How Our “Perspectacles” Create Our Truth

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Social learning theory posits that learning is a cognitive process that takes place in a social context and can occur purely through observation or direct instruction. This theory points to learning through interaction, relationship and instruction by others. If this basis is true, then wouldn’t it also be true that all learned “truths” that we have as unique individuals are also uniquely ours? As no two people have shared exactly the same actuality as they developed and moved through the myriad of experiences that brought them to current day living; it would make sense that no two people share the same realty, even if looking at exactly the same picture, idea, poem, lesson, etc..

I believe that our realities are shaped so much by our fears, experiences, positive relationships, and day to day minutia, that it is next to impossible for two different individuals to see the same situation in the same way. It’s as if we wear lenses, or spectacles, that are entirely biased by our learned perspective. If we view life experiences so different from each other day to day, wearing our so called “perspectacles”, how are we ever able to agree on anything? Or come to general conclusions with each other?

This biased perspective that each of us holds is the root cause for so many miscommunications between individuals and especially within couples. How many times have you looked across the table at your partner, in the middle of a heated argument, and wondered…how in the world did they come to that conclusion? When both people are faced with the same situation, conflict, or event, how is it possible for it to be viewed in such different ways? The answer is rooted in the the very basis of how we learn things as human beings.

When we are babies our parents point at square object sitting on the floor with weird symbols on it and say “book”. We have no idea what the sound “book” means but we hear it and a small seed gets planted in our minds. A few days later, our parents say the same sound to us again and pick up the square object off the floor while doing so. As this continues to occur over the course of our beginning months of life we begin to associate the sound “book” with the square object our parents are pointing at, picking up, or reading from. Then maybe our parents ask us, “Can you say book?” while pointing to the object. As babies just beginning to speak, we try out the sound and are immediately rewarded with positive reinforcement in smiles, loving gestures, and excitement in our parent.

This positive reinforcement motivates us to continue to practice and work on making our parents give us that good feeling again. Eventually through trial/error and repetition, we internalize the sounds that go together making a one syllable noise “book” as the square object with the symbols on it to the point where we don’t even have to think about it anymore as the word just automatically pops into our head. This becomes our internalized knowledge and it is how we learn everything. Everything gets learned in this manner: what to fear, what feels good, what is right/wrong, how to take care of family members, talk to others, and what love looks like. Everything.

If social learning theory holds to be true, then this would mean that everyone has had unique and different learned experiences around everything that has formed their world view. So when you have a couple in an argument and the husband stops talking and is silent, the wife will interpret that with the learned experiences that she has associated with that behavior. For example, if her father (in the midst of an argument with her mother) used to be silent, when he was about to hit her mother across the face, her reaction will be one way; however, if her father used to be silent to allow his wife to have some space to formulate her thoughts in the argument, her behavior will be different. Based on what she has learned, this same behavior in her partner can evoke fear, or security. One of the main causes of conflict with couples in working through their issues together, is that there is no one way to view any shared experience. All of us utilize our own perspectives to determine what we believe to be our personal truth, we identify it as right or wrong, and then act according to this belief system that we hold in place.

So if this holds true, how do we learn to interact with each other in a healthy manner? How do we have shared respect and room for individual opinions allowing for an appreciation for the differences in our shared realities? The first step is to recognize that this is everyone’s truth and your way of seeing the world and your reality are your unique perspective and yours alone. Having a general respect for the fact that everyone you meet will see the same thing as you in a different way can help you to get over your bad self, tell your ego to take a deep breath, and minimize your frustration in collaborating with others.

After you open up your perspective to allow for differing opinions, I encourage you to humble yourself and ask questions of whomever you are connecting with. Don’t make assumptions with what your “perspectacles” are telling you someone is feeling based on what you think is going on. Learn to have the courage to ask questions and be curious about someone else’s experience. One of the best ways to encourage someone to feel like you are truly open to a different point of view is to have genuine curiosity about them. You are sharing your time with a unique individual who has learned things much different that you. For example, they may have painful past experiences or trauma they are trying to work through, or maybe they struggle with trying to identify their own feelings in the moment; you never know what someone else’s journey is about. Be compassionate and patient and hold open your heart as you hear someone’s truth. It doesn’t have to change your perspective or mind, but it should help you to understand that this person is not you, but is instead uniquely their own individual self.

Finally, in addition, I encourage you to see if you can catch yourself using negative judgement when considering persons with vastly different viewpoints from your own. See if you can begin to appreciate and have an openness towards others that may be be new for you. When in an argument or discussion with your partner, try a genuine curiosity about their point of view and ask them about it in a non-judgmental way. My bet would be that your relationships open up into a brand new closeness as you begin to understand and stay open to the uniqueness of your partner. This new skill will work effectively for you in all collaborative relationships: at work, in your family, friendships, and in dealing with the guy at Starbucks. I think honoring everyone’s unique perspective makes our world a more interesting place full of individuality. I mean how boring would it be if everyone was the same?

Stacey Neil, LMFT is a licensed Psychotherapist and Certified Personal Trainer who has a private practice in Los Gatos, California. She can be reached at 408.827.5139.

Why Dieting Has Always Made Me Fatter

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Want to gain weight, get angry, frustrate yourself, and mess up your metabolism potentially forever? Go on a diet. As many of my readers know, I grew up overweight. I weighed in at higher than 160 pounds in 4th grade. I remember this clearly because I had to get my wisdom teeth pulled (at an ungodly young age) and I lied to the dentist about how much I weighed so my dad wouldn’t know. This caused him to not use enough numbing medicine and I began to feel all of the cutting, pulling and tearing midway through the surgery. I will admit, as much as that sucked, I was still glad my dad didn’t know how much I weighed because even by age nine I was fully aware of the stigma associated with being the “fat” girl in my school.

