What Is Your Story?

By Emilie S. Thomas M.A., LMFT

Among the myriad therapy techniques out there perhaps one of the most creative is a method called narrative therapy. To simplify greatly, narrative therapy focuses on the stories we tell, both to ourselves and to others, about life. Often these stories are unconscious, yet we create our lives and how we experience our days according to their dictation. The story does not change the external facts, but it can determine how the facts are lived. Therefore, it can be a powerful, life-changing exercise to become aware of our unconscious narratives and learn to shift them if necessary to shift life itself. Sometimes that shift involves a fact-finding mission to provide data with which to compare one’s dominant story. Finding such facts can be powerful indeed, because they can prove how subjective our experiences are, not only to the stories we tell ourselves, but also to the ones we have heard from our family, our friends, and our culture.

A narrative I have come across in working with clients involves the fallacy of complete independence. Clinical studies have identified that alienation and isolation are leading contributors to mental illnesses such as depression, anxiety, and substance abuse. Since incidences of these conditions have been skyrocketing in our culture, it makes sense to examine the disconnect that people are experiencing in their daily lives. In talking with my clients, I have found that many people feel deeply faulty because they are not thriving on their own in the face of sometimes devastating hardship and sadness. They are having difficulty enough through the external facts of their situation, but then they suffer doubly– not just from their conditions but also from their personal narrative about what they should be able to handle alone. If I go on a fact-finding mission with them, we can discover together that those “shoulds” arise largely from our cultural values on independence and self sustenance, brought about by years of others’ narratives and ideas. Stories indeed can and do layer upon each other until they become a kind of accepted truth, even if there is little to no basis in fact.

To illustrate I will consult my perhaps overly extensive knowledge about pioneer author Laura Ingalls Wilder. Since I was a young girl I have been captured by her family’s strong independent spirit and their reliance on courage, love and faith to survive tremendous challenges. However, even they did not survive alone. In fact, they spent very little time without neighbors within a mile or so, and they relied on those neighbors for labor, support, childcare, and company. The extent to which they did so is not explicitly revealed in the story books, which emphasize the independence of the pioneer, but it is clear in the many researched biographies written about Wilder. Even childbirth, an event that in our collective narrative was terrifyingly isolated on the frontier, was physically dangerous, but still quite different than modern assumption dictates. In fact, women in that place and time often had “a girl” come in for upwards of two months to cook, clean, and care for older children while the mother rested and bonded with the new baby. If free help from neighbors was not available, people would often pay for it, as is reported by Wilder herself. Contrary to popular narrative, history teaches us that even women on the frontier often had company, support, and work done for them for several months after giving birth- with no guilt. I do not know of one modern family that enjoys such a luxury, let alone feels entitled to it. Therefore, I might say to a young mother struggling with exhaustion: the facts do not lie! Our assumptions and our stories might, but the facts do not. If pioneering Laura Ingalls Wilder expected and received that much help from others as a self-sustaining homesteader, why should modern mothers and fathers shame themselves for not being able to juggle babies, older children, work outside the home, and housework by themselves?

Why should a grieving widow feel like she is weak because our impatient culture tells her that she needs to move on long before the typical two years that grieving actually takes? Why should a man working two jobs feel extra shame when he struggles to support his family on his own because he believes a stronger man could do better? Life is difficult enough. There is a never ending cascade of challenges, obstacles, losses and injustices that we all must face. To suffer with guilt and shame over the tough times when our stories that engender such emotions aren’t even based in reality, is tragic, exhausting and unnecessary. Next time you hit a rough patch, pay attention to how you’re thinking about it. Are you suffering over your suffering? If so, that might be a cue to examine the narrative you’re using to handle the challenge. If it is a critical or unrealistic one, challenge yourself to accept help and support from someone else in changing the story- whether the support comes from a therapist, a friend, or family member. After all, none of us are meant to get through this trip alone.

