Wearing your heart on your sleeve is a badge of honor.

Wearing your heart on your sleeve is a badge of honor.

Over the years, I’ve heard people tell me that they’re “too emotional”. Usually, they say the word emotional as if it’s dirty, something to be avoided. Males especially, cringe at being labeled emotional or sensitive.

Why is being emotional synonymous with weakness?   

Feeling deeply is a good thing. The problem is that it doesn’t always feel good. Sometimes, it’s excruciatingly uncomfortable.  If experiencing emotions is painful, then how can someone who subjects himself/herself to this pain be weak?

I believe that feeling and expressing the emotions is incredibly brave. Brave and messy. (Brene Brown does an incredible job of unpacking emotional vulnerability and strength. She is a must read/watch.)

Why then, should you open yourself up to feel uncomfortable, anger, disgusted, hurt, sadness, disappointment, embarrassment, shame, etc…?

Because avoidance is a temporary solution. Feelings always come back. They settle inside of us and fester and create havoc.  Have you seen Disney’s Inside Out? It’s a wonderful example for people ALL ages on how emotions – fear, anger, joy, disgust, and sadness – work in concert to affect us. Researchers have discovered that people who experience “emodiversity,” or a multitude of both positive and negative emotions, have better mental health.

Plus, pretending that our feelings don’t exist only reinforces that voice in our head that tells us feelings are bad. Research in neuroplasticity has shown us that our brains can grow and change and learn with practice, support, and proper brain fuel.

Imagine a field of grass with blades 4-5 inches high. As you walk across the grass, it flattens. The more you walk on those same blades of grass, the more it flattens and exposes the earth and a very well worn path. This is synonymous to what happens in the brain. If the path most travelled in the brain avoids discomfort at all costs, then we reduce our ability to face or tolerate future distress because continually avoiding feelings strengthens the neural pathways that tell us, “emotions are bad.”

AND Emotional avoidance is exhausting. Think about the amount of energy we spend avoiding. I like to compare avoiding emotions with sitting on a beach ball in the deep end of the pool. For me, trying to stay afloat while sitting on a beach ball in the pool is not an easy task. I wobble. I shake. I tip over. The ball shoots up from the water explosively. Can I do it? Yes, but not without a lot of force and constant expense of energy. Unprocessed or expressed emotions can actually become stuck in a person’s body affecting a their health and well-being. The mind body connection is no longer just theory; there is research to support the claim. Avoiding emotions can cause:

  • Bodily stress
  • High Blood Pressure
  • Poor Memory
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Immune system loss

To quote from the movie Thanks For Sharing, “Feelings are like children, you don’t want them driving the car, but you don’t want to stuff them in the trunk either.” It’s time to explore, express, and examine our emotions.

What is Sandplay?

What is Sandplay?

Do you just make castles or something? That’s the usual question I get when I mention that I’m a Sandplay Therapist. It’s not a silly question. Sand. Play. Castles. They all go together. My standard response is that Sandplay is a non-verbal expressive therapeutic technique. That usually gets me a blank stare, which is wholeheartedly understandable because unless you’re in the field of therapy, non-verbal expressive therapies shouldn’t resonate. Truthfully, many therapists don’t really know what Sandplay is either.

So, I’ve been thinking about how to explain Sandplay in a more relatable way. It’s a challenge because often, I don’t have words for what I witness or experience. Instead, I feel it and most importantly, the client feels it. Therefore, rather than explain Sandplay in an intellectual manner, I’d like to share my story: how Sandplay came into my life and reappeared when I needed it.

I was 21 years old and in Philadelphia, for my paternal grandmother’s funeral. We had arrived some days before the funeral, while she was in hospice. It was difficult watching my father manage the decisions about his mother. I was old enough to understand mortality and didn’t like thinking about my own parents’ mortality or my own. My great Uncle Bill, my father’s uncle, spied me sitting in one of the hospital waiting chairs and asked me if I wanted to take a break from the hospital and come with him. I jumped at the chance to escape the heaviness I felt, even though I didn’t know my great Uncle Bill all that well since we lived on opposite sides of the country.

