Recovering from Perfectionism Through Worthiness

Last time, we talked about the importance of choosing healthy striving over perfectionism. As a recovering perfectionist, I recognize how challenging it can be to let go of those thoughts. They feel safe, and they give you a sense of control. Letting go of perfectionism means opening yourself up to vulnerability and, even worse, the possibility of failure. Any perfectionists (or recovering perfectionists) know, failing feels like the worst.thing.ever. Many of us try to spend our entire lives avoiding it. However, avoiding failure often leads to less risk taking and less joy (as we discussed last time).

You may think that the antidote to perfectionism is leaping into situations where failure is a possibility. However, it can be helpful to have a few tools in your back pocket before you take this leap. Here are a few things to consider when letting go of perfectionism:

1.       Let go of the hustle. Start from a place of feeling worthy.

How many times have you made a mental list of all the boxes you can check to determine whether you are a good person or worthy of something? What would happen if you started from feeling worthy rather than needing to earn it? In The Gifts of Imperfection, Brené Brown discusses this concept, saying:

“Wholehearted living is about engaging with our lives from a place of worthiness. It means cultivating the courage, compassion, and connection to wake up in the morning and think, ‘No matter what gets done and how much is left undone, I am enough.’ It’s going to bed at night thinking, ‘Yes, I am imperfect and vulnerable and sometimes afraid, but that doesn’t change the truth that I am also brave and worthy of love and belonging.”

2.       There is a difference between saying “I failed at x” and “I am a failure.”

Language matters. The phrase “I made a bad choice” means something different than “I am a bad person.” The same is true for failure. We often equate these two statements, believing that our actions automatically translate into beliefs about ourselves. This is a slippery slope. How do you grow and change if you are a failure or a bad person? It is a lot easier to recover from a failure or a bad choice than from being a failure or a bad person. I like to think of this as the difference between a growth mindset and a fixed mindset. A fixed mindset says that your actions describe who you are a person and are rigid. Failures beget failures. Bad choices beget bad choices. A growth mindset says that failures and bad choices are information. They are neutral information, neither good nor bad. We can grow and change based on this information, but it does not impact our fundamental belief that no matter what we are worthy of love and belonging.

3.       We are all imperfect. It makes us human.

We all have times where we make mistakes. These mistakes make us human. While Facebook and Instagram may depict mistake-free lives, I believe almost everyone would answer “yes” if you asked them “Have you made a mistake in the last month?” We are all imperfect. Being imperfect can stir up feelings of vulnerable and afraid, but that does not change that the fact that we are worthy of love and belonging.

4.       To let go of perfection means you have to engage with fear, disappointment, and regret. Feeling worthy of love and belonging is a pretty good source of protection.

May worthiness be your shield when you let of perfectionism. It can be scary to open yourself up to fear, disappointment, and regret, but it is hard to experience love, joy, and belonging without also risking these things. Moreover, experiencing fear, disappointment, and regret is much easier if you can hold onto the growth mindset (aka these emotions are just information) and a fundamental sense of worthiness (these emotions do not make you a bad person). We are all worthy of love and belonging.

Ready to learn more about how to cultivate these feelings of worthiness? Call or email me to schedule your first appointment.

Choosing Good Enough

This time of year can be difficult for many people. Internal and external pressures abound. And often, added to the mix are family dynamics. We can fall into the dynamic of thinking “If only…” “If only I had the perfect thing to say…” “If only I had seen that coming…” Like I have talked about before, we are wired to be hard on ourselves, but it also causes unnecessary suffering.

Many people are striving for the best, the perfect, the most awesome version of themselves. Sometimes, families also encourage this view. And should we fault them? Who wouldn’t want to be the best version of themselves? On the other hand, are people striving for the attainable, realistic, best version of themselves? Or, are they expecting to become omnipotent, never-failing beings?

What I often see is that people strive for perfection as a way of avoiding the feelings of failure. In The Gifts of Imperfection, Brene Brown argues that striving for perfection is a type of armor. It gives you a false sense of security. She says:

“Perfectionism is a self-destructive and addictive belief system that fuels this primary thought: If I look perfect, and do everything perfectly, I can avoid or minimize the painful feelings of shame, judgment, and blame.”

Giving up dreams of perfection also means giving up dreams of never failing. If there is anything that involves failure, it is running a business. I have had to grapple with my imperfections frequently in this process of building my therapy practice. Just last week, I made a mistake with an insurance company. It may cost me a few hours to untangle what happened. I am not sure yet. My imperfect self wants to say “If only I had known, or taken a step back, or asked the ‘right’ question the first time.” I have learned that saying “If only” just makes me feel worse. Instead, I have the opportunity to ride the wave of emotion (in this case, the wave of frustration) and return to feeling good enough. I am an imperfect therapist but a good enough one.

If I had given into perfection, I probably would not have started a business in the first place. Too many opportunities for failure! My fear of failure could have kept me stuck and limited my career options. Instead, I found that accepting my “good enough” self allowed me to move forward and to take risks in ways that I had not in the past.

While feeling feelings of failure, disappointment, and regret are not pleasant, it is very difficult to go through life without feeling them. If you choose to skip failure, disappointment, and regret, you often lose the other end of the spectrum as well. You lose joy, excitement, and opportunity. You have the choice. To avoid feeling all of these feelings or to get better at the feelings of failure, disappointment, and regret in order to also feel the feelings of joy, excitement, and opportunity.

Instead of perfection, we can choose to healthy striving. We can accept ourselves as good enough. We can delight in successes and connect with others who surround us with support when we fail. We can even cultivate a sense of wholeheartedness for coping with shame, disappointment, and regret (more on this in my next post). In the end, giving up perfection often opens doors and gives way to new opportunities.

Want to learn more about healthy striving? Call or email me to schedule your first appointment.

Cultivating Non-Judgmental Awareness

Last time, we talked about mindfulness and the power it gives you to stay in the present. One of the key strategies to mindful awareness cultivating a non-judgmental attitude. Being non-judgmental is easier said than done. Judgment is a form of short-hand, and it can be helpful when you are trying to communicate information quickly. It’s much shorter to say “Don’t eat that. It’s bad” than “Don’t eat that. The label says that it expired last week, and according to food safety regulations, you should not eat food after it has expired.” Judgment can be helpful in moments like this one in order to communicate effectively and efficiently. And yet, we often use judgment at times where it is less effective and often causes us more suffering.

