Thursday, 27 August 2015

A biopsychosocial understanding of childhood adversity

 How early emotional experiences influence our psychological and physical resilience:

(image taken from

 Growing Pains stock photo

I just read this compelling article by Donna Jackson Nakazawa on Psychology Today's website. So many people who seek medical attention with a myriad of chronic illnesses have experienced adversity (poverty, neglect, abuse) in their childhood lives. Anectdotally, all healing professionals could site countless examples of this. This takes the 'nature versus nurture' argument in whole other direction, because, of course, they are connected. I often say that emotional well being and coping skills (emotional regulation) are something that we learn in part, much like reading. When we are reading we learn that symbols have sounds, and that those sounds then join to make words. With emotions and coping how we learn is based on how our early emotional needs, for security, for strength, for being understood, for attunement, are met by our caregivers. These experiences are like symbols and sounds that we put together. If we need soothing, for example, but are further frightened by our caregiver this 'sets up up' more greater emotional vulnerability. This explains why some people are hyper-sensitive to criticism and internalize this (as in depression) and how for some people relatively benign stressors are fear -provoking (as in anxiety).  There are of course long term consequences from this stress on the mind and body  I have shared the article below:

Part II of the article - not yet posted - includes the phrase "How we come back to who we really are" in the title. I would bet that this includes self inquiry and self care. 

I hope you found this research as interesting as I did! 


Thursday, 7 May 2015

 (Artist, Delilah K. Stephens, copied without permission)

 A Mother's Day Message

This post began as a rather childlike rant in my mind about how much I dislike shopping for Mother's Day cards. These at best sappy, at worst saccharine, messages decorated with butterflies and pastel coloured flowers provide a lovely token for some children to offer to Moms, or a frustrating dilemma for others who find it very difficult to offer a lie about who their mother is or has been to them. At last check I did find some cards that attempted to be funny by talking about potty training.  (I pause now to say thank goodness for the 'Blank Note' category at the card store). Of course, not everyone needs to celebrate Mother's Day or perhaps the day is one to be avoided due to grief and loss. 

I would offer up a suggestion that we take a moment to honour the Divine Feminine, mother energy, Mother Earth or whatever term makes sense to you. In Celtic tradition the month of May brought the Beltane Fires, a time of renewal, reconnection to the earth and a welcome back to the light. 

By all means, take the time to recognize those you love and time to receive those thanks from children. I have every single crayon-crafted, construction paper card and macaroni masterpiece I have ever received from my two daughters over the years. But I suggest we look for something deeper, more meaningful - that we can't find on a greeting card. 

Blessings to you,


Wednesday, 22 April 2015

Lines in the Sand - Healthy Boundaries and Relationships

Lines in the Sand - Healthy Boundaries and Relationships

Image result for free images lines in the sand

(If this is your first time visiting please have a look at the first blog entry). 

Another common issue that people bring to therapy is that of being disappointed in their relationships. So many people are very puzzled by why they seem to give and give and never receive.  Relationships, are of course, a 'two way street', and we can't always influence or change other people, however we can have more fulfilling relationships if we cultivate a healthy sense of self and understand where our 'blind spots' are in our expectations of ourselves and other people. This would be the pillar of Self Awareness (and maybe Self Care).  These blind spots are neurologically hard wired  as we learn to relate to people from birth and our experiences of being 'heard' and 'understood' by our caregivers. So many people describe the experience of receiving love conditionally, that sort of 'quid pro quo' that includes that we are lovable if we do certain things in a certain way. This is a common dynamic in families that were 'closed systems'; where parents' behavior and habits (such as alcoholism) meant that there were rigid expectations of what face the family showed the outside world. This is also the case when children learned not to ask for help so as not to bother their parents. If you quietly go about meeting their needs you will be ok.  In the extreme this can create 'co-dependent traits', where your well being is predicated by helping someone else.  This is where we learn our own 'line in the sand'; where we can trust that we will get what we need or be fearful and set up maladaptive behaviours and defense mechanisms.  An example of this (and one I endure myself) is the belief that if we are giving people will love us, and give back. What we all eventually learn, however, is that givers attract takers. (Pause for a moment and consider if you have had these patterns in your life). For decades I have been a gift-giver, question asker, concerned person -  only to be disappointed when these overtures appeared not to be appreciated or reciprocated. This delusion was based in my early conditioning that I had to please people to be accepted - that just simply being me was not good enough. The flip side of being giving is that people perceive you as a push-over or a doormat.  The other twist here is having any expectations of anyone, at all can leave you feeling disappointed. The folks in your life who you were supposed to have expectations of did not deliver and this has set you up for skewed ideas of give and take in relationships, including the things you believe people should give to you.  People, by the way, have a right to choose how they respond - even to you! 

Over the years I have researched and shared the resources that follow with many people. I hope you find this helpful on your journey of self recovery.

