Stop Being Taken Advantage Of: Know Your Rights

By popular demand, here's a little follow up to my previous post, Are You Feeling Taken Advantage Of?, which describes basic concepts and skills of assertiveness.

As described before, assertiveness means standing up for your rights and not being taken advantage of. 

Many people, especially women, have difficulty with assertiveness for fear of seeming aggressive or "bitchy", thereby worrying about displeasing others and not being liked.  But how is being assertive different from being aggressive?

Aggressive behavior is typically punishing, hostile, blaming, and demanding. It can involve threats, name-calling, and even actual physical contact. It can also involve sarcasm, catty comments, gossip and "slips of the tongue."  

Being aggressive means standing up for yourself in ways that violate the rights of others. On the other hand, being assertive means communicating clearly, respecting your own rights and feelings and the rights and feelings of others.

The first step to developing assertiveness is knowing your rights.  This will make it easier to stand up for them.  Often we have difficulty standing up for ourselves because we don't know if we have the right to.  

Here is a list of basic rights to consider when standing up for yourself:

  • The right to be treated with respect.
  • The right to say no without feeling guilty.
  • The right to experience your feelings.
  • The right to take time to slow down and think.
  • The right to change your mind.
  • The right to ask for what you want/need.
  • The right to ask for information.
  • The right to make mistakes.
  • The right to say, “I don’t know.”
  • The right to be listened to and taken seriously.
  • The right to set your own priorities.

If we know and can remind ourselves of these rights, we can then formulate responses to difficult and stressful situations that require assertiveness.  For more tips on assertiveness, feel free to check out again my previous post.

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Self-Care for the Holidays

Ah, it's that time of year again.  You may have started your holiday planning and shopping, RSVPing to various events, and/or getting ready to host.  For most of us, the holidays are a mix of excitement, gift giving and receiving, and spending time with the ones we love.

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On the flip side, it may also involve running harried, stretching ourselves too thin, dealing with competing demands, and family drama.  Relationships may become (more) strained.  Whereas some level of increased stress is to be expected, the holidays can also bring out additional difficult feelings, such as grief and loneliness.

The need for self-care and boundaries is higher than ever at this time of year, although ironically we likely have less time to do so.  Here are some things to consider:

  • Be kind and gentle with yourself.  When multiple demands compete for our energy and attention, it becomes increasingly difficult to stay in the present and enjoy the moment.  
  • Identify now how you want to take care of yourself.  For some, this means scheduling time with a dear friend.  For others, it could be unwinding with hot tea or cocoa at night and sticking to an exercise routine.
  • Notice when you become reactive.  When you notice having a shorter fuse, for example, take a long and gentle moment to reflect on what is really causing it.  What may initially feel like annoyance with slow moving lines or traffic, might really be about pressure to keep up, or feeling taken advantage of, or having familiar buttons pushed by a family member.
  • Holiday stress may get acted out in relationships.  This may create a wish to withdraw from others or engage in various escape fantasies.  Be careful not to entirely give in - spending meaningful quality time with others usually leaves us feeling better. 
  • Be aware how you respond to interpersonal conflict.  Do you pursue or withdraw?  These patterns may get exacerbated with holiday stress.  Just being aware can help you modify your responses to others.
  • Be a clear communicator.  Let others know what you're willing and able to contribute, and also communicate what you are not able to do.  Read this post about assertiveness skills.
  • If you are spending the holidays alone, plan quality time for yourself as well as some time to be around others.  Joining a community that has meaning to you, religious or secular, is good for mental health.  Volunteering and giving back during the holidays can be immensely rewarding.  Shifting focus from inward to outward can help put difficult feelings in perspective.  Plan your participation early as volunteer opportunities on holidays fill up quickly.
  • Take note of what you are grateful for.  It helps put things in perspective.

Happy holidays to you and yours!

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Understanding Depression

A startling finding: The World Health Organization has determined that depression is the most burdensome disease in the world today. It robs adults of more productive days of life than AIDS, cancer, or heart disease.

What is depression?  What is it not?  We all know the feeling of being sad or "blue" after experiencing a loss or disappointment.  It may last a few days or a few weeks.  But when do we start talking about an actual "depression" in clinical terms?

Common signs of clinical depression include:

  • Frequently feeling sad and/or guilty
  • Eating more or less (including significant weight loss)
  • Sleeping more or less
  • Loss of interest in things you usually enjoy
  • Low energy, fatigue
  • Irritability
  • Difficulty concentrating and making decisions
  • Thoughts about death and suicide

While the above signs are more common, everyone is different.  The following may also indicate depression for some people:

  • Increased use of alcohol and drugs
  • Anger
  • Difficulty envisioning a hopeful future
  • Helplessness
  • Increased aches, pains, or bodily ailments

Depressive episodes can be situational - that is, they occur after a stressful event or events (for example, death or loss of a loved one, diagnosis of severe or terminal illness, children leaving home, divorce, persistent stressful job conditions, academic stress/difficulty, job loss, and other extremely stressful situations).  Or, it can happen for what appears to be no reason at all, literally out of the blue.  Research shows that clinical depression can also occur when stressors in the environment combine with a genetic or biological disposition.  If depression runs in your family, you are likely more vulnerable to also being depressed.

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Depression is a complex and serious illness, comparable to diabetes or heart disease.  You can't just "snap out of it" by pulling yourself up by your bootstraps or thinking happy thoughts.  People with depression need professional treatment, just like people with diabetes and heart disease do.