That hospital day, Uncle Bill brought me to his house and asked if I’d like to come into his office. With a psychiatrist as a father, I was well versed in psychobabble. If he wanted to “have a session” with his grandniece, I’d oblige because I knew how to avoid, dodge, and circumvent the real intimate questions. Never in my strangest dreams could I have imagined his office. Ceiling to floor shelves lined the walls. Figurines covered every inch of space. Name something; he had it. Animals. Mystical creatures. Nature objects. Famous buildings. People.  I stood at the entrance of his office motionless, in amazement. Uncle Bill didn’t push or pull. He just let me be and experience whatever it was that I was feeling.

Great Uncle Bill had returned to school in his late 40s to earn a PhD in psychology. He was a character, a total free spirit. As the youngest of seven brothers, Uncle Bill would pull me aside and tell me that we, the youngest, have to stick together. It didn’t seem to matter to him that I was just the youngest of two whereas he the youngest of seven brothers! He saw us as equals and it endeared him to me.

After a good amount of time, he asked me if I’d like to create something. I asked him what he meant. Gently, he explained that the figurines were to use in the sand tray that sat glaringly in the middle of the room. I looked at him. I looked at the thousands of figures. I looked back at him. What the hell, I remember thinking. At least I won’t have to talk.

And so, I created. I spent almost an hour engrossed in little figures. I created a mini world in the sand tray while my great Uncle Bill observed. He didn’t question me. He didn’t make comments. He just let me be and do whatever it was that I needed to be and do. He made me a big cup of tea afterwards and we sat together until my parents and brother came to pick me up.  They asked me what I did. They asked me what I said. I just shrugged. It was inexplicable (and none of their business.) That day with my great Uncle Bill never left me. I recall that day as vividly as if it were yesterday.

Fast-forward 22 years. I was a school counselor, educational therapist, and adjunct professor. I had two boys of my own. I decided to open a private psychotherapy practice and wanted to do something special. I wanted Sandplay. I wanted others to be able to experience what I did with my uncle. I found the only training happening in New England and dove straight in. Although I enjoyed the training because I was able to re-immerse myself in Jungian concepts and learn about Dora Kalff and the roots of Sandplay, the most meaningful and worthwhile part of becoming a Sandplay Practitioner was the journey of my own Sandplay process.

To me, Sandplay is about allowing the psyche – our soul or spirit – to express what it needs to. Words can be manipulated and carefully chosen whereas images/figurines can’t hide their true meaning. The images/figurines our psyche chooses when we create a tray may reveal both our conscious and unconscious thoughts/feelings. Sandplay is a vehicle for our psyche’s expression. The psyche, both conscious and unconscious parts, deserves to be heard and explored.

Uncle Bill made me feel seen and Sandplay offered a window to really see myself. It wasn’t always pretty. In fact, it was a very uncomfortable and painful process. But, in my experience, change and self-understanding is never simple or easy.

Lessons from Parenting

Lessons from Parenting

Years ago, when my sons were toddlers, my psychiatrist father and marriage and family therapist mother provided sound parenting advice but as a new mom, I dismissed them because I thought I knew better. They were outdated; they didn’t know how to raise kids in the 21st century. There were newer, better “rules” of parenting. Besides, I had my masters in counseling and had been working as a school counselor for 6 years.  So what if I was exhausted, cranky, and stressed? So what if I imagined running away more than seven times a day? I perceived their suggestions as attacks on my ability to parent, indications that I was failing. If they commented on my child’s obnoxious behavior, I became even more sensitive and defensive. 

And there was no shortage of obnoxious behavior in my house. My youngest son had perfected the art of throwing a horrific tantrum by the age of two. A fair skinned child, Charlie’s face would turn a fabulous shade of heirloom red tomato as he kicked and screamed with tears and snot flowing everywhere.  He screamed as if his insides were being torn apart. Ask him to do something he didn’t want to do and BAM the world was coming to an end. Say no to him, and WHAM screams hurled through the house.