“You are so good. You exercised today.”

“You’re such an idiot. I can’t believe you messed that up.”

“You can’t even do this one thing. You’ll never be successful.”

Have you ever said one of these things (or something similar) to yourself? I’d venture to guess that most of us have said a statement like this to ourselves at least once. Evolutionarily, it makes sense to be critical towards oneself. Criticism helps us avoid making the same mistakes again in the future. In caveman days, mistakes could be deadly. Nowadays, most of us are facing life or death situations. However, this negativity bias persists. Rick Hanson says “Our minds are like Velcro for the negative and Teflon for the positive.”  It’s easy to get stuck to these negative thoughts, and judgment is a quick and easy path to negative thinking.

So how do you get out of judgment?

If you were in a court of law, how would you describe this situation? In other words, at this specific time and place, what observable behaviors happened?

If an alien landed on earth, what would they see happening in this situation? Remember, they have a very rudimentary understanding of human life.

My clients probably get sick of me asking them these questions, but they are my shorthand to non-judgmental awareness. “Just the facts,” I say. Some people tease me for this phrase, but the facts are what keep us out of judgment. In graduate school, we had to do an exercise where we differentiated facts from opinions. It can be challenging to differentiate the two. We got into a few philosophical debates about the difference between the two, but the basic difference is that facts are verifiable and/or observable whereas opinions are thoughts, judgments or interpretations of facts. Sticking to observable, measurable, or verifiable information keeps you out of judgment.

When practicing mindfulness, you may choose to incorporate non-judgmental awareness by just noticing judgment as it comes up and reframing your opinions as facts. There are days where I still struggle with keeping judgment out of my mindfulness practice. For example, I’ve said to myself “This is hard. I’m going to be stuck here forever. I suck at this. Why can’t I stay focused? Is this over yet?” You can see how quickly my thoughts shift from judgment to hopelessness and suffering. Instead, it might be more helpful for me to say something like “My thoughts are wandering to other topics than my breath. The purpose of this exercise is to return to focusing on my breath. Each time my thoughts wander, I return to my breath.” The second one is much kinder and focuses on the facts. Instead of shifting to dread and asking when the exercise will be over, I can focus on the present moment.

Now, it’s your turn to try. Remember, just the facts.

Interested in learning how judgment might be affecting you? Call or email to schedule your first appointment.

The Importance of Mindfulness

Whether you are struggling with past memories, anxiety, or depression, mindfulness can be a helpful skill for coping with those difficult moments in your day to day life. We covered a few mindfulness practices in the Five Ways to Find Calm post, but today I want to talk more about the what and the why of mindfulness.

What is mindfulness?

Mindfulness is the practice of staying in the present moment. You can do an intentional practice (often called meditation) or you find mindful moments through your day. The main component of mindfulness is the focus on the present moment, meaning you are not thinking about the past or the future. Because our minds are made to think, this task can be challenging. It is easy to start a mindful moment and for your mind to quickly shift. When I go to yoga, I often find myself making my grocery list in my head instead of using the still moments to practice mindfulness. It’s why mindfulness is called a practice. It requires returning to a mindful state over and over again. It's not a state of awareness that is magically achieved.

Why practice mindfulness?

In therapy, mindfulness can be a useful tool to observe your thoughts without becoming attached to them. It can be really helpful because mindfulness allows you to watch your thoughts rather than get sucked in by them. You can gather the information that those thoughts, memories, emotions, or body sensations are trying to tell you without feeling overwhelmed by them. But like I said above, it is also why mindfulness is a practice and not a state of being. You may get glimpses of this practice, and there may be times where it is easier and times where it is harder to practice the observer stance.

In addition, mindfulness has been gaining more support from research in recent years. Certain mindfulness practices are now associated with better physical and mental health. A randomized control study by Vollstad et al. (2011) found significant reductions in symptoms of depression and anxiety for participants who completed an eight-week Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction class. I highly recommend checking out the National Institute for Health’s page on mindfulness for more information about the research on mindfulness.

What to try mindfulness?

Here are links to an app and a website with guided practices to get you started:

Insight Timer: This app has over 2000 free guided meditations as well as a meditation timer if you want to do a self-guided practice.

Chris Germer’s Guided Meditations : Chris Germer's work focuses on self-compassion, but he offers a variety of guided meditations to listen to on his website.

Think that mindfulness might be helpful for you? Call or email to schedule your first appointment.

Bumps in the Road

“I thought I was over this by now.” It is easy to think that therapy can be a one and done thing. I’m a therapist; I’m supposed to help people resolve issues, right? It is great when that happens (and it does!), but it is also not unusual for old memories to pop up again from time to time. Many things can trigger old memories: life transitions, stress, reminders of past difficult life events, your children becoming the age that you were when something traumatic happened to you. It is not unusual to seek therapy to cope with some of these reminders when they come up again.

 “But does that mean that this is going to keep happening and I’m forever stuck reliving old memories?” I hope not! I like to think of these times like speed bumps. Speed bumps do not stop you from moving forward, but they do make you slow down and look at your surroundings. Coming back allows you to reflect on your past therapy in a new way. It can be helpful to get a reminder of past skills that you have used to cope or to reflect on what is missing from your current toolkit for coping.

My hope is that each time you face these events, you have “leveled up” and have new ways of dealing with them. There is nothing wrong with coming back to therapy after you have completed treatment before. Many times, people come back to therapy. It does not mean that you failed or that therapy did not work the first time. It is merely information. The great thing is that you have been to therapy before so you have a better idea of what works and what does not for you. You may have more opinions, too, on what type of therapist is the right fit for you.

Here a few more tips to remember if you’ve hit a bump in the road:

1.       Bumps are normal. They don’t last forever. When old symptoms return or you are faced with frustrations that you’ve felt in the past, it can be easy to assume that you are always going to feel the way that you feel right now. Reflecting on times what helped last time or using one of the five ways to find calm strategies may help you put some of those thoughts in perspective.

2.       It is okay to ask for help. Our society likes to tell us that we should be able “pull ourselves up by our bootstraps” in order to get through difficult times. It is hard to ask for help, and it takes vulnerability to do so. Whatever you are going through, you are not alone. There are probably more people out there than you realize who are also struggling in similar ways to you and also debating whether they should ask for help.

