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How to Discover Your Deepest Desire & Begin to Make Positive Changes Today 

I write to you from the fog of Christmas just past, that legendary week where no one seems to know the day, the time, or whether to eat, sleep, or repent. Like many of you, I find myself taking stock, a natural thing to do with the new year is upon us, and wondering, what did I accomplish last year? And what should my goals be for next year?

My clients might ask themselves this same question, with varying degrees of excitement and hopefulness, but also with dread, self-loathing, or sadness. “It was just another year of me being me”, they may think, “I’ll never change”. But I remain eternally optimistic that everyone can make positive changes, especially if they know what’s been holding them back.

I first learned about how to have a growth mindset from the seminal book on writing, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott. Lamott points out that books are written, not all at once, but page by page, and that we can approach any daunting task the same way. She says that we must understand our end goal and then break down the steps to get there into bite-sized (or rather page-sized) pieces. This is how I got my first book written, and how I’ve gone on to do a great many other, wonderful things.

Thank you, Anne Lamott!

Throughout my time as a therapist, however, I’ve seen this advice fall flat time and time again. Looking at it from a clinical perspective, I’ve begun to understand why.

Human beings naturally strive for change and growth— it is a primary directive— but we have an equally strong directive to keep ourselves safe. These two needs are often in contradiction to one another because growth requires us to move into the unknown, and the unknown is not guaranteed to be safe.

To protect ourselves we develop what are called “psychological defenses”. These are things we do, say, and believe that provide us with an illusion of safety and they are often formed in childhood. If you were a kid whose parents were narcissistic, you may have become a people pleaser to protect yourself from the fear of being rejected. If you were a kid who suffered from instability, you may have become fiercely independent to protect yourself from the fear of being disappointed by those who were supposed to support you.

The scary things from which we are trying to protect ourselves, are paradoxically also the things we truly want. The people-pleaser dreams of being heard, but rarely uses her voice. The fierce independent longs to trust someone but can’t let her guard down long enough to discover who is trustworthy.

The deep work of therapy is about understanding these defenses, but you don’t need to be in therapy to start thinking about them. A good place to start is to reflect on your childhood and ask yourself, what did I really need or want that I did not receive? Did you long to be understood or accepted, did you wish for predictability, empowerment, to be seen, or to be valued? These are all common human needs that frequently don’t get met, thus forcing us to overcompensate in what can become counterproductive, and sometimes pathological ways.

If you could visit your child self, what is the one thing you would say to him or her? What is the thing you most wished to hear? Whatever it is, that is also the thing you are defending against, and the key to liberating yourself today.

Once you understand your unmet needs, then you can start thinking about how to heal. Let’s say you are a person who felt unloved by their primary caregivers, and as a result, became closed to the idea of intimacy. To challenge the belief that you will automatically be hurt or rejected if you open yourself to others will feel deeply destabilizing. It goes against everything you have taught yourself is true. But, and this is important, it is the only way forward if you want something different.

We must have the courage to lean into our fears. And it’s not a one-time deal either, we must do this over and over and over again, with self-compassion and humility, knowing that there will be many stumbling blocks along the way.

Choose a long-term goal that makes you feel a little bit uncomfortable or maybe even breathless. Something that seems out of reach, but not quite, like a jar of really good honey you stored at the back of the top shelf so you wouldn’t eat it all at once. Now break that goal down into very small steps. What is one thing you can do today that will move you closer to that jar? Write it down and cross it off when you are done. Have something written down for tomorrow too.

At each step along the way, and this is key, allow yourself to feel your fear. I promise that it won’t kill you. Feel where it is in your body, imagine it has a color, breathe into it, and then do the things on your list anyway. Over time, you will begin to trust the fact that you are strong enough to be uncomfortable and still survive. You will also notice that your fear has a beginning, a middle, and an end, and that you understand its timeline a lot better now and can anticipate when your discomfort will begin to dissipate. This is deeply liberating self-awareness.

Safety is a lovely, lovely feeling, but when creating it demands that we sacrifice other experiences, relationships, or opportunities that would enrich and alter the course of our “one wild and precious” lives, it’s time to reevaluate what we are keeping ourselves safe from, and challenge ourselves to change.

I write to you from the fog of Christmas just past, that legendary week where no one seems to know the day, the time, or whether to eat, sleep, or repent. Like many of you, I find myself taking stock, a natural thing to do with the new year is upon us, and wondering, what did I accomplish last year? And what should my goals be for next year?

