How (And Why) to Listen Like a Therapist

Stories are the creative conversion of life itself into a more powerful, clearer, more meaningful experience. They are the currency of human contact. — Robert McKee

Everyday, in my work, I have the honor of listening to the stories of others. And while the experience often provides a rich tapestry of understanding, acceptance and healing for them, I feel that I also walk away from every meeting with an irreplacable gift. More often than not, I see myself in each of their stories. I revisit my own sadness, happiness, struggles, and resilience. In each story I find myself.

My training as a therapist and more specifically as an engaged listener has translated beautifully in my personal life. The  active listening skills I’ve learned have allowed me to open myself to others and, perhaps more importantly, allowed others to open to me.

Our stories are one of the most powerful gifts we can offer each other.

And whatever the story, when you are fully engaged in hearing it, it has the power to  change you. It may give you a clearer picture of who you are, who you want to be or even who you don’t want to be.

Engaging in active listening frees the person you’re talking with to share their story. It frees you to understand the story. 

The following will help you open to the stories of others.

  • Fight the urge to judge what you’re hearing. For this moment your focus is understanding the feelings, perspectives and experiences of another person.
  • Face the person you’re engaging with. If you’re sitting down, lean in slightly. Maintain an open posture (uncrossed arms and legs). Maintain eye contact (this is not true in all cultures, in some cultures it is a sign of disrespect to look someone in the eye for a prolonged period of time).
  • Strive to fully understand the other person. Ask questions. Clarify what you’ve heard by reflecting it back in your own words.
  • Reflect what their body language is communicating. Sometimes people will communicate their emotions with their bodies while avoiding them with their words.
  • Thank them for sharing with you.

The ancient Sanskrit greeting, “namaste” loosely translates to “the divine in me greets the divine in you.” I believe we embrace the divine in each other when we share our stories.

Have you found yourself changed by another’s story? Please share your experiences in the comments section.

Thank you for reading! If you found this post helpful you can subscribe here and connect with me on twitter.

Change Through Insight

I began to feel that, in a sense, we were all prisoners of our own history. Roland Joffe

Our lives are set in motion by many factors,  some we can control and some we cannot. Often, those that we can control reside just below our awareness. It’s these factors that influence our interactions with others,  our successes and failures, our relationships with our loved ones and the way we care for ourselves.

We can live our whole lives without discovering  the keys to change. Or, we can excavate our beliefs about ourselves and the world that lies just beneath our consciousness.

The difference between the two is the difference between a life lived intentionally with confidence and direction and a life of reaction defined by a desire for something different and no idea of how to get it.

The steps to discovery are simple, though they require a willingness to invest in oneself. When we do the work of discovering what we believe and why, we free ourselves to change, if that is what is best, and to let go of what is no longer necessary.

Our personalities are shaped early on in our lives, before we’re able to comprehend others’ motivations and desires. We internalize many messages and beliefs that are critical to our early survival and development. But often, as we become adults, these beliefs no longer serve their purpose. Questioning these beliefs and their accuracy allows us to more fully accept ourselves as we are today and our world as we understand it now.

There are different paths to this learning. Each one requires a commitment to learning and understanding ourselves.

Journaling is one way to do this work. Working with a therapist is another.

If you decide to learn more about yourself through journaling, you may find the following prompts helpful:

  • What were the early messages I received as a child? These can be verbal things you were told about yourself and others, or, nonverbal messages that you understood to be true. Examples include, “You’re not capable.” This can be expressed verbally or non-verbally when a caregiver intervenes before you’re able to try things for yourself.
  • Which of these messages were really true and which were not? Often times we receive messages that aren’t true from caregivers who are struggling with their own challenges. They may project mistaken beliefs onto those around them. Children are especially vulnerable to these projections.
  • What are my strengths? Each of us has a set of gifts that are unique to us. If you find listing your strengths difficult, think about what others appreciate in you. Consider how you’ve overcome obstacles in your life.
  • How do I care for myself? Before you can invest in others, you must learn to appreciate, love and care for yourself. It can be helpful to treat yourself as you would a dear friend. When you find yourself feeling down or struggling, speak to yourself as you would a loved one. This can help turn around any negative self talk you may be engaging in.
  • What are my priorities? These are the things that are most important to you in your life. List them in order of importance, then list small steps you can take daily to increase your focus on these priorities.

If you find yourself struggling with anything that comes up for you as you do these exercises, consider talking with a trusted friend, family member or a professional therapist. You can  learn more about getting the most out of working with a therapist here.

Please ask any questions you have or share your experiences with personal insight in the comments section.

