Author Archives: Merrett Sheridan

The Birth of Happiness Parties™

I have a standing girls night every Friday.  Sometimes just two of us show up and other times it could be eight or ten.  One Friday last summer I must have been particularly enthusiastic about all the stuff on happiness that I have been studying because one of my friends, Elizabeth, asked me if she hosted a dinner party for the girls would I come and teach them what I have been learning.  I immediately said yes because as much as I love learning about happiness, I love sharing what I’m learning even more.  That’s why I went into the profession I did, to disseminate information that helps people live happier, more fulfilling lives.  So, we decided on a date and time and the makings of the first Happiness Party™ was underway.  Of course, at the time I didn’t know this would be something I would develop further and add to my therapeutic services but once I started conceptualizing how and what I would share with my friends I realized this really had potential for helping others in a casual and fun way, which is my mission for Share It With Merrett.

That first party was a great success and since then, I’ve facilitated Happiness Parties™ for family, friends and colleagues in order to work out the kinks and really develop a party plan that is fun, interesting, meaningful and most important, useful.  I walk participants through a variety of exercises to help them realize where happiness is already abundant in their lives, how to cultivate it further, and practices for sustaining it after the party is over.  Utilizing concepts from positive and solution-focused psychology, I’ve put together some really great activities and truly enjoy sharing them.  Research is clear in what contributes to happiness and I integrate as much as I can into the activities but there is much more than can be covered in one evening so I’m already working on ideas for the next round of parties!

To book a Happiness Party™ or learn more about them just click here and visit the page dedicated to them on this website.

To your Happiness!

The Poison of Perfectionism

I wrote this article for my role as On-Site Director for Adolescent Counseling Services as an aid to parents of students with perfectionistic beliefs but it has helpful information for anyone struggling with perfectioinism.

“I’ve failed over and over again in my life, and that is why I succeed” – Michael Jordan

“Only those who dare to fail greatly can ever achieve greatly” – Robert F. Kennedy

At Adolescent Counseling Services at PALY, the most common issue we saw students for last year was academic stress.  At the root of this is often a belief around being perfect fueled by extremely negative judgments about making mistakes and failure.  The cost of perfectionism and the resulting stress is extremely high, both emotionally and physically.  At a perfectionists core is a belief that mistakes are unacceptable and that their self-worth is dependent upon not making any, EVER.  The challenge here being that everyone makes mistakes so the perfectionist is inevitably doomed having set for themselves an unreachable goal and hanging their well-being in the balance of reaching it.  This leads to high levels of stress and I often point out to these students that perfectionism and mental health are mutually exclusive, you simply cannot have both.  Mistakes are nothing to fear and there’s no way around them, and if you react rather than learn from them they will have served no purpose other than to further eat away at your self-worth.

Perfectionism can also lead to loneliness.  Most perfectionists I have worked with will easily offer others compassion and wiggle room for mistakes and imperfections and quickly come to the aid of others, but insist on leaving themselves stranded believing that even asking for help is a sign of weakness and imperfection.  This perfect way of being I explain often keeps people away from them out of feeling intimidated and unworthy themselves because they don’t compare with you.  And that conversely when a person shows imperfection and vulnerability it actually pulls others closer in because they feel you are more human and relatable.

The reason I titled this article the “Poison” of Perfectionism is because of the release of a stress hormone called Cortisol whenever a person is experiencing distress.  So let’s talk a little about stress and the negative consequences of high doses of the stress hormone Cortisol that is released when one is under distress.  Here is an excerpt from an article in Psychology Today underlying the effect of cortisol on mental health:

“Chronic stress and elevated cortisol levels also increase risk for depression, mental illness, and lower life expectancy. This week, two separate studies were published in Science linking elevated cortisol levels as a potential trigger for mental illness and decreased resilience—especially in adolescence.”  Published on January 22, 2013 by Christopher Bergland in The Athlete’s Way

http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-athletes-way/201301/cortisol-why-the-stress-hormone-is-public-enemy-no-1

From this perspective it’s easy to see that there is a connection between stress and mental health that in all likelihood cycles one further and further down the rabbit hole of depression and anxiety.  First, the perfectionist has deeply held beliefs about their image which is not sustainable and causes high distress for them, leading to problems with mental and emotional functioning that is also not acceptable to them.  Truly a viscous cycle.  And, it’s not just mental health that is susceptible to the toxic effects of cortisol, here is another article discussing the physical effects:

“Some of the largest costs associated with perfectionism may be in terms of poor health. A longitudinal study following a sample of Canadians over 6.5 years showed that trait perfectionism predicted earlier mortality”  The Price of Perfectionism by Gordon Flett

http://www.psychologicalscience.org/index.php/publications/observer/2012/march-12/the-price-of-perfectionism.html

So what can be done for the perfectionist student?  How can parents and others help them to flourish and achieve excellence without falling into the emotional choke hold of perfectionism?  First of all is to give perspective.  Help your child to understand what the ultimate goals in life are and that the journey, while challenging at times is what makes up his or her life.   That if you only focus on what you “get” at the end, there will inevitably a “next” achievement and therefore one never experiences anything but a temporary sense of satisfaction, losing sight of the rich experiences to be gained along the way, and exhausting oneself on the hamster wheel of perfectionism.  Ask yourself what messages you are sending your kids.  Are you somehow adding to the pressure?  Check in with them and ask.  One way to look at is to strive for excellence rather than perfection.  As parents you want your children to be successful, but what does that mean?  Defining happiness is an important life skill that isn’t taught in school but may be the most important question of all.  We all have the right to pursue it but many never sit down and really explore what it truly means to be happy.  I invite you now to do that with your children especially if they are struggling with perfectionism.  Just getting a healthy message from a parent can go a long way in relieving distress.

For parents of seniors specifically, as college acceptance and rejection letters roll in, help your child understand that where one door closes another opens and that to let this perceived failure result in excessive amounts of stress, and therefore Cortisol, is like salt in a wound.  It’s fine, and advised, to allow them to feel sad and disappointed but then move on, re-group and review the end goal and design a new, informed map.  There are always options and new beginnings.  As a first-time college dropout myself I can speak personally to the idea that striving for perfection is not the only path, that through perceived failures one can re-define, re-route and most importantly learn from experience and gather wisdom along the way.  Somehow, I achieved many of my goals while making plenty of mistakes and missteps but I do my best to pay attention and integrate the life lessons that are ripe for the pickin’ along the way.

Finally, here is a wonderful video on the subject by Harvard Professor Tal Ben Shahar, I invite you to take a look and watch it with any perfectionists in your family in hopes that helps to decrease stress and cortisol levels that are blocking the path to more happiness and emotional well-being for you or a loved one.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZgFfhJBQplk 

(Tal Ben Shahar video)  “Learn to fail or fail to learn.”

 

Emotions As Messengers – A Fresh Perspective

Out of control emotions and unhealthy reactions to them are often at the core of a person’s suffering.  Commonly, people don’t feel they have any control over what they feel or how they react to such feelings.  That is why it can be very helpful to recognize emotions for what they truly are: Messengers.  What I mean by this is that when you are having a feeling, and particularly a strong one (of any kind) it is simply trying to TELL you something about your environment.  For example, when a friend or loved-one gives you a gift, you will likely experience a good feeling or emotional response that is telling you this is a SAFE thing.  Likewise, a difficult co-worker may take credit for something you did and you will feel an uncomfortable wave of emotions telling you that this is an UNSAFE thing. Emotions don’t exist without some kind of trigger or circumstance to cause them to arise and do their job of informing you as to what is happening.  This is also called your gut instinct, that first feeling you experience about something is your psyche’s way of alerting you to your environment.

