The Choice to Grow

Oprah has a different voice when she’s talking about growth, trauma, and spiritual things. Have you noticed? She get that wispy, deep tone and the words hang in the air.

It drives me crazy. Nothing against her, but growth is not a wispy, dreamy, philosophical breeze. It is hard and painful and every step of the way it feels like a terrible idea.

Initially when something stressful or traumatic happens there is a messy mix of being shocked, addressing concrete needs, and experiencing acute grief and loss (of a person, a home, a hoped-for life, a career, you name it and if it is meaningful, it can be grieved). After a while of grieving and feeling numb, I often see people get fed up and want something different but not know what or how.  

Then, there are a few different ways people respond in the long-term aftermath of a stressful or traumatic event. We ignore, restore/recover, or grow. It is not a linear or step-wise process, moving from one to the other, though that can happen.

Houstonians, a good metaphor for this is how people respond when they were flooded during Harvey. After the initial rescue, displacement, return, and immediate mucking there is a pause when you decide what to do next. You decide which contractors to call and how things will be put back together again. Ignoring what happened in this metaphor (and real-life situation) involves putting things back together as they were before, ignoring that there is a threat of the same thing happening again. It involves just getting through and trying to think about it as little as possible.

Restoring and recovering involves a similar process but also acknowledges the reality of threat. This is rebuilding but then intentionally keeping the drains and gutters clear, installing tile or wood floors instead of re-installing carpet. Sometimes this is all we have the capacity for. Sometimes, this is the most we can handle. That is okay; it is enough.

Growth involves taking it one step further when a person has the capacity, resources, and energy. It is renovating while we’ve got the contractor over and the house torn apart. It is looking at the blue prints and seeing what renovations might be not just be helpful but might also really spruce up the place. It is seeing the challenge of coping with what has happened and digging into how it has affected us and how we want to live in light of this experience. It is an intentional choice that involves turning away from how things have been done and turning toward something with greater complexity. Struggle and growth, when we are so able and willing to allow it to, can increase the depth and breadth of our life experience.

We don’t grow by moving forward right away. We grow by digging. It is painful, dirty and can take time.

Why bother? Weren’t things just fine before? Aren’t I too old for any of this growth business?

Novelty is good for the brain. When we try new foods, go to new places, learn new skills, it allows our brain to create new connections. Like a baby learning to use a new toy, throughout our lifetime, we can enrich and feed our brains with new experiences. This includes looking at yourself, others, and the world in new ways. This includes choosing to try to think about things differently or taking on new challenges. This gives our brain new life.

Growth can take a couple forms: perspective- or action-centered growth. Essentially, we’re growing in “being” or “doing” (or both). Both are positive, and neither one is better than the other. Perspective-centered growth is a positive change in how we mentally engage with ourselves, others, or the world, such as a significant shift in priorities, a significant positive revision in how we see ourselves. It can be existential or spiritual or purely personal. Action-centered growth involves doing things differently, trying new things, experimenting with what you are capable of.

Both, however, involve digging to see what is not working, what you’re not happy with, or what feels stagnant. It can involve acknowledging mistakes, weakness, and vulnerability. And it will certainly involve change in some way. If it makes you want to run away, you’re probably on the right track. There are an infinite number of reasons to let these things stop us from working on growing, to let the nay-saying voice in our heads keep us from trying and trying again. It involves an investment of spending some time and emotional energy (when we have it) looking around in the darkness. It involves believing that our lives are worth the investment.

Find the area of tension, the area of discomfort, the thing your mind runs away from every time it pops up. When you are ready, set up camp there. Dig. Redesign. Rebuild.

This is all still a dramatic over-simplification of the complex experience of growth, but I wanted to dip into the messy, scary reality of it. If we believe it is something hippies do or that it is easy breezy, if we try but into a challenging aspect, we might think we’re doing something wrong or that we should definitely turn back when that is not the case at all.

Allow it to be something that is complex and doesn’t make sense for a while. Allow it to not fit into a neat package or inspiring message. Allow it to not fit any words at all.

Psychology and Religion

It never ceases to surprise me how there are so often unspoken boundaries between psychology and religion. Understandably, mental health is a messy business, and church staff are rarely trained to deal well with mental health issues. At the same time, may psychologists shy away from in-depth discussion of religion because it is also not something we're particularly trained in. We are instead trained to know our fastball and stick to it. 

Except that our fastball really is the same. We both work tirelessly to help people to love, to love themselves well, and to love others well. Therefore, I ask for you to take a second to be open to considering the richness that might lie in the space where the two overlap, the space where we can help heal, challenge, and grow people into the best of what they can become, one step at a time. 


