Dissociation is one of our protective responses to situations which overwhelm our capacity to cope in the moment. Our nervous system becomes hypo-activated, resulting in a reduced sense of ourselves and/or the world around us. Dissociation occurs on a continuum, ranging from a slight numbness or spaciness at one end to episodes in which one is awake and acting in the world for a significant period of time which they will not remember when the episode is over. This is can be a very effective strategy for helping us to get through an unbearable situation and it can become a problem for us if we get stuck in a pattern of dissociating after the unbearable situation is over.
Trauma is the primary cause of dissociation. Traumas can be single events or chronic distressing circumstances. When the trauma is successfully worked through, the need for dissociating, or splitting off from the experience, disappears. Before it is worked through, situations which are in some way reminiscent of the trauma, even if quite different and totally benign in the present, may trigger dissociation. For example, a woman who witnessed domestic violence between her parents over and over again growing up might find herself going numb at the earliest sign of conflict between romantic partners as an adult. Frustration between romantic partners is the familiar cue, even though most partners can have conflict in a peaceful and productive way.
Dissociation can take many forms. One may feel disconnected from one’s body, from the world around them, or both. People often report that there is a movie like quality to life, or that it’s as if there is an invisible wall of glass between them and the world. Some people feel like they are outside of themselves, watching things happen to them. The defining feature is that we lose present moment contact, to one degree or another, with ourselves and/or the world.
While dissociation is a great protective resource through an unbearable experience, it can be quite costly when it keeps happening after the experience is over. When we dissociate, we lose contact with ourselves and the world overall, which means we are also disconnected from joyful and pleasurable experiences. Disorientation and a lack of feeling can be just as distressing, if in a different way, than too much of an unpleasant feeling. The reduction in awareness that we experience can also leave us more susceptible to being traumatized again, as we may not notice cues in ourselves and the environment that something is amiss. In reality, we may now have the capacity to deal with new risky situations, but we need to be aware of what is happening, in order to respond to them effectively.
Overcoming dissociation is a process of learning how to regain contact, regulate emotions, tolerate feeling again, and work through the trauma which led to the dissociation in the first place. There are many strategies for doing this, but what strategy is best will depend on the individual and the specifics of the trauma that they have experienced. The first step is simply to notice when you are dissociating. Because it can be quite difficult to work through the memory of the trauma which underlies the dissociation, it is important to seek out the help of a professional, such as a therapist, who is trained and experienced in treating these difficulties. It may take time, and not be easy, but you can regain contact and know that it is safe for you to be in the world again.
When Social Media and Politics Become A Toxic Combination
People often say that it’s important to be aware of the political issues of the day. Some would even consider it a civic duty. We hope that humanity is evolving, becoming more fair and just. We pay attention because we want humanity to do better, but when are we committing too much of our time, energy, and even identity to politics?
Social media is the ultimate rabbit hole. Social media companies make money by selling advertising space, and user data. The more time a person spends on social media and the more things they click on or post, the more advertising space and info these companies can sell. To get people to spend time clicking away, social media platforms are programmed to show content that is similar to what users have interacted with previously and things that are likelier to get clicks, such as content that will make people feel fearful and/or outraged.
Social media algorithms create a political echo chamber. As you continue to click, the websites show you more and more of what you already think, what you’re afraid of, what makes you so mad, and less and less of other perspectives. Pretty soon, all you see online is confirmation that everything you think is right and an extremely polarized world full of people who either agree with you or are the most heinous and extreme examples of other political perspectives, with nothing in between. Comment sections can easily add fuel to the fire, as a loud minority of people use the distance and anonymity of the internet to verbally abuse people who think differently than they do.
The social media rabbit-hole is especially troublesome for people who are isolated or have other mental health challenges. The picture of the world as portrayed by a social media algorithm is easily countered by pleasurable relationships with people in real life, but many people who struggle with relationships and mental health don’t have the kind of relationships that would counteract this bleak picture. Faced with a corrupt, angering, and frightening world, such people may find themselves seeking out relationships only with people who agree with them, with people who confirm their dark view of humanity, or perhaps avoiding relationships with others as much as possible. People who tend to isolate themselves and who struggle with mental health issues often have beliefs that the world of people isn’t such a safe and friendly place, in one way or another, and the world as portrayed by social media reinforces that view.
