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The Dance of Joy and Pain

I have spent a great deal of time studying Joy and Happiness in my own experience.  Also, my job as a therapist is to comfort those in Pain and teach people to experience more Joy.  In my journey I have learned 2 things so far:Silhouette of Happy Young Couple Dancing at Sunset

  1. People tend to run from Pain and hold tightly on to Joy.
  2. This causes problems.

 So what then is a truer understanding of the relationship between Joy and Pain?

Joy and Pain are like two friends who latch arms and dance with one another.

I say Joy here instead of happiness because I mean to refer to deeper more lasting positive state.  Sometimes we think of happiness as a state that characterizes brief and temporary bursts following a pleasurable experience.  By Joy I hope to refer to a deeper state of contentment and satisfaction that includes the temporary bursts of pleasure as well as day to day contentment.

Pain can refer to physical or emotional Pain.  These two types of Pain are experienced and cared for in very similar ways.

This image (of Joy and Pain as friends dancing with one another with arms latched together) expresses ideas about how the two relate to one another that I do not know how to express in words.  I can say that friends do not run from one another, nor do they grasp on to one another too tightly.  In my mind the two dancers remain connected at the arms as they constantly move together in unison.  As I watch them move together, they switch places with one another.  Sometimes I can only see one of them.  Pain hides behind Joy but Pain is still there…Also Joy sometimes seems to hide behind Pain.  However, I only must wait, and they will trade places again…always moving…sometimes more slowly and sometimes more quickly as the music changes.

My advice is to embrace, savor, revel, and rest in both friends’ presence moment by moment as you would if you were watching this breath taking interaction on a stage before you.

Self-Compassionate vs. Selfish

Many of my clients struggle when I encourage them to care for themselves.  Often people are concerned that taking time for themselves away from there family is selfish.  Other’s worry how setting boundaries to protect their own needs may hurt someone else.  We all get stuck trying to figure out how to balance our needs with those of others.  Isn’t it always right to put the needs of others before our own?

Recently I re-read The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein.  This little book begins by describing the love between a little boy and a tree.  It starts out as mutual relationship where there is an equal exchange of loving, playful interaction.  Then the boy grows up and leaves, and the tree is sad.  When he comes back the tree is happy and continues to love through giving his apples, his branches, and then his truck.  At the end the tree is left only a stump and when the boy finally comes back as an old man and uses the stump as a chair, “the tree is happy but not really.”

What is the message of this short story.  Is the tree an example for all us of how to love with generosity and self-sacrificing compassion?  It seems so at first glance.  But if you look closer perhaps you might see that the tree is an example of what not to do.  He loves the boy, but not himself and in the end neither he nor the boy seem very happy.  The boy is alone with no one and nothing to show for his life, and the tree is now only a stump.

When we love our spouse, a child, or a friend, it is of great importance to love ourselves in equal measure.  An act of selfishness only benefits the one that takes it usually only by providing immediate pleasure or relief.  An act of self-sacrifice only benefits the other person usually only by proving the same immediate pleasure or relief.  However, an act of compassion values one’s self and others together by taking the needs of both into account and finding ways to serve both together.   When we care for others while also caring for ourselves in equal measure, our care tends to be of a higher quality allowing us to support the other for their long term benefit.

For example, a working parent feels guilty for being away from their children so they neglect time for themselves and for their relationship with their spouse.  They spend every second out of work trying to care for and experience positive quality time with their special child.  This is good, important work.  In the short term the child may prefer another trip to the park then two hours with a babysitter or grandparent.  However, what if those two hours to recharge allows that Mom the energy to provide disciple instead of just giving the kid what they want to keep them from whining.  Or it may keep that child’s parents relationship fed just enough so the child has the benefit of growing up with parents who love one another.  Caring for yourself and your marriage is an act of self-compassion because it benefits all involved.

The tree could have loved the boy and still keep his apples, branches, and trunk.  It might take a little creativity, but we can compassionately care for ourselves and those we love.

Creating Lasting Intimacy in a Marriage

As a marriage counselor, I very often think of myself as a teacher on intimacy.  People typically don’t have trouble getting intimacy going.  Making connections when things are new and different is fun and easy.  However, maintaining closeness with another person over long periods of time is difficult.  Popular culture usually is not helpful in setting us up for success here.  In the fairy tales we tell our children the prince and the princess always get married and “live happily ever after”, just before the words “The End”.  Most romantic movies end when main characters get together and are experiencing a state of bliss.  Further our main way of handling a relationship or anything else that is not working is to move on or get a new one.  So if you don’t want to get divorced around year 7 when the newness dies and tension has had sufficient time to build up, what do you do?

