Yesterday Does Not Define You

istock_000002301808xsmallIn the 8th or 9th grade I wasn’t the best student. At times my grades weren’t all that great and my behavior in school wasn’t either. I was never the type of student that was always in trouble, but I was always struggling to find my place amongst all the other teenagers who were just as lost as I was.

Often times I would find myself trying to do things to try to fit in. Things the popular kids were doing, such as not caring about grades and caring more about being respected and feared over being respected and respectful.

Sometimes I would do things that I didn’t understand, which I am sure many of us can attest too, especially when we were teenagers and our hormones were raging and our still developing brains were still trying to come together.

This would often lead to be being unhappy with myself for one reason or another. I would be unhappy with my grades which often barely straddled C’s and more closely D’s. I would find myself unhappy with the way I dealt with certain situations, rather it was bullying other people or getting bullied. Emotionally I was all over the place. Sometimes depressed, sometimes angry, but never truly happy for long.

It was during this time that I realized that every Monday I had a chance to start over. To almost be, or at least try to be, a totally different person than I was the week before. Maybe last week I got detention, was mean to one kid or allowed another kid to make me afraid to walk down the hall. Maybe the week before I wasn’t the best student, but every Monday gave me an opportunity to try to do better, to start over.

That was always such a relief, such a refreshing feeling, to know that I did not have to be the person that week that I was the week before. That I could start over fresh. And that’s how I started to get better, as a student and as a person, by starting over one week at a time, trying to do better each week and not letting the previous week define me.

It wasn’t until later in high school that I realized I could use that same technique, that same mental reset everyday. I didn’t have to wait until Monday. If I had a bad day today, I could start fresh tomorrow. Eventually, and I think I was a senior in high school or maybe in college when I realized every hour I could start over. If I had a bad morning, that didn’t mean the rest of my day had to go bad. If I had a bad moment even, I didn’t have to dwell on it and let it define my day.

That is one of the great things about life, that we can start over everyday, every moment if we really wanted to and learn from our mistakes. We don’t have to dwell on yesterday. We don’t have to let yesterday or 2 minutes ago define us. We can learn from those mistakes and move on.

By using that technique way back in high school, my grades and behavior improved. I became an overall better person, more in touch with myself and not depending so much on others, or the mistakes of yesterday to define me. I still use that technique today, albeit, sometimes as an adult it is harder to remember and actually do, but when I do it, it is just as refreshing to know that I don’t have to stay stuck in the past.

We are not our past and yesterday does not define us. Too many people get mentally and emotionally stuck because they let their past define who they are and they don’t realize that they can break out of that rut by simply trying to do better, to do something different, to have a different attitude or to try to take on a different perspective.

Sometimes that is easier said than done, but once you learn how to “reset” your life, it’s one of the best gifts you can give yourself, each and every moment.

Solitude Versus Loneliness

One of the main therapeutic interventions I suggest when working with people is to spend time alone with themselves.

Too often we aren’t just busy with school, work, family and a social life, but overwhelmed and hardly have a second alone with ourselves during the waking hours and are weighed down by stress, anxiety and/or depression.

When we aren’t working, studying, or surrounded by people, we are often thinking about work, studying or the people in our lives. Our minds are always busy and are often filled with thoughts that are either disturbing or distracting.

I especially make this recommendation to people I see aren’t in touch with themselves.

Often these people are fresh out of relationships are are anxious to jump right back into a new one without taking the time to evaluate themselves and their failed relationships so they make the same mistakes over and over again.

If they are lucky they escape unscathed, but more often then not they leave one relationship and enter another with more emotional baggage, lower self-value, more desperation and often an extra child or two.

Often when I suggest to people that they spend some time alone and not rush into another relationship (or surround themselves with people or bury themselves in work, or their family), it’s as if I asked them to do the impossible.

Some will come right out and tell me “I can’t be alone”. Others will say that it’s depressing being alone and others will try it half-heartedly, but are so insecure and fearful that they are easily distracted by whatever takes them away from themselves.

You see, there is a difference between loneliness and solitude. Not many people understand that and easily confuse the two.

Loneliness is a sort of aching, emotional pain, while solitude refers to our relationship with ourselves. Loneliness is painful. Solitude is peaceful.

Solitude is a place where our restless mind, spirit and body can come together and is essential for our spiritual lives.

I at times find solitude difficult and have went through many extremes to avoid it, but I know that solitude can be peaceful, loving and rewarding.

It is the place where if we allow it, by shutting out all the internal noise, we become closer to our true consciousnesses (some spiritual/religious people refer to this as God consciousness where they become closer to God).