My doctor at the time told my mom that I needed to go on a diet and put me on The Peanut Butter Diet. Seriously. No joke. Peanut Butter. I had ton’s of peanut butter for each meal. I remember being seven and trying to measure out a tablespoon of peanut butter into a little plastic spoon. That’s hard as you know if you have ever tried to do it. It’s also a really small amount of peanut butter and it leads you to want to suck the remaining smears of leftover peanut butter off the spoon if any clings on. Sure, this doesn’t lead to food cravings and feelings of deprivation. This is how food obsessions are born. My little girl self was dutiful. I measured, logged, counted calories and tracked everything I ate. I didn’t like the fact that my parents needed to order “pretty & plump” size clothing for me. It was humiliating. At the time, this was the early seventies, I just wanted to be able to get my clothes at Sears like everyone else. If you have ever been overweight, you understand that to buy clothes “off the rack” is highly desirable when you haven’t been able to do so in the past. Stores didn’t use to have attractive, cool, fashionable clothes for larger women like they do now. I ended up hating peanut butter for about 10 years. And I gained weight once I cried and told my parents I couldn’t do it anymore.

Next I went on Weight Watchers with my mom (who used to have those delicious Dexatrim chocolate caramels under her bathroom sink when I was growing up) by around the time I had my wisdom teeth pulled. Dieting as a young girl makes you bitter. You watch your friends (who at the time had ruler shaped bodies and no curves whatsoever) eat whatever they want from chips to cookies to soda, while you are eating carrot sticks, celery stalks and dry bread. Nothing makes you feel worse than being so obviously flawed at a young age that you need to eat different foods then your peers. If it wasn’t already obvious that you were overweight and “not like everyone else” (which by the way it already was) then you certainly didn’t fit in when you pulled out your little veggie packets during recess. I didn’t lose any weight during this diet either and had to hear my grandmother ask me each time she saw me at the holidays, “How is your diet dear?”. My diet? What I wanted to say was, “It sucks Grandma, and the minute you turn around I’m going to sneak into that candy jar and eat as much as I can hold in my mouth before you walk back in the room.” But of course I am a nice polite little girl (back then) who doesn’t speak to her grandmother like that. I did however learn how to steal candy from her jar when she wasn’t looking in my very own “silent lid removing” skilled way. That’s how my diet was. Dieting just made food my obsessive enemy. A feared necessary evil that I apparently was unable to control. I mean look at me, the evidence was right there. And yet, I was persistent in my quest to lose weight…and would be for 35 years.

The point of my historical dieting memoir is that I have been on just about every diet that has come out since back in the seventies. I am here to tell you that what I have learned in my history of eating: only protein, no carbs, fat free, low fat, SouthBeach, Jenny Craig, Weight Watchers, Nutrisystems, liquids only, fasting, and bordering on anorexic deprivation – is diets do NOT work for me. They only make me fatter. It wasn’t until I stopped trying to make myself eat “this” or “that” particular food and stop considering foods as “bad” or “good” that my weight was able to stabilize. Granted, I am still in no way a small woman, but I am able to take the power away from my obsession with food that dieting only encouraged. I have finally been able to let my dieting goblin go and not have food rule my every thought, action and feeling about myself. As a woman who can tell you it used to be easier for me to not eat at all then to eat healthy, I have found freedom.

When you are taught at a very young age that you are not “allowed” (internalized as “good enough”) to eat ______________ (insert any delicious off limit food a young girl wants), you really mess up your relationship with food from the get go. Food is not understood to be energy for your body to utilize in order to be fit, strong, and healthy. Food becomes public enemy number one. The surest way I know to make an individual obsessed with and yearn for a particular food is to make it off-limits. When food is off-limits it becomes ALL POWERFUL. All you think about. Dieting by its very definition is, “to restrict oneself to small amounts or special kinds of food in order to lose weight.” That is the definition for the verb form of the word and I assure you for anyone who knows what it takes to diet, it is definitely an “action” word verb, not a (person, place, thing) type noun. Love the term “special kinds of food” by the way…. I think food should just be food. Not special, or bad, or holiday themed. Food is fuel…delicious, nutritious, scrumptious fuel.

I work with my clients who are interested in losing weight by following a very simple principle….and for those of you who work with me on this, you know I am always insisting you call your meal planning a “lifestyle change” and not a “diet”. There is more to this phrase than simple semantics. A diet implies deprivation by it’s very definition and if you want to successfully implement a healthier eating method in your life, you need to make sure you can follow whatever you roll out with yourself for the REST OF YOUR LIFE. Seriously. Forever. Because if you take something away that you love from your daily food intake in order to lose weight, you need to never eat it again for your weight to stay off. It makes more sense to try and incorporate balance and smaller portion of foods that you love on a daily basis so you can maintain whatever changes you have made long-term.

This is pretty simple actually. If you take a bunch of foods away from what you like to eat and lose weight, you are creating a new pattern for your body to follow of eating. This is the principle of a diet. As long as you diet in this way forever, you can maintain the weight loss, but if you cannot keep yourself following whatever plan you put yourself on that is causing you to lose weight, you will inevitably gain the weight back. Add to that the new brain science that is being discovered around our bodies desire to fight weight loss at all costs by changing our hormones, brain chemicals, and metabolism when our body goes into starvation mode or caloric deficit. Your body does not know you are overweight and fights any weight loss you try to achieve as a means of saving its’ life. Our bodies are super machines. To lose weight in the caveman days meant sure death and your body has not yet changed it’s thinking in this regard. It does not realize we have fast food and processed super connivence items at every street corner. Evolution did not get the memo.