The polarized version of the world that our social media platforms create for us is bad for mental health, bad for relationships, and bad for community. When decent people stop seeking out other decent people, there’s more loneliness in the world. When all we hear is the people at the extremes, we get paranoid. When we stay home, away from the people right outside our door, our ability to relate atrophies and we forget that most people are decent, even when they think differently. Life is complicated and our beliefs are driven by our rational thought much less than we’d like to imagine. Educate yourself, be aware of the important issues, but also be aware how your time on social media is impacting you. Spend time outside, spend time with people in your community, and remember that as we practice listening, communicating, negotiating, taking care of, and enjoying one another, we make the world a better place.
Wounds to the Self
Most people these days recognize blatant forms of child abuse and neglect. Beating children, denying them their basic needs of food, shelter, and medical care, or engaging in any kind of sexual relationship with them is widely accepted as wrong and destructive. But there are many other ways that parents can harm their children, intentionally or not, which remain less recognized. Children’s development is more than just physical, it is relational and psychological as well. It takes more than food, shelter, freedom from physical threat, and even the coolest toys that money can buy, for a child to develop into a healthy, happy adult self.
No parent is perfect, and no parent has to be perfect. There is a relatively consistent, and yet imperfect, level of meeting your child’s needs that is good enough. Not all parents parent at that good enough level. Some recognize there’s a problem and seek help. Others are unable, or unwilling, to face themselves, and thus do real harm to their children. Usually, such parents are just unconsciously passing on similar hurts that have been passed on for multiple generations within a family. The pattern remains unbroken, until it is faced, and the pain not passed on to the next generation.
Children need to know that they are wanted. They can get the message that they are unwanted explicitly through statements that they aren’t wanted, that they were a mistake, that their being born ruined things, that they’ll be sent away because they’re too much, etc.. This message can come implicitly through parents who are cold, uninterested, inattentive, and not engaged. A child that feels that they are not wanted cannot feel safe and secure.
Children are born with needs that they have little to no ability to fulfill themselves, at least at first. Parents whose needs went unmet in some significant way may have trouble consistently meeting their child’s needs, as their child’s needs remind them of their own pain at having been left wanting. Children may learn to disown their needs, leading to problems in taking care of themselves and/or depending on others in the future. Some parents may attempt to use their children to fulfill their unmet needs and the child, being dependent upon the parent, is forced to attempt to try. This is an inappropriate reversal of roles and completely unfair to the child.
Children are individuals, separate and distinct from their parents. Independent exploration, self-control, and self-expression are ways that children figure out who they are as individuals. Of course, parents need to set limits on their child’s behavior, when it becomes unsafe or socially unacceptable. However, when parents are overly anxious, controlling, punitive, or they withdraw affection in response to reasonable moves by their children to explore the world, control their own body, differentiate and express themselves, the child is forced to deny their own natural impulses, conform, and/or cling in various ways.
Children have some amazing qualities, and in other ways they are quite vulnerable and unskilled. Some parents use their children’s admirable qualities and achievements to prop up their own fragile self-esteem. Such parents may view their child’s vulnerabilities as unacceptable. Still other parents may see their child’s special qualities as a threat to their own superiority, and put their children down. In either case, the parents cannot accept the child as having strengths and weaknesses and the child internalizes this view that they must be exceptional, or they are not loved.
This is not an exhaustive list, but it does contain some common ways that many parents do harm to their children. When such interactions between parents and children are chronic, and go unaddressed, they lead to largely unconscious and difficult to change patterns in the ways that individuals relate to themselves, others, and the world. These patterns do not have to remain fixed, however. For someone with such a history, a skilled psychotherapist is an excellent ally who can help a person to illuminate these difficulties, work through the painful emotions associated with them, and develop a more authentic and satisfying way of relating to one’s self, others, and the world.
How to Take a Break from an Argument
Disagreement and conflict are normal parts of close relationships. When we are able to work through a conflict with someone, the relationship becomes closer. On the other hand, when conflicts get heated and go unresolved, this can drive a wedge between ourselves and the people we care about. When an argument goes bad, we can leave it feeling hurt, angry, and misunderstood. If you find yourself having too many of the second kind of conflict, the first step towards more productive disagreements in the future is to learn how to disengage from the unproductive ones.
