How to remain calm during the holidays

 

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Holidays

We are at the height of the holiday season. Many of us have attended the company office party or have finished out the school semester. Shopping, wrapping gifts, and preparing food occupy our time. Christmas Eve and Christmas day festivities are around the corner.

For some of us, the prospect of family gatherings is daunting and dreaded. How can we manage the aunt who badgers us about not being married, the uncle whose radical political opinions he cannot keep to himself, or the parent who compares us to our much more beautiful and/or successful sibling(s)? Not to mention the internal talk that often accompanies these gatherings; “I should’ve lost 10 pounds before I came to visit!” or “Why don’t I have a better job?” or even, “My political opinions are much more sound than crazy Uncle Alvin’s!”

These kinds of scenarios can quickly cause us to lose our equanimity; the quality of feeling calm and balanced in the face of chaos. How can you maintain your balance? Here are some suggestions:

  1. Remember that your path is your path, and your (insert family member’s) path is his path. You do not have to apologize to anyone for the decisions you are making in your life. You are an adult and you have every right to live as you see fit.
  1. Do not compare yourself to the outward appearance of others. You do not know what battles they may be facing privately.
  1. Give yourself credit for doing the best you can at any given moment. No one is perfect, even if it looks that way to you.
  1. You are allowed to take a neutral stance about hot button items like politics, same sex marriage, nutrition, medical care, family member’s opinions, etc. In other words, you do not have to have an opinion. Things do not have to be polarized as good or bad, positive or negative. They can just be as they are.
  1. You may or may not ever resolve the hurts and injustices of your childhood, but you do not have to revert to old family patterns of behavior. Notice how you might slip back into the role you had in your family growing up. Were you the clown? The peacemaker? The overachiever? This behavior may have worked for you in your family of origin and it might not serve you now. Notice and allow yourself to be different if you desire.
  1. Don’t take anything personally. Most of what people say in criticism of others is about themselves anyway. You have my permission to repeat this mantra, silently to yourself, until you believe it.

Above all, relax, and take time to enjoy what you do love about the rest of the holidays. The New Year will soon be here and you can focus on the renewal and opportunity January brings us. And if you do want to address old wounds, giving yourself credit, or not taking things personally, give me a call. I can provide the calm and expert counseling that encourages equanimity. Peace, friends.

 

 

Seeing yourself in others

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Have you noticed that when you meet someone for the first time, you are usually aware of what you like or do not like about that person? We like people for their obviously identifiable traits: they are physically attractive, we like the same music, our children are the same age, and so forth.

Sometimes, it is not so easy to identify why we do or do not like someone. A subtle, often imperceptible energy draws us closer to someone, or drives us away. This energy represents the subconscious, hard-to-identify aspects of ourselves with which we have lost touch.

When we notice someone’s kindness, patience, or thoughtfulness, we are noticing these characteristics in ourselves. Others reflect our positive qualities back to us. In contrast, that which we do not like about another person, or qualities to which we react negatively, are the disowned, or hidden aspects of our personalities.

A NEGATIVE REACTION IS YOUR SIGNAL FOR AN OPPORTUNITY TO LEARN.

The opportunity to learn about oneself appears in the uncomfortable space of looking at our negative qualities. As humans, it is natural to want to pay attention to what we like about others and ourselves. The positive is always easier to accept and work with than the negative. The key to dealing with negative qualities is to not be afraid of them. By coming into contact with the negative qualities we see in others, we are shining a bright light in the corners of our existence. Sometimes the cockroaches scramble out of the corners. The corners are scary, gross, disagreeable. AND there is the opportunity to scrub the corners. Here is an example of how I experienced discomfort and learned a powerful lesson as a result:

I was experiencing difficulties with someone in my life. I believed she wanted to control me, that she did not respect my perspective, or my way of doing things. My conversations with this person were usually constricted and inauthentic.

When my teacher invited me to examine this relationship more closely, I had difficulty looking at and accepting the reflection of myself in this person. I said, “I am nothing like this person! She is controlling and insecure. She thinks I do things the wrong way. She is the one with the problem!” As I glanced sideways into the mirror of my own being, I saw my own controlling behaviors and insecurities. I squirmed in discomfort. I saw that I tried to control the way she thought about me, instead of letting her think whatever she wanted. I saw my own self-judgment about doing things the wrong way. The examination of myself in her was a huge lesson for me.

