Category Archives: mental health

Raw vs. polished: on emotions

This past Saturday I woke up very early in the morning again (2am), brain churning again. On Friday I had a coaching session and apparently my subconscious had been at work. I woke up restless and tossing around thoughts in my head about something that had gotten me riled up during my call.

I got up and tried writing in my journal for a while, getting it all out and spilling it onto the paper so I could stop the brain chatter. Then I tried reading for a while, since the writing just seemed to “stir” myself up more. After a couple hours I tried to come back to bed. But sleep wouldn’t come, and after half an hour I rose again.

I felt like I wanted to crawl outside my skin. I thought about going somewhere for coffee (it was now 5a.m.) and realized that I was trying to escape myself, some deep feeling inside. So I pulled out my journal again, and surprised myself when a torrent of grief, sadness and shame came tumbling out. I held myself as I cried, and I allowed myself to write and capture what was coming out at that moment.

I cried for almost an hour, and emptied the thoughts that were in my mind, grieving mostly for that 7-year-old girl inside me, who learned to eat her emotions instead of feeling them. I allowed myself to feel great compassion for her intentions, which were just to make others happy and not to “hurt others’ feelings.” I allowed myself to feel compassion and grief for my parents, who had both lost one parent that year to cancer.

After that outburst, which scared my husband a little (I reassured him I just had to let out some grief, I would be okay), my mind calmed and my immediate thought was: what is in the fridge that would make me feel better. Then I laughed at myself: ah, I see! That is indeed the pattern isn’t it? Food is comfort, food is there when I have nobody to compassionately witness the pain. But I did not eat anything this time. I’d made myself a cup of coffee during the grief-storm, because having a hot beverage can be comforting.

I went back to sleep for a couple of hours, relieved that this feeling of wanting to exit myself was now gone. When I woke up I wrote a post about “feeling your feelings” rather than eating them. The words poured out into a nearly 1300 word post. But reading it, I felt a sense of that raw pain that needs to settle a bit. I was not ready to post, even after the next day when I edited.

Feeling uncomfortable emotions is difficult. Whether grief, sadness, anger, loss, betrayal, disappointment, they are sometimes hard to process. There is a visceral and deep expression in your body when these feelings come up. Resisting these feelings leads to anxiety, depression and other kinds of problems. Numbing the emotions with food,  alcohol or drugs can lead to weight gain, addiction, and many other problems.

But some of us were not taught as children that it is okay to feel those feelings, to let them move through us and complete themselves. Emotions are like physical vibrations in the body. They are not permanent, they tend to arrive and leave in waves. They can altered by our thinking, and many a person has tried “think happy thoughts” to push those emotions away.

Some of us were told (by a well-meaning adult): “don’t cry, honey” and given ice cream to soothe us. Or when the adults around us were not comfortable expressing their own feelings, as some generations were NOT encouraged to do, it can seem like a foreign world to allow yourself to do this.

But it can also open up a wellspring of joy within you, when you realize that emotions are neither good nor bad. They just ARE, they exist. They are part of being human, part of living a full and rich life. Some of them will be positive, and some will be negative. It is that difference that creates the contrast. If we were happy all the time, how would we KNOW we were happy?

So this post is to encourage you to explore your emotions, and allow them to come up, even the negative ones, as they come up. Don’t reach for the chocolate or the ice cream or the glass of wine. Just name them, feel them, and allow them to pass through you. They will not destroy you, and you can endure them. Numbing them out and staying “asleep” to your inner experience is what a majority of people do in our culture.

Being aware takes effort, patience, and great compassion, but it rewards you when you truly begin to know yourself. Believe me, it is totally worth it. You are worth knowing.


Saturday Share

It is Saturday Share day so I will take a day  off writing and instead highlight a couple of blogs that I have discovered and enjoy.

Dr. PerryThe first one is Dr. Perry of the MakeItUltra™Psychology to Motivate blog. Dr. Perry is a psychotherapist from Sherman Oaks, California. He writes about self-care, depression, anxiety, narcissism, grief, and many other topics of interest in psychology. His writing is clear and relevant to the problems and issues of today.

