“Why should I love me, when THEY didn’t love me?”

“Why should I love myself, when the people who were supposed to love me, didn’t love me?” 

“Why should I take care of myself, when I wasn’t taken care of?” 

“Why should I bother trying to improve my life, when the person I most want in my life isn’t in it?” 

Many people— a lot more than you think— go though life feeling rejected. 

For some people it’s explicit and recent. They have a clear, conscious memory of someone telling them they didn’t want them. 

For others, it’s less recent and more implicit. 

There are LOT of people out there who have felt rejected and unworthy since childhood— and they’re not quite sure why. 

They might have a vague feeling that they weren’t loved or protected the way kids are supposed to be loved or protected. 

They might have a feeling that their lives haven’t lived up to what their family expected. 

(Of course, for many people, these feelings aren’t “vague” or “implicit” at all— they KNOW they weren’t loved or protected the way kids are supposed to be, or they’ve been TOLD that their lives have fallen short of what their families expect.) 

Whatever the circumstances, many of us are left with questions about our basic worth. 

We learn to value ourselves based on whether we were valued. 

We learn to protect ourselves— or whether we’re even worthy of protection— based on whether we were protected. 

Somewhere in the back of our minds, we figure that if we were worthy and valuable, then OF COURSE we would have been valued and protected, ESPECIALLY by the people we were MOST attached to. 

Unfortunately, that’s where a lot of us run into a disconnect. 

If, for whatever reason, our early lives were complicated when it came to attachment and care, it’s really, really easy for us to get it in our heads that it MUST have been OUR fault. 

After all, the adults around us were, well, adults— surely THEY knew what they were doing, right? 

When we’re young, we can’t even put this idea into words— we just know that WE feel responsible. 

We feel like we’re to blame. 

It’s especially rough when we see other kids actually getting the attention, protection, and love that we crave. We wonder what THEY’RE doing right that WE’RE not doing. 

Mind you: there are LOTS of reasons why we may not have gotten what we needed growing up. 

Those reasons can range from explicit, gratuitous child abuse and neglect at one extreme, to the misfortune of having inexperienced, distracted, or compromised caretakers on the other extreme. 

The kind of treatment we got when we were young was rarely about us. 

Even if you were the WORST kid in the world and frustrated the HELL out of your caretakers, it was on your caretakers— the adults in the situation— to not take out their frustration on you in destructive ways. 

So many people, however, come through their early experiences feeling unworthy, unseen, unredeemable. 

I won’t tell anybody they “should” do or feel anything. 

I will tell you this, though: because you didn’t get what you needed at one time in your life doesn’t mean you didn’t deserve it— and it doesn’t mean you don’t deserve love, especially self love, now. 

The attitudes and behaviors of those who you were or are attached to do NOT define your worth. 

We need to assure the kid inside of us that our deprivation was not because we were ugly, stupid, or otherwise less-than. 

We didn’t get that reassurance then, and that deprivation hardened into a belief about ourselves. 

But it’s a false belief. 

No matter how true it feels. 

You were worthy then, and you are worthy now. 

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“NO ONE tells ME what to do!”

Recovery is going to ask us to try some things that we don’t like. 

And when we’ve been forced to do a lot of things we don’t like in our life, that can get complicated. 

Many of us grew up having very few choices about what happened to us. 

Maybe we were teased and bullied at school— yet, we had no choice but to go to school. 

Maybe we were bullied or abused at home— yet, we had no choice but to live at home. 

Maybe we were pressured into relationships we didn’t choose- or pressured to give up friendships or relationships we did choose. 

Maybe we were pressured to give up career options that would have been fun or interesting or fulfilling…all because they weren’t acceptable to someone who had power or control over us at the moment. 

For many people reading this control and domination has been a central, defining dynamic of their lives. 

Many people find themselves in adulthood not really even knowing who they are or what they want, because they’ve spent their entire lives being controlled and dominated by someone against their will. 

Having structure imposed on us when we didn’t ask for it or want it is damaging in multiple ways. 

