Breaking the chain


The holidays bring a lot of this up for people because they’re seeing family of origin more or they’re confronting “what might have been” grief and loss. People find themselves revisiting difficult memories or trying to ignore intrusive thoughts about their self worth or worries. Plus with all of the running around and high expectations of this time of year, it can be even more difficult to stop and breathe or to take care of yourself.

But if you’re serious about breaking the chain, then a first step is letting go of how you think things ought to be and taking measure of the way things are. The holidays are a good time to take stock because it’s so out-sized that underground feelings tend to make themselves known.

People who grow up in chaos react to chaos in one of two ways: they either crave it and go towards it; or they shut down as soon as they see it coming. (Sometimes they have a little bit of both — the chaos feels lousy but it also feels familiar and we tend to be drawn to the things that feel familiar.) Notice when you’re inviting chaos in and notice how it affects you.

Are you over scheduling yourself because it feels somehow right to run yourself into the ground during the holidays? It might feel like your duty or like you have no choice. But is it good for you?

Self care isn’t selfish. For those who grew up in homes that were less nurturing than they ought to have been, self care is part of what’s going to break that chain. When you feel calm and cared for then you will have the capacity to be calm and care for other people.

So how do you start to do things differently?

  • Acknowledge that this can be a difficult season because validating your own feelings is an essential part of healing.
  • Say no to what you can say no to.
  • Say yes only when you really want to say yes.
  • If you have to power through a painful visit, schedule time with a loving friend after (even if it’s just a phone call or a quick check-in by text).
  • Set boundaries and create breaks. Long visits can be broken up by running errands, walking the dog alone or otherwise giving yourself time away to regroup.
  • Less is more during the holidays. We tend to get caught up in continuing traditions that may be more of a burden than a pleasure; it’s fine to take an easier way out. Don’t fret about doing elf on the shelf AND gingerbread houses AND caroling AND a white elephant exchange AND latkes for the neighborhood AND AND AND. More passive traditions are fine like using holiday glasses at dinner during the month or serving peppermint tea before bedtime.


When the bottom drops out

when-the-bottom-drops-outImagine that there are four people about to get on a ride at the State Fair. It’s the Graviton, the ride where you stand up against the wall with a thin chain hooked loosely in front of you and the ride starts spinning and spinning, faster and faster and then it tilts and the bottom drops out. The only thing that’s holding you in is the centrifugal force of the ride.

One of the people has been on this ride before and knows how it works and loves how it works. That person remains calm. They get off the ride and they’re fine. We’ll call that person A.

The other person hasn’t been on the ride before but assumes that the people running the park know what they’re doing. That person feels nervous. They get off the ride and they’re fine if a little shaky. We’ll call that person B.

The third person doesn’t trust the park owners and thinks that when the bottom drops away that the ride has broken. They’re afraid for their life. They get off the ride sobbing and are greeted by warm, loving friends who embrace them and comfort them. That person is C.

The fourth person doesn’t trust the park owners either and believes the ride has broken, too. Think think they are about to die. When they get off the ride, there is no one there to greet them and they feel miserably alone and abandoned. That person is D.

All four people were on the same ride. All four people had fundamentally different experiences.

Here is the definition of trauma: If you are fearful for your life or the lives of those around you.

It doesn’t matter if the ride was safe if a person does not perceive it as safe. (As an aside? I was told by my mom all of my growing up that those State Fair rides aren’t safe. There is no way I’d get on the Graviton and if I accidentally did? I’d be person C.)

A is going to be fine because they liked the ride, they liked how it worked and how it felt. B is going to be ok, as well, because B has faith that the people in charge know what they’re doing. C will likely be all right, too, because C is immediately surrounded by people who validate their experience and offer comfort and support. But D? D is not going to be OK because what mitigates trauma (and even if this does not look traumatic to everyone there and wasn’t experienced as trauma by everyone there, for D it was) is connection and D has no one to connect with.

This is my message to you. We do not get to decide when people get to be afraid or what their experiences ought to be. There are people in our community who are afraid right now; maybe you are afraid right now. It doesn’t matter if person A or B doesn’t get it; you have a right to your feelings. And what you need — what we need — is to find each other. Mr. Rogers says to look for the helpers and now is the time to do that and now is also the time to be the helpers.

If you are person C or D, please reach out. Find your safe people and start planning some specific ways you can spend time together. There are lots of ways to create good, solid connections and sometimes that’s coffee together, sometimes that’s phone calls, sometimes that’s joining together and organizing, and sometimes it’s joining together to help someone else. We need each other to mitigate our fear when the bottom drops out.

If you are person A or B, please understand that your experience is not everyone’s experience. You may not be afraid, you may even be having fun but we are a community and we must recognize that many people in our community are suffering.

