HSP: The personality trait mental health is ignoring

Therapists and most other mental health professionals have an ethical responsibility to stay informed about the latest research in our fields. For this reason, I’m often shocked about the total lack of education among colleagues and in the field generally about sensory processing sensitivity or highly sensitive personality trait – what we’ve started to call HSP.

Over the course of the next few weeks, I’ll be blogging about HSP, and working to update my website to reflect my work in this area.

HSP is a trait. It’s not a diagnosis. It’s a difference in brains that is found across more than 100 species. It’s an adaptive trait, meaning, this trait has made it possible for the species where its been found to survive and thrive on the planet, making it incredibly valuable. Yet, because 80% of the population lives without this trait, the view toward it is often pathological.

The 20% of people with it are often ostracized with labels like “shy,” or “anxious,” or even “borderline,” or “bipolar”. In some cases that label expands toward “autistic.” It’s true that having high sensitivity trait may mean that a person is more likely to experience more stimulation in an environment because they are more likely to pick up on subtle cues and contexts and then to process those deeply – and this can create intense emotions (like those we see in borderline personality disorder or bipolar disorder), and it can create anxiety (like what we see in social anxiety or generalized anxiety disorder), it can even cause someone to blank out and shut down or require loads of quiet time to process what 80% of people don’t think twice about (like the ‘shy’ and ‘autistic’ labels we see).

It’s also true that having HSP trait doesn’t mean that you can’t also experience any number of diagnoses. People with HSP trait can absolutely experience genuine mental health concerns and diagnoses and may even be more likely to experience them because of how deeply they process, how many subtleties in an environment they pick up on, and how emotionally empathetic they are.

A Confession

When I first heard the term “highly sensitive person” my mind immediately whipped out the DSM, flipped through to a handful of diagnoses wherein boundaries are an issue, wherein processing is a biological and environmental issue, and a host of trauma classifications. I read through some information on it and thought: This isn’t a thing; this is poor boundaries; this is poor emotional regulation; this is pathological.

That was me skimming the surface. That was also me wanting to take control over some things within myself. As a therapist and a science-minded person to begin with, I really don’t like things I can’t easily categorize, put into a color-coded filing system, and then draw up a treatment plan for. I don’t like not being able to step into a problem with a game plan. If someone is just born with this trait that means they pick up on more, which they then process more deeply, which then results in deeper felt emotions and more intense emotional displays – well, my tool kit wasn’t on point for that. Not yet.

It also meant that my own personal struggle with boundaries, with my relationships, with being able to engage with the world around me weren’t things that I could smack some CBT techniques on (cognitive behavior therapy) and walk away from; which is precisely what I’d been trying to do for years.

I realized something very few scientists really want to own up to, even though we try and try to find the bias in our thinking and that of others. I realized my own desire to control these “flaws” I felt like were a part of me was making my willingness to understand and evaluate the research on HSP trait very narrow.

Then I did something they tell us to do in grad school: I leaned into the discomfort.

Holy cow, did I lean.

It was easier for me to think I was just this person who had endured a trauma or two and wound up with some serious anxiety; that I was just this person who had been forever weird about textures, food, smells, lights, sounds, etc.

It was easier for me to believe what other people had said about me my entire life:

She’s willful. She’s stubborn. She won’t listen. She’s in her own little world. She’s so sensitive. You can’t live your life being so sensitive. There’s more to the world than books. There’s more to the world than what goes on in your own head. If you can’t toughen up and get a thicker skin, you’ll never survive. No one else does X this way! What is wrong with you? Why can’t you remember xyz, yet you can remember abc? I think she has ADHD, maybe she needs Ritalin. No, maybe she’s depressed. She can’t possibly be learning anything, she’s staring out the window! Well, the doctor said she is just spoiled and coddled too much.

I bought into the narrative that something was wrong with me. I was overly sensitive, picky, and bound and determined to cause problems for others.

When I finally read through Dr. Elaine Aron’s research studies on the trait she identified as SPS (sensory processing sensitivity) also called HSP, everything I had learned about myself from the exasperated exclamations of others throughout my life (and I mean no insult to those in my life – they didn’t know what HSP was either!), was cast into doubt. These parts of HSP trait that Aron identified were parts of me.

After visiting with a therapist specializing in identifying this trait, what I suspected was confirmed. I had a new lens for understanding myself and how I fit with the world, what I need to do to best care for myself and others, and I can understand better now that not everyone does or will understand what it’s like to live in my skin because only 20% of the population experiences it.

It also helped to stop pathologizing myself. I wasn’t wrong, I wasn’t in need of fixing. I was certainly in need of my own compassion, understanding, patience, and allowance for self-care and space to be myself in (over the constant insistent rush that I felt like most of the world expected of me). It also doesn’t hurt that I was able to find and connect with others who have HSP trait.

Some ‘Signs’ You May be an HSP

  • You’re easily overwhelmed by sensory input (anything going on around you – noise, lights, conversations)
  • You’re aware of subtleties in your environment (you notice things in an environment others don’t)
  • You pick up on other people’s moods (even when they don’t say anything and others tend to not notice how they may be feeling)
  • You’re more sensitive to pain (when compared to other people – doctors or others tend to scoff when you ask for pain meds or cite others not needing them)
  • You find yourself needing to withdraw during busy days where you can have privacy and relief from stimulation
  • You are particularly sensitive to the impacts of caffeine and other drugs
  • You’re easily overwhelmed by bright lights, coarse fabrics, loud noises, and strong smells
  • You have a rich inner life (you think a lot, you process things deeply – you’re an ocean, not a puddle)
  • You’re deeply moved by the arts or music
  • Your nervous system sometimes feels frazzled so that you have to go off by yourself or at least to some place with someone who lets you have quiet
  • You’re conscientious (you care about issues and the feelings of others)
  • You startle easily
  • You get easily rattled when you’re on a time deadline
  • When people are uncomfortable in a physical environment you tend to notice and then know what needs to be done to make them more comfortable
  • You feel annoyed when people try to get you to do too many things at once
  • You try hard to avoid making mistakes or forgetting things (which may make you late or even feel indecisive sometimes)
  • You make it a point to avoid violent movies or tv shows
  • You become unpleasantly aroused (anxious) when a lot is happening around you
  • Feeling very hungry creates a strong reaction in me that interrupts your concentration or mood
  • Changes in life really throw you for a loop
  • You notice and enjoy delicate tastes, sounds, works of art or scents
  • You find it unpleasant to have too much going on at once
  • You make it a priority to arrange your life to avoid upsetting overwhelming situations
  • You are bothered by intense stimuli like loud noise or chaotic scenes
  • When you must be observed while performing a task you get so nervous or shaky that you do much worse than you might otherwise do
  • When you were a child parents or teachers described you as ‘sensitive’ or ‘shy’

Mislabeling, Misdiagnosis, and Mental Health Pros

This blog is intended to get people more aware of what SPS and HSP are (by the way, Dr. Aron uses these terms interchangeably), how they present, and how these things have snuck into our sciences in the relatively recent past with mostly little fanfare. There is a plethora of research and writing available on SPS and HSP.