Additionally, emotions are often categorized as “good” or “bad” which is somewhat descriptive of the sensations that one experiences and gives tangibility to the emotion but if we are going to use a simple binary language for emotions then if you really drive down what the “messages” are trying to convey to you it is that something is either safe or unsafe.  This also helps reduce stigmatizing language of good and bad and puts a more evolutionary perspective on emotions as they have played such a significant role in our survival as a species.  Ultimately, fear, or lack of it, is the driving force beneath all emotions and our survival depends on the ability to distinguish what is safe from what is not. This is known as the flight, fight or freeze response and historically if you didn’t REACT to the immediate unsafe stimuli then bye bye.  However, in today’s world, sans wildebeests, those reactions to stimuli are the precise catalyst for so much emotional suffering.  Once it is determined that there is no immediate risk to life then one is left with the visceral experience of whatever emotion is at play and the sensation of fight/flight/freeze.  Jealousy, for example, is a message that something is unsafe but not in the immediate and to react immediately will likely cause further suffering down the road (i.e. regret, embarrassment).  The key is to NOT react but to LISTEN to the message and consult with your executive function (your mind) so that the two systems (head and heart) are working together to allow you to RESPOND according to your values and interests.  Practicing mindfulness is key to accomplish this and can be learned with patience and focus.  A practical tool is the 24-hour rule, where you wait 24 hours before responding to an unsafe emotion, giving you sufficient time to slow down the reactionary process, to consult with your mind and decide on an appropriate, and beneficial response.

To summarize, think of emotions as messengers with critical information about your environment.  The essence of that information is whether or not you are safe.  To avoid reacting to the visceral sensations, take the time necessary to listen to the message and consult with your mind, and maybe some otheres! to determine the best response that will move you in the direction desired.

The 95 per cent – Choosing your experience “most” of the time

Did you know that 95 per cent of your life is made up of days in which nothing really happens?  Most days are status quo; drop off the kids, go to work, eat, engage in routine activities and sleep.  Rare (or about 5 per cent) are the days in which something exceedingly amazing or terrifyingly devastating happens and when those days occur there is very little choice about how to feel or how to react and that’s okay.  What this means, is that for 95 per cent of your life there is a great deal of choice about how you experience those typically uneventful times.  For example, when driving to work are you impatient and frustrated with traffic and all those “other” commuters or are you relaxed, mindfully choosing something to play on the audio system or in awe of the fact that you are moving along in a vehicle that exists to get you around from place to place, or perhaps look out the window and appreciating a beautiful sunset on the horizon?  Did you even know there was a choice?  Imagine the difference of the person who chooses the latter over the former?  Imagine day after day of making the choice to sing in the car, laugh with the kids, or respectfully ignore your irritating co-worker?  Imagine if at the end of your life you made a mental effort to create a 95 per cent life for yourself.

Here are a few tips to help you get started creating a 95 per cent life.  1.  Start small, pick one thing you can and WILL do this week to start to bring the 95 per cent concept into your awareness.  The more  you practice the more it will come naturally.  2.  Go with your natural tendencies.  For example, it’s much harder for me to open up to awe and a positive attitude in the morning before coffee!  Those are moments I don’t even try and that’s ok because as the day gets going and the coffee kicks in I have much better access to my capacity for choosing my experience.  3.  Don’t give up, like any new habit it takes practice and each time you succeed in your new mindfulness practice you are chipping away at creating a 95 per cent life for yourself, NEVER shoot for 100%, that is perfectionism and it is mutually exclusive with mental well-being.  4. Have fun!  Ultimately that is the goal here anyway, the more you actively you incorporate fun into your life the lighter you will begin to feel overall, and in doing so are building resources and resiliency for the ratio of negative 5 per cent days when you really need it.

Did you know it’s “National Catch Your Teen Doing Something Right” Month?

Ok so I made that up, but why not? Ask yourself when was the last time you gave your teen a truly heartfelt “atta boy” for something significant and for no reason other than to make him or her feel good? By significant I don’t mean thanking them for feeding the dog when it was already their job – although if you’re really out of practice then by all means start with anything and practice, practice, practice! But the bigger the compliment and the more unexpected the more impact it will have on your teen and how they feel treated by you. For example, you can compliment them on things you really admire about them or make a point to notice the “upside” of a characteristic you may not care for in them (for ex: they may be stubborn in your opinion but I’m guessing that also means they can be very patient).

Teens can certainly test your patience beyond belief and you may not enjoy them at every turn these days. You may think to yourself, was I this bad at their age? It’s hard to go back and remember the difficulties of being a teen but chances are you too had conflicts with your parents, teachers, or other authority figures at some point. This is a natural stage of development and there is no cure! In fact, it’s a healthy sign if you and your teen can barely see eye to eye on anything. They are growing up and gaining their independence but they don’t necessarily know how to do it with grace, respect, or honor. Wouldn’t that be nice? No, just like when you were an adolescent, they are struggling to become adults without the experience or ensuing wisdom.