3.       What do you want to achieve and how is your current state holding you back? You’ve probably seen my home page. I’m in the business of helping folks take their life back. Bumps in the road don’t have to keep you stuck, but they can get in the way of getting what you want out of life if you let them. Recognizing why you want to get over the bump is important. It can also help you clarify “the why” of doing therapy in the first place. Like we talked about in the messy middle, things don’t always go as planned. Remembering what you want to achieve can help you get through those moments.


Have you hit a bump in the road? Call or email to schedule your first appointment.

Link Round-Up

This week, I thought I would try something a little different for my blog post. There has been more information in the news recently about trauma treatment, and I thought I would post a link round-up of interesting articles that I have come across in the past month.

EMDR is getting more attention in the news, and these two articles bring to light two people's experiences with EMDR. They also echo some of what I discussed in my post on how EMDR may sound like voodoo.

Humans Of New York Post Makes a Brilliant Point About Therapy
 “At first I dreaded going to therapy. I went through a treatment called EMDR. My therapist would take me back to every point of trauma and have me describe it in detail…And when it was over I’d be completely exhausted. And I’d feel like a bitch because I’d just cried for an hour. But it worked. The symptoms started to go away. After a few sessions, I remember walking into my therapist’s office and saying: ‘This stuff actually works!’ And he said: ‘Yeah. It does.’”

She found relief for PTSD with a different kind of therapy. But does it work?
“EMDR, Henn said, allowed her to have a do-over — to be able to grieve properly and then to move beyond grief. She was finally able to remember the good times with her brother without being overwhelmed by pain.”

This question comes up a lot when I’m working with folks who have PTSD. How can friends and family members help? I think this article covers a few good pointers to remember.

How to Help a Friend with PTSD
“First things first: no, a person with PTSD is not just going to ‘snap out of it,’ and it's not very likely they're doing it for attention, considering that one of the prime diagnostic criteria is one or more "re-experiencing events" in which the sufferer is mentally catapulted back into their memory of the event. You can be helpful by being normal, sensitive, and educated, but PTSD does need a bit of specialist knowledge to help you navigate the friendship properly.”

Ready to get started? Give me a call or send me an email to schedule your first appointment.

Rising Strong after Trauma

Last week, we talked about “the messy middle” of therapy and this week, we are going to talk about what happens after that. In therapy, it can be easy to focus on the negatives, the things that you want to get rid of: the flashbacks, the nightmares, unwanted leaps in anxiety levels, the self-blame. It can be difficult to figure out what life looks like after those things-how it might be possible to feel better, to get better.

“Our job is not to deny the story, but to defy the ending-to rise strong, recognize our story, and rumble with the truth until we get to a place where we think, Yes, this is what happened. This is my truth and I will choose how this story ends” -Brené Brown, Rising Strong

Brené Brown is one of my favorite authors because she can put so eloquently into words what is so difficult to describe. In her book “Rising Strong,” she outlines the process that allows people move forward after facing difficult like experiences. She describes the process in three stages: the reckoning, the rumble, and the revolution. It sounds pretty darn similar to Judith Herman’s three stages of trauma recovery: safety, remembrance and mourning, and reconnection. Whether you want to call this stage the revolution or reconnection, I think either capture of the feeling of hope that can arise in this third stage.

Sticking with the R theme, I also think of this third stage of therapy as reimagining. Experiencing difficult life events can lead to feelings of a foreshortened future or that things will never get better. This stage challenges those thoughts. Or, as Brené Brown says, “This is my truth and I will choose how this story ends.”

It is empowering and scary to get to this stage. It requires trying new skills or new ways of being in the world, but it can also lead to a greater happiness or a greater sense of fulfillment. My hope is that this stage means that you are able to face situations that previously caused you fear, anxiety or the urge to avoid and that you face these situations with a newfound sense of confidence and bravery. However, you get to decide how your story ends and what your truth means for you.

Therefore, it is hard for me to say more about this stage. It looks different for each person. There is hope. Revolution, reconnection, and reimagining are possible.

Managing the Messy Middle

Setting on a path to make a change in your life can be exciting and fill you with hope. In fact, there’s some evidence out there that resolving to make a change in your life actually gives you a boost of hope and confidence and this boost may last into the first couple weeks of making a change (McGonigal 2012). Many times, coming to therapy can feel like this. It’s exciting to start something new. However, change, especially in the context of therapy, is not always linear. 

Brene Brown calls this “the messy middle.” Any creatives or entrepreneurs know that the messy middle looks like. If you’ve ever watched a Disney movie, you also know what the messy middle looks like. In Brene’s book “Rising Strong,” she talks about the typical Disney story arc where the main character is called to adventure and accepts it in the first act. In the second act, the character faces a problem and tries every easy and comfortable way of solving the problem. Eventually, the character realizes that they have to face their fear to solve the problem. This second act is the messy middle.

In real life, you may face the messy middle in many situations, both big and small. I have a messy middle moment every time I start a knitting project. Somewhere in the middle of the project, I make a mistake that unravels a couple of rows or I lose count and mess up my pattern. I’m faced with the messy middle of figuring out how to get my project back on track to complete it.

In therapy, sometimes the messy middle looks like having new insights but not knowing how to translate them into new actions (or reactions). Other times, it may happen in the midst of trauma reprocessing. You may have worked really hard to challenge some of the beliefs tied to past experiences and yet those negative beliefs about yourself still feel true. Or perhaps, you have been doing really well and then you are faced with a huge trigger that overwhelms your ability to cope. This is the messy middle. This is the part where it gets hard to hold out hope that things will change.

So what can you do to make this messy middle more manageable?

1.       Acknowledge that you are facing a struggle that many other people are facing at the exact same moment.

Researchers Polivy and Herman (2002) argue that people give up in the midst of making a change because they underestimate the time it will take, the amount of effort it will take, and the consequences of the attempts to change. I share this information not paint a hopeless picture but acknowledge the common humanity aspect of change. We all struggle. You are not alone in facing the messy middle. Many people are struggling just as you are.

2.       Give yourself a bit of compassion for facing the messy middle.

Change is not linear. Setbacks happen to all of us. However, it is up to you to decide how you want to react to the setback (if you want to call it that) and how you choose to persevere. You can shame and blame yourself into preserving or you give yourself some compassion and acknowledge how difficult it is to preserve when things get difficult.

