Gaslighting – and how to stop.

What is Gaslighting?

Gaslighting is a term for purposefully screwing up the definitions and connections between existing experiences and the perceptions of another person involved. The term comes from a classic movie starring Ingrid Bergman where the husband decides to gain power over his wife by driving her crazy. The story is set in the early 1900s when natural gas lines were connected to the businesses and homes of those who could afford to pay, and used for many things we use electricity for today, including lighting. Lights we’re easy to use on that era’s version of a dimmer switch by turning the level of gas going to the lamp up or down.

In the movie, the husband turns the level of gas just a tiny bit up or down in different lights, changing it when his wife isn’t there. When she’s in the room and asks if one lamp seems to be a bit off from the others, he states that it seems the same to him. Then later adjusts it to match other lamps in the room, but changes a different lamp. Constantly having her perceptions dismissed and even questioned does, indeed, drive the wife crazy.

We are social beings, and work best with input from others to confirm our experience.  No matter how strong or independent someone is, there is still awareness and a certain level of adherence to the social code, and varying levels of using others as a mirror to reflect, affirm or deny, and solidify our experiences.

Social media has become a huge part of our culture for just this reason. We have friends, family, and sometimes relative strangers agreeing that yes, that is a cute cat, a funny story, sad news, important information. And we are not wrong or weak for wanting and needing this. Having these affirmations helps strengthen our understanding of our experiences in life. We have a stronger, more enriched sense of self and others when we recieve feedback that supports our own perceptions. And we become weaker and less resilient when our perceptions are consistently denied.

Who is Gaslighting?

Classically, someone gaslighting is doing it on purpose, with full awareness and intent. This does happen. While the stereotype of someone abusing their partner is a large, angry man physically assaulting his wife or girlfriend; abusers not only come in a range of genders and sizes, but also use a range of ways to control and harm their partners. Gaslighting is one common way to abuse, and it can certainly be done with planning and intent.

However, the term has expanded to include people who are not overtly planning to gaslight their partner, friend, family member, client, or co-worker. But it still happens. When anyone is misrepresenting the truth to take power away from another, that is gaslighting, whether on a major level or a less severe one.

Just as when one person kills another there is 1st degree murder, where plans have been made and carried out; 2nd degree murder, where something happened in the moment that can’t be fixed; manslaughter, an accident resulting in death in a situation where the person who killed had some knowledge and awareness that their actions and situation had the potential to cause death; and accidental death, where both the living and the dead were caught in a series of unforseen occurrences that ended horribly. At the end of the incident, though, someone is still dead.

Using this comparison, first degree gaslighting might be a term for internationally creating an odd situation and then giving misleading information with the intent to weaken someone’s resilience and emotional balance.

‘Second degree gaslighting’, or gaslighting that isn’t planned but is definitely there, often occurs when one person in an interaction has more power and doesn’t take the time or effort to extend that privilege to lift the second person up. Power in our society is granted in several ways. Wealth usually confers a certain amount of power. Being the boss at work, having a high degree of skill or fame usually confer power, and some people are seen as more credible simply due to sex, gender, and race. When the person with more power assumes that their power confers knowledge, the situation is ripe for gaslighting. When I, as someone with a chronic disability, have talked to doctors about various symptoms only to be told that I’d be better with more socializing, with not taking the medication that has been working well for years, or that I am overstating my symptoms to begin with, I am being gaslighted. I’ve felt this way alone and in a crowd, at school, work, and social outings. I can give a step-by-step description of how I feel, when my symptoms began and what makes them better or worse.

To tell me I’m not properly talking my medication, or that I’m not really having the symptoms I’m experiencing right that minute is gaslighting. It’s using power – in this case the power of study, career, and social position to invalidate my experiences.  And then a tiny bit of questioning sneaks in. I wonder if I am exaggerating or doing something wrong.

Continuing with this theme, the ‘manslaughter’ level would be when someone used their power or position to push their agenda, but had some solid evidence and shared that. And finally, mistakes do happen. Gaslighting is not the same situation as simply being mistaken.

Continuing for the moment to use doctors as an example; it took me over 15 years from the first time I went to the doctor specifically to ask about the symptoms I was experiencing to when I officially recieved the correct diagnosis. To be fair, the condition I have is rare, and isn’t discussed much, if at all, in medical school or internships. When I went to doctors during those 15 years, nearly every one of them said the same basic thing. “I’m not sure what this is and can’t be absolutely sure how best to treat it.” The way they told that to me, though, made all the difference. The doctor who told me “The first thing we need to do is address the symptoms that are causing you so many problems”, and the doctor who said, “I don’t know what you have, but you clearly have something and I’m going to keep on trying until we figure out what’s going on”, were both doctors who took pains to use their power to empower me.

The direct opposite of that was the doctor who told me that if the medication he prescribed wasn’t working, then I must not actually be feeling bad was directly gaslighting. Whether he had chosen those words specifically to make me go away and stop sayingI felt sick or was just reacting out of  frustration is something I can’t know, but either way I was not empowered. If me reporting what was said could help other patients, it might help to know if it was planned or not – but the devastation I felt was the same.

This level of devestation is even higher in a personal relationship. Most of the doctors who said, from their position of trust and authority, that I wasn’t sick or didn’t need medication barely knew who I was. They saw me every month or two or three. They had to check my chart to remember which symptoms and medications went with my name, and if they hadn’t asked about something they sometimes made assumptions, such as telling me more excercise would help when I was taking a martial arts class that met twice weekly and going to a weekly dance class as well.

Having a partner tell me that I’m selfish, when they had been there to see so many things I did for others, not only hurt worse, but it left me with a lot of self doubt. Again, it doesn’t matter if this person had thought this for a while or just grabbed the closest insult available in a discussion. The effect on me was to weaken my sense of self and my resilience to the next conversation that went badly.

The answer to ‘Who is gaslighting’ is that anyone who gives replies or information that is A – slanted from the truth, B – strengthens their emotional position at the expense of the emotional resources of the other person(s) involved,  and C – who is doing it deliberately.

To be doing it deliberately it isn’t necessary that the gaslighter have planned the conversation or the result, but it is necessary that they hold their emotional position as more important and that they are aware that they are not attempting to give valid information or to define their statements as personal opinions that their audience isn’t required to adopt as truth.

That’s why the overall way to both avoid gaslighting someone and to repel gaslighting from sticking to you lies in the simple, but very powerful, concept of the I Statement.

How to Stop Gaslighting

Gaslighting comes out of what the author and speaker Starhawk refers to as ‘Power Over’. Power over is any social  system where people with power use that power to solidify and increase their power by reducing the power that others, especially others in a perceived lesser class or position, have within that system.

The system can be as large as a country or as small as two people in a relationship. Currently at a very large level, political and social leaders have been attempting, and sometimes succeeding, in gaslighting large numbers of their constituants or society at large.

A leader making an announcement that they are working hard to improve healthcare by cutting funding to said healthcare is gaslighting on an epic scale. And in addition to cold hard facts about how many people are helped or harmed directly; many, many more are harmed subtly by trying to make these two positions make sense together. As social beings, we do look to each other for assistance. More than that, in any human brain that isn’t highly damaged, we each have a part of the left side of the brain that wants everything to make sense.

This part is more willing to handle outright lies that are logical and match previous information than to handle information that doesn’t match, or to be told that no current information is available. This part of the brain will even make up plausible thoughts and insert them in between given facts to create a full story rather than tolerate ambiguity.

Having this portion of the brain isn’t some kind of cosmic joke. It’s an important skill to be able to act, rather than be paralyzed by incomplete or  contradictory data. Still, it is the reason so many of us are willing to vote, purchase, follow, support, and otherwise act on false but plausible complete stories over accepting proven but incomplete stories. We prefer to believe we know what’s going on.

And it’s the reason gaslighting is so insidiously devestating. Gaslighting gives completing pieces to why and how things have occurred – it only requires that we  accept the blame, shame, or culpability for incidents that aren’t ours.

To combat that as a potential victim of gaslighting, we regain our own power through I statements. The concept of I statements was first described in 1960 by a psychologist named Thomas Gordon*.  I statements specifically focus on just the speaker and their thoughts or feelings. An I statement incorporates ‘I think’, ‘I feel’, ‘I believe’, ‘I want’ etc as the way to describe where this statement comes from, and focuses on what the speaker personally knows, thinks, has heard, would like, and so forth. By doing this, it bypasses the logical brain insisting on an integrated story, and allows more than one opinion to live together.

To add strength and flexibility to the relationship, follow up an I statement with a question to find out the thoughts of the other person(s). Just asking ‘what do you think’ has a lovely effect – if the questioner is listening and truly interested. This creates power WITH, instead of power over. Using I statements and honestly listening provides space for both opinions. Even if they don’t agree, two opinions can live together. I like green and you like yellow? Well, we could decorate with a pattern of daffodils or leaves? Plaid? Discover that we both like plum relatively well? Go with a neutral-ish tone and pops of several colours? Yes, this is a simplified example, and there are many situations where one choice has to take  precedence. The point, however, is to let everyone involved feel heard, and to NOT remove their power, their agency, by playing false information or slanting the truth to make the other person feel less empowered than they deserve.

