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.

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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.

Sexual Assault – Are You Sure?

Imagine a friend you really care about was robbed while walking home from the grocery store. And imagine your friend came to you and told you what happened right afterwards. Whether the attack had consisted of a wallet being snatched or a violent assault, I bet you would have a strong reaction of anger and empathy while listening to the story. You might even insist on going to the police and reporting the incident in the hope that justice might be served.

A different scenario often plays out in cases of sexual assault. Survivors are met with skepticism and their motives for telling their stories are questioned – not always, but all too often.

If you were to respond in that way to your friend who got robbed, you might say something like: “Are you sure about this? People don’t get robbed in broad daylight on Tuesdays. I’m sure the guy just thought you wanted to give him your wallet…”

And then, if you were to accept the robbery did indeed happen, you might try a little victim-blaming: “What made you think it would be a good idea to walk home from the store? And let your purse just hang on your shoulder like that? Seems like you were asking for it…”

I hope we can agree this would be ridiculous. Similar examples have been used before to highlight the outlandish reactions survivors of sexual assault often get when they have gathered enough courage to share their stories.

What were you wearing?

How much alcohol did you have?

Why did you go to his house?

Why didn’t you fight back?

And you didn’t even call the police when you got home?

On top of that, too few of us realize that a common reaction to overwhelming threat is to freeze. Not fight back or run away, but to freeze up. Going through an assault while feeling paralyzed with terror and then being disbelieved because of one’s automatic reactions is a deeply wounding experience. Survivors may even be regarded as untruthful due to being unemotional while telling their stories, which is ironic considering that emotional numbness is a common symptom of post-traumatic stress.

Rates of fabrication in sexual assault cases happen to be similar as for other felonies. Anecdotal stories and the common lack of “real” evidence are used to argue that reports of sexual assault are “often” false, while overwhelming numbers of survivors who seek help at clinics, emergency rooms, and mental health centers are ignored. The reality is that most survivors never even make a report to begin with. And many survivors never seek help.

IMG_2997Then, there is the devastating lack of justice worldwide when it comes to sexual assaults: Poor and/or lacking investigations, lack of evidence, no witnesses, rare arrests, and infrequent convictions. LGBT people often encounter additional prejudice and discrimination when reporting sexual violence, and non-affluent survivors may not even be able to afford getting a lawyer to start their case.

An uncomfortable truth is that a majority of sexual assaults are carried out by a person the survivor already knows – not a stranger in a dark alley. So I get upset more than surprised when hearing about survivors being re-traumatized by disbelief, invalidation, and victim-blaming. After all, facing the disturbing prevalence of sexual violence and demanding justice for survivors would mean looking closely at what is going on in our communities, our own social circles, and in our very own families. And that might lead us to face things we’d rather not see.

The aftermath of sexual assault can have no less impact than the traumatic event itself. Invalidation can lead survivors to feel extremely isolated and alone, doubt their own experiences, and even question their sanity.

So if you ever receive the honor of being trusted with information about sexual assault, please handle with care.

[Check out RAINN for more information]

Getting Active

I used to be scared of speaking in front of people. It was my second greatest fear throughout most of my childhood, awkward adolescence, and beyond. Basically, I was afraid of being seen and heard at the same time – afraid of my insecurities showing and my mind going blank. In my head, that and my house catching on fire were about equally as frightening…

I wondered what would happen if I had something really important to say later in life. Would I have the guts to say it? Or would I sit still and keep quiet…

For the most part, I’ve kept quiet. I’ve made myself busy with school and work, minding my own business, and participating in social justice efforts when it fits with my schedule. I have shied away from initiating difficult conversations about injustice when sensing that it might be perceived negatively and I have been more inclined to raise my concerns individually than to bring them up in groups when the spotlight might shine uncomfortably on me.

When I told a white acquaintance the other day I was going to join a march on Martin Luther King Day to call for respect for human rights in Philadelphia, she asked: “How long have you been an activist?”

My first reaction was disappointment. I keep hoping that fellow people of privilege see how critical and urgent it is to work towards justice and equality for all, instead of seeing that as the personal business of “activists” and marginalized groups.

