Karuna Counseling’s Newsletter Articles

May 17, 2012

Growing Gratitude

by Micky O’Leary, Ph.D.

Let me begin by acknowledging that Gratitude and I got off to a rocky start. As a child, gratitude often meant being reminded how lucky I was to have a loving family, a roof over my head, an education, etc. I was taught to be polite, to say “thank you” for gifts, whether I liked them or not, to express appreciation for whatever was done for me or given to me.

I remember one Saturday evening in particular. I was about 11 years old and my mother prepared chicken livers for dinner. As we gathered around the table, I expressed my dislike (perhaps, even contempt) for the main dish, to which my father replied that I should be grateful for this nutritious food and be glad that I was not one of the starving children in  (you are free to select an appropriate third world country of the 1950s). After we said Grace, he went on to inform me that I would have plenty of opportunities to learn gratitude for this delicious meal because it would be served every Saturday night from then on.

Fortunately (and for this I was truly grateful), his threat was short-lived and it was only a few weeks before we returned to more appetizing meals like meatloaf. Not surprisingly, I never did develop a liking  for chicken livers, despite my parents’ best efforts. What I do have now, some 50 years later, is a deep and loving appreciation for the childhood meals we shared in our family kitchen, my mother’s commitment to providing us wonderful home-cooked meals, and my parents’ desire that I learn to value what was given to me, even if I didn’t always like it.

Developing gratitude has been a life long journey, with an experience of it that has grown deeper over time. I am often reminded of the Joni Mitchell song “Big Yellow Taxi.” Its refrain is “Don’t it always seem to go that we don’t know what we’ve got til it’s gone….” For many of us, gratitude grows from an awareness of what we’ve lost, or what we stand to lose. For example, how much easier is it to appreciate good health after recovering from a serious accident or illness? Or to value electricity after a lengthy power outage? Or to feel gratitude for our remaining friends and family after one of them dies?

Loss is not always a precursor to gratitude. It is possible to appreciate life’s gifts without it. For instance, think of how children squeal with glee when experiencing a winter snowfall (and the subsequent day off from school). Perhaps you can remember a trip to the beach and seeing the sunset across the water. Or you may be able to recall the excitement and anticipation of a new romance.

However, learning gratitude through loss is an opportunity to deepen our understanding and appreciation of life from a new perspective. Shakti Gawain notes that it is difficult to get in touch with our gratitude when life is hard and we are going through a difficult time. However, with patience and perspective, these “healing crises” can provide meaning and purpose in our life’s journey. For instance, the sudden loss of someone dear to us can show us how “life turns on a dime” and remind us of the fragility and beauty of each moment we have. The unexpected loss of employment can force us to re-evaluate our career goals and options, perhaps leading us to a more rewarding or fulfilling work. Or a reduced level of income may force us to alter our lifestyle, finding a way to live more simply. We can, in the most difficult of times, learn to recognize – and appreciate — our greatest gifts and assets, as well as our “growing edges” – the lessons that we are be challenged to learn. In short, we can take these painful experiences and let them soften and expand our hearts, or harden and contract them.

According to Julie Keene, minister and author, gratitude is closely connected to trust. “In order to be thankful for everyone and everything in my life, I need to trust that the Universe makes sense, that everything my soul has chosen to experience this lifetime has been for my ultimate Highest Good.” Once we are able to appreciate whatever life brings us, it is easier for us to then begin living in a place of contentment and gratitude. Our heart is able to find and dwell in a place of joy.

As I consider what I have written so far, I must admit it looks deceptively simple, a bit like “A Guide to Enlightenment in three short paragraphs.” Finding and living in a place of gratitude is not instantaneous nor without some effort. But be assured, it brings immense rewards.

Benefits of Gratitude as a Practice

There are more than a few reasons to incorporate more gratitude into our lives. Having an “attitude of gratitude” causes us to interact with others from a place of fullness. They are attracted by our energy and feel our appreciation. On the other hand, when our glass is “half empty,” we emit a negativity that tends to repel others and we experience less support.

James Eubanks, an author, columnist and astrologer, notes that it is impossible to feel worry, anger, depression, or any negative emotion in the presence of genuine gratitude:  “The practice of gratitude saves us from our painful human storyline, for it requires us to look deeper into our lives and the people around us. The surface rarely holds depth; rather, it obscures it. Gratitude enriches and deepens the colorful fabric of our lives by allowing us to see more.”

Cultivating gratitude has been linked to better health, sounder sleep, less anxiety and depression, higher long-term satisfaction with life and kinder behavior toward others. In a recent experiment at the University of Kentucky, students who turned in an essay were either praised for it or given harsh criticism. Then each student was allowed to play a computer game with the person who gave them the evaluation. The winner could administer a blast of white noise to the loser. Those who had received criticism about their essay retaliated against their opponent by giving an especially loud blast – much louder than those given by students receiving positive feedback.

