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It’s Not a Vagina!

As a clinician who frequently works with sexual problems, I talk about genitals a lot! A lot! As I embark on these conversations with my clients, I have noticed how many people either don’t use the correct words for their genitals, or don’t even say the words at all. One of the most common errors I see is that people commonly say men have a penis and women have a vagina. While this is true, they are not the equivalent of one another.

I see this error in common culture verbiage also, people referring to the female genitalia only as her vagina. The vagina however is one part of the female genitals. It is the canal that leads from the vaginal opening to the cervix. This is an internal part of the female anatomy. I hear many people use the word “vagina” to refer to a woman’s external genitalia. This would be somewhat equivalent to calling the male external genitals a vas deferens (male internal tube) instead of a penis.

What people mean to say is that men have a penis and women have a vulva. Vulva is the correct term to refer to the external female genitals. It is made up of the 2 sets of lips called the labia majora and minora. It protects the internal components of the female reproductive system.

So, next time you say the word vagina, make sure you are referring to the correct anatomy. If you have never even said the word vulva, I encourage you to start using it as the appropriate term for female external genitalia.

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I’ve Tried Therapy and it Doesn’t Work

So you’ve been to therapy and it feels like it is not helpful! Finding the right therapist can take time. Just like going to a doctor, therapist all have specialties. When searching for a doctor, you look for those that will meet your needs. They may have a specialty or a background that aligns with things you value. The same is true when finding a therapist. Therapists have specific modalities or styles based on their experience or training. It is important to find a therapist that aligns with your values and specializes in areas of interest; such as, addiction, marital, depression, trauma, or parenting. 

When looking for a therapist it is important to do your research. A therapist may put on their profile “Couples Therapist”, “EMDR Certified”, or “Children Specialist” when they may not have in depth training or experience in those. It is not inappropriate or unprofessional to see if the therapist offers a face-to-face or over the phone consult so you can gain some insight to their experience and specialty. 

Even more important than finding a therapist that specializes in your area of interest and need is finding a therapist with a good fit for you and your personality. This is known as the “therapeutic relationship” or “client-therapist fit”. Short version of the fancy term is that you need to be able to relate or connect with your therapist. This relationship is one of the primary factors that promotes change in therapy alongside with the therapist specialty. If you feel understood by your therapist then it is easier to build a relationship of trust which helps promote change. 

The search for the right therapist can take some time, but it is well worth the effort! Sometimes asking friends or family for referrals can help you narrow your search. When you find a therapist give it three to five sessions prior to determining whether the fit is right. If you feel like you cannot relate by then see if they can help you find a better fit as they may have some other referrals that can meet your needs.

Lastly, you can wait too long to go to therapy! Just as you would not put off going to the doctor for a medical emergency you should not put off prioritizing your relationship or mental health. 

If you wait too long, especially in a marriage, therapy change can take quite some time. Marriage therapists are not miracle workers and cannot fix things immediately. Therapy is not a quick fix for patterns that have taken months or years to develop.  Therapy is a wonderful way to improve your relationships, understand yourself, or improve your mental well-being, especially when you find a therapist who is a good fit. If you have tried therapy in the past and felt like it has not worked, reconsider trying therapy again. Keeping in mind that it can sometimes take time to find the right therapist for you. Wasatch Family Therapy has a dedicated and experienced team to help find the right fit for you.

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Notice That

Bessel A. van der Kolk, a leading trauma expert, said, “As I often tell my students, the two most important phrases in therapy, as in yoga, are “Notice that” and “What happens next?” Once you start approaching your body with curiosity rather than with fear, everything shifts.”

Through my clinical work over the past 10 years, I have found the body to be one of the greatest teachers in helping clients to connect with, and heal from, trauma that is stored in the body. Stored trauma often manifests itself physically, such as with anxiety, panic attacks, nightmares, fear, and other “uncomfortable” emotions. Consequently, our bodies are often feared, rather than embraced as the wise teacher it is.