Not least of the ways such involuntary control and domination is damaging to us is that it often sours us on the very IDEA of structure and guidance. 

Which can be problematic, insofar as it’s actually really hard to grow or progress WITHOUT at least some structure and guidance. 

A lot of the people reading this know exactly what I’m talking about: they push back instinctively at even the suggestion of someone else choosing things for them. 

They push back effortfully at the idea of following someone else’s plan, because it triggers in them the pain and sadness of having been involuntarily controlled and dominated earlier in their lives. 

We all know someone who will push back at ANY suggestion— even if that suggestion is obviously what needs to happen in order for progress to be made. 

We all know someone who will push back at ANY degree of structure— even if lack of structure is obviously crippling their efforts to change and improve their lives. 

For years, this described me. It still does, in a lot of ways. Maybe it describes you. 

All of this becomes important to assess in our own journey because, again, recovering from depression, anxiety, trauma, addiction, or any other emotional or behavioral struggle is GOING to ask us to do some things we like and some things we would’t choose in the moment. 

It’s going to trigger every impulse we have to push back— to prove that we’re not about to be controlled or dominated…even if it’s for our own good. 

We need to find a way to face our aversion to structure head on, such that we don’t feel steamrolled…but that we accept enough guidance to get where we need to go. 

Getting where we need to go requires a certain amount of voluntary submission. 

We need to “submit” to driving directions to arrive at a destination (not to mention the rules of the road and the requirements of operating a vehicle). 

We need to “submit” to the the limitations of the sizes and shapes of certain puzzle pieces if we’re going to solve the puzzle— it doesn’t work to try to ram round puzzle pieces into square spaces just because “no one’s going to tell us what to do.” 

Yeah, it can be triggering. It can remind us of some of the worst times and people of our lives. 

Chances are acquiescing to the structure in recovery will nudge us to “prove” that we literally don’t have to acquiesce to ANYTHING we don’t want to. 

And, by the by— that’s true. You DON’T have to acquiesce to anything you don’t want to. 

But, we don’t get to have it all, either. 

We don’t get to opt out of making certain decisions, and STILL get the benefits of those decisions. 

I don’t get to NOT train for a marathon— because NO ONE WILL TELL ME WHAT TO DO!— and then still be able to run a marathon without probably getting injured. 

Likewise, we don’t get to meaningfully recover and NEVER have to do or try ANYTHING we don’t want to in the moment. 

Recovery, like any kind of growth or change, has some terms and conditions. 

If we don’t like those terms and conditions, we’re free to opt out— but that means opting out of the potentially lifesaving benefits of recovery as well. 

But, as always: we’re free to choose. 

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You’re not “doing it wrong.” Not by a long shot.

I try hard to frame the content I put out there into the world as, “here’s something you might find helpful.” 

“Here’s a thing to think about.” 

“Here’s something that was a game changer for me.” 

“Here’s something that’s been helpful to a lot of people I’ve worked with.” 

I think it’s really, really important in our recovery from depression, anxiety, trauma, addiction or any other kind of emotional or behavioral struggle, that we NOT frame it in terms of whether we’re “doing it right.” 

Yet, it seems that I very frequently see people writing about these subjects, framing the discussion in terms of what most people are doing “wrong” in their recovery. 

Don’t get me wrong: I do think there are traps in recovery that are really important to avoid. 

For example, we really need to steer clear of viewing recovery as a “competition.” It can be really tempting to look at our recovery gains and setbacks in terms of whether we are “winning” or “losing” a very high stakes “game.” 

Thinking of recovery in this way can be disheartening— because we’re absolutely GOING to have days where we take a step or two back. If we think of that as “losing,” as opposed to a normal, expected part of the process, it can put a negative spin on our efforts that is discouraging— and which doesn’t need to happen. 

Likewise, there’s the trap of confusing how we’re feeling on a day, with how we’re doing in the big picture. 