However, an interesting exception occurred among students who had been instructed to write their essays about gratitude. Even if their feedback was negative, they didn’t feel compelled to blast their opponents at a higher volume. The researchers viewed the results as an indication that gratitude also reduces aggressive behavior.

 

Suggestions for Practice

Gratitude grows best when it is cultivated. John Kralik, a California attorney and judge, has written about his experience of gratitude in a touching book, A Simple Act of Gratitude: How Learning to Say Thank You Changed My Life. He had reached a point in his life when he felt as if he had lost almost everything that mattered to him. His business was failing, his second marriage was ending, his living conditions were undesirable and he felt distance between himself and his two older children. He was angry and despairing and out of shape. On New Year’s Day he was struck by the thought that his life could be better if he could find a way to focus on the things he had, rather than those he had lost. He made a commitment to himself to write 365 thank you notes over the next year. The resulting story is an endearing and encouraging account of the personal changes he experienced in that process.

Another way to begin a practice of gratitude is with what Robert Emmons of the University of California calls “gratitude lite.” It involves keeping a journal listing five things for which you feel grateful. The list is brief – only one sentence per item – and is done only once a week. The research he did with Michael McCullough of the University of Miami showed that after two months, there were significant changes among the journal keepers, compared with a control group. They felt more optimistic and happier. They reported fewer physical problems and spent more time working out.

One suggestion for bringing more gratitude into your life is planning a “gratitude visit.” Psychologist Martin Seligman recommends writing a 300 word letter to someone who changed your life for the better. Be specific about what the person did and how it affected you. Then deliver it in person without telling the person in advance what the visit is about. When you get there, read the whole letter slowly and out loud to the other person. According to Seligman, if you do this, within a month you will feel happier.

Other possibilities include keeping a gratitude calendar which emphasizes different blessings in each month; performing a service or volunteering to help someone; saying “thank you” often and with sincerity.

One especially lovely practice is the “Hugging Meditation” described by Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh:

  1. Hug someone three times, breathing in and out with awareness;
  2. On the first breath in and out, both of you think about how, at sometime, you don’t know when, you will no longer be here;
  3. The second time, focus on how, at sometime, the other person will no longer be here;
  4. The third time, truly take in that you are both here now, together in this precious moment.

Finally, if you should find your gratitude aptitude getting especially challenged, remember what Buddha wrote:

“Let us rise up and be thankful,
for if we didn’t learn a lot today, at least we learned a little,
and if we didn’t learn a little, at least we didn’t get sick,
and if we got sick, at least we didn’t die;
so, let us all be thankful.”

Suggested Reading

Kralik, John.  A Simple Act of Gratitude: How Learning to Say Thank You Changed My Life. New York: Hyperion, 2011.

Hay, Louise L.  Gratitude: A Way of Life. New York: Hay House, 1996.

Ryan, M.J.  Attitudes of Gratitude: How to Give and Receive Joy Every Day of Your Life. San Francisco: Conari Press, 1999.

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January 1, 2010

Forgive to Live

forgiveness

By Micky O’Leary, PhD

Forgiveness is giving up all hope of a better past.
~Lily Tomlin

A man convicted of several random murders was recently executed. The media coverage around this event was extensive. Among the reports were interviews with survivors of the victims.

One survivor was planning to be present at the execution – his way of seeing that the man who killed his loved one suffered in some measure for his deed. However, another survivor stated that he did not plan to attend and, in fact, was not interested in the details of the execution. He said he had forgiven the murderer and felt no hatred or animosity toward him.

I have heard stories like this before. Each time, I tried to put myself in the place of the survivors. Would I, could I, offer the same level of generosity that the second person showed? Or might I be like the first person, looking for some retribution to satisfy my hurt, anger, and overwhelming loss?

While few of us (thankfully) experience the pain associated with the murder of a loved one, none of us escapes this life without at times feeling hurt or betrayed in our relationships with others. What gives some of us the ability to forget these hurts and go on with our lives? And what keeps some of us in bondage to the injury we have experienced and the grievance we have created?

To forgive is to set a person free and discover that the prisoner was you.
~Louis Smedes

Forgiveness means different things to many people. I have often heard quoted the “eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth” example from The Bible. Others have expressed their feelings about hurt and betrayal as “Don’t get mad; get even.” In a culture that uses weapons to settle the score, forgiveness is often equated with weakness. Dr. Fred Luskin, a well known researcher in the field of forgiveness, notes matter-of-factly that “Forgiveness is a tough sell.”

Indeed, forgiveness can be a tough sell if we see it as a gift we give the person who offended us. Framed in that light, forgiveness may seem like an insult (to ourselves) on top of injury.

