Wednesday, June 22, 2016

From Rigid to Flexible

When we run into changes in life, whether that be an unexpected loss, an unplanned-for change, or an unpleasant day where everything seems to go wrong, having the ability to be flexible can help us be less miserable. If we think that life needs to go a certain way it's going to be very jarring when life doesn't do what we want. And that will happen because this is life we're talking about. It's often unpredictable, and at some point it will involve at least one really big unexpected surprise that knocks us on our faces. Sometimes in an effort to avoid the unavoidable, we tell ourselves that control is where we can find stability and peace. That we can, in fact, create a life that won't require flexibility. When we do this, we become more rigid and changes become harder because control and rigidity don't stop life from throwing us curve balls. We can never control every aspect of life. We might for a while, but something's bound to snatch that control away leaving you feeling panicky and vulnerable. Increasing flexibility through mindfulness can help difficult times or days feel a little more manageable.

The more rigid we are the more likely it is that we'll try to struggle with change. Picture a game of tug-of-war with a person on one end and the change on the other. While the person is desperately pulling, the change stands like a brick wall, unmoved by any force the person uses. Changes will happen and they will win every time if we view it as winning or losing. We can feel that we must find a way to fight the change, reverse it back, or ignore it until it goes away. Let's continue to imagine change as a brick wall: it's an unexpected obstacle in your path. You can either try kicking the wall to get it to move or decide to follow a different road than you had planned to take. If we choose the panic and fight method, odds are good we'll feel worse about our predicament and feel more lost or hopeless (and possibly end up with a broken foot). If we see it as something that's an annoyance but is passable we can get past it and on our way sooner. If we change our thinking so that we expect changes to happen, it'll be easier to not see the change as a threatening brick wall but as a detour that leads down a slightly different path. Mindfulness can be a way of helping us slow down and adjust our perspective.

I know, mindfulness seems like a buzz word right now but it's actually a fantastic tool. Through mindfulness we find ways to observe what's going on around us and within us. When we stop and notice how we're reacting and what we're feeling we can make a choice about our next step. When we rely on a rigid plan or way of being we run the risk of challenging changes to a never ending game of tug-a-war. We can learn how to stop struggling with difficult situations or unpleasant feelings and we learn to tolerate the unexpected. Notice I'm not saying that the unpleasantness will simply disappear. We may still have to live in that situation or with that thought or feeling. It's not a cure for feeling bad. It gives us a way to feel less out of control because we're not trying to control what we can never control.

Think of a Chinese Finger Trap.You know, the multicolored bamboo cylinder that fits nicely on your pointer fingers but closes around your fingers once you try to pull them apart. If you're like me, when you feel the trap closing around your fingers, you decide brute force will save you and start wildly trying to pull your fingers out. This only makes the trap tighter. If you calm down enough to assess your options, you might realize that gently pushing in instead of frantically fighting gives you the release you’re looking for. So, when you feel yourself starting to react to a change, take a moment to and ask if you're stuck in a finger trap. If so try a few things:

  • Take a few deep breaths.
  • Pay attention to how you're reacting in your body and how the deep breaths affect that reaction.
  • Take a minute to think about why you're upset or trying to fight the change.
  • Remind yourself that you can be flexible and other paths are available.
  • Think of the different options and choose a different path.
  • Let it go. You can do this by mentally saying you're letting it go or by doing something, like physically writing down what's changed and throwing it away. Sometimes physical acts can help with letting something go.
  • Move forward on your new path.
  • Repeat the steps if you feel you're sliding back into the finger trap feeling.

This way of managing change requires practice and becomes more effective the more you use it. So practice on small, day to day changes or disappointments. The more easily you can be flexible in daily life the more easily you'll be able to apply it to bigger life changes. Good luck!
Thoughts by Alissa Kaasa

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

"Normal" Grief Would Be Nice

I'm co-facilitating an ambiguous loss group right now so I've been thinking a lot about grief'lately. After the last group it hit me that over the last few weeks everyone had made at least one comment regarding the ways they should be grieving and expressed feelings of frustration, guilt, or failure about not grieving in that way. This idea that there's a particular way to grieve is something I've noticed in other people as well as myself. I've had thoughts that maybe something was wrong because my grief experience was longer or looked differently than others. We have ideas that grief should last a certain amount of time or should manifest itself in different emotions that occur one after the other. There's this picture of what "normal" grief looks like that we grow up believing is the only healthy way to process grief. As I've thought about it I've been realizing how unhealthy that rigidity is, especially with complicated or ambiguous loss. We would all choose to experience this "normal" grief; that's there for a short time, runs its course, and leaves us to go back to an unaltered life. But in my experience that's almost never how it works. The things we think won't bother us are the things that plague us during the day and keep us awake at night. Even when we can prepare for a loss grief can drown our well planned out ways of coping and leave us feeling hopeless. Then there's the surprise losses that come out of no where and knock us down so hard we're dazed and confused about what's up and what's down. All of that on top of it never going away, which no one wants to admit happens. We're also individually complex people. We all come from different backgrounds, grew up learning different ways of coping with life, live by different philosophies, and have different strengths and weaknesses. With all that, there's no way there would be one path to correct or normal grieving.

