Why therapy now?

Some reasons people go into therapy…

Recovering from a recent loss, disappointment, trauma, stress, overwhelm: When you hit a bump in the road, can’t get yourself out of a stuck place (we all land there from time to time), or feel that Life has taken control of your life, it makes sense to find someone to talk to about what’s going on.

Recovering from childhood loss, disappointment, trauma, stress: This is what therapy is most known for. While it may seem unnecessarily painful to revisit the past, doing so from the perspective of understanding what happened to you and the context in which you developed can help you feel compassion for who you are and what you think, feel, and act. You can talk about anything with your therapist.

Happiness: When you realize that external objects and outside approval do not lead to lasting happiness, when you reach a place of unpleasant discomfort with life–a kind of incongruence or emptiness–when you realize you are not satisfied with the life you’ve created for yourself, you can use therapy to determine the best course of action…or non-action.

Curiosity about you: When you want to know more about who you are and what “makes you tick,” not in a negative pathological way as in “what’s wrong with me?” but in a curious and kind way, a trained therapist can offer a safe space for you to learn all about you.

Personal Growth: You might have reached a place in your life where you want to grow as a person, change patterns of thought, feelings, behavior. You might want to trade in ineffective and unhealthy habits for something new and different.

Guidance: Let’s face it, parents may have done the best they could do, but life can get complicated, and friends and family members may have agendas and expectations. In therapy, you have someone who will listen and offer guidance as you navigate through whatever you are going through.

Is there something wrong with you?

No, there’s nothing wrong with you. Even now in 2016, here in Southern California–home of conversations sprinkled with “My therapist says…”–there is still a stigma about mental health. Going into therapy does not mean there’s something wrong with you or that you have a mental disorder. Going into therapy means a) you know something is not working for you and b) you are willing to take a look at what that might be.

Concerned about confidentiality?

Whatever you say in therapy stays in therapy…unless you say it’s okay for your therapist to talk to someone such as your medical doctor or a family member…in writing! Without your permission in writing, what you say in “the room” stays in the room.

Part 3: when are you going to _____ again?

You might have read parts ONE and TWO of this series on doing what you love.

This article assumes that a) you know what you love to do and b) you’ve started doing it. So let’s take a look now at maintaining a practice.

Life is a practice

You’ve dusted off the bugle that’s been tucked away in a box in your garage since 1988; you’ve played a few songs for friends who ooohed and ahhhed at your hidden talent. Now what?

Do you want to play the bugle more than once every few decades? Maybe. Maybe not.

According to Buddhist philosophy, life, like playing the bugle, is a practice. It’s not a destination, a goal, or an achievement. The reward is in the moment.

Here and now vs. goals

There tends to be some confusion about here/now living, certainly in my mind, maybe in yours. Goals are important. Especially in our rush-rush, do-do, production-oriented culture. Goals are how we save for a down payment on a home or run a marathon…or play more than one song on the bugle.

Yet when the focus is only on goals, especially rigid goals, life can feel stressful, unpleasant, not worth living. Why?

Hint: because you’re living in the future and not the present. Here and now is the only time and place that we connect with ourselves and others.

Changing habits

Think of the patterns you’ve developed in your life. Beginning with waking. You wake in the morning. Then what?

Here’s a story from someone I met recently. Notice that she has no goals in her statement or her practice. There is no mention of working towards an hour of meditation instead of five minutes. Or developing biceps the size of grapefruit. She enjoys the activities for what they are.

I start the day taking care of my mind and body. I meditate. Right away. Then I do stretching/yoga. Then a short upper body work-out with weights. Brush teeth, wash face, eat, etc.

That wasn’t always how I started my days, though. There were periods of my life when I’d rush out of the house, gulp a Venti from Starbucks, slam down a bagel with cream cheese, and dedicate the next eight or ten hours to someone else’s plan…putting in eight to ten hours at work, getting children to school, making sure they’re eating healthy enough, have stimulating activities, dinner, homework.

Working for any organization, company, or corporation takes time, energy, and more time and energy. If you’re a parent, you know that your days are not your own. Taking care of a relative in need? Burnout and compassion fatigue are common.

Locus of control

Let’s call focusing outside of yourself as an external locus of control for lack of a better term. To make this work, we have to bend the definition a little. Traditionally, the definition of locus of control includes personal responsibility and blame. According to Wikipedia:

A person’s “locus” (Latin for “place” or “location”) is conceptualized as either internal (the person believes they can control their life) or external (meaning they believe their decisions and life are controlled by environmental factors which they cannot influence, or by chance or fate). [1]

There’s a judgmental bent to the definition…blame being used by people who attribute their locus of control externally when life doesn’t go the way they would like.

