About David

Counsellor, suicide prevention therapist, and optimistic prairie boy stumbling through life on the left coast. Mental health advocate, career development enthusiast, and amateur white board artist.

Two Wolves & Intentionality


An old Cherokee chief was teaching his grandson about life…

“A fight is going on inside me,” he said to the boy.
“It is a terrible fight and it is between two wolves.

“One is evil – he is anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, self-doubt, and ego.

“The other is good – he is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith.

“This same fight is going on inside you – and inside every other person, too.”

The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather,
“Which wolf will win?”

The old chief simply replied,
“The one you feed.”

*From Pearls of Wisdom; inspired by Mark Franklin’s Career Cycles framework.

All A-Twitter


Exciting news, everyone!

Psychopoeia is now officially on Twitter!

Follow @Psychopoeia for post updates, site-related news, psychology banter, and more.

I’ll be managing the account for now, but it’s possible other authors may make an appearance in the future. You’ll also find our tweets in the widget on the sidebar.

Happy tweeting!

Me Student! You Professor!

I don’t much like talking to strangers.

Some people are better at it than others, but it’s something I’ve never really been good at or wanted to do much of. Come to think of it, I’m not even that great at talking to the people I know – such is the fate of us introverted internal processors. I have great conversations in my head with myself, but when it comes to vocalizing my brilliant, eloquent thoughts to other people, I often end up garbling the words into something near unintelligible.

I’ll use just about any excuse to get a Far Side cartoon in here and there. I can relate to Tarzan, though – he had such great intentions, but flustered in the pivotal moment. I can also relate to the many students I talk to who are intimidated – to say the least – at the prospect of talking to their professors. Heck, I was one of those students at one point in time. Continue reading

How to Land Your Kid in Therapy


Stumbled across a great article on how “over-parenting” has lead to a generation of therapy-goers.  If you have the time (it’s a 4-pager), it’s a well-written and thought provoking piece – I very much recommend it.

Here’s an excerpt:

Here I was, seeing the flesh-and-blood results of the kind of parenting that my peers and I were trying to practice with our own kids, precisely so that they wouldn’t end up on a therapist’s couch one day. We were running ourselves ragged in a herculean effort to do right by our kids—yet what seemed like grown-up versions of them were sitting in our offices, saying they felt empty, confused, and anxious. Back in graduate school, the clinical focus had always been on how the lack of parental attunement affects the child. It never occurred to any of us to ask, what if the parents are too attuned? What happens to those kids?

via How to Land Your Kid in Therapy – Magazine – The Atlantic.

Building Awareness of Self-Awareness

Full Sword in scabbard

Image via Wikipedia

I spoke in my last post about comfort zones, strengths, and growth from within areas that we are already relatively comfortable.  It was a pretty straightforward account of how knowing what are strengths are can help us to build on and expand those strengths into new areas.  The problem, of course, is that this viewpoint presupposes that you actually do know what your strengths are.


There are a few issues worth considering here.  I suppose the first would be a consideration of what a strength actually is.  Some people would distinguish between a strength and a personality characteristic, for example.  In such a scenario, the former may be something more of a skill that can in some quasi-quantifiable way be improved over time (i.e. writing, planning, organizing), while the latter might be more of a stable, enduring quality or trait that is in some sense automatic (i.e. charisma, quick thinking, adaptability). Continue reading

Ask Your Riding’s Candidates About Psychological Services


We’ve got an election coming up here in Canada, and the fine folks at the Canadian Psychological Association have put together a website on advocating for psychology during the campaigning.  Check it out!

They have a section on the site that lists questions you could ask the candidates in your riding about psychological services.  I’ve borrowed and listed them below:

  1. Does your party platform contain anything related to the psychological health of Canadians?
  2. Do you support parity between resources made available for treatment of psychological and physical health problems?
  3. Do you support the specific inclusion of initiatives related to psychological health and addictions for 2014 when the federal-provincial health accord comes up for renewal?
  4. What will your party do to improve access to psychological services in Canada and in this riding, particularly for middle and low income Canadians?  Less than one-third of persons with mental health problems receive needed services. Psychologists are the country’s largest, regulated group of health professionals who specialize in mental health. With cuts to the budgets to publicly funded service in hospitals and schools, psychologists increasingly work in private practice. Though psychologists in private practice are successfully self-employed, their services are not accessible to many Canadians who need them. They are not accessible because too many Canadians do not have the financial means or extended health insurance to pay for them.
  5. There are significant recruitment and retention issues in government and other sectors when it comes to psychologists (e.g. Department of National Defense, Veterans Affairs, Correctional Services Canada). What will your party do to ensure an adequate supply of Canada’s mental health human resource meets the needs of Canadian who fall under the Federal Governments constitutional authority?
  6. What will your party do to support individuals, families, the workplace and communities when it comes to psychological health and disorders?

Not sure who the candidates in your riding are?  Find out at the Elections Canada website.

Post a Week 2011


If you’re a regular reader you’ve probably noticed the badge on the sidebar (visible on the main page) that says “Post a Week 2011.”  It’s an initiative (as is “post a day 2011,” which I’m just not man enough to commit to) that WordPress.com came up with this year to motivate bloggers to write more regularly.

What does this mean?  Well, it’s basically a guarantee that there will be at least one post here every week for at least the rest of 2011.  Which shouldn’t be a shocker, as I’ve been posting every week since Sept 2010, but it’s nice to have a more official flavour to it.

Enjoy your internet wanderings!  For more about Post a Week 2011, click on the badge on the sidebar.

2010 in Review

The stats helper monkeys at WordPress.com mulled over how this blog did in 2010, and here’s a high level summary of its overall blog health:

Healthy blog!

The Blog-Health-o-Meter™ reads Fresher than ever.

Crunchy numbers

Featured image

A Boeing 747-400 passenger jet can hold 416 passengers. This blog was viewed about 1,400 times in 2010. That’s about 3 full 747s.


In 2010, there were 35 new posts, not bad for the first year! There were 66 pictures uploaded, taking up a total of 5mb. That’s about 1 pictures per week.

The busiest day of the year was July 30th with 41 views. The most popular post that day was Feeling Pie: The Real Emotional Eating .

