New Roots Therapy Blog

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Should I Stay or Should I Go? Understanding Relationship Ambivalence: Part 1

Written by: Melissa Kroonenberg, Registered Psychotherapist & Relationship Therapist

In this week’s blog post, I’m discussing “relationship ambivalence”, which is a term used here to describe the experience of being in a prolonged state of uncertainty in a relationship.  This is a complex topic and, as such, this will be a two-parter!  In Part 1, I will focus primarily on understanding relationship ambivalence – what it is and what it typically looks like – whereas Part 2 will focus on specific strategies for addressing ambivalence in your relationship.  Relationship ambivalence is a challenging experience for all involved; it’s often marked by a sense of feeling “in limbo” and can range in intensity from a strong sense of concern to an overwhelming panic about whether or not to stay in a relationship.  There are many reasons why someone might experience ambivalence about their relationship.  For some, an emotional injury, such as an affair, can create a sense of uncertainty about whether or not they want to (or can) work towards forgiveness and reconnection with their partner.  For others, a specific emotional injury may not have taken place, but they feel as though the relationship has been rocky for some time and struggle to hold on to hope that a better relationship is possible.

Living with uncertainty of any kind tends to be an anxious experience because it threatens our sense of security.  Ultimately, relationship ambivalence means living with uncertainty and a lack of security around the bond you have with your partner, which cuts us at the core of our primal selves.  When we attach ourselves to someone, we are psychologically, emotionally, and even biologically connected to that person.  Humans require connection to survive and the biological mechanisms that drive us towards closeness with others are powerful.  To feel uncertain about where you stand in your relationship means that those mechanisms are actively in a state of “limbo”. It’s like an internal alarm is going off that you can’t silence.  Your mind and body want resolution and a way to feel safe and attached, but the uncertainty invites you to deny the pull of closeness while also avoiding (as best as possible) becoming detached altogether.

In order to move forward and free yourself from the psychological torture that relationship ambivalence can create, it’s important first and foremost to understand that, although it may be attractive couple fighting over a love heart pillowdifficult to imagine, it’s normal to have bouts of ambivalence in a long-term relationship.  Over the course of time, and through the various stages of “coupledom”, you will experience various up’s and down’s and, during those times, it can be perfectly normal to experience some degree of relationship ambivalence.  As such, it’s important to acknowledge that relationship ambivalence, although alarming, isn’t necessarily a sign that your relationship is in complete peril.  Rather, it’s a sign that an inner conflict about your relationship has surfaced and requires your attention.  Secondly, it’s important to understand the difference between relationship ambivalence and “red flags”.  Red flags are signs that you are in a potentially dangerous situation that requires immediate action.  It can be difficult at times to disentangle relationship ambivalence from red flags, especially if the relationship is new, but one way to differentiate between the two is by paying attention to the “ick” factor.  When red flags are present, something about the relationship may give you an “icky” feeling, like something is just “wrong” or “off” – for instance, it may feel like the other person is “up to something” or you may sense a threat to your safety in some way.  Relationship ambivalence, on the other hand, feels uncomfortable because it involves a personal struggle to resolve an inner conflict rather than a sense that you may be in harm’s way.  Red flags should always be taken seriously.

So, what keeps someone in a state of ambivalence about their relationship?  In my experience counselling several couples over the past 7 years, the following three points have come up again and again as key factors in relationship ambivalence.  If you’re experiencing a sense of uncertainty about your relationship and find yourself asking, “Should I stay or should I go?”, it will be helpful to first understand what’s keeping you in this state of uncertainty, seemingly unable to make a decision either way.  The following points may be helpful for developing this understanding.

