Going home for the holidays… “Home” is such a loaded word. It can hold such joyful anticipation...

...alongside unmet longing, sadness and hard, thwarted effort—such deeply mixed feelings. Knowing what to do with these mixed feelings can be key to capturing the joy of the holidays.  Consider the following.

A man and his wife visit his home for the holidays…  Determined to hold his own at the holiday dinner table, he talks in carefully understated excitement about a new business venture.  His father, an envious man ever guarding his own position of top dog in the family, scathingly retorts, “Oh John, stop bragging.  You don’t see anyone else bragging.” And John once again finds himself painfully outside the men’s club dominated by the overpowering presence of his father and older brothers—unable to break free from the stubborn, painful family dynamic in which he has always been cast as the weak, inferior foil to the shining strength of real men.

Or a woman, trying to finally earn that gleam in her mother’s eye flips into a perfectionism that strives after the refined 15-course meals and exquisitely charming decorations that will make her home the desired place to be.  Preparations could be fun.  With a designer flair, this woman is actually quite good at homemaking.  But driven too hard by longings that remain unfulfilled, preparations are tedious and burdensome.  Thwarted longings come to a head on Christmas Day, when, after weeks of searching for the perfect gift, she is once again crushed as her mother thrills over a younger brother’s gift, disdainfully overlooking hers.   Bitter and exhausted, she once again hates the holidays.

The one good thing about family dynamics—our entrenched ways of interacting within our families of origin that leave us ever cast in the same damning role--is that they are predictable.  Rigidly entrenched, the dynamics repeat themselves—same old, same old—boringly, if painfully, played out.   That we can predict our families’ dynamics—and our roles in them--is immensely empowering.  It’s like going into battle (or a chess game, if you’re conflict avoidant :) with the opponent’s strategy foreknown.   We can think about the dynamics and strategize ways to win—ways to emerge as the person we want to be in our families—the person we’ve successfully become in the wider world--rather than inevitably getting sucked back into the same unwanted role we’ve endured since childhood. 

Thus John could easily predict his father’s response.  The man has always been a bully, shaming and overpowering any emergence of new strength.    In his heart of hearts, John knows his father well and could write the script of his Dad’s response to his excitement about his new business.    And he could rewrite his own script--if he would pause to look deep within and face hard realities about who his father is and the impotent position John has allowed himself to remain trapped in as an adult vis-a-vis his father.   Facing these realities would involve mourning and letting go of his wishes for admiration from his father as well as for a hearty welcoming into the men’s club by the men in his family.  And facing these realities could also allow him to say something like this to his father:  “Dad, actually, I’m not bragging.   I’m excited, and I’m sorry you can’t share in my excitement.”  For the first time in his life, he would have a comeback that confronts and silences his father’s grandiose, rude control.  His father may get angry.  The comeback may not invite closeness to his Dad who may, in fact, be incapable of closeness.  Other family members may stir uneasily, afraid of overthrowing the old way of doing things.  Some may feel proud of John, secretly rooting for him.  But the point is that John will have responded with integrity and dignity, not allowing his father to cast him in the traditional powerless role.   A toxic tradition will be broken.  If John persists in responding with dignity and forthrightness, the family dynamic is changed.  John takes back power from his father--power that is legitimately his. He is no longer one-down to his father’s one-up. 

It only takes one person to change a family dynamic.  But it takes great courage to be that one person who dares to invite change.

So, too, the woman could predict that she will not attain specialness with her mother this Christmas.  It seems achingly obvious that she’s longing for a specialness from her mother that’s never happened and never will.   She’s been experiencing the same rejection for years.  But we can be masters at avoiding painful realities.  And clinging to the hope that this year will finally be different is a prime way of avoiding the reality that her mother has never given her what she really wants--and probably never will.  It seems obvious. But it is by no means a given that any of us will muster the courage to face these obvious realities behind our unmet longings.  If we do embark on this path of facing unwanted realities and letting go of impossible wishes, it is sad, hard, wise work that can yield really sweet outcomes. 

