Category Archives: Blog

Inviting Uncertainty

Written by Milla Zeltzer Psy.D., supervised by Cindy Speich, Psy.D.

Therefore, if you praise doubt
Do not praise
The doubt which is a form of despair.
What use is the ability to doubt to a man
Who can’t make up his mind?
He who is content with too few reasons
May act wrongly
But he who needs too many
Remains inactive under danger.

In Praise of Doubt, Brecht (1976)
translated by Taylor Stoehr

There is one thing that we all can be certain about: uncertainty and doubt will always be a part of the human experience. We have made tremendous progress in the way knowledge and “facts” are disseminated – we now learn about events mere moments after they occur anywhere in the world. We can go online and look up something as simple as “mayonnaise” and find recipes, nutritional values, promotions, code of federal regulations, studies on the effects and danger of what we thought was just a simple craving. With all of this information, how can we ever be certain we are making the right decisions in life?
We are uncertain about our world, our future as a species living on planet Earth, our financial stability, security, national currency, weather, climate, price of oil, our health… and the list goes on and on. Yesterday we were looking forward to a romantic vacation in Europe, but today we shy away from that long awaited dream by seeing Paris crippled by terror. Many unanswered questions float in our minds. What is the latest health fad? Should our children be reading at the age of five or is it ok to let them enjoy childhood a bit longer? Is high achievement necessary for our survival or should we live mindfully enjoying the simple pleasures of life? We are terrified of making the wrong decision, and taking the wrong step.
And nowhere else do our feelings of anxiety, fear and resentment get uncovered more than in the process of psychotherapy. The more these uncertainties are invited into the therapy session, the more collaborative the process, and the more powerful the work.
Both patient and therapist are confronted with uncertainty, and both navigate their relationship by seeing each other through the prism of preconceptions based on past experiences. Hoffman (1987) argued that a therapist’s judgment would inevitably include “experience with past patients, unconscious bias, self-deception, and wishful thinking.”
As a mother of two little girls, I am burdened with the importance of decision-making responsibility and bombarded with a multitude of choices, which at times can be overwhelming and consuming. Although, the thoughts about my personal reality swarm in my head day in and day out, I have to be mindful of what it means to be helpful to my patients, striving to remain open and connected in the therapy room. Disengaging from my life and who I am is humanly impossible. Instead, I remember that experiencing uncertainty about my personal choices can help me to relate to how unsure my patients are in their lives.
The misconception that a therapist, as a professional, must have all the answers is detrimental to the entire therapeutic process. The therapeutic relationship is in danger of being compromised by the therapist’s fear of embarrassment and jeopardized professional reputation. Instead of offering a raw and honest perspective, we transform our work by subscribing to a limited framework of predictable and controllable schemas. This fear of uncertainty and doubt stifles much wanted growth and invites impotence.
Self-awareness is required for the therapist to remain humble in the relationship with patients. Leading by example, the therapist will invite bravery and honesty about working through their own feelings of anxiety, fear and resentment provoked by experience of uncertainty in their lives. This openness could be helpful in offering patients an opportunity to resist compliancy in therapy that stifles self-inquiry and impedes on therapeutic process.
Inviting uncertainty in therapy creates the space for curiosity and collaborative exploration between the patient and the therapist. This in turn will be more productive in facilitating growth. We hope that through the process of achieving self-awareness we will embrace uncertainty, and with it our life journey will become more creative and fulfilling.


Hoffman, I.Z. (1987) The value of uncertainty in psychoanalytic practice. Contemporary Psychoanalysis, 23 (2), 205-214.

Good Grief OR Can Feeling Bad be Good for You?

“It is a joy to be hidden, and disaster not to be found.”
― D.W. Winnicott (1963)

Pain. Most people fear it and many go out of their way to avoid it. Our environment bombards us with messages regarding how to transcend it, or at least, hide it. We are urged to drink this beer, drive this car, get these abs, read this book, take this pill, follow this guru, buy this widget. We are told to focus on positive thinking. We are urged to learn the secret, get clear, or hear the good news while we keep calm and carry on with a stiff upper lip- all the while keeping up appearances on social media. Sound exhausting?

We go to great lengths to hide pain; in fact, it can easily become a full-time job. But pain has a funny way of following us when we avoid it. It grows and festers, just below the surface. It thrives on our insecurities, lurks in our dreams, and plays on our fears. When we avoid pain we may recreate cycles of hurt in our relationships with ourselves and others. We can become stuck, anxious, bored, bitter, addicted, and unfulfilled. We can make major life choices from a place of weakness and fear rather than from the stronger parts of us.