I have encountered dozens of clinicians who hear me discuss HSP and have no clue what it is. I try to always use those opportunities to describe the trait and refer them to the research. One of the most common arguments that I’m met with is that I’m simply describing “high functioning autism” or that I’m describing “poor boundaries”.

This simply isn’t true. There is fMRI imaging that shows a difference in the responses of brains that are SPS/HSP and brains that aren’t when exposed to stimuli. 20 percent of the population, folks. Observed also in animals.

There is no way such a thing found in so many people and across multiple species is maladaptive or pathological.

I encourage you, if you’re a mental health professional of any type – I implore you, evaluate the research that Dr. Aron has produced, and that others have reproduced. Please. Don’t dismiss it, and don’t dismiss those that come to you for help by trying to categorize, file, and color code because that’s what fits best within your own pre-existing framework. Don’t let this be something that you’re wrong about.

Labeling others with a diagnosis they may not have is damaging. Diagnostic labeling is dangerous period – but when it’s incorrect, even more so. Our rule of nonmaleficence – first do no harm applies here. If you have dismissed HSP research out of hand because it doesn’t fit with what you learned in school 5, ten, or 20 years ago – you are choosing the potential of harming every client that walks through your door. Every single one.

Up Next & More Information

Next on the blog in this series – the 4 parts of HSP trait and how they manifest and may show up differently in each person with HSP trait, some tips on undoing the damage that false labeling and other people’s narratives have done, and identifying HSP in children and infants.

For questions and more information, I encourage you to check out hsperson.com and take the self-test written by Dr. Aron, who identified this trait. I also encourage you to check out any of her books or the wealth of research articles available on this topic via pubmed.gov or via hsperson.com.

 

Some References for Ya!

Sensory Processing Sensitivity in the context of Environmental Sensitivity: A critical review and development of research agenda.

Greven CU, Lionetti F, Booth C, Aron EN, Fox E, Schendan HE, Pluess M, Bruining H, Acevedo B, Bijttebier P, Homberg J.Neurosci Biobehav Rev. 2019 Mar;98:287-305. doi: 10.1016/j.neubiorev.2019.01.009. Epub 2019 Jan 9.PMID: 30639671 Free article. Review.

The functional highly sensitive brain: a review of the brain circuits underlying sensory processing sensitivity and seemingly related disorders.

Acevedo B, Aron E, Pospos S, Jessen D.Philos Trans R Soc Lond B Biol Sci. 2018 Apr 19;373(1744):20170161. doi: 10.1098/rstb.2017.0161.PMID: 29483346 Free PMC article. Review.

Dandelions, tulips and orchids: evidence for the existence of low-sensitive, medium-sensitive and high-sensitive individuals.

Lionetti F, Aron A, Aron EN, Burns GL, Jagiellowicz J, Pluess M.Transl Psychiatry. 2018 Jan 22;8(1):24. doi: 10.1038/s41398-017-0090-6.PMID: 29353876 Free PMC article.

The highly sensitive brain: an fMRI study of sensory processing sensitivity and response to others’ emotions.

Acevedo BP, Aron EN, Aron A, Sangster MD, Collins N, Brown LL.Brain Behav. 2014 Jul;4(4):580-94. doi: 10.1002/brb3.242. Epub 2014 Jun 23.PMID: 25161824 Free PMC article.

Sensory processing sensitivity and serotonin gene variance: Insights into mechanisms shaping environmental sensitivity.

Homberg JR, Schubert D, Asan E, Aron EN.Neurosci Biobehav Rev. 2016 Dec;71:472-483. doi: 10.1016/j.neubiorev.2016.09.029. Epub 2016 Sep 30.PMID: 27697602 Review.

Observer-rated environmental sensitivity moderates children’s response to parenting quality in early childhood.

Lionetti F, Aron EN, Aron A, Klein DN, Pluess M.Dev Psychol. 2019 Nov;55(11):2389-2402. doi: 10.1037/dev0000795. Epub 2019 Aug 15.PMID: 31414847

Environmental sensitivity in children: Development of the Highly Sensitive Child Scale and identification of sensitivity groups.

Pluess M, Assary E, Lionetti F, Lester KJ, Krapohl E, Aron EN, Aron A.Dev Psychol. 2018 Jan;54(1):51-70. doi: 10.1037/dev0000406. Epub 2017 Sep 21.PMID: 28933890

Sensory processing sensitivity: a review in the light of the evolution of biological responsivity.

Aron EN, Aron A, Jagiellowicz J.

Pers Soc Psychol Rev. 2012 Aug;16(3):262-82. doi: 10.1177/1088868311434213. Epub 2012 Jan 30.PMID: 22291044 Review.

Revisiting Jung’s concept of innate sensitiveness.

Aron EN.J Anal Psychol. 2004 Jun;49(3):337-67. doi: 10.1111/j.1465-5922.2004.00465.x.PMID: 1514944

The trait of sensory processing sensitivity and neural responses to changes in visual scenes.

Jagiellowicz J, Xu X, Aron A, Aron E, Cao G, Feng T, Weng X.Soc Cogn Affect Neurosci. 2011 Jan;6(1):38-47. doi: 10.1093/scan/nsq001. Epub 2010 Mar 4.PMID: 20203139 Free PMC article

Temperament trait of sensory processing sensitivity moderates cultural differences in neural response.

Aron A, Ketay S, Hedden T, Aron EN, Rose Markus H, Gabrieli JD.Soc Cogn Affect Neurosci. 2010 Jun;5(2-3):219-26. doi: 10.1093/scan/nsq028. Epub 2010 Apr 13.PMID: 20388694 Free PMC article

Adult shyness: the interaction of temperamental sensitivity and an adverse childhood environment.

Aron EN, Aron A, Davies KM.

Pers Soc Psychol Bull. 2005 Feb;31(2):181-97. doi: 10.1177/0146167204271419.PMID: 15619591

 

Hey, Teachers…I See You!

I’m blessed to know and love some amazing educators that work in public and private schools all over the nation. I’m also blessed to have some amazing teachers as clients. Today on Facebook, I saw on video, my cousin (band director extraordinaire) give out an award social distance style to a student who earned a district band award. It tugged at me. So much emotion for the student and for my cousin as his teacher.

It made me think about some things that have come up in my work with my teacher clients. Grief. Total grief. Change. Loss. I have yet to really see anyone else address it, so I’m going to here.

