Tag Archives: self-discovery

The (misguided) pursuit of happiness

By Laurie Meyers February 1, 2017

Happiness. Most Americans seem to believe that it is something to which we are entitled. After all, happiness — or at least the pursuit of it — is enshrined in our nation’s Declaration of Independence.

As a result, we invest a significant amount of time, money and effort looking for that magical thing/place/person/experience that will ultimately deliver the promise of happiness. We play the lottery, hoping for the big payoff that will make everything better. We buy books that promise us happiness in X number of steps. We go to spas and wellness retreats hoping to meditate, stretch or massage our way to happiness. There is even a whole school of psychological thought — positive psychology — that has devoted much of its time to the study of happiness.

But what is happiness? Is it a state of being? A process? A transient emotion? And whatever it is, can counselors help clients find or achieve it?

“I think our culture defines happiness as a relative emotional state of bliss or euphoria that comes and goes,” says licensed professional counselor Ryan Thomas Neace, the founder of Change Inc., a counseling practice in St. Louis that focuses on holistic practices to help clients achieve biological, psychological, social and spiritual wellness. “The great irony being that we tend to ignore that relative ‘coming and going’ and demand that happiness stick around permanently. It doesn’t end very well that way.”

Reaching for the wrong goal

Perhaps happiness isn’t exactly what most people are looking for after all.

“I think we struggle with the fleeting nature of happiness because our culture is so consumeristic,” says Neace, an American Counseling Association member who also blogs about spirituality and religion on The Huffington Post website. “Happiness, we think, like everything else, ought to be something we can obtain on a permanent basis if we just put together the right combination of life factors — a nice body, a good partner, a strong education, a large salary, etc. If we’re unhappy, we work out more and eat less, end a relationship and/or start a new one, change schools or jobs, etc.”

But none of those things can deliver lasting happiness, Neace asserts. “Even if some of these things are related to happiness, they don’t change its fundamental nature as fleeting and elusive,” he says.

People sometimes seek happiness by avoiding reality, Neace observes. “Anything that helps us to avoid reality on a relatively permanent basis cannot ultimately lead to happiness and is eventually — if not immediately — destructive,” he says. “I’m not talking about the person who has had a rough day and decides to smoke a joint or have a glass of wine to relax a little, and I’m not talking about people who use fantasy playfully in recreation or to spice up their sex lives.

“Instead, I’m talking about the clients I’ve had who plow through their lives doing anything they can to avoid facing up to their mismatched occupations, their wayward teenagers, their sexual identities, etc. I’m talking about the person who avoids looking at his or her failing marriage because they don’t want to be unhappy. It sounds so illogical from an outside, third-party perspective, but it happens all the time. What really happens isn’t that the person doing the avoiding somehow magically becomes happy; [it’s] that their unhappiness shifts locations, usually to someplace outside their conscious awareness. So the person in an unhappy marriage compulsively spends money or works excessively to avoid being at home. It’s like squeezing one end of a balloon — it just makes the other end swell.”

Even some of the most prominent voices in happiness research are rethinking happiness as a goal. For instance, Martin Seligman, the founder of positive psychology and author of the 2002 book Authentic Happiness, eventually rejected happiness as the ultimate goal. In his 2011 book Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-being, Seligman discussed the limitations of happiness as the key to life satisfaction. This is because happiness is too based on mood, he said, so Seligman redefined positive psychology to focus on “well-being.”

True satisfaction

If happiness is not necessarily to be the stated goal in counseling, what is? “In therapy, I try to contrast that for clients with something that is probably more akin to contentment, which I define as a quality of ‘OK-ness’ that is nonrelative –— present for the most part without regard to circumstance or situation,” Neace says. “Contentment can include moments of happiness, but it doesn’t demand that those feelings, or any others for that matter, stick around. Contentment transcends happiness and allows it to actually be what we already know it is — sometimes fleeting and elusive, prone to slip away when the wind changes direction.”

Maya Georgieva, a national certified counselor whose counseling approach emphasizes wellness and focuses on the effects of emotional strain on the body, prefers to concentrate on helping clients live richer, fuller lives. Rather than helping clients strive for happiness, Georgieva views her goal as helping them to grow — a process that is unique to each individual. Instead of focusing on attaining some ephemeral state of being, she believes it is more important to find out what the client wants to achieve and what he or she wants to change.