Many times, we have to focus on external demands to feel good about ourselves. Work to earn money. Take care of children so they feel loved and appreciated. Pay attention to partner to maintain a relationship.

If you think that doing these things is out of your control, you will feel resentful, sorry for yourself, sad, or angry.

Accepting lack of control

How did we get to the topic of locus of control when the article is about doing what you love? Think about it. Does your life control you or do you control your life?

Twelve-step philosophy offers us the serenity prayer:

May I have the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; to change the things I can; and the wisdom to know the difference.

We can change this a bit too. May I have the serenity to accept that I have control to decide how I spend my time and energy. Then, can I set aside five minutes a day to practice doing what I love?

Bottom line: Consistency is more important than amount of time.

You do have the time and energy. Try practicing doing what you love five minutes a day. If need be, get up five minutes earlier. Then see what happens.

But, but, but…I feel your pain. Even five minutes a day takes discipline, presence, attention, love, patience, forgiveness, energy, lots of energy. Yes. The more you do what you love, the more you will find the time and energy to do it.

Part 2: When are you going to _______ again?

In Part 1 of this series, I listed two reasons (money, time) so many of us don’t do what we love to do. In this article, we’ll look at other challenges we face.

You’ve got the money figured out and you’ve got the time to do what you love. What next?

Your passion speaks to you with urgency. Do this now, it says. Dust off your trombone, your drum set, your ballet slippers. Drag your bicycle out from behind the boxes in the garage. Buy a new set of acrylics and an easel. Just DO IT…(sorry Nike you don’t own that).

First, because you’ve put it off for so long. And second, because you long for a more meaningful life. Do this thing–whatever it is for you–and you’ll feel more enriched, satisfied, content, happy. Your life will have more LIFE.

But wait a second.

Do you know what you love?

Let’s back up a paragraph or two. I apologize. I assume that you know what you love to do. Maybe you don’t.

It’s not always obvious and not always easy to decide what you love to do unless you do it. It’s kind of Catch-22. You might try an activity and discover that you don’t like it at all. Or you try it and you like it. Or you try it and you get that click feeling.

Difficult to describe, you know it when you feel it. The two of you are hand-in-glove, two-peas-in-a-pod, a good match. No explanations necessary. Like falling in love, but better because the click goes beyond feeling, beyond thinking, beyond words.

So, you might begin by revisiting the activities you enjoyed and the dreams you had as a child. What did you do that made your awareness of time and space fade into the background?


Doing what you love doesn’t mean the activity is always easy or pleasant. You know it’s not. Tapping a keyboard might be fun and exciting in itself for a while or for a percussionist, but this activity called writing goes beyond the physical motion and into a space I can’t describe. Somewhere inside of you, when you do the activity you click with, you know it. It feels right. You enter an almost out-of-body experience. You FLOW in Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s terms.

Csikszentmihalyi (chik zen mee hi) is a Positive Psychologist who wrote Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience (2008). The book is based on his study of optimal experiences or …deep enjoyment, creativity, and a total involvement with life

Don’t want to read a whole book now? Watch Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s TED talk. These optimal experiences are what Abraham Maslow termed Self-Actualization. After all the lower needs–Physiological, Safety, Love/Belonging, Esteem are met–he hypothesized, we reach a state of self-actualization, authentic self, or flow.

According to Csikszentmihalyi:

an activity you love + 100% of your attention + skill = FLOW

If you’ve ever experienced flow, you will remember it. Some people describe it as an altered state. A composer in the TED Talk said he felt as if notes flowed from his hand; his self, his ego had nothing to do with the music he wrote.

All you’re aware of is the activity. Everything else drops away. Body sensations fade into the background. Taking care of self and others, grooming, housekeeping, bill paying, all unimportant. Rock climbing, playing music, running, writing, cooking…the activity takes every bit of your attention. Csikszentmihalyi refers to the state as ecstasy.

Sounds great! Sign me up! I want more ecstasy.

So what’s the hold up? You have the time, you have the money, you have or are searching for the activity you love.

100% of Your Attention

Ah! There’s one of the rubs. That long to-do list I mentioned in Part 1 of this series? Refuses to subside. The ambient noise, motion, and other external and internal stimuli we are inundated with every day? In the foreground of your mind. The ordinary activities we have to do to keep up a human existence? Calling you. The unexpected demands on our time and attention? All distractions.

As an example, I pay my health insurance premiums every month…on time. But because there is a glitch in the way BS processes payments, I spent two hours investigating who, what, where, when, and how mine were paid for the past six months. Thankfully, my agent cleared up the confusion quickly. But you know what I’m talking about. My attention went from here writing to there defending myself against health insurance cutoff with no human on their end to answer my questions by email or phone.

