A Life Transparent

Mark-Z-imageIt would be an aspiration of Mark Zuckerburg, right?  To move toward transparency and openness, to have our lives displayed through social media sites and the like, available to all manner of voyeur.  And we are following his lead!

Transparent in the digital realm, however, is different than transparent in an intimate, fleshy, sensory, emotionally raw kind of way—like with the people in our direct life experience.

As much as I struggle with the façade of digital openness that tends to masquerade itself as connection, digital transparency is a start.  It’s a start that is whetting our taste buds, you might say.  It’s expanding our cognitive awareness of our need for greater, deeper, more authentic connection as well as our need both to be seen and to open our lives to those around us—isolation is killing us, on a multitude of levels.

One way I’ve come to utilize the digital platforms of Facebook, Blogging, and other forms of social media is to share my personal life—to an extent beyond what is comfortable for many; in an effort to share, educate, model, learn, to become more humble, to face my shame, to own my strengths, and to deepen my experience of being a “good enough” human.

…And what does “good enough” mean?  It stems from the practice of “good enough parenting” which asserts that it’s actually important to NOT be perfect—to not even attempt it! –To own our mistakes, missteps, and mis-attunements.  We need to make mistakes, as parents, and allow our kids to have the opportunity of witnessing us doing the necessary repair work.  Because how else are they going to learn how to do their own repair?

How else will they learn that mistakes are NORMAL and okay?  How else will they learn to be gentle and compassionate with themselves, if not for us?

In the same way, being a good enough human is my goal.  I’m far from doing anything with perfection—(though damn, I can organize like a mad woman when I’m stressed!)—But through my imperfections, coupled with my desire to share deep connection with others, I’ve strengthened my ability to step into some powerful repair in my relationships.  And it is through that repair that we truly change ourselves and develop intimacy with one another.

My sense is that we are all seeking something more—something beyond what we know—something that will fill us at a soul level.  And we (as a collective body) have not found it.  And I believe that “it” has to do with deepening intimacy with others—increasing our relational repertoire so to speak.  And like building a muscle, this will take awareness of “form and function,” first and foremost.  Then it will take focused, consistent attention and practice.

The Foundation

I grew up in an era that espoused neighborhood play time, gatheringssack-races on back porches, visiting with neighbors over the rose bushes and over afternoon tea, having constant friends in and out of the house, stopping by and simply sharing our space—children being raised by villages.  I grew up when we had little fear of our kids being “taken” or hurt by strangers, where our friends’ parents could discipline us as much as our own parents.  I grew up when people actually ran when the phone rang—they didn’t just check the caller ID and decide whether or not to answer.

I don’t want to romanticize our past—That can be a sticky place to hold to, the idea that it was “ah, so much better back in the day.”  There are things that I miss and things that I feel grateful for having learned, and surpassed.  It is sometimes our own unwillingness to progress that keeps us attached to “the good ole’ days.”

Greek-FamilyI do have it in my blood, however, to feel the strength of community, that certain network of connection, albeit physically—not digitally!  I know what it’s like to feel at home in the comfort of my village.  I also know what it’s like for the neighbors to hear my family bickering and sometimes share dirty laundry… to get unsolicited advice from all the relatives and feel the frustration of being confined to familial perceptions and the difficulty of stretching my wings.  And I know that I could always call my folks in a heartbeat if I needed a quick favor and that, no matter how messy my life ever gets or whatever mistakes I make, they’ll continue to hold me tight.

Some of that closeness—even the parts that remind me of the dysfunctional aspects of my “big fat Greek family”—I miss!  The pendulum has swung, my friends.  And it has swung so far into the land of isolation that people in our very own country are literally dying from loneliness.   I believe we are collectively suffering from Intimacy Deprivation.loneliness1

Our Digitized Life

This Intimacy Deprivation becomes apparent to me when “texting” or IM’ing with someone I don’t know well, in any number of personal or professional contexts.  I’ve noticed that the “intimacy” that I can project via digital communication cannot naturally transcend to the flesh—that when eyes meet and hands shake and bodies intermingle, we become shrouded in trepidation and constrained by the natural “pacing” that one-to-one dialogue requires.  Our neural networks are being rewired, and not in a good way!  Our connect-ability is being engaged via screen shots, rather than body language and tone of voice.

Collectively, our relational intelligence is suffering.

textingpicWe can become hardwired to share ourselves digitally and forget that relationship—any kind of relationship—is very much a physical experience.  Via text, we have the leniency of spaciousness, taking all the time we desire for witty and intelligent replies and monitoring automatic responses prior to hitting “send.”

In the flesh, we must depend on our ability to authentically attune and engage—to stay present to our inner wisdom.  Yet we are wiring our brains to connect with one another in a world that not only doesn’t require presence and authenticity but negates the importance of our primary mode of communication—our BODIES—our ability to touch, be touched, our voices, our expressiveness, the subtle nuances of interaction that occur in the vivid space of togetherness.

Now, like most of you, I too get caught in this digital playground and find myself far too often holding onto my phone as a source of “addictive soothing” you might say.  And I’m concerned… I’m concerned that we are forgetting how to soothe ourselves, how to transcend our aloneness while in close physical proximity.  I fear that we quickly leave close interaction and come back to the comfort of our handheld digital pacifiers…

The Risk to Our Children

Most of us share some concern about the amount of texting and “digital time” kids-textingin which our children engage.  We see the “under the table” conversations and, at times, mental oblivion to real life.  And sadly, we usually blame our kids, blame society, rather than taking responsibility for the boundaries we set and the modeling we provide.  And it is through these paths that our kids learn to be in the world—how we model our own relationships, and the structure that we provide for guiding their relationships in the world—because that’s part of our job.

Our inner world is expressed through our bodies.  As infants, we learn to communicate not through words, but through eyes, mouths, touch—through yielding and pushing and reaching and through the impact that our physical expression has on others within the subtlest of exchanges.  Yet, if our early life is presented, in part, within this digital frenzy, that’s exactly what we’ll crave—that’s how we’ll learn to connect, to soothe, to share ourselves, and even to think.

Our kiddos world is clearly so different than our own early environment.  And we do need to support them in developing an evolving—yet mindful—relationship with current modes of communication and technology.  And ultimately, we also need to BE with them.  We need to set down our phones, look them in the eyes, touch them, play with them, get into life with them!  Because right now, we’re growing a generation of techies that are learning how to do relationship primarily with their thumbs.  Many of them have no idea how to truly BE with another person.  And considering our current relational trends, we just might be on a scary downward spiral.

(All this as I type on my mac!)

My “Why?”

Our lives are flying by with lightening speed.  And that search for something more is ever present but can become a mere dull ache as the deafening roar of everything else takes over.  But I’m paying attention—and I know that some of you are as well.  So what are we going to do, together, to quiet the nonsense and bring our attention to what matters?

My hope in reaching out to a willing and engaged collection of people—my growing digital community—is to initiate some dialogue around becoming more real with one another and hopefully, inspiring each of us to become more real and more engaged with our fleshy, raw, sensory, real life relationships.  And if I can connect with you—even digitally—in a way that both helps to expand our perspectives, as well as nourishes us, I feel that we have also nourished the collective human experience.

So here I am, reaching through a digital medium, to invite you into your body, into your relationships, and into your own life’s wisdom.  And I’d love to hear from you!

For the Love of Your Life!


