The Problem With Disney’s Frozen: Being a Savvy Counselor in an Emotionally Complex World

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Greetings all!

I know it’s been a while since my last post, but I’ve got a lot of new and exciting things to write about, so bear with me while I get them all posted.

For today, I’ll be talking about that wonder of mystical wonders, the recent and (purportedly) feminist icon of a film, Frozen. Now, I fully realize I’m probably stepping on quite a number of frosty toes here, so before you barrage me with indignance, allow me to explain. There are quite a number of well-written articles on why Frozen isn’t as feminist as it appears at first glance, but discussing the relative feminism of Frozen is not what I’m here to do. I’m here to talk about counseling.

So what does Frozen have to do with Counseling? Well, quite a lot actually. Frozen is a story about two girls who experience some pretty intense and damaging things in their lives (the death of their parents, Elsa’s realization that she’s a danger to herself and others, and Anna’s loss of her sister, just for starters). While I don’t anticipate encountering any ice queens in my office, issues like these can cause some pretty big difficulties in a young girl’s life. So it’s actually quite likely that people like Elsa and Anna will end up in our offices sooner or later. It can become easy to get caught up in the “magic” when Disney movies start to play, so I’ll break down the movie into (not-fully-comprehensive-but-good-enough) bullet points for you, along with the emotional allegory that the movie implies, from my point of view as a counselor:

  • Elsa discovers that she has magical ice powers (Elsa discovers that she sometimes has strong feelings)
  • Elsa accidentally hurts her sister with her ice powers (Elsa expresses her feelings in a way that is hurtful to Anna)
  • Elsa and Anna are taken to some trolls, who tell Elsa that she is very dangerous, that she almost killed her sister, that she’ll need to conceal her powers from now on, and that Anna’s memory will have to be erased (Elsa is told that it is not okay for her to have these feelings and express them, and the fact that she has these feelings is glossed over and not talked about or acknowledged)
  • Elsa is hidden away inside the castle, and her sister is forbidden from seeing her (Elsa is required to keep her feelings hidden so that everyone else will be okay, and her sister isn’t allowed to see that Elsa has these feelings)
  • Elsa’s and Anna’s parents die unexpectedly, and Elsa has to become queen and somehow not freeze the land she’s ruling (suddenly, Elsa is an adult and, even though her parents aren’t around to reinforce the message that she can’t have strong feelings, she still believes she can’t have them and that pushing them down will protect people)
  • Elsa freezes the land she’s ruling (Elsa slips up and lets her strong emotions out, and people respond by rejecting her, just as she’d feared they would)
  • Elsa runs away, builds a snow castle, and sings “Let It Go” (Elsa decides she’s tired of living according to others’ rules, and embraces her feelings…sort of…we’ll get back to this.)
  • Anna shows up and tells Elsa that everything is frozen, and Elsa gets very upset because she’s hurt everyone after all (Anna tells Elsa that her emotional outburst hurt people, and Elsa feels despair because she feels guilt for having hurt people)
  • Elsa sends a snow beast after Anna (Elsa’s guilt and anger lead her to lash out at her sister)
  • Elsa is captured and brought back to the castle as a prisoner (people label Elsa as emotionally unstable, and therefore someone who needs to be put in her place, because of her emotional outbursts)
  • Elsa escapes and tries to fix things, but ends up stabbing an ice spear through her sister’s heart (Elsa tries to make it better, but learns that she doesn’t know how to reverse the damage that her emotional outbursts have caused)
  • Elsa figures out that love is what will thaw the ice and save her sister (the way to heal the damage caused by strong emotional outbursts is through love)

With me so far?  Yes, I’ve left pieces of this out, and yes I’ve focused mostly on Elsa, but it will make sense shortly.

This sounds like a nice narrative…until you realize that it’s not real.  You may be saying, “well of course it’s not, it’s a Disney movie.”  But once again, bear with me.

Let me boil down this story a bit:

A girl is shamed for her feelings, and sanctioned for even the smallest display of anger, or similarly strong and “negative” emotions.  She is taught to hide her feelings, fear her feelings, and fear herself. She is forbidden from ever displaying these feelings by all of the authority figures in her life.  She never learns to feel things in a healthy way, and instead bottles them up inside, hiding from people and trying to be perfect.  And then, suddenly, her parents die and she is expected to take over all of the responsibilities of being an adult.  All of her life she has been told how to behave, how to feel, and now there is nobody around to tell her anything anymore.  But she still has this pressure to be perfect, to never feel “negative” emotions, and especially not to express them. 

