Stress Management 101

Next in my series of ‘how to’ topics is how to manage stress more effectively. Previous posts include Relapse Prevention Essentials and Learning How to Manage Unpleasant Emotions.

Stress. It’s a word that gets used often in today’s busy-ness obsessed world, but do we really know what we are talking about when we say we are “stressed”. What is stress, really? Stress is anything which causes a person to feel unable to cope or pressured beyond what is comfortable, from feeling the urgency of a looming deadline to the blind panic one might feel whilst running from a dangerous predator. Both these examples place the person under stress to a degree.

Types of stress: internal and external

The term ‘stress’ is used in both physics and psychology. Both mean similar things, something is causing the system (you) to move beyond a state of equilibrium. When applied to humans, stress can be anything that causes feelings of pressure, tension or discomfort. There are generally two types of stress that humans experience: Internal stress and External Stressors.

Internal stress is stress arising from thoughts, emotions, bodily sensations (feeling hungry, tired, sick) and as a result of trauma. All these things increase tension which we experience as “stress”.

External stressors can come in the form of time constraints, deadlines, traffic, obligations, appointments, demands from others and financial burdens. These are all forms of external stress.

They both play off each other, in that external stressors cause internal stress, and internal stress can make it more difficult to adapt to external stressors.

Dealing with internal stress

Managing internal stress can be tricky. Much of it happens below the level of consciousness and it can seem like our thoughts, reactions and emotions are automatic or just ‘how we are’. This is not the case. Internal stress can be managed by increasing awareness of the content of our thoughts; paying close attention to the words we are saying to ourselves in private, tuning in to our emotional responses; asking questions of oneself such as, what sensations are present when I think these thoughts and generally listening to our body. Sometimes we are just tired, hungry, angry or thirsty. Sometimes, managing stress can be as simple as tending to our physical needs as they arise. For example, you might be tempted to work through lunch because you feel stressed about the volume of work you have to get through. However, working on an empty stomach makes it difficult to focus and you end up making a mistake. This ends up increasing your feelings of stress and overwhelm. If you had stopped when you were hungry and had something to eat, you would have saved yourself hassle later on.

Given that internal stress affects our thoughts, how we feel, and our actions, it is important to have tools on hand to manage all three types of internal stress. CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) strategies and Mindfulness based behavioural therapies (such as DBT, Dialectical Behavioural Therapy and Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction are all good therapies for understanding how our thoughts, emotions and actions affect each other, and how getting a handle on how these three things can impact our ability to manage stress.

Managing stressful thoughts

Often the way we think about a situation causes us to feel differently. For example, if we think of things in a negative way then we are likely to feel upset and that may cause us to act irrationally or impulsively. And, usually when we act from a stressful place, we usually end up doing things that ultimately make our situation worse, and that of course, leads to more stress. For example, you get invited to dinner with a group of people you don’t really know all that well. This is a situation in which a lot of people may experience some nervousness or anxiety about anyway. However, if your mind starts coming up with thoughts such as “I’m hopeless in these situations, I never know what to say, What if nobody wants to talk to me, Why am I so ridiculous… You get the idea, it’s easy to see how one negative thought leads to another, and another, and how pretty soon the idea of cancelling altogether seems like a good idea. However, if you had stopped yourself at any point from thinking these thoughts and consciously made a decision to think different thoughts, more positive or even neutral thoughts, the negative thought train may not have had a chance to build momentum. Learning how to tune into your thoughts and deciding whether or not these thoughts are helpful, useful or accurate takes time and patience, but it is a skill well worth practicing. At first, you may find that you have already allowed your thoughts to get the better of you and have already acted on those thoughts and are feeling regretful before you remember that you are supposed to be practicing this new skill. Don’t let that worry you. At least you picked up, albeit after that fact, that you could have chosen to think differently. Keep at it, eventually you will catch yourself mid-negative thought and actively change how you think about a situation and then choosing more positive thoughts, change how your feel and act. It takes courage, patience and practice but it gets easier the more you try.

Handling stressful emotions

Focusing on your thoughts, thinking patterns, unhelpful beliefs about yourself is a great start. However, sometimes, stress seems to hit us out of the blue. Like an emotional storm that feels uncontrollable and all consuming. It all happens so fast that before we know it, we have said something, done something or taken something we regret. When this happens, our ability to think, act rationally or even speak can be affected. The opposite can also be true. Emotional stress can build up gradually, or we may experience a series of emotionally stressful events. Sometimes, our tendency is to ignore these feelings, to push them down, or to sometimes drink or use substances as a way of ‘self-medicating’ or coping. This can sometimes go on for some time and become a way of being and merely existing, but it is not really thriving or sustainable.

The best way to handle emotional storms or feelings is to stop. That is, stop whatever it is you are doing, pay attention to the feeling or the emotions as they are happening. If you are in the middle of an emotional storm, you often act out that emotion in ways that you usually regret. The best thing you can do if you find yourself in an overwhelming emotional storm is to hold on and wait for it to pass, and it will. Ground yourself in the present moment, (breath, feel something, look at something in the room) and count to 10, breathing in and out slowly as you do. Sometimes, going for a quick walk or a run can do wonders to settle an emotional storm. And yes, it’s o.k. to cry if you want to.

Learning to experience, process and attend to your feelings as they happen is also a skill that may take some practice. Sometimes, we have old ideas about feelings that may hold us back from experiencing certain emotions. Old “programming” from childhood that may tell us that this emotion Is bad, or not acceptable. What is important to know is that all emotions are healthy, and are neither right nor wrong, they just are. They are our truth in the moment. Emotions don’t harm us it is what we do to avoid feeling those emotions or when we allow our emotions to get the better of us that causes the most damage.

