This week I asked another respected colleague, Amie Frischer, to write about the New Year's holiday and New Year's resolutions. Amie is my neighbor in an office suite (she and I share a wall) and I have always appreciated the clear thinking she brings to conceptualizing therapeutic issues. Here's her post (I'll be back next week):
Happy 2013! Time marches forward and with the holidays behind us and the new year bustling forward, it's easy to sweep away the injuries we all felt in response to the Newtown tragedy last month. The media has moved on. There are other pressing matters vying for our attention. But if you are like me and still feeling emotionally raw in response to the events in Newtown, I encourage you not to entirely skip over your feelings. Even if the world moves quickly forward, it is not uncommon to have lingering emotional reactions to traumatic events.
Human beings are adaptively wired to avoid pain whether it's physical or emotional pain. My first reaction to the Sandy Hook news was to duck as quickly as I could out of eyeshot and earshot of any information about the tragedy. I just didn't want to know about it. I didn't want it to be true. I didn't want my kids to hear about it. I didn't know what to do in the face of such a painful reminder of the terrifying vicissitudes of our human experience. I felt numb, as is often the case when we opt to cut ourselves off from the most essential connections we can have to our "true" selves. This kind of disconnectedness protects us, relieves us, and helps us through difficult times, but also dampens our experience of feeling close to ourselves and others, and of moving toward healing ourselves and our societal ills.
On December 14, 2012, I waited until my work day was over, my parenting duties fulfilled, and I had a quiet moment to myself before I brought myself to read the story in the New York Times. I cried. I felt helpless and scared. I felt angry. I felt lost and overwhelmed as to what I might do with all of these feelings. Emotions are part of our intelligence. They are the compass that guides us in our life choices and they help us navigate the road forward. Each feeling has an evolutionarily adaptive function, for instance: sadness indicates the loss of important attachments and propels us toward new attachments essential for survival. Fear keeps us alert and allows us to detect danger, strategize, and react in ways that keep us safe. Guilt reminds us of our deepest values when we transgress. Anger is the justice system of our emotions. It tells us when a line has been crossed, that someone has hurt us, and it gives us the energy to implement change. The more disconnected we become from our emotions, the more lost and aimless our experience becomes. The more clearly we can receive and move through these emotional signals, the more quickly we can find the adaptive responses that feel 'right'.
Recently, I was inspired by a young woman in my office who shared this story: Driven by grief over the Sandy Hook tragedy, she courageously ended years of secrecy by sharing her painful struggle with mental illness and her recovery on her Facebook page. Her story included some experiences around which she felt deep shame. She was terrified that her social circle would lose respect for her, judge her, stigmatize her, or walk away in disgust. Counter to her fears, she received an outpouring of love and support from her readers. Feelings of being stuck in her life were replaced by feelings of hopefulness and liberation. Isolation and alienation were supplanted by closeness and connectedness. Shame was replaced with pride and fortitude. Instead of feeling "ILL", she now had the feeling she was part of healing. She felt hopeful that somehow her story could elucidate the struggles we face around mental illness in this country. She extended the hope that good mental health care and treatment were possible for others who may be struggling with harmful impulses. As she shared her experience, my eyes welled up with tears. I marveled at her courage and her connectedness to herself and to others. And I felt the soaring triumph of love over fear. Once again I concluded in my heart that small actions can have great consequences.
It's January and a time for resolutions. So much of the time we aim for big, sweeping, externally measurable changes and then become frustrated for not achieving our goals. But behavioral change doesn't have to be arduous. Resolutions that spring from core emotional signals have the best chance of reaching fruition. Real changes and solutions begin with tuning inward toward emotion, choosing the most adaptive way to think about the emotional message, and mindfully directing our behavior accordingly. Each small moment before us then becomes an opportunity to change our behaviors in accordance with our resolve.
So, Happy New Year! Let us take the time to find our feelings and to harness them to guide our choices. Whether we are motivated by a response to a large scale tragedy, like Newtown, or a more personal life experience, the depth of our emotions are not to be feared or avoided. Take the time you need to process your emotional reactions. Go for a hike. Be with friends. Write in a journal. Take care of yourself and those you love. And do something small toward becoming the person you truly want to be. May we all feel fully alive as we embrace 2013… in memory of those who tragically no longer have the opportunity.
Amie Frischer, Ph.D., is a collaborative, solution-focused psychologist in private practice, with offices in Oakland and Pleasant Hill. She can be reached at (925) 685-9463 X11. For more information about her work please visit: www.amadorfamilycenter.com.
Do you have a question about struggles with your partner or within yourself? Is there a particular topic on relationships or individual psychological issues you would like addressed in this blog? Ask Josh in the comments below or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Josh Gressel, Ph.D., is a couples and individual therapist based in Pleasant Hill, CA. Visit his website at joshgressel.com. He is accepting new referrals.