There are even many situations where one person does have more power in a circumstance. The goal is to use power between each other to support and to get things done, not to retain a higher position. Since this goes directly against what many of us have lived with and been taught, it can feel wrong – but it is, I’m fact, so very right.















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Posted by on October 5, 2017 in Uncategorized


Location, location, location

We just had 2 & a half days of snow, so I’m not at the symposium I was supposed to be at, and I am thinking a lot about shelter & comfort. I was also reading. (I do that a lot. In this case it was ‘Sanctuary’ by Mercedes Lackey – yes, I like fantasy!).  In the book, there’s a description of someone standing up to speak, and the firelight casting his shadow back behind him on a wall, but much taller and larger.

That image suddenly hit home in explaining something I’ve been trying to understand.

There are people who have build large ‘structures’, metaphorically  – and sometimes physically – speaking. They have a lot of resources, provide scholarships, offer a variety of therapies or tools or instructors. Some of these people are amazing in what they do.

Some are simply big. They aren’t wonderful therapists (or gardeners or hairstylists or whatever). They’re moderately good at their labeled job, but they either started with a lot of resources or they’re excellent managers, or both. Managing is often their amazing talent.  Their structures (writings, art, theories…) are large, widely known, easy to see if you’re looking in their particular field. It doesn’t really matter much where they’re ‘located’  – who publishes their writings, where they meet clients, what they offer. They’re big enough in their worlds that they will be seen.

There are other people who have not yet, maybe not ever, ‘built’ or ‘joined’ a large structure. They may or may not be easy to see. But they are amazing in what they do. Gradually, they come to mean a lot in their community, and if they keep on in their field, they create an amazing impact on everyone who looks their way. They might be easy to overlook if you’re just trying to find the biggest structure.  But when you do see them, it matters.

For years now I’ve been trying to figure out how the people I personally admire affect so much without, or sometimes in spite of, being part of a huge structure. I’ve been trying to figure out what on earth I managed to do on the occasions when someone has told me that I helped them in a big way, when I’m not anywhere near the level of those that I admire. I’ve been trying to find a good way to see and touch the idea of one person being barely big enough, but affecting so many more people.

The idea I’ve been looking for is the shadow. For shade, and protection from things like rain, you can have a heavy, good sized shelter like the brick & wood open pavilions in parks; the ones people often hold birthday parties and stuff in in the summer.  You can have a huge circus tent, one that requires a whole tuck just to carry it & all the poles & ropes and stuff to set it up. Or you could even have a small camping pop-up, maybe with a little portable grill if we’re adding in food or warmth into the mix. (Looking out at the snow, I’m very glad for warmth. In high summer, perhaps a portable solar-powered fan and a cooler of ice & water would be more welcome.)

Getting back to the topic – each of these provides shelter. But the smaller ones, the pop-up or the wood & brick, are amazingly effective in the right place. If you put them in the wrong place, where the sun & wind blast straight in, they don’t help a whole lot. If you stick one under a lovely spreading tree, it seems a waste of effort – the tree is doing the job.  But if one is at just the right angle, working to augment any protection from trees or rocks, and blocking the angle of the sun and wind, it does so much more.

The young man in the book, with the light shining on him, making a shadow that adds to his image as he stands to speak is doing the same thing. He is, one reads, a strong person and very helpful and one of the leaders of the group, in the best sense. But as he stands, he is seen to be all of this to people who don’t even know him, because of the way the light falls.  Because of this, they are more ready to accept his assistance. Because of the angle of a well-placed shelter, it provides so more help than another one just like it set haphazardly, or worse, still tucked away and not set up at all!

This is what I’ve been trying to see. This is what I hope for everyone to aspire to. Personally, I don’t have a driving need to build a huge clinic or be known as the author of fifty textbooks. It might be nice to have an office with space for art, for dance, for groups, for one-on-one talks that weren’t all the same room, and if I have enough information to share, I might write more than a series of blog posts. But what I really want is for my space – one room or ten – to be welcoming and safe for the clients who come. I want what I write, or paint, or sculpt, to be seen by the person who needs it. I want to figure out how to stand so that my shadow reaches more people. I don’t have to be standing on top of an tower, I just have to allow the elements that are already there to work with me, rather than fighting them or hiding from them.

Location, location, location, they say. Not a physical location, not for this. It’s standing in the right place to provide a hand over the rough parts, a shelter from the worst of a blast of memories and emotions, the right amount of shade for someone to see the details in a thought. The people I really notice are the ones whose shadows give me a bit of protection to grow a bit more myself. I’m thinking if I put myself where the elements I like affect me best, but still allow others a place in the warmth or the cool, the sun or the shade, that shadow might just happen naturally.



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Posted by on February 2, 2016 in Uncategorized


What do you do for a meaning?

I’ve had a couple of topics waiting, and they’re both going to have to wait a bit longer. I had an interesting thought this afternoon, and by this evening it had grown into a full-fledged reflection, and is on its way to maybe even achieving the status of an understanding.

I was considering the phrase ‘what I do for a living’.  I dislike this phrase. I dislike most variations and most meanings of this phrase. ‘What do you do for a living?’ is often one of the first things people ask when meeting someone new, and it’s just as often not very relevant.

What someone does for a living is specifically what they do that generates enough money to pay the bills, buy the groceries, keep clothes and soap and maybe even a new lip-gloss available. It’s just what it says – it’s a way of keeping up the bits and pieces that allow someone to survive.  It’s also as likely as not to have little to do with someone’s passions, dreams, interests, what they put their heart and soul and energy into. People can work in a job simply because it’s a job. They could have a trust fund, be disabled, or so many ways to try to make ends meet.

‘What do you do for a meaning?’  Why aren’t we asking that?  When I’m introduced to someone, why don’t they want to know what I do for a meaning?

My friend M, for example, works for a large office-supply chain. She makes a decent wage, insurance, all of that. And it’s not at all her passion. She loves food. Finding new restaurants, comparing different recipes for similar dishes, seeking out authentic ethnic food or great places to buy particular ingredients; those are all things she’s passionate about. She writes about it in a blog. Filling orders for paper and desk chairs is what she does for a living. Discovering restaurants and comparing dishes is what she does for a meaning. A meaning is so much more.

I was thinking of that as I left my therapist’s office today (always a good thing when your therapist can make you think!).  I was mentally composing a self-description that included ‘I’m a counselor for a living’.  And then it occurred to me that that statement doesn’t really fit me at all.

(Before I go any further, I do need to add a disclaimer for people who are, have been, or will be my clients. It is NOT your job to make sure I am making enough to live on. We agree on a fee, insurance, whatever; and that’s that. That is not what this post is about.  Yes, building up a business is not the easiest thing to do, but it’s what I’ve chosen to do. I’ve also had repeated opportunities to work for more hours in a per-hour or salary position. That isn’t what I want, and I’m doing okay.)  So moving on…

I am not a counselor, therapist, or any similar term ‘for a living’. A small part of that is, yes, that I don’t (yet!) make enough to live in the style to which I’d love to be accustomed – or even to maintain my own lifestyle now. That’s okay. I do make enough to add to the household budget, I’m married to someone who makes more than I do right now. Together, we do make enough.  But that’s not the main reason this term doesn’t fit.

In fact, that’s really not the reason the term ‘for a living’ doesn’t fit. The main reason is that it doesn’t matter how much I make, I’m not doing it ‘for a living’.  I, like most counselors, have to charge something to be able to afford to be a counselor – but I’m not doing it ‘for a living’.

I am a counselor for a meaning. There are dozens of things I could do to pay for groceries and cat food and insurance and petrol for the car and making sure I have a place to live. I could probably get a job in the same company as M, my friend above. If I needed to, I would.

What do you do for a meaning?  I like this question so, so much better. I happen to do at least one of the things I do for a meaning to make that ‘for a living’ part work as well. I think that makes me lucky, but I don’t think everyone would agree with me. I know that I specifically chose not to do several other things that are meaningful and enjoyable for regular pay or on much of a schedule, because I knew that that would take the meaning out for me.

I do many kinds of art. I paint, sew, make jewelry, do calligraphy, work with clay, do henna art… and several of these things would stop having meaning for me if I did them ‘for a living’. If I were a professional calligrapher, for example, I would most likely be employed writing out endless invitations, addresses, and certificates. The joy I take in putting an important or beautiful text onto a page in beautiful writing, adding lovely or cute or amusing art alongside, would be completely smothered as I ticked off another 50 envelopes.

What do you do for a meaning? I am an artist, a dancer, a counselor, a friend, a gardener, a reader…

What do I do for a meaning? One of the things I do is counseling. I love it. It’s a very important, very meaningful part of my life. I feel like I make a difference. I’m honoured to have people who let me see their struggles & triumphs and to provide a helping hand. That’s a major thing for me. That has meaning.

