Empathy and Mirror Neurons

Empathy differs from sympathy. Sympathy reflects an understanding of another person’ situation- but viewed through your own eyes. In contrast, empathy is what you feel when you can step outside of yourself and enter the internal world of another person. You experience the other’s emotions and conflict without abandoning or losing your own perspective. It involves being able “to see with the eyes of another, to hear with the ears of another, to feel with the heart of another” (Alfred Adler).

Two people have a disagreement. They lash out or walk away from the other. It is possible that due to each of their life experiences, they learned that anger can equal harm, a dissolution of a relationship, an attack upon their view, or some perceived threat of which they are not really aware. With empathy they would STOP, and try to understand and experience the other’s position. A baby cries, the caregiver is upset and angry they can’t stop the screaming and crying. Stop! Imagine what it is like to be in the baby’s position, which is feeling emotions or discomfort they cannot describe. This is empathy.

Research has shown that individuals have what are described as “mirror neurons”. When we witness or hear another’s experience, these mirror neurons trigger memories in the brain of the listener. This may stimulate emotional experiences connected to those memories. If the memories are negative we may respond in anger and fear consistent with our own experience with respect to what we observe in other’s behaviour. At the same time, if we can suspend our own experiences, and try to see it through the lens of another person, then these neurons contribute to the deepening of an empathic understanding of individuals.

Mirroring helps dissolve the barrier between self and others. It is the way nature facilitates caring about other people. One could ask why we experience tears when someone is kind to us? why do we feel at peace when someone understands us? Why that simple “are  you ok” can so move us? It is because empathy validates and lends to a deeper understanding of another’s experience.

Empathy can be used when we seek to understand someone better, argue unproductively, have difficulty connecting emotionally to another, or when trying to calm our temper and manage our own emotions. A loved one who is experiencing depression, anger or any conflicted emotion shows greater healing when levels of understanding are deeper through empathy. Being told ‘get over it’, or lashing out, by a loved one, does not reveal empathic understanding.

Think of an upset child, partner, stranger, anyone for that matter. Instead of responding in anger, use those mirror neurons that generate empathy. what is happening with that person in this moment of time? Don’t judge, just imagine. Are they frightened, did they receive bad news, are they feeling unwell, stressed, did their partner break up with them, etc.?

Are their views of life or behaviour different from yours? Do not become threatened by the differences, it does not mean either of you are right or wrong. Think of ways you are similar to that person beneath the surface differences. Empathy does not mean letting them walk all over you. Rather, Empathy gives you a stronger and wiser base for resolving conflict. You can bridge differences more effectively and with less destructiveness.

Empathy allows us to be mindful of our commonality and connection with fellow humans, rather than emphasizing the differences between yourself and others. Try to understand or imagine the feelings and attitudes of others by reflecting who he or she is and the forces and influences and choices that have shaped their life. Even if you do not know that person, just imagine.

The more one practices empathy, the more it is reinforced to become a natural response. While a person’s empathy can be attributed to genetic factors, research shows us that empathy can also be taught and learned.

The result is not applying empathy is personal conflict, communication breakdown and the development of adversarial attitudes – even hatred – toward those who differ from ourselves. Without empathy we exist inside a self centred world, that can breed emotional isolation and disconnection.

Instead seek to understand first before ensuring you are understood. Ask ” How are you doing…What is that like for you?”

People don’t care how much you know, until they know how much you care. (President Theodore Roosevelt).

Posted in Depression, Family & Parenting, General, Grief, Marriage & Relationships, Personal Growth, Stress & Anxiety, Therapy Tagged with: , , ,

Using Pop Culture to Impact Positive Change – Part 2

Welcome back! In Pop Culture Part 1, I discussed how, when connecting with children/youth, I utilize pop culture to: 1) develop and enhance rapport, and 2) gather information in regard to values, traits and indicators of resiliency. Please go to www.psychealth.com if you haven’t had a chance to read Part 1; it would be like watching the Empire Strikes Back without watching Star Wars! In Part 2 I will discuss the third way I have utilized pop culture: to help facilitate positive change.

Working with children and teens can be a humbling experience. I can prepare for a session for hours and then watch the plan fall flat within seconds or minutes. To help avoid this happening, I try to creatively get the message across by using an avenue the client is interested in. You may not be able to personally use the following examples, but I’m hoping they will spark some creativity when connecting with your child or teen.