Dr. Perry also gives back generously to the blogging community by allowing space on his site for others to promote their blogs as well.  This exemplifies a generous spirit of creating space for others while contributing to our knowledge of psychology. Check out his blog if you get a chance.

calling in well.JPGAnother blog I like is Calling In Well, which documents experiments and adventures in well-being. The categories are: food, happiness, health, mindfulness and travel. All kinds of my favorite things. Conceptually I love the idea of calling in well. Her photography is beautiful and I enjoy reading women who (like me) do their own experiments in various wellness practices and write about it.

So if you are looking for some good reads on your weekend, check them out and give them some love.

Hope you have an awesome weekend, friends! Make the most of it! 


Smoke and mirrors

This morning I woke up very early again (3:30) on the heels of a dream, but at least it was after 7 hours of sleep rather than just 4 the night before. I tried counting breaths, I tried a little meditating, praying and attempting to let go of my thoughts. The dream faded quickly and I did not write it down. But there were work people in it, and it did not feel like a happy dream.

I tried paying attention to my thoughts (one meditation technique). Counting breaths got me up to 70, then 20, then I could not make it to 10 without my thoughts distracting me. One of the thoughts I kept having was that I no longer believe in what I do at work. I am supporting a system which is very dysfunctional. I feel like I am rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic sometimes, juggling unreasonable demands.

What also occurred to me is that I no longer trust my director. This does not feel good. But it is what emerges for me, a feeling of betrayal. He broke our group’s trust by taking on two more projects when he told us last November: no more new projects without new resources. I realize he defined this differently from me. I think of people (“headcounts” in corporate speak) as my resources. Yes, there is budget money. But when it comes to human resources, actual people to do the work that’s been committed, we are far below critical mass.

I wrote a long email to my boss and the other manager on our team about this last Friday. I scheduled a meeting for this past Monday to discuss. Since I was asked to work on a project for funding model innovation with a Senior Director of another division, I had to gather the data and face the reality. It is not good. We have 15 active projects and there are only 5 people in the “field clinical research” role in Latin America to execute, spread among 4 countries. True, about half of those projects are in maintenance mode, and are not very work-intensive. But we are fooling ourselves if we think we can continue like this much longer.

pain image

Photo credit link – this is how I felt last year at this time.

A history of over-committing our resources means we are far behind many of the targets that were originally set when the work was committed. And yes, having to lose 3 real headcounts over the past 2 years has had a devastating effect that I could not really manage (from 8 down to 5). We were poised on the razor’s edge even before that in terms of work load. When upper leadership decided to dis-invest, it kind of broke something in me.

Last year at this time I hinted strongly to 2 direct reports that would no longer have positions on the team and needed to find other jobs. HR did not encourage this, but I am loyal to people, not a corporation. One of them found a better job, was relocated to the U.S. from Brazil. The other one found another job in her country’s office as well, so I just had to do one layoff, and it was a temporary one before she began her new position.

Now is not the time to be taking on more projects. That was what we promised the team back in June (and again in November) when we met to survey the damage. No more projects without more resources. My director broke that promise. I no longer believe in what I’m selling. And now I am fairly certain that staying much longer in my current role will actually hurt my career long-term. Aligning with a boss that cannot keep his promises and has lost the trust of his team feels pretty wretched right now.

I have not yet figured out the next move for me. But no wonder I am losing sleep over this. It’s time I was honest with myself about this whole mess. I have been defending a losing proposition for a couple of years now. My team trusts me as well, and they will have to trust that when I leave, I still care about them as people.

A couple weeks ago I scheduled a trip to Argentina and to Brazil. It feels like a farewell tour for me. I know I will leave, and there is one particular colleague in Buenos Aires that I want to talk with 1:1. She has a lot of difficulty saying no to her boss when she is over-committed. He is a world-renowned electro-physiologist. I get it, but she will have to learn this skill. She returns from maternity leave next week. In my own heart and soul, I could not leave this role before her return. I feel a need to say goodbye, and to wish her well, to let her know I still care, which is why I need to leave.

I need to surrender to the fact that people with higher “grade levels” than I in this division have made decisions that I believe are not good for the health of the organization long-term. Which means their decisions conflict with my values. Physically, my body refuses to cooperate with the smoke and mirrors act that we are forced to enact to survive here.

What a relief it is to imagine putting down my sword and no longer fighting this battle. I don’t even CARE what I do next. That’s how good it feels to be honest about where we are now. I need to stop fantasizing about an “exit package” and start plotting my exit immediately.

