All posts by Jessica Brown

Picking at Scabs

When you were a little kid, I’m willing to bet that at some point, you hurt yourself. That “boo boo” (as we lovingly call them) probably bled for a while, and then developed a scab. Scabs are not pretty, and sometimes they are uncomfortable. But they are important signs that the healing process is underway. What I remember vividly about this process is that my mother chided me not to pick the scab! I don’t know the science behind this, but the “mother wit” was clear– picking the scab slows down the process. For the person doing the healing, the NOT picking is hard. Scabs are itchy and achy- they beg to be tampered with! But based on what our mothers taught us, the impending healing was worth the self control it took to wait it out. Scabs provide the protection the wound needs so that healing can occur.

Now, imagine that you are someone actively engaged in the process of healing. Your scab is nagging, itchy, uncomfortable. But you are trusting the healing process and doing the work to get better. Then, someone else comes along, and picks at your scab. What a violation! How might this interaction delay the progress you have been fighting so hard for? I want to make the argument that this is what happens for people who are working to heal from the painful violation of trauma. The trauma causes an injury and for a while, it gushes and incapacitates. Then, they begin the slow process of healing. But often the outside world is not respectful of that healing process. People don’t understand the time and effort takes to heal. And sometimes, in their insensitivity, they pick at scabs, exposing the wounds people have been trying so desperately to recover from.

Consider that survivors of sexual trauma and sexual violence are a special case. While they should be a place of protection and healing, sometimes churches unintentionally and repeatedly pick at scabs, prolonging the healing process and dampening the spirits of those who desperately want to be free. This statement might have surprised you! It is certainly not the intention of the church to hurt people. And yet, sometimes our impact is the opposite. So, let’s talk about it. What is happening and what do we need to be mindful of? It’s important to know that trauma in its many forms, disturbs the sense of safety that a person might have. For many, after a trauma, the world in general and relationships in particular begin to feel incredibly dangerous. The church is not exempt from this. I’m just going to raise a few issues, with the knowledge that this is the tip of the iceberg, and a starting point for a much larger conversation.

First, let’s talk about bodies. In this case, not necessarily the “body of Christ” but human bodies. We often do not do a good job of respecting bodies and boundaries between bodies. It starts in childhood, when we make children hug and kiss people even when they clearly don’t want to, all in effort to be “polite.” A few months ago, we all watched (most of us unsurprised) as a preacher took liberties with the body of a woman he had just met, and disrespected, on a pulpit– all streamed live on national TV.  This was not something shocking, because many of us have seen something like this in our very own churches. The church, and the black church in particular, is heavily invested in body politics. Wear the right thing. Be presentable and put on your Sunday best, but don’t adorn yourself too much. If you had on the “wrong thing” then what did you expect to happen? People feel liberties to comment, touch, and police bodies that are not theirs, all for the sake of trying to ensure that people are presentable in some way. These violations that we make with the bodies of others, unwanted hugs, touches, and comments; send clear but implicit messages about blurred boundaries and recreate dangerous situations in which survivors had their safety shattered because someone did not respect the boundaries of their body. We blame victims when they do get violated, and we participate in a culture that supports rape. Picking at scabs.

In conversations about troubled relationships, we coach people to stay together no matter what, before stopping to ask if they are physically or emotionally safe. We push people to come together with the same family members who might have been the perpetrators of the trauma they experienced. We send strong messages about forgiveness, love, and reconciliation without taking the time to learn the nature of these relationships, or whether it is supportive of the individual person’s health to be connected with that person at this time. We don’t make the distinction that you can forgive someone without being closely connected to them in the way you once were. So, what they get is: Go back to your abuser. Deal with it because it’s the Christian thing to do. Often the responsibility is put on the victim rather than the abuser to resolve the issue. Picking at scabs.

Lastly, we tend to do a terrible job talking about sex! In our desire to steer people away from what we view as immoral sexual behavior, we often make the grave mistake of denying that we were designed as sexual beings. And so, our sexual questions, thoughts, and urges become taboo and forbidden. We work to deny that we are sexualixed, sometimes with the unfortunate consequence of inappropriate expressions of that repressed nature. When we can’t even talk about it, we get very little guidance on how to express our sexuality in healthy ways. Then, when people try to talk about sexual violence they have experienced, we focus on vilifying the sex part while becoming complicit in the violation itself. Picking at scabs.

With these in mind, here is a brief list of things we can do to make churches safer spaces for survivors:

    Give people (starting with children) the permission to OPT OUT of physical contact with others and protect their physical space.
    Err on the side of believing those who report sexual violence and sexual assaults. Less than 1% of reported assaults are fabricated, and there are many more who don’t report at all because they believe they will not be supported.
    Ask people if they are physically and emotionally safe. If they say no, work to get them connected with support swiftly.
    Engage in open and honest dialogue about sex and sexuality.
    Hold those who violate boundaries responsible for their actions, regardless of status or power in the community. Stop holding victims liable for what was perpetrated against them.

This is just a starting point. There is much work left to do! Thanks for reading, and make Well Choices!

