Women! – We Are More Than Our Stories

This summer, I attended the first ever “Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) BootCamp for Women’s Issues.”

Though I had attended a traditional ACT Bootcamp earlier this year, I was drawn to this summer event out of a desire to connect more with my community of women and to examine ways I can better serve my female clients. The reality of the unique struggles women face in the world has been inescapable in both my personal life and in the therapy room.

I went to the training ready to learn. I walked away empowered and inspired.

A Mutually Shared Story

Throughout the training, we often reflected on the question, “What is our story?”

In other words, “How did I come to be who I am?”

The answer would help us to understand the multitude of challenges we often face as women—how our story may limit us in terms of the choices we make in our lives and what we feel our lives can be.

There is so much commonality in that story—it crosses over the human experience. Pain and suffering do not discriminate by gender.

However, there is commonality that is also very gender-specific. Women have different experiences that can impact us in so many ways in our lives, such as our relationship to finances, to aging, to sexuality, or to a career.

Even though we have distinct personal experiences, there are ways in which women also have shared experiences—a shared story, essentially. For example:

  • Women are more likely than men to be the main caregiver for their children and other dependent relatives
  • Women are overrepresented in low-income, low-status jobs
  • Women are more likely to be sexually assaulted and neglected or abused in childhood

We explored a lot of sobering but not surprising facts like the ones above.

But the most powerful experience from the training did not come from a lecture or discussion. The act of sitting in a room full of people who had similar experiences, and feeling and understanding the power of connection coming from these mutually shared experiences, was by far the most impactful.

Breaking Free of the Confines of Our Story

The pain of our experiences often leads us to withdraw and isolate. And when we do that, it is easy to think that we are alone, and for many of us, that we are at fault. It keeps the story alive and makes our lives small.

That isolation keeps us contained—trapped in our little boxes and limited in our lives. It has profound consequences. For example, research has shown that a lack of social connection negatively impacts our health equivalent to smoking 15 cigarettes a day.

The antidote is simple—connection.

Connecting can help us see that our story is not an uncommon one. When we connect to others and build community with them, we can start to recognize how our story got built. And that not only helps us to understand ourselves and our situation, but it also takes the power out of that story as something that has to define us and isolate us.

In turn, connection allows us to break free of the confines of that story, making room for the fullness and complexity of our beings and giving us greater freedom to choose our path.

Looking for more connection in your life?

Sign Up for Our 9-week ACT on Life Class for Women in Portland, Oregon.

In ACT on Life for Women, you’ll learn techniques based on Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) to break the grip of unwanted thoughts and feelings and more fully engage your life. Amongst a community of other women, we will connect and dismantle common stories we carry that are often barriers to the full life we want and deserve to live.

Sign Up Here

Embrace Discomfort and Connect to the Meaningful Things in Your Life

Did you make a new year’s resolution at the start of this year?

Or have you ever made one in the past?

Like most of us, you probably started off with a lot of enthusiasm and lofty goals.

But how many times have you actually succeeded in sticking to the resolution? How many times have you reached your final goal?

And if you failed, have you ever wondered what exactly has gotten in the way?

There is no shame in admitting it. You are in good company.

Even with the best intentions and motivations, we all have a tendency to lose sight of our goals and falter at making the changes that we desire.

Why is that?

An Unsound Relationship with Discomfort

One of the biggest obstacles to making lasting change is having to repeatedly face discomfort. Often, we try to white-knuckle our way through it, only to find that will power and muscle are not enough.

The real problem is that our relationship with being uncomfortable is unsound. We have grown up with the notion that discomfort is something negative—a bad thing—and therefore, something that we have to avoid or get rid of as fast as possible.

The reality is that any change you make in your life, even a positive one—moving into a new house, starting a new relationship or job, or traveling abroad—comes with inherent discomfort.

But if discomfort is something that must be avoided, what do you give up as a result? Make discomfort the enemy long enough and you may even lose sight of what really matters to you in life.

Learning to See Discomfort in a Different Light

Many years back, I realized that much of my life centered around being comfortable. I had a good job and friends, but I lacked passion and meaning. It was as if I was living on autopilot.

It was then when I realized in order to have the life I wanted, I needed to adopt a new motto – “get comfortable with the uncomfortable.”

I started to see discomfort as just an inherent part of change and growth—as something welcomed, neither good nor bad. From then on, when I felt discomfort, I stopped looking for ways to get rid of it. Instead, I reminded myself that it was simply a part of the process.

The lesson for you?

