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Your Therapist Doesn’t Have the Answers. You Do.

“Am I normal?” “Did you know?” “How far back does this go?”

These are some of my favorite moments in the session. When clients become curiously interested in themselves and their wiring, I know we are on to something great. 

There are a few assumptions that people have when they learn I’m a psychotherapist. Some assume that my job is to give advice; and that I can and will psychoanalyze them. The latter may be partially true. The former is, fortunately, a myth.

Depth psychotherapy is not like most other markets that we pay for in capitalism. We’re not selling you a product. You can’t screenshot or capture it. It constantly changes and updates on its own, without any downloads. If you stay with it, something inside you expands. 

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There is an inner compass that we all hold. We know the way to go, the direction we would choose. On some profound level, we know and love ourselves, despite our messiness. If only we were in touch with this compass, we could move through life a little easier. We could choose for ourselves, let it all happen, and role with the rockier waves of life. We could find peace. Life wouldn’t always go our way, but we’d be okay when it didn’t. We wouldn’t resist. We would welcome whatever came: sorrow, rage, confusion, fear, grief, and feel it all along the way. We could stay in the process of our lives. 

On Advice
I don’t see myself as all-knowing. I’m in no position to give advice or tell others what they should do. In intricate areas of life, like personal decisions, inner understandings, and commitments, I don’t believe anyone “knows” what the right thing is, and I think we should be wary of anyone who acts as if they do. Seeing myself as an advice giver puts me in a dangerous spot-a place of power and promise, one in which I know I’d eventually fail.

As a therapist, my role is to show up dedicated to staying with the process and supporting clients in figuring it out for themselves. As we grow and evolve across our lifetimes, we all must learn to steer our ship. We all have our paths to walk.

Consumerism as Avoidance
Believing that someone has the answers to the process of life is tantalizing. Sadly though, we cannot apply the same approach to the self discovery as we do to most of daily purchases. We are brainwashed to believe latest product will bring lasting happiness or that our materials possessions will make us feel whole. Capitalism would like us to believe it has the answer to our current predicament. Yet nothing external can soothe the process that is hurting inside. A fallacy that many structures of society would have us believe: Society’s most severe and ignored addiction is consumerism. 

Thankfully, life becomes a lot easier when we learn how to let life live through us instead of figuring it out or filling the void with something outside of us. When we allow life to unfold, instead of trying to control it, we enjoy the experience a whole lot more. We only need to learn how to be with life while it’s happening. We only need to stay present for it all. The challenge is that it’s hard to stay with the pain: no one showed us how.

Coping Mechanisms
A common term in addiction and recovery, coping mechanisms are the ways to soothe ourselves amongst the problems and challenges we are ensuing at any current stage of life. When we drink and use substances more during a pandemic, we are finding ways to cope. Maybe we need an escape or a soothing; perhaps we need to alter ourselves inwardly, finding relaxation when stuck at home in a time of uncertainty. Before COVID, maybe we needed to adjust ourselves: we drank to become more social.

Another coping mechanism is to deflect from our deeper feelings within ourselves. We defend against our fear and project our pain onto others. Some of us cope by freaking out and try to control others. We expend our energy blaming others instead of working on bettering ourselves. Much of the political divide is centered around this process. We can spend most of our time focusing on the problem in the others. Yet it is us, after all, who are in charge of our lives. And, (if we’re not manipulating others,) it is only ourselves we have any power over.

If we can understand how we cope with life challenges, we can get to know ourselves better. If we knew that, when we get depressed, we tend to start drinking, we are on the path towards finding alternative outlets that might cause us less harm. If we realized that when we’re lonely, we pick up our phones to scroll social media, we are one step towards engaging with our loneliness. 

Curiosity opens us. 
For my clients who want to understand themselves better, there is a curious drive to learn about their complexities, inner worlds, conflicts, and feelings. “I love the process- it feels like we’re trying to solve a puzzle,” a client says when we have a powerful session. An admirable voyage, when we engage with ourselves, we open. When we are disengaged or cut off from ourselves, we’ll miss what’s happening, lost in another world that confuses our heart’s desire with a craving.

The problems arrive when we defend against life and what it brings to us through denial and avoidance. When life meets us with despair, we must learn how to let that pain move through us. The way to let life live through us means we must find the strength to take it in, digest, compost, fertilize. Churning through the pain and the fear, eventually, we might use our pain to take action and, maybe, create something else.  

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When a client asks me to tell them what to do in a particular situation, I am cautious. While I assist in their process, clients develop their capabilities to navigate the struggles that will meet them at different stages of his life. I don’t tell people what to do, thankfully. I make it safer for them to feel whatever they feel while going through it. I’m not giving advice-I’m providing an experience. One in which we can all feel and choose for ourselves. 

The goal of psychotherapy isn’t to feel better but to get better at the feeling. 

Beyond finding solutions to momentary problems, psychodynamic style of therapy offers a place to experience a process. One in which you learn how to navigate issues on your own through expanding your self-understanding, creating a sustainable way of navigating your inner world, no matter what the outer world offers up.

Few of our early environments taught us how to engage with these complexities within us when we get confused, off-centered, and stuck in places that feel heavy. The feelings are often our roadmap- if only we knew how to listen and explore them. Recently a client said, “I’m not sure I know how it works, but I’m starting to trust the process.” In the middle of a prime personal crossroads, we don’t know where his life will lead, but we are trying to help him navigate it better on his own. 

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What We’re Not Talking About and Why it Matters

The elephant in the room no one wants to touch. You evade it, pretend things are okay. Something remains unspoken—an awkwardness: the boundary violation, the adoration, or the confusion. 

The avoidance that keeps us from progressing forward. 

The idea you aren’t yet able to share.  
The crush withheld from disclosure. 
The resentment that you bury. 
The envies, jealousies, or rage. The fear.  

You have a felt sense that something is off. An edge to your conscious awareness: that leaves you with an erry tension in the air. 

Avoidance is a verb: to steer clear from, dodge, ignore or evade. 

We defend against what is uncomfortable. The pandemic asked us to stop avoiding things that have been there all along: inequalities, anxieties, death. Interpersonally and collectively, what are we not talking about? What do we leave out? 