The Suicidal Shepherd

A couple of weeks ago, my social media feed was in an uproar about the tragic suicide of Pastor Andrew Stoecklein, the Pastor of Inland Hills Church in Chino, CA. The 30-year old megachurch pastor had recently taken over after the death of his father, the founder of the church. He had just come back to the pulpit after an involuntary sabbatical due to severe mental and physical health concerns. In fact, the last sermon he preached was about Elijah; his feelings of hopelessness and suicidality. He shared about the symptoms he had experienced, and the difficulty he had managing the symptoms. He spoke about the visibility of mental health concerns in the bible and the need for the church to respond appropriately to mental illness. It seems, at least, that his church did! They offered support, encouraged him to take time away, and then welcomed him back when he appeared to be well. It is clear that this community loved their pastor, and that he loved them. So what happened?

I won’t pretend to know this church or the Stoecklein family, and so I won’t speculate about what did or didn’t happen. What I can say is that the more I hear about Pastor Stoecklein and his journey, the more I am reminded of just how insurmountable a task pastoring seems to have become. In my immediate response to the news, these words came: Pastors bear a heavy burden that most of us as parishioners cannot even imagine. They are charged with executing an unconditional love that they know from the start will be unrequited. They are held to an unreasonable standard and many are simultaneously compensated meagerly. The very same qualities of selflessness and service that make for beloved pastors also make for tired spouses and parents, and worn out people who may not feel the permission to take time for themselves.

Being in the role of pastor does not mean that these men and women don’t deal with the very harsh realities of being human. They are just as susceptible to a diagnosable mental illness as the rest of us. In fact, the stressors associated with the role are likely to increase their risk. It can be difficult to manage family and home life along with the relational and administrative responsibilities of pastoring. With the possible exception of large churches with a big professional staff, most pastors are asked to manage what would in any other context be several jobs: administrative head, visionary executive, supervisor of training and development, budget manager, congregant relations specialist, and the list goes on. It’s a lot for one person (or even a few people) to manage! While the call is a great honor, it is also a great responsibility. Some of us as parishioners have this sense that pastors must be special citizens in some way. We perceive them as being closer to God and somehow more able to manage the demands of life. I believe it is a great disservice to view pastors in this way. When we put them on such a high pedestal, we leave less room for their humanness to coexist with their call. Pastors are shepherds, not camels. They can guide, direct, and support our faith walk, but it’s not their responsibility to carry us. If we view them as human guides, rather than divine saviors, there is space for them to struggle with life just like we do. There is space for us to provide support to them, rather than them having a series of one-directional relationships where they always give and never receive.

I think another point here relates to the way we as the church view and talk about mental illness, which is continuing to evolve. Inland Hills knew their pastor struggled with mental illness. He had just been away for a few months to try to get better. But I imagine that most of them had a sense of relief when he came back “Whew! That’s over!” We often think about mental health symptoms as occurring in a discrete time period that eventually comes to an end. While for some people that might be the case, for others,  symptoms are a constant daily battle. There isn’t a point at which they simply go away. There is the struggle to manage these symptoms along with daily stressors. While it’s hard to think about and talk about, it’s not necessarily surprising that thoughts of suicide come up. For the vast majority of people who contemplate suicide, it’s really not about dying at all. It’s about escaping from a life where it feels like the walls are constantly closing in on you. Often, people who struggle with mental illness feel like they are burdensome to their friends and family, so there might also be the misguided belief that their death will sometimes be a relief to the people they are closest to. Often when we help people to put some of the pressure they feel into perspective and offer meaningful support, things can feel a little more manageable.

Sometimes those of us in the church will quickly move to demonize or rebuke those who attempt or complete suicide. We see this, as we do with so many other mental health concerns, as a failing of faith. For me, this is an overly simplistic view of human suffering. The reality is that while we endeavor to have hope, the realities of life sometimes make that hope difficult to grasp. In fact, sometimes our grasp of the possibilities of what life can (should) be, makes it difficult for us to deal with the reality of what life is. This is simply to say that thoughts of suicide are not about a failing of faith; they are a sign of intense suffering and inner turmoil. Rather than shaming people for having a thought that they can’t even control, our focus can be on the passionate dispensation of hope, which is one of the key tools we have in the fight against suicide. The fact that pastors, our spiritual leaders, might also struggle in this area is a reminder that they are first human beings. Human beings need love, support, encouragement and understanding no matter how close their relationship with God might be.

So, with September being Suicide Prevention Awareness Month, I want to offer a couple of notes/thoughts for how we might help people who are struggling with contemplating suicide, particularly those who are in leadership:

1. It is not worth the chance to minimize the seriousness of a mental health crisis. When you notice that you are someone you love is experiencing concerning symptoms, take action. Call a crisis line, contact a mental health provider, or get them to an emergency room. Here are some resources:

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255; Website

Therapist Directories:

PsychologyToday; Therapy for Black Girls; Therapy for Black Men;

2. If you are in a position where you can offer support, do it. Be a listening ear, a shoulder to cry on, or a comforting presence. People who are suffering don’t always feel the strength to ask for help, so do it without asking. Check in on people when they seem to be acting differently.

3. Remind yourself and others to give people room for mistakes. One of the biggest challenges I hear when I talk to pastors is that they feel that the stakes are high ALL THE TIME. There is a sense that if they make one mistake, there might be dire consequences that will be difficult to correct. Maybe membership will go down, or offerings will decrease. Ministries will fail or a reputation will be damaged. While there are certainly egregious mistakes that could yield these results, some “mistakes” are simply miscommunications or miscalculations that can be easily corrected if we simply extend grace the way we wish it to be granted to us.