But what if we could see forgiveness as a gift we give ourselves? For example, have you ever found yourself reliving and rehashing an injustice you have suffered? As you play the scene again and again in your mind, your anger and resentment continues – and often grows. You feed the memory by giving it “air time” on your own personal station and, in the process, create a grievance story which takes time and attention to keep alive. In other words, we take the memory of our injury – and the person who injured us – and let them live “rent free” in our head and heart.

Everyone gets hurt. It’s one price of living. What is the point of prolonging the hurt? Yet that is what we do when we make the choice to hold on to a grudge. And as we relive and revive the hurt, we also re-inflict the physical and emotional stress that we initially felt.

Forgiveness is not an occasional act. It is a permanent attitude.
~Martin Luther King, Jr.

Researchers studying forgiveness have found that people who are able to let go of resentments and thoughts of revenge (Remember the earlier example of the man who had forgiven the murderer?) benefit in numerous ways. Among the many ways are reduced stress levels, less depression, less anger and hostility, a reduction in chronic pain, more satisfying relationships, and improved emotional and psychological well being.

The fact is: Stress hurts. It takes its toll on our bodies as well as our general enjoyment of life. And there are few things as stressful as continuing to experience and focus on the bad things that have happened to us in our lives.

If you know the process of healing from a physical wound, you can understand the experience of healing from an emotional one. In both cases, the hurt is not forgotten, but it ceases to interfere with our daily life. The power that it once held over our thoughts and feelings recedes and we are free to focus on the present moment.

However, one of the reasons that forgiveness can be a “tough sell” is that some of us may confuse it with forgetting what happened, condoning what happened, or reconciling with the person who hurt us. None of those things is necessary for us to forgive. What is necessary is that we make the choice to release ourselves from the emotional tether that keeps us feeling connected to the past.

When you hold resentment toward another,
you are bound to that
person or condition
by an emotional link that is stronger than steel.

Forgiveness is the only way to dissolve that link and get free.
~Catherine Ponder

While forgiveness takes time (and a commitment to personal freedom), it also requires that we be able to step outside our own experience to see the ways in which we may be contributing to keeping our own pain alive. For instance, if we are hurt and angry because a situation did not turn out as we had expected/hoped (e.g., our partner decides to end our relationship), we keep the pain alive when we tell ourselves that our life is not turning out the way it should. In other words, we are angry because we cannot control what has happened. We have an “unenforceable” rule about the way we want others to behave or the way we think life must look.

Losing a partner, like many other experiences in life, is usually painful. But blaming that person for our unhappiness also means that we are giving them control of our happiness. If I attribute my unhappiness to another person, then I am simultaneously giving them the key to my own well being.

Equally important as forgiving others is the ability to forgive ourselves. As we grow in acceptance of life’s disappointments, imperfections and losses, we learn that we also make mistakes. We realize that we are not perfect. We understand that sometimes we make bad decisions. Being human means that sometimes we fail and cause other people harm.

As I mentioned before, forgiveness is a gift we give to ourselves. When we choose to let go of our anger and resentment toward ourselves or another, we are also choosing the peace that comes with being free of those negative feelings. We are choosing to take back our personal power, assume responsibility for our own feelings, promote self healing and be the hero of our story instead of the victim. We are choosing to construct the story of our grievance in such a way that we can acknowledge the pain without getting stuck in it, recognize that life gives us both positive and negative experiences, and know that we can hope for the good and forgive the bad.

We are choosing to release our past in order to heal our present.

You will know that forgiveness has begun
when you recall those who hurt you and feel the power to wish them well.

~Louis Smedes

feather forgiveness

January 4, 2009

Compassion and the Open Heart

compassion-caring1

 By Micky O’Leary, Ph.D.

 “If you want others to be happy, practice compassion.
If you want to be happy, practice compassion.” 
~The Dalai Lama

People come to therapy for a host of reasons, but the thread that unites them is the overwhelming desire to feel happier. After all, who among us does not want her or his life to be more peaceful, joyful, and rewarding? So we seek help, hoping to find a way to heal from the experiences and relationships that have alienated us from ourselves and others.

It is human nature to want to avoid pain. And it is a fact that none of us can.  Yet it is this very pain that can lead us to our higher selves. As we experience our own losses, hurts, disappointments in this life, we are acquiring the essential elements for a loving, compassionate relationship with ourselves and others — if we choose it.

Most of us know others whose lives have been inordinately difficult. Regardless of the challenges we have faced, there are those whose journeys seem far more painful. For some people their pain becomes hardened and surrounds them like armor. They grow bitter or cynical and self-protective, hoping to guard themselves against further pain. Ironically, their self-protection only serves to hurt them more as they become isolated from the love and support that could ease their burden. However, there are those who seem to absorb their pain like a sponge, and their heart grows fuller and softer in the process. They learn that their pain can be an opening that allows them to move beyond their own experience to connect with the hearts of others. They grow in compassion.