Take this as your opportunity to be their parent for perhaps the last time. Soon enough, they will leave and gain the experience and wisdom needed to succeed in life and they will come back, but not as your charges, and the dynamic will change and may no longer allow you such influence and ability to impart change in their lives in such a direct way. So, take the time you have now to find time between the challenges and frustrations, to notice them being their awesome selves……and pounce! Research shows (The Gottman Institute, www.gottman.com) that it takes a 5 to1 ratio of positive to negative comments or acts to build healthy relationships, so the more you can catch your teen doing something right you are making deposits into the relationship bank with your child.

You want to help them navigate this challenging time with love and compassion. One thing you have in common with your teen is the experience of having been one yourself, and I’m pretty sure you wouldn’t want to trade places with them now! With this one simple task, and you have all month to try it (of course you can over-achieve and keep it up all year if you want) you have a tool to be the role model they truly need you to be right now; that despite the heartache they may be sending your way, that you still see their strengths, talents and passions and model how to show compassion and caring even as they are pulling away and testing your patience.

5 things never to say to someone with severe anxiety

It’s very difficult to know what to say to a loved-one who is suffering from anxiety (or any mental anguish for that matter) and in our best efforts can cause more stress to someone without realizing it. Most people do want help and appreciate a genuine concern and curiosity about what they are experiencing. A good rule to live by is, when in doubt just be curious. Don’t try to fix or push your own agenda on them, even if you can clearly see that your advice, if followed, could be beneficial. We have a saying in the mental health profession “meet the client where they are at” and believe me, as a born helper and recovering co-dependent myself, this has been one of the hardest lessons for me to learn and I share the following examples with you as a guilty party! I have tried ALL of these and know from personal experience that they really don’t help.

1. “Just Relax” Clearly if the person knew how to do this they would. This is exactly what they want and are unable to achieve so giving them such a directive will only make them feel worse. Anxiety is the opposite of relaxed and that energy has to GO somewhere. You are better off suggesting they take a walk or go to the gym as exercise is one of the best forms of treatment for anxiety symptoms.

2. “There’s nothing to be afraid of” You cannot out-logic a highly anxious person. They quite often ruminate on all of the things to be afraid of and why. They will no doubt have a well thought out argument as to why getting on that plane is a bad idea and the facts to back it up. A better approach is to discuss what they will gain by going ahead with the frightening behavior. Perhaps it is too see a friend or loved-one they miss, or to visit a new and exotic location; focus on the gain not the pain.

3. “It’s just nerves” Nerves are what people who do not suffer from severe anxiety experience and this is just evidence that you truly do not understand what they are going through which may make them feel less connected and more “broken”. It’s ok not to understand, and be grateful that you can’t, but the message this sends is a severe minimization of what they are feeling and can cause more harm because they may then conceal what they are experiencing even to doctors or other professionals who can help thinking that it’s really not that bad.

4. “You need to face your fears” While this may actually be helpful (systematic desensitization) that is not how to go about it. A person may or may not need to actually do this and that is best determined with the help of mental health professionals. I can’t really give you an alternative, but trust me don’t go there.

5. “You look nervous” Pointing out that someone physically appears to be in distress causes them more distress. While you do want to express your concern and support for the person, it’s much better to ask them how they are feeling. This is an open-ended, non-biased way of genuinely checking in with someone (and that’s just good etiquette for anyone, not just an anxiety sufferer).

It can be very difficult to sit with someone who is experiencing severe anxiety and the more they matter to you, the more anxious you may even become. Truly the best thing to do for any loved-one going through a difficult time is to simply be there for them, when they need you to be. You don’t need to “fix” anything, but you can be curious about what they are experiencing and ask them what they need from you. If they don’t know, that’s ok just being there is enough. Knowing that someone is there is inherently comforting.

