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Therapeutic Writing Workshop: The Journal Ladder and the Self

Each Wednesday evening from August 15th to September 19th, I will host a writing workshop that uses the Journal Ladder to facilitate self-discovery and social connection via the Journal Ladder. The Journal Ladder, created by Kay Adams of the Therapeutic Writing Institute, starts with very structured, time-limited “writes” and ending with longer, deeper-reaching free writes.

Participants of this writing workshop will do at least one in-class exercise a week and have a chance to share their reflections on the experience. Each week’s homework assignments will vary depending on what “rung” of the ladder we’re exploring. Group members will have a chance to share their reflections on the homework, along with brief readings from the journals themselves. We will also explore other types of personal writing, as popularized by Ira Progoff (the Intensive Journal Method) and James Pennebaker (Expressive Writing).

Given the personal nature of journal therapy, this writing workshop will abide by the rules common to any kind of therapy group. Everything shared in the group will be confidential. Emotions of all kinds, expressed authentically and respectfully, will be welcomed and encouraged.

TO REGISTER, email sarahsimpsoncounseling@gmail.com or call 919-805-4096.

Mindful Cooking: Brown Rice

In my ideal world, we would all have schedules that allowed us to prioritize cooking. The preparation and sharing of fresh, flavorful, nutritious food would not be a perfunctory chore, but the primary activity on which all other activities centered. In the actual world, I’ll have to be content with inspiring a handful of people to cook just a little more often. That’s what I hope this blog series will do.

I myself have not always enjoyed cooking. I was twenty-five when I realized how satisfying it was to follow a recipe and end up with a beautiful, delicious meal. With this realization came another: I was capable of many great things. All I needed was the right ingredients, the proper tools, and some very precise guidance. Because I could learn how to cook, I could learn how to knit, how to draw (kind of), how to play guitar and write songs, how to be a radio DJ, a psychotherapist, a yoga instructor, and how to write a screenplay. 

Learning how to cook not only boosted my confidence in acquiring other skills, but also — and more importantly — taught me how to be mindful. Cooking gives me the time and space to be present with my Self. Few activities are more meaningful and life-affirming.

I’ve chosen brown rice as the first Mindful Cooking recipe because it’s so essential, and so simple. The opportunity for mindfulness is only about a minute long here, so make the most of it!

Here’s what you’ll need:

a fine mesh strainer

a small pot with a lid 

a cup of long-grain brown rice

2 cups of water

a teaspoon of olive oil 

a half-teaspoon of salt

Instructions

First, rinse the rice in a fine mesh strainer. Here’s your chance to be mindful. Don’t blast the water out of the tap; let it flow relatively slowly for a solid minute as you move the rice around with your fingers. Give all of your attention to the rice, the water, and your fingers. Also notice what’s happening in your neck, back, and shoulders. Notice how you’re breathing.

Turn off the water and let the rice drain for a moment, tipping the strainer in a few different directions until no more water drips from the bottom. 

Transfer the rice to the pot and add the water, oil, and salt. (I like to keep my salt in a small cup for easy measuring.) Stir everything with a fork, lid it, and place it over high heat. Bring it to a boil, then turn the heat down to low. Simmer on low (covered) for 45 minutes. 

While the rice cooks you can take a load off, or you can work on other complementary recipes, like roasted butternut squash or fresh salsa [coming soon].

Remove from heat and keep covered for 5 minutes, then fluff with a fork and serve.

I make at least one pot of this brown rice every week. It’s great in burritos (or burrito bowls) and as a side with salmon and veggies. It’s also a nice addition to certain soups and chilis. 

Thriving in a Sick Society

Philosopher Jiddu Krishnamurti once said, “It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society.” So if you don’t feel well adjusted, take heart! It probably means you’re exactly as you should be, and that you have a lot to offer this crazy world. It’s a beautiful place to be, yes. But it’s also a terrible place, and it’s getting worse. If you’re at all sensitive or have just one artistic bone in your body, this world won’t just break your heart, but shatter it. Over and over again.

Some people respond to a sick society through activism. They will tell you that your lack of action is part of the problem. But everyone responds differently to insanity, and their response largely depends on two things.

First, how much energy do they have? Most people are exhausted. Despite technology’s promises to save us time, it’s actually made us busier, more scattered, and less comfortable with slowing down in a way that would allow us to recuperate from all the busy-ness. Not to mention our largely sedentary lifestyles and unhealthy diets that keep us feeling lethargic if not downright depressed.

Second, what do they believe about their ability to effect real, lasting change? Most people simply don’t believe that they can make a meaningful difference in the world. This isn’t a belief you can talk — or more importantly, guilt — them out of. It’s the result of years of conditioning that probably started in their family of origin, and to shame them for it isn’t fair. In fact, those people need extra compassion. It’s painful to feel ineffective, to feel like no one cares. And in many cases it’s not just a feeling. When it comes to the ones who actually can effect change (i.e., those in charge), nobody does care. Clean air? Free healthcare? A relatively comfortable existence for your children and grandchildren? Go suck an egg!

