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A small light in a big darkness

- by Carolyn Bergen

Today is my annual so-low-that-down-is-up day--I blog about it every year (here in  2010, 2011, 2012, 2013). The day when we have the least amount of light, and the most amount of darkness. The day that launches a time when the days will only have more light than the day before. More light is coming...just a little bit more each day, but it's going in the right direction. It's a day of strange hope for me.

I love sunshine. It is vital for our mental health--as essential to our bodies as food and water. I love long evenings of light where scenic walks by the river can be enjoyed late into the evening. 

The darkness of winter feels dark in every way--a heaviness, almost a sadness envelops as I leave for work before it is fully light, and it is already dusk as I drive towards home at the end of the day.

I love the turning point of today…that there will be more light tomorrow than today, and even more light the day after. The turn of the calendar towards more light has me feeling…well…lighter. :)

However, I am starting to realize that I am developing a reluctant and tentative friendship with the darkness. Well…friendship might be overstating it--though I hope to one day get there. 

Let's call it a hesitant and cautious relationship with the dark…even this last statement suggests I have come a long way.

I have this passion for candles. I light them most every day in the winter. I love a candle lit room for visiting or for sitting in the quiet. Truly one of the perks of winter. I don't really light candles so much in summer…cuz they don't really have much of an effect when it is bright out until late into the evening.

And it got me to thinking about how much I like little dancing points of light in the midst of darkness. 

The beauty of a candle is only clearly apparent when it is seen in stark contrast to the darkness.

Years ago, the first Christmas my family found ourselves down a husband and in-the-house father around, we were left with starkly increased expenses and significantly reduced income. Life was tight. That year, my Junior Tribe Members and I decided to forgo little stocking stuffers and give ourselves an evening of over-the-top fun with a lavishness that we hadn't known for months. We would start with an evening out at a restaurant that might not be super fancy--but it was going to seat us and have us choose our food from a menu they gave us to read. No fast food counter for us that day! Then we'd go to a $2.50 movie and then sledding. The JTM's were young then, but they had heard of the wonders of Starbucks hot chocolate and suggested that would be the perfect way to cap off the evening. Even tho I secretly agreed with them, I suggested that hot chocolate at home would probably be great--decadence balanced with prudence…and understanding JTM's that they were, they agreed.

However, the day before the Christmas Stocking Extravaganza Experience, as it has now come to be known, I got a letter in the mail. The City of Winnipeg returned my parking ticket and my $20.00 cheque for an overdue parking meter a few weeks previous--I had been kept unexpectedly late with a meeting with a colleague at the university. I was guilty--I owed the money--and it was returned. No explanation why. Just the returned cheque.

Do you know what it was like to have $20 show up in our lives that day?

Our joy was a little ridiculous. It was an act of grace in our lives that had us giggle…and then instantly agree that this was divine intervention. We toasted to the experience at Starbucks the next day…it would seem the baby born in Bethlehem knew that a vente Starbucks hot chocolate was just the thing to make an evening perfectly magical.

We just celebrated our 10th annual Christmas Stocking Extravaganza Experience, and every year, we recall the miracle of the Christmas hot chocolate. Every year we cap off the night with the largest hot chocolate, remembering the first hot chocolate a decade ago.

The returned parking ticket and the unwashed cheque--it seemed a miracle at the time…it caught our attention in a dark time…and the beauty of the moment is something that captures our imagination still.

If that happened now--I'm not sure it would have registered on our radar.

There is something about the beauty of the small things that grabs our attention during dark times in ways that might not even be noticed in the light.

The dance between darkness and light will always remain— the stars and the moon will always need the darkness to be seen, Quote by C. Joybell C. Poster by Bergen and Assocaites Counseling in Winnipeg

The darkness provides for the contrast for a candle kindness.

It also has us appreciate when the sun comes up. 

I love the sun. I truly do…I believe I appreciate it more given the dark winter months than if I lived at the equator. 

I imagine I might take the sunshine of the day for granted if it shone 12 hours every day of the year.

There is a special beauty of the sun after a period of darkness.

Maybe that

There is a sunshine in my life that has given my life a special glow in the months of late. A sunshine that takes my breath away and has me blink rapidly in its brightness. A too-good-to-be-true sort of feeling that after years, has me gasping for breath in the new dawn of a special relationship. I feel like I am 17 again. I feel my cheeks ache from smiling. Friends tell me I am a little giddy and I think they see me as sorta goofy about it all. 

They may be right.

But y'know, there's something pretty spectacular about the dawn when you've known a dark night. I think I have an appreciation for all things wonderful that I might not have had before I'd known the darkness. There's a richness and a delight in goodness--where the colours of life and light are perceived brighter and more beautiful than I would otherwise have seen.

So…go ahead and say I'm goofy and giddy…I am, delightedly so. I know the light in a way I could never have known without the darkness--and so I happily own goofiness and giddiness.


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Tis the Season for Shopping

- by Carolyn Bergen

I took two afternoons off from work last week, playing hooky to go the malls to shop for Christmas presents. I thought I'd do it during the day when malls were a little emptier, and I'd dedicate the time to wandering around, being open to ideas I hadn't thought of, and making purchases to check off my list.

It was fun. Which is weird for me to say, because I generally avoid shopping. But I was enjoying myself. Shopping at Christmas, imagining my friends and family enjoying my purchases.

When I was talking to Greg Mackling on CJOB680 this week about why we shop, he played this great clip to challenge us all about shopping at Christmas. Kinda makes a person think about the commercialization of the season…


buying usually involves relationships in one way or another. The motivation for almost everything we buy has something to do with connecting with other human beings. Quote by Dr. Kit Yarrow, consumer psychologist, poster by Bergen and Associates

It got me to thinking…why do we shop? I googled the question, and the first article that came up in the internet search, Why we shop: The Neurobiology of Consumption said:

I suppose if I were to narrow it down to the one most important thing, I would say that buying usually involves relationships in one way or another. The motivation for almost everything we buy has something to do with connecting with other human beings. Even when it comes to practical purchases, the particular brand or product we choose relates to our connections with other human beings.

Dr. Yarrow
author of Decoding the new consumer mind

So…what does shopping have to do with relationships? 

1. Shopping is part of an opportunity to give.

"'Tis better to give than receive" isn't just shtick. It's true. I love wandering through the malls, imagining what it would be like for a Junior Tribe Member to open this, or the laughter that might ensue in a gift exchange when that is revealed.

Shopping for gifts gives us opportunity to delight those we care about. Shopping for food gives us a chance to know we are prepping to feed our families. I choose pea pods over brussel sprouts, rye bread over brown, and strawberries over apples (even tho they cost more)…because of how my family will respond. I like to give them what they like.

2. Shopping celebrates transitions

Shopping is a form of preparation. Some of you are shopping for cribs and teddy bears for a little one that is coming. Some of you are shopping for rings to pop a special question this Christmas. Some of you are buying legos instead of rattles, or clothing instead of dolls as your children are getting older. Shopping is a way to rehearse and plan and prep for changes that are coming.

Shopping is a way to acknowledge changes and prompt us to integrate the changes in our lives. When we shop, we wrap our heads around new people we are buying for, new stages of the people in our lives, new stages in our lives.

3. Shopping is necessary to keep telling others who we are

What we wear, listen to, read, and drive all give messages to others about who we are. And in this world of rapid change, and instant messaging, and personal branding, that requires constant shopping to be sending the right messages to those around us…and at Christmas, we may help others modify the messages they send to others by what they wear, read and listen to.

4. Shopping reduces anxiety 

Shopping is great to reduce anxiety. Buy making a purchase with your money, you gain a sense of mastery. (And heck, if you're a Winnipegger, who are known for bargain hunting…if you get something on a good deal, you feel even more powerful!) In a world that often has us showing up when others say, doing stuff others tell us to do, and having relationships on other people's terms, shopping gives us a chance to do it our way.

5. Shopping is a social activity

We don't all live close to family. It's cold outside and going for a walk in the park doesn't work…so we go to the mall and wander around…and shop. Shopping is a social activity. Friends go shopping when they are looking to do something with each other.