So what works if you are looking to eat healthier and be fit? Moderation, mindful eating, balance, and exercise. Moderate your overall calorie intake. Eat slowly and enjoy every bite your put in your mouth and balance out foods by eating a diet full of rich colors and grains that are as close to the earth as you can (i.e. not processed). Exercise. Do this by finding your way to an exercise program you can maintain because you enjoy it. Eat foods you enjoy fueling your body with (mindfully and slowly) and then…and this is really important…accept the body you end up with as a result. If you are eating healthy wholesome foods most of the time and exercising in a way you enjoy, you can give yourself permission to let go of what you think you are supposed to look like and instead celebrate your best self as you are. Stress kills. Tearing yourself up all the time because you aren’t as thin as you want, or because you ate that brownie at the pot luck, is just going to make your life miserable. A miserable life is a life that is no fun. Life is hard enough without having to move through it without accepting and loving yourself as you are. You are so much more than your looks, your body, and the size of clothes you wear. Let go of your materialistic expectation and just do your best. Live fully and with pleasure.

Shhhh…The Secret To Finally Starting an Exercise Program

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My clients ask me all the time about exercise programs. As a Personal Trainer and Licensed Psychotherapist, I tend to meld both backgrounds into my transformational work with my clients incorporating the importance of moving your body, practicing mindfulness and also looking to implement positive change in dealing with struggles that individuals face with anxiety, depression, loss, or trauma. Exercise is amazing for many aspects of well-being that go far beyond physical health and include re-wiring the brain.

Scientific studies are finally beginning to catch up with my soapbox preaching around the importance of exercising to overcome mental health issues. Now you can pull up your favorite search engine and type in “the benefits of exercise for mental health” (I tried Google) and get over 78 million responses. I believe that every Doctor and Psychiatrist should have a section for “exercise prescription” on the medication pads. I don’t think medication should be prescribed without a discussion on the benefits of exercise to go along with your chemical cocktail of symptom relief. If you are going to take pills to feel better (and often that is absolutely necessary) it is equally important to get that body of yours moving.

So what makes it so hard for all of us to grab our bodies and begin an exercise program when we know it is SO good for us? In my experience with clients it boils down to a feeling of overwhelm. There are so many individuals who are mass marketing programs that guarantee you results in “3 Months”, “30 Days”, “14 Days”, or even (believe it or not) “The 3 Minute Exercise Solution” that it is impossible to know where to start. To add even more confusion to the mix is the conversation around what you “should” be doing as a part of a complete exercise program such as the baseline debate over which is better: cardiovascular exercise “cardio” or strength training. In addition, once you even whittle down past these two main categories, there are literally hundreds of different exercise options available.

As a prospective new exerciser begins to look into how to work out, what exercises to do, or how to plan a program – worries begin to arise. The opposite of positive thinking occurs, and instead the only increase that comes up for someone is a spike in his or her stress levels. I have heard these concerns. Everything from: “I don’t want to bulk up”, “I am too old”, “I am going to get hurt”, “I’m too overweight to do that”, etc. pops into consciousness as attempts to find the best possible excuse to forget getting started on a new program in the first place arise, and going to the pantry to get a snack begins to sound like a much better idea instead.

I know it’s intimidating because I hear it from clients all of the time. That’s why I want to share the number one secret that I have learned to getting started on any exercise program. The best thing you can do to assure that you are going to get started, and more importantly, stick with an exercise program is to find something you enjoy doing. This cannot be overstated and does not need to be more complicated. If you find something you enjoy doing, you will stick with it. If you like to walk in the evenings with your dog, go out for a walk starting for 20 minutes and work your way up to 30. Don’t like dogs? Grab a bike, go for a swim, try a class, take a hike, or find a friend to join you. Hire a Personal Trainer to explore ideas with you if you want. But try something. If you don’t know what you like, give yourself permission to try a lot of different things. There is no perfect science to finding out your likes and dislikes other than having the courage to give it a shot.

I promise you that if you are able to find something you enjoy you can begin to create a new healthier habit. This takes 6-8 weeks to do, so you may find yourself needing to self motivate until the habit gets established, but this will become routine, and your body will start to look forward to whatever activity you begin to practice. Yes, there are ways to change the way your muscle structure looks through exercise, or lose weight, or even improve upon you metabolism; however, this is not necessary to focus on, when learning how to get your body moving. What is important for improved health is as simple as it is stated below in the American Heart Association Recommendations.

AHA Recommendation

For Overall Cardiovascular Health:

-At least 30 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity at least 5 days per week for a total of 150 minutes.

OR

-At least 25 minutes of vigorous aerobic activity at least 3 days per week for a total of 75 minutes

(You can visit http://www.heart.org for more information on this)

If you enjoy walking your dog in the evening and want to make this your exercise routine, you can make sure you are going at a moderate-intensity if you can still talk but have increased your breathing rate. Maybe you need to take Fido up the hill for a stroll to accomplish this, but you can make this the only exercise routine you need if your exercise plan is to walk according to the guidelines above.

It can be overwhelming to listen to all the fitness programs available, and at times having access to so much information can lead us to shut down instead of take charge. Fitness professionals are master marketing moguls and typically have killer bodies to boot. From Beach Body, to Jillian Michael’s Fat Shredder, to P90X; the options for exercise promises and benefits are numerous, but rest assured that for you to improve your mental health, relieve depression, and feel happier and healthier, you just need to find something enjoyable to you.