Beat shame in 2014 with your G.A.S.P. Profile

Are you living with excessive negative thinking, low self-esteem and/or shame? Are you ready for 2014 to be the year you move past all that and live the life you were meant to live? Everyone is here to do something and has the ability to do it! Sadly, it is much easier to focus on your weaknesses than on your strengths, yet it is imperative to living a happy, fulfilled life that you take the time to recognize and cultivate your strengths. That is why I have developed the G.A.S.P. Profile to help you identify VERY SPECIFICALLY what your true strengths are by defining different kinds and giving you a framework to begin seeing yourself in a more holistic way. Your G.A.S.P. Profile defines your strengths into four categories: Gifts, Attributes, Skills and Passions. I’ve also created a G.A.S.P. worksheet to help you start and keep this list going. If you have difficulty coming up with things in any category, ask the people who know you best and whom you trust to give you honest feedback that you will take. You want to come up with as MANY as you can in each category because research shows that it takes five positive thoughts/remarks to counteract the negative impact of just one criticism.

I know it’s hard to give up thinking about how much you suck at something or have disappointed yourself in one way or another and I’m not asking you to do that because I’m sure it’s true and I’m not interested in arguing with you! Look, we ALL have failures, weaknesses and shortcomings the problem as I see it is that we often ONLY see those and get stuck in the cycle of shame (i.e. since I already did that then I might as well do this too – one unhealthy choice starts you down the path of making more). My belief is that we need to at least be fair with ourselves and if we are going to look at the negative then we’d better also be looking at, and sincerely incorporating, the positive. For as many failures and disappointments you have, believe me, you have just as many or more successes, talents and amazing abilities and you need to start making room for them in your headspace.

Think about this, when someone else calls you a name or puts you down in some way, your instinct is to defend yourself. However, when it’s your OWN mind thinking negative thoughts and holding malicious beliefs about you there is no defense. With this in mind, please read and download the G.A.S.P. worksheet and start the New Year out with an armory of positives to help you defend against negative self-talk and the shame that ensues.

The 3 B’s for a holiday on YOUR terms!

Update Nov. 27, 2013: Thanks to Michelle Kaufman, PsyD for creating this helpful worksheet based on my blog here about getting through the holidays on your terms. Here is a link to download it The 3 B’s holiday please feel free to use and share!

Do you dread the holidays because of a bad experience once years ago or because you have to deal with difficult family members? Here are my tips for changing your holiday experience and doing it on your terms.

Merrett now offering private practice solutions

I’m delighted to announce the opening of my private practice located at 1588 Homestead Road in Santa Clara, CA. I started Share It With Merrett seven months ago and now want to be able to offer clients both short-term advice giving as well as long-term traditional therapy. My focus will be on empowering people to live fuller, happier lives. As primarily an existential and client-based clinician I am well-suited to work with individuals and couples dealing with issues such as low self-esteem, poor boundaries, co-dependency, anger, grief and loss, as well as those seeking to reduce stress and increase joy in their lives. I also offer a free 30 minute phone consultation to see make sure we are a good fit. If you would like to schedule an intake please contact me via email (Merrett@shareitwithmerrett.com) or telephone (408) 410-8786.

Share It With Merrett is going strong and I hope to continue breaking new ground for both clients and clinicians by cultivating this alternative approach to helping people, who may not otherwise seek out therapy, address and resolve day to day problems.

Pity….. Party of One! The fine line between honoring your pain and wallowing in it.

The first Free Advice Friday video response is here! Following is a synopsis of my answer to the question on whether or not it’s ok to feel sorry for yourself but watch the video for my complete answer to this question and how I explain the four steps of pains’ journey.

“Pain is inevitable, suffering is a choice”. This is one of my favorite quotes by an unknown source and popularized by modern psychology. However, I noticed that people would often express defensiveness around the choice part and insist their suffering was something outside of their control. Of course, I believe the point of the quote is that suffering is the exact point at which you do have choice over whether or not to indulge in your pain. Even so, I decided that the quote could use a kinder, more empathetic feel and put my own spin on it to be “Honor your pain and combat your suffering”. This empowers the receiver of the quote to see their suffering as an outside entity that they have the ability to fight against and keep at bay, while still acknowledging the importance and inescapable reality of experiencing ones own pain. I also think it takes the sting out of those times when you let your guard down and allow suffering to knock at the door and stay a while, because you are human. If you have moments of self-pity are you necessarily choosing to suffer or is that a way of honoring your pain? Watch the video to see how I answer this important question.

Also, here is a link to the interview by Augusten Burroughs that I mention in the video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E7A7YggvSF4

IF you have a question that you would like me to answer on video, email it to: merrett@shareitwithmerrett.com