Vulnerability is universal. The fear you feel is the fear I feel. Dr. Brené Brown defines vulnerability as uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure. While we can practice vulnerability in safe spaces, we will always confront moments where we are uncertain, when we feel that we are taking a risk, and when we feel emotionally exposed.
Therapists face a lot of vulnerability! Not only do we witness our clients take vulnerable steps, but we sit in our own vulnerability personally and professionally. It takes a lot of vulnerability to sit across from someone and wonder “am I helping this person? Am I the therapist they need me to be?”
I often feel vulnerable in my sessions when I start to say something truly authentic; something that moves me from the traditional blank-slate of a therapist, to a statement of providing insight into who I really am. When I start to say something to which I am deeply connected, I can often stop myself. My breath cuts short, I freeze up. The internal questions start, like a battering ram in my brain.
Is that professional?
Does it sound disingenuous?
Am I crossing a line in saying this?
Will people actually believe me?
In her book, Mansfield Park, Jane Austen writes: “There are as many forms of love as there are moments in time.” And the love and admiration I feel for those with whom I work is a beautiful form of love.
Yes, the work we do is clinical. But, the work we do is ultimately about connection. That connection is necessary for us to have empathic, safe, and vulnerable conversations. Conversations conducted in this way allow us to dig into places we may not feel safe digging with others, and in doing so, we create lasting change. How can that not be a moment of love?
Jane Austen also writes, “If I loved you less, I might be able to talk about it more.”
Thus, here is my moment of vulnerability. Here is what I want you, every one of my clients, to know: I love you so much.
The work we do is rooted in love. I deeply care for you. I think about all of the amazing work you are doing even when we aren’t in session, and I’m so proud of the work you do every day. Simply showing up to a therapy session is an act of bravery. Allowing me into your life in such an intimate way is my honor and privilege. If that isn’t love, then I clearly have been highly miseducated in what love means.
The great toilet paper, flour, and yeast shortage of 2020! What a moment of panic and fear. Many of us had never experienced a “lockdown” before COVID-19. What did a lockdown even mean? Can I go to the grocery store? Am I allowed to walk my dog? How do I even stock up on food and essentials?
My husband and I, fearing the pending lockdown in February, 2020, started our research. We stocked up on canned goods, frozen vegetables, nuts and dried fruits, dog and cat food. And, of course, toilet paper.
What we didn’t plan for was the need to engage in non-essential activities to keep up active during a lockdown. I didn’t think that I would take an immense interest in baking bread and finally making a sourdough starter. I also didn’t think the rest of the country would pick the exact same activities as I had.
In April, when flour and yeast were nowhere to be found, the panic hit me. Suddenly, there was nothing I needed more in this world than flour and yeast. And it was nowhere to be found.
Neither was toilet paper.
I don’t blame anyone for contributing to the shortage. When we are lacking, or when we perceive lack, we become fearful. We make fear-based decisions that ultimately don’t support us, or the larger community. The lack then becomes cyclical: I think I only need one shipment of toilet paper, ensuring everyone gets toilet paper. But then I see toilet paper is out of stock, so I buy it in bulk wherever I can find it, taking away from others who need it, thereby continuing the cycle of fear-based decisions and scarcity.
Why do we start to make fear-based decisions? We make fear-based decisions because we believe we are lacking. Scarcity is the focus on what you believe you lack. Abundance, however, is the focus on what we already have. An abundance mindset allows us move out of fear-based decision making and into long-term, sustainable, decision making.
Simply put, do you feel that you are lacking? Or do you feel that you are plenty?
What is scarcity?
Scarcity doesn’t just refer to physical things we may not have. Scarcity, as a mindset, can also refer to our beliefs about our money, time, relationships, health, intelligence, and experience. A scarcity mindset essentially makes us hyper aware of all of our unfulfilled wants and needs. Research has shown this to be true: when put in an fMRI machine, people with a scarcity mindset exhibited decreased activity in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, an area known for its role in goal-directed choice
My Experience with Scarcity
I knew I always wanted to start a private practice as a psychotherapist. My biggest mental stumbling block was signing a lease for an office. It felt like the biggest risk I would take. I developed a belief that once I signed that office lease, I would never be able to make enough financially to cover the rent, thereby putting me in deep debt, out of which I could never climb (reality check: my first office only rented for $225 a month).