For the Love of Lust: Part Two

(If you missed part one of For the Love of Lust, Click Here)  

We are built for bonding.  There is no doubt.  Whether we ever satisfy our relationship1innate need for deep connection is dependent on countless factors, but suffice it to say, creating meaning through our relationships is a prime motivator for much of what we do in life.

Could it be possible, however, that our desire for intimacy has a shadow to it?  Maybe that the moral laws that govern our fidelity do not coalesce with passion?  Could it also be that through our efforts to increase togetherness in our relationships, we simultaneously create an emotional barrier to eroticism?

Many partners will admit to waning desire that can become a burden to relationships, coming alive only in response to others or conversely deadening one’s spirit of Lust altogether, after significant time has past.  Most will simply describe this process as fact, as natural.  And while sex and eroticism can take dramatic turns over the course of time, to submit to these socialized beliefs can actually cause harm to these unions we’ve worked so diligently to forge.

In Part One of this article, we spoke to the evolutionary advantages of Lust.  We spoke to the health and necessity; to the brain circuitry specifically designed to support it’s expression.  We also acknowledged the complexity of attaining a harmonious balance between Lust and Love.  (Again, if you missed that, click here).

Becoming Friends with Lust—Ours and Our Partners

Esther Perel, PhD, author of Mating In Captivity notes that lust doesn’t always play by the rules of good morals.  In fact, sometimes those rules are actually antithetical to the cultivation of lust and eroticism because, for that circuitry to be activated, humans tend to require a little bit of risk—something that our intimate bonds have a propensity to constrain.

When we consider the closeness that intimacy allows, the stripping away of lifelong emotional layers that lends to the foundation of relational love—the transparency that fosters safety—we have to wonder as to the other side of the coin.  When we have become so open, so able to yield into the transparent dance of togetherness, we leave nothing for our partners to seek out in us.  And our practice of seeking is related to another region of evolved brain circuitry that is necessary for us to thrive as humans.  Seeking feels good to our brains–it provides a sense of purpose and pleasure and forward motion.  When there is nothing left to seek out in our partners, the pleasure that comes from seeking must find another outlet for expression.

To destabilize our intimate bonds with behavior that many see as riskyfor example, to rekindle eroticismcan feel as if it opposes the exact behavior that is nourishing our relationship.  So often, our “lust needs” take a back seat to the cultivation of care and closeness

lust5And yet… as is clearly stated in Part One, we are hardwired for lust as well.  So while lust can quiet itself for a time, that particular brain circuitry needs expression and ideally that expression would be practiced in a way that supports our vision for an integral relationship.

Lust, for most people, tends to require a certain amount of risk—these two emotional constructs act very similar in the brain, in fact.  The question in the development of lust in an intimate relationship subsequently becomes, how do we RISK without risking too much?

Neurochemicals of Risk

The nature of risk is related to the emotion excitement, which is essentially a combination of hope and fear.  Excitement, on a physiological level, provokes a state of hyperarousal, where thoughts and body states are pushed to stretch beyond homeostasis—our natural state of equilibrium—to a palpable emotional experience that, while stressful, is also related to positivity.  You see, when we push ourselves just slightly out of our comfort zone, and we experience some resulting pleasure, the reward center in our brains lights up like the 4th of July!

Exciting experiences activate dopamine, a neurotransmitter in the brain’s rewardDopamine1 system that helps us experience pleasure.  The pleasure and reward center is housed primarily in the frontal lobe of the brain, and provides a “reward value” for experience.

For risk to be related to reward, our brains need healthy doses of dopamine and adrenaline, along with their available receptors.  And the culmination of reciprocated lust ignites serotonin as well—which is related to feelings of happiness and mood regulation.  Top that off with healthy doses of oxytocin, vasopressin and endogenous opioids and this neurochemical cocktail—if given to a skilled mixologistis deserving of a worthy name!  No wonder our drive to acquire, and experience, the rewards of lust are so powerful.

The fact is, even a one-night-stand can stir these potent neurochemicals into existence, which is why we can experience incredible closeness—the feeling of, anyway—after even a brief sexual encounter.  And yet, one-night-stands do little for the other driver of our relational circuitry—those connected to Care, Bonding, and Love. 

Cultivating the Sweet Spot

Our brains and bodies have evolved to the point of reaping significant benefits of both intimacy and lust—just rarely collaboratively.  The relationship between the two is complex and clearly non-linear, as we may have previously assumed.  Science has demonstrated that both are necessary to our collective evolution.  And if we are to thrive, individually and collectively, we need to stretch into new possibilities for these constructs not only to co-exist, but also, to inform and enhance one another.

The current marital trends are far from indicating a culture of happy unions.  With over 50% divorce rate (60+% in second marriages) it’s time we take a look at the deeper implications of a society that is known to deny the health of lust.  More importantly, we need to cultivate a more united vision of intimacy and lust working, and playing, side by side.


There are many practices that have been designed to deepen our awareness and experience of intimacy and sexuality.  I’ll focus on three that I believe, and that are grounded in science, as central to supporting a healthy transition into developing lust within an intimate partnership—whether you’re in one or not.

These practices are for individuals, maybe those who are deeply connected to a partner and looking to enliven a relationship; and also for those who are seeking to explore a new relationship, where lust is alive from the beginning, and remains a central theme in the developing journey of Love.   These practices are simply “some” ways to help reconcile our need for security and adventure, closeness and separateness, stability and risk, predictability and novelty.

1)    Honor Autonomy

autonomy1In our desire for connection, we can often forget that we are primarily individuals seeking togetherness.  We can become essentially “fused”—not knowing where we end and our partners begin.  This feeling can be incredibly soothing and seductive initially, as we can imagine we’ve found our intimate home and that, finally, we are met, deeply recognized, loved unconditionally.  However, becoming over-connected can, in reality, become a hindrance to eroticism.

For deep connection to be possible, separateness is vital.  While this may seem contradictory, the ability to step away from our partners as separate entities, the ability to self-regulate and practice autonomy, are necessary qualities for one to be able to move toward the other.  As Esther Perel states, “When people become fused—when two become one—connection can no longer happen.  There is no one to connect with.  Thus separateness is a precondition for connection:  This is the essential paradox of intimacy and sex.”

Find ways to establish—or reestablish—independence, autonomy, and separateness.  Nurture activities and personal interests as a means for strengthening not only your attractiveness and desire-ability to your mate, but your own internalized “attraction to self.”

Also, encourage your partner—or future partners—to do the same.  Honor his or her need, whether stated or not, for separate interests and activities.  When developing closeness, look to the future vision that you would like to create—where there are worlds yet unexplored within the context of your partner’s autonomy.

2)    Cultivate Mystery

It can be difficult to be lustful for someone about whom we know everything. synapse1
If nothing is left to the imagination, our minds become uninterested, lacking the tension necessary for desire to flourish.  And as science of the mind is fairly certain, our sexuality is more related to the space between our ears than the space between our legs!

Nourishing the mystery in our intimate unions can feel somewhat counterintuitive since some of the elements of lust don’t necessarily support the development of a harmonious, transparent relationship.  Clearly, lust and intimacy are on very different trajectories, and when they yearn to coincide, fears of the unknown can destabilize our inner worlds as well as our intimate journeys.

One place where we can always escape the confines of fusion is into our own minds—where imagination can take us anywhere, to anyone.  And when we honor the beauty of our minds, simultaneously soothing the innate fears that may arise, we are cultivating our unique mental wanderings that may inform us of what naturally excites us.

