Be Good to You

I wonder if you’ve ever gone through your busy, more stressful days with a small awareness that you’re not doing the things you know might help you feel better or more grounded?

I definitely do this sometimes.

I’ve noticed this especially when I have a lot on my plate…those moments or days when little gifts of self-care would be most helpful.

During those times, I’m more at risk for closing myself off and moving into the automatic mode that takes me away from really noticing what’s happening with me and what I need. There can be a sense that I’m too busy to take the time to stop and be good to myself.

I’m doing what I can to stay aware of when I go on automatic and making a point to drop back into myself to evaluate what I need to keep moving through my day with a little more wellness.

It takes various forms at different times, but the basic question I ask myself is this…

“What’s going on with me right now and what do I need in this moment?”

Here are some of the things I’ve realized from dropping back into myself:

  • My mouth is so dry. Oh, I’m thirsty. I need water now.
  • I’m exhausted, yet trying to force myself to stay awake. It’s time for me to turn off the device or TV and allow myself to sleep.
  • I’m feeling sensitive and my shields are up. I need a hug from someone I love.
  • I’m carrying a lot of tension. Finding some time to exercise or stretch today is a good idea.
  • I’m feeling a little sleepy and I can’t rest yet. I think I’ll make a cup of coffee or tea.
  • I’m feeling revved up and jittery. What’s going on with me? I need to dump out the rest of this coffee and drink some water.
  • I’m feeling shaky and grumpy. I need to eat. I think I’ll have some almonds or peanut butter toast.
  • My leg hurts. I need to not push the exercise today and rest when I get home.
  • I’m feeling overwhelmed. I need time with a book to get my mind off of this or I need a trusted other to talk to.
  • I’m feeling sad. I’m going to let myself feel this for a little while and then reach out to someone if I need to talk.

OK, you get the idea. Take some time to ask yourself this question as much as you need to during the day.

If you aren’t used to checking in with yourself in this way, it may take some experimenting to find what feels healthy and soothing to you. I hope you enjoy the process of discovery.

Be good to you…


Keeping Pain Clean

As a therapist, I blog somewhat hesitantly at the risk of adding to the bloated mountain of advice at our fingertips. 24 hours a day we are surrounded by media that overwhelms with unrealistic guidelines, “10-Things” lists, and other how-to instructions on everything from living the near-perfect, pain-free life to fixing aspects of ourselves we’ve labeled broken.  There is the assumption that the “experts” out there may hold just the right fixing, healing knowledge to serve as guides to a right way of living that brings ultimate happiness.

It’s never that simple, though.

The proliferation of self-improvement resources designed to help us better ourselves and our lives is a double-edged sword, generating moments of hope, while sending the message that we aren’t doing this life thing well enough on our own. Helpful tools are out there, potentially, but depending on how we respond to what we encounter, we can end up experiencing more disappointment and pain if we aren’t altered by what we’ve read, heard, or seen in the ways we had hoped.

In my very human experience, pain is not easily discarded, people aren’t just broken parts to be fixed, and happiness isn’t a guarantee–at least not happiness in the way it’s often touted (I call it Pleasantville Happiness…remember that movie?), as if a sense of complete, joyous contentment is available to us if only we were somehow different or better or a little more perfect. We strive for this type of happiness as a way of mitigating our pain, but in the process we are set up for suffering–the pain beyond pain–because so often we are disappointed to find the emotional struggles, the negative thinking, the body image issues, the relationship troubles, or the distressing moods have found us again.

Suffering…the pain beyond pain

Life is really, really hard sometimes, and pain, whether it be physical or emotional, is a universal part of what it means to be alive…to be fully human.  How much we suffer (“become worse because of being badly affected by something” Thank you,, however, is largely determined by how we respond to pain and the circumstances surrounding it, i.e., what we tell ourselves about it, what we feel about it, and other ways we behave in response to it.

Within Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, a model of practice I use in my work, the concept of pain is sometimes differentiated as “clean pain” (the pain of being human) and “dirty pain” (suffering: the pain beyond pain).

Clean pain vs dirty pain–what does this even mean? 

Here are a couple of scenarios we can probably all relate to…

When a relationship ends due to breakup or death, there is potentially grief and sadness as our brains and bodies work to adapt to a great loss. When we’re up for a job we really want and learn it has been given to someone else, disappointment or another emotion may be present. Both these experiences involving loss cause some degree of pain and discomfort. For the most part, this is clean pain unclouded by judgments, layers of other emotions, or any other stories we tell ourselves about the meaning of the pain and its circumstances. This is the type of pain that comes with being human.

