Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Mom Tools: Tapping Into Your Mom Strengths

 In the field of social work we choose to adopt what is called a strengths based perspective when working with clients. This means our treatment focus is on the individuals strengths in helping them solve problems. This is a radical change from other psychological discipline approaches in focusing on symptoms and dysfunction. If we choose to focus on weaknesses and problems that becomes our sense of reality and our worldview. This may lead to thoughts such as "Things will never get easier," or "I'm a failure," or "What is wrong with me that I can't be better at this?" Then those thoughts lead to a sense of being defeated, lower motivation, and lower personal satisfaction.

Being aware of our strengths can help us in many ways. Strengths can be something we reflect on after we've made mistakes or start to feel insecure about our weaknesses in order to boost our self-confidence and self-esteem. Awareness of strengths can help us reframe our perspective of a problem or of a negative judgement to help us see the positive. We can also utilize our strengths as tools to creatively resolve challenges. When we start viewing ourselves with a strengths based perspective we can start viewing our children in that way raising them with a healthy self-esteem and helping them maximize their own personal strengths.

Here's an example. I once worked with a young girl who had a lower than average IQ and had autism spectrum traits. She had no friends at school and had difficulites initiating conversations with others. When working with her in therapy I struggled to help her practice social skills we were reviewing because she often changed the subject or went on off-topic tangents in conversation that all led back to the television show, My Little Pony. She could literally recite an entire episode to me and enjoyed acting them out for me, even switching voices for the different characters. Initially it was a power struggle for me to limit her time "acting" for me in session because I considered it off task but I began to realize what a strength this was for her. I started to utilize this as a springboard for our sessions. I let her act at length in sessions and asked her how the characters felt and related and helped her reflect on the social skills that ponies demonstrated in the episode. Slowly I helped her switch from acting as a My Little Pony character to her own self and she began to master conversational skills and conflict management skills. I watched her develop more and more insight into the feelings and experiences of others. She made a lot of progress in the year and a half we worked together because she had an amazing imagination and acting ability that she was able to finally utilize to overcome some of her shyness and social skill deficits.

So how do you start being aware of your strengths to overcome your challenges as a mother? You need to become more aware of how truly awesome you are.

1) Start with what you enjoy and what gives you energy. 
    We usually are good at the things we enjoy doing. What are the things you like doing as a mom? Do you relish in the daily routines you engage in with your child? Do you love engaging them in new activities and exposing them to new concepts? Maybe you take joy in providing a cozy and organized home. Perhaps you really enjoy play with your child and love engaging in imaginative play or creating things with your child. There are no wrong answers here. What you see as a strength lies in your own perspective. Write down 2-3 of your favorite tasks or activities that you enjoy as a mom.

2) Think of the times you feel at your best that reflect your strengths.
         Reflect on when you feel at your best as a mom--what are you doing at that time? Watching them master a new skill? Nurturing them when they need you? Making their favorite meal? Consoling them after a meltdown? Write down 2-3 of the moments or times when you feel at your best as a mom and see how that reflects your own personal strengths.
      Try to remember that even tasks that seem small and mindless in our mind have a big impact on our kids. Let's take an example. I have a difficult time keeping up a lot of energy when I play with my toddler and staying engaged. But I am very animated when I read to him and do lots of funny voices. This may seem to me sometimes as not a big deal but not only am I instilling a love of reading in my child I am bringing that book to life to him, helping him increase his imagination, and his delight and giggles in my performances are something he looks forward to before bedtime. That is a big deal and I don't need to minimize it.

3) Look for past examples of success or overcoming challenges.
Another way of seeing strengths is looking at past successes. What have been some great "mom wins" for you? Surviving a 16 hour flight with a 22-month old was something I never thought I could do and I'm happy to say I did it without losing my temper or my son having a serious tantrum. How about ways you have overcome difficult challenges during motherhood? Maybe you experienced postpartum depression and sought out help-that is being resourceful. Maybe you found a way to laugh about it-that's utilizing a sense of humor. Maybe you researched different methods of handling the problem and tried different approaches-that's using knowledge as a strength. These past successes and challenges are building blocks of your identity as a mom and can continue to be referenced for future problems. Write down 2-3 past of your biggest motherhood successes and think about your impact on that success.

4) Think about the strengths of your resources and environment.
      Part of what we also assess as social workers is the person's environmental strengths. These include the support systems and quality of our relationships, environmental situation (living environment, financial situation) and resources that are available or the person utilizes. This can give a person new ideas when thinking of how to utilize their environmental strengths to address needs or problems. How is your support system? Who can you turn to for help? Who or what are you biggest assets that support you in being the best mom you can? Do you utilize community or internet resources for information or support? Write down 2-3 environmental strengths.