The question becomes, can we tolerate the anxiety provoked by our partner’s developing autonomy—by his or her intrinsic capacity to always escape into the sanctuary of the mind, to where we are quite possibly NOT the center of their attending neural processes?  When we can stand firm in our own sense of self, within the vulnerable “unknowns” of our partner’s inner mental territory, we give space to his or her unique exploration of self, grounded in the safety of an intimate home.

An important distinction to consider with this level of the erotic dance is whether or not we are utilizing our fantasies as fuel for our intimate partnerships, or whether we are escaping into the erotic, only to return to safety and stability with our partners, and leave the fantasy separate.  Part of how fantasy can serve to edify our relationships is to acknowledge and share at least part of what is occurring in that solitary space.  Risk bringing the erotic design of your own mental forays into sexual play with your partner—and be open for him or her to do the same.

Conversely, when our own imagination confronts what we assume about ourselves—the principles and experiences within our comfort and moral code—with new stimuli that forces us to question our truest desires, our integrity, and our natural wiring for lust, we have an opportunity to strengthen our sense of self and to share something new and different with our intimate partner.

Through imagination, we maintain a sense of freedom and personal wonder

that can bring new life to our relationships.  

It can feel intimidating to allow our imagination to wander and wonder, to consider what or who, besides our current partner and situation might naturally entice or excite us.  Through our development of safety and closeness, we’ve forgotten that our erotic mind needs to flourish as well.  So allow yourself to re-attune to your innate lustful longings, and then allow them to come alive with your intimate partner.

3)    Practice Mindfulness

a.    In perception

Practice increasing your tolerance to the exploration of space between meditation1you and your lover.  When your partner feels distant, or when you are proactively choosing to strengthen your own autonomy, allow the emotions and the sensations that activate your nervous system to arise.  Welcome them, sit with them, yield into the discomfort of “stretching” your perception and tolerance.  Allow them to inform you of the long-standing patterns of anxiety and fear that tend to surface and cause discord.  Welcome that knowledge like a long-lost friend, here to help you increase both your ability to push the edges of your comfort as well as to strengthen your ability to track your natural sensation that ultimately will lend to deep understanding.

b.    In thought

Practice unconditional acceptance and presence to all of your thoughts from the perspective of an observer.  Practice noticing the thought, and letting it go, over and over and over.   Don’t fall into spiraling thoughts that trigger fear.  Rather, notice the thought arise, and witness it being released with each breath. Notice any impulse to create a story with your thoughts, to give deeper meaning to fear or insecurity.

According to Dr. Brent J. Atkinson, in his article, “Rewiring Neural States in Couples Therapy:  Advances from affective neuroscience,” we can easily “blindly trust” a feeling or thought, because our brains are hardwired for self-protection.  We often automatically attach ourselves to an emotion—as if the emotion is real, and the idea that someone else caused it feels just as real.  In all actuality, the automatic processes of the brain do this naturally.  Our “protective mechanisms” are designed for hypervigilance, first and foremost.  So if we feel fear, for example, we will seek out a source—external to us—that we can attach to the cause, and from which we can then protect ourselves.  This dynamic, while serving us in regard to our survival, can be toxic to our relationships.

Instead, practice simply noticing the thought without attaching it to any external source.  Allow it to exist solely, without spiraling out of control.  Practice being present to all that arises in regard to mental information, just as it is, without trying to dismiss, avoid, or change anything that may ultimately serve to bring awareness.  Simply witness… and let go.

c.    In body

Pay attention, nonjudgmentally, to the subtle signals and sensations of your body.  Reject nothing.  Notice in detail the sensations that are present—especially any tightness or tension that arises or that draws your attention.  Notice any small, seemingly automatic movements that could be related to a deeper emotion.  Allow those sensations to simply “be” without attempting to dismiss them or push them away.  Allow your sensations space to exist, and time to guide you to your body’s internal wisdom.

Also, nurture physical practices that help you touch into your own internalyoga1 resources—your body, your strength, the wisdom that resides in each and every cell of your being, along with your ability to practice new skills.  Experience your body in moments of strength, in times of vulnerability, though practices that stretch and push you beyond what you know.  Our physical selves help to shape our psychological selves, so be present to the shape and flow of your life.

Research has demonstrated that those people who enjoy physical practices, such as strength training, dance, cycling, running, or yoga, experience more excitement in their lives.  And as we practice risk by exploring new physical practices, risk becomes an integral aspect of our natural drive for learning and pleasure.  So the very practice of getting physical opens your neural pathways to experiencing more excitement, more risk, and ultimately more lust.

Embody Your Intention

We have an opportunity, individually and collectively, to transcend the inhibitions and fears ignited by longstanding ideas of lust, as well as our attachment to any historical meaning or power we’ve given over to it.  Lust is a natural, potent, necessary quality of human beings.  Like all other qualities intrinsic to our evolving selves, this specific circuitry in our brains needs to be understood and allowed space to breathe—to find it’s way out of hardwired constraints—in a way that helps us to thrive rather than has us cycling in a spiral of fear.

It is time we transcend the fears that bind our relationships, and allow our bodies the chance to expand their language repertoire—to own and practice our original language and deepen our understanding of the subtext, the nuances, the dialects of our own—and our partners—primary tool of communication.  It is time we work toward becoming fluent in our unique erotic style, allowing ourselves to fully embody the dynamics of seduction, and then share that energy with those whom we love and trust.

Through following the practices of presence, mindfulness, autonomy and mystery, we can begin to lay claim to our birthright for experiencing both the intense nurturance and love of intimacy, along with the fiery and erotic dance of lust—together.

If you’d like more tips for enhancing your intimate partnership, check out my !0 Rules For Intimacy, a free download with lots of juicy and challenging tips for Relationship Transformation.  And keep coming back and joining in the dialogue here!

For the Love of Your Life…


Relationship Skills Training

When I was a personal trainer working with people striving toward their fitness goals, my initial focus with them was most often on form and function. Beyond those basics, I would help to motivate them to then practice their new skills daily or weekly, consistently bringing them back to the subtle messages from their bodies and minds—those things that would further inform their practice. What I knew from my own training, experience with clients, and what the experts said, that’s what works!

I certainly had clients, at times, who were looking for a “quick fix,” Yet I don’t remember ever having clients that actually believed that simply gaining “awareness” of their form and function, without practice, would yield the same results—they knew they couldn’t just read a book, look at some pictures, and have it down or transform their bodies. And what they became aware of rather quickly, with instruction, was that to make an actual difference, they would need to be pushing their bodies through some pretty intense physical feelings—they would be strengthening not only their bodies but their ability to tolerate a variety of powerful sensations.

Relationship Training

It’s almost humorous, and tragic, how often I hear people books1
working toward relationship success who are seduced by the belief that relationship habits will alter through simple awareness—That by reading the right book or article, by having some enlightening conversations with a therapist or friend, their core style of relating to their partner will magically transform.

Now I will grant that awareness—the didactic part of our learning—is a necessary foundation for change. And yet there is so much more.