Where did they come from?

The top referring sites in 2010 were facebook.com, en.wordpress.com, healthfitnesstherapy.com, google.ca, and matthewgood.org.

Some visitors came searching, mostly for martin yan, nadia giosa, why we need superheroes, psychopoeia, and why do we need superheroes.

Attractions in 2010

These are the posts and pages that got the most views in 2010.


Feeling Pie: The Real Emotional Eating July 2010


The Evolution of Cooking Shows, featuring Anxiety May 2010
1 comment


Marvel at the Myth: Why we Need Superheroes May 2010


I’ll see you around April 2010


Voices March 2010

What Makes a Psychologically Healthy Workplace?

The headlines are staggering:

workplace bully

via blog.hrinmotion.com

Stress linked to bulk of lost work days in Canada

Mental health leaves cost Canadian economy $51 billion: Study

Workplace bullying runs rampant

Mental health of workers should be a priority

Employee stress level increasing: Survey

And, it only took me about 5 minutes to find the above news items.

*     *     *

Anyone who’s ever had to deal with a mental health issue, be it large or small, acute or chronic, a mild annoyance or a crippling debilitation, knows that there is a huge difference between how physical health issues and mental health issues are perceived and treated by others, including our so-called “universal” health care system here in Canada.

Universal health care? I’m afraid we still have a long way to go. The unfortunate truth is that the accessibility of mental health care has been, and continues to be, woefully non-universal. Why is this, when studies such as those that appear in the news headlines above continue to show the devastating impact that mental health issues are having on the economy? Never mind the impacts on quality of life for those who are suffering.

The optimist in me says that one day, hopefully in my lifetime, with science continuing to show the links between mental and physical health, we’ll wake up as a society and stop thinking of mental health issues as second-class concerns, and our health care system will follow suit.

In the meantime, much of the work that can be done to address mental illness and its impacts is preventative. Intuitively, one of the best places to prevent mental illnesses from developing (leaving aside early childhood for now) is the place that we will all spend the largest chunk of our time: the workplace.

Workplace environments can be staggeringly painful, wonderfully inspiring and comforting, and anything and everything in between. I’ve been fortunate enough to experience probably more positive than negative workplace environments in my employment history, which is something that I’ve discussed in the past. However, I have also had the displeasure of working in environments that made me dread going to work every day.

The verbally abusive boss and coworkers. The bullying. The feeling that you’re stagnating, not growing in any way. The long hours. The feeling of being alone, isolated, with no one you can talk to about your concerns. Myriad other concerns. Simply put, it sucks. And no wonder people crack under the pressure. Some mental health issues, like certain kinds of depression, can be thought of as your body’s signal that something in your life is not working for you the way it should be. That something is missing. It’s your body’s “check engine” light. And just like a car, it’s far easier (and far less expensive) to be doing regular maintenance than to be stalled in an intersection with no other option than to call the towing company.

Fortunately, there are good people out there doing research into just what makes a workplace psychologically healthy. The American Psychological Association, for one, has a Psychologically Healthy Workplace program that has set out a few guidelines for employers on what they can do to help. The diagram below describes the model in nice visual detail.

psychologically healthy workplace

via phwa.org

The examples below are taken directly from the Psychologically Healthy Workplace Program’s website:

Employee Involvement
• Self-managed work teams
• Employee committees or task forces
• Continuous improvement teams
• Participative decision making
• Employee suggestion forums, such as a suggestion box and monthly meetings

Work-Life Balance
• Flexible work arrangements, such as flextime and telecommuting
• Assistance with childcare
• Eldercare benefits
• Resources to help employees manage personal financial issues
• Availability of benefits for family members and domestic partners
• Flexible leave options beyond those required by the Family and Medical Leave Act

Employee Growth and Development
• Continuing education courses
• Tuition reimbursement
• Career development or counseling services
• Skills training provided in-house or through outside training centers
• Opportunities for promotion and internal career advancement
• Coaching, mentoring, and leadership development programs

Health and Safety
• Training and safeguards that address workplace safety and security issues
• Efforts to help employees develop a healthy lifestyle, such as stress management, weight loss and smoking cessation programs
• Adequate health insurance, including mental health coverage
• Health screenings
• Access to health/fitness/recreation facilities
Resources to help employees address life problems, for example, grief counseling, alcohol abuse programs, Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs) and referrals for mental health services

Employee Recognition
• Fair monetary compensation
• Competitive benefits packages
• Acknowledgement of contributions and milestones
• Performance-based bonuses and pay increases
• Employee awards
• Recognition ceremonies

Would you add anything to the above categories?  I can safely say that my current work environment does pretty well in most of the above areas. Can you say the same? How will you know when you are in a psychologically unhealthy workplace, and what will you do to get out of it?

Cross posted at Career Services Informer.

Kids’ Brains Digitally Rewired? Zimbardo on Time Perspectives

I couldn’t tell you how many Philip Zimbardo videos I’ve seen across two psychology degrees, but this one is a bit different.  Very interesting subject matter with many implications.  The animation, though, makes it worthwhile.

Credit to Matthew Good for posting this video earlier today on his website.

Depression: Inward Anger?

Emotions show

Image via Wikipedia

Emotions are a subject of considerable importance in most therapy settings.  It’s pretty hard to do any kind of useful therapy without bringing emotions into the picture in some way.  Traditionally, this equates to the old standby that therapy is just talking about your feelings.  Although this is partly true, it would be a great falsehood to claim that this is all that therapy is or can be.

Regardless, in my opinion, the core of all dysfunction stems from some kind of emotional ‘disturbance.’  This could take many forms, form as serious as a past traumatic event to the way that emotions were handled in the family you grew up in (arguably the only variable in life over which you truly have no choice).  For example, if you grew up in an environment in which emotions were regularly hidden or suppressed, you might be unlikely to be comfortable expressing outward emotions like anger or frustration most of the time.  Inward emotions, like sadness, might be more comfortable for you because they naturally lead to behaviours such as isolation and withdrawal from situations that may be overly stimulating.