4. Consider how you resource your leaders: money and compensation, time and resources to take vacation, get continuing education, prepare for retirement, and see preventative and problem-focused medical and mental health care. Leaders are people, not machines. We can’t expect them to go non-stop. In fact, the most effective leaders are ones who take meaningful time away from their work.

Above all, remember that God’s word calls us to love each other and to be present and active in responding to one another’s pain.

Recall the familiar passage from Ecclesiastes 4 (verses 9-12):

Two are better than one,
    because they have a good return for their labor:
 If either of them falls down,
    one can help the other up.
But pity anyone who falls
    and has no one to help them up.
 Also, if two lie down together, they will keep warm.
    But how can one keep warm alone?
 Though one may be overpowered,
    two can defend themselves.
A cord of three strands is not quickly broken.

Our responsibility is to work to ensure that people in our community never feel alone! Burdens are easier to bear when someone is walking beside us. Things feel more manageable when we know someone has our back. We feel a little more powerful when we know someone is praying for us. Take a moment to do an inventory: Who might need you to reach out and check on them? What leader in your life can you pray for or encourage today? Maybe you are the one who needs support. In that case, who can you be honest with about how you are truly feeling? What offer of support can you take someone up on today. Where can you go or what activity can you engage in to get some rest and restoration. The time is now. Don’t wait!

Thanks for reading, and make Well Choices!

The Forgotten Part

The overwhelming majority of clients in my clinical practice are black women. Often they come in with similar stories. They have forgotten how to enjoy their lives, or they have a sense that they are simply not sure what they are doing with themselves. Many times they report feeling completely overwhelmed, having sleepless nights, feeling stressed out at work, and feeling disconnected in relationships. While they certainly wouldn’t think of themselves as having anxiety or depression, many of these women struggle with symptoms of these disorders on a daily basis. They have been socialized to push through; to keep going no matter what happens; to be whatever is needed for their families. The danger of this for so many women is that they might tend to lose themselves in the process of caring for others. For more information on this experience, sometimes called strong black woman syndrome , come see my previous post.

One of the standard questions I ask in an initial meeting with a client is simple:

What do you do for fun?

It pains me to say how difficult this question is for some people to answer. Sometimes, people actually laugh out loud! Sometimes they roll their eyes or shake their heads. Sometimes, they look down and tears fall down their cheeks. It’s a simple question, but it’s a quick way to assess whether or not a person is attending to themselves and their own needs. Sometimes, we become so caught up in all the things we SHOULD be doing, that we have difficulty maintaining balance in our lives. For me, ultimately, this is an issue of priorities. When we make decisions about what becomes important in our lives, our attention and behaviors are directed toward those things. So, the simple question is: Are you a priority in your own life?

Recently, my devotional time led me to Matthew 11: 28-30. It’s a familiar passage:

“Come to me, all of you who are tired from carrying heavy loads, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke and put it on you, and learn from me, because I am gentle and humble in spirit; and you will find rest. For the yoke I will give you is easy, and the load I will put on you is light.” (GNT)

If you’ve ever stepped foot in a church, you’ve probably heard this passage. It is usually presented as a message of hope for the weary and overwhelmed. It’s a favorite! But this time, when I read it, something struck me. The first verse talks about God giving us rest. Then, the next verse talks about taking God’s yoke up. If you’re not familiar with that term, it typically refers to a wooden structure that is used to attach work animals to a cart or other vehicle of some kind so that they can pull it. So, God is going to give me rest….by giving me something to pull? (Insert puzzled face here)

Then, it hit me: God gives us rest when we are freed from heavy loads that we have no business carrying! The invitation to rest is not an invitation to an existence that is free from responsibility- that’s not realistic. It’s an invitation to carrying the loads God assigns to us and putting down the ones we have decided to pick up along the way, that perhaps were’t even ours to carry. This rest is an invitation to put down the unimportant, burdensome responsibilities of life, and pick up only the things that matter. This rest is an invitation to make good choices about how we commit ourselves.

Many of us could benefit from heeding this wonderful invitation. How many things are you doing just because you feel like you SHOULD be doing them, or because if you stop, someone will be upset with you. Have you stopped to ask yourself if there is purpose and fulfillment in those things? Have you prayed about whether God is calling you to these activities? And, here’s the critical question: What parts of yourself have you forgotten in the process?

Have you forgotten to laugh and play?

Have you forgotten to connect with dear friends?

Have you forgotten how to actually enjoy your family in an effort to “take care of them”?

Have you forgotten to take care of your body?

Have you forgotten to spend meaningful time with God?

Have you forgotten to ask for what you need or to make space for rest and rejuvenation?

I want to issue a challenge: Take a look at the forgotten part! Do an inventory and answer honestly whether there are pieces of you that you have lost in the process of living your life. If the answer is yes, that’s ok, because God’s promise is clear: “Come to me, all you who are tired from carrying heavy loads, and I will give you rest.” Let God reorganize your priorities and your life. Get the rest you need! Thanks for reading, and make Well Choices!

Let’s Talk About Stigma

As you might know, May is Mental Illness Awareness Month. It’s a time when we can specifically focus on raising awareness about the multitude of issues facing those who have been diagnosed with a mental illness. It is also a time to work to dismantle a detrimental barrier to treatment: stigma.

