Protective Figure Imagery

The Courage, by Lora Zombie

The image feature in this article is titled The Courage. When you look at it, what qualities do you see? Power, strength, fearlessness, confidence, protectiveness, loyalty? For years I have had artist Lora Zombie’s work in my counselling office. Everyone asks about the art, and for many, the artwork is equally as powerful for them as it is for me. But when The Courage came out (the image featured in this article), I felt the need to share why I find some of Lora’s art so powerful.

When working with trauma in counselling, it is important for individuals to feel emotionally prepared. In EMDR therapy, preparation is done with information sharing and psycho-education, collaboration and transparency, and emotion regulation strategies such as distancing, containment, and resourcing. It is resourcing that I am going to be specifically talking about in this article. 

Resourcing, (also referred to as Resource Development, and Ego Strengthening), is about cultivating strategies that will enable clients to shift out of overwhelming emotions and also to connect with positive resources within themselves. It is the “secret sauce” in trauma work because in order to do the work, clients must be sufficiently stabilized and they must have some ability to regulate emotion

There are many strategies used to assist individuals in developing these abilities. One such strategy is about connecting, through visualization, with a protective figure. A protective figure can be real or imagined, and it is unique to each individual. When we connect with an image of our protective figure being ferociously protective of us, we take the time to notice all the qualities our protective figure possesses. We connect with the sensations in our body that shift as we connect with the image, the emotions, and the positive cognition that goes along with it. As we focus on the protective figure image, emotion begins to settle. What is really happening, is that we activating all those powerful qualities within ourselves. Not only does the image strengthen our ability to settle strong emotion, but it also fosters a sense of empowerment, and cultivates love and compassion

When we lack actual internal resources for processing trauma, the stored negative experience of the trauma can overwhelm our capacity for positive experiences, self-esteem development, and resiliency. Regulating emotion becomes very difficult. Once we have developed the protective figure imagery in counselling, we can later bring up the image in our imagination (in our mind’s eye), perhaps when feeling vulnerable, threatened, or fearful – even during trauma processing. The image becomes an anchor and a source of strength to be drawn upon during healing. (Please note: the resources used during the preparation phase of EMDR are unique to each client).

Lora’s latest artwork The Courage is such a beautiful depiction of the protective figure. I highly recommend it for any counselling space. Check out more of Lora’s work here: https://lorazombie.com

References:

Parnell, L. (2007). A therapist’s guide to EMDR: Tools and techniques for successful treatment. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.

Parnell, L. (2008). Tapping in: A step-by-step guide to activating your healing resources through bilateral stimulation. Boulder, CO: Sounds True, Inc.

Teal, A. (2018). Super resourcing: An integrative protocol for healing early attachment wounds. (EMDRIA Approved training)

EMDR in your Therapy Session, Part 2

Ever wondered what EMDR looks like in a counselling session? EMDR – which stands for eye movement desensitization and processing, is a therapeutic approach with a wide range of applications. Research has demonstrated that EMDR is effective for working with experiences of trauma (and post-traumatic stress), anxiety, phobias, addictions, to name just a few. To learn more about the components of EMDR, please read Part 1 by clicking here.

There are eight stages to the process of EMDR therapy. It begins as many therapies do: building rapport, gathering intake information (your backstory, so to speak). Knowing your story helps your counsellor understand your needs in counselling, any troubling symptoms that need immediate attention, and also helps you both collaboratively create a treatment plan.

The next stage shifts into preparation, or resourcing. “Resourcing” is the common name for developing those emotional coping skills. It involves helping folks develop the tools they need to self-regulate. This phase involves learning to notice and move through strong, over-whelming emotions as they arise. It’s the part of therapy that works with the treating the symptoms (the pounding heart sensation of anxiety, excessive worry cycles based on past experiences, sleep disturbance, etc.). In EMDR, we work with a rating scale called the Subjective Units of Distress Scale (SUDS for short). It’s a rating scale from 1 to 10, where 10 is the most distressed you’ve ever felt and 1 is no distress at all. The scale is a helpful way for therapists to attune to their clients, and also for client’s to notice their own progress in a session.

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Developing and strengthening emotional coping skills is important, because moving into processing trauma too soon could cause a person to feel unsafe and emotionally flooded. Our job as your counsellor, is to help you be present with emotion without being over-powered by it; learning to turn down the volume on some emotions as you need to, and ultimately helping you feel safe with the counselling process.

