We All Need To Practice Emotional First Aid

istock0000179371As a mental health professional, I have found myself spending a lot of time trying to convince people that they need to take care of themselves mentally and emotionally. Meaning, I run into people who are working two jobs, taking care of their family and everyone else around them, but are letting themselves go mentally and are getting sicker and sicker over time.

Or, I meet someone who is obviously not dealing with various issues in their lives, probably hoping that ignoring them will make them go away, but all the while they are growing emotionally unhealthy.

It reminds me of when a parent would bring a child in to see me for therapy and it would become apparent pretty quickly that it’s the parent that needs therapy, not the the child. Many times the parent would like at me as if I was crazy. They couldn’t see that their own neurotic behavior, substance abuse or even past childhood issues are creating the “problem” they are prescribing to their child.

It’s easy to tell when someone is physically not doing well, but it’s not always easy to tell when someone isn’t mentally doing well, especially when it comes to everyday things like anxiety, depression and self-esteem. Things we all deal with from time to time.

I have a sister who at one point was working a very demanding job, raising a challenging teenager on her own,  volunteering her sparse free time to multiple organizations and if that wasn’t enough, she was trying to help every friend that called and needed something from her.

On the outside she looked ambitious, energetic, like a true type A-personality. On the inside she was feeling overwhelmed, flustered and fragile.

One night, while having dinner with our family which should have been relaxing, seemingly out of the blue she had what some would call a nervous breakdown. She started crying, hyperventilating and felt as though she was going to lose control of her mind. I could look at her and tell she was having a classic panic attack, but she was too far gone to hear me and was convinced she needed medical attention.

Soon afterwards she was diagnosed with an anxiety disorder and was told to cut back on the million and one things she did in her day to day life to take care of other people and to start taking care of her own mental health, something many of us don’t do enough of.

Sometimes I even catch myself too caught up in work, life and everything else and before I realize it I am dealing with some type of anxiety, insecurity or dysthmia. I have to slow down, stop myself and figure out a) where is it coming from and b) how do I take care of it. Often times for me the solution is simple awareness and acknowledgement that something is bothering me. Other times it takes journaling, reading something inspirational or processing my feelings with someone I trust. I’m usually that person for everyone, but sometimes I need someone to be that person for me.

It doesn’t always have to be something major and it doesn’t always take a therapist, but sometimes it does. Sometimes it’s simple mindfulness, meditation, or getting out and having some fun, but many of us have no real idea of what it means to administer emotional first aid to ourselves which is why I included this Ted Talk by Guy Winch: Why We All Need To Practice Emotional First Aid

Taking Back Control Over Your Thoughts, Feelings And Emotions

quotes-will-smith-Favim.com-596013This is one of my favorite quotes, not because it is brilliant, which it is, not because it is simple and true, which it also is, but because it is something I teach daily to my clients and something that I personally struggle with.

A large majority of my clients are suffering from various issues because of interpersonal problems, many which could be eliminated or at least greatly reduced if they just stopped allowing other people to control their thoughts, feelings and emotions.

Matter of fact, learning to control your thoughts, feelings and emotions is the hallmark of cognitive behavioral therapy which is the main theoretical orientation I work from.

When I listen to my clients vent in anger, cry in sadness or hyperventilate through anxiety, what I hear a lot of is that they are giving other people too much power over them, many of them who don’t have their best interest at heart and who wouldn’t be sitting across from me in emotional and psychological pain if the tables were turned.

These people my clients let control them, for the most part, couldn’t care less about the agony they were causing them.

Most of my clients allow boyfriends, so-called friends, family members and even mere acquaintances dictate how they feel about themselves, how their day is going, what they think about their life and even their future.

It goes much deeper than that, but the point is that they have given other people power over them and I have to teach them how to start taking it back and keeping it for themselves.

I also try to teach them that nothing matters until they make it matter, something I got out of the book I AM: Discovering Who You Really Are by Howard Franco.  It basically means that you decide what effects you, how it effects you and what doesn’t.

Most people’s emotional thermostat is set on automatic, they automatically respond to certain situations the same, usually either with anger, fear or self-pity.

Learning that nothing matters until you interpret why it matters, how much it matters and how to respond to it, allows you to keep your power and decide rationally how and if you should respond to a situation. It takes the automatic response out of it, and allows you to slow down and make a much more fair decision.

Often our emotions and actions are out of line with the actual situation which causes a lot of emotional turmoil, but I don’t want to stray too far from the main topic. The bottom line is, we have to stop the cycle of allowing other people to control us, especially those who invest so little into us in a positive way.

I used to have an ex-girlfriend who I let control my thoughts, feelings and emotions to the point that I was probably a bit neurotic. How I felt about myself depended on how she felt about me that day. If she was happy with me and showing me love, I felt great about myself. If she was in a bad mood and treating me poorly, I hated myself. My life was full of anxiety trying to figure out how to keep her happy with me, something that was totally out of my control.