So get out there and ride a bike, join the Y, rescue a pet that needs to be walked, or take a class. Check in with yourself after a few days and see if you can feel the difference in your mood, you self-esteem, and sense of well-being. Becoming mindful of this feeling of accomplishment and improved health will keep you going. Good Luck On Your New Plan!

Stacey Neil is a Certified Personal Trainer and Licensed Psychotherapist in private practice in Los Gatos, Ca. She can be reached at 408.827.5139.

Neutral Buoyancy: Mindful Weightlessness

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I have experienced one of the most incredible feelings imaginable to a human being: total weightlessness. I did this during a recent challenge I took on to learn scuba diving. Me, a few friends, and my two teenagers all went through a PADI Open Water Scuba class over the last 4 weeks. It was one of the scariest things I have tried to do and it taught me a lot about myself and true mindfulness. This is a class where to panic is to really put yourself into what could potentially be a catastrophic situation, has the potential to even be life threatening (not to mention the fact that both of my teenagers were watching my every move and I had my “cool mom” image to uphold).

For those of you who have done Scuba diving, you know how amazing it is. I have not had the opportunity to find a new hobby in many years, and am happy to report that this is no longer true. Scuba diving opens up an entirely new world of discovery that is not often available to the human eye in real time, up close and personal. I absolutely LOVE it. Going through certification was no piece of cake and in fact I had to really fight through a lot of my mental fears to pull it off.

To get certified in Monterey, CA (where our ocean dive location was) means you need to be covered from head to toe in two layers of 7 mil neoprene. Just to squeeze your body into what feels like a sausage casing is a calorie burning triumph in and of itself. This is especially fun when you are doing your in pool training (over 16 hours) in an indoor pool that feels like a steam room. Sweat is running down your exposed circle of a face as you do “buddy” checks with your classmates to check on all of your gear. Putting on the scuba gear (BCD, Gloves, Boots, Fins, Masks, Hoods, Weight Belts, etc.) is brutal. By the time you are totally geared up you weigh about 70 pounds more than you did before you got to class. Walking around, into the pool, down to the ocean shore, across the lawn, etc. is probably the hardest part of doing scuba at all. But don’t fret. If my daughter at 100 pounds can do it, so can you.

One of first skills you practice in the pool is achieving neutral buoyancy. This feeling is like having the ability to hover above the ground/ocean floor with absolutely no effort by being totally weightless. This feels like nothing else I have experienced. This is like space man walking on the moon kind of cool. You practice this in the pool with nothing to look at but your fellow classmates, but when you have the chance to get in the ocean, you feel like you have just achieved enlightenment. You hover above the ocean floor and are surrounded by the most beautiful sights you can imagine. Your mind clears and it is all you can do to hover, maintain constant breathing and totally relax. It is the epitome of mindful awareness.

The entire experience took about 50 hours of preparation before you even get to the ocean in classroom time, test taking, at home studying, video review, and in pool skills practice. You really have to be dedicated to want to go through the program to finish. The skills can be really hard and terrifying and at times cause you to want to go into a full blown panic. I found myself looking for the calming eyes of my instructors (thanks Ray and Bob!) many times and forcibly calming myself down with breathing that I teach my clients who are feeling a panic attack. It is unnatural to be breathing under water and the class forces you to go through every possible emergency experience that is a potentiality to prepare you in the unlikely event that one occurs.

The hardest skill that I had to master was fully removing my mask at the ocean floor at 25 feet below the surface. I had no problem doing this in the 10 foot swimming pool bottom, but at the 52 degree ocean floor, it was unnerving. The very idea that you cannot shoot to the surface if you panic, to get clear of the water, causes your heart rate to increase and your mind to yell at you to breathe in through your nose with your mask removed (which would of course cause you to drown). You have to pull it off, flood your face with freezing water (eyes closed), then replace your mask and snorkel and completely clear your mask before opening your eyes. Trying to get a mask on your face without catching your wetsuit hood on the edges and twisting up the straps with these giant bulky neoprene gloves on is ridiculously nerve racking…and of course then you need to override your brain and keep yourself from breathing in. Oh yeah, then clear out the water from your mask.

I blog a lot about how to pursue your own best authentic life. I write about following your passions and if you don’t know what those are, finding them by trying new things. What it’s like to challenge your body, mind and thoughts occupies my work in the therapy office and in my writing. I must admit that I feel like an entirely new door has opened up for me in a way I could not have even imagined by finding this brand new hobby. What a gift to have given myself and I had no idea it would be this good.

I did not want to learn how to scuba dive. I was perfectly fine snorkeling at the surface. I did it for my partner who was always asking around for a diving buddy and having no luck finding a reliable person to go with. I was terrified about clearing my ears as I descended, panicking at the bottom of the ocean, not being able to clear my mask, set up my equipment, or embarrass my 45 year old self by failing miserably and breaking down with the stress of it all.

I pushed through over the first few weeks not finding enjoyment at all to be honest. Then I was able to finally achieve neutral buoyancy at the bottom of the pool for the first time, and I realized what it felt like to feel none of the everyday weight we experience walking around as human beings on our earth, and I began to see the potential. I still had no idea what it would be like to get on to the ocean floor, and I must report it was beyond expectation. Taking a risk and trying something new can be overwhelming, but when it turns into a newly discovered passion, the resulting feeling is infectious. I want everyone I care about and know to go out and discover what I have learned. I’m probably going to get irritating to my friends by talking of nothing else. I want to share the joy of taking a risk and having it pay off so handsomely. This may not be your thing. Find something else and give it a shot. No regrets. It may not work out, but at least you have opened up your mind to new experiences. My only regret is that I waited this long to get going. I want to scuba the world!

