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.

 

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.

Self-ish

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The self is what we commonly refer to as the collection of our experiences, knowledge, values and personality. When we say someone is selfish, we are usually referring to a negative attribute, in which a person places their own interests above the interests of another.

In Gestalt therapy we pay attention to the ways in which a person makes contact with herself (or himself) and the world. Does she avoid or interrupt contact with others? Prolong it? Or have trouble withdrawing from contact? These ways of managing contact are called creative adjustments. Using my own experience as example, I tend to avoid contact when I think conflict might ensue. My creative adjustment to this situation is to avoid contact with the person with whom I have conflict. Perhaps I don’t answer their phone calls or text messages, or maybe I avoid the topic of potential conflict in my conversations with them. It may not always be healthy or productive for me, but in a deep sense my avoidance is my way of taking care of self.

In this way, we understand that each person acts in her (or his) own best interests by creatively adjusting to different situations. People are more likely to make creative adjustments when situations are challenging or difficult. And this adjustment rarely, if ever, makes sense to someone witnessing it. Unfortunately, we have no way of knowing the exact nature of someone else’s experience, so we tend to dismiss their behavior (adjustments) as illogical, crazy, stupid, etc. Each of us makes creative adjustments, all the time, throughout the day. When we are on the receiving end of someone else’s creative adjustment, it is tempting to label the other person’s behavior as “selfish”.

Creative adjustment is how each person takes care of the self. In this sense, they are self-ish. I invite you to think about what it would be like if, next time you hurry to label someone “selfish,” you instead reframe it “self-ish,” with the understanding that he or she is doing their best to creatively adjust to their current situation.

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How to be Zen during the holidays

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As we enter the middle of the month, many of us find we are short on time, long in line; busy, tired and perhaps hungover. Whatever your spiritual beliefs, December in American culture is a busy, event-filled, sometimes frantic time. The media, consumerism, and social norms (think of the messages in secular Christmas carols) tell us to be joyous of the season, to buy stuff, and to rush around. And amidst all of this, we expect to be happy, peaceful, and generous. This push and pull can knock us off balance.

Zen Buddhism shows us how to maintain balance and harmony during the holidays or other busy, stressful times. Here are some Zen principles and ways to apply them in December and every other month of the year. They are all interrelated and by attending to one, you are very likely doing another.

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  1. Do one thing at a time and do it completely.

In other words, do not multitask. If you sit down to eat, stay there. Do not rush around answering the phone, taking something out of the oven, or checking the laundry. Modern science has also shown us that multitasking is not as effective as we would like to think it is. Here is a story from NPR addressing this very issue: http://www.npr.org/2013/05/10/182861382/the-myth-of-multitasking.

  1. Do less.

Think about what is truly necessary and you might be able to remove some of your thinking around what you feel “must” be accomplished. For example, must you attend every single holiday party you are invited to? Will you stay home if you need down time? Only you know the answers. See if doing less helps you do more.

  1. Develop rituals.

The holidays are already imbued with many rituals. See which ones work for you and your family and incorporate them into your holidays. Create your own. Rituals create stability and opportunities to connect with others.

  1. Think about what is necessary.

When we slow down, we do less. This gives us an opportunity to think about the essentials. How does our current way of doing things contribute to or take away from our quality of life? What do you really need?

For further information about Zen Buddhism, see Alan Watts’ seminal book, entitled “The Way of Zen.” Available here: http://www.amazon.com/Way-Zen-Alan-W-Watts/dp/0375705104/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1418663524&sr=8-1&keywords=The+way+of+zen

Have yourselves a Zen holiday, friends!

 

how to be still. part 1

 

1. stop. right now. for 10 seconds.

2. breathe.

3. let your breath travel to all parts of your body.

4. release your shoulders.

5. relax your mouth and jaw.

6. repeat.

peace, friends

 

how to be at peace

1. love yourself. really. until you cultivate a gentleness and a loving attitude toward yourself, you will not be able to love another fully. love begins at home.

