Making Meaning for Oneself
It’s really hard sometimes, isn’t it to make meaning of one’s thoughts, one’s experience and one’s history at times. I believe that making meaning is a really significant thing in therapy. Often when I begin with a client I will draw out their genogram. It’s like a family tree with lines, squares and circles to show me in picture form what your family of origin was like and what family is like for you now. Many clients look back and say, “Oh my, now looking at that helps make sense about why I feel the way I do.” That’s meaning making. Other times people come and we finally place words to shame or guilt. We also may need to affirm what abuse you encountered. We may need to look how you interpret your situations or your anxieties to see if there might be other ways to think about things. How you make meaning of your abuse, or the bullying you may have received will pop up in your future relationships if you do not process through these situations. Making meaning about who you are makes a tremendous difference if you have a faith background or not. In therapy we can explore how your faith might enable you to make greater meaning out of your situations.
If for example, you were bullied as a child, and now you are a working individual, any kind of constructive comments from your employer may trigger an automatic outburst or intense anxiety because you’ve interpreted the comment as bullying. The employer may get frustrated that he/she doesn’t know how to approach you without you becoming defensive.
Another example would be if you were a child that deeply wanted the love of your father and for whatever reason he was not able or did not chose to love you in a way that encouraged you to grow. As you grow older, you might marry and yet have this odd, deep yearning for attention and love that your husband or wife cannot fulfill. Unfortunately, you blame him/her for not loving you well, and you have an affair. You say you’ve fallen “out of love” and this is the meaning you’ve made. However, without fully processing the grief involved in a lack of love and attention from a father, you may end a marriage and do it all over again in the next relationship because you’ve not addressed the issue.
These are only a couple of examples of meaning making. It’s vitally important! How do you make meaning when your spouse gets chronically ill; or if you miscarriage; or if you have difficulty at work; or if your child becomes depressed or worse yet dies. All of these things are tremendously painful and will need your full attention to walk through and at times it will feel like you are wading through the mirk and mire.
It is an incredible privilege to journey with you to make meaning of what’s going on in your lives. I am thoroughly blessed by your strength and courage. Many, many times I see people who display tremendous resiliency and love as they try to make better the lives they live. It is my honour to journey with you!
I am not the Expert; Here’s why:
I have a confession to make. This is the first time that I attempt to blog after four years have gone by, because a) I had a ghost writer that helped me keep up with the blogging and b) as much as I desire to write, I have no idea what to say sometimes. So I hope to continue this blogging however I do admit some fear and trembling as I begin again.
For those who don’t know what a ghost writer is, it is someone who speaks with you about a topic and then writes as if it was you. You will notice in previous blogs that I would collaborate with Sharon – those were the times that she wrote and I’d edit; and other times she would collaborate with me and those were the times that I would write and she would edit. It was a great partnership at that time. My apologies if this disappoints some of you.
And then secondly, to confess that there is a fear in writing. Yes, therapists have fears too! This week someone responded to me with “I trust your judgement, because you are the expert!” Yikes! That statement makes me nervous. When I was taking my Master’s, the professor was adamant that as therapists we are not the experts of our clients’ needs. I can agree that in my studies and through experience, I may have gained some expertise, however let me make it very clear that you, the client, are the expert of your situation and how you feel, think and experience what you are experiencing. I try my best to engage with you so that I have a clear understanding your situation and I may challenge you to look at things from another perspective. But you know your situation best! I also believe deeply that each one of us given life, has the capacity to live it to its fullest. We may need to grieve pain in your present experience, or process your childhood or traumatic experiences or learn more helpful coping skills but deep within you, you have the capacity to live your best life. It is my responsibility when you come in to my office to help you navigate that fullness of life. We engage in a partnership when you come in. You are courageous to begin this journey!
"It’s the most wonderful time of the year.” Christmas lights are twinkling, songs about love, joy, peace and good-will fill the airwaves with words like: "It’s the hap-happiest season of all.”
But, for someone who is grieving, the holidays can feel like salt in a wound. Emotions that are neatly stored away all year, come tumbling out of nowhere as memories of happier times are unearthed and it seems like everyone else is happy, loved and supported. For someone struggling with a loss, the holidays are anything but the happiest season of all.
If the idea of facing another Christmas seems unbearable, here are a few ideas that might help you cope with your seasonal grief.