I learned to recognize I have some negative qualities that balance my positive qualities. And that is okay. I learned that I can accept the range of aspects of my personality. And do you know what happened when I accepted my entire personality? Not only have I become less harsh and judgmental of myself, I am much gentler with others. The reflection of myself in others shows me who I am. The rest of the work is in loving myself and, by default, loving others more fully.

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What do you have to gain by seeing yourself in others? I can help you look in the mirror, guiding you with compassion and skill. Call me to discover your hidden self. 512-593-0583. melaniesomerville.atx@gmail.com

Peace, friends.

 

 

What is self?

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In Gestalt therapy, the “self” is understood as a continuously evolving and changing organism.  (I know, weird word for what is essentially the “person”). Jim Kepner writes, “ Gestalt therapy views the self not as a thing, a static structure, but as a fluid process. The self is not a frozen set of characteristics (‘I am this and only this.’)”

This idea alone, the self not being static, is quite revolutionary to some people. How often do you say, “I am always . . . ,” or “I never …” and honestly believe you are always/never this way? Do you describe yourself in terms so absolute as to deny the possibility of something other than what you understand yourself to be? What would it be like to consider the opposite of what you think you are or never are?

Most of us also perceive the self as what is in the mind or brain, and not what is being bodily experienced. In Gestalt therapy, body and mind are one. Acknowledging both bodily and mental processes leads to a richer, more complete experience of life. By contrast, a disowning of the body diminishes existence and is often experienced by feelings of fragmentation and  distress. And yet in our Western culture we don’t easily acknowledge that body and mind are interconnected.

The healthy individual is varied and flexible in his or her abilities and qualities, depending on the circumstances of the environment. There is no self without the context of the environment; and how we act depends largely on what is going on around us. Environment is a general term that includes people, places, situations, etc. Therefore, how we behave depends on how we make contact with the environment in order to meet our needs.

Contact is necessary for growth and survival. We assimilate experiences that are useful for growth and change, and reject what cannot be assimilated. In contacting, assimilating and growing, we sometimes encounter problems with the environment. For example, when a child’s need for love and affection is rejected or punished.

When a child is repeatedly exposed to criticism, discouragement, cruelty, or neglect, he or she learns to “disown” certain aspects of the self. In other words, the person denies his or her natural curiosity, want for love, capacity for vulnerability, or sexual feelings. This takes place in both the bodily and mental aspects of the self.

Even individuals who have not been subject to abuse, have disowned aspects of themselves. It happens when a person’s vulnerability is not met with compassion and understanding. This invariably happens to all of us. It is part of being human. The individual takes this rebuff and rejection, and puts it out of sight and mind. She or he ignores the feelings and thoughts, pretending that these qualities are not part of the self. The body is “held” or armored to protect its vulnerabilities. She or he learns not to talk or think about certain subjects.

Individuals can put these uncomfortable emotions, thoughts and feelings away, so to speak, but they continue nonetheless, well below the surface of consciousness. Often, non-verbal body language gives expression to the turmoil within.

Kepner again, makes an excellent example of this by using a house as metaphor for self. You don’t want a particular room in your house, but you cannot get rid of it, because it is integral to the structure of the house. So you board it up and pretend it isn’t part of the house.

Those little traumas of not being supported in our environments are what lead up to us boarding off a room in the house of “self.” Only through careful exploration of the boarded up room, can we hope to come to understand, and love, and own our full selves.

As a Gestalt therapist, I work with you to gently uncover the disowned aspects of oneself. As you are able to integrate all aspects of yourself, you begin to have a greater self-awareness and more choice about how to act so that your needs are met.

If you would like to explore your “self,” give me a call. Melanie Somerville • 512-593-0583 • melaniesomerville.atx@gmail.com

Peace, friends.

5 things to know about mediation

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I have recently added professional mediation services to my practice. People have asked me, “What is mediation? I thought you had to be a lawyer to perform mediation! What kinds of situations are right for mediation? Is it cheaper than dealing with the court system?” These are all great questions, and I have listed 5 things to know about the mediation process below.