I would love to be a fly on the wall the first Christmas after this woman truly, deeply realizes her mother cannot give her what she wants.  Distinct differences will unfold.  As always, she won’t get the gleam in her mother’s eye.  But for the first time she won’t be looking for it.  Rather, she sits back, viewing her family from a whole new perspective.  She widens her focus to take in other family members who love and enjoy her, letting them replace her mother on center stage.   As her mother experiences a noticeable loss of power, the daughter feels relief and joy that the tables are finally turned.  She basks in the new found freedom of not needing specialness from her Mom; and, rather than envying her younger brother, she pities him, seeing how stuck he is in the seductive favored position.  She thoroughly enjoys this hard fought new perspective; and, for the first time, she thoroughly enjoys her holidays.

Holidays are to be enjoyed.  They can hold warm and magical traditions full of rich memories:  the steadying sparkle of lit candles; awe sitting in a very big Santa’s lap; reverent, holy tales that hold out great hope; wrapped gifts beckoning with mystery and excitement… Such fun- or joy-filled habits repeated over and over again become traditions that we can count on, that make us happy.  In an instant, these traditions invite us back to the joy our families carefully crafted for us at the holidays. 

But traditions can also be toxic, and toxic traditions need to be broken.  They are broken through embracing hard-fought and often heartbreaking change in perspective. This journey of change should not be faced alone.  Seek the outside perspective, support and comfort of a therapist, spiritual director, life coach, or objective, wise friend to guide you on your journey. But do begin to break the toxic traditions--while firmly hanging onto the joyful ones…

                                            and have yourself a very happy holiday  this year.


© Maribeth Ekey, Psy.D.

Every so often around our house you’ll hear someone say a very loud, “Oh darn!” or “Yikes!” or “Oh no!” as though talking to herself. And yet it is said out loud.

  Then right on top of the exclamation you’ll hear, “Everything ok?”   Frequently followed by, “Yeah, I’m good.”

In less than 10 words a powerful transaction has occurred.  Someone cries out in trouble or frustration—it sounds like it may be a cry for help--and THERE IS A RESPONSE.  There is an unstated, “Do you need help?” … “I’m here if you need me.” … “You matter.”

The freedom to ask for help knowing there are people in our lives who are willing to help is powerfully reassuring. 

But this simple one-word exclamation, “Help!”, while very easy to pronounce  can be very hard to say.  We don’t always feel free to ask for help.   A friend described a season of life when she desperately needed help.  But, ashamed and terribly frightened of how depressed she felt after one loss too many, she did not ask for help.  It’s risky asking for help--especially when we really need it.   Needing help is, well, needy; it’s vulnerable.   It feels dependent or weak.  Interesting how all these words—“needy,” “vulnerable,” “dependent,” weak”—have become bad words to us.  We’re too ashamed, too proud, or too overwhelmed to ask for help when we really need it.  Or, in a state labeled “learned helplessness” by a researcher named Seligman, we may have come to believe there is no help—in ourselves or in the universe—so why bother asking?  Weak and ineffectual, we don’t matter; nobody cares.

It gets complicated.  It’s essential to keep making our honest needs for help known.  And yet, if people in your circle of friends and loved ones aren’t trustworthy--if they’re bullying or sadistic or, highly insecure, like to one-up people—they likely will use or abuse or demean your need for help.  To further complicate things, you may not be able to discern safe versus unsafe people; and sometimes it can be truly tricky.  Deceptive people are good at deceiving and taking advantage; it’s what they do.  You may have learned to shut down your cries for help for good reason, based on legitimately harsh or harmful experiences.