 

 Compassion is Ecumenical

Compassion is the basis of all major religions. It is the essence of  “The Golden Rule” and figures prominently in spiritual teachings across the ages. According to the online encyclopedia, Wikipedia, compassion “is a profound human emotion prompted by the pain of others. More vigorous than empathy, the feeling commonly gives rise to an active desire to alleviate another’s suffering.” A person acting with compassion will not only feel a shared sense of suffering with others, but will attempt to do something to help that person feel better.

Karuna is the Sanskrit word for compassion. If you look closely at our online home page, you will see that it describes the aspiration “to find a way to be truly helpful to oneself and others.” That definition is particularly significant because it emphasizes the need for compassion toward ourselves, as well as others.

Compassion for ourselves begins with understanding our humanness. Pema Chodron, in her book Start Where You Are: a Guide to Compassionate Living, writes that compassionate action begins with loving kindness for oneself, which then leads us to loving kindness for others.

 “As the barriers come down around our own hearts, we are less afraid of other people. We are more able to hear what is being said, see what is in front of our eyes, and work in accord with what happens rather than struggle with it….the way to act compassionately, is to exchange oneself for other. When you can put yourself in someone else’s shoes, then you know what is needed, and what would speak to the heart.” 

I am often struck by the way some people talk so disrespectfully about themselves. They think nothing of referring to themselves as “silly,” or “stupid,” or “an idiot.” Often surprised when I point it out to them, they will acknowledge that they frequently say such things because they feel the need to reprimand themselves for their behavior. However, they will also agree that this pejorative self talk does little to change their behaviors and much to reinforce their feelings of inadequacy. 

That kind of insensitive behavior, whether intentionally hurtful or automatic and unconsidered, does nothing to evoke a sense of peace, joy and/or happiness in that person’s life. Moreover, similar thoughts and behaviors directed at others, again whether there is intent to hurt or not, add to our unhappiness, even though we may experience a sense of satisfaction in the moment.

 

“Selective Compassion”

Most of us feel compassion in some situations. We find it easy to care deeply for a friend or loved one who has suffered a difficult loss or is undergoing a painful illness. Often the first thought in such cases is how to help that person. We may also feel compassionate toward those who have suffered a major disaster and volunteer time and money to assist them.

It is far more difficult to feel kindness and compassion toward the co-worker who gossips about us, the driver who abruptly cuts in front of us, or the politician whose platform directly opposes our own beliefs and values. In these instances we may feel judgmental and critical, and justified in doing so. But true compassion is not selective. It does not distinguish between those who deserve it and those who do not. When we decide that one group deserves compassion while another group does not, then our compassion is flawed.

Nor is compassion a sign of weakness. It is not a passive acceptance of abuse nor does it mean that we will gladly accept whatever anyone wants to do to us. Instead, it is described by Sharon Salzberg as: 

“the strength that arises out of seeing the true nature of suffering in the world. Compassion allows us to bear witness to that suffering, whether it is in ourselves or others, without fear; it allows us to name injustice without hesitation, and to act strongly, with all the skill at our disposal. To develop this mind state of compassion …is to learn to live, as the Buddha put it, with sympathy for all living beings, without exception.”

 

Compassion and Happiness

Compassion is one of the few things that can bring immediate and long term happiness to our lives. If we want our world to be a happier, more peaceful place to be, then compassion is one of the quickest routes. In struggling with choices and decisions in our lives, it often seems as if there are too many variables to make sense of. How can we know what is best for us? I find that many questions resolve themselves if I can ask myself what is the most compassionate action I can take in a particular situation? What can I do that will create the greatest sense of happiness and well-being in my life and the lives of those around me? Moreover, the most compassionate action I can take for myself is usually the most compassionate action toward others, as well.

In addition to the spiritual and emotional benefits of compassion, there are physical benefits. Some scientific studies have shown that people who practice it produce 100 percent more DHEA, a hormone that counteracts the aging process, and 23 percent less cortisol, the “stress hormone.”

Compassion is called a practice because it requires our ongoing attention and dedication. And there is no shortage of opportunities to incorporate it into our lives. We can begin by increasing our awareness of it, thinking about it in our interactions with others, and reflecting on it at the end of the day. In this way, it becomes a part of our daily lives.

 

How to Practice Compassion

The Dalai Lama offers the following practice as a simple way to increase loving kindness and compassion in the world:

1. Spend 5 minutes at the beginning of each day remembering we all want the same things (to be happy and be loved) and we are all connected to one another.                                                               

2. Spend 5 minutes — breathing in – cherishing yourself; and, breathing out – cherishing others. If you think about people you have difficulty cherishing, extend your cherishing to them anyway.