What helps?  Talk therapy can help individuals determine what life circumstances may contribute to their depression and how to address them.  Therapy can also teach important skills to lower stress and address recurring negative thoughts that happen with depression.  Antidepressant medications can help normalize chemical imbalances in the brain that contribute to depression.  A helpful analogy to consider when thinking about antidepressants:  Just like insulin can help a person with diabetes whose pancreas no longer produces it, antidepressants can help a person with depression whose brain may be low on certain chemicals, or neurotransmitters.  More and more novel treatments are being researched and becoming available for people with recurring and treatment-resistent depression.

Only about one-third of individuals with depression seek treatment.  It is quite common for someone to live with depression for years, even decades, before deciding to seek help.  The sooner a person can get treatment, the higher their chances for recovery.  

If you know someone who is depressed, offer a supportive, non-judgmental, and listening ear.  Then offer your support in getting the person professional help and treatment.  Remember - depression is an illness that can linger, worsen, and/or recur if left untreated.  Remember, there is hope and there is help.

 I am a Houston psychologist who specializes in treating depression.  

Please click here for an inspiring article in the New York Times on new approaches of treating depression in developing countries, impacted by war, famine, AIDS, natural disasters, and other trauma.

You and Your Shadow

 "To confront a person with his own shadow is to show him his own light." ~ Carl Gustav Jung

Strong, negative emotions can catch us by surprise, and can be incongruent with who we know ourselves to be.  Feeling irritable for no apparent reason, or catching an unexpected frown on our face in the mirror, are perfect examples.   Wouldn't it be so wonderful to have a magic way to make fearfulness, anger, and insecurity disappear for good?  

We all have a "dark side", or shadow.  The shadow is represented by deep mental grooves that lead to negative feelings and behaviors.  Besides triggering strong feelings, it may result in unwanted habits, such as being habitually late, self-sabotaging, or spreading gossip about others.  Other examples are stretching the truth, erupting at the ones close to us, or masking insecurity with pride and boastfulness.  The shadow is the person you'd rather not be.  It personifies the selfish, unpredictable, primitive, egocentric, and violent aspects of yourself.  These 

undesirable

 aspects of self have often been dis-owned by consciousness, nicely packaged and filed away deep in the unconscious.  

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As painful as these aspects can be, they have important lessons to teach us once we bring them into consciousness.  Let's take the example of

Nora*

, an administrative assistant at a medical office.  Nora took pride in being a conscientious worker and "always going the extra mile" for her supervisor and patients.  Over time, she found herself having resentful feelings towards her boss, the medical director, whom she perceived as neglectful and irresponsible in patient care.  She became irritable with him in meetings and found herself frequently rolling her eyes around him.  After meeting with a therapist and exploring her feelings and behaviors, Nora became aware that her judgment about her boss mirrored her judgments and fears about herself.  She herself was insecure and afraid of seeming "incompetent", which she covered by over-functioning in numerous ways.  When Nora became aware of the harshness of her inner judge, she was able to let go of the resentment and judgment of her boss.  Their relationship subsequently improved.  More important, Nora was able to feel more compassion for herself.

Raising awareness for one's shadow is important.  Getting to the root of these feelings and behaviors can be liberating and improve our relationships to ourselves and others.  So how do we do this?  Here are some tips:

  • Listen to feedback from others about your behaviors (eg, about being habitually late, having a short fuse, etc.).  
  • Notice when an encounter with a person leaves you feeling emotionally charged.  Look at your reaction to people you feel strongly negatively about.
  • Recognize that the "dark" qualities you react to in others may be feared or unacknowledged aspects of yourself.  
  • Consider what (harsh, unrealistic) expectations you have of yourself, others, and the world.
  • Consider talking to a counseling professional to gain perspective and depth of understanding.

*

Nora and her example are purely fictional for illustrative purposes of this article.  Any resemblance to actual people is purely coincidental.

Third Culture Kids

A home away from home.  Caught between cultures.  A foreigner in your own land.  These phrases all describe the experience of a third culture kid.  The term "third-culture kids" refers to children who spend a significant amount of developmental or formative time outside their (parents') home culture.  Children of military, missionaries, or other expats are good examples.  This results in an interesting phenomenon - these children, caught between two cultures, create a culture of their own.  

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Spending one's formative years in another country means that third culture kids internalize that country's customs, culture, and language, while also retaining their home culture and language.  At the same time, however, they are perceived as foreigners in their host country.  They create a "third culture" to deal with this tension.  This usually means spending lots of time with others who experience the same situation - usually other third culture individuals, who can bond around the same shared experience.  Often, third culture kids have multiple stays abroad, at times in multiple countries, therefore repeating this process over and over again.

Here are some interesting positive trends observed in Third Culture Kids:

  • They usually do well academically (40% have postgraduate degrees or doctorates) and usually grow into successful professionals.
  • They adapt to new situations quickly and are skilled at navigating culturally diverse social situations.  
  • They develop excellent communication and diplomatic skills, and pick up new languages quickly.
  • They have good self-confidence.

Some challenges faced by Third Culture Kids are:

  • They may have difficulty immersing themselves completely in the host culture.  As adults, they may often feel like perpetual outsiders, regardless of their environment.
  • Making new friends and saying goodbye becomes routine, often creating an out-of-sight-out-of-mind attitude.  It can be hard to maintain close friendships and relationships.
  • Returning to one's home country after many years can lead to "reverse culture shock".  Third culture individuals are expected to remember how to behave at home, which can be hard when you've internalized other cultures.  Peers in the home country have moved on within their own cultural customs.  This, too, can lead to feeling like an outsider.
  • For the third culture kid, the home country can prove to be more foreign than previous host countries, and many of them create and retain their own, separate identity as a third culture person.  Many move abroad again as adults, and will work and raise their family in a foreign country.