So, what is stigma? Stigma is any kind of negative attitude, belief, or behavior directed at folks with mental illness. Often, beliefs that display stigma are well-intentioned, but misguided. These attitudes often result in people with mental illness feeling judged, misunderstood, and silenced. Stigma can lead people to avoid seeking support, not attempting to get the medical help they need, or feeling that they are to blame for the symptoms they are experiencing. In the black community, a pre-existing mistrust of the medical system in general makes stigma even more dangerous. In the United States, about 1 in 5 adults will meet the criteria for some form of mental illness at some point in their lifetime. This means that if you do not meet criteria yourself, someone you know surely does! People with mental illness are not “them”; people with mental illness are “us.” Statistics suggest that while African Americans experience mental health symptoms at a rate comparable with the overall population, we are less likely to seek treatment (either therapy or medication), less likely to be consistent with that treatment, and more likely to use emergency vs. preventive services. This means that our difficulty seeking help leads us to crisis situations that are often completely preventable! We can literally save lives if we work to combat stigma and encourage people to seek help rather than trying to handle things by themselves.

Here are some examples of things you might have heard or said that demonstrate conscious or unconscious stigma:

  • People with mental illness are “crazy,” dangerous, and cannot be trusted.
  • Keeping secrets about mental health diagnoses, or avoiding the signs that something is wrong with you or a family member.
  • “Black people don’t go to therapy- that’s for white folks.”
  • People with mental illness should just “get over it” or “fake it til they make it.”
  • Using coded, disrespectful language to describe people with mental illness- “coo-coo”; “bipolar”; “missing a few screws”- etc.

While these may seem harmless, they send implicit messages to folks who might be struggling that you will not see and respect their experience, and that you are not a person who can be helpful to them. So what can you do instead?

First, it’s important to realize that mental illness is no different than diabetes or a heart problem. It’s a medical condition that is treatable and people can often live normal lives while they work to manage their symptoms. For some folks, symptoms of a mental illness are the result of trauma, unhealthy relationships, or dysfunctional thinking styles. For others, they might be due to a chemical imbalance in the brain. For others, it could be a combination of the two. Whatever the cause is, there is a treatment that can be helpful, but in order to do that, people have to admit something is going on, and seek help.

Second, if you have someone who shares that they are having mental health symptoms with you, don’t downplay what they are saying. Acknowledge the difficulty the person must be having, and help them brainstorm ways they can begin to seek help. Often, the most helpful thing you can do is simply to listen and let the person know they are not alone. Pray with them and for them, AND help them to find a health care provider who can meet their needs. If you have some questions about therapy, check out my previous post on this topic. 

Third, be careful about your language. Refrain from using words or phrases that might be harmful to folks struggling with mental illness. If you’ve dealt with a mental illness or have been to therapy, consider being open about that process. One of the best ways to combat stigma is to put a name and a face to the experience! Whenever I do workshops, I always say I’ve been to therapy. It helps to reinforce the idea that therapy is something that can be helpful to anyone regardless of their level of success, education, or status. For more information on how to combat stigma, check out the website for the National Alliance on Mental Illness. They have wonderful resources, and this month, there is a special campaign focused on combatting negative attitudes about mental illness, dubbed #curestigma.

This issue is too important for us to remain silent. People’s lives are literally at stake, and we can be part of the solution rather than part of the problem. Together, we can #curestigma and create and environment where everyone can get the help they need.

Thanks for reading, and make Well Choices!

Knowing the Signs

A big part of the way we care for ourselves is to simply pay attention. One of the consequences of the frenzied pace that many of us run at is that we do a lot of things, but we don’t necessarily do those things in ways that allow us to be fully present.  Think about your typical day- how much of it is on autopilot? Probably a significant amount. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it might mean that we are less able to recognize when something is “off” with us. As a general practice, its important to check in with yourself on a regular basis. Doing this allows us to have awareness of how we are doing, and if we need to make some changes in order to be well. Maybe you find yourself “going through the motions” from time to time. If so, keep reading!

Take the time to do a full inventory. For some folks, the easiest place to start is the body. Take a moment and mentally scan your body from head to toe: does anything hurt, feel tight, tingly, or out of line? Have you recently been having an increase in headaches, stomach pains, digestive issues, or trouble sleeping? I often tell my clients that our bodies have a way of telling on us. While cognitively we might be able to push through, our bodies often reveal the stress we are carrying around and not managing. Why is this the case? It’s physiology. Our bodies respond to physical, interpersonal, and emotional stress by secreting a chemical called cortisol. Cortisol is GREAT for managing physical stressors: it temporarily grants us keener vision, greater strength, speed to run, and the ability to ignore typical human needs like hunger, thirst, and sleep. That’s why we see stories of parents lifting wrecked cars to save their children, and people not realizing they’ve been burned as they run from a burning building after saving someone. However, most of our stressors are not physical in nature. And the same chemical that helps us to respond most efficiently to physical threats poses great dangers to our internal organs and bodily processes when exposure is prolonged. As a consequence, our bodies simply “tell on us” when we are under a lot of stress.  So, don’t ignore physical symptoms– they might be a sign it’s time to make a change!