Georgieva encourages “self-actualization” for clients. “We’re born with the ability and desire … to grow,” she says. Growth involves removing any barriers that hinder clients from learning and creating new relationships and accomplishments.

When clients show up to counseling looking for “happiness,” Neace emphasizes the importance of telling them that contentment should be the goal instead. “There’s typically a ton of work to be done there simply around insight and helping people recognize the problem underneath the problem,” he says. “In other words, clients typically come in and tell us that some relationship or job or situation is unsatisfactory and must change. [In their eyes], it is the problem. … It is our job to point out to them that perhaps it is their approach — trying to squeeze happiness out of every situation — that actually causes the real trouble and is, in fact, the problem underneath the problem.”

“The key here for counselors is helping clients understand that reality can actually be a decent source upon which to base their existence,” he continues. Reality might not always be happy, but it can serve as the basis for contentment, Neace observes.

The leisure perspective 

ACA member Rodney Dieser believes leisure is very important for overall well-being. As such, he is a proponent of the “serious leisure perspective,” which was developed by sociologist Robert Stebbins.

As explained by Dieser, a professor of leisure, youth and human services at the University of Northern Iowa, the serious leisure perspective has three components.

1) Serious leisure involves spending a large amount of time to master skills as a hobby. An example would be learning to play an instrument over time and participating in the community orchestra.

2) Casual leisure is what most people think of as leisure. Examples include relaxing, going to a restaurant, resting on a hammock or going to the beach.

3) Project-based leisure involves taking on a project that is somewhat complicated but that doesn’t involve more “serious skills.” Examples include planning a family vacation, engaging in fundraising for a local community project or participating in other kinds of volunteer efforts.

In addition to allowing the body to relax, leisure can help clients build and strengthen relationships, achieve a sense of purpose and establish a sense of community, Dieser says. For example, Dieser once worked with a middle-aged man who had stage 4 renal disease that rendered him unable to work. He was home on disability and depressed. Part of his distress involved his identity as a traditional male who viewed himself as the primary provider for the family. Now, because of renal disease, his wife had to work and provide financial support for the family instead.

“One of the things I did was ask him to reflect back on his life. Was there anything he did in his free time that he enjoyed?” Dieser recalls. “He said that he used to fish a lot and was a serious angler and fly fisherman. He still had the rods and tackle box, but all the gear hadn’t been out in 10 years.”

Dieser suggested that because the man now had extra time on his hands and already owned all the gear, he might consider taking up fishing again. The man started going out regularly and even taught his daughter how to fish. The father and daughter bonded over these experiences, which ultimately made their relationship stronger.

“When I first met him in assessment, his role/purpose in life was his family,” Dieser says. “So now he is fishing regularly with his daughter, which is fulfilling his existential purpose. One of the benefits of this terrible development is he gets to do things he wouldn’t have gotten to do [otherwise].”

In another case, Dieser was working with a single father in his 40s who had medical issues, depression and anxiety. His family was struggling financially, and the client felt isolated. During a counseling session, he talked to Dieser about the possibility of buying a Jet Ski. The man felt guilty about even considering the possibility because of the family’s finances, but operating a personal watercraft was something he had loved previously, and he wanted to share this activity with his two daughters.

“I let the guy talk about it and work through it out loud, [evaluating] the pros and cons,” Dieser says. When viewing it from a financial standpoint, the client thought his priority should be to pay some bills that were past due. But Dieser also had him look at it from a relationship perspective: Could he really put a price tag on spending time with his daughters? Was it possible for him to pay most of his bills and still buy the Jet Ski as an act of self-care?

The client decided to buy a used Jet Ski and started taking his daughters out with him as part of their family time. He also developed friendships with other owners of personal watercraft and ended up on a boating committee, which allowed him to contribute and provided a sense of purpose. Dieser says that all of these developments helped ease the client’s depression.

Final thoughts

Unfortunately, Dieser says, many Americans operate under the belief that they can buy happiness. In addition, he thinks that the individual nature of American culture often leads to isolation.

“The U.S. is the most individualist country in the world,” he says. “We are constantly not paying attention to relationships and belongingness. We are so focused on ourselves that we get lonely and there is no one there to provide a safety net when we fall.”

