You Can Cancel Christmas If You Want

golden christmas card

With the Thanksgiving holiday complete, we’ve now approached one of the biggest hurdles of the year for some people – the holiday season.  For many people, the season can trigger its share of painful memories.  I’m no different.  The holidays can trigger difficult emotions and even despair for me, if I allow.  If I allow.

I recently saw a client who struggles with the holidays. Her family has been less than forgiving of her individuation since she became an adult.  Coupled with the shadow of their own unhealed emotional wounds, interactions with them serve to harm my client more than comfort her. There are years when she’s too exhausted from work-related travel to turn around and travel 4 states away for Thanksgiving. Christmastime becomes an Olympic sport of dodging their harsh criticisms of her. Thankfully, she’s created a small circle of friends with whom she enjoys time and, over the years, her preference has been to skip the family gatherings and join those friends. This year after she announced to her parents she would not be traveling to their home for Thanksgiving, they offered up a plate of holiday shame and sent her into a tailspin of guilt. Being an only adult child of aging parents, she fears they will keep their threatened promise of cutting off all contact with her if she doesn’t succumb to their wishes. Let me be clear. They are threatening to permanently cut off all contact if she doesn’t share this one particular meal with them. In fact, they refused to speak to her for several days after her announcement. She called me in tears and panic.

…..…the season can trigger its share of painful memories and even despair for me, if I allow. If I allow.

After we spent some time helping her ground herself and manage the overwhelming anxiety, she asked me if she could cancel Christmas this year. “Can I just cancel Christmas, please?” I swiftly replied that she could do whatever she wanted. After all, she’s grown. We both chuckled at our exchange. She frequently seeks my “permission” to make choices for her life. I frequently remind her doling out permission is not my role as her therapist. Our conversation reminded me of the many adult clients I’ve worked with over the years who wrestle with the holiday season. So many events can taint our experience. After years of pretending to be joyful, a common defense is to become cynical. We can easily confuse the pretense of our existence with the thought that a holiday is meaningless. That’s okay.  It can be meaningless if we choose it to be. We control our own value system. Frankly, a holiday, or any day of the year, can be exactly what we want – what we allow it to be. Don’t get me wrong. Mood illnesses like clinical depression or anxiety can make it difficult for anyone to enjoy life. Those moods can convince us to cancel choice as an option for how we cope. Traumatic memories can feel like a dictator that strips us of all choice. The ultimate manifestation of that would be to make one final choice and take our own life.  I’m thankful that my client has not latched on to the ultimate final choice for herself.  She ultimately decided on giving herself time alone and space to create her own holiday traditions, replacing shame with healing and kindness. She continues to fight back and learn more effective ways to cope. I encourage you to know you can fight back with your own permission to be healthy.  That might mean spending a holiday away from family.  It might mean setting boundaries.  It might mean leaning in to those difficult gatherings and learning you can survive. You get to choose. Of course I hope you always choose adaptive, healthy ways to manage life. Choices that leave you feeling free of burden and grateful for another day.

Traumatic memories can feel like a dictator that strips us of all choice. I encourage you to know you can fight back with your own permission. You get to choose.

There’s no shortage of recommended lists on the Internet for “how to cope with the holidays”. So I won’t be posting another one for you. Okay, maybe I’ll post one short list. I can’t help myself. Truthfully, though, none of those lists will do you any good unless you choose them. If you’re struggling with the holiday season, take time to consider how you’d like to cope. I choose to enjoy them as a way of finding meaning in my life. My value system includes faith-based beliefs that help. Yours might not. You choose. You can even cancel Christmas if you want. Just don’t cancel choice.

Click on the link below to see my recommendations for how to effectively cope with the holidays.

Coping with the Holidays

Posted in Christmas, Counseling and Mental Health, Grief, Self-Acceptance | 1 Comment

When Your Therapist is Just a Person

Office

Periodically, a psychotherapy client will ask me if I’ve ever been in therapy for myself. They are sometimes curious at my comfortable response of “Why, yes, of course”.  Some test the boundaries and would like to hear details of my own experience in the client’s chair – if only to distract from the discomfort created by any focus on their own pain.  I offer very little of my experience as a client.  The space and time for each of my clients is imperative to the outcome of their well-being.  Crowding their hour with my story is not likely to help them.  It’s natural, though, for them to wonder. It’s as if somehow my testimony serves as my expertise in helping with their issue.  However, a surgeon doesn’t need to have a history of his or her own heart transplant in order to help me with mine.  I was trained and mentored by wonderfully gifted clinicians who taught me well how to use self-disclosure only if it may benefit a client’s healing.  Any other use of that disclosure would be negligent.  While keeping my self completely “out of the room”, as purists in the field would insist be done, is unrealistic, I do take great strides in keeping that space (the therapy hour) as open and clear as possible for my clients.  Albeit, the world of technology has added the challenge of remaining completely anonymous as a whole person who sometimes is, just that, a person first and therapist second.

