Annie Wright, LMFT

@annie-wright | contributor
Medical Expert
Annie Wright, LMFT is the founder and clinical director of Evergreen Counseling - a therapy center located in Berkeley, California - as well a licensed psychotherapist who specializes in complex relational trauma. She is an EMDRIA certified therapist and a published writer with pieces and opinions appearing in Forbes, NBC, The Huffington Post, Buzzfeed, Reader's Digest and more. You can find her online at www.anniewright.com or at www.evergreencounseling.com.

Taking Care of Your Medical Health When You've Experienced Trauma

This past summer, I had a significant health scare. It was totally unexpected as I was, at that point, in the best shape of my life (thanks to some lifestyle changes and daily Peloton riding). I was feeling as fit and vibrant and energetic as I ever had. But still, a significant medical surprise happened to me that truly came out of left field. This medical surprise required many, many doctor’s appointments, multiple opinions, a major surgery, and weeks off from work to recover. (I’m happy to say that I’m fine now.) But, even with it all thankfully behind me now, the whole experience reinforced for me the absolute criticality of attending to my health as a fundamental self-care skill as I work to be the best inner parent possible to myself and model good self-care for my daughter as she grows and watches me. Honestly, I was grateful for the work I’d done personally in my own recovery from my relational trauma history to have honed this skill and to, at this point in time, be so good at taking care of myself with speed, diligence, and relentless self-advocacy. If this was 10 or 15 years ago, I may not have responded as quickly (or, to be honest, at all) to this scare, and then who knows what consequences that would have had. The whole experience (and my reflections on how I responded as a relentlessly self-loving 39-year-old versus what my 29-year-old self would have done) reminded me that this skill — attending to your health — is often a fundamental self-care skill that so many folks who come from relational trauma recovery backgrounds may struggle with. And, this skill can and must be learned, relearned, and developed in our relational trauma recovery journeys. And so today’s essay speaks to this: The criticality of attending to your health as a fundamental self-care skill, why this is often so hard for folks who come from relational trauma recovery backgrounds, and what it might mean and look like to develop and improve this skill. If any part of you relates to the challenge of attending to your basic, fundamental health and medical care and you’d like to improve this skill, please join me on the blog to keep reading. What is fundamental self-care? It bothers me so much that self-care has been co-opted in recent years to be synonymous with bubble baths and mani-pedis. I’ve written about my frustration with this pop culture co-opting before, but for the sake of today’s essay, I’ll reiterate that, in my personal and professional opinion, fundamental self-care is not the window dressing that makes things look and feel temporarily better. Instead, fundamental self-care is often the hard, consistent, unsexy, unglamorous, non-Instagrammable actions and behaviors required to take care of ourselves sustainably and consistently well as adults. Fundamental self-care is akin to the proverbial foundation, framing, insulation, sheetrock, HVAC, and sound wiring and plumbing of the proverbial house of your life. Fundamental self-care is not the proverbial decorating — finding the chintzy, vintage throw pillows, collecting frames for the gallery wall, or hanging the pink neon sign proclaiming “Rosé all day!” — in your house of life. That stuff can certainly feel more fun to focus on — I get it, who wants to research HVAC systems? But if you’re spending your time and energy focused on the proverbial decorations and accessorizing instead of or before the fundamentals, it’s a little akin to rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. Sure, it looks cute, but your boat is still sinking. So, stepping away from my mixed metaphors, what does this mean and how does this actually apply to your life and your relational trauma recovery work? Fundamental self-care, for me, means first attending to the necessary psychological, logistical, mental, and, yes, medical work required to help you live a functional, responsible, healthy adult life. I dive into a big list of what fundamental self-care looks like in practice in this essay, but for the sake of today’s post, I want to extrapolate on one of the fundamental self-care skills: Attending to our medical health as a fundamental self-care step. Why is tending to our medical health a fundamental self-care step? I may be stating the obvious here, but without our health, nothing else really matters. If you’re not alive and in good health, you can’t work to achieve that financial abundance that means so much to you. If you’re ignoring your basic medical health, what’s the cost to the potential dream career you wish to build? If you’re sick and ill health, how many dates do you think you can even go on to meet “the One?” And if you don’t have good medical health, how long will you be alive to see the love of your life — your child — grow up? Now, I do want to say, all of the above — being financially abundant, building a meaningful career, finding “the One,” having and loving a child — all of these things are, of course, possible with varying degrees of health, well-being, and able-bodiedness. These achievements aren’t relegated just to the healthy, mentally robust, and able-bodied among us. But they are, arguably for many of us, more possible when we’re in subjectively good medical health (whatever and however that means for us in the unique bodies and constitutions and physical privileges we were each individually endowed with). So my point is not that these things aren’t possible for anyone with less than perfect health, but rather that we owe it to ourselves and our dreams for our one wild and precious life to take good care of our medical health (whatever our subjective starting point for this might be) to better and best achieve our hopes and dreams and plan. Why is this often so hard for those who come from relational trauma backgrounds? For some, attending to your basic medical health may sound like an obvious thing to do (and quite honestly, if this is you, feel free to not read the rest of this essay). But for many of us — particularly those of us from relational trauma backgrounds — we may struggle with this. Why? In my personal and professional experience, this is because of a few reasons: We didn’t have this modeled for us well (if at all) as children by our caregivers who had their own mental health and logistical deficits. We grew up in financial scarcity and still don’t have the insurance coverage or money required to attend well to our medical health well. We grew up with a fundamental and maladaptive belief that we’re broken and not worthy, so really, what’s the point of taking good care of ourselves? We, like many, have had negative (if not traumatic) experiences with the medical community that further reinforced our childhood trauma histories (these experiences might include but aren’t limited to: fat-shaming, dismissal and gaslighting, racial bias, or being spoken to or treated plain inappropriately) and we don’t want to experience that again or have to stand up to the medical community if it happens again. And perhaps the reason why it feels hard for you to take good care of yourself medically is for another reason altogether. Whatever the reason for the lack of skillful and consistent ability to do this, in my opinion, it’s still a critical self-care skill for everyone to learn, practice, and refine — particularly those of us who come from relational trauma backgrounds who are working so hard to otherwise be our own good-enough inner parents. What does it mean to attend to our medical health well? So what does it actually mean to attend to our basic medical health well? In my personal and professional experience, this means, abstractly, taking care of and treating ourselves as well as a devoted, caring, and fiercely protective good-enough parent would have done for us. Practically and tangibly, I’ll share what I anecdotally* believe attending to our medical health looks like: 1. Making sure you have regular, annual physical check-ups with your primary care physician and routinely have your bloodwork done and then, following up on the suggestions and guidance given to you by your licensed medical professional after this is complete. 2. Making sure you have regular, annual check-ups with your OBGYN (if applicable) and then, following up on the suggestions and guidance given to you by your licensed medical professional. 3. Making sure you have regular, annual check-ups with your optometrist and/or audiologist (if applicable) and then, following up on the suggestions and guidance given to you. 4. Making sure you have regular, biannual dental check-ups with your dentist and then, following up on the suggestions and guidance given to you. (Side note: It was actually my dentist who caught the health scare issue I dealt with! Go to your dentist.) 5. Making sure you are regularly filling and refilling any prescriptions you are prescribed so there are no gaps in your medication treatment (which could lead to adverse consequences). 6. Seeking out professional support to help you address any long-standing health issues and injuries which, even though you’ve grown accustomed to them could, if resolved, greatly improve the quality of your life. For example, unresolved post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms, imbalances in your gait and skeletal structure from old sports injuries, a growing cataract, etc. 7. When you notice new and abnormal symptoms, signs, or growths anywhere on or in your body, reaching out ASAP to specific and targeted licensed medical professionals who can help you assess what’s going on and help you determine next steps. 8. If and when you experience dismissal or insufficient service from your medical providers, asking/demanding that your presenting concerns and requests for specific next steps (even if that provider doesn’t think they are necessary) be put into your medical records for that visit. Then, asking for a copy of those records, and if necessary, seeking out a second opinion, a third opinion, and/or speaking to the department head that medical professional reports to. 9. Rearranging your finances and spending and budgeting to prioritize having medical health care coverage so all of the above feels more possible and doesn’t (in this super broken American health care system we have) plunge you into bankruptcy. *This is the point in the essay where I have to remind you that I’m not an MD and practicing medical doctor. My opinions are my own and should not be construed or substituted for advice and guidance from a licensed medical doctor. This list is not exhaustive, but it is, I find, a great way to begin actively practicing the skill of attending to your basic, medical health. And, if you read this list and anxieties, doubts, and maladaptive beliefs start to surface (for instance, “I could never be that assertive with a doctor!” Or, “I’m too ashamed of my body to go in for an appointment even though I’m worried about this mole.”), I want you to please consider reaching out for therapy support. You matter way too much to ignore your own medical health. If shame, anxiety, and maladaptive beliefs about your own worthiness are keeping you from practicing this fundamental self-care skill, let’s get you the support you need to make this feel more possible. And now, I’d love to hear from you in the comments below: Did you relate to this post? What’s one way you’ve improved how you attend to your own medical health as a result of your healing and recovery from adverse childhood? What’s one more action or step you might add to this essay as a way that you practice attending to your own basic medical care? Please, if you feel so inclined, leave a message in the comments below so our monthly blog readership of 20,000-plus people can benefit from your wisdom and experience. And until next time, please take very good care of yourself. You’re so worth it. Warmly, Annie