“The leisure-happiness connection is there, but it hasn’t really been defined,” Dieser says. “Leisure creates meaning, belonging, fulfillment and purpose. I think those are the same things that create happiness. Most people think of leisure as just doing nothing but relaxing. They don’t see it as about energy and engagement.”

“The real power of leisure is actually giving meaning in life,” he says. “I really see leisure connected to existential counseling.”

“It’s possible that any number of additional constructs are related to the search for happiness but, ultimately, no source outside ourselves can produce it,” Neace says. “Don’t get me wrong — we need a ton of support, encouragement, guidance, wisdom, friendship, etc., from outside of ourselves. But the ultimate goal isn’t just that we have a bunch of external sources of validation and satisfaction, but that we learn to internalize those sources into a united, inner chorus that helps us know we are enough, that things are OK — even if they aren’t OK right now — and that we’re going to make it. Perhaps that’s the key difference between happiness and contentment — the movement from an external to internal source of strength and resilience.”

 

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Laurie Meyers is the senior writer for Counseling Today. Contact her at lmeyers@counseling.org.

Letters to the editorct@counseling.org

 

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Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.

The path forward: A counselor’s coming out in counselor education

By Jack D. Simons November 22, 2016

businessman with a rainbow necktie, with a slight vignette addedTo be who you are, you don’t have to wait a lifetime.

I knew at age 5 that I was attracted to the same gender. This realization occurred during a time when, in my mind, it was not OK to be gay. I just couldn’t see it. It wouldn’t get better.

I grew up in the Midwest during the AIDS generation. People were dying, and the media portrayed the so-called “plague” as horrific. This definitely impacted me, including how I thought of myself and who I was. The advent of AIDS changed the lives of millions. Sexuality, for many, was no longer the same.

It was also during this time that I witnessed my uncle die of AIDS, shortly after the death of my great-grandfather. My uncle was gay, and he was just beginning life with his partner. He had moved to Portland to work as a musician and a nurse, but shortly thereafter he died. His life had been cut short by a condition that could not be cured.

How challenging it was for me as a teenager to see this while also questioning my own sexuality. Unfortunately, I never got to talk to my uncle about his life, but I wish that I had. Instead, I just asked myself, “Why would I live a life like his if I could die?” Being gay wasn’t an option that I wanted, so I did not accept myself for many years. I became one of those men who married a woman and started a family, thinking that my same-sex attractions would go away.

Well, it didn’t. I had just done what I thought I was supposed to do. I didn’t tell anyone in my family that I was gay until my early 30s.

Remaining in the closet comes at a cost. It depleted me of energy and compromised my health, which is not uncommon for those who come out later in life. I was unable to live a life congruent with my values, and others were hurt. This upset me.

While in my Ph.D. program, I decided to take active steps toward authenticity, whatever the cost. I asked myself how I could be a role model in counselor education if I wasn’t true to myself. How could I be vital and thrive in the world if I was inauthentic? How could I look my daughter in the eye in good faith?

I knew the answers, and they were all the same. I could not bear to continue to live an inauthentic life. I told my family members and close loved ones about what I was going through. It wasn’t easy, but I began to meet others like me and build a support system. Ultimately, I disclosed at work, which is a key milestone. Those who stood by me during this time are now some of my closet friends and colleagues.

I am grateful that I have been able to come out and live an authentic life. My education played a part in this. I am fortunate to teach and inspire others. Over the past two years, I completed my dissertation, taught, and worked on research and community events that I felt were important. As a former school counselor, it has also been exciting for me to see how the field of school counseling has become more inclusive of LGBTQ+ people, or those perceived to be (note: LGBTQ+ is an umbrella term that aims to capture all sexual and gender minority groups).

I thank everyone who has challenged me to be myself. Without this support, I may not have fully come out. I also know that if I had had more visible role models (like I am trying to be now) when I was younger, I would have accepted myself sooner.

 

Final thoughts

For those who haven’t yet come out, for whatever reason(s), don’t lose hope. There is time to work toward authenticity. It just takes longer for some. The experience has been hard for me, but it has gotten better.