We chat with the store staff, and salespeople get to know us to know what we need, what our styles are, and how they can best serve. To be known, to be heard, to be valued--all things that good trained salespeople do--has us feel better. 

(Though this is a little tricky, eh? Good salespeople are often naturally this way, and do their jobs cuz they love 'em...let's face it, they are trying to get the sale, and they are also doing it for money--so while it feels good, it has some layers that make it unreliable as a main source of connection)

6. Shopping provides a buzz

Finding just the perfect _______ (insert name of miscellaneous item here), especially below the perfect price affects our brain… We get a dopamine rush that gives us a "feel good" feeling that has an addictive quality to it. It's the same reward circuit that is at play with drug use, and binge eating. It has the potential to become a process addiction:

  • if you're feeling lonely, you go shopping
  • if you're feeling rejected or abandoned, you go look for something to buy
  • if you're feeling anything that feels "too much", you numb those feelings with a layer of dopamine with a purchase of some sort
The problem, of course, with this, as with all addictive behaviours, is that shopping for the buzz disconnects you from your own feelings, and creates its own issues with credit card bills, arguments within a family about overspending, and stress from being financially restricted in the future.

7. Shopping for others gives us a chance to prove our love, or to prove our worth

Giving gifts is a way to demonstrate love and affection…to celebrate the connection with others. I have made purchases for family and friends that I'm looking forward to giving. I'm looking forward to them wearing the shirt, or playing the game that I will give. I welcome the opportunity to connect with them in a tangle way.

However, we all fall into the trap of "How much do I need to spend on ____?" so it's "enough" (but not "too much"!) 

There are folks who feel like they can neglect important relationships with time and energy--and make up for the disengagement with a great, expensive blingy gift that in intended to make up for all the hours of overtime.

Other folks fear that they don't have enough to offer the relationship, and doubt their own value…and so providing an extravagant gift can help cement the relationship to make up for their own perceived lack of value. That feeling of not being worthy of love and belonging can overtake us all--and it's tempting to double the value of a gift to make up the difference.

Of course…

there is often multiple nuanced layers with combined reasons for shopping that include multiple factors listed above, and quite possibly more that I haven't listed.

There is NO parking available at the mall near my house this week…the malls are packed with folks making purchases. I'd invite you to be mindful of the social relationship of shopping, and to lean into the surface and underlying motives behind your shopping to allow you to make the best purchases in ways that align with your values, and open spaces for difficult conversations if you are shopping for reasons that actually don't align with your values or your budget.





Prioritizing the Important over the Urgent

- by Carolyn Bergen

Boiling water for tea is a good thing, except when it's too much.

And when it's too much, it's not a good thing, because it's too much.

Let me explain.

  1. At our office, we don't use the harsh overhead flourescent lights in the counselling rooms. My thinking is that uncovering and exposing parts of oneself is hard enough without feeling like you are under glaring floodlights. So the overhead lights are off, and there is much more muted and soft lighting from several floor and desk lamps about each of the counselling offices.
  2. In the cooler months, our offices feel the chill. We have two outside walls, being a corner office, and the heating from the building's heaters don't warm it up enough. So we have space heaters in each office and the main area. People are feeling "on edge" often when they come to see us...so trying to warm up the environment and increase the cozy factor is important. (Which all sounds so altruistic...to be frank...it's hard for me to facilitate good therapy with a client when my teeth are chattering and my fingers are cold, so it works for me, too)
  3. Melanie, our office manager, likes to work under the fluorescents, so they are on in the main office area where she is. However, she also has a desk lamp on her desk. Our fabulous interior designer, Robyn, reports that research says that a person is 30% more productive with a desk lamp. I'm all over research...thus the lamp. The "30%" has become something of office lore.
  4. Our administration space is, ahem, very efficient in its use of space (which is another way of saying a terribly bit cramped). So our "kitchen" is contained in a piece of furniture that was originally built as an armoire. We use the lower drawers for office supplies, and what would normally hold a television now is the "kitchen"--it holds a little fridge, our microwave and kettle.
So...with the lamps on in the counselling room, on Melanie's desk, the fridge going, and now in fall, the space heaters...when we plug in the kettle...all at once, it goes dark and silent. The breaker pops because we are drawing too much power on a circuit.

And Melanie makes a dash to the breaker panel to bring the lights back on in the therapy session next door.

By Christmas, Melanie will have retrained us...before we put the kettle on, we unplug the heater and announce to her that we will be decreasing her efficiency (temporarily) by 30%. 

The kettle itself is not the problem. The heaters' seasonal use is not the problem. The lamps aren't the problem.

The problem is having too many of them drawing power all at once from a system that has finite levels of capability...and exceeding that capability.

Exhaustion has become something of a status symbol in our culture. When people say, "How are you?", one of the common (and unfortunately, respected) answers is "Really busy" or "Really tired" or "stressed". 

How is it that we, as a culture, esteem those who are maxed out? 

Somewhere along the line, people determine their value on their level of productivity...and with our very value on the line, folks exhaust themselves to prove how valuable they are, maybe even indispensable. 

When a person's value is based on their productivity, exhaustion is the logical, even inevitable, outcome.

There is a cost to relationships when either or both partners are exhausted. Some circuit breakers somewhere breaks at some point, because too much is just. too. much.

I had a conversation with a colleague lately who wryly commented that breaking her arm had been the best thing that could have happened to her marriage this summer. She couldn't golf with her buddies, nobody asked her to sub for the baseball team, she couldn't take on new projects in the yard, and so on...because of her injury, be necessity, she had to just be.

She was less exhausted because she didn't/couldn't have as much on her "to do" list...and with the extra time and the extra "gas in her tank", she and her husband had a renaissance of sorts in their relationship. They spent time walking in the neighborhood, got hooked on a series on Netflix that they would watch together (and dissect after). They cooked together and ate together more than they had in years.

And she loved it.

Years ago, my insurance agent encouraged me to purchase "catastrophic illness insurance" so that if I contracted any number of serious medical illnesses, I would be immediately entitled to a large cash payment. While it could be used towards unexpected medical expenses, he said that many people had life changing mind-set changes, where they might want to take a trip with their families, or cut back on how hard they were working. He noted that in the face of catastrophic illness, there was often a shift in priorities towards relationships and creating memories...that this insurance could accomodate for by allowing a person to pull back from their financial obligations.

I was horrified, and still am--at this thought. 

One of my most heartfelt prayers for my life is that I would not need a "wake up call" like a catastrophic illness to be fully alive to the relationships that are important to me.

The little important things...the little touch of romance with lighting a candle for the meal, cutting a blossom and bringing it inside to put in a vase, rubbing sore feet at the end of the day, or drawing a hot bath for a spouse...these little things are important...but can so easily get lost in the midst of the busy-ness. Those little expressions of kindness and care take time and energy...which often does not exist in our maxed-out culture.

Checking Facebook (and YouTube, and Twitter, and email and a blog and the news highlights and...), taking on another project at work, accepting the promotion, figuring out how to move to a bigger house, enrolling the kids in one more sport, agreeing to one more committee...all of these can put us into situations where we max out the circuit and somethings gotta give. None of these are bad...in fact, all of them are good...but the stress on the system is HUGE.

For some couples, therapy serves as the one place in the week where they are able to be 100% focused on each other. Where they have a chance to listen deeply, and the only opportunity to feel heard (and valued and appreciated) by their partner. The rest of the week is too much of a scramble...no other time possible to simply sit quietly with each other, and focus on themselves as a couple. 

I think sometimes folks put investing in their marriage "on hold" when things get busy, and promise themselves that they will tend to it, when they can, later....if later ever comes. When the circuit is too full, even full of good stuff, the breaker can turn it all off

It's heartbreaking to watch a couple come in with their marriage in serious crisis simply because there have been far too many draws of energy.  

A marriage cannot survive unlimited additions of tasks, interests, distractions and stressors--even good things...any relationship will collapse under the onslaught of prolonged overscheduling. 

The breaker will pop.

How much power are you drawing off? Let me tell you that I have personally witnessed folks who have spent years driving their children around to many lessons and practices, had gruelling work schedules to generate enough income for a certain standard of living. Folks run themselves into the ground, "for the sake of the family". 

