Therapy Is Not For Wimps

By Gerti Schoen, MA, LP

Pieces of Me? Most people who seek psychotherapy believe that they are weak, that their life force has been shaken to the core, that they can’t face the world and its challenges. But it’s quite the opposite. Daring to look at oneself and one’s imperfections really is an act of heroism.

Most of us don’t like to admit that we often are in need: we crave to be in a loving relationship, grow roots and find stability in a community, want the security of having a financial  cushion and so on. So much of our self exploration focuses on our needs and how we can avoid the pitfalls of never saying no to anyone.

And not just that. Sometimes we are weak. When our child is in pain and we can’t help, we feel each pang of that pain with them.  When we are exhausted and run down, we don’t have it in us to stand up to whoever we feel treats us unfairly.

Defeat cannot always be averted. All there is to do is to admit that we have failed. There is no way to pretend otherwise. We need to be able to face the truth of our human existence.

Admitting to feeling vulnerable and confused automatically takes the aggression out of a fight. Saying calmly “that really hurt me” or “I just don’t have it in me” deflects anger and opens the door for dialogue and cooperation. It avoids defensiveness and the typical downward spiral of self righteousness and stonewalling.

Seeing our weaknesses enables us to move past them, because we first have to become aware of our limitations before we can try to do something about it.

Knowing that we are vulnerable makes compassion with others possible. Everyone appreciates compassion, kindness and gentleness.

Every feeling is temporary. All things must pass, as George Harrison said. And there will be an end to feeling weak and incapacitated too. It’s all part of the human experience.  The sooner we can accept that, the easier we will move past it.

 

photo credit: CarbonNYC



Colored Lights Will Lift Your Mood

By Gerti Schoen, MA, LP

candle alight

We’ve long known that soft candle light generally triggers a gentler mood, and grey skies can make us more gloomy. Some people tend to be depressed in the winter, when the sun sets early.

The same dynamic takes place inside our homes and offices. The artificial light that comes from the ceiling or floor lamp will have an impact on us. Especially the harsh light of fluorescent bulbs creates a cold, stark atmosphere.

Researchers at the German Fraunhofer Institute are now testing what kind of moods are associated with colored lighting. They found out that red light has more of a relaxing effect that will make us want to lie down or go to sleep. It’s the same red tones that appear on the sky at sunset. For our hunter and gatherer ancestors who lived mostly outdoors this was the signal to retire into a sheltered space.

In contrast, blueish light will wake us up, make us more alive and increases the drive to move. Yellow is said to increase concentration.

Research concludes that when workers in an office were forced to work in a space without windows, their levels of tiredness were much higher than of those who were exposed to daylight. The researchers then created a virtual ceiling with blue light and moving clouds, and the effect was immediate: the test subjects reported a significantly lessened decrease in well-being when exposed to the virtual sky.

Human beings are not made to be exposed to artificial light all day long. Exposed to TV screens and computers, our internal clock gets thrown off, and sleep disturbances are on the rise. “We’ve lived and worked outdoors for almost 200,000 years” says Oliver Stefani, light researcher at the Fraunhofer Institute. Exposure to light at night has been linked to depression, learning issues and sleeplessness.

A number of companies are beginning to tap into the market and are offering colored LED light bulbs that can be set to any mood, and even simulate the colors of the sunrise in the morning to wake you up gently. New technology makes it possible to control the settings of your home via your smart phone before you even arrive at your house.

Maybe all that is needed to fight sleeplessness is expose you to the colors of the evening sky.

 

photo credit: Leonard John Matthews



The Brain Does Not See The World As It is

By Gerti Schoen, MA, LP

Havana, Cuba

You know that old adage that “we see whatever we want to see?” Turns out, there is scientific research to back this one up.

Compelling evidence is delivered by British neuroscientist Beau Lotto in his Ted talk “How our minds shape perception”. In his talk, Lotto demonstrates how reality always depends on context by showing a variety of colored patches, surrounded by differing backgrounds.

The eye will perceive the colored patches differently, according to whether they are offset by a white or a black background. Sensory information, Lotto concludes, is meaningless because it only becomes meaningful when there is something to compare it with. And the same goes for everything else. “There is no inherent meaning in information. It’s what we do with that information that matters.”