A 14-year-old client was referred to me by his social worker but truly did not want to be in therapy; his lack of participation during our sessions reflected this. One day he came into my office wearing a Tupac shirt. I was pleased to see this because I knew that Tupac’s music has several messages of strength, resiliency and advocacy in the face of adversity. When asked, my client shared what he knew about Tupac and his favourite rappers and what he respected about their music. For the next session, I decided to create a game. I gathered 20 different lyrics from various rap songs and had the client guess what rapper sang each specific lyric and the message he or she was trying to convey in that lyric. For the first time in 4 sessions my client was engaged and interested in the task at hand. He did well with the guessing game and spoke effectively about the themes. He decided, as a result, to start creating a song of his own that described some of the challenges he faced in his own life. Writing is a beneficial, cathartic way to process past situations and the counselling sessions progressed well after this break-through.

A 9-year-old client was referred to me, along with a diagnostic list of various mental health disorders, including oppositional defiance and attention deficit. The little guy would get angry and say horrible things to his mother, teacher and peers. This was extra distressing for the boy because he felt regret afterwards for saying and doing these things, especially for his behaviour towards his mom. One day he saw a ‘Where’s Waldo’ book on my desk. We ended up having a look at it and I was impressed by how patiently and systematically he scanned each page. Upon finishing I provided him with some positive feedback and explained how he can use these great scanning skills to notice sensations and thoughts in his body, a great lead in to a mindfulness exercise. A few weeks later my client and his mother came in for a session and his mom said that the yelling and extreme reactions had decreased significantly. Although I can’t take credit for the improvement (there could have been many confounding variables), my client did mention that he now notices the thoughts popping into his mind but now he chooses not to say them.

I used to work with a 10-year-old client who had significant feelings of depression and anxiety. He had a hard time connecting with peers and spent a lot of time alone at school. During our sessions, he would routinely give me one word answers or stare off when I started talking about techniques. One day I asked him to explain ‘Pokemon Showdown’ to me, a video  game he frequently played in his spare time. He lit up as he shared his expertise. In this game you select a team of 5 Pokemon characters, then select a range of abilities and moves for each character. Once you have selected these preferences, you go head to head with another player and their team of Pokemon characters. Pokemon Showdown became a metaphor for assisting my client navigate through challenging situations at school and home. Using the same framework, we came up with abilities and moves that he could use when facing difficult moments or adversaries. It made sense to him to conceptualize life circumstances in this way and it increased the probability of him using the techniques we discussed in our sessions.

Pop culture can be utilized in many ways to assist the ones we care about. The possibilities are endless!

Thanks for tuning in!

Posted in Depression, Family & Parenting, General, Grief, Internet, Personal Growth, Stress & Anxiety, Therapy Tagged with: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

How Are Strong Marriages Like Healthy Gardens?

This is a question that I often put to couples who attend the premarital workshops I present. I like the question because it requires what are called “higher order thinking skills” – a more effective way of engaging new information that simply receiving it in a rote learning format. The answers I receive to this question are often quite insightful. Following are a few of those insights.

Successful marriages, like gardens, must be cultivated. What sunlight, soil and water are to a garden; respect, trust and cooperation are to a marriage. Without these key ingredients neither a garden nor a marriage can survive.

Successful marriages, like gardens, need to be tended. One would not reasonably expect a healthy harvest by merely throwing seeds in the ground, then ignore them. Time and effort are required to watch over the growth of those seeds. Adjustments are made depending on perceived needs. More or less water and/or nutrients may be required until the seeds mature to become healthy plants. Just like fruit, neglected marriages can also die on the vine. One need not do anything outrageously inappropriate to kill a relationship, one need only neglect it long enough for it to whither and die.

Marriages like gardens also need to be protected. One must be vigilant to ensure that nothing is allowed into the garden that would harm it. Fences are often put around gardens to keep intruders out. This is necessary to avoid losing what one has worked hard to create. Marriage must also be guarded. Unhealthy friendships, over involvement in too many activities, excessive use of technology and social media can all threaten the sense of connectedness between spouses. Instead of making each other the first priority, these activities and interests can take  precedence. Like an unwanted vine entering the garden, the wrong influences can choke the marital relationship. When such influences have slipped in, they too must be weeded out.