3.       Know that the messy middle is Act Two and that there’s an Act Three that you get to define.

There is hope. The messy middle doesn’t last forever, and there is an ending to the middle that leads to resolution. Judith Herman describes trauma therapy in three phases: safety, remembrance and mourning, and reconnection. Remembrance and mourning is Act Two. Reconnection is Act Three. Next week, we will talk more about what can happen in Act Three.

Ready to get started? Call or email me to schedule your first appointment.

Wise Mind Doubts

Wise mind can be a difficult concept to understand when you first think about it. As a logical thinker myself, my tendency is to think about thinking about what I might possibly be feeling while standing with both feet firmly planted in my rational mind. Most of us feel more comfortable sitting in either rational mind or emotional mind. It is hard to make sense out of what it might be like to sit in the middle. Therefore, I want to address some of the common questions or concerns that I hear when talking about wise mind.

If I feel emotions, I will be weak.

Or, If I feel my emotions, they will get out of control and I won’t be able to reign it in again.

Stepping into the world of emotions can be scary and daunting if you have spent a good portion of your life living in rational mind. Yet, it’s not like those emotions don’t exist. Just as we talked about last week, they often show up unannounced or cause you to feel numb from both positive and negative emotions.

Wise mind can be a great tool when first stepping into the world of emotions because it gives you an anchor, something to hold onto as you feel your feelings. Often times, feeling your feelings means that they go away or transform into something that feels more manageable than the feelings initially felt. Yet, it often feels scary to leap, like there’s no safety net beneath you. Imagine the safety net of wise mind. Imagine knowing that those logical thoughts are still there, safely tucked away until you need them.

If I consider the facts, I’m ignoring what I’m feeling and it will just get worse.

In DBT, we talk a lot about dialectics (heck, that’s where the therapy got its name). A dialectic is often described as the juxtaposition of two seemingly opposing thoughts. I think it fits nicely when thinking about considering the facts when they appear to contradict your emotions. Both sources of information are important and paying attention to both of them does not require you to negate one in order to look at the other.

Sure, wise mind sounds great in theory but what the heck does it actually feel like?

Marsha Linehan, the founder of DBT and the concept of wise mind, likens it to your intuition or your gut feeling. One can imagine what that feeling deep in your stomach might be saying in a situation. Some people find it easier to reach this gut feeling by using mindfulness practices or by imagining what a wise teacher may say to them in this situation.

That’s great but how is really going to help me get better.

Wise mind gives you access to both emotional and rational informational. By listening to all the sources of information, you get a greater understanding of what is going on and how to resolve it.

Want more information and coaching on finding your wise mind? Call me or email me to schedule your first appointment. Or, try out my new online booking system!

Feelings are not facts (but they are important)

My clients hear me say this phrase all the time "Feelings are not facts, but they are important." It based off of one of my favorite concepts in Dialectical Behavior Therapy called “wise mind.” Wise mind can also be thought of as your intuition or your “gut feeling.” It’s the integration of reasonable or rational thinking with emotional thinking. I like to think of it as a Venn diagram where wise mind is the intersection of rational mind and emotional mind.

You may be thinking “Well, why would I want to pay attention to that?” If you are the type of person who spends a lot of time thinking logically, paying attention to your wise mind might seem silly. Why would you want to include emotions in your thought process? Or perhaps, you spend a lot of time letting your emotions drive the car. You may be thinking “How can my wise mind help me when these emotions feel out of control? I just want these emotions to quiet down!”

If you are a rational thinker, you may find that emotions come at you of nowhere. When you stop paying attention to emotions, they also tend to act like screaming children. The longer you ignore them, the louder they scream, and the more they scream in inappropriate situations (in the grocery store or an important meeting or…)

Other people find that emotions are not there even when they think they should be. The thing about emotions is that we cannot selectively numb them. Numbing (or not paying attention) to negative emotions often means you miss the positive ones too. I think this Hyperbole and a Half comic is a good example of what it feels like to be numb.

If you are an emotional thinker, it may feel like emotions are driving the bus, and you are just along for the ride. Unfortunately, emotions can be reckless drivers, leaving you feeling scared and nauseated at the end of the drive. It is no fun to end your day feeling exhausted by the emotional energy you have expended.

Where does this leave us? Neither emotion mind or rational/reasonable mind gives us the right balance. So, in comes the concept of wise mind. Wise mind allows us to drive the bus, putting thoughts and emotions in the backseat and us in the driver’s seat. We acknowledge that emotions are there and that they are important, but they are not facts. They are not the rational beliefs about the situation, which would also not give us the full picture. Both points of view are important. When we find wise mind, we make our best decisions.

Next week, I will talk about what wise mind actually looks like and how it leads to better decision making.

Ready to get started? Call or email me to schedule your first appointment.

Commonly Asked Questions about EMDR

Will EMDR recover memories?

It is unusual for EMDR to recover memories but sometimes people describe getting a feeling or part of a memory that they cannot place. During EMDR, you watch memories go by similar to watching the scenery go by while on a train. As these pieces of memories come up, your goal is not to attempt to paint a full picture or remember the whole memory but merely to watch this piece of a memory pass.  We don’t judge these memories or attempt to determine if they are fact. Instead, we maintain curiosity of what purpose they hold and continue to let them go by.

Will EMDR make my memories clearer?

People often describe memories as feeling further away or foggy as a result of doing EMDR. This lack of clarity makes sense because traumatic memories often have more emotional intensity than other types of memory. It was evolutionarily advantageous to remember these intense situations with great clarity because it was important to be able to survive them if they come up again. When we think about a past situation, now from a safe place, that feeling of danger can subside. Memories no longer hold the same emotional intensity as they did before. Therefore, they may feel less clear than they did in the past.

Is EMDR a type of hypnosis?

No. EMDR requires you to keep one foot in the present and one foot in the past. The goal is to process past situations from the present. Most hypnosis practices require you to go into an altered mental state whereas with EMDR the goal is to stay grounded in the present.

Will EMDR require me to relive my past experiences with the same intensity that I felt when they happened?

No. This is why you have one foot in the present and one foot in the past. The foot standing in the present should help keep you grounded and decrease the intensity that you may have felt when the event happened. Often times, people say that focusing on the lights on the lightbar make it difficult to feel the same intensity as when remembering intense events before. Having to think about the memories while maintaining a focus on the light is hard work!

 What if I don’t have big T trauma? Am I still a good candidate for EMDR?