Your family wants you even more than they want your raise. Your spouse wants your time and energy and investment more than they want a new car or an expensive vacation. Your children may complain if they can't get the newest gaming system, but that pain pales in comparison to not having you be an engaged parent playing in the yard or cheering from the bleachers.

If your partner draws you over to read this, take this as a warning shot across the bow. Have a discussion about how to recalibrate your energies, and decide what to choose to take out of your life before life makes decisions for you. Know that you are loved and you are valued...your family wants you. Know that too much of a good thing is too much...and you could lose the important as you get distracted by the urgent.

Poster by Bergman And Associates Counselling in Winnipeg, which states:"If you are too busy  to live according to your life

So…here's a little fun assignment. Find a list of values of personal/family priorities like this one and on your own, or as a family, decide what your priorities are. Then evaluate the last several days to determine in which way your energies were aligned with your values, and in which ways your energies were going to values that are not amongst your core values. What changes need to be made so that your energy distribution aligns with your core values? 

Unplug from that which doesn't line up with what is most important to you…so you aren't in danger of popping the fuse!

Benefits of being meaningfully loved

- by Carolyn Bergen

"We all long for loving connections.

A hand to hold that changes our world."

Dr. Susan Johnson
EFT guru

I'm a science geek…I love to learn things. To know what works, and how it works, and what we can learn from understanding our world better using scientific research. 

We were created for relationships…we need relationships to survive. 

The greatest happiness in life is the conviction that we are loved- loved for ourselves, or rather, loved in spite of ourselves."  Victor Hugo Bergen and Associates Counselling Winnipeg

The anchors on those fingers? Yeah…being loved does that. 

Feeling secure, knowing you belong--it anchors a person. And when a person is securely anchored, it creates a sense of balance. Kind like when I learned to play basketball…feet shoulder width apart, knees slightly bent, weight over both feet, arms held up in front--this was known as the "triple threat position"…this balanced and anchored position put a person in optimal position to pass, shoot or dribble. Being loved in a meaningful relationship does that in our lives…we are better able to tackle challenges, have difficult conversations, and move forward effectively.

Our brains do better, we function better, we can solve problems better, and we move through the world more effectively when we have meaningful, life giving relationships in our lives. Science is demonstrating that to us objectively and clearly. 

We know that couples do better when they are connected. We all do better when we have meaningful connections with family and a few significant friends. Scientifically, it has been measured and shown that our lives are enhanced when we have people in our corner that are ARE:

Available: 

When I need you, I can find you. You are there for me. Physical and emotional availability. When I need help, or reassurance, or simply want some contact, I can trust you that you are there.

Responsive:

When I say something, you respond. You let me know that I matter. Your voice, your body language, your timing tells me that you hear me and you are important to me.

Engaged:

You connect with me…meaningfully. I can tell that you're in the conversation, that the relationship is something that you're working at. You decrease my isolation and increase connection. This is one step beyond available and responsive…you may be around to see me upset about my day, but if you tell me that I'm silly and over reacting, you aren't engaged with my distress…I will feel disconnected from you.

Being available, responsive and engaged changes how we respond to our world.

We become more resilient, tolerant, creative, relaxed, energized, confident and capable. Heck, we interpret electric shocks differently!



Self-compassion--A lived experience

- by Carolyn Bergen

Poster stating it is lack of love for ourselves that inhibits our compassion for others

I'm still chuckling at myself for what happened before I learned self compassion. Sometimes, the most powerful lessons aren't learned at the course, but in the course of life.

I registered for the workshop hosted by the Compassion Project, Klinik, and the Manitoba Trauma Information and Education Resource Center that featured Dr. Kristin Neff that was happening in March 2013. I'd spent time on Kristin's website describing self compassion in the past months, and registered immediately when I heard she was coming. I viewed her TEDx talk a few times to become familiar with some of her most basic principles to really prepare me to get the most out of the two day workshop.

I got some information earlier in the week of the workshop about what to expect...and it said to wear comfortable clothes and to bring a mat.

Ugh.

I love learning...but I like to learn with my head when I'm around other people...and I like to do my heart learning on my own, or with a few safe and trusted folk. I am a contemplative type, and have deliberate contemplative practices that I find deeply meaningful and significant, but I'm not a regular yoga/meditation type. 

The idea of the mat suggested we would be doing exercise/meditations that would explore our inner world, have us practice self compassion at the workshop, and just, generally, have unknown degrees of vulnerability. I mean, it would only make sense that a workshop on self-compassion would include elements of experiencing, practicing and exploring self-compassion...but, gosh, that didn't mean I was gonna like it! 

So...I was nervous...and the therapists at the office that week chuckled at my anxiety as I gnashed my teeth and complained about the need for a mat, when all I really wanted to do was use pen and paper to take notes.

On my way home from work the day before the course, I decided I would be proactive and head into my vulnerability head on. Though the info sheet said there would be a limited number of mats available, folks were encouraged to bring their own. I told myself I would purchase a mat...ostensibly to make the mats they had available for others as an act of generosity...but in actuality, I was armoring up against my vulnerability. I was gonna saunter in there like a pro, with a mat under my arm like it belonged there.

Just before heading to the store, I looked once more at the instructions...what I remembered as saying "yoga mat" actually said, "meditation mat and cushion". I googled that, to make sure that yoga mats and meditation mats are the same thing.

They. So. Aren't.

I felt the warm rush of heat crawl up my neck and fill my cheeks as I sat there, humiiliated. I had very nearly prepared myself incorrectly...I had very nearly purchased a yoga mat when what was called for was a meditation mat...much rounder and fluffier and very different.

I had a chorus of lines rushing through my head:

  • do you realize how close you came to making a fool, no, make that a complete fool, of yourself?
  • what were you trying to pull, making it look like you belonged at this workshop?
  • what kind of mental health professional can't tell the difference between a yoga mat and a mediation mat?
  • it would be sooooo much easier not to go...wait a minute, is that a cough coming on? (please?)
...all coming down to..."Who do you think you are?"

So, while one part of my brain is berating me, there is another part of my brain able to find the humour in how hard I was being as I was preparing myself for a workshop on, duh, "Self compassion". I could see I was in a shame spiral, and I had already seen the video so I worked on:

  1. recognized that I was hurting, and trying to understand what was happening inside myself--being mindful--the embarrassment, shyness, desire-to-fit-in, etc.
  2. trying to be a kind and gentle friend to myself, extending compassion and kindness with soft and gentle tone with soothing words of comfort--"you were trying to do something good for yourself, and that's important", "you were smart enough to check before you got the wrong mat--good on you", "this is hard, isn't it", "this is often how you get worked up before a workshop, and it is often ok...but you're just doing what you do...no big deal"
  3. reminding myself that this was part of the human condition, that we all make mistakes and I was not uniquely ignorant about yoga vs meditation mats
It. Didn't. Work. 

I was still feeling pretty awful about the whole thing...and completely out of proportion to what the situation called for. (In the middle of my shame and self-berating, a friend called me and I told her this story...we laughed at me--she gets this--she does it too--it didn't have it go away, but it helped with perspective)

But then, I began berating myself for having the audacity to go to a workshop on self compassion, believing firmly already in its value, and using the approach with clients and at this moment, being spectacularly unsuccessful in being able to use it effectively for myself

With this, the intensity of self criticism ratcheted up exponentially. (Even as another part of me could see how I was quite over the top on my reaction). 

And then, all of a sudden, somehow in one corner of my brain…and it slowly started to spread over the rest of my noggin...I remembered...

I hadn't taken the workshop yet.

I was going to go to learn about these principles. I always get nervous before going to a two day event where i don't know if I will know anybody there, and interaction with others will be a part of the experience...who will I sit with, will it be ok, will they like me, will they think I'm good enough, etc. etc...and the anxiety was coming out over this ridiculous mat. This was shame having a party inside of Carolyn.

Like many, I'm a wee bit (OK, maybe a lot) of a perfectionist. Like all, I struggle with shame...the feeling of not being worthy of love and belonging. And like usual, I was expecting myself to be really excellent at it, right away...even before I'd gone to the workshop.