Stress inducing habits

Sometimes, stress can encourage us to take short-cuts in an attempt to manage day to day or because we fear dealing with the underlying cause of our stress. Sometimes this fear is valid. We may have responsibilities, debts to pay, or children to look after and taking time out to manage our stress properly can sometimes seem like too much of a big issue to tackle, or it can slip way down on the ‘priorities’ list of school runs, work meetings, deadlines and bills etc. However, often the short-cuts we take to manage our stress in the sort term unfortunately tend to be not so good for us in the medium to long term. Alcohol, just for example, can lead to serious health problems, relationship issues, loss of time and even premature death in some cases (car accidents, mishaps, violence). In-fact, addictions in general are linked quite strongly with childhood trauma and PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder). Trauma reactions generally increase stress in the body and an affected person may be more likely to turn to addictive behaviours or substances as a way of coping with the ‘unspeakable’. However, it is important to know that addictions don’t really solve a problem, they just delay the inevitable. Other stress inducing habits include poor time-management, staying up late (when you know you have to get up early the following day), eating junk or takeaway food in the name of ‘convenience’, leaving things to the last minute rather than attending to them as they arise,

External Stress: Prevention is better than cure

External stress as stated above involves stress that is external to you. First thing I recommend is doing what I call a ‘stress audit’. That involves simply writing down a list of all those things that cause you stress and working out what items you can do something about and those you can’t. For a very simple example, driving to work often causes a lot of stress because the traffic is out of control and getting worse. Consider taking public transport or leaving 15 minutes earlier. Or if your work is flexible, arrange for a later start time to avoid the peak hour crush. That is a very simple example and granted, there are some stressful situations which are out of your control. For those situations, practice letting go of struggling with unhelpful thoughts related to a situation you cannot control and try to focus your attention on those things that you can do something about. However, for those things that are in your control, small changes can add up to huge benefits when you put your mind to useful thinking and problem solving.

Making concrete lifestyle changes can be challenging, especially when coupled with having to give up an addiction or habit which previously seemed like your only way of managing or coping. It is well worth the effort however when you find out how to properly deal with stress in ways that truly benefit you and those around you.

Complex trauma and stress management

O.k. time for a disclaimer. The above advice is general in nature and you should consider your individual circumstances before following my or any advice you read on the internet for that matter!

However, I do want to acknowledge for some people who have experienced significant and extended trauma or who suffer with the effects of Complex-PTSD the above information may seem contrite or over-simplistic for your situation. I get it, however, trauma is not what happened to us but how our body responds to what has happened. This response creates added intensity to our experiences of and dampens our ability to handle every-day stress. The above techniques and ideas may not be and is not intended to be an overarching solution to complex stress, but the basic ideas are sound and can help with some of the effects of complex trauma such as anxiety, addiction, depression and avoidance.

If you are experiencing the above symptoms, seek out help. Your GP is often the first port of call however, it is easier than ever to find a therapist online or try out some of these online based courses for managing stress and anxiety. Most of them are free too which is not a bad thing.

https://mindspot.org.au/

https://moodgym.com.au/

Relapse Prevention Essentials

So, you have completed detox and you have promised yourself, and others, that you will stay sober.

Now what?

Recovery is about more than just quitting a particular substance, like alcohol or drugs, or stopping an unwanted behaviour, such as gambling or masturbating to porn. (If it were that easy, there would be no reason for me to be writing this guide!) Recovery is a personal journey, and it is different for everybody. For many, it is essentially a journey into unknown territory, so it is essential to have a plan, or at least a compass to make sure you don’t get lost or keep going around in circles, like the diagram above which shows the stages of change conceptualised by psychologists Prochaska and Di Clemente. The more times you cycle through the different stages, the easier it gets apparently, there-for creating more of an upward spiral, rather than a repetitive cycle.

But how can you turn your cycle of change into an upward spiral instead of a merry-go-round that never ends? Rehabilitation services are lengthy for a reason. It takes time to undo months, or sometimes years of dependency and habitual use of alcohol, drugs or unhealthy behaviours that have developed over time. But, not everyone can take the time to attend an inpatient service, or have obligations to family, pets or work commitments. If you fit into this category, and you have just completed a detox of some sort, then the below are essential for improving your chances of success this time around.

The Change Spiral according to Prochaska & Di Clemente

Recovery Essentials:

1. Get the basics right. Focus on sleeping, diet, exercise, taking prescribed medication as directed, water, nutrition. Getting as good a night’s sleep as possible is the single most beneficial thing you can do to improve your physical, mental and emotional health. Look up sleep hygiene for some tips on getting a good night’s sleep. Watch what you eat, move away from fast or pre-packaged food and try to fit in some home cooking. Look up recipes on YouTube or ask a friend to help if you can. Drink plenty of water. Take any medication as prescribed. Exercise daily. Give your body the love and care it deserves, even if you don’t feel like doing so at times.

2. Connect. Find a peer support group. AA and other 12 step groups or SMART recovery are both free support groups for anyone reaching out for help. The benefits of finding and connecting with a group to support you have been well documented.  Informal friends, online supports and communities are also available nowadays thanks to the internet. Recovery can feel like a lonely place. It helps to know you are not alone.

3. Counselling. See a counsellor or psychologist regularly. Counselling in conjunction with peer support can help you to explore, reflect on and focus on your recovery goals with a supportive, compassionate other. Understanding what led to your addiction can help provide insight, motivation and direction when needed. Simply having someone to talk to, honestly, about your journey can be invaluable.

