Artisan Clinical Associates Therapy you can trust, near the heart of downtown Naperville, IL Sun, 06 Oct 2019 21:17:05 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Why We Should Show Up Even If We Are Afraid We Don’t Measure Up Sun, 06 Oct 2019 21:17:05 +0000  

I love writing.

And yet, at times, I’m afraid of it.

A blinking cursor on a blank page is exciting. It’s the anticipation of what is about to be created. It’s that feeling of possibility.

And yet, at times, I’m afraid of it, because a blinking cursor on a blank page also brings the fear of what might never be created. It’s that feeling of possible failure.

I sit there, fingers hovering over the keys, balancing both feelings at the same time. Do I choose to reveal my truest self, or do I allow the fear to edit what I say and hold me back?

As a child, I used to trace the drawings of other artists, hoping one day all the effort put into emulating their designs would somehow magically help mine to become just as beautiful and worthy of being seen. It seemed like every time I tried to draw from my own imagination, the shape was all wrong, and it never seemed to possess the same creative style of the artists I admired.

So, I’d feel inferior.

Which is when my shame would grow louder.

“What if the fatal flaw isn’t my lack of skill but my lack of worth? What if there isn’t anything inside of me worth seeing?”

When I was young, I assumed because my pictures weren’t drawn with a particular skill or style that it meant my drawings were inferior. It felt personal, as if I was placing more than ink onto the page, as if I was etching who I was into that piece of art. Its quality felt equal to my worth. Even worse, once the ink was on the page, I couldn’t control what people thought of it – what they thought of me. I wanted to be seen. But, I wasn’t sure it was really me – my authentic self – who people wanted to see.

The fear and shame told me that only those who clearly measure up are allowed to show up.

So, I quit showing up. I stopped showing my original drawings. Instead, I only showed drawings I had traced, hoping no one would recognize it was a copy, and enjoying the confidence of knowing it was a design people had already embraced.

It can be tempting to just imitate what other people around us are doing, in order to feel as if what we are doing is good enough. It can be tempting to edit out the ways in which we perceive we – aren’t good enough, keeping them to ourselves because we are ashamed they might make us look inferior. It is tempting because fear will tell us to avoid the vulnerability of showing up unless we can guarantee we will measure up.

In the years since then, I have come to realize that showcasing a self we’ve copied from someone else doesn’t ever really help us feel seen. It’s only when we do the vulnerable and brave work of showing our authentic self that we feel seen. Do this long enough, and you discover something new about measuring up; it doesn’t exist.

We show up with our authentic self because worth is not a standard to measure up to but a reality to live out.

I sit at my computer, and I watch the cursor appear and disappear, awaiting my decision. Waiting for me to choose: fear or authenticity?

I don’t always know what words will find their way onto the page. I don’t always know if anyone else will deem them worth seeing. But – I will show up. The words will be mine. And I will give myself a chance to be authentically seen.

I will practice the art of that.

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Dear Self Sat, 08 Jun 2019 15:31:53 +0000 letter to myself

Dear [True] Self,

I owe you an apology.

Last week, I got very angry with you when I got the news of our dear friend’s accomplishment. You were full of joy for them, but I was full of jealousy. I saw them accomplish the same goal I’d set for myself, only they did it first (and probably better).

–Hopelessness instantly flared up in me.

Despairingly, I decided all my efforts were pointless. “Why keep trying? Accomplishments only matter if they make you unique – the only winner. I didn’t even realize I’d been seeing myself in competition with them, until I felt insignificant for not accomplishing it first, – until

I felt the dream I had for myself float away into a meaningless nothing.

At times, I am afraid we will fade away into a meaningless nothing.

What I mean is, I still, at times, fall captive to the belief that doing more than other people makes me worth more than other people. When you slow down to prioritize our needs over my goals, it can feel like a giant waste of time. It often feels like there is no love for the ordinary person, only the extraordinary achiever. I get scared sometimes that if I don’t point out all the ways I think we could be better or if I don’t push us to try harder, then we will fall behind in life. It often feels like those who fall behind get left behind. No love for the incapable straggler.