We’ll have good days and we’ll have not so good days— but it’s entirely possible to be on a successful overall recovery arc, while having a day or two where we don’t feel great. Just feeling bad in the moment doesn’t mean we’re crashing and burning in our recovery— we might just be having an off day. 

So, sure. There are traps in recovery that are common, and that we need to avoid. 

That said: I really, really hate it when I see personal development writers framing things in terms of how “most people” do something or other “wrong” in recovery. 

These tend to be the same writers who frame a lot of their content in very advice-like terms, coming at the equation as if they’re the enlightened “guru” guiding naive’ seekers through the dangerous waters of recovery. 

Like, give me a break. 

I write the things I write because I think I have things that are helpful to keep in mind as we all navigate our journeys. I’ve gone to school and I’ve worked with a lot of people who have been struggling and who have overcome struggles. 

That’s where my expertise begins and ends. 

I have no right to tell you you’re “probably” making a mistake that “most people “ make in recovery— I don’t even know most of you. 

Who is any self-help writer on the internet to tell you you’re doing recovery “wrong?” 

You don’t need to be talked down to by people you don’t even know— especially when you’re reading their content looking for help. 

I’m a big believer in self-help content and culture. Self-help resources were the first and most effective tools I found in my own recovery journey. 

I believe in reading everything you can, trying things out, and thinking outside the box when it comes to designing our own recovery journeys.

Well over half of the stuff I have done and continue to do to keep my own head above water, let alone thrive, have been derived or adapted from things I’ve read in the self help sphere. There are some extraordinary resources out there. 

I just wish that those who produce self-help content didn’t automatically assume their audience was “doing it wrong.” 

I don’t think you’re “doing it wrong.” 

I think the very fact that you’ve survived so far means you’re doing something quite right. 

Your strategies and skills may not be perfect. Some of them might have outlived their usefulness. Some of them might create more problems than they solve at this point. 

But they’ve worked in an important aspect: they’ve kept you alive. 

I think your ongoing recovery needs to build on the recovery you’ve already established. 

Even if you’re at a point where a significant overhaul might be necessary, I STILL think it’s essential to acknowledge that you’re not new to this “recovery” thing— or this “survival” thing. 

You’re already a recoverer, a survivor, a thriver. 

If you’re reading my words and using my ideas, it’s ME who is lucky to be a part of YOUR life. 

So thank you. 

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It’s about taking “realistic responsibility,” not “total responsibility.”

We hear a lot in our culture about “taking responsibility.” 

There seem to be a LOT of people who feel that the main problem MOST people have is that they take insufficient responsibility for their lives. 

We very frequently see self-help gurus enthusiastically encourage us to TAKE FULL RESPONSIBILITY for EVERYTHING IN OUR LIVES!

Those who strongly believe in the Law of Attraction— the belief that we “attract” circumstances into our lives that correspond with our current “vibration”— like to assert that “there are no accidents:” that everything that is in our lives, we “asked” for, based on the vibration of the thoughts we “choose.” 

And Lord knows we don’t want to be one of those people who refuse to “take responsibility” for their lives by blaming and complaining. 

We get beaten over the head with this message daily. Inspirational quotes about how we have to “take our power back” and “go all in” reinforce the message: if your life isn’t working, it’s likely because you haven’t “taken enough responsibility” for changing the situation. 

I’ll never deny that personal responsibility is important. 

“Responsibility,” by definition, means “able to respond”— “response” “ability.” 

I’m a therapist specifically BECAUSE I think there are things we can do to change our lives. We’re not helpless or hopeless. There ARE things we can do to feel happier and behave more effectively. 

But: we have to be realistic about the limits of “responsibility.” 

There are things that happen TO us that limit our ability to respond— our ability to BE response-able. 

It is my experience that many people who struggle with anxiety or depression don’t struggle with taking personal responsibility for their lives— in fact, quite the opposite: they take responsibility for EVERYTHING that happens. 

If a thing has gone wrong anywhere in the world, they’ll find a way it was their fault. 

If a person doesn’t like them or approve of them, they’ll ABSOLUTELY consider it their fault. 