TV Can Be Used Intentionally as a Trauma Recovery and Healing Tool

My dear friend Susan (aka: SARK) calls me a professional TV watcher. This is ironic because I don’t actually even own a TV, have never had cable service, and, at best, maybe watch two to two and half hours of it a week (streamed on my phone or iPad in those blessed 20 or 30-minute chunks between my toddler finally falling asleep and before I pass out myself – parents, you know what I mean). What my beloved friend means when she calls me a professional TV watcher is that she knows I use TV intentionally as a self-care and self-soothing tool. She knows that I love and believe in the power of storytelling, so much so that I’ve been known to assign certain shows and movies to my therapy clients as adjunctive healing tools in our work together. (Plus she knows I’m always down to get and receive recs about the latest shows we’re loving and watching!) Because, for some, confessing to loving TV still carries some stigma and shame, I wanted to use this essay today to not only normalize this enjoyment but also to suggest that TV, when used intentionally, can be a great adjunctive healing tool in your relational trauma recovery work. Learn more about how I suggest my clients use this as an intentional tool: TV: Our modern-day digital campfire. Since time immemorial, we humans have learned and grown through stories. Through the passing down from one person to another, from one generation to another, we’ve received instructions about how to be a human in this world through oral and later written stories, rich with literal and symbolic instruction. We’ve been entertained, challenged, inspired and supported by the tales passed down across time. And while our ancestors would have sat around a literal fire, listening to a bard, shaman, or wise elder impart this wisdom and entertainment, today, arguably, few of us huddle around literal fires. Instead, we gather around the glow of our screens and tablets – our digital campfires. The form has changed, but the need has not. We all still hunger for stories, for instruction, for entertainment, support, guidance and connection. But these days, in times when we live far from the places we were raised and are more isolated than in community, TV (and movies) can help meet that ancient storytelling need in the absence of a wise elder holding court. And thank goodness for that! Now, certainly, there are a lot of problematic ways to watch TV and movies — mindlessly, compulsively, for hours on end to the point of detriment (to your health, relationships, job and finances). And, yes, there’s certainly a lot of toxic, problematic, and truly inane material out there in the world. But I still argue that certain TV and movies can go beyond being used solely for entertainment and storytelling and instead even be used as an intentional healing tool, particularly on our relational trauma recovery journeys. So how can we use TV and movies intentionally as a healing tool? Through these four ways: Using it to internalize models of reparative relationships. Using it to externalize and metabolize our psychological processes. Using it to provide us with an “emotional vitamin” when in need. Using it as a less harmful emotional regulation and selective dissociation tool. TV can help us internalize models of reparative relationships. Nearly always, my clients who come from relational trauma backgrounds who were raised by mood- or personality-disordered parents face two big tasks in their healing work: Becoming their own good-enough inner mothers and fathers; and… Developing kinder, more supportive self-talk. Both of these tasks can feel hard (if not impossible) if they were raised by parents/caregivers whose psychological deficits prevented them from being kind, loving, affirming and respectful to their child. When I begin to challenge my clients to speak to themselves more kindly – as a loving, devoted father or mother might – some will draw blanks, not knowing at all how they might begin talking to themself in that way. With poor early models and without flesh-and-blood examples in their waking life, they have no reference point for how to reframe their own self-talk and self-care. And so, in these cases, I’ll assign them to watch certain shows where characters – fictional though they may be – treat their children with love, devotion and relentless faith in them. Disbelieving that a father could ever love a daughter who was “chubby” and didn’t fit conventional beauty standards? Watch how Jack Pearson from “This is Us” treats Kate when she’s a tween. Now imagine internalizing a father that is decent, good, kind and accepting. Convinced that all mother-daughter relationships have to be resentful, competitive and embittered? Watch the classic “Gilmore Girls” and the love between Lorelai and Rory for a different perspective and perhaps one to model your own parenting behavior after (in ways). Characters from TV and movies may not be known to us in real life, but that doesn’t undermine or diminish the power they have to help us absorb different, more functional, and helpful relational models from. This is one of the biggest ways I think TV can be used as a healing tool: it can help provide reparative relational models for us to internalize and to take hope and inspiration from. TV can help us externalize and metabolize our processes. TV and movies can be used as a healing tool, too, when it helps us make sense of what we’re going through in life. Many of us have had the experience of listening to a song and feeling like our inner experience was put into words and melody — someone named what we were going through in their work. So, too, can movies and TV help externalize and help us metabolize (make sense of, digest, move through) our inner experiences by giving form to what may feel ephemeral and hard to place inside of us. One example I’ll share from my personal life is how cathartic “The Handmaid’s Tale” felt for me during the years of the Trump administration. The rage and horror that played out on the screen matched so much of what I felt inwardly and while the show felt hard (and sometimes impossible) to watch at times, it helped externalize many of my big feelings and helped me feel less helpless and stuck at points. The circumstances of The Handmaid’s Tale were extreme derivatives of the actual events unfolding in the country (though at times they felt perilously close to home) but conflated, exaggerated portrayals – much like archetypal portrayals that we find in superhero movies like in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) – can, I believe, sometimes be even more helpful as we externalize and metabolize our inner experiences. Watching the psychodrama of others who are moving through events that mirror our own (even in some small ways or in symbolic ways) can be a powerful and healing way to use the power of TV and movies to support ourselves psychologically. TV can be the “emotional vitamin” we need to get through hard times. Probably the biggest and best way TV and movies can be used as a healing tool is probably also the way almost all of us default to using it already: as a kind of “emotional vitamin” to provide what we need when we feel like we lack it. For example, at the start of the pandemic I half-jokingly, half-seriously said to many of my girlfriends that someone should aggressively fund continued, relentless, and endless production of shows like “Ted Lasso,” “Queer Eye For The Straight Guy,” and “The Great British Bakeoff.” Those shows felt (and still feel like), to me, the digital equivalent of a bowl of chicken noodle soup and a cozy, weighted blanket with a hot water bottle at my feet and I couldn’t get enough of them in those hard, scary, strange early days of the pandemic. Most of us inherently gravitate to what feels good, comforting, and helpful to watch, but to use TV and movies more intentionally, double down on that when you’re going through challenging times and use it as a self-soothing tool that can give you what you’re lacking in that time. Feeling destabilized and need a sense of security and like things will be right with the world? Watch “Downton Abbey: where they take care of each year after year with structure in order inside the manor despite the chaos on the outside. Feeling lonely and longing for friendship, community and company? Watch “Friends,” “The Office” or “Parks and Recreation” for exposure to groups of people who care for each other over and over again. Feeling utterly overwhelmed with your new business and making your big dreams come true? Watch “Joy” for an emotional vitamin boost of entrepreneurial grit. And you can even go a step further beyond what fictional stories and plotlines offer to derive comfort from the characters that star: find stars who have lived through some of what you’ve gone through (or are going through) to derive support and a sense of hope for getting through things. When I was going through a recent thyroid cancer scare, I watched – for the first time – “Modern Family” – because I learned Sophia Vergara had had thyroid cancer and I needed and wanted a model of someone who thrived despite that unique adversity. TV and movies can be used intentionally when we seek it out for what we need and lack in any given time, treating it as an “emotional vitamin” of sorts. TV can be a “less harmful” emotional regulation and selective dissociation tool. Look, the reality is that life can be really, really hard. It can feel impossible some days/weeks/months/years to exist inside our bodies and minds in a world that seems like one endless series of tragedies and heartbreaks after another. In an ideal world, we could stay present with all of our feelings, all of the time, ever-expanding our capacities and nervous systems to tolerate more of our reality. And while I aspire to this and work to support my clients to continuously expand their emotional containers, I also realize and recognize that sometimes this just isn’t possible, and what would actually be most supportive is reducing the amount of feeling, not increasing it. And so in these times, I work from a framework derived from the harm reduction model that encourages the least self-harming and least self-sabotaging behaviors in order to help someone cope with their experience. And when it comes to lesser self-harming and lesser self-sabotaging ways of reducing the amount of feeling you’re feeling, I certainly think of watching TV and movies as being on the less harmful side of the spectrum (by contrast, more harmful dissociative tools might include compulsive and harmful substance use and certain compulsive behaviors). Put plainly: I’d rather you disappear into “Westeros” for a few hours than disappear into a bottle of wine. By using TV and movies to selectively dissociate, you can give your autonomic nervous system and psyche a much-needed break in a way that doesn’t undermine your life in more damaging ways. For example, the next time you need to quickly regulate yourself mid-fight with your spouse lest you say or act in a way that would be damaging, take a time out and go to the next room and stream a show on your phone for 10 or 15 minutes. Watch what happens to your big feelings and ability to be more regulated after you intentionally disassociate for a few minutes. TV and movies can help us selectively, and less harmfully dissociate in order to cope with our big feelings. How will you use TV and movies as an intentional healing tool? As we wrap up today’s little essay I’ll say once more: thank goodness for good TV and movies! Beyond our human, inherent hunger for story, for instruction, for entertainment, TV, and movies – when used intentionally – can be such a wonderful adjunctive tool in our healing work, particularly when and if we come from relational trauma backgrounds. So if you, like so many do, feel shame, stigma, or judgment about watching TV and movies, please don’t! You’re in good company and it’s smart and helpful of you to let this be a resource in your life. And now, I’d like to ask you some questions on this topic that might be especially helpful for those who come from relational trauma backgrounds: When it comes to using TV and movies to provide positive, reparative relationship models, what characters would you recommend someone watch if they’re looking for good models of re-fathering and re-mothering?When it comes to using TV and movies to help someone feel comfort, soothing, and safety during life’s very hard times, what shows and films would you recommend?When it comes to using TV and movies to help someone feel like, despite hard, adverse early beginnings it’s possible to go on and build a functional, good, adult life, what shows and films would you recommend? And until next time, please take such good care of yourself. You’re so worth it. Warmly, Annie