And at this realization, I found myself able to soothe myself with understanding and compassion and loving kindness...I didn't have to be good at this yet. I could go as someone who had something to learn. It was OK to have room to grow at this...and suddenly I saw this silver lining...it was going to be money well spent because I just showed myself how I really needed to learn this stuff for myself, not only to use with my clients!  :)

I can't say I wasn't still a little nervous and apprehensive about the whole thing that evening. I was, but I showed up the next morning. It was great. I learned a lot. Met some great people and had some fabulous conversation in our groups exploring our experience. A fantastic experience.

...and to my surprise, I discovered something that really tickled my sense of humour, and will be a lifelong lesson in gentle with myself and not making critical assumptions...a few people brought "meditation mats" but many, many more brought the good old conventional yoga mats...the kind I was convinced would have been utterly humiliating for me to have brought in.

Kristin Neff at the Compassion Project workshop on self compassion in Winnipeg Manitoba March 2013

Thanx Kristin, for your compassionate style of teaching us self compassion. For a really quick grasp of the concepts of self-compassion, take a peek at the video: 

One of the things that came through so powerfully to me is that self compassion isn't selfish, but rather sets a person up to be much more able to open up their heart to others in ways that are life giving to those around. When we are in a good place, we are able to be more fully present and compassionate to those around us. As a member of a family, or a local and world wide community, it behooves us to be self compassionate to be better able to connect with those around us.

Is there room in your life to practice a l'il self-compassion?

I thought so. Give it a go?


The Power of Emotional Intelligence

- by Carolyn Bergen

For many years, I taught students at the School of Occupational Therapy at the University of Manitoba. I loved the teaching and discussions…the marking and administration--not so much! :)

One of my favourite courses to teach was "Advanced Communication Skills"…given the finite amount of hours I had to teach content, we decided I would focus on "Evocative Empathy", with the help of University of Manitoba's David Martin's textbook. 

Eovcative Empathy:  Communicated understanding of the person

This wasn't so much head learning as heart learning…

Initially, it would drive the students a little squirrelly as I prohibited them from asking questions in order to get to know someone. Rather I had them work to emotionally connect with what a person was telling them, and then communicate their understanding of what they had deeply heard. 

These students were so used to asking questions to get to the bottom of things. But the thing is, when you ask a person a question, you get an answer from their head. When you hear what is behind what they just said, and you gently let the other person know all of what you just heard, you touch their heart.

It is powerful stuff.

Imagine you are working with a patient to teach them how to put their shirt on after they have had a stroke and one side of their body isn't working. The patient says: "I've done this for 80 years without even thinking about it, and now it takes me 15 minutes and a bunch of help to put this stupid shirt on."

What would you say?

  • "Is this too hard for you to do today?"
  • Well, I'm your therapist and I'm here to help you do it better.
  • Aren't you lucky to be in a rehab ward where you can relearn how to it.
An empathic response would hear the feeling underneath and notice it, and create space for it to be felt:

  • "It totally sucks that you have to struggle with something that used to be so automatic. Losing your independence like this must be so hard to wrap your head around." OR
  • "You sound so furious that the littlest thing is such a big production. Life is so different than it used to be"
Can you hear the difference? Can you imagine what it would be like to hear the latter responses instead of the former as you are learning a whole new way of doing things with only half your body?

So…the students would find is SOOO hard at first to communicate in a way that just noticed and was present with the other person's (unspoken but present) experience. It would leave them tongue tied and frustrated, unable to speak fluently in sentences. Competent, caring, and experienced folks almost unable to speak.

Then, they would start to get the hang of it…and would use it incessantly and always--often in a teasing and exaggerated way:

  • Carolyn, I hear you saying that you really want our papers in on time, and that you'll be frustrated if they are in late
  • Carolyn, when my cell phone went off in class, it must have annoyed you as you wanted to teach the class. I apologize for the way my cell phone interrupted the other students concentration in a way that my have irked them as well.
  • Carolyn, my sense is that the entire class is completely overwhelmed with the assignment you gave us considering what else is due this week. Some students are almost paralyzed with the pressure. I'm quite sure that you would feel distressed if you knew how this deadline was affecting us.
It was often said with a wink and a barely concealed smile.

By the end of the 11 weeks of the course, as we sat in a circle reflecting on the learning of the previous weeks, the students weren't laughing anymore. They were sobered. 

They told stories like this:

  • I've heard more from my best friend in the last few weeks than I have in years previous. I could not believe how she opened up to me once I just very clearly let her know I was listening.
  • My young child has far less tantrums now than she did in the summer. When I hear her deeply, she doesn't get nearly as mad nearly as often
  • My relationship with my mother has improved so much since I started this course. She and I are getting along better than we have in years.
These skills of evocative empathy developed all the skills of emotional intelligence over the course of just a few weeks. There are five components of emotional intelligence:

  1. Self Awareness: Being aware of what is going on inside of you and the effect that has on others. A huge part of empathy is using what you are feeling to understand what the other is feeling
  2. Self Regulation: Being able to manage what you are feeling and expressing what is optimal for at the situation. This is huge in empathy…because when your kid tells you he broke a bit jar of syrup all over the counter and the floor, you might have a very powerful challenge to respond in a way that is sensitive to him, given that you have your own instinctual response to the sticky disaster.
  3. Internal motivation: Having an internal desire to grow to be a better person…not to get rich or have status (those would be external motivators)…but a continuous awareness and effort to be aware of that which happens around you in order to better fine tune your own internal instincts.  Empathy is a skill that develops over time, and effective empathy must be developed to fit each person’s style with whom you come in contact
  4. Empathy:  Understanding another person’s emotion—not as yourself, but from their perspective.  For example, getting on a plane might be no big deal to you, but may create weeks of anxiety for your spouse. Empathy understands the anxiety exists, acknowledges it and the impact of it, even if it would all be inconsequential to you. At times this is challenging…to understand why prostitution makes sense, or why a person feels a need to take a swing at another.  This is not about excusing behavior, but rather about understanding it.
  5. Social skills: Being able to manage and negotiate the conversations with others to use the insights of empathy and awareness through effective communication, to be able to express the ideas in a  manner that others can absorb and use, and connection can be maintained even while you express difficult or controversial behaviours.
“Too often we underestimate the power of a touch, a smile, a kind word, a listening ear, an honest compliment, or the smallest act of caring, all of which have the potential to turn a life around.”  ― Leo Buscaglia Poster by Bergen and Associates in Winnipeg
It was during the last two weeks or so of the course, that the students would spontaneously bring up a significant issue:  the ethics of empathy and emotional intelligence.

One year, a student named learning evocative empathy as a “superpower”.  She realized the incredible ability this way of relating others had--empathy is able to sway conversations, elicit cooperation, and evoke people to disclose parts of themselves that they rarely allowed others to see.

The student acknowledged that this superpower could be used for “good and evil” (as all superpowers can be). 

The students would talk about how they were more likely to be able to return an item to a store when they used gentle empathy with the store clerk first. Their children were more likely to clean their rooms, and their parents more likely to overlook these busy students’ neglect of household chores when the students would switch to being empathic rather than argumentative.

There was an awareness that they could elicit behavior that they wouldn’t otherwise get from someone when they profoundly listened and communicated that understanding.  

  • There was a potential that this could be self-serving. 
  • It could be manipulative.  
  • It could ultimately break connection, rather than enhance it—once a person realized they had been played.

There was also an awareness that it made sense to use their newfound emotional intelligence judiciously. 

  • Opportunity-- While deeply understanding another human being is extraordinarily enriching for all involved…and sometimes can happen in relatively brief moments—it does take time.  There are times for an occupational therapist on a Friday afternoon when there are 3 discharges to prepare for that it simply makes sense to “stick to business”…that opening someone up with deep listening would leave them raw and open without the time to finish the conversation.  
  • Timing--There have been occasions where I’ve sat with clients who need to “hold it together” until the end of the term…and we mutually decide to hold off going deep for a period until it makes sense to.  The time to commiserate with how a colleague is dismissive of your partner may not be in the moment at the Christmas party when ongoing light and pseudo cheerful conversations are what is cultural protocol—it may best be postponed until the next morning. 
  • Task-- There are times when efficiency requires hunkering down and “gettin’er done”.  Like when the production line needs to be productive, or the columns need to be added and the ledger sheet of expenses and income reconciled with the tax deadline is looming. Evidence suggests that tasks like accounting and manufacturing are better done with less emotional intelligence to be more efficient.