So it can be good to feel pain?

Similar to physical pain, emotional pain can be useful because it alerts us to different “dis-ease” processes- or parts of ourselves that are hurt and in need of recovery. But unlike physical pain, often, when we solitarily attempt to make sense of and put words to emotional pain, “the language runs dry” (Woolf, 1930). Being alone with emotional pain is like trying to wrestle a shapeshifting blob of intense darkness. It can exist as a composite of anger, shame, sadness, fear, and contempt in places deep within us- often outside of our conscious awareness. The experience is disorienting and overwhelming. Pain broadsides us in unpredictable moments, and can leave us frozen and entangled in a sort of timeless dysphoria, without a clear beginning or end, and without agency to change.

So what are we to do?

Therapy reduces pain by courageously going towards it… not alone but in the grounding presence of another. Together, therapist and client can greet the thousand faces of pain in a way that is holding and safe. The blob is teased apart and seen. Light is shown into dark corners, not to destroy what lurks within, but to curiously encounter parts of ourselves that have been split from our waking consciousness. Less of a “talking cure” than a “feeling cure”, therapy serves to integrate aspects of our being and to make conscious that which was unconscious- both emotionally and intellectually. In this creative space we can forge a more authentic and fulfilling version of ourselves. The therapeutic relationship exists to find, contain, honor, explore, and make new meaning from painful experiences. Through this process, the client can discover a new voice and a new way of being; One that operates more upon strength than fear.


Winnicott, D. W. (1963). Communicating and not communicating leading to a study of certain opposites. The maturational processes and the facilitating environment184.

Woolf, V. (1930). On Being Ill. London: Hogarth Press.

Written by: James Kalivas, Psy.D. (PSB 94021697)

Supervised by Susan Frankel, Ph.D. (PSY 14552)




Meditation, Dissociation, and Spiritual Bypassing

Meditation is good for you. That’s the consensus. It alleviates stress and anxiety, improves health and creativity. And those benefits are just the tip of the iceberg. Just meditate and your life will improve. Voila!

So, what is meditation? Distilled to its simplest: meditation is the practice of focusing the mind in order to reach a more equipoised and powerful state of being. “Mindfulness meditation” (psychology’s current golden child) encourages people to be easefully curious and accepting of whatever the present moment entails. Sounds simple.

But anyone who has dabbled in meditation knows… the practice can feel rocky. Having participated on and off for decades, I know well that meditation can be deeply healing. It can also be scary, frustrating, and full of missteps.

Some meditators even have a reputation. You know what I mean. Have you heard someone say, “You’re negativity is toxic. I have to go.” Or on the flip side, “It’s okay that he insulted me. It’s cool – I don’t take anything personally.” Maybe you’ve experienced a meditator to be disengaged? Or so eager to jump to “loving forgiveness” that you feel a little queasy. You feel like they are here, but not really here with you…on this planet. What is going on?

One possibility is the confusion between true meditation and what psychologists call dissociation.

Dissociation is a term that indicates disconnection from one’s own self or from a part of one’s self. On the mild end of the spectrum, dissociation is the spaciness we feel when we’re on auto-pilot, walking the same route over and over — we are physically present but have no memory of the walk. In its extreme and primal state, dissociation is the experience during a traumatic event of disconnecting from the body and self. It happens to all mammals caught in a life-or-death situation and is related to the fight/flight/freeze instinct. When in death’s grip, either literally or subjectively, there’s an anesthesia-like feeling that occurs. It is nature’s compassionate gift, if you will, and a perfect time to be dis-embodied. In addition to full dissociation, we can dissociate from parts of ourselves: our feelings, our bodies, our desires, for example.

The tricky part about dissociation is that some people (usually those with a history of relational wounds or acute trauma) are predisposed to dissociate, even in moments where it is inappropriate. They dissociate at odd times: for example, when arguing with a family member, when being approached by a stranger, while binging on chocolate cookies, or just when feeling sad. All manner of times and places. It’s the experience of being “there but not there,” and it deeply affects one’s functioning in life. Habitual dissociation can ruin one’s engagement in relationships, in work and in play. It interferes with a sense of volition and one’s awareness of boundaries, and it can be dangerous.

Dissociation (feeling numb) is basically the opposite of meditation (relaxed and focused). So why is there is confusion between two?

Deep meditation can bring people to a euphoric state, transcending the body. When people commit to meditating, they often have this goal in mind; they want to feel really good. Here’s the catch: 99.9% of the time, the route to transcendence takes you through a bit of fire. Through the heat of meditation. Through the difficult phases. Every meditator will tell you this.

