Monday, August 31, 2015

Meditation Monday: Replacing Illusions with Values

By Nancy Hall, MA, NCC, LPC
In an effort to take the “manic” out of “Monday,” this weekly post explores techniques, issues, latest research, and other thoughts on meditation. Nancy facilitates a weekly meditation group at The Awakening Center. For more information, contact her at 773.929.6262, extension 17 or

When we examine our coping behaviors, how many are truly reliable? Or even actually helpful for that matter? We often take refuge in behaviors or habits that we believe give us control or comfort. But when we can step back and connect to our own clarity, we realize that we’re believing in an illusion.

Instead of giving true comfort or control, many behaviors leave behind shame and regret; self-compassion becomes difficult. The need for comfort and soothing remains present and we turn to our old habits. Then more shame, and the cycle continues

But the short-term rewards of unhealthy coping behaviors seem so great; the desire to numb, distract, disconnect, soothe. The needs at the core of these urges are never quite satisfied. Instead, cravings remain, triggering behaviors, triggering more cravings, and so on.

The urges and cravings take up space in thoughts and feelings. As you begin to connect to your deep wise self, what can you place at the center of your life? What gives you true comfort, soothing, peace?

Take a moment and connect to a behavior or belief that has caused you suffering yet it still takes up a prominent position within you. Perhaps it’s not at the center, but it might be a behavior or belief that seems hard to live without

How have you relied on this behavior? Whether it’s an addiction or compulsion, have you clung to it? What are the consequences?

Check in with your body to notice if any tension or stress has crept back in. Re-engage with your breathing—let it anchor you.

Now, take a moment to ask yourself, what matters to you? What inspires you?

Where are you able to experience stillness…compassion…curiosity…peace?

As you experience the calmness of this moment, ask yourself, what can you truly put your trust in? God as you understand? Nature? Goodness of people? Yourself? A combination?

Whatever that looks like to you, allow yourself to connect to that trust. Where can you turn when you suffer? Where do you go to find your values?

Again, there is no right answer. And the image might not be clear—just let the possibility exist. If you are not sure where you can turn to find values or trust, see what it feels like to turn somewhere…even if you don’t have a clear idea of where that is.

This We Have Now

This we have now
is not imagination

This is not
grief or joy

Not a judging state,
or an elation
or sadness

Those come and go.
This is the presence that doesn’t.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015


