June Converse

Thriving After Trauma - Author and Writing Coach

Some people, like my husband, live in a more rational world.  He rarely, if ever, feels an out-of-control emotion.  He gets angry, sad, scared – but he never feels out-of-control.  When an emotion hits me in that powerful way, he’ll often look at me as if I’m an alien.  My kids actually used to say that I literally turned blue when I was excessively angry.  A blue alien. 

Unfortunately, for me at least, I’ve never been able to put into word what’s happening inside me.  I either can’t find the words or can’t make the words make sense.  Or, and this is what happens most often, I feel like if I do explain I’ll sound crazy. 

I’ve been reading this great real-life story (a combination of fiction and non-fiction) by Anton Svensson.  In the book, he writes these words:

….[it] was like forcing out another person who’d moved inside him, who’d made himself at home, and who under no conditions wanted to move out again.

The Father by Anton Svensson

As soon as I read those words, I recognized myself when I’m filled with excess emotional energy.  It fills like someone (anger, sadness, fear) has become a completely separate being inside me.  I feel alien.  I act/react in alien ways.  I scare people.  I scare myself.

Controlling the Out-of-Control

I keep repeating that emotions are important because they are.  Out-of-control emotions, however, are counter-productive.  As a matter of fact, out-of-control emotions usually make the situation worse and the consequences more dire.  We must find strategies to calm ourselves. 

In DBT circles, this is called Distress Tolerance.  I think all therapeutic models have some mode of finding calm.  This site offers several suggestions:  http://www.dbtselfhelp.com/html/distress_tolerance1.html

I found what works for me:  I get in my car, drive around I285 (63 miles) while listening to a book that I already know.  I choose a book that I already know because I’ve already experienced the crisis and climax.  When I’m in distress, it doesn’t help me to add stress with a fictional crisis.  The book I choose also has a ‘happily ever after’ ending and I skip around the chapters to only listen to the ones I enjoy.  Interestingly, this is the only time I actually drive the speed limit.

Usually after this hour of driving, I’m still emotional but I’m no longer a blue alien. 

I know this is a disassociation technique.  I know some therapists would not condone my approach.  Some therapists would tell me to “sit with it” or “hold it”.  I agree with that most of the time but sometimes it’s just too hot to hold.  When the emotion is that hot, it can burn down the house.

My husband used to hate it when I took this little trip.  He worried.  He also likes to resolve conflict as it occurs.  He still doesn’t “get it” because he doesn’t experience extreme emotions.  On the other hand, he has also learned that 1) I’m probably safer taking this time to chill; 2) Our relationship is likely safer because the danger of saying things or making decisions we regret later is reduced; 3) When I return, I’m able to handle my emotions and use the information they provide wisely.  He has also learned through experience and time that I return home OK – almost always better off and safe every time.

Sometimes I don’t need something as extreme as a tour of Atlanta.  I have a list of other strategies to use:  read, bath & book, walk/exercise.

What Works/What Doesn’t?

It’s important to have strategies in place BEFORE you get out-of-control.  Once that emotion dragon takes over, it’s hard to even think.  So, today, tomorrow, find a few strategies to try when you are feeling like your normal self.  Which activities calm you?  Which make you more anxious? 

For some of you, doing a meditation or a mindfulness activity helps.  For me, meditation/mindfulness makes me jittery.  It’s important to know what works and what doesn’t. 

What works for me is a solo-activity.  Maybe journaling or coloring or doing your favorite hobby would work.  Maybe cooking or savoring a bowl of chocolate ice cream.  Maybe doing one of the DBT worksheets (or any of the therapeutic worksheets) is the key.  How about a puzzle or Sudoku or Angry Birds? 

Look at the website list above or search “worksheets for calming” – even some of the worksheets for kids will help. 

Don’t be dogmatic:  what works for YOU may not be what works for your friend.

Create A Toolbox

Create a toolbox of strategies.  In the second drawer of my office I keep colored pencils, sketch paper, some of my favorite DBT worksheets, a coloring book, a book of word finds.  I also have a file folder on my computer of puzzles and other therapeutic things.

Just yesterday, I was wrestling with a problem and I felt myself beginning to get anxious.  I heard my negative voice start condemning me.  I went to my drawer, tried to draw a flower.  It sucked!  I have no drawing talent.  I actually ended up getting tickled with how bad it was.  I only took 10 minutes to calm myself.  When I came back to the project, I was able to refocus and get my problem solved. 

If I Just Have To Be Negative

If I just have to let that emotion run its course – if none of my strategies work, I do the Catastrophe Exercise – either written or just in my mind.

I learned about this via a TedTalk.  (I can’t find it again to give you the source.  Sorry.)

