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 Two)

Welcome to 2020, everyone! It’s the beginning of a brand-new year and a brand-new decade. Milestones like this can be both exciting and intimidating. They invite us to look back on the past decade, assessing experiences, successes, and failures. They inspire us to look toward the future, and imagine what we could do, and who we could become, in the future. 

To celebrate the season, I’m sharing a few more thoughts on setting meaningful goals. I know that many of us are thinking about New Year’s resolutions. I think goal-setting is an art form worthy of careful consideration. In my last post, I talked about the value of assessing the past year and envisioning who you aspire to be in the next one. Today, I’m going to talk about what you can do next, to start bringing those beautiful visions to fruition.

It’s important to acknowledge that effective goals are those that feel meaningful to you. If a goal is not alignment with your beliefs and values, you’re probably not going to be motivated enough to pursue it. Changing our ingrained habits is challenging, and you need pretty strong motivation to help you push through the inevitable setbacks; you’ll have trouble with follow-through if you’ve only chosen your goal because it’s what you think you’re supposed to want, or because someone else wants it for you. 

It’s also worth noting that, if your goal is a bit of stretch, you will probably not have a smooth road to success. You will encounter obstacles, forget your goals, get distracted or frustrated, and probably even meet with some opposition from others around you. There’s just no way around it. The key is to keep moving forward, however gradually, and keeping your eye on your own dreams and desires. If you think it will be straightforward, you might become discouraged and give up. Far better to go in with the expectation that progress will come slowly, and the process will not be linear. 

For that reason, I encourage you to start by focusing on small but meaningful steps, rather than huge leaps. Return to your hopeful Technicolor vision of the life you want, and the person you will be in that life. Ask yourself, what is one thing you can do that is a part of being that person, in that life? This should be a small but meaningful step, something you have at least 80% confidence you can accomplish. Ideally, it should also something you can feel excited about.

Next, make it real. How will you actually do it? Maybe you have a somewhat abstract goal. If that is the case, find a specific, actionable step that will lead you closer to your larger aspiration. For instance, if your goal is “I would like to cultivate compassion for myself and others,” you might resolve to carve out ten minutes at the end of each day to practice a loving meditation or to journal with a mind towards compassion, or develop a gratitude journal. Whatever your goal, whether concrete or abstract, figure out a first action step to put into practice. Following through will help you build confidence, while also creating the life you want.

Of course, your goal might be anything, but whatever it is, here are some things to keep in mind: 

  • Make sure you are 80% confident you can follow through on your action step exactly as you intend. If you’re not there yet, adjust your action step until you can actually do it. Being reliable to yourself is extremely important.
  • It’s inevitable that there will be days when you don’t follow through. That’s fine, and you should forgive yourself easily. But don’t just ignore it either. Figure out what got in the way. Did feelings get in the way? Thoughts? Inadequate self-care? Circumstances? Figure out if the thing that got in the way was in accordance with your values. If not, maybe you want to make an adjustment to how you respond in circumstances like that, so that you can do what you intended. For instance, let’s say cultivating compassion is your bigger goal, and a gratitude practice is your action step. If you don’t do it one day because you were helping a friend in need, you have cultivated compassion anyway. On the other hand, if you don’t do your gratitude practice because you’re exhausted and depleted, you will need to figure out how to manage exhaustion and depletion. Realistically, exhaustion and depletion are going to be part of your life at times, so if you want to still move towards acting in the way you aspire to act, you’ll need to consider how to cultivate compassion despite the inevitability that you will at times feel grouchy and worn down.
  • You should feel excited about your action steps. That might require a bit of a mind shift. This is what I mean: when you think about doing that thing, you should be able to connect it in your mind to something meaningful to you that comes with terrific payoff. For instance, taking out the trash might not sound fun, but if it represents being the kind of person you want to be, and you are very excited about creating that life, you can shift the way you think about taking out the trash so that it feels a little more fulfilling. Keep your focus on that connection: how do your action steps move you toward something that is wonderful?

As you practice your action step, it get easier. Eventually, it will become just a part of how you go about your life. Whenever you are ready, add another action step, or simply switch it up. But whatever you do, don’t overwhelm yourself with a list of things you have to do! That is a surefire way to prevent yourself from changing your life in the ways you want.