Many folks who have experienced trauma have an overall feeling of being unsafe, so cultivating a sense of safety has to be a primary focus.  You need to feel comfortable with your therapist before you disclose all the tough stuff. And, it is super important that you build the emotional coping skills to be okay after and between sessions. EMDR respects these important features of trauma work. 

With the ability to regulate emotion and connect with a degree of internal safety developed, we can begin the next stages of EMDR: Desensitization.  I know you remember what that means from Part 1! This is where trauma processing begins. For those of you wondering what on earth this part of therapy looks like, let me demystify it for you. 

During this trauma processing stage of EMDR, a session starts out with resourcing, then moves into target selection (which just means you choose what the session focus will be). Because I work with trauma, that often means we want to start out with the first traumatic memory or the worst traumatic memory. Wait! Please don’t slam your laptop shut and storm off – I know that can sound frightening, but you will be ready for this stage because of all your hard developing and practicing emotion coping skills during the preparation stage! 

Once we’ve got that memory selected, we connect the negative belief that goes with it, the emotion it evokes, and where you feel it in your body (the sensation of the emotion). 

Side Note: Why do we Need to Cultivate Awareness of the Felt Sense of Emotion?

Cultivating awareness of how we feel emotion in our body is super important. Trauma can often leave folks feeling disconnected from their body. They can get caught up in staying in their head (thoughts), because perhaps it feels safer. However, our body still carries all that tension. Maybe it gets experienced in the form of stomach aches or digestive problems, holding the breath/shallow breathing, muscle tension, or a clenched jaw. This disconnection from the felt sense can become so habitual, that many folks stop noticing it. But all that tension and unrecognized dis-ease can cause all kinds of health problems. 

So, with the pairing of the trauma memory, with the negative belief, the emotion it evokes and how distressing it feels, and how you sense it in the body, we add BLS and start processing that old memory. Whatever your distress level was at the beginning of the session, your therapists goal is to guide you through the processing to get that number down so that you are anchored in a sense of internal safety when the session ends. 

And here is the amazing part: as the BLS is repeated, the brain is processing the trauma to reconcile it as a past event. When your brain and your body can reconcile trauma as a past event, it means you can anchor into the present moment. You shift out of survival mode and can more accurate attest that you truly are safe now. 

Emotional Activation (Feeling Triggered):

Have you ever noticed that when something in the present moment reminds you of a trauma you experienced, the emotion that arises feels completely raw and overly-excessive to the present situation you are in? That is what unprocessed trauma can feel like. There is an amazing little brain system we all have, called the limbic system. Its sole job is to keep us alive. Experiencing trauma can keep us popping into that limbic system survival mode way too frequently. Constant survival mode living can leave people feeling emotionally reactive (as though we are constantly in fight, flight, for freeze), and emotionally exhausted. The brain just doesn’t recognize that the trauma is over, that you are safe now. That is why counselling is so important for your overall health and functioning.

During processing with BLS, emotion becomes less intense. One of the session goals is to keep reducing activation – getting your SUDS number going down, so that you are shifting more and more out of distress. 

EMDR_Congition_ListAs a result of all that emotion process, you are able to connect with a positive belief, and we install it with BLS (the next stage in our 8 stage model). Instead of the negative belief a person started the session with, such as perhaps “I am not enough”, folks now get to decide what positive belief is more preferable, (such as “I am worthwhile”, or “I did the best I could”). We link the positive belief in with BLS so that when the client thinks about the past experience, he or she is no longer washed over with thoughts of being not enough – and in fact, that old negative belief feels distant. The past event really does feel over and anchored in the past, and linked with the positive belief. It may still evoke a degree of emotion (after all, we can not erase the past from having happened), but the sadness or fear that arises going forward when the memory is recalled, will be less intense, and will fit the situation you are in.

Containment metaphors amight be used at the end of a session, as well as a body scan. The body scan is a super useful tool to strengthen the positive sensations associated with the positive belief, and also for identifying any distress still present. The final stage of the session (but not yet the 8th stage of EMDR), is a debriefing of sorts, where we can review strategies for anchoring in the present moment, handling emotion as it comes up, and discussion what to expect after the session in terms of emotions percolating and taking care of self between sessions. 

The subsequent session starts out with an exploration of anything that came up between sessions, and a re-evaluation of thoughts, beliefs, emotions, and sensations connected with the work from the previous session That’s the eight stage of EMDR, and then the process continues until folks feel as though they have worked through the pieces they entered into counselling to address. 