1. Counseling and mediation are not the same thing. During mediation, I take off my counselor hat and become a neutral and non-judgmental facilitator in order to work with both parties of a dispute. In mediation, the two parties may be neighbors, divorcing parents, co-workers, etc. Neutrality is key to the role. The mediator does not favor one side or the other. Instead, she works to uncover both side’s interests. Together, they come up with a description of the problem, brainstorm solutions and craft an agreement where both parties feel like they are having their interests met.

2. You don’t have to be a lawyer to mediate. Although lawyers often perform mediation in large, complicated business situations, many mediations are performed by trained mediator who are not lawyers. Often, lawyers do not want to mediate certain disputes.

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3. All mediators in Texas are trained in mediation. In Texas, mediators are trained at two levels. Basic mediation is meant to address problems and disputes encountered by neighbors, co-workers, and family members, as well as employer/employee relations and small business disputes. These are disputes in which the parties want to stay out of court and do not want to involve lawyers. For example, two neighbors arguing over noise, trash or animal waste, may choose mediation as a way to solve their dispute rather than hire a lawyer and to file suit in court. Mediation can be less stressful and more cost effective than the court system.

4. Some mediators are trained in Advanced Family Mediation. The next level of mediation training is called, Advanced Family Mediation. It is meant to assist families going through divorce, or divorced couples who find themselves arguing frequently over the details of coparenting, such as the visitation schedule, or decisions about school or activities . A mediator can help couples or parents through the same process mentioned above so that each party is satisfied with the final agreement. Additionally, the mediator may act as a parent coordinator or parent facilitator to help the divorcing parents craft a strong agreement with enough flexibility to keep the parties out of court.divorcemediation5. Divorced/divorcing parents who choose mediation protect their children. Children exposed to chronic parental conflict suffer greatly. Children’s guilt, sadness, worry, and uncertainty can affect their progress in school and with their peers. Parents who keep their children’s best interests in mind when addressing conflicts are taking steps to safeguard their children’s emotional wellbeing.

I have both levels of mediation training and can work with individuals and families. If you have further questions about the mediation process or about divorce in general, please call me and schedule a free 20-minute consultation at 512-593-0583. Email me at melaniesomerville.atx@gmail.com.

Peace, friends.

 

More about divorce…

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I had the pleasure of speaking to women contemplating or going through divorce this morning. Second Saturday is a workshop that provides financial, legal and emotional resources for women. The local Austin, Texas chapter was founded in 2006 by Melanie Johnson, one of the few certified divorce financial analysts in this area.

As I sat through the legal information that was presented before my talk, I felt my body tensing and my shoulders tighten. I remembered my own experience of divorce. Even though my divorce was relatively amicable, it was an emotionally disturbing time. It took me a good two years to find myself again and feel emotionally secure. I experienced a lot of emotional ups and down.

As I looked at the 7 or 8 women in the small room, I wondered what they were experiencing. A few took notes. A few looked worried. A couple dabbed their eyes with kleenex. I felt a great sense of compassion and companionship with these women, most of whom were just beginning the journey I feel has finally ended for me.

As we began to talk, I recognized their worry over the future; the thoughts like “I am not good enough,” “what should/could I have done differently?” During divorce there can seem to be endless questions over the unknown. And many women struggle with the desire to know the unknowable.

When it was my turn to talk, I encouraged the group to take care of themselves emotionally and physically, to surround themselves with positive and uplifting people, and to make friends with the concept of “not knowing.” I asked them to remember that hindsight is 20/20 and that we can’t know how some decisions will impact us in the future. I also told them that most folks who divorce eventually return to their previous levels of happiness, if not become happier than before.

I said that their children, whatever their ages, would be impacted by divorce, no question. Children may have a hard time accepting divorce, or they may wonder what took their fighting parents so long to finally split. Here is the advice I gave: Keeping an open channel of communication is important. Let them know you will always love them and always be their parent. Reinforce to them that the decision to divorce is about Mom and Dad, not about anything a child has or hasn’t done, said, or been. They may not understand, but they will be watching how their parents interact with each other; you, the divorcing parent, are modeling behvavior that they may unconsiously adopt themselves. For example, use of neutral or ugly words, consistency, moral high ground, and other behaviors you may or may not want your child to see or adopt.