If life hasn’t worked out the way it was “supposed” to, they’ll assume it was their fault. 

It’s my experience that most people who are struggling tend to OVERestimate how “responsible” they are, or should be, for the things that happen out there in the world…which then puts them in the position of feeling guilty about things over which they have no realistic control. 

We need to be realistic about what we are and are not responsible for— otherwise we will find ourselves overwhelmed by depression, anxiety, and frustration. 

Cognitive therapists describe thought distortions that they call “personalization” and “mind reading,” in which people both assume negative events are about them and they assume other people are thinking negatively about them. 

We can’t POSSIBLY take responsibility for EVERY negative event that happens in our lives, and we can’t possibly know what other people are thinking. 

Being realistic and adult in how we take responsibility for our lives DOESN’T mean we “take responsibly” for EVERYTHING. 

Why? Because you don’t run the universe. You are not all powerful. You don’t control everything that happens to you, you don’t chose every result, there are certain variables that are out of your control. 

That’s not “blaming” or “complaining.” That’s acknowledging reality. 

There’s an extent to which the “take total responsibly” crowd seems to be fantasizing. They really, REALLY want it to be the case that you CAN “take responsibility for everything” in your life, because it absolutely TERRIFIES them that they might NOT be totally in charge of their fate. 

I’ll tell you right now: you’re NOT totally in charge of your fate. No one is. 

And that’s okay. 

We don’t need to be. 

Instead of taking “total” responsibility for what happens in our lives, I say take REALISTIC responsibility.

Be real about the fact that you might not control the temperature outside, but you can control whether you wear a scarf. 

You can’t control whether you had trauma happen to you, but you can control whether you’re working on it and using your skills day to day. 

You can’t control the economy, but you can make a personal budget. 

There’s a reason why the 12 step traditions emphasize the Serenity Prayer: because, in addition to the courage to change the things we can change, we very much need the serenity to accept what we can’t change…and the wisdom to know the difference. 

The self-help gurus haven’t figured that distinction out yet. 

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Sometimes getting better means we lose things, too.

One of the reasons why we sometimes struggle to change our lives in significant ways is because we’re anxious about that life AFTER that change will look like. 

After all, even if we’ve struggled with certain problems, such as depression or anxiety or addiction, for so long, we do have at least SOME situations or relationships in our life that are comfortable. 

What if we make a big change in our life— and suddenly the few things that we actually LIKE in our life are suddenly gone? 

I used to work in a trauma treatment program that had inpatient and outpatient groups. 

Something we saw happen over and over again was, people would find themselves in our groups, and maybe for the first time realize that they weren’t alone in what they were going through. 

Trauma has a way of making you feel like you’re completely alone— that you’re the only person in the history of the world who could possibly be struggling this much with your past. 

When people would enter our program, they’d meet other people who were struggling in many of the same ways they were struggling— and they’d find themselves in an environment where, for the first time, other people understood and empathized with what they were going through. 

They’d make friends in the group— friends who actually kind of “got” what their own life experience was like, and who were suffering and struggling in many of the same ways. 

To finally connect with somebody like that, after year of feeling alone and like a freak, can be pretty profound. 

Our program became a safe place— physically and emotionally— for survivors to come and be with each other. 

It was a beautiful thing. 

Then…we’d see something else happen. 

As people worked the program, they tended to get better. Their symptoms tended to diminish; their functionality would improve. 

Eventually, they’d improve to the point where the right thing to do was to cut back their time at the program, as they returned to their work and home lives. 

And suddenly…things would get complicated. 

The transition back to everyday life would turn out to be a time where a flare up of symptoms or a decline in functionality would happen. 

There are lots of reasons for why times of transition can be triggering and difficult for survivors, but one of the reasons turned out to be: if they got better, to the point where it was time to cut down or end their time at the program, patients would actually experience that as a loss. 

It was a loss of a space that had become comfortable and safe; loss of a certain amount of structure that had been designed with trauma survivors in mind; and loss of daily contact with people who had become their friends. 