Marriage counselors (most famously Dr. David Schnarch) have compared marriage to a crucible.  A crucible is a container in which substances are melted together at very high temperatures.  A marriage acts in much the same manner.  Putting two people together for long periods of time eventually heats things up and forces us to face our weakness and work out our differences together.  The process, like anything that occurs at very high temperatures, is painful and can be dangerous.  However, the result is something new that did not exist before.  This new thing is the bond between two people, a we-ness or us-ness, that is one of the most beautiful and deeply satisfying parts of the human experience.

So there is good news and bad news.  The bad news being you must stay in and experience the pain of the purifying heat if you want to experience lasting intimacy.  The good news is, it is usually worth it.  Of course there are times when divorce is necessary, and no judgement should be made towards those who make this choice.  Everyone should be left to make their own path.  Also, keep in mind that it is definitely possible to stay married and still avoid every last bit of the pain and challenging work it takes to form lasting intimacy.  However, today I would like to honor the courage of those who stay in and face the heat.


Photo credit:   washuugenius

Comedian on Technology and Happiness

Yesterday evening I found wisdom in an unexpected place.  I was watching Conan O’Brien.  Mostly this was because the Big Bang Theory rerun had just ended, and I had not wanted to move yet.  Then Louis C.K., a comedian who I had never heard of, came on began to tell Conan why he won’t let his kids have cell phones.  I was impressed.  As a wordy, long-winded and serious psychotherapist by nature, I appreciate this comedian’s short and funny explanation better than my own.  Check out how his view on why over use of technology can rob us of learning empathy, the ability to just sit there, and emotional experience.

If you are having issues seeing the video, click here


Here are some great quotes from this clip.

“Just be sad…stand in the way of it and let it hit you like a truck.”

“Sadness is poetic.  Your lucky to live sad moments.”

“I was grateful to feel sad and then I met it with true, profound happiness.”

“You never feel completely sad or completely happy.  You just feel kinda satisfied with your product and then you die.”

I wonder if Louis C.K. is aware that he is talking about principles of mindfulness.  Clearly he understands better than most that pain is a normal part of life and when you avoid it you create suffering and miss joy.

The Guest House

Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction teaches us that avoiding “bad emotions,” or labeling as bad or good at all, is how we begin to create suffering.  Instead it recognizes that pain is a normal part of life that is best accepted and experienced as it comes.  Rather than making a judgement and pushing away bad experiences or emotions, it is suggested that all are welcomed in and accepted.  For many new to Mindfulness, this is a new concept that is difficult to understand.  The poem below is very old and often used in mindfulness training to help explain this concept.


The Guest House
This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.
Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.
— Rumi

photo credit:  Ian _Windy

Maintaining Marital Intimacy when Life Gets Busy

As a couples counselor, I find myself talking frequently about the importance of maintaining intimacy in a marriage.  It is definitely something that you have to work to maintain.  Like cultivating a garden you can leave it alone for a little while and work on it in bursts, but neglect it for too long and it dies.  Simply growing apart due to unintentional neglect can be a big factor that leads to marital dissatisfaction or divorce.  It usually happens slowly over time.  Some couples do not realize that they have neglected their relationship until it is too late.

In our busy, modern world with work, kids, and social media pulling us in so many directions, couples often struggle with how to do this consistently.  First, keep in mind there are many different types of intimacy.  Check out my previous post titled Cultivating Marital Intimacy:  Types of intimacy.  Also, one or two the easy tips below might help you figure out ways to work on maintaining intimacy consistently as a part of a busy lifestyle.

  • Text a joke – Humor is a type of intimacy.  If you come across a joke that you know you spouse would particularly appreciate or think of them because of an inside joke the two you share, send a text or email before you forget.
  • Set a date to “stay in” – This one works well in two ways.  Get child care outside the house, if needed, and stay at home together for several hours on a weekend.  Or set a time for a “stay in” date on a week night for 15 to 30 minutes.   Do anything that doesn’t involve screens. Play a card game, cook/bake something, or sit on the porch with a glass of tea or wine, hold hands, and look at the stars.
  • Find a shared hobby – Shared hobbies can be a big help because they not only give you something in common but they often involve seasonal or regularly scheduled activities that you do together and you both look forward to.  If you both love biking and you have been neglecting the relationship a little over the winter, when the spring hits your likely to automatically pull back in as you both get together to plan for the season.
  • Try new things together – There is just something about experiencing new things together that creates a bond.  Get out, explore, and try anything that you have not done before.  Maybe you will find something great that you can do together again.  Maybe you’ll find something you never want to experience ever again.  Either way if you do it together it will help build intimacy.
  • Phone reminders – Set a reminder on your phone to help you remember to do something extra once a month such as pick up your spouse’s favorite for dinner, send a email love letter, do a chore or task that your spouse usually handles to give them a break.  When your spouse knows you thought about them in a way that shows you know them deeply or understand what they are going through, it goes a long way.