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The Pain Trap

Emotional wounds can consume us when we withhold the nurturing they require. Just like physical wounds, emotional wounds need our attention. Without proper care we can experience a kind of emotional infection. Like an infection, the trauma we’ve experienced spreads into other areas of our lives.

Research shows that people who’ve processed the trauma they’ve experienced are better parents, have healthier relationships and attach more readily to their children than people who’ve experienced similar amounts of trauma and have left it unprocessed.

Unprocessed trauma often results in strained relationships with others and difficulty attending to our own needs.

Processing our pain is part of the core work of being human. “Processing” means acknowledging our experiences. What we felt, what we needed at the time and what those experiences mean for us now.

Choosing to honor your experiences, process them, own them and let them go, heals the wound.

You cannot appropriately honor the pain of another without honoring your own pain.

If you choose to gloss over your pain, ignore it, push it down, diminish it, or disregard it, you will find your pain surfacing when you witness someone else’s.  You may find yourself overwhelmed by emotion. In order to defend yourself from the emotional pain, you may shut out the other person and their pain, or you may attempt to rescue them as you wish someone had rescued you.

Coming to terms with your pain requires the ability to tolerate the emotions that come up for you when you think about the past. When you allow yourself to work through painful experiences, you often re-experience intense emotion including sadness, anger, frustration and even rage. The fear of getting lost in these emotions can be overwhelming.

Many people find it helpful to work with a therapist as they begin processing painful experiences. A good therapist will provide a safe place for you to begin working through these intense emotions. He or she will help you structure the process so you can work through your past without being overwhelmed by it.

While working through past trauma can feel scary and overwhelming, the payoff is indescribable. Healing your wounds is like releasing yourself from a set of invisible chains.

Learn more about choosing the right therapist for you here.

A Simple Guide to Forgiveness

“To be wronged is nothing, unless you continue to remember it.” -Confucius

Forgiving others does more for us than it does for the person who has wronged us. Until we forgive them we are bound to them. We give them power over our lives, we allow them to influence who we are and the choices we make.

Forgiving isn’t easy. When we choose to forgive we open ourselves to grief. We’re letting go of the hope, however small, that things could have been different. When we acknowledge this we move from anger to sadness. Sometimes it feels safer to stay angry. But unresolved anger is destructive. When we stay angry we’re like a child picking at a scab. We don’t allow the wound to heal.

Healing begins when we move from anger into sadness and grief. Grief allows us to process the impact of our loss or pain. Recognizing that what’s done is done frees us to move on. We can allow the wound to heal if we choose. While we may be changed by our experience, we choose how we are changed.

The following questions can help you work toward forgiveness.

  • Think about your experience. How did you feel when you were wronged? How do you feel now when you think of it? How has it affected your life? Your relationships?
  •  How is your unwillingness to forgive affecting your life today? Your relationships?
  • Take back your power. Knowing there is no way to change the past, what steps can you take today toward the life you want for yourself in spite of the wrongs you have suffered?
  • What would it mean to you to forgive the person who wronged you? How would your life be different if you let go of the hurt and the anger?

In my own life the most difficult part of forgiving has been accepting things as they are and letting go of the desire for them to be different. What has been the biggest challenge for you?

Thank you for reading! If you found this post helpful you can subscribe here and connect with me on twitter.


What Giving Does for Us

“In giving you are throwing a bridge across the chasm of your solitude.” Antoine de Sainte-Exupery

The Benefits of Giving

The holiday season is often thought of as the giving season, but finding opportunities to serve others year round can help us stay grounded, hopeful, optimistic and connected to others. Helping others not only feels good, it has lasting health benefits. According to recent research, reviewed in this report, volunteering is linked to increased health, overall well-being, and decreased mortality.

Serving others appears to fortify us against the ups and downs we may experience in life, including loneliness, depression and stress.

Benefits of Giving

  • feeling valued
  • a sense of purpose and belonging
  • connection to others
  • a sense of community
  • improving lives
  • strengthening interpersonal skills
  • strengthening communication skills
  • exploring our gifts and talents
  • transforming our own lives

Giving and Gratitude

Giving is linked to gratitude. When we give, we acknowledge our place in the land of enough. We believe we can afford to share, not just money or things, but also our time, energy, love and support. We also increase our feelings of gratitude when we serve others who do without many of the things we take for granted.

While serving others can provide a wealth of benefits, we won’t experience any of them if we’re over-extending ourselves. It’s important to remember serving others does not mean sacrificing self care or focusing on others to the detriment of one’s own well being. Before you can care for others, you must first care for yourself.

The first step for many of us is finding time for serving others without feeling overwhelmed. Clearly defining your priorities can help.

