connection

Why It's Not Easy to Just Be Happy

Photo by Geralt on Pixabay

Photo by Geralt on Pixabay

Why can’t I just be happy? This question, or something like it, often comes up frequently during initial sessions with folks I work with. Typically I respond to this question…”Well, what does ‘happiness’ actually mean to you?” In a perfect world...what would that look like, how would you know you’ve reached “happiness?”

Constant happiness, anybody?

Not to burst bubbles - the reality is that we humans are not conditioned to live in a state of happiness at all times… though it may seem that way when looking at the lives of others. Now if we hung out with these “happy” people in different settings, we would likely notice that at times they too find themselves in a space of emotional “meh,” anxiety, sadness or fear. We are conditioned to perform in various environments in order to achieve or avoid certain outcomes. For example, Sara is outgoing, lively and smiling around the office, every day… All. The. Time. She may be hoping that her optimism and great people skills will eventually land her a promotion.

Keeping up the happiness

We also get comfortable with roles we believe we are expected to play. Maybe one day Sara had a rough morning and did allow herself to show up bummed out. Then Jon two cubicles down, continuously pestered her about why she wasn’t “being herself” that day. “What’s going on with you?” Others have now confirmed Sara’s identify as the office’s ‘perky, go-git-er,’ expecting her to show up that way.

The part we don’t see is that Sara, fully human, still has rough days. But, instead of exposing that at work, she goes home, cries with her cat, and downs a bottle-size “glass” of wine (you know the ones I’m talking about). The moral of the story is this: We see others as they think they should be seen, at the expense of not allowing them to show up as they really are.

First things first: survival

Ever considered why 24-7 happiness is not possible? If we look at this through an evolutionary lens, we can conclude that our primitive brain’s most critical goal is survival. We survive by accessing primary resources including food, shelter, water, and sex.* If you don’t accomplish those pursuits, you are screwed. Even if you lived on but were laissez-faire in your approach to survival, your genetic line will likely become lunch.

And here’s something else: Another aspect of survival involves belonging to a group and connecting with others.* Cause’ back then, flying solo didn’t mean strength and independence, it meant YOU DEAD. It meant you literally didn’t have someone to cover your back and it’s you against the saber tooth tiger. Ergo, humans are social creatures: we hunted and gathered together so we could share resources and survive.

Some things haven’t changed

The thing is, that drive-to-seek-resources instinct hasn’t gone away with time.* If anything, we’ve evolved to become more sensitive to threat; the threat just looks different in the modern world. Nowadays we are bombarded with messages that tell us we aren’t good enough the way we are - that we need to be better, buy more, go faster, or be forever alone and unhappy. It’s pretty hard to be happy when society tells us that happiness is only achievable with success and material goods. But even with success and stuff, happiness isn’t guaranteed. Consider all the tragic deaths of celebrities via suicide and overdose… even the people with the most access to resources don’t always reach the “happy” we think we need to find.

Challenging baseline happiness

So does all of this happiness crap just mean we’re modern-day screwed? Fortunately, the answer is no. The good news is, simply becoming aware and practicing certain skills can help us see happiness through a more attainable, realistic frame. We no longer need to pretend to be someone we’re not. We can have the flexibility to feel the ups and downs of our emotions, happiness or otherwise, and make choices that make for a meaningful life.

Acceptance Commitment Therapy (ACT) is a type of therapy that tackles a lot of misconceptions about happiness. With practice, ACT helps to rewire our brains and experiences, guiding us to respond to positive and negative emotions in healthier ways.* I work with these concepts regularly and teach tools to help you be Gucci (Millennial phrase I guess… Urban Dictionary told me it means “good”. Last I checked that was just another kind of bag I can’t afford, but whatever). We can work together to figure out what’s really important to ya in your life and help you find your true, genuine “happy.”

Schedule an appointment today.

*Borrowed from The Happiness Trap by Russ Harris (2007, 2008).


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Abby Erickson is a Licensed Mental Health Counselor at People Bloom Counseling, a Redmond psychotherapy practice. She helps people with anxiety and social anxiety learn ways to better manage their angst. She also helps people struggling with low self-esteem and body image issues be comfortable in their own skin. When she’s not in the therapy room, Abby finds her moments of happiness from working out, reading, or hitting up an acoustic show with a glass of vino in hand.