Photo credit:  TheeErin


Cultivating Marital Intimacy: Types of Intimacy

The inherent and universal need for intimacy and closeness with others is obvious.    One author writing on the topic called intimacy “the essential factor in adults’ health, ability to adapt, happiness, and sense of meaning in life” (M. Popovic).

Marriage is one of the primary ways we attempt to meet this need.  Additionally, there is extensive research that shows that long healthy marriages are associated with overall health.  However, maintaining closeness with another person over a long period of time is difficult.  It takes constant work like cultivating, maintaining, and caring for a garden.  It requires continuing to prioritize one another despite all the business, distractions, and pain of everyday life.  One good way to start is to recognize that there are many different types of intimacy.

Consider reviewing the below list with your spouse.  No relationship has them all, but most successful relationships have a few.  You may be able to find 2 or 3 types which are strengths.  Many couples report not having considered a certain area as intimacy.  Remember to congratulate one another on the areas where you are already doing well.  Additionally, it may also help to pick 1 or 2 types where you would like to grow.

  • Aesthetic Intimacy – Sharing experiences of beauty – music, nature, art, theater, etc.
  • Communication Intimacy – Connect through talking.  Keep communication channels open.  Listen to and value your spouse’s ideas.  Be loving, compassionate, respectful, giving, truthful, and open in your communication.
  • Conflict Intimacy – Facing and struggling with differences together.  Using resolution of conflict to grow closer together.
  • Creative Intimacy – Experiencing closeness through acts of creating together.  Sharing expressions of love in creative ways.
  • Crisis Intimacy – Developing closeness in dealing with problems and pain.  Standing together in tragedies.  Responding together in a united way to pressures of life such as working through problems, raising a family, illness, aging, etc.
  • Emotional Intimacy – Feeling connected at an emotional level.  Being in tune with each other’s emotions; being able to share significant meanings and feelings with each other, including negative feelings.
  • Financial Intimacy – Working together to balance differing attitudes about money.  Developing a unified plan for budgeting, spending, and saving.  Having shared financial goals.
  • Forgiveness Intimacy – Apologizing to each other.  Asking for forgiveness.  Asking your spouse, “What can I do to be a better husband/wife?”
  • Friendship Intimacy – Feeling a close connection and regard for one another as friends.
  • Humor Intimacy – Sharing through laughing together.  Having jokes between the two of you that only you share.  Making each other laugh.  Enjoying the funny side of life.
  • Intellectual Intimacy – Experiencing closeness through sharing ideas.  Feeling mutual respect for each other’s intellectual capacities and viewpoints.  Sharing mind-stretching experiences.  Reading discussing, studying together.
  • Parenting Intimacy – Sharing the responsibilities of raising children, including providing for their physical, emotional, and spiritual needs.  Includes working together in teaching and disciplining them as well as loving them and worrying about their welfare.
  • Recreational Intimacy – Experiencing closeness and connection through fun and play.  Helping each other rejuvenate through stress-relieving and enjoyable recreation together.
  • Service Intimacy – Sharing in acts of service together.  Growing closer as a couple as you experience the  joy that comes from giving to others.
  • Spiritual Intimacy – Discovering and sharing values, religious views, spiritual feelings, meaning in life, etc.
  • Work Intimacy – Experiencing closeness through sharing common tasks, such as maintaining a house and yard, raising a family, earning a living, participating in community affairs, etc.


Authentic Soulmates

Types of Intimacy directly from:  Fife, S.T., & Weeks, G.R. (2010). Barriers to recovering intimacy. In J. Carlson & L. Sperry (Eds.) Recovering intimacy in love relationships:  A clinician’s guide (pp. 157-179). New York: Routledge.

Popovic, M. (2005). Intimacy and its relevance in human functioning. Sexual and Relationship Therapy, 20, 31-49.

Photo credit : Rebecca Krebbs


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Mindfulness teaches Resilience

Mindfulness helps us become more resilient at the same time as it makes us more vulnerable and sensitive.”

– Ronald D. Siegel, PsyD



Most people come to counseling because they want to get rid of their pain and feel better.  They do not expect to hear that as they become stronger and better able to manage stress and emotional pain they may actually become more vulnerable or sensitive.  Dr. Siegel (referenced above) explained this confusing paradox with a traditional Japanese adage:  Which is stronger, a mighty oak tree or a reed of bamboo?  Most would think the oak tree.  However, when a monsoon comes the oak tree breaks and scatters while the bamboo reed bends and folds to the ground.  After the storm passes the bamboo stands right back up again seemingly undamaged.

