I never expected to end up working as a counsellor. For a while, I thought I’d be a teacher, then I thought I’d be a journalist. I’ve worked as a custodian, a camp counsellor, in cramped offices and construction sites. None of these jobs promoted the idea of self-care.
The point is, my life has taken quite a few twists and turns, and it’s been very difficult at a lot of times to find a direction and a sense of purpose to what I was doing. And one major thing I’ve learned through that experience is just how important it is to take care of yourself.
When I was studying in journalism school, I very quickly realized being a reporter wasn’t the career for me. But instead of changing gears, I got mad at myself for not being good enough as a journalist and pushed myself towards a job I had no interest in doing. I was very hard on myself back then, and I blamed myself and my own inadequacies and I figured the only way to move was forward, even though I didn’t like the direction I was going.
I felt like I was trapped in this path I had chosen for myself. It was terrible. I pushed and pushed myself until I completely burned out at the end of my first year.
I took my whole body—mentally, physically, and emotionally—to the breaking point because I didn’t know how to take care of myself; I only knew how to continue doing things and never tell anyone how I really felt.
My Need For Self-Care
It turns out, I suffered from depression, anxiety, and a few other mental health issues that made it all the more difficult for me to take care of and go easier on myself. From a very early age, I felt lonely and sad a lot of the time. Even when I was spending time with friends or family, I would still feel a sense of sadness at not fitting in and not being accepted.
One of the ways I coped with experiencing all these negative feelings all the time was to hold myself to an impossible standard, criticize myself all the time, and blame myself for anything that went wrong in my life. I got used to the idea of being miserable and alone enough that I assumed I’d still feel that way no matter what career path I took, which is why I stayed in school and in jobs I didn’t like for so long.
But over time, my depression, anxiety, and negative self-talk became too much and I couldn’t function at work, home, or in social situations. Faced with inescapable feelings of sadness, loneliness, and self-loathing, I could barely get myself up in the morning and do daily tasks, let alone take care of myself.
It was only after I started going to counselling myself that I learned how hard on myself I was being and that it was actually OK to look after myself, take care of my body, and pursue my own interests instead of forcing myself into a career I didn’t fit into.
Counselling Can Help You Take Care Of Yourself
Counselling was so incredibly helpful for me as I began to better understand myself and make positive changes in my own life. I learned that I had a passion for the entire idea of counselling; of someone who is willing to join you when you’re at your lowest and help you find your own path towards understanding yourself, accepting yourself, and thriving as your best self.
I love being a counselling intern, even though it’s the last place I figured my life would take me. I’m excited to be learning these valuable skills as a counselling intern in an effort to help others. Having experienced mental health struggles myself, I know the value and life-changing power of therapy. It’s so important that we all learn to better understand our own mental health needs so we can take care of ourselves and each other.
When Will You Start Your Journey With Self-Care?
If you’re resonating with anything I’m saying in this article, I’d love to sit down with you. I’d love to be a part of helping you see that you’re not alone in your struggles, and that it’s okay to not be okay. We’ve all be there, and it doesn’t have to stay this way. Contact the office if you’d like to sit down together, I’d be happy to meet with you!
I feel tired. I wonder if you are too? I am feeling anxious. I wonder if you can relate? I am feeling discouraged. Are you as well? I could use some self-compassion.
There seems to be increased tension if you are brave enough to venture into public spaces. Do I wear a mask? What if I can’t and people judge me? It feels like we are on hyper alert, the slightest cough, sniffle or tickle causes panic and uncertainty. Not to mention the larger conversations around the legitimacy of the pandemic and differing views of safety and the infusion of fear.
We made it through the spring and now the last weeks of summer linger in the air. Fall is approaching and with it comes questions. So. Many. Questions.
What is school going to look like?
Should my kids return to school?
When will this end?
Will things ever return to how they used to be?
Will there be a second wave?
How do I keep myself and my loved ones safe?
There seems to be a collective ‘heaviness.’ We could call it COVID fatigue? I feel it too.
Let’s all just stop.
Whatever you are doing this very moment – breathe.
Take a nice deep breath from your belly. In through your nose and out through your mouth. Notice your shoulders and lower them, try to ease some of the tension. Try to find a moment of calm.
Contrary to what some may think, Registered Clinical Counsellors are not immune to feelings of overwhelm and uncertainty. I wanted to share a few things that have been helping me lately. I hope that you will find some of them helpful too.