I’m interested in not just what’s said but what isn’t said. Why don’t we let ourselves be honest and vulnerable with one another? How come we don’t talk much about death until it’s right in our face? Why don’t we expose our hearts more often? 

Avoidance helps us escape something we perceive as painful. Ever run into or reconnect with someone from your past that upset or betrayed you? Did you notice the tension of what wasn’t said? The awkward feelings float somewhere in the air but are never spoken. We tell ourselves reasons to keep our deeper feelings locked away. Maybe it’s better to leave things alone. Sometimes it hurts us more to avoid. 

At times we’re slapped conscious about our avoidance. A client called it a lightbulb moment. “I had many others tell me I had something with my relationship with my mother, but I always dismissed it.” He could no longer avoid what he now knew, at least not if he wanted to take responsibility for his personal growth. 

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Another client who recently had a significant loss spoke of noticing that she had avoided her grief only because her daughter started asking about the deceased. She didn’t know how to tell her. Confronted by her core value to be a good mother, she had to face what she avoided. 

What we choose to avoid is interesting. Whenever we focus on some topic in conversation, we are, at the same time, choosing to NOT talk about something else. When we watch one channel, we are choosing not to watch another. Maybe a family avoids talking about a deceased loved one because they want to avoid their grief. Or grief becomes consuming, avoiding any pleasure or celebration. Many corporations and institutions have long avoided acknowledging that white supremacy continues to permeate our society. We can avoid admitting our privileges.

What ISN’T said says a lot. To my mind, subtle avoidances may, on the surface, allow us to skirt around what we believe will be uncomfortable. Whether it’s addressing the hurt we’ve caused another individually or acknowledging system oppressions within our societal structures, over time, those unspoken areas do more damage when avoided than when they’re voiced. Reparations can only come when we acknowledge the pain caused. In our societal reckoning, we must bring our shadows out into the light. Avoidance doesn’t help us evolve.  

We avoid for many reasons. Maybe we avoid as a way of protecting ourselves or others from some version of pain. We don’t want to confess the betrayal, so we live within guilt, believing that we’re sparing the other harm. Maybe we don’t like to acknowledge the inevitable end of life, so we avoid discussing it. It’s uncomfortable and feels easier to sidestep.  

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Sometimes we avoid transparency to manipulate another. We don’t tell the truth, hoping to sway the process in our preferred favor. Sometimes we tell ourselves we have to avoid to preserve the relationship because it doesn’t appear to withstand talking more openly. Avoidance may be the only way to keep what’s there, even if what’s there is broken. 

There are consequences to chronic avoidance. When we continuously try to evade or sweep thoughts, feelings, and truths under the rug, we are sidestepping our way through. Longstanding avoidances manifest psychosomatically in our minds and bodies, causing more disease and suffering. Children feel when their parents hide or lie to them: it lives somewhere in their psyche. Our personalities can manifest around misinformation. We become suspicious and untrusting in relationships where we don’t feel we’re getting the whole picture–some part of us senses it. What we avoid will find its way into our worlds whether we like it or not. We might as well be honest with ourselves. 

The nature of avoidance tells us to believe that what we’re avoiding SHOULD be avoided. It’s better to keep it quiet, pretend it’s not there. 

Because it might feel uncomfortable to say the thing that no one else wants to say, it might feel awkward to expose yourself more and feel the emotions that you’d instead not let yourself touch. Inherent in nature, avoidances make us turn our backs on ourselves. We are frightened, afraid of what we’ll find, and cling to the safety of what we already know. Shame lives here. 

We can never have a curiosity with our backs to ourselves. Honest inquiry helps us soothe the shame that avoidance convinces us of. We must give rise to the parts that beg to remain hidden. This exploration is rich with possibility, if only we could bear it. Whatever we’re avoiding needs considering. If we can lift it up, we could shift something essential. We only need to start to be open and curious enough to engage with it.

Drinking, drugs, overworking, social media, intellectualizing, staying busy-any behavior can be a form of avoidance. The behaviors aren’t in themselves the problem. Mysteriously, those behaviors are helping us avoid something else. What is it about avoiding that feels temporarily relieving? Consequently, how does it also block the authentic nature that lets us live a complete life?

Who do you avoid talking to, and why? Think of the awkwardness around someone you disagree with or don’t like. How does one even start talking to someone of the opposite political divide these days? How do you engage with someone who’s had a vastly different life journey than you? How do you engage with someone that, on the surface, you don’t like very much? Are you turned on or off by the idea of it? 

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Engaging with others that are different, have a different life experience with openness, compassion, and curiosity can enhance your heart, compassion, and understanding. It also provides the benefit of authentic connection, something we as humans need to survive. We often avoid these opportunities because it makes us question our sense of what we know to be genuine and value in ourselves. 

Sometimes we avoid for protection: we try to avoid getting hit by a car when crossing the street. We try to avoid being hurt by others; we don’t want to hear anything from them that makes us question ourselves. 

But maybe there are times when we avoid things that might serve us:

  • Letting down our guards
  • Listening non-defensively
  • Speaking up for ourselves
  • Asserting our needs

We avoid things that are uncomfortable even when those things are necessary for our growth. 

I came into sessions one day after having surgery on one of my fingers. I noticed which clients mentioned what was different about my presentation. Some clients inquired and expressed their good wishes; other clients ignored or missed it completely. I wondered if some of them had noticed but felt they could not ask me. I pondered to myself about what that meant about them and our relationship. 

We are mysteriously complicated: Our shadows, inner worlds, and messiness of the human experience. Sometimes we can be afraid of ourselves, fearful of others. Sometimes we royally mess up. And many times, we want to avoid it all. Avoidance happens on our interpersonal levels and our collective realms. Some of us avoid emotions, or adventure, or change. Sadly, some of us avoid self-reflection. What might we begin to learn when we ask ourselves more intentionally, what might we be avoiding?

There is a mysterious quality about what we avoid and why. In your relationships, are there areas where you are evading? What have you wanted to try to speak to but have thus far avoided? At the core of it, what are you unwilling to feel?

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Ambivalence is a Stage of Change

A client struggling with anxiety and depression told me how sometimes he wants to socialize but finds that he frequently cancels at the last minute. “I get a migraine, and then as soon as I’m there, I want to leave. I feel stuck, wanting to get out, but I’m dependent on a ride.” He’s ambivalent about socializing: he both wants it at the same time he doesn’t.  