The whole thing is just as applicable to psychological dynamics. The backdrop to which we all compare our experiences is our past. We are biologically conditioned to base our decisions and perceptions on previous experiences, and to form patterns. Says the neuroscientist: “The brain doesn’t see the world as it is, the brain sees the world the way it was useful in the past.”

Which brings us to mental health, relationships and specifically to couples. When a couple starts fighting, it’s often about differing subjective perceptions of the two parties involved. One person may even accuse the other of lying, while the blamed one sees nothing wrong in his or her actions.

That is where perception comes in. Let’s say a young man grew up with a volatile mother who needed to be pleased at all times in order to prevent violent outbursts of anger. To him, it may have become a highly useful strategy to please and flatter any older woman in some type of authority position.

Say his wife grew up with an unreliable father, who disappeared in the neighborhood bar when things got difficult and flirted with the bartender there.

To him, behaving slightly seductive around women was a survival strategy, even though it may have been completely devoid of actual interest in that person. To her, any form of seductiveness activates fears of abandonment. A clash seems inevitable.

Unless, awareness is raised how these behaviors were useful and maybe even necessary in the past. And awareness is raised by taking a step back and looking at our own ways of thinking and behaving.

Neuroscientist Beau Lotto arrives at the same conclusion: “This capacity to be an observer of yourself is phenomenal — and possibly unique to humans. Indeed, to literally ‘see yourself see’ is in my view the principle act of consciousness, which has the power to transform one’s view of the world and of oneself.”

 

photo credit: eszter



The Lies We Tell Ourselves To Avoid Pain

By Gerti Schoen, MA, LP

“Why Do I Do That?” is the title of a new book by fellow blogger Joseph Burgo which deals exclusively with the ways we try to deal with difficult feelings and situations in life: It’s our defense mechanisms that make us look away when things get dicey or hard to deal with. The book is released on October 29th and will be available on Amazon in print-on-demand and eBook versions. In this interview, Joe Burgo explains how he got fascinated by the topic.

What do people defend against?

In the broadest sense, they always defend against pain. Donald Melzer said that defenses are lies we tell ourselves to evade pain, which is a very elegant way of saying it.

There are different kinds of pain. In my book I divide it into three areas. We are primarily concerned with what it’s like to need and depend on other people, which can lead to frustration, hurt and disappointment. Secondarily, we are concerned with being able to manage a lot of intense feelings that come up in relationships. And we try to develop some sense of personal self worth, to feel that we have value, and when we don’t, that leads to shame, a deeply painful experience. So need and dependency, strong feelings and self esteem, those are the areas where pain comes up and we rely on defense mechanisms.

What are the classic defense mechanisms?

Well, there are repression and denial. All defenses rely on repression, even though it’s a defense in its own right. Displacement, reaction formation. Splitting, idealization. Projection. And then there’s a bunch of other ones that are secondary, like defenses that involve ideas of control, and lastly defenses against shame.

What are these?

Narcissism is the primary defense against shame.

Narcissism is a defense?

Pathological narcissism is a defense against shame. There are people who are currently writing about this connection, its kind of out there in the profession right now.

How do you work with patients in terms of defenses?

As I was writing the book, I didn’t really think that I am working on defenses but I guess that’s what I’m always doing. But I don’t necessarily think about it that way, I think more about what’s painful that this person is trying to get away from, and that means they must be relying on defenses. I’m always trying to help them recognize the pain that they can’t bear and to help them better to tolerate it.

Do you find that you focus on defenses a lot now that you’ve written the book?

Yes, I do, I always did, now I just know it more.

Do people find it helpful?

They don’t necessarily like it, I mean — who wants to be introduced to the pain they’re trying to avoid?

How do you respond when they don’t like it, when they say, why do you have to poke at this?

I usually say something sympathetic, I know it doesn’t feel good to feel pain, but I think its better to recognize what the pain is. Recognizing it causes fewer problems than when you defend against it the way you’re doing.

What is the garden variety defense that comes up every day?

Denial. Everybody is in denial about a great many things. So many of us are in denial about our needs and the way we are in pain. We deny it entirely, repress it or split it off.

How did you come up with the book idea?

I’ve been writing this website for a couple of years, Aftertherapy.com, and a friend of mine said you should write a series of posts about different defense mechanisms and explain to people what they are, which I enjoyed doing and thinking about them.  Then I wanted to do a book and the people at New Harbinger didn’t like the original idea I submitted and they said, come up with a different one.  I submitted several ideas and they liked the one about defenses best.