Catastrophizing Recipe

  1. Name the problem.  An example:  my company has announced lay-offs and I might lose my job.
  2. Ask yourself, “If I lose my job, what will happen?”
  3. You’ll likely have a series of answers – all worse than the last.  That’s the idea.  Find the ABSOLUTE WORSE SCENARIO.  The example:  If I lose my job, I will not be able to pay my mortgage and will have to foreclose.
  4. Imagine that scenario in detail.  Then ask yourself … “I would?”  Example:  If I lose my house, I would ….
  5. Make the plan.  Plan exactly what you would do if you lost your house.  Solve that problem.  Example:  I have parents, siblings, friends who have available space.  I could work at McDonald’s and make enough for an apartment.  Note:  these answers are not ideal – no one wants to go back to Mama – but they are do-able.
  6. Once you realize you can handle the worst case, you can handle anything else.  And, seriously, what are the odds of the worst-case scenario actually happening?
  7. One last idea:  once you’ve calmed some, go back to these scenarios.  Can you identify a change you need to make to create a safer environment?  In the example, I might have realized I need to focus more on building my emergency savings or I need to update my resume.  Be proactive. 

By the way, watching YouTube or TedTalk videos is a great way to take a few minutes to chillax.  The TedTalks are all less than 20 minutes and they have some compelling talks.  And, we all know that cat videos are relaxing – laughter always is!

In the spirit of catastrophe, cats and humor:  https://www.youtube.com/user/CatCatastrophes

In my group therapy session a few weeks ago, we talked about decision-making.  The leader asked this question:  Do your day-to-day decisions align with your values?

That sounds like such an easy question, doesn’t it?  But what about the follow-up question:  What are your values?  The question is NOT what are you goals.  Goals and values are quite different.  I think of values as the umbrella under which our goals rest.  Here is the best definition I found:

“Values signify what is important and worthwhile.  They serve as the basis for moral codes and ethical reflection.  Individuals have their own values based on many aspects including family, religion, peers, culture, race, social background, gender, etc. “  

(http://www.mtsu.edu/~u101irm/valuedef.html)

Can you define your values?  I’ll admit that I couldn’t.  I couldn’t even define values exactly.  Yet, I felt it was very important to know my values, understand my values, USE MY VALUES TO MAKE DECISIONS.

Choosing YOUR Values:  An Activity

core values

​​Before you begin the activity, please take a few minutes to list your values as you know them right now.  If you can’t come up with those over-arching umbrellas, take a few minutes to write down your goals.  Your goals may help you to define your values.

Now, print out these cards:  http://www.motivationalinterviewing.org/sites/default/files/valuescardsort_0.pdf

(Note:  if you are in a committed relationship, print two sets and I’ll explain why later).

Cut the cards apart and begin to sort based on “Very Important”, “Important”, “Not Important”.

You’ll note that several of the cards “feel” similar – for example, Fitness and Health – the descriptions will help you see the subtle differences.

Put the “Not Important” cards away (don’t throw them away).

Narrow your “Very Important” down to your top 10.  This will take some deep thinking and honest assessment.  For example, there is a difference between romance and sexuality.  Keep whittling. 

Once you have ten, can you put them in a hierarchy?  In other words, if you have chosen “honesty” and “stability” which is more important?  Say, for instance, would you sacrifice honesty to keep stability? 

A Snag

When our group did this activity, we quickly hit a snag.  I was doing the activity based on who I am now.  Another group member was doing it based on who she wishes to be. 

I wonder, which did you do:  the current you or the hoped-for you?  If you aren’t sure, look at how you live your life. 

After I finished my list of ten “as I am” values, I wrote them down and then did the activity again to determine my “hoped-for” values.  There were some differences.  Those differences are quite important.  If I want to make my Next Best Decision then I need to be working towards what I hope to be, right?

Soul Searching 

The activity is useless unless we use it to make that Next Best Decision.  So, start to ask yourself some questions:

  1. Does your life match your values?  Be specific.  Where does it?  Where does it not?
  2. In the areas where your life doesn’t match your values, can you change that?  If so, how?  If not, why not?  If you do change, what domino effects may ensue? 
  3. If you don’t have a list of goals, make one – these will help you understand your values and understanding your values may help you update your goals.  For example, one my goals is to complete a hike from Vienna to Prague.  That is obviously a value of both adventure and health/fitness.
  4. Look at how you spent your time over the last week.  Based on your activities, are you prioritizing your values?  Or, are you spending a lot of time in the “Not Important” stack.  Create a little pie chart of “time spent” and see what it looks like.
  5. Why do you have that value?  Is it really yours?  Or is it something you were taught or society expects?
  6. Where does that value stem from?  For example, I chose “stability” because I haven’t had a lot of that.
  7. Look at those that didn’t make the cut – why didn’t they?  Do you judge yourself for that?  For example, “service” didn’t make my list.  That’s because I taught for a long time and I feel like I’ve satisfied that need.  (I’ve been there, done that.)  Yet, I still feel guilty that service is not a value – it just feels like it “should” be one of my core values.
  8. Do the people in your life support your quest to live your values?