What do you do for a meaning?  Regardless of what you do to pay the bills, what do you do for a meaning? The IRS can worry about what you do for a living?  I’m changing that question for myself. I’m also daring you to ask. At the next party, the next time you’re meeting a the significant other a relative or friend brings along, the next time you get together with people you don’t know, ask what they do for a meaning.  Then explain what the heck you meant. And then, LISTEN. It’s amazing how great it feels to have someone listen to what you’re passionate about!

If you’re okay replying, tell me what people have said. There’s plenty of room to post replies here!  What do you do for a meaning?  What does the person you met the other day do? What’s meaningful in this world?







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And ignorant became cool…

Today’s observation isn’t amazingly deep, I’m afraid. Nor is it packed with interesting facts or filled with pictures (although I’m working on a post with lots of pictures soon, as soon as I get them all loaded onto the computer!).  Today’s post is regarding a personal pet peeve, and what might be the exact moment that being ignorant became cool.

To be fair, there has never been a time recorded in history when there were not people who felt that ignoring facts, figures, or details was a perfectly reasonable way to live. And every time and place that holds a population of relative safety, the numbers of ignorant or selectively ignorant people rise. It’s totally logical. In something like a small frontier town in the old west, or a military base somewhere in nowhere, or a tiny village perched between harsh seas and unforgiving mountains, people kind of have to be aware, and very well-trained in the details of not only their work, but many other bits and pieces merely to survive. When one of these small populations becomes a bit larger, people can afford the time and energy to learn for the sake of learning, and many do. (And to be fair, many don’t.) Once it gets much larger, there is considerably more safety margin for people to focus on details, and more safety margin for people who really don’t want to focus at all. Just because they aren’t likely to be eaten by a bear if they don’t do everything exactly right, though, doesn’t mean I really like it. My opinion is more along the lines of someone who has that much going for them already ought to be able to reach amazing heights!

So that’s my pet peeve (well, one of them – I like pets 😉 )  I don’t mind, really, if your level of expertise and mine don’t live in the same neighbourhood. I can have a great conversation with someone who’s interested in the same things I am; and I can have a great conversation with someone who has totally different interests. I get really frustrated by people who don’t know any of it, who forgot the basics they learned in elementary school, and who kind of even take pride in this!

On New Year’s Day I was at the grocery store, and I believe I accidentally stumbled across one of the major transition pieces between a culture that had lived through two world wars and the great depression and had a strong belief in the importance of knowing their whats from their whats, and getting it right; and a population that really figured it was safe, secure, and time to stop worrying.

This bit of information wasn’t on one of the shelves – not even in the books. It wasn’t a conversation – it was late and cold and I just wanted to get my groceries and go home, not converse. The few other people in the store seemed to feel the same way. I did stop to check out the few items left on the really good after-Christmas sale. I got a bit too much candy and a new travel cup. This revelation wasn’t there, either. What I noticed was a song.

The store radio, in a fit of post-holiday-‘we don’t know what to play’ was going with classic rock. (Another pet peeve – the rules for Christmas, set up in the Middle Ages, very clearly denote Dec 24th as Christmas Eve, the 25th as Christmas Day and the 1st day of Christmas, and the succeeding 12 days leading right to January 5th as the 12th day, Twelfth Night, formerly the biggest celebration. With January 6th as Epiphany – the day set aside for the Wise Men.) For practical reasons, I suppose starting to clear up decorations and songs on the day after New Years works, but they really should  still have had Christmas music – or Epiphany carols -Yes there are too!  ‘We Three Kings’, anyone?

But in any case, they didn’t. They had a mix of ‘classic rock’ ranging all over – it seemed to contain anything from the 50’s to through the 70’s, and might have had an even broader scope – I wasn’t there THAT long!

One of the songs was ‘What a Wonderful World‘. The one that goes on with the guy who doesn’t know much about history. Or biology. Or science or French or algebra or what the heck he needs a slide-rule for. And so forth, all crooned endearingly to his supposed sweetheart. He knows ‘one plus one is two’, he knows he loves her – stay tuned for a post at some point about love. Teaser: love is an action, not an emotion – and if they both love each other it’ll be a wonderful world.

I’ve never particularly liked that song. part of it is that I go for much harder rock, if I’m going to listen to rock. Part is that almost none the couplets in the verses actually rhyme.  ‘Science book’ and ‘French I took’ are the only rhyme outside the chorus. Other than that; ‘Algebra’ and ‘rule is for’ are maybe the closest, as an assonance? ‘Biology’ and ‘history’ are hopeless. Maybe mystery & history?

So there, as I see it, is the critical moment. A song recorded in 1959 and released in 1960 hit big enough to still be playing , with lyrics, in 2016.  It’s about the world being wonderful if she loves him – and no science, math, or foreign language required. April 14, 1960 is the day at which it was announced musically that remembering all that tedious stuff just wasn’t important.

Fast forward to me buying groceries on January 1, 2016, and many, many people I know complaining (before and after that particular grocery-moment) about the demise of people who can punctuate. Plenty of people chiming in on pet-peeve lists about the difference between sail and sale, or there, their, and they’re. A lot (still a minority compared to people in total, but a lot) of people are out there, well-versed in geography and biology, trying to stop an overwhelming climate change, and maybe save a few endangered species while they’re at it. Other people who did manage to remember their algebra and trigonometry not only working on things like making sure the repairs they did to the overpass near my house this past September are put together in a way that holds cars up, but they’re designing computer stuff that, among other things, makes it so that the ‘love only’ group doesn’t have to actually think, their phone is smarter and does it for them.

I have teacher friends complaining regularly that the plain old paper notebook their student is using will NOT highlight a misspelled word, and that just perhaps their classes could check the book open right in front of them for how to spell terms and names In The Book. The conditions are amazingly right for successful adoption *sigh*, if you want to try making a pet out of this peeve yourself.

So. history, traditions, ecosystems, spell-check, overpasses that stay over… maybe my pet peeve isn’t that small after all. And anyone, ever, who has tried to make friends (let alone more) with me by bragging about just how much they forgot from high school? Yeah. They haven’t made the cut.




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Holy day or Hollow day

Somewhere along the way, most of us have learned the etymological tidbit that the word ‘Holiday’ comes from the terms ‘holy’ and ‘day’ into ‘Holyday’ into ‘Holiday’.  Whether every ‘holyday’ was, in fact, celebrated as sacred in one tradition or another at the time this word came to be, or whether it’s simply holy to take a break now and then ( I can really get behind that idea!), is a great argument for anthropologists and historians and sociologists. It’s not, however, my current concern.

At the moment, I’m more interested in how we feel on any holiday. There are days like St. Patrick’s Day or Veteran’s day where we often get parades but many people don’t even get the day off; days like Memorial Day and Labor Day – great for shop sales and your choice of relaxing or getting a major task accomplished. There’s major occasions like Easter, Thanksgiving, or Christmas – days associated with family dinners, many traditions and specific foods, and tons of preparation. Then there are personal holidays, like taking a week off to have a vacation, or a personal day for something like a birthday or  to just relax; and jointly-celebrated personal holidays, like a wedding or housewarming. And finally there are days that may or may not be on calendars and are usually actual holy days to those who take the time to observe them, holidays  sacred to specific cultures and religions outside of the nationally recognized ones: Passover or Yom Kippur, Ramadan, Diwali, Imbolc or Beltane; and days like Christmas and Easter that are kept holy by some, and just cultural enjoyment by others.

Regardless of the day, the culture, or the reason, the question is how does it feel? Does it feel right? Are most of the people, foods, traditions you want available? Does it feel too forced, too busy, too frantic?  Does it feel like everyone is having a good time except you, or that you’re not really worth anyone’s time or energy? Is it holy or hollow?

We start forming the ideas of what these days should be from the time we start to have ideas about anything at all. Parents – the sort who have the interest and money for such things – make a point of photos for baby’s first Easter or Halloween, ornaments for baby’s first Christmas, make sure kids have special outfits, and the younger the child, the more holidays marked this way and the more special the outfits are likely to be.  Parents are on to something with this. It’s mot just that it’s cuter or easier to have pictures of a baby in a wheelbarrow surrounded by pumpkins (try getting your teenager to put up with that!) or even a big deal for the parents;  it’s a big deal for kids to notice what celebration looks like.

We form ideas about foods and colours, time of day and weather that ‘should’ be there, and we also form ideas about what’s going on personally.  Is the day so busy and ‘important’ that people won’t take as much time to meet my needs? Am I going to feel comfortable in whatever they dress me in? Is one person more important than another? Does my family do things that look like other families? Are they aware of what’s similar or different, and will they talk about it if they are? Holy or hollow starts very young.

Shortly after these basic ideas of scents and sounds, colours and shapes and the whole comfortable or relaxed or frantic or excited or sad or angry energy and pace of the day; we develop ideas about what the day is supposed to mean.  Immediate family broadens into extended family or friends. Those broaden into church or synagogue or temple, schools, dance lessons, boy scouts, soccer team. All of these are contrasted and informed by social information through books, music, movies, television, internet…  Wherever there is a way for people to communicate in any way, there is a flow of information. By the time we’re adults we’ve accumulated a pretty big pile of ideas about every holiday, and most of us have sorted it into a paradigm of what we think the holiday ‘should’ be… and if we like it.