Some marriages, like plants in a garden, occasionally require pruning. When part of a plant becomes unhealthy, the unhealthy piece may need to be removed to ensure that the healthy parts of the plant receive the full nutrients. This is necessary to ensure the ongoing survival of that plant. In the marital relationship, boundary setting may occasionally be required. This setting of boundaries is in a sense, a type of pruning. Any activity or behaviour which is perceived to be harmful to the relationship must be cut off. Those behaviours which threaten relationship respect, trust and cooperation, the very foundation of what makes a marriage healthy, are especially damaging. Under these circumstances, one may even need to severe the connection for a period of time until such destructive behaviours have stopped.

Finally, marriages and gardens both require nurturing. The ongoing investment of love and care for something is often directly proportionate to the outcome one receives. When one loves and cares for a garden, one reaps a healthy and bountiful harvest. Again, I think there are similarities to nurturing one’s marital relationship. Plant lovers will often tell you that by attending and talking to your plants you help them to grow. I believe that the same principle applies to our spouses.

Posted in Marriage & Relationships, Personal Growth, Stress & Anxiety, Therapy Tagged with: , , , , , , , ,

The Problem with Pursuing Your Passion

Christine was a 24 year old university student graduating with a liberal arts degree from a nearby university. She was in a state of anxiety over the need to urgently make decisions regarding her future career. At times her anxiety was so pronounced she felt quite panicky, with frequent insomnia, digestive upsets and continuous worry. Although she had been successful academically, she was uncertain about how her education would translate into the “real world”.

Christine had been given the advice to “follow her passion”, which she was told, would lead her to a great job and ultimate success. This confused her because although she did enjoy travelling, cooking and rock climbing, she wasn’t sure if these “passions” could translate into a meaningful career. She also was unsure of what “success” looked like. Although she wanted to be able to provide for herself, having a large bank account or enviable lifestyle were not goals she envisioned for her life.

Where should she start?

The many changes that have occurred over the last number of decades in North American society have resulted in greater job and career possibilities than ever before. With the multitude of options available to young adults, career choice advice has often been to “Follow Your Passion”. This advice is limiting in that it focuses on the individual, instead of looking at the world around, seeing what is needed and how meaningful contributions might be made. Christine’s first step is to consider a larger perspective of the world around her, understanding where there are needs to fill, and see how she might use her skills to meet those needs.  With Christine’s travels, friendships and education, she has already begun this process, however she needs to refocus her perspective to see possibilities for contribution to an existing need.

Christine also needs to identify her transferable skills.  Sometimes referred to as ‘soft skills’, these are the skills that are adaptable to multiple situations. These include problem solving, effective oral and written communication, time management, attention to detail, technological proficiency, amount others*. Her skills can be legitimized through references from professors, coaches and work supervisors. She can also reference any recognition she has received through her past volunteer and extra-curricular activities. Although Christine’s degree reflects academic proficiency, it is her skill set  that will make her a meaningful contributor.

Thirdly, Christine needs meaningful purpose.

Martin Seligman*, a well-known psychologist, suggests there are two ingredients of happiness. The first is achievement or mastery – becoming excellent in what you do. Mastery, according to Anders Ericsson of Florida State University, takes 10,000 hours honing their skills to excellence in their profession – whether it be a concert pianist, a surgeon, a teacher or chess player. World class performers in any field have become so due to the sheer amount of “time on task” they have had. If one’s goal is to be a “master” in one’s field, perseverance pays off! Seligman’s states the second ingredient of happiness is  being engaged in a meaningful work that impacts other for good.

If Christine strives to do something more than just make herself happy, she will be looking for meaningful ways to contribute to her world. When she looks for ways to resolve unmet needs or solve existing problems, she has the potential of creating the passion she so desires for herself. She may even have the side benefit of others wanting her to succeed because her focus is altruistic. Benjamin Todd* echoes these thoughts in a recent TEDX lecture. He states that by addressing a pressing problem in the world one is contributing something “valuable”. Doing what’s valuable will motivate  Christine, creating a passion that leads to the success of having a meaningful fulfilling career. This is what Seligman refers to as “Flourishing”: Being wholeheartedly engaged in our world and committed to the betterment of others.

                          A man’s true wealth is the good he does in the world (Kahlil Gibran).