That is to say: the “reward” for getting better was to actually lose things they liked and valued. 

This is a paradox that exists in recovery: as we get better, we actually do have to leave certain things behind…even if we like those things. 

It’s particularly rough when the things we have to leave behind have been things that have been there for us during rough times. 

As we recover from addiction, we have to leave behind certain people and activities that we may like— but which aren’t healthy for us. 

As we recover from trauma and regain our autonomy and functionality, we have to leave behind some of the resources that supported us early in our recovery— because we’re beyond the point where they’re useful for our continued growth. 

These losses can feel unfair to us. Why SHOULDN’T we get to hang on to certain people, places, or situations, for as long as we want? Why does getting better mean we have to leave certain people, places, or situations, behind? 

For the same reason we can’t leave training wheels on the bicycle, or just keep reading children’s books for the rest of our lives. 

Those people, places, and situations helped us, sometimes enormously, when we needed them to help us. 

They were sources of support and comfort.

And they’ve served their purpose. 

Life doesn’t stand still, even if we want it to. Rivers flow; planets revolve; glaciers melt.

We can acknowledge and mourn our losses— even those losses that are occasioned by our progress and successes. 

And then, with gratitude and a little sadness…we can move on.  

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Maybe the cavalry isn’t coming.

The reason I encourage people to focus on the environment inside their heads first, rather than the external support that may help improve their life situation, is because we simply cannot control if or when that external support arrives. 

I agree that external support and resources makes healing and recovery enormously easier. 

i agree that it’s really hard to heal WITHOUT external support and resources. 

I wish we lived in a world in which external support and resources were more available to people who need them. 

But we have to deal with the world as it is— and in this world, the arrival of external support and resources is an uncertain thing. 

As helpful as it would undeniably be, we simply can’t put our eggs in the basket of someone or something coming along to help us out by giving us something we don’t already have. 

It’s not that I have any delusional ideas about how it’s somehow “better” to attempt to pull ourselves up “by the bootstraps.” 

I just think we have to deal with the world as it is, not as it should be. 

I WISH we could count on support arriving when we needed it. 

I WISH we could count on backup. 

I WISH we could count on external support and resources being extended in a timely fashion, with no catch. 

But we can’t. 

And even if we could, a lot of people in pain would struggle to reach out and struggle to accept what was being offered, for a number of reasons. 

This doesn’t mean I don’t think we should, as a society, work on making support and resources more available to people who are struggling. Of course we should. 

But that “should” doesn’t help people who are reading this and struggling right now. 

It’s really important that our recovery be realistic. 

If we’re going to heal and recover, we need to look at life and ourselves as they are— not as we wish they were. 

I encourage people to focus on skills, tools, and strategies because that’s the side of the equation we CAN influence. 

There are dozens and dozens of variables that we CAN’T influence very much…but the degree to which we develop skills, seek out tools, and use them as part of intentional strategies is something we CAN influence. 

Recovery needs to be about restoring power and agency to us, even if that power and agency isn’t always perfect. 

People who are struggling have usually felt powerless for a long time. 

They’ve often felt blamed and shamed for things that have been outside of their influence. 

It’s my experience that, as long as we focus on something external as the main or only thing that can turn our situation around, we continue to feel powerless. 

The truth is, successful recovery involves a great deal of effort on our part…as well as support from unexpected sources, luck, and dozens of little triumphs and little setbacks every day. 

When I say “use your damn skills,” please don’t hear that as a suggestion that you HAVEN’T been using your skills. 

Please hear it as a reminder to focus in on what you can do, not what you can’t. 

Please hear it as a reminder that you are not limited to waiting for the cavalry to arrive. 

Please hear it as a reminder that you have autonomy and agency— power— right here, right now. 

Because you do. Really. 

And I believe in you. 

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Abandonment isn’t just being left on the side of the road.

“Abandonment” isn’t just being literally left on the side of the road. 

Nor is it an overdramatized way of referring to not getting what we want or need. 