“The most important thing in communication is hearing what isn

It is said that Martin Luther King had a high degree of emotional intelligence…his “I have a dream” speech was masterfully delivered so that it gives me the shivers to listen to it decades later. He understood what moved people.  He understood how to speak to people’s hearts as well as their heads.

It is also said that Adolf Hitler had a high degree of emotional intelligence.  He learned how to sway behavior.  He studied videos to perfect hand gestures and voice intonation…he pulled people into his vision in ways that had them act fundamentally against the core of what they believed, of what we as humans intuitively know to be right and just and good…he got German soldiers believing outrageous ideas and doing heinous acts by seductively convincing them to believe things that we can now hardly wrap our heads around.

It is worth developing an ability to be deeply empathic, to be able to be fully present with oneself, and to regulate one’s own body and emotions…all of these skills enhance connection with others significantly. 

But like any other powerful tool, emotional intelligence can be used to build up or tear down, elevate or disintegrate another, deeply empower or wildly manipulate the other.

How will you use your power of emotional intelligence?



When Helping Doesn't Help

- by Carolyn Bergen

I remember at a baby shower a while back, there was a game that was essentially the "maternity olympics"…there were prizes for the biggest baby, the most over due, and so on. When the "longest labor" event arose, I won. Hands down.

When I was six and a half months pregnant with my youngest Junior Tribe Member (JTM), I began early labor. Through the wonders of modern medicine, the contractions went from three minutes apart to intermittent--as long as I didn't nothing. As soon as I moved around even a small amount, they would act up again. I was in labor for 6 weeks, on bed rest between home and hospital to postpone the birth of the little guy as long as possible. 

Problem was that I had a busy and active household, including a 20 month old JTM that never slowed down. What to do? He needed to be chased after, and I needed to not be off the couch.

There was a delightful woman in my church, who I will forever consider my guardian angel. She would phone each Sunday and ask, "Whaddaya need this week?"

And she would invite me to let her know which days I needed someone for childcare and when we needed meals, and she would ask someone to come clean my house. Numerous folks understood and knew my predicament and had offered to assist. She would call those who were wanting to help and let them know when and how to help.

When my baby was born weeks later and needed only 10 days in hospital, it felt as though the community had birthed him. The support and help of the community prolonged my pregnancy enough that the complications were minimal. He was alive and healthy because the community surrounded us with care--the help was literally life-giving.

I will remain forever grateful…and forever open to supplying meals to young moms who need meals as a way of paying it forward. As a way of acknowledging my gratitude for the help.

We belong to each other. 
We need each other. 
We were created for connection.
We connect by helping and being helped.

It was powerful and humbling to be helped in such a meaningful way.  The community it created around me was one I will never forget.

Years later, when that JTM grew up some, and was in high school, he would ask for my help with his school work. There were times when I would sit with him and we would figure things out together…and times when I would decline to help. 
  • There were occasions where the demands on my times were large and it didn't work to help him…and often he would ask for help the day before the assignment was due even tho he had known about it for several days. It just didn't seem like I wanted him to learn that it is OK to make unexpected huge demands on a person very suddenly. I don't want him thinking that his lack of planning can have him expect others will drop everything to accommodate him. That would be an unkind thing for me to teach him.
  • There were other occasions where the assignment was challenging but I knew to be within his scope. He wanted help because it would be easier to do it with my help, but not because he needed it. I would offer to proof read it when he was done his first draft, but would decline to write the draft with him. I wanted him to know that he can do hard things. I wanted him to know that I believed in him. I wanted him to know I didn't feel like he needed rescuing. I wanted him to feel my confidence in him.
I like helping…especially people I care deeply about. But there was a sense that, in certain situations, if I was helping him, I wasn't really helping him.

Sometimes, helping doesn't help.

Huh?

Yeah, sometimes, helping doesn't help:


1. Helping breeds dependence


Helping should be a hand up, not a hand out. 

Small children might need help tying their shoes because they don't have the fine motor skills to make a bow with the laces. It's not fair to expect a one year old to tie their shoes. Helping is a good idea.

But if you keep tying those shoes, what happens when they move away to start college and you are not there in the dorm to tie those shoes? :)

There needs to be some moments of "just right challenge" where a helper says to the helpee: "I believe in you. I know you can do this. I want to be able to watch you do this on your own. I want to celebrate your success!"

2. Trust is broken during the helping


Say your buddy forgets his coffee card and asks if he can get a coffee off your card. No big deal…and you comply. He says he'll get you back. He doesn't. And he asks you for another coffee the next week. And soon he's bumming one or two coffees off of you with this vague promise…that he doesn't deliver on. Maybe it's not just a coffee--maybe it's huge favours. Trust is broken and relationships are strained.

If your help is taken advantage of--where the helpee repeatedly breaks your trust, violates agreements, doesn't pay you back as promised, keeps "forgetting" and generally uses your assistance to be able to be irresponsible--your help isn't helping. 

It's creating opportunity for bad behaviour. 

Friends don't create bad behaviour opportunities for other friends.

3. Helping requires you to violate your own moral code.


When a spouse asks you to call in sick when they have a hangover--they are asking you to lie for them. When a friend asks if they can copy your homework and hand it in as their own, they are asking you to participate in plagiarism. 

Helping generally doesn't involve violating your own values, keeping secrets, and deception. 

When helping has you feel sick to your stomach, ask if this is a good idea. Give yourself permission to help within what feels right to you. Trust your intuition and let it matter.


4. The situation subtly corners you into helping in ways that feel manipulative. 

Imagine this: 
  • A next door neighbour comes over and asks for a ride to the bus depot because of the need to go visit a sick relative in the next province. You agree to take your neighbour to the bus depot. Once there, out of the blue the neighbour asks if you could provide the money for the bus ticket because she doesn't have the cash. 
  • A family member asks you to go buy liquor…saying if you don't get it he will have to go get it himself…but he's already had 6 beer and he'd prefer not to drive.
Helping is best freely offered. Often help is requested…but when the request comes with pressure, no options
and something in your gut says this doesn't feel right…listen to it. You are allowed to listen to that.


5. The help requested feels beyond your resources.


You may be able to loan lunch money to a co-worker who has forgotten their lunch. You may be able to assist with a cell phone bill for a relative who's had unexpected expenses. But when you are asked to cover someone's rent and the only way you can do that is by not paying your own…that doesn't work.

Helping others comes from within our capacity to offer help.

At some stages of life, you may be able to offer rides to your neighbour to the grocery store…and then for a time your car is full with car seats and children, and your neighbour needs to find other options…and when the oldest starts kindergarten, it is again within your ability to offer help.

6. Your help enables unhealthy behaviour 

There are times when helping another allows that person to continue in an unhealthy pattern. Constantly loaning small amounts of money and not expecting it back may seem kind…but may allow the person a sense of complacency so that they don't pursue career advancement. Meeting someone's every need after surgery may seem kind, but if the person is to be up and moving as much as possible even though it's uncomfortable, you may be setting them up for a poor recovery. 

7. Your help creates strings in the relationship of hidden expectations or resentments

Help is best given freely and within one's capacity to do so. When help is given and received in ways that have covert expectations, it sets everyone up to get upset. Just because you loan someone some cash, they are not obligated to have the same political opinions. If you pay for a grandchild's music lessons, you don't have the right to decide how they are disciplined. Just because you helped provide a ride to school one year, doesn't mean that you are obligated to do so the next year when the schedules and times change and it doesn't work anymore.

8. Your help to another is an important part of you feeling good for yourself


Everyone likes to feel important. And helping has that effect. The danger is that a person helps to get that feeling--it's that feeling that becomes the most important part…and so the helping is done for how it makes the helper feel. 