So this life, the way we live, we have that sort of thing to deal with. And we have another sort of thing to deal with, too. Me and everyone else who thinks they have something important to say want your eyeballs. Maybe this article inspires you; maybe it doesn’t. I hope it does.

My intentions are pure. I earn no money from your reading my articles. Other intentions are less so. Web sites want your clicks, your eyeballs, your attention. Buy our fabulous products, you need one of these or four of those, you can’t live without this unbelievably once-in-a-lifetime, now or never offer. Look at what this celebrity did or how that person aged or beat age or made it rich. Or now and for the next several months…send money or take time to volunteer for your favored presidential candidate so you don’t have to move to Canada in January.

Whew. I wear myself out writing about this complicated life we live. So let’s make a cup of tea, take a break. How are you? How much time are you spending on the activity that you love? How is your concentration and attention?

Skill and mastery

According to Malcolm Gladwell in Outliers: The Story of Success (2008 was a very good year for books), it takes 10,000 hours to master a skill. According to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi it takes 10 years.

Highly controversial, this concept is challenged when we see videos on Facebook of four- and six-year-olds painting masterpieces or dancing, tumbling, singing, playing violin, whatever the activity, as if they had practiced for decades.

Reincarnation could explain prodigy. But more likely, whatever time is spent practicing or doing, innate talent plays a role too. I could practice the guitar for 10,000 hours but will never play like Eric Clapton or Duane Allman, right? Does it matter?

No, it does not matter if you are or are not talented. Unless of course, you also want to be the best in the world or famous. What does matter is that you love whatever it is you’re doing and how often you immerse yourself in it. I could be wrong, but happiness and celebrity are not mutually dependent, the two of which may even be negatively correlated.

Have I made my point? Discover your authentic self and the activities you love, then FLOW. Life is one big experiment.

Just Do It. 🙂

Oh, one last thought. Self worth. You deserve to feel ecstasy, flow, an altered state, concentration, good, happy, excited, fulfilled, satisfied. You deserve a more meaningful life. Till next time…





When are you going to write again?

A woman I know who reads what I write asked me at lunch yesterday, “When are you going to write another article?”


Oh yes, that. I had forgotten all about it. She woke me from what felt like a deep sleep.

I have been so busy with the slog of daily life that I had forgotten about writing, an activity that brings much pleasure and meaning to my life whether anyone reads it or not. I love to write.

What does this have to do with you?

And you? My three-month off-trail missing in-action diversion from writing symbolizes a universal dilemma we all face. How do each one of us fit into the endless to-do list activities that matter most in life? For you that might be spending time with friends, gardening, playing music, listening to music, making art, playing card games, fixing gadgets, inventing gadgets, cooking, walking at the beach, hiking in the mountains, acting, singing, riding your bike, running, or lying in the grass and watching the clouds float by.

I could tell you a fairy tale to follow your dreams, do what you love, and the rest will work out. Or visualize the life you want and the universe will make it happen for you. But that’s hogwash and you know it.

I could pass along the advice most parents give their idealistic children: get a real job, have a back-up plan, a day job, and do what you love as a hobby. In other words give up or sell out. I know. I did not like hearing that either.


But the reality is that life in our lifetime is tough. Reality means paying bills, which means doing some form of work that brings in money, or having enough investments to not have to work that way. For most of us, it’s the first. We need money to live and we have to work to earn it.

We need food to eat. We need a place to live. We need clothes to wear. We need to pay for health insurance. Oh yes, and here in SoCal we need a car. Just the basics cost $$$$ megabucks.

Then if we spend more than we take in because life is so very expensive, our credit score suffers. Questionable credit scores trigger all kinds of problems, not least of which prevents “offenders” from getting hired at a job that brings in money to pay for the basics.

I don’t know about you, but I’m beginning to feel overwhelmed.


I’m taking a class in Self-Compassion through UCLA Mindful Awareness Research Center (MARC). Can you believe that is where we are? We have to learn how to be compassionate towards ourselves. But yes, that is where we are. Teresa, a fellow student, asked if self-compassion was another item on an already long should and to-do list. She made a good point.

Including some of what she entertained us with…the whole class was laughing…and some of my own observations, we have to:

  • Find an affordable and safe place to live (good luck in SoCal)
  • Buy and prepare food (make sure it’s healthy 🙂
  • Take care of grooming ourselves so that we don’t offend others
  • Get teeth, eyes, and the rest of the body checked for early warning signs of gingivitis, glaucoma, hypertension, high cholesterol, cancer, heart disease…you get the idea
  • Exercise to keep the body healthy and toned and as young as possible for as long as possible
  • Commute to wherever we’re going…a very big consideration here
  • Walk the dog; clean the cat box
  • Take care of children; help them do their homework; take them to soccer practice
  • Clean the house? Really?
  • Oh and finally, do that something that brings meaning to your life

You can see how that last item drops off the bottom.

