with adults she didn’t know very well. (For some reason, kids that “don’t talk” often talk to me. It used to surprise me more. Sometimes, it still does!). I don’t remember how we got to talking — maybe she had a doll and I inquired about the doll’s name. Anyhow, she got to telling me stories. I started to notice a theme in the story she told. She was talking about a man, Arthur, who got older every time she talked about him. “Arthur is 50 years old. Arthur got a new boat because he turned 60. Arthur is 100 years old!” The main theme to her stories seemed to be the man’s aging. I think he may have been 200 by the time the play stopped! I didn’t really know this girl’s story — we’d only just met. But her mom and the girl and I were together, and the girl suddenly said, “Michaela. My daddy died.”

Oh. “Where is he? Why did he die, and where did he go?”

I don’t even remember my answer, and I’m not sure the actual words were important. This girl’s mom hadn’t understood why she was withdrawn. She was withdrawn for the same reason lots of kids get that way: It was because she had something so important bottled up inside, that this question was eclipsing her play, her words, her ability to talk to people. Working with her and her mom on talking openly about Daddy’s death could signal a new start and help her to engage in life again.

And one more story: A girl I got to play with at a domestic violence shelter. At 4, her interest in play was lower than that of most 4-year-olds. We played for a bit, but mostly, she wanted to sit close to me. And talk. And talk. And talk some more.

She needed to talk about her mommy. She needed to talk about her daddy who wasn’t around anymore but who had been mean.

And she needed to tell me how scared she had been for mommy, and for her dog. She recounted various incidents, times when her father had terrified her. And she told me that she had been trying to figure out what to do if he came to hurt mommy again. She had a childlike but elaborate idea of how she would help them escape. She had so much on her mind, and was thinking things through so hard. I was struck by her articulateness, her alertness, and also how her childlike thinking and impulses had been stunted by worries for safety, worries for mommy. We spent lots of time together. And we talked to her mommy too, her mommy who was still just working to piece together what had happened with this man. When this girl spoke to me, it seemed that she’d already decided that her mommy couldn’t help herself or her daughter. So talking with this 4 year old often felt like talking with someone very precocious who had learned early that she needed to outwit the adults around her. Underneath all the words was an aching need for attention, for contact, and to know that things were safe. It would take some work before she could be a kid again.

I love working with children. They often play out their concerns, or talk them out using thinly disguised stories or symbols. Kids are resilient, and they’re eager to heal. They give us so many indicators of what they need, and often, it’s not that difficult.

I got to work with a child who had some medical issues that required surgery. There were a couple different concerns his parents had. The child’s concerns had some overlap with the parents’, but some of the things he wanted to focus on were different — as is often the case with kids! Here’s what he worked with me on:

1. He was afraid of hospitals, and very scared before and after the surgeries. They wanted him to cope better and recover more quickly.

2. This kid had once seen a police officer come to the house next door, and he had developed a strong fear of cops or any mention of cops.

When I played with this child, it often got to feeling very, very slow and tedious. I don’t remember the precise games he led. I do remember having to work consciously to keep my energy up. I sometimes wondered, when we first started playing together, if what we were doing was going to go anywhere. It took some time for this child to let me lead much. But it turned out to be so well worth it. After about 25 minutes of play (that felt to me like 2 hours!), he began to play out the biggest issue on his mind. A police car was coming, and the cop was about to hurt everyone. I had a car in my hand, and I said, “Oh, it’s a police officer. That makes me feel better, because I know he’s here to help.” Over and over and over again, we did variants on this scenario. The kid played the person terrified of the cop. He played the cop, who was vicious and mean and scary. I played both roles too. A few weeks later, he said to me, “Guess what?” “What?” I asked. He grinned. “I’m not scared of cops anymore. They’re here to help.”

Soon, he brought up the hospital fear. Stuffed animals began to need surgery. We rotated roles again, and often! I played the bear that needed surgery, and was scared of needles. I took a deep breath with the bear. I said, “I know it will hurt a little bit for a moment, but I know I’m safe. I’m going to take a deep breath, and I’m going to ask the nurse her name and maybe tell her a story.”

I modeled different ways of getting through the fear.

And then, I played the doctor. The nurse with the needle. The patient again.

He played all the roles, and with just a few times going through these scenarios, he was settling down, trying out different skills. The real reward came when his parents reported that his next surgery had gone without incident: He was a little scared, but acted much more in control at the hospital. And he bounced back after his surgery faster than they’d seen him do before.

