Empathy vs. Sympathy

Brene Brown’s work has become relevant and important to me, both professionally and personally.  I’m currently taking one of her online courses, and I look forward to sharing some of that in the weeks and months to come.  But in the meantime, I came across this video a while back and I keep coming back to it.

This video is a great illustration of why we need empathy, not sympathy,  and how we can be more empathic to the people that we care about.  Because we all need connection, and to be able to share our stories and inner worlds with important people in our lives.



Pomodoro Technique

I like to use this tool with people who need a kick-start to working on one of their goals.  Sometimes they’re overwhelmed with the amount they want to accomplish or the number of steps involved, and others become stuck in “analysis paralysis,” not knowing where to begin.  The simple solution?  Just do something!  Set a timer (in this case, 25 minutes), and DO something until the buzzer goes off.  There’s an immediate (well, 25-minute-delayed) payoff, and it’s that much easier to set the timer again the next day and jump back in.

This technique is elaborated on at www.pomodorotechnique.com, and also in the book by the same name.  The primary focus there is on productivity, so you can delve so deeply into the Pomodoro Technique that it changes your approach to work.

While it can be a great time-management technique, it can also be a simple and effective tool to break out of inactivity and take a step, however small, in the right direction.  No need to procrastinate or feel guilty for letting another day go by without doing something important to you.  Instead, simply set your kitchen timer or the alarm on your phone, remove distractions, and go for it!

Brene Brown – Video on Shame & Vulnerability

Every once in a while I come across a video or idea that I think everyone could benefit from, no matter where they are in life or what they’re going through.  This is one of those videos that speaks to the humanity in each of us.  If you find it relevant for you, then I highly recommend checking out Brene Brown’s books.

And if you like watching this Ted Talk, then check out more!  There are many terrific speakers who are experts in their fields.  Ted Talks can be a great tool to get your mind off yourself and expand your horizons a bit (I know they’ve been helpful and inspirational to me!).

My Top 10 Books of 2015

1.  Daring Greatly, Brene Brown

This is probably my favorite read of the year.  I highly recommend it for anyone who desires to live “wholeheartedly”- which Brown defines as engaging with the world from a place of worthiness.  She offers 10 characteristics of wholehearted living for us to cultivate, and the 10 counterparts that we can work on letting go of.  She discusses shame and vulnerability in the most powerful and accessible way I can ever remember reading.

Some more of my favorite quotes and ideas from the book:

  • Brown describes the crux of vulnerability-  how I want to experience yours, but I don’t want to be vulnerable myself.  I see your vulnerability as courage, but I see mine as inadequacy.
  • I liked how she discussed disengagement as a more insidious form of betrayal than 1 big event;  how not caring, letting the connection go, turning away is dangerous, crazy-making, and shame-inducing.  This is consistent with Gottman’s research.

    “Joy comes to us in moments- ordinary moments.  We risk missing out on joy when we get too busy chasing down the extraordinary.”

  • She gives 4 elements of shame resilience:
  1. Recognizing shame & understanding triggers
  2. Practicing critical awareness (reality-checking our messages & expectations)
  3. Reaching out- own and share your story
  4. Speaking shame

    “We cultivate love when we allow our most vulnerable and powerful selves to be deeply seen & known, and when we honor the spiritual connection that grows from that offering with trust, respect, kindness, and affection.  Love isn’t something we give or get, it is something that we nurture and grow, a connection that can only be cultivated between two people when it exists within each one of them-  we can only love others as much as we love ourselves.  Shame, blame, disrespect, betrayal & the withholding of affection damage the roots from which love grows.  Love can only survive these injuries if they are acknowledged, healed, and rare.”

2.  168 Hours- You Have More Time than you Think,  Laura Vanderkam

This was an interesting read- and I picked it up at just the right time for me to dive in.  I didn’t learn a lot of new information, but I did feel challenged to think through some important questions (I have pages of notes!) and I felt a renewed responsibility for the things that I allow or disallow to take up my time.

  • Vanderkam introduced me to the idea of time blocking-  scheduling absolutely everything during the week.  That alone caused me to scrutinize and reorganize my priorities, weeding out the things that weren’t necessary or furthering my goals.  I felt empowered to own those hours, and use them wisely.
  • The author urges you to identify your Core Competencies, and to specialize in the things that only you can do (or do well). Taking control of the schedule means getting rid of non-core-competency tasks by ignoring, minimizing, or outsourcing them.

“Career doesn’t have to conflict with a full personal life!”

3.  The Artist’s Way, Julia Cameron

This book was published over a decade ago, but it remains relevant and helpful even now.  The author introduces some exercises recommended to break writer’s block, or bypass the inner critic, or get around whatever obstacles are in our way to practicing and pursuing creativity.  Admittedly, I did not complete the majority of the exercies (such as the Morning Pages or the Artist’s Date) but I found it inspiring still.

“Necessity, not virtue, was the beginning of my spirituality.”


“The quality of life is in proportion always to the capacity for delight.  The capacity for delight is the gift of paying attention.”