By Linda Winter, JD, LCPC, SEP

Cape Cod Morning, Edward Hopper, 1950

Over the last few days I found myself thinking about attitudes or perspectives that are helpful in forming and deepening our relationships. I thought I would identify a few. These are in no way exhaustive: there are a lot more perspectives that are helpful in relationships. I would love to hear some of your thoughts and experiences!
            I find it very powerful when people can own their own role in a situation where a misunderstanding or mistake has occurred. To be able to admit when we have done something wrong can sound pretty simple. But, in many situations we find it challenging. What makes it so difficult? Sometimes our Parts are so defended, and we might be unwilling to admit our role in a negative situation. Then we might be curious: how old are these Parts? Often they are very young. Sometimes we are upset or our system is activated. Then we remember to breathe and practice other skills. It is very difficult to look at our own role until our system has settled. It is often a centered, mature, and wise mind that is able to look objectively at the situation and allow us to admit our contribution. This capacity and perspective can really allow our relationships to grow and deepen.
            One of the nuances is owning our own participation in the problem even when the other person has had a role in it. Negative or difficult situations are rarely all one person's responsibility. The balance is to own our part graciously and allow the other person to own his or hers, an opportunity that may or may not be picked up on. Whether it's with our partners, friends, or even our children, being able to say "I could have handled this differently and I wished I had," allows a lot more room for relationships to grow.
            Being able to see likes and dislikes as preferences and not necessities can profoundly change our relationships. I think for a lot of us, we don't mean to be all about “me, me, me.” Yet, somehow, that attitude can creep in. We want to go to a particular restaurant, there is a right way to do the dishes, a correct place for items to be put away, or a right way to prioritize tasks. When we can step back, and see our urges to have things done a particular way as preferences and not necessities, we have come one step closer to freeing ourselves from the frustration and suffering of our day-to-day lives. Growth begins when we recognize these urges, these compulsions, and then become less attached to a particular outcome. Just a small shift in perspective can greatly change the quality of our relationships.
            A recurrent theme this week with my clients was the power of just listening. Often, people have the impulse to give advice, or they know so much and just have to share with others. On the other hand, others feel they have nothing to contribute in a conversation. What if it's not about us knowing answers for other people? What if sometimes a conversation is really about being present mentally, physically, and emotionally and just listening? It reminds me of the contemporary scientific breakthroughs in neurobiology. For example, the mirror neurons allow us to really experience a felt sense of other people being present with us. This contemporary science confirms that we are hardwired to be in relationship with others, to be in community, to need these kinds of connections in order to fully develop and reach our full potential as human beings. Let’s practice listening!
            I have two additional nuances I want to bring to each of these perspectives. The first is to remember that this is a process. We can work towards being curious about our own role in interactions that have not gone well, so that over time we develop the capacity for a greater curiosity and objectivity. We can challenge ourselves by seeing our wants and wishes as preferences and acting on them as such. We can increase our awareness of those moments, those conversations, when all we need to do is be present and listen. It's about a presence, a stance, not about a content that we share. None of these perspectives or attitudes are places where we "arrive"; rather they are intentions that we create for ourselves in the world trying to expand our capacity for these traits. We are a work in progress!
            Second, I want to add a caveat for those who struggle to have a voice and then experience shame or guilt. I hope these perspectives and attitudes about relationships will not be seen as an excuse to accept more than our role in a difficult situation or to justify relationships where there is a lack of mutuality around activities, agreements, or levels of sharing. As in all things of life, we are seeking to find a middle path with these perspectives of relationship.
            As you look at your relationships and the path you are on in developing capacity for fulfilling, meaningful relationships, what do you notice about the traits that are present? What have you experienced or observed as significant and helpful in relationships? What are the perspectives and attitudes of relationship-making in people you admire? Please share your thoughts with me and others.

Linda Winter, JD, LCPC, SEP is a therapist with The Awakening Center in Lakeview and with The Center for Authentic Living in Park Ridge. She works with older teens, adults, and couples using body-centered models. Linda also facilitates the Teen and Adult DBT Groups in Park Ridge. Please contact her at 630-750-0354 for more information.

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

What Does It Mean to Be Recovered?

By Michel Harris, MS, RD, LDN, CDE
With most illnesses, a person is recovered once their symptoms have resolved. However, with eating disorders, it's not this simple.

For safety reasons, many of the medical symptoms associated with eating disorders must be resolved prior to discharge from an in-patient program. However, even though discharge criteria has been achieved, there is still a lot of work to do. All types of eating disorders are composed of an accumulation of misguided beliefs and behaviors associated with food. In most cases, one has suffered with his or her disorder for years, so it stands to reason that a few months of intense therapy before transitioning to out-patient treatment is not enough time to change all of these beliefs and behaviors.

There are several opinions and science-based definitions as to what it means to be "recovered" from an eating disorder. The results of research studies can rarely be applied to a whole population, and this concept applies to our definitions of recovery; they do not apply to every single person with an eating disorder.

So the question still remains: what does it mean to be recovered? Overt signs include:

Being able to accomplish daily tasks and be productive without obsessive thoughts about food
Going to a restaurant and ordering what he or she really wants, not the item that is the healthiest or safest. Exercising without the main goal being weight loss

I can go on and on, but you get the picture. Each person's recovered state is individualized, and a major portion of out-patient therapy is spent exploring and identifying what that means. Some behaviors that are considered disordered for one client may not be so for another. A good example is food choices. A few years ago, I worked with a client who questioned whether she was recovered because she still did not eat desserts. Further probing revealed that prior to her disorder, she did not have a sweet tooth, but she did enjoy savory snacks. Since she was able to enjoy the savory snacks (among other factors), we concluded that yes, she was recovered. However, the client who enjoyed cheesecake before the onset of the eating disorder and still experiences anxiety when trying to eat a small slice is still in the process of recovery.

You might feel frustrated because I have not provided conclusive and specific criteria for what the "recovered" mean; but each client has his or her own unique recovered state that must be patiently pursued with the help of the treatment team.