Personal Bill of Rights:

1. I have the right to ask for what I want.
2. I have the right to say no to requests or demands I can't meet.
3. I have the right to express all of my feelings, positive or negative.
4. I have the right to change my mind.
5. I have the right to make mistakes and not have to be perfect. 
6. I have the right to follow my own values or standards.
7. I have the right to say no to anything when I feel I am not ready, it is unsafe, or it violates my values. 
8. I have the right to determine my own priorities.
9. I have the right to NOT be responsible for others' behavior, actions, feelings or problems. 
10. I have the right to expect honesty from others.
11. I have the right to be angry at someone I love.
12. I have the right to be uniquely myself.
13. I have the right to feel scared and say "I'm afraid". 
14. I have the right to say "I don't know".
15. I have the right not to give excuses or reasons for my behavior.
16. I hve the right to make decisions based on my feelings.
17. I have the right to my own needs for personal space and time.
18. I have the right to be playful and frivolous.
19. I have the right to be healthier than those around me. 
20. I have the right to be in a nonabusive environment.
21. I have the right to make friends and be comfortable around people.
22. I have the right to change and grow.
23. I have the right to have my needs and wants respected by others.
24. I have the right to be treated with dignity and respect.
25. I have the right to be happy.

From:  The Anxiety and Phobia Workbook, by Edmund J. Bourne, Ph.D.  

Here are a couple of articles that I think are 'bang-on' in terms of helping to awaken to unhealthy patterns in relating to people. Lynn Namka has a great website that looks as unhealthy boundary patterns in families, as well as how to help children cope with anger. "Light" has a fantastic website for adults of parents who were and are self-absorbed.

A footnote for parents:

Although we all want for our children to be happy - our OWN happiness should not be contingent on this. I once heard a quote from the t.v. show The Middle that:  "you are only as happy as your unhappiest child". I thought this was funny - but really we can be frustrated with any unhappy child, we can have empathy, but we really should not base our own feelings of worth or effectiveness on our children's happiness. 



Thursday, 11 December 2014

Creating your own Christmas ritual

"What is Christmas? It is tenderness for the past, courage for the present, hope for the future. It is a fervent wish that every cup may overflow with blessings rich and eternal, and that every pathy may lead to peace". 

Agnes M Pharo

This morning I write this looking at a lovely blanket of  snow that (hopefully) puts us in the yuletide spirit. In a rare moment of quiet reflection I think of the importance of self care during a time we tend to get caught up in consumerism, social pressures, or perhaps feelings of loneliness. Christmas begins for us with childhood experiences, memories and traditions - good or bad. I know this time of year I find myself missing my grandparents and the large family get-togethers that used to happen. Yet, it is lovely to have new rituals (well, over 25 years now) with my husband's family. For so many of us Christmas may also be somewhat of a minefield as we try to navigate the many competing demands and expectations, or worse, the toxic repetition of dynamics that have happened year after year. Who is hosting? Who feels left out? Will Uncle Joe be invited this year? Perhaps you have become estranged from or are choosing not to be with your family.  It can all get to be a little much and we can lose sight of who we really are, what we really want and what the season truly means to us. What I am proposing here is that you take some time to create a ritual that is for you alone to honor and reflect on the closing of one year and preparing for the next.

This does not have to be a solitary pursuit unless your soul and psyche crave this. It could be attending a Christmas or other seasonal service, going for a walk and taking in the lights at nighttime, offering time at a shelter, watching a favourite Christmas idea, the possibilities are endless. the idea is that this time recharges you, renews your energy and lets you connect to what the season means for you.

I am happy to share my ritual which happens on the afternoon of Christmas Eve. It has been longer or shorter depending on the day and the age my kids are! I make sure to have candles, something bubbly to drink and some simple bath products. Once prepared I play Christmas music, draw a long bath and just soak, listen and take a much necessary break. Last year I also went for a long run and got the benefit of some fresh air and endorphins.

Whatever you decide to do, be well and best wishes of the season.

Stacey Sanderson

"There is no ideal Christmas, only the one Christmas you decide to make as a reflection of your values, desires, affection and tradition. "   Bill McKibbon

trees lights christmas iced earth high resolution peaceful christmas ...

Thursday, 18 September 2014

The Four Pillars of Self Discovery


Why Four Pillars?