I have found one of the most powerful tools in helping myself, and my clients, stay in a state of curiosity, rather than fear, of these bodily sensations is the breath. When triggered by these bodily sensations mentioned above the body typically moves into the sympathetic, or fight or flight nervous system. Often, clients with trauma have learned to operate in this nervous system more often than is useful. The breath is a powerful bridge between the sympathetic and parasympathetic, or “rest and digest,” nervous systems.

Next time you find yourself filled with anxiety, I challenge you to take four deep “box” breaths, where you breathe in for four counts, hold for four counts, breathe out of four counts, and hold for four counts. After which, maintain the deep breathing pattern and notice what is happening in your body physically, and breathe into any tension you find. Then, remain curious and ask yourself what is needed to help you feel safe and secure in the present moment. At that point you may ask, “what happens next?” Take note of what inner child wounds or beliefs may be surfacing, and allow yourself to sit with that wound to find truth. Learning to become curious about thoughts that once seemed overwhelming, scary, or insurmountable can be an empowering exercise when you start unwinding unhelpful past conditioning.

Sometimes with trauma, clients may find themselves feeling stuck at certain points of traditional talk therapy. If that has been the case, it is helpful to explore other modalities to help release trauma on a cellular level, such as EMDR. Other movement based interventions such as yoga, tai chi, qigong, and dancing have also been found to be helpful in healing trauma. If you have found yourself stuck in processing past trauma, please feel free to reach out to see if we can explore some additional healing modalities. You can schedule by calling 801.944.4555.

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Flexible Thinking Part 1: Make and keep friends, romantic partners, and your job

What is Flexible Thinking?

Running a social skills group for kids ages 7-11 has taught me a lot about the benefits of flexible thinking. Flexible thinking in kids produces turn taking, transitioning smoothly to new activities, and the ability to adapt mentally, emotionally and behaviorally to a variety of situations.

Flexible thinking in adults also enables mental, emotional, and behavioral adaptability. It is the ability to consider situations from multiple perspectives, include context clues to inform decision making, manage rising emotional responses in appropriate ways, problem solve, and balance and prioritize competing desires and goals. Flexible thinking also allows for spontaneity in our romantic relationships that can increase excitement and deepen connection.

Flexible thinking looks like letting someone else pick the restaurant for dinner, cancelling plans to be with a friend or spouse who’s had a difficult day, finding solutions to problems instead of ruminating on the endless escalating spiral of “what if…” scenarios, truly listening to understand what others are saying, and not telling your boss what you really think of them when they take credit for your work during the company meeting.

Inflexible or rigid thinking in adults is often manifest in all or nothing (Black and White) perspectives and doesn’t allow for nuances and mitigating circumstances. Doing something because, “That’s how we have always done it” is an example of rigid thinking. Other examples include not listening to other’s ideas, struggling to consider the feelings and experiences of others, and obliviousness to opportunities around us because we are locked into our self-appointed expectations, rules or ideas about how something is “supposed to be.”

There is a popular Huffington Post article (“Reasons my son is crying will crack you up!”) that is unknowingly highlighting inflexible and rigid thinking. In each of these pictures, the child is having an emotional meltdown because they are stuck on one thought and the associated feeling so deeply, they become overwhelmed, abandon all reason and rebuff efforts to console them; for example, “He wouldn’t fit through the doggy door. Note the open-door right beside him.” With toddlers and adults alike, inflexible thinking can lead to unhelpful and stressful situations.

As a caution, let’s be clear that not all rigid thinking is unhelpful. There are areas in life that being inflexible is necessary and protective. With regards to physical safety and personal and emotional boundaries, it is advantageous to be rigid.

Application

We all have times where we utilize both flexible and rigid thinking, the important part is to identify where we, as adults, teens or kids, could benefit from more flexible thinking.

  • Is there an issue with your friends or spouse that keeps coming up, how could you change your perspective or response in the situation to increase connection with that person?
  • What could be a different way to address the issue? What about that issue is the real problem?
  • Could any of these same questions be applied to work relationships and circumstances?

You need to be a pipe cleaner.

Here is a visual way to conceptualize flexible thinking. During one of my first weeks running the aforementioned social skills group I came across an activity highlighting the importance of and difference between flexible and rigid thinking using a popsicle stick, a pipe cleaner and a piece of yarn.

