A Gift to Yourself on Valentine’s Day…

Many of us have been taught that love is something that exists outside of us. We search for that ideal relationship or focus on trying to feel more fulfilled by the relationships that we already have, but true love always begins at home. The more we learn to love and nurture ourselves, the more love we are able to give and receive from others.

So this year, instead of waiting for someone else to buy you those flowers or candy, try giving some love to yourself.

Here are some great gift ideas that you can give to yourself for Valentine’s Day:

Relax. Spend some time clearing your mind and calming your body. You deserve it! Try some deep breathing. Listen to some soothing music. Try some progressive relaxation. Meditate. Take a class or spend a few minutes sitting quietly on your own. For inspiration check out my LOVE MY BODY meditation.

Treat yourself. Buy yourself a special gift like a piece of jewelry, a scarf or something beautiful for your home. It doesn’t have to be anything extravagant, just something that speaks to you. You can also search for forgotten treasures in your own attic or closet; or swap items with a friend. If you are artistically inclined, you can paint yourself a picture, throw a pot, or knit yourself a soft, cozy sweater. The idea is to give yourself something special to remind you how beautiful you are both inside and out!

Indulge. Take a nice, long bath or shower. Paint your nails. Get a massage or a body treatment. Buy tickets for a concert, museum, or sporting event. Visit your favorite restaurant (or if you prefer order in). Plan your dream vacation. Even the smallest indulgences count. Don’t be afraid to dream big as you might be surprised when those dreams materialize.

Move your body. Go for a walk on the beach, or a bike ride in the country. Take a yoga class or a swim in the pool. Chose something you enjoy and move at the pace that feels most pleasing and comfortable to your body. This is about honoring your body with movement. It is not about “working” out or pushing yourself –unless that feels good to you.

Nourish yourself. Prepare a special meal or snack. Try for something that is reasonably healthy, nourishes your body and pleases your taste buds. If you don’t like to cook, you can dine out or buy something already prepared. Pressed for ideas? Check out my recipe for LOVE SOUP.

Feed your soul. Spend some time doing what you love. Follow your joy! It is the most sure-fire way to open your heart. Not sure about what stokes your internal fires? Get out there and try something new. There is no better gift you can give to yourself than the gift of love! Enjoy

Christmas is not a race!

Recently a friend (and former marathon runner) posted on FB that she was “way behind on the holidays” which made me wonder if perhaps she was running some new kind of race. The holiday season can be a time of joy and wonder—just ask your kids—but, for many of us, it just becomes a long, stressful list of “must-do’s.”

Here are some tips for bringing the joy back into the holiday season:

Prioritize. The holidays are not meant to be a competition and you don’t need to do everything to be “successful.” Start with the tasks that are most interesting and important to you and cut out the things that aren’t essential and/or don’t bring you joy.

Focus on process as well as the product. As a child, my family tradition was to focus on preparing the perfect holiday meal at all costs. That meant lots of stress, lots of yelling, and the inevitable disappointment when everything didn’t come out looking, smelling and tasting perfectly. Holiday traditions should be fun, and yes, an expertly prepared turkey or a beautiful tree is nice, but these outcomes should be secondary to the joy of creating them.

Keep to your regular schedule (as much as possible). This is especially important if you have children. Humans, especially young ones, are creatures of habit. Abrupt changes in our eating and sleeping schedules can lead to irritability, stress and sleeping issues.

Follow your joy. You know why kids like the holidays so much? Because they naturally know how to follow their joy. Somewhere along the line most of us learned that our “shoulds” are more important than our wants. In the process we lost touch with the things really matter to us. Reflect on the things that you really savor about the holiday season and make some room in your busy schedule to indulge. Remember that happiness is contagious and the more you are engaged in activities that speak to your soul, the more you inspire others to do that same.

Nurture yourself. Self-care is not selfish! Make sure that you take time to rest, relax and do things that you enjoy. If you have difficulty doing this, just for yourself, remember your wellbeing will affect those around you as well. An overworked, stressed out mom, dad, sister, daughter, son and/or friend is rarely the life of the party.