Coupled with my own love for writing and a choice to use it as a tool for maintaining psychological and spiritual balance, the dilemma for me and my colleagues who also write or blog is how to handle the tenderness of complete authenticity and the boundaries of trust and confidentiality.  Both my openness and the boundaries that legally and ethically bind me to do no harm to my clients are of equal importance.  There would never be a time I would write anything that discloses identifying information about a client.  However, the issue of them trusting that assurance, or trusting me fully once getting a glimpse into my own psyche, is more complicated and always deserves attention.  It’s possible the issue would never surface because I’m not sure any client or potential client would ever read my blogs. However, so precious is trust between two people, both personally and professionally, the risk of that trust being broken must be managed.  That’s why it deserves continual consideration.  Yet, as I respond to the suggestion of friends and colleagues to offer a more public version of myself through writing, I find myself considering how this might affect those who come to me and offer their trust in me as their story-keeper.

So, I am compelled to address these ideas openly – in part, to continue my quest for self-exploration and growth, and possibly to help someone else on their own journey. The short version of my thought process –

Yes, I’ve been to therapy as a client – in part, because my mentors insisted I trust my own profession enough to use it in maintaining my own psychological health.  I discovered the sacredness of that safe space to consider myself wholly and honestly.  On occasion, you may see a reference to my own experiences in “the other chair” if I am moved to make those disclosures a part of my growth.

As a mentor of young clinicians I strongly encourage the idea that, in order to be your best professional self for those who seek your help, you must ensure your personal self is along for that ride to health.  The two parts of you as therapist and person are never completely separated, ever.

If you are my client and reading this – know that your best interests are always in the forefront of my mind.  And if seeing my thoughts “out there” in the world brings you discomfort, you can always talk with me about it so that any compromise to your own growth as a person is eliminated.

It’s an interesting position to be in – person/therapist/person/therapist. Some days it scares me to hold the stories of others in that space. What if I misstep and cause, albeit unintentional, pain? Most days, I’m completely honored that my clients trust me with the most tender, vulnerable parts of themselves. Always, I’m in awe of the human spirit and it’s capacity to survive.  To that end, I hope to offer my best as both therapist and person.

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Christmas – A Celebration of Grace

The last thing I wanted to think about on the morning of Christmas Eve was death. Yet there I was, driving into the city to run an errand, tears streaming down my face, missing my mom. Resisting the reality that her earthly death had come 3 years before. In recent weeks I’d watched, through social media, the cousin of my nephew spend last days with her father before he passed through this life completely. She’d shared an authentic and vulnerable account of their last moments with him. Although she and I have never physically met, she quickly became one of my teachers on this earth because of her willingness to let her life happen in fullness.   I recalled dialogue with a dear friend just a week ago as she’d told me about her father’s recent end-of-days, hearing in her voice all the strength she’d had to muster just to experience the end of his life with grace and courage. On my heart had weighed the fresh Christmas grief of my own cousins who’d bid farewell to their mother, my aunt, just months earlier. I wanted to feel carefree and content during that drive, to just sing along with the Christmas carols blaring through my speakers.

Instead, grace, mercy, and love wanted to tap me on the shoulder in the form of memories to be cherished, even used to soften this otherwise harsh world.

Yes, sometimes grief is just a not-so-gentle reminder that we’ve given and received grace, mercy, and love in our lives. I decided to let the tears flow, stop resisting, and be mindful of what was placed in my mind on this morning. My emotional strain quickly gave way to warm memories of my mother and how excited she would be around Christmas – mostly because she loved giving to others through the cakes and pies she baked, the joy in the eyes of any children who visited, enamored by all the decorations that donned her home, and the joy in her own eyes when she got to be near her kids and grandkids.  I remembered the many times my mom had offered me her grace, her mercy, and her love.  When I leaned into this rush of feelings welling up inside me, the tears flowed more easily and they were met with gratitude and a smile as I realized I had been given a choice in how to check in with my soul’s deepest movements.  My mom and Christ had a lot in common. They both knew how to move me from a painful place to a much better space.

