We’ve made it to the first day of summer! The number of new COVID-19 cases and deaths are down and the trend is described as “hopeful.” There is talk about how our children may return to school this fall. All signs of our movement beyond the pandemic crisis are there, yet we feel anxious.
Our new reality includes seeing others in public in masks--or not. Being told to continue to physically distance from others yet--seeing those who do not abide by that ‘rule’. Feeling preoccupied with our body’s location in relation to others… wondering when they washed their hands last… questioning what we should touch… hearing every cough around us… wondering if is it safe to use a public restroom… and on and on…
These preoccupying thoughts and worries as we begin to move outside our safe cocoon can escalate our anxiety and sense of personal safety, even as we long for social re-engagement with others across the fabric of our day-to-day lives.
Ultimately, we must balance our personal need for connection with others with the very real knowledge that the virus is NOT eradicated. We have a responsibility to manage our activities in ways that honor our instincts to stay safe. Perhaps some re-engagement anxiety is not such a bad thing? However, if you are feeling overwhelmed or surrounded by others who are taking all this less seriously than you are, consider talking to a caring counselor for assistance in managing this new--yet very real—anxiety.
What to say that is new or different about our current circumstances of social distancing and self-quarantine? I feel I’ve been bombarded with emails, text messages, blog posts, and professionals of every kind offering me advice on everything from how to properly wash my hands to “quarantine recipes” to at-home exercise tips. Enough already. I’m overwhelmed.
I’ve given a lot of thought to this from my own perspective as well as, the perspective of how best to help my clients?
What I’ve concluded is that what might be helpful is to just simply… allow.
Allow yourself to feel sad, to grieve all that you’re missing out on right now. Everything about our life today was unimaginable just a few short weeks ago. We are adjusting and accommodating to a new way of thinking and doing across every aspect of our day.
Allow for the space you need to just… be. The emotional burden we are all bearing is profound. While we might think that we have all this extra time to do this (exercise) and do that (tackle home projects), the reality is that our minds and hearts are burdened right now. And allowing ourselves to just be is not only okay--it is necessary.
Allow for worry. I frequently caution my clients that worry about the future robs us of today. I also encourage clients to engage in mindfulness, which to the focus of your awareness on the present moment.
But now, who in the world isn’t worrying about their future? And, doesn’t it feel impossible to ‘stay in the moment’ of whatever we are doing when our health, our relationships, our children’s educations, our jobs, our very way of life are all at risk of irreparable change? Worry about the future makes a lot of sense to me right now.
So, what I’ve come to realize is that some of the ‘rules’ that I’ve had for myself, and have espoused to my clients for years, don’t seem to apply right now. I’ve also heard some refer to this as our “new normal.” I don’t think so. This is not any kind of normal! We are in a constant state of uncertainty, fear, and speculation. Maybe, just maybe, we will reach a new normal when we’ve come through to the other side of this virus pandemic. Until then, we need to throw out any notion of normalcy.
Sadness, grief, a need for acknowledging our stress and our anxiety and our worry…. Sounds pretty somber, right? So, let me add a few other ideas that we can allow for…
Allow for dreams about all the things that we want to get back to—and maybe even do differently or better—when we can. We each have the opportunity to thoughtfully consider how we will re-engage with our loved ones, folks we work with, and our neighbors and friends. We will be able to approach past relationship challenges with a new perspective, one born out of time to really reflect and evaluate. We can choose to enact changes in our own way of being with others in our lives.
Allow for anticipation of seeing family and friends again… and for celebrating! There have been so many missed occasions – birthdays, anniversaries, vacations, weddings, births... So much to catch up on, so many people to spend time with, so many opportunities to reconnect. It’s a lot to look forward to, really.
Allowfor possibilities. The possibility that as a community, and as a nation, we have learned so much about what we are made of. We will have been reminded (just as we were after 9/11) of the power and the goodness of every American to come together when we need each other most.
Allow for thepossibility that the way we view our children’s educations, the way in which we accomplish our work, and the manner in which we tackle immense challenges may all shift for the better, and in ways we cannot imagine right now. Think about advances in remote learning for our kids. Or, perhaps we’ll see a shift in new home design that supports a range of creative work-at-home environments. Certainly, our leaders and medical professionals will be more proactive with efforts to anticipate and better prepare for this type of crisis in the future.
