Where Do You Go From Here?

Imagine looking back at your life as if it were a rocky mountain path and saying to yourself: This is where I walked.

Imagine looking at the miles of distance you have traveled with appreciation for the beautiful scenery and acknowledgement of the painful falls and difficult climbs you overcame. Imagine noticing how you have changed and grown along the way. How you may have collected heavy rocks in your backpack during your hike. Imagine taking that backpack off and placing it on the ground. You have carried it far enough. Those rocks were not even yours to begin with. Imagine then turning around and taking a breath of fresh air. You have traveled far and you have the freedom to choose where you go from here. There is no need to retrace the steps you have already taken. There is no need to pick up the backpack. You can leave it right where it is. And then, you can look up at the clouds and ahead at the unexplored landscape in front of you, and take a step in any direction you choose. Rest assured that wherever you go will bring you a beautiful view, new challenges, and unexpected detours.

There is no wrong way to go.

The path will unfold as you walk.

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How to Say What You Need to Say

If you learned right now you only had a few hours left to live, with no ability to communicate with anyone, what would you most regret not having expressed to the people in your life?

Assuming you do have the ability to communicate, what stops you from saying what you need to say?

Some of us have been socialized to not share how we feel. Many families avoid uncomfortable conversations and discourage open expression of feelings and concerns. Sometimes we get silenced or ridiculed when trying to say what’s on our mind. And some of us walk around with the idea that in order to be strong, we need to never be vulnerable.IMG_1122

But the things left unsaid can get heavy. The longer we carry them, the heavier they get. Personal truths, unspoken apologies, feelings towards those who mean more to us than they know…

The simplest way to let go of the weight is to say what we need to say – to a trusted friend, to a therapist, or directly to the person we need to address.

I personally have found this remarkably difficult, but the more I do it anyway the easier it gets. Now, this does not mean that I like being vulnerable. The last time I was about to tell someone exactly what was weighing on me, my heart was beating out of my chest and my hands were shaking. Not pleasant. But afterwards I felt like I had put down an immense backpack and the relief made it all worth it.

So how do we do this? As far as I know, there is no fixed recipe for authentic expression, but there are some things we can keep in mind that could make the process just a little smoother:

  1. Find the core

Ask yourself what is the most important part of all the things you would like to get out. What weighs on you the most? Finding the core of what you need to say helps focus your attention. You don’t need to say everything at once.

  1. Set your objective

Be honest with yourself about what you want to accomplish. Perhaps you would like other people to change, but this may not happen. Similarly, we cannot control the outcome of the conversation. What we can do, however, is to focus on the process. The act of expressing yourself needs to be practiced over and over again, regardless of the outcome. By making the objective be expression for the sake of personal growth and emotional relief, there is no way to fail.

  1. State your intention

Before you start, let the person know what your intention is. Oftentimes, people react to personal sharing by giving unsolicited advice and telling us how to stop feeling the way we do. This can be pretty unhelpful. To make this less likely, express that you simply want to share how you feel, talk about something that has been on your mind, clarify something that may have been obscure, or whatever else you are wanting to do. If needed, let the person know that you are not looking for an opinion or a solution, and that you would simply want them to hear you out.

  1. Focus on your own feelings

Here is something important: No one can tell you how to feel. Your feelings are all yours and you are the one who gets to define them. Therefore, when you focus on your own emotional experiences, disagreement becomes irrelevant. Your feelings are valid, even when others feel differently. Try not to minimize your feelings (e.g. “I am hurt, but it’s not a big deal”) or use hesitation words (e.g. “I guess I sort of feel a little frustrated”). Whatever you feel is okay.

  1. Show interest in mutual understanding

Once you have shared what you wanted to share, the listener might be feeling some kind of way. If you care about the relationship, it might be a good idea to express interest in hearing them out as well. If they do share, try to listen as non-defensively as you can and ask them questions to get a better idea of where they are coming from.

  1. Ask for what you want

Most people I know are poor mind readers. They do not automatically know what I want from them unless I tell them straight up. I can wait and hope and leave hints, but this can get very confusing. Asking for what you want is not a sign of weakness. It is the simplest way to let others know how they can be helpful.

  1. Observe

The process of being authentic is scary and liberating. As you step outside your silent comfort zone and start expressing yourself more openly, you may notice reactions within yourself you did not anticipate. Maybe you’ll find yourself avoiding eye contact. Maybe you’ll feel a knot in your stomach. Perhaps you will feel tempted to shift the focus away from yourself. It’s all part of the experience and nothing is wrong with that.

  1. Repeat

This may feel like the strangest thing to do, but the more you practice openness, the more it becomes a part of your way of being. Being authentic and open does not guarantee that others will respond with acceptance and understanding, but it can free up a lot of space in your mind and heart. And putting the weight down can feel pretty amazing.