Ironically, I almost treated you, my True Self, like the incapable straggler.

Because I forgot that our worth is inherent – already firmly established; it cannot be diminished. I lost sight of the truth, that you are the inherent value inside of me – not what I achieve externally.

I judged you for slowing down to take care of our needs, accusing you of being weak when really you were being authentic. Forgetting, the extraordinary is within me, not something external to attain.

And the truth is, underneath all my anger was something else: I was feeling lonely.

When it feels as if others are thriving and I am being left behind, I want to blame you for not agreeing with me that we need to accomplish more. I try to convince you that those who do great things never have to feel lonely; they are too busy being revered.  I get afraid that maybe we will be less important and thus more alone, than I want us to be.

I’m sorry. I lost sight of the truth:

Loneliness is not the result of being behind in life; it is the result of being disconnected from you, my True Self, and from other people.

There is no amount of effort that would prove or improve what is already foundational to who I am. You, my True Self, are the substance of my value and worth.

You tried to tell me the immediate thoughts and feelings I had were a product of the culture and family I was born in. You tried to remind me that my biology has wired me to want to survive – by out-doing others, but when I connect with you I don’t just survive, I thrive, in any and every environment. At first, I didn’t listen.

But, I am listening now.

Therefore, instead of pushing you past our needs and our limits, I will protect you. I will respect our needs and limitations regardless of what I want to accomplish.

Instead of blaming you for my disappointment, I will listen to you. I will stop asking you to recount our accomplishments to prove our worth to me.

Instead of giving up on you, I am going to give in to you – to celebrating who we really are. I’ll set aside the impulse to compare, and I will strive to better recognize the beauty and worth of our unique Self.

I promise to be the one who loves you no matter what.



Your [Gradually Healing] Shame

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The Path to Redemption is Paved with Tender Hands and Tortilla Chips Thu, 25 Apr 2019 22:53:54 +0000 comfort and healing

A couple years ago, I rescued a dog. I knew immediately when I saw her, she was the one I wanted.  She was small, adorable, terrified, and precious.  Life had already been unkind and unfair to her. I was instantly filled with compassion, because of the cruelty she had experienced.

There is a place deep within me that longs to create beauty and wholeness out of devastation and heartache. Looking at her, I remembered how tenderness from kind people helped me to find the healing I needed.  I was determined to do the same for her and show her just how beautiful life can be.

Redemption begins by exposing our shattered parts, so they may be restored into a beautiful whole.

The past impacts us, but it doesn’t have to define us. When we hide our wounds, we keep ourselves isolated from healing. The parts of us that have been trampled on or untended to can be redeemed when we are vulnerable and share our wounds with those who are kind and caring.

When I brought her home, this precious, little dog recoiled at the sound of my voice and at the touch of my hands. My heart broke for her. Hands that should have been used for tender petting and comforting embraces had been a source of pain and cruelty. In her experience, open arms were not a gesture to run towards but to flee from.

Our painful experiences tend to create in us a mistrust of others. And that mistrust often leads us to run and hide, lest wounding re-occur. However, I knew, if she kept running and hiding even though it was now safe, she would never discover or enjoy all the ways this world can be kind and loving. Her past would define her and keep her from healing.

So, with tortilla chips in my hand and no expectations in my heart, I laid on the floor and waited. Every time she came close, risking nearness to the hands she was terrified of, I responded to her with tender hands – and tortilla chips.

Overtime, her response to my voice and my touch changed from fear and fleeing to excitement and closeness. Little by little we were building trust.

Painful experiences aren’t redeemed quickly with force but slowly with compassion.

These days, my small, adorable, and (now) bold dog seeks me out to snuggle, and it still breaks my heart – but now with immense joy. Because of the trust we have built and the healing she has experienced, she trusts these hands will only ever offer her comfort and kindness. Her wounds have been redeemed so her heart is free to enjoy all the beauty life has to offer now.