I note that he feels conflicted and anxious. Something tells him to go out, and sometimes he feels the need to pull in. He feels frightened, unsure of himself and how to interact. He feels ashamed. Most strikingly, he is aware of all of this. 

As usual, I want to hear more. 

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Ambivalence carries a negative connotation in a world where we like certainty. We become intolerant and wary of letting ourselves have mixed feelings or doubt. We don’t want others’ having any mixed feelings about us. When the world feels scary, we feel safer with knowing

What happens when you don’t know what you want, which direction to go or how to change? Maybe part of you wants a committed relationship, but part of you also enjoys the freedom of singlehood. Or perhaps you want to stop drinking but don’t know how else to soothe the shame underneath. 

Sometimes ambivalence is a form of self-preservation. If I don’t know, I can stay where I am because at least this is familiar. It wouldn’t always be wise for us to jump into a significant commitment or change without knowing what we’re getting ourselves into. We’d not often buy a house without seeing it or marry someone we haven’t met in person. My client stayed home as a way to defend against social rejection. Our ambivalence can be a way to protect ourselves. 

No matter our stage of life, ambivalence is always around. As kids, we might want to make our parents proud, but that conflicts with our desire to carve our unique path. Maybe part of us want to travel the world after school, but another part feels that it’s more reasonable to get a job. 

Tolerating this space inside us that is unsure and uncertain about what to do, opens room for the process to unfold. 

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In the traditional stage of change, ambivalence is like contemplation. Sorting through what we want, need, and how to make it happen. Maybe we are excited about whatever is next. Perhaps looking forward also makes us look back on the past. We can feel both a desire for something new and the comfort of the familiar. We might not know how to embrace the space between two opposing desires. 

We might be frustrated by our own or someone else’s ambivalence. Why won’t they just change?! You might ask. Outside views of someone else conflicted states often leave us puzzled. Several clients talked in sessions of the life they envisioned, once freed of their addiction. They could imagine a fulfilling future: a family, a house, a job, and freedom from dependency. Some had even verbalized their awareness of their tendency to sabotage their recovery. Then they’d disappear from treatment for days at a time. I was left worried and confused. Then I realized that this was all part of their process. Sometimes we have to move forward and backward while we figure out our path. 

On the verge of unfamiliar, unknown, and foreign, it seems natural to return to what has felt safe and familiar. Routines keep us feeling safe, sustaining us. What comforts us keeps us safe, preserved, and yet, nothing gets challenges there. If we decide to always remain in our comfort zone, our self-preservation begins to limit us.  

“In the long run, I want to be able not to use substances to make my anxiety go away, but right now, it’s the only thing that I know will work,” a client told me recently. He was ambivalent about trying to find another way. In the face of change, it’s natural to feel unclear. It’s when we’re unable to become curious that we might become stuck and paralyzed in shame. 

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Fear plays a prominent role in our states of ambivalence. We are more likely to make self-directed positive changes when others meet us with kindness. To explore our ambivalence, we only need a dose of openness and curiosity. There is an uneasy feeling that comes when we make space for both: what we know and what we might want but don’t yet know. 

What does it mean if I make this commitment? 
What does it require of me? 
What will I have to give up?  

Sometimes we stay safe within ourselves. Even when we want to grow, we might also be frightened about what’s on the other side. We might be afraid about the journey to get there. Giving up what we already have and know is a risk.

Ambivalence can become our home. Inaction is itself a choice to remain where we are. Not moving with but against our conflicted states of mind can make us feel stuck. One client walks the line between two different needs: to connect and to self-protect. Another client navigates the ambivalence of giving up drugs to soothe loneliness and grief. How do we trust the road ahead when there are no guarantees?

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The comfort of what’s known feels safe when change feels overwhelming or challenging. Sometimes we need to sit in our uncertainty while we figure out what it is that we want. Transformation, in any shape, whether it’s moving homes, becoming a parent, or entering recovery, is never an easy journey. Maybe ambivalence is the space we stay in while we sort through. 

What happens inside us when we’re frightened of something new, unknown, and uncertain? Can we recognize that even though part of us wants to transform, another part prefers the familiar? We are constantly finding more clarity, feeling our way, broadening our understanding, and making meaning of our lives. There’s a curiosity to the complexity that ambivalence offers: so much unknown and still undiscovered. While there, we can always ask more questions.

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“It’s not fair” and the Cries of Our Inner Child

“It’s not fair,” the six-year-old in her wanted to say. 

We were mid-session, exploring the frustration and overwhelm she felt with another significant blow to her already tragic life. Her young pet died suddenly from an aggressive cancer. 

She associated to her younger self, recalling her mother’s words: 

“Life isn’t fair.”

Life isn’t fair, sure, but that’s not the point.

Logical responses do little to quell emotions that stir up inside us when life throws us painful curveballs. My client had already gone through unforeseen challenges that naturally made her encounter heavy emotions: grief through loss after loss after loss. She took her mother’s words as fact and guidance: hide those feelings and get used to them. But what of the exhaustion? What of the times when we’re emotionally overwhelmed and tired of all the challenges? What about when we want a break? 

The reality is that life is not fair. We can’t always change our circumstances, so instead, we try to find ways to accept them. A healthy adaptation, and yet, a child’s emotions don’t go away when dismissed, ignored, or rejected. They often go underground. Unheard feelings create a life of shadows, and these emotions seep out in harmful ways like depression, aggression, and addictions. 

Logical responses to emotional matters do little to help our process. Together we explored the feelings my client had in reaction to her mother’s words. It was all so logical, though: life isn’t fair. As an adult, my client began to do what was done to her: she shut down her own emotions and learned to buckle through. It worked for a while until it didn’t. Although we’d like to reason away our feelings nevertheless, they seem to persist. Ever have a crush on someone and try to squash it through reasoning? Ever have a life dream and try to talk yourself out of it?

How did it go? 

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Often matters of the heart need to be responded to with the heart. Topics of the mind do better when we understand how our emotions may be intruding. We must learn the difference when both reason and humanity intersect.

Learning to shut down her feelings didn’t allow my client to explore what was needing expression underneath. I wanted to make space for the unheard six-year-old. What were you trying to convey? I asked.