The Things of Life

By Bill Huffman M.Div., M.A. LPC

Isn’t it amazing how the simple tasks of life can teach us lessons that can transform our lives? I have often wondered about the random events of life and how they affect our lives and the things that we must experience as a result of them. Think about flipping a coin, if you flip it often enough, eventually there will be an equal number of heads and tails since the odds of the coin landing on either is equal. Unfortunately, we may have to experience longer periods of it landing on the other side of the coin before we find that the randomness of the event has equalized. Do we have control over the outcome of any individual toss of the coin? No!! It’s strictly a random event. And if we’re trying to guess the outcome of the coin toss, it can be very frustrating. Many things in life feel like trying to call a coin toss; however, they’re usually not totally random, even the simpler things, like folding a towel.

Folding my bath towel started me on this journey. I noticed that when I folded my towel after a shower, it almost never came out with neat corners, the label hidden and placed neatly on the towel bar. Since I depended on the randomness of towel folding, it almost never came out the way I wanted to. So, one day I decided to be more intentional and deliberate about how I folded my towel and it came out the way I wanted it to every time.  Because of completing this simple task well, I came to realize that we have more control over some apparently random things than we may think. So, how might we apply this to the things of life?

There are many areas of our lives where being more intentional and deliberate will benefit us. Perhaps the most important area of life for many of us is in our relationship with our spouse or significant other. Unfortunately, many of us take this primary relationship for granted. Consequently, we eventually discover that the relationship is in trouble and we don’t understand why. The fact of the matter is that we ignored the relationship; we were distracted by other things and assumed that this person will always be there. There are many potential reasons for a relationship to fail; however, I have come to recognize through my work that social media, smart phones, and ipads have become a primary contributing factor to relationship issues.

Often couples complain about a lack of communication in their relationship.  People are over-scheduled.  Imagine a couple at home in the evening on their phones, busy with whatever and not talking. I frequently hear couples say they do the same thing when travelling in the car together. Are they intentional about improving their communication? No. Do they need to be? Yes. How could that happen we might ask? By deliberately putting the phones away with the intent of actually engaging each other about their day or anything else they want to actually talk about.

There are many people today who are relationship deprived and who desire conversation and relationship. Let’s make it happen by intentionally moving away from the phone, ipad or other things that distract us from our relationships and deliberately fold the towel of relationship well.

Parenting Strategies

By Stephanie Sterling M.A. LPC

Attunement: “being or bringing into harmony; a feeling of being “at one” with another being”.

With the vast number of parenting strategies, the volumes written giving parenting advice, and the plethora of parenting books in print out there – it can be a daunting task to determine what information offers sound instruction versus what is meant to be helpful but renders little result.

An effective approach to connecting with a child, building a relationship of trust, and laying the foundation for successful discipline and character development starts with attuned parenting. What is attuned parenting? Attuned parenting is defined as a belief that children thrive when they feel seen, understood, and emotionally connected to their parents. Parents can reflect on their children’s behaviors and emotional experiences, facilitating awareness and understanding on the part of the parent toward the child, which in turn, informs parental responses to the child that can lead to greater cooperation, positive interactions, and happier relationships between parents and children.

Attuned parenting believes that:

  • Children’s and parents’ behaviors have underlying meaning.
  • Negative emotions are necessary aspects of emotional growth.
  • The ability to repair connections after an angry disruption is an important skill, both for children and for parents.
  • Children need to feel acknowledged, recognized, and understood.
  • Parents are able to better reflect their children’s underlying feelings when attuned to their own feelings.
  • Being a parent triggers a broad range of emotional reactions that impact interactions with your child.
  • Parenting carries a lifetime opportunity for growth and transformation.

I remember a pastor of mine stating “rules without relationship won’t work”. Attunement is a way of being with your child that enhances the development of a connected and empathic relationship. When that is intentionally created and cultivated, it builds the foundation for greater cooperation when boundaries are needed to shape desired behavior and for the encouragement of character development. Attuned parenting also assumes that a child’s negative behavior indicates the child is attempting to communicate a need that is otherwise not being met and that the child lacks the tools to be able to meet the need successfully at present on his/her own.

Attuned parents ask themselves these questions in an effort to understand and “see” their child:  How does my child feel? Are they happy or sad, interested, engaged, capable of listening? Are they hungry or tired, in distress or just needing to be held? What is the best way to communicate to the child, whether something you notice in their behavior that is right or wrong, a feeling an idea…in any moment? What will engage, encourage, and show them feelings of love and care? What will be heard, perceived, felt, and learned — in short, what the parent will communicate — depends upon how receptive the child is. And how well a parent reads a child’s receptivity depends upon an understanding of how humans communicate without words. Nonverbal communication characterizes a large percentage of our day to day interactions with other humans – a glance across a room, a wave, a smile, a wink or a nod, a look of disapproval, a scowl – all non verbal signals communicate a significant amount of information with no use of words. It is important to know your child can literally sense your interest as well as your approval or disapproval in them.