It depends. This is a good question for us to sort out in therapy. Even big T trauma does not necessary mean that you or are not a good candidate for EMDR. If there are events in your past (big or small) that evoke emotional intensity or feel tied to your beliefs about yourself, EMDR may be a good type of therapy to consider.

EMDR feels weird. Am I doing it wrong?

Probably not. In this article, I talked about my own experience with EMDR and how it felt weird to me. It can feel odd, but there is a lot of evidence that it works.

Want to learn more about whether EMDR is the right fit for you? Send me an email or give me a call.

Questions That Come Up When Considering Therapy

Today, I thought I would answer a few questions that people commonly ask when they are first starting therapy or are considering making an appointment.

I feel like I’m going crazy. I get these intense moments of adrenaline that come out of nowhere. I can’t explain them. Is there something wrong with me?

That rush of adrenaline is often linked with your fight-flight-freeze response system being activated. It’s a great system for keeping you safe when you are threatened, but it can activate when you are no longer in danger. If you have situations or experiences in your past where you felt you were in danger, your brain may associate similar events with being in danger. This system was evolutionary advantageous because it kept us safe when danger situations threatened our survival. It makes sense to generalize because it is better to be over-prepared than underprepared for danger. However, this generalization less helpful now that we live in a society that protects us from most of these dangers. There’s not anything wrong with you if that system is activating now, but it can cause significant distress. Through EMDR or talk therapy, we can review these past events so that they are less likely to be tied to current situations.

I’ve been to therapy before and worked through stuff, but it feels like I’m back in the middle of it again. Help!

Many people experience “bumps in the road,” whether that’s a life transition, the perfect storm of stressors, or something else, that can trigger the stuff that you might have worked through in therapy before. It is perfectly okay to come in for support again. Therapy does not have to be a forever fix, and you shouldn’t need therapy forever. We all experience events in our lives that overwhelm our ability to cope. The great part about coming back to therapy is that you have already worked on these things once so you can build on the insight and skills that you already have. You are not starting from square one. A fellow therapist, Allison Puryear, describes it like a spiral staircase. Each time we come back to work on our “stuff,” we level up.

Therapy seems like a bunch of hooey to me. Why would you want me to get better? Then, I’d stop coming and you’d stop making money.

That’s true that I would no longer have the money coming from you and/or your insurance company, but there are many other people out there who might also need help. While I like to believe it’s possible to put myself out of business (and gosh, that would be great if no one needed therapy anymore), it’s not likely that we will see the end of mental health issues in my lifetime. Just like any other health issue, there is lots of evidence to suggest that mental health issues are real and treatable, and people often get better. That is a good thing! If you have questions about the theories or techniques I use and whether they are supported, I would be happy to share the evidence or point you in the direction of sources so that you can do your own research.

What makes therapy the most effective?

Effectiveness depends on a number of different factors, and we could debate for days on what types of therapy are the most effective. However, there is one thing that is correlated with success in therapy across treatment methods: the relationship between you and your therapist (Martin et al. 2000). Basically, that means that it’s important that you find a therapist who is a good fit: someone who you jive with, who you feel like understands you and why you are coming to therapy. While I encourage you to give it a couple sessions, it is important that you feel understood and not judged in therapy. That’s why I also offer a free 15-minute fit consultation so that you can ask questions and we can talk more about what’s going on and whether I’d be the right person to work with you. 

Have a question that I didn't answer? Feel free to give me a call or send me an email. I would love to chat!

The White Van Phenomenon

It’s easy to jump to conclusions. I failed that assignment, therefore, I must be not good enough to pass this class. He broke up with me, therefore, nobody will ever love me. I didn’t see that situation coming, therefore, I must be doomed to fail.

We all have deeply held beliefs that we may or may not be aware of. These are the beliefs that we worry might be true and feel true when we are having an especially difficult time. In therapy, we often call them core beliefs or negative cognitions. They aren’t true and yet, there’s something deep down inside that believes that they are. Often times, these thoughts come in the form of feeling un-something: unworthy, unloveable, not good enough (okay, so that last one isn’t an un- word).

We often fall into the white van phenomenon as a result. Back in the early 2000s, there was a string of sniper shootings in the DC area. The newscasters reported that the criminals were driving a white van after many eyewitnesses described seeing white vans near the location of the shootings. Everyone started looking for suspicious white vans, which lead to the police being inundated with calls about white vans.  In the end, it turns out that the criminals were actually driving a Chevy Caprice. People believed that the criminals were driving a white van because white vans are very popular vehicles. If you don’t believe me, take a look around the next time you are near a parking lot. It is likely that there were white vans nearby in all crime scenes. However, they were not the vehicle that the belonged to the criminals. They just happened to be popular enough to appear to be correlated with the shootings.

You may be wondering how does this relate to core beliefs? In life, there are many situations that are easy to interpret through the lens of core beliefs. We face situations every day that could correlate with core beliefs despite the fact that they are not the true. I failed that assignment because the test was harder than I expected. He broke up with me because we were not the right match. I didn’t see that situation coming because I didn’t have all the information. See the difference between beliefs above and these beliefs?

When we start believing core beliefs, we can fall into the trap of seeing them everywhere. More and more situations seem to be true because of these beliefs. And yet, just like the white vans, they are not the true explanation for the problem.

Here’s where therapy comes in. Together, we can look at what beliefs of yours might fall into this category and look at them more objectively and with more compassion. Through EMDR or talk therapy, we can figure out what is really going on so that your core beliefs don’t become self-fulfilling prophecies. These new interpretations tend to be much more positive than the core beliefs (none of them involve being un- something!). And as difficult as it can be to look at these beliefs, there’s a life with a lot less suffering when you let go of them.

Ready to get started? Call or email to schedule an appointment.

The risk of doing things differently

When I moved to Seattle, I booked a one-way plane ticket and hoped for the best. I didn’t have a job, and I only knew a handful of people in the area. And yet, I felt it was the right thing to do. Something drew me to the city. Nevertheless, that first month was difficult. I had many moments where I paused and thought “What am I doing?” I doubted my ability to find a job and worried that I had made a big mistake by leaving behind the many job prospects I had in the city where I previously lived.

I’m sharing this story not to brag about my bravado (trust me, this move was way out of the ordinary for me) but rather to illustrate a point. Whenever we make a change, it requires a leap of faith and trust in the process. It means leaving behind the cocoon of comfort and familiarity and jumping into something uncertain. You may feel like you are fed up with the way things are and want something different but you aren’t sure how to get there.