I can go on and on with ideas, but if you take the time to claim your values, then you have plenty to keep you busy.

Making Adjustments

You will likely find some areas that need adjusting.  Maybe that will be easy.  Maybe it will be impossible.  But just simply by knowing your values, you can make wiser decisions.  Even the decision for what to have for breakfast can impact your values.  Every single day you make thousands of decisions – use your top ten to guide you.

Also, use your top ten to set boundaries and feel comfortable saying “no”.  For example, in my “Not Important” stack I have “Ecology”.  Recently I was asked to join an Appalachian Trail clean-up crew.  My “should” brain thought I needed to do that (after all, who doesn’t think taking care of the land is important and I am a hiker).  My “values” brain reminded me that “genuiness” is one of my top ten and one thing I needed to accept about myself is that I don’t want to clean the AT.

That example sounds minor, I know.  And I also know that sometimes I will make decisions that don’t support my top 10.  That’s okay.

No matter what you decide to do – if you embrace your values you can consciously decide that this time in any circumstance.

If you don’t know your values your decisions will be like a pinball – bouncing all over the place, racking up points in some column.  It’s up to you to choose the which column to put your points in.

Values in Relationships

I had my husband determine his top 10 values.  He did this without my input.  Then we compared.  EYE OPENING.  He had “financial security” as one of his values.  I did not.  When we had a discussion, I realized I didn’t have this on my list because I simply depended on him to have it on his.  He didn’t have “adventure” on his because he knew I would take care of that.  We also had one or two areas that were not conflicting exactly but showed us why we keep having conflict over certain issues. 

I’ll be transparent on that last comment.  He had “relationship with siblings” and I did not.  It’s not that I don’t care about my siblings but we aren’t close and never have been.  Realizing this was a top 10 value for Dave allowed me to bend more to vacationing with his family.  I always wanted to do something else – an adventure.  Now I see where we have to satisfy both sets of values – and that can be done only IF we know them and discuss them.

If you are just beginning or searching for a relationship, keep your values in mind.  It’s not necessary that couples have the exact same values but it is important that you, at least, don’t have counter-values.  For example, if “religion” is in your top ten and it was in the “not important” stack of your potential partner, you have some work to do. 

A Few Last Ideas

  • Use the values cards to look at yourself five, ten, twenty years ago.  It’s quite interesting to see how they change. 
  • Have your children do them – with or without you – this can help immensely with long-term decision-making.
  • Post your top ten on your refrigerator.  If you’re artsy, make a “vision” board with them.

The Source and My Disclaimer

There are a myriad of sources to help you define, clarify, understand your values.  Just do a google search for “values worksheets” or “values cards” …

I liked the set I provided simply because there were so many and the differences were subtle – which forced deeper thinking and deeper conversation.

Here are my Top 10 – no judgments, please!  These are NOT listed in a hierarchical order.

  1. Self-Knowledge
  2. Tolerance
  3. Self-Control
  4. Adventure
  5. Realism
  6. Health
  7. Knowledge
  8. Growth
  9. Creativity
  10. Genuineness

Want to hear something funny – I did this 3 weeks ago and my top 10 was just a bit different than it is today.

If you’d like to discuss why I chose some and left out others, feel free to contact me.  If you’d like to discuss yours, also feel free to email me.

I knew red roses meant love, white roses meant purity, etc. I didn’t realize
that almost every flower and herb has a meaning. Did you know, for example, that oregano represents joy? We’re going to use our brains and a touch of creativity to design a bouquet. As much as I’d love to be able to buy one, I doubt that would be affordable or even possible due to seasonal differences. Instead, we are going to use the internet and our printers.

Ingredients:

  • Internet access
  • color printer
  • copy paper
  • posterboard (whatever size you desire)
  • pen/pencil
  • glue

Instructions:

  1. Decide who you are creating this for (I made one for me and one for my best friend). Note: just because you make it, you are under no obligation to share it – this is a strategy for you – you decide how vulnerable you want to be
  2. Find a website that tells you the meaning of various flowers (http://www.almanac.com/content/flower-meanings-language-flowers)
  3. Choose flowers that say what you need to hear for yourself or what you need to say to someone else (the one for me focuses on various plants that relate to courage)
  4. Find and print pictures of these plants on the internet
  5. Arrange these pictures in a way that pleases you
  6. Glue the pictures down
  7. Either on the back of your poster or around the flowers, indicate the plant, the Latin name and it’s message
  8. If you want to be even more creative, give this bouquet a title, a border or other enhancements – let your creative side go a little wild
  9. If you want to spend the money or play in the real dirt, work with a florist or garden center to create a small garden that “speaks” to you

Assessment:

  • Did this project allow your mind and body to relax?
  • Did you find this project fun? Overwhelming? Frustrating? Stupid?
  • Did you find yourself being super critical?
  • If you enjoyed it, can you drill down and determine what aspects you specifically enjoyed? If you hated it or resisted doing it, can you identify what aspects made this idea abhorrent? Knowing the details of what works and doesn’t work for you will help you choose and design recipes for your own mental health.
  • Can you see ways to use/adapt this project to help you next time you need a mind break? Can you see how this project might help you communicate? For example, I’m not good with “touchy-feely” words so I made my best friend one that tells her what I feel about her. We never discussed it – I just gave it to her. That was a comfortable way for me to communicate.
  • Did you learn something (even one thing) about yourself? About flowers? About creativity?