Deep down, regardless of the exterior we present to the world and to others, we all long for safe arms to snuggle into. I remember the times in my own life when hands weren’t used for tender touches and voices weren’t used for admiration. These painful experiences created wounds and mistrust.  And like my precious, little dog, my heart would flee even after it was finally safe to open up.

However, running and hiding only concealed my wounds; it didn’t heal them.

When I began to expose those shattered parts of myself and consistently found compassion and comfort in return, little by little, healing came. Kindness replaced harshness. And as those once shattered parts of myself were tenderly mended and redeemed, those parts of me were free to live rather than hide.

Redeemed experiences allow us to live out of our wholeness instead of our wounds.

I don’t know the ways you’ve experienced betrayal instead of love, what hands brought a violation of trust instead of tenderness and comfort, or the voices that uttered criticism instead of admiration. But we all need a safe place to find healing from past painful experiences.

Find a person with tender hands and tortilla chips.

And then become the tender hands and offer kindness to others.

Together, we will redeem this world, as our painful experiences dwindle into beauty and wholeness.

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Fear Will Hold You Back but Hope Will Carry Your Forward Sun, 17 Mar 2019 00:19:28 +0000 When we Overcome, we Become. The obstacles we encounter in life are opportunities to further this becoming, not the place where our fears tell the truth about who we are.

Life often feels like a race, with our birth the starting line, and our death the finish line. In a race, how you manage your mindset in between those two lines is what determines the quality of the race you are running. Likewise, in life, where you start and where you end are of little import, compared to how you manage the years in between.

overcoming fear

I ran my first obstacle course race last summer.  It was miles of mud, vertical walls, and monkey bars. In the beginning it was thrilling, but somewhere near the end, it was just hard. My aching muscles and my anxious mind—including my uncertainty about how much further there was to go—tested my beliefs about who I am and what I am capable of when things get hard. Suddenly, Fear was running next to me, whispering, “Maybe it’s hard because you aren’t good at it.”

When I let fear decide what is true about who I am, namely, that if something is hard it means I must be failing, I stop trying. Better to fail with no effort than with every effort.

Fear is an emotion, designed to warn us of danger. Nevertheless, this internal alarm system is primitive, so it can’t distinguish between actual danger and potential danger. Therefore, when our heart rate is increasing and our legs feel like they might give out, fear will mistake these symptoms as impending failure rather than simply a sign of difficult circumstances.

What determines the quality of our miles from start to finish lies in the relationship we cultivate with the fear that runs alongside us.

As I neared the finish line, I stood in front of a pit full of water, delaying jumping in, and all I could feel was the exhaustion and the uncertainty.  What if the fear was right? What if I’m not strong enough to make it past all the remaining obstacles?

In that moment, I knew I had a choice. I could let fear define me as my symptoms or I could choose something else and define myself by how I manage the symptoms.

As I stood staring into the pit, I realized I’d had another running partner with me all along. One I’d been ignoring. We all do. That partner is called Hope.

Fear highlights our symptoms in order to question our capacity. Hope puts our symptoms into perspective in order to encourage us forward. To overcome the self-doubt and failure that Fear inevitably evokes when an obstacle is looming before us, we must cling to Hope. Hope doesn’t require that we pretend life isn’t difficult or daunting at times. But hope reminds us we have made it through difficult and uncertain miles before and we can get through this mile too.

Hope told me to jump in and keep going. It told me to acknowledge this was hard, but that fear was confusing my symptoms for outcomes. Hope reminded me that my capacity to grow, adapt, and thrive had already been proven by the obstacles I’d already overcome. Hard didn’t mean I was failing. Hard meant I was growing.

So I jumped in.

And when I climbed up the other side of the water pit, that’s when I saw it: the finish line, only three more obstacles away.

Our mindset and what we choose to believe is true about ourselves in this race we call life is the real obstacle.

You don’t get to choose the obstacles you will face in this life. You only get to choose which running partner you’ll listen to, and thus your mindset while going through them. Will you see the obstacle hopefully, as an opportunity to step further into your strength and capability, or will you allow fear to hold you back?