4. Utilize day programs. Free day programs are available, use them if you are not working or studying full time. Look up out-patient rehabilitation services in your area. Most day programs run 3 times a week, some are daily for 6 -12 weeks on average. Day programs are helpful when you have commitments to children or pets as you get to go home each day.

5. Talk – to your friends, family and community. Addiction is often clouded in shame. Because of this, many people find it difficult to talk about their struggles. Shame thrives on silence. I’m not saying, shout it from the rooftops, however, those closest to you care about you and are in most cases willing to help. Of course, it is important to be discerning when it comes to who is worth sharing with but don’t think you are in this alone. Connection is the opposite of addiction. This is another reason why formal support groups such as AA or SMART Recovery are so valuable.

6.  Read, listen, watch. There is a lot of ‘quit lit’ out there, starting with the big book of AA (worth a read). If reading is not your thing, check out podcasts, apps and watch YouTube videos about recovery. Learn from others and educate yourself on addiction, brain science and the latest interventions. You will feel less alone and it will help you to stay motivated to continue with your sobriety.

7. Cleanse. Cleanse your device, your social media feed and your life of all potential triggers or people that remind you of your addiction, as much as possible. It is important that you prioritise your recovery especially in the early days/months. Detox is not just for your body. In many instances, detoxification is a process of systematically removing those things, people, places and habits from your life that no longer serve you. You may have to delete several numbers from your phone. At the very least, delete and block your dealer’s number!

8. Get creative or busy. Write, draw, paint, sculpt, tinker, redecorate, fix, repair, renovate, plant something, play something, collect something. Use that brain and fire up those neurons in a way that stimulates novel thinking. Creative pursuits and hobbies can also help with stress reduction.

9. Learn something. If you are not working full-time, recovery is a great opportunity to re-train or up-skill. If there is something you’ve always wanted to learn to do, now is the time to do it. Learn a new language. Learn how to play an instrument. Take a short course or go back to school/uni. Use that newly created space which you created in a positive way. Make a decision to only add things to your life that are joyful, positive or beneficial to you in some way, which brings me to my last point…

10. Cultivate a mindfulness practice. Whether in the form of a formal meditation practice, or simply moments of ‘dropping in’ to the present moment throughout the day. Learning how to pay attention to the present, mindfully, non-judgementally and on purpose is the essence of mindfulness and will help you immensely with your newfound sobriety. In a sense, mindfulness is also the opposite of addiction in that it is the opposite of what happens when we are intoxicated, drunk or high or in some other way ‘out of our minds’. Learning how to tend to ourselves in the present, to sit with and accept all our thoughts, emotions and sensations without trying to change or avoid them takes practice but is worth the effort. In essence you are learning how to be yourself, to be with your self and to accept yourself as you are, compassionately and non-judgementally. There are many resources, including apps, websites and books on Mindfulness available now, a simple internet search will provide you with a tonne of information.

So that’s it. My top 10 essentials for a successful recovery and relapse prevention plan. Of course, this list is not exhaustive but if you think I have left anything out that should be there please feel free to comment below.

Addicted to Outrage?

Can we be addicted to negative emotions? Such as outrage, anxiety, fear, anger, depression, guilt or feeling ‘hard done by’?

We normally associate addictions with more or less positive things. Substances and behaviours that make us feel good or better in some way. Alcohol, helps us to relax, or feel happier or intoxicated. Cannabis can help us to chill, calm down or get lost in the music. Amphetamines can makes us feel confident, energised or ‘on top of the world’. Porn can makes us feel powerful, in control and aroused. All these things can help us to forget or distract us from pain, discomfort or relieve stress in some way. So it would make sense that some of us could get ‘addicted’ (attached to if one goes by the old definition of addiction as I discuss in an earlier post Why is the word addiction so controversial?to these sorts of things. However, it has recently occurred to me that perhaps we can also become addicted to negativity in some way.

You may balk at the suggestion. Anxiety feels awful. Depression is terrible. Why would anyone want to continue with such negative emotions? I guess one needs to look at the pay off. What does one get by continuing with these emotional states that make us feel bad or worse in some way. Or, another way to look at it is, what do you get out of doing by continuing to feed the negative emotion?

Let’s take anxiety as an example. What does anxiety stop you from doing that you might otherwise do. Drive a car? Get a job? What do you get to do by not doing those things…. well you get to avoid the discomfort, fear and the possibility that you may get hurt in some way. You get to feel safe. You get to avoid uncertainty. And you get to avoid having to change. And, ever notice how the more you give in to your anxiety, and the more you allow depression to weigh on you the bigger and heavier they tend to get? It’s as if you are carrying around a heavy load or burden around with you…

Eckhart Tolle, author of The Power of Now, spiritual teacher and all round amazing human often talks about the concept of the “pain body“. The concept of the pain body is a strange one to get your head around. It is, according to Tolle, made up of all the slights, painful experiences and unfinished business that you carry around with you in your body, unconsciously. Any painful experience or trauma memory that has not been adequately faced or resolved at the time it occurred becomes part of our pain-body. In a healthy person, it may lay dormant most of the time, but some people live entirely through and completely identify with their “pain-body”.

Your pain-body can be awakened or ‘triggered’ by anything – an event, a person, an argument, a situation. Often it is awakened by something that happens to remind us of a past trauma or event. The current painful event awakens the pain-body and in that moment we become the pain-body. That is, we identify with our pain-body 100%. In ACT we call that “fusion“. Fusion is when we are so caught up in our beliefs, thoughts, memories, or pain that we believe those thoughts and are overwhelmed by the emotion generated that we in a sense, stuck to those thoughts, so much so that we become those thoughts.

