emotional abuse: no less horrible than physical.

“They didn’t beat me or anything.”

I’ve heard that a lot as a therapist. Usually after someone describes excruciatingly painful examples of emotional abuse from a parent, sibling, spouse, or even employer. It’s a way to excuse the immediacy and shaming nature of emotional abuse.

The ease with which so many therapy patients and victims in general excuse away psychological abuse as being somehow not as bad because it is not physical abuse perhaps shows us how little we still know about the psyche.

I can tell you, psychological abuse is often more harmful than physical abuse. This is not to discount physical abuse, which creates trauma and stress in the body and mind. The consequences to the body range from mild to fatal. Also most physical abusers are also psychological abusers. Both kinds of abuse produce PTSD. The difference I’m trying to tease out here is that once you get away from the physical abuse (and take measures that they cannot get to you), the physical harm and danger has passed. But with emotional abuse, it can be harder to get away from an abuser, “because he isn’t beating me.” It takes longer to recognize because emotional abuse always includes manipulation, particularly gaslighting, a type of manipulation that twists everything around and causes the victim to blame themselves and question their sanity and memory.

Psychological and emotional manipulation and gaslighting are easier to conceal from others, making it the choice method of abuse for people too smart to do anything that would alert authorities. As a mandated reporter for child abuse, one of the things I was taught in order to assess potential child abuse is if the abuse has left a physical mark. Another is that striking a child with another physical object is considered more abusive than using a hand. What about the kind of abuse that leaves no mark? What about the person who was struck with words and not an object?

I also believe that the emotional state of a manipulator and emotional abuser is completely different than the average batterer. The “cycle of abuse” that I was taught in graduate school: tension building, incident, apology, and then calm, doesn’t fit neatly here. I don’t think that tension and stress hormones have to build up in the same way in emotional abuse as it does for physical abuse. An emotional abuser can delude themselves and manipulate, blame, berate, withdraw from and otherwise punish someone in a slow, steady, and calm process. The loss of self-control that often accompanies the physical abuse, as well as the emotional expressions of apology that can characterize some physically abusive relationships don’t have to be present in emotionally abusive ones.

In these ways it often stays hidden for years, and instead of a climactic episode of running away, a victim realizes they were grossly mistreated in a quiet moment surfing the internet or reflecting in a therapist’s office. And it’s really tough to take the idea that you have been emotionally abused, especially if you know yourself to be a smart and strong person that you wouldn’t think would “fall” for that sort of thing. Be kind to yourself. Part of emotional abuse is being convinced that you are not being mistreated, but rather loved.

So saying, “he/she/they didn’t beat me,” is the psyche’s attempt to deflect the pain of being emotionally abused and the shame of not being able to protect oneself from it. No, if they had beat you, you would have realized it earlier. Someone might have seen and known for sure that they needed to help you. You would have had an easier chance to be believed had you known you were being mistreated and could you have sought help. Instead, your abuser found a way to hurt you and cover his or her tracks. Sadly, for those of you who were abused through neglect, emotional withdrawal, indifference, the abuser refusing to know you, making you responsible for their feelings, or not allowing you to have or show needs, being hit might have at least been a sign that they regarded you at all, and you could have joined the ranks who rationalize their physical abuse by saying he/she only hurts me because I deserve it/he/she loves me and wants me to be better. But then again, tons of people rationalize emotional abuse by saying that the abuser just wants to improve them.

If you have thought about getting some help in processing or understanding the ways that someone you love has hurt you or let you down emotionally, and the above resonates with you, I want you to know something. It is that serious. It is worth getting help over. No, you don’t need to have been beaten to be abused and you have every right to feel pain and get help as someone who has been battered. It is not a contest anyway to see who is the biggest victim, and you don’t need to prove to a therapist that your pain is severe enough to earn yourself a spot on their couch. If you are stuck then you deserve to unpack it so that you can move through it, even if people in your life don’t understand (especially the people who have been prey to the same emotional and psychological abusers as you and who will be the first to tell you that nothing happened and that you are overreacting).

So the next time you start to say something like “he/she/they didn’t beat me or anything,” maybe in a humorous tone, stop yourself. Ask yourself why you need that qualifier, and what’s behind it. Ask why you have a need to defend that person. People come to therapy or talk to their friends and complain about hurts they have suffered from non-abusive people, all the time. They don’t tend to say “They didn’t beat me” about the garden-variety annoyances visited on us by friends and loved ones, like leaving dirty dishes or not returning a phone call. They tend to say it when they are still defending someone from a deeper offense. It’s scary to question the love and treatment of a loved one consciously for the first time. But ultimately, it’s brave and a step on the road to healing the effects of emotional abuse like low self esteem, inability to be one’s true self with others, difficulty regulating emotions, and paranoia and self-doubt in relationships.

setbacks

One of the most valuable thing for a human being to learn is to manage disappointment in the face of failure and setback.