You can, however, take a quicker route to feeling better, and it requires no discipline at all…that is dissociation. You don’t need a drug to numb yourself; all the tools to dissociate are right within us, especially for those who have that tendency already. This disembodied happy place can easily be confused with the transcendent state experienced in meditation.

Once in a while, when we “practice meditation,” we might actually be dissociating. We might be sitting for rigorous dissociation 20 minutes a day. I know this because I’ve done it. And chances are, we are also likely dissociating from our lives as well. It is frustrating both for the meditator, who ultimately is not feeling better, but also for those around the meditator who want to connect.

Robert Masters writes about this phenomenon through the lens of spiritual bypassing.1 He explains that becoming familiar with our emotional pain is a crucial step on the road to healing… and this is one of the most essential elements of successful therapy: to walk with a client through the shadow places. It is so tempting to use spiritual philosophy or a “meditative attitude” to keep a distance from pain, but that also keeps us one-step removed from intimacy with one’s self and engagement with others.

Here are some indicators differentiating meditation and dissociation:

  1. If you find yourself better able to tolerate and engage with uncomfortable emotions, both in yourself and in others — you likely have a dynamic meditation practice.
  1. If you feel the need to actively avoid uncomfortable experiences, possibly see them as “negative energy,” especially anger — you might be by-passing or dissociating.
  1. If you find yourself open to interact in a variety of experiences with an improvising attitude, confident that you will be okay — that sounds like a meditator in action.
  1. If you often feel ungrounded and spacey, that’s a telltale sign of dissociation. Bringing awareness back into your body will benefit.
  1. If you stay ever-the-observer of pain and joy, you may be robbing yourself of the very experiences that will deepen your contentment. You might be slightly dissociated from or bypassing intimacy. It is a subtle shift.
  1. If you go into a haze during your sit-down meditation time, that’s dissociation. Try to return to the point of focus and bring yourself back into embodiment.
  1. If you have a history of trauma and do tend to dissociate, you have to be more vigilant than most. But you probably already know this on some level.

1 brilliantly coined by John Welwood


Levine, P. & Fredrick, A. (1997). Waking the Tiger: Healing trauma. Berkley, CA: North Atlantic Books.

Masters, R. A. (2010). Spiritual Bypassing: When spirituality disconnects us from what really matters. Berkley, CA: North Atlantic Books.

Ogden, P., Minton, K. & Pain, C. (2006). Trauma and the Body: A sensorimotor approach to psychotherapy. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Co.

van der Kolk, B. A. (1996). The body keeps the score: approaches to the psychobiology of posttraumatic stress disorder. In B. A. van der Kolk, A. C. McFarlane, & L. Weisaeth (Eds.), Traumatic Stress: The effects of overwhelming experience on mind, body, and society (pp. 303-330). New York, NY: The Guilford Press

Written by: Laura O’Loughlin, M.A.

Supervised by Bruce Brodie, Ph.D. (PSY 6574)

Who Am I?

One of the many requirements to become a licensed clinical psychologist involves training at a full-time pre-doctoral internship.  During a one month period, aspiring psychologists travel across the nation to interview for such a position.  Applicants scramble to secure a competitive site while training programs interview a host of eager candidates.  The number of interviews applicants experience within the time frame is remarkable (my process included over ten interviews within a span of three weeks). Reflecting upon my experience, I realized that training directors and prospective supervisors asked strikingly similar interview questions.  While questions were phrased differently, they ultimately focused on my values, beliefs, passions, and dreams.  Interviewers wanted to know, Who am I?

Variants of the question, Who am I?, are experienced beyond the realm of interviews.  Some may be asked by romantic partners or new friends.  For others, it may exist as a mantra during a time of crisis or a period of transition.  I must admit that I become irritated when confronted with this question, as it seems to reflect our larger individualistic culture.  This question appears to be birthed out of a society that seems to believe that the answer to Who am I can be determined by individual choice or personal responsibility. Who am I? not only reflects our individualistic attitudes, but also primes individualistic responses.  For example, responses often consist of personal achievements, accolades, or accomplishments, which may breed self-involvement and pride. There is nothing wrong with the apparent connection between Who am I? and individualism, but I wonder what is overlooked when viewing the question within this narrow lens?

Rather than Who am I?, could it be that the more relevant question is Who am I with?  The simple addition of the preposition with redirects attention to the breadth and depth of our relationships. Instead of focusing on one’s abilities, it increases awareness to the presence of others. It takes the pressure off one to perform, achieve, and attain and emphasizes the value of community and otherness. Rather than priming responses reflective of one’s self-interest and achievement, it directs attention to relatedness.

