I have been on a journey of discovery and exploration. Since being told about mindfulness
meditations, walks and the like, I have decided to take one of my own. I don’t quite understand
what mindfulness means; I mean, I have an idea, but what is it? When I talk to my peers about
the benefits they have received from these exercises, the answer isn’t clear because they often
use “mindful” in their description, and when you quite understand what the word means, it
makes it all the more challenging. When I find myself challenged, I often seek the guidance of
my elders. I am a two-spirited Haudenosaunee from the turtle clan for those who don’t know
much about me. Many of my teachings come from the elders in my family, my aunties and
uncles from the previous generation who spent their time living the best they could while
following the sacred teachings.
I went to one of my elders and asked about mindfulness. Would this blend well into our practice
of spirituality? Her answer was simple: mindfulness was a means for some to connect to
medicine. I also asked why it is so difficult for some to describe. In which case, my auntie
responded: Medicine is a personal thing; is it possible that they don’t know how else to describe
their experience? Here I was, trying to live vicariously. That is not the way, and their medicine is
not my medicine. People receive what they need from the Great Mother and our relatives.
Nature provides all we could ever need, and not always in a usual way. Not all medicine is
herbal, and it often exists in places and people with whom we share connections. Some don’t
understand the process by which they are receiving healing. Here I was, asking personal
questions. “What was your intention, young, Handsome? Visit your teachings. How respectful
are you being? Is it coming from a loving place? No, I see this coming from a place of judgment.
What was your intention?”
My aunties have a way with words as harsh as they sound. She comes from a loving place, and
her voice never raises and is calm, yet her eyes seem to cut through whatever guard I present,
seeing beyond—seeing me. No anger, no disappointment either, but curiosity. What will I do with
what she is telling me? What is always authentic is to be faithful to me and the teachings. Seven
simple words help shape the person I am, consider them in my decision-making, and live and
embody them the best I can.
The question I brought to her had me reflect on my approach to mindfulness and how I connect
and receive medicine. This path for me and mine alone. Having a clear intention to take in and
learn from the loving embrace of our great mother. Reminding me to visit my teachings:
● Am I being respectful,
● Am I coming from a loving place,
● Be honest about the experience,
● Be courageous when the path gets too challenging,
● Learn from the experience,
● What I experience is true to me, perhaps only for me.
● Be Humble. This journey might make me a better person but not make me better than
So now I begin my journey into mindfulness, to discover and connect to my medicine. “To be mindful, is it be made aware,” so when I go out to meet the day, I find myself scanning the world for those things that stick out for me. Asking myself what about this event is meaningful? And what medicine lies in this experience? I would have to figure that out on my own. It was interesting that I found myself stopped by a spider web. The caretaker, a glorious female, black and yellow, has an ancient sense of her because of her size. Her web got my attention, the time of day, and the sunlight reflected prisms in the threads. It looked magical. I found myself complimenting her on her work. If I didn’t know better, she smiled back at me, maybe nodding. She continued with her work while the web held me in thrall. This web that provided nourishment, perfectly engineered and anchored, was designed to catch her favourite food. She’s lived a lot of time, no thought of being overly ambitious. Catch what she likes. Otherwise, she’d be creating a new web all the time instead of giving it occasional maintenance. What does this web mean for me? I found myself pausing and asking about how I receive nourishment. These threads were coming together had me reflecting on my relationships and how I connect to the community. How people connect and how they nourish one another. The supports and anchors represent those the community depends on, working together to create a sturdy foundation. A web of people supporting each other. Nothing too ambitious but with potential to grow. A simple web designed to capture the nourishment needed for those spiders occupying and maintaining that web. From that experience, I acknowledged the need and the form medicine has taken for me. This pandemic has many of us feeling alone and isolated—personal connections, dust-covered and on the verge to snap. The spider in me is sheltered and safe while my web goes into disrepair. I find myself needing those connections, reaching out and plucking neighbouring threads to see if other spiders peek out and see who is knocking and maybe wave. Begin my work to repair, take down old broken silks, replace them with new ones. Patch holes, perhaps old friends might greet me, and maybe a few new ones. All of us gather with the same loving intention, our medicine being the same.