In any emotion-focused therapy, one of the main goals can be to explore how problems manifest emotionally on different levels of awareness.  A lot of people are just not that familiar with their own emotions.  I have some theories on why that might be (like most things related to mental health, we’re not doing a very good job educating our children on emotions – despite the fact that they’ve been proven to be the same all over the world), but I’ll save that for another article.  Often times people will come to therapy with a problem, say depression, that seemingly comes out of nowhere, but often has to do with another emotion they’re uncomfortable with, for example anger.  Sometimes exploring how emotions are processed leads to insight about how the problem developed and how to move towards health.

Let’s consider the example of Rachel, a pretend case loosely based on an amalgamation of former clients.

Rachel grew up with a mother who worked at a demanding job, was often stressed out and irritable around the kids, and frequently had angry outbursts.  Rachel’s dad played the role of the even-keeled peacekeeper whenever a family conflict arose, and was pretty good at this seeing as Rachel can’t remember her dad ever really getting outwardly emotional.  Rachel quickly learned to navigate her interactions with her mom by taking after her dad and keeping as many of her emotions as she could on the inside.  It didn’t take her long to figure out that getting angry with her mom only made things worse for her, as mom would only get more upset in return.  Furthermore, she began to associate outward anger with her mom, and vowed (consciously or not) that she would not end up this way when she grew up.

Now in her twenties, Rachel (who no longer lives with her parents) starts to feel depressed.  This starts to affect her grades at school and her relationships with friends and roommates.  It’s not long before she’s dropped her classes, and as her depression gets steadily worse, she’s soon spending most days unable to even get out of bed.

This is the point that Rachel seeks therapy, something she has never done before.  Her therapist soon notices that although Rachel describes terrible symptoms of depression, hopelessness, and despair, she often smiles and speaks with a bubbly voice.  The only evidence of her ordeal is an occasional bout of stifled tears.  Through talking with her therapist, she begins to explore how she experiences emotions, and states that she is often “the conflict mediator” or peacekeeper in her relations with others.  Even in her darkest hour, she nobly (or perhaps stubbornly) attempts to downplay the magnitude of her depression.  She’s so used to being “the helper,” that being in a position of needing help is completely foreign to her.

Eventually, her therapist makes the comment that given some of what Rachel has experienced, it would make good sense for her to feel angry.  This comes as somewhat of an epiphany to Rachel, who had never thought of it that way.  With the help of therapy she was able to see how she actually was really angry.  The rub is that she didn’t have any way to express that anger healthily, and so it festered and grew inside until it became unable to be ignored.  But still, Rachel’s discomfort with the emotion of anger was too deep-rooted for her to notice what was going on.  Something had to give, though.  If Rachel wasn’t going to let herself experience anger, that anger was going to get out in a different way.  So, instead of going outward, it was turned inward, which appeared outwardly as sadness, an emotion that Rachel was much more comfortable with because she could hide it.

After realizing this, Rachel began to work on better differentiating her emotional states and working on ways to healthily express her anger.  It wasn’t long before the worst of her depression lifted.

This is just one example of how emotions can get in our way when we don’t know our way around them well enough.  Doesn’t have to be sadness and anger, although some have theorized that depression can be thought of as a kind of inward anger, as described above.  We all have emotions we’re more comfortable with than others, and we’re the only ones that experience our own emotions, so it can be hard to know when they’re getting us into trouble.

In general, emotions do us a lot more good than harm.  I guess the bottom line in this article is that knowing our emotional selves better can be a great way to capitalize on the good and minimize the harm.

Feeling Pie: The Real Emotional Eating

feeling pie

One of the greatest therapy metaphors I ever heard was from a friend who was seeing a psychologist for a while.  She was trying to explain how she felt worried about how someone in her life would react emotionally if she were to do something, I forget what it was but that’s not really important.  To this, the therapist replied in the form of a metaphor (always a great choice).

Let’s all take a moment to just imagine a little something.  Imagine that everyone is walking around holding a pie.  But these are not normal pies.  No, these are feeling pies.  And everyone only has one.

These are very special pies.  They are all unique because they are all made of different kinds and amounts of ingredients, those being one’s feelings and emotional states.  Some are a bit more savoury – maybe a creamy, spice-laden pumpkin pie whose flavour slowly unfolds and subtly lingers.  Others might be bright, vivacious, tangy fruit pies that scream juicy tartness and explode in a sweet-sour citrus splash of delicious fury.

Regardless, everyone has their own unique pie made up of all of their feelings.  And no one is allowed to give or take pie to or from anyone else.

Now, say we’re sad.  We take a big old piece of pie, the sad part of our pie, and eat away.  Only we can eat the pie because only we can feel our emotions.  Correspondingly, only we can control our emotional response to any given event.  This is the key point in the feeling pie metaphor.

The corollary implication is that, because everyone has their own pie and everyone is in charge of their own pie, we can’t under normal circumstances make someone else eat a certain part of their pie.  Sure, we can create an event to which that person will react emotionally in a certain way, perhaps even predictably.  But that person is ultimately responsible for that feeling.

pumpkin pieSo, why would we worry about feeling guilty for possibly making someone else feel bad?  Their feeling bad is outside of your feeling pie jurisdiction.  That’s their pie and you don’t get any, them’s the rules.

You’re carrying around enough pie already and you don’t want any more anyway.  Besides, you know you have the best tasting pie around – it’s perfectly custom made for you and by you.  Why buy when you already have homemade?

If I feel guilty about how someone might react, I’m prospectively basing the emotion I think I’ll feel on an emotion that someone else might feel.  I’m eating guilt pie because I’m afraid that someone else is going to have to take a bite of anger pie, or sadness pie, or fear pie, etc.  So, I avoid doing that thing that I want to do, because I ultimately see myself as responsible for that other person’s emotions.

And that’s precisely the viewpoint that feeling pie is all about deconstructing.  It’s not about doing whatever you want all the time.  What it is about is acknowledging that you aren’t responsible for other people’s feelings, and no one but you is responsible for yours.

How to Succeed in Grad School, 7 – 9

Don’t forget to read part 1 of How to Succeed in Grad School for tips 1 through 6.