Now we’re adults. Perhaps barely 20, perhaps getting ready to retire, we’re adults. We’re supposed to have somehow managed to leave the nest, break out of the cocoon, get our adult colours. We’re supposed to know how to get a bank account, have a job and follow a budget; acquire nutritious food and clean the house and get to and fro safely and efficiently. We’re to meet up with at least one other person who also has all these skills to start raising young of our own.  Most of us feel barely competent to get our legos put away, but most of us also muddle through. We’re supposed to know how we feel about holidays. Which ones to celebrate, what foods and decorations and favours and gifts and guests. Not to mention the time and energy and money to do it all. If we’ve been thinking all our lives that turkey is better than ham, or roast beef is better than turkey, we’re supposed to make that change… but not upset anyone sharing our holiday. If we’ve decided to go vegetarian, or need to avoid things like wheat or sugar, or noticed that really, egg rolls are the best holiday food in any universe, or decide to eat a simple, fulfilling meal and donate whatever else we would have spent to charity, we’re supposed to figure out how to do it without upsetting anyone. And for anyone who has managed the ‘finding another adult to live with and make a household with’ part of the expectation, we have to manage to incorporate all their values, wants, needs, and traditions, too.

If you’re following along, you may have noticed that the level of this game just increased several times in just that last paragraph.  And that’s how a lot of us feel. No matter how much it’s supposed to be about religion, honouring this or that person or group, or spending meaningful time with people we love; it sort of starts to feel like one of those games with all kinds of stuff hidden all over and an infinite number of levels that everyone else is doing better at playing.

That’s for those who aren’t also dealing with a history of abuse, or trauma, or neglect. Or trying to get through the loss of someone close. Or people whose job just laid off half the town. Or who are trying to do all the things everyone else is while on crutches. Anyone who has any kind of trauma to work through isn’t just getting stuck in this game, they’re doing it with one hand chopped off, with a blindfold on, or with a game system that refuses to record points most of the time.

If it’s all a game, is it a Holy day or Hollow day? For a lot of us, that’s  really, really hard to know. I talk to people as a professional who tell me it’s hard. I talk to friends who tell me it’s hard. I experience it. It’s hard.

If we follow the traditions laid out by family and religion and culture, and those traditions don’t fill our deep-down needs, it feels hollow. Just going through the motions. Does God really care if someone wears a new dress to church? Is it going to change the world if the pie comes out right? Is it right?

If we follow someone else’s traditions, it’s hard. What if it really does make a difference to go to morning service instead of evening service? What if pie is more fulfilling than cake? What if we’re ignoring people who care? What if?

If we make our own traditions, it’s hard. I am, for the most part, in the ‘make my own tradition’ category. Specifically, I’m in the ‘keep what matters, look at what other people do and borrow ideas I like, and make up the rest until it fits’ category. It’s hard. Right now, on December 23, I’m feeling halfway between holy and hollow.

I’ve changed a lot of traditions as far as religion and spirituality are concerned. I was raised Christian. I have no problems with the Christian belief, and I love many of the traditional Christian carols, decorations, prayers; especially in beautiful buildings with lovely songs and ceremonies.

That belief system is not the best way for me to feel closest to God/Goddess/Deity/Higher Power, though. My religious leanings fall somewhere in the Pagan range.  There are groups out there – some not very far, physically – who meet together regularly. I haven’t met one that I feel really right with, yet. My spouse is also pagan, but not quite in the exact same way I am. So that’s two different sets of needs to meet.

One of the common Pagan holidays, and Holy Days, has just passed. Winter Solstice, Yule, Sun-Return, was on December 22 this year. Yesterday. The winter solstice is a pretty common astrological marker for the year, so a LOT of religions and cultures have some kind of major winter holiday.  Spiritually, I’m following mine. We exchanged gifts last night after the sun had set. Some years I’d try to stay up all night to watch the sun rise in the morning, but my schedule does need to stay somewhat in sync with my usual one. We set the alarm for very, very early and went outside to watch the sun rise. Then we had a snack and went back to bed.  I baked over the weekend and am baking more today to take plates of goodies to friends in the neighbourhood. We change the cloth and items set out on a low table to ones that are more cheerful and celebratory tonight.

I still feel a bit hollow. I miss being a part of a group sharing a spiritual moment together, even if I haven’t found the right one. Several years ago one of the Unitarian churches in town had a labyrinth walk available on Solstice night. I loved going to that! They haven’t held it recently. Holy and hollow.

Many of my pagan friends have family who celebrate Christmas or like to celebrate Christmas themselves. We have family and friends over for Solstice dinner every year, on or very near the solstice. We get to celebrate our day, and friends who are also hosting or visiting people over Christmas don’t have to try to choose. This year we had a total of 14 people (counting us). Some could only stay for a bit. Some were able to come early. Most stayed after dinner to play games. It was fun and festive and wonderful.  We decorate with garlands and ornaments and lights, choosing ones that fit our tastes and our spirituality. I’d love to have a tree, but I can’t bring myself to have a cut one, I don’t really like the fake ones, and so far, I haven’t found a variety of evergreen in a pot that grows well in our house. Right now, we have a holiday fern 😉

fern & tomtenen

It’s too small to really decorate, but it’s growing well and has our Tomte (A Tomten is a Swedish gnome-like creatures that help out, especially in the winter).

I loved having people over. It meant so much to me. I get to spend time with my spouse. I finished a batch of cookies earlier and have the butter softening to start another batch now. I’m following my traditions. It doesn’t stop me from feeling incomplete at times today, or any day. Holy and hollow.

When friends celebrate with us for Solstice and then with other for Christmas, it feels to me like they are celebrating different aspects of themselves. For friends who are also some version of Pagan, they get to celebrate their spirituality in some way on Solstice, and visit people they’re close to on Christmas to meet cultural needs, social needs, family needs. Not everyone has culture, religion, and family all connected.

Tomorrow, the 24th, I go to work. I work part-time at the domestic violence center. I’m ‘flex staff’, which is kind of like a substitute teacher. When regular staff can’t be there for whatever reason, they ask someone on flex staff to cover. I volunteered to take shifts on the 24th & 25th. Those days aren’t as important to me as days earlier in the week were, and they’re very important to others I work with. More than that, I suspect I’ll feel this time what I’ve felt in the past taking holiday shifts. I suspect I’ll feel more connected.

I celebrate my religion and my chosen family during the Solstice. At work, it seems, I celebrate my culture. I was in foster care and group housing as a teenager. When you’re in the foster system, it’s hard to hold the traditions you got from your bio parents. Even, maybe especially, if you had a choice and ‘chose’ to leave. If things were good enough to stay, they’d been good enough to keep. If you had to leave, do you want anything of them?

It’s a question with a thousand answers; name and personal items, heritage and traditions, and everyone has to answer it for themselves.  In most ways it’s no different a question than the question everyone has to answer throughout their lives. What do I keep from my past, what do leave behind, how much choice do I have? A situation like foster care simply makes it that much more obvious that there’s a choice to be made.

For myself, Thanksgiving and Christmas are two holidays or seasons that ended up mostly in the discard pile. Two years before I turned 18, my then-foster family, my biological parents, and my therapist decided together that it would be in my best interest for me to go back to my biological parents’ house. This move was made shortly before Christmas. My biological parents were jubilant – they saw me returning as an outward sign that everything was fixed, that no one had problems any longer, that we had a ‘normal family’.  I was less enthusiastic, scared, and not nearly as certain that this was any kind of good idea.

Sure enough, the next year saw me back in foster care. I was in a group environment, not a private home, by Thanksgiving. Nearly everyone else  there had a pass to visit someone for Thanksgiving. The only people who had asked me to visit were the biological parents, and I refused. Several people realized afterward that I had been alone, and that they could have asked. Several people apologized. And yet, in following years, Thanksgiving was with roommates, with people I was dating, with the families of roommates or romantic partners, or alone. Very rarely did friends invite me simply because they wanted me there.

Eventually I realized that I don’t really like Thanksgiving.  Most of the traditional foods aren’t personal favourites. My religion has a day of harvest celebration and giving thanks much earlier in the autumn. And as with other holidays, the people I cared most about often told me they were sorry, but they couldn’t invite me to dinner, they were going to parents’, grandparents’, in-laws’ – and it was for family. If there are perhaps 5 or 6 ‘family’ days in American culture, then I was ‘part of the family’ to several people for 360 or 359 days out of the year. I didn’t belong. Hollow.  I worked this year on Thanksgiving, and loved it. Holy.