Share:

Please share your bouquet with all of us fellow sufferers at JuneConverse.com.

1 in 10 people suffer from CLINICAL depression.

1 in 5 people are depressed some of the time.

1 in 4 has or had an addiction.

30% of the adult population has a recognized PSYCHOLOGICAL DISORDER.

50% of people SERIOUSLY CONTEMPLATE SUICIDE and ....

1 in 10 will ATTEMPT SUICIDE

This topic CANNOT stay in the shadows.  I will expose my pain, my struggles, my "crazy" until people feel as comfortable saying they have mental health issues as they do admitting they have the flu!

Here a few things I ran across yesterday that are WORTH your time -- after all, either you fit in the above statistics or someone you know and care for does!  It's time we get our heads out of the sand!

https://www.ted.com/talks/sangu_delle_there_s_no_shame_in_taking_care_of_your_mental_health

https://www.ted.com/talks/sue_klebold_my_son_was_a_columbine_shooter_this_is_my_story

http://www.anxymag.com

“Then I grew up and realized that most of us are more than one person. As we figure out how we fit in socially and learn how to tailor our behavior to various situations, we end up with several—often wildly dissimilar—versions of ourselves.”

Martha Beck

Read more: http://www.oprah.com/omagazine/martha-beck-be-your-own-best-friend#ixzz4ehat28FQ

How Many Personalities Live Inside Me?

​​ How many personalities do I have?  I began picturing what my different reflections look like – figuratively and literally.  When I’m feeling well-rested and competent, I walk differently, I talk differently, I want to leave my house, I want to interact.  I put on make-up and get dressed beyond yoga pants. 
When I’m feeling tired or sad, I’m unproductive and spend time distracting myself (reading or watching TV).  When I’m afraid, I stay hidden by staying home or by not interacting.  When I’m lonely, I eat.  When I’m angry, I become manic with something (ferociously clean the house, for example).  These are all different personalities. 

If I had a mirror, I’m sure my reflection would be totally different.  My husband, as a matter of fact, says he can tell how I’m doing with just one look. 

While I’m sure this list isn’t comprehensive, here are the personalities I can readily identify:

  • Miss Patient/Understanding
  • Miss Congeniality
  • Miss Bitch
  • Miss Selfish/Uncaring
  • Miss Empathetic/Listener
  • Miss It Must Be My Way
  • Miss Accommodating
  • Miss Angry
  • Miss Sad/Depressed/Despairing
  • Miss Confident/Competent
  • Miss Afraid
  • Miss Unconfident/Incompetent
  • Miss Creative
  • Miss Avoider/Hider/Distracter
  • Miss Don’t Tell Me I Can’t (because now I will!)
  • Miss Lazy
  • Miss Super-productive
  • Miss Self-Control
  • Miss Impulsive
  • Miss Happy
  • Miss Whoa-Is-Me

Funny, in a writing class I took just this morning we were told that in the best books, the protagonist and antagonist have opposing character flaws.  I don’t need two characters for that – I AM that. 

These personalities feel so distinct – like separate entities.  Do you remember the visual of the devil on one shoulder and the angel on the other?  That’s exactly how it feels.

Am I Crazy?

These opposing forces often make me feel crazy.  Do you ever feel that way?  I actually asked my therapist recently if I had multi-personality disorder.  Thankfully, she laughed. 

Do you ever feel like you’re the only one?  In a class last night, we talked about the Inner Critic versus Inner Wisdom.  As the conversation deepened, I realized everyone in the group has multi-personality disorder!  Yea! 

Wouldn’t it be great if we could just say which personality is running the show.  Maybe I’ve had a bad day and Miss Annoyed is running the show.  When my husband comes home, I could say, “Hi Honey.  I’ve had a crappy day and Miss Annoyed is my dominant personality right now.  Give her some room.”  Instead I just act all annoyed and pissy and my poor husband has to walk on eggshells.

Which Me Is Me?

Notice I didn’t ask which personalities I wanted to be.  I asked which personalities are the authentic me?  The answer is simple:  ALL OF THEM. 

So, I got to thinking.  If I’m going to have these personalities, how can I use them to get the life I desire?  In order to answer that, I had to answer a bigger question:  WHAT LIFE DO I DESIRE?