There was a point in my life I realized that I was missing something. I didn’t have any reason to complain, I was successful, had good friends, stability but I wasn’t happy. I didn’t like my job, I joined the military when I had no other options. It was either this or never leaving my hometown and working in a factory. I did well in school but it wasn’t enough to get me into school, I didn’t want to be a slave to debt, slaving to pay back a loan for an education I may not use. I didn’t know what I wanted to do. In fact, throughout my career, I still didn’t know what I wanted to do, I didn’t want to wear the uniform forever, but I never knew what I wanted to do. What was my true purpose in this life? What was my calling?
Needless to say, I was already doing it. I was the guy that people could talk to. Didn’t matter about what. I was the guy. I enjoyed it. It replenished me during a long trip at sea. Having my shipmates depend on me in this way.
At that time I didn’t know that it was an option.
Fast forward twenty years. I’m in a job I hate. It’s an atmosphere that didn’t agree with me, it made me sour and petty. What else would I do, that offered a similar lifestyle. I’m sure that is something that a lot of people look for, something, high-paying, benefits where you can invest in the minimal effort? When you think about it- there was nothing else?
I felt myself deep in reflection during night shifts. What’s to come next. I felt a need to start a new chapter, but there was a fear lingering, what other options were there? What could I do, that felt that I could be myself? Shedding this skin of my old life and beginning anew? The fear of failing and coming back to my old life with my tail between my legs, haunted by the idea of peers greeting me with their “I told you so,” - “ you couldn’t make it work” - “ you didn’t last long”.
The fear of failure hit me hard and I was scared. The last three years of my contract were by far the hardest stage. Light at the end of the tunnel, chains are broken and I would feel set free.. and then what? What would I do?
This is what I did:
* I reflected on what passion was for me. What are my dreams and aspirations? What was I good at? To answer that I surrounded myself with my trusted friends and family and asked for their ideas. They might see something I didn’t. In fact, that was when I had my eyes open to what my passion was-
* Is it sustainable? It is one thing to have a dream, talent or passion, it’s another thing to turn it into something I could use to support myself. What exactly would I do and why? Is it something that people would benefit from and would seek me out for?
*How do I achieve this? What do I need to do? Are there classes, schooling I would need to complete? What are the short-term goals I need to achieve my overall goal?
*Do I have enough saved to support myself while in school? Would I need a part-time job? Would I have had the time to devote to both school and my job? Where are my priorities? Would my loved ones support me in my endeavours? Would I be alone in this?
*What are my risks? Is this goal worthwhile? What would it mean for me?
I mentioned I was deep in reflection asking myself these important questions to better understand what I needed and how to gain it. Weigh the foreseeable risks to prepare me for the future. Plan for what I could plan for. Once I understood my own process, my fears went away, and I became more excited. It was no longer something I dreaded, I looked forward to my final days because I had something to look forward to, I found myself putting my ducks in a row, updating a resume that I haven’t touched in twenty years, collecting references, and I sent in an application for a school to become the thing I hoped to become. A counsellor. A person tasked with helping people with their problems and helping them through conflict maybe set their own goals.
It is possible that what worked for me in my own process might not work for all readers, but it is an endeavour that is worthwhile for those looking to take the leap and change their own lives. For the better or worse, those are terms are a matter of perception. It is all so different, change sometimes needs to happen, it is scary because it brings varying degrees of uncertainty. In my journey, this change of lifestyle allowed to the freedom to be myself more openly. That freedom allows me to show up more genuinely for those seeking my assistance, as a counsellor, I don’t think I was ever this happy, taking these steps to begin a new chapter.
Are you on the edge of the empathy abyss?
Being too empathetic can be bad for your mental health!
We all know that empathy is important: Isn’t it one of those things there’s just too little of? But, like many things, too much empathy may be bad for you. Now, there are a lot of different meanings of empathy, ranging from understanding what someone is feeling, to vicariously feeling what another person is going through to awfully complicated philosophical versions where it seems impossible to know if we can ever know what a person really feels. Hard on the brain! Wikipedia, as always, gives a great overview. For the moment, though, I am talking about empathy in the way Dr. Paul Bloom describes it, “the act of coming to experience the world as you think someone else does” or, more simply, “putting yourself in someone else’s shoes.” Dr. Bloom is a Canadian-born Yale psychologist in the midst of some controversy over his recent book, Against Empathy. Controversy or no, he has some valid points.