Christmas was a bit different back as a teen. It, too, is a day that I am not ‘part of the family’ on. Yet the same year I was alone for Thanksgiving, I’d moved to a group home by Christmas. None of the counselors and caseworkers wanted to have to be at the group home for Christmas, and again, a lot of the kids had passes to spend the night or longer with someone.  This time, one of the caseworkers arranged to take me to her house. Not only that, she was okay coming to pick me up from my biological parents’ house late on Christmas Eve so I could visit them but not have to stay. Her family had presents for me in the morning – Christmas day. I got candy that followed a particular dietary restriction I had, a great, comfy & trendy shirt, and a necklace that I’d admired at the mall. I ate the candy, and over the years have lost the shirt, but I still have the necklace, and always will. I had dinner & played games and watched videos as a part of the family, stayed another night, and went back late the afternoon of the 26th to the group home.

The next year I was ‘on my own’, but living with roommates. One of my roommates’ parents invited us all over, had presents for all of us, dinner, hanging out, family. Belonging. it made a difference. Holy.

This year, and for many years now, I’ve had my own celebrations and been invited to others.  I don’t, personally, celebrate Christmas, I celebrate Solstice, although I’m not averse to visiting someone on Christmas, depending on circumstances. But this year I’m spending Christmas with my culture. The domestic violence safehouse has a lot in common with the foster-care group home. No one is staying there because it’s their very top choice, they’re there because they need to be safe. No one will be staying for an extended period, they’re all in the middle of transition, trying to find stable and safe places to live. Everyone has been through things they wish they hadn’t, some feel better and safer than others, yet for right now, they’re okay, and they’re going to celebrate just like anyone else. Many people who would otherwise be there will be out for the day or even overnight with friends or family who are safe, and who say ‘come in’, not ‘you aren’t family’.

At this moment it feels like nothing is going on. I have butter soft on the counter now and there’s plenty of time to bake, but nothing is currently in the oven, so there’s no special holiday smell. People and presents were before today, other people and visits are after today. Right now feels hollow. In a few minutes I plan to start those cookies. The house will start to smell like the holidays. The decoration lights are on. No one is yelling at me, no one is hitting me, I feel safe. I almost have enough cookies to make up plates to take to people. I’m working tomorrow at a place I understand. The hollow will fill up. A hollow filled with the right things is holy.




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Posted by on December 24, 2015 in Uncategorized


Don’t stress about it (I just might take that advice)

Today I was supposed to pick up some stuff from a colleague. Just a few things for me, not something that had to be transported immediately from one person to another or a major part of my job – just personal. This isn’t a ‘several times a day’ kind of thing, but it does happen a lot in my job. People have stuff, need to get stuff out of their space and given to people who can use stuff, stuff is exchanged.

Mind you, I don’t want someone reading this to go into a career in counseling or a related field on the basis of getting stuff. (From what I’ve heard, try being anyone famous for that. Bonus points for famous and someone who makes regular comments about stuff on the computer, radio, or TV.)  But anyhow, while counseling, social work, and the like are not professions filled with free wardrobes or being able to specify what colour of candy in your trailer, they do tend to get you ‘stuff’ on a regular basis.

Some examples:I have a tote bag from my supervisor – she went to a training, was given assorted items with the logos of the businesses sponsoring the training, and didn’t have a use for the bag. I never run out of pens or post-it notes, as long as I’m willing to use ones with ‘Eating Disorder Centers’ or ‘Behavioral Health Services’ blazoned on them, because they give this kind of thing away by the handful at trainings. I got a whole set of leather coasters once at a workshop because the guy giving them away was packing up and didn’t want to have to take a ton of them back (I’ve been decoupaging the labels from really cool drinks onto them). I get stuff.

When perishable items or simply a huge amount of items are given to shelters, counseling centers, housing centers, etc; things that are left over get given to the people who work & volunteer there. (I once left a shelter with as many loaves of bread as I could carry – and then gave some to a homeless guy at the corner where I turned off of the interstate.  So it gets to the people who need it -just maybe by an interesting route 😉  )

Just a note here, please, PLEASE don’t stop donating on the basis that therapists end up with ‘stuff’!  No matter what you have to give, someone can use it. (Except maybe germs. Every winter there’s way too many colds & flus going around every shelter & safehouse & counseling center I know of. We all have plenty of germs. If you think you have a really unusual one, contact the CDC.)  Everything else, though, can be used. Bread & beach balls, lip gloss & lotion, diapers, tires, bus passes – ever considered giving a half-used member ship to the zoo or museum or gym to a safehouse if you’re moving and it still has half a year on it?  A lot of places could make that work for someone!

DO check first – some places don’t take items x, y,or z – they partner with the place down the street who has the room or the freezers or whatever. But we can use anything – except germs.

The thing is, stuff like those loaves of bread expire pretty quickly. Sunscreen & make-up take longer, but they still go off after a while. And we can’t tell you if we’re going to have 87 women who all need ‘coppery sand’ face powder, for example,  or only two or three.  So when things have been given to as many people in need as possible and there’s extra stuff, counselors and caseworkers and the wonderful fantastic people who make the computers keep working and manage the front desk and whoever else get offered stuff.  And your donation is still helping someone. Not having to buy bread for two weeks PLUS giving some to the guy I passed at the corner?  Major help that month!

So I was supposed to meet up with a colleague today to pick up some stuff. I said I could probably adjust my schedule just fine to meet up with her. Until this morning, when my schedule started going a bit sideways. Schedules do that sometimes.  I’m usually pretty relaxed when it happens to other people. I know it happens to everyone. But when it happens to me, it bothers me.

Part of it is that I were left to my own devices I wouldn’t have such a thing as a schedule. In my heart I want to live in a time and place where sun or clouds, warm or cool, day, night, impulse and inspiration drive me, and not just me, but everyone.  I’d love, as I believe I’ve mentioned before, to be the wise woman at the edge of the village. I’d tend my gardens and create my art and when people needed advice or a shoulder to cry on or emotional guidance, they would come out my way, carrying a basket of fruit or a jug of milk or a few eggs or a loaf of bread in payment. And I’d set aside whatever I was doing, or maybe just continue weeding or kneading bread or whatever, and we’d talk.

I’m actually trying to do some of that.  I’m happier when I work on my garden on good garden days, paint on good painting days, bake or make jewelry or go for a walk when it feels right to do those things.  I’m even working on having counseling clients sit outside with me (although not this week, it’s been snowy, blowy, and drippy). I’m working on the idea of clients going for a walk, or how people would feel if they & I worked on knitting or embroidery while we talked. (Although if I’m writing stuff down or drawing a kinda stick-figure version of the brain or something, I need both hands, and my whiteboard.)  And when I’m guiding a client through an art exercise, there are times when I get to do art, too; although it’s whatever supports or guides their project, it’s still art!

But the time and place I live in also requires schedules. The hotline run by the local domestic violence organization is staffed 24 hours. That means for me, and all of us who staff it, there has to be a schedule. Twenty people available on Tuesday and no one on Saturday would NOT be ’24 hour’.  It would also be kinda hard to stuff twenty people into the office, or even into two or three offices!

If I’m going to meet with a client, they deserve to have the time for themselves. And since I live in an area much larger and more occupied  than a village, if I decide to go to the store, it’s not very likely that a client will see me go past and wait until I’m on the way home to come out to my office. So I have schedules, and appointments, and even a clock.

If I’m meeting with a group; leading a group, or as a member of a counselors’ support or supervision or educational meeting, or going to yoga or dance, or any group of people, then we all have to meet at the same place, at the same time. We all have to work around individual clients (if we have them) or other groups or staffing the 24-hour phone line or driving clients from point A to point B or whatever we do.  We have to work all of that around errands and families and social occasions and the very important ways we take care of ourselves.  No matter how perfect the day is for a walk along the creek or to stay in with a cup of cocoa, there are some things that have to be scheduled.

I also tend toward being the type of person who tries to take care of everyone else first.  Alongside that need to follow the patterns of the seasons and the weather and my own interests is a strong belief that I should be taking care of you. If there’s a meeting of people, and I don’t strictly have to be at the meeting but it’s the best time to hand out the extra stuff (you never know – I could get more post-its!), then I should manage my schedule to be there, not have you manage to meet me. (Not always. I know. I’m working on it.)

Sometimes, that’s hard. This morning, when I realized scheduling was going to be pretty difficult today, I e-mailed the person in charge to apologize. (Something I’ve come to realize is that people work best with changes in plans if you tell them as early as possible.) I let her know that my schedule wasn’t quite as workable as it seemed the other day when I said I could be there. I said that I didn’t mind coming by to pick things up at another time, but I didn’t want her to feel pressured – she could give it to someone else, instead.

Her return e-mail simply said that she could leave the things in a space in the staff area for me to pick up later, and not to stress about it. “Don’t stress about it.”  What a fantastic sentence. At the intersection of various angles of self-care, care for others, things I need to do, things I want to do, things I said I’d do, things others need to do: ‘Don’t stress about it’.

She meant that this particular errand could be done without each of us having to match times perfectly, but I’m hearing it more deeply.  I’m coming up on having people over for a holiday dinner. I need to tidy up the house. I have things to do for my work. I have things to do for myself. I have things I need to do before I can do other things.  Don’t stress about it.