If you wish to come out but you don’t think you can do it on your own, seek support. Some people might find this difficult, but I have always said that nothing of value is easy. This might be the time for you. If, however, you just want to learn more about LGBTQ+ communities, I recommend that you reach out to these communities and ask questions to make new friends or professional contacts.

In addition, I encourage counselors and counselors-in-training who have limited experience in working with LGBTQ+ communities to attend workshops and to reflect on their own sexual identity development. LGBTQ+ communities are very diverse, so there are many people to learn about, to learn from, to draw strength from and to stand tall with. If you see me, say hi!

 

Select resources

  • The AIDS Generation: Stories of Survival and Resilience by Perry N. Halkitis (2014)
  • Transgender Explained for Those Who Are Not by Joanne Herman (2009)
  • The Five Secrets You Must Discover Before You Die by John B. Izzo (2008)
  • “Coming out in mid-adulthood: Building a new identity” by Lon B. Johnston and David Jenkins, in the Journal of Gay & Lesbian Social Services, Volume 16, Issue 2, 2004
  • Outing Yourself: How to Come Out as Lesbian or Gay to Your Family, Friends and Coworkers by Michelangelo Signorile
  • Wood, A. M., Linley, P. A., Maltby, J., Baliousis, M., & Joseph, S. (2008). “The authentic personality: A theoretical and empirical conceptualization and the development of the Authenticity Scale” by Alex M. Wood, P. Alex Linley, John Maltby, Michael Baliousis and Stephen Joseph, in the Journal of Counseling Psychology, Volume 55, No. 3, 2008

 

 

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Jack D. Simons is a core faculty member in the counseling program at Mercy College in Dobbs Ferry, New York. Contact him at jsimons1@mercy.edu.

 

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Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.

 

Growing up: An allegory

By Shawn Patrick September 15, 2016

When I turned 39, I had a midlife crisis. I wasn’t home on my 39th birthday. I was on another continent, sitting in a hotel lobby at stupid early o’clock, jet-lagged and writing because I couldn’t sleep. I looked up, saw the date and realized my birthday had occurred while I had been traveling, the day lost somewhere in the time vortex that opens up when flying overseas. Technically, then, it was the day after my 39th birthday when The Voice screamed at me, “What have you been doing with your life???!”

Granted, I had earned a doctorate, had achieved tenure, had published manuscripts. I had two lovely children, and I had managed to stay married to the same person longer than any other person in his or my family history. These are not small accomplishments. But this is not what occurred to me in that panic-inducing moment. Rather, The Voice pummeled:

“Why aren’t you on The New York Times’ best-seller list yet? What happened to the blockbuster movie? Where is the Fields Medal? Why haven’t you played Carnegie Hall yet? You haven’t even photo-1458175049065-aefb15b1b58bbothered to figure out the grand unification theory bringing together quantum mechanics and the theory of relativity — you’ve been sitting back letting Stephen Hawking do all the work. What the &$@# is wrong with you?”

Part of the problem for those like me is that we still cling to our childhood fantasies of success. We grew up imagining ourselves getting discovered simply because Hollywood Movie Mogul in a red convertible Mercedes screeches to a halt while we’re walking down the street and shouts, “There, there is the person I’ve been waiting for!” And the other part is because we were given some remarkably confusing aspirational advice.

In grade school, I was in the first group of identified “gifted” children. I didn’t know what it meant, and no one else understood it either. But to the dozen of us who were selected, it meant that we could leave class a few hours each week and play games. This was a good deal in our opinion, so we didn’t question anything. Yet without our knowing, we were already receiving those sneaky messages about where our lives were supposed to end up.

The social strata are well-established by high school, telling us who is and is not supposed to be a productive member of society. We instinctively knew there were no real differences between these arbitrary groups; the “achieving” group could simply get away with more because no one expected us to do anything illicit. The “remedial” group included plenty of individuals who were extremely smart and capable, but for reasons well outside themselves, no one paid attention to them anymore. This stratification persisted due to factors outside our control and taught us about the many forms of privilege and its consequences.