I found the courage to sign the lease. At lease signing, I did not have any clients. And, of course I wouldn’t have – I was just starting out! Yet with every passing minute that the phone didn’t ring, the belief that I would never have enough clients to pay my office rent only grew.
Naturally, the phone did ring. But the scarcity mindset remained strong. I began taking clients at incredibly low rates, rates as low as my hourly babysitting fee when I was 16-years-old. My thought was, “an hour making any money is better than making no money at all.”
The result: burnout, exhaustion, and stress. I felt my boundaries being stretched to a point that I wondered about closing my office doors for good.
A scarcity mindset forces us to believe that we will never be enough, have enough. Scarcity makes us believe that our resources are finite, when in fact, they are infinite. Love, gratitude, joy, empathy, support, are infinite. Clients are infinite! The phone will always ring with more work – sometimes we simply have lulls.
In these lulls, our resources do feel finite. And maybe in the moment, there is some truth to that. But an abundance mindset allows us to shift our thinking that the potential of something is infinite. Thus, shifting from a scarcity mindset to an abundance mindset is a matter of reframing our thoughts.
When we believe in a finite world, a zero-sum game world, we make decisions that might help us in the short term, but in the long term only negatively intensify our situation. A zero-sum game framework breeds competition. If you have what I want, then there’s less for me. And, we are taught this repeatedly. If there is one promotion at your job, either you or someone else is going to get it. And if someone else gets it, then that’s less for me. The focus then becomes on getting this one thing.
Why do we do this? According to Sendhil Mullainathan, an economics professor at Harvard, and Edlar Shafir, a psychology professor at Princeton, when we want something immensely, we obsess over it. It’s all we think about. We get in a hole so deep that we lose sight of the long-term goals. And then we just dig ourselves deeper.
And the deeper we dig, the more permanent our situation feels. I will never get that job promotion, I will never get the pay raise, I will never be a thriving private practice owner. This, in turn, produces immense feelings of shame. According to Dr. Brené Brown, shame researcher extraordinaire, shame is the fear of disconnection. Once we feel shame, we believe we will never be good enough, smart enough, pretty enough, skinny enough.
So, Now What?
One of my favorite questions that arises in the therapy room is when people gain all of this incredible insight, and then ask, “great, this is really helpful! So, now what?” Now that we have this information, what do we do with it?
There are three helpful approaches that target our scarcity mindset, and help us move to a mindset of abundance.
The first in a mindfulness-based approach. Mindfulness is the act of being present, paying attention. It is being aware of what is happening right this moment.
If a scarcity mindset leads us to believe that all situations are permanent, then mindfulness can help us shift our framework to understand that nothing is permanent. All of our emotions, thoughts, and experiences are fleeting. All experiences, wanted and unwanted, will subside. And, all experiences, wanted and unwanted, will return.
The second approach is a Cognitive Behavior Therapy approach. Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT) posits that our thoughts, feelings and behaviors are all connected. Thus, if I behave in a certain way, I will have a thought about it, which will then impact my mood. If we are able to change the way we think about our experiences, our moods will change. CBT is essentially helping us understand how we experience our experiences. Our thoughts about what we have been through determines how we feel.
One CBT tool we can practice for this is cognitive reframing. Cognitive reframing is the practice of taking our thoughts and rewriting them to provide a more grounded experience.
For example, if my thought is, “I have to take this job offer/romantic relationship/college acceptance now, even though it’s not what I want, because I won’t get another chance,” then a reframe of that thought could be, “You will never know less tomorrow than what you know today.” This helps us start to shift to an abundance mindset. With an abundance mindset, we see life as dynamic and full of unending opportunities. We recognize the mobility and fluidity of life.