One day, my parents were visiting and we were headed to the park. Before we left, I asked Charlie – in my calmest and most encouraging voice – to pick up the Magna-tiles he’d artistically strewn across the living room. That wasn’t on his agenda, however. I calmly explained to him that we weren’t going to the park until the tiles were picked up. He didn’t budge. A back and forth of me telling him to pick up the toys or we weren’t going to the park ensued. I cajoled, bargained, and bribed. Nothing worked.

My parents watched until I was so fed up I wanted to fling the tiles at all three of them: Charlie for not listening and my parents for witnessing my complete lack of control.

“How many times do I have to tell you to pick up your toys?” I yelled at my 4 year- old son.

“As many times as you’ll do it,” my mother said under her breath.

“He’s four!” I snapped, feeling immediately defensive and embarrassed. “He’s only four!” I was totally out of control and they were witnessing it. My 4 year old was in charge and I was a failure.

“You know, Cindy,” my dad said in his slow smooth voice that only a psychiatrist of 30 years can master, “seems to me like he’s making your life pretty miserable and you’re always trying to make his life wonderful. Maybe there’s a problem?” 

Maybe? Um, definitely.

I repeatedly bargained with a toddler. I issued threats without follow through because holding the line and sticking to boundaries was exhausting. I bent over backwards making sure that he had play dates (social interactions) and park visits (time in nature) and story time at the library (early exposure to reading) and the list continued. I kept doing and doing and doing. Making his life wonderful while I felt miserable. So I decided that I needed to make his life as miserable as he was making mine.

I wasn’t going to intentionally make his life difficult, I just wasn’t going to turn myself into a pretzel to make sure that he felt no discomfort. I decided not to care about the looks from strangers if he pitched a fit in the middle of the grocery store. His tantrums weren’t about me. They weren’t a reflection of my poor parenting. His tantrums were because he wasn’t getting what he wanted. But, he needed to learn that behaviors have consequences. If he refused to clean up before going to the park, he wouldn’t get to go to the park and play with his friends. The other mothers could think I was a “mean” mom. They could think whatever they wanted, but I decided that it was more important for him to learn that life is unpleasant, sometimes. And it’s okay. He’ll be okay.

Now that my boys are teenagers, I’m grateful for my parents and their unsolicited advice. They helped me understand the importance of not fixing every situation, not giving in to every whim. To allow failure. To allow disappointment. Disappointment and struggle are necessary for the developing mind. Young people need to experience sadness, frustration, worry, and embarrassment because they need to know that they have the capabilities to handle themselves and come out on the other side.

Problems lead to problem solving.

Rescuing leads to dependency and the belief the child isn’t capable of handling the situation on his/her own.

We need to be there to listen, love, and support. But parenting isn’t about making life perfect . (Instagram and Facebook have the market on feigning perfection.) Instead, we can parent for independence and true belief in one’s self. Parenting is the hardest job and it doesn’t end when our children become “adults”. If we start out parenting by running ourselves ragged and making sure that everything is “just right” for our children, we rob them of the opportunity to take care of themselves and we exhaust ourselves in the process.

Whisper Words of Wisdom, Let It Be

Whisper Words of Wisdom, Let It Be

When our minds fester and stew in negativity, usually the first suggestion is to let go.

Just let it go. What’s done is done.  Worrying won’t change the outcome.     It’s more painful to hold on than to let go. 

Letting go is sound advice because worry and self-blame do us no good. However, as true as it may be, letting go is not that simple. For most of us, when we try to let go of something, it either keeps nagging at us or only comes back with more energy.

​Jack Kornfield said, “To let go does not mean to get rid of. To let go means to let be. When we let be with compassion, things come and go on their own.”

It might sound ridiculous and impossible to let these dreadful thoughts and feelings be when there’s an urgency to get rid of them as quickly as possible. However, the energy we spend trying to pretend that these uncomfortable, negative feelings or thoughts don’t exist is precisely what feeds them.