Stacey Neil is a Licensed Psychotherapist and Personal Trainer in private practice in Los Gatos, California. She can be reached at 408.827.5139.

All The Pointless Killing: Looking For Light In Darkness

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Our world feels heavy and dark to me lately. I have been reading and watching the news with a burdened heart as we continue to kill each other in mass quantities and destroy the beautiful lands of our world in a systematic, destructive, and pointless fashion. I was speaking to a friend this morning and trying to understand if the increase in overwhelming violence feels more prevalent due to our ability to share information as it happens, or if we are just becoming more monstrous as a people. Based on what my son was sharing with me about a documentary he watched on “The Dark Ages” the other day, we humans have always been the most destructive animal ever to live on our planet. Maybe our ages have always been dark as we have been conquering lands, resources, and each other’s property, since the beginning of time. We don’t always do this with intelligent conversations, agreements, or thoughtful compromises; more often than not, we do this in horrific and torturous ways. Murderous ways.

These thoughts have been causing me to wonder how to help others hold hope during such despairing times. When we are bombarded with mass killings, and populations of people who kill each other in the name of many things such as: biblical lands, sexual orientation, adultery, God, or not fitting in with our classmates; holding on to any kind of light can feel impossible in so much darkness.

Hearing about the plane being shot down over the Ukraine-Russian border yesterday is just one more example of the senseless nature of murder. There were 298 fatalities that occurred in a split second. It was originally reported that there were 295 people killed because the airline had not accounted for the 3 infants that had been on board. They missed the three infants who never had a chance to have a life in our world. Who knows what a loss to society those three brand new people were when they will not be given the chance to grow up. We will never know what we have even lost in just those three alone, not to mention the 100 people on board who were working in the fight against AIDS on their way to a conference, or the remaining 195 people from all over the world. All 298 people have families, loved ones, and friends, who are grieving alongside a world of fellow human beings that are also devastated. Any one of us could have been on that plane.

When did it become of statistical relevance that how many people get killed on each side of a battle is what determines who can be deemed “right”? You kill 100 of our people, we retaliate and kill 150 of yours; therefore, we are winning. How can killing someone be in alignment with any form of victory? Isn’t everyone losing? The whole of the world has lost if this how we calculate victory. How much land is worth the blood of one human being? Is there a ratio? Maybe a square foot per body? It feels so senseless and yet the conflicts continue.

We are historically a people who seek power and control over others. We are also a people who are loving, kind beyond measure, and filled with compassion. How to hold both the dark and light aspects of our human nature is a struggle even on an individual basis for many people who cannot accept the dark aspects of their selves. Therefore, it would make sense for this same conflict to also extend on a much larger scale to us as a people, who have an unimaginable burden to bear, as an awareness of what we are capable of as human animals is more and more apparent in our actions.

It can be a challenge to maintain kindness and generosity in a world that does not always return the favor. Do it anyway. Believe in the potentiality of us as human animals to heal and love one another in spite of our differences. Choose to live in a world of which this is the common goal of yourself and those you come in contact with. I chose a career in which I can support others in their own individual journeys of growth, self acceptance, and empowerment so I am gifted in that my work can reflect my hope.

I know that I am lucky to not have to fight another to feed my children, or find myself desperate to provide warmth to my family when the weather is hostile. I am mature enough to realize that within my own stance is ignorance. I have never had to live in a place where I do not feel like I have the opportunity to provide the resources needed to care for my own. With this lack of experience, I cannot rightfully judge; however, I propose that our fundamental belief systems should stem from a moral base of caring for each other, treating each other with respect, and being kind. Maybe this too is idealistic and unattainable. I choose to hope not.

In spite of the darkness, I will continue to fight for our positive potential as humans. I have been witness to the remarkable will of the human spirit to heal and find its authentic self. Whether an individual’s struggle is through human weakness, mental illness, a traumatic history, or personal loss – the human spirit is undeniable and powerful beyond measure. I see this in my therapy office every day. As we all go through our daily choices, thoughts, and decisions, I hope that all of the acts of kindness, generosity, and patience for each other’s differences helps to better our world one action at a time. Believe in the power of these little tiny acts to gently create a luminescent glow in the darkness. Hold on to your ability to care for those around you as you join me in fighting towards light one small victory at a time. Never give up in this quest. It is too important for us, our children, and our children’s children.

Stacey Neil is a Licensed Psychotherapist and Personal Trainer in private practice in Los Gatos, California. She can be reached at 408.827.5139.

How Running is the Ultimate Battle of Me vs. Me

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I am constantly reminded of the fact that I am my own worst enemy. I constantly question, reflect upon, and challenge my actions, progress and daily choices. We are a result of the choices we make, and I focus on making mine count. I believe that there can be a balance between challenging myself to always do my best while allowing for days when my best is a pathetic effort to roll out of bed. In an ideal world, I would do this without judgement. In my real world I do this as a daily battle of my beliefs, thoughts and actions battling with the thoughts of how things should be in my head. This is a work in progress as many of you probably can relate. For me, running has become the epitome of this battle of Me vs. Me.

I absolutely abhor the act of running; however, I am equally passionate about how I feel when I finish a run. There is no stronger euphoria for me that I have been able to duplicate with any other form of exercise. This is no small statement as I participate in a variety of programs, classes, and latest trends in fitness to challenge myself. As a trainer I need to keep up on what is current in my industry and have found myself just lately in classes such as Barre, CrossFit, and P90X…but nothing beats the pounding last step of my run and the resulting accomplishment I feel.

