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Archive for the ‘Self-care’ Category

Take good care

Thursday, November 10th, 2016

I work with both individuals and couples in my practice. I also work with Democrats, Republicans, Independents, and Greens. I know that I’ve had people in my office recently who supported Hillary, Bernie, and yes, even Trump.

I can’t disclose client data publicly, but I think it’s not a surprise and will reveal the identity no one in particular to say that we are all just flipping out. This is truly a traumatic time for most of us. Seriously: take my diagnostic manual off my shelf, turn to the PTSD page, and yeah, that’s us. Except it’s not even “post” trauma. The trauma is happening right now, like a live video on Facebook.

One couple felt sheepish that they were coming to work on relationship problems while the world outside my office seemed to be hurtling into apocalypse. I dispensed with that concern immediately: there is probably no better thing to do right now, for all of us, than to take good care of our personal relationships. That has to be a starting point for us. Tempers are beyond frayed; people are losing sleep (I finally got a full night of sleep last night, after laying awake the night before feeling profound anxiety about what was happening); even therapists like me are getting therapy to cope with the strain.

I also believe that what happens globally also happens locally, in the same general pattern. If you’re in a pattern of discord and chaos in your primary relationship, some of the dynamics of that problem mirror the dynamics we see in the news: you are likely interacting with unflattering caricatures of each other; you are likely making decisions from an unconscious place of emotional overstimulation; you likely have much more in common with each other than you are prepared to admit; and you likely do have authentic hope that you can somehow make your way through the mess, even though that hope proves elusive right now.

So my advice to you, and to myself is this: “take good care.” It’s how I sign off on my emails, and for me it’s more than just a nice courteous way to sign a note. I really mean it. Take good care of your relationships. Take good care of your physical bodies. Start there. You are probably being traumatized right now, and for some of you, you obviously are, and you know that. Focusing on your personal needs is not only okay to do, it is essential.

Know also that when I say “take good care” to you, I am also saying it to myself, about you. When I write it in an email, it is a wish that moves in both directions: I am gently reminding myself to take good care of you, as best I can in my role as your therapist.

History is full of dreadful stories of political and social upheaval, violence, trauma, and terror. We are moving through that right now. Will we survive? Yes and no. We are a resilient species, and we have many gifts and skills. We are also deeply fallible and universally mortal. At some point, none of us will be here to see how things turned out.

In the meantime, take good care, and know that you are not alone.

When did I become one of those people?

Wednesday, October 14th, 2015

I know when: a little over a year ago.

11924971_10207292115371907_831566320216197107_nI confess, I’m firmly identified now on social media as one of those people who checks in at the gym. And I’m a pretty serious repeat offender: I go on average about four times a week, and I check in every. time. And I have a running app too, and it’s linked up to let the whole world know I just ran a few miles. I am one of those people.

I could just write myself off (and sometimes do) as a garden variety, tedious narcissist. But there’s more to this practice than vanity. There’s something therapeutic about it, something related to life goals and identity, something connected to my work as a therapist, something worth exploring.

In the summer of 2014, I bought a few personal training sessions at my gym. For the first month or so, I met with the trainer but didn’t do much else, coming in only once or twice to half-heartedly do a portion of his suggested workout. Finally I said this to him: “This isn’t working. I’m not getting anywhere, but now I have a professional on board, so it’s actually more depressing than before I hired you.” “What do you want to do about it?” he asked, and I admired his skillful yet friendly return of the ball to where it belongs—in my hands. And I knew, instantly, what I needed: “I want to email you every time I come to the gym, and (I might have blushed a little here) have you respond back with encouragement. Pat me on the head. Tell me I’m awesome.” He said, “Sure, be happy to!”