Did you find at any time that you were leaning into thinking about the potential negatives of your strengths? I did. I thought, "I know I keep him social but maybe I never give him enough security at home? Maybe I don't keep his schedule predictable enough?" That's when its time to STOP that thought in its track and discard. Go back to strengths based focus.

So now that you have a list of 8 strengths keep it around as reference. When you're having a difficult day look at them and challenge yourself to think creatively of ways to address these problems. Or when you've had a day where you felt like a "bad mom" go back to this list before bed and remember all of your redeeming qualities that help you realize that you aren't one. Your strengths are your own unique set of tools that can help you fix problems, enhance your confidence, and be the best mom you can be. Be proud Mamas.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Not A Manicure, A Mindset: 5 Truths for Moms about Self-Care

As a therapist I have a bit of a love/hate relationship with the term "self-care." The term has become so synonymous with indulging oneself and particularly for women in very stereotypical feminine rituals such as a facial, bubble bath, or manicures. It has become a term that means "special" me time and become synonymous with indulgence, pampering, luxury.

However, in my opinion there should be nothing "special" about it in terms of it being out of the ordinary. Self-care is a necessity, not a luxury.  Brushing your teeth, eating, doing daily hygiene...these are all self-care rituals that we make the time for out of necessity. However we fail to stick to daily rituals like this that care for our emotional selves. What is emotional self-care? It is simply the act of engaging in some reflection or activity that positively impacts your mood, improves your thinking patterns, and enhances your ability to manage stressors. Think of a suit of armor that a person wears to protect themselves from attack. In a way emotional self-care practices are like armor that protects us from outside stressors, negativity, and distressing thoughts that invade our minds. We need to keep engaging in routinely in order to increase our armor's strength.

Why do so many moms seem to struggle with self-care? We can blame it on lack of time, juggling too many responsibilities, and having too many people rely on us. But its pretty simple what the biggest barrier to self-care is: our thinking. If we acknowledge its importance we simply find a way to make it a priority. So here are 5 truths  and thinking patterns you can adopt in order to commit to taking care of yourself. Pick one or two that mean something to you and use them as daily reminders to care for yourself in any way you choose.

1) Your perceptions on self-care have been impacted by your own personal experiences and may need to change. Take time to reflect on how you really perceive self-care. You may nod your head and quickly acknowledge that mothers need to take care of themselves but if you find you are never taking time for yourself then you probably have some thoughts or beliefs that are holding you back. What messages did you receive growing up or as you became a mom about self-care? Did your mom do things for herself? Do you believe that engaging in self-care impacts your abilities as a mother and in what ways (positive or negative)? Do you have others in your life that have healthy beliefs about self-care? Answering these questions may give you some insight into why routine self-care may be difficult and put you on a path to correcting your thinking.

2) You deserve time for yourself.  This isn't because your a mom and work hard to take care of others, this is simply because you are a human being. Moms are great at guilt and most of it is unwarranted. But we tend to use guilt to hide behind our discomfort with taking care of ourselves. As with most skills in life the more you do something the better you become at it. If you have a difficult time engaging in self-care try spending a lot more time than you ever would doing things for yourself. Be what you may deem as "selfish" for a period of time and see how it actually impacts your environment. You may find that your world doesn't come crashing down when you take time for yourself. As you become more comfortable with it you can start to alter your thinking about it and find the balance that is best for you.

3) Modeling self-care for your children helps them learn important concepts about relationships. Always being present for your children at their every desire makes it difficult for them to see you as a separate individual with needs and wants. Your relationship with your child is the first relationship they have had and one of the most central to their lives. Although the parent-child relationship will be different from others in their life you must remember that this is the model they will be building upon their perceptions of what constitutes a healthy relationship. By modeling to your children that you have needs and need time away you are teaching them the ability to see other people's needs and recognize them. When you tell your child that you are frustrated or tired and ask politely for some space you are teaching them empathy and also the importance of having time for ourselves and independence from others.

4) True self-care is intentional and mindful. We engage in self-care for a purpose. Just as when we brush our teeth we are trying to prevent cavities and achieve good oral health self-care our self-care methods have a purpose of providing an enhancement in mood, positive thinking, and decrease in stress and irritability. This means we must be careful in how we select our self-care practices to ensure that they achieve these purposes. This is where I tend to struggle most. Television and being on the internet is usually my daily go to as soon as I get time for myself but it often does not alleviate my irritability. That isn't to say that I don't think these methods can work for some people but I find that they don't achieve my self-care goals. A long walk alone with my thoughts, taking time by myself in nature, listening to an inspirational podcast, journaling, and reading are self-care practices I have found to have a more profound impact on achieving balance and maintaining positive thinking. So choose whatever method you desire but make sure it has an actual impact on your emotional health. Self-care must also be mindful in that you are fully aware of the present moment. Challenge yourself to let go of any thoughts or concerns about your children that arise while you are engaging in self-care. Simply acknowledge the thought and allow it to drift away. Be fully aware of the moment and do not try to multitask while you are engaged in self-care.