The Power of Personal Boundaries

Boundaries are the physical, mental and emotional limits we establish to protect our thoughts, feelings and needs in interpersonal relationships. Many of these boundaries are implicit and culturally specified – like the preferred physical distance we keep from acquaintances in conversation and the level of personal disclosure we maintain with others. Boundaries vary depending on the nature of the relationship. For instance, intimate partners may stand much closer together and share more personal information than casual acquaintances.

Individuals vary on how they set these boundaries and some of us are better at respecting and negotiating boundaries than others. Consider the individual who always stands a bit too close while in casual conversation. Typically this person does not recognize your desire for more physical space and will automatically take a step forward if you take a step back to create more distance. Even more distressing for many of us are those people who do not recognize our emotional boundaries. These are the individuals that bombard us relentlessly with their needs, wants and/or emotional distress. These boundary crossers may be so focused on their own inner needs and experience that they fail to appreciate that our needs may be quite different.

Setting boundaries can be hard work, especially for those of us who have been taught that it is more important to be “nice” to others than to respect our own needs.

The following tips can help you learn to maintain healthier boundaries.

  1. Use empathy. Sometimes we focus so much on our own needs that we fail to recognize that other people’s needs may be very different. Taking a moment to try and imagine your self in the other person’s shoes—without judgment—can help you take a step back and create a more reciprocal exchange.
  2. Don’t over-empathize. Some people are so empathic that they experience other people’s feelings and thoughts as if they were their own. These individuals often have difficulty distinguishing between their feelings and needs and those of others. In this case, it is important to recognize that just because you can understand how the other person is feeling you are not responsible for their experiences. In this way, you can start to recognize your own unique needs and act accordingly.
  3. Avoid either/or thinking. Once we give up the idea that it’s my way or your way, we often find that it is really quite easy to create situations where everyone’s unique needs can be met. Compromise takes give and take on both sides, so be wary in relationships where you are consistently doing most of the giving.
  4. Express your needs. It’s difficult for people to respect your boundaries if they can’t tell where they are. By sending mixed messages about your feelings, thoughts and needs, you are inviting potential boundary invasions. It’s usually better to say “no” upfront then say “yes” and then resent the other person for taking you up on your offer.
  5. Listen to your gut. Unlike your linear mind, your gut sense will give you clear information about when a boundary has been crossed. This information often comes in the form of a physical signal such as an uneasy or clenching feeling in your head, chest or stomach. The more we tune into our gut sense the easier it is to respect our own and other people’s boundaries, and the less likely we are to get caught up in either/or thinking (see above).
  6. Know when to put yourself first. Healthy relationships are reciprocal. If you find that you tend to be the one to give in then it might be time to practice putting yourself first for a while to help re-balance the scale. Once you break yourself from the habit of always putting yourself last, you will likely find it easier to maintain safe and appropriate boundaries.
  7. Avoid toxic people. Some individuals are habitual boundary crossers who, despite our best efforts, cannot or will not respect our individual boundaries. Sometimes the healthiest thing you can do in these situations is to move on. If avoiding these people is not possible, it is best to accept their limitations and focus on caring for yourself rather than trying to fix them.
  8. Seek support when needed. If you find that you consistently have trouble maintaining and/or respecting interpersonal boundaries you may benefit by exploring this issue with a licensed counselor or other mental health professional.

Finding the Choice

“When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.” – Viktor E. Frankl, Man's Search for Meaning

We often feel like we are stuck and have no choices. But we always have a choice. Finding the choice in the situation can help us to tap into our power and get the most of out of even the most difficult situations. It can also help to counter that victim mentality-the belief that things happen to us without our having any control. With empowerment comes responsibility but it also brings opportunities for healing, growth, and to realize our dreams.

For example, consider my client Rona.* Her mother insisted that she go to sleep away camp this summer even though Rona knew she would hate it. In the days leading up to camp trip she was filled with dread, anger and frustration about being forced to endure this terrible ordeal. She was afraid that she wouldn’t make friends. She was afraid that the counselors would force her to participate in new activities with which she wasn’t comfortable. She was even afraid that she’d miss her mom, her cat and her brother. When she came to my office she was fuming. “My mom is a tyrant,” she told me. “She never listens and she doesn’t understand. She’s always forcing me to do things that she thinks are ‘good ideas.’ And now she’s forcing me into this miserable situation where I know I will have a miserable time.”