Do The Things That Keep You Well
Many people are feeling tired, sad and even depressed. I have been noticing that motivation is dwindling for many. The things that we know help us and we enjoy doing, are the very things that are falling away. We cannot simply sit around waiting for the motivation to return. We need to do the very things that we so quickly dismiss. May I gently ask you to dust them off and try them again?
Go for a walk. Enjoy the fresh air and sunshine.
Pick up that instrument you love to play.
Paint, draw, sculpt.
Read a book.
Go for a run.
Putter in your garden.
Call a friend
Take a nap
These are difficult times. Our hearts can feel weary. There are pressure and demands coming at us from all sides. It is vital to take care of yourself first in order for you to show up the best you can for those you love and are looking to you for support and care. I know that I feel the joy returning when I put on my helmet and take my bike for a ride; I have too many excuses as to why I don’t, but the moment I do…there it is – joy and lightness come trickling back.
What can you do today to help some lightness return?
Engage In Mindful Self-Compassion
I often say “Be kind to yourself,” when I am speaking with my clients. It is a nice sentiment, but what exactly does it mean? A few months ago, I had the privilege of taking an online course on Mindful Self-Compassion with Kristin Neff and Chris Germer. I would love to offer a few helpful points that encouraged me.
Let’s face it, often the way we treat ourselves is terrible. The thoughts and comments rolling around our mind are not kind, in fact they can be downright cruel. The crux of Self-Compassion is this: Treating yourself the same way you would treat a good friend. Typically, we tend to be more understanding and empathetic to others and not as much to ourselves.
There are 3 main components of self-compassion:
Kindness – giving yourself compassion and empathy Mindfulness – allowing yourself to be with the painful feelings Common Humanity – understanding that you are not alone in your suffering
Self-Compassion fosters connection and togetherness as we hold our suffering and realise that we are not alone. Self-Compassion allows us to pause and realise the present experience without judgement. The paradox of self-compassion is that we give ourselves compassion not to feel better but because we feel bad.
When we feel different emotions, we can learn to notice the emotion, feel the emotion, and label the emotion. Offer compassion to yourself as you experience this emotion. Try placing your hand on your chest and offer yourself some kind words, just like you would a good friend. For example: “This is hard.” “This hurts.” “I am sorry.”
Focus on Being Mindful In Everyday Life
Introduce the practice of mindfulness into your daily life. This can look different for each person. From guided meditation, to breath work, to savoring experiences, cultivating gratitude and self-appreciation.
I’d encourage you to check out more suggestions and ideas at Dr. Kristen Neff’s website. She has some great resources that make the introduction to mindful self-compassion much easier to grasp.
Please remember that you are not alone in your pain. It is true that no one know exactly what it is like to experience your pain, yet, we have a collective humanity in that we all go through suffering. There are folks who experience more pain than you do and there are folks who experience less pain than you; it is not a competition. Let’s remember to use suffering as a way to cultivate empathy and connection.
Start Your Journey With Self-Compassion Right Now With Me
Self-Compassion is about taking a moment to check in with yourself – to stop and listen; to feel and to ask, “What do I need right now?” And if possible, to be kind enough to give it to yourself.
Make your mental health a priority. I cannot stress the importance of counselling right now. As physical health and safety is taking a front seat in the news, it is imperative to keep your mental health on check as well. Personally, I have been making my counselling sessions a priority. They are a lifeline during this time of uncertainty. Please know that Alongside You is here to help. We have appointments available 6 days a week – morning, afternoon and evenings. We provide face to face sessions as well as secure video sessions. Please reach out and talk to someone. We are here for you.
Practice Gratitude. There is much to be discouraged about – cases of COVID 19 are rising, there is political unrest in the United States, tensions are high about going back to school, natural disasters surge, and innocent lives are being taken at a sobering rate. I have found myself feeling overwhelmed and struggling to know how to respond. I acknowledge that I am but one person and the need is great. I was asked by my counsellor in our last session, “Where is gratitude in all of this?” I smiled. I can still practice gratitude when there is injustice all around. I can delight in my flowering geraniums on my patio, despite my not-so-green thumb. I can be thankful for my family, for my weekly handwritten cards in the mail from my mom. I can savour a delicious meal cooked at home and delight in the technology that allows me to stay connected with loved ones around the world.