  • A popsicle stick is sturdy but rigid. Attempts to bend the popsicle stick typically result in it breaking. Not helpful. 
  • Pipe cleaners are soft and fuzzy on the outside, come in multiple colors, bend easily, hold their shape and have sturdy wire in the middle: the creative options are endless. They are so adaptable they can bend to whatever the situation requires while maintaining their inner core (read: personal values and goals).
  • A piece of yarn can barely hold any shape at all, it’s too flexible. It can’t stand up for itself or hold a boundary and can be easily manipulated with no resistance.

Thinking like a pipe cleaner allows flexibility, adjusting, shifting, adapting and changing as needed without compromising our values. What areas in your life are you like a pipe cleaner? Are there some relationships, situations or events where you are more like a popsicle stick? Which of these scenarios or people would benefit from you being more like a pipe cleaner?

Look for Flexible Thinking Part 2: Mental Health, where I will review how flexible thinking impacts and effects our mental health.

Emerald Robertson, M.S.Ed., ACMHC, NCC

Reference:

Halloran, J. (2015, February 9). Teaching flexibility to kids. https://www.encourageplay.com/blog/being-flexible

Khoo, I. (2015, April 29). ‘Reasons my son is crying’ will crack you up. Huffington Post Canada. https://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2015/04/29/toddlers-crying_n_7033472.html

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“Won’t You Be My Neighbor?”

Anything that is human is mentionable and anything mentionable can be more manageable. When we talk about our feelings, they become less overwhelming, less upsetting, and less scary. The people we trust with that important talk can help us know we are not alone.” – Fred Rogers

I love this quote from Mr. Rogers; it is the epitome of what I believe as a therapist and strive to achieve with my clients. We are all human and we have immense capacity for handling emotions, but sometimes those emotions feel completely and utterly overwhelming. Having a person that we can trust can make those emotions feel more manageable and we might, just maybe, even be able to talk about them more openly.

 We all want to feel like we matter and that someone cares about us; that is a universal human desire. No one wants to feel like they are all alone in this life, but often that is a feeling that we experience. How do we combat those feelings of being alone, isolated, not heard, or not cared for? Connection. Connection to someone or something that allows us to feel seen, heard, and understood. Connection requires vulnerability and vulnerability can be scary. Let’s be honest, we have all probably experienced a situation that we chose to bury, ignore, or deny an emotion rather than risk being hurt by being vulnerable and sharing.

Many of us grew up with Mr. Rogers as our introduction into learning about feelings. He didn’t shy away from talking about the hard topics either: death, divorce, pain, rage, and anger all featured on his show aimed at children. His forthright presentation of issues that we, as human beings, all struggle with was not typical for the time where children were, largely, encouraged to be seen and not heard. How refreshing to help children, and the adults that we became, to learn to recognize, identify, and name the emotions that we were feeling and that it was ok to be scared, it’s human. And if it’s human, then it’s mentionable and manageable with a little help from our friends in the neighborhood. In the words of Mr. Rogers, “Won’t you be my neighbor?”

Henley, Y., Saraf, P., Turtletaub, M., Holzer, L. (Producers), & Heller, M. (Director). (2019) A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood [Motion Picture]. United States: Tristar Pictures.

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Five Tips for Navigating a Faith Crisis

Just Breathe

Really, right now take a few seconds to focus on your breath. Notice what it feels like as it goes in through your nose and out through your mouth.  A faith transition can be frightening and incredibly disorienting. Maybe you have that feeling of waking up in a strange place in the middle of the night, wondering where you are, only to remember you’re visiting a new town. Give yourself a moment to breathe, think, and become acquainted with this foreign land. Be kind to yourself. Sometimes you might feel excited or like you are on a new adventure. Sometimes you might feel hurt or betrayed. Sometimes you may feel lonely and out of place, but remind yourself that these emotions, like waves will go in and then go back out. Notice how you’re feeling without judgement. 