The true goal must be resilience, the ability like the bamboo to bounce back after a storm, because no one can prevent the storm from coming.  Mindfulness helps us to develop bamboo like resilience because it trains us become aware of and accept a full range of emotional responses.  As you become more aware of your emotions and with it more sensitive to them, you are vulnerable to feeling joy and pain more fully and deeply.  However, when you feel emotions more fully they leave less of a trace.  They pass over you like a gentle breeze or the wind of a monsoon.  Then you can more easily recover and move on to experiencing the next moment.


photo credit: jscatty

The Mindfulness Solution:  Everyday Practices for Everyday Problems by Ronald D. Siegel



The Road to Happiness

“Ultimately, happiness comes down to choosing between the discomfort of becoming aware of your mental afflictions and the discomfort of being ruled by them.”

– Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche

I came across this quote recently and saved it because it succinctly states a truth that I face with clients daily.  Every client that comes to my office is with me because they just want to be happy.  Sometimes it is after a divorce or marriage problem that seems impossible to solve.  Others worry and panic to point of not sleeping at all.  Irregardless of the circumstances the effectiveness of whatever avoidance or management technique available has run out and they simple desire help to feel better.

So frequently I am taking on the role of the bearer of the bad news. There is no way to happiness except through your pain and discomfort.  You can continue to ignore pain and discomfort.  Distractions and abound to help us avoid the pain and discomfort of life.  However, freedom from it only occurs after “becoming aware of your mental afflictions.”  Also, this is usually not an easy or comfortable thing to do.

I wish I could share with everyone the feelings of triumph when after several weeks or months of hard work, a client that is ready to get to know their “mental afflictions” makes a breaks through and tells me about how much better they feel.  It would be amazing if others starting the process could experience the tears of joy and a little sadness when I meet with the clients at the end of 1 or 2 years of work.  When they realize that we can’t come up with any more goals, and we talk about all the changes we have seen along the way.  The sadness comes from knowing that you will not see the each other regularly anymore, but at the same time a joyful satisfaction comes as you know someone’s life has been changed for the better.  The feeling is indescribable and unbeatable.  I usually tear up at least a little.

It is these times that I am reminded of how all the hard work and discomfort is worth it.  I only hope some people considering seeking help will read this post and take that first step…and then stick with it when the hard part comes.


photo credit:  Travel by Nature Photography

The Gift of Rest

From nature we learn about balance.  Each of the seasons come every year bringing heat in the summer and cold in the winter and each support the world in their own way.  If it were winter all year long the planet would not flourish.  So it is with us.  There is a season and appropriate time for everything.  Just as there is an appropriate time for movement, work, and production, it is also essential to find time for stillness and rest; a time to be unproductive and do nothing.

This photo was taken by Sarah Sphar after leaving work early to do nothing.

It is important to ask yourself if you are doing too much.  When we don’t listen to our bodies, it is easy to lose touch with your own natural cycles of activity and rest.  Consider tying the following experiment to help you begin to rediscover your natural rest-activity rhythm.

Use your daily schedule and calendar not just to plan activity, but to remind yourself to do nothing.  Why not schedule “do nothing” just like you’d schedule a doctor’s appointment?  It’s very healing to sometimes do nothing, go nowhere, and not have to be “on” for other people.  Doing nothing can take many forms:  You can take a nap, go to bed earlier or get up later, sit in a chair, look out a window, be quiet, or lie down and put your feet up.  Try turning off your phone, computer, and all other electronic devices and just enjoy some time in solitude and non-doing.  You may find yourself noticing the starlit sky or truly enjoying a hot or cold beverage that you typically chug as you rush out the door.  Many find it enjoyable to do nothing out in nature.  Consider planning to spend an afternoon outdoors, hanging out by the ocean, a lake, or a stream, the mountains, a forest, or any quiet, natural environment.  Notice what happens when you just take time to be in these settings.  If you have children, see if you can get a babysitter so you or you and your partner, can take some time to do nothing or experiment with doing nothing with your children.  You may be amazed, but the world won’t fall apart if you take a break. 

Do you find yourself  becoming anxious or tense just thinking about planning to do nothing?  Take a moment to reflect on the obstacles that get in the way of rest for you.  Conversely are there times or situations in which you find it easier to rest?  Perhaps there are simple changes you could make to make it easier for you to rest such as canceling extra activities, asking others to help out around the house, or encouraging others to relax so you can feel more comfortable taking some down time.

Now take a moment to explore any tension in your body, thoughts, or emotions that come up when you think about doing nothing for one afternoon.  Do have worried thoughts, feel guilt, or find this uncomfortable?  Pay attention to these sensations, thoughts, and emotions.  Do you have any idea where they come from?

reference:  A Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Workbook by Bob Stahl PH.D. and Elisha Goldstein PH.D