This is the place where our subconscious often brings into consciousness our unfinished business, people we should let go, goals we never accomplished, etc.

Some people find it painful to analyze themselves and I get that, but it is essential for growth and internal peace. Many people don’t like to be alone because of this.

It is impossible for someone to be at peace with others and their world if they aren’t at peace with themselves and that can only come from solitude.

Like I said, many people go, go, go, and get into relationship after relationship to distract themselves from themselves in order to avoid some of the pain of having to analyze their true selves.

I encourage you to learn to love solitude. Even when it’s involuntary. Aloneness  can grow into solitude, it’s a conscious choice and it takes some practice, but it’s spiritually and emotionally rewarding.

I don’t care if it’s only an hour, thirty minutes, a walk during your break time, but make time for yourself. Try to shut out all the internal noise and allow your mind, spirit and body to become one. You may be surprised at what you find.

Time by yourself is always time well spent.

“Solitude is the garden for our hearts which yearn for love. It is the place where our aloneness can bear fruit.” Henri J. M. Nouwen; Michael Ford. The Dance of Life: Weaving Sorrows and Blessings Into One Joyful Step 

The Symbiotic Relationship of Counseling and Unconditional Positive Regard

As another school year ends I look back at all the clients I’ve worked with during the school year and a good majority have made major changes. I’ve seen teens who could barely stay in school for a month because of getting suspended, end up having zero discipline issues for the last five months or more. I’ve seen kids with alcohol and marijuana problems minimize and some totally quit using and even more importantly I’ve seen kids I thought would take years to make positive gains make dramatic changes over a few months. 

I give all my clients surveys before discharging them so that they can voice how I have helped them or didn’t help them so that I could better myself in the future and this year I became emotional as I read over some of their responses. Some kids wrote things such as

  • “You helped me have a better relationship with my mother”
  • “You helped me realize that killing myself isn’t the answer”
  • “You helped me learn to love myself”
  • “You helped me learn how to get along with my baby’s father and take better care of my baby”
  • “I’ve learned to control my anger and how to express my emotions”
  • “You helped me learn how to get along with my baby’s mother and get more into my son’s life”
  • “You helped me realize how valuable my life is and how stupid and irresponsible ending it would be”
  • “I don’t smoke or drink any more and started liking myself”


This comments really touched me and made me feel blessed to have had such an impact on these kids and they have had major impacts on me as well. I’ve learned just as much about them about patience and the importance of bringing the family into counseling whenever possible and appropriate. I look back and try to reflect on all the things and activities I’ve done with these kids and while I’ve used a lot of counseling techniques, I think the one thing that made the biggest impact is the unconditional positive regard I’ve showed these kids. Unconditional positive regard is accepting someone as they are and not judging them and I showed these kids throughout the year that I liked and accepting them despite anything they did or said. Sure they often did things I didn’t approve of, but I always let them know that it was the act that I disapproved of and not them. A lot of these kids have never had anyone they could just talk to who accepted and didn’t judge them and I think building on that relationship overtime had the greatest impact.

A lot of times I hear interns and new counselors saying that they are afraid that they are afraid that they won’t always know what to say and I always tell them that it’s okay, sometimes I don’t know what to say and so I say nothing, I just listen and show unconditional positive regard and empathy instead of not being present in the situation because I am busy searching for the right thing to say when there likely isn’t. In a good counseling relationship it is symbiotic. I learn from them and they learn from me and that is one of the things I love best about being a counselor. I learn from even the most difficult of clients and hopefully they learn from me as well. 

Not Catching the Ball: A Form of Self-Care

I’m not the first to say this. Matter of fact, I heard this from one of my mentors who is a successful therapist, but even before her, I can swear I might have heard it on Oprah or somewhere, but the fact remains it is a powerful statement that has helped me in many situations.

Often in life we get swamped with obligations that we’d rather not do. I don’t mean the things that we have to do like take care of our kids or pay the bills, but I mean things such as running an errand for a friend that would really inconvenience us, or dealing with someones emotional instability that we know will suck us of any energy we have, but we may feel obligated to listen, or help, or volunteer, or say “yes” when we really want to say “no”.

The thing is, these things asked of us by friends, family, neighbors, co-workers, or who ever, is like them throwing a ball to us and we often feel obligated to catch it, but we don’t have to. We can say no, we can politely turn down that invitation to a Christmas party we really don’t want to go to, quite simply, we can just let the ball pass or bounce on by us instead of feeling obligated to catch it.