That’s something not really explored in the mass market.

Well, I think the idea of an unconscious mind isn’t explored so much in the mass market literature. The unconscious has been written out.

What does the title mean, how did you come up with that?

I didn’t have a title but my editor Melissa Kirk came up with it. Nobody liked it at New Harbinger, but I do. The subtitle is very long: “Psychological defense mechanisms and the hidden way they shape our lives.”

Do you mostly use clinical vignettes?

I use clinical vignettes, and one of the things I really enjoyed was finding examples from pop culture and movies, or things people could recognize from everyday life. And then I also talk about myself and my own experiences and my own dealing with defenses. In the self help literature, there is so much idealism. “Learn How to Feel Loved”, and “Conquer This” and “Conquer That”. And I think even if you understand your defense mechanisms, they don’t just go away. They’re like the first resort, they are built in and you have to recognize that they’re built in and will always be there.

Are they always pathological?

No. I give lots of examples in the book where defense mechanisms are normal and necessary. For example, the constant awareness that we are going to die would make life pretty much unbearable. I think most of us live in denial about that. That’s a useful thing. Another example is reaction formation. Take the reformed smoker. The person who used to smoke and quits and then gets completely disgusted by people who smoke, can’t bear to be around the thing they used to love. That’s pretty adaptive. It helps them. Life without defense mechanisms is impossible, and it’s only when they’re maladaptive that we need to challenge them.

What’s your favorite defense mechanism to talk about?

Right now I’m really interested in shame, so I love talking about narcissism and blaming, these are defenses that are about shame. That and projection. The way we locate things outside of ourselves in other people and think they’re not inside of us, I find that fascinating.

 



Exercise Instead of Medication

By Gerti Schoen, MA, LP

_D3P0456

Exercise can be just as effective against depression as medication, especially in mild to moderate cases. Study after study has come to this conclusion, and it can even help with major depression and to prevent reoccurring episodes of it.

Many alternative health professionals talk about how “food is medicine;” now, the corresponding view is “exercise is medicine.” A recent news item claiming that exercise is more crucial in managing diabetes than food, is an example of this new viewpoint.

Having a stronger body increases overall well-being, even in people with low self esteem. Body and mind cannot be seen separately – an insight that athletes back in ancient Greece were well aware off.

Of course, it’s difficult to motivate yourself to move when you are depressed. It’s important to find an activity that suits the pace you are comfortable with. If walking is all you can do, then walking it is (especially when done in nature). If dancing feels possible, do that. If you like Yoga, great.

You don’t have to hit the gym. Find something that appeals to you. Being active on a regular basis (say two or three times a week) is much more beneficial than doing something strenuous once in a while.

If you can avoid medication and exercise regularly instead, even better. Drugs can have serious negative side effects, especially when taken over a long period of time. Some studies even suggest that antidepressants can lead to chronic depression.

This phenomenon seems to occur in many people, who had an initial positive response to SSRIs, then stayed on the drugs, relapsed and became treatment-resistant. This is when the depression may become permanent.

Other cautionary tales include that psychiatric drugs have led to impairment in brain development in animal studies. Robert Whitaker, author of “Anatomy of an Epidemic: Magic Bullets, Psychiatric Drugs and the Astonishing Rise of Mental Illness”, points out that the widely believed theory of chemical imbalances in the brain had turned out to be false.

It is undeniable that drugs have helped and still help countless people, especially with severe mental illness. It’s equally undeniable that many people take medication that is unneeded and may turn out to be harmful.

Everybody has to evaluate their individual situation very carefully. Take control of your treatment and inform yourself of the pros and cons of it.

There is no one treatment that fits all. Ultimately, you are the one who knows your body and mind best.

photo credit: pkonecom



How To Get Yourself To Meditate

By Gerti Schoen, MA, LP

Buddha praying hands

We know that meditation is beneficial. It’s hard nowadays to escape the ever present pictures of the smiling Buddha, and the articles praising meditations efficacy, reaching from calming the mind to lowering blood pressure.

But how do we get ourselves to fit yet another chore that’s “good for you” into our schedule?

There are no easy answers, because if you want to turn a blind eye, you will. Just like with going to the gym. Or eating your vegetables.

But those of you who are willing to take a shot at it, there are a few tricks to help push yourself.