7. Consider vampirism, or if that’s too much for you, at the very least a decidedly inhumane nocturnal lifestyle

Because you won’t be seeing much of the sun anyway, and you’re not legally considered a person anymore

vampireThere isn’t really any other way to describe my experience of grad school in the summer time. So, unless you want to suffer a crippling depressive episode, I suggest you come to terms with the fact that you’re not really a person anymore. This will help in a few ways, but first allow me to justify that statement. It’s simple – you are expected to do things that simply defy rational human explanation (pay hundreds of dollars to go to work, for instance). Also, if you are among the unlucky group of lost souls that require a hefty student loan to finance your education, the government’s not gonna treat you like a person either. You’re a number and an accruer (don’t mind me while I invent new words) of interest. Don’t let the happy faces on that application brochure fool you. Once you’re in, the smiles turn to stiffly formal letters and scary legal-sounding words.

So, if you’re not a person, you might as well make the most of it and join the ranks of the undead – thanks to current tweenie trends, being a vampire is actually quite ‘with it’ these days. Not only will you be invulnerable to petty human emotions such as sadness that could negatively effect your productivity, you won’t feel as bad about spending sunny weekends trapped in your dank basement suite researching and writing papers. Here’s a useful website if you want to get started:http://www.vampirecentral.fiveworlds.org/FAQ.html

8. Start practicing how to best complain about your… ahem… thesis

Because it’s never too early to start complaining about it

If there is one thing that grad students love to complain about (in a list of hundreds of things to complain about), it is that single manifestation of all that is unjust and unholy in our world – the thesis (or dissertation, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves, here). In fact, I will now be referring to it as you-know-what, lest I grant it additional evil powers. The you-know-what has such potential to cause adverse effects to graduate students that they literally cannot help but complain about it before they have actually started working on it. Believe me – I am one of those students. Nothing is more scary – I’ve recently been having dreams about nuclear apocalypse and they don’t compare to the feeling I get from my you-know-what.

But this is supposed to be helpful. So here is my advice: start complaining now, before you’ve even been accepted to grad school, and you’ll be miles ahead of your sorry classmates by the time you-know-whats start actually shattering their lives. Practice makes perfect. In fact, if you have the luxury of having to do an interview for your grad school application, I heavily suggest that you complain about your you-know-what in the interview itself – this is likely to significantly impress your interviewer, who, after all, most likely attended grad school themselves. “This kid’s ahead of the game!” they’ll say. Guaranteed acceptance. You can thank me later.

writing paragraph

from the wonderful phdcomics.com

9. Remove yourself from the dangers of over-involvement with society

Because you don’t want to develop multiple personalities

If there’s one thing I’ve learned over the course of my graduate education in psychology, it’s to avoid all possibility of developing Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID). Though they’re not totally sure what causes the illness, it’s thought to develop under conditions of extreme stress where dissociation occurs as a coping mechanism. Such as sexual abuse by a family member, or the lesser-known culprit: the grad student who grows dangerously close to thinking that they have a life due to frequent ventures into the human community. Repeated exposure to a society filled with non-grad students can lead an unsuspecting grad student to come dangerously close to believing that they have a proper place in this environment. When the crushing reality of their grad studentdom inevitably dawns on the poor grad student, they have essentially two options: acknowledge their limited existence in a crushing and demoralizing moment of self-pity, or delude themselves into thinking that they are in fact two separate personalities. Thus the birth of another unfortunate victim of DID.

So how do you prevent this grievous condition from developing? I’m glad you asked. The first thing I must say is to re-read the earlier entries in this series and to stick as well as you can to the guidelines set forth. Too many great potential contributors to society have succumbed to this grad student plague in full. Don’t be a statistic. Avoid allowing yourself to think that you are anything more than what you are: a grad student.

toothpaste for dinner

from the equally wonderful toothpastefordinner.com

How to Succeed in Grad School, 1 – 6

I wrote these a while ago as a series of humourous self-help tips for aspiring grad students.  I thought it would be worth republishing them here, as I was reading them a while ago with fond memories.  Enjoy!

grad school

from toothpastefordinner.com

Well, now that I’ve almost completed a graduate degree, I pretty much figure that I’m the new authority on the subject. Luckily for all you readers, I’ve compiled a handy dandy list of the best tips I can think of for how to succeed in that veritable circus of intellectual one-uppery that we so endearingly call grad school.

Without further ado,

1. Master the art of powerpoint presentations

Because you’re not exciting enough on your own

burger powerpointNothing says you’re serious about getting that coveted A better than a conveniently packaged, neatly polished and crisply delivered group of slides. It’s kind of like nothing satisfies my lust for a conveniently packaged, clumsily assembled yet almost magically delicious meat and bun combination quite like slipping down a Big Mac. No, not the Mac Wrap. Anything but the Mac Wrap… which in the present metaphor I suppose would be akin to a presentation that promises greatness but ends up sorely lacking the necessary structure that only three buns… er, a succinct and coherent outline can provide.

There is a delicate way to go about putting together and delivering a delicious presentation whose aftertaste will linger long enough to keep your girlfriend from wanting to kiss you for hours. But there are also many forms that the final product may take. I, for instance, am partial to extra images. They’re like those pickles that come on McDonalds burgers… adding just enough extra flavour to get the point across more saltily. Others who don’t like pickles may prefer slides with a more one-dimensional feel. It’s the balance that’s important.

I could go on about the Big Mac thing. But I think I shall move on.

I recommend checking out: http://www.presentationzen.com/

2. Be comfortable with your procrastination

You can worry about worrying about it tomorrow

Unless I’m horribly mistaken, it’s almost like a law of physics that a lot of people that succeed in higher education are chronic procrastinators. To that I say, why change the habit that got you your first degree in the first place? Something’s working, my friend! What’s the use in worrying about it, or even talking about how much of a procrastinator you are, if (1) you’re going to cause yourself to feel bad, and (2) you’re not really going to do anything about it anyway. The only exception to the above would be if worrying about or talking to other people about your procrastination actually occurs during the procrastinatory act, or if this is itself the chosen method of procrastination.

The bottom line: if you’re a procrastinator, congratulations. You’re probably not going to change that fact so accept it. Hell, rejoice it. You’ll save yourself the worry. If you’re not a procrastinator, you are probably sent from the future to assasinate the future leader of the human resistance. So why are you going for this degree anyway?