Lastly, allow for thepossibility that we will all come out of this with a renewed sense of purpose for ourselves and our community; a more defined commitment to supporting others who struggle or are in need; and a much deeper sense of gratitude for all that we may have taken for granted before.
Finally, if my thoughts expressed here make sense to you, I encourage you to simply allow yourself to feel every feeling and acknowledge every concern that invades your mind. However, please also allow for the hopes, the dreams, the anticipation, and the possibilities that await us when we are able to move beyond our current circumstances. This too shall pass.
When someone we love dies, we are consumed by an overwhelming and all-encompassing experience of anguish and despair. The simplest tasks become arduous and insurmountable. The suggestion that we could ever enjoyanything, or smile, or laugh again seems incomprehensible. We feel that our grief is now our new identity… forever.
Let me suggest that it is possible to experience momentsof joy amidst our grief. Grief and joy are not mutually exclusive emotions (although we often believe that they are). We are capable of feeling a multitude of emotions all at once. It is this tug of our heart and mind in different directions, amidst grief, that confuses and disorients us.
Then, there’s the guilt. The immediate ‘gut punch’ we give ourselves when we feel anything except our grief. It’s as though we are somehow betraying our loved one because we laughed at a joke, or forgot about our loss for the briefest of moments.
The ability to get outside of your grief momentarily is a healthy coping mechanism; a sort of mini-respite from the despair. It is okay to smile when you hear a baby giggle, to laugh as your dog romps through the snow, to take in the beauty of a sunset, or savor a delicious sweet treat. All of these moments can accompany our exhaustive experience of grief; moments that serve to remind us that grief need not be our entire identity.
There is still beauty in the world around us — even as we grieve.
In my career as a grief counselor, I have never had a client who did not experience some form of regret following the loss of someone they loved.
Something left unsaid, a decision made that they wish they could change, or a situation unresolved. Regret can come as equally with action as it does with inaction. We can regret doing something as much as we can regret having done nothing at all. After a loss these regrets can haunt us endlessly.
Some choose to hang on to regret becausemoving forward can feel like betrayal. Your regrets serve as testaments to the love you have felt. Holding on to regret can feel like it helps you maintain connection. Leaving behind the regret can feel like leaving your person behind.
A few suggestions for coping with your regret include:
Tell someone you trust what you are feeling.
You may need to be reminded that you did the best you could. After the fact, we lose the objectivity to remember exactly how things were or we forget all the things we did right. If the person you trust says, “No, you did all you could,” trust them.
Consider writing a letter to your person.
Expressing how you feel about the unfinished or unresolved issues between you can facilitate healing.
Be open to forgiving yourself.
Look for a lesson that can be learned.
Regret can inspire deeper compassion and empathy for others in pain; or just to say “I love you” more often.
A few years ago, my husband and I bought a home in the country. One of the first things we did was enclose our new yard with a split rail fence along our property line. Although our primary purpose was to keep our two dogs in our yard, our fence represents so much more. It tells the world what we own and what we know is our responsibility.
Emotional boundaries function much the same way in our interpersonal relationships. An individual with healthy emotional boundaries understands what they “own” - and do not “own” - in their interactions with others. Conversely, people with unhealthy boundaries find it difficult to say “no” to others. Their behavior is often described as “enabling” because it allows another to continue to behave in ways that are destructive to themselves or to the existing relationship.
Healthy boundaries allow us to convey our thoughts and feelings in a conflict, while allowing the other person to do the same. We are able to recognize what part of a conflict we “own”—and what part we do not. It’s all about accountability in our relationships, and understanding that repair work requires effort from both sides of a conflict.
If you often find yourself feeling hurt, misunderstood, disrespected, or taken advantage of by others, chances are your emotional property line has been crossed. A professional counselor can help with identifying boundary violations and working toward the development of healthier ways to express yourself and to hold others accountable in your relationships.
A child struggles with school and socializing with friends…
A parent struggles with keeping pressures at work from affecting their mood at home…
A teen struggles with social issues and may be experiencing anxiety or depression…
A family member struggles with substance abuse…
A family suffers the death of a loved one…
A family member suffers from a mental health diagnosis…
The ‘busy-ness’ of everyone’s schedules leaves family members feeling isolated and disconnected. And, the constant preoccupation with technology and social media has further eroded what was once time spent together and engaged in each other’s lives…
The list of challenges that today’s families face is endless, and the dysfunction and upset that they suffer as a result are real and often lasting.