The Role of the Window of Tolerance in Emotional Regulation and Trauma

This morning at 7 am, my 3-year-old melted down when I apologetically told her I didn’t have any more of her favorite frozen waffles for her breakfast. She immediately ran from the kitchen into the hallway and flung herself onto the wooden floor, pajama’d legs kicking in protest, fists bunched up, braids framing her red, distraught face and she screamed at me, “That’s not fair! That’s NOT fair!” She had experienced something so upsetting that her toddler emotional regulation system (still in its early days of development) simply could not handle. She was outside of her Window of Tolerance. Now, if you’re reading this essay, you might be chuckling at her “over-reaction” or even remembering the days when your own toddlers thought the world was ending (because you didn’t cut the crusts off their toast or because you served their food on the blue plate versus the red plate, etc.). And really, it’s unlikely you will have the same response as my toddler did if someone tells you that you’ve run out of frozen waffles, but still, the concept of being in or outside your Window of Tolerance applies to all of us and you inevitably have your own adult version of the frozen waffle trigger.  No matter what our age, no matter what the trigger, the concept of the Window of Tolerance is so important and so critical to foster to support our overall mental health. What is the Window of Tolerance? The Window of Tolerance is a term and concept coined by the esteemed psychiatrist Daniel J. Siegel, MD – clinical professor of psychiatry at the UCLA School of Medicine and executive director of the Mindsight Institute – that describes the optimal emotional “zone” we can exist in, to best function and thrive in everyday life. On either side of the “optimal zone” there are two other zones – the hyper-arousal zone and the hypo-arousal zone. The Window of Tolerance – the optimal zone – is characterized by a sense of groundedness, flexibility, openness, curiosity, presence, an ability to be emotionally regulated, and a capacity to tolerate life’s stressors. If this Window of Tolerance is eclipsed, if you experience internal or external stressors that cause you to move beyond and outside of your Window of Tolerance, you may find yourself existing in either a hyper-aroused or hypo-aroused state. Hyper-arousal is an emotional state characterized by high energy, anger, panic, irritability, anxiety, hypervigilance, overwhelm, chaos, fight or flight instincts and startle response (to name but a few characteristics). Hypo-arousal is, by contrast, an emotional state characterized by shutting down, numbness, depressiveness, withdrawal, shame, flat affect and disconnection (to name but a few characteristics). (Side note: Visually, I like to imagine the Window of Tolerance as a river: the water flowing through the middle is the Window of Tolerance, but the bank to the left is hyper-arousal and the bank to the right is hypo-arousal. The goal is to stay in the flow of the water and avoid crashing into the banks on either side.) My toddler, upon learning that she couldn’t have her beloved frozen waffles for breakfast this morning, was faced with a stressor so big that it pushed her into hyper-arousal – she was so upset that she had to literally run away from me to discharge the energy in her body and she expressed her anger and overwhelm by beating the hallway floor with her fists and feet. She had crashed into a proverbial riverbank and was no longer in the flow of the river. Why is the Window of Tolerance so important? Put plainly, existing within the Window of Tolerance is what allows us to move functionally and relationally through the world. When we’re within our Window of Tolerance, we have access to our prefrontal cortex and our executive functioning skills (for instance: organizing, planning, and prioritizing complex tasks; starting actions and projects and staying focused on them to completion; regulating emotions and practicing self-control; practicing good time management, etc.). Having access to our prefrontal cortex and executive functions equips us to work, be in relationship, and problem solve effectively as we move through the world, despite encountering hiccups, disappointments and challenges along the way. When we are outside The Window of Tolerance, we lose access to our prefrontal cortex and executive functioning skills and may default to taking panicked, reckless action, or no action at all. We may be prone to self-sabotaging behaviors, gravitating toward patterns and choices that erode and undermine our relationship to ourselves, others and the world. Clearly, then, it’s ideal to stay inside the Window of Tolerance to best support ourselves in living the most functional, healthy life possible. But I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that all of us – at every age from the moment we’re born to the moment we die – eclipse our Window of Tolerance and find ourselves in a non-ideal emotional regulation zone sometimes. That’s normal and that’s natural. So the goal here is not that we never eclipse our Window of Tolerance – I personally and professionally think that that’s unrealistic. Rather, the goal is to increase our Window of Tolerance and to grow our capacity to “ rebound and be resilient ” — coming back to the Window of Tolerance quickly and effectively when we find ourselves outside of it. How do we increase our Window of Tolerance? So how do we increase our Window of Tolerance? First, I want to acknowledge that the Window of Tolerance is subjective. We each have a unique and distinct window depending on multitudinous biopsychosocial variables: our personal histories and whether or not we came from childhood trauma backgrounds, our temperaments, our social supports, our physiology, etc.. Windows of Tolerance are, in so many ways, like a proverbial snowflake: no two will ever look exactly the same. Mine may not look the same as yours and so forth. Because of this, I want to honor and acknowledge that those who come from relational trauma histories may find that they have smaller Windows of Tolerance than their peers who come from non-trauma backgrounds. Those of us with childhood abuse histories may, too, find that we are more frequently and easily triggered and pushed outside of the optimal emotional regulation zone into hyper- or hypo-arousal. This is normal and this is natural given what we’ve lived through. And everyone on the planet – whether or not they come from a relational trauma history or not – will need to work and effort to support themselves staying inside the Window of Tolerance and practicing resiliency when they find themselves outside of it. It just may mean that those with relational trauma histories may have to work harder, longer and more deliberately at this. So again, recognizing that our Windows of Tolerance are unique and we all need to invest effort into staying inside of it, how do we do this? In my personal and professional experience, this work is two-fold: First, we provide ourselves with the foundational biopsychosocial elements that contribute to a healthy, regulated nervous system. And two, we work to cultivate and call upon a wide toolbox of tools when we find ourselves outside of our Window of Tolerance (which, again, is inevitable). To the first part of the work – providing ourselves with the foundational biopsychosocial elements that contribute to a healthy, regulated nervous system – this entails: Providing our body with supportive self-care: getting enough sleep, getting enough exercise, eating nutritious foods, refraining from substances that erode our health, attending to emergent medical needs. Providing our mind with supportive experiences: this may include adequate amounts of stimulation, adequate amounts of focus and engagement, adequate amounts of rest and spaciousness and play. Providing our spirit and soul with supportive experiences: of being in connected relationship, of being connected to something bigger than ourselves (this could be spirituality but can also be nature). Tending to our physical environment to set ourselves up for success: Living and working in places and ways that reduce stressors instead of increasing them, designing the external environments of our lives to be as nourishing (versus depleting) as possible. The second part of the work – cultivating and calling upon a wide toolbox of tools when we find ourselves outside of our Window of Tolerance – is how we practice resiliency and rebound when we find ourselves in hyper- or hypo-arousal zones. We do this work by developing practices, habits, tools, and internalized and externalized resources that help soothe, regulate, redirect and ground ourselves. I focus heavily in my work with my therapy clients and online course students to help them cultivate a wide, diverse, rich and effective toolbox of resources they can use to practice resiliency when outside of their Windows of Tolerance. And while detailing the breadth and specifics of all of these tools is beyond the scope of this essay, I’ll share that these tools are both internal and external in nature, multisensory, and designed to support my clients when they’re by themselves, or at work being watched by others, or in literally any other situation or environment. For a sampling of potential tools, feel free to explore this essay I wrote years ago that went somewhat viral. See which among these tools you might like to add to your own Window of Tolerance resilience toolbox! Wrapping This Up. So how did I help my toddler move back into her Window of Tolerance this morning? First, I affirmed and validated her feelings, helping her feel seen and acknowledged for her big feelings. And then, when this experience of being seen and accepted lowered her reactivity even fractionally and she was able to hear me again, I invited her to make eggs with me (she gets so excited about cracking open eggs!). Clinically speaking, I redirected her and engaged her prefrontal cortex in an activity, allowing her nervous system to regulate further. After all of this, I’m happy to say that we ended up having a great breakfast of scrambled eggs with no more tears before preschool drop-off. With my daughter, as with all of us, the goal isn’t to keep her from ever feeling disappointed (she’d be poorly set up for real-life if my husband and I treated her with kid gloves, hustling to make sure she never experienced disappointment in her life!). Instead, the goal is to help her nervous system learn, over time, that she can tolerate more and more age-appropriate disappointments (increasing her Window of Tolerance) and equip her with tools and strategies to help herself get back to her Window of Tolerance so that she can move forward and on with her day (resiliency and rebounding). And now I’d love to hear from you: What are one or two tools that you personally use when you find yourself outside of your Window of Tolerance and in hyper-arousal? Similarly, what are one or two tools that you personally use when you find yourself outside of your Window of Tolerance and in hypo-arousal? Please, if you feel so inclined, leave a message. And until next time, please take very good care of yourself. You’re so worth it. Warmly, Annie

Why People Dismiss Their Past Abuse and Trauma (and How to Stop)