Sounds horrible right?  Sounds like a great reason to seek therapy.  But the story continues:

The girl gets angry at someone, and everyone sees it.  They shame her too, just like her parents did.  She can’t handle her “failure,” and runs away, trying to get away from the pressure.  When she’s gained some distance, it gets worse.

Have you ever stopped to listen to the lyrics of “Let it Go”…?  The song contains choice phrases, such as:

  • “No right, no wrong, no rules for me”
  • “You’ll never see me cry”
  • “The past is in the past”
  • (and my personal favorite): “The cold never bothered me anyway”

Alright, now let’s all put our therapist hats on.  You have a client that comes into your office and says that she was shamed and silenced her whole life, that her parents just died, that she is completely estranged from her only living relative, that she has no friends, everyone she knows hates her, that she’s hurt everyone she’s ever been close to, and that now she’s completely self-isolating with no intention of ever building up a social life again.  And she’s saying things like “you’ll never see me cry,” “the past is in the past,” “there’s no right or wrong,” and “[strong feelings] never bothered me anyway.”

I don’t know about you all, but I would be looking into a long future of slowly working with this client through the process of uncovering the grief, the anger, the pain, the guilt, the shame, and the realization that she had never really been given a chance to be a healthy, happy person.

But this isn’t what happens at all.  Elsa doesn’t sit in her ice castle and grieve.  She doesn’t feel her feelings.  She suppresses them.  “The cold never bothered me anyway.”  It’s all right there.  Her whole life has been a spiral of shame surrounding her ice powers (feelings) and now she’s saying that her powers (her feelings) never bothered her anyway.  That’s pretty classic denial if you ask me.

I’d love to say that the movie gets better after this…but it really doesn’t.  Elsa realizes that her feeling still exist (snow beast) and is then forced to confront the people whose town she froze (whose feelings she hurt).  And when it seems like all hope is lost, she figures out what will undo all those years of neglect, shame, and bottled-up emotions.

Love.

….Really?  Love?  Aren’t we missing something?  Or maybe, several somethings? 

Here’s the real problem with frozen.  Up until this point, I think it could have been salvageable.  But instead of Elsa realizing that she needs to feel her feelings, feel her anger, feel her loneliness, feel her guilt and grief and sadness and pain, Elsa feels love.  And love makes all the other feelings go away.

Which, once again, is some pretty classic denial.

Because you can’t just love away anger.  You can’t love away what some would call abusive parenting, and what would almost certainly cause major childhood-attachment issues.  You can’t love away everyone you’ve ever known shaming you for your feelings.  It doesn’t work.

You know those kung-fu movies where the kid who has never practiced a martial art becomes a master in the span of a few intensely-filmed training shots that last about two minutes of real time?  I think this is what we sometimes expect in therapy.  It’s a nice thought—it would be great if we could bring clients into our offices, teach them to love (themselves, others, the world, whatever) and send them out beaming.  But therapy doesn’t work that way, and neither does real life.  We can’t move through the healing process if we skip all the middle steps.  We can’t learn to love ourselves and others if we try to jump there directly from crippling shame and guilt.  We have to realize what our feelings are, what caused them.  We usually have to get angry about them (and this process definitely isn’t a hurried one).  We have to feel sadness over the loss of the nurturing and support we were never given.  We have to learn to find resolution through our tears and our pounding fists and our despair.  We have to touch those wounded places in ourselves and, slowly, stitch the jagged edges closed again.  And we will always have scars.  Only then can we start moving on to love—love of ourselves, of our families, of those who hurt us.

Love doesn’t heal all.  Love is what waits for us when we’ve healed.  Because it’s the process of going through all the painful, messy, horrible steps that allows us to love ourselves, to have compassion for ourselves.

So why is this relevant to counselors (particularly to Naropa counselors, I might add)?  Because we so very want it to be a true story.  We want to jump from shame to love.  We don’t want the messy steps.  As counselors, we’re trained to know that we have to go through the messy steps.  But our clients aren’t taught this.  It’s our job to gently let them down into that realization, and support them when they get there.

I’ve heard a lot of therapist friends of mine espousing about the wonders of Frozen.  And sure, it has its good points.  But I think a lot of them missed this.  Even therapists want to believe in the healing powers of love.  And it’s true that our compassion and empathy for our clients can be tremendously healing.  But that doesn’t prevent the messy parts of healing.  It just makes them more bearable.