The pain-body wants to live, according to Tolle, like any other entity, and it feeds on negativity and pain. And, the more we feed it, the more it wants and the stronger it gets. When we are living through pain, or in our pain-body, it can seem as if everything and everyone is against us. We see the world in terms of black or white, us vs them, good and evil. When we are in pain, we often lash out at others, and want others to be in pain too. We want to be right about our pain and therefor unconsciously seek more pain in order to prove ourselves right about how bad everything really is. The more we live through our pain-body the bigger, stronger and more dominant it becomes.

When we identify 100% with our painful thoughts and memories, we can sometimes act in ways that are unhelpful, hurtful to ourselves and others and are generally unpleasant to be around. We can act in ways that take us further and further away from our goals, values and true self. When we act in the service of our pain-body, we may think that we are doing something about our pain, but we often act in ways that bring us more pain. I am reminded of another famous quote by Eckhart Tolle which is,

addiction starts and ends in pain.

We can also become so used to being in our pain-body that we may come to prefer it. We may become more comfortable being angry, depressed or outraged that we no longer remember what it is like to not be those things. In essence, we can become addicted or attached to our pain because for some of us, that is how we identify.

But there is another way to be. When we realise that the only power our pain-body, or our trauma history, has over us is the power we give it then that is the first step towards becoming free of our free-loading pain-bodies. Often in therapy, at some point in time clients often say they feel lighter, more at ease, or as if a weight has been lifted from them. Maybe, this is their pain-body dissolving? It is worth a thought.

A positive affirmation to help dismiss or weaken our own body of painful experiences:

The only power the past has over me is the power I allow it to have.

I allow myself to be free from the past,

I release all pain, resentment and anger,

I am at ease with who I am today,

I am free to be me.

Learning how to manage unpleasant emotions

ACT – Acceptance and Commitment Therapy can be summed up in three key skills or processes. Be present, open up and do what matters. Being present means taking a moment to moment, curious and mindful approach to our experiences as they happen. Being present simply means noticing. But what happens when our present moment experience is unpleasant, uncomfortable or distressing? Well I came across a short Ted Talk this morning which I thought explained how to manage these unwanted emotions in a clear and helpful way and which I’d like to share with you.

Credit: Act Made Simple by Dr. Russ Harris

 

Our ability to stay present, and fully experience uncomfortable or unpleasant feelings is important to our ability to move through the world with more comfort and ease and is the key to achieving our recovery goals or just simply feeling happier, and more comfortable in your own skin.

 

There are 8 key unpleasant emotions (which we like to think of as negative or bad but are not, they are simply unpleasant but necessary guides to what really matters to us, protection from dangerous others, reflections or echoes from past negative experiences). However, if we can learn how to be fully present for, not avoid or distract ourselves from, but fully present when these sorts of emotions arise within us – we can handle pretty much anything that life throws at us.The eight core unpleasant emotions are:

 

Sadness

Shame

Helplessness

Anger

Vulnerability

Embarrassment

Disappointment

Frustration

Our emotions are created by our brain and bodies working together but are felt in the body first as a bodily or physical sensation. A biochemical rush that last approx. 60-90 seconds. In the case of unpleasant feelings, it is this physical response that we are trying to distract ourselves from or move away from. Thing is, all emotions are necessary for healthy functioning of our entire being, not just the pleasant ones.

 

This too shall pass

 

Emotions (like urges) come in waves, they peak and then they subside. That’s the key thing to remember. Emotions always subside, both pleasant and unpleasant. The key to managing these emotional waves is to stay present whilst the wave is moving. Usually, after the wave subsides, new insights often emerge. New conversations can be had, relationships can be mended, a sense of relief is often felt and over time learning to embrace and experience all our emotions, mindfully and non-judgmentally, can ultimately lead to more self-awareness, peace and understanding of ourselves and others.

 

Listen to Dr Joan Rosenberg’s Ted talk https://youtu.be/EKy19WzkPxE

 

 

 

The difference between self-blame and self-responsibility

I was moved to write this post because a client stated one session that he used to blame others for his problems but now he blames himself. I had to challenge his use of the word ‘blame’. No one is to blame for your problems and neither are you, however, you can take responsibility for your part in things and that is empowering. Blame is disempowering. Read on to learn why…

There is a difference between self blame and taking responsibility for your actions

This is because true healing requires forgiveness of self and others.
Without forgiveness, there will always be pain. Blaming yourself for everything wrong with your life is as much of a cop out as blaming everyone else. Forgiveness is the selfish act that sets you free from blame. Blaming yourself is debilitating and only leads to stagnation, depression and despair. Blaming others allows you to stay stuck in the victim role. Self-responsibility coupled with forgiveness allows you to separate what’s yours from what’s not. Because when you work that out, you can work out how you can change your own actions in the present to take control of your future.

True healing requires forgiveness of self and others.

The idea of self-responsibility as a tool for change is not new. Irvin Yalom speaks of it in his text, Existential Psychotherapy. In it, he discusses what he calls the four existential givens which every human being must come to terms with at some time or other. These were Death, Isolation, Freedom and Meaninglessness. Freedom is to responsibility what Yin is to Yang. You can’t have one without the other. Freedom means we are, to an extent, free to live our lives how we see fit. That we make certain choices each and every day which lead us down different roads. That while our past shapes us, it doesn’t make us who we are. It means we create our future by every thought, every word and every action moment by moment. So, with freedom comes responsibility. If we are free to choose how we go about our lives then, we are also responsible for a great part of how we experience our lives, and for what happens to us.