Rona’s story highlights how difficult it can be when we perceive that we don’t have choices. That sense of powerlessness and frustration can be even worse when, as in Rona’s case, they are compounded with other emotions like fear (“what if I don’t make friends?”) and anger (“it’s not fair that my mom is making me do this!”).

Part of my work with Rona was to help her to see that she wasn’t completely powerless in this situation. Once she vented her fears and frustrations and accepted the inevitability of going to camp, we began to examine the choices she did have. For instance, she could go into the experience with a negative attitude and the intention of proving that her mother was wrong, or she could try and make the best of a bad situation. Just understanding that she had these options helped to take some of the pressure off. Although Rona was really mad at her mom, there were a few things about the camp that interested her, and she decided she would feel more comfortable if she focused on those things rather than her fears and anger. We were also able to problem solve about how she would handle potential issues like making friends and homesickness. In the end the camp experience turned out not to be as bad as she thought. She made some new friends and even considered going back for another summer.

The point is, we are never truly stuck. We may not like the choices we have (Rona certainly didn’t). But we always have choices. Focusing in on the choices we do have can not only help us to feel more empowered, but can also reveal new opportunities and coping strategies that might otherwise have missed. We can begin to understand the subtle nuances of the situation at hand, and avoid the rut of all or nothing thinking (e.g., “either I stay home and feel good or go to camp and feel miserable”).

Follow these steps to overcome powerlessness and find the best course of action whenever you feel stuck:

  1. Accept the situation. There’s no value in fighting with reality. The harder we resist what is, the more miserable we will feel and harder it will be to move forward. If surrender is difficult for you, find a copy of the serenity prayer to use for inspiration.
  2. Mourn any losses. Anger, sadness, frustration, fear are all natural reactions when things don’t go our way. It’s important that you allow yourself to experience the full range of feelings that arise. Feel those feelings but don’t get stuck in them.
  3. Identify the choices you do have. Sometimes the only choice we have is a change in attitude. Viktor Frankl could not change the hard reality of life in the concentration camp, but he could choose to search for meaning in his suffering and that is ultimately what sustained him.

* The name and details of this case have been changed to protect client confidentiality.

For information about Viktor E. Frankl, visit these websites:

Making Peace with your Inner Critic

The inner critic is that trash talking voice in our heads whose job it is to make us feel bad about ourselves. The inner critic likes to take the words of critical folks from our childhood (parents, teachers, peers), distort them and send them back to us in what sounds like our own voice. The inner critic has lots of tricks up its sleeve to keep us down such as convincing us that we have to be perfect and that nothing we do will ever be good enough.

Here are some tips for making peace with your inner critic:

Smoke it out. The inner critic is like a chameleon sneaking into our thoughts and putting us down without our even realizing that it is there.  One of the best lines of defense is simply to call it out.  You know your inner critic is at work whenever your thoughts take an unkind turn.  Catching it in the act is often all that is needed to restore the peace.

Shift your focus. The inner critic will do anything to get your attention. However you can keep it from taking center stage.  Whenever you notice its critical voice sneaking in, give it a quick wave hello and then shift your attention to something more interesting and important like the great work you did on your most recent project or how pretty your hair looks today.

Don’t fight back. Just like a child who misbehaves for attention, devoting your time and attention to arguing with your inner critic is apt to result in more of the same bad behavior.  Instead, let the inner critic do its thing without engaging. Eventually it will lose interest and move on.

Identify your triggers. For many of us there are certain situations and circumstances where our inner critic tends to be the most vocal.  These often relate to areas of our lives in which we’ve had difficulties in the past.  For instance, if you’re first grade teacher was painfully critical of your work, your inner critic might show up before your next performance review or when you have to present a big project at work.  Knowing your triggers can help to break the cycle before the inner critic takes a firm hold.  It can also signal areas for self-development and healing.

Practice affirmations. Affirmations– positive statements that we make about ourselves like “I am strong” or “I am beautiful”–can be a great way to counter the repeated, damaging effects of our inner critics.  The more we remind ourselves of how awesome we are, the more likely we are to start to believe it.   Affirmations work best when we allow ourselves to fully connect with their meaning and agree to disagree with any subtle input from our inner critic.