3. Figure out how to sound like a jerk without actually being a jerk

Because it will come off as intelligence

exculpateNothing is quite like a journal article where the authors take three or four pretentiously long words to say something that can be said in one. There’s really only a few possible explanations for this prevalent habit in academia. (1) They’re trying to impress someone (attractive aspiring journal editors take note), (2) they are sustained by the tears of grad students, and/or (3) they don’t want the general public to be able to read the damn paper.

That being said, the people who will evaluate your work likely feed off of the tears of graduate students, so they will appreciate you taking the effort to check out thesaurus.com for those few extra adjectives.

The other side of sounding like a jerk without actually being one is that you might be able to employ the ability to inspire fear or entice rage to your advantage. It’s kind of like celebrities in the press. No press is bad press, right? If that holds true, the more attention you can draw to yourself, the better. I call this the Paris Hilton Principle(PHP).

4. Exams? More like “knowledge-exploration invitations”

Because euphemisms just help us fall deeper and deeper into blissful delusion

In my experience (and it should be noted that while I may not have experienced everything, I have pretty much imagined experiencing everything, and according to some lines of philosophical thought, that’s pretty much the same thing), the best way deal with things like ‘exams’ or ‘quizzes’ (methods of assessment that leave a decidedly undergraduate taste in one’s mouth) is to go about preparing for such intellectual muscle-flexing in the most ignorantly positive way you know how.

Now, I’ve never been one for studying much, but you may find this to be a useful activity. You could even engage in such practices as *ugh* making cue cards, or making yourself nice little pneumonics like Bu-Bi-Pu (bulimics binge and purge) or Cops ❤ Poo (coprophiliacs love poo).

But what works better than studying? The power of positive thinking. Yes, that’s right. Just use the power of intention and you can do pretty much anything. That’s pretty much proven science, isn’t it? Think of an exam as if it were an invitation to a party, except the party is in your brain. And the sole purpose of this party is simply to explore what you already know, like going on some kind of a psychedelic adventure into the forbidden recesses of your subconscious. At least, that’s how I think of it.

5. Learn to love cheesy metaphors describing your “training journey”

I guess they figured we’ve finally outgrown Dr. Seuss’ ‘Oh, The Places You’ll Go’… which makes me sad

The journey, the traveling companions, the magic mirror, what’s in your backpack, taking the high road, making rest stops along the way, and leaving the nest. These are but a select few of the many metaphors you are likely to experience as you weave your way through the tapestry of grad school (ha!). And if you got a bit of a headache going through just that list, you’re going to have to learn to love ’em or perhaps reconsider your decision to pursue higher education. Because this is what higher education is really about, you just don’t find out about it until it’s too late. In fact, I might be in real danger for revealing this fact.

I actually think that Dr. Seuss has a lot to offer on this point. In fact, I would recommend you sell all of those old undergraduate textbooks you have collecting dust and replacing them with your favourite Dr. Seuss books. There is literally no problem in life that Yurtle the turtle can’t shed light on. And think of his training journey! Now there’s a guy I can rely on come thesis time! And don’t even get me started on ‘Theres a Wocket in my Pocket!’

6. Parallel your thirst for knowledge with a thirst for fine wine

Hey, nobody said a $10 bottle of wine couldn’t be fine!

There’s no better time than grad school to discover your inner sommelier. Especially when you find yourself in need of some reliable self-care and ‘going for a run’ or ‘doing yoga’ sound like way too much effort. Let’s face it – if not for wine, and for argument’s sake let’s just generalize this to alcohol in general, where would academia as an institution truly be? Answer me this, and you are a better person than I.

Good wine is actually a lot like a quality graduate education. It has a sharp tinge of acidity balanced out by rounded fruity and tannin notes and a long, smooth finish. See? Exactly the same.

I also remember hearing somewhere that grad school itself first came into existence back in ancient Greece. The philosophers all got together and were trying to think of the best way to spread their knowledge to the masses. They then decided that the best way to do this would be to have their disciples make a hefty sacrifice as the cost of admittance into the schools of philosophy to the god Dionysus, who of course was the god of wine. The theory was that the vineyards the philosophers kept would receive blessing and they would be able to produce fantastic wine which they found genuinely advantageous to their philosophizing.

So there you have it. Grad school was born with wine in mind. Which is why the two go so well together to this day.

Part 2 coming shortly!

Addict for a Day: Inside AA

One of the final classes of my degree – the long, painful, exceedingly expensive (okay, also purposeful and rewarding) last 2 years of my life – is an introductory course on addictive disorders, their treatment, and the pharmacology of substance use.  While dark, disturbing, and downright depressing, the subject matter is also curiously intriguing and interesting.  Anyone who’s watched an episode of Intervention knows what I’m talking about.

There’s something about addiction that just tears people right apart, along with their career, family, and hope for a future.  Yet, we’re drawn to this suffering, moths to the flame.  Perhaps we wonder on some level how far we ourselves would have to go, how bad things would have to get, before crossing our own line.  Isn’t it our way – as people and as society – to try to get as close as we can to self-destruction without actually doing it?

So, the class is a mixed bag.

One assignment sent me to an alcoholics anonymous meeting.  I had never been to one before.  Plus, I never agreed with their philosophy of recovery, being the stubborn atheist/humanist I am.  I guess the whole concept of surrendering control of yourself to a higher power never sat well with me.  Nonetheless, I looked forward to going and seeing what it was all about.  The assignment was simple enough: attend a meeting, write about it and whether or not you think the program is effective.


It was about 2 in the afternoon.  I don’t know why, but I was feeling nervous as I walked up to the building.  Maybe it was fear that I would be “found out.”  That somehow the fact that I didn’t have a problem with alcohol at all would be written all over my face and I would be some kind of outsider.  Maybe it was that I just had no idea what was going to happen in the meeting.  I mean, everyone sees them portrayed on TV or in movies… people sitting in a circle of chairs, taking turns talking about their daily struggles with sobriety, maybe praying, that kind of thing.  But I wasn’t taking anything for granted.  I knew how inaccurately therapy is portrayed in the media, so I was ready to be surprised.

It wasn’t until later that I realized why I was feeling nervous.  It was fear of being judged.  Did other people know what went on in there?  What if they did, and saw me walking in, and thought – god forbid – that I was an alcoholic?