I had to explain this to a client recently who gave a guy her number when she didn’t really want to, but didn’t know how to say no, and now when he calls she doesn’t really want to answer, but does so to not be rude. I had to tell her that just because he was throwing the ball to her, didn’t mean she had to catch it. The same goes for someone giving you a bad attitude, negative energy or whatever. Just because they throw that negative ball your way, you don’t have to catch it and throw it back, you can just let it pass on by you.

Many times we feel the need to, and sometimes out of habit (or reflex) catch balls we really shouldn’t and sometimes even throw them back. People will always throw balls at us and if we try to catch them all we’ll eventually end up dropping everything.

So I think it’s important from time to time to practice not catching the ball, which will allow us more time and energy for what we feel is most important to us.

Saving the Lives of Butterflies: Part 2

It’s been a few months since I first introduced The Butterfly Project to the high school kids I work with (if you haven’t already, you can check out my post entitled “Saving the Lives of Butterflies”). Well I’m happy to report that over the past two weeks I’ve had a number of them come up to me and show me the butterflies that they drew on themselves in efforts to refrain from cutting themselves! I was so happy to see one or two of them do this, but was overwhelmed to see nearly all of the ones who have issues with self-injury trying this technique and so far it appears to be helping! Some of them even name their butterflies and they have been encouraging each other. It’s a small step, but I am so thrilled by it’s success so far that I just had to share some of the pictures!

With summer coming up, I am really worried about all of the teens I work with at the high school, especially the ones who self-injure, but I am really hoping that everything I’ve taught them over the summer, including cognitive behavioral interventions, emotional self regulation strategies and now the Butterfly Project, will help them make it through whatever they encounter and that they will emerge stronger and more confident. I will also be worried about the ones who use drugs, the ones who make irrational decisions, the ones with anger issues and the ones with severe depression and anxiety. Pretty much, I’ll be worried about all of them, but I have to hope and trust that I’ve helped them all enough or at least did my part in preparing them to better handle life.

“April”: A Quick Case Study (or more like a synopsis)

Every three months as part of my grant we have to do a report and in that report, besides asking for numbers to validate and show evidence of my value, we have to write about one client that has improved over those three months. I decided to share that client with you.


April  (17 year old female) lives in a group home where she has been for about five years after being removed from her family because of neglect and ongoing sexual abuse.

When I met April she was having a hard time focusing in school, often walked off campus and ran away from her group home. Her grades were very poor and she was prone to emotional and angry outbursts. She was brought to me initially by another counselor after she had threatened to punch her school bus driver, walked off the school bus and went missing for twenty four hours and was later found by local authorities.

I begin working with April (using mostly cognitive behavioral therapy) on controlling her emotions as well as working with her group home and guidance counselor to make sure all of her needs were being reasonably met. I put her in a life skills group which initially she was reluctant to join because “I don’t get along with other people” and met with her once weekly in private sessions, often helping her process her anger and fear about her family and about her future. I encouraged her to keep a journal and to write down everything she wanted to say to her family (no communication with her family in almost five years was her biggest issue). I also worked with her teachers to make sure that when April was having a “bad day”, they knew how to appropriately handle the situation and not escalate it or send her out of class which usually led to her walking off campus.

As a result, within a few weeks April stopped walking off campus and running away from her group home as she learned how to self-regulate her emotions. Her attitude improved and the number of referrals for classroom disruptions fell to nearly zero. Her grades improved and her number of “emotional breakdowns” during class fell to zero, as she was able to express her emotions in private sessions with me. She became a very active member of her group and her number of group home infractions also fell. She begin getting positive attention and positive rewards from both her group home and school staff and is a much calmer person today than she was when I first met her.

Because she is much better at regulating her emotions, we are able to spend more of our private sessions processing her feelings of abandonment by her family and working on (in conjunction with her independent living counselor) becoming more self-sufficient in preparation for the day she will turn eighteen and transition out of the group home. In an individual education plan meeting I attended with April a couple of weeks ago, she was highly praised on her many improvements in both academics and behavior.

-April really is one of my favorite clients. She is labeled “emotionally disturbed”, and while she is 17 and functions more often like a 12 year old, she’s grown a lot since the first day she set across from me as a very angry young lady with no respect for authority. She could have been diagnosed at that time as oppositional defiant,  but she had enough labels and I didn’t see the need to label her any more and as she has improved, i’m glad I wrote her initial diagnosis as “deferred” despite the constant push by insurance companies that “everyone gets a diagnosis”. Oh gosh, that is another whole post for another time.