1. Fearing the Consequences

Many people who are experiencing relationship ambivalence find themselves stuck in the fearful anticipation of what might happen should they take action and address their relationship concerns.  For example, some are fearful of the conflict that could arise if they confide in their partners about their concerns.  If you have a history of explosive fights or degenerative conflict, you may be apprehensive to openly acknowledge the tension that you’re experiencing out of fear that doing so will “start something” that’s worse than the ambivalence itself, or that you may expose yourself to ridicule from your partner. Another fear that I often see in my counselling work is the fear of being alone.  Some people fear the thought of being alone so intensely that they avoid talking to their partner about their concerns at all and remain stuck in a relationship they don’t feel happy in; they don’t want to “rock the boat” and risk their partner leaving.  Sometimes the idea of simply accepting that their relationship is on the rocks, in and of itself, feels terrifying enough that people choose not only to avoid discussing their concerns with their partner, they also end up dismissing or minimizing their concerns within themselves.  In this way, people can get stuck in a state of relationship ambivalence because they are continuously focused on trying to avoid the inner discomfort they’re experiencing, rather than actively acknowledging their discomfort and ultimately addressing it.

Our close relationships have a great deal of influence over how we feel.  Nothing has more power to activate intense emotions like the people we care about, so it’s easy to get stuck in a place of fear about what might happen if we face the concerns we’re experiencing.  Where relationships are concerned, we can’t control the outcome, and that’s a scary prospect when we’ve invested ourselves as partners.

2. Split Between Values

Over the course of a relationship, we grow and evolve as individuals and sometimes that means we experience a shift in our values across time.  This is great if you and your partner can evolve together or find a way to live within your respective values that feels uncompromising.  There are times, however, when this is not so easy.  For example, you may come to learn that you don’t want children and your partner does.  This would reflect a value of parenting that perhaps you didn’t realize you believed in so strongly until the time came to talk about it, while your partner might simultaneously come to realize they strongly value flexibility and freedom.  This difference in values may cause great ambivalence about what to do in your relationship.  Do you compromise your values? Do you ask your partner to compromise theirs? Do you end the relationship based on this one difference?  Although making sense of the exact values that are in conflict in your relationship may not solve the dilemma, the act of naming the values themselves will help clarify the exact tension that you’re experiencing which typically results in some relief, and makes discussing the issue easier.

3. Issues with Self-Esteem

Sometimes when I talk with folks about their experience of ambivalence, the tension they’re experiencing stems from wanting or needing something from their partner and struggling to feel entitled to ask for it.  If this resonates with you, this is a signal that your self-esteem may need a tune up.  People with a healthy self-esteem understand that their needs are important and value themselves enough to advocate for them to be met.  This is not selfish; selfishness would be taking what you need regardless of the impact on others!  Rather, this is an acknowledgement that your needs are speaking to you and that they require attention.  It’s up to you to collaborate with your partner about how this can be done.  A relationship often requires a renegotiation of needs as life experiences force the relationship to grow and evolve.   If you can acknowledge that you need something and feel safe to talk to your partner about it, then the tension is expressed and each partner shifts to meet the new needs of the relationship.  If, however, one partner struggles to feel entitled to their needs, or struggles to see their own needs as valuable and important, it’s unlikely that their needs will get discussed and inner conflict about the relationship is likely to take place.

Understanding what underlies your experience of relationship ambivalence is an important first step towards resolving the dilemma altogether.  It may be difficult to do, and you may have to face some things about yourself or your relationship that are painful, but no less painful than staying in a place of ambivalence.  To turn towards yourself with intention and investigate what your heart is telling you isn’t always easy, but it’s a necessary step in order to find contentment and resolution.  Stay tuned for Part 2, which will address what to do to begin taking steps out of relationship ambivalence once you’ve gained this initial understanding.

Grow Courageously!

-Melissa

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10 Prevention Tips to Conquer this Year’s Cold and Flu

By: Lisa Smith, Naturopathic Doctor

Although the Fall weather may be unpredictable, one thing you can always count on is the appearance of the seasonal cold and flu.  Here are my top 10 tips for boosting your immune system and fending off those vile viruses, protecting you and those around you this season!