Dirty pain comes into play when we use language to create stories about the pain and what it means in our lives. These meaning-filled stories are particularly problematic when they involve judgments about the experience, the pain, and how we’re responding to it. As part of this, dirty pain also comes in when we believe we have to get rid of the pain or avoid it through whatever means necessary, possibly leading us to engage in avoidance behaviors that ultimately aren’t healthy for us.

Now back to the scenarios from a dirty pain perspective..

After a breakup or death of a loved one, if we layer on judgmental thoughts or assumptions such as,  “I should be farther along by now.” or “I’m not grieving correctly,” we have clouded our clean pain. Instead of the pain of grief and sadness, now we also feel ashamed and defective because we’ve told ourselves we aren’t fitting some prescribed time frame or manner of grieving. If we’re denied a job we wanted, and we tell ourselves we didn’t get the job because we “never have been good enough” or the “interviewer had it in for me,”  we have clouded our clean pain. We already feel disappointed, and now we may feel worthless or resentful because of our framing of the experience.

In both scenarios, now we have the pain beyond pain, which leaves us with more hurt and vulnerability and more likely to engage in unhelpful habits in the attempt to rid ourselves of the pain and the suffering, only to find those things don’t ultimately do the trick either.

We receive abundant messages in blatant and subtle ways suggesting that if we could do things better, look a certain way, or be/feel somehow different, we won’t hurt. We are human and we will hurt. We’re all in this together. The good news is you and I have a great deal of power over how we respond to the hurt. If we can allow ourselves to feel the pain and let it move through us, while being aware of when we may be layering on unhelpful stories or emotions and then choosing not to engage with them, we can begin to reduce the amount of suffering we experience on a daily basis. Doing this isn’t easy and it takes practice. Sometimes the support of a therapist familiar with these concepts can help in navigating this process.

For today, let’s stay aware of how we respond to our pain. Are we trying to do something with it-get it to stop, figure it out, read about it, judge it away? Let’s see if we can allow the pain to be present without doing these things. Maybe we can find something compassionate to tell ourselves such as, “Even with this pain, I am OK in this moment and I don’t have to fight it or myself. I don’t need to be fixed or any different than I am right now. I can feel what I need to feel.” Next we can practice self-soothing using our senses: take a bath, go for a walk, listen to a favorite song, eat a yummy meal, and really notice that experience. The pain may still be there. That’s OK. We’re still OK. It’s the clean pain of being human.  Let’s have compassion for the pain, for ourselves, and for all of us who are in the same place.

Today, I hope for genuine self-compassion for all of us.


Breathing Room: Balancing Connection and Space In Relationships

“Let there be spaces in your togetherness…”

You’ve heard this, right? It’s from Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet and was a popular wedding reading choice some years back when I was researching such things. With a brief directive he promotes the importance of connection while preserving each partner’s individuality in relationship. He expands on this idea in the rest of the passage:

“Let there be spaces in your togetherness, And let the winds of the heavens dance between you. Love one another but make not a bond of love: Let it rather be a moving sea between the shores of your souls. Fill each other’s cup but drink not from one cup. Give one another of your bread but eat not from the same loaf. Sing and dance together and be joyous, but let each one of you be alone, even as the strings of a lute are alone though they quiver with the same music. Give your hearts, but not into each other’s keeping. For only the hand of Life can contain your hearts. And stand together, yet not too near together: For the pillars of the temple stand apart, and the oak tree and the cypress grow not in each other’s shadow.

Gibran was not only a writer but a philosopher and artist, as well, and his imagery here is quite lovely. When I read it, I can almost feel the easy flow of connection and separateness. It’s so clear that both are vital for the health of a relationship and the individuals involved. I read this and I can breathe.

Balancing healthy togetherness with important separateness in ways that are good for both partners and helpful (or at least not harmful) for the whole is what most people hope for, I think, but how can we accomplish this outside the lines of a philosopher’s poetry/prose? It’s not always easy, but staying mindful of this balance is extremely important in relationships.

First let’s talk systems and boundaries…

In certain models of psychotherapy, relationships are seen as a two-person system made up of the partners, and other variables: their personalities, histories, behaviors, emotions, beliefs, communication styles and roles played. These are coupled with the interpersonal boundaries held by each person that determine the degree of openness in how they interact around these variables both inside and outside the relationship. In my experience, the status of boundaries is an important factor in determining relationship health.

We hear a lot of talk about people who don’t have good boundaries, so what does that really mean when it comes to a relationship? What is a boundary in the interpersonal sense?  It’s certainly a lot more complex than this, but simply stated, a boundary is the limit a person sets that separates her physically, emotionally, and cognitively from other people, i.e., the space she creates to protect or maintain her sense of personal identity. Interpersonal boundaries are relationship gate-keepers and the beginning and ending point of couple interaction.  Within every relationship, each partner’s boundary has a greater or lesser degree of flexibility or rigidity, and, ideally, most hover somewhere in and around the middle on the spectrum between the two. Moving too far to either end can create some serious problems for a couple.