Mentally, have you been feeling lost, unorganized, or distracted? Do you have difficulty making decisions or keeping up with basic tasks? Do you find it takes you longer to complete things or that you are generally unproductive? Emotionally, have you had a short fuse lately? Do you feel sad, frustrated, or overwhelmed? Have you been worrying a lot, or feel like your thoughts are racing so fast it’s hard for you to keep up with them? Any one of these experiences could clue you in that something is off. When we are overwhelmed, we are less able to manage our emotions and there is less stability in our thought lives. Trying to juggle too many responsibilities at one time often leaves us unable to do anything well; you know the saying: “Jack of all trades, ace of none”.

Spiritually, people might feel unfocused and disconnected. There is a sense of dryness or a lack of excitement or energy. You might feel hopeless or helpless, wondering how to move forward. You might be feeling that God has forgotten about you or lack a sense of direction.

I have a simple message for you: don’t ignore the signs! When you start to feel off kilter, it is not simply a time to press through. Keep going, but you may need to do so with caution. A while ago, I provided some steps on how to manage crisis situations in the Stop, Drop, and Roll post. If you are feeling completely overwhelmed, check there first! If you don’t feel your situation is as dire, or if you’ve already read the post mentioned above, here are some suggestions.

First; prioritize and refocus your activities. This could be a process you complete with daily tasks, or with longer term goals in your life. Former president Dwight D. Eisenhower developed a simple system for making efficient decisions in wartime. He looked at tasks in terms of two intersecting dimensions: Importance and Urgency. Categorizing tasks in this way helps you to figure out how to make decisions between competing responsibilities and demands.

– task that are both important and urgent should go to the top of your list. You need to deal with these right away!

– tasks that are important but not urgent can become long term goals. You might be able to break these into some smaller tasks that can be more easily managed.

– tasks that are urgent, but not important require you to make a critical decision about whether this task is something that you need to complete at all. Is it your job to do? Will not doing it result in a crisis? Can the deadline pass, with the task left undone, without anything terrible happening?

– tasks that are neither urgent nor important……need I say more? Let it GO!

Second, develop a plan of action. Break large goals into smaller goals with clear deadlines. Ask for help if you need to. Do an inventory of the resources you need to be successful.

Third, pick one or two self-care practices to engage in. They can be simple: taking a walk every couple of hours, connecting with a friend you haven’t talked to in a while, spending some time reading a book or doing an activity you love, etc. Often, self-care is the first thing to go when we’re feeling overwhelmed. But it’s important to keep these practices going! If you don’t engage in self-care, eventually you will run out of steam and you won’t be able to get anything done. It’s important to take care of you.

Hopefully, this helps as all to pay attention to ourselves and take good care of US. Thanks for reading, and make Well Choices!

 

What Therapy is Not

Last month, I tried to convince you to go to therapy. Call me biased, but I truly believe it can be helpful when you engage in the process. However, I also know that we are often bombarded with media portrayals of therapy and therapists that can give lots of wrong information about what actually happens during the process. Hopefully, I answered some of your beginning questions in my previous post; this time, I want to talk about what therapy is NOT.

1. Therapy is not a quick fix: Sometimes, people have the expectation that after one session of therapy, you will feel better. Though you may experience some relief simply from getting things off your chest, your problems are not likely to be resolved after just one session. It takes time to build skills and strategies that will help you work toward your goals. Be patient and trust the process. Most therapists will check in periodically to ensure that you feel you are still working toward your goals and making progress. I often have people ask me how many sessions I think they will need- this is a really hard question to answer because people are so different and have different needs. It might be helpful to just acknowledge that you can’t be sure exactly how many sessions you will need, but you can pay attention to your symptoms and notice when you are starting to feel better.

2. Therapy is not done to you. Your therapist does not have a magic wand or fairy dust. Therapy doesn’t happen “at” you. In order for it to work, you have to put time, energy, and interest into the process. For some people, that might mean homework, reflecting during the time you are not in session, and practicing new skills. Your therapist can’t fix you! Their job is to provide you with some perspective and resources to live the life you desire. Your job is to put in the work, enact the skills and focus on the strategies provided to reach your goals.

3. Therapy is not boot camp. Your therapist doesn’t set a goal of seeing how many times they can make you cry in an hour. It is not our intention to make you feel bad. We don’t want to push you beyond what you are capable of. However, negative feelings can sometimes be a part of the process. Our job is to be there as support, help you to understand and explore what you are feeling, and hold you accountable to the goals you’ve set for yourself. Sometimes, that means you won’t like what we say, but you should always have the sense that you can trust your therapist’s intentions are in the right place.

4. Therapy is not a friendship. The best therapeutic relationships are ones where there is a deep sense of mutual care and respect between therapist and client. However, they should not be confused with friendships. Therapy is a professional relationship where the focus is on you and your needs. That means there should be certain boundaries in place: therapists don’t share about their lives the way a friend would; we don’t spend time with clients or talk extensively outside of the time spent in therapy; we don’t take on people as clients if we interact with them socially in other circles. There is a reason for this: therapy should be a protected space and you should feel free to share anything and everything about your life. If you interact with your therapist in other ways, it could complicate the safety of the relationship. This does not mean that you don’t care about your therapist and they don’t care about you- it just means that there are rules for keeping the relationship healthy.