First and foremost: Forget that your mind will be quiet. It won’t. It takes many years of consistent practice to come to a place of emptiness of thought.

In the meantime, look at it this way: Your thoughts will not be eliminated, but they will slow down, and that in itself will feel like a relief.

Allow your thoughts to be chaotic. How can we expect perfection without any or little training? We don’t expect it when it comes to our bodies. Or our professional skills. We know that it takes hard work to come to a place of mastery.

But somehow we entertain this illusion that we should be able to control our minds just like that; and when we can’t, we feel bad, and nobody wants to feel bad. So all good intentions go out the window, and there’s not going to be any meditation.

Accept that the mind is busy. When we say “the brain just functions that way” it’s easier to allow this busyness than to think, “I can’t pull it off, I am a failure”.

No one can, when they first sit down.

Be prepared for your mind to trail off, and to lose focus. Over and over and over.

But if you sit just ten minutes in silence, you will have removed yourself from a lot of noise and obligations and stress. That in itself has a calming effect.

Make your meditation a routine activity. Do it in the morning. If you postpone it until bedtime, you’ll most likely never do it.

Integrate it into your day. Instead of pulling out your smart phone on the bus, just sit and close your eyes.

Find an external trigger to remind you to focus on your breath. For example, in the car, every time you stop at a red traffic light, keep your eyes on the light and breath deeply.

Begin to associate positive feelings with meditation. Shift your perspective from seeing it as a chore, to viewing it as something that makes you feel just a little bit lighter.

The mind is a powerful tool. Use it to your advantage.

 

photo credit: yago1.com



How To Lose Your Inner Critic

By Gerti Schoen, MA, LP

tea with Everett True

It’s bad enough feeling anxious or depressed. But what makes the emotional pain so much worse, is that we can’t just accept what it going on inside our minds. We have to criticize ourselves for being afraid, angry, jealous and so on. That’s what really brings us down: the inner critic.

Let’s say something went wrong at work. One of your clients decided to go with another firm and you feel directly affected. It’s one thing to get over the loss of business. It means loss of income, loss of contacts, loss of reputation.

It wouldn’t be so bad to just let it go and be done with it.

But that’s usually not the end of the story. We start to feel that we should’ve known they weren’t happy; that it’s something we did wrong, and it’s solely our responsibility. We should’ve done this to prevent their leaving, and that to find a quick replacement.

We come down hard on ourselves and cannot possibly forgive that we can’t read other people’s minds, or potentially made a mistake. It’s unacceptable that we’re human, and humans can’t always know.

What’s needed in order to silence the self-critical voices in out head is self-compassion.

We need to look at ourselves with the benevolence and understanding we’d offer a child or a good friend. “Don’t worry so much”, we could say to ourselves. “You did everything you could. You worked your butt off, talked to everyone you could and made a big effort to make the client happy. Sometimes we can’t control all the factors, and I can’t know all the ins and outs of why they left our company.”

It’s important to put yourself in the shoes of someone who will talk you down from your self-blame and relentless criticism.

And it’s not just psychological strategy to get familiar with self-compassion; there are actual studies that have shown it’s positive affects.

New research concludes that self-compassion leads to “significant positive association with self-reported measures of happiness, optimism, positive affect, wisdom, personal initiative, curiosity and exploration, agreeableness, extroversion, and conscientiousness.”

If we can leave ourselves alone, our whole self-image improves. We cut out stress and fear, we sleep better, have better relationships and so on.

Or, in scientific terms: “Self-compassion predicted significant variance in positive psychological health beyond that attributable to personality.”

If you are a forgiving person, start with yourself. Give yourself a break. You’ll feel better in no time.

 

photo credit: neate photos



How To Deal With Shyness And Social Anxiety

By Gerti Schoen, MA, LP

Shyness

Lots of people are shy. I am, kind of. It doesn’t come out as much, now that I don’t go to loud parties and crowded bars anymore. I prefer lunch dates and small dinner parties, and my social needs are fully met by being in quieter and smaller settings.

A big part of why people suffer so much around others is because they feel they should abide by certain social standards. Sometimes they’re not even aware that they don’t like particular forms of gathering.

Some college students (or former college students) prefer to binge drink rather than admit to themselves that they feel awkward around people they don’t know very well. The alcohol kills all anxiety and serves as a social lubricant in order to feel more comfortable.