And then, I wanted to shake my head. Because I cannot claim to be an activist. Not in the way Sybrina Fulton is who has channeled her grief and anger from losing her son, Trayvon Martin, into speaking up about racial oppression perpetrated by the U.S. justice system. Not like Laverne Cox who has called attention to silencing, harassment, and violence against trans people and queer folks. And not like the multitudes of people who work tirelessly to organize and implement programs and movements in their communities, in universities, in health care, and in grassroots political settings; to be dissenting voices in dominating groups and speak up over and over again against injustice; and who risk their jobs, health, and lives while disobeying civilly and taking to the streets when nothing else seems to work.

Going to an organized march is an easy gesture of solidarity. Being a real ally will require some real effort.

By entering their field of work, psychologists and other mental health professionals have signed up to promote health and wellbeing. That cannot be done without challenging the forces that corrode quality of life. Poverty and racism won’t be eradicated through individual counseling, research papers in academic journals, and poster presentations. Perhaps we’d like to think so, but really… it’s not happening.

And at the end of the day, speaking up for what is right is not about me. It is about lending my voice to what needs to be said. Being afraid is no excuse.Freedom3

Anger & Injustice

What is anger? A dangerous, explosive feeling that should be avoided? A sign of insanity? Unacceptable?

Despite all the diversity in this world, we all – for the most part – have the ability to get angry. It’s a natural consequence of how our human system is wired. And here we are, nonetheless, with a range of ideas on what this emotion means and how it should be dealt with.

News on any given day shows human anger. Today is no exception. Millions of people are outraged over a clear example of institutional oppression and injustice, with a white man of privilege walking free after cutting a young Black man’s life short. Interestingly though, some folks’ anger gets portrayed as irrational. Oppressed people showing loud resistance are labeled as barbaric while those with more power get to express their contempt in more socially acceptable ways – by removing funds, influencing media, and using politics, law enforcement, militaries, and criminal justice systems to target those who are in their way. Resisting oppression gets portrayed as pathological, while oppression itself is explained away and justified – sometimes by referring to the “out-of-control” reactions of those who refuse to submit.

Anger is a normal reaction to injustice or threat. Anger in response to oppression is a sign of strength and healthy resistance. But to those who don’t want the boat rocked, moderate anger becomes threatening.

While aggression and violence sit at one extreme, suppression of anger is at the other. And these two extremes tend to fuel each other. In a family where anger is not allowed, children learn to push their reactions down and ignore them. In abusive homes, anger is misplaced onto “safe” human targets that can’t retaliate or protect themselves. Their anger is not heard. Once pushed down, anger breeds symptoms of distress. Learning to give voice to unexpressed anger can be one of the most relieving and validating experiences of counseling for those who have been told their experiences don’t matter. Similarly, a society where healthy anger and resistance gets ignored or pathologized cannot be well. Expressing anger is essential and angry voices must be heard.

Sleep Good

“I’ll sleep when I die”

IMG_2996That’s what a friend of mine said a few days ago before starting his night shift at work, right after finishing the day shift… I knew he wasn’t serious. Or was he?

To acknowledge my bias, I am a big fan of sleep. Personally and professionally. Russell Foster is too and in his 2013 TED talk he delivered some convincing points on why we should be taking sleep a bit more seriously.To recap some of his statements, sleep is of critical importance for memory consolidation and sleep deprivation is associated with less creativity, memory problems, poor judgment, and loss of vigilance. On top of that, lack of sleep hurts our immune system and tends to result in higher stress levels, which in turn can impact our mood and wellbeing in general. With impaired ability to be creative and integrate knowledge, folks tend to do worse at work and school and be less able to respond effectively to new challenges. Higher stress levels reduce our tolerance for the hassle of daily life and people in our lives are more likely to encounter our bad side. This can’t be good for anyone.

This may sound radical to some, but here it goes: If you need an alarm clock to wake up, you are probably not getting enough sleep!