We found that it was about her frustration, confusion, and sadness. Her inner six-year-old was still speaking; she was never fully heard. Together, we discovered that when she felt “overwhelmed, frustrated, and powerless,” as an adult, she shut herself down by isolating and keeping her pain to herself: she suffered alone. Our work became about feeling her deeper feelings and then finding spaces to share them with others. She was learning to feel, accept, and then share in safe places.  

Making room for undiscovered feelings allowed my client to reconnect with her disowned, long-buried parts. She needed to share this overwhelming sadness with someone who would listen. She needed to be heard. 

So much of our internal wiring comes indirectly- we adapt to what happens to us from other people. We respond to people’s actions and our life circumstances first by making meaning of them. We believe what our parents say and do until we have reason to think otherwise. Dangerously, we might never question them. 

Our youth begs us to grow and expand. Yes, we often lack words to communicate our feelings along this process. Schools don’t teach us about our feelings or how to express them. Most of us picked up our understanding of our feelings and how to act through the people we grew up around. Did your family act out their anxiety and anger with loud outbursts, or were they the secret and silent type? Were only the men allowed to be angry? Were only the women allowed to cry? 

The emotional body is a powerful force. Whether it’s a pizza you want but say you shouldn’t have or a fantasy of running away from life’s inevitable problems, we can’t always reason ourselves out of our feelings. Sometimes we need to feel them. We need first to listen. 

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We need both understanding and a language to convey what’s was going on inside us. Absent both, we act out our emotions instead of communicating them. Attuning to the actual children in our lives requires openness to what is going on behind the scenes. Behaviors are attempts to deliver messages; we’re just often conditioned not to listen.

As adults, we continue to have our inner child, who holds the unexpressed and stuck emotions that often come out in acts like a tantrum or outburst. Road rage is an easy target for unheard anger or misdirected sadness. Hysteria lets us predict (with confidence) there is more going on beneath the surface. 

When adults respond to a child’s feelings with logic, it shuts down a necessary conversation towards understanding the inner world. Chronic responses in this manner teach children to shut down their own emotions. On a massive level, we end up with a society of adults who over-intellectualize and become disconnected from their feelings. Is it any wonder we have more depression and addiction than ever before? 

Many clients would defend against deeper feelings and immediately say they don’t want to sound like a “victim.” Socialized to be intellectual, many males don’t want to appear weak, whiney, or devoid of taking responsibility. And yet, I can’t help but notice that the child within them is trying to speak. 

When we’re defending against playing “a victim” to what happened to us, we reject our inner realities and the feelings that lived underneath. When we uncover and dig beneath the defense of the victimhood, we learn about what emotions we’re avoiding.

We can be victim to our circumstances and our unconscious as much as we are to our traits, race, and heritage. We didn’t choose these things, but they are ours now and ours to navigate and understand. Knowing and understanding the parts of us that are victims to our relational ways of responding to others and ourselves is both: we accept the reality we didn’t choose. And we take responsibility for the feelings we have about our lives. By choosing to take responsibility for what happened to us, we are set on a path to free ourselves. 

Victim-mentality is a state of feeling helpless. And there is much to be learned by exploring the authentic feelings that arise when we feel lost and lacking confidence in our ability to navigate life. However, when we reactively shut down on ourselves, we’re defending against understanding ourselves more deeply. 

“I think some part of me knows I’m depressed. But another part of me doesn’t want to believe it.” Another client said recently. 

In a world that steers us to our minds, logic, and feeling good, we become frightened to see ourselves as victims of our emotions. We shy away from exploring the feelings underneath. 

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We’d rather not accept the harm caused to us by someone else, so we turn on ourselves instead. We don’t want to feel our raw anger lest we do act on it destructively. We are scared by our grief because it might paralyze us. It’s frightening to believe we might be vulnerable. 

Acceptance of what has happened is essential in moving forward with life, but it should not overstep the inevitable and critical emotions that come with the experience. 

We relish and welcome our pleasure, like a tasty meal or a crisp drink on a hot day. We don’t need logic or reason that, of course, it tastes good: We enjoy, we accept pleasure readily. We cannot always reason away or sidestep the pain, confusion, and grief that envelopes us. To live a full and authentic life, these feelings must have room to speak. 

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Time, Patience, and Process: A Musical Thing

“Patience is not simply the ability to wait–it is how we behave while waiting.”
– Joyce Meyer


Time. It’s something I think about time a lot these days. Over a year into the pandemic, time has warped and twisted our former lives. Days have blurred into months, and now years. 

As humans, we track our minutes, hours, days, and years to keep us moving. 

Our clock counts the hours we slept… or didn’t.
We count minutes until dinner arrives or the workday ends. 
We note the length of our jobs and relationships in years. 
Sometimes we race against time. Sometimes we will time to pass faster.  

You might have three more hours left during your weekend. 
You might have two years until you finish school.
You might have five weeks until your next day off. 

Often we don’t know what time will bring. 

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For better or worse, time follows our days, organizes our appointments, and chains us to our routines. We become impatient for time to pass when we’re uncomfortable. It’s human to want to rush past the annoyances and get back to feeling good. 

When surrounded by so much loss, uncertainty and grief, time can start to feel even more precious. Our anxieties tell us that we don’t want to waste our time. 

How long will this take? 

Many clients begin therapy by asking how long it will take to feel better. Like much of society, they want relief, results, and outcomes. Sometimes we need quick results and short-term relief, like when we take an aspirin to help us get through the pounding headache before an important meeting. But if we lean on short-term relief and fixes for the bulk of our lives, we miss out on deeper understandings. Very often, the place in between here (the pain) and there (the healing) is where we foster resilience, hope, and vital learning. We often miss it because we’re so focused on the result. 

Where are you impatient? 

Maybe it’s the frustrating moments like when you’re stuck in traffic or waiting in line. Perhaps it manifests towards your partner, or kids, or parents. Sometimes, we lack patience with ourselves, wishing we were somehow better. 

Google tells us that patience is the capacity to accept or tolerate delay, trouble, or suffering without getting angry or upset.  Maybe you noticed a lack of patience after month four of quarantine. Perhaps you lose your mind after two hours on hold with customer service. On the spectrum of our patience, and we all have our limits. 