Finding Your Battery: How to Recharge When Energy is Low

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The spring semester of my second year in Naropa University’s Transpersonal Counseling Psychology program has come to a close, which means that I finally have some time to sleep in and finish all those little projects I’ve been putting off for the last several months.  Having all this free time has made me think about the ways that I spend my time, particularly when I don’t have much of it.  And it’s also highlighted for me the importance of spending that time on self-care, which I’ve decided I’m actually quite good at.

For those of you who know me, this may seem a very funny statement.  For those of you who don’t, let me explain.

Have you ever met one of those people who are so busy that you don’t know how they managed to maintain any sort of social life, or have any fun, much less focus on self-care?  Well, I am one of those people.  And while it is true that I do tend to be very busy, I actually do find the time to take care of myself.   Admittedly, part of it comes down to the fact that I’m fairly high-energy anyway.  But a big part of how I am able to accomplish so much and be so busy without burning out is that I’ve figured out ways that I can effectively “recharge.”

Learning how to recharge is one something I frequently discuss with my coaching students, as it seems that many of us were never taught how to do that.  Part of this could be due to our culture of busyness, in which taking two weeks off per year is supposed to provide all of the rest and relaxation one could possibly need.  Not a lot of value is placed on really taking care of ourselves, and very little information is available on how to do this.  There are definitely many books on how to feel “at peace,” or how to increase one’s energy through exercise, for example.  But there seems to be a common assumption that self-care looks exactly the same for all people.  At Naropa, people tend to conceptualize self-care as involving alone-time, rest, and maybe yoga or some other type of physical activity.  I suspect that these things can be very helpful for many people, and I certainly don’t mean to imply that they are not, but I’d like to suggest the possibility that the correct method for taking care of oneself cannot be prescribed by another person, and definitely isn’t one-size-fits-all.

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This gets to the heart of what I’m talking about.  I agree that self-care is very important, and that if we don’t take care of ourselves we won’t be useful to anyone, least of all our future clients.  But trying to force ourselves to go sit alone in nature when we really want to be dancing to dub step won’t get us very far.  Every person needs different kinds of self-care, and I sometimes think that not enough attention is given to encouraging people to take care of themselves and the way that actually makes sense for them.

I think that, too often, we have a default way of spending our time, and that we don’t stop to consider whether our “free time” actually feels like a break.  Often, I think we get stuck in habitual ways of spending our time.  This may be watching Netflix, or doing chores, or browsing the Internet.  And while those could feel recharging for some people, they could also just be a distraction to keep us from noticing how exhausted we are.  When we get to the end of that time, we may not feel any less exhausted, and it may seem like our “break” wasn’t really worthwhile.  This seems common among people who work a lot, and who are tired a lot, which is unfortunately typical for grad students.

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So if this sounds like you, maybe stop and pay attention to the way you feel *after* you do the things you do in your spare time, and don’t be so concerned if those things are typically labeled as “work” or “fun.”  It could be helpful to keep a journal, or to record in some other way how you feel after doing certain things for a couple of weeks.  The results may surprise you.  I discovered that one of the best ways I can recharge is by cooking.  I also discovered that while spending time alone doing artwork is enjoyable for me, it’s very hard for me to do a unless I already feeling energized.  And I figured out that lounging by myself in a bubble bath listening to nice music and “relaxing” is actually strangely draining, and doesn’t do much for my energy levels.   I know people who feel energized and ready to meet the day after cleaning the house, or after going for a run, or even after getting into lively debates with their friends.

The whole reason we’re in this program, or any grad program for that matter, is because we have found something that we want to do with our lives.  But we can’t expect these things to sustain us when they are also our chief sources of stress, work, and worry.  For that, we need self-care, and in order to take care of ourselves we need to figure out what we actually need to feel energized.

Money Doesn’t Buy Happiness: Finding a Naropa Practicum Site

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After a long hiatus, I’m back. And, I’m eager to share my newly acquired information about the practicum application process. Now, I’m guessing that many of you current students probably know a lot about this already (since you’ve likely been going through this process yourselves), which I think is great.  In fact, I’d love it if you’d share your expertise in the comments area below, because I know I can’t cover everything (and wouldn’t know everything, even if I could cover it).

The first thing I’ll say about this, and probably the most important thing, is that you do NOT want to procrastinate. This operates on a first-come-first-served basis.  Many practicum sites have only 1 or 2 placements, and will already have filled their available positions by early summer, including the very-coveted Noeticus Counseling Center.  Additionally, many sites require 2-3 letters of recommendation, in addition to a resume and a cover letter.  You definitely don’t want to be asking your instructors for recommendation letters while they’re grading final papers, and many instructors leave during the summer, so make sure time is on your side when doing this.  Some people may actually prefer you to write a letter yourself, which they will then proofread and sign, so you may want to suggest this when asking for those letters (particularly if time is short).  Additionally, ask them to give them your final letters in digital format on official letterhead, as it will make things easier in the long run.