Many of us slowly go insane from pressure to climb to the top of the mountain, to win, to be the best at whatever is deemed successful. If we don’t accomplish it, then we have let the whole of civilized society down, our ancestors are forever shamed, and our future offspring will only hope to dream about peeking through the window of a good school. Include the discourses bombarding teenagers about being “Someone” — e.g., a doctor is better than a nurse, a scientist is better than an artist, a rich person is better than a poor person. So often our legacies make no sense to us. We are pushed by unexplained, invisible forces, but if we make a mistake, we will ultimately carry all the blame for what goes wrong. Everyone loves to claim the credit when someone succeeds, but if that person fails, it’s all on you, baby.

I never knew what I wanted to do. When I graduated high school, I had one very well-meaning teacher give me the kiss of death. I experienced heart-palpitating conflict over choosing a college major. Enter this literature teacher who took great interest in my writing. At the end of the term, I asked him to sign my yearbook. He wrote:

“Good luck to you in all you do. I know you’ll go far. Keep writing because it’s clearly what you were meant to do. Of course the last person I said that to now only writes grocery lists. Best wishes, B.”

He had a genuine interest in my future, and I suspect he thought he was being funny. But he had no idea how this gong resonated throughout my core, highlighting the double bind I lived with: You can do anything you want, but what you want might not amount to anything.

When I turned 39 in a hotel lobby, all I’d really figured out was that in one year I’d be 40. What did I have to show for myself? Had I even come close to approaching some of the lofty aspirations I held for myself, or did I too end up writing grocery lists?

Part of maturity is realizing that the frenetic pace of youth cannot be maintained. Eventually, we have to abandon the immature need for immediate gratification. Recognizing our mortality means catching on to the idea that one is not interested in dying due to blowing out your own candle; death will come in its own time, so why not learn to live? These are the chronic existential conversations that infiltrated my head as an adult who had to concern herself with things like paying bills. And the appearance of children completely redesigns the landscape — a total home renovation that leaves you forever wondering where you left your keys. So pacing becomes a necessity. Priorities must occur because we are forced to write our own instruction manuals for adulthood.

But the adult dilemma becomes, did I pace myself too much? Did I slow down to the point of stopping? Specialization is an ironic creature. It is comforting to think you actually know something. However, the danger in such comfort is that it can easily lull you into complacency. Did I avoid the new thing because I didn’t have the time, or because it would mean stepping outside of what was familiar? In the guise of developing “expertise,” did I actually limit myself from gaining knowledge?

“How have you made your mark on the world?” Regardless of how far-fetched, lofty, idealistic or fantastic my earlier aspirations were, they were there to tell me to make more of myself. Not in the sense of being the best, biggest, brightest or richest, but in the way of being more than just what was prescribed for me. Have I challenged myself? Have I at least tried to take a risk, or do I still play it safe? Did I keep listening to what everyone else demanded for my life, or did I speak up and say, “Here I am, like it or lump it.”

Disturbingly, my answer at age 39 was, “Well, sort of.” In examining how I had established myself, I found that even though I wasn’t writing grocery lists, I hadn’t exactly written sonnets either. Perhaps I felt like something was missing because something was, indeed, missing. Perhaps I was being told it was time to take the next step. I had allowed myself to live with a list of “what if” questions — What if I’d done this? What if I had gone there? What if I were like that? — and I’d fallen into the trap of constant speculation. Everyone wants to be Yoda, but I was at risk of turning into nothing more than Super Grover stuck in a tree.

I didn’t know what my mark would look like, but I decided I could live as though I had made one and see what happens. I stopped saying “no” and started saying “yes.” That’s not to say that I suddenly started agreeing indiscriminately with some “you can do anything” illusion. Instead, I decided that fear or social disapproval would no longer be enough of a reason to prevent me from trying the new thing. “It’s the way it has always been done” was no longer a good enough reason to stay the same. Not knowing became the reason for acting.

Experiments in living can have curious effects. All kinds of wild ideas entered my mind. Not all were viable, but the energy that comes from rediscovering one’s creative power is intoxicating. It flows into every part of work and life.

If this were a fairy tale, I would stop at this “happy ending.” But I’m not trying to wrap my experience up in a neat bow, nor am I trying to say that this is just my story. I’m not 39 anymore. I’ve had a few years to live with my experiment, and I prefer living this way. But it has not made life easier. In fact, living as though the “what if” has already been answered makes life more challenging. But it’s a challenge I put to others — and especially to a counseling profession that also seem to have gotten stalled in its own internal-gazing.