The have-to to-do list grows in proportion with progress. Life has become too much, which, by the way, defines stress. Life is just too much for human beings to deal with.


What I mean by life gets in the way of living is that life has gotten so complicated, so busy, so hurried, so stressful that many times it feels more like surviving than living.

What’s the difference, you ask?

We can use the swimming metaphor from a previous article.

Surviving feels like you’re paddling arms and legs as fast as you can to keep your head (and nose and mouth) above the surface. Your effort feels not good enough. You feel water touch your nostrils. You might even go under now and then. Very unpleasant.

Living feels like skillfully swimming to the water’s edge, climbing the nearest ledge and jumping off. Kupaianaha! (Hawaiian for fantastic, wonderful urbandictionary.com and possibly the origin of cowabunga). Or Cannonball! Splash! Swim. Repeat. Very pleasant.

Did you know? Swimmingly means smoothly and satisfactorily.

Can you feel the difference? There’s a sense of overwhelm with surviving and a WOW quality with living. You tingle all over.

Life of course is not always kupaianaha. Life tests our ability to navigate the inevitable ups and downs.

Navigating life’s transitions

I gave a talk yesterday on Navigating Life’s Transitions at the Santa Monica YMCA. We started with introductions followed by a couple of minutes of relaxation meditation to give everyone time to come into the room. For most of us, the body arrives before the mind does.

I expected to teach the women in the audience something about resilience, courage, determination, putting one foot in front of the other even when the going gets so difficult you just want to stay in bed all day.

Halfway in, I realized that they already know how to navigate transitions. Marriage, divorce, immigration, children, stroke, cancer, depression, anxiety, job loss, moving…the list was long.

So I changed my talk midstream and validated their strengths. Close your eyes, take a few breaths and savor your resilience, your courage, your determination, I said.

They’ve asked me to come back to do another talk. Now there’s another activity that I would do even if I didn’t get paid for it. I don’t. 🙂

I’m writing again. So, when are you going to ______ again?


Life is a slog when you don’t make time for people and activities that are meaningful to you.

Motto of the UCLA Mindful Awareness Research Center:

Don’t believe everything you think.

–Diana Winston, Director of Mindfulness Education

We writing geeks enjoy moving words around, contemplating the use of the Oxford comma, and expressing thoughts and feelings between the lines. Ha! And you thought it was the words!

Sex in therapy

No, no, no! Sex is NEVER part of therapy.

The guiding principle for all therapists is to Do no harm. Having sex with a client does harm. You have to be able to trust your therapist completely. If he or she is benefiting from your relationship, other than earning a fee for the session, the relationship is not about you. It is about the therapist.

Because of the power dynamics and privacy of the client-therapist relationship, therapists can and have exploited clients sexually. While this behavior sounds unimaginable, it’s not forced sex that is the problem. Erotic transference–yes, it has a name–happens often in the therapeutic relationship. Some clients develop sexual feelings toward her or his therapist. This is a normal response to intimacy. But let me be clear, it is the client who has these feelings and talks about them in therapy. Not the therapist. The therapist’s role is to assist the client in working through her or his erotic transference. It is the therapist’s duty to protect the client from exploitation. When the therapist cannot do so, ethics and laws do.

Sex in TV therapy

Do you remember the HBO series (2008-2010) In Treatment? Beautifully written, captivating acting, compelling dialog, convincing story, it had just enough drama to keep you coming back for more each week. Some of the episodes looked a lot like ethical therapy, but some did not. In the first season, the writers and director portrayed Laura, the young attractive client, as a seductress who the therapist Paul Weston could not resist. This unfair, and even harmful, image implies that clients may not be safe in therapy, and that a client cannot talk about erotic transference with her or his therapist. In addition to Paul’s expressing his attraction to Laura and “coming on” to her, Paul’s supervisor, Gina, encouraged his pursuit of Laura!

  • If a therapist suggests that sex is okay or part of therapy, or if you ever feel physically unsafe or uncomfortable with a therapist, leave immediately.
  • If you feel attracted to your therapist, talk about it. IF YOU WANT TO.
  • If your therapist encourages you to talk about sex and you don’t want to, say so. If the therapist insists, find another therapist.
  • The therapist must always maintain the professional boundary and allow you to work through your feelings.
  • If your therapist does not respect the professional boundary in any way, find another therapist.

Again, sex is NEVER part of the therapy process.

What is sex?