The third approach is employing techniques used in positive psychology. Positive psychology is defined as the psychological study of what makes life worth living. Examples of positive psychology practices include self-compassion, practicing gratitude, and building resilience. Kristin Neff, a researcher in self-compassion, has found that practicing self-compassion increases compassion for others, as well as life satisfaction, along with decreasing depression, anxiety, and stress. And, according to research, practicing gratitude, especially if it is directed towards another person, will elevate our reported levels of happiness for an entire month.
The Abundance Mindset Shift
This shift to an abundance mindset can greatly improve our wellbeing. This shift allows us to focus on all we have, rather than all we are lacking. This shift is a practice, meaning, like anything else, it takes time. If we practice it consistently, we will begin to see the shift from scarcity to abundance occur.
 A scarcity mindset alters neural processing underlying consumer decision making, Inge Huijsmans, Ili Ma, Leticia Micheli, Claudia Civai, Mirre Stallen, Alan G Sanfey, PNAS June 11, 2019, 116(24): 11699-11704.
 Seligman, M.E.P. (2012). Flourish: A visionary new understanding of happiness and well-being. Freepress: New York.
Link to the book: https://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/1439190763/braipick-20
According to Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), there are six core mindfulness skills. Understanding these skills helps us become aware of the mindfulness skills we are already using throughout our day. These skills are also helpful in making mindfulness more accessible – it makes mindfulness concrete, definitive, and behaviorally specific.
1.Observe: Simply notice what’s happening. Notice thoughts, emotional feelings, physical sensations, and anything else that is happening. Simply become aware and pay attention.
2.Describe: Put words on what you have observed. Observe and Describe often happen simultaneously.
3.Participate: fully participate in an experience. Often, when we start to practice mindfulness, we become distracted or engaged in another activity. Rather, if we fully participate, we understand the full experience and how jt might be helpful for us. Therefore, if you’re watching your favorite show on TV as a form of self-care, watch that show with your full attention. If you’re practicing a mindfulness meditation, be fully present and participate in that experience.
4.Non-judgmental stance: reduce judgments. This one is challenging, because we naturally judge things as “good” or “bad.” This skill, rather, helps us reduce judgments and focus on the facts. Thus, if you observe that you’re feeling tightness and discomfort in your chest due to anxiety, a judgmental stance would be:
“I feel awful. This is embarrassing. Everyone is looking at me, and it’s just making me feel even worse.”
Whereas a non-judgmental stance would be:
“My chest is feeling tight, and it’s making it hard to breathe.”
5.One-Mindful: do one thing at a time. As a culture of multitaskers, this one is hard! But this is an important one to practice. If you are watching TV, then only watch TV. Don’t also play a game on your phone or scroll through Twitter. If you are eating dinner, then only eat dinner.
6.Effectiveness: do what works. If something isn’t working for you, or if something is making you feel worse, then try something else. It is OK to move on from something if it doesn’t serve you.
For more on these mindfulness skills, follow along on our podcast: Taproot Therapy: A Mindful Moment
When you embark on a journey to support your mental health, the most important thing we can do right from the beginning is to ensure we are caring for our emotional vulnerability. Part of being a human being involves experiencing pain. If we, however, integrate daily tools to support ourselves (especially as we expose ourselves to some vulnerable things), the journey becomes more manageable.
This is where the DBT skill, PLEASE, is handy. This skill probably won’t come as a surprise to many people. But, if we don’t use this tool, it can feel that much more challenging, maybe even impossible, to feel to true effectiveness of other tools and skills we might use to support our mental health. PLEASE is a helpful acronym to decrease stress and improve our wellbeing.
PL: treat Physical iLlness
Take care of yourself when you feel sick. Visit your doctor if you need to. If we feel sick, we feel increased emotional vulnerability (and not the helpful kind of vulnerability!).
E : Eat balanced meals
Food is fuel. So eat to support yourself during the day. Eat nutritious foods that make you feel good!