Conflicts become unproductive when one or both individuals becomes either too overwhelmed or shut-down to think clearly. If the overwhelmed/shut-down individual(s) can realize what is happening to them and calm themselves quickly, they may be able to return to productively engaging in the conflict. To productively engage in a conflict, one must be able to listen to, understand, and articulate the other person’s perspective as well as reflect on and articulate one’s own perspective in a non-defensive way. This doesn’t mean having no feelings about the conflict, rather it means feeling your feelings without being hijacked by them.
Sometimes, our buttons get pushed in a conflict and we just can’t help but take things personally. If we can’t calm down enough to engage productively, and continuing just seems to do more harm, then it’s time to take a break. Before we take that break, we need to tell the other person what we intend to do. To do this, you can say something like “I’m feeling overwhelmed right now. I’m going to take a break to calm down, but we can return to this conversation again, when I'm calm.”
It’s so important to communicate that you intend to take a break, and not to simply walk away. When people walk away without a word in the middle of an argument, the other person may react by following, feeling abandoned, disrespected, or in some other way hurt, making the problem worse. If you’ve been having repeated unproductive conflicts with somebody, it may be beneficial to discuss taking breaks when conflicts get too heated with the other person during a time of calm.
After informing the other person of this, go and do something separate from the other, and if you can, do something to help yourself feel calm. Wait for the heavy feelings to ease up, before re-engaging. You may find it useful to specify a time to come back together after the break to keep talking, such as in an hour or at a specific time later in the day when it will be convenient for both of you. It’s important that you follow-through with your promise to continue the discussion, as you said you would, to maintain trust and because conflicts don’t go away just because they are ignored.
You can initiate a break in an unproductive argument, even if you feel that it’s only the other person who isn’t able to be reasonable. In this case, still take ownership by stating that you are taking a break to calm down. Putting the blame for the difficulty in the interaction on the other will only make them defensive and lengthen the conflict. The point is to reduce hurt feelings and wasted time in unproductive conflict, so you can get on with resolving things and get closer to the person you care about.
Close relationships always come with conflict, and they can be made closer by it. When conflict gets too charged, it goes unresolved and leaves us with a bad taste in our mouth. Knowing when this is happenings, and how to pull yourself away from it to cool off can save a lot of heartache and open up the door eventually moving through what has you at odds with the person you care about.
Getting Un-stuck When Life Feels Like Too Much
When life starts to feel like it’s too much, you may find yourself not doing a lot with your free time, staying home, and having little social interaction. A great deal of time at home may be spent trying to find distraction through shows, video games, and chores, or perhaps passing the time by sleeping. Thoughts of finding things to do for pleasure or fun people to be with may seem like they are almost certainly not worth the effort, scary, or doomed to fail for some reason or another. At the same time, you may find yourself having a lot of self-criticism, which only makes you feel worse, making it harder to get out there and get engaged in life. As if all of this was not enough to deal with, you may have a hard time even sorting out what it is that you’d like to be doing with your time in the first place. So how does one get out of this seemingly impossible situation?
Get to know what’s getting in the way.
If you’re feeling stuck in this vicious cycle, an important step to getting out of it is to understand better what’s stopping you from making a change. To get this understanding, look to your thoughts, your feelings, and what happens in your body. Try and notice if there are patterns in the ways that you think about yourself, other people, and the world. Sometimes, we have a lot of thoughts about ourselves or others that we may not be totally aware of and that impact how we feel about life nonetheless. If we believe we are supremely deficient in some way, or that things aren’t likely to work out, why would we want to try anything new or challenging? If we expect that we would be treated poorly, or simply not wanted, why look for new relationships? What does it feel like, to think about ourselves and our prospects this way?
Notice what’s happening in your body. You may feel tense, weighed down, disconnected or on alert. When you’re around people, or thinking about being around people, you may start to feel overwhelmed with anxiety or irritation. Perhaps your heart starts racing, or maybe you go numb. Try and notice your posture. You may find that you tend to be slumped over a lot of the time or maybe you keep yourself in a rigid position. Check in with your breathing. How deeply do you breath and how fast? Are you holding your breath? Try and notice if there are patterns to the ways that you feel and use your body. Do certain situations or thoughts tend to go along with certain feelings, sensations, postures, and breathing?