One last thought. The surfacing of an eating disorder thought or behavior that had been dormant for years does not indicate a relapse. Remember, years of disordered eating–related thoughts and behaviors can be reversed but are likely to surface on occasion. The recovered person is able to acknowledge when this happens and apply coping mechanisms to resolve the issue.

The important point here is that although it might emerge differently for everyone, full recovery is possible. So go for it!

Michel Harris is the nutritionist at The Awakening Center and believes in the mindful approach to develop a peaceful relationship with food and exercise in the recovery process of eating disorders.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Meditation Monday: Embracing Impermanence

By Nancy Hall, MA, NCC, LPC

In an effort to take the “manic” out of “Monday,” this weekly post explores techniques, issues, latest research, and other thoughts on meditation. Nancy facilitates a weekly meditation group at The Awakening Center. For more information, contact her at 773.929.6262, extension 17 or

Sometimes we feel stuck—convinced our suffering will never end. The fact is, our experience is always changing. And even our worst suffering will not—cannot—stay the same. But there are times when we cling to experiences or feelings—we fight impermanence, not wanting to let go. This also leads to suffering as we simply cannot hold onto things that are always changing.
            Change or impermanence does not necessarily mean things are progressing on a straight line. The reality of change is that it tends to be circular, or there is an ebbing and flowing. Sometimes we believe we are stuck in an unwanted emotion or behavior pattern, but if we examine closely, we’ll see there are slight differences—in the behavior, our emotions, our judgments.
            Accepting impermanence allows us to treasure the present moment. Clinging to an experience we simply don’t want to end or despairing that we may emotionally suffer forever takes us out of our bodies and into the trance of thinking. We churn and ruminate. But the world continues to change and evolve whether we notice it or not.
            I created the following imagery to explore the notion of impermanence a bit further.
  • Take a moment and imagine that you are in an orchard of trees—and it is spring time. All the trees are in bloom.    
  • Move in to one particular tree—notice its blooms
  • Notice any emotions or feelings that arise as you look at this flower
  • What does it feel like to enjoy this flower even though you know it will drop and die soon?
  • Now imagine time has passed and the flower has withered and fallen to the ground
  • What emotions arise in you?
  • Does your sense of loss come from worry that you’ll never see another flower as beautiful as this one was? Do you know this to be true?
  • While feeling the loss, invite yourself to connect to gratitude for having the experience of observing the flower. Connect to the hope that spring flowers will come again.

       Accepting impermanence can be the route to hope. We can accept our pain and acknowledge that it won’t last forever—hope can stabilize us as we cope with the reality of our pain. But judgment and self-criticism stifles hope. So it’s important to have a mindfulness practice so that you can catch yourself going down that rabbit hole.
            Whether you accept it or not, change is a part of the human existence. Embracing impermanence can help you be fully present in your life.

Nancy Hall, MA, NCC, LPC is a staff therapist and the intake coordinator at The Awakening Center. In addition to seeing clients for individual therapy, she leads the weekly meditation group and co-leads the Somatic-Experience-Informed Trauma Healing Group. Check and subscribe out her blog “All Shapes and Sizes,” which appears on Chicago Tribune’s media partner

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Understanding Borderline Personality Disorder