A: Avoid mood altering drugs
Now, I’m not saying a glass of wine at the end of a day is out of the question. You can absolutely have your glass of wine, your beer, a cigarette - just make sure you aren’t using them to excess, or that you aren’t using substances to numb your other feelings. Everything in moderation.
This is a big one! Simply put: if you aren’t getting adequate sleep most nights, make the changes you need to get the rest you need. create a bedtime routine, turn off screens before you wind down for bed, and, if necessary, talk to your doctor. Sleep is so vital for our well-being!
I like to say “move your body,” to reduce any unwanted connotations the word “exercise” has. Whichever way you say it, get moving in a way that feels good for you. The intention in exercising/moving your body is to reduce stress, boost the positive mood-boosting chemicals, and feel more grounded.
Again, this skill covers those things we already know! But, it’s helpful to remember that without these things, any other work we do to support ourselves can feel that much harder.
Taproot Therapy is here to help.
Guest Writer: Rachel Goldberg, LMSW
The holiday season looks different this year. The COVID-19 pandemic has challenged us with
overwhelming emotions and uncertainty. We are navigating unprecedented decisions around
health risk, travel restrictions, and just sheer ambivalence. Thoughts like, “is it worth the risk?”,
“what is my comfort level?”, “will I be alone for the holidays this year?” are normal.
Understanding your comfort level and finding the courage to communicate your boundaries to
others can feel difficult, but liberating. This holiday season everyone is dealing with unique
anxieties. Remember, you are not alone in this and your feelings are valid. Here are some tips
for managing anxiety leading up to the holidays:
1. Self-care: Treat yourself to something you enjoy. For example: a stroll in a park, a
delicious meal, or a soothing bath.
2. Label your emotions: When an uncomfortable feeling arises, try to notice and label it.
For example: I feel angry, isolated, nervous, etc. Putting emotions into words may help
increase your understanding of them and lessen their negative effects.
3. Journal: Cut out time to journal your worries about the holiday season. Perhaps set a
timer for 10 minutes and journal about something that feels good to you.
4. Rest: Make sure you are getting enough sleep or leisure time. Creating a bedtime
routine can be helpful in catching those Zzz’s.
5. Connect: Reach out to a loved one or friend for support. Catching up on the phone or
through FaceTime with someone can feel comforting.
If you are interested in learning more on how to cope with any holiday anxieties you may be
experiencing, Taproot Therapy is pleased to offer a 4-week Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)
skills group. We will use CBT techniques and tools to support you during this time. We will also
use the space to explore worries, redefine the meaning of gratitude this holiday season, and
find optimism for the future. This is a closed 4-week virtual group for individuals located in NY
Early-bird fee (if paid before 11/20): $180
Regular fee (after 11/20): $205
Dates: December 1 - December 22 (4 weeks)
Time: Tuesdays, 6:30pm to 7:45pm
To register, please contact Rachel Goldberg at:
I’ll be honest – I’m exhausted. And I know I am not the first person to express that in the last five minutes. Between the pending election, the rising cases across the country and constant news updates warning us of another spike in cases, and simply the general unrest, our world is holding a lot right now.
I’ve recently, however, found myself doing something I know is unhelpful. It’s something I can easily point out to others when they engage in it. I found myself looking at my own pain, and comparing it to others’ pain: “Yes, I’m feeling all of these feelings, but I have a job so I can’t really complain.”
This is called comparative suffering. Comparative suffering is the practice of ranking, evaluating, and judging painful events. It is detrimental to our emotional wellbeing. And when we do it to ourselves, it becomes that much easier to do it to others. When we engage in comparative suffering, we feel invalidated, as if our grief does not matter. We are unable to navigate our own sufferings. As a way to cope (or maybe to avoid our pain), we minimize others’ pain. This leads to extreme disconnection from others. It reduces our capacity for empathy, and enhances our scarcity mindset (scarcity meaning we believe things or people are “never enough”).
Yes, there are people out there who have it worse than you. And there are people who have it better than you. But this comparison doesn’t make our own pain easier. Pain is pain. And when we don’t honor our pain, it intensifies. When we don’t honor others’ pain, we conserve kindness and empathy. And kindness and empathy are unlimited resources. No one is served in this conservation.