Support for third culture kids is crucial.  Their adjustment usually depends on their personality, the duration of the stay abroad, their age, the parent-child relationship, family support and circumstances, and parents' attitude.  Giving third culture kids a sense of stability and consistency is important.  Parents should encourage safe and supportive dialogue around cultural and social issues.  Parents are also encouraged to support safe immersion in the host culture and promote learning of the host language(s), and interaction with locals.  And when returning home, parents should expect their children to experience reverse culture shock, and be supportive and available in this process.  Finally, parents of third culture kids may need to get their own outside support to help cope with these challenges.

Resources for Third Culture Kids:

TCK World

Denizen Online Magazine

Book:  

Third Culture Kids: Growing Up Among Worlds

What to Expect in Therapy and Counseling

Psychotherapy and counseling serves many purposes.  It can provide relief from anxiety, stress and depression.  It can help you work through a personal or professional crisis and productively address conflicts in your life.  It can help you navigate numerous life transitions.  It may help uncover reasons behind recurring patterns in relationships or unproductive behaviors.  It can make it possible for you to change those things you are able to change, and can help you bear those things that can't be changed.  

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The decision to enter therapy or counseling often arises from challenging circumstances.  So what is it about therapy that works?  Research has shown that the most consistent aspect of therapy that promotes healthy change is a

safe and trusting therapeutic relationship.

It's therefore important that you find a therapist with whom you feel comfortable to be yourself.  

Powerful insight and change often happens as a result of a positive relationship between therapist and client.  This doesn't mean that your therapist won't challenge you or at times disagree with you; however, in order for this to happen effectively, there has to be a trusting relationship first.  The therapeutic relationship can be a great model for a healthy relationship.  Your therapist should be attentive and you should feel that they have your best interests at heart.   It may be a good idea to "interview" a few potential therapist candidates over the phone before making a decision about who is right for you.

The first step of the process should involve a thorough evaluation of your concerns and life history. Your therapist will collect factual information about you, including the nature of the problem that prompted you to seek help, a history of past and present emotional and psychological concerns, any medical issues and medications you're taking, and your past and present use of drugs and alcohol.  Your therapist should also ask about your family and social history.  This process is very comparable to first seeing a medical clinician, who gathers your medical history to arrive at a diagnosis and treatment plan.  After the information gathering process is completed, you and your therapist will design a plan for your therapy and establish realistic goals.

The therapy process depends on your therapist's theoretical orientation.

.  Nowadays, most therapy and counseling consists of a series of interactive conversations.  Most therapists will not present as cooly detached observers, but rather ask questions, make comments, and offer suggestions.  For example, as a therapist, I consider one of my main missions to help each client uncover the best answers and solutions that are uniquely right for them.

As a result of therapy and counseling, you should hopefully understand yourself better, have more positive feelings, and increase healthy behaviors. 

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Simple Ways to Boost Your Mood and Confidence

Positivity and confidence are important building blocks in life.  Often they are the prerequisite for other positive changes.  They keep us moving forward (instead of looking backwards) and connected to others.  Here are some simple ways to build mood and confidence boosters into your everyday life:

  • Evaluate your choices:  Take inventory about what is currently going on in your life:  in your relationships, workspace and environment.  Determine the aspects of your life that you can change positively, then focus on them.  Also acknowledge the things that you cannot change, and move on. Make sure to only invest energy in the things that are worth your while.  It may help to write them down.
  • Eliminate negativity:  If there are people and situations that leave you drained and grumpy on a regular basis, re-evaluate their place in your schedule and your life.  For example - a friendship should leave you energized, rather than drained, most of the time.
  • Stop blaming yourself:  When something doesn't go as expected, don't dwell on it.  Rather than beating yourself up about human mistakes, take a deep breath, regroup, and figure out your next steps.
  • Make time for exercise:  This helps burn off stress hormones and leaves you feeling relaxed and refreshed.  Exercise is also known to counteract mild to moderate depression and improves confidence.
  • Get social support:  Make time for dates with friends.  This helps reduce stress, improves health, and gives you something to look forward to.
  • Learn something new:  Novelty is good for the brain and the soul.  Pick up a new hobby, craft, skill, or language.  You will improve your confidence and may meet new people that share your passion.
  • Reward yourself:  Break down your goals into small, manageable benchmarks.  When you reach a benchmark, reward yourself with something healthy.  For example, after you finish cleaning a room, make time for a healthy snack or a phone call to a friend.
  • Nurture your mind:  Surround yourself with positive music, entertainment, and art.  Avoid movies or TV shows that leave you feeling stressed, anxious, and negative.
Make self-care a priority in your life.  If this is consistently hard for you, you may wish to consult with a licensed mental health professional for support.  

Are You Feeling Taken Advantage Of?

It's a nagging, uneasy feeling - when you feel like another person crossed a boundary and you feel used.  Sometimes these situations are hard to pinpoint, and you notice much later how you actually feel about it.  Other times it's immediately apparent.  A boss asks you to stay late for the third time in a week, a friend doesn't pay their share on a tab, a family member asks for repeated favors that start to take up much time and energy.  These are just a a few examples that may cause you to feel taken advantage of, and this in turn may cause anxiety, stress, anger, and resentment.