The helper is looking for a "helper's high"--so the recipient of the help better be effusive in their gratitude. The helper better need the help cuz it's gonna be offered no matter what.

There are many, many reasons and opportunities to help each other. No doubt. Let's keep helping positive.

When we fail to set boundaries and hold people accountable, we feel used and mistreated. This is why we sometimes attack who they are, which is far more hurtful than addressing a behavior or a choice. Quote by Brene Brown. Poster by Bergen and Associates in Winnipeg, a counselling agency

Ways to keep helping helpful:

Develop healthy boundaries in helping

Everytime you say "yes" to helping someone, you are saying "no" to your availability to help someone else. If you say yes to the school, you may end up saying no to your kids. Choose discomfort over resentment. Helping is important, but without boundaries, it leads to burnout and frustration--and often, needing to pull back from all kinds of helping.

Know your Limits

Different people have different capacity. Know what you can offer. Life is a marathon, not a sprint and helping needs to be done in a way that is sustainable over the decades

Know where your heart sings

Know your gifts and natural skills and help in ways that fill you. If someone asks me to sew something for them, I may just want to poke my eyes out. If someone asks me to proofread a paper for them, I'm all over it.
Helping in ways that fit with who you are make helping enriching. 

Letting our kids fall, fail and fear out of love

- by Carolyn Bergen

I wrote recently about the disintegration of my marriage 10 years ago…watching the one I love become increasingly distant as he disappeared into a new life away from me. 

One of the things I dreaded about his departure was the effect of this on my Junior Tribe Members. Y'see, I've worked with people for years, and have heard many stories of pain from folks whose parents divorced when they were kids. I desperately did not want my children to feel this pain.

But they watched out the window as he drove away, and we all cried together. And despite the fact that he came by the next day to take them out for a bit, and they have seen him regularly since…they still didn't have their dad at home the way it once had been. The house was quieter, and they missed the routine of having him in their lives in what had been a normal and constant way.

It busted me up a bunch to see them lonely for him, and missing the life we had…and to know there was nothing I could do to make it better. We spent the summer that year hanging out together…me and the JTM's…as much as we could. We played tennis, rode bikes, made forts, slept cosily in the forts, ripped up paper when they were angry.

I couldn't make it better, and that hurt.

All I could do was be with them as we all hurt.

It didn't feel like much. But it was all I had.

As parents who love our kids, and want the best for them, I often hear us telling each other: "I just want my child to be safe and happy". We place as priority number 1 in our lives the task of creating happy and healthy children. We do whatever it takes to help them develop proficiency in three instruments, two languages, and four sports. We work to provide innovative play dates with scintillating friends, top educational opportunities and cutting edge electronics.

We hate to see our children become disappointed, and so we go to bat for them with a teacher who seemingly marks unfairly. We avoid having our children's spirits crushed so we ensure that there will be a place on the team before the tryout even happens. We work to keep our children happy by taking them out to the amusement park right after the loss of the big game so they won't feel it.

We pay their fines, do their chores, run interference with authority--all in the endeavour to keep them out of distress--happy.

And in so doing, we prevent them from engaging in the struggle of life that is so necessary as part of being a successful adult. (And often, we do it because we as parents feel like lousy parents when our children are engaging in struggle…and so it protects us from our own painful feelings of inadequacy as parents)

Think for yourself…go back to a time when you learned something really important. When you discovered a strength you didn't know you had. When you were genuinely proud of your own accomplishment. When was that? Think for a moment…come up with a time in your life like that.

Almost certainly, that growth, discovery of strength and pride came out of a time borne of struggle.

It is in struggle that we learn and grow and gain wisdom. Perseverance comes out of the grind…the long haul that seems discouraging, endless…and definitely not "happy".

We as parents need to challenge ourselves about what "good" and "successful" parenting is…for some of us, we only feel successful as parents when our children feel coddled, supported, and safe. There is a powerful pull to have them feel "special" without doing anything to earn it. 

Now, I believe each child merits a strong sense of being loved. Absolutely. And a powerful feeling of belonging. But when you make a big deal out of a child putting his plate in the dishwasher as proof of how special and gifted and hardworking that child is, there is no where to go--because in life, an adult needs to have the ability to clean up the whole table and kitchen after supper. Children can become dependent on external feedback to feel good about themselves…and parents begin to pump up their tires with very little accomplishment. 

We as parents hate it when our children are upset…and often turn it on ourselves as a sign of our own inadequate parenting when a child is frustrated. It's not easy to watch our children struggle…and yet that is what successful parenting requires. 

Parents raise children who will be able to handle the inevitable challenges and difficulties of life, to enable them to struggle through the inevitable frustrations of a lousy boss, unexpected bills, and the grind of showing up at an entry level job day after day. Success comes after perseverance as an adult…and too often children learn that by doing an hour or two of chores, they can earn an Xbox, and they can be surprised at how real life doesn't get them promoted just because they'd like to be in charge.

So…how do I love my JTM's with a fierce mama bear love that only wants the best for them? How do I do right by them in a complicated world of technology that teaches that instantaneous is the norm? How do I help them understand that inevitable slow and painful growth is valuable and significant in a world that values all things instant? How do I be an effective parent when everything in me says to make their childhood pain free and

This is a video that has a lot to say, even in the first 2 minutes and 43 seconds…it can challenge--and revolutionalize your parenting--teaching our children how to sit in the dark--as an important life skill that is our responsibility as parents to teach:

Letting them fall, fail and fear is the way to love my kids…

1. Fall: 

It's no fun watching a child cry out in pain from a fall. No fun at all. 

But the valuable part of falling is learning. Learning that some things aren't a good idea…because to do them hurts! It is pain that teaches us that skateboarding without elbow pads isn't such a good idea…and protective gear is worn…and in years in the future…that same kid wears his seat belt regularly as a new driver.

Falling hurts, but it doesn't kill us. I remember falling off my bike as a kid…I remember hitting a tree riding down the Elmwood sidewalk. I remember the scrape on my belly from the handle bar when I hit it. I remember how it hurt…but I also remember that I healed. And I remember how hard it was--but how worthwhile it was--to get back on the bike. I became a proficient bike rider in my early elementary school years even tho I fell. 

It was important for me to realize that I could get back on the bike, even after I fell. 

Kids need to know that falling hurts. The pain of it can make a person wiser to avoid such nasty pain in the future. A kid also needs to know that even when falling hurts, it might be hard, but it is worthwhile to face that which has created the fall…and to conquer it.

There's no feeling like being able to get back on the bike and ride it.

I think we lose sight of the beauty, the most beautiful things I look back on in my life are coming out from underneath things I didn

2. Fail

Failing sucks. Quite simply. 

No one likes to fail.

And failing hurts. Failing feels like…well…it feels like failure.

And when a person fails, it can feel like a person is a failure, rather than having failed at something.

Failure is a valuable learning tool. 

  • It helps you discover your limits--which, let's face it--we all have. 
  • It helps a person discover resiliency--we all need to bounce back from setbacks in life. 
  • Failure is inevitable. If we don't learn about it in childhood, how will anybody ever possibly be able to handle it as an adult?
  • Failure is often part of the unfairness of life. Life gives us unfair setbacks--a lousy boss, a truly unfair coach/teacher. If you are alive, you will experience injustice--and throwing a tempter tantrum at unfairness won't actually be that helpful. Not allowing injustice to defeat us is a skill that all need to acquire for this messy thing called life.
While no parent relishes failure on the part of a child…please note that:

I would rather have my child hit the ditch at 30 km an hour while a teenager in my care, than hit a brick wall at 100 km an hour as an adult.


  • Children need to learn the high cost of the speeding ticket by paying it themselves--or losing the privilege of driving the vehicle until the bill is paid off--even if it takes a ridiculous amount of babysitting. How often are you gonna speed if it takes you 6 weeks to pay off the bill? (This bit of learning could literally save a life, y'know)
  • Children need to sort out how to handle the lousy performance review at their first job…a parent might coach them on strategies to have the conversation with their boss…but it would hardly be right for the parent to call and demand a retraction of the job review. Why would you steal this opportunity from your child?
  • A child may not get a trophy, may not be a star player, may not get recognition, may not get as much playing time--heck…may not get any playing time. That is gonna feel like a failure. But some day, that child may be the coach…and think about how that experience of being a bench player will shape the empathy level for the bench warmers on that team.