One way to determine your priorities is to ask yourself, “How would I spend my time if I had only one year to live?” If the joy, connectedness and pleasure of knowing you’ve helped others fits into your priorities, look for things that take time away from what’s important in your life and start eliminating.

Decide what type of giving opportunity fits you best

What do you love to do?

Who do you enjoy spending time with?

What are your gifts, your skills?

Brainstorm ideas for giving to others. List anything that comes to mind regardless of the practicality of it.

What themes stand out for you?

Find local volunteering opportunities at Volunteer Match. A quick search in my zip code pulled up 633 opportunities ranging from online college mentor, to animal foster parent, to helping a group of elementary students transform their dilapidated courtyard into a butterfly garden.

You might send someone a thoughtful, handwritten note. If you enjoy cooking, you could drop off a homemade loaf of bread or invite a neighbor to dinner.If you prefer something more low key, think about neighbors, acquaintances, or friends you could help.

Check out Charity Navigator,  if you’d like to donate to an organization. Charity Navigator is an independent organization that evaluates charities based on their stewardship of donor funds. One of my favorite charities is KIVA, a micro-lending organization focused on eliminating poverty.

Making it work for you

Now that you have an idea of what you’d like to do, decide how much time you’d like to devote to serving others weekly or monthly.

Start slowly. You can always add more later. Right now, focus on finding the right fit, the amount of time that works best for you and the particular opportunity you’d like to focus on.

Enlist the support of others. Talk about your ideas with others, ask for input or suggestions. Consider asking your family or friends to join you in your first act of service. Explain the benefits to them and ask for their support as you make giving a priority in your life.

Don’t be afraid to try different ideas. You may try something once and decide it’s not for you. Don’t give up, try something else. It may take some time to find the right fit.

Commit to one act of service within the next week. After you’ve completed it, assess it. Did you enjoy it? Do you think you’ll enjoy it more when you’ve done it a few times and feel more comfortable with it? Did it take more time than you had allotted? Are there things you can tweak to make the experience better for you?

I’d love to hear your input on serving others. What other ways can we serve others outside of formal volunteering? How do you incorporate serving others into your life? Let me know in the comments section or on twitter.


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Challenging Fear

“He who deliberates fully before taking a step will spend his entire life on one leg”. Chinese Proverb


Each of us has an inner voice that keeps us safe, sometimes too safe. This is the voice that heightens our awareness when we’re in a dangerous situation. It’s the same voice that increases our anxiety when we’re drawn to a project, or a dream, or a lifestyle change outside of our comfort zone.

Our inner voice may respond by listing the reasons we shouldn’t attempt our goal. We could face embarrassment, rejection or failure. We won’t have enough time, energy or money.

It’s our job to determine whether these fears are legitimate or not.

We can begin to better understand the difference by gently addressing the fears our inner voice brings up.

  • Decide whether or not it’s worth the risk. Will taking on a new challenge or dream cause embarrassment? If so, is it worth the risk? Growth requires some discomfort. If there’s something in your life you want, can you tolerate some discomfort to get it?
  • Create the time and space for your new challenge. Our lives quickly expand to fill the hours of our days. Find something you can eliminate to make time for your new goal. Start with 15 minutes a day (t.v. or social media could be a good place to cut back).
  •  Find support. Sharing  your goal with a friend, family member, or online group is a great way to hold yourself accountable and receive encouragement.
  • Create a simple plan. Taking on a new challenge can feel overwhelming. Write down three simple things you can do to work toward your goal today. When you complete those three things, write down three more, and so on.
  • Follow through. Your first efforts may feel clumsy or awkward. It might not go exactly the way you planned. That’s okay. You’re learning as you go. That’s progress.

 With practice, we can learn to challenge our fears and move boldly toward our best lives.

Thank you for reading! If you found this post helpful you can subscribe here and connect with me on twitter.

Can This Relationship Be Saved?

This is the final post in the series, Toxic Relationships. Don’t miss parts one and two.

Once you’ve determined you’re in a toxic relationship you can take steps to redefine it.

It won’t be easy, changing the dynamic will require you to step outside your comfort zone. You will likely meet with some resistance.

Becoming aware of what feels uncomfortable in the relationship can help you share what you want to be different. It’s always best to share your feelings using “I” language. For example, “When you criticize me, I feel hurt and sad.” or “I would like to spend more time with you talking about the positive things in both of our lives.” Using “I” language can help people hear you without raising their defenses.

For some relationships, sharing your feelings and listening to the other person’s thoughts and feelings will be enough to move your relationship in a healthier direction. Dr. John Gottman, relationship researcher and theorist, talks about learning to repair relationships in this video.