I hope this summary of what EMDR in a therapy session looks like has been helpful. Remember,  while we can not erase traumatic experiences from your memory, with EMDR the brain can reconcile it as a past event. We can lessen the intensity of the emotion the memory evokes, as well as the meaning attached to it. We learn to notice when we are shifting into the limbic system and either act to maintain safety or anchor back into the present moment acknowledging the memory as well as our present moment safety.  

If you want to learn more about EMDR, please check out the EMDR International Association website, or EMDR Canada. Both of those websites also list EMDR therapists by location, so you can even tap into those resources to find a practitioner close to you. 

Be well.

EMDR in your Therapy Session

Part 1

There are many therapeutic approaches Counsellors can use when working with clients on their goals. This article is about EMDR therapy, which is an approach for treating trauma, but has tons of other applications. The letters stand for Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing – which I am going to describe in more detail in this article. The second article will explain what a typical EMDR session might look like

Disclaimer: please know that no therapy is one size fits all. There are many layers to therapy, and to the complex issues people bring forth into their counselling experience. My intention in this article is to provide a simple overview of EMDR. Think of it as a brief summary, and know that there is much more to it. Kind of like the sign at the local gas station that reads ‘Car Wash’.  When you go through the carwash, your car will receive the wash, along with the added bonus of an under flush, foaming polish, clear coat sealant, and air dry. There is so much more to the car wash that that sign mentions! Similarly, there is so much more to EMDR than this summary will include. My aim is to make this informative and brief, leaving you with a solid understanding of what EMDR is, so that you can feel you understand the process prior to starting therapy.

EMDR was developed by clinician Francine Shapiro. The approach has been researched and modified for many diverse applications. In this article, I am going to be describing the variation attachment-focused EMDR, which was developed by Laurel Parnell. 

Originally developed for use with post-traumatic stress, EMDR therapy is also an effective approach for working with fears and phobias, addiction, and anxiety, It also works to strengthen feelings of calm and confidence.

The Body Holds Emotion

EMDR is a somatic approach to therapy, which means that while we do look at thoughts and emotions, we also look at how the body is holding emotion (that’s “the felt sense of emotion”). 

When a traumatic event happens, we humans tend to become flooded with emotion and our brain doesn’t process and store the memory properly. What happens is that parts of the event (thoughts, emotions, body sensations, images, and smells) stay unprocessed in the brain. What this means in daily life for folks, is that reminders in day-to-day life can activate those unprocessed memories. When this happens, it can feel as though the trauma is happening all over again. You know in your rational brain that it isn’t – but the felt sense of emotion that spikes up so fast that makes it feel as though danger is very real and present.

Using EMDR, we work with the memories that are causing the present-day distress and we “reprocess” them. This means we are working with all the elements of the present, past, and even future. 

Let’s look now at what the name EMDR stands for in more detail, and then I’ll explain what you can expect when you start up EMDR therapy. 

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It’s All in the Name:

As you have already learned, “EMDR” stands for Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing. It’s a bit of a long and complicated name, so let’s deconstruct it. 

EMDR incorporates eye movements, which is a type of bilateral stimulation (BLS). This is a core feature of EMDR. The term ‘bilateral’ refers to two sides: eyes moving back and forth in a rhythmic side-to-side pattern. Thanks to research and new technologies, we now know that the bilateral stimulation used during EMDR can be visual (the eye movements), auditory (sound), or tactile stimulation (touch). The bilateral stimulation ensures both hemispheres of the brain have an active role in memory processing. 

Visual bilateral stimulation can be created by the therapist moving their hand back and forth, or with a light bar. A light bar looks exactly as it sounds: it is a sleek bar of lights, and a light flashes on one end of the bar and then the other, and back and forth it goes. The client follows the lights with their eyes, side to side in a rhythmic pattern, thus the term “bilateral”.  

Auditory BLS is facilitated with earbuds, with a sound being played alternating from one side to the other.  Mark Grant has developed a powerful app that utilizes EMDR with auditory BLS, called Anxiety Release.

Tactile BLS can be facilitated with tapping rhythmically from side-to-side.  I use a little hand held device with 2 parts that a client holds, one in each hand, and it facilitates bilateral stimulation (BLS) with a brief pulse, or vibration back and forth. It kind of feels the way your smart phone does with the silent mode vibration.

More about Bilateral Stimulation (BLS)

You may be wondering, why is this strange BLS thing so important in therapy??