Antony Polonsky, a professor of Holocaust studies at Brandeis University, refers to this as the “suffering Olympics.” I am not out to win a gold medal in those games! The most important pain I feel is my pain, and the most important pain you feel is your pain (I’m paraphrasing from the great David Kessler, an expert on grief). Pain is an inevitable part of life, and rather than competing, we can use this to connect with one another. I might not know your pain, but I know what it feels like. I might not know what it feels like to be furloughed during this pandemic, but I’ve felt all of the feelings that underlie that situation: fear, uncertainty, anxiety in checking my bank account every hour to make sure I had sufficient funds.
Comparative suffering disconnects us; we engage in a series of empathic fails which, overtime, erodes our relationships. Empathy connects us, and allows our relationships to deepen in a beautiful, vulnerable, and authentic way.
Grief often feels pervasive, consuming, and taxing. Sometimes, grief is so immense, it is impossible to see outside of it or through it. It clouds our vision to the point of opaqueness. Thus, we are left feeling despondent, defeated, and hopeless.
Grief is not only reserved for the death of a loved one. In fact, there is a type of grief that is commonplace and more universally experienced. Ambiguous grief is the grief we experience when a death has not occurred; rather we have lost something that either isn’t tangible, such as a hope or a dream, or we have lost a person in our lives but they are still living. And yet, despite how universal ambiguous grief is, we struggle to address it.
Even grief related to the death of a loved one is challenging to process. Much of this is due to larger cultural practices around grief. We are not a culture that provides the time necessary to process grief. If your loved one dies, you get three days to attend the funeral. But what if you have a miscarriage? Or you are going through a divorce? Or you are living in a global pandemic? How many days, hours, or even minutes, are we allowed to take off?
The answer is not enough.
Grief is uncomfortable. Oftentimes, we feel it is easier to ignore it, set it aside, or numb the pain. But in doing so, our grief is left unprocessed, which can lead to confusion of feelings, difficulty making decisions, increased conflict with family and friends, and emotional dysregulation. Unprocessed grief can make everyday tasks seem impossible to complete, meaningful relationships challenging to maintain, and our most treasured hobbies rendered seemingly meaningless.
Ambiguous grief could be used to describe how one feels after a divorce: you’re not only losing your spouse, but losing the dream you had laid out for your future. We experience ambiguous grief when someone we love is diagnosed with dementia, severe mental illness, or addiction. They as a human being are still physically present, but their psychological presence has changed dramatically, if not entirely. Thus you have essentially lost the person you came to know and love.
When one has a pregnancy loss, one grieves the loss of an unborn child. While the expectant mother never actually met the child, she is grieving the loss of her dream of who her child would become, the loss of life, the loss of what she thought her family might be. In that fetus, she says goodbye to a promised life. And, depending on how far along she was, the baby might already have a name, a due date, a nursery color picked out.
We even experience ambiguous loss for things that are not as tangible, such as a dream, a hope, or a vision for our future. We can grieve the loss of a dream job, or not being accepted to our top-choice college. And, we can especially experience grief as we witness our world struggling with illness, systemic racism and poverty, and political divisiveness.
How to Support Ourselves
Our culture does not respond well to grief. But we, as families and individuals, can start practicing ways to respond differently to our grief. We can identify ways that are more supportive. This can be challenging, because grief is uncomfortable and unpleasant. Asking ourselves to sit in discomfort is hard. As human beings, we naturally avoid pain as a means of survival. By asking us to sit in this pain actually goes against our natural survival methods! And yet, this is how we allow ourselves to move through our grief. It is important to process grief effectively.
Here are some ways we can start to process ambiguous grief.
Processing our grief can feel challenging, overwhelming, and sad. Yet, in processing it, we are able to integrate it, and create peace within the difficult
Now more than ever, it is important that we connect with those around us in a safe way. One of the ways in which we do that is by practicing our own self-compassion.