The church and the therapy room are places for reaching people in their suffering, and it takes acknowledging that suffering in order for that connection and healing to take place.

If the pain goes unacknowledged then they may persist with self-blame and frustration or go away from the therapy session or the church feeling unseen, often not to return.

They can come away thinking that they don't belong, aren't worthy of love, or are too broken to be helped. Obviously the opposite is true. 

These processes are the same. 

I read an article recently where someone wrote that millennials don't go to church, they go to therapy. As a therapist, I'm not okay with that. Nor is the opposite side of the continuum helpful, where people of faith do not understand or appreciate the value of professional psychological services. It can be both, and too often individuals don't have the experience of how the church and mental health professionals interact, of how they are complimentary. Similarly when people go to therapy seeking to fill that sense of what is greater, they too often fill it with themselves or remain empty. Connection between the two spheres is a rich space for people to heal and grow, fully connecting with who they are meant to be.

Psychology is unique in that it is a science. It emphasizes use of the scientific method to address questions related to mood, behavior, thoughts, and interactions. We use these tools to help people in the most effective way possible, weaving techniques and approaches supported by research with our understanding of the core conditions that help a person feel loved and accepted. As clinical scientists and scientist practitioners do what we can with what we have here on earth. But Dr. Ken Pargament says it best in his excellent books on psychology and religion, that those who fear science debunking spirituality are vastly underestimating God and vastly overestimating science. Religion has nothing to fear from psychology and vice versa.

But we have so much to gain from each other. There can be shared information and learning; there can be greater appreciation and knowledge about mental health issues, resources, and providers within the church, and within psychology there is so much we can learn about the depth of the existential human experience from the people who have been the original counselors for thousands of years. 

This will the the first of many posts addressing the intersection of psychology and religion. There is so much healing possible at that intersection, and I am hopeful. 

Your thoughts aren't true

Ok, some of them might coincidentally be true, but a thought itself is not necessarily true. Just because we have a thought, doesn't make it true. 

This is true generally but especially true related to depressed or suicidal thoughts, so that's where I'll focus today, in reviewing some of the recent relevant research, but it's true generally as well. We don't entirely know where thoughts come from, so why completely believe them? 

A bundle of interesting studies recently has highlighted the role of pollen in increasing suicidal behavior, with specific studies looking at differences by gender (significant risk for females, not males) and type of pollen (tree or grass increases risk but not ragweed), history of mood disorders (if you haven't had depression/anxiety, allergens increase the risk, if you have allergens reduce the risk), and effects of accounting for sunlight exposure (sunlight doesn't account for differences in risk). There has also been research on how different allergy medications affect risk for suicide (antihistamines increase risk but intranasal corticosteroids lower risk, regardless of psychiatric medications). 

There are a number of different possible reasons for this, and Much more research is necessary to really figure out what's going on.  There's certainly not enough research to suggest that any particular lifestyle change; however, it does support the case that the thoughts that might come to mind (e. g. "I should kill myself") may not be based on any kind of fact-based information. This is also consistent with research on how bacteria in your gut can affect your mood and thinking. Some thoughts may be a reaction or interpretation of different stress responses in your system.

Our brains take in all kinds of information, internally (from your gut, pain sensations, level of exhaustion, and hunger, for example) and externally (how people interact with you, whether we feel like we are a positive contributor or a burden to those around us, for example). Then the brain pulls them together into something that can take the form of coherent thought. 

That "pulling together" however, might not be totally accurate. It might be an disproportionate reaction, only based on one angle of information (only the negative, for example), might neglect to also suggest all the other ways of interpreting the incoming information, and so on.   

It is up to us to take a step back from our thoughts and take a second look when they are unhelpful or disproportionate to the situation. Where did this thought come from? Is it based on fact, on feelings, or fact-based feelings? What other information might be helpful?  

An every-day-life application of this might be -- if you're over-stressed and burnt out at work, you might think "I can't handle my job," "I can't meet my boss's expectations, so there must be something wrong with me/I'm a failure," "I'm never going to be able to be successful at this." All of these are examples of thoughts that be coming from internal signals of stress and exhaustion rather than based on actual performance. They might be coming from external signals of the stress or personalities within those around you. They might be coming from a larger system of unrealistic expectations and pressure, or a simple mismatch in training and position or expectations and reality. Thoughts like those above might benefit from a second look because they are unhelpful and very likely are distortions or misrepresentations of things you have come to believe as complete truths but are actually not (don't get defensive -- it's totally normal and human). 

When we see thoughts for what they are -- just thoughts -- it empowers us to decide which thoughts are most helpful and most life-giving, and, over time, craft a more stable and fruitful life.