 

2. accept what is. traffic. rudeness. your partner’s anger. it is what it is. this does not mean it cannot change, but you reacting to what is, does not change it. only makes you sad, frustrated, angry, etc.

 

3. pray for, or send loving kindness to the difficult people in your life.

 

4. regard your faults as precious lessons. treat everyone as if they are your teacher, for what you see in others is a projection of yourself. these are opportunities to learn.

 

5. forgive your unproductive behaviors, not yourself. you are already perfect. it is the behaviors that sometimes don’t work.

 

6. give peace, however small, to others. a smile, a softened attitude, a prayer.

 

sending peace, my friends.

SPEAKING OF AGENDAS

I have been thinking about the words I say during conversations with others, especially with those close to me. As I embrace the Gestalt way of slowing down to heighten my self-awareness, I realize that sometimes I say things to others with an expectation in mind, or to obtain validation of some sort. In other words my speech, in dialogue with another, is about ME.

EXAMPLE OF SPEECH WITH AN AGENDA:

“Honey, do these jeans make my butt look big?” How many of us have asked our partner/friend/S.O. this question, with the expectation that they reassure us that we “Look awesome in those jeans!”?

Now, having an agenda is perfectly okay. As I explain in counseling, it may be really important to have an expectation behind my words, such as in parenting, or when managing others as part of my profession. I want my partner to assure me that I look good in my clothing. I am focusing here on the awareness that I have an agenda. My speech is a means to an end.

Attaching a hidden expectation to our speech is where we can get into trouble. We put something out there with a little red flag on it that, unbeknownst to the other person, they are supposed to see and react to. When the other person does not react according to expectation, we become angry, hurt, resentful, or disappointed. [Our reaction to another person’s speech or behavior is good material for a future blog].

Hidden agendas are sometimes revealed in jokes or sarcasm, such as “Oh, I’m so (insert negative word i.e., ugly, awkward, etc.), that no one will want to go out with me.” The hidden agenda is the expectation that the other person will reassure us, console us, or in some way make us feel better about ourselves.

It is a lot harder to ask another person directly: “Do you think I’m ugly, awkward, etc?” or “Do you think anyone will want to go out with me?” Asking direct questions sometimes feels scary, because we might not get the validation and support we want or expect. We feel vulnerable. The fear of shame is very real.

Recognizing the motivation or agenda behind our speech is a way to learn more about ourselves. It informs us of our emotional state, and vulnerabilities we may be experiencing. It is a way to tap into what is often just beyond awareness. When we live our lives on “auto pilot,” quickly passing through each day, we miss the subtleties and the rich lessons available through heightened awareness. It takes slowing down and a willingness to examine these sometimes painful parts of ourselves.

Many of us do not want to slow down. We are busy, we have a lot of things on the “to do” list and many responsibilities. Yes, all valid points, dear reader. AND I invite you to slow down a bit, to raise your awareness of the speech you put out into the world, and to take a peek at the self you keep just barely out of awareness.

How can you change the agenda? In therapy sessions, we experiment with new behaviors that will lead to changing ingrained and sometimes unhelpful behaviors. The creative experiment arises from what is happening right now in the session.

A meditation teacher once invited me to consider these three questions before speaking:

1. Is it kind?

2. Is it true?

3. Is it necessary?

I would add another:

4. Do I have an agenda or hidden expectation attached to this?

If you would like some help slowing down, raising awareness and changing your agenda, I am trained to counsel and facilitate change. I am willing to speak to your group on any number of mindfulness, intentional, Gestalt, or counseling topics. Please see my home page for information about how to contact me.

I am always interested to hear how my readers experience these posts. My agenda is to write about counseling and therapeutic topics interesting to me, which will perhaps interest you. I would like to know your reactions to this post, ideas you have, suggestions, or questions.

Peace, my friends.