Often our needs and opinions will differ from another person's.  We can only guess what another person's intentions may be behind their requests or demands.  However, we can be in full control of how we respond to these requests.  Lots of people, especially women, struggle with assertiveness. 

Assertiveness

is the very essential skill of communicating clearly with others, while respecting your own rights and feelings as well as the rights and feelings of others.  

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What causes people to avoid being assertive?  Often it's for fear of displeasing others and of not being liked.  However, this leaves you vulnerable to being taken advantage of over and over again in the long run.  Acting assertively is not acting aggressively, passively, or passive-aggressively.  It means being direct, honest and open about your feelings, opinions, and needs.

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  • Stating reasonable requests directly and firmly.
  • Stating your goals and intentions in a direct and honest manner.
  • Stating your point of view without being hesitant or apologetic.  
  • Being able to say "no" without guilt to unreasonable requests.
  • Asking for help when you need it
  • Asking for clarification when you're confused.
  • Respectfully volunteering your opinions even when they're different from others.
  • Using assertive body language - face a person squarely, straight upper body, good eye contact, being calm but firm
  • Taking your time ("Let me think about that").

Here is a basic script for setting a boundary with someone, aka guidelines to saying "no" to a request.

  1. Acknowledge the person's request by repeating it.  This shows respect for the other person's rights and needs.
  2. Explain your reason for declining.
  3. Say no.
  4. (Optional) If appropriate, suggest an alternative proposal where both your and the other person's needs will be met.

An example:  Let's say another person asks you to help them move, but you have already made plans or have an important deadline.  You may respond: "I understand you need some help moving (acknowledgment).  I'd like to help out but I promised my boyfriend we would go away for the weekend (explanation), so I'm not going to be available (saying no).  I hope you can find someone else."    Again, assertiveness means being direct, honest, and respecting your own rights and needs as well as theirs.

For a latest follow-up post on assertiveness on my blog, click here.

Assertiveness is a very important subject affecting our lives every day.  It takes awareness and lots of practice.  It is hard to be assertive for many of us.  If you find yourself being passive, aggressive, or passive-aggressive instead of being assertive, and this is pervasive in several areas in your life, talking to a trained licensed professional, such as a psychologist, can help.  I offer assertiveness training in my practice, as well as the opportunity to explore what may make it difficult for you personally to be assertive.  

Food and Emotions

We need food to sustain and nurture ourselves.  And food is intricately linked to both positive and negative emotions for almost all human beings.  For example, many cultures embrace the use of food for celebration or to provide comfort in times of sadness or emotional distress. It’s normal for us  to associate food with our emotions.

But how do we know when we are feeding an emotional, rather than a physical, hunger?  And when does this become a problem?  "Emotional Eating" is a behavior that is dictated by the way you are feeling at the moment. Whenever you experience pain, frustration, depression, or boredom, you turn to food to fill the void and satisfy your emotional hunger. While you feel fulfilled during the process, afterwards you’re often left feeling worse than before. It becomes a problem when emotionally driven food habits take over from healthy eating and result in uncontrolled weight gain.  Emotional hunger has been tied to many eating disorders such as bulimia and binge eating. 

Here are some ways to distinguish emotional and physical hunger:

Emotional Hunger:

  Is sudden

  Is for a specific food

Is urgent

  Is paired with upsetting emotions and situations

  Involves automatic or absent-minded eating

  Does not respond to fullness

  Comes with feelings of guilt

Physical Hunger:

  Is gradual

  Is open to different foods

Is patient

  Occurs out of a physical need

  Involves deliberate choices and awareness of the eating

  Stops when full

  Realizes eating is necessary

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The most common feelings that trigger emotional eating are stress, anxiety, boredom, loneliness, anger or frustration, and sadness.  The next time you’re going through an emotional phase, instead of reaching for snack food, you may want to try some of the following:

  • Stop and evaluate your feelings. Become aware of what is happening and know that if you can ride it out, it will eventually pass.  All feelings are temporary.
  • Take time out to write what you are feeling down. 
  • Release your feelings.  If you need to cry, do so.
  • Develop new mood regulation strategies.  For example, when you are anxious or stressed, try exercising, taking a hot bath or have a hot beverage.  Or call a friend you trust to talk about what is bothering you.
  • Food issues can be very complex and often involve messages we received from our families.  Awareness is key.  Often talking to a licensed professional, like a psychologist, can help.

Improving Relationships Through Vulnerability

A universal and very human struggle is how we can feel less alone and more connected to others.  Attachment is hardwired into our brains.  Like it or not, we are all social creatures in need of connection.  It's a basic need for survival, dating back to when we are newborns and are so utterly dependent on another human being to continue life.

In a now famous lecture on TED.com, Dr. Brene Brown spoke about the important concept of worthiness.  The fear that we are unworthy, she says, keeps us from fully connecting to others in our lives, and keeps us isolated and afraid.   Dr. Brown's research shows that people with a sense of worthiness believe they deserve love and belonging, have self-compassion, and possess the amazing courage to be imperfect.  People who have a strong sense of worthiness are also willing to take more interpersonal risks - they are willing to make themselves vulnerable in relationships while being comfortable with the idea that there are no guarantees and certainties in relationships.  They allow themselves to be seen and known by others while embracing their imperfections.

As a society, we are obsessed with perfection.  This also means obsession with appearing not-vulnerable.

 Perfection can mean an unhealthy preoccupation with trying to make all the uncertainties in life certain - a futile quest.  When we realize that we are indeed vulnerable human beings, we tend to try to numb this often scary feeling - by acquiring material goods and overspending, turning to food and drugs, avoiding responsibility and blaming others (just to name a few examples).