Most importantly, I reminded them that they are responsible only for their own actions and words. (See my earlier post on this topic). No one elses. Not their ex-spouse, former in-laws, adult children, longtime friends who abandon the friendship. When I was divorcing, letting go of the need to control others’ behaviors kept me sane when they didn’t behave how I wanted them to.

Divorce is never easy, whether you have been married two years or 20. But divorce does not have to be devastating. As one woman in the workshop stated, it’s about the legacy you want to leave your children. What will yours be?

If you would like a compassionate and knowledgeable professional to walk with you through your divorce journey, write me an email or give me a call at 512-593-0583.
Peace, friends.

Independence Day 2015

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This morning at dawn, I stepped outside for a run. I heard the mourning dove cooing, felt the breeze across my skin, noticed the quiet stillness of my neighborhood. I thought, “It’s Independence Day! How fortunate I am to live in a peaceful country!” Many people around the world are fearful that a bomb will drop on their homes that day. Political upheaval destroys businesses and prevents people from providing from their families. And yes, there are children starving in India. Really.

As my hardworking heart pumped blood throughout my body and into my head, it occurred to me that not everyone in my own country feels peaceful, lives in a quiet neighborhood, or even has the luxury to notice birds and breezes. There are children starving in America, too. I felt uncomfortable to realize that my status as a white, heterosexual individual gives me certain comforts and rights not accessible to others of my fellow Americans. This makes me sad. And I don’t know how to handle this problem on my own. Recognizing that it is a problem is not enough.

I do know there is an ever increasing disparity among income in the United States. For practical information and numbers about this, see Nicholas Kristof’s piece in the New York Times. There are fewer and fewer jobs available to young men and women who, for whatever reason choose not to or cannot afford to go to college. Jobs that would allow them to marry, purchase a home and raise a family. Where is our middle class going?

I am not a political scientist. I am not well versed in political argument. I know what I feel and what I notice. And today, as much as I love my country, I notice that politicians polarize and preen. They criticize and grandstand, instead of really taking a hard look at the poor, hungry and downtrodden people in our own backyards. Isn’t that the message this country sent out so many years ago, when the Statue of Liberty was erected? Send us these people, and we will take care of them, provide them opportunity. What are we going to do about it now?

Sadness and despair are part of the ebb and flow of life. We greet it, we sit with the discomfort and usually, it recedes and normal life resumes. If you are having difficulty managing sadness and/or despair, give me a call. I can walk you gently through this difficult time. Melanie Somerville, LPC • 512-593-0583
Peace, friends.

How Mindfulness Can Change Your Life

images-8Mindfulness is  a concept relatively new to mental health. Jon Kabat-Zinn, the pioneer of bringing this Eastern-inspired technique to modern clinical settings defines mindfulness this way, “Mindfulness is an awareness of the present moment without attempting to change it or judge it.”

An example of using mindfulness would be me noticing that I am hungry as I sit here typing this blog. I could engage in some self talk, which might sound like this: “You’re already hungry?? You just ate a big lunch, how can you be hungry?” or, “Quick, jump up and have a handful of those cookies you made yesterday. You know you can’t stand it when you’re hungry!” The mindful response is to notice, breathe, and give myself some time and space to respond. First, I consider, am I really hungry? Perhaps I’m a little bored. Or anxious about the report I have to deliver tomorrow. Next, if I am hungry, do I really want the cookies? Perhaps I do. Perhaps I want a cup of tea or a banana instead. Mindfulness helps me slow down and choose what is best for me.

How can you use mindfulness in your life? And how can using mindfulness change your life?

I could write a few thousand words to answer those questions. And for today, I will begin with a few hundred, maybe you will be inspires to use mindfulness in your life.