Our Relational Design

Our style of relating to intimate partners has been designed into our minds, our bodies, our nervous systems—having literally been “wired” into us—from as early as our very first neural “firings.” The automatic pathways that our brain mechanisms follow in response to all sorts of human interactions is something that is related to processes that occur, most often, without our conscious awareness. These processes are immediate, unconscious, and follow “well-groomed” paths within our neural networks like the ruts in an old dirt road—and each time we allow them to flow without attention, those ruts become deeper and deeper, and much more difficult to alter. There’s some benefit to these processes, of course, especially when they’re related to things like…. Oh, walking, for example—the billions of functions that our brains control each and every day that we couldn’t possibly be aware of constantly. When it comes to relationship dynamics, however, those automatic processes often don’t serve our higher desires for intimacy and relational health.

Our perception of truth and reality, likewise, is so often immediately NeuralImage1
categorized by our brains and relegated to “good,” “bad,” “right,” “wrong,” etc., without our minds conscious engagement, that we have often decided something is just so, without considering the possibilities that would require a lot more work—and ultimately discomfort—for our brains. This is where Brain Training comes in.

Pragmatic/Experiential—it’s What Works

In terms of Relationship Training, we learn the “what” of skills through the pragmatic work, through reading and research and dialogue and psycho-education. Then with a trained observer who can provide reflection, support, encouragement, challenge, curiosity, and “coaching;” we can begin to learn the form and function in our bodies and minds—coming back to those subtle sensations, messages, triggers, and automatic responses, with more awareness and more ability to make different choices when it’s most important.

We can begin to feel into the internal shifts of observing our thoughts as we engage in new relational behaviors with a person practiced in the field of our learning. And as neurons begin to fire in distinctly new patterns—because that’s what’s happening when we practice new skills, connecting new behaviors to certain brain states—these pathways begin to carve new “grooves” into our neural networks. It’s like a workout for the brain! We are “wiring” new and healthier relationship habits into our neural networks. And yet, just as is true in the body, a single workout just makes us hurt—it doesn’t create lasting change!

Basic Neuroscience

Neuroplasticity is a popular buzzword right now—and a powerful one at that! The idea that the brain is moldable and changeable in response to behaviors and Mindful Attention–both in processes and shape–challenges the long-standing idea that the brain is physiologically static.  The direction that neuroscience has catapulted the realm of psychology has countered decades of the simple analytical, cognitive, and cognitive/behavioral work of our psychological heritage. It’s time that we—as practitioners of change—develop our emotional and relational fitness, strengthening neural pathways because we are choosing to develop not only awareness of our automatic responses, but to engage the most evolved parts of our brains. It’s time to build brain mass!

It’s exciting, really, that we have so much to say about how our internal worlds might respond to stimuli—those triggers that have previously caused us to feel powerless. And now we’re coming to grasp a power that, prior to the last decade or so, we’ve not fully understood. The idea that we can alter not only the functioning of our brains but the literal form—that’s just damned attractive in my world!

On this note, I want to share a recent experience based on these exact principles—I think it might be helpful for some people who are in the process of making the “implicit” “explicit”—bringing awareness into experiential practice and noticing the subtle shifts. This is the work of transformation.

The Language of Love

Photo by Matt Cashore/University of Notre DameCurrently, I co-facilitate an adult relational skills group, called Developing the Language of Love, based on the scientifically sound approaches of Dr. Brent J. Atkinson, author of Emotional Intelligence in Couples Therapy: Advances in neurobiology and the science of intimate relationships. It’s work that literally gets my heart pumping and makes me want to shout from rooftops—we CAN develop the types of relationships that we’ve all dreamed of. Just as the fact that we CAN create fit, healthy bodies if we have the right tools. And this… this is one of the right tools!

This is an eight-week group, and we are more than halfway through the first round. Already, the results are evident to all of the participants and powerfully affirm our work as therapists and educators.

Two weeks ago my co-facilitator, Robin, and I modeled a “healthy dialogue” sharing some tools for approaching conflict with some well-grounded principles for getting our partners to treat us well. We demonstrated a conversation where both partners were tapping into skill. The modeling was well-received in the group and, also, a request was made that we share what a similar dialogue might look like if one partner is practicing “skill” and the other partner continues to dismiss, criticize, or respond negatively.

Of course! …thought Robin and I. Because most often isn’t that the exact way things play out? Quite wisely, our group was begging the question, “But if I show up well, and my partner is still an ass, then what?”

The Relationship DancerelationshipDance1

This is a much more common occurrence within relational dynamics, right? Consider how often you have approached your partner with a need to either launch a complaint or discuss an emotional need and you plan to do so with skill—maybe you’ve even practiced prior to the dialogue—and the response you get seems very unskilled—in fact, you might even feel mistreated and dismissed or, worse yet, your partner justifies their behavior or belief and actually purports that whatever issue you’re discussing is your fault!

Aggravating, isn’t it? We can walk away from such interactions feeling as if, “I did it right! My partner, like usual, is the one who just blew it!”

We leave these conversations, often very resentful of our partner, feeling that he or she simply doesn’t get it—they just don’t have the skill that matches our own.

And guess what? This very reaction, no matter how “true” it feels, is a breeding ground for contempt.

…But Back to the Story

Robin and I took our group’s request to heart, loosely designing a scenario where one of us (me) had developed some skill to get my partner to treat me well, even when my partner (Robin, in this instance) continued to criticize, dismiss, and blame me. And you know what? It worked! Even via role-play, it became apparent to everyone there that, had this been a real life interaction, with the skills I was demonstrating, it would be incredibly difficult for Robin, or anyone, to continue to act in the way he was consciously TRYING to act—badly!

Then the bigger questions came: Did I feel the automatic responses in my body that might have made me want to react negatively, and what did I do with those? What were my internal thoughts about Robin’s behavior? How was I able to “calm my nervous system” consistently, while Robin was saying some pretty harsh things?

Real Life Happens

Now, let’s get clear on something—Just like most people I, too, have difficulty in this area of my personal life. I continue to cultivate the skills to stay present and I do my best to practice new habits but, WOW! …Let’s just say, I thought creating a fit body was difficult! Nothing compares to the exhaustive work of developing sound relationship skills. So I’ll just say, this is, of course, much easier within a role-play! And, the story continues…

After our group, I continued on with my night and as synchronicity would have it, had an opportunity to practice these exact skills FOR REAL.

Now, maybe because it was so fresh in my brain and body, maybe because I’ve been immersing myself in developing these skills, I was able to consistently bring my focus back to the more advanced part of my brain—my prefrontal cortex, which resides at the forefront of the brain and is implicated in social and emotional regulation.

Essentially, my mind was able to tolerate a bit more intensity because I’d been “training” the exact function I needed just hours before. –Let’s consider the body once again: When I’ve been training a specific muscle, that muscle learns to tolerate more weight, more intensity, right? The same is true for structures in the brain.

I became involved in a dialogue that required some regulation of emotion, some acknowledgments of deep, somewhat painful feelings between two people, and a solid balance of validating my own truth while also acknowledging a legitimately different perspective of someone else—without making the other person “wrong.”

The dialogue that ensued is one I literally know “by heart,” and while the distinctive movements may look different from the outside, the dance is well rehearsed. The “dance” being the pattern of activation—mirror neurons from one person to the other engaging in a willful and well-choreographed tragedy that repeats itself over and over. For many, including myself, this is often the seductive dance of relationship.


Somehow, this night, I was able to feel my feet on the dance floor, feel my pelvis, my belly, my chest, all responding to conscious breathing and mindful presence. So when I approached the dialogue with skill, and then received what felt like a defensive, critical response, something happened. And this is the piece I want to dissect a bit.