Bilateral stimulation is a core feature because through repeatedly activating the opposite sides of the brain, it harnesses the power of the accelerated information processing model and aids in releasing emotional experiences that feel ‘stuck’. It can be said that this process mimics REM sleep. You may have heard of this before: when we are sleeping and in the REM stage of sleep, our brains have a chance to process the events of the day. In trauma, we know that memories get stuck – they don’t get processed and worked through. So by using BLS as part of the trauma processing, we help our brains to finish processing those distressing events. As the troubling images and emotions associated with the disturbing/scary/upsetting event are processed while paired with repeated alternating activation (BLS) the memory consolidates, the distressing bits feel resolved, and a more peaceful emotional state is achieved.

There is a lot of emotion packed into the trauma memories.  As you read this, you might be feeling worried that if you start working with a past trauma, the level of emotion it evokes might be too much to handle. In EMDR therapy, therapists are trained to help folks through the process. So while working through distressing memories does evoke emotion – we go slowly, and keep our focus narrow. This way emotion can feel more manageable, and the body can start to regulate.

Here are a few more neat facts about BLS:

  1. BLS can help the body relax (all those muscles that were tense without you even being aware they were tense suddenly relax a bit)
  2. It can help our unstick our thinking so that we feel a great sense of cognitive flexibility (thoughts flow and feel less stuck and rigid on the troubling topics)
  3. It can help improve our concentration 
  4. And, my favourite effect of BLS: it helps us ease into the awareness of the distance between the present moment and the upsetting event. This means that the issue or event worked on during the counselling session feels smaller and further away; more anchored in the past and not so volatily-active in the present

Desensitization means that we’re working with the intensity of emotion felt when recalling a disturbing/scary/upsetting event.  Desensitization refers to the process of becoming less and less distressed with the memory of an event that was disturbing/scary/upsetting but that is now over. In it’s most simple terms: a memory that was once a super sore sensitive spot becomes less and less sensitive during the course of EMDR. We can not undo the past or erase the memory of it, but we can learn to turn down the intensity of emotion felt when recalling it. 

Reprocessing means that some memories of the disturbing/scary/upsetting event weren’t processed at the time the event occurred. There are many brain systems that are involved during trauma, and many more that are shut down, or suppressed, during the event. This means that the traumatic moment isn’t stored in the brain the way a non-traumatic event gets stored. Through EMDR therapy, reprocessing means that we work on understanding the memory so that the memory of the disturbing/scary/upsetting event becomes useful instead of so disturbing. By reprocessing it, in a very titrated and strategic way, the memory comes to be stored as part of an integrated memory system.

Here are a couple of things to keep in mind, regardless of the therapy you choose to access in your counselling session. 

  • Going slowly is important. Building up emotional coping skills prior to working through trauma is a helpful way to ensure sessions feel more manageable 
  • Therapy is rarely one size fits all. Your therapist will work on getting to know you, your story, and your needs, in order to best help you work through your goals in counselling.

In the next article, I will go over what a typical EMDR therapy session may look like. Stay tuned for it!

–> Click here for Part 2: What EMDR Looks Like in a Therapy Session

But What are We Going to Actually Do?

Trauma Therapy Explained

People tend to know they need counselling for a long time before they reach out to start it up. Making that initial phone call can stir up fear and uncertainty. And once an appointment is scheduled, actually attending it can stir up anxiety and doubt. I believe it does take a tremendous amount of courage to start up counselling: to entrust your story to a stranger invites vulnerability. Yet for each courageous soul that takes the first step, there is hope. Hope says “This will help”, and “I can get through this”.

So for all the folks out there wanting to take that first step but feeling weighed down by uncertainty, I’d like to demystify the counselling process.

When it comes to working with trauma, I use the Three Stage Trauma Recovery Model, which was developed by Judith Herman in the 1980’s. I use the model as a framework within which all therapeutic interventions launch from.

Please Note: Each client is unique, and therefore counselling is not a one-size-fits-all service. While you read the following information, please know that it might look a little different for each person. Also, rarely do we move through the model in a fully linear manner, (stage 3 often initiates during stage 2 work).

Stage 1 – Safety and Stabilization

Counselling often begins with history taking. I typically ask about what brings a person in for counselling, and gain an idea of their history in a “newspaper headline” manner. I use the newspaper headline approach because at this point, I am still a stranger to the client, and he or she may not yet feel comfortable sharing a detailed portrait of their life. Then, we collaboratively develop treatment goals.

