3 Reasons Life Feels Unsatisfying

While this may not be an exhaustive list, here are a few reasons to explore and get you started:

  1. Something NEEDS to change or be addressed: If there is one thing I have learned from years of working with people it is that human beings are extremely resilient. The body, mind, and spirit can endure and cope with large amounts of stress. Whether it is the physical stress of not addressing a medical need or the emotional stress of staying with a harmful relationship. People are able to cope themselves into corners and dark places. Taking time to reflect on life and truly look at how long a relationship, job, or physical condition has been going on can provide clarity into what truly needs to change. It never ceases to surprise me how many years people will endure things (especially jobs and relationships) that are literally destroying other areas of their life.
  2. Change Requires New Narratives: It doesn’t matter how far someone moves or how great the new job or relationship is, the old story will still replay from time to time. Be prepared to remind your wandering thoughts that life is changing and to give it time before feelings of satisfaction or peace come with that change. Keep track of successes and milestones that mark your way to the life you do want. Proactively choose the narrative or story that you replay in your mind. I ran into this problem when I went from a grueling internship to private practice. I had days I would catch myself dreading going to work or feeling anxious about my practice. I finally realized, I was addicted to that way of thinking because I had endured and coped with a harsh environment for so long. It may sound silly but I had to literally remind myself that I was not doing that kind of work any more. I had to create a new story to tell myself about my career. I would reflect on how lucky I am to spend my time helping people and if there is something I can change it.
  3. Gratitude is a practice first and a feeling second: A practice of gratitude is truly life changing. When clients discover the ability to be grateful for the change that is occurring in their lives or focus on the parts of life that are going well feelings of happiness and satisfaction abound. The ability to not let work stress or one relationship bleed into other areas of life is important. Just because there is a couple difficult people at work doesn’t mean a person has to hate the whole job. Practicing gratitude helps keep life in focus and can offer clarity about what needs to change. I see this commonly with the most intimate and important relationships in client’s lives. When there is marriage or family stress, it appears to affect all areas of life. Staying grateful for what is going well in life keeps people focused and offers an honest reflection of your present context or environment.

Questions to ask your Therapist

Important Reminder: You are in charge of your mental and emotional health. No one should tell you what your experience is and mental health concerns are not a reason to feel disempowered and/or helpless. Your therapist/doctor/counselor/psychologist/psychiatrist should be able to clearly articulate risks and benefits of the treatment they are suggesting. It is my opinion, after 7 years of training and practice in this field that medication should always be approach as an absolute last resort and never a first response to mental health concerns. In addition, a diagnosis (such as bi-polar or depression) is not a treatment plan. 

When looking for a therapist, it is important to know a few important but simple questions to ask to ensure you get the best therapist for your situation.

  1. Where & when did you attend school? If the school doesn’t sound relatively familiar, look it up. Make sure that live supervision and an internship were part of the program, especially if you are working with an intern. If the clinician is fully licensed, you know they have had three years of supervision in Oregon.
  2. How long have you been practicing and what is your license in? It doesn’t matter whether the therapist has been in practice for 9 months or 29 years, neither guarantees a good therapeutic fit. What you are looking for in this question is for a confident response. If you get a shaking, “only a few months” or a cocky, “too long!” it’s a red flag. You want a clinician who is hungry to learn but confident in their skills. It’s a delicate balance!
  3. How do you believe change occurs? Some clinicians believe change occurs when brain chemicals are altered, others believe it happens over a period of time when you gain more coping skills, others believe change happens in the moment in therapy. It is important to know how your therapist believes change happens. For example, I believe that change occurs when the habits/patterns change whether it is emotional, behavioral, or interactional (between two people) patterns. Therefore it would not be a good fit for me to work with a therapist who believed that my emotional state would improve by changing chemicals in my brain.
  4. What is the average amount of sessions you work with clients? The answer to this comes down to preference and what you believe change looks like. I typically work with clients for 12 session. I believe clients should pay me only for the sessions they need and as they begin to experience change and healing we should start spacing out sessions. Clients can always come back if they need more support and I never want to foster dependence or send a message that a client needs me. Other therapists have a more long term approach, I can’t speak to that because I wasn’t trained in it, so it comes down to what you believe.
  5. What is your treatment plan?  Of course you may have to attend a couple sessions to get the answer to this question, but a good therapist can always articulate how they are seeing the problem and how they seek to help you with it.