We can hold more than one feeling at the same time. We can acknowledge the pain, suffering, uncertainty and fear we feel. And we can appreciate the beauty, the simplicity, the kindness, the compassion and love that still exists.
Sadly, I do not have a magic wand to make everything better. If only I did. But what I do know is that we can step steps to help ourselves through this time. You are braver than you know. Do the things that bring you joy. You are not alone. Reach out for help. Remember to breathe. And finally – know that you matter. The world needs you.
One of my favourite things to do during my time as a teacher was to set up schedules for my classroom, plan out lessons and units, and help students stay on track with their learning and with their assignments. As a young mom back then, I thought it would be a good idea to use the same kind of set up at home with my own kids around scheduled feeding, sleep time, and play time. As my own kids grew and my role as a teacher of teens continued, I realized more and more that kids of all kinds thrive from structure, routine and predictability. All of these things help our kids with their executive function.
In school, teachers provide schedules, structures and routines to kids that, over time, become a way of life. The benefits of this kind of structured functioning became clear to me as my students and my own children entered the teenage years. In my roles as a mom and a teacher I was able to witness the advantages of good planning skills in teens firsthand, and the troubles that can arise for kids when organizational skills fall apart.
These kinds of planning skills are known as executive function skills (meaning the skills you need to execute tasks). What most parents and teachers don’t realize is that the full scope of executive function doesn’t just include planning and organizing, but also includes:
Following through on tasks
With the latest research in neuropsychology, we’re discovering that it can take up to 25 years for executive skills to fully develop! In other words, executive skills are dependent on brain development over time. This development happens in the prefrontal cortex – the part of the brain just behind the forehead.
Once I started to learn more about executive skill development in kids and teens, I became particularly concerned about kids who had challenges with executive skills. These are the kids who underachieve because of weak skills in organization and time management, which in turn prevents them from working to their potential or achieving their goals. In many cases these kids have had chronic problems throughout school and may have developed a negative history there. Sometimes these kids have been labelled as lazy, irresponsible and not caring about their own success and achievement. These children are largely misunderstood. For kids with attentional disorders and learning challenges, these skills develop even more slowly and are more sensitive to disruption.
Stress and Executive Function Skills: Getting Through School Closure And Online Learning In The Time of A Pandemic
At the time of our school closures when typical schedules and routines disappeared, and teacher support for project completion, time management and organizational skills was unavailable, many students with weak or immature executive skills floundered. In fact, many students of all abilities, including high achieving students, struggled without the day-in, day-out support that teachers typically provide through face to face connections and organizational supports in classrooms.
Even more importantly, in times of stress (such as during the current pandemic), everyone’s executive skills are taxed. From a survival point of view, right now is the time when our brains are hard-wired to focus on the immediate needs in our environment and whatever is causing our stress. This in turn decreases the resources that usually get directed to executive skills, leading to reductions in working memory, emotional regulation, sustained attention and goal-related persistence – just to name a few!
When Kids Are Stretched And Stressed
During the pandemic, many parents are struggling to contain their own worries about jobs, lost income and health conditions related to the COVID-19 virus. When kids begin to understand what their parents are worrying about, they start to worry too. To add to the strain, the familiarity and routine of school as well as the many supports at school that provide security to students have disappeared. This support often includes nutrition breaks, feelings of love and belonging, and connections with teachers and peers who care for them.
Finally, increased expectations that kids manage their school work on their own when daily routines disappeared tended to overload many students and contributed to a significant amount stress and difficulty completing work. This stress can result in reduced mental resources that are normally devoted to executive function, causing significant difficulties for kids in coping emotionally and keeping up with learning at home.
How Can I Help As An Executive Skills Coach?
Moving forward, as we all wait to hear from our Education Minister regarding school opening plans, we can be thinking about how to best support kids in this upcoming school year, no matter what it brings. The best approach (at any time, but especially at a time like this) is to view executive functioning difficulties as obstacles, rather than character flaws or poor choices. If we approach kids using problem-solving strategies that include a sympathetic ear, trauma-informed practice (relationships matter!) and some open-ended questions and discussions, kids are more likely to work with us, do better and feel better.
Many parents regularly use coaching as an option when teens push back against attempts to teach new skills to help them manage the details of life. Coaching is a process that keeps the pressure and the meltdowns away from parents, preserves family relationships at a time when they matter most, and helps kids develop the skills they need to adapt to new realities with resilience.