So I started doing that, knowing that if I didn’t work out, I couldn’t email him, and if I didn’t email him (I reasoned to myself) he would be disappointed in me. (Therapist alert! Isn’t this unhealthy??) Yes and no: I learn socially, and I motivate socially. I’m an extravert. I’m also not above giving others a little power to validate me. Some of the self-help books would scold me for having a “reflected sense of self,” for allowing my neighbor to determine how I feel about myself. And yes, I can see the danger there. But I also think that life should include some of this: we should build each other up. Encouragement from others is okay. It can’t replace a solid sense of self, but it can be a healthy motivator. Bottom line, I knew that my trainer’s opinion of me really didn’t matter, not even to me, because in the end my fitness work is mine alone, and only I will know truly whether I have accomplished something real, something valuable. And yet … yeah, he’s a professional, he’s helping me out, sure, I care what he thinks.

But the trainer emails, as useful as they were, turned out not to be the whole solution. I simultaneously started checking in on Facebook whenever I went to the gym. I’d try to keep it funny, to make it less irritating, less of an unattractive brag, by posting photos like this in the check-in, of another therapist who was famous for her workout routines (and her love of chocolate sundaes):

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And I then chose a close friend to consult every once in a while to get feedback about my social-media presence. “Are the gym check-ins annoying?” I’d ask her (once again seeking validation from another person—yes, I know). “Um, well yeah,” she’d say, “but remember that that’s information about me, not you.” She knows that anyone’s emotional response to another person’s behavior is really just information about themselves. And sure enough, for every person who rolled his eyes at my gym check-ins, another person would message me saying that my fitness work motivated them, encouraged them to go to the gym more often, or walk more, or work on their knee pain so they could be more flexible and active.

And that, naturally, was all I needed to hear. I love to motivate others with my own achievements—yep, I’m a Three on the Enneagram—and the reverse is true too: your achievements motivate me. Sometimes I get small and anxiously competitive, but at my best I engage friendships as a way to motivate both of us to make the changes we want in our lives. I like it when we build each other up.

Don’t even get me started on the joys of Fitbit.

Now that I’m more than a year into my new life of fitness, having finished a half marathon and nearly finished a couple of 12-week courses of weight training, I feel like I’m ready to settle into a new—now not so new—lifestyle of general fitness and strength, an integrated rhythm that comes naturally, a habit that becomes an integral part of a new way or Rule of life. Injuries or illness may throw me off course, but that’s already happened a couple of times, and I feel fairly prepared to handle that, with the help and encouragement of others.

I keep trying to notice the shadow, the dark side, of all this, which is just base vanity and self-centeredness. I won’t pretend I don’t indulge in that. And I may at some point let go of the check-in routine, but not the gym routine. But I’ll probably do so only when I’ve found a better way to share motivation with my neighbor to work for the health and strength of our best selves.

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Another person who likes to motivate others by sharing her own story. 😉

Well, that was fun!

Wednesday, March 25th, 2015

So—I did it. I ran 13.1 miles in the 2015 Mercer Island Half Marathon, a race that raises funds to fight colon cancer. I personally also raised funds to support two other causes. In the course of all this, I learned a lot about myself, my body, and what I want to do—how I want to live—in the here-and-now of my forty-something life.

130000-465-029fI’ve said to clients that I fly a chair every day in my work, so I need to play in a way that takes my body to the limit. Back in September 2014, I started working out in earnest, and by December I had a wild idea: what if I signed up for a race? I had been using the row machine at the gym, and it felt unsatisfying expending all that energy going nowhere. I started running on the treadmill, and soon recalled the thrill of running—really, it’s just the thrill of high-impact cardio work—when I was 17 years old, back in the 20th century. My 17-year-old self got in shape much faster (and could eat all the cookies he wanted), but even now I can readily see and feel the results of hard exercise. I’m hooked.

Then, in late January, I injured myself. I got ‘Pes Anserine Bursitis’ in my right knee, the result of poor running form in which I radiated my right foot (and knee) outward each time I took a step. It was painful, but the worst part was its persistence: I didn’t start to feel even a little better until mid-February, after a scary three weeks of physical therapy, acupuncture, and a sinking feeling that I wouldn’t be able to finish the race, or even compete: at its worst, I couldn’t run an eighth of a mile without severe pain.