Nobody who has achieved has done so without trying and failing many times, we know this, it’s a trope. But even knowing that the greatest inventions of all time were preceded and followed by failure on the part of the inventors, that if first you don’t succeed, you try try again, how good are we collectively at failing? How good are we at not even failing, but merely not succeeding?

It’s not like we live in the most forgiving culture. If you are famous, every misstep is Tweeted (sometimes, unwittingly, by yourself) and armchair critics abound.

But there’s something to facing your critics square on, allowing yourself to have your regrets, grieving the loss of what is not to be, and reformulating your plan. Maybe not right away. It depends on how deep the loss, doesn’t it? A lot of people think of divorce as a failure (I don’t, but that is another blog post). A divorce is the lack of success of a marriage in surviving past a point in time. But it might take longer to grieve and reformulate your plan if your marriage doesn’t work out than if your proposal at work bombed. Or someone didn’t care about your idea.

If you already have issues with confidence and second-guessing yourself, a failure or a lack of success serves as a reinforcer of your self-doubt, “SEE? I can’t get anything right, I might as well stop trying…”

And if you’ve read this far, you might be sort of wising up to the fact that you do this and are maybe so sick of doing this that you are ready to do something about it.

What to do? Try things. Suck at them. Fail. Quit some of the things and keep up with the others. Try to laugh. Work through the fear and shake and cry and laugh at the silliness of the shaking and crying from the safety of your bed if you need to. This is not a proscription to be impulsive. I’m not telling you to marry a stranger or quit your job to create a startup with no backing.

I’m telling you to risk having a deeper conversation with someone you love, learning something new, set a boundary that is scary, get help for something that’s holding you back.

There will always be bullies waiting to see you fail, so they can say, “see? I knew it.”

Yet, look deeper, there will always be allies waiting to see you succeed so they can say, “see? I knew it.”

happy new year

Seven days in, I’m not committed to New Year’s Resolutions. My Facebook feed lit up a few days before and after the 1st with articles about how to make resolutions and articles that claim that resolutions are scientifically designed to fail.

I skimmed, mostly.

Resolutions feel like one more thing I’m supposed to do to feel worthy in this culture.

Yet I can’t completely abandon the shining promise of a Gregorian Calendar New Year, and the cultural impetus to examine your past 365 days and proclaim desires for the next spin around the sun.

So here’s what I intend. Most of this is a continuation of last year’s intentions, enhanced and deepened by the year I’ve had.

1. Continue to be true to myself. This isn’t as cut and dried as I’d like, and involves a ton of reflection on my part to make sure I even know what that is/am being truthful with myself about what that is. Which also gets me to write. Which is good, because I’d like to.

2. Write more. Which is also kind of cool because it forces me away from a tendency to more passively consume social and traditional media. It also tends to put me into a more creative mindset which transfers over to everyday activities like cooking. Which is nice, because I’m doing my best to-

3. Eat less processed foods. I’ve blogged before that a paleo-ish diet and a modified autoimmune protocol are working for my body and mind. Now that I’ve found something that works, I need to refine it. Make it easier. Try to find a way to either be cheerful about all of the dishes, get some more help with them, or better yet, come up with a system.

4. Because I’d like to be more organized. But I’m really hoping that being organized will flow from a deeper place of-

5. Being more mindful. Because, time passes more quickly than I would like and although life can be so challenging and tough, there are so many beautiful things to pay attention to. And rather than extending a lot of energy outward, like I tended to do when I was younger, part of me wants to spend the lion’s share of my time soaking in and appreciating and marveling at all that I do have.

And I think that’s enough for this year. Because, it is an ongoing goal to just-

6. Embrace Simplicity. Even when you always have a few more thoughts.

I truly wish the very best for you this new year.

PS: This may be the first year I haven’t made an explicit resolution about exercise. Thing is, when I’m doing 1-6 on this list, it automatically leads me into exercise and outdoor activities.

do things have to be “really bad” to seek counseling?

Something I hear a lot from people going into therapy for the first time is that they never thought things were “bad” enough either with their mental health or life circumstances to warrant therapy. What is the deal with that? Why must a marriage be dying in order to justify couple’s therapy? Why must we feel on the brink of nervous breakdown to get some counseling?