4.  What Makes Love Last, John Gottman

I like Gottman’s methods working with couples, and I like how most of his books are interesting and accessible to read for anyone who wants to improve their relationship.  In this book he describes the importance of attunement (to understand your partern’s inner world) and “sliding door moments” (answering partner’s bid for connection, and turning toward them instead of away).  He also discusses how flooding and negative comparisons can be deadly to relationships, and how to move past “regrettable incidents.”  He touches on the 4 Horsemen of the Apolcalypse (criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling), which poison relationships and, Gottman asserts, predict divorce.

“Many people think that the secret to reconnecting with their partner is a candlelit dinner or a a by-the-sea vacation.  The real secret is to turntowards each other in little ways every day.”

“To make a relationship last:  couples must become better friends, learn to manage conflict, and create ways to support each other’s hopes and dreams.”

5.  The Happiness Project, Gretchen Rubin

This was a really fun book to read, and described Rubin’s own Happiness Project where she tackled one area of her life for each month of the year in an effort to become, well, happier.  She weaves in her extensive research on happiness in with her personal experiences as she works on her marriage, friendships, work, money, etc.  I was inspired to try some of her suggestions, and I love the idea of readers carrying our their own happiness project (although I have yet to pull the trigger on that one).

She quotes William Buter Yeats in one of my favorite lines:

“Happiness is neither virtue nor pleasure nor this thing nor that, but simply growth.  We are happy when we are growing.”

6.  Better than Before, Gretchen Rubin

In this book about habits, Rubin outlines 4 tendencies around how people respond to expectations.  Upholders respond to both outer and inner expectations, Obligers respond to outer but not inner expectations (so they need accountability), Questioners respond to inner but not outer expectations (so outer expectations need to turn into inner ones to be met), and Rebels respond to neither.

Much of the book is about self-knowledge, and she poses questions such as lark or owl?  Simplicity or abundance lover? Familiarity or novelty lover?  Then she discusses strategies for changing or starting new habits (many of which have been helpful for myself as well as with clients):

  • Scheduling
  • Accountability
  • First steps
  • Clean slate
  • Convenience
  • Loophole spotting
  • Distracting
  • Rewards & treats
  • Pairing
  • Clarity

7.  Rising Strong, Brene Brown

This one follows Brown’s Daring Greatly.  She asserts that anyone who attempts to live wholeheartedly (by showing up in the arena, daring greatly) is going to fall.  Rising Strong describes the 3-step process of picking yourself up and moving on.  First is the Reckoning, walking into your story.  Here you recognize your emotions, get curious about your feelings, and try to make connections.  Next is the Rumbling, owning your story.  Here you get honest about your narrative and challenge your assumptions.  Finally is the Revolution, where you get to write a new, braver ending to your story.

“Owning our story and loving ourselves through that process is the bravest thing we’ll ever do.”

“The irony is that we attempt to disown our difficult stories to appear more whole or acceptable, but our wholeness, even our wholehearted news- actually depends on the integration of all of our experiences, including the falls.”

“Breath and mindfulness give us the awareness and space we need to make choices that are aligned with our values.”

8.  Loving Your Kids on Purpose, Danny Silk

This book is a great read for parents who are Christians, or who are open to reading a parenting book from that perspective.  In it he promotes love & relationship above rules & discipline-  not eliminating consequences but rather allowing consequences in a way that preserves and even promotes the parent-child relationship.

The author walks parents through setting healthy boundaries with their children as an important part of self-care;  then thoughtfully and calmly allowing the child to experience the consequences of their choices.  There is also discussion around letting our kids fail, challenging the assumption that violence and anger are power, and making sure the correct person feels the weight of the problem (hint: it’s not the parent!).

I love the focus on building and protecting heart connections, and learning that discipline doesn’t have to happen at the expense of your relationship.  Children and parents alike crave and benefit from close, trusting, safe relationships and the author explains how this is possible.

“Many parents believe that when their children present failure, rebellion, disrespect, irresponsibility, or other willful or sinful actions, they must gain control by intimidating their children into changing their minds.”

“We need to learn how to be OK no matter what they do.”

“But when my heart is connected to your heart, my decisions are designed to protect our relationship no matter how far out of my presence you are.”

9.  Bread & Wine, Shauna Niequest

This book was about so much more than the food (although the recipes alone are great!)-  family, faith, friends, and how life just shows up and plays out around the table.  It was beautiful, and inspirational.  As someone who can be intimidated in the kitchen, I found it practical and also encouraging-  I like to think I’ll be more confident next time I approach unchartered territory with cooking or entertaining.  And there’s something about cooking, eating, or sharing a meal with someone- it’s a part of our shared humanity that we interact with daily.  It’s ordinary, but can be so much more.  I made her bacon-wrapped dates on Christmas night, and they were a hit.

10.  Food- A Love Story, Jim Gaffigan

This one is strictly for laughs (it’s great self-care!).  It’s good, (mostly) clean fun.  I actually listened to the audio version, that Gaffigan himself narrates.  Several bits had me wiping tears and replaying way too many times.


Circle of Control, Circle of Concern

This simple tool is one of my favorites when working with someone who feels overwhelmed with stress or who finds themselves spinning their wheels, working to change something beyond their control.