The dream of "normal" grief slapped me in the face a couple years ago and shook up my understanding of grieving in new ways. About two years ago I started to get sick. At first I thought it was stress but after several weeks suspected it was something more. 6 months later after taking a leave of absence from work, going through numerous tests, feeling miserable most of the time, and watching my strength slowly diminish to the point where I couldn't walk down the block I finally got a diagnosis of Celiac Disease. I knew life wouldn't be the same and that I would most likely experience some grief but thought the relief of feeling better and having answers would be far greater than the grief. Some days that was true. Other days I'd walk past the bread or beer isle at the store and start to sob. I would have never guessed something so ordinary and basic would have such a strong effect on me. I thought it was weird (I mean, it probably looked plenty weird) and it scared me. I thought "What is wrong with me? Who has a melt down when they see a loaf of bread? I know what's wrong and how to fix it so why do I feel this way? It's not a severe like other illnesses, so why can't I move on like a normal person?". As I digested the experience I realized that this was part of my grief journey. It wasn't what I was expecting but it was clearly something I wasn't going to escape. Once I realized that I stopped fighting how I thought it should be and tried to experience things in the context of my grief journey. It was mine and not someone elses grief so of course it would look differently. If I cried because I couldn't eat something then I cried. If I got angry when waitstaff didn't understand my dietary needs I'd be angry and email them later about the need for more awareness. I started to learn how to acknowledge it as grief and sit with the horrible, uncomfortable whirl of emotions because I was no longer trying to compare it to this idea that grief needed to look a certain way. It became a healthy, natural response to the loss I was experiencing. I could be both happy I was going to get better and have feelings of loss around how my life had changed. Two years later the still grief pops up at times (as grief usually does) and I have to remind myself that my grief journey continues. It's a part of my path now and I can both have it while also having a life outside of the grief. Some days that comes more naturally while other days it's a struggle to not go back to judging myself. Depending on your experience this may be the biggest challenge you will ever face or something that just takes some time to master. Again, different for each person and different for each loss a person experiences.

Our society likes to have concrete, well defined steps that lead to getting what you want. How often have you read or heard things like these are the 8 steps to make you happy, if you work hard your life will be good, if you follow these steps you will achieve success? We like things to play out in a predictable and tidy way.  I'm sure there are a few who could say their life has followed that pattern yet most people I've met don't have that luxury.  Life is messy and unpredictable even when we make carefully planned steps. There's also an idea that we can all do and experience the same things in life regardless of who we are or what we've been through. Yet if we look at our siblings we see that, even though we had the same up bringing and similar experiences, we turn out very different from each other. So, shouldn't grief also come with curve balls and differences between people? Or is that the one thing in life that follows a predictable pattern across all people? My experience and work with others points to the opposite. We never know what grief will bring us until we experience it. We can prepare and hope that what we've set in place will be beneficial for us yet we never really know how we're going to respond, how deep the grief will run, and how it will sit with us long term until we're living with it. That to me is the normal part of grief. It's normal to be surprised by what grief looks like in your life and the misery it brings regardless of how big or small the loss may be to others.

That said, there are similar feelings and experiences that can happen in grief that pull us together. For example, we may feel sadness to varying degrees and if you've experienced grief sadness you know what that feels like in your body and mind and how that may differ from sadness in other areas of life. Those similarities can draw us together. We can support each other even though our grief journey's will all look and play out differently. I argue that having a "normal" grief experience doesn't actually exist so why should we try to hold ourselves to something that's not real. What does exist is your unique grief journey, which will look different than other people's journey, and the connection we can find in others who know what grief feels like.
Thoughts by Alissa Kaasa

Monday, June 6, 2016

Ambiguous Loss...That's a Thing?

Since starting our group practice in January we've wanted to find gaps in support in our community so we could better meet people's needs. The most glaring gap has been in grief and loss, especially ambiguous loss. When a loss is ambiguous it's not clearly defined and is often not recognized as a difficult loss by society. The examples of this kind of loss are almost endless (not having a relationship with an adult child, developing a chronic illness, ending an affair, having an abortion, being a caregiver to someone with dementia, experiencing multiple losses at once) yet when you look for support it's almost non-existent. Pauline Boss is one of the first people to identify ambiguous loss as an actual experience. She has many wonderful resources and articles that have been groundbreaking over the last several years (see her website for more information: The four of us have read so much of her work and use it almost daily in our practice so it was shocking to realize that the concept still wasn't widely acknowledged in our community or by other therapists. We saw ambiguous loss in so many of our clients as well as our own lives. It seemed odd that there weren't more resources for people and that so many clients were telling us they had never heard of the term ambiguous loss before. How could that be when it's something most of us experience at some point in our lives? Right now ambiguous loss is a silent ache that sits inside people; never being acknowledged as a legitimate loss experience. People suffer alone without knowing their pain has a name. It's not acceptable.

We want to name the pain, create a community of support, and then, together, find ways to move forward. Our journey down that path has started with the creation of ambiguous loss groups. We currently have one for parents with estranged adult children, one for caregivers, and one for people who develop serious mental illnesses. We hope that's just the start for us. Eventually we would like to have more groups that target very specific areas of loss. I've been making an effort to talk about it more in personal life as well. Sharing my own experience of loss and the struggle ambiguity adds to life has opened up fantastic conversations with friends and family. It's exciting but also surprisingly challenging; trying to bring to light a pain that's so often hidden and ignored. I often expect looks of complete confusion and pity yet have found the opposite response, one of relief and understanding, is more common and makes the momentary discomfort of broaching the subject worth it. If we all start acknowledging ambiguous loss as a genuine, painful loss experience then we'll be able to create a community where there are resources and support to help people live with the pain. Creating this awareness and support is possible but will take more than a few therapists in Minneapolis creating groups and talking about ambiguous loss in their personal lives. Will you join us in trying to create this change?
Thoughts By Alissa Kaasa