Dr. Brown says we all have an immense fear of disconnection from others; she calls this the definition of shame.  This fear is part of being human.  She suggests that in order to improve relationships and have that real connection, we could consider making ourselves vulnerable:

- To let ourselves be seen by others as we truly are

- To love with our whole hearts even though there's no guarantee

Practice gratitude and joy in everyday life

- Embrace the belief that we are enough, that we are worthy of love

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The power of vulnerability - what a concept!

Dr. Brown's full lecture is available here.

New Year's Resolutions - How About a Little Self-Compassion?

Right now we're in that funny place "between the years" - recovering from heavy meals, holiday get togethers, and getting ready for the new year.  New Year's Resolutions are starting to pop up in conversations.  These resolutions can take on a variety of shapes.  Increasing health and fitness, along with decreasing unhealthy habits, is probably one of the most common New Year's resolutions (did you know there's a public run in New York City's Central Park at the stroke of midnight of 1/1/12?).  Others resolve to improve their relationships, change their world view, volunteer and give back, set new priorities, work less and play more, or play less and work more.  I'd like to propose another option - increasing self-compassion.  

Too often do we beat ourselves up about mistakes we make or failing to achieve a goal.  While this may be an attempt at self-discipline, it often unfortunately backfires by creating more pressure, stress, anxiety, or even depression.  Most of us would agree that it's easier to feel sympathy and compassion for others than for ourselves.  How about starting to turn a little of that inward - accepting that we make mistakes, and being warm and understanding towards ourselves.  When we start looking at our imperfections and life's difficulties with self-compassion, we recognize that we can be gentle with ourselves and approach our position in life with sympathy and kindness.  This can ultimately lead to greater emotional balance.  

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Kristin Neff, a prominent researcher on self-compassion, defines self-compassion as a two-fold concept.  First, self-compassion entails noticing that we are suffering at a given moment.  Let's say you beat yourself up about your failure to complete a task on time.  Instead of playing over and over in your head that you did something wrong, try to recognize that you are having a hard time with this.  Second, self-compassion means that you feel warmth and care towards yourself, along with a desire to soothe your pain.  So instead of judging yourself harshly for your failure to complete a task, try extending understanding and kindness towards yourself when you fail or make mistakes.  

Now you may find yourself wondering how this approach will help you accomplish your goals.  You may even find yourself arguing that unless you discipline or judge or criticize yourself, you will "never" get where you need to be.  I encourage you to ponder how self-compassion may actually help you become happy and healthy.  By accepting that like others, you too are a human being who is less than perfect and makes mistakes, you can start to let go of unrealistic hurdles you place in your own way.  Life does not always happen according to our expectations.  That's okay.  That's what makes us part of this place called Earth, of this wonderful and diverse humanity.  Every single being on this earth has encountered frustration, loss, made mistakes.  We are all part of this.  Accepting this instead of fighting against it can make things so much easier for ourselves and those around us.

Some resources to learn more about and increase self-compassion:

- Visit  Kristin Neff's website.  

- A great book is The Mindful Path to Self-Compassion by C.K. Germer

- Talking to a psychologist or other licensed mental health professional can be a great help. 

Staying Sane During The Holidays - Part II

I ran across this fantastic column in the Huffington Post and felt like I needed to share it here.  The author is Laura Munson, who has also written a book and a column in the

New York Times.  In the spirit of the holiday season and taking care of oneself during this hurried time, consider this an opportunity to stop, breathe, and re-prioritize your life.  For more tips on staying sane during the holidays, please also see my previous blog entry.

Check out this great column by clicking on the link below:

Why I'm Not Micromanaging Christmas This Year

by Laura Munson

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Job Burnout - Are You At Risk?

"Without work, all life goes rotten, 

But when work is soulless, life stifles and dies." - Albert Camus

Feeling stressed at work and unfulfilled by one's job is a familiar topic to most people.  But there is a difference between having a difficult set of days or weeks and actual job burnout.  Burnout is not an all or nothing phenomenon.  Fluctuations in motivation and enthusiasm are normal.  Job burnout occurs when enthusiasm and motivation have completely dried up while your job skills and knowledge remain intact - a very frustrating feeling.  Those hardest hit by job burnout are people in the helping and medical professions, those who make high stakes or life and death decisions, and those whose work is very detail oriented.

Burnout is a cumulative process and it is important to be in in tune with early warning signals:

- Loss of interest in work

- Emotional fatigue

- Increased moodiness and irritability in both personal and professional situations

- Increasing frustration with everyday responsibilities at work

- Inability to re-charge your internal batteries while not working

- Interpersonal problems marked by decreased tolerance and patience

- Social withdrawal - becoming aloof and inaccessible

- Indifference towards people and dehumanization of those you work with (eg, thinking of clients as objects not people)

- Health problems as a result of chronic tension or stress

- Substance abuse as a way to cope with difficult feelings

- Declining performance at work

- Being emotionally or physically absent from work

- Ceasing to find meaning in your work

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Most people suffering from burnout share an experience of powerlessness, hopelessness, and helplessness.  They lose a sense of being able to control their work and self-confidence takes a major dwindling hit.  

Re-establishing a sense of empowerment and confidence is key to addressing job burnout.

  Before deciding whether or not to quit a job, it is important that you get yourself to a replenished and rational place first.

Here are some tips to help you reclaim a sense of personal control:

-Learn better ways to manage stress.  Healthy coping is key to replenish those dead batteries and get you to a place where you can clearly assess and evaluate what to do next about your job situation.