I ruminated on that for a long time.  I’d love to have a self-controlled life, for example.  I’d love to have a life where I’m always patient, kind, productive, joyful …. I started making this list and immediately my “Get Real” personality spoke up.  There is no such thing as a life of perfect patience, kindness, etc. 

If that’s true, then what REALISTIC LIFE DO I DESIRE? 

Honoring All Of Me

I’ve decided I want a life where I honor all my personalities.  Why can’t I like Miss Bitch as much as I like Miss Kind?  We are given these personalities for a reason – each voice has a purpose.  If I try to squash one, it will simply become louder. 

I’ve come up with a plan.  I’m going to give each personality a face – maybe choose an emojii.  When one of my faces appears, I’m going to talk to her as if she were tangible.  Each personality is real so I might as well treat them as such.  Here is a sample conversation:

Miss Impulsive.  Although my impulsive behaviors do not always involve spending money, I still thought this was apt.  My impulsivity almost always involves greed (eat it, buy it, etc.).

Miss Impulsive:  Buy that book.  RIGHT NOW!

Me:  Why do we need that book?

Miss Impulsive:  Who said anything about need.  We WANT it.  But, if you want some excuse I can give you one:  you’re trying to be a writer and in order to be a writer, you have to be a reader.

Me:  But you do know I have at least 15 books on my shelf that I’ve yet to read.

Miss Impulsive:  So, what’s one more.  And this one looks so good AND Sandy recommended it.

Me:  Why don’t I just wait until I need a new book.

Miss Impulsive:  You’ll forget about this one.

Me:  How about putting it in the “I Want” list so it’s always there.  Or, I could download the first chapter on Kindle?

Miss Impulsive:  I WANT IT.  I want to touch it, feel it, smell it.

Me:  What about the money?  Is that how we should spend $15?

Miss Impulsive:  It’s $15 not $1500.  And, anyway, Dave eats out every day for lunch.

Me:  Okay, I’m going to put this book in the wish list.  In 24-hours bring it back up.  If we still want it, we’ll discuss it some more. 

Miss Impulsive:  (she made no comment, she just huffed and threw her hands in the air).

Me:  And, let’s either ask to join Dave for lunch today or find something else we’d like (maybe a fountain vanilla coke?).

I didn’t buy the book.  I did put it in my wish list.  Maybe tomorrow I’ll have the same conversation and buy the book.

Rather than ignore my impulsive personality or just do what she says, I gave her an opportunity to speak.  I negotiateD.  I could see what she really needed – it’s not a new book.  She needed something deeper. 

It Goes Deeper

If you look at my conversation with Miss Impulsive, several deeper issues appear.  Greed?  Jealousy?  Maybe even avoidance since I was doing this debate rather than accomplishing my goals for the day.  As I sat for a few minutes and looked at her (seriously, I pictured her little face), I realized we were lonely.  We’d been in the house alone for the third day.  We’d been working hard and our progress had been much slower than desired.  We needed to get out.  We needed a treat, a reward and a new plan. 

In a few minutes, I’m taking Miss Impulsive to the local coffee shop.  We’re going to sit on the deck, drink a high-fat, frothy concoction.  We are going to reframe what we’ve accomplished and make a more realistic set of goals.  If that doesn’t satisfy, tomorrow, I’ll discuss buying the book. 

A Little Bit Later

Time has passed and I never made it to the coffee shop … but, guess what, I no longer needed it.  Just listening to myself seems to have satisfied that inner impulsivity.  I’m reminded of when my daughter wants to talk – sometimes she wants advice and action, sometimes she just wants to vent.  Today venting seemed to be enough.

What happens if you let a pot of rice boil too fast? What happens if a sweet potato drips onto your oven rack? What if the oil in the pan gets too hot? Over-boiling rice makes a mess of the stove and the pot. It becomes a ruined meal. Dripping sweet potato smells great at first but slowly turns acrid, permeating the entire house. Baked-on sweet potato also takes elbow grease to clean. Hot oil causes smoke, then fire alarms followed by fire engines.

What does the kitchen have to do with emotional safety? Think about it – remember the last time you were angry – seriously angry. Did you feel hot? Did you boil over? Did you leave a mess in your wake? Are you still trying to un-think, un-say, un-do the damage? What messes have you made because of a too-hot emotion? What decisions do you wish you could re-do because you let your emotions rule your house?

Like food, emotions are important – critical to our survival. And, like food, we have to live in balance. Just like we have to balance the level of boil in our rice, we must balance the boil in our emotions. Like your kitchen, emotions are only one room in your house and it does not control everything else. Our emotions must be balanced with our mind, body and soul. How?

Why are cookbooks so popular? Why is Pinterest littered with recipes? It’s simple really – we all want guidance to make something better, something delicious or healthy or easy. Sometimes we want a recipe that challenges us. Sometimes we just want something different. Recipes guide us to pleasurable, balanced meals. What if there were recipes to keep your emotional world from boiling over and creating a mess? What if someone took all that expert sage advice and distilled it down to a set of actionable recipes?