A Life Worth Living: What to Do When Faced with Thoughts of Suicide

Photo by Larisa Birta on Unsplash

Photo by Larisa Birta on Unsplash

Death by suicide

Social media blew up two weeks ago when fashion icon Kate Spade and culinary expert Anthony Bourdain died by suicide days of each other. After all, who doesn’t know the brand Kate Spade, hasn’t walked past one of her stores, or perhaps own one of her purses? Foodie or not, who hasn’t heard of Anthony Bourdain and his culinary storytelling that sparks interest and delight in food and cultures all around the world?

News like this often get the immediacy of the press and then slowly fade away. However, if you are familiar with the feelings of suicide or have lost family, friends and role models to suicide, you do not just recover and move on. These thoughts, feelings and images still consume your mind even when the news has moved to national crises like the horror of separating immigrant children from their families.

Suicide unfortunately happens amongst everyday folks, and this rarely makes the news or causes a social media uproar. While Spade and Bourdain may have been inspiring role models, their deaths didn’t spur this strong reaction because they matter more than the rest of us. It is because high profile celebrity suicides affect our collective consciousness and bring awareness to a problem people face in their small communities. We want to open the discussion about suicide and what we can do to prevent it.

Soapbox about suicide language

As a healthcare professional in the state of Washington, I am required to take a suicide prevention training every six years. One of the most significant takeaways from the last training was changing the way we talk about suicide. We often talk about someone having “committed suicide.” If we really stop to think about it, the closest association of someone having “committed” something is a crime.

While we would never say that someone “committed cancer” or “committed heart disease,” let’s start by saying that it was death by suicide. I understand that suicide implies a choice whereas medical illnesses does not, but it doesn’t help for us to talk about our struggles if we’re loading on the stigma.

Thoughts about ending the pain: a common experience

Recently, I took another suicide and self-harm training. This time, it was with Jack Klott, a suicide prevention consultant. There, I learned that the thoughts of suicide is actually a common experience. Difficult or sometimes chronic life circumstances can create a felt sense of unbearable pain. This then challenges our capacity to cope, and thinking about death is an effort to get rid of this intolerable pain.

The thing is, as a society, we freak out when someone talks about thoughts of suicide. We are quick to talk them off the ledge, which in imminent situations, we need to. But in cases where it took a lot of courage to even admit to having these thoughts, it doesn’t help to be told to not think or feel this way. Rather, we need a be willing to learn about each others’ pain and to encourage the person with suicidal thoughts to get help.

Additional factors to protect against suicide

Indeed, having a support network is a protective factor in preventing suicide. Jack Klott also mentioned the importance of the following factors:

  • Resilience. This is about the process of adapting and recovering from significant stress or hardships. In a separate training, I learned and shared about stress-resilience habits.
     
  • Hope. Remind yourself how you got through difficult circumstances in the past, because you have. When it’s hard to hold hope, allow and trust others to hold that with you and for you.
     
  • Tolerate stress and distress. In moments of despair, it’s about surviving that moment without making matters worse. Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) is a pioneer in teaching you how to tolerate, rather than avoid, distress. Here’s an overview on distress tolerance.
     
  • Regulate emotions.  In the face of unbearable pain, emotions are strong and overwhelming. This often prevents your pre-frontal cortex from thinking rationally. Learning DBT skills can help you label and regulate your emotions, so you don’t feel so crazy inside.
     
  • Social support.  I mentioned it above, but I see it’s such a necessity to mention it again. Suicidal thoughts are a common experience. The only way we can feel less alone about it is if we give it a collective voice. Much like the #metoo movement, don’t suffer in silence. Reach out if you’re having a hard time. Reach in if you know someone is struggling. We are each others’ safety net.
     
  • A reason for living.  Did you know that a lot of amazing things needed to occur for you to be born? The odds of you being born to the parents you were born to required a lot of “coincidences” in the history that preceded them. And I’m not even talking about how babies are made. That math is 1 in 400,000,000,000. You’re uniquely you. While you might not be a Kate Spade or an Anthony Bourdain, this world is not the same without you. You are changing the world by being in it and doing you.