5. Therapy is not a cure all. Sometimes, people feel completely better after going to therapy. For others, there might be a longer term diagnosis that does not totally go away. For those folks, the goal is to build skills so that they can manage their symptoms and live a happier, healthier life. Because we are humans, we have symptoms- sometimes we might feel anxious, sad, overwhelmed, or frustrated. The goal is not always to get to a place where you have no symptoms at all. Sometimes, the goal is to get to the place where those symptoms don’t take over your life or stop you doing the things you want to do.

So, hopefully this helps you to manage your expectations. Therapy is a wonderful experience, and it can be a little different when you try it for the first time. If you are ready to start the process, go to http://www.PsychologyToday.com to get started.

Thanks for reading and make Well Choices!

So you think you want to go to therapy?

One of the things I intentionally do is talk about therapy and how helpful it can be. In faith communities and especially in black faith communities, mental illness and it’s treatment are still highly stigmatized. We tend to try to pray away our emotional concerns, or go to pastors and other faith leaders for a quick fix. While these are good steps, some issues also require the attention of a professional. So how do you know when it’s time to seek out a professional? Here’s a list of signs it might be time:
– if you’ve been tired, sad, nervous, overwhelmed, or “off” for more than a couple weeks and nothing seems to help
-if you notice you have difficulty sleeping, headaches, stomach issues, or problems with concentration that can’t be explained
– if you are feeling unhappy or unfulfilled in your relationships
– if you are having difficulty managing the different tasks in your life
– if you have frequent crying spells, find your self lashing out at others, or have noticed an increase in substance use in an attempt to cope

These are just a few; the reasons I hear most often. But I should probably provide a disclaimer here: I THINK EVERYONE SHOULD GO TO THERAPY. Everyone. EVERYONE! Whether your concerns are mild, moderate, or severe, therapy can be helpful for you. One of the great gifts of therapy is that it is an invitation to take a brief hiatus from the hustle and bustle of your life and dedicate an hour of time totally to yourself. You get the opportunity to sit with a person who cares about you, but who won’t share their opinions, tell your business, or insert their own desires in the way they provide support. I can’t think of another place in life where all those things come together. It’s a peculiar and wonderful space! Yet, I understand how scary it is to enter a room with a stranger and bare your soul in such a way. So, I honor that it is a big decision and thought it might be helpful to demystify the process.

First, do some introspective work.

Why do you want to go to therapy? What do you want to get out of it? Ask yourself: If I woke up tomorrow and things were all better, what would be different? What would be the signs that my life had taken a shift?

Your answer to this question is the beginning of your goals for counseling. It’s ok if it’s not crystal clear, but it’s important to have at least a sense of where you want to go. Once you have at least a vague goal in mind, it’s time to begin to search for a therapist. Some logistical questions to consider:

– if you have health insurance, does it cover mental health (behavioral health)? Do you have a deductible that requires out of pocket payments before sessions will be covered? How much is your copay per session? Call your insurance company (or check online) for a list of therapists who accept your insurance. This gives you a place to start.

– if you don’t have insurance, how much can you afford to pay? Frequency of therapy is variable- you can go weekly, bi-weekly, or even monthly, depending on what you need and how much you can afford.

– what characteristics of a therapist would help you to feel ready? Similarities in gender, race, or religious affiliation? Maybe you can check with a pastor or a friend to ask for a referral

-Do your research: Just like dating, or finding the right furniture, or buying a new car, it’s helpful to get some information before you make a decision. One of my favorite websites is PsychologyToday.com because you can search by a myriad of characteristics and specialty areas, as well as insurance provider. In addition, you can hear, in the therapist’s own words, what they believe about therapy and how they like to help people get better.

Once you decide on a therapist, take a deep breath, and give them a call. You may have to call multiple people- sometimes people aren’t accepting new patients, or maybe your schedules don’t align. That’s ok! Keep making calls until you find someone. Most clinicians will be happy to answer a couple of questions over the phone- how the process will go, what the first session will be like, how you can pay, or something of the sort.

At your first appointment, you will have paperwork to fill out, just like when you go to your medical doctor. Give yourself a few extra minutes to get all that done and arrive a little early to your appoinment. Generally the first session is focused on information gathering- there will be LOTS of questions- your therapist is just trying to get to know you! They may take notes, or have some papers they go through as you explain what’s going on with you. The goal is to get a good picture of how you’re functioning right now and where you want to go. This is also an opportunity for you to ask questions about how the process will go, how your therapist does treatment, and what you should expect. At the beginning, you and the therapist are getting to know each other and getting comfortable with each other. The role of a client will be different than any other relationship you’ve had, because you won’t really know a lot about your therapist. While this may seem odd at first, it’s actually a good thing, because it keeps the sessions focused on you!

A note: At the beginning (and often throughout the process), therapy can bring up a lot of emotions. It’s normal for you to feel nervous, sad, or overwhelmed. We therapists have a special tool for if those feelings come up: TISSUES!! We are not scared of your emotions, you will not be “too much” for us, and we can handle it. That’s why we went to school! Remind yourself that discomfort can be a part of the process, and that it can produce change if you stick with it.

Therapy can be scary, but working with the right therapist is so worth it! If you’ve been wondering about it or considering a visit, take the plunge and make the call! It is a great step to take for you and your mental health. You deserve it!

Thanks for reading, and make Well Choices!