I need to be reminded of this quite often. As much as I want to live in harmony with myself and my world, I tend to think everyone else needs their needs met first, and it can be stressful. Don’t stress about it. I suspect quite a few other people need to be reminded about this, too. I wonder what would happen if we all reminded each other a bit more. Come over when you can; don’t stress about it. Get that finished as you’re able; don’t stress about it. Happy holidays; don’t stress about it.

I wonder how that would work as a closing in an e-mail or on the phone? Thank you. I appreciate it. I love you. Sincerely. Don’t stress about it.

I just might give it a try as a closing in some of my communications. But I’ll try not to stress about it.


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Seeds of life

A bit of a conversation with a client a few days ago and a bit of a conversation last week with my spouse came together in my brain as a new idea – or at least new to me.  I’m quite willing to believe others have had most of the same ideas I have, and have expressed them much better, but it’s still cool to have a new way for me to look at the world, and to share it with others.

Simply expressed (in 25 words or less): Dreams are the seeds we use to grow our lives.

To elaborate on that, in well over 25 words: I’m referring to dreams as in daydreams or hopes, wishes, or wondering; not dreams as in the rather surreal movies most of us watch throughout our sleep cycles. Obviously I can’t tell you about the conversation with the client, it comes under the ethical and legal right for my clients – for ALL counseling clients, with ALL counselors, to have their information and communication kept private. But it had to do with dreams, and the conversation with my spouse had to do with choice versus predestination.

(Note: If you’re having an issue with a therapist keeping your info private, that’s a different topic from this post, but it’s an important one. If that’s you, I urge you to talk to your therapist, or to talk to a different therapist to get an outside opinion, or to look up your state’s regs & state &/or therapy organization ethical codes to see if your therapist’s treatment of your privacy is acceptable.)

Sorry – that was definitely a digression, but an important one, in my opinion. In any case, after my talk with my client, I started thinking about dreams as seeds.  To give a bit more background info; one of my personal-care, stress-relieving, taking-care-of-me hobbies is gardening.  My garden, like my life, is a work-in-progress. Like my life, there are areas that I thought would work splendidly that are kinda dry or droopy, areas that I didn’t really think would work so well that are amazing, and areas that I just haven’t yet achieved the beautiful, show-off state they’ll be in one day.

A lot of my garden is based on what I call ‘confetti gardening’.  (Who knows – maybe one day I’ll write a book on my gardening methods and have it be a best-seller on ‘Confetti Gardening’ – so you heard it here first!).  I love to gather seeds from wildflowers I enjoy – if they’re growing wild in the same part of the world I live in, there’s a good chance they’ll do well in my garden!  I gather seeds from plants grown by friends & neighbours.  I discreetly gather seeds from plants in community flowerbeds or local areas of greenery in front of stores, downtown, by the library… By ‘discreetly’, I mean that finding someone with the authority to say ‘why yes, go ahead’ is really difficult in many cases – does the manager of any store in a shopping area know who is in charge of planting & caring for the little decorative flower & shrubbery areas throughout the parking lot?  Sometimes I can’t ask, but I also don’t, Do Not go out & rip up plants.  I wait until a group of flowers I like has finished blooming & started going to seed. Then I gather a few seed heads or loose seeds and take them back home.  The gardening services for these areas typically come through and ‘deadhead’ – cut the dead flowers off the plants – at intervals. So I take what isn’t needed for the plant, and only if I can’t find someone to ask.  If you plan to emulate this strategy, be SURE you know when the plant has really gone to seed, only take a little bit, and if you have any questions or misgivings, don’t do it unless you can find someone for permission.

I gather seeds from gardens of strangers – with permission!  A personal garden isn’t like a decorative planting in a space in the sidewalk downtown. A personal garden belongs to someone. ASK if you  want some seeds. They’ll likely be delighted to give you some – and you might make a new friend and start swapping plants & gardening advice, but ASK!!!

Back to my confetti gardening, I take the seeds (bought, traded, harvested) that I want or hope will do well in a particular space, and sprinkle them down.  Yes, I do start some carefully in small pots, yes, I get cuttings of plants and I buy growing plants, but a lot of my garden is from seeds I toss in areas they just might do well in.  And then I wait. Several years ago I carefully planted some lovely dark pansy seeds in a particular flower bed. Nothing happened. No pansies from those seeds grew that spring, or summer. The next spring (yes, after a whole previous spring of care, a summer of not bothering to care for a space that didn’t have a plant, a fall of caring for other, actually growing plants, and a cold freezing snowy winter) one of the pansies sprouted. And it bloomed. It did better than a pack of pansies purchased already in bloom from the store. This spring it came back (the ones I plated from the store pack didn’t).  Seeds work like that.

These are a lot like my dreams – and I hope, like everyone’s dreams. We dream the likely (I’d REALLY like to get a couple new outfits for work soon), and the plausible (I want to start taking regular bellydance classes again).  We dream the maybe (Wouldn’t it be cool to get to go on a white-water rafting trip) and we dream the way out there (What if I adopted a kitten with wings?).  These dreams are the seeds of life. They get tossed out into life – hoping to buy a new outfit without spending too much and maybe go on a cool trip and how the heck would I keep my indoor plants safe if I did have a winged kitten – and we see what happens.

Some of them sprout. Some start to sprout but aren’t in a good place to be nourished. Some aren’t viable no mater what. Some wait and surprise us long after we thought anything could still happen.  The more dreams, the more possibilities of new, interesting parts of life are available.  There are easy, obvious parts of life, and the dreams that sprout and grow so large & take up so much space that other dreams might not get as much of a chance.  My own sprouting career as a counselor is definitely taking up space that an alternate dream of being a rock-star can’t use now; it’s hard to be available every week to talk to clients and touring Europe with a bunch of musicians in a cramped tour bus at the exact same time. 😉

Some dreams end up requiring more care than we can put into them.  The reason I prefer seeds from established plants is that I know they’ll have a better chance of growing in my garden. I want plants to be beautiful & growing well and I’m not the sort who wants to be out making a separate little climate for each plant.  I live in Southern Colorado along the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. Summers are usually dry, winters get snow, and have days that dip below 0* Fahrenheit. Rain is wildly different from one year to the next, and I prefer to semi-xerisacpe, where my plants get nearly all of their moisture & climate needs from the climate we have, not from carefully covering, watering, shading, warming…

My life is the same way. I’m willing to do a lot for a dream that matters, but it has to be giving back to me, and sustaining itself as a part of my life.  When I get those new clothes for work, they need to be comfortable to wear, and coordinate with things I already have, and fit who I am – physically and emotionally and suited to my lifestyle.  My dream of perfectly polished fingernails clashes with my dream of spending time working the garden regularly.  Some seeds don’t grow well next to others.

The large, established ‘plants’ in my life (my marriage, my house, the years I put into my college degree) and the ‘climate’ of my life (having a chronic illness, a passion for art & creating, my values & spiritual beliefs) strongly affect what new dreams can more easily take root & grow. This is the part that relates so well to the conversation my spouse & I had. We were comparing free will to destined events. He pointed out that previous choices direct what happens in the future.  It’s not impossible to change course, but the older & more experienced you get, the more energy it takes to make a radical change.  At the time he said this, we had just taken the ramp off of a street onto the freeway (car rides are awesome for personal conversations. You’re basically a captive audience for each other, there’s not a whole lot else to do, and there are time limits, depending on how far you’re going).  It was a wonderful serendipitous analogy. We were swerving onto the southbound ramp (Onto I-25 off of Colfax, for those who drive in Denver), every second getting further from the northbound option. It would have taken a heck of a lot more time, energy, and fussing with side-streets if we’d suddenly decided to turn & head north.  Our journey south wasn’t ‘predestined’, but once we turned, it would have been a LOT harder to go north, especially given the roads in that particular area.

Taking it back around to seeds, or dreams: Growing one plant determines the likely success of others. I have a beautiful blue spruce in my front yard. It was probably planted when the house was built – it’s certainly been there for decades. It’s beautiful, it’s growing well, and I have no desire to change that!  My spruce is big enough and established enough that it quite literally foreshadows what else will grow nearby. Planting seeds that need full sun too close to the tree strongly ‘predestines’ those plants to do poorly.  A few feet further away where it doesn’t cast so much shade, the same seeds have a much better chance.  And it’s possible that a few could defy the odds and grow happily in the shade anyhow – but not as likely.

If I wanted to change that aspect of my garden (and I do NOT want to do this, this is strictly for sake of an example) even taking out the tree wouldn’t simply change things for the garden.  Spruce trees, like most evergreens, are slightly acidic. The needles & cones that fall every year put some of that acidic quality in the soil.  Some plants, like roses & blueberries, LIKE acidic soil.  If I get the chance to grow blueberries, I should either put them near the tree or scoop up some of the fallen needles to amend the soil for the blueberries.  But other plants don’t like acidic soil so much. If I had seeds for a plant that strongly disliked acidic soil, I’d likely not get much growth from planting them near my tree, even if they liked the shade and the other characteristics of the soil. Even if the tree was gone, the soil would be very acidic after years and years of needles composting into the soil around it.  The tree is more than just shade, it’s soil structure, water use, and shelter from wind & rain.