According to the California Department of Consumer Affairs:

  • “Sexual contact” means the touching of an intimate part of another person, including sexual intercourse.
  • “Touching” means physical contact with another person either through the person’s clothes or directly with the person’s skin.
  • “Intimate part” means the sexual organ, anus, groin or buttocks of any person and the breast of a female.

Your talking about erotic transference, is not sex. The therapist’s innuendos, jokes, comments that feel invasive, touching in a sexual way, unwelcome hugs initiated by the therapist, kissing are. All of these threaten the client’s sense of safety. You might be thinking, “But I was the one who started talking about sex” or “I want to have sex with my therapist.” Sorry. There are no buts. If your attraction to your therapist gets in the way of the work you’re doing, it might be time to find another therapist.

Sex with a client does so much emotional damage, a therapist who crosses the sex boundary with a client and is reported will lose his or her license, serve jail time, and pay a fine. It’s not your responsibility to control your therapist’s sexual urges.

Be an informed client, read Therapy Never Includes Sex.

How do you know if your therapist is maintaining boundaries

A client-therapist relationship that’s headed for boundary crossing has “red flags”. If you answer no to any of the following questions, get a second opinion about your feelings.

  • Do you feel safe?
  • Does the therapist hear, understand, and respect you?
  • Can you talk to your therapist about anything with complete confidence that the therapist is interested in your well-being?
  • Can you express your feelings?
  • Do you feel satisfied with the therapist’s answers to your questions?
  • Does the therapist encourage you to talk about topics you are not ready or willing to talk about?
  • Would you like to continue working with this person?
Secrets, shame, and confidentiality

The most difficult feeling for most people to talk about is shame. If your shame has something to do with sex, you might not want to talk about it. The deeper the shame, the more you’ll keep the shameful topic(s) secret. Denial, secrets, and lies accompany the shame.

When you talk about shaming topics, you have to trust that your therapist will support you and maintain the professional boundary. That won’t happen if your therapist cannot control his or her feelings.

Sex in therapy – laws

In California, you are protected by the following laws.

  • Any act of sexual contact, sexual abuse, sexual exploitation, sexual misconduct or sexual relations by a therapist with a patient is unprofessional, illegal, as well as unethical as set forth in Business and Professions Code sections 726, 729, 2960(o), 4982(k), 4992.3(l), 4989.54(n), and 4999.90(k).

See the Department of Consumer Affairs web site for more information.

Sex in therapy – ethics

You are also protected by two marriage and family therapists’ associations and their professional codes of ethics.

The California Association of Marriage and Family Therapy (CAMFT):

Sexual intercourse, sexual contact or sexual intimacy with a patient, or a patient’s spouse or partner, or a patient’s immediate family member, during the therapeutic relationship, or during the two years following the termination of the therapeutic relationship, is unethical.– CAMFT code of ethics

The American Association of Marriage and Family Therapy (AAMFT):

1.4 Sexual Intimacy with Current Clients and Others: Sexual intimacy with current clients or with known members of the client’s family system is prohibited.

1.5 Sexual Intimacy with Former Clients and Others: Sexual intimacy with former clients or with known members of the client’s family system is prohibited. –AAMFT code of ethics

Sex with a client is unethical. It is also illegal. You can read the entire codes of ethics published by the CAMFT  and the AAMFT at the end of this post. If you believe your therapist has acted unethically, you can phone either association for advice about what to do.

Summing it up

I hope that answers some of your questions about sex in therapy.

Want to learn more about finding the right therapist for you? Ben Butina has published an online guide on PsychCentral, How to Find a Good Therapist. It begins with a two-word sentence: THERAPY WORKS!!

CAMFT_Ethics  AAMFT_Ethics



10 FAQs about therapy

The decision to start or restart therapy is a big one. There are practical issues as well as curiosity about what being in therapy means. Here are ten frequently asked questions.

1. Will the therapist talk to other people about me?

No. No. No. Absolutely not. This is a big difference between other professional relationships such as coaching and the client/therapist relationship. The law protects your identity and the content of your sessions in therapy. Not so with coaching. What you say in therapy stays in therapy. Your therapist cannot confirm to a third-party that she or he is seeing you unless you agree in writing. That’s why, if you see your therapist in the community, she or he may not say hello to you unless you say hello first. You and your therapist should talk about confidentiality and the limits of it during your first session.

2. How much will therapy cost?

You and your therapist should discuss fees before your first session. You have the right to know how much you will be charged before you start. Some therapists offer sliding scale fees which means they’ll reduce their fee if you can’t afford their published rates or if you don’t have insurance. While the Affordable Care Act and Covered California make insurance more affordable, some plans have high deductibles and co-pays. While you will know the cost of each session before you begin, no one can tell you how long you will be in therapy. So the total cost of therapy cannot be determined unless you set a limit.