This is sometimes hard to hear. Some people, especially those who have suffered at the hands of others reject this notion of responsibility and may, understandably, feel angry at the suggestion that they are somehow responsible for a wrong that was done to them. That is not what is meant by self-responsibility. You are not responsible for what happened to you as a child at the hands of a damaged or dysfunctional adult. You may not be responsible for the abuse that someone else targeted you for, but you are responsible for how you respond and what you do afterwards as an adult. You are free to respond in any number of ways to a situation that may not be to your liking but exists none the less. For example, you lose your job due to company restructuring. This is something that may be out of your control. However, how you handle the fall out is entirely within your control. You can choose to be angry, bitter, frustrated, despondent and anxious or you can choose to be pragmatic, hopeful, proactive, creative or stoic. Each of those choices will equate with an entirely different experience. The decision you have to make, then, is what kind of experience do I wish to have? A bitter, hopeless and frustrating one. Or, a meaningful, hopeful and interesting one?

Self responsibility is empowering.

Once you realise that you can choose your thoughts, words and actions you are free to choose thoughts, words and actions that will bring you more joy, peace and love. As opposed to choosing actions that will bring you more of what you don’t want…anger, depression, anxiety, shame… So take your power back and choose wisely. Choose what you want to focus your attention on, the negative or the positive. There is always more than one way to look at things. We have the power to take our lives back, one thought, word and action at a time.

We need only to accept our power.

Three rules for empaths – an antidote to abuse

Three Rules for Empaths – an Antidote to Abuse and a Guide to Healthier Relationships

Jordan Peterson is an infamous psychology professor and author whose recent book, “12 Rules for Life – an antidote to chaos,” is an acclaimed best-seller. Throughout this book Peterson espouses the wisdom he has gained from his years researching and engaging with clients. This wisdom is distilled into 12 epitaphs which he calls ‘rules.’ Whilst I have not yet read the entire book (it is on my reading list), I thought I’d borrow his format with this post which I have entitled Three rules for empaths – an antidote to abuse.

I am suggesting that three important rules to consider are boundaries, honesty and self-love.

These ‘rules,’ if followed, will go a long way towards protecting you from abuse, toxic relationships or mere awkward interpersonal interactions.
If you are an empathic, highly sensitive person, a ‘co-dependant’ or even just an every day person who simply thinks that ‘most people have the best intentions’ or someone who tends to ‘see the best in everyone’ then this post is for you. Or, perhaps you have just come out of an encounter with a toxic person, and unhealthy or abusive relationship and you are looking for answers, then this post is for you.

The reality is that there are damaged people out there, many of whom have their own histories of abuse and trauma perhaps, but whether consciously or unconsciously these people wreak havoc in their relationships and on society at large.

This is because it is (often) the case that you directly allowed the narcissistic/toxic/unhealthy person into your life or allowed them, at any rate, to affect you negatively. This may not be the case for children of narcissistic parents or if your boss turns out to be a narcissist, but even if this is your situation, the below three rules will go a long way towards either helping you heal from an encounter with one of these toxic people, or towards dealing with this person in your life. If you practice the following rules, such that they become a part of who you are, you will be less likely to be 1. Attractive to narcissistic/toxic or abusive people as they will pass you over for a ‘softer’ target, and 2. Easily sucked in by one in the future as you will be more grounded and sure of yourself.

Now, let’s go through them one by one.

Rule 1: Boundaries. Boundaries. Boundaries!

white and red wooden house with fence
Photo by Scott Webb on Pexels.com

Rule one could actually be all three rules combined. Because, if you get rule one right, you most likely won’t have to worry about rules two and three. However, rules two and three are essential for healthy relationships. After all, healthy relationships (and by healthy, I mean positive, fulfilling, respectful and joyful relationships) are everything a toxic or abusive relationship is not.
The first step to living within your boundaries is knowing them. Yes… knowing what your boundaries are is the key to protecting them. Sit down, have a think and write some things down that are important to you in terms of values. What do you value most? What sort of person do you want to be? How can you live your life in such a way that you sleep soundly at night? What sorts of people, relationships, activities do you want in your life? These are the sorts of questions it is well worth asking yourself from time to time. One way is to get a blank piece of paper and draw a line down the middle so as to make two columns. At the top of one column you write the word, “YES” and at the top of the second column you write, “NO”. Then simply fill out both columns with a list of what you will say yes to and what you will say no to in your life. It is your life after all, just as it is your body and your time. No-one has the right to tell you what you should feel, think or do. Knowing your boundaries is the first step towards protecting them. Once you are clear on what you will say yes and no to it becomes easier to tell when someone else is trying to encroach on your boundaries.
Note: Be aware that toxic people will often be quite subtle in their boundary violations, especially in the beginning. They will often start with small, seemingly insignificant requests which may not seem like that big a deal, but they will still make you feel uncomfortable. These are often used to ‘test the water’ so to speak, to see how you react. If you give in on a small boundary violation, they will then push things a little further next time, and so on. This is just something to be aware of, which is why the next rule is also very important.