When you’re an educator you get blessed with the ability to see a student start in one place and finish in another. The victory of the end of the year, the end of year awards. The congratulatory high fives and handshakes. The last few days of class where you relax and exhale and look at these kids and think of what next year will be for them, where they may go, and what hand you played in it.

No one becomes a teacher for any reason than his or her love of caring, educating, and touching lives. You don’t become a teacher for fame or fortune. You do it for these small golden moments, and this year, the universe had other plans.

This year that end of year stuff doesn’t happen, not in the same way. The beautiful closures that are class parties, award ceremonies, end of year spring concerts, and so much more is gone.

There was no break, no adjustment period, just painful and abrupt change. The shift from connection face to face in a classroom to virtual work puts a strain on even the most personable of people. It exercises a whole different set of emotional and mental muscle, and it isn’t easy. There was no training, no induction, just, “Teach online, good luck!”

Teachers have stepped bravely into that space with vulnerability and courage. I see you. I see that courage, and even if you don’t know it now, your students saw it too. In all the examples and modeling that teachers normally provide, this year too, students got to see you adapt, shift, and gracefully and humanly move through a shared human experience. This will have an impact on this generation of students that we can’t even begin to guess at – but I know all of you have done your very best at managing all the change, and all this grief for what should have been and I know your students were watching.

To my teacher family, friends, and clients, thank you so much for being the pros you are. I see you. I thank you.

Special shout outs to Emily, Janet, Michael, Shelby, Jenna, and Tyler. You guys make the world a better place.

Some Vulnerability from the Counselor During COVID-19

Some genuine, real 💩 from your friendly neighborhood counselor…
Thanks to COVID-19, every therapist I know, myself included, has both had clients leave services due to the virus, and we’ve had an influx of people needing services.
Collectively, we have added hours to our weeks to meet demand, pro bono spots to serve those who can’t afford therapy, and I myself am working really hard to take as many new clients as I can and ensure that my calendar stays organized for appointments. This has been an incredible challenge for me. I’m a one-woman show with no admin help for my calendar or appointments.
Nearly every week I encounter tech issues as more people are home using the internet and it seems this impacts connection. The platforms I use to communicate with clients are experiencing incredibly high volumes of traffic that lead to tech weirdnesses that are far outside the norm. I’m juggling this on top of record cancellations, trying to contact clients to move them into open spots, and creating time and space for clients experiencing crisis (who often need more than my standard half hour and 50 minute spots). I know this has meant that at times I seem frazzled, disorganized, and perhaps even uncaring (this last one is the therapist’s nightmare – I do care, so much!).
I share this genuine bit of information not to cause you pause or concern for me (I’m feeling good!) – but to share some behind the scenes so that anyone trying to contact me, schedule, etc. knows I’m here and I will get back to you!
I appreciate your patience as I take more time to respond to messages and emails, more time to schedule, and sometimes need to cancel. I’m working as hard as I can and truly appreciate and care for each person who allows me the blessing of joining with them in support of their journey toward wellness.
Whitney

Some COVID Mental Health Tips!

Yet another COVID related mental health tip – but there’s some stuff here that relates to all kinds of things too!

Are you worried right now?

That’s good news – you’re totally normal!

The fact is that no one alive right now has ever been through what we are facing as a global community as far as coping not just with a novel virus that researchers are working night and day to find both treatments and a vaccine for, but also with the supply chain issue many of us all over the world are experiencing that means we’re learning to have meatless Mondays or to cook with margarine instead of butter or to conserve toilet paper. We don’t really have an older or wiser person to look to and say, “how did you do this? Give me some tips!”

We’re all winging it.

I tell people that anxiety functions a bit like an allergy to uncertainty and during uncertain times, anxiety is a normal reaction, and for people who struggle with anxiety on a clinical level, such as with generalized anxiety disorder, that anxiety is inflamed a bit. We might have a panic attack when we haven’t had one in a while or be feeling anxiety more intensely than whatever our “normal” is.

We’re going to look at this a few ways today.

First up –

We were all pretty much feeling very secure and safe in our ability to buy what we needed at stores in plentiful supply and resting in the fact that when we’re sick, science usually has an answer for us. Our realities have been shaken up and we are all faced with having to adjust.

There are two ways to do that. We can say to ourselves that those beliefs we had were never true and will never be true again (in counseling we call this over-assimilation of a new belief) or we can adjust our present belief to accommodate the reality of the current situation.

Beliefs impact a lot of what we do, how we feel, and what we think.

If we adopt the belief that we weren’t safe, we aren’t safe now, and we’ll never be health or food safe again – how does that leave us feeling? Anxious. Worried. Scared. Panicked.

Is that a true statement? Is it factual?

Not exactly. Something a bit more factual to say or believe might be that throughout history we’ve encountered illness that takes some serious problem solving, that people were scared and purchased too much to offset that fear, but that supply chains will eventually work themselves out.

I’m not going to go too deep into that – this is a cognitive behavior therapy approach, and I think as we’re still in the midst of all of what is developing, our beliefs about this situation right now are fluid. That means the most important thing to do is to check in with yourself, with what you’re telling yourself. When you catch a thought floating through that results in more fear or that you feel like springs from fear, ask yourself:

Is this a helpful thought?

If it isn’t – do like Snoopp. Drop it like it’s hot!

Is it a factual thought?

If not – what is factual here?

When fear gets to be overwhelming, honor it!

Don’t say, “Oh, well,” and think terrible things and bottle them up and keep washing dishes or whatever you’re doing. Stop what you’re doing. Honor what you’re feeling and why: I’m afraid because my finances aren’t secure right now and there’s a global health crisis we don’t have an answer for. Or whatever is true for you.

Then normalize that feeling because it’s NORMAL. Say to yourself, “Everyone with awareness of the world is concerned just like I am.” Take one conscious breath in through your nose and exhale through your nose for a few seconds longer than you inhale – that helps your brain start to issue calm down neurotransmitters.

Then take a seat somewhere comfortable. Check in with your body. What muscles are tight? We hold tension in the body. Usually the shoulders, hands, thighs, low back, and abdomen are common places that store tension. Feel for that tension and then intentionally tense and release those areas.

Try some 478 breathing. Inhale through your nose for 4 seconds, hold that breath for 7 seconds, and release it for 8 seconds. As you do this, relax the jaw and allow your tongue to rest gently in the roof of your mouth. A note about this kind of breathing: It takes practice to see calming results, so do it often. Also, a friend recently pointed out to me that they felt tension when doing this exercise. Noticing some tension at the end of the inhale, hold, or beginning of the exhale is totally normal. In fact, we want that in a way. Don’t do this if it’s totally uncomfortable – but some tension and feeling slightly winded are normal. Give it a few rounds – maybe 3 to 5 rounds of 478 to start.

