Three ways to use the holidays to heal and grow

IMG_0008As we descend into the darkest month of the year, we may notice ourselves bracing with closed fists and gritted teeth. For some, the cold and darkness keep us tucked away from the present moment. For others, the holidays bring a blizzard of emotional turmoil that is hard to understand. We are supposed to be joyous and celebratory; it can feel confusing and isolating to feel differently. It can feel embarrassing, even shameful, to dislike the holidays, especially when we don’t have a clear understanding of why they cause us distress. We may feel angry with ourselves that we are unable to enjoy them. We wonder what is wrong with us.

Truth be told, the holidays are rough for a lot of people. We as a culture don’t talk enough about this. It’s hard and sometimes shameful to admit.  Family is complicated and personal; it can be painful to have the spotlight shown on family dynamics. Old family dysfunctions that we can generally avoid suddenly take center stage as we reunite with one another. The holidays can also remind us our losses, whether an empty chair at dinner or a missing part of ourselves.

While the inclination may be to ignore difficult feelings, drowning them in eggnog or whatever our seasonal coping mechanism may be (shopping, eating, peppermint schnapps), we can instead use this season to grow, to incubate, and to heal. Here are some of the nurturing ways in which we can approach difficult holidays:

  1. Using the holidays to grieve.

Walking through the mall around the holidays may feel unbearable. That six-year-old girl sitting on Santa’s lap reminds us of the child we might have had if we hadn’t had an abortion six years ago. We wonder what sort of toys we would be buying her, what new rituals we would make as a family, had we chosen a different life path. We think about playing draidel together, or making Christmas tree ornaments out of Mason jar lids and glitter, just as our moms taught us to do so many years ago. These thoughts bombard our consciousness uninvited, and haunt us even when we plea for them to leave us alone.

Or maybe that six-year-old girl, smiling and laughing, her parents rejoicing in the magic she sees all around her, gnaws at a much older wound from our own childhoods. The sexual abuse we endured at that age enters our minds, and we realize that we were robbed of not only magic but also of safety. The thought of sitting on a stranger’s lap terrifies us. And even if it didn’t, there was nothing to ask of Santa because even at age six, nothing mattered. Even then we may have lost hope. And suddenly we resent this child. We wish we had had memories like hers—memories of innocence in a time when innocence is so quintessential. And we wish there was a family to go home to visit now, though we haven’t spoken to our abusive parent in years. Instead we are alone still, stung by the frostbite of these thoughts which never cease to appear each year.

The holidays highlight innumerable losses: divorces, lost pregnancies, lost childhoods due to abuse or neglect. Deaths in the family, estrangement from family, lack of family, family who seem stable on the outside but ignore who we are in those subtle ways that hurt so unbearably. We cannot change the ways in which the holidays bring these wounds up. However, we can use these experiences to allow ourselves to grieve—to allow ourselves to feel whatever we are feeling without trying to change it: sadness, anger, resentment, fear, loss. We can choose to give these wounds a voice by letting them be, just as they are. This is a complicated journey, and one that can require professional guidance as to prevent overwhelm or retraumitization, but is worth pursuing as part of the healing process.

2.  Allowing ourselves to hibernate.

Sometimes with the lack of light and warmth, it feels only natural to go inward during the winter—inward into our homes and inward into our own consciousness. All beings need to rest and recuperate; winter can offer some of that. Often shut away from spending time outdoors, we can turn to introspection and contemplation, to reflect on the year and set our goals and intentions for the future. We can enjoy our own company and the space we call home.

While some may not want to hide away for long periods of time, or at all if they struggle with depression or other emotional difficulties, for others it can be helpful to enjoy some of the inevitable alone time during the winter. We can get to know new parts of ourselves—spend time listening to different parts of our brains and hearts. Re-examine old thoughts and beliefs. Find refuge in solitude.