To that end, I am partnering with Columbus Birth & Parenting to host a supportive gathering this Sunday in our offices from 10am to 2pm. We have no idea how many people will be here and we don’t have an agenda; just some ideas to give people space to feel validated and supported. Because the event has gotten larger than we anticipated and because some people who can’t attend would like to feel included, we will be using #hopeandaction on social media to find each other. We encourage you to Tweet, Facebook or Instagram using that hashtag on Sunday in order to connect with like-minded people near you to create and strengthen community ties. If you are currently a client, please know that you are invited, too. I will not acknowledge our connection and will respect your confidentiality but I will welcome your participation. If the fact that I’m hosting this event feels uncomfortable to you, please let me know and we can talk about it. I respect that my clients have diverse experiences, backgrounds and beliefs and want you to know that I support you, period.


If you are scared and hurting

shutterstock_310587080Therapists are supposed to be neutral and not bring their politics into the counseling room but if you’re a therapist with a bunch of different Wonder Women all over your wall then it doesn’t take too much guessing to figure that she didn’t vote for the guy who was joking about “locker room talk.” So let’s dispense with the pretending and agree that I’m as disappointed and as sad and as angry as are many of you.

So what now?

We need each other now. Some of us are going to feel more isolated and afraid than others and we need to reach out to them. Some of us have loved ones who may be feeling this more deeply because they are members of those targeted during the campaign; go to them. If you were one of the targets of the campaign, please know that there are people who support you.

I’m hearing a lot of fear from kids in my office (and in my life). Please be mindful of the media you play around them. Check in with them. Ask them what they’re hearing at school. Go to the other adults in their lives and get them on the same page if you can.

Teens can be more vulnerable than we realize. They’re idealistic and when idealism falls, it hurts. A lot. Teens who are members of groups called out during the campaign need your special support. I know that my own daughter has faced more hate speech in the past couple of months and I’ll be keeping a close eye on what’s happening in her school for the duration. You keep an eye on your kids, too, and together we’ll keep them safe.

Also, look for hope. Look for the social justice warriors who have come before us and who are among us now. It feels lonely but we are not alone.

Some Resources in Central Ohio (please feel free to leave additional information about groups you think people ought to know about in the comments below):

Black Lives Matter Columbus (their Facebook group)

Buckeye Region Anti-Violence Organization (BRAVO) provides comprehensive individual and community programs for survivor advocacy and support to LGBTQI survivors of hate and bias violence, discrimination, intimate partner violence, stalking, and/or sexual assault.

Disability Rights Ohio a non-profit corporation with a mission to advocate for the human, civil and legal rights of people with disabilities in Ohio.

Kaleidoscope Youth Center working in partnership with young people in Central Ohio to create safe and empowering spaces for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, Questioning and Ally youth through advocacy, education, support and community engagement.

Progress Ohio the state’s leading progressive organization, composed of two non-profits:, a 501 (c) (4) organization formed in 2006 to promote progressive causes, and ProgressOhio Education, a 501 (c) (3) organization.

Standing Up for Racial Justice (list of all the state chapters) is a national network of groups and individuals organizing White people for racial justice. Through community organizing, mobilizing, and education, SURJ moves White people to act as part of a multi-racial majority for justice with passion and accountability. (Here’s the Facebook group for Worthington.)

There are a lot of therapists out there who are ready, willing and able to sit with you while you grieve, cry, holler, and find ways to move forward. YOU ARE NOT ALONE. WE ARE NOT ALONE.

The perceived danger of hope

I have been thinking about family legacies of trauma (I’m working on a longer blog post about that) and one of the things I’ve been thinking about is that when a family knows that the worst things can happen, hope can become a dangerous thing. Not every family that experiences trauma is like this, obviously, but it’s common because people want to be safe. If you’re too hopeful, you might take risks and you might fail.

I think about this when I hear parents dialing down their kids’ big plans.

“Don’t expect to hit a home run right away, kiddo.”

“Don’t be disappointed if you don’t get the lead.”

“Not everyone is going to get an award for this, you know.”

We don’t want our kids to be disappointed when they fail so we prepare them for failure.

“Don’t get your hopes up,” we say. But isn’t that what hope is for?

It’s true that we need our kids to be realistic but reality will do that for them. Telling them not to be excited doesn’t protect them from failure; it just adds an ugly sheen to the excited times before.

I get it, I do. There is nothing more heartbreaking than watching your child’s dreams get dashed. Ugh. Like a dagger to your own heart, I know. Our urge to mitigate that possible disappointment comes from a loving place but it’s spoils the fun and dampens the spirit.

Imagine if we did this with other things like, “Sooner or later you’re going to take a swig of milk and realize it’s gone bad so I think you should just prepare yourself for sour milk every time you drink it. I think you should mistrust the anticipation you have that the milk will be good.”

(Substitute some other example if you are dairy-free. Like apples with bruises or when your salad has the lettuce core in it. Or when your pancakes have those bitter lumps of baking soda.)

Nobody wants to live their life expecting disappointment.

So why not be hopeful? Why not get excited? And then if things don’t work out, we can hug the heck out of each other. It’ll be OK.

If you don’t do this with your kids, you might do this with yourself. You might find yourself gearing up by tearing yourself down. Whose voice is in your ear telling you to be careful? Not to aim too high? Who’s telling you to dial down your dreaming?