Try to get active, if you can, even if it’s in a small way.
When nothing sounds good, and doing nothing doesn’t sound good, you may have to act anyway. Staying frozen or distracted, lost in thought or overwhelmed with bad feelings isn’t going to get you un-stuck. You may not believe that there is a single thing you can do to feel better, but beliefs and reality are not always in line with one another. The more challenging the beliefs, and the more overwhelming the uncomfortable feelings, the harder it will be to get active. You may find yourself telling yourself that there’s no point in anything you can think of doing, beforehand, but if you get out and test it, there’s a good chance that, at least for a little bit, you’ll feel a little better. Try to push through, if you can, and do at least one thing to take care of yourself, get outside your home, or be with people you enjoy. What you do can be as simple as taking a shower, going for a walk outside, working out, picking up and old hobby again, going out for a cup of coffee, or reaching out to a friend or family member. When you do something active, social, or just to take care of yourself, try and notice if you feel any better than you did before, even if it’s only slightly. Getting active won’t fix everything, and it will probably feel hard again, the next time, but if it made you feel even slightly better, than this is a victory that you can build on.
Talk to a therapist.
Therapists are professionals at helping people get unstuck in life. When we are lost in thought, overwhelmed, frozen, and disconnected, it becomes hard to see ourselves. A therapist can help you to see yourself better and get insight into what’s got you stuck. If your feeling too much, a therapist can help you find ways to not be too overwhelmed, and if you’re having trouble feeling much at all, they can help you get more connected. Dealing with challenges such as these can be difficult to talk about, and a good therapist will work to make you feel safe and understood. Your challenges may not be easy to fix, and it will likely take time, but you don’t have to face this struggle alone and with the help of a good therapist, you can learn to better cope with, understand, and work your way out of the dark place and into the life you really want.
Structured Interventions: Tools to Aid the Healing Process
Many of the problems which we face in day to day life have relatively straight-forward solutions. When something breaks, we find the broken part and replace it. When a road is unexpectedly closed, we look for a new route to get to where we’re going. When our income changes, we adjust our spending to compensate. This is often the case with medical problems as well. When we go to the doctor, the doctor assess our problem and prescribes solutions such as medications, physical therapy, or surgery, among other things. As a result, many people enter psychotherapy with similar expectations, however, psychological healing isn’t as simple as replacing a part in your refrigerator. As a mentor of mine used to say, “there’s no paint by numbers.”
Many therapists become specialists in using particular therapeutic techniques to treat their clients while others become technically eclectic; employing a wide variety of approaches, depending on the client and the situation. Research has shown that the particular therapy techniques that a therapist uses is statistically insignificant in influencing outcomes of therapy, that therapy works, and that the relationship between the therapist and client, among other factors, is one of the most influential elements in determining outcomes (see common factors research in psychotherapy). In other words, specialization and technical eclecticism are both valid, techniques are helpful, but they are not “paint by numbers” cures.
In addition to technique, therapists rely on theory to help them understand how human psychology works and how to help people heal and achieve their goals. Theories of psychotherapy are built upon observation, research, and the collective clinical experience of practitioners in the field since the beginning of the profession. While there are hundreds of theories of therapy, and no unified theory, a great deal of overlap exists between theories to the point that they start to appear more like different metaphors to explain the same complex phenomena that is the human experience. Theory gives the therapist a way of understanding what is happening and what the healing process is, while techniques are tools which can help get the healing process moving.
Why isn’t healing more straight-forward? It sure would be nice, if it was, but people seeking psychological help face a multi-faceted problem: we are largely driven by unconscious patterns, we may have been hurt and find it hard to build trust, and healing often requires going through discomfort. Trust takes time, especially when we have been hurt, and a good therapist will earn that trust over time by the way that they relate to you; by being empathic, genuine, and non-judgmental. That trust is necessary in order to feel safe looking inward, tolerating and opening up about uncomfortable thoughts, feelings, or experiences, or trying the techniques that your therapist suggests.