When I moved to Seattle, something told me that I could build a life worth living here. And yet, I wasn’t sure of the details. Would I get a job? Where would I live? Would I make new friends? Of course, I would not have moved if I did not believe that moving could lead to something better, but it was a risk. Things could get better or things could get worse, I thought. But, it seemed like a risk worth taking.

Starting therapy can feel similar to this experience. Will things get better or will they get worse? Many people come to therapy because they want their lives to be different. They want lives worth living and aren’t quite sure to get from where they are to where they want to be. But, there’s a level of uncertainty that comes with choosing to do something different. Will things really get better or will they get worse? Am I capable of making the changes that I want to make and sustaining them? That cocoon of comfort and familiarity can feel pretty great when faced with these questions.

It is scary to do something different because there is no guarantee that things will work out the way you want them to. It means facing uncertainty and risking failure, but it also means risking success.

Sometimes, coming to therapy isn’t even about making a change. It’s about showing up and sharing something painful that you would rather not talk about. And yet, that thing is there haunting you at hours of the night and during the day when you would rather be focused on other things. Coming to therapy means taking the risk of sharing it and being heard. As a therapist, it’s my responsibility to hear you and respond non-judgmentally.  However, I recognize that saying that doesn’t take away the feeling that you are taking a risk by sharing that information.

Whether it’s making a change or talking about something difficult, coming to therapy can stir up feelings of vulnerability and fear. Fear is the most common response to uncertainty. Making a change would be a lot easier if we were certain it would give us the outcome we want. It requires a willingness to vulnerable and will to accept the risk associated with not being able to control the outcome. On the other side of this risk is the possibility of great joy or great relief.

Brene Brown describes this possibility best when she says:

“As I look back on what I’ve learned about shame, gender, and worthiness, the greatest lesson is this: If we’re going to find our way out of shame and back to each other, vulnerability is the path and courage is the light. To set down those lists of what we’re supposed to be is brave. To love ourselves and support each other in the process of becoming real is perhaps the greatest single act of daring greatly.”

Five years later, I can confidently say that moving to Seattle was worth the risk. It hasn’t always been easy, but it has been worth it. Many people say the same thing about therapy. Taking the risk of being vulnerable creates opportunity for great connection, which often leads to great joy and great relief.

Ready to take the risk of getting started? Call or email me today.

Five Ways to Find Calm (in 10 minutes or less)

Ever have those moments where you just want to jump out of your skin? It’s not unusual to have times where anxiety (or stress or whatever you want to call it) gets to the point that your mind or your body feels unbearable to live in. Since we are not reptiles, I’m guessing that skin-shedding is not an option. Here are a few things to try instead:

1.       Visualize a calm or safe place. Imagine a place that you have not been before. Close your eyes and picture yourself in your new surroundings. Use your five senses to experience this place. What do you see? What do you smell? Is there anything you taste? What do you hear? How does it feel to be here today? Take 5-10 minutes to be in this place and enjoy your surroundings. If your mind wanders (as it will), bring it back to this place.

2.       Focus on your out-breath. What do you do when someone says take a deep breath? You probably take in a big inhale. While this inhale is great to motivate us to move or engage in an activity, it might not help when you are trying to calm down. See what happens if you shift your focus to the out-breath and stay with it for a minute or two.

3.       What would you say to a friend? We can be our own worst critic. Is there something kind that you could say to a friend who was in the same situation as you. Resist the urge to fix things. See if you can stay with validation or with your feelings. Try offering yourself some self-compassion. A few words can make a big difference. Having trouble figuring out what to say? See if this exercise helps.

4.       Distract. What activities do you do that take your whole mind? Is one of those activities available to you right now? It might be exercising, doing the dishes, walking the dog, or watching a funny YouTube video (this one with cats is one of my favorites). See if there is something that you can do to give yourself a break from your current thoughts. They will still be there to revisit when the time is right. But when things feel overwhelming, continuing to think about the topic often makes things feel worse rather than better.

5.       Practice being an observer. The great thing about emotions is that they come and go like waves. Anxiety, worry, and stress all behave this way. Take a few moments to focus on watching your thoughts pass. If you feel so inclined, close your eyes and imagine placing your thoughts on leaves floating on a river. Watch each leaf as it follows the water down the river and out of sight. Thoughts may continue to arise. Each time, place the thought on a leaf and let it float away.

While none of these activities take the place of therapy, they can be great options to use when you are feeling overwhelmed. I like to think of them like experiments. Each time you try one, see how it works and make note of it. Some may work better than others, and some may be the right activity for certain types of anxiety or stress and others may work better for other types. See what works for you.

Want to learn more strategies like these? Call or email to schedule your first appointment.

EMDR sounds like voodoo (but it's not)

I'm a skeptic through and through. Show me some evidence? I want to see the data and the methods that they used to back up their findings. I've never been a person to take things at face value. When I heard about Eye Movement Desensitization Reprocessing (EMDR) in school, it sounded awesome: a technique that had lower drop-out rates than other exposure therapies (Ironson et al. 2002) and had equal (or better) results than talk therapy (Power et al. 2002, van der Kolk et al. 2007). Thanks to some encouragement from my advisor, I decided to get trained in the method.

While I had read all of the EMDR procedures prior to arriving at the training, I had no idea how my skeptic thoughts would arise when it came time to actually do it. You see, when you get trained in EMDR, you practice with a partner who is another trainee. Each of you works with a real life situation so that you get the perspective both as the therapist and as the client. When it came time for me to be the client, I immediately thought "You want me to do what?" I knew, logically, that I was supposed to watch her fingers move back and forth and "go with" whatever thoughts came to mind. However, the actual thought of doing such a thing felt like a bunch of hooey. I did my best during the training, but I left feeling less confident in EMDR's effectiveness rather than more confident.

I had read the research. I knew it had good outcomes for PTSD. Yet, there was this nagging thought in my head about the eye movements. I read deeper into the research and found that there was not a whole lot of evidence for what the eye movements actually did. People hypothesized that they were like REM sleep and helped "reorganize" memories in your brain, but there was very little neuroscience to back these claims up.

This feeling left me with a conundrum. Do I continue my EMDR training or do I drop it because it feels weird? I decided that there was enough evidence that I would continue to pursue the process despite my doubts. In the end, I have seen what has been substantiated by the evidence: EMDR can help people reprocess traumatic memories without feeling overwhelmed. For some reason, bilateral stimulation seems to help people manage their experiences in ways that they were not able to in talk therapy.