Who am I with? may also inspire one to ponder the development of his or her personal identity in relationship to others. I believe that individuals fully understand themselves in reciprocal, give and take relationships and that one’s uniqueness is illuminated when placed in contrast to others. Thus, it is in these relationships where personal identity emerges.  Said in another way, our distinctiveness is not sacrificed but revealed through give and take relationships.

Underlying Who am I with? is the assumption that we are social animals who are dependent on relationships. Could it be that the answer to the question Who am I? is not only found within the depths of the inner self, but may also be elucidated externally in relation with others?  Might the relational process between the therapist and client in psychotherapy inform the client’s personal understanding of Who am I?  May your next Who am I? be accompanied by an equally challenging Who am I with?

Written By: Timothy K. Wong, Ph.D., Psychological Assistant (PSB 94020788)

Supervised by Bruce Brodie, Ph.D. (PSY 6574)

How to Thrive in Your Adult Sibling Relationship

It seems that anytime the topic of siblings comes up, everyone has a story to tell about how difficult it is to maintain a relationship with their adult brother or sister. You may have a sibling who constantly needs rescuing, who is taking advantage of your parents, or shows signs of addiction. The sibling relationship is unique because it is often the longest lasting relationship in a person’s life. There is a shared history and common bond that significantly impacts the growth and development of siblings that is not usually characteristic of any other relationship. Thus it is particularly curious that many siblings tend to have contentious feelings towards one another and yet not much attention has been paid to this topic as an area of research. Work in therapy tends to focus on the influences that psychologists see as more pertinent such as caretakers, peers and genetics. Yet siblings are more powerful figures than parents are in many situations (Slomkowski, Rende, Novak, Lloyd-Richardson and Niaura, 2005).

Because our siblings have been a part of us for so long, it is particularly challenging to disengage or create protective boundaries. It often feels that in order to be a part of our family of origin, we have to participate in what goes on, including the same old patterns that drive us crazy. Here are a few suggestions to start your self-exploration:

  • Think about what your sibling relationship means to you and the impact it has had, both positive and negative.
  • Consider your relationship with your parents. Often our anger is misdirected towards our sibling when we are angry towards our parents for shortcomings in their parenting style. This can provide clarity and help give direction.
  • Examine your own relationships and the space you occupy in your work and personal life. Are you the one that rescues your sibling? What is your role in the family and how will you be impacted if you stop engaging in that familiar pattern?
  • Take steps to create healthy boundaries and put your own needs first. Keep in mind that it is completely normal to have these feelings towards your family and don’t succumb to feeling shameful or intimidated by your desire to stray from your “norm.”

Finally, having support can be enormously relieving when trying to make changes. Consider carving out some time to see a therapist who can provide empathy and guidance or confiding in a compassionate friend.

Sarah Foroosh, M.S. Psychological Intern

Bruce Brodie, PhD, License #6574

Slomkowski C1Rende RNovak SLloyd-Richardson ENiaura R. (2005). Sibling effects on smoking in adolescence: evidence for social influence from a genetically informative design. Addiction. April, 100(4): 430-8


Group Psychotherapy: Acknowledging Our Need for Others

We allow our ignorance to prevail upon us and make us think we can survive alone, alone in patches, alone in groups and even alone in gender.

Maya Angelou (as cited in Rutan, Stone & Shay, 2007)

We are born into groups. Our original group is our family where we adapt relational styles of interacting and intimacy. These manners of relating to others stay with us into adulthood. But as our world grows around us so does our group experience. Unfortunately, many of these same adaptive behaviors learned through childhood interactions become outdated, and keep us from growing into our truer selves, or maintaining deeper relationships. In turn we may experience life feeling hindered in some way, and unable to reach our full relational potential.

Furthermore, when feeling stuck in old behaviors, our societal tendency is to retreat to a “safer” place, rather than challenge ourselves to resolve conflicts. Sadly, what feels safer in the moment may perpetuate isolation and frustration with others. In actuality it was the interaction with others that helped create such maladaptive behaviors, so it makes sense that others will be needed to form new, healthy ways of connecting (Rutan, Stone & Shay, 2007).

Group psychotherapy can be a place to explore our relational styles in real time with others who are motivated to grow. It can be a place to give and receive honest feedback in order to gain insight about our own behaviors, and build a stronger sense of safety with our peers and within ourselves (Yalom, 1995). Of course, joining a group can be stressful. For some, the thought of disclosing personal information or emotional reactions in front of strangers can be frightening and overwhelming. It is common to talk ourselves out of such an exposing commitment. Although such questioning is understandable, an opportunity for growth will be missed if we allow our fears to stand in the way.