*For further reading and viewing, check out:

Benjamin Todd at TEDx @ Tallin. (2016); also website at http://80000hoursorg/CNBC.com Fivesoft skills that will get you hired. (2017)

Seligman, Flourish (2011)


Posted in General, Personal Growth, Stress & Anxiety Tagged with: , , , , ,

Get More Out of Life

Do you want more out of life, something different, a new way of doing things and yet you do not have a clear idea of how to bring this about? Perhaps you have tried everything you can think of but things are not improving. You may be feeling overwhelmed by the events in your life. You may have experienced a catastrophe, loss or trauma (recent or buried in the past) and your coping skills have been stretched to the limit.

Have you considered speaking to a counsellor? It’s a way of building on assets you already possess. Courage, openness, clearly defined goals, accepting personal responsibility, hope, belief that things can change and a support system are some of the assets that a client can bring to counselling or learn during the counselling process.

It takes a great deal of courage to approach a stranger and ask for help. It takes courage to try new strategies and courage to be willing to make mistakes, evaluate what has happened, make adjustments and move on. It takes openness to discuss problems; listen to new ideas; try new behaviours; think about yourself and your life in new ways.

Knowing where you want to go is an important part of ensuring your arrival. You may start off with general goals such as wanting more out of life, wanting someone to change, wanting to be happy, wanting to be a better parent or wanting a better marriage; perhaps you may not have any goals in mind at all. Your counsellor will ask you questions that will help you understand how you will be behaving and thinking differently when you reach your goals. When you begin with the end result clearly stated and understood, the way to move forward becomes clearer and helps ensure that the results of counselling are what you really want.

In order to effect changes in your life, it is necessary to accept personal responsibility for bringing about those changes. When you wait for circumstances or another person to change, you adopt a “victim” stance. Accepting personal responsibility for discovering how you can change your life and implementing those discoveries removes you from a “victim” stance to a stance which is proactive and empowered.

When life is tough, hope helps you believe that somewhere there are answers that will stop the pain and help them obtain the life you desire. You may believe that it is only desperation that drives you to seek help, yet, the fact that you are considering reaching out speaks to the fact that you have not given up, that you are still willing to try at least one more thing.

Belief, like hope, can be faint when you approach your first session. As counselling progresses, you will develop the belief that you will be able to effectively use their newly obtained knowledge to bring about the changes you desire.

Lack of a support system can be a major drawback to success. Counselling will provide support and can be the first step in building a strong support system. Belonging to a support group helps you begin to lose their sense of isolation. It can be great encouragement to realize that others share the same burden, but survive and move on in life. Belonging to a church, athletic association, social group, or volunteer organization can also provide support. I usually discourage the use of the internet or finding support. there are just too many pitfalls and landmines!

Counselling helps you to modify behaviours and attitudes, find solutions, develop skills, and access your inner resources in order to move toward your chosen goals. If you believe the therapist understands your problems and has the skills to help, and you are ready to build on your personal resources, counselling will probably have a successful outcome

This article originally appeared in our PsycHealth newsletter, Winter 2007 issue.

Posted in Depression, Family & Parenting, General, Marriage & Relationships, Personal Growth, Retirement & Aging, Stress & Anxiety, Therapy

Nature is Good For Us

How fortunate we are to live in a rain forest! Even as I’m sitting at my computer, looking out the window at the snow, sleet and grey skies, I’m grateful. Not for the grey skies, but for the trees surrounding us and a climate that allows us to get outside and be active year round.

Regular physical activity is important at all ages, but as we grow older being active becomes increasingly important. There is a significant and growing body of research showing that physical activity is beneficial in many ways. Exercise give us energy and strength, increases metabolism and reduces the risk of chronic disease such as type 2 diabetes and heart disease. It reduces bone loss. Research is also showing that regular physical activity can improve brain functioning too and may protect against dementia in later life.

Regular physical activity has psychological benefits too. It lifts our mood, reduces stress and decreases anxiety. People with mild to moderate depression derive significant benefit from regular physical activity. Our sleep improves; our ability to cope with stress (resilience) improves. We gain a sense of self-satisfaction and confidence when we are fit and strong. We can achieve a better balance between work and relaxation. If our work involves lots of thinking, computer work, and sitting at desks, it’s especially important to make time for physical activity.

But does all that research about the physical, cognitive and psychological benefits of exercise motivate me to go to the gym, to sweat, lift weights, run on a treadmill, or pound the pavement? Well, not really. What does get me motivated to move is the opportunity to be in nature, among trees. Several times a week, I like to hike or run trails in the mountains or parks. No music or counting kilometres to distract me, just moving. And looking, listening, smelling, sensing. It’s meditative, it’s relaxing, it’s stress busting. On sunny days, the rays of light shinning through the trees trunks and the green glow of the tree canopy are magical. On rainy days, moss covered rocks glow brilliant lime green while decaying cedar trees on the paths glow in red orange contrast. The sounds of birds are captivating. On windy days, the trees squeak!