3. How long will I be in therapy?

That depends. Although some people report feeling better after eight to twelve sessions, some people feel worse because the painful topics they’ve been avoiding are being discussed. Deeper work requires a longer relationship. This is another topic to discuss with your therapist. You and your therapist can agree to limit the number of sessions. When you are close to finishing those sessions, you and your therapist can review the work you’re doing and decide if it is in your best interest to continue, start coming more or less often, or take a break from therapy.

4. Will therapy hurt?

Therapy should not hurt. Your therapist should not hurt your feelings.  Some of the topics you discuss might be painful. That’s why you’re coming into therapy. You may have tried avoiding painful topics and realized that doing so is a temporary solution. Unresolved painful topics can emerge in unexpected ways or re-emerge if you don’t address them. As an example, some people do not feel comfortable being alone. They avoid the pain of loneliness by having a series of relationships one after the other only to learn that they feel lonely in their relationships as well as when they are alone.

5. Does being in therapy mean I’m crazy?

No. Referring to a person’s mental health as crazy is unfair and judgmental. Many times the term is used in reference to women. But there are no mental disorders that include the words crazy, insane, or deranged. Most people come into therapy because they are responding to painful experiences and relationships in a normal way and need some help sorting through their emotions and thoughts. People who call other people crazy in a derogatory way are at best insensitive or just not thinking, and at worst critical, lacking compassion. If you feel like you’re going crazy, a.k.a. stressed out or overwhelmed, or made to feel crazy in response to the mixed messages from another person, then yes, therapy is a viable option for you. From a lighter perspective, crazy is also slang for busy, having fun, too long of a to-do list, or to express enthusiasm or attachment, i.e. I’m crazy about sushi. Or she’s crazy about her partner.

6. Does being in therapy mean I’m weak?

Another term often used to judge and criticize, weak can mean unable to take care of yourself, undefended, and fragile. Or it can mean being soft and vulnerable–human characteristics that are necessary for intimacy. Maybe you’re feeling overwhelmed and don’t want to let your guard down. Again, these are topics for you to talk about in therapy. Asking for help does not make you weak, it makes you wise. Watch Brene Brown’s Ted Talk on vulnerability.

7. Am I overly sensitive?

Human beings are sensitive to stimuli. That’s part of being human. The level of sensitivity is on a scale from completely removed from emotion to highly emotional. Our sensitivity to stimuli from the outside and inside is how we decide if a person or situation is safe or dangerous.  Important note: whoever is using “sensitive” in a judgmental or critical way is probably uncomfortable with your feelings…or feelings in general. If that’s you, therapy is a great way to take a look at why. If someone in your life is uncomfortable with feelings, it’s important to understand that and find support someplace else. If you’re crying, you have something to cry about. If you’re worried, you have something to worry about. And so on. Therapy starts with validation, understanding, empathy.

8. Will I be judged for being in therapy?

Some people may judge you for being in therapy. I would ask what makes them uncomfortable about your taking care of yourself. Your thoughts are more important. You might wonder what therapy is going to be like FOR YOU. Yes, you may feel uncomfortable, you might feel judged, you will certainly feel unsure. This is what therapists call grist for the mill, material to explore and talk about in session. The thoughts, feelings, responses, and reactions that you experience in session are more than likely going on in your other relationships as well. The difference is, you can talk about them without judgment, criticism, anger, or expectations from the therapist. In other words, you’ll be able to talk and express in a SAFE space.

9. What happens when I don’t have anything to say?

Silence in any relationship can be really uncomfortable. Depending on your therapist’s way of working, he or she may at times  sit quietly during your sessions. The therapist is giving you time and space to process a thought or feeling. Sometimes the uncomfortable silence leads to the most insightful and productive moments in therapy.

10. I don’t like my therapist. Can I stop seeing her or him?

Yes, definitely. You have the right to continue or discontinue seeing any therapist. You can discuss your feelings with your therapist. But if you find you cannot trust the therapist or feel uncomfortable talking to her or him, or just don’t feel the relationship is a good fit, find another one. The relationship between you and your therapist is the most important part of your healing process. Therapists are human beings. Each of us brings to the work our philosophy, personality, life experience, wisdom, kindness, compassion, theoretical preferences, and ethical responsibility. The qualities one therapist offers might not be what you want. You might prefer a male therapist or a therapist who is your age. If you are a baby boomer, you might want a more mature therapist, someone who has more life experience than a younger therapist. Or you might prefer a young therapist who understands first-hand the life challenges of millennials.

Therapy is a topic around which questions swirl.  If I’ve missed anything that is on your mind, Contact me and I’ll write a follow-up post or answer your question privately.