Automatic, Subtle Responses that WRECK our Relationships

Most of us have had moments when we’ve approached a difficult dialogue with some skill, right? We’ve maybe done some work around “personal development” and feel better equipped to handle relationship distress. And it’s a boost to the ego when we feel as if we’ve done ourselves well and acted with integrity. And often, we just don’t get what we want in return. Sound familiar?

Then What?

Here is a very common response—we have some internal dialogue going on, which sounds something like this: “I’m doing my best here to stay present and he/she just can’t do it. Why do I always have to be the more mature/more skilled/more evolved person? He/she can never understand what I’m talking about.” Any of that resonate? Something with that general flavor ever cross your mental palate during an intense dialogue with a partner?

I know I’ve had those moments—many of them! And I usually leave those arguments not only frustrated but resentful. I further justify that the whole situation is “mostly” his fault. I mean really, do you want to know what he said??

(Familiar scenario?)

And then not only is the interaction finding it’s way into well-grooved neural pathways, we actually strengthen these habitual responses each time we mentally replay the interactions in our heads with a similar mental content or share the story with friends—that our partners are the ones to blame.

If you allow yourself to play this scenario out, I have a sense most of you know exactly where it leads, and it’s just no good. Sure, we can get a little release from bitching to friends and family about how inept our partners are and about our powerlessness to create actual change. And then we come back home and start the same scene tomorrow—it’s a little like “relationship groundhog day.”

The Brain Workout

So the shift for me came in that exact moment when I did notice something in my desire to “fight back”—to engage with the same energy I felt I was experiencing from my partner which, by the way, is referred to as negative affect reciprocity—the tendency to respond to one’s partners’ expression of negative affect with one’s own negative affect.

And here’s a little tidbit here, which many of you will grasp. I was feeling mistreated. Whether I was being mistreated or not isn’t really important! What’s important is HOW I RESPOND. That, in and of itself, is the determining factor of my personal ability to ultimately create and maintain a healthy relationship. The problem is that we most often get caught in justifying our response due to our partner’s perceived misbehavior. And ultimately, that does little for us, or our partner’s ability to respond more positively. (More on that later.)

Right now, some of you may be thinking, “But it is important whether or not our partners are mistreating us! We can’t just let them off the hook!” And what I’m saying does not negate the importance of that—I promise. Right now, however, let’s focus on our own ability to strengthen our relationship skills.

So I noticed something beginning to shift in me and further tuned in to my internal state—a process known as interoception—“checking in,” essentially. And thankfully, in that moment I realized that THAT—what I was noticing—was the somatic response that I generally have when I get activated! Here was the answer to my group’s question.

Automatic Somatic Response

The moment I felt I was “doing relationship” just a little bit better than my partner, here’s what happened: My breathing became shallow, my chest kind of “froze,” my shoulders collapsed just a little, but in a somewhat defensive, protective stance, and I felt a lot of energy right in the back of my throat, as if I could raise my voice or rapidly justify my perspective.

And I realized in about a nanosecond that I had an opportunity to re-pattern some neural networks that have known a solid and singular path for years.

One thing to note: It is in the moments when we most need to access more advanced parts of the brain—when we most need to use new skills, that they are the least accessible to us. We need them when our brains are so triggered, we’d rather throw all our damn skills out the window because we feel so hurt or angry. And those are the EXACT moments when we need to ground ourselves in the knowledge that we can do it differently. This is similar to the moment when training a particular muscle pushes us to a physiological “edge”—and we have the experience of every ounce of our being believing we can push no further. Then something shifts and we somehow push through and far beyond our perceived limitations. This is when the body begins to KNOW how to transform.

The most important time for us to practice new relational skills is when they are LEAST accessible to us–when they are the most difficult to access!  We can all feel pretty “skilled” when we feel we’re being treated well, right?  It’s when we feel we’re NOT being treated well–this is the moment of truth!  These are the exact moments–opportunities really–that will set us apart from those who continue to set themselves up for failure.  Just as in training our bodies, it does little good for us to train with weights that don’t push us to our “edge.”  We have to train our bodies when we feel we are exercising not only our muscles but our focus, attention, and will.  

So… it was one of those moments. And here’s the kicker—I noticed the automatic thought patterns as well. I heard the little voice in my head wanting to believe that my “dance partner” clearly wasn’t following my oh-so-skillful lead. I felt myself wanting to make him wrong, and ultimately “less skilled” than I was.

And then the jolt. Ahhh….. there it is—the wiring that I have for contempt. And damn, is it a well-grooved path in my neural networks!

In that single moment of awareness, something so subtle shifted internally. It was like the moment where, during a workout, “pain” transforms into “sensation” and we realize we have believed a limitation that doesn’t really exist. “Ohhh…..” I thought. “This is where I normally get off track. And I can make a different choice—and it’s difficult.”

The Reason it’s Called “Practice”

NeuralImage2The work in these moments is so incredibly subtle, so consistent. We need to keep bringing our attention, our focus, back to the present moment; noticing what wants to “steal” our attention and bringing it back to the part of our brain that can make a different choice—the pre-frontal cortex. And some might think this is just far too difficult and maybe even silly to focus so much on these subtle sensations. And again, just as in a physical workout, sometimes that subtle shift in “form” is the difference between strengthening and injuring.

This interaction—and what I was attempting to do—took a while, it wasn’t immediate and it wasn’t pretty and it certainly wasn’t perfect. But it was different. Most importantly, the instant I brought attention to my internal dialogue, there was a shift, not only inside of me, but within the system of interaction.

Similar to the role-play interaction with Robin, above, my partner simply wasn’t able to mistreat, or even seem like he was mistreating me. You see, when we believe our partners are more to blame, we make it just about impossible for them to change. In fact, our belief that they are more at fault than we are is like the kiss of death to our relationships! And so when I, or you, can release the attachment to the belief that we’ve held so tightly, it’s like giving breath to our partner’s unique experience of interaction with us—because sometimes, that’s no joy ride either, right?

Learning to cultivate responsiveness in our partner, when we have long standing patterns of blaming them, is the one path out of relational dysfunction. Most often, even the discovery of this path requires a certain receptivity in us, to stretch our perceptions of reality—of our partners reality, as well as our own—to go beyond the paradigm of truth that we know, and develop a new way of seeing.

If you have questions or reservations about what I’ve shared here… if it’s not sitting right with you, or if it is, I’d love to hear from you!

For the Love of Your Life!


Challenging the “Experts”

Listening to “experts” is always a fascinating experience—I notice myself being enthralled, not always by what they’re saying but by how well they present themselves!  …Generally speaking anyway.  Such an art form, really, and one I’ve yet to perfect.

I had the opportunity to hear an expert last night—John Gray, author of Men are From Mars, Women are From Venus, among many other books.  He was part of a weekend event for couples—their keynote speaker, in fact.  I was scheduled to speak directly after him, integrating some relationship theory and movement practices to increase intimacy into my presentation of “Becoming Embodied with Our Intimate Partners.”

Gray shared some concepts and evidence-based theory that, when I heard it, had a strong impact in my mental circuitry as well as in my gut.  There were things he stated that I agreed with and others that literally made my insides begin to go into hyper-vigilance and scream to the audience members, “Don’t listen to him!  That’s not true!”