With a sinking feeling, I thought, ‘wow…  what must it be like for someone with a real problem?’

Inside there was nothing to write home about.  A bunch of chairs set up in rows, a podium and mic at the front, flanked by windows covered by large posters emblazoned with the 12 steps and the 12 traditions of AA.  There was a coffee bar.  $1.50 to indulge in an addiction that I actually did have.  I was happy to have something to do as I took a seat in the back row, directly facing the podium.  Sip, sip… don’t mind me…

There were a few people already there, some at tables behind me, some on couches lining the perimeter of the room, a couple seated in the rows of chairs in front of me.  A man was at the podium now, he read some rules and something called a ‘daily reflection,’ not, of course, without introducing himself under his breath with the perfunctory “I’m an alcoholic” statement.  At least the movies got that part right.  There was a murmured greeting from the crowd.  He went on about something to do with honesty and admitting powerlessness, periodically scanning the crowd, who now numbered maybe a couple dozen.

One by one, he called people to the podium.  There was a couple – American – who had just got off a cruise ship that didn’t have any meetings on board.  “Real glad to be at a meeting now,” he said.  About a year sober, trapped on a cruise ship for 2 weeks with no way of avoiding booze.  I believed him.  An older woman was next.  Then a ‘newcomer’ who was clearly in a rough spot in his life.  He talked about treatment centres, relapses, boredom, mental agony trying to decide whether or not to drink on any particular day.  Another guy said that he used to go to a bar, order a beer, and stare at it for half an hour trying to decide whether to take that first sip.  Sounded like torture to me.

Everyone spoke eloquently.  Some very convincingly.  I got the sense these were experienced people.  And then, the inevitable moment came.  Podium guy looked for someone to come up to speak, and sure enough, gestured to me.  Of course, I had thought of what I might do if this situation arose.  Sure, I could pass – not speak, stay in the silent comfort of my seat – but then, this was an educational opportunity.  ‘I’m here, aren’t I?  Might as well get as much of an experience as I can while I’m pretending to be an addict.’

My introvert alarms were sounding as I stepped up to the mic.  ‘I told you not to do it!’


“My name’s David,” I said, without the ‘I’m an alcoholic’ part – I couldn’t make those words come out, like they were cursed or something, or would sound too forced, or any of a million other lame excuses.  I didn’t want to lie to these people, who had shared such painful stories that were, in all seriousness, pretty courageous and inspiring.

“Hi, David!” came the group’s reply.  I couldn’t help smiling.  I felt accepted.  The nervousness started to evaporate.

“I’ll make this quick,” I said instead.  “This is actually my first ever meeting,” I blurted, to cheers from the crowd.  I went on to say that I wasn’t sure where I was in the grand scheme of things, and that I wanted to see what these meetings were all about, which were both technically true.  When I was finished, there was more applause, and several encouraging handshakes on my way back to my chair.  I felt welcomed, but still pretty awkward as I listened to the next few speakers mention what it was like for them when they first started coming to meetings.  Speakers consistently made direct eye contact with me when talking about how important it is to keep coming to meetings.  That nice feeling of being welcomed started to turn into a sense that I was being gently pushed.  A vivacious, attractive younger woman was last to speak.  She was a great speaker, very charismatic, very personable.  She made a convincing case for following all the steps and reading all the AA literature.  I wondered if she was routinely asked to speak at the end the meetings with young newcomers.  Or maybe just at the end of meetings to provide those in attendance some motivation to return.

Finally, everyone formed into a circle, holding hands, and a prayer was spoken (the “serenity prayer“):

God grant us the serenity to accept the things we cannot change,
courage to change the things we can,
and wisdom to know the difference.

It was pretty awkward to be the only one that didn’t know the words.  The meeting ended and I think I was the first person out of the building, as if I had a limited time before my ‘clever guise’ wore off.  I didn’t get out without a short conversation with the young woman who spoke last, she gave me a booklet with meeting times and locations for the whole month.

I did feel like a weight was lifted off my shoulders as I walked away.  I think it was the whole pretending thing, and the mindset that I seemingly adopted to go with that ‘addict’ role.  That feeling that I was being judged by ‘normal’ people.  It was all very automatic, which is kind of frightening.  We do this to people, society.  Great job.

So, is the whole thing effective? From what I saw, it was keeping some people sober.  Maybe their addiction just switched to having to go to meetings, but there’s surely a lot worse out there.  I can tell you that I felt welcomed, supported.  That if I really needed it, these people would help me.  I don’t think that means that it’s going to work for everyone, nor should it.  I still don’t believe in the same things they believe, and I don’t think I ever will.  I think that the power to change, for better and for worse, is fundamentally within one’s control, not outside it.  I believe in responsibility, on a personal and a social level.

Nostalgia, False Memories, and the ‘Other Half’

Memory is a reconstruction.

For a while, the theory on memory was that all of our experiences, perceptions, sensory input, etc. got stored somewhere in our brain as they happened, then sent off to some other part of the brain shortly thereafter for long-term storage.  Like an infinite tape recorder or, perhaps more accurately, a movie of your life, a lifetime’s worth of memories are just sitting there, somewhere in the deep dark recesses of your hippocampus, available for remembering given the right circumstances.

And that’s just not how it really works.

The classic example used to disprove the “tape recorder” theory of memory involves, believe it or not, the implantation of false memories.  Now, false memories and therapy have something of a tempestuous past.  I like to think of it as a bad marriage that stuck together for the kids, only to doom them to a lifetime of going about thinking that normal relationships are supposed to be volatile, dysfunctional, soul-sucking anger magnets…

– wait, did somebody say childhood satanic ritual abuse? –

Yes, there’s been a bad history.  But implanting false memories, as it turns out, is incredibly easy.

Researchers have successfully gotten people to “remember” that they have been to Wendy’s playhouses, met Bugs Bunny at Disneyland, and recite detailed episodes of getting very lost in a mall as a child, all of which never actually happened.  Wendy’s franchises have never had play areas, and Bugs Bunny has nothing to do with Disney.