Start with What You Know

When your world feels turned upside down, it can feel like you don’t know what to think, believe, or know anymore. That’s ok. Start with what you do believe or what you do know. Maybe you believe in service or the power of good people to make a difference. Maybe you know how important your best friend is to you or that mint chocolate chip is still your favorite ice cream. What do you value? What is important to you? Make a list.

Reach Out

When you lose a community or separate from important people in your life, you may up feeling isolated or like no one understands. Despite that very real feeling, there are people who have gone through, or who are going through, a change in their Mormon lens too. Try looking for groups on Meetup, or Facebook groups. Network through people you already know or friends of a friend. 

Connect with Resources

“When Mormons Doubt” by Jon Odgen or “Navigating Mormon Faith Crisis” by Thomas Wirthlin McConkie are both two excellent books that are specific to Latter-Day Saints. Looking to people of other faiths, like Tova Mirvis in “The Book of Separation” can also be healing.

Slow Down

Take your time exploring the world through your new perspective. Be patient with yourself and give yourself the permission to say no and to take breaks. Find a therapist who can meet you where you are and support you wherever you decide your journey will take you. You’ve got this.

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Be Present: Enjoy the Silence

The world is full of noise and escaping that noise in important. Whether that is getting out running, hiking, walking, or enjoying any of your favorite activities. What is important in taking in the silences is that we are present. Taking the time to enjoy the silence is an act of mindfulness. Mindfulness has been shown to benefit us by:

·         Physical benefits including lowered blood pressure and improved sleep. 

·         Gaining more control of our thoughts.

·         Reduction of stress.

Remember yesterday is history, tomorrow is a mystery, but today is a gift. That is why it is called present. – Mastery Oogway Kung Fu Panda 

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Is Masturbation a Problem?

Sexuality is a charged topic for both adults and some children. Messages about what behaviors are appropriate and inappropriate are woven into the fabric of our cultural traditions, moral codes of conduct, and family systems. Negative messages cause a great deal of harm, mainly when the message contains sexual shaming. Masturbation is one of these topics.

Masturbation is extremely common, yet because it is private, we don’t talk about it with our children or a spouse. According to research, self-stimulation is a normal activity experienced by nearly all people starting at very young ages and can be observed in utero (Yang et al., 2005). Masturbation (like any behavior) can be both healthy and problematic; it is also experienced differently based on age. It well understood that nearly all males and most females will, at some point in their lifetime, masturbate.

When is it Healthy?

Nearly all professionals agree age-appropriate stages of self-stimulation is healthy. For example, exploring one’s body and how it responds sexually is a beneficial aspect of maturation. Men and women can learn what an orgasm is, so they are better equipped to educate their spouse on what types of sexual touch they enjoy. Also, individuals can use masturbation to self-sooth as a coping mechanism for mood regulation. For many people who (for whatever reason) are not in an intimate relationship, masturbation can be a healthy outlet to release sexual tension. Many relationships do not have an equal balance of libido. For some “higher libido” partners, masturbation can offer a method to balance sexual needs.

When is it Not Healthy?

Behaviors become problematic when they negatively impact, work, school, or one’s social life. Like all sexual behaviors, masturbation may conflict with religious values. In a recent study from students at Brigham Young University, researchers reported the perception of pornography (a common corollary with masturbation) is the primary predictor of negative outcomes, not the pornography use itself (Leonhardt, Willoughby, Young-Peterse, 2018). It is important to inventory what our values are and why we have them. It can be helpful to challenge what we believe, while still honoring our values and the values of others. In many situations, individuals with strict religious tenets regarding masturbation find themselves in harmful shame cycles leading to increased rates of depression, compulsivity, or suicidal ideation (Beagan & Hattie, 2015). Researchers don’t diminish the value of traditional moral values. However, they do suggest creating a healthy relationship with our values within the normal range of human experiences.

Myths about Masturbation

We tell stories and create myths to justify attitudes about sexuality. Some common myths include masturbation causes homosexuality, is an addiction, leads to infidelity, will lower sexual desire, create hypersexuality, may cause you to go blind, and causes cancer in men. These things are not true. However, there are things that do occur. For example, a partner may feel betrayed when they learn their spouse masturbates.  Couples can contract what cheating is, and what betrayal is. Feelings of betrayal are especially common when erotic material is involved. People engage in negatively impacting habit-forming behaviors with all sorts of things, including masturbation. Also, some coping mechanisms prevent healthy attachment in relationships.