Through coaching, kids can become the independent, self-sufficient individuals they want to be (and that their parents want to see), even during a pandemic.
As a coach, I work with kids to support their emotional health and well-being, help them identify their goals, and make daily plans to achieve them. This might include keeping up with assignments, advocating for accommodations at school, improving grades or even getting a job. I work hard to help kids feel autonomous and make important decisions about the goals that they want to work towards. At a time like this, our kids need a helping hand to navigate their way through very unsettling times, all the while keeping their eye on the prize – there is a way through this!
As a consultant, I offer advice and strategies to kids, leaving the final decisions in their hands! In this way, a pre-teen or teen’s success building small goals will build a base for achieving bigger goals over time. I firmly believe that with help, kids can overcome the hardships that have suddenly landed on them and feel proud of themselves for prevailing.
My role in the life of your child and your family in my practice at Alongside You is to offer support to help kids build executive function skills and feel successful, help your kids survive the pandemic and the continued upcoming changes in school life, and to help all of you stay connected and learn to rise above the current schooling challenges due to the pandemic.
If you would like to meet with me for a consultation regarding your child’s progress, please contact us and we will be in touch with you soon. Secure video appointments are a safe, kid-friendly space to meet virtually and shake-off the anxiety, despair and overwhelm and gain some ground as we approach our new normal at school.
Reach out for help, relieve worry and remember that a helping hand is what is most needed for kids at this time in order to feeling better, learn better and do better. I look forward to working with you and your kids!
A Message From Our Director About Move For Freedom
Since opening in 2015, we’ve been committed to being more than a counselling office or mental health centre. We’ve been focused on providing high quality, evidence-based support for mental health, and we want our reach to be more. We’ve focused on our impact on the community around us locally, and beyond around the globe. To us, it’s about exponential impact; we want what we do to grow beyond our work to speak into the lives of others in a meaningful way. This is why we’ve partnered with Ally Global for their Move For Freedom event, and why we’re so grateful to have associates like John Bablitz on our team who share our vision and commitment, and go above and beyond to make an impact. I’ll let John tell you more about this initiative that we are so pleased to be a part of.
Move For Freedom
On August 15th, Alongside You is participating in an event called Move for Freedom, which will raise funds for a cause that is really close to our hearts. Alongside You is a corporate sponsor for the event, and I will be riding 150 km with a team of people for Ally Global, an organization that works to prevent human trafficking and restore survivors of abuse through local partners in places such as Nepal, Laos, and Cambodia. They provide safe homes, education and job training to help survivors find healing and work towards healthy, independent futures.
This fundraising event is open to anyone: anyone who would like to, can participate in any way they like: you could do a walk, run or ride with your family or a group of friends, organize an all day spike ball marathon, swim, climb – really anything that involves movement. If you’re interested, you can click here for more information. Mostly though, I’d like to talk about Ally, what they do and represent, and why that’s important to us. I’d like to start with a short story.
People Who Have Experienced Trauma Need Our Support
My grandfather, when he was in his eighties, noticed a problem: many folks were challenging themselves to go through addiction recovery and rehab, and so few had a place to land when they got out. This contributed to high relapse rates. Something as simple as work was hard to come by (and a job is only one of many things that a person in recovery might need). My grandfather took all his savings and bought a farm, with the dream of creating a place where those in recovery could come live and work after finishing their time in rehab. The farm would give these people safety, purpose, and connection: growing food for their communities through share programs, and connecting to the land and each other in a positive way. This story is meant to represent the importance of aftercare. We can help someone give up substances or rescue them from the horrible situation of human trafficking, but this is just the very tip of the iceberg.
Kids coming out of trafficking, like all kids, need safety. They need a place where their needs are taken care of, where they know they matter, and where they can grow and connect with others. The trauma these children experience is significant. I find it hard to imagine a situation where you might feel that you or your pain mattered less, or where you felt more unsafe, alone, and disconnected from people who cared about you. Kids – young kids – have every interaction at a crucial age with someone who wants to hurt them, uses them for personal gain, and does little beyond keeping them alive. I don’t think I need to explain the impact that can have on a child’s sense of self; this can be the only reality they know or remember. Being rescued from trafficking is one step, but where do children that often have no connection to family or caring support go next? Survivors are often shunned in their communities, not unlike someone who has just been released from prison in North America might be.