Yes, it’s more accurate to think of memory as being constantly reconstructed.  The act of remembering often alters the memory, sometimes beyond recognition.  This is a major reason why eyewitness memories are relied upon less in court cases than they used to in the past.  It’s a great example of psychological knowledge influencing public policy.

I think things always seem way better when you remember them.  Much better than even the experience itself.  What I’m speaking of, of course, is nostalgia.  Yes, we all know that sensation of recalling a cherished memory, maybe from childhood, young adolescence, young adulthood… our eyes glaze over as we return in our minds to that time, the emotions, the sensations, the freedoms.  I’ve often wondered, why does the past always seem so much better than the present?  If only I could return to that age of innocence, that night a few years ago, that childhood memory, that time when things were so different, so great….

But we kid ourselves.  Yes, we had an awesome time on the playground, swirling around on those ridiculous merry-go-rounds or steel death-cages called monkey bars, back before everything turned plastic, safe, and sanitary.  But I’m convinced that we magnify this joy in our remembrances.  Childhood becomes idealized.  Everything is colourful, playful, innocent, joyous.  Crippling fear, shyness, embarrassments, and tantrums are conspicuous by their absence.  Maybe there’s just no sense in remembering the bad times.

But are we doing our past and present selves justice?  It seems like, if we’re not looking forward – to the next paycheque, the next purchase, the next holiday, the next weekend – we’re looking backward at how great things used to be.  We don’t really acknowledge the pain (if we’re lucky enough not to have experienced an inordinate amount of it), and in so doing, we are really just reinforcing the false belief that life is supposed to be easy, fun, fair.  After all, there was a time where we remember it as such.

Then, when the shit hits the fan, it just seems that much worse.  The past may be home to the best experiences in our memory, but the present typically houses the worst.

Really, life is full of terrible experiences, ‘negative’ emotions, lows.  What we really fail to get into our heads is that that’s how it’s supposed to be.  This myth that we can be happy all the time is ultimately just leading us on a rabbit chase.  And really, as much can be gained from the lows as the highs.  There is just as much life there, just as much experience.

So I propose we start constructing our memories a bit more accurately.  Like all those times we peed our pants, or got caught stealing candy, or couldn’t go out to play with friends.  How crushed and defeated, how hopeless we felt.  That’s the other half of being human, and while it’s not as fun, it’s just as important.

The Evolution of Cooking Shows, featuring Anxiety

These days, I’m not too big a fan of TV in general.  Growing up, like most self-respecting child-products of the nineties, I watched the Simpsons religiously (5 pm every weekday with new episodes Sundays at 9), and could tell you exactly when the show started to go downhill (I’m sure all the good writers died), as well as give you a first hand account of the craziness that took over the world in the summer of 1995 while we were forced to wait a whole 4 months to find out who shot Mr. Burns.

In recent years I’ve found that I just don’t have the patience for TV.  I should probably specify that by saying that I have not purposefully set aside time for the sole purpose of watching a particular show in a long time.  The commercials, combined with the fact that there is really not much that I find worthwhile to watch, have wholly converted me to the practice of watching TV series on DVD, and I’m certain that the experience is 10 times more pleasurable.

yan can cook

Martin Yan back in his glory days

Having said that, there are a couple of notable exceptions.  Living in a semi-rival city, I don’t often get to watch games featuring my team, so I usually watch the occasional ones that I can.  But the place where I easily spend my most time in TV land is the Food Network.  I don’t know what it is, but I love cooking shows.  I have since I was quite young and used to watch (fantastic) shows like The Urban Peasant and Yan Can Cook.  Back then, there wasn’t a Food Network to speak of.  These shows were running on local TV stations during daytime TV hours.

Despite the basic premise of filming someone cooking food, cooking shows have evolved somewhat.  There are still great shows that follow the basic formula – I’m a big fan of Chef At Home – but by and large, cooking shows have become one of two things: “reality” shows with a competition-based cook-off, or the standard-esque formula delivered towards a niche audience with or without an obvious twist.  Both categories are home to a great many terrible shows and also some that are worth watching.  From the former, I would recommend anything featuring Gordon Ramsey.  The man is a genius.  I’m a fan of a lot of the grill-based shows in the latter category, as well (as long as it’s not Road Grill… the horror…Matt Dunnigan, you are my worst grill-based nightmare).

By this point, you’re no doubt wondering: Dave, it’s great that you think so many fascinating thoughts about cooking shows, but why are you writing about them here, on a psychology-themed blog?

matt dunnigan and gordon ramsay

Matt Dunnigan? No. For the love of God, no. Gordon Ramsay? That's more like it.

Relax, I was getting there.  See, there’s a show that started airing on the Food Network this season that seemed from the name alone that it had just gone too far.  Deviated too far from the mean of what makes a cooking show good, into the realm of the extreme for the sake of being extreme.  I’m talking about a show called Bitchin’ Kitchen.  From what I can gather (gasp! No Wikipedia article!), the show’s humble origins were online before it was picked up by the Food Network.

Anyway, the show is hosted by Nadia G., (or ‘Nads,’ as she self-refers) a young woman with a burly New York-esque Italian (eye-talian) accent, decked out in punk rock gear and brightly coloured make-up.  The show features recipes like “one night stand breakfast,” “pissed penne,” and “get famous frittata.”  Points for originality, sure.  Hey, points for comedy while we’re at it.  Maybe even some points for trying to make cooking shows cool.  But again, something just seems wrong about it all.  Am I too much of an old-school cooking show purist?  What happened to the days of gray-haired, overweight people using a stick of butter per recipe? (you don’t count, Paula Deen… you’re too… Southern.)

bitchin kitchen

Nadia G. rocking a frying pan

Regardless, the particular episode that I watched was called “Anxiety Stricken Chicken,” which is what made me decide to write this post.  The link above is to the web episode, not the Food Network one, so there are some differences.  Read the by-line for the episode for yourself:

Anxiety is the plague of the Net Generation. In this episode Nadia G. teaches us how to cook a chicken soup that will sooth the soul, the way mom used to make it… unless mom was a crack-ho, but that’s another episode.