Life is hard; get help

If you’re struggling with thoughts about suicide, share these thoughts with a trusted friend or healthcare professional. Text CONNECT to 741741 in the United States. Call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at (800) 273-TALK (8255). Visit Now Matters Now to learn helpful ways to deal with your suicidal thoughts.

You don’t have to go about this alone. Get help.


People Bloom Counseling Redmond Couples Cancer Ada Pang.png

Ada Pang, MS, LMFT is the proud owner of People Bloom Counseling, a Redmond therapy practice in WA. At the heart of what she does, she’s about helping people flourish and live compassionate and vital lives. She can be found at PeopleBloomCounseling.com.

How to Talk to your Partner about your Problems and Why this Works

Scott Webb/unsplash.com

Scott Webb/unsplash.com

How I talked to my partner

A few years ago, there was an incident that made me feel disconnected in my marriage to my husband. It bothered me enough that I brought it up the same day. At first, my husband's response made me feel like it was a joke. When I pressed further about how much it impacted me, he took it seriously and said that it wouldn't happen again. My husband is a good guy and I believed him. I still believe him, but there was something unsettling about how that conversation ended. 

How are you talking to your partner?

I bet you I'm not the only person to dread difficult conversations with my partner. Ever brought up a heavy topic and realized how hard it is to drudge through it? Or, it doesn't go well and you end up on a tangent about unresolved issues? Things get shoved under the rug, but never really resolved and the next time you argue, it's the same old, same old?

That's because these conversations are hard. It's easier to put a bandaid on it; only it's a temporary fix. You might have read about using “I statements,” balancing every 1 negative statement with 5 positive statements, or not attacking your partner. While these may be good communication skills to have, when you're emotionally charged, all those tools go out the window.

What to do instead

I remember as a kid carrying this card around that reads, “If you want to know how to keep an idiot busy for hours, turn this card over” and of course it says the same on the back. The thing is, when something doesn't work, you should really try doing differently.

Borrowing from the tradition of Emotionally Focused Therapy, here is what to do instead:

  • speak to your emotions - “I'm angry that you made me look like a fool in front of our friends.”
  • speak to how you perceived yourself - “That made me feel like I wasn't important in your eyes.”
  • speak to how you perceived your partner - “I thought you did it on purpose.”
  • speak to your deeper emotions about your relationship longing - “When that happened, I felt hurt and unloved.”
  • speak to your relationship need - “What I really want is to know that I still mattered to you and that I can trust you to have my back like I have yours.”
  • speak to what you need as a repair - “I can really use a hug right now.”

Now granted, this is meant to be a 2-way conversation and I've only given you one-side of the dialog. Considering that your partner is loving and supportive, hearing about your deeper needs would usually move them closer to you. And, if this sounds foreign, it is. But, this gets at the root of the matter, rather than staying focused on the content of what happened. Content changes, like hats, but at the core is whether two individuals feel like they're available, engaged and responsive to each others' needs.

Why this works

Emotionally Focused Therapy views adult love relationships from an attachment lens. Consider this Still Face Experiment video and how a baby reacts to a present, then distant mother:

(Please note there is a similar, longer video about babies' attachment to their fathers.)

Sue Johnson, the co-developer of EFT argues that intimate relationships mirror that of an infant-mother relationship. With almost three decades of research behind her, Sue notes that as adults:

  • we desire to maintain closeness with our partner
  • we need assurance from our partner when we're upset
  • we feel distressed when we experience distance from or a loss of connection with our partner
  • when we feel like our partner has our back, we feel more confident exploring the world
  • when we feel secure in our relationship, we could reach out and connect easily
  • if that secure bond with our partner is threatened, we get anxious, angry and controlling or we avoid contact altogether

All of these responses and patterns are mirrored in the above video. 

Can you see how unless you speak to the threatened bond between you and your partner, the argument will just play itself out in similar ways the next time?

What it looked like for me

So I went back to my husband a couple of years ago and told him how that particular issue continued to bother me. He was a little agitated at first and then surprised that it remained an unresolved issue. “I thought we've talked about this?!” He again reassured me that it wouldn't happen again and that I could trust him and him me. For reasons I couldn't pinpoint at first, his response was still dissatisfying.