The truth is, we often don’t get what we want or need, and we find a way to survive. It’s not necessarily “traumatic” to be let down (though of course it can be, depending on the context). 

When I refer to “abandonment,” I’m very specifically referring to situations in which we depend on someone for something essential, and we’ve been reasonably assured that they’d be there with that essential thing…and they’re not. 

Abandonment isn’t just about deprivation or disappointment. It’s about betrayal. 

It’s about someone not living up to commitments that they made, or that it’s reasonably their responsibility to keep. 

It’s not abandonment to just not get a thing we want or need— abandonment is about getting the rug pulled out from under us, and being forced to improvise in a situation that may be overwhelming.

Not all abandonment is necessarily life threatening— though sometimes it is. 

Not all abandonment is necessarily due to premeditation or negligence— though sometimes it is. 

Abandonment is defined by the experience of the abandoned— not the intention of the abandoner. 

It may not be the case that someone sat down and thought to themselves, “You know what? I’m totally going to abandon this person to whom I made a commitment, just whiff on my responsibility to them.” 

In fact, part of what makes abandonment painful is that it underscores how thoroughly unimportant we are to people who should, by rights, think and care about us. 

Abandonment hurts because it drills into us the message the we are not important. We’re not worthy. We’re disposable. 

The truth is, there are many reasons why we might be emotionally or even physically abandoned— and they all have to do with the abandoner. 

Even if an abandoner’s thought process explicitly involves dislike or contempt for the abandoned, it is STILL the behavior of the abandoner that defines the experience. 

We can’t “make” someone abandon us. 

If we are abandoned, it is never a consequence of what we are or aren’t, how desirable or worthy we are or aren’t, how attractive or interesting or smart we are or aren’t. 

If it is someone else’s responsibility to be there for us, if they have a commitment to be there for us, it’s up to them to figure out how to life up to that responsibility, to fulfill that commitment. 

We can only be responsible for our commitments— not anybody else’s. 

Abandonment isn’t just physical. It can be emotional or spiritual— and it’s very commonly financial. 

It doesn’t particularly matter if it was someone’s intention to abandon us or not. The experience of abandonment isn’t necessarily impacted or negated if we’re able to say to ourselves, “Well, they didn’t MEAN to make us feel that way.” 

Especially when we’re young, abandonment hits at the core of our self-concept. 

Abandonment, especially repeated abandonment, can seriously chip away at our self-esteem. 

When others aren’t there for us, especially important people in our lives, it’s hard for us to learn to be there for ourselves. 

One of the most important life skills we’ll ever develop is having our own back. Refusing to abandon ourselves.

We learn to take care of ourselves by being taken care of. 

When we’re not taken care of, we often assume we must not be worthy of care. 

We come to expect disappointment. To expect abandonment. 

The good news is, we can learn to be there for ourselves. We can learn to have our own back. 

The experience of abandonment early in life doesn’t have to define the rest of our life. 

But it certainly gives us a hill to climb when it comes to forming stable, realistic self-esteem. 

It wasn’t your fault if you were abandoned. 

Be there for yourself now. 

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Getting back to what matters.

Part of what kicks our butt about depression, anxiety, trauma, and addiction is, they kill our desire to go out into the world and explore. 

Dealing with emotional and behavioral struggles is exhausting. 

When we’ve spent all day, every day, trying to manage them— or stay alive in spite of them— we don’t have much time and focus for anything else. 

This is one of the reasons why a core symptom of depression is “loss of interest in activities you used to enjoy”…because who has the energy or focus to do fun or enjoyable stuff when you’ve spent all day fighting back against demons in your head? 

In the case of addiction, very often the behavior or substance of choice actually makes the place of things you used to enjoy— your “fix” often becomes your main, or only, source of “feel good.” 

Anxiety is constantly asking you to make a choice: do this thing that might be healthy or even enjoyable for you, but have to deal with an exhausting whirlwind of physical and emotional sensations…or avoid putting yourself out there, in exchange for RELATIVE peace and calm inside of you. 