In an attempt to better illustrate such an internal conversation, I have explored 4 common statements that potential group members contemplate that can stand in the way of the help available. I have followed each statement with reasoning which promotes taking the risk of group therapy.

I have nothing to offer a group.

Despite how individual human consciousness can be, there are common or universal themes to all of us. For instance, the most common secret we keep from others is a deep conviction of inadequacy or incompetence (Yalom, 1995). Thoughts such as, “I will be found out if others really get to know me” can be understood by a majority of those around us. With this in mind, simply offering beliefs of inadequacy with other group members will promote safety, connection and cohesion. In this manner, expressing the basic feeling of “I have no idea what I’m doing in here or what I really want from this” can be one of the most integral aspects of the group process.

Its only once a week, how can I feel comfortable with strangers?

Given enough time group members will act in a natural fashion. We will interact with fellow members as we do with others in our social and familial spheres. In this way, members will create the same interpersonal patterns as we have experienced throughout our lives (Yalom, 1995). As the group increasingly becomes a social microcosm for each member, interpersonal learning can take place. Group then becomes a safe place to experiment with new behaviors. The more spontaneous the interaction within group, the more rapid the authentic behavioral change will happen outside of group. In this way, the psychological time the group spends together far exceeds the weekly (physical) time spent in the therapy room.

I can work out my own issues, by myself and with my friends or family.

As stated above, many of our earliest learned behaviors are established by interacting with family and friends. In this we form role dynamics with those closest to us. As we grow, these roles become further solidified. We establish unconscious expectations for each of us to stay in the roles we have co-created. Therefore, one person’s desire to change would change the entire family unit, or circle of friends. In many cases, this desire for change can be met with resistance from the people in our lives.

Thus, group therapy is created with a “new family” where roles can be established, explored and changed again and again. Furthermore, for many the vulnerability of behavioral or emotional experimentation feels safer in the group context (rather than with preexisting relationships). Having no connection with members outside of the group therapy session allows for a deeper safety and purity within session. As a fundamental sense of trust grows within the context of the group, members will begin to feel a more authentic self outside of the therapy room as well.

What can a group offer me; I don’t need anyone anyway.

Another universal belief that increasingly isolates us from each other is one of interpersonal alienation. We, despite appearances, believe that we cannot love another (Yalom, 1995). In this belief we defend against hurt, rejection and truly caring for even those closest to us. To care brings forth the potential for loss. We remain isolated and unaffected by others. In this we resist the help from others that we need (Rutan, Stone & Shay, 2007).

Group cohesion, or the attractiveness, care and belonging members feel for a group, has been said to permit growth more than any other aspect of group dynamics (Yalom, 1995). A feeling of belonging and care for one’s group builds acceptance, intimacy and understanding. In turn a deeper sense of internal safety exists, even during times of struggle. The group therapy experience can nurture the ability to care for another. Ultimately, it is this ability to care for others, and to acknowledge our need for others, that creates desired change in our lives.


Rutan, J. S., Stone, W. N. & Shay, J. J. (2007). Psychodynamic Group Psychotherapy. New York/London: The Guildford Press

Yalom, I. D. (1995). The Theory and Practice of Group Psychotherapy (4th edition). New York, NY: Basic Books.

By: John Peloian, PsyD Psychological Assistant (PSB 9402067)

Supervised by: Susan Frankel, Ph.D (PSY 14552)

On Saying Goodbye

Grieving is not about forgetting. Grieving allows us to heal, to remember with love rather than pain. It is a sorting process. One by one you let go of things that are gone and you mourn for them. One by one you take hold of the things that have become a part of who you are and build again. -Rachel Naomi Remen

When we think of loss, we often think of the extreme, like the death of a loved one. However, loss can take many forms and includes things like moving, the ending of a relationship, or changing jobs. We’ve all heard the wealth of platitudes that exist when it comes to loss. They are in a better place now. Nothing lasts forever. There are plenty of fish in the sea. While such sentiments certainly fill the silence in uncomfortable situations and quell anxiety, they merely put a band-aid on a problem that we are faced with over and over again.

Loss can be life shattering. At our core, we have a fundamental need to connect. This need starts at birth through attachments to our earliest caregivers. As adults, we replicate these bonds in various interpersonal relationships, as well as environments. In essence, these ties provide a sense of security and safety. When these attachments are threatened, we are reminded of our utter dependence on the external- on the other. As result, we may feel threatened, anxious, sad, angry, or even utterly confused.