Fear might tell me that hard means I am not enough, but I am choosing to listen to Hope, which is telling me that hard means I am growing.

Which running companion will you choose?

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How We Manage Our Pain Will Deepen or Destroy Our Relationships Thu, 24 Jan 2019 18:50:11 +0000 Relationships

Artist Credit: Alexandr Milov (Burning Man Festival 2015)

When I stepped on my dance partner’s toes, they stepped on my heart.

A number of years ago, I was learning to dance, and I had a partner who responded to my mistakes with criticism and rejection. I quickly learned I had to dance perfectly or I would be dancing alone. So, to avoid the criticism and the pain of being rejected, I shut down emotionally and let this partner dictate all the steps. Over the years, I repeated that same dance, again and again. No matter who my dance partner was, as soon as I detected the first sign of criticism or rejection, my feet would keep dancing but my heart would go into hiding.

It turns out, our level of connection in relationships is directly tied to our awareness of how our past is interacting with our present.

One of the most valuable functions of our brain is its ability to remember.  The brain catalogues our past experiences so we can enter into new experiences with an immediate understanding of how to navigate them.  As a result, we do not need to learn how to ride a bike more than once, we don’t have to remind ourselves to not touch a hot stove every time we cook, and over time you can drive from point A to point B while paying almost no attention at all.

Relationships are a lot like dancing, and the brain thinks so too.

While dancing, it takes conscious effort and trust to stay in sync with your partner. The next right step, executed a count too early or a count too late throws off the whole rhythm. For a dance to be successful, both partners must prioritize being in sync above their own need to shine, all the while entrusting their partner with their fears about being close and even dependent. When that trust goes bad, so does the dance.

In relationships, if your heart has been dropped or your feelings stepped on before, your brain catalogues it, making it harder to dance freely the next time around.

None of us are exempt from the pain and hurt that happens when what we want is love and we didn’t find it. Because our brain does such a good job remembering, we carry these wounds with us. And if we are not attentive to these wounds, we will listen to our brain’s alarm.

Then, our pain determines the quality of our connection, rather than our love.

We narrow our focus and the dance becomes about protecting ourselves from more pain rather than allowing ourselves to be vulnerable and communicate the pain we already carry. The brain sees pain and hurt as something to defend itself against and to avoid. Love and connection are attained when we embrace and share our pain, instead of pushing it down or avoiding it.

All those years ago, burying my feelings and aiming to please my partner allowed me to ignore the pain but it destroyed my ability to connect with my partner.  Our feet were in sync, but our hearts were not.

The dances we find ourselves in can be with a parent, a spouse, a child, a friend, or a coworker. Our relational wounds are there, either helping our connection through the sharing of them, or hindering our connection through the hiding of them. Perhaps you learned to over-please in order to avoid rejection as well. Or perhaps you learned to be critical as a way to guard yourself from another’s rejection. Regardless of how your brain learned to cope with your early, hurtful dances, the steps learned back then are not the steps that will keep you in rhythm with your partners today.

If you find yourself not feeling connected or in sync, perhaps it’s because a past relational wound is throwing off your rhythm.

Is it time to change the way you dance?

Are you ready to stop listening to your brain, which tells you to avoid or defend? And are you ready to listen to your heart, which reminds you that love is about sharing your pain so you can dance to the rhythm of vulnerability and trust once again?

Your brain will let your pain destroy your relationships.

Your heart will let your pain deepen them.

Let’s dance.

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How Change Makes Space for Something New Sun, 11 Nov 2018 20:55:41 +0000 going through change

When you think you are dying you might actually be in the middle of coming back to life.  I love fall because it teaches us this.

The air turns crisp and the ground gets colorful and crunchy from the fallen leaves and limbs. The flourishing of spring and summer has reached its culmination and is now coming to an end. But the end doesn’t feel like grief; it feels like a celebration. It feels as if nature is showing us that all of this change and dying off is important in order to make way for further growth.

However, while I quickly welcome the changes the autumn brings, I’m not always so quick to embrace change in my own life.