It took too many anxious days and crying at night for me to realize that she had too much control over me and I needed to take that control back. It took some self-help books, talking with friends who actually cared about me, and even some meditation before I finally found the strength to take back control and leave that person.

Sometimes however you can’t just leave that person because that person is in your family, or your husband or someone you don’t want to lose contact with, but you want to stop allowing them to control you. In that case, the person who has to do the work is you and only you.

It is not easy, but it is one of the most liberating personal experiences you may ever have.

I’ll end this with a line from chapter three in the book I AM: Discovering Who You Really Are, which is titled “You Decide What Matters”:

“What you experience can only have an effect on you in a tangible way if you make it matter. If you don’t make it matter,  it will have no effect on you.” – Howard Falco

brOKen: Why We Hide How We Really Feel

under_the_surface_by_destinyblue-d5r27x4 (1)This incredible piece of art is titled “brOKen” and it’s by a great artist named DestinyBlue. She says that the inspiration for this piece came from an observation she made while on the London Underground.

She saw a girl who was crying quietly, but had on a shirt with the phrase “YOLO” which stands for “You Only Live Once” and is supposed to be a symbol of taking chances and living life to it’s fullest with no regrets.

How ironic that a sad girl crying would have on this shirt? It made the artist of this picture think about how many slogans and things we wear that don’t really represent how we feel and I thought this would be a great topic for a post.

As a counselor, I am trained to hear what is not being said. Many times people will tell me that they are “fine”, “happy” or “confident” when I can see that they are the total opposites of what they are trying to convince me they are feeling.

We do that, put up the fronts and the masks for several reasons including hiding how we really feel so that others will not know when we are weak or vulnerable. It’s natural, which both protects us emotionally, yet it makes it hard for us to fully engage with and understand other people.

This can be especially frustrating when it’s your child or someone you love and it’s clear to you that they are not “fine” yet when you ask them what’s wrong, they say “nothing”.

What if we did wear shirts that said exactly how we felt at this moment. Would your shirt say “Mad?”, “Depressed?”, “Bipolar”, “Scared”, “Unloved?”. Mine would probably say “Indifferent”.

One of my favorite shirts says “Sick of it All” on the back of it, which is actually the name of a band, but most people don’t know that and I tend to wear that shirt when I actually do feel sick of it all. I’ve even worn it to frustrating meetings as a sign of silent protest.

A lot of times, society frowns upon us really expressing and exhibiting how we feel so we learn to put on these masks and some of our masks are very extravagant. 

We put excessive make-up on to look visually attractive while inside we feel disgusting. We talk loud to draw attention to ourselves because we are afraid of  being ignored. We lift weights and take steroids to appear big and intimidating while inside we are scared and insecure. We drive expensive cars and wear expensive clothes to look important because deep down we feel really insignificant. The list can go on and on.

I went to a therapy seminar last year and the presenter kept talking about an angry, intimidating teenage girl in her class who looked like she wanted to beat up everyone, when really deep down, as she put it, “she’s scared as shit”. Of course she couldn’t walk around with a shirt that read “Scared” or “Nervous” so she hide it under a shirt that said “Tough”, “Confident” and “Aggressive”.

Some of the most physically attractive women I’ve ever met, the ones who put a lot of effort into their appearance, have turned out to be some of the most insecure women I have ever met.

Those who don’t wear their masks well are often labeled bipolar, hysterical, over-reacting, sensitive, weak or even crazy.

It’s unlikely that we would really wear shirts that said “Insecure”, “Miserable”, “Confused”, “Rejected” or “Lifeless”. Instead, we are more likely to wear shirts that say “Great”, “Joyous”, “Loving”, “Inspired”  or “Free” even when we feel the total opposite such as the young girl DestinyBlue saw on the London Underground.

Hiding our feelings is a self-protecting mechanism. We don’t want to appear weak or vulnerable like I stated earlier. We may also think that hiding our true feelings keeps us from actually being those feelings. Even more importantly, we tend to hide our true feelings when they aren’t good feelings in order to avoid offending other people with our problems and potentially looking childish and pathetic because we’ve “lost control” over our emotions.

We also hide our feelings to not appear unstable, abnormal or risk the chance of having our true feelings ignored or discounted which would hurt even more. We tend not to trust that others, even those closest to us, will validate our true feelings and safe guard our vulnerability so we hide them to protect ourselves.

Hiding our feelings in many situations makes sense, and society says it’s stoic, courageous and shows character when you can hide your painful emotions. A large part of it is about appropriateness and vulnerability.

A lot of people I work with in therapy hold onto their painful emotions and yet blame their parents, spouses or friends for not being able to empathize with and support them.

Well how can they if they don’t truly know how you feel and what you are going through? This is probably one of the biggest problems I run into in therapy. People expecting their loved ones to be psychic enough to know that under their shirt that reads “Wonderful” is another shirt that says “Heartbroken”.

