July 2015

Not the thoughts themselves

(Sometimes I feel like a broken record, because I kind of say the same thing over and over again, just in different words and different ways. But maybe that’s kind of the point, because what we internalize and truly know in one moment, we doubt and don’t believe in another moment. So maybe the point is to keep saying it, over and over again, because each moment we capitalize on our truth is a moment that the truth solidifies more and more in our cores.)

I have been noticing lately (again) how the automatic thoughts that were such a part of my life for so long continue to linger. I have been empowered lately (again) that I have the choice to act on them or not.

One of the best, most freeing truths I ever came to internalize, was:

What matters is my reactions to the thoughts, not the thoughts themselves. 

Today, I felt embarrassed about the way I handled a conversation. I perceived myself as sounding incompetent, immature, and annoying. (And maybe I did sound that way, or maybe I didn’t, all the ruminating in the world won’t send me inside the other person’s head to know how she perceived me. It would be up to her to tell me – not my job to guess.) And it fascinated me how quickly after I heard the thoughts in my brain:

I am going to the gym right when I get home.
I am going for a run even though it’s hot.
I’m not going to eat dinner.

I no longer panic about those thoughts, though I don’t love them. But I’ve come to realize that my brain is wired this way. Maybe it’s genetic, maybe it’s neurological, maybe it’s synapses that were created in middle school and high school and college and still exist to this day. But also? Maybe it doesn’t matter why the thoughts come. Maybe (definitely) what matters is how I choose to react. And there’s nothing more empowering than that – knowing I have a choice.

I’m home right now. I’m sitting on my couch. I had a snack because working outside all day left me shaky and dehydrated. The air conditioning is on. I’m writing. I will eat dinner tonight. I don’t have the energy for the gym, so I won’t go tonight. I might go for a walk later if I want to gently, slowly stretch out my body. I will not harm myself. I will be gentle and kind.

Years ago? I didn’t have that separation between thoughts and actions. A thought was acted on, because there was no other option. But that’s no longer the case. And the presence of thoughts doesn’t erase years of progress, years of moving forward. It doesn’t mean failure and it doesn’t mean regression or relapse. The presence of thoughts means nothing except just that….that there are thoughts in my brain. (And? If I do or did act on the thoughts? That also doesn’t erase years of progress, moving forward, or mean failure. It means that all of us, myself included, are human. And perfection doesn’t exist. And that’s just life. And okay. And real.)

And so now I know.

I can notice the thoughts. Listen to them. Acknowledge them.

And gently send them away.

The beautiful gradient of being real

Sometimes I think that we feel like it’s all or nothing – we either spill our guts and tell our inner secrets or we don’t say anything and stay closed up.

But it’s not black and white. It’s a beautiful, sparkling gradient of dancing flecks and sparkles of colors.

The gradient doesn’t require having full length conversations about things. It doesn’t require telling it all. Nor does it require sharing it with everyone. It doesn’t require you to be serious and it doesn’t require any further explanation.

The beautiful thing about the gradient is every little bit falls somewhere along it.

The empowering thing is that each time you share – a word, a sentence, a story, you are healing yourself, working towards bravery, combating shame, channeling compassion.

It’s when you are talking with a friend you trust, and you casually throw in a funny anecdote about what your therapist said to you. (and knowing that you don’t have to share any more than that. You don’t owe anyone an explanation.)

It’s when you state that a comment made by a co-worker, or student, or camper, triggered you. (and giving yourself the power – knowing you don’t owe anyone an explanation about why).

It’s saying, “I need a minute, I’m really anxious” (and only saying more than that if you want to)

It’s asking a friend to check in at the end of the day (and knowing that you don’t have to be in crisis to deserve support. You always deserve support).

It’s the time that you say, “Last night was rough.” (and leaving it at that.)

Is it not such a relief to say one of those things, and be met with a smile, a laugh, a compassionate or empathic response?

All of those times – and so many more – put you on the path, away from the darkness and into the light. All of those times prove to yourself – I can be real. I can share. I can do this. And the more that we practice this, bit by bit, the easier it gets. The more we are real, the more we give others permission to do the same.

And we heal. Bit by beautiful bit.

What he says vs. what he means

Joey came into camp a few days ago, dressed in his normal shorts and t-shirt. It was “Superhero” day at camp, and many campers and staff were wearing various superhero shirts or capes. Theme days are not Joey’s thing, nor have they ever been. He observed what everyone was wearing, and told me, “I didn’t wear a superhero shirt.” I nodded, and reminded him that was okay.

He looked around, and then came back to me, saying, “People who didn’t wear superhero clothes are stupid.”

“Oh,” I replied. “Are you kind of wishing you had worn a superhero shirt?”

“Yes.” he nodded.

“So, you could say, ‘I’m a little disappointed I didn’t dress up today.'” I offered.

“Yeah,” he replied, and went up to his group leader, saying, “I kinda wish I had dressed up today.”

Two kids in Joey’s group hadn’t arrived yet. Joey asked me where they were and I told him they weren’t there yet.

“They’re sick.” He stated. “They got hit by a car. They’re dead. I hate them anyway.”

“Do you feel nervous because you’re not sure where they are?” I asked.

He nodded.

Later, once they had shown up, he told them, “I didn’t know where you were! Are you sick?”

Two options are present during free time after lunch. Part of the group is playing a soccer game and part is batting a beach ball back and forth. Joey is deciding what to do. He chooses soccer, then beach ball, and finally decides on soccer.