For a lot of people, it’s not much of a choice, because doing the thing is so exhausting. 

Trauma is kind of like the “greatest hits” album of depression, anxiety, and addiction, with bonus tracks devoted to dissociation. 

(Worst greatest hits album ever.) 

So when depression, anxiety, addiction, and/or trauma is on our plate…our plate doesn’t really have room for much else. 

Much of the research and theory on human attachment discusses how babies— and, subsequently, adults— use their people and objects of attachment as kind of a “safe base” from which to explore the world. 

When we’re securely attached, we have confidence that our person will be there for us when we’re scared or in danger. 

We can explore the world, knowing that we have a “safe base” to come back to. We’re not out there alone. Someone has our back. 

Babies do this physically— you can watch them crawl out and explore their environment, play with toys, interact…but when they get sacred or uncertain they crawl back to their caregivers, looking for a shot of reassurance. 

Adults have a way of doing this too. We latch on to certain people, institutions, or identities as our “safe base” from which to explore and take risks…and when scary or threatening stuff happens out there in the world, we come back to our “safe base” for reassurance and affirmation. 

Depression, anxiety, trauma, and addiction screw this whole thing up, because they sap our strength and hijack our focus. 

Life is about exploring. It’s about taking risks and connecting with things and people we like and discovering new stuff that scratches us where we itch. 

It’s about getting scared and getting tired and coming back to those places of safety and affirmation where we can get recharged, and then go explore some more. 

Depression, anxiety, trauma, and addiction throw up roadblocks to all of that. 

They try to steal way our adventurous spirit. 

They try to extinguish our curiosity. 

They try to make us forget that we ever HAD hope of getting our itches scratched. 

This puts our task in fighting our emotional and behavioral struggles in pretty clear focus: we need to find ways to manage and contain their impact on our lives, so we can get back to exploring and experiencing life. 

So we can get back to what matters. 

So we can get back to who we REALLY are. 

And, as it turns out: we can. 

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Your Secret Weapon.

Your imagination– your capacity for visualization and fantasy– is your secret weapon.

 I want you fantasizing all the time— but I don’t want you living in a fantasy world. 

I don’t want you checked out of reality. 

I want here very grounded in the here and now, insofar as that’s the only way to safely, productively deal with the challenges life throws our way. 

But I do want you using your imagination every day— every hour of every day. 

I do want you imagining what your mentors and supporters might tell you in any given situation. 

I want you “hearing” their voices. I want you “feeling” their presence. 

One of the biggest battles many of us face every day is feeling like we’re utterly alone. 

Many of us grew up feeling like nobody understood us— or wanted to. 

Many of us grew up feeling like nobody supported us— or wanted to. 

Maybe we weren’t worthy of understanding or support, we figured. 

After all, if we were likable or worthy, we wouldn’t even have to ASK for that understanding or support, right? It would just appear, like it does in Disney movies. 

The fairy godmothers would just show up, because we were special. 

But the fact that no such fairy godmothers did show up for us messed with our heads…and many of us became acutely aware of how lonely the world actually was. 

For me, what helped with that loneliness was fantasy— and the fantasies that were most often helpful were those fantasies in which I WAS liked, in which I WAS supported, in which I WAS worthy of understanding. 

I’d literally fantasize about having friends— and not the complicated friendships that real life offered, either, where you had to be cool and funny enough to be worth someone’s time. 

There was always this performative aspect to friendship that I could never quite wrap my head around— the feeling that, if I wasn’t entertaining enough, that people would go find friends funnier than me. 

But in my fantasy world, those friends and supporters weren’t judgmental. They weren’t expecting entertainment. 

They were just there for me. 

They liked me just as I was— even as they wanted me to get better. 

Fast forward to adulthood, when we’re told that we should live in reality— that imagination is for kids. 

Is imagination really “just for kids?” 

Because I can tell you: I work with adults every single day whose imaginations are as vivid and active as any school kid’s…and whose imaginations are either working for them or against them (sometimes both). 