Merriam-Webster defines compassion as a “consciousness of others’ distress with a desire to alleviate it.” Compassion is, by definition, relational. Thus, self-compassion would also be relational.
According to Kristin Neff, a leading expert and researcher in self-compassion, one of the key components to practicing self-compassion is common humanity. Common humanity is the understanding that unpleasant feelings are part of the human experience, that suffering is universal. We are connected not only by the joys in our lives, but in our struggles, heartaches, and fears.
How, then, do we respond to our unwanted feelings when they arise?
Common humanity is a key component in what connects us. When we fail to recognize that we are not alone in our struggles, we increase our feelings isolation and self-pity. This leads to a hyper-focus on the self, creating a tunnel-visioned mindset, which only deepens our feelings of isolation and disconnection. Therefore, by improving our self-compassion, we enhance our ability to feel compassion for others. Compassion for others, in turn, increases our sense of connection, thereby decreasing feelings of sadness, depression, and anxiety. We also become less judgmental of our feelings and behaviors.
During the pandemic, it is important to remember we are all struggling. Common humanity can link us together while we are apart. It also allows us to support those who are struggling in very different ways from us.
The pandemic is universal for all of us: we all are having a response to it. We all are having shifts in our lives because of it. Our circumstances, however, are very different. In understanding our common humanity, let us not downplay or invalidate those individuals who have a different level of suffering than we do, who’s circumstances are different from our own.
We are not in the same boat, but we are in the same storm.
For more information on self-compassion and common humanity, visit Kristin Neff’s website: www.self-compassion.org.
There are countless resources available to us in our wellness, mental health journey. Here is a list of some of the books that have shaped my therapeutic practice, both personally and professionally.
The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma. Bessel van der Kolk, M.D.
This book is a wonderful exploration of trauma, and a resource for ways in which all of us carry trauma, anxiety, and depression physically around with us. Dr. van der Kolk is the founder and medical director of the Trauma Center in Brookline, MA, as well as a professor of psychiatry at Boston University. His work explores war veterans, children of alcoholics, and survivors of domestic and physical violence. Trauma impacts our ability to experience pleasure and engagement. This book is a resource for navigating healing trauma, and understanding the mind/body connection.
The Gifts of Imperfection. Brené Brown.
Granted, all of Brené Brown’s books are incredible reads! What I love about The Gifts of Imperfection is the step-by-step process she outlines for us to challenge our self-identified perfectionism, and find ways to truly and fully live into who we are and become our true selves. This book celebrates being you!
Deeper Dating. Ken Page
Right now, dating apps are encouraging their users to connect with potential dates remotely. These apps are taking a very active stance in following the shelter-in-place guidelines. Your dating life does not have to come to a complete end! Ken Page, a fellow New York City psychotherapist, has developed a wonderful guide to dating in the modern era. Unlike other dating books, Page encourages the reader to first identify their “core gifts” or their values. It allows for wonderful reflection and self-identification, that strengthens our future connections with potential dates.
Self-Compassion. Kristin Neff
We use a lot of terms in this work, oftentimes without ever really explaining them! Trust, integrity, empathy, values, and self-compassion. I love Kristin Neff’s work because she clearly defines what self-compassion is. A researcher and associate professor at the University of Texas at Austin, Neff has defined and revolutionized the ways in which we speak to ourselves, soothe ourselves, and show ourselves the love we all deserve. She has created a Self-Compassion Scale, an evaluative tool that is available on her website (www.self-compassion.org). This scale allows you to identify specific areas to target improving your self-compassion. She also defines three core components to self-compassion: mindfulness, self-kindness, and common humanity. Mindfulness is the act of being present. Self-kindness is speaking kindly and gently to ourselves, as well as doing kind acts of service for ourselves. Common humanity is the understanding that we are all in this together: suffering is a universal experience. Her book, as well as a companion workbook and activities on her website, provide us with hands-on ways to practice self-compassion every day. Her work is so relevant that mental health professionals in various differing disciplines site her work. A must read!