By Nancy Hall, MA, NCC, LPC
This article was first published in Nancy’s blog, "All Shapes and Sizes," on January 23, 2015. Nancy is facilitating a workshop on BPD at The Awakening Center Sunday July 26. For more info, email at
For many, getting the diagnosis of Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) comes as a relief. Finally, something to explain the mood swings, constant fear of abandonment, and relationship challenges. For others, it becomes an obstacle to treatment. Understandably, working with someone with BPD can be quite challenging, and often therapists allow only a few in their caseload. But new treatment approaches and an improved understanding of the disorder are giving sufferers and family members hope.
            According to National Education Alliance: Borderline Personality Disorder, 14 million adults are struggling with BPD. Traits or symptoms include:
·                  Intense fear of abandonment
·                  A pattern of unstable and intense relationships
·                  Unstable self-image
·                  Self-destructive impulsivity
·                  Recurrent suicidal behavior or non-suicidal self-injury
·                  Chronic feelings of emptiness
            Emotions are often intense, and anger can seem explosive and reactive at times. Those with BPD tend to function in the extremes, especially in relationships. He or she might struggle to see gradations in people; a friend or partner will be idolized one day and hated the next. At the core is an intense fear of rejection and abandonment.
            Diagnosis is difficult, especially since BPD tends to co-occur with other conditions, such as substance abuse, eating disorders, or anxiety disorders. And often the individual is consumed with shame, self-hatred, and hopelessness, so seeking help does not feel like a viable option. Additionally, the chaos and drama is often so engrained that it feels like his or her identity. The BPD sufferer cannot imagine who he or she is without those traits or behaviors.
            It has been difficult to pinpoint the cause of BPD. It does seem to run in families, but it’s unclear if that means it has a genetic component or if it is related to attachment issues. Trauma also seems to be a key factor, as 70% of those diagnosed with BPD report a history of physical or sexual abuse. Ultimately, the biological-based temperament + invalidating environment + trauma can all come together to trigger BPD.
            Treatment options are available and are showing quite a bit of success. If you or a loved one is looking for help with BPD, look for someone with training in:
·                  Dialectical behavior therapy (DBT): This form of therapy combines cognitive-based practices with a person-centered approach. Clients are led through a skills-based curriculum where they learn (1) mindfulness, (2) emotional regulation, (3) distress tolerance, and (4) walking the middle path.
·                  Mentalization-based therapy (MPD): The therapists helps clients tell the difference between their feelings or thoughts and other people’s. Folks with BPD tend to see their feelings as “the truth,” and MPD helps them find alternatives to this.
·                  Transference-based psychotherapy: This psychodynamic therapy explores the relationship between the client and the therapist to help work through the emotional instability.
          Families and individuals can find relief from and help for this stressful and emotionally draining disorder. But we all have to work to remove the shame and stigma around BPD. For more information, visit NEA: BPD.
Nancy Hall, MA, NCC, LPC is a staff therapist and the intake coordinator at The Awakening Center. In addition to seeing clients for individual therapy, she leads the weekly meditation group and DBT group. Check and subscribe out her blog,All Shapes and Sizes,” which appears on Chicago Tribune’s media partner

Monday, July 20, 2015

Meditation Monday: How We Make Our Suffering Worse

By Nancy Hall, MA, NCC, LPC
In an effort to take the “manic” out of “Monday,” this weekly post explores techniques, issues, latest research, and other thoughts on meditation. Nancy facilitates a weekly meditation group at The Awakening Center. For more information, contact her at 773.929.6262, extension 17 or

While on a family road trip, I developed a nasty cough. My husband started the trip with a bad cold and he worried that he had passed it along to me.
            “Are you getting my cold?” he asked.
            “Nope. it’s allergies.” I insisted
            The next day:
            “Are you sure you’re not getting sick.”
            “Positive. Allergies.”
            As you’ve probably guessed, I was getting sick. In fact, when we got home, I was diagnosed with bronchitis. But when the coughing started, I did not want to admit that I was sick. I convinced myself that somehow I could will the sickness away. That almost never works.
            I’m not sure if anything would have turned out differently if I had acknowledged that I was getting sick. Would I have rested more or consumed more fluids? Maybe. Did I make myself sicker by not doing these things? Hard to say. But I certainly did myself no good by denying the reality of the situation.
            We create this sort of secondary suffering with emotional pain as well. Someone hurts our feelings; we deny, resist, or minimize our sadness or anger; the pain only intensifies.
            Everyone experiences pain—physical or mental pain. If you stub your toe, you experience physical pain; if someone says something unkind, you experience mental pain. These are examples of primary suffering. We can get caught up in pushing away or avoiding the pain. Maybe we blame ourselves or others. This makes the pain worse, which is secondary suffering.
            What would happen if we accepted the primary pain when it occurs? What if we didn’t get stuck in avoidance or obsession but instead mindfully accepted the pain that is present for what it is?
            When we engage our tools of distraction to control or avoid pain, we increase our suffering because a habit or unhelpful coping mechanism becomes entrenched. We might then have a third level of suffering to contend with—judgments, shame, or anger about how we’re coping. Turning away from pain offers temporary relief—but the return of the pain in some form or fashion is inevitable.
            But what value is there in leaning into pain and suffering? Why should we subject ourselves to that? Because no matter how long we distract, avoid, or detach, the pain and suffering that is part of human existence will remain.
            Confronting and tolerating pain builds hope.
            To do this, you have to let go of the controls. Take your hands off the steering wheel and let the pain be.
            I could not get adequate treatment for my bronchitis until I stopped resisting and trying to control it. It was only then that I could get relief in the form of medicine, rest, and—most importantly—lots and lots of sympathy. And popsicles. 