But then that lifted, and I was back on my training schedule. I ran seven miles, then ten, then twelve, with alternating short runs in between. I learned that long runs (for me) are little spiritual exercises in persistence and patience. I learned to find the balance between taking care of myself and pushing harder. I’d be in the middle of mile eight, say, and feel utterly fatigued … and I’d keep going.

130000-173-005fI started doing simple math on runs, which became a form of meditation. Every five minutes, the runkeeper app on my phone would tell me how I was doing, and I’d crunch the numbers while I ran: “I’m 6/16ths done now … so that’s 3/8ths … almost half …” Then, one fine day, the app malfunctioned and I didn’t get the updates. I ran in silence. I noticed that without the jabbering of the 5-minute updates, I could focus better, notice what was going on with more intention, and run more efficiently. In running, as in so many things, less is more.

On race day, last Sunday, March 22, I felt excited but not particularly nervous. I knew by then that I’d make it, and it was just a matter of doing it. I was more nervous about all the other runners and the unfamiliarity of the event: this was my first race, except for a little run I halfheartedly did about a dozen years ago, which was so halfhearted I don’t think it counts. My goals were to finish, and to not walk at any point on the course. Done, and done. The eighth mile was once again one of the biggest challenges: my right foot started to hurt, and it was hard to shake the thought that I had several miles to go. I said a little prayer to my higher power and punched through it.

Then there was the twelfth mile: brutal, because on this course most of the twelfth mile is a long, steeper-than-it-looks incline. I refused to walk it. I was slow, just chugging along, but I made it. A nice guy ran alongside me and encouraged me. Runners are kind to each other in these races, I learned.

It felt so good to finish. I felt alive, awake, alert. And of course, I thought, “Yeah, I want to do this again.” I don’t know if I’m up for a full marathon, which is a different race entirely, requiring more than twice as much training as the Half. The Half is challenging enough, I think. But my next goal is going to be about strength: I’ll keep running, but focus more on muscle development and physical strength.

determined copyI love to encourage clients to live life fully, so in a real sense this whole project has been a part of my job, even a part of my business plan. It’s important that I live what I suggest, to put my running shoes where my mouth is. And it’s a gift not only to myself, but to my family and friends too: when I’m in good physical shape, I’m in great emotional and mental shape. I’m a better friend, a better husband, a better neighbor.

I didn’t do it all perfectly. The injury taught me that. But I did it thoroughly, I scared myself with a daunting challenge, and I enjoyed my life while I did it … and that’s all I wanted.

Is it time for you to scare yourself?

Two lessons from the death of Robin Williams

Wednesday, August 13th, 2014

I don’t have much to add to the stream of grief many people are expressing about the death of this great comic artist. I loved him too, and have been preoccupied by the fact that he was defeated by his diseases. I wish his family comfort and rest during this time, and am thankful that he is at rest from his suffering.

But I want to underscore two things.

First, as many have noted, this is a powerful example of the danger of depression. Blogger Dave Weigel captures it well here. I’ve worked for years with clients battling depression, and I know what kind of dragon it is, and how hard it is to slay. Sometimes the more successful survivors of depression simply learn how to ride the dragon, or talk to it, or appease it. Often enough the dragon becomes their muse. But this is a reminder that the dragon of depression breathes fire, and must be respected.

But there’s a second lesson in the sad death of Robin Williams. And that is this: he was also killed by the disease of addiction. I don’t know his personal story, and it’s not my business, but I know what we all know: he had a history of rehab and relapse. He fought this dragon too. As a clinician, I know the term for his problems is “co-occurring disorders,” that is, he had a mood disorder (depression) and a substance-abuse disorder. Whatever. The clinical terminology doesn’t capture the depth of his darkness. It doesn’t satisfy my desire to understand or explain what he was up against.

Two dragons, not one. Two monsters.