After growing up in a household that was unstable and unkind, change can trigger feelings of loss, uncertainty, and fear. The discomfort that comes with change sometimes leads me to believe the change isn’t worth it. In those moments, in order to cope, I have often attached to whatever provides me with a sense of stability and worth. I’ve grasped for whatever is familiar. My anxiety about change tries to convince me it is better to stick with what I know than risk what I can’t guarantee.  It will tell me to protect myself from the discomfort of uncertainty and loss and to stick with the comfort of the familiar.

But this fall season is telling me something better than my anxiety.

It is telling me that when I cope with the uncertainty of change by pretending I can just hold onto something forever, I am resisting a fundamental part of being alive. Life is about changing and growing and becoming, not staying the same. Life is in constant motion and that motion is not senseless: it is creating change that promotes further growth and expansion.

At some point, everything falls a part in order to make way for something new.

I recently went through this cycle of flourishing and letting go when I changed practices. I had been at my previous practice for five years and those feelings of comfort, stability, and competence were well established. I had once again reached the feeling of familiar, and I loved it. I knew the ins and outs of the job, my work – life routine had been established, and each week I got to sit and process life with people who had become part of that familiarity.

And yet, deep down, I knew I had reached the conclusion of that season, and it was time to begin a new one.

As I contemplated switching practices, anxiety – once again – began speaking up within in me.  It reminded me of the potential failure involved in change. It reminded me the process of acclimating to something new is really uncomfortable and vulnerable, and it taunted me with what I was about to lose: my sense of stability and familiarity. It told me to settle for what I already had and not risk the unknown.

However, these days, when my anxiety speaks, another voice within me speaks even louder. A voice that believes in my ability to expand with life. This voice reminds me that although the fear of change is still present, discomfort makes space for what comes next. It tells me to welcome uncertainty, because uncertainty brings new things with it. It tells me that further growth is only possible when I bravely let go of the old and open up to something new.  The season of my life spent at my old practice was one of flourishing, a time which I grew into myself and found my place in the world. Now that season needed to end, so a new one could begin.

I knew if I held onto the last beautiful thing, I would miss out on the next beautiful thing.

And so, this time, as the time for change is upon me, instead of clinging even tighter to the feeling of familiar, I am taking a cue from this season and celebrating the purposefulness of change. I am leaning into the uncertainty. I am claiming that my worth and sense of stability come from what is familiar within and not from the familiar around me. Now, this season of change feels a lot less scary. Indeed, it feels beautiful.

Like crunchy, colorful, solid ground beneath my feet.

If you allow yourself to embrace the changing seasons of life instead of clinging tightly to your flourishing from the previous season, you too can enjoy the growth, the expansion, the beauty, and the solid ground of yourself that change will bring.

Just as the world around us does each year.


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This Is How to Find Your Place in the Family of Things Sun, 11 Nov 2018 20:55:38 +0000 death and resurrection

Photo Credit: Michael Schroeder (Bigstock)

This year, the maples all turned purple.

They usually die all at once in an explosion of blood red and burning orange. This year, though, it looks as if they all got together—had a tree-meeting of sorts—and agreed to die differently. Purple, at first, instead of red. Starting at the crown, and then pausing for a couple of weeks, before turning fully red. Slower than ever. Better than ever? I’m not sure about that.

But definitely different.

I have a friend who says that death and resurrection is the pattern of everything. It’s not just trees in their ancient, seasonal rhythm. Whole forests burn and whole ecosystems are resurrected from the charred remains. Our skin cells shed to dust and are replaced by new tissue. Every night, our consciousness dies in sleep and is resurrected by wakefulness. Every twenty-four hours, the day dies at sunset and is resurrected at sunrise. Everywhere you look, everything finds itself somewhere in this cycle of death and resurrection. And this year, the maples reminded me: the death and resurrection is different every time.

This autumn, for instance, I died differently than I’ve ever died before. Three times.