Freezing Over

It is time for winter to be over. By the end of February people at the northern end of the northern hemisphere have got all the freeze they need for one year and right now it is time to move on to other weathers. It’s that simple.

Sunshine at 1 pm in DecemberThis may be a surprise, but being from Iceland does not automatically mean that one is a fan of winter and loves being cold. For example, I don’t… At all. And I’m not alone in that. Darkness and cold weather have the side effect of changing many people’s habits and make them less likely to do some of the things that actually help lift mood and improve general quality of life. When it’s freezing outside, many of us are less likely to take walks, go to a gym class, leave the house to visit friends, bike to work, get sunlight on our face, and mow the lawn, and this can leave us inactive and moody. We may blame our low mood on the cold, but chances are it’s largely affecting us indirectly through our change in habits.

Personally, I don’t like too much winter. A three-week winter would be just fine and I don’t need it to get dark at 4 pm at any point during the year. I say this despite having some good winter clothes and a well-insulated place to call home. I’m not the construction worker staying outdoors all day and I’m not the homeless person who sits next to a hot-air vent on the sidewalk to keep herself warm while strangers pass her by and don’t even bother to check if she is dead or alive.

IMG_1397And yet, I complain. I complain to myself in private and once in a while I share my complaints with whomever seems equally tired of ice. In reality, my complaints are relatively senseless. I’ll be fine whether it’s freezing outside or not. Complaining about winter will not make spring arrive any sooner than it plans to and it keeps me in a mentality of unnecessary negativity. A wise woman has told me many times that a wind can be awfully cold or invigorating – depending on how you define it.

So if I were to take her advice, I would put on a scarf, embrace the storm, and get myself out for a walk. An invigorating walk… And then I’d welcome spring whenever it gets here.

But to be completely honest, that type of positivity requires advanced skills. Level 5 positivity skills…

I am at level 3.

When Plans Fall Apart

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I have this habit of wanting things to go according to my plan. The plan can include something as simple as what I want to do on a regular Sunday or something as broad as major life goals I want to accomplish, ideally in a particular order. When making decisions, this means I often spend a lot of time thinking about possible actions and consequences, as if there were one “correct” choice to be made. This also means I don’t like when things change unexpectedly and I definitely don’t like my plans falling through. When my plans don’t work out, I find myself caught off guard. As if things were supposed to happen the way I wanted them to.

This habit has been curiously persistent. I have had life-changing experiences where my well-thought-out plans have completely fallen apart and yet I have found myself getting right back up to design new plans and become mentally attached to particular outcomes that – again – may never materialize.

A friend of mine listened recently while I shared my frustration about not knowing how to reach one of my big goals in life. When I was done talking, she looked at me for a second and then moved her glass and plate apart on the kitchen table, put her phone squarely in the middle, and said: “Let’s say you want to travel from this glass to this plate. Turns out the phone is in your way. It seems you keep bumping into the phone, over and over again! It’s like you don’t realize you can turn to the right and go around it… or turn left… or jump over it… or go somewhere else!”

Of course she was right.

Most of the time, there is more than one way from A to B.

Also, B is just one of many possible destinations.

In other words, there is no one right way to live my life. I even dare say there is no one right way to live yours either.

Life keeps taking unexpected turns whether I want it or not. Time after time, I find myself in the middle of things that were not at all on my agenda and the more I try to stick with my plan, the more frustrated I get when life does its own thing.

At one point in my life, when I had experienced a series of difficult events and transitions, I decided to help myself recover mentally by setting only one big goal: To be. The result was a year where I ended up feeling more alive than I had felt in a long time. It was like an adventure – starting each day with a sense of appreciation for being present and curiosity about what I might encounter. I decided that all I really had to do was to be myself, breathe, and be ready to accept whatever the day were to bring.

The following year I made a different agenda. Instead of planning to be, I planned to accomplish. Needless to say, this plan didn’t work so well. The more I chased after my goals, the less often I remembered to look up and breathe. And the more frustrated I got with my lack of “progress”, the more stuck I became inside my own head, worrying and thinking things over… and over… and over. It is actually hard to be present in the world when you are stuck inside your head.

It seems simple, now that I think about it. But knowing myself, I think this may be one of those lessons I need to learn a few times before I finally get it.

Pushing for Change

IMG_2784I often notice when people have goals that revolve around changing another grown-up individual, either a partner, parent, friend, or another significant person who is behaving in an annoying, careless, rigid, or even harmful way. People want all kinds of change in relationships. They want their adult daughter to be more appreciative, a husband to be more considerate with the in-laws, a dad to stop smoking, a partner to be honest… Most of us have someone we would like to change in some way and chances are we have already tried. From the observer’s perspective, it is easy to see how this is more likely to lead to exhaustion, frustration, and disappointment, than actual change.