-Seek social support.  Even though the first instinct during burnout may be to withdraw from others, it is important to counteract this instinct.  Build a solid network made up of friends, family, and coworkers.

-Increase your knowledge base.  By continuing to build your marketable job skills set, you increase your personal and professional sense of empowerment.

- Manage negative thoughts.  See my previous blog entry on Talking Back to Your Internal Chatterbox to learn how to manage types of thinking that can take control of your emotions.

- Develop detached concern.  This means learning to let go of attachment to how things could or ought to be - a skill that becomes immeasurable especially when you are working with serious or impossible situations.

- If all else fails, consider changing jobs

.  However, it is paramount that you analyze the source of your job dissatisfaction first and explore what is needed to improve the situation.

Talking to a mental health professional who specializes in job burnout can be a powerful tool to regain a sense of control.  It can help to have a neutral person to process the above topic with.  I am a Houston psychologist and enjoy working with job burnout concerns. 

Stay Sane During The Holidays

Ah, they are sneaking up on us - signs of imminent holidays.  Decorations are popping up both indoors and outdoors, there is faint hint of a jingle in the air, commercials are calling out, media programming reflects that 'tis the season, and stores are starting to buzz.  The holidays can fill us with excitement, anticipation, joy, and...stress.  There are parties to attend and/or throw, family get-togethers to get through, gifts to buy (if you're giving), homes and spaces to decorate, and work deadlines to meet.

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For almost anyone, the holidays are accompanied by mixed feelings.  The season calls for celebration, companionship, and (for many) spiritual reflection.  Yet we also often find ourselves confronted by hastiness, feelings of running out of time, financial challenges, and navigating the minefield of family relationships and related politics.

How can we stay grounded in the next few weeks?  Here are some things to consider:

1.  Set healthy boundaries with yourself and others.  This means knowing when to say no.  It also means not letting yourself get pulled into toxic relationship dynamics, often rekindled at family get-togethers.  Pick and fight your own battles, and let others do the same.  Know when to step out and give yourself time to catch your breath.

2.  Practice self-care.  This means staying in tune with your stress level and practicing active stress-management.  Pay attention to your body - the holidays often pack on the pounds, so set your food goals early on.  This could mean limiting your intake of sweets (just one cookie for me, thanks) and avoiding going back for seconds.  Make time to exercise. Make time to relax with a cup of tea.

3.  Connect meaningfully.  Think about the relationships in your life which leave you filling energized instead of depleted.  In the holiday rush, we may lack time to make that phone call or have coffee with a friend.  Be mindful of your time to allow for meaningful conversations and connections.  Holidays can be a time of sadness and loneliness.  Seek support when needed.

4.  Take time to reflect.  Make sure to allow space for spirituality or meaning, whatever this means to you personally, during this season.

Happy Holidays!

If you are having trouble navigating the many stressors of the holiday season, support is essential.  Sometimes, talking to mental health professional can help. 

Gratitude - It's Good For You

It's that time of the year when things are getting busy.  Thanksgiving is about one month away, and before we know it, the holidays and new year will be upon us.  This is a hectic time.  It's easy to lose touch with self-care and we may take pause less often.  What better way to give ourselves a break, especially with Thanksgiving approaching, than by acknowledging what we're grateful for.  As it turns out, practicing regular gratitude helps boost our physical, social, and psychological well-being.  More important, being grateful appears to be one of the major keys to happiness.

What makes gratitude so transformative?  First, it brings us back to the present moment by teaching us to value something we have, as opposed to fretting about something we don't have.  It allows us to notice the positives in our lives more mindfully, and move away from taking things for granted.  Second, gratitude is a wonderful antidote to toxic, negative emotions.  Try feeling resentful or envious while also feeling grateful - it won't work.  Third, gratitude gives us perspective during negative life events or stressful times.  It helps us take a step back and re-evaluate.  And finally, by recognizing what has been given and provided to us by others, we can learn to see ourselves in a more positive light.

So how can we cultivate this important virtue of gratitude?  Here are three simple tips:

1.  Keep a gratitude journal.  Every night, jot down 3 things you are grateful for.  This is like counting your blessings consciously and mindfully.

2.  Accept lessons learned, even hard ones, with gratitude.

3.  Make "thank you" a daily part of your vocabulary.  Besides using it consciously with strangers (such as the bagger at the grocery store), also make it a point to sit down with a loved one and tell them why you appreciate them.  It will do you both good.

Gratitude is an important part of emotional health and can also be one of the many techniques learned in counseling or psychotherapy.  

To read more about the gratitude research that inspired this posting, visit Dr. Emmons' article at

http://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/why_gratitude_is_good/

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Negativity: Talking Back To Your Internal Chatterbox

Thousands of thoughts run through our head every day. 

Just consider your own internal dialogues all day long – about your own actions, about others’ behaviors, about the world as a whole, about what has happened in the past, about what is yet to happen.  The way we talk to ourselves can be positive, negative, or neutral.  Or even a mix of all of those.  Self-talk is often a mostly automatic and even unconscious process.  These dialogues can turn very unpleasant – such as beating yourself up in the face of perceived “failure”.

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Needless to say, the way we talk to ourselves can give rise to many different emotions. For example, if you tell yourself that if you don’t do well on tomorrow’s presentation at work, then you’ll never get promoted.  Or if you feel like a conversation with a friend felt awkward and you find yourself wondering if they now think less of you.  Both of these examples of self-talk can result in feelings of anxiety or hopelessness.  The key about making self-talk more constructive is learning to be more gentle and compassionate in the ways we talk to ourselves.