Twenty years ago during my master’s program, my professors said that counseling was in its adolescence. Today, we are still struggling with questions of identity. Who are we? What are we about? What do we believe in and stand for?

We have gone through several fast-paced movements, some which have enhanced us and some of which have diminished us. Like so many tumultuous progressions, we regularly take three steps forward and two steps back. Yet we also seem to have lulled ourselves into a strange quietude, the kind where we exude certainty until we are asked to define what it means to carry this mantle. In our quest for legitimacy, we could very well have sold ourselves out, making us into a caricature of the professions we seem to think we should be. Are there lessons we can borrow from fields such as psychology, social work or psychiatry? Certainly. But at what point do we stop saying, “This is who we are not” and instead assert, “This is who we are?”

The “what ifs” have caught us for far too long. How many debates, circular arguments really, do we get into about which theory is the “best,” which specialty is the most important, who is the most moral or just? At what point will we admit to ourselves and the rest of the public how many of our choices have been profit driven — claims staked to promote our own brand of job security? What do our politics really say about us — not an individual’s personal views, but the fact that we as a profession still argue amongst ourselves about who is granted personhood.

What if instead of fighting over limited crumbs, we acted like a profession with a unified vision, not of what each counselor should do but of who our profession is meant to serve? What if we stopped proving our legitimacy through purely Cartesian lenses and instead recognized that the totality of our work cannot be reduced to widgets and Facebook memes but must also encompass a marvelous, mysterious human interaction? What if instead of resting on our certainties, we asked ourselves in what ways our insecurities have seduced us into believing that the illusions we cling to are the realities that everyone must follow? What if instead of being afraid of our differences, we took a chance to allow ourselves to be influenced by each other in the ways in which we arrogantly expect our clients to be influenced by us?

Prepare to grow up, Counseling. What have you been doing with your life?

 

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Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.

 

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Shawn Patrick is an associate professor in the counseling and guidance program at California State University, San Bernardino. Contact her at shawn.patrick@csusb.edu.

 

 

The Counseling Connoisseur: Dandelion strong: Lessons from a weed

By Cheryl Fisher June 13, 2016

 

“A weed is a plant whose virtues have not yet been discovered.” — Ralph Waldo Emerson

 The cool misty rain offers my gardens ample moisture for the tiny seeds to swell in the early spring. The feathery green carrot tops and sprouting beans and squash gently push through the dark earth. Chamomile and mint pry loose from the grip of the cool soil. The sunflower leaves unfold intently toward the sun, capturing the nourishing rays in the creases.

Still so fragile and prey to hungry predators, the seeds swell and sprout … stretch and climb … creating an offering that will one day provide nourishment for my family. With a watchful eye, I monitor the germination of my tiny seedlings, removing anything that may hinder their growth and final path. Invariably, as I water and weed, I will witness the perseverance of the dandelion.

The dandelion is the most misunderstood of all weeds. Its young green leaves contain substantial levels of vitamins A, C, D and B, in addition to iron, zinc, magnesium, potassium and a variety of other minerals. When plucked, dandelion greens make a divine summer salad. The root has been used for medicinal purposes for centuries and (when fermented) offers an earthy Dandelionlibation. The burst of yellow provides early nectar for the pollinating bees and butterflies. Furthermore, according to research being conducted at Johns Hopkins University, this prolific weed may contain anti-cancer properties.

Dandelions grow under the most challenging of circumstances, often making their home in extremely unlikely locations such as concrete cracks. Then, just as their vibrancy begins to fade, the white puffy seedlings are carried along by the breeze, eventually landing, swelling and creating another generation of dandelions.

 

Dandelion or orchid?

The moxie of the dandelion has been metaphorically captured in a typology related to human resilience. The dandelion child versus the orchid child (originally coined by Bruce Ellis at the University of Arizona) has in recent years been a research topic that examines the interaction between genetics and environment in resilient behavior patterns.

The dandelion child is someone who appears to flourish despite adversity, whereas the orchid child tends to be more sensitive to her or his surroundings and environmental influences. In theory, this sensitivity may result in a greater propensity for both physical and psychological unwellness when exposed to adverse circumstances.

