What Does It Mean To “Hold Steady?”

I often use the term “holding steady” in my work, and in my blog. But what is “holding steady”?

Holding steady is a key relationship skill–for all relationships, romantic and otherwise–because it is foundational to sharing your truth with others, as well as hearing someone else’s. Today I’m going to take a moment to describe what it means to hold steady, and discuss how you can build that skillset, or help your clients build it. 

Have you ever overreacted in a stressful moment and said something you didn’t really mean? Or shut down completely, so that an important conversation couldn’t continue until you had recovered? Or felt emotionally ragged when things are not going according to plan? Most everyone has. Holding steady is how I describe the skill of maintaining emotional groundedness and emotional steadiness, even under stress.

Holding steady is a choice that you make in a moment of tension. It starts with paying attention to your body, mind, and stress responses. When you notice early signals of rising tension–your heartbeat quickening, your breath coming faster, your muscles tensing, your thoughts getting extreme, mean, or focused on what is wrong outside of yourself–you have a choice. You can let your physiology and self-protective brain run away with you, and probably end up getting angry or shutting down. Or you can choose to do something counter-intuitive: you can decide to purposely slow down and hold steady. This might involve slowing your breathing, slowing your heart rate, reaching for calm, and shifting how you are thinking, rather than simply reacting. 

Holding steady is a skill that you get better at with practice. Lots of practice. Your body’s natural reactions to stress are deeply ingrained. Ultimately, they’re adaptive–they’re linked to the instincts our ancestors developed to stay alive in a world full of life-threatening dangers. The self-protective responses that tell us to fight, flee, or freeze occur instantaneously. This is fabulous when you need to run away from a saber-toothed tiger, but not so good for having an empathetic, emotionally-vulnerable conversation about a painful topic with a loved one. 

Nobody comes into the world with the ability to hold steady through a tough conversation. We all have to work on it. But the good news is that it gets easier every time you do it. You can accustom your body and your mind to slowing down, breathing deeply, and resolving not to react too quickly. You can learn to disarm some of the intensity of the perceived threat.

I don’t want to make holding steady sound easy. It isn’t easy, not at all! It takes some serious motivation to overcome the impulse to save yourself or attack the perceived threat. Here is a short checklist of questions that can help motivate you to hold steady: 

  • Ask yourself, why do I want to hold steady rather than reacting automatically? List all the reasons it would benefit you, other people, and your relationships.
  • Are you clear on exactly what you want to do differently? What is your first experiment with holding steady going to involve? Here’s some ideas to get you started: counting to 10, taking a walk around the block, splashing water on your face, slowly exhaling while telling yourself calming things, etc. What is your action step? It should have something to do with slowing down, and it should be specific and actionable. You should ideally be about 80% confident you can do it. 
  • List ways your life will be better when you have succeeded at this project. How will you feel about yourself? Your partner? Your relationships?
  • Get all of this at the forefront of your mind. When you’re under stress, you will forget unless it’s front-and-center. Make up a mantra or power word, or write it on your hand. Get it to the front of your mind and keep it there. 

Now that you have your motivation and strategy in place, it is time to change the thoughts that get you worked up and escalate stressful situations. Your new strategy will certainly involve slowing way down. It will be very helpful to come up with new thoughts that you can tell yourself that diminish the perception of threat and slow things down. You will be your own coach for this process, so think ahead and come up with some great self-coaching lines that will help you stay steady when intense feelings arise. 

Here are some things you might try telling yourself:

  • It’s okay if you don’t come to an agreement in this discussion. 
  • There is no rush.
  • This is not actually an emergency. Look around and notice how things are basically ok. Everyone is breathing, nobody is bleeding, and the house isn’t on fire.
  • If you can get curious, you might learn something interesting about how your partner sees things.
  • Be a leader. Emotions are contagious, so ask yourself: which emotions do I want the other person in the discussion to catch? Calm, loving feelings, or escalating freak-outs? You choose.
  • It’s okay if you don’t get all of your points across right now. 
  • Do you understand why the other person/people are responding as they are? Get clear on that by asking them and saying it back until you get it right.
  • This can just be the first of many conversations. 
  • It is better to take a break than to say something damaging. Take a break if you need one.
  • The stories you tell yourself when you’re feeling bad are always distorted. Wait till you are calm before drawing conclusions or making decisions.
  • Do not say anything mean. I promise, it will make things far worse. Stay steady and be as kind and warm as possible.
  • The most important thing is connection and respect for one another. If you maintain those things, you can resolve anything, or agree to disagree.

Holding steady through a tough conversation will allow you to go deeper into the topic, which will help you understand other people better, and give them the opportunity to understand you better. It will save you the regret of realizing you’ve said something hurtful in the heat of the moment, and the work of repairing the rift that comes with that. And it will give you the power to control your emotional responses, so that you can act as the best version of yourself in every moment.