I recently came across some research showing that being in nature is good for us whether we run, hike or walk. While walking in nature may not give us cardiovascular fitness, it does provide some important benefits, just like we get when engaging in more intense activity. Studies are being conducted, especially in Japan and South Korea, in which people walk quietly in the forest. This activity has been given the name shinrin-yoku (“nature bathing”) or Forest Therapy and it’s being touted as the latest fitness trend. Shinrin-yoku means taking in nature, using the five senses: seeing, hearing, sensing, smelling , tasting. (Please note: tasking doesn’t mean nibbling on unknown plants, which may or may not be poisonous!). At it’s simplest, forest therapy involves quietly walking and attending to the environment around us rather than thinking about other things such as that work project or the week’s schedule waiting to be sorted out. IT doesn’t include listening to music, checking emails or talking on the phone. Being in nature in this contemplative way is showing benefits such as reduced blood pressure, relief from depression and anxiety, improved cognition and reduced stress.

Walking quietly in nature gives our brains a rest. This can be vital to our well being when we consider how much time we spend on our devices and computers, working, checking social media, texting, playing games and so on, and sometimes all at the same times. Our brains are stimulated throughout the day. And our busier lives require more planning, organizing, scheduling and problem solving. How refreshing to put away the phone, turn off the pings and buzzes alerting us to incoming messages, to stop multitasking for an hour or so to just walk, breathe, look, listen, notice. This is what one researcher refers to as “soft fascination”.

Soft fascination requires that we feel safe and relaxed. For example, if I’m walking near a cliff edge my brain is on high alert. I can’t engage in soft fascination. But walking on a well travelled trail that’s familiar, with no cliff edges in sight, I can attain that sense of quiet interest in my surroundings. It’s restorative and rejuvenating. I come away from the forest happier, calmer and more grounded.

Here’s some more good news. If you’re unable to get to the woods, or have mobility issues, it turns out that looking at images of nature can provide stress relieving benefits too. So, whether running, hiking, walking, or gazing at images, nature is good for us!

Posted in Depression, General, Internet, Personal Growth, Stress & Anxiety, Therapy

New Possibility: Executive Coaching

Having trained in and practiced psychotherapy for 35 years, I have decided to apply my skills in a new arena. I have been undergoing training through the College of Executive Coaching, based in California, toward becoming a certified Business/Executive Coach.
Business or Executive Coaching differs from psychotherapy, in that it addresses career issues in the present and future, and doesn’t treat emotional symptoms such as depression, anxiety, or trauma. Business Coaching also is different from Life Coaching, in that it is primarily about flourishing in the workplace.
Work is such a big part of our lives, and we want to be happy in what we do. Coaching is about helping you make your mark career wise, while still leaving space to enjoy satisfying personal relationships and to breathe.
In 2001, the Manchester Consulting Group conducted a study designed to examine the effects executive coaching have on an organization’s profit and loss. Regarding overall satisfaction with he coaching process, 86% of executives and 74% of stakeholders reported being “very satisfied” or “extremely satisfied.”
Coaching may be about sorting out your goals, and basing your work life on your most precious personal values. An initial interview question might be: If you could take one step today toward your envisioned future, what would be most meaningful?
The coach might ask you to talk about a time in your life when you were very energized, hopeful, and excited. What was going on, who was involved, and what was it that made you feel so enriched by that experience? “Would you enjoy it if we could bring something like that type of energy and satisfaction again through our coaching work together?”
A coach gives intensive support for developing and achieving career targets. The process may also examine work relationships. Team or corporate organizational problems. Coaching may help you challenge “self-derailing” work behaviours.
Typically, the process starts with some assessment procedures, which could involve personality testing, and explorations of values, strengths and weaknesses. A coach may liaison with your company’s Human Resources, your boss, and/or coworkers to help you advance.
Your coach can be an accountability partner, helping you stick to and manage your targets. He may assist with strategies for coping with competitiveness, favourtism and other “office politics” problems; or address fears around confidence, confronting negative evaluations.
A coach can be a trustworthy confidante, sounding board, adviser and thought partner. She may at times be a counsellor who lets you vent your feelings, and provides emotional support; a cheerleader and reinforcer, who expresses confidence in your current abilities, and encourages your ability to learn and grow; she can be a mentor, who provides long-term support and guidance.
      A coach can also be an educator and a resource provider, can help you develop Your Own Brand of Directors, and may steer you to useful books and resources, such as Who’s Got Your Back, by Keith Ferrazzi.
      Other issues coaching might look at:  What do I need to unlearn? What new information and knowledge do I need? How can I become more competent? How can I invest my values in leadership roles? What are my best learning environments? Who are my best teachers and mentors? (Hudson and Mclean, Lifelaunch, 1995).
If any of these questions are of interest to you, or to someone you know, please contact Denis Boyd & Associates at 604-931-7211 to book a coaching session.