You have to be at a certain place mentally and emotionally to feel free enough to let out your hurtful feelings in the presence of others. You have to be able to self-soothe and self-validate your feelings. Realize that other people don’t have to validate them in order for them to be valid.

Letting your feelings out doesn’t make you a victim unless you allow yourself to become a victim. Letting them out can actually be freeing and allow those around you to give you the support you need.             tired_by_onedirectionislife-d5lqo2b

Thanks to Kayla for giving me permission to use this image.

Gabrielle “Gabby” Douglas and A.N.T.S.

Recently I watched as Gabrielle “Gabby” Douglas won two gold metals in the Olympics and made history by becoming not only the first African-American woman, but also the first woman of color to win the individual-all around in gymnastics. Remarkable feats for anyone, let alone a 16 year old. Being an African-American I was so proud of her, so you can imagine my shock when I was told that much of the talk about Gabby within the African-American community online wasn’t about her gold metals or her history making accomplishment, but about her hair. Her hair? Are you kidding me?

I took some time reading different blogs and websites and was shocked to see that a lot of people were more concerned about the texture, style and condition of her hair than about what this 4’11” exceptional athlete was doing in London. The more I read, the more I found myself enraged at the ignorance of those who expressed that Gabby was representing all African-American women “and her hair should look good” while she was doing it. This is so ridiculous. She is representing African-American women, showing that if you are dedicated, focused, work hard, refuse to take no for an answer and never give up on yourself, you can accomplish all of your dreams. Instead, many people are worried about the superficial and that got me to thinking.

There are so many places I could go with this. I could talk about the psychology of racism, self-hate, the European standard of beauty, stereotypes, the psychodynamic value (or devaluation) of African-American hair, post traumatic slave syndrome, images in the media that make many African-American’s consciously or sub-consciously reject their own images as attractive, self esteem, and the list could go on and on. However, I decided to try to stay as true to this blog as possible, and discuss something I think everyone could benefit from and that is understanding automatic negative thoughts, or ANTS.

You see, we all have automatic thoughts which are thoughts that just pop into our head without us giving much thought about them. We will discuss this more in detail next week. We all at times even have ANTS (automatic negative thoughts), but some people seem to be infested with ANTS and when reading those disparaging remarks about Gabby, I realized that those people were infested. Instead of looking at a beautiful, successful, incredible young woman, they quickly pointed out the negative and decided to focus on that for whatever reason (in the African-American community, the word “crabbing” is often used to describe when other African-American’s complain about more successful African-Americans, often in attempts to make the other person feel bad while also making the person complaining feel better about themselves). Those ANTS keep them from being able to truly see or recognize the beauty right in front of them.

People with ANTS, if you take them to a beautiful beach will complain that it’s too hot, the waves are too loud, it smells too salty or that the sand is getting between their toes.  If you take them on a beautiful midnight stroll they will complain that the moon is too bright or that their feet hurt. Or, if you show them a beautiful teenager making Olympic history, will complain that her hair isn’t done nicely. They will never be happy unless they are complaining about something. They are so used to being miserable that they are only happy when complaining. These people usually don’t even know that they have a problem because they have lived with the ANTS for so long that they are part of them.

Are there people in your life who have ANTS? People who always seem to rain on your parade, point out the negative in every situation or seem to only be somewhat content when they are complaining about how miserable they are or pointing out flaws and imperfections in other people? If so, recognizing that they are infested with ANTS helps keep you from making their issue, your issue, and allows you to detach from them either physically or emotionally. Maybe you recognize that you have an infestation of ANTS. Start paying attention to your automatic thoughts, especially those ANTS and next week we’ll start working on getting rid of them.

We are Living Magnets

Thoughts, Feelings, Behaviors
A Prelude

You are a living magnet. You attract into your life people, situations, and circumstances that are in harmony with you dominant thoughts.

Those words are inscribed on my sister’s wall to wall chalk board when you enter her home. I don’t know where that particular quote came from, but it sounds a lot like The Secret and The Laws of Attraction which I 100% believe, not in a pseudo-new age-science sort of way, but in a we manifest our own destiny way.

I truly believe that for the most part, we design our lives. We are natural architects of our lives, CEOs and CFOs of our lives and it all starts with our thoughts.

We have to constantly be aware of our thoughts. Our thoughts create our situations. I listen to people all the time say things like, “I’m bad with money”, “I suck at math”, “I have no luck with relationships”, etc… We have to be careful of what we say and think about ourselves because those thoughts become reality. It’s that simple , yet I’ve found that its hard to get most people to see, believe and start to change their thoughts. Even I struggle with that often enough that it has caused me to read a handful of books on the subject.

This will be the first post of several that talks about thoughts, feelings and behaviors because I believe that it is such and important and powerful part of creating the life we want and not just being passive participants or even worst, seeing ourselves as victims.

In my next post on the subject I’ll do a brief overview on rational emotive behavioral therapy which I think is a great foundation to starting to understand the way thoughts, feelings and behaviors are all connected.