5) Self-care is a prevention tool. I think what often happens with our failure to consistently engage in self-care is that we engage in a self-care practice and it may have a positive effect for a few days making us believe that we do not need it daily. Soon after, however, we start to wear down our resolve and become frustrated and irritable. This signals that it is a time for self-care practice but can often come after we have been yelling at our kids, been snippy with our partners, and engaged in lots of negative thinking patterns. It is important to remember that self-care must be daily in order to prevent irritability and negativity. So when you are planning your day ensure that you are making time for a self-care practice whether or not you feel happy and capable because you are preventing the creeping in of negative thoughts that can exacerbate distressing emotions.

So I'm sorry this wasn't a list of trendy ways to take care of yourself and photos of a woman in a tub on the beach. I don't think self-care needs to be trendy, have a high price tag, or involve an exotic location. What's most important is the thinking that motivates your action to take care of yourself in any way you choose. So remember to take care mamas and keep your armor strong.

What gets in the way of you taking care of yourself? What self-care methods have you found that leave you feeling stronger emotionally?

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Mama-You Got Something Done Today

Last night I had a splitting headache and wanted to head to bed early. As I sat down on my bed a load of clean folded clothes looked at me with disdain. "I barely got anything done today. I'll never keep up with the cleaning." These thoughts were automatic and took no effort on my behalf but their effect was strong and quickly sent me into self-loathing and disappointment.

I thought to myself, "I'm just going to put 5 pieces of clothing away." I started and got through about 75% of the pile. When I reached having to hang my partner's work shirts I stopped and decided I had accomplished something. I laid in bed with those defeating thoughts gone and a sense that I conquered something.

It can be very easy to feel defeated as a mom when it comes to getting things done.  Accomplishment is hard to see day to day when tantrums erupt that throw off your morning plans, potty training seems to be going nowhere, clean spaces are messy again within a mind-boggling short period from when you cleaned them. I got myself into the habit of going to bed at night telling myself "I got nothing done today."

But our expectations are our eyeglasses-the way we see the things we do everyday. A sense of accomplishment comes not from the content of what we achieve but rather from the lens in which we view it. A load of laundry can be your Mt. Everest if you choose to see it that way.

Our productivity feels as if it changes drastically after children. We always seem to be complaining about how children get in the way of us getting things done. It feels that way. And maybe its just me but I feel as if a lot of us moms only see our accomplishments for the day as something that can only be physically seen-paid bills, folded laundry, clean dishes. If you really could see all that we do in a day we may be suprised to see that we do so much more than we ever did before! Tickles and snuggles, changed diapers, cut up carrots, popsicle stick crafts, songs, imaginative play, the "I love you"s and "good job"s and "wow that dinosaur is really big!" ...why do these tasks not feed our sense of accomplishment as much as household chores? These are the really important tasks but they are never on our to do list so somehow we don't categorize them in our accomplishments at the end of the day.

So how do we go to bed feeling accomplished? First by remembering all those tasks above mentioned, the important ones that help our child go to bed feeling loved. Second by remembering that our sense of accomplishment comes from our perspective and sometimes expecting less can actually help us feel capable of producing more.

Most days I start my morning by writing down 5-7 tasks. But within this list I include 2 tasks from two very important categories for me: identity and self-care. An identity task is anything I can do related to my identity outside of motherhood. It could be catching up with an old friend through text, working on a hobby, or doing something related to my career since I'm not currently working. It may be as simple as reading an article or researching continuing education classes but it keeps me in the know. I find following a blog or liking pages on Facebook related to my career are simple ways that I can still feel connected to my work. Self-care is the other important task on my to-do list. This is so important to put on my list because it is easy to not get to and it is so essential to my abilities as a mom. I try to engage in a mindful self-care task each day, something that actually refreshes my energy and lifts my mood. I'll have a post on mindful self-care activities next week.

Our expectations may change each day and that's okay. I personally like to take my own mental health temperature in the morning. On a scale of 1-10 how positive and capable do I feel today? On days where I would rate myself in a higher mood (7 or above) I may have a to-do list of about 7-10 items. On days were I'm okay (4-7) I may only have 5 items. On a really bad day (3 or below) where I "just can't even" that list may be only 1-2 items. I also try to make sure the number of items on my list increases or decreases depending on the projected time each task will take.