Dealing with loss can test even the best of us. Worden (2009) discusses four tasks of mourning that help one adapt. These include:

1) Accepting the Reality of the Loss- We may attempt to protect from the loss by denying its significance and meaning. We tell ourselves to move onward and upward rather than onward and inward, risking a life filled with unfinished business. On the other hand, acceptance is geared toward an intellectual and emotional understanding of what has happened and what this means. Embracing the reality of the loss can be a time consuming affair, but inherent in the process is the possibility for astounding personal growth.

2) Processing the Pain of Grief- Working through the emotional pain of loss is an essential component of grief work. When we numb and cut off feelings, mourning is prolonged and the use of maladaptive coping strategies such as drugs or alcohol may become prominent. Eventually, the grief catches up to us and can manifest as depression, anxiety, interpersonal difficulty, or physical ailments. We try to tighten our emotional valves, but unfortunately, they leak. Utilizing social support networks, talking to a trained therapist, or journaling can be useful tools when dealing painful emotions.

3) Adjusting to the World- When something ends, we are called to make external and internal adjustments. Adjusting to a new external environment means acknowledging the many ways that we are impacted by the loss. It also involves exploring the various roles that the lost object or person may have filled. Internal adjustments involve examining how the loss may have shifted our sense of self and who we are. Because of attachment patterns and our need to connect, we are prone to define ourselves through external things or people. As a result, loss may impact self-esteem and self-efficacy- our sense of belief in our ability to succeed and have impact on the things that happen to us. Exploring external and internal adjustments promotes a new sense of self and the world while providing meaning to the loss. When we struggle to make such adjustments, healthy adaptation comes to a standstill and helplessness or withdrawal may occur.

4) Finding an Enduring Connection to the Loss- In this task, we attempt to integrate and internalize aspects of the lost object or person into our own sense of self. This does not mean that we forget the loss or what it meant to us. Instead, we begin to incorporate what the loss represented into our daily living and future relationships. Participating in rituals and engaging in practices that honor the legacy of the lost object or person can help foster such a link.

While loss can certainly trigger unpleasant feelings, we cannot let go unless we are afforded the opportunity to grieve an ending. It is perfectly normal to feel scared or angry, just as it is perfectly normal to feel conflicting feelings like sadness and excitement. While such emotions may be confusing and hard to tolerate, moving toward the grief is often far more rewarding than moving away.


Remen, R. L. (2000). My Grandfather’s Blessings: Stories of Strength, Refuge, and Belonging. New York, NY: Berkley Publishing Group

Worden, J. W. (2009). Grief counseling and grief therapy: A handbook for the mental health practitioner (4th edition). New York, NY: Springer Publishing Company.

 Written By: Chrystal Rahmani, Ph.D., Psychological Assistant (PSB 37860)

Supervised by Bruce Brodie, Ph.D. (PSY 6574)

Post-Traumatic Growth

Traumatic experiences can leave a fundamental and distressing impact on our lives. For many people, it can be difficult to make sense of what has happened in the aftermath of trauma and how we feel about ourselves, about others and about the world around us. For some, the impact of the trauma is so devastating that it may leave them unable to cope or move forward. So why is it that others are able not only to cope with the trauma but also to experience personal growth and positive change? The answer may be found in a concept known as Post-Traumatic Growth (PTG).

Post-traumatic growth is positive psychological change or development that is experienced after trauma, crisis or the ongoing struggle with highly challenging life circumstances. Whereas resilience refers to the notion of “bouncing back” to a prior equilibrium, post-traumatic growth can be viewed as the idea of “bouncing forward” in response to adversity (Walsh, 2002). PTG experiences are not just about learning how to live with the effects of trauma or bouncing back from trauma but about undergoing personal growth and individual development as a direct result of the trauma (Tedeschi, Park, & Calhoun, 1998).

There are three main areas of PTG growth that have been identified. These include changes in perception of self, changes in relationships with others and changes in philosophy of life (Calhoun & Tedeschi, 1999). Many individuals who come face-to-face with trauma can ultimately find meaning in their suffering and as a result, experience both PTG and increased life satisfaction (Calhoun, Cann, & Tedeschi, 2010).

Although the question as to why some people are able to experience PTG in the aftermath of a trauma and others do not remains largely unexplained, the existing literature on stress and trauma suggests that certain personality characteristics, such as optimism or openness to new experiences, may factor into the relationship between traumatic experience and post-traumatic growth (O’Leary, Alday, & Ickoviks, 1998; Tennen & Affleck, 1998). Other factors that may foster PTG include a strong social support system, adaptive coping strategies, and a spiritual belief system.