As kids, we use our imagination to take the sharp edges off of life. 

As adults, we’re instructed that it’s uncool to use our imagination in vivid, active ways— that being “realistic” means to deprive ourselves of a tool that is literally designed to help us make it through the day. 

How are you supposed to utilize stuff your therapist tells you if you’re unwilling to remember and imagine them telling it to you? 

How are you supposed to utilize the safety of your therapist’s office or a twelve step meeting, if you’re not allowed to remember and fantasize what it’s like being in that space?

How are you supposed to utilize powerful words spoken by characters in novels or movies, unless those characters and stories vividly live and thrive in your imagination? 

Again: using your imagination as an adult isn’t about checking out of reality, or confusing your fantasy with the reality of the world. 

It’s about using our capacity to visualize, to “see” and “hear” people who aren’t actually here or may not actually exist, to help you feel more centered, more purposeful, more resourceful…more able to deal with life on life’s terms. 

You can even hear my voice in your head. If you read my stuff, you know very well the kinds of things I say. 

Carry me with you in your imagination. 

You don’t have to go it alone. 

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We couldn’t do what we couldn’t do.

There’s sometimes a temptation to look back on things that happened when we were kids, and judge our behavior based on what we are capable of now. 

We look back and tell ourselves that we “should” have escaped. 

We look back and tell ourselves that we “should” have set boundaries. 

We look back and tell ourselves we “should” have sought help. 

We look back and tell ourselves that we “should” have said no. 

Sometimes we look back at situations and we are disgusted by the priorities of the person we were once upon a time. 

And we say to ourselves, “It’s no excuse that I was a child at the time…I SHOULD have known better, and I SHOULD have done better.” 

For man people this even extends to their adult lives: they judge what they “should” have done five or ten or twenty years ago, based on the knowledge, skills, resources, and perspectives they have now. 

All of which can result in feeling angry and guilty…almost as if we NEED to punish our current self, for the failings of our past self. 

(After all, if we DON’T punish ourselves now, that means that our past self will GET AWAY WITH IT, and that’s not fair, right?)

It’s all enormously unfair…and enormously unhelpful. 

The “me” who looks back at the “me” of decades past is not objective. 

I don’t know what I was or was not capable of back them. 

Sure, there’s stuff I wish I would have done…but there’s no guarantee that I would have been able to do that stuff at the time. 

As I write this, I’m a 43 year old with three degrees in psychology. Am I expecting the “me” of my first ten or twelve years to know or be able to do the things that the “me” of today can do? 

Of course not. 

If we didn’t do something “back then,” it’s usually for a pretty simple reason: we couldn’t. 

If we were being abused and we didn’t stop it, it’s usually because didn’t even register “stopping it” as an option— or something that we “should” want to do, let alone be able to do. 

We only had the resources we had available to us then. We didn’t have the resources we now have. 

We didn’t have the size, the intellectual development, the therapy, the coping skills, the supports, or the simple life perspective that we have now. 

When we’re kids, the needs, wants, and reactions of the adults around us really seem like the only thing that matters. 

We don’t know that we’re going to live multiple decades, and we’re going to meet a lot of adults who are going to have a lot of reactions. 

When we’re kids, we really think that the approval and acceptance of a handful of certain people really is all we need or want in the world. 

We don’t know that, over the course of our lives, there are going to be LOTS of people who accept AND reject us…and we’ll survive. 

When we’re kids, we really think that that adult has “chosen” us for a “secret” relationship because we’re “special.” 

We don’t know that this “secret’ relationship that we’re being told to never, ever tell anyone about, will eventually harm our capacity for intimacy, our willingness to trust, or our very sense of self. 

I often tell people that we have nothing to “forgive” ourselves for if we were abused, and I mean that. “Forgiveness” is for people who have done something wrong, and we didn’t. 

So it’s not a matter of “forgiving” anything…it’s a matter of ACCEPTING that we were who we were. 

We could only do what we could do…and we couldn’t do what we couldn’t do. 

And that’s okay. 

You’re okay. 

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