The object here for me is to not necessarily to do more. Its about feeling good at the end of the day about what I've done so I go into the next day feeling capable and confident. When you start to change your thinking and your perspective your mood and attitude shifts. A byproduct of a more positive mood? Productivity.

So try altering your expectations this week and remember to take your mood into account. And before you shut your eyes at night ask yourself what the really important tasks were and hold on tight to the memories of them because one day those are the ones we will really miss.

Thursday, March 3, 2016

Your Feelings Matter Too

I've started about 6 blog posts this week and had difficulties finishing any of them. To be honest I've been having a down and lonely week and its been difficult for me to be inspired or feeling like writing something inspirational and encouraging. Everyday I am increasingly aware of my irritability and anxiety but for some reason I've been afraid to stop and really reflect on my feelings.

So I started thinking of the importance of the first step of any healing process when you struggle emotionally: naming your feelings. We often read many articles and blog posts about how moms are feeling and some of them are simply sharing their experiences and others are writing helpful tips on how to cope. However I'm not sure if there is a lot out there to actually help moms generate insight into what they feel or why. How did you come to the awareness of what exactly you are struggling with especially when it seems as if everyday life in general is a struggle? It seems like a simple process to say how you feel but it can be more complex and filled with more questions than answers.

Repressing feelings can seem like the best solution especially when you are a mom. We may fear that slowing down to fall apart or really confront what is bothering us will somehow lead to our world crashing down. We may think "I'm busy running a household, taking care of my child, trying to stay above water at work, etc. I don't have time to think about my feelings." Another reason we may repress feelings is our avoidance of what we would then have to do to address them. Once we confront a problem or a struggle we then can not run away from the fact that we may have to take action to resolve it. This can be confronting our partners, asking for help, or changing our own habits.

Our emotional struggles can come with many layers. Usually once we start asking ourselves some questions it takes some digging to get to the bottom. I often tell my clients that there are "cover-up" feelings that mask the feelings we have inside. Anger often covers up hurt and disappointment. Anxiety can cover up insecurities. Even positive emotions can be a mask to hide sadness.

I remember a young boy I had as a client. On the surface it didn't appear he needed counseling. He was successful in school, kind to his classmates, and enjoyed making everyone laugh. He was one of the funniest and wittiest kids I have had the pleasure of knowing. Underneath it all was a lot of pain from family problems and from that an intense fear of making anyone upset and avoidance of interpersonal conflicts. I discussed this with him often and he would change the subject and begin to make jokes or slowly walk backwards out of the office jokingly. At first I would laugh but then provide it as an example of him repressing his feelings. However as our relationship progressed I began to address this more firmly and he began to use humor even more or would begin to withdraw. Eventually we discussed with his mother whether he would continue counseling and transfer to a new therapist as I would be leaving the agency and we all agreed that he had reached a plateau in therapy and he simply wasn't ready to confront his anxiety surrounding conflict. I sometimes wonder if I will see him on stage someday doing stand up and although I will be happy for him I wonder if he will still be keeping the pain all inside.

Naming your feelings is usually the first step to seeing solutions. This morning I confronted myself about my feelings of irritability and anxiety. Underneath these feelings for me is loneliness while I am adjusting here. Why do I feel so lonely? Because I don't know many people here. Why am I not confronting the problem? I feel insecure. I had found a core group of mom friends back home that support me, that I feel secure around and don't second guess my own decisions. These are women that I know I can share my darkest feelings around motherhood with and there will not be judgement. I'm afraid I won't find that here. I'm afraid I will be judged. I thought about this and took a deep breath. I went to my meetup page and messaged a mom who lives nearby asking if she wants to meetup next week. I asked the entire group if anyone wants to get a few drinks next week. These are small steps but I felt a little lighter after having done so.

So when you are having an emotional struggle take some time for yourself at the end of the day to answer some questions whether in your mind or your journal:

-What are all the feelings I am experiencing that are distressing me? Name as many of the feelings as you can. Which feeling is causing you the most distress?

-If you are feeling creative you can draw you feeling or compare your feeling to visual imagery. (i.e. "My anxiety is like being on the edge of a cliff, constantly afraid that I will fall.")

-What are some of the recurring or distressing thoughts that keep making these emotions surface?
How am I reacting to these thoughts? Am I obsessing over them, trying to push them away, or finding ways to disprove them?

-Am I trying to avoid potential solutions? What am I afraid of if I try to resolve this?

-How can addressing this help be feel better? Help me be a better mother and/or partner?

The answers to all these questions may not help you come with the perfect solution but they will help you peel back the layers and get closer to healing. And if its hard to start the process remember that if you want to teach your child that their feelings matter you have to start with believing that yours matter too. Let it out Mamas.

Do you feel you hold your feelings inside? What holds you back from thinking about them? What ways do you try to express them in a healthy way?