Previous article: The Therapy Decision

Next week: Sex and Therapy

Therapy and Happiness

Unresolved trauma can develop into a stuck place of remembering painful experiences over and over and over without resolution or relief.
History, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived, but if faced with courage, need not be lived again. —Maya Angelou*

We need courage, and other people, to find our way out of the cycle of pain.

childhood traumaJenna*, a 38-year-old single woman, feels her biological clock ticking. Jenna has had several relationships that lasted months, but never years. Jenna met each potential partner at a club after a few drinks when her inhibitions and judgment were low. The relationships became physical right away. Before long, Jenna found herself again “in love” with a man who reminded her of her father. Charismatic but lacking insight or compassion, the man would distance himself and eventually wander away from her. This caused Jenna so much pain, she would yell at and criticize her potential life partner. The more he pulled away, the more she yelled; the more she yelled, the more he pulled away. It was a vicious cycle. After each breakup, Jenna regressed to her frightened 9-year-old self who huddled in her room whenever her parents fought. An only child, Jenna had hoped her parents would get divorced or die, then worried that her thoughts might hurt them and that the fighting was her fault. Jenna’s parents were heavy drinkers. They were so consumed with their addictions and each other, they paid little attention to Jenna. The memories intrude on Jenna and cause her to feel shame and sadness. She thinks about doing something to relieve the pain. Twelve-step programs are a good start, group and individual therapy could be helpful as well.

There’s nothing “wrong” with Jenna. Jenna did all she could, with the emotional skills available to her at the time, to survive a scary and difficult childhood. Unmanageable fear, anger, and sadness are common in adults who have had traumatic childhoods. So is avoiding social interactions, and fighting. The memories become an inner critic that reflects the voices heard, a voice that says, “You’re a no good, unworthy, loser.” Painful messages to hear; shameful concepts to talk about. So, I am not surprised when I hear people say that therapy is not for her or him because, they don’t want to talk about the wrenching pain of the past. Sometimes it’s too much to think about.

Yet, summoning the courage to tell your story to another person in “talk therapy” has been shown to be effective in healing from trauma. Doing so means taking a risk that the other person will listen without judgment or criticism and will understand what you’ve experienced, what you feel.

Therapy doesn’t stop there. Not anymore. Talking about painful memories is only part of the healing process. We’ve learned that only focusing on pain and suffering or anger and fear does not lead to healing as originally thought. To heal, we need a way out, a light at the end of the tunnel, hope, something to replace the pain and rewire the brain. So, while it’s important to acknowledge the pain, fear, sadness, and anger, it’s also important to actively work toward recovery and happiness.

Positive Psychology

Martin Seligman, PhD. is the founder of Positive Psychology. He discovered and studied learned helplessness, a response to repeated unsuccessful attempts to escape pain and threat. In Authentic Happiness, (2002, p. 28) he describes a conversation that he had with his then 5-year-old daughter, Nikki. He had snapped at her for dancing and throwing weeds in the air while he was gardening. She walked away and after a few minutes returned to tell her father that if she could stop whining, which she had, he could stop being a grouch. This conversation changed the direction of Dr. Seligman’s work, which has had a profound effect on the way we think about the human experience, psychology, therapy, and our clients.

Research indicates that the essential ingredients for living a long, healthy, satisfying life are: close connections with others, a purpose higher than oneself, a genetically set high base-level of happiness, and daily habits that support and increase happiness. Money helps too, but only to a certain degree.

Close connections with others

You may be one of the fortunate few who has a loving family, close friends, a kind and caring life partner. But what if you are less fortunate. What if you have a dysfunctional family of origin, no close friends, and no partner. Can you still be happy? Maybe. Depends on what you’re willing to change. Introverts particularly find the emphasis on relationships to be, shall we say, annoying extroverted thinking. While you may want more satisfying relationships, that may not be your top priority. If it is, are you willing to take classes, join social groups, or safely meet people online?

Purpose higher than yourself

This can be a career, a volunteer job, being a parent, a good friend, or even attitude. In Authentic Happiness, Martin Seligman tells the story about visiting a close friend who was a patient at the hospital. The man was in a coma and his neurologist had just asked Dr. Seligman to sign a release to take the man off life support. A few minutes later, a hospital employee came into the room. He was taking deliberate time deciding which pictures to take down and which pictures to hang on the walls in the room. Dr. Seligman, the curious scientist, asked the man about his job. He said, “I’m an orderly on this floor…I bring in prints and photos every week. You see, I’m responsible for the health of all these patients. Take Mr. Miller here. He hasn’t woken up since they brought him in, but when he does, I want to make sure he sees beautiful things right away” (pp. 167-168). The orderly did not have a big shiny career with a lot of status. He had turned what he did have into a purpose higher than himself.