DST – Declare it “be kind” week

This week, most U.S. states (except Arizona and Hawaii) will go through the process of the Spring time change. I typically go on an annual rant to my facebook friends about how much I dislike the twice annual time change, especially this one when we lose an hour of sleep. We lose daylight in the morning, and as a morning person I dislike having to get started in the dark again.

For many people, I realize this is a minor annoyance. But for those of us with more sensitive sleep schedules, messing up our circadian rhythms causes real health issues. On Mondays after the start of DST there are typically more workplace injuries and tiredness at the clock change is the cause of more traffic accidents. A Swedish study found that the risk of heart attack increases for the first 3 days following the switch to DST.

So what is there to do with all of these annoying and also potentially serious consequences?

I would very much like it if we abolished the switch, and just used the DST schedule year-round. The energy savings we supposedly gained a century ago when this madness started are no longer relevant. I believe the health risks associated with changing the clocks really are not worth it. Also, it makes things more complex when we exist in a global world with some countries changing time, others not.

But since I am not necessarily able to gather the political will to make this happen, I instead decided a few years ago to declare a “be kind to myself and to others” week. Since I know I will be a bit sleep deprived for a few days, and my body doesn’t like the disruption, I do other things to make sure I take care of myself. I go to yoga, often I schedule a massage, I eat a lot of healthy food and drink plenty of water. I use compassion with myself and realize that if I am tired and cranky, my body needs patience and understanding.

I consider the fact that Spring is indeed arriving, and the light is increasing. I acknowledge that while I need to wake up in the dark for a few more weeks, having a bit more light in the evenings is nice. I try to take it easy on myself, knowing that I love Spring, but seasonal changes can be hard on anyone, and routines need mindful adjustment.

I allow myself to be a little “lazy” at work, by working from home the Monday after the change, and appreciate the privilege I have in doing so. In a week, things will be better. I typically adjust in about 3-5 days, and my cats do so as well, and things will even out.

If others you meet are tired and cranky this week, it helps to remember that some people may feel this change more acutely than we might. Make an effort to go easy on them as well if you can.

I think we can all benefit from declaring a “Be Kind to Yourself” week this time of year, especially to those of us coping with the change. Why not? We should be kind and compassionate on a daily basis more anyway. Let’s just kick it off this week with some mindful and intentional care of ourselves this week. We deserve it.


Rumbling with our stories

I just love Brené Brown’s work on how to use what she calls “Rising Strong as a Spiritual Practice.” She is a Texas born and bred professor, researcher and storyteller who studies shame, wholeheartedness and how we use story and narrative to shape our lives. Her Ted Talk on the power of vulnerability has been viewed over 33 million times. It is one reason I decided to start this blog.

Her definition of spirituality as a belief that humans as inherently interconnected, and in a loving force greater than ourselves is something I truly align with personally. Brown’s work is starting to make its way to families, government and leadership in large organizations. Her approach has wisdom that has been profound for me.

She uses a term coined by Anne Lamott which is a personal favorite, the “shitty first draft.” Her process of identifying the stories we get “caught” in, and realizing they are stories we make up in our own heads to explain things, but that they are not reality, has helped me enormously. I wrote on this theme last week, but I want to explore it from a different angle here, since I finished re-listening to her audio program again recently.

The idea is that we need to recognize when we are in a difficult emotion (the reckoning). Instead of eating it or damping it down with alcohol or buffering it by numbing out on facebook, we get curious. We examine those feelings, own our story, and “rumble” with it. This step means we get honest about the stories we are making up, challenge them to determine what is true, what’s self-protection and what needs to change.

The final step is the revolution, in which we write a new ending to our story based on the key learning from our rumble. We then use this new, braver story to change how we engage with the world and to ultimately transform the way we live love, parent and lead. (summary from page 37 of Rising Strong).

Some of us who have been to therapy recognize this is something that counselors do while we are figuring out what is causing pain for us in our lives. When suffering from depression or anxiety, it is critical skill to understand that it is our thoughts that cause us emotional pain, not our circumstances. Sure, if we are experiencing grief or loss or a traumatic event, then there will be pain. This is human, and though we are terrible about allowing grief as a culture, it is absolutely necessary for healing.