Naming our Pain

In my clinical practice, I often see a lot of black adult women. I think a part of what draws them to me is that they can look me up and see that we have at least two things in common- I am black, and I am a woman, just like them. Black womanhood is a peculiar place of residence. Black women have a unique experience that bonds us together, but also makes us different from many of the other people we interact with. An academic term for this identity is “intersectionality.” This term, coined by scholar Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw, describes the reality of black women’s double minority status in the sociocultural world. Black women deal with the racism that all black folks deal with, AND they deal with the painful demeaning realities of the power of patriarchy. This distinguishes us from the journey that we work to support black men in, and it also separates us from the reality of prejudice and misogyny experienced by white women. Because our experience is unique, we have developed some unique strategies for surviving as black women. Many of us are familiar with the term “strong black woman.” I believe that this identity is our way of coping with the singular experience of black womanhood. Here are some characteristics I often see as components of this way of being for black women:

1. Taking care of EVERYBODY. In my conversations with my clients, friends, and colleagues, I notice a pattern of black women feeling responsible for so many people in their lives- parents, partners, kids, friends, etc. Some of these people, they really are responsible for. However, there might be times when they take on things that those people can do for themselves, perhaps to the detriment of their own needs and wants. We do it because we saw our mothers and grandmothers do it. Sometimes, the people in our lives are telling us to step back and do less, but we can’t hear it. Sometimes, the people in our lives love all the work we do, because it makes their lives easier. Either way, it seems that the implicit message for black women has been, put yourself last- make sure everyone else is OK first. While this is a noble way of being and taking responsibility for our community, it’s not sustainable when we don’t take any time for ourselves.

2. Pretending we are fine. I cannot tell you how many times I have asked a black woman how she is, she replied “fine” and I didn’t believe her. A part of this “strong black woman” syndrome has been a tendency to deny or ignore when we are struggling, even with people with whom we have very close relationships. I will never forget a session I had with a client who was visibly in pain, had been feeling the effects in her daily life, but simply could not find the words to explain to me what she was going through. It occurred to me how many of us have become so good at putting on a show that we don’t even have experience describing ourselves in authentic ways. We don’t even have language to name our pain because we have never taken the opportunity to do so. We can’t keep this up. Part of being of psychologically healthy is being able to acknowledge when you are well and when your are not well, being able to share your experiences with others, and being able to get what you need.

3. Not asking for help. I was having a conversation with a good friend and was stopped in my tracks with four simple words. “You are not superwoman.” We were talking about all the things I have going on, and the friend asked if I had people around me who would be willing to help me. My response was “Yes, but….” and then I named all the reasons I “needed” to do these things myself. I was so convinced about this, but it’s just wrong. It’s no good having people around you who offer to help you if you don’t take them up on it. In supportive relationships, you should not have to feel like superwoman. The reality is, you cannot do it all. When you admit that you cannot save the whole world, you make space for people to be in authentic relationship with you and offer you help and support. Be brave- ask for help!

If you are a black woman, I imagine that at least some of this feels familiar to you. If you love a black woman, you can probably help her by offering support and reminding her she doesn’t have to do it all. Think about ways that you can pay attention to your self in addition to all the people you love and care about. This is not about being selfish or choosing yourself OVER them (though some might decide to do that). It’s simply about putting yourself on your list. Just because we have been conditioned to do these things doesn’t mean we have to continue. Make a choice to live a happier, healthier life! Be honest about your experience, relinquish some of your responsibility in the lives of others, and use that energy to care for yourself! You can do it, sis. You deserve it.

Thanks for reading, and make Well Choices!

When the Path Isn’t Straight

I hear a common sentiment in my clinical and vocational work that goes something like:

I didn’t do things the “right” way so I was delayed getting to the point I’m at now.

I really struggle with this sentiment for a number of reasons. First, I have heard SO MANY people say this! Almost every single person I know has at some point felt this way about our journey. If all of us feel this way, is there a possibility that there simply isn’t a right way?? I think a big pice of this is the issue we have with social comparison. We often compare ourselves to others in ways that aren’t helpful. A wise person once said “comparison is the thief of joy.” For me, that sentiment reveals a truth about the way we make evaluations about our own lives. We often compare what is happening in our lives to what we see of the lives of others. The difference is, we know our WHOLE lives- all of our shortcomings, mistakes, etc. However, when we look at the lives of others, all we see is the curated version of them they want us to see. I hate to jump on the bandwagon of blaming social media, but social media. Most folks don’t share about their bad moments to the extent they share about good ones. It’s human nature to actively present ourselves in positive ways. The danger of using only what people tell us as a method of comparison is that we inevitably end up viewing ourselves as less than, based on what is at best a half-truth! Someone posts about a new job they’ve received, and we don’t hear about the 15 or 20 rejection letters they got before that one yes. A friend shares wedding photos, but not mugshots of the breakups that came before. A new mother shares pictures of her maternity photo shoot, but may not have shared about a miscarriage that came a year before. Let me be clear; this is NOT a criticism of a positive-only social media presence. That is each person’s prerogative and right. However, I am suggesting that we should keep this reality in mind and work against not comparing ourselves to another’s social media avatar. Perception is not real life!