When I treat clients, I use structured techniques as tools for self-regulation, to deepen self-awareness, and to practice for real life situations. There are many great techniques for helping us feel more calm when overwhelmed, or connected when we get disconnected. Other techniques are great at helping start to notice patterns and other elements of our experience that we didn’t see well before. Still others are great ways to practice things we want to do or say in our real life that we may not know how to do or say or that we may feel anxious about doing or saying. Techniques are an opportunity to try on new ways of looking at and dealing with our difficulties. Therapy is a unique and personal process, in a healing relationship, and techniques are tools the therapist uses to help that process along.
Healing Experiences in Therapy
A great source of healing in psychotherapy comes because of the kinds of experiences, relational and otherwise, that occur during the therapeutic hour. We learn what is and isn’t acceptable, how to relate to the world, and how we expect the world to relate to us, primarily through early relationships with our attachment figures. Some learn that they aren’t safe, during traumatic experiences of various kinds. This early relational and/or traumatic conditioning is difficult to change, even when we know intellectually that the difficult times are over. Old patterns of relating to the world, ourselves, and others overtake us and repeatedly get in our way. With a therapist, we can learn new ways to relate to others, ourselves, and the world.
Therapists relate to their clients in a variety of ways, but in general, they will strive to be empathetic, non-judgmental, and genuine. Many people come to therapy having lacked such relational experiences, at least in some important way, during their early years. As a result, these individuals will expect future relationships to let them down in similar ways. Many will find themselves unconsciously pursuing new relationships with the same old dynamics which they felt trapped in growing up. Still others will find themselves automatically treating those they wish to be close to in ways that encourages the unwanted pattern to be re-created. In therapy, the client gets to learn through building a relationship with the therapist and instead of living these old patterns, having a different outcome.
Sometimes, the healing experience comes simply from expressing parts of one’s self that were treated as unacceptable, and in therapy, being accepted. At other times, it comes from getting to know yourself better because of being really listened to about something, or getting a genuine response to something, when others had not listened or not been real with you in some way. The therapeutic relationship gives opportunities to try out new ways of relating that may have felt ineffectual or unsafe in the past. Because the therapist is a person, they will at times make mistakes, have lapses in empathy, and may even temporarily fall into old patterns of relating with you. As difficult as this can be, it creates the incredible healing opportunity of having something go awry in a relationship and having that relationship repaired.
For individuals with trauma, the feeling of being unsafe is a great challenge. When the trauma is relational, being with others, including a therapist, can feel dangerous. It takes a great deal of courage to explore one’s self in therapy, and this is especially true for people with relational traumas. Repeated experiences of being safe with the therapist can increase one’s sense of safety with others. Non-relational traumas also lead to a sense of not being safe, and a therapist can help one practice various things to calm down from overwhelm, tolerate anxiety, and establish a feeling of safety again. In therapy, you learn to be in and use your body to express and take care of yourself, to trust yourself, to be with others, and live authentically in the world again.
How Therapy Heals: Non-Judgment
Research has repeatedly shown that the relationship between a therapist and client is one of the most influential factors determining the outcome of treatment. Quality relationships are important for maintaining mental health, physical health, and overall quality of life. A good relationship with a therapist differs in many ways from the relationships in your personal life; differences which are uniquely healing. One of the most important aspects of a good therapeutic relationship is that it strives to be non-judgmental.
To be non-judgmental as a therapist (sometimes referred to as having unconditional positive regard, or radical acceptance) does not mean that the therapist won’t have thoughts about whether certain patterns in your thoughts or behavior are in the best interest of yourself and/or others. It also doesn’t mean that the therapist won’t ever disagree with you, say no to a request, or feel frustrated in a difficult interaction. It does, however, mean that the therapist will not judge you as bad or shameful. In other words, what you bring to therapy, including those things about yourself that you and/or other people find difficult to accept, will be approached with curiosity, compassion, and the understanding that it all makes sense somehow, rather than with judgment.
Non-judgment from the therapist is crucial, because judgment prevents us from exploring and understanding elements of our personalities that may be getting us stuck in our lives and relationships. You can’t change something, if it needs to be changed, if you can’t even look at it for fear of being judged. The feeling that something makes us shameful or bad is powerful, because we need to know that we are safe with, belong to, and are loved by others. Shame is the feeling that we are not worthy of that love and belonging.
