Inside In

I’ve recently had the pleasure of spending more time with my father than the busy-ness of our lives usually allows, and it’s reminded me that besides being one of my favorite people in the world, my dad can also be a hugely entertaining story-teller.

He’s now approaching his 85th birthday, and somewhere along the line must have decided that I too am an adult, since I’ve been getting to hear an unadulterated and much more illuminating version of his life story. Here’s a recent exchange for example:

Dad: So your mom was really struggling and stressed out with the first baby. I didn’t know how to help her so I decided to get her pregnant with the second one.

Me: Uhhh…

Dad: You know, so she’d rest a little more. But the second one didn’t help at all.

Me: Wait, what??

Dad: Oh sorry, I forgot that you’re the second one.

Putting aside the convoluted decision tree that could possibly lead to “the best way to help a woman overwhelmed by the work of having one baby is to get her pregnant with a second baby,” thanks for filling me in on my origin story dad, it explains a lot!

My dad has had a rich and interesting life. He was born in a small village in Greece in 1931 and remembers World War II and its aftermath in Europe, as well as the culture shock of arriving in Canada in the 1950’s and working to build a new life here. He’s faced a lot of adversity and setbacks in his life, but the only time he gets emotional in the retelling is when he connects with the moments of kindness and generosity (from friends and complete strangers) that have also shaped his story.

I was struck by thinking that if I’m in his shoes one day, if my daughter is hearing my life story, it’s going to be markedly less interesting than my dad’s.


Reprinted with permission,


Not just because I’m a less entertaining story-teller (I am), but because the things that have challenged and confronted me in my life have largely not come from in front of me but from within me. While my dad’s tale would be classified as an action-adventure, mine would be more of a psychological thriller.

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT for short) argues that while our minds are well suited to assessing and solving external problems, at this point in human history we (in the 1st World at least) are most disturbed by the internal problem of holding difficult feelings and emotions, and it is this internal problem that causes much of our suffering.

For example, imagine this 1st World problem: “The lineup at this Starbuck’s is sooo long.” We can use our minds to solve this external problem by avoiding it. We can decide to forego the coffee altogether, or to seek out an alternate supply; problem solved!

We might also choose to endure the wait, in which case the external problem can become an internal one as well (the ‘problem’ of feeling bored, resentful, frustrated, etc.)  Our minds may once again come to the rescue, but when it comes to easing difficult emotional states, the mind’s solution repertoire can be limited. Mind can tell us to distract ourselves from boredom by going on our phone or daydreaming, or to ease our sense of indignation by staring down the barista as if she’s personally responsible for the line-up…

In this example, treating an internal experience as a problem isn’t particularly problematic (except maybe for the unfortunate barista being glared at), but a lived life offers no shortage of difficult emotional states: “My heart is broken, I can’t stand it.” “I feel so ashamed.” “I’m so scared, I’m paralyzed.”

While mind might say the solution to these negative emotions is to avoid them, ACT argues that it is actually the attempt to avoid them that causes the negative emotions to persist, and – more importantly – the time, focus and energy we’re putting towards the avoidance of emotional states is time, focus and energy we’re not using in the service of what we truly value.

I don’t doubt my dad has had many difficult emotional experiences to contend with in the course of his life, I am personally responsible for a couple of them. But whether by temperament or by circumstance, he takes a very ACT-endorsed approach to emotions: notice them, acknowledge them, feel them, and do all of that while you’re also doing what you were doing, unfolding the latest chapter of your adventure.



Becoming an emotional “Weeble”

Are you old enough to remember Weebles?

They were (apparently still are?) egg-shaped figurines with a weighted bottom, sold as toys to little kids who … like to play with egg-shaped figurines, I suppose. I never actually owned a Weeble, but their tagline has been indelibly etched in my brain: Weebles wobble but they don’t fall down.

I think there is a lot of value in being an emotional Weeble, regularly wobbling as you experience the highs and lows at the extremes of the emotional continuum (and everything in between), all the while trusting you will not fall down.

When it comes to experiencing strong emotions, too often the people I meet in therapy fear they will fall down, or worse, feel they have previously repeatedly fallen down and now live in dread of the next time it will happen.

One of the hypothesis to explain the development of panic disorder is to view it as a “fear of fear”:  the noxiousness of a previous experience of panic leaves us hypervigilant and sensitized to any changes in our body that might indicate another one is around the corner. This level of vigilance itself leads to symptoms in the body (since it activates the fight or flight response), which we then notice and attribute catastrophic meaning to. Catastrophizing thoughts create more fear, which exacerbates our physical symptoms, and the cycle continues.

Similarly, some of my clients with a history of depression are understandably highly attuned to their emotional fluctuations and notice subtle changes in their mood state. Developing a level of self-awareness and attunement to the early warning signs of depression is actually an important part of relapse prevention, but it can also be counterproductive when the emphasis gets narrowed to the moment-by-moment ‘how am I feeling’ rather than the broader ‘how am I doing’.

Depression is a pervasive mood state that impacts all aspects of our experience (our thoughts, emotions, and behaviour), while sadness or grieving are feeling states. Feeling sad about a saddening event is not likely to lead to a relapse into depression, but interpreting that sadness as a sign of an impending return to depression – and acting listless, resigned and despairing in response, avoiding work and social interactions, letting nutrition, sleep and exercise lapse – certainly could.

Being an emotional Weeble means being both willing to experience our emotions, and able to see that they are passing feeling states. Just like the Weeble that one might imagine screaming as it teeters to its edge, having a solid and grounded centre helps us pull back upright. And just like the Weeble, we likely won’t stay upright for long before the next wobble sends us teetering.

Finer than Fine

A few years ago, when I was working in a Drug and Alcohol Counselling Agency, a client gave me a curious look when she asked how I was doing and I responded “Fine.” She told me in her recovery group she’d learned that fine stood for F***ed Inside, Nice Exterior. Since that day I’ve tried to take that word out of my feelings vocabulary, and hear it a little differently when someone tells me they’re doing “Fine.”

Alexithymia, which literally translates to “without words for feelings,” is a psychological term that’s garnered a fair bit of interest. While there are people – mostly male people according to the research – who may be diagnosable alexithymics, most of us are fewlexithymics. Don’t bother googling, I just made it up; it means using the same narrow range of words to describe our feeling states. So when someone asks us how we’re feeling, we don’t say “effervescent” or “melancholy,” we say “fine” (or “crappy,” as the case may be).

And what’s wrong with that? Well some may argue that putting words to a feeling is an integral part of fully experiencing that feeling (hence the interest in studying alexithymia). And even if there’s nothing lost in not being able to colourfully describe our feeling states, surely there’s something to be gained in finding the word or phrase that aptly captures both the quality and the intensity of what it is we’re experiencing. After all, expressing our feelings is an exercise in connection, first connecting with ourselves (so that we even know what the answer to ‘how am I feeling?’ is) and secondly connecting to another by giving them a glimpse of our internal landscape in that moment. “Fine” gives a broad and unfocused view while “anguished” or “thankful and inspired” or “uncertain and confused” offer a richer and more precise picture.