  1. Use mindfulness to notice “what is.” Noticing is a very compassionate way to understand yourself without feeling like you must be different from what you are now. In our busy lives we frequently turn our thoughts to what we need to accomplish, or check off the list. We are constantly moving forward. By contrast, we also ruminate, or think about how the past may have been different, which is a recipe for anxiety and distress
  2. A mindful approach is to notice the thoughts we have about different situations. It is also a way to be fully engaged in the present moment without being distracted by things we have no control over. Really, we only can experience fully the present moment. The past is done, there is never any going back. The future is completely unknown, even though we like to think we control the future. And planning for the future is important. We know we have chores to do and bills to pay, this is part of modern life. And, I suggest, that projecting ourselves too far into the future and wanting to control the future at every turn is mentally and physically exhausting. When you are present, everything is just the way it is. It may suck. It may be wonderful. But you are here to notice and experience.
  3. After noticing “what is,” see what it is like for you to accept it. This acceptance includes the range of other people’s behavior, your own response, and what your body feels like to notice. This can take some getting used to. We live in a reactive society. We have been programmed to act, to react, to do something! Is it really necessary, or can you take a breath and carefully choose a response? Or to not respond?
  4. When you can accept what the present moment brings, you have wide range of options for how to respond. Because you have slowed down a bit by noticing what is, you have time and choices to respond. You control only your own choices, and no one else’s (unless you are the parent of  small child). This includes your choice of emotion as well as other’s emotions (you cannot control the emotions of a small child). In a strongly stirring moment you may not feel you can control your emotions. That is okay. Just notice your emotions. Notice your body. Experience your emotions in the present moment. Then choose.
  5. Mindfulness can help you change your life, because you get to fully live it right now! You are here now! Take mindfulness on your morning run, or when folding the laundry or eating ice cream. Really notice what you see, how your body moves, what the cold sweetness feels like on your tongue. These vibrant activities that we often take for granted come alive as we are present to experience them. Being mindful can bring you joy. It can bring you peace from worry and anxiety. It can lead you to yourself and to compassion for yourself. When you develop compassion for yourself, you will also find it for others. If everyone was compassionate toward others what would this world be like?

I walk the mindfulness path each day. Sometimes I also get lost. That’s part of it. If you would like some guidance walking the path, contact me at melaniesomerville.atx@gmail.com, or give me a call at 512-593-0583.

 

Peace, friends.

About divorce – Part 2

 

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6 STEPS TO SAFEGUARD YOUR CHILD’S EMOTIONAL WELLBEING DURING AND AFTER DIVORCE

This is Part 2 of my series About Divorce. This post has to do with how to care for your children during divorce. I’ve devised six steps for parents to use to safeguard their child(ren)’s emotional wellbeing during and after divorce. These are drawn from evidence based research on the effects of divorce on children. Divorce does not have to be devastating. Instead, we can see it as a transition.

Many people have moral qualms about divorce, that it is wrong. This blog isn’t intended to address the morality of divorce. If you have already made the decision to divorce, and you have children, here are some practical tips to use. The intent is to acknowledge that even in divorce, during this time of transition, there are things you can do that will impact the ability of your child to move through the divorce and develop into a well-adjusted adult.

  • Take care of yourself in order to take care of your child(ren). When you are emotionally & physically fit, your children are also likely to be this way. What do you do to take care of yourself? For some people, this involves physical exercise, time with supportive family and friends, time alone, spiritual practices. You deserve to be healthy and happy!
  • Communicate and respond effectively with your child(ren). What to say, how to say it, and when to say it, affects your child’s emotional health. Be mindful and intentional about communicating with your child and be sure he or she is mature enough to receive the information. Be aware of behaviors that may occur when children learn of your divorce.
  • Communicate effectively amidst conflict. It is NOT healthy for children to be exposed to their parent’s conflict. Do your best to shield your child(ren) from your anger/displeasure with your coparent. Children report that parental conflict is the greatest source of stress for them during divorce.
  • Respond appropriately to your child(ren)’s developmental needs. What a 2-year old needs when her parents are divorcing is very different from what a 10-year old, or 14-year needs. Do not rely on your child to fulfill your emotional needs or give advice. While it is admirable for them to have a sense of compassion and love for you, maintain a clear boundary so that you are doing more caretaking than your child is.
  • Be flexible and optimistic about the future. Know that as your children grow, their needs change. This means their relationships with you and their other parent will change, especially if either of you remarries. A flexible parental agreement makes these natural changes easier for your child. Plan your future after divorce with your children in mind. What is best for them?
  • Move forward in new relationships with intent. Divorce affects many more people that just the immediate family. Yours and your child’s friend group may change. You may change jobs or careers. You may wish to date again. Consider the new relationships in your new life with intention and attention to your child’s needs.