The tricky part is that we often add to our pain by layering shame and self-hatred on top of those life experiences. “I should be happy” we tell ourselves. “I should feel grateful” all of the self-help books tell us. But “shoulds” are not helpful. Feelings are what they are. They are not good or bad, they are part of being human.

Feelings often provide some helpful clues to us on what and who we want to move towards or move away from in our lives. Brené Brown makes the point that we often believe we are people that THINK and sometimes feel. But the actuality is that people always FEEL and sometimes think. Perhaps this is a remnant from the Descartes’ idea that “I think therefore I am,”  but it is inaccurate.

Neuro-biologically we are wired for emotion. We are wired for story. Our brain actually gives us a dopamine hit when we create a story that explains whatever disparate facts are in front of us. It makes no difference whether the story is true, it just takes comfort from making sense of the world. The stories we tell shape our lives. And when we tell them enough times, they evolve into theories about how the world works. Any theory we belief for long enough becomes a belief.

The awesome thing about humans is that we can choose to believe new things. When we encounter a belief that is causing us pain, we can unpack it, question it, and possibly change it. We often find we believe things we may have been taught when young, or observed in our family systems.

What if we write our stories as though we are the heroes and not the victims? What if we are able to forgive ourselves for the mistakes we made, and the mistakes others made? When we can free ourselves in this way, we free our energy to stop living in our past and to take brave steps into the future.

rising strong audio.JPG

If you want a free link to this roughly 3-hour audible presentation on this topic, where Brown explains her work, and also answers questions from the audience please email me at I am happy to share this with anyone who may want to do similar personal work.

What are you making it mean?

One of the things I have discovered as I have developed a daily practice of meditation is that my mind does not sit still very willingly.

I used to confuse meditation with the idea that you must empty your mind of thoughts. Maybe some well-trained and long-practiced gurus can do this, but I am not at that level. What I *can* do however, is pay attention to my thoughts. If I use a mantra for meditation, like “ease of being” or pay attention to the breath, or scan the body, I inevitably get distracted, and my mind starts doing what it does so well, thinking and churning away.

But then I realize I have gone away from the intention for that practice, gently bring the mind back, and begin again. In the beginning, I think I used to get annoyed with myself – how did I get distracted so easily and so quickly?!? The more I learned and studied I realized that it was much better to view this with compassion. As Jon Kabat-Zinn would say: it’s not a problem, or a mistake that you got distracted. This is just what minds do. When you notice you have gone off, just bring it back. That is the very essence of the practice.

Wow. What a relief. I’m not doing it wrong. Dan Harris, wrote 10% Happier, uses the metaphor that meditation is like a “bicep curl” for the brain. The process of bringing the mind back, many many times, is what helps you grow in the practice, and to develop mastery over your mind.

As I developed in my practice, I began to see places where my mind would create and invent stories upon hearing communication from someone else. And my mind is inventive about this, thought it has a very story-lines it seems to prefer. For example, if I heard a benign comment from my husband about something that struck me in an emotional way, I would stew about it, and use it to feel bad.

But if I used the approach, recommended by coaches and therapists to echo back what I had heard (“you plan to go cut some wood after work”), and said, “what I’m making that mean is that you want some time away from me, you are tired of spending time with me.” Typically that is not what he meant at all, and he would correct the invented story that was running through my head. By saying it out loud, and declaring my interpretation, I was able to clarify that HE did not mean that, my own mind was inventing a story that was creating hurt. 

So have learned to do this more often in general, not always out loud, depending on the context. But sometimes I will examine a particular comment or issue that is bothering me, and ask myself “What am I making it mean?” to allow myself to stop and take some distance, realize that my mind is programmed to make sense of the world, and so often jumps to whatever conclusion fits its usual story-line. When I question that thought, I realize that might not be the case at all. The objective facts or circumstance presented itself and my mind took the next “logical” step, which may not be logical at all.

Our minds are pretty sneaky, and we sometimes buy into these stories as though they are reality. These stories create an emotional state, and if they are habitual, we typically forget to question them. But it is worth stopping now and then, examining them, asking ourselves if we really know that thought is true. Or is it just a projection? Is it just a story-line that we have thought so many times, we believe it to be true?

We then understand that these thoughts are optional, and we may learn to let go of them more easily, to hold them lightly instead of tightly. There is so much freedom in that, and so much less drama. What are you making it mean?