You may wonder at some time in the history of your family—either the one you are raising, or the one you grew up in—if the challenges that you all struggle with could be helped with family counseling? But you also may not have any idea what that would look like, or if it would work?
For those of us in the counseling profession, family counseling is often the preferred approach to a multitude of presenting issues. Yet, the more typical circumstance is that the family will identify the ‘problem person,’ and then give everyone else in the family a ‘pass.’ The problem person is then brought into our office with a request for help.
However, the truth of the matter is that no challenge affecting an entire family is one person’s fault. Far from it, every member of the family system plays some role in the dynamic that perpetuates the problem(s).
The role of the family counselor can offer the family a remarkable opportunity to navigate their differences in an entirely new manner than they likely have experienced before. Some important features of the family counseling setting include:
A safe atmosphere for discussion
The opportunity for EVERY family member to express their feelings and opinions about the issue
Immediate feedback from an objective third party to mediate escalating tensions and emotions
Dedicated time for the entire family to truly ‘hear’ and engage with each other
Education about how the family system works… or is not working
Opportunity to recognize alliances within the family that may be perpetuating the problem
Encouragement for each family member to take responsibility for their role in the problem
Guidance for collective problem-solving
Ongoing accountability to ensure lasting change within the family
There is no doubt, it IS a tall order to bring an entire family into counseling! The sheer logistics of finding a day and a time when everyone is available can be the biggest challenge. However, a collective belief that the family is worththe investment to improve relationships and enhance daily interactions can be the first step to healing long-standing wounds and misunderstandings with the people you love the very most in the world. You might even discover that you can actually enjoy each other in ways you never imagined before!
We are born into a healthy, loving, committed marriage, or a chaotic, unstable, and dysfunctional relationship... or more likely, somewhere in between these extremes. The point is, we don’t get to choose.
Our family of origin experiences have an enormous impact on the trajectory of our lives.
Fathers teach sons how to love a woman and how to lead a family... or they don’t. Fathers teach daughters what they deserve from a man — love, respect, and partnership… or they don’t.
Mothers teach sons to recognize and honor the love of a woman; the importance of her voice of reason and her comfort... or they don’t. Mothers teach daughters how to love, respect and encourage a good and honorable man... or they don’t.
We take what we learn from these experiences into our future as we test the waters of our adult relationships. If we are able to recognize and admit that we are falling short, we often struggle to understand the role of those early influences.
The challenge is to recognize those early influences and to comprehend the impact they have had on our current choices; to be able to identify and choose a different course of action than might have been modeled by those whose behaviors initially influenced us.
The guidance of a caring mental health counselor can provide the safety and opportunity to explore the impact of the family we grew up with on our thoughts, values, and beliefs about ourselves as individuals and as partners.
Everyone is grieving when a family loses a loved one. However, not everyone is grieving in the same way. Once each person moves beyond the initial stage of shock in response to the death, there can be significant differences in each individual’s experience of the loss. These unanticipated differences often present an added layer of confusion and despair for the individual mourners, and can result in discord within the family unit as a whole.
When we anticipate a loss, we often assume that our closest family members will be the ones to support us through our grief. However, each family member’s experience will be unique to them; influenced by a wide range of features specific to the individual’s age and stage of life at the time of their loss and to their relationship to the deceased.
Other factors influencing our experience include:
the stability and intensity of our relationship with the deceased at the time of their death
the age of the deceased at the time of their death
whether the death was sudden or anticipated
whether the death occurred as a result of natural causes or from an accident or tragedy
The task for family members is to recognize these factors and not assume that their spouse, parent, sibling, or child is feeling as they are at any given moment in time. Support offered by others outside the family, or in a griefsupport group can provide the understanding we need to process our grief on our own terms.
I often hear these exact words from couples who have come to me for marriage counseling. Both parties contemplating divorce after months or years of marital strife, and the only reason they can give me to stay together is “…for the sake of the kids…”
Let’s really consider the kids…
Are they witnessing your marital hostilities and conflicts on a daily basis?