Make a playlist of your favorite songs that you find comforting or uplifting and while you’re on your breathing break, after you’ve checked in with your thoughts and relaxed your body, start it up.

Now is the perfect time to build a good self-care practice!

A few more notes – our brains are hardwired to be on the lookout for danger, and to mitigate potential harm to us. One way we do that is by planning things, by having routine and structure. At present, many of us can’t have our normal routine or structure or plans we had are out the window and we’re not sure when our normal groove will return. This causes the nervous system to panic a bit, to activate that part of us that is on alert for danger to higher levels.

This means it’s a good time to practice coming into the moment. The moment, this moment right now is the only place we really exist. The past is over, the future not here yet. This moment is it. Be fully in it or as fully as you can be. I’m going to link out to a mindfulness video by Dr. Jon Kabbat Zinn here below too. One basic strategy for being in the moment is to make some observation. Rotate your ankles, do jazz hands – some kind of physical movement. Say, “I am at home, I am doing jazz hands, I am safe. I am having coffee.” Whatever is true for you in that moment. As with all practices, repetition is key. Repeat this and it becomes habit and it becomes more and more helpful.

Name what you can and can’t control. List out what your fears and worries are. Look at that list and star the ones that you can actually control or take action on. Make a note of things you are doing that are already aimed at those items you can control. When your thoughts turn to what you can’t control, remind yourself of what you can control and what you’re doing about those.

I talked about this earlier – but how you’re thinking about the situation is important. What meaning you’re making from the situation is important, so pay attention to your thoughts. During the Holocaust, Dr. Viktor Frankl, a Jewish psychiatrist was taken prisoner and placed in a concentration camp. He realized very early into his experience that what he was thinking and how he viewed things was very important. He went on to develop a theory of therapy called logotherapy based on his experiences. His experiences and that approach are elaborated on beautifully in his book Man’s Search for Meaning, which I recommend downloading on Kindle and reading or getting on audible and listening. One of the things he mentions in the book is the contribution of art in concentration camps he was in – that there was singing, there were jokes, etc. This is something we’re seeing now – artists of all types putting their work out into the world for themselves and for us right now.

Spirituality is important to managing uncertainty too. This can be religious practice or it can be art, nature, or anything that gives you a sense of interconnection and being small within the larger picture. Think of this as leaning into and resting in something larger than yourself.

Practice gratitude – and I know this one is difficult when it feels so much is uncertain now. If all we have is this moment right now, then I want to really be in it, don’t you? Being with and honoring the difficult feelings we’re having right now is important. It is possible to honor those like I talked about earlier while also noting some things. This morning, I had my coffee outside, watched the sun come up over Texas, listened to the birds singing, and my neighbors working in their yard and consciously noted each thing with gratitude for what they are – signs that I’m in the moment, I’m safe, and many things are ok.

Lastly, some basics.

Follow the advice of your nation or location’s health authorities. Follow the guidance of trusted medical professionals. People with initials behind their names like MD or DO or PHD. Don’t go out if you don’t have to. If you have to, wash your hands when you can, use hand sanitizer. Stay home if you’re sick. Stay away from people you know are sick or elderly to avoid exposing their weakened immune systems. When you’re out, stay 6 ft away from others and if someone else steps into your 6 ft bubble back up – that’s your bubble! Limit your news intake to once a day for 5 to 10 minutes of headlines. Delete your facebook app if you need to for a bit.

If you need more in depth explanation or guidance on any of the tips or processes I’ve listed here, you can connect with me at https://www.betterhelp.com/whitney-white/

A video from Dr. Jon Kabbat Zinn on mindfulness, and this one is directly related to COVID.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r2efOoRF_pw

Grief + The Holidays (+the Counselor)

Grief is such a strange thing. So are memories and trauma. They’re all connected.

As with most meaningful things I have to say, there will be some “me” in this writing – personal parallels I draw to explain my thinking and to dispel the belief that we therapists know everything or function optimally at all points in time. (Hint: We are not, in fact, the men behind the curtain like the Great and Powerful Oz, people.)

The holiday season is full of fun things: Christmas lights, great food, family visiting, the smells of pumpkin and cinnamon, hugs, mistletoe, crisp and cold nights.

It is also full of icy roads, comparison, complaints, obnoxious too-long hugs from people, dry turkey, runny noses, grief, loss, trauma, sad memories, and reminders of all the things we can screw up throughout the year.

Coming into Thanksgiving this year I offered to cook for a part of my family. I wanted to save someone I love dearly from the trouble of doing it. I wanted to do something nice. My heart was in the right place, I’m just not sure exactly where my brain was! In my family, Thanksgiving isn’t just Thanksgiving. It marks a holiday of great loss in my family. My grandfather died after a long fight with cancer in October (almost 30 years ago), several other deaths in my family happened that month, and so Thanksgiving for us also marks out this very distinct point in time of “before loss” and “after loss”.

For some of us, this is especially difficult and no matter how many years go by, we don’t handle it well. For some of us, (me), we think we can bake our way out of all the grief, and that by shining it on, eventually, somehow, we can make this holiday something nice again. Not smart.

Grief and loss come out in different ways for people. Some cry, some hide, some avoid, some get angry, some nit-pick your dressing making abilities until you’re crying in the kitchen due to a celery shortage. It wasn’t ever about dressing, though. It’s just a way of dealing with the anger of not having the holiday we envisioned because instead we lost someone.

My pre-emptive response this year to all of that impending doom was to just ignore it. Offer to make things as easy for others as possible, definitely not to bring up the man not at our table for nearly 30 years. Definitely, to blame the anger and fussiness of some of us on their bad attitude rather than on their loss and how they cope with it.

Not smart.

I did this several times over Thanksgiving. A dear friend of mine has recently had a loss, and I just didn’t even mention it. Frozen. “Oh, that parfait looks great, what sauce is that?” Was my response instead. Someone I love very much sat right next to me and said how he was hurting – and I could feel it, and again – I say the usual stuff, “I’m sorry,” “Yeah…”. I can’t dare talk about it in the moment.

I tiptoed around this holiday in my Vans and my apron trying my best not to poke any bears with sticks, lest we all end up in a sobbing heap of mess, totally unable to enjoy any pie. What I was really doing was avoiding my own bear. My own stick.

My grandfather died in October, my parents began announcing their impending divorce around Christmas one year, my Granny died in early December, my Aunt Lola in late October….you get the idea. It’s not just events that happen around this time of year that are grief-inducing; it’s the time of year itself.

No other time of year so poignantly brings up comparison of past and present as do major holidays.

Memory, Comparison & Holidays

Memory plays a vital role in trauma and grief. Without emotion we encode nothing, or at least far less, as far as memories are concerned. The more emotion regarding an event, the easier it is to recall for most of us, and the longer it stays with us. Sensory input is a big factor in memory as well. The more of your senses you utilize during an event, the more likely you are to recall it, the easier it is to recall it after a long period of time.