Add to this the fact that we’re constantly bombarded with messages about how we can be better, stronger, faster, just so we might keep our heads above water in this nutso world, and it’s no wonder people aren’t raring to effect social change. They’re too wrapped up in trying to change themselves. Mainstream advertising is an obvious example, but a quick scan of recent titles on Medium.com also tells me that my approach to life isn’t optimal: “30 Excuses Stopping You From Living Your Best Life (and 30 Solutions to Overcome Them)”; “6 Important Questions That Will Improve the Quality of Your Life”; “6 Ways to Live Boldly and Passionately, As If Your Life Depends On It”; and “7 Things That Happy People Do Differently.”

Visit the site tomorrow and you’ll probably see a whole new slew of similar how-to articles, many of them with a numbered list of things that you “should do,” written by people who stake their credibility on the number of followers they have and the amount of money they’ve earned.

I’ve been compelled to read such articles time and time again (click bait!), and I rarely ever feel better for it. Most of the time it’s a comparison trap. And as Jean-Paul Sartre said, “Comparison is death.” The second we expect ourselves to be like anyone else but ourselves, a part of us dies. Pay attention and you’ll feel it. In those moments we lose touch with everything we have to offer that no one else can, because no one else is like us. We are all snowflakes, damnit.

So whenever you feel insecure, demoralized, depressed, irritable, or some version of “there’s something wrong with me,” remember that you’re basically living in a coo-coo clock (to quote Homer Simpson), and that everything sweet and wise inside of you is probably, on some level, responding to that insanity. In trying to survive — let alone thrive — in a sick society, you’re attempting something that’s incredibly difficult. Hats off to you for hanging in there.

Men’s Relational Needs and the Specter of Neediness

Even with all the strides we’ve made in gender equality and emotional intelligence, it seems many men still equate having relational needs with being needy. I’ve seen it in my work with clients and in my conversations with male friends. The truth is, men’s relational needs reflect the desire to feel seen and understood that is hardwired in all of us. But I recently witnessed how the mere existence of such needs can turn a man against himself.

I’d been listening to my friend Gram (a pseudonym) explain the latest conflict between him and his girlfriend. When he finished, I made a simple suggestion. I wasn’t really meaning to give him advice. The logical next step merely seemed so obvious to me that it came spilling out: “Just tell her what you need.” But Gram’s resistance to this idea was downright visceral. He groaned from somewhere deep in his chest and pulled on his hair with both hands. Blood rushed to his face as he yelled (not at me, but to me): “If I do that, she’ll think I’m needy!!!” But all he wanted to do was say he’d changed his mind about something.

the baby in the bathwater

To quote comedian Louis Black, “there is a big fuck difference” between having basic relational needs and being needy. In Gram’s situation, what he needed from his girlfriend was by no means excessive. But in an effort to appear totally needless, he’d communicated with her from a defensive place. She had responded in kind. For Gram, this response created even more emotional distance, and therefore more needs. So he protected himself further by becoming all the more defensive and shut-off.

To the person on the receiving end, such defensiveness typically translates into assholery, or dickheadedness. In reality, though, it’s coming from a place of fear and isolation. It’s the little boy who has learned he mustn’t cry or ask for help. In some cases, he mustn’t even change his mind. This state of affairs saddens and confuses him — and it pisses him off. Inevitably, from time to time, he will direct this anger at his partner. Damn her for making him have to voice his needs! And damn himself for having them in the first place! The real kicker here is that most of this mental activity happens on an unconscious level. And activity on that level is most likely to control behavior.

At one point in my conversation with Gram he talked to himself from that conflicted place inside: “Quit being such a fucking baby.” It was like witnessing child abuse. Then he did what so many people, regardless of gender, do to ostensibly soothe themselves. With a tremble in his voice and a humorless smile he said that his problems were nothing. So many other people had it so much worse.

comparison is death

Granted, noble intentions were guiding Gram’s sentiment. But in most cases, that sentiment only functions to invalidate. It turns us against our emotional experience even more. There’s no denying that other people suffer from sickness, hunger, and any number of awful circumstances. But for whatever cosmic reason, that particular brand of suffering is not what we’re facing today. And if Gram were to wake up starving and sick tomorrow, I’m sure his relationship struggles wouldn’t seem so bad. Conversely, if the hungry were given food, and the sick given health, soon enough they would probably find suffering elsewhere on the hierarchy of needs.

Chastising ourselves for having difficult emotions only prolongs our difficulty. You might even say it’s more self-indulgent than simply acknowledging we’re hurting, and turning with curiosity and compassion towards that hurt. The sooner we can do that, the sooner we will feel better and be able to turn our attention outward again. If we’re constantly putting energy towards warding off our relational needs, then we simply won’t have much energy left for our relationships.

Needs are necessary

It would be too cruel a joke, even for life, if we were supposed to be completely independent. Consider the huge role that dependence plays in that most formative of relationships: the one we have with our primary caregiver in our earliest years. Yes, as adults we are far more equipped to take care of ourselves than we were as children. But the need for relational security and connection — the need to feel truly seen and understood — is hardwired into the deepest circuits of our brains.

So to men who might be equating needs with neediness, and who fear that expressing your emotional needs will ultimately destroy your relationship: take heart. Your partner might surprise you. And to all the women out there: keep in mind that we, too, are affected by the messages our society perpetuates about men and how “strong” they’re constantly supposed to be. Even if just a small part of us buys into those messages, we miss out on a deeper emotional connection with the men in our lives. We might wonder if a part of us actually fears being needed. And whatever our gender, we should all stop and wonder if our partners feel safe enough to be vulnerable with us.