Crack-hos aside, the episode makes frequent pokes at anxiety and the people that suffer from it.  Nadia G. talks about having her own panic attacks as if they were a psychotic break (“hundreds of skinless creatures crawling all over the room,” which she later cites as the reason for straining the chicken skin from her soup).  There is even a reference to anxious people being nerds.  For most of the episode, Nadia makes references to being obsessed with a lump on her neck.  She lists “cloneezapam” as an ingredient in the soup (“clonazepam” aka klonopin is a widely used and quite potent benzodiazepine, a class of anti-anxiety medication). Towards the end of the episode, she opines,

For the longest time, I was convinced that my panic attacks were due to rocking too hard.  So, I cleaned up my act, and surprise, surprise: life still sucks!

I haven’t made up my mind about whether this is the kind of humour that’s hurting society’s perception of mental illness and more specifically anxiety and anxiety sufferers or if, a la the racially charged comedic stylings of Russell Peters, the ability to make fun of anxiety is actually a crucial step in raising our awareness of it.  Conquering it.  Though Peters is a a minority who makes fun of minorities, so that changes the rules a bit.  Does Nadia G. really suffer crippling panic attacks?  It’s quite possible, but we may never know.

One thing’s for certain.  Whether or not the humour is good-intentioned and whether it raises awareness or it further raises stigmatization, until we see more of a positive presence of mental illness in the media, it doesn’t really matter.

On change

A couple thousand years ago, the Greek philospher Heraclitus said that nothing endures but change.  It is, so to speak, the only constant.

These days, it’s a message that I find myself coming to face with frequently.  I suppose it has to do with the place I am at in life, at the “beginning” of a career, a real life.  It’s felt this way for a while, maybe because the end of my life as a student has seemed so near for so long.  Maybe it’s because the realities of adulthood – a terrifying concept, at best – have started to really stack up, and bills and debts became larger and more frightening, etc., etc… all the while watching others my age who decided not to spend tens of thousands of dollars on school driving new cars, buying houses, getting married, having kids.  Progressing, in some senses of the word.  Settling.

The word ‘transition’ is a bit of a tricky one.  It implies an in-between state, not at the start, not at the end.  In the middle, wherever that may be.  To be in transition is in some sense to assume that one will not always be so.  That there is a graduation, an end to the process of alteration.  We’ll come out on the other end no longer changing, but changed.

Of course, there’s really no end to the change.  Old Heraclitus was bang on, and thousands of years later the frontiers of scientific thought have chimed in agreement to the perplexing tunes of relativity and quantum mechanics.  Nothing is absolute, not even the fundamental particles of matter.

The thing is, we’re creatures of habit.  Change is a really hard thing to have to put up with, as most anyone in the process of moving will tell you.  And more often than not, at least from the perspective of counselling, it’s change rather than stagnancy that takes people from a state of being okay to a state of distress.  It takes us out of our comfort zone.  Makes us put up our radar a bit higher.  We have to pay more attention to what’s going on, and that takes resources.  In extremely unfortunate (but much too frequent) cases, like trauma, these resources are vast, and not easily reallocated to other, more adaptive things.  Major life changes like transitioning into and out of the workplace, starting or breaking up a family, etc. can also take very long periods of time to get used to.  Sometimes people just don’t.

At the same time, no change would be boring.  Knowing things will be the same day in, day out can be extremely depressing, and just as damaging as too much change.  The extreme that comes to mind is solitary confinement.

So, there’s a conundrum here.  We’re quite stretched between wanting things to stay the same and wanting things to change.  In a way, the ‘good life’ is all about finding the right balance between the two.  No one knows exactly how to get it right (and if they profess to, they’re trying to take your money), but we all know when we’ve struck that sweet spot with the right mix of stability and spontaneity, just like we know when things are way out of whack.

The best we can do is adjust as we go.  Like finding the perfect water temperature in the shower – it’s only possible once in a while, and it’s damn frustrating to get there.  Even the smallest adjustments seem to cause unreasonably magnified outcomes.  Then we think we get it right, and the great big hot water tank of life has other plans.  But, in a matter of minutes it’s over.  Time to get on with the day.

Are therapists plumbers in this metaphor?

On Nothingness

photo by Caity

Sleep is just one of “those” things.

It’s tied in to so much of our well being, that to notice how important it is to our daily functioning, all one has to do is go for a brief period where it’s hard to come by.

Besides studying counselling psychology, one of the things I do on the side is work as a casual/on-call staff in community homes around Vancouver for people diagnosed with severe mental illness.  The homes are staffed 24 hours a day, and I seem to be among the small percentage of casuals who don’t mind working overnight, so I often work the graveyard shift.  This is all well and good, and I really don’t mind working nights here and there, but sometimes the ramifications on my sleeping patterns can reverberate all the way through the week (i.e. if I could right now, I would be sleeping such that my 7 hour class starting tomorrow morning would be more bearable, but it’s just not meant to be).

Anyway, I was on a night shift on the weekend and I found myself looking up into the sky at about 3:30, 4:00 am.  It was muggy outside and there was a distinct purplish pink hue to the normally gray overcast clouds.  And there was a moment of beautiful urban silence.  Like time slowed and the rest of the world had truly gone to sleep, leaving me alone standing in a backyard in the middle of a vast sprawling city.  I’m not sure how long it was before the sound of traffic shattered my reverie.  It was probably only moments.

The thing that I kept thinking about as I stood there looking up into the empty purple sky was nothingness.  How immensely vast the atmosphere is, the planet is, solar system, universe.  How there is no way to conceptualize this kind of space and emptiness!  How truly surprising, inspiring, and revolting the things that we’ve accomplished in spite of this crushing unknown.  The vanity of our attempts to reduce or explain it down to a level that is supposedly comforting and relatable… the mythologies, the religions…

But the irony of my experience that night is that the most salient feeling I had was one of comfort.  I’ve felt this before when looking up into the sky on clear nights, contemplating the stars and wondering, after their light has travelled for millions of light years, whether they even still exist.  Knowing that in this perspective, I am less than a speck in space and time.  I could understand how this might be an overwhelming feeling of being lost, without meaning, for some.  But for me it’s always been a comforting experience.  A spiritual experience.  To know that there really is nothingness all around.  To embrace it, without pushing it away or belittling it.  To be lost, and to not care.

It makes what we have in our meagre lives seem a lot more… human.

Now, if only I could get some sleep.