Rule 2: Honesty

Some toxic personalities become very skilled at getting others to unwittingly break their own boundaries in often subtle, covert or even devious ways. Some (especially sociopaths, psychopaths and some malignant narcissists*) will purposely say all the right things and act in such a way as to project an image of healthy normality, or of who they think you want them to be. Often this involves a period of romanticising and idealising you, the target. They will tell you what you want to hear. They will mould themselves into your perfect other, reflecting your needs and wants seamlessly. Thus, you may let your guard down at first with these people. However, sooner or later the mask of perfect normality will slip. This will usually be in the form of getting you to ‘bend the rules’ in some way which usually involves breaking a small but significant boundary. If this happens it is important to check-in with yourself often. It can help to monitor how you feel after spending time with a certain person and to honestly reflect on whether this person makes you feel supported, respected and valued, or whether you feel anxious, unsure or somehow ‘less than’ after being with them. Do you find yourself questioning your own reality or version of events? Are you being accused of saying or doing something you know you didn’t do? Is this person trying to emotionally manipulate you in some way, guilt trip you or become overly emotional when they simply do not get their way, until you give in to their request and they become as sweet as pie again? Do you feel drained emotionally, physically and even spiritually after you spend time with them? If so, you need to be honest with yourself about the effect this person is having on you. To be able to see what is rather than what you hope something to be is a skill worth cultivating.
Now, being honest with yourself doesn’t mean you have to be honest and upfront with everyone you meet. If you choose to be honest with a toxic person, be prepared for some heavy-duty backlash. As I mentioned above, they do not take well to criticism. The best you can do is be honest with yourself and then be direct, clear and steadfast in your NO; No, I don’t want to do that, No, I cannot drive you on Saturday, No, I won’t lie for you, etc. You don’t owe them a reason. Saying no should be good enough for a reasonable person. If you love and respect yourself, then saying no to a narcissist/toxic person becomes easier to do. This brings me to rule number three…

Rule 3: Love and accept yourself, just the way you are.

Self-love is the key to tying it all together. I have written about self-love before and have mentioned Louise Hay, the queen of self-help who advocated for self-love as fundamental to self-improvement and healing. But how do I love myself, you may ask? There are many things one can do to love and accept oneself. There are affirmations, there are acts of self-care, honouring your needs and feelings, being truthful with yourself and others are but some of the ways. However, I think a simple rule of thumb is to attempt to treat yourself as if you were someone you really cared about and wanted the best for. In other words, be your own best friend, mother and even lover. Show kindness, love and even affection for yourself in all things. Consider yourself a unique, worthwhile and valuable individual who is deserving of love and acceptance, just the way you are. Check out my summary of Brene Brown’s The Power of Vulnerability for more about what it means to have a sense of worthiness.
But let it be said that those who have a healthy sense of worthiness, self-love, acceptance and compassion for themselves are less vulnerable to anything a toxic or abusive person may conjure up. When you value yourself, it acts as a natural repellent or barrier that protects you from unsavoury characters who may cross your path. The best part is, if you take these three ‘rules’ to heart and practice honesty, self-love and keep proper boundaries then you don’t need to do anything other than be yourself. You will naturally attract people that value, accept and love you for who you are into your life, which will leave little room for narcissists, abusers or the like.

I hope you found this post helpful. If  you are in an abusive relationship, help is out there. Call Lifeline on 13 11 14 or 1800respect if you are in Australia – or  your local domestic violence support service in your country.

 

*I am purposely using non clinical terms for the sake of readability here.

The Worst Thing Ever – reflections on Leaving Neverland

Sometimes life has a way of serving you up what you fear the most.

For me, it was the fear that people would come to know about my abusive relationship; that they would find out that the fairytale my life appeared to be was far from true.

Because for me, at that time, I erroneously thought that it would be THE WORST THING EVER if people were to find out.  I believed that it was more desirable to live a life which consisted of walking on eggshells, bearing the occasional blow-up, waking up every day feeling sick to the stomach and depressed, than it would be to face the knowledge of everyone finding out how foolish I had been. I had made my bed, I thought, and now I would have to lie in it forever. That was some time ago now.

But I was reminded of this long-ago state of being as I was watching the recent Leaving Neverland documentary. For years, Wade Robson and James Safechuck kept their secret and lived with shame and secrecy for fear of ‘everyone’ finding out. Both of them even testified under oath that Michael Jackson never acted or touched them inappropriately, and this is one of the ‘facts’ that Jackson supporters bring up often. They lied for so long, how do we know they are telling the truth now?

Well according to some statistics, only about 30% of child sexual abuse victims disclose their abuse, and many wait a long time for doing so. The reasons for this are varied; the fear of retaliation by the perpetrator, a fear of not being believed, and feeling as if they were somehow complicit or even to blame for the abuse are all thought-processes which can silence a child well into their adult years. However, I personally think the core factor keeping victims of sexual abuse silent is shame.

Shame enters from an external source from significant people in our lives and becomes internalised

According to www.intothelight.org.uk , “Shame enters from an external source from significant people in our lives and becomes internalised.” The shame of the sexual abuse of a child is somehow flipped over from the perpetrator- who seemingly feels no shame -to the abused, who carries the burden of shame for both and for always. And the best receptacle for shame is always silence and secrecy.

This shame can then become generalized by the survivor and can manifest in different ways resulting in symptoms and behaviors which may seem unintelligible to an observer unaware of this person’s situation or history. The main effect which shame seems to have on a person is to constantly feel as if they are wrong or inconsequential. That things are somehow always their fault and their responsibility to fix; that it is absolutely essential that others are not put out by them, because they don’t count. Shame can result in behaviors which may look from the outside to be ’self-sabotaging,’ such as addictions and compulsions. Relationships become tricky because the shame infused person can never feel as if they are equally deserving of love, care, attention or that their needs are as important as anyone else’s. This can leave them susceptible to further abuse, manipulation and being taken advantage of. They may have a seemingly pathological fear of saying no. They may feel unlovable and therefore resistant to relationships where they are loved and respected. These are but a few of the examples of how shame and silence can impact a person throughout their life and cause them to act in ways which may make little sense until they are seen through the lens of trauma.