3. During the day extend that attitude to everyone you meet. Practice cherishing the simplest person (clerks, attendants, etc., as well as the “important” people in your life; cherish the people you love and the people you dislike).

4. Continue this practice no matter what happens or what anyone does to you.

These thoughts are very simple, inspiring and helpful. The practice of cherishing can be taken very deep if done wordlessly; allowing yourself to feel the love and appreciation that already exists in your heart. As this practice becomes a part of your life, it can become a way of life.

Or, as the Dalai Lama also said, “This is my simple religion. There is no need for temples; no need for complicated philosophy. Our own brain, our own heart is our temple; the philosophy is kindness.”

 

Recommending Reading

Chodron, Pema. Start Where You Are: A Guide to Compassionate Living. Boston and London: Shambala Publications, 1994. 

The Dalai Lama. An Open Heart: Practicing Compassion in Everyday Life.  Nicholas Vreeland, Ed.) New York: Back Bay Books, 2002.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

December 16, 2007

Holidays and Grief

By Micky O’Leary, Ph.D

You may have noticed it’s the holiday season. (I saw Christmas lights fighting for Halloween shelf space in late September and my neighborhood convenience store is now selling “candy cane cappuccino.”) Whatever your personal beliefs, it’s more or less impossible to ignore the television commercials, shopping promotions, Hallmark specials, outdoor decorations, wrapping paper, and many other obvious reminders which bombard us daily from October through the end of the year.

This can be an exciting, although stressful, time of year. Most of us have been brought up to believe that the holiday season is “magical,” a time when families get closer, hearts get lighter, and good will abounds.

For many people, the holidays are an especially wonderful time. But for just as many, the holidays are exhausting, expensive, disappointing, and/or downright depressing. This is especially true for those who are experiencing a particular sadness or loss in their lives. In a time when connection and abundance are being depicted all around, it’s especially hard to be without the people or things that are important to us.

Few people go through life without experiencing major loss(es), and those losses can seem especially painful during the holidays. Whether it’s the death of a loved one, the absence of family, illness, losing a job, the ending of a relationship, financial setbacks, or any number of other difficult life events, grieving often intensifies when we’re faced with the huge discrepancy between our own experience and what appears to be the experience of the majority. Memories of happier times and friends and family who seem excited by the festivities may only increase our sense of being isolated and out of step.

If the holidays are hard for you, be assured that you are not alone. Many people do not feel like celebrating and wish they could somehow be transported from October to mid-January. If you are in that group, or just a little less than thrilled with the traditional holiday festivities, your feelings are understandable. This is an especially useful time to focus on ways to take care of yourself and reduce unnecessary stress.

One way to do this is by adjusting your expectations – of yourself, as well as others. Adopt a nurturing and self-accepting attitude toward yourself. Try not to feel guilty or self-critical because you feel sad or lonely. Seek support from family and friends. If they are a source of your stress, make sure you have some “down time” to rest and regroup. You may even consider volunteering some time to those who are in need – helping others is often the best way to help yourself feel better.

If this is your first holiday season since the death of a loved one, be especially gentle with yourself. Recognize the painful nature of “firsts” and treat yourself kindly. You may choose to keep traditional holiday activities or you may decide you want to break with tradition and do something entirely different. There is no right or wrong in choosing the best way to cope with a very painful time.

Whatever your loss has been, know that grieving takes time and that it is our nature to heal and grow. Just as we do what is necessary for our bodies to heal physically, we can make the choices that will allow us to heal emotionally. Regardless of where we are in our lives, this time of year offers opportunities for us to learn more about our emotional needs and how to meet them.

December 5, 2007

Holiday Bill of Rights – Part 2

The holidays can be fun, but they also can be a source of great stress — and no wonder. The holidays are often depicted as a magical time when people reconcile and dreams come true.

How Can You Deal With Continuing Family Problems During The Holidays?

Being realistic is the first step. If you have bad feelings about someone, try and avoid him or her and not make an issue of it but don’t pretend that all is well. This will enable you to feel true to yourself and less stressed out.

Do Financial Pressures Stress People Out to the Point of Ruining the Holiday Spirit?

Knowing your spending limit is also a way to relieve holiday stress. People believe that they have to go out and buy gifts because it’s the holidays, even if they can’t afford to do so. Not only is it stressful to feel that you have to buy everyone an expensive gift, but you’ll be stressed for the rest of the year trying to pay off your bills. You can show love and caring by getting something that you know is meaningful and personal for

that person that doesn’t have to cost a lot.

How Do Time Pressures Affect People Around the Holidays?