The Importance Of Aftercare
One thing I appreciate about Ally, and that also aligns with the values of Alongside You, is that they understand the importance of aftercare, and they are committed to quality over quantity. They provide children with the basics, like a bed, food, and shelter, but they do so much more: they help connect kids with a caring community. Kids have a “little sibling” and a “big sibling” that they are able to look up to, and be looked up to. They are connected with caring adults who know them and value them for who they are: teachers, counsellors, nurses and others (please take a minute to watch this video, as it brings what I’m saying to life). Especially cool about Ally is that the majority of their staff are “graduates” – many of them were rescued from human trafficking themselves, and might have gone on to get education, and devote themselves to giving back. These individuals have the unique ability to relate to and understand the kids they work with. The community takes the time to understand the impact these kids’ experiences have had on them, which in my experience as a therapist is one of the most vital steps to recovery. The body responds to trauma in ways designed to keep it alive under horrifying conditions, but it is a challenge to come back from that – even if you might come to logically believe you are safe, your body may not be willing to take any risks, and that can severely stunt your ability to be human: enjoying experiences, laughing, connecting, feeling safe. It takes patience, support, and time to process the impact of trauma, and Ally provides that, which I love. There is no fixed structure – when you leave from one of Ally’s warehouses, you are welcome back at any time, and Ally will continue to support your continued growth, perhaps through subsidizing an apartment with some of your peers, or assisting with educational opportunities.
I could say lots more about Ally, but I’ll just stick to one more thing: their system works. Industry standard is about a 60% rate of reintegration – this is considered good. Ally’s project in Nepal has a 92% success rate over 20 years. That’s incredible. They have helped over 600 children as young as 4 or as old as 20, who stay for an average of 10-12 years.
How You Can Help
On a celebratory note, this fundraiser has taken off. Initially we had just set a modest goal to support the needs of 13 children. The outpouring of support has been so great that Ally has begun the process of opening a new safe house in Cambodia that will house up to another 38 rescued children. I have done work with children who have experienced trauma, and working with just one of these children takes an incredible amount of energy and time, and it is deeply saddening to be with children who have not experienced a safe adult who believes in them and reflects back their worth. They survive – children are wonderfully resilient – but they have no ability to thrive. The thought of being able to help provide safety to more kids than I see in a year just by torturing myself for 9 hours on a bicycle (I’m by no means a seasoned rider) gives me a lot of joy.
Though financial donations have a big impact, they are not even the most significant way you can help. We would love to ask that you spread the word! Use your social media, host your own mini-fundraiser, tell even just one person you care about. Awareness is the greatest tool we have to combat human trafficking. You can also participate in other ways the day of the event; if you would like more information please contact me, I would be happy to chat more about this or anything else.
Thank you for taking the time to read this, and if you’re struggling with trauma in any way, we’re here with you. Let us know how we can help.
Yesterday, I took the day off from work. Originally it was scheduled so that I could take my wife to another of her recurrent surgeries for her chronic pain, which thanks to COVID-19, has been cancelled indefinitely. It happened to line up nicely, however, with cabinet install day for our home renovation that is thankfully heading ever so much closer to the finish line. It also coincided with a need that I’ve identified lately – that is, a need for rest. What I didn’t expect is to be spending most of the day feeling sad. For a while, I didn’t know why I was feeling this way, until the question loomed in my mind, “How do I respond to racism?”
You see, I’m one of the ones who is, on most given days, gleefully ignorant about racism. It’s not that I am not aware of it, because I am aware because on different parts of the world I’ve lived in, different ethnic groups I’ve worked with, clients I’ve seen, etc. It is, however, because on any given day, I am not personally subjected to it. In fact, it’s been exceedingly absent in my life. While I was pondering this question about how do I respond to racism all day yesterday, I realized that I can only think of one time in my life where I was keenly aware that I was being treated poorly because of my race. The details of the situation aren’t important here I don’t think, and likely wouldn’t spark any sort of helpful conversation, but it does highlight that in 39 years I can only think of one time where I was very aware of being discriminated against based on my race.
This doesn’t mean that I haven’t been aware of being treated differently, because I have been while travelling. While I would suggest that it’s still not okay, it’s normal, in my experience, to be seen as other when you’re in another country, and even hearing words like gringo if you happen to be white. Or, if you’re living in Ukraine and your friend is from Korea, it’s not uncommon for kids to stop dead in their tracks and stare simply because they’ve never seen an Asian person before.