If boundaries are too permeable, one or both partners may over-identify with the other. They may define themselves more by the relationship, than by their individual identities.  These loose boundaries can lead to enmeshment for a couple. Imagine a web of entangled personalities, desires, needs, beliefs, physical sensations, and emotions without a clear sense of the unique selves of each partner. What I’m describing may seem like an extreme to illustrate a point, but enmeshment can happen in relationships to varying degrees and contributes to a number of problems:

  • rescuing or trying to fix partner’s emotional distress or problems
  • ignoring other important friendships or connections to focus on relationship
  • self-concept and mental/emotional well-being dependent on partner’s actions and emotions
  • extreme anxiety or mood shifts when there is unrest in the relationship and frantic efforts to resolve
  • passivity and dependence or over-responsibility and control
  • emotionally difficult when not with the other partner
  • absorbing the other person’s emotions and beliefs and uncertain of one’s own
  • dominant partner emerges and sets the tone or expectation for how the relationship will function

On the other hand, if boundaries are too rigid in one or both partners, an emotional and physical cut-off can occur, leading to disconnection in the relationship and a decline or cessation of intimacy. The greater the rigidity of boundaries, the more the energetic flow of variables mentioned above slows or stops in the relationship. This can lead to increasing boredom, emotional detachment, isolation, and potentially the dissolution of the system, i.e., living parallel lives or even break-up and/or divorce.

So how do we keep to the middle ground where we can maintain a healthy relationship that allows room for the choreography of movement between space and connection?

Here are a few ideas. You probably have some excellent ones of your own.


  1. Take time to remember what brought you together in the first place. Why did you like this person? What was cool enough that you decided to throw your lot in together and join forces or even get hitched? Can you still appreciate these aspects? If you can’t remember, can you find new things you like?
  2. Talk to each other about more than the weather or (if kids are in the picture) the kids. Talk about what gets you jazzed: politics, music, art, sex, religion/spirituality, science, your pets, feminism, a shared love of coffee, the environment. Talk about how you’re feeling. Let your partner know you’ve heard the feeling content of what they are saying. Remember those late night discussions that could go on for hours? Find those again. The biggest thing here…talk to each other about more than family and social pleasantries.
  3. Invite your partner to become interested in your hobbies or your work. Talk to her or him about them and show genuine interest in your partner’s hobbies and work.
  4. Do intentionally thoughtful things for each other…a hug, a kiss, leaving notes, a text, a flower, or arrange a date. Do something that lets your partner know you’ve held space for him or her in your mind during the day.
  5. Encourage each other’s strengths and goals. If your partner wants to accomplish something, believe it’s possible and communicate this to her or him.
  6. Be willing to give and take on issues. Find the points you can’t compromise on and then acknowledge any areas of flexibility where you would be willing to give. This shows respect for both partner’s needs and wants.
  7. Make time for each other, whether it be an in-house date of dinner, a movie, or sex or a night out. Whatever you’re doing, stay present and try not to hop on the train of the next task in your mind.


  1. Talk about who you are, how you feel, and what you need with your partner even if it creates disagreement. Respectful disagreement can help you learn about each other. It fosters growth and sometimes healthy compromise.
  2. Spend time with family and friends away from your partner. If you have a loved one, friend, or a group you enjoy, spend time talking to them or go out with them without your partner and encourage your partner to do the same. This helps widen your network of social and emotional support.
  3. Find a hobby or an activity you enjoy for just you and allow yourself to dive in. Notice the awesome things it does for you.
  4. Be thoughtful in examining your own beliefs and values. Evaluate what is deeply meaningful to you. Where do you and your partner intersect and where do you differ? Respect and celebrate those differences.
  5. Carve out time to do something by yourself: read, exercise, go to a movie, eat, meditate…and support your partner in doing the same.
  6. Periodically discuss power, roles, and responsibilities and how they impact your relationship. If things seem out of balance, work together on some fine-tuning, so the relationship feels more balanced and you both have some breathing room.
  7. Trust your partner and yourself to protect your relationship and encourage each other to have your own identities. If you are struggling with trust or other personal issues or questions, seek support.

In your own relationships, how do you keep this movement flowing?

As you read through this, if you become aware of imbalances in your relationship that are more problematic than you believe you have the personal resources to manage, couples and/or individual counseling may be helpful. Neither you nor your partner have to sort things out on your own. Becoming aware of what’s going on is a huge step!

Wishing you the joy of a loving connection full of comfortable spaces. Take care of yourself…


What do you think about beginnings?