And then, there was something else happening throughout our work together. Attachment. It came quite clear in one session, where he whispered to me, “I have something very important to tell you. But don’t hug me, okay?”

I promised not to hug him. He smiled shyly. “I love you,” he said. And then we played some more with some stuffed animals and some toy cars. His therapy was just about complete.

Ways to work with hopeless/helpless feelings.

Sometimes, clients remark on how different their life looks now than it did before. Colors look brighter. People feel safer. There are more options rather than a sense of confinement.
Sometimes they remark on how nightmarish life had felt before they started to really feel and sense hope.
One client was telling me how vivid the darkness in her life had felt — how it felt like an unending nightmare.
That nightmare state had become her life.
She couldn’t hear or take in people’s caring.
Her self-talk had turned against her.
Hope was frightening because it felt like a mere set-up for disappointment.
She felt unlovable, worthless. And trusting others felt out of the question — How could they love her if she was as worthless as she felt convinced she was? And even if she hadn’t felt so convinced of her worthlessness, she had been let down so many times. She had felt like it would be foolish to trust anyone else.
What a bind.
A month into our work, her feelings were so different. That didn’t mean those old feelings never emerged. We still had lots of work to do. But she could recognize the nightmare as a nightmare, and she had ways to wake up.
And that’s one of the huge things that I want you to know, if you’re feeling alone, unlovable, panicked, hateful or hated, or in the grip of old memories or guilt or shame. It’s like you’re in a nightmare. Or a trance. And when you get stuck in one of those places, it’s a bit like listening to a scratched record that plays the same little segment over and over again. You lose track of the overall music, the flow…..You lose track of the fact that there’s so much more than this little tidbit that keeps playing over and over again.
Your thoughts seem to lose meaning as you get stuck on just one feeling or thought or theme.
Moving forward feels impossible.
Over and over again, clients discover that these loops inside are based on misunderstandings. Their worst feelings about themselves are based in lies. What they think of as life is more like a nightmare, and they just are so lost in it that they don’t realize that they can wake up.
So how do you awake from a nightmare of feeling lost, hopeless, helpless, alone?
First off, recognize the nightmarish quality to your feelings. Very often, I see people whose nightmare is perpetuated by trying to pretend that it doesn’t hurt inside, that they’re not feeling stuck. They keep trying to smile or cheer themselves up, and it’s an interesting paradox: Until you acknolwedge how stuck you feel, it’s difficult to get unstuck.
-Recognize that, when you feel bad, your brain tends to select memories that reinforce the feeling. Ever noticed that, when you feel sad, it tends to bring up memories of other times you’ve felt sad? Knowing this can help you to realize that your brain is doing what brains do and associating this time with other times that felt similar. That doesn’t mean there haven’t been good times or times you felt lovable, competent, and like you belonged. Those times are just not so easy to access from here.
Sometimes I describe this is working something like a file cabinet in your mind. You get sad, and it opens up your “sadness” file. And from that file, the whole world feels sad.
It’s not. But that’s the way it feels.
-Acknowledge how you’re feeling, but try a few differences in how you say it to yourself. Instead of saying, “Nothing works out for me,” say to yourself, “It’s feeling right now like nothing works,” or “A part of me is feeling like nothing works.”
-Get help. Some nightmares are too big to face all alone. Talk to a friend, or a counselor, or someone who can help.
-Focus on your sensations instead of the story. Notice the sensations that go alone with “hopeless” or whatever the feeling is. Is there a sinking in your stomach? Does your heart race?
-Now that you’ve connected with your sensations, connect to your environment. Let yourself look around and notice where you are. A weird thing I’ve learned about these nightmare kinds of states: They can produce a kind of tunnel vision. You may be so oriented to the thoughts that you’re not noticing where you are. So it’s a simple technique, but it can be a powerful one, to acknowledge, “I’m feeling very sad, and I’m also looking around, and I notice my bookshelf, and my stuffed bear, and…..”
Try it and see if it does something to shift your state of mind!
One thing I want you to know:
Nightmares can feel so very real when you’re in the middle of them. But they’re not real. If you’ve ever comforted a small child who has just waken from a nightmare, you know that sometimes it takes lots of repetition and comfort to help that child to reorient to reality.
You deserve help to come back to reality as well, to wake up from what feels like you’ll later realize was much like a bad dream or a nightmare.