How can empathy be a bad thing for your mental health? Well, the issue revolves around this point of putting yourself in someone else’s shoes. Let’s take a look at an average day for a moment. Whether it is a co-worker, child, friend, partner or parent, there are a lot of people around us who look to us for support and caring. Then, there is the daily news, people begging on the street, photos of animal abuse on your Facebook feed; everything calls for an emotional response: “Like,” “Love,” “Angry,” “Sad,” our emotions are called upon all the time. And how could you not care? You are a kind and caring person, so you feel, you care. But this is the empathy abyss. In your busy life, how can you care about all these things? But, how can you NOT?
Here is a bit of the problem: Empathy works. This is why ads pull at your heartstrings, and intensely emotional photos draw you in. Studies show that when an appeal is made for your help or kindness, asking you to put yourself in someone else’s shoes, you will. Well, your brain will, and along with it, your emotions. Perhaps you see a homeless person begging at an intersection; you imagine how that feels and are overwhelmed by your inability to help. Or, when you’re at work and a friend texts you about a recent relationship devastation; your heart lurches in sync with the news. Empathy can be an unconscious reaction, or it can be a part of a conscious process where you sit and listen to another person’s story, and understand their pain through connecting with them directly. Either way, one of the problems with this is that empathy is “neurologically literal,” as Bloom calls it. This means that if you put yourself in someone else’s shoes and empathize with their problem, your brain “lights up” as if that experience happened to you. Engaging with friends and family in this constant state of “hyperarousal” is exhausting for you, and has a negative effect on your mental health, leaving you with all the stress and emotion of those you empathize with.
Another thing about empathy is that it can make you biased, and push you to focus too much on the short term things close to your heart, perhaps missing the bigger picture. By this, I mean that you may tend to take the side of someone close to you, without really being able to have an objective take on the situation. Sure, it feels great to support your friends, but is the most helpful thing to do to simply agree with a person, regardless of right or wrong? We seem to be living in a polarized world, where sides are chosen very quickly. Empathizing deeply for one cause, or creating a “spotlight” focus on it, may mean that another important cause is ignored, or pushed to the side. It is hard to have a balanced outlook when you are really focusing on someone’s specific pain. Yet, sometimes, the bigger picture is important, for them, for you, and for the situation at hand.
Let’s look at empathy from the other side, as well. What happens when a friend tells you terrible news, and you empathize with them deeply? You say, “oh no!” and “OH THAT’S AWFUL!” and, “I can’t believe it!” You empathize. You feel their pain and react as if it is your own, because, you DO care, and it IS awful. Now, there is the possibility that this reaction makes your friend feel better: It can be good to know you’re not alone in your feelings. But… what if you make your friend feel worse? What if your, “oh no!” stokes their feeling of just how awful the situation is? And, your friend gets ever more distressed and upset… and of course, so do you, as you empathize with your friend’s pain? As you can see, empathy can sometimes inflate the feelings of distress a person has, because they think, oh no, YOU think it is really awful, too! Empathy isn’t helping those in your life you want to support, and it can mentally exhaust you.
I am not suggesting you abandon empathy entirely; that isn’t the road to being a better friend, or to having good mental health. However, there are a few steps you can take to curb the visceral empathy reaction and help keep yourself on an even emotional keel.
1) Step back from the abyss! Empathy is a finite resource, use it wisely! When you find yourself involved in a story that triggers an emotional response, take the time to ask yourself if you can just listen with kindness and caring, not via engaging with the emotion of the situation.
2) On that note, in order to minimize the emotional content, engage with the story with quiet, “mm-hhhmmms?” or a “go on” or two, instead of the more energizing “oh no!” or “I can’t believe it!”
3) Be aware that if you’re in a hyper-aroused empathetic state, your decisions are likely to be biased and you might not even notice. If you are emotionally engaged, try to take some time and space before you give advice, whether to a friend or for yourself.
4) Wait to hear more. Before you react the way the incident would make you feel, remember different people have different experiences. You may feel an incident as a “10” on the emotion scale and if you react that way, your friend who found it just slightly distressing might rethink it, to negative results!
Ultimately, the goal is: Listen with the objective to understand the person, but without “feeling what they feel.” Limit the possibility of empathetic distress by thinking more about compassion – loving kindness – than empathy. Dr. Bloom tells us that empathy is like “sugary soda, tempting and delicious, but bad for us.” You don’t have to engage deeply in the emotions of the other to be a good partner, a good friend, or to be kind and in fact, not doing so often helps a person make better choices and decisions. Engage with compassion and kindness to support those around you, and you will also take care of your own mental well-being!