Posted in General, Personal Growth, Stress & Anxiety, Therapy

Using Pop Culture to Impact Positive Change

Seven years ago, a colleague and I attended an annual conference in Washington DC called the Psychotherapy Networker Symposium. We were excited about meeting one of the key note speakers, John Gottman, a marriage and relationship researcher and expert whom we learned about while in grad school. We kept seeing a man of similar stature walking through the hallways of the hotel but were disappointed each time to realize that he wasn’t John. Upon arriving home and looking at the conference Facebook page, we discovered that the guy who reminded us of John Gottman was actually Steven Spielberg! We had been so fixated on meeting a certain psychologist (whom most people have never heard of) that we failed to recognize and have an opportunity to meet one of the top directors of our time!

I was curious to know why Steven was at a psychology conference. In my research, I read that his films have an element of psychological sophistication to them. Through cinema, Steven often incorporates challenges he has faced in his life, such as parent-child discord, parents who are reluctant or absent, and bullying. Although they depict such challenges, his films are designed to be optimistic overall and usually have a childlike sense of wonder and hope to them. Steven, along with many other directors, writers, producers, game makers, etc., design their artistic craft to appeal to a person’s psyche, by making it relate-able, exciting and moving. If we can find a way to utilize the powerful imagery, stories, metaphors, messages, and icons of pop culture, we too will access a plethora of resources for growth, change and healing.

My intention is not to encourage more screen time as it is my opinion that kids have way too much of that already. But pop culture, if we like it or not, is very appealing to children and teens. The goal is to meet them where they are and to use pop culture to assist in creating a more balanced routine and ultimately cut down on the amount of screen time moving forward. In this article, we will explore how I have used pop culture while working with children/teens: to help develop and enhance the relationship, to gather information, and (in part 2 of the article) to help facilitate positive change in their lives.

Developing and enhancing the relationship:

Finding common ground or a shared interest with a child/teen makes creating a sage and comforting environment significantly easier. Asking a child or teen about his or her favorite show, band, video game, and/or sports team can generate dialogue. If you know what they are actually talking about it can lead to a more engaging discussion. I started playing Minecraft because that’s what most of my younger clients were playing (to be honest I still play it every few days and find it rather relaxing). My knowledge of that game has paid dividends for connecting with kids. But even if  you don’t know what the child/teen is referring to, it’s important to have a genuine curiosity in what he or she is saying and be willing to explore the different areas of interest. Even if you don’t enjoy it or agree with it, we need to be interested in pop culture because our children and teenagers are interested in it and we are interested in them. (Note: I am not advising that you should explore any aspects of pop culture that are morally offensive to you.)

Gathering Information:

Working with children and teenagers involves a relentless pursuit to uncover positive traits and indicators of resiliency. Once you know what shows, games and songs the child/teen is interested in and have explored them yourself, go more in-depth by learning about their perception of them. What do the pop culture preferences say about them? I typically do a value clarification exercise with my clients. Our values need to be our compass for navigating through difficult situations; if we foster our values we feel good, if we contradict them then we can feel bad.

If a client is unsure what values are most important to them, I often explore what their favorite Netflix shows are. I once saw a teen who was referred to me due to intense behavioral issues and he was on the verge of being kicked out of school. During our intake session I learned that he was a big fan of the Walking Dead. I was thrilled to find out that his favorite character was Daryl (who is loyal, caring, reliable, tough and calm) and his least favorite character was Nicolas (who is two-sided, cowardly, and self-centered). His preferences told me about the values and traits he has, aspires to have, or at the very least, respects.