My clients might ask themselves this same question, with varying degrees of excitement and hopefulness, but also with dread, self-loathing, or sadness. “It was just another year of me being me”, they may think, “I’ll never change”. But I remain eternally optimistic that everyone can make positive changes, especially if they know what’s been holding them back.

I first learned about how to have a growth mindset from the seminal book on writing, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott. Lamott points out that books are written, not all at once, but page by page, and that we can approach any daunting task the same way. She says that we must understand our end goal and then break down the steps to get there into bite-sized (or rather page-sized) pieces. This is how I got my first book written, and how I’ve gone on to do a great many other, wonderful things.

Thank you, Anne Lamott!

Throughout my time as a therapist, however, I’ve seen this advice fall flat time and time again. Looking at it from a clinical perspective, I’ve begun to understand why.

Human beings naturally strive for change and growth— it is a primary directive— but we have an equally strong directive to keep ourselves safe. These two needs are often in contradiction to one another because growth requires us to move into the unknown, and the unknown is not guaranteed to be safe.

To protect ourselves we develop what are called “psychological defenses”. These are things we do, say, and believe that provide us with an illusion of safety and they are often formed in childhood. If you were a kid whose parents were narcissistic, you may have become a people pleaser to protect yourself from the fear of being rejected. If you were a kid who suffered from instability, you may have become fiercely independent to protect yourself from the fear of being disappointed by those who were supposed to support you.

The scary things from which we are trying to protect ourselves, are paradoxically also the things we truly want. The people-pleaser dreams of being heard, but rarely uses her voice. The fierce independent longs to trust someone but can’t let her guard down long enough to discover who is trustworthy.

The deep work of therapy is about understanding these defenses, but you don’t need to be in therapy to start thinking about them.

A good place to start is to reflect on your childhood and ask yourself, what did I really need or want that I did not receive? Did you long to be understood or accepted, did you wish for predictability, empowerment, to be seen, or to be valued? These are all common human needs that frequently don’t get met, thus forcing us to overcompensate in what can become counterproductive, and sometimes pathological ways.

If you could visit your child self, what is the one thing you would say to him or her? What is the thing you most wished to hear? Whatever it is, that is also the thing you are defending against, and the key to liberating yourself today.

Once you understand your unmet needs, then you can start thinking about how to heal. Let’s say you are a person who felt unloved by their primary caregivers, and as a result, became closed to the idea of intimacy. To challenge the belief that you will automatically be hurt or rejected if you open yourself to others will feel deeply destabilizing. It goes against everything you have taught yourself is true. But, and this is important, it is the only way forward if you want something different.

We must have the courage to lean into our fears. And it’s not a one-time deal either, we must do this over and over and over again, with self-compassion and humility, knowing that there will be many stumbling blocks along the way.

Choose a long-term goal that makes you feel a little bit uncomfortable or maybe even breathless. Something that seems out of reach, but not quite, like a jar of really good honey you stored at the back of the top shelf so you wouldn’t eat it all at once. Now break that goal down into very small steps. What is one thing you can do today that will move you closer to that jar? Write it down and cross it off when you are done. Have something written down for tomorrow too.

At each step along the way, and this is key, allow yourself to feel your fear. I promise that it won’t kill you. Feel where it is in your body, imagine it has a color, breathe into it, and then do the things on your list anyway. Over time, you will begin to trust the fact that you are strong enough to be uncomfortable and still survive. You will also notice that your fear has a beginning, a middle, and an end, and that you understand its timeline a lot better now and can anticipate when your discomfort will begin to dissipate. This is deeply liberating self-awareness.

Safety is a lovely, lovely feeling, but when creating it demands that we sacrifice other experiences, relationships, or opportunities that would enrich and alter the course of our “one wild and precious” lives, it’s time to reevaluate what we are keeping ourselves safe from, and challenge ourselves to change.

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Erica has an uncanny knack for understanding what you might be dealing with in your life. Furthermore, she has an even more uncanny knack for helping you figure out how you might amend your thinking and your actions. She doesn't do the work for you and she expects you to be fully invested in your own work. She is forthright but at the same time empathetic, calm and compassionate. I have known Erica for a long time. She brings a lot of life experience and wisdom to her practice. She can help you in your search for positive change to benefit how you live your life well.

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Kerianne S

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Phoenix R

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MJ K

Erica is the 4th counselor I’ve seen over several years and can honestly say the last! I finally feel like I’m moving forward and healing! Her ability to make you understand and adjust our feelings and outlook is incredible. I’d highly recommend her and Sound Mind Counseling!

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