I sat with her, across from her in my therapy room, the coffee table between us, the box of tissues in reach. She told me what her mother had done to her when she came home with anything less than As. She told me how her mother would scream at her, telling her she’s a stupid cow and a failure. She told me about the way her mother would make her — a 9-year-old — walk over to the canister in the kitchen and choose the wooden spoon for her spanking (she would try to choose the smallest spoon, it tended to bruise her less). She told me about how, when the beating was over, she would go hide in her closet for hours — standing because she couldn’t sit on the bruises — until she knew it was safe to come out again, when she knew her mother would have had enough wine to make her nicer, easier to be around, less enraged about her Bs. She told me how this happened every single month when the report cards were released. She told me all of this, without emotion, looking out the window toward the UC Berkeley campus, a few blocks away from my offices. “I am so, so sorry that happened to you.” I said, tears welling up in my eyes and a pit in my stomach. “That was not OK. No child deserves to be treated that way by their mother, not by anyone.” “Oh, it’s fine,” she said, cooly, “That’s just the way things were. It could have been worse.” “It’s not OK,” I said again emphatically. “You didn’t deserve that. That was abuse.” “No, abuse is when parents molest their kids. At least that didn’t happen to me. She just wanted me to succeed. It made me work harder in school. It’s probably why I’m professionally successful now. It’s not that big of a deal.” Still, she looked out the window, not meeting my eyes, speaking with some distance, some detachment from her story. As if she were reciting the grocery list she had plugged into Instacart that morning. This conversation isn’t a real conversation that happened. Details have been changed. But it is an accurate amalgamation of countless conversations I’ve had over the years. It’s a kind of conversation where, when finally ready to go back in time and speak about details of their pasts, my therapy clients dismiss and diminish their own childhood trauma histories, their own abuse, the suffering they endured as they recount their past. It’s a conversation that slowly but inevitably allows us — as therapist and client — to talk about the way they dismiss and diminish their past, and why this is so important to recognize and to change. If you — if any part of you — can relate to this experience of excusing, dismissing, minimizing, explaining away the abuse you endured, today’s essay is for you. Please join me to keep reading about why you may dismiss and diminish your past, why it’s important to stop doing this, and how we can support you in changing this. Dismissing and diminishing are psychological defense mechanisms. “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” — William Faulkner Why do we dismiss and diminish our pasts? Simply put, the acts of dismissing and diminishing our pasts are psychological defense mechanisms. All psychological defense mechanisms are, ultimately, unconscious attempts and strategies used by an individual to help protect themselves from what can feel like intolerable feelings and thoughts should they face their reality. Excusing, dismissing, minimizing, explaining away, diminishing, rationalizing, justifying… however and whatever descriptor you wish to give these attempts, all of them are ways in which we attempt — albeit poorly — to protect ourselves from pain. Like with all psychological defense mechanisms and other ways we organize ourselves to cope with and survive traumatic experiences, doing this, at some level, is very wise. Why? Because as children, we’re objectively quite powerless. Really at the mercy of our caregivers and circumstances. But children are clever. They are survivors. And children will do whatever it takes to organize themselves (their feelings, thoughts, behaviors, personalities, needs, and wants) to be what they need to be to protect themselves in their circumstances. And one way that can help children and adolescents cope is to dismiss and diminish what happens (and happened) to them. Rationalizing, justifying, dismissing, and diminishing the pain they are enduring (and the emotional pain they have about it) helps mentally and emotionally protect them so they can get through the rest of the time they have to endure living with their abuser. To fully acknowledge how terrible and hard their circumstances are while they are still trapped inside of the situation, with five, eight, 10 years to go before they can get the hell out and leave… it would be too much. And so they learn to explain away, to dismiss and diminish, to do whatever it takes to avoid feeling the enormity of feelings about their circumstances. But, inevitably, after the child grows and leaves the home of their abuser, those same psychological defense mechanisms may no longer serve them as adults; instead, they may harm versus help them. What’s the harm in dismissing or diminishing the past? “My yesterdays walk with me. They keep step, they are gray faces that peer over my shoulder.” — William Golding What’s the harm in continuing to diminish and dismiss our childhood trauma histories as adults? It keeps us from feeling our pain and grief and anger about our past. And to truly heal, to process our experiences, make sense of them, and work toward psychological integration, we must feel our feelings about our past. There’s a famous (albeit cliché) saying in therapy: We cannot heal what we cannot feel. The longer we continue to use dismissal and diminishment (or any other psychological defense mechanism) to guard ourselves from feeling the feelings that are inevitably inside ourselves, the longer we will delay and deny our healing process. But, of course, I understand personally and professionally how incredibly scary and painful it can feel to imagine actually allowing yourself to really feel your feelings about the past. It’s normal and natural to want to avoid pain. Plus, there’s often a strong and common belief that if we actually do start to allow ourselves to feel our feelings about the past, it will feel like a proverbial tsunami, that we won’t survive the full strength of our feelings, and/or once we start to feel our sadness and anger, it will never end. And yes, sometimes when we start to feel our feelings about the past, the force of our feelings may be overwhelming. But a good trauma-informed therapist will help you to titrate your feelings so that they don’t overwhelm and re-traumatize you so that they feel tolerable. And what’s also true is our grief about our pasts — our sadness, anger, rage, regret, confusion, despair — may take some time to fully process. It may take more time than we imagine and probably more time than we suspect it “should” take. But it’s still necessary to appropriately feel our feelings about our past and to begin the grieving process — for the childhood we had, for the childhood we did not have and will sadly never have — to help ourselves, as adults, have a beautiful adulthood despite our adverse early experiences. How do I stop dismissing and diminishing my past? “But pain’s like water. It finds a way to push through any seal. There’s no way to stop it. Sometimes you have to let yourself sink inside of it before you can learn how to swim to the surface.” — Katie Kacvinsky I want to circle back to the top of this essay when I described the vignette of my client in my office. And I want to be clear about something: I do not believe it’s helpful at all to force someone to confront their past or their feelings about their past before they are psychologically ready to do so. I personally work from a phased, titrated, trauma-informed approach that necessitates stabilizing clients — psychologically and logistically preparing them for their grief and processing work — before we start to help them fully feel their feelings about their past. Only when and if a client feels ready to feel their feelings about their past, will I gently confront them in the way I did in the above vignette. And when and if a client can acknowledge they are ready to start to feel their feelings about their past, only then will I design interventions to support them in doing so. The interventions and therapeutic tools I use are numerous and beyond the scope of this essay to detail (plus I customize therapy and attendant interventions differently for every client), but I will leave you with one tool I use in case, after reading today’s essay, any part of you feels ready and able to challenge any dismissal or diminishment you may do of your own past. To practice this tool, I want you to place your hand on your heart (really, this part is important). And I want you to say to yourself, out loud, the following: “What happened to me wasn’t okay. What happened to me wasn’t normal. What happened to me should never happen to a child. I have a right to feel sad and angry about what happened to me.” Notice what happens in your body as you make contact with yourself in this way, hand on your heart, and as you verbally acknowledge your past and how it was not OK. Track your somatic sensations, notice your thoughts, and if — at all — you quickly want to jump away from the exercise or explain it away as being ridiculous and silly, and useless. Stay just a little bit longer, hand on heart, breathing deeply, stilling yourself to track your experience. And if feelings start to rise up, allow yourself to feel them in tolerable amounts. In allowing yourself to feel what surfaces for you, you will support your healing process. This is one tool of many I use with my therapy clients and online course students to help them begin to reduce their dismissal and diminishment of their past so they can begin to more fully feel their feelings and finally move into the grieving, processing, and sense-making that’s required to support them to fully heal. If you would personally like support around this and you live in California or Florida, please feel free to reach out to me directly to explore therapy together. And now I’d love to hear from you: Did you relate at all to today’s essay? Are you prone to dismissing or diminishing your past? What’s one tool, thought, behavior or practice that has helped you to stop doing this so that you can feel your feelings and heal? If you feel so inclined, please leave a comment below so our community can benefit from your wisdom. And until next time, please take such good care of yourself. You’re so worth it. Warmly, Annie