Addiction offers you a solution, but the solution betrays you and only deepens your crisis. You drink from the chalice of addiction and only become more thirsty. Like depression, there are real solutions to addiction: we live in an era when addicts and alcoholics can go to rehab, attend daily meetings, and build a sober community that helps us stay in healthy recovery. But we also live in an era when addicts and alcoholics don’t get the help they need, often enough because it’s hard to read the signs, or hard to follow through, or just hard. It can be so hard. It makes sense to me that he didn’t make it. Many don’t.

I want to remember the life and achievements of Robin Williams. And when I remember his death, I will keep in mind that he was fighting two dangerous dragons simultaneously. Remembering him this way can save a life: if you are concerned about depression, in yourself or in a friend, take heed that it is a potentially fatal illness. But remember that’s also true for addiction. And both illnesses are treatable today. And—it’s hard.

Much love and peace to you on your journey, Robin.

Laziness does not exist, cont’d

Friday, January 3rd, 2014

There’s one more thing I want to say about laziness.

I was too lazy to post it before. (joke)

Sometimes people confuse ordinary, healthy resistance with “laziness.”

You might be resisting something not because you’re lazy, but because the thing you’ve been told you’re “supposed” to do is just not what you want to do, or just not what you want, period. Or it’s something you don’t need, or shouldn’t do. We all get “should” statements like “I should weigh ___ pounds” or “I should expand my job search in this field” or “I should break up with that person already!” … and sometimes your resistance is a sign that you really shouldn’t do that thing right now. Or at least you don’t need to. You may need to do something else first, or spend some more time in reflection and discernment.

Resistance is nothing more than information about yourself or your situation—information that you can receive and use. “I’m too lazy to get up off my butt and join a gym,” you tell yourself. What if it’s not that at all? What if your body is telling you it needs you to sit in silence and stillness at least once a day, and only then will you feel motivated to exercise? What if your body is telling you you’re sick and need to see the doctor? What if your doctor advised you to exercise more but didn’t listen to what you were saying about your anxiety? Resistance always makes sense.

So don’t confuse resistance with (fictional) “laziness.” Listen to your resistance: it’s a cluster of feelings and behaviors that are trying to tell you something. Only then can you understand the resistance and move through it, into action.

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Laziness does not exist

Friday, January 3rd, 2014

“Maybe I’m just lazy.” “He’s just lazy.” “They’re just too lazy to do anything about their problem.” “I’m lazy today.”

I’d like to take issue with comments like that. You’d be better off if you let go of the whole concept of “laziness.” It’s a fiction. At best, it’s a fairly accurate but self-defeating way to describe yourself, or another person.

First, calling yourself “lazy” creates a practical dead-end: if you’re lazy, that’s a character flaw that you can’t really change, or at least not right away. It can be exhausting even to imagine motivating yourself when you’re laboring under the belief that you’re lazy. And your belief that your neighbor is lazy only piles your contemptuous judgment onto the problems she already has that are keeping her stuck, unproductive, or depressed.

Just let it go. Nobody’s lazy. We’re just tired mammals.

I live with two non-human mammals. When they’ve satisfied their hunger drive, emptied their bladders and bowels, and confirmed that they are relatively sheltered and safe, they just … lie around.

Humans are the only mammals (I believe) who make a connection between their daily work output and their estimation of their own value. The other mammals (in my unscientific observation) see work for what it is: the stuff they need to do to fill their belly, reproduce, and live to see another day. Humans make ultimate meaning of work and rest, labor and recreation. We (to our own displeasure) see work as valuable for its own sake.

I once knew a therapist who designed an online scheduling program (something I’m planning for 2014) so that he had one fewer administrative task to do in his private practice. “I let the internet schedule my appointments so I can play tennis, or go for a run, or hang out with my kids,” he said. Is he lazy? I think he’s just a smart mammal who doesn’t want to work when he doesn’t have to.

Do you know how tired you are? Even if you feel tired at this time of year, you may not be in touch with how exhausted you really are. Do you feel too lazy to take down the tree this weekend, or whatever it is you’re “supposed” to do? It’s not that you’re lazy. You’re just a tired mammal.

You should take a nap.