My dreams are the same way. I cast them out into my life, and some get too close to shade, or don’t like the place they land. Some don’t even try to grow until conditions improve. Some break down or blow out of my life entirely. Some need to be consciously moved or tended to, and some take too much work.  Some are even ones I can pass along!  I was given a beautiful ring in a previous relationship. When we broke up, I didn’t want to wear the ring anymore, but it was a perfect style and great fit for my sister-in-law. I hope she’s still enjoying it as much as she did when I gave it to her!

I don’t always, or even often, know just what a seed or a dream will need to thrive. Plenty of times I only find out some detail when it’s too late to change it.  I had a lousy crop of potatoes last year, and found out this past February when reading about companion planting in the garden that potatoes don’t do well near squash. My zucchini were right next to the potatoes! So it goes.

So it goes. Companions and light and shade and nutrients. Direction and size and competition for resources. Only one thing in one space – the next one has to be moved over at least a bit. This is why I want myself, my clients, everyone I know to have many, many dreams. Some won’t grow, and you may never know why. Some may be perfect for the space under a tree, next to a squash, or in a sunny corner; but those things can change.  Dream many, many dreams. Collect spare ones from books and music and conversation. Harvest new dreams from successful ones that are thriving.  Toss them into your life now, or wait until the time seems right, or carefully nurture them on sunny windowsills until they’re big enough to make it on their own. I don’t want to have nothing left to plant if my career became unmanageable, or if someone close to me passes on or moves away –  I’d rather be able to mourn the loss but still be able to plant more seeds.  Always plant more seeds… always plant more dreams.


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How’s your dashboard working? More on trust

Soooo… a few posts back I promised to write more about trust.  It’s a huge topic, and I don’t think I’ll get to the end of it any time soon. But here’s the next installment…

I believe I stated previously that so-called ‘negative’ emotions like fear or anger aren’t actually bad things – they’re like all emotions, and emotions are signals to tell you what’s going on – like emotional dashboard lights.  Are you in the right gear?  Do you need to add oil to your car? Is the door shut?  Emotions are designed to work the same way; they ‘light up’ when there’s a ‘go ahead’ or ‘don’t do that right now’ or ‘proceed with caution’.  That’s a good thing, and even when we wish the situation was different, knowing what’s ahead is usually better than stumbling in with no warnings.  However, emotions don’t always work properly, and even when they do, they don’t always agree with the emotions of the guy next to you.  When that happens, it can be a problem.  It can be a BIG problem.

Continuing with the ‘indicator light’ analogy – have you ever driven a car that has a permanent indicator light on?  Or one that flickers on  off regardless of what’s actually going on in the engine?  (If this has never happened to you, feel free to buy me a new car whenever you want 😉 )  For those who haven’t driven older cars, or who don’t drive (or who never bother with looking at the dashboard); cars have a LOT of potential indicators. Nearly everyone relies on things like the speedometer & gas gauge.  Many years ago when I was just old enough to be out on my own, the car I drove had a broken speedometer. As far as it was concerned, you weren’t going any miles (or kilometers, for that mater) per hour at all.  That meant you had to pretty much guesstimate based on how fast other traffic was going, and slow down just in case if there was a cop around.  Things like the speedometer & the gas gauge tend to be passive – if they’re broken, they simply don’t register anything.  Emotions like that are more like some kinds of depression – everything is flat, and it’s hard to know what’s really happening, because not much is showing up.

Cars also have a bunch of lights &/or sounds telling you things like your oil is low, your engine is too hot, you need to get the engine looked at (nice vague warning there).  They might make noise if a door is open or a seat-belt unfastened – some even have a recorded voice telling you just what’s happening.  My current car has the ‘check engine’ light permanently on.  In this case, it doesn’t mean anything except that the car is coming up on being old enough to vote and over time even cars that are well cared for get some quirks. I can ignore that light. It’s small, it’s unobtrusive, and I know it’s not a problem. But what if…

What if I was driving a car that had Every Single Light on? Or if every light randomly went on & off many times in even a short drive? That would include the turn-signals, that also make a click-click-click noise, and the ‘open door’ dinging sound, even if the door was closed.  Add a random beep or a voice that was supposed to signal a loose seat-belt (my car doesn’t have this, but many cars do) – but did it just on a whim, regardless of seat-belts actually in use?  I don’t know about you, but I’m thinking that a short trip, just a mile or two away, would be driving me nuts.  I kinda think I wouldn’t want to go out in that car unless it was an EXTREME emergency.

This is what it’s like for people whose emotions are too sensitive.  Instead of useful spikes & drops & flows of feelings that help gauge a good (or bad) day, it feels like EVERY day is flickering and dinging and beeping and pretty much, you just want it to stop!  There’s currently two common diagnoses for this kind of feeling. One is Anxiety Disorders – situations where all the worry lights, fear sirens, anxiousness beeping are all going off – and you really don’t know why.  It could be in the middle of the frozen foods or at the park or in church – often the emotions don’t seem very related to actual problems at all.  What they do relate to is messages from way back in the brain that made sense at one time.  There are different kinds of anxiety disorders, but they all refer to having a brain that’s not giving emotional feedback properly & usefully.

The other common diagnosis is ADD, which stands for Attention Deficit Disorder.  It used to be called Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder (ADHD) if lack of attention made someone hyper, and ADD if it made them zone out.  Then the powers that be changed the name, and now it’s all ADD, with different subtypes (hyperactive is one, lack of attention is another, and so forth).  There’s a lot of controversy about whether ADD is real, if it’s overdiagnosed (especially among children who naturally need to run around and whose attention spans aren’t very big yet).  However, for people who do have it, it’s more like different indicator lights going on & off.  Instead of overwhelming emotions on full force, ADD is described more like ‘okay, I’m interested in math… no, wait, I’m tired.. no, I’m too hyper, and anxious… and so forth.  Interestingly enough, some research suggests that kids & teens who have anxiety disorders often act more like someone with attention problems than anxiety problems.  If you’re anxious or can’t trust your own signals, you’re going to be pretty distracted!

Bringing this back to the real world, feeling emotions instead of a dashboard full of lights – what do we do about it???  This is a situation that isn’t about a rational way to trust someone else, it’s about trusting yourself.  How do you trust yourself to know what you need and want when your ‘dashboard’ is that screwed up?  Where did it start?  Why is it doing this?

My own perspective is that most people start with something that actually does provoke a real emotion.  There are theories that all anxiety or ADD are entirely based on brain chemistry and can be fixed with medications, but I think that most often, a real incident came first.  Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), for example, is considered a type of anxiety disorder, and it is by definition cased by going through a traumatic situation. That’s a fairly obvious example, even if the recovery part isn’t nearly as simple. There are other situations, though, that can provoke ongoing anxiety without being as obvious.

When I was a kid, my mom gave me a strong lecture on not trying to catch bees.  I was young, I was interested in bugs & birds & animals & plants and was in general just the kind of kid who would try to catch a bee and end up stung.  So she told me not to catch bees, that bees would sting, that stings were ‘ouch’.  I developed a bit of a phobia of bees for a while. It was like my emotional ‘look out for the bee’ light went off if there was a bee anywhere nearby, not just if it was close enough to cause a problem.  Eventually I worked at getting over that fear (aided partly by being a teenager who didn’t want to look scared in front of my peers).  But a mild phobia of bees was also likely very helpful when I was a child.

What if it hadn’t stayed mild?  What if my brain had decided that beetles look kind of like bees (and start with the same syllable), so I should be scared of them, too?  What if I had then noticed that an awful lot of bees, and beetles, were found outside and decided I shouldn’t go outdoors?  If events in my life had gone in a different direction I could have all-out agoraphobia (fear of being outdoors), and I wouldn’t have any idea where it came from.  My ‘warning system’ would be going off too often for too many reasons; but it would have had a starting place, and things that bumped it up along the way.

Dealing with an overwhelming ‘dashboard’ of emotions is NOT easy!  By the time everything is signalling, it’s pretty hard to trace it back to one bee.  Sometimes people can, and need to, and other times they can’t, and shouldn’t. There are quite a few tools to help, but it treatment can still be like a baffled mechanic trying each thing in turn to see if it makes a change. The important thing is, you aren’t crazy, you have some very sensitive emotions, and even better, your brain can help fix itself!  A car has to rely on a mechanic, but a brain can learn to re-work its emotions. Some people need to know what caused the problem, and others just need to work toward the solution.  Both methods are okay, and when I’m working with someone whose emotions are overwhelming them too much, we can do either or both – whatever seems best.