Talking about Masturbation to our Children

It’s helpful for parents to have discussions with their children about masturbation in age-appropriate ways. For example, 5-year-old children don’t typically need to learn about orgasm mechanics, but talking about what “feels good” is more appropriate. Also, shaming a child by saying, “don’t touch that,” could be replaced with useful comments such as “that feels good, maybe you should do that in private.”. Children without parental guidance will learn about masturbation from friends or erotic material. Pornography doesn’t typically represent healthy sexual education. It is also beneficial to create safety for children, so as they begin to explore their sexuality (in person or with others), they feel safe to engage a parent about their experiences. Normalizing sexual desire, response, and anxieties create wellbeing for developing children. Lastly, it’s helpful to remember that not all children have the same sexual interests, levels of desire, or attractions at the same age as other children. It’s important to meet our children where they are at.

Talking about Masturbation to a Partner

An important aspect of contracting between couples includes the topic of masturbation. As a part of healthy sexual practices, discussing what is acceptable (or not) is essential. While there are many options, some couples will incorporate self-pleasuring behaviors into their relationship as a method to balance sex-drive differences. Often one partner may feel betrayal if they learn their spouse masturbates. When couples talk openly with each other about their feelings and attitudes regarding sexuality, it usually removes the stress in these situations. A good place to start is becoming aware of your own sexual biases and perspectives. Some couples find it helpful to discuss these feelings with a competent therapist. It’s important to remember masturbation doesn’t constitute cheating. Marriage isn’t the antidote for fulfilling all sexual needs. Many married people masturbate. Much of the time, masturbation creates better sexual experiences for couples.

Talking about Masturbation to Church Leaders

In many faith traditions, ecclesiastical leaders counsel parishioners regarding sexual behavior. Not all religions have sex-positive perspectives. In many cases, such leaders have no training regarding sexuality, trauma, or psychological situations. A lack of training can be problematic. This doesn’t suggest the support of an ecclesiastical leader cannot be helpful. Individuals seeking counsel from their church leader should remember boundaries are essential. It’s okay to tell a church leader what questions or statements are inappropriate or feel uncomfortable. This is especially true for parents whose children may be questioned regarding their sexual behavior, to communicate what forms of communication are acceptable and what is not.

References

Leonhardt, N. D., Willoughby, B. J., & Young-Petersen, B. (2018). Damaged goods: Perception of pornography addiction as a mediator between religiosity and relationship anxiety surrounding pornography use. The Journal of Sex Research55(3), 357-368.

Beagan, B. L., & Hattie, B. (2015). Religion, spirituality, and LGBTQ identity integration. Journal of LGBT Issues in Counseling9(2), 92-117.Yang, M. L., Fullwood, E., Goldstein, J., & Mink, J. W. (2005). Masturbation in infancy and early childhood presenting as a movement disorder: 12 cases and a review of the literature. Pediatrics116(6), 1427-1432.

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Having Courage to Slow Down

I, like many of you, spend a lot of time in my car. I always feel like I’m rushing from one thing to the next and I never have enough time for anything. As I was driving to work the other day there was a car that I ended up behind in the turning lane that didn’t increase its speed once it turned. At first, I found myself annoyed and thought “Are you kidding me? Come on, GO!!” I was looking in my side and rear-view mirrors to try to change lanes but there was a steady stream of cars in the lane next to me. I, then, realized that I didn’t need to rush, I was going to have half an hour in the office before my client’s appointment and I calmed down.

I thought to myself as I paid more attention to the car in front of me that it was probably someone old driving the car because I couldn’t see the driver’s head above the head rest. When I was finally able to change lanes and go around this car, I looked over at the driver as I passed. Sure enough, it was a little old lady, hunched over and barely seeing over the steering wheel. A smile came to my face as I thought of this woman who likely had slowed down in many aspects of her life, only one of which was driving, and how I am always in such a rush. It made me wonder how often I missed things from not paying attention and always rushing from one thing to the next.