Right around the time the vines—which wrap themselves around the tree trunks in the deep, deep woods—turned red before everything else, standing out in contrast from the still green forest, I died anew to the idea that I’m blameless in the the sometimes painful journey that is marriage. I’ve told myself for years that I’ve never used my wife for anything. Around the time the vines were being exposed, my selfishness was being exposed as well. I use her to take away my loneliness. When she fails to do so, I can be quick to criticize her; and when she succeeds at doing so, I can be quick to discard her.

We have to die to the love we pretend we give, so that we can be resurrected into the kind of love we were meant to give.

Then, as the walnut trees and honey locusts conspired with the chilling wind to shower their little yellow leaves upon the green autumn grass, I sat down for a heart-to-heart with my friend and business partner. It had been a long, hard season of transition at Artisan Clinical Associates, and it had taken its toll on our relationship. We talked. It hurt. And in the end, we changed two words in the Artisan motto. It used to read, “We are here because the path is long, and sometimes steep – but its rewards are rich. We have traveled it ourselves, and if you’re willing we can walk with you a while.” Now, it reads, “We are traveling…” Not past tense. Present tense. We, too, are a work in a progress.

After all, the job of a therapist (and every person, really) is to die a little more every day to their arrogance—their self-assuredness, which clouds judgment and discernment and wisdom—so that they can be resurrected into even more clarity about themselves and about the people who are walking with them on the journey.

Then, as the dry, crackly carcasses of the cottonwood leaves began to litter the roadways, crunching underfoot and beneath tires, I coached my last youth soccer game of the season. I’ve done this nine times before. But this time, it was different. It wasn’t just my last game of the season; it was the last game of my coaching career. My kids are aging out. It’s time to let more skilled coaches coach their skills. I’ve loved this season of parenthood. The memories of it will survive as long as my memory survives.

After the last game, I stood on the empty field—players and fans all departed, my kids waiting for me in the car. It was the kind of clear, autumn night that makes living in north central Illinois worth it. The setting sun fighting its way through the tree tops. The air as crisp and as pure in your lungs as God originally made it. As I briefly mourned the death of this fleeting stage of my life and my parenthood, four geese flew overhead in an uneven V, heading south, honking. I recalled those lines from Mary Oliver:

Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,

the world offers itself to your imagination,

calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting—

over and over announcing your place

in the family of things.

We have die to the small “we” so we can be resurrected into the big “We.” We have to die to our limited loneliness so we can be resurrected into our limitless Belonging. We have to die to our definition of family so we can be resurrected into the Family of Things.

The same old pattern of everything, as my friend would say.

But every time, a little different, like the maples.

Death and resurrection.

They call to you, like the wild geese, harsh and exciting.

Announcing your place in the Family of Things.

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How Your Phone Is Robbing You of You Sun, 10 Jun 2018 03:10:59 +0000 kids technology

Photo Credit: dolgachov (Bigstock)

My son is waiting by the road for his ride to school.

I remember being fourteen and waiting for my ride to school. Sometimes, I would try to walk the balance beam of railroad ties separating our yard from the shoulder of the road. But I bored of that quickly. Then, I would pass the time walking into myself. I’d think thoughts. Feel feelings. Wonder about who I was and where I was going. Daydream of dating girls who were way out of my league. Feel insecure, even in my own daydreams. In other words, I’d wander into my humanity.

My son is not walking railroad ties.

But even more importantly, he’s not walking into himself. He’s not wandering into the infinite abyss of his humanity. Rather, he’s wandering into the infinite abyss of something else. He’s on his phone. Rather than venturing into his interior world, he’s venturing into his digital world.

This is tragic.

I know that sounds a little alarmist. And I know I sound like an out-of-touch old man, pining for the good ole days of an analog world. But the truth is, I think it’s tragic not because my son is different than me, but because he is like me. For much of the last year, I got lost in my phone. When a silent moment arrived, rather than exploring the world happening within me, I reached for my phone and dove into the world within it.

Again, this is tragic.