And here is Mel Brooks singing Hope for the Best, Expect the Worst, because Mel Brooks can make everything funny including the Judaic legacy of trauma (oh boy does this ring familiar and not just because my dad does a killer Yiddish accent):

What the boys think

What boys thinkI’ve been thinking about middle school girls and I’ve been thinking about middle school boys and what a mess it all is to be 12 or 13 and trying to figure this whole thing out, this boy/girl thing and this masculinity/femininity thing. (My youngest just started middle school and the social life of middle schoolers has become the center of our dinner table conversation.) It’s not that those issues aren’t always pressing and aren’t always confusing but it seems like middle school is this outlandish, cartoonish landscape where the cultural expectations are out-sized and ridiculous. The discussion doesn’t stop in middle school but it becomes visible to parental eyes somewhere around there and sometimes it gets stuck there.

The middle school kids I know in my personal and professional life are doing their best to navigate who they are and who they want to be and the expectations of being grown, which are confusing. They are vulnerable, these kids, as they’re looking all around them trying to figure out how to manage gender roles and relationships, which means that media messages in particular hit them hard. Sometimes they make a mess of it. They think they are more sophisticated than they are. They think we can’t possibly understand.

Sometimes when I’m sitting with a young woman in my office who is really hurting I think about the drumbeat that ran in my own head at that age, “If a girl falls in the forest and there’s no one there to see, is she still pretty?

In a culture that places tremendous value not just on looks but on sex appeal, getting sexual attention can seem both empowering and demoralizing. When I was about 13 I remember this one lipstick commercial where a woman gets out of the car and men are literally bowled over by her beauty. The valet opening her door falls down, the valet standing by the booth falls down and some random passing guy falls down because she is so beautiful and I wanted to be that beautiful, too.

My friend T and I would sometimes meet at the corner between our two houses. We lived in the suburbs but this particular corner was busy and when we’d meet there we noticed that sometimes guys would honk at us. That felt really good.  The next best thing to men actually falling at our feet seemed like men compelled to honk and holler at us. We were socialized to think that a performative demonstration of our appeal was the only kind that mattered so no, a girl who falls alone in the forest would NOT be pretty but if there was a guy there to catch her and then to gaze lovestruck into her (perfectly made up) eyes then she would be.

We were not sophisticated enough to know (and no one had told us) that cat calling is attention but it’s not good or safe attention. I mean, random men who drive by and honk at girls (clearly) barely into their teens are not winners but we’d internalized the message that without male attention we didn’t actually exist. Not that this was necessarily the kind of male attention we wanted because in the commercial the super handsome bystander gets up and takes the woman’s hand and presumably falls in love and the guys who honked at us just kept driving, leering out the window as they passed.

We’d stand there and see how many honks we could get before one of us had to head home for dinner and the attention felt good but it also felt yucky so it was this mish-mash of feelings, which I hear from the kids in my office, too. This mish-mash of wanting to be pretty but wanting to be valued for ourselves, too, and feeling guilty and discouraged and defensive about it all.

I titled this post the way I did because I think we need to support girls in caring less about what boys think, sure, but I also think we need to humanize boys when we talk about them since I think often we set girls up with a “who cares what boys think!” message when the truth is, they may actually care what boys think. So then we need to start building expectations that help them understand that boys are people and what they’re thinking at that age is also generally a mess of insecurity and worry and longing.

I know there are boys out there who only want “one thing” but I don’t think that’s all boys or even most boys. I think the cultural narrative they’re getting is just as ugly and complicated and as hard to navigate as what girls are getting. And girls need to know that, that the rigid gender expectation are no good for anyone and that there are a lot of boys who feel trapped in hyper masculinity the way that girls feel trapped in hyper femininity. (See this.)

We can also normalize that want for attention that many girls have. If a girl came to my office and said, “I like to stand on the corner and see how many honks I can get” I’d want to acknowledge that need to feel seen before I start criticizing her behavior. I’m not gong to get anywhere if I lead with criticism so I start by saying I understand. Only when I know she trusts me are we going to be able to talk to her about being safe.

Because that’s the biggest concern here, right? How do we help our girls stay safe? How do we help them understand that wanting attention does not mean she has it coming to her if she ends up getting hurt?

We do this by letting her know that we understand her want to be attractive and to have that attractiveness acknowledged. Well meaning feminist moms sometimes come so hard with the “Looks don’t matter” message that we send that conversation underground, which is a lost opportunity to have a discussion that’s more complex and nuanced.

This is not an easy fix and for many women, it’s a lifelong process to unpack our relationship to the male gaze for many reasons both cultural and individual. No wonder then that so many of us struggle in how we talk to our daughters. My advice? Listen first, listen long, have patience and compassion. Adolescence is a tough time to be a kid but it’s also a tough time to be a parent so give yourself that same patience and compassion.

Want to talk further? Hit me up.

As a bonus, I couldn’t find the commercial I’m remembering but this one has the same gist.