One of the first things I want to touch on is the idea that “oxytocin increases cortisol in men,” which John Gray stated as fact, and coupled with the concept that while oxytocin is a bonding hormone for women, it does just the opposite in men, leaving them either fast asleep or anxiety-ridden.

Clarification From the Non-Expert: 

There are three primary types of stress hormones—Adrenaline, norephinephrine, and Cortisol.  Adrenaline is what we might feel when we experience a sudden threat, when the fight or flight response kicks in, and that sense that we need to protect ourselves in the present moment.  It increases our heart rate and helps us focus on what’s most important.

Norepinephrine is similar to adrenaline in that it’s an “immediate response” type of hormone.   It supports blood getting to the necessary parts of the body, such as muscles, to support an immediate response to threat.  It also acts as a “back up system” to adrenaline if our adrenals are a little tapped out.

Cortisol, on the other hand, occurs when stress is ongoing…  for hours, days, weeks, or months.  As an evolutionary response, our bodies have learned to create cortisol to counter the effects of long-term stress on the body, by breaking down non-essential organs so as to basically “feed” other more vital tissue.  It’s really a survival mechanism.  Stress does increase cortisol concentrations but not in that, “Oh my God I’m going to die right now!” kind of way.

Here’s another interesting fact:  Oxytocin is also a stress hormone.  You may be asking, why is that?  Why would the hormone necessary for bonding and attachment, for those yummy feelings of connection, to be released during stress?  Well, some theorize that oxytocin is released during stress because we’re simply not wired to deal with stress–or life–alone.  We’re wired to feel connected and held and supported.  Oxytocin is a hormone that will support what we most need–relationship with others.

Gray’s idea that the release of oxytocin would necessitate a cortisol response makes no sense—at least to me.  The release of oxytocin, first of all, would have to take place over time to create the necessary physiological response requiring cortisol to begin breaking down vital organs to maintain blood sugar, and keep a man’s (person’s) body functioning when he’s in survival mode.  Now granted, a post-coital response can certainly trigger a need to go into survival mode (probably more related to adrenaline), for some, due to certain insecure attachment styles and lack of comfort with intimacy, but to negate the overall counter-effects of oxytocin on the entire stress system is simply irresponsible (in my humble opinion).

Ultimately, what we know about oxytocin is that it directly counters the release of other stress hormones, including cortisol—in BOTH genders by moving us toward necessary connection, which ultimately soothes the nervous system.  The more we experience relationally-oriented activities, such as sex with intimate partners, and feel the release of oxytocin; the more we strengthen and even increase oxytocin receptors in the brain.  We literally “build” the neural pathways related to the foundation of what scientists deem LOVE—from a neurochemical perspective anyway.


Oxytocin Neurophsin

Oxytocin is a unique neurochemical that way.  (Here… take a peak.  Pretty huh?)

…So even if an individual struggles with feeling “comfortable” with intimate connection that contributes to oxytocin release, continued practice—yes PRACTICE—will increase, not only that individuals comfort, but actual brain chemistry and “wiring” that allows for the benefits!

To counter Gray:  Some men (or women) may have an increase in adrenaline after climax with a partner, due to insecure attachment and experience of newfound intimacy, and finding themselves beyond their normal comfort zone.  And the simultaneous release of oxytocin can, and most often does, powerfully counter that process.

…and the Research says

Gray referenced that when men were injected with oxytocin, they had an increase in cortisol.  This is confusing as the research states that oxytocin doesn’t cross the blood brain barrier, except in the form of nasal spray.  However, the use of spray on a long-term basis for research caused amnesia, hallucinations, and imbalances in hormones and electrolytes and was, as the research implies, long-term, and so has a more understandable connection to cortisol.  Maybe this is what he’s referring to.  However, this research actually applies to both men and women as well.  I wonder if this might be one of those areas where an “expert” has taken some liberty with research so as to defend his position.

Another scientific theory regarding oxytocin, researched by Dr. Jay Zak, is that those people—primarily men in his research—who were found to be lacking “trust-ability” in their intimate relationships were those same people who had fewer oxytocin receptors than most.  So if men were to buy in to the ideas of John Gray, denying any benefit of oxytocin for themselves and subsequently sinking into a familiar “disconnect” after sex with a partner rather than deepening the bond through increasing one’s tolerance for post-coital intimacy, there’s a possibility that the chance for strengthening and increasing oxytocin receptors in the brain would be inhibited, thus creating further disconnect and ultimately doing nothing to strengthen the bonds of attachment via lovemaking.  Run… on… sen… tance…!

The Journal of Neuroscience reports research done at the University of Bonn, where René Hurlemann and colleagues conducted a study with a group of healthy, heterosexual men; some single and some in committed relationships.  The study found that the presence of (administered) oxytocin actually inhibited closer proximity for the men in committed relationships, with an unknown attractive woman.  Essentially the study purports that men in committed relationships—those with adequate oxytocin due to their relationships—kept a “safer” distance with an attractive woman they didn’t know.  Hence, the research suggests that oxytocin may establish a greater sense of intimacy and attachment, and foster fidelity in committed relationships!  Clearly, this research would counter the ungrounded ideas of John Gray.

Gray also had the ….I’ll just say it, audacity to make the claim that after men have sex with a woman, his drive to be with her further is automatically inhibited by the lack of newness and excitement, therefore he will always be looking toward the next best thing.  Now, clearly we have all experienced this idea, whether from media, movies, our own relationships, or fear of relationship.  And there is science that espouses a dramatically different theory—that when men and women (both) experience climax with one another, and oxytocin is released, those experiences literally lay the foundation for love and a desire for increased intimacy and sexual gratification with that partner.  There are certainly a variety of other relational components that lead people to buy into the idea that men are consistently on the lookout.  But let’s get clear on the facts folks!

This from Wikipedia:

Oxytocin evokes feelings of contentment, reductions in anxiety, and feelings of calmness and security around the mate. Many studies have already shown a correlation of oxytocin with human bonding, increases in trust, and decreases in fear. One study confirmed a positive correlation between oxytocin plasma levels and an anxiety scale measuring the adult romantic attachment. This suggests oxytocin may be important for the inhibition of the brain regions associated with behavioral control, fear, and anxiety, thus allowing orgasm to occur.”

Oxytocin is even thought to promote wound healing, among contributing to other health benefits.  Some research is now looking into the effects of social bonding to increase overall health in men and women.  The preliminary research is being done with rats, of course, so we can’t be certain.  But the results look promising!  And as isolated as many of us are these days, knowing that increases in oxytocin can ameliorate some of the negative effects of social isolation on physical health is yet another reason to get as much as we can!

When our “relational circuitry” feels soothed by the presence of certain neurochemicals such as oxytocin, and this occurs again and again, when we are in the presence of someone we love, we can become more comfortable “in our bodies.”—And with so much of our current lives taking place “from the neck up,” in this fast paced age of information in which we’re living; when we become more embodied with our partners, our ability to regulate our emotions and develop a “learned” secure attachment becomes possible.

Like I said, however, I’m no expert!  So get curious and do some of your own research—both the didactic as well as the embodied kind!  And let me know what you come up with!

For the Love of Your Life,


When Trauma Brings Us Home

When a hurricane destroys entire cities, and people are left stranded, we rush to help them rebuild their homes and their sense of security.  When fires rage into homes and rob families of everything they have, we share our wealth—household goods, toys, clothing, money.  When someone is sick, we work to raise funds to pay for outrageous medical bills.