Are they suffering academically or socially due to the dysfunction at home?
Are they acting out or taking on the role of ‘problem child’ to distract you from fighting with each other?
Are either of you attempting to get your child(ren) to alignwith your view of the marital problems?
It is a myth that children always suffer from divorce. Many adolescents report relief when the daily conflict ends. Of course, the manner in which you navigate the divorce is fundamental to your children’s experience. However, with time, kids are able to gain perspective and often report that two happier homes is better than one fueled by emotional volatility, anger, and constant tests of their loyalty.
It is not my intention to minimize the impact of divorce on your children. Rather, I ask you to consider the example you are setting for what marriage looks like when they witness clear disdain and lack of respect between the two people they love most.
If your marital conflicts are truly irreconcilable, perhaps the maturity to prioritize your children’s needs and love them through your divorce is an option to be considered.
The decision to end your marriage — whether a long time coming or the result of an irreconcilable event — brings with it a range of emotions, frustrations, and logistics that few can fully anticipate. The emotional support provided by a caring counselor can make the difference between merely “surviving” and navigating through your divorce with the ability to heal and move forward into your new future.
First, counseling offers you the opportunity to tell your story again and again to a listener who is not involved. The need to tell your story is important to understand. Each time you tell your story, you create the opportunity for a different aspect of your experience to resonate for yourself. As you process with words the range of images, memories, and emotions you have endured, different features of these visceral experiences will become a bit more tolerable. Hearing your own words about what happened ‘hit the air’ can take some of the punch out of them.
One aspect of initiating a divorce that is often stressful is what and how to tell family and friends about what happened. Discussing it first with a counselor can provide insight into how best to inform those around you—who likely have their own opinions about your marriage and your decision to divorce!
Counseling also provides an outlet for expressing your darkest feelings. As a counselor, I often refer to our emotional worlds as consisting of our good feelings and thoughts, our bad feelings and thoughts, and our really ugly feelings and thoughts! We rarely reveal our ugly parts for fear that we will frighten those around us. Sometimes, they are even too scary for us to really acknowledge and express out loud. Sitting with a counselor provides the opportunity to speak your ugliest, darkest fears, express your intense rage, and your deepest despair. Unlike confiding in your family or close friends, you don’t need to worry that you are overwhelming your counselor. It is—quite simply—an emotionally safe place.
Counseling allows you to “sit” with your feelings for as long as you need. The divorce process is often times a slow one—both emotionally and legally. Family and friends may grow impatient with you because it is very difficult to see someone they care about suffering. Many around you will try to “cheer you up,” distract you, or—in very subtle ways—convey that your emotions are too intense for them.
The animosity and hostility that are often features of a divorce proceeding are unfortunately, often fueled by the attorneys involved and by the requirements of the court system itself. It can be very confusing, especially when you may have silently vowed to conduct yourself with integrity and humility, only to be encouraged to “get all you can get” by an overzealous attorney. Attending counseling during this time can provide accountability for staying true to yourself through this arduous process.
Divorce is essentially a grief journey. You are grieving the life you had and the future you had imagined. With grief comes the need for adapting to the changes ahead and allowing yourself to thoroughly feel all those emotions of loss. Managing on one income, moving into a different home, and—most significantly—enduring drastic changes in your time spent with your children are just a few examples of required restructuring of your life that can often seem impossible. Counseling can provide a space and the time to sort through it all outside of your own head.
After the grief… comes the learning. Following the emotional upheaval and recovery, comes the opportunity to consider your own mistakes, misunderstandings, and behaviors that contributed to the breakdown of your marriage. Recognizing and “owning” your part in it allows you to understand how you will do it differently moving forward into a future relationship. This awareness, insight, and heightened understanding of what you need from a partner is vital to making healthy choices for yourself in the future.
As you emerge from your divorce experience and begin to rebuild your life, the continuing support provided by counseling can offer opportunities to try out new ideas and consider new possibilities. This ongoing process allows you to acquire a new perspective unencumbered by the vested interest of family and friends.
It is possible to not only survive your divorce, but to come out the other side with a stronger sense of who you are, what you need, and a wisdom born of enduring one of life’s most difficult challenges. The emotional support and unconditional counsel of a caring professional can assist you every step of the way.