3. Keeping our hearts open to joy.

Even if we feel like scrooges during the holidays, we can ourselves to take in the positive moments; they may sustain us through the rest of the winter. While this may seem obvious, if we are in pain during the holidays, enjoying any part of them may feel invalidating to our experience; we may feel like we are ignoring our feelings or “selling out.” It is important to realize that nothing is black and white; if the holidays bring us mixed and complicated feelings, which they so often do, we can invite in the entire spectrum of our experience. We can make a seat at our dinner table for both pain and joy, understanding that not only is there room for both, but also that both need to be invited in, fed, and listened to.

Letting loose with our coworkers at the holiday party can be a much needed reset from the deadening routines we create together and can bring levity back into our working relationships (especially if done in ugly sweaters). The way the city lights up, trees and lampposts and houses glowing and twinkling against the snow, always reminds me of the resiliency and optimism of humans when they loose the light of the sun. Allowing ourselves to put on ice skates, or to eat special once-a-year things, or to decorate our homes with treasures from our grandparents, can help to balance out the difficult feelings. It’s ok to have sadness around the holidays and to also enjoy parts of them. Giving ourselves permission to indulge in these joys can be hugely nourishing.

If we are ready, welcoming in all of the emotions that arise during the holidays—grief, solitude, joy, and others—can help us to make peace with the inevitable tornados of the human experience. It is when we hide from them, when we shut them away, that we find ourselves suffering more.

Reflections on EMDR

IMG_1649As I finish the last requirements of my Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) training, I feel more compelled than ever share the gift of this therapy with the world. Having sat on both sides of the room, experiencing EMDR as both a therapist and as a client, I continue to be amazed at the changes I see, both in myself and in those I work with.

I notice myself making new connections about my habitual patterns. The roots of everyday suffering have become cleaner and clearer; I find myself more honest with them. I am more honest and less resistant, more flexible and less stressed, more curious and less avoidant. Most of all, I am finding myself more resilient than ever before. This was highly apparent to me during the chaos of the recent 100-year flood, an event that had a great impact on my life. What could have easily been psychologically traumatic was instead within my realm of tolerance. Beyond that, I was able to make meaning of my experiences and grow, even while the waters were at their height.

I am not a new person; I am simply more intimately in contact with my core self—in contact with my strength and power and flexibility and wisdom. I can weather the storm, more grounded than ever before.

I went into my EMDR training very skeptical. On the outside, the therapy appeared to be too rigid and formulaic for my style. Because of its predictable structure, I assumed that it lacked room for spontaneity and creativity. I thought because of this structure, my clients would feel as though therapy was being “done to them” and they would not have freedom to explore their own therapeutic processes in ways that were most helpful and resonating to them as individuals. Truth be told, EMDR is structured. There is a very clear formula and protocol. But what I didn’t realize before beginning my training was that this structure was the skeletal frame that could support a very creative, investigative, and nondirective process. My experience of EMDR has been a polar opposite of my past stigmas.

So what is EMDR, how does it work, and what is it like?

EMDR is a type of therapy that can be extremely helpful for both traumatic and difficult life experiences. Unpleasant symptoms that cause distress occur when such experiences are stored in the brain in an unprocessed way.  In other words, they get “stuck.” EMDR helps to unstick and process these experiences, reintegrating them in the brain so that they are no longer disturbing.

In EMDR, we use bilateral stimulation with eye movements, tactile sensations, or audio sensations while remembering a memory or symptom. This allows for processing and integrating of stored and/or unconscious material, thereby decreasing unpleasant symptoms. Though we are not sure quite how EMDR works, it has been shown by research to be a highly effective method of therapy. One theory is that by using bilateral stimulation, we create a state in the brain similar to REM sleep, which allows for our system to process material that is otherwise stuck.

During an EMDR session, a person experiences a combination of images, thoughts, somatic sensations, and emotions as though they were on a train, watching them go by out the window. It feels a little different for everyone, and part of the process is learning to trust that your experience is unfolding as it needs to (with guidance, of course!).

One thing I really love about EMDR is that it creates safety in a way that makes processing difficult experiences manageable. It gives clients control over how deeply they want to go into painful experiences, and highlights the importance of self-care and trusting one’s own limits. In this way, it promotes self-compassion and self-awareness. It’s empowering. It puts us in intimate contact with all parts of ourselves, from our shiniest defenses to our shadowed wisdom.