When you learn to see discomfort differently and start to actually invite it into your life, you can better connect with the things that are meaningful to you.

If you no longer have to avoid discomfort, what might you spend your energy doing?

Creating a Different Relationship with Discomfort

What steps can you take to become more comfortable with being uncomfortable?

As odd as it may sound, in order to try creating a different relationship with discomfort, you actually have to actively pursue the things that you know will make you uncomfortable.

Ask yourself: “Are there things I always wanted to do but did not do because I felt too awkward or embarrassed to do them?”

For some, it may be taking a dance class, singing karaoke, or doing improv. Remember, the important thing is that whatever you decide, it is something that matters to you.

The next step is to pursue these activities while noticing how it feels to be uncomfortable. You will likely hear some of the same old discouraging thoughts: “I can’t”, “I look silly.”

But what happens if you continue anyway and invite discomfort and all its friends to the party? Could you learn to engage differently with discomfort, embrace it, and in turn, grow and enrich your life? The only way to know is to try it!


Therapy is a great way of exploring your relationship with discomfort, how you responded to pain and discomfort in the past, and how you can get more in touch with the things that are meaningful in your life now. I would love to help you find the right balance and perspective.

The Pursuit of Happiness: Understanding the Research

Does valuing happiness help us live a joyful life, or does it backfire?

Happiness seems to have a high currency in America. Over the past few years, the number of popular books written on how to increase it has skyrocketed. To name a few: 10% Happier, The Art of Happiness, Authentic Happiness, The Happiness Advantage, The Happiness Project, 52 Lists for Happiness, Choosing Happier, Flourish. Even the US Declaration of Independence declares the pursuit of happiness as an “inalienable right.”

But what is the consequence of valuing happiness? On the one hand, valuing happiness could lead a person to work harder to attain it. On the other hand, valuing happiness could lead a person to feel unhappy if they don’t reach their standards.

In 2011, a group of researchers decided to put this question to the test. They asked adult females who had recently experienced a stressful life event, such as a divorce or accident, to indicate how much life stress had impacted them and how much they highly valued feeling positively (e.g. “feeling happy is extremely important to me”).

As expected, the participants who highly valued happiness tended to have worse overall wellbeing, including more symptoms of depression, and a lower ratio of positive to negative emotions. Interestingly, the researchers only observed this relationship when participants had lower, but not higher, levels of life stress.

Why did life stress affect this relationship between valuing happiness and wellbeing?

Imagine you just went through a tough breakup. You probably wouldn’t expect to feel happy, let alone feel disappointed by negative feelings. Yet, imagine celebrating a best friend’s birthday party. If you didn’t feel happy in this context, you might feel bummed, especially if you highly valued feeling happy.

In the next study, the researchers had female participants either read an article on the benefits of happiness (“valuing happiness condition”) or making accurate judgments (“control condition”). Then, the participants watched either a sad or happy film clip. Compared to those in the control condition, those in the valuing happiness condition felt worse after watching the sad, but not positive, film clip. Feeling disappointed seemed to play a role in this result: valuing happiness led people to feel disappointed during the sad clip, which, in turn, led them to feel unhappy afterwards.

Does this mean that people should stop valuing happiness?

Not exactly. For one, while the researchers did find paradoxical costs of valuing happiness, they studied people who valued it to a high degree. Other researchers have similarly found that highly valuing happiness is linked to depressive symptoms amongst people who previously struggled with major depression. Yet, valuing happiness to a more moderate degree could help people be happier by motivating them to practice different techniques aimed at increasing happiness. In other words, if people have the right ‘happiness building tools,’ some researchers think that valuing happiness to a certain degree could promote it. More research is needed in order to better understand whether there are conditions under which people could benefit from valuing happiness.

Overall, this research does suggest that a cultural fixation on happiness could have costs, especially if it leads people to feel disappointed with experiencing negative emotions. Research increasingly suggests that accepting negative emotions has benefits, and therapies that encourage acceptance of emotions (e.g. Acceptance and Commitment Therapy) appear effective.

happiness

The Importance of Acceptance in Dealing with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder

People with OCD are often plagued with a wide variety of painful thoughts. These include horrible images, worries they might harm themselves or others, or beliefs that they are condemned altogether. It’s natural why people would struggle with these, why they would try to push them away and get rid of them.

However, there’s a wide literature of research demonstrating that efforts to get rid of painful thoughts make them more intense and more intrusive. And there’s newer research that finds that acceptance of painful thoughts and feelings may be the most effective way for defusing OCD.