When trauma happens—human beings want to help.  Helping gives us a sense of meaning.  It not only connects us to one another, it provides us with a sense that “we matter,” we can do good, we can make a difference, we can help.  We are empathic creatures, by nature, and when our communities are suffering, our natural response is to “feel” together.

However…  when children die at the hands of murderers, there is no offering of material wealth, service, or activism that will mend the shattered lives that are left in the wake of unimaginable loss and heartache.

We are left to simply mourn with those who have lost the ones most dear to their hearts.  And this, I suppose, is as it should be.  Because this loss is simply too great for any one person, any family, or even any community, to hold on it’s own.  This is a tragedy that calls upon all of us to be a conduit for healing.


Right now, many people who are reeling from this tragedy, even those in distant states, are finding it difficult to focus on everyday tasks.  Not only are we traumatized and scared, many people are experiencing guilt when going about normal daily life, when interacting with children, because we know that so many lives are in a state of debilitating grief.

There is a cumulative feeling, for many, of helplessness and, for others, a sense of meaningless, as a result.  Questions arise such as, “how can I focus on cleaning my house when there are people grieving their lost children?”  And bigger questions, such as, “How can I bring a child into this kind of world?”  Some people, triggered into remembering their own traumatic histories, feel that they cannot go about their normal lives.

I want to offer some thoughts on a way to help process through grief and guilt, as well as the desire to help hold this massive collective suffering.  Many of us right now are caught in mental and emotional anguish—our brains are spinning in a never-ending loop of despair and confusion.  And without understanding, which ultimately we will never have, we are stuck.

That’s trauma.  And even when trauma is vicarious, it can wreak havoc.

Let me provide some explanation for how this system works:  Imagine a person who has severe trauma in their history, perhaps sexual abuse as a child.  And this trauma is never “repaired.”  The individual is left trying, as all humans do, to understand—to make sense out of what happened.  And because it is so difficult to make sense out of such horrific events, our brains do something called “looping”—where our psyche keeps tracing the same pattern through our nervous system, trying to find  a way out, a way to stop the cycle, a way to stop hurting…  and ultimately, until trauma is provided a pathway through the person’s psychological body and physical body, it remains “stuck.” And when trauma is stuck, it continues to damage us from the inside out.

The same is true in the greater collective.  We will all spend massive amounts of time and energy trying to understand the minute details of what happened and why, because we have a human need to make sense out of it all.  But when there is simply no sense to be made, we will be stuck “looping” in the greater collective and this trauma will become “stuck” as part of our cultural makeup.  And giving this kind of universal space to something so intolerable is like giving more power to that which has the potential to destroy us at the heart.

So I want to ask all of you to dig into your greatest emotional and physical resources and not allow this particular trauma to become part of our collective psychological makeup.  Because I can assure you, that will not serve the greater whole.  What also will not serve, in my opinion, is to close yourself to what has happened.  I know that it is difficult to allow yourself to be vulnerable to this tragedy, but shutting yourself off from knowing anything also creates a certain “stuck-ness” in the system, as trauma then isn’t allowed to “move.”  I’m not recommending listening to all of the details.  I’m saying, open your heart to the suffering that has occurred, in the service of supporting healing.

We, as a nation, need this to move.  We need to feel it, together.  We need to hold it.  We need to process it, allow it to wreck us at times, to dig into our hearts and drop us to our knees.  And as time allows, we need to move it through our collective system so that we can help to heal one another.

I’d like to offer some ideas for how, over time, each of us can help to heal this trauma:

Use your bodyUse your presenceUse your heart.

  • Feel the feelings—not consistently, and pay attention so that you don’t become overwhelmed.  But listen to your body.  When you read articles, listen to the news, or talk with friends, notice how much you’re actually “taking in,” and also how much you are becoming numb.  If you’re getting spacey or feeling numb, step away, turn off the TV, practice some self-care.

When you are feeling resourced—in other words, grounded, stable, “in” your body—MOVE.  Find a way to allow some of the feelings you’ve been holding to move through you.  Express the feelings you’re carrying in your body in some way.  For some people, this could be a physical practice, such as dance, creative movement, exercise, running, strength training, Yoga.  For others, it might be cooking a meal, cleaning house, walking the dog.  Whatever you’re drawn to do, practice focusing on moving your body in response to these particular emotions, allowing them to move you and, in essence, find a way to move out of you.

  • Be present to the people with whom you’re interacting, to your own emotional state and response, to the tasks, relationships, moments at hand.  Breathe into the awareness of knowing of others grief, feeling the grief with them, helping to hold the massive sense of loss and, with gratitude, step into your life and relationships with presence.
  • LOVE.  As simple and powerful as it is…  we need to keep coming back to love—from our anger, from our hurt, from our sadness, from our fears.  Love will help us heal.  Love is where we will find one another.  Love will bring us home.

My thoughts, prayers, sadness, heart, and body are with those who are suffering greatly now.  I wish for you to feel held in your grief, so that you can mourn this incredible loss in the safety of arms and hearts reaching out and holding you.


Surviving the Holidays

Thanksgiving, Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, New Year’s,

Eid-al-Adha, Lunar New Year, St. Lucias Day, Bodhi Day, Hogmanay,

St. Nicholas Day, Las Posadas, Japanese New Year, Diwali… 

Just to note some of the traditional holidays celebrated around the world.  And some questions arise, for me, around this season and the “heaviness” that so often seems to accompany it for so many people.  Growing up, the holidays–particularly Christmas for my family–was a time of joy and celebration.  And while we seem to keep striving for this now, it seems that the holidays have become somewhat “bogged down” with…  something else.

The following is based on an In Service that I provided for Noeticus Counseling Center and Training Institute.  I thought that some of the concepts might be helpful for others as well.  I’d love to hear what you think!


 1.    Why is the season so difficult for so many?

 2.    How can we approach and engage with Mindfulness, Self-Care, & utilize the Holidays as a time for “re-wiring” relationships and family dynamics?

 3.    How might we model these skills to family and friends?


1)    Why is the season so difficult for so many? 

The holiday season brings with it some heightened excitement and feelings of togetherness when we share time with family and friends whom we don’t often see.  And for many, this same season can bring increased anxiety, depression, overwhelm, and a sense of isolation.  Why is it that this “wonderful time of year” is consistently fraught with such significant distress?

(However, on that note, the idea that suicide rates are highest during the holidays is a myth perpetuated by many).

Holidays are significant—for most, anyway.  People often have an idea of what the holidays are “supposed to look like,” (often due to what we see represented in media and the annual “family photos” on greeting cards) so the reality can feel disheartening and contribute to feelings of inadequacy and insecurity.

Holidays are connected to childhood memories that are more significant than other “everyday occurrences.”   Our emotional memories become very connected to those significant times and can be easily triggered.  So they are often more related to intense emotions, unsatisfactory family dynamics, unresolved family issues, painful memories, and childhood traumas than other times of the year.

Because the deeper emotional connections to holidays are coupled with the added stress of busy-ness, shopping, travel, financial concerns, hosting others in our homes, and numerous obligations to family and friends; the months from November through January are sometimes approached as something to simply “get through,” rather than a time of nourishment, connection, and joyfulness.