Yet our orchid friends need not fret. Given the right tools, these delicate creatures demonstrate their own resiliency.

 

Dandelion strong

Resiliency is the ability to adapt to a variety of challenging experiences. According to psychologist and researcher Susan Kobasa, there are three elements associated with resilient people: the ability to accept the challenge, the ability to be committed to one’s life and the ability to clarify personal control in any situation.

Here are the ABCs to becoming dandelion strong:

1) Accept the challenge. Physically prepare for any challenge by getting plenty of sleep, eating healthfully and engaging in physical activity. Let’s face it, our ability to cope is significantly reduced when we are tired, hungry and weak. Optimal health promotes resiliency.

Furthermore, life is filled with challenges, and each has the potential to be a teacher. This may require leaning into the situation despite discomfort.

As a student of jiu-jitsu, I learned the importance of leverage and flow. Force against force creates a wall and, invariably, a lack of movement. However, leaning into the energy of your opponent will disarm her and allow for movement, which in jiu-jitsu means submission and successful completion of a match. Therefore, lean into that anxiety or fear. It may be telling you to better prepare for that exam or end that dysfunctional relationship.

Finally, viewing an obstacle as temporary allows for a more positive assessment of the situation and promotes a “can do” attitude. A plethora of research supports the power of positive thinking in overall wellness. Surround yourself with inspirational messages that remind you of your ability to get through this challenging moment. I have a sign in my office that reads, “She thought she could … so she did!” So I DID earn that Ph.D. at the age of 50!

2) Be committed. Resiliency is accompanied by a commitment to life, goals and relationships. Alfred Adler, Viennese physician and founder of Adlerian psychology, held that humans are goal-oriented and experience an overall sense of wellness when contributing to community through work, intimacy and friendships. What is most compelling is the desire for these goals (work, intimacy and friendship) to be not only achievable but meaningful. Therefore, find a greater value in your work and relationships.

For example, I remember counseling a client who was experiencing some struggle around the recent death of her estranged mother. Although this client struggled with many issues related to her relationship with her mother, she held firm to the value of her vocation as a janitor. She had worked for a local high school for more than 25 years. She described in detail how it gave her pleasure to take care of the rooms of “those hardworking teachers.” She saw her role as necessary and supportive in the overall education system. She viewed it as a higher calling.

My client recalled a time when she was putting away supplies long after the school day had ended. In the process, she came across a student sitting alone in the corner of the supply room. She told me how she had put her equipment away and then sat down on the cold cement slab next to the student. She described how this student disclosed to her that he felt lost and scared. He had just found out that his girlfriend was pregnant, and he couldn’t deal with it.

“He was going to hang himself! Right here in my closet,” my client told me, shaking her head in disbelief. She went on to tell me how she had talked this young man out of killing himself and stood by his side while he called his mom to tell her that he was in trouble. She beamed as she told this story. She realized the sacred work she provided as a high school janitor.

3) Clarify control. Resiliency includes a clear understanding of personal control. Compassion and empathy do not require the expenditure of energy worrying about things that are out of the person’s control. This is often one of the most difficult lesson to learn. You do not need to take on the drama offered by others. Nor do you need to manage the emotional state of others. Allow other people to manage their own emotional regulation and well-being.

In any given situation, a resilient person will ask “what do I have control over?” and act accordingly. If you don’t have control, then take a deep breath and (sing it with me) … LET IT GO!

 

Conclusion

Some people just seem to take life in stride, naturally maneuvering the unpredictable terrain. However, the rest of us can develop skills that allow us not only to join the hike but actually take the lead (by accepting the challenge, committing in a full and meaningful way, and clarifying our personal control in the situation).

There is an element of truth in Friedrich Nietzsche’s words: “That which doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger.” Like the dandelion, we can learn to persevere in the most unlikely of circumstances.

However, as I stand here in my garden, thoughtfully contemplating my next move in relation to this bright yellow hardy bud that has started to take residence among my herbs and vegetables, I am reminded of one final lesson offered by this garden-variety Taraxacum officinale: Look for the wishes among the weeds!