Within the first stage, the focus is on safety and stabilization. That refers to external (living environment) and internal (emotional safety). Elements in this stage may include:

  • External safety: advocacy, growing a support network, information-sharing on topics relevant to the individual client
  • Internal safety: Resourcing to tap into and foster inner strengths to shift out of strong emotion. This involves learning to regulate emotion and manage symptoms that may be causing suffering or causing a person to feel unsafe
  • Information sharing to assist folks in understanding symptoms, their felt sense of emotion, and the effects of trauma
  • Exploring impacts to core beliefs
  • Developing and strengthening skills to manage painful and unwanted experiences, and minimizing unhelpful responses to them.

According to Judith Herman (1982) the goal of stage 1 trauma work is to create a safe and stable life-in-the-here-and-now, which can enable folks to safely remember the trauma, and not continue to re-live it.

I often have folks tell me they want to jump right into trauma processing. They feel a sense of urgency to “feel better” or to “heal this right now”. However, there is great importance of stage 1 work, and we can not skip over it. Think of it this way: If you had a car with shoty brakes, no seatbelts or airbags, no horn, bald tires, and a foggy windshield – you could still get from point A to point B. However, you would likely feel terrified the entire way. The resourcing and affect regulation strategies of stage 1 are like the safety features in a car: they enable you to get from point A to point B without full-blown panic and emotional overwhelm.

Stage 2 – Coming to Terms with Trauma

Once an individual has developed the ability to regulate emotion and achieve a level of internal emotional safety, trauma processing can begin. As we work through a trauma, I keep a keen eye on resourcing to ensure a client isn’t become too flooded with emotion. Techniques are used to modulate this process, and I employ several end-of-session strategies to assist folks in stabilizing emotion prior to leaving the office. Here are some elements stage 2 may include:

  • Trauma processing using EMDR
  • Art, play or sand tray-based approaches (for children and teens)
  • Exploring and re-working the inner trauma narrative
  • Working with negative cognitions resulting from trauma and movement towards installing positive adaptive beliefs and cognitions

Stage 3 – Integration and Moving on

As we work through trauma processing, elements of the third stage begin to show up. Some of these elements include:

  • Working to decrease shame
  • Developing a new narrative and life goals that reflect post-trauma meaning making
  • Working to foster a greater capacity for healthy attachment and decreasing alienation

As a result of doing the work of trauma therapy, the trauma starts to feel farther away, as something that happened but that is no longer a daily focus disrupting life.

If you are thinking of starting up therapy, and have some questions, please feel free to reach out and ask. The decision to move towards self-growth and healing can be empowering and freeing. I hope you give it a go!


If you’d like to learn more about the Three Stage Trauma Recovery Model by Judith Herman, check out these resources:

Choosing the Right Counsellor for You

There can be a lot of worry and apprehension mixed in with the decision to start up counselling, and wondering how to choose a Counsellor can add to that. If you do a Google search of Counsellors in your area, it is likely that a lot of names will come up. So how do you decide which one to work with? In this blog, I’d like to share some questions you can ask the Counsellor you are considering working with, to ensure you are making the right choice for you.

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Getting Started:

  • Check out their Website. You can learn a lot about a Counsellor’s education, experience, and expertise by reading their website, so that can be a great starting point.
  • If you have coverage for counselling through you Employee Assistance Program (EAP), consider giving them a call. Some EAP’s have a list of Counsellors which they have pre-approved, so start by checking in with your policy. Some policies might specify the credentials of the Counsellors they will reimburse you for, such as a Psychologist, or a Master’s level Counsellor. It can also be helpful to get a sense of how many sessions will be covered.
  • Is the Counsellor Registered with a Governing Body? It is important to make sure the Counsellor is registered with a college or governing body. These are designed to regulate the professional practice of Counsellors. They accomplish this by certifying credentials and ensuring the Counsellor has obtained a high standard of professional preparation, education, and supervision requirements. They provide a Code of Ethics and Standards of Clinical Practice which the Counsellor must practice within. It also means the Counsellor must engage in continuing education and supervision, pass a criminal records check, and carry liability insurance. Being registered often helps clients relax in the knowledge that they are in the hands of a competent professional. Click on one of the the following links to learn more about the governing bodies for Counsellors in British Columbia: Canadian Counselling & Psychotherapy Association, BC Association of Clinical Counsellors, BC Association for Marriage & Family Therapy
  • Here are a few additional questions that you will want to know:
    • Does the Counsellor have a wait list, or could you start up right away?
    • What is the cost per session?
    • What is the length of each session?
    • How frequently will the sessions be?
    • Where is the office located?
    • Is their wheelchair access (if it is needed)?