1.Understand that you are grieving. Often times, grief and sadness sneaks up and hits us out of nowhere. We find ourselves asking, "What is wrong with me? Why am I so tired, so unmotivated, so impatient or so weepy?” We get upset with ourselves for struggling with emotions and feel we should be "over this” by now. We deny our feelings, which only prolongs them. Naming these powerful emotions often help us to disarm them.
2.Be patient with your feelings. Understand that you are going to struggle with feelings of sadness, despair, anger, loneliness or simply numbness. Give yourself permission to feel these feelings and don’t be impatient with yourself for not being happy and upbeat. Ask the people around you to understand what you are experiencing and to support you by not expecting more from you than you can deliver. Find something that comforts you: be it a ritual, prayers or other activities that leave you feeling encouraged.
3.Talk.Sharing your grief with someone you trust will help diminish it. As well as leaning on a close friend or family member, consider attending a grief support group or service. Talking with others going through the same thing will help you know you are not alone.
4.Create a new ritual. One of the reasons why we can feel sad during the holidays is because the loss of a loved one also creates the loss of a beloved ritual that left us feeling secure and loved. Whether it was the Christmas Eve ritual of having all the family open presents or the big Boxing Day meal – each time we face that date alone, our loss comes crashing to the surface. Rituals are important. Why not create a new one to look forward to? One widow I know began inviting every neighbour, widow or single friend she knew to a New Year’s Day feast. She kept Christmas as simple as possible, but the anticipation of this yearly fun event was just enough to get her passed her sadness. This new ritual gave her something to look forward to every year and new happy holiday memories.
5.Reach out to someone else. While not everyone grieving is ready to reach out to others, for many helping others is very therapeutic. Consider doing some kind of charity work or make a donation in the name of the person you are grieving. Visit people in a local nursing home, volunteer to help serve/cook a meal for needy families or simply invite some other people who are struggling to enjoy a meal. Sometimes, reaching out to others is enough to help pull us outside of ourselves and help us see the needs of others.
Wishing you a blessed Christmas and year ahead.
By: Sharon Osvald in collaboration with Winnie Visser
Last week was Mental Health Awareness week. I hope that some of you were able to attend a seminar or workshop and receive more information, support or just a sense that you don't struggle alone.
Whether you are the person experiencing a mental health issue or you are a caregiver, your pain is mostly invisible to others. Along with the pain and struggle of the mental illness itself, is a profound grief that one must carry.
Difficulties happen to us in life. When we experience traumas: like losing a loved one to cancer, a sudden (much too young) death, a family member struggling daily with the symptoms of depression or anxiety, a marriage break-up, infidelity, the experience of the profound pain of sexual abuse or the loss of a dear co-worker, all these all leave us feeling lonely, sad, somewhat confused. We are left with what I refer to as "foggy headed."
During these profound times of grief it is essential that we take good care of ourselves. Crying tears of sorrow is cathartic. Writing, journaling, drawing or painting is helpful. Resting, walking, prayer and meditation are also life giving. Seeking God's guidance and comfort during these times and leaning into His promises that "joy will come in the morning," is also comforting.
Today I saw a different translation that said, "Joy comes in the Mourning.” As I experience more of life and hear more people's pain, I do believe that we grow as we allow ourselves and others to mourn.
Seeking out someone you trust to share your grief is also helpful. But be good to yourself during your vulnerability. As you learn to grieve well, you gain the distinct privilege of being able to join in another's grief. This too is profound.
If you live like most people these days, from the moment you turn off your alarm clock until you switch it back on at night, you feel like you’re running.
Between working different shifts, trying to fit in exercise, after school programs, volunteerism and high pressure jobs, our family time and conversations are deeply affected. Not only are you running, but so are your friends and the members of your family.
No matter how much you love your spouse, your friend, your children or parents, these days, being in relationship takes effort. Life is busy. Technology competes for our time and attention like never before. Days can go by without having a real quality conversation with the people we love.
While it is easy to assume, that when living like this we really aren't hurting anyone, Psychologist and author, Brene Brown would say otherwise. Brown asserts that being present is not enough to keep strong connections. We must be intentional. Brown’s research discovered that the betrayal of disengagement is just as painful and destructive as more obvious betrayals like lying or unfaithfulness.