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Five minutes of grace

Thursday, August 2nd, 2012

Like many other responsible therapists, I regularly seek counseling myself, to work out various issues in my life, and to be sure I’m practicing what I preach. The other day, I was five minutes late due to traffic and construction detours, so I arrived at my therapist’s office in, well, a little bit of a mood.

After I calmed down, my therapist said, “No worries, really. I always offer everyone—including myself—five minutes of grace.” She paused. Then she said, “You know, I really don’t want to live in a world where people don’t get—and give—five minutes of grace.”

Five minutes of grace.

This is one of those simple things that can make a life well worth living. What would it be like if you practiced the “five minutes of grace” rule? Think of how your road rage might go down, and therefore how your heart rate might go down. And think of how you’d feel in general if you practiced this simple, merciful approach in your daily rhythm of appointments and obligations. It’s so easy to be five minutes late, particularly in road-construction season. Fifteen, twenty minutes late? That’s a different story, I suppose, but you could even experiment with cutting others (and yourself) even that much slack.

…Unless the 15-20-minute lateness is a regular pattern, or it somehow interferes with your relationship with that person. It can be a sign of disrespect to be chronically late to appointments. Others have taken time out of their day to be with you, or work with you. If you’re chronically late, you may want to look at that. Do you need to sort out your priorities? Do you need to confront the truth about what you really want to do with your time, and with whom you really want to spend your time?

But five minutes, here and there…why not let that be fine? Consider practicing “five minutes of grace.” Your heart and your nerves will thank you. And so will those who love to meet with you but are also vulnerable to ordinary lateness.

Water 101

Monday, November 21st, 2011

I want to sing the praises of water as a useful therapy tool. More than useful: it’s an essential ingredient in any sane person’s sanity-preservation kit.

Years ago I knew someone who was prone to anxiety attacks. I had read while studying Dialectical Behavioral Therapy that holding your face in a bowl of ice-cold water for 30 seconds can be a quick and effective way to, well, literally chill out. I think DBT also taught me the ice-cube technique I used on my friend. I told him to just sit tight, I’ll be right back. I went to the fridge and filled a cereal bowl with ice cubes, came back, and said, “Here. Hold these in your hand.” He obeyed (he was too anxious to resist or push back with questions). Within one minute, his anxiety attack was over. He was looking at his freezing-cold hand, and the pain of that coldness had yanked him out of his anxiety. His brain had something else to focus on.

Is this the total solution to your anxiety problems? No. You’ll probably also have to talk about it, to work through it cognitively. But it’s a great example of how water (this time, in its frozen form) can manipulate our bodies in such a way that anxiety suddenly drops down to normal levels. This is because we experience emotions in our physical bodies. Emotions are physiological phenomena. The ice-cube technique works with anxiety, but also anger: if you’re enraged about something, go grab some ice cubes. You’ll start to calm down almost immediately, and you can then work effectively deal with what (or who) made you mad.

Hot water works too. I’m a big fan of hot baths as a way to relax, but also regroup, re-organize, and re-orient both my head and my heart so that I can look at a problem in a new way. Even simply washing your hands and face with hot water and soap can be an effective self-soothing skill that frees you to engage your problem with strength and renewed concentration.

We’re mostly made of water, and we live on a planet with 70% of its crust submerged under water. Water is everywhere. It only stands to reason that water can be a powerful tool that helps us relax, refocus, and approach our complex issues with a refreshed body and mind.

Bonus: ice cubes are way cheaper than meds…and no side effects!

Date night: there oughtta be a law

Wednesday, October 26th, 2011

Often enough my couple clients will say, “We should do a date night, we know, but it’s hard with all that’s going on.” And I try to be nice when I respond, “Do a date night every week. And that’s an order.”