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The pandemic taught us about our need for patience. Our old ways of life drastically changed without promises of a return. We learned to manage our frustration and tolerance of the unknowns. 

Patience and its inverse are sometimes simple, yet often profoundly complex. It’s not only our ability to wait alone that makes us have patience but how we wait: the tone, the quality of our waiting. 

When we’re unhappy, we can get overly focused on relief so often that we forget to find meaning on our way there. 

How we do anything affects the quality of our experience of it—waiting included. Can we find the meaning and the value in the process of waiting?  

Sometimes we’re awaiting the end of something frustrating, painful, or annoying. Many clients want so badly to get out of treatment that they aren’t yet curious about their inner struggles. So focused on getting out of it, we never learn from it. 

Our fast past culture creates little room for understanding our impulses and reactions. It isn’t comforting to slow down and ask more profound questions about ourselves. There’s so much else we could be doing

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We don’t always have the power to make life happen faster or according to our timeline. When we future-focused, we can forget to consider the quality of our waiting. What do we do, and how do we feel and behave while we’re on our way?    

Recently a client was musing on his dissatisfaction with his efforts. He was meditating, exercising, and reflecting but still struggling with sleep, anxiety, and low self-esteem. He wanted the pressure in his chest to go away; it made him feel insecure.  He had little curiosity about his experiences or feelings- he just wanted to feel better. Naturally, we all want to feel better when we’re hurting. Yet, our preoccupation with relief often indicates a sense of shame about our feelings or our capacity to tolerate them.  

We need to feel a sense of safety in those spaces to become curious. 

A Shift Towards Process – Curiosity of the Now

Much of my work with clients is rooted in fostering a curiosity towards themselves. To better understanding what’s going on inside, we often have to slow down. Vital interest in self-understanding, these places usually get buried underneath the stigma, fear, and shame of looking inward. 

Whether in something concrete like the bus’s arrival or the love of our lives, I’m convinced there is an essential component to notice along the way. We miss so much it if always narrowed in out the outcomes. In our results-driven culture, we can forget the unfolding of the journey before us. There is something in the process, in the way we behave along the way.  

You don’t need to love the experience of waiting, but you could find something to appreciate about it.  What would it be like if you looked up, felt your breath, or engaged with the strangers around you the next time you were waiting in line? How might you appreciate the process of building your muscles and not just the eventual shape you hope to achieve? What might you enjoy about your last days of supposed quarantine before it ends? Not always future-focused, what’s good and worth appreciating here and now? Might we be missing out on something vital if primarily focused on the future and hopeful outcome? 

Alan Watts, a British philosopher, spoke to life being like music: the song as a journey. If life is like a song, you don’t dance to a song or listen to music, waiting for the end. When we listen to music, we enjoy it as it goes. Life is while we’re living, now. That includes the waiting to get wherever it is that we’re going.   

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Choosing to focus on the process with curiosity and patience might make the waiting more exciting. It may also provide some relief. 

“and the thing was to get to that end, success or whatever it is, maybe heaven after you’re dead. But we missed the point the whole way along. It was a musical thing, and you were supposed to sing or to dance while the music was being played.” – Alan Watts.

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Musings

How to help an addict

Mis-perceptions of addiction, and an overemphasis of drugs, combined with the undervaluing of relationships, majorly impact the outcomes in treating addiction.

Growth from Shelter

Take back your power. Use curiosity to battle anxiety and discomfort.  One of the most frustrating parts of the current COVID-19 is continuous unknowns. We can’t know what the future looks like because there is so much we still don’t understand. We don’t know when there will be a vaccine or when we can returnContinue reading “Growth from Shelter”

The Space to Be

How do you use your space? Do you give yourself any?  Reading the news leaves us with daily bombardments with messages of what else we need to do more of: “More exercise! More vegetables! More self-care! More civic engagement! Floss more!” Paradoxically, we get a similar message of what we need to less of: “EatContinue reading “The Space to Be”

Accept, Then Change Comes

At the beginning of a session recently, a client asked me desperately how he can change himself. He had recently moved home and was quickly swallowed inside his messy family dynamic while caregiving for a dying parent and managing his partner’s destabilizing mental health. He had a lot on his plate, was hardly sleeping, and had little space for himself. 

Highly aware, he talked of his reactive behaviors and impulses, like wanting to run away or raging against family members. He couldn’t accept himself and he was at war with his feelings. He pulled me to give him something concrete about how he could stop the desire to get high. 

I didn’t bite. 

I spent most of the session validating, normalizing, and assisting him with identifying his boundaries and how he didn’t uphold them. I highlighted that he was hard on himself, which made sense, given his early trauma. I aimed to shift his perspective, so I made it okay that he wanted to run away. Radically, I made it alright that he wanted to get high.  

We had a push-pull session: I focused on wondering where he could make more room for himself while he ruminated about how to stop himself from himself. He wanted to change the family dynamic and get others to take more responsibility. I highlighted his over-functioning and advocated for his needs. We’d meet in the middle for a moment before he’d pull back and again attack himself. 

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I realized that I need a different intervention before he left. On his way out, I showed him a Carl Rogers quote that has helped me shift my self-perception: “The curious paradox is that when I accept myself just as I am, then I can change.” 

My client felt he had to change himself before he’d feel better. He wanted to be able to look in the mirror and like himself. He asked great questions and was putting in the effort, I thought he only needed to shift his approach. I asked him to look at his situation differently- get a new perspective. It’s not always about changing oneself but accepting ourselves as we are, now. 

It’s impossible, and hard, and you can’t fix it. I said to him. Might as well be kinder to yourself through it.

My job isn’t to help my clients not get high, which is nice because that would be a lot of pressure and responsibility. My job isn’t even to help clients resist the urge too high. I don’t pretend that those feelings aren’t there: I know the desire to run away and escape from painful and stressful situations is a feeling that lives within all of us. Some of us are more aware of it, and some of us have more we want to run away from. 

My role is to help clients discern the differences between feelings and their actions in reaction to those feelings.  

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My client seemed to be running from the impossible realities of his life and feeling guilty for it. Some people get high to soothe the self-criticism. Some to quell the rage of injustices they’ve occurred. Others need to escape boredom (hello quarantine.) We’re human, and we are always trying to self-soothe, be it through shopping, alcohol, social media or drugs. 