There’s a massive difference, however, in the experiences I’ve had versus those from whom we’ve all been hearing from in the past few days through the Black Lives Matter movement and protests, and the devastating events around the death of George Floyd. In all of my 39 years, I can only recall one instance where I felt unsafe or threatened as a result of my treatment based on my race.
This is in contrast to some who can’t go 39 days, or 39 minutes, or perhaps 39 seconds between experiences that make them feel unsafe, threatened, or less than.
This makes me sad.
It makes me feel a whole lot of other things, including mad, confused, angry, frustrated, scared, and more. But, if I give myself the time to actually sit with the emotions and discern what I’m feeling, the core of it is sadness.
I’m sad because although I do my very best to honour everyone, regardless of race, colour, creed, ethnicity, or otherwise, I know that at some point I have unwittingly made someone feel this way myself.
I’m sad, because a part of my heritage story is related to culture – my family came to Canada in the early 1900’s because they were literally being killed off for being who they were, and coming to Canada saved their lives. And we still have the same problems over 100 years later.
I’m sad because although my wife and I do our best to raise our girls to love and respect everyone they meet, from all races and creeds and backgrounds, they too will struggle to follow through and will make mistakes, and this will inflict further pain even into the next generation.
We come from privilege. We are white, middle-class, and I am male. This carries a privilege that I am becoming more and more aware of. It carries a responsibility to realize this, and understand this, and do better in our actions as we move forward.
Now, some of you may have just cringed at that last paragraph. Some of you may feel that what I’m saying means that those of us who come from privilege need to be sorry for, repentant of, or similar for the fact that we are white, grew up reasonably well off, and may be male.
That’s not at all what I’m saying, and that’s not at all what privilege means. It simply means that we have some advantages in life that others do not, simply by being born into what we’re born into. With that carries a responsibility to be aware of this, and use this privilege to care for others.
It also doesn’t mean we didn’t work hard to get what we have, to do what we do, and that we shouldn’t appreciate it, and enjoy it. It simply means that if we didn’t have the privilege we do, it likely would have been harder for us to have the same successes in life.
How Do I Respond To Racism?
Herein lies the problem. I am by no means an expert on race relations, cultural history, sociology, or otherwise. I don’t have any perfect answers to this, or even particularly qualified ones. Instead, here are some thoughts I’ve had over the past few days that hopefully might be helpful to us all as we wrestle with this issue of racism that I don’t believe is going to go away anytime soon. How do we respond? What do we need right now to make changes?
We Need Grace
Nothing highlights the need for grace more to me right now than writing this article. I know that it is nowhere near perfect, and doesn’t come up with any astounding answers to any of the massive, looming questions many of us have. I know I’ve made mistakes in this article in my own ignorance.
This highlights our need for grace as we navigate this challenging issue, in a challenging time. While this article isn’t authoritative, or perfect, it is honest.
This are simply my honest wrestling with an issue I don’t know enough about. It is the start of an attempt to lend help, even in my own imperfection, with initial thoughts on a complex issue.
I ask for your grace as you read this, and I would ask for grace for us all, from those who are subjected to racism on a daily basis. You don’t deserve this treatment, and we don’t deserve your grace – but, if you can muster some grace for us while we try to change our understanding and our behaviour, we will all hopefully win in the end.
With grace, we can have hope for a different future, one that honours everyone, from all races and cultural backgrounds. A future that holds promise for us all.
We need to feel sad
Understandably, there is a lot of anger right now over the state of race relations, and particularly over the death of George Floyd. And, there should be anger over what happened to Mr. Floyd, and what has happened to far too many people over the years who have been subjected to similar treatment.
In my area of expertise, psychology, we understand generally that anger is a basic emotion (one of the 6 basic emotions according to the Gottman Institute). Anger, however, is often a secondary emotion – based on underlying emotions that aren’t expressed.
One of the most common source emotions for anger that I see, particularly in men, is sadness. I know for myself, I am far more likely to express anger than I am sadness. It’s not particularly socially acceptable in North America for men to express sadness, but it is much more socially acceptable (if only for being more common) to be angry.