Finding What Brings You Joy With Anxiety

The tagline of my business – of my work in the world – is this: Helping those who didn’t have good childhoods finally have wonderful adulthood. In many prior essays, I speak to elements about what having a wonderful adulthood actually means and how we can begin to work toward it. And today I want to talk about another very important part of adulthood and relational trauma recovery work entails: cultivating more joy in your life. But/and, I also and specifically want to talk about how hard it can feel for those who come from relational trauma backgrounds to even remotely know what brings them joy if they didn’t experience joy in their childhood and/or if they have a hard time connecting to their bodies. If this is you – if the idea of what brings you joy mystifies you and you have no clue what this might mean or how to bring more of it into your life but you’re curious and eager to do so – please keep reading. What is joy? Joy. Sounds so simple, doesn’t it? But what actually is joy? Merriam-Webster defines joy as a noun as: A : the emotion evoked by well-being, success, or good fortune or by the prospect of possessing what one desires : DELIGHT B : the expression or exhibition of such emotion : GAIETY a state of happiness or felicity: BLISS a source or cause of delight And the definition of joy as a verb is: : to experience great pleasure or delight: REJOICE From any angle, from whatever definition you choose, joy, quite frankly, feels good. Why is joy important? Why is joy so important? Aside from the fact that it feels good, joy is one of the keys on the emotional keyboard of life we can and should be able to access in order to proverbially play the richest and most enlivened emotional music possible. What do I mean by this? If you imagine a piano keyboard and all its attendant, beautiful black and ivory keys, you can imagine that each key represents an emotion that we experience in our human lives: sadness, lust, grief, horror, anger, peace, contentment, pride, impatience, love, devotion and so forth. With the emotional keyboard of life, the goal is not to learn and be able to play only a few keys. The goal is, instead, to learn how to play the richest piece of music possible by developing your capacity to feel and appropriately express each of the proverbial keys on this keyboard. And joy is one of these keys. And it is, quite frankly, a really delightful and delicious one to feel! I would also argue that, for those who come from relational trauma backgrounds, it becomes even more important for you to learn how to “play this key” so to speak. Why? Because so often when we come from relational trauma backgrounds the general overtone of our lives can be dominated by notes and themes of hardness, heaviness, suffering, fear, lack, challenge and survival. After so much time playing these particular keys on the keyboard and having missed out on the joy all children are entitled to early in life, we then owe it to ourselves as adults to learn how to play this proverbial key and to intentionally play it more often in the music of our days. How do I know what brings me joy? But how do you know what brings you joy if you had a childhood deprived of joy? And even if you don’t come from a relational trauma background, how do you begin to feel joy when you are, quite frankly, utterly exhausted, burned out and totally depleted given the stress, overwhelm and responsibilities of your days? To the latter, I would say this: it is very, very hard to feel what brings you joy when you are burned out. So your first order of business is to rest deeply and recover from burnout and come back to a psychological and physiological baseline. Only then will you be able to better feel what brings you joy. And to those who identify with coming from a relational trauma background, our work to discover what brings us joy is two-fold: We must become more embodied; and… We must expose ourselves to more activities, experiences and situations to see what signals joy in our bodies. Using your body to discover what brings you joy. I want to honor and acknowledge that, for those of us who come from relational trauma backgrounds, in order to survive our early childhoods, many of us may have learned to disconnect from our bodies — the place where we felt so many overwhelming and sometimes devastating feelings. And so, as we ask the question – What brings me joy? – we also need to learn how to gently, slowly, attentively begin to befriend our bodies again, tracking them for the sensations that indicate we are responding to something that it is bringing us joy. We may need to learn to become embodied again in order to figure out what brings us joy. This may sound like a tall and overwhelming task, but it doesn’t have to be. We can take teeny tiny baby steps to help you befriend your body again and track down the somatic sensations of what brings you joy. You can start to pay attention to your breath ( In and out, In and out…), to the sensations of warmth and coolness in your body ( Am I cold right now? Do I need socks? Am I too warm? Do I need to turn the AC on?), to the sensations of your bowels and digestive tract ( Do I need to pee or poop? Am I hungry? Am I thirsty?). These questions and invitations may seem small and obvious but if you’ve spent your life divorced from your body, beginning with basic biological questions and tracking like this can help you begin to be more embodied and increase your awareness about how certain situations and experiences evoke different sensations inside of your body. And please know: this can take time and there is not one single way that joy looks and feels for us all. It’s subjective and unique so you will need to be your own detective to determine how and what joy feels like for you. Joy can be big and obvious and grand, but it can also feel the teeniest, tiniest whisper, a faint trace of something that feels like a pulling-towards. I think about that bathtub scene from “Eat, Pray, Love” when Julia Roberts (playing the extraordinary Elizabeth Gilbert) is sitting with her Italian dictionary, letting the words roll around in her mouth, acknowledging that the only thing she could feel anything for (in the wake of her terrible divorce) was for the Italian language and how it felt in her mouth. And so she moved toward this thing, this felt sense of something good, no matter how slight it was. And her journey thus unfolded… For me, I’ve learned through tracking my somatic sensations over time that joy feels like a sense of buoyancy inside of me – like a wide, soft balloon inflating inside my chest and core that makes me feel lighter that also evokes some ephemeral sense of nostalgia in me, recalling a felt sense of a time in my life where possibilities and paths felt more expansive, freer, more limitless. And so now I move towards that feeling. But again, before I could even understand what evokes joy for me, I had to become embodied again. Only then could I register when something brought me joy. So after becoming more embodied and more familiar with the subtle sensations in your own body, you can then discover what brings you more joy by exposing yourself to more situations, activities, circumstances, and places that will allow you to track how they make you feel. But how do we do this? How do we expose ourselves to potential joy-inducing activities? For many of my readers and clients who come from relational trauma backgrounds, as children, they may not have been exposed to a wide range of activities, hobbies and circumstances that would have helped them identify what brings them joy. So one of my favorite homework assignments for clients and online course students is this: Start exposing yourself to a wide variety of activities and interests like you might with a small child to help them discover the world and their interests. What do I mean by this? I’ll share a story: Before having my daughter, my life was really quite dominated by work – grad school, accumulating my hours for my license, blogging, laying the groundwork to open up a trauma-informed therapy center, steeping myself in post-graduate trauma training, etc. I’m embarrassed to admit my days and weeks were pretty single note: work, work, work. Now, please understand, I adore my work and feel like it’s a calling and not just a job. So on the one hand, I loved what I was doing but I can also see now that I was doing a pretty poor job of giving myself adventures, variety and stimulation in the form of new experiences, something which my inner child really craved. But then, in 2018, along came my daughter, and my world fundamentally changed. Life centers around her now, not my work. And as she grew from an infant to a baby to a toddler, my desire to give her a rich, interesting and magical childhood grew and grew and so did my desire to proactively seek out activities, experiences and circumstances that could expose her to this wide, great world. I proactively spend time crowdsourcing recommendations from fellow Bay Area toddler parents of places to go and things to do. I book tickets to special events, outdoor museums, one-off shows, and we tour playgrounds all over the Bay. I make sure to introduce her to different cuisines, different vistas, different types of music and books, and art supplies. I intentionally cultivate and create opportunities for her to experience newness and potentially discover her new favorite things. Parenting my daughter so intentionally has helped me experience more adventures in my own weeks, but has also catalyzed me to think more deliberately about how to give myself the adult equivalent of what I give her: new experiences, diverse activities, little adventures so that I can have the chance to register joy in my body more. So if you have a hard time discovering what brings you joy, focus on becoming more embodied as a first step, but then try giving yourself what a good-enough parent would give to their growing child: a diverse array of activities, experiences and adventures to see what in this big, beautiful world can evoke joy in your body. And then double down on what you notice does bring you joy. Do this again and again so you can play that keyboard key as often as possible to make your days and weeks feel better. What’s bringing me joy these days… I want to share what’s personally bringing me joy these days – allowing me to register that delicious somatic sensation in my body: Watching (and re-watching) the incredible TV show “Ted Lasso” and then talking about it with my husband and best girlfriends after new shows come out on Fridays (digesting it with my loved ones is more fun than the show for me!). Listening to Glennon Doyle’s terrific podcast We Can Do Hard Things twice a week when it comes out. 90’s music bike rides and runs on Peloton – the 90’s were the time I came of age and every song from that era is super nostalgic for me (ditto the Disney-themed rides and runs on Peloton!). During the holiday season, the Christmas tree whose every square inch is covered by ornaments and whose size is taking up a good third of our teeny tiny living room; also the nutcrackers on our mantel, the red and white striped stockings hung, and Christmas music playlists on Spotify. Balsam fir scented candles burned for no special reason, just because. Wearing blouses with pretty little colorful prints. Making my daughter’s daily preschool lunches in her Planet Rover bento lunch box – it is so little and cute and feels both like I’m making miniature meals for a doll and it reminds me of the time my husband and I visited Japan and I became obsessed with the ekiben on the bullet trains… Listening to cello music while sitting in my hot tub in the afternoon sun… And finally, this past Spring in Yosemite, feeling profoundly joyful riding a rented bike with an attached trailer with my daughter sitting in it, feeling the strength of my Peloton-trained muscles as I drove us both all over the valley… And now I’d love to hear from you in the comments below: What is bringing you joy these days? What experiences, circumstances, places, and things make you feel joyful?And another question: How – as an adult – did you begin to notice and re-discover what brings you joy? And until next time, please take such good care of yourself. You’re so worth it. Warmly, Annie

Reparenting Requires More 'Nontraditional' Father Types in the Media

The other week, chasing something to watch after inhaling “Mare of Easttown,” I stayed up way too late and watched the HBO limited series “The Undoing” with Nicole Kidman and Hugh Grant. Honestly, I do not recommend watching this series if you were raised by a narcissistic or sociopathic father figure unless you’re relatively deep into your healing journey and need a sobering reminder of why you’ve firmly estranged yourself from that person in your life. In that way, it’s a great digital validation. Otherwise, it’s a very triggering show and it took a few nights to get the graphic images to leave my mind’s eye so I could sleep easy. But after going down that dark, streaming rabbit hole, I was once again reminded of the unrelenting dearth of media portrayals of the good, kind, gentle father. The strong, driven, protective, accomplished, charming, and handsome father figure/head of the family abounds in media across a spectrum of health — from functional to dysfunctional (“The Undoing’s” main character was the epitome of dysfunctional with another character falling less severely on the dysfunctional side, but still on it). But these portrayals — even the really loving, loyal father figures — often fall into tropes of traditional, patriarchal ideals, limiting what our boys and men can see themselves in, and also what we, as folks who come from relational trauma histories, may model our reparative inner fathering after. If you’ve been a reader of mine for some time, you know a core tenet of my relational trauma recovery work centers on helping folks actively reparent themselves — treating themselves as a good enough mother or father would have ideally done for them. But both roles, mothering and fathering, are so heavily laden with millennia of patriarchal, capitalist, colonialist conditioning that it can sometimes be hard to resonate with the typical “archetypes” of mother and father as you do this relational trauma recovery work. So, today’s little essay is a response to that, to fathering in particular. It’s a love letter in praise of the good, kind, gentle father — the one who doesn’t necessarily fit the traditional model of what a “man” and father is but who is, nonetheless, a force of good and healing in the world. Today’s little essay is a lens-widener. It’s an alternate perspective. It’s a list of actions and ways of being that you may see in yourself or in someone you love. And it’s an aspirational action list for your own refathering journey should the “typical” father models just not resonate with you. In praise of the good, kind, gentle father. The good, kind, gentle father may never be the guy who starts a company, makes a million dollars, accumulates professional accomplishments, or gets a building named after him. He may not be the brawniest, the boldest, the loudest, the tallest, the captain of all he touches. He may not be the driver of the family, the leader of his clan, the architect of his family’s financial future. But… he may be so many other things. He may be the heart and soul of his family instead of the muscle and the might. He may be the safe, soft, regulating presence for those he loves, the holder of the emotional well-being of his little family. He may be deeply kind, the sort of person who treats hedge fund billionaires and undocumented immigrants with the same courtesy and accord, and doesn’t feel better or less than with either group. He may be honest and the soul of integrity, the person who will go back into the store to give back the extra money when he realizes the clerk gave him too much change. He may be the person who embodies character and honor for his family in these little everyday actions. The good, kind, gentle father figure may not be the one with all the degrees and the six-figure paycheck, but he’s the one to take time from work to take his child to the doctor, stay home with her when she’s sick, and sleep by her crib at night to make sure her nasal passages stay clear. He may not be the fittest, buffest dad at the preschool, but he’s the dad who never, ever comments on anyone’s body — positively or negatively — because he’s profoundly aware of the impact his words might have on his child and their perception of their body. He may not be the father who goes up to the top of the big water slide with his child (despite peer pressure to do so) because it makes him nervous, and he knows and honors his own boundaries and sense of safety. He may not plan big surprises on birthdays and anniversaries, showering those he loves with gifts and grand gestures, but he may be the man who spends an afternoon on his belly in the grass, breaking open seed pods with his child and looking for ants and worms in the sunshine. The good, kind, gentle father figure may not take charge of the family calendar and provide the bulk of the family’s income, but he may be the kind who looks at his child with reverence and invites him to share his feelings and has a relentless curiosity about his son’s inner world. He may not be daring and bold in traditionally expected ways, but he may have the soul of a poet or monk, serving as a kind of secular, soulful space holder for his loved ones. The good, kind, gentle father figure may feel nauseous at the thought of hunting or holding a gun at all, but he will dance silly dances to the “Moana” soundtrack in the kitchen over and over again because he knows his daughter loves it. He may not ever be written about in his alumni magazine (he may not even have a college degree), but the good, kind, gentle father figure may leave the house when everyone is having pancake breakfast to scrape the ice and salt the driveway of not only his home, but also his elderly neighbor’s driveway. He may not have a career that’s traditionally “brag-worthy,” he may have a job or be a stay-at-home dad, but he loves his partner and children with a devotion so deep that his only dreams in life are to make sure their dreams come true. The good, kind, gentle father figure may move through the world feeling socially anxious, sad, and scared much of the time, and for him, even setting up a playdate for his child pushes his capacities. But still, he does it to support what’s best for those he loves. He may not aspire to own and possess fancy cars, a big house, or even have social media accounts, but the good, kind, gentle father figure will always ask for consent before touching his child because he wants them to know their boundaries and their bodies matter. The good, kind, gentle father figure may not ever want to rock climb, skydive, scuba, or mountain bike, but he will take the brunt of sleep deprivation and do night duty with a waking child so his partner can get restorative sleep. He may never be the alpha, but the good, kind, gentle father figure will honor the dignity and personhood of his child, never expecting them to be someone different from who they are in their soul and considering it an honor to help them become who they truly are versus what the world wants and expects. He may not “take up space” in traditionally masculine ways, he may be quite quiet, content to sit on the sidelines, and he may also be the person for whom the phrase “still waters run deep” best describes. The good, kind, gentle father figure may show up from time to time in the media, like Atticus Finch in “To Kill A Mockingbird,” Matthew Cuthbert in “Anne of Green Gables,” Fred Rogers, Pa Ingalls from the “Little House” books, who and what I imagine Samwise Gamgee was to his “Hobbit” babies when the movies wrapped up — and while these examples are minimal, they are important. So, so important. These minimal models are important because there are many ways to father in the world. There are many ways to refather yourself. And it can all look so different from what oppressive belief systems and structures have long told us about what “good fathers” can look like. So please, as you do the work to “refather” yourself, let yourself be curious about what different models and what atypical fathering actions may look like. If it’s always been hard for you to imagine “refathering yourself,” perhaps that was because you didn’t quite like how the world has so traditionally seen “fathers” and perhaps you crave different models. As we do the work to refather ourselves in non-traditional ways, as we grow more aware and more appreciative of the many ways good fathering can look, perhaps good, kind, gentle father figures will become more normalized and less aberrational in the media (because they certainly aren’t aberrational in the world). Let’s be curious together and, until next time, please take such good care of yourself. You’re so worth it. Warmly, Annie