Holidays are laden with emotion. The surprise we feel as we open gifts, the joy at games we play, the joy when cousins actually make it in for the holiday, seeing people we only see this handful of days each year, the emotional love and devotion that goes into making a meal big enough to feed all 23 members of your family, the disgust when you burn the turkey, the loathing of cleaning the kitchen, the frustration when the dog steals something off a plate left unattended. Hello, easy memory-making!

We have memories of holidays and they stick with us so well that these become the basis of one of our natural ‘evils’ – comparison making.

We have memories of holidays as kids. With our grandparents, our parents, our brothers and sisters. Without our grandparents, without our parents, without our siblings. Memories of holidays when everyone made it home. Memories when only a few of us did.

Holidays are a great marker of time and change. Today it’s normal for families to be spread out geographically, and so holidays carry special weight. It’s the one time of year you may see your nephew that drives in from Idaho or your daughter that comes home from Washington.

It’s all too easy when we walk in the front door of Aunt Mable’s house to look around and open the section of our brains labeled, “Holidays Past”. It’s also natural and normal. Especially when things change in big ways.

The Grief

Grief can present itself in a lot of different ways. Someone might be angry, distant, cold, tearful, or flatly avoid all interaction.

The answer to the issue of holidays past, loss, grief, and pain during holidays is not to bake your way into a frenzy of people pleasing or pretending that all is well when it isn’t. It also isn’t commenting on your friend’s fantastic parfait-making abilities, or saying, “Yeah,” when someone you love says how small their holiday gathering is this year. It’s also not making parfaits until your fridge is full or trying to entertain your girlfriend as a means of distraction.

That’s called avoidance. It puts pressure on you to make everything good or to pretend it is, and pressure on the people hurting to carry on. It throws an unhappy log on the holiday memory fire.

There’s a whole list of things that are way more helpful. Literally:

  1. For someone who is grieving, be aware of their heightened sense that someone is missing. When you’ve lost a member of your family, in any way – from death, a move across the country, divorce, etc. – you’re painfully aware that this person(s) is missing. Even the happiest events are tinged with sadness. Ask and listen if you can tell someone is hurting. If you’re hurting, speak up.
  2. Social gatherings are hard. Small talk can feel unbearable when you’re grieving. It can feel like intentional avoidance of the elephant in the room. Walking into a room full of couples when you’ve lost your spouse, or into an event with children after your child has died can feel totally soul crushing. If you’ve invited someone in the throes of loss (again, of any kind: death, a major life change, divorce) give that invite with pre-acceptance of cancellation, “I’ll understand if it seems too much to come or if you don’t feel up to staying the entire time.” If you’re not ok, say so, and say why.
  3. Use your words and your presence. If you’re at an event with a friend or family member you know is grieving, offer to stick by their side for support. Let them know you’re thinking about the person they’ve lost, invite them to talk about that person. Don’t be afraid to say that person’s name.
  4. Extended family interaction can feel awkward. For family members that aren’t present for all of an experience of loss we’re having, they can show up and be surprised that we’re still in our grief process. They may think we shouldn’t be sad after X amount of time. They may totally avoid talking about your loss, or not know how to. That can leave the person grieving feeling like a person(s), or event is being totally erased from existence. Talk about it and make it ok to discuss whatever the grieving person is comfortable sharing. If you’re grieving and need time away from these interactions, take it.
  5. Don’t be afraid of tears. If you’re grieving, tears are a thing. Grief often works it way out this way. Sometimes grieving people can pick up on the discomfort others feel when or if they feel sad or might cry. They also pick up on judgment – that their tears may be read as a sign that they aren’t doing ok. Tears aren’t wrong, they’re normal. Let grieving people know it’s ok to let that out, to be real, and if you feel like crying, give yourself time and space to do it.

Basically, don’t avoid someone’s grief because you’re uncomfortable. Do as I say – not as I did, do as I’ll do here in a couple of weeks at Christmas.

If you’re grieving – it’s ok to bring it up. Other people’s discomfort is theirs to deal with. You’re grieving. You have enough to cope with.

The holidays aren’t a magical time of gifts and pie for everyone – or they aren’t only that. It is possible to honor the way things were, to remember and grieve for those not with us, to mark the changes of life, to enjoy the pie, and to smile while we cry into it.

Happy remembering, ya’ll.

Whitney

Multiple Truths

A theme coming up in my work this week is one of multiple truths, which is really about perspective taking. All day long we’re talking to ourselves, creating narratives about what is happening around us, what things we have to do, and challenges we’re facing at the moment.

I’m not a huge fan of what I think of as empty positive thinking. Sure, affirmations can help. Everyone embraces the fact that how we talk to ourselves impacts our reality, our feelings, and our behavior and decisions. But, it’s empty when you’re crying, standing knee deep in mud, and hiccuping uncontrollably into a mug of lukewarm hot chocolate to say to yourself, “This is great! Everything is fine! The universe is sending me what I need!” Empty. It feels un-genuine. It feels like lies.

The bulk of what I try to both present and create space for with clients is genuineness – being who and how we really are. That’s not possible if I’m telling people to actively BS themselves into positivity. It’s impossible, and it’s empty.

Don’t throw out your affirmations, yet. They do have their place, but that’s a different blog for another day.

Today, we’re looking at reality.

Let’s look at an example:

You’ve recently moved to a new city and you haven’t found work yet, the prospects don’t seem great, and everyday there’s a new rejection for a position you’ve applied for.

This plainly sucks and carries a lot of stress with it. Most of us need to work to survive. That’s a truth. It’s also true that it’s lonely in a new place and lonely doesn’t feel great. It can hurt. That’s a truth. Rejection, whether from a romantic interest or a prospective employer hurts. That’s a truth.

We have these less than positive truths and they’re totally valid. What else is true, though?

A new place brings opportunity for new connections and new activities. A new place brings new opportunity for work and advancement. A move to a new place is a courageous thing. Looking for work brings the opportunity to learn and do new things.

These are also true.

You can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs, and the same applies here. Action is needed to get to the good stuff. If the heel of your shoe is stuck in the not so happy parts of what’s going on, it’s hard to get through to taking action that brings about the good things. We’re way less likely to commit to helpful and resourceful action when we’re focused on all the suckage going on, when we’re focused on only that first set of truths.

It’s a matter of perspective, but it’s not all your fault.

Your brain is wired to focus on the negative. You read that right. You’re wired to focus on the negative.

Why?

Survival. Back in the day when we were running from large things that wanted to eat us, living without the benefits of modern agriculture, and frequently having to fend off neighbors who might invade and steal what things we were trying to eat (survival isn’t always pretty), we had to learn to think about how to stay alive. This meant finely tuning our brains to scan our environment for potential danger. We had to learn to take in all kinds of information, flip through it and sort what might hurt us, and then address those dangers – lest face the very real possibility of death.