Running is simple to learn as we figure it out as babies. Lean forward, catch your self falling, repeat. I have dreams of being a gazelle like runner with legs like Lolo Jones and a body that can wear little tiny black shorts that are not concerned in the slightest about being long enough to protect my soft upper thighs from friction based chub rub. However, this is not meant to be, as I feel like a giant, leaden, heavy footed rhinoceros when I run. Don’t get me wrong, a mature rhino weighing 1500 pounds, can run up to 25 mph and frankly holds a kind of grace when moving that much mass…but for me it doesn’t quite feel as impressive. This is not actually meant as a put down on my size, shape, or form – it’s truly just a descriptive statement on how I actually feel as I am running through space. As a side note, in the battle of gazelle vs. rhino, gazelles can run twice as fast, clocking in at a graceful 50 mph. A wonderful example of how I feel in a race..but I digress.

For those of you who run and are able to enjoy the process of running, the clarity of mind you receive, or the meditative thump of your feet as they turn over in perfect rhythm – I envy you. I am nothing like you, as I need to fight my own self minute by minute (even second by second) at times just to keep going. I have found it to become my own ultimate fighting challenge: The Battle of Me vs. Me.

One would imagine that I win either way if I am only battling myself. Clearly there can be only one winner, right? However, I do not always feel like I come out on top. My head screams at me throughout the run telling me a plethora of negative statements: “You will NEVER make it”, “You’re feet are burning”, “Your hip is aching”, “Your sports bra is chafing your underarm”, “You suck”, “This hurts”, “Stop already”, etc. My abdominals like to add into the chant and begin to threaten me with risky temporary feelings that are best described as a form of “loosening of the bowels”. The person who finishes the race with diarrhea running down their legs? That happens…trust me. I decide I need to pee immediately, but cannot stop anywhere. It goes on and on. Mindless chatter to accompany me as I go…my own twisted form of voices in my head.

Running has become my lesson in self battle. A challenge I fight with 3-4 times per week at the crack of dawn. I do this because I am never prouder of my body or mind when I complete a run. Never. The battle that I overcome in my head throughout my mileage, as I continue to go step by step, leads me to an unmatched sense of accomplishment. It is more than worth the pain, sweat, and fear of failure, because in spite of all the chatter, I can beat it.

What is your internal battle? Do you ever sit with yourself and really check in about what you are not doing in your life because you are afraid? Maybe you don’t try because you think you need to be perfect, you are too old, or you may fail. Push through. We are nothing more than a compilation of our actions and choices in this world. What do your choices say about you?

Decide that you are willing to take a risk. Know that it will be hard, you will fall down, look less than graceful, or be a beginner. A beginner!!! What a terrifying concept -such a dreaded word. Trust me when I share with you that as an ex smoker who couldn’t run a mile at 38, I know what it feels like to begin something later in life. It is NEVER too late. What would you do? What would it take for you to make a commitment to yourself to try it? You will fall down. You will look like a newbie, you will not do very well to start – so what! Do it anyway. You do not need to compete with the Lolo’s or Gazelles out there…you simply need to compete with yourself. You vs. You. Your goal is to try to do a little better than you did the day before, and most importantly, just keep going. Decide you will NOT give up on you.

As I prepare to run my fifth 1/2 marathon I tell you that it is possible and worth it to push yourself beyond your imagination. I cried after finishing my first half marathon from a combination of triumph and pain (my body felt like it got hit by a mack truck), but that medal was heavy against my swelling chest and the weight of it was immense. I may never run a full marathon or ultra; however, in the battle that I need to fight just to push myself through, I come out a winner. Hold yourself accountable and just go forward. Move one step at a time towards your own fears by making them the goals you pursue. Sometimes you need to do this in spite of yourself.

Stacey Neil is a Licensed Psychotherapist and Personal Trainer who founded TotalFit Solutions. Her private practice is in Los Gatos, California and she can be reached at 408.827.5139.

The Fairy Tale of Life: To Die With Unrealized Dreams

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People die every day who haven’t fulfilled their life’s ambitions, found their passion, or discovered a joy filled authentic self. Every Day. I struggle with this in my life quite often as I have lost people I love, whom have died, just as depressed, lost, and alone, as they spent their lives. My Dad was one of these people.

If there was a theme that resonated in my father’s life it was to search. He spent his time forever seeking his ideal partner, most profitable career move, or physical challenge. If there was someone in life who could be forever seeking while being utterly lost it would be my Dad. Not coincidentally, he died as he lived – sad, alone, and never having found what it was he was looking for.

Watching him as a young girl growing up try one thing after another, or one women after another, or one invention after another….was tiring. Just as it feels redundant to read the preceding line, it was often a challenge to be his daughter. I was blessed/cursed with being born with an innate drive to help people. I am passionately compelled to care about others in their well being, personal life satisfaction, and sanity. I have built a business, career, and lifestyle, around this very premise. I live the life I promote to my clients, family, and friends, as everyday I do my best to be my most authentic self. These are some of the reasons that it broke my heart to realize that in spite of all of my love, care, and time that I directed towards my father – he still died as he did. How is this possible? It’s viable because many times there is no happy ending in this life. Sometimes no happily ever after exists.