Base-level of happiness

Some people are born with a cheerier disposition than others. You can see that in any newborn nursery. One baby is more sensitive to stimuli than another. One cries more. Another sleeps quietly most of the day. Research indicates that we have a genetic set point. I am not convinced that this cannot change, but the science indicates it cannot. In any case, yours is fine, whatever it is. Just know that while the base level may not change, another whopping 40% of our perception of happiness can change. To learn more about this, read Dr. Sonja Lyubomirsky’s work and her blog on Psychology Today’s web site. She studies and teaches the science of happiness at the University of California Riverside.

Habits that support and increase happiness

This is where the exciting news lies. If you are not as happy as you would like to be, are you are cultivating happiness in all the right places? Or are you focusing too much on momentary pleasure and not enough on the bigger picture? Neuroscientists have confirmed with fMRI’s and other technology that habits, reactions, patterns of behavior and relating, are not set in concrete as originally thought. The brain has the “smarts” to change. You are what you practice.

Your beliefs become your thoughts,
Your thoughts become your words,
Your words become your actions,
Your actions become your habits,
Your habits become your values,
Your values become your destiny.

Mahatma Gandhi

Some therapists have moved so far away from the “what’s wrong” medical approach, that we don’t even refer to people in therapy as patients. We see the work as a collaborative process and the client as the expert with agency in her or his life.

Certainly, there is  still a need for the diagnosis and treatment of mental illnesses, many of which require psychiatric intervention and medication to manage symptoms. But the people I see are seeking, in one way or another, relief from pain and more happiness in life.

*Found on Brainy Quote.com

**Jenna is a fictional character; photo from canstockphoto.com.


If this topic interests you, go a little further and visit with the founder and major contributors to Positive Psychology:

The Therapy Decision

Going into therapy is a BIG decision. It’s not unusual to think about it for a while, sometimes a long while (weeks, months, years). And for good reason.

First there’s the investment of time, energy, and money. Then there’s the decision about who to see…there are so many therapists to choose from…and the concerns about what it means to be in therapy.

Linda England, MFT InternMarie*

Marie, a 45-year-old single woman with no children, has a successful career managing the customer support department of a mid-sized corporation. Marie  takes relatively good care of her health. She exercises, eats right, has regular medical check-ups. Her blood pressure is a little high, but “nothing to worry about.” She brings work home and watches the news every weeknight; and gardens in her backyard on weekends. She goes to the movies with friends once a month. Her last intimate relationship ended three years ago when her fiancĂ© broke off their engagement. He said, “You work too much and you don’t seem all that interested in me.” When she thinks of that relationship, she remembers her parents arguing about all of the time her dad spent away from home. “Let it go,” she tells herself. “That was so long ago.” Marie considers going into therapy, but puts it off because, she thinks, “My problems aren’t that big or bad.”

Marie*, like many people, is functioning well enough in life but wonder “Is this all there is?”

Unlike Marie, you may have problems you that are making life less pleasant than you would like. Big problems. If that’s the case, certainly therapy is an option for you. Support groups are good too, but sometimes we all need someone to talk to in private, one-on-one.

People like Marie, in addition to thinking “My problems aren’t that bad,” might also think that therapy means being crazy, weak, sensitive, unsure, or insecure. Maybe you think people will judge you for being in therapy (some will).

Misconceptions about therapy

Misconceptions about therapy are not uncommon. For starters, you won’t lie on a couch, unless you want to. The therapist should be interested in what you’ve experienced in your life, what’s happened and what is happening with you, not what’s “wrong” with you. In the best of situations, you will work collaboratively with your therapist and talk about what’s important to you, not what’s going on with the therapist. The therapist will probably ask you questions and make comments, but they should be about you, not the therapist. You have a choice to answer questions or not answer; saying no is an acceptable response. You can cry, express anger, talk about fears and worries, laugh, and smile. You can even disagree with your therapist. I suggest that clients disagree with me if I interpret something they’ve said incorrectly or made an interpretation that does not “fit.” Disagreeing with others is part of developing agency and trust in yourself.

The contemporary view of therapy is that it’s a time and space that you set aside each week to explore your inner world,  your life, your relationships, your past, present, and future in a safe, confidential environment with a person who has your best interests in mind always. Your therapist is your advocate and should want to help you to have a more satisfying and meaningful life. If you do not want to have a more satisfying and meaningful life, then you might talk about that in your first session. If your therapist is not working with you to get there, consider looking for a different therapist.

Next: 10 FAQs about therapy

*Marie is a fictional character; stock photo.