People shouldn’t have to put their lives on pause or totally rearrange their schedules either because of the holidays. Learn to prioritize the invitations you accept and don’t feel that you have to go to every holiday gathering.

How Does a Person Deal With the Holidays When He or She Has Just Experienced A Recent Tragedy, Death or Romantic Break-up?

If you’re feeling really out of sorts because of any chronic or current stressors, like a death or recent romantic break-up, you may want to avoid some of the festivities because they are so out of sync with how you’re feeling. Try to tell those around you what you really need, since they may not know how to help you, and ask for their understanding if you decline an activity.

How Do You Cope With Kids Who Want Everything For The Holidays and Have No Sense of What Things Cost?

Parents need to tell their children to be realistic. It is OK to say to your child that a certain toy is too expensive. And even Santa Claus has limited funds and has to choose what to give because he has a very long list. You can also tell your children that Mom and Dad and Santa Claus will try to choose the most suitable present for the child. Children have to learn that their wish is not someone’s command and to curb their desires for instant gratification.

What Are Some Good Coping Strategies?

Take stock of your expectations and make sure they’re realistic. Don’t expect more of this time of year than of any other. Take a break from holiday music and television specials if you find that they’re turning you into "Scrooge."

Most people dread the holidays because their inner experience is so different from what is being hyped. You should trust your own instincts and don’t try to be what you’re not. Keep up your normal routine and know

that this day will pass too.

If, however, you are unable to shake what you think are "holiday blues" your feelings may not be about the holidays, but about other things in your life. If you need help in sorting out or dealing with this issue, a psychologist is a person with the training to help you do so. Call one of Karuna’s therapists.

Thanks to Dorothy Cantor, Psy.D., a private practitioner in Westfield, N.J., and a former president of the American Psychological Association.

(c) Copyright 2004 American Psychological Association

Documents from apahelpcenter.org may be reprinted in their entirety with credit given to the American Psychological Association. Any exceptions to this, including requests to excerpt or paraphrase documents from apahelpcenter.org, must be presented in writing to helping@apa.org and will be considered on a case-by-case basis. Permission for exceptions will be given on a one-time-only basis and must be sought for each additional use of the document.

September 4, 2006

The Coming Out Stages

by Micky O’Leary, PhD

The coming out process is best described as the internal and external experiences which accompany a person’s recognition of, or shift in, their sexual orientation.

Researchers who have studied the coming out process have identified stages that most people go through as they recognize, accept and embrace a non-heterosexual identity. While some have described the process as sequential, i.e., one stage must be “completed” before the next stage can begin, many now see coming out as an interactive experience which is connected to the environmental/cultural context.

Most theories of coming out include four important aspects:

An initial awareness of being different, or non-heterosexual;

Labeling oneself as gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender; Becoming connected and self-disclosing with other GLBT persons;

Integrating a GLBT identity into their overall self-concept.

These are only guidelines for how some researchers have tried to describe the awareness, acceptance and integration of a non-heterosexual identity. Obviously,
the path is different for each person and there are many small stages within each larger stage. If you are in this process, be patient with yourself. It is an ongoing and deepening experience — one which never completely ends.

Micky O’Leary, Ph.D. is a member of the Georgia Psychological Association’s Division H, Sexual Orientation Issues. She has helped scores of men and women with their concerns about coming out.

The Coming Out Process

Claiming Your True Self

“Coming Out” is an expression that can take several different meanings, depending on the context. At a most fundamental level, it signifies the act of becoming public or known. In some cases, it can mean announcing an unpopular or risky position. (Imagine presenting yourself as a pacifist in a family with several generations of military service — or telling your steak-loving partner that you have become vegan.)

For most people, however, the term “coming out” refers to “coming out of the closet,” i.e., revealing a sexual orientation that is gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, or  somewhere outside the category of heterosexual or straight. In this case, it involves both becoming known, and an often unpopular or risky position.

No “Right” Way

Coming out is also a process that can take many different forms. There is no “right” time or place, no “right” way. It usually begins when an individual recognizes their attraction to someone of the same sex, or becomes aware of a gender identity that  differs from their own biological sex. It is sometimes linked to a person’s first sexual experience with another person of the same gender. It can also be the occasion of verbalizing same sex attraction to another person.

Awareness can come in childhood – some people say that feeling “different” is one of their first memories or self-recognitions – or any time after that. Many men and women do not recognize and/or claim their sexual orientation or sexual identity until much later – sometimes in the 40s, 50s or beyond.

One reason for the variation in age may stem from the person’s cultural context. Growing up in a family or environment where GLBT persons are accepted, even embraced, can make it much easier to recognize and claim one’s own difference. Conversely, growing up in a climate where GLBT persons are seen as abnormal, or even immoral, can make the process much more difficult and/or protracted.