The cycle of life and death is still a mystery at times. Yet, somehow on Christmas, we choose to accept the most miraculous of lives in Christ’s birth and the most egregious of deaths in His crucifixion. For the Christian faith, it is a celebration. Seems odd, really. We celebrate a day that was so alarming and confusing for a young, virgin girl in the Middle East and then celebrate a day that was, no doubt, full of grief for that same woman as she witnessed the loss of her son on earth years later. The story tells us everything turned out for the best. And what I love about that story is that the main character, Christ, would completely understand my tears on this Christmas Eve morning. Then, He would shift effortlessly with me into celebrating the grace, mercy, and love that my own husband and son give me every day.

Grief requires us to be a vessel for its voice.

Allowing it to be spoken, and felt, washes clean the space through which the best of ourselves can be heard. The grace, mercy, and love others have given me is the best of myself. The story of my Christmas Eve started in sorrow and tears.  Remembering that this holiday is a celebration of grace eased my sorrow, making way for His will to be done.  On Christmas, I get to celebrate the best in me, the Christ in me. Happy Birthday, Christ. Thanks for using Your birthday as my reminder and celebration of grace.

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Christmas – A Celebration of Grace

The last thing I wanted to think about on the morning of Christmas Eve was death. Yet there I was, driving into the city to run an errand, tears streaming down my face, missing my mom. Resisting the reality that her earthly death had come 3 years before. In recent weeks I’d watched, through social media, the cousin of my nephew spend last days with her father before he passed through this life completely. She’d shared an authentic and vulnerable account of their last moments with him. Although she and I have never physically met, she quickly became one of my teachers on this earth because of her willingness to let her life happen in fullness.   I recalled dialogue with a dear friend just a week ago as she’d told me about her father’s recent end-of-days, hearing in her voice all the strength she’d had to muster just to experience the end of his life with grace and courage. On my heart had weighed the fresh Christmas grief of my own cousins who’d bid farewell to their mother, my aunt, just months earlier. I wanted to feel carefree and content during that drive, to just sing along with the Christmas carols blaring through my speakers.

Instead, grace, mercy, and love wanted to tap me on the shoulder in the form of memories to be cherished, even used to soften this otherwise harsh world.

Yes, sometimes grief is just a not-so-gentle reminder that we’ve given and received grace, mercy, and love in our lives. I decided to let the tears flow, stop resisting, and be mindful of what was placed in my mind on this morning. My emotional strain quickly gave way to warm memories of my mother and how excited she would be around Christmas – mostly because she loved giving to others through the cakes and pies she baked, the joy in the eyes of any children who visited, enamored by all the decorations that donned her home, and the joy in her own eyes when she got to be near her kids and grandkids.  I remembered the many times my mom had offered me her grace, her mercy, and her love.  When I leaned into this rush of feelings welling up inside me, the tears flowed more easily and they were met with gratitude and a smile as I realized I had been given a choice in how to check in with my soul’s deepest movements.  My mom and Christ had a lot in common. They both knew how to move me from a painful place to a much better place.

The cycle of life and death is still a mystery at times. Yet, somehow on Christmas, we choose to accept the most miraculous of lives in Christ’s birth and the most egregious of deaths in His crucifixion. For the Christian faith, it is a celebration. Seems odd, really. We celebrate a day that was so alarming and confusing for a young, virgin girl in the Middle East and then celebrate a day that was, no doubt, full of grief for that same woman as she witnessed the loss of her son on earth years later. The story tells us everything turned out for the best. And what I love about that story is that the main character, Christ, would completely understand my tears on this Christmas Eve morning. Then, He would shift effortlessly with me into celebrating the grace, mercy, and love that my own husband and son give me every day.

Grief requires us to be a vessel for its voice.

Allowing it to be spoken, and felt, washes clean the space through which the best of ourselves can be heard. The grace, mercy, and love others have given me is the best of my self. The story of my Christmas Eve started in sorrow and tears.  Remembering that this holiday is a celebration of grace eased my sorrow, making way for His will to be done.  On Christmas, I get to celebrate the best in me, the Christ in me. Happy Birthday, Christ. Thanks for using Your birthday as my reminder of grace.