Applying for a practicum is  much like applying for a job, except that you aren’t getting paid in money.  Instead, you’re getting paid in training, exposure, and perhaps most importantly, in resume fodder.  A lot of Naropa’s Counseling students seem to have limited mental health-related experience (although there are also many who do), so this may be the biggest indicator of whether or not a future internship site will choose you.  What that means is that you’ll be wanting to get the biggest bang for your lack-of-a-buck.  Choose internship sites that will look good to future employers in your chosen area of specialty.  So, for example, my chosen area of focus is  Marriage and Family Therapy.  So, while it might have been interesting to work at Medicine Horse, I thought it would make more sense to apply to sites like Boulder Valley Women’s Health and the Boulder ARC because reproductive decisions and addiction are both issues that could be central to family or couples counseling.

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Another important thing to consider is the big ‘D’: “Diversify.”  You always want a wide base of experience, so that you’ll be appealing to various employers for various reasons.  Now, you can interpret that as you wish, but I choose to approach it in terms of clinical experience.  Naropa gives us a lot of Rogerian-oriented counselling and mindfulness skills in our first year, but fairly limited clinical experience.  So, even though doing meditation instruction with kids sounds pretty fun, I wanted to choose sites that would have me filling out intake forms, witnessing or administering clinical assessment, and giving me a better understanding of social services.

So, let’s assume that you’ve gone through the practicum site list and found a few different placements that sound pretty rad.  Then what?  Well, before anything else happens, I recommend doing two things.   First, find the organization’s website, and read up on it.  Much of the placement info on the site list isn’t as comprehensive as it could be, and you want to be able to ask relevant questions (and show that you’ve done your research) when you go to step 2.

Step 2 is calling the site.  And, although it would seem logical to call the number on the practicum list, don’t do it.  Seriously.  It’s most likely wrong.  I contacted 5 different sites right away, and all 5 of them had incorrect contact information.  It would be better to find the volunteer coordinator (or equivalent) on the website, and get contact information this way.  Two of my placements didn’t get back to me because my voicemail went to the completely wrong person, and I had to go back and find correct information.  Once you’ve figured out who you actually need to talk to, which may involve a few transferred calls, introduce yourself briefly (being sure to mention your name and that you’re from Naropa!), and tell them some form of the following:

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“Hi, my name is ________ and I’m a Counseling Psychology student at Naropa University.  I know you’re probably very busy, but I’m wondering if you have a quick minute to tell me a little more about your practicum position and answer a couple of questions for me?” (Don’t say this verbatim, as it will be weird if all Naropa students seem to be reading from a script).

Why is this important?  Well, I have to give credit to Casey McCarthy on this, because this is in fact an old sales trick that he taught me.  People who manage other people are busy…and at nonprofits (such as most of our practicum sites), they’re often VERY busy.  They don’t want to waste their time talking to people who don’t know what they want, and they certainly don’t want to waste their time talking to someone who doesn’t even value their time.  Furthermore, as frustrating as it may be, Naropa students sometimes get an unfortunate reputation for being unfocused and unreliable.  The best way to dispel that assumption is to show potential sites that you do not fit that stereotype.  Mentioning that you’re aware of their busy schedules, asking politely for just a few minutes, and actually taking ONLY a few minutes will make a big impact.

Once you’ve gotten the information you need, including contact name(s), phone number(s), and e-mail address(es) where you should send your application, be sure to follow up.  Send an e-mail right away thanking whoever you talked to for their help, and assuring them that you’ll send your application along presently.  You basically want as much exposure as possible, and you want them to remember you.  If they have a personality and a face to put to your name and resume, you’re already a step ahead.

The next step, obviously, is applying.  Many sites will also have an online volunteer application to complete, so don’t forget this step.  You will want to send a CUSTOMIZED resume and letter of interest.  This is very important.  Do not send the same resume to every site.  If you’re applying to an organization that works with adults who have developmental disabilities, focus on your understanding of human developmental theory, or your experience with this population.  If you’re hoping to work with kids, focus on any childcare experience, teaching experience, or youth mentoring you’ve done.  You get the idea…play your strengths.  One very effective way to do this is by using a functional resume, which will highlight your skills and expertise, instead of your chronological work history.  I have personally been using a functional resume for the past year or so, and I’ve found it to be very effective.