Will the Counsellor be a Fit for you?

Once you have a couple candidates for whom you think you might like to work with,  consider asking these additional questions to help you firm up your decision.

  • What is the Counsellor’s therapeutic approach in counselling: A therapeutic approach is basically the philosophical way a Counsellor approaches counselling, understands problems, and attends to the resolution of those problems. Often a Counsellor will post this information on their website. I always recommend asking in person because any questions you have can be answered on the spot. As you learn about the lens through which the Counsellor will be working, make sure it feels like a fit for you and what you want to work on.
  • What formal education and training does the Counsellor have AND What is their experience in the field of counselling? You chose to start up counselling likely because you are struggling with something and you want help with it. Asking about credentials enables you to ensure the Counsellor is qualified and competent. Asking about their experience enables you to ensure they are skilled in what you want to work on. For example, I frequently receive referrals from couples wanting to work on their relationship. However, I am not trained or experienced in this area, so it would not be ethical or helpful for me to work with them. Therefore, I have a list of highly skilled Counsellors who are experienced in couples counselling, which I provide to those inquires.
  • What is their confidentiality policy? You need to know that your personal information is going to be treated with the utmost respect to your privacy. Most Counsellors will share this with you during your very first session. If they haven’t, please take a moment to ask how your privacy will be maintained.

What is your Gut Feeling? 

Let’s not underestimate the importance of hearing your intuition. When you meet with the Counsellor you have selected, do you feel comfortable in their counselling space and in their presence? When you talk with the Counsellor, does it feel collaborative, like you will have an equal role in the therapeutic relationship, goal setting, and direction of the work? Do you feel heard, respected? It can be intimidating to start up counselling, and some nervousness is to be expected. But overall, for counselling to be successful you need to feel safe, heard, and relatively at ease in the counselling room.

Take your time in finding the right fit for you, so that you get the most out of your counselling experience. If you have found a Counsellor and asked some questions in your selection process that I didn’t list, please add them to the comments.

 

Lessons in Grieving

Grief does not have a definitive ending. There is no moment in time you arrive at with a sigh of relief and a renewed bounce in your step. Instead, grief sets us upon an atelic journey through emotion, winding us along a new path of life where we have memories instead of phone calls, and pictures instead of hugs. One of the tasks of grieving is certainly to discover new ways to hold the memory of the person you have lost so as to appreciate of the continuity of your relationship with them.

I think of grieving as a dance between sorrow and longing, love and remembering. Feeling the gift of a memory and allowing the accompanying music of emotions to wash  over you – letting your heart fill with love, allowing a threshold of pain, a tear of sadness – all the while keeping your feet on the dance floor of the present moment. Do not walk backwards through time and live in the pain of loss. Step forward bravely, holding the memories in your heart, and finding a new way to honour your loved one.

There are lessons to be learned in grief, if we tune in and allow the process to unfold: that loving means we will one day experience loss, and that living means we will feel both joy and sorrow. That each bittersweet memory is like a gentle kiss, lingering and leaving you wanting another. And as each memory brings with it sadness, or anger, or regret, so too can it bring joy and laughter.  We all have the capacity to stay grounded in the present moment, to love those that are still with us, and to learn and accept our shortcomings and try differently. Grief demands that when we turn to the past to mourn, that we also remember to return to the present moment – because we are here, living this life. By living it fully and honouring memories as they arise, we honour the ones we have lost.

If one of your loved ones has died, and you are touching into the profound pain of loss, I’d like to share a strategy that can help you navigate through those strong waves of emotion. The following questions can be used for reflection in whatever means works for you (such as journaling prompts, a point to reflect, or a story to share with a trusting friend or family member). Take your time with your responses, reflect on them, and allow them to grow as you need. The inner reflection prompted by these questions aids in grieving as they are designed to spark remembering, a continuity of your relationship with the person you have lost, and a bringing of your story forward in order to transfuse it with new meaning.