If whether to trust and who to trust are confusing questions, you might begin with taking your cry for help to someone like a therapist, spiritual director or life coach… someone with the training and tools to help you get back on track to a healthy community who knows how to give and take help… someone who will also enter an objective contractual commitment with you.  Generally professional helpers are well-meaning and helpful.  But the contract is a safety net.  It specifies in writing what expected and appropriate behavior is so it’s easier to discern if a contracted helper oversteps boundaries or becomes unsafe.

But it is crucial that we have safe people and safe structures that allow us to face and express our needs for help, because all of us get into binds and face limitations where we truly, desperately need help.  It’s an old, time-tested adage: we really do need each other and it really does take a village.

©   Maribeth Ekey, Psy.D.  August, 2015



Helpful Anxiety, Harmful Anxiety, and the Bell Curve of Anxiety

Quite understandably, we avoid feelings of anxiety.  We can even get anxious about getting anxious.  But right levels of anxiety are essential in facing challenging tasks. There is a bell curve to anxiety.  Optimum levels of anxiety, at the top of the bell curve, motivate, focus and energize us.  They leave us primed, revved, and ready to act on demanding tasks. 

 On the other hand, high levels of anxiety, on the right-hand tail of the curve, are overwhelming and debilitating to our focus.  Heart racing and pulse pounding, along with possible difficulty breathing and an intensely shaky feeling that threatens embarrassing and/or dangerous loss of control, we are panicking and may feel like we’re going to die.  Because the symptoms of high anxiety are alarming and mimic serious medical problems, people suffering from high anxiety often go to the ER; and, in fact, with severe anxiety, you need to have the symptoms checked out by a medical doctor. It’s not until you’ve ruled out underlying medical problems that you can be sure it’s an anxiety problem. 

But, on the left-hand tail of the curve, too little anxiety is also a problem.  With too little anxiety, we’re lackadaisical. We lack a sense of urgency.  The under-anxious person is often accused of being lazy or irresponsible.  Nothing matters.  Appearing unmotivated, he can’t mobilize the energy to stay on-task and get projects done.

 People who suffer from high anxiety suffer markedly.  But so do under-anxious people.  In fact, under-anxious people are often people who secretly suffer high anxiety.  It may look like this.

 Some people go from low anxiety to panic very quickly.  They never experience the helpful levels of anxiety.  Rather, any hint of anxiety escalates into unbearable and incapacitating anxiety.   Their experience of anxiety is all-or-nothing.  If they feel anxious, it's automatically a huge, overpowering anxiety. 

 So anxiety becomes the enemy.  At the first signs of anxiety, under-anxious people flip into a false self-soothing to get rid of the anxiety.  Of course, self-soothing can be very useful in managing anxiety.  But under-anxious people make unrealistic self-statements that deny the real difficulty of tasks they face in order to soothe away all anxiety… Daunted by the massive memorizing required by a test, a grad student tells himself, “Life’s too short to be always studying!  I’ll go play ball with the guys and deal with Econ later.” Or, not liking the anxiety she feels facing a demanding project which she’ll have to present before a large group, an engineer tells herself, “I’ve got this.  I’ll finish it next week.”  Or suffering immense anxiety about performance evaluation, a young man avoids practicing for his driver’s test, with the discomfort it triggers, saying, “How hard can it be?!  Millions of people pass it!”

Thus dreading the panic that quickly and inevitably follows that first sign of anxiety, under-anxious people trade in the benefits of “good” anxiety for a desperately sought, artificial calm.  They become absorbed in dealing with their anxiety rather than dealing with the task that’s triggering the anxiety.  They procrastinate.  Then, finally facing the task when it’s too late, they feel a realistic panic which unfortunately reinforces the whole idea that challenging tasks cause panic and are to be avoided.