Building A Practice That Embraces Sexual Diversity

It’s just a fact that there aren’t enough LGBTQ therapists to work with all the LGBTQ clients out there. Nor are there nearly enough polyam therapists to work with all the polyam clients, or enough kinky therapists to work with all the kinky clients. The same goes for every other marginalized population. 

The good news is that you don’t need to be a member of a marginalized population in order to work effectively with members of that population. You just need to be warm and compassionate, willing to listen and learn, and open to challenging some of your ingrained assumptions. 

Here’s my advice for building a practice that embraces sexual diversity:

  1. Invest in continuing education about diverse sexualities (LGBTQ people, asexuality, gender diversity, polyamory and other consensual non-monogamies, kink, etc.) Very likely you have a license with continuing education requirements; why not focus some of your continuing ed on expanding the range of populations you’re prepared to work with? 
  2. Use inclusive language on your website and your online profiles. Your potential clients pay attention to the language you use. They’re on the lookout for signs that you may or may not be prepared to work with them, and this is a great and easy way to signal that you are. For instance, it might benefit you to avoid using language that assumes your potential clients are heterosexual and in monogamous relationships. 
  3. Use inclusive language on your intake forms. For instance, on my forms, I have a write-in line for gender, and another for pronouns, so my clients don’t have to select from limited options or take on a label they don’t choose for themselves. 
  4. Be open about the fact that you’re still learning. Your clients don’t need you to be perfect, they just need you to be warm, compassionate, and open to learning and feedback. If you make a mistake, make a good repair. Let your clients know you welcome an honest conversation about their experience of working with you. If you use incorrect pronouns, and they correct you, respond warmly, with kindness and gratitude. If they give you any kind of feedback at all, take it seriously and honor it as a demonstration of differentiation of self. It is not easy to speak up in this type of situation. Your client is awesome for pushing back, and you should do all you can to make it easy for them to give you honest feedback. 

 

The world needs more therapists who are competent and confident working with marginalized groups of all kinds. This advice focuses on people who are marginalized on the basis of sexuality, but it holds true for any marginalized group. There are clients out there who need you, and you have an opportunity to make a big difference. Go for it!

Setting Meaningful Goals: New Year’s Edition (Part One)

As 2020 approaches, I know that many of you are probably taking some time to assess the past year: its joys and sorrows, high points and lows, successes and failures. I know that you’re probably also looking ahead to the next year, and wondering what it will bring. Perhaps you’re also thinking about New Year’s resolutions. 

Many of us are familiar with the rinse-repeat cycle of New Year’s resolutions: choosing too big of a goal, or the wrong goal, and then falling short and being overcome with disappointment, shame, or guilt. This all-too-common phenomenon is entirely counter-productive; it’s not self-loving, and it discourages us from trying again when we falter. 

Setting good goals is an art form. It takes some real skill and self-knowledge to identify a goal that is achievable while still being a meaningful stretch. In this two-part series, I’m going to explore the topic of meaningful goal-setting, and provide some guidance for how to create an effective resolution. 

First, let me be clear: an effective goal is a self-loving goal. Often people go wrong with their resolutions because they are actually a little bit punitive. Don’t do that!! You can’t hate, shame, or guilt yourself into lasting change. Speak kindly to yourself about your dreams and desires, using a loving, playful, or nurturing voice, rather than a scolding or critical one, and see how much more effective you are at achieving your goals.

Setting a good goal starts with self-assessment. Ask yourself these questions, and answer them on paper:

  • What went right for me in 2019? List at least 5 things. Feel free to list 20 or 30. 
  • For each item on your list, add: What did I do to create this, encourage it, or not get in the way of it happening? No matter how much your successes appear to have come from outside of yourself, you did play a role. Figure out what you’re doing right.

Next, start dreaming. Write down some thoughts about these questions:

  • What do I want my life to look like in the next year?
  • What kind of person am I, in my vision of the life I want to create for myself? 
  • How do I want to feel, in my relationship with myself, others, and work?
  • What do I want to give to the world?

As you read over your dreams and desires, picture them in vivid Technicolor. Allow yourself to feel all the feelings associated with your successes, present and future. Let it feel real. What does it look and feel like to get where you are going?

Is it difficult to feel the feelings you will feel in the future, when you have succeeded at your goals? I bet you have some experience with success. Remember a moment when you felt fabulous. Call that up, make it vivid, and then sit with it. Get comfortable feeling as fabulous as you want to feel.

The first part of goal-setting is allowing your imagination to roam, and allowing yourself to feel the feelings associated with success. In part two, I’ll walk you through the next part of the process: taking small but meaningful steps, and making it real by setting achievable intentions.