Rather than rejecting or fighting the persistent, negative thoughts and feelings in our minds, look at them. It’s important to observe without judgement. Be compassionate and kind to yourself. Acknowledge the thoughts, recognize them, but do not chase after them.

Jon Kabat-Zinn reminds us, “You can’t stop the waves, but you can learn to surf.” It’s not easy to relinquish control and let be. It’s uncomfortable to sit with the fear, anger, or embarrassment we feel, but it’s important to do so. We can hope for immediate transformation, but retraining our minds to be patient, present observers requires steady effort. 

Recipe For Raising Powerful Daughters

Recipe For Raising Powerful Daughters

Heaping Cup of Personal Power 

Allow your daughter to feel that she has control over things that happen to her. Let her have a voice in making decisions. Whenever possible, let her make constructive choices about her life. Let her choose her own clothes, within appropriate limits. Give her a voice in what after-school activities she participates in and how many she wants to do (as long as it works for the rest of the family, too). When parents trust girls to make decisions, girls internalize the message that they are capable.

Development of Sense of Purpose 

Girls need to feel that their life has a purpose. Girls need to discover and nurture their sparks! (Sparks refers to the intrinsic interests, talents, and passions that young people have that motivate them to learn, grow, and contribute to society.)

The Search Institute research shows that youth who thrive have two important supports: knowledge of what their sparks are and adults who support the development of those sparks. Full engagement with an activity she loves will give her the opportunity to master challenges, which will boost her self-esteem and resilience and affirm intrinsic values rather than appearance,” says Rachel Simmons, author of Odd Girl Out and Enough As She Is.

Family Values and Role Modeling
What traits and strengths do you want your daughter to develop as she grows? Are these qualities are reflected in how you parent? Do you have clear boundaries and reasonable expectations? Do you model self-acceptance and appreciation or are you constantly criticizing and degrading yourself?

Encourage her to solve issues on her own rather than fixing things for her.
When parents take over, girls don’t develop the coping skills they need to handle situations on their own. Ask your daughter to consider three strategies she might use to deal with a situation, and then ask her about the possible outcomes. Let her decide what she wants to do (within reason). Even if you disagree with her choice, you give your daughter a sense of control over her life and show her that she is responsible for her decisions. Mistakes create growth and awareness, not to mention opportunities for discussion. Our daughters need to be prepared for life’s bumpy road. Don’t try and pave the road for them!!

Encourage her to take physical risks.
“Girls who avoid risks have poorer self-esteem than girls who can and do face challenges,” says JoAnn Deak, Ph.D., author of Girls Will Be Girls. “Urge your daughter to go beyond her comfort zone — for example, encourage a girl who’s scared to ride her bike downhill to find just a small hill to conquer first.” Catherine Steiner-Adair, Ed.D., co-author of Full of Ourselves: A Wellness Program to Advance Girl Power, Health and Leadership, agrees. “It’s important to help even non-athletic girls develop some physical competence and confidence when they’re young. Whether it’s through team or individual sports, girls need to form a physical relationship with their body that builds confidence.”

Allow her to disagree with you and get angry.
Raising a powerful girl means living with one. She must be able to stand up to you and be heard, so she can learn to do the same with classmates, teachers, a boyfriend, or future bosses.  Help girls to make considered choices about how to express their feelings, and to whom.

Listen more than you talk.
Allow your daughter the time and freedom to discuss what’s on HER mind. It may seem trivial or unimportant to you, but acknowledging her feelings will lead to increased dialogue and openness when the important/difficult issues arise.

Help her process the messages in the media. 
By helping your daughter process the messages she sees on the screen and develop her own ideas about them, you can prepare her to better resist the media’s pervasive stereotypes. The media is selling young people the idea that girls’ and women’s value lies in their youth, beauty, and sexuality and not in their capacity as leaders. Boys learn that their success is tied to dominance, power, and aggression. We must value people as whole human beings, not gendered stereotypes.