Cognitive and cognitive-behavioral therapists work with their clients to change negative self-talk into more rational responses.  The goal is that if we can start recognizing our own automatic negative thoughts and then turn them around, we can feel better about ourselves and the world around us.  Much research has been done to back this up as an effective form of therapy, especially for anxiety and depressive disorders. 

There are different categories of negative self-talk, and if you work with a cognitive or cognitive-behavioral therapist, you will get to know them intimately.  Below are some examples of negative self-talk (also called “cognitive distortions”) and more gentle alternatives.  Note that these are simple examples for illustrative purposes.

1. Should statements:

  • Negative Self-Talk:  I should be able to deal with stressful situations better.
  • Better:  I know how to deal with stress and I am having a hard time right now.

2 .  Disqualifying the positive:

  • Negative Self-Talk:  I hate my life, it always is so difficult.
  • Better:  There are some things going on right now that are difficult and also some things that are actually going right.

3. Emotional reasoning:

  • Negative Self-Talk:  I don't feel good right now, so it feels like I can't handle anything.
  • Better:  I feel like I can't handle things right now and I know I can.

4.  Catastrophizing: 

  • Negative Self-Talk:  If I don't do well on this work presentation, my boss will think poorly of me, I'll never get that promotion, and eventually I'll be jobless and homeless.
  • Better:  Nobody's perfect.  I'll do my best on the presentation and know that less than perfect is not the end of the world.

If negative self-talk is ingrained in the way you think, and is regularly

impacting your mood and relationships, you might consider working with a psychologist or other licensed mental health professional.  Also look for a future installment on this blog about how to foster more self-compassion. 

Is Therapy for Me? Acute vs. Chronic Reasons to Seek Help

Most people seek out therapy or counseling during times of crisis – such as acute problems in love relationships, grief and loss, feelings of debilitating anxiety or panic, or urgent career issues.  However, many individuals are also confronted with chronic feelings of emptiness and lack of happiness.

Such individuals may have all material creature comforts but nonetheless feel that nothing truly makes them happy.  They may have the perfect partner, family, great friends, a fulfilling career.  But they struggle with the very real and human feeling that no outside influence is able to provide any true meaning to their lives.  Sooner or later they may come to the realization that they must search for meaning and happiness inside of themselves.

What is the meaning of life?  Where can we find it?  This question reaches further than any therapy.  But therapy or counseling can certainly help start or advance the journey to the answer(s).  I recommend that anyone who has suffered a lack of happiness for a significant amount of time should ask themselves these questions:

-   Have I lost the ability to feel joy?

-   Have I lost interest in activities or things I used to enjoy?

-   Do I feel guilt or resentment, but I don’t know why or against whom?

-   Do I feel anxious or restless for no apparent reason?

-   Am I obsessed with perfection?

-   Do I always have to be better or more successful than others?

-   Have I lost hope?

If the answer to one or more of these questions is “yes”, it may be good time for you to explore the option of therapy or counseling.  The goal of therapy may not be to reach ultimate happiness, but rather to remove barriers and inhibitions on the way to finding it.

I believe the poet Rainer Maria Rilke captured the very human struggle to find meaning perfectly when he wrote: 

“Be patient toward all that is unresolved in your heart. Try to love the questions themselves. Do not now seek the answers which cannot be given to you because you would not be able to live them now. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps, you will then gradually without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”

I am a Houston psychologist and I work with both couples and individuals.  Call me for a free consultation at 713-364-8328 or visit DrGortner.com for more information on my services.

How Do I Learn to Love Myself?

Our culture uses the terms “self-esteem” and “self-worth” liberally.  Thousands of books are published on it every year and hundreds of opinions written on it every day.  Many of us are constantly and painfully aware of our real or imagined shortcomings and their interference with self-acceptance and self-love.   Consequently, many of us are on a constant quest of self-improvement.

Self-worth is (1) the belief in oneself and (2) self-respect.  It is the conviction that you are competent to cope with life’s challenges and are worthy of happiness. It includes the ability to trust yourself to solve problems rather than just worry about them, take reasonable risks, and nurture yourself.  It also means being able to forgive yourself and giving yourself permission to make mistakes. 

Context has a huge influence on how we define our self-worth.  If you are a student at a competitive university and surrounded by highly intelligent people, academic success may be the main contributor to your sense of self-worth.  The same goes for those of us who define their self-worth by professional success.  And in today’s world where success is often linked to (some subjective definition of) beauty, self-worth is often defined by physical appearance.  If we are going through major life transitions, such as personal or professional changes, we can feel even more vulnerable in areas of self-love and self-worth.

What makes self-love and self-worth so tricky is that we lose sight of the multitude of factors in life that can give us meaning and define our self-worth.  We tend to assume all or nothing attitudes and self-definitions, and if you’re a perfectionist, you are twice vulnerable.  Achievement and looks aside, we play many other roles in life.  We are friends, sons/daughters, brothers/sisters, caregivers, romantic partners, supporters, activists, givers and receivers, spenders of leisure time, writers, speakers, advice givers, team members, etc.  And we make important choices every day that affect these roles.  There are many ways in which we contribute to our environment every day – ways we forget all too easily.