I tell these folks that therapy is a collaborative process, and while I’m in the “expert” chair, I’m really just holding up a mirror to tell them the themes they are broadcasting. We work as a team, I’m your trusted confidante, your whiteboard, your co-collaborator on your new game plan, your sympathetic ear. Not someone who is going to dress you down with labels and set forth a behavioral prescription. I wonder if there is a culture-wide mistaken view that therapy is something that is “done to” you when things are “so bad” that you “can’t deal with problems on your own.”

But you don’t need to wait until the engine is on fire to service the car. You hopefully have gone to the dentist before your mouth is riddled with cavities.

How does this reflect the values of the society we live in? In the last two days I’ve seen several Facebook status updates from folks who don’t know one another on the idea of asking for help, and how difficult it is to ask for and administer help in our secret inner worlds of fragility and pride. Boys don’t cry, it’s hard to ask for help, no use crying over spilled milk, get on with it, it’s not that bad, blah blah blah.

I get it. The wounded parts of you have not killed the alive parts of you and you don’t want to be reduced to sickness, in your mind or mine. But what of the wounded parts in you? Who tends to them? What about those who have sick parts currently looming larger than your sick parts? Do you secretly condemn the mentally ill in an anxious effort to avoid parts of yourself that may be touched by mental illness? What is the stigma doing for you? What is it doing for society?

Every time you make it ok to get some outside help for yourself, you provide the model that it is ok for others to ask for help. And there are others who need even more help than you might, who won’t ask for it because they are battling the same stigma demons that you are.

The best therapist will help you nurse the wounded parts while helping the alive parts become more alive. If they can’t do that or don’t hold that possibility, you’ve got the wrong therapist.

So let’s try something, here. If you think you could benefit from therapy, try saying this:

“I think I could benefit from therapy”

not “Things are so bad I must go to a therapist now.”

And there’s your first therapeutic insight, even before you make the phone call. There’s one less session you’d need to have, just by opening up to some gentleness towards the self.

It beats beating up the self, I swear. You should try.

take the stress out of Christmas and the holiday season

I posted on my Facebook page about avoiding holiday stress about money and gifts.

My advice:

1. Tell people you don’t want anything.

2. Don’t buy presents for others, unless they are your children and you’ve created an expectation. In that case, don’t go overboard.

3. Spend the time you would have spent rushing around to buy things with the people you’d have been buying for.

4. Repeat annually until either your people are trained or you start to miss giving. In the latter case, give on your terms, within your means, and from the heart.

I’d like to add:
5. Choose from invitations wisely and do what is best for you and your immediate family.

I know I sound glib, but I want to make the point that you largely create your own reality and you have a right to spend the month of december in a way that sustains and feeds you rather than drains you. Anticipated guilt and pushback from others is way too often given as a reason why people cannot do their own holiday the way they choose instead of spending with family when the family gatherings cause marked distress.

Why is that worth it? Who decides? Who is to say you cannot withstand a little guilt tripping and pushback, or that the stress caused by guilt trips and pushback is greater than the stress derived from enduring the event?

For those of you who WANT to be with family and consider them “loved ones,” or get annoyed at certain things but find family gatherings positive in the overall, I’m not talking to you. Except, I sort of am, because everyone needs a break sometimes. Maybe you want to go away for Christmas just because you have never done it before, and you have nothing against any of your relatives, you just don’t make the holidays revolve around them? One year diverging from your normal routine does not make you selfish. You are not selfish for wanting to do things your own way and create new traditions.

So go on a trip somewhere new for Christmas. Skip buying the tree. Only do things because they are fun. When they cease being fun, don’t do them. If you are guilty about not giving your child a tree, just stop. I remember a miserable Christmas where my mom insisted on chopping a tree down and it rained and she, my brother and I got lost in the woods in the rain for a few hours. We finally got home, and then she ended up putting the lights up herself because my dad was working late and my brother went off with his friends. I was kind of spooked by the whole thing and ended up being bratty about helping her put on ornaments. She ended up drinking a glass of wine, putting on a Pavarotti special, and cried into the tangle of lights. You know what would have been more fun? If my mom had said, screw the tree thing and taken my brother and I to get ice cream, or just played with me for a bit.

It’s all relative. You get to be in charge of this. Do what is best for you and your partner and immediate family. That might be going to the big gathering. But the big gathering might be bad for your child who gets overwhelmed by noise and crowds. Only you know, and you can only hope people understand.

Nothing ruins a good winter season, which can be about renewal and hope and the wonder of life itself, than a bunch of guilt and obligations. If you are more selective about what you choose to attend, you are able to show up with more of yourself than the tattered, distracted bits.