3. Fear


Fear paralyzes. 

Fear has folks move away from that which is frightening…retreating into safe spaces where the heart doesn't thump and the breath slows.

I hated watching my JTM's be frightened as children. It took everything I had in me not to console them by somehow making it all ok, by doing some advance work three steps ahead to smooth the road by: 
  • letting him avoid the event
  • running interference and taking the heat for him
  • calling ahead and explaining things
I'm not about throwing my kids to the wolves for the heck of it. Not at all. I sought and still seek to support my kids in their fear…but I have worked to sit with them in it, rather than removing it. I work to give them the "just right challenge" so that they face a fear without being flooded by it.

Life as an adult is scary, huh? Applying for a promotion, falling in love, getting a car loan, going to a new friend's party, beginning a difficult conversation with a loved one, getting pregnant, getting fired, firing someone--all these are terrifying.

Knowing how to draw on one's courage and move forward in an uncertain and vulnerable situation--terrifying--but infinitely worthwhile. 

Giving our children the ability to feel their fear and being able to lean into it and move through it? 

Priceless!!

Compassion is not a relationship between the healer and the wounded. It

Last fall, a JTM's team lost the big game. The biggest game of their lives. Days later some of the athletes were still struggling with the disappointment and frustration of the loss…they had expected to win and they didn't. 

I asked my JTM about this…why had we had a pleasant ride home even right from the game the very evening of the loss. His response was quick: "Mom, some of these guys have never had anything bad happen to them…this is the worst thing in their lives." 

This was the experience they were challenged with to learn about sitting in the darkness…my son could roll with this loss because of what he had already learned about holding space for pain and discomfort.


Proximity

- by Sabrina Friesen

I am grateful. I have colleagues that I work with daily in our offices that I respect and admire. They wow me with their insights and wisdom. If you could hear our walls talk, you would hear stories of wonder--the work with the therapists do with our clients is incredible.

Sabrina Friesen is one of these wise and wonderful colleagues of mine. I am fortunate to know and work with her…and she shares with us here on the blog today...

Our house had recently been under the weather.  Like reaaalllly under the weather.  I don’t even want to add up the number of visits to the doctor we have collectively had in the past three weeks.  I’m not sure about you, but when people don’t feel well here there are a few things that happen:

  1. We wear our pajamas all day. 
  2. We drink indiscriminate amounts of juice and/or tea.
  3. We watch TV.  Lots of TV.

On a particularly gnarly Saturday a little bit ago, with the one then-healthy member of our family shipped off with friends and the two boys happily watching sports, I set myself up in our dark basement with tea and tissues and hours of Call the Midwife on Netflix to keep me company in between the coughs.  I can’t remember the last time I sat for hours (and hours, and hours) and just watched a show.  It was kind of magical.

For those of you who aren’t fans, I don’t blame you.  It’s about midwives (and babies) and they say things like placenta.  It’s definitely not a show for everyone.  But this period drama about a nurses’ station run by nuns and staffed by midwives in the East End of London, England in the 1950’s is quite captivating for me at least.  It’s a show about people, social classes, community, and life and death and what it means to intersect in the lives of others.  

What can I say, I’m a therapist – I am all about people and their stories.

if we deny love that is given to us, if we refuse to give love because we fear the pain of loss, then our lives will be empty, our loss greater

In the final episode I watched, one particular scene stood out to me.  A midwife, Nurse Noakes, who was pregnant and ready to pop with her own wee one at any time was sitting with Fred, the handyman at the nurses’ station.  Fred was holding his own brand new granddaughter, whom the nurse had just helped deliver.  As he held this wee bundle and caressed her teeny tiny baby feet, he said to Nurse Noakes:

“I grew up in me barefeet.  My dad spent more on beer than he did on shoe leather.  I used to think, ‘When I have kids I’m going to give  them shoes, hot dinners, a happy home.  And I managed all three.  ‘Till Hilter intervened.  When the bomb dropped I wasn’t there. 
And that’s what makes you a parent, Nurse Noakes.  Proximity.  You can’t sell that in the shops.”

Merriam Webster defines proximity as the state of being near.

Proximity.  

It’s a word I use in session with clients when we’re talking about relationships.  I hold my two hands up in the air, thumbs and fingers together – with fingers pointing towards each other as if they wanted to kiss.  It’s my (very poor) visual of two people engaged and looking at each other.  This closeness, with fingers representing faces, is a relationship ideal.  


Two people near to each other, looking at each other, close and accessible.  


This is the kind of connection we so often long for in relationship.

But unfortunately for us, relationships are often fraught with disappointment, frustration, and hurt feelings.  What happens to those two hands that are close and pointed at each other is that somewhere along the line, one person gets hurt.  

Maybe it’s a parent who is hurt that their kid lied to them again, so we emotionally (and sometimes physically) turn away and become cold and distant.  We’ve turned the back of our head to them, and the proximity and accessibility we once shared is now gone.  Imagine the two hands that were once pointed towards each other now far apart, with one turned away.  The other looks on, seeing only the butt of the person they love and want to reach.  

Ouch.

Maybe it’s a ‘joke’ that your husband told at your expense at the latest work function that got under your skin.  That pain might lead you to give him the cold shoulder, maybe move over on the couch, or turn over in bed when he puts his hand on your back and wants to draw near.  

Maybe a friend hasn’t responded to the email you sent her last week, or the phone call from yesterday, and you feel like you’re the only one putting in work.  So you exclude her from the girls’ night text and plan a fun night without her, maybe even ignoring a call as you’re getting ready to head out for the evening. 

I think that handyman Fred is really on to something here with this whole proximity business.  

What does it mean to be accessible to someone else?  What does it mean to exist in the state of being near? 

I can tell you what it isn’t.  

Proximity is not staying close enough so someone can step on you again, and again, and again.  It’s not becoming a doormat who never leaves, or taking another blow to your confidence so someone else can feel important.  Proximity doesn’t mean staying so close when it doesn’t feel good.  

I simply wonder if there are ways to get a little space without doing the whole turn-around-so-you-can-see-my-behind thing? 


I don’t think a lot of us like to feel alone.  

More specifically, I don’t think we like it when someone we value and depend on all of a sudden disappears on us – be it physically or emotionally (or both).  This can be excruciating, and leaves us thinking all sorts of nasty thoughts about how they must not love us, how we’re not enough, and how we did it wrong again.  Or maybe you get vindictive, dreaming up ways to stick it to them so they can pay for how badly they hurt you when they left you there all alone. 

Sometimes my pre-schooler gets under my skin.  We are a lot alike in our propensity towards intensity and we get into these seasons where we trigger each other to no end.  Now I love this kid with some ferocious mama love, and I adore the intensity of joy and delight and celebration this little brings into our family.  

But sometimes I get so mad that I can’t be in the same room as her.  I could storm out and slam the door, ignore her, and take a moment to calm down.  That could work.  But it feels kinda yucky leaving her there, not knowing where I went or what happened.  

I am all too aware that she might come to think that, “when I don’t act the way she wants – my mom can’t be with me.”  And that thought nearly breaks my heart, because it has way less to do with her attitude and way more to do with my hurt feelings and sense of inadequacy as a parent.  

Instead of pulling away and disappearing on her, my typical response (when I don’t absolutely lose my marbles and go into loud-mama mode, because, folks, that happens too!) is to let her know that I’m feeling frustrated and need a time out.  Then I lock myself in my bathroom for a few moments and hope to goodness she doesn’t come hunting me down, because that just might push me over the edge.

When feelings are hurt, what does it look like to take a few steps back?  Imagine the kissy fingers are now not so close.  Maybe an arm-width’s apart even, but the “faces” are still pointed at each other.  They know where the other is.   It’s distant, but they can find each other, and if both take steps – they are steps toward each other instead of away from each other.


What do you do when you see someone’s behind?  Do you run towards them and chase them down?  Do you turn away too?  Do you stand still and wait for them to turn around?