 What to do to break this cycle?! Once underlying medical causes to the anxiety have been ruled out, a two-prong approach to therapy can be pivotal in mastering the anxiety.  First, it's crucial to learn increased awareness of your body, its sensations, and what the first rumbles of anxiety feel like as well as how to sustain those smaller doses of anxiety without having them automatically surge into overwhelming anxiety.  This type of body awareness is the special domain of somatic experiencing therapists who know how to teach you to listen to your body, recognize and be at home with different levels of anxiety, and learn techniques for soothing your anxiety so that you can nurture and sustain optimum levels of anxiety.

The second prong involves enhancing self-esteem through a depth psychotherapy that invites exploring past experiences that have left you feeling “one-down” or not good enough. Such feelings of low self-esteem can leave us easily overwhelmed, anxious, and depressed.  Convinced we’re not good enough, we’re easily daunted and don’t feel “up to” new tasks. Because these feelings of inadequacy are deeply rooted (in the limbic center of our brain, our so-called “emotional brain”), we can’t just talk ourselves out of them.  We may not even think about these memories.  Nevertheless, these memories can haunt us compellingly through feelings of anxiety, depression, and low self-esteem.  Depth psychotherapy gently invites us to remember these buried memories so that they can be finally faced and put to rest. Addressing painful memories and past trauma can allow a more robust sense of self to emerge so that we are no longer so anxious and intimidated before life and its tasks.

  • © July, 2015 Maribeth Ekey

(This article is based on  recent decades of research and thinking  on anxiety as well as on the neuroscience of memory, especially Daniel Siegel's helpful, hopeful writings and research. Further, in his nonfiction book, David and Goliath, Malcolm Gladwell provides intriguing applications of the bell curve or inverted U-curve to human behavior.)




Productive Therapy artfully blends two essential ingredients: empathy and confrontation.

A client once complained about me to a friend, “My therapist is hard on me; she confronts me…” to which the friend wisely replied, “She sounds like a good therapist!”  He knew that his friend needed confronting in order to grow.

              Confrontation, easily supplanted by a steady diet of empathy, is often overlooked in therapy.  Client and therapist alike may enjoy deep understanding and gratifying “aha’s” but readily avoid the more anxiety-eliciting confrontation. 

              Empathy is wonderful, healing…  absolutely necessary to growth in therapy.  For clients to dive into searing memories of shameful betrayal, overwhelming loss or terrifying assault that they’ve carefully (and sensibly) avoided all their lives, they must trust that a therapist understands them and is for them.  They must trust that they will get kindness and support, not harsh judgment.  It is legitimately difficult to trust another person with the most vulnerable moments of our lives.  Empathy and understanding are bedrock to building the trust that invites openness about our suffering.

              But confrontation is also vital to growth.  As a thoughtful mentor once put it, if all we do with our clients is empathize, then we are simply stuck in a rut with them.  We just keep saying, in essence, “poor baby,” but never help them out of the rut.   Getting out of the rut requires the added jolt of confrontation.  In confronting, we dare to introduce a perspective that counters the client’s perspective—insight they hadn’t considered, maybe didn’t want to consider, that may be a little jarring or hard to swallow.

              Such confrontation causes discomfort and anxiety.  That’s why it’s counter intuitive in therapy:  we think of therapists as soothing anxiety, not inviting it!  But right levels of anxiety can actually be quite helpful (see upcoming  blog).  They can jostle complacency and lend impetus and energy to the work of therapy. 

              Consider…  A man comes in to a session upset about mistreatment by his boss.  Wincing, I empathize with the real hurt caused by the boss’s mean-spirited words.  I linger in the hurt with the client, unpacking other memories of similar hurt, sincerely with him in protesting the pain and unfairness he’s experienced.  There’s been a lot.

 Pivot point… Do we stay stuck in the rut?  Or is there some bigger perspective I can offer that, while risking offending him, can invite him out of the rut.  Gingerly, I say, “You know, you played a role in your boss’s harshness.”   Yes, he’s offended…   but we have history together; he trusts me enough to be curious to hear more.  And we begin looking at a pattern in this man’s choices—an unconscious pattern of extreme passivity that triggers irritation and sometimes downright harshness in friends and colleagues, subtly protecting him from a closeness that terrifies him. 