But even if you’re not naturally optimistic or deeply religious, exploring the possible benefits of a particularly challenging event can be a stated goal of therapy. It is human nature to attempt to make sense out of the events in our lives, which is why we tend to assign meaning or interpretation to something like an illness or a divorce. Surviving a cancer diagnosis, for example, may serve to prompt many individuals to reevaluate life goals or shift priorities.

It’s important to realize that experiencing post-traumatic growth doesn’t necessarily preclude experiencing stress as well. In fact, suffering and growth may occur simultaneously. What’s important is being able to find meaning in the suffering. Don’t hesitate to seek out therapy if you’d like to explore what meaning, if any, can be made out of a seemingly senseless and devastating life event. A skilled therapist can help you make sense of the trauma, which is what will ultimately help you overcome your circumstances, rise above adversity and thrive.


By Jennifer Moizel, M.A., Psychological Intern

Supervised by Bruce Brodie, Ph.D. (PSY 6574)


Calhoun, L.G., Cann, A., Tedeschi, R.G., & McMillan, J. (2000). A correlational test of the relationship between posttraumatic growth, religion, and cognitive processing. Journal of Traumatic Stress, 13, 521–527

Calhoun, L. G., & Tedeschi, R. G. (1999). Facilitating posttraumatic growth: A clinician’s guide. London: Erlbaum.

O’Leary, V. E., Alday, C. S., & Ickovics, J. R. (1998). Models of life change and posttraumatic growth. In R. G. Tedeschi, C. L. Park, & L. G. Calhoun (Eds.), Posttraumatic growth: Positive changes in the aftermath of crisis (pp. 127-151). London: Erlbaum.

Tedeschi, R. G., Park, C., & Calhoun, L. G. (1998). Posttraumatic growth: Conceptual issues. In R. G. Tedeschi, C. L. Park, & L. G. Calhoun (Eds.), Posttraumatic growth: Positive changes in the aftermath of crisis (pp. 1-23). London: Erlbaum.

Tennen, H., & Affleck, G. (1998). Personality and transformation in the face of adversity. In R. G. Tedeschi, C. L. Park, & L. G. Calhoun (Eds.), Posttraumatic growth: Positive changes in the aftermath of crisis (pp. 65-98). London: Erlbaum.

Walsh, F. (2002). Bouncing forward: Resilience in the aftermath of September 11. Family Processes, 41, 34– 36.


Categories: The Sidestep and the Slide

My friend Lila and I had been trying to make plans for many months. But when the day came, I was feeling worn out and sick, and called to cancel. I spoke in stutters, I apologized, I was torn. I hate disappointing friends.

Lila sighed with restrained annoyance. “What’s your sign?” she asked.

I was stunned. I had hoped Lila would offer a friendly dose of “Are you okay?” But she didn’t. She blurted out, “Are you a Pisces?!”

“No.” I wasn’t enjoying this conversation.

“You’re a Gemini!” It sounded like an attack.

“No, I’m a Leo,” I said defensively.

“Really! You don’t seem like a Leo at all. I never would have guessed. So,” she concluded, “We’ll get together another night.”

I hung up feeling awful. Lila was hurt that I had cancelled; I felt misunderstood and ignored. We missed an opportunity to connect in a mutually caring way.

What is this compulsion we all have to use categories with each other?

What’s your sign? What’s your favorite kind of music? What car do you drive? Do you like Burning Man? These are some subtle and not so subtle ways to pigeonhole someone. A Prius means you lean to the vegan-loving left, a Hummer means the opposite. Right? 

Categories can be useful—to help us makes sense of the chaos, both internal and external.

  • Categories can help us understand how to best to approach each other. If you like alternative music, then I might approach you via counter-culture topics; and if your preference is show-tunes, then I would choose very different inroads. It helps to know these things! It saves time. As Elliot Aronson points out, categories can give us a “shorthand way of dealing with complex events,” and is an essential part of surviving and dealing with the day to day.
  • Categories can help us contain our emotions. They can, as Lila attempted to do, help us NOT take things personally. If I had conveniently been a Pisces (apparently characterized by fickleness), then Lila could see my actions simply as part of my nature, rather than directly aimed at her. Also, the chaos of life can sometimes feel overwhelming. Being able to see it in an organized way, understanding the whys and wherefores, (whether accurate or not!) can provide relief from the anxiety.
  • Categories can offer a lens with which to foster acceptance. That friend who spends inordinate amounts of time holed up in his RV: we might perceive him as avoidant, lazy or depressed. However, if we view him through an archetypal lens, we can perceive a hermit. Aha, so he likes it that way! And then his behavior becomes right on target, maybe even quaint.