Coming out typically begins internally, with the individual recognizing and/or admitting to themselves that their sexual orientation or identity differs from the majority. This awareness may occur when the person becomes attracted to another person of the same sex or gender, meets someone who is openly GLBT or “out,” or identifies with a GLBT role model.

These feelings may remain unverbalized, and sometimes disowned, for an indefinite period of time. In fact, many people may never fully acknowledge this part of themselves. However, most GLBT persons eventually disclose their feelings to another
person, often in the context of a same sex relationship with that person.

An Act of Self-Affirmation

Choosing to come out is undoubtedly one of the most important and self-affirming decisions that any gay man, lesbian, bisexual or transgender person can make.

The decision usually occurs when the pain/discomfort of concealing one’s true self outweighs the pain of potential rejection that coming out can bring.

Making the decision to come out is best accomplished with support. As you begin to tell family, friends, or others who are unaware of your sexual orientation or identity, it is important to have people in your life who can encourage, reassure, validate and listen. If you are coming out to family members, you may choose to first tell the family member whom you believe will be the most supportive and accepting.

It is also important to know that when you come out to others, reactions may vary widely. People you thought may be the most understanding may, in fact, be the most judgmental. Conversely, some of those you assume will react negatively, may instead be supportive. Family members, especially parents, often react negatively at first but eventually grow to accept their son or daughter’s coming out. In other words, do your best to minimize expectations and focus on your own reasons for coming out.

The Human Rights Campaign Foundation ( www.hrc.org ) is sponsoring the 18 th  annual National Coming Out Day on October 11. This year’s theme, “Talk about it,” reminds us that equal rights for GLBT persons will come only if we (both the GLBT community and its straight allies) are open and honest about whom we are.

An Ongoing Process

Coming out is not a one time decision or action. Because we live in a culture that assumes heterosexuality for its members, coming out occurs many times over a lifespan. It is best viewed as a process. An individual is neither “in” nor “out” of the
closet, but is constantly moving from situation to situation, each of which can call for a decision regarding passage through the closet door. We may consider ourselves “out” when our friends know. Or we may consider the act of telling our family as our true coming out. Regardless, we are usually faced with the decision to tell or not to tell in almost every new life situation.

For instance, our family and friends may know of our sexual orientation or identity, but each time we change jobs, join a club, move to a new neighborhood or introduce ourselves to a new service professional (physician, accountant, attorney, etc.), we
have the choice to disclose our sexual orientation or to “pass.”

Each of these situations requires a (frequently split-second) decision. Do you tell the sales clerk that the person standing next to you is your partner, or girlfriend, or lover? Or do you keep quiet when the clerk refers to her as your “friend”? Do you inquire whether the job for which you are interviewing has “domestic partner benefits” or do you just ask nothing and hope for the best? Or what about when your well-intentioned mother asks, “Son, have you met any nice girls yet?” Do you say,
“I’m still looking for the right girl, Mom,” or, “No, but I have met the man of my dreams”?

There is no “right” or “wrong” answer to these questions. In fact, the level of homophobia in certain parts of our community and our world makes coming out
dangerous in some situations. For instance, coming out in the military can result in harassment and/or discharge. Furthermore, there is no federal law that protects against discrimination in the workplace. Some employers and governmental bodies have laws or policies prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or identity. The majority do not. It is important to be aware of laws, policies, and the workplace atmosphere before making a decision that could impact your livelihood.

However, there are many situations in which the GLBT community can speak up. Often, these opportunities are as simple as coming out to a health care provider.
The HRC reports that although many GLBT persons consider themselves “out,” they often refrain from speaking to others about GLBT issues. In fact, in an HRC poll, only three percent of those responding had come out to their doctors.

There are also many coming out opportunities for supportive members of the straight community. Speaking or writing to legislators for equal rights legislation is one way. Another is speaking out against anti-gay jokes or slurs. Joining a gay-straight alliance is yet another way.

If you are contemplating coming out, or wondering how to support your GLBT family and friends in their own process, Charis Books ( www.charisbooksandmore.com ) carries a number of books related to this issue. PFLAG (Parents, Friends and Family of Lesbians and Gays) – www.pflag.org — is a wonderful organization that works to help support and advocate for GLBT persons and their families/friends.

Micky O’Leary, Ph.D. is a member of the Georgia Psychological Association’s Division H, Sexual Orientation Issues. She has helped scores of men and women with their concerns about coming out.

May 27, 2006

Write From The Heart

Dr. Micky O’Leary

The Christmas that I was 10 years old, I received my first diary. It was white leather, with gold lettering and its very own lock and key. I remember looking at its lined pages, one for each day of the coming year, with a combination of excitement and dread. I was excited at the possibilities that could fill it. And I dreaded the work involved.