People often struggle with judging aspects of themselves as shameful, because they learned that aspects of themselves were not accepted by important others in their lives, in one way or another. Some people repeatedly end up in relationships with others who judge them harshly and often. An additional challenge comes, when one has also hurt others. A non-judgmental therapist makes room for all of who you are, so that what needs to heal can heal and what should not have been shut-down can be expressed freely again. It can take a long time, to stop judging the more challenging aspects of ourselves, but the encouragement, modeling, and just plain good feeling of being accepted fully by another person helps us to see that we can face whatever we need to face to live more fully and authentically.
I’ve Never Been to Therapy, What Should I Expect?
Psychotherapy is a bit of a mystery, for people who have never experienced it. Many of us are familiar with the pop culture cliche of a person laying on a couch, going on about something that is bothering them, only to have the expressionless therapist sitting across from them say something like “uh-huh… tell me about your mother.” And while your mother may be a fruitful topic for therapy, suffice it to say that this isn’t what therapy looks like in reality. Psychotherapy is a rich, collaborative exploration that varies widely across therapists, clients, and even between sessions for the same therapist and client.
A graduate school professor of mine once told me that there are over 300 recognized theoretical orientations in the psychotherapy profession (not to mention those approaches which aren’t recognized as valid)! There are also hundreds of thousands of people practicing therapy at any time, and we all bring our own individuality into our work. The wide variety of approaches, and therapists implementing them in unique ways, with unique clients, contributes to the mystery that many new clients enter into, when they decide to give therapy a try. It may sound counter-intuitive, but research analyzing the outcomes of therapy has repeatedly demonstrated that it’s not the particular modality of therapy that is important, but the relationship between the client and the therapist, and other common factors, including the authenticity of the therapist and their use of methods which they truly believe to be helpful.
One way that therapies can differ is in the amount of structure that is used in therapy sessions. Every therapist uses structure to some degree, and many will change the amount of structure to fit the particular client and the particular situation. Some therapists will introduce structure in the form of paper assessments (questionnaires) which they will ask you to fill out and perhaps discuss. Some therapists follow step-by-step protocols which they may or may not explain to you along the way. Another way that therapists can create structure is through how directive they are (e.g. giving you specific instructions in session, assigning homework regularly). On the other side of the spectrum are therapists who tend toward a more exploratory and organic approach; allowing the therapeutic process to be led by the client, the growing therapeutic relationship, and their own intuition. There are merits to using more and less structure in therapy.
When I meet with clients for the first time, I usually start by asking them something like “what would you like to get out of therapy?” What I do depends a great deal on how the person answers this question. In my work with clients, a lot of time in therapy is spent in a conversation in which I am striving to encourage a mutual exploration of the client’s experience and what is getting in the way of them having more of the life that they want. I often introduce more structure when it seems to me that the client is stuck in some way and/or overwhelmed. Sometimes, clients need a structured exercise because they are struggling to think or feel at all. In these circumstances, we will experiment together with different exercises, to see if we can get the client un-stuck and/or calm and centered.
People vary greatly in how much structure they need, in order to work through their difficulties, and the same person will have different needs for structure at different times. People also vary in the amount of knowledge that they have in regards to psychology, relationships, and their own inner experience. Some people come to therapy, knowing only that something in their life just doesn’t feel right, and they may initially need their therapist to take the reins a bit more. Other people come in with a lot of things that they wish to work on and a desire for their therapist to act as more of a facilitator. Over time, clients may come to learn that they can benefit from an ability to seek helping in relationships that is sometimes more and sometimes less structured and directive.
Some people find it difficult, at first, to sit with a therapist without knowing what is going to happen. It’s quite normal to have anxiety, when you start going to therapy, because you’re meeting a complete stranger with whom you will at some point be exploring vulnerable parts of yourself. My best advice here would be to share whatever you feel comfortable sharing about why you are coming to therapy and if this therapist is a good fit for you, your trust in the therapist and understanding of what you need will grow naturally over time. If you have questions, ask them. If you don’t want to do something, let your therapist know. If you disagree with your therapist, share your disagreement. If you feel like you should be focussing on something else, say something. Regardless of how much structure a therapist is using, therapy is first and foremost a healing relationship. Above all else, learn to trust your gut and honor your experience; a good therapist will do the same.