But confrontation--this uncomfortable insight—is embedded in empathy.  This man is not passive because he is a jerk or lazy or manipulative.  He’s passive because precious energy and initiative were beat out of him as a child.  A desperate choice, huge withdrawal from life was the only protection he knew.  But there’s a problem in this choice:  the passivity which protected him so well as a child is costing him dearly and unnecessarily as an adult. 

And so goes the blend of empathy and confrontation that invites healing.  Deep empathy—a non-judging and comforting understanding that tells us we are not alone in our suffering--permeates good therapy; but discerning confrontation must be boldly and gently added to the mix.  Confrontation invites a shift in perspective that leads to real change—not just “feeling better”—but substantive growth which sustains well-being.  

 Lots of empathy… a well-placed confrontation… lots of empathy...    is the essential blend that works not only for therapy but also for friendship, marriage, and raising kids. 

©  6/30/15 

*Any resemblance to actual people is coincidence and our shared humanity.

High accolades for Dave Allen’s book, Getting Things Done…

best expressed by my computer assistant who, upon entering my office, uttered a stunned,  “Wow! Maribeth, what happened?!  I’ve never seen your office look this organized.  There’s no paper anywhere!!!”  Dave Allen’s Getting Things Done is what happened.

If you struggle with:

  • feeling overwhelmed by stacks, piles, and myriad things to do;

  • waking up dreading the day related to too much to do;

  • sleep loss because you’re wound up about things left undone;

  • Eeyore’ish procrastinating rather than creative initiating;

  • and feeling helpless and hopeless—a task-specific depression or despair—

          rather than energized by the work that you face…

    you may love the book,  Getting Things Done!  Dave Allen addresses our overwhelm with wise structure and tips which help in highly practical ways.  I heartily recommend his book, but here are three tips that got me started.

    1. Make a Project List, listing every project—home, work, kids, pets, gardening--every looming project that comes to mind.  (As will be seen, this is different from a to-do list.)Every time a project comes to mind, “capture” it—write it down immediately, relieving your mind from carrying around mental to-do lists.  Juggling things to-do in our minds is draining.  We then worry about remembering them (and usually don’t) in addition to worrying about getting them done.  Stress and anxiety mount!  The things-to-be-done rattle around in our minds--cluttering, distracting and exhausting us.  With all projects out of your head and onto a hard copy, the hard copy can do the taxing work of remembering for you. You’re mind is freed up to think, plan, and problem-solve.

    2.   Make a First Action List.  It was an epiphany to me to realize that we can’t do whole projects—that’s why we feel overwhelmed at times facing these projects.  We can only do the first action of the project, which is, by definition, manageable and doable.  So the First-Action List is akin to our traditional “to-do list”—but more intentional, inviting and energizing.  For example, say becoming a better cook is a project you’ve had.  But the project overwhelms you; you never get started.  A First Action might be looking on Pinterest to find a tasty recipe. You find a recipe that looks yummy and not too hard, after all.  You’re actually energized for the next First Action: buying ingredients.  Then maybe you’re actually excited about the final First Action: cooking the dish. 

    3.  Finally, Allen’s 2-minute rule:  When you’re getting ready to put a task on a list, if the task requires less than 2 minutes, just do it right then and there.  (I hadn’t realized how much procrastinating I was doing until implementing this rule!)

                            Happy Organizing: May Mastery Replace Overwhelm!