What I find harder to see is when I fall into that same trap. I have caught myself so many times feeling invested in someone else changing and I have voluntarily entered a field of work that is all about facilitating some form of change. Some of my best supervisors and mentors along the way have at times caught this for me and gently pointed out when I was getting far ahead of myself, being a bit too enthusiastic and ready to make progress in someone else’s life, when I could have been more helpful by simply joining the person exactly where they were at. I have also had to sit myself down more than once and remember that while I can work with people to make change in their lives, I cannot make that change for them. It sure is tempting though… Outside the office it can get even harder. The more invested we are personally in a particular relationship and the more other people’s actions influence our wellbeing and goals, the trickier it gets to accept that we are really only in charge of our own selves.

Although William Glasser’s reality therapy is not one of my main approaches to counseling, I appreciate the emphasis it places on being in charge of our own behavior – and acknowledging that we cannot control anyone else. Accepting that we cannot change other people does not mean that we must accept the status quo in every aspect of life. Some things really do need to change. Social change, for example, does not happen without efforts and energy spent influencing large groups of people. In interpersonal relationships, however, we can easily get stuck for a long time waiting, hoping, and pushing for change, when the object of change does not share our agenda.

So what can we do, when the people in our lives are out of bounds? Sometimes there are no simple answers, such as when a person is trapped in an abusive relationship with no easy way out. At other times, there are things we can do to re-channel our energy. For example, we can communicate directly what we want and what we do not find acceptable, seek and accept support, and take steps to protect our own wellbeing – perhaps by stepping away from toxic interactions or exiting unhealthy relationships.

And sometimes we may want to sit back, breathe for a minute, and ask ourselves:

Is what I am doing getting me what I want?

Fear of Feelings

IMG_2799One of the themes that keep coming up in my clinical work is the fear of feelings. Fear of letting one’s guard down, being vulnerable, facing what’s inside. Many people have talked about how certain feelings were not considered acceptable in their family of origin, culture, or community. How they have had to keep sadness, anger, or fear to themselves, as if those feelings are somehow wrong and unacceptable. And adults who have gone through life pushing away emotional pain may have an additional fear – the fear that allowing the full range of feelings will not only be socially unacceptable, but overwhelming and even dangerous.

It is true that feelings can be painful and hard to tolerate. And depending on what has been avoided, it can certainly be challenging to process and experience emotional pain without enough support and effective coping skills.

But the feelings themselves are not dangerous. Feeling like one is about to drown in sadness, and actually drowning in sadness, are two very different things. In fact, the things we do to keep away from difficult feelings can be even more harmful than sitting with and acknowledging emotional pain. Working too much, avoiding difficult topics in intimate relationships, eating when not hungry, not eating when hungry, self-medicating with alcohol or drugs, and staying distracted at all times are just some of the things we may do in attempts to escape. The downside includes health problems, relationship strain, addictions, isolation, and high stress levels, while the unattended emotions remain unchanged and no less threatening at the end of the day.

The fear can keep us from exploring and facing unresolved issues in our lives that impact our wellbeing and reactions to new experiences. And on the upside, when this fear is finally confronted, inspiring change can happen. This is one of the things I really enjoy about counseling. Getting the chance to sit with a person as they learn to accept and observe their previously avoided feelings, and witnessing the sense of peace and mastery that can be gained as a result. It is possible. And no one has drowned in my office yet.

The Quiet One

The Quiet OneI have always been one of those who think more than they speak. The quiet, shy, introverted, reserved… Not exactly the life of the party. Missing opportunities to share my thoughts while waiting for others to pause long enough to give me space. Or not knowing what to share until later when I have chewed on all the information and points of view flying around in heated group discussions. On top of that, I accepted the message all too well growing up that kids (girls) should sit still and be quiet. So when the world called for initiative, assertiveness, and active participation, I struggled, more often than not. I used to see this as pure annoyance and character flaw.

Of course, I hadn’t yet read the book Quiet, by Susan Cain.

Fortunately, humans can learn, and I learned to speak up when needed and own my opinions. Talk, as well as listen. But what I also learned was to value this quieter way of being. First of all, we don’t all have to talk at once. Second, I am sometimes able to notice things in myself and others that often get lost in all the noise.

Being a foreigner in a giant country where I blend in with dominant groups due to my white skin and privileged social location has given me plenty to think about. I have observed people’s reactions to me and each other, systems that favor some and punish others, and my own biases, as I catch myself enacting what society has swayed me to think of those who are “different” in some way. This site will be an outlet for some of my thoughts on that. Culture, society, mental health, my work, and the ways in which all that blends together.