It’s tragic because we are here to discover ourselves. We are here to wade into all the mess that exists just beneath our carefully crafted facades. We are here to have a reckoning with our arrogance, to understand the roots of our rage, to befriend our fear, and to sit with our sorrow. We are here to silence our shame.

We are here to wade into our mess until that moment—that graceful moment—when we’ve waded far enough to finally catch a glimpse of what lies on the other side of the mess: our true self. Our soul. God, love, grace and mercy and every beautiful thing, residing right there, at the center of us.

My son’s head is bowed and his phone is raised and this is tragic, because in any moment, there are two infinite journeys you might embark upon—the journey into your phone, or the journey into you. The architects of your phone have designed it so you will become addicted to the digital journey. They are robbing you of you.

The architect of your soul is much less manipulative.

The only incentive for the journey into you is delight. The delight that arises from discovering that you are good enough and worthy, just the way you are. The delight that arises from discovering you are not alone, never have been, and never will be. The delight that arises from discovering that you matter, that there’s a reason for your life, that it’s all heading somewhere.

I’ve been trying to detox from my phone and to become intoxicated, once again, with this journey into me. As a therapist, I can tell you this is the most powerful thing a therapy room has to offer—the space to enter into yourself.

As a parent, I want to tell my son that’s the most powerful thing a roadside has to offer, as well.

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How to Survive Holiday Cheer When Loss Leaves You Cheerless Fri, 01 Dec 2017 08:00:58 +0000

Photo credit: Miranda Meadows

One year ago, I’m in my childhood home celebrating thanksgiving far away from the imminent Chicago winter. Everywhere I look, I see “holiday cheer.” I can’t hide from it. And normally, I don’t want to. As a self-described Lover of All Things Elf Culture, I live for the magic of the holiday season. Normally, the second Halloween is over, everything I touch turns to candy canes and Christmas tree shaped Reese’s cups, and I can’t stop singing my favorite Christmas songs. Normally, the holidays are full of all the usual sentiments: cheer and joy, peace and happiness. And normally, these sentiments make sense.

Yet, last year, the holidays weren’t “normal.” Just a few weeks before thanksgiving, my dad died unexpectedly.

And so the holidays arrive, and my mom, little sister, and I go through the motions, putting away the leftover turkey and bringing out the Christmas décor. From the outside, many things look the same. The same artificial tree we’ve used for years is still shorter than we want it to be. The same red and white ornaments from my childhood create whimsy on our too-short tree while my favorite Christmas movie (It’s a Wonderful Life, of course) plays as we decorate. Even the same stockings are hung over the fireplace.

Well, the same stockings, minus one.

As the tree beams with the whimsy and magic and wonder of the holidays, I wonder if it’s possible to simply cancel Christmas.  Can I shut my eyes and wake up and all of this be over? The season of light is overcast with the darkness of loss. I look at the three stockings, and my eyes burn with tears that I tell myself I “shouldn’t” shed, because it’s the holidays and I’m supposed to “be merry,” after all.

That only makes my eyes burn more.

How do I do this? How do I feel joy, peace, and hope when all my heart feels is sadness, grief, and pain? How do I survive this when all I want to do is weep?

The empty space above the fireplace taunts me with memories of the past, now tainted with the loss of the present. The good is hard to see when the grief is so fresh. Yet the good is there, mixed in with the pain. In fact, the pain exists because there was good that was lost. The light is small, but it’s still light in the darkness.

As I stand in the glow of the tree, I wonder if maybe it’s okay for me to weep for the memories that I cherish, and maybe I can smile about those, too. Maybe I can allow myself to feel what I need to feel… and even be angry and sad about the loss of what I hoped life would be like.  Maybe the holidays are “supposed to be” filled with light and joy, but maybe the darkness and light can coexist.

And maybe, over time, the sky will lighten with a new morning, and the pain will be a little less dark. New memories will be made, and old memories will be treasured. Maybe the darkness of loss, even though it’s hard, can help me see the light more clearly.

Maybe the holidays are best served when I can remember that, just like light and dark, the joy and pain can also coexist. And that’s okay. 