 

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My Therapist Called Me a Weed

L. Chris Cannida, LPC

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published by L. Chris Cannida, MS, LPC – April 6, 2016

April is the Month of the Military Child.  The dandelion is the official flower of military children – representing their resilience in the midst of constant change and uncertainty.  In honor of the smallest, and strongest members of our military community, I am reposting this one.  Honored to have been compared to such a phenomenal group of people – military children.  

“The most terrifying thing is to accept oneself completely” – C.G. Jung

My therapist asked me once if I considered myself a dandelion or an orchid. She went on to say she believed I was, of course, a dandelion.

My own therapist had dubbed me a weed.

She was brilliant at leaving me in the space of ambiguity, allowing me to resolve for myself exactly what she’d meant.  I was familiar with the metaphor and it was…

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Mindfulness – Hoax or Help?

 

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by L. Chris Cannida, LPC – January 27, 2016

Recently, I ran across an article that defined mindfulness simply as the exercise of paying attention to deliberate and slow breathing.   The article went on to dismiss mindfulness, given this minimized definition, as nothing more than a trend in the field of behavioral health. While diaphragmatic, or belly breathing, can be a result of or conduit to mindfulness, this definition did little to fully educate on the benefits of true mindfulness as an exercise in healthy living. Unfortunately, if this perception takes hold with the general public, we have stripped from them a wealth of information that can lead to life-changing benefits.

Jon Kabat-Zinn, Professor of Medicine Emeritus and creator of the Stress Reduction Clinic and the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, describes mindfulness as a means of paying attention in a particular way, with purpose and without judgment.

Experts in the field of neuroscience have spent years studying the health benefits from the art (and science) of true mindfulness practice. Turns out, mindfulness involves a wide variety of mental and physiological exercises that positively affect not only our physical being, but also our social interactions, as well as improving our moods and cognitive function. There is now research being done on how teaching mindfulness exercises to students in school classrooms can enhance opportunities for learning.

Some benefits of mindfulness practice include:

  1. Increased mental focus and flexibility
  2. Improved working or short-term memory
  3. Strengthened immune system
  4. Decreased anxiety and depressed mood
  5. Physiological stress-reduction
  6. Psychological resilience
  7. Increases in relationship satisfaction

While I teach the aforementioned breathing techniques to nearly all of my clients as part of a strength-based, wellness portion to their psychotherapy, we also spend time learning many of the other exercises borrowed from the world of mindfulness practice. In doing so, we help them separate from painful ruminations that serve no positive purpose in their healing, empower them to manage their bodies and minds toward a stronger sense of self, and strengthen their physical selves in order to combat continued life stresses.

In recent years, I’ve even witnessed mindfulness practices being helpful to service members battling combat-fatigue and post-war/reintegration struggles. The simple exercise of learning more about how their body and brain interact toward creating a healthier and whole self gave them valuable tools in moving forward toward recovery from the most challenging of issues.

I encourage anyone reading this piece to explore the many ways mindfulness can bring benefit to your life. There is no shortage of legitimate, evidence-based information on the subject from which to draw. To help you get started on a daily dose of mindfulness in living, check out the following resources:

http://www.rickhanson.net

http://www.mindfullivingprograms.com

 

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When Grief and Celebration Collide

This week is the celebration of Christmas for many in the world.  It’s also a week that, for some we call Gold Star families, will be cloaked in grief and loss.  Six American soldiers were killed by suicide bomb in Afghanistan this week. Christmas, 2015.  As I consider the magnitude of loss for them this time of year, I recall the first year my own grief and celebration collided.  Christmas, 2013. The first Christmas of my life without mom on earth.

She passed away on the first day of Spring that year. Oddly, I’m glad it was a day easily marked by the calendar. I didn’t want to forget the last time she was physically near. It’s a strange feeling – wanting to remember when your parent died. And yet, I quietly did the same when my father passed away. He died the day after my nephew’s birthday.  First day of Spring, a birthday, Christmas.  What do we do when grief collides with celebration?  Perhaps resilience is built on the ability to reconcile the two.

Knowing that we can remain resilient and grow in the midst of such a pain as grief is one of the ways we cope.