Brown writes, "When the people we love or with whom we have deep connection stop caring, stop paying attention, stop investing, and stop fighting for the relationship, trust begins to slip away and hurt starts seeping in. Disengagement triggers shame and our greatest fears – the fear of being abandoned, unworthy and unlovable. What can make this covert betrayal so much more dangerous than something like a lie or an affair is that we can’t point to the source of our pain – there’s no event, no obvious evidence of brokenness.”
This disengagement isn’t just about spouses, it affects our children too. While they might act like they don’t need us, they are craving our attention. Brown goes on to state, "With children, actions speak louder than words, When we stop requesting invitations into their lives by asking about their day, asking them to tell us about their favorite songs, wondering how their friends are doing, then children can feel pain and fear (and not relief despite how our teenagers may act). Because they can’t articulate how they feel about our disengagement when we stop making an effort with them, they show us by acting out, thinking, This will get their attention.”
Here’s a couple of ideas for staying connected:
- Have dinner together as a family. Be intentional in this half an hour to really ask everyone how their day was and listen.
- Learn to listen to what your spouse/friend/kids are not saying. Be intuitive. When they aren’t speaking the words that their actions are showing, gently, but consistently, give them opportunities to verbalize their feelings.
- Carve out intentional blocks of time for relationship – whether that is driving somewhere together (minus the headphones in), a board game night or hike. Create planned opportunities for conversation.
- Understand that relationships are worth fighting for – and can’t be floated through - without thought or intention.
Relationships are not to be taken for granted. They are the very fabric of our society. We must intentionally take good care of them. If you are finding your relationships strained in any way, be that at home, at work or at school, it may be time to get some help from a trained relationship expert. Registered Marriage and Family Therapists have had unique relationship training to help your relationships become the best they can be. You can find out more about marriage and family therapists at www.oamft.on.ca.
Finally, in the words of Brene Brown, "Trust is a product of vulnerability that grows over time and requires work, attention, and full engagement. Trust isn’t a grand gesture –it’s a growing marble collection.”
By: Sharon Osvald in collaboration with Winnie Visser
If you are still digesting the last post on being an empty nester, you might be interested to know there is another parenting pitfall to watch out for: Helicopter Parenting.
According to Wikipedia, Helicopter parent is the term used for parents who pay too close attention to their children’s experiences and problems, particularly at educational institutions. The phrase was originally coined by Foster Cline and Jim Fay, because like helicopters, these parents hover overhead. The term grew in popularity… " in the early 2000s as the Millennial Generation began reaching college age.”
Whether your children are toddlers, school aged, teenagers, young adults in university or married – helicopter parenting or over parenting is easy to do. Here are some warning signs that you might be over parenting:
- Abandon all interests, hobbies and goals, immersing yourself in a plethora of children’s activities?
- Live outside your means to provide your children with things and opportunities you can’t afford?
- Find yourself "hovering” over your child/teen/young adult i.e. popping by or calling your child at school, summer camp, continuously arguing with their teachers re: grades or goals, phoning your child at college each morning to wake them up or often bailing them out of financial problems?
- Find yourself in the middle of your child’s marriage or relationship issues?
- Have a compulsion to text or phone your child and know where they are and what they are doing throughout the day?
For the most part, over parenting is not because parents are trying to be over controlling, rather it is based on "good intentions gone awry.” Many parents grew up feeling disconnected from their own parents and have swung too far in the other direction. They’ve becoming obsessed with their children’s lives and activities – losing themselves in the process.
A culture of fear, heightened by media reports of abductions and murders, has been aided by technology that allows us to be connected everywhere. Wikipedia also states, "The rise of the cell phone is often blamed for the explosion of helicopter parenting – University of Georgia professor Richard Mullendore called it the world’s longest umbilical cord.”
If any of these issues apply to you or someone you know, it is not too late to turn things around. Sometimes, we need to step back as parents, allow our children to fail, fall and make mistakes so they can learn how to be productive, responsible and confident people. Be loving, be connected – just don’t hover.
By: Sharon Osvald in collaboration with Winnie Visser
Most parents would describe September as busy. School and extra-curricular activities begin again. Clothes, shoes and supplies must be purchased for the new season. Often September leaves us feeling like we’ve stepped on a moving treadmill.