Self-criticism, anxiety, anger, grief, fear, and uncertainty are all normal emotions. They’re also uncomfortable and difficulty to tolerate. To avoid the now, we can so easily get caught up in and focused on the idea that we’ll feel better later on, down the line, when such-and-such happens. 

I’ll feel more secure when I make more money.
I’ll be happier with myself when I lose weight.
After COVID, life will be better.
I’d like myself more if only….

Clinging to that-which-is-not-now is magical, enticing, and normal. It’s also not real.

Having goals and working towards them is an essential aspect of growth, but if we place our happiness on and attach to those ideals to feel better, we can tangle ourselves up in anxiety, depression, and self-sabotage. The act of willing ourselves to feel better has a boomerang effect when the focus is solely on the future potentials: we end of feeling worse.

If we keep waiting to accept ourselves or our situations, we’ll never be satisfied until such-and-such things happen. We’re dependent on things that are not now, always believing that having the thing will bring us the satisfaction. To fill the void. My client felt he had to change himself in order to live with himself. An admirable feat, there was just so much to change, and so very much to process, which would take time. Until then, I thought, let’s make peace with how things are now. That’s all we really have.

Our critical and evolving mindset is beneficial for our growth, and yet, it can get in our way when we can’t accept how we are right now. Our frustration is exacerbated when we cannot control our situation or the others in our lives. Our only power is to focus on the self, and work there. We can try to find ways to feel better now, before we have those things we dream of.

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The truth is, so much of what goes on outside of us is beyond our control. Reality. We can’t control the people we’re in a relationship with, be it partners, co-workers, or our children. We can only ever accept and govern ourselves and find ways of connecting with those people in ways that support and serve us. 

People often assume that therapists have the answers and help fix what appears to be wrong. This mentality contributes to the shame and stigma that keeps people from embarking on psychotherapy because no one is broken.

What if nothing is wrong? What if we only need to shift how you are viewing it? 

Therapy can be a process of changing your relationship with yourself—a place to learn how to accept our imperfect, flawed, dysfunctional ways of being. When another person can sit down and look at the mess of life that is real with us, something changes.

The resistance we have against our current realities causes us the suffering that manifests in a variety of ways: we all have our preferred defenses. Sometimes we only need to ask ourselves different questions.

When might be it beneficial to accept, rather than force change?

Soften the Inner Critic: A Path to Change

Make it all okay.
Make it okay that you procrastinate.
Make it okay that you are afraid of commitment.
Make it okay that you smoke when you stress.
Make it okay that you are scared.
Make it okay that you fantasize about someone besides your partner.
Make it okay that you want to run away from life’s current challenges.
Make the messy feelings okay.

There’s a tug-of-war going on. Sometimes we only need to drop the rope.

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There is often a divide within us between how we feel and how we think we should feel. Self-judgement. A conflict between our head and our heart. We feel _____, but think we should feel something else.

We are thinking about our feelings and often, judging them:
I shouldn’t have these feelings for my coworker.
I shouldn’t need to depend on my partner for support.
I shouldn’t feel anxious about starting a new job.
-Changing myself shouldn’t be so hard for me.

We aren’t born this way, but we internalize these voices and narratives about our identities and how we’re “supposed” to be. The “shoulds” in our self-talk are our clues. Our “shoulds” contain a wealth of information about how we believe we and the world are supposed to be.
-They shouldn’t be wearing that.
-They shouldn’t be behaving that way.
-I shouldn’t be feeling this.

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Gender roles are pre-supposed beliefs about what men and women are more “supposed” to do. We become conditioned to act in specific ways to please the people around us, so we adopt these roles we didn’t create for ourselves. In our current culture, men still feel the need to project confidence and mask vulnerabilities. Women need to convey beauty and a willingness to care for others. We challenge society when we challenge these “shoulds,” and culture expands as a result. We must challenge our individual “shoulds” too.

Our “shoulds” about ourselves are repetitive acts of invalidation and often look like self-criticism or being hard on oneself.

I shouldn’t feel this way.
I should have done better.
I should
be better.

The word ‘lazy’ for example, is common among self-critics. When people identify themselves as lazy, what are they saying about themselves? From the Oxford American Dictionary, lazy is defined as:

  • unwilling to work or use energy: ‘I’m very lazy by nature’ | ‘he was too lazy to cook.’
  • showing a lack of effort or care: ‘lazy writing.
  • (of a livestock brand) placed on its side rather than upright.’

The word seems to imply that one isn’t entirely moving with life.

What if it’s okay that we’re sometimes lazy? What if we didn’t label it good or bad, but we’re curious about what was underneath it?
If we’re not critical, we could wonder about the lack of movement.
What is life when it’s “placed on its side”?

We spend a lot of time identifying what “good” and “bad” is and what’s “right” and what’s “wrong” when we’re overly critical about emotions, that we’re not engaging in more in-depth conversations with ourselves.

What if it’s okay to feel how you feel, however you feel. What if it’s okay that you sometimes feel unsure of yourself, or at times maybe you even dislike yourself. Without being caught in the drama of it, we can ask, “what is all of this about?” What is the message, the lesson we are meant to learn so you don’t have to repeat it?

When we remove the critical lens of ourselves and our lives, we can ask about the change we seek.

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Self-critics can often convince themselves that being hard on themselves is a way to motivate change. Most of my clients say it feels ‘normal.’ But negative self-talk is like that nagging voice towards ourselves, even if just in a distant background, and can have a detrimental effect on well-being. The constant chatter of Work harder! How could you?! You’re a failure, Be better, or No one loves you. All the ‘always’ and ‘never’s we have about ourselves. It’s burdensome and heavy. Especially in the world right now, no one needs more heaviness.

Some of us have a more nagging inner voice that breathes over our necks about what we’re getting wrong. We get stuck on that it’s happening, believing that it shouldn’t be happening. Busy and caught in reaction to our feelings, we’re closed. We don’t let ourselves feel how we feel.

When we get so resistant to our feelings, we’re not open to the experience. We can become passive players in our stories.

Inside feelings of self-shaming, when we’re convinced we’re not allowed to have our emotions, we become insecure with who we are. Soon after, anxiety or depression show up at our doors. A panic attack, anxiety, or depression are warning signs. But we get so busy feeling ashamed for having them that we try so hard to push them away.