*Interested and want to know more? I am happy to do free in-person or phone consultations if you are considering EMDR with me. I am also happy to help connect you to other resources as well! Contact me here.*

[Sources: EMDR International Association: EMDRIA.org. , Maiberger Institute: maibergerinstitute.com].

After the Flood

There are now mornings I have awoken without the smell of mildew on the back of my dreams. The fans have stopped their buzz and the gutter mud has settled into dry, frozen waves. My sinuses have fallen back into invisibility. There are moments when life feels normal again. Or perhaps I have gotten used to a new normal. Many of us have.

flood

My new normal is cleaner—simpler; it has to be. There is no longer the luxury of leaving clothes on the floor. Of taking a home—a car—a healthy body, for granted. Of forgetting to count the blessings around me.

Water washed out the path between summer and fall. As though crisp air and dark nights and pumpkin lattes sprouted from summer grass like flood-quenched mushrooms. Here I am in October, wondering how I got here.

But I’m glad I’m here, in this October unlike any other.

Some of us are continuing our path as normal—those leaves that yellowed in the usual September cycles. Others of us are stunted, grasping to green. A few of us fell with damaged branches, crashing abruptly into rivers that weren’t supposed to be there—now left thirsty and disoriented and alone. And many of us are bigger and cleaner and more vibrant than we have ever been, our roots having absorbed the abundantly saturated soil, filth and all. And we sway like trees twice our age, paradoxically angry and grateful, weighted and flexible, grieving and inspired.

Most of us are all of these—and integration of our September’s sun and debris. And here in Boulder, life will go on.

Listen to the Younger Parts of Yourself.

Listen to yourself. Listen to all parts of yourself. Listen to your past self at every age. Read the notes. Scan the pictures. Don’t just see the wisdom in creative play and inspired bliss, but also in creative coping and inspired survival. Honor the wisdom in all the ways you made it to this point.

Honor your inner toddler and honor your inner teenager. Honor the choices you made—perhaps no one else ever has.  You need someone on your side. You did then, and you djournalso now. See how amazing you were at forging on against all odds. Find your resiliency and your growth: pink hair in the greyness of depression, lyrics strewn across your homework, a flower pressed in the pages of your story. Let your strength inspire you.

Honor your teenage inspirational forces, even if they seem silly now. Feel grateful that you were inspired. Be proud that you danced and sung and screamed along with the radio. It doesn’t matter who made you dance. You danced—perhaps against all odds. Be proud.

Growing up and into who you are, you loved. Everyone has loved someone. How much bravery that takes! Never be mad at yourself for loving; be mad at others for abusing it. But don’t be mad at yourself. Instead, love yourself. You know you can do it (after all, you’ve loved before). Trust yourself enough to love yourself.

Ask your younger self advice. Ask her opinion. She is dying to be heard. If you don’t agree with her, be curious as to why. Is there something she is afraid of? Inquire as to how she wants so desperately to protect you. Thank her. She loves you a lot.

Never forget how much your younger self loves you. She is your biggest fan. She will do anything to keep you from being hurt like she was hurt. She is your mama bear. And sometimes you may find her suggestions—escape, depression, drugs, obsession—no longer helpful. Don’t hate her for trying. As I said, she has gotten you to this point. Thank her, and tell her you are going to make new choices. You can say no to her ideas without saying no to her.  Keep her in the boat. She didn’t abandon you, so don’t abandon her.

Sometimes, it may be painful to acknowledge her—to let her in. That’s because you love her so much that you can’t stand to see her suffering. Her pain may be unbearable. It’s OK to wait until you are strong enough. But don’t wait forever. She is a part of you—the today you. She is a part of Now. And she has so much to give.

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Rachael Uris, MA, LPC is the owner of Atacama Counseling, LLC, offering sex therapy as well as individual and couple's counseling for issues surrounding sexuality, love, and pregnancy. All services are located in downtown Boulder, Colorado, and are provided in English and Spanish.
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