Monthly Archives: July 2012

Creating and Nurturing Change

I just returned from a few days “off the grid” and have been amazed at the conflict between my desire to hold on to the feelings and mood of my respite and the pull to fall immediately into the habits and patterns I was so glad to leave behind.  I worked a little yesterday to put myself back into the tempo and peace of being back at the island park we visited. I imagined feeling the rocking of the boat, hearing the water lap the shore, the birds, the smelling the wind, the woods, and the beach. For a moment I was there, then my cell phone played its tune; I saw a virtual stack of email waiting to be sorted, read and answered; and I was reminded I need to call the appliance repairman because the refrigerator isn’t working right.  The serenity of the previous moment was gone.

Neuroscience has shown repeatedly that our imagined experiences are as “real” to our brain as our physical experiences.  We have the ability to use visualization to improve physical functioning. It takes focus and repetition, but even an athlete can improve performance by repeatedly imagining her successful moves.  This kind of practice can assist us emotionally as well as physically. Imagined experiences can also inhibit or otherwise impair our functioning.

One of the difficulties with anxiety and depression is that we create and repeat emotional scenarios that feed the fear and certainty of rejection and loss.  Our self-talk is increasingly pessimistic or critical. We lose sight of possibility, of alternative explanations, of changes toward the positive. Anxiety takes on a life of its own, so that our fear is about the feelings of anxiety, rather than the specific circumstances or triggers.  With depression, we lose memories of previous better times, and create a belief that things never were better and never will be.  But there can be change, and it can be change for the better.

I remember many years ago when visualizing and affirmations were being taught in management classes. I was a state social services administrator, and we were experiencing severe funding and staff cuts. Remaining staff members were becoming discouraged and burned-out. The agency provided a motivational speaker at a management conference, and he worked hard to pump us up.  After a morning of identifying example after example of the power of affirmations, visualizing success, and modeling success, we broke for lunch.  My director turned to me and said, “This is really good stuff. It’s just not for situations as bad as ours.”

Yes, it is. We might actually need it more than the people who use it to deal with inconvenience and discomfort. The thing is, it’s hard to do.  It’s hard to get started and it’s hard to keep practicing. It takes discipline. It takes action. It takes repetition.  It helps to have support, to share your goals, to help you see options.  But it is ok to start with just a little at a time.

Choose one thing to change: be specific, be focused.  Reward approximation when it occurs.  Approximation is the process of getting closer to what you want to have happen. Think of teaching a child to talk.  You don’t wait until they can say, “Could I have a drink of water, please?” to reward them.  WaWa or LaLa is close enough to start with. That’s approximation – you are rewarding movement toward the goal. Do the same for yourself.


Remember, this forum is not intended to be therapy.  I have no way to view your body language, hear your tone of voice, or see if your words and your displayed emotions are matching.  These are essential to effective communication and great tools for the therapist (and for the consumer when reversed.) I will attempt to be as helpful as I can. I will refer you the best I can to needed services. Even though I will not be your therapist, I am a health care professional bound by law and ethics to act to protect persons from harm. I am required to report my concerns of  harm to self or others, and suspected abuse of children and vulnerable adults.  I am located and providing these services in Washington State.

Again, I am open to communicating directly with you here.  If you have questions or concerns, please leave a comment. I will attempt to address the content if I can.

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Filed under childhood trauma, counseling, emotional healing, healing, Penny Milczewski, therapy

Reminders and Changes

Sunday was my mother’s birthday. At least it would have been, if she were still living.  She died in 2008 when she was 88 years old.  It is strange to be the oldest generation now in the family, something we babyboomers never really anticipated.  Maybe no generation expects to get to a time when they are the elders. Not many of us have parents, aunts, or uncles any more, even if we’re from families known for longevity.

When I think of my mother, I am reminded that many theories within the world of mental health look to mothers as the source of our health or illness. I remember my mother-in-law resisting the idea that my husband (her son) would benefit from seeing a therapist. “They all just blame the mother,” she said.  And I believe she worried that someone she never met would blame her for her son’s depression.  My mother, on the other hand, took that fear and wrapped it around her like a Kevlar jacket, preventing any inkling of contribution to anyone’s unhappiness from penetrating the shell. Once when I asked why she said such mean things about people (she had referred to a family member as a fat cow), she replied, “Because I can, and I like it.” She subscribed to the “every man for himself” theory of child rearing – even if that “man” were a toddler.   She was energetic, hard-working,  and very capable of being the center of attention.  There never was a power struggle she could walk away from. It wasn’t until I was much older and experienced  that I realized she was trying to as hard as she could to establish her place in this world.  She hated asking for help. In her experience, assistance always came with a package of shame, tied up in many strings. Asking for help meant she had failed. The person providing assistance would always know this, and could use it to maintain superiority over her.  Sometimes that person was my father: sometimes it was her father.

I believe it is true that much of our emotional development is influenced by the people who raise us, or abandon us. It is also influenced by our genetic composition, as continued DNA and gene studies show. The general circumstances of the times when we are children affect us, as witnessed by those of us raised by survivors of the Great Depression. Even the trauma of our parents or grandparents can influence the way we view the world and our place in it, as seen in families where there were survivors of the Holocaust, or colonization of the Native American, or veterans of combat.

Families and other communities create a culture that defines normalcy for its children.  Only as they explore other worlds, do developing minds and identities see alternatives.  The exposure doesn’t require travel. Those other worlds might be found at school, with friend’s families, at the elderly neighbor’s home, in books, movies, and other media.  I have always believed that my opportunity to spend extended time with my older cousin’s family allowed me to see a marriage relationship so different from my parents’, that I no longer saw theirs as the “normal,” and could have options in my relationship repertoire. I believe teachers have provided children exposure to adult-child relationships vastly different from parental ones.  I have been saddened by the increasing restrictions on teacher-child interactions resulting from reactions to isolated abuse, and to funding driven emphasis on the rote aspects of learning over the social development activities. Today’s children seem to have a group of trainers – school, soccer, piano, gymnastics. I wish there were more adult friends, teachers, and mentors.

I wanted to be a therapist so I could be a mentor, a guide, a helper to persons looking for alternatives to how they were living their emotional life.  Feeling better is much more than just changing the path you are on. It is really helpful to have an idea of where you want to go. In Alice in Wonderland, Alice asks the Cheshire Cat to help her find her wayThe cat replies, “Well, that depends on where you want to get to.”  Alice responds,” Oh it really doesn’t matter, as long…(as it isn’t here).” The cat’s answer? ” Then it really doesn’t matter which way you go.”  Think about what you would like the new place to be. How would you feel?  What behaviors would be different?  How would your self-talk change?  How would your relationships  be different?  With a therapist you can head toward that new place with support and guidance.   Change happens.


Filed under childhood trauma, counseling, emotional healing, healing, mental health, Penny Milczewski, relationship, therapist, therapy