Sometimes it’s possible to stick to a limit of one or two drinks that hold them over all night. A moderate amount of alcohol can work well to calm the anxiety without being excessive. Unfortunately, many people can’t stop once there’s a mild buzz, especially when everybody else is knocking down glass after glass.

The difficulty in trying to hold a conversation when in the grip of social anxiety, is the flightyness we communicate to others. We feel insecure about whether we have anything interesting to say, and this belief is openly displayed on our face, for everyone to spot.

Our gaze goes somewhere towards the other end of the room, our voice falters, maybe our whole body is turned inwards or away. We start thinking about our own awkwardness rather than what we’re trying to say, and come across as flighty and unfocussed.

This is often what makes the person we’re trying to talk to lose interest, or wonder what’s going on. If we ourselves don’t believe that what we have to say is worthwhile, then others will do just the same.

The key to dealing with this anxiety is presence and awareness. As soon as we begin to focus intently on what we’re trying to communicate and how it’s going to be received, there’s a whole different emphasis on the connection between the two people involved in the conversation.

When we’re mainly in our heads, filled with anxiety and doubt, we don’t really pay attention to the other person. And we all know what that means: when people feel ignored they turn away and look for acknowledgement elsewhere.

We often forget that others need attention, because we’re so in need of it ourselves. As soon as we can step out of the cocoon of neediness and feeling that we lack something, a genuine connection can be established.

Most of the time, it’s not about how the other person behaves. It’s about what we believe and what we do that draws people in.

We have a lot more control over interpersonal situations than we think.

 

 

 

photo credit: roeyahram



Taking On Other People’s Opinions

By Gerti Schoen, MA, LP

Boundary Wall - Mirium Regia (1)

One of my clients came in the other day and was quite upset. About herself.

“Why can’t I just stick to my guns?” she asked aghast.

It’s something that happens to her quite frequently. She thinks she has an opinion about something, but as soon as someone else explains why they think differently, she sways over to the other side.

“It bothers me that I am so understanding” she concluded.

Indeed, her understanding of others regularly makes her forget her own point of view.

It’s the old story: it’s hard to just say no, put up a boundary and side with one’s own experience. Whenever another influence appears, your own position takes a back seat. We call it self defeat.

Of course, there is always the need for balance. Someone who blindly and continually insists on their point of view is not well adjusted either. Unevenness towards either side – too little consistence or too much – is undesirable.

We need to remember to put up a firm boundary towards others when we feel that we are taken over too easily.

How do we do that?

Awareness is the key, as always. When do you tend to get swept away by others? In a certain social setting, with your in-laws, your wife’s girlfriends, your high school buddies, your doctor?

People in authority have the most power over us – whether it’s a domineering relative, a store clerk or a cop. Any kind of uniform will usually do the trick.

Observe yourself when your determination begins to soften and the other person wins out just by the sheer volume of their words or their voice.

Put both feet on the ground, straighten your posture and stay firm.

Your have come to your own conclusions, and they are worth no less than anybody else’s.

photo credit: Choufani



Letting Go

By Gerti Schoen, MA, LP

Set me free !!!
Letting go isn’t easy. Our tendency is to hold on to our hurt, our convictions, our attachments, and our belief that we are right.

Recently, one of my patients insisted that her boyfriend be able to read her every desire from her eyes. As she contemplated what it would be like to let go of this habit, she asked a question that gets to the heart of letting go: “Do you want to be right or do you want to he happy?”

We all have our attachments.

We get attached to the idea that our spouses should know exactly what our needs are. We get attached to knowing our way to work and get pissed off when the road is blocked. We get attached to things always going our way and feel stifled when they don’t.

Sometimes we have to literally let go of a relationship that is no longer a good idea.

When a friendship has run its course and feels chronically stale or exhausting. When an ex is moving on with his life and doesn’t have time for us anymore. When a relative is destroying himself with drugs or alcohol and we realize that we only sustain the addiction.

Life is difficult at times. There is no one who is spared. Pain is necessary so we can appreciate the joy of life. There is not one without the other.

The earlier we can accept that, the less we will suffer. Only then can we be free.

 

photo credit: Rakesh JV



 
The Gentle Self Buddha Betrayed
Gerti Schoen is the author of The Gentle Self
and her latest book, Buddha Betrayed. Check them
out on Amazon.com today!

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