That part of our brains is still alive and well. It scans every social interaction, every job interview, every intersection, everything. Every. Thing. It naturally piles up all the potentially dangerous items in a heap. It knows we need to know those dangers so we can address them, so we can survive. We don’t really need to note how beautiful the clouds are when it comes to survival; we overlook the more positive things or protective factors in favor of assessing and addressing danger.

Modern agriculture, housing, and social developments have meant that we’re relatively safe for the most part. We don’t have to worry about survival in the same way our ancestors did. Yet, our brains haven’t caught up. For those of us with anxiety, adverse childhood experiences, trauma, etc. we’re especially prone to noticing potential dangers.

Wanting to feel better and respond to stress and challenges better means we have to steer that high-powered brain to make sure it takes note of all truths in a situation before we let it rip on survival. It means noting all the things that suck comes naturally and noting the positive things does not. We have to do that bit of leg work. It has to be conscious at first, meaning even when things aren’t so hot, we have to take the time to note the things that are ok.

There are lots of ways to do this, but our brains like routine and they learn from it. Making a habit of spending a few minutes at the start or end of everyday will help build a good habit that will train your brain to look at all the truths in a situation throughout the day (with regular practice).

To create this habit and rewire our brains for balance (for multiple truths), a little writing is helpful. The journal exercise below is one that I use myself and one that I frequently refer clients to. It’s called a GLAD journal, and it works very simply by having you list out:

G – something you are grateful for today
L – something you learned today
A – something you accomplished today
D – something you took delight in today

Some days that “G” will be fantastic and easy to come up with. Some days you may have to look around and muster up some gratitude for socks. Some days you’ll have learned something fantastic from a book or TV or a training at work. Other days you may have to write, “learned Aunt Rita’s cat likes to sleep on the kitchen counter”. Some days your “A” will be amazing, like, “accomplished certification for work,” and other days it may be more like, “I didn’t get fired today.” Your “delight” section can be anything that makes you smile, even a tiny bit for just a second even.

This takes about 1 minute once you get the hang of it, and is fantastic and promoting real, positive change in how you respond to the curveballs that life frequently doles out.

Balance in acknowledging the reality of multiple truths leads to wellness – it just takes some doing.

Peace!

Fear of Rejection

Fear of rejection is a thing for just about every human on the planet. Of all our fears, this one has the deepest impact on our thinking, emotions, behaviors, plans, and relationships. Most people get a case of “nerves” when they’re stepping into a situation that has the potential for rejection, but for some the fear takes over. The fear of rejection begins to drive the bus.

Walking to the front of a room to give a presentation to colleagues, answering a question in a seminar or class, approaching someone who we think is friend or even more-than-friend material, walking across the stage at graduation, and even checking out at the grocery store are events that might trip the wire for fear of rejection.

If you stay in your seat and never offer to impart your expertise to colleagues, you run the risk of staying small in your professional life. Keeping your hand down even when you know the answer from fear of judgment leading to rejection, keeps others from hearing your voice. True, remaining silent or avoiding situations that the nagging little voice inside reminds you are areas that rejection and judgement may arise from, can prevent the feeling of rejection – but the loss of those moments, the loss of connection with others, the feeling of staying quietly in your seat, never giving yourself a chance to rise, has its own set of feelings and consequences that aren’t any more pleasant to deal with.

Loneliness, isolation, becoming a sort of welcome mat, having no clear sense of purpose….

Those aren’t exactly fun either.

How It Affects You

In dating, we often get nervous because we’re meeting someone new. A fear of rejection in the early stages of dating can have you more focused on how you look, how you sound, and what the other person is thinking of you. You may totally miss out on getting to know the other person and deciding whether or not more dates should be in your future.

Meeting someone new can trigger a similar cycle. Your brain may get caught up in wondering if they like you. You may have trouble speaking or really getting to know the other person.

Job interviews could be really fun. Here’s an opportunity to grow your resume, improve your professional standing, meet someone new, grow your network, learn from the interview process, and ask important questions to find out if this is the job for you! A fear of rejection is likely to kick off your body’s fight, flee, or faint response. You’ll likely spend most of the interview feeling uncomfortably hot, sweating, breathing heavily, and coming across as nervous.

Symptoms of Fear of Rejection

Masking your real self – becoming some more intensified or watered down version of yourself – is common as a result of fear of rejection. It comes from fearing if others see the real you, that people will reject you. To protect yourself, you slip on the mask of what you think others want to see. This may lead to issues when others began to pick up on that mask. It may lead to rejection or distancing from others that really do just want to see, know, and hear the real you.

People-Pleasers have trouble saying “no”, even when “yes” causes huge issues. They may take on too much, enable bad behaviors in others, and be in the position of constantly “taking one for the team”. Over time this leads to resentment and anger in relationships. You may be walking around waiting for all the good people-pleasing karma to come back to you in some way. It won’t. People will just get used to you being the pleaser.

Being assertive is hard when you’ve got a serious fear of rejection. It requires you to say what you mean, want, or need. When you’re afraid of rejection in a major way, it seems easier to avoid it by avoiding upsetting anyone with your needs by pretending they aren’t important or don’t exist. When this becomes an issue it usually eventually leaks through. Pent up anger about your needs will bleed through and create a passive-aggressive aura around you that turns others away and off.

Fear of rejection creates behaviors in sufferers (everyone at some point, like seriously, everyone) that bring about the very things they’re afraid of. It works like a self-fulfilling prophecy in every respect. Fear of rejection and its pain may keep you from getting out to make friends and meet people, thereby furthering the loneliness and isolation you want to avoid by avoiding rejection! Funny, huh? The same thing happens in relationships. A fear that someone you love will reject you may have you avoiding them, distancing yourself from them, or people pleasing when it comes to them – to such an extent you feel resentful, fights erupt, and the relationship suffers a split. Now, the relationship is over and you were right all along about fearing they’d leave or reject you.

Working on Fear

It is really helpful to team up with a therapist who can help you determine how fear of rejection is impacting you, experiences that may have underscored the belief for you, and ways of challenging it. Therapists are also trained at helping you create a way of learning how to tolerate distress and cope with painful emotions – the avoidance of pain is the thing that keeps fear of rejection going (and going).

Risking opening our hearts and letting others in means that at some point someone may reject us, but it isn’t the end of the universe. We feel sorrow, fear, anger, loss, and other intense emotions about it as part of our ability to heal. Our minds and bodies know how to heal from these experiences – and part of that is grief and experiencing those emotions.

If you’re in Texas or the UK and looking to team up with a therapist to address fear of rejection, check me out here!