Have a look at Dr. Bloom’s thoughts on empathy here: http://bigthink.com/videos/paul-bloom-explains-why-empathy-is-bad
Or, buy his book! Bloom, P. (2016). Against empathy: The case against rational compassion (1st ed.). New York, NY: Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.
There are a number of definitions of counselling that can be found worldwide. The British Association of Counselling and Psychotherapy (BACP) are thought to be the first to write a definition and these have been followed by other governing bodies since. If you would like a more detailed definition please take a look at the links to Canadian Counselling and Psychotherapy Association (CCPA) and British Columbia Association of Clinical Counsellors (BCACC) that are shown on our contact page.
The terms Counsellor and Therapist are often used to describe someone in the same role. There are a number of different routes into this work so for the purposes of this blog I will use them interchangeably.
So…. what is the counselling process?
I would like to start by saying there are no miracle cures. Your counsellor isn’t there to fix you or change individuals but they can help you to readjust thought pattern, feelings and behaviours. By working with a therapist, or counsellor someone can achieve a sense of peace with their daily experience, become comfortable with themselves, their inner workings and reactions to things outside of themselves, which may include the behaviours of others.
Counselling is a form of ‘talk therapy’ and is a process where individuals meet with a trained professional counsellor to talk about something that is happening in their lives. Professional counselling is confidential and non-judgmental. When a counselling relationship works well it can provide people with the opportunity to share their views, be heard and gain new perspectives on their situation and experiences. Counselling can also help people to gain clarity surrounding issues. Together with their counsellor people identify and work towards achieving the desired outcomes and goals for counselling. Counselling is NOT a space to be given advice or to be told how to live your life.
If you have considered counselling but have been put off by what you have heard, the following may help. Men and male identified people decide to go and meet with a counsellor for a variety of reasons. Some because of a traumatic event that has happened recently, or in the past which has left them feeling differently about their life. Others decide that their life isn’t quite what they want it to be and feel that there is something missing. Reasons can vary from addictive patterns of behaviour, problems within a relationship, loss of a loved one, recent or past, a change in life events such as divorce, or separation, coming to terms with sexual identity, sexual orientation, or understanding of gender. More recently, many have been accessing counselling to understand their thoughts and feelings during the pandemic. There are some who simply want to check in with another person to process everyday life and relationships in a safe, non judgmental space. So as you can see, counselling can be a multi faceted experience that many people find benefits and changes their life experience.
There are many messages out there about what counselling is, some of which are not my own personal experience. I hear clients saying that before they started working with me that they had a very different understanding of what the experience was going to be like. Sometimes this can be due to a previous counselling experience that didn’t work out that well. Others have learned from TV and film where counsellors are depicted a certain way, or heard friends, family and colleagues tell them about their negative experiences. All this can be really off putting when we consider how difficult it is to show up to therapy in the first place to ask for help!
So here is a little bit of information which may help...
Before starting the counselling relationship it is worth speaking with the counsellor for an introductory session where you can decide whether they would be a good fit for you. Many people see a counsellor just one time and because the experience wasn’t good they never go back. There are a number of reasons why this may be the case. The first session can feel a little strange as it may bring up feelings that have been suppressed for a long time. The process can also take a while to adjust to as unlike other relationships the focus is on the client and this can often feel one sided and strange. As the focus is on the client this can often feel like pressure, especially for someone who isn’t used to sharing their feelings with another person. Your therapist can help you navigate your way through this experience and it is ok to ask that they explain things, or slow down when things feel confusing. It is also common that like any relationship, your relationship with your therapist takes some time to become familiar. I have been told on many occasions that someone feels that they worked with a bad counsellor. Whilst I am sure there are some who are not meant for the role, it is also likely that there is something that just doesn’t work in the relationship between you and the counsellor. Counsellors are taught as part of our training (along with ethical guidelines from our governing bodies) to see the signs that we may not be the right fit for a client and will often suggest a referral. If this doesn’t happen however and the relationship doesn’t feel like a good fit, listen to what your instincts are telling you as it may be that working with someone else could be a better option.
At MxN we work in a client lead, trauma informed way to provide what each person hopes to gain from their therapeutic journey. We see each person’s life as a whole piece of the puzzle and any behavioral responses as a reaction to something that isn’t working for that person. By working with one of our counsellors it is possible to take a look at your life and work out how to change what is happening for you.