So for those questioning the validity of the claims made by Robson and Safechuck, citing their previous silence and lies as proof of the incredibly of their stories – do some reading on the long term effects of child sexual abuse and trauma in general, (including the trauma that comes from living with an abusive partner) and see what you come up with.

Sexual abuse and violence create shame which in turn breeds secrecy and silence. The best way to combat silence, is to break it. To speak your truth, perhaps quietly, tentatively at first and then, in time without shame. Shame may appear to be THE WORST THING EVER, but if you are lucky your worst fear may turn out to be the path that leads to your best self ever.

Here are some links to get you started:

https://www.psychologytoday.com/au/blog/matter-personality/201210/why-dont-child-sex-abuse-victims-tell

http://www.intothelight.org.uk/core-issues-of-abuse-anger/

https://www.blueknot.org.au/ 

https://www.childabuseroyalcommission.gov.au/sites/default/files/file-list/Research%20Report%20-%20Principles%20of%20trauma-informed%20approaches%20to%20child%20sexual%20abuse%20A%20discussion%20paper%20-%20Treatment%20and%20support%20needs.pdf

 

 

Tasks of Recovery

For the last 16 months I have worked as an AOD Counsellor (AOD stands for Alcohol and Other Drugs) and during this time I’ve come to notice certain reoccurring themes that keep presenting themselves in both my individual and group sessions.

I started to write these down and have come to a formative model of recovery which I liken to Kubler Ross’s stages of grief model (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance). Kubler Ross published a book in 1969 called On Death & Dying in which she described the common phases or stages that patients diagnosed with terminal illnesses went through after their diagnosis. The stages are not necessarily linear, however there does seem to be a process of change happening, and this is something I have also noticed in my work with those recovering from addiction. I am not talking about the well used Stages of Change model well used in AOD treatment services since its inception in 1983 by Prochaska & DiClemente, which identified that change is a process that individuals go through involving a series of stages or phases that ultimately lead to lasting change.

Like the stages of grief, the below themes are not in any particular order, except for the first one. In my observation, a true and real commitment beginning the process seems to be a first important step, as it is in the 12 step model:

We admitted we were powerless over our addiction and that our lives had become unmanageable.

Sometimes, it can take many attempts to even get this far. As with the 12 step model, often the first step towards change is often the biggest leap to take.

accomplishment action adult adventure
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Below are some of the themes or Tasks of Recovery as I have observed them. All the themes mentioned below need to be reckoned with at some point in the journey of recovery in order to get from the action stage to maintenance stage and towards real lasting change. I just want to say that it doesn’t matter what your addiction is, alcohol, drugs, porn or gambling, the following themes I think are universal and can be used alongside other therapy models often used in addiction treatment such as CBT or Motivational Interviewing. The following themes also feature heavily in Acceptance & Commitment Therapy so those of you who are familiar with ACT may recognize some of the concepts.

 

Commitment 

Decide that you want to make a change and commit to doing whatever it takes to staying on track. Russell Harris, author of The Happiness Trap has a great quote on commitment that I love. It really embodies a mindful, compassionate stance on recovery:

Commitment doesn’t mean you never make a wrong move or take a detour, and it doesn’t mean you stay on track 100% of the time; that’s unrealistic. It means even when you keep going off-course, you keep catching yourself and then getting back on track again

Connect with your values, meaning, purpose and spirituality. Use this self-knowledge to empower and motivate you to make the best decisions you can make, starting from now, that will help you to create a future now that is better than your past. Better doesn’t mean perfect, but better as in more real, honest, richer, meaningful and more colourful. A future present that contains more contentment, joy and inner peace.

Acceptance

Acceptance of the past and present means accept what has already happened. Doesn’t mean you like it or approve of it or wanted it to happen. Accept your current situation. Doesn’t mean you like it either or want it to be this way. However, struggling with non-acceptance of past and present is a futile exercise. It is a waste of time and energy which could be better used elsewhere. Don’t let your past dictate your future. This is what happens when you refuse to accept reality or practice avoidance. You are destined to repeat past mistakes. Acceptance releases you from this repetitive pattern. Acceptance means just “dropping the struggle“. This frees you to direct your attention and energy into doing what you need to do, in order to improve your life.

Lying & Honesty

Address lying and practice honesty in everything you do. Stop lying to yourself and others. Start speaking your truth, in a compassionate way. Be authentic, transparent and congruent. Make your word your bond. Turn up on time for appointments. Don’t say yes to something unless you are really intending to follow through. Don’t hide how you feel. Pick one person besides yourself that you can be 100% honest with. This can be a therapist, friend, partner or priest! Doesn’t matter who as long as it is someone trustworthy. Embrace the truth, it may not always be pretty but it really will set you free.

However, learning to be honest with yourself and others can be difficult if you are not used to it. Here is a simple strategy for practicing honesty which I call NOTE.

N – notice your thoughts and feelings. Take a breath and just sit with whatever is going on for you at that moment.

O – own it. Own your experience, don’t try to rationalize with yourself, or judge your feelings as right or wrong, good or bad. Just acknowledge that this is how you are feeling at the time.

T – take a breath. Take at lease one deep breath in and let it out. This allows your emotions (or energy in motion) to settle.

E – explain your reality. Start speaking. You will be surprised at how much easier it is to speak openly and honestly when you have given yourself a moment to check in first.

Forgiveness & Compassion

Forgive others for what they had done wrong to you. Forgive yourself for things that you have done. Simple as that. Like acceptance however, it does not mean that you are O.K. with it or like it. Doesn’t mean you approve of what was done, however, forgiveness is essentially a selfish act. Forgiveness frees you from negativity and resentment. Resentment is the cause of most dis-ease according to Louise Hay. Release resentment and be free of negativity. You will feel lighter and more at ease. Forgiveness is necessary if you are going to practice self-acceptance and love. There is no love without forgiveness. To err is human, to forgive, divine.