When people have experienced overwhelming events, they often feel overwhelmed when they are reminded of them. Even though they can logically explain to themselves that what happened before is not happening again, it often feels like it's happening again. In many cases, they know what they want to logically believe yet their body or their emotions tell them that it's not safe. Somehow, EMDR keeps people from feeling overwhelmed while doing trauma reprocessing. People are able to think about a past trauma and connect to their logical thoughts while also validating what they are feeling: all without tipping outside of what they can handle. I have my own hypotheses about how EMDR works to do this, but they are just hypotheses, with no evidence.

While we don't know the specifics of why the bilateral stimulation is important for EMDR, there are many research studies demonstrating EMDR's effectiveness, including randomized clinical trials (for data nerds like me, here is a link to the specific studies). For now, I have decided that the overwhelming support is enough for me to keep doing it...even if it feels weird...and even if the evidence for bilateral stimulation is shaky at best.

I've heard the phrase "lean into the uncertainty" a lot as a therapist. While I am by no means suggesting leaping with wild abandon into techniques that have little to no evidence, I have decided that I can lean into the uncertainty of EMDR given the overall rates of effectiveness. For now, that's enough.


Ready to get started? Call or email me to talk more about if EMDR is the right fit for you.

What does therapy look like?

It’s a good question to ask when you are entering therapy. Heck, if I’m starting something new, I want to know what I’m getting into. Therefore, I want to talk about how I tend to structure therapy. I’ll be focusing on trauma therapy in this post since that is what I practice the most often, but it’s still relevant information even if trauma isn’t the issue that you are coming to therapy for. 

I think of trauma therapy in three stages: safety, processing, and reconnection. This theory comes from Judith Herman’s book “Trauma and Recovery,” which has had a huge influence on how I practice.

Many people call me seeking relief from symptoms that have overwhelmed their ability to cope. It can be scary to think about spending an hour per week sitting in this suffering that is part of the problem in the first place. That’s why I focus on safety first. 

Therapy is only an hour out of your week, and I want you to be able to go about the rest of your week without feeling totally overwhelmed by what we are doing in therapy. After an assessment, we will start by developing tools and strategies to increase your feelings of safety, both in and out of session. These tools are concrete things that you can do on a daily basis to help yourself in those moments where you feel overwhelmed. It might be mindfulness, distraction, self-soothing or a whole host of other things. Together, we will find what works best for you. You are probably already be doing some of these things, which is great! I want to know more about them when they work and when they don’t. By getting a clearer picture, we can boost your skills and fill in any gaps. 

The second stage of processing memories can take many forms. When I say processing memories, I mean shifting memories from feeling overwhelming into memories that feel like another part of your past (aka fairly neutral). My main tools for processing memories are talk therapy and Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR). EMDR is an evidence-based method for reducing post-traumatic stress, and you can read more about it here. Together, we will decide what strategy is right for you. My main goal is to help you face what happened so it no longer crops up in your life and overwhelms you at unexpected times. Also, this phase won’t include any white-knuckling your way through memories. You get to set the pace.

What we actually do in the processing stage depends on what is most upsetting about the previous memories. I want to learn more about what keeps memories stuck in the forefront of your mind rather than fading away like many other memories. One of the key components of a traumatic memory is that it often feels like it happened yesterday. By processing it in therapy, these trauma memories usually start to feel just like any other memory: part of your past. To get to that place, you might also find that your perspective shifts. It might include more self-compassion, a greater sense of understanding, or more acceptance. 

In the third stage, we will look at ways that you want to reconnect with your life while also holding onto the changes that you have made. Trauma can isolate you from yourself and from people in your life. It’s part of that safety sensor in your brain that often triggers incorrectly when you have experienced trauma. Once those memories no longer feel overwhelming, you might notice that safety sensor is less reactive. You can start to imagine what situations will look like in the future and how you will use your skills and insight to handle them without feeling overwhelmed. It’s my hope that therapy leads to you feeling a greater sense of courage to live a connected and authentic life. Reconnection is a great stage to find what it means to live your life without trauma getting in the way.

In the end, you get to decide when you are done. I will check in with our goals along the way and review the progress that you have made. But it will be up to you to decide when the changes are enough to live your life without therapy. I’m not a therapist who hangs onto clients forever, and I look forward to celebrating in the therapy successes, big and small, that help you lead a life worth living.

Ready to get started? Give me a call or email me. I'd love to hear from you.

The Self-Blame Trap

It’s easy to look back on events and think “I should have known better!” It might not be the kindest thought to offer yourself, but sometimes it gives you information about how you would like to handle a situation differently in the future. Or, you might say that hindsight is 20/20 and dismiss it.

For people who have experienced trauma, it might not be that easy to let go of thoughts about previous events. One of the symptoms of PTSD is re-experiencing (meaning the event plays over and over again in your head). They may find themselves thinking about what happened and looking for new information about how they could have handled things differently. Usually, people reach one conclusion: they could have done something to prevent what happened. Perhaps, someone in their life even told them that this was true.  People who have experienced trauma as a child or in a relationship might find this statement to be particularly true.

Many people make sense of situations by blaming themselves. Usually, it falls into one of two categories: believing there’s something wrong with yourself (thoughts like “I’m a bad person” or “I’m defective”) or thinking that you could have taken a specific action to prevent what happened. However, that’s not true. Traumatic events not about a person’s character or actions that they could have taken. Traumatic events are about how what happened overwhelmed that person’s ability to cope. Fundamentally, these events aren’t supposed to make sense through self-blame. Yet, it’s such an easy response.

It makes sense to take responsibility. In fact, it’s a cultural value to take do so. It gives you a sense of control to think that there are things that you can do to stay safe. The illusion of control can be comforting. We all like to think “If I just do x, then y won’t happen again.” It feels like you have a sense of mastery over what happened. However, these thoughts are also linked with higher levels of depression and anxiety and greater difficulty recovering from trauma (Harvey & Pauwels, 2000). When you take responsibility for things that were not your fault, you internalize what happened in a way that prevents trauma processing. It’s not grounded in fact, and it’s easy to find yourself in a loop of trying to make sense of a situation that will never make sense.

Self-blame is also a strategy that people use in order to feel safe. They avoid social interaction, trying new things or leaving the house. Using self-blame, it’s easy to reach the conclusion that these strategies will prevent what happened from happening again in the future. It’s an illusion, though, and one that can cause a lot of suffering.