The study

OCD expert Dr. Jonathan Abramowitz’s lab looked at the relationship of two ways of dealing with OCD. The study found an advantage for mindful acceptance over brute endurance of obsessions.

One way of relating to inner experiences, called distress tolerance, refers to enduring painful emotions. This is akin to “gritting your teeth” and powering your way through it.

The other way is called psychological flexibility, the opposite of what is called experiential avoidance. One major process in psychological flexibility involves experiential acceptance, being “open and willing” to experience uncomfortable thoughts and feelings.

What the researchers found was that willingness (i.e., choosing) to accept painful thoughts and feelings was associated with lower obsessions. They further suggest that this relationship may be especially true for people who struggle with mental rituals (e.g., Pure “O”).

Limitations

There are limitations to this study. It was correlational and involved college students. The study did not specifically look at the impact of treatment.

Summary

New research suggests that how people relate to OCD-related thoughts and emotions may be important in the maintenance of OCD symptoms. Specially, people who are more willing to experience discomfort without engaging in compulsions may do better than those who can resist compulsions but do so through gritting their teeth and enduring it.

For these reasons, newer acceptance-based treatments such as Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (act for short), which already has good research support in treating OCD, may have something unique to offer.

In working with OCD, I often start with ACT skills building to help people learn to mindfully accept unwanted thoughts and emotions before moving into ERP (exposure and response prevention). In my experience, the ACT work offers people—especially those with more mental rituals—additional tools for working with OCD symptoms, and helps prepare them to engage in the tough exposure work.

If you or some you know is struggling with anxiety-related problems, please check out the Portland Psychotherapy Anxiety Clinic. If you would like to learn more about my approach to OCD specifically, check out my OCD website, where I described how I use Acceptance and Commitment Therapy to help enhance exposure and response prevention

Evaluating Self Help: The Mindfulness & Acceptance Workbook for Anxiety

There’s no shortage of self-help books on the market. There is, however, a paucity of research on whether those self-help books are actually helpful to the people who use them. In an ideal world, every self-help book would be submitted to scientific scrutiny to determine if people actually benefit from using them. Unfortunately, this happens only rarely.

Even a self-help book that is based on well-researched cognitive behavioral principles and written by leaders in the field is not guaranteed to be effective.  For example, one recent study found that college students with greater rumination exhibited more depressive symptoms after using Greenberger & Padesky’s Mind over Mood, a well-respected cognitive behavioral self-help book for depression. These findings suggest that evidence-based psychotherapy interventions don’t always translate into effective self-guided techniques that people can use on their own, and in some instances can actually be harmful.

The Mindfulness & Acceptance Workbook for Anxiety

Over 5 years ago, I wrote a few blogs posts about Forsyth & Eifert’s The Mindfulness & Acceptance Workbook for Anxiety in 2 prior blogs for which I used to contribute. The first, on my blog Scientific Mindfulness, reported on pre-publication research I heard about at a conference. (Unfortunately, it appears the other post has been taken down.) The first author of the workbook, SUNY-Albany professor John Forsyth, PhD, conducted 2 studies on his ACT-based self-help book. He gave copies of the book to people for free, and had them complete online self-report measures at various intervals.

Dr. Forsyth recently posted a summary of this research on his personal blog in anticipation of the upcoming 2nd edition of The Mindfulness & Acceptance Workbook for Anxiety that will be released April 1, 2016. One paragraph in his blog post caught my attention:

Reductions in anxiety and fear did not happen by going after anxiety and fear directly. It was just the opposite. By first focusing on the skills needed to live a more valued life, readers then experienced a decline in their anxiety, fears, and depression, and ultimate improvements in their lives. This is an important message––one that supports the approach we offer in this workbook.

The workbook emphasizes ACT skills to help people engage in meaningful living, and it appears that those skills—rather than interventions aimed at alleviating anxiety and worry—appear the most effective.  Said another way, the findings suggest that people using the workbook improved more from doing things that were important to them than from any particular technique. This is quite profound, if you think about it, and very different from how many people approach anxiety. Attempting to directly suppress or control anxiety-related thoughts and feelings can often backfire.

Because it’s one of the rare self-help books that has been researched specifically as a self-help book, I find myself recommending The Mindfulness & Acceptance Workbook for Anxiety more than any other self-help books, and I was excited to hear there’s an updated edition coming out. I encourage readers to check it out.

Anxiety Treatment at Portland Psychotherapy