Familiar Experiences When You Come From A Relational Trauma Background

“Do you imagine other people who come from backgrounds like you don’t do that exact same thing? That they don’t feel exactly that way?” I asked her gently. “No,” she said, “I really don’t. I mean, I don’t know. It’s not like anyone’s talking about these things and I don’t know anyone who comes from a background like I do. Do other people feel this way, Annie?” One of the great privileges of my career as a psychotherapist is being allowed to be inside the hearts and minds of so many extraordinary people, bearing witness to parts of them and their experience that they share with very few others (if anyone). And this is such a privilege. It’s a privilege, not only because my clients trust me so much and allow me to be with them in their vulnerability, but also because in the last ten years of this work, I can now see how common certain thoughts and patterns are for individuals who come from relational trauma backgrounds. Witnessing story after story, hearing thought after thought has shown me how common and natural certain thoughts and experiences are for my clients. And with knowledge of how common certain thoughts and patterns are, I can, when appropriate, share what I know to help others feel better. Of course, what I share is always confidential, spoken of in generalities, and never ever meant to diminish or dismiss the experience of anyone. Rather, when I share with my clients how common certain patterns and thoughts are, my hope is to reduce the shame, isolation and loneliness they may feel for feeling/thinking/and acting certain ways. You see, folks who come from relational trauma backgrounds already feel a high degree of isolation and otherness — that’s usually how we felt inside our family systems — so widening the lens on how common certain experiences are can feel normalizing, validating and can help my clients feel less alone, less “crazy” for thinking and feeling certain ways. Knowing how helpful it can be for my clients when I reflect back on certain experiences, today I want to share five familiar experiences you may relate to if you yourself come from a relational trauma background. So if you yourself relate to coming from a relational trauma background, pour yourself a cup of tea and prepare to feel less alone. Five familiar experiences when you come from a relational trauma background: 1. You may feel invisible, like you straddle two worlds. You go through the motions of your “functional present-day life” — going to work, socializing with the parents of your child’s privileged preschool. And yet you may also feel like your phone is a bomb in your pocket, waiting to explode with texts about your brother needing rent money or your father being paroled. You dread that standard second-grade project your kid will have to complete —The Family Tree — because how are you going to explain the aunts and uncles they’ve never met and (hopefully) will never meet? At times, living with this paradox inside of you, you can’t believe that your friends are complaining about the heartache of their kid not getting into their top choice private school, or that closing on a second vacation home in San Diego is their biggest struggle. You “fit in” with these people but also you don’t because they don’t know about your past and even if they did they could never relate to it given how seemingly functional their backgrounds are. This is such a common experience when you come from a relational trauma background. 2. You may find yourself saying things like, “Well, it could have been worse.” Or, “at least my parents didn’t sexually assault me.” You — like so many — may have been taught/gaslit into believing that your experience “was fine” and your distress was just you being “overly sensitive.” This self-doubt conditioning combined with the fact that denial and diminishment are common psychological defense mechanisms may result in you frequently diminishing, dismissing, caveating and excusing your own painful past. And while your personal recovery and healing work will ultimately involve ceasing your own self-diminishment, it’s important to recognize that this pattern of self-diminishment is a common one for folks who come from relational trauma backgrounds. 3. You may alternate between magical thinking and self-loathing (but you may not call it that). You may have highly contrasting, quickly shifting thoughts – about your marriage, work, yourself and more. For example, you may alternate from wishing you were with a different spouse and believing you’re only worthy of a husband like Jamie Fraser in Outlander (no average husband will do for you!) to thinking no one will possibly want you if you end up on the dating market if you do end up divorcing your spouse. You may, in one hour, believe you’re the best contributor on your team and a shoo-in for promotion, strongly doubting yourself and questioning whether you are even employable in the next hour. This mental vacillation can be exhausting, confusing and is often a common hallmark of coming from a childhood history that failed to help you integrate a reasonable, sound and stable self-image. 4. Becoming a parent can feel both healing and triggering to you at the same time . The experience of becoming a parent can feel healing because of the love you feel for your child and the reparative experience of getting to treat someone in the way you wish you had been treated. But also, the experience of becoming a parent can also be triggering because you now have a vivid contrast to how you were treated, and this contrast can make you feel even angrier at your caregivers for failing you so egregiously. And also — and this is important to understand — you may even be triggered with jealousy of “how easy your kid will have it” compared to what you went through. You can want the best for your child and also feel jealousy about it at the same time. When you come from a relational trauma background, these contrasting experiences aren’t mutually exclusive — both things can be true at once when you parent. 5. You may feel like you have to work harder than most to “stay positive” and keep mentally healthy and you can sometimes (or often) resent this. You have habits and routines — like vigorous exercise, journaling, therapy, your support groups.  But unlike for many people, they’re not just “nice to haves,” they’re necessary to help keep you in a window of tolerance and to keep you feeling steady. When you can’t access them, you feel strongly, negatively impacted. On the one hand, you’re glad you know what helps keep you “sane and steady.” You’re glad you know what the proverbial power tools in your mental health toolkit are. But on the other hand, you may resent that you feel so dependent on practices and supports to help you feel reasonably good and you imagine that life would be easier if you were “less sensitive” and didn’t require these supports so much. These five experiences are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to shared, common experiences coming from (and recovering from) relational trauma backgrounds. If what I shared today resonated with you if you’d like to learn more about relational trauma recovery, I hope you’ll spend some time exploring other essays I’ve written on this topic and browsing the comments below the posts. You may feel alone in your experience, but as you’ll see from the commenters on certain essays, you’re not alone at all. Thank you so very much. I’m so excited to hear from you and to support you and others like us in any way I can. Warmly, Annie Medical Disclaimer