The questions you can ask are endless! Ask about what they like or don’t like about the plot or story-line. Empower them to think critically; it’s an important life enhancing skill that is often underutilized in our childhood and youth. If they are playing a video game, focus on how they play the game; the skills that are entailed to be successful in the game can be transferred to life’s challenges.

In part 2, we will explore practical ways in which I’ve used pop culture to facilitate positive change in the lives of the children and teenagers I work with. Stay tuned!

Posted in Family & Parenting, General, Personal Growth, Stress & Anxiety

The Gift of Failure

I recently watched a wonderful documentary, The Barkley Marathons, about an ultra endurance trail race that takes place in the Tennessee mountains.  Only 40 runners are accepted into the race each year.  Covering the entire distance of 160 kilometres (100 mile) or more also requires climbing and descending the equivalent of Mount Everest – twice.  To be successful, runners must complete the course in 60 hours.  In most years, none of the racers finish the race.  In some years, only one or two people complete the distance within the time limit.  In the film, the race director muses about the runners who undertake this incredible challenge, knowing there is a high likelihood they will fail.  These runners may be successful in other areas of their life, they learn something about themselves by challenging and testing their limits of physical and mental endurance, and failing.  According to the race director, “people are better for having done the race.  They’re not made of better stuff, but they’re better for having done it”.

This approach goes against a common attitude toward failure – that failure should be avoided, sometimes at all cost and that to feel good about ourselves we need to succeed.  The assumption is that we learn and benefit from success but not failure.

From this perspective, failure is often seen as humiliating which leads to feelings of deep shame and negative beliefs such as “I’m a failure”, “I’m a loser”, I’m nothing”, “I’ll never get it right”.  Procrastination and avoidance may ensue, in an effort to stave off such painful feelings and negative beliefs about oneself.  Later, fear of failure may develop to the extent that risk analysis is employed, posing questions such as “Why bother trying”, “What are the chances I’ll be able to do it?”, “Will I be any good at that?” and may occur without taking the opportunity to actually try, or learn the skill.  The implicit belief now is “I can’t do it” – without having tried.  Opportunities are lost due to fear of failure.

In my practice, I see many people experiencing a sense of failure with its attendant negative beliefs.  They experience failure, not just from activities, but from loss as well.  Loss can take many forms: loss of control of one’s body during pregnancy, labour and birth, athletic pursuits or physical careers such as dance, loss of physical capacity due to chronic debilitating illness or traumatic injuries, loss of financial security whether from choices made or unforeseen circumstances.  There may be losses associated with aging (for example, loss of physical or mental capacity, loss of purpose when work life ends or children grow up and leave home), loss of relationships due to divorce or death. These experiences can lead to shame and thoughts such as “I am a failure” and “now I am nothing”.  There is a loss of sense of self, a loss of self-worth.  Dr. Gordon Neufeld, a world renowned Vancouver development psychologist draws very good distinctions between achievement and self-esteem.  In his workshop, which I attended years ago, Dr. Neufeld made it clear that achieving something feels good and positive, but it doesn’t make you a good person, just as failure doesn’t make you a bad person.  Our self-worth is immutable, unchanged whether we succeed or not.

Loss is not “less than”.  Failure doesn’t make a value statement.  Failure and its attendant frustration and disappointment is to be acknowledged.  Loss is to be mourned.  With failure we can learn that changes and loss can be met, acknowledged, experienced, LIVED and lived through.  Challenges can be faced – the challenge of getting up and trying again, of adapting, growing, and accepting (accepting our limits, of accepting help).  This is the territory of humility, of being humble and using the experience to move beyond.

Failure, approached with humility and curiosity leads to learning, growth, openness, connecting.  As Thomas Edison said, “I have not failed.  I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work”.  Failure experienced as humiliation, leads to a sense of being ‘less than’, to emotional shut down, avoidance, retraction, disconnection from self and others.

Consider the words of J.K. Rowling, author of the Harry Potter books in her convocation address to Harvard graduations: “…some failure in life is inevitable.  It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all 0 in which case, you fail by default….The knowledge that you have emerged wiser and stronger from setbacks means that you are, ever after, secure in your ability to survive.  You will never truly know yourself, or the strength of your relationships, until both have been tested by adversity.  Such knowledge is a true gift…”

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Secrets to Replenishing Sleep: How many sheep can you count?