The problem is that very few productive conversations happen through anger and the expression of anger. It doesn’t mean it’s not valid, it just isn’t as effective in communication. If someone is angry with us, our back usually goes up and we become defensive. Very rarely is our response to ask something like, “Can you help me understand why you’re angry, please tell me more.” Instead, our fundamental biology kicks in through our limbic system and we go to defensive mode, and most likely, enter into our fight-or-flight stance (or freeze for that matter).
What happens, then, if we embrace the underlying sadness? I’d suggest it instructs us better (I can easily describe right now why I’m so sad about all of this versus if you asked me in the angry moments to describe why I’m angry), and it’s more effective in communication. If someone tells us they’re sad, we’re far more likely to respond in curiosity and kindness wanting to know more, simply because our limbic system isn’t firing.
“Anger is valid and ok, but we shouldn’t gloss over the underlying sadness.”
We need to educate ourselves
This may seem blatantly obvious, but it’s still the truth. We are woefully uneducated as a whole about racism, no matter what our background is. This is where I will plead ignorance regarding resources because I’m at the stage of doing my best to find out what some of the most helpful resources are.
There are two main reasons that we need to educate ourselves: to understand, and to reduce pain.
While I am early on in my journey toward education on this subject, I did come across this article that lists a number of resources that I have seen posted many, many times and seem to be helpful. Our very own Rebecca Farnell posted the book, Me and White Supremacy: Combat Racism, Change the World, and Become a Good Ancestor on her Instagram feed and it seems like it would be a good resource for those of us wanting to learn more. I am continuing to look to find resources that are suggested by people who know far more about this than I do. I’ll update this post as I find more resources as I hope it will be helpful to others. The second reason we need to educate ourselves is because when it comes to pain, the inevitable result of racism, current pain science research shows that it is one of the greatest modifiers of the pain we experience.
Since I do have a particular interest in chronic pain and the psychological management of pain, I was reading The Explain Pain Handbook: Protectometer yesterday to try to find some resources for a client. In this book they explain that in terms of physical pain, embracing bioplasticity and education about pain can adapt the body to reduce pain and disability and increase life satisfaction (p.30). They also state that bioplasticity is based on the research on neuroplasticity which is the research showing that our brain is able to change over time, no matter our age.
What we do know, is that physical pain and emotional pain act the same way in the brain, and hit the same receptors. We have documented data on the effects of traumatic stress on the brain. It seems to me that if education can reduce our physical pain, it should help our emotional pain. If we know what is happening, we can respond differently, and this can change the impact on our neurobiology.
We need to connect
More than ever, we need to connect around this issue. We need to learn together, do better together, change together. I’m convinced that the solution to our problem with racism lies in human connection. It’s going to be a long road, but connection is where we start.
If we connect, we can learn from those who are hurting and change our behaviour. If we connect, those who are hurting can understand the perspective of the perpetrators and what they are trying to do to change, thus reducing their pain. Note well, this is not to excuse the perpetration, it is to understand one another’s positions and the efforts being made to change for the better, and to reduce pain in the meantime.
If we connect, we can reduce pain. I remember a study that Sue Johnson mentioned once (and I’m actively trying to find the study), where subjects participated in a random controlled trial on secure relationships and pain response. From memory, they had three conditions:
Subject enters the room, is shocked with electricity, and their pain response is measured.
Subject enters the room, a random person is also sitting in the room, and the subject is shocked with electricity and their pain response is measured.
Subject enters the room, another person they have a safe, secure relationship with is also in the room, and the subject is shocked with electricity and their pain response is measured.
In that third condition, the study found that they could get the pain response down to almost zero. Let’s remember, the other person in the room did nothing other than sit in the room with them.
This is how powerful safe, secure human connection is. If we can find ways of doing this in the midst of our pain around racism, we stand a chance to weather the storm while we try to make the changes we need to make to do something about it.
Our commitment at Alongside You
I hope it goes without saying that everyone is welcome at Alongside You. We embrace all races, cultures, and backgrounds at our clinic. Our staff and associates come from all backgrounds, as do our clients. Our intent is to welcome anyone and everyone and that they would feel loved, and cared for.
I also understand that we are not perfect, and we too make mistakes. Here is my commitment as the Director of our clinic – if anyone has had, or in future has any concerns about how they are treated by our clinic for any reason, and particularly with regard to race and ethnicity, please contact me directly and I will sit down with you personally to listen, to learn, and to see what if anything needs to change at our clinic.