Logically, you’ll next want to focus on your cover letter.  Your cover letter should be equally customized, and additionally, personal.  These people get dozens, maybe even hundreds of resumes for their volunteer positions.  Making it personal will make yours stand out.  Instead of starting with “I have all of these qualifications for this position blah blah blah…”, start by highlighting why this is so important to you.  For example, I started my own Boulder ARC resume with “When I first learned that someone I loved was suffering from addiction, I remember feeling surprised, confused, and scared.”  This immediately tells my potential site that I am both personally motivated to pursue work with addictions, and that I am already familiar with some of the ways that addiction affects people.  Of course, you’ll want to highlight your experience to some extent as well, but it’s key to remember this: any applicant can be trained, but only the ones who are motivated to learn will be effective.

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Once you have your completed your resume, cover letter, and (if applicable, although I recommend them anyway) letters of recommendation, you’ll want to send them (probably electronically, unless otherwise specified) to the person in charge of hiring.  I usually name my resume and cover letter files something like “(MyName) – (Site Name) – Resume/Cover Letter” so that I don’t accidentally send a resume that was customized for a different site.  Plus, it helps keep things organized.  Thank the person again for considering you for their position, and ask if there are any next steps you should take in the application process.  As a bonus, if you find out that the practicum list information is out of date, it may be helpful to include Mary Bear-Rittenmeyer’s (our current practicum coordinator) contact info so that they can send her updated information for the site list.

A final note on the practicum application process: if you’re going to need help from Mary, you have to be on top of it.  She is very busy, and has limited office hours.  Although her phone message says she’ll get back to you within 48 hours, I called her at one point and only heard back a week later because she’d been working from home and wasn’t checking her messages.  Send e-mails and leave voicemails, and be proactive about it getting ahold of her.  You’ll need a practicum placement by the time school starts, and no practicum hours worked during the summer count towards your requirement (per Mary), so if you run into problems, waiting until the last second isn’t the best choice.

Happy practicum hunting, and as always, let me know how it goes!

Aside

If I Only Had a Brain: Media Portrayal of Mental Health Professionals

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We’ve all seen them in movies and TV shows–the heady, overly critical, frumpy old therapists who look at their clients through thick spectacles and expound upon the psychological horrors that only they think plausible. They’re usually portrayed as incompetent, overly analytical, and generally out of touch with reality.

Characters such as Nurse Ratched in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest show a cold, remorseless approach to mental health, while others such as Sean Maguire in Goodwill Hunting display the belief that it’s expected for even good therapists to unload damaging counter transference onto their clients.  The list goes on: Dr. Thurman in Donnie Darko, Jack Nicholson in Anger Management, not to mention Anthony Hopkins’ incredibly creepy depiction of Hannibal Lecter.  The media is rampant with therapists who sleep with their clients, scream at their clients, betray their clients’ trust, even physically attack their clients.  And most of all, therapists in the media seem to have an uncanny knack for wrongly diagnosing clients, and consequently cause them countless miseries.

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Perhaps this provides people with comfortable distance from which to identify with the social fear this country seems to have of mental healthcare, but I find it rather troubling.  On the infrequent occasions that I do encounter a positive (or even accurate) depiction of a therapist in a film (such as in Lars and the Real Girl), I am reminded of how rare this sort of occurrence actually is.

So why does American media seem to hate mental health so much?

Well, to be honest, there are some good reasons for Psychology’s bad reputation.  I still find myself griping about Freud’s emphasis on sex, and shake my head at the gross ethical violations of the Milgram Experiment and the Stanford Prison Experiment.  The field’s history is rife with unethical studies, instances of misinterpreting data to promote prejudiced views, and overall, there’s been a lot of misinformation.

Now, this is true for every field, but nobody seems to blame scientists for once believing that the earth was the center of the universe.  There are probably a couple of reasons for this.  First of all, people care less about the effects of research on the lives of mice than their own.  But furthermore, science is all about figuring out new and better ways to understand the world and accomplish things, which the United States is all about. Psychology, until recently, basically focused on figuring out what makes the mind break.  Strengths-based approaches are fairly new, and still haven’t really caught on in the popular view.

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I guess that means we have our work cut out for us.  On the other hand, we’re also at the very forefront of a new wave of psychology.  We’re the ones who get to show people that counselling isn’t mad science, and that the therapist’s office isn’t (necessarily) a petri  dish.

What do you think?  What will it take to shift the public attitude towards mental health into the realm of the healthy, instead of the horrifying?