4 Ways to Change (right now!)

There is a tendency in our culture to think that change, like love, is just something that happens. However, there are steps or access points to engage in change. Use a combination of these access points and watch the results pile up. I will list these from easiest to more difficult.

  1. Physical State: One way to encourage yourself to think differently or make different decisions is to get in a good work out. If you are using a workout for this specific purpose, schedule it as early in the day as possible. Think about how you feel post workout: strong, empowered, ready to take on anything, and a bit proud of yourself. These feelings are great places to start making new decisions or renewed commitment to the decisions you are trying to make. If this is hard for you to imagine, think about the decisions you tend to make when you are feeling sad or stressed out or after binge watching Grey’s Anatomy all afternoon. Try tracking this for a week…. I am not supposed to guarantee anything as a therapist… but I can guarantee this strategy! You don’t need me to make this change!
  2. Behavior: Make a commitment to changing a behavior like drinking more water, writing more, picking up a new hobby, or joining a club/community. I find it is easier for most people to add a new behavior or learn something new rather than making the focus quitting something. For instance it is hard to keep repeating to yourself “watch less tv” because you are reminding yourself of TV every time. Try repeating “write more” it will guide your thoughts in a new direction.
  3. Food: Let’s face it, nutrition is not a rocket science these days. It is common knowledge that less food from a package and more fresh fruits and vegetables is a healthy way to go. Don’t discount the power of food on your mood and perception of your context. Eating fresh foods that you know are good for you can dramatically change the way you think and interact. Try drinking less caffeine … I know, that one is hard for a lot of people but caffeine is a stimulant and all stimulants no matter their legal status increase anxiety, jitteriness, irritability, and can prevent you from getting a good nights sleep.
  4. Insight: We all have those moments when we “know” something but still choose to act the same way. It is hard to generate new insight inside the mind that got you to where you are now. New insight can be generated however through a coach, a class, or a therapist. These are contexts in which you can share where you get stuck and a new person with a different experience of you and your context can generate new ways of thinking about it.

I encourage my clients to make an attempt at all four. If a client is making change in a couple of these areas, therapy becomes exponential accelerating change and helping it stick. Michael Long, the other therapist here at Cascadia Family Therapy, calls therapy “New Year Resolution super glue.” Adding that fourth component to your commitment to work out more or eat healthier adds momentum.

Give it a try and let me know what you find in the comments below!

Humanity

I recently listened to an episode of This American Life in which they were exploring the old adage, “you will understand when you are older.” In the final act, they are talking to a man in the early stages of dementia. He describes what it is like to go to his doctor and be asked questions like “Who is the president?” and “What day is it?” and worst of all, they ask him to draw a analog clock depicting a particular time.

The man, a former engineer professor, is bothered that he struggles so much with this task. His life before was centered around numbers. He sits down one day and deconstructs the issue. He figures out and later articulates to his wife, the difficulty is that they are three layers. The hours, 1-12 (even though there are 24 hours in a day), the minutes (which correlate with the numbers 1-12 but represent 5’s) and on top of that, the larger hand tells the minutes while the smaller hand tells the hour. No wonder I am 30 and still have trouble reading an analog clock!

Anyway, this was an amazing story but that was not what fascinated me the most. What caught my attention was that his wife of decades kept feeding him words and prodding him along. It reminded me of many therapy sessions with parents and children. This constant need for your loved one to achieve in a way that society can recognize. It broke my heart. Here are people, young or old, trying to find their way in their own words, as fragile and disjointed as it may be, and we as a society have lost our ability to simply wait.

The evidence of this impatience and obsession with boiling every part of a human into a number is all around us. The survey of your doctor, what stories post in your Facebook feed, or what makes me most sad, the number of smiley or sad faces an elementary child comes home from school with.

I wish I could remember who said this, but I heard someone say that the true tragedy of our society isn’t what law has been or will be passed or the absolute joke of candidates in this presidential election, but instead the loss of humanity. The loss and oversimplification of the infinitely complex experience of being a human being. Our children are not numbers and our loved ones are not defined by the words they struggle to find. And each one of us deserves patience and quiet loving support to find who we are today even if it appears to be drastically different from yesterday.

So next time you feel like filling in a word or take a test score to mean something about you or a loved one’s intelligence, ask yourself, “does this really mean something or do I just feel a general pressure from society?” Or if you are really up for a challenge, “what is it about this score, lack of ability, or mistake that makes me feel uncomfortable enough to correct this person?”