We have both qualified, experienced counsellors and practicum students working with us and so there is a lot of knowledge that we work with to help you on your therapeutic journey.
We look forward to hearing from you and working with you on your journey.
The pandemic has given many of us time to reflect on what is important in our life. It has also thrown up lots of questions, many of which cannot be answered. During the past year and a half human connection kept running through my thoughts and here is where those thoughts lead me.
Most of us are aware that humans are social animals and to me this can mean more than just being around other human beings. These connections come in a variety of different ways and mean something different to each one of us. Some might get these met at home or work, others may be part of activity groups and others do not have many, if any connections at all. However these connections take place for a person they also have different levels of emotional, psychological and spiritual depth. More thought is needed when someone is looking for a more in depth connection with others. Deep connections with others often require vulnerability by showing ourselves to those we are close to. It requires giving and receiving feedback, setting clear boundaries and communicating clearly about what it is we do and don’t want. In my opinion these are a necessary part of relationship building, and also an important aspect of getting to know ourselves better. For men this can be particularly difficult as many of us grow up with a message that we have to be the provider for those around us and are told that showing emotions is a sign of weakness. This often leads to psychological problems, which some may mask with substance use and/ or unhealthy behaviours such as over working, obsessing, over or under indulging in food, gambling, phone/ social media use etc. These are what are classified as addictions, which in turn has its own stigma attached to it and can lead to shame and a disconnect with those we love. If they are not recognised and given some space this can often lead to more serious mental health issues and can become a part of someone's daily lived experience.
I discovered a while ago when seeing a psychotherapist that I had been holding onto many unhelpful ideas of what it is to be a man. Through working with men I discovered that many others also find it difficult trying to make sense of what we are told society expects men to be. The messages we are given around experiencing emotion can be confusing and also shaming. These lesson are usually learnt in childhood and stick with us into adulthood, becoming the version of ourselves that we think we are. Messages like “what a brave boy you are for not crying!” or “big boys don’t cry” become embedded into our reality of how we “should” behave. Many boys are encouraged to fight any feelings they experience and by taking on these messages they lead to shame around feeling them. I’m now able to show this vulnerability in my personal life and workplace. It feels great to do so. Scary, but great. I’m not suggesting everyone does the same of course. as many people are not living or working in places where it is safe to do so. But it’s my belief that finding somewhere/ someone where this can happen is necessary for becoming our true version of self.
Throughout my work I have noticed that many men have a tendency to self isolate and try to manage things on their own, which I can as my own personal experience. I have noticed some themes through these conversations and the reasons why this behavior is happening. Self isolating can sometimes be an indicator that there are emotions that the person is trying to avoid. It can also mean someone is missing the connection of others but the thought of being around others can feel overwhelming. This can often be due to a poor choice in the people we are surrounding ourselves with, or a lack of boundaries when around those who are close to us. Feeling stuck in this can be really frustrating and lonely. Developing healthy boundaries is something that can be worked on in a therapeutic relationship and can have significant affect on the way someone’s life can be. Again, young boys often learn really unhelpful messages about what it is to be a man and in turn develop unhealthy boundaries around asking for what they do and don’t want in their life. Speaking out and saying what is and isn’t ok can often be misinterpreted as being aggressive and can often lead to men not speaking out in fear of being labelled as an aggressor. In turn this leads to self isolation and not speaking one’s truth. Again we are back to the unhealthy behaviors and/ or mental health issues that I spoke of previously.
I have often heard the term “toxic masculinity” being used when talking about men showing anger and aggression. Many men find this message really confusing and shaming and often bring these feelings to the counseling room. Toxic masculinity is not a term that I use, or find helpful as it feels a little judgmental about what are just emotions and behavioural responses. My personal belief is that aggression is an unsurprising behavioural response to feeling angry. It can often be the go to response for men as it was subtly encouraged in childhood. Feelings like sadness, fear and frustration can often be criticised by those around a male child and so any vulnerability that he is feeling turns to anger and aggression. There are of course many other ways to use aggression that are healthy and don’t affect the person and those around him. When it is processed and understood anger can be an extremely useful guide for learning about what we do and don’t want in our lives. Uncontrolled anger can be extremely damaging both for the person who is experiencing it and also to those around them.
There are many options for achieving personal development and a sense of self actualization. Some options available are:
I encourage anyone to find the courage to seek out therapy and personal development as a way to process their feelings and relationships with others. In my opinion it’s a challenging journey... but one worth the trip.