I am mastering sleep

To continue along a theme I started yesterday on the power of internal thoughts and dialogue on your feelings and behavior, I decided to go into another personal example.

Some of you know that I have struggled in the past with getting enough sleep. But in the last couple of years I have truly started to understand the difference that getting good, consistent sleep makes for me. It allows me to be less distracted, more engaged, less triggered in terms of emotional volatility.

Good sleep allows me to be more creative, more flexible in my thinking, and more generous in spirit. It helps me keep my weight stable and gives me more consistent energy. Sleep allows me to make better decisions and to pause before responding to stimuli. It “cleans up” the toxic stuff that builds up during the day.

But for years I struggled with periodic insomnia. Notice how I define that in the past tense? In truth, I still struggle sometimes. But I was considering the difference in telling myself “I suffer from insomnia” and changing that thought too: “I am learning to master sleep.”


It may seem like a subtle difference. But when I consider the feeling that results from “I suffer from…” it makes me feel bad. It makes me feel defeated. When I instead practice the thought, “I am mastering sleep” I start to feel hopeful, as though I am making progress. It means I have not yet figured it out, but that I am getting there. Actually, that is what is true for me.

Back when I started tracking all this stuff with the Wellbeing Finder about a year and a half ago, I really struggled. Knowing that getting better, more consistent sleep was the goal, I could see what factors led to better sleep. So I experimented with different things, like powering the devices down at least an hour before bed. I was shifting my drinking and eating patterns too. I quit alcohol and cut way back on sugar and flour.

It turned out some of those factors were much more relevant than I thought in getting a good night’s sleep. Now that I am used to receiving better quality and quantity of sleep, I am a total convert! But I need to realize this is a skill that can be mastered. Even though I suffered from insomnia in the past, I am gaining mastery over good sleep.

If you are mastering sleep, do consider what language you use as you learn to embrace this beautiful and restorative habit. Imagine if you used kinder language to describe the process of change, and describe the issues as relevant to the past but not the present. Perhaps that will help you, as it has for me, to let go of the need to be perfect. Mastery is an ongoing process but so very worthwhile.

There is no “better” you

I have been noticing a lot of flyers this year in fitness centers and around bulletin boards that invite people to “become a better you.” I really dislike this slogan. Let me tell you why.

You are just fine the way you are. Right now. No exceptions. You are worthy of love, compassion and forgiveness. Just because you are human. In this moment, and always.

Are you perfect? No. Are you human? Yes. You are an imperfect human being in the process of growing and becoming, as are we all. And that is a beautiful thing.

Are there some things you wish to change about yourself? Probably. Most of us want to lose weight, make more money, become more patient, perhaps become better partners or spouses. And this is fine. But this does not mean we become “better” as people. If we cannot accept that we are fine, and worthy of love and compassion, in this moment and always, it will be much harder to grow and change.

What bothers me about this “better” you is that it implies the you RIGHT NOW is not enough. But that is never true. You are enough. You are doing your best and that is always enough. You are worthy. Always.

You will not become “better” if you lose weight. Perhaps your health will be better, and you will have less discomfort in your body and more vitality if you lose weight. Those are all worthy goals, and by all means strive for those goals if they are important to you. But you must accept yourself and who you are in this very moment to allow transformation to occur.

Does that sound paradoxical? I thought so at first when I encountered this idea. If I’m not striving and trying and working toward it, how can I be “better” at it? Certainly skills take practice, and many of us learned that working hard is the answer, or the way to riches, or even the way to God.

When you have goals that are important to you, absolutely you should work for them. Put the time in every day if you can. But realize that there is no “better” version of you that awaits. You may feel better about your skills, and you may accomplish great things. Wonderful! Congratulations!

But the YOU remains the same, lovable and worthy. Flawed and imperfect. And marvelously human, adaptable and growing all the time. If you accept all parts of yourself, the good and the bad, you begin to feel such compassion for yourself and others as well. 

No person is better than another. We are all just doing our best, even if it seems like not everyone is trying. We actually are doing the best that we know. Try this belief on for a bit. When I really came to know this as true, it gave me so much peace. And ironically, parts of me began to change as I embraced this acceptance.

You are the BEST YOU right now. And that is enough. Let go of the struggle to become better. Work on acceptance of who you are. See how this changes your energy and your life.