Personal Reflection Questions:

  • How was my life shaped or influenced by this person?
  • What stories do I want to carry forward in my life, to keep the legacy of this person alive within me?
  • What will my practices of remembering be?
  • What stories, strengths, and attributes do you believe this person would have wanted you to carry forward from their life, in your daily life?
  • What teachings did this person bestow upon you, that will continue to live by?
  • What memory stands out for you today of this person?
  • If you could talk to this person right now, what would you say?

This article is written in honour of my Nonna, who was always wise, strong, and beautiful
Giuseppina “Nella” Di Staulo,
Oct 12 1928-Jan 28 2019

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A Spoonful of Sugar helps the Medicine go Down

(A Life Hack worth Knowing!)

A lot can be accomplished in a 50 minute counselling session. In order to keep the momentum of progress in healing, it is important to take some time to reflect on the session rather than shutting it out once you leave the safety of the counselling room and re-enter the busy-ness of daily life. For this reason, Counsellors often suggest “homework” to clients: small things a person can do between sessions that will help them to stay connected with their healing journey.

This is especially true when I am working with folks experiencing symptoms of anxiety. The “homework” I give is often about getting grounded in the present moment: a healthful way to cope with the strong emotions. We now live in an age where there are apps readily available to help with this. While many of these apps are fantastic, some cost money, and some are a little confusing to use. I’d like to share a strategy that I stumbled into – which is both free and user-friendly!

Many people use Instagram to stay connected with friends. However, what if every time you opened Instagram, you were flooded with beautiful words, uplifting images, motivational quotes, and messages of hope? It truly is that spoonful of sugar that helps the medicine go down – in this case, the medicine is acceptance of the trials and tribulations that we as humans are bound to come face-to-face with at some point, and the sugar is our ability to cope with it – or ride the waves of strong emotion.

Want to give it a go? Here are 3 simple steps to get started:

  1. Create an Instagram account (skip this step if you already have one)
  2. Use the search button to add as many people and businesses as you can that reflect positivity. You may need to do a bit of research here, and don’t feel bad about removing someone if you discover they aren’t posting the positivity you had hoped for.
  3. Open the app daily and scroll through the posts to get your daily dose of happy!

Here are some examples to get you started:

  • dailyom (Mindfulness quotes)
  • brenebrown (Brene Brown, Gifts of Imperfection)
  • eckharttolle (Eckhart Tolle, spiritual teacher)
  • donmiguelruiz (Don Miguel Ruiz, The Four Agreements)
  • beherenownetwork (mindfulness quotes)
  • thichnhathanh.bot (Thich Nhat Hanh Quotes)
  • jack_kornfield (Jack Kornfield, (author, Buddhist Practitioner)
  • happy_maven (mindfulness and positive psychology quotes, therapy dog)
  • puppology (photos of dogs that, if you like dogs, is sure to make you smile!)
  • tarabrach (Tara Brach, psychologist and mindfulness teacher)
  • mygrateful.life (gratitude and mindfulness quotes)
  • insightla (mindfulness quotes)
  • drdansiegel (Daniel Siegel, psychiatrist, author, mindfulness teacher)
  • drpeterlevine (Peter Levine, author, somatic experiencing teacher)
  • stevefarber (motivational speaker)
  • melrobbinslive (motivational speaker)
  • theellenshow (Ellen Degeneres)
  • calm (mindfulness quotes)

Have more to add? Please leave your suggestions in the comments.

Credits:
– “A spoonful of sugar” quote – Mary Poppins
– Instagram image – Thich Nhat Hanh
– Instagram image – Jack Kornfield
– Instagram image – Dailyom

Pursuing a Career with Abandon: Why I love being a Counsellor

When I first told my Nonna that I was going to be a Counsellor, I was 20 years old and had just switched out of an orientation to teaching stream in university to a Psychology major. With an appalled look on her face and an emphatic inhale, she stated in her thick Italian accent “Why you wanna sit and listen to peoples’ problems?” It wasn’t a question, but rather a statement laced with judgment and condescension. My response was something along the lines of “I can’t explain it”. I suppressed my headstrong must-fight-for-what-I-believe-in feisty inner warrior and simply hugged her.

But her statement sat with me. Not because I doubted my career choice, but rather because it gave me insight into how little my Nonna understood about asking for and receiving help. Raised in a farming family by parents who lived through the depression in southern Italy, then witnessing first-hand the impacts of the second world war, asking for emotional support had never become her go-to coping strategy. For every loss she experienced, (and there were many), she donned her symbolic black clothing and shut off the hurting part of herself. It wasn’t my place to fight with her. I could only love her fully, for she was coping in the only way she knew how.