 

For me, the “work” was a painstaking record of each day, carefully reported in my best penmanship and spelling. I was careful to detail the most mundane aspects of my life: my school assignments and grades; visits from friends and family members; TV shows and books that interested me; the clothes I wore to school.  As I look back on it, it isn’t surprising that I found the whole experience a little tedious.

 

So, when my uncle the practical joker came to visit, found my diary and read it aloud to my mother, I felt strongly justified in giving up on that project and finding a better and less revealing hobby, like stamp collecting.

 

 

A Different Experience

 

It was some time later before I again tried my hand at personal reflection on paper. I was in graduate school and several of my instructors required some form of journal keeping as a class assignment. I can remember the resistance I initially felt to sharing my thoughts with another person. I wasn’t sure I could be completely honest when I knew my instructor was evaluating me. However, this time the experience was different in a very significant way: I was to share my feelings about the things that happened.

 

After a few awkward attempts at saying the “right” thing, I started to give myself permission to say what I really thought and felt about the topic at hand. I found myself writing things in my journal that I never would have said out loud. Later, as I handed in my completed journals, I reviewed them and felt surprised at the depth of my experiences. Until I took the time to record them, I really didn’t know their impact on me.

 

It has been many years and many journals since then. While I don’t journal every day (and I admire those who do), I often find times in my life when journaling is particularly useful. Two of those times have occurred during major losses in my life. In the first, I kept a dream journal. After some months of recording what seemed to be dream after disturbing dream, the images began to show a pattern that helped me understand what this loss meant to me. Even now, when I review some of those dreams, I am startled by the clarity that my unconscious was trying to bring to my life. Another time I kept a journal of letters to a person in my life that had died. Those letters helped me express and move through some significant grief.  

 

Journaling in Psychotherapy

 

Not surprisingly, I often suggest journaling to clients. I have found it to be a particularly effective way of acquiring self-awareness and knowledge. Since I recognize my own initial resistance to writing, I am prepared for the many reasons that people have for not journaling, e.g., not enough time, not being “good” at writing, afraid of someone reading what they write, believing that if they think things through it is just as effective as writing about them. What I have found is that those who do overcome their reluctance to journaling often find that it is an incredibly helpful tool in their own growth and healing.

 

When journaling is most effective, it brings together a number of different elements. Tristine Rainer, in her book, The New Diary, writes about the process of beginning a diary: “Write fast, write everything, include everything, write from your feelings, write from your body, accept whatever comes. It doesn’t matter whether you have kept a diary in any form before. If you keep one long enough, all the important memories of the past will find their way into the story when it is appropriate for them to do so. You simply begin your diary now, in the middle of the ongoing action of your life.”

 

Natalie Goldberg, whose books include Writing Down the Bones and The Essential Writer’s Notebook, advises her students to begin their journaling by setting a timer and writing for period of time without stopping, without ever taking their hand from the paper. The idea is to allow what is inside to find its expression without interference from our “internal censor” or “internal critic.” (Our internal censor is that voice inside of us who likes to say things like, “Oh, I shouldn’t say that, it’s not ‘nice’” or “If my friend knew that’s what I really think about her she would never speak to me again.” Our internal critic tells us things like, “Oh, that’s not very interesting or original” or “Gee, I sound really ‘whiny’ here” or “I never was very good at this sort of thing.”) 

 

 

Forms of Creative Expression

 

There are many ways to journal or record feelings and experiences. Writing is the form most often used. However, there are other creative ways to access our internal processes. One way is to keep a journal of drawings – noting the themes, colors, feelings evoked. Creating personal mandalas is another way to access our inner life. Some individuals have made collages of different materials as a way to express themselves. Another way to keep a journal or record could involve creating lists such as the things that scare us, the people we love, the choices that we are making in our lives, the times and the places in which we contact our inner strength.

 

There is no end to the ways in which we can use our creativity to bring us more in touch with our soul’s journey. Keeping a journal can give us a place to release strong feelings and tensions. It can provide us with a powerful adjunct to psychotherapy, increasing self-awareness and self-knowledge. It can help identify patterns and themes in our lives and allow us to live more consciously and intentionally. It can help us be more intimate with ourselves and with others. These are only a few of the ways that journaling and other forms of creativity can enrich our life.

 

As this year draws to a close and a new one is about to begin, journaling is an especially appropriate way to reflect on the lessons and gifts we have been given, as well as the struggles we have experienced. By taking the time for this reflection, we will be able to greet the New Year with a more intentional and focused approach to our lives.

 

 

 

Journaling books recommended:

 

The New Diary by Tristine Rainer

Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg

The Essential Writer’s Notebook by Natalie Goldberg

 

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