“Besides,” he tells me, “Beach ball is dumb anyway. I hate it. So it’s fine to choose soccer. Because people who play beach ball are dumb losers.”

“You know what? It’s okay to like both, and just pick one. Because another day, you could play beach ball. You can like both things.” I suggested.

“True,” he nodded. He ran over to the group. “I’m going to play soccer today and beach ball another day!”

The thing is, I know Joey really well. I can predict his every move, and I know exactly what he is thinking and when there is a disconnect between his thoughts and the words that come out of his mouth. It’s not always that easy, especially when it’s a new kid that we’re working with.

But the idea remains the same. That words are not always reliable for our kids – special ed kids, kids on the spectrum, kids with ADHD, kids with language disorders. Especially in an emotional moment, not all words are accessible. Have you ever been so mad that you just freeze because you can’t even get any words out of your mouth?

Sometimes when kids say one thing, they’re trying to tell us something else. Sometimes when a kid looks like they’re being rude, disobedient, or defiant, they’re really feeling a myriad of other emotions and don’t have access to those concepts to tell us. And yes – sometimes kids are being those things. But the idea is that we don’t jump to that conclusion right away. We think through the options first. We consider their profile, their neurology, their diagnoses. We wonder if their behavior is telling us something. We wonder if they are using those words as a placeholder to convey something else. We check in with them. We offer them language and see if they take it. More often than not, you’d be surprised – a kid will take the words you give them if they match, and won’t take them if they are an inaccurate portrayal of what they’re feeling.

If I had handled any of those 3 situations by telling Joey, “That is unacceptable behavior, you need a time out, you can’t say things like that,” nothing would have been accomplished. And of course – we still do process and explain. We give him friendly words to say instead of unfriendly/mean ones. We explain, “When you say ‘I hate them anyway’ it makes me think you’re trying to be mean. Are you?” If a mean comment is directed towards a kid, we explain to him why he needs to apologize, and what it might make the other kid think when he says mean words. We process, over and over again, the different ways to express feelings and thoughts, trying to build new neurologic and linguistic connections.

But we don’t punish. Because what’s the point? When the reason for the seemingly hurtful words is actually a lack of ability to express oneself, we need to teach strategies for accessing those words and concepts. And appreciate that they are even attempting to communicate in the first place.

Five-Minute Friday: Hope

(Today I am linking up with Five-Minute Friday. This week’s word: Hope.)

You may not know this.
Or you may have forgotten.

That: hope doesn’t mean rainbows and butterflies and sunshine and blue skies.

It doesn’t mean laughter and stillness and smiles and energy.

It can. But it doesn’t always.

Hope exists when you imagine those things. Hope is present when, despite the swirling tornado of grief, the burning flames of trauma, the ankle weights of despair, you remember that butterflies exist. When you dream of stillness. When you imagine that one day, the skies will be blue again, even for a breath.

Hope isn’t perfect. It’s not an idealistic Disneyworld where nothing is wrong and smiles, cotton candy, laughter, and fun are present at all times.


Hope is real. As real as sadness, as fear, as panic.

You can feel two feelings at once.

Hope exists when we remember this. And we believe that they exist. And we hold onto them like a life vest, an anchor, and we think, yes. There is a reason that I am breathing through my storm, breathing through these feelings, breathing through the thick air. Because I can imagine. I might have forgotten what it’s like. But I can imagine a moment where a butterfly flies by. Where my body relaxes. Where the sun comes out. Where I might smile. Yes. I keep breathing through it because I believe. 

Hope is belief. Hope is imagination. Hope is real.


She paces frantically in circles, reminding me of a caged bird. A primal look of fear crosses her red, sweat-streaked face. I’m trapped, I sense her trying to say. Words are not accessible to her right now. I sit in silence. I wait. She shrieks. “I can’t breathe!” She screams, “I’m going to hyperventilate!” My heart breaks. Subliminally, telepathically, I tell her, I get it. I know this panic. I know how terrifying it feels to not be in control of your own body. I know. Please believe me. I know. I’m here. She makes eye contact with me for a millisecond, and I send love from my eyes to hers, just before the meltdown seizes her again, and she throws her water bottle as hard as she can onto the ground, into the dirt. She stomps over, picks up the bottle, and upon seeing how dirty it is, she lets out a scream and bursts into sobbing tears. I stand up, and softly ask, “Want me to wipe it off?” “Yes!” she shrieks. Wordlessly I wipe it on my shirt and hand it to her. A few moments later, she catches my eye again. I’m here, I tell her with all the energy I can muster. I know you’re scared. You’re safe. This will pass. Time passes. The guttural moans quiet. The sobs turn to whimpers. Words emerge, here and there. She hears me again. Her vision clears. She holds my eye gaze for longer and longer. I quietly ask, “Do you want to go get a snack?” She says, “Yes” in a loud voice, but not a yell. We walk. I match her pace. She brings up a preferred conversation topic. We talk. Fifteen minutes later, after she finishes her snack, I feel her gaze on me. I look up. “Thank you,” she says. And what I want to say is, Thank you for trusting me to keep you safe. For being real and letting it out and letting me see your pain. You are 12 years old, but I admire you and your bravery. Thank you for trusting me in your most vulnerable moments. But instead, I look at her, smile, and simply say, “You’re welcome.”

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