It can get hard to break out of that pattern inside ourselves. Inside depression, grief or guilt, we become self-obsessed and start to feel bad for feeling bad. Others tell us that we shouldn’t feel this way and try to cheer us up. Some of us are afraid to sound like a victim, so we brush aside our honest feelings about the pain we endured and the anger we have about it. Too busy judging our emotions, we’re not open to them. There is no solution when you’re not asking questions.

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Fortunately, we’re right where we’re supposed to be, in whatever stage of change. Because it’s okay however we feel. We need only to learn to soften the part of us that judges ourselves for how we are.

When we judge our feelings, we judge our experience, and that causes us to suffer. Our rich and messy inner worlds are what make us human, inherently and fascinatingly complex. It serves us better to create space and understand them, rather than ignore, deny or avoid them.

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Settling down and understanding the things that go on for us and how we feel in response to our inner and outer experience is a self-evolution process. We can acknowledge that this is how life is right now. However life is. We accept how things are and how we feel about them. We are not trying to change, fix, avoid, or sabotage anything. When we can soften our inner critics to learn about what’s going on for us, we step towards feeling freer within ourselves and our lives.

Do you judge yourself for having certain feelings?

Capitalism doesn’t want you to be aware

For a socially just society, we need individuals who are introspective and consider how they interact and impact their environments and the people around them. In a multitude of ways, 2020 has slapped us across the face, forcing us to notice that individually we affect one another. Together or separate, we form the collective: we’ve made the mess, and we’re in it together. We’ve elected leaders who divide us. We’ve tolerated systems of inequality. What others do, affects us, and we’re mad about what the others are doing. 

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Blaming others for our life’s problems is our most cherished pastime, but it gets us nowhere beyond pointing fingers and division. Individually we contribute to the world we live in, and cleaning up our part is the surest way to foster progress and improve society. We must recognize that there is no going back- there’s only waking up. Raising our consciousness through self-insight helps our collective community. The whole is only as good as the people a part of it.

When you know yourself well, you hold significant power and insight over your emotions, behaviors, patterns, triggers, and reactions. The impact of such knowledge can improve many areas of your life, allowing you to take things less personally. Less reactivity frees you up from massive emotional responses to challenging situations, like a breakup or a virus. In deep versions of self-study, you may learn to tolerate various forms of uncertainty. 

Through self-study, you learn about how you connect and disconnect from life. You start asking better questions. You notice problematic ways you relate to others, and how you may unintentionally cause yourself and others harm. Improving your self-communication ripples into other parts of your life, and you learn to communicate with others better.

Naturally curious beings, humans regularly study our relationships with others. We love to vent, gossip, blame, envy, fantasize, and engage with or reject other people. We’re a relational species; We wouldn’t have survived long without someone else to help us into our life. As a result, we’re wired to spend significant amounts of energy focusing on our relationships with other people. In the age of capitalism and addiction, proactively studying our links to the more subtle parts of our internal worlds is negligently rare. 

Studying your relationship with your feelings is one of the most profound ways towards self-knowledge, and yet, self-knowledge is not encouraged in our society. When our normal has become a constant stimulation of “noise” like news, sounds, and technology, it’s hard to tolerate space with nothing to do. We can’t sit still, experience silence, or wonder what’s going on within. We don’t ask ourselves important questions. 

It’s not our fault: it’s comfortable to live smoothly through capitalism, a system that fuels and indulges narcissism, a subtle yet potent defense. When occupied all the time, we’ll never question many things. Capitalism offers us many short-term yet effective way of avoiding what’s going on inside. We buy, indulge, occupy our minds, and busy ourselves; we’re often either connected or consuming. Collectively, we’re an addicted society. We’ll turn to different avenues to soothe the imbalances we feel within ourselves. 

The field of mental health continues to be stigmatized, making it unpopular, and often labeled for people who need to be ‘fixed’ or self-indulgent, while disproportionally accessible for the privileged. When there is massive resistance to anything, I’m prone to get curious: What might happen if we all were a little more aware? 

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Curious. 

You don’t have to go to therapy to work on your mental health; all you need to do is create space and get curious. Observe yourself, and notice your mind. Make sure to investigate any judgments that arise. It’s hard to see anything clearly with a negatively skewed lens. Cynical lining cannot manifest self-awareness or peace, only shame, and division. Challenge the perception, and try to stay curious by working to remain open to what you find. Be careful not to attach to any doctrine of idea or script firmly, or you may live unconsciously, in-authentically, and out of alignment. 

Notice the relationships you have with your possessions, body, environment, substances, and beliefs. These areas hold rich information into understanding yourself, and they so often go unconsidered in our daily lives. 

In studying your relationship to your body, you get to understand better how your body feels when you take care of it, neglect or punish it, under or overfeed it. You learn what kind of foods your body likes and which it doesn’t. You can challenge specific questions or ideas about how your body should look, asking yourself where those ideas came from, and if they hold value? 

You could consider your relationship to exercise. Does it feel like a way you care for your body? Or is it a place you go to punish yourself? Does it feel like something you “should” do, but don’t, and feel bad about it? You learn a lot about yourself by studying any one area. When you expand this way of thinking, you can learn more about your life in all realms. 

In studying your relationship with your environment, you begin to understand what feels good to have around you, and what doesn’t. What do you see around you, and how does it make you feel? You might start to see that clutter makes you feel anxious, or it might instead be a reflection of your anxiety. What might feel good in your home might irritate the hell out of me. I may neglect my environment and treat it poorly because I prefer to put my energy into my career and travel. At the same time, you might maintain indoor plants and care for your pets, while never leaving your hometown. You can study your relationship with anything: money, time, sleep, the news, sound. Self-analysis is an exam; the secret answers reflect who you are. What do you have going on inside?

In today’s world, it’s crucial to study our relationship with screens. Technology often makes many aspects of life more convenient and gives us a sense of connection. However, in becoming mindful of how we use social media, not just how much we are less prone to feelings of isolation, anxiety, and depression as a result of our use.

It’s helpful to regularly review your relationships with alcohol or drugs. How does it help you? What does it give you? Does your consumption harm you or others who you love? How would it be if you didn’t have it? What’s the feeling that comes up just before you feel like you need it? 