But what if you attempt to share your feelings and the other person becomes angry, even enraged, and refuses to listen?

Some people have great difficulty empathizing with others. For some people, any perceived criticism feels like a full on attack. This is especially true for people with borderline or narcisstic personality traits. If sharing your feelings only leads to more conflict, you may need to reach out for help.

First, find support. Whether it’s a trusted friend, family member or spiritual leader, it’s critical that you have someone to talk with about your feelings and what’s best for you.

Whether your relationship is a romantic one or not, consider counseling for both of you together. A therapist can help facilitate resolution and support you both as you express your feelings and your goals for the relationship.

If the other person in your relationship refuses to go to counseling, consider going alone. A therapist can help you feel supported and encouraged through this challenging time. (S)he can also provide tools for setting clear boundaries and caring for yourself within all of your relationships. You can learn more about finding the right counselor for you here.

 Thank you for reading! If you found this post helpful you can subscribe here and connect with me on twitter.

Toxic Relationships


This is the second in a series of posts on toxic relationships. Click here for part one. 

Toxic relationships drain your resources. They cause you to doubt yourself, your choices and even you’re worth. Learning to identify toxic relationships is an important step toward protecting yourself from them.

Is there someone in your life who. . .


leaves you feeling sad, angry, or emotionally drained?

criticizes and belittles you?

 dismisses your feelings as invalid or untrue?

manipulates you with guilt?

goes to extreme lengths to justify his or her behavior when (s)he has hurt you?

always takes more of your time, energy, resources than (s)he gives?

Understanding the impact this person has on you is the first step toward changing it.

Write down your answers to the following questions.

 Think about your relationship on a scale of 1 to 5. How much do you feel you receive from the relationship? How much do you feel you give?  

What are the top three things you’d like to change in this relationship?

How do you feel when you’re with this person?

Are you struggling with feelings of resentment toward him or her?

How comfortable are you saying no to this person?

Think about your answers to these questions. What do your answers tell you about the relationship, yourself, or the person you’re in the relationship with?

Sometimes we stay in toxic relationships because we’re sure that if we just give a little more or work a little harder we’ll get what we need from this relationship. Is there something (i.e. love, approval, validations, understanding) you need from this relationship that feels elusive? Give yourself some time to think about these questions and your answers. Remember, awareness is the first step toward change.

Stay tuned for Part Three of this series, Can This Relationship Be Saved?

 Thank you for reading! If you enjoyed what you read you can subscribe here and connect with me on twitter.

On Trees and Toxic Relationships

This is the first post in a series on toxic relationships.

Once, in a lush green forest, a young tree was befriended by a vine. The vine was friendly and helpful and the tree and vine soon became very close.

The tree learned to rely on the vine, and before long, the vine and the tree became so close they were almost one. Time went on and the tree grew. The vine grew, too, wrapping herself tightly around the tree.

But the tree began to notice something was wrong. She was growing very slowly in comparison to the other trees in the forest. At times, the tree felt suffocated by the vine.

The tree began to feel sad. She wasn’t really living her life as a tree. Most of her resources went to supporting the vine.

One day the tree gathered up her courage and asked the vine to untangle herself from the tree. The vine became very angry and afraid and dug deeper into the tree. The vine told the tree she was the worst tree she’d ever known and the tree was lucky to have such a kind and wonderful vine caring for her.

The vine was worried, because without the tree the vine feared she would die.

This kept the tree quiet for awhile, but she couldn’t shake the feeling that she’d never be able to become the tree she was meant to be unless the vine let her go.

“We can still be friends,” the tree said earnestly, “but I need to use more of my resources for myself.”

The vine became furious and lashed out at the tree. She accused the tree of being selfish. She reminded the tree of all she had done for her and promised her that one day she’d come begging for the vine’s help and the vine wouldn’t be there.

The tree was heartbroken. But, she stood her ground.

The next few days were very difficult for the tree and the vine. When the vine finally understood that the tree would not relent, she gathered herself up and painfully unwound herself from the tree. The vine thought she might die and for a time she became very ill.

The tree was ill for awhile too. Her trunk bore scars from her relationship with the vine. And though they reminded her of a very painful time, the scars also reminded her of her strength. With time, she grew into the beautiful, healthy tree she was meant to be.

 This is how it can be for us when we’re enmeshed in a toxic relationship. It can be painful to stay and painful to go. Often, the toxic person will refuse a relationship unless it’s based on his or her terms. This makes it almost impossible to set boundaries, care for oneself and still have a relationship.

Have you experienced a toxic relationship? Were you able to set boundaries within the relationship or did you end it?

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