Whitney

Emotional Garbage: Taking on other people’s trash

 

Years ago, when I was still under clinical supervision for licensing, my supervisor taught me an extremely valuable lesson about making things both three dimensional and palatable for my clients. His trick? Making things physical for them and using stories and euphemism to paint pictures. His method was like that of Milton Erickson, but with a much more brisk, rough-around-the-edges approach.

Here, I present one of these tales, as it was delivered to me to help me grasp the concept of emotional boundaries, and where they come from – within us rather than extrinsically.

I was struggling to help a client set boundaries for themselves. We’d done all the preparation. Identifying areas of unease that needed to be protected, discussed methods of communicating the boundaries, practiced in the office. Yet, they weren’t getting it in the way I thought they would – there was a lot of emotional upset from people’s responses to my client’s setting of boundaries. These angry emotions expressed to the client left them feeling hurt, and as if the boundary setting was hurting rather than helping their level of peace in life.

I’d made a mistake by focusing on the behavioral aspects of boundaries: not engaging with unwanted or harmful behaviors of others, being selective with information shared with those who offered unsolicited opinion, etc. I’d failed to give enough attention to the emotional aspects of how boundaries function and one of the largest boundary issues of all: the sharing of emotion.

People who flagrantly violate boundaries do it because they can get away with it, and they get away with it because the person they’re violating either won’t say ‘no’, is unable to do so due to an authoritative issue, and/or because they know that person feels responsible for whether or not they’re upset.

When you feel responsible for someone else’s emotions and behaviors, you’re likely to do all you can to keep their emotions and behaviors from being unpleasant ones – up to and including allowing them to tromp right over a boundary you may have set or be working to set. This is what had happened to my client. They had put some behavioral boundaries in place, but when they were exposed to the emotional reactions of the person they’d set boundaries with, it was a terrible feeling. Guilt, shame, and blame.

How to help this person draw that mental and emotional boundary?

As I discussed this with my supervisor he munched on the tiny snickers candies his wife kept stashed in the bowl on his desk for him. Little wrappers began to pile up on the desk next to him. I babbled endlessly trying to put into words what I felt needed to be done as he scooped those wrappers off his desk and into his hand.

“Put out your hand, mi hija.”

I dutifully put my hand out, palm up. He responded by putting all of his many wrappers into my hand. They started to fall out of my hand and onto the floor. I reached down, scooped them up and clenched them tightly. I sat there holding them. I was eyeballing the trashcan next to his desk.

What in hell is going on here? Was he really thinking I was going to just hold his trash for him? 

My eyes must’ve been darting from my hand to the trashcan in a noticeable way at this point. Finally, he put his hands up in a “What do you expect?” kind of way and shrugged.

“You just going to hold that?”

I felt really….stupid for a split second. Then I realized that I’d been had in a brilliant way. He held his trashcan out to me and I dropped the wrappers into it and dusted my hands against my dress.

If we keep holding our hands out, open to taking responsibility for what anyone may just hand us, then we can’t ever be free of those things. We’re quite literally holding onto them, and willingly.

This is how emotional boundaries work. What someone does won’t ever stop bothering us as long as we hang on to it emotionally. If we aren’t able to understand that what other people do and feel are their responsibility, then this part of boundary setting will never click.

This requires letting go of the emotions that people hand to you, and accepting that you can’t “fix” them or control them. It demands understanding and accepting that nothing anyone else does is because of you, but is because of them, their experiences, their own inner world, values, and beliefs – which you have no control over. It means you have to repeat this to yourself over and over (and over) again while you’re learning it and trying to let go.

The true difficulty with that is that when we accept that we must also accept by default, that our emotions and responses are our own responsibility. We embrace fully, that we are responsible for what we take on and how we feel about others’ expressed emotions when we accept that we aren’t responsible for what others feel. Others can’t be responsible for their own emotions and reactions if we can’t agree that we’re responsible for our own.

Maybe this is why this part of boundary setting is the hardest to get. It’s far easier to say ‘no’, to limit contact with someone, or to change what you communicate with them verbally than it is to embrace responsibility for just yourself and how you choose to hang on to someone else’s feelings and trying to fix them, or letting them go and stepping into your own calm and peace.

Here’s your invitation to let go, drop the emotional refuse that keeps you working so hard to make others happy that you can’t find energy to manage your own reactions.

Namaste!

5 Times Star Trek Got Mental Health Right

 

Where are all my Trekky fans at? Over the last year my husband and I watched Star Trek spinoffs The Next Generation, Voyager, and Deep Space Nine. Obviously, we’ve liked it, or we would’ve stopped before our trek through DS9. We’re about halfway through DS9 and we came across episode 19 of season four titled Hard Time.

Our post-episode discussion had us talking about it and during that it occurred to me that these shows have done a really good job in working to increase mental health awareness and de-stigmatizing getting treatment and help when it’s needed. Here’s my list of times that a Star Trek series nailed mental health.

  1. Deep Space Nine | Season 4, Episode 19 “Hard Time”

The episode stars everyone’s favorite Chief Petty Officer, Miles O’Brien, who is arrested and spends time in a prison for espionage. It details his time in prison and his release. To the rest of the world, O’Brien is held for a number of hours for punishment for his crime, but to O’Brien he was imprisoned for 20 years. Thanks to the scientific advances of the planet administering the punishment they have no brick and mortar prison or punishment; they simply hook people up and install memories of imprisonment, and then release people.

Miles wakes up with 20 years of memories of starvation, beatings, torture of all kinds, and even sadly, killing his cellmate (who doesn’t really exist and is just an implanted memory) over some food during a time the prison staff was withholding food. He returns home with extreme emotional trauma, hypervigilance, and portrays complex trauma in a realistic way, including his initial resistance to treatment and withdrawal from friends and family.

Ultimately, Miles’ friends support him through his experience, and he happily accepts both medication and counseling in order to heal. Good job, Deep Space Nine, and actor Colm Meaney.

  1. Star Trek Next Generation | Season 7, Episode 7 “Dark Page”

This episode stars the flamboyant mother of ship’s counselor Deanna Troi, Lwaxana Troi. Because of the Troi family Betazed heritage, they enjoy the ability to communicate telepathically. This brings Lwaxana to her daughter’s ship, the Enterprise, in order to help a new Federation member planet whose population communicates only telepathically learn to speak verbally.

During that process Mrs. Troi overexerts herself and becomes very stressed, and very emotionally attached to a young girl she’s teaching to speak verbally. With her internal defenses down, memories of the tragic loss of Mrs. Troi’s eldest daughter (Deanna Troi’s older sister) come flooding back. This loss and even her first daughter’s existence are things Mrs. Troi held deep in her mind away from everyone, including her daughter, Deanna.