Being able to say to oneself, “I did it. I survived this.”, can be a remarkable comfort in times of seemingly insurmountable strife. For me, it is vital to have a mental stronghold to break my fall when I find myself grappling with painful emotion. Because of my work as a psychotherapist, I am constantly compartmentalizing my own hurts so I can keep my clients’ needs in the forefront. And the side effect of that is what knocks me off-balance at times. My own humanity will not allow comfortable denial of such a significant part of me – being on earth without my parents. But, the constant suppression of such sorrow in the midst of everyday living becomes difficult. So, my pain eventually finds its way to the surface, ofttimes at the strangest, most unexpected moments.

That’s what happened the December after my mother died when I walked into the seasonal Hickory Farms store and smelled the aroma of smoked sausage and cheese.  That day, my grief and my celebration collided.  I found myself quickly scurrying from the store. Several weeks earlier, my son had mentioned that he missed getting his treat package full of sausage and cheese from Nana this year. He’d known the joy of that gift for the past 18 years. Until that year, 2013. His words were the first tug at the hem of my pain and so when I entered the store it was only a matter of seconds before my grief, which I thought was safely packed away inside my soul – where I keep all things painful – would emerge to grip me unmercifully. The salesperson, thankfully, was not one to follow me through every square inch of my stroll through the store. This allowed me a private moment to notice what was swelling inside me. And when my eyes began to sting with tears, I swiftly made my way out the door. Gratefully, I am able to normalize these moments for myself. So I embraced the sweet awareness that being nudged closer to memories of my mom is a blessing. My moment of sorrow turned into a peaceful presence. It felt as though she was right there with me, teasing me a bit for being so silly. Then, gently reminding me that over the years she’d missed her parents, too. I can hear her now, in her southern drawl, “I miss my mama and daddy everyday. You’re supposed to miss your parents.” My mother was the first person in my life to teach me that being tolerant of feelings was a normal part of growing, and in that, growth is lifelong.

Today, I realize that perhaps it’s more about me and my growth than the fact that my parents are gone. Maybe I’m wanting to mark days of my life that forever change me – days that I believe are meant to help me grow and more surely know my purpose on this earth. It’s like that old practice of taking a pencil to mark the height of your child against a door frame – so that over the years the milestones can be noted. Maybe the point of enduring the stresses of life is to see and celebrate the growth. Perhaps someone in our lives is watching and searching for a clue of how to get through tougher times. We are a concrete being. We need proof that all is eventually okay – that we are going to be okay. We need to know that our presence here is noted as important and that those steps we take to survive are not taken in vain.

I’m not really confident I know my importance here in this life. And let’s face it, without our parents here to validate us, that knowing is sometimes even more out of reach. I do know I want to pass on to my own child the keys to finding his purpose. I want him to embrace grief and quickly turn it into moments of warm memories that nudge him into a more peaceful presence, without being burdened by sadness and sorrow. I want him to know that regardless of what he feels in any given moment, those moments are a bridge to better times in which he will feel stronger and sure that he will see better days. I want him to feel validated and recognize his own strength.

Someday I’ll be sending my son and his family Christmas gift packages of sausage and cheese. Until then, I hope I’m able to teach him about turning sorrow into peace. And that with or without me and his dad around for validation, he is significant and needed on this earth. I want him to use his faith in God, embedded in his soul by the reflection of his worth he finds when he sees my face – his mother. That’s a lofty task – to assure a child of their worth. It’s a life’s work. My mom certainly did a good job of it. Her children were the center of her purpose. I’m daunted by the thought of being for my son what she was for me.  I look forward to celebrating his launch into life while making a safe space for my grief to breathe.  Each year since her passing, I just close my eyes and remember getting that package from mom each holiday season. Smoked sausage and cheese – and the steadfast love of my mother. Dear Mom, wish you were here. Grateful for all the times you were.

As I reflect on the bittersweet mixture of grief and celebration, I wish for those whose grief has the sting of newness a peace and strength to remain resilient. Whether Gold Star families or others, remain encouraged that your grief is also a celebration of the love you held for another.

If your grief has collided with holiday celebrations this year, please consider reaching out for support –

www.griefshare.org

www.griefnet.org (Grace Happens)

www.veterancrisisline.net or 1-800-273-8255

www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org or 1-800-273-8255

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