Two months ago, I went back to him, yet again after an intensive EFT training. That conversation was heart-palpitating, armpit-sweating, and tears-flowing and I wanted to talk about everything else but that. But trust me, it was well worth it. I told my husband that this incident three years ago continued to bother me because I felt disconnected and hurt and that it threatened our relationship. I told him that I do trust him but I also needed to know that he loved me.

Husband was agitated, but softened up when he heard that I felt hurt. He's in disbelief that I wouldn't bring this up again a 4th time, but reassured me that he loved me and apologized that his actions hurt me.

I can understand why my husband would be in disbelief, but what he didn't see was a healing that happened with that repair. I felt lighter and closer to him. No further conversation is needed because that sense of safety and security is restored and deepened. What's more, when we feel safe and secure in our relationship, we can be vulnerable to share our deepest fears and longings. That same evening, my husband turned around and shared situations where he felt left out and I've since been mindful of how to better include him. Vulnerability begets vulnerability and it brings us closer together.

Need help?

That sense of connection, safety and closeness is not built overnight. It takes two people who want it and are willing to work on it. See me as a coach. I'm here when you're ready.


Ada Pang, MS, LMFT is the proud owner of People Bloom Counseling, a Redmond counseling practice in WA. She loves helping committed couples who have grown apart find each other again. She's recognizing that during difficult conversations with her husband, she'd rather talk about the pretty skies or the crawling spider than the issue at hand. Yet, she's learning to stick with it. Seeing the fruits of that, she'd want to help you do the same. 

Is Pokémon Go Ruining your Relationship? Here's what You can Do about it

tunedin/stock.adobe.com

tunedin/stock.adobe.com

What's happening?

You don't need me to tell you that Pokémon Go came out this weekend and our country went mad. There was an epic number of people on city streets, all staring down at phones. In the overlapping worlds of virtual and real realities, people are capturing wild Pokémons and training them to fight in “gyms”.

Pros to Pokémon Go

There have certainly been some benefits to this social phenomena, with pockets of strangers turning into allies, crossing age divides, and strategizing around game secrets. It's likely boosting our economy, with businesses more frequented and phone chargers in greater demand. I also see it as an opportunity for people to leave the house and get fresh air. And, it encourages exercise: the greater the distance you go, the more items you can lock in.

Thrillest even joked about Pokémon Go being the new dating app:

And one person did get a date, while families talked about Pokémon Go giving them something to do together and connecting them.  

Cons to Pokémon Go

On the flip side, it didn't take long for there to be multiple concerns for public safety. There were numerous trespasses in parks and yards, and armed robberies of players preoccupied on their phones in broad daylight or lured to secluded places at night.

Playing Pokémon Go has caused both major car accidents and minor cuts and bruises. Road signs are encouraging people, “Don't Pokemon and Drive. ”The City of Miami Police posted a video educating parents on the potential dangers.

I can only imagine the list growing as we speak.

What about relationships?

The Huffington Post and Buzzfeed captured tweets of distressed individuals in relationships where Pokémon Go has taken precedence. The words “divorce” and “Pokémon Go” were lumped together, and had some asking for marriage counselors.

New York Mag showed similar tweets of men neglecting their relationships, and a dad catching a Pokémon while his wife is in labor.

Sure, some of these posts might be exaggerated, but Pokémon Go is causing rifts in relationships, regardless of whether lovers are competing or only one partner is hooked on the game.

What can you do about it?

First of all, if you're an individual playing and looking for tips on how to play responsibly, the LA County Sheriff's Department can speak more eloquently to that. 