Create what brings you joy and others beauty this holiday season. I believe in you.

the thing about what others think

The thing is, people will think things about you. There really is little controlling or managing what is in other’s heads, though it is tempting to contort yourself according to your perception of what someone else might want you to be. But you will very likely be wrong about what it is they want, and you will be selling yourself short.

If you do the thing that you want to do in your heart, others will think things.

If you do not do the thing that you want to do in your heart, others will think things.

Some of these things will be positive and flattering; some negative and unflattering. Some of these things will be true and others will not.

Instead, why not care about what you think about you? Be the sort of human being that you would naturally think good thoughts about.

Doesn’t that seem easier?

on mindfully letting go

Sometimes, you are just out of options and ways to improve the damn situation. You have painted yourself into a corner and the only thing left to do is let go.

The in-breath, the out-breath, the cessation of running away. The realization that even though you’ve been doing your crunches and eating healthy and cut out caffeine and written down five things a day that you are grateful for, that you are just a human being, a monkey, with your inner demons, your arrogance, your boredom, your shame, and your envy. Also, your greatness, your humor, your talent, your light.

The acceptance of the moment. The realization that mindfulness does not make things better or even easier, it just creates space between you and the catastrophic-ness of your emotions.

The widening of perspective, the noticing of details. That cloud. This breeze. That dumb cat on the internet that made you laugh in spite of your spite. This moment, that you decided to face instead of run from, leading you into the next one, a new beginning.

people on healing diets are welcome

Are you on a special diet or healing protocol for autoimmunity or some other health issue? Do you experience mental health issues related to your health issues, but want a psychotherapist who honors your healing journey and your own efforts with food rather than disregarding them and referring you to a psychiatrist for medication?

Do you feel like doctors think you are crazy and blow you off, and tell you to see a therapist or to take medications? Do you acknowledge that you might be anxious or depressed, but feel that there is an underlying health issue at the root of the anxiety and depression? Do you need someone to tend to your relationship issues and mental health challenges who will listen to you and honor your journey?

We might be a fit for therapy. I am a licensed marriage and family therapist in San Jose, CA, who believes in the mind/body connection. I will not hesitate to refer to a psychiatrist when it is needed, but believe that lifestyle and diet changes can in many cases eliminate the need for long term medication. I also believe that you can take psychiatric medications while improving nutrition simultaneously, and in general I’m not a fan of the type of either/or thinking that makes folks feel they need to pick a side. I’d like to work with you so that you feel empowered to dialouge with your medical professionals in a way that meets your needs, and to find another doctor or supplementary practicioner if yours just isn’t working for you at all. If I think that any anxiety or depression issues are acute, I will most likely refer to a psychiatrist for a short term solution and work with you on lifestyle issues to find a healthy and sustainable long-term solution. But a lot of times the issues are less acute and more situational and can be ameliorated through simple changes. In order to know, you must be honest with yourself and this sort of rigorous self-examination is best done in the presence of a trained active listener such as a psychotherapist.

Disclaimer: if you are feeling suicidal, none of this applies to you and you should call 911 or go to the nearest Emergency room for evaluation.

Also: a common thing that comes up in therapy is resistance to change, so often that needs to be explored before a patient is ready to commit to working on lifestyle issues.

If you don’t live in the Bay Area, or want to work with someone else, you can screen potential psychotherapists on the phone. Ask them if they have heard of your diet. If they say no, explain the bullet points and say that you see it as important to your mental health issues and healing journey. You can usually get a read from there if someone will be neutral or supportive. It is up to you to decide, with any “alternative lifestyle,” if it is important for a psychotherapist to be aware and knowledgeable about your lifestyle, or just neutral For that matter, it could even be more important for you to have this conversation with a potential new MD, in order to make sure you are on the same page regarding what to focus on in terms of nutrition, exercise, and even what sorts of labs you should be getting.

best deodorant ever

“Smell my pits!” my husband held up his arm with a proud smile, “I haven’t taken a shower in two days and I don’t smell at all.”

Disclaimer: This was after a sick day and a weekend day. My husband employs good hygiene.

Earlier this year, I underwent a healing protocol for Hashimoto’s disease that included changing my diet, sleep habits, environmental stressors, and exposure to chemicals and toxins. I’m still working on that last one, but have been trying to find a good natural deodorant, aluminum, paraben, and gluten free, forever.

And of course my partner has to go along for the ride. He was not really happy with the crystal deodorant I had been making him use. If I’m honest, neither was I. You have to reapply it midday sometimes, and it gave both of us this weird, sickly sweet smell that for some reason reminded me of that 80s perfume called Poison. So he was threatening to go back to Speed Stick when I made a Facebook post in a local natural living community, that basically said, Help! I need a natural deodorant that stands up to man stink, and voila! A local doula who has gone into business with her brother responded to the post and offered several people free samples. The next thing I knew she dropped off a sample in my mailbox.