Avoid judgment. How can you expect to be kind to yourself if you’re not in the habit of being kind to others? Ironically, we are often most apt to call others out on the very things that bother us most about ourselves.   Do yourself (and your friends) a favor and try to take a break from the judgment.  That includes judging yourself for being judgmental.

Seek Professional Support. If you find that your inner critic is ever-present and/or seriously interfering with your emotional wellbeing it may be helpful to enlist the support of a licensed therapist or certified life coach.

Back to School Blues

As one of those rare kids who loved school (and still does), heading back to school was something that I actually looked forward to.  However, for many children school is a drag at best, and at worst a major source of anxiety. Even for those of us who are school lovers, a new school year brings many anxiety provoking unknowns—Will I like my new teacher? Will I make friends in my class? Will the work be harder than last year and am I up for it?

Here are some tips for addressing your child’s concerns and supporting him or her through this transition:

Be an active listener. Set aside some time to discuss the transition with your child and listen for cues that your child might be feeling uncomfortable. You can start by asking your child about their hopes and concerns about the coming school year. Take time to hear your child’s concern before rushing in with advice. Sometimes simply voicing concerns is enough to help them feel better.

Be on the lookout for other signs of anxiety. Children do not always express their worries verbally. Physical symptoms like stomach aches and headaches (without a known physical cause), difficulty falling and staying asleep, and clinginess and/or separation anxiety are all common signs of anxiety.

Be informed. Knowledge is power. While it is impossible to know all the details in advance, try and share any basic information you have about his or her class with your child—the teacher, classmates, and changes in the routine that he or she can anticipate. Try to keep this information as neutral as possible. Off-handed comments like “I hear the 4th grade is really tough” can fuel anxiety.

Focus on the positive. While it’s important to hear out your child’s concerns, if he or she is sounding like a broken record of worries, it may also be helpful to point out some of the positives. For instance, if your child is worried about keeping up with the school work, you can remind them of how nice it will be to spend time with the friends they haven’t seen over the summer.

Enlist your child in the preparations. Back to school rituals can ease the transition process. Many kids enjoy shopping for school clothes and school supplies. Others may enjoy planning a special breakfast for the first day of school or dinner for the night before. Rituals like these can help children feel more in control.

Recalibrate bedtimes. For many of us the summer schedule of vacations and long lazy days means going to bed later and sleeping in. Abrupt changes in schedule can lead to sleep deprivation and the inevitable crankiness as many children (and adults) find it difficult to quickly reset their biological clocks to the earlier wake-up times. You can facilitate a smoother transition by gradually adjusting your child’s sleep schedule.  Starting at least a week before school starts, wake your child up a bit earlier each day until you are an hour or less from their school day wake-up time.

Leave extra time until you settle into the new routine. Nothing is more stressful than rushing to get out the door in the morning. Add this to the stress and tension of starting school and you have a recipe for disaster. Scheduling in some extra time for the first week or so will help everyone to settle back smoothly into a comfortable routine.

Try to be patient. Understand that transitions are difficult for everyone. It may take a few weeks for everyone to settle back into the groove but, before you know it, things will smooth back out and it will feel like business as usual.

Summer is My Happy Place

Summer is my happy place.  I love sitting by the pool on a warm, sunny day.  Feeling the warmth of the sun on my skin.  Listening to the sounds of singing birds and the breeze rustling through the trees.   This is my go to image when the weather isn’t so sunny and the outer circumstances of my life make it difficult for me to find my inner sense of peace and contentment.

Where do you find your happiness?  A walk on the beach?  A hike in the woods?  Going on an adventure? Creating a work of art?  Dancing into the wee hours of the night?  Spending time with family and friends? What if you could bottle up this feeling? What if you could preserve some of your happiness to use during those times when it’s not so easy to stay positive?