2)    How can we approach and engage with Mindfulness and Self-Care; and utilize the Holidays as a time for “re-wiring” relationships and family dynamics:

  • Prepare to be triggered:

If you plan for at least some of the inevitable distress that the holidays can bring, you are more apt to be able to remember to access your inner resources and self-soothe when troubling emotions arise.

Take some time prior to spending time with family to consider how historical family dynamics have played out and how you might envision yourself in a more desirable role within your family system.  Also, recognize that family systems don’t change automatically and will usually take significant practice.  The holidays can be an ideal time to nurture the types of relationships with your family members that feel healthy and appropriate for you now.  Practice being flexible and going with the flow!

If your holiday time will not be spent with family, take time to nurture the relationships that contribute to healthy social connections and community in your adult life.  Prepare ahead of time to engage authentically, so that if you’re feeling overwhelmed, you’re able acknowledge your need to take care of yourself.

  • Listen to your body:

Take time each day, or each hour if necessary, to “check in” with your body.  Pay attention to the depth and rhythm of your breathing, track sensations in your body that can inform you of increased stress, anxiety or “collapse”—those times when you feel yourself falling into some oblivion of a patterned powerlessness within your family system.  Notice your pacing, your tone of voice, your thought content…  and take time to remind yourself that it’s difficult to alter family dynamics and there’s a good chance that your body will respond to stress before you recognize those responses cognitively.

Allow your body to remind you when it’s time to take some space for yourself, when it might be time to connect with someone whose caring behavior resonates with you; and when it might be time, even, to jump in to the swing of your unique family dynamics!

  • Receive:

While most of our family of origin dynamics, as well as many of our adult relationships, are not “ideal,” the people in our lives often love and care for us, even if they don’t express it exactly how we’d like.  During more stressful times, including the holidays, we can be so caught up in other things, that appreciating what people DO, and their unique way of “giving” can be difficult.  When “perfect” doesn’t show up, we can close ourselves off to any and all nourishment from our relationships.  Remind yourself to receive what your loved ones are offering, however they’re offering—and take it in!

For example, growing up, my Dad wasn’t one to say “I love you,” and of course that was the one thing I craved hearing from him more than anything!  What he did, however, was show up on my doorstep at least once a week, when I was in college, to bring me fresh fruits and vegetables from his garden.  It was his way, so it became my practice to receive his underlying intention.  Notice and accept other’s unique ways of reaching out to you in loving, nurturing ways.

  • Find the humor:

When we can become a little more objective about the particular “dysfunction” of our own families, it can be helpful to see some humor in how we’ve all learned to “be” in the world.

Some reality TV shows have given us glimpses of how diverse some family dynamics are—and on a TV screen, some of that diversity can be incredibly humorous!  Sometimes it’s funny simply because we realize our own families aren’t as weird as we originally thought.  And sometimes, it’s just comforting to see that others aren’t so “picture perfect” either.

Isn’t it crazy to consider some of the bizarre ways that our families have chosen to exist in the world?  And while we don’t want to dismiss obviously painful or hurtful events or dynamics, for other things, it can be helpful to step back and see some of the quirky foundations of our lives with a bit of humor.

  • Practice self-care:

Even though you’re more than likely strapped for time and have loads more on your plate during the holidays, be sure that you are continuing to practice the things that nourish your body and soul.

Exercise—make sure you’re actively moving your body every day.  Allow some of the stress and anxiety you may be experiencing to be expressed through engaging your body.  Do something with your body that feels refreshing and can help you reconnect to YOU.

Eat healthy—remember that healthy food not only nourishes your body, it nourishes your mind, which houses your emotions and provides the foundation for your skill in relationship.  Balance some of the “sweet treats” of the holidays—which can cause physical distress—with eating whole, raw, nourishing foods.  Be sure you’re getting adequate macronutrients, including healthy, lean protein, complex carbohydrates, and healthy fats.

Sleep—getting adequate sleep is essential for maintaining our emotional resources and practicing new relational skills.  Our brains and our bodies need rest!  Use the holidays as a reminder to rest and refresh yourself each day.

Take time to simply “be”—during stressful times, it’s so useful to take purposeful breaks from all the “doing” to just “be.”   This could be a perfect season to get into—or back to—a meditation practice.  Maybe try some walking meditation or simply remind yourself to sit, breathe, and let go of all the thoughts running through your mind.

Connect to people—take time to nurture those relationships that truly nourish you.  Trust your instincts when it comes to wanting to spend quality time with certain individuals more than others.  Notice what resonates and how differently you feel in the presence of certain people.

  • Practice re-wiring:

Even when we’re all grown up, it can be incredibly easy to fall into early relational patterns when we’re with our families.   Practice skills such as asking for what you need, acknowledging what you feel, becoming curious—rather than just “knowing”—about a family member or friend.

Remember that giving the benefit of the doubt and finding the understandable part, can be powerful tools when attempting to rewire relational dynamics.  And just as important are standing up for yourself and validating your own views and opinions without putting down the views and opinions of others. 

  • Boundaries:

Family dynamics can sometimes trigger us into forgetting how to take care of ourselves.  Learn to use your “no.”  And remember that “no” is an essential skill in healthy relational dynamics!

Guilt and obligation were foundational teachings for so many of us but research shows that rarely do they provide any true benefit to relationships, nor to an individual’s sense of personal power.  Get clear on what feels “in integrity” to you.  And then own it!

  • Reframe:

Sometimes our histories have painful emotions based on, not only reality, but on our perception of reality.  When we were children, our perceptions were subject to the family and dynamics in which we developed.  As adults, however, we begin to develop a more flexible perception when we practice awareness, empathy, and objectivity.

When we can begin to view some of our past family dynamics with new eyes—new awareness—we may surprise ourselves by naturally releasing some of the hurt or anger, simply by reframing what happened “then” with a different, and more objective, “meaning” now.

3)    How Might We Model These Skills to Our Family & Friends?

One of the greatest blessings of relationship, as we all know, is the potential for feeling as if we are “a part of a greater whole.”  And part of deepening those experiences is showing up, not only as people strengthening our own skills, but as “good enough” human beings, just being with the people we love.  And human beings are sometimes messy, and we are far from perfect, and we have histories that harbor a certain amount of hurt.  When the people closest to us gain some understanding that we are working toward healthier relational dynamics and practicing more evolved behaviors than the ones we were originally taught, it can provide incredible benefit for others to experience the challenge of meeting us where we are.  And when we can be gentle with ourselves when we don’t practice all of our skills perfectly, we also are more able to have an accepting and gentle attitude toward those around us.

When others realize that we are consistently working to become the people we want to become within our own family systems as well as with others in our lives—and that our work is a “practice,” they can anchor that knowing into their own developing sense of self, reminding themselves, even when they are in the midst of family drama, that they are not alone in their efforts—that their own personal work is connected to a collective effort for personal and relational growth.

Our own personal work has such a positive correlation to the spiral of energy that begins within and ultimately circles out to the greater collective.

Our practice of skills, such as self-care, boundaries, the use of humor, reframing, receiving and, of course, mindfulness—all of these skills, used within our relationships with family and friends—is what is used to “raise the bar” in all of our relationships, and ultimately strengthens the foundation for helping us all to evolve into more relational and helpful human beings.

Many Blessings to us all during this Holiday Season!

For further reading about Surviving the Holidays, check out this link on the Noeticus Counseling Center and Training Institute website:


For a story about appreciating and rewiring family dynamics, follow this link:


For the Love of Your Life!