The Question: ‘How are you?’. The Answer: ‘Tired’.  The Problem: All too common.  Whether it’s walking through a crowd or sitting in a coffee shop, I hear too many conversations starting just that way.  People are sleep deprived! Makes me wonder if Mr. Sandman is on vacation…so how does one start to improve sleep?

Tip 1: Avoid caffeine 4-6 hours before bedtime.

Caffeine is a tricky thing.  Some associate caffeine only with coffee or energy drinks.  It’s also in soda, tea, and chocolate.  When we suggest ‘no caffeine for 4-6 hours’ it means all of the above items.  Now for why…the effects of caffeine (the alertness) peak 2 hours after consumption and then start declining after that.  To be safe, stay clear of caffeine well before bed; perhaps try substituting your post-dinner java with an herbal tea or warm milk.

Tip 2: Avoid alcohol at least 2 hours before bedtime.

I know some of you are thinking, ‘But that glass of wine helps me fall asleep’. It may help you get to sleep, but once you are there it tampers with your quality of sleep.  During sleep we go through different sleep phases.  Alcohol disrupts the phase process and keeps us out of the area that would leave us waking up feeling replenished and alert.  No wonder people are sleepy after a night of partying!

Tip 3: Avoid smoking at least 2 hours before bedtime.

Believe it or not, nicotine (the active ingredient in cigarettes) is a stimulant.  This means nicotine activates your system and prevents you from feeling tired.  As a substitute, try practicing some breathing exercises or stepping outside for some fresh air.

Tip 4: Keep exercise to more than 2 hours before bedtime

Working out and exercise gets the blood pulsing through your body.  Engaging in these activities within 2 hours of bedtime may not give enough time for the body to cool down before lights out.  If you can, keep exercise to earlier in the day.

Tip 5: Follow the same routine.

We are creatures of habit.  If we do the same routine enough times, our body will pick up signals and follow along.  A night time routine may look like the following: 2 hours before bed stop any highly mentally engaging activity such as studying or working, turn lights down so everything is dim, have a light snack if hungry, prep things for the next day (such as lunch, outfit, to-do-list, etc.).  One hour before bed, wash face and brush teeth (random fact: brushing teeth can increase energy levels by 30%!), put on some PJ’s  settle in for a light hearted book or show.  Other things to keep not of include keeping your room cool and dark.  Try to hit the feathers around the same time every night and get up around the same time every morning.  Doing so will help  re-set your body clock.  Keep in mind, these things take time.  Repetition is key when trying to form new habits and routines.

Tip 6: Avoid taking naps.

Napping is dangerous when you have night time sleeping problems.  Of course you are going to be tired during the day if you have had a poor night’s sleep.  Fight through! By bedtime you will be super sleepy and on a fast track to Slumberland.

Tip 7: Avoid being hungry or eating heavily before going to bed

Creature comforts.  If we are not comfortable, or our physical needs are not being met, it becomes very difficult to do anything else until they are met.  If we are hungry, our tummies will send signals to our brains yelling ‘Pay attention to me! Pay attention to me!’.  On the flip side, if we eat a large amount, our brain is pre-occupied with over-seeing digestion and ignores sleeping signals.  If you are hungry, have a light snack.  Save the full-meal-deal for breakfast.


Tip 8: Get up if you do not fall asleep within half an hour

No point in lying there wishing you were sleeping and counting down the minutes until you need to be up.  Get up and get out of the bed.  Go into a separate room and do something relaxing with dim light.  Perhaps this means flipping through a magazine or a paper.  Try to stay clear of highly engaging activities such as social networking, video games, studying, work tasks, etc.  Once you feel your head bobbing and your eyes long-blinking, get back in bed.

Tip 9: Make your bed comfortable and only use for sleeping.

Back to the creatures of habit statement, we will pair activities and behaviours with environments.  If we use our beds for work, studying, games, social networking, etc. our brains will be ready for that when we are in that environment.  If we only use beds for sleeping, our brain will know it’s time for sleep and we will fall asleep faster.

Tip 10: Keep worries out of bed.

Feeling stressed about tomorrow’s tasks? A conversation that went sour earlier?  Is Negative Nancy bombarding you while you are lying in bed?  Time to sit up, potentially get out of bed, and write down everything you are thinking about.  Your brain will know it’s somewhere safe and you will not have to worry about it until the next day.  Keep a note book bedside so when Nancy visits, you are ready.

There you are folks! 10 tips to help you get better sleep. Sleep Tight.


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