To Those Whose Parents Couldn't Give Them What They Need

One of the most painful pieces of coming from a relational trauma background is the absence of having had and still not having the kind of parenting that felt and feels adequate, supportive and like a safety net you can turn to when life feels hard and overwhelming (which, in adulthood, it often does). The very natural and normal impulse to call your mother (or father or other guardian) when life feels hard and challenging, for many, doesn’t ever fully fade. But, even though the longing lingers, you may increasingly know that, if you do reach out looking for support, you’ll likely just get hurt, disappointed and even angry when presented with the reality of your parent — a parent who simply can’t meet your needs because they don’t have the emotional and psychological capacity to do so. You know this. Intellectually you get it. But still, naturally, you hunger for support. For comfort. For your mom or dad to be on the other end of the phone as a source of solace when life feels hard and you feel like you just can’t adult anymore. So what is there to do when you’re in this space? When you’re hungry for support but you know you can’t and won’t get it from your mother or father figure? You absorb the support, guidance and uplifting of psychologically healthy others who can meet your needs in ways that your family-of-origin cannot. Ideally, we have flesh-and-blood others, second-chance-family-of-choice, around us who can offer this to us. And in addition to this (or instead of this), we can draw comfort and solace from pen and paper mentors, the written word, a random essay posted on the internet. Helpful words can be a balm to weary hearts. And so, today’s essay is a sort of a pep talk, a letter of encouragement and comfort, written as though a good enough mother might say it to her overwhelmed and exhausted adult daughter. If you’re struggling, feeling overwhelmed, burned out, exhausted, lost and scared, if you long for comfort but cannot get it from your actual mother, today’s essay is written for you. (And please note: while this essay is written from mother to daughter and assumes the daughter has children, you can of course substitute any gender of parental figure and your own gender expression into this essay as well as edit out any parts about having children. Use this as a mental, imaginal exercise and personalize it to your life and your needs.) What your mother would say to you (if she could)… Oh, honey. You’re really having a hard time right now, aren’t you? Tell me all about it. I want to hear what’s going on with you. It’s a lot, isn’t it? Working full-time, trying to raise children, trying to run a household and keep up with everything, let alone trying to be a good partner and a good friend. I remember those days. How exhausting, how draining it could feel. And I didn’t have to deal with a global pandemic on top of it all! You’re doing such an incredible job, honey. Truly. I know it doesn’t feel like you’re doing a great job. I’ll bet that most of the time it feels like you’re failing in some way or letting one part of your life fall apart while you tend to another. I get it. It’s so, so hard. And I want you to know: you’re doing an amazing job. I see how hard you work. I know how tired you are and yet how you show up for everyone in your life with grace and strength. I know it doesn’t feel that way, though. I know it feels like toddlers destroy the house faster than you can clean up. I know it feels like if you’re being a good mom, you’re letting work down. I know it feels like if you’re giving all you have to work and to your kids, your home is a mess, your marriage takes the backseat, and there never seems to be time to work out. I know it feels like a double bind sometimes. I know the pressure you feel as the primary breadwinner. I know how expensive life can be! I know it feels like all you want to do is hide under the covers and watch Netflix all weekend and eat takeout and have the world go away. I know that feeling where you feel like you have it all under control some days, and then you feel like a failure and like a scared little kid trapped in an adult body the next day. I know how desperate you are just for five minutes alone — alone from everyone no matter how much you love them. To go to the bathroom in peace. To lay on the couch without being grabbed. I remember how I used to fantasize about a break — no one needing me, no responsibilities, the ability to just hide away from it all. I remember those days well. And I want you to know that it’s OK to feel this way. It’s OK to be totally overwhelmed and exhausted and burned out. It makes sense you would feel that way given all that you’re holding. It’s OK to sometimes wish you never became a parent. Or got married. Or took on those grad school loans. Or put yourself out there in such a big way with your work life. It makes sense you would have those thoughts given all that you’re holding. It’s OK to wish life were easier. Truly. It makes sense that you would wish that. It’s OK to feel grumpy. It’s OK to feel resentful. It makes sense that you would feel that way. It doesn’t make you a bad person. It makes you human. I know you love your child. I know you don’t really want to throw away your career and move to Mongolia. But that impulse to hide, to run away, to wish things were easier, that makes so. much. sense. It’s OK to feel that way, honey. Really. Life isn’t easy. It’s especially not easy right now. Not in the grind years of being a working parent to young children under five. I look at all that you do, all the ways you love other people and work so hard every day to be a good person and a kind, helpful presence in the world and I’m so, so proud of you. Actually, I’m beyond proud of you. I’m amazed by you. You are so resilient. So strong. So capable. Such a good parent. Such a good person. You have so many responsibilities, so many people counting on you, and you don’t let them down. Your character is incredible. I know those Marvel movies are popular and everyone puts superheroes on pedestals. But I think full-time, working moms who are responsible for their family’s income and well-being are the real superheroes of the world. You’re one of them. And I wish I could make it all so much easier on you, honey. I wish I could shoulder all the work for you, all the sleep deprivation, the emails, the bills, the drudgery. I wish I could take it all on and you could have a break. A long one. A really long one. I can’t do that exactly. But I can listen to you. I can love you through it. I can listen to anything you want to say, anything you want me to know. I want to listen to you. I won’t judge you harshly — I remember feeling burned out beyond words myself and just wanting some safe space to vent into. Someone I could say the dark and embarrassing things to. Sometimes that’s all we need. So tell me, honey, what do you want me to know? What’s on your heart? What are you wishing for? Tell me whatever you want. I’ll listen to you, honey. And here’s something else I want you to know: even though the days feel interminable right now, even though you sometimes hate your spouse and you’re completely overwhelmed as a mother in a pandemic, even though it feels like you’ll never make traction on your goals, even though it feels like you’ll never sleep through the night again, I promise you: you will. Time will pass, the kids will grow up and become more independent, work will get easier because you’ll have more time to exercise and sleep and be with your girlfriends. You’ll have a chance to get nourished again and that will make everything else easier. And these years are always, always hard on a marriage. If you two can just hang in there, it will probably get easier. Of course, if you do want to change your life — separate from them, change jobs, move home — I’ll support you no matter what. I don’t need you to stay married or stay where you live or be in that fancy career. I don’t need you to do anything that doesn’t ultimately work for you. I’ll love you and support you no matter what. And, I’m holding the hope for you that things will get easier. Even if you can’t find that hope right now, especially since you can’t find that hope right now, let me hold that for you. Let me hold the faith that things will get easier in time. When this pandemic ends, when the kids grow, when you get more sleep, when you can see your friends again, when I can fly out to babysit… I really do trust that things will get easier, honey. But in the meantime, I’m here to listen to you. Gosh, I wish I could hold and hug you right now and just hold you in my arms while you have a long cry. I miss you so much. You’re such an incredible person and you are doing a wonderful job, honey. Being an adult is not easy. Being a good parent isn’t easy. Being the primary breadwinner of your family isn’t easy. Doing that job you have, being in that career of yours, I know for a fact that’s not easy! Keeping a family’s life revolving and functional, especially in a pandemic, isn’t easy. None of this is easy. And despite how you feel like you’re failing, I see how wonderful of a job you actually are doing. I think you’re a great mom. A great spouse. A great worker. A great person. I know it doesn’t feel like it honey, but you’re doing a truly wonderful job. And I’m so, so proud of you. I love you so much and I’m here for you in whatever way you need, in whatever way feels good to you. I love you.

A List of 15 Concrete Ways to Re-Mother Yourself

Mother’s Day is just around the corner. For many of my readers, for anyone who identified as coming from a relational trauma background, this can be one of the more complex and triggering days of the year. Over the years, I’ve written multiple articles to address the complexity of this day to validate the experiences of those who don’t feel seen by Hallmark cards and dominant cultural introjects, and to comfort those who struggle when this calendrical day rolls around again. And while I’ve talked, too, about the critical healing task of re-mothering yourself as an adult who comes from a relational trauma background, I’ve never quite articulated what that might look like in daily practice as an adult on an active healing journey. Today, as I move through my third year as a mother myself, as I celebrate my own third Mother’s Day, I feel like I know — more concretely than ever — what re-mothering as an adult might look like because of my daily experiences now mothering my daughter. And now I want to share my ideas and insights with you, to make more concrete the abstract that I’ve talked about over the years. Not because my list is exhaustive or definitive, but because its attendant ideas might catalyze your own curiosity and creativity as you actively re-mother yourself. So if you’ve ever asked the question, “How do I re-mother myself?” I hope you will find inspiration and encouragement for your own re-mothering journey. The Archetypal Qualities of Mother In order to answer the question, “How do I re-mother myself?” we first have to understand what it means to mother. While there is no one, universal definition of what a mother is or what mothering means, myth, fable, legend and spiritual/religious texts over millennia have often ascribed certain qualities to the archetype of mother. Some of these common qualities and attributes include the following: Comfort Nurturance Empathy Solace Substance Support Grounding Safety Warmth Care And so these qualities might make up the sum of the verb, to mother. But, to be clear, these qualities are not relegated to mothers or to female-identified individuals alone. I believe strongly that men, male-identified and non-binary individuals, fathers and non-fathers can and do possess these archetypal mothering qualities and attributes, too. Indeed, my husband — a cis-gendered male father — arguably possesses these archetypal qualities of “mothering” more so than I — a cis-gendered female mother — do. So please, as you read this essay, as you contemplate what it may mean to actively re-mother yourself, hold the concepts of archetype in mind, and leave sex, gender and patriarchal roles at the door. We’re all capable of possessing these archetypal mothering qualities. The Concept of the Good Enough” Mother Also, in order to answer the question of “ How do I re-mother myself?” I feel compelled to share with you the concept of the “good enough” parent. The “good enough parent” is one of my favorite concepts in psychology. It’s an idea and term made famous by the English pediatrician and psychoanalyst Donald Winnicot, MD. The concept of the “good enough parent” posits that not only is there no such thing as a perfect parent, but indeed, champions the “ordinary good mother… the devoted mother” who, at times, in developmentally appropriate ways, “fails” her child by not giving into their every whim and desire, by making choices the child does not like sometimes, by disappointing them at other times. (For an example of developmentally appropriate disappointment and let down for the child think, “No, I’m sorry, we don’t eat ice cream for breakfast” versus leaving the child abandoned alone at an airport in a different state with no return ticket home.) This developmentally appropriate “failing” on the part of the good enough mother (or father or parent) actually helps the child psychologically and developmentally as they confront the realities of the world — a world in which they, like all of us, will have to tolerate and cope with disappointment, failure and let downs from time to time. The concept of the “good enough” mother is something I self-soothe with at least once a week when I question my own parenting choices. It’s also a concept I find very helpful when working with clients to help them see their parents and early childhood experiences more realistically. And it’s a concept, too, that I think is helpful as we contemplate the question, “How do I re-mother myself?” Because the reality is, we won’t re-mother ourselves perfectly. We — like the good enough mother with her child — will fail and disappoint ourselves sometimes. We won’t get it right all the time. We’ll screw up some of the time. But with this concept of the “good enough mother,” we’re aiming for that “ordinary good mother …the devoted mother” as Winnocot described it, not the perfect mother. And in that, I find so much permission and ease. I hope you do, too. A Concrete List of Ways to Re-mother Yourself As we hold the archetypal qualities of mother in mind, as we also recognize and hold the concept of “good enough” (and not perfect) in mind, consider the following examples of ways that you might actively begin to re-mother yourself: 1. In much the same way we wouldn’t force a toddler to move on to activity after activity without stopping to pee in the potty, or give them snacks and water, re-mothering ourselves might also mean paying more attention to our own basic biological signals — full bladders, empty tummies, thirst — and instead of pushing ourselves to tackle the next to-do list item first (with the promise of meetings our needs after it’s done), actually pausing and tending to our basic needs first. Go to the bathroom, eat your lunch, drink that cup of water. Tend to your basic bio needs first, then turn back to the to-do list. 2. In much the same way that we wouldn’t shame and denigrate and talk poorly to a small child who feels sad and angry about a disappointment in their world (having to go to daycare that morning versus staying home, for example), re-mothering ourselves as adults might also mean consciously speaking to ourselves more kindly, with more compassion and grace for our experience instead of shaming, blaming or otherwise criticizing ourselves for how we feel. 3. In much the same way we fastidiously ensure we attend every postnatal appointment and Well Child visit for our little one, keeping them up to date with shots and seeking out all the necessary medical care at the right time, re-mothering ourselves might mean making sure we proactively (not just reactively) schedule and attend regular maintenance medical appointments (annual physicals, pap smears, mammograms, bi-annual dental visits) and then seeking out extra care in times we think we may need more medical attention (noticing the margins of a beauty mark changing on our body, finding a lump, etc). 4. In much the same way we would create a soothing, stable, reliable, predictable and calming bedtime routine and environment for our toddler, re-mothering ourselves might mean attending to and cultivating great sleep hygiene and a soothing nighttime ritual to ensure we support our nervous systems and get good, adequate rest. 5. In much the same way we would offer hugs and touch and soothing words when our little one is hurt or scared or upset, re-mothering ourselves might mean asking for hugs, touch and extra support when we are in need, when we feel scared, sad and overwhelmed. This can look like asking friends and loved ones for words of warmth and touch, or it can look like paying for professional support that can offer this, perhaps in the form of a trusted therapist or skilled massage practitioner. 6. In much the same way we prioritize making sure our children have healthy, well-rounded and nutritious diets, re-mothering ourselves might mean stocking our homes and cabinets with nutrient-dense food and vitality-enforcing liquids, taking vitamins, installing a water filter or otherwise taking actions to ensure that what enters our body helps and not harms. 7. In much the same way that we would ensure our homes are safe and comfortable for little ones (with baby gates, locking up cleaning agents and baby proofing the knife drawers, making sure there are adequate and comfortable linens and furniture in the house), re-mothering ourselves might mean tending to the safety and functionality of our homes (ensuring the smoke alarms work, the fire extinguishers aren’t expired, the lock on the door is solid, the renter’s insurance is purchased). 8. In much the same way that we would ensure our toddlers have comfortable, well-fitting and weather-appropriate clothing in their closets and on their small bodies when they head outdoors, re-mothering ourselves might mean likewise ensuring we have clothing and shoes that are comfortable, suits the body we have (versus the body we long to have) and that protects us in a variety of climates, ensuring we stay dry, comfortable and protected from the elements. 9. In much the same way that a good enough mother might notice her child’s budding interests and then actively seek out more experiences in that vein of interest for her to explore and engage with, re-mothering ourselves might mean paying attention to the hobbies, interests and little fantasies that light us up (versus what we think we “should” do or be interested in) and then following what lights us up, exposing ourselves to more of what we love and what enlivens us. 10. In much the same way that we might work to balance both stimulation/adventure/newness alongside calmness/predictability/routine for our little child, re-mothering ourselves might mean paying attention to our nervous systems to make sure we’re providing ourselves with both stimulating and soothing experiences to help regulate our window of tolerance. 11. In much the same way that we would bathe our toddler every night, scrubbing the dirt out from their toe and fingernails, washing the yogurt out of their hair and making sure they brush their teeth well, re-mothering ourselves might also mean attending to our hygiene well, keeping our bodies clean and healthy and in good order. 12. In much the same way that we would ensure we’re equipped with snacks, drinks, diapers, wipes, spare clothes and toys for entertainment when we have to run errands with a baby, re-mothering ourselves might also mean making sure we have all we need and want to meet our biological and psychological needs when we have to do something that might feel like a chore. Water at hand, nourishing snacks, all the right tools and some promise of play throughout or at the end. 13. In much the same way that we would mark our beloved child’s birthday with something special, or make sure that certain holidays are celebrated and made memorable, re-mothering ourselves might also mean actively making special our own birthday, or other mindfully commemorating holidays or important days on the calendar so that our years have meaning, joy and special memories laced throughout the calendrical cycle. 14. In much the same way that we wouldn’t expect a toddler to sit still for a 14-hour flight or be able to recite the Gettysburg address, re-mothering ourselves might mean being acutely mindful of our capacities — physiological, psychological, financial and logistical — and honoring and respecting those capacities, bearing in mind the context of your own capacities, and not expecting yourself to be magically more advanced or capable than you are (yet). 15. In much the same way we sometimes have to make hard decisions our young one won’t like (turning off the screens, serving veggies at dinner, dropping them off at preschool so you can earn a paycheck, making them buckle up and hold our hand crossing the street), re-mothering ourselves might also mean making hard, less-satisfying-in-the-moment decisions in order to ensure long-term health, safety and success. And being kind and patient with ourselves when those decisions come up. This list of active ways to re-mother yourself is, as I said, not exhaustive. It’s the tip of the iceberg in terms of the possibilities of actively re-mothering yourself. I hope that this list — inspired by both the concepts of archetypal mothering, “good enough” mothering and some parallel real-world parenting examples — provides you with inspiration and creative energy to approach how you treat yourself, how you re-mother yourself, how kindly you show up for yourself on your own healing journey. If you feel inclined, please do leave a message in the comments section of my blog to let me know: what’s one more example of re-mothering yourself that you can think of? Until next time, please take such good care of yourself. You’re so worth it. Warmly, Annie