In studying your feelings, consider the range of human emotions and notice what you tend to feel or defend against feeling. You might ask yourself about your anger. Do you skimp on recognizing your boundaries or perhaps indulge yourself in rage in destructive ways? How do you navigate feelings of anxiety: do you procrastinate, shut down, or overcompensate? 

The relationship between our lives and the things we’ve put inside our lives either makes our experience supportive or causes problems. Your ties to anything is personal to you, so it must be a prime focus for one’s attention. Focus on your process- your relationships; don’t avoid your work and distract yourself by analyzing others. 

If you aim to be a more conscious human being, live better for yourself, and others, look within. Depth work is sometimes frightening, often painful, and may temporarily evoke shame. However, self-work can wipe the lens of your perception of the world inside and around you, potentially leaving you more accepting of what’s happening. When we understand what’s going on inside us, we can better navigate what’s going on outside around us. The path to becoming self-responsible is an ethical route towards creating more social balance and peace. 

Substance use addiction will enter your life

Change your perspective now.

In our lifetime, addiction is likely to touch every one of us, either directly or indirectly. Almost 20 million American adults battled a substance use disorder in 2017One out of every eight adults struggles with both alcohol and drug addiction simultaneously. While the COVID-19 pandemic eroded our normalcy, jobs, routines, outlets, and connections, alcohol use rose, and the opioid epidemic rages onward. If you don’t already know someone who struggles with alcohol or drug use, you will at some point in your life. It might even be you. 

Drugs have been around for centuries, but addiction is a more modern phenomenon. Medicines that have become more potent over time offer an antidote to an emotional intolerant culture that also provides increased isolation, inequality, and oppression. When in pain, we seek relief.

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The year 2020 has highlighted many of our country’s obvious systemic problems. Common among them is the flawed and harmful disparities is the unequal treatment between privileged and oppressed—our dysfunction highlights where we’re getting it wrong.

Misunderstood by outdated and yet-all-too-popular narratives, substance users are still shamed and judged for their attempt to cope. With different environments that offered outlets for their needs, relief through drug-use might not have been a necessary path. Yet trauma, oppression, and limited resources that predated drug use often go unnoted in incarceration sentences.  

Notably, shifting our understanding of trauma and substance use, a broad range of helpful or harmful coping skills might make more sense. What helps someone get out of warped cycles of pain and attempts to cope with that pain? Support. Sadly, addicts receive a lot of confusion, frustrations, and judgments, sometimes from people who love them. 

It’s not an easy feat to be in a relationship with or love someone abusing drugs or alcohol. Life can sometimes feel unsettling, frightening, and at times, enraging. Witnessing someone self-destruct or harm themselves can be excruciatingly painful, leaving you feeling helpless and afraid. In our confusion and anger, we naturally want to either deny that it’s real, try to make it stop, fix it, or avoid it. We turn away, and we shut down out of fear and misunderstanding. The emotional responses to loved ones’ addiction are valid, but they’re cannot be the focus solely. Drug use and the harmful behaviors are problematic, but so are the typical responses from people in relationship to them. 

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Relationships are like systems: different players have roles and interact with the other, causing a chain of reactions that either function well or don’t. Like in any organization, if your foundation is strong, navigating turbulent times isn’t stressful. However, if the foundation has flaws, as soon as something goes array, like a blown circuit, deadly virus, or substance use, problems inside the system will be apparent.

In play of addiction, the user and the drug often play the scapegoat. 
When problems surface in the relationship, and the addiction often gets the spotlight. It’s easy to blame the drugs for issues that were already there. Illicit drug use is an easy target to blame for many problems within our individual and collective systems. 

One client often talked to me about the pressure she felt to get out of her addiction primarily to calm her family’s anxiety about her heroin use. Meanwhile, other family members denied their unaddressed problematic relationships with different drugs; Highlighting her drug use deflects others’ issues. My client’s family distress left her preoccupied with anxiety and distracted from her treatment. She felt caught inside a family pattern where she prioritized others’ care, neglecting herself, and feeling like a failure. Heroin was the only place of relief from her mind that told her she was a shameful problem and utterly messing up her life.  

Ignoring the user’s need for compassionate support, the tension in the relationship causes friction and sometimes ruptures ties completely. The misunderstanding of drug addiction and problematic responses from the environment around drug use is the biggest tragedy. Both parties are often frightened and misaligned with what is helpful; both are harming their relationship. When in recovery, most substance users take much of the blame and responsibility for problems of the past, branding themselves with the given and shame-filled label “addict.”

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We are powerless to change relationships problems until we accept that all issues are co-created.  Society’s response mimics the family’s view of drug addiction, with an attempted war on drugs and glaringly unequal access and funding for treatment. These views and approaches, dangerously narrow and shallow, are not working. The movement to change our approach to how we respond to substance use is long overdue. 

One of the best things you can do to help change addiction is to open yourself to education about the complexities of the struggle. We don’t blame someone who gets diagnosed with cancer, cut off from them, makes attempts to control them, or demand they take responsibility before offering support. We treat their illness with kindness and attention, and we should provide the same approach to drug use addiction. 

In most of our life’s problems, our messy feelings are what usually get in our way. We can cause real harm when we act on those messy feelings, whether we use drugs to cope or react to people who use drugs. 

Never pausing to consider bolder questions, shift perspectives, and open to curiosity, relationships remain fractured, insight untapped, and nothing changes. We can’t fix something in a system until we know what’s not working. As a society, we have not been curious enough about substance use disorders or ask what the dysfunction is trying to communicate. As with most things in life, you can never understand anything until you get up close to it. Drug use or not, as a human, it will undoubtedly serve you to understand your messiness. 

There are massive numbers of humans who are hurting and turning to drugs for relief. They have suffered trauma, live with oppression, and lack primary resources like compassionate care and direct human support. They often don’t have outlets to express themselves. Where we invest our energies, we can grow and change. Curiosity and kindness is the fertilizer for helping addiction treatment, which could have a profound impact on the opioid epidemic. Longer-term perspective shifts around drug use and has the potential to foster a healthier and just society. Offering a compassionate perspective to anyone, whether they use drugs or not, our world would be a vastly different place. When substance use addiction enters your life, mind your preconceived notions, and stay open to all you don’t fully understand. It will matter more than you know.