Eventually, Mrs. Troi suffers a total collapse and both the ship’s counselor (her daughter) and another telepath help Mrs. Troi process that old hurt and her grief, which enables her to heal and move forward. It also helps Deanna better understand her mother and some of her mother’s past behavior. An entire family is healed!

  1. Star Trek Next Generation | Season 6, Episodes 10 & 11 “Chain of Command”

In this episode, Federation enemy species, the Cardassians bring the Federation to the brink of war. Star Fleet Command sends Enterprise Captain Jean Luc Picard on an undercover mission where he is ultimately captured and tortured for days. Picard valiantly clings to hope that he will be rescued, and that his crew is still alive and working to get him back.

The Cardassians release Picard after their political demands are met, and Picard returns to the Enterprise in poor health, and unsure of his own reality thanks to the psychological torture he endured. After taking command of the ship he leaves the bridge, enters his ready room, and sends for Counselor Troi. He begins talking with her about his experience immediately. What’s best – the whole bridge crew sees him reach out to Troi and take a break from his bridge duties when he needs it.

  1. Star Trek Next Generation | Season 3, Episode 5 “The Bonding”

Security Chief Worf takes an away team to investigate an uninhabited planet, only to walk into a minefield. One of the scientists on the away mission is killed during the exploration. She leaves behind a young son, whose father was killed in a conflict when he was a baby. The ship’s counselor works hard to help him adjust, as do several other crew members.

The alien species responsible for the mines that would kill the young boy’s mother witness all that is happening and in their guilt, they take the form of his mother and create an illusionary world for him – all in an effort to ease the boy’s pain. The crew, including the captain, learn what is going on, and work hard to help the boy, Jeremy, process his pain, and choose reality, over the illusion they’ve offered.

Worf invites the boy into a healing Klingon ritual that makes him a member of Worf’s family.

  1. Voyager | Season 5, Episode 3 “Extreme Risk”

In this episode, main engineer B’Elanna Torres loses interest in her and boyfriend Tom Paris’ project in developing the revolutionary shuttle craft, Delta Flyer. She becomes disconnected and withdrawn. She starts showing up late, and missing things. That just isn’t B’Elanna. Soon her friends and crewmates are concerned about her, and everyone is trying to figure out what is going on.

First Officer, Chakotay soon realizes that B’Elanna is spending time in the holodeck running programs with the safety settings off. She seems to have lost interest in protecting her health and to be taking joy in hurting herself. Finally, Chakotay finds B’Elanna running a simulation of the day her friends and fellow resistance fighters in the Maquis die – an event her tour through the Delta Quadrant caused her to miss.

B’Elanna, it seems, is dealing with both survivor’s guilt and depression in trying to cope with the loss of her Maquis friends. Chakotay is able to help B’Elanna discuss her feelings, the loss of her friends, and the issues at hands. A bit of peer counseling and support from friends help her heal.

There are a lot of episodes I likely missed. And how many TV shows outside of Bob Newhart ever made counseling and therapy a main idea (and yet in a respectful, helpful, realistic way)? Star Trek Next Generation brought on the idea of counseling as a healthy part of operating on a daily basis. Counseling was so important that space stations like Deep Space Nine and even the flagship of the Federation staffed counselors to support and assist people on board.

Star Trek for the win again!

Any episodes I missed? Or other TV shows you feel have demonstrated the helpfulness of counseling and helped to norm mental health treatment? Let me know in the comments!

Enmeshment: Why it may feel like someone else is pulling your strings

Why can’t I just deal with my family’s disapproval? Why does my mom get so angry when I keep talking to my sister when they’re arguing with each other? Why can’t I make a single decision without feeling like I have to explain it to my dad? How do I usually end up feeling like it’s my fault when it was my sister’s words that were so hurtful and I only confronted her about her behavior?

If you’ve ever thought along these lines in regard to your relationships, or even just one relationship you have, then its likely that you’ve dealt with enmeshment. Enmeshment is a term used to describe the blurring of boundaries between people. Although enmeshment most frequently occurs in families, it can happen in any relationship. Enmeshment eventually leads to a feeling of loss of personal freedom and can cause problems in relationships and in families.

Families often value closeness, but enmeshment goes beyond the normal family closeness we might desire or aim for. When there is enmeshment a parent may center their action or emotion on his or her children and their mistakes, choices, and even successes. The enmeshed parent may try to know and direct their child’s thoughts and feelings, and they’ll usually rely on the child for emotional support.

The issue with enmeshment is that it causes those involved difficulty in developing a sense of self, engaging in relationships with healthy boundaries, and sometimes regulating emotions. Another common side effect of enmeshment is an inability to be assertive later in life when it may be necessary.

Signs of Enmeshment

  • Lack of appropriate privacy between parties
  • Being “best friends” with a parent
  • A parent telling secrets or adult problems to a child
  • A parent giving special privileges to a particular child
  • Overinvolvement in decisions, other friendships, activities

These signs can be present in relationships outside the parent-child relationship, however. For example, a friend that insists you must be angry with a mutual friend just because she is, is enmeshed with you. Someone who insists you consult them about decisions you make, or insists you explain decisions you make (outside the bonds of marriage and joint decision making, of course) is likely enmeshed with you. Someone who dictates (or tries to) how you spend your time and who you spend it with is likely enmeshed with you.

Effects

If you grew up in an enmeshed family, the impacts can be harmful. In enmeshed families, members can fail to develop full individual senses of identity and self. Members of these families may avoid trying new things, and this is a vital part of building self-identity during youth. You may also feel responsible for the emotions of members of the family, extreme guilt when acknowledging your own needs or feelings, and a sense of being controlled by family.

Enmeshment can impact future relationships as it can affect what is viewed as healthy or normal in relationships. It can cause difficulty in trusting people outside the enmeshed relationship or relationships. Research has also shown that people who are in enmeshed relationships or grew up in them have difficulty regulating their own emotions or tolerating distress in life.

Therapy + Treatment

If an entire family wants to address and understand how it may be enmeshed and how this is affecting their members, a family therapist is the way to go. In family therapy members can learn to set boundaries and express thoughts and feelings with one another in a healthy way. However, enmeshed families are often locked in a pattern of behavior and when there’s a pattern, it means something is working – it may not be working for everyone involved in a fair or healthy way, but it’s working. This means that many times it’s difficult to get an entire family to come in and address issues of enmeshment.

Individual therapy is very helpful for people who want to understand their family’s enmeshment and how it may have affected them. People from enmeshed families or in enmeshed relationships may feel controlled or trapped between expectations of self, other relationships, and the enmeshed relationship. Individual therapy can help that person understand the enmeshment and create healthy boundaries that are more in line with what their own needs and wishes are.

If you’re dealing with enmeshment in your relationships, it’s a good idea to learn about boundaries, and to practice setting some. A therapist can be really helpful as a supportive party and someone to provide feedback while you do so.