 

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Cheryl Fisher

Cheryl Fisher

Cheryl Fisher is a licensed clinical professional counselor in private practice in Annapolis, Maryland. She is visiting full-time faculty at Loyola University Maryland in the Pastoral Counseling Department. Her current research examines sexuality and spirituality in young women with advanced breast cancer. She is currently working on a book titled Homegrown Psychotherapy: Scientifically Based Organic Practices, of which this article is an excerpt. Contact her at cy.fisher@verizon.net.

See Fisher’s debut column “Seeking connections to ourselves, others and the sacred

Helping clients realize their daily potential

By Brandon S. Ballantyne June 7, 2016

I often think about the pursuit of potential and try to imagine what “reaching potential” would look like exactly. I think about how it could be helpful to assist my clients in identifying their beliefs about personal potential and then developing a navigational tool to assist them in moving toward that potential. The concept is fascinating to me.

For a few moments, I’d like you to sit back and think about what it might be like to have GPS navigation aimed at routing you to your potential as a human being. My theory is that, as counselors, in a lot ways, we help individuals do just that.

All of us acquire beliefs about our potential from what we are told as children. We also acquire beliefs about our potential from what we observe as children. Our families, friends, caretakers and siblings all contribute to this cognitive framework of the ideal image of ourselves that we GPS navigation in carcontinuously pursue. I believe that when individuals experience a traumatic event, or suffer a significant loss or endure a situation that provokes emotional struggle, it can interfere with their ability to effectively navigate the pursuit of their personal potential. In other words, this is depression.

I believe a key component to helping clients work through their depression is assisting them in the identification, exploration and challenging of beliefs related to individual potential and its pursuit. I believe there is certain “word choice” in our thoughts that increases what I refer to as “internal pressure.” What is internal pressure? It is simply increased emotional distress.

Being trained in cognitive theory, I believe it is important to help clients examine their word choices in thought. For example, the word “should” can be reflective of a rigid demand. Therefore, “should” will likely intensify emotional distress by creating a strong sense of guilt for being unable to continuously achieve the imagined rigid demand.

I work in a partial hospital setting. Often, I work with clients who are struggling with continued depressive symptoms due to repeated thoughts of “I should be better than this.” I believe this thinking interferes with their ability to effectively pursue their desired level of individual potential.

I remind and educate my clients that emotional response is a normal human experience. I tell them that when considering the history of events leading to their treatment, it would be “understandable” if they were struggling with levels of depression at this time in their lives. Therefore, it might not be totally fair to assume that they “should” be better (emotionally) than they are at this time.

In defining the legitimacy of their emotional struggles, we can help clients access some self-validation and acknowledge the need to take the necessary time to patiently work through their current experience with depression. In doing so, we create a less rigid view of their achievable potential “at this time” in life.

I think that individual potential is something that changes. My individual potential today might be different from my individual potential tomorrow.

Potential is a belief system. Potential is a series of thoughts. As human beings, we have thoughts in response to events and emotions in response to thoughts. If we can help clients focus on examining their “daily” potential, we will help them to increase self-esteem and self-confidence through the implementation of daily achievable goals and assignments. They will become the sole directors of their individual potential each day, using their “evidence of success” (accomplishments) from prior days to achieve tomorrow’s tasks.

Our job as counselors is not to increase clients’ potential for them. It is to offer a less rigid framework for balanced thoughts and considerations. This in itself serves as the client’s GPS navigation for reaching individual potential. The difference is that in the beginning, these clients might have felt extreme emotional pressure to “be better right away.”

My hope is that my personal approach will allow other therapists to help clients take beliefs about individual potential that were once rigid, extreme and demanding, and modify them into expectations, goals and daily achievable tasks that will increase self-esteem. This approach can also provide a foundation for continued growth (progress) by suggesting alternative routes rather than assuming that all detours lead to increased distress or misery.

By the way, it is always OK to stop and ask for directions (help) despite what your belief system tells you that you “should” or “should not” do.

 

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Brandon S. Ballantyne, a licensed professional counselor and national certified counselor, has been practicing clinical counseling since 2007. He currently practices at Reading Health System in Reading, Pennsylvania, and Advanced Counseling and Research Services in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. He has a specialized interest in using cognitive theory to help his clients enhance their abilities to recognize and change problematic thought patterns to achieve more desirable emotions and healthier behavioral responses. Contact him at Brandon.Ballantyne@readinghealth.org.