What is your number one goal in this exact moment? Don’t make that harder than it is … your number one goal is always TO MAKE THE NEXT BEST DECISION. The decision you made two minutes ago is over and done. What about the next minute? If you are operating with boiling emotions, you can’t make the next best decision. You have to first lower the temperature, control the boil.

What To Do When Emotions Boil?

Have you ever been angry? Have you ever been so angry would wanted to break something? Have you ever been so angry you wanted to break someone? What do you do?

Have you ever been afraid? Maybe the fear was legitimate, maybe it wasn’t. What do you do?

Have you ever been sad? Depressed? Lonely? Bored? What do you do?

Have you lost someone or something important to you? Been betrayed, abandoned, disappointed? What do you do?

Do you have one of the labels professionals have to use in order to collect payment: manic-depressive, bi-polar, depression, severe depressive disorder, eating disordered, anxiety/panic, etc.? What do you do?

Do you feel mad one minute, guilty the next, followed up by sadness and a return to anger? What do you do?

Just as death and taxes are part of the human condition, so is emotional suffering (aka the emotional boil).

  • Most people – most of the time – can move through their emotional suffering.
  • Most people – some of the time – allow their emotional suffering to overwhelm them and therefore create more suffering.
  • A few people – all of the time – let their emotions go wild and create chaos everywhere they go.

What do you do? How do you turn down the heat?

Emotional Suffering Versus Emotional Safety

Our emotions are important – they have a role in our physical, mental, emotional and even spiritual lives. Without emotion, we are robots. Our fear response tells us to run or fight when danger approaches. Our sadness allows us to process loss. Our anger allows us to defend ourselves. Our emotions keep us safe! If, however, our emotions become master instead of helper, we leave safety and enter the realm of suffering.

We should never try to squelch our emotions or control our emotions or judge our emotions. Our emotions just are. Sometimes I think of my emotions as small children who want to be heard. If you don’t pay attention to your emotions, they will throw a temper tantrum. But if we cater to our emotions too much, they become uncontrollable brats.

To continue the cooking metaphor – we must keep an eye on the pot so the food doesn’t burn, make a mess or catch the house on fire. Perfectly cooked pudding is delightful.Overcooked pudding is ugly, bitter, clumpy and too often the pot has to be trashed. When we let an emotion get too hot, we often create a similar disaster.

Can we control how hot our emotions get? Maybe. Maybe not. What we can do is recognize the water is boiling and take action to turn it down before it leaks over the pot, across the stove and onto the floor. We can slow the boil before the pot is destroyed. But how?

recipe card with a spoon

​​ Learning how to give your emotions the proper attention takes practice and technique and strategy. It means knowing What To Do. It goes beyond theory and into practice. Just like I can watch the Food Channel all day long, I can read every self-help book on the market. But if I don’t actually take the advice into the kitchen, I never create; I never improve; I never become a better cook. I never make the next best decision. I never gain confidence in my skills. So how do you move from theory to practice?

Use a recipe: gather the supplies, follow the instructions.

And, just as you would a food recipe, analyze the results. Did it need more of something? Less of something? Did it simply not meet your needs? Was it perfect? Do you want to ‘cook’ it again?

Why I’m Qualified To Write Recipes

If you noticed, I don’t have any letters behind my name.  The only “mental health” education I claim is the adolescent development classes I was required to take during college.  Why listen to anything I have to say?

Because I am a fellow sufferer!  Five years ago, I crashed and burned.  But the suffering started long before that.  If I had figured out what to do earlier in my life, I might have saved myself – and those people that I love – ongoing pain. I would have understood the concept of “what’s your next best decision”.

When it finally all came crashing down, I took getting healthy seriously (mind, body, soul).  I’ve spent – and continue to spend - countless hours in individual therapy, group therapy, classes, reading, writing, creating.  As we go along, I will share my story and my ongoing struggles – I will show you my vulnerabilities so that you can be confident I know how you feel.  I get it.  I live in a pot ready to boil.

In the last five years, I’ve finally figured out some things and I have created a new life – a balanced life.  A life where my emotions do what they are supposed to do – warn me, protect me, guide me.  A life where my emotions do not take me by the neck and wring me around.  A life where my emotions do not cause me to treat people I love like bowling pins.  What did I do?

I became a cook in my own emotional kitchen.  DBT, CBT, ACT, etc. etc. etc.  Every expert, every model, every program has its nuggets of wisdom.  Even fictional material has nuggets that allow me to think deeper, find wisdom, move toward balance.  I use them all.