But for many parents, this time of year is just the opposite; their treadmill just stopped mid stride. I am talking about Empty Nesters. Whether your teenagers just left for university or your adult children married this summer, being alone, after years of loving and involved parenting, can throw you for a loop. This sense of loneliness and confusion often hits parents (most often women) in the autumn and is so common it is has become referred to as "empty nest syndrome”.
Sometimes this sense of sadness and disorientation can go past the normal adjustment phase and leave people very depressed. If you are a single-parent who has devoted all your time and energy to your children, it is very difficult to know how to begin your life again. But, it is not always easy for couples either, whose activities and lives were glued together by their children.
Here are a few ideas to help you cope with this new stage of your life.
- Give yourself permission to grieve. For twenty or more years you have devoted your life to raising, nurturing and loving your children. Their company and conversation is going to be missed. It is normal for you to feel loss. The sadness will pass.
- Embrace the change. You may feel like life as you’ve known it is over, but in reality this is a new beginning. Just because you haven’t done things in the past, doesn’t mean you can’t do them now. Go back to or take on new responsibilities at work, take a course, volunteer or travel. Up to this point you may have found most of your meaning in your children, but now is your chance to find new hobbies and ways of impacting your world.
- Keep in touch. Thanks to technology, it is easier than ever to stay connected with people. Facebook, texting, emailing or skype are great ways to keep close with your adult children. If you are not familiar with these technologies, get someone to teach you. It will be worth the learning curve.
- Begin again. Often couples feel like they are married to a stranger after their children leave. Now is the time to be intentional in spending time, communicating, dating and loving your spouse. This can be a wonderful time for couples once the adjustments are made.
- Get help. If you find your sad feelings, depression or relationship problems are not going away, you may need to get some help. Women often find themselves facing an empty nest at the same time they experience menopause. See your doctor if you suspect your symptoms may have physical reasons. A therapist may also be able to walk you through some issues from your past that still affect how you cope today.
Wishing you all the best in this new time of your lives.
By: Sharon Osvald is collaboration with Winnie Visser
C.S Lewis once said, "Getting over a painful experience is much like crossing monkey bars. You have to let go at some point in order to move forward.? I came across this quote after having buried a dear family member this past weekend. Have you ever tried to climb to the top of the monkey bars, reach as far as you can, only to be hanging with one hand on one set of bars and the other on the next set? If I let go, I most definitely will fall and because it rained last evening the ground below is looking pretty muddy and murky. But what choice do I have? I?m suspended in air at the moment.
That?s sort of what this grief thing feels like. At times when the gentle breeze blows through my hair, it gives me pleasure but then suddenly I?m surrounded with fear, realizing that I?m just hanging on in between two realities. Did he really just die? How is that possible? We just spoke with him the night before?
Letting go, involves risk. Will we remember the pleasure of climbing the one side of the monkey bars? Will the memories of our loved one remain vivid? Or will we come to a time where they will no longer be necessary? I hear myself say, "I need to let go of one to move onto the next.? Fear then says, "If you let go you will be hanging on only with one hand for a brief second before reaching the new monkey bar, to the other side.
Memories remain memories. That first monkey bar is how I started the journey and will never be forgotten. But I must let go so that new memories can be made. As I let go of the one and shift to the new one, I realize that Someone much stronger than I is actually guiding my hand to the next bar. I need not fear, and I need not worry. God?s incredible hand of mercy guides me to the next. I wonder what adventures we?ll be having?
I hope that in whatever circumstances you find yourselves in, that you too may find the strength and ability to move over to the next phase of your life; the new "normal.? I too look forward to what this means.
By Winnie Visser
Last time I shared about the reality and warning signs of Compassion Fatigue, something commonly experienced by people in helping careers.
If any of this resonated with you, there are some ways to help prevent it. Often Compassion Fatigue is something that creeps up on us. We don?t even really see it until it has already overwhelmed us. The following information comes from Francoise Mathieu, a Certified Mental Health Counsellor and Compassion Fatigue Specialist. Mathieu designed a prevention toolkit to allow you to create some better self-care strategies. Everyone is different so what works for you might not work for someone else.
Here are some questions that will make you more self- aware and get you started:
?What are my warning signs? (On a scale of 1 to 10, what is a 4 for me and what is a 9?)
?How Am I Doing? (Schedule a regular check in, every week.)
?What things do I have control over?