In our lives we find motivation and hope in the “what ifs”. The possibilities that await us allow us to strive to be calmer, happier, more content. I believe that my job as a therapist is to support others in their dreams for themselves while helping to ground them in their lives as they exist today. My work becomes coaching the balance between finding acceptance of oneself in the moment while also allowing for the possibilities that exist when tuning into our genuine authentic self. This becomes an awareness in my therapy office. But what happens if someone doesn’t find a therapist to work with that can promote this balance? Or someone never seeks individual work on themselves? How life shattering it becomes to realize that this understanding, for whatever reason, does not always work for everyone and many times there is no respite from the pain and suffering that some will cling to until their very last breath.

A life question of mine has become: How do I sit with the knowledge that many times the people I love are people I cannot reach? This life that is so challenging for all of us, that is so out of our control in spite of our best efforts; sometimes this life never improves or gets better and then it’s done. I have been spending time thinking of my father, and other’s in my life growing up who I have loved, who did not choose the healthiest path of which to live out their very limited time on this earth. I feel helpless and ineffective as I cannot help people who are not able to receive it, or don’t want help, or…… It is unbearable to see human beings suffer, especially those we love. We can love them in whatever way the verb resonates with us. If that means daily visits, phone calls, motivational posters, letting them move in, or letting them go. It is possible that sometimes the best way to love someone is to let them go. How can that even be?

Maybe the legacy that my father has left me with is the desire to live my life fully everyday. The realization that life is precious and short came from him. It is a priceless gift to behold. He died at 56 years of age as a marathon running fit man. His cancer fed on his depression and stress levels. It took an already compromised will, that had decided life was unfair many years ago, and gnawed on it until it simply had nothing left to destroy. In the end, his deteriorated body became symbolic of his tormented soul.

I in no way had a fairy tale upbringing, and in fact wouldn’t even play with princesses, dolls, or spend my time reading books that included princes, white horses, or castles. And yet, I somehow internalized the idea that life works out, good things happen to good people, and things are fair. I wanted to believe in this. I still want to believe. The reality seems to be that sometimes good things happen to good people and sometimes bad things too. Life doesn’t always work out, and challenges present themselves to us every single day as we become forced to make wise choices that hopefully include kindness, forgiveness, and acceptance of our perfectly imperfect human selves. Things are not fair. Bad things happen to good folk all of the time.

What inspires me in my work and in my life is the potential. The potential of what we all have inside of us. The unlimited possibility. I see this in my clients as they sit across from me. I hold this idea in our space together as it sprouts roots and is nurtured in the therapeutic relationship. There is nothing more beautiful to me than being allowed to witness growth in a unique human being who is brave enough to face themselves in a therapy room. I choose to believe that everyone has the potential to reach their own best life, their own happily ever after, before their story ends. This is my version of a fairy tale worth hanging on to.

Stacey Neil, LMFT is a Psychotherapist and Personal Trainer in Private Practice in Los Gatos, California. She can be reached at (408) 827-5139.

And Yet Another Reason We Shouldn’t Assume

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Want to make an ass out of you and me? One of the easiest ways to do it is to assume. Making assumptions is risky, full of ego, and typically inaccurate by its very nature, and yet most of us do it all of the time. I had a funny thing happen yesterday that reminded me of why it is not just with each other that we make this mistake, but also in the everyday things we do in our daily lives all by ourselves. We make assumptions based on many learned things including our underlying belief systems. Belief systems that include how truly amazing we believe we are as humans, while also thinking we hold the righteous power of being all knowing (when in actuality we don’t really know much about most stuff at all).

I just found myself making an assumption yesterday afternoon while I was trying to do a good deed by rescuing a stranded red ear slider turtle who was sitting in the middle of the road down the street from my house. He seemed to be either deciding this spot on the road was a great place to tan or that life was no longer worth living and he was choosing to end this go around via his last game of chicken. Either way, I quickly jumped out of my car, threw on my cape (and tank top with an “S” across the front) and rushed to the rescue of this obviously stranded, about to be killed, beloved pet.

I grabbed this beast, who I had inaccurately decided at the time was a tortoise, and called my daughter to come and take care of it while I went to go and see clients. She was game and took it upon herself to create a habitat for this large creature. Please note, this was no ordinary small turtle that one sees in a home aquarium. Oh no. This thing was impressive in its size coming in at hefty girth and being larger than a serving platter. I know because this made him unable to be placed in a large tupperware serving bowl which was the first thing that was thought of for a temporary home. He went in a box.

Something fun to note about this tortoise, who turned out to be a turtle (you can tell by checking their feet), is that he made this noise by expressing air in a very “balloon deflating” like manner when picked up. It was almost like all of the life was squeezed out of him in his surrender to being handled by myself and my daughter. Or like he was hissing in distress because he wasn’t used to being picked up and had never had human contact. “As if he had never had human contact” became the key statement to focus on as we realized after the fact that he was hissing like this because he NEVER had dealt with human contact and was not anyones pet. He was a totally wild, very large, turtle who I had wrongly assumed needed to be rescued. However, I get ahead of myself.

As I continued to fly my cape around my ever broadening shoulders due to my good deed kharma pouring in as I saved this creature, my incorrect assumption ended up causing me to do the most distressing thing that could have occurred to it. I came home and realized he needed to be in water as he was a turtle and not a tortoise. I put him in a ceramic bathtub filled with water, floating organic lettuce leaves (50/50 organic spring mix), and towels to help him get purchase on the slippery tub and be able to hold on to something. I created this ceramic jail to house this beautiful creature as I did what every good neighbor does when they have found a pet, I: posted on our neighborhood site, hit up facebook, went door to door, and looked for turtle rescues (yes, they exist).