1. Wash your hands  (a lot!). Time and again, frequent hand washing has been shown to be the #1 preventative measure when it comes to cold and flu – I mean, just think of all the potentially infected surfaces you touch everyday! Regularly wash your hands with soap and warm water; lather and scrub for at least 20 seconds (enough time to sing the alphabet twice) before rinsing.  Alternatively, you can use an alcohol based hand rub, which you should apply liberally and allow to air dry. Additional hygiene habits to employ include: avoiding touching your eyes, nose, and mouth; disinfecting frequently used surfaces (e.g. keyboard, door knobs, etc.); and avoiding close contact with sick people.

2. Keep well hydrated. Drinking more water (and less pop, juice, caffeine, and alcohol) will help your blood circulate necessary immune cells to fight off viruses before they create an infection. Ensure you are drinking a full 8 cups of water every day to keep optimally hydrated.

3. Get adequate rest. Sleep is when your body takes time to rebuild and repair; without it, your body doesn’t have the opportunity to recover from the daily insults it takes. Adequate sleep improves immune function, so make sure to get 7-9 hours of sleep per night to ensure its optimal functioning.

4. Stress Management. Stress causes the release of cortisol, your stress hormone. Regardless of whether it’s a short or long term stressor, cortisol is released and part of its job is to suppress your immune system, making you more susceptible to acquiring the cold or flu. There are many coping strategies and tools for managing stress that can be individualized to your needs and preferences – it’s important to find what works for you!

5. Exercise regularly. A 30-minute daily walk can help you cope with stress, sleep better, feel happier, improve circulation, decrease blood pressure, and boost your immune system; all important for preventing infections!

6. Eat a balanced diet. As Hippocrates put , “let food be thy medicine.”  There are many powerful nutrients in a balanced diet to keep you in optimal health. For instance, fruit and vegetables are chock-full of infection fighting, immune boosting nutrients such as antioxidants, vitamin C, and zinc, so be sure to get your 7-10 servings each day. Healthy fats and proteins are also important for building the parts of the immune system that recognize and fight infections. Ditch the refined sugars and simple carbs; they contribute to inflammation and inhibit your immune system from functioning.

7. Spice-up your life. Your spice cabinet is full of natural killers; add cinnamon, fresh garlic, thyme, and oregano to your dishes for a tasty, cold and flu conquering meal.

8. Contrast showers. Although these sound like a mild form of torture, they are fantastic for improving circulation, promoting detoxification, and boosting your immune function; over time, you will even build a better tolerance to cold in general! At the end or in place of your regular shower, turn the nozzle to as hot as you can tolerate for 3 minutes, followed by as cold as you can tolerate for less than one minute; the wider the difference in temperature, the better the effect. Repeat this twice more and always end on cold. Note that these showers can be quite energizing, so don’t do it too close to bed.

9.Keep your “wind-gate” covered. In Asian medicine, the “wind-gate” refers to the nape of your neck and was believed to be the entry point for “cold” and pathogens before viruses and bacteria were known. The symptom picture of wind-cold invasion mirrors that of the common cold and influenza; best to wear a scarf on the cold, windy fall days!

10. Don’t smoke and avoid exposure to smoke. Just one more reason not to do it and to stay away from it: cigarette smoke directly damages the tissues of your airways from your nose to your lungs. This damage impairs your body’s ability to clear infection-causing pathogens and debris and it destroys appropriate local immune responses, further increasing your risk of not only infections, but severe infections.

Feel a cold coming on? Come in and see me – there are many helpful immune boosting and infection fighting herbs and nutrients to stop that cold or flu in its tracks. If it’s too late for that, there are other helpful therapies like acupuncture and home hydrotherapy that can help to provide some symptomatic relief so you can get back to your regular routine.