Attuned parenting offers strategies to assist parents in connecting to and understanding the child while fostering a strong attachment relationship so that cooperation with “rules” is enhanced. If you are interested in learning more about attuned parenting, please feel free to contact me at the center and I would be delighted to help.

Please note that some ideas taken from, Dr. Bruce D. Perry, M.D., Ph.D. (Research Professor of Child Psychiatry, Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, Baylor College of Medicine; and Chief of Psychiatry, Texas Children’s Hospital, Houston, Texas and Susan Stern, LCSW – founder of The Social Skills Place, Inc).




April is Counseling Awareness Month

By Melissa Hansen, M.S., LPC

These days the importance of mental health and the concerns of mental illness are in our national and international consciousness. The news often has stories, sometimes disturbing ones, related to mental and emotional health. As we learn more about mental and emotional well-being, we also learn more about mental illness. And for anyone who is struggling with anxiety, depression, relationship and personality challenges, or a host of other issues, counseling is helpful and for some, even essential. As a result, we are taking a blog post this month to highlight awareness about mental health counseling.

According to the US Department of Health and Human Services:

“Mental health includes our emotional, psychological, and social well-being. It affects how we think, feel, and act. It also helps determine how we handle stress, relate to others, and make choices. Mental health is important at every stage of life, from childhood and adolescence through adulthood.”

The USDHHS continues by stating, “Positive mental health allows people to: Realize their full potential; cope with the stresses of life; work productively; [and] make meaningful contributions to their communities.” They also state that the “Ways to maintain positive mental health include: Getting professional help if you need it; connecting with others; staying positive; getting physically active; helping others; getting enough sleep; [and] developing coping skills.”

If you want to know more about the state of mental health in the United States, click on the link above for the USDHHS. The information is fascinating as we take a step back from our lives and those of our family and friends to see some broader statistics.

As you can see (above), the first way the USDHHS mentions for maintaining positive mental health is to get professional help if you need it. Of course, here at Valley Pastoral Counseling Center we are supporters and believers in the value of pastoral and mental health counseling. Whether you are struggling or you are just interested in having an outside voice be supportive and affirming toward increased self-awareness and personal growth.

According to the American Counseling Association:

“[Counseling Awareness Month is] a time to celebrate the counseling profession, showcase the important work counselors do in communities nationwide, and educate the public about the many ways in which all types of counselors empower others to live more fulfilling lives.”

For anyone interested in learning more check out these pages:

April is Counseling Awareness Month 2017

Better Together With Counseling

We hope that you consider counseling if you never have before!

New Year’s Resolutions and Other Ways to Change

By Melissa Hansen, M.S., LPC

The first month of 2017 is flying by and if you are the kind of person who makes New Year’s resolutions, you are finding that they are either well underway, you are finding them more challenging than ever, or you have already given up on them. Below is an interesting article about New Year’s resolutions that explains how to go beyond simply trying to force yourself to do something new and different. It explains how to make the kinds of changes that will last. If you are not the kind of person to make New Year’s resolutions, but would still like to experience change, then the article below is helpful for knowing how to work toward positive changes in your life.


The work of psychotherapy and counseling is also about change. The kinds of changes clients and couples and families experience is often the deepest, hardest kinds of change which cannot be touched by New Year’s resolutions – like increasing our self-awareness, growing in our relationships, and spiritual growth. The inner work of counseling and the vulnerability of inviting another into that work is both incredibly difficult and yet rewarding and freeing too. For many clients just the act of making the phone call, setting up an appointment, and then showing up and opening up every week is enough to facilitate and encourage massive change on deep levels – like watering and feeding a plant. We are not the ones to “make” ourselves or our relationships grow, but we can certainly encourage them to do so and psychotherapy is, for many, a most helpful tool in this regard.

I hope the rest of 2017 is a time of new life and freedom for you readers!