I listened to all the advice; I learned everything I could.  I gobbled up ideas, suggestions.  I took these ideas and adapted them to tangible activities.  Then, just as any good cook, I …

  • Added my own spice;
  • Tried the recipe more than once (adapting/adding/enhancing with each iteration);
  • Marked my favorites;
  • Evaluated the recipe for nutritional benefits (or, in this case, emotional benefit);
  • Created a cookbook from the best of the best

I learned how to handle a hot potato without burning myself.  I learned to put the hot potato down, let it cool, then enjoy it.  This is what I’m sharing with you.  I’m giving you my cookbook.  I’m also hoping to add your recipes to mine.

No, I don’t have all the answers.  No, I don’t have it all together, all the time.  No, all of these recipes will not work for you.  I’m not trying to be a your last stop.  I’m simply trying to give TANGIBLE ways to jump into that overwhelming emotion, tame it, then let it be useful to you.  I continue to listen, learn, read, watch … I add to my collection of recipes every day. 

I will make my NEXT BEST DECISION.  My emotions will help me instead of filling the house with smoke.

What’s Is An Emotional Safety Recipe – Exactly

I have tried so many things – every book I read (even novels) give me an idea.  I’ve been collecting these ideas and manipulating them to my advantage.  I’ve been turning the wonderful “gooey” advice from self-help books, therapy sessions, etc. into tangible activities.  I’ve asked my therapist a thousand times, “What do I do?” – she never tells me.  She has me dig around – that’s her job.  But, when the chips are down, I just need to know WHAT TO DO in that exact moment.  These recipes are my answer.

For example, we all know going for a walk is supposed to help calm us … but if I just go for a walk, I’ve discovered my too hot emotion just goes with me, talks to me, justifies itself, heats up.  But, if I enhance that walk by adding another ingredient, I diffuse the heat and can analyze what the emotion is actually trying tell me and then use that information to make my next best decision. 

I mix and match all the different techniques into something that works rather than something that simply sounds pretty and scientific. 

How & When To Use A Recipe

Reactively

When that emotion grabs you, grab a recipe – follow it.  Your volcano will cool.  Even if all you do is take a second to pull out a recipe, you’ll force some control back into the house.

Proactively

You know it’s going to happen – your spouse is going to make you mad; someone is going to hurt your feelings; you are going to lose something valuable in your life. 

Play with these recipes before you need them.  Mark those that really made an impact.  Just as you probably know how to make your favorite food without a recipe, you’ll be able to pull up some emotional control more quickly.

With Others

Just as these recipes diffuse your emotions, these ideas can also lower the temperature in relationships.  Invite participation.  On each recipe, I’ll give you suggestions on how to do this. 

Many of these recipes are simply fun or they are a unique way to communicate.  I’ve used them with my husband, my children, my friends.   I’ve used them simply to encourage myself to keep moving forward. 

These are for you to use in YOUR emotional kitchen.  Only you live there and only you can decide what works and what doesn’t.  I’ve taken the guesswork out – I’ve read the books, listened to the experts, allowed my pot to boil-over.  I’ve made the next worst decision.  I’ve done (and continue to do) the work required to make perfect rice.  Don’t just read – get out your pots and pans.  Learn to use your emotional kitchen.  Choose one recipe and follow the steps.

The Next Best Decision Awaits

Always keep the goal in mind … the NEXT BEST DECISION.  Decide to put some new tools in your kitchen!

I will be posting recipes with many of my posts -- give 'em a try.

I won't often just put a video out here without a blog to match.  But this video really resonated today.  

Choices that can Change your Life | Caroline Myss | TEDxFindhornSalon

I’m not ashamed to be depressed, manic or a binge eater.  I’m not even embarrassed to be called “mentally ill.”  But, I don’t think that label explains or helps or opens communication.

What Does Mentally Ill Even Mean?

I’ve been struggling for a long time with labels.  Are they helpful or harmful?  Accurate or just wild guesses?  Move us forward or hold us back?  Open dialogue or close it?

Prince Harry came out last and announced his struggles with depression and anger management after his mother’s death.  He spoke about seeking therapeutic help and how he hopes his honesty about his struggle will help change the stigma of mental illness.  Prince William did the same thing a few months ago.  Other famous people have said the same. This is excellent.   What I want, however, is a better definition or label.

I’ve been given several labels in my life:  bi-polar, manic-depressive, severely depressed, eating disordered, cyclomania.  In the past, I really wanted a label.  I thought if I could just “name” it, then I could conquer it.  The labels didn’t help me conquer – they became my excuse.  “I’m sorry, honey, I spent $500 on books.  I’m manic today.”  All of these labels (and many others) can be clumped under the umbrella called “mental illness.” 

Before you get angry, I’m NOT saying these labels aren’t legitimate.  I’m NOT saying you use your suffering as an excuse for behavior.  I AM saying that I do.  “I didn’t cook dinner today because I’m feeling depressed.” 

I just feel like the labels sometimes become self-perpetuating.  So, rather than say I’m depressed, I might say, “I’m having a lot of sadness today.  What is causing that?”  I still might not cook dinner but I have something more tangible to work with.