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Healing a Broken Heart: Part 2

Written By: Corinne Carter, Registered Psychotherapist & Relationship Therapist

In Part 1 of this post, which you can check out here, I wrote about three ways to help yourself heal a broken heart.  Now, here are four more ways to move through heartbreak with love and compassion:

1. Learn to keep your heart open. When we’re broken-hearted, in the grips of deep sadness, loss, and fear, we may choose to close our hearts as a way of protecting ourselves and re-establishing a sense of security in our lives.   When we’re hurting, closing our hearts can seem like a great idea in order to keep ourselves safe!  However, the safety we feel by closing our hearts is a false sense of safety; closing our hearts is about avoiding our pain, rather than embracing our pain with gentleness and letting it pass through us.  If you’ve read Part 1, you know that avoidance doesn’t actually lessen or heal our pain but, rather, has a tendency to prolong and intensify it.  Closing our hearts moves us farther away from our true selves and from true healing.  Love is healing and, in order to feel love for ourselves and receive love and support from those around us during this difficult time, our hearts must be open.  How do we keep our hearts open?  By paying attention to when we feel love, energy, and engagement with our experiences, as well as noticing when we don’t, and choosing to do more of the former no matter what the situation.  Michael A. Singer, in his book “The Untethered Soul: The Journey Beyond Yourself”, writes about this beautifully:

“Through meditation, through awareness and willful efforts, you can learn to keep your centers open.  You do this by just relaxing and releasing.  You do this by not buying into the concept that there is anything worth closing over.  Remember, if you love life, nothing is worth closing over.  Nothing, ever, is worth closing your heart over.”

2. Find meaning in your emotions to connect with yourself on a deeper level. Our emotions are important messengers, and they have a lot of teach us about ourselves and our values.  When we feel happy and uplifted, it may be easier to receive the messages that our emotions have to offer because it’s easier to stay open when we feel good.  But there is a lot to learn from our pain if we can stay open and be conscious to it.  If the loss you experienced didn’t matter to your life or bump up against your beliefs and values in some meaningful way, your heart wouldn’t be broken in the first place.  So, as you practice keeping your heart open when pain is present, you can also ask yourself questions like: what does this sadness that I feel so deeply suggest about what’s important to me?  What can this fear teach me about my opportunities for growth right now?  This is different from telling yourself that “everything happens for a reason”.  It’s more about accepting that, even in the greatest tragedies, there are opportunities for profound personal, spiritual, and relational evolution.  When you learn to embrace your pain, you can also begin to embrace its lessons.

3. Begin to move towards forgiveness. When we experience a broken heart, our sense of internal power may be shaken up.  We may feel wronged by someone or something, and we may feel like our personal power has been violated.  It’s important to stay awakened to our inner power, and one way to do this is to move towards forgiveness.  Forgiveness can be one of the most difficult things to do, and it can also be one of the most liberating for our hearts.  Forgiveness doesn’t mean that we approve of a person’s hurtful actions or that we like how a situation unfolded which caused us harm.  It also doesn’t mean that we forget what happened.  Instead, forgiveness is about acknowledging the wrong-doing and then choosing to let go of the hold that it has on us, in exchange for our freedom and inner power.  If we aren’t ready to forgive fully (and it’s okay if we aren’t) we might wish to start by simply setting the intention to forgive.  Forgiveness is a choice that we must make, often times not just once but again and again, to respond to the person or experience and say, “I’m hurt and my heart is broken, and I’m choosing to live my life fully and freely anyway.”  Since forgiveness is such a complex topic in and of itself, we’ll be writing a full blog post about it over the coming weeks.

4. Build your life!  When your heart has been broken, after you’ve done some initial processing and reflection, this is a time to work on building up your life and creating a life you love even more than you did before.  What have you wanted to do for yourself that you haven’t had/made time for?  What new activities have you wanted to try?  What have you wanted to learn more about?   How can you live in a way that honours the loss you’ve experienced and the lessons you’ve learned from it?  What makes you feel your best, most fulfilled, and most alive?  This is the time to do more of that!

Heartbreak is never easy.  At the same time, it’s important to remember that heartbreak is a human experience and, if we approach it with love and compassion, we can not only move through it, we can also grow from it to become more fully ourselves.