What’s the alternative to self-blame? Saying “What happened was not my fault.”


Even knowing how painful it is, it can be difficult to let go of self-blame and acknowledge that what happened was not your fault. It means being open to the possibility of putting responsibility back where it belongs: in the situation or in the other person. It’s scary to think that, though, because it might feel like you are opening yourself up to vulnerability. It can be terrifying to give up the illusion of safety that self-blame provides. That safety is an illusion, though. My guess is that if you could have prevented what happened, you would have. Very rarely do people choose the path that causes long-term suffering.

Even if you know all of this logically, it can be challenging to feel like it’s true. Part of you may not want to let go of the control, the safety, the reassurance that it all provides. We all like having plans to fix things. When you let go of self-blame, it can feel like you are letting go of your safety net. It might mean that painful emotions start to bubble up in ways that are difficult to push back down. Being with the difficult emotions that come with letting go is not easy. You don’t have to do it alone.

Working with a therapist, you can build safety strategies so you don’t feel like you are leaping with wild abandon into the abyss of fear. There is grey in the middle. There is a place that you can acknowledge what happened without swinging from one extreme (“So what? I’ll do anything if I can’t prevent terrible things from happening”) to the other (self-blame).

Ready to get started? Call or email to schedule your first appointment.


A little compassion goes a long way

There’s another risk when we compare our suffering to someone else’s suffering: we lose out on the opportunity offer ourselves a compassionate response. Brené Brown does a great job addressing this in her youtube video on the difference between empathy and sympathy. One universal truth about traumatic memories are that they cause suffering, and the only way through suffering is compassion. When we start saying “well, at least,” we deny that opportunity to recognize our suffering and be compassionate with our experiences. Instead, we start boot-strapping it. We pull ourselves up by our boot-straps and push forward. Ignore, push down what we feel, rinse, repeat. I’ve been there. It’s an easy response, but it also causes us a lot of suffering.

Compassion can be a tricky concept to understand, and I’m a therapist who likes concrete terms that are easy to define. Compassion doesn’t fit nicely into one of those definitions, and it often throws people for a loop when I ask “How might you be more compassionate to yourself in this situation?”

We aren’t hardwired to be good at self-compassion. There are some hypotheses out there about how being less compassionate towards ourselves has helped us survive as a species. Nowadays, I’m not sure we need to be as hard on ourselves as we are. A little compassion goes a long way. When we start boot-strapping, we miss out on compassion and the important information that feelings provide us. When we look at situations with compassion, we can shift from suffering to understanding. 

And wow, what a difference understanding makes. Maybe not everything is your fault. Maybe it’s easier to understand why you feel the way you feel. It doesn’t make feelings the truth, but it does mean they help you move forward using both your logical and emotional thoughts. 

As cliché as it sounds, there is something to be said about having someone else witness our suffering. We are a lot better at having compassion for others than we are at having compassion for ourselves. Therapy is one way that you can see what it’s like to have someone else offer you a compassionate response. My guess is that you might also have some friends or family members who might know how be compassionate with you as well. Wherever you chose to get your compassion, I hope you are able to experience the difference between boot-strapping and compassion. It really does make a world of difference.


Are you ready for a little compassion? Click here to schedule your first appointment or consultation.

Does my trauma count?

Does my trauma count? I hear this question a lot when I’m working with folks in therapy and when I describe to people what I do for a living. When people hear the word “trauma,” they immediately think of the kind of traumatic events that we hear about in the news. However, I think of trauma much broadly than the kind of stuff we hear about on television. 

Experiences that are traumatic are less about the “what” and more about the “how” of the experience. It’s those times that keep replaying and replaying in your head: the ones that impact the way you see the world, your sense of safety. Trauma usually involves your sense of control or power being taken away in the moment. When this happens, it is difficult to reconcile the world with the way it was before the event (or series of events) happened and the way it is now.

Sometimes it helps to think about trauma in terms of big T trauma and little t trauma. Both types overwhelm your ability to cope but to varying degrees. And what you define as little t, I might define as big T trauma. That’s okay. The thing about trauma is that you don’t need to take out a measuring stick and determine if what happened counts as a traumatic event or not. Plenty of things can fall into the small t type of trauma category and still lead to feelings that I described above. 

It can also be confusing because what is traumatic for one person might not be traumatic for another person. You might be thinking “Wait a minute Courtney, doesn’t this mean that everyone has experienced trauma? Why doesn’t everyone need therapy for it, then?” Again, it’s less about what they experienced and more about how they perceive their world after the experience. If you are feeling anxious, upset, or worried in ways that are difficult to control, seeing a therapist can be a great step to finding a resolution. It’s often difficult to muddle through these experiences on your own without ending up in those same feelings of overwhelm that you felt in the moment. By working with a therapist, you can find a safe space to work through your experience in a way that feels more tolerable-no matter what that experience was.

You may also find yourself comparing your suffering to someone else’s suffering and thinking “Well, at least what happened to me wasn’t as bad as what happened to this other person.” or “Who am I to say I’m suffering when there are people in war-torn countries whose experiences are worse than what I went through.” It’s true that there are a lot of people experiencing big T trauma in the world right now, but minimizing your experience probably won’t lead to feeling much better about it. We all experience suffering, to different degrees, but you can choose to find ways to suffer less (even when your privilege maybe affords you less suffering than other people). I mean who wouldn’t want to suffer less? I’m pretty sure those folks in war-torn countries wouldn’t want you to continue suffering if you could do something about it.

All reasons are okay reasons to seek help. If you need permission to let yourself admit that whatever happened, big or small, is enough to seek help, I’m here to say it’s okay to seek help.  It’s also okay if the word “trauma” still doesn’t resonate with you. We can find another way to describe your experience.

Worrying about whether your trauma “counts” can get in the way of seeking help. It takes courage to decide to call a therapist, and it can feel pretty vulnerable. Vulnerability is hard! It can be scary because you don’t know how the other person will react. However, taking this risk can also lead to great growth. When you find a safe, compassionate space to revisit what happened without that feeling overwhelmed, you might notice that it’s easier to make sense of what happened. It’s my hope that by letting your trauma count that you are able to be a little bit more compassionate with yourself and that leads to you finding a greater sense of well-being in your life.


Ready to get started? Call or email me to learn more.