Guilt & Shame

Own up to any wrongs you have committed in the service of your addiction and address any lingering shame. It’s important to look at shame as a relapse prevention strategy as it is the most likely cause of lapses and relapse. Shame operates like an invisible suit of armour that keeps us safe yet apart from others. Shame keeps us from making real connections with people who might otherwise love and accept us. It is really important to separate guilt from shame. Guilt is feeling bad because of what you have done. Shame is feeling like you are bad. Remember, we are not our mistakes. It is important to address guilt, make amends if you have to (unless to do so would cause further harm) but remind yourself that you are always only ever doing the best you can with what you have at the time. In the past, you did not know this. Now you do. 

 

That’s all I have come up with for now. If anyone has some others that they think I have left out or any feedback relating to the above please feel free to comment. I’d love to hear it!

There is no self love without forgiveness – a tribute to Louise Hay

I recently found a copy of a book that I can honestly say changed my life when I came across it many years ago.

The book is called “You can heal your life,” by Louise Hay.

It was first written in 1984 and has sold more than 40 million copies world wide. 

Louise Hay is known as the ‘queen of self-help’ and was ahead of her time in many ways. She was the first therapist to popularise the notion that your thoughts and feelings are directly related to your life outcomes. That everything in your life today was created by your thoughts, emotions and actions to date, and furthermore that at this very moment we are creating our future selves by the thoughts, emotions and actions we choose today, moment by moment. I still recommend this book to friends and clients who are struggling with any mental health issue or addiction or who are just going through a rough patch. 

I have had many copies of this book since the first time I read it 10 years ago, I can never seem to hold on to a copy for long. I am forever giving them away but nowadays you can download a copy for very little on Amazon or pick up a copy at most second hand bookshops. That’s where I picked up my latest copy from. 

As I was reading through the first chapter today I was reminded of her core message which is so simple it is often considered overly simplistic to be of any real use to people. I disagree as most truths are simple, it’s our humanity that’s complicated. 

Louise’s basic message is “Love yourself” and everything will fall into place.

She states, 

Self-approval and self-acceptance in the now are the keys to positive changes, (p.9).

While this sound simply wonderful and it is, in reality simple does not necessarily mean easy. Whenever I speak to clients of self-love and acceptance I see and hear doubt and resistance. Often they will agree with me in theory but often the how escapes them. How do I love myself? They ask, sometimes with tears in their eyes. 

In her book Louise outlines some clear instructions on what to do to start ‘loving and accepting yourself’. She is a big fan of saying positive affirmations daily as one way to retrain your brain to start thinking in a way that will begin to create the changes you want in your life. Do positive affirmations work? I believe they do, as I have used them in my own life to positive affect. When you learn a little about how the unconscious mind works, you can clearly see that if you have been programming your brain with negativity and thus creating negative experiences for yourself, it makes sense that by changing the internal script by thinking more positively, it can have the opposite effect.

An example of the above is constantly feeling unloved and misunderstood. This combined with negative self-talk such as “no-one will ever love me”, “I always get abused”, or “everyone always takes advantage of me” will certainly create more of the same. However, when you start choosing more positive thoughts or even more realistic thoughts such as, “I am loved and supported”, or “most people mean well” or even “everyone is doing the best with what they know,” then the script changes. Science now has an explanation for why this works which is called “neuroplasticity” and which I have written about before. However Louise Hay has been saying much the same thing, albeit in much more simplistic and metaphysical terms for decades. 

If affirmations aren’t your thing then there are other ways to love yourself more. One simple thing is to treat yourself well. Put yourself first. Listen to your body. Eat food that nourishes you and is good for you. Care for yourself as you would care for a dear friend. Give yourself a break. Let go of perfectionism. Try to be compassionate to yourself for past mistakes or perceived failings. Be your own best friend. These are all simple but effective ways to care and love yourself more. 

However, there is something else that Louise talks about which is even harder to do than loving yourself and that is forgiveness. She writes, 

We must release the past and forgive everyone, (p.9).

Woah. Hold up a minute there. Everyone? Everyone??

I remember struggling with this one caveat when I first read it 10 years ago and I must admit, I still do. Forgiveness of self and others unfortunately goes hand in hand with self-love and compassion. Until one is willing to forgive or at least release resentment for past wrongs (done to and/or by you) healing will always be slow going. Like constantly picking at a scab deters the healing process and leads to scars, attempting to love and accept yourself without forgiveness of self and others only slows down the healing process. 

I know this is something you don’t want to hear. Often we hold on to our hurts and resentments like dysfunctional friends whom we no longer even like all that much but can’t bear to cut loose. They are a drag but at least they are company. They keep everyone else away but are always around to light your cigarette, pour you a beer or pass you that tub of ice-cream. Louise says, 

Resentment, criticism and guilt are the most damaging patterns, (p9).

They are the most damaging because they are the most sticky. They like to stick around and feed our bad habits and negativity in order to keep us around. Almost like a codependant relationship. 

The truth is that unless you can kick out those freeloaders, Resentment, Criticism and Guilt and their cohorts Shame, Blame and Anger or at least be willing to let go of them true healing and self love will always feel just out of reach. 

Finally, it is never too late to start making positive changes, or begin to think differently as Louise was also often fond of saying,

The point of power is always in the present moment. 

Louise passed away in June 2017 at the age of 90.