 Here are some ideas to start improving the way you feel about yourself:
  • Take inventory of the many ways you contribute to the world around you.
  • Learn positive self-talk – look for more on this in a future installment of this blog
  • Know your rights – this has to do with assertiveness.
    • The right to take time to slow down and think.
    • The right to change your mind.
    • The right to ask for what you want/need.
    • The right to ask for information.
    • The right to make mistakes.
    • The right to say, “I don’t know.”
  • Practice self-care and balance.  Treat yourself to something meaningful.  Be gentle with your body and mind.  You deserve it.
  • Get in touch with your strengths.  Make a list of personal strengths, both internal and external.
  • Accept compliments. Challenge yourself to simply say “thank you” after you receive a compliment.

If you are struggling with self-worth and self-acceptance, talking to a psychologist or other licensed mental health professional can help. I am a Houston psychologist and I work with both couples and individuals.  Call me for a free consultation at 713-364-8328 or visit DrGortner.com for more information on my services. 




What To Do About This Pesky Anger...

Anger is an interesting and powerful emotion.  We have all felt it – perhaps as a fleeting annoyance or even as full-fledged, out-of-control rage.  Anger is a normal human emotion designed as a “red flag” to let us know something is causing us stress.  But when anger takes a hold of our life, it can lead to problems at work and in relationships.



Some experts consider anger a “secondary” emotion – meaning it is formed as a reaction to and cover-up for more primary emotions, such as sadness or fear.  It may feel easier or more acceptable to express anger rather than sadness or fear. It is therefore important to first understand triggers for our anger – what in our lives is causing us this emotion.  Is it irritability with rush hour traffic, or is it flying off the handle unexpectedly after the death of a loved one?  Both involve anger but the causes are very different.  It is often helpful to determine the true cause of anger and address it directly.



Here are some thoughts about anger, meant to help guide you in the right direction of addressing it:

  • Do you bottle up your feelings rather than expressing them?  Your anger may be an issue of learning effective and assertive communication to express feelings in an appropriate and timely manner.
  • Simple relaxation tools, such as deep breathing and relaxing imagery, can help calm down angry feelings.  An example would be breathing in for 4 counts, holding your breath for 4 counts, and exhaling for 8 counts.  As you exhale, tell yourself a relaxing word, such as “peace”, “relax”, or “let go”.  Do this at least 3 times.
  • Rigorous exercise can help address anger – this is especially effective if the underlying cause is anxiety.
  • Changing your environment may be the key to address angry triggers.  This may become an “If all else fails” strategy.  For example – if it becomes increasingly difficult to control your road rage, consider public transportation.  If anger is a reaction to a toxic person in your life that drains your resources, it may be time to learn to set concrete boundaries.
  • Pick your battles.  One powerful tool to address anger is learning to distinguish between what we can and cannot change.  Then invest your energy into those aspects of your life that are worth the effort.  This may be particularly helpful if your anger is accompanied with a sense of helplessness or powerlessness.


If you feel that your anger is out of your control, impacting your relationships and important parts of your life, you might consider counseling to learn how to handle it better. A psychologist or other licensed mental health professional can work with you in developing a range of techniques for addressing and managing anger.  I am a Houston psychologist – to learn more about my services, visit DrGortner.com. 


Great Expectations and What's Love Got To Do With It




Romantic relationships are one of the most frequently discussed concerns in counseling.  Lots of people would agree that it is at least as hard to maintain a relationship as it is finding that special someone. 

What constitutes a healthy relationship?  Mutual respect, trust, and support are basic building blocks.  Honesty and safety, both physical and emotional, must be a given, not a privilege to be earned.  Open communication and willingness to negotiate keep relationships steady.  In addition, we all deserve to be respected by our partner as a unique individual, while acknowledging that we can make conscious choices to mutually make positive changes in our behaviors and attitudes towards our partner.

There are clear warning signs that a relationship is in trouble and that something fundamental needs to change.  Possessiveness and controlling behaviors, as well as threats or use of violence are obviously huge red flags.  Less easy to detect are unfair and unrealistic expectations that may slowly seep into a relationship once the initial romance wears off.  These expectations can be of your partner, yourself, or the relationship as a whole.  Some examples of common unrealistic expectations in relationships are:

  • Expecting that he/she will change.
  • Hoping that he/she will never change.
  • Assuming that your partner thinks and reacts as you do.
  • Assuming that your partner knows your wants and needs.
  • Expecting that he/she has the same priorities, goals, and interests as you.
  • Believing that the relationship will fulfill all of your social, intellectual, and personal needs.
  • Giving up other interests, activities, and friends.
  • Seeking improved self-esteem through the relationship.
  • Feeling incomplete without a relationship.
  • Expecting that each new relationship is "the one."
  • Expecting that he/she will never make mistakes.
  • Viewing conflict as a threat to the relationship and to be avoided at all costs.
  • Working hard to get the relationship started, but exerting little effort to keep it going.
  • Trying to be what he/she wants, rather than being yourself.
  • Not understanding that feelings of love and passion change with time, as do your priorities and expectations.

Most people recognize themselves somewhere in these expectations.  Individuals who succeed in relationships are able to recognize and work on unrealistic expectations of oneself and others.

Finally - what many forget is that within a relationship, you also have to be accountable to yourself.  This means that being part of a healthy relationship is taking care of yourself.  This can be deduced from several of the above bullet points.  By being yourself – from the beginning, keeping your own life balanced, and not losing yourself in the relationship, you plant seeds of stability and health within a healthy partnership. 

If you are struggling with finding or maintaining a healthy relationship, talking to a psychologist or other licensed mental health professional can help. I am a Houston psychologist and I work with both couples and individuals.  Call me for a free consultation at 713-364-8328 or visit DrGortner.com for more information on my services.