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Yes, the job of a Counsellor is to listen – but it is also so much more. It is about motivating and inspiring people to be the best versions of themselves, to  learn how to invite in the change they are so desperately seeking. It is about helping people reconnect with hope after life experience has rattled it. It is about discovering the strength and courage they forgot they had. It is about cultivating resilience. It is about discovering how to be kind to one’s self, in a life where that was potentially never taught or even discouraged. The safety of the counselling office becomes a place to practice holding positive beliefs that just aren’t rooting due to the busy-ness of life. It’s a place to deconstruct shame, to grieve losses, to breathe deeply and fully, and to acknowledge ones’ worth. Every single counselling interaction is a chance to let someone know that they matter, that they are not struggling alone, and to foster hope.

That is why I choose this career, and that is why I love what I do.

The Voice of Shame & The Experience of Abuse

Shame is a concept that comes up a lot in the course of working with people in counselling. Shame is that little nagging voice in the back of one’s mind, constantly repeating variations of “I’m not good enough” and “I’m such a failure”. Shame itself is a fear-based emotion bringing with it a fundamental sense of inadequacy and lack of belonging. It is a sense that everyone can see our internal brokenness, our inherent flaws. Shame often carries with it a sense of being worthless, unredeemable, unlovable, humiliated, less than, smallness, and weakness. It creates a distress within us that can be so activating, making us feel a dissonance from our authentic self; making us question our very sense of self.

When working with individuals who have experienced abuse, there is a significant level of shame that often blocks healing and moving forward. While the feeling of shame can be debilitating and confusing, thanks to people like Brene Brown, there are now You Tube videos and books and workshops that can help us through the experience of shame. To take it one step further though, I’d like to write about how shame comes to bubbles up in the first place, specifically in the context of abuse. My intention is that with a little theory, we can normalize the experience of this insidious feeling, develop action steps to process it, and thus help to dilute shames’ otherwise pervasive effects.

To explain this pervasive sense of shame that can result from abuse experiences, we have to draw on learning theory. Specifically, classical conditioning (think Pavlov and his dogs!). In this case, we want to understand evaluative conditioning. Evaluative conditioning refers to “an attitude development or change toward an object as a result of that object’s co-occurrence with another object”. Complicated description, yes – but here is how it breaks down: when being abused, the abuse experience (which is recognized as “a very bad experience”) gets paired with the self, and the person thus (unconsciously) negatively evaluates themselves as “I am bad”. In other words, evaluative conditioning is an unconscious, automatic, and persistent transfer of one’s dislike for one stimulus to be transferred onto another.

In the case of sexual abuse, the disgust, shame, and fear associated with the abuse gets associated with physical touch, body odors, sex-related sounds, and even one’s own body; which in the language of shame says: “I am bad”. The disgust, shame, and fear associated with the sexual abuse can also come to be paired with physical touch and sex in general, which has the self-language of: “I am dirty and disgusting”. If the perpetrator was shaming during the abuse, one might come to pair the abuse with emotional experiences. This means feeling ashamed of your emotional experiences.

In summary, it is in this way that shame becomes a result of evaluative conditioning of the self. It is a voice within that quietly taints all daily experiences. The feeling of shame can be overwhelmingly debilitating at times, causing people to freeze or flee or become defensive in life and in relationships. Shame can create confusion, and fear, and anger. It it can inhibit joy, sexuality, sadness, and hurt. It can stop us from fully living life.

If you have experienced abuse and recognize these patterns as playing out in your life, please know that you are not alone and that there is help. Through counselling, which starts first with building trust and connecting with safety in the counselling relationship, you can develop new strategies for noticing and releasing shame. You can work on counter-conditioning the conditioned pairing (for example, unpairing self from disgust), and cultivating empathy and appreciation for all parts of self. That equals self-compassion.

Every single one of us is worth taking up a bit of space in this world – to live our life and fulfill our dreams. If shame is stopping you, please consider working with a Counsellor to heal.

References:

  • The Haunted Self: Structural Dissociation and the Treatment of Chronic Traumatization, by Otto van der Hart, Ellert Nijenhuis, and Kathy Steel
  • I thought it was just me (but it isn’t): Telling the truth about perfectionism, inadequacy, and power, by Brene Brown

Disclaimer:  This is a very simplified overview of evaluative conditioning / learning theory and the shame that stems from abuse experiences.