There are many, many other ways to take care of your children and safeguard them from the emotional turbulence caused by divorce. You are probably doing much of what I’ve outlined above. Kudos to you! Whether the divorce is something you want or not, it is still a huge disruption in your life and in your children’s lives. The more tools you have to draw from in your parenting tool box, the happier you all will be.

If you would like some professional guidance during this transition, please do not hesitate to give me a call at 512-593-0583. I am happy to offer a short telephone consultation.

Peace, friends.

 

 

Nothing like a good friend

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There is nothing like a good friend to get you through hard times. I have a friend who was instrumental in my development as a human being. This friend came into my life during a time of chaos, and has been beside me ever since. Many days, we spoke each morning. I was comforted and encouraged. We saw each other often, even though we lived in different cities. My friend showed me ways of being in the world that I’d never before encountered. Like a pair of shoes, I tried on a few of these ways. Some of them fit.

For example, my friend told me it was okay to sit and do nothing. This was a revolutionary idea to me. Growing up, the message I’d always received was “keep moving,” “be productive,” “don’t stop.” Sitting still was antithesis of productivity. This was before I learned that less is sometimes (often) more.

And as I tried on sitting and doing nothing, I became aware of a much greater part of me I hadn’t know existed. I call it internal awareness. The part of me that knows, without knowing. A felt sense. Of me. Of what I wanted and needed. This was not my brain, this was my body informing me. I was drawn to meditation, to mindfulness, to Buddhist philosophy. Ways of practice that honor the physical aspect of our existence.

I now know, this friendship and the awareness that arose from it, was the first step of a long journey back to myself. And to be honest, I don’t know if the journey is over. Perhaps it never is.

Years have passed. Our journeys continue, though our paths don’t often cross. But my friend is still there. We spoke just yesterday. And the love and support we’ve built over the years is still alive. I am so grateful. There is nothing like a good friend.

If you would like to begin a journey back to yourself, write me an email, or give me a call. 512-593-0583.

Peace, friends.

About divorce – Part 1

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Divorce is about change. It’s about starting over. It’s about discovery, and hope and potential. And, divorce is about fears we have about this change. There may be worry over the future, anger at your soon-to-be ex-spouse, a sense of betrayal that you are even in this situation. And many, many more emotions. Even if you are the one initiating the divorce, and feel relieved and anxious to put your marriage behind you, emotions can still be conflicting, intense and overwhelming.

Where are our children in all of this emotional turmoil? When I divorced after 28 years of marriage, my children were legally adults. I wanted this divorce and I wanted out of my marriage. Now. I was so caught up in the whirlwind of my emotions, that I found it difficult to take my children’s perspective. They were grown, they understood these things, didn’t they?

I’m here to tell you that they didn’t understand. I’d breached their trust in the infallibility of their parent’s marriage. Of family life as they knew it. They were angry and hurt that their parents couldn’t keep it together. They showed me, through words, actions and silence, that divorce is like a stone thrown into a pond. The ripples emanate in all directions, changing, for a time, the serenity of the pond’s surface. And I was blind to these ripples.

I went to therapy. I read a lot about divorce. I spent time alone. I began to understand the effects of my decisions upon others. It was painful. And illuminating. The biggest lesson I learned was that divorce is not only about the two people divorcing. That seems so obvious now, but it was almost impossible to see at the time. The bitter pill of divorce is the self-absorption that unwittingly accompanies it.

As I came out of the fog, I began to mend fences with some of the people those ripples have touched. I am not finished yet. My daughters and I are close again. This is my greatest treasure in life. There is little to no friction between my ex- and I. For these I am thankful. The rest I am working on.

If you would like to talk about the swirl of emotions that goes hand in hand with divorce, or the effects of divorce on your children, write me an email, or give me a call. 512-59-0583.

Part 2 of this post will give readers divorcing with kids, some tools to safeguard their children’s emotional wellbeing as the family transitions through divorce.
Peace, friends.