While many people come into therapy to process their more negative experiences, I like to direct my clients towards the positive too.  By tuning into the moments of contentment, we not only experience more joy in the moment, but we can actually change the hardwiring of our brains (see Hardwiring Happiness: The New Brain Science of Contentment, Calm and Confidence by Rick Hanson).  The imprints from these positive experiences can then become anchors that keep us from floating away into the sea of negativity. Here’s how it works:

The first step is to notice when you’re having a positive experience. Tune into to things that really bring you joy.  Enhance the experience by involving all of your senses (e.g., sight, sound, touch, taste, smell).  So, for example, if you’re enjoying a moment at the beach, notice the feel of the sun and the smell and taste of the salt in the air.  Hear the sounds of the surf and the caw of the seagulls.  You can also pay attention to internal sensations, like the rhythm of your breath and the feeling of calm and contentment in your stomach and chest.   The richer the image, the more parts of your brain get involved.  Also, the more you savor the experience the more you’ll enjoy it.

Next see if you can think of a word or phrase to describe this experience (e.g., “peaceful feeling on the beach”). This invites your more cognitively oriented brain structures into the action.  Keep it simple as too much thinking can take you out of the experience.  If negative thoughts intrude, neither engage with them nor block them out.  Instead, see if you can gently redirect your attention back to the positive experience.  Don’t stress if you can’t.  There will always be more positive moments on the horizon.  You just need to keep yourself open to them.

Tuning into your moments of joy, peace and gratitude is more than enough to make lasting changes in your brain.  You can further enhance this effect by using techniques from Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) (see Tapping In: A Step-by-Step Guide to Activating Your Healing Resources Through Bilateral Stimulation by Laurel Parnell), Emotional Freedom Techniques (EFT) or other meridian tapping techniques, or even the power of your imagination.  I often tell clients to imagine that they are able to capture the essence of a positive experience and keep it in their pocket to use when needed.  So, for example, if you experience a great sense of accomplishment after completing an arduous hike, you can imagine saving that feeling for a time when you may need a burst of confidence.

Having trouble locating those positive moments?  Start small (e.g., savoring that first sip of your morning coffee or the feeling of relief after you’ve finished a stressful meeting at work).  Even the tiniest bits of pleasure count.  Some people also find it helpful to keep a gratitude journal to record any positive experiences and/or anything that you are grateful for.  By tuning into the positive you will shift both your perspective and your brain so that you will begin to bring in more and more of the good stuff.

How to Let Go of a Grudge

To err is human; to forgive is divine. – Alexander Pope

Pick up any new age self-help book today is the message is that forgiveness is the key to our health and happiness.  The idea is that when we hold onto our anger, we are stewing in this unpleasant emotion and at the end of the day we only really hurt ourselves.  Letting go of our anger isn’t always that easy.   And sometimes it may not be safe or practical to forgive.  The following steps will set you on your path towards forgiveness:

  1. Tune into your feelings. Think of your feelings like hungry babies that are crying to be heard.  Sometimes all we have to do to feel better is acknowledge that they are there and attend to them.  First ask yourself, what am I feeling right now? Then ask, what is the message that my feelings are trying to convey and what do I need to feel better?
  2. Identify past triggers. For example, your resentment over not being included in your girlfriend’s wedding may trigger feelings of being excluded by your older siblings as a child.  Healing these deeper hurts not only helps us to move forward, but can also prevent us from experiencing similar hurts in the future.
  3. Watch out for self-judgment. Remember there is nothing inherently wrong with being angry.  In fact, there are times when this feeling is extremely helpful (see Mad Is Not Bad).  Rather than beating yourself up, acknowledge your feelings and any discomfort associated with them.  One of the biggest obstacles to forgiving others is not forgiving yourself.
  4. Consider the other person’s perspective. Often times we become so blinded by our own hurts and experiences that we fail to realize that the other person may be hurting too.  Of course, understanding why someone behaved badly is not the same thing as absolving them of responsibility, but it can help us to take their actions less personally so that we can move on.
  5. Ask yourself if you are ready to let go? If you are that’s great, set the intention and wave good-bye.  If not ask yourself what is getting in the way.  Perhaps you haven’t explored your full range of feelings (if this is the case, then go back to step one) or maybe that grudge is serving a purpose like reminding you not to get burned again.
  6. Identify the best course of action. Letting go of a grudge may not be appropriate when the person in question still has the power to hurt you again.  You can think of your anger as an alarm that tells you when an important boundary has been breached.   You don’t want to turn off the siren until you know how to deal with the fire.

Remember forgiveness is ultimately for your own peace of mind.  Don’t force process.   If you find that you have a tendency to hold grudges and/or are bothered by your angry thoughts, speaking with a licensed counselor can help you to address these issues more fully.