Instead of “Be merry!” I whisper to myself “Just be.”

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A Shrink Analyzes His Own Nightmare Tue, 31 Oct 2017 06:00:47 +0000 naperville therapists

Photo Credit: azur13 (Bigstock)

I haven’t had a recurring nightmare since childhood.

Until recently.

It begins with me standing in our kitchen, looking out upon our front yard. Then, suddenly, a large black-and-white conversion van comes barreling recklessly up our driveway toward the house. It narrowly misses the kitchen and passes out of sight, presumably to crash directly into the office next to the kitchen. I cringe and wait for the explosion.

But I hear only silence.

I peer around the corner into the study and, magically, the black-and-white van is sitting in the middle of our house. There is no one in it. It’s hazard lights are blinking ominously. Everything is dead silent. I approach the black-and-white van and, with trepidation, throw open its two rear doors. It is empty, with the exception of a large box. Somehow, I know there is an old VHS tape in the box.

Somehow, I know the contents of the tape will be terrifying.

The nightmare dissolves at this point, and then resumes with me watching the tape on an old television screen. The images on the tape are like the most horrifying horror movie ever made. Death. Destruction and pain. Tragedy to the nth degree. And intermingled with all of it, a terrifying foreboding.

I always wake up at this point.

I avoided thinking about the nightmare for months. However, like all recurring dreams, until you get the message being sent from your depths, it is unlikely to go away. So, I spent an hour fully immersing myself in the imagery of the nightmare. When I did so, the tragic images from the videotape receded and two other images from the nightmare became more prominent.

The first was the image of the tape itself, sitting in the black-and-white van.

As I meditated upon the image of the tape, a phrase kept coming to mind: “The tapes we play in our head.” Suddenly, I knew with relative certainty the tape represented my mental thought patterns—all the habitual narratives and stories I tell myself about myself, about other people, and about the world. My nightmare was telling me I’d been rehearsing some pretty crummy narratives about life. Then I realized: the images on that television screen weren’t of a horror movie; they were of the news channels.

My nightmare was telling me it’s time to turn off the news. 

My nightmare was telling me that the news is running only images of horror and destruction, death and tragedy, and that they are fomenting my—our—fear. Because the mental tapes we play over and over become our reality, regardless of what is really happening in the world. I’ve been watching too much news, and my mental world is being filled with the fear of it, while in the meantime, the good news is written all over the actual world, and I’m missing out.

The reality is, the world is also filled with beauty and wonder and joy and love and kindness and grace and charity and compassion.

The second prominent image was the black-and-white van barreling up the driveway. Black-and-white, I thought, black-and-white. Why were these words so important in the nightmare? Because horrifying mental tapes are usually delivered by black-and-white thinking.

Black-and-white thinking is a dualistic way of looking at the world. Either-or. This or that. Good or bad. Them or us. In times of fear, black-and-white thinking feels safe, because it is a mental shortcut—a quick and simple way of responding—and thus it feels more certain, more secure.

However, black-and-white thinking also produces many of the horrors that populate our mental tapes.

Dualistic thinking makes it easier to oversimplify, judge, condemn, attack, abuse, and annihilate anything or anyone. Black-and-white thinking makes our actions reactive. Thoughtless. Dangerous. In the end, rather than creating safety, it just creates more bad news—more judgment, more horror, more atrocities.

Fear is leading to black-and-white thinking is leading to more fear. And so on.

So, I decided to put an end to my nightmares by daydreaming instead. What I mean is, I decided the meditation of my waking hours will be upon catching myself when I slip into black-and-white thinking. I decided instead I’m going to look for gray. For complexity. For nuance. And for the truth, beauty, gentleness and compassion that can be found only there.

I haven’t had the nightmare since.

What fears trigger your black-and-white thinking? And what new horrors, either subtle or pronounced, result from your either-or way of seeing things? Are you ready to find a different tape to play, one filled with all of the beauty and redemption and grace that can only be found in the gray areas of life and people and existence?

Are you ready to dream a better dream with me?


This post originally appeared at

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