Safety, security, compassion, and respect are core to our values and I commit to doing anything I can do ensure that these values are communicated to every client by our words, our actions and our policies.
Thank you for taking the time to read this, and if you’re struggling with racism in any way, we’re here with you in the middle of it. Let us know how we can help.
Grief is a bit of a mystery to us, and something that our brains and our bodies have a hard time processing. Many times we might wonder, “How do I support someone who is going through grief?” It can be hard to know what to say or do when someone you care about is grieving a major loss. Some people may be afraid of saying or doing the wrong thing, or maybe think that there is nothing they can do to make things better. Others may simply feel uncomfortable with the intense pain and emotions that grief brings. These are common fears that we all experience when someone we deeply care about is going through a difficult time. It may help to know that there is no magic pill – no cure for the pain of loss, and nothing that can take it all away. But that doesn’t mean that there isn’t anything we can do to support someone who is grieving. You don’t have to have all the answers or be able offer great insight or advice for your loved one to feel supported and know that you care about them. Often times, your mere presence is enough. The bereaved would benefit from just knowing that they are not alone in their suffering, and that they have a caring and compassionate friend to turn to if they need to. This alone can help the bereaved process the pain and slowly start to heal.
Nonetheless, here are some good ground rules to keep in mind when you’re trying to answer the question of how to support someone who is grieving.
Your friend or loved one may have not had the chance to share their thoughts and feelings about the loss with anyone. Often times, those who are grieving may avoid talking about the deceased with close family members or friends so that they don’t bring them too much pain. This means that they may have never had the chance to share their grief story. Just by listening to them, without judgement or restriction, you offer them a unique opportunity to verbally process the loss and express the impact it has had on them, which can be healing in itself!
Give Permission to Grieve
Some of us may be uncomfortable with this step because of the intense pain and emotions that grief brings. We may feel propelled to offer advice, or provide intervention or direction in some way, which is understandable – no one wants to see their loved ones suffer! But as mentioned earlier, the most helpful thing we can do is offer our presence and remind ourselves that there is nothing we can do to take their pain away. Depending on your relationship with the person experiencing grief, you can encourage them to express their grief, especially if they consider you to be one of their safe and close friends. Keep in mind that grief may not only involve feelings of sadness, but can also include intense feelings of guilt, anxiety, anger and despair. Allow them to express the range of emotions they may be feeling, without judgement. Many people hide their grief and pretend that everything is alright, so giving them permission to express their grief, with all the extreme emotions it involves may be very freeing. You can say something like, “tell me about your dad,” or, “this must be really hard,” and let them know that grieving is a normal and healthy response to loss. You can even tell them, “I’m not sure what to say, but I want you to know that I care.”
Share Information About the Grief Process
Grief often comes in waves, and many people don’t know what to expect from it. Some people may be surprised by the duration or intensity of it and they may judge themselves for how long it’s taking them to heal. It can be helpful to remind them that grief affects everyone differently, and that their journey is unique to them. Not only that, but it is also normal and expected to have some good days along with the bad. Reassure them that this does not mean that they love the individual they lost any less – finding ways to cope with the loss and finding a new normal is part of the healing journey.
Assist in Practical and Concrete Ways
Lastly, helping the bereaved in practical ways can be one of the most helpful ways to support them, especially in the early days after the loss. They may very likely have no energy to ask for support at this time or may not know exactly what it is that they need. That’s why it’s helpful to take initiative to make a practical, concrete offer that would lessen the burden of their daily responsibilities. This could be something like offering to deliver them a meal, babysit their children so that they can have some time to themselves, or take long walks with them for fresh air and exercise.
Finally, it’s important to practice self-compassion as we support someone else on their journey through grief. It’s hard when we see those close to us suffer. Even though it’s not our own suffering, their pain still impacts us, and we may experience it as our own. That’s why it’s important to show kindness towards ourselves and acknowledge how hard it is for us to know that a loved one is going through a difficult time and that there is nothing we can do to take their pain away. This allows us the capacity to be there for those who are suffering and not get lost in their pain. If we are able to attend to our own emotions and have compassion for ourselves, we increase our capacity to be there for others and offer them the gift of our presence.
If you or someone you love is experiencing grief, we’re with you. If we can be of any help to you on your journey through grief please give us a call.