Second, who decides what is the “right” way? Are you actually talking about the expectations of the people around you? Is someone telling you that you “should” have done it one way or another? Psychologist Albert Ellis was famous for telling his clients that they were “should-ing all over” themselves (pun intended). If we were to critically evaluate the “shoulds” in our lives, many of us would find that they are really implicit and explicit messages we’ve received from others about how they believe we should do life. And, just because someone else told us to do something, doesn’t mean we have to! One of the responsibilities and privileges of adulthood is that we have the opportunity to make our own decisions. We get to decide how much influence other people we have in our lives. Sometimes, that we means we block out the opinions of people we love and care about when those opinions are not in our best interest. They cannot walk in your shoes. They do not live your experience. They do not live with the consequences of your choices- you do! You deserve to create a life for yourself that matches YOUR wants and desires, not those of another person, regardless of how much you might love and admire that person. Does that mean you might make some mistakes along the way? Absolutely. But does that mean that, if you pay attention to yourself, you might stumble upon something that only you could have discovered about yourself and for yourself? Absolutely. Run your own life. Don’t give away your power to anyone else!

Lastly, consider that the “straight” path might not be the most fulfilling path. Sometimes, there simply isn’t one right answer. Most of us, without much work, can think of a time when we experienced an unexpected surprise; something we didn’t know was coming, maybe didn’t even want, but it ended up being exactly what we needed. I am a firm believe that even those things that seem like detours can have a powerful purpose in our lives. This is not the cookie cutter “everything has a reason” response. Sometimes, we have to work to find the purpose in detours and distractions. Every time you hit a wall, make a mistake, or feel frustrated, stop and ask yourself a simple question:

What is there for me to learn in this situation?

You might find that what best positions you for your end goal is the lessons you gleaned from the experiences you thought you weren’t supposed to have. You have an opportunity to make the most of the long road, and even celebrate it, rather than viewing it as a failure. A familiar scripture is a clear reminder remember that something can be gained form any situation:

“ And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose.”Romans 8:28

So, when you are tempted to think less of yourself because you didn’t have a direct route, consider what you learned along the way. Consider that most of us are figuring out this windy path together. Consider that no matter what you have experienced, you still have the opportunity to live the life God crafted just for you!

Thanks for reading, and make Well Choices!

An Educated “Yes”

Lots of us in the world have a problem with the word “yes.” We say it too much! Most of us like being helpful, but sometimes we find ourselves in a situation where we have offered more than we are reasonably able to give. Often, it comes from a good, but sometimes dysfunctional place. First, I want to explore some of the reasons we might have a “yes” problem, and then I’ll offer some simple strategies for pulling back.

Many of us say yes because we are afraid of what would happen if we said no. Maybe we would disappoint the person who asked, or they would be mad at us, or worse, they would end the relationship. Whether we are talking about friends, romantic relationships, family relationships, or even work colleagues, a lot of us have a hard time tolerating when people are unahppy with us. So, we try to avoid those moments where we might upset the people we care about. The desire to avoid rejection is a powerful motivator!

We also get “rewards” for saying yes. People pat us on the back and say we did a good job. They use nice words to describe us such as “dependable, hard worker” They might even tell us how much they appreciate all we do. The tricky part, however, is that people are creatures of habit. So the more you say yes, the more prone you are to say yes before thinking, and the more people assume that you will say yes. If this pattern continues, a dynamic can develop where they are always asking and you are always saying yes. When a relationship is one-sided, or you say yes in times when it costs you more than you are really willing to give, it becomes a problem.  When saying yes causes you to over-extend yourself or deny your own needs, it is probably coming from an unhealthy place. Over time, you might start to focus less on your own needs to begin with, and develop a self-sacrificing or “savior” complex in your relationships. You have the right to protect your time, your space, and your spirit. In healthy relationships, you don’t have to let those things go completely.

Not sure if you say yes too much? Ask yourself some questions:

Are there times when you want to say no, but anxiety and fear cause you to go back on that first hunch?

Are you concerned that if you stop meeting a person’s requests, they will reject you or spend less time with you?

Do you have relationships where people feel comfortable asking your for things, but when you ask for something people often say no?

Would you describe yourself as a “caretaker” who prides themselves on making the lives of others easier?

Do you put your own concerns or desires on the back burner to make sure you can follow through with requests made of you by others?

If you answered yes to any of these questions, you may want to consider working to make an “educated yes” rather than an “automatic yes.” Notice, that I’m not suggesting that you say “no”. There are times when that might be the best choice, but this isn’t just about saying no, because there are times when a “yes” is just right. However, this is about making active decisions rather than doing things out of habit. I am encouraging you to think carefully about when, how, and to whom you say yes. When someone makes a request of you, there are some things to consider:

  • do I want to do this/am I willing to do this?
  • how much time or energy will this cost me?
  • am I willing to expend the time and energy it will take?
  • can I do it in a time frame the works for me and the requestor?

If your answers to these questions lead you to “no,” Don’t be afraid to say it! It might feel weird. That’s OK. The requestor might be unhappy. That’s ok too! Just because someone is unhappy with a choice that you’ve made, doesn’t mean it’s the wrong choice! And if you have made a choice that is supportive of your own sanity, you will thank yourself later. If no feels like a little to much, try a delay tactic: “Let me check my schedule and I’ll get back to you.” This gives you time to really think about your answer before jumping in.

Hopefully, this helps you to give an educated yes, rather than one motivated by fear or habit. Healthy relationships allow people to set their own boundares without worry about the consequences.  Next time someone makes a request of you, think before you answer!

Thanks for reading, and make Well Choices!