?What things do I not have control over?
?What stress relief strategies do I enjoy? (Taking a bath, a walk, sleeping well or a massage).
Strategies for your workplace:
?Talk about it. By openly discussing and recognizing compassion fatigue at work, employees who serve others can normalise this problem. This will give you and other?s permission to take steps to prevent compassion fatigue.
?Create an encouraging environment. Some helpful things a workplace can offer are: proper debriefing, regular breaks, mental health days, peer support, assessing and changing workloads, improved access to professional development and regular check-in-times where staff can safely discuss the impact of their work on their professional and private lives.
?Where possible break up your work day or work part time. Working part time, only seeing clients or patients part time and doing other activities the rest of the workday can be a very effective method to prevent compassion fatigue.
Strategies for your personal life:
?Improve your self-care. Most caregivers put their needs last and feel guilty for taking extra time off to care for themselves. You can?t pour into others if you are running on empty.
?Find balance. Is there balance between depleting and nourishing activities in your life? Make the time to meditate, exercise, pursue non-work interests and experience personal debriefing.
?Observe your coping mechanisms. How are you coping? Are you able to give out at home or are you too depleted to participate in your home life? Are you relying on alcohol, food or other unhealthy things to de-stress?
For more information about coping with Compassion Fatigue visit: www.cmc-consulting.ca
By Sharon Osvald in Collaboration with Winnie Visser
You used to love your job.
All your life you wanted to have a "helping? profession, doing something noble that serves others and makes the world a better place. Now you?re tired, impatient even cynical about your work and you?re wondering what happened to your compassion.
If this is what you?re feeling, you might be experiencing "Compassion Fatigue?. Dr. C.R. Figley, author of Compassion Fatigue: Coping with secondary traumatic stress disorder in those who treat the traumatized, described Compassion Fatigue as "the cost of caring? for others in emotional and physical pain. Whether you work in health care, policing, social services, ministerial professions or other caring fields, constantly pouring care into the lives of others can take a toll on your health and well-being.
Compassion Fatigue Specialist, Francoise Mathieu writes, "It is marked by increased cynicism at work, a loss of enjoyment in our career, and eventually can transform into depression, secondary traumatic stress and stress-related illnesses. The most insidious aspect of compassion fatigue is that it attacks the very core of what brought us into this work: our empathy and compassion for others.?
(The following symptoms are taken from Cameron and Mathieu Consulting Conferences "Running on Empty: Compassion Fatigue in Health Professionals?)
Are you experiencing any of the following symptoms?
?Reduced ability to feel sympathy and empathy
?Anger and irritability
?Increased use of alcohol and drugs
?Dread of working with certain clients/patients
?Diminished sense of enjoyment of career
?Disruption to world view, Heightened anxiety or irrational fears
?Intrusive imagery or dissociation
?Hypersensitivity or Insensitivity to emotional material
?Difficulty separating work life from personal life
?Absenteeism ? missing work, taking many sick days
?Impaired Ability to make decisions and care for clients/patients
?Problems with intimacy and in personal relationships
If you?d like to talk to someone personally about the Compassion Fatigue you may be experiencing, feel free to contact me. The next blog post will offer some things that can be done to prevent it. Stay tuned and be encouraged.
By: Sharon Osvald in collaboration with Winnie Visser
With Easter just wrapping up, holidays and special occasions are a great source of joy and pleasure for many people. What if you are not one of those people?
What if your family doesn?t match the picture perfect image shown on television commercials and magazine articles? What if your family is broken through death, divorce or prodigal children? What if you just plain don?t get along with the personalities in your extended family or in-laws? What if you sit around a table that used to be full of children, parents and grandchildren that is now empty? How do you get through holidays like Easter, Christmas, Thanksgiving and birthdays without sinking into that gaping hole of loss and grief?
Here are some ideas:
?Reach out. If you are alone or more alone than you want to be during holidays, reach out to the people around you. Find a neighbour, a co-worker, an older friend and invite them to your home. You will be surprised how much lifting up someone else will lift you up.
?Make amends. Sometimes relationships are toxic and damaging to your health (mentally or physically) and we just CAN NOT re-build bridges with the people in our lives. If that is the case you may need help from a therapist to help you make peace with yourself and move on. However, often times we can make moves, offer apologies or accept forgiveness from people in our lives.