This idea has been a few years in the making, a culmination of research, self inquiry and rich conversation with women (and some men)  in my psychotherapy practice. The question may be: why do I need to discover myself? The answer is because so many of us describe feeling like something is missing, not knowing what 'normal' is and seeking that inner compass and self confidence that seems to come naturally to so many. So many of us learned to hide certain parts of ourselves, to only put our best faces forward; to be and achieve based on a parent(s) ideas of what we should do, their projections of success. But as we live in this false sense of self we feel like something is missing, a core something. We feel alone in a crowd and our accomplishments feel empty at times. We may have difficulty saying no to people or ruminate about how our actions have affected others. We may revisit conversation or scenarios in our minds.   The concept of creating four pillars that hold up our sense of self is inspired by the timeless work of Alice Miller's 'The Drama of the Gifted Child', Nina Brown's 'The Children of the Self Absorbed' and Karyl McBride's 'Will I Ever Be Good Enough'. These books about the challenges of being a child of a narcissistic and/or self absorbed parent have been well read, well recommended and have allowed for watershed moments of healing. Allowing ourselves to focus on the specific task of building our sense of self from the ground up may seem overwhelming at first but is a journey meant to be taken at your own pace. I would recommend that you buy a journal, a scrapbook, a notebook, whatever makes sense for you, to capture these ideas. You may want to cut out pictures, write down quotes, pour your heart out on these pages. You may choose to take this journey with a trusted friend, confidante or therapist - whatever you need. Let's begin, shall we?

The Four Pillars

1. Self Awareness 

This is about getting to the nitty gritty of how you have been affected by your family of origin experiences, notably the 'narcissistic wounds or wounding' that you carry with you. This is where reading any of the above-noted books may come in handy. You may daringly type 'narcissistic parent/mother/father' into a search engine and see what comes up. I recommend Dr. Karyl McBride's website: and "Light's" Page:  This is a form of 'psycho-education' that can help you learn about the dynamics of such a family. All forms of relationship pathology exist on a continuum of severity, based on the nature and extent of pathology with the parent(s) so not every scenario will be the same as yours, of course.  Notice how you feel when you spend time with or speak with said parent. Think about any difficulties you may have with acknowledging your success, enjoying your relationships, (heaven forbid) saying no to people. Do you have relationships with people who give as much to you as you give to them? Do you hold grudges?  Have you ever experienced anxiety or depression? What sorts of situations or dynamics trigger you to feel down about yourself, or anxious about if you have done the right thing? Try writing these questions down and then answering them. Do you feel that it is ok to express your feelings? Your sadness or anger, or fear?  Perhaps get feedback from family, friends, a partner a professional, whatever feels safe for you. Getting familiar with attachment theory can help you learn about your style of understanding yourself, your inherent worth and how you trust others. This site is a good starting point:

2. Self Care

Do you subscribe to the philosophy that if you take care of yourself that you will have more to give to other people? (Think of this as priming the well). Do you take time each day to notice what you need? This is about the basics, food, sleep, medical attention, but also about the pursuits that feed your soul. Many children of self- absorbed parents were denied the basic needs at worst and the 'nice extras' at best, or they were repeatedly reminded of the sacrifices said parents made to provide for them. As a result, it can be difficult to care for yourself. The Canadian poet and psychotherapist Marion Woodman has written about 'giving an hour a day' to your body - does this seem reasonable? This time need not be given all at one, perhaps you could break that into smaller intervals. A walk during your lunch break, a warm bath, a half hour massage, you get the idea. This includes planning, purchasing good food and creating meals that sustain you. This is about surrounding yourself, when you need to, with loving, supportive, funny people - who get you! Tune into your gut. Make choices that are authentic for you. Say yes when it is right for you to do something and no when it is not. (More on this in the next pillar). 

3. Have a Relationship with Your Parent(s) or Others on Your Own Terms

Working on the other two pillars will help to prepare you for this one. Keep a notebook,  or journal handy to capture ideas and insights as they come to you.  Notice what motivates you to speak or spend time with your parent(s). Notice what motivates you speak, spend time with or do things with everyone. Are you fearful of rejection? Are you afraid to let people down? How do you feel after you spend time with people who stress you out? Saying no to people, especially parents, can be a bit daunting. Expressing and advocating for yourself may put you in unfamiliar territory. Start with people you know well and trust, a friend, a partner, a colleague. Repeat after me:"no, thank you." Decide how much time you want to spend with parent(s) and stick to this. Your parent has spent many years honing the ways they get you to do what they want, so be aware of that and CHANGE THE DANCE. Be gracious when declining invitations or requests. "Mom, I don't have time to speak on the phone right now, I need to get dinner ready, but perhaps we could chat later?" If you have a parent who tends to fixate on what is negative in your life, change the subject to something lighter. Choose carefully what information about your life you share with them. 

4. Find Your Own Compass/Chart Your Own Course 

Your values and sense of spirit are what hold this pillar up. What is important to you? What inspires you? What ethics guide your decision making? What types of people do you like to be around. Try creating a personal mission statement that guides you and gives you a reference point. We all have our own spiritual 'true north' that guides us when we feel lost. Thinking about this will help you to get more in touch with this. What celebrations or rituals do you participate in yearly, monthly, even daily? Meditation can be a wonderful way to connect with spirit - could you find a book, a CD, a website a class nearby? Art, music, poetry, crafting, gardening (fill in any blanks you find) are all activities that feed your spirit. Have you put off trying any of these. Write down, tear out, bookmark or list any of these things that you see advertised that speak to you. 

Stacey Sanderson, B.S.W., M.A.,RSW