All the while the turtle was miserable. It did not eat, drink or poo. Instead, it tried for hours to climb out of the tub and escape it’s artificial prison. It did this because it was a wild animal used to roaming free in nature and not something that has ever even been inside a house – or picked up into the air in a terrifying embrace (while hissing). I suggest to my clients all of the time that making assumptions when other people act a certain way, or do things that are hurtful to them, to not assume; however, I had never really realized that we make assumptions about things all of the time based on mis-information and poor judgement that have nothing to do with other people at all. I also realized we don’t necessarily do this out of ill intention or spite, sometimes we try to do the right thing and act out of kindness and make an assumption that causes more distress than good.

As I started to hear from my neighbors around my turtle inquires, I realized that there are a lot of wild turtles coming through my neighborhood in the search for water as our creek is running dry in this drought. These turtles are seeking a habitat that will support them. This made me incredibly sad as I realized that many of these creatures will more than likely die, or get hit by cars as their environment goes into crisis. Not this turtle, I decided. I took my wild beast, who by this time I had named Toodles (as everything becomes friendlier when given a cheesy pet name) to the closest body of natural water I could find. I hiked down this steep hill after trespassing behind this gated fence (feeling justified and still flying my cape of course) and put it on the shore of this lake. Half of the lake was already dried up and I fear for the animals who this water supports, but for now, this was the most viable option. The minute Toodles sensed the water it stretched out its neck and dove in. I was hoping this assumption was the better choice, but it was still an assumption nonetheless.

It was absolutely beautiful to watch him take off and dive for the depth of the bottom. As I continued to watch him, I noticed a few more heads popped up around the water and knew he was among others of his kind. He popped up a minute of so later and then dove again. It was a good moment. I am so thankful that I was able to realize my mistake and not trap this turtle into a life of “being saved” by me, otherwise known as “being put into captivity”, because I had made a poor assumption.

When clients talk to me about making assumptions with the relationships they have, or the people in their environments, I always encourage them to ask. Don’t assume you know what someone is thinking/feeling/doing, if you don’t know for sure – ask them. But what do you do when the assumption you are making is with someone or something who has no voice? Or what if you are making assumptions around a young child who can not express themselves with words at all? This poses a whole new challenge in the way we attempt to navigate the things that come across our paths. It really takes making assumptions to a whole new level, and one in which the consequences can really be tragic. For all I know, Toodles was trying to flee the very lake I took him back to. If we can’t ask, how do we ever really know?

Me, Myself, and I: Best Friends Forever

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Click the link below to read my latest Topic Expert Contribution freshly published. Enjoy!

http://www.goodtherapy.org/blog/me-myself-and-i-best-friends-forever-0602144

Enough Mental “MUST”erbation!

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That’s it, you are cut off. You will go blind, grow hair on your hands, or go to hell, if you continue to mentally musterbate. It is getting out of control – even ruining your life. Your relationships, friendships, and career are being effected by your inability to stop obsessively musterbating. You need a support group for other musterbates because you are obsessed! “Hi, my name is Stacey, and I am a Musterbator”. “Hi Stacey.”

You are missing out on the life you have because you are ruminating about the life you should be having. The life you could have…would have…should have been having. That life. Not the actual life you have. You know the one that is messy, imperfect, stressful and often dire. No, not that life. The other life that was supposed to be your life if only you had: made better choices/lost weight/got your MBA/married your childhood sweetheart…blah, blah, blah. It is the life that would have been different if you were more disciplined, smarter, less impulsive, more fit, and frankly much less human than you turned out to be.

I call this irrational driving stressor to be perfect while holding yourself to an unobtainable ideal, “Mental Musterbation”. I call it this because you are wasting your life filling your days with all of the things you MUST do. The things you aren’t really wanting to do, but you feel you are called to do because everyone YOU know seems to be better at everything than you are and you MUST do more. I must be super-mom, career woman, awesome housekeeper, dinner party creator, family therapist, sexual dynamo and multi-tasker. I must be a sensitive, manly, masculine, ripped, strong, handy, romantically gifted husband/father/man.

Who can do it all? No one. I know this because I work with people in their deepest most sensitive private areas of their mind and I know this is a common misconception that we all share. The more we fixate on burdening ourselves about all the “musts” in the world, the more we push ourselves further away from the reality of our own best lives: these lives that are wonderful, disappointing, and sloppy all at once. We can learn how to accept “what is” and not put pressure on ourselves to overachieve in all areas of our lives by comparing ourselves to some imaginary “other” who does not even exist.

I encourage you to let go of trying to reach some idyllic version of yourself and start celebrating all of the idiosyncratic traits you already have. I read women’s magazines so I know what women are “supposed to be like”. I know that I am not able to practice the habits that many of the perfect/beautiful/thin/photoshopped magazine women do such as being able to turn down a delicious desert, not over pluck my eyebrows, walk around confidently in a bikini, wear sexy pajamas to bed every night, or shave the upper part of my thighs everyday. These are just a small sampling of things I believe I must do better to be more confident, attractive, or smooth – but I don’t. I used to think I was not very feminine as a result of all my laziness but actually that just makes me me. The truth is, no one pulls it all off perfectly and I shouldn’t worry about anyone else’s version of what I must be doing anyway.

It’s true, I am a musterbator. Thankfully through a lot of personal work and growth, I have been able to teach myself what the focus of my musts should be. These have become my truths. I must learn to surrender to my own limitations. I must love myself unconditionally. I must be my own best friend. I must learn to forgive myself. I must let go of any idea of controlling my life or others in it. Most importantly, I must celebrate my very own life just as it presents in this very moment because in the end it is all I have. What must you do?

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