Visualize yourself at the center, surrounded by a circle.  That one is your circle of control, and outside that is yet another one- your circle of concern.


Inside your circle of concern are all the other things that matter to you, but you don’t have the ability to control or change directly.  Perhaps you can influence them to some degree, but trying to take charge and control it yourself is not possible-  and attempting to exert control over these things will frustrate you and those who are actually in control.  Things in this circle are the the feelings, attitudes, and choices of others; the economy, the outcome of the election, the news and weather-  these things are certainly significant and must be responded to, but responding is going to look different than reacting.  We respond to things in this circle by intentionally deciding how we are going to interact with it (this person or situation) and then doing so in a way that’s in line with our values.    When a relative or friend mistreats us in some way, then perhaps we need to reassess our own boundaries instead of attempt to change that person (your boundaries are in your circle of control- you get to decide!).  Similarly, if in an argument with your spouse he/she begins to yell, that’s outside your circle of concern;  however your decision to not yell is within it, and you are 100% responsible and in control of that.  Inside your circle of control are all of the things that you are responsible for and can choose to change (or not).  Your behavior, your words, your thoughts, even your attitudes fall within this circle, as do how you show up in your various relationships.  Also within your control are the efforts you put out, the decisions that you make for yourself, how you respond to the people in your life-   as well as what you choose to eat, drink, read, and learn.

Some people go through life in a reactive state-  reacting with aggression or resentment to the things outside of their circle of control, or furiously trying to manipulate in order to reach our desired result.  It’s futile, and it takes time and energy away from living in a proactive way-  that is, focusing time and attention on the things within your circle of control so that you may experience that satisfaction of self-efficacy-  that you are a powerful person and you can make things happen in your own life!

Many people who come in for counseling initially want to focus on something (someone!) in their circle of concern, and I love to see how things shift as we move the focus onto things within the other circle-  the circle that we can actually make a difference in.  It’s like a weight is lifted off their shoulders as they learn to let go of things that they can’t control.  We could all use that reminder from time to time-  take a look at what you’re spending your time and energy and thoughts on.  Shift your focus off the circle of concern, and onto the circle of control.  Feels better already!

Powerful animation about addiction

This short video illustrates what it’s like for some people struggling with addiction, or for those who are watching helplessly from the sidelines.  The substance could be anything-  drugs, alcohol, porn, gambling, food, you name it.  The video poignantly demonstrates the horrific and heartbreaking road that addiction leads people down.  The good news, however, is that people don’t have to keep going down that road.

7 Ways to Practice Self-Care this Thanksgiving

While Thanksgiving is one of the most beloved holidays, for many people it’s wrought with anxieties, sadness, and insecurities.  The “perfect” family Thanksgiving is elusive for us all, in some way.   Here are some ways that you can take care of yourself and manage your expectations during the holidays.

1.  Don’t overdo it with food & drink.  Many will turn to these as a way to take the edge off or numb themselves to their feelings, but it’s not worth it, and oftentimes makes the situation (and your feelings) worse. 

2. Get some exercise.  Whether you invite the family to join you on a walk after the Thanksgiving meal, or you squeeze in a quick workout before you go, move your body. 

3.  Practice gratitude.  Before, during, and after the gatherings, take a moment to stop and notice things, big and small, that you can be grateful for.  Share your thankfulness with others.  

4.  Take a break and get some fresh air.  When you notice tension or discomfort in your body, step away from the food prep or the football game and get some fresh air.  While you’re at it:

5.  Practice deep breathing.  Take deep breaths through your nose, then exhale through your mouth.  Let your breaths make your chest and stomach rise, and repeat several times before rejoining the group.  

6.  Be gentle with yourself.  Instead of criticizing yourself, adopt an attitude of acceptance toward yourself and your feelings.  Recognize that you’re doing the best you can, and treat yourself the same way you’d treat a dear friend.  

7.  Lower your expectations.  Many of the potential downfalls and landmines of holiday gatherings can be avoided by managing our own expectations. We’ve got to recognize when we start to feel that overwhelming desire to create the perfect holiday, and then challenge those thoughts. Is it coming from a place of perfectionism, that leads us to believe there are only 2 categories (on one end is the perfect, harmonious, ideal holiday where everyone is joyful, and on the other end is a disappointing and miserable one)? Do a reality check, and ask yourself if there’s somewhere in the middle, that’s enjoyable, realistic, and decidedly “good enough.” Setting impossibly high standards for perfection is one way to ensure that you will be let down, and that your loved ones will feel the pressure of perfection that dampens any gathering.  Likewise, make sure you’re not setting unrealistic expectations on the behavior and attitudes of others. Consider your past experiences of your family members, and prepare yourself for the likelihood of them being the same as before. You can even decide in advance how you want to respond and interact with them. When you feel under pressure from the interrogating Great Aunt, you can give her your prepared response and then intentionally turn your attention to what’s going well around you. 
Practicing self care can enable you to behave in a way that’s in line with your values and personality, and you won’t have to endure the regret of missing out on a good holiday just because it fell short of perfection.