Nancy Hall, MA, NCC, LPC is a staff therapist and the intake coordinator at The Awakening Center. In addition to seeing clients for individual therapy, she leads the weekly meditation group and DBT group. Check and subscribe out her blog “All Shapes and Sizes,” which appears on Chicago Tribune’s media partner

Monday, July 13, 2015

Meditation Monday: Connecting to and Accepting Suffering

By Nancy Hall, MA, NCC, LPC 
In an effort to take the “manic” out of “Monday,” this weekly post explores techniques, issues, latest research, and other thoughts on meditation. Nancy facilitates a weekly meditation group at The Awakening Center. For more information, contact her at 773.929.6262, extension 17 or

OK—I can hear the reaction. “I thought meditation is supposed to make me feel better! I’m trying to make this pain go away and now you’re saying I have to feel it?!” Yep. I am.
      The first noble truth of Buddhism is suffering exists. Ageing, illness, natural disasters are all part of this world that cause deep pain. But our suffering becomes greater when we resist accepting the pain—when we fail to acknowledge it or we engage one of our tools of distraction to numb or escape from it.
     Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBTS) offers four responses1 to any problem that arises:
  1.  Solve the problem by changing or leaving the situation
  2. Change the emotional reaction to the situation
  3.  Radically accept the situation and your reaction just as it is
  4. Stay miserable—or make things worse

   The same responses can be applied to suffering. But before we can respond, we need to acknowledge that we have pain. We have to sit with our wounds—being fully present with them. We have to really examine how the wounds have affected our lives and how our neglect of them has created more suffering for ourselves or others.
      Meditation practice can help us be a witness to our own suffering. Given the emotions that might arise during this process, I recommend practicing with a group or therapist. But if you want to start on your own, select a challenging truth in your life that is creating moderate suffering.
  • Bring to mind a situation or challenge that is causing you pain
  • Breathe deeply and connect to where your body is holding on to that suffering
  • What does it feel like? What is the experience for you?
  • Observe and describe without judgment. Just the facts—“I notice my breathing becomes shallow” or “I feel a knot in my stomach.”
  • Notice any urges to engage in distracting behaviors. Again, with compassion. If your mind wanders away from the suffering, that is not a sign of weakness. Reconnect to your breath and return to the image with gentleness and kindness
  • As you observe the wound, offer yourself kind words, as if you were a friend sitting next to yourself: “I see you’re really hurt,” “I’m so sorry this is so hard,” “There is a lot of pain there.”
  • Offer yourself compassion through touch. Place your hand on your heart, gently rub your arm—whatever feels right. These small gestures trigger the release of oxytocin in the brain, which creates comfort.
  • Continue breathing and notice the waves of emotions. Notice how they rise and fall.

      If connecting to any level of pain or suffering becomes overwhelming, it’s OK to back away. Trust yourself. You don’t have to dive head first into the deepest depths of despair. It’s perfectly fine to touch the pain and then back away. This builds mastery and tolerance.
      Some resist connecting to pain because they feel underserving. “Others have it much worse,” or “There are people starving in the world. Who cares about my petty problems?” There is not a finite amount of suffering that is doled out according to your life circumstances. Acknowledging the pain of your own experience does not minimize or take away the suffering of a Syrian refugee. On the contrary. Connecting to our own suffering allows us to feel deeper empathy for others.
      I know this isn’t an easy task, so take it slow. Suffering is inextricably linked to being human. Acknowledging your suffering and then responding to it with kindness creates the space for joy and love to enter. So take some breaths and listen to your heart.
 Nancy Hall, MA, NCC, LPC is a staff therapist and the intake coordinator at The Awakening Center. In addition to seeing clients for individual therapy, she leads the weekly meditation group and DBT group. Check and subscribe out her blog “All Shapes and Sizes,” which appears on Chicago Tribune’s media partner

1. Linehan, Marsha. DBT Skills Training Manual, 2nd Edition. New York: Guilford Press, 2015.