Now there are a whole lot of people who have no way of getting the sleep they need. Millions of people depend on demanding shift jobs, have multiple responsibilities that cut sleep time, or face living situations that disturb sleep on a regular basis. Many of them are all too well aware of the negative impact of sleep deprivation. And unfortunately, all the good advice in the world is not so helpful if people are stuck in unhealthy situations. But there is another set of people who have the chance to get enough sleep, but choose not to.

Throughout my training and work I have met many young adults who struggle with symptoms of depression and/or anxiety. A large proportion has also had poor sleep habits. Using the laptop, TV, and smartphone in bed has been a consistent part of that, and one that seems to be hard to change. Ironically, people may end up using those bright-light screens when they have trouble falling asleep, only to signal the brain to stay alert. In addition, with many of us staying indoors most of the day, daylight exposure gets cut to the point of confusing our system even more. And to make it through the day, caffeine and other stimulants are used to jump start the brain, which in turn can exacerbate stress and signs of unnecessary anxiety.

My favorite part of Russell’s talk was his bottom line: Listen to your body.

It’s simple, really. Life can be so much better once we stop fighting our body and treating sleep with respect is a great start!

The Happy Trap

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

There you have it. The United States’ Declaration of Independence clearly encourages the pursuit of happiness. So how do you pursue happiness?

The first week at work at my office job as a new graduate assistant in the U.S., I realized that answering phone calls appropriately required more than English language skills and politeness. After picking up a few calls that I thought went just fine, my office supervisor wasn’t pleased. According to her, my voice was “flat”. To me that made no sense, but once I had practiced the right way of answering the phone I finally got it. Apparently, being excessively excited and sweet on the phone (in my Icelandic opinion) was the way to go. It almost made me cringe. Saying “Have a great day!!” with a big smile on my face felt unnatural and too much somehow.

Now, seven years later, I am used to more than one way of speaking. Peppy small talk and greetings do not feel foreign anymore and I have stopped cringing. However, I am no less curious than before about the fact that what is considered appropriate in one culture may be strange and off-putting in another. In Jonathan Rottenberg’s intriguing book, The Depths, about the evolutionary origins of depression, he talks about the strong emphasis that U.S. mainstream culture places on happiness. He even cites research suggesting that U.S. children are more drawn to pictures of excited smiling facial expressions, while Taiwanese children prefer pictures of calm smiles. These and other research findings indicate that the type of happiness generally encouraged in the U.S. is characterised by excitement and high energy.

Reading this made me think of the numerous times I have been asked by American friends and acquaintances, in a high-pitched voice, “Aren’t you excited?!!”  Most often, my honest answer has been “Well, not really, but I am sure [upcoming event] will be interesting/fun/nice and I am feeling good about it”. Not very energetic, really. Simultaneously, the message impinging on U.S. society is that we should all be happy, that we should all try to stay happy, and that not feeling happy is a sign of abnormality.

The downside of this grand pursuit of happiness may be quite serious. As Rottenberg describes in his book, happiness is not a goal we can realistically pursue in the same way we pursue other goals and tasks in life. While we are taught from an early age that goals can be reached by working hard and doing our best, happiness tends to act differently. In fact, humans are not wired to stay happy. On the contrary, feelings of intense happiness are a natural, temporary consequence of reaching important life goals, such as finding a mate, getting a promotion, being acknowledged, witnessing the success of a loved one, and so on, and once we have experienced the bliss of the passing moment, the intensity of our happy-state tends to return back to a neutral level. Evolutionary speaking, this has the adaptive function of keeping us active and motivated to stay on our toes.

So what happens when the expectation of intense, sustained happiness meets the reality of our garden variety moods that include both ups and downs? Unfortunately, the unrealistic, culturally-shaped expectations of how we “should” feel can result in disappointment, to say the least. On top of that, humans have the impressive ability to not only feel bad, but feel bad about feeling bad! This can easily spiral downward and fuel a nagging sense of dissatisfaction with life and prolong low moods that would otherwise have passed by in their own time.

Kind of like a trap, with flashing lights and Pharrell singing in the background.