Think about all the things you do regularly whether you want to or not: pay the electric bill, service the car, go to work, drive your mom to the doctor, and on into infinity. These are things you do because, well, because you do them. They have to get done. But if you’re like a lot of people, your relationship is not required. Everything about it is voluntary, and, therefore, open to being blown off. And then you wind up in my office! Here’s a primer on date nights, a Date Night 101:

1. Pick one night, the same night every week. (Yeah, I can already hear you saying, “We can’t! His rotation changes by the week and I’m a bartender so I never know when I’m going to be scheduled, and it’s always at night!” Even if one regular night is impossible, there’s got to be some block of time each week—3am to 7am on Sundays??—that will work for you both.)

2. During that special time, nobody gets in your way. If you have kids, you pay for a sitter and get out of the house. Maybe it’s okay for you to share date night with friends, but wait a bit before doing that. Get into the rhythm as a couple first.

3. Repeat 52 times. Then evaluate. How’s it going? What’s different about your relationship, about you, about how you feel about each other? Anything need to change, or be adjusted? Some of my clients come to counseling and then go on their date night. I recommend this. It makes the whole thing even more intentional.

Whatever you plan, set it in stone. It’s the Law. That way, your relationship is not completely vulnerable to the tyranny of your schedules, whims, emotions, and issues. At least this one block of time each week is immune from all of that.

Note to singles: this works for those of us currently not in relationships. No matter what your relationship status is, if you set aside one block of time each week just for yourself, what do you imagine might change in your life? Have you ever really done this? (I know it’s hard for me!) I’d hazard a guess that your blood pressure would be lower, you’d feel healthier, and you’d feel a lot less frazzled and crazy. And you could kick it off with a nice individual therapy session!

Seattle weather: a reflection

Thursday, May 12th, 2011

Okay. First just let me say, *sigh.*

One more. *sigh*

Okay, just one more. *SIGH*

Now can I try to put a positive spin on this?

It’s been a really rough winter in Seattle. And I know that sounds whiny, particularly if you’re one of my relatives from Minnesota. Seattle Whiner: “It barely made it above 40 for like, what, six months in a row?!” Minnesota Whiner: “Ha! 40 what? Degrees? You actually had degrees above zero??!”

But it has been rough. It’s been cold, and cloudy, and rainy. We have sun breaks (like today!), but they are short-lived. It’s May 11, and the rhododendrons are barely budding. I’m not an expert, but I think they’d be almost over—or at least in full flower—by now. (Minnesotans are once again snorting and rolling their eyes…) I can now say it’s been the hardest winter, weather-wise, since I moved here in 1997.

And then there’s today. To illustrate what happened to me today, I give you my Facebook post from this morning’s coffee time (click on the image if it appears too small):

But I want to do more on sunny mornings like this than just sing a great song and appreciate the break. (Though that’s a good thing to do. I recommend it.) I want to figure out what all this weather has done to me, or with me, over the past few months. I want to do some meaning-making, people!

And here’s what I’ve come up with: Seattle’s crappy weather has gotten me in touch with the restlessness and uncertainty I’m feeling in several areas of my life. It’s gotten me thinking about, oh, everything: what I’m eating, how (and whether) I’m exercising, what’s going on with my money, how my marriage is going, how my practice is doing, what my friendships and other relationships are bringing up for me, what I envision for 2012 and beyond…and so on. (Maybe it sounds a little self-focused, but did I mention the weather’s been cruddy in Seattle?!)

In short, the weather has made it almost impossible for me to be complacent. In a typical year, the sun pops out plenty of times, especially after the grueling month of February. And so I sing a bar of “Sesame Street” and go about my day. But this year, when I’m not joining my fellow Seattleites in sun dances, I’m forced to confront the fact that life isn’t always a song about muppets. Sometimes you have to take stock, look at things critically, ask the crucial “wonderment” questions of your life. Questions like… I wonder what kind of retirement funds I want tucked away by 2015. I wonder whether my daily work is really lighting my fire, and if so, whether I’m celebrating that enough…and if not, why that might be. I wonder…

But for now, I’m taking in the blue sky, so these questions can wait for the next gray and gloomy weather front.

It should be along in a few minutes.

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Stephen Crippen
Seattle, WA
Phone: (206) 214-7650
Email: stephen@stephencrippen.com
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