The willingness to consider possibility requires a tolerance of uncertainty. –Rachel Naomi Remen

My good friend Google tells me to “begin” is to “undergo the first part of (an action or activity).” That makes it sound fairly easy, right? It’s a nice and straightforward clinical definition that leaves out the often-intense emotional experiences of beginnings. Starting something new is many things but it’s rarely easy.

A few days ago I was thinking about the many beginnings I’ve faced. Presently, I’m a little ways down the road of another starting point in my professional life, as April 2015 marks the beginning of my new counseling/psychotherapy practice. This isn’t my first professional beginning. Over the years I’ve changed areas of social work practice, new clients come and go, and each day brings a new therapeutic issue or concept to delve into and understand. As beginnings go, though, this practice is a big one for me.

Maybe you’re in a similar place with something new or perhaps a change is on the horizon. Professionally or personally, it seems we’re always beginning, in a sense. It is a large part of what it means to be alive, whether it’s waking up and facing a new day, beginning a new medical treatment, picking up a new hobby, starting a new relationship, seeing a new client, beginning a new program of study in school, starting therapy, or starting a new job or business. Depending on who we are, our history, and the specifics of the road we’re setting out on, we can generally expect some degree of stress about what’s to come.

When I’m orienting myself to a new experience, I find comfort in the collective wisdom of friends, and so I asked some of mine to answer the question, “What do you think about beginnings?” The varied responses came quickly. Some suggested we’ll never feel fully ready for our particular beginning, and so we must go ahead and do it anyway, moving forward through fear, uncertainty, and perfect imperfection. For others the concept of a beginning is too stressful and often arbitrarily defined as such–what feels like a beginning in some aspects of life is really not that at all, as what is happening was set in motion long before through earlier effort.

For some, focusing on beginnings feels like too much pressure. It’s like if you miss a beginning, you’ve missed out. Instead, middles are the ideal places, offering up more opportunities for a new start. Attention was given to the newness and naiveté that can surround beginnings–recognition that the brain desires novelty and may be more motivated by an exciting beginning and somewhat blind to the possible difficulties ahead. Others pointed out how our brains can analyze every potential worst-case scenario along the map, almost paralyzing us from moving forward at all. Another shared that beginnings are easier when you break them down into manageable parts and get started one part at a time.

For me, beginnings are intense. With every one, depending on the magnitude of what is happening, I’m called to be present with the internal experience of anticipation (which sometimes includes excitement), fear, and uncertainty. At the same time, I am learning to recognizing a deeper knowledge that I will be OK even when I’m not completely sure how. It’s like standing blindfolded with a parachute on the precipice of where I’ve been and having no idea how close I am to where I’m going. My next footstep will hit land or sky, but either way, I know I’ll keep walking or I’ll fly. It may not be fast and it may not be pretty all the time and I may have to climb back up again to start over, but I’ll keep moving.

Now, I pose the question to you, “What do you think about beginnings?”

If you’re beginning something, there may be anticipation and excitement or fear and apprehension. Depending on the nature of your particular road, perhaps there’s some of all of it. Whatever it is, no matter what is being asked of you or what you’re asking of yourself, it is so important for you to take good care of yourself. Please don’t let genuine self-care become a cliché. Here are some ideas that have been working for me…

  • Be patient with yourself and how you’re responding emotionally and physically. It takes time to accept something new or feel competent in it and sometimes that process has to happen over and over.
  • Remember to go heavy on the self-compassion and pull the reins in on self-shaming. Try not to be hard on yourself when you stumble or struggle.
  • Spend time thinking about things other than what is beginning. Mental and physical breaks are important. You don’t have to force yourself not to think about what’s going on (that generally backfires); just try to direct your attention elsewhere. It’s OK if you shift back into beginning thinking, but make sure several times a day to reorient yourself to the other things and people in your life and spend some time there, too.
  • Exercise–Even gentle movements, such as yoga, help your brain and body handle stress.
  • Take care of your physical body and emotional health by soothing using your senses. Pamper yourself-take a warm bath, get massages, go on and get that pedicure you’ve been putting off. Eat a delicious meal. Listen to new or familiar music you love. Smell coffee beans (insert favorite smell). Sit outside and feel the breeze, the heat of the sun on your skin, or stare at the stars. Hug someone.
  • Read books that inspire or allow you to delve into your imagination. If you feel like you don’t have time for books, find articles or even quotes that speak to you about what you’re experiencing or take you somewhere else for a short while.
  • Reach out to the collective wisdom for support. Finding trusted others to talk with along the way to encourage and guide you. Support is crucial. No one expects you to do this alone.

That’s enough for now. Just remember… Start where you need to start. Take breaks. Start again when you’re ready. Be patient. Most of all, be good to yourself. Abbie