Part of that process ends up dealing with trust.  There’s knowing why things got screwed up, there’s helping the brain learn or re-learn how to give feedback in ways that are useful and functional. And then there’s learning to trust yourself – both to trust your emotions, and to trust that if you have a bad day it’s not the start of a bad life.  Healing from anything is going to involve some times that feel all wrong. Sometimes you even learn more when things go wrong, because you can see what they are and what happened NOW, instead of trying to untangle possibilities from way back when!

Trusting yourself to trust.  That’s an awfully big job, but it’s one that’s so very worthwhile.


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So what exactly is ‘trauma’ – and why does it affect me?

What is trauma?

Good question!  A lot of people go to the furthest point they can imagine when they hear the word ‘trauma’.  That would suppose that all my clients are survivors of a terrible natural disaster, or were badly abused as children, or have spent years as prisoners of war.  All of those instances are certainly traumatic, and I am qualified to work with people who have been through such things.  But trauma doesn’t have to be that severe or dramatic to be causing problems for people.

Trauma is the word for whenever your mind & emotions continue to be upset about something painful, upsetting, or scary that happened, OR that could have happened.  Yep – trauma isn’t just about things that did happen, it’s also about the threat of something happening, and that’s actually a good thing, most of the time.

Wait – it can be good WHY?

The human ability to be scared about what could have happened helps, because it means that we don’t have to actually experience something to be wary of it.  Think of all the things you haven’t done, haven’t even come close to doing, because you knew you’d hate the results!  Every time you drive a car, you try NOT to run into other cars, not to crash into buildings, not to run people over (at least, I hope you do 🙂  )  Why don’t you?  Because you don’t have to do any of those things to know that they could cause pain, disability, hospitals, insurance claims, and cars that don’t work anymore, just to name a few possible results.

You have the ability to understand the ‘what if’ – you don’t need to experience it all to know not to try it.

When you feel threatened, though, it can be as scary as if something really happened. The same part of your brain that’s upset over something happening is upset over knowing it could happen.  That’s a good survival strategy, but it also makes a whole lot more things potentially traumatic.

So okay – you keep saying ‘trauma’ – give me examples of how this works.

When you experience something physically painful, emotionally painful or scary, or have a real fear that something is likely to happen that is painful or scary, it all goes to the same parts of the brain. As far as your mind is concerned, physical pain & emotional pain hurt the same amount, and a sincere threat is scary, too.  In a perfectly healthy world, we have supportive people close to us, we have safe places to go, and we deal with the painful parts of life & the scary parts of life and we go on.  The problem is, the world isn’t always perfect or healthy.

A trauma that doesn’t heal is like stepping on something sharp that gets pushed way in and isn’t removed. The skin may heal over, we may still be able to walk, but it’s in there, causing twinges whenever anything pushes just a bit the wrong way.  It can be a small splinter or a whole nail, both hurt. To fully heal, it has to come out and the wound needs to be clean.

An emotional trauma can start from something small.  Starting with examples of things in childhood; being stung by a bee, having a large dog bark at you every time you go past on the way to see a friend, having to move away from people who really matter – these are a few types of ‘something sharp’ that happen to kids.  Being in a car accident, parents divorcing, wandering away from a picnic site or campground and getting lost for a few hours – those are maybe bigger, or sharper.

As people get older they develop more coping skills, a wider range of potential support, but we’re also exposed to more things that could hurt.  Not making the cut for a team or band or cast for a play can be annoying, or it can be devastating. Being bullied, having a friend or family member die, discovering an important part of who we are that isn’t in tune with the family or social group around us are all possible kinds of pain.  Having a hard time fitting in or making friends or figuring out love and attraction and relationships, discovering a learning disability, getting a severe injury… each of these examples is possible, and each one can be something that we may or may not have the skill & help to work through.

We keep on growing up, and we keep on finding more possibilities in life. Many are wonderful or interesting, some aren’t really for us.  Some can cause pain that we feel & grow through, some can cause pain that sticks.  A bad relationship or a rough breakup is one of the most common ‘grown-up’ traumas I hear about, but staying in a relationship with a pretty good person can result in traumas, too.  An disagreement that turns into a piece of ongoing tension causes trauma. Having a career come to a stop, not being able to have children or having unplanned children, all the times that we end up stuck with only bad choices and worse choices – they’re all upsetting, worrisome, scary, painful.  They all cause at least a bit of trauma.

From early childhood issues onward, everything that causes lasting trauma has aspects in common, which means that it can all be treated in similar ways.  It also means that in many ways, it doesn’t matter if your trauma was small or large, common or uncommon – the effects are going to be similar.

Okay – so what happens?

The difference between ‘something upsetting’ and ‘trauma’ is that trauma keeps on bothering you.  The purpose of addressing it in therapy is to get to the point where it isn’t bothering you any more.  Just what ‘bothering you’ means is up to you.  You’re still going to know what happened.  You’ll still remember that it was really upsetting and might have affected a few or a lot of the decisions you made. It could be affecting your relationships, how you raise your kids, how close you get to friends, what you do or don’t do in your free time, fears, phobias – all kinds of things. How much you need to understand, to change, and to feel depends on you, but it IS something you can do.

If something hurt and you had the right support, the right people, the best ways to express what happened, and the most understanding family &/or friends after something hurt you, you probably went through a process of feeling hurt & scared, feeling mad that it happened, wondering what would happen next, and then you started to feel like yourself again.  You hurt when you thought about it, but not all the time. You were mad, but again, not all the time. If what happened to you was something that shouldn’t happen, your experience might have motivated you to speak out for change.  If you went through something that could happen again, you learned what some of the warning signs were so you could avoid it.

With those hurts, you got through it.  It’s in the past. You aren’t still hurt and scared now.

With a trauma that is still bothering you (yep – that’s redundant, since I said the definition of trauma is that it’s still bothering you), it isn’t in the past yet. As far as your mind is concerned, it’s still happening.  The perfect process that I just described hasn’t happened yet.  If you didn’t have the right support to work on it when it happened, or if it still bothers you, that’s when it’s time for therapy.

In therapy, we work to help your brain put it in the past. This part is where things are different for each person, because people work through things differently.   For some people, processing means talking about their pain and talking about other parts of their lives that have been affected by that pain.  Some people need to take note of what has changed and what hasn’t changed, so that they can really see that it’s not happening anymore.  Some people need to express all the thoughts & feelings they had when they were hurt.  Some people are very analytical and need to make lists of now and then. Some people need to give themselves permission to feel emotions or sensations that used to hurt and that they pulled back from so they wouldn’t hurt anymore. Some people work better by drawing, or writing, or acting out what happened.

All of those ways are good ways to work through trauma – it just depends on what’s best for you.  All of these things are working toward the same place. The goal is to have the brain understand that whatever happened, it was in the past, and it isn’t happening now.

And then what?

Once the brain understands that what happened is past, it changes how it reacts.  When your brain thinks something harmful is happening Right Now, it sends out a lot of alarm Right Now. Your brain in ‘harm happening’ mode ups your adrenaline so you can fight or run away or hide.  It shuts down most of your ability to do things that take a lot of thought, like translating languages or doing math or remembering facts, so that it has more ability to react to whatever happens next.  It’s like a computer – it can be running a lot of music & video, OR doing a lot of word processing and finding information, OR fast communications, OR putting information into charts & finding answers – it can’t do all of it all at once.  Your brain wants to deal with pain first so that you get safe to do other things later – but if it doesn’t know that the pain stopped, it has a hard time believing that it IS later.

Once your brain believes that the danger is past, it can consider whether the danger was really as big as you thought it might be. It can decide what to do next time. It can worry about danger another time and let you talk with people or decide what to plant in your garden or remind you that it’s time for lunch.

If you went through something that changed your life, your brain needs to catch up.  If your brain is still in trauma mode, it isn’t paying too much attention to forming a close relationship or learning the skills to be good at your job or feeling safe trying out new things.  The more you’ve changed, the more your brain needs to catch up to where you are and where you want to be.  Working through trauma means that your brain starts to believe that what happened is past, and you can get on with your life.

So it’ll be all better?

It will be much better than it was. Working through trauma can’t change the past, and it can’t undo what happened, but you can feel safe, and you can feel comfortable being you. You can learn from things that have happened, and be able to learn from new things.  You can make decisions based on what you want, not based on what would keep you safe from something that already happened.  You can be you – and being you is a wonderful person to be!


Wow! It’s been a while :)

Wow! It’s been a while :)

Hello everyone.  So it’s been nearly a month – oh my!  I’ll get some longer posts out soon; but for today, no, I haven’t forgotten everyone.  I’ve been adjusting my schedule, I’ve had the opportunity to go to some workshops and trainings and similar things (most counselors go to several trainings, workshops, symposiums, and similar gatherings ever year.  We want to know more, we want to treat our clients more effectively, and, yes, I thin every state and country requires ongoing education – although most of us would go even if it wasn’t required. We really do like this or we wouldn’t be doing it!.

So I’ll pull myself back to my computer a little bit more frequently in the upcoming weeks and continue with posts on trust, tell you what’s going on with me, and write about anything else that comes to mind 🙂


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