Wishing you wellness, always ❤

-Corinne


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Healing a Broken Heart: Part 1

Post Written By: Corinne Carter, Relationship Therapist

When we think about heartbreak, we tend to think about the loss of a romantic relationship.  However, heartbreak isn’t just about the end of romantic love.  Any time we experience the loss of something meaningful in our lives – the loss of a friendship, a beloved pet, a dream we’ve carried for ourselves, etc. – we may find ourselves feeling heartbroken. When we’re heartbroken, we tend to feel exposed; vulnerable and uncertain.  Sometimes, our whole lives feel broken open.  We may feel deeply sad and scared and, because we tend to build our identities around our relationships as well as what we do (e.g., for work), heartbreak can rock our sense of self and lead us to feel unsure about our future.  Whatever the cause of your heartbreak, there are some things you can do to help yourself move through the process, with love and compassion.  Below are the first three tips in this two-part blog post on healing a broken heart:

1. First and foremost, give yourself permission to live “broken open” for a while.  When we’re feeling heartbroken, our first reaction is often to resist the pain that we’re experiencing because it can feel desperately uncomfortable.  We want to feel safe and secure and firmly planted in our lives, so we resist feelings like sadness, fear, and uncertainty that make us feel unsettled.  Furthermore, we live in a society that teaches us to stay away from “negative” feelings and move on quickly!  But, as the saying goes, “What we resist, persists.”  In other words, the more we resist our own heartbreak, the more likely it is that we intensify and prolong the emotional pain.  Over time, emotional pain may start to manifest in our bodies and become physical pain.  And as we’re walking through the world with this unprocessed emotional (and possibly now, physical) pain, it’s more likely that new experiences will trigger what we’ve been carrying around inside of us that was never processed from the past, so that our present experience becomes further confused and intensified.  And now, with more intensity and a lack of clarity, our present experience becomes even more challenging to work through, which may lead to more resistance…and on and on we go in a vicious emotional cycle.  Giving ourselves space and permission to feel our feelings, sit in our pain, and just let it be is a really important part of healing our heartbreak and living emotionally healthy lives.

2. Another important part of healing a broken heart is connecting with people you trust who can witness your pain.  These are people who can allow you to feel however you feel and who won’t rush you through the process.  We all know people who are uncomfortable with their own feelings, as well as with other people expressing their feelings, so when they see you feeling sad or scared they say things like, “Don’t be sad, don’t cry!  You’ve got to be strong and move on!” They want to rush the process, which isn’t necessarily coming from a bad place – it’s most likely coming from a place of caring and wanting to comfort their loved one – you! – and keep you from hurting.  It’s not easy to see your loved ones in pain.  As well, it’s likely that they’ve been taught to resist unpleasant emotions themselves, as so many of us are.  Finding people who are willing and able to just let our feelings be and sit there with us and say, “I see that you’re hurting and that’s okay.  Take the time you need, I’m here for you”, is incredibly valuable and can be a powerful part of the healing process.  If we don’t have anyone in our personal lives who can be a witness to our experience in this way, it can be really helpful to connect with a professional – a therapist, a mentor, a spiritual guide – or a well-founded on-line support group.

3. In addition to connecting with trusted others, practicing self-care matters greatly for healing a broken heart.  Self-care is essential for our day-to-day mental and emotional well-being, and it’s something that so many people struggle with, which is why we keep coming back to it here on our blog!  The ways that we can practice self-care are varied and unique, but one way we can all practice self-care is by paying attention to ourselves and really tapping into our needs in the moment.  Ask yourself on a daily basis: what is it that I need right now?  Sit in silence until the answer comes to you, and trust and honour the answer.  The answer that is coming from your true self will be a loving answer.  So, if the first thing you hear when you ask the question is, “What you need is to get a life, you loser!”, that’s not the truth of what you need!  That’s your ego mind getting in the way.  Notice what your ego mind says, but then let it go and continue to wait in silence until the truth comes to you.  The greatest gift of love we can give to ourselves and others is the gift of our full, undivided attention.  Paying attention to what you need will likely reveal specific self-care steps that you can take, such as taking a nap, or scheduling a mental health day, or planning a visit with a good friend, etc. In order to figure out what you need, you have to pay attention – slowly, quietly, and intentionally.

On October 14th, in Part 2 of this blog post, I’ll be providing you with four more ways to heal a broken heart.

Until then, take good care of yourselves – wishing you wellness, always ❤