However, if your relationship is impacted, here's my advice to you, in rough steps:

  • without jumping to end the relationship, have a sit down talk with your partner, phones on silent.
  • validate that this is an epic game that has America (and other parts of the world) going cuckoo and Nintendo stockholders really happy.
  • talk about how his tardiness or her lack of concern for your relationship is impacting you. “When you're an hour late coming home because you stopped by the park to catch Pokémons, that left me feeling really hurt.” 
  • speak to your needs of wanting to feel like you're important, loved, or that he's available to you. “It feels like Pokémon Go matters more than me and I want to count on you to be there for me.”
  • if both of you are playing, or both of you are in agreement for one to keep playing, talk about boundaries around that. “No trespassing to neighbor's yard at 2am,” or “set a timer on your phone to get off because it's time to pick me up.”
  • lastly, if the conversation above is too difficult and you truly need a marriage counselor, I'm here!

Note: There will be no Pokémon Go in my office.


Ada Pang, MS, LMFT is the proud owner of People Bloom Counseling, a Redmond counseling practice in WA. She's a Licensed and Marriage Therapist and she loves helping committed couples who have grown apart find each other again. Should her husband decide to download the Pokémon Go app, she might have something to say about that. Her favorite Pokémon creature from way back when is Psyduck.

 

Orlando Tragedies – How do I Respond? How can you Respond?

ThamKC/stock.adobe.com

ThamKC/stock.adobe.com

I love The Voice and I have an off and on crush on the winner of season 6, Josh Kaufman. As a result of listening to his music, I would come across the amazing voice of Christina Grimmie, who came in 3rd that season. I share the shock and grief of many fans around the world when I learned about her death over the weekend. I couldn't wrap my head around this reality and would go through moments in my day, thinking that it's surreal. Such a beautiful life, taken from us.

Before grief even had time to sink in, I, along with the rest of the world, experienced more losses in the worst mass shooting in US history. These 49 victims have names, faces, and ties to loved ones. They had aspirations, were wonderful students, and held jobs that served the communities in many ways. My heart is broken and my body is heavy. Those injured are still grappling with their own mortality.

How do I respond to NOT one, but two Orlando tragedies?

I can tell you I want to hide.

I want to withdraw from others.

I'm in shock and disbelief.

I feel cynical about the state of our world.

I want to give up.

I think the world is unsafe.

I feel like a news junkie, which is very unlike me.

I want to protect my loved ones.

I think about the last time I've lost a loved one and how difficult that was.

Those were my knee-jerk reactions. I let myself stay there for two days and tonight, I got online to write this post. I talked about it with my hairstylist, my sister, my parents. I gave my husband a long hug when he came home from work and I'm keeping abreast with what's going on without over-indulging.

What about you?

I want you, the reader, to know that your thoughts, feelings, urges to withdraw, desire to connect are very real. I'm with you. I also want you to know that prolonged viewing of these traumatic media coverage will lead to more stress reactions, as shown by UC Irvine researchers when studying media exposure to the Boston Marathon bombings.

Please, limit your media exposure to these Orlando tragedies. Know enough to know what has happened, but don't follow every post and definitely not the playing and replaying of related videos and audios. Turn off the TV, the radio, the computer, the phone. Connect on social media around your grief, but meet face-to-face. Go to a vigil; host your own mini one. Take a break from talking about these events and just be with the other. We are not meant to go through such atrocities alone.

And, let me know if you need help processing all this or if it's awakening past trauma. I'm still here

Why James Bond would Make a Terrible Lover and why Moneypenny should Really Rest her Case

Jochen Seelhammer/stock.adobe.com

Jochen Seelhammer/stock.adobe.com

Ah, James Bond. Who doesn't love James? Since marrying my husband and his DVD collection, I've watched all the 007's. Suave, charming, sexy, smart, dressed to the tee, always on these James-will-never-die conquests to save the world. Unattached and emotionally constipated, he always manages to capture the hearts of gorgeous women and take them to bed.

According to the co-developer of Emotionally Focused Therapy, there's a reason why these beautiful women would only want to make love to him once, at most twice, and that's it. Sue Johnson describes what determines success in couple relationships is this sense of love, connection and closeness. Two people are available, responsive to each other and have each other's back. James, on the other hand, “will always be James,” leaving his love interests waiting, longing, and lonely as hell.

It is for these reasons Moneypenny should really take her infatuation elsewhere. Her yearning will be tickled at most, but never satisfied. It's a temporary illusion that James would ever want her, as he's always one mission away from desiring someone else.

Need help staying close and connected in your intimate relationship? Shoot me an email!