?Serve. Like the suggestion of reaching out, holidays and special occasions are lonely for many people. Consider helping at a soup kitchen, offer to visit seniors through Community Care or volunteer at a homeless shelter or pregnancy centre. Again, it will help others and help you too.
?Restructure. If you have experienced loss this year, facing a first of any familiar event is difficult. I suggest doing something different this year. If dinner was always at your house, go to one of your children?s places or a friend?s. This might even become a new cherished routine for you in the future. Trying to do what you?ve always done might just emphasize your loss.
?Make new Traditions. If you can no longer do the things that used bring meaning to holidays and special occasions, begin new traditions. Think of something meaningful to do that could commemorate the holiday. I heard of one Christian family who wrote out the whole Easter story from the Bible and placed a few verses on each person?s plate. Before eating turkey, they went around the table and each person read their verses. This was very meaningful to this family and it was requested by those around the table that this should be done each Easter. Creating new traditions can be meaningful and bring closeness to families.
?Stop wallowing. This sounds tremendously harsh but sometimes we allow ourselves to wallow in self pity and this gets us nowhere. I?m not saying to deny our sad feelings. I?d be the last person to say that. But I also know what it is to create more anxiety for ourselves. Don?t allow yourself to be stuck in self pity. Get up and do something. Take a walk, bake a cake for the neighbour, go to a neighbouring church service, visit someone in the hospital...........etc etc.
?Be thankful. Joni Eareckson ? Tada had a terrible swimming accident that left her a paraplegic. So an elder came to her hospital room and challenged her to start everyday by listing the things she was thankful for. She was some angry at the elder because she was wallowing in self pity at that point. So she tried the exercise......she began to list the things she was thankful for in the day. This went on for some time and she was amazed that her attitude changed.
May you and your loved ones enjoy many of those special moments in your future.
By: Winnie Visser in collaboration with Sharon Osvald
Psycho, Schizo, Junkie, Lazy, Selfish?
Just imagine: You arrive at the doctor?s office after months of suffering and grappling with your symptoms. You are sick and scared, only to be told you have cancer? diabetes ? or heart disease. You will need ongoing treatment for your new illness or you could die or at best, seriously impair your quality of life.
But, you are told there is just one problem. No one ? or at least not very many people - will believe that you really have this diagnosis. Your family members will say you are just seeking attention. Your co-workers will say you are just trying to get out of work (again), your "ex? will say you always were a loser.
We can?t even fathom such a scenario and yet EVERY DAY this happens to people suffering with mental illness. For those suffering with anxiety disorders, clinical depression and personality disorders etc. society can be an impatient and unsupportive caregiver.
?The person who can?t get out of bed filled with sadness is told: "Stop being so selfish. There are people who have it way worse than you do. Snap out of it.?
?The person who can?t concentrate long enough to complete a simple job is told: "You are lazy and just expect people to look after you.?
?The person who experiences mood swings to be told: "We?re tired of your moodiness. You?re bringing us down. You can choose to be happy, it is a choice.?
?The person battling addictions is told: "You choose that lifestyle and just have no will power. You only care about yourself.?
No one suffering with a mental illness can just stop feeling what they are feeling by wishing.
Pippa Wysong writes in Canadian Living article "The Top 10 Mental Health Myths? "There are multiple types of mental illness, each with its own features and underlying causes?each mental illness is a variation on the theme of brain chemistry gone awry, affecting things like mood and perception. But each of these illnesses has its own specific causes, features and approaches to treatment.?
Just like the person suffering from cancer, diabetes or heart disease, mental illness is a real sickness. Sadly, it is an illness that inconveniences others and makes them uncomfortable, resulting in the sufferer not only feeling out of control of their emotions and responses- but GUILTY too. Often times they also face rejection, intimidation and alienation. How tragic.
If you know or love someone suffering like this, wipe away the stigma and extend a hand of understanding and compassion. It might be the only gift you can give them.
By: Sharon Osvald in collaboration with Winnie Visser
Principles for Real Living:
I am responsible for my own attitude
My attitude affects my actions
I can not change others, but I can influence others
My emotions do not control my actions
Admitting my imperfections does not mean that I'm a failure
Love is the most powerful weapon for good in the world
Desperate Marriages by Gary Chapman, Northfield Publishing, Chicago 1998, 2008