We live in such a fast-paced world with so many things demanding our attention at once. I find myself getting lost in the mundane routine that is my life as crazy and busy as it is right now. But when I can slow down and just be present in the moment, I find that while there are parts of my life that are mundane, there are also pretty amazing things that happen around me and inside of me every single day. If we are constantly chasing the next thing, we can never truly just be with ourselves. But maybe that is part of why we don’t slow down.

Slowing down can be vulnerable. When we allow ourselves to be still, things can surface that we’ve been avoiding. We constantly measure ourselves by what we do and what we accomplish, so who are we when we slow down? Maybe we aren’t enough, maybe we are too much, maybe our emotions are too overwhelming, maybe it will be too vulnerable. Brené Brown has dedicated her life to studying vulnerability, authenticity, and courage. It takes courage to be still, to allow vulnerability, and to show up authentically. She says, “authenticity is the daily practice of letting go of who we think we are supposed to be and embracing who we are.” Slowing down, embracing who we really are, and being still with whoever we are right now can be scary but can also be powerful.

So how are you going to demonstrate your courage to slow down, be still, and embrace that you are enough?

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Finding Your Quiet Place

We live in a world of chaos filled with the hustle and bustle of life. There are school, work, home, church, family, and social obligations and responsibilities that are flying at us 24/7; it can be difficult to find the quiet in a world filled with noise. Sometimes our minds scream for the peace and quiet, they need a break from the noise of our lives. How often are you giving yourself a break? Do you allow yourself to stop for just a moment and find that peace? Wonder if you haven’t found your quiet place yet? Create it!

Choose to take a moment and make a space for yourself, if even in your mind, where you can go to feel calm and peaceful. This is a place that is all your own, it can be anything you want it to be. The key to this place is that it is a space where you feel completely at ease. There is comfort in your place. There is safety in your place. This is a sacred place.

Here’s a list of questions for you to answer, in your mind or aloud, to help you start to create a quiet place in your mind. Initially, read through the questions to become familiar with them. After some contemplation, read through them again and experience them from a deeper, more visceral place. Envision how you feel and allow yourself to go into that feeling.

Where’s your quiet place? This can be as broad as “at the beach” or as specific as “sitting on my pink and white canopy bed, holding my Cabbage Patch doll in my childhood bedroom on Forest Street in Podunk, USA”.

 Is it a place that you once visited or is it a place that you only dream of?

If you’ve been there, when did you visit and what kind of memories does thinking about it bring to mind? If it’s a real place with memories attached, dive into those memories. Allow yourself to feel and re-experience what made this place your “quiet” place.

If it’s a figment of your imagination, when did you start daydreaming of going there? Do you remember? Maybe this is a place that you have dreamed of since you were a kid. Maybe you saw a picture somewhere.

 What does your quiet place look like? Use colors, textures, and other descriptive language to be as specific as possible.

What does it smell like? Again, be descriptive. “Good”, won’t have the same sensory impact as describing the scent of the ocean or the pine of the forest after it rains.

 What do you hear when you are there? Trying to engage all your senses, do you hear insects? Birds? Water? Wind?

Do you feel the sun on your face or the wind on your cheeks? Are you warm or cold? What else do you feel? Sand under your feet? The spongy feel of the forest after a big rain?

 Are you there by yourself or do you have people with you? Who? Let’s be honest there are some people that do not help us feel calm, they don’t need to be included in your quiet place. Yep, even if they are your parents, children, spouse, or best friend. Sometimes we need to find peace away from even those that we love the most.

Lastly, after you’ve created a picture with sound, touch, smell, and maybe taste too. Give yourself permission to visit this place when you feel the noise of the world is too much. I have clients that use this as part of their morning or bedtime routine to help them get into a quiet headspace to start their day or go to sleep. Personally, I like doing it for a few minutes in the middle of my day when I have a break. I close my office door, take a few deep belly breaths, visualize a place (I have several), and let the experience encompass my senses and clear my head so that I can move on with my day with a newfound sense of quiet and calmness.

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