Of course, psychologists are notorious for their use of categories. That’s what a diagnosis is. Mea culpa. We use the lens of a diagnosis to best understand and then treat specific behaviors and emotions.

But what of those times when we use categories to avoid connecting with each other and to avoid feelings that arise?

  • We use categories (or stereotyping) as a way to stay separate from and unaffected by others. A variety of “isms:” racism, ageism, you-name-it… these are lazy ways to classify and dismiss people. It keeps us ignorant and disrespectful of the other. Even if our blanket assumptions are favorable (as with celebrities, clergy, or perhaps librarians), the person can feel burdened by the inaccurate attributions and his/her individuality gets erased.
  • We create an US vs. THEM dynamic to distance ourselves from unpleasant traits: By placing others in a separate group (“They are fascists,” is an oft-heard accusation these days), we can feel better than the “bad” people over there. Then there is the false assumption that “my people are not capable of such bad behavior because we are in a different tribe.” Sigh. If only.
  • We classify others as a way to detach from our feelings. To avoid feeling hurt by my actions, Lila put me in a dismissible category: a Pieces. She could then keep happy thoughts (about herself, about me, about our friendship). But in dismissing it, we both missed out on the authentic damage-and-repair that makes up the stuff of life.
  • We put other people in a box as a way of dodging our responsibility. If I deem the other person “a bully,” then it’s easy to dismiss his words as “mean and meaningless.” When, in fact, he might have a point.
  • We put ourselves in a box, as a means of cutting off. If I deem myself “a space cadet,” I can ignore the desperate longings, unease, and messages from my very core. Dangerous business.

The juice of life is found in experiencing the connection with self and with other, even if our logical mind protests. It’s messy. It takes time and attention. Categories can keep you on the periphery of meaningful human engagement, or they can serve to deepen your authentic, textured relationship to life. Which do you prefer?


Aronson, E. (2007). The social animal, 10th ed. New York City, N.Y.: Worth Publishers.

by Laura O’Loughlin, M.A.

Supervised by Susan Frankel, Ph.D. (Psy14552)

Finding Growth through Societal Demands

During this era of constant stimulation and the ever-increasing pressure for productivity, we, as a society, have been led to believe that the more money, media, and things we acquire the better off we’ll live. Although present in many modern lifestyles, this belief can leave little time to invest in our emotional well-being (Diener, Suh, Lucas & Smith, 1999).

It seems we are more often told what’s currently important by the trends on our favorite social media site than any intrinsic desire for exploration. Combined with our already hectic lives of answering to bosses, parents, and significant others, business calls, papers for school, dropping Jill off at soccer or entertaining the in-laws, for some of us this rapid mental movement results in feeling disconnected from ourselves, our work, and our loved ones.

But what if the stress of contemporary culture and emotional health weren’t mutually exclusive?

Could these societal struggles actually help in our psychological and emotional growth?

In fact, in the psychotherapeutic realm, opportunities for growth lie within the exploration of current societal challenges (Pande, 1968).

Psychotherapy becomes a useful tool in achieving connection to ourselves and those in our lives by better acquainting us with our reactions to these very same challenges. Given the safe space that therapy provides, our reaction or response to the environment in which we live is allowed to surface and be explored in an open and non-judgmental fashion.  As the therapeutic client, this can provide us with enhanced insight into our own social views.

Of course, psychotherapy also strives to achieve an understanding beyond the simple spoken word.  A deeper exploration of our internal or emotional world can take place, allowing pathways to be made between the current emotional experiences of our environment, and how we react to these demands placed upon us.

In this, the challenge is to imagine shifting our outlook on stressful daily pressures ever so slightly.  Instead of a burden, perhaps we can see opportunity.  Instead of feeling lost in societal chaos, we simply gather information for future growth. Although seemingly subtle, these changes are easier in statement then in action; psychotherapy can be one tool utilized in this lasting transition directed to improve the quality of our lives and relationships.

by John Peloian, M.A.

Clinical Supervisor, Cythnia Speich, PsyD; PSY18015


Diener, E. D., Suh, E. M., Lucas, R. E., Smith, H. L. (1999). Subjective well-being: Three decades of progress. Psychological Bulletin. 125(2), 276-302.

Pande, S. K. (1968). The mystique of “western” psychotherapy: An eastern interpretation. Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease. 146(6), 425-438.