“Mental illness” and all the other sub-categories have such connotations attached.  If I tell someone I’m a binge eater, they picture me eating an entire 12x8 pan of brownies.  Or I say I suffer from manic-depression, they start wondering how much debt I have. Can you see why I may not be open about my struggles?  Can you see why the stigma of “mental illness” might frighten me to silence?

I do have some “issues”.  I get deeply sad and have to struggle to dig out (label:  depression).  When I get overwhelmed, I have a tendency to either be hyper-productive or spend money (label:  mania).  When I feel unable to express myself or I feel like my emotions are too ‘hot’, I eat (label:  eating disordered).  None of these labels embarrass me.  I’m not ashamed to be depressed, manic or a binge eater.  I’m not even embarrassed to be called “mentally ill.”  But, I don’t think those labels explain or help or open communication channels.  Sometimes instead of being helpful, these labels are shaming.

I just want people to understand what’s really happening. 

The emotion is real.  It’s gripping his whole body, ready to lift him off the chair by the scruff of the neck and slam him against the wall.”

The Trespasser by Tana French

​​That’s what happens … to me, at least.  The emotion is a normal reaction to a situation.  But for me, sometimes, the emotion grips and chokes me.I’ve decided to use a new term to describe myself.  I have EXCESS EMOTIONAL ENERGY (EEE).   My emotions are neither good nor bad.  Emotions just are.  Sometimes, for me, that emotional energy is too strong (an emotional explosion).  Here is how I would describe EEE:

  • An emotion is triggered that seems to extreme for the situation – an emotional explosion.
  • The emotion lasts longer than seems necessary.
  • The emotion may cause acting out (overeating, crying, spending, sleeping, etc.)
  • The body’s response to the emotion is more noticeable.
  • Oftentimes, a strategy is needed to settle the emotion.
  • A negative emotion can easily spiral into a darker place that may not have anything at all to do with the situation. 
  • Oftentimes, this excess emotion creates chaos and impacts those we care about.
  • During an emotional explosion, it’s very hard to explain what’s happening because the mind goes so fast or it slows down to nothing.  It’s more an experience than words can describe.  This creates a feeling of isolation and even distrust.

Why I Like This Label

I don’t mind being called “mentally ill”.  I’m not embarrassed.  I’ll talk to anyone with vulnerability and authenticity.  My problem is that I don’t think “mentally ill” or “eating disordered” tells me or anyone else anything useful. 

I like EEE better because it allows me to see my emotions differently.  It also allows those that I love to understand a bit better.  It allows me to hold my emotions – it actually forces me to look closer.  It allows me to talk about what’s happening in a way that anyone can grasp.

I’d like to give you a simple example that happened just before I wrote this entry.

An Emotional Explosion

I was trying to read an article on FoxNews when a video advertisement popped up.  You know the kind that you have to listen to for several seconds before you can ‘skip ad’.  Yesterday that would have annoyed me.  Today, I wanted to throw my computer across the room.  I had excess emotional energy or an emotional explosion.  I could label that an ‘anger management issue’ but how does that help?

Instead, I’m taking the time to try to figure out what’s going on with me that would cause an anger outburst.  I’ve spent a few minutes thinking and paying attention to my thoughts & body.  What my real problem is that yesterday I got my feelings hurt and I just ignored it.  I didn’t want to deal with it.  

Will that realization keep me from having another anger outburst?  Maybe, maybe not.  That’s not even the point.  The point is to be more in touch with what’s going on with me and create a safe place for myself.  I can hold the hurt in my hands (I picture an orb but I’ll explain that in another post). 

Emotions are a bit like two-year-olds –- they want some attention.  I’ve given the hurt some attention (not much, only 2-3 minutes) and now I can negotiate a way to address the emotion.  And, even better, since I’ve identified the hurt, it’s relaxed because it knows I’ll find a way to comfort myself soon.

In the coming weeks, I’ll give more complex examples.  Today, I just wanted to explain what EEE is … why I think it’s useful … and how I use it in my real life.

Stigma Meets Dialogue

I’m thrilled people are working to reduce the stigma associated with mental illness.  That’s critical.  I hope this blog will open up dialogue about the different ways to look at and understand mental illness.  We aren’t ever going to get away from labels.  Labels have their place.  I just want the labels to tell us something useful!

I must admit that I don’t feel like I’ve described my thoughts on this very well.  If you are feeling hurt or angry by anything I’ve said, then I said it wrong.  The entire point of this blog is to make everyone feel safe with whatever emotions they are having.  Use a label.  Don’t use a label.  It’s all okay. 

I’m feeling frustrated and a bit incompetent.  Those are emotions and they just are.  

June Converse with purple hair
In April 2012 I had a mental breakdown. The real thing. I have about 36 hours that I don’t remember....
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