How to Speak Kindly to Yourself If You Struggle With Self-Criticism

“Would you tell your kid she’s ‘stupid?’” “What?! No. Never.” My client and I were wrapping up a session and she had just begun being incredibly critical to herself. “OK,” I said. “Why not?” “Well,” my client said, “Because she’s just a child, she’s my child! And she’s not ‘stupid,’ and I love her and … I interrupted her. “Exactly! You love her and you would never in a million years say that to her. So, why are you saying it to yourself?” Client pauses. “Well, it’s different with me. I am ‘stupid.’ Plus, I’m an adult, so it’s different.” I take a deep breath. “It’s not, actually. It’s not different. You’re not ‘stupid’ and it’s your job as an adult to treat yourself with the same kindness you give to your actual child. With the same patience, and love, and compassion as you would have ideally been shown when you were a child. And I think if you could give yourself even one fraction of what you give to your child, if you could turn that love back on yourself even a tiny bit, you’d experience powerful shifts in your self-esteem and confidence.” Why actively speaking kindly to yourself matters. Over the last 10 years of clinical psychotherapy work, I must have had a conversation like the one in this blog’s opening at least 300 times. I never fail to be amazed at how many of my clients are wonderful, loving, instinctually compassionate and supportive parents to their own children, despite coming from adverse and outright tragically abusive backgrounds where almost no one showed them even a modicum of the care they show their own children. It brings me to tears to think about how good my clients are at parenting their children despite the lack of “good enough parenting” they received. But it also makes me so sad to see, despite how wonderful they are with their own children, they still deeply struggle to speak and treat themselves well. It seems ironic and disconnected, doesn’t it? You can be a wonderful parent to your flesh and blood children, but a terrible inner parent to yourself. But, I see this all the time. That’s why one of my very favorite therapy tools to use when I’m dealing with a particularly self-critical client and I know that they’re a wonderful parent, is to invite them to speak to themselves as they would to their own child(ren). Why does this matter? In a word: neuroscience. To elaborate, I’m sure you, like so many of us, have heard the term “neurons that fire together, wire together.” This phrase and contribution to the field of neuropsychology was first used in 1949 by Donald Hebb, a Canadian neuropsychologist. Effectively, Hebb’s rule teaches us each thought (spoken or unspoken), every habit, every feeling and physical sensation we experience triggers the firing of neurons which, in time, creates a neural network in your brain. Associated channels of memory and habit as it were. And when you repeat something again and again — consciously or unconsciously — you reify (meaning, strengthen) that neural network. So, for anyone particularly self-critical who has spent a lifetime lambasting, degrading and being outright unkind to themselves, they likely have strong neural pathways to reinforce this behavior. To achieve the change that client ultimately wants from our therapy together, we have to, effectively, rewire their brain. We have to form new neural pathways around treating and speaking to themselves more kindly, more compassionately. And a very large amount of this “rewiring” can come from teaching and supporting my clients to actively talk to themselves more kindly in between our sessions. Talking to and about themselves as they would speak to and think about their own children. Here’s how the exercise looks in practice. How to actively speak more kindly to yourself. The way I teach my clients to actively speak to themselves more kindly happens in three steps: 1. Moment to moment, catch yourself being unkind to yourself. 2. Pause. Instead of being unkind to yourself, think of what you would say to your own child in that moment. 3. And then actively say that to yourself instead. It sounds simple, doesn’t it? It is a simple exercise. But in no way is it easy. In fact, I think this is probably one of the most challenging exercises I offer clients. Why? Because, first of all, it requires you to bring a heightened awareness to how you’re talking to yourself moment to moment. Each time you get out of the shower and see your loose skin and belly hanging down, each time you get interrupted by your less-than-supportive manager on a Zoom call, each time you see the state of your chaotic garage and yard and start berating yourself for not having a tidier home … you need to bring awareness to all of these moments through the day when you’re on neural pathway autopilot and starting to beat yourself up about yourself/your capacities/your life. This level of mindfulness takes work and it’s not always comfortable to do. Then, when you do catch yourself in those moments when you’re about to be unkind to yourself, you need to pause, as much as possible, and stop yourself from saying something unkind/unsupportive/mean to yourself, and instead think, “What would I say to my own child?” You might tell your son or daughter: “It’s OK honey, you’re doing a great job and you’re working so hard. It’s OK not to have everything be perfect.” “Your body is strong and healthy and beautiful. I love your body!” “You’re scared and anxious right now, that makes sense. I’m here with you. I got you.” And then, here’s where it gets even more uncomfortable: You then say those things to yourself. Yes, really. Out loud. Silently. It doesn’t matter. You just have to say that alternative, kind, supportive thought to yourself to get those new, different neurons firing. It will feel awkward. It will feel forced. It will feel fake. Remember: You’ve spent decades speaking and treating yourself unkindly. Those self-critical neural pathways are strong. It’s going to take time and some discomfort to create new neural pathways and to have those new neural pathways start to feel as automatic as the old ones. But, if you keep practicing the above exercise, day after day, you will create new neural pathways for yourself and you will support the transformation of your self-talk, which in turn, will lead to a cascade of positive psychological impacts. This is the work of change. It’s simple, but it’s not easy. And never once have I had a client come back to me after I assign this exercise and say, “Wow, Annie that was really easy to do. A breeze.” But also, every single time I have assigned this exercise, my clients have come back and said, “Wow, that was powerful. Uncomfortable, but powerful. I can feel some difference already.” So again, the work of change, particularly when we come from adverse early beginnings, is not easy. But it is so worthwhile. The invitation. So now, my invitation to you is this: If you identify with this essay today, if you struggle speaking to yourself or thinking about yourself kindly, if you struggle with treating yourself well — with respect, love and care — I want you to practice this exercise, actively talking kindly to yourself, at least once a day for the next week. If you have a child you deeply love, it is very powerful to use them as a resource here when and if you struggle to find something kind or caring to say to yourself. If you don’t have a child, but there is a child in your life you really love, a niece or nephew or little neighbor child, imagine them in this exercise. How would you talk to them? And if you can tolerate this and if you want to make this exercise even more powerful, find a childhood photo of yourself from an age of your youth. Imagine speaking kindly and supportively to this child. And then, if you’re willing, please share how this exercise felt for you by leaving a message in the comments of this blog. We get over 20,000 blog visitors each month and they might benefit from hearing your experience and insights so they can feel less alone. So again, if you feel inclined, please share about your experience using this exercise. And, until next time, please take such good care of yourself. You’re so worth it. Warmly, Annie