Good Morning?! For Those Who Struggle to Roll Out of Bed


A new day dawns...  Wouldn't it be nice to wake up refreshed, energized and anticipating the day??!   The image of sunrise is inherently hopeful... But for those struggling, feeling down or depressed, mornings may be dreaded.  In fact, mornings may be the toughest time of the day.  Consider nighttime "activity" (if you can sleep when depressed!)  Okay--you are asleep; your defenses are completely down; you are immersed in your unconscious state--the place of nightmares, of bizarre, out-of-control fears and images.  The key is: totally immersed in your unconscious; defenses totally down.  So, upon first awaking in the morning we are especially vulnerable to attack by whatever painful feelings are haunting us--depression, anxiety, overwhelming sadness of a recent loss, shame... The gnarly feelings just come rolling in, leaving us wanting to groan, pull the covers over our heads, and do anything but face the day.   What to do??  The #1 tip for dealing with tough mornings... have a structure prepared ahead of time for your day--something that you have to or want to get up for--your job, volunteer work, breakfast at Starbucks with the New York Times, meeting a friend at a gym; a phone call with someone who understands or cares; setting the timer on the coffee maker :-)  with a fav book on the breakfast table calling to be read... I call it "structuring up."  When we're in tough seasons of our lives, structuring up (planning your morning the night before) can hold at bay the haunting feelings that can quickly overwhelm in the mornings and give us a much needed kick start to the day.





            This past weekend, at a women’s retreat called “Strength for the Journey,” I was reminded of the true story (perhaps with every good legend’s embellishments!) of Valentine’s Day.  Centuries ago, a man named Valentine was imprisoned and sentenced to death by an emperor who wanted men sold out to him and his cause.  His offense? Valentine, who loved God deeply, performed weddings for soldiers who were forbidden to marry as they went off to war and also ministered to Christians at a time of great persecution.  Sensing this man’s goodness and decency, the prison guard entrusted his little girl, who was blind and couldn’t get the standard education, into Valentine’s instruction.  The little girl learned with delight, longing to see through Valentine’s eyes, worlds she had never seen.  When the time came for Valentine to be executed, he left behind a note for his well-loved student: “With love, your Valentine.’  He was executed on February 14th, the one saint’s day we all celebrate.


            So… great loves are to be celebrated, and Valentine’s Day is the day to celebrate them!  But like most holidays, Valentine’s Day is loaded.  For those who have a great romance or marriage, it’s a quintessentially happy day.  For those who have cherished kids or grandkids on whom they can lavish cute cards, yummy cookies, and a sure certainty that their young valentines are so very special…it can be delightful.

            But for widows, singles, childless, or those locked into tedious, disappointing, hostile or empty marriages, it can be anything but happy—filled with anguished longing, loneliness, hopelessness, morbid preoccupation with “why not me?,” and envy--feeling like a “have-not,” envying the “have’s.”

            It can be a very tough day.  Our society is way over-sexualized and over-romanticized; it’s as if the “good life” can’t happen apart from romance and sex.  Valentine’s Day, then, becomes a painful reminder of what many people don’t have—or once had and very sadly lost,


            If Valentine’s Day is not an automatically happy day for you, this is an invitation to be creative this 14th—to step out of the box (the Valentine-shaped box of candy!) and create a day of love that flows with and makes sense in your life. Visit a lonely, cantankerous parent—maybe it’s drudgery being with him… and yet satisfying knowing you showed up; have tea with a(nother?) widow in your neighborhood; give a cookie to the mailman; share a glass of merlot with a friend who shares in or “gets” your misery… and helps transcend it.  Be intentional.  Make time for a “favorite thing’ with a favorite friend.  At any given season of life, we can’t guarantee romance or make it happen; we can choose to love—or simply, to do acts of kindness that invite closeness or cheer us and someone else up.

            It’s okay to mope some (see the entry on “Listening to Your Body”).  If you don’t have a love that’s easy to celebrate, you’ve a right to your sadness which could be labeled honest mourning rather than feeling sorry for yourself.  But remember, the true originator of the day was a man who loved God heartily enough to die for him, and the first valentine was sent to a little blind girl that this older man loved and helped right before he died. That first Valentine’s Day was a day of mourning as well as triumph; it had nothing (and perhaps everything) to do with romance.