What about when your feelings are hurt, what does that look like?  Who sees your backside and loses sight of you?

I wonder, what does it look like to back up from someone you love but to still remain proximate?  How do you deal with the inevitable bumps and bruises that come with being close, but stay accessible to those you love? 

Maybe we’re going through all the right motions, and doing the right things.  Maybe we’re fighting like cats and dogs and are on the brink of calling it quits.  If handyman Fred is as wise as I think he is, he’d probably say neither of that really matters, so long as we can see each other. 


Nudging and being nudged

- by Carolyn Bergen

One of my favourite things that happens in therapy is this:

A couple comes in for an initial session. There is tension between them. They are fighting. They have forgotten how to be friends…they have forgotten they are friends. They begin with the complaints…He works too hard. She complains too much. yada yada

As the session progresses, we continue talking…and I'll ask them what they are looking for in counselling. And one of them will develop a far off look and want the way it used to be…when they were friends, and laughed, and were supportive, and had each others back, and gave each other the benefit of the doubt.

And I'll ask more about that. And they'll tell me about how they have been with each other in better days…and they will recall the friendship, and the support. And they tell me, in any one of a 1000 different ways of the story of love in their lives. And it might have laughter, or tears, or be a little crusty around the edges, but we take a look at "the big picture"

And then I'll tell them that I can work with them on this. That it doesn't have to be this way. That I want to work with them on this, and we will work to get them to where they want to be.

Next, he comes in…and he tells me things are much better between them…and he's not actually sure why, but she sure is a lot easier to get along with. She's softer and kinder and he so appreciates the way she has been with him…it makes it warmer at home and he's relaxing.

Next, she comes in…and she tells me that something happened to him after the first session--not exactly sure what, but he's more patient, and he's tried harder to let her know what's happening…and the way he has changed makes her feel different in the relationship.

I love those times when folks come in and give the other credit for the shifts towards warmth and connection in their relationship.

It's the nudge of the session…merely remembering and recalling the good times in the presence of another. Hearing that the other loves and cares and is committed…when one hasn't been quite so sure that the other is "all in" means a lot.

It is cool to see this happen quite often at our offices…before we as therapists feel like we've actually had opportunity to get in to doing some real therapeutic work, we often see shifts in the couple's relationship…simply because they've been nudged to remember things that got a little buried under the day to day stressors of a relationship.

Simply reminding themselves of the goodness that is possible somehow begins to open space for friendlier ways of being…which nobody is taking credit for--because the space is created unconsciously and unawares.

Companies change the context for us all the time…to subtly change our focus and create incremental shifts in our behaviour that have us buy more, eat more, and spend more. The book, Nudge, by Thaler and Sunstein speaks of these nudging strategies. For example, if all the prices in a menu are listed in a single column on the one side, folks will quickly scan the prices and base much of their decision on cost. It the price of the menu items are added at the end of each paragraph of the description of the meal, the eye pays much more attention to the food, with the cost being less of the decision maker. People buy more expensive food. Another example…which seems almost silly in its simplicity and effectiveness: The airport in Amsterdam painted flies (as in, the insect) in the centre of men's urinals in the bathroom. It gave something for men to aim at. There was 80% less urine outside the urinal.

(Women all over Winnipeg are now investigating water proof paint and looking for insect stencils for the inside of the toilet bowls as you read this, huh?)  ;)

The idea of nudging behaviour in a positive direction is one that I think we all win when we spend some time pondering.

Business is realizing that small changes can make a difference. 
  • The Google offices have pre-plated desserts that are small servings--switched up from huge platters of cakes where folks can serve themselves. Having seconds for dessert is another trip to the dessert counter…and so people eat smaller portions of stuff that is best consumed as small treats.
  • Another company, realizing that when spending a week or more teaching/telling people about the policies and values, having them understand corporate culture etc. saw that they scared and intimidated new employees, priming them to be formal and on-edge…not exactly conducive to creative and innovative productivity. They switched to asking new employees questions about how they were best successful, what they needed to be at their best, and how their new employer could help them reach their potential. These new employees had lower rates of turnover and their customers rated them as being more effective.
  • If an employee is invited to consider retirement planning…how much money in a pay check to set aside for RRSP's for when s/he is retired…maybe decades from now--it there is a picture of that employee that is age advanced so s/he is looking at themselves as a senior citizen, they are much more likely to put a greater amount in savings to help that person in the future.
The study of these behaviours is known as "behaviour economics", which Google describes as:
Behavioral economics definition as shown in Google
"Yeah, but Carolyn" you say, "your blog is about connection, not a business blog. Why you filling our heads with this business stuff?"

So glad you asked! :)

It's about the opening story…creating subtle shifts that gently invite the sort of behaviour you desire is hugely more effective than simply telling people what to do. 

Somebody can pour the first glass of wine…and doing something thoughtful and gentle with another often engages them to reciprocate. 

She got home from work one evening and fed the kids and put them to bed and she was tired to the bone. And he was late again. Late again. And even though he was late and the house was a mess, she knew that he would walk in the door, pour his glass of wine, and sit down at the kitchen table and relax. He’d sit and relax. She couldn’t even remember what relaxing felt like. She was always either going like hell or sleeping. Somebody had to keep the family running.

She stared at his bottle of wine on the counter. Then her eyes wandered over to their wedding photo on the wall. Clueless, she thought. We were cluelessBut happy. Look at us. We were happy. We were hopeful.

God, please help us, she said silently.

Then she walked over to the counter and poured a glass of wine for him. She put it next to his book on the kitchen table, the place he loved to sit and relax, and she went upstairs to sleep.

He tiptoed into the house fifteen minutes later. He knew he’d missed the kids’ bedtime again, he knew his wife would be angry againand he prepared himself for her steely silence. He hung up his coat and walked into the kitchen. He saw his glass of wine, and his book, and his chair pulled out for him. He stood and stared for a moment, trying to understand.

It felt like she was speaking directly to him for the first time in a long, long while...

So…imagine what it would be like to invite different behaviour with the people in your life, not by telling them what you need for them, but by creating the environment that is conducive to them doing something that is desirable?
  • Instead of bugging the kiddos to do their homework instead of playing video games, begin to sit at the table after supper with a book to read, and maybe take a few notes with a notebook…learn a new skill, or brush up on the latest for work. Do that regularly for a few weeks…no big speeches needed…and create opportunity for the child to join you at the table with their schoolwork as time passes
  • If you and your family decide y'all want to eat better sized portions, set the table with a smaller sized plate. No big deal, just subtle cues to encourage a better style of consumption.
  • If you decide that it is a better choice to exercise Saturday morning rather than read the paper and drink coffee…put your running clothes on before you go to bed…some of you might think this is gross. But if on waking up, you're ready to go…wouldn't it be that much easier to get up and out the door?
  • If you need to have that difficult conversation about finances with your partner, how could you set it up? (Hint: Exploding at your partner on opening up the credit card bill may not set the environment in the optimal way!) What about saying something like: "We're both gonna hate this conversation…it's gonna make us uncomfortable, and we're gonna have to work hard not to get furious with each other, cuz $ talks can stress the strongest couple, but let's set aside an hour on Thursday night to invest in a brighter future because we care so much about each other. I'll write down some agenda items for us to focus on, and I'm gonna invite you to do the same. I'm scared to have this conversation, but we're worth it!"
Subtly attending to the details of how a conversation are set up, to how a conversation is framed, to environmental cues, to the energy and stress levels of those involved--all of these can change a situation around.

This isn't manipulation, this is sensitive attunement--creating optimal circumstances to increase comfort and safety to allow all to operate out of their best selves.

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Blog ~ A Thoughtful Look at Life

December 21, 2014

In celebration of So-Low-Down-is-Up day…Yep…read on!

Why do we shop? A hilarious 1 minute video and 7 reasons why we shop (hint: it's cuz we are created for connection)

Prioritizing the Important over the Urgent…does your life get a l'il hectic with busy-ness and then you feel out of control and are frazzled around your family and they catch the fallout, when what you really want is goodness for them and that's why you're so very busy in the first place?


read more