It is, correctly named, The Best Deodorant Ever. It smells minty and refreshing. And it really works well without having a host of unpronounceable chemicals. My husband was a former anti-perspirant user, so to step down to a deodorant and not have him complain was awesome. I was thinking of reviewing a bunch of different ones for my blog, but I’m not because stopping with something that works and helps support a local business sounds way easier and more gratifying. Check out their online store for different scents and travel sizes!

Postpartum Weight Loss

This week I stepped on the scale and was 50 pounds lighter than the day I stepped on the scale after getting out of the hospital after my daughter was born. Basically I got back to where I was when I started and then about ten more. My daughter is almost two, so it’s not a rapid transformation. For me, 50 lbs heavier than I am now does not work for me, so I was pretty motivated to lose it. As it is for a lot of people, it was a struggle for me to love myself the way I was at each stage of the way and to not feed into impossible standards set by the media. There was nothing inherently horrible or wrong with me when I weighed more, but when I carried extra weight, a lot of it was the result of stress eating junk food or just not the best choices, so I was feeling pretty awful. The hormonal roller coaster that is having a baby and going through all of the changes with your body is tough enough, but we also have a lot of pressure that we as women place on ourselves to lose it fast. So I like that it took me two years, because it forced me to focus on other things.

One of the most important observations I made about losing weight is that the weight really came off the most when I was focusing on health, rather than weight, issues. when I have modified my diet for weight issues in the past, I got caught up in an unhealthy good vs. bad, reward/punishment mindset (“cheating” and “I’m so bad for eating this” vs. “I have been so good today”). Recently because of a diagnosis of an autoimmune disorder, I made a ton of dietary changes with the goal of bringing down the number of antibodies on a blood test. My numbers are getting better all the time, but what really has gone down is my weight. And it was a lot less of a pain in the ass to focus on something really important: i.e., my health, instead of something less important, such as the measurement of the circumference of my thighs and how much time it takes for the number of that measurement to shift.

Another observation is that losing weight is a lot more fun when I accept myself as I am each stage. At this point, I may lose more, I may not, but for the most part, I’m satisfied. I am fairly grateful for where I am even though I’m not perfect. Maybe it just took a lifetime of being on different diets and stressing about it. I don’t feel like stressing any more. I am in a good place.

Since everyone always asks me how I lost weight when I lose weight, I will say that the first 25 pounds was Weight Watchers and probably helped by nursing, the next 10 were from going low carb and then wheat and gluten free, and then the rest were following and autoimmune paleo diet. If I’m going to be honest, I am not sure I would have stuck with such a restrictive diet if it did not make me feel better. Getting Hashimoto’s, in a way, was a blessing in disguise, because the diet has me thinner, but more importantly, feeling more emotionally even and physically energetic and healthy. I’m still tweaking what I eat every day but I feel best staying pretty strict towards the autoimmune paleo diet. My relationship to food has changed drastically.

I really do think that walking, yoga, and moderate weight training are the best forms of exercise for women postpartum, and also for Hashimoto’s folks too, since we are supposed to avoid overtraining. In fact, I think chilling the heck out on the exercise helped me lose weight a lot more consistently this time than other times. In the past I would burn myself out by exercising pretty intensely 4-5x a week without enough rest when I was tired or sore. Like a lot of other people who have started eating paleo, I was thrilled to discover I could take it easy and lose weight pretty easily.

Another thing I did differently that seemed to help me lose weight was get enough rest. In the 2 years after having a baby I have learned to grab sleep when I can, and sometimes that means going to bed early. I feel best getting 8 to 9 hours a night, and it helps me feel stronger for when I am working out.

Postpartum women experiencing self doubt, self loathing, body hatred or dysmorphia, or any depression that seems to fixate on weight and body issues can greatly benefit from talking to a licensed therapist about some of the emotions that can seem overwhelming. It can be helpful to explore perfectionism and the pressure women feel to be perfect even after they participated in a glorious miracle of science and nature by giving birth. Therapy can be a space to find some compassion and gentleness towards your self. It could be a place to explore why you have not taken the time that you would like to in order to take care of yourself by eating well and exercising after giving birth. A great inspiration to embrace your postpartum body is Beauty Revealed Project-beautiful photos of real postpartum bodies that celebrates the miracle that a woman’s body is capable of performing.

May we all feel beautiful, powerful, and strong.