5 Ways to Jumpstart your Intuition

Intuition is the voice of wisdom, power and healing that exists within each of us. We can use our intuition to make important decisions, improve our health, strengthen our relationships, find a dream job, and live with a greater sense of joy and fulfillment. Follow these five simple steps to develop your intuition:

  1. Quiet the mind. The subtle voice of intuition can be difficult to discern beneath the constant chatter of our thinking minds.  Yoga, meditation, breathing and visualization are all good ways to still the mind, but many people also find inspiration through writing, being in nature, vigorous exercise like running or swimming, or even taking a bath.
  2. Listen to your body. For many of us intuition reveals itself though body sensations. An uneasy feeling in the stomach or a constricted feeling in the chest may be signs that something isn’t right with our current plans. Conversely, feelings of expansion and ease may signal that we are on the right track. The more we start to pay attention to these subtle sensations the more we can get in touch with our intuitive guidance.
  3. Release attachment. The fastest way to shut down our intuition is to fixate on a certain outcome or result. Instead, trust that whatever answer you receive will ultimately serve your greatest good-even if it’s not exactly what you asked for or expected. You may be surprised at the outcome.
  4. Trust yourself. Our society teaches us to look outside ourselves for answers.  We read books, consult experts, but are quick to discount our internal wisdom.   Trusting ourselves takes some faith and perseverance, especially when our inner guidance clashes with the “experts.”  The more we learn to trust ourselves the more information will become available.
  5. Work on your stuff. Emotional baggage, dysfunctional thought patterns and unresolved issues and trauma all get in the way of our connection with our intuition. Chronic fears and worries can clutter our minds and keep us from tuning into to our inner guidance. Emotional healing is essential for fully accessing our intuitive wisdom.

Don’t discount the importance of practice.  Intuition is like a muscle.  The more we use it the stronger it gets.  Over time it becomes easier to discern between our thoughts and our inner guidance.   Plus the more we use our intuition the more peace, joy and love we can bring into our lives.

Mad is not bad: Making peace with your anger

Contrary to popular belief there are no “bad” feelings. While some feelings tend to be more comfortable to experience than others, it’s important to honor and appreciate the full range of emotions. When it comes to anger, many of us have been taught that “mad is bad” and that it’s not OK to feel angry. That is simply not true. We all feel angry sometimes. It’s normal and natural. Problems arise in the way we respond to our anger. For instance, it’s natural to feel annoyed when someone cuts ahead of you in line. It’s not OK to punch him in the face!

Anger, as it turns out, is actually a very helpful emotion. It signals us when a boundary has been crossed. It protects us from letting others repeatedly take advantage. Some people get into trouble when they overreact, lashing out and/or holding onto their anger, rather than heeding the warning and then letting it go. Others pretend their anger isn’t there and end up expressing it in indirect or even self-punishing ways (I’ve seen many binge eating clients improve dramatically once they learn to identify and properly express their anger).

Of course, letting go of your anger isn’t always so easy. I can’t tell you how many clients come into my office frustrated with themselves because they can’t seem to let it go. Often times smaller frustrations, like the guy who cut the line at the pharmacy or the fact that your spouse NEVER throws out the empty carton of milk, reflect deeper, longstanding issues. Identifying and working through these issues can have miraculous results on the way we process and experience our anger.

One of the best ways to make peace with your anger is to cultivate mindfulness. Being mindful means being fully conscious of our experiences without judging them (or judging ourselves for experiencing them!). In the case of our anger that means identifying the feeling and allowing it to be there without labeling it as bad. It’s from this wise, centered state that we can respond rather than react to our anger. Sometimes, simply acknowledging that you are angry does the trick. Other times, you may need to sit with the feeling for a while in order to fully grasp what it’s there to teach you. Imagine that your anger has a story to tell, a message to deliver. If you really tune in and listen, you will find that the feeling may dissipates on it’s own and/or help you to discover the most appropriate course of action (i.e., not stuffing your feelings or wringing someone’